Invitation to a Murder

The envelope was edged in black.

Curious, Branigan set the rest of his stack of mail aside and reached for the jeweled souvenir dagger he used as a letter opener. He slit the envelope open carefully, and slid out a square of heavy cream-colored notepaper.

 It, too, was black-rimmed.

It was a formal, embossed announcement, and the raised letters read:

Branigan read through the invitation twice, then set it down on his desk and picked up the envelope it had arrived in. Heavy, cream-colored, black-bordered. Addressed in a precise feminine hand to Chief Inspector Lawrence A. Branigan, New York Police Department, 240 Centre Street, New York, NY. No zip code. No return address. Postmarked New York City.

Branigan picked up the announcement and read it again. Eleanor Abbott, he mused. Mrs. Eleanor Madeline Abbott . . .

He reached for his telephone and began dialing.

• • •

It was still snowing when Branigan walked up the brownstone’s eight steps and rang the bell. The door was opened almost immediately by a large man in butler’s livery, black from head to toe except for the thin white triangle of his shirtfront.

"Inspector Branigan?" he asked, his voice surprisingly soft.

Branigan, nodding, pulled the black-rimmed invitation from his overcoat pocket and handed it over. Behind the butler, all he could see was a dimly lit corridor stretching back into darkness.

"Thank you, sir," the man said. "All the others have already arrived. Would you follow me, please?"

The others? Branigan thought, as he stepped into the house. All the others?

Halfway down the corridor, before a large wooden door, they stopped. The butler twisted the ornate brass knob and pushed the door open. "In here, sir," he said. "Mrs. Abbott is expecting you. May I take your coat?"

The room was dim, too. Like the corridor, like the butler, like the night. Thick damask curtains hid what might have been windows; subdued lighting trickled down from small panels set into the ceiling.

It was a large, plain room. No rugs or carpeting on the simple parquet floor, no paintings, nothing personal hanging from the dark, gloomy walls. There was nothing extra in the room, nothing decorative. Every item, every piece of furniture, was there because it was functional, because it was needed.

Like the double bed standing with its head flush to the far wall.

There was a man on the bed, propped up almost to a sitting position. His body was invisible, swathed to the neck in heavy blankets, but his wrinkled white face almost shone through the dimness.

Gregory Abbott.

At first Branigan thought he was too late, thought Abbott was already dead: the pale gray eyes, half covered by deeply creased lids, stared emptily across the room; the ravaged face, wreathed by wisps of snowy hair, was perfectly still. No smile of welcome, no frown of disapproval crossed the old man’s thin, bloodless lips.

Then he noticed the slight rise and fall of the blankets, and separated the faint sound of labored breathing from the steady ticking of the clock that hung on the wall several feet above Abbott’s head.

Branigan sighed with relief, and looked away.

To his right, a high-backed chair stood against the side wall. A young woman was poised lightly on the edge of the chair, her hands folded delicately in her lap. She wore a long black gown, simple and yet striking, set off by a single strand of pearls around her neck and a sparkling diamond on the fourth finger of her left hand.

Branigan had learned that Eleanor Abbott was an attractive woman. He saw now that she was beautiful: as beautiful and, somehow, as cold as the December night outside.

Across the room from her, a dozen identical chairs stood side by side. The seat closest to Branigan was empty, obviously his, but each of the others was occupied. And, even in the dimness of the room, he recognized the 11 faces that were turned toward him, waiting.

Ryan was there, from the Los Angeles Police Department, and DiNapoli from San Francisco, both officers he had worked with in the past. There was Coszyck, who ran a local detective agency; Huber, an insurance investigator from Boston he had worked with once before; Braun, a private eye based in Cleveland, whose picture he had recently seen featured in a national news magazine. There was Devereaux, a Federal District Court justice from New Orleans; Gould, a St. Louis appellate court judge; even Walter Fox, "the old Fox," as he was known, just retired from the bench of the United States Supreme Court. Maunders, Detroit’s crusading district attorney, was there, and Szambel from Pittsburgh, and Carpenter, who had left Szambel’s staff to become DA of Baltimore.

The 11 men looked at him closely, and Branigan could see that most of them recognized him, too.

They were 14 people in all, lining the walls of the nearly dark, nearly quiet room, the silence broken only by Gregory Abbott’s uneven breathing and by the inexorable ticking of the clock.

Finally, Branigan’s eyes rested on the plain deal table in the center of the room, and on the five objects that sat on its surface: a long-bladed kitchen knife, a thin strand of wire with a wooden grip attached to each end, a length of iron pipe, an amber bottle labeled with a grinning skull and crossbones, and a revolver that glinted dully in the dim light of the room.

lt was Miss Scarlet. Branigan found himself thinking. In the conservatory, with the candelabra.

The image should have been funny, but it wasn’t. It frightened him, frightened him deeply, and he was not sure why.

He looked back at the woman in the black gown. She was smiling at him, and Branigan saw that she knew what he was thinking.

She’s playing with us, he thought. She set it up like this, and now she’s playing with us. It’s just a game to her. A game with the highest stakes imaginable. A game where the life of the old man in the double bed goes to the winner.

Okay, Branigan thought. Okay. I'm ready.

He took a step forward, into the room, and eased the door shut behind him.

Eleanor Abbott stood up. A lock of hair drifted down across her eyes as she rose, and she carelessly brushed it back with the tips of her fingers.

"Good evening, Inspector Branigan," she said. "If you’ll take your seat, we can get started."

She spoke softly, pleasantly, almost in a whisper, yet her voice carried firmly across the room.

It was a good voice, Branigan decided. It suited her.

He moved to the empty chair at the end of the row of 12, and sat.

"Thank you," she said. "And thank you for coming. I want to thank all of you for being here tonight. I knew that you would come, Inspector, and you, Mr. Coszyck, since both of you live and work right here in New York. And I was confident that my invitation would pique your curiosities, Mr. Huber and Mr. Carpenter, enough to get you to make the trip to town. But most of the rest of you, though, I have to admit that your presence comes as a very welcome surprise. Some of you had to travel great distances to be here; your dedication to the protection of human life impresses me. And especially you, Mr. Justice Fox, I want to — "

"Come off it, young lady!" Fox said hoarsely. "Why I showed up here tonight doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. What I want to know is why you sent me that — that incredible invitation!"

"Why did I invite you?" She smiled at him, the same warm smile she had already used once on Branigan. "I’m not a liar, sir. I invited you here — I invited all 12 of you gentlemen, 12 of this country’s most eminent and respected legal and law-enforcement minds — I invited you here to witness a murder."

She paused, then — paused dramatically, Branigan realized with a start He glanced down the row of his colleagues’ faces and saw 11 pairs of eyes fixed, unwavering, on Eleanor Abbott. Only the old man in the bed was not looking at her; his blank eyes never moved from an invisible spot on the door across the room.

"But first," the woman went on, "I want to give you just a little bit of personal history. I was born in Philadelphia in 1945, and — "

"You were born on Thursday, September the 13th, 1945," Braun broke in, "and not in Philadelphia, you were born in Essington, which is a few miles outside the city limits. I guarantee that every one of us has looked very carefully into your personal history, Mrs. Abbott, so why don’t you just get to the point?"

"The point," she said slowly. "I am getting to the point, Mr. Braun. I know that you’ve all done your homework, and I hope you’ll all be willing to let me tell this in my own way."

She looked around her and smiled again. "You can see that this means quite a lot to me. I’ll try not to take up more of your time than I have to."

That’s one for her, Branigan thought. This is her party, and she knows it. "Go ahead, Mrs. Abbott," he said. "Do it your way."

She turned to him and nodded and said, "Thank you." Her leaving off the "Inspector" at the end of it made it a personal statement, and he thought for a moment that he would like to call her Eleanor.

And then she turned again, faced the old man in the bed and looked through him.

"I came to New York about five years ago," she said, "when I was 21. The first two years I was here, I must have lived in half a dozen different tiny little apartments around town; I worked at three or four different silly little jobs. I made sandwiches in a delicatessen. I was a secretary for a few weeks, and not a very good one. I worked in a record store. One time I applied to a couple of the airlines, trying to get into stewardess school, but none of them were hiring. Three years ago, I was waiting tables at a little Italian restaurant down in the Village; Greenwich Village. One night — I can tell you what night it was; it was October 19th, 1968 — that night, Gregory came in for dinner with some woman he’d been going out with and another couple."

She closed her eyes, and it was a moment before she went on. "I served them their dinner, they ate, they left, I never really noticed them. Then, a few hours later, I got off work, and Gregory was waiting for me outside. I don’t know what he did with his girlfriend, but there he was. It was just like a movie: Gregory Abbott’s got six million dollars in the bank, and he’s leaning up against a parking meter with his grubby old hat on the back of his head and a beautiful bunch of flowers he’d picked up somewhere, at that hour, in his arms — and he’s waiting for me. That was Gregory. That was the way he was. We got married six months later, a year and a half ago. It turned out he loved me." She opened her eyes and faced them. "It turned out I loved him, too."

"He was 35 years older than you were!"

"He still is 35 years older than I am. I thought it didn’t matter." She let her eyes close again before going on. "I was wrong," she said. "It does matter. One year ago today, Gregory and I were staying with some friends in Aspen. I ski very badly, Gregory hadn’t skied before at all, but they were very good friends and we were having a wonderful time. Late in the afternoon, Gregory said he felt practiced enough to try a run down one of the more advanced slopes. I — I remember thinking it wasn’t a very good idea, but he was so full of energy, so full of life...."

The room seemed subtly brighter, Branigan thought, and, before he could wonder why, he knew it was her face. She looks as white as the snow must have been, he told himself, and then was irritated by the thought.

"He fell," Eleanor Abbott said. "He lost his balance halfway down and fell. I was coming down behind him, I saw it happen, and there was nothing I could do. We got the ski patrol to bring him down the rest of the way. They had an ambulance waiting, and I rode to the hospital with him. The doctors said he had a massive coronary. He was in critical condition for more than a week. He pulled through, though. He survived." The color flushed back into her face, a violent red. "If you can call the way it left him survival. He’s totally paralyzed. He can’t see or hear. After it happened, I spent two hysterical months trying to get him to blink an eye for me, to show me it’s just something gone wrong with his body, to tell me that somewhere in there he is okay. There was no response. The doctors tell me he is no longer able to think."

"Mrs. Abbott," Maunders said, softly.

She looked up. "It’s been a year, now. He doesn’t get any better or any worse. The doctors tell me there is no chance that he will ever recover, they hold out no hope at all. They do think, though, that, with the proper medical care and treatment, they can keep his body alive for ten more years, or even longer."

She said it bitterly, angrily, and for an instant Branigan found that he shared her anger.

"I’m not going to let them do that," she said. "Gregory Abbott is dead. That — that thing in the bed there is not my husband. My husband died a year ago today."

There was something new in her voice now, layered over the bitterness: something insistent, almost hypnotic. They stared at her, all of them, as motionless as the empty old man in the double bed.

"I loved my husband," she told them. "Out of my love for him, I feel that there’s one last thing I have to do for him. I have to put an end to that horror the doctors say is still alive, that terrible thing that I know is Gregory’s corpse. I want to give him what the doctors have refused to let him have, this last year. I want to let him rest."

"And of course, you don’t care about the six million dollars," Gould snapped at her. It was, somehow, a shocking statement, and it seemed natural for her just to gaze at him in silence, until he backed away from it and said, "No. No, I guess you don’t. I’m sorry."

"The money is already mine, Mr. Gould," she said. "Gregory can’t use it any more. And you’re right, I don’t care about it. The only thing I care about right now is my husband. That’s why I'm going to kill him."

There, Branigan thought. That’s it. That’s what I came to hear her say.

And then he frowned, asking himself why, now that he had heard her say it, the words had surprised him.

"Just a minute, now," Ryan began, but she smiled at him and cut him off.

"I know, Captain," she said gently. "I’m talking about murder, and murder is against the law. That’s the second reason I invited the 12 of you here tonight: I wanted to give the law a fair chance to stop me. If you can, if you can keep what I intend to happen here from happening, then I give you my word that I’ll never try anything like this again; I’ll leave Gregory’s body to his doctors and let them do what they like with it. But I want to warn you: you are not going to stop me. I am going to murder the miniscule amount of my husband the doctors have succeeded in keeping alive, tonight, in this room, within the next hour. It’s now" — she turned her head to glance at the clock on the wall — "It is now 10 o’clock. By 11, in one hour, even the doctors will agree that Gregory Abbott is dead."

No one spoke. The woman in the long black gown sat down to silence, except for the whisper of her husband’s breathing and the steady ticking of the clock hanging over his bed.

The 12 men looked at each other, at Eleanor Abbott, at the old man. They sat without speaking, spellbound, waiting, not quite sure what it was they should be doing, not at all sure there was anything they could do to prevent the murder they had been invited to witness.

They sat until 10 minutes had passed, until Eleanor Abbott rose, walked quickly to the table of weapons in the center of the room, and picked up the amber bottle of poison.

Then they moved, and strong hands grabbed her from both sides before she could step away from the table. Branigan pulled the bottle away from her, and he and Coszyck led her back to her chair. She sat willingly, and they went back to their own seats without a word.

What is she up to? Branigan thought. She can’t possibly imagine we'll let her get near him. What does she think is going on?

At 10:20, she rose again. She was halfway to the table when Branigan and Coszyck stopped her, turned around, and put her back in her chair

This time they stayed with her, one on either side.

And still the old man’s breathing and the ticking of the clock were the only sounds in the room. There was a moment when Carpenter put a hand to his mouth and coughed softly: Eleanor Abbott seemed not to notice and Gregory Abbott stared ahead vacantly; most of the rest of them glared at Carpenter, and he turned away, embarrassed.

At 10:30, Huber jumped up and moved impatiently to the old man’s bedside. He went down to his hands and knees and carefully examined the floor beneath the bed and the bed itself. As he straightened up, dusting off the legs of his trousers, Braun and Devereaux looked at each other and got up and joined him. They ranged themselves around the three open sides of the bed, watching Abbott and his wife and the clock uneasily.

At 10:40, Eleanor Abbott suddenly stood, but Branigan and Coszyck clamped firm hands on her shoulders and forced her back into her chair.

Again, not a word was said.

The thin red second hand of the clock swept around and around as the minute hand labored slowly up the numbered face. DiNapoli glanced from the clock to his wrist, then quickly back at the clock. He scowled impatiently and adjusted his watch so the two timepieces were synchronized.

At 10:50, Maunders and Fox stood up together, grim-faced, and stepped to the table of weapons. The old Fox, his arthritic fingers quivering slightly, picked up the revolver. He broke open the cylinder, emptied out the cartridges and pocketed them, snapped the cylinder shut and placed the gun back on the table.

At 10:55, Branigan and Coszyck rested their hands lightly on Mrs. Abbott’s shoulders.

Devereaux, at Abbott’s bedside, pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiped beads of moisture from his forehead.

The old man on the bed breathed weakly, in and out, in and out, and the blankets piled over him rose and fell almost imperceptibly.

At 10:57, Gould stood up fitfully. He peered around the room and saw that there was nowhere left for him to go, and flung himself back into his chair.

It was 10:58. They tensed.

Huber and Braun and Devereaux inched closer to the old man’s bed. Branigan and Coszyck tightened their grips on Eleanor Abbott’s shoulders. Maunders and Fox braced themselves, leaning towards her as if defying her to seize one of the weapons on the table. Even the five men still seated — Szambel and Carpenter, DiNapoli, Gould, and Ryan — found themselves on the edges of their chairs, ready to spring into action.

But as the clock on the wall ticked loudly and its minute hand crawled closer and closer to the 12, Eleanor Abbott sat calmly on her highbacked chair, and did not move.

Just before 10:59, Gregory Eliot Abbott’s wrinkled eyelids flickered and closed, and his shallow breathing stopped.

• • •

"Gentlemen!" Eleanor Abbott’s voice shot through the uproar. "If you’ll go back to your seats and calm down, I’ll explain."

They obeyed her.

She stood by the side of her chair, watching them, her full lips turned slightly upward.

"I warned you," she said. "I told you I was going to kill him, and I did."

"How?" Huber demanded.

Her smile broadened.

"Gregory’s accident did serious damage to his heart, Mr. Huber, weakened it to a point where it was no longer strong enough to function normally by itself. What’s kept it going all year has been medication, a heart stimulant that has to be administered at very regular intervals."

Branigan’s eyes went wide. She waited, though, until Maunders saw it, and Szambel, and DiNapoli.

"The stimulant," she went on, pointing to the table of weapons, "is in that bottle. It’s an incredibly powerful drug, which makes it incredibly dangerous if taken by a person with a normal heart. That’s why the bottle is labeled with a skull and crossbones: even a small dose would make a healthy heart speed up so enormously that it could actually burn itself out. But Gregory needed that stimulant to make his heart beat normally, and he needed it frequently. He was due for a dose of it at 10 minutes past 10 this evening. I got up and tried to give it to him, but you stopped me."

"You said it was poison!" Coszyck rasped.

"I said no such thing. You assumed it was poison, and it would have been if you had swallowed it — but it was medicine for Gregory, and it was keeping him alive. I tried to give it to him, I tried three times, and, each time I tried, you and Inspector Branigan chose to stop me. Without it, Gregory’s heart just wasn’t strong enough to go on beating, and so he died."

And so he died, Branigan thought. I took the bottle out of her hands myself, and so he died.

The 12 criminologists were silent.

Until, "Well?" Ryan said, his voice thick.

"Well," Eleanor Abbott told them, "you’ve got two choices. You can arrest me and accuse me of murdering my husband, but I’d like you to stop and think about that for a second. After all, gentlemen, I tried to give Gregory his medicine. You are the ones who stopped me, and caused his death. If you look at it that way, then you killed him, not me. I might get slapped on the wrist for not telling you what was in the bottle an hour ago, but once it gets out that you all sat back and let this happen, you men will be ruined. Your careers will be over."

"She’s right," Braun said heavily. "With a story like this, there isn’t a jury in the country that could convict her of murder."

"And we’d be sunk," Carpenter added. "I don’t think anyone would dare to try and make out any kind of a case against us, but the publicity would rip us to pieces. It would destroy us."

The old Fox cleared his throat nervously.

"You said we had two possible choices," he reminded her.

"Yes, I did. I’ve gotten what I wanted, now: a release for Gregory. Is that such a terrible thing to have done? Do you really think he was better off the way he was, in that empty state that medicine and the law agreed was ‘alive’? You can turn me in and see where it gets you, gentlemen — or you can work with me, and help me to get away with it."

"You’re asking us to help you get away with murder!" Szambel protested.

She held up a hand.

"No, Mr. Szambel, I’m not asking you for anything. Arrest me and ruin yourselves, or help to protect me. The choice is entirely yours."

"I can’t!" Devereaux cried. "I’ve spent 40 years upholding the law. How can I turn around now and make a mockery of it?"

"We’ve got to," DiNapoli muttered. "She’s got us over a barrel. There’s no other way out."

"Forget it," Maunders grumbled. "Even if we wanted to, it’d be impossible. We’d never get away with it."

"The 12 of us?" Judge Gould chuckled grimly. "Don’t be ridiculous! Who’d ever even think of challenging us?"

Branigan made the decision for them. "We’ll all have to discuss it," he said.

She waved a hand at them and turned away.

They gathered in together and talked. Across the room, Eleanor Abbott was unable to make out individual voices or words, but she listened absently, confidently, to the meaningless hum, smiled at explosions of obvious protest, grinned at the eventual murmurs of agreement.

When they finally became silent, she turned to face them.

They were staring at her.

"Gentlemen of the jury," she said, mocking them in her triumph, "have you reached a verdict?"

And Branigan stood up. There was a strange light in his eyes, a light that Eleanor Abbott could not have known, a light that had never been there before.

"We have," he said clearly.

And stopped, waiting.

For a moment, she was confused — and then she realized what he wanted and completed the ritual: "How do you find?"

"We find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged."

Her smile faded.

"What?" she asked him, not understanding it at first. "What do you mean?"

But when Branigan moved to the table of weapons in the center of the room and picked up the amber bottle and came toward her, she understood.

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