The police called it an accident. The dead man's wife insisted it was murder. Either way it was maddeningly mysterious.
Captain Harold Jeffries, swaddled in his robe, had settled down for a cozy evening with Crime and Punishment when his wife left the house for a bridge party. An hour later he was dead. What could have induced him to dress and go out into the stormy night—much less to walk on the beach, which he hated and never went near?
Conan Flagg, proprietor of the Holliday Beach Bookshop and Rental Library, is persuaded by Jeffries' widow to investigate privately; and astonishingly, all the clues lead to Flagg's own Dickensian establishment. With passing assistance from Meg, the bookstore cat, Flagg baits a trap to catch a rat—and finds himself dangerously involved in a crime with implications far beyond this lazy seaside village.
Conan absorbed this in silence, allowing himself little outward indication of surprise. But he felt a chill weight gathering under his ribs.
Hysteria might have been responsible for that word last night. But not now. He frowned and tapped his cigarette against the ashtray.
“Nel, I don’t understand.”
She replied in the same calm, contained tone.
“I think my husband was murdered, but I have no proof. You’ve made a business, of sorts, of finding the answers to other people’s questions, and I have a question. I want to know what happened last night. I want to know who killed my husband and why. I’m quite able to pay for your services.”
He waved the last statement aside irritably.
“Your ability to pay for my services is the least of my concerns.”
For a short time he was silent, considering Harold Jeffries’ death, the man himself. And Nel.
The day was out of joint, and there seemed to be nothing he could do to set it right.
“Nel, I’ve known you for a long time—”
“And you think perhaps the shock has been too much? I’ve flipped my wig?” She laughed, but there was no humor in it.
“No. What I was going to say, is that I’ve never known you to be unreasonable or illogical. I don’t think you’ve…flipped your wig. But if you have good reason to think your husband was murdered—and I’m assuming you do—why come to me? If you’re right, this is something for the police.”
One hand went to her forehead to push a strand of hair back, and her eyes closed briefly.
“Don’t you think that was my first thought? Yes, I talked to the police. Of course, I didn’t expect much from the local police. Chief Rose was too busy trying to sober up last night to pay much attention to me.”
Conan gave a short, caustic laugh. “As usual.”
“I also talked to the State Police and the County Sheriff’s office. All I could get from anyone was that I should talk to the local police. It wasn’t a state or county matter unless the local office requested assistance. So I was right back where I started—with Harvey Rose.”
“That isn’t much of a starting place.”
“No. But I did reach one…well, slightly sympathetic ear with the State Police. A man named Travers. He said he was a friend of yours.”
Conan nodded. “Steve Travers. Yes, I’ve known him since we were kids. We grew up together near Pendleton.”
“Well, he couldn’t help me any more than the others, although he was courteous enough to check with the patrolmen who were on the scene last night. That didn’t seem to change his opinion, but he did tell me it might be ‘worth my time,’ as he put it, to talk to you.”
He looked at her sharply. “Why me? Did he say?”
“No. It seemed a little strange, but he asked if I knew you, and I said you were a friend. I suppose he thought you’d be able to calm down the hysterical old woman. I doubt he had anything else in mind.” She looked at him intently. “And, Conan, I’m well aware that there’s probably nothing else you can do for me. I know it’s unreasonable for me to come to you with something like this, but if I’m not hysterical, I am desperate. There’s no one else I can turn to. I thought perhaps you’d at least listen to me without automatically dismissing everything I say as some sort of delusion.”
He found it difficult to meet her eyes.
“Nel, I’m complimented by your faith, but—”
“I’ve gone over the whole thing in my mind a thousand times. I just can’t believe Harold died as a result of an ‘accidental drowning.’ It just isn’t possible. And I can’t simply shrug my shoulders and forget about it. I must know. I must find out what happened last night.”
He raised his glass, then put it down again. The brandy had a flat taste. Then he rose and moved restlessly to the window to stare out at the surf.
He knew what he should do. He should simply say, sorry, but I can’t help. It would come to that sooner or later; it might be easier for Nel if he said it now.
If Jeffries had been murdered, it seemed unlikely that it had been premeditated. It seemed utterly improbable that anyone would have a motive to kill him. He hadn’t been particularly well liked, but neither was he hated. He inspired indifference more than anything else. Why would anyone want to kill him?
But that was the question Nel was asking—not did someone kill him, but why. And who. There was no doubt in her mind that he had been murdered.
He turned, finding her calm gaze fixed on him, and in the wan light, her face seemed something drawn in charcoal; all soft grays.
“Nel, Steve Travers may have sent you to me to calm down the hysterical old woman, as you so inaptly put it. But he also knows I hold a private investigator’s license, and from time to time I take on problems of this sort. At least, when I have a personal interest in them.”
Her eyes widened. “Conan, you—”
“I know. Steve’s one of the few people who know about it. I prefer to keep it quiet.” He smiled fleetingly. “In this, as in everything else, I’m an amateur. A professional dilettante. And I intend to maintain that status.”
“Should I be encouraged that you’ve told me this?”
He frowned and looked out the window.
“No, not really. I know my limitations. But I’d like to know more about it.” He looked around at her. “I’d like to know why you think your husband was murdered.”
She seemed to sag, her breath coming out in a long sigh. Then she nodded, lifting her chin slightly.
“To be quite honest, I have nothing you could call concrete evidence, and I haven’t the slightest idea what happened last night. I…wasn’t home when Harold left the house.” She paused, shaking her head. “I so seldom went out without him, but Pearl and I had been invited to the Barnhards’ for bridge. And on the one night I was gone—” She stopped, then went on firmly. “It doesn’t matter. Anyway, I don’t know what happened last night, and the only evidence I have is my knowledge of my husband. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s as concrete as a fingerprint.”