Despite his terror, North delivers the speech of his life. But when he introduces the guest of honor, the distinguished author doesn’t stand. Sproul’s eyes jerk open, his chest heaves, and he breathes his last. He has been murdered in plain sight, but it will take the combined genius of Jerry and Pamela North to find out who killed the writer, and committed the unforgiveable crime of ruining a perfect speech.
Death Takes a Bow is the 6th book in the Mr. and Mrs. North Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Death Takes a Bow
A Mr. and Mrs. North Mystery
By Frances Lockridge, Richard Lockridge
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1971 Richard Lockridge
All rights reserved.
Thursday, October 8, 7:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
Mrs. North was consoling. It wasn't, she pointed out, as if he really had to make a speech. Not a real speech. There was no sense in his carrying on so, and not eating any dinner.
"Actually," she explained with the air of one who has often explained, "actually all you do is tag Mr. Sproul. Then he's it and you just sit down and look interested and try not to wriggle. And don't pull at your hair."
Mr. North felt in his jacket pocket. The notes — notes which now represented, he dimly felt, all that he knew or would ever know about anything — were still there. This was reassuring, but it also reinforced his horrid conviction that this was real. In — Mr. North looked at his watch — in fifty-seven minutes he would have to stand up before five hundred people and open his mouth while five hundred mouths remained closed. He shuddered and took his hand away from the notes.
"Michaels should have done it," he said, angrily. "Why me, for God's sake?"
"Five minutes," Mrs. North said. "Or ten at the outside. You could do it standing on your head."
That, Mr. North assured her, would give just the touch. That would make it lovely.
"Mr. Gerald North," he said, "of the firm of Townsend Brothers, introduced Mr. Victor Leeds Sproul, noted author of That Was Paris, while standing on his head."
"There, dear," Mrs. North said. "What's five minutes?" She paused. "He didn't go to Paris while standing on his head," she added, reflectively. "That came afterward. Is he really good, Jerry?"
"He's wonderful," Jerry told her. "He's immense. Five big printings. Total sales ninety-three thousand as of yesterday. He's colossal. Townsend Brothers loves him. Fifty-three minutes."
Mrs. North told him to try not to think of it. Or to think that, in an hour, it would all be over. Except, of course, Mr. Sproul, who would be beginning.
"Think how good you'll feel then," she said. "Duty done, audience contented, Mr. Sproul in full flight."
"And," Mr. North said harshly, "the platform covered with old vegetables. Thrown at me. Or me still standing there with my mouth open, trying to think of something to say. Or forgetting Spread's name — Victor Leeds Sproul. Victor Leeds Sproul. Leeds Sproul Victor. Oh, God!"
"Five minutes," Mrs. North said, looking worriedly at her husband. "Only five minutes, Jerry. Not as long as we've been talking about it." She sighed. "Not nearly as long," she added. "And it isn't as if you hadn't done it before. You're a very good speaker, really. Once you get started."
Gerald North put out a cigarette, reached for another, fingered his notes instead. He held his hand out and watched it tremble. He besought Pamela North to look and she looked and said, "Poor dear."
"Once I get started," he repeated. "But you can't get started in five minutes. I'd rather talk half an hour. An hour, even. I'd rather be Sproul."
"No," Mrs. North said firmly. "Over my dead body."
For now, Mr. North pointed out. Not permanently. He would rather be Sproul making a speech of an hour than North introducing for five minutes. Because five minutes was too long or not long enough; in five minutes you could only talk at an audience, and nothing came back, because the audience hadn't the faintest idea who you were or what you wanted it to do; because in five minutes you could not catch your second fluency and had only to rely, frantically, on what you had written down. And because you were too scared to see what you had written down.
"Even fifteen minutes is better," Mr. North said. "Oh, God!"
He stood up and looked around the living room. Toughy raised an inquiring head from the chair cushion on which he had, no doubt only momentarily, allowed it to relax. He made the interested sound of a loquacious cat which observes things in progress.
"Look at him!" Mr. North commanded. "Does he have to make a speech before five hundred people, introducing Victor Leeds Sproul? He just lies there!"
Mr. North glared at Toughy, who repeated his earlier remark.
"I'd like to be a cat," Mr. North said. "Just sleep and play and be fed. Where's Ruffy?" He looked around. "Off sleeping somewhere," he answered himself, bitterly. "Does she have to make a speech?" He looked at Mrs. North. "Do you have to make a speech?" he demanded. "Does anybody else in the world have to make a speech except me?" He stared around wildly. "Why me?" he demanded of the world and, it seemed probable, its Creator.
"There, dear," Mrs. North said. "It's only five minutes."
Mr. North glared at her.
"Five minutes!" he repeated. "Is that all you can say? Five minutes?"
"Ten at the most," Mrs. North said, serenely. "After all, you've done it before." She paused. "And always made just the same fuss about it," she added. "And afterward never could understand why you were so worried. I'd think you'd learn."
"So help me," Mr. North told her, "this is the last time. After this it's Michaels or nobody. Or all the Townsends — or — or anybody. But never me. So help me."
"You know there aren't any Townsends," Mrs. North told him. "Since 1873."
"Eighteen seventy-four," Mr. North told her. "Old Silas."
"And Michaels would have, only he's in the army," she pointed out. "He's being a captain."
"And if," Mr. North said, "he can see one bit better than I can I'll —"
"Jerry!" Mrs. North said. Mrs. North was firm. "There's no use going over that again, darling. It's just one of those things. You can't help it, and they can't help it and so you buy bonds and — and introduce Victor Leeds Sproul, so he can tell people about how lovely Paris used to be and make them want to make it that way again and —" She broke off.
"All right, baby," Mr. North said. "I'm sorry. I'll go make my little speech."
Mrs. North smiled at him.
"After all —" she began. Mr. North held up his hand.
"Don't go on," he warned. "Don't say —'after all, it's only five minutes.' Just don't."
Mrs. North smiled again. She said, all right, she wouldn't.
"And don't come," Mr. North said. "Don't get a taxicab after I leave and show up at the Today's Topics Club and think I won't see you in the audience. Because I will. And forget everything I was going to say. If anything." He looked at her. "Promise, Pam?" he said. There was a note of entreaty in his voice.
"Jerry!" Pam said. As she said it she looked, with sudden anxiety, at the little ball watch which hung around her neck. "Jerry, you've got to go! It's — it's after eight!"
There was no difficulty in distracting Jerry. He looked at the watch on his wrist and shook the wrist and looked at it again. "Ten of," he said. "That's what mine says. Do you suppose —?"
"You mustn't take the chance," Pam told him. "Maybe it stopped. Jerry — you'll have to run! Have you got your notes?"
He felt again, although the touch of the folded sheets of paper was still reminiscent on his fingers. The notes were there. He picked up his top coat, spread on the sofa beside him, and Ruffy tumbled off, landing on her feet and making cat comments. But she saw her brother in his chair and went over quickly. She jumped up beside him and fell to washing his face. He closed his eyes in ecstasy.
"Ruffy," Pam North said. "You are a fool. Make him wash himself!"
Ruffy did not pause. Toughy opened one eye partially and looked at Pamela North and there seemed to be a kind of amusement in the amber eye. He closed it again and Ruffy washed behind his ears.
"I've got to go," Gerald North said. "I've got to go and make a speech."
The horror of the situation, now all at once so immediate, overwhelmed him. "I've got to go now!" he repeated, in a kind of horrified disbelief. "It's almost now!"
That, he thought as he went down the stairs to the street door, and out into the street, was the thing about agreeing to make speeches. You agreed absently in August, when it was suggested to you — when it was only suggested, and yours to take or leave, when you could get out of it easily. You said, perhaps, "Sure, I'll introduce the bloke. Now, Miss Casey, if you're ready —" And then, instantly, it was October and the speech was now. Because time before speeches — even speeches of only five minutes — did not flow smoothly and evenly along, as time sometimes did. Time tricked you, giving no warning. A week before the speech, the speech was still almost as remote as it had been in August; even on Thursday a speech to be given on Friday was comfortably distant. It was not until Friday morning that you discovered you could eat no breakfast. And then it was Friday evening and you were on the sidewalk of Greenwich Place, alone in a hostile world, in which no one of all you saw bore your dreadful, immediate burden; a world divided between people who did not have to make a speech in half an hour — less, maybe — and you.
Gerald North caught a glimpse of the Jefferson Market Clock between two buildings. It said five of eight. Sometimes, he had heard, they let the condemned man give the signal to the fire squad. Or was it the headsman? The condemned man lifted his hand — and what whirling anguish went on in the still living brain as it commanded the hand to rise was something it was not comfortable to imagine. Gerald North imagined it. He lifted his hand and a taxi in the stand at the corner came to life. It leaped the intervening quarter block and engulfed Gerald North. Clutching the sheaf of notes in his inner pocket, his mind a cloudy swirl, the man who was about to make a little introductory speech rode northward along Fifth Avenue, toward his doom.
Normally traffic would have held them up, but that night there was no traffic. The cab dashed through the half-lighted streets like a meteor. It whirled east at Fifty-seventh, and up Madison, and the lights were all green before it. It did not break down. It did not careen into another car, wrecking itself and providing Mr. North with welcome lacerations and contusions which would make the giving of speeches impossible. The driver did not get arrested for exceeding the speed limit, nor was he held up by altercations with a traffic policeman until it was too late to reach the Today's Topics Club — why, Mr. North wondered dimly, not Today's Topics Clubs? Or even Klubs? The cab swirled up to the club's dignified four-story building, which looked so oddly as if it must house some lesser department of the government, and stopped. Mr. North, dazed now, got out and paid. He saw people going into the main entrance — people who were going to hear a lecturer, and the introducer of a lecturer, and had bitter, rapacious faces — and shuddered. He went into the smaller, narrow door reserved, on such nights as these, for the condemned. He entered the small elevator and was jerked to the third floor. He turned right down a cold, white corridor and came to a door marked: "Speakers' Room." With a shudder, Mr. North opened the door.
Of the three people in the room, Mr. North knew only one, the lion himself. Victor Leeds Sproul wore dinner clothes as if they were tweeds, and as if they were intended to be tweeds. One felt, instinctively, that if any disparity existed, it was the fault of the man who had first decided that dinner clothes were not to be made of tweed. Mr. Sproul was merely correcting an ancient error. When Mr. Sproul wore a dinner jacket, it became of tweed, and had better.
Mr. Sproul was taller and broader than ordinary. He, standing and putting down a glass on a polished table created to add impersonality to the detached surroundings of a speakers' room, loomed above Mr. North. He also loomed on either side of Mr. North. And if Mr. North, faced in the immediate future by an audience, lacked confidence, Mr. Sproul had confidence enough for two. It was clear that Mr. Sproul was going to enjoy lecturing, not only this evening but during the tour which stretched ahead.
Mr. Sproul was the lion and looked it. He was more impressive, more assured, even than Mr. North remembered him from meetings during recent weeks — meetings at the office, when Mr. Sproul, sitting beside Mr. North's desk, seemed somehow to leave Mr. North sitting beside it; meetings for luncheon, at which Mr. Sproul somehow became the host and made Mr. North feel at home. (He had managed, somehow, to make Mr. North feel at home in his own club, where before he had always felt a little away from home.)
He loomed above Mr. North now, with reddish hair bristling in suitable profusion, and reached out a hand.
"Mr. North!" he said, and somehow made it sound like the tag line of an anecdote. It was as if Sproul had been telling a story to which the entrance of Mr. North was the pay-off; as if Mr. North had entered only to pay off, only to complete a story already told. Mr. North felt, as he had felt before, as if he were essentially a figment of Mr. Sproul's imagination.
And yet, he thought, saying "Hello, Sproul," to the lion, Mr. Sproul did not really have a great deal of imagination. As Mr. Sproul's publisher, Mr. North could take his oath to that. There had been novels from Mr. Sproul and, without knowing the people Mr. Sproul had known, you could be almost certain that people Mr. Sproul had known appeared almost verbatim in the novels, which had, without being particularly interesting, a feeling of obvious reality. You could almost see the people whose lives Mr. Sproul had borrowed squirming uneasily on the pages to which Mr. Sproul had pinned them.
They had, since Mr. Sproul had spent so much of his life in Paris, been novels with a Paris background and, chiefly, they had been about people who had spent most of their lives in Paris but had been born elsewhere. There was a novel about a Parisian actress, born in Budapest, who had an affair — an affaire, really — with an American born in Sioux City. There had been a novel about a dancer, born in Warsaw, who had had an affair with an Englishman born in Shanghai, who succeeded where another American, born in Buffalo this time, had failed. The novels were extremely continental. They were not, however, extremely successful.
Townsend Brothers had, in fact, been considering the polite relinquishment of Mr. Sproul as an author when That Was Paris came along. This one was not a novel. As nearly as anything, it was biography, but it was a biography of a city as well as of Victor Leeds Sproul, and it came in time to be the obituary of the city and of a period. And it caught on; prodigiously it caught on. And Victor Leeds Sproul, in no wise astonished, found himself sharing with Elliot Paul the role of a beautiful city's biographer. Mr. Sproul's book glittered rather more than Mr. Paul's, being set in more tinseled places, and it was not so real, but it served. Townsend Brothers beamed on Mr. Sproul and forgot that they had been thinking of polite relinquishment. And Y. Charles Burden sent Mr. Sproul a telegram. A few days later, and this was indeed tribute, Mr. Burden followed his telegram, although in the ordinary course of events Mr. Burden's telegrams were not harbingers but summonses.
Mr. Burden was lean and saturnine and by common agreement — an agreement to which Mr. Burden was vociferously a party — the best lecture agent in the business. Mr. Burden took on only winners. Mr. Burden was a winner himself, and looked it; he was a well-groomed lion in his own right. Confronting his elegance, most prospective clients quailed and grew small, realizing that they, by comparison, were pathetically unfitted for the exposed life, to which Mr. Burden was, so regally, summoning them. This attitude on the part of clients comported with Mr. Burden's desires, making it easier to apportion what Mr. Burden called the "split." (Now and then, thinking it over after contracts were signed, Mr. Burden's more perspicacious clients suspected that they were what had been split.) Mr. Burden offered, when the prospective client was softened by his presence, a forty-five-fifty-five cut of fees, the fifty-five going to Mr. Burden. In exchange, he pointed out, he paid all expenses, except, of course, hotel bills and meals. And, naturally enough, travel expenses too trifling to be itemized, like cab and subway fares, and railroad fares of less than a couple of dollars. It surprised Mr. Burden's clients somewhat, afterward, to discover how frequently they, if resident in New York, were booked for lectures in New York.
But Mr. Sproul, and this Mr. Burden admitted on confronting him, was a bigger kettle offish. Mr. Sproul was de luxe, and Mr. Burden told him so. Mr. Sproul was suitable for a grand tour, opening in New York at Today's Topics Club and going on across the continent by easy and profitable stages. And Mr. Sproul would get a sixty-forty split.
"Sixty," Mr. Sproul had said — he had told Mr. North of this with beaming amusement. "To me."
Excerpted from Death Takes a Bow by Frances Lockridge, Richard Lockridge. Copyright © 1971 Richard Lockridge. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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