Calamity Town

Ellery Queen


Chapter 1

Mr. Queen Discovers America

Ellery Queen stood knee-deep in luggage on the Wrightsville station platform and thought: This makes me an admiral. Admiral Columbus.

The station was a squatty affair of black-red brick. On a rusty hand truck under the eaves, two small boys in torn blue overalls swung their dirty legs and chewed gum in unison, staring at him without expression.

The gravel about the station was peppered with horse droppings. Cramped two-story frame houses and little stoop-shouldered shops with a cracker-barrel look huddled to one side of the tracks?the city side, for up a steep street paved with square cobbles, Mr. Queen could see taller structures beyond and the fat behind of a retreating bus.

To the other side of the station, there were merely a garage, an ex-trolley labeled phil’s diner, and a smithy with a neon sign. The rest was verdure and delight.

Country looks good, by jake, murmurs Mr. Queen enthusiastically. Green and yellow. Straw colors. And sky of blue and clouds of white?bluer blue and whiter white than he recalled ever having seen before.

City?country; and here they meet, where Wrightsville station flings the twentieth century into the astonished face of the land.

Yes, sir, my boy. You’ve found it.


* * *

The Hollis Hotel, Upham House, and the Kelton among them could not offer the stranger at their desks one pitiful room. It seemed boom times had hit Wrightsville two jumps ahead of Mr. Queen. The last room at the Hollis was filched from under his nose by a portly man with “defense industry” written all over him.

Undiscouraged, Mr. Queen checked his bags at the Hollis, ate a leisurely lunch in the Coffee Shoppe, and read a copy of theWrightsville Record?Frank Lloyd, Publisher and Editor.

He memorized as many of the names mentioned in the Record as seemed to have local prominence, bought two packs of Pall Malls and a Wrightsville street map from Mark Doodle’s son Grover at the lobby cigar stand, then struck out across the red-cobbled Square under the hot sun.

At the horse trough in the center of the Square, Mr. Queen paused to admire Founder Wright. Founder Wright had once been a bronze, but he now looked mossy, and the stone trough on which he stood had obviously been unused for years. There were crusty bird droppings on the Founder’s Yankee nose. Words on a plaque said that Jezreel Wright had founded Wrightsville when it was an abandoned Indian site, in the Year of Our Lord 1701, had tilled the land, started a farm, and prospered. The chaste windows of the Wrightsville National Bank, John F. Wright, Pres., smiled at Mr. Queen from across the Square, and Mr. Queen smiled back: O Pioneers!

Then he circumnavigated the Square (which was round); peered into Sol Gowdy’s Men’s Shop, the Bon Ton Department Store, Dune Mac Lean?Fine Liquors, and William Ketcham?Insurance; examined the three gilded balls above the shop of J. P. Simpson, the jardinieres of green and red liquid in the window of the High Village Pharmacy, Myron Garback, Prop.; and turned to survey the thoroughfares which radiated like spokes from the hub of the Square.

One spoke was a broad avenue: the red-brick Town Hall, the Carnegie Library, a glimpse of park, tall praying trees, and beyond, a cluster of white new WPA-looking buildings. Another spoke was a street lined with stores and full of women in house-dresses and men in work clothes. Consulting his street map, Mr. Queen ascertained that this avenue of commerce was Lower Main; so he made for it.

Here he found the Record office; he peered in and saw the big press being shined up by old Phinny Baker after the morning’s run. He sauntered up Lower Main, poking his nose into the crowded five-and-dime, past the new Post Office building, past the Bijou Theater, past J. C. Petti-grew’s real-estate office; and he went into A1 Brown’s Ice Cream Parlor and had a New York College Ice and listened to the chatter of tanned boys and red-cheeked girls of high-school age. He heard Saturday night “dates” being arranged right and left?for Danceland, in the Grove, which he gathered was at Wrightsville Junction three miles down the line, admission one dollar per person, and for Pete’s sake Marge keep your mother away from the parking lot, will you? I don’t wanna get caught like two weeks ago and have you start bawling!

Mr. Queen strolled about the town, approving and breathing deeply of wet leaves and honeysuckle. He liked the stuffed eagle in the Carnegie Library vestibule; he even liked Miss Aikin, the elderly Chief Librarian, who gave him a very sharp look, as if to say: “Don’t you try to sneak a book out of here!” He liked the twisting narrow streets of Low Village, and he went into Sidney Gotch’s General Store and purchased a package of Old Mariner Chewing Tobacco just as an excuse to smell the coffee and rubber boots and vinegar, the cheeses and kerosene.

He liked the Wrightsville Machine Shop, which had just reopened, and the old cotton-mill factory, diagonally across from the Low Village World War Memorial. Sidney Gotch told him about the cotton mill. It had been a cotton mill, then an empty building, then a shoe shop, then an empty building again; he could see for himself the splintery holes in the windows where the Low Village boys threw rocks in summer and snowballs in winter on their way to that vine-covered building up Lower Dade Street there?St. John’s Parochial School. But now “specials” prowled around the mill with long fat holsters strapped to their thighs and eyes in their heads that would not smile; the boys, said Sidney Gotch, just yelled “Yahhhh!” and took it out on Mueller’s Feed Store three doors up the block, near the corner of Whistling Avenue.

And the woolen mill had taken on extra help?army orders.

“Boom times, brother! No wonder you couldn’t get a room. I’ve got an uncle from St. Paul and a cousin from Pittsburgh doublin’ up with me and Betsy right now!”

In fact, Mr. Queen liked everything.

He glanced up at the big clock on the Town Hall steeple. Two-thirty. No room, eh?

Walking rapidly, he made his way back to Lower Main and neither paused nor pried until he reached the shop marked J.C. PETTIGREW, REAL ESTATE.

Chapter 2

Calamity House

His number twelves up on his desk, J.C. was napping when Mr. Queen came in. He had just come from the weekly Chamber of Commerce lunch at Upham House, and he was full of Ma Upham’s fried chicken.

Mr. Queen woke him up. ”My name,” said Mr. Queen, “is Smith, I’ve just landed in Wrightsville, and I’m looking for a small furnished house to rent on a month-to-month basis.”

“Glad to know you, Mr. Smith,” said J.C., struggling into his gabardine “office” jacket. ”My, it’s warm! Furnished house, hey? I can see you’re a stranger. No furnished houses in Wrightsville, Mr. Smith.”

“Then perhaps a furnished apartment?”

“Same thing.” J.C. yawned. ”Excuse me! Certainly is hotting up, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is,” said Ellery.

Mr. Pettigrew leaned back in his swivel chair and picked a strand of chicken out of his teeth with an ivory pick, after which he examined it intently. ”Housing’s a problem. Yes, sir. People pouring into town like grain in a hopper. To work in the Machine Shop especially. Wait a minute!”

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