|The Missing Challenge Reader Case|
This alleged mystery story is compiled from the first lines of the books submitted to the Six Shooter and Medical Examiner reading challenges, arranged in an arbitrary yet possibly coherent order. Connecting phrases and edits to names and pronouns have been made for vague continuity. Last exciting revision was SAT FEB 16 @ 7 PM EST
The Missing Challenge Reader Case
- Sampson Tracy, the famous challenge reader, now deceased
- Rigby Webb, the obvious suspect-on-the-run
- Bernard Brook, a local two-bit hoodlum
- Ellery Queen, detective
- Nikki Porter, his secretary
- Savannah Mills, a.k.a. Mrs. Rubrick of Mount Moon; the femme fatale
- Tommy Skirmont, homicide reporter for the Southern City Democrat
- Lord Peter Wimsey, wine merchant with a secret hideout
- Caroline Crimson, the girl-next-door
- Officer Armand Gamache of the police
The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as "The Missing Challenge Reader Case" has now somewhat subsided. Although elsewhere in the published accounts of my adventures with Rigby Webb I have referred in passing to the disappearance of Mr. Sampson Tracy as an unsolved case, I have to confess that this was a deception on my part, carried out on instructions in order to protect the anonymity of Mr. Tracy's exact demise.
"Nice to see you again, Rigby."
It was a dark and stormy night. Savannah Mills swiveled back and forth on a stool at the All-Day Breakfast Café counter and tapped a steady rhythm against the butcher-block countertop with her long, powder blue nails. She gazed with disgust at the thick, congealed coffee in the bottom of her cup. "Fools! Every last one of them," she muttered. The juke box blared "Baby, It's Cold Outside" without warning. "Screw you, Bing Crosby, and screw Sampson Tracy, too."
Two floors up, Ellery Queen looked at the mahogany basket marked OUT on the corner of his desk, and he frowned. For the third time he went over the final additions and subtractions on the first page of Form 1040, to make good and sure. He put his feet up on the desk and rhetorically pondered to his secretary, Nikki Porter, "As I look back on my life, eventful enough in spots, but placid, even monotonous in the long stretches between run-on sentences, I think the greatest thrill I ever experienced was when I saw the dead body of famous challenge reader Sampson Tracy. It was a hot day as I got off the elevator and started down the corridor, the old familiar surroundings taking me back to that first day when I'd made that same journey, looking for a job. I entered the office of Peabody and Peabody with a sense of expectation, and was surprised by their offer, and even more surprised by the body in the men's room." Ellery sighed and put the 1938-39 edition of Who's Who in America, open, on the leaf of his desk, because it was getting too heavy to hold on such a hot day. Already it was above 90 degrees, but the radio said snow was already falling across the Hudson in New Jersey.
The snow started coming down at exactly the wrong time, shorly before noon, just as Rigby Webb rolled out of the Holland Tunnel, westward bound. Even when he was a baby boy, with eyes the color of the chicory flowers that grow by the wayside along New England roads, and hair that rivaled the Blessed Damosel's in being "yellow like ripe corn", he was of an adventurous disposition. Through the open door of the fish market Penberthy Creek looked like a broad shimmering ribbon of bright blue cellophane. "I'm just surprised I got out of New York without killing that son of a --", Rigby said to himself. The snow was making the roads impassable as he sought a hotel. Why not the Tivoli? He entered the lobby of the Tivoli. The hotel attendant eyed him compassionately as he squirted Cheez-Wiz onto some crackers. "Have some cheese?" he asked Rigby. "Why the hell not?" Rigby took the offered key and some crackers and went to Room 13. Opening the door, he found the room was not empty. Lord Peter Wimsey had stretched himself luxuriously between the sheets provided by the Hotel Tivoli. He crossed to the bath and opened the door. "Savannah! Long time no see! Where's your lover Sampson these days?" "Seems he prefers doing reading challenges to me. Nice to see you again, Rigby."
Meanwhile on West 183rd Street, Tommy Skirmont, Yankee reporter on the Southern City Democrat, gazed in sheer desperation at his superior, the owner, publisher, and editor of the Democrat. "The police have found a body over at Peabody and Peabody in the Baxter Building on 110th Street! What do we do now?" "How should I know?" Julius growled around his cigar; "I don't even know why my Manhattan scandal sheet is called de 'Southern City Democrat'! De only thing we are south of is de Bronx!"
"Your cat was on my car again!"
After Savannah's encounter with Rigby, she left and turned down Fifth Avenue, her heels making a staccato on the sidewalk. She did not notice the slim form of a man who came gliding out of the shadows. "You're coming with me, dear. It's only a five minute's walk," said Bernard Brook, striding up the hill a little breathlessly, Savannah clinging to his arm. He entered a dark alley, paused, and knocked at an unmarked door. "Password?" a muted voice hissed from inside. Brook whispered into the keyhole: "A hawk soars over Devil's Backbone". The door silently swung open on well-oiled hinges. The hunchback inside was suspicious. "Who's the babe?" "I am Mrs. Rubrick of Mount Moon," lied Savannah as she gave the assigned code phrase, "And I should like to come in."
It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7. Ellery's secretary, Nikki, was looking out the window as her nail polish dried. "Ellery, your cat was on my car again." "Can't you do anything right?" yelled Ellery, at his newest secretary. "You should train that Maine Coon cat better. I'll take care of it, I'm on my way out on the Sampson Tracy case anyway." He caught a cab to Peabody and Peabody's offices on 110th. No one answered the bell, and the door was open. Ellery spread over the ponyskin chair before the picture window, feet crossed on the typewriter table, a ten-inch frosted glass in his hand, and the corpse at his feet. "Looks like Sampson Tracy has completed his last reading challenge." He looked over the table with the take-out food remaining. "I will begin with the rolls, then the General Tso's chicken."
Rigby Webb looked out the window of his hotel room. "I better scram," he said to Lord Peter. "This town is too hot. I'm hitting the road. You coming or not?" "When are you going to put my winery on your tour list?" Lord Peter asked. "Hey, that would make a good hideout. Let's move!"
Tommy Skirmont paid off his cab and looked up at the window of the Baxter Building. He had a 10 PM deadline to meet. Once the sun had disappeared behind the buildings that bounded 110th Street, twilight shrouded him like a wall.
The hours were dragging.
All the rest of her life Savannah was to remember the deepening uneasiness, the gathering apprehension of that afternoon. The door closed behind her. She was alone in complete darkness. She opened her Indiana University library book bag, and grabbed her purse, tool belt and the bright yellow hard hat she'd adorned with a chain of daisy decals. Using her flashlight, she found her way into a bedroom. She switched off her light and pulled up the bedroom blind. An ominous trail of dark red drops led to the closet. Bernard came up and took her by the elbow. "Care to take a closer look, Mrs. Rubrick? Or is it ... Savannah Mills?"
Ellery smoked and pondered, feet up on the corpse. Sampson Tracy had disappeared sometime in May, but he had not heard about it until several months later. He knew Tracy had gone down deep in the rabbit hole of highly competitive reading challenges; and some readers probably didn't want to see him come out on top. The hours were dragging. The police sure didn't respond too fast when the victim was already dead. This pork fried rice was excellent.
Rigby looked around Lord Peter's winery hideout. Lord Peter asked, "So...you blew New York after the Tracy murder." "Yeah, and let me tell you, The Lincoln Tunnel is a scary place when you're on foot." Lord Peter was on the phone. "You'll be here by seven, won't you, sugar?" Rigby suspected who "sugar" was. Looks like he had some competition.
Tommy Skirmont entered the lobby of the Baxter Building, deserted at this time of night. He knew Elwood, the elevator operator here. As Elwood was taking him up, he asked Tommy how he got into the newspaper game. "When the first of these things happened, Elwood, that is to say upon the twentieth day of April many years ago, I was twenty-two years old, a little stronger than most men of my age, and very ready for anything that bade fair to prove more exciting than entering the office of my uncle, who was a merchant of consequence in the city of London. And what could be more exciting than the homicide beat on the Southern City Democrat? Tommy stepped off the elevator. There was a light on in Peabody and Peabody, and a strange smell in the air. Tommy knew what it was. It was not the smell of murder. It was the smell of Chinese food.
Savannah peeked into the closet.
In criminal work, anything that wears skirts is a lady, until the law proves her otherwise. Savannah was wearing a houndstooth pattern skirt, therefore she was a lady, even as she peeked into the forbidding dark closet; at a sight no lady should see. "Where did the stiff come from?" she asked. Bernard expectorated toward a nearby spittoon, and missed. "The victim was found in an alley. I brought him in here to keep him out of sight. The brutal and cold-blooded murder of dis guy was actually a thing of slow growth, with roots that, like a noxious plant, spread slowly over a period of years."
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills as Ellery finished the last of the Won Ton soup. Nearby, Officer Armand Gamache checked his watch as his train slowed for Highland Park. He thought, "You know, I paid almost no attention at all to the last conversation I had with my stepsister-in-law. I wonder where she is right now."
It's 4:17 a.m. on Saturday morning when Rigby came to on a battered couch in a house somewhere in Rathmines. Looking out the window, all that could be seen were grapevines. Lord Peter's winery hideout, "Goosebush" was a place where most preferred that folks from outside didn't know it existed.
Tommy worked his way down the dark corridor, following the smell, looking for the Peabody & Peabody office. He stopped at the first door that was lit. The sign that was painted on the frosted glass of the corridor door read COOL & LAM. That wasn't it. He moved on. The Baxter Building, while being one of the biggest skyscrapers in the world, is really little more than a conglomeration of offices and, while passing through each, one has the opportunity to savour its particular atmosphere. The smell of Chinese food was stronger now.
"I've never actually killed anybody before"
Bernard lit another cigar, pointed it at the body, and said, "Listen, Savannah. I've never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. But there's always a first time, ain't there? The man died in St. Louis sometime during the afternoon, as near as the coroner could figure it." "
Here it was five years later, Caroline Crimson was still working in the Baxter Building, but so much had changed. She had worked late typing up letters for her boss Paul Drake, and as she went toward the elevators, she noticed lights on in the office of Peabody and Peabody. Ellery saw her silhouette pause outside the frosted glass window.
They came into the winery hideout around one-thirty, a man and a woman.
Officer Armand Gamache slowed his car to a crawl, then stopped on the snow-covered secondary road. Something was up. He could see lights in that "Goosebush" winery joint when it should be buttoned up tight. Better check it out.
Photo credits, top to bottom: Title wikipedia Chap 1 theretroset.com Chap 2 http://samuroffa2media.blogspot.com Chap 3 murder-mayhem.com Chap 4 digitalartsonline.co.uk Chap 5 public domain