Delancey and the Gardening Club

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


In this second installment of Delancey, the detective investigates shenanigans at a local gardening club

Submitted: June 26, 2018

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Submitted: June 26, 2018

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Case # 13 = June, 1925: Delancey and the Gardening Club

Every summer when we were kids, my sister and I would get shipped off to our grandparents’ farm, twenty miles away. At the time, it seemed like a trip to Mars, not just because it was so far, but because it was like entering a time machine.

Grandpa would send his farmhand, Ed, around with his horse-drawn wagon. We’d pile on the bench next to Ed and he’d tell the horses to “giddap”, and off we’d go, past fields to the old farm house. Long before we got there, you could smell the cows and manure, and fighting for it, a sweet smell of clover.

Our ma’s folks were nice. Grandpa was a big William McKinley man, and had a picture of the president over their mantel. When McKinley was shot, the print was draped in black ribbon. Grandma was one of those “fatten them up” types: No matter how much you ate, it was never enough. They both had deep belly laughs and faces browned by honest work.

Both grandparents were up at the crack of dawn to milk cows, and both went to bed at seven or so, which in summer is the shank of the evening for kids. Funny thing about my grandparents, though: You only protested once. One sharp look from Grandpa, and you never protested again.

Anyhow, the reason I bring this all up is that I was sitting in my office on a fine June day, wishing I could be at the ballpark, eating something bad for my health, when a knock comes on the door. I call for whoever it is to come in, because on a nice day like that I’m feeling lazy.

What whisked into my office, sent me back twenty years.

They were twins. No doubt. Two short, round women, around sixty or so, wearing Victorian clothes and Victorian manners. My Aunt Sarah had salt and pepper shakers like these two. Their whole air was like my grandfolks’, prim and proper Christians who believed in hard work and God.

“Mister Delancey?” asked one, a voice as sweet as you’d guess from looking at her.

“I’m Tom Delancey,” I said, standing. “Let me grab another chair.”

I brought around my second chair and the ladies sat. Each removed her lace gloves like it was synchronized, and placed them in her lap. Each looked up at me through her wire eyeglasses and smiled. The one who’d spoken first (I think) said:

“Mr. Delancey, we understand you investigate strange things.”

“Well, I don’t know how strange some of my cases are,” I began. Then I saw they were ready to leave again, and said, “but it doesn’t much matter to me whether a case is or isn’t odd. Why don’t you tell me what the trouble is, and I might help you?”

I tried to lay it on thick, and maybe overdid it.

“We don’t hold with nonsense,” said the spokeswoman. “If you can help us, fine. If not, well, we shall be off.”

Just like grandma. No falderal with her. You said what you meant and had done with it. So I adjusted my ways a bit.

“Fine. I’ll take any paying job as long as it isn’t illegal or immoral.”

The spokeswoman smiled. “That is good. My name is Yvonne, and this is my sister Yvette. Our surname is Glonkowsky.” She said it with pride, but I could tell it griped her to be saddled with that moniker.

“Very good,” I said, jotting it down. “Is that with a Y or an I at the end?”

“A Y,” Yvonne said, pleased I was taking an interest.

“And what’s the trouble?”

It was the strangest thing. Yvonne cleared her throat, but then Yvette told the story. It was like they shared phlegm.

“For twenty years, we have belonged to a gardening club.”

(Of course you have, I thought, but didn’t say)

“We meet twice per month, to discuss gardening tips and so on. Then we play bridge.”

“Are you a bridge player, Mr. Delancey?” asked Yvonne.

“More of a cribbage man, myself.”

“Cribbage?”

Yvette clued her in. “It’s that dreadful game with a wooden board, dear. The one Uncle Henry used to play while inebriated.”

Yvonne nodded gravely, as if I’d admitted to devil worship.

“Please go on,” I said.

“We are a small club,” Yvette said. “There are eight of us, all told. But we are most dedicated.”

“Except for Richard,” her sister reminded her.

“I was coming to that, dear. Richard Corcoran is our group president. He is of the finest family.”

“Any relation to the Corcoran’s who own the foundry?”

“He is a cousin to the president. At any rate, Richard is still dedicated to our group, and attends meetings each and every time. However, I will admit, his mind has been elsewhere of late, as he writes his family history.”

“Is he the one you want me to investigate?”

“Heavens no! Richard has never done a strange thing in his life.”

“He did marry that flapper person,” Yvonne reminded her.

“She bewitched him,” said Yvette. “And thank heavens the whole thing was annulled. No, Mr. Delancey. We want you to investigate another of our group. James Periwinkle is his name.”

“Of course it is,” I blurted out, then apologized. “Sorry. Periwinkle,” I repeated, writing it down. “What’s going on with him?”

“It began last Tuesday, when we were to have our regular meeting. James never misses a meeting.”

“Never,” repeated her twin.

“Why, the day after his mother died of Spanish influenza, he was at the meeting, and gave a most stirring talk on tomato rot.”

“That’s dedication,” I said.

“It is,” Yvette smiled. “At any rate, James failed to come to our meeting. We all thought it odd, and Richard accompanied us to his home, to see if he was perhaps taken ill.”

“How old would you say this fellow Periwinkle is?” I asked.

They looked at each other, nodded, and said “Forty” at the same time. Uncanny.

“But he goes to these meetings?” I asked. “Are they at night or on the weekends? Or doesn’t he work?”

“James writes features for the ‘Gardening Times’, a well-known gardening periodical,” Yvette told me. “He is highly respected, and does all his work from home.”

“Gotcha. Please go on.”

“Well, we knocked and rang the bell, and there was no answer. The drapes were drawn, and Richard tried to peep in a window, but the one little opening showed him nothing.”

“I take it Mr. Periwinkle has a telephone.”

“He does. Richard tried that, too, but there was no answer.”

“Have you gone to the police?”

“We wanted to, but Richard suggested they wouldn't do anything. He’s been rather hesitant to trust police since that unfortunate incident at the mission house. It turned out to be a…a front, he called it, for a speakeasy!”

“Imagine.”

“Yes! Well, poor Richard had a dickens of a time convincing the police he was there to help pass out food for the unfortunate. He’s very conscious of his Christian duty.”

“I’ll bet. I mean, I’m sure he is. Anyhow, your friend is probably right. The police would probably take down the information, but they'd sit on it until much more time passed.”

Yvonne spoke. “Our neighbor said you do some investigative work. She suggested we hire you, to find out what has happened to James.”

“She?”

“Mrs. Willows. She says you helped with the death of her husband.”

“Ah. Yeah, I remember. Good to know she was impressed.”

“She was. At any rate, she thought you might be able to find out what happened to James.”

“He could just be out of town. Does he ever go to the offices of that magazine?”

“The ‘Gardening Times’?” Again, they looked at each other. Yvette went back to speaking. “No. They are headquartered in Cleveland.”

“Ohio,” her sister said.

“Yes. And James never wanted to travel that far.”

An idea struck me.

“I assume James has his own garden?”

“Of course.”

“And would never leave home without making sure someone took care of it?”

“Oh, he would never entrust—why! How clever of you, Mr. Delancey!” To her twin: “We must see the condition of James’ garden. You know how meticulously he was about tending it. If it’s the least bit disturbed—“

“—we’ll know something is wrong! Mr. Delancey, you are every bit as acute as Mrs. Willows said. Let’s go over there right now.”

“Mind if I tag along?” I asked. “Just in case there’s any trouble?”

They looked a little put out, then realized what a help I’d been and smiled.

Off we went. The sisters Glonkowsky did not take the streetcar, but hired a cab to take them here and there. We piled in and the old flivver took off with a puff of smoke and a bang. The streetcar would’ve been more genteel, but it’s their money.

James Periwinkle lived in a nice, quiet neighborhood. Houses weren’t large, but everything from chimney to lawn was well tended. There was a small stone fence that was more for looks than security, and a black iron gate that swung open without a sound. I started up to the door, but the sisters made a bee-line for the back.

There was a good sized garden, with flowers I don't know the names of. It looked pretty well tended to me, but not so much to the twins.

“Oh, I knew it!” cried one of them. “James would never have left this in such a disgrace!”

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

“What’s wrong! Why, just look at this. Do you see those weeds?”

She pointed a lace-gloved finger at a microscopic patch of green.

“How could I have missed it?” I asked.

“You’re not a gardener, as we are.”

“So it’s your opinion Mr. Periwinkle is in trouble?”

“Oh, without a doubt.” The ladies nodded in unison.

I looked at the house. Buttoned up tight. Drapes drawn, as they’d said. I walked up to the back door and knocked. No answer.

“Will you have to scale the wall and climb through a window?” one of the twins asked, a bit excited by the idea.

“Let’s try the obvious first.”

I turned the knob, and sure enough, the door opened. When I turned back to the ladies, they shrugged and said:

“We never tried the back door.”

I stepped in an called hello. No reply.

“Stay here,” I commanded.

“We will not. James is our friend.”

“Fine. But keep back.”

They obeyed, but only just. I could hear the rustle of their petticoats as they swished along behind me.

We were in a kitchen. Neat, though small. Perfect for a bachelor. I called hello again, which brought peeps from the ladies, who weren’t expecting it. No answer.

This process was repeated as we checked the parlor, the hall closet (just in case he was hanging there), and a den. All very tidy, and all deserted. Occasionally, I’d call Periwinkle’s name. I was actually glad the Misses Glonkowsky were with me. What if Periwinkle was there, hiding with a rifle? He might mistake me for a burglar and plug me. Yeah, I know, burglars don’t call hello, but I’ve seen dumber things done by frightened folks.

The cellar would be last, I decided. For now, it was upstairs. I called Periwinkle’s name again, then started up. The banister was one of those fancy mahogany jobs that gleam in the sun, only now there was a thin layer of dust. I hadn’t noticed that on the other furniture. Later, I’d check, and the dust was everywhere, just not as noticeable.

When we reached the top landing, I called once more and listened harder than before: If he was sick in bed, now would be the time I’d hear a groan. Nope.

There were four doors, all shut. I opened the first and found a bathroom with some pretty fancy fixtures. The twins had been quiet up till now, when they admired the gentleman’s taste in plumbing. I hissed at them to keep still, though to be honest, I don’t know why: I’d been bellowing the guy’s name for ten minutes or more. Anyhow, they shut up and we went to the next door.

This was Mr. Periwinkle’s bedroom. How do I know? Well, it was pretty big, it had fine furnishings, it had a man’s suit hanging from one of those frames fancy men use. But mostly, it was because the dead man himself was lying on the bed.

His eyes were open, and the dried foam on his mouth showed he hadn’t died peaceful. As we stood in the doorway, the first whiff of decomposition met our noses, and I quick shut the door again.

“Come with me,” I commanded in a tone that made them pay attention.

Back in the den, where I’d seen the telephone, I placed a call to Inspector Fenrow. The twins sat on the leather sofa, struck dumb for once. Took a while, but I got the inspector, and explained. He and a few cops would be right over, he said, and don’t touch anything—which I thought was pretty low of him. He knows I know better. Of course, I’d already touched doorknobs and the telephone, not to mention the banister and maybe a table.

Didn’t take too long, and they arrived. It was plenty hot in the house, and I’d switched on a fan (with my hanky) to cool us down while we waited. Fenrow was already hot under the collar when he arrived.

“What’s with you, Delancey? You used to be about adultery and the odd burglary. Now it’s nothing but murders.”

“That’s not fair, inspector. This only makes two. How many have you investigated?”

“Never mind. Give me the poop.”

Just then the medical boys showed up.

“Top of the stairs, second door on your right,” I told them. “And wear your masks. He’s been dead a while.”

Back to the inspector, I laid it all out for him. Fenrow’s a good listener, as long as I don't get too cute—and I try not to, when there’s a dead body involved. When I finished, he nodded and stood up. Wiped his brow.

“Well,” he announced, “I don’t see any reason to keep you three. Ladies, could I have your address? Do you have a telephone?”

“We don’t,” sniffed one. “But our address is 37 Cross Street.”

“Fine. I’ll be in touch.” To me: “You, I know where to find. No wait. Hang on. Ladies, you can go.”

When they’d been ushered out, I sat down with Jacob.

“Those two ladies your clients?” he asked.

“Probably not anymore. They hired me to find James Periwinkle, and I did. Not exactly in the state they wanted, but there you go.”

Fenrow opened his mouth again, but just then the coroner popped in. Doc Platt is an okay fellow, though he likes his job of cutting up cadavers a little too much, you know what I mean? Anyhow, he’s tall and thin and looks like a transfusion wouldn’t do him no harm. He curled a finger at the inspector, who went over. A few muttered words. Doc nodded and left, Fenrow sat back down.

“Cyanide?” I asked.

“How the hell did you know?”

“It’s why I called you. I had a pretty good idea. Skin purplish, looks like he died in some pain—“

“You’re a regular Encyclopedia Brit-whatsis.”

“I read.”

“Yeah. Pulp magazines.”

“Hey! Some of those stories are well-researched.”

“Anyhow,” he said, ignoring the strong defense of my favorite reading, “the doc says it’s a safe bet, though of course he’ll do an autopsy to make sure.”

“Ideas of how he took it in?”

“There’s a glass by his bed. The glass is empty, but we can analyze it. Probably how he got it.”

“So…suicide, you think?”

“Maybe, but there’s no note. We’ll have to ask people he knew, if he was depressed. But murder looks iffy, too. How does someone get into his bedroom, to slip poison in his drink?”

“He might’ve taken some pill before bedtime. My Aunt Gertrude took Oil of Pomegranate—“

“I’m happy for her. For now, I just wanted to know if you’d be under my feet on this case. Since you’ve got no client anymore, I assume not.”

“Not unless the twins want me to find the murderer. Can’t count on the cops, you know.”

I do this just to needle him. He tends to ignore it.

 

Back at my office, I settled in. The day was almost over, and it was tempting to call it quits, but when business is pokey like mine is, you need to keep regular hours. No sense missing a client just so I can leave ten minutes early. Besides, I could sweat just as easy at the office as home.

Good thing I stayed. Not that she wouldn’t have found me at home, but who knows for sure?

There was a knock, and soon Mrs. Beulah Willows herself came into my office.

“Mrs. Willows. Come in.”

“Call me Beulah,” she reminded me. She sat, and for a second it looked like she’d just come in to admire my decor. Finally, she said, “I understand you helped the Misses Glonkowsky.”

“Not a whole lot, I’m afraid. Found their missing chum, but he’s dead.”

“Yes, I heard. For some time.”

I shrugged. “With this heat, it could’ve been a long time or a short time.”

“But he didn’t attend their gardening club meeting,” she reminded me. “Last Tuesday.”

“That’s right. I probably should tell the inspector that. So what brings you here? Not that I mind the company. Will you take a drink?”

“What’ve you got?”

“Brandy or brandy.”

“I’ll take the first one.”

I took out my bottle and poured two glasses. Handed her one and took a sip from the other. She cradled it for a time, then brought up her reason for being there.

“Mr. Delancey—“

“Just Delancey will do.”

“Right. I think you should hire me as your assistant.”

Okay, I wasn’t expecting that.

“I don’t know,” I said. Not trying to be coy. There were some good reasons. “I like you, Beulah. You’re a good egg, we get along, and I think we’d have some laughs.”

“And you could use the help.”

“And I could use the help,” I agreed. “But there’s a hitch, and it’s the same as before. I can’t afford an assistant. Yes, the business is doing a little better. Word got out, I helped find your husband’s killer, and that was good publicity for me. But all it really means is, I can eat on a regular basis, and I have my own place again. You’re shaking your head. What gives?”

“What I’m trying to tell you is, I can work for very little. Do you remember that life insurance policy my husband took out before he was murdered?”

“For ten grand. Yeah.”

“Well, the insurance company finally decided to agree with the police, that I didn’t kill my husband, and I can have the money. So I don’t need a lot from you. Actually, I don’t need anything, but I don’t want you to get the idea I come cheap.”

“Now who would think that? So you want to come work here.”

“Yes. On a provisional basis. We give it a month or so, just to see if we can work together without tearing each other’s hair. If we can, then I stay on, and if the business gets better, you start to pay me better.”

I chewed this around. So many positives. But I did hate to take advantage of Beulah.

“One question,” I said. “Why do you want to come work for me? My devil-may-care charm?”

She laughed a little too hard. Nearly choked on her brandy, to be honest.

“No, no! The truth is, I’m bored. I was bored before, when Henry was alive, but at least I had things to do. Make his meals, iron his shirts, and so on. Now, it’s just me.”

“You know, this is hardly the most exciting life. Most of it’s proving adultery or finding lost family members.”

“But it’s something different. It gets me out and doing something. So what do you say, Delancey? Have we a deal?”

I waited just a second or two. Then I stuck out my hand. “Deal.”

 

Next morning, I found Beulah waiting outside the office. She said something about maybe I should try keeping regular business hours, but I forget what it was, now.

Right after unlocking the door, Beulah set to work, to straighten her reception area. It was dusty and there were some papers and junk left over from the previous tenant. I went to my office, to sit. Not for long, though: A voice outside, a greeting, and the sisters Glonkowsky entered. They took chairs, and I asked what they wanted (politely, politely).

“We told our gardening club how very clever you were, about James’ untended garden and then finding his…his body, and knowing what to do.”

“Brilliant,” the other twin put in.

From the reception area came an impolite coughing. I ignored it.

“Thanks. But if you’re here to pay, I don’t expect any—“

“No, no,” said the first sister. “We—the gardening club—want to hire you.”

“To find James’ killer,” said the other.

You know, this business with telling you one twin or the other said this or that is getting old. From now on, I’ll just call one Yvonne and one Yvette and figure I’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of being right, okay?

“Ladies, the police can probably find Mr. Periwinkle’s murderer a lot faster than I could. Why not let ‘em do their job?”

“Don’t you need the money?” Yvonne asked.

“Sure. But—“

“Then it’s settled.”

“The others,” Yvette said, “would like to meet you.”

I rubbed my chin. “Well, if I’m going to take your case—and I don’t say I will—I have to meet them, anyway.”

“Excellent!” Yvonne said. “Can you be at Richard Corcoran’s house at ten this morning?”

It was close to nine.

“Yeah, I guess so. What’s the address?”

“237 Highland Avenue.”

“Got it.”

“By the way,” Yvette said, leaning in. “I see you’ve hired that darling Mrs. Willows.”

“On a we’ll-see basis, yes.”

“She’s a fine woman.”

“Maybe in the wrong line of work, then,” I said.

They gave me a vacant stare, then decided I’d made a funny, and tittered like those chickadees outside my window at dawn in summer.

The sisters left, and I started to fix my tie and suit. They needed a pressing, but there was no time for that now. Beulah popped in.

“First big case!” she said. “Good for you.” She picked lint off my shoulder.

“You don’t count your case as a big one? You could’ve been in prison for life.”

“Nah. I knew I was innocent.”

“Listen,” I said. “While I’m out, you could do a few errands.”

“I am not picking up your laundry.”

“Who asked you to? I’ll have you know, I’m a pretty fair hand with the washing.” Before she could snap off a reply, I said, “Anyhow, I want you to go to the newsstand and buy a copy of the Gardening Times. That’s the magazine James Periwinkle wrote for. And while you’re at it, see if the July issue of Jake Sharpe—Detective is there.” I handed her a buck and a key. “And then get a duplicate office key made for yourself.”

Beulah smiled and said, “Sure thing, Delancey.”

 

I hopped the streetcar to Highland Avenue, which is a pretty ritzy part of town. Not top of the heap, but close enough to see it. Took me two switches of cars to get there, and I just made it by ten. 237 was three stories, brick, and a bit drab. Even the bright sun, on another warm day, didn’t perk it up any. I knocked.

Took a couple minutes, and another knock, before someone answered. He was a doddering old coot, with a white mustache and hair to match. Made me feel good when I saw his suit was as wrinkled as mine. Anyhow, it was a butler named Clive, who told me to follow him. He led the way, very slowly, to a sitting room. That room was bigger than my apartment by a good shot.

“Ah! Mr. Delancey, I presume?” That was from a dapper gent with eyeglasses and a cravat. He was maybe sixty, about the same age as his butler, but he had ten times the energy. “I’m Richard Corcoran,” said the gentleman. “Come in and have a seat. Would you like coffee? Or maybe a little peach cobbler?”

The layout they had, of coffee cups and pot, a silver tray with sandwiches and dessert, was impressive.

“No thanks. And this is the group?”

“It is. Let me introduce you. You know the Misses Glonkowsky. Next to Yvette is Miss Olivia Johnson, then Mr. Jonathan Schroeder, and Fred and Winnie McGraw.”

I nodded to each one in turn, and they nodded back. Then I took a seat.

“We want to hire you to catch James’ killer,” Mr. Corcoran began. “We’re quite willing to pay.”

“Fine. But first I need to know a few things. Even if I don’t take your case, I promise all this is confidential.”

No objections, so I went on.

“I know Mr. Periwinkle wrote articles for a magazine. What else can you tell me about him?”

“He was an atrocious bridge player,” said Jonathan Schroeder. He was a bit prissy, so well-dressed it made my back hurt. Around forty, slick black hair, pinky ring. Talked like he wanted to come from Oxford but didn’t have the smarts.

“That’s right,” I remembered. “You play bridge at your meetings.”

“Perhaps,” said the club president, “I should describe our normal club meeting.”

“Go ahead.”

“Each of us has our own speciality when it comes to gardening. I dote on roses. Olivia likes orchids. Jonathan, fruit-bearing trees and bushes. Fred and Winnie are expert at arranging garden beds and presentation of flowers in vases. The Misses Glonkowsky grow African violets and similar plants that need strong attention.”

“I see. And Mr. Periwinkle?”

“James was well-versed in practically every aspect of gardening. He was not an expert in roses as I am, for example, or Olivia in orchids, but he knew a good deal about them.”

“A jack of all trades.”

“Precisely. At any rate, every meeting, one of us gives a talk about our speciality. The talk generally takes half an hour or so. After, we have refreshments, and play bridge. It quite takes up an afternoon.”

“And last meeting, James wasn’t there,” I said.

“No, sir. I telephoned, got no answer, and assumed he had automobile trouble. He doted on automobiles. Owned three of them.”

“Shouldn’t you be writing this down?” That was Olivia Johnson. She was around fifty, round face, a little on the thin side, which made her head seem to big, and she had a matter-of-fact way of talking.

I patted my breast pocket and smiled. “I have a pencil and notepad if I need it. For now, I just want to hear general comments. So let’s get back to the victim. Did all of you like James?”

Everyone looked at everyone else, and I watched them carefully. Corcoran finally spoke.

“We all get along fairly well, Mr. Delancey. I think we all agree, James could be a bit…haughty, because he wrote professionally about something we just did as a pastime, but I cannot say any of us hated him.”

There were mutterings of agreement. I turned to the McGraws.

“Haven’t heard from you two, yet. I suppose you were always partners in the bridge games?”

Fred McGraw is around thirty-five, tanned, fit, and crewcut. He’s on the short side, and square built. He was dressed the most casually, with an open shirt and plain slacks. His wife is attractive, dark-haired, and petite. She wore a plain cotton dress, and had a rock on her finger the size of Detroit.

“No, sir,” said Fred. “We always draw cards to see who plays with whom.”

“I see. Now this is for everyone here. Not a one of you are old enough to be retired. How is it you can come to gardening club during the day?”

“That’s rather personal,” Schroeder snapped.

“Humor me.”

President Corcoran chuckled. “Why not, Jonathan?” To me: “All of us have a source of wealth, Mr. Delancey. Olivia’s parents died in an airplane crash, leaving her a fortune. Jonathan owns a successful clothing concern. Fred is a famous contractor. I am heir to the Corcoran fortune, and the Glonkowsky sisters are astute investors. In fact—“ He looked around the room for verification “—James was the only one of us who truly had to work for a living.”

“Which made it all the more ironic,” Olivia said, “that he lorded it over us, about his writing.”

“What else can you tell me about him?” I asked. There was a long pause, and I prompted, “Anyone?”

“You must understand,” said Corcoran, “how we operate here. During our meetings, as we have refreshments or play bridge, we talk about all sorts of things. We can be as personal or as impersonal as we wish. James preferred to keep his private life, private. None of us thought anything of it, I should say.”

“I’m the same way,” Schroeder said. “It’s nobody’s business who my friends are and so on. We respect each other’s privacy.”

I switched angles. “Do you always meet here?”

“It works best,” Fred McGraw nodded. “Richard’s got the most room. But whoever gives the talk, brings the refreshments.”

“Which are…?”

He shrugged. “Some dessert. Pie. Cake. Anything like that. And coffee.”

“James didn’t have any allergies you know of?”

“None of us do.” His wife cleared her throat, and I thought she might actually speak, but he did it for her. “Oh. My wife breaks out with strawberries. Otherwise no.”

“Do any of you socialize outside the club?”

I like to jump around with my questions. Keeps people on their toes.

“Sometimes,” Corcoran said, “I host a dinner party.”

“Otherwise no,” Fred repeated.

“So how did you meet, then?”

“That was us,” Yvonne said, beaming. “Sister and I love gardening, and we placed an advertisement in the newspaper. I remember it clearly: ‘Anyone interested in starting a garden club, to share ideas, please inquire…’ My sister wrote that.”

She smiled proudly, as if Yvette had pounded out War and Peace.

“A good dozen people responded,” Yvette put in. “But we wanted a group who would get along. So it was trimmed to eight.”

“Then we found out many of us played bridge,” smiled her sister. “We taught those who didn’t know—James and Winnie—and added it to our meetings.”

“Great. Now I have one final question. Do any of you know a reason Mr. Periwinkle would take his own life?”

 A brief pause, then all of them laughed.

“James,” said Olivia, “was the least likely of us to end it all. With his ego, no worry would have been so all-consuming.”

“An accident, I could see,” Mr. McGraw said. “James could be careless.”

“Yes, I would agree with that,” Schroeder put in.

“Fine. Well,” I said, standing, “I’ll take your case. I’ll send over a fee agreement tomorrow. Oh. And I’ll need a retainer. Any of you have a buck?”

They were offended I’d even ask.

 

Back at the office.

Beulah had returned. The magazines were on the desk, along with my key.

“Where’s my change?” I called.

“I stopped for a soda.”

God will forgive what I muttered. Anyhow, I called Beulah in and asked her to sit. She brought her notepad. Very professional. Anyone would have thought we were a real office.

I told her I’d accepted the case, and what we would charge. I gave her the dollar and said to subtract it from the club’s final invoice. Again, all very professional. She promised she would get the letter typed up right away.

“Typed?” I asked.

“Sure. I brought my own typewriter from home. Delancey, you can’t have everything handwritten. For one thing, I’ve seen your scribbling. I couldn’t tell whether you’d found Mrs. Jennings’ poodle or done something to her that would’ve got you arrested.”

“Yeah, fine. Thanks for bringing the typewriter.”

“You’re paying for the ribbons and paper.”

“Of course.”

This arrangement was costing me more than I’d expected. But maybe I could make a fair sum from the club and help pay for it.

“Oh,” she said, almost out of the room, “I called Mr. Periwinkle’s magazine editor.”

“You what? That’s in Cleveland! Ohio! Who the hell’s going to pay for that?”

“Our clients?”

“Yes, now. But we didn’t have clients when you telephoned.”

She sat back down.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Delancey. I know you’re the detective, you’re the boss. I don’t argue that. But I have brains, too. And if all I’m going to do is sit at my desk and type letters and file my nails, you might as well hire some ditz off the streets. I won’t go on my own initiative often, but when I have an idea, and you’re not around, I’m going to pursue it. If you don’t like that, then maybe we call it a day.”

“Fine.” Then, I figured I wasn’t clear. “I mean, fine what you said. Sorry I flew off the handle. But money’s still pretty tight—“

“I get it, Delancey. I’m sorry, too. Are we all square, then?”

“All square.”

“Good, because I also ordered a telephone extension for my office.”

Man, she really boils my oysters sometimes.

This time, though, it made perfect sense. She could answer the telephone and tell me who it was. I kind of liked the idea.

“All right,” I said, keeping my voice even. “What did the editor tell you?”

“Wait, wait. Let me tell you our whole conversation.” She flipped her notepad pages forward. “I told him we were investigating the death of James Periwinkle, and he was shocked, but not completely. Said James had promised to call him last Thursday, and when there was no call, he wondered about it, because Periwinkle didn’t usually do that. Figured there had to be something seriously wrong. He asked if I was police, and I said no, but that we were working with the police.”

“You lied.” Like I’d never done that to the cops.

“Nope. Let’s face it, Delancey. You take this case, the police will be here often enough.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“I asked what Periwinkle was like, and he—Mr. Gross, that’s the editor’s name, Kenneth Gross—he said Periwinkle was an excellent writer, and their top columnist. And then he said something I found interesting. He said—I made coffee if you’d like some.”

I took her up on that, and her coffee already made me forget the money she’d cost me that morning.

“Anyway, Mr. Gross said the magazine is changing its title and format.”

“Oh? How so?”

“In a few months, it’ll be called The Gardening Life, and instead of articles about how to cure root rot and aphids, there’ll be stories about gardeners and what they’ve done with their gardens, and so on. More of the personal angle. Complete with photographs! High class all the way.”

“So would James Periwinkle have stayed working for the new magazine?”

“Not just that. He would have been their feature writer.”

“He hit the big time.”

“I guess so. And this is what I found most interesting: His first article for the new magazine, the story Periwinkle was working on when he died, was entitled ‘What Lies Beneath?’. And it was supposed to be a steamy tale of an innocent garden club.”

“Based on real life?”

“That’s what the editor said Periwinkle told him.” She grinned.

“Suddenly, everyone in our whole blamed garden club has a motive.”

“Just as I thought.” That wasn’t Beulah: It was Inspector Fenrow. He does know how to make an entrance.

“Inspector,” I said, a little on the grumpy side. I’d really hoped to keep this bit of information quiet. “Welcome. Sorry you can’t stay.”

“Now is that any way to greet a buddy? Who’s this?” He jabbed a thumb at Beulah. “Wait a minute…don’t I recognize you?”

“Of course you know me,” Beulah said, holding out a hand. “Alice Roosevelt.”

I was liking her more and more.

“Nah…nah…” Fenrow said, tapping his forehead to think. “Willows. Beulah Willows. In trouble again?”

“For your information, inspector,” I said, “Beulah is my assistant.”

“What the hell! Since when?”

“Never mind. You came here for a reason?”

“Sure. I spotted you leaving Richard Corcoran’s house as I drove up. When I asked them what it was all about, they told me they’d hired you to find James Periwinkle’s killer. That true?”

“It is.”

“So you’ll be getting in my way again?”

“Inspector—“ I always call him Inspector when we’re being professional. When it’s just two childhood buddies, it’s Jacob. “—you didn’t just come here to needle me. If all you wanted to do was ask if I’d taken the case, you could’ve telephoned. So what are you really here for?”

“Basically, to find out if you’ve discovered anything. Turns out, you have. This information about the article—how long were you going to sit on it?”

Forever, I thought. I actually said, “I just heard it, myself.” Getting a little snippy, I was. I like Jacob, but he does like to act as if he owns the place.

“Okay, simmer down,” he said, taking a chair. “To show we’re still buddies, I’ll answer questions about the case.”

That’s better. “All right. Tell me what the coroner found.”

“Definitely cyanide poisoning. Not in the glass by his bed. The doc says cyanide can sometimes take hours to kick in. Trouble is, any supper dishes, that might have had poison on ‘em, were washed and put away.”

Beulah spoke. “Was the dead man wearing pajamas or clothes?”

Fenrow raised an eyebrow at me, impressed. “Pajamas.”

“Don’t suppose,” I said, “that glass by his bed had bicarbonate of soda or some such.”

“Close. Some quack medicine for curing stomach aches. Bicarb would work just as well or better, the coroner says, but this stuff—mostly herbs and the like—wouldn’t have done him no harm.”

“So where did the cyanide come from?” Beulah asked.

“The doc says it can be found in lots of plants. Not much help when your suspect list is a gardening club. Based on stomach contents, the doc says Periwinkle had steak and potato for supper and a little red wine to wash it down. When he ate it, or what the poison was in, is anybody’s guess, given the body wasn’t found for days. I don’t suppose the editor of that magazine has a copy of Periwinkle’s article.”

“Nope,” she said. “The article wasn't due for another week.”

“Which means he probably was working on it.”

I asked if he’d found any such article.

“No. We found his typewriter and lots of blank paper, but no actual writing. Even checked the trash.”

“That probably seals the deal, that the killer wanted that article gone. He or she bumped off Periwinkle, then took the papers.”

“It makes sense,” Fenrow agreed, “except for one thing. Let’s say X, the killer, slips poison into the victim’s steak. Then X waits for the cyanide to take effect. But it could take hours. What does X do? Just hang around? Come back later? It’s sort of a lunkhead way of doing things.”

Inspector Fenrow likes to worry about the exact progression of a crime. I don’t fault him for that: Sometimes, it can lead to the answer. But he also figures all murderers think their crimes through, that they never improvise. I figure the little details will come out in time. For now, I just concentrate on the murder.

“Any more questions?” Fenrow asked.

“Do you have any leads?”

The inspector rubbed his nose, which he sometimes does when he’s telling tales out of school.

“Well, I shouldn't say this, but we’re following two. First, we’re checking the neighborhood, see if anyone witnessed the victim having a friend for supper.”

Beulah giggled at the sentence structure. Made Periwinkle sound like a cannibal. I missed it. Fenrow looked at her, puzzled, and went on.

“That lead seems to be heading nowhere. Then, we’re looking at the source of the cyanide. Even though the poison can be easily got, we figure the best candidates are club members who grow some plant that has cyanide.”

“Makes sense.”

“Actually, if you want to be useful, Delancey, maybe you could dig into motive. I mean, that article is well and good, but since we don’t have a copy, you could redo his research, maybe find out who would really not want that article to see print.”

“What, am I working for the police, now?”

Fenrow got a little flustered at that. “No, dammit, but I thought…well, would it kill you to work with me on this? You’ll get your fee when we find the murderer.”

The sound of his voice brought me back to when we were kids, on the streets playing baseball with a broomstick and a miserable-looking ball, garbage can lids for bases. Jacob and I liked to play the game, but whenever one of us was on base and the other was fielding, we’d chat about how we’d one day be solving crimes together, like Holmes and Watson. Of course, each one of us wanted to be Holmes.

When baseball was done, we’d prowl the alleys hoping to find a dead body or stolen booty. The only corpses we found were of cats, and the only booty was the occasional nickel or penny. Didn’t matter: We had a great time. But he could get a little snippy if I didn’t play the game like he wanted. There was no living with him then, so the best thing to do, was just go along with him.

So now, I agreed to help.

Nothing more to be said. Fenrow toddled off, and we promised to stay in touch.

“Well,” I said, checking my wristwatch, “I’m off to the library.”

“You!”

“Yes, and don’t look surprised. I want to check out a book on poisons.”

“Don’t get lost,” she gibed.

“Just type up that agreement, like I asked you to.”

I did get lost. The helpful lady at the desk told me where to find the books on poisons (after eying me up to see if I intended to bump off the missus), and after ten minutes I had to admit defeat and go back and ask her again. This time she smiled, figured I was too dim to pull off murdering a wife, and took me to the shelf personally.

I checked out the book and hoofed it back to the office, where Beulah was covering her typewriter. She showed me the agreement, for my approval. It looked fine.

“Did you make a copy and keep one?” I asked.

“Sure. Carbon paper.”

“What’s that?”

“Carbon paper! My God, Delancey. Where have you been? It’s the only way to go.” She still saw how puzzled I was, and said, “I’ll show you tomorrow. I have to catch the streetcar.”

We exchanged good nights, and she left me alone.

For the next hour, I sat at my desk, read about cyanide and took notes. It was all very fascinating, but something was nagging at me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Actually, it would turn out two things were nagging at me, which is probably why I had so much trouble doping it out.

I sat back and closed my eyes. If I thought long and hard about it, maybe I could come up with what it was. No dice. I even poured a glass of brandy and downed it. Nothing. Giving it up as a bad job, I locked up the office and went to the nearby restaurant for supper.

Joey Black is the owner of my favorite eatery. Joey is about six foot, two hundred forty, and looks like Bronco Nagurski. And he can use his muscle if the need arises. I once saw him toss Mike Glass halfway down the street, after Mike tried getting too cozy with one of the waitresses. And Mike Glass is skinny chicken.

Anyhow, Joey greeted me in his baritone and told me the special was corned beef, but I hate corned beef, and he knows it. Guess it wasn’t selling too well. I ordered a pork chop with a little gristle and mashed potatoes.

Black’s, which is the name of the place, seats about fifty, of which ten stools are at the counter. There are tables and booths, and the lighting is bright enough to tell you this isn’t a place for trysts, it’s a place to eat. I usually grab a stool at the counter, unless I’m with someone.

The chop and taters were done just right, and I washed it down with coffee and a slice of apple pie.

“Quiet in here tonight,” I said to Joey.

“Yeah.” He checked the clock behind the counter. “Motion pictures let out in another ten minutes. We usually get a few in, then.”

I was about to say something when the door opened, and who should come in but the McGraws—Fred and Winnie—from the garden club. They didn’t see me, and took a booth. I finished my coffee, tossed my two bits on the counter, and walked over.

“Hello, there,” I said, smiling. Watched their reaction. Fred looked annoyed, Winnie was startled. “I can recommend the pork chops.”

“Yeah,” said Fred. “I’ve had ‘em here before.”

“Out on the town?”

“Look, Mr. Delancey. I don’t mind that we hired you, but we really wanted to be alone.”

“Fred!” said his wife, who then put her fingers to her mouth like it just slipped out.

“Well, I mean it, Winnie. I don’t mind saying hello, but we wanted to eat in peace, without a lot of talk about poisons.”

“I’m with you on that,” I said. I swung a chair around from a nearby table and sat. “Which is why we won’t talk about it.”

The waitress, a cutie named Suzy, stopped by. They ordered coffee and the pork chops and potatoes, and she started off. Before she left, though, she said, “Don’t let Joey see you bugging the customers.”

She was the one Mike Glass tried to pinch when Joey tossed him out sideways. I held up my hands in all innocence, and she just rolled her eyes—like she didn’t believe me!

“I won’t bug you too much,” I promised the McGraws. “All I wanted to ask was, did you know James Periwinkle was writing a story about a gardening club?”

Fred chewed around on his lips, like the pork chop was already working its way down. Winnie just stared down, the tabletop suddenly very interesting. Finally, Mr. McGraw said:

“I don’t really give a damn what James was writing. He acted like he was some big-time journalist, instead of working for a penny-ante magazine. He always talked about it. ‘Did you read my latest?’ he’d ask, and when I’d say no, he didn’t take the hint. Just launched into what it was all about.”

I latched on to that. “So he talked about his writing. Does that mean he might’ve talked over that new article, the one on the club?”

“I doubt it. If he was writing about our club, he wouldn’t blab about it. He’d just do it and scoot.”

“I think,” Winnie spoke, much to everyone’s surprise, “he would never have written such a story. He may have been a bit full of himself—“ Her husband snorted “—but he was not a vindictive man.”

“Just one more question, please,” I said. “You told me that personal stuff is sometimes discussed during bridge or refreshments. Could he have heard something to include in the story, then?”

“Nah,” Fred said. “We never talk that personal. It’s more about Olivia’s cat or Jonathan’s watercolor painting, which he doesn’t do well but he thinks he does.”

“I see. Well, I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

I replaced the chair and walked out.

 

The first big break came the next day, when I finally hit on one of those two things that bugged me.

I came to work and found Beulah, still organizing the office. This could get a little monotonous. Anyhow, I went to my office, hung up my raincoat, and sat. She popped in with a small box and two sheets of paper.

“I promised,” she said, “to show you the miracle that is carbon paper.”

She opened the box, took out a sheet of black paper and stuck it between the two sheets of white paper. Then she took a pen and wrote her name on the top sheet, then showed me how it had been duplicated on the second sheet, even on the carbon paper. I know you probably know all about this, but bear with me. It’s important.

Her demonstration over, Beulah stuck the carbon paper back in the box, and started to leave.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You don’t toss the carbon paper when you’re done?”

“Not after using it once or twice. It’s still good. You don't expect me to waste your money, do you?”

“Would someone like Mr. Periwinkle use that stuff?”

“Probably. He’d want a copy of his story, in case the original got lost in the mail.”

“But he’d probably use the same sheet over and over?”

“Well, yeah. Maybe for something as big as a magazine article, he might use a new sheet for each page, to make it look nice. But sure, I can’t see anyone tossing carbon paper that’s only been used once.”

“Get your coat.”

While she did, I called Fenrow and asked if the Periwinkle house was still locked up. He said it was, but caught the excitement in my voice. He asked what was up, and I told him, “Just meet us there. Fifteen minutes.”

Beulah and I caught the streetcar and were at the Periwinkle house in no time. We stood outside, waiting for Fenrow, huddled under her umbrella. I have an umbrella. Somewhere. Anyhow, it wasn’t raining that hard.

The inspector pulled up with a uniformed officer in tow. He unlocked the door and we went inside. The uniform stayed at the entry, to keep intruders out, while I led the way to the study. At Periwinkle’s desk, I opened a few drawers and finally found what I was looking for: A box of carbon paper. I took off the lid, and could’ve kissed Beulah (don’t tell her). The carbon paper had been used, like she said, just once, and even though the type was backwards, you could read it clear as day. The first page, top, read:

WHAT LIES BENEATH?

“I’ll take those sheets,” Fenrow said, holding out a hand. “They’re evidence.”

He was right, of course. And if it had been anyone but Jacob, I would’ve insisted on a signed affidavit, stating I had found the carbon paper. But galling though it was, I knew my old buddy would give credit where it was due. So I handed over the box.

“Will I get to read it?” I asked.

“Sure. Once we’ve written it out. Much obliged, Delancey.”

Out we trudged, and Beulah and I caught the streetcar back to the office.

“Now what do we do?” she wanted to know as we rode.

“Beats me. There’s something else that was bothering me last night, and I’ll have to figure it out. So maybe I’ll sit and ponder a bit.”

“You mean sleep.”

I was offended. Really.

“I don’t sleep on the job. Let’s get that straight. I might waste time. Toss cards in a hat. Read my Jake Sharpe stories. But I never, ever sleep on the job.”

“Got it.”

So while she cleaned, I tossed cards and tried to think what it was that bothered me.

We took lunch, came back, and more of the same. I told you, detective work isn’t exactly exciting most of the time. I need a hobby. Sherlock had his violin. Jake Sharpe whittled. But I’ve no ear for music and whittling just makes a mess. And I doubt tossing cards into a hat qualifies as a hobby. I like baseball, but the teams won’t agree to play outside my office, so that was out.

Have to think about that.

Anyhow, Beulah finally finished her cleaning and had her office area just so, and was stuck for something to do (too cowardly to tackle my office cleaning). Then the door opened and our day got more interesting. It was the inspector.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“You come here for the strangest reasons,” I told him.

He sat, called Beulah in.

“Time to celebrate,” he said. “Where’s your booze?”

“The story did it?” Beulah asked as she brought in three clean glasses.

“Yep. Well, that and another key piece of evidence we found.”

It was still drizzling outside, and Fenrow had the papers tucked inside his coat to protect them. He tossed them on my desk.

“There’s your copy of the victim’s article. He changed the names, but it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s who. Now, we still don't know how much of it’s made up and how much is real. But here’s what the story says about the gardening club:

“One. Olivia Johnson, who inherited her parents’ fortune when they died in an accident, may have had more to do with her folks’ death than the police thought. We’ve passed that on to the FBI, because the ‘accident’ happened out west and they handled the investigation.

“Two. Jonathan Schroeder’s fashion business was investigated for violations against his employees. He treats ‘em like slaves, and they work in dangerous conditions. Now, lots of clothing businesses do that, but he touts his firm as a high-class affair, and it would be a real knock on the head if those allegations came out.

“Three. The twins, back when they were young and comely, were suspected of poisoning a young man. The fellow in question was in love with them both and made a play for both, and neither twin suspected he was making time with the other. When they found out, they supposedly slipped him some arsenic. Again, the allegations could never be proved, so they got off.

“Four. The club president, Richard Corcoran, had an affair with Mrs. McGraw. Mr. McGraw apparently doesn’t know, though the affair is over. They used to meet at Corcoran’s house every Monday for a little footsie. Obviously, neither would want that to come out

“And five. Mr. McGraw likes to cut corners in his contracting business. Like Schroeder, he doesn’t do much with the daily running of the business anymore, but it could put him up on charges if he skimped on materials but charged for the better stuff.”

“Wow,” I said. “But none of it’s proven.”

“Nope. Can I have that drink now? All this talking makes me parched.”

I poured three drinks and sat back.

“You said there were two things that broke the case.”

Fenrow looked very pleased with himself. He sat back, glass in hand.

“It’s Jonathan Schroeder,” he said.

“He’s the killer?”

“Yep. We’re trying to get a confession out of him now. What put us wise was the poison. Schroeder’s speciality in gardening is plants that bear fruit or berries. Well, right outside his door is a big elderberry bush.”

“Elderberries can produce cyanide.”

“You’ve done your homework. Yep. Now, just by itself, Schroeder having elderberries  wouldn’t mean much. But it was clear he’d clipped a couple branches from the bush.”

“Is that enough to produce poison to kill a man?” Beulah asked.

The inspector shrugged. “There’s no way we can tell how big the branches were. He burned ‘em in his fireplace. That’s pretty incriminating, too, isn’t it? I mean, it’s warmer than a witch’s brew and he starts a fire in his fireplace?”

“The nights have been a little cool,” she pointed out.

He waved it off. “The point is, Schroeder will only admit he clipped those branches. He says it was to prune, that the branches were growing out of kilter and he trimmed ‘em back.”

“Again, plausible,” I pointed out.

“Whose side are you on?”

“I’m just saying, you'd need more to give a jury than that.”

“Which is why we want a confession.”

I winced. The Jacob Fenrow I knew, wouldn’t beat a confession out of anyone, but his cohorts might. Come to that, I didn’t know for sure Fenrow wouldn’t, too, if he felt he had to. There was quiet in the office for a bit, and finally the inspector stood and thanked me for the brandy.

“Well, back to work,” he said.

“Inspector,” I said, “are you really sure Jonathan Schroeder killed that man?”

“You don’t think so?”

“Hell, I don’t know. He may have. All I know is, there are six other people in that club with motive, and not a single one can be ruled out.”

“You worry too much,” he said. Yet, there was a hitch in his voice that told me he wasn’t completely sure Schroeder was guilty, either.

 

A day passed and still Jonathan Schroeder insisted he hadn’t slipped poison to James Periwinkle. It was beginning to look like he’d never go to trial.

During that day, I wasn’t letting grass grow under me. After Fenrow had left that afternoon, I’d gone over the book of poisons with Beulah, and she took notes. Again I said something was bugging me. She claimed it was indigestion. Someday, she’ll learn that when my brain nags me, there’s usually a good reason. Now, she accepted it, and tried to help pry open my skull, to figure what it was.

Thankfully, the twins came to visit the next day. Never thought I’d be grateful for them showing up, but they came in and sat down, refusing Beulah’s offer of coffee with smiles.

“We came to see you, Mr. Delancey,” said Yvonne, “because we—the club—wonder if perhaps the case isn’t solved.”

“They have Jonathan in custody,” Yvette added. “And are pretty certain he killed poor James.”

“They are,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t mean they’re right.”

“You have reason to doubt?” Yvonne asked.

“Let’s just say the evidence the cops have is…a little flimsy. I’m not saying Mr. Schroeder didn’t do it. I’m just not so willing to believe he did.”

“Yes. Well, we—the club—took a vote, and believe our agreement should come to an end.”

“I understand. But might I ask you to do one thing before we part company? Could I meet with all of you one last time?”

“Are you interested in gardening?”

“Hell no—I mean to say, no. I just would like to clear something in my own mind. I wouldn’t bill you for the meeting, unless it actually led to something.”

The twins looked at each other, then back at me.

“May we use your telephone?” Yvette asked.

“Sure thing.”

I turned the telephone to face them, as Yvonne took out a little pocket book from her purse. She found the number she wanted and dialed. She got Richard Corcoran, explained my request, and there was a long pause. Finally, she thanked him and hung up.

“Yes, that would be agreeable,” Yvonne told me. “Can you come tonight? Around seven?”

“I’ll be there.”

When the twins left, Beulah asked me what I hoped to accomplish.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m hoping that maybe something will be said at the meeting that’ll jog my brain, help me figure out what it is I’m missing.”

“Do you want me to be there?”

“If you’re free.”

“And the inspector?”

“Fenrow has his man, remember?”

 

I don’t mind flying by the seat of my pants on these discussions, but that time I was really winging it. I just had no clue what to ask and who to ask. Beulah offered to come along, which was big of her, and I accepted, which turned out to be a good thing. We had supper at Black’s—my treat—then hopped the streetcar for Corcoran’s house.

Everyone was there, sitting in that fancy study Corcoran has. The twins were on the sofa. To the right were Olivia Johnson and our host, to the left were the McGraws. None of them looked especially pleased to be there, so after introducing Beulah, I made apologies.

“I know this is a pain. The police have their man, and are convinced he killed Mr. Periwinkle. But I’m not. The evidence is…well, let’s just say even the cops don’t believe it’s enough to convict. They want a confession and they’re not getting it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Mr. McGraw. He had a cigar in one hand and a glass of Scotch in the other. “We all know you’re smarter than the whole police force.”

“I don’t think that’s called for, Fred,” Richard Corcoran said. “Mr. Delancey isn’t charging us for this meeting. The least we can do is hear him out.”

Beulah spoke. “You should know, it was Delancey  who found a key piece of evidence in this case, which the police have.” Then, before I could stop her: “He found the article Mr. Periwinkle was writing, the one about your gardening club.”

Stunned silence. I hadn’t wanted it to come out that the cops had the article, but it turned out to be the best thing we could’ve done. I looked from one to the other, which wasn’t tough since we were sitting across from all six. Finally, Corcoran broke the silence.

“Would anyone like something to drink? Or eat? I still have peach cobbler—“

“We don’t want anything, Richard,” Olivia snapped. To me: “Have you read the article?”

I nodded. “I have a copy.”

“What does it say? Does it incriminate Jonathan?”

“Actually, it says things about each one of you. No one here is put in a positive light.”

“How dare he! What did he say about me?”

“I can’t tell you that, Miss Johnson. For one thing, the article may be made up, and if so, it would cast suspicion on you for something you didn’t do. For another, the cops don’t want me to say anything. For a third, if Mr. Schroeder is guilty, only his part of the story will probably come out. The rest of your tales—real or not—would be kept secret. Don’t you want it that way?”

General agreement on that.

“Actually,” I said, “I could use something to whet my whistle. Got any brandy?”

“Of course,” said our host. He waved a hand to his servant, a white-jacketed man of about fifty who looked like he didn’t want to be there but got paid well. The servant poured a generous glass and brought it over.

“Miss Willows?” Corcoran asked.

“Coffee and some of that cobbler would be great.”

The servant went to the sideboard where the dessert and coffee stood. As he fixed a plate for Beulah, Fred McGraw sighed.

“Well, are we all content with out food and drink now?” he snapped. This time, before anyone could call him out of line, he followed it up. “Look here, Delancey. I didn’t want to hire you in the first place. The police are more than capable of catching killers. But majority ruled, and I agreed to take you on. But the case is done. And unless you have anything to say of substance, finish your drink and leave us alone.”

“Fred—“ said his wife.

He was having none of it. “No, Winnie. I mean it. Bad enough we have to sit around and shed crocodile tears over someone none of us liked, and eat that godforsaken cobbler—again—but then, to act like we’re trying to help this hack try to solve a crime that’s already solved…” Words finally failed him.

“I dunno,” Beulah muttered between forkfuls. “I kind of like the cobbler.” To the servant: “Did you make it?”

The guy said no, that Mr. Corcoran is quite a chef and makes all the desserts himself. Beulah smiled at our host, who looked embarrassed at the praise and suggested we get on with it.

“Fred does have a point,” Corcoran said. “I wouldn’t have put it quite so…bluntly, but unless you have something really concrete, Mr. Delancey, I think we’re done.”

They say the sense of smell is keener than we give it credit for. That it can trigger memories without our realizing. I don’t know; I leave that to the scientists. All I know is, my own sense of smell suddenly came through for me. I finally hit on what had been bugging me all this time, and my mind raced to try to form it into something with shape, before they kicked me out of the house. Best option? Stall.

“May I use your bathroom?” I asked.

Corcoran blinked, then said sure. Beulah, who had not a clue what I was up to, promised to be finished with her cobbler and coffee by the time I got back. The servant was to show me where the toilet was, and I followed, out the door and down a long hall. This was working exactly the way I’d hoped, for once.

Instead of heading in the direction he pointed, toward the bathroom, I took him by the sleeve into another room, which turned out to be a little library. He was startled, and I put a finger to my lips and he kept quiet.

“Now,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Higgins, sir.”

“Higgins. Great. Well, Higgins, I have a few questions for you, and I didn’t want to ask them in front of the others. Okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

When I first yanked him around, he’d looked frightened; now, he was more puzzled.

“Did the cops ever talk to you about this murder?”

“Me? No, sir. Why would they?”

“Thought not. Next question. You know who the dead man was?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Periwinkle. He was a member of the gardening club.”

“Right. Did Mr. Corcoran ever visit the victim? For dinner, say?”

“No, sir. They did, however, go out on occasion.”

“Did they go out last week?”

“Let me see…yes. Yes, they did. That Monday, the day before the gardening club meeting. Mr. Corcoran had his regular weekly meeting at his club, and invited Mr. Periwinkle to join him afterwards for supper. Then they came back here for coffee.”

“And dessert?”

Higgins looked even more puzzled, but he recovered, thought, and said: “Yes, sir. I remember, Mr. Corcoran made his peach cobbler especially. But Mr. Periwinkle just had coffee.”

“Just a couple more questions. You said Mr. Corcoran makes his own desserts. Does he have…let me think…a nut grinder? Something to crack nutshells or some such thing?”

“He has many kitchen devices, sir. He’s very particular that way.”

“So he does have something to crack nuts and so on.”

“I’m sure he does.”

“One more thing, then. May I use your telephone?”

 

When I got back to the room, Beulah stood but I waved her back down.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have the solution to our little conundrum.” I like using big words, like ‘conundrum’. Shows I’m not just another pretty face. “So if you’ll be patient, until Inspector Fenrow shows up—“

“Good lord!” Corcoran snapped. “You called the police to my house? Isn’t it enough those men prowled all over the place not three days ago?”

“Sorry, sir. Ah, Higgins. Please stay. We’ll need you.”

The servant stood next to the serving table and clasped his hands in front of him to wait.

“You really overstepped your bounds,” Olivia said, though for some reason there was a twinkle in her eye.

“I’ll say,” McGraw muttered. “If you think I’m sticking around to talk to those cops again, you’re crazy.”

He started to stand but I said, “The inspector wants everyone to stay.”

Fred was startled, blustered a bit, but sat down again.

How do you pass the time in that situation? There’s a killer in the room, no one wants to look anyone in the eye. You can’t just talk about the weather or the Cubs. So everyone stays quiet. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the inspector to arrive.

He marched in, a uniformed officer in tow, and nodded to everyone in greeting. Then he turned to me.

“So what is this, Delancey? You say you’ve got the killer?”

“Yep.”

I saw no need to stall. I spilled everything. Peach pits contained cyanide. Corcoran was constantly pushing peach cobbler. He’d clearly bought a bunch of peaches, made the cobbler, and ground up the pits. Then he snuck them in James Periwinkle’s dessert or his coffee, and after Periwinkle went home, the cyanide hit him.

Fenrow listened closely, then turned to Corcoran.

“Is all this true?”

“No! I mean, some of it, yes. I had dinner with James, yes. And we came back here for dessert and coffee, yes.”

“Then why didn’t you say something? This just makes you look more guilty.”

“I didn’t think anything of it! You weren’t sure when he was poisoned, and I…I…” He just sank back.

“Mr. Corcoran, I have to take you in for questioning.”

“But wait!” he said. “Wait! I remember now. I didn’t grind up those peach pits. I gave them to—“ He stopped, because Higgins was gone.

“Higgins!” I shouted.

Fenrow, the uniform, and I all dashed for the door at once. We spread out, went down the halls and into the rooms. Finally, the inspector called for us. By the time we got to where he was, Fenrow was already putting the cuffs on the servant. He had run right into his own room, and was just sitting there, waiting.

 

Next day. I was sitting in my office, reading the paper and not believing a word. Well, I believed it, but it was so screwy. Beulah sat across from me, waiting for me to tell her how much to bill the gardening club. How do I dock a group of people when I had the wrong killer? When I’d accused the club president of the murder?

Just as I was ready to give it all up and not charge them anything, who should come in but the twins. They sat down, refused Beulah’s coffee, and for once, got to the point.

“After you left yesterday, our club had a little meeting. We decided to pay you one hundred dollars, if that’s all right.”

About five times what I ever would have billed them, but I didn’t say so.

“That’ll be fine,” I said. “Beulah will write up a receipt while we chat.”

She took the hint and went for her receipt book.

“We just can’t believe Mr. Higgins would kill James,” said Yvette. “He was always such a nice fellow.”

“Yes,” Yvonne agreed. “Why would he do such a thing?”

“The article by Mr. Periwinkle. We read it wrong. It suggested Mr. Corcoran was having an affair with Mrs. McGraw—“ Little peeps came from the scandalized ladies “—but it was Higgins. Mr. Corcoran had an every Monday meeting at his club, and the lovers would meet at the house while he was gone. That article Periwinkle was writing didn’t use real names, but Corcoran would’ve figured it out. Higgins would’ve lost his job, and if Mr. McGraw found out, Higgins might’ve lost more than that.”

“Oh, this trial will be such a mess,” Yvonne said.

“Trial? Didn’t you read the papers this morning?”

“No. We don’t read newspapers.”

I picked up the paper and read:

John Higgins, accused of the murder of Mr. James Periwinkle, was found dead in his cell late last night, a victim of cyanide poisoning. It is believed he took some of the same poison he’d used to kill Mr. Periwinkle, just before he was apprehended. 

I set down the paper. The twins had their gloved fingers pressed to their lips in shock.

“Here’s your receipt,” I said, signing the paper Beulah handed me. “Much obliged for your business.”

They left in something of a daze, and I turned to Beulah.

“You ever take up gardening?”

She shook her head. “Too dangerous.”

 

[Note from the editor: The following was written later, with a date of September, with a different pen, by Delancey]

I can finally close this file.

The inquest was held a short time after. A few blanks were filled in, but because the suspect is dead, the police could only guess. I figure they got it right, but be your own judge.

First, Higgins was no expert on poisons, but it turns out a few months before the murder, James Periwinkle himself gave a talk on poisonous plants, and mentioned peach pits as one source of cyanide. He even went and gave how much would be needed! On the surface, that makes him kind of a dope, but who thinks someone’s out to poison him?

Anyhow, Higgins heard about the damning article while he served the gardening club refreshments, and Periwinkle even glanced up at him when he casually mentioned “an affair between a married woman and a single man”. Again, a bit of a dope.

It was easy for the servant to make a copy of Higgins’ house key. He always took the coats and hats of guests, and he just slipped the keys out of his victim’s coat, pressed them into clay (Fenrow’s boys found tiny bits of clay in the dead man’s keys), and returned them.

When Periwinkle didn’t show up for the meeting, Higgins knew he’d succeeded. He slipped out on the pretext of running errands, went to the dead man’s house, through the back door, and inside. (Fenrow figures he forgot to re-lock the door, which is why I found it open.)

Maybe he checked out the bedroom, maybe not. But it’s pretty certain he went to the study and found the article. Took it with him and burned it as soon as he could. But of course, he forgot about the carbon paper.

Oh, and one final note.

The Gardening Times, now called Gardening Life, heard about the article and insisted it was theirs. Said they had a contract with James Periwinkle, with exclusive rights to anything he wrote. Inspector Fenrow told them they were full of beans (only not so polite). He said it was evidence, and even if the case was closed, he would hang onto it. You know what? The magazine boys even found out I had a copy of the article and offered me money! I told them I could not be bought—not at those prices, anyway.

The upshot is, after some back and forth, the higher ups in the police department decided it wasn't worth the bother, and handed over the article. In the end, the magazine editors read it and said it wasn’t “up to their standards”. They rejected the thing, and that was that. Fenrow thinks it’s because Periwinkle didn’t disguise identities well enough and the magazine would be open to all kinds of lawsuits.

He may be right.


© Copyright 2018 dan kussart. All rights reserved.

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