The Lottery Winner
The Body in the Closet
If Alvirah had known on that July evening what was waiting for her at her fancy new apartment on Central Park South, she would never have gotten off the plane. As it was, there was absolutely no hint of foreboding in her usually keen psyche as the plane circled for a landing.
Even though she and Willy had been bitten by the travel bug after they won forty million dollars in the lottery, and had by now taken a number of exciting trips, Alvirah was always glad to get back to New York. There was something heartwarming about the view from the airplane: the skyscrapers silhouetted against the clouds, the lights of the bridges that spanned the East River.
Willy patted her hand, and Alvirah turned to him with an affectionate smile. He looked grand, she thought, in his new blue linen jacket that matched the color of his eyes. With those eyes and his thick head of white hair, Willy was a double for Tip O’Neill, no mistake about it.
Alvirah smoothed her russet-brown hair, recently
tinted and styled by Dale of London. Dale had marveled to hear that Alvirah was pushing sixty. “You’re funning me,” he had gasped. She knew such compliments were probably hollow, but she liked to hear them anyway.
Yes, Alvirah reflected as she watched the city below, life had been grand to her and Willy. In addition to allowing them to travel at will and to buy all the creature comforts one could desire, their newfound wealth had also opened new doors of opportunity in unexpected ways, such as her involvement with one of the city’s major newspapers, the New York Globe. It all began when a Globe editor talked to her and Willy after they won the lottery. Alvirah had told him that she was realizing her longtime ambition to be a guest at the elegant Cypress Point Spa, and it wasn’t just the makeover she was looking forward to—it was also the chance to be mingling with all the celebrities she loved to read about.
The newspaper editor, obviously spotting in Alvirah some special talent for sniffing out news, plus the perseverance to pursue it to the end, persuaded her to take on an assignment for him. He asked her to keep her eyes open and her ears alert, with the idea in mind of writing an article about her experiences at the exclusive spa. And to further aid her in the process of gathering news and impressions, he gave her a lapel pin in the shape of a sunburst that actually contained a tiny recording device. That way she could record her impressions while they were fresh, and she might even pick up a few bits of conversation from those very people she was so anxious to meet.
The results had proved even more dramatic than either she or the editor had hoped, for at the spa she recorded someone who was in the act of trying
to kill her, an attack brought on by her sleuthing into a murder that had occurred there. With the help of her detection—and the handy recording device—Alvirah had not only helped to solve a crime but had embarked on a whole new and unexpected career as occasional columnist and amateur sleuth.
Now, as she sat buckled into her seat, thinking back over her most recent trip, she fingered the sunburst pin—a more-or-less permanent fixture on any outfit she wore—and reflected on how disappointed her editor was going to be. “This trip was wonderful,” she said to Willy, “but there wasn’t a single adventure I could write about. The most exciting thing during the whole trip was when the Queen stopped in for tea at the Stafford Hotel, and the manager’s cat attacked her corgis.”
“Well I for one am glad we had a nice, calm vacation,” Willy said. “I can’t take much more of you almost getting killed solving crimes.”
The British Airways flight attendant was walking down the aisle of the first-class cabin, checking that seat belts were fastened. “I certainly enjoyed talking with you,” she told them. Willy had explained to her, as he would to almost any willing ear, that he’d been a plumber and Alvirah a cleaning woman until they won the forty-million-dollar lottery two years ago. “My goodness,” the flight attendant said now to Alvirah, “I just can’t believe you were ever a char.”
* * *
In a mercifully short time after landing they were in the waiting limousine, their matching Vuitton luggage stacked in the trunk. As usual, New York in August was hot, sticky and sultry. The air-conditioning in the limo had just gone on the fritz, and
Alvirah thought longingly ahead to their new apartment on Central Park South, which would be wonderfully cool. They still kept their old three-room flat in Flushing where they’d lived for forty years before the lottery changed their lives. As Willy pointed out, you never knew if someday New York would go broke and tell the lottery winners to take a flying leap for the rest of their winnings.
When the limo pulled up to the apartment building, the doorman opened the door for them. “You must be melting,” Alvirah said. “You’d think they wouldn’t bother dressing you up until they finished the renovations.”
The building was undergoing a total overhaul. When they had bought the apartment in the spring, the real estate agent had assured them that the refurbishing would be completed in a matter of weeks. It was clear from the scaffolding still in the lobby that he had been wildly optimistic.
At the bank of elevators they were joined by another couple, a tall, fiftyish man and a slender woman wearing a white silk evening suit and an expression that reminded Alvirah of someone who has opened a refrigerator and encountered the odor of eggs gone bad. I know them, Alvirah thought and began ruffling through her prodigious memory. He was Carlton Rumson, the legendary Broadway producer, and she was his wife, Victoria, a sometime actress who had been a Miss America runner-up some thirty years ago.
“Mr. Rumson!” With a warm smile, Alvirah reached out her hand. “I’m Alvirah Meehan. We met at the Cypress Point Spa in Pebble Beach. What a nice surprise! This is my husband, Willy. Do you live here?”
Rumson’s smile came and went. “We keep an
apartment here for convenience.” He nodded to Willy, then grudgingly introduced his wife. The elevator door opened as Victoria Rumson acknowledged them with the flicker of an eyelid. What a cold fish, Alvirah thought, taking in the perfect but haughty profile, the pale-blond hair pulled back in a chignon. Long years of reading People, US, the National Enquirer and gossip columns had resulted in Alvirah’s brain becoming the repository of an awesome amount of information about the rich and famous.
They had just stopped at the thirty-fourth floor as Alvirah remembered her Rumson tidbits. He was famous for his wandering eye, while his wife’s ability to overlook his indiscretions had earned her the nickname “See-No-Evil Vicky.” Obviously a perfect match, Alvirah thought.
“Mr. Rumson,” Alvirah said, “Willy’s nephew, Brian McCormack, is a wonderful playwright. He’s just finished his second play. I’d love to have you read it.”
Rumson looked annoyed. “My office is listed in the phone book,” he said.
“Brian’s first play is running off-Broadway right now,” Alvirah persisted. “One of the critics said he’s a young Neil Simon.”
“Come on, honey,” Willy urged. “You’re holding up these folks.”
Unexpectedly the glacier look melted from Victoria Rumson’s face. “Darling,” she said, “I’ve heard about Brian McCormack. Why don’t you read the play here? It will only get buried in your office. Mrs. Meehan, send it by our apartment.”
“That’s real nice of you, Victoria,” Alvirah said heartily. “You’ll have it tomorrow.”
As they walked from the elevator to their apartment,
Willy asked, “Honey, don’t you think you were being a little pushy?”
“Absolutely not,” Alvirah said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Anything I can do to help Brian’s career is A-OK with me.”
* * *
Their apartment commanded a sweeping view of Central Park. Alvirah never stepped into it without thinking that not so long ago she had considered her Thursday cleaning job, Mrs. Chester Lollop’s house in Little Neck, a miniature palace. Boy, had her eyes been opened these last few years!
They’d bought the apartment completely furnished from a stockbroker who’d been indicted for insider trading. He had just had it done by an interior designer who, he assured them, was the absolute rage of Manhattan. Secretly Alvirah now had serious doubts about just what kind of rage he’d been talking about. The living room, dining room and kitchen were stark white. There were low white sofas that she had to hoist herself out of, thick white carpeting that showed every speck of dirt, white counters and cabinets and marble and appliances that reminded her of all the tubs and sinks and toilets she’d ever tried to scrub free of rust.
And tonight there was something new, a large printed sign taped to the door leading to the terrace. Alvirah crossed to the door to read it.
A building inspection has revealed that this is one of a small number of apartments in which a serious structural weakness has been found in the guardrailing and the panels of the terrace. Your terrace is safe for normal use, but do not lean on the guardrail or permit others to
do so. Repairs will be completed as rapidly as possible.
After reading the notice silently, she read it aloud to Willy, then shrugged. “Well, I certainly have brains enough not to lean on any guardrail, safe or not.”
Willy smiled sheepishly. He was scared silly of heights and never set foot on the terrace. As he’d said when they bought the apartment, “You love a terrace, I love terra firma.”
Willy went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Alvirah opened the terrace door and stepped outside. The sultry air was a hot wave against her face, but she didn’t care. There was something she loved about standing out here, looking across the park at the festive glow from the decorated trees around the Tavern on the Green, the ribbons of headlights of the cars and the glimpses of horse-drawn carriages in the distance.
Oh, it’s good to be back! she thought again as she went inside and surveyed the living room, her expert eye observing the degree of efficiency of the weekly cleaning service that should have been in yesterday. She was surprised to see fingerprints smeared across the glass cocktail table. Automatically she reached for a handkerchief and vigorously rubbed them away. Then she noticed that the tieback on the drapery next to the terrace door was missing. Hope it didn’t end up in the vacuum, she thought. At least I was a good cleaning woman. Then she remembered what the British Airways attendant had said—or a good char, whatever that is.
“Hey, Alvirah,” Willy called. “Did Brian leave a note? Looks like he may have been expecting someone.”
Brian, Willy’s nephew, was the only child of his oldest sister, Madaline. Six of Willy’s seven sisters had gone into the convent. Madaline had married in her forties and produced a change-of-life baby, Brian, who was now twenty-six years old. He had been raised in Nebraska, written plays for a repertory company out there and came to New York after Madaline’s death two years ago. All of Alvirah’s untapped maternal instincts were released by Brian, with his thin, intense face, unruly sandy hair and shy smile. As she often told Willy, “If I’d carried him inside me for nine months, I couldn’t love him more.”
When they’d left for England in June, Brian was finishing the first draft of his new play and had been glad to accept their offer of a key to the Central Park South apartment. “It’s a heck of a lot easier to write there than in my place,” was his grateful comment. He lived in a walk-up in the East Village, surrounded by large noisy families.
Alvirah went into the kitchen. She raised her eyebrows. A bottle of champagne, standing in a wine cooler which was now half full of water, and two champagne glasses were on a silver tray. The champagne was a gift from the broker who’d handled the apartment sale. The broker had several times informed them that that particular champagne cost a hundred dollars a bottle and was the brand the Queen of England herself enjoyed sipping.
Willy looked troubled. “That’s the stuff that’s so crazy expensive, isn’t it? No way Brian would help himself to that without asking. There’s something funny going on.” Alvirah opened her mouth to reassure him, then closed it. Willy was right. There was something funny going on, and her antenna told her trouble was brewing.
The chimes rang. An apologetic porter was at the door with their bags. “Sorry to be so long, Mr. Meehan. Since the remodeling began, so many residents are using the service elevator that the staff has to stand in line for it.” At Willy’s request, he deposited the bags in the bedroom, then departed smiling, his palm closing over a five-dollar bill.
Willy and Alvirah shared a pot of tea in the kitchen. Willy kept staring at the champagne bottle. “I’m gonna call Brian,” he said.
“He’ll still be at the theater,” Alvirah said, closed her eyes, concentrated and gave him the telephone number of the box office.
Willy dialed, listened, then hung up. “There’s a recorder on,” he said flatly. “Brian’s play closed. They talk about how to get refunds.”
“The poor kid,” Alvirah said. “Try his apartment.”
“Only the answering machine,” he told her a moment later. “I’ll leave a message for him.”
Alvirah suddenly realized how weary she was. As she collected teacups she reminded herself that it was 5:00 A.M., English time, so she had a right to feel as though all her bones were aching. She put the teacups in the dishwasher, hesitated, then rinsed out the unused champagne glasses and put them in the dishwasher too. Her friend Baroness Min von Schreiber—who owned the Cypress Point Spa where Alvirah had gone to be made over after she won the lottery—had told her that expensive wines should never be left standing. With a damp sponge, she gave a vigorous rub to the unopened bottle, the silver tray and bucket and put them away. Turning the lights out behind her, she went into the bedroom.
Willy had begun to unpack. Alvirah liked the bed
room. It had been furnished for the bachelor stockbroker with a king-sized bed, a triple dresser, comfortable easy chairs, and night tables large enough to hold at the same time a stack of books, reading glasses and mineral ice for Alvirah’s rheumatic knees. The decor, however, convinced her that the trendy interior designer must have been weaned on bleach. White spread. White drapes. White carpet.
The porter had left Alvirah’s garment bag laid out across the bed. She unlocked it and began to remove the suits and dresses. Baroness von Schreiber was always pleading with her not to go shopping on her own. “Alvirah,” Min would argue, “you are natural prey for saleswomen who have been ordered to unload the buyers’ mistakes. They sense your approach even while you’re still in the elevator. I’m in New York enough. You come to the spa several times a year. Wait till we’re together; I will shop with you.”
Alvirah wondered if Min would approve of the orange-and-pink plaid suit that the saleswoman in Harrods had raved over. Looking at it now, she was sure Min wouldn’t.
Her arms filled with clothing, she opened the door of the closet, glanced down and let out a shriek. Lying on the carpeted floor between rows of Alvirah’s size-10 extra-wide designer shoes, with green eyes staring up, crinkly blond hair flowing around her face, tongue slightly protruding and the missing drapery tieback around her neck, was the body of a slender young woman.
“Blessed Mother,” Alvirah moaned as the clothes fell from her arms.
“What’s the matter, honey?” Willy demanded,
rushing to her side. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Who the hell is that?”
“It’s . . . it’s . . . you know. The actress. The one who had the lead in Brian’s play. The one Brian is so crazy about.” Alvirah squeezed her eyes shut, glad to free herself from the glazed expression on the face of the body at her feet. “Fiona Winters.”
Willy’s arm firmly around her, Alvirah walked to one of the low couches in the living room that made her knees feel as though they were going to meet her chin. As he dialed 911, she forced her head to clear. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to know that this could look very bad for Brian, she told herself. I’ve got to get my thinking cap on and remember everything I can about that girl. She was so nasty to Brian. Had they had a fight?
Willy crossed the room, sat beside her and reached for her hand. “It’s going to be all right, honey,” he said. “The police will be here in a few minutes.”
“Call Brian again,” Alvirah told him.
“Good idea.” Willy dialed quickly. “Still that darn machine. I’ll leave another message. Try to rest.”
Alvirah nodded, closed her eyes and immediately turned her thoughts to the night last April when Brian’s play had opened.
The theater had been crowded. Brian had arranged for them to have front-row-center seats, and Alvirah wore her new silver-and-black sequin dress. The play, Falling Bridges, was set in Nebraska and was about a family reunion. Fiona Winters played the socialite who is bored with her unsophisticated in-laws, and Alvirah had to admit she was very believable, though she liked the girl who played the second lead much better—Emmy
Laker had bright-red hair, blue eyes and portrayed a funny but wistful character to perfection.
The performances brought a standing ovation, and Alvirah’s heart swelled with pride when the cries of “Author! Author!” brought Brian to the stage. When he was handed a bouquet and leaned over the footlights to give it to Alvirah, she started to cry.
The opening-night party was in the upstairs room of Gallagher’s Steak House. Brian kept the seats on either side of him for Alvirah and Fiona Winters. Willy and Emmy Laker sat opposite. It didn’t take Alvirah long to get the lay of the land. Brian hovered over Fiona Winters like a lovesick calf, but she kept putting him down and letting them know about her high-class background, saying things like, “The family was appalled when after Foxcroft I decided to go into the theater.” She then proceeded to tell Willy and Brian, who were thoroughly enjoying sliced-steak sandwiches with Gallagher’s special fries, that they were likely candidates for heart attacks. Personally, she never ate meat, she said.
She took potshots at all of us, Alvirah recalled. She asked me if I missed cleaning houses. She told me Brian should learn how to dress, and with our income she was surprised we didn’t help him out. And she had really jumped on that sweet Emmy Laker when Emmy said Brian had better things to think about than his wardrobe.
* * *
On the way home Alvirah and Willy had solemnly agreed that though Brian might show a lot of maturity as a playwright, he had a lot of growing up to do if he didn’t see what a shrew Fiona was. “I’d
like to see him together with Emmy Laker,” Willy had announced. “If he had the brains he was born with he’d know that she’s crazy about him. And that Fiona has been around a lot. She must have eight years on Brian.”
Alvirah was drawn back to the reality of the moment by the vigorous ringing of the front doorbell. Mother-in-heaven, she thought, that must be the police. I wish I’d had a chance to talk to Brian.
* * *
The next hours passed in a blur. As her head cleared a bit, Alvirah was able to separate the different kinds of law enforcement people who invaded the apartment. The first were the policemen in uniform. They were followed by detectives, photographers, the medical examiner. She and Willy sat together silently observing them all.
Officials from the Central Park South Towers office came too. “We hope there will be no unfortunate publicity,” the resident manager said. “This is not the Trump Organization.”
Their original statements had been taken by the first two cops. At 3:00 A.M., the door from the bedroom opened. “Don’t look, honey,” Willy said. But Alvirah could not keep her eyes away from the stretcher that two somber-faced attendants wheeled out. At least the body of Fiona Winters was covered. God rest her, Alvirah prayed, picturing again the tousled blond hair and the pouty lips. She was not a nice person, Alvirah thought, but she certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered.
Someone sat down opposite them, a long-legged fortyish man who introduced himself as Detective Rooney. “I’ve read your articles in the Globe, Mrs.
Meehan,” he told Alvirah, “and thoroughly enjoyed them.”
Willy smiled appreciatively, but Alvirah wasn’t fooled. She knew Detective Rooney was buttering her up to make her confide in him. Her mind was racing, trying to figure out ways to protect Brian. Automatically she reached up and switched on the recorder in her sunburst pin. She wanted to be able to go over everything that was said later.
Detective Rooney consulted his notes. “According to your earlier statement, you’ve just returned from a vacation abroad and arrived here around 10:00 P.M.? You found the victim, Fiona Winters, a short time later? You recognized Miss Winters because she played the lead in your nephew Brian McCormack’s play?”
Alvirah nodded. She noticed that Willy was about to speak and laid a warning hand on his arm. “That’s right.”
“From what I understand, you only met Miss Winters once,” Detective Rooney said. “How do you suppose she ended up in your closet?”
“I have no idea,” Alvirah said.
“Who had a key to this apartment?”
Again Willy’s lips pursed. This time Alvirah pinched his arm. “Keys to this apartment,” she said thoughtfully. “Now let me see. The One-Two-Three Cleaning service has a key. Well, they don’t really have a key. They pick one up at the desk and leave it there when they finish. My friend Maude has a key. She came in Mother’s Day weekend to go out with her son and his wife to Radio City. They have a cat and she’s allergic to cats so she slept on our couch. Then Willy’s sister, Sister Cordelia, has a key. Then—”
“Does your nephew, Brian McCormack, have a
key, Mrs. Meehan?” Detective Rooney interrupted.
Alvirah bit her lip. “Yes, and Brian has a key.”
This time Detective Rooney raised his voice slightly. “According to the concierge, Brian’s been using this apartment frequently in your absence. Incidentally, although it’s impossible to be totally accurate before an autopsy, the medical examiner estimates the time of death to be between 11:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. yesterday.” Detective Rooney’s tone became speculative. “It will be interesting to know where Brian was during that time frame.”
They were told that before they could use the apartment, the investigating team would have to dust it for fingerprints and vacuum it for clues. “The apartment is as you found it?” Detective Rooney asked.
“Except—” Willy began.
“Except that we made a pot of tea,” Alvirah interrupted. I can always tell them about the glasses and the champagne, but I can’t untell them, she thought. That detective is going to find out that Brian was crazy about Fiona Winters and decide it was a crime of passion. Then he’ll make everything fit that theory.
Detective Rooney closed his notebook. “I understand the management has a furnished apartment you can use tonight,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later, Alvirah was in bed, gratefully hunched against an already dozing Willy. Tired as she was, it was hard to relax in a strange bed, plus her mind was reviewing all that had transpired tonight. She knew that all this could look very bad for Brian. But she also knew there had to be an explanation. Brian wouldn’t help himself to that hundred-dollar bottle of champagne, and he
certainly wouldn’t kill Fiona Winters. But how did she end up in the closet?
* * *
Despite the late bedtime, Alvirah and Willy were up the next morning at 7:00 A.M. AS their mutual shock over finding the body in the closet wore off, they began to worry. “No use fretting about Brian,” Alvirah said with a heartiness she did not feel. “When we talk to him, I’m sure everything will be cleared up. Let’s see if we can get back into our place.”
They dressed quickly and hurried out. Once again Carlton Rumson was standing at the elevator. His pink complexion was sallow. Dark pouches under his eyes added ten years to his appearance. Automatically, Alvirah reached up and switched on the microphone in her pin.
“Mr. Rumson,” she asked, “did you hear the terrible news about the murder in our apartment?”
Rumson pressed vigorously for the elevator. “As a matter of fact, yes. Friends in the building phoned us. Terrible for the young lady, terrible for you.”
The elevator arrived. After they got in, Rumson said, “Mrs. Meehan, my wife reminded me about your nephew’s play. We’re leaving for Mexico tomorrow morning. I’d very much like to read it today if I may.”
Alvirah’s jaw dropped. “Oh, that’s wonderful of your wife to keep after you about it. We’ll make sure to get it up to you.”
When she and Willy got out at their floor, she said, “This could be Brian’s big break. Provided that—” she said, stopping in mid sentence.
A policeman was on guard at the door of their apartment. Inside, every surface was smeared because
the investigators had dusted for fingerprints. And seated across from Detective Rooney, looking bewildered and forlorn, was Brian. He jumped up. “Aunt Alvirah, I’m sorry. This is awful for you.”
To Alvirah he looked about ten years old. His T-shirt and khaki slacks were rumpled; had he dressed to escape a burning building he could not have looked more disheveled.
Alvirah brushed back the sandy hair that fell over Brian’s forehead as Willy grasped his hand. “You OK?” Willy asked.
Brian managed a troubled smile. “I guess so.”
Detective Rooney interrupted. “Brian just arrived, and I was about to inform him that he is a suspect in the death of Fiona Winters and has a right to counsel.”
“Are you kidding?” Brian asked, his tone incredulous.
“I assure you, I’m not kidding.” Detective Rooney pulled a paper from his breast pocket. He read Brian his Miranda rights, then handed the paper to Brian. “Please let me know if you understand its meaning.”
Rooney looked at Alvirah and Willy. “Our people are through. You can stay in the apartment now. I’ll take Brian’s statement at headquarters.”
“Brian, don’t you say one word until we get you a lawyer,” Willy ordered.
Brian shook his head. “Uncle Willy, I have nothing to hide. I don’t need a lawyer.”
Alvirah kissed Brian. “Come right back here when you’re finished,” she told him.
The messy condition of the apartment gave her something to do. She dispatched Willy with a long shopping list, warning him to take the service elevator to avoid reporters.
As she vacuumed and scrubbed and mopped and dusted, Alvirah realized with increasing dread that cops don’t give a Miranda warning unless they have a pretty good reason for suspecting someone’s guilt.
The most difficult part of her task was to vacuum the closet. It was as though she could see again the wide-open eyes of Fiona Winters staring up at her. That thought led her to another one: Obviously the poor girl hadn’t been killed while she was standing in the closet, but where had she been when she was strangled?
Alvirah dropped the handle of the vacuum. She thought about those fingerprints on the cocktail table. If Fiona Winters had been sitting on the couch, maybe leaning forward a little, and her killer walked behind it, slipped the tieback around her neck and twisted it, wouldn’t her hand have pulled back like that? “Saints and angels,” Alvirah whispered, “I bet I destroyed evidence.”
The phone rang just as she was fastening the sunburst pin to her lapel. It was Baroness Min von Schreiber calling from the Cypress Point Spa in Pebble Beach, California. Min had just heard the news. “Whatever was that dreadful girl thinking about getting herself killed in your closet?” Min demanded.
“Buh-lieve me, Min,” Alvirah said. “I don’t know what she was doing here. I only met her once, the opening night of Brian’s play. The cops are questioning Brian right now. I’m worried sick. They think he killed her.”
“You’re wrong, Alvirah,” Min said. “You met Fiona Winters before then; you met her out here at the spa.”
“Never,” Alvirah said positively. “She was the
kind who got on your nerves so much you’d never forget her.”
There was a pause. “I am thinking,” Min announced. “You’re right. She came here another week, with someone, and they spent the weekend in the cottage. They even had their meals served there. I remember now. It was that hotshot producer she was trying to snare. Carlton Rumson. You remember him, Alvirah. You met him another time when he was here alone.”
* * *
Alvirah went into the living room and out onto the terrace. Willy gets so nervous if I even step out here, she thought, and that’s crazy. The only thing to be careful about is leaning on the railing.
The humidity was near saturation point. Not a leaf in the park stirred. Even so, Alvirah sighed with pleasure. How can anyone who was born in New York stay away from it for long? she wondered.
Willy brought in the newspapers with the groceries. One headline screeched MURDER ON CENTRAL PARK SOUTH; another, LOTTERY WINNER FINDS BODY. Alvirah carefully read the lurid accounts. “I didn’t scream and faint,” she scoffed. “Where’d they get that idea?”
“According to the Post, you were hanging up the fabulous new wardrobe you bought in London,” Willy told her.
“Fabulous new wardrobe! The only expensive thing I bought was that orange-and-pink plaid suit—and I know Min is going to make me give it away.”
There were columns of background material on Fiona Winters: The break with her socialite family when she went into acting. Her uneven career.
(She’d won a Tony but was notoriously difficult to work with, which had cost her a number of plum roles.) Her break with playwright Brian McCormack when she accepted a film role and abruptly walked out of his play Falling Bridges, forcing it to close.
“Motive,” Alvirah said flatly. “By tomorrow they’ll be trying this case in the media, and Brian will be found guilty.”
* * *
At 12:30 P.M. Brian returned. Alvirah took one look at his ashen face and ordered him to sit down. “I’ll make a pot of tea and fix you a hamburger,” she said. “You look like you’re going to keel over.”
“I think a shot of scotch would do a lot more good than tea,” Willy observed.
Brian managed a wan smile. “I think you’re right, Uncle Willy.” Over the hamburgers and french fries he told them what had happened. “I swear I didn’t think they’d let me go. You can tell they’re sure I killed her.”
“Is it OK if I turn on my recorder?” Alvirah asked. She fiddled with the sunburst pin, touching the microphone switch. “Now, tell us exactly what you told them.”
Brian frowned. “Mostly about my personal relationship with Fiona. I was sick of her lousy disposition and I was falling in love with Emmy. I told them that when Fiona quit the play it was the last straw.”
“But how did she get in my closet?” Alvirah asked. “You must have been the one who let her into the apartment.”
“I did. I’ve been working here a lot. I knew you were coming back yesterday, so I cleared my stuff
out the day before. Then yesterday morning Fiona phoned and said she was back in New York and would be right over to see me. By mistake I’d left my notes for the final draft of my new play here with my backup copy. I told her not to waste her time, that I was heading here to get my notes and then was going to be at the typewriter all day and wouldn’t answer my door. When I arrived, I found her parked downstairs in the lobby, and rather than make a scene I let her come up.”
“What did she want?” Alvirah and Willy both asked.
“Nothing much. Just the lead in Nebraska Nights.”
“After walking out on the other one!”
“She put on the performance of her life. Begged me to forgive her. Said she’d been a fool to. leave Falling Bridges. Her role in the film was ending up on the cutting-room floor, and the bad publicity about dumping the play had hurt her. Wanted to know if Nebraska Nights was finished yet. I’m human. I bragged about it. Told her it might take time to find the right producer, but when I did it was going to be a big hit.”
“Had she ever read it?” Alvirah asked.
Brian studied the tea leaves in his cup. “These don’t make for much of a fortune,” he commented. “She knew the story line and that there’s a fantastic lead role for an actress.”
“You certainly didn’t promise it to her?” Alvirah exclaimed.
Brian shook his head. “Aunt Alvirah, I know she played me for a fool, but I couldn’t believe she thought I was that much of a fool. She asked me to make a deal. She said she had access to one of the biggest producers on Broadway. If she could get it
to him and he took it, she wanted to play Diane—I mean Beth.”
“Who’s that?” Willy asked.
“The name of the leading character. I changed it on the final draft last night. I told Fiona she had to be kidding, but if she could pull that off I might consider it. Then I got my notes and tried to get her out of here. She refused to budge, though, saying she had an audition at Lincoln Center early in the afternoon, and since it’s close by, she wanted to stay here until it was time to be there. I finally decided there probably wasn’t any harm in leaving her so I could get work done. The last time I saw her was just about noon, and she was sitting on that couch.”
“Did she know you had a copy of the new play here?” Alvirah asked.
“Sure. I took it out of the drawer of the table when I was getting the notes.” He pointed toward the foyer. “It’s in that drawer now.”
Alvirah got up, walked quickly to the foyer and pulled open the drawer. As she suspected, it was empty.
* * *
Emmy Laker sat motionless in the oversized club chair in her West Side studio apartment. Ever since she had heard about Fiona’s death on the seven o’clock news she’d been trying to reach Brian. Had he been arrested? Oh God, not Brian, she thought. What should I do? Despairingly she looked at the luggage in the corner of the room. Fiona’s luggage.
Her bell had rung yesterday morning at 8:30. When she opened the door, Fiona had swept in. “How can you stand living in a walk-up?” she’d
demanded. “Thank God some kid was making a delivery and carried these up.” She’d dropped her suitcases and reached for a cigarette. “I came in on the red-eye. What a mistake to take that film job. I told the director off and he fired me. I’ve been trying to reach Brian. Do you know where he is?”
At the memory, rage swelled in Emmy. As though she were still across the room she could see Fiona, her blond hair tousled, her body-hugging jumpsuit showing off every inch of that perfect figure, her cat’s eyes insolent and confident.
Fiona was so sure that even after the way she treated Brian she could still walk back into his life, Emmy thought, remembering all the months when she had agonized at the sight of Brian with her. Would that have happened again? Yesterday she had thought it possible.
Fiona had kept phoning Brian until she finally reached him. When she hung up, she said, “Mind if I leave my bags here? Brian’s on his way to the cleaning woman’s fancy pad. I’ll head him off.” Then she shrugged. “He’s so damn provincial, but it’s amazing how many people on the West Coast know about him. I must say from what I heard about Nebraska Nights it has all the earmarks of a hit—and I intend to play the lead.”
Emmy got up. Her body felt stiff and achy. The old window-unit air conditioner was rattling and wheezing, but the room was still hot and humid. A cool shower and a cup of coffee, she decided. Maybe that would clear her head. She wanted to see Brian. She wanted to put her arms around him. I’m not sorry Fiona’s dead, she admitted, but oh, Brian, how did you expect to get away with it?
She had just dressed in a T-shirt and cotton skirt
and twisted her long bright-red hair in a chignon when the buzzer downstairs rang.
When she answered, it was to hear Detective Rooney announce that he was on the way up.
* * *
“This is starting to make sense,” Alvirah said. “Brian, is there anything you left out? For instance, did you put the bottle of that fit-for-a-queen champagne in the silver bucket yesterday?”
Brian looked bewildered. “Why would I do that?”
“I didn’t think you would.” Oh boy, what a story, Alvirah thought—Fiona didn’t hang around here because she had an audition. It’s my bet that the producer she mentioned to Brian was Carlton Rumson, and that she phoned him and invited him down here. That’s why the glasses and champagne were out. She gave him the script and then, who knows why, they got into a fight. But how do I prove it? Alvirah paused for a moment, thinking. Then she turned to Brian. “I want you to go home and get your final version of the play. I talked to Carlton Rumson about it; he wants to see it today.”
“Carlton Rumson!” Brian exclaimed. “He’s just about the biggest man on Broadway, as well as one of the hardest to reach. You must be a magician!”
“I’ll tell you about it later,” Alvirah said. “I also happen to know that he and his wife are going away on a little trip, so let’s strike while the iron is hot.”
Brian glanced at the phone. “I should call Emmy. She certainly must have heard about Fiona by now.” He dialed the number, waited, then left a message: “Emmy, I need to talk to you. I’m just leaving Aunt Alvirah’s and I’m on my way home.”
When he hung up, his tone reflected his obvious disappointment. “I guess she’s out,” he said.
* * *
Even when she heard Brian’s voice, Emmy made no move to pick up the receiver. Detective Rooney was sitting across from her and had just asked her to describe in detail what she had done the previous day. Now he raised his eyebrows. “You could have answered the phone. I don’t mind waiting.”
“I’ll talk to Brian later,” Emmy said. Then she paused for a moment, choosing her words carefully. “Yesterday I left here about 11:00 A.M. and went jogging. I got back about 1:30 P.M. and then just stayed in the rest of the day.”
“Did you see Fiona Winters yesterday?” Emmy’s eyes slid over to the corner where the luggage was piled. “I . . . ” She stopped.
“Emmy, I think I should warn you that it will be in your best interest to be completely truthful.” Detective Rooney consulted his notes. “Fiona Winters came in on a flight from Los Angeles, arriving at approximately 7:30 A.M. We know she took a cab to this building, and that a delivery boy who recognized her assisted her with her luggage. She told him that you would not be glad to see her because you’re after her boyfriend. When Miss Winters left, you followed her. A doorman on Central Park South recognized you. You sat on a park bench across the street, watching the building, for nearly two hours, then entered it by the delivery door, which had been propped open by the painters.” Detective Rooney leaned forward. His tone became confidential. “You went up to the Mee
hans’ apartment, didn’t you? Was Miss Winters already dead?”
Emmy stared at her hands. Brian always teased her about how small they were. “But strong,” he’d laugh when they’d arm-wrestle. Brian. No matter what she said she would hurt him. She looked up at Detective Rooney. “I want to talk to a lawyer.”
Rooney got up. “That is, of course, your privilege. I would like to remind you that if Brian murdered his ex-lover, you can become an accessory after the fact by concealing evidence. And I assure you, Emmy, you won’t do him any good. We’re going to get an indictment from the grand jury, no doubt about it.”
* * *
When Brian reached his apartment, there was a message on the recorder from Emmy. “Call me, Brian. Please.” Brian’s fingers worked with frantic haste as he dialed her number.
She whispered, “Hello.”
“Emmy, what’s the matter? I tried you before but you were out.”
“I was here. A detective came. Brian, I have to see you.”
“Take a cab to my aunt’s place. I’m on my way back there.”
“I want to talk to you alone. It’s about Fiona. She was here yesterday. I followed her over to the apartment.”
Brian felt his mouth go dry. “Don’t say anything else on the phone.”
* * *
At 4:00 P.M., the bell rang insistently. Alvirah jumped up. “Brian forgot his key,” she told Willy. “I noticed it on the foyer table.”
But it was Carlton Rumson rather than Brian she found standing at the door. “Mrs. Meehan, please forgive the intrusion.” With that he stepped inside.
“I mentioned to one of my assistants that I was going to look at your nephew’s play. Apparently he saw a performance of his first one and thought it was very good. In fact he had urged me to see it, but it closed suddenly and I never got the chance.” Rumson had walked into the living room and sat down. Nervously he drummed his fingers on the cocktail table.
“Can I get you a drink?” Willy asked. “Or maybe a beer?”
“Oh, Willy,” Alvirah said. “I’m sure that Mr. Rumson only drinks fine champagne. Maybe I read that in People.”
“As a matter of fact, it’s true, but not right now, thank you.” Rumson’s expression was affable enough, but Alvirah noticed that a pulse was jumping in his throat. “Where can I reach your nephew?”
“He should be here any minute. You’re welcome to wait, or I’ll call you the minute he gets in.”
Obviously opting for the latter choice, Rumson stood and headed for the door. “I’m a fast reader. If you would send the script up, he and I could get together an hour or so later.”
When Rumson left, Alvirah asked Willy, “What are you thinking?”
“That for a hotshot producer, he’s some nervous wreck. I hate people tapping their fingers on tabletops. Gives me the jitters.”
“Well he certainly had the jitters, and I’m not surprised.” Alvirah smiled at Willy mysteriously.
Less than a minute later the bell rang again. Alvirah hurried to the door. Emmy Laker was there, wisps of red hair slipping from the chignon, sunglasses covering half her face, the T-shirt clinging to her slender body, the cotton skirt a colorful whirl. Alvirah thought that Emmy looked about sixteen.
“That man who just left,” Emmy stammered. “Who was he?”
“Carlton Rumson, the producer,” Alvirah said quickly. “Why?”
“Because . . . ” Emmy pulled off her glasses, revealing swollen eyes.
Alvirah put firm hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Emmy, what is it?”
“I don’t know what to do,” Emmy wailed. “I don’t know what to do.”
* * *
Carlton Rumson returned to his apartment. Beads of perspiration stood on his forehead. Alvirah Meehan was no dope, he warned himself. That crack about champagne hadn’t been social chitchat. How much did she suspect?
Victoria was standing on the terrace, her hands lightly touching the railing. Reluctantly he joined her. “For Pete’s sake, haven’t you read those signs all over the place?” he demanded. “One good shove and that railing would be gone.”
Victoria was wearing white slacks and a white knit sweater. Sourly, Rumson thought it was a damn shame some fashion columnist had once written that with her pale-blond beauty, Victoria Rumson should never wear anything but white. Victoria
had taken that advice to heart. Her dry cleaning bills alone would have broken most men.
She turned to him calmly. “I’ve noticed that you always get ugly with me when you’re upset. Did you happen to know that Fiona Winters was staying in this building? Or was she here perhaps at your request?”
“Vic, I haven’t seen Fiona in nearly two years. If you don’t believe me, too bad.”
“As long as you didn’t see her yesterday, darling. I understand the police are asking lots of questions. It’s bound to come out that you and she were—as the columnists say—an item.” She paused. “Oh well, I’m sure you’ll deal with it with your usual aplomb. In the meantime, have you followed up on Brian McCormack’s play? I have one of my famous hunches about that, you know.”
Rumson cleared his throat. “That Alvirah Meehan is going to have McCormack send me a copy this afternoon. After I’ve read it I’ll go down and meet him.”
“Let me read it too. Then I might just tag along. I’d love to see how a cleaning woman decorates.” Victoria Rumson linked her arm in her husband’s. “Poor darling. Why are you so nervous?”
* * *
When Brian rushed past Alvirah into the apartment, his play under his arm, he found Emmy lying on his aunt’s couch, covered by a light blanket. Alvirah closed the door behind him and watched as he knelt beside Emmy and put his arms around her. “I’m going inside and let you two talk,” she announced.
Willy was in the bedroom laying out clothes. “Which jacket, honey?” He held up two sports coats.
Alvirah’s forehead puckered. “You want to look nice for Pete’s retirement party, but not like you’re trying to show off. Wear the blue jacket and the white sports shirt.”
“I still don’t like to leave you tonight,” Willy protested.
“You can’t miss Pete’s dinner,” Alvirah said firmly. “And Willy, I wish you’d let me order a car and driver for you.”
“Honey, we pay big bucks to garage our car here. No use wasting money.”
“Well then, if you have too good a time, I want you to promise me not to drive home. Stay at the old apartment. You know how you can get when you’re with the boys.”
Willy smiled sheepishly. “You mean if I sing ‘Danny Boy’ more than twice, that’s my signal.”
“Exactly,” Alvirah said firmly.
“Honey, I’m so bushed after the trip and with what happened last night, I’d just as soon have a few beers with Pete and come back.”
“That wouldn’t be nice. Pete stayed at our lottery-winning party till the morning rush started on the expressway. Now we’ve got to talk to those kids.”
In the living room Brian and Emmy were sitting side by side, their hands clasped. “Have you two straightened things out yet?” Alvirah demanded.
“Not exactly,” Brian said. “Apparently Emmy was given a rough time by Rooney when she refused to answer his questions.”
Alvirah sat down. “I have to know everything he asked you.”
Hesitantly Emmy told her. Her voice became calmer and her poise returned as she said, “Brian,
you’re going to be indicted. He’s trying to make me say things that will hurt you.”
“You mean you’re protecting me.” Brian looked astonished. “There’s no need. I haven’t done anything. I thought . . . ”
“You thought that Emmy was in trouble,” Alvirah told them. She settled with Willy on the couch opposite them. She realized that Brian and Emmy were sitting directly in front of the place on the cocktail table where the fingerprints had been smeared. The drapery was slightly to the right. To someone sitting on this couch, the tieback would have been in full view. “I’m going to tell you two something,” she announced. “You each think the other might have had something to do with this—and you’re both wrong. Just tell me what you know or think you know. Brian, is there anything you’ve held back about seeing Fiona yesterday?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Brian said.
“All right. Emmy, your turn.”
Emmy walked over to the window. “I love this view.” She turned to Alvirah and Willy and told them about Fiona’s sudden and unwelcome appearance at her apartment. “Yesterday when Fiona left my apartment to meet Brian I think I went a little crazy. He had been so involved with her, and I just couldn’t stand to see that happen all over. Fiona is—was the kind of woman who can just beckon to men. I was so afraid Brian would take up with her again.”
“I’d never—” Brian protested.
“Keep quiet, Brian,” Alvirah ordered.
“I sat on the park bench a long time,” Emmy said. “I saw Brian leave. When Fiona didn’t come down I started to think maybe Brian had told her to wait. Finally I decided to have it out with her. I
followed a maid through the delivery entrance and came up in the service elevator because I didn’t want anyone to know I’d been here. I rang the doorbell and waited and rang it again, and then I left.”
“That’s all?” Brian asked. “Why were you afraid to tell that to Rooney?”
“Because when she heard Fiona was dead she thought maybe the reason she didn’t answer was because you’d already killed her.” Alvirah leaned forward. “Emmy, why did you ask about Carlton Rumson before? You saw him yesterday, didn’t you?”
“As I came down the corridor from the rear service elevator, he was ahead of me, going to the passenger elevator. I knew he looked familiar but didn’t recognize him until I saw him again just now.”
Alvirah stood up. “I think we should call Mr. Rumson and ask him to come down, and I think we should call Rooney and ask him to be here too. But first, Brian, give Willy your play. He’ll run it up to the Rumsons’ apartment. Let’s see. It’s nearly 5:00 P.M. Willy, you ask Mr. Rumson to phone when he’s ready to bring it back.”
The intercom buzzer sounded. Willy answered it. “Rooney’s here,” he said. “He’s looking for you, Brian.”
There was no trace of warmth in the detective’s manner when he entered the apartment a few minutes later. “Brian,” he said without preface, “I have to ask you to come down to the station house for further questioning. You have received the Miranda warning. I remind you again that anything you say can be used against you.”
“He’s not going anywhere,” Alvirah said firmly.
“And before you leave, Detective, I’ve got an earful for you.”
* * *
It was nearly 7:00 P.M., two hours later, when Carlton Rumson phoned. Alvirah and Willy had told Rooney about the champagne and the glasses and the fingerprints on the cocktail table and about Emmy seeing Carlton Rumson, but Alvirah could tell none of it cut much ice with the detective. He’s closing his mind to everything that doesn’t fit his theory about Brian, she thought.
A few minutes later, Alvirah was astonished to see both Rumsons enter her apartment. Victoria Rumson was smiling warmly. When introduced to Brian, she took both his hands and said, “You really are a young Neil Simon. I just read your play. Congratulations.”
When Detective Rooney was introduced, Carlton Rumson’s face went ashen. He stammered as he said to Brian, “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt you just now. I’ll make this very brief. Your play is wonderful. I want to option it. Please have your agent contact my office tomorrow.”
Victoria Rumson was standing at the terrace door. “You were so wise not to obscure this view,” she told Alvirah. “My decorator put in vertical blinds, and I might as well be facing an alley.”
She sure took her gracious pills this morning, Alvirah thought.
“I think we’d all better sit down,” Detective Rooney suggested.
The Rumsons sat down reluctantly.
“Mr. Rumson, you knew Fiona Winters?” Rooney asked.
Alvirah began to think she had underestimated
Rooney. His expression became intense as he leaned forward.
“Miss Winters appeared in several of my productions some years ago,” Rumson said. He was sitting on one of the couches, next to his wife. Alvirah noticed that he glanced at her nervously.
“I’m not interested in years ago,” Rooney told him. “I’m interested in yesterday. Did you see her then?”
“I did not.” To Alvirah, Rumson’s voice sounded strained and defensive.
“Did she phone you from this apartment?” Alvirah asked.
“Mrs. Meehan, if you don’t mind, I’ll conduct this questioning,” the detective said.
“Show respect when you talk to my wife,” Willy bristled.
Victoria Rumson patted her husband’s arm. “Darling, I think you might be trying to spare my feelings. If that impossible Winters woman was badgering you again, please don’t be afraid to tell exactly what she wanted.”
Rumson seemed to age visibly before their eyes. When he spoke his voice was weary. “As I just told you, Fiona Winters acted in several of my productions. She—”
“She also had a private relationship with you,” Alvirah interjected. “You used to take her to the Cypress Point Spa.”
Rumson glared at her. “I haven’t had anything to do with Fiona Winters for several years,” he said. “Yes, she phoned yesterday just after noon. She told me she was here in the building and that she had a play she wanted me to read, assured me it had the earmarks of a hit and said she wanted to play the lead. I was waiting for a call from Europe
and agreed to come down and see her in about an hour.”
“That means she called after Brian left,” Alvirah said triumphantly. “That’s why the glasses and champagne were out. They were for you.”
“Did you come to this apartment, Mr. Rumson?” Rooney asked.
Again Rumson hesitated.
“Darling, it’s all right,” Victoria Rumson said softly.
Not daring to look at Detective Rooney, Alvirah announced: “Emmy saw you in this corridor a few minutes after 1:00 P.M.”
Rumson sprang to his feet. “Mrs. Meehan, I won’t tolerate any more insinuations! I was afraid Fiona would keep contacting me if I didn’t set her straight once and for all. I came down here and rang the bell. There was no answer. The door wasn’t completely shut, so I pushed it open and called her. As long as I’d come this far I wanted to be finished with it.”
“Did you enter the apartment?” Rooney asked.
“Yes. I walked through this room, poked my head in the kitchen and glanced in the bedroom. She wasn’t anywhere. I assumed she’d changed her mind about seeing me, and I can assure you I was relieved. Then when I heard the news this morning all I could think of was that maybe her body was in that closet when I was here and I’d be in the middle of this.” He turned to his wife. “I guess I am in the middle of it, but I swear what I’ve told you is true.”
Victoria touched his hand. “There is no way they’re going to drag you into this. What a nerve that woman had to think she should have the leading role in Nebraska Nights.” Victoria turned to
Emmy. “Someone your age should play the role of Diane.”
“She’s going to,” Brian said. “I just hadn’t told her yet.”
Rumson turned to his wife, impatiently. “Don’t you mean—?”
Rooney interrupted him as he folded his notebook. “Mr. Rumson, I’ll ask you to accompany me down to headquarters. Emmy, I’d like you to give a complete statement as well. Brian, we need to talk to you again, and I do strongly urge you to engage counsel.”
“Now just one minute,” Alvirah said indignantly. “I can tell you believe Mr. Rumson over Brian.” There goes the option on the play, but this is more important, she thought. “You’re going to say that Brian maybe started to leave, decided to come back and tell Fiona to clear out and then ended up killing her. I’ll tell you how I think it happened. Rumson came down here and got into a fight with Fiona. He strangled her but was smart enough to take the script she was showing him.”
“That is absolutely untrue,” Rumson snapped.
“I don’t want another word discussed here,” Rooney ordered. “Emmy, Mr. Rumson, Brian—I have a car downstairs. Let’s go.”
When the door closed behind them, Willy put his arms around Alvirah. “Honey, I’m going to skip Pete’s party. I can’t leave you. You look ready to collapse.”
Alvirah hugged him back. “No, you’re not. I’ve been recording everything. I need to listen to the playback and I do that better alone. You have a good time.”
* * *
The apartment felt terribly quiet after Willy left. Alvirah decided that a warm soak in the bathtub Jacuzzi might take some of the stiffness out of her body and clear her brain.
Afterward, she dressed comfortably in her favorite nightgown and Willy’s striped terry-cloth robe. She set the expensive cassette player her editor at the Globe had bought for her on the dining-room table, then took the tiny cassette out of her sunburst pin, inserted it in the recorder and pushed the playback button. She put a new cassette in the back of the pin and fastened the pin to the robe just in case she wanted to think out loud. She sat listening to her conversations with Brian, with Detective Rooney, with Emmy, with the Rumsons.
What was it about Carlton Rumson that bothered her so much? Methodically, Alvirah reviewed that first meeting with the Rumsons. He was pretty cool that night, but when we bumped into him the next morning he sure had changed his tune, she told herself, even reminded me he wanted to read the new play right away. She remembered Brian saying that nobody could get to Carlton Rumson.
That’s it, she thought. He already knew how good the play was. He couldn’t admit that he’d already read it.
The phone rang. Startled, Alvirah hurried over to pick it up. It was Emmy. “Mrs. Meehan,” she whispered, “they’re still questioning Brian and Mr. Rumson, but I know they think Brian’s guilty.”
“I just figured everything out,” Alvirah said triumphantly. “How good a look at Carlton Rumson did you get when you saw him in the hall?”
“Then you could see he was carrying the script, couldn’t you? I mean if he was telling the truth that
he only went down to tell Fiona off, he’d never have picked up that script. But if they talked about it and he read some of it before he killed her, he’d have taken it. Emmy, I think I’ve solved the case.”
Emmy’s voice was barely audible. “Mrs. Meehan, I’m sure Carlton Rumson wasn’t carrying anything when I saw him. Suppose Detective Rooney thinks to ask me that question? It’s going to hurt Brian, isn’t it, if I tell them that?”
“You have to tell the truth,” Alvirah said sadly. “Don’t worry. I still have my thinking cap on.” When she hung up, she turned the cassette player on again and began to replay her tapes. She replayed her conversations with Brian several times. There was something he had told her that she was missing.
Finally she stood up, deciding that a breath of fresh air wouldn’t hurt. Not that New York air is fresh, she thought as she opened the terrace door and stepped out. This time she went right to the guardrail and let her fingers rest lightly on it. If Willy were here he’d have a fit, she thought, but I’m not going to lean on it. There’s just something so restful about looking out over the park. The park. I think one of the happiest memories in Mama’s life was the day she had a sleigh ride through the park. She was sixteen at the time and she talked about it the rest of her life. She’d taken the ride because her girlfriend Beth asked for that for her birthday.
That’s it! Alvirah thought. Again she could hear Brian saying that Fiona Winters wanted to play the part of Diane. Then Brian corrected himself and said, “I mean Beth.” Willy had asked who that
was, and Brian said it was the name of the lead in his new play, that he’d changed it in the final draft. Alvirah switched on her microphone and cleared her throat. Better get this all down, she reminded herself. It would help to have her immediate impression when she wrote the story up for the Globe.
“It wasn’t Carlton Rumson who killed Fiona Winters,” she said aloud, her voice confident. “It has to have been his wife, See-No-Evil Vicky. She was the one who kept after Rumson to read the play. She was the one who said Emmy should play Diane—she didn’t know Brian had changed the name. And Rumson started to correct her, because he had read only the revised version of the play. She must have listened in when Fiona phoned him. She came here while he was waiting for his call from Europe. She didn’t want Fiona to get involved with Rumson again, so she killed her, then took the script. That was the copy she read, not the final draft.”
“How very clever of you, Mrs. Meehan.”
The voice came from directly behind her, but before she could even blink, Alvirah felt strong hands push at the small of her back. She tried to turn as she felt her body press against the guardrail and panel. How did Victoria Rumson get in here? she wondered. Then, in a flash, she remembered that Brian’s key had been on the foyer table. Victoria must have taken it.
With all her strength she tried to throw herself against her attacker, but a blow on the side of her neck stunned her. She was able to spin around so that she was facing the other woman, but the blow had been an effective one, and she sagged against the railing. Only vaguely was she aware then of a
creaking, tearing sound and the feeling of her body teetering over yawning space.
* * *
Pete’s retirement party was a blast. The room at the K of C in Flushing was filled with Willy’s old buddies. The aromas of sausage and peppers and corned beef and cabbage mingled together enticingly. The first keg of beer had been tapped, and a beaming Pete was going from friend to friend, insisting they drink up.
But Willy could not get in the spirit of the evening. Something was bugging him, gnawing at him, telling him he should be heading home. He sipped his beer, nibbled halfheartedly at a corned-beef sandwich, congratulated Pete on his retirement, and then, without waiting for even one chorus of “Danny Boy,” he slipped away and got in his car.
When he reached the apartment, the door was slightly ajar; immediately his internal panic button began to shrill a warning. “Alvirah,” he called nervously. Then he saw two figures poised at the terrace railing. “Oh my God!” he moaned, then raced across the room, shouting Alvirah’s name.
“Come in, honey,” he pleaded. “Get back. Get away from there.” Then he suddenly realized what was happening. The other woman was trying to push Alvirah through the guardrail. He took one step out onto the terrace just as a section of the railing separated and fell away behind Alvirah.
Willy took a second step toward the struggling women and then passed out.
* * *
Emmy sat in the precinct station, waiting for her statement to be typed up, heartsick with worry
about Brian. She knew that Detective Rooney believed Carlton Rumson’s story that he’d gone into Alvirah’s apartment, thought it was empty and had left. It was obvious that Rooney had made up his mind that Brian had killed Fiona.
Why can’t he see that Brian had no reason to kill her? Emmy agonized. Brian had told her that Fiona had done him a favor when she walked out on the play. That it showed him just what kind of person she was. Oh, I shouldn’t have been so upset when Fiona showed up at my apartment yesterday, she thought. Brian never would have gotten involved with Fiona again, Emmy was sure of that. But when she’d tried to convince Detective Rooney of it, he’d asked, “Then if you were so sure that Brian was finished with Fiona, why did you follow her over to his aunt’s apartment?”
Emmy rubbed her forehead. She had such a headache! It was impossible to believe that only a few nights ago Brian had let her read the new play and asked her advice about changing the name of the lead from Diane to Beth.
“Diane is a pretty strong name,” he’d said. “I see the character as someone who comes across as vulnerable, even wistful; then as the action unfolds, we get to know just how strong she is. What do you think of calling her Beth instead of Diane?”
“I like it,” she’d replied.
“That’s good,” Brian had said, “because you were the model for her, and I want you to be happy with the name. I’ll make the change in the final draft.”
Emmy sat up straight and stared ahead, no longer aware of the harsh lights in the precinct room, or even of the bustle of activity and confusion around her. Beth . . . Diane . . .
That’s it! she thought suddenly. Tonight Victoria Rumson told me I should play the part of Diane. But the final script, the one she’s supposed to have read, has the name change in it. So she must have read the copy of the play that is missing from the apartment. That means she was there with Fiona. Of course, it all fits! Perhaps Victoria Rumson’s ability to overlook her husband’s indiscretions had been strained to the breaking point when she had almost lost him a couple of years ago—to Fiona Winters!
Emmy jumped up and ran from the station house. She had to talk to Alvirah right away. She heard a policeman call after her but didn’t answer him as she hailed a cab.
When she reached the building, she charged past a stuttering doorman and raced to the elevator. She heard Willy shouting as she came down the corridor. The door to the apartment was open. She saw Willy stumble onto the terrace and fall. Then she saw the silhouettes of two women and realized what was happening.
In a burst of speed, Emmy rushed out to the terrace. Alvirah was facing her, swaying over empty space. Her right hand was grasping the part of the railing that was still in place, but she was quickly losing her grip because Victoria Rumson was pummeling that hand with her fists.
Emmy grabbed Victoria’s arms and twisted them behind her. Victoria’s howl of rage and pain rose above the crash as the rest of the railing collapsed and fell. Emmy shoved her aside and managed to grasp the cord of Alvirah’s robe. Alvirah was teetering. Her bedroom slippers were sliding backward off the terrace. Her body swayed as she hovered thirty-four stories over the sidewalk below. With a
burst of strength, Emmy pulled her forward and they fell together over the collapsed form of the unconscious Willy.
* * *
Alvirah and Willy slept until noon. When they finally woke up, Willy insisted Alvirah stay put. He went out to the kitchen, returning fifteen minutes later with a pitcher of orange juice, a pot of tea and a piece of toast. After her second cup of tea, Alvirah regained her customary optimism. “Boy, was it good that Detective Rooney came barging in here after Emmy and caught Victoria trying to escape. And do you know what I think, Willy?”
“I never know what you think, honey,” Willy said with a sigh.
“Well, I bet you one thing—that Carlton Rumson will still want to produce Brian’s play. You can be sure he won’t be shedding any tears over seeing Victoria going to prison.”
“You’re probably right,” Willy conceded. “Those two certainly weren’t a pair of lovebirds.”
“And Willy,” Alvirah concluded, “I want you to have a talk with Brian, to tell him he’d better marry that darling Emmy before somebody else snaps her up.” She beamed. “I have the perfect wedding present for them, a load of white furniture.”