Delancey and the Cottagers

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
Delancey goes on vacation by renting a cottage on a lake. But murder is never far behind! He gets caught up in a case before long.

Submitted: July 20, 2019

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Submitted: July 20, 2019

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Case #40: August, 1928: Delancey and the Cottagers

Every summer when we were kids, my folks would pack up my sister and me, and we’d all head down to Uncle Billy’s farm. We might go on other vacations (which was seldom), but we never, ever missed Uncle Billy’s farm.

Uncle Billy was a big, jovial man who was never completely clean. He enjoyed his existence, and was always glad to see us. My sister and I figured that was because for one week, Uncle Billy had free farm labor in the form of the two of us. We sweated under the hot July sun, and toiled as hard as anyone our age could be expected to. That meant, when we were little, we’d bring the water jug out to Uncle Billy, and as we got older, we actually worked in the fields. It was a pain. 

Uncle Billy also had six cows, whom he named and probably gave Christmas presents to. The least said about these creatures, the better. Needless to say, none of them were housebroken. My sister and I toted milk pails and later were taught to milk them ourselves. It put me off milk for the rest of my life.

One year, things changed. I was…let me see…fifteen. The Great War was on, and labor was hard to come by, so my sister (now thirteen) and I fully expected to head to Uncle Billy’s farm. Instead, Dad announced one June evening that we were headed elsewhere.

“I have rented a cottage for the week,” he said, “instead of heading to Uncle Billy’s farm. I know you’re disappointed.”

Actually, we nearly jumped up and down with joy.

“But Billy has other things to tend to, and can’t entertain us.”

Did the man say “entertain”?

“So I’ve a different idea.”

“We get to work as sharecroppers?” I asked. I admit it, I was a smart-mouth in those days, not like I am now.

“What? No! I’ve rented a cottage for the entire week. It’s on Mumbles Lake. Should be great, huh? Fishing, boating, swimming.”

Now, to be honest, I’d never fished, never boated, and couldn’t swim. Yet, it beat going to the farm, so my sister and I nodded with enthusiasm.

“Dear,” said Mom, “have you seen this cottage?” I knew why she was so hesitant: She envisioned cleaning fish all week, putting iodine on our inevitable cuts and scrapes, and washing the mildew smell out of all our clothes when we were home. Also, she was pretty sure the bathroom facilities were primitive.

“Not yet, but I have a brochure!”

Dad showed a well-kept log cabin with smoke pluming from the chimney, two well-kept youngsters frolicking in the surf, one well-kept father smoking a pipe and reeling in a marlin, and his well-kept wife smiling fondly on it all. It looked delightful.

“What do you think?” Dad asked proudly.

To be honest, my sister and I would’ve gone to a cabin on the River Styx, as long as their were no cows.

So we went. It wasn’t idyllic, but it wasn’t Hell, either. Dad proved spectacularly bad at catching fish, so that suited Mom, who made bacon and eggs for breakfast then insisted we go out to eat for lunch and dinner. My sister fell in love with a boy from a nearby cottage and wept copiously when parting (she’d forget him by the time school started). I caught three frogs and only let one of them loose in the cottage. All in all, not a bad week.

And no cows.

Now in case you’re wondering why I’m bugging you with this long story, let me explain:

One day in early August, as the sky looked thunderous, Beulah came back from lunch with an announcement.

“My best friend from school is getting married. She’s asked me to be a bridesmaid.”

“Sounds good,” I said without enthusiasm.

“Marge—that’s my friend—lives in Detroit.”

“Oh?”

“And I’ll have to get a matching dress.”

“Oh.”

She sighed deeply. I had a teacher who sighed that way.

“Delancey, I need some time off. I was hoping for a week.”

“Fine by me. When?”

“Next week.”

“What? Why is this wedding in such a hurry?…Oh.”

“Got it in one. She’s shopping for a bridal gown with a bit of extra room. So what about it, Boss?”

“Why not? Go. Have fun.”

“Thanks.”

She paused, and I asked if there was something else. She sat.

“You know, Delancey, except for Christmas, you haven’t taken any time off since you started this business. I’m not saying you can’t function without my help, but why not take next week off yourself? Get away from the city. Enjoy yourself. Business is pretty slow, anyway.”

“I don’t know…” But already, it was starting to sound pretty good. The weather had been so hot and miserable, and like she said, I’d had almost no work, that I figured what the hell? Maybe a week off would do me good. So I said okay. She smiled like she always does when I take her advice.

So it was all arranged. I telephoned a guy who rents cottages at Mumbles Lake, and arranged—like my dad—to rent one, sight unseen for a week. I packed a bunch of stuff, rented a car, and off I went.

Now, I’ve said before that I’d like to own a car someday. This is purely for convenience’s sake. The truth is, I hate the damned things. Noisy, unreliable—a bit like my Cousin Willy. Anyhow, I can drive, and not too bad, considering I don’t do it much. So I rented a Chrysler of indeterminate age and, road map in hand, chugged out of town on a fine Saturday morning, and headed north.

I have to admit, Beulah had the right idea. Not five miles out of the city, I was already feeling better. Trees, water…overhead some bird of prey glided about. It was wonderful. I rolled down the window (which was no mean feat in that car), and sang a little tune as the miles slid by.

Mumbles Lake wasn’t anywhere near as large as it had seemed to teenaged Me; yet, it was big enough for those newfangled power boats to putt-putt along (or in some cases, roar along). There were about two dozen cottages all around the lake, and, so the occupants wouldn’t get thirsty, a “soda parlor” that fooled nobody. Just off the lake, down the road, was a small town, called Mumbles, where around sixteen houses were, and a general store that specialized in live bait.

I’m not much of a fisherman, because catching one always means cleaning it, too, and on that count I’m squarely in Mom’s corner. Nevertheless, I planned to drown a few worms while I was there, and hope I wouldn’t catch anything big enough to keep. I had my old fishing rod and a metal box with hooks and bobbers. Nothing fancy like flies; I’d buy some of that live bait that Mumbles was famous for.

Up a winding gravel road that circled Mumbles Lake, I rode along. The cottages I passed varied a lot in quality. Some of them, I knew from the renter, were actually owned by folks who spent the bulk of summer there, so those were the fancier ones. They also, I noticed, had the roaring power boats perched at their docks.

The rentals were something else. They looked dismal and gray, with a rowboat and oars leaning alongside. I despaired: Maybe a week at a nice hotel would be better. No, I told myself, you’ll enjoy this. Just keep going.

About a quarter of the way around, I found Cottage #12, the one I’d rented. It was no better or worse than any of the other rentals. Nestled in between a few pine trees, and looking out over the lake, I had to give it points for location. I drove the Chrysler close to the front door and parked. I grabbed my cases and headed up the three porch steps to the door. The key given me when I rented the place slid in, and I was there.

I wish I could say I was charmed. There was a kitchen, with table, three chairs, a stove and an ice box, none of which had been cleaned recently. There was a living room with a sofa and two stuffed chairs, all three of which had at least one hole in the upholstery. In the bedroom, there was a cedar armoire, the best piece of furniture in the place, and a rickety old bed that I suspected could use a good delousing. I’d brought a sleeping bag that I would use on top of the bed, just to be safe. The entire cottage smelled of old fish and stagnant air, and I opened some of the windows to get a few things moving. Well, the stagnant air was gone, but the fish smell got stronger.

I hung my clothes in the cedar armoire, then put the few food items I’d brought in the icebox. I made a note to myself to buy more at the downtown store tomorrow.

Now. What to do next? I was already bored! I snapped out of it, though. Headed down the pier, sat on the splintered wood, took of my shoes and socks and stuck my feet in the water. Damn! That’s cold! was my first thought. In time, though, the goosebumps subsided, and I relaxed. It was actually a very pretty lake. Maybe I could haul one of the chairs out and sit here for a spell. (Do you like the hick expression?)

I was maybe there ten minutes when a motorboat, one of the fancy jobs, came chugging up within ten feet or so. It was huge, with, I guessed, sleeping quarters below, and room for six to sit comfortably on deck. At the helm was a caricature of English gentry: White everything, a pipe, and a sailor’s hat (or at least what he figured to be a sailor’s hat). Passengers were a woman about his age (fifties) and a younger gal I took to be a daughter. They looked plain, overexposed to sun, and highly privileged.

“Hello!” they called, and I gave the greeting back. “Are you renting for the week?” asked the captain.

“Yep.”

The captain shut off the engine and came to the rail. “My name’s Edgar Jacobs. This is my wife Audrey, and our daughter Trudy.”

“Tom Delancey.”

“Well, Tom, we make it sort of a habit to invite any newcomers to a party. Tomorrow night, around seven? We’ll have food and beverages, and music. Just come by anytime!”

“Thanks. Whereabouts?”

“Oh, of course! Silly goose, I am. We’re three cottages down.” He waved a finger in the direction. “Hope to see you there, Tom!”

“Thanks!” I called back, and Captain Edgar started up his boat and they roared off with a final wave.

Of course, I had nothing in common with those folks, but I figured it might be a decent way to spend the evening, so I figured on going.

I’ll spare you the travails of that night. Needless to say, some mosquito wouldn’t go to bed at a decent hour, and kept buzzing me. I heard some night creature rummaging around for garbage, and somewhere, someone was cackling with laughter like a hen that’d just laid. I woke up unrested and cranky.

Breakfast and a turn on the lake in the rowboat helped. And the thought of the party. I was really looking forward to it. I’m not much of a partygoer, but free refreshments, I would not turn down.

So, putting on my loudest shirt and a pair of shorts that had seen better days, I headed over to the party that night.

My first thought was, “I’m underdressed.” Or maybe it was, “They’ll think I’m a waiter.” Whatever, the rest of the party were far more dressed up than I was. But bless ‘em, no one said a word about it. They greeted me like a long-lost brother and shoved a cocktail of strange origin in my hand. There was shrimp cocktail, something brown and gelatinous, and plenty of crackers to put the brown stuff on. I took a sip of my fruity alcoholic drink and decided it wasn’t too bad for a cocktail. Then I mingled.

There were about a dozen others there, and everyone knew everyone else, so the captain and host, Edgar, introduced me around.

“This is Jimmy Botweiler and his wife Helen. Jimmy’s in banking. Loan officer.  Then we have Wilbur and Susan Cranshaw and their son, Billy. Wilbur’s in insurance. Top salesman in the tri-state area.”

I never knew which three states were meant by “tri-state”; our community didn’t border any other state. Still, I nodded.

“And this is Melvin and Virginia West. Melvin is a car salesman, and a damned fine one. Sold me my last three. And finally, there’s the Posts. Fred and Melinda. Fred owns three grocery stores and looking to open a fourth, am I right, Fred?”

From the look on Fred’s face, that was supposed to be a secret.

“And what is it you do, Edgar?” I asked.

There was a pause, then Edgar and those around him burst into laughter.

“I’m sorry, Tom,” he said. “I suppose one doesn’t associate the name and the title. I’m your state senator.”

“Oh, sure. Edgar Jacobs. Right. Dummy me.” I still had no clue, but decided to leave bad enough alone.

“What is it you do for a living, Tom?” Willy Cranshaw asked me.

I looked over the group. Suddenly, I’d become the center of attention. So I studied them, too:

I’ve already described the Jacobs. The Botweilers were a younger couple, maybe thirties to the Jacobs’ fifties. Average looks, Jimmy was a little buck-toothed. Interesting how young Botweiler was, yet he was a loan officer in a bank. Anyhow, Willy Cranshaw was the oldest person present, maybe seventy. He lacked hair and had the open face of a salesman. His wife Susan looked a good fifteen years younger. It was nice to see them hold hands a lot. Billy, their son was around twelve, which means his mom gave birth around forty. Billy looked bored by everything. Finally, the Posts were a genial couple in their fifties, typical shopkeepers, ready to chat about anything.

“I’m a private detective,” I said quietly.

Suddenly, I was even more the center of attention.

“Really!” Fred Post said. “That must be interesting work.” I caught a strange look between him and his wife.

I shrugged. “It has its moments, but a lot of it’s pretty dull. Finding lost rings, following a suspected cheater husband, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, but sometimes it must be fascinating,” Fred argued.

“Sure. Sometimes. But not as often as folks might think.”

This didn’t sit well with the crowd, mainly because I think they thought me a liar. So let them think that. I’d be damned if I would sit and entertain them with stories. It turned out, though, it wasn’t a matter of entertainment that piqued their curiosity.

“Are you investigating the murders, then?” asked little Billy Cranshaw.

Out of the mouths of babes, sometimes comes embarrassment. Everyone went deathly quiet. I thought Audrey Jacobs was going to drop her cocktail. To my everlasting credit, I didn’t lose my smile.

“What murders are those?” I asked politely.

“Now, Billy,” said his mom, “there’s no need to bother Tom with that.”

“Actually, I’d like to know,” I said. I admit it: I was enjoying making them uncomfortable.

Edgar cleared his throat. “Well, we may as well tell him, folks. After all, he’s staying in their cottage.”

Okay, now I was uncomfortable.

“Someone was murdered in my cottage?”

“Well, no,” Edgar said. “Not exactly. At least not that we know of.”

“Don’t pussyfoot, Edgar,” Fred cut in. He turned to me. “I’ll tell you what happened. Last year about this time, the cottage you’re in now was rented by a mother and daughter. Susan and Louise Tillman. Susan was an attractive woman of about…would you say thirty, my dear?” he asked his wife.

“I don’t think she was even that old,” Virginia Post replied, a little coldly.

“But the girl was ten, I know,” Audrey put in, “because I asked her.”

“And what of that?” Virginia wanted to know. “She would’ve been old enough.”

“True,” Fred said before a discussion of fertility began. “At any rate, they rented your cottage for a week. They were a quiet twosome. Liked to sit on the pier and dangle their feet in the water, but I can’t say I saw them do much else. At any rate, Edgar and Audrey invited them to one of these parties, as they like to do, and that was when all of us met them. They were quiet and polite.”

Virginia stepped in again. “I thought them rather cold. I asked that Susan about herself, and she just smiled and said she was a widow and mostly just worked and stayed home nights. Imagine!”

“Well, Virgie,” Fred said genially, “that was about the size of her life.” Back to me, he said, “Only later did we find out more. She came from wealth. Her parents came from money, and they lived not far from here. When she was younger, Susan met a ne’er-do-well young man with whom she took up. Her parents were not pleased, of course. They threatened the man, even offered him money, to stay away, but one day Susan announced she was pregnant. The young man was nowhere to be found. Later, he would die in an automobile accident. So I suppose Susan considered herself a widow.”

“But she never married the guy?” I asked.

“No, sir. In fact, Susan’s parents, I think, preferred their daughter to be a single mother.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Helen Botweiler put in.

“No, I don’t, but I spoke with the parents after…all that happened, and that was the opinion I formed.”

“Go on,” I said.

“At any rate,” said Fred, giving the evil eye to Helen for butting in, “Susan’s parents wanted her to live with them at home, but once Louise was old enough to walk, they moved to an apartment. She wanted independence, though it was clear the parents still supported her so she could tend to her daughter full-time.” He looked at Helen, in case she protested his opinion, but she was quiet, so he went on:

“When Louise was old enough to go to school, Susan got a job at a department store, in the dress department. She worked hard, by all accounts, and did all right for herself. Early last spring, however, Susan’s parents suggested she get away that summer, if only for a week. When Susan said she couldn’t afford any vacation, her parents told her they would pay for a cottage for one week, that they would not interfere by visiting all the time. Susan agreed to those terms.”

Willy Cranshaw cut in, “Well told, Fred. Do you mind if I tell the rest?”

“Go ahead. I’m thirsty.”

Which brought a few good-natured chuckles. Fred went to fetch another cocktail while Willy picked up the story.

“As Fred said, Susan and Louse were invited to our party and stayed till about ten. They were cordial but never really in the party mood. The next day, my wife—also Susan—decided to bring some pie leftover from the party to her.”

Pie? There was no pie here. Why didn’t I get a party with pie?

“Susan—my wife—also determined to ask her to go into town, to shop. She thought maybe the young lady didn’t like parties but would enjoy a little shopping trip.”

“My aunt is like that,” his wife cut in with a smile.

“Yes, she is,” Willy said. “So my wife walked over with the pie, and knocked, but there was no answer. She thought that maybe mother and daughter had gone into town on their own. So she walked back. No one thought anything of it.

“But that night, we happened to glance over to their cottage and saw there were no lights on. Next day, I went over with Susan and we knocked. Peeped in a few windows, I’m afraid, but saw no one. The place looked in order, and while it was puzzling, we certainly weren’t alarmed by it.”

“Speak for yourself,” Audrey Jacobs chimed in. “When they told us, I got shivers all over. Didn’t I tell you that, Edgar?”

“You most certainly did,” Edgar nodded.

“I think,” Helen said, “we all thought it was strange.”

I said, “Had they come by car?”

“Yes, but it was her father’s car, so we couldn’t tell by that if they’d left,” Willy said. “But when Susan and I looked through the windows, there were signs of living. A jacket on a chair, two dirty plates and cups on the table. I couldn’t believe they would have left the cottage in that condition. At least not willingly.”

Helen sighed. “Please don’t make it so dramatic.”

“And why not?” Willy demanded. “It’s dramatic by nature.” Back to me: “We were puzzled, as I said. On that Friday, with still no sign of them, we were having a little luncheon at our cottage—that’s the next one over—when someone—was it you, Trudy?”

The Jacobs’ daughter, who had more or less tuned us out, perked to life. She managed a “Yes” and Willy went back to me.

“Yes. Trudy saw something floating out in the lake. Something large and dark. It looked like an animal carcass, to be honest. Well, whatever it was, we didn’t want it mucking up our lake, so Edgar and I took my boat out to fetch it in. When we got there, however…” He shuddered, and Edgar helped.

“It was the body of Susan Tillman.”

“Holy cow,” was all I could manage.

“We took boat hooks,” Edgar went on, and hauled the body into the boat, and came back to shore. The ladies and children were escorted away, and my wife called the sheriff, who is the local law. Sheriff Ellert came out and the medical men came out, and it was all very much a fuss. Not at all what we’re used to out here.”

“I suppose not,” I said, not knowing how to comment on that. “So what was the verdict?”

Willy was refreshed with his cocktail and determined to finish the story.

“The poor girl had been murdered. Struck over the head and tossed in the lake like so much garbage.” He showed a bitter side that was new.

“And the daughter?”

Willy shook his head.

“Never found.”

“That’s strange.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“Oh, don’t think they didn’t look,” Willy said. “They checked all around, searched the lake, but it’s a big pond. Since they didn’t know where Susan had been…well, put in, they didn’t know where to search for her daughter.”

“Stop it!”

That was Trudy Jacobs, the girl who was a few years older than Louise would’ve been, and probably felt a little akin to her.

“It was horrible last year,” she went on, “and it’s still horrible. She’s probably down at the bottom of the lake, and you’re talking as if she’s just gone to the market! I won’t hear about it any more!”

And she stormed off for her room.

“I’m sorry,” I said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”

“No, of course not,” said Edgar with a smile. “Trudy took it very hard. I think she liked Louise, might’ve become friends with her, but…well, she was never seen again.”

“I assume the cops thought it was murder, and not that Susan Tillman had just slipped, fallen into the water, and hit her head?”

“You assume correctly,” my host went on. “They didn’t share all the gory details with the public, but they were certain it was foul play.”

“And did they suspect the daughter might’ve done it and run off?”

“Good God, you have a wicked mind, Tom. No, they didn’t suspect that. Too involved and too difficult, tossing her mother into the lake that way. No, the clear implication was that someone had murdered Susan Tillman, put her in the lake, and either killed Louise at the same time, or abducted her.”

“Can we change the subject, please?” This was Jimmy Botweiler, who was a quiet sort for a banker. “This is supposed to be a party, after all.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Sorry to have brought up this whole thing.”

“Not at all,” Jimmy said kindly. “Best you know about your cottage, and what went on there. Now that you know, though…”

“Of course. Let’s talk about something else.”

I’ll spare you details of the rest of the party, because there’s nothing about the case in it. Trudy returned, but brooded most of the time.

What I’d wanted to ask, but what they probably didn’t know, was why someone would go through all the trouble of sinking mother (and maybe daughter) in the lake. Wouldn’t it have been good enough to kill them in the cottage? And another thing. Did the killer just toss them in the lake? If so, why was Louise never found? There were a lot of questions I wanted answers for.

Why did I bother? Maybe it was that I felt a kinship with the Tillmans, since I was renting the same cottage. Or maybe it was just so horrific, to think of a woman and her daughter chucked in the lake. Or maybe I was bored out of my skull after only a couple days and wanted something to occupy my brain. Or all three.

So the next day, I went into town and telephoned my buddy, Inspector Jacob Fenrow. He was his usual chipper self.

“What the hell do you want?” he growled. “Some of us have work to do.”

“Yeah, yeah. Introduce me to ‘em sometime. Look, Jacob, I’m calling to ask a favor.”

In spite of his grumbling, Jacob listened carefully to my explanation of the Tillman case. When I’d finished, he said:

“I remember the case, because for awhile, I thought we might get involved. It was a real complicated problem. In the end, the sheriff set it aside.”

“So you met the sheriff?”

“Just once. A bit of a jealous type. Didn’t want anyone horning in on his business. I think he’s honest, but in this business, you can’t let ego get in the way of solving a case.”

“That’s why you turn to me for help?” I asked, only partly in jest.

“Oh, ha, ha. Why don’t you go fishing on a short pier?”

“I’ll figure that comment out later. Thanks, Jacob.”

We rang off, and I went back to my cottage. I decided to search the place, in case any clues had been left behind, and was just in the middle of it when a car pulled into the driveway and out got a short, stocky fellow with a crewcut, a fat cigar in his mouth, and growly face. He wore the sheriff’s uniform, and I muttered, “Oh, oh.”

Figuring it would not be a good idea to keep the sheriff waiting, I met him at the door.

“You Delancey?” he growled.

“Yep. Sheriff Ellert?”

In reply, he stepped inside without an invitation and stood in the middle of the living room. He surveyed the room as if it were an old friend back from the army, and finally sat on a kitchen chair.

“Nearly a year since I been in here,” he said, looking out at the lake. “Nothing’s changed.”

“May I help you?” I asked.

“I got a phone call,” he said, still grumpy, “from Inspector Fenrus—“

“Fenrow,” I corrected, pouring gasoline on the grumpy fire.

“Whatever. This guy says you’re a decent detective, private,” he added in the same tone I use to say “broccoli”. He went on, “And he says you’re asking about the Tillman case.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to butt in. This is your county, and you’re the sheriff, and I was just interested.”

That seemed to mollify him a bit. He sat back, and the kitchen chair creaked in protest. He puffed the cigar for a bit, then said:

“So long as you understand that, Delancey, we’ll get on fine.”

“You don’t mind my taking a look at the case, then?”

“Hell no. Within reason, mind you.” He leaned forward and squinted, and looked for all the world like Popeye in the funny papers. “Look. I want the killer of those two found, and if you do it, so be it. I’ve banged my head against a wall long enough.”

“I heard you didn’t want anyone else looking into it.”

He leaned back again. “That was them cops. Big city gumshoes who think they know better than me. When I was deputy, the sheriff at the time let the State boys in on a case, and they prowled around like red ants. Damned puffed-up peacocks, every last one of ‘em. I vowed never to let any other cops horn in, if I could help it. You, you’re different. I can toss you in the clink if you get annoying.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Then don’t annoy me. Now what is it you want to know?”

“Are you sure both mother and daughter are dead? Is that girl somewhere in the lake?”

“You don’t pull any punches, do you? I can’t be completely sure the girl’s dead, or even in the lake, but my gut says she is.”

“Are you sure it was murder?”

“Yep. That, there’s no doubt about. First, because the girl’s gone. If her mom had an accident, I could see her running off, scared, but she would’ve turned up by now. Besides that—and this is just between us…” His voice trailed off. “Maybe I shouldn’t say. Your buddy Inspector Fenrow told me you liked to blurt stuff out if it helped your investigation.”

Now I was hurt. How dare Jacob do that to his old buddy?

“Usually,” I said, “I only do that if I never promised to keep it secret.”

He caught the “usually”, and still looked suspicious. Finally, he sighed and said, “If you give me your word, I’ll accept it.”

“I promise not to tell anyone what you say.”

“Okay. The reason we know she was murdered was because, a) The knock on her head had wood fibers in it, like she was whacked with an oar or a bat or something like that. It wasn’t consistent with hitting her head on a passing rock; and b) There was a red ring around one ankle. Our guess is whoever killed her, tied a rock or something to her ankle, but the rope came unraveled, which is why she floated to the surface. I think the poor girl is still down there, that her rope was tied better.”

I shook my head. This was as bad as the case when I first met Eddie and Iggy, the one where the victim fancied little boys. The idea of that little girl, tied down and drowning…It made me go batty in my belly. I had to move on.

“Any suspects?”

“Plenty of suspects, but nobody with a motive.”

“Like who?”

“Well, of course, anyone around the lake could’ve done it. The problem is, like I said, motive. The cottagers barely knew Susan Tillman, let alone want to kill her.”

“A wandering killer?”

“You mean a crazy guy? We thought of that, but there was just no evidence. It had rained between the time the Tillmans were last seen and the time we think Susan was killed, and there were no tire tracks leading up to the house, no footprints that didn’t belong…It’s a devil of a case.” After a moment, he added, “There is Crazy Annie, but we dismissed her, too.”

“Crazy Annie?”

“Annie McGee. Lives almost directly across the lake from you. She has a cabin and a small outbuilding, and we searched the place with no luck. Not that I really thought she’d done anything.”

“Tell me about her.”

“Ah, not much to tell. Annie’s lived here for ages. Probably born here, but no one knows for sure. She’s maybe sixty, maybe a hundred and sixty…who knows? Anyhow, she brews questionable ‘medicines’ and carves things out of wood she finds, and there are a couple shops in town that sell them, which is how she makes a go of it. They call her Crazy Annie because she’s a little…off, you know? But I learned a long time ago, she’s harmless. And not as dim as she tries to pretend. There was a third shopkeeper who wanted to sell her stuff, and tried to cheat her. Thought she’d make an easy target. Not so: Annie caught him in a lie and threatened to take him to court to get her money. Yep, Annie’s no dumb cluck. Just different.”

I knew I just had to meet Crazy Annie.

“Anything else?” the sheriff asked.

I told him no, at least not for now. He wished me luck in a tone that suggested I had no chance at all. We shook hands and he left.

That night, I pondered my next move, and decided maybe the best idea was to look up Susan’s parents. I should’ve asked Sheriff Ellert where they lived, but it turned out there was no shortage of people who could help on that score. Everyone in town knew where the Tillmans lived.

It was just outside of town, about three miles, in a large, sprawling house, the kind that’s too large to fit in a city. I found the place without a problem and drove in. No locked gate. I liked that. I knocked at the front door. In a minute, a weary-looking lady, around fifty, with pearls and a print dress answered. We exchanged introductions, and she ushered me into their huge living room. Mrs. Tillman was polite and asked what I wanted.

“This is impertinent,” I began, “and you can toss me out on my ear if you want, but I wanted to ask about your daughter and granddaughter.”

I expected tears, or outrage, or at the least a chill. All I got was a wan smile as she lit a cigarette. She didn’t offer one to me, which I would’ve turned down anyhow as I don’t smoke. Then she said:

“Now why would you ask about Susan and Louise after all this time?”

Briefly, I explained what I did for a living, and what had put me onto the case.

“We’re not in the market for a private investigator,” she said flatly.

“And I’m not in the market for a client. On vacation, like I said. Just curiosity, really.”

She stubbed out the cigarette far too soon. “My husband and I have had enough curious people poking around.”

“I understand completely. Like I said, you can tell me to take a powder any time. I’m interested because I think it’s a crying shame what happened to your daughter and her child, and I’ve got a bad habit of sticking my nose in where it’s not invited. I plan to look into the tragedy on my own, but you sure could help me if you’d answer a few questions. Where is Mr. Tillman, by the way?”

“He’s at work. He owns Tillman Enterprises. How do I know you’re not some shyster, looking around for the fun of it?”

“I can give you the number of a police inspector who’ll tell you I’m on the up and up. Don’t call before two, though; he gets cranky before lunch.”

She smiled, more genuine this time.

“What do you want to know?” she asked.

“First, tell me about your daughter.”

“It seemed,” she said in a tone that told me she’d related this before, “that Susan led two different lives. When she was young, in her teens, she was impossible. I cannot tell you how many arguments we had. Her father told her to leave more than once, and I always defended her, said she couldn’t go out on her own. Yet, Susan never was grateful. In fact, I think she resented my interference, that she wouldn’t have minded being out on her own.

“Many nights, Susan would stay out late. She could get into speakeasies and such, because she looked older than sixteen or seventeen. She met a boy—John, or something—and started getting serious about him. I asked if they were being…careful, and she laughed. Called me naive.”

“All kids think they know more than their parents,” I said.

“Do you have children, Mr. Delancey?”

“No. I’m speaking as a former know-it-all kid, myself.”

“Well, to go on, one night I was seated…right here, as a matter of fact, reading a book, and Susan came home. This was unusual, as it was only ten o’clock or so. She came into this room, and I expected some drunken outburst; instead, she ran to me, knelt by my chair, and began to cry. I asked what the matter was, and she said she was having a baby, and John wanted nothing to do with it. She was frightened.”

“Natural.”

“For most people, yes, but for Susan, it was a revelation. I overcame my surprise, and took her in my arms and hugged her tight. I told her not to worry about John, that she would always have a home with us.”

“How did your husband take the news?”

“Oh, Andrew was beside himself! Not angry at Susan, but John. He wanted to knock his block off. Demanded to know where he could find the rascal. But Susan claimed she didn’t know, that she knew very little about his background. Not where he lived or worked, or anything.”

“That seems strange. Did you believe her?”

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

“I meant no offense.”

“None taken,” she said with a strained smile. “At any rate, she was a different girl after that night. She determined to keep the baby, and while we weren’t thrilled with that decision, all it took was one look at the baby for Andrew and I to melt. We loved our grandchild, and so did Susan.”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that John would be the likely person to kill Susan. Did the police go after him?”

“I don’t know why you’d suspect him, Mr. Delancey. He’d had his bit of fun, and we never, ever, tried to make him pay. It seems to me, he got off scot free.”

“True enough. Did the police look for him, anyway?”

“They did, but there wasn’t a clue as to where he was, at first. Then, one day—about three weeks after the murder—we received a card from John. You look as surprised as we were. The postmark was Dallas, Texas, and he apologized for not writing sooner, but he’d just heard of Susan’s death. You’d have thought it was from a long-lost uncle! Not one word about their break-up, or the child, or apologizing for leaving our girl. It was stunning, the gall of that man!”

“Did you show the letter to the cops?”

“No. Clearly, he’d had nothing to do with the murder—“

“But he might have! It was three weeks later. He could’ve killed Susan and run off!”

“We…we never thought of that. I suppose we should show the letter to the sheriff now?”

“Yeah, though I don’t think anything ‘ll come from it. He could be long gone. Maybe posted the letter, then ran off somewhere else. But, yeah, show it to the sheriff.”

“I’m sorry. Anything else you wish to ask?”

“Just one more thing, if you don’t mind. Tell me about the time at the cottage. Did you visit her? Did she seem happy?”

“Susan always loved the water. We have a cabin on Lake Renner, up north, but she didn’t want to go there. So we paid for her rental on Mumbles Lake, and she seemed happy with it. We didn’t visit, though we’d planned to, on that Friday. Andrew would take a long weekend from work and we’d come over. But I did see Susan and Louise on Tuesday, the day of that party they went to. She seemed very excited to go, and was very happy. Louise, too, though I could tell the cottage they were in wasn’t to her liking. Louise was always a very neat child, and I think their cottage was a bit too rustic for her taste. Still, she liked to sit on the dock and dangle her feet in the water, and such.”

“Well,” I said, standing, “thanks very much for your time, Mrs. Tillman. I don’t know if I’ll be able to help, but I’m going to try.”

“At the time,” she said, as we headed for the door, “there was a sizable reward Andrew posted to capture Susan’s killer. I’m sure he could be persuaded to reinstate that reward, if you succeed.”

“Thanks. I won’t say the money would be unwelcome, but I’m really doing this for myself, and that little girl. By the way,” I said as she opened the door for me, “what do you think happened to Louise?”

“I have no doubt she’s at the bottom of Mumbles Lake.” She said it flatly, and cold.

I thanked her again, and headed out into the hot August afternoon.

 

Next day, I started off to the west, along the lakeshore. The next cabin to mine was empty, so I went to the next, which belonged to Senator Jacobs and his family. Audrey seemed surprised to see me, but was gracious, and invited me in. I declined the offer for iced tea (what the hell was that, anyway? I’d never heard of it, but it looked awful). We sat in her cool, breezy kitchen.

“Is your husband home?” I asked.

“No, he and Trudy went into town. Needed some charcoal for the grill, and a few other things.”

“Mrs. Jacobs—“

“Audrey, please. We’re all friends here.”

“Okay, Audrey. You know I’m a private detective. Well, some interested parties have given me the go-ahead to investigate the murder of Susan Tillman, and the disappearance of her daughter.”

“Oh, dear. That again.”

“Yes, that again.” I was a little snippy. I understand completely that people get fed up with being asked questions. Plenty of people get annoyed at me for prying. But this wasn’t prying, damn it.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “I don’t have much to add to what you’ve already heard, Tom. I don’t know what happened to those two, and who would wish them harm. I wish I could help you.”

“Lots of people make the same mistake you’re making,” I said. “They think that I want hard evidence, that maybe you saw someone arguing with Susan, or threatening to kill her. Hardly anyone ever says ‘I’ll kill you’, then goes ahead and does it. If nothing else, it would be really stupid.”

“Then what do you want from me?”

“Impressions. What I mean is, sometimes people get an impression of the victim. Maybe she was nervous about something? Maybe you thought she was angry, or sad?”

Audrey didn’t even try. She just shook her head and said, “I can’t think of anything.”

I sighed, which I hoped she’d take in the spirit of frustration I intended.

“Fine. Well, thanks anyway, Audrey.”

As I was getting up to go, she stopped me with a hand on my forearm.

“Please don’t think I’m cold, Tom. I have a daughter, myself. It’s just that, well, I’ve tried to put that horrible episode behind me. Out of sight, out of mind, you know.” She smiled.

“Yeah, well, the Tillmans can’t do that.”

I left without another word.

My next stop was the Botweiler’s. Jimmy, the banker, and his crabby wife, Helen, were both home, and received me with some hesitance, but they were polite, and Jimmy offered me some beer, which I accepted. The beer was cold, and that was about all, but in these days of Prohibition, beggars can’t be choosers. I explained why I was there, and they looked at each other nervously, but promised to help.

“I don’t know how much assistance we can give you,” said Jimmy. “I helped bring the poor woman’s body to shore, but I only spoke to her briefly at the party.”

“How about you, Mrs. Botweiler? Did you speak to Susan or Louise?”

“Not at all. The girl may have come from money, but you couldn’t tell it. She was common, and her daughter not much better. I sensed Louise grew weary of her mother’s joking about—“

“Hang on. Susan Tillman was a joker?”

“So I understood. She was laughing with you, Jimmy, was she not?”

Jimmy shrugged. “I told her a little joke I’d heard at work. I’m not much for small talk, Mr. Delancey, so I sometimes use a quip to get the conversation started. Susan seemed to like it.”

“Understandable. But that’s a far cry from Susan ‘joking about’, Mrs. Botweiler. Did you hear her kidding with other guests at the party?”

“Well, no. I just…well, I just thought that if she was laughing with my husband, she must enjoy a joke. And her daughter was not pleased. She was rather impatient, in fact.”

“Did you sense that mother and daughter didn’t get along?”

“No, I wouldn’t go that far. But you know how children can be: Always embarrassed by their parents.”

“Do you have children of your own?”

“No,” Helen said, and there was a touch of frost in her tone, so I left it. Clearly, I figured, she couldn’t have children, or Jimmy couldn’t produce, and it was a sore spot.

So I thanked them and moved on.

Next up were the Cranshaws: Willy, the insurance salesman, Susan, and Billy. Willy was off to work, so I had a nice chat with his wife and son.

Unlike the tightly-wound Botweilers, the Cranshaws were darned nice people. Billy was a good boy, who liked airplanes and had models of them in his room, which he showed me with pride; Susan Cranshaw offered lemonade (which had more punch to it than Botweiler’s beer) and was very open about Susan and Louse Tillman.

“I never spoke to the daughter,” she said, “but I had quite a nice chat with Susan Tillman.”

“And how did she seem? Nervous? Angry? Happy?”

“I’d say she was happy…” She thought a bit. “Yes. Definitely happy. Of course, it was later in the evening, so maybe she’d had a few drinks, but I don’t think so. She just seemed pleased where she was in life, despite having a child and no husband. It didn’t seem to bother her at all, as it would some.”

“What did you think of her decision to keep her baby?”

Susan Cranshaw looked a bit worriedly at her son, who was within earshot but not paying much attention.

“Oh, I’m a live and let live sort of person, Tom. She and Louise seemed quite happy, so who am I to judge them wrong?”

“And the daughter. I know you didn’t speak, but could you tell if she was happy?”

“Louise seemed a bit moody that night, but overall, I think she was.”

I thanked them and moved on.

Melvin, the car salesman, and his wife Virginia, weren’t home when I knocked, or else they were hiding behind the curtains. Regardless, I went on to the last people from the party, Fred and Melinda Post. Fred owns the grocery stores, you may remember.

They were out in the yard, sitting in lounge chairs and taking in the sun. This was not the best idea, because Fred already looked like a pomegranate and Melinda was only a shade lighter. Still, they welcomed me and we went inside, took me to a comfortable living room, and sat. They took of their sunglasses and looked like a couple raccoons.

Appearances aside, I found them to be friendly and eager to help, just as Fred had stepped in to tell the story the day before. So I was surprised when Fred told me:

“Not to speak ill of the dead, but I didn’t much care for mother or daughter. I didn’t say anything in front of the others, because I think some of them took a shine to them—especially Jimmy Botweiler—but I found Susan Tillman a bit timid, and Louise, rather stuck-up.”

“Fred!” Melinda cautioned. She was a quiet woman, and this was quite the outburst for her.

“I’m sorry, dear, but Tom, here, wants us to be honest, I’m sure. Anyway, Not liking someone isn’t quite the same as wanting to kill them, is it, Tom?”

“Not at all,” I said. “I’ve known people who loved their spouse, yet wanted to take the kitchen knife to them.”

Fred chuckled; Melinda blanched.

“All kidding aside,” I said, “you’re right, Fred. There’s a big leap from not taking a shine to someone, and wanting them dead. What did you think of them, Melinda?”

“Oh, they were fine. I don’t believe Susan and I would’ve become best friends, but I certainly got along all right with her. Louise, I didn’t speak to at all, except to say hello.”

“Fred, you mentioned Jimmy Botweiler. Did Jimmy take a liking to Susan, do you think?”

“That would probably be an exaggeration,” Fred said thoughtfully. “For a banker, Jimmy has always been a very personable man. A bit grouchy at times, but easygoing. So he took it upon himself, I think, to chat with Susan so she wouldn’t be just sitting there, alone. I wasn’t near enough to hear what they talked about, but it seemed very light, very friendly, and a couple times, I did hear Susan Tillman laugh. She had a rather low, throaty laugh, for someone with her high voice.”

Melinda frowned. “You seem to have kept quite an eye on Susan,” she said coolly.

“Now, dear. Firstly, it wasn’t that large of a party. Secondly, I only glanced over a few times, as I did with everyone else at the party.” To me: “As a grocer, I have to keep an eye on young people who might make off with things, and it’s hard to break that habit when I’m away from work.” He smiled. “A bit like you, pursuing a murder case on your week off.”

I had to hand it to him, he was right.

Since the Posts, especially Fred, were open with me, I felt comfortable enough to ask:

“Any idea who would’ve killed Susan, then?”

“Not a clue,” Fred said, and Melinda seconded that. “We just didn’t know her well enough.”

“What about Crazy Annie?”

“Annie?”

Melinda cut in now. “That woman is unkempt, and a bit scary, Tom. But I never felt unsafe around her.”

“I agree,” Fred said.

“Do either of you have contact with Annie?”

“Only when I’m in town,” Melinda said. “If I have shopping to do, I sometimes see her at the market, but not often. She mostly keeps herself to herself, and only comes to town when she has some of her things to sell.”

“Are those things any good?”

“Actually, they aren’t bad. She has skill, in carving and such. I wouldn’t know about the medicinal items she sells. If you ask me, those things should be looked into by the government.”

“Now, Melinda,” said her husband. To me: “I think her cure-alls are simply quackery. I don’t believe any of them would actually harm a person.”

“So nothing that, say, Susan Tillman might’ve taken, would’ve made her dizzy?”

“Oh, I see what you’re getting at. That she might’ve tumbled from the pier or the rowboat. I never thought of that.”

“Well, it’s only a possibility. Quite honestly, I agree with the sheriff, that she was murdered, but I like to keep all possibilities open.”

“You’re very smart,” Melinda said.

“Only about some things,” I replied with a smile. “Do you think Annie would allow me onto her land?”

“Oh, she might,” Fred said. “Especially if you want to buy something from her. She sells out of her home, which of course, is more profit for her. But people don’t like to go there, for rather obvious reasons. So if you go, prepare to buy something from her, and she’ll be fine.”

“Thanks for the tip. Just one more thing, then. Can you point out her cabin to me?”

Fred and I stood, and walked to the window. He had a pair of binoculars handy.

“Sometimes we get exotic birds on the lake,” he explained. Then he looked out and handed the binoculars to me, and pointed. “Those two buildings over there. The larger is the house; the smaller is her workshop and storage shed, where she makes the wood carvings she sells. The big pot in her yard is where she brews her elixirs.”

I looked around for a bit, to get my bearings, focused the binoculars, and found the place. It was ramshackle, and not a bit pleasant. Still, I knew that had to be my next stop.

I thanked the Posts and headed for my cottage, thinking.

I’d received only traces of information, nothing solid enough to hang onto. Like Sherlock Holmes’ threads. And just like his threads, I would see all but one break.

 

That afternoon, I hauled the rowboat to the water, stuck the oars in, and began to row across the lake.

Funny how certain muscles don’t get used. I mean, I’m in pretty good shape, because I’m walking a lot, and I don’t have the money to buy fancy meals. I also try to exercise a bit, to keep fit. But my shoulders were definitely not pleased when I began to row. They started to ache terribly, and when I looked around to see how far I’d come, you could’ve knocked me over: Barely halfway. So I sucked it up and rowed some more.

As I rowed, I couldn’t help but think of the possibility that the dead girl, Louise, was sunk just below me. Beulah likes to tease me that I don’t have much imagination, but really, it’s just that I don’t much care for the crazy novels she likes to read, the ones by H. Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer. I have my pulp detective, Jake Sharpe, but even his adventures have started to get a little weird for my tastes. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have an imagination, and I really felt like Louise Tillman was watching me from beyond the grave.

I arrived at Annie’s pier, and was just tying up the boat when, of all things, an arrow zipped through the air and landed with a thunk in the planks near my feet. I looked up, ready to do anything from diving into the water to charging at the shooter.

Standing about twenty feet away was a woman, about five feet tall, dressed in layers of flimsy clothes, thick black hair disheveled, with a gleam in her eye and a bow in one hand.

“Clear off!” she shouted. “Or the next arrow is aimed a little higher. An’ I can pick a crow out of a tree from twice this range.”

“I believe you,” I called back. Now, I had really intended to use Fred Post’s advice and offer to buy something from Annie, to smooth my way in. But I always prefer the direct approach, and besides, if I came back to the office with an oak branch carved into an elk, I’d never hear the end of it from Beulah. She liked to collect these little porcelain figurines, and currently had a crocodile on her desk. So, to Annie, I called:

“I’m here about Susan and Louise Tillman.”

That made Annie pause. She looked like I’d whacked her with a rock. She lowered her bow, and didn’t object when I advanced. By the time I’d reached her, the gleam was back in her eyes, but Annie didn’t look ready to kill me.

“What makes you think I know anything about them two?” she wanted to know. It was a silly question on her part, because she said it in such a way that made it clear she knew something.

“Now come on, Annie. I’m no cop. My name’s Tom Delancey, and I’m a private investigator, looking into their deaths.”

Annie gave me an odd look then. I couldn’t read it at first, because she had such an odd expression all the time. Later on, it made sense, but not then.

“I don’t know how much I can help you,” she said.

“Mind if I come in to talk?”

At first, Annie looked like she’d say no, but then she jerked her head toward the cabin and I followed her inside.

The cabin really wasn’t bad inside. I was expecting a pig sty, or at best a jumble. Instead, the place was orderly. There were lots of things around, of course, mostly her carvings, but they were neatly arranged on shelves and I had no trouble finding a place to sit.

“Anything to drink?” she asked.

“No thanks. I don’t mean to bother you for very long, Miss McGee, but—“

“Annie. No one calls me Miss McGee.”

“Fine, Annie. I know you’re a longtime resident of the lakefront, Annie, and I also know you don’t come and go like a lot of folks, who head into town or back to their homes. You watch people. You see and hear things.”

“The sheriff was here already, asking about them two.”

Annie was sharp, but she was no good at dodging uncomfortable questions or statements. Or at least that’s what I thought.

“I know, and I’m not accusing you of anything. Sheriff Ellert doesn’t suspect you, and neither do I.”

She snorted. “Tell them others around here. You should see the looks some of ‘em give me when I go into town.”

“Yes, I know some suspect you. But the sheriff cleared you. I suppose he asked lots of questions.”

“Nah. He and a deputy did come by, and asked me some, but then they left. Ellert knows I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Did Susan and Louise come around here at all?”

“Here? No. Why would they?”

“I don’t know. I just wondered. So—the night Susan Tillman was killed, did you see or hear anything?”

She paused, which is always a mistake. It’s a big boo-boo to either wait too long to answer, or answer too fast: If you’re being honest, you hear the question, digest what’s being asked, then answer. It’s hard to do for most folks. That’s what makes the professional liars, like politicians, so good at their jobs.

“No,” she said.

“Now come on, Annie. You’re an honest gal. Tell me what you saw and heard.”

She glared at me a little, then sighed. “I heard a boat. It was near two in the morning, and no one is out on the lake then.”

“Was it a motor boat?”

“Nah. That really would’ve woke the neighbors. It was just a rowboat, but I could hear the splashing of oars when they hit the water, and the clunking as they turned in the oar-locks. I was sleeping with the window open, because it was a warm night.”

“Then what happened?”

“There were two splashes.”

There was more, I could tell, but she didn’t seem willing to tell me, so I shifted the subject slightly.

“Did you tell this to the sheriff?”

“Nope. He asked if I’d seen or heard anything, and took me at my word, which is more ’n I can say for some people.”

She gave me the evil eye again, but I didn’t care. I just asked her what happened next.

“Well,” she said slowly, “the rower didn’t wait. He just started off again and pretty soon was out of earshot.”

“You said ‘he’. Do you know it was a man?”

“Pretty sure. The rowing was strong.”

“Great work, Annie. You’d make a good detective.”

“And give up all this?” she asked sarcastically.

I had to chuckle at that. Now here is where I almost blew the whole thing. I got up, and idly asked if she’d heard anything more, and she said no, and I was making my way out the door when something didn’t feel quite right. Whenever one of those nagging feelings gets to me, I stall.

“You’ve got a nice place here. When did you buy it?”

“Always had it. My dad lived here with me. Mother died when I was young. So when my father died, I got it. Wouldn’t be able to afford it now: Damn rich people have bought up all the property and made it impossible for normal people to afford it.”

“It is a nice place,” I repeated. “Upstairs bedrooms, I assume. Utility shed. Lots of room.”

“You talking, or buying?” she asked.

I laughed again. “Just babbling. Well, thanks for your time, Annie. And you know what?” I stopped at near the door, in her kitchen. There was a tiny carved elephant, of all things. It was out of place amongst the carved beavers and moose. “I kind of like this. How much?”

“It’s not for sale.”

“No?”

“No. I’ve only carved one, and I’ve taken a shine to it. You can buy any other carving.”

“Rats. I’d sort of had my heart set on the elephant. Would you do another, for me?”

“I suppose so.”

I handed her a card. “You can send it here.”

“Hang on. Seven bucks.”

“Seven! Oh, what the hell. I like it.” I paid her the seven, which was probably stupid, I told myself later, but you know, Annie seemed like an honest gal. So I paid it and she promised to have the carving for me in a week or so.

I rowed back, trying to think of any way around this. Something just didn’t seem right.

All that day, I pondered. Next day, I pondered. I drove into town to actually eat a decent breakfast at a restaurant, then stopped in the grocery store, still pondering.

At the store, I ran into Virginia West, the wife of Melvin the car salesman, whom I’d been unable to see the day before. She was polite, and said she’d be happy to answer questions, but at their cabin, of course, not in public. I arranged to be there right after lunch.

I pondered some more that morning, then drove over to the West’s cabin. I drove because it had started to rain. Virginia answered and invited me in.

Theirs was the nicest place so far, even better than the Jacobs’ cabin. Really a small house rather than a cottage. We sat in her living room.

“My husband is working, but I’ll gladly answer any questions I can.”

“Tell me about the people around here,” I said. My pondering had changed the approach I would take.

She looked surprised and asked, “What do you want to know?”

“Oh, anything. Are they nice? Do you all get along? I know you have parties, but that doesn’t mean anything: Some of the strongest enemies I know still share cocktails.”

She laughed. A nice laugh.

“That’s very true, Tom. I can assure you, we all get along pretty well. Oh, I don’t say that Edgar isn’t a little snooty, and Helen Botweiler is a crab. But that just means we’re not best friends; I wouldn’t say I dislike them.”

“Tell me about Annie McGee.”

Virginia’s smile vanished, and she frowned. “Crazy Annie? What’s to tell? Do you think she killed Susan and Louise?”

“I’m asking you.”

She didn’t take kindly to my retort, but let it pass.

“I’ve had very little contact with Annie. She believes in quack cures, and I can’t hold with that. People can die from—“ She stopped herself.

“Sounds like you speak from experience,” I said softly.

“I do…Melvin and I had a baby boy…a nice little boy…he was three when he started crying so much we brought him to the doctor. The long and short of it is, he had cancer of the brain.”

“Wow. I am sorry, Virginia.”

She nodded her thanks. “Melvin wanted to operate, but the doctors said there’d be almost no chance. Bobby—our son—might not even survive the surgery. Then I met a fellow named Simms, who claimed he had an elixir that would destroy the tumor. All Bobby had to do was drink it. I paid him five hundred dollars.”

I whistled.

“I know,” she said, “but I was desperate. When Melvin found out, he hit the ceiling. We argued. I wanted to know what we had to lose. Finally, he agreed, and I gave Bobby the medicine. He died in agony.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. She wasn’t crying, because I think she’d shed all the tears she had for him.

“The police,” she went on, “ wanted to know what had happened, and for awhile, it looked like I might be brought up on charges. Our doctor, who was miffed at me for having gone behind his back, nonetheless told the police that Bobby never had a chance anyway. So the matter was dropped. But I’ll never forget the look of pain on my son’s face, and all the while I was thinking, the pain showed the elixir was working…”

“So you don’t think much of Annie.” I wanted to change the subject, badly.

“No, I don’t. But I don’t think she killed that woman and her daughter. As long as she’s just dispensing drugs for acne or dandruff, I won’t say a word.”

“Do you have a theory, then, of what happened to Susan and Louise?”

“No. It was such a terrible thing, I didn’t do any pondering about it.”

“And your husband? Did he drop it, too?”

“He did, for my sake, I think. Melvin likes to read all the lurid stories in the newspaper, so I think he was interested, but kept mum.”

I thanked her and headed out. I wanted to catch Melvin at work, to see if he could spare a few minutes.

Lucky Ed’s Auto Emporium was in town, a small establishment with a half dozen shiny cars parked in the lot and three more in the showroom. He greeted me like a long-lost buddy, shook my hand, and only skipped a beat when I told him I wasn’t there to look at cars. His smile returned when I said I was looking into the Tillman case. He invited me into his office and we sat.

“Your wife said you like to read about such cases in the newspaper,” I said.

“I do. That doesn’t make me a ghoul,” he added quickly.

“Hey, you’re talking to a guy who investigates such things for a living.”

He smiled again. 

“So,” I said, “what do you think of this? Who killed Susan Tillman? What happened to Louise?”

“The second question is easier than the first,” he said. “I don’t think Louise is at the bottom of Mumbles Lake. She has been abducted, and sold into white slavery. Susan tried to stop it, and was killed.”

“But why go to the trouble of dropping Susan in the lake? Why not leave her wherever she was killed?”

“Simple. The killer wanted us to think Louise was dead, too, so they wouldn’t come looking for her.”

“Pretty devious.”

“They are,” he nodded. “I’ve read a lot about them.”

“So Louise is…?”

“A long way away. Maybe out of the country.”

“I wonder how the white slavers found out about Susan and Louise. I mean, the lake is pretty out of the way.”

He nodded again. “Exactly what they’re after. These slavers, you see, are on the lookout for young girls. At the lake, there are always newcomers, people renting cottages, and of course, what do you do at the lake? Swim in bathing suits. They can judge then and there if the girl is right.”

The way he said it, so matter-of-fact, made me cold. I hope I never get that jaded about crime. Still, I kept my smile and asked if he had any proof.

“Not at all,” he said. “I just think the sheriff never looked into that angle.”

“I suppose not. One more quick question: Who owns a rowboat in your neighborhood?”

“A rowboat? Gee…not really anyone who also owns their cottage. All of us at the party, for instance, have powerboats of varying size. Rowboats tend to be more for the renters. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, it occurred to me that the killer would probably use a rowboat to dump Susan in the lake, instead of a motorboat, which makes so much noise.”

“Yes, you’re probably right.” He frowned, I think, because Mister I-Know-Crooks hadn’t thought of that. I wasn’t going to tell him what Annie heard. But I did ask him what he thought of her.

“Annie?” He blinked. “Oh, don’t get me started. Virginia can’t stand the woman. Her elixirs—“

“She told me about your son. I’m sorry.”

He nodded sadly. “As long as Virginia and Annie steer clear of each other, everything will be fine. And Annie does keep to herself. You know, sometimes at night I walk out onto our pier, for a pipe-smoke, you know? And there’ll be a light on in Annie’s bedroom—at least I assume it’s her bedroom, upstairs—and it all looks so nice and quaint, like any family home. Then daylight comes and it looks like a hurricane hit it.”

“Have you ever been to her house?”

“Once. When Bobby, our son, was two, I thought I’d have Annie carve something for him. Virginia had nothing against Annie then, of course. I went to the stores first, but didn’t see what Bobby would like, so I went to Annie’s house. I asked her to carve something special for me, and she agreed. By the time it was done, though, Bobby grew ill, and I never got back to her for the carving. Then, when the nightmare of the elixir came…well, I wasn’t about to go back for it. I wrote to her, thanked her, even enclosed a few dollars for her trouble, and told her to sell the carving to someone else.”

“What was it a carving of?”

Melvin smiled. “It was a little elephant.”

 

It was later in the day, and my arms were still sore from rowing, so I took the car to Annie’s this time. Something was up, and Annie was in the middle of it. So I drove over.

No one was around. I expected a shotgun welcome, at least, but all was quiet. Well, maybe she’d gone into town. I knocked at her door, anyway, and waited. Looked at the upstairs windows, for any signs of life. Another knock brought no response, so I tried the doorknob. That’s forward, I realize, but there was always the chance that Susan Tillman’s killer decided Annie was a liability.

It was locked up tight. Next I went to the work shed, and tried that door. It was open, and I peeked in, calling Annie’s name.

The place was deserted. A mess, but deserted. All around were hunks of wood, ready to be carved, shelves of carving tools, and other shelves that held bottles I assumed she used for her elixirs. No witch’s cauldron or eye of newt. There was something of interest, however:

A small carved wooden elephant.

Not the one I’d asked her to make, unless she was impossibly fast. This elephant was near complete. Next to the elephant were a tiny giraffe, a hippo, and a crocodile. All very nicely done. I thought about it a moment or two, then ducked back out and started for my car.

Now here’s a tip for all you aspiring detectives: When you start to leave, do a quick turn around. Sometimes, you can catch someone watching or following you. To be honest, nine times out of ten, I don’t catch anyone. This was the tenth time.

In the upstairs window, a furtive hand grabbed at the drape, to pull it shut, too late. I started back for the house. I took out my handy lock picks and opened the door in a flash, because the cottage wasn’t real secure. Inside, I found the stairs and went up. No need to call out: The person knew I was inside.

Still, I proceeded quietly, cautiously. Not because I was afraid of who was inside, but because I didn’t want to scare her.

She was seated on a bed, dressed neatly in homemade clothing, looking idly at her fingers. She didn’t look up when I entered.

“Hello, Louise,” I said softly.

That made her look up. Curious, not frightened. She had the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen.

“My name’s Tom Delancey. You can call me Delancey, if you’d like.”

Louise Tillman considered this for a bit, said nothing. There was a chair near the door, and I sat, not pulling any nearer.

“Your grandparents are worried about you,” I said.

Louise shook her head and finally spoke. “Not safe.”

“Your grandparents aren’t safe?”

She shook her head harder, like kids do when grown-ups just don’t get it.

“Not safe for me to be out there.”

“I would think you’d be safe in your grandparents’ home.”

“Annie says no.”

Speak of the devil, the door opened and closed below. Footsteps came hurrying up the stairs, and before long, Annie herself had joined us.

“You have no right to be here!” she cried, looking as wild-eyed as those who called her Crazy Annie would expect.

“So sue me. I don’t mean any harm, Annie. I just wanted to meet Louise in person.”

“She needs to stay here!”

“So she was saying. What I don’t get, exactly, is why. Care to fill me in?”

Annie looked defeated. I gave her my chair, since it was the only one in the room, and stood. Louise very politely patted the bed next to her, and I took her up on the offer.

“I didn’t tell you everything about that night,” Annie said quietly. “What happened, and what I think happened.”

“Go on.”

She sighed, and I asked if she wanted something strong to drink. Annie got cross at that, and said she never drank anything strong than tea. I apologized, but her little outburst seemed to have energized her.

“After that rowboat left, I ran out and looked. All I could see was the dark form of that rower—couldn’t make him out—and the boat. And then, the strangest thing: I saw a head bobbing up, then another. I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and I ran into the water, in my nightdress mind you, and went out after the two. They were spluttering and calling for help.

“I reached them, and saw it was a woman and a girl. The woman told me that neither could swim. I cursed myself for not bringing a float with me.”

“You couldn’t have known,” I said.

“Yeah, well, that won’t bring Susan Tillman back, will it?”

“So what happened?” I could guess, but wanted to keep her talking.

“I tried to pull the two of ‘em in to shore, but that was hopeless. Susan insisted I save her daughter. It was pretty clear that Susan knew a little bit how to swim, like a beginner, so I hoped—I prayed—she could stay up long enough. Louise, here, couldn’t swim a lick, and I had a devil of a time bringing her to shore. I got her to the beach, turned around…but Susan was gone.

“I swam out anyway, hoping to find her, but no luck. It was much too dark—no moon that night—to see where she was. I tried and I tried…”

“Take it easy, Annie. You did all you could.”

“I keep telling myself, I could’ve tried once more. Maybe I could’ve found her if I’d only tried once more. But I was getting tired, you know? These old bones don’t work as well as they used to.”

I didn’t say a word, she felt so bad. Finally, Annie went on.

“After I’d had a chance to rest, I carried Louise to my house. She was in a bad way, and you’ll tell me I should’ve called a doctor, but I didn’t. I’ve got remedies here. Besides, it was pretty clear that the one in the boat wanted mother and daughter dead. I didn’t know who to trust.”

Her talking of ‘the one in the boat’ brought me back to the case. I turned to Louise.

“Do you know who that was, in the boat?”

Louise shook her head and looked ready to cry. I patted her hand and told her it was okay.

“For a bit,” Annie went on, “Louise couldn’t remember anything. She was near to dying, and when she was awake, she couldn’t recall who she was, or anything. Fact is, I didn’t know who she was either, at first. Of course, when Sheriff Ellert came ‘round, asking about Susan Tillman and her little girl, I knew.”

“And the sheriff didn’t suspect Louise was here?”

“Nope,” she said proudly. “Ellert likes me, and trusts me. He never searched the house or anything. And I never told him, because I knew what people would say: I’d killed her mom and taken her prisoner. She’s no prisoner, and I’m protecting her.”

“So what the hell happened?”

“Don’t curse.”

“Sorry.”

“Right. The problem is, Louise doesn’t know. That was another reason I kept her here, safe. See, after I fished her out of the water, she didn’t remember hardly anything. She cried for her mom, but she couldn’t tell me her name, or where she was, or who her mom was, or anything. I couldn’t turn a poor thing like that over to the cops.”

“But Louise could’ve been put in the hospital. Had medical care.”

“And you think she didn’t get better care here? Look at her, Mr. Delancey. Does she look badly treated to you? Starving? Dirty?”

I looked at Louise, and the answer was no on all counts. Louise looked happy—or as happy as a girl could, having lost her mother—and certainly healthy. Before I could answer, Annie said:

“She don’t, does she? I’d never ill-treat a little girl. But here’s what I think happened that night.” She shot a look at Louise, but if the girl was paying attention, she didn’t say so. “Louise, honey, why don’t you go downstairs and play?”

Louise obeyed.

“What I think happened,” said Annie, “was this. That killer tied weights to both Tillmans’ ankles. They were both unconscious. But Susan woke up. Maybe when she hit the water, maybe before. Anyhow, she untied the weight around herself, then untied her daughter, who was sinking like a stone, of course. Susan knew just enough swimming to get them both to the surface. By that time, the killer had got clean away, and, you know the rest.”

“He must’ve been a fast rower.”

“Actually, the more I think on that night, the more I think he had one of those little engines. You know, the small ones that putt-putt along. ‘Cause you’re right: He couldn’t have rowed that fast.”

“Which means he didn’t use the boat at the Tillman’s cottage, because I’m staying there, and I can tell you it doesn’t have a motor.”

“Louise has retrieved most of her memory, but not of that night. She has no idea who killed her mother.”

I thought about it a bit.

“So,” Annie said after a while, “what’re you going to do, now that you know the little girl’s safe?”

That was one of the things I’d been thinking about.

“If you promise to return Louise to her grandparents after all this is over, I think we can leave her here now.”

Annie beamed.

“You think you can catch the killer, then?”

“I think I know a way, yes. And I’ve an idea who it might be.”

I laid out my plan. Have to admit, I was making it up as I went along, and Annie put in a couple of suggestions, some good, some bad. By the time we were finished, we had a good plan, and Annie was happy.

“I wasn’t sure about you at first,” she said as I got up to leave, “but you’re a good egg.”

“That’s one of the highest compliments I’ve ever had.”

“I can believe that,” she said.

She reminded me of Beulah just then.

 

I’ve read dozens of mysteries, and in some of them, the detective brings all the suspects together to name the murderer. That makes for good reading, but in reality, you can seldom get everyone to agree to it. This case was an exception. I spoke to Sheriff Ellert, asked if he could arrange it. He looked sour and demanded to know why, and I told him I was ready to name the killer of Susan Tillman. He was stunned.

“Who is it?” he asked.

“I’m not ready to say, yet. If you’ll get the whole gang together—at one of their cottages, if you can swing it—I’ll tell all then.”

Sheriff Ellert didn’t like it one bit. He threatened to throw me in the slammer if I didn’t tell him. Finally, I said:

“Look, sheriff. I know who killed Susan Tillman.” (Well, I sort of did) “But I have no proof. If I tell you, you might get the killer to confess, but if we do it my way, I’m pretty sure we will.”

That finally swayed him. Of course, then he wanted to know how I was going to get the confession, and I wouldn’t tell him that, either. So the upshot was, he very grudgingly agreed to arrange the whole thing.

The night after I’d been to Annie’s, then, we were gathered in the cottage of Edgar and Audrey Jacobs. Audrey played hostess, got drinks for whoever wanted them, but there was an air of “I don’t want to be here”. I watched everyone, hoping for confirmation of my suspicions, but the guy was too cagey for that. Everyone acted as you’d expect them to: Impatient and a little nervous.

“Thank you all for coming,” the sheriff said when everyone was settled.

“Did we have a choice?” Melvin West wanted to know.

“You did, though if you’d refused it would’ve looked bad.”

“Sheriff,” Edgar Jacobs said, “surely my daughter, and the Cranshaws’ son don’t have to be here.”

Ellert looked at me.

“Actually,” I said, “I’d like them to stay. I can assure you, I won’t be saying anything that would offend delicate ears.”

The senator shrugged and let me go on.

“Anyhow, I want to thank you, too, because I want to use this evening to reveal the murderer of Susan Tillman.”

There was a general buzz at that. Now I knew why those fictional detectives did it this way: It was pretty exciting.

“So you’re leading this gathering?” Jimmy Botweiler demanded.

“I am.”

It looked like Jimmy was ready to leave then, but snippy Helen held him back. Since he had a full drink glass, he stayed.

“To begin, then,” I said, “the key to this whole thing was motive. Why kill Susan Tillman? Had the killer taken Louise for white slavery?” Melvin West beamed at his theory being put out, until I said, “Nope. That was an interesting idea, but too often would-be detectives want to make these things more complicated than they are. The motive to this was plain and simple: Fear. Fear of exposure, in this case.

“The belief was, Louise’s father was some boyfriend of Susan’s, but I don’t think that’s so. I spoke to the boyfriend, John—“ This was a fib, but from what Mrs. Tillman had told me, I thought I could extrapolate “—and he didn’t even know he had a child.” Again, this was supposition on my part: If John knew he had a kid, he would’ve asked about her when he’d written his condolences to the family.

“So,” said Sheriff Ellert, “you’re saying the father was not that John fellow?”

“Nope, he wasn’t. Which opens the motive to the real father. What if, he was a man who had made his way in the world, had a wife, a successful career, and the last thing he wanted was a bastard—pardon my language, ladies, but that’s what she was—on his doorstep.”

“Are you suggesting,” said Senator Jacobs, “that the father was one of us?”

“I am, indeed. Now before you go all frothy at the mouth, stop and think about it, all of you: As far as anyone knows, Susan Tillman had no enemies. She was quiet—you all said so—and not very sociable. Then she comes to this area, stays a few days in a cabin, and is murdered. To make matters worse, she was alive when the killer chucked her in the lake, as was her daughter.”

Audrey Jacobs and Melinda Post each put their hands to their mouths. I suppose I should’ve been less blunt, but doggone it, they needed to know this was as disgusting a murder as I’d come across. Some of the husbands started to protest but I held up a hand and they stopped.

“Now, there’s no doubt all of you gentlemen had something to lose in reputation by having an illegitimate child. A senator, a banker, an insurance man, a car salesman, and an owner of grocery stores. All men of high society, all of you rich, all of you married. Then I got to thinking about something someone said about that party Susan and Louise were at, and that made me think that maybe he was the right man. It was no proof, but it was a step in the right direction.”

“So who was it?” the sheriff demanded. “What was your clue?”

“Just one more minute, Sheriff. I have a surprise witness.”

That was the cue. Annie walked in, alone, and almost everyone scoffed, though only two people looked relieved.

“This is your witness?” Jimmy Botweiler snorted. “Crazy Annie?”

I let them have their chuckle, because a good showman holds his best part for last. When they were nearly finished, I said:

“Actually, Annie is just caretaker of my witness. Annie?”

Annie motioned to the side hall, and a timid Louise Tillman walked in. I wish you could’ve seen their jaws drop. In particular, the reaction of two of them was enough to convince me I was right.

Sheriff Ellert gathered his wits first.

“Good God! The girl’s alive?”

“And well, thanks to Annie, here,” I said. “She rescued the girl, and has nursed her back to health.”

“But why the devil didn’t she say anything?”

“Later. For now, we have a murderer and accomplice to unmask.” I crouched next to the girl so I was looking up into her eyes. “Louise, I know who killed your mom and tried to kill you, and so do you, don’t you?”

I didn’t wait for her to answer. Instead, I turned to the Botweilers. “Do you want to confess now, or do you want to make this poor girl go through it all?”

Helen Botweiler folded her arms, but Jimmy’s lower lip trembled.

“Jimmy?” I asked. “Something to say?”

“Shut up, Jimmy,” said his wife.

I ignored her. “Come on, Jimmy. Hasn’t your little girl suffered enough? You gonna make her describe how you hit each of them over the head, how you tied weights to their ankles, loaded them onto your boat, and tossed them in the lake?”

I stood up straight, and said to the others, “He was quiet, rowing out with the Tillmans, but after he’d dumped them in the lake, he turned on the small motor, to get out of there as fast as possible.” I said all this, to show Jimmy I knew what had happened. I hoped he would think Louise had told me all this.

“What he couldn’t know,” I said, “was that Susan Tillman had awakened, and managed to untie the weight. Then she dove further down to rescue her daughter. They made it to the surface, and Annie, who heard the commotion, came to their aid. Unfortunately, she could only rescue Louise; Susan was too weak. She drowned. What about it, Jimmy? Time to come clean?”

To his credit, Jimmy Botweiler couldn’t take it anymore. His conscience broke him.

“Yes, it’s as you said. I met Susan Tillman at the bank, when I was a young teller. I had…higher goals, a future…and a fiancee.”

“Why’d you take up with Susan, then?” I asked.

“It wasn’t planned,” he said sadly, “or wanted. I just found her fascinating. But I loved—still love—Helen, and wanted to marry her.”

“Oh, stuff it,” Helen snapped. “You wanted Susan Tillman from the moment you met her. You just thought of the scandal if you broke off our engagement. And you knew I’d make the Tillmans pay.”

A delightful woman.

Jimmy ignored her. “Susan was understanding. She refused to tell who the father of her child was. Her family had enough money to provide for them. So she never told anyone. Helen knew, because I thought it was…” His voice trailed off, at a loss.

“Because,” said Helen, “you thought I’d let you off the hook so you could marry her.”

“But,” I put in, “you wouldn’t do that.”

“Of course not,” she said simply.

“Everything was going so well,” Jimmy said. “I saw Susan sometimes on the street, but we never spoke. Then she showed up here! I couldn’t believe it. What put you wise to the fact that we were somehow…connected, Tom?”

“It was just something simple,” I said. “I forget who it was, told me that you and Susan were talking, and she gave a low laugh. When some women are attracted to a man, their laugh gets deeper.”

“That’s it?” Helen cried.

“Sure,” I grinned. “At the time, I figured, well, maybe Susan thought Jimmy was handsome and she was laughing that way subconsciously. But when I was looking around for a different father for Louise, I remembered that.”

“He doesn’t have anything, then!” Helen said. “Just the word of a little girl! Let’s go, Jimmy. They can’t arrest us for anything.”

Then something happened that I’d hoped for, but hadn’t completely counted on: Louise Tillman stepped toward Jimmy and looked at him strangely, a strong look of recognition. She was hearing his voice, and was remembering at least part of that horrible night. Everyone went quiet, even Helen Botweiler, as the little girl walked up to Jimmy and looked into his eyes.

“What do you want?” he asked, but his voice trembled and he looked like he’d seen a ghost—as he had.

Louise couldn’t have done it any better if she’d been coached: She didn’t answer him, just stood staring at him, wide-eyed. Who knows how long we would’ve been there if I hadn’t taken it in my head to speak.

“I think the court would probably believe her, if she told the story.”

Jimmy cracked then. He staggered back to a sofa and collapsed onto it. Then the whole story came pouring out, essentially what I’d already told the group. When he began, Helen tried to interrupt, but Sheriff Ellert wouldn’t let her. As the story came out, she wilted, and by the time Jimmy had completely confessed to the murder of Susan Tillman and the attempted murder of Louise, Helen was sitting back, eyes closed, drained.

The party broke up soon after that. Sheriff Ellert had his men take Jimmy and Helen—who’d helped load the victims in their boat and tied the weight around their ankles—into custody. He and I stood on the back lawn of the Jacobs’ house, looking out over the beautiful lake. In the shallows, Annie and Louise were playing in the water. Sheriff Ellert had telephoned Louise’s grandparents, asking them to come to the Jacobs’ house, not telling them why.

“I should run her in,” said the sheriff, nodding at Annie.

“Aw, come on, Sheriff. The woman who saved Louise and nursed her back to health? No jury in the land would convict her.”

“I know, I know. But it gripes me that she flaunted the law. Lied to us. Hid that girl.”

“She thought she was protecting Louise.”

“Yeah, yeah. Well, if the Tillmans won’t press charges, then neither will I.”

The Tillmans drove up then. I walked back to my cottage, and even from that distance I could hear the happy cries of the grandparents.

It made me feel good.

 

Vacation was over. I was sitting in my warm, humid office, the fan blowing on me, as Beulah sat across the desk. I’d told her the whole story, and she whistled.

“A slick piece of work, Delancey,” she said. “What’s going to become of—“

She broke off, because there was a knock on the outer office door. She started to get up, but before she could, Sheriff Ellert stepped inside. I made the introductions. He took a chair next to Beulah.

“Well,” he said, “so this is where it all happens.”

“Oh, yes,” Beulah said. “This is where Delancey tosses cards into a hat, listens to the ball game—“

Ellert chuckled as I frowned at my assistant.

“I came,” he said, “for a few things. First, we’ve booked the Botweilers, as you’d expect: Jimmy for murder, Helen for being an accomplice. Just to boost the case, in addition to Jimmy’s confession, we found traces of blood in their boat, same type as Susan Tillman. The Botweilers have both pled guilty. Meantime, the Tillmans are so glad to have Louise back, and so grateful to Annie for her help, that they wouldn’t dream of pressing charges against Annie. Fact is, they’ve invested in her business of woodcarving and herbal remedies.”

“Invested!”

“Yup. For a small percentage of the profits, Annie can keep doing what she’s doing, and never have to worry about money, though I doubt she did, anyway. So long as she has a roof over her head and food on the table, Annie’s happy.”

“What about Delancey?” Beulah demanded. “He solved the darn case!”

Ellert grinned at me. “She sticks up for you.”

I shrugged.

“Anyhow,” the sheriff said, “I was coming to that. The Tillmans—who have started adoption proceedings for Louise, by the way—recognize your work, and have authorized me to give you this.”

He reached into his suit pocket and handed over a folded check. I opened it, whistled, and gave it to Beulah, who just smiled. As the bookkeeper of my establishment, she always smiles when I get paid, and when I get paid that much, her smile gets very, very big.

Sheriff Ellert stood, and I did likewise. We shook hands.

“Good working with you, Delancey,” he said. “Anytime you’re in my neighborhood, stop in say hello.”

“Will do.”

He started to leave, then reversed himself and came back to my desk.

“Almost forgot.” He reached into his coat pocket and drew out a small package, a box wrapped in tissue paper. “That’s for you, too.”

With that, Sheriff Ellert touched his hat brim to Beulah and exited.

I sat, and unwrapped the box. Beulah let out a little cry of delight.

It was a beautifully carved wooden elephant.

 


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