Delancey and the Inspector's Problem

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


Well, it's only August, but for Delancey, it's Christmas time. Hope you enjoy the latest installment!

Submitted: August 19, 2018

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Submitted: August 19, 2018

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Case #25, December, 1927 - Delancey and the Inspector’s Problem 

So it’s Christmas again.

I like Christmas, but for the life of me, I don’t know what to do with it. What I mean is, I’m only an occasional churchgoer, and I don’t have a wife and kids. Then, my folks live a long ways away, and usually the weather and roads are too crappy to drive to their house. Even if I did, I’d get all kinds of looks from Mom, wondering why I had not provided grandchildren, and from Pop, wondering why my bachelor life wasn’t filled with liaisons and affairs.

So I stay home, have some cold chicken and a glass or two of cheer. Then I call my parents, and Mom tells the story of how, when I was three (or four, or two—it’s never the same age) and I got a Jack-in-the-box for Christmas and bawled my head off when Jack popped out. She laughs, then I laugh, then she cries, and we say goodbye.

Now, if that sounds sad, save your tears. I really don’t mind my Christmases. Honest. Fact is, I like the Season. I like the Santas on the street corners and the goodwill towards men, and I even like the store crowds and the off-key music played by the local high school band.

“And what’re you doing for Christmas?” I asked Beulah, after describing all this to her.

We sat in my office, relaxing in the quiet late afternoon. In one corner, she’d set up a little tree, which was nice, and I’d strung garland with a skill usually reserved for drunken sailors.

“Going to my sister’s house,” she said, with the same face like she was smelling rotten meat.

“Don’t like your sister?”

“Love my sister. But she’s like your parents. She wants me married. Her husband has leaky sinuses and limps, and her three kids are holy terrors, and then she wants me to go and do likewise? Misery loves company, I guess. And then, there’s my Aunt Tillie.” Another bad-meat face.

I was about to say something pithy when the elevator clacked open, and soon Inspector Fenrow and another man came in. Jacob introduced his companion as Henry Clark. Henry was around sixty, short and balding, average build, black hair that needed a comb. He wore a rumpled suit, and the bags under his eyes suggested he hadn’t slept in  a while. And he wore a clerical collar.

Henry smiled and shook my hand, nodded to Beulah, who’d brought her chair so we could all sit. Henry’s smile froze me—not because it was cold, but because it was from a clergyman. Clerics who smile always remind me how much I don’t go to church.

“I know it’s nearly Christmas,” Fenrow said, “and I wouldn’t bug you about this if it weren’t important.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “What’s up?”

Jacob looked at his friend, who nodded, then spoke.

“Four months ago, I became engaged to a wonderful woman.”

I liked his voice. Deep and God-like.

“Congratulations,” I said.

Instead of saying “Thank you” or some such, he sighed and looked ready to bawl.

Fenrow stepped in. “His fiancee was murdered.”

Beulah gasped, and I think I took in a sharp breath, too—especially since Jacob had put it so bluntly. But the Reverend Clark seemed okay with it. Jacob went on:

“When we were kids, Delancey, you and I used to chum around lots. But I’m Protestant and you’re Catholic—“

“Lapsed several times,” I put in. My mother is Welsh Methodist, but when she met my dad, a Roman Catholic, his priest insisted they marry in his church, or it wouldn’t be legitimate. I don’t think Mom or Pop believed him, but it made my grandparents happy, so they were married by the priest…and never set foot in that church again.

“Okay. But anyhow, you remember how our folks used to put up conniptions when they found out we were buddies?”

I chuckled. “Told us we’d rot in Hell. Just for playing baseball together.”

“Yeah, well, we ignored ‘em,” he told Beulah and Henry. “Played together every chance we got. But,” he added to me, “I also had friends at church. Friends my parents were much more comfy with. Henry was one.”

“I never met him.”

Henry smiled and said, “That’s because my father was our minister. If Jacob’s parents had conniptions, you can only imagine what my father would have said.”

“Henry and I went through Confirmation together, which is like saying we were in the trenches at the Somme.”

“My father was a tough teacher,” Henry said.

“I’ll say! Anyhow. A week ago, Henry’s fiancee was killed, and the boys over at the Third Precinct won’t investigate. Well, they looked into it, and decided they had no clue, and they’re spinning their wheels. So they’ve dropped it.”

“In a week!” Beulah said.

“Yeah. Go figure. Oh, they’ll pick it up if evidence plops into their laps, but otherwise, George Platt—he’s the inspector over at the Third—says there’s nothing more he can do.”

“Why can’t you look into it?” Beulah asked.

She knows better, but Jacob was patient.

“It’s not in my ball field. If I poked my nose in, that’d invite every inspector trying to make a name for himself, to butt in on murder cases all over the city. It just isn’t done, unless the commander says so, or if the inspector himself asks.”

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

Jacob nodded. “I’d like you to look into it, Tom. I can pay your expenses but not much more. Henry, here, is a typical poor parish minister.”

I waved it off. “Consider it a Christmas present, a week early.”

Jacob looked ready to argue the point, but I shook my head, and he kept quiet. I told Beulah she could go home, since her day was done, and she wanted to go shopping, but she shook her head, too, and we four stayed to discuss the case.

Going back and forth with quotes gets a little tiresome, so why don’t I just tell you the facts as they came out that afternoon:

 

Henry’s fiancee, a Miss Evangeline Stewart, lived on Park Road, a pleasant, quiet little street off the beaten path. Park Road is named because it runs along City Park (imaginative name). It’s a place I wouldn’t mind living, but as you might guess, the houses are expensive. Miss Stewart lived alone except for a do-it-all housekeeper/cook. That woman, an elderly sort named Bertha Barker, slept downstairs. The two women shared housework, because the place was so big.

That house was the one she’d grown up in, her parents’ digs. Mr. Stewart had had it built when the couple was young, because they wanted seven kids or thereabouts. But when Evangeline came along, Mrs. Stewart had such a tough time of it, that was all for the kids. Evangeline’s early years were happy, but when she was fourteen, her folks went out for a night on the town and were killed by a runaway coach and four. Of course, she inherited, with one Mr. Patrick Horsehair (honest) as her guardian. Mr. Horsehair is a local attorney and family friend. From all Henry could tell, old Patrick did right by his ward. He kept the house, which Evangeline loved, and had a live-in woman tend to the daily duties until the girl came of age.

There was nothing weird about the will. Nothing like, Evangeline doesn’t inherit till she turned twenty-five or got married. Nope. The day she turned eighteen, she inherited the lot. The live-in hired to watch over her was released with a nice pension, and Bertha Barker, who had worked in the house for thirty-odd years, was kept on.

Evangeline was a kind, quiet soul. A pretty gal, and with her loot, she attracted plenty of attention, but she refused all comers. Until, that is, Reverend Henry Clark came along.

They were kindred spirits. Quiet and gentle. If not for a gentle push by the church Ladies Aid Society, the two might never have hooked up. In fact, the Society did their best to play matchmaker. They sponsored an ice cream social and arranged for the two to sit together. They had a community hymn-sing, and made sure Evangeline was front and center in the audience as Henry led the songs. Finally, Henry got off the pot and asked Miss Stewart for a walk one Sunday afternoon, and the rest is history.

The plan was for them to be married in February (after the Christmas season and before Lent, two of Henry’s busiest times). An idea to wed on Valentine’s Day was seen as too sacrilegious, and scrapped.

So much for background.

The Sunday before last, Evangeline came to Henry’s parsonage home, to help him decorate his Christmas tree. She brought a phonograph, and they listened to Christmas music, and drank (non-spirit) egg nog, and had a jolly time of it. After, Henry walked her home (the Stewart house is four blocks from the church and parsonage), and that was the last he saw of her.

At home, Evangeline had a nice supper, then sat reading while Bertha did some knitting. Around eight, the telephone rang, and Evangeline answered. When she got back to the sitting room, she had her coat on and looked worried.

“That was Henry,” she told Bertha. “He sounds so upset, I almost couldn’t make out it was him.”

“Whatever is the matter?”

“I don’t know. He just wants me at the church as soon as I can make it.”

“Call a taxi,” Bertha insisted. “The walks are icy, and it’s dark.”

“There are street lamps,” Evangeline said. “By the time a taxi gets here, I can be at the church. I’ll telephone when I know what the trouble is.”

Bertha was agitated. Insisted she come along. Evangeline told her no, and left the house.

Two hours later, there was still no word, and Bertha, having telephoned the church and the parsonage with no answer, called the cops. The police went to the church right off. Church doors aren’t generally locked, and they let themselves in with no trouble.

It was still dark, and no lights were lit, so the cops brought out their lanterns and flashlights, and began a search. Didn’t take too long to find the body of Miss Stewart, lying near the front pews, her head bashed in.

One cop went for an ambulance, another went to the parsonage next door. There was no answer at the parsonage to the cop’s pounding, and fearing the worst, he and another officer busted in through a window. They switched on the lights and called out for the minister. Finally found him in his chair by the fire, fast asleep.

Or rather, unconscious. They tried to rouse him and couldn’t. One of the cops went out to get the ambulance boys over. Together, they put the minister on a stretcher and hauled him off.

So. The upshot of it is, the cup of cocoa Henry had by his side contained sleeping powder. That explains why he didn’t answer the telephone when Bertha called or the door when the cops came. The dose was enough to send him to dreamland for several hours, but not enough to kill him.

And the real kicker was, Henry swore he never called Evangeline. That clicked with her comment to Bertha, that Henry sounded different. Must’ve been someone trying to imitate him and doing a botched job.

Now for the murder itself. Evangeline got to the church probably about eight-thirty. The night was clear, and with the street lamps, she would’ve had no trouble walking, but the church has stained glass windows, which let in very little outside light. She knew her way around the church, of course, but still would’ve had trouble seeing anyone hiding in the pews.

She probably called out to Henry, and got no answer. Walked forward about halfway up the center. Then something happened. Best the cops could figure, she tripped and bumped her head. There was a small bruise on her forehead, which Bertha swears wasn’t there before she left. That bruise was so small, it wouldn’t have come from someone hitting her, unless they swung and barely connected. (My baseball team has several players like that, but never mind.)

The main reason cops think she tripped and bumped her noggin is, she was beaten to death by a pipe, and the wounds don’t match that bump. As to the pipe, it came from an alley out back of the church. There’s some construction work being done on the building next door—a grocer’s—and the guys leave all sorts of junk laying around. Anyone passing by could’ve picked it up from the pile, and tossed it right back when he was done. That’s exactly what happened: The cops found the pipe on top of the pile the next morning. It was covered in blood, so there was no doubt.

 

“So Delancey,” said Fenrow when the story was finished. “Will you take the case?”

“Sure. Only one problem.”

“Only one?” Beulah asked.

“So far. Jacob, I could really use a glance at the police files. I know they’re not in your jurisdiction, but is there any way you can let me see them?”

Inspector Fenrow rubbed his chin. “I’ve got a buddy in the Third. With a little arm-twisting and a bootleg bottle of Scotch, I might convince him. I’ll let you know.”

He and Henry stood and shook my hand, then Beulah’s. When they’d gone, my assistant turned to me.

“You’ve come a long way,” she said.

“How so?”

“Instead of working for guys like Knuckles Moran and Louie the Twist, now you have a cop and a minister for clients.”

I grinned. “Go home.”

 

Next afternoon was cold and snowy and just the kind of weather to put you in the Christmas spirit. Storekeepers loved it: The snow wasn’t heavy enough to keep folks out, but everyone was ready to spend their little wallets out. In keeping with that, Beulah took the afternoon off to do some shopping. I figured it was the least I could do, since she’d missed shopping the night before. Besides, I had no idea where to start this case until I heard from Fenrow’s buddy from the Third.

That buddy came through around four.

I’ve seen worse disguises in my time. My Uncle Mort dressed as Aunt Sylvia comes to mind. But cop who came to my door that afternoon runs a close second. He wore a phony mustache, glasses with no lenses, and a white wig that looked straight out of some Lon Chaney picture. He tried to disguise his voice, too, but gave that up as a bad job pretty quick.

“Mr. Delancey?” he croaked in his phone voice.

“Yep,” I said, trying hard not to smile.

“I hear you want a look at this.” He held up a file.

“Thanks,” I said, taking it from him. He sat down, and I said, “It might take me a while.”

“That file doesn’t leave my sight,” he replied. “You read it here, with me watching. You don’t take anything out, and you make no notes.”

My memory’s not bad, though I have some trouble with numbers like addresses and such. But what could I do? I needed to see that file, so I agreed.

The file took me about an hour to go through, counting times I went back to reread sections. I can’t say it provided any great revelations, but it did give me a few names of possible suspects. I finished reading, and handed the file back, thanking him.

“You never saw me or this,” he said, holding up the file as he stood to leave.

“Nope. I never did.”

For a brief moment, he smiled. His fake mustache slipped and nearly fell off, but he caught it and left me without a word. I went to the window. As he’d gone downstairs, the cop must’ve taken off his disguise, because he no sooner hit the streets, when he looked up at my window and I caught a glimpse of his face. Why he needed a disguise, I don’t know, because he was incredibly nondescript. He caught me looking, jumped back a little in shock, then pulled up his coat collar and scurried off. Not exactly detective material.

I went to my desk and jotted down the names I’d memorized:

Sandra Darnell

Jack Darnell

William Pfister

Henrietta Slough

Then I added:

Bertha Barker

Patrick Horsehair

and finally

Henry Clark

I was tempted to cross off Bertha, since she couldn’t have made the call, but then I remembered we only had her word there even was a telephone call. Maybe if I checked with a gal I knew at the telephone exchange, she could verify such a call was put through. I really didn’t think the housekeeper had done it, and the sooner I could cross her off, the better.

As to the first four names:

Sandra and Jack Darnell were related to the deceased. Sandra was Evangeline’s cousin. She had inherited a bundle from her mom (Evangeline’s aunt) and married even more money in Jack Darnell. Darnell was a high poo-bah in the state government. Something in area of roads, as I understood it. The Darnells lived in the capital, but had come to town for a few weeks to spend the holidays with friends.

Two days before the murder, they’d stopped in to see Evangeline, and the visit had not gone well, according to Bertha. The Darnells like things nice and proper, and the notion Evangeline lived alone and was now engaged to a minister (and not a wealthy one) didn’t sit right. Why didn’t she come to live with them? Meet a nice, rich young man? Produce a mess of spoiled heirs? And so on.

Evangeline hit the ceiling. She told them they had no right to tell her what to do. She loved Henry and he loved her, and that was that. Bertha thought her employer was a little too strong in her protests—the Darnells were annoying but that was all—and said so later on. “They just rub me the wrong way,” Evangeline told her.

The cousin and hubby were questioned. Said they were at a Christmas party with friends the night of the murder. The party was big enough for one of them to slip out. The Darnells claimed that, while they disapproved of Evangeline’s way of life, they simply thought she was a hopeless cause—not enough to kill her.

Here’s where the Darnells get tricky. Patrick Horsehair, the attorney, told the cops that Evangeline had recently made a will, and it did not include the Darnells. My guess was, it featured Henry, but I’d have to check that with the attorney. Now, if this was the case, there was a chance the Darnells could sue and get her money, since Sandra was her only living relative, and the marriage hadn’t happened yet. If it came out that Henry would soon be Evangeline’s heir (and even if it didn’t, the Darnells could’ve guessed), they might have inducement to kill her first.

Trouble was, the cops couldn’t convince a judge to grant a warrant for them to check the Darnells’ financial records. So the police had to assume the Darnells were flush with cash and had no reason to want Evangeline’s money, too.

Next up was William Pfister. He had maybe the greatest motive: He wanted to marry Evangeline Stewart. For years, he’d pursued the late Miss Stewart like a puppy dog. All indications from the police report were, he wasn’t after her money, he was really in love with her, but I don’t know how you can be sure of something like that.

Anyhow, the biggest knock I had on Pfister for a suspect was, wouldn’t he kill his rival instead of his love? I mean, I know there’s some who have an attitude of “if I can’t have you, no one shall! Ha-ha-ha!” (maniacal laugh) But to be honest, that kind of drivel is more common in bad writing or bad cinema. You’d never catch my pulp hero, “Jake Sharpe — Detective” with that sort of thing. So it would’ve made much more sense for William to bump off Henry, not Evangeline.

Still, I suppose there was a chance. Maybe Evangeline flat out refused Pfister, and he got angry, and bashed her one. Trouble with that was, the killer called his victim to the church and gave the reverend a sedative. That means planning, not hotheadedness. I set him aside as possible.

That left Henrietta Slough. Henrietta and Evangeline were best friends in school. As time went on, they grew apart. Then, about six months before the murder, one of them wrote to the other (the report wasn’t clear who reached out to whom), and they met up for lunch. Since then, they’d talked frequently. My guess was, Evangeline wanted her best friend to be her maid of honor. That made sense to me, since the couple got engaged around the time they met up again.

So why would Henrietta kill her friend? Best guess was, she was a plain thing, a wallflower who lived in Evangeline’s shadow. The bride-to-be was pretty, and rich, and though she was quiet, everyone said she had a great personality once you got her talking. Henrietta was none of those things. She had a horsey face (Beulah hates it when I describe women so bluntly, but I’m being honest, here), and her dad’s wealth had dwindled with his gambling habit, so she was working as a shop clerk. Not only that, she was dull. So maybe Henrietta was envious of her buddy, and gave her a good whack on the skull-bone because of it.

There you have it.

I decided to wait with all of those people and visit Patrick Horsehair, Evangeline’s attorney first.

Mr. Horsehair’s office was on the second floor of a downtown building. It was small but tasteful. His receptionist stood maybe four foot six, and had a sunny disposition. When I called to set up an appointment, and told her why, she said “why sure” and put me down for two o’clock. Just like that.

The sunny receptionist smiled when I entered and introduced myself, told me to sit while she told the attorney I was here, and offered me coffee, which I refused with thanks. Soon, I was sitting across the desk from Patrick Horsehair.

He was as stiff as his surname. A real undertaker approach to life. I couldn’t believe he’d hired such a ray of sun for his receptionist. Anyhow, he told me to sit.

“I don’t know how much help I can be,” he said slowly. “Who hired you?”

“Afraid my client must remain confidential, sir.”

“Of course. I have the same code. As I said, however, I don’t know if I can help you. My contact with Miss Stewart was minimal, especially since she came of age.”

“I understand, sir. But what I’m really after is two things. First, who inherited her money, and second, when she was your ward, did you run into any scoundrel who might have wanted to do her harm?”

Horsehair sighed. “I shouldn’t really tell you about the will, but as it will be a matter of public record in a few days, I may as well. Miss Stewart had recently changed her will in favor of St. Peter’s.”

“Henry Clark’s church.”

“Correct. Miss Stewart told me she wanted to leave it to him—and some of it does go to the reverend—but he insisted she leave the bulk to his church.”

“I see. Did she leave anything to others?”

“A small annuity to her housekeeper. A small inheritance to her friend, Miss Slough. Do you know of Miss Slough? Yes. Well, a little to her—a few thousand only—and that was all.”

“Nothing to the Darnells.”

“No. Miss Stewart told me they had plenty of money, and didn’t need hers, as well.”

There was a pause, as Horsehair sipped coffee. Then he said:

“As to who wanted her dead, I truly cannot help you. The police asked me a similar question, so I’ve had time to think it over. No luck. I wish I could be more help. She was a good person, Mr. Delancey. A very good person.”

I thanked him, headed out, exchanging goodbyes with the cheery little gal. Next up were the Darnells. I decided not to telephone ahead.

The hotel they were staying in was the ritziest in town. I got a real frown from the desk clerk, and when I showed my detective’s license, he looked ready to send me packing in a hurry. For some reason, he gave in, and told me their room number (a suite on the top floor, naturally). He also told me Mrs. Darnell was in, but her husband had left for a bit on business. I thanked him and went up.

A maid answered the door. I introduced myself, and heard “Who is it, Clara?” from inside.

“Tom Delancey, ma’am,” I called out, figuring it might save time. I stepped past the maid, still calling out, “I’m a private detective, here about Miss Stewart’s murder.”

A long pause. Had she dozed off? Was I really that dull? Then:

“Send him in, Clara.”

Clara, a black woman who looked like she wished the killer had changed targets to her mistress, ushered me to a little alcove where Mrs. Darnell sat. She was at a breakfast table (near lunch time), smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. She looked very tired.

“What can I do for you, Mister—-?”

“Delancey,” I repeated. “Tom Delancey.”

“That’ll be all, Clara.”

The maid left us to read a magazine.

“Sit down, Mr. Delancey,” said my hostess. When I had, she said, “Who hired you?”

“Sorry, ma’am. That’s confidential.”

“Nonsense.”

She paused again, thinking her stare would change my mind, then said:

“Oh, well. It doesn’t matter. I haven’t a clue who murdered Evangeline. Probably that housekeeper woman, though.”

“Bertha Barker? Why?”

“Who knows?” She waved the cigarette hand around, flinging ash everywhere. “Do servants really need a reason?”

She could’ve added, “I ask you?” the way she said it. As if I knew about servants.

“Take Clara,” she went on. “A good enough maid, but surly! You’d think she would be grateful, one of her kind, to have a job.”

“You’d think,” I said flatly. I could do without her ilk, but I needed information, so I shook my head, pretending to commiserate.

“So,” I went on, “you have no idea who else might’ve killed Miss Stewart?”

“No idea. We weren’t really close. Except for the attorney and her minister friend, I didn’t know her friends.”

“You met Henry Clark?”

Took a second to register who that was.

“The minister? Yes.”

“I take it you weren’t thrilled with Miss Stewart’s choice?”

“Oh, Mr. Clark’s all right in his way. But Evangeline could have done so much better! That’s what I told her. Nothing wrong with Henry, I told her, but you could do better than a minister’s wife.”

“What did she say to that?”

“Well! She practically took my head off! Said if I didn’t want to come to the wedding, that was fine. She’d invite that dreadful friend of hers—that Slough woman—and the attorney, and the housekeeper, and that would be all! Now, I ask you: Was that tirade warranted? I only was trying to help.”

“Do you know Mr. Pfister?”

Her weary face brightened a bit. “William? Yes! Now there was a good match.”

“He has money?”

“Indeed.”

“How did they meet?”

“At a party. At our house, as it turns out. William Pfister owns this hotel, in fact.”

“I see. And he wanted to marry Miss Stewart.”

“In the worst way, but Evangeline would have none of it. She really could be blind. I mean, think of that Bertha person. Have you met her?”

“Not yet.”

“A real frump. How does one expect to properly entertain, when one has just a dumpy old woman serving?”

“Not everybody likes fancy dinner parties,” I pointed out.

You’d have thought I just told her the Earth was flat or God wasn’t in His heaven. She just stared at me, shocked. I moved on.

“Well, if you haven’t any idea who murdered your cousin, I guess I’ll be on my way.”

Mrs. Darnell must have realized the bad impression she’d made, or maybe it was in my voice. Anyhow, she held up a hand and said:

“Mr. Delancey. I want to be clear. I loved my cousin. I believed she was wrongheaded about her choice in men, and the way she lived her life. But I only wanted what was best for her. If she was happy with her minister, why, I would have borne it.”

“That’s awfully big of you,” I said, and left.

 

When I got back to the office, who should be there but my two boy buddies, Eddie and Iggy. They’d been supplied with a bottle of soda pop each (Beulah does spoil them so), and were sitting in my office. Now, I like the kids. I do. But when I’m in the middle of a case, I don’t really much care for interruptions. Hard enough for me to think without someone butting in.

“I’m kind of busy,” I said, sitting at my desk. “What can I do for you boys?”

“We wanna hire you,” Eddie said. He smiled at Beulah, as if to say “you too, dearie”. Eddie has quite the thing for my assistant.

“I have a case.”

“So we were told.”

“Besides—“

Eddie cut in. “Look. We can pay.”

And to my surprise, he took out a five dollar bill and laid it on my desk. The fiver had been crumpled into a wad and had something I hoped was licorice stuck to it. I didn’t lay a finger on it, especially since these two boys could not have gotten that sort of money under legal means.

“What’d you two do? Roll a banker?”

“Hey! We’re legit, and you know it.”

Iggy, the strong silent type, nodded. He’s good at supplying details. Eddie’s more emotional. So I turned to Iggy, hoping he could get their story out faster and we could move on.

“Give it to me short and sweet,” I told him.

Iggy wiped his mouth on his sleeve, having just taken a gulp of soda. He held back a burp, and told me:

“The other day, I get a letter. I never get letters, but there it was.” He handed over an envelope addressed to “Master Ignatz Green”. I looked it over, but there wasn’t anything unusual. The name and address had been printed. “Inside,” Iggy went on, “was that fiver. And this note.”

Iggy handed over the note. His pockets were a hell of a lot cleaner than Eddie’s. I was tempted to tell Eddie he’d never get Beulah if he didn’t take a bath now and again. Instead, I unfolded the note. Same block printing. It said: “For You and Eddie”. That was it.

“Some Good Samaritan,” I said, handing the note back.

“We thought at first it was you, but then we thought that didn’t make sense.”

“Delancey never gives out money,” Beulah put in.

“Another word,” I said without a glance her way, “and Santa won’t come down your chimney.” Then I said to the boys, “Look. If there’s no follow-up, no one asks you to do them a favor, no more money comes, I’d say ignore it. Like I said, it’s probably just some kind soul giving to kids at Christmas time.”

Eddie looked all too eager to take back the fiver. Iggy shook his head, but Eddie did it anyway.

“We’ll hang on to it,” Iggy said, “and not spend it yet. But we thought you should know.”

“Sure thing. Now if you don’t mind—“

“Come on, Eddie,” said his buddy, getting up. “Mr. Delancey’s busy.”

Man, that kid knows how to manipulate!

“Sit down,” I told him. “Look. I agree, it’s kind of odd. But there are a lot of folks out there this time of year, who want to spread Christmas cheer. Nothing sinister about it. If you want to hang on to the money for now, go ahead. But nine chances out of ten, it’s just a gift.”

That was enough for Eddie. He got up and thanked me. Iggy rose slower, and the boys left.

“You were kind of short with them,” Beulah said.

“I know. But there’s nothing to investigate. And I’ve got enough on my plate with this—“

The elevator door clanged open and in marched a short, heavy woman holding an umbrella like a sword and with fire in her eyes. She sat down where Eddie had been without an invitation.

“Come in,” I said, trying to be funny.

My humor fell flat. She looked at me like I was loony and said, “I am in. I am Bertha Barker.”

“Ah! Miss Barker. I was planning to come see you.”

“You are snooping into my dear Vangie’s death.”

“I was hired—“

“And now you drag it all up again! Let the police do their snooping. Who hired you?”

“Never mind that,” I said, getting a little testy. “How did you know I was looking into the case?”

“That Mrs. Darnell. She called me, said you would arrest me. She said you were sure I had murdered my dear Vangie.”

“Hold it right there! You of all people should know Mrs. Darnell has beans for brains.”

That stopped her.

“I never said,” I went on, “that I was sure who killed Miss Stewart. Besides, I’m no cop. I can’t arrest anybody.”

Bertha took it all in, then sat back. “You are not sure who killed my dear Vangie?”

“Nope. I just started this case. I never make up my mind this soon.”

She looked at Beulah, who nodded helpfully.

“But,” I added, “you could help me. Tell me what happened that night.”

Yes, I’d read the police report, but it was much better, coming from the horse’s mouth. I listened as she started to tell the tale, building up steam as she went. Unfortunately, she added nothing new. As I listened, I looked out the window at a few snowflakes trying to make the place festive. When she was done, I said:

“Did anyone have it in for Miss Stewart—besides Mrs. Darnell,” I added quickly because she looked ready to blurt that name.

“No. Everyone loved my Vangie.”

“Tell me about Henry Clark.” I don’t know why I asked that, but I did.

“He is a fine man. A gentleman. Did he hire you?”

Normally, I never tell anyone who hires me, but I saw no harm in it here. “Yes,” I said.

“I thought so. You see what a good man he is? He likes my cooking. Pot roast is his favorite,” she added with a smile.

“Good man. How had Miss Stewart been the days before she was killed?”

“How was she?”

“Yeah. You know. Was she nervous? Scared? Happy? Down in the dumps?”

“She was fine. She was looking forward to Christmas. She planned to give Mr. Clark a nice watch.”

“Did she buy it?”

“It is wrapped and in her closet. Do you think I should give it to him?”

“Maybe wait. At least till Christmas.”

“That is good advice. You’re a good man, too, Mr. Delancey.”

“Thanks.”

There wasn’t much more to say after that. Bertha got up on much friendlier terms than she sat down with, and wished us Merry Christmas and left.

“You think she might’ve done it?” Beulah asked me.

“Doubtful. I think that, when she finds out who killed her ‘Vangie’, she’ll want to lay her hands on him or her.”

Beulah shuddered.

 

Next day was Saturday, and a week before Christmas Eve. Christmas itself was on a Sunday this year, so I had one full week to try and work out this case, not to mention do my shopping. I didn’t really have to finish the case by Christmas, but doggone it, if I didn’t finish it, the damned thing would be on my mind. Just try and enjoy my Christmas dinner of cold chicken, with that on my brain. No, I had to solve this thing now.

To help, I went out Christmas shopping. Clear my brain. Fight the crowds over at Herplatz’s Department Store.

I weaved my way through the crowds, searching out the sporting goods section for my old man. Dad loves to fish, and even though he has every piece of fishing equipment known to Man, he always wants more. So I buy the most arcane thing or the latest thing I can find.

For Mom, it’s to the appliance section. She likes little kitchen gadgets. That might sound unfair—Dad gets something fun and Mom gets something for work—but honest, she goes as wide-eyed over a new toaster or a mixing machine as he does for a lure or a reel. Besides which, they live out in the boondocks, so the only way she sees anything so fancy is in the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

At one point, I had to cross through the line of kids waiting to see Santa Claus, and I thought they’d tear me apart.

“What?” I said. “You think I’m cutting in line? I just want to get through.”

The mean-looking little girl with freckles and pigtails raised her little fists and gave me a “keep it moving, buster” glare.

“Merry Christmas,” I called as I walked on.

The reel was bought and would be wrapped and mailed to Dad. So, too, the Mix-O-Matic, for Mom. I would send a bottle of bootleg to the Fenrows, something they’d both enjoy. But now, I had a dilemma: Do I get something for Beulah? If so, what?

I decided to think it over at the lunch counter. Had a couple of franks and a soda pop, and thought about it some more. I decided that it was for the best to get her something, but not too expensive and certainly not too personal. All I could think of in that vein was a new typewriter ribbon, which seemed out of line.

Then I had an inspiration. I telephoned Jacob Fenrow’s wife, Gretchen. She has real good taste (even if she did settle for Fenrow). She wasn’t home.

“There’s a Christmas party over at the Salvation Army,” Jacob explained, after I told him why I’d called. “For the kids of poor folk. She goes every year.”

“That’s nice of her. Look, I’m going home now. What time do you expect her back?”

“Three.”

“Fine. Could you have her call me at home?”

That was agreeable.

“Hey, you got a second?” Jacob asked.

“Actually, no. I’m a phone booth outside Herplatz’s, and there’s a rather impatient woman outside who must think this is the Ladies’, because she wants in, in a hurry.”

“Okay. Mind if I stop by your office, then?”

I hadn’t planned on going to the office, but since my shopping was done for the day, I told him that would be fine, and he promised to be there in twenty minutes.

I left the booth for the impatient lady, who did not give me a look of Christmas cheer, and headed across the street to my office. To my surprise, when I got there, a light was on in Jack Tanner’s office. He’s the CPA down the hall on my floor. I never see anyone go into his office, but then again, I’m either buried in my own place or out on a case. I wondered what was all so fired important that an accountant had to work the Saturday before Christmas, and since I had time to kill, I wandered over.

“Knock, knock,” I said as I walked in.

Now, here’s a rule. Never just walk in on someone, unless they know you’re coming. You might spy someone engaged in matters unsavory. Say, a sexual liaison. No, I didn’t find Tanner so engaged. What I did find was Tanner in deep conversation with none other than Earl, the current boss of Knuckles Moran’s gang.

They looked up in surprise, I stopped short. Then I said:

“Sorry. You’re busy. Happy holidays.” And I started to leave.

“Mr. Delancey,” Earl called out. “Please do not go.”

He had a way of making a request sound like a threat. I mean, Earl and I were friends, I figured. I’d helped solve the murder of his boss, and he had helped find me when I was dying of a stab wound. You don’t do those things and not be buddies. But Earl is also head of a gang that does bad things I’d prefer not to know about. Actually, most of their doings are things like supplying bootleg liquor to the masses and providing entertainment for gentlemen. They don’t do much shooting or other nasty stuff, unless it’s necessary.

But now, Earl looked pretty serious, and I figured the best thing to do was pay attention.

“I think I should tell you,” I said, taking a step inside, “that Inspector Fenrow is due at my office in fifteen minutes or so.”

“And what is that to me?” Earl said. “Am I engaged in anything untoward?”

I was about to say “You tell me” but zipped my lip.

Jack Tanner, who had looked more sheepish than nasty when I busted in, said, “Tom, please sit while I explain.” He looked at Earl, who hesitated, then nodded.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re not really a CPA.” I took the offered chair, across the desk from Jack and next to Earl.

“Oh, but I am,” Jack said. “Just not the average accountant. I was hired a few years ago by Knuckles to keep track of his finances.”

I nodded to a formidable safe in the corner.

“Locked in there?”

“Oh, no. That’s what you’d call a decoy. If the Law comes knocking, they would look there first, of course, and all they’d find was petty cash and a few ledgers from more…innocuous clients.”

Earl said, “Please do not ask where the papers really are,” and I promised not to.

“After Knuckles was killed,” Jack went on, “Earl and the boys decided two things. First, that the gang’s finances needed a safer place. No one outside of Earl and now you, know I am their accountant. By moving me to this place, under the guise of being a normal CPA, no one would suspect. Earl comes by rarely; otherwise, we use a go-between. A simple man who would get the information from me, and deliver it.”

“But this fellow was too greedy,” Earl put in.

“What fellow? Who’re you talking about?” I asked.

“The man,” said Jack Tanner, “named Edgar Peach.”

“Peach! He was the nasty piece of work that was killed in the alley. The one who liked to have his way with boys. Are you telling me—“

“We didn’t know of Mr. Peach’s…proclivities, of course. If we had, we would never have hired him.”

“And when you did find out—“

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves, Tom. Peach told us he’d kept copies of the information I passed along. That was bad. Earl and the boys were debating what to do with him when, one day, I happened to see Peach proposition that young boy. I told Earl, and soon after, Peach was dead.”

“And the information he’d taken?”

Earl said, “We searched his apartment and found it.”

I was shocked. To be honest, Peach was a bad article, and I don’t think he’ll be missed. But I never had a clue he was connected to the Morans. Well, that was one murder mystery solved. Not that I could tell anyone.

The elevator door clanged downstairs. 

“That’ll be the inspector,” I said. “We’ll talk later, if that’s okay.”

Both men nodded, and I beat it across the hall to my office in time for Fenrow’s arrival.

Fenrow walked in and sat. He refused my offer of a drink. His face was grim, so I skipped a drink, too.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“You can forget about the case.”

“What? Why?”

“Never mind. Just skip it. I talked with Platt, over at the Third Precinct, and it turns out they…well, they’ve done a pretty thorough job of investigating. I thought they’d dropped the ball, but they didn’t. So just skip it.”

“Does your friend Henry know?”

“I’ll talk to him.”

Over the years, Jacob and I have had our ups and downs. We’re good friends, but sometimes we get on each other’s nerves. This time, it wasn’t me: Something else was bugging him. Now, if we were more touchy-feely, I would’ve asked him what bothered him, but we’re not, so I skipped it.

“Is it okay if I ask Gretchen for advice for Beulah’s present?” I asked him.

“Huh? Oh. Sure. She should be home by now. Give her call.”

With that, he walked out, very distracted. I thought about what he’d said—or didn’t say, then called Gretchen, who was very helpful. I’d follow her advice and get what she suggested for Beulah. Another time. Now, I headed back across the hall, my mind racing.

Earl and Jack Tanner were still there, though Earl was ready to leave.

“Hang on,” I told him, and we sat. “Just a couple more questions. First and foremost, what was the second thing you decided after Knuckles was killed? The first was to move you, Jack, away from the gang’s headquarters, but you said there were two things.”

Earl shifted in his chair. “Mr. Delancey, we do not so much care for the word ‘gang’. It makes us sound like we hang out in alleys and beat up bums for quarters.”

“Sorry. What would you rather be called?”

“I have always preferred ‘associates’.”

“So be it. The answer to my question, then?”

“It is simple. We thought you needed protection. Someone who could watch out for you, in case a rival group came calling.”

A light went on. “That’s what happened to the guys out front after the Louie the Twist killing! They drove up out front, then got gunned down. You know about that?”

Earl shrugged. “Let us just say other groups might think a second time before coming to cause you trouble.”

I exhaled loudly. Man, I wished I’d never gotten involved with Knuckles in the first place. I couldn’t tell Earl that, though. And I suppose I owed him my life now. As if he read my mind, Earl said:

“Do not think anything of it.”

“One thing more. Are you responsible for the fiver sent to Iggy and Eddie?”

The men looked at each other, and I explained the boys’ visit. Jack said:

“Yes, Tom, we sent them the five dollars. A Christmas present. We’re not recruiting. They’re good boys, I think you’ll agree, and Earl thought it a good idea.”

“Well, it sort of spooked them. They’re sharp cookies, especially Iggy, and suspected something was fishy. If it’s okay, I’ll tell them I know who sent the money, but I won’t say who it was or why. Then they can at least spend it, like you want.”

“That would be agreeable,” Earl said.

I wished Earl a Merry Christmas, because gangsters need Santa Claus, too. Then I went home.

My telephone rang at home around midnight. I answered, testy as I always am when someone wakes me from a sound sleep on a cold night. It was Jacob.

“Delancey. I can’t get a hold of Henry. Can you help me?”

“What? Who?” was my well-measured reply. “Why are you trying to get a hold of Henry at this ungodly hour?” I’m not a night owl. Midnight is past my bedtime.

“I’ll explain later. Can I come over and pick you up?”

“Give me twenty minutes,” I said, still cranky.

“Make it fifteen.”

And he hung up. I got up, splashed cold water on my face (in my apartment, in winter, all water is cold, even the hot). I’d just finished dressing when a knock came and I let Jacob in. He started in pacing.

“You ready?”

“I guess. Where are we going?”

“To the church first. Then we may need to split up.”

“Will you tell me what this is all about on the way?”

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s just get going, okay?”

We went down to his car and drove off for Henry’s church.

“Now,” I said. “Tell me what’s going on. From the beginning.”

Jacob sighed. “I told you I’d talked to Platt.”

“Over at the Third. Yup.”

“Well, he showed me the file on this case.”

“I got a hold of it, myself.”

“No, you got the official file. The one with all the interviews and evidence and whatnot. Platt has a second file he keeps to himself. Sometimes, I do that, too, when the case is full of twists. Anyhow, I went to Platt’s office, demanded to know what the hell was going on with the Evangeline Stewart case, and he showed me the other file.”

We drove through the quiet streets, not saying a word for a bit. Some of the shops left their Christmas decorations lit all night, and they flashed red and green as we drove by. The night was still and clear and cold.

“So what was in the file?”

“Platt knows who killed Evangeline Stewart, but can’t prove it.”

“Oh? Who?”

“Henry Clark.”

The name fell like a thud.

“That gentle man? Your friend? Lured his fiancee to her death?”

“Deep down, Henry is a good man. But he has…I don’t know. Fits? Black-outs? Whatever the word is. Anyhow, he’s seen a professional guy, a Dr. Renfro, about it, and Platt went to see him. Seems that Henry is ninety-nine percent okay, but once in a while, he blacks out and does stuff he’d never dream of doing otherwise.”

“That’s scary.”

“It is. The night Miss Stewart was murdered, he telephoned her house. The voice didn’t sound like Henry’s, because he was in a trance or something like it. He killed his fiancee, then went home, took a sleeping drug. When he told the cops he didn’t call Miss Stewart, it was the truth, as far as he knew it.”

“And Platt can’t prove it.”

“Nope. The bloody clothes he wore are nowhere to be found. To all appearances, he loved his fiancee. No jury would convict him, just based on him seeing a head doctor.”

“And now Henry’s missing.”

“Yes. After I left you, I called him, said the case was closed, that the cops had a suspect but couldn’t prove it. Something I must’ve said, triggered his memory, and I’m worried he’ll hurt himself or worse.”

“Step on it,” I said, because I was sure Jacob was right.

We went to the church. Searched the place. I kept rounding corners, expecting to see Henry Clark dangling from a rope, but we found no one.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“We split up. I’ll take the car. You check all around, in case he’s outside somewhere.”

Sure, I thought. You get the warm car.

In the motion pictures, or in popular fiction, the hero (that would be me) finds the missing person and saves the day. But this isn’t film, and probably won’t be popular, and sure isn’t fiction. So all I can say is, I roamed the streets, trying to find a light on anywhere, where someone might’ve seen Henry. But since Prohibition, there are no taverns—at least none that keep a light on for you—and all the other stores were long closed. Sensible people were in bed with the lights out.

I finally decided to head over to Miss Stewart’s house. Maybe, I thought, Henry had some odd sense of penance by talking to the housekeeper or some such. It was a long shot, but when I saw Fenrow’s car out front, I figured maybe I was right.

Cussing Jacob out under my breath (he’d driven all of three blocks in his warm car; why didn’t we just go together?), I hightailed it up the walk. There were lights on in the house, and there was no good reason for that except Henry.

There was another car parked out front, but I didn’t pay attention to that. I scooted up the front walk and was about to knock, when I heard voices from inside. I peeped through the window, and saw not just Inspector Fenrow, and Bertha the housekeeper, and Henry Clark. Sandra and Jack Darnell were there, too.

I stood off to the side, so no one could see me, and, cold as it was, waited outside, listening. Now, I only got snatches of the conversation, but I’ll let you follow along, according to what Jacob told me:

“Inspector,” Jack Darnell was saying as I approached, “we’re glad you came. This man is a killer!”

“He’s not a murderer,” Jacob corrected him.

“He killed my cousin!” Sandra cried out.

Henry said sadly, “I’m afraid so. It’s what Inspector Platt told you, isn’t it, Jacob?”

“It is. But just because that’s what Platt says doesn’t make it true.”

I know: Not twenty minutes ago, Fenrow told me Henry was guilty, that the cops couldn’t prove it. Jacob sounded pretty sure Platt was right. Now, he was defending Henry, talking as if it wasn’t settled, after all.

“Nonsense,” Jack snapped. “Why else would the man be here?”

Jacob turned to Henry. “Why are you here?”

“I…I was going to turn myself in, but first I thought I’d speak to Bertha. She was very dear to Evangeline, and I value her friendship. I thought I owed her an explanation and an apology.”

“There!” Jack cried. “You have it from his own lips! He did it.”

“He only knows what he’s been told,” Fenrow said.

Henry said, “It’s true, though, Jacob. I do have blackouts. I haven’t had one in years, but I have had them. My doctor will tell you.”

“What else did the doctor tell you?”

Henry blinked. “What do you mean?”

“About what you do during these blackouts?”

Henry wasn’t expecting that question, and had to think.

“Well, he said I wouldn’t remember what happened during them.”

“And?”

“And that I wouldn’t do anything I wasn’t already thinking about doing.” Henry smiled. “He said, for instance, I’d never walk down Main Street naked.” Suddenly, something dawned on him. “And, since I am a peaceable man by nature, he said I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Bingo.”

Bertha finally spoke up. “Then he did not hurt my Vangie?”

“I don’t see how he could have,” Jacob said. “He loved her. Plus, it’s not in his nature.”

“The police said he did it!” Jake said.

“I’m the police,” Jacob reminded him.

“But it’s not your jurisdiction. I’m calling Inspector Platt, and have him arrested.”

“Hang on. What the devil are you two doing here, anyway?”

“They invited themselves,” Bertha snapped.

“It’s my cousin’s house,” Sandra replied snootily, “and by rights should be mine now. We decided to spend a few nights here, to see what we wanted to do with the place.”

“I thought the money was going to his church,” Fenrow said.

“Not if Henry killed her. We asked the attorney, Horsehair, and he’s pretty sure the church wouldn’t profit by the crime of its minister.”

“The money is for the Lord,” Henry said. He was sounding braver now that he figured he hadn’t killed his fiancee after all. “And it’s what Evangeline wanted.”

“Bah,” Jack said. “Evangeline was a bit daft. I’m sorry, Sandra, but it had to be said. Your cousin, in falling for this fellow, completely lost her senses. She should have listened to us, and not this church man.”

While Jack gave this little speech, Bertha got a funny look. Fenrow noticed it, and when the speech was done, asked her what was wrong.

“Something triggers in my brain. Mr. Darnell, what did you say about Vangie and the church man?”

“I simply said,” Jack replied impatiently, “that Evangeline should not have listened to this church man.”

“Aha!”

That made everyone take notice.

“Aha what?” Jacob asked.

“That was the voice I heard on the telephone that night. The one who said he was Henry, that wanted she should come to the church.”

“Nonsense!” Jack snapped.

“It is! You tried to fix your voice, to make it sound like his, but in the end it sounded more like yours.”

Sandra looked at her husband. “Jack?”

“She’s lying. Or mistaken. I made no such call.”

“But we were in town, and you were gone to business engagement, and out late.”

“And that’s where I was. Now pipe down, Sandra.”

“Maybe we need to have a talk with you, Mr. Darnell,” Inspector Fenrow said.

“Baloney. We’re leaving now. Come, Sandra.”

That was my cue to stand in the front doorway. Darnell saw me there, cold and blue, but determined to stop him from going anywhere.

“Do you know who I am?” he demanded of me.

“Let me guess: The murderer of Evangeline?”

I talked smart, but the fact is, we had pretty flimsy evidence. Jacob telephoned the Third Precinct, got some uniformed officers to come and take Darnell to the station. He drove me home, then headed for the Third, too.

They were there for hours, grilling Darnell, and he didn’t break. The evidence of Bertha was okay, but it sure wasn’t going to convince a jury. A good defense lawyer would’ve had a field day. So in the end, they let him go, and he headed back to the capital. Sandra went along, though I think she slept with one eye open after that.

The final chapter is, Evangeline’s will went through as she wanted, and the church is now in the black.

 

Christmas came, and I had my chicken. Beulah telephoned me from her sister’s, long distance, which I thought was pretty nice of her. She thanked me for her present, and I said I liked what she gave me, too.

“I’ll be back in a day or two,” she said.

“Don’t hurry. I plan to close the office this week. Bound to be quiet.”

“Oh. Really? Are you sure you don’t want me in sooner, anyway?”

I grinned. “Not going well at your sister’s?”

“Exactly what I told you.”

“Sorry to hear it. Anyhow, you can come back whenever you want, but I’m staying home.”

We exchanged goodbyes and final Merry Christmases.

I opened my bottle of Cheer from Fenrow, who thanked me for helping with the Henry Clark case, even though I hadn’t solved it. Took a sip, decided it was too good to share, and poured a full glass.

 


© Copyright 2018 dan kussart. All rights reserved.

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