THE WYCHERLY WOMAN Part Five
WHAT’S THE POINT OF A CALIFORNIA STORY WITHOUT REAL ESTATE?
Merriman, the realtor, isn’t in, but his wife Sally is. When Archer feigns interest in the home of Mrs. Wycherly (known locally as the Mandeville home for the prior owner) he learns it’s already under agreement.
- Before Archer can learn more, a young blond bearded man bursts in, also looking for Merriman. The man is upset because Merriman had made repeated passes at “Jessie,” who apparently is his girlfriend, at “the store.” Sally seems more annoyed than humiliated, which suggests the Merriman marriage went sideways long ago.
- Sally gets rid of the man. When Archer expresses a strong interest in the house, Sally is quick with a proposal to have Archer purchase it from the new owners—at a premium, of course.
- Her attempt to show him the house that night is frustrated when she discovers that Merriman had taken the keys. Archer promises to come back in the morning but instead drives to the house now owned by Mrs. Wycherly.
- The house is traditionally furnished but Mrs. Wycherly added some of her bright abstract paintings like the one Archer saw in Homer’s house. Yeah, this is a clue, too.
- Another interesting feature is the corpse of Ben Merriman, beaten to death. Archer recognizes him as the man who chased him off earlier that night. Merriman’s gun is now missing but the killer left Merriman’s wallet, which is nearly empty of cash.
- Archer returns to the real estate office and makes enough small talk with Sally to confirm she isn’t aware of her husband’s death. While he is there someone calls and gives her the news.
- Sally, who has been doing a lot of drinking all evening, accuses Theodore Mandeville, who sold the house to Mrs. Wycherly, of killing Merriman. Apparently Mandeville felt Merriman had tricked him into selling too cheap. The shady nature of the sale is noted on a scrap of paper Archer retrieves with “$80,000” crossed out and “$60,000” written in, along with other numbers. (Keep in mind that a house in a decent suburb of San Francisco is worth well over a million dollars now, so the $20,000 difference was fighting money back then.)
- After her outburst, the Widow Merriman clams up and claims not to know the identity of the blonde bearded man. Alcohol and slow-wittedness are factors in her decision.
A VISIT WITH CAPTAIN THEODORE MANDEVILLE (RET)
Macdonald’s father was a sailor, and the author never lost his own attraction to the sea. His novels are filled with luggage that smells of salt water and old sea dogs whose nautical background is of little relevance to the story. His fascination was still strong as late as Sleeping Beauty in 1973; although, at least in that book, there was a basis in the plot for the maritime background of several characters.
Mandeville is living comfortably in a residential hotel but he is incensed that Merriman fast-talked him into selling his home for only $50,000, to a blond man with a beard. That man then immediately sold the house to Mrs. Wycherly for more, and Mandeville has just learned that it’s listed for $80,000.
Mandeville denies knowing anything about Merriman’s death and says he hasn’t seen him in some time. He is letting his lawyers take care of it.
But the visit isn’t a dead end. He gives Archer the name of the hotel where Mrs. Wycherly has been staying, the Champion Hotel in Sacramento.
Welcome to the Champion
Archer’s first impression is that Mandeville must have made a mistake. The hotel is hardly better than a flophouse. What would a wealthy woman who had just sold her house be doing here?
Archer decides, on the spur of the moment, that he is likely to get more information if he pretends he is her husband. This is the beginning of an impersonation that will take on a life of its own. Even in the first few minutes of his life as Homer Wycherly, the information starts coming.
- Wycherly checked out about an hour before without leaving an address. But a cooperative bellhop heard mention of the Hacienda Inn.
- She left with a man who was trying not to be seen; he used the stairs rather than the elevator and kept his face turned away. He was a big man, well-dressed, older than Archer, and he was on very friendly terms with Mrs. Wycherly.
- She had been in a bad mood, as far as the bellhop could tell, for the two weeks she’d been there, never leaving her room. She spent her time eating and drinking.
- Archer persuades the bellhop to let him into Catherine Wycherly’s old room. He finds a paper open to the shipping news with the date of Homer’s return marked.
- There is something else, less explicable. In the dust on the window is the word “Phoebe.”
- The bellhop mentions that a man visited several times, and that during his most recent visit, last night, there had been sounds of a struggle in the room. This morning she was wearing sunglasses, presumably to conceal a black eye.
- Archer shows the bellhop a picture of Phoebe and he says he doesn’t recognize her, but he can see the resemblance to her mother.
The next stop is The Hacienda Inn.