Delancey and the Seance

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


1927 comes to a close in this edition of the Delancey stories. At a year-end seance, the medium is murdered. Thanks to all the readers out there! Delancey will be back in 1928!

Submitted: September 08, 2018

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Submitted: September 08, 2018

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Case #26: Delancey and the Seance - December 1927

I know I told Beulah the office would be closed all week between Christmas and New Year’s, but I came in anyway, mainly to check the mail. Okay, and because I was at loose ends. Not much happening at home, and the stores were dead, everyone exhausted from the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy.

So I came in. And sure enough, not there five minutes when footsteps come up the stairs. I recognized those footsteps, too: Two little boys.

Now I should say something about Eddie and Iggy. They’re good kids, but they’re typical boys: Always in need of a bath or a nose-wipe. Today, though, they were dressed neat and clean. And Eddie had a pipe.

“Well!” I said. “What’s up with you two?”

“We’re gonna be detectives like you, Mr. Delancey,” Eddie said proudly. He looked around. “Where’s Beulah?”

Eddie has a real crush on my assistant.

“She has off this week,” I said, and he looked very disappointed. “So you’re going to be detectives?”

“Yup,” Iggy said. He was carrying a paper shopping bag, and now he reached inside and took out a long, flat box.

I took it and read the label. “The Sherlock Holmes Detective Kit…Fellows! Be Like Holmes! Solve Crimes! Amaze Your Friends!” I handed the box back. “Pretty impressive. Got it for Christmas?”

“We took that five bucks—remember?—that we got from someone we don’t know, and bought that.”

“Pretty expensive.”

“Well,” Eddie put in, “we might’ve bought some candy, too.”

“So what all came in that box?”

Iggy opened the box and laid it all out. There was a “Clue Book”, which was a little black notebook that had a pencil loop attached; a “Fingerprint Detector”—a bottle of lamp black and a fan brush; a periscope for seeing around corners and over walls; and two official-looking ID cards, saying they were “Licensed Detectives”. There was also room for the pipe Eddie carried and the magnifying glass Iggy held.

“Mighty impressive,” I said. “One question. Which one of you is Holmes?”

“I am,” they said in chorus. Then they looked at each other, surprised. An argument ensued. Who was Holmes and who was Watson? Eddie claimed Holmes because of the pipe and Iggy did likewise because of the glass. They looked ready to tussle, when the telephone rang. I told them to pipe down, and they actually did.

“Delancey?” came the familiar voice on the other end. “What’re you doing at the office?”

“Just checking the mail, Beulah. What’s up?”

“This is a lot to ask, I know, but do you think you could come to Springfield?”

Springfield was where her sister lived.

“I guess. Why?”

“I’m at my Aunt Tillie’s house.”

“Aunt Tillie?”

“My mom’s sister. See, my sister has a full house, so I’m staying with Aunt Tillie. She has lots of room.”

“Okay. So why is my presence requested?”

“I think my aunt’s in trouble. I don’t know how to explain it…”

That was good enough for me. In the months I’d worked with her, I’d learned to trust Beulah’s hunches. She doesn’t have the patience needed to be a detective, but she sure has the wits and a keen eye. “Say no more,” I told her. “I’ll be on the next train.”

I hung up.

“Sorry, boys. You’ll have to settle things on your own.”

“Is Beulah in trouble?” Eddie wanted to know.

“I don’t think so,” I assured him. “Maybe her aunt is, though. Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.”

An hour later, I’d tossed a few things in an overnight bag, and was on my way to Springfield. It’s a smaller town than my own, but the houses are more upscale, and I wondered how much loot Aunt Tillie had.

Quite a bit, it turned out. Beulah met me at the station, where a car was waiting to whisk us to Tillie’s house: A big old mansion on a hill just outside of town. The car and driver were pretty ritzy, too. I gave Beulah an “I’m impressed” look, but she made a face and waved it off. Beulah prefers the everyday stuff to fancy.

At the front door, a butler met us and took my bag. I was shown to a room that was bigger than my whole apartment and was asked if it was satisfactory. I said it was, and the butler nodded and said lunch would be ready in thirty minutes.

Unpacking was no big deal. Aside from my razor, all I had was a spare shirt and socks and slacks. The shirt and slacks were rumpled from the trip, and because I don’t iron very well. I hung them up, hoping by some miracle the wrinkles would go away.

Then I went downstairs, where Beulah was waiting.

“There’ll be a short time to talk,” she said. “Come on.”

We went into a library filled with musty, dusty books and sat.

“Now,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Okay. Six weeks ago, Aunt Tillie’s husband, Walter, died.”

“I remember that.” At the time, I’d told Beulah she could go to the funeral, but she had refused. She’d sent a card and flowers, instead.

“Right. Well, Uncle Walter was murdered.”

“The cops are sure about that?”

“Oh, yes. It was strychnine. They had a small dinner party here, and suddenly, Uncle Walter just stood up and fell over. The cops questioned everyone from the guests to the cook and servants, and of course Aunt Tillie, but could never figure out who’d done it.”

“A lot of time has passed. I don’t know if I could do anything about it.”

“What? Oh, no, Delancey. That isn’t why I called you. Well, it is, in a way. See, I love Aunt Tillie. She’s a great person, and we get along real well. She’s also pretty smart. But where she’s blind is in her beliefs. You name the spiritual belief, and she’s got it. From the legit, like Christianity, to the vague, like psychics and mediums. She’s done crystal balls, tarot cards, palm reading…and on and on.”

“Trying to contact her dead husband?”

“Yep. And here’s where it gets interesting. Lately, she’s latched onto a medium named Madame Ingrid.”

I laughed. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Now, Madame Ingrid claims she’ll be able to speak directly to Uncle Walter, to ask him who killed him.”

“What if Walt doesn’t know?”

“Oh, he’ll know. Because he’s in the afterlife, you see. And up there, everyone knows every secret here.”

“Well, that’s weird, all right, but I’m still not sure what the problem is.”

“Madame Ingrid insists that, in order to pin the murderer, he or she needs to be here. So Aunt Tillie has invited every one of the dinner guests back. To a seance.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yes. She also has the servants, with two exceptions.”

That sounded suspicious. “Oh?”

“I don’t think we need to worry about them. They were hired temporarily to serve at that party. A man and a woman. They didn’t know Uncle Walter, and were cleared by the cops before anyone else. I understand they’re both working elsewhere now—I guess that’s what they do, hire themselves out to anyone who needs temporary help. They might have been able to come for the seance, but it would’ve put out their current employers. Holiday parties and all.”

“Okay. So let’s put them aside for now. Does Aunt Tillie realize she’s probably invited her husband’s killer to this?”

“Sure. In fact, she’s counting on it.”

“I don’t suppose she’s also invited the cops?”

“Ah. Well, she has. One, anyway. The inspector on the case.”

“That’s something, anyway.”

“But I thought you could help, too. Will you?”

“I’m here, so I might as well. But I don’t know about a seance. I’ve never been much for the boogah-boogah stuff.”

“Maybe you can just sit to the side. I don’t know how Madame Ingrid operates.”

“When is this supposed to happen?”

“Tonight. So prepare yourself.”

I sighed, and said I would.

We joined the party after that, for lunch. I met Aunt Tillie, an orange-haired gal who smoked with a cigarette holder and looked like a film vamp. But she was a good egg, with a wicked sense of humor. I took to her right off. Set her to laughing and cover your ears: She cackled like a hen that’d just set the state record for eggs in a clutch.

Next there were the Pomeroy couple, Matthew and Hilda. Mid to late fifties. He’s a banker who likes diamond studs. In the cravat, the cufflinks, the lapel. His wife is a heavy-set, quiet lady of refinement. They talked art deco and authors I’d never heard of. Matthew has been Aunt Tillie’s banker for umpteen years, and of course he took special interest in her account.

Then we had the Ungers. Henry and Patricia. A younger couple, maybe in their middle thirties. Henry is Aunt Tillie’s attorney, as his father was before he’d retired. He’s brash and a little loud, but probably can hold his own before a judge. His wife, Patricia, is a stern sort, with a stare that can pierce steel, and hands like ice. After we shook, I had to blow on my paw to get circulation back.

Finally, there’s the Williams, Thomas and Peggy. Around fifty, they are old friends with Aunt Tillie and Uncle Walter. Thomas is in real estate. He’d had a few business dealings with Walter, but mainly they were just buddies. I warmed to those two right off, because they seemed the most comfortable in their surroundings. The other four seemed too keen on putting on airs.

“After lunch,” said Aunt Tillie, “I thought we’d play a little bridge.”

“Not for me,” I said. “I don’t know how.”

Aunt Tillie looked at me funny, and it dawned on me that maybe she hadn’t meant to include me. So I shut up.

“Beulah?” she said to my assistant.

“Yes, I suppose I could join.”

“Wonderful! Then we have two tables.” Aunt Tillie turned to me. “Mr. Delancey, perhaps you’d like to go for a walk while we play? The town is small, but rather pretty. Edgar can drive you into town, if you’d like.”

“That’d suit me fine. And please, it’s either ‘Tom’ or ‘Delancey’.”

This was good for Aunt Tillie, though the Pomeroys and Mrs. Unger looked aghast at the familiarity.

It was chilly that day, so I bundled up and by one-thirty, Edgar had dropped me off in the center of town. He promised to pick me up there around three, and I looked around, wondering if I had ninety minutes’ worth of sights to see. Still, I nodded, and he drove off.

Turns out, I could’ve spent a good two or three hours there. The town had nice little shops, still decked out for Christmas, with pleasant shopkeepers and friendly customers. Back home, it was mainly Herplatz’s Department Store, along with some larger furniture stores, some big clothing boutiques, and another couple department stores. The old mom-and-pop stores had been squeezed into corners, or made to sell just groceries.

I remember, as a kid, I’d go to Fletcher’s, a little dry goods place that sold everything from dill pickles from a barrel to sewing thread, to plow harnesses. Not a department store: You could see their whole stock just by standing in the center of the store and turning in a circle. Then there was Oglivy’s, a candy and tobacco shop. My dad and I would go there on a Saturday, and he’d buy his shag pipe tobacco and I’d get a bag of gum drops.

Ah, well, I digress. That little town just brought back the nostalgia, what my Welsh dad used to call Hiraeth. He tried to teach me Welsh once, and gave it up as a bad job. He told my mom (within my hearing) that it’d be a miracle if I just mastered English.

So I was actually a little late getting back to the town center. Edgar didn’t glare at me, though. I apologized, and he just shrugged slightly. It was all the same to him.

The bridge games were still going on, so I changed out of my city duds and relaxed on the bed for a bit. Around four-thirty, as the room was getting dark, I flipped on the electric lights and checked the bookshelves in the room for something interesting. But the titles were all about birds or plant life or fungi, and I decided they must’ve stocked the shelves to help people sleep. I wished I’d brought my latest issue of “Jake Sharpe—Detective”, even if I’d already read it.

A knock came. I figured it was a servant, or Beulah. Nope.

“Mrs. Pomeroy?”

The ritzy matron looked embarrassed.

“I realize this is unusual, Mr. Delancey—“

“Please. Tom.”

More embarrassment.

“Tom, then. May I speak with you a moment?”

“Sure thing.”

I stood to one side, to let her pass, but she hesitated. To ease her discomfort, I suggested we go to another room, but she steeled herself and sat at the table. I shut the door and joined her.

“Now. What is it I can do for you, Mrs. Pomeroy?”

“It’s this business with the seance tonight.”

“Yeah, I’m not too keen on it, myself.”

“Oh, I don’t mind a seance. They’re actually rather entertaining, if done right. It’s getting us all together. I mean to say, what if someone there tonight is Walter’s killer?”

“I know. Hopefully, though, with a policeman and me there, no one will try anything. Do you really think this Madame Ingrid can name the murderer?”

“I don’t know. I’ve seen some strange things in my time, Mister—Tom. I’ve not heard of this Madame Ingrid, but Tillie thinks the woman is gifted, so we shall see. What I really wanted to see you about is, are you prepared for trouble? Think about it: This murderer poisoned poor Walter’s drink in front of us all. What would stop him from killing again, even if you and the inspector are present.”

“Nothing, I guess. But you know what? I’ve found that the more crimes someone commits, or the more lies someone tells, the greater the odds that person’s going to get nabbed. I think anyone with brains and a little luck can pull off an unsolvable crime. But two? Or more? Nope. The luck factor runs out.”

“But that means it would take two murders just to catch this person?”

“Not necessarily. Sometimes—often, in fact—the luck runs out before the second crime is committed.”

She shook her head. “All this death and such…it turns my stomach.”

“Let me ask you something, Mrs. Pomeroy. If your stomach can take it, that is. Who do you think killed Walter? Who’d want him dead?”

“Walter was a good man,” she said quickly, then slower: “Of course, every man of wealth has some who resent his success.”

“But every guest here has money.”

“Which is why I suspected the servants, but the police seemed to dismiss them as suspects.”

“So let’s play along with the cops. Is there anyone here who had it in for Walter? Tell me about the man.”

“Walter was a good man, as I said. He had his faults—who doesn’t?—but—“

“Like what? What were his faults?”

She pondered that. “He could be loud and arrogant. He also had an eye for the ladies. But everyone knew he was harmless in that department. He liked to look, but that was all. He adored Tillie, and would never make advances on another woman.”

“Maybe some man didn’t like him even looking. Some guys are that way.”

“So I understand,” she said with a hint of smile. “But every man here, from my husband to Henry Unger to Thomas Williams, knew Walter was no one to be jealous of.”

“Okay. So what about business? Any troubles there?”

“You’d have to ask my husband. He took care of the financial side of things for Walter.”

“Your husband is a banker, right?”

“Yes.”

“What about Henry Unger? He’s the attorney. Wouldn’t he know—“

Hilda cut me off. “Henry Unger is useless. He lives on his father’s reputation. The elder Mr. Unger was a good man, and a very good lawyer. Not the son. Walter rightfully kept his financial dealings from him.”

“What about the Williams’? He’s in real estate, isn’t he?”

“Yes, as far as I know, Walter never had business with Thomas Williams. They were friends, and Walter preferred not to risk ruining that friendship.”

“He dealt with your husband and Mr. Unger. Weren’t they his friends?”

“Of course. But it’s the order, don’t you see? Walter was friends with my husband and Henry Unger because of their business. He was friends with Thomas Williams first. They were old school chums.”

“I thought Tillie said Walter did have a few business dealings with Mr. Williams.”

“Did he? Well, that’s news to me. I suppose it could be. But I can assure you, those dealings were minimal.”

“Now tell me about the wives.”

“Patricia Unger and Peggy Williams.”

“And you.”

Hilda smiled. “You think I’m a suspect?”

“I don’t know what to think,” I said, hitching my shoulders.

“Well, I had very little contact with Walter. None, outside of these dinner parties. I think the same is true of Patricia and Peggy. We spoke with Tillie a fair amount, but saw her husband rarely.”

“So, to your knowledge, no one would’ve wanted to kill Walter.”

“Correct. I still say, check on those servants.”

“Maybe I’ll do that. Thanks.”

She left after that. I thought about her advice. It just didn’t make sense. Those servants were used to dealing with rich people. So why suddenly get it in their heads to bump off one of them now? Still, it was worth pursuing. I found a telephone and called Inspector Fenrow. Jacob was a little crabby, as he always is when he has to work around the holidays. I told him what I was after, and he got crabbier.

“Not my jurisdiction,” he snapped.

“Now, come on. When has that stopped you before?”

“All right, all right. I’ll make some calls. I don’t suppose you actually have those servants’ names?”

“No.”

“Big help.” He sighed. “I suppose I can call Jed. He’s the inspector in that district. But I won’t step on toes.”

“I don’t expect you to. Just want to know if those servants really are in the clear.”

“Fine.”

I gave him Tillie’s number, and he promised to get back to me sometime in 1927 yet.

Next up was supper, a staid affair for which I was severely under-dressed. Sorry, but I don’t own a tuxedo, and I was damned if I’d rent one for a job that paid me nix. I got a disapproving glare from Patricia Unger, but the rest ignored my blue suit and tie.

“I thought,” said Henry Unger, “your Madame Ingrid would join us.”

“She’ll come after. She’s a very private, very mysterious woman.”

“Oo! Just my type!” he laughed, and looked around to see if any of us caught his ribald jest. We hadn’t. Especially his wife hadn’t. She just glared at him. I tried to break up a potential divorce by asking Patricia Unger how she’d met her husband.

“In the War,” she said. “I was a nurse and Henry was wounded. He has…a way of charming people, and I was charmed.”

“After I got home,” Henry cut in, “I wrote to her. We actually didn’t live far apart. I drove to see her, and the rest is history.”

“Where were you wounded?” I asked.

“Leg. They thought they might have to amputate, but I was fortunate.”

“Yes,” I said. “You were.”

“Were you in the war?”

“No, sir. I was a little too young, though not by much. I admit, I didn’t like reading the death rolls in the newspaper, and by the time I’d screwed up enough courage to lie about my age and enlist, the war was over.”

“Well, we can’t all be heroes.” Which was a slam, but I ignored it.

So did Peggy Williams. “Mr. Delancey, you are a private detective?”

“Yes, Mrs. Williams. Beulah’s my assistant.”

“Is that exciting work?”

“It can be. It can also be dull, even when there’s a case. A lot of my work is in the legs. Running to talk to this witness, that suspect.”

“And are you here to investigate us? To look into Walter’s murder?”

I knew that question was coming, though I had only a mildly good response.

“Not officially. I’ve not been hired by anyone. But I was asked just to observe, to give an opinion.”

Henry, who had settled down, got serious and asked, “And what is your opinion?”

I smiled, trying to make it friendly. “One of the first things you learn in my business, Mr. Unger is, never form an opinion before you’ve had a good chance to talk with everyone. I’ve got very little to go on, so far.”

“But surely you have some idea who killed poor Walter?”

“Sure. One of you.”

That dropped like a lead balloon, but that was my goal. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to hit people between the eyes and watch their reactions. That’s why I’d asked to be seated at the foot of the table, so I could see as many faces as possible. Unfortunately, that had been Walter’s spot, and Tillie wouldn’t hear of it. So I settled for second best: I sat next to Tillie and across from Beulah, two people I knew were innocent. That way, I could just look down the table and watch their faces.

I should give you the layout: Next to me were Peggy Williams, then Matthew Pomeroy, and finally Patricia Unger. Next to Beulah were Henry Unger, then Hilda Pomeroy, and finally Thomas Williams.

Their reactions weren’t what I expected: Most of them laughed. Some nervously, but they still laughed. They only ones who didn’t were the Ungers.

“That’s slanderous,” said the Henry Unger, the attorney.

“Baloney. I didn’t name a name. And let’s face it: I only repeated what I’m sure you heard from the police right after the murder. They knew one of the people at the dinner killed Walter, so it stands to reason.”

“But that’s no excuse for a rank amateur—“

“Please,” Tillie cut in. “I don’t like conflict at the dinner table.”

“Yes,” said Peggy Williams. “It should be in the bedroom, where it belongs.”

Her husband liked that one, and I cracked a grin. I told you I liked them. Her use of the term “bedroom”, however, made Patricia Unger turn a sour face her way, and Henry spluttered something about impropriety.

During this, Matthew and Hilda Pomeroy had been quiet. Matthew spoke now.

“Tell me, Mr. Delancey. Have you been apprised of what happened that night?”

“Nope. Only that all of you were eating supper and poor Walter was poisoned.”

“Then allow me. All of you may correct me if I err. We had gathered as a belated celebration of Tillie’s birthday. We sat in the same order we are now, but moved down one spot, to make room for you and Beulah. Walter was at the end. We had a fine supper of brisket, mock turtle soup, and a fine asparagus dish. The dinner had gone off without incident. There were four servants in attendance: The two here, who are under Tillie’s employ, and two others whom I don’t see tonight. Walter was always one to bring on extra help for a dinner party.”

“I told him it wasn’t necessary,” Tillie said.

“No, but that was Walter’s way. At any rate there were no mishaps that evening. No spilled soup or wine. Plenty of good food. We conversed on all sorts of topics, mostly the upcoming Christmas holiday. It was pleasant conversation. After supper, when our wine glasses were refilled and dessert was about to be served.”

“Chocolate mousse,” Tillie put in. “My favorite.”

“Yes. At any rate, Walter stood suddenly and proposed a toast.”

“Excuse me. What hand did he have the glass in?”

“What? Why would you ask such a question?”

“Just curious. I like to picture the whole scene in my brain.”

“His left,” said Tillie. “Walter was left-handed.”

“Fine. Go on, sir.”

“At any rate,” said Matthew, a little annoyed with me, “he called for a toast, and we drank, and then he said something queer. He said—and correct me, if I’m misquoting, anyone—he said, ‘Before we go off for cigars for the men and gossip for the women, I have an announcement.’ That was all he got out. He suddenly gagged, foamed at the mouth, and clutched his throat, and dropped to the table. I’m sorry to relive it, Tillie.”

“That’s all right, Matthew. I’m getting over it, little by little.”

“So,” he said to the others. “Did I get that right?”

Nods all around. They got hit harder by the description than Tillie. After giving them a moment, I went on.

“So. The cops found poison in his glass?”

“Right.” That was Henry. “I don’t really see how this gets us anywhere.”

“Bear with me, please,” I said, trying to be polite. “Sometimes, people shut out unpleasant memories, and along with it, something significant.”

“But we were over all this with the police! I don’t see what—“

“If I may. I’m willing to bet the cops asked you to describe the scene in private, no? Talked to each of you singly and not as a group?”

“Yes.” That was Peggy. “They said they didn’t want us to influence each other.”

“Right. That’s common procedure. But I find it works better to have everyone together. That way, people can correct stories. And, if the killer tries to lie, he or she could get caught out.”

Henry shook his head, but said nothing, which was a welcome change.

“Now,” I went on. “Tell me who had a chance to put something in Walter’s drink.”

“I guess I did,” said Patricia Unger with a smirk. “I was sitting next to him.”

“So was I,” Thomas Williams said, though he wasn’t smirking.

“Nonsense,” Henry Unger snapped. “I cannot—will not—believe my wife or Thomas had anything to do with the murder. It was the servants. Why aren’t you asking them? Especially those two who aren’t here?”

“It’s being looked into,” I said, and enjoyed his surprised look.

Matthew piped up. “Mr. Delancey, the fact is, anyone could have poisoned Walter’s drink. The police said it was a crystalline form of cyanide, and was likely placed in his wine glass before the wine was poured. We were all milling around before dinner, and anyone could have slipped the poison in, then.”

“Got it. And no one saw anyone else lingering around Walter’s place?”

“Walter was in Walter’s place,” Tillie said. “He always sat first. He got tired on his feet, and often sat down before anyone else.”

That was not welcome news. If Walter was hovering around his glass, then it would’ve been tough to slip anything into it without him seeing. I was stumped. Thankfully, it was getting on time for the seance.

Like prisoners to the gallows, we were led into a sitting room, where the curtains had been drawn. The electric lights were on, but a few very fat, short candles were on the table, spaced evenly. Tillie asked Henry to please light the candles with a nearby box of matches, and Patricia helped him. 

I looked around for the police inspector, who I’d been told would be there, but Aunt Tillie said he’d had a change of heart, that this was all nonsense, and he’d have no part in it. He’d miss a good show, as it turned out.

The lights were switched off. There were chairs for everyone. It was plenty dark, and Patricia Unger complained about it. She actually bumped into her chair, then angrily shifted a candle nearer so she could see to sit. Once she had her chair, she replaced the candle. One chair was left empty, and of course we all knew it was for Madame Ingrid.

I sat next to Beulah, as far from the medium as possible, since I didn’t want her to see me roll my eyes. On my other side was Matthew Pomeroy. Next to him was his wife, then Tillie, Thomas Williams, and finally Peggy. Next to Beulah were Hilda Pomeroy, then Henry Unger, and finally Patricia.

Everyone went quiet. From the side, a door opened, and in stepped a vision in gauze and silk. Madame Ingrid certainly dressed the part, though it was hard to see details in the darkened room.

“Gooood evening,” she intoned with a really bad gypsy accent. “Let us all remain silent, to better bring the spirit world to us.” She glided to her chair and sat.

Now I could see a bit more of her. She wore a head scarf over her hair, hoop earrings, and a thin shawl wrapped around her shoulders. The whole outfit was flimsy, and I noticed Ingrid was a young woman, without much fat on her. Beulah must’ve caught me looking, because she jabbed me with an elbow.

“Plis to join hands,” Madame Ingrid said, and everyone obeyed. “We are here to spik with our dear departed Walter. He has gone to the other side, but if we ask, perhaps he will tell us who killed him.” A pause. “Walter! Are you there?”

There was a long pause. Henry started to speak, but his wife must’ve done something with his hand because he piped down. The rest of us stayed quiet. I have to admit, Madame Ingrid put on a good show. It was pretty creepy. I half-expected a shimmery ghost like Jacob Marley to come walking in, chains and all.

What did happen was almost as unexpected. Madame Ingrid spoke again.

“I sense Walter is with us. Are you there, Walter?” Then she spoke with a deeper, man’s voice, which was more than a little weird. “I am here.” Ingrid: “Walter, can you tell us who killed you? Who placed the poison in your wine?”

Another pause, and this time it wasn’t totally silent. A faint hissing could be heard, like a steak on the grill. People looked at each other, but no one said anything. I was trying to figure out where the sound was coming from, and finally had it down, when Madame Ingrid spoke again, as Walter:

“Yes, I can tell you who poisoned me.”

“Walter” had barely gotten out the words when a faint zip sound came, and Madame Ingrid suddenly sat very still for a moment, wide-eyed. I thought it was part of her act, but then she fell onto the table.

For a second, no one moved. Then I called for the lights. Matthew went to switch them on. Everyone had stood by now, and hand-holding was forgotten. I took control. I checked Ingrid’s neck and found no pulse. A quick look at her lips and open eyes, and the froth on her mouth, told me all I needed to know.

“Beulah, go get a servant. The rest of you, stay here.”

“Who crowned you king?” Henry wanted to know, but I ignored him and so did everyone else.

Beulah and the servant came in. I told the frightened maid:

“Call an ambulance. Say we’ve got someone who’s dropped dead. Then call the cops and tell them there may be a murder.”

The maid left to do as she was told, while everyone in the room just looked stunned.

“It can’t have happened again,” Tillie said. “It just can’t.”

Matthew was staring at the victim. Now, there are people who can’t keep their eyes off a corpse, but usually they’re stunned and in a bit of shock: First time seeing someone who’s died from violence. But that wasn’t Matthew. He was looking at Ingrid strangely, with curiosity.

“No one touch anything,” I said, taking my attention back to the whole group. “I suggest we sit where we were at the seance, and wait for the police.”

“Bah,” said Henry. “I’m going to get a drink from the bar,” which was in the room, “and no one better stop me.”

He really wasn’t expecting me to stop him. But I did. In three strides I was standing in front of him.

“I said, no one is to touch anything. Now go back to your chair and wait for the police.”

I could tell he was trying to measure me, to see if he could take me. I don’t think he could have, but we’d both have come out of it with scrapes, so I was glad that Tillie spoke up.

“Henry, please do as Mr. Delancey says. He knows about these things.”

He gave me one last “oh yeah?” glare, then took his chair. Everyone else had waited to see how this played out. Once Henry obeyed, the rest did, too.

It wasn’t more than a couple minutes before the doc and the police arrived. The inspector, a guy named Penworthy, nodded when he was told we hadn’t touched anything since the death. When he was introduced, and heard my name, though, his ears perked up.

“I got a call from Inspector Fenrow about you.”

Henry smirked. I could’ve slapped him.

“He said you wanted information on two servants.”

Suddenly, a cry came from the table. It was Matthew.

“That’s where I’ve seen her! Madame Ingrid! She was the maid who served us at Tillie’s when Walter died.”

Penworthy closed his eyes, shook his head, and waggled a hand.

“Hang on. Hang on. What’s this all about?”

Ignoring him, Tillie stepped closer to the body. She removed the head scarf, and dark hair tumbled down around Ingrid’s face. “Is it? It is! You’re right Matthew. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Officer, this woman was present when my husband Walter was poisoned. She was a maid.”

“Yeah, yeah. I recognize her now. I was on that case. Walter, right? Poison in the wine? I remember we questioned her. Let her go. And now she’s been murdered?”

The question was posed to the doctor, who looked up and nodded. “Definitely poison,” he said. “I’ll know more when I get her to my table.”

Penworthy took me by the sleeve and led me over to a corner, where we could talk in private.

“Okay. Give me the poop from the beginning.”

So I laid out the whole tale, which, since you’ve already read it, you know. Then it was his turn.

“Inspector Fenrow told me you wanted to know about the servants. Well, the man, George…something or other, is in the clear, especially now. He’s working for a couple on the other side of town, and is there tonight. We checked. The gal is working for a family in the city, but begged to have off tonight. They didn’t want to let her off, but she claimed a family member was sick. Now here she is, masquerading as a medium. Why?”

“I’ve got an idea. Trouble is, even if I’m right, it gets us no closer to solving the murders.”

“What’s your idea?”

I was surprised Penworthy was so open for me to help. I learned later, it was my pal Jacob Fenrow who’d given me the thumbs up. Told Penworthy that, for a private detective, I was okay. It sure helped that night.

“What if,” I started slowly, “Ingrid, or whatever her name was—“

“Mary.”

“Better. What if Mary saw something the night Walter was killed? Saw something but couldn’t prove it. Or maybe she could prove it, and decided to cash in. All the guests here have loot, except for me and Beulah. Anyhow, if she tried blackmail, maybe the killer told her to go peddle her papers. So she figured out a way to accuse the killer, without needing proof. She’d announce who’d done it, in front of everyone, and even if there was no proof, suspicion would fall on that person.”

“And the murderer recognized her.”

I shook my head. “There had to be more planning than that. Somehow, the murderer found out ahead of time what was happening. Or guessed who Madame Ingrid really was. Regardless, this murder took planning. I wish we knew how Mary was poisoned. That would help.

As if on cue, the doctor brought us the answer. He came up to us, holding a very tiny needle.

“This, I believe, is the culprit. Stuck in the poor woman’s chest. I shall have to test the tip, of course, but my guess is, it has poison on it. Though what kind…I thought cyanide at first, but it would have to be a particularly lethal dose to kill so quickly, and the symptoms are wrong.”

“Isn’t cyanide a powder, anyway?” I asked.

“It is, but it can be dissolved in liquid. As I said, it would take a very powerful form to kill so quickly. Unless you assume the victim went around with this sticking in her chest and not pulling it out, which doesn’t seem likely.”

“Any other poisons possible?” the inspector asked.

“Sure. But I’ll have to have this analyzed.”

“So,” said Penworthy when the doc had gone, “how did that little needle get stuck in the chest of our medium? Can’t just walk up to a gal and say ‘Excuse me while I jab you with this.’”

“No. Besides which, Madame Ingrid didn’t put in an appearance till just before the seance. And, no one came near her: We were all sitting down.”

The inspector shook his head. “It just beats me. I guess I’ll have to let these folks go after we have their statements.”

“Yeah, I don’t see how you can keep ‘em. But maybe you should talk to that other servant, the one who’s working for that couple. It’s possible Mary said something to him, that might give us a clue what she saw the night Walter was killed.”

“Already on it, but thanks.”

We shook hands, and I went back into the seance room. It was empty: The lab boys had taken prints, the body was gone, and all the suspects were in another room, getting asked questions. I looked the place over. How could the killer possibly have done it? I walked around the table, finally sat in Madame Ingrid’s chair to ponder.

“Delancey?” That was Beulah, coming in.

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry to have dragged you into this.”

I waved it off. “Have a seat. Let’s talk this through. I just can’t figure out how the killer was able to stick that needle into the dead woman.”

She sat next to me.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Let’s go over the whole thing again, from the time we came into this room.”

So we did. Piece by piece, bit by bit. We stopped a few times, making sure we had our facts straight. Then we stopped once more.

“Remember that hissing noise?” Beulah asked.

“Yeah. No one could figure out where it was coming from, but then it stopped.”

“But it was right before Ingrid, or Mary, dropped over. Could that have something to do with it?”

I thought. Usually, it’s the little, odd things that add up to the answer. A hissing sound. By itself, harmless. But maybe, if we couple it with one more incident…

“Got an idea,” I said suddenly. “Is Penworthy still around?”

“I saw him in the kitchen. Snitching leftovers.”

“Great. I need to talk to him, pronto. Meantime, if you could talk to Matthew Pomeroy, the banker, I’d like you to ask him a couple of questions.”

Beulah looked puzzled, but I was too excited to care. I laid out my questions for Matthew, then headed for the kitchen.

 

“Inspector,” I called out, and a piece of turkey fell from his mouth into his open hand.

“What the hell?”

“I’ve got a good idea who our murderer is. But first, you need to come with me to the seance room.”

He downed the last of his turkey, wiped his hands on a towel, and followed me.

“How sure are you?” he asked on the way.

“Pretty sure. I’ve been wrong before, but this all makes sense. I need some information from Matthew Pomeroy, too. Beulah’s getting that.”

“Your secretary is interviewing my suspect?” He stopped, and so did I. “Now, hold on, Delancey. I’ve been pretty tolerant with your help on this case, but if you or she interfere—“

“By solving the crime? Look; if I’m wrong, you can hang me by my thumbs and tickle my feet.” I wish I was as confident as I sounded. Truth is, I’d been wrong on cases before, and even though all the pieces were starting to fit together on this one, I still had some blanks to fill in. If those fillers were out of place, my whole theory was shot.

We went to the seance room and I made a bee-line for the candle that had been nearest Madame Ingrid. Carefully, I took it from the holder.

“Do you have a magnifying glass?” I asked Penworthy.

“Do I look like Sherlock Holmes?”

I surveyed him for a bit. “I guess not. Anyhow, the accent’s all wrong. Okay, we may not need it: I think I see what I’m after. Take a look here, inspector. A close look.”

Penworthy took the candle and stared at the top. He was ready to call me a crackpot or something equally endearing when he saw what I’d seen.

“What is that? A wire?”

The wire I held was about four inches long, and had a crudely-made loop near one end. It wasn’t thick, but I could tell it was strong.

“Yup. And I bet, if your lab boys analyze it, they’ll find gunpowder residue.”

“How? And how does that help the case?”

I carefully set down the candle.

“When I was a kid, we used to make improvised fireworks. Some gunpowder from a shotgun shell, a tube for the chamber, and a fuse. It hissed and then let out a bang when the charge detonated. Lots of noise and sparks. What’s not to like?”

“So you’re saying this was a firework?”

“Yup. Maybe not improvised, either. I’ve seen tiny ones for sale in stores. They shoot a few feet into the air and make a racket. One of my friends lost two fingers and still does it every year. My point is, I think our killer stuck the needle into the firework, then attached the fuse to this wire. Looped it around the wick, and when the fire burned down, it set off the fuse.”

“That’s pretty farfetched. And when would anyone have time for it? Are you saying it was your secretary’s Aunt Tillie? She was the only one who had the time.”

“That was my first guess, but no, I don’t think so. The murderer was probably familiar with seances, that there would be candles, and rigged this wire contraption ahead of time. Then all that needed to be done was to slip the loop around the wick before the candle was lit.”

“What if the candles had been lit ahead of time?”

“Then you ‘accidentally’ snuff the candle, and relight it. The only thing the killer didn’t have time for, was to properly aim it. Slipping the loop over the wick would take dexterity, and to line up the candle just so, would take too long. So, she adjusted the aim later.”

“She?”

“Yup. Patricia Unger.”

“That’s a pretty big leap. Why would Mrs. Unger kill Walter?”

“I can answer that,” said Beulah, just coming into the room with Matthew Pomeroy.

“I asked Beulah to pose a few questions to Mr. Pomeroy,” I told the inspector. “Go ahead, Beulah.”

“Actually, I brought Mr. Pomeroy because he can explain it better.”

Matthew was clearly shaken, but he sat and filled us in.

“Walter was a good man, but a bit of a flirt. He never meant anything by it, though I believe he broke a few hearts along the way, when he went too far and women thought he was serious. One of those women was Patricia Unger.”

“And you know this how?” Inspector Penworthy asked.

“Rather a bad scene, I’m afraid. We were at a picnic this summer—all of the people here, plus a few more—and I happened to walk by Walter and Patricia in a quiet garden. Patricia was in tears. She told Walter he had his nerve, leading her on. She said she’d planned to divorce Henry, even hired an attorney. Walter apologize profusely, of course, but it was useless. Patricia had such hatred in her eyes.”

“Why didn’t you tell us this when Walter was murdered?”

“It all seemed over with. When we gathered for Tillie’s birthday, Patricia was her usual self, and chatted quite amicably with Walter. To be honest, I was relieved, and put the picnic incident out of my mind.”

I cut in. “That was only one question I had.”

Matthew looked blankly, then said, “Oh, yes. You asked about the Ungers finances.”

“Specifically, if they’d taken any expensive trips lately.”

“Yes. Of course, I cannot tell you exact numbers—confidentiality, and all that—but I can tell you the Ungers took a cruise in September. Sailed down the coast, to Central and South America. It was quite the excursion; they were gone several weeks.”

I turned to the inspector. “And probably came back with something like curare.”

“Curare?”

“A poison used by natives in South America. Paralyzes, and kills. It’s also been used as a sedative for surgery, so as an army nurse, Patricia Unger would’ve known all about it. Poor Mary—Madame Ingrid—was shot with it, much as those Indians shoot their prey with blow gun darts.”

There was a lone hand-clapping coming from the doorway. It was Patricia Unger, looking smug. I hate that look. She hadn’t come in from the hall; rather, she’d been standing in a small room next door, one we’d assumed was abandoned.

“Very good, Mr. Delancey. You seem to have worked this all out. The trouble is, you can’t prove any of it. Yes, I didn’t much care for Walter. Matthew was not lying, that I was upset. But motive is only a part of the puzzle. You have absolutely no proof I killed either Walter or the servant girl.”

Penworthy turned to me. “She’s right, Delancey.”

In turn, I looked at Beulah and nodded. My assistant left for the hallway and came back with Henry Unger. From the look on Henry’s face, I could figure out three things: One, he’d heard everything his wife had said, as well as what Matthew had told us. Two, he didn’t like it. Three, he’d known nothing about it, which was one thing I hadn’t been sure of.

“Pat!” he said. “What the devil did you do?”

“Nothing, Henry. Now pipe down.”

To the inspector: “I swear, I knew nothing about this. I’ll help in any way I can.”

This was news to Patricia. I’ve found it isn’t a good idea to tick off a murderer, but Henry went right on:

“Pat and I did some traveling, and she came back with a vial of something that I asked about. She claimed it was for her nerves, but wouldn’t let me near it, and I never saw her take any of it. Today, though, I saw her take it from her dresser and go into the bathroom with it.”

“So the rest of the bottle is in her dresser?” the inspector asked.

“She didn’t have it when she came back out. I suppose it’s still in our bathroom.”

All the while, Patricia’s face kept getting darker and darker, until it matched the clouds I’d seen one Sunday just before a tornado took down our neighbor’s shed. Now, she tore at Henry like a banshee, and it was all I could do, with Beulah’s help, to keep her from…whatever she planned to do to her husband. The inspector called for help, and two officers came running. Pretty soon the cuffs were slapped on her, and she was being led away.

“With your permission,” Penworthy said to Henry, “I’d like to have two officers accompany you to your home, to search for that vial.”

“Of course.”

 

And thus ended the story of the seance. Aunt Tillie praised me, though to this day I don’t think she understands exactly what happened. All she knows is that her husband’s killer is behind bars, waiting for her day in court. Henry Unger is not representing his wife.

I’m writing this on the last day of 1927, and it’s been a pretty wild ride. Along with my first year as private detective, I met and hired Beulah (after finding out who killed her husband). I was stabbed and nearly died. I met more gangsters than I ever wanted to, men like Earl and Knuckles and Louie the Twist (two of those guys are dead, which is both reassuring and unsettling). And of course I met my two little buddies, Eddie and Iggy—aka Holmes and Watson. 

My best friend is a police inspector, my assistant is a former murder suspect, and the tenant across the hall from my office is a hired mob numbers man. That about sums it up, don’t you think?

Beulah’s still at her Aunt Tillie’s, spending New Year’s there. I told her to take a little extra time, since she helped me solve Madame Ingrid’s murder. My buddy Jacob Fenrow stopped in for a drink, and to wish me a happy new year. He and his wife Gretchen are headed out for the dance floor. I suppose I should go somewhere, too. I am, after all, a bachelor on New Year’s Eve.

But I just don’t feel like it. Instead, I’m in the office, writing this essay and feeling more at home here than in my apartment. Does that make me strange?

Hang on, there’s a knock on my door…

That was Earl, the new leader of Knuckles Moran’s gang. He and I agreed that I didn’t want much to do with his gang, that I’d nearly died because of my association with the mobs. But he also felt I needed protection (which was right, as it turned out), and so he’s got a man across the hall, and I suspect he’s got someone watching my apartment, too.

Anyhow, Earl was very cordial, and brought me a bottle of his finest bootleg whiskey, which I thanked him kindly for. Then he invited me to one of the Moran speakeasies, to ring in the new year. I thanked him again and declined, said I wanted to hit the hay early. He said okay, and that was that.

So, goodbye 1927, hello 1928. I wonder what fresh hell the new year will bring.


© Copyright 2018 dan kussart. All rights reserved.

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