THE DAY IT BEGAN
>> Henry Delaporte <<
Although the Rotary mystery is by no means so famous as the Famous DAR Murder Mystery, it has many things in common with that investigation and is in some ways more remarkable.
Both crimes took place in Borderville, Virginia-Tennessee, and the identities of both murderers were ferreted out by Mrs. L. Q. C. Lamar Bushrow. In each case, a chapter of a nationally important organization was involved, and in each case the nature of the crime was initially misunderstood.
The second case is more remarkable than the first because, among other things, Mrs. Bushrow is now two years older than she was when she solved the DAR mystery. The DAR mystery was clarified to some degree by coincidence, but the Rotary mystery was explained largely through logical processes backed up by patient detective work on the part of Mrs. Bushrow.
By all that is right and proper, I ought not to have anything to do with the telling of this story, but Mrs. Bushrow, who furnished the public such a charming account of her activities in The Famous DAR Murder Mystery, absolutely refused to put pen to paper unless I agreed to referee the book in somewhat the same way that Mrs. Parsons presided over the DAR account.
I am, of course, happy to accede to Mrs. Bushrow's request, for two reasons. On the one hand, her refusal to record her activities in this case would deprive the public of the pleasure of continued acquaintance with her. And on the other, my personality as my wife depicted it in the former book was not altogether as I would like the public to think of me. You will find that a wife's-eye view of a husband is often skewed, and I suppose that the observation of character at the close range of marriage can blur the image in the same way that the observation of a painting at too short a distance can interfere with our impression of the picture as a whole. Let us hope that I am not nearly so sententious as I appear from the references Helen--i.e., my wife--made to me in her share of The Famous DAR Murder Mystery.
As Professor Landrum pointed out in the preface to that book, the crime described had already taken place before the story began. Such was essentially the case with the murder presently under consideration. It occurred at the Borderville Motor Inn, universally referred to by Bordervillians as "the Inn," on May 26 or 27 last, at some time between 11:30 P.M. Monday and 2:00 A.M. Tuesday. But we were unaware of the fact until a little after noon on Tuesday.
Tuesday is Rotary day in Borderville. Helen calls it Sacred Tuesday because she says Rotarians are far more conscientious about Rotary than they are about church. She may be right about that; but as far as our club goes, we are neither very holy about church nor very careful about the attendance rules of Rotary. Our club, to our shame, has an attendance average of about 67 percent, for which we are constantly being chided by our sergeant at arms.
Nevertheless, there are some of us who are markedly constant in attendance, and I suppose I am one of them. I rarely miss unless I am out of town. I should, of course, make up my absence by attending another club, but it is often inconvenient or impossible to do so. The fact that I always attend when I amhere in Borderville is due not to the excellence of the food or the interest stimulated by the programs, neither of which would be worth the quarterly dues of the club, but to my pleasure in the association I have with four men, who nearly always sit with me at the same table, up front, just to the left of the speaker.
Sitting there at the same table week after week is hardly in line with the ideals of the organization. But for those of us who are fifty and up, it is very pleasant to luxuriate in a familiar groove (a word of excellent connotation in my youth); and we, as "old boys," enjoy our own rather predictable conversation. Since there are six chairs at each table, we do not feel that we are exclusive, for anyone who wishes to sit with us is cordially welcomed to do so.
But the four regulars with whom I always eat are Trajan McDowell, Steve Johnson, Raymond Rogers, and Dr. Fred Middleton. We usually try to get to the Borderville Inn at five or ten minutes of twelve in order to pick up our food from the steam table and be seated before the rest of the club has arrived. By that means, we get the waitress to come directly to our table and thereby fill our cups immediately. Then, when she had poured coffee for all the rest, she comes back to us so that we always have coffee at hand to enjoy as we listen to the day's speaker.
Which is very important. That is to say, the coffee is very important.
Also important is the fact that the four men whom I have mentioned are all Presbyterians, three of them being elders in the First Presbyterian Church and the other a deacon in the Second Presbyterian Church. As the son of a Presbyterian minister, I joined the Episcopal church when I married, but there's something about being with men who grew up the way I did that is like going home. Whatever the reason for it, we form a very congenial group.
On that Tuesday, as usual, I arrived at the Inn about ten minutes before the appointed time. Because it had beenannounced that the district governor was going to speak to us, there were already quite a few Rotarians present.
Rotary district governors are in some ways pretty much the same. They are jolly men and always supportive, optimistic, and entirely sold on Rotary. They would have to be of that sort in order to spend the time, effort, and money required of a district governor. You see, a district governor, in addition to other duties, must visit each club in his district at least once a year. The result is that for a whole year, a district governor is called away from his business repeatedly; and unless he is retired or reasonably well fixed financially, there is an element of sacrifice in the governorship that a good many Rotarians would find difficult to afford. District governors, therefore, are on the whole financially successful as well as superior in other regards.
Do not think, however, that we look forward to the district governor's visit with enthusiasm. What the poor man has to say to us is pretty much what the former district governor said to us on a similar occasion the year before. The governor will always recite the praises of Rotary International, and these are certainly impressive. But when you have heard them for a quarter of a century, your mind is likely to wander somewhere between the Four-Way Test and the Paul Harris Fellowship. On the other hand, the district governor usually has three or four pretty good jokes.
But a local club, especially one like ours, which doesn't have a good attendance record, always tries to get all its members out for the district governor's visit. For a whole month before the event, the sergeant at arms reminds us of the impending honor, and our president assures us that we would not wish to be absent on such an important occasion. All in all, there is a great deal more bustle than usual about the meeting when the district governor is to be present.
As I say, I got to the Borderville Inn ten minutes early. Mabel Mahaffey was setting up her music on the spinet piano in the corner behind the flag. Joseph D. (Jody) Russell, our secretary-treasurer,was buzzing about doing the things he does. Warren Perkins was hanging the Rotary banners, four of them, on the wall behind the lectern. It was our typical, cheerful confusion.
Steve Johnson was already at the table. We had roast pork in honor of the district governor, and I noticed that Steve had helped himself rather generously to the meat. Then Trajan came in, got his plate, and sat down. Just about the time that Mrs. Mahaffey began to play, Raymond came in.
Steve began to tell us about some trouble the congregation at Second Presbyterian is having with its minister.
By that time, the room was pretty full and the noise level was so high that we could hardly hear Mrs. Mahaffey tinkling away at "Time on My Hands." The younger Rotarians don't care for the old songs, but the older fellows crave something they know--something that has a tune.
Ray has a new boat and told us about the fish he had caught on the preceding weekend. Steve wanted to know when Ray was going to take the rest of us out on the lake. And there was other chatter of the same sort, all inconsequential and very much the same conversation we had heard every Tuesday for twenty-odd years.
I looked down at my watch. It was 12:15. I realized that our president, Eugene Spencer, had been coming in and out and stirring around in a generally nervous way. But I supposed the district governor was getting to town a little later than expected.
Steve Johnson turned to Tom Shaefer at the next table and said, "The governor must have had trouble on that detour on Four twenty-one."
"Oh, the governor got in last night," Tom said. "He's staying here at the inn."
With that settled, we went on swapping stories and making comments for another ten minutes, when suddenly Eugene rushed in, his face very serious and white. He went immediately to the podium and, grasping the microphone, said, "Fellow Rotarians, something terrible has happened to the districtgovernor. I have just been in his room. The police are here, and the sheriff is expected any minute. We will dispense with the program today. Go on eating."
Then he turned to Joe and added, "Take over for me, will you? I've got to go back over there. And you might get Art Stoneman to dismiss the club at the end with a prayer."
Silence fell on us. What were we to think? If the police and the sheriff were involved, was it murder?
From the back of the room, Keith Duncan--it would be Keith!--called out, "Come on, Gene, give. What happened?"
We all found our tongues at once.
"Yeah, tell us."
"What happened, Gene?"
"Come on, tell us."
And so on.
"I'd rather not just now," Gene answered. He was already halfway to the door. "Maybe later." And with that, he was gone.
Three or four of the men got up and followed. But the rest of us returned to our roast pork and bread pudding. The reverence soon wore off, and we were saying things like "Would you call this 'dead on arrival'?" and "We've had deadly district governors, but this is the first one who was actually dead."
Dreadful things to say--just dreadful!
And then Fred Middleton came in. He had most of the answers to what we wanted to know.
I therefore turn the story over to him.
THE ROTARY CLUB MURDER MYSTERY. Copyright © 1993 by Graham Landrum. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.