A young woman is murdered after a night out with friends. When another woman is killed, Detective Chief Inspector MacLanahan realizes that a serial killer is on the loose in Peartree. MacLanahan and Detective Sergeant Nicholson decide to use a decoy to catch the killer before the body count rises.
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The Midnight Stalker
By MARIA JOHS
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Maria Johs
All rights reserved.
When Detective Chief Inspector MacLanahan left the office and got into his car, he felt a pleasant flutter of excitement. The sun had gone down, but the sky was blue. The air was still and clear, and he knew that the night would be cool and crisp. Being on the Isle of Skye really gave one the sensation of being at the end of the world.
He was on his way to a dinner party given by Jane MacKaren. She was a beautiful woman and a great hostess, but no one would have ascribed to her a vast amount of kindliness. She knew too many people to care for anyone in particular, and the detective couldn't help wondering why she kept asking him to her parties.
Jane had been born in South Africa and had not come to Scotland till she was eighteen. For a while, she had attended the University of Edinburgh, but after her father's death, she had inherited a considerable fortune and given up her studies. Then she'd settled in Peartree and devoted herself to a life of a woman about town. She had a house on King Street, furnished with the most beautiful Georgian Court furniture, a housekeeper, and a French chef.
When MacLanahan was shown into the drawing room, most of the guests were already there. Two servants in uniform were walking around, one with a tray of cocktails and the other with a tray of things to eat. The women were pretty in the summer dresses they had been to Paris to buy, and the men, in light suits, looked cool and easy. The windows were open on a formal garden of clipped box, with great stone vases of flowers symmetrically placed and weather-beaten statues of the baroque period. MacLanahan had the sensation that no one there had any worries; everyone seemed to have plenty of money, and everyone seemed ready to enjoy him—or herself.
As the detective came into the room, his hostess warmly greeted him.
"We were just talking about you, Chief Inspector," she said, smiling.
"I hope it wasn't anything bad," he replied cheerfully.
"We were wondering if you've made any progress finding the killer of that poor young girl?" Though she'd spoken facetiously, the detective thought he detected a tone of faint derision, and he felt, as he had vaguely felt before, that she had a cynical contempt for the police.
"Not yet," he replied. "But it's early days, and we're working on it."
"I read in the paper that she was—shall we say—a girl of easy virtue."
"You know I can't comment on that," he said with an engaging smile.
"Yes, I know you can't say anything concerning an ongoing investigation," she replied. "Perhaps Inspector Roberts is less inclined to be silent on the subject."
She turned away to shake hands with a guest who had just arrived. It was Inspector Roberts. He was tall and slender and had thick brown hair, blue eyes, and a charming smile.
MacLanahan was surprised to see Roberts at the party. Roberts had just been promoted to inspector, and notwithstanding his good looks, he seemed a little out of place at this gathering. Jane saw MacLanahan's surprise and gave him a little smile of triumph.
The detective realized that if she had been trying to make him jealous, she had succeeded. With his short legs and stocky build, he could hardly compete with Roberts, who was not only the best-looking man on the force but also the darling of women everywhere. MacLanahan, on the other hand, had a barely tolerable figure. He was no more than average height, and in clothes, he looked thickset. But he did have some features he was proud of: he had white, even teeth; he had a good head of light brown hair; and his eyes were fairly large, although they were of a pallid blue generally described as gray.
"Inspector Roberts," said Jane, smiling. "I hope that you will satisfy my curiosity and tell me what's going on with the latest murder in Peartree."
Roberts shot a sidelong glance at MacLanahan. If he was surprised by this question, he didn't show it.
"I'm afraid I can't answer your question, Miss MacKaren," he replied glibly.
"Why not?" she asked.
There was a moment's silence. Roberts was no fool. He knew that if he said anything about an ongoing investigation, his career would be over.
"It's not my case, ma'am," he said smoothly. "I know nothing about it."
Jane blushed furiously, for she did not like what she had just heard. But it looked as if she wouldn't get anything out of these policemen. She shrugged and made an effort to assume indifference, which she didn't quite manage.
"Perhaps it's just as well that I know nothing about it," she said, and she turned to greet Councilman Nugent, who had just arrived.
Councilman Nugent was a handsome, gray-haired man, plethoric and somewhat on the plump side, and he liked to flirt in a light, fatherly way with Jane. He was holding her hands when MacLanahan walked up to them.
"I've just been telling this girl she's as pretty as a picture. But I might as well pay compliments to one of the statues around here."
"Turned you down flat, has she?" asked the detective.
"Flat," he replied, his plump cheeks quivering.
"I'm sorry to hear it," said the detective with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. "But don't let up, Councilman. You're bound to soften her up eventually."
He then turned and walked up to Colonel Trip, the traveling Englishman. He was tall, thin, and weather-beaten, with a lean red face, a gray toothbrush mustache, and an air of imbecility. He looked at the detective with shining eyes.
"I say, old chap, shouldn't you be out looking for a killer?" he asked, louder than was necessary.
"Lower your voice, dear," said his wife. "The chief inspector isn't deaf."
"It's a bad business," said the colonel. "Young girl, was she?"
The detective, who wasn't eager to discuss the latest murder in Peartree, shrugged and gave no reply.
"Of course, she must have been a bad lot, a thorough wretched one," continued the colonel.
"You don't know that," said his wife.
"I know that no respectable young girl goes traipsing around unescorted at night," he replied.
"Times have changed, my dear. Nowadays girls can be out at all hours of the night without having to worry much about damaging their reputation."
"Shocking!" cried the colonel. "What's this world coming to? But I'm glad that no woman in this room is that sort of female."
"What sort is that?" asked the detective.
"I mean the sort that a decent woman ought not to be asked to be in the same room with."
"What would you do if indeed such a woman would be here tonight?" asked his wife with a faint tone of sarcasm.
"We would leave," he replied.
"Does that apply to someone who's just been released from a mental hospital? I mean, would you leave if you knew such a person was in the room?"
His color rose in mortification.
"You don't mean it," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Say you don't mean it, Elsie."
But Mrs. Trip, having been seized with the desire to expose the hypocrisy in her husband, had no intention of complying with his childish request.
"Look across the room," she said. "There is a young man with glasses and a receding hairline. His name is Karl Stringer. He spent the last fifteen years in a mental institution."
"What's he doing here?"
"I suppose the same thing you are—looking forward to a good meal."
"I know what you mean," she interrupted. "He is here because he is related to Jane."
"I think they're second cousins."
"Well, if that's the case, I shouldn't be making a fuss over him being here. The bloke couldn't help being sick in the head. And I suppose he is cured, or they wouldn't have let him out. But I don't like it. Next time we're invited to one of her parties, we just won't go."
There was a moment's pause. MacLanahan waited for the colonel to continue, but he said no more, and the detective breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently, neither the colonel nor his wife knew the whole story.
Karl Stringer was far from "sick in the head," as the colonel had assumed. Fifteen years ago, he had been tried for the murder of a young girl, and if it hadn't been for a clever solicitor, he would have been convicted and would have spent the rest of his life behind bars. His solicitor had told him that the only way he could beat the charge of murder in the first degree was to plead insanity. Stringer had thought about it and, feeling that he had nothing to lose, decided to give it a try. Knowing instinctively what to say and how to act, he'd managed to convince the court psychiatrist that he was insane. Another psychiatrist had been brought in, and he too had declared Stringer insane. Based upon the findings of the psychiatrists, a panel of three judges had found Stringer to be unfit to stand trial. He had been sent to a mental institution, where he'd wasted no time in becoming a model inmate. Soon he'd started giving lessons to the other patients on how to conduct themselves in order to make life easier for themselves and the staff. It did not surprise the detective that he had been released after only fifteen years. It did surprise him that he was related to Jane.
"Are you all right, Chief Inspector?" asked Mrs.
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"You seem a bit distracted. I hope you're not worried about Karl Stringer being out in public."
"Not at all."
"He seems perfectly normal to me, but that could be a facade. Who knows what goes on in his head."
Her remark gave him a moment's irritation, not because he was concerned about being in the same room with a murderer but because, for some reason, Stringer's release made the legal system seem inadequate. Although it wasn't his case, he'd followed it closely and felt all along that the tests used to determine Stringer's insanity fell short of the mark. He believed that too much weight had been put on the testimony of the two psychiatrists and not enough on other factors, such as a failed lie detector test and no history of mental illness.
"Shall I tell you something, Chief Inspector?" asked Mrs. Trip. "I'm afraid you'll think me even more foolish than you do."
"I don't think you're foolish," he replied. "I should say, you're quite the opposite. What is it you wish to tell me?"
"I don't think insanity can be cured."
The colonel stared at his wife with dismay, unable to understand.
"What on earth are you saying?" her husband asked with a quavering voice.
"Relax, my dear. If he is truly insane, he is heavily medicated and won't do anything that'll embarrass Jane."
"I say we've wasted enough time on idle talk," said the colonel. "I think we should leave."
Mrs. Trip looked at him strangely and pursed her lips.
"I'm not going anywhere till I've had my dinner," she replied.
"Don't worry, Colonel," interrupted MacLanahan. "He won't harm you."
"Really? I can't say that your words are any comfort to me. If you read the papers, Chief Inspector, you know that not a week goes by without someone going berserk somewhere in the world and killing a lot of people. Don't tell me that those blighters are right in the head."
"No, they're not right in the head, as you say. But they usually plan these events and come prepared to do their dirty work. But in this case, I don't see any kind of firepower strapped to the would-be killer's body."
"You mean an assault rifle or a bomb?"
"That's right. He isn't even carrying a gun."
"Now you go too far, Chief Inspector. You can't possibly know that he doesn't have a gun hidden under his jacket."
"I know that there isn't a gun hidden under his jacket or anywhere else on his body. He keeps his jacket buttoned, so a gun would show a bulge where there shouldn't be one. Also, he's been sitting on the sofa almost the entire time we've been here, which rules out a handgun stuck in his waistband."
"It would be too uncomfortable. The sofa is soft and deep, and it nearly swallows him up. There is no way he could sit there with a gun in his waistband. This brings me to the last place he could have it on him."
"Strapped to his leg. But don't worry; it's not there either. Although he's been struggling to keep his pants from riding up, he hasn't been successful. You can see that the only thing he's got on his legs are mismatched socks."
The colonel looked at him with amazement.
"I say, they're not paying you the big bucks for nothing," he exclaimed. "That was excellent detective work."
Jane was making her way toward them, and they stopped talking.
"What was excellent detective work?" she asked.
"And why did you stop talking when I got here?" MacLanahan looked at her with a gentle smile on his lips.
"We were talking about an old case," he said.
A faint shadow fell on Jane's lovely face.
"You'll have to tell me all about it, but first, there is someone I want you to meet," she said, turning to an attractive young lady. "This is an old school friend of mine—Lisa Kelly. Lisa, this is Detective Chief Inspector MacLanahan and Colonel and Mrs. Trip."
The detective and the colonel shook hands with her, and Mrs. Trip murmured something appropriate.
"I say, this is a nice party," said the colonel. "And it is damned nice of your friend to invite us old folks. I mean—"
He was interrupted by the announcement that dinner was served, and without saying another word, he turned to his wife and gallantly offered her his arm.
MacLanahan was glad to see, when they took their places at table, that Lisa sat next to him. For a while, she listened to the civil remarks he was making to her, with a look that bordered on terror. She was clearly not comfortable sitting next to him. For a moment, he considered asking her what she was afraid of, but he decided against it. Good manners dictated that that was not a question to ask a lady at the dinner table.
Suddenly, Lisa turned to him and asked if she could talk to him.
"It's concerning the murder," she said in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper. "I have some information that might be helpful. If I give you my number, will you call me and arrange a meeting?" He nodded, and she slipped a piece of paper into his hand, which he quickly dropped into his coat pocket. He was relieved to see that it wasn't him she was afraid of. It had to be someone else in the room who had her scared out of her wits. But who was it?
"I can see that you're frightened," he said, lowering his voice. "Can you tell me what it is?"
"Not here, Chief Inspector," she said. "I will tell you when we meet. You must forgive me if I'm rather taken aback. You see, you're the last person I expected to sit next to at the dinner table. But it has nothing to do with you personally. It has everything to do with the murder of my friend."
MacLanahan sat quite still for a little while without saying a word.
"There is nothing we can do tonight, MissKelly," he said at last. "We can't talk about it here, and I don't think it's a good idea to leave the party—unless, of course, it's a matter of imminent danger."
"No, it isn't."
"Well, then try to put it out of your mind and enjoy the rest of the evening."
"Thank you, Chief Inspector. I will," she said with a helpless little smile.
Again he was silent. He was grave, and his face showed no indication of what he was thinking. Then dinner was served, and he turned his mind away from the strange woman sitting next to him.
When MacLanahan entered the coffee shop, he saw Lisa sitting at a table in a far corner of the room. She looked up, and a faint smile passed across her lips. There was a curious sense of apprehension in his heart. She was certainly pretty. It would have been thrilling to go on a date with her, but to meet her now during working hours might give the impression that he was gallivanting around and neglecting his work. He walked up to her table and sat down.
"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Miss Kelly," he said. "I got tied up at the office. On a Monday morning, I have endless meetings to attend to, and it's not always easy to get away."
"It's quite all right, Chief Inspector," she said. "I didn't mind waiting."
The waitress came, and MacLanahan asked Lisa what she would like.
"Just coffee, please," she answered.
"Then coffee it is for both of us," he said.
"Very well, sir," said the waitress.
They sat in silence till the waitress came back with the coffee.
Excerpted from The Midnight Stalker by MARIA JOHS. Copyright © 2013 Maria Johs. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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