Jerry and Pamela North have targets on their backs. It’s not fair, but that’s what happens when you make a hobby out of catching killers. The murderers get upset, and, well, you know how they are. And with all this homicidal attention directed at the Norths, it’s about time they made out a will. Unfortunately, they have only just started the process when their lawyer is stopped for good, and the sleuthing couple is in trouble again.
Forbes Ingraham is found in his office, a bullet in his head. He was killed just a few yards from the desk of his secretary, which should make this a cut-and-dried case, but the young woman is notoriously unobservant. Discovering who took out the lawyer falls to Mr. and Mrs. North, who must work carefully—lest they should need that will sooner than expected.
A Key to Death is the 19th book in the Mr. and Mrs. North Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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A Key to Death
A Mr. and Mrs. North Mystery
By Frances Lockridge, Richard Lockridge
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1961 Frances and Richard Lockridge
All rights reserved.
Monday, February 8, 11 A.M. to 6:20 P.M.
Forbes Ingraham hung his topcoat in the closet and brushed dampness from thick, graying hair. He crossed the office and sat in the leather chair behind the shining large desk with its fresh blotter, its two well-dusted telephones. He sat with his back to windows against which February rain lashed, driven by a gusty wind. But for all the anger of the wind, the rain was no more than the softest rustling in the big room, in which all sounds were muted.
Ingraham fitted a cigarette into his holder, lighted it and leaned back in the chair and waited for the day to begin. A telephone rang and he picked it up, without surprise. In this, poor Mary's timing was so precise — so many seconds for him to walk from the reception room and through the library; so many more to hang up a coat in the office closet, to cross the room to his desk, then to light a cigarette. She might have used a stopwatch, but the only clock she used ticked in her gentle, but in too many respects lamentably fuzzy, mind. She clung to this precision; in this she did not fail. Ingraham shook his head, the smile on his flexible lips diminishing. Last week, he had waited patiently at the Pierre to lunch with a man who waited, less patiently, at the Roosevelt, and that, also, was Mary's doing.
Having rung once, and rung in a whisper, the telephone had not repeated itself. Ingraham said "Yes?" into it, in a soft voice.
"Good morning, Mr. Ingraham," Mrs. Mary Burton said from the outer office, and he said, in the same soft, unhurrying voice, "Good morning, Mary. Was it wet on Staten Island, too?"
"Oh yes," Mary said. "And the ferry — goodness!"
It was wet on Staten Island; it was snowy, or windy, or hot — but there was almost always a nice breeze there — or not anything in particular. Five mornings of each week, save for a month in summer, two weeks in winter, Forbes Ingraham was informed of these meteorological triumphs or mishaps of the Borough of Richmond, about which he could hardly have cared less.
"What have we today, Mary?" Forbes Ingraham said, in the same gentle voice and, while he listened, checked against his own memory; against, also, notations on the top sheet of the yellow pad in front of him.
"Mr. Halpern," he repeated. "Yes, I know he is. Not here yet?"
Mr. Halpern, it appeared, was not.
Mr. Cuyler would like to see him when he had a moment free, and to this Ingraham said "Yes," in the same tone. Mr. Webb had some things he wanted to go over, when it could be worked in. A Mr. Michael Fergus — was that right? — was down for eleven-thirty, but if Mr. Halpern was really late —
At noon, the people from NBC, and Mr. Phelps, and his client, Miss Waterhouse — but of course, Mr. Ingraham remembered about that.
"Miss Waterhouse, Mary?"
"That's what — oh, dear. Miss Masterson, isn't it?"
"I believe so, Mary."
At one-fifteen, if he could make it, Mr. Fleming at the Pierre. "It's really the Pierre this time, Mr. Ingraham. I've double checked and — I'm so wretched about that, Mr. Ingraham."
"And Mr. and Mrs. North at three and then at three-thirty, Mrs. Schaeffer. There doesn't seem to be anything after that."
"No, Mary," Forbes Ingraham said, and there was a line vertical in his broad forehead. "I don't recall anything after Mrs. Schaeffer."
"Mr. Brown's secretary called twice and will you —"
"No, Mary. It's their hurry, not ours. Ask Mrs. Lynch to bring the mail in."
"Oh — I'm afraid she's in Mr. Webb's office. Shall I send Phyllis?"
"No, Mary. I'd rather you brought it yourself, then. And tell Mr. Cuyler —
"Mr. Halpern just came in."
"Mr. Halpern, then. But bring the mail first. And see if you can get Armstrong in Philadelphia, and if you do put him through. But not anyone else, Mary."
The last injunction was habitual; it was also hopeless. If Mary Burton remembered, which she did infrequently, she was susceptible to almost any plea of urgency. Poor Mary.
The mail came; after the mail, which turned out to be of the kind which can wait, Mr. Halpern.
Mr. Halpern was a big man, in a blue suit not quite big enough. He looked as if he had worked much out of doors; perhaps, although he was in his sixties, still did. His jaw was noticeably long. He had a heavy voice, which rasped a little. He had a good deal to say, and Forbes Ingraham leaned back in the leather chair, and listened. Ingraham's rather broad, very clever face, was almost expressionless. He smoked, the long holder clenched in regular, white teeth. Now and then he nodded his head. At one remark in Halpern's rasping voice, Ingraham smiled faintly, and shook his head. He took the holder from between his teeth and said, "I don't think it'll come to that, Mr. Halpern."
"You don't know this crowd," Halpern said. "They're tough bastards. If they don't pin this on me —"
"Oh yes," Ingraham said. "I do understand. That's why we're taking the case. You realize it's out of our line."
"Yeah. I know that," Halpern said. "Appreciate it. All the boys appreciate it. So — here's the stuff you wanted."
Ingraham took the stuff, which occupied a large envelope. He said he would tell Mr. Halpern what he thought tomorrow. He leaned forward, then, and turned back the top sheet on the yellow pad. He made several notes on the pad, said, in the soft voice which nevertheless had unusual carrying power, "Same time all right?" and, being told it was, got up and walked with the taller man out of the office, and through the library to the reception room. The reception room was empty, after Mr. Halpern left it.
"Oh, Mr. Ingraham," Mary Burton said, and her head appeared at the information window in one wall of the reception room. She looked a little, framed so, like another of the prints of bewigged English judges which hung numerously on the walls. Ingraham supposed that this was somehow connected with the regularity in the curls of Mary Burton's white hair. It was true, of course, that she had, also, a rather long face. There was still a kind of eagerness in it. Poor Mary.
"Mr. Armstrong won't be in until after lunch," Mary said. Her face was worried. "I told them it was important, but —" She waited exculpation for failure.
"Not your fault, Mary," Forbes Ingraham told her, and went back into the inner corridor. He went down it, away from his office, to a door at the end of the corridor, and opened it.
"I keep telling you —" a tall man who stood behind a desk was saying — saying with emphasis, with feeling — to a slender, pretty girl with a shining cap of silvery blond hair — "that whatever he —" The man stopped speaking abruptly. He turned from the girl toward Forbes Ingraham, and ran his right hand through black hair, pushing it back. His eyes were black in a white face. "Oh!" the girl said, and said involuntarily.
"Morning, Frank," Ingraham said, in the soft voice which yet seemed to have more weight in the little room than the other man's had had, for all its emphasis. Ingraham nodded to the girl, and said, "Phyllis."
She looked quickly from one man to the other. She flushed.
"I'm —" she said, but shook her head.
"That's all, then, Miss Moore," the black-haired man said, and she said, "Yes, Mr. Cuyler," and Ingraham opened the door for her. He closed it after her.
"Mary says you've something to take up with me, Frank," Forbes Ingraham said. "If it won't take too long —"
It did not take long. Ingraham left the smaller office of Francis Cuyler, an associate of the firm of Schaeffer, Ingraham and Webb, at about eleven thirty-five and met Dorothy Lynch just outside the door. She was going, carrying her notebook, from the office of Reginald Webb back to the office, with its window on the reception room, she shared with Mary Burton and Phyllis Moore, and the office boy, Eddie Smythe, who was seventeen and much bothered about his complexion.
Mr. Michael Fergus had been prompt. He was in the reception room when, returning from Francis Cuyler's office, Ingraham reached it. Mr. Fergus was short, and broad, and had mustaches, which were formidable, and a beard. He sat, his knees spread and his hands on knees, in the precise middle of a leather sofa, and his attitude was that of a man who rejects comfort and is, indeed, about to spring. Years ago men of his appearance had been caricatured as anarchists; now they were considered prototypes of all Russians. Mr. Fergus had been born in Ohio; he wrote magazine serials in which young men of mild appearance turned intrepid adventurers, so disconcerting villainy and winning the affections of young women of pleasing anatomical structure. Despite his appearance, Mr. Fergus was devoutly Republican.
"Good morning, Mike," Forbes Ingraham said, in his gentle voice. Mr. Fergus surged forward. He clasped Ingraham's hand; he appeared to shake his beard at Ingraham. He was ushered into the big office, and there sat on another leather sofa, his position as before. Forbes Ingraham inserted a fresh cigarette in his holder and lighted it. He lifted one of the telephones and said, "Will you send the Fergus contracts in, please," and put it down again.
"I'm not sure we can give them what they want, Mike," he said, speaking slowly. "Unless we can get them to hold up until —"
Dorothy Lynch brought the contracts. She was trim; in all respects, from prettily shod feet to carefully ordered brown hair, she was of precision design. She smiled at Michael Fergus, who waved his beard at her pleasantly; she put a sheaf of papers neatly in front of Forbes Ingraham, and was thanked, and went. "A glacial type," Michael Fergus said, after the door closed on her. To this, Ingraham said only, and with impartiality, "Hm-m." He leafed the contracts. "Here," he said. "This is what can give us trouble." He pointed. "We can't be sure how the courts would construe, if it came to that. On the other hand —"
Michael Fergus emerged from the big office a little before twelve, and his beard appeared to droop a little; it was even possible that he muttered into it. Ingraham watched him go, smiling faintly. He used the telephone, being connected with Reginald Webb.
"Morning, Reg," Ingraham said. "Mary says you seek conference. I've got five minutes or so if —"
"It's nothing important," Webb said. "Thought you might like to look over the draft on the Avery answer. But since you were tied up —"
"You know more about it than I do," Ingraham told him. "You want to sit in on a lunch with Fleming?"
"Not," Webb said, with emphasis, "if I can help it, Forbes."
Forbes Ingraham made a small sound of amusement.
"By the way," Webb said, "is Nan coming in today?"
"Yes. This afternoon."
Ingraham waited briefly for comment. He received none.
"I've got a call in for Armstrong," he said then. "I'll be tied up with this NBC crowd and Miss Masterson's troubles for an hour or so. Incidentally, Mary's decided it's 'Waterhouse.' You know, Reg, we'll —" The other telephone rang, interrupting him. "Anyway," he finished, "you want to talk to Armstrong if it comes through?"
He waited only for, "Sure, I'll talk to him," and turned to the other telephone. He learned that the NBC people and Miss Waterson and her agent waited. He sighed, and asked that they be sent in.
It was almost one-thirty when he got to the Pierre Grill, and it was a little after three when he got back to the offices of Schaeffer, Ingraham and Webb in a building of mature dignity in West Forty-fourth Street. Mr. and Mrs. Gerald North awaited him.
"So," Forbes Ingraham said, "you made it, finally." He pointed at them with his cigarette holder.
"Because we're driving, instead of by train," Pam North said. "And Cousin Wilmer, of course."
Ingraham nodded gravely, or almost gravely. He had known Pamela for several years; had no doubt that all, in time, would be clarified.
"Wilmer," Pam said, "is ailurophobe, but even without that we've decided that blood isn't thicker than water — not Cousin Wilmer's blood, anyway."
It was Jerry, standing, who ran a hand through his hair.
"It really does make sense," he said. He considered. "It did, anyway," he added. "Before —" He looked at his wife.
"Yes," Ingraham said. "Well, come on —"
"Oh, Mr. Ingraham," Mary Burton said, her long face, her waved white hair, appearing in the information window. "Now they say Mr. Armstrong's gone for the day, but if I tried his club —"
"Yes, Mary," Ingraham said. "Do that, will you? And not put anything through, except him if you get him, for the next half hour?"
"Of course," Mary Burton said. "I do hope it was the Pierre. After you'd gone I got to worrying whether —"
"Yes, Mary," Ingraham said, and took the Norths into his office. It was hot there. Ingraham opened one of the windows a few inches. Damp coolness came in, and street noises. He sat the Norths side by side on a leather sofa. He offered cigarettes, fitted one into his own holder. He said that he was glad that they had finally got around to it. He added that no lawyer likes to have his clients die intestate.
"As things are at the moment," Gerald North said, somewhat morosely, "it wouldn't make a great deal of difference. But Pam feels we ought to try to provide for the cats. And that the stretch between Jacksonville and Miami is —" He shrugged. "So," he said.
"Well," Pam said, "we couldn't get anything except two roomettes, not even in the same end of the car. This way, if we run into a truck or something, we'll be together, anyway. Which is the point, of course." She looked at Forbes Ingraham. "About our making our wills," she said, explaining all. "Before we go to Florida."
Forbes Ingraham nodded, still with gravity.
"Isn't it true," Pam said, "that they assume the woman died first? Being the weaker vessel? In spite of the fact that women live longer than men? Generally speaking, of course?"
There was no rule about it, Ingraham said — at least no rule which was universal. Courts had so held. Courts had held almost everything one could imagine.
"Then," Pam said, "when we hit this truck, Jerry inherits from me but Wilmer inherits from Jerry, being his only relative. And there's nothing left for the cats. It would be like Wilmer to have them killed, only he'd say put to sleep, probably. He says things like that. But the aunts, on the other hand, would be good to the cats." She paused. "Even Martini," she said, "if she'd let them."
"I take it," Forbes Ingraham said, and pulled toward him the yellow pad. Half a dozen sheets were filled with his neat, small writing, and turned back. He wrote "Norths" at the top of a fresh sheet. "I take it," he said, "that you don't want to leave money to the cats, as such? Or in trust for them?"
"Heavens no!" Pam said. "It always sounds so silly in the papers. 'Mr. and Mrs. Gerald North, under the terms of wills filed for probate today, left their estate, estimated at' — hm-m. Anyway, to three cats named Martini and Gin and Sherry. It would be embarrassing."
Not, Jerry pointed out, under the circumstances she had, perhaps a little morbidly, assumed — not to them.
"What you want," Ingraham said, "is everything to each other, if surviving; then the aunts — you'll have to give me their names, Pam — then — then what?"
"The Authors League Fund," Jerry said, and looked enquiringly at his wife.
"I'd as soon authors as anybody," Pam said. "The poor things."
She gave the names of the aunts; they agreed on executors; it was all simple enough, and painless enough. With notes completed, Ingraham leaned back. He would draw the wills up, have them typed. The next day they would —
A telephone rang. Ingraham spoke into it softly, briefly. He said, "I'll call you back." He hung up, took the other telephone from its cradle and said into it, "Please, Mary. I told you —"
"Come in and sign," he said. "With witnesses, in your presence and in the presence of each other. About this time all right?"
The morning would be better, Jerry said. They compromised on noon.
Excerpted from A Key to Death by Frances Lockridge, Richard Lockridge. Copyright © 1961 Frances and Richard Lockridge. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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