Fiends ssc, p.18
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       Fiends SSC, p.18

           Richard Laymon
 
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  ‘Did Oscar have a bum heart?’

  ‘He most certainly did by the time they saw it.’

  ‘Was an autopsy performed?’

  ‘Of course,’ she said.

  ‘No traces of poison were found?’

  ‘No, but I’ve discussed the matter with my physician and he assures me that there are several varieties of poison which might go undetected.’

  ‘He’s right,’ I told her.

  ‘Of course. He’s a doctor.’

  ‘Do you have any idea who might have…’

  ‘You wouldn’t have another one of those delicious sandwiches, would you?’ she interrupted.

  ‘Not on me,’ I said.

  ‘Then let’s discuss the rest of the details over lunch. I’m famished.’

  I was all for it. Not only was I starving, but this called for a celebration. I was two thousand one hundred dollars richer than I’d been ten minutes ago, and the case would be a cinch. All I had to do was go through the motions.

  Because Mabel Wingate was in no danger of being poisoned. Her late husband, Oscar, had been dropped by a faulty ticker, not Eggs Benedict. It was good enough for the cops; it was good enough for me.

  Shrinks probably have a name for Mabel’s condition - the way her mind turned things around to help her cope with the sudden shock of her Oscar’s death. I have a name for it, too - bananas. Mabel was bananas and rich.

  I stood to make out like a bandit.

  ‘Not a peep about this to the chauffeur,’ she warned as we left the building.

  ‘Yamamotos’s,’ Mabel told him.

  He started driving. ‘I’m not big on Japanese food,’ I said.

  ‘None the less, I am.’

  So Yamamoto’s it was. Mabel left Muffin in the limousine with Herbert the chauffeur, and we went in. ‘I just adore sushi,’ she said as we sat at a corner table.

  ‘Sushi? She the waitress?’

  ‘You have a lot to learn, Duke.’

  She ordered the same meal for both of us. When the waitress left, she started right in on the case. ‘One of my relatives,’ she said, ‘is obviously the villain. With Oscar out of the way, you see, the entire family fortune fell into my hands. Once I’m out of the way, they’ll inherit oodles.’

  ‘Who, exactly, will get the oodles?’ I asked.

  ‘According to the terms of our will, the wealth would be divided equally among our three children. We also provided handsome amounts for each of our servants.’

  ‘So you figure one of the kids poisoned Oscar?’

  ‘Or one of their spouses,’ Mabel said. ‘Or one of the servants. Or a combination.’

  ‘In other words, you suspect everyone.’

  She nodded.

  ‘So they all have a motive. But who had the opportunity? Who was present at the time of Oscar’s death?’

  ‘They all were. Wingate Manor is a rather large estate. All of our children live there with their spouses. The servants were also in the house that morning: Herbert the chauffeur, George the butler, Wanda the maid, Kirk the stable boy and, of course, Elsie the cook.’ I counted on my fingers. ‘That makes eleven suspects,’ I said. ‘Any grandchildren?’

  ‘Not one.’

  ‘Well, it makes a big bunch. Maybe we can narrow it down a little.’

  Before we could start narrowing it down, the food arrived. I stared at it. I wished I was back at Lou’s Deli. ‘What is this stuff?’ I asked.

  ‘Sushi, my dear.’

  ‘It looks like dead fish.’

  Mabel tittered.

  I put my nose close to the plate, and sniffed. The last time I’d smelled something like it, I was a kid in a rowboat trying to grab bait out of a minnow bucket. It was a hot day, and most of the minnows were belly up. ‘I’m not going to eat this,’ I said.

  ‘Oh, but you must. Until you catch the killer, you’ll need to act as my food taster.’

  ‘What are you getting at?’ I asked.

  ‘Eat,’ Mabel said.

  For three hundred dollars a day, I’ll eat anything. So I forked a critter, held my breath so I couldn’t smell it, and put it into my mouth. It tasted the way I was afraid it might taste.

  Mabel watched me chew. She hadn’t touched her food yet. I swallowed, and tried to wash the taste out of my mouth with water.

  Mabel kept watching.

  I got the picture. She was waiting to see if I’d keel over.

  ‘Oscar didn’t die in a restaurant,’ I said.

  ‘No,’ said Mabel. ‘But one can’t be too careful.’

  ‘Nobody’s going to sneak into the kitchen of a restaurant to poison you,’ I said.

  ‘One never knows.’ She pointed her fork at something on my plate that looked like an octopus tentacle.

  I ate one, and gagged.

  ‘Now that.’

  That looked harmless. It looked like a cake of crisp rice - sort of. But it tasted like something that had been left overnight in the cloudy old water from a goldfish bowl.

  Mabel watched me eagerly. I didn’t keel over, but I wanted to.

  ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Now we trade plates.’

  We traded, and she dug in. It made me feel sick, watching her stuff such junk into her mouth. I flagged down the waitress and ordered a double Scotch on the rocks.

  The Scotch helped. I drank, and tried not to look at Mabel.

  This job, I decided, was not turning out to be such a picnic.

  ***

  That’s how it started. After leaving Yamamoto’s Sushi Bar and Bait Shop, we took the limo to Wingate Manor. It was quite a snazzy joint.

  Mabel introduced me around as the son of an old school chum who was down on his luck and would be living in for the next week. The living in part came as a surprise, but I didn’t complain. After all, the place was like a luxury resort complete with pool, sauna, a tennis court, stables, and a television in every bedroom. No wonder the two daughters, the son and their assorted mates weren’t eager to move out.

  None of them struck me as killers. That came as no big surprise, since I’d already decided Mabel’s deck was short a few cards.

  At cocktail hour, we all sat around the pool. George the butler passed out drinks. I wanted Scotch, but I got a vodka gimlet - the same drink as Mabel. After I took a sip, she managed to switch glasses with me. She was quite artful about switching. I don’t think anyone caught on.

  George passed around a tray of snacks. Canapes, Mabel called them. Since I was the guest, she said, I should be first to help myself. I ate one. It was a miniature sandwich with liver inside. I’m not big on liver, but it sure beat sushi. I didn’t keel over. Mabel took one.

  Later, the rest of the clan headed into the dining room. I could smell a roast. My stomach grumbled. I had one foot in the dining room when Mabel grabbed my arm and stopped me.

  ‘Duke and I will be dining later,’ she told the others. ‘We have some matters to discuss.’

  She led me into the study. ‘I can’t let them see that I’ve hired a taster,’ she explained.

  ‘No,’ I muttered. ‘I guess not.’

  ‘They’d know I’m onto their game.’

  ‘Right,’ I said.

  Bananas.

  I could have used a few bananas, just then.

  Finally, the dining room was cleared. Our turn. The roast was cold, but it tasted great. Mabel watched and waited. I poured gravy over my mashed potatoes. I took a big bite. She raised her eyebrows. I sipped the red wine. I ate a yucky chunk of broccoli.

  We stared at each other.

  ‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.

  ‘Starved.’

  ‘You’re doing splendidly,’ she said. We traded plates and glasses.

  ***

  This went on for the next five days. Breakfast, lunch, cocktails and dinner, whether we were taking our meal at the estate or at a restaurant, I tested all the food and drinks first. Then we switched, and Mabel ate her fill. Except for one return trip to Yamamoto’s, it wasn’t half bad.
>
  I spent my days swimming, riding horses, and sometimes playing tennis with members of the clan. A certain son-in-law named Aaron showed a nasty streak on the courts. He liked to slam balls at my face. He was a doctor when he wasn’t hanging around the estate. If I had to pick a poisoner, it would have been him.

  But I didn’t have to pick.

  Nobody had any intention of poisoning Mabel. She didn’t need a private eye or a food taster. She needed a shrink.

  I knew that all along.

  ***

  On Friday afternoon, four hours after our second trip to Yamamoto’s, my stomach couldn’t hold out for the cocktail hour. I snuck into the kitchen. Elsie the cook wasn’t around. The snacks were ready. I took a loaded tray of canapes out of the refrigerator, set it on the counter, and picked up one of the tiny sandwiches. Muffin, who had grown very fond of my boots during the past few days, was busy gnawing at my ankle. I peeled open one of the snacks and sniffed it. Liver, yuck. I tossed it across the kitchen, and Muffin went scampering after it.

  The dog gobbled it down.

  Adios, Muffin.

  Muffin may or may not have been poisoned by the canape. Its ticker might’ve just chosen that moment to go on the fritz.

  Sure.

  I’m a trained investigator. I don’t believe in coincidences.

  Mabel wasn’t bananas, after all.

  In a way, that made me feel good. I’d grown fond of the old dame. I was glad to find out she wasn’t a loony.

  I returned the tray of poisoned snacks to the refrigerator. Then I stashed the mortal remains of Muffin in the pantry and went up to my room to fetch Slugger.

  Slugger is my.38 caliber snub-nosed revolver. I don’t have a permit to carry a concealed weapon (it got lifted after I dropped that client mentioned earlier), but I didn’t plan to go up against a killer without my equalizer, so I tucked Slugger under my belt. I pulled out my shirt-tail to keep him out of sight, and went outside to the pool.

  By five o’clock, the whole gang was there.

  ‘Has anyone seen Muffin?’ Mabel asked.

  Nobody had seen Muffin. That included me.

  George came out with a tray of cocktails. We took our glasses. I sipped. Mabel tried to sneak her usual switch, but I shook my head. ‘Not necessary,’ I whispered. She raised her eyebrows, then smiled.

  She looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot, then whispered, ‘Have you unearthed the killer?’

  George returned with the tray of poisoned appetizers.

  ‘Put them on the table,’ I ordered.

  ‘I’m to pass them, sir,’ he said.

  ‘Do as Duke says,’ Mabel told him.

  With a nod, George set the tray on the poolside table. ‘Now,’ I said, ‘go and bring out the other servants. Everyone.’ He left.

  Sally, the wife of Aaron the doctor, saw George depart without passing snacks. ‘What gives?’ she asked.

  ‘This gives,’ I answered, and pulled out Slugger.

  Everyone except Mabel started yelling at me. ‘See here!’ I heard. And, ‘Put that away!’ And, ‘He’s berserk!’ One of Mabel’s daughters covered her ears and shouted, ‘Oh oh oh, he’s going to murder us all!’

  ‘Quiet!’ Mabel called out. ‘Duke is a private detective whom I hired to protect me.’

  That shut them up. Some looked surprised, others confused, a few miffed. Aaron looked more miffed than anyone. I was glad he didn’t have a tennis racquet handy.

  ‘Line up,’ I commanded.

  They formed a line with their backs to the pool.

  ‘What is the meaning of this?’ Sally asked.

  ‘You’ll soon find out,’ I said.

  When the servants showed up, I made them stand in line with the rest of the gang.

  ‘Mabel,’ I said. ‘The tray.’

  She went to the table and hefted the tray.

  ‘One canape apiece,’ I told her.

  She walked slowly down the line of eleven suspects, making sure that each of them took one of the little sandwiches.

  ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘When I count to three, I want every one of you to eat your snack.’

  ‘This is ridiculous!’ snapped Sally.

  ‘Just a little test,’ I explained. I didn’t bother playing games with the count. I rattled off, ‘One two three.’

  They all ate.

  Except Aaron. He threw his canape at me.

  ‘You’re the poisoner!’ I shouted. I aimed Slugger at his snarling face. ‘Freeze!’

  Aaron froze.

  The other ten didn’t. They dropped. Some pitched onto the concrete. Some flopped into the pool.

  Mabel looked at me. ‘You idiot!’ she yelled.

  ‘Oh, boy,’ I muttered.

  In this game, some cases are tough. Some are a lead-pipe cinch. You win a few and you lose a few. You hope it all evens out in the end, but if it doesn’t… well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

  I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a sleuth, a snoop, a gumshoe. I’m the guy you call when the chips are down and your back’s to the wall. I’m Duke Scanlon, Private Eye.

  THE HUNT

  Still there. Still staring at her.

  Kim, seated on a plastic chair with her back to the wall, felt squirmy. Except for the door frame, the entire front of the laundromat was glass. The florescent lights overhead glared.

  To the man in the car outside, it must be like watching her on a drive-in movie screen.

  She wished she’d worn more clothes. But it was a hot night and very late, and she’d postponed doing her laundry until nearly every stitch in her apartment needed a wash. So she’d come here in sneakers, her old gym shorts from high school, and a T-shirt.

  Probably why the bastard’s staring at me, she thought. Enjoying the free show.

  No better than a Peeping Tom, the way he just sits there, gazing in.

  When Kim had first noticed him, she’d thought he was the husband of one of the other women. Waiting and bored, choosing to spend his time in the comfort of his car, maybe so he could listen to the radio - and ogle her from a discreet distance.

  Soon, however, two of the women left. The only one remaining was a husky middle-aged gal who kept complaining and giving orders to a fellow named Bill. The way Bill listened and obeyed, he had to be her husband.

  Kim didn’t think that the stranger in the car was waiting for them.

  They finished. They carried their baskets of clean clothes out to a station wagon, and drove off.

  Kim was the only woman left.

  The stranger stayed.

  Every time she glanced his way, she saw him staring back. She couldn’t actually see his eyes. They were masked in shadow. But she felt their steady gaze, felt them studying her.

  Though she was unable to see his eyes, enough light reached him from the laundromat to show his thick neck, his shaved head. His head looked like a block of granite. He had a heavy brow, knobby cheekbones, a broad nose, full lips that never moved, a massive jaw.

  Wouldn’t be so bad, Kim had thought, if he looked like some kind of wimp. I could handle that. But this guy looked as if he ate bayonets for breakfast.

  She’d wanted to move away from her chair near the front. Wait at the rear of the room. Hell, duck down out of sight behind the middle row of machines.

  But if she did that, he might come in.

  I’m all right as long as he stays in the car.

  I’m probably all right as long as Jock’s here.

  She didn’t know Jock’s name, but he was one. The big guy might even be a match for the stranger. He appeared to be a couple of years younger than Kim - maybe nineteen or twenty. He had so much muscle that he couldn’t touch his knees together if his life depended on it. Nor would his elbows ever rub against his sides. His sleeveless gray sweatshirt was cut off just below his chest. His red shorts were very much like Kim’s, but a lot larger. He wore them over sweatpants.

  She watched him, now, as he hopped down from one of the was
hers and strutted to a nearby machine. He thumbed a button. The door of the front-loading drier swung open. A white sock and a jockstrap fell to the floor.

  Kim’s stomach fluttered.

  He’s done.

  She forced herself not to glance out the window. She forced herself not to hurry. She tried to look casual as she rose from her chair and strolled toward the crouching athlete.

  ‘Hi,’ she said, stopping beside him.

  He looked up at her and smiled. ‘Hello.’

  ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could do me a favor.’

  ‘Yeah?’ His gaze slipped down Kim’s body. When it returned to her face, she knew he would be willing to help. ‘What sort of favor?’ he asked.

  ‘It’s nothing much, really. I just don’t want to be left alone in here. I was wondering if you could stick around for a few minutes and keep me company until my clothes are finished. They’re in the driers, now. It’ll just be about ten more minutes.’

  He raised his eyebrows. ‘That’s it?’

  ‘Well, if you could walk me out to my car when I’m done.’

  ‘No problem.’

  ‘Thanks. I really appreciate it.’

  He stuffed the rest of his laundry into a canvas bag and tied the cord at the top. Standing up, he smiled again. ‘My name’s Bradley.’

  ‘I’m Kim.’ She offered a hand, and he shook it. ‘I sure appreciate this.’

  ‘Like I told you, no problem.’

  Kim stepped to a washer across the aisle from him. He watched as she braced her hands on its edge and boosted herself up. Watched her breasts.

  Maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea asking him for help.

  Don’t worry, she told herself. He’s just a normal guy.

  She slumped forward slightly and cupped her knees to loosen the pull of the fabric across her chest.

  ‘You live near here?’ Bradley said.

  ‘Yeah, a few blocks. Are you a student?’

  ‘A sophomore. I live off-campus, though. I’ve got my own apartment. Do you come here often?’

  ‘As un-often as possible.’

  He laughed softly. ‘Know what you mean. Chores. I hate them.’

 
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