What's the worst thing a killer could lose?
|"But there's a death certificate!" Melanie Verlaine protested. "The coroner said—!"
"Like coroners have never been bought off before," her brother-in-law snorted. "As if death certificates can't be forged."
Melanie glared at him from the shadows of the wingback chair. The library lamps only feebly beat back the leaden shadows of an early dusk, and clouds like battleships hung in the sky; like battleships too they vented the occasional rumble.
Melanie bit a ruby-red lip between her strong, white teeth, and her eyes darted between Robert and the sheet of half-folded paper he held loosely at his side. "Letters can be forged too," she hissed.
"You know Morgan's handwriting."
Robert lifted his eyebrows as he reread the letter.
"Maybe he's not trying to convince you he's still alive," he said. "Maybe he doesn't want you to believe—until it's too late."
"What do you mean?"
Robert read aloud. "'I am coming to put you in the grave you meant for me." He glanced up. "If he wanted you to take him seriously, he wouldn't send you a warning."
"So why write me at all?"
"To frighten you. He must hate you very much. After all, you killed him."
This was the first time either had alluded so nakedly to the crime, and from the way she cringed at his words they might have summoned up the mangled body of her late husband and laid it out before her.
"You cut the brakes!" she snarled. "You lured him out to the lodge! You—!"
Her nostrils flared. But Robert's smile was satirical.
"I did all that, but don't say that I seduced his wife," he retorted. "You don't love me," he drawled, "any more than you loved Morgan or anyone but yourself. You could never afford to, even after Morgan took you from that speakeasy where he found you dancing and gave you this."
With an expansive sweep of his hand he took in the library, the manor, and the wooded acreage that enfolded it. "Though now that you have his fortune," he continued, "maybe you'll pretend you can indulge an emotion that you never felt in—"
He paused as Melanie came out of the chair with an upraised hand. Then he smiled as she caught herself.
"You're one to talk," she sneered. "Who gets the other half of the estate?"
"And she in a coma, leaving you in control! Oh, Robert!" Melanie flew at him, but rather than striking him she clutched him tightly. "There's nothing between us now! Not even Morgan's money! You have yours and I have mine, and together we have it all! Why can't we have it together?"
"I'm still married to his sister."
"But she can't get between us, not the way Morgan could."
Robert lifted the letter. Melanie's eyes flicked at it, and she flinched.
"Maybe he's out there still," Robert said, "which puts him between us still."
For a week neither would budge, though they scratched at each other with arguments and recriminations. She refused to countenance the notion that Morgan had survived the murder attempt, though Robert reminded her that the charred corpse pulled from Morgan's roadster had defied definitive identification; he refused to countenance a withdrawal to Europe, though Melanie threatened to go without him. In one fit of hysteria, she suggested exhuming the corpse as a way of laying the ghost; he retorted that it would be unwise to hint to the authorities that they had lost her late husband's body.
And still the letters came, every day.
My grave awaits you, my dearest Melanie.
My grave hungers for a corpse.
Come dwell in the house that you made for me.
"I hired a private detective to find the letter writer," Robert told Melanie the following Sunday. "He gave me an address and a description of the man posting the them."
He read the report. Melanie paled and breathed a single word—"Morgan!"—when he was done.
"It does describe him," Robert agreed. "Even if it isn't him, I will have something to say to him." He showed her the automatic before tucking it into his jacket.
He called her later that night, from a pay phone downtown.
"It wasn't Morgan," he told her in a muffled voice. "It was a common blackmailer who'd made a lucky guess. But now I've got another body that needs getting rid of."
"What are you going to do?"
"There's an empty burial plot next to Morgan's. The plot he bought for you. I'll buy a shovel and put him there."
Melanie swallowed at his words, and pulled her jacket tight as though to ward off a sudden chill.
An hour later the phone rang again. "You've got to come out here," Robert said, his voice cracking with strain. "There was already a coffin inside your plot."
"There can't be!"
"Come and see."
Melanie drove straight out.
She found him sheltering against a sharp wind beside a mausoleum. He pointed at a pile of dirt, and at a blanket that lay nearby, wrapped about a log-like lump.
She staggered over to the wide, low headstone, and looked down into the hole he had dug. There was indeed a coffin at the bottom.
She stared. But she laughed shrilly after raising her eyes to the headstone.
"You idiot!" she yelled over the wind. "This is Morgan's coffin!"
"That's what scares me," Robert yelled back. "I looked inside it ... and it's empty!"
"See for yourself!"
Melanie jumped into the hole. Hardly believing what she was about to do, she put her fingers under the lid.
A blow from the shovel laid her out before she could lift it.
Robert threw the sodden earth over her, then picked up the blanket—which hid nothing worse than a pile of rocks—and wrapped himself in it.
Morgan Verlaine's grave now held him and his wife both—and their brother-in-law now had both their shares of the fortune.