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The Robert Altman Dialog Instance

G. W. Clift

I guess I was able to identify the person who murdered Mr. Fordham because I’d been watching Robert Altman movies. You see, I’m McKellway Wright, a private investigator, and I happen to belong to The Cinema Society, which had showed a marathon of Altman’s films on Memorial Day. My sister and brother-in-law and I drove over to University Park’s old Realto Theater fairly early and sat through M*A*S*H (the film version) and then Nashville and most of The Player.

 In all those movies you have passages when more than one person is talking at a time. You know: the public address system loud speaker will be going and two different people will be talking in the operating tent in M*A*S*H, and then three or four people will be talking over each other in restaurant meetings in The Player, and so on. I can make out what one character is saying during those parts of the movies, but only one at a time. If you were watching a d.v.d. or a streaming version at home, I suppose you could play back the scene over and over and figure out what one specific guy was saying every time. But there’s no pausing and reversing a movie in a theater, as little kids are sometimes surprised to be told.

I have no idea what Nashville was about, by the way. But I don’t get a lot of what I see at Cinema Society movies.

Anyway, it was lucky I’d been watching Altman’s films. And it also turned out to be lucky that I was seeing Rachel McCall socially. She’s the police detective who was called out to the scene of the Fordham murder.

            On the fourth of June one year, a burglar got into a house over in the Kohl Meadow neighborhood. The criminal seemed to have used a pry bar to pop open a back window and then to have crawled into an unused bedroom back there.

Once inside, the burglar walked to a large sitting room where the house’s owner, Harvey Fordham, had hung a small painting by Escher Moore, a British abstract painter who seems to be very popular right now. The criminal took the picture down from the wall and into the hall, apparently thinking he was going to take it out the same way he had come in.

Then Fordham seems to have surprised the burglar. The painting fell to the floor in the hallway, there, and was stepped on during the struggle between the two people. Somebody’s foot went right through the canvas. The burglar had a mag light flashlight with him, the police believe. He struck Fordham twice on the head with the flash. The second blow killed the homeowner.

I saw the flashlight where it had been dropped on the guest bedroom floor as the burglar escaped—without the painting—out the window he had come in through. I also saw the painting where it lay in the hall. I was at the scene to explain to the police how the murderer got into a house supposedly protected by an alarm system. I’d checked that system after its installation in April of that year.

Rachel, the police detective who was heading that investigation, showed me where the picture had hung, where the burglar had gotten in, and where Fordham’s body had been found. The corpse was still there, on a blood-stained carpet runner.

“Looks like a lot of blood for that wound,” I told Rachel as she and I stood in the front room, looking down the hall to where the body lay. I turned around and stepped back, thinking I was blocking Rachel’s view of the drying blood on the floor. There in the front room were a uniformed policeman and a woman in a dark gray suit, a woman I took for a police specialist of some kind. “But then, you know those head wounds can let out a lot of gore,” I told them.

“Kel?” I heard Rachel say behind me.

I wanted to complete my thought. So I said to the cop and the suit-wearing woman,  “A really heavy blow with something that crushes the skull…”


“… can just open up a gusher of blood. And look at all of that on the hall rug, there. The guy…”

“Kel?” said Rachel, stepping around me. “This is Mrs. Fordham. The wife of the deceased.”

The woman in the suit had buried her face in her handkerchief. She hobbled quickly out of the room without speaking.

“Oh,” I murmured, wondering if something I said had upset her. If I’d known it was the widow, I probably would have kept my observations about bloody head wounds to myself. I can be tactful when tact is required.

Rachel said,. “She’s feeling bad enough without your giving her a graphic picture of the suffering. She may have been drugged last night so that she would sleep soundly. When she awoke this morning, she came out into the hall and found her husband laying on the bloody carpet. She called the police. Now, then, master diplomat. Do you know as much about the alarm system here as you do about how that poor woman’s husband’s life blood gushed out of his head wound?”

I took my favorite police detective back to the guest bedroom and looked at the window frame. I lifted the sash and showed Rachel the contacts. “You see, it is wired. I don’t know why breaking the contacts didn’t set off the alarm. Or if the alarm was set off.”

“The security company says they have no record of the alarm going off,” Rachel told me.

“Not even when the burglar lifted the picture?” I asked. “If the system didn’t alert the security company, the problem is likely a problem with the notification process and not with the wiring. With this system design, when a contact is broken on a window or when somebody lifts the weight of the picture off a wired hook, the system automatically calls the security company on a cell phone.”

I took Rachel downstairs to a utility box in the unfinished basement. A little red light glowed on the face of the light gray plastic box screwed to a wall stud. “The system seems to be getting power. Burglars used to cut the electricity to houses they were breaking into, but here that wouldn’t have shut down this security system, because it has a back-up power supply.”

“A battery of some sort?” Rachel asked. “Maybe it doesn’t work.”

I pushed a test button on the side of the utility box, and the system honked loudly at us.

“The battery works. The next most likely thing is that the burglar used a jamming transmitter to keep the cell phone from finding a carrier frequency. The system is supposed to keep trying until it connects. Does your cell phone work here?”

Rachel flipped opened her phone and looked at it. She tried punching in some numbers. “No,” she admitted. “It doesn’t work.”

“The burglar may have run from the house in such a hurry that he left his jammer behind. We maybe ought to look for a plastic box with a jammer in it. It might be pretty close to the house.”

Rachel found the little transmitter (which may have been an Electronics Hut project) on the back porch, where it was plugged into one of the house’s electrical outlets. When I unplugged the jammer, Rachel’s cell phone worked. She bagged the jamming unit, hoping to lift the burglar’s fingerprints from it..

I showed her the rest of the security system wiring, which was pretty stock. I wanted to talk with her, then, but Rachel acted as if she needed to get back to work. I pointed out that it was nearly noon, but she refused my offer to buy her lunch. When I walked out to my car, I saw Darren Graves leaning against the Buick’s passenger side front fender.

“Kel?” he said. “What’s going on at the Fordhams’?”

“Nice to see you too,” I said, smiling. Darren and I went to high school together and had since then met occasionally, a couple of times a year or so. I had forgotten that he lived in that neighborhood.

He smiled at me and stuck out his hand. “Sorry. Good to see you. Feeling well? What the hell is going on over at the Fordhams’?”

I made a conscious effort to be tactful. “Are they friends of yours?” I asked.

Darren shrugged. “We’ve lived across the street from each other for three years. We speak when we meet, you know. We’re in the same bridge club. But they’re not, like, close friends.”

“Well,” I said. “He bought it. Somebody broke into the house last night and, in the process of stealing a painting, bashed him in the skull, or at least that’s the current theory.”

Darren went pale. “No way. Murder?”

Now I shrugged. “That’s what the police think just now. You all right?”

“This is …” he said, searching for words.

“Come on and I’ll walk you to your house. Maybe you can give me a drink of water or something.”

He lived across the street and two doors down. Like all the other homes in the neighborhood, Darren’s had been constructed in the late 1920s. The area had eventually gotten pricey as new development moved farther and farther from the city center. The houses on the block were two-story frame buildings. They weren’t exactly alike when they were new, and most of them had been added onto. But the additions were usually tasteful, the yards were well-kept, and there weren’t any old cars sitting in drive-ways or along curbs. A dentist probably couldn’t afford to live on Farber Street. A successful orthodontist might.

Darren took me in the front door of a cream-colored house. We found two female neighbors standing with Mrs. Graves at a large picture window looking across at the police cars parked in front of the Fordham house. “Kel, you remember Marcy, don’t you?”

I did remember having seen her, but I wouldn’t have been able to say her name. “Hi,” I said, leaning forward a little. Each of the women was attractive, thirty-ish, and wearing a blouse with the top two buttons undone.

Marcy didn’t bother to introduce me to the neighbors. Instead she said, “Hello. Can you tell us what’s going on at the Fordhams’.”

I shrugged. “I don’t think it’s a secret. Somebody hit Mr. Fordham, probably last night, and killed him. It looks as if it may have been a burglar.” 

“Were they after his art?” one of the neighbor ladies asked. “I’m Judy Secore,” she added, leaning in to shake hands. “I live next door.”

The other woman waved and then unconsciously reached to pull the neck of her shirt closed. “Elizabeth Fuller,” she said, identifying herself. “Did they steal his paintings?”

I nodded. “I guess it was an Escher Moore that they were after. Did any of you know the picture?”

“Kel,” said Darren, shaking his head, “You’re talking to just about the only acquaintances the Fordhams had, at least in the neighborhood. Judy’s husband, Grant, and Elizabeth’s husband, Richard, and the four of us were the only people on the block that have ever been inside the Fordham house. We all play bridge together once a month. In fact, tonight was suppose to be bridge night.”

“That’s right,” Marcy said. “And I already put the brisket in the oven.” She spoke to the other women. “Why don’t you come over as planned. And why don’t you come back, Kel, and bring your latest inamorata—that way we’ll have enough for two tables of bridge and we’ll be able to ask you questions about the murder and the investigation.”

“You say only the bridge club members got into Fordham’s house?” I asked, thinking furiously what woman I could invite who would like to play bridge. Laurel Eads would spook these suburbanites. I hadn’t met Lourdes Maynard yet. Maybe Rachel would be the natural choice.

“Well you see,” said Mrs. Fuller, “Harvey Fordham wasn’t very social. He didn’t like new people. He didn’t have to go out to work, and the two of them were stay-at-homes.”

“Yes,” the others agreed.

I whipped out my cell phone and called Rachel’s. She could play bridge, I knew. And this would be a chance to hear all the gossip about the murder victim from what were apparently the art collector’s only friends. When I got her on the phone, she immediately understood the potential advantages of the scheme, too, and suggested that I pick her up at her apartment early so that we could talk things over before the game.

So I returned to the neighborhood with Rachel on the evening after Fordham’s murder. Marcy had the card tables set up in the living room, with mixed nuts in silver dishes, Kem plastic cards, and score pads laid out at the ready. We wandered in there from the dining room after having done justice to her cooking–though for some reason Rachel turned her nose up at the brisket, which had been slowly cooked in barbecue sauce. I ate three plate-fulls of it and of the broccoli cole slaw.

For cards, Darren and Richard Fuller, who was a big, well-built man in his late thirties, took Rachel, who I had identified as the Homicide detective investigating the neighborhood murder, and Judy Secore, respectively, as partners. I was paired with Elizabeth Fuller, while our hostess Marcy matched up with weedy little Grant Secore.

During dinner, the neighbors had all been restrained in asking about the murder. Once the buffet closed down, I poured myself a tallish vodka to nurse during the bridge game. I went in to my place at one of the tables. As soon as the cards were cut, Richard Fuller asked Rachel, “Do you have any leads in the Fordham investigation?”

She shrugged. “We know a more than we did this morning. Apparently Mr. Fordham drank a little.”

I put down the vodka glass and swallowed. Everyone in the room seemed to be listening to the conversation, but they were looking at me. I looked across the table at Elizabeth Fuller and saw her raise her eyebrows. “I would have said ‘a little’ was an understatement,” she announced. “When we had card parties, he didn’t drink until after the bridge, of course. But then I think he got busy right away.”

“He was just trying to get himself ready to sleep,” announced Grant Secore. “A lot of people like to have a drink before they go to bed. Helen Fordham always had a bedtime drink with him, she told me one time when we were playing cards.”

“How did you discover he had been drinking?” Darren asked Rachel. “Surely they haven’t done the autopsy yet.”

“The murder victim spilled a drink last night and got some of it on his bathrobe. The pocket of the robe was still damp to the touch and smelled of brandy,” Rachel explained. “So we ordered a lab test of the garment.”

Darren and Richard nodded, understanding how the police had reached their conclusion.

Then Rachel added, “There was an empty brandy bottle in the room where the painting was hung.”

Then several people were talking at once. “Did you manage to trace the cell phone jammer?” Grant asked.

“No, but we’re working on it,” said Rachel. “I think we’ve identified the manufacturer and should know tomorrow sometime where the unit could have been purchased. But knowing where it was bought won’t necessarily tell us who bought it.”      

“And the painting was destroyed?” Judy asked.

“One of the two men—I’m assuming the burglar was a man—seems to have put a foot through it during their struggle,” Rachel admitted. “I think the damage can be repaired if the picture is worth the cost of the restoration”

Marcy Graves nodded. “I’m sure it is. But I wonder who knew the Fordhams owned the picture.”

“The burglar knew more than that,” I put in. “He knew where the picture was hung, and he knew something about the Fordhams’ security system. Who would have had all of that information?”

Most of the members of the party shook their heads.

“Finding the answer to that question would be one way to identify suspects,” Rachel said. “Apparently only a few people knew there was a valuable painting in the Fordhams’ living room. I guess all of you knew that much?”

“I’m afraid that only the six of us knew,” said Marcy. “We saw the picture the last few times we had our card party at Fordhams’—he bought the painting and installed it in that room late last year. The Fordhams had no visitors except when we went there to play bridge.”

The others muttered their agreement. Cards were dealt. I got a look at my first hand and began trying to remember how to bid. I hadn’t played bridge since my college days, though I hadn’t done much at college besides play bridge. Eventually I figured out that Ace, Jack, nine, four in Diamonds was probably worth a couple of tricks, and I added up the rest of what I thought I could make of my hand. When it came my turn I bid two Diamonds.

“No,” said Marcy, who was sitting to my right.

“No, McKellway,” my partner Elizabeth said. “I already bid two Diamonds.”

“O.K. Well, let me see what else I have here.”

While I was sorting through my hand I found two low Spades stuck behind the four of Hearts.

“Yes, brandy was his tipple, I think,” said Richard Fuller. “Of course, we don’t drink when we’re playing cards,” he continued, looking pointedly at my glass of vodka, “but he always had a brandy bottle out in the card room.”

“I was over there just the other day to retrieve an earring I lost there our last bridge meeting,” Judy Secore said. “I think the brandy bottle was on the credenza, just like always. The painting was in the room. I remember looking at it while Jenny Fordham was letting Grant in the front door.”

I took a sip of vodka and sorted my cards again as the others talked about the last time the card club had met, and about some of Mr. Fordham’s comments about the Escher Moore painting. He had apparently bought it as an investment and not because he liked the picture all that much.

“Looked like the a plate of rumaki to me,” I said.

Judy Secore frowned. And Elizabeth Fuller laughed. “I sort of liked it. But I know what you mean,” she said. “What’s your bid?”

“Did I say two Diamonds?” I asked.

I didn’t have much success at the card table the rest of the evening. In fact, I spent more than half the hands acting as The Dummy. Then, as soon as Rachel and I got into the car, she immediately wanted to know, “What did you tell them about the murder scene? When you talked with them this noon, what details did you give them about the crime scene?”

“Huh?” I asked, surprised. I would have figured Rachel would want to re-live a slam or something. She had been the big winner of the night. “I didn’t tell them anything but that Fordham had been killed, hit over the head, probably by a would-be art thief who was probably after the Moore painting.” I thought carefully about the conversation in question. “That’s it. That’s all I told them.”

“Are you sure?” Rachel asked.

“I’m not sure I knew all that much more to tell them. Oh, I knew the details of the alarm system, and that the picture had been torn in the hall, and that there was a lot of blood. But I didn’t tell them any of that.”

“Well in that case I think we may have found out who it was that murdered Harvey Fordham,” she said. “But I’m not sure I know who it was, because everybody was speaking at once. Let me ask you who said something I remember hearing this evening.”

And here’s where my expertise at listening to two conversations at once paid off. If I hadn’t been watching Robert Altman movies, I wouldn’t have been able to tell her who said what during the conversation at the bridge tables. Rachel says I can remember things like two simultaneous speeches because there’s nothing important on my mind to muddle things. But that’s just banter.

The next morning Rachel had me out at the Fordham house again. It was a Saturday, and Darren Graves walked over to speak to me when I went out to my car to get a roll of mints. “I’m glad to see you,” I told him. “Rachel wants to ask some questions about what the house was like when you were last over there for cards. Do you suppose you could get your wife and the Secores and Fullers over for a couple of minutes?”

“Sure,” he said. He whipped out a cell phone and began calling all the card players. They walked over to the Fordham house almost immediately, as if they had been standing in their front rooms looking out their windows and speculating about the murder and the investigation. Which they probably had been.

I led them all into the Fordham house. Rachel nodded to them in greeting and took us all back to the card playing room where the painting had hung.

“What I want to know,” she said, “Is if this room looks just about the way it did when you came over for cards. I know the painting is missing, but is everything else in about the same place it would have been when the Fordhams had you over? Wait a minute.” She went to the door of the room and called back down the hall, “What? O.K. I’ll get him.” Then, raising her eyebrows and tipping her forehead, she said to me, “They want you on the patio.”

I was puzzled. “Who are they?” I asked.

“Them. The tech dweebs. You know,” she said, slightly agitated. “Go look for them. But don’t go too far.”

I had no idea what was going on. There weren’t any tech dweebs there at the time, and the police tech dweebs didn’t ever speak to me. But she obviously wanted me to go out of the room. So I walked out into the hall and took a couple of steps toward the patio entrance. And then I thought I ought to go back and ask her who I was going to see. But I stopped just before I got back into the card room.

Her left hand was visible through the opening of the door, and she was pointing straight down. Repeatedly. Emphatically. As if she wanted a dog to stay right where she was pointing.

I stood right there, just out of sight behind the door.

I’m usually not much of an eavesdropper because, to tell the truth, I usually don’t care what other people are saying. But there was something about this set up that suggested to me that Rachel wanted me to listen to what was being said inside the front room. So I cocked my head and listened to the bridge club members and Rachel as they chatted away.

I thought somebody might say something significant. But there was nothing like that. When the pause inside the room got uncomfortably long for the group members, they all started to talk at once. At least four of them spoke at the same time. Not being able to make sense of what they were saying, I instead amused myself by identifying who was speaking. Things went on like this for a minute or two. And then, to my astonishment, Rachel popped open the door and waved me back into the room.

“Here is Mr. Wright,” she told the assembled group. “Now, Mr. Wright, can you identify the party who asked us about the cell phone jammer during the bridge game last night?”

“Mr. Secore,” I answered. Then I tried to remember his first name. “Ah, Grant, ah, Secore.”

“You heard him speak just a minute ago, when you were out of the room?” she asked me.

I shrugged, still not clear what was going on. “Sure. Listening to Robert Altman movies, a fellow gets used to picking out which person is saying what when a bunch of people are talking.”

“So, Mr. Secore. Mr. Wright can identify your voice. Consider yourself under arrest for first degree murder,” she said. She went on to describe Grant Secore’s legal rights. Then she added, “Do you have the Seconal prescription, or does your wife?”

The Graves and the Fullers were standing back from the Secores now, and were staring at Rachel as if they were amazed. I was pretty surprised, too.

Grant Secore fidgeted. “I don’t think I have anything to say to you,” he told Rachel. Then he sent me a look intended to maim, as if I’d done something to him.

Rachel nodded. “That’s o.k. I’ve got a solid case against you already. Your wife was in this room three nights ago, supposedly retrieving an earring she had left during the last bridge session. While you distracted Mrs. Fordham, she put the sedative into the brandy. That night Mr. Fordham poured a glass for himself and one for his wife. You counted on that. You figured they would be sound asleep when you got in to take the painting. Unfortunately for you, Mr. Fordham spilled his brandy before he’d drunk enough to get the effect of the drug.

“When you approached the house after their usual bedtime,” Rachel continued, “you set up a battery-powered frequency jammer to stop the burglar alarm from calling out to the security company. You used a pry bar to get in the guest bedroom window–a pry bar just like the one I bet we’ll find on your tool bench in your garage. You got into the house and retrieved the painting. How am I doing so far?”

Mrs. Secore looked nervous. Grant still wasn’t speaking.

“I take it you like the way I’m telling it,” Rachel said. “Then, as you were coming back up the hallway, Mr. Fordham popped out and stopped you. There was a struggle. You dropped the painting and stepped through it, so that there will be paint on one of your shoes—there wasn’t any on Fordham’s. Then you hit Fordham right over the left eye with the flashlight you carried. You hit him more than once. When he went down, you checked to make certain he was dead. Then you hurried out the way you had come, leaving the mag light, the painting, and the jammer behind you.”

“Why is it more likely I did it than that Fuller did it? Or Graves?” Grant Secore wanted to know.

“They had no chance to doctor the brandy, for one thing,” Rachel told him. “Besides, I have no reason to suspect that they knew how the crime was committed. You did. You asked about the cell phone jammer the other night, before anyone but investigators knew there was a cell phone jammer involved. Kel Wright also heard you asking about the jammer, and he is also willing to testify it was you doing the asking.”

I nodded. Somehow I’d gotten to be an important witness in the case. I wanted to ask how.

But while the Secores were being taken away, I didn’t get to talk to Rachel. Later she told me she had scooted me out of the Fordham’s living room right after the neighbors came into the house because she was hoping I would hear Secore speak at the same time several others did, so that I could prove to myself that I could identify his voice as the one which asked about the jammer. In the end I didn’t have to testify, it turned out, because Grant Secore copped a plea and actually got sentenced to less time for killing Fordham than Mrs. Secore did for doctoring the brandy with pills from a prescription written for her. I was sorry about that. She was pretty, and not in the least bit self-conscious when she was shaking hands, if you follow me.

Luckily, Rachel was delighted with the convictions. We went out to celebrate on the evening Grant Secore was sentenced. And that was a wild night. The Cinema Society was showing a Fellini movie, which baffled me. But for some reason it seemed to make Rachel feel affectionate. There’s something else I can’t explain.

▪ ▪ ▪

G.W. Clift lives in the Flint Hills of Kansas. He knows most of Robert Altman’s films, and frequently has trouble making out who said what in them.

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