Delancey and the Distressed Woman

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic


Delancey is a small-time detective working in the late 1920s. He's not always right, and his cases aren't always "typical" of private eye stories, but there's humor, and a cast of regular
characters that will grow with time. This is the first of many Delancey stories to come

Submitted: June 22, 2018

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Submitted: June 22, 2018

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Case #8 - April 1925 - Delancey and the Distressed Woman

It was hot for mid-April.

I was sitting in the office, shirt sleeves rolled up, that sickly little tin fan I have, moving slow as my Aunt Edna. I felt pretty grumpy, what with the heat and no case in a couple weeks. I got it in my head that maybe this wasn’t the brightest choice of career. Maybe it was time to pack it up. My buddy had joined the police, and even though he told me I’d have snowball’s chance in hell of making the force (something about not following orders), maybe I could do it.

Man, I was proud when I opened this office. Name on the door. My own desk. More furniture than the cold-water flat I’d grown up in. Me. Tom Delancey, private detective.

What a joke. I’d had seven cases. Two hadn’t paid me. The other five were so simple, I could only charge enough to cover the next month’s rent and maybe have some left over to eat. I’d dropped my apartment lease and took to sleeping in the office. My clothes—such as they are—hung everywhere.

So there I sat, throwing cards into my hat on the desk. Ever try throwing cards with a fan on? It’s a real challenge.

Anyhow, a little knock came on the outside door, and my life was about to change.

“In here,” I called.

The visitor walked through the outer office and into mine. She looked around at my wardrobe hanging everywhere, then at me.

“Mr. Delancey?”

“That’s me.”

I stood and we shook hands. She had a firm grip. Fact is, she was firm all the way around, and I mean that politely. Looked like she could take care of herself in a pinch. Average height for a gal, sort of plain face, figure not slim but not pudgy. She wore a plain blue outfit, with black shoes and purse. No hat. Despite her timid way of coming in, she carried her shoulders square and looked me right in the eye. I like that. Like I said, she could handle herself.

“And you are?” I asked.

“Mrs. Willows. Beulah.”

“Have a seat, Mrs. Willows. Coffee?”

She started to say yes, then took a gander at my coffee pot and declined. I’ve got to clean that thing some day. And maybe replace the cord.

“What brings you here, Mrs. Willows?”

“It’s my husband.”

Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go again. When I first got into this business, a couple guys I know who did the job warned me: It’s mostly about cheating spouses and paranoid bank clerks. Those seven cases I mentioned earlier? Six were worried about their cheating spouses. The other was a lost schnauzer, which I’d rather not get into.

But it wasn’t going to be one of those cheating spouse cases. She went on:

“He wants to kill me.”

I’d been sitting back, ready to hold her hand, to tell her she was imagining hubby’s infidelity. Now I sat forward in a hurry.

“What makes you say that?”

“All kinds of hints. He bought a gun.”

“Lots of men have guns.”

“Not Henry.”

“That’s your husband.”

“Yes. Henry always railed against guns. Said they were evil things. He’s always been a religious man, a man of peace. Now…”

Her voice never shook, but when she drew a deep breath, there was a quiver in it.

“Did you ask him why he bought the gun?”

“I did. And he told me it was for protection. So I asked him, protection from what? And he didn’t say. Mr. Delancey, there’s no more crime in our neighborhood than anywhere else. We’ve never had a threat, or vandalism, or anything.”

“Okay, so that’s unusual, him buying a gun. But why would he aim at you? Maybe there’s a coworker, or some guy at the local bar—“

“He doesn’t go to bars. He works at a bank, and gets along fine with everyone. No, no. He’s after me. And before you ask me again why, take a look at this.” 

She fished in her purse (not much inside—another point in her favor) and took out a slip of paper, folded once in the middle. The words were typewritten:

Buy gun

Note

Gone Thursdays for lunch

Back by one

“It’s a list of things to do,” she said. “I found it in my husband’s pants pocket, in the laundry. I need to put it back there, before he knows I saw it, but I had to show it to you.”

“Again, unusual. And I admit it looks like he’s out to get someone. But why you?”

“The last two items, Mr. Delancey. First, I am gone every Thursday for lunch. I have two friends I went to school with. We’re all married now, and treat ourselves to lunch. But we have things to do at home, so are never gone later than twelve-thirty.”

“And the last item?”

“Henry takes lunch from noon to one. He must be back to work by one.”

This was starting to add up.

“Have you said anything to the police?”

“No. I figured they’d laugh me out of the station.”

“You’re probably right. I know more than my share of cops, and they have a twisted sense of humor.”

“There’s one other thing you should know.”

“What’s that?”

“Well…lately Henry has been on about money. He says we should be doing better. I tell him we’re doing fine. I come from a fairly well-off family, Mr. Delancey, and when we got married, my papa gave us a nice sum to buy a house and settle down. I could ask him for more, if we really needed it, but Henry wouldn’t hear of it.”

“We men are funny that way.”

“In more than that way,” she replied, then looked down with a faint smile. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right, Mrs. Willows. You’ve got moxie. I like that. So go on about the money.”

“Well, Henry said that, if anything happened to us, we would be destitute, so he insisted we take our life insurance on each other. Ten thousand dollars.”

“That’s enough to bury and dig you up several times over.”

“It is.”

“So what do you want me to do? I’m no bodyguard.”

“I know that. I want you to dig into my husband’s affairs. Follow him around, see if he’s really up to no good. I pray there’s an innocent explanation to all this, and I want you to find it.”

Now this was more like it. No more following guys to seedy hotels to link up with their mistresses.

“I can do that. I need a few more things. Your address. Any kids. Your friends and relations, and his.”

“I don’t want you to bother them—“

“Not to bother them, unless I have to. But I need to know all about him.”

“Oh. My address is 2102 North Hargrove.”

“Not far from here.”

“It’s the main reason I picked you.”

“Flattering.”

She ignored that. “And we have no children. We talked about it when we got married, but he’s been so obsessed with money these days, it’s out of the question.”

“Fine. How do I contact you?”

“I’ll stop by every few days—“

“No good. I might be out, working for you. And what if I have something hot? I need a way to get a hold of you quickly. Do you have a telephone?”

“We do. Call during the day and Henry will be out. If you have to call evenings or weekends…” She was at a loss.

“If he answers, I’ll say I’m with Glenwood Plumbing, and I’m looking for business. He hangs up, and tells you, and you tell him you’ve gotten those calls before. Then you find the first chance to call me when he’s not around. Don’t do it while he’s home! He’ll catch on.”

“Yes. Henry isn’t stupid.” 

She started to get up and I did too, and then we both stopped.

“This means you’ll take my case?”

“On spec.”

She sat back down.

“What on earth does that mean?”

“It means, Mrs. Willows, that I’ll do some checking into it, and if it’s something I think I can handle, we discuss my rates; if it doesn’t work out, we walk away and you don’t owe me a dime.”

“That sounds fair,” she said, though I doubt she meant it. Then she smiled. A good smile, I thought: She should use it more.

We shook hands and I gave her one of my brand-new business cards (proud of those—the first batch, they misspelled my name. My first name: Tom) and she left.

End of the next day, I had made some preliminary inquiries, and was just ready to tell Mrs. Willows I would take the case, when who should walk in but Inspector Jacob Fenrow of the police. More on him later; for now, all you need to know is he’s a short guy built like a rock with a face to match. I don’t mean that to be nasty; he knows he’s no catch (yet he’s married to a stunner and I’m single. Go figure.).

Anyhow, Fenrow walked in and sat himself down like he was at home and I should serve him pot roast. He always does that. It was early, so he didn’t ask for a swig of my bottle. I keep a bootleg bottle in the drawer, and two glasses. Fenrow doesn’t report me for violating the Volstead Act and he gets a free drink now and again.

“What’s doing?” I asked him. “And I’m busy, by the way.”

“Not a social call,” he said. He talks kind of nasal, from a busted nose when he was a kid.

“Oh?”

He reached into his pocket and tossed a card at me. “This yours?”

I didn’t have to glance at it twice.

“That’s my name on it.”

Fenrow nodded. “When’d you get business cards?”

“Hey, this is a high class organization.”

“Hah! High class my Aunt Fanny. But no kidding. It’s yours?”

“Sure. And since I’ve only handed out one so far, I know who you got it from.” I was starting to get a bad feeling. “Mrs. Henry Willows. First name Beulah.”

“That’s her.”

“Is she dead?”

“Her? No. Her husband. She’s our prime suspect.”

 

 

So here’s the poop from Inspector Fenrow: After Mrs. Willows left my office, she went home and fixed supper as usual. She waited for her husband to come home. And waited. Around six, she called his office, and got no answer. She waited another hour, then ate her supper and read the paper. Then she went to bed.

But she couldn't sleep, and around ten-thirty or eleven, she called a taxi, got dressed, and went to his office. The lights were on and the door unlocked. She went inside and found her husband dead of a gunshot wound to the ticker. One well-placed bullet, fired from up close. She was kneeling at his side when the cops arrived.

There were no prints on the gun. Mrs. Willows was wearing gloves, as nice ladies do. I asked Fenrow about gunshot residue on her gloves, and he said “Nope, none”. I said that was strange and he said he thought so, too.

The police tracked down the cab company and verified she had called a taxi for that time.  So here’s what the police figured: Mr. Willows was working late. His wife took the streetcar to his office around six, shot him, then took the streetcar home. She ate supper and passed the night like she said, reading the paper. After a few hours, she called the cab, and made her “discovery”.

“And,” Inspector Fenrow said, “she and hubby took out life insurance policies with each other the beneficiaries. Says it was Mr. Willows’ idea, but we only have her word. Now. What can you tell me about this woman? Why’d she have your card?”

I told him everything, and ended, “I think she was telling me the truth.”

“You and the ladies,” Fenrow grumbled.

“It isn’t that.” I was plenty annoyed by his insinuation. The inspector things every single guy is a playboy. “She felt threatened by her husband.”

“So she shot him before he could kill her. Bingo.”

“Stop that. You and your ‘bingo’. I admit, the cops theory fits. But think about this: She’s cagey enough to shoot her husband without leaving any powder on her gloves, but she’s stupid enough to not have an alibi cooked up, other than being home alone with the newspaper. Besides which, I just don’t buy her as the murdering type.”

Fenrow sighed. “I hate to say it, but I agree with you.”

I picked up my telephone receiver. “Excuse me while I call the newspapers.”

“Oh, ha, ha,” he said derisively. “We agree sometimes. But let’s face it, Delancey: I need to follow the evidence, and the evidence points to Mrs. Willows.”

“Aren’t there any other suspects?”

“Well, that’s the second reason I came. Mr. Willows was just a bank clerk, but he was an up and coming young man. Boss—Mr. Hodgkins, the bank president—liked him a lot. And Mr. Hodgkins knows the mayor and the chief of police. If I don’t get an arrest quickly, and one that’ll stick, there’ll be hell to pay.”

“I can guess what’s coming.”

“You know how much I hate private detectives’ meddling. But in this case, I think it might be in order. Mrs. Willows is your client?”

“Not officially.”

“Then make it official. I mean, if you can set aside all the other clients.” He looked around for invisible clients, even under the desk. What a card he is. I ignored him.

“I had planned to take her on, anyway. Mrs. Willows seems like a nice lady. But I’ll need a little help from you.”

Fenrow arched an eyebrow. “What kind of help?” He’s very suspicious.

“I’ll need a rundown on Mr. Willows’ business contacts. I can get the names of personal acquaintances from his wife.”

 

So he told me who Willows worked with. It was a short list:

Emmanuel Hodgkins, the bank president. Fifty-eight years old. Worked his way up from clerk, which is probably why he took a shine to Willows: Saw himself in the young man. His liking for Willows, though, ended at the office. They never socialized.

Next was Andy Potter, Willows’ direct supervisor. 39. Head of the loan department. Persnickety cuss. Everything had to be done his way, and by the book. Willows mostly was on his good side, but everyone rubs Potter the wrong way on occasion. The day of Willows’ murder, they were on good terms. Didn’t socialize with Willows, either, because Potter has no social life.

Finally, there’s Miss Betsy Andrews. Miss Andrews, age 31, is Potter’s secretary, and therefore worked with Willows a lot. She typed up forms that Willows would proof. Attractive brunette, she has been married once, but the guy liked to shove her around, and she divorced him and took back her maiden name. Been suspicious of men ever since. Good at her job, no nonsense.

It didn’t seem like a promising slate of candidates. Now I had to find out about personal acquaintances, from Mrs. Willows.

 

As the cops didn’t have enough to arrest my client, Mrs. Willows was at home. I paid a call. The place was nice. Average neighborhood. Lots of young families, with little rascals running around, playing stickball in the streets and using garbage cans for drums.

The Willows’ apartment was a third floor walkup. The elevator worked, but I decided to stretch my legs. Besides, sometimes you can catch a glimpse of nosy neighbors on the way: Folks who might’ve heard or seen something. Not that day. I made it to the third floor without seeing a soul besides the street kids.

Rang the bell and waited. Mrs. Willows’ voice came at me from the other side.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Tom Delancey, Mrs. Willows.”

A pause, then the chain bolt slid back, the lock clicked, and the door opened.

Is it impolite to say she looked like hell? If so, I’ll dress it up: She looked like hades. Her eyes were bloodshot, her hair unbrushed, and clothes looked like she slept in them. The house was nearly as much of a mess. I picked my way over newspapers and heaps of clothing to get to the couch she offered.

“I can guess why you’re here,” she said, sitting opposite.

“Inspector Fenrow came to see me. I take it you’ve met?”

“I met the inspector,” she said. “A petty Napoleon.”

I had to laugh. Fenrow would hear about that one. “He’s good at his job.”

“I don’t doubt that. But imagine! Thinking I killed my husband.”

“In most murders, the killer is the spouse.”

“What are you, the Old Farmer’s Almanac? If I wanted statistics, I’d have…” She trailed off, put her head down. This whole thing was getting to her, and who could blame her?

“Look, Mrs. Willows. The inspector’s just doing his job.”

“But what’s my reason?”

“I could give you ten thousand reasons.”

“The insurance? But that was my husband’s idea!”

“Even if the police accept that—and it’s only your word—they could still make a case that you saw it as a good time to bump him off.”

“So what do we do?”

“Do?”

“Yes. Apparently, you’ve taken on my case, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“So I’ve taken on your case. And for the record, I don’t think you did it. Off the record, neither does the inspector.”

“But—“

“Like I said, the inspector has a job to do. Fenrow won’t admit it, but his instincts are usually right. So here’s what I need from you. That list of names of Mr. Willows’ acquaintances. I already have a list of his coworkers.” I took out my notebook. “Would you mind going over these names now?”

“I didn’t really know the people Henry worked with.”

“No need for you to have known them. Maybe he talked about ‘em after work? Let me run them by you.”

She sighed. “Okay. But would you like a drink first?”

“Coffee will be fine.”

As Mrs. Willows went to make the coffee, I looked over the place, trying hard to block out the clutter. It was nice. Nothing fancy, nothing real modern. But it showed taste, you know? The furniture was sturdy and cared for, the floors were polished, the rugs had no crazy designs on them. On the walls, there were four pictures, all prints of expensive art, all landscapes.

Mrs. Willows returned while the coffee was brewing.

“Okay,” I said. “First name. Emmanuel Hodgkins, the bank president.”

“Oh, Henry liked Mr. Hodgkins.”

“Was the feeling mutual?”

“I…think so. Yes. Definitely. Henry was not the type to kowtow, to like someone just because he was in charge. If you didn’t like him, there was no way he’d like you.”

“Some guys are different at work than they are at home.”

She shook her head firmly. “No. Not Henry. Not about that. Mr. Hodgkins must have liked him.”

“Fine. Can you remember any time at all when your husband was upset with the president?”

Mrs. Willows paused, then shook her head again. “I can’t think of any.”

“Fair enough. Next. Andy Potter, your husband’s direct supervisor.”

She made a face like sour apples. “Mr. Potter is an old fish.”

“Oh?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she added quickly. “Henry didn’t hate the man. But Mr. Potter was so cold. Whereas Mr. Hodgkins was polite and friendly, almost warm, Mr. Potter was just…not.”

“Got you. Any arguments between them?”

“No. Never. Mr. Potter was so cold, he just didn’t lose his temper. He just told Henry what to do, expected it to be done. If Henry worked extra on something, he got no thanks, if Henry was sick, he got no sympathy.”

“Right. Last, we have Miss Betsey Andrews, Mr. Potter’s secretary.”

“Henry didn’t talk much about her. He actually didn’t talk about any of them much, but especially not about her. I think,” here she giggled, “I think he was embarrassed.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because she is attractive. I met her once, when Henry and I were going out to lunch and he was running late. She’s polite and does her job well, I assume.”

“But why would her being attractive make your husband embarrassed?”

“Henry was never much for talking to women. I  approached him, at the party where we met. And ever since we got married, he’s even more awkward around pretty women, because, well, he thinks I’ll be jealous.”

“And would you? Be jealous?”

Here, she laughed out loud. “Of Henry? Heavens, no! We are—were—happy together. Oh, I don’t say there weren’t times when he got on my nerves and I got on his. But it was never anything severe. I read about those film stars—“ She nodded to one of those “true” film star magazines, lying on the coffee table “—and I wonder how anyone can be so unhappy in their marriage. The best antidote for jealousy is a happy marriage, Mr. Delancey.”

The coffee was done, and as we sipped, I went through the list of friends she’s made. There were four.

“Henry wasn’t much for making lots of friends,” she said.

She was about to give me details on the names when I said:

“Ma’am? When I first came in, you offered me a drink. Did you mean alcohol?”

“Sure. Do you want some?”

“You do know that stuff’s illegal?”

“A stupid law.”

“And constitutional.”

“Do you want some, or don’t you?”

“What’ve you got?”

Truth is, I didn’t really want a drink. I was on to something else. Mrs. Willows went to a nearby cabinet, some old piece of furniture that nobody knows what it was made for anymore. She opened a door and showed me a lineup of three bottles. Judging from the color, I’d say gin, whiskey, and brandy.

“Would you hand me that brandy bottle?” I asked.

She brought it over.

“I hope you’re not one of those who swigs right out of the bottle. If you are, we’ll have words.”

“Nah. I’m more interested in the bottle.”

There was a handmade label on it, a small square of white paper, fixed with glue. In block printing was BRANDY and in the lower right corner, real small, was C-5. I knew that designation. Handed the bottle back with my thanks.

“I don’t really want a drink. But can you tell me, do all three bottles have that C-5 on them?”

She looked a bit confused, checked the bottle in her hand, then went to the cabinet. A quick look brought back an affirmative.

“Mind if I ask where you got that booze?”

Mrs. Willows shut the cabinet and sat down before answering.

“Henry used to get it. From his friend, Ben Clark. That’s what the C is for on the bottle. Where Ben got it from is beyond me.”

I checked her list. Ben’s name was right on top. “Do you know this Ben personally?”

“Sure. He was Henry’s best man. They were chums since school.”

“Uh-huh. Well, either Ben was pulling his chum’s leg, or Mr. Willows was pulling yours. That C-5 has nothing to do with Ben Clark.”

She looked ready to slug me for suggesting her husband or his friend would lie. Then she calmed down and said:

“Then what does it have to do with, Mister Smarty-Britches?”

The way she put it was so flip, I was stunned. Then I grinned.

“Charlie’s, over on Fifth. Charlie runs three joints in town. Speakeasies. All with legit covers. One’s an ice cream parlor, one a restaurant, and one is a Christian mission house. That last one’s the one on Fifth. Charlie, or one of his flunkies, marks each bottle with a C for Charlie and 5 for Fifth, or S for the restaurant on Sycamore Avenue, or L for the ice cream parlor on Long Lane. It’s his way of keeping track of inventory. He’s very conscientious that way.”

“Why would Henry lie about such a thing? I wouldn’t have been angry with him if he’d told the truth.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions. Like I say, your husband may have just repeated what Clark told him.”

“That makes even less sense. Ben and Henry were old friends. There’d be no reason to lie.”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Willows. What I do know is, this is the first good sign I’ve had since this case started.”

“A good sign? What do you mean?”

“I mean, someone lying is always a good sign.”

I left not long after, with a guarantee I’d be in touch. I also took a photograph of the late Henry Willows. 

Charlie’s on Fifth. I’d been there more than once. It’s not a bad place for a speakeasy. You enter, and it’s your typical mission house, with folding chairs and a piano and a stage for the preacher. A long table on the side wall for coffee and doughnuts. A poster proclaiming Jesus as Lord.

It really is a mission house. Charlie lets the mission folks use it for free, out of the goodness of his heart, and in exchange, the good people of the mission don’t ask too many questions.

Anyhow, on any given night, there’s a burly fellow, who looks out of place, standing at a back door. He has a suit and tie, and would look more at home in Sing-Sing than at a mission. You go up to this guy and say, “I want to see the Light.” And he asks who’s calling on the Lord. You say, “A lost soul.” That’s the signal. He opens the door, which leads to a hall, which leads to another door, and finally to the speakeasy downstairs. Everything’s soundproofed like crazy, and it would take a better set of ears than mine to hear upstairs what’s going on below.

So I went to Charlie’s. 

I stopped first to pay a visit to Ben Clark, Mr. Willow’s best friend. Clark is fast-talking, and slick as three-inch ice. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, but I could see some might, if you get taken in easily.

Anyhow, Clark is a salesman, but has all kinds of ideas that some day he’ll be this rich Vanderbilt-type. “I have ideas” was all he kept saying. When I asked why he was still living in a cold water flat, he said, “No investors. I need capital!” Which I didn’t have.

I asked about his buddy, Henry Willows, and Clark’s face clouded over. He was sad to see his friend get killed, he said. They’d know each other for many years. “Henry was always a straight-arrow,” Clark said, by which I took to mean, Willows had both feet on the ground, and Clark was flying high.

Clark had no clue who’d bump off his best buddy, and just wanted to talk about his plans (which he wouldn’t share, but would have liked me to invest in). Since, I was fairly convinced he hadn’t murdered Willows, I left him to his schemes and headed for Charlie’s.

 

The mission wasn’t open yet. Faithful were laying out Bibles on the chairs. I got kind, sympathetic looks, which told me maybe I needed a shave. There was the guard at the door, and we went through the routine, and down I went.

The place was quiet. I called out a hello, and George, a big Negro barman, called back, “Hello yourself, and see how you like it.” George is a good egg. He recognized me and smiled.

“Mr. Delancey, sir. Not expectin’ anyone this time o’ day.” He was washing a few glasses.

“Not here for a drink, George. Though I wouldn’t say no to a beer.”

George grinned. He tapped the beer and set it before me. I paid my nickel and said:

“Is the boss in?”

“Mister Charlie? No, sir. Won’t be in till later. Long night last night. Had a raid.”

I had to chuckle. A raid normally means trouble for a speakeasy. But Charlie knows half the police force (including many at the top), and a telephone call comes well beforehand. Charlie has secret compartments, activated by gizmos I never could figure out, and viola! All the booze is gone in a second. When the cops arrive, all they find are coffee cups and folks playing pinochle. The setup works, but the whole rigmarole is a pain in the backside, and keeps Charlie up past his usual hours.

“Maybe you could help me then.”

“Oh, I don’t know, sir.”

I plunked down a dollar. George stared at the buck as if he’d never seen one before, then slipped it into his little white vest pocket.

“What d’ you want to know, Mr. Delancey?”

“I’d like to know if a certain fella ever came here.”

George’s face fell. He handed back the dollar.

“Now, you know the rules, sir. I can’t say who’s been here and who hasn’t.”

“Keep the money, George. This man’s dead.”

You could kind of see the gears spin behind that intelligent black face. George is sharper than most of his customers, which is why Charlie has him as his chief barkeep. Now, he was trying to figure if being dead waived a man’s right to privacy. Deciding it did, he said:

“Go ahead.”

“Name’s Henry Willows.”

“Names don’t mean much here, sir. What’d he look like?”

I handed him the photograph. George held it up to the bar light. All that time in dark rooms has sort of given old George the eyesight of a mole. He studied it, then handed it back.

“Came in here a few times.”

“To drink or to buy?”

“Some of both. He’d stay for a couple, then take a bottle ‘long with him.”

“Did he meet anyone here?”

“No, sir. Pretty much kept to himself. But I do recall…” George tapped the bar, to jog his memory. “Last time I saw him here, a week or so back. He was sitting in that corner yonder—“ A finger jab at the farthest corner of the room “—just like he always did. And another customer come in, and had a couple dollies with him.”

“Have you seen this new guy before?”

“No, sir. And I don’t know his name, so don’t ask, even if he is dead.”

“What’d he look like?”

“Gray hair. A little chunky. Maybe your height or a little shorter.”

“Gray hair? So he was older?”

“Older, yes. But not old, you know?”

“I do. Go on, George.”

“Well, sir, this man orders drinks for him and the dollies, and they sit right where you are now, and then the fella looks around. He wants a booth where the three of ‘em can cuddle, y’ know?”

I nodded.

“And that’s when he sees that Mister Whatsis you showed me the picture of. And this gray-haired guy, looked like his horse just come in fourth. I watched him, ‘cause it looked like there’d be trouble. Your dead fella, he stared at the man parked here, and for a bit they just looked at each other. Yes, sir…” And George went back to his glass washing.

“George!”

“Yes, sir?”

“What the hell happened?”

“Oh.” George sometimes loses the thread he was sewing on. No wonder: In the bar, he seldom gets a chance to finish a conversation. “Well, sir, there ain’t much more to it. After they stared at each other for a minute or two, the gray-haired guy, he just up and says thank you t’ me, and pays for his drinks, and he and the dollies leave.”

“And you’ve never seen any of them since?”

“No, sir.”

“Fine. Could you give me a better description of the gray-haired man?”

“Now, sir—“

“George, there’s a chance he bumped off Mr. Willows.”

He shook his head. “I don’t like this,” he muttered as he washed. He struck up a conversation with himself. “Not one bit. No, sir. I just serve drinks. Man’s got t’ make a livin’, and a fella with my skin can’t be too choosy. Mr. Charlie, he’s good t’ me. I can’t break no rules and make him mad. No, sir. Can’t do it.”

I stood, reached over to clap a hand on his shoulder. George jumped a little, like I’d hit him.

“Never mind, George. Thanks for the beer.”

 

When I got back to the office, Inspector Fenrow was waiting. He sat on the floor, outside my office door, checking his fingernails.

“Don’t you keep regular office hours?” he wanted to know.

“Tried it, but the most annoying people stopped by whenever they felt like it.”

I unlocked the door as the inspector struggled to his feet. We sat in my office, he refused coffee, and got down to business. Took a paper from his pocket, smoothed it out poorly, and handed it over.

“That,” he said, “was supposedly found in Mr. Willows’ pants pocket.”

“Supposedly?” I read the note, which went something like this:

Say a word and die

“Not very polite.” I handed it back. “Why supposedly?”

“Because Mrs. Willows was the one who brought it in. She was doing wash, she says, and found it.”

“And you don’t believe her.”

“What the hell can I believe? The note isn’t in her handwriting, but the expert says it was probably written with the left hand by a righty, to disguise it. So the upshot is, it could be anyone.”

“Including Mrs. Willows.”

He ignored that. “Have you made any progress?”

“Some.”

I told him about my trip to the speakeasy, leaving out the location—though Fenrow knows full well where all those joints are in the city.

“So all your source says,” Fenrow said, “is that it was some gray-haired guy. That fits a lot of men in this city.”

“I was lucky to get that much. Speakeasy folks aren’t keen on talking about their customers.”

“If the police applied a little pressure? Would he give more then?”

“Actually, he’d probably clam up. And lose his job.” Then I added, “But now you know Mr. Willows visited speakeasies sometimes.”

Fenrow made a rude noise. “So do half the men in town. I admit, the fact that Willows lied about one thing to his wife, might suggest other lies. But…” And he let his hands fall onto his thighs with a slap.

“Jacob,” I said, “let’s assume that note is the real thing. Doesn't that put a whole different light on it? Say Willows got that note. He’s afraid.”

“He should go to the cops.”

“Yeah, yeah. But not everyone has that idea. So let’s say he doesn’t. He buys a gun. Takes out insurance policies for both of them, because if he just takes one out for himself, it looks funny. Whoever it was, catches up to him, and kills him. Doesn’t that all fit?”

“Except for one thing. Motive. Everyone liked Willows. Or at least, they didn’t dislike him enough to kill him.”

“I got that worked out, too. Tell me about the bank president,” I said. “Hodgkins.”

The inspector could see where I was going with this, and said, “He’s an older guy. Respected in the community. Has a wife and three kids, all grown.”

“Which means he has gray hair. Having kids, I mean.”

“You have the worst opinion of domestic bliss, Delancey.”

“Go on. What else about Hodgkins?”

“Not much more to tell. He thought about running for US Senate last year, but didn’t. He and the missus like to go to charity functions and be seen at concerts and such…So your idea is, it was Hodgkins in the speakeasy with two girls young enough to be his daughters. He sees Willows, and decides his reputation is worth murder.”

“Right.”

Fenrow shook his head. “There’s a hole or two. Hodgkins is boss. Why wouldn’t he just bribe Willows to keep his trap shut? ‘Mr. Willows,’ he’d say, ‘there’s an opening in our Midtown branch for a vice president.’ Something like that.”

“Maybe Willows got greedy. Wanted payment for keeping quiet.”

The inspector sat back. Chewed on his lower lip. Never a good sign: Fenrow is quick and clever, but pondering is not his strong suit. If his reaction isn’t immediate, you might as well forget it.

“I admit, your theory is possible,” he said. “But how to prove it?”

“How were you going to prove Mrs. Willows did it?”

“We couldn’t, yet. That’s why she’s still walking around free.”

“Well,” I said, “I’d like to talk to the bank folks next. Do you think they’ll see me?”

“Probably. Willows was well-liked, and they want his killer caught. And I’ve got the funny feeling they don't think the police are doing such a hot job of it right now.”

“I’m sure they think as highly of the homicide boys as I do.”

Sarcasm is lost on that man.

 

I made an appointment to see the bank president, Mr. Hodgkins. Figured while we talked, I’d ask permission to see the others. Hodgkins’ secretary was polite, asked what this was about, and after a little delay, she came back to the telephone and said I could see the president that afternoon, around three.

So I took my notebook and hopped the streetcar to the bank at around two-forty. Arrived in plenty of time, waited in the nice little waiting room while the secretary (fifty, married, and good at her job) typed some letters. When three o’clock arrived, I waited some more. Hodgkins was running a little late, the secretary said, and would I have some coffee? I told her no thanks.

It was closer to quarter after when he popped out to shake my hand and apologize for keeping me waiting.

Emmanuel Hodgkins is tall, white-haired, and distinguished. He wears a pinky ring but no wedding band. His wife’s picture sits on the desk, and his office is large and tasteful. There’s a big round table with four chairs, and we sat there rather than at his desk, which I gave him high marks for. As someone who has a desk of his own, it can be handy for keeping a distance between you and the one your talking to. A table is much chummier.

“So you are investigating the death of Mr. Willows?” he asked.

“For Mrs. Willows, yes.” I figured, why not tell him who my client was? It might make him more prone to cooperate.

“The police aren’t making headway, then?”

“Well, they seem convinced it’s Mrs. Willows who plugged—shot—her husband. I’ve met her, and I don’t think she did.”

“You think I did?” he asked me, amused.

“Nope. But I don’t think you’re innocent, either.” I shrugged. “That’s called keeping an open mind.”

“So how do you come up with the real murderer?”

“Well, I ask questions.”

“Like where I was the night poor Mr. Willows was killed?”

“No again. See, it’s a pretty safe bet the police already asked you that, and if they weren’t happy with your answer, you’d be in hot water.”

“I suppose so.”

“Sure. Instead, I ask things like, who do you think killed him?”

“I’m sure I don’t know. He was well-liked, at least so far as I know. His work record was spotless. He had a bright future.”

“Anyone jealous of that?”

“Envious, you mean? The truth is, Mr. Delancey, I don’t know. Petty workplace disputes aren't brought to my attention, nor should they be. Unless it blows into something larger, I expect my supervisors to deal with it.”

“Ah. But what if one of the envious ones is a supervisor?”

Hodgkins suddenly grew serious. “Look. I liked young Willows, but I didn’t like him so much he was like a favored son. Any slights toward a supervisor in Willows’ favor would have been in the supervisor’s imagination only. I have my own life to lead.”

“What do you do, if I may ask? For fun?”

He was surprised by the question. I like that, taking my interviewee by surprise now and again. It’s when they show their true colors. Anyhow, Hodgkins settled down and said:

“My wife and I go to the theater, to plays and such. We’re not much for motion pictures. The audience is often so vulgar.”

“I agree. How about parties? With high society?”

“Of course. Many of those gatherings are more a duty than a pleasure, though. I’d much rather see Hamlet or some such.”

“I understand. Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Would you mind if I asked a few questions of your employees?”

“I don’t, but I won’t force them to answer. You’re not the police, after all.”

“No. I appreciate it. I’ll try not to get in the way.”

We shook hands and I left his office.

From the helpful secretary, I got directions to Willows’ department, where I could find Andrew Potter and Betsey Andrews.

Andrew Potter was every bit as cold as I was told. Even his hand was cold and wet. Reminded me of a date I had once with Emmy Jane Haversham. Man, holding her hand was like dancing with a mackerel. Anyhow, Potter had been warned to expect me, and we sat in his office.

The room was sparse as a jail cell. No personal touches, just filing cabinets, furniture, and a photograph of Mr. Hodgkins. Potter was round-shouldered and clean-shaven. His suit was nice and pressed, but not expensive, and he kept smoothing the top of his desk with his fingertips as if he couldn't believe all this was really his.

“I am not sure,” he began in a nasal voice, “how I can help you, Mr. Delancey. Mr. Willows and I weren’t particularly close.”

“Maybe not personally, but you worked with him every day, right? Saw him every day?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And it was your job to make sure things ran smoothly?”

“Yes.”

“Then you could tell me if there was ever any trouble with Mr. Willows. Between him and other employees, I mean.”

“The police asked me that.”

I was disappointed that the cops had beaten me to it, but I had to know.

“If you don’t mind answering it again?”

He frowned.

“Of course. The fact is, Mr. Willows was very popular in the bank. He was outgoing, friendly…really the last person you’d suspect might be murdered.”

I crossed my legs so Potter would know we weren't finished yet.

“Whoever killed Mr. Willows,” I began, “was let in to the bank after hours. That means he either knew the person and trusted him or her, or it was someone who had a key. I’ll handle the first group, his friends—“

“And his wife,” Potter put in.

I let him have that. “And his wife. From you, I need to know who had access to the building after hours.”

Potter didn’t like the question but I didn’t care. I just stared at him till he answered.

“The officers all have a key to their area. Mr. Hodgkins, of course, has a key to every location in the building.”

“Their area?”

“Yes. We have several entrances, and at night gates block off access to other areas. So the person would have had to have a key to this location.”

“And who has that?”

“Me.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.”

Cold as Potter was, I couldn’t picture him as a killer. And yet, who knows?

“What about Miss Andrews?” I asked.

“My secretary? No. She doesn’t have a key.”

“But he’d trust her to let her in.”

“Of course.”

I uncrossed my legs and started to stand, but Potter stopped me.

“Sir, if you’re suggesting Miss Andrews or I had anything to do with the death of Mr. Willows—“

“I’m just gathering facts, Mr. Potter.”

“Then gather this: Mr. Willows knew all sorts of people here at the bank, many from outside this department. As I said, he was an outgoing man. If someone from another department asked to be let in, and he knew the person, there is no reason to suspect Mr. Willows would not have done so.”

He was sort of prissy about it, but he had a point. Narrowing my search to his immediate coworkers and friends might be a big mistake.

 

But the logical thing was that Willows was killed by someone he was close to. I wasn’t ready to give up that angle.

My last stop at the bank was Miss Andrews’ desk. She wasn’t there, but I was told she’d just gone on her coffee break and would be back soon. I waited. The room that led to Mr. Potter’s office was small and plain. There was some mountain scene hanging on one wall, and nothing else. A window looked out on the street.

Miss Andrews came in. She was attractive, blond, buxom. Not really my type. Yeah, yeah, I hear you say. But it’s true. I prefer petite brunettes. Not that Betsey Andrews was bad looking. Just not for me. I remember Alice Porterfield, back in high school…but I digress.

Anyhow, she came in, looked startled, and then sat at her desk. I introduced myself and the reason for being there. Also added that Mr. Hodgkins had said okay to my bugging her for a bit. She forced a smile.

“Then I suppose I’ve no choice,” she said.

“Sweet talker. Anyhow, I’ll make it short, since we both have work to do.”

She sat back and waited.

“You worked closely with Mr. Willows?” I asked.

“I did.”

“What’d you think of him?”

“Nice. Hard worker. Wanted to make something of himself.”

“He step on any toes, on the way up the corporate ladder.”

“Him? Nah. Any offense taken was purely in the heads of other people.”

“Like what other people?”

She smiled. Not a bad smile. Couple crooked teeth, but nothing drastic.

“I didn’t say someone took offense. I only meant ‘if’. Fact is, I don’t know anybody who disliked Mr. Willows. That’s what I told the cops, that’s what I’ll tell you.”

“You think his wife did the deed?”

Miss Andrews shrugged. “How should I know? I never met the lady.”

“Did you think Mr. Willows attractive?”

Here, she laughed, and it wasn’t a happy laugh. “You think I wanted to fool around? Forget it. Love’s for suckers. Mr. Willows loved his wife, and he could have her. I wasn’t interested.”

“That’s right. You’re divorced.”

“You do your homework. What of it? You one of those who thinks divorce is a sin?”

“Not me. Especially if the guy treats his wife like dirt.”

I said that to get on her good side. It seemed to work.

“I’m no angel,” she admitted. “I like a good time. Who doesn’t? But why on earth would I want to stir up trouble with your average married man? Plenty of richer guys out there who’ll show a girl a good time and not expect anything in return.”

“I understand. But doesn’t it get lonely?”

“You mean, because I don’t get the crap beaten out of me every night? Oh, yeah, I miss that.”

It was odd, hearing all this, spoken so straightforward from a gal who was dressed smartly and worked in a bank office. Anyhow, I started to apologize for being so nosy, but she waved it off and asked if I had any more questions, because she had work to get to. I told her no, thanked her, and left.

 

When I have a complicated case like this (which hasn’t been often, I admit), I like to throw everything into the pot, then start sifting out the stuff that doesn’t work. I now had a pot-load of people and it was time to start sifting.

I went back to the speakeasy. My plan was to take George to the bank and have him see if he recognized the old geezer who spotted Willows that night. My money was on Hodgkins, but it could also be one of the other old men working at the bank. I saw plenty that day.

George didn’t want to do it. That was expected. I went to Charlie, his boss. Charlie’s a good guy, but he flinched when I asked permission for George to help. Especially when I mentioned police. He sat back, puffing on his cigar, and I could tell he was against the idea. Finally, I just said this would put a gold star next to his name in the cops’ book if he did it.

Charlie just laughed. “Like I need any gold stars!” More puffing. “Oh, what the hell. But keep my name out of it!”

I promised.

So, on a warm and humid morning, we met at the bank. At the last second George got cold feet.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” he argued, “walking into a big bank, a bunch of white faces staring at you like you want t’ rob ‘em.”

“Okay, okay. Tell you what. It’s almost lunchtime. We’ll sit on that bench—“ there’s a park across the street “—and watch folks go out for lunch. If you see him, you tell me.”

This was agreeable.

We sat on that bench for nearly an hour, listening to the birds go tweet-tweet. I twiddled my thumbs. George clucked his tongue (which can get really annoying after an hour). I laugh when people tell me how exciting my job must be. Ninety-eight percent of it is waiting.

People filtered in and out of the bank, and each time someone came or went, George looked hard. Like I said, his eyesight isn’t the best. Then came the moment of truth: A bunch of well-dressed people exited, and it was clear the execs were heading for lunch. One of them had to be our man. George stared, then gripped my arm. Hard.

“There!” he shouted, and I had to stop him from pointing.

 

Our plan was simple. I would lure our killer to my office with a letter. Said I had proof, but would keep my trap shut for a price. Fenrow would wait around a corner in the hallway. When our quarry arrived, we’d go into my office and the inspector would sneak into the outer office, to listen.

Fenrow didn’t believe George. Then he didn’t believe in my plan. But I can be pretty persuasive when I want to be. My argument was, “What do we have to lose?” Hard to fight logic like that.

First, though, we had to get a nibble from our killer. I sent the letter, and waited. Two days went by, and no reply. Finally, the phone rang.

“Mr. Delancey?”

“Yes. And you are—“

“No names. Meet me at the corner of—“

“Nope. My letter was clear. We meet in my office.”

“I don’t like that.”

“It’s my office, or I go to the police.”

A very long pause. Finally: “I won’t pay what you ask. Five thousand is out of the question.”

I’d deliberately made the request high.

“We can work out installments,” I said.

“No. Five thousand is just too much. One thousand. In installments. One hundred a month.”

This time, I paused, to give the impression I was thinking it over.

“You have the first hundred?”

“I do.”

“Okay. Bring it.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

That was too soon: Fenrow wasn’t there yet. I thought up a quick lie. “Make it half an hour. I have a client coming, and it’s too late to stop him. I’ll get rid of him fast as I can.”

The fib was accepted, and we agreed to half an hour.

I hung up and quick called Fenrow, who was just sitting down to pot roast, his favorite. He cursed, and I could hear his wife bawl him out for language, then Fenrow said he’d be over right away. It was key for him to arrive well before our killer, or he might be seen entering, and that would blow the whole deal.

The inspector made it by five minutes. He was still puffing from the stair climb when the elevator creaked to life. Fenrow went to a corner of the hall, and waited. The elevator clanked to a stop, and the gate opened. I was waiting.

“Good evening, Miss Andrews,” I said as she entered the outer office.

“I told you, no names,” she snapped.

Like I said before, Miss Andrews was attractive in her way, just the type George would refer to as a “dolly”.

“May I ask,” she said as we sat in my office, “how you found out…what you found out?”

In the bank, she’d been very open. Now, she was cautious. Too cautious: Fenrow needed to hear a confession, and prying one out of her might take some doing.

“You were seen at the speakeasy, a few weeks back.”

“What of it? Lots of people go there. Including Mr. Willows.” She was defiant, thinking she could talk me out of the blackmail.

“True enough. But Willows went alone. You were in the company of…well, you said no names.” I tried to arch an eyebrow, to show how cagey I was being. Fact is, I had no clue who that gray-haired gent was. All I knew was, it was not Emmanuel Hodgkins. George had glossed right over the bank president when he came out for lunch that day, but had recognized Miss Andrews as one of the “dollies”.

So I figured I could bluff Miss Andrews into thinking I knew who her escort had been. It worked. She blushed, and opened her purse.

“I’d hoped,” she said, “this wouldn’t be necessary.”

And she took out a pistol.

“Oh, please,” I said. “You’re going to shoot me? Then what?” I was stalling for Fenrow to pop in and make his arrest. There was no sign of him.

“Then,” she said, “I escape. There’s no evidence tying me to you. Your letter has been destroyed.”

“You think that’s the only evidence against you?” What the hell was taking Fenrow so long? “I’ve got notes. The cops will match the slug in me to the one in Mr. Willows, and the connection will be made. They’ll be on you in no time.”

“Then we’d better hurry up and get this over with.”

She cocked her pistol, and leveled it at my chest.

 

Next day.

Three of us in my office: Fenrow, Mrs. Willows, and me. We were drinking my awful coffee, and Fenrow and I were filling in my client about the case.

“Miss Andrews,” I said, “led a double life. She was a respectable bank secretary by day and a carouser by night. Mr. Hodgkins was always careful about the bank’s reputation. If it got out she was drinking and partying all night, well, there would go her job.”

“But you said Henry went to the speakeasy, too,” Mrs. Willows said.

“He did. But there’s two things at play here. First, your husband just had a couple of quiet drinks and left. No one would call him a fun boy. Second, well, let’s face it: Society has different ideas about appropriate behavior for men and for women.”

I turned to Fenrow.

“Has she confessed?”

He nodded. “Now she has. Clammed up at first, but once we matched the slug in Mr. Willows to her gun, she agreed to cooperate. To tell the truth, I think she’s just tired. She’s a tough cookie, but this had to wear on her.” He drank coffee, made a face, and went on:

“The day after your husband saw her at Charlie’s, he spoke to her at work, said she could buy his silence.”

She swallowed a little harder than usual. “With money, or…”

“Money,” he assured her. “He asked for a thousand dollars. When she argued with him—where would she get that money on a secretary’s salary—he told her to tap her gentleman friend.”

“Ah,” I said. “Who was her gentleman friend?”

“Sorry, Tom. We spoke with the guy, and he asked us not to tell anyone who he is. I agreed.”

“Fine.” I said, making sure he knew it was not fine.

“Why did the guy stare at Mr. Willows that night?”

“Funny thing about that. What really happened was, Miss Andrews spotted Mr. Willows, and she grabbed her escort’s arm tight. That made the guy look up and at Willows. Your bartender friend only saw that, not the initial look between Willows and Andrews. The escort didn’t know Mr. Willows at all.”

“You two are friends?” Mrs. Willows asked, out of the blue. 

Guess she saw how well we got along. We looked at each other, Jacob and I. Then I said, “Since kids. We grew up not three blocks from here.”

“I went into the police force,” Fenrow said, “and Tom…well, you can’t tell him nothing. He’d go off on his own after every crook, and get himself killed or drummed out of the force.”

“Back to the case,” I said. “Miss Andrews thought she’d try to trick your husband. She pretended she’d gone to see her sugar daddy for the money. The she told Mr. Willows her escort was going to send his men to get your husband. She even faked that threatening note you found.”

“That’s when he got nervous,” Fenrow said. “Took out the insurance policies.”

“And his complaints about money?” Mrs. Willows asked.

The inspector shrugged. “Our guess is, Mr. Willows was so spooked by the threats, he—“

“Hang on, Jacob. I know a few things you don’t.” I sat back, satisfied. “When I dug into those friends of Mr. Willows, I went to Ben Clark first. Sounds like he’s big into get rich quick schemes.”

Mrs. Willows rolled her eyes. “I’ll say!”

“Right. Well, he had an idea that was going to make him millions, but needed a thousand dollars to get started.”

“What big idea?”

“He wouldn’t tell me. Said I might steal it. Anyhow, I figured that was what your husband wanted the money for. Best friends are often gulled by one another.”

“You’re telling me! Ben’s not a bad person, but Henry could never see his friend wouldn’t amount to anything. He always believed Ben was one step from Easy Street.”

“Which could explain why Mr. Willows went back to Miss Andrews for the thousand, despite her threats.”

“That bugged Miss Andrews,” Fenrow said. “We figure maybe Mr. Willows saw through her, and called her bluff. That night your husband was killed, he really was working late. Miss Andrews came back to the office, pretending she’d forgotten something at her desk, and shot him.”

“Well,” I said, “that wraps it up. I’m sorry, Mrs. Willows, that I couldn’t protect your husband.”

She smiled. “There was no way you could have, it happened so fast.” She opened her purse. “Here’s a check that I hope will cover your fee. We never actually discussed it.”

I glanced at the check. It was fair, not generous. “Can you afford it? I mean—“

“I have some savings. And our attorney tells me I should receive that life insurance some day. Yes, I can afford it.”

“What’ll you do now?” Fenrow asked. He tried the coffee again, then remembered why he hadn't liked it the last time.

“Oh, I suppose I’ll find a job somewhere. Before Henry and I met, I took a few classes in shorthand and typing.”

Here’s where I blurted something out. Usually, I can hold my tongue, but sometimes not.

“Too bad I can barely make ends meet here. I could use a good secretary.”

Mrs. Willows smiled. “Yes, I’d have to insist on getting paid.”

“Mercenary.”

We laughed. Made me even sorrier I couldn’t afford her.

“Speaking of money,” said Fenrow, handing me another check, “the bank wanted to show its gratitude, too.”

This check was generous, but too bad: All it meant was I’d be more comfortable. Maybe could eat three squares a day. Hiring Mrs. Willows was out of the question.

We stood, and shook hands all around.

“Mrs. Willows,” I said, “don’t be a stranger.”

She smiled again. “Call me Beulah,” was all she said.

 


© Copyright 2018 dan kussart. All rights reserved.

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