After the third request by his aging mother, Bernie Baumer toyed with the idea of cleaning up his cluttered rent-free room. Pulling a mildew-tainted box from beneath his bed, he plucked from the pile of papers his high school yearbook. Thumbing its pages, yellowing in their twenty-first year, Bernie dropped his gaze to his own picture. Okay, so he had picked up twenty pounds or more, mostly around the middle. But his hair, mouse brown, and combed straight back, was as thick now as then.
The caption under the picture said: "Happy in His Own Devil-May-Care Way." Bernie frowned, thinking of how far he had come since then--or, more accurately, how far he hadn't come.
From high school, Bernie had stumbled into the real world by landing a job working the mail car on a one-track line from Martinsville to Muddy Branch, a crossroads boasting a few hundred souls. On one run, as the train slowed to a crawl through the station, a dozing Bernie missed the crucial task of tossing the bulging mail sack to the stationmaster, waiting on the platform. No one ever found the sack, and for a while railroad inspectors had a worried Bernie in their sights. An inquiry ended in the reluctant conclusion that the incident was the result of inattention rather than deceit. When Bernie a month later nodded off again on the job, it was his turn to receive the sack.
Paying work escaped him for eight weeks or so. Then a few generous words from an anonymous family friend cleared the way for Bernie's next career move, assistant manager at the local outlet of a fast-foot chain. Bernie never tired of bemoaning the Spartan life his meager minimum wage allowed. So his mother, in a face-saving gesture for her son, offered him free lodging, allowing him to hang on to walking around money.
And here he sat being told to clean up his room. What a life.
Out of the blue, it seemed, his mother, a widow in her late seventies, tumbled for a fellow parishioner, a gentleman farmer on the shady side of ninety. Bernie hardly expected a formal wedding ceremony, but that's what happened one bright June day when Mrs. Baumer, complete with the hearing aid she wore everywhere except to bed, took the vows with Austin Van Swearengin. Because living on the dole at home was a deal he couldn't resist, Bernie tried to disguise his disgust at the geriatric union.
At the service, Bernie occupied a pew in the second row, musing how much old men and old women blend into look-alikes, with bony protuberances, hunched over figures, gray hair, and bedroom slipper shuffles. What lifted Bernie from his slump a week after the wedding was the surprising news that hayseed Austin Van Swearengin owned 110 prime acres north of Washington Boulevard. The acreage was smack in the path of the city's rapid development binge--and worth millions to the seller.
Bernie knew he was in line to inherit his mother's home someday, but to him it was chump change since it was a simple three-bedroom frame house on the wrong side of town. The prospect of greater rewards kept Bernie awake nights. Would he, the ugly stepson, fall heir to a comfortable future with a goldmine patch of real estate, handed down, maybe sooner rather than later, by his new stepfather? Bernie needed reassurance.
The next day, downtown behind closed doors, Bernie faced Emmett Crabtree, a former classmate ("Has a Way with Words"), and a paralegal for semi-retired attorney, D'arcy Briscoe. Lawyer Briscoe represented Bernie's mother and various other clients, who, Bernie figured with a touch of disgust, were more likely to hire him to spring them from traffic school than to beat a real rap. "You know," Emmett whined, "I could buy big trouble if I tell you if you're included in your stepfather's will."
Bernie said, "Not if nobody else knows it."
"Why should I chance it?"
"Two hundred, cash on the barrelhead in this envelope, all I've managed to save, may help you decide. Nothing to trace. I get peace of mind, knowing I've got a bright future, which can't be that far off. He's ninety. Go figure. You get a fancy new suit. Later, when the land sales start, I'll need legal counsel, won't I? Maybe you can get a referral fee."
Emmett Crabtree protested for the record, swore Bernie to absolute secrecy, and, in hand signals more than words, let Bernie know he was in the will.
At work, Bernie strove valiantly to avoid blunders that might catch the cold eye of his manager and endanger his job while he waited out his inheritance. At home, he spurned almost all contact with the newlyweds, uneasy with the idea of senior bliss. He was caught off guard a couple of weeks later at the phone call from Emmett Crabtree, paralegal. "Think you ought to know this, Bernie boy," he said. "That winter-winter romance of your mother and Farmer Brown has just gone arctic."
Bernie was confused.
"Van Swearengin has filed divorce papers," Emmett said. "Incompatibility."
"As an heir, I'm toast," Bernie moaned.
"Get out the butter," Emmett said, hanging up.
Bernie's mind began to turn over the unsettling facts he had to work with. When his stepfather left, closely behind would waddle the golden goose that rightly belonged to Bernie's mother and eventually to Bernie himself. But suppose the divorce somehow didn't come off. Then what? Well, the will specified worthy heirs, particularly Bernie himself. But the chance of collecting the booty had dimmed considerably. Maybe it didn't have to be that way.
Living in his mother's house with the disenchanted lovebirds, who had moved into separate bedrooms, made Bernie privy at least to one eccentricity. Every night, usually around 3 a.m., his stepfather donned a faded, checkered robe then cautiously made his way down the stairs to the kitchen for a glass of sleep-inducing warm milk.
What if, Bernie asked himself as he stared wide-awake at the ceiling, stepdad Van Swearengin one night very soon on his milk run surprises a trigger-happy burglar? Bernie remembered the revolver, an aging unregistered weapon his late father had made his mother accept for her protection. It rested untouched in a bedside table. No way to trace the bullet without the gun. And dead men change no wills. He smirked at the turn of phrase.
Slowly mulling over the details in bed, Bernie imagined the act as simplicity itself. On Wednesday, a day away, he would yawn loudly, announce that he was heading to his room in the back of the house to hit the hay. He would force himself to stay awake until 2 a.m. or so, rise, and descend the back stairs leading from his room to the ground-level porch.
Next, he would tape a section of glass near the backdoor latch, then quietly cut a circle from the pane the way they do in the movies. Of course, some shards must fall inside to trick cops thinking there'd been a break-in.
After the shot taking out his stepfather, Bernie would scurry back by his arrival route. On the way, he would stow the gun in the toilet tank until he could get rid of it for good in the old drainage pond that wasn't working too well. Within minutes, he'd be back in his room appearing never to have left it. Downstairs, his mother, after hearing the shot, would find the body. Then, Bernie would show up at the scene, grief stricken in a performance worthy of summer stock.
On the chosen night, Bernie, clasping the glasscutter and tape, went down the outside steps, just as envisioned. Poised to fake the first clue--a hole in the glass door--he was startled to see a bright light streaming from the kitchen window. The only illumination should have been the dim glow of a night-light used by his stepfather on his wee-hours trips to the refrigerator.
Bernie peeked cautiously through the window. At the kitchen table sat his mother, wearing a pale yellow robe and reading a book. No other choice, he decided with dismay, but to postpone the act. A similar scene met his eyes the next night and the one after that.
On the third morning, his stepfather left the house for business downtown. Bernie called his boss at the fast-food outlet to say he was sick and wouldn't be coming in. The time off gave him the opportunity for a chat with his mother.
"You look tired these days," Bernie said. "Aren't you sleeping?"
"Not very well," she said. "I find myself getting up in the middle of the night."
Bernie frowned thoughtfully. "You know that over-the-counter medicine, melatonin? People on airline flights take it to sleep. I happen to have a package of those same pills."
She shook her head. "You know how I'm against taking drugs I absolutely don't have to. The doctor thinks that's why I've been around so long. A lot his patients are walking medicine cabinets."
Bernie left and hurried into the laundry room, stepping over a basket of wash with his mother's yellow robe on top. He pulled a box of melatonin from the cabinet where he had placed it. Facing his mother again, he said, "Look, the directions say, 'one tablet with water. Helps induce sound sleep.' Hey, they couldn't sell it if was harmful. Give it a try tonight."
There was reluctance in his mother's eyes as she accepted the box. "Well, maybe it wouldn't hurt."
This was the night at last, Bernie thought. Lying in bed, he impatiently watched the lighted clock's hands creep toward 2 a.m. Finally. Getting up, he repeated his journey down the back stairs to the porch. At the door, he cut through the glass with surprising ease. He rifled a few drawers and pulled some pictures off the wall in the living room. All very burglar-like. When padded footsteps sounded on the main steps around 3, Bernie ducked behind a wing chair. The plan was working.
In the faded glow of the night-light, he watched the frail, bent figure, in checkered robe, turn the corner to the kitchen, open the fridge and take out a carton of milk. He shot quickly, efficiently, going for a vital spot of the back.
Bernie retraced his steps, up the outside stairs. At the top in the dark his right foot struck a geranium pot. "Damn," he exclaimed, grabbing the rail to keep from falling. The gun flew out his hand, dropping into boxwood shrubbery below. No time now, he knew. He had to be downstairs in a moment for the final scene of the drama. No problem retrieving the gun while his mother phoned the police. They wouldn't be looking in the house for the gun belonging to a fleeing burglar. So there would be time afterward to ditch the weapon in the drainage holding pond half a mile away.
As he turned the corner at the bottom of the staircase, Bernie sensed something was wrong. How could his stepfather be bending over the crumpled dressing-gowned figure on the kitchen floor?
"I heard a shot," Bernie announced breathing hard, as rehearsed. "What's happened?"
A distraught Van Swearengin turned. "Your mother. She's dead. She couldn't sleep again. We had gone back to staying in the same bedroom. She had some pills from somewhere, but decided not to take them. I suggested she try a glass of warm milk. I offered to get it, but she wouldn't hear of it. I was feeling a bit woozy from my long day downtown. Her robe was in the wash so she slipped into my old robe, came down--and this. I blame myself."
Bernie wrung his hands. "A burglar, yes, she surprised a burglar."
"We'll have to call the police. Can you do that?"
Relieved at having a distraction, Bernie phoned and sputtered out the bare details of the supposed break-in.
A sergeant handled the cursory investigation as a favor for a homicide squad detective on vacation. A day later a jaded police reporter wrote up four paragraphs of a break-in gone wrong.
Emmett called Bernie. "Really sorry about the tragedy at your mother's house. A shame, just when they'd decided to work things out."
"Work things out?" Bernie stammered.
"Yes," Emmett said, "the old man, Van Swearengin, came in here to withdraw the divorce papers the day of the shooting. He had changed his will after filing the papers, writing in some distant nephew as sole heir, and intended to move on--to Muncie, I think. But after the reconciliation he'd planned to change the will back to your mother, of course, and you. But the murder's ended all that."
Emmett went on: "There's something really odd. A police lieutenant back from vacation decided to take a second look. Town maintenance workers drained that pond out your way to replace overflow pipes. The workers found a gun and turned it over to the police. The barrel riflings match the ones that fired the fatal bullet."
"Yeah?" Bernie chimed in. "The burglar must have deep-sixed it."
"Cops don't think so, my headquarters sources tell me. According to Van Swearengin, it's the same one your mother kept in a bedside table. She had told Van Swearengin about how it was forced on her for protection, but she never touched it. Hated guns. He mentioned all of this to the cops, who couldn't find the gun in the drawer where it was supposed to be."
"So, my stepfather could have been the one--the killer," Bernie suggested.
"They don't think so. If he did it, why would he mention the gun?"
"What do you think's going on?" Bernie asked, swallowing hard.
"Well, the real puzzle is Van Swearengin's report about what his wife heard an hour before she went downstairs for the milk. Sounded like someone coming down the outside stairs toward the back porch door."
"She doesn't sleep with her hearing aid. She would have heard a shot, but nothing else," Bernie protested.
"Maybe most nights," said Emmett, "but that night she went to bed with the aid on because she and Van Swearengin had been talking until late hours. The killing's a real puzzle. The homicide detective's going over the whole thing in detail. My spies say he'll be talking to you."