A Footstep Outside
OUTSIDE, the wind pulled at stark tree limbs, trailed streamers of snow through the dark, but in the little grey brick outbuilding it was as hot as high noon in the Nicaraguan jungle. Long glass tanks stood around the walls, some clear, others a tangle of tape and hair grass, cabomba and crystalwort, their liquid depths dark mirrors of moving color—tiny blue and gold platyfish, green and silver swordtails, black mollies, red tetras, brown paradise fish, jewelfish, guppies and barbs. In one a pair of eight-inch blue scalares from the Amazon paraded their pastel loveliness. In another swam a lonely piranha—too savage to live even with his own brother.
Dr. Martin Leigh, a tall, compact man of forty-five, with a square face, a close brown mustache and thinning hair, carefully transferred a reed coated with tiny white specks from the scalare tank to a shallow glass pan, and set it on a shelf beside the desk in the corner. A leading surgeon of the city, socially as well as professionally prominent, his absorbing hobby was this aquarium, an old converted tool house at the rear of the estate, where he collected, bred and experimented with the bright, varicolored fishes of the Congo, India and tropical America. The blue scalare had never been bred in captivity. With a patience that would have given many another man the jitters, he had worked over his two prizes, varying the acidity and alkalinity of the water, the temperature, food and vegetation, digging into the finer technicalities of osmosis, pH and ichthyological genetics, until finally—in sheer desperation, apparently— they had given up and spawned.
Bending over the thermometer in the pan, he did not hear the door in front open. A slim, pretty girl in a grey fur coat came in. She leaned against the door, shivering. Long lashes curled upward from big, dark eyes. Her lips were full shaped, red as her enamelled fingernails. The small, oval face had a vaguely discontented, petulant expression.
“Hello,” she said.
He looked around, startled. “Oh, hello.”
HE STOOD watching her as she walked to an old morris chair and sat down. An alert, questioning look was in his grey eyes. He appeared tense, on guard. When she leaned back and crossed her knees, letting the long fur coat fall open, he turned abruptly away.
“Where’s Fiske?” he asked.
Fiske Ranford was her husband, his wife’s young brother.
The big estate with the rambling nineteenth-century mansion was still known as the Ranford Place, although young Ranford, the last to bear the name, was far from the solid member of society his forebears had been.
In his youth Martin Leigh, living in a squalid home on the wrong side of town, had delivered meat here as a butcher boy. Driving determination and a quick, sharp intelligence, together with the ability to get along on two and three hours sleep while he studied nights and worked days, had gradually brought him up to where, at thirty-five, his marriage to Ellen Ranford had been as much a feather in her hat as his own.
The girl in the morris chair had come quite as far with an alluring smile and much less effort.
“Fiske’s drinking again,” she said. She bit her lip, frowned. “He’s up in his room, talking to himself. Brought
home a bottle of Scotch, so I concluded he didn’t need me.”
Dr. Leigh was studying the tiny scalare eggs through a magnifying glass.
“Well, if he wants to spend his income that way, it’s all the same to me.”
But the brusque way he said it made it apparent that it wasn’t. Used to digging for the things he got, it was hard for Dr. Leigh to be tolerant of the moody, spendthrift youth who seemed to think that luxury and ease were his birthright. Saddled with the responsibility of helping his wife, Ellen, make a substantial person of her young brother—the
elder Mrs. Ranford had died five years ago, leaving a complicated will with Ellen and her husband as executors— he had gone at it with all the serious determination that he usually brought to his problems. But without much success. Young Ranford’s marriage to the dark-eyed Jeanne hadn’t made matters any easier. Especially . . . But he refused to let himself think of that.
Jeanne lay in the chair, eyes half closed, staring at his back. The full lips slowly pressed together in a pout.
“What’s so interesting about a pan of water?” she asked.
“Plenty,” he answered without looking around. “Unless Pm way off on my ichthyology, I’m the first person in the world ever to set eyes knowingly on blue scalare eggs.”
She came over beside him, took the magnifying glass.
“Those little specks on that reed,” he said.
“But they’re not blue. They’re white.”
He shook his head.
“The fish are blue, not the eggs. Those are blue scalares in the tank over there next to the guppies. That pair came all the way from Brazil. They’ve never been bred in captivity before.”
As he spoke his face slowly relaxed. Partly it was the spontaneous enthusiasm of success, partly the realization that words—impersonal words about fishes—were just what was needed to keep the situation in hand.
“I’m going to hatch these,” he continued, “and when I do there’s one fellow whose face’ll be as blue as any blue scalare. Payne, over at the university, has been at it for two years and hasn’t got anywhere. Brilliant chap, too.”
TJTE SMILED. “You’ve probably seen him around here. -*• Tall fellow with big glasses and a droopy old hat. He’s a law prof.—one of the best in the country—and a bug on ichthyology, criminology and half a dozen other subjects. Even goes around with a smart young detective in the
police department, helping him solve murders. Gets a huge kick out of it. His methods are anything but orthodox, based on a lot of ideas he picked up studying with Gross at Prague. He and the detective can’t see each other’s systems for dust, so it’s almost a matter of life and death with them each time to see which one’s on the right track. And how Payne hates to lose!” Dr. Leigh nodded at the tray. “I’ll just wait till these fellows are hatched and casually present him with a pair.”
The girl was looking through the glass at her fingernails.
“You’re awfully funny about your old fish,” she said. “If I were Ellen, I’d be jealous of them.”
“Ellen’s got too much sense,” he answered. “She come home yet?”
“No. Where’d she go?”
“Over to Stocktons’ to play bridge.” “With Mr. Morrow, I suppose?”
She said it casually, almost indifferently, but the meaning was more than clear.
He gave her a sharp look.
“You’re not hinting I should be jealous of Morrow?”
“Of course not.” She smiled. “The old family friend? Besides, his wife’s hardly been dead six months.”
She came a step closer, looked up at him reproachfully.
“You’re always misunderstanding me, Martin. Everything I say or do.”
“Everything?” he asked.
The dark eyes, raised to his, had a hurt look in them. The red mouth drooped in a pout.
“Everything,” she said softly.
Suddenly her arms were around his shoulders, her lips pressed tightly against his.
For a moment he held her. Then he drew slowly away. Gripping her shoulders, he looked down at her. There was a glint in his eyes, and his voice, when he spoke, was hard, precise.
“You little fool !” he said. “You just have to make a try for every man you meet, don’t you? You don’t care a hoot about anything but yourself. It isn’t enough that you’re carrying on with that young squirt, Jackson. You’d come right into the family. You only married Fiske for the money you thought he could spend on you. Didn’t you? But he hasn’t got it to spend, and he isn’t going to have. So now—” They both started.
“What’s that?” the girl whispered.
“Somebody outside.” His hands dropped from her shoulders. “The stoop creaked.”
He walked to the door, pressed his face against the pane, then lifted the latch. Outside, the wind lashed at the trees, dark clouds hid the sky. The only visible objects were the lighted windows of the house.
He came back in.
“Couldn’t see anybody. You’d better go now. I’m staying a while.”
HENNESSY, captain of detectives—slim, alert, immaculate in spats and derby—left the little group in the middle of the aquarium and picked up the extension phone on the desk. He dialled a number, lit a cigarette and said:
“Hello, pain in the neck. Find your shoes and hop out to the Ranford place. Yeah, a murder. Leigh. In a little building full o’ fish bowls back o’ the house. They found him this morning. Shot through the heart, with a little fish o’ some kind in his hand. Seein’ as I don’t know a haddock from a herring, you might be some help. But I don’t think so.”
Hennessy returned to where a uniformed police captain and a slight, heavy-eyed young man were watching the little medical examiner inspect the body of Dr. Leigh. The dead surgeon lay on his back on the bare floor, his glazed eyes fixed on the ceiling. A large dark-brown stain covered the front of his white shirt. On a sheet of paper beside his right hand, from which the medical examiner had taken it, lay a tiny, fat-bellied, greyish-green fish.
“How long’s he been dead?” Hennessy asked.
The medical examiner pursed his lips.
“About four or five hours,” he said in a quick, high voice. He glanced at his wrist watch. “It’s seven now. Hm-m-m. Say two or three this morning.”
Hennessy turned to young Ranford.
“So you found ’im?”
“Yes.” Ranford looked dully at the detective. “Sister went to his room when she got up, and saw he hadn’t been to bed. She got me up and told me to see it he was out here.
I found the light out and him lying—-well, like he was when the officer, here, saw him—face down, with his legs sort of pulled up under him.”
“Hear a shot durin’ the night?”
“Got any idea who mighta done it?”
Young Ranford shook his head. He appeared still in a daze. He had obviously dressed in a hurry. The collar of his shirt was unbuttoned. His hair was uncombed and he
needed a shave.
Hennessy walked over to the row of tanks. He was looking at a pair of iridescent barbs when the door opened and Professor Payne came in.
PAYNE WAS TALL, scholarly-faced, with large, shellrimmed glasses and an obvious scorn for the dictum that clothes make the man. He crossed the room, looked silently at the dead surgeon. The medical examiner gave him a quick little nod, which he apparently didn’t see. The police captain looked at him with frank curiosity. The story of the strange friendship between the sartorial Hennessy, ace man of the detective division, and the astute professor of law at the university had gradually got around. Men in the police department who had seen them working together told glamorous tales of their achievements, of the rivalry between them and the ends to which they went to show each other up.
They had met several years ago, through Hennessy’s kid brother, a student at the university. Payne, the detective had discovered, had studied under the famous professor of criminology, Dr. Hans Gross, and had a library of criminal lore that looked like an international bookshop. It was a shame, he thought, that anybody so “hepped” on crime couldn’t see more of it in the raw. So he invited the prof, along on his next case. And Payne solved it for him !
Luckily for Hennessy’s self-esteem, he was right, and Payne wrong, on the next case. But since then it had been heads and tails between them. Their methods were as different as their personalities and looks. Hennessy, natty, hard-boiled, slangy, alert, relied on a quick, practical intelligence, a shrewd knowledge of people and a genius for sharp observation. Payne, erudite, bemused, dressed usually in
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baggy tweeds and an old hat, combined an encyclopedic knowledge with an imagination that could be downright fantastic. “Friend o’ yours?’’ the detective asked. Payne’s face was melancholy.
“There are a lot of people I would rather have seen murdered,” he said.
“What’s the little fish he had in his hand?” ‘‘Lebistes reticulatus,” Payne answered without looking up. “Commonly known as the guppy.” He waved a hand toward a small aquarium in which four thick-bellied little fish were darting about. “Out of that tank.”
He took papers and a tobacco pouch out of the pocket of his long grey overcoat and, coming over beside Hennessy, made a cigarette.
"Have you talked with anybody yet?” “Only his brother-in-law, there, and Doc.” Hennessy sketched briefly what they had told him. He pointed to the roughly triangular trail of blood drops on the floor. “Seems to’ve wandered around some before he collapsed. Too bad we ain’t got one o’ them Hindu trailers you’re always spieling about. He might give us a line on where Leigh was aimin’ at. Looks like he ended up just about where he started.”
“The Khojies specialize in footprints, not blood trails,” Payne said. “But Gross did some interesting research into the subject. Blood drops spatter in the direction the victim is moving. By their shape you can estimate his speed. The faster he’s going, the more elongated they are.”
Stooping down, he slowly followed the trail of spots around the room. Before the desk in the rear he straightened, beckoned to Hennessy.
“Here’s where he was standing when he was hit. Has the weapon been found?”
“Not the gun,” Hennessy said, and looked at the medical examiner. “How about the bullet, Doc?”
“Pierced the wall of the heart and lodged against his spine. A thirty-two short.”
“He stood stock still for a moment,” Payne continued, choosing his words with the slow precision of a crystal gazer. “Then he started for the door. He was moving fairly fast, almost running. Here, halfway, he staggered.” Re-enacting the tragic little journey, the professor sagged, caught himself, lurched across the room. “See how the trail wavers. When he went on, his steps were slower, more unsteady. He was having difficulty holding himself up. Here, near the door, he must have realized that he couldn’t make it outside. He almost fell.” So did Payne. “The drops are rounder, didn’t splatter as far. They had a shorter distance to fall. He appears to have reconsidered. Slowly, painfully, he turned, headed for the guppy tank. With the fish in his hand, he reeled about.”
Payne’s hand gripped his chest. He stumbled forward, brought himself up with a great effort.
“He was about done in. He started to fall again. Then, I imagine, he saw the telephone on the desk. He made a last desperate effort to get to it, call for help. If he had thought of it at first, there might have been time. But his original impulse was to escape from the building, from the person standing here in the centre of the room, gun in hand, staring at him. Now it was too late. He took a slow, sagging step, another —and collapsed.”
His last move brought Payne to the body on the floor. Hennessy’s arm darted out just in time to save him from sprawling across it.
“Thank you,” Payne said. He made a fresh cigarette.
“I can understand everything but the guppy,” he continued. “His first effort to get to the door. The telephone. All quite natural under the circumstances. But why did he make such an effort to reach the guppy tank and get one of the little fellows
in his hand? He must have considered it important.”
“There ’re four of ’em in there,” Hennessy said. “And that one in his hand makes five. Wonder if that means anything?”
“They’re about the commonest of the tropical fishes,” Payne answered. “Plebeian little things. Easy to breed and keep. If he’d picked one of the iridescent barbs, or a lyretail, or one of those scalares over there, I’d say some particularly beautiful woman was involved. Or if he’d pulled down that tank with that ugly-looking piranha in it —incidentally, the most vicious fish known —I’d think he was pointing at a person with a cruel and primitive nature. But. . . ” He shrugged.
“Well, let’s go find out some things,” Hennessy said.
On the way to the house, he spoke to the police captain.
“Get everybody downstairs and keep ’em there. In the kitchen. Get me? I don’t want anything in the place touched. That goes particularly for the bedrooms. I’ll talk to the wife first.”
A FLUSTERED MAID led Hennessy and Payne into the living room. Mrs. Leigh, a tall, carefully groomed woman in a grey woollen dress, with brown hair and eyes, a pale, serious face, came in a moment later. Her eyes were red but her poise was calm.
She said, “How do you do, Dr. Payne,” nodded to Hennessy.
While the professor made a grave little speech of condolence, Hennessy watched her. A quiet, undemonstrative person, he thought. Neither “spoiled” nor particularly democratic. Used to getting the things she wanted without much effort. Probably quite a stickler for form. In all of which, he warned himself, he could be dead wrong.
He laid his derby and gloves on the piano bench, sat down across from her on the sofa. Payne withdrew to a chair by the fireplace. Decorum dictated that he stay in the background, let Hennessy do the questioning.
“What c’n you tell us about this?” the detective asked her.
“Very little, I’m afraid,” she answered. “I was out playing bridge with some friends last night. Mr. Morrow brought me home about twelve. Dr. Leigh was still in the aquarium. I didn’t think anything of it. He often stayed out there quite late. I went to bed soon after I came in, and the first suggestion I had that anything might be wrong was when I went to his room this morning and discovered he hadn’t been to bed.” “Who’s Morrow?”
“An old friend of ours.”
“Your husband have any enemies?” “None that I know of,” she answered. “I can’t imagine why anybody wanted to—to kill him.”
“Know if anybody was out there with him last night?”
“Well, yes. My brother’s wife, Jeanne. She came in a few minutes after I got home.” “Did she act at all funny?”
The question appeared to startle Mrs. Leigh. She looked at him for a moment, then shook her head.
“I didn’t notice anything. I was just going to bed.”
“Guess that’s all just now,” Hennessy said. “Will you send her in?”
JEANNE RANFORD, in a pink negligee, paused in the doorway. Silk pyjamas flapped around her slim legs. Enamelled red toenails showed through a pair of flamboyant Aztec sandals.
Hennessy waved her to the sofa.
“Tell us what you know about this,” he said.
She sat down, pulled a foot under her. The dark eyes looked at him.
“But I don’t know anything. I just couldn’t believe it at first.”
“Weren’t you out there with him last night?”
“For a little while. But I came in about twelve. Ellen saw me.”
“What'd you go out for?”
“I was just lonesome. My husband had gone up to his room and—well, I wanted somebody to talk with, I guess.”
“What’d you talk about?”
She thought for a moment.
“Why, mostly about the fish. He was all excited about some little eggs he had on a stick. He said it was the first time anybody’d ever seen that kind. I forget what he called them.”
Professor Payne roused up in his chair. “Not blue scalares?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “That was it.”
Payne stared at her as if he saw a ghost. “Anybody else come in while you were out there?” Hennessy asked.
“No-o-o.” She slowly shook her head. “But somelxxly did come to the door. I can’t imagine who it was, though. We heard a footstep on the stoop outside. But when Martin looked out, there wasn’t anybody there.”
“What were you doin’ at the time?”
He thought the dark eyes wavered. “Just—just talking,” she said. “I left right after that.”
“Did Mrs. Leigh say anything to you when you came in?”
“She was just going upstairs. And I went up after her. She said good night. That’s all.” Her lips twisted. “It’s about as much as she ever says to me.”
“How about your husband?”
“He was in his room, asleep.”
“How d’you know?”
“Well, I . . . ” She hesitated. “I looked in. The light was out and—and he was in bed.”
“Looks like he’s got a bad hangover.”
“I should think he would,” she answered. “He was drinking all evening.”
“He doesn’t need any company—at that.” Hennessy studied her.
“So somebody came to the door and saw you were—just talkin’, and ducked out of sight. Maybe you imagined it.”
“No We both heard it.”
“And Leigh was alive and feelin’ okay when you left?”
“Of course he was.” Her dark eyes searched his face. “If you’re insinuating ...”
“Just askin’,” Hennessy said.
“Well, he was. Ellen can prove it. Right after we went to bed, there was a phone call for him. Ellen took it in the hall and pressed the button connected with the aquarium. He answered on the extension out there, because I saw her hang up.”
"Go tell her to come in,” Hennessy said.
AS SHE WENT OUT he looked over at Payne, apparently sound asleep.
“Nice pyjamas. Maybe somebody looked in out there and saw somethin’ they didn’t like. It wouldn’t be hard. See any light yet?”
Payne shook his head.
“I’m convinced,” he said, “that that guppy Leigh had in his hand is the key to the thing. I can see him standing there, realizing that he was mortally wounded, that he had only a few more seconds to live. We were good friends. He knew I've been going around with you on these cases. He wanted to leave me a clue. He wanted to tell me who was the murderer. I’m pos-itive of it. But he had to think fast—ter-ribly fast—and his choice of objects was limited. The fact that he chose the guppy in preference to any of the others seems very significant. But what does it mean? I’ve been trying to put myself in his place, think as he was thinking at that moment. But—”
“How about lookin’ for a poor fish?” Hennessy asked.
“No. He didn’t think in slang. He was much too precise and literal-minded. Really quite a scholar and linguist. We ...” He stared off into space for a minute. “Well,
none of the possible suspects looks particularly like a guppy to me. And there were five in the tank, and so far I can see only four suspects.”
“Morrow is at least worth checking on. He was an old sweetheart of Mrs. Leigh. Leigh cut him out, I believe. Morrow’s wife drowned while bathing last summer, and lately he and Mrs. Leigh have been going around togetheroccasionally, playing bridge. Leigh was too busy with his practice and his fishes.”
ELLEN LEIGH came in. She confirmed her sister-in-law’s story of the telephone call. It had been the hospital. Probably calling about one of his patients. She hadn’t listened.
“Why didn’t you tell me you went out there to see him last night, before you came in the house?” Hennessy asked her.
She looked at him curiously.
“But I didn’t. What makes you think I did?”
“You didn’t look through that little window in the door?”
“Of course not. How absurd !”
“Well, somebody did,” Hennessy answered. “And whoever it was figures plenty in this murder.
“Tell me,” he continued. “D’ you have any reason to suspect your husband and — and Mrs. Ranford?”
She drew back, stared at him.
“Are you deliberately trying to torture me?” she asked.
“Hadn’t thought of it.”
“Well, if you knew my husband half as well as I did, you’d never ask such a question.”
“She’s not exactly hard to look at.” “That’s a matter of taste,” she answered coldly. “I happen to know that Martin considered her—well, rather common.” “Okay.” Hennessy stood up. “Mind askin’ your brother to come in?”
Fiske Ranford looked dully at the detective as he sat down.
“All right if I smoke?”
“Just so it ain’t my cigarettes,” Hennessy answered, studying him. Thanks to the newspapers, he knew the young man’s history almost as well as he knew his own. He looked, Hennessy thought, like a swell argument for prohibition. His face was puffed. I lis eyes were red and heavv-lidded. His thick lips had a parched, burned look.
“When you went out back there last night,” Hennessy said, “what’d you see?” Ranford blinked at him.
“To the aquarium, o’ course.”
Ranford shook his head.
“Didn’t leave the house last night. Too busy making myself this headache. You mean this morning, when I found him?”
“No. Somebody looked in the door out there about midnight, an’ I wanta know if you’re the guy.”
“Never go near the place,” Ranford answered. “Understand he’s got a fish in there that bites like a tiger.”
Payne raised up his chair.
“The piranha?” he asked.
“I understand,” Payne said, “that Dr. Leigh had a guppy in his hand when he was found. It means something. Did he ever talk about his fishes, their peculiarities, ah, personalities?”
“Not around me.”
“You and him didn’t get along so well, did you?” Hennessy asked.
“Not too well,” Ranford agreed. “He seemed to think I still needed raising. But I suppose he meant all right.”
“Guess that’s all,” Hennessy said. “Trot along back to the kitchen.” He beckoned to Payne. “Let's have a look around upstairs.”
THE FIRST ROOM they entered, in;
front on the second floor, was obviously Mrs. Leigh’s. A large, bright chamber with mahogany furniture, mezzotints on the walls, cretonne curtains, a soft, dark rug, it had the same neat, proper appearance as its occupant. Except for the thrown-back
bed-covers, the deep dent in the pillow, there was no sign that it had been lived in since last put in order. While Hennessy carefully examined the bed, searched the chest and dressing table, investigated the white-tile bath, Payne stood in the doorway, morosely watching him.
“With all the de-vices that psychologists have invented for analyzing people’s characters,” he said, “it’s odd that they’ve never thought of studying their bedrooms. I doubt that there’s anything as ingeniously re-vealing. Not only do we spend half our lives in them, but they’re the one place where we drop all our cares, our pre-tenses and secrets, relax, live frankly with our souls.”
Hennessy had finished.
“Yeah?” he said. “Well, I ain’t found nothin’. What’s the all-seein’ eye dug up?”
“I was merely talking. Merely talking.”
Jeanne Ran ford’s room was across the hall. The furniture was Venetian, apple green, decorated with flowers. There was a Chinese rug on the floor, heavy silk draperies darkened the window's. A green crackleglaze lamp w'ith a silk shade stood on the chest, surrounded by an amber toilet set, a huge powder puff, colored, squat little bottles. The low dressing table was mostly mirror.
It was the room of a girl vitally interested in her appearance, with an obvious, not too discerning flair for luxury, but little time for painstaking details. A fine sifting of powder covered the glass top of the chest and the dressing table. French-heeled slippers pointed their toes at each other before one of the chairs. A pair of stockings and a dress hung over the back. A red robe lay across the tossed-up bed, a crumpled white pillow on the floor.
“It’s not hard to determine which of these women was bom to position and wealth,” Payne said as Hennessy searched. “Which one still sighs as she sinks into her soft bed, and which one looks at the sheets to make cer-tain they’ve been changed. What do you expect to find?”
“Oh, a thirty-two rod with one empty shell in the chamber,” Hennessy answered, entering the pink bathroom. “And anything else I c’n pick up.”
Payne looked astonished.
“Sure-ly, you don’t expect to find something incriminating in a drawer or closet? This murder was not committed in a sudden fury by someone muddled enough to hide the gun w'here a routine search would uncover it. Just look back on the crime for a mo-ment. Leigh was standing before his desk when the murderer came across the room toward him. He couldn’t have been very alarmed by the visitor’s appearance, could he? He was right out in the open, an easy target. If he had sensed that his life was in danger, wouldn’t he have made some effort to protect it? It would have been simple to dodge behind those big tanks along the wall, run to the door. At least, I should think he would have tried.
“But no. The shot took him com-pletely by surprise, as they were standing face to face. And it was carefully aimed, at the heart. A bull’s-eye like that does not just happen. Proof that it didn’t in this case is the fact that the murderer didn’t shoot again. He, or she, knew that their first bullet had found its mark. A cool, clearthinking, de-liberate person—your murderer—who was ve-ry careful not to leave any clews behind ; even had the presence of mind to turn out the light so as not to be seen leaving if, by any chance, the shot had been heard.”
“All right,” Hennessy said. “Where’s that get us? They all look like pretty cool numbers to me.”
"pISKE RANFORD’S room was at the
back of the house. Compared with the one they had just left, it lacked color. The furniture was dark walnut. There were a few pictures on the walls—boyhood things, obviously. A cowboy astride a horse. A colored illustration from La Vie Parisienne. The parchment shade of the black vase lamp on the dresser was cracked. Sports
magazines, ash trays, packages of cigarettes were scattered about. On the table by the window stood a large whisky bottle—empty —and a glass. From the waste basket, Hennessy pulled crumpled brown paper and a receipt.
“No wonder he’s got a hangover,” he said. “Bought that bottle yesterday.”
While Payne stared morosely out the window at the little aquarium, Hennessy pulled back the covers of the bed, looked at the dent in the pillow.
“As I got the picture,” he said, “this guy’s widowed mother and sister did a swell job o’ spoilin’ him while he was growin’ up. Then when they wanted to straighten him out and couldn’t, they tossed the job in Leigh’s lap. He held the purse strings on the kid, tried to put some starch in him. But it didn’t do much good. How’d his marriage sit with the family?”
“Well”—Payne shrugged—“you heard what Mrs. Leigh said about Jeanne. I don’t recall Leigh ever mentioning her. But I don’t imagine she was ex-actly the type he would have picked for an in-law. A little too —ah—flashy. Your suggestion that Leigh might have been having an affair with her was, of course, pre-posterous. There are two kinds of self-made men. Those who are aggressively proud of their humble origin, always reminding you of it, and those who prefer to forget it. Leigh was of the latter type. He was quite conscious of the position he had attained, a stickler for the proprieties and conventions. If she had attracted him, I doubt that he would have admitted it even to himself.”
Hennessy went into the adjoining bath, came back a minute.
“Well, let’s look up Morrow. I’m beginnin’ to agree with you on that cool, deliberate stuff.”
rT'HEY FOUND Morrow at home, having breakfast. A short, stoutish man with thin, sandy hair, rimless glasses, he listened wide-eyed to Hennessy.
“Dr. Leigh murdered! Why, it’s impossible !” he cried. “Impossible !”
“I wouldn’t lie to you,” Hennessy said. “Oh, I didn’t mean that.” He flushed. “But, really—I—well, it’s just hard to believe things like that happen to ixiople you know.”
“After you brought Mrs. Leigh home last night,” Hennessy said, “did you go out to the aquarium?”
Morrow looked down at his napkin, folded it slowly into a thick little square.
“I suppose I’ve got to answer that,” he said. “Unfortunately, I did. But when I looked in the window of the door and saw ne wasn’t alone, I didn’t go in.”
“Who was with him?”
“What were they doing?”
“They were”—he seemed to struggle over the word—“embracing. Really, I couldn’t believe it. He must have heard me. He started to push her away.”
“And you left?”
“D’ ja see anybody else outside there?” “No.”
“Mind showin’ us your room?”
He led them upstairs. Hennessy stood in the doorway, looked in thoughtfully.
“What’d you go out there for?” he asked finally.
“To ask Dr. Leigh about some guppies I acquired recently. They’ve started to breed and—well, I wanted to know what to feed the babies.”
“You’d better come over to the house with us,” Hennessy told him.
“I wonder,” he said, as they walked up the street with Morrow between them, “how Leigh got so hepped on fishes. What started him?”
“It almost always starts with guppies,” Payne answered. “His wife had some. When they began to breed, he asked me the same questions that Morrow says he was going to ask Leigh last night. I lent him a couple of books. The next thing I knew, he had bought some platys and barbs. And then he fixed up that shed out there.”
Back at the estate, Hennessy took Morrow to the aquarium to describe in detail what he had seen. The body had been removed. Payne stared dolefully at the scalares for a moment, then left.
‘ TN THE KITCHEN Hennessy found the A police captain still standing watch over the household. He beckoned to Jeanne Ranford, led the way up to her room.
“Well, you wasn’t just talkin’ out there last night,” he said, motioning her to a chair. “Whyn’t you tell me?”
She stared at him silently for a moment. “Have you found out who it was that looked in?”
“Maybe,” Hennessy said.
He ignored the question for one of his own.
“Why’d you kill Dr. Leigh?”
Her fingers tightened on the padded arms of the chair.
“I didn’t !”
“All right,” Hennessy said. “We’ll make it a game. I’ll say, ‘You did,’ and you say,
‘I didn’t.’ ”
“But he was alive”—her voice rose stridently—“when I left him. And you know it !”
“Sure. The first time,” Hennessy answered. “But nothin’ kept you from goin’ back out after everybody else wras asleep. ’Round two or three this momin’. What was the matter? Was the affair gettin’ too complicated for you?”
“Affair? There was no affair. I tell you—” “Well, maybe you tried to make him, then, and couldn’t. I hear he pushed you away. Anyw'ay, I know you did it. There’s one thing I don’t think anybody’d be hardboiled enough to do—put in a sound night’s sleep right after committin’ a murder. Mrs. Leigh slept fine last night. Her bed shows it. So did your husband. And so did Morrow. But you tossed all over.”
“I—I couldn’t sleep,” she protested. “I was worried. I kept wondering who it was that came to the door out there. I—”
“Oh, yeah? Well, that gun’s in this room, and I’m gonna find it. I searched once, but I can do a lot better job.”
Professor Payne stood in the doorway.
“I wouldn’t bother,” he said. “I’ve already found the evidence. You see, I got up here ahead of you.”
Hennessy turned triumphantly to Jeanne Ranford.
"Now how about it, sweetheart?”
Payne looked up from the cigarette he was rolling.
“Oh, it wasn’t she who did it.”
“What !” Hennessy gaped at him.
PAYNE LICKED the paper, gave the end a deft twist.
“That drunk!” Hennessy cried. “And you said—”
“He may have had a drink or two, but he wasn’t drunk—at the time,” Payne answered. “That was the thing about it that puzzled me so long. I knew that Leigh was killed by someone in per-fect possession of his faculties. Anybody as intoxicated as Ranford was apparently last night wouldn’t have done so neat a job or taken Leigh so completely by surprise. Yet there were two things that made me def-initely suspect Ranford. One was the guppy.”
“Yes. You recall when we were talking down in the living room. I was trying to puzzle out what Leigh had meant to con-vey by grabbing one of those little fishes. I said he didn’t think in slang terms, that he was quite a scholar and linguist. That suddenly gave me a lead. It wasn’t, I admit, a very clear one. It took a lot of mulling before I got the answer, and then it didn’t sound right. I remembered we used to talk together occasionally in Isatin, and for a long while I tried to make something out of lebistes reticulatus, the Latin name of the guppy. Of course, I couldn’t. The trouble was that I was assuming Leigh had selected
that one species of fish in pre-ference to any of the others. Which he didn’t. When I considered that possibility, I began to see light. The Latin for fish is piscis. But the Anglo-Saxon is fisc. You get the connection. Fisc—Fiske Ranford. The derivation of the name was tucked away in a corner of Leigh’s brain. It popped out as he was swaying there, wondering how he could leave me a clew to his murderer’s identity.
“The other thing that made me suspect Ranford was that he told you he never went near the aquarium and Leigh never discussed his fishes with him. Yet he knew the name of the piranha, a very rare fish. That didn’t sound right.
“Still I couldn’t understand it. I was positive Leigh hadn’t been murdered by a drunken man. Yet Ranford very plainly has a hangover this morning, and the bottle of Scotch that he bought yesterday is empty. When Morrow admitted that it was he who looked in out there last night— well, that made it all the more confusing. So when we returned here, I came up to Ranford’s room to try to work it out. The solution came to me in the bathroom. Really, it was ter-ribly simple. I’ll show you.”
HE LED THE WAY down the hall. On a shelf in the bathroom off Ranford’s room was a glass full of brownish water and a long glass instrument with a bulb at one end. Payne stooped down and pointed to the drain pipe under the wash bowl.
“I don’t know how much of a plumber you are,” he said. “But that place where the pipe curves is called the trap. Some of the water from the bowl stays in there, until more comes down and takes its place. I found a piece of rubber tubing, a syringe and that hydrometer in Leigh’s room. I drew the water out of the trap into that glass. The hydrometer says it is fourteen per cent alcohol !
“You see, Ranford wasn’t drunk last night. He let his wife think he was drinking because he wanted her to go out there to Leigh. He knew she’d been doing that every chance she had. He was going to surprise them, make a scene. He hated Leigh, primarily because Leigh kept a strict rein on him, wouldn’t let him have the money to live the way he wanted to. If he could get something on Leigh, Leigh would have to relent.
“So Ranford sat up here, watching. And then he saw somebody go to the door of the aquarium, look in and hurry away. What an op-portunity ! Perhaps he knew who it was. Perhaps he didn’t. It didn’t matter. Somebody had seen something in there that had made him—or her —leave in a rush. And a moment later he saw Leigh look out, and then Mrs. Ranford leave.
“When his wife came in, he pretended to be asleep. After she got to bed, he slipped out there and shot Leigh. He came back in and drank as much of the whisky as he could, so he would have a hangover this morning to bear out his story that he had spent the night up here drinking. The police, he felt con-fident, would suspect either his wife or the person who looked in on them. But he couldn’t finish the bottle in the little time he had. So he poured the rest down the washbowl. He slept soundly, of course. Why wouldn’t he with all that liquor in him?”
“How about the gun?” Hennessy asked. Professor Payne went into the bedroom. He took the shade off the black vase lamp on the dresser, lifted out the fixture.
“It’s odd,” he said, “how simple it is to change an object’s identity. This was originally a vase. A few things were added and it became a lamp. To the eye its appearance and purpose were completely changed. Frank-ly, I wouldn’t have thought of looking into it, any more than you did. But the top of the dresser happens to be rather dus-ty, and I noticed that the lamp had recently been moved. Seemed queer. It’s quite heavy. So I unscrewed the fixture and—”
“You win,” Hennessy said.