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About the Author
Carolyn Hart is a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and the author of sixty novels, including twenty-seven titles in the Death on Demand series, which follows a bookseller-turned-sleuth in a South Carolina mystery bookstore. Her work has received numerous accolades, including Agatha, Anthony, and McCavity Awards.
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It seemed to me that I had just gone to bed that Monday night when I heard the telephone ringing and had to crawl out again. When I looked at my watch, however, I saw that it was a few minutes after one. A trained nurse grows accustomed to such things, of course; but I had set that particular night apart to catch up with my sleeping, and I was rather peevish when I picked up the receiver.
"This Miss Adams? Inspector Patton speaking."
He did not need to tell me that. I had had a sort of premonition when the bell rang that the police had turned up another case for me, and I wanted one that night about as much as I wanted hardening of the arteries. In fact, I said as much.
"Listen to me, Inspector. I need some sleep. I'm no good the way I am."
"Then you're not on a case now?" He knew that I often took what we call eighteen-hour duty, and slept at home.
"I'm still resting from that last one," I said rather sharply, and I imagine he smiled. He knew well enough what I was talking about. I had been taking care of a gangster's wife for him in order to get a line on who came to the house. But the gentleman in question kept his business and his family too well separated, and besides, she was the most jealous woman I ever saw — and a trained nurse sees a lot of them. I am pretty much given to minding my own business when I am on a case, especially when it is a police case; but the moment any female in a white cap and a uniform enters certain houses, there is sure to be trouble.
"This is different," he said, "and it may be for only a few hours. Better call a taxi and come over. Do you know the Mitchell house on Sylvan Avenue?"
"Everybody knows it. What's wrong?"
"I'll tell you when you get there. I'm at the drugstore on the corner. How long will you be?"
"About a half hour," I said. "I had hoped to get some sleep tonight, Inspector."
"So had I!" he retorted, rather testily for him, and hung up the receiver.
That was a Monday night, the fourteenth of September. If they ever have to perform an autopsy on me, they will not find Calais written across my heart, but that date.
I drew a long breath; looked at my bed; at the uniform which needed buttons, draped over a chair, and my sewing basket beside it; and then I looked through the door into my little sitting room, newly done in chintz, and at my canary, snugly covered in his cage so that he would not burst into song at dawn and rouse me. Rouse me!
I can write that and fairly weep. Rouse me! When for that night and the next four nights sleep was to be as rare with me as watercress in the Sahara. Rouse me! When just four nights later it was to look as though nothing but Gabriel's horn would ever waken me again.
Well, I am not as bitter as I sound, and that night I was merely resigned. I got down and dragged my suitcase from under my bed, threw in a few toilet articles — for it is always packed and ready — called a taxi and then got into a uniform. But I was not excited or even greatly interested. Indeed, at the last minute, finding in my suitcase a snub-nosed little automatic which the Inspector had given me, I picked it up gingerly and looked around for a place in which to hide it. It would never do for Mrs. Merwin, my landlady, to find it; so I finally decided to put it in the jardinière with my Boston fern. She never remembered to water that fern anyhow.
I suppose that is funny when I look back over it. But it is not really funny at all. Later on I planned to go back one day and get it; but it would never have done me any good, as I know now. And, as I think back over those particular five days, I realize that on the only occasion when I might possibly have used it, I was fighting madly to get air into my lungs. All I could think of was that, to get air, to breath again. Well ...
So I was not in the best of humor that night when I closed my suitcase and pinned on my cap. To tell the truth, I was wondering why I continued my work for the police. One way and another I had run a good many risks for them and lost a lot of sleep. I felt that I committed no breach of faith in using my profession as a cloak for other activities. I had never neglected a patient for them, and I had used hours when I needed rest to help solve some piece of wickedness or other. I knew I had been useful. Pretty nearly every crime from robbery up to murder leads to a call for a doctor, and often enough for a nurse, too. As for professional ethics, I have never known of criminals who had any, even among themselves. It has been my experience that there is no honor among thieves.
But what had I got out of it myself, except the doubtful reward of being called Miss Pinkerton when the Inspector was in a good humor? There were a good many days, and nights, too, when I sighed for the old peaceful days. Taking special duty at the hospital, and at seven or seven thirty the night nurse coming in and smiling at the patient.
"How's Miss Adams been treating you today? Holding out on food as usual?"
Wandering out into the hall with her, exchanging notes on the case and a bit of hospital gossip, and then going home. The night air cool and fresh after the hospital odors, Dick hopping about in his cage, and nothing to do until the next day.
Getting the sugar, while he watched me with eyes like small jet beads; watering the fern; Mrs. Merwin coming in at nine o'clock with a glass of hot milk and a cookie.
"It will make you sleep, dearie."
And then I had made the alliance with Inspector Patton and the Homicide Squad. By accident, but they had found me useful from the start. There is one thing about a trained nurse in a household: she can move about day and night and not be questioned. The fact is that the people in a house are inclined pretty much to forget that she is there. She has only one job, ostensibly, and that is her patient. Outside of that job she is more or less a machine to them. They see that she is fed, and, if she is firm, that she gets her hours off-duty. But they never think of her as a reasoning human being, seeing a great deal more than they imagine, and sometimes using what she sees, as I did.
With the patients, of course, it is different. They are apt to consider her as something halfway between a necessary nuisance and a confessor. Most of the time the nuisance, but take a sleepless night, with everything quiet, and about three in the morning they begin to talk. I have listened to some hair-raising confessions in my time. Sometimes these confessions had to go to Headquarters, but most of the time they did not. The police were not interested in evasions of the moral law. They were only bored with unfaithful husbands and wives, and evasions of income taxes, and what not. And to the Homicide Bureau, of course, there was only one crime. That was murder.
My exact relation to the Bureau has never been defined. One day a police captain referred to me as a "stool," by which he meant stool pigeon. I have seldom seen the Inspector so angry.
"Stool!" he said. "What the devil do you mean by that, Burke? Miss Adams is a part of this organization, and a damned important part. We've got a lot of wall-eyed pikes around here calling themselves detectives who could take lessons from her and maybe learn something."
Sometimes, as I say, he called me Miss Pinkerton, but that was a joke between us. I have never claimed to be a detective. What I had was eyes to use and the chance to use them where the police could not.
But I did not want to use them that Monday night. I wanted to shut them for eleven hours or so, and then go out the next day and do some shopping. I am ashamed to think of the bang with which I closed my bag, or of the resentment with which I lugged it down to the front door. No use letting the taxi driver ring the bell and waken everybody.
I felt better in the night air, and in the taxi I tried to put my mind on whatever work lay ahead. I had gathered from the Inspector's voice that something grave had happened, and I reviewed what I knew of the family. There were only two of them, old Miss Juliet herself and her nephew, a good-looking weak-chinned boy. He was her sister's child, and that sister had married, late in life, a man who was no good whatever. There was a story that he had squandered her money and then Miss Juliet's, but I am not sure of that. Anyhow, they had both died long ago, and the old lady was certainly impoverished and had the boy into the bargain.
I hear a good bit as I go around. In a city the size of ours, big as it is, there are always one or two dominating families, and for many years the Mitchells had been among them. So I had heard about the old lady and this boy, and I knew that she had had her own troubles with him. For years she had kept him away, at school and college, but he did no good at either, and he had been at home for some months now, sometimes working at whatever offered, but mostly loafing. His name was Wynne, Herbert Wynne, and he must have been twenty-four or thereabouts
It was known that they got along badly, and what I anticipated that night, as the taxi turned into the neglected grounds behind their high iron fence, was that some trouble had developed between the two of them. To tell the truth, I had an idea that the boy had turned on Miss Juliet in some frenzy of anger, and possibly injured her. And I was not surprised, as the taxicab turned into the Mitchell place between old iron gates, which had never been closed within my recollection, to find that the house, usually dark, was lighted from roof to cellar.
What I had not anticipated was that, within a few feet of the entrance, the car should come to a grinding stop, and that the driver's voice should be lifted in wrath and alarm.
"Get out of there! Do you want to be killed?"
I looked out of the window, and I could see a girl in the roadway, just ahead of us.
"Please, just a minute!" she said, in a breathless sort of voice. "I must speak to whoever is in the car."
"What is it?" I called.
She came straight toward me, and by the light of a street lamp I could see her clearly, a pretty little thing, about twenty perhaps, in a light coat and a beret, and with a face so pale and shocked that it fairly made me gasp.
"What's wrong in there?" she demanded, still breathlessly. "Is somebody hurt?"
"I don't know. I imagine somebody is ill. I'm a nurse."
"Ill? Then why is there a police car at the door?"
"Is there one? I really don't know. Why don't you ask? It looks as though there are people in the hall."
She stepped back a foot or two and stood staring at the house. "They wouldn't want a nurse if anyone was — if anyone was dead," she said, apparently thinking out loud. "It might be a robbery, don't you think? If they heard someone in the house, you know."
"It's possible. Come up with me, and we'll find out."
But she drew back. "Thanks, but I'll run along. They didn't say what it was, when they sent for you?"
"Not a word."
She seemed reluctant to let me go. She stood beside the window of the taxi, holding onto it and staring at the house. Then it seemed to occur to her that what she was doing required some explanation, and she turned to me again.
"I was just passing, and when I saw all the lights and that car — I suppose it's really nothing. I just — would it be all right for me to telephone you a little later? If it would bother you, or you'd be asleep ..."
I looked at the house, and the police car standing in front of it, and I imagine my voice was rather grim when I answered her.
"From the look of things I'll not be getting much sleep," I said. "But you'd better give me your name, so I can leave word to be called."
It seemed to me that she hesitated. "That doesn't matter, does it? I'll call you, and you'll know who it is."
With that she left me, and I saw her going out the gate. I had seen a small coupé standing some distance off, before we turned in, and I felt certain that it belonged to her. But I forgot her almost immediately, as the taxi got under way again with a jerk that almost broke my neck.
Before me lay the old house, blazing with lights. Always I had been curious about it; now I was to know it well. To know the way it creaked and groaned at night; to see revealed in broad daylight its shabby gentility, its worn remainders of past splendors, and to hear my own voice at night echoing through its rooms while I shouted at the deaf old woman in her bed, "Can I get you anything, Miss Juliet?" Or, "Are you more comfortable now?"
For Miss Juliet was safe enough, lying there in her wide old walnut bed with her reading glasses and her worn Bible on the table beside her. Safe enough; that night at least.
I can write all this comfortably now, filling in the hours while I wait for one of those cases in which I start with one patient and end with two. Every time I take such a case, I contemplate a certain suggestion made by the Inspector at the end of the Mitchell tragedy, and I turn it over in my mind.
But in the interval I am writing the story of that tragedy, the stork — a bird which I detest anyhow — is a trifle late as usual, and so I have plenty of time. For a good many months, however, I could not even think about the Mitchell case, or the Mitchell house, or old Miss Juliet Mitchell lying there in her bed.CHAPTER 2
There were three or four men in the hall when the taxi stopped, and one of them, a Doctor Stewart, whom I knew by sight, came out onto the porch to meet me.
"It's Miss Adams, isn't it?"
"Your patient is upstairs, in the large front room. The cook is with her, and I'll be up at once. I've given her a hypodermic, and she ought to get quiet soon."
"She has had a shock, then?"
He lowered his voice. "Her nephew committed suicide tonight."
"In this house. On the third floor."
He was a little man, known among the nurses and hospitals for his polite bedside manner and his outside-the-door irritability, a combination not so rare in the profession as unpleasant. And I think he had hoped to impress me with his news. I merely nodded, however, and that annoyed him.
"I'll go on up," I said quietly.
The Inspector was in the hall, but he only glanced at me and looked away, after his usual custom when I take a case for him. The Medical Examiner for the department similarly ignored me. It was an officer in uniform who took my bag and led me up the stairs.
"Bad business, miss," he said. "The old lady went up to see if he had come in, and she found him."
I found myself thinking hard as I followed him. If it was suicide, then what was Inspector Patton of the Homicide Squad doing there? And why had I been called? Any nurse would have answered. Why get me?
"How did he do it?" I asked.
"Shot himself in the forehead," he replied, with a certain unction. "Knelt in front of the mirror to do it. Very sad case."
"Very sad, indeed," I said, thinking of that girl in the drive, and the look of terror in her face. She must have suspected something of the sort, I thought. And later she would call up, and I would have to tell her.
I felt somewhat shaken as I went into the room adjoining the large front bedroom to take off my coat. As I did so, I could hear voices from the other room. One was the low monotonous voice of the very deaf, the other shrill and hysterical.
"Now don't you talk, Miss Juliet. He's all right now. Past all his troubles, and safe in his Maker's arms."
Then something again that I could not hear, and the shrill voice again.
"I've told you over and over. It was an accident. He hadn't the nerve, and you know it. He'd been cleaning his gun. I saw him at it when I went in to turn down his bed, at eight o'clock."
It was evident that they did not know of my arrival, and when I was ready, I did not go at once into the bedroom. Instead, I slipped out quietly and made my way to the third floor. That, too, was lighted, and through an open doorway I saw a policeman sitting on a chair reading a newspaper, and a body lying on the floor. It looked callous to me, but of course there was nothing for him to do, until that conclave ended downstairs in the hall. The room was still filled with acrid smoke, as though flashlight pictures had only recently been taken, and the one window in the room was open, apparently to clear the air.
It was a small room, plainly furnished, a back room, looking toward the service wing at the rear. Later on I was to know that room well: the small white iron bedstead, the old-fashioned bureau, the closet beside the fireplace. But at that moment my eyes were riveted on the body lying on the floor.
It was Herbert Wynne, beyond a doubt. He lay in a curiously crumpled position on his side, with his knees bent and one arm outstretched. There was no weapon whatever in sight.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Miss Pinkerton"
Copyright © 1957 Estate of Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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