Deirdre Hartsell loved life too much to shoot herself in her pretty head. She’d been a high-society party girl since her days at college, and her two greatest passions were keeping up appearances and having a roaring good time. Women like that don’t kill themselves, and Deirdre’s father wants to prove that his girl didn’t die by her own hand. To get the truth, he hires Washington DC’s sharpest private detective, Chester Drum. After all, Drum knew Deirdre better than anyone—he was married to her. But in a town built on lies, Deirdre lived with more than her fair share of secrets, and the first thing Drum learns is that his late ex-wife was a prominent member of the Communist Party, supporting the local cell with endless donations from her fat checkbook. Did leftist sympathies get Deirdre killed? The truth lies in Venezuela—and Chester Drum has gone farther than that for answers before.
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The Second Longest Night
A Chester Drum Mystery
By Stephen Marlowe
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1955 Fawcett Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A loud bell clanged once, like a peal of slightly musical thunder, as I approached a door marked SENATORS ONLY. So many doors around here bore those two words that I began to feel like an intruder. But then the door in front of me opened and a squad of middle-aged men—straightening ties and poking shirttails out of sight and carrying jackets and running fingers through silver hair and looking oiled, sleek and sweaty—made a concentrated dash down the long hallway.
I sidestepped the interference, and failed to see Senator Blair Hartsell in the squad of sprinting men. I waited until the sound of their running footsteps faded down the long hallway, entered the room behind the door marked SENATORS ONLY, and began to sweat.
Hot steam billowed and rolled around the room. You could have sliced the humid air with a butter knife. A couple of figures were lounging around on the rubbing tables, and across the large room somewhere I could hear someone splashing around in the swimming pool, making noises as if he were gargling with the chlorinated water or giving the Bronx cheer to someone. I peeled off my jacket, loosened my tie and squinted at the Senator on the nearest rubbing table. I had seen his face on TV but couldn't recall his name. I smiled at him and he didn't bother to give me his professional best. Like Blair Hartsell, he was probably a lame duck, which explained why he hadn't bothered to scamper off after the others, find a seat on the junior-sized subway and rush to the Capitol for the roll-call vote, which the single loud clanging bell had proclaimed.
"Senator Hartsell?" I said. It was hardly more than a tight whisper. Except for the hissing of steam from the vents, the occasional slapping sound of flesh against flesh and the splashing of the trained-seal Senator in the swimming pool, there wasn't a sound in the room. "Is Senator Hartsell here?" I tried again, getting my larynx into the act this time.
I began to feel like a poaching egg in all that steam. It must have been ninety degrees in there, but outside a cold wind from the Potomac was blowing snow flurries down Constitution Avenue. I was going to give it one more try when a voice with plenty of timbre and modulation and up-from-the-diaphragm expertness said, "I'm over here, Chet."
I followed the sound of the voice to a massaging table. The steam billowed and rolled around Senator Blair Hartsell's supine figure. He's the only man I know who can look dignified wearing nothing but sweat, oil and a white turkish towel draped across his loins. He waved away the masseur and sat up, lighting a cigarette, which didn't draw well in all the humidity. He had a big shaggy head with thick hair the color of a brand new Brillo pad. He had a lined leathery face, all nose and jowls like a mastiff.
His voice rumbled around inside him for a while. He cleared his throat and said, "You weren't at the funeral, Chet."
"No," I said. "I wasn't at the funeral."
"I still can't believe it."
"A tragedy," I offered.
"Don't you have any feelings, Drum? She was your wife."
"Not for the last six months," I pointed out. "And you didn't exactly embrace me to the family bosom while it lasted, Senator."
"Go to hell. Forget it. Forget I sent for you."
"I made a mistake sending for you."
I let him stew over his own words without answering. After he convinced himself he was wrong, he added, "Didn't I?"
Sweat was streaming down my face in salty rivulets. I got one of my own cigarettes lit but couldn't tell if I was inhaling nicotine poison or steam. I dropped the cigarette, felt around for it with my foot, and stepped on it. I said, "You haven't told me why you sent for me."
"I'm some asset to the party," he told me. "We regain the Senate by a landslide, but some damned party hack in the opposition beats me by a quarter of a million votes."
"There's a whole houseful of better shoulders to cry on up in Georgetown, Senator. What do you want?"
"You just love to kick a man while he's down, don't you?"
"I'm not kicking you. You're kicking yourself."
The swimmer had stopped splashing and Bronx cheering. He was probably listening to us. Senator Hartsell said, "Why do we always have to fight, Chet? Let's start all over."
"All right. Let's."
"Mrs. Hartsell is not well."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Deirdre's death, then the election defeat right on top of it. She has a bad heart. Rheumatic."
I grunted what was meant to be a sympathetic sound.
"Blairy came in from Paris for the funeral. That helped her a little."
Blairy was Blair Hartsell III. "How's his poetry?" I asked. "It is poetry?"
"Poetry," said the Senator, mouthing it like a dirty word. "It stinks. He can't even sell it for a free subscription to one of those quarterlies. But that's not what I wanted to see you about."
"No," I said.
"Chet, doesn't it seem strange to you, a girl like Deirdre taking her own life? I mean, she wasn't the type, if there is a suicide type. I think there is. Don't you?"
"Maybe. I'm no psychiatrist."
"Not Deirdre. If anyone ought to know how full of life she was, you ought to."
"I guess so," I said, trying not to remember. "But she left a note, didn't she?"
"It wasn't in the papers."
"The papers said there was a note but didn't say what it contained. Is that what you want to see me about?"
Senator Hartsell's voice, when he answered, was so low I could hardly hear it. "Chet, I want you to find out if my daughter committed suicide, or—"
"Or what?" I asked.
"Or was murdered. Does that sound melodramatic? I don't want it to."
"That's all right, Senator. You're not speaking to your constituents now."
"Stop it, damn you. Five minutes with you and I always wind up wanting to punch you in the nose."
"That's what Deirdre always used to say."
"You didn't love my daughter?"
"I loved her. In the beginning."
"But then you hated her?"
"No. I didn't hate her. I never hated her."
"Chet, Deirdre didn't kill herself. My daughter didn't take her own life. Maybe Blairy would. That's a fine thing to say about your own son, isn't it? But maybe Blairy's the type. Deirdre wasn't. Chet?"
"I'm no psychiatrist," I repeated.
"Go drown yourself," he said, sounding nothing like a Senator, not even a lame-duck Senator waiting for the party hack from the opposition to unseat him in January.
I moved away from the rubbing table. The steam closed in. The trained seal began to splash again. "I'll tell you what the note said," Senator Hartsell called after me.
I came back to the table. I leaned down on it so he could see my face. "I'm listening," I said.
"She was doing it for me, she said. Otherwise, she would ruin my career. The opposition was beginning to say things about her. She didn't admit the things were true, but she didn't deny them. That was all, except for apologies. Chet, was Deirdre a Communist?"
Instead of answering his question I asked, "Was the note in Deirdre's handwriting?"
"Yes. But it doesn't seem like a motive for suicide, does it?"
"What the hell," I said. I grinned a hard grin at him. "Maybe somebody dared her."
He hesitated, but then he grinned back at me, just as hard. "That's how Deirdre was with you?"
I couldn't read the big mastiff face. I had never been able to. "She was a lot of girl, wasn't she?"
I suddenly got all choked up. I turned away so he couldn't see my face. "A lot of girl."
"But she wasn't a Communist?"
"How the hell would I know?" I said. "For all I knew, she could have been a Martian. It was that kind of marriage."
"From the beginning?"
"There was no beginning and no middle and no end. It lasted only three months."
"Did she have any Communist friends that you knew of?"
"Do you want me to find out whether she was a Communist or whether she killed herself?"
"Both. Because if the note said she was taking her life because she was a Communist, but she really wasn't—"
"Yeah," I said, "I see. But I didn't get to know Deirdre's friends. My friends were too uncouth for her. That was her word, uncouth. Hers were too snotty for me."
"That was her word too?"
"No. That was my word."
"You'll find out for me?"
"It's my way of making a living," I said.
"Can you get started at once?"
"You won't like it. I'll be poking around. I'll be bothering you. I'll be bothering the family. I'll want a list of the snotty friends and I'll be bothering them too."
"That's all right with me, Chet. I understand how it is."
"Maybe you do, and maybe you don't. When I ask questions, I'll want them answered. As soon as you stop cooperating, I quit. And," I added, "it will cost you fifty dollars a day plus expenses."
"I use a sliding scale. You can afford it, Senator. Can't you?"
"Try to keep Mrs. Hartsell out of it if you can."
"I'll try. Is the rest of the family in town?"
"Blairy's still here. It's bad for his poetry, he says, but he feels it's his obligation. Lydia went home. You never met Lydia, did you?"
"No," I said. I wouldn't like the idea of meeting her now, either, but I didn't say that. Lydia was Deirdre's twin sister.
"They're very different," Blair Hartsell told me. "Lydia's quiet. The only way they're alike is in looks."
"She's married, isn't she?"
"Lydia? Yes. Believe it or not, the man's an astronomer. Named Homerson. He's the stargazer who squints through that big two-hundred-inch eye out West."
I said, "Deirdre went to college down at William and Mary, didn't she?"
"That's right. Is it important?"
I shrugged. "People get all mixed up in politics in college. If she had any Red inclinations, they might know it down there."
"It's been five years."
"Those things are remembered, Senator. Well, if there's nothing else you can tell me ..."
"Is there anything else you want?"
"A retainer," I said.
"You're strictly business, aren't you?"
"If that's the way you want it."
"There will be a two-hundred-dollar check waiting for you in my office in the morning. Is that satisfactory?"
I found my way out through the steam. The seal was silent now, sunning himself somewhere. When I opened the door, the Notre Dame football team was filing back down the hall. It looked more like halftime than the final gun for them. From their faces, some of them had won and some of them had lost.CHAPTER 2
The sign on the pebbled glass of the door said CHESTER DRUM, CONFIDENTIAL INVESTIGATIONS. Confidential. That was more necessary in Washington than elsewhere. The office was on F Street, where such offices are in Washington.
Inside, I had a small waiting room with a couple of chairs and a long table on which were several copies of the Congressional Record, Time, Newsweek, U. S. News & World Report and half a dozen pocket-sized shamus books, just for kicks. Beyond the waiting room through a small archway with peeling paint was another room with space for my desk, my chair and a client chair, a hatrack, six second-hand filing cabinets which contained mostly the air that George Washington or someone had breathed, and a large window which offered a view of the Treasury Building, if you were interested in such views.
I stood at the window a long time and looked out at the Treasury Building, which formed the cross bar for the letter T of which F Street is the stem. I didn't want to think of Deirdre, but that's what I was doing. I'd have to get used to it. Deirdre was deader than the coffin nail, which Mr. Dickens used to claim, was deader than the doornail, which was dead enough. The late afternoon light was fading fast and it was snowing harder and pretty soon I wouldn't be able to see the great stone slab of the Treasury Building at all.
I would have to get used to thinking of Deirdre. From now on I would do a lot of it; I was being paid for it. I wondered how long it would keep on hurting.
Going through my files, I had found a name in the C for Communism section. I had made a phone call and now I was waiting for the call to be returned. I found a cigar, which some satisfied client had left on my desk and lit it with the desk lighter. I stood in the gloom and watched the darkness and the snow come down and obscure the Treasury Building, wondering if the client had paid me with much more than the cigar or if I had found out anything worthwhile for him. I couldn't remember. I was thinking of the way Deirdre had looked the last time I had seen her. She hadn't only looked incapable of suicide; she had looked damn near indestructible. A thing of beauty like that doesn't change, it just endures. So the poets have said. And now she was dead.
I heard the footsteps click-clacking sharply in the hall. One part of me continued looking at the Treasury Building and another part went to work. A girl. Aggressive. Self-confident. The footsteps told me that. Coming in here. That was easier. The door latch said so. I didn't turn around.
"It's really something at night, isn't it?" she said.
"This is a one-man office," I said. "I already have a case. It's a policy of mine. I work only one case at a time. If you'll leave your name and a number where I can reach you?"
"I don't want anything investigated, Mr. Drum. You might say I'm doing some investigating myself. You are Mr. Drum?" It was a deep voice, but very much woman. Almost contralto, I thought. I turned around.
She was surprisingly young for that voice, but not for the sound of her footsteps. If you like your girls short and blonde, she was pretty. I like them like Deirdre, tall and blonde, and I like them like this one was, too. She wore a trench coat cut like a man's. It made her look even smaller. Her mouth was very vivid against a tan face and unless she used ultra-violet, that was the color of her skin. Her eyes were brown and rather small, but not so small that they spoiled her looks. Her hair was short-cropped, and she didn't wear a hat. The trench coat fit her loosely, but you could see the suggestion of a good figure under it.
"What are you investigating?" I asked.
She took a pad from the flap pocket of her coat and wet the tip of a pencil with her tongue. I was willing to bet she'd be a point-breaker. When she didn't answer but only looked at me expectantly, as if I would respond to all her questions before she had to ask them, I said, "Are you with an agency?"
"Oh, no. It's nothing like that. I'm doing a story on Deirdre Hartsell."
"A story?" I said.
"My name is Marianne Wilder. I'm a free-lance writer."
"It's a good writing name," I said.
"It's real, Mr. Drum." The pencil hovered over the pad. It wasn't doing any writing. If pencils could, it looked disappointed.
"Why do a story on Deirdre Hartsell?"
"Why do any story? Because I think it will sell, possibly to the slicks, certainly to a Sunday supplement. She was that kind of woman. Wasn't she?"
"I wouldn't know," I said.
"May I sit down?"
She looked at me with no expression on her dark pretty face. She sat down in the client chair and crossed her legs, dropping the blank pad to her right knee, which was crossed over her left knee. "That surprises me," she admitted. "What you said."
"What did I say, Miss Wilder?" I looked at the telephone. I didn't want to chase her out of here, but I wasn't going to let her pump me for any information. I hoped the telephone would ring. I hoped after a while she would get the idea.
"You said you wouldn't know whether she was that kind of woman or not. That's interesting. It's a good starting point, I think." She didn't bat an eyelash when she said, "What kind of marriage relationship did you have with Miss Hartsell, Mr. Drum?"
Before I could answer, the telephone rang. I yanked the receiver off the hook gratefully. A voice asked if I was Mr. Drum and I said I was Mr. Drum and it asked Mr. Chester Drum and I said the same and it said it was giving a course in advanced criminology to qualified students and I certainly had the qualifications but I said they were wrong I did not have the qualifications, and hung up.
"Now then," Miss Wilder said. "Where were we?"
"Honest, Miss Wilder, I'd like to help you. But as you can see, I'm terribly busy."
"You are not. You were doing nothing but staring out at the Treasury Building when I came in."
"That's the way I think," I said. "I think of all the money I'm going to make from all the suckers who think they need something investigated."
"Cross my heart. They have a special series of money, just for me."
"Oh, come on, Mr. Drum."
"I was busy, I said."
"This won't take long. If you don't answer my questions now, though, I'm going to haunt you just like a—" she smiled at me for the first time—"a private detective. You don't believe me?"
Excerpted from The Second Longest Night by Stephen Marlowe. Copyright © 1955 Fawcett Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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