'The Detective Novel Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are private detectives, and lovers, in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. The ladies are involved in the complex cover-up of a murder.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2019 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Note:— You can read Agatha Christie's 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd' before my story, thereby spoiling the fun; or afterwards, thereby gaining insight both into the meaning of my tale—and a very cunning, and now classic, ploy on Christie's part.
Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.
It was mid November of a chilly 1934; there was already an early frost shine on the sidewalk in Casemount Street, The Heights, Delacote City, NH, outside the Collister Building where, on the 7th floor, Fiona Cartwright and Alice Drever had their private apartment. At the moment Alice was stretched out on the long sofa, wearing a fetching pair of loose flowing pink pajamas, her nose deep in a garishly covered book. Her inamorata sat in a soft leather armchair opposite idly flicking through a magazine. The time was 10.37pm and Fiona was bored.
"Wha'cha doin', lover?"
There was a pause whilst Fiona digested this unhelpful reply.
"Wha'cha readin', lover?"
"Urrrgh, a book."
Another pause, whilst Fiona deliberated on whether to react to this non-information like a mouse, or a particularly savage bear.
"Wha's the book, lover?"
There was a further pause, while from the sofa came a strange noise—Alice grinding her teeth in frustration, or something.
"The bloody Murder of bloody Roger bloody Ackroyd, if you must know. Happy?"
Yet another pause echoed noisily round the walls of the large room. She knew it would be far wiser to stay silent, but she had to ask.
"Dam' fruity title, lover? Wonder the censors let it pass."
This remark was the last straw—Alice erupted, like Stromboli on a bad day.
"Aaargh! God gim'me strength. Can't a girl spend a little downtime without bein' haggled from post t'pillar all dam' night?" She placed the open book face-down on her ample chest, fidgeted into a semi-reclining position, and glared at her loving partner, emerald sparks flashing from her light green eyes. "It's a detective thriller, is what it dam' well is. 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', by Agatha Christie. You know how much I like her novels—haven't read this one yet—and it dam' well seems, from the look o'things, I never bloody will."
Fiona realised she had committed a faux pas—not a very big one in her opinion but still, a faux pas.
"Me interruptin' yer train o'thought, dearest? Sorry." But she couldn't let it be. "Wha's it about? Good plot?"
The activities taking place during the next five minutes in the apartment living-room were conscientiously recorded by your present scribe, but the editors at Scribbles, Scratches, and Scrapes, publishers, Delacote City, N. H. have felt duty bound, with an innocent-minded public readership in mind, to blue pencil the whole unbecoming scene—sorry.
"What's in the in-tray this wonderful mornin', Laura?"
The office of Drever and Cartwright, Private Detectives lay on the 5th floor of the Packer Building on the corner of 12th and Rosemartin Road, Delacote City, N.H. It consisted of a large private office with ancillary bathroom, and an outer room presided over by their professional secretary Laura Bannion, where the members of the Public who had found the establishment were allowed to sit in peace and quiet until such time as Fiona or Alice, or indeed both, felt like seeing them.
"Three public announcements, four adverts, two bills, and three personal letters."
"Ah-ha," Alice, sharp as a tack this bright morning, sensing adventure for no logical reason. "The letters, wha'd they say? Any business in the offing, Laura?"
"More important, what're the bills?" Fiona trying unsuccessfully to keep a business attitude going.
"The first letter," Laura, rightfully ignoring her other business employer's pleading tone, carried on with her first order of the day. "is from a Mrs Baker enquiring whether you take young children to and from school each week day, and what your rates would be."
"One hundred dollars a day, plus gas." Alice on the ball, without mercy. "If she's more'n twenty miles from Delacote—one hundred and fifty a day, plus gas."
"Zip it, gal." Fiona shrugging her high shoulders in defeat. "Go on, Laura."
"Second letter from Mr Henry Arkwright of Concord, requiring you both to meet him at his office where he intends t'employ you to track down the car that ran over his wife's cat three days ago. Happened at night, so they don't know what make of vehicle or number. Last paragraph says for you both to be at his office pronto on the twelfth, that's tomorrow, at nine-thirty and don't be late—he's hates unpunctuality in people and will dock your pay accordingly."
"B-st-rd." Alice having concrete views on men with pushy attitudes.
"Send him the official reply Number One." Fiona on top of the crisis. "You know, 'Sorry to hear of your tragic loss, send condolences, and regrets that the nature of your case falls outside our professional statutes and boundaries.' Then send him the address of his local dog an' cat pound; bet if he tries his bullyin' on them they'll put him in his place right off, har-har."
"Letter Three," Laura on a roll now. "from Miss Alethea Leadbetter, of Farmington. She says she lost her sweetheart in the Great War, he disappearing somewhere in Flanders, France, in battle. Coming to a certain age she requests you both hotfoot it over there, scour the fields for his officially lost-in-action remains, and bring 'em back to her still-loving bre-er, bosom. Requests note of your likely expences as can only afford one hundred dollars tops overall; but would like quick service, hopefully within the month if possible."
"Gordon Bennett!" Alice for once lost for words.
"Well, er, well," Fiona herself slightly staggered by this entreaty. "ahh, OK, wait, I got it—send her our Number Four Reply;—you know, 'The Company regrets unable to comply because of International political restrictions; stated request only viable through Government channels'—then send her the address of the FBI. That'll work."
Fiona looked across Laura's desk at her two astounded listeners.
"Well, it will!"
The telephone on the long desk shared by the women in their private office, beyond Laura's domain, usually waited till late morning to interrupt their busy schedule—Alice reading the latest number of 'Romantic Lives', while Fiona preferred 'The Home Beautiful'. But this morning their program was cast aside at the early hour of nine forty-five when said instrument erupted into a cacophony of shrill rings.
"Jeez, I hate that high-pitched buzz; makes my skin crawl." Alice reaching over to lift the receiver before it could extend its trio into a quartet or, God forbid, a full symphony. "Yeah, wha—what? Talk slower, I can't make ou—what? Listen, gal, either ya slow down an' talk sense, or I hang up—which'll it be? Right, that's better."
Three feet further along the desk Fiona raised her eyes from a colour photograph of the house of her dreams to study her partner at work and play—always a stimulating experience.
"Wha's that? Ya don't say! He did what? God! You really think? I'll be dammed. And ya want, what? That? That, as well? An' we ought'a bring wha'? Oh, those, right. When? Where? Who? What was that? Oh, yeah, o'course. OK, we'll be there in, oh, forty minutes. That OK. Right, see ya, bye."
Fiona focused a sarcastic eye on her lover as she set the receiver back on its pedestal.
"That was informative, dear. Think I got the whole aspect o'the case, there. Hardly more t'do than tie up the loose ends an' send the details t'Inspector Fletcher. Well done, nicely handled, if I say so myself. Big money in that there case, no kiddin'."
Alice returned her inamorata's gaze, saw through her attitude in an instant, as by duty bound, and came back with her own, salty, response.
"Them as is eaves-droppers', their ears turns green an' drops off, didn't ya know sich, lover? It's in the Brothers Grimm, somewhere."
"Idiot." Fiona not in the least embarrassed. "So? Spill it, babe."
Forced so expertly onto her back foot Alice gave up graciously and spilled the beans.
"Miss Greta Galston, of Todmorton, wishes to acquaint us with the fact her third cousin Bertie Naughton is suspected of having killed his fiancée, who is actually recently deceased by way of foul play; and she, Greta that is, would like us to dig the dirt that'll let the clown off the hook, legality wise."
"Oh, that all?"
"She, apparently wadin' knee deep in the ducats, allows that we can double our rates for the duration."
"Ah, is that a fact?" Fiona's interest suddenly ignited in no small way. "What're the details?"
"She was a little here an' there in point of discernible fact—but what I figured out is—Bertie Naughton, her third cousin, had glued Genevieve Hargreaves to his side in fiancée-lock—"
"—a situation which had gone on happily for all concerned these two months." Alice coolly disregarding interruptions from her right hand source. "Then, two nights ago, Mary Hopkins, Genevieve's maid, went into her mistresses' bedroom and found her laid out cold on the carpet, with seventeen knife wounds to her body. She didn't count them then and there, of course—that's details from the coroner's report."
"Perpetrator dead set on doin' the deed, apparently?"
"Yeah, seems so." Alice nodding in agreement. "No fingerprints or clues of a personal nature; but Naughton hasn't got anything like an alibi, and Inspector Fletcher has pretty much earmarked him for the electric chair, alone."
"Oh, piteous outcome." Fiona waxing lyrical, for no good reason. "Double rates, y'sez?"
The residence of Miss Greta Galston sat resplendently in Redwood Way, Todmorton, the most salubrious district in Delacote City, N.H. It stood back from the street in its own grounds, architecturally a copy of one of those Italian palazzos erected in the early 1920's in Hollywood for upcoming film stars, and such other lightweights of society: many replicas across the country now the property of high-flying bureaucrats, bankers, and people with liquid assets in the millions. Having been escorted into the vast living-room by a female flunkey striving towards the glorious heights of a butler, Fiona and Alice found themselves in the presence of the owner of the property in question.
"Hi, I'm Greta Galston, call me Greta, please."
The lady in fact turned out, on inspection, to be a girl in her early twenties with short shingled blonde hair; a square-chinned face, and beauty of no small order. Her physique was on the slim side with a small bosom, as was the usual style of the present times, and a lanky tall frame: she apparently being one of those ladies who played tennis frequently, not for fun but for physical and mental nourishment. Her eyes were a light honey-brown, causing her everyday expression to exude a perhaps deceptive sweetness. Her smile of welcome, on the other hand, seemed genuine enough.
"Alice Drever, this here's my partner, Fiona Cartwright. Glad t'meet you."
The next five minutes were spent in sitting on the long leather sofa opposite Greta's armchair; receiving, with thanks, cups of coffee and a plate of biscuits from the attending maid-cum-allsorts; and finally settling down to business, once they were alone again.
"Sorry I was so excited on the phone earlier." Greta starting off on the right lines by apologising for her attitude. "But hearing your third cousin's been accused of murder is something of a knock-out blow, you understand."
"Y'close t'the party in question; personally, like, I mean?" Fiona starting off how she meant to continue, officiously.
"Bertie? Well, yes." Greta raised her eyebrows in an enquiring manner. "We've known each other since we were children together. A certain family love has thereby developed, you understand."
"Quite." Alice, notebook on knee, preparing to take down the particulars. "So, what're the facts of the night in question?"
"Well, let me see;—yes, Genevieve lives—er,—lived, in an old Spanish-style single-storey building on Barlingham Drive, half a mile north of here." Greta's brow furrowed in thought. "She resides—er,—resided, there alone, apart from a live-in maid; her parents being deceased some time ago, you see."
"Ah-ha." Alice making a neutral noise in her throat.
"So, er, there was only her personal maid, Mary Hopkins, in the house with her." Greta was now obviously finding the recollection of the earlier events somewhat distressing. "After making and serving supper, at ten o'clock, for her mistress Mary usually stayed in the kitchen tidying up afterwards. Her usual routine being to go along to her mistresses' bedroom around eleven o'clock for last instructions and to say goodnight."
"Umm-rrh." Alice still unhelpfully being as non-committal as all get-out.
"Aah, so on the night in question, two nights ago now, that is," Greta's face blushing pink and her speech becoming nervous in tone. "Mary went to her mistresses' bedroom, opened the door after a light knock as usual, and, er, found the tragic scene laid out before her horrified eyes."
While Alice continued scribbling away madly, Fiona took up the cudgels.
"I know it must be distressing for you, Miss Galston—"
"—er, right—so, where did you first learn these facts, if I may ask?"
"Oh, from both Mary and Inspector Fletcher." Greta smiled a wan smile. "Inspector Fletcher seems a nice person, I must say. Not like the face of police authority I was afraid of, at all."
"Yeah, he's a good bloke, all things considered." Fiona nodding in agreement. "Why'd he pick your cousin as a likely suspect? Isn't Mary herself far more likely?"
"Inspector Fletcher told me that the—ah,—wounds, were inflicted with something he called a stiletto." Greta assumed a questioning expression. "Apparently a knife of a type of which there was no specimen to be found in Genevieve's kitchen. But on surruptitiously glancing over my cousin Bertie's apartment, in an idle sort of a way, when the officers interviewed him they apparently noticed an utensil somewhat reflecting the suspected design in his, Bertie's, kitchen, though they hadn't a search warrant then;—therefore—?"
Fiona and Alice glanced quickly at each other; both realising that a murderer was hardly likely to bring a murder weapon back to their private lodgings, and then simply wait there naively for the police to find such in situ.
"Umm," Fiona going off on another tack. "You seem pretty assured of your cousin's innocence; may I ask why?"
"Oh, simply Bertie's completely incapable of killing anyone; why, he'd hardly hurt a fly."
The two experienced detectives allowed themselves another glance of mutual accord; they both knowing how even the mildest milquetoast could be riled to astonishing levels of reaction, if pushed.
"Well, we seem to have as much as we need for now, er, Greta." Alice signaling the end of the discussion, putting her notebook away in her handbag. "We'll go off an' start enquiries. Don't worry, if we don't come up with anything soon the police may well find a culprit, not necessarily your cousin, in the meantime. So hang easy, is our best advice."
"We'll let you know if we make any inroads into the case, ma'am. G'bye." Fiona nodding encouragingly as they made their way to the door. "Something's sure to turn up; it always does, in these sort of cases."
The scene of the crime, on Barlingham Drive, was a specimen of the Spanish Colonial Revival style; all round archways, tall slim windows, and large white-painted flat walls, with a low-angled red tile roof. The main entrance was a simple wide pale yellowish teak door with a round iron handle and a pull-bell cord hanging to its side.
"For whom the bell tolls." Alice being lugubrious as all get-out as she stepped up to harangue the item in question.
From inside the house the women heard the faint jangling of a tinny bell, then silence.
After a further minute had passed inconsequentially by, Alice began to become restless.
"Where are they, then?" She assuming an expression analogous to the Medusa with a shocking headache. "How long does it take to walk along a corridor an' open the bloody door?"
Before Fiona could begin pouring oil on troubled waters the edifice under discussion finally opened to reveal Sergeant Keisler of the 5th Precinct; he being renowed city-wide as not a nice person at the best of times and, faced with those he took umbrage against, capable of reflecting his perfectly awful side without restraint or favor—Fiona and Alice, sadly, filling the shoes of the latter company.
"God, you two—should'a guessed." Keisler examined his visitors with the jaundiced eye of the long-term opponent. "What're ya doin' here, then? This's a murder rap, ya know; private dicks, pardon me, bein' persona non grata as it were, fer the duration. Get lost."
But Fiona was up for this contest, she having years of past face-to-faces with this particular reject from America's Happiest Cop contest.
"Now, now, Cecil," This being Keisler's real forename, a fact he usually kept a dark secret, going by Bud to one and all; but Fiona knew how to be mean when required. "A murder rap to you it may well be; but to Al an' I, who cares who killed Genevieve Hargreaves? Not us; what we've been hired to do is simply prove Bertie Naughton wasn't the culprit, is all."
Keisler, robbed of the joy of watching them both leaving with their tails between their legs, sighed heavily; though opening the door wider for them to enter.
"Jeez, got a signed contract, have ya? No, don't tell me—Miss dam' Greta bloody Gar—I mean Galston, yeah?"
"Yip, the Lady of the Lake, right off." Alice chirpy as the first bluebird of spring. "Good thinking, there; ever thought of joinin' the Police Force?"
"Lady, do you wan'na go back out the door, curtesy o'my left boot—jes' askin', is all."
Without hesitation Fiona turned on the slightly overweight 33 year old already balding man with the snarling rage of a hungry lioness who had just lost a skipping antelope in the lush veltd.
"Keisler, one more remark like that an' I'll feel it my duty t'put in'ta practice all the lessons my ju-jitsu instructor gave me three months since." She stood close to the man, snarling in his face. "Ya may not like us, dipso, but—God,—at least ya can be polite, surely, an' let us get on with our job, while you make some attempt t'do yours?"
Faced with this valiant counter-attack, and knowing full well anyway he was in the wrong, Keisler folded like a deflating balloon, turning to a uniformed officer who had appeared from one of the side rooms.
"Ballard, these here's private dicks; let 'em have the run o'the house, jest makin' sure they doesn't steal any evidence in so doin', OK?"
With this parting remark Keisler favoured the women with a look that would ordinarily have curdled fresh milk at a hundred yards, then disappeared into the dark shadows at the further end of the hall—leaving officer Ballard to his lonely fate.
It having taken officer Ballard only some four minutes close contact with the female detectives to realise his best, and safest, policy would be to retreat back into the front living-room from whence he had come, leaving the ladies to their own devices, Keisler or no Keisler, the women found themselves co-cicerones of the establishment—much to Alice's pleasure.
"Wouldn't say no t'living here, myself." She gazing around with the sharp eyes of a hungry eagle. "Lot'ta fine furniture, an' fittings, here, lover."
"An' here they stays." Fiona smirking broadly as she gently held her partner's left elbow. "Y'heard Keisler."
"Dam' that idiot." Alice saying it like it was. "So, where d'we start?"
"Figure, the first call ought'a be the bedroom where it all fired off."
"Yeah, wonder where it lies?" Alice looking down a side-corridor that seemed a likely direction. "Follow me, dear, let's see where this takes us."
Three minutes later they stood in the room officially classified as the scene of the crime, the late Genevieve Hargreaves' bedroom.
"Hmm, just as we suspected." Alice making this knowing statement as they both surveyed the premises. "Look at all this mess the boys in blue've left behind."
In the wide high-windowed room every possible flat surface was covered in a thin layer of greyish dust—dust which the detectives instantly identified as of the fingerprint variety. Every small table or stand; every wooden chair edge; the surface of the dressing-table by the window, and the mirror itself; every door-knob or handle; even some exposed floorboards free of the many loose rugs covering the rest of the floor, close by a spreading dark stain which the ladies also knew was the exact spot on which the lady of the house had passed the last seconds of her life.
"Dam' wide-spreading stain." Alice walking across and leaning down to take a professional interest in the area. "She must of bled like a stuck pig."
Fiona and Alice, after leaving Miss Galston and before visiting this house, had gone downtown to drag a copy of the official crime report out of the Police Precinct, and it was to this hastily read file that Fiona now referred.
"Seems she was stabbed at least fifteen times, some shallow, some slashes, some deeper, and at least three that would have been almost instantly fatal—heart, neck, and one through the right eye deep in the brain; the weapon having been a stiletto, long thin sharp blade meb'be not wider than half an inch."
The bed itself sat in pristine elegance, never having been slept in; the small attached bathroom also showing no signs of a struggle.
"Is it right, the report says the culprit didn't use this bathroom to wash the blood off?"
"Yeah." Fiona nodding in agreement as they studied the small bath, with shower, and the white china basin. "Whoever it was must'a been covered in the red stuff, but apparently didn't wait around to perform their ablutions here—jest ran fer cover, probably out the side-door at the end of the corridor, before the maid, Mary, appeared."
"That seems t'indicate t'me the culprit had a car waiting in the road at the side of the house." Fiona following a train of thought suggested by the contents of the report. "Just jumped in their jalopy and high-tailed it fer freedom; wherever that may be."
Fiona had noticed the quiet nature of Alice's contributions to the ongoing conversation, and took this up with her.
"Is this the sound o'deep thought I've been listenin' to these past five minutes, lover?"
Alice stood straight once more, grinning widely at her partner.
"Sorry, in a world o'my own for a moment there." She shrugged, then turned to look into Fiona's face with a puzzled frown. "This type of frenzied knife attack—remind you of anything, baby?"
Caught on the hop Fiona frowned in her own right, trying to follow her lover's train of thought.
"What? Y'mean Jack the Ripper, or somethin' like?"
"No, no, just it looks much more to me like a woman's crime, than anything, is all."
Fiona paused for a moment to take in this possibility; the more she did think about it the more likely it appearing.
"Say, y'may well have somethin' there, babe." She gave another glance round the disheveled room. "Doesn't look as if there's anythin' else t'interest us here; what say we head back t'the office, an' cogitate a while?"
"Suits me, lover, let's go." Alice taking her partner's arm again. "We can safely leave this place in the lovin' hands of officer Ballard an' that clown Keisler, I expect. Not that they'll come up with anything new, in course."
Back in their 5th floor office the ladies' spent all of five minutes pondering the newest discovered details of the case before reaching a mutual decision.
"Too true, lady." Fiona confirming her partner's supposition in spades. "Got his address?"
Forbearing to answer this silly question Alice consulted her trusty notebook, coming up with the necessary information in seconds.
"Two-twenty-one, Felixstowe Road, Todmorton; hardly more'n a mile away from both the scene of the crime an' La Galston's hideout."
"God, they all seem t'camp near enough together, apparently." Fiona musing on this as they left Laura in charge of the empty office and headed for the lift to the ground floor. "Gives me some sort'a an idea, mind you."
Knowing full well the way her lover's mind worked Alice shrugged this esoteric statement off as they climbed in her Plymouth Roadster and drove off back to Todmorton, some 2 miles distant.
They had just completed a little over half their journey when Fiona sprang back to literate life.
"My idea being," She continuing as if there had been no time lapse worth mentioning since her last remark. "if this's a woman's crime, an' dear ol' Bertie's as innocent as his pal Greta seems t'think, why—all we got'ta do is look for another female in the recipe. Did Greta mention anyone who'd fit the bill, dear?"
Alice was intent on keeping her car on the freeway, amongst the heavy traffic, but still had time to consider the matter from her usual strictly logical standpoint.
"All comes back to the maid, don't it? Mary, er, something."
"Ah, of course, I knew that." Alice tossing her blonde hair adorably, from Fiona's viewpoint, unconcerned at this trifle. "She was there during the enacting of the, umm, event. No-one else was within miles of the place—except Greta, of course; and she was the one who called us in, anyway."
"So, the only visible suspect's Mary." Alice nodded, satisfied with the outcome of her hypothesis. "What do we do with Naughton, then?"
"Oh, give him the usual goin' over; just to show willin' on our part." Fiona dismissive of this, obviously, red herring. "If he's innocent it should show within the first three minutes, I'm thinkin'."
"Then we can high-tail it back to the scene of the crime, an' put Mary through the wringer; thereby finally extractin' a confession." Fiona smiling brightly at the prospect of an easily completed open and shut case. "Then we call in Fletcher t'tie up the official loose ends, an' go put our findings before La Galston—"
"—an' collect big-time, baby."
"You said it, babe." Fiona laughing out loud at this hoped for conclusion. "Might give us enough for me t'buy a new car."
But Alice wasn't going to let this sybaritic self indulgence slip by her cautious accounting mind without a dam' hard fight.
"Second-hand, darling; don't let's be selfishly immoral, after all."
"Ha-ha!" Fiona knowing full well what effect her last remark would have on her loved partner, and not being disappointed. "Oh, well, suppose that'll have t'do. Wha'd'ya think, lover? DeSoto? Pontiac? LaSalle? Lincoln? Pierce-Arrow?—"
"Pierce-Arrow!" Alice nearly skidded, she was so overcome with emotion. "Ho, that was close. Pierce-Arrow? In your dreams, lady."
"OK, OK, jeez, it was only a joke; I didn't really mean it, babe—no need ter nearly crash the car."
"Huh," Alice not quite satisfied with this excuse. "Things you say, I often feel like crashing on a daily basis, y'know."
Now, of course, it was Fiona's turn to feel offended.
"Hey, that ain't nice?" She turning in her seat to confront her companion eyeball to eyeball, except Alice kept hers on the road. "What kind'a a remark's that t'make, amongst friends, an' all?"
"Hrrph," Alice, in no way put out. "Here we are, anyway, Bertie's residence."
"Oh, here already, didn't time fly." Fiona once more fully self-possessed and in complete control of her emotions.
The day being bright with only light clouds in the otherwise blue sky, Fiona was wearing a lightweight medium blue wool suit. Short tight-waisted jacket with light blue buttons, thin brown leather belt, and a tight ankle length skirt; her shoes being dark brown flat-heeled brogues, they being best for running in. Alice, as they clambered out her Plymouth, sported a pale lemon loose blouse, wide brown leather belt around her slim waist, and a pale grey ankle-length wool skirt cut more loosely than her companion's so the hem flowed around her ankles without constricting her movements—she also wearing flat-heeled shoes for the same reason as her lover.
They also carried a small handbag each; Alice's on a shoulder strap, the bag hanging by her left hip; Fiona holding her's loose in her right hand. The reason for these vital pieces of equipment not being the usual cosmetics but notebooks, maps, and firearms. Alice carrying a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver, while Fiona favoured a mighty Colt .45 automatic.
Bertie Naughton's house, when they approached it's front façade, turned out to be one of those architectural monstrosities thrown up around the turn of the century when hitherto untried new style vie'd with hitherto untried new style for the upper hand—many architects settling for a little bit of everything; the present three-storied gable-roofed house being a grotesque example of such wooly and idle compromise.
"God, what a horrible habitation." Alice, as usual, saying it like it was.
"Surely is, ducks." Fiona cautiously approaching the door and reaching for the bell-push to the side, but being forestalled by the door opening of its own accord to reveal the owner in residence.
"Who're you?" He stood all of five feet five in his obviously elevated shoes; showed as around forty-five, and was going prematurely bald above a rounded face. "If you're sellin' anythin', anythin' at all, I ain't in the market for it, whatever it may be. If you're some sort'a official from City Hall, get lost, too—my lawyers look after my interests thataway. If you're police-officers where're your identifications and, anyway, be on your way, too—I've said all I dam' well want t'say to that idiot Fletcher; and I won't say another dam' word without my lawyers bein' present; so, get lost."
The ladies being old hands at this kind of confrontation Fiona had already taken defensive measures by slipping her right shoe against the jamb of the door, thus preventing the man from closing it without impolitely breaking her toes.
"Say, Mr Naughton, calm yerself, fer God's sake." Fiona smiling broadly, to show she didn't take umbrage at his earlier remarks. "With an attitude like that you're likely ter an apoplexy, y'know. Allow me to introduce ourselves—this here's my partner, Alice Drever; I'm Fiona Cartwright, we bein' private detectives—your ever-lovin' friend Greta Galston's put us both on her payroll for the duration, or as long as it takes us t'prove your innocence in an, er, late matter of concern t'the cops; if y'unnerstand me."
Naughton's mouth opened and closed several times, as he fought to take in this information—people arriving at his door intent on giving succor instead of throwing brickbats obviously being a new experience for him: then he recovered himself.
"Ah, er, umm, I mean, come in, please."
They passed through a square hall faced with red sandstone, looking like a cast-off from a second rate European castle or an abandoned set from 'Frankenstein'; then were shown into a long rather dimly lit drawing-room, seemingly furnished in 1890 and not touched since.
"Take a seat, ladies." Naughton indicating a long leather sofa which had seen better days, some decades ago, while he chose an armchair of equal decrepitude. "Suppose I'd better apologise for my earlier, umm, attitude? It's those dam' cops, is all. They put me through the third degree something awful, yesterday, y'know. By the way they treated me you'd have thought they suspected me of murdering dear Genevieve; and then, after about an hour of being called all sorts of low-life, I realised they did suspect me! Dam'med angry, I was, I don't mind sayin'; and it took even Calthrop another hour yet before he was able to spring me from their dam' clutches. Tells me, earlier this morning, I'm the prime suspect, an' it's only a matter of time before that dam' fool Fletcher returns, with handcuffs. Dam' it all. I'm innocent, you know; not that I expect you to believe me."
For the two women listening to this self-piteous diatribe it was all old hat, but Alice rallied to the cause like a hero.
"My lawyer." Naughton perking up at what he obviously regarded as his only hope. "Of Calthrop, Wintergarten, Clopes, and Henry, lawyers; an old time firm, y'know; the best in the business—at least, I dam' well hope so, now it matters."
"Iirrm," Alice not letting this put her off her stroke. "Well, first things first, Mr Naughton; first off, we're not here t'find out who did kill Miss Hargreaves—at least not as our primary concern—"
"That's simply to prove you didn't commit the crime." Fiona coming in when it was of most use. "If you give us your alibi for the time in question, and it stands up to scrutiny; well, you're free and easy, whoever the real culprit was, y'see?"
A longish pause ensued, as Naughton digested this offer of a helping hand, though it didn't seem to cheer him overmuch.
"Well, ladies, there's a, er, difficulty about that; my alibi."
Fiona and Alice glanced at each other, their worst fears being confirmed—no alibi, the worst possible start to a suspect's entreaties of their innocence.
"Perhaps you could outline your alibi, such as it appears to be, Mr Naughton?" Fiona raising an eyebrow towards the again quivering jelly that was their client's distant relative. "Just so Alice and I can get an idea of where you are, vis-à-vis the police."
Naughton sighed deeply then, looking at the two women and realising they might be his only hope, he nodded and sat forward in his chair.
"As far as alibi's go it's a doozy, I got'ta admit." His hands meanwhile, laying palms-up in his lap, were shaking in supplication much like the monster's from the afore-mentioned movie. "It was about ten o'clock in the evening two nights ago. I was doing some work in my study and felt depressed, so I decided to go for a walk in the local neighborhood—a habit I often indulge, it calming my nerves, you see. Well, two nights ago, I chose to pass by Genevieve's house on my stroll; not with any intention of knocking on her door, but just to be close to my fiancée, you understand. Bottom line being, as Inspector Fletcher reminded me several times, that I was in the vicinity of Genevieve's house around the time she—er, when the awful event took place. Oh, God!"
It was time for Fiona and Alice to pause for thought; Alice coming to the surface again first.
"Ah, well, that ain't helpful—no sir'ree."
"Couldn't you have thought of something better'n that?" Fiona being rightfully critical at such sloppy actions. "I mean ter say, you might just as well have admitted t'the crime straight off, an' saved everyone a dam' sight o'trouble."
"But I'm innocent—I'm really innocent—I dam' well didn't do it, G-dd-m-it!"
The ladies looked at each other, in exactly the opposite frame of mind to that of Stout Cortez standing on a peak in Darien, then openly shrugged their shoulders at each other; an action not lost on Naughton.
"You two don't believe me, either. Oh, God!"
"Now, now, Mr Naughton," Alice attempting the task of instilling some spirit back into the helpless man. "It ain't that bad—well, in point of fact it is, to be brutally honest; but there's still hope."
"Oh? And what, madam, might that be?"
Once again back in their office on the corner of 12th and Rosemartin, Fiona and Alice settled on their chairs in their private office for some serious thinking.
"We're sinkin' deeper in the mud with every step we take in this case; y'know that, lover."
Alice nodded glumly, elbows on the desk and chin in hand.
"Each little bit of information anybody gives us, the worse fer ol' Naughton the case looks. D'you think he actually did it?"
"Naughton? Couldn't kill a jellyfish, him; he being much of the same species, by what I've seen of him.
"Harsh, lady, harsh."
"But truthful." Fiona as depressed as the stock market in '29. "Wandering around on the sidewalk loose, without a keeper, in an area where people're bein' knocked-off left right and centre; what did the fool think he was doin'?"
"Well, t'give him credit, he didn't know his fiancée was in the process of being used as a pin-cushion, at that moment; at least we don't think he did."
A pause, as of the silences of long past aeons, filtered quietly into the office deadening the atmosphere like a sponge soaking up water.
"What say we go back t'dam' Todmorton, an' fill the Galston in on the news o'the day?"
"What news, baby?" Alice facing the cold harsh reality. "What's happened of a nature t'fill us with glee and happiness? Dam' all, lover."
"Come on, we'll take my DeSoto sedan this time."
"You know your dam' DeSoto's missing on one cylinder." Alice rising all the same. "Probably fall apart on the highway halfway there."
"Told ya I needed a new car, didn't I." Fiona triumphant at this unanswerable fact. "Think I'll settle for a Pontiac two-door; all the space of a sedan without the high gas bill."
The return to Greta Galston's home in the salubrious district of the city was not accompanied by choirs of silver trumpets, nor yet a couple of penny whistles. When the DeSoto, it was missing on a cylinder, pulled up outside the main entrance to the Italianate hybrid they found the drive in front of the main door partially blocked by a dusty, slightly decrepit, Ford 4-door.
"Ah, Fletcher's here."
"Piecing the clues together like a real detective, eh, Fay?"
Inside the house, in the vast living-room, Greta was indeed playing hostess to one of Delacote City's finest police Inspectors.
"Hello, ladies, come with some good news?" Greta's tone hinted at a sad past overlaid with a feeling of greater things to come; she obviously having been at the gin, somewhat. "Inspector Fletcher, here's, been trying to tell me for the past hour there's no hope for poor Bertie—says he's as guilty as all get-out; which's something of a triumph for someone who's actually as innocent as a babe in arms. But he simply won't believe me, no sir."
"Now, ma'am, let's not get in'ta that again." Fletcher had risen to salute the ladies as they entered, and was now playing with his short-brimmed hat in a decidedly about-to-leave manner. "Nothing more t'be said on the matter, I'm afraid."
"What d'ya think of Naughton's alibi?" Fiona facing the grey-haired Inspector with an enquiring light in her eye.
"Alibi? Ha!" Fletcher clearly not impressed. "His alibi's as near a full-out confession as could be, is all. I'm headed up there right now, t'clap the cuffs on an' take him downtown where he belongs."
"Don't you need evidence, and suchlike fol-de-rols, for that, Fletcher?" Alice considering the general legality of the situation.
"We'll get all o'that when we search his house." Fletcher nodding happily as he made for the door. "Got the warrant in my pocket, haven't I. See ya, ladies; g'bye, Miss Galston, I'll see myself out; things t'do, y'know."
Apparently glad to be rid of her latest guest Greta, not hesitating in waving a hand indicating the long sofa where she clearly expected her next two guests to park themselves, pointed at the glasses and bottle of gin on the low table between them—she resolutely filling her own glass to the brim, not for the first, or second, time.
"What's cookin', gals—I mean, what can I do for you both, this evening? Any news?"
"The Stock Market's on the rise, at last; corn's showin' a slight fall; the European markets' are jittery at the shenanigans goin' on in Germany; an' Douglas Fairbanks' latest movie's a flop. Apart from which, nuthin's doin' in Delacote, of interest t'the outside world."
Having delivered this cutting diatribe on the state of the nation, and the wider world, Alice sat back on the sofa, staring at her hostess with a jaundiced eye.
"What we'd like fine to know, all the same," Fiona valiantly bringing the conversation back on track. "is, what about Bertie?"
"What about Bertie?" Greta, slightly foggy on her required response. "What about Bertie?"
Alice stroked her ear, as if hearing a strange echo from somewhere far distant.
"Bertie's in the soup, is what." Alice bringing the sad news from Ghent. "It's pretty obvious this maid, what's-her-name's, the real culprit; all we got'ta do is find evidence sticking her to the crime. Any offers?"
"Mary? Mary Hopkins? I think you'll find—"
"What might work is if Al an' I go over t'the Spanish hacienda, an' poke around a mite more." Fiona frowning as she considered this plan. "Don't know if Mary'll still be there—"
"She is, lives there, nowhere else t'go, at short notice." Greta offering this information through a pink haze that was obviously increasing in tone with every minute. "Genevieve's bedroom out o'bounds, of course, by order of the police; but the rest of the house's hers t'do with as she pleases—at least for the present. Anyway, as I was sayin' about Mar—"
"It's a plan." Alice backing her partner to the hilt; especially as there was no other plan in the offing worth mentioning. "Come on, babe, time waits for no somebody or other. G'bye, Miss Galston; we'll let you know, pronto, if we find anything significant."
"We'll see ourselves out, 'bye." Fiona escorting her inamorata to the door as she gave Greta a parting wave.
Greta stared at the closed door for a few seconds, took another ample swallow of the drink that revives, and pursed her lips in thought.
"I only wanted t'tell 'em Mary's got a rock-solid alibi, that even Inspector Fletcher accepts—whoever, he-he, killed Genevieve it wasn't Mary, is all."
The hacienda, the style the expensively modern building indeed attempted to imitate, seemed much the same as the last time the detectives visited; but now there was an intangible air of doubt, almost of suspicion, of who knew what, hanging over its low red-tiled roof. When Fiona jangled the bell Mary opened the door as if having been lying in wait behind it.
"Hallo, ma'am, can I help you any more?"
"Could we come in for a short conversation, Mary?"
"Please, follow me."
In the large airy living-room once again Fiona lost no time in getting down to the nitty-gritty.
"Mary, what we want to clear up—just as a matter of routine, you understand—is your own movements here on the night of the mu-, er, incident. It'll help to clear the air for our further investigations in other directions, you see."
"Oh, there's no worry there, ma'am." Mary smiling cheerfully, as if without a single concern in the world. "Inspector Fletcher asked me just the same, not four hours ago. All that evening, in between serving my mistress, I was entertaining two female friends of mine in my own private set of rooms to the back of the house. I have a sort of a small apartment to myself there, you see. Cecilia and Jane were with me from, oh, six o'clock that evening to just half an hour before I discovered my mis—to when it happened. It having been established she had, er, passed away, an hour earlier; at a time when I'd been in close confabulation with my two friends, just after a light supper. So, an airtight alibi, as Inspector Fletcher was pleased to admit himself."
"Something wrong, ladies? Can I offer you a cup of tea? Won't take five minutes?"
"No, no, thanks all the same." Fiona accepting defeat like a hero. "You've told us all we need to know. Thanks, we'll be on our way, 'bye."
Back in the DeSoto, parked in the increasing gloaming some way down the road from the scene of the crime, the ladies sat pondering life.
"That's what La Galston was babbling about, that time half an hour ago when we left her divine presence." Alice making a glum face at the realisation.
"Yeah, if'n she'd not been so sozzled in gin she'd meb'be have made herself clearer, faster—an' saved us all this humiliation."
"Yeah, I see where you're coming from, lover."
Putting the slightly bronchial car in gear Fiona set off for home; driving carefully because the engine sounded even worse now than it had an hour ago.
On arrival at their apartment in the Collister building they wasted no time in settling in for the evening. Their policy being, when at home, to leave all aspects of their on-going cases back at the office, while they unwound peacefully in the comfortable setting of their private lives. Fiona made a small vegetarian meal, that went down well with a bottle of French white; Alice cleared the dishes and made the coffee, and they relaxed for the rest of the evening doing their individual things. Fiona sprawled at peace on the long sofa among a selection of soft cushions, a 'House Beautiful' magazine to hand, while her alter-ego sat in a deep comfortable leather armchair with a raucously jacketed thriller in her excited hand.
"I've only got five more chapters t'read, then I'll be done; meb'be by tomorrow afternoon."
"What is it, a'gin?"
"That thriller I was reading; y'know, 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', by Agatha Christie." Alice purring quietly at the joy to come. "Only take me this evening an' sometime tomorrow, probably, t'finish; everyone still not having a clue who the murderer is, y'see."
"OK, doll, quiet please, I got some heavy-duty reading t'do here, lover."
Two days later Monday morning dawned fresh and clean, with a bright blue sky and a cheery sharpness in the air; but up on the 5th floor of the Packer Building the offices of Drever and Cartwright, Private Detectives did not echo this jaunty spirit.
"Hallo, ladies, nice morning." Laura as fresh as could be. "Any progress on the Hargreaves' case?"
"Plenty." Alice nodding grimly, with no sign of girlish humor. "We know who done it—I mean, who did it—that is—"
"Alice discovered, while we were at home last night, a link that makes it pretty clear who the culprit really is." Fiona glancing at her partner with a serious, not to say portentous, air. "She figured it out, told me, an' I agrees wholesale an' without quibble."
"All we have t'do now is go down t'the Fifth Precinct an' fill Inspector Fletcher in on our discovery." Alice still as serious as the Sphinx. "Boy, will it blow his hat off."
"Anythin' in the post, a'fore we leave, Laura?"
Laura took up a selection of opened letters from her desk, shuffling through them with an authoritative skill.
"Two Government announcements; four adverts—do either of you want your bathrooms modernised to the latest styles at cost price?; three begging letters; and a reply from Miss Alethea Leadbetter of Farmington. You remember Miss Leadbetter, ladies?"
The curious look their secretary gave them made both women stop to take an interest.
"Leadbetter? Rings a bell."
"She wrote to us a few days ago," Alice coming up with the necessary. "Something about the War, wasn't it?"
Laura smiled primly, like a school-teacher rewarding a star pupil.
"Miss Leadbetter here informs us," She reading from the letter itself. "that she is highly pleased to thank us for our sterling work in her favour.—"
"We didn't do anythin' for her." Fiona frowning in thought.
"—and she took your excellent advice, Miss Cartwright, to contact the FBI—"
"God Almighty!" Fiona now fully remembering her input to the previous letter.
"—which worked out perfectly, Miss Leadbetter continues," Laura breaking out in a wide smile. "for, she informs us, the FBI had already been contacted by the authorities in France about a group of soldiers' remains which had been discovered and needed identification and repatriation. One of who's dog-tags showed him to be Miss Alethea's long-lost heartmate.—"
"Jeez." Alice throwing in her tuppence worth, in shocked tones.
"So, the American Government is going to repatriate his remains at no cost to Miss Leadbetter, allowing her to lay her heartmate to rest properly, at last." Laura blinked away something in her eye before continuing. "She therefore thanks you both for your excellent advice, and wishes you both the very best for the future."
"Well, I'll be damned." Alice, completely at a loss.
"That's a new wrinkle in life, I got'ta admit." Fiona, more or less speechless.
"Just shows what the least contribution can achieve, don't you think?" Laura as chirpy as a robin redbreast in Spring. "So, you both going to visit Inspector Fletcher? Will he be happy at your information?"
"Don't know about happy; he'll certainly be tooken aback, that's for sure." Fiona, still in something of a shocked state, reverting to the language of her girlish youth. "And all because of a detective thriller Alice, here, read last night. It broke the case, y'see; like to a mirror crack'd from side to side."
"Oh, well, see you both when you return." Laura obviously eager to get ahead with her paperwork.
"Yeah, come on, Al, let's break the good news t'Inspector Fletcher." Fiona putting her hand on her loved partner's arm as they turned for the door. "Wonder how he'll take it—an' how much convincing it'll need t'make him accept it?"
"Oh, I've got 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd' here in my handbag." Alice frowning darkly as they left their office. "Once he's read the last chapter there's nothing he can do, but release poor ol' Naughton, an' arrest the real culprit."
"Too true, lover, too true."
Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.