by Jack Curtin

Laura came through the door on a dead run. "Billy's dead," she gasped. "They found his body out on the Old South Road." She collapsed on the sofa and buried her face in her arms, weeping.

Normally I would have greeted news of the demise of my unsavory ex-nephew-in-law with unseemly laughter. In the presence of perhaps the only person on the face of the earth who would find the death of Billy Marlowe even remotely tragic, a person who was also my only living relative, I had to restrain myself. Not that I pretended actual grief; Laura was well aware of my feelings for her former husband.

"Accident-or something else?" It said all you need to know about the deceased that she didn't find my question unreasonable or unexpected.

"Murdered! Shot twice in the chest, at least that's what I heard down town. Everybody's talking about it. Shot..." Her voice trailed off.

It was hardly surprising that Billy had come to a bad end. Even Laura knew that, even if she had taken quite a while to realize she was in a very bad marriage. Even then, she was unwilling to walk away from her mistake. For unfathomable reasons, she truly loved the man. In fact, their unfortunate relationship ended only when Billy-to to almost everyone's surprise and certainly to Laura's-just up and left, then filed for divorce himself. It was still generally assumed around town that she'd go back to him in a minute if he asked. Lord knows, that was something I'd feared for the last two years.

I spent the morning calming my niece, and I had eased her grief considerably by the time she left. She may have loved Billy Marlowe, but there was a sense of inevitability about his brutal ending that she finally had to accept.

Once she'd gone, I made some calls. The story was that Billy had been drinking down at Millie's Tavern most of the previous night, sitting with a tall thin fellow that nobody recalled having seen around town before. They were drunk and loud, and Billy was lording it over the stranger, talking about "easy money" and how he had it made. They left together just after two in the morning, the last time anybody saw Billy alive until the hired hand out on the Lawton farm found him shot dead in the tall grass of the meadow early this morning. The police were looking for the thin man, but so far there was no sign of him anywhere.

I thought about that for a bit, then settled in to await the visitor I knew would arrive sooner or later.

The knock came just after dark, and I opened the door to a tall, thin fellow who, if he wasn't the man last seen with a living, breathing Billy Marlowe, was surely about as reasonable a facsimile as anyone was ever likely to find.

"Mr. Davis?"

I nodded, ignoring his out-thrust hand.

"I believe we have some business, sir." He leaned in toward me, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Concerning the late Mr. Marlowe."

He was clearly taken aback when I showed no reaction. Still, when I turned and moved down the hall toward the kitchen, he stepped inside and followed me.

I got the bourbon from the cabinet, poured myself a stiff shot in a water tumbler and sat down at the table. I slid the bottle and another glass down the table by way of invitation for him to take the chair. After stripping off his overcoat and hat, he did just that, pouring himself a drink that dwarfed my own.

When we had both drained our glasses by half, he tried again. "I understand, sir, that you and Billy had a business arrangement, an arrangement whereby you paid him a significant sum each month?"

"Twenty-five hundred dollars," I agreed.

"Twenty-five hundred dollars, thirty thousand dollars a year." He seemed barely able to contain his glee.

"But now," I pointed out, "Billy is no longer with us."

He chuckled and reached for the bottle. "Well sir," he said, after consuming the better part of a new drink in a single gulp, "I like to think he is still with us in spirit. In fact, you might say that I..." He paused and patted his hands against his chest, "I am the spirit of Billy Marlowe."

"I'm afraid I'm not too much for believing in spirits," I answered mildly, "so I'd just as soon call you by your own name, Mr...?"

"My apologies. The name is Emory, sir. Walter Emory, at your service." I was afraid for a moment that he was going to offer his hand again, but he thought better of it. "It is in fact quite important that you do know my name, Mr. Davis, as we will be doing business together..." he paused for emphasis, "on a regular basis."

When I did not respond, he had to say it straight out.

"Surely, sir, you must understand that henceforth I shall be the person you will pay twenty-five hundred dollars each month."

I shrugged. "I am afraid I don't understand at all, Mr. Emory. Why in the world would I want to that?"

"See here, Davis..." Emory screeched, half rising, then made a visible effort to bring himself under control ."As you know, after leaving my company last evening, Mr. Marlowe had an unfortunate altercation with persons unknown...." he could not suppress a smile at this transparent fabrication. "Shortly prior to that sad event, however, he turned some papers over to me."


"Indeed. You see, I am a collector of sorts, a gatherer of information. I make quite a good living in this fashion, sometimes by revealing what I know and sometimes..." he stared hard at me, "sometimes by not revealing what I know.

"Mr. Marlowe gave me papers involving a very prominent person, an attorney, which told of certain irregularities in that man's dealings during his youth. These indiscretions, which would have destroyed his career had they been discovered, instead helped to make him rich and powerful. Yet they would still ruin his good name if they were made public today."

He stopped and waited. I reached for my drink and knocked over the glass, spilling bourbon across the table. I went and got the crumpled towel from the sink area and sat back down and began slowly mopping up the liquid before I spoke.

"An interesting story. Not entirely believable, but interesting nonetheless."

Emory thrust out a long finger toward my face. "Marlowe gave me papers that show..."

I laughed and poured myself a fresh drink, enjoying his befuddlement at my lack of concern. When he stopped sputtering, I proceeded to rattle off names which appeared on several documents pertaining to certain trusts, wills and similar legal contracts which Billy had undoubtedly surrendered to my visitor with a pistol pointed at his heart. Emory's eyes widened in recognition.

"Let me tell you a story in turn," I suggested, "also about an attorney such as the man you described. A man who lost his wife after many happy years of marriage in a terrible automobile accident. Childless, he eventually began doting on the only relative he had left, the orphaned daughter of his deceased brother. He did everything he possibly could for her, seeing to it that she never wanted for anything. And how did she repay him? By taking up with and eventually marrying perhaps the least desirable young man she could find."

Emory was staring at me, trying to figure where my story was going.

"She eventually realized her mistake, but was foolishly determined to make the marriage work. And her husband knew that she was his meal ticket to a standard of living he could never attain on his own. He thus made it clear to the uncle that, should she ever change her mind, he would make any attempt to obtain a divorce so unpleasant and public that the poor woman would regret it all the days of her life.

"As you can imagine, this was a painful situation. When the uncle finally could bear it no longer, he went to his niece with a suggestion. 'All he wants is money,' he argued. 'I will gladly pay him to set you free.' She would have none of it. Indeed, she made her uncle promise that he would never even approach her husband with the proposition.

"He felt bound to keep his word, unhappy though that made him. Then one night, while sipping a brandy at a table very much like this one, the uncle had an idea. Suppose there were some other way for this unpleasant young man to get the money he wanted? Suppose he no longer required the marriage to live in the style he desired?

"He knew well what kind of man he was dealing with, a man who would never take a straight path if a crooked one were available, a man who would delight in making a profit through the humiliation of another, especially someone-such as the uncle himself--whom he despised.

"It wouldn't be all that difficult, he realized, to set up the young man so that he would believe he could take advantage of certain possibilities. False documents might be created and allowed to fall into his hands. He might even be tricked into trying his hand at blackmail...."

What!" Emory's bellow literally rattled the glass panes in the kitchen cabinets. "You're telling me...."

"I'm telling you that Bobby Marlowe walked out on my niece just over two years ago, coincidentally only one month after he and I made our 'arrangement' based upon certain documents which had come into his possession."

"Those documents...."

"...are totally and completely fraudulent. Created by me and passed on to Bobby through a convoluted series of maneuvers so that he never suspected the truth. For two years, he was convinced he was being paid for his silence. In fact, I was very happily paying him to stay away from my niece.

"So you see, Mr. Emory, you have absolutely nothing with which to threaten me. I, on the other hand, have this." I pulled my pistol out from where I had hidden it in the crumpled towel earlier in the day and pointed it at my stunned visitor.

"Now I think we need to call the police," I said. "After all, I know that you are a blackmailer and I suspect that you are a murderer as well."

Copyright 1997 Jack Curtin

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