Richard Daybell – Novels, stories and short humor
Upton Swann sat all alone on the ornate cast iron love seat that had been painted white sometime in the distant past, shaded by a spreading Poinciana, surrounded by chattering merchants with piles of bananas to the right, piles of coconuts to the left — fruits, vegetables, fish and tourists everywhere. Activity swirled around him, but he didn’t seem to care. It was noon. He’d been sitting there since 7 a.m.
On a second floor terrace of the Hotel Vieux Habitant that overlooked the market square, five people sat in a row, leaning over the railing, staring down past the frenzied activity at Upton Swann. They, too, had been sitting there since seven.
Upton Swann and his audience of five had all been together on the terrace the previous evening, enjoying the serenity of the market square, abandoned in the early evening hours by merchants and tourists alike. And they enjoyed the soft warmth tempered by the steady breeze off the ocean – at least five of them did; Upton Swann did not. He found the climate foul - too hot — and that was just the tip of his iceberg of complaints about this island in particular and the Caribbean in general. Unlike the others he could not wait to get back to the sensible climate of New York in March, a desire he did not endeavor to keep to himself. “What if I get sick here?” he lamented. “My god, they’ve probably got chickens wandering through the hospital.”
By 8 p.m., he had enjoyed just about as much of the tropical night as he intended to enjoy. With a harrumph, he marched inside, revved the air conditioner up to its maximum, and sat down on the couch with a tumbler of Scotch. Within minutes, he would complain no more.
The beginning of Upton Swann’s journey to the great beyond went unnoticed. In fact, he was about two hours along before the Dexters — Howard and Wilma — came in and thought it odd that the tumbler lay in his lap in the center of a large Scotch stain. (Later, they would recall that his last words were: “This is a wretched place; I need Scotch.” Not eloquent enough for his tombstone, but certainly better than Myrna Pomeroy’s first husband’s last words: “Five minutes on the toilet and I’ll be just fine.”)
The Dexters sounded a general alarm, and Myrna, her current husband Phil Pomeroy, and Upton’s widow Adele all came running in — although Adele didn’t yet realize that she was a widow, not until Howard Dexter said: “He’s deader than a doornail.”
Adele sobbed, and the others looked on with bewildered expressions. Howard wasn’t a coroner or a doctor or anything, but he knew a lot of things, and the others accepted his diagnosis.
“Do you suppose he had a heart attack?” asked Myrna Pomeroy.
Howard Dexter picked up the bottle of scotch and ceremoniously sniffed at it. He might have been selecting a wine for their dinner. Then he poured a few drops into his palm, wetted a finger and touched it to his tongue. The others watched in silence.
“Poison,” Howard proclaimed. “Not a doubt of it. This Scotch has really been laced with it.” Howard wasn’t a pharmacologist or detective either, but he knew a lot of things.
Adele sobbed again, and Myrna Pomeroy said: “How could it be? We were all here. How could someone have… no, you’re not suggesting…?”
One of us killed him,” said Howard. “No other answer. We had the opportunity, and nobody else on this island even knew him.”
“But why?” asked Wilma Dexter, looking at her husband who knew a lot of things.
“Why not might be more the answer,” said Howard. “Did any of us really like him? Even Adele?” No one answered. “I, myself, as his partner, gain full control of the business. Adele stands to inherit a tidy sum, I imagine. And she’s earned it, the way he’s treated her.”
“He has my promissory note for $200,000,” offered Phil Pomeroy, looking surprised, even as he spoke, that he was throwing himself in. “A so-called loan between friends, but at a very unfriendly rate of interest. The man was a shark.”
The conversation quickly became a group confessional. Wilma Dexter, giving her husband, then Adele, quick sheepish looks, said quietly: “He put the moves on me more than once. He was fairly disgusting.”
“Oh dear,” said Adele.
“Me too,” said Myrna. “Just this afternoon.”
They all looked at the corpse, as though seeing the totality of his corruption and vileness for the first time — although he didn’t look all that corrupt and vile at the moment with his face twisted into a silly little grin and a tumbler of Scotch in his lap. Then they began to look suspiciously at each other, sizing each other for murderer’s shoes. “Would anyone care to confess?” said Howard. No one volunteered. “I guess we’ll have to call the police.”
“Do we have to?” asked Adele. “They’re… they’re foreigners. They’d be happy to just throw one of us in a stinky jail and be done with it.”
“Or all of us,” added Wilma Dexter.
“Does it really matter who did it?” asked Phil Pomeroy. “I mean, when you really get right down to it, there’s no great loss.” Adele sobbed again, and they all weighed Phil’s words.
“I guess Phil’s right,” said Adele. She shivered. “He was brutish, and I’m well rid of him. It’s just… just so ghoulish to be talking about him this way. And he’s sitting right here.” She looked at her dead husband and suddenly giggled. “Wouldn’t we all be terribly embarrassed if he were just pretending to be dead?” They all studied the body once more just to be certain, and it gradually dawned on each of them that just not telling the police didn’t solve their problem. Their problem was sitting on the couch.
The eventual plan was, of course, Howard’s, and it centered on the theory that if the body were found in a crowded public place, like say the market, with hundreds of people around — but not a certain fivesome — the police, who were probably incompetent anyway, would assume he died of natural causes, especially when they brought the bad news to his wife and friends and learned of his history of a bad heart.
Howard’s idea came under fire, however, as the morning wore on and nobody paid any attention to the dead man on the love seat in the market. What few words were spoken on the terrace during that tense morning were given toward characterization of, first, Howard’s idea, then his know-it-all attitude, and, lastly, his parentage.
At one-thirty, a native woman and her young daughter joined Upton Swann on the love seat. The woman looked straight ahead, minding her own business just as though he weren’t there, but the little girl looked inquisitively up at Upton’s face. “Mama, he’s so white,” she said.
“Hush,” said her mama, quickly standing and pulling her wide-eyed daughter away with her. Wilma Dexter squirmed in her chair.
At three, a young boy asked Upton Swann for a dollah and, when Swann didn’t answer, made an obscene gesture and scurried off. Phil Pomeroy sighed, stood, went inside, and mixed a pitcher of martinis.
At 4:15, a shaggy, rather ragged, man carrying a bottle-shaped paper bag weaved unsteadily through the crowd and plopped down on the love seat. By 4:30, he was engaged in a lively conversation with Upton, laughing, gesturing broadly, and occasionally slapping him on the knee. The somewhat one-sided conversation lasted until 5 o’clock when the man stood, said “See you around, buddy,” and wandered off.
Adele groaned, Phil went for more martinis, and Wilma growled at her husband: “This is all your fault, you know.”
“Me?” said Howard with a look of disbelief. “I didn’t kill him.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Wilma. “It would be just like you.”
“Stop, stop,” said Adele. “I’ll go tell them I did it. You all think I did it, anyway. I’ll confess and go to the stinky jail. At least it will all be over.”
“No you won’t,” said Myrna. “We don’t all think you did it. We’ll just wait. It was a stupid plan, but we’ll just have to wait. Everything will be all right.”
“It will,” seconded Howard. “And now it really doesn’t matter who actually killed him. We’re all equally guilty.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Phil. He raised his glass toward the market. “To the corpse.” They all downed martinis.
At 6, they thought maybe their vigil would finally end. Upton was leaning to the left, barely noticeable at first, but before long with a decided tilt. They watched, five chins on the railing, as gravity took hold, and Upton rolled to his side, lying across the love seat. And he had not been horizontal for three minutes when a policeman appeared. The gang of five looked at one another excitedly, then sat back in their chairs so as not to draw the policeman’s attention to the terrace.
The policeman approached the slumped over Upton Swann and said in a firm voice: “Hey mon, no sleeping here. You take yourself home now.” He gave Upton a couple of taps with his nightstick. “Get along now. If you’re not gone when I get back, you’ll do your sobering up in a jail cell.” He sauntered away, and spirits flagged on the terrace.
The policeman didn’t return, and darkness enveloped the market square with Upton Swann still lying on the love seat. Adele Swann went to bed and sobbed herself to sleep. The others found sleep in various positions on the floor, except for Phil Pomeroy, who technically passed out while dressing down the sleeping Howard Dexter.
They were back on the terrace before dawn, straining eyes to determine whether Upton Swann still lay there in the darkness. As the sky lightened, the darkness slowly dissipated and, to their great disappointment, they were able to discern a familiar shape on the love seat. But with the steady brightening of the dawn, they became aware of a marked difference down there in the market — Upton Swann was still there all right, but he was stark-naked.
The man who had gone unnoticed in the market for a full 24 hours would not go unnoticed another day. By 7, a crowd had formed around the naked body on the love seat, and by 7:30, the police had whisked Upton Swann away.
The relief on the terrace was short-lived, as apprehension quickly whisked it away. A naked American tourist has a heart attack in the market – it didn’t have quite the air of authenticity they sought. Finally, late that afternoon, Adele was summoned to the police station. Her friends accompanied her to act as chorus.
“Do you have any idea why your husband would be naked and dead in the market?” the police chief asked tactfully.
Adele sobbed and grew flustered. The others were certain she was going to say something stupid that would send them all to jail. “Didn’t you tell us, Adele,” said Howard, stepping in to save the day, “that Upton had a sleepwalking prob — ?”
“I do have an idea,” said the police chief, ignoring Howard. “Actually, it’s more than an idea; it’s an iron-tight conclusion. Our coroner made a careful examination, did tests.”
The five culprits were sweating now, and it wasn’t from the tropical warmth. “He had,” Howard recited, “a history of heart — .”
“Naturally, when we find a naked dead man, reeking of alcohol, we are suspicious. We sometimes even suspect foul play. That’s why we were so thorough. But we found no evidence of foul play whatsoever.”
“No foul play,” Adele repeated mechanically.
“No foul play,” said the police chief in a tone that suggested he would prefer no further interruptions. “As it turned out, he had a massive heart attack. Sat down on the bench and died. We caught the thief who stole his clothes. You can pick them up at the desk.”
“A heart attack,” said Howard, dumfounded. “Are you sure?”
As they filed out of the police station, Howard continued to mumble. “A heart attack. But I was so certain it was poison.”
“No, Howard, just a heart attack,” said Adele, with a little smile. “The police chief said so — a heart attack. Poor, poor Upton.”
But nothing gets by the children who sing calypso in the market square:
Stone cold dead in de market, stone cold dead in de market,
Stone cold dead in de market, I killed nobody but me husband…