Go home, stranger - By Charles Williams


It took the message over a week to catch up with him because after he had finished the job in the sierra he went over into the jungles of the lower Ucayali to hunt jaguars. When he had read it he came up out of South America traveling very fast, a big, hard-shouldered young man in an ill-fitting suit, his face cooked dark by the sun and his hair badly in need of cutting. He would have had time to get a shave between planes in Miami, but he spent the time instead in a stifling telephone booth making one long-distance call after another, relentlessly shoving quarters into a slot and rasping questions over thousands of miles of wire while the cold ball of fear grew heavier inside him. On the third day after leaving the little town in the Peruvian jungle he walked up the steps of the police station in Waynesport, on the Gulf Coast of the United States.

It was a little after eight of a hot, breathless morning, and he couldn’t remember when he had slept. It was the twenty-first of August, and since the tenth of the month his sister, who was Vickie Shane McHugh, the radio and television actress, had been in the Waynesport jail, charged with the murder of her husband.

The Chief wouldn’t be in until around nine, the desk man said, but he led him down a dim hallway to the office of Lieutenant Wayland. The man behind the desk was big across the shoulders, with a heavy neck and a graying shock of tough, wiry hair. Sharp brown eyes sized him up as he came into the room.

He stood up and held out his hand. “Reno? Oh, yes. You talked to the Chief yesterday.”

“When can I see her?” Reno asked abruptly.

Wayland sat down and bit the end off a small cigar. He leaned back in his chair. “This morning. Incidentally, how does it happen her name is Shane, if she’s your sister?”

“Professional name,” Reno said impatiently. “Actually, it was our mother’s. But never mind all that. I’m still trying to find out what happened. And why you’re holding her.”

“You look tough enough to take it straight,” Wayland said, appraising him thoughtfully. “It’s simple enough. McHugh was murdered. And the evidence says she did it.”

“But she says she didn’t?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I’ll buy her, and you buy the evidence. But just what happened?”

“I guess you knew they were separated,” Wayland said. “That’s the first item.”

Reno said, “They were always separating, or separated, or making up. Living with either one of ‘em would be like trying to set up housekeeping in a revolving door. They both had more talent and temperament than they needed, but they were crazy about each other. They always made up.”

“The trial will be held in court,” Wayland said. “Not here. You want to hear what happened, or do you want to make a speech?”

Reno lit a cigarette and sat down, hunching forward in the chair. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Give me the whole story. I’ll try not to butt in.”

“It’s all right,” Wayland replied. “As you probably know by now, McHugh was down here alone, on business. Had been for five days. He was trying to run down some guy named—I’ve forgotten now, but it doesn’t matter. Anyway, to get to the night he was killed, your sister showed up unexpectedly. Didn’t wire she was coming, as far as we know now. What she keeps telling us is that she was driving from New York to the Coast, and since she knew he was down here she decided to surprise him by dropping in to see him. And apparently she did. Surprise him, I mean. They’d been separated about four months, and she’d been in some television work in New York. So she arrived at the Boardman Hotel here, where McHugh was staying, around midnight. McHugh wasn’t in his room. But while she was calling from the desk, he came in from the street. With this other girl.”

Reno’s eyes jerked upward and he stared at the Lieutenant. “So that’s the idea? You’re all wrong. I’ve known Mac all my life, and he wasn’t that kind. There hasn’t been any playing around with babes since he was married.”

Wayland shrugged. “You asked me what happened, and I’m telling you. McHugh’s wife drops in unexpectedly and finds him wandering into the hotel at midnight with a stray babe, and about an hour later McHugh is dead. Anyway, the clerk didn’t hear anything that was