murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Study In Suicide


by Richard Demming

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15 Story Detective | Aug. 1950 | Vol. 3 | No. 2

Est. Read Time: 6 mins

I didn't understand why the police were so interested in my wife's disappearance. I just wanted to pack my books and get away for the summer break ... and see Miss Crane!

The taller of the two detectives, the one named Sergeant Slake, said, "Tell me, Professor Johnson, did your wife buy any new clothes shortly before she ran away?"

I said, "Not that I know."

"Wouldn't you know?"

"Of course," I said. "She hasn't bought any clothing for at least two months."

"Then we ought to be able to figure what she wore that night. When you renewed your fire insurance last month, she made a written inventory of all the items in each room, and we have a list of every piece of clothing she owned. Even her handkerchiefs. Your wife's a methodical woman."

I said, "Yes, she always … is."

Sergeant Slake's companion, who had not introduced himself, glanced at me and started to ask another question, but changed his mind.

The express company men came at that moment and I excused myself in order to direct them to the three book crates in my study. Sergeant Slake followed along behind us and waited in the doorway.

One of the express men was new, but the other was the same heavy-shouldered and heavy-humored man who came for my books every summer, and who seemed to delight in getting under my skin.

He said to his partner, "Some guys carry a book when they travel. The prof here carries a library."

Hitching up his pants, he expanded his annual theme just as though I were not present.

"Every summer these same three crates goes up to his farm, and every fall they comes back. Once I asked him why he read the same books over and over, and know what he says ? He says, 'These books ain't for readin'."

The muscled humorist grunted as he stooped to lift one end of the first crate.

The detective in the doorway was grinning at me.

I said testily, "It's a reference library. I'm doing research. There are books in the world aside from dime novels."

From the corner of my eye I caught the express man winking at the detective and felt a furious contempt for clodhoppers who condescend to anyone who works with his mind.

"I'll show you my wife's room," I told Sergeant Slake coldly.

When I had taken the two detectives to Martha's room and indicated her closet.

I went to my own bedroom to complete packing. I had nearly finished when a knock came at the door.

I said, "Come in," and the door opened to admit Elizabeth.

Frowning at her, I said sharply, "You shouldn't be here. The police are in the next room."

Her Dresden-china face developed a look of hurt surprise.

"Why, Don darling, what difference does that make?"

"Just the difference between avoiding suspicion and unnecessarily arousing it!"

I was conscious my voice was ragged, and brought myself up short.

More reasonably I said, "After all, Martha has run off, and if people began to combine that with a sudden increase in familiarity between the head of the English department and the school librarian, there could be a juicy campus scandal."

Her red lips thrust out petulantly. "I thought you'd appreciate some help packing. Sorry I'm a bother."

She turned to leave, but I caught her shoulder and swung her around into my arms.

"Don't be such a goose, darling," I said. "We'll see each other all summer. Why take a chance on scandal for the sake of an extra five minutes?"

She held her head down, avoiding my lips, and I said, "If Martha has gone to Reno, we may even be free to marry by fall. Then we can do away with all this secrecy."

Immediately the petulance smoothed from her face. She said, "Oh, Don! Do you think she has?"

"There, or somewhere to get a divorce. She seemed to want one badly enough, and though she wouldn't say. I'm sure she ran off like this because she learned about us somehow."

A knock sounded, and I quickly stepped back to the bed, bent over my suitcase as though busy packing and called, "Yes?"

The tall detective came in and glanced curiously at Elizabeth.

I said, "This is Sergeant Slake of the detective bureau, Miss Crane." Then to the sergeant, "Miss Crane is our school librarian."

The detective said, "We've met."

In a polite voice I said, "Thanks for dropping in, Miss Crane. Have a nice vacation. See you in the fall."

Knowing very well she would see me a hundred miles from there in the morning, Elizabeth smiled slightly, gave both of us an impersonal good-by and turned to leave.

"Just a minute," said Sergeant Slake. "I may want to talk to you when I finish with Professor Johnson … . Let's go over things once more, Professor. Your story is that last Wednesday your wife suddenly announced she wanted a divorce, refused to give any reason and refused to listen to your remonstrances. You left for an evening class without settling the discussion, and when you returned, she was gone."

I pushed down my suitcase lid and latched it.

"That's substantially correct."

"When she didn't come home all night, you phoned some of your friends and learned none of them had seen her. One of the friends was Miss Crane here. Two days passed, and then Miss Crane mentioned it to the campus policeman, who passed it on to us and we dropped around just in time to catch you before you took off for the summer. Apparently we'd never have heard about it otherwise, since you didn't seem in any hurry to make a report."

I said coldly, "I hardly considered it a police matter — and still don't. It's a personal thing between my wife and myself."

"Sure, Professor. Except no one seen her leave town, and Wednesday morning, just a few hours before your argument about divorce, she talked to Prof. Staley's wife on the phone and was full of plans about you and her spending the summer together on that farm you own. I just took a second gander at your study and your book shelves are still about a third full."

I snapped my eyes up at him. "What's that irrelevant remark supposed to mean ?"

"Why, I thought you'd catch on right away, Professor," the detective said. "We checked the list of her clothing, and there's nothing missing. Nothing at all. Not even a pair of stockings. Does your wife run around naked, Professor ?"

I felt my forehead dampen and shifted my eyes from the detective to Elizabeth.

Her expression was puzzled, and Sergeant Stake's was suddenly cynical.

He said, "Remember when I remarked your wife was methodical ? You said, 'Yes, she always … is.' What you started to say was, 'She always was.' I don't speak very good English myself, but my partner's a college man. He says an English professor wouldn't start to use the past tense unless he knew it was correct."

Crossing to the phone extension by my bed, he leafed through the book and dialed a number. "Think we'll have a look at those book crates," he said.

Elizabeth continued to look puzzled.

"What is it, Don?" she asked.

I opened my mouth to reply, but was seized by a violent attack of trembling.

"Hello," the detective said into the phone. "This the express company?"