Inspector M. L. Heimrich of the New York State Police may not have the flash of hard-boiled city detectives, but there’s no lead the intrepid investigator won’t follow until his every hunch is satisfied . . .
Tensions have been rising in the conservative community of North Wellwood, New York, ever since African American lawyer Thomas Peters moved to town with a plan to open a desegregated country club.
Those in opposition are determined to see Mr. Peters’s plan fail at all costs—going so far as to harass liberal newcomers like Eric and Ann Martin, and commit vile acts against those who dare to support equality, like widow Faith Powers.
Called in to investigate Mrs. Powers’s shocking murder, recently promoted Inspector Heimrich soon finds himself caught in the storm that has taken over North Wellwood. Now, if he wants to see justice served, he’ll have to make it out of a hate-fueled powder keg that’s ready to explode . . .
With Option to Die is the 18th book in the Captain Heimrich Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Frances and Richard Lockridge were some of the most popular names in mystery during the forties and fifties. Having written numerous novels and stories, the husband-and-wife team was most famous for their Mr. and Mrs. North Mysteries. What started in 1936 as a series of stories written for the New Yorker turned into twenty-six novels, including adaptions for Broadway, film, television, and radio. The Lockridges continued writing together until Frances’s death in 1963, after which Richard discontinued the Mr. and Mrs. North series and wrote other works until his own death in 1982.
Read an Excerpt
The blacktop drifted up a gentle slope, and old maples with spring's young leaves arched over it. At the top of the rise, Eric Martin slowed, then stopped the little sports car and they looked down at the hamlet of North Wellwood. "At any rate," Eric said, "it looks like a peaceful place. A peaceful backwater."
North Wellwood, Town of Wellwood, County of Westchester and State of New York — a village lying in a valley with green hills tumbling around it; a village which was a scattering of houses, most of them white. A white church steeple reached up where the houses clustered most closely. But even there, in what must be the center of the village, the houses seemed lost in trees — seemed to Eric and Ann Martin to be sleeping in the shade of trees.
"Is it really only half an hour from New Canaan?" Ann said. "As Ralph promised. It looks — oh, it looks so far from anywhere, doesn't it? A century from anywhere."
"More," Eric told her, and let the car drift down toward the village. It drifted past a sign: NORTH WELLWOOD. FOUNDED 1706. "Yes, about half an hour. Now that we know the way."
The way had not been hard to find — not really hard to find. "Off the Merritt onto One twenty-three," Ralph Barnes had told them the night before. "Then ..." Then on this road and that road, and being careful at a certain fork to bear right, not left, since bearing left would lead on to Brewster. "You can't miss it," Barnes had told them the evening before. To that, Eric Martin had said, "Hm-m-m," drawing it out in doubt — a city man's doubt of country roads.
But they had had no real trouble that bright Saturday morning late in May. Route 123 had been easy enough to find. A little more than two miles beyond a sign which proclaimed welcome to New York, the Empire State, there was — as promised by Ralph Barnes — an unassertive road to the left and a sign, almost hidden in a lilac bush, which pointed toward North Wellwood. Some distance farther on they had avoided the branch marked BREWSTER, 10 MI. and borne right on what was, without assurance of any special destination, "South Lane."
Now, having looked down at the village in which they might — or might not — spend the summer, they rolled downhill toward it, looking for Main Street and the traffic light. Cross Main Street and turn right at the next road. That will be Hayride Lane. Then ...
As promised, it was Hayride Lane.
("Fifth house on your right," Ralph Barnes had said.)
("If you don't count the house on the corner," Lucile Barnes had added. "Because that's on South Lane, really.")
They drove slowly on Hayride Lane. They passed, on the left, a mailbox lettered "Walter Brinkley" and, on the right, one with the name "Powers" printed on it. They went on for a mile or so before they came to a mailbox named "Barnes" and, beyond it, turned into a smoothly graveled drive. The drive curved up, for a hundred yards or so, to a square white house with small latticed windows which seemed to squint down the driveway. The house stood in an acre or more of lawn, which rather needed cutting. There was a big maple tree on either side of the square house and a hemlock hedge ran in front of it, with a break at the doorway. Midmorning sun was bright on the house.
They let themselves into the house. It was bigger than they needed. The rent Barnes had named was even more surprisingly low when one saw the so-big house. Eric, who was only beginning to know a new wife's friends, wondered what was wrong with the house.
Except for the size there was nothing perceptibly wrong with it. There were more rooms than they needed. "We can have people up," Ann said. "We owe everybody." To which Eric, seeking a door which might lead to a basement and heating equipment, said, "Hm-m-m," the sound absentminded. Not that, in all likelihood, they were going to need heating equipment. Still — half an hour from New Canaan and Hurst Electronics.
"Looks in good enough shape," Eric said, when he had climbed back from the basement. "Not that I know anything about oil burners."
Ann said, "Nonsense. Of course you do, dear."
An electrical engineer, up to the design of the most intricate and inexplicable gadgets, must know much about anything in which electricity is involved. Ann Martin was sure of that. Hurst Electronics happened, at that time, to be under contract to supply the Navy with advanced, and to a degree experimental, sonar equipment.
Eric Martin was, unhurriedly, growing accustomed to the workings of his wife's mind. He grinned at her. He said, "Sonar and oil burners aren't close relatives, darling."
"Electricity is in both of them," Ann told him. "The furniture is all right, isn't it? We can move things around, of course. That sofa sticks out." She pointed at the sofa which stuck out. "And it is only half an hour from New Canaan?"
"Roughly. And not too far from New York, come to that. You'd think they'd keep it for weekends. They don't, I take it, need the money."
"Ralph and Father were the closest friends," Ann said. "When I was little, I called him Uncle Ralph. That, and their being tired of the country, I suppose. No, not the money. Heavens, no."
Eric said, "Hm-m-m," to that. Caution is abandoned slowly.
"Actually," Ann said, "it's almost precisely what we've been looking for. Isn't it?"
Eric said, "Well-l-l," which was an advance over "Hm-m-m."
"You like it, don't you?"
"Then ... yes."
"So," Ann said, "let's call them up and tell them Yes. Because somebody might come along and buy it out from under us. Did you notice where the telephone is?"
He had noticed. There were three telephones: one in the downstairs hall; two in upper rooms. One of those upstairs was in a room with a desk and bookshelves, and with room in the bookshelves forbooks which cluttered, were stacked in, Ann's little apartment — for six months now their little apartment. But the telephone would, of course, be disconnected. Out of service since the Barneses moved, the autumn before, to the apartment in New York. When people left country houses for the winter they turned everything off, including telephones.
Ann was near a light switch. She flicked it up and light went on — went on in two lamps. Ann, understandably, said "Ha!" She went to the telephone in the hall and took the receiver off and listened to it. It buzzed at her. She spun the dial — spun it eleven times, as was required. Which was, she thought as she waited, doing the telephone company's work for it.
Ralph Barnes was glad they liked the house. Glad he had been right about the distance from New Canaan. Did the grass need cutting?
"I'll give Mike a ring," Ralph Barnes said, from his apartment in New York. "The grass grew on my time. And ... yes, dear?"
Lucile's voice was just audible.
Ralph said, "All right, I'll tell her," and then, into the mouthpiece again, "Lucile says there are sheets and things — to start, anyway — in the closet at the head of the stairs. Chances are, if I can get hold of him, Mike will be around this afternoon."
Ann and Eric Martin had been married six months that Saturday. They had known each other less than a year. That March Hurst Electronics had decided to move from Long Island City to the vicinity of New Canaan, Connecticut. Eric was part of Hurst Electronics — since March a baffled part.
From Manhattan to Long Island City in the mornings, and back from it in the late afternoons, had not been arduous. One reversed the commuters' field.
Manhattan to New Canaan and back again was another matter. The New Haven Railroad, which is geared for very little, is not geared at all for those who invert the natural order of things. Morning locals, bound reluctantly for Stamford and the New Canaan connection there, creep from the lower level of Grand Central and idle east, stopping whenever opportunity is presented and now and then when it is not. In the evening there are a few expresses inbound but they are not entirely to be relied on. The trip from New Haven to Stamford is one on which almost anything can happen and it is one the express trains make.
Ann and Eric read real-estate advertisements. They went to look at houses offered in the New Canaan area and near it. But those they liked were for sale only, and for the most part at prices higher than they could manage.
(They agreed on this and agreed quickly and neither admitted to the other, or to himself, that quick rejection was only partly based on asking prices. For many there is a finality about buying a house, and to be final one must be sure. Sureness is still, in early marriage, a thing to be searched for, felt and talked toward.)
They had camped out in the apartment which was barely large enough for Ann alone. They had bumped together in it, but that was fine. They had, of necessity, learned closeness, and that was fine too. But it was still a chore for Eric to get to New Canaan and back from it. Camping out is a temporary expedient.
But they had gone to the Barneses' apartment on a Friday evening in May not with any idea of finding a house there. They had gone to have dinner with friends Ann had known since childhood; a man and woman who had watched her grow up, and with whose children she had grown up. The availability of a house in a place called North Wellwood had not been anticipated.
They had been late in getting to the big Barnes apartment on the upper East Side because Eric's express had been late in getting to Stamford from New Haven and even later in reaching Grand Central. Apologies had been offered, together with explanations; and Eric, before cocktails soothed him, had extended the explanations to some length. Commuters on the New York, New Haven and Hartford are inclined to be discursive before they become to a degree resigned. It was new and bitter to Eric Martin. He was a thin, dark man, and on occasion an intense one. The New Haven brings out any intensity which is latent.
The second cocktail dissolved intensity. Eric Martin said he was sorry he had got steamed up; he said that it was not their problem. It was then that Ralph and Lucile Barnes looked briefly at each other and nodded their heads. Ann noticed the wordless exchange. It was a way the Barneses had with each other — an easy way. Eric and I will find such a way, she thought, and looked at her husband and thought how tired he looked.
It was after dinner that Ralph and Lucile Barnes put their unspoken agreement into words, and the words had to do with a house in a place called North Wellwood; a place half an hour's drive from New Canaan, at any rate in summer. A little longer in winter, but New York State kept its roads passable. And Mike was faithful with his plow on the driveway.
It was a house the Barneses had decided to give up. "A house," Ralph Barnes said after dinner, "gets to be a responsibility as one gets along."
He was, Ann knew, just over sixty. Lucile was several years younger. Neither of them looked as if he was getting along to any marked degree. However ...
"We've put it on the market," Barnes said. "Just recently. No real nibbles yet. If you two ..."
If they wanted to rent it through September it was theirs for a figure which brought a "hm-m-m" from Eric.
It was apparent on Monday that Mike, with his mower, had been got hold of. Ann Martin, alone in it, turned a heavily loaded station wagon into the drive at a little after eleven in the morning. The lawn, which had been shaggy, lay smooth around the square white house — smooth and very green. April had brought rain, to the pleased surprise of all the area's inhabitants, who were keeping their fingers crossed. Perhaps a six-year drought had finally been broken.
Ann stopped the wagon just off the road and walked back to the mailbox, because the signal flag was up. She had not lived in the country since she was a little girl — since the Barneses and the Langleys had big Long Island houses a few hundred yards apart, with a hedge between them. There had been a gap in the hedge wide enough for the passage back and forth of children named Barnes and a small red-haired girl named Ann Langley. Twenty years ago, that had been, and the girl named Langley had been seven.
A raised flag arm on a mailbox had meant something. That she remembered as she walked toward the box lettered BARNES. (MARTIN would have to be lettered above it.) There could hardly be mail in the box. The raised flag must mean something else. They had, on Saturday, made it to the North Wellwood post office before it closed at noon. They had filled out change-of-address cards and explained to the clerk that any mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Eric Martin or — which might make it a little confusing — Miss Ann Langley was to be left in the Barneses' box. But nothing could yet have come of that.
She snapped the box open and a mimeographed sheet lay flatly in it. The sheet was not addressed to anybody. She took it out — after all, one rented a mailbox and its contents with a house — and carried it back to the car and tucked it in the seat, unread. She drove on, and up, to the square white house which squinted at her through sun-brightened windows.
She was not to unload any of the heavy stuff; the bigger suitcases into which they had spent Sunday cramming clothes and certain books — and a picture or two of which Ann was especially fond, and the big, rough bath towels Eric liked and a Chemex for coffee making (the Barneses had used a percolator) and a traveling clock without which Ann had not, for years, gone anywhere and some flat silver which had been Eric's mother's. They had also brought Ann's portable typewriter and both their tennis rackets and Eric's golf clubs, and extra sheets and pillow cases and the electric blanket which, incomprehensibly to Ann, Eric insisted on sleeping under, and two flower vases, in case perennials popped up around the house. (And were recognized by city dwellers.) And a few essential bottles. And bread and sandwich meat and coffee to bridge them over.
"Leave the heavy stuff in the wagon," Eric had said early that morning, before he took off in the sports car for New Canaan and Hurst Electronics. "You hear me? I'll get things in when I get there."
Ann said, "Yes, darling. I hear you."
"I'm sorry as hell about this conference," Eric said. "Means leaving you with the brunt of it. But it's brass. All the way up from Key West."
"I'll make out fine," Ann said.
"And if you have to make out any checks remember to sign them Martin? Confuses the bank when you sign them Langley."
"I'll try to remember. I'm really doing much better."
"You remember how to get there?"
"Yes, Eric. I'll make out fine. And I'll leave all the heavy stuff."
She did leave most of it. She carried in a good deal of luggage, not including the big case in which sheets and towels and pillow slips and the electric blanket were folded. She tugged that one a little way toward the wagon's endgate and realized it weighed a ton. She carried up to the room they had chosen for their bedroom the things they would need until they really unpacked and made the beds with the Barneses' linens and put the Barneses' towels in the bathroom — and discovered she had left her toilet case and a box of soap on the driver's seat of the station wagon. She went down for them. While she was about it, she picked up the mimeographed sheet because it was stuffed behind the cushion and looked messy there. She put it on a table in the living room and carried her dressing case upstairs and put bath soap in the bathtub receptacle and hand soap in its washbasin niche and decided it was time for a break — a break to include a drink and a sandwich and a glass of iced coffee.
(It had been Eric who, foresightedly, had remembered to fill the ice trays before they left on Saturday, and to turn up the refrigerator.)
Ann found an old-fashioned glass and rinsed it out and put ice in it. She poured blond Dubonnet on the ice and carried her drink into the living room and sat by a table where she could see out through the open door — look at the green of the mowed grass and smell its fragrance; look down the curving driveway toward the road. She could also hear birds talking and calling to each other and singing, presumably also to each other. Perhaps she would get a bird book and learn to be a bird watcher. If the network didn't come up with an assignment — with an assignment which would require weeks away somewhere. Field research for documentaries often did. The last one had kept her for more than a month in Mississippi, where she had not been especially popular.
Excerpted from "With Option to Die"
Copyright © 1967 Richard Lockridge.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.