THE GUEST at the monthly banquet of the Black Widowers frowned at the routine question asked him by that best of all waiters, Henry.
"No," he said, vehemently. "Nothing! Nothing! – No, not even ginger ale. I'll just have a glass of water, if you don't mind."
He turned away, disturbed. He had been introduced as Christopher Levan. He was a bit below average height, slim, and well – dressed. His skull was mostly bald but was so well – shaped that the condition seemed attractive rather than otherwise.
He was talking to Mario Gonzalo and returned to the thread of his conversation with an apparent effort, saying, "The an of cartooning seems simple. I have seen books that show you how to draw familiar shapes and forms, starting with an oval, let us say, then modifying it in successive stages till it becomes Popeye or Snoopy or Dick Tracy. And yet how does one decide what oval to make and what modifications to add in the first place? Besides, it is not easy to copy. No matter how simple the steps seem to be, when I try to follow them, the end result is distorted and amateurish."
Gonzalo looked, with a certain complacency, at the cartoon he had just drawn of the guest, and said, "You have to allow for a kind of inborn talent and for years of experience, Mr. Levan."
"I suppose so, and yet you didn't draw any oval with modifications. You simply drew that head freehand as quickly as you could and without any effort as far as I could tell. – Except that somehow my head looks shiny. Is it?"
"Not particularly. That's just cartoonist's license."
"Except that," said Emmanuel Rubin, drawing near with a drink in his hand, "if licenses were required for cartooning, Mario would never qualify. Some may have talent, but Mario gets by with effrontery."
Gonzalo grinned. "He means chutzpah. Manny knows about that. He writes stories which he actually submits to editors."
"And sells," said Rubin.
"An indication of occasional editorial desperation."
Levan smiled. "When I hear two people spar like that, I am certain that there is actually a profound affection between them."
"Oh, God," said Rubin, visibly revolted. His sparse beard bristled and his eyes, magnified through the thick lenses of his glasses, glared.
"You've hit it, Mr. Levan," said Gonzalo. "Manny would give me the shirt off his back if no one were looking. The only thing he wouldn't give me is a kind word."
Geoffrey Avalon, the host of this banquet, called out, "Are you getting tangled up in some nonsense between Manny and Mario, Chris?"
"Voluntarily, Jeff," said Levan. "I like these bouts with pillows and padded bats."
"It gets wearisome," said Avalon, staring down from his seventy – four – inch height, "past the fifty – seven thousandth time. – But come and sit down, Chris. We are having nothing less good than lobster tonight."
It is not to be denied that an elaborate lobster dinner tends to inhibit conversation a bit. The cracking of shells takes considerable concentration and the dipping into drawn butter is not a matter to be carried through casually. The period between the Portuguese fish chowder and the coupe aux marrons was largely silent, therefore, as far as the human voice was concerned, though the nutcracking play kept the table at a low growl.
"I despise lobster salad," said Roger Halsted over the coffee. "It's like eating seedless watermelon cut into cubes. The worth of the prize is directly proportional to the pains taken to win it."
Levan said, "I suppose, then, you would be very much against interest – free loans," and he chuckled with a sated air.
"Well," said James Drake, in his hoarsely muted voice, "I imagine even Roger would consider that as carrying a principle too far."
Thomas Trumbull fixed Levan with a glowering eye. "That's a banker's joke. Are you a banker?"
"One moment, Tom," said Avalon. "You're beginning to grill and the grilling session has not yet been opened."
"Well, then, open it, Jeff. We're on our coffee, and Henry is going to come around with the brandy in a millisecond." Trumbull looked at his watch. "And the lobster has delayed us, so let's go."
"I was about to begin," said Avalon, with dignity. He tapped his glass three or four times. "Tom, since you are so anxious, won't you begin the grilling."
"Certainly," said Trumbull. "Mr. Levan, are you a banker?"
"That is not the traditional opener," said Gonzalo.
Trumbull said, "Who asked you? What you're thinking of is traditional; it's not mandatory. – Mr. Levan, are you a banker?"
"Yes, I am. At least, I'm the vice president of a bank."
"Hah," said Trumbull. "Now I'll ask you the traditional opener. Mr. Levan, how do you justify your existence?"
Levan's smile became a beam. "Easiest thing in the world. The human body is completely dependent on blood circulation, which is driven by the heart. The world economy is completely dependent on money circulation, which is driven by the banks. I do my bit."
"Are the banks motivated in this by a desire for the good of the world or for the profits of their owners?"
Levan said, "Socialist claptrap, if you don't mind my saying so. You imply that the two motives are mutually exclusive, and that is not so. The heart drives the blood into the aorta and the first arteries to branch off are the coronaries, which feed what? The heart! In short, the heart's first care is for the heart, and that is as it should be, for without the heart all else fails. Let the coronaries get choked up and you'll find yourself agreeing with the heart, and wishing it were anything else that was on short rations."
"Not the brain," said Drake. "Sooner the heart. Better die of a heart attack than live on in senility."
Levan thought a bit. "That's hard to disagree with, but we may treat and reverse senility a lot sooner than we are likely to be able to treat and reverse death."
Gonzalo, frowning, said, "Come on, what's this subject we've latched on to? And on a full stomach, too. Hey, Tom, may I ask a question?"
Trumbull said, "All right. Subject changed. Ask a question, Mario, but don't make it a dumb one."
Gonzalo said, "Mr. Levan, are you a member of Alcoholics Anonymous?"
There was a sudden silence about the table and then Trumbull, face twisted in anger, growled, "I said, don't make it – "
"It's a legitimate question," insisted Gonzalo, raising his voice, "and the rules of the game are that the guest must answer."
Levan, not smiling, and looking grim rather than embarrassed, said, "I'll answer the question. I am not a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I am not an alcoholic."
"Are you a teetotaler, then?"
For some reason, Levan seemed to find more difficulty answering that. "Well, no. I drink on occasion – a bit. Not much."
Gonzalo leaned back in his chair and frowned.
Avalon said, "May we change the subject once again and try to find something more civilized to discuss?"
"No, wait a while," said Gonzalo. "There's something funny here and I'm not through. Mr. Levan, you refused a drink. I was talking to you at the time. I watched you."
"Yes, I did," said Levan. "What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing," said Gonzalo, "but you refused it angrily. Henry!"
"Yes, Mr. Gonzalo," said Henry at once, momentarily suspending his brandy – pouring operation.
"Wasn't there something funny about Mr. Levan's refusal?"
"Mr. Levan was a bit forceful, I believe. I would not undertake to say that it was 'funny.'"
"Why was it forceful, do you think?"
"There could be – "
Drake interrupted. "This is the damndest grilling session I can remember. Bad taste all around. Whom are we grilling, anyway? Mr. Levan or Henry?"
"I agree," said Rubin, nodding his head vigorously. "Come on, Jeff, you're the host. Make a ruling and get us on track."
Avalon stared at his water glass, then said, "Gentlemen, Christopher Levan is a vice president of the largest bank in Merion. In fact, he is my personal banker, and I know him socially. I have seen him drink in moderation but I have never seen him drunk. I did not hear him refuse a drink, but somehow I'm curious. Chris, did you refuse a drink forcefully? If so, why?"
Levan frowned, and said, "I'm on the edge of resenting this."
"Please don't, Chris," said Avalon. "I explained the rules when you accepted my invitation, and I gave you a chance to back out. Nothing said here goes beyond the walls. Even if you were to tell us you were absconding with bank funds, we would be unable to tell anyone that – though I'm sure we would all urge you quite forcibly to abandon your intention."
"I am not an absconder, and I resent being forced to make that statement. I don't take this kindly of you, Jeff."
"This has gone far enough," said Halsted. "Let's end the session."
"Wait," said Gonzalo, stubbornly, "I want an answer to my question."
"I told you," said Levan. "I merely refused – "
"Not my question to you, Mr. Levan. My question to Henry. Henry, why did Mr. Levan refuse the drink so vehemently? If you don't answer, this session might end prematurely, and that would be the first time it did so, at least during my membership in the club."
Henry said, "I can only guess, sir, from what little knowledge of human nature I have. It may be that Mr. Levan, although ordinarily a moderate drinker, refused a drink this time, because in the near past he had suffered keen embarrassment or humiliation through drink, and, for a time at least, would rather not drink again."
Levan had whitened distinctly. "How did you know that, waiter?"
Gonzalo grinned with proprietary pride. "His name is Henry, Mr. Levan. He's an artist, too. The rest of us draw the ovals, and he adds the modifications and produces the final picture."
The mood of the table had changed subtly. Even Trumbull seemed to soften, and there was an almost wheedling quality to his voice. "Mr. Levan, if something has happened that has left a lasting effect, it might help you to talk about it."
Levan looked about the table. Every eye was fixed on him. He said in half a mutter, "The waiter – Henry – is quite right. I made a total fool of myself and, right now, I firmly intend never to drink again. Jeff told you he's never seen me drunk. Well, he never has, but he's not always around. Once in a long while I do manage to get high. Nothing in particular ever came of it until two weeks ago, and then – it hardly bears thinking of."
He frowned in thought, and said, "It might help if I did tell you. You might be able to suggest something I can do. So far, the only one I've told is my wife."
"I imagine she's furious," said Halsted.
"No, she's not. My first wife would have been. She was a teetotaler, but she's dead now, rest her soul. My children would have been sardonically amused, I think, but they're in college, both of them. My present wife, my second, is a worldly woman, though, who is not easily shaken by such things. She has a career of her own; in real estate, I believe. She has grown children, too. We married for companionship – and out of affection – but not in order to impose on each other. The world doesn't crash about her ears if I get drunk. She just gives me good practical advice and that ends it."
"But what happened?" asked Avalon.
"Well – I live on a rather exclusive street – four houses. They're very nice houses, not extraordinarily large, but well – designed and comfortable: three bedrooms, a television room, three baths, finished cellar, finished attic, all – electric (which is expensive), backyards stretching to the creek, ample space between the houses, too. All four were put up by one contractor at one time about a dozen years ago. They're all identical in appearance and plan, and they were sold on ironclad condition that they be kept identical. We can't paint our house another color, or put on aluminum siding, or add a sun porch unless all four house owners agree to do the same. Well, you can't get agreement ever, as you can well imagine, so there have been no changes."
"Is that legal?" asked Halsted.
"I don't know," said Levan, "but we all agreed."
"Can you make changes inside?" asked Gonzalo.
"Of course. We don't have standardized furniture or wallpaper or anything like that. The agreement concerns only the appearance from the outside. The houses are called the Four Sisters. Right, Jeff?"
Levan went on. "Anyway, I was out for the evening. I had warned Emma – my wife – that I might not be back till three in the morning. I didn't seriously intend to stay out that late, but I felt I might, because – well, it was one of those college reunions and at fifty – five, there's this wild urge for one evening to be twenty – two again. It never really works, I suppose.
"I even thought I could carry my liquor, but by midnight I was pretty well smashed. I didn't think I was, but I must have been, because I can't carry my liquor well, and because several of the others tried to persuade me to go home. I didn't want to and I seem to remember offering to knock one of them down." He rubbed his eyes fiercely, as though trying to wipe out the mental image.
Drake said, dryly, "Not the thing for a bank vice president?"
"We're human, too," said Levan, wearily, "but it doesn't help the image. Anyway, in the end, two or three of them helped me out to a car and drove me out to Merion. When they found the street in question, I insisted they let me out on the corner. You see I didn't want to wake the neighbors. It was a noisy car, or I thought it was.
"They did let me out on the corner; they were glad to get rid of me, I imagine. I realized I wasn't going to get anywhere much trying to fumble my key into the lock. Besides I knew a better trick. There's a side door that I was pretty sure would be open. There's no crime in our section to speak of – no burglaries – and the side door is never closed during the day. Half the time, it's not closed at night, either.
"So I made my way to it. I felt my way along the side of the house and found the door. It was open, as I thought it would be. I tiptoed in as quietly as I could, considering my condition, and closed it behind me just as quietly. I was in a small anteroom mostly used for hanging up clothes, keeping umbrellas and rubbers, and so on. I just made my way around the umbrella stand and sank into a chair.
"By that time, I was reeling rather dizzy and very tired. The dark was soothing, and I liked the feel of the soft old padding under me. I think I would have gone to sleep right then, and might not have been found by Emma until morning, except that I became woozily aware of a dim light under the door that led to the kitchen.
"Was Emma awake? Was she having a midnight snack? I was too far gone to try to reason anything out, but it seemed to me that my only chance of not embarrassing her, and myself, was to walk in casually and pretend I was sober. I was drunk enough to think I could do that.
"I got up very carefully, made my way to the door with some difficulty, flung it open, and said, in a loud, cheery voice, 'I'm home, dear, I'm home.'
"I must have filled the air with an alcoholic fragrance that explained my condition exactly, even if my behavior had been perfectly sober, which I'm sure it wasn't.
"However, it was all for nothing, because Emma wasn't there. There were two men there. Somehow I knew at once they weren't burglars. They belonged there. Drunk as I was, I could tell that. And I knew – my God, I knew that I was in the wrong house. I had been too drunk to get to the right one.
"And there on the table was a large suitcase, open, and stuffed with hundred – dollar bills. Some of the stacks were on the table, and I stared at them with a vague astonishment.
"I don't know how I could tell, gentlemen. Modern techniques can produce some damned good imitations, but I've been a banker for thirty years. I don't have to look at bills to know they're counterfeit. I can smell counterfeit, feel it, just know it by the radiations. I might be too drunk to tell my house from another house, but as long as I am conscious at all, I am not too drunk to tell a real hundred – dollar bill from a fake one.
"I had interrupted two crooks, that's what it amounted to. They had neglected to lock the side door or just didn't know it was open, and I knew that I was in a dangerous situation."
Levan shook his head, then went on. "They might have killed me, if I had been sober, even though they would then have had all the trouble of having to get rid of the body and of perhaps rousing police activity in an undesirable way. But I was drunk, and clearly on the point of collapse. I even think I heard someone say in a kind of hoarse whisper, "He's dead drunk. Just put him outside." It might even have been a woman's voice, but I was too far gone to tell. In fact, I don't remember anything else for a while. I did collapse.
"The next thing I knew I was feeling a lamppost and trying to get up. Then I realized I wasn't trying to get up. Someone was trying to lift me. Then I realized it was Emma, in a bathrobe. She had found me.
"She got me into the house somehow. Fortunately, there was no one else about. There was no indication before or since that anyone had seen me lying in the gutter, or seen Emma having to drag me home. – Remember your promise of confidentiality, gentlemen. And I hope that includes the waiter."
Avalon said, emphatically, "It does, Chris."
"She managed to get me undressed," said Levan, "and washed, and put me to bed without asking me any questions, at least as far as I can remember. She's a terrific woman. I woke in the morning with, as you might suspect, a king – sized headache, and a sense of relief that it was Sunday morning and that I was not expected to be at work.
"After breakfast, which was just a soft – boiled egg for me, and several quarts of orange juice, it seemed, Emma finally asked me what had happened. 'Nothing much,' I said. 'I must have had a little too much to drink, and they brought me home and left me at the corner and I didn't quite make it to the house.' I smiled weakly, hoping she would find the understatement amusing, and let it go at that.
"But Emma just looked at me thoughtfully – she's a very practical woman, you know, and wasn't going to act tragic over my being drunk for the first and only time in her acquaintanceship with me – and said, 'A funny thing happened.'
"'What?' I asked.
""Someone called me,' she said. "It was after midnight. Someone called and said, "Your husband is outside drunk or hurt. You'd better go and get him." I thought it was some practical joke, or a ruse to get me to open the door. Still I thought if it was true and you were in trouble, I would have to risk it. I took your banker – of – the – year award with me, just in case I had to use it to hit somebody, went out in the street, and found you. – Now who could have called me? They didn't say who they were.'
"She stared at me, frowning, puzzled, and my memory stirred. My face must have given me away at once, because Emma – who's a penetrating woman – said at once, 'What happened last night? What are you remembering?'
"So I told her and when I had finished she looked at me with a troubled expression, and said, 'That's impossible. There can't be any counterfeiting in this block.'
"'Yes,' I said, 'I'm sure there is. Or at least someone in one of the other three houses is involved in it, even if the counterfeiting isn't actually taking place on the premises.'
"'Well, which house were you in?' she wanted to know. But how could I tell? I didn't know.
""Which house did you find me outside?' I asked.
"'Our house,' she said.
"'Well, then, they just took me outside and put me in front of our house. That means they knew which house I belonged to. It's one of our neighbors.'
"'It can't be,' she kept repeating.
"But that's the way it is, just the same. I haven't the faintest idea which wrong house I'd gotten into, and I don't know who is involved in counterfeiting. And I can't report it."
"Why not?" asked Gonzalo.
"Because I would have to explain that I was falling – down drunk. How else could I account for the fuzziness of the information?" said Levan. "I don't want to do that. I don't want to look like a fool or a drunken idiot and, frankly, I don't want to lose my job. The story would be bound to get out and it wouldn't look good at the bank.
"Besides, what would the police do? Search all three houses? They would find nothing, and three householders, two of whom would be completely innocent, would be outraged. We would have to sell our house and leave. Life would become unbearable, otherwise.
"Emma pointed all this out carefully. In fact, she said, there would be a strong presumption that I had fantasised it all; that I was having d.t.'s. I'd be ruined. Emma's a bright woman, and persuasive.
"Yet it eats at me. Counterfeiting! That's the banker's nightmare; it's the crime. I had stumbled onto something that might be big and I could do nothing about it. – I haven't touched a drink since, and I don't intend ever to, and that's why I was a bit vehement when Henry asked me, for the second time, if I would have one."
There was a silence about the table for a time, and then Avalon, drumming his fingers lightly on the tablecloth, said, "I know where you live, Chris, but I don't know your neighbors. Who are they? What do they do?"
Levan shrugged. "All well on in years. All in their fifties and beyond. Not a small child on the street. And all beyond suspicion, damn them. – Let's see, if you're facing the front of the four houses, the one on the left holds the Nash couple. He's an insurance agent, and she's arthritic; a nice lady, but a terrible bore. She's the kind you say hello to when you pass her, but keep on walking. The merest hesitation would be fatal.
"The second house holds the Johnstones. He's in his seventies and she's perhaps two or three years younger. He's retired and they're supposed to be quite wealthy, but they don't bank in our bank and I have no personal knowledge of the matter. They sort of shuttle between Maine in the summer and Florida in the winter, but they have a bachelor son, about forty, who stays in the house year – round and is not employed.
"The third house is ours, and the fourth belongs to two sisters, one a Mrs. Widner and the other a Mrs. Chambers. Both are widows and they seem to cling to each other for warmth. They're in their fifties and very wide awake. I'm astonished they weren't aware of my being picked up at the lamppost. They're light sleepers and have a sixth sense for local catastrophe.
"Across the street, there are no houses but only a large lawn and a stand of trees belonging to the Presbyterian Church which is a distance off. – That's it."
He looked about helplessly, and Rubin cleared his throat. "If we go by probabilities, the obvious choice is the bachelor son. He has the house to himself for a couple of months at a time and has nothing to do but work at his counterfeiting, with or without the knowledge of his parents. If the Johnstones are mysteriously wealthy, that may be why. I'm astonished you overlook this."
"You wouldn't be if you knew the boy," said Levan. "Even though he's middle – aged, it's hard to think of him as a man. He's boyish in appearance and attitude, and without being actually retarded in any way, is clearly unequipped to make his way in the world."
"He's capable enough," said Rubin, "to take care of the house for a couple of months at a time."
"He's not retarded," repeated Levan, impatiently. "He's emotionally immature, that's all. Naive. And good – hearted in the extreme. It's impossible to think of him being involved in crime."
Rubin said, "It might be that he's acting. Perhaps he's clever enough to appear incredibly naive so as to hide the fact that, actually, he is a criminal."
Levan pondered. "I just can't believe that. No one could be that good an actor."
"If he were innocent and childlike," said Rubin, "it might make it all the easier for him to be used by criminals. He might be an unwitting pawn."
"That doesn't make sense to me. They couldn't trust him; he'd give it away."
"Well," said Rubin, "however much you doubt it, that seems to me to be the most reasonable possibility, and if you want to do a little investigating on your own, you had better take a closer look at young Johnstone." He sat back and folded his arms.
Halsted said, "What about the two men with the suitcase? Had you ever seen them before?"
Levan said, "I wasn't at my best, of course, but at the time it seemed to me they were strangers. They were certainly not members of any of the households."
Halsted said, "If they were outside associates of the counterfeiting ring, we might be reasonably sure that the two widows weren't involved. They'd be reluctant to have men in the house, it seems to me."
"I'm not sure about that," said Levan. "They're feisty ladies and they're not old maids. Men are no new experience to them. Still, I agree; I don't see them as gun molls, so to speak."
"And yet," said Drake, thoughtfully, "there may have been at least one woman present. Didn't you say, Mr. Levan, that someone said, 'He's dead drunk. Just put him outside,' and that it was a woman?" Levan said, "It was a whisper, and I couldn't tell for sure. It might have been a woman, but it might have been a man, too. And even if it were a woman, it might have been another outsider."
Drake said, "I should think someone who belonged there would have to be on the spot. The house wouldn't be abandoned to outsiders, and there's at least one woman in each house."
"Not really," said Halsted. "Not in the Johnstone house, since the old folks should be away in Maine now. If we eliminate the widows, then that leaves the house on the left corner, the Nash house. Then, if Mr. Levan were let off on the corner, and was so under the weather he had difficulty walking, it would be likely that he would go into the first house he came to and that would be the Nashes', wouldn't it?
Levan nodded. "Yes, it would, but I can't remember that that's what I did. So what's the use? However much we argue and reason, I have nothing with which to go to the police. It's just guess – work."
Trumbull said, "Surely these people don't live in their houses by themselves. Don't they have servants?"
Levan said, "The widows have a live – in woman – of – all – work."
"Ah," said Trumbull.
"But that doesn't strike me as significant. It just means three women in the house instead of two; a third widow, as a matter of fact, and quite downtrodden by the sisters. She has no more brains than is necessary to do the housework, from what little I know of her. She's impossible as a criminal conspirator."
"I think you're entirely too ready to dismiss people as impossible," said Trumbull. "Any other servants?"
Levan said, "The Nashes have a cook, who comes in for the day. The Johnstones have a handyman who works mainly in the yards, and helps the rest of us when he has time. Emma and I don't have any servants in the house. Emma is strong and efficient and she dragoons me into helping her – which is only right, I suppose. She doesn't believe in servants. She says they destroy privacy and never do things right anyway, and I agree with her. Still, I do wish we could have someone to do the vacuuming besides myself."
Trumbull said, with a trace of impatience, "Well, the vacuuming is not an issue. What about the Nash cook and the Johnstone handyman?"
"The cook has five children at home, with the oldest in charge, according to the Nashes, and if she has spare time for criminality I think she should get a medal. The handyman is so deeply religious that it is ludicrous to think of him as breaking the commandment against theft."
"Sanctimoniousness can easily be assumed as a cloak," said Trumbull.
"I see no signs of it in this case."
"You don't suspect him?"
Levan shook his head.
"Do you suspect anyone?"
Levan shook his head.
Gonzalo said, suddenly, "What about whoever it was who called your wife to tell her you were outside in the gutter? Did she recognize the voice?"
Levan shook his head emphatically. "She couldn't have. It was just a whisper."
"Is that just your judgment, or does she say so?"
"She would have told me at once if she had recognized it."
"Was it the same whisper you heard in the house?"
Levan said, impatiently, "She heard one and I heard the other. How can we compare?"
"Was the voice your wife heard that of a woman?"
"Emma never said. I doubt that she could tell. She said she thought it might be a way of getting her to open the door, so maybe it seemed to her to be a man. I don't know."
Gonzalo seemed annoyed, and said rather sharply, "Maybe there's no one to suspect. You may think you can sense counterfeit money, but how do you know you can do so when you're totally sozzled? It could be you saw real money and there's no counterfeiting going on at all."
"No," said Levan, emphatically, "and even if that were so, what would two strangers be doing with a suitcase of hundred – dollar bills? New ones. I could smell the ink. Even if it weren't counterfeiting, there would have to be some sort of crime." Gonzalo said, "Maybe the whole thing – "
He let it trail off, and Levan said, flushing a little, " – is a pink elephant? You think I imagined it all?"
"Isn't that possible? If there's no one to suspect, if no one could be involved, maybe nothing really happened."
"No," said Levan. "I know what I saw."
"Well, what did you see?" said Drake suddenly, peering at Levan through the smoke of his cigarette. "You were in the kitchen. You saw the wallpaper, if any, the color scheme, the fixtures. The kitchen details aren't identical, are they? You can walk into each house and then identify which kitchen you were in, can't you?"
Levan flushed, "I wish I could. The truth is, I saw nothing. There were just the two men, the suitcase on the table, and the money. It occupied all my attention, and I can't even really describe the suitcase." He added, defensively, "I was not myself. I was – was – And besides, after fifteen or thirty seconds, I had passed out. I just don't know where I was."
Avalon, looking troubled, said, "What are you doing about it, Chris? Are you doing any investigating on your own? That might be dangerous, you know."
"I know," said Levan, "and I'm not an investigator. Emma, who has more common sense in her left thumb than I have in my whole body, said that if I tried to do any questioning or poking about for clues, I would not only make a fool of myself, but I might get into trouble with the police. She said I had better just alert the bank to be on the lookout for bogus hundred – dollar bills and investigate those, when they came in, by the usual methods. Of course, no hundred – dollar bills are coming in. I don't suppose the counterfeiters will pass them in this area."
Gonzalo said, discontentedly, "Then we haven't gotten anywhere and that's frustrating. – Henry, can you add anything to all this?"
Henry, who was standing at the sideboard, said, "There is a question I might ask, if permitted."
"Go ahead," said Levan at once.
"Mr. Levan, you said, earlier, that your wife has a career of her own in real estate, but you said 'I believe.' Aren't you sure?"
Levan looked startled, then laughed. '"Well, we married five years ago, when we had each been single for quite a while, and were each used to independence. We try to interfere with each other as little as possible. Actually, I'm sure she is engaged in real estate, but I don't ask questions and she doesn't. It's one of these modern marriages; worlds different from my first."
Henry nodded and was silent.
"Well," said Gonzalo, impatiently. "What do you have in mind, Henry? Don't hang back."
Henry looked disturbed. "Mr. Levan," he said, softly, "when you entered the house by the side door and closed it – behind you, you were then in the dark, I believe."
"I certainly was, Henry."
"You circled an umbrella stand. How did you know it was an umbrella stand?"
"After I sat down, I happened to feel it. If it wasn't an umbrella stand, it was something just like it."
Henry nodded. "But you circled it before you felt it, and you dropped into a chair in the dark with relief, and enjoyed feeling the soft padding, you said."
"Mr. Levan," said Henry. "The houses were alike in every particular on the outside, but were free to vary on the inside, you said, and presumably they all did so vary. Yet in your not – quite – sober state, you managed to dodge the umbrella stand and drop into a chair. You did not bump into one or miss the other. You did not have the slightest idea you were in the wrong house at the time, did you?"
"No, I didn't," said Levan, looking alarmed. "It was only when I opened the kitchen door and saw the men – "
"Exactly, sir. You expected to find the arrangement of objects as it was in your own house, and you found that to be so. When you sat in the chair, which you must have thought was your own, you felt nothing to disabuse yourself of the notion."
"Oh, my God," said Levan.
"Mr. Levan," said Henry, "I think you must have been in your own house after all. Drunk as you were, you found your way home."
"Oh, my God," said Levan, again.
"You were not expected till much later, so you caught your wife by surprise. In your modern marriage, you clearly didn't know enough about her. Yet she did show affection for you. She did not allow you to be harmed. She had you carried out, and then came to get you with an invented story about a phone call. By then the men and the suitcase had gone and since then she has worked very hard to keep you from telling the story to the police or doing anything about it. – I'm afraid that's the only explanation that fits what you have told us."
For a moment, there was an absolute silence over the horrified group.
Levan said, in a small voice, "But what do I do?" And Henry said, sorrowfully, "I don't know, Mr. Levan. – But I wish you had not refused that drink."
By the time I had sold the preceding story, I found that I had ten stories toward a new Black Widowers collection, and of those ten, only one, "The Driver," had failed to sell.
As it happened, in my first Black Widowers collection, Tales of the Black Widowers, I had nine stories that had appeared in print and three stories that had not. Those stories that had not previously been published were involuntarily in that condition. I would gladly have stuck Fred with them if I had been able to.
Once the book appeared, however, it seemed to me that it had worked out properly. Many of those who bought the book might well have been EQMM subscribers and would have read each of the Black Widowers when it appeared in the magazine. Even allowing that their tolerance and kind hearts would allow them to read each again with pleasure, it did seem the decent thing to give them three stories they couldn't possibly have read before.
In the collections that followed the first, my record was better, and in each case (including this one) I reached the number – ten mark with only one failure to sell. In each case, therefore, I wrote two more stories that I did not submit anywhere, but saved for the collection. And so it is now. The story you have just read, "The Wrong House," and the one that follows, "The Intrusion," were each written specifically for this collection, and have not appeared elsewhere.