Maisy opened the door with a finger to her lips and led me into her library-work room. Yvonne lay beneath a worn patchwork quilt on a couch near the crackling fire, only the tousled blonde top of her head visible. A faint sickbed odor threaded sweet alder smoke.
“Coffee in the kitchen,” Maisy said. The dinette table in the bay window had a view of the cold river. Her mugs were large and heavy; the coffee was bitter. “She was so distraught I gave her something to calm her.”
“She seemed calm last we spoke. Trying to make me an accomplice.”
She waved that away. “Mr. Montaine wrote you have a quixotic sense of justice. Which seems a reach. Still, here you are. I’m curious why you thought the suspect arrested in Seattle did not kill Ronnie. What kept you digging?”
“Does it really matter?”
“I told you once, detective stories have been a life-long interest. Have you read Chandler’s treatise on the private eye?”
I had not, and said so.
“He described a kind of man. The best man, maybe, in his world. A good enough man for all worlds. A man who would not let well enough alone. You haven’t let well enough alone. The police seemed content with their organized-crime suspects.”
I drew a breath. “You counted on that.”
She leaned on the counter and toyed with an old carnival-glass sugar dish. “You mean the free-speech committee?”
“I mean Yvonne, and you. You specifically.”
“I see,” she said calmly. “How absolutely interesting. When you were here before, you hadn’t a clue. But you grill Margaret until she snaps and seeks her sister. Then you pressure poor Yvonne until she runs to me for comfort. You follow her to me, as you followed Margaret to her.” She stopped, and stared out at the river.
Finally I spoke. “Karnes was a piece of work, blackmailing her about her sister. Whether he knew about Betty’s porn stardom before, or found out later, doesn’t matter. Neither does the censorship-versus-free speech rigmarole. This was between Yvonne and Karnes, period.”
“I’m very afraid Eric gave you that idea. It’s just small-town gossip, you realize. Nothing approaching evidence.” She showed less reaction to naming Elizabeth than she had when I first mentioned the possibility of a local blue-movie queen.
“Yvonne,” I said, “admitted to Margaret she caved to his blackmail, and hated it — and him. My only real question remains whether she had help imagining how to end his extortion. And wreck his reputation at the same time. A fall guy would be useful for the script. Say a Little Nickel detective, whose report would blacken his name as a hypocritical sleaze.”
Maisy pursed her lips. “Nothing you say suggests murder. Your reports on his activities would have sufficed.”
“This way, though, he couldn’t defend himself. Maybe she got the idea from your detective stories. Once she had the idea, she took action while the rest of you dithered. Did the ice pick come from her medical knowledge? No way to know. But a limp to disguise body language probably came from one of your detective stories. Clever once. But using it in different disguises, different places, wasn’t clever.”
Maisy’s lips formed a carved imitation of a smile. “You talk about limps as if you expect me to know what you mean. Your technique is interesting. If I so much as hint I know what you guess at, you take it for proof she discussed it with me. What am I supposed to do? Admit we discussed what led to murder, but she went off on her own? Or say no, no, I held her hand all through it?”
I rubbed my face. “I admit you’re a shrewd customer. I’m just killing time until police check here.”
That surprised her a little. “They want to question her?”
“They did like their theory about mob involvement. But real-life cops will explore alternatives. I gave them one.”
“By accusing your own client.”
“A nurse knows her way around a brain-stem. This morning she almost admitted it. Fall guy all arranged. To witness Karnes sneaking off to watch porn while playing defender of morals at home. Alive he could fight back by revealing Betty’s wild-child behavior. Dead, he couldn’t. It could have worked. But Montaine got into the act.”
Still no reaction about Elizabeth’s porn. “The police arrest supported Mr. Montaine’s contention about organized crime.”
“Interesting guy, Montaine,” I said. “Itching to hit the big time again. I didn’t get why you opposed me talking to him. He was telling me why when we were interrupted. Before I got back to him, he was dead too.”
“You alluded to that before.”
“But who told the assholes where to find me that morning? Had to be a committee member who knew loggers.” She started to object; I talked over her. “Plus, who tried to get me in trouble by lying about hearing a shot when I went back to see him? Another detective-story trick.”
“Margaret told Yvonne police suspect her. Preposterous.”
“She had opportunity. She was close-by. Ability: anyone could grab that .22. Possible intent: they argued. Cops didn’t consider any other locals who might have been walking around that day.”
“But you did.”
“Margaret saw her in that limping-woman disguise. Accused her of the killing. But Yvonne insisted she didn’t touch him.”
“You heard all this…by eavesdropping.” Dripping sarcasm.
“I did. This morning, Yvonne added a new twist: she was the lookout. Which would mean somebody else lifted the murder weapon from the butcher truck. Somebody the local cops would pay no attention to being around that day. Somebody local. Somebody with an animus against Montaine.”
Maisy ignored the remark about animus. “Why would she tell you she was a lookout? A lookout for whom?”
“She was jerking me around. Said cops would think I was the one in Montaine’s office, and she was my lookout.”
“Which would place you at both murder scenes, since you also reported Ronnie’s death.”
“Being too clever again,” I said. “Like using the limp twice. Her mistake was to reveal she had an accomplice. More accurately, that she was the accomplice.”
She darted a hard glance at me. “Putative motive to kill him?”
“Same small-town secrets you were afraid of when you objected to my seeing him in the first place.”
“What secrets could he have known?”
“He called White River Peyton Place redux.”
The carved smile again. “Margaret said he used the term more than once. I’m old enough to understand the reference.”
“His office was tossed,” I said. “A search for Peyton Place files? Or misdirection? No way to know. He knew what he knew. So he had to die. No one finding such files would touch them: too much danger of lawsuits. Heirs will want a clean inheritance, not headaches.”
“In the end, what could he possibly know? He was a stranger here.”
“Even so, he had sources. And was savvy enough to set them against each other. People with grudges tend to talk too much. Doctor Eckstrom, for instance, had a grudge against Karnes’ womanizing. Which infuriated Karnes. So he dished up dirt on Eckstrom about illegal abortions.”
She went to the urn, poured a refill; didn’t offer me any. “You are now unafraid to name the doctor. Hardly newsworthy as a small-town girl starring in blue movies.”
“Montaine had different small-town secrets in mind.”
“What did he tell you?” Her voice tightened.
“Mainly, Eckstrom opposed Karnes’ appointment because of his youthful womanizing. And Karnes told him Eckstrom performed illegal abortions for years.”
“Is that all?” She almost sneered. “Nothing can be done to Doctor Eckstrom now. Waste of taxpayer money. Public attitudes have changed. A woman has the right to the privacy of her body now. Such old news is hardly motive for murder.”
“I’m thinking about a married patient, impregnated by Ronald Karnes as a young man before he went away.”
“You mean Yvonne, when she married Gene Crain?” A hoarse whisper.
“Interesting idea. But no. A married woman older than Karnes, who slept with him just before he went away.” I waited for her to fight back about slandering this hypothetical woman. She didn’t. She bowed her head and waited. This was the hard part.
“You heard Eric tell me when Yvonne broke up with Ronnie he was past all consoling. No matter how hard you tried. That he left and never came back, even to visit. Though Eric thought highly of him. Perhaps not quite as highly as you.”
“You know we both loved that boy,” she said softly.
“So you said. You were so stressed when he left you had to see good old Doc Eckstrom. And then go away for a while. Last night I overheard Yvonne allude to your relationship. How Ronnie never hung around to face his indiscretions. And she’s Eckstrom’s nurse.”
Her shoulders slumped momentarily. Then she squared them. “Eric and I never had children. Which proves I am infertile. It couldn’t have been me you mean.”
I felt a lump in my throat. She was far too intelligent to believe it proved any such thing. It would have been better to remain silent. “Let’s remain hypothetical,” I said. “Suppose her husband was the infertile one. Suppose she wasn’t sure her husband knew that, even after years of no pregnancy. Probably wouldn’t have been on the Pill. Kind of forgot in the heat of a moment with Karnes. Faced an awful choice, and made it. Gave up a chance for her own child, to protect her husband’s pride. A secret she could not abide Montaine exposing.”
She gave a ragged sigh. “For some reason, you restore my faith in something. I don’t know what.” She gestured vaguely toward the room where Yvonne lay beneath shelved detective novels. “I wanted to believe there were people — a few — who would pursue the truth wherever it led.” Her mouth twisted. “Don’t ask why I liked fiction about detectives who did that, after I had truths that would not stand the light of day.”
“Don’t we all?” I said. “One way or another?”
“You know that. Yet still you do it. You keep on and on, until you break through the shabby little deceptions no one else thought to pursue.” She brought her mug and the sugar dish back to the table, sat heavily. “If some” — her lips quirked — “fling such as you suggest happened. Only if. And if Ronnie had been the father. If again. Why would he tell Mr. Montaine?”
“You and your husband agreed he didn’t have the best childhood. Making hometown chief was probably important to him. When Montaine withheld his endorsement, he wanted to know why. Montaine told him Eckstrom had been very blunt about Karnes’ misspent youth, and Eckstrom is a local pillar. Karnes fought back the only way he knew. Spelling out dirt on whom he viewed as his enemy. Any women he maligned were just collateral damage.”
She gazed out at the river. “You build a tissue-thin construct to support your murder theory.” She fooled with the sugar dish again. “I won’t insult you by pointing out how unlikely it is you can develop court proof of any of this. I doubt you’d get much help from authorities. A small-town nurse and a farmer’s wife are not suspects upon which official careers are made.”
“You’re right to a point,” I said. “And they’d be reluctant to go to war with Eckstrom’s professional ethics to find relevant proof of illegal abortions. But they’ll give Yvonne a once-over, just in case. Real-life policemen do. Most have no real interest in convicting innocent people to maintain a good track record.”
“Your point is?”
“They’ll interrogate her. How she handles it will tell the tale. If she stays with what a rotten s.o.b. Karnes was to extort her sexual favors, given the times, she might get a fairly light sentence. Despite the ambush nature of the kill. Her attorney would put Karnes on trial: a perverted creep who got his.”
“Yes, I suppose I can see that.” She grimaced. “Poor Yvonne.”
“Montaine is different. Lab work or leg work might turn up evidence of an accomplice, when they know they should look for one. They’ll just take a shortcut. Offer Yvonne a deal for the accomplice’s identity. In return for not fighting too hard for heavy time on Karnes. That’s real-life police work. My guess is she’d roll over for it. She already tried to put the killings off on Betty. Her own sister. Today she told me she could implicate me. She’s looking for a way out. She might very well turn on the hypothetical wife who went into Montaine’s office. I don’t think she knows the meaning of loyalty.”
The silence stretched between us. Finally Maisy said, “I’m very much afraid you’re right in your assessment of her character. When she got here, she was really in a state. Almost accusing me for all the trouble she was in.” She brought her gaze back from the river. “That’s no admission I know what you’re talking about. But she said this morning you were looking for a word to describe her. She was bothered by that, almost more than anything. Bothered you knew that about her.”
“So bothered she immediately concocted the notion I was guilty as she was.”
Grim smile. “They do that. People whose diagnosis includes one of the words you were looking for. One word would be amoral: lacking morals. A stronger word might be narcissist: you can look it up. Clinically, it means far more than just stuck on yourself. In its worst forms, narcissists wind up as serial killers and the like. Whoever that young man killing co-eds in Seattle turns out to be, I imagine he is a narcissist. They simply don’t understand our feelings, period. Nothing matters but their own sense of alienation.”
“Somebody who knew loggers sent those loggers after my car as a diversion,” I said. “So they could kill Montaine. Somebody called the police and tried to implicate me in Montaine’s death. Nothing narcissistic there. Just good old solid moves from your detective books.”
She shook her head a trifle impatiently. “You think, you suspect, you conjecture. Do you really expect me to obediently play along in your charade?”
“Not in a million years. I expect you to sit here until I call the cops to come get Yvonne. The rest will occur however it occurs.” I pushed back my chair. “Still, it must be quite a story.”
“Nothing so sweeping or grand,” she demurred. “Just perfectly ordinary people, whose banal little sins only seem enormous to the sinners.” She took the top off the carnival-glass dish and spooned two careful spoonfuls into the bitter coffee, stirred with careful attention.
“Every town is somewhat the same, I think. People are the same for the most part. Sometimes there is one a little brighter, touched with a special magic, or what appears magic. Like Yvonne. Like Ronnie. No rules for them. None needed. They’re as amoral, and as lovely when young, as a Siamese kitten.”
She frowned. “But something always happens. They change as they grow older, the world works on them, and they learn their power. Outside they are still beautiful, still sort of magical. But inside they are wizened little old children who never got over the terrible twos and manipulating mommy. That’s why you’re right about Yvonne in terms of loyalty. No way would she keep anyone’s secrets if divulging them would serve her. Just as Ronnie failed to keep those of people who loved him.”
I waited, willing her to just spill it out, close all the loops. She seemed to identify my emotion, and half-smiled up at me from her preoccupation with stirring her coffee. “For all you think you know, you really don’t. Do you? You want the comfort of an absolute confession, to make sure you are doing the right thing. Don’t you? Maybe poor Mr. Montaine was right about your quixotic nature after all. Maybe sometime I shall ask him how he knew.”
“Now what do you mean by that?” I said.
She gave the half-smile again. “Yvonne told me she asked you to kill her. And then asked for your gun to do it herself.”
I blinked. “She did?”
“It was just another of her manipulations, of course. But I knew you would inform the authorities she spoke of suicide, you see.” She read my reaction. “You already have? So I was right. That will explain why she…” she broke off and looked down. “But it doesn’t matter now.”
My neck hairs stirred at her sudden shift in direction. “Explain why she what?” I said. She fiddled with the sugar bowl as if it held all the secrets of the world.
She heaved a heavy sigh. “I guess I don’t escape the consequences after all,” she said quietly. “The final act might have been different if she warned me you suspected me.”
“I didn’t tell her.”
“So now we rewrite the final act. I know I have no right to ask this. But I ask it anyway. Will you please, please never tell Eric your conjecture about what Dr. Eckstrom did for me, the summer Ronnie left?” A terrible tension had come into her body. She leaned toward me. “Please?” she repeated.
I wanted to get up and go to the phone. Her sudden tension held me motionless. “Just please don’t mention that one thing, no matter what,” she said, “and I’ll give you a real surprise.” Her tone was almost the singsong of the manipulative two-year-old child she described.
“If I can avoid it, I will avoid it.”
She let out another long breath and stared out at the river for a long moment. “Thank you.” Then she put her cup to her lips and took two long, painful swallows. “The surprise is, there won’t be any trial for Yvonne after all,” she said, hoarsely. “No opportunity to offer her a chance to betray anyone’s secrets.” Then, quickly, “Don’t let anyone use the sugar.”
She was pushing the coffee mug carefully into the center of the table when the first violent convulsion knocked her out of the chair with stunning force. The table lurched. Cups and sugar bowl flew. She finished dying before I could reach the phone on the wall.