But He Was Already Dead When I Got There

But He Was Already Dead When I Got There

Barbara Paul

MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM

1

“I could kill him!” Dorrie Murdoch said furiously to her husband. “I could just kill him!”

“Now, Dorrie,” Simon Murdoch replied in the mildest of tones. “One of these days you're going to forget and say that to his face.”

“Someone should have told him off long ago,” Dorrie muttered. “Sitting there on his moneybags like King Crocus lording it over the rest of us!”

“King who?”

“Crocus? The guy that was so rich?”

“I think that's Croesus.”

“Whatever. Besides, I
hate
rushing through dinner. ‘Eight o'clock sharp—don't be late!'” Dorrie's tone of voice made it clear how barbaric she considered such an early hour to be. “Why do we have to go there at all? He has to make such a production of everything. Here, zip me up.”

Simon zipped her up. “Did you ever know Uncle Vincent to pass up a chance to grandstand? He likes ceremony, Dorrie. It reinforces his God image.”

She sighed. “He does love being the source from whom all blessings flow, doesn't he? Uncle Vincent giveth and Uncle Vincent taketh away.”

“Well, so long as he sticks to giveth-ing, you can put up with his irritating little ways, can't you?” Simon was adjusting his tie before the mirror; the Murdochs had only one mirror in their bedroom, but it covered three of the room's four walls. Simon turned his head a trifle sideways and looked at his image out of the corner of his eye, approving of what he saw. “There's no point in getting angry, darling. Uncle Vincent thrives on playing lord of the manor—and as long as Ellandy's takes his money, you're just going to have to put up with it.”

“That's easy for you to say,” she sniffed. “You're not involved in it, Simon—anyone can stand outside and pass judgment. Besides, we took his money only once. You're not going to wear that tie, are you? It's just that I hate being a, well, a
supplicant
.”

Simon's easy smile disappeared momentarily. “I don't think I'm passing judgment, dear. And I'm not really outside—anything that involves you affects me. Anyway, you won't be a supplicant much longer, darling—you're almost out of the woods.” He looked in the mirror again. “What's wrong with this tie?”

“Ah—nothing, darling. If you like it.”

Simon started taking off his tie. “But you don't. Therefore, I shall change it.” He smiled winningly.

“Oh, Simon, don't change it because—”

“Dorrie, my love, I wouldn't dream of wearing a tie you didn't like.” He walked into his closet and came out carrying two other ties. “Which?”

“That one, I think. Simon, you're sweet.”

The Murdochs embraced, being careful not to muss each other's hair. “You're not still angry, are you?” Simon drawled, putting on the tie Dorrie had selected.

“No, you always manage to defuse me in time,” Dorrie laughed lightly. “I shouldn't let the old man get to me like that. If only he would do something nice for its own sake once in a while—without making everyone kowtow to him for it.”

Simon raised one eyebrow. “Uncle Vincent? You jest.
Not
being nice—'tis the core of his existence and what gives his life meaning. You don't expect him to start acting gracious at his age, do you?”

“I know better than that.” She sighed. “Fasten me, darling, will you?”

Simon deftly manipulated the clasp at the back of her neck and then looked at what was hanging from the chain. “Is that the new piece?”

“Do you like it?” She patted the lavaliere possessively and then moved her hand so Simon could get a clear view. “The craftsmen just finished it this afternoon.”

“It's lovely, Dorrie.” It was a Maltese cross, with the arms so extended and curved as almost to meet in a circle at the tips. Made of gold and encrusted with rubies, the cross stood out nicely against the dark blue crushed silk of Dorrie's dress. “It's one of the best you've done yet.”

“Why, thank you, darling—how nice.” She lifted her cheek to be kissed.

Simon obliged. “I hope it looks as nice on its owner.”

“You
are
sweet. Simon, when Ellandy's is free and clear, we ought to give a party. To celebrate.”

“Of course. What a good idea. Shall we invite Uncle Vincent?”

Dorrie made a face at him. “You know, if it weren't for Ellandy Jewels, I don't think I'd even be speaking to that nasty old man.”

Something in her tone made Simon pause. “Darling, if it bothers you that much—just tell him to go to hell. We don't have to go tonight.”

“Unfortunately,” Dorrie said wryly, “I'm in no position to issue my personal declaration of independence at the moment. If it weren't for Uncle Vincent there wouldn't be any Ellandy's.”

“Yes, there would. You could have gotten a loan somewhere else. Or you could have retrenched. Malcolm says Ellandy's was not exactly teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.”

“Malcolm doesn't know everything that goes on at Ellandy's,” Dorrie snapped.

Simon tut-tutted, a half-smile playing around his lips. “Sibling problems?”

“No, nothing like that. I love my brother dearly and I know he has my best interests at heart—but Malcolm doesn't know everything. It was Uncle Vincent's money that kept Ellandy's afloat and that old man's never going to let us forget it. So when Uncle Vincent says be there at eight, I'll be there at eight.”

“Still, darling,” Simon said firmly, “if dancing attendance on Uncle Vincent makes you feel like a toady, then perhaps it would be better to break away.”

“Toady—what a charming word. But tonight's not the night to make the break. Not when he's going to cancel the loan.”


If
he cancels the loan. You don't know that's what he's going to do!”

“What else could it be?”

“He could merely extend it. That would be a good way to keep you all toadying to him a little longer.”

Dorrie turned on her brightest smile. “That's twice you've called me a toady, darling.”

“Oh, dearest, I didn't mean—”

“I know, I know. But it's such an ugly little word, isn't it? I really could do without it, dear.”

Simon placed one hand over his heart and raised the other in the air. “I hereby solemnly promise never to let
that word
pass my lips again during my lifetime. Or after.”

Dorrie's eyes widened in mock amazement. “That's some oath, darling—I'm impressed. But I'm sure Uncle Vincent isn't just going to extend Ellandy's loan. He wouldn't need an attorney present for that, and he did include Malcolm in the invitation. If you can call it an invitation.”

Simon lifted one eyebrow. “Malcolm will be there too? Hm, that's a surprise … I thought he didn't like your brother.”

“Uncle Vincent doesn't like anybody.”

“But didn't he once accuse Malcolm of trying to talk him to death?”

“Simon, you know he was just being nasty. Why bring that up?”

“But Uncle Vincent's never let Malcolm handle any of his legal business. So why now? Why isn't he using his own attorney?”

“Who knows? Maybe he's had a change of heart.”

They both laughed at the absurdity of that. Then the Murdochs pronounced themselves ready and stood back to examine each other. They were a good-looking couple, and they made the most of it. Their outfits were always complementary and never more than four months old. Both fair-haired, they made sure they were always the exact same shade of blond; one never changed without the other. That month they were Honey Ash Number Seventeen.

“Darling, you have a snag,” Simon said with the barest hint of a smile. “Left leg.”

Dorrie glanced down in irritation at her leg. “Where? I don't see it.”

“Around in back. Just a little one, but it'll turn into a run.”

“I still don't see it.”

“Take my word for it. You'd better change.”

Dorrie made a sound of mild disgust. “These are brand-new pantyhose. How annoying. I'll only be a moment, love.” She opened a bureau drawer.

“I'll stay and watch,” Simon leered wolfishly, and he was rewarded with a tinkly laugh from his spouse.

The Murdochs were very much in love.

Malcolm Conner glanced at his watch and saw he wasn't going to have time to eat. He'd been in court all afternoon, and the letters he'd had to dictate before he could leave his office had taken an unconscionable length of time. He envied Dorrie; he'd never acquired his sister's knack of dashing off an error-free piece of correspondence without having to ponder every phrase, every piece of punctuation.

The car in front of him was moving erratically—drunk driver? Malcolm concentrated on the traffic until the car ahead turned off into a side street. Then he pressed down on the accelerator; Uncle Vincent didn't take kindly to latecomers—as Nicole would be sure to remind him. How he
hated
to rush.

No parking place in the street presented itself, so Malcolm drove down the ramp into the garage beneath the building. When he at last unlocked the apartment door, Nicole Lattimer greeted him with a wet kiss and a dry martini. “You won't have time to eat,” she said. “Unless you want Uncle Vincent snarling at you.”

“I know,” Malcolm said, and tasted the martini. “You'd think he'd make it a dinner invitation if he's going to insist on such early hours. I'll just shower and change.”

Nicole waited until he'd come out of the shower and asked, “What do you suppose this is all about? Dorrie thinks Uncle Vincent is going to cancel Ellandy's loan.”

“That's one possibility,” Malcolm said in his courtroom voice. “Another is that he might merely extend it. A third possibility is that our meeting tonight has nothing to do with Ellandy Jewels at all.”

“In other words, you have no idea. I think Dorrie is wrong—when have you ever known Vincent Farwell to give anything away?”

“He gave Gretchen and Lionel a house when they married, remember.” Malcolm started getting dressed. “Uncle Vincent is no miser, Nicole. He is merely cautious.”

“Mm. I think he gave them that house to make sure they wouldn't live with him.” Nicole smoothed her hands over her dark hair. She was wearing it pulled back tightly from her face, emphasizing her already prominent cheek bones. Nicole went in for the starkly dramatic look, a deliberate contrast to Dorrie Murdoch's cultivated femininity. When Nicole was dressed in black, as she was tonight, she resembled nothing so much as a Russian ballet mistress. Malcolm liked the look. “Exactly what did Gretchen say when she invited us?” Nicole asked.

“‘Summoned' is more like it,” Malcolm replied. “All she said was that her uncle had a surprise for us and you and I were to be at his house at eight sharp. When I asked her to be more specific, Gretchen just waved her hands vaguely and said ‘You'll see' and ‘It's a surprise' and a few other uninformative things like that. I got the impression—perhaps erroneous—that she doesn't know the purpose of the meeting herself. Have you noticed how Gretchen has a tendency to tell all she knows? I'm convinced that if she did know, she wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to drop a hint or two. However, it could be that I misread her and—”

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