A Knife in My Back [An Amy Brewster Mystery]
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by Sam Merwin, Jr.
Description: The first outing of Amelia Winslow Brewster ("Amy" to her friends), the elephantine, cigar-smoking, blue-blooded genius of a detective, finds her in a battle of wits with an unknown killer who has neatly framed her nephew. You'll howl with delight as the icon-toppling Amy tackles stuffed-shirts, law enforcement, gargantuan gourmet meals and crime with equal aplomb. Another rollicking Amy Brewster classic from the glory days of the 1940s. Legendary detective-novelist Sam Merwin, Jr.'s A Knife in My Back begins when Christopher Horton is given the shocking news that, "You're not going to die after all!" by a great heart specialist. Buoyed by the meeting, Chris returns home to find the body of his lawyer's secretary, Lolly Parker, sprawled on his floor with a knife in her back. Clearly someone close to Chris, who stands to profit from his death has framed him neatly for murder. But who? Enter Amy Brewster, cigar in hand, sprinkling curses as liberally as she spreads caviar on a cracker. Can the 1/8th ton Amy move quickly enough to spot and stop the killer before he or she strikes again? Or will she, too, end up with a knife in the back. "I prize the work of Sam Merwin, Jr., especially his Amy Brewster mysteries." Dashiell Hammett.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: August 2004
31 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [266 KB]
Reading time: 200-280 min.
"WELL, PAT," said Joe quietly, studying the amber liquid in his glass, "aren't you going to pull me in?"
Rayburn looked at Joe, then at Chris. He walked the length of the carpet to the front windows, turned his back on them abruptly and returned to his post near the doorway. Although his expression was still as impassive as an expert poker player's, a definite deepening of the crow's feet around his eyes betrayed the strain he was under.
"Be smart, for God's sake!" he said bitterly. "I haven't got a case yet, and you know it. I can't haul you in like some South End bum and make it stick. Your brother would have me busted."
"A true democracy we live in," said Joe dryly. "Well, in that case, excuse me, girls." He got to his feet and moved toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Rayburn asked him sharply.
"Where do you think--pal?" Joe replied. The detective let him go, walked back to the window again and stared gloomily out at the street.
"Is there anything else I can think?" he asked suddenly. Chris, who had been staring at nothing in particular, glanced around to find the detective's eyes were fastened on him.
"I'm afraid I'm hardly qualified to discuss your mental limitations intelligently," said Chris quietly. His anger was growing. This copper wasn't going to arrest Joe if he could help it. Joe might be a variety of things, but he was a gentleman--and, as such, hardly the type to stab a girl he'd dated occasionally. Chris realized with surprise that his fraternal loyalty ran deep. He'd never thought about it before.
Joe came back, and then Louis Weddington came up the stairs. The lawyer was one of those lean, middle-aged men who look gray all over--from hair and suit even his skin seemed to have acquired the neutral hue by induction. He also achieved the feat of looking chronically saturnine without any Herbert Hoover puffiness in his cheeks.
"This," he said, selecting his words with care and achieving utter banality thereby, "is dreadful."
"You're telling us!" snapped Joe. The lawyer's diffident remark seemed to have lit a fuse in him. "Pat Rayburn here has me practically in the hot seat already, and I can't think of a loophole."
"Then don't try," said Weddington, his voice crisp with anger also. "I may not have practiced criminal law for years, but I'm still your attorney, and it's up to me to?"
"Forget it," said Joe. "I've got real help coming."
Rayburn looking at the debaters with bewildered annoyance, moved into the picture.
"Who the hell is this?" he asked. Joe gave him a double-take and introduced him, and the detective said, "Oh sure," when he heard the lawyer's name. Weddington frowned.
"I feel terrible about this," he said to Rayburn. "Miss Parker was beyond question my most valued--and valuable employee. In a great many branches of my profession, I relied of her judgment absolutely."
"Amen," said Joe unexpectedly. Chris looked at his brother sharply and saw with surprise that the younger man meant it with perfect sincerity. Joe's face was drawn and unhappy. Apparently, he had been extremely fond of the murdered girl. Weddington threw a quick, angry glance in his direction.
"You ought to feel bad!" he said, then checked himself with a look at Rayburn, who pressed his hands together and assumed the bland expression of a canary-fed feline.
"It doesn't make any difference," said Joe diffidently. "Pat knows about Laura and me. He was along with us on a party south of Plymouth a while ago."
"And how about New York City?" snapped Weddington. To Chris' horror, the lawyer seemed for once to have lost all self control. "And that trip to Havana on her vacation? And Crawford Notch for skiing?"
"I wasn't?" Joe began, then checked himself abruptly and looked curiously at Weddington who continued to glare at him with angry defiance as if daring him to disprove his accusations. At that moment, Pat Rayburn, who had been sitting on the arm of a chair, rose abruptly.
"I'm on my way to Berkely Street," he said. "I'll let you fight it out among yourselves. I could take you with me, Joe."
"I'm aware of that," said Joe wearily. "I'll stick around."
"You'd better," said Rayburn. He nodded to the other two men present and left abruptly, taking the stairs two at a time.
"He's not a bad guy really," said Joe, almost apologetically to Chris. "And he's a damned good detective. I hope he's good enough to find out I didn't do it. Poor Lolly!"
"Quit kidding!" said Weddington. "Why did you kill her, Joe?" The already high tension in the room rose another notch with his question. None of them heard the elevator door open or footsteps in the hall outside. The deep, almost rasping voice sounded, therefore, like a sudden clap of thunder.
"Of course he didn't do it, you quibbling corporation jackanapes!" were the first words it uttered. "If he had, he wouldn't have had the colossal nerve to call me in for help. Where do I put this?"
This most remarkable figure, in Boston if not in the entire world, stood in the doorway, filling it from side to side. A woman of indeterminate years, of vast corpulence and even greater ugliness. She wore no hat, and wispy gray-black hair, cut in the old Dutch style of the suffragettes of 1916 hung about the full moon of her face.
Twinkling brown eyes, almost buried in balloons of fat, were set on either side of a shapeless blob of a nose. This in turn hovered over an odd round rosebud of a mouth that expressed a constant cipher of astonishment and three demi-lunar chins that might have belonged to the Michelin man of the old automobile tire advertisements.
The short, fat body beneath this remarkable head also had a Michelin look which was in no way disguised by the shapeless old stained tweed top-coat and sack-like russet jersey dress that adorned it. The "this" of which she spoke was the cellophane wrapping of a thick Havana cigar which, without further direction, she hurled accurately into the fireplace.
Following it across the room in a graceless waddle, she bit off the end of the smoke, spat it out and busied herself applying a light. Exhaling a cloud of heavy smoke, she turned slowly to look at the stunned occupants of the room.
"Amy Brewster!" said Chris in an explosive whisper. Lawyer Weddington just stared. It was Joe who grinned, walked over to the human monstrosity. Deftly removing her cigar from her lips, before she could protest, he planted a kiss full on the round little mouth. Then he stuck the Havana back in place.
"You don't have to think your Casanova technique will get you anywhere with me," she announced, scowling at the young man fiercely.
"That," said Joe, amiably insulting, "would be a fate worse than death. But, baby, am I glad to see you!"
"That "baby" was too much for Chris. He sat there and stared, too startled even to rise out of politeness. He knew all about Amy Brewster--who didn't? But he had never expected to see her in this house after the feud which had begun when Amy had publicly labeled his father as the type of pale carbon copy, fifth generation Yankee that had caused the current dry rot in the one-time Athens of America by retirement into complete stuffed-shirt intellectual and business sterility.
Amelia Winslow Brewster's ancestry went all the way back to Plymouth Rock, and her people had been hell-raising and brilliant all the way down the line. They had never conformed to the pattern of their times, yet had been unassailable through their very strength of character and knack for achievement. They had long been thorns in the side of a society made up of less gifted and irreverent fellow citizens.
Take Amy, for instance--though no one had succeeded despite many attempts. She had been graduated from Radcliffe at sixteen with a Phi Beta Kappa key, been admitted to the Massachusetts bar before she was twenty. Two years later, she had been admitted in New York.
Possessed of a great fortune and ready to try something else, she had dabbled in finance, run "Brewster's millions" up into eight figures. Then she had given most of it away--and acquired a well-earned reputation as a radical.
She had gambled prodigiously all over the world and so shrewdly that, unless the game was fixed, she invariably won. And any gambler who tried to fleece Amy didn't enjoy his freedom long thereafter. A confirmed advocate of redistribution of wealth, she had done her best to live up to it--but couldn't seem to unload as fast as she made it.
Her boldly announced theory was that two kinds of people had money--one, those who were able enough to make it again if they lost it and two, those who had acquired it by luck or inheritance. Only the latter she claimed were afraid of poverty, and they didn't deserve the comforts of money anyway, since they lacked the ability to make it.
Many storms of criticism had broken around her, but her attackers had worn themselves to bits against her restless, unconquerable vitality. She had put the finances of at least two Central American republics on a solid basis and had her hand in scores of other pies. In "Who's Who," she had more foreign decorations listed after her name than any other woman.
Occasionally, when a friend had turned up in trouble, she had sailed in to clear him with the law she had mastered so early. As such, she had proved a brilliant and tireless investigator. Her honesty and ability had endeared her to the police commissioner although her utter disregard for 'sacred cows' had more than once scared him out of his somewhat duller wits.
Chris looked at her as would a bird at a snake. She was here, in his living room. Evidently Joe had called her when he stepped out a few minutes before. And she had come at once. Chris caught his brother looking at him with laughter in his eyes as he finally got his feet under him and rose.
"Amy and I are old buddies," the younger brother said. "I can always count on her to double my allowance at Narragansett. She has second sight in picking winners."
"I know bloodlines," she said in her booming voice, walking over to look at the decanters of liquor by the front windows, "and jockeys and owners and trainers. The rest is simple addition--hey, is there any gin in the house? I can't drink this God-damned dyed excrescence.
While they waited for Gordon to bring the gin from the cellar, Chris realized, looking over the human scenery around him, how little he understood Joe. He knew, for instance, that his younger brother had been shocked and grieved by the Parker girl's murder. But Joe was burying his emotion in flippancy as he kidded with Amy.
Chris began to wonder how many other real feelings and emotions had been secure from his perception behind the casual veneer that he had so distrusted and disliked in his brother. And then, in spite of himself, he began to speculate on whether Joe might not have killed the girl after all. It was an unpleasant idea.
"Ah!" said Amy Brewster, rolling her cigar around in her mouth as Gordon appeared with the liquor she had demanded. She poured a four-ounce jigger glass to the brim, held it up and approved it.
"The only liquor fit to drink," she went on. "Except for a few drops of flavoring, it's pure alcohol moderately diluted." She tipped the glass and drained it, removing her cigar at the last possible second. Having consumed it, she put the Havana back into her mouth, put the glass down on the table and patted her Buddhistic stomach, giving vent to a grunt of solid satisfaction.
"Now, Joe," she said, turning on him, "level off and give us a straight account of what went on here today."
Joe did so, without going into the background of the case. Once or twice, Lawyer Weddington tried to break into the conversation, but Amy quelled him with a ferocious glare; When Joe had finished, she rolled her cigar around in her mouth for a full minute.
"Naturally," she said finally, "this poor wench was one of that long string of Humpty-Dumpties you were always knocking over."
"Don't put it like that," said Joe.
"Don't tell me you're letting your emotions get out of hand, Joe," she said indignantly. "It doesn't become you."
"Lolly was a damned swell girl," said Joe savagely. "She was--well, she was one of my best friends."
"Don't give us that," said Weddington, his voice a lash. "You know she was a lot more than that, you?"
Amy turned to face him, flicking a good two inches of ash onto the rug. Her eyes stabbed at the lawyer, who met them uneasily.
"And you were going to defend him!" she exploded. "Lew, you old goat, I'll lay twenty to one-and-a-half you went for the wench yourself. I always thought you were a Judas."
"I never let my emotions interfere with my conduct of a case," said Lawyer Weddington sententiously.
Amy snorted again.
"In a pig's eye!" she said. "I've known you too long, Lew. You're perfectly safe figuring out corporation angles in your stuffy office downtown. But in a real case, you've always had opinions and twisted the law to back them up. What you'd do pleading this one is something I don't want to live to see."
"The law is just," said Weddington. "I merely try to interpret it."
"Belly wash!" said Amy. "The law was created for the protection of those who need it--not for over-privileged boiled shirts like you to kick around in favor of their rich clients."
"Am I to understand then," said Weddington, addressing Joe, "that you do not wish me to handle your defense?"
"Are you kidding, Lew?" she asked. "Why do you think he called me? Do you have the colossal conceit to think you could last ten minutes against the bright young Irish prosecutors the D.A. uses these days--against a non-blue-ribbon jury in this city?"
"Before retiring from the case," Weddington said frigidly, "may I ask how you propose to handle it?"
"Certainly you may ask," said Amy Brewster calmly. "What's more I'll give you an answer. When I get through handling this case, there won't be any need for a defense. The real killer, whoever he or she is, will have to worry about that."
"But good God, the evidence!" said Weddington. Amy looked at him with open contempt and shook her head sadly, causing her three chins to jiggle in a curious off-beat rhythm.
"Lew," she said, her voice dropping to what was, for her; a moderate level--with anyone else, it would have been a shout?"don't try to tell me that you believe evidence is sacred. The man who said, 'There are three kinds of lies--lies, damn lies and statistics,' should have added evidence as the God-damnest of them all.
"As I see it now," she went on, "this girl came to the house to see Christopher Horton for reasons that her killer took care to see would remain unknown. It's possible one of the three of you here may have some definite idea of what her mission was."
"What makes you say that?" Weddington asked sharply.
"That's easy," said Amy in her normal roar. "You were her boss, and she presumably knew what went on in your office. Joe, you've run around with the girl. Chris Horton, she came to see you, said it was vitally important and got killed for her pains. How about it?"
"Chris," said Weddington, rising to his feet and ignoring Amy completely, "I am anxious to get your affairs straightened out again. But under the circumstances, perhaps you had better see me tomorrow at the office. I shall be there all day."
"Aren't you going to contribute, Lew?" said Amy. Weddington paused in his progress toward the door to glare at her with all the dignity he could muster.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I have no information to give you."
"Good old Lew," said Amy with a sigh as the lawyer departed. "Always a lot more interested in couching his terms than his woman. And people wonder why I never married!"
There was a brief silence, broken by Gordon, who appeared in the doorway and coughed discreetly.
"The lady's remains have been taken to the city mortuary," he announced. "The police are no longer here."
At that moment, the doorbell rang faintly downstairs.