|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 MON APR 15 @ 1 PM EDT
The Missing Challenge Reader Case
- Sampson Tracy, the famous challenge reader, now the corpse
- 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
- Julius White, (in transition to Vera Brown), editor of the Southern City Democrat
- Tommy Skirmont, homicide reporter for the Southern City Democrat
- David Zhao, photographer for the Southern City Democrat
- Lord Peter Wimsey, wine merchant with a secret hideout
- Caroline Crimson, the girl-next-door
- Elizabeth Dakin, beautiful but jealous heiress
- 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.
"Where's your lover Sampson these days?"
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 White 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, see? Murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. But dere's always a first time, ain't there? Dis guy here died in St. Looey sometime during de afternoon, as near as de coroner could figure it." Ash dripped morosely from his cigar onto the body. That was enough. Savannah bolted out the door and into the subway.
The fog crept in from the sea, suffocating the city. 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, opening a fortune cookie, saw her silhouette pause outside the frosted glass window.
They came into the winery hideout around one-thirty, a man and a woman. The deep voice of Lord Peter, the factor at Goosebush Winery, boomed a welcome to the big man with the gun who stood framed in the doorway of the tasting room: "Come in, Elizabeth Dakin, and who's that with you?" "Considered severally," said the big man, coming angrily into the tasting room, "a carbuncle, a month's furlough and a husband's return from the antipodes don't sound like the ingredients for a wine-brew, Collectively, they amount to precisely that." "Well, by the Great Catamaran! I think that's the most footle sentence I ever heard! What's a carbuncle and an antipode anyway?", Lord Peter shouted in disgust as he threw his wine glass onto the floor.
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. Inside, every room was brightly lighted. It was after one o'clock in the morning. Better check it out.
Was that Bernard on the stairs?
The bells of St. Maria struck two as Savannah came out from the subway station on Wollmar Yxkullsgatan. But was that Bernard lurking on the stairs behind her? She started to run, but the legalized torture of city sidewalk running lined right up with premeditated murder when you added the requirement of fancy shoes.
The door opened and Caroline Crimson slid in to Baxter and Baxter, her Burberry trench coat barely covering a black cocktail dress. She was carrying a takeout bag from the coffee shop. "One caramel latté," she said, setting the drink on the counter as Ellery smiled. Ellery was fantasizing about honeymooning with her. He was all for San Juan or St. Croix, but she opt for every girl's right to one honeymoon in Niagara Falls (she said "girl" bravely, taking advantage of the technicality); so Niagara Falls it turned out to be, Ellery would give in without a fight. He slowly came back to reality as he sipped his latté. Now he hoped the police would delay a bit longer.
The Goosebush Winery instantly turned into chaos as the big man turned over the table and starting throwing the chairs. Elizabeth ducked behind the bar, Rigby went for his gun, and Lord Peter jumped through the window, neglecting to open it first. Outside, a bewildered Etsuko Ogata was sweeping up dead leaves in the garden as Lord Peter landed in the pile. "Looks like we've stumbled into a Manning Coles adventure!", Etsuko pondered. Elizabeth - known to her friends and fellow bridge club members as Iris - ran outside and made her way demurely through the palms of the adjacent Bayside Cemetery. A fancy burial was occurring - the billionaire picked a heck of a day to die.
"I lost ten pounds, " Tommy Skirmont said as he dropped into the chair next to his editor's desk and glared. ""Welcome to The Southern City Democrat and to our party. So what?" Julius White growled. "The call came at 3 a.m. The Romans used to think the souls of the departed stayed near their tombs. But in this business the souls lay bleeding on the pavement until we get there with a photographer." Twenty-eight-year-old photographer David Zhao took the cloverleaf exit off Interstate 80 onto New Jersey 661, heading south toward a small town called Dover tucked away in the relatively rural northwestern part of the state.
"What the hell was that?"
Savannah rounded a corner, and cut through an alley. The alley was dark and stank of piss and vomit. She stood in purgatory and dreamed of death. Bernard was nowhere in sight. She pushed into the first door she encountered. "Welcome to Sun, Sand and Tea." She perked up as the precious sound of seashell wind chimes bouncing and tinkling against the front door of the cafe. She got a cup of tea and sat down to catch her breath and think. She remembered when she was married. Getting married was murder. She was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband. Gavin and the Duke saw him die, but couldn't identify her at the trial so she got off.
Most of the people who come to see Ellery Queen, especially from as far away as Nebraska, show some sign of being in trouble, but this Caroline Crimson didn't. She sipped her caramel latté and batted her eyes at him. No one was watching the corpse. Officer Armand Gamache stepped out of the elevator. This was the place. Chinese food and a corpse. What a monotonous combo. Well, it was his business, and the business of murder took time, patience, skill, and a tolerance for the monotonous.
It was a Sunday that chanced to be Shrove Sunday, about eleven o'clock in the evening, a party of agents of the safety-service left the police station in the old Barriere d'Italie and headed to the reported riot at the Goosebush Winery. They were still a block away when they heard the mayhem. "What the hell was that?", the captain asked. "Sounds like a murder is taking place." "We like quiet murders, but murder respects no traditions. The faces of murder are varied and complex." The squad car screamed to halt as another window broke out of the winery as the fight spread out into the grounds. Already smoke was pouring out of the back. "What chaos!" the captain shouted.
The strain and creak of the car rumbling blindly through the blizzard registered on David Zhao's senses with a pleasant and unreal vagueness. He had his camera. He had film. He had flash bulbs. He was ready for a story. He could see nothing, and then everything all at once. He thought, "In my hands is a Camera. In my hands is Power."
Savannah woke in the dark. It was strange that she should be able to sleep at all. She didn't like to dream - death came in dreams. She slowly remembered the dream. It is difficult to know exactly where the dream began, but she thought perhaps the first significant incidents happened on a certain day in late November, and they began to happen early, for the very moment she entered the ward on that chilly, dark morning it was evident that something was up.
Ellery propped his feet up on the corpse, lit his pipe again, and postulated: "I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: "'Hell!' said the Duchess." Caroline was not impressed, and her latté was gone anyway. Officer Gamache slowly opened the door. "My Dearest Ellery, I am informed with that air of inconsequence which characterizes your uncle's utterances, of your arrival on a crime scene again."
The dramatic season was beginning in a disconcerting manner. Police and fire crews poured into the Winery grounds as the smoke rose higher. They examined one unconscious fellow in the leaf pile. "Can he whimper? If so, he'll come around soon enough." The little village of Marston-le-Willows in West Suffolk had suddenly become known to the inhabitants of Great Britain, or more precisely to all those who read a daily or Sunday newspaper, due to the massive fire at the mysterious winery.
David Zhao was determined to get his photos on the front page. This would be a bigger story than when between February 1692 to May 1693, twenty people in colonial Massachusetts - fourteen of them women - were accused, sentenced, and put to death for the practice of witchcraft. He thought, "I was looking to find an idea for a story, and after two weeks of fruitless searching I have found one with a vengeance."
Julius stepped along the wharf
It was May 23rd and Bernard Brook was standing idly by the open window watching the swelter in Kingsway below and wondering if today would hang another scalp on his belt. That is, only if he could find Savannah again. She was a slippery one, and had given him the slip. Savannah Mills was the name she signed to her letters and to her cheques, but Savanny, as her friends called her, was signed all over her captivating personality, from the top of her dainty, tossing head to the tips of her dainty, dancing feet. She was a mean and murderous bitch, and showed no sign of lightening her mood. By all rights she should have been dead by now, but only her sister kept her alive.
Officer Armand Gamache sized up the scene as a general sizes up a prospective battlefield. "Allright, what happened?" Ellery, feet still up on the corpse, tamped his pipe for the tenth time and replied, "If I wanted to be arbitrary, I could say it began anywhere. Half an hour before Sampson Tracy here died, Caroline had tidied up her desk in the typists' office of the Cabinet War Room. Take your pick who did it. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe."
Two of Oyster Bay's lifelong citizens were in line at the Stop 'n' Shop, gossiping over carts stuffed with frozen entrees, potato chips, boxes of Krispy Kremes and liters of soda when Elizabeth Dakin, covered with soot, stumbled through the market's automatic doors. "Oh my! How did you get like this?" the astonished cashier gaped. "By the bequest of an older brother, I was left enough money to see me through a small college in Ohio, and to secure me four years in a medical school in the East." "No, I mean how did you get all sooty and with your clothes all ripped!" "Oh! It was an explosion and fire at the Goosebush Winery! The heat was murder!" The doors opened again and Lord Peter staggered in, his robe still smoldering. "Oh, damn!" wheezed Lord Peter Wimsey. A heroic belch of thunder followed the strange little man into the shop. "Are you dying, man?" the strange little man asked. "By definition. We begin to die with our first breath."
Julius White, alias Vera Brown -- but that alias was carefully concealed from his numerous public -- sat back in his chair and tapped his front teeth with the end of his fountain pen. What was keeping Tommy and David? The presses wouldn't wait much longer. Murder was work, and those guys were just loafing. It was late January, and New England wore a fresh coat of snow as he stepped along the wharf to his yacht, The First Amendment. He wanted the story in the morning edition. He knew Simon Templar read newspapers rarely, and when he did read them he skimmed through the pages as quickly as possible and gleaned information with a hurried eye.
"Where did the body come from?"
Later Savannah figured she got involved, and almost killed, for three reasons: the money, the case itself, and Bernard's detachment from the world they shared. As she turned into Carpet Street, she wondered at her own obstinacy. She looked for a place to hide - and slipped into Sam's Bar - the sign advertising LIVE GIRLS DANCING 24 HOURS. She thought that a bit more pleasant than DEAD GIRLS DANCING.
Officer Armand Gamache pointed at the body and held his pencil poised. "Where did Sampson Tracy come from?" "Minnesota." "No, dummy, I mean where did the body come from?" "We found the body in the bottom of a gully, lying on its side, half buried in the snow." Officer Gamache sighed. DEAD! Killing was too good for him. Could this be Savannah's work? She had gotten through the entire evening without killing anyone. Ellery sidled toward the door, saying "Guess you won't be needing me any more." "What the devil do you mean you're leaving?" Gamache demanded. "Try to be reasonable, Armand. Once the law arrives, a P.I. is just in the way."
Meanwhile at the Stop 'n' Shop, cashier Dr. Sally Good stood at her register, staring at a stack of frozen TV dinners that lay stacked up atop the moving belt, and regretting what she was afraid might turn out to be a terrible mistake. There was a paperback book on the belt too, titled "Dear Comrade, We are Cassandra". She would rather be reading that than scanning groceries, which was a bit demeaning for a PhD. Two years had passed and she knew despair well. Who were these people coming in with burned clothing still smoking?
Tommy and David skidded to a stop. "Well, about time!" Julius growsed. Tommy retorted, "Listen, Julius, you know in the movies where someone says 'You can't fire me, I quit!'? (well, maybe they don't do that in real life). So chill out, Julius. Or are you being Julie today?" David's eyebrows went up at that one. "I'm becoming Vera, smart guy; and don't you forget it!" They had been here four hours, Tommy and David, and already losing a job that turned from a major catastrophe to a cause for thanksgiving. David asked, "Tommy, did you get the story on Desmond Cormier in before deadline?" "Just barely. Desmond Cormier's success story was an improbable one, even among the many self-congratulatory rags-to-riches tales we tell ourselves in the ongoing saga of our green republic, one that is forever changing yet forever the same, a saga that also includes the graves of Shiloh and cinders from aboriginal villages." "Whatever. As long as it gets in on time."
Savannah find Rigby in the soup aisle
Inside the smoky bar, Savannah found a seat. Nadina, the dancer who had taken Paris by storm, swayed to the sound of the applause, bowed and bowed again. Savannah had a drink and decided to see what happened to chase down Lord Peter. He would protect her from Bernard. As she approached the burned-out winery, she saw him heading across the street to the grocery store.
Armand Gamache sighed as Ellery and Caroline slipped out into the hallway, leaving him alone with the stiff. He reflected that it was to the waiter at Florian's, clumsy and flustered, as he was accustomed to say afterwards, that he owed his life - and this sort of career. "I can't believe I let him talk me into this!" he grumbled. He turned the body over. The knife had pierced Sampson Tracy's heart, exactly at the spot that would stop it cold.
The survivors of the winery fire drifted into the Stop 'n' Shop to await developments. They didn't notice Savannah come in with her big sunglasses on. She went down the canned soup aisle to find Rigby Webb already there! Next door, Charles Lenox sat in the study of his town house in Hampden Lane - that small, shop-lined street just off Grosvenor Place where he had passed most of his adult life - and sifted through the papers that had accumulated upon his desk, as they would, inevitably, when one became a member of Parliament.
The following sentence(s) are on hold awaiting inclusion as the story develops.
"I don't get it, Mom."
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 Chap 6 americanfilmnoir.com Chap 7 Pasadena Star-News Chap 8 The Surrey Comet Chap 9 geocities.jp Chap 10