The large, mottled gray cat, Tombo by name, lay purring on Archer's chest. The great detective, with eyes closed, slouched back in his scuffed leather chair. His feet, crossed at the ankles, rested on the edge of the dark brown desk. He gently scratched behind Tombo's ears and tunelessly crooned to it, oblivious of the gentle breeze flowing through the open window that fluttered papers off the desk. The papers joined a baseball bat, three paper airplanes, and peanut shells strewn over an ancient Persian carpet.
Propelled by whatever awareness of change, the cat leaped off Archer's chest and dashed to a corner of the room. Archer's eyes popped open. Laughing great cackles, he sprang to his feet and danced a little dance. Grasping a yardstick, he clambered to the desktop and engaged in a duel with an invisible foe. Ignoring the papers, books, pens, and pencils that clattered to the floor, he thrust and parried in a wild farandole. Then, in grandiose drama, he lunged forward, ran the yardstick through his mock enemy, shouting, "Aha, varlet!" Panting slightly, he laughed again, then murmured, "Enough. To work."
His tall, angular frame took him almost to the ceiling. Carefully he measured the distance between it and his head. With another triumphant laugh he bent down and swooped the telephone off the desk. Quickly he punched in the telephone number for the city investigator.
"Yes," he said, "boob that I am, it took me all this time to fathom the mystery." The telephone made metallic sounds in his ear. "No, don't interrupt," he shouted, "the solution is obvious to all who can see. Arrest the butler." The metallic sounds became demanding, almost shrill. "No, I am not the fool that you think me, and no, I don't have proof that he did it, but now that you know you can always find the evidence." The metallic sounds screeched even louder. "Fine," Archer said. "You may spend the next six months wandering around in the morass of your ignorance, but in the end it will be the same. Arrest the butler."
He hung up and looked around. His narrow hatchet face, with its great Roman nose, seemed amused by the view. As if he were exploring a different universe, every corner of the room came under the scrutiny of his intense brown eyes.
An insistent rapping on his door prompted a scowl, but mastering himself, he called out, "Come in, it is never locked."
A woman entered, perhaps in her early forties, somberly dressed in dark clothing. Her plain, round face, with only hints of rouge and lipstick, had a special loveliness to it. In spite of a certain sadness, it held promise of sweet pleasures. But her self-possession wavered a trifle when she saw Archer standing on the desk. She looked around the room and saw the debris that cluttered the muted red, blue, and yellow carpet. Three chairs held more books of assorted size and description. The dark fireplace had orange peels and banana peels along with some apple cores strewn amidst the gray ashes. The only light in the room came from two large windows.
"You are Mr. Archer?" The doubt in her voice was unmistakable. "If you are, we have an appointment."
"You are Jennifer Ellis-Montgomery? Yes, I am he. But, you interrupt my moment of triumph. Fourteen spies will be... but of course that is not of your concern, nor why you are here. What is your problem? I warn you, the mundane I divest myself of without a moment's ambivalence." With a slight smile Archer leaped off the desk and reseated himself.
The woman stared at him.
He frowned. "Please, you are surely not here to sell encyclopediae. Come in. Sit. Speak."
Her intense glare failed to disconcert him. She stepped forward tentatively and looked around. "Where the hell am I supposed to do that?" After a moment she composed herself and said, "Do you conduct your interviews with your clients sitting on the floor? If your reputation wasn't so huge I'd get out of here. But hell, you're my last resort."
Archer laughed. "Please, ten thousand apologies. I have been conducting research into the development of cargo cults, and the books, they have the gift of exponential reproduction." In a flurry of motion, he leaped to his feet, cleared the chair closest to the desk, and reseated himself. "Pray, Mrs. Ellis-Montgomery, seat yourself and tell me your doleful tale. I see that someone has died. Hmm, probably not your recently divorced husband but someone close... perhaps your father... and the police have little interest in the matter. But you believe it to be murder." From a deep drawer he took out a wine bottle and some stemmed glasses. "Do you like port?"
She sat and shook her head. "No . . . how do you know all that?"
"Ah well, I suppose port is not to a woman's taste. Perhaps if they drank it, they would understand men better. No matter." He poured some of the dark red liquid for himself and stuffed his old, scuffed pipe with coarse tobacco. She frowned. With a sigh, he put the pipe down and sipped some wine.
"You are wearing black in the middle of the summer, and you would not be here if you thought the police were properly investigating your loss. If it had been your husband you would not have discarded your wedding band so swiftly. The mark on your ring finger tells me about a recent divorce. And your father? Did I not read about John Ellis whose hit and run death splashed across the front pages, forcing real news to take its chances among lingerie advertisements?" He grimaced. "Please, let us avoid trifles. What, may I ask, is your problem?"
She laughed. "Of course. If I wasn't so caught up with his death...." Her eyes glistened. "Dammit," she whispered, "he was murdered and the idiot police insist it was a simple hit-and-run." The cat leaped onto her lap. For a moment she sat motionless; then her hand, as if separate from her tension, stroked Tombo's sleek gray hair.
Archer caught a whiff of her perfume. Lilacs. He was pleased he had not ignited his pipe.
She started again in a whisper. "It happened in pitch blackness because two of the street lights weren't working. He had been playing bridge with friends. They all stepped out together. He started across the street to where he always parked. A car came speeding down the wrong way and smashed into him. He flew twenty feet. They say he died instantly. Thank God for that." With eyes closed, her head drooped and she slightly swayed in the chair.
"Madame, Ms. Ellis Montgomery, please continue."
She dabbed her eyes with a tissue dredged up from the depths of her purse. "I see that sympathy is not... ah, the hell with it. The people he was with said that the car hesitated for a moment. Everyone could see the driver . . . the bastard! He was a huge man, very tall, with a black beard. It was a white car, some sort of nondescript American model. His head was crushed, and most of the bones in his body were broken." Her head drooped again. "Oh, God, how could anyone have wanted to harm that dearest and sweetest of men?" She sobbed and sobbed. Archer handed her a box of tissues.
After a few moments, she composed herself and sighed. "Well, he's dead, gone. Nothing can be done to change that." Her voice rose. "But I want his murderer. Do you understand? With his death... my sister and I, we've become rich and will spend whatever is necessary to find the killer."
"You are her emissary in this matter?"
"Yes, we both agree. It was murder... and on her twenty-first birthday. What a present." Tears again streamed down her cheeks. "Oh God, how she suffers."
Archer sipped some wine. "Why is she not here with you?"
A pained expression gradually replaced the sorrow on her face. "She is very shy. For reasons I don't understand she's always been an emotional wreck. My poor father devoted his life to taking care of her, never even looking at other women, always protecting her, and yet somehow life eluded her...." Then, in a firm and insistent tone, she said, "I repeat, I represent her as well as myself in this investigation."
Archer grinned a small grin. "Your iterations convince me. But, why do you think it is murder?"
The woman's face became thoughtful. "I don't know. There's something wrong. I can feel it, but I can't put my finger on it. Don't you feel it too? There's something wrong, I know it." She made a scornful face and almost spat out, "But the police think me a fool."
Archer scowled. "Oh, madam, what you seem to others is surely irrelevant. Einstein was thought a fool, as was Galileo, and what about the man who first proposed the idea of continental drift? Do you know it took thirty years for that idea to take hold in the minds of 'experts?' And can you believe that even I have faced that absurd accusation? Pfagh, don't worry about seeming a fool. I take it you were raised in England?"
Her head snapped up "My God, how could you know that? It's been years."
Archer grinned. "You have the odd inflection every now and then. Was your sister with you?"
She looked surprised. "No, she remained here with father. I lived with my mother in Sussex. Is that important?"
He waved the question away. "Sorry, I am but a busybody. But, now to business."
"Maybe I will have some port," she said. He studied her face for a moment, then poured the wine into a glass for her. She sipped, nodded appreciatively, then sipped again. Finally, she said, "Do you believe me?"
"Madam, of course I do, purely on your intuition, and, hm, one or two other considerations. I will take your case. Please supply me with a list of suspects."
The woman's jaw sagged in astonishment. "Suspects? A list of suspects? What the devil are you talking about? Isn't that your responsibility? It's enough that you believe me." She leaned forward and hissed, "Get me the killer. Get me the man who murdered my father."
"Pray, madam, I understand your intensity, but please try to contain yourself. Your father's killer will be exposed within the week." He yawned and waved her away. "Your time is up. I have some other matters to attend to. Come by at midnight, and the investigation shall begin."
She stared at him. Then her face, contorted with rage, lost all hint of sweetness. "Midnight? You want me here at midnight? You maniac, if the damned police could figure this out I wouldn't have to be here to put up with your damned cheek!" She stood so abruptly that her chair clattered behind her. "Damn you, you're the only one who believes me. I have no choice but to put up with your idiot eccentricities."
"I am overwhelmingly distressed by your anger," Archer said, a slight twitch in one corner of his mouth.
After she left he leaned back and dozed.
She arrived at the appointed time. Archer stepped into her car and, without a word, she sped off. He leaned back in the seat and admired the firm way she drove, over the speed limit but not fast enough to attract the attention of any but the most obsessive of police officers. After a few minutes down a tree-lined avenue, she turned north into a quiet, genteel neighborhood with broad streets crowded with cars on both sides.
She stopped, double parking, in front of one of the houses. "We're here," she said in a whisper. "That's the house." She pointed to a building little different from its neighbors. "It belongs to my uncle, my father's brother. They've played bridge there for God knows how many years."
Archer stepped out of the car and looked around. "I see they have repaired the street lights," he said in a mildly accusatory manner. "Well, we'll just have to make do." He walked up one side of the street, then down the other. At times he paused and examined the pale shadow of his body cast by the feeble illumination of the street light. Once, ignoring the grime, he got down on his knees and intently examined some marks on the sidewalk. Then, getting to his feet, he distinctly said, "Hmm," and returned to the car.
"Please don't disturb me," he said to her astonished face. "I will mentally reconstruct the crime, sans street light." He leaned back in the car seat and closed his eyes. After a few grunts, he opened his eyes and looked around, then settled back, again with closed eyes. This he repeated several times. Then his eyes popped wide open. "Remarkable. There are absolutely no clues that come to my attention."
"Oh, God," she said in some anguish. "You've failed. My father's death will go unavenged." She turned to him. "What a miserable time you've taken me through. All this foolishness for nothing. Your don't deserve your reputation." She made as if to start the engine, but his hand reached out and grasped her wrist. She winced.
Immediately loosening his grip, he said, "Ah, madame, I do beg your pardon, but your cruel words momentarily disconcerted me. I would rather die a thousand deaths than cause you any further harm. Please, my apology is heartfelt and fulsome."
She started to speak, but his raised hand, like wall, stopped her.
"Your despair is understandable, based as it is on your desire for vengeance, but it is unwarranted. I have investigated several possibilities, and they are all lacking. Being able to discard them is good news. There is another possibility that warrants further investigation, but nothing more is to be said about that. Please, return me to my home. Tomorrow will provide more opportunities."
She started the engine, then turned to him. "Are you really convinced that he was murdered, or are you just playing with me for a fee?
He spoke through gritted teeth. "Have no doubt, he was murdered, and by a cunning and devious killer who, I promise you, shall not go unpunished. Now," he said in a more assertive tone, "tell me where your sister lives. I need information about your father only she can provide."
She frowned, started to speak, frowned even more deeply, and said, "She is in great emotional distress. I don't understand why you need to speak with her."
His eyes narrowed. "I must conduct the investigation with no shackles."
She looked away. "If you insist.... I'll call her in the morning and let her know you'll be showing up."
The next day Archer took a taxi to Robin Ellis' home. Separated from the street by a long, curving driveway, it gave the appearance of having been freshly painted, even to the white picket fence that surrounded it. To one side of the house there was an open garage. In it was a black car; the morning sun could be seen reflecting off its shiny exterior
"Please attend me, however so long I shall be," he said to the driver and rang the doorbell. After a few moments he heard light footsteps moving toward the door, then silence. Archer smiled broadly into the optical peephole, nodded vigorously, and then mouthed with exaggerated lip movements. "I am Archer."
The door opened a crack. "Jenny warned me you'd come here."
For a moment Archer thought of oboes. So softly did Robin speak that her words were almost lost in the gentle breeze.
"She didn't tell you I never see men alone?"
"Ah," Archer responded, "perhaps it would be better if you joined me here in the fresh air." He stepped back several feet from the door. It slowly opened and a woman, clearly younger than her sister, stepped out. Her red hair, randomly hacked well short of her shoulders, gleamed in the morning sun. Even without cosmetic enhancement, her oval face held a pale beauty--but her eyes were dark. Archer saw their sadness--not really sadness, he realized but deep resignation, as if ancient losses had blemished her soul. She brushed her hands to the side of her head as if to push back strands of long, unruly hair. In that action, in spite of her housecoat's long sleeves, he caught a glimpse of scars across her wrists.
The smile gradually faded from his lips. "Madame, when I see you like this I am desolate. Please forgive me this disturbance of your privacy." He bowed. In a voice almost as soft as hers, he said, "There is no further reason for me to cumber you with my presence. I shall, with your permission, wander about the premises and then depart."
Without a word, hardly rustling her housecoat, she went into the house and closed the door.
Archer stood for a moment, somberly staring at the space where she had been.
In the distance a dog barked. Recovering himself, Archer briskly walked to the fence and rubbed it with his hand, examined the white dusty residue that remained on his fingers. He meticulously wiped them clean with a large, blue handkerchief. After completing that task, he meandered into the garage and examined the quantities of empty paint cans piled against the rear wall. Almost in a cursory fashion, he examined the car with the magnifying glass he always kept on his person. Then on his knees, still with his magnifying glass, he examined the concrete floor. Grunting his satisfaction, he got to his feet, walked into the sunlight, again gazed somberly at the house and finally returned to the taxi.
The telephone rang. Tombo leaped off his lap just before he reached for it. "Yes?" Archer said. "No, I cannot accept that. No, you cannot fire me. You say I was cruel to your sister? No, I would not call my behavior cruel, but I am sure she was profoundly frightened. Yes, I understand the mystery. I urge that you present yourself here within the hour."
It was evening before Jenny arrived. With no sunlight to dispel the dark, only a few lamps on the desk and one standing near the visitor's chair illuminated the room.
She stared at him. "You've been on involved for only two days. You can't have discovered anything. You are bullshitting me. Get off the case."
"In truth, Madame, I wish it were so, and after this meeting I will no longer be involved. The sordid business sickens me and I have nothing but sorrow for your sister's anguished life."
"Damn you," she snarled, "my sister has nothing to do with this. Tell me who the killer is, and one way or the other I'll destroy him."
He looked up at her with great sadness. "Please, Mrs. Montgomery, won't you seat yourself again? I think you suspect the truth. Let me pour you some port, which you evidently relish. Your anguish I understand, but you must prepare yourself for worst." He poured some of the wine for her and offered it. "Here, drink and let us continue with this ugly business."
She sat and accepted the proffered glass. "All right," she said in a subdued tone, "tell me."
He leaned back. "Your intuition was impeccable. As soon as you told me the story I perceived immediately that foul play had occurred."
"Immediately? You perceived it immediately? How? Certainly it wasn't obvious to the police and it just didn't seem right to me, but obvious...?"
A small, self-pleased grin flickered across Archer's mouth. He sniffed delicately. "Ah, yes, the police" -- languidly he waved a dismissive hand -- "excellent at, what do they call it, 'running down leads,' but not very original in their ratiocinations. And you? You, of course, knew it so firmly, so certainly, that you had no opportunity for simple logic. But, can you explain how, in the dark of night, the onlookers could see so clearly into the car as to discover the appearance of the perpetrator?"
He paused. She gaped at him, then her face slowly changed. "The dome light must have been on. That's it, how else could anyone have seen him? How stupid of me not to have figured it out."
He beamed at her and continued. "Now, pray tell me, why would it be the case? The dome light, I mean." Her mouth opened as if to speak, then shook her head in wonderment. "I don't know. Wait.... Did--did he want to be seen?"
"Hah! We'll make a detective of you yet. Yes, you have it. The light was on because the malefactor wished to be seen. Don't you see, it was essential to the criminal's plan that identification be made... and if that were the case, then obviously they saw a fabrication designed to guide them to an incorrect conclusion."
The woman blurted, "That's absurd. They know what they saw, a huge man with a black beard."
"Of course they know what they saw, but if it were a ruse, then invert what they seem to have seen and we come up with a small person, perhaps even a woman, wearing layers of bulky clothing, a wig, and false beard. A few cushions would make the figure look immensely tall. This was all surmise. I suspected you, but knew I had to meet your sister."
"Me? You suspected me? But I'm the one who persisted...." She frowned. "My sister? She's practically a recluse and besides, she doesn't own a white car." Her voice rose. "You idiot, she wanted the killer found as much as me, even more. You're insane!"
"Madame, the objections did cross my mind. Please, sip your port and let us get on with this distressing business. If we invert the meaning of the white car, we get a black car which your sister does have. There is ample evidence of white, water-soluble paint at her residence and flecks of it on her car, which is, as described, a 'nondescript American model.' Still, there is the question of motive." Archer looked sad. "Why should she have hacked off her hair? Why should she have tried to kill herself? Why her infinite despair and her avoidance of me, harmless, except that I am a male?" He looked obliquely at her. Bewilderment made her look vulnerable. "Shall I continue with my assessments or have you heard enough?"
She started. "What... what are you thinking?" Then, staring at him earnestly, in a flat monotone Jenny said, "She stayed with him all these years. She loved him."
He shook his head. "Ah, Madame, your bright intelligence is dulled by your denial. Let us invert again. She chose to stay with him? No. He compelled her with guilt and shame. She loved him? No, another inversion. She hated him. Shall I discuss the ugliness that I believe he imposed on her from her early, innocent childhood?"
Her face flushed red. "Oh no," she snarled, "God damn you, keep your dirty mouth shut. How can you think such a thing, you son-of-a-bitch?" Tears streamed down her face. She tried to say more, but sobs overwhelmed her, deep sobs that seemed like paroxysms of her soul. Archer fumbled through one drawer after another, found a box of tissues and prodded them toward her. He picked up his pipe, discarded it, searched for Tombo with his eyes, but the gray cat eluded his gaze. After several minutes her anguish subsided. She sighed and looked up, her face illuminated by the quiet light of the lamps. She stared at him. "Enough. I won't hear anything else from you."
They sat quietly for a time. Then, very gently, almost imperceptibly, her face changed, composed itself, then recomposed itself so that every contortion smoothed away. There was left helplessness and... something else. "What will you tell the police?"
He made to speak, but she ignored him and continued. Her face softened. "Before you answer, please consider.... I know you're attracted to me... as I am to you. I offer anything... anything you may want." Her eyes closed. She leaned back against the chair. Time seemed frozen. Her eyes opened. "Well, am I so unattractive?"
"Madame, your beauty and elegance struck me the moment you entered," Archer said. "But my profession requires dispassion lest I be led down the garden path by my own desires. Yet I found--no, I find you wonderfully attractive. The truth is I am a fool for distressed women, but that is of no matter. Your offer is kind, but not necessary. The police? I think not.
"All I have offered are ramblings, a story if you like about what may be possible in this ugly world. If I told it to the police they would further malign me. No, I have nothing to say to them. As far as I am concerned justice has been done." He rose from his desk and approached her. She looked up at him, reached out to him with a tremulous hand.
"No, madame, it is time you leave. Perhaps, say a year from now, if you are of the same mind, perhaps then we could have dinner... but now, go home with the security that your sister is safe from me."
Silently she rose and left. Because he searched for his pipe, he did not see the smile of satisfaction that crossed her face. He lit a match. Soon the room filled with smoke ,and Tombo was again on his lap. Later he put his chair on the desk.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.