Delancey and the Plagiarist

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
Here's Delancey again, entering the world of local theater!

Submitted: January 09, 2019

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Submitted: January 09, 2019

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Case #35: May 1928 - Delancey and the Plagiarist

It’d been a pretty dull couple of months. I had a few cases, none of which took more than a day or two, and all involving spouses who couldn’t keep their marriage vows straight. Now it was May, and I wiled away the time listening to ball games on the radio and chatting with Beulah.

My assistant wasn’t much of a baseball fan when she started with me, a little over a year ago, but she’s taken to it now. In fact, she understands the strategy better than I do, sometimes. We have something else in common: She hates the Yankees. You wouldn’t believe what she calls Babe Ruth.

Anyhow, we were sitting in my office, and it’d just gone the second inning when a knock on the door sent Beulah scurrying into the outer office and me to turning off the radio. I heard her ask the fellow’s name, and pretty soon, she was ushering our visitor in, with an introduction.

Mr. Patrick Finnegan was your typical Irishman: Red-headed, round-shouldered, and keen-eyed. Finnegan was in his late twenties, short, and friendly. He shook my hand and took the offered chair.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Finnegan?” I asked.

“I would like to hire you. But I don’t have much money. I wonder if we can’t discuss fees now?”

“I don’t usually do that. If a case sounds interesting, I can adjust the fee.” Also, I should say, if I figured the job might lend itself to publicity, though I didn’t tell him that. “So let’s talk about your case, and if I like it, we can come to some agreement on how much. If I don’t take your case, I promise Mrs. Willows will destroy her notes, and I’ll forget all about it. I’m good at that,” I added before Beulah could say it first.

Finnegan managed a smile and said, “It’s a bit of a long story, I’m afraid, and requires a little background. First of all, I am, by trade, a bookkeeper. I work for Howard Manufacturing. There are three of us in the accounting department: The treasurer, and two bookkeepers. I am a bachelor, and live humbly.”

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” I asked, since his throat seemed to be getting dry.

“A glass of water would be nice.”

Beulah went to get it. We keep a few glasses in the office, but you have to use the public restroom faucet down the hall for water. She promised it wouldn’t be a minute, and pretty soon she was back. Finnegan took a sip of water as Beulah took up her pen and pad.

“Being single and young,” Finnegan said, “I’ve got a few ways to pass the time. Don’t like to sit at home every night.”

Beulah glanced my way: She knows I sit at home most nights.

“And what is it you do?” I asked and Beulah grinned.

“I go to the theater. Oh, I know, that sounds pretty hifalutin for a little old bookkeeper like me, but I don’t go to the top dollar plays. There are six playhouses in town, running from hoity-toity to barely legal. I’m somewhere in between. There are three playhouses I frequent.”

“You like Shakespeare, then?”

Finnegan made a face. “Not much. I’m more a man who likes a good comedy, or maybe a murder mystery. Things like that. Shakespeare wrote both, I know, but the language is more than I can stand.”

“Go on,” I said as he took a sip of water.

“Well, sitting in the theater night after night, I got an idea. An idea for a play. The more I thought about the idea, the better I liked it. So I figured, maybe I could just go to one of the playhouse directors and present my idea, and he could hire a writer to set it to paper. I see it sometimes in the playbill: ‘Written by Joe Smith, from an original idea by Tom Johnson’. Like that. I didn’t want money—well, a little would be nice—but having my name in a playbill would be a thrill. It really would.”

“So did you do it? Go to a director with your idea?”

“No. As much as getting my name on paper would be a kick, I decided to try for more. I figured, why couldn’t I write a play myself? So I went to the public library and checked out a couple of books on plays, you know, to get the layout down properly. How to write stage directions and so on. And then I wrote my play. I called it ‘A Spot of Trouble’. And I took it to a director. Mr. Anthony Ormond. My play is a drama with touches of humor, and those are the types of plays he puts on.”

“Sounds like you put a lot of thought and work into this.”

“I did. I went to see Mr. Ormond, and explained it all. He seemed impatient, unwilling to hear me out. Said he gets all kinds of people who think they can write a play, and it’s always so much drivel. That was the term he used: Drivel. I said my play was not drivel, and would he at least read a few pages while I waited? He saw how determined I was, and finally said I should leave it with him, that he’d read my play and let me know in a week what he thought.”

Another sip of water emptied his glass. He refused Beulah’s offer for more.

“After a week, I arranged to see Mr. Ormond. He said that he was sorry, that the play had potential but wasn’t very well written, and that I shouldn’t feel bad. I asked for the play back,  then he made what I thought was a kind offer. ‘Because I think your play has possibilities,’ he told me, ‘I would offer to make some suggestions. Allow me two weeks to do it.’ Well, I was thrilled! I knew I wasn’t the world’s best playwright, and any help I could get was wonderful. So I said sure, that would be fine.”

I glanced at the clock. Beulah frowned: What else did I have to do but listen to Finnegan? she was thinking.

“But,” Finnegan went on, “ten days later, I got a telephone call. Ormond wanted to see me right away. I went to his house, and he looked very upset. Turned out, he said, his cat had come in and…well, he showed be shreds of papers that I could barely recognize as my play.”

“And you had no copy.”

Finnegan put his head down. “I’m new at this. I never thought to make a carbon.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s rough, but hardly a crime. Unless you want me to search the law books for a cat’s claws.” I grinned. Beulah rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out. She just doesn’t appreciate high-brow humor. Finnegan, though, never saw either of our reactions, nor did he get the joke. His head was still down. Now, he raised it.

“Actually, that’s not why I’m here. My heart was broken to see the shredded play, of course, but I understood it was not intentional. So I took the shreds home and, after trying to piece them together without success, I tossed it in the wastepaper basket. From the missing chunks, I suspected the cat had not only shredded the play, he must have consumed some of it, too.

“That would have been that,” he went on, “except that, three months later—two nights ago—I went to the playhouse and lo and behold, Director Ormond was putting on my play! And claiming it as his own! He had changed the names, and the title—called it ‘Hard at Work’—but every line was mine. I could tell it! Now, I had tried to rewrite my play, but was having a hard time with it. So I have twenty pages or so, and some of the lines are different. Now, when I heard the lines spoken in ‘Hard at Work’ I could recognize them. That filthy…director stole my play! And, in the playbill, there was not a single reference to me. Ormond claimed to be the writer.”

“Not very nice. Did you talk to him?”

“Of course I did. I saw him backstage after the play, and accused him of stealing my work. Had it out with him, in front of a few actors and stage hands. Everyone was staring, but I didn’t care.”

“And what did Ormond say?”

“At first he looked amused, then he got angry. Told me to beat it, said he remembered me bringing him an inferior play, that he had told me it was no good, and now I was coming at him with this spurious claim. He threatened to call the police if I didn’t leave. Again, this was in front of a good half dozen people. What could I do? I left.”

After a moment, I said, “Look, Mr. Finnegan. What Ormond did to you was despicable. But I think what you really need is a lawyer. Sue the bugger for everything he’s making on that play.”

“I did go to an attorney. Right now, he told me, I hadn’t a leg to stand on. What I needed was an investigator, someone to get evidence the play was stolen. That’s where you come in. He suggested I look you up.”

“An attorney suggested my name?”

“Yes. Mr. Harlan Oglethorpe is his name.”

That sounded familiar. Beulah clearly recognized the name, but the look on her face suggested I should wait to ask her.

“Okay. So you want to hire me to dig into this.”

“Yes. And now may we discuss your fee?”

“Give me a buck now, and after I’ve had a chance to look things over, I’ll get a hold of you, to discuss what it might cost. This could take a few hours, or several weeks. Or I might never succeed.”

“I understand.”

“Give Mrs. Willows, here, your telephone number and I’ll be in touch. How can I reach this Ormond character?”

“I’ll give you his home address, but he spends much of his time at the Rio Theater when he’s got a play on.”

“The Rio. Got it.”

Finnegan gave Beulah all the details, thanked us, and left.

“So,” I said. “Who’s Harlan Oglethorpe?”

“He’s the attorney,” she said, “for Knuckles Moran’s gang.”

My heart sank. I’d taken a case for Knuckles Moran last year, then solved his murder. Ever since then, the new boss of the Moran gang, Earl by name, had treated me like a best friend. That was kind, and it was vaguely pleasing to know I was on the good side of one of the city’s biggest gangs, but it was also unsettling to have them around. Why, Earl had even installed the gang’s accountant, Jack Tanner, just down the hall. Now I was getting referrals from their attorney. This was bothersome.

“Well,” I said, “it’s too late now. I’ve got to see this through. But maybe I’ll have a chat with Earl about it afterwards.”

I was about to head out, to see the director, Anthony Ormond, when my pal Inspector Jacob Fenrow strolled in. This was way earlier than he usually comes by, which didn’t bode well: It meant he was on business. He didn’t seem upset, though. He took the offered chair, crossed his legs, and began:

“You seen your two little buddies lately?”

“Who? Eddie and Iggy? Sure. They pop in ever so often. Eddie can’t keep away from Beulah for long.”

She whacked me a good one on the arm (which left a mark, I’ll have her know) and Fenrow grinned.

“Good. I want you to give them a message. Remember that knife they found a couple months back?”

“Well, their friend found it and they took it to me.”

“Whatever. The point is, that knife has started the FBI snooping around.”

“The Feds! Holy cow. What’s that all about?”

Jacob shrugged. “They won’t tell me. All they said was, I should leave it in their hands, and whoever found the knife—I didn’t tell ‘em it was kids—should let it go. And maybe they were just being overly dramatic, but it sounded like they were very serious, like this could be a big case, way over my pay grade. So tell the boys not to go poking around in it, okay?”

“Sure. You know kids. I’m betting they’ve already forgotten about it. But if either of them mentions it, I’ll advise them to lay off.”

“Good deal.” He stood. “Well, much as I’d like to stay and chat, some of us have to work for a living.”

He left before I could reply. A few minutes later, I was out the door, too, off for the Rio Theater.

Since the play was only on at night except for a Sunday matinee, the theater was pretty quiet. I knocked a couple times at the stage door, and finally got an answer. It was a bulldog of a man, shirt sleeves rolled up, unlit stogie in his mouth, hair greasy and mussed. He blinked at the daylight and demanded to know what the hell I wanted.

“My name’s Delancey. Is Mr. Ormond available?”

“Ormond ain’t here. Won’t be for another hour.”

“Oh. Well, what about the manager?”

“Mr. Wilhelm’s here, but…what’d you say your name was?”

“Delancey.”

I handed him my card and he looked at it like a chimp might’ve. Then he told me to wait, and shut the door. He was gone so long, I thought he’d played a prank. After ten minutes, though, he was back, and told me to follow.

Through a maze of dark corridors, smelling of musty wood, finally ending up at an unassuming office door with “Man ger” stenciled on the outside (the middle “a” was rubbed off, so it looked like I was visiting the Christ Child). A knock, and we entered, the caretaker introduced me to a fat little man with few hairs plastered on a sweaty head. He shook my hand, and invited me to sit.

“I won’t take up much of your time,” I said. “I’ve been hired to look into allegations that your current play, ‘Hard at Work’, is a plagiarism of another play.”

I waited for a reaction. What I got were several blinks, and finally:

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Ormond handles the creative side of things. I’m just here to keep the lights on and cigarette butts off the floor.”

“I’m sorry. I just thought that, if word got out that a play your house was putting on, might be illegal—“

“I didn’t say I didn’t care. I said I had no idea what you were talking about. Who is this, who claims the play is stolen?”

“The author of another play. Claims he showed his work to Ormond, who proceeded to tell my client it was no good, then put on the same play with a new title and changed character names. The lines, he says, are word for word.”

“And does your client have proof?”

I grinned. “If he did, there’d be a lawyer parked in this chair. No, I’m here to look into it. I don’t say my client is telling the truth. Just want to get to the bottom of it.”

“I appreciate your candor,” Wilhelm said after a moment. “Would it help if I spoke to Ormond?”

“It could.”

“Then consider it done. Call me tomorrow—“ he handed a business card to me “—and I’ll let you know what he said.”

“I appreciate that. One more thing. When do the performers arrive? I’d like to speak to them.”

He frowned. “I don’t want them interfered with. Actors are a weird lot. Very superstitious. Like their routines. Some of ‘em get here two hours ahead of showtime, others, just early enough to get into costume and their makeup on.”

“Well,” I said, trying to keep things friendly, “let’s see what happens when you’ve talked to Ormond. Then maybe I can arrange a time to speak to the actors.”

“That would be fine.”

I wished him good day, and headed back to the office.

I really wish I could tell you how successful this whole venture was. Fact is, over the next couple days, I’ve never been so damned frustrated. First Carl Wilhelm called to tell me that the director would see me, but only under protest. So I went to see him, and he denied up, down, and sideways that he hadn’t stolen the play. Then, I spoke to several of the actors—all of whom could use a dose of humility—and no one could tell me a blessed thing. One, an old hambone named Wilfred Sparks, who liked to play every role over the top, told me he might have seen Ormond and Finnegan arguing about the play, but he couldn’t be sure. “You see so many,” he told me whilst lounging in a smoking jacket and carpet slippers, “who wish to get into the theater. But only the few have a real talent, you see.” Implying he had the talent and we plebeians did not.

And on like that. No one had seen anything with Finnegan and Ormond. Or maybe they were just too busy looking in their mirrors to notice.

So, after a few days I telephoned my client to break the bad news.

“I wish I could tell you there was light,” I admitted to him over the telephone. “If there were, I’d pursue it. But there just isn’t anything. I could keep trying, but it would be a waste of my time and your money.”

He sighed. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing. I’m as frustrated as you are, and I don’t think I’ve earned a dime.”

He thanked me, sounding pretty shaky, and I wished him well.

That might’ve been the end of it, but two days later, as the ballgame was finishing for the day, in walked Inspector Fenrow.

“What was the score?” he asked.

“Cubs, 2-1.”

“Ah. Well, they won’t ever win the Series again, so why not give ‘em their little triumphs?”

“I take it you did not come here to talk sports?”

“Nope.” He sat opposite me. Beulah was already in the office, having listened to the end of the game with me. “Just once,” he said with a sigh, I’d like to come across a murder where you’re not involved.”

That wasn’t a good start. I asked what he was talking about. He took out one of my business cards, and handed it to me.

“Early this morning, a fella by the name of Anthony Ormond was found murdered in his office, over at the Rio Theater. We found that on his desk.”

“And you want to know how it got there.”

Fenrow sighed again. He knows when I’m stalling for time. I had to think about how much I should tell him, and needed a moment. Finally, I figured, what the heck, Finnegan’s not my client anymore. So I spilled it. Told Jacob everything, and wound up with, “So you see, I’m not really involved.”

“So would you say this Patrick Finnegan had a beef with Ormond? Might want to bump him off?”

“A beef, yes. Bump him off, I doubt.”

“Why doubt it? You said yourself that it was a dead end. Maybe he just wanted to—“

Fenrow was interrupted by my telephone. Beulah answered and handed the receiver to the inspector.

“Hello,” Jacob said, annoyed. He hates talking on the telephone. “Yeah…yeah…I got that name…well, go pick him up! Must I do everything? Sheesh! I’ll be there in two shakes.” He handed the receiver back to Beulah, to hang up. “That was one of my men. Alberts. Eager but dim. Anyhow, he said they found a paper that Ormond had written—at least it’s signed by him; we’ll have to check the handwriting—that mentions your boy Finnegan. Now before I go, tell me: Why do think he wouldn’t have murdered Ormond?”

I grinned. Jacob may think my work is dodgy, not like a legitimate cop, but he respects my opinion.

“He just didn’t have it in him. He was quiet and steady, and…just my gut tells me no.”

“Beulah? Gals sometimes have a feel for these things.”

“You’ll turn my head,” she said flatly.

“You know what I mean. What did you think of Finnegan? Did he have it in him to kill?”

“Maybe, but I think it would’ve taken something more than a stolen play.”

Fenrow paused, then stood suddenly. “Right. Well, I’m off.”

“Will you stop by later?” I asked. “Discuss the case?”

“Sure. Keep the brandy handy.”

He looked pleased with his little rhyme, and walked out. True to his word, he was back around five. Beulah left early: Had a date with Pete Stephenson, the guy she met at the Valentine’s dance, so I was alone when Fenrow walked in, looking grim.

“Well,” he said as he sat and I poured him a drink, “we arrested your client.”

“Former client. Patrick Finnegan? Really?”

“I know you said you didn’t think he could’ve done it, but everything points to it. You can’t deny he had motive.”

“No, I can’t deny it.”

“Right. Well, he had means and opportunity, too.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Jacob took a sip of brandy and winced. My brandy may not be the best bootleg available, but with Prohibition still the law of the land, it’s the best he’s likely to get. So I don’t know why he winces when he drinks it. Anyhow:

“Last night, the play they’re putting on, ‘Hard at Work’ was its usual success. The manager, Carl Wilhelm, says he was pleased with the take. Now, we’ve got three sets of people who were in the theater: The audience, the actors, and all the folks behind the scenes. The audience, I’m told, cleared out just fine, no stragglers, and—the show ended around 9:30—by ten, all those folks were gone.

“Next we have the actors. That lot are creatures of habit. Some like to go home and sleep, some go out for a meal and a drink or six. Regardless, not a single one of them likes to stick around long after the play’s over. They wipe off their makeup, change into their street clothes, and out they go. So by ten, they’re long gone.

“That leaves the rest of the crew. You’ve got three stage hands. One sets everything up on stage, the way it’s supposed to be at the start of the play, for tomorrow. He also checks all the doors, to make sure they’re locked up tight. The second guy sweeps the floors with one of those big push mops, both the stage floor and the aisles. A third picks up all the scrap folks left behind. They all finish around ten-thirty, quarter to eleven, sometime around there. When they’re done, they head home.”

“Hold on,” I said. “The doors are checked after the guy resets the stage?”

“I caught that, too. But he said the doors are already locked; he just double-checks them, and last night, all the doors were locked when he checked.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“So everyone was gone, except Wilhelm and Ormond, the owner and the director. Wilhelm was in his office, tallying up the night’s take, and Ormond was relaxing with a glass of rotgut and ‘brooding’. He liked to do that: ‘Brood’. Made him sound Shakespearean, I guess. Around eleven, Wilhelm packed it up, and started out. He called good night to Ormond, who grunted a reply.”

“But he didn’t actually see Ormond.”

“Nope. Then Wilhelm headed out. He says he saw a guy lingering in the shadows, a guy who hurried past him as he headed out the alley and to the street. And he’s certain it was Patrick Finnegan.”

“So what do you say happened?”

“Well, the obvious answer is, Finnegan slipped through the stage door as it was closing.”

“I went to that door to meet with Wilhelm,” I said, nodding.

“Sure. That door swings wide, and takes its own sweet time to close. A fast intruder could’ve slipped through before it shut.”

“And Wilhelm didn’t pay attention to that possibility? He never looked back?”

“He looked back, and saw the door shut, but concedes that, if someone was fast enough, he never would’ve seen him. So there’s your opportunity for the murder. As to the means, well, the gun used was kept in Ormond’s desk. One shot, right in the forehead.”

I shook my head. “I admit, Finnegan could have done it. But just as easily, one of the others could’ve too. An actor or stagehand might’ve stayed behind and hidden until everyone but Ormond was gone. Or Wilhelm, admittedly the last guy in the theater except Ormond. I just don’t see that the clear suspect is Finnegan.”

“Well, that’s where the note comes in. I don’t have it with me, because it’s evidence, but I copied it down.”

He handed a slip of paper to me, and I read it (no mean feat, because Fenrow writes in something like Sanskrit):

I, Anthony Ormond, do hereby admit that I forged the play, “Hard at Work”, that it was originally written by Mr. Patrick Finnegan as a play “A Spot of Trouble”. I hereby relinquish all rights to said play’s royalties and pass them on to Mr. Finnegan — Anthony Ormond”

“That last bit was his signature,” Fenrow said, and told me I could keep the paper, as he had another copy in his desk.

“I still think anyone could’ve killed Ormond.”

“Sure. I’m not saying Finnegan’s convicted. Lord knows, he hasn’t confessed. In fact, he’s barely said a word. Which is another reason I came to see you. You think you could talk to him? I mean, he’s got an attorney, but that guy’s pretty useless. I wouldn’t confess anything to him.”

“Wait. I thought…” I had recalled that Finnegan mentioned Harlan Oglethorpe, that attorney for Knuckles Moran’s gang. If Finnegan had Oglethorpe for his lawyer, he could pretty much confess anything he wanted to him. Surely Oglethorpe had heard far worse than killing a director. But I didn’t think it the best idea to bring up that name to Fenrow. So I changed gears. “I mean, who is his attorney?”

“Some two-bit guy named Hughes.”

“Oh. Never heard of him.”

Jacob looked at me suspiciously, but said, “So will you talk to him?”

“Get him to confess?”

“Get him to talk. To say something. Anything.”

“I’ll see what I can do. But I warn you: If he confesses to me in confidence, I’m not telling anyone else.”

Fenrow scowled. There is no such thing as detective-client privilege. Still, he agreed, and so from the office, we hopped into his snazzy new police car and off we went to the city jail.

I’ve been in the city lock-up a couple times, once as a “guest”, but we won’t go into that. It’s always depressing: Nothing but drunks and prostitutes and the occasional housebreaker. All of them down on their luck, all look at you as you pass with bleary, tired eyes. We walked past the cells and into an interview room, where a bored cop was watching Finnegan. Inspector Fenrow jerked a thumb at the cop and they left Finnegan and me alone.

“Why are you here?” he asked when I sat across the table from him.

“Supposedly, it’s to get you to talk—“

“I won’t!”

“Calm down. I said ‘supposedly’. Actually, I came because a) I wanted to see how you are, and b) I wanted to hear your side of the story and why you won’t tell it to the cops.”

“I didn’t do it.”

“Okay, that’s a start. Any idea who did?”

“No.”

This wasn’t going well.

“What were you doing at the time Ormond was bumped off? Around, say, eleven?”

Finnegan shrugged. “I was in bed. Probably asleep. Maybe not. I don’t sleep very well these days.”

“But you weren’t anywhere near the theater.”

“No!”

“Okay. Calm down. Did you tell the cops this?”

“Of course I did. But they didn’t believe me, so I figured, ‘you guys can go to hell’, and I stopped talking. When you say they want me to talk, what they really want is a confession, and they’re not getting it.”

“Gotcha. But you really have no clue who might’ve killed the director? You go to the theater a lot; maybe you heard someone talking like he wanted to off Ormond?”

“Look. I’ve been to plenty of performances, and usually I can tell when an actor’s heart isn’t it. Once in awhile, I get a sense they think the director has them doing something stupid. But enough to kill him? I don’t know those people well enough to have an opinion on it.”

“The cops found a letter, supposedly from Ormond, that admits he stole your play.”

Finnegan smiled. “The police told me that. And I told them that that should prove I didn’t kill him: If, let’s say, I had confronted him with a gun, he could’ve showed me the letter and I would’ve taken the letter and walked away a happy man. Why would I kill him?”

“You wouldn’t.”

He sat back, with a smile that reminded me of my Cousin Jimmy when he’d whipped me in chess. A superior look of triumph. I hated my Cousin Jimmy. But I could see why Finnegan smiled. He’d won me over. Now all he had to do was convince the police.

“Okay,” I said. “Do I have your permission to look into this matter in your name?”

“Of course!”

“One more thing then. Why did you drop Harlan Oglethorpe as your attorney?”

“What? Oh. Mr. Oglethorpe was only representing me in the case against Ormond. He didn’t want to touch this.”

“Got it.”

We shook hands and I left him.

I next headed over to the theater, where Carl Wilhelm, the owner, was busy tearing out his hair.

“I hate to interrupt,” I said, “but I wondered if you could answer a few questions.”

“No! Get out! Isn’t it bad enough I’ve been harangued by the police? Isn’t it bad enough that I’ve lost my director and that my actors, too, are being bothered by police? Now I have you?”

“Yeah, I’m a regular Black Death. Meantime, though, I’m trying to save a man from life in prison. Now can you help me?”

He calmed just a bit, and said, “My assistant is over in the next office. Talk to her.”

I touched my hat brim and thanked him, then went next door to a small office with filing cabinets and a tiny, one-paper-at-a-time size desk. Behind the desk was a young gal with buck teeth and a very efficient manner. She looked up as I entered and grinned, showing all those teeth.

“Kicked you out, eh?”

“I’ve been kicked out of worse joints than this. Listen. My name’s Delancey, and I’m a private investigator. I’ve been asked by Mr. Patrick Finnegan, who’s been accused of murdering Anthony Ormond, to look into the case. Will you help?”

She shrugged. “I can try.”

“Great. What’s your name?”

“Gretchen Plonk.”

“I see. Well Gretchen—may I call you Gretchen? Thanks—I was hoping to talk to the various actors, as well as your boss, about the night Ormond was killed. If you could get me names and telephone numbers and addresses, that’d be great. By the way: What’d you think of Ormond?”

“He was a jerk. Acted that way to everyone. Thought he was Cecil B. himself. Everyone knew he wasn’t, and most put up with him, but a few took offense. Mostly those who didn’t know him well.”

“So the veteran actors didn’t have a grudge?”

“They tolerated him. There might’ve been one or two who actually liked him, though I doubt it.”

“Why did Mr. Wilhelm keep him on, then?”

“You’ve got it a little turned around, Mr. Delancey. See, the theater group is a separate entity from the theater. Ormond was the head of his theater company, and rented the theater. They were a steady income for Mr. Wilhelm, so he wasn’t likely to kick him out.”

“Oh. I guess from what he said, your boss said he needed a new director—“

“He just meant the company might fold without their leader, and there goes the income.”

“And Mr. Wilhelm was in charge of the receipts? I understand he was counting up the night’s take, that evening Ormond was killed.”

“Sure. See, Mr. Ormond wasn’t one for business. He was an artiste,” she added with a snobby look to mimic the dead director. “So Mr. Wilhelm handled the receipts and gave Ormond his cut. My boss also paid the actors. It was cleaner that way.”

“I see. Is there a temporary director?”

She nodded. “Wilfred Sparks, an actor.”

“I met him.”

“Too bad.”

Sparks was the aging hambone I’d met before when first investigating the claim of plagiarism.

“Any chance Sparks will be the permanent director?”

“No way. He’s too high and mighty to sully his hands with such a chore. He’s Shakespeare, in his mind.”

I nodded. “Anyhow, could you get me the names, addresses, telephone numbers?”

“Why not?”

She went into a little book and copied six names down, handed the list to me. I thanked her kindly, and she smiled another toothy smile as we exchanged goodbyes.

I figured the best start was Wilfred Sparks, though I wasn’t looking forward to it. He was insufferable when we’d first met, and that was just an exchange of a few words. Still, there was no other way. I hopped the streetcar for Sparks’ neighborhood and walked a block to a quiet residential part of town.

Sparks’ house was not as grand as I thought it might be. Nice enough, too large for a single man, but nothing special. Until I got inside. There, the house was like a museum of the theater. On every wall were posters and playbills—and not just plays that Sparks had been in, either. He had stuff from everywhere, from London and Paris and Moscow, as well as New York, Chicago, and Kansas City. I admired the display, which was up on every available inch of wall, and that put me in good with Sparks, who beamed with pride.

“Yes, I attended nearly all these performances, sometimes in capacity as actor.” He waved a hand in the direction of large poster announcing Hamlet at the Orpheum, with Mr. Wilfred Sparks in the title role, and smiled proudly.

“Very impressive,” I said, meaning it.

“Yes. Of course, I have since eschewed Shakespeare for more…common roles, but I am content. Not many may say they’ve played all the major male roles of the Bard.”

“No indeed,” I said.

I politely refused the tea he offered, and we sat down in his parlor, a small, somewhat feminine room, to talk.

“The last time we met,” I said, “I was looking into possible plagiarism against Mr. Ormond. Now, I’m looking at who might’ve killed him.”

Sparks frowned. “I do not understand. Don’t the police have the culprit?”

“They have Mr. Finnegan in custody, but I question whether he did it.”

“I see. So you are working for him.”

“I am.”

“Well, I don’t know that there’s much I can tell you, sir. I was long gone before the poor fellow was murdered.”

“I understand that. But I was hoping that, as the star of the show—“ He gave a modest “Tut, tut!” though I could tell he was pleased “—you’d have some insight into life at the theater. For instance, was it normal for Mr. Ormond to stay behind that late after a show?”

“Quite normal. He said it was to wind down, as if he’d actually trodden the boards with us! Imagine! What did he have to wind down from?”

“So he just sat in his room and…what? Had a belt?”

“Oh, well, as to that, I cannot say for certain…”

“Indulge me.”

“Very well. The rumor was, he took cocaine.”

“Really? The police didn’t say anything about finding any narcotics.”

Sparks waved a hand, which had three large rings on it. “Oh, fie! The police around here wouldn’t know cocaine from dusting powder. And of course, it isn’t the sort of thing Mr. Ormond would just leave lying about, is it?”

“No. To go on, then. I’m not familiar with the theater. Is it large enough backstage, that someone could hide for a bit after the performance, and come out later to kill Ormond?”

“It is large, but the crew do a thorough job of cleaning, I can tell you. The last thing Mr. Wilhelm would want is to have someone remain behind and rob or wreck the place.”

“Got it. Any chance Mr. Wilhelm bumped off the director?”

Sparks nearly choked. “Wilhelm? Not on your life, sir. Not for all the tea in China, nor all the ships at sea, sir!”

Oh, oh. He was slipping into a Dickens character. I had to head it off.

“Why not?”

“Why not? Well, it’s simple, isn’t it? Our acting troupe made Wilhelm money. Mr. Ormond, warty though he may have been, was a money-maker. He put on plays people wanted to see, and did it well. So why would Wilhelm want to kill him?”

“Mr. Ormond never suggested he might…let’s say, go elsewhere? Work in another theater?”

“Not that I know of. That would’ve prompted Mr. Wilhelm to anger, of course, but certainly I would have been told. I was like Mr. Ormond’s right hand, you see. He would have done nothing without consulting me first.”

“One more thing. Did everyone know Mr. Ormond kept a gun in his desk?”

“Oh, yes. That was because, a few years ago, there was an intruder, and Mr. Ormond shot him. Nothing serious—the man had terrible aim. He once tried to chuck a script on his chair two feet away and sent it flying. Perhaps it was his cocaine use, though he never used that whilst working, only after a performance, and then seldom. At any rate, after the intruder, everyone was fully aware Mr. Ormond owned a gun and would use it, if not very well.”

“I see. Well, thank you, sir.” We stood. “You’re taking over as director for now?”

“I am,” he said with a sour face.

“You don’t like to do it?”

“No! I have enough to do, being the star player, without worrying over who is supposed to enter when. No, the sooner we have a new director, the better I shall sleep.”

We shook hands and I left.

I visited the other players over the course of the next twenty-four hours. Some were receptive to talk, like Sparks, and others wanted me gone. I’d bugged them once before, when investigating the plagiarism case, and they’d had enough of me. Anyhow, they all answered at least some of my questions, and to be honest, Sparks had told me most. Only one other mentioned the cocaine, and they all agreed it was common knowledge about Ormond’s gun.

So I went back to the office, frustrated as hell. This whole business had been one series of dead ends, and I made up my mind that, the next day, I’d visit Finnegan and tell him I was giving up. I hated to do it: I may not be the best detective, but I’ve always prided myself in sticking with a case until it was done. Sometimes the bad guy got away—witness the Lonely Hearts case back in February—but at least I knew who’d done it. Not this time.

A few minutes before five, Beulah and were ready to quit for the day, when the elevator clanged to life, and pretty soon in walked two men. One I knew, the other I’d only heard of.

“Earl,” I said, unable to hide a frown.

Earl was the right-hand man for Knuckles Moran, one of my first clients. Knuckles ran a gang in town that got up to all sorts of mischief. Well, Knuckles was murdered, and I figured out who’d done it, and now Earl was in charge, though they still called it the Moran gang. Like I said, their bookkeeper, Jack Tanner, had an office down the hall from me, because there’d been some concern—warranted—that my life might be in danger if I helped the Moran gang too much. Now, Earl had agreed to hold off visiting me for this very reason, and I appreciated it, but here he was, and with him was:

“Harlan Oglethorpe,” said the tall drink of water with Earl. “I handle the legal affairs of the Moran Organization.”

“I’ve heard the name. Pleased to meet you,” I lied.

They took chairs without being asked, and Beulah took her usual seat by my side.

“We are sorry to have bothered you,” said Earl, “but Mr. Oglethorpe thought it would be the right thing to come to see you, and the sooner the better.”

“Am I right,” I said, “in thinking this has something to do with Patrick Finnegan?”

“It does,” Oglethorpe nodded.

“He told me he consulted you about the plagiarism deal and you put him on to me, saying he needed more evidence.”

Oglethorpe and Earl looked at each other, sort of funny. Then the lawyer turned back to me.

“I think somehow you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.”

That sent my heart into my gut and I swallowed hard and asked if they’d like some water because I could sure use some. They declined, and I took a sip from the glass I usually have on my desk as the weather warms. The water was warm, but it whetted my whistle, and I went on.

“Oh? How so?”

This time, Earl answered. “Mr. Finnegan, whom I did not trust so far as I could throw the gentleman on account of he’s Irish and my own father said never trust an Irishman so far as you might throw him—this gentleman worked for Knuckles Moran before Knuckles untimily bit the dust. I do not know why Knuckles employed such a fellow, but one did not argue with Knuckles once Knuckles’ mind was made up.

“Now,” Earl went on, “everyone has his little foibles, and Finnegan is no exception. His is the theater. He loves the plays and goes to see them with some regularity. He fancies himself—“

“A playwright,” I put in.

Earl looked sour. “No, sir. A director and an actor, but not a playwright.”

“But he wrote a play.”

Oglethorpe took a turn. “Not so far as I know. Oh, I know his story. He probably told it to you. Said he wrote a play, and that fellow Ormond stole it from him. But Mr. Finnegan’s talents do not lay in that direction. I don’t say he didn’t write a play; I seriously question whether he wrote a good play.”

“So this whole plagiarism thing—?”

“Was a pack of lies, yes, sir.”

“But that’s good! That takes away his motive for killing Ormond!”

“Did you not listen?” Earl asked. “Mr. Oglethorpe has just told you that Finnegan fancied himself an actor and a director. He wanted a job with the acting troupe which puts on the plays, but Mr. Ormond told him to peddle his papers on a short pier. And that made Mr. Finnegan extremely angry.”

“So wait. You think Finnegan did it? He killed Ormond?”

“I would lay several large wagers on it,” Earl said.

“Do you have proof?”

“No,” Oglethorpe said, “we were rather hoping you’d find that for us.”

“Hang on. I promised Finnegan—“

“Finnegan has lied to you, Mr. Delancey. I assume he has paid you nothing.”

“A dollar for a retainer.”

“Precisely. We are prepared to pay you one hundred dollars, right now, to investigate.”

“Not that I mind, but the cops have already arrested Finnegan. There’s no need to investigate.”

The attorney turned to Earl and said, “I thought you told me he was sharp.” Beulah hid a smile, not very well. Oglethorpe turned back to me. “They’ve arrested Finnegan under a false pretext. Once it comes out that Finnegan didn’t really write a play, the jury will think as you did, that there was no motive. You might be called as a witness, but if he confesses to telling you a fib, well, there goes the case.” He took out a C-note and placed on my desk. “Get to work.” They started to leave, but I stopped them. 

“One more thing, then. Why are you all so fired concerned that Finnegan gets tossed in jail without parole?”

“Mr. Finnegan,” said Oglethorpe as he sat down again, “has not just lied to you. He has lied to us. He is one of those individuals that will say anything to make himself look good. The latest lies he told us…well, I’ll just say they damaged us most severely. I won’t say any more, because the less you know about that, the better.”

“Thank you.”

“At any rate, we want to make sure Mr. Finnegan never returns to torment us again.”

“I thought you had ways of seeing to that,” I said with a grin.

Oglethorpe didn’t find my comment amusing.

“Motion picture claptrap. In reality, we aren’t so cavalier with human lives.”

“Good to know. All right, I’ll see what I can do.”

They thanked me and left. Beulah sighed.

“You’re in it now, Delancey.”

“Yeah, I know. Well, I’m off.”

“Where to?”

“I want to see Finnegan.”

“You’re too late.” That came not from Beulah but from Inspector Fenrow, who stood in the doorway looking weary. “We had to let him go. Figure he did it, but not enough evidence.”

“So he’s back home.”

“Yup. We’ve got eyes on him, to make sure he doesn’t go too far—asked him to stay nearby in case we need to talk to him again—but otherwise, he’s a free man. Was that the goon from Moran’s gang I saw leaving?”

“Please don’t call Earl a goon.”

Jacob raised his eyebrows, but didn’t comment as he sat. “Ah, this case has been one long nightmare. We’re pretty sure Finnegan did it, as sure as you are that he didn’t, but we haven’t got enough to charge him.”

“Actually,” I said, “I’m not so sure he’s innocent anymore.” I related what Earl and Oglethorpe had told me. “So, he may’ve done it, and I was wrong.”

“Let me mark that down,” Beulah said sarcastically.

“So,” said Fenrow, “why’d you want to go talk to Finnegan?”

“Because in the past, I assumed he was innocent; now I want to hear his story from an angle thinking he’s guilty.”

Fenrow shrugged. “Suit yourself. The fact that the Moran boys think he did it—that’s pretty telling, I’d say. Got any brandy?”

What with Fenrow sitting in my chair, chatting about one thing and another, drinking my bootleg brandy, I didn’t get out of the office until six. Then I grabbed a quick supper and headed to Finnegan’s house via streetcar. It was around seven, and I knocked but there was no answer. I peeped in a couple windows, but the place was quiet. So I gave it up as a bad job and headed home.

Before I could get home, though, I had another thought. I changed gears and headed instead for the Orpheum, to see the production of “Hard at Work” by the late Anthony Ormond.

It wasn’t a bad play, but Wilfred Sparks, the lead, was really miscast. From the lines, it was pretty clear the part belonged to a younger man. A guy, say, my age would’ve made the lines sound like a carefree rake; a guy Sparks’ age came off as a filthy old man. The audience seemed to like it, though, so I guess I’m no critic. After the play ended, and folks started heading out to eat or home or wherever, I hung back a bit, just to ponder, hoping inspiration would strike.

Strike, it did, in the form of Patrick Finnegan. He was hanging back, too, and we saw each other at the same time. I went over.

“Mr. Finnegan. I see you’re free.”

“Yes. The police figured out they had the wrong man.”

“To be honest, the cops still think you did it. They just can’t prove it…yet.”

That hit him between the eyes, and he actually staggered back into one of the Orpheum’s plush seats. I sat, too, with one seat between us (always helps to keep a safe distance from a suspect).

“I can’t believe it!” he said. “They still think I murdered Ormond?”

“Yup. So do your former employers. You remember the Moran gang?”

That made him blush.

“Not so loud!” he said, though the audience was pretty well gone by then. He looked around, then said, “All right. So you know I used to work for them.”

“I do. And I would appreciate it if you finally—finally—told me the truth about this whole thing.”

He sighed. “You’re right, Mr. Delancey. I owe it to you. The fact is, I’m no playwright. I want to be an actor. I came to Ormond some months ago, begging to be cast. He told me that he already had a full troupe of actors and didn’t need some amateur, coming in cold.”

“Not very nice.”

“Well, I expected it, in a way. What I didn’t expect was, he never even gave me a chance! What would it have taken to hear me speak a few lines? He could’ve seen and heard in a matter of minutes, whether I was good or not.”

“Fair point.”

“Anyway, I tried to come up with a way to wrangle an audition out of him. Finally, I hit on the plagiarism idea. I wrote a play that was absolutely horrid—and I knew it. Called it ‘A Spot of Trouble’ and sent it to Ormond with a note, which I kept a copy of. Ormond rightly called it trash and gave it back to me. I burned the play, then claimed that he’d stolen my idea with ‘Hard at Work’.”

“Blackmail.”

“Only for an audition! I figured if he just gave me a chance, that was all I’d want. He didn’t budge. I’d heard Oglethorpe, the lawyer, mention you as a square-dealing private investigator, so I came to you. I’m sorry…I was using you. Anyhow, it worked! After you came to see Ormond, he called me and told me to come over. Said he’d give me the audition if I dropped my claim. I agreed. I came over and read a part, and he loved it!”

“He did? You’re sure he wasn’t just yanking you around so you’d drop the lawsuit?”

“No, because if he reneged, I could always bring back my lawsuit. Besides, I’d promised not to go on with the suit if he’d just give me an audition, which he had. There was no need for him to say I was great, as he did.”

“So what did he tell you he’d do?”

“He told me he’d try me in a role, on stage.”

“In this play?”

Finnegan shook his head. “He didn’t say, but the way he spoke, I believed he would do it soon.”

“When did this happen?”

“On the night he died. That’s why someone said they saw me leave late. They did: I was auditioning, and heading out to celebrate.”

“Why didn’t you tell the police all this?”

“I should have. I just thought it was safer to deny I was here at all.” He shook his head again. “I was stupid.”

“And what will you do now?”

“I’ll wait till they’ve got a new permanent director—Sparks doesn’t want the job forever, he says—then audition for the new man.”

Before I could respond, a shot rang out, and Finnegan gave a cry and crumpled to the floor. I went to his side, ducking my head. With all the echoes, it was impossible to tell where the shot came from, so I kept low. Finnegan was conscious but in pain. I checked under his shirt and found the bullet had whacked his shoulder.

“I’m going to get help, and find who did this,” I whispered. “Try not to die till I do.”

Two men emerged from opposite sides of the stage then. To one side was the Orpheum owner, Wilhelm; to the other, Wilfred Sparks. Each man gabbled, wondering what had happened. I started to call out to them that Finnegan had been shot. Something in me adjusted at the last second.

“Mr. Wilhelm!” I shouted. “A man’s been shot! Call for an ambulance!”

He hesitated, thunderstruck.

“Go!” I called, and he did.

“Is there anything I can do?” Sparks wanted to know.

“Just stay here with Finnegan,” I said, “while I go look for the shooter.”

“Right-o,” he said, and descended the side steps to join me in the row. “Goodness, that’s a lot of blood.”

“It is, but he’s not going to die. Just hold your hand on it. It’ll hurt him, but that should help with the bleeding.”

Sparks nodded and watched me bound up the aisle. I had a hunch, and debated as I walked whether to play it or not. What decided it was, I figured any shooter in the balcony or the back of the theater would be long gone. So I reached the back, where it was very dark, and crouched down to watch and listen. That’s one thing about theaters: Sound carries real well. I could hear everything that was being said.

“How are you feeling?” Sparks said, and got a moan in reply. “Not too good, eh? Well, you need to understand, it was nothing personal. And neither is this.”

I had to act. “Hold it!” I shouted. Sparks stood up quickly, his pistol in one hand. “Don’t do it, Sparks!” I called, taking a few steps forward.

Sparks looked around wildly. I think he expected me to have a police squad waiting. When he saw I was alone, Sparks took a hasty shot at me that went wide by a mile, then charged up to the stage. “And so I take my leave!” he cried in his best acting voice, then charged out.

I was running by the time he had his little curtain call, and if I hadn’t tripped up the stage steps, I might’ve caught him. As it was, the police arrived just as he beat it out the stage door, and thankfully one of them had the smarts to stop him. He was still carrying the pistol. Tried to tell the cops he’d defended himself against a madman (me), but they could tell the gun had been fired recently, and two bullets were missing from the chamber, so it was a pretty quick affair to build a case against him.

 So the next day, Beulah and I were sitting in the office, basking in the glow of a case solved, when Earl entered. Normally, Earl is as even-handed as his words, but this time he seemed put out.

“We wanted Finnegan sent to prison,” he said, taking a chair without being asked. “And you have made him out innocent. Not only that, I have heard he will be the new star performer of the play at the Orpheum, which is no small accomplishment.”

“I’m sorry, Earl. The cops had already released him. At least he got shot.”

“This is not a time for levity, Mr. Delancey. Do you not realize he knows things? Things of which it would be unhealthy for us that he knows?”

That sentence took some maneuvering to understand, but I got the gist.

 “Beulah,” I said, “have you deposited that C-Note Earl gave me?”

“Yesterday.”

“Well,” I told Earl, “we’ll get it back to you today. Would that be all right?”

Earl blinked, disbelieving. I went on.

“After all, I failed you. When I fail, my client gets his money back, except expenses, and there were none. So I’ll see to it you get the money back.”

“That is not what I desire, Mr. Delancey.”

“Then what?”

I admit, this whole bit with the Moran gang was jangling my nerves. Deep down, I hoped that this might sever all ties. Giving him back the hundred dollars might hurt the bank balance, but if it meant the Morans were out of my life, it was worth it.

“I merely meant that we were disappointed that Finnegan was not the guilty party,” Earl said. “We surely did not intend for you to make up charges against the fellow.”

“Then why did you come?” I tried to sound more polite, but that failed, I’m afraid.

“Simply to tell you it is all right, disappointed though we are. I thought maybe you felt badly about not catching the guy we wanted to be guilty, and I did not want that. You are a good friend, Mr. Delancey, and a solid citizen, to boot.”

Now I felt like a heel. I thanked him and cleared my throat.

“How did you know it was Mr. Sparks, what done it?” Earl asked.

“Oh. Well, Finnegan nearly threw me off, claiming he’d written that play. In fact, he nearly outsmarted himself, because it gave him the perfect motive to kill Ormond. Once he told me that his real aim was to become a great actor, well, that shifted the focus. Who would be upset by such a thing? Sparks, naturally.”

Beulah chimed in. “What I don’t understand is, why did he kill Ormond? Why not Finnegan, his rival?”

“Because Sparks could see which way the wind blew. Ormond had been looking for a new lead actor for some time, and wouldn’t stop just because Finnegan was dead. When Ormond heard Finnegan audition, Sparks was waiting in the wings, and the old guy knew his time was up. Maybe Ormond wouldn’t replace him for that play, but he was bound to, the next play. Ormond would be reduced to playing doddering old butlers and lecherous uncles. He couldn’t stand that. So he stole the gun from Ormond’s desk that day, since he didn’t own one himself, and had it out with the director that night. Gave Ormond a chance to change his mind. The director laughed at him, and bam! He got plugged.”

“And that day at the theater?” Earl asked.

“Sparks took a shot at Finnegan from the back of the theater, where it was too dark for us to see him. He shot, then ran out and around to the stage entrance, so it made it look like he was coming from backstage somewhere. Pretty perky for an older guy. Also gutsy, because he still had the pistol in his coat pocket. When he heard Finnegan was still alive, he tried to figure a way to finish the job. I purposely gave him the chance, left them alone.”

“That was a helluva risk,” Beulah said.

“That’s what Inspector Fenrow said, but I figured Sparks would take a little time: Make sure Finnegan wasn’t dying already, and then thinking of a way to muffle a second shot so I wouldn’t come running. Meantime, he couldn’t resist telling Finnegan who was responsible for his death. It worked out.”

“Well,” said Earl, “I give you felicitations for coming up with the solution. Once more the police are stymied—by the way, what does your friend, Inspector Fenrow, say about this?”

I shrugged. “A result is a result. But he’s my—wait a second. How did you know the inspector is my friend?”

Earl smiled as he got up to leave. “Do you think the boys and I would trust you, without knowing all we could about you?”

I’d had nicer thoughts in my life. Anyhow, Earl said his goodbyes, told me I should keep the hundred, and walked out. I turned to Beulah.

She said, “So much for staying away from the Moran gang.”

“Yeah. I’m hoping this is just one little hiccough in that plan.”

A footnote: Around a week later, as I was writing up these case notes, word came via the radio that a body had been found floating in the river, that the identification had been made as one Patrick Sullivan, and that he had recently been named as lead actor of the local acting troupe. He had been shot once and dumped. Needless to say, I will not be investigating that murder.


© Copyright 2020 dan kussart. All rights reserved.

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