Authors: Ellery Queen
Wife or Death
CAST OF CHARACTERS
âhe couldn't keep track of his wife's adulteries, but he finally arranged for Angel's lovers to lay her away
âthe perfect wife and the past imperfect widow
”âEllen Wright and Olive Haber. Their deadly cue shots caromed all over town
âthe truculent D.A. who had lost the wife but was out to get the husband
âa voluptuous mid-century child-woman; she had the name but lost the game
âit took Jim, his best friend, to discover who sped the parting guest
âthis genial sportsman married into blood money
âa handsome, imperious woman with the soignÃ©e of a lifetime of luxury, but murder cracked her veneer wide open
âmultimillionaire movie mogul whose courtliness landed him in trouble
âone of the long line of Angel's short-lived lovers
âthis red-haired cartoonist was one of the Legions of Angel's Lovers
âa cleaning woman whose avarice blew the lid off the box
âthis shrewd, able lawman moved slowly, unless there was a gun at his back
âthe only thing this taciturn taxi driver was beaten by was the weather
At midnight, when the masks came off, Jim Denton had not yet been on the dance floor. He had spent the whole hour since their arrival at the downstairs bar, waiting for his wife to return from her alleged visit to the powder room.
Angel's affection for the country club powder room was an old story by now. Denton thought: That's her escape hatch. What's mine?
Corinne Guest, sequinned mask dangling, slipped onto the neighboring stool. She was dressed as Peter Pan, which suited her perky figure and features perfectly. Denton gave her an admiring look and she smiled acknowledgment. Her glance ran over his lanky frame, from leather hip boots to plumed hat, with amused approval.
“How does a lady tell the difference?”
Denton said with a shrug, “The abandoned husband.”
He regretted the remark at once. He had intended it as a jeering reference to being left waiting at the bar, but from Corinne Guest's vanishing smile she thought he had been referring to Angel's extra-marital activities. It was the worst-kept secret in town.
“She said fifteen minutes,” he explained, and wondered why he went through the motions. “But you know Angel. No sense of time at all.”
“Oh,” Corinne said, and smiled again. “Well, we're in the same boat. I seem to have lost George in the excitement, too.”
Tradition had it at the club's Hallowe'en balls that you kissed your partner when the masks were lifted at midnight, but you were supposed to make a point of being with your better or worse half as the witching hour struck. All around them married couples and sweethearts were wrapped around each other.
Denton grinned. “I won't presume to predict about George, but it's as sure as death and taxes that my Angel is bussing somebody right this second. Are you and I going to just sit here?”
“And you an editor,” Corinne said. “You split an infinitive.”
“And you a female. You changed the subject.”
She laughed. “All right, Monsieur Athos. Let's pay lip service to tradition.”
Leaning over, she placed a palm on each of his cheeks and touched her lips to his. Immediately she straightened back on her stool.
Denton growled, “I've had more passionate kisses from the ghost of my great-great-grandmother.”
“Oh, but it's so public to show my true feelings,” Corinne said lightly. “Your reporter is sitting over there at the corner table. I'd hate to show up in the
's gossip column.”
It was young Ted Winchester, with a girl. Neither was in costume. Ted waved at him.
“I can always edit out anything personal in his copy,” Denton said, waving back. “Want to try again?”
“Frankly, I'd rather have a drink.”
“Why do the women in my life always prefer drinking with me to necking?”
“Maybe because they're not the women in your life.”
“You mean they're the women in somebody else's life?”
“Something like that,” Corinne Guest said.
“That's what I like about you,” Denton complained. “You're so suggestible. Jiggers?”
The bartender came over at Denton's signal, and Denton said, “One bourbon and soda for Mrs. Guest.”
“Nothing for you, Mr. Denton?” Denton's glass was empty.
“The night is young, pal.”
The bartender grinned and prepared a bourbon and soda for Corinne. She took one aseptic sip and set it down. Denton signed the tab.
“Aren't you drinking tonight, Jim?”
“I've been drinking.”
“I mean drinking.”
? One sip doth not a hangover make.”
“Me? This is not my first one, Mr. Denton.” Just the same, she raised her glass and took a healthy swallow. And choked over it, at which Denton ungallantly chuckled. “Seriously, Jim, if you're not drinking you don't have to sit here with me. George will get here eventually. Have you danced?”
“Oh. I'm so sorry.”
He found himself rather annoyed at her tone, and the discovery surprised him. Jim Denton and Corinne and George Guest had been close friends all their lives. Why, he thought, should Corinne's sympathy over his wife's antics irritate him? It wasn't as if he were still in love with Angel, or gave a damn whether she laid every man in town.
He shook his head, managed a grin. “How about you dancing with me, dream of my youth?”
“And lose my seat at the bar? No, thank you! They'll be thundering down here from the dance floor any second now.”
This was transparent. Corinne was strictly a social imbiber, and here she was, talking like one of the club's lushes. It was just an excuse to get him off the hook. In her intuitive way Corinne had apparently sensed his annoyance.
“Go find your wife and dance with her,” Corinne smiled. So she knew he could no longer keep from looking for Angel. “She deserves to suffer for deserting you.”
“Suffer? Am I that bad?”
“You'll do till George comes along. You two are the worst dancers in town.” As he slid from his stool Corinne added, “Oh, and if you see that husband of mine, steer him this-a-way.”
Denton smiled back and drifted off.
The bar was beginning to fill up now, as Corinne had predicted; he had to shoulder his way up the staircase through a thickening crowd.
Upstairs, as he surveyed the flashing motley on the dance floor, Denton clanked his sword against his knee and felt less ridiculous in his musketeer's costume. Everyone in Ridgemore seemed to be attending this Hallowe'en Ballâat least, everyone in the country club setâand only a few of the older members had come in ordinary evening togs. In addition to the tried-and-true ghosts, goblins, witches and wizards, there were clowns, hoboes, moonmen, cowboys, two knights armored in aluminum-painted cardboard, several harem girls, at least three Madame du Barrys, a George Washington with a Martha on his arm, an Abe Lincoln (on obvious elevator shoes)âeven one overweight Tarzan in a leopard skin that left most of his hairy chest and back bare.
Denton watched the dancers for several minutes without spotting his wife's costumeâor, rather, lack of one. Angel had come, of course, as Cleopatra. What could be more appropriate? Angel loved these affairs; they gave her a socially acceptable excuse for putting her luscious anatomy on exhibit before the men. She was as close to naked as the law allowed.
Once it had caused him anguish. No more.
He had not really expected to find her on the dance floorânot after a whole hour's disappearance. It was only a technical possibility that he had to eliminate. So now he knew that again she was in the dark somewhere, probably outdoors, her wrap over her near nudity, with some Ridgemore buck enthusiastically playing Antony to her royal Egyptian whore. Denton had reached the point where he no longer even wanted to salvage his marriage. He was merely drifting along until she committed some act so flagrant that he could not ignore it. The only thing that angered him was the occasional poor-old-Jim glance he caught friends throwing his way when they saw him alone, peering over a crowd.
Abruptly he went out into the lobby again and back downstairs to the bar. The scabbard banging his shins made him elevate it at a high angle behind him. It struck him that in this position the sword gave him a tail. He thought with amusement that he was now completeâhe had had the horns for a long time.
The barroom by now was packed and deafening. Corinne Guest still sat where he had left her. She gave him the raised eyebrows.
“I forgot to look for him,” Denton confessed, belatedly remembering her request. “Although I don't think he's on the dance floor.”
“Oh, well,” Corinne said. “Sooner or later George will zero in on the bar. Couldn't you find Angel, either?”
“I only took a duty look. If I don't go hunting for her she complains of neglect. If I find her she says I step on her feet. So I stand in the archway to the ballroom, where she can spot me looking around for her if she happens to be dancing. I don't look very hard, but it saves trouble.”
“Just like a man.” Corinne swung around on the stool so that her back was to the bar. “I think you're in a mood to weep on a sisterly shoulder. Order us a couple of drinks, Jim, and we'll find us a secluded nook and go into therapy.”
The worst of it was that she meant well. Corinne didn't have a scandalmongering bone in her body.
As a delaying tactic Denton said, “Here?” and wrinkled his nose.
“I know a place. Come on, Jim. You need it.”
He was trapped. “Say, Jiggers,” he called to the bartender. “Bourbon and soda twice.”
Corinne led the way, Denton following with the two glasses. Out in the hall, she walked past the staircase and headed for the slatted door at the end labeled M
. She opened the door, groped along the wall and turned on the lights.