It takes Reno three days to get from Peru to the Gulf Coast, and when he gets to Waynesport he has only one stop to make: the city jail, where his sister is being held on a murder rap. The way Vickie tells it, she saw her husband having a drink with another woman, they quarreled, and she went to the bathroom. When she came out, he was shot through the back of the skull. The police believe every word of her story—except the part about who pulled the trigger. Her husband was in Waynesport looking for a crook named Rupert Conway, whom the local police do not seem towant found. To save his sister’s neck, Reno must wade through corruption as fetid as the swamps that surround this hellish southern town, where the alligators aren’t the only ones who are eager to kill.
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Go Home, Stranger
By Charles Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Charles Williams
All rights reserved.
It took the message over a week to catch up with him because after he had finished the job in the sierra he went over into the jungles of the lower Ucayali to hunt jaguars. When he had read it he came up out of South America traveling very fast, a big, hard-shouldered young man in an ill-fitting suit, his face cooked dark by the sun and his hair badly in need of cutting. He would have had time to get a shave between planes in Miami, but he spent the time instead in a stifling telephone booth making one long-distance call after another, relentlessly shoving quarters into a slot and rasping questions over thousands of miles of wire while the cold ball of fear grew heavier inside him. On the third day after leaving the little town in the Peruvian jungle he walked up the steps of the police station in Waynesport, on the Gulf Coast of the United States.
It was a little after eight of a hot, breathless morning, and he couldn't remember when he had slept. It was the twenty-first of August, and since the tenth of the month his sister, who was Vickie Shane McHugh, the radio and television actress, had been in the Waynesport jail, charged with the murder of her husband.
The Chief wouldn't be in until around nine, the desk man said, but he led him down a dim hallway to the office of Lieutenant Wayland. The man behind the desk was big across the shoulders, with a heavy neck and a graying shock of tough, wiry hair. Sharp brown eyes sized him up as he came into the room.
He stood up and held out his hand. "Reno? Oh, yes. You talked to the Chief yesterday."
"When can I see her?" Reno asked abruptly.
Wayland sat down and bit the end off a small cigar. He leaned back in his chair. "This morning. Incidentally, how does it happen her name is Shane, if she's your sister?"
"Professional name," Reno said impatiently. "Actually, it was our mother's. But never mind all that. I'm still trying to find out what happened. And why you're holding her."
"You look tough enough to take it straight," Wayland said, appraising him thoughtfully. "It's simple enough; McHugh was murdered. And the evidence says she did it."
"But she says she didn't?"
"Well, I'll buy her, and you buy the evidence. But just what happened?"
"I guess you knew they were separated," Wayland said. "That's the first item."
Reno said, "They were always separating, or separated, or making up. Living with either one of 'em would be like trying to set up housekeeping in a revolving door. They both had more talent and temperament than they needed, but they were crazy about each other. They always made up."
"The trial will be held in court," Wayland said. "Not here. You want to hear what happened, or do you want to make a speech?"
Reno lit a cigarette and sat down, hunching forward in the chair. "I'm sorry," he said. "Give me the whole story. I'll try not to butt in."
"It's all right," Wayland replied. "As you probably know by now, McHugh was down here alone, on business. Had been for five days. He was trying to run down some guy named—I've forgotten now, but it doesn't matter. Anyway, to get to the night he was killed, your sister showed up unexpectedly. Didn't wire she was coming, as far as we know now. What she keeps telling us is that she was driving from New York to the Coast, and since she knew he was down here she decided to surprise him by dropping in to see him. And apparently she did. Surprise him, I mean. They'd been separated about four months, and she'd been in some television work in New York. So she arrived at the Boardman Hotel here, where McHugh was staying, around midnight. McHugh wasn't in his room. But while she was calling from the desk, he came in from the street. With this other girl."
Reno's eyes jerked upward and he stared at the Lieutenant. "So that's the idea? You're all wrong. I've known Mac all my life, and he wasn't that kind. There hasn't been any playing around with babes since he was married."
Wayland shrugged. "You asked me what happened, and I'm telling you. McHugh's wife drops in unexpectedly and finds him wandering into the hotel at midnight with a stray babe, and about an hour later McHugh is dead. Anyway, the clerk didn't hear anything that was said, except that there didn't appear to be any row to speak of, and the other girl shoved off. McHugh and your sister went up to his room.
"At five minutes past one, some guest on the fourteenth floor called the desk and said he'd heard something like a shot and a scream in the next room. The clerk sent the house detective up there on the double. The door was closed and locked, but he could hear something that sounded like moaning inside, so he passkeyed his way in.
"McHugh was lying on the floor and she was down beside him with his head in her arms, rocking and whimpering, and then she passed out. The detective threw a couple of sheets over them—over her because she didn't have on enough clothes to wad a popgun, and over McHugh because he was dead.
"He called us. We had some men over there before she snapped out of it. When she did come around she was unraveling all over the place and not much of what she said made any sense. She finally calmed down enough to tell us that she'd been in the bathroom changing into a nightgown when she'd heard voices out in the room, as if somebody had come in to see McHugh. She didn't look out, she said, because she wasn't dressed. Then she heard the shot, and she screamed. She ran out of the bathroom, and just as she did she heard the door going out into the corridor slam shut.
"McHugh had been shot in the back of the neck, just at the base of the skull—with a twenty-five automatic, we found out as soon as we got a look at the slug. The house detective didn't see anybody else in the corridors, and nobody came down in the elevators."
Reno drew a hand savagely across his face and gestured as he hitched around in the chair. "But how about the gun? There must have been fingerprints on it."
"We didn't find the gun until after ten o'clock, and when we did there weren't any fingerprints on it. There wasn't much of anything on it. It was—or had been—one of those junior-miss gimcracks with pearl handles, and the pieces of it were lying beside some garbage cans in the alley next to the hotel. The alley is paved, and it was fourteen floors down from McHugh's room. They don't make those kiss-me-quick guns for that kind of duty."
Well, I had to be sure, Reno thought, conscious of the cold void inside him. It was the same way Carstairs had said it was. It was dynamite.
Wayland was looking at him with something like regret. "I'm sorry. But you see how it is. Those hotel windows are closed all the time in summer, because the place is air-conditioned. And that one was still closed when our men got there. It would have had to be opened, the gun heaved out, and then closed again. And she says she came running out of the bathroom as soon as she heard the shot, and that the man she says was in there was already going out the door into the corridor. So, by her own story, nobody would have had time to throw that gun out except her."
"But wait a minute," Reno said, shaking his head. "Can't you see she has to be telling the truth? She's not stupid. Do you think that if she was going to lie about it she'd make up a dumb story like that?"
"Yes. I know. We've thought about that. But don't forget that your sister is high-strung and hotheaded, and that when she told us this she was just coming out of a faint and was on the edge of hysteria. She said the first thing she could think of, and afterward she had to stick to it. I've been in police work, a long time, and I've never seen a woman on a rampage with a gun yet who seemed to have much logic about it."
"Then she did it, as far as you're concerned?" Reno said harshly. "You can quit looking. You've got it made."
Wayland started to make some quick retort, but checked himself. "Cool off, Reno," he said without emotion. "I know how you feel. But they don't pay me to draw conclusions, or prosecute anybody. That's up to the District Attorney. I'm just supposed to dig up the facts."
"Well, what have you dug up about this guy Mac was looking for?"
"There isn't anything there, as far as I can see. McHugh was trying to find him, and apparently didn't. People seldom get shot for that, except maybe in Russia."
Reno shook his head, dissatisfied. "It's not that simple. There's something screwy about it. In the first place, Mac wasn't a gumshoe or a skip-tracer; he was a lawyer, and a damned smart one. He wouldn't have been down here playing cops-and-robbers like some kid."
"I wouldn't know," Wayland said wearily. "All I know is that he was. Bannerman, over in Missing Persons, remembered him. McHugh came into Headquarters the first day he was in town, trying to run down this—this—Oh, what the hell was his name? Wait a minute." He paused, shuffling through the papers on his desk. "Here it is. Conway. Rupert Conway. McHugh was trying to locate this guy—apparently for the guy's wife—but didn't have any picture of him, only a description and the dope on his car. There was one funny thing about it." Wayland stopped and frowned thoughtfully at the cigar smoke.
"What was that?" Reno asked.
"It was a goofy sort of coincidence. We had the car. Conway's car, I mean. Traffic Detail had had it in the garage for two weeks. Picked it up in a tow-away zone."
"But you don't think it had any connection with Mac's being killed?" Reno insisted.
Wayland dismissed the idea with a curt "No."
Reno was silent for a moment, moodily watching smoke drift through the shaft of sunlight slanting in through the window and falling across the desk. So this was all there was to it. This was the way it ended. The best friend he'd ever had was dead, and they could send Vickie to the penitentiary or to her death for killing him.
His face hardened with anger. Maybe they'd better think again about that. It was too simple, too pat, and somewhere the man who'd killed Mac was smiling about it. He crushed out his cigarette in a tray and stood up.
"Can I see her now?" he asked.
It was a bare, harshly lighted room without windows. Reno prowled restlessly up and down, dead tired but unable to stop or sit still. At last he heard footsteps in the corridor, and turned.
The door opened and Vickie was standing in it, with the detective behind her. She was as straight and lovely as ever, even in the plain tailored suit and wearing no makeup. She was tall and strikingly blonde, with deep blue eyes that were very tired.
"Hello, Pete," she said calmly. "Have you got a cigarette?"
Maybe we all should have had dramatic training, he thought. We haven't seen each other for two years and she's in jail charged with killing Mac, so I've just been out to buy some smokes.
She stepped across the room and kissed him lightly on the cheek. They sat down across from each other at the table while the detective leaned back against the wall in a chair and watched them. Reno gave her a cigarette and held the match.
"Thanks, Pete," she said. "It's an awful home-coming for you, isn't it? I'm sorry."
They understood each other, and always had. He was four years older than she was, and there had always been something fiercely protective and very proud in his relationship with her. They had been alone since their mother had died while Vickie was still in high school, and he had sent her to college and drama school out of his earnings as a construction engineer in Arabia and Alaska and South America. Tough and hard-bitten himself, with scant social grace and little talent except for the clear-cut and hard-cornered realities of the man's world he lived in, he was intensely devoted to her—as he had been to Mac—for the qualities the two of them had in such abundance, personality and talent and a sort of heartwarming charm. And he knew her well enough to know that right now he was seeing another quality, which was bravery—or, as he would have expressed it succinctly, guts. She was walking very carefully along the ragged edge of horror and letting none of it show. I've got to make it as easy as I can for her, he thought; and still I've got to ask her about it.
"All right, Vick," he said gently. "Tell me."
"I think they've been reading detective stories," she said. "They're under the impression I came here to kill M-Mac." The only outward sign of what was inside her was that almost imperceptible tremor in pronouncing the name.
"I've already talked to Lieutenant Wayland," Reno said. "And to Carstairs, in San Francisco. So we can skip all the obvious stuff. What I want to know is whether Mac told you why he was down here. And did he say who that girl was?"
"He was looking for somebody. A man named—I've forgotten, Pete. He told me the man's name, but I didn't pay much attention."
"The man's name was Conway," Reno said. "I know that much. But did Mac say why he was doing a crazy thing like that?"
"No," she said helplessly. "We didn't talk about it much. I do know, though, that he had something on his mind. Oh, of course, we were both delirious about being together again and full of plans for when we got back to San Francisco, but you know how Mac is when he's working on something—he's all wound up in it." She stopped suddenly and looked at him and they could both feel the horror of it, of that slip of the tongue that had referred to Mac in the present tense.
"But about the girl," Reno cut in, to cover it. "Did he say who she was, and why she was there?"
"Yes." She nodded, her face very white. "It was about this—what's-his-name—Conway. She had something to tell him, or had already told him, and they were going into the hotel bar. Mac wanted to write it down."
"Did Mac introduce you?"
"What was her name?"
She stared at him and sighed. "Pete, I don't know. Even if I had paid any attention at the time—"
"Could you describe her?"
"Pete, dear, any woman can always describe any other woman she sees with her husband. But, for the love of heaven, do we have to talk about her? That's what the police have been harping on until I'm half crazy. She didn't have anything to do with it. The person I heard talking to Mac while I was in the bathroom was a man."
He shook his head. "You don't get what I'm driving at, Vick. Of course she didn't have anything to do with it—at least, not in the way they think. But look. Somebody killed Mac; and he didn't have any enemies as far as either of us knows, or as far as Carstairs knows. So the only thing in God's world we've got to go on is this stupid Conway deal. And she must have been mixed up in that some way. What did she look like?"
"She was about twenty-five, I should say. Very striking brunette, in summer clothes. Cottons, you know—white."
"Never mind what she was wearing," Reno said. "It's been ten days, and she just might have changed into something else."
"Oh. Well, she was about five feet six, I'd guess, good figure, dark brown eyes, jet-black hair cut short and curled close to her head, something like the poodle haircut—or did they have that in the Andes? She had a dimple in her chin, and a good suntan. Educated, good voice very close to contralto, no Southern drawl. Poised."
Reno nodded thoughtfully. "In other words, a dish. A girl people would notice. But why haven't the police been able to find her?"
She sighed. "I don't know whether the fantastic noodle-heads have even tried. Or if they have, they've been looking in the wrong places. Their idea is she was some floozie Mac picked up in a bar. She wasn't, quite obviously."
"O.K.," Reno said, with more assurance than he felt. "It's something to start with. But now—did you get even a glimpse of the guy? I mean, when you ran out of the bathroom?"
She shook her head wearily. "No. That's the horrible part of it, Pete. He was right there within ten feet of me, and by the time I got out into the room he was gone. But maybe I wouldn't have seen what he looked like, anyway. I was looking at Mac. He was crumpled, l-lying—" Her voice started to break up on her. She stopped and took a deep breath, looking away from him. When she turned back she had everything under control again and she went on calmly, "Mac was dead. That's what I was trying to say."
"But you did hear them talking? Before, I mean?"
"Yes. But I wouldn't recognize his voice. It was only a mumble."
"You didn't hear even one word that was said?"
Excerpted from Go Home, Stranger by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1954 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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