Alice Brennan is going to marry a millionaire. She has caught the eye of her boss, Innes Whitlock, but before they can tie the knot she must meet his sisters: three women who are so awful that no amount of money is worth enduring their company. One is blind, one is deaf, one is missing an arm, and they all want their brother dead. The accidents begin as soon as Alice and Innes arrive at the sisters’ creaky old Michigan country house. A lamp falls from the ceiling, narrowly missing Innes’s head. When he goes for a drive, a detour sign disappears, sending him off the road and nearly killing him. Before the sisters can finish the job, Alice contacts her old history professor, MacDougal Duff, who makes his living solving murders. He is the only one who can save Alice’s millionaire from his murderous family.
About the Author
Edgar Award–winning Charlotte Armstrong (1905–1969) was one of the finest American authors of classic mystery and suspense. The daughter of an inventor, Armstrong was born in Vulcan, Michigan, and attended Barnard College, in New York City. After college she worked at the New York Times and the magazine Breath of the Avenue, before marrying and turning to literature in 1928. For a decade she wrote plays and poetry, with work produced on Broadway and published in the New Yorker. In the early 1940s, she began writing suspense. Success came quickly. Her first novel, Lay On, MacDuff! (1942) was well received, spawning a three-book series. Over the next two decades, she wrote more than two dozen novels, winning critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base. The Unsuspected (1945) and Mischief (1950) were both made into films, and A Dram of Poison (1956) won the Edgar Award for best novel. She died in California in 1969.
Read an Excerpt
The Case of the Weird Sisters
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1971 Jack Lewi
All rights reserved.
The girl in a gray suit and a green felt hat came out on one of the stone stoops and closed the door gently behind her. She looked at her watch nervously. Caught without its humanity, at two minutes of six, Thursday morning, the South Side Chicago street looked clean and bare in the thin light of dawn.
At six, exactly, a big gray sedan nosed around the corner and came softly along. It was the last word in beautiful American cars. The last for a long time, thought the girl as she walked down the steps with her suitcase.
The chauffeur said, "Good morning, Miss Brennan. You're pretty prompt."
"So are you, Fred."
He put her suitcase in the back and let the door fall shut. "It'll be three-quarters of an hour before we pick up the boss. Want to sit up front?"
The chauffeur was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, rather short, thick-shouldered and stocky. He had muscular wrists and lean hands. It occurred to the girl that if the car had been a horse, he'd have been a centaur. They moved toward the lake and turned north on the outer drive. It was soft going.
Alice Brennan stuffed her fists into her jacket pockets and watched the whitecaps. The lake and the city seemed to suffer a diminution in size. They fell into place on a mental map that had to be smaller scale than usual, to include distance. She recognized the change, the familiar feeling called "getting an early start," the uprooting and relaxing of the mind and the projection of the mind's eye forward along a chosen route. "This is the last trip, I guess," she murmured.
"First and last for this baby," Fred said, patting the wheel. "Four hundred miles." This was score. "Well, I'll be glad to see her get a little dust on her tail, anyhow."
The girl smiled.
He took his chauffeur's cap off and laid it on the seat between them. "Wait'll you see the trail we got to take into the camp. Some fun for fifteen miles."
"Pretty wild. But it's a nice place. You'll like it." His voice went off tone on that, just a little awkwardly. "Too bad he's got to close it up for the duration," he went on, "but I dunno how you'd get in there without a car."
"I'm supposed to help him make an inventory."
"Is that so?" Fred skipped the faint self-derision in her tone and was politely the recipient of news. "Well, I guess the caretaker's going to move all the way out, then."
"The caretaker's got a wife, hasn't he?" she said rather flatly.
"Oh, sure. She's a nice old dame."
Fred said softly, "Don't worry."
"Oh, I'm not worrying." She crossed her legs. "Have you got a match? Gosh, I'm sleepy."
"Go ahead, take a nap," he suggested. The car floated. The windows were closed against the morning chill. Soon they were above Evanston, sliding quietly between the varying walls and fences that hid rich men's houses from the thoroughfare. The morning was perfect. Their comfort was absolute. The car went like thought.
"She's running sweet," Fred said. "Aw, something's the matter with me." He thumped the wheel. "Why should I feel so sorry? What business have I got feeling sorry for Innes Whitlock?"
"It's not for him. It's for the car," the girl said softly. "It's so darned beautiful and American. It nearly made me cry."
For a second the car itself faltered, as if with emotion. Then Fred said, with an air of banter. "Kind of sentimental, aren't you?"
The girl's face hardened. "I haven't been sentimental," she said clearly, "since Saturday morning. What are you going to do when the tires fall off and you're out of a job? Enlist?"
Fred smiled, showing a gold tooth far back on the right. The wrinkles radiating from the corners of his eyes looked weathered in. "I'd just as leave go in the Army" he said, with an air of being reasonable, "but I broke my foot a few years ago and the Army don't trust it."
"Broke your foot?"
"Yeah, playing football. But the funny thing is, Mother Nature has put in a bunch of new bone there, makes it twice as strong. Or that's what the doctor said."
Alice, by opening her eyes wide, knew how to look very innocent and baby-doll-like. "You mean the Army won't trust Mother Nature!"
"Well," said Fred, "the Army makes a pair of shoes the same size as each other."
Her eyes narrowed again with laughter. "What will you do, then?"
"I'm not worrying. I'll stick to Innes."
"He can get me a job if he wants to. A man with a million dollars has got a lot of contacts."
"How right," Alice said in a low voice. "How true! And you've got a contact with a million dollars. Hang onto your contacts. They matter. Three kinds of people, that's all. A few top people who've got something. A lot of other people, the smart ones, trying to make contacts with the top ones and get some of what they've got. And then a whole lot of dumb bunnies who don't know where the percentage lies. Do you know about percentage, too?"
"Why, that's what you ask yourself. Is there any percentage? That's the way you tell who your friends are, whom to speak to, whom to be nice to, whom to ... You be smart, Fred. Always watch the percentage."
"Your philosophy of life?" Fred inquired politely.
"Since Saturday morning?"
"Never mind since when. But I learn fast. I'm quick," she said viciously.
Fred said nothing. They were close to Lake Forest, now, where Innes Whitlock lived; and he turned from the main thoroughfare into a winding road and let the big car loaf along, not hurrying.
Alice chewed on her lower lip. In a few minutes she said, "Excuse it, please, Fred."
"Yeah, but listen," he said, as if the argument were his, not hers, "it stands to reason you got to look around and see what goes on. So the whole world's full of chiselers. Chiseled themselves into a sweet mess and still chiseling. You can't get away from it. You look out for yourself and don't get fooled. That's what I say.
"Sure," she said, "that's what I say."
"Why stick your head in the sand and make out like virtue is rewarded when ..."
She turned her head sharply. "Who said anything about virtue?"
"I used the wrong word," Fred said. "I didn't mean that." He stopped the car. "Look, kid, I don't want you to get me wrong. But I wanna ask you something."
"Go ahead." She looked him straight in the eye. "We're on common ground. We both know Innes has got a million dollars."
"Well, I just wanted to know. With the three of us going off on this trip today, do you want me to stick around? Or do you want me to disappear once in a while?" Her eyes fell. "I'll do what you want," Fred said. "You understand? I dunno what's in your mind. I thought if I asked, then I'd be able to do what you wanted."
She looked him full in the face again. "I don't think I get you wrong," she said. "You're just asking."
"Well, I'll tell you. Object matrimony."
"Uh-huh," he said. He slid back in his seat. He didn't look relieved.
"I know damn well he doesn't need his secretary to help him close that camp. I think he's working up to ... what I ... Well, if I'm wrong"—she shrugged—"heaven will protect the working girl."
"If you're wrong," Fred said, grinning at her, "maybe I could run a little interference for heaven, hm?"
"You think I'm wrong?"
"I dunno," he frowned. "Innes is no wolf. He's been sued for breach of promise twice already." Alice threw her head back and laughed. "Yeah, but ..."
"Look" she said, good-humoredly, "I know ..." She couldn't explain the subtle basis for her certainty that in Innes Whitlock's mind she was not to be trifled with. "Call it woman's intuition," she said lightly. "I can always scream."
He looked at her. His hands were quiet on the wheel. He seemed merely thoughtful. "Thanks a lot, Fred," she said suddenly.
"That's all right. I hope you make it. Money's the only thing that can help you much in the world today. Maybe that won't be for long, but for a while—Say, if I knew a dame with a million dollars, I'd make the same play."
"Who wouldn't?" Alice murmured.
He touched the controls, delicately, and the big car slid on. In a moment or two it hesitated before a pillared gateway.
"Well, get dignified," Fred said, putting his hat on. "We're here."
Alice stiffened her back. "Look here," she said rapidly, "I shouldn't have said all that to you."
"That's right, you shouldn't" he said cheerfully. Then his face changed and his voice was wooden. "This is the house, Miss Brennan." The car stopped and he got out smartly, in one movement.
The broad white house door sprang open. A manservant appeared with luggage. Fred went briskly around the car and opened the tonneau door. A woman in a maid's uniform appeared with a thermos bottle. Innes Whitlock, a rug over his arm, burst out of the doorway.
"To the minute," he said, glancing gracefully at his wrist watch. "Good morning, Alice. How are you? Isn't this a day! I've got a picnic basket. Look here, you've got to ride with me."
The little mustache that tossed on his upper lip made him look as if he were pouting. Alice became animated and moved to the back seat. The servants bustled. They stowed things in the trunk. "Are you warm enough, Alice? Tuck in the rug, Fred, on that side. That's it." Fred tucked the rug around her with skillful hands.
Innes's rather short pink nose sniffed the morning. He seemed somehow to give it his blessing. His rather plump white hand made a tiny gesture. The adventure had his permission to begin.CHAPTER 2
They stopped to eat their picnic lunch before noon. A little after, Alice stood in the sun on a weedy margin of the country road. The lunch basket, all neatly packed again, was in her hand. Everything about her seemed particularly vivid: the pattern of old leaves and dead grasses, the green pushing through, the contour of the ground, higher behind her, going down to a weed-choked ditch between her feet and the car. It was just a roadside, unloved and untrodden. Even the broken fence above bounded a strip of land no one had cultivated. It was an undistinguished spot.
Fred was walking back along the road, kicking the dusty grass. He saw her and came quickly to take the basket. For a second his brown eyes asked her a sober yet impertinent question.
There was the tiniest flicker, a mere flame of reproach in her blue glance, and then she turned. Innes blundered out of the brush with three wood anemones in his hand. "Oh, Mr. Whitlock," gushed Alice, "aren't they sweet! What are they?"
That was an "if moment. Every so often there is a point at which, if one looks back, the course of events can be seen to have taken a turn. Most moments are details between fixed points. This one was a point from which Alice's life branched off in a totally new direction. If Fred had not asked her that quick, impudent question with his eyes and if she had not, perversely, refused to answer it—partly, of course to punish him for the impudence—if she had not called out in that false voice, meant to deceive, "Oh, Mr. Whitlock ..."
At that moment, she might just as easily have called him Innes because she had been engaged to marry him for fifteen minutes.
He'd waited no longer than after lunch. He'd put his enameled coffee cup down, reached for her hand, and said, "Alice, my dear, I want you to marry me." It was very simple and rather touching. She had been able to turn to him with real surprise and say, "Why, Innes! I'm glad you do." Innes had, thereupon, kissed her. It was a few minutes before she could say lightly, "Of course you know I'm marrying you for your money?" To this Innes had replied with a happy sigh, "Just so long as you marry me ..."
Innes had come through it very well, Alice had felt. She was a little ashamed of telling the plain truth in so deceptive a manner. Therefore, it was perhaps the first stirring of a sense of loyalty to a new alliance that made her withdraw from even the shadow of a conspiracy with the chauffeur.
If marks an alternate trail, along which one can see no farther than the first corner.
"What's the matter with it?" asked Innes impatiently, some hours later.
"Nothing I can't fix in an hour" Fred said. "Sorry, sir. Shall I limp into the next town?"
"Will it limp?"
"Where are we?"
Fred reached for his map. "Sixty-five miles to camp yet. We're ten miles out of Ogaunee, sir."
"Oh, lord," Innes groaned. "Don't tell me."
"If you and Miss Brennan don't mind just sitting here I can get busy right away. I thought —"
"Yes, yes." Innes pasted his hand over his brow with artistic weariness. "Are you cold, Alice?"
"Chilly," she said. She felt exhausted, mentally and spiritually. The long afternoon drive had been a strain, she wasn't quite sure why. She thought perhaps their swift flight along the roads was too comfortable and oddly static. "I'm a little tired of riding. Can't we walk up and down while he fixes it?"
Innes said, "No, no. Better try to make it into Ogaunee, Fred. We'll get this girl warm. Stay for dinner if we're asked."
"Asked?" Alice said, startled.
"My sisters' house is in Ogaunee. We'll stop in there."
"I didn't know you had a sister."
"I have three sisters," Innes said. "They still live up here. It was my father's house. My dear, I'll tell you a secret. I was born in Ogaunee, Michigan."
"Oh?" Alice invited more.
"I must confess I'd planned to skip by, this time," he went on uneasily. "They're another generation, really. Half-sisters, you see. My father was twice married."
Alice felt she ought not to say "oh" again, so she kept quiet.
"You don't mind, do you?"
"Mind? Of course not."
"It'll be more comfortable than sitting here," Innes said a little doubtfully, with an effect of gnawing on his mustache. Then he smiled. "We'll be some excitement for them." He patted her hand.
The big car crept forward, complaining. Alice knew nothing about the insides of a car. She looked at the back of Fred's neck and wondered if it hurt him, this humiliation of his Proud Beauty. She herself sat ridiculously tense, as if the car had pain.
"This isn't going to damage the engine?" demanded Innes, who evidently knew nothing about the insides of a car either.
"No, sir," Fred said stolidly.
For a long time no one spoke, as if the car's plight cast a spell of silence over them. Only Innes cleared his throat from time to time, but he never quite said anything. Alice thought it tactful to ask no questions. She simply sat, and slowly began to wonder what it was he felt he ought to say and couldn't.
It was a curious ten miles, full of reluctance. Not the nightmare quality of trying to get to a place and always failing, but an equally nightmarish feeling of taking much labor and some pain to get to a place where one didn't want to be. Ogaunee was a gash across the smooth face of their plans. Furthermore, it required bracing. One had to brace oneself. Alice felt that.
When at last they crawled past a house or two, Innes burst into speech. It was his home town, after all.
"This is iron-mining country, you see. This is the Menominee Range. What they do here is underground. Up on the Mesabi they strip off the earth and take the ore out of an open pit. Makes a mess. But it was pretty here when I was a kid. My father owned the land all around and brought in Eastern capital in the old days. There's a shafthouse; see? That's Briar Hill."
The wounded car crept around a curve. Ahead, the road dipped and staggered over a kind of earthen bridge. On either side of the built-up causeway the ground fell precipitously into two great deep pits, down the far sides of which was scattered debris, as of shattered houses.
"Good heavens! It's fallen in!" cried Alice.
Innes said carelessly, "Well, you see, when they mine underground they honeycomb the place. Where the ore comes out, they prop up the roof with timber and go deeper, down to another level. Of course, later, when the ore's all gone, the timbers rot, I suppose, and collapse."
"And the earth falls in!" Alice said, awestricken. "The houses, too?"
"Some of them were over the mines."
"But how terrible!"
"Oh, no. Nobody gets hurt. It's not like an earthquake, you know. It's slow. It just sinks."
"I still think it's terrible. It isn't going to fall in any more?"
"No, no. Although they have to keep filling in this road." She looked at him, horrified. "Oh, it's all over now. Don't worry. These mines were played out long ago. This is what you might call a ghost town."
"Is it, really? Like the ones in the West?"
"Not so romantic" said Innes.
"Why do people stay here?"
Excerpted from The Case of the Weird Sisters by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1971 Jack Lewi. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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