'The Edwin Drood Problem'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— John Drage is a private investigator in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. He and Claire Baxter, his fellow investigator, are asked to protect someone who knows who killed Edwin Drood and can prove it.

Copyright:— copyright ©2022 Phineas Redux. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.

—O—

"So, who in Hell was Edwin Drood?" John Drage,—Head of the Investigatory Company of the same name, Delacote City, NH, USA, in this month of June 1936 as much at sea as he had ever been when faced with a new client and a strange story—peering over the long office desk at his accomplice and partner Claire Baxter. "Some local hood I've never heard of? A bent politician; God, there's thousands t'pick from in that murky shoal! Or just a shady Union guy? Any guesses?"

"John, your literary education is sadly lacking."

"Oh, yeah!" John frowning in absolute ignorance. "How so? I've read Huckleberry Finn!"

"But not the last novel Charles Dickens ever wrote."

"Oh, what was that, then?" John still way in the dark. "No, lem'me guess, David Copperfield? I may not have read the dam' thing, I admit, but I've at least heard of it."

"No-no-no!" Claire having had quite enough of the sad spectacle of her Boss swimming in an ever-decreasing circle. "Edwin Drood; that's the title of his last novel. He never finished it—kicked the bucket about halfway through."

"So it was never published?"

"Oh, it was published, alright."

"How so? A story without an end? Who'd buy that?"

"It was being published in monthly parts, as he wrote them—when he died, he wasn't ahead of the Printer with further parts, and there was no plan of the plot left amongst his papers—ergo, the novel was never finished."

John pondered this news as allied to the phonecall he had just received from their new client.

"But this George Bellermine, on the phone just now, says outright he knows who did kill Edwin Drood? I take it he, Drood, was murdered in the novel—as much as was ever written of the dam' thing, anyway? And I also take it you've read the thing yourself—am I right?"

Attempting to look innocent when you yourself were confident of your own position had never been a trick Claire could pull off successfully; now was again one of her many failures in this line.

"You have! Can see it in your eyes. So, spill!"

"Spill what, laddie?"

"The whole plot, for what it is—and don't call me laddie, I ain't Scotch."

"Scots."

"What?"

"Scotch folk don't like being called Scotch—they prefer Scots—Scotch's whisky."

"Claire, you begin to bore me roundly."

But the female member of the Investigatory community within this office's walls was up for this.

"You still don't know diddly-squat about our friend Drood, though, do you, ducks?"

John surrendered, taking his handerkerchief out his jacket pocket to wave in the air, even thugh it was chequered green and blue—he working on the assumption that it was the thought that counts.

"No, I don't—and don't call me ducks!"

Claire, having had her fun, allowed she knew more about the upcoming case than she had been letting on.

"Bellermine phoned 'bout an hour ago, when you were out in search of this week's edition of 'Natural Life—the Naturist's Journal'."

"Ha! it was 'Standpoint, a Political Bulletin', I'll have you know." John smirking in triumph. " 'Natural Life's' a monthly rag."

"Oh, you know! Why am I not surprised!"

Defeated at all points John sighed and gave up the argument.

—O—

"So, Mr Bellermine, tell me all you know about the sitiuation."

Their new client, having turned up on time for the 2.30pm appointment that afternoon, was now sitting in their private office on a hard chair facing John and Claire, she with notebook and pencil to hand, John nearly open-mouthed in anticipation of whatever tidings he could glean on the mysterious subject.

Mr Bellermine was in his fifties, portly wiihout being overly large, round-faced and of cheerful mien; though at present he exhibited an anxious attitude clearly not his norm.

"Well, it's rather a complicated affair, Mr Drage. Do you really want to hear the whole thing? All the details?"

"We'll have to, if we want to get anywhere effective." John laying out the rules of the game. "Go ahead."

"Oh, well, it started, I suppose, in Eighteen-seventy—"

"Sh-t!"

"What?"

"Nothing—carry on."

"As I said, Eighteen-seventy—that's when Dickens wrote the novel, you know—his last."

"Died in harness, before the end." John speaking with the authoritative tone of one who knew.

"—er, yes, quite!" Bellermine flummoxed for a few seconds before heroically regaining his wind. "The last monthly instalment, the sixth of a presumed twelve, was published in September Eighteen-Seventy, three months after the author's sudden death. Edwin Drood, the titular character, disappears early in the story presumed murdered, with very good reason. No other instalments appeared because it has always been presupposed Dickens had not written any further such—which brings me to the present day, and my conumdrum."

"Which is?" Claire raising her right eyebrow questioningly.

Bellermine brightened considerably as he reached the crux of his presence there.

"Simply that the story was finished—Dickens had indeed completed the whole thing. The second, unknown till now, half of the novel exists in manuscript which I now have in my sole possession!"

John, not by any means classifiable as a great reader, especially of the Classics, remained stoically underwhelmed by this revelation.

"So, write to the Times Literary Supplement or The Atlantic Monthly an' boast about it! Why come to me? I can't help you get it published, if that's what you're after?"

"No-no!" Bellermine appalled by this hobble-de-hoy suggestion. "That won't do at all! It will need to be examined by experts, literary critics of high note in their field before it comes anywhere near a Publisher. Anyway, I should be most suspicious of giving such a rarity into the hands of any present day Publisher—look what Murray did with Byron's Memoirs!"

John, to whom Byron was only a hazy impression rather than a substantial Being, couldn't have cared less about the ancient poet's memories of his past life.

"No doubt make very dry reading, I'm sure. Not my cup of tea at all."

Claire passed a hand over her face, trying to obliterate the memory of this gauche remark while she could.

"So-so-so," Bellermine struggling to get back on track. "Ah, yes, so, I have the manuscript, but what I want is protection for the immediate future. I mean to present a lecture on it at the next monthly meeting of the Delacote Literary Society in two weeks time. Till then I need someone to protect the manuscript from all—er, thieves, thugs, hooligans, and spoilers in the night!"

John frowned over the suggested problem, trying to make sense of what to him seemed sadly lacking in anything close to rationality.

"You ever heard of things called safes, Mr Bellermine? I mean!"

"No-no!" Bellermine shaking his head in dramatic negation of this suggestion. "Someone has already attempted to break my own safe, so stealing the manuscript; but I had it concealed under my bed two nights ago, so the thief was unsuccesful! This is what has brought me here today, into your presence! I want to engage your services to keep the manuscipt under tight security for the next fortnight at least. What do you say?"

John glanced at his partner, busy scribbling all this down.

"I suppose I can put it in my own safe."

"Excellent!" Bellermine apparently well pleased with this. "So you will take the case on, then?"

"Standard rates, Mr Bellermine." Claire coming into her Accountant's persona with cold efficiency. "Twenty dollars a day, with expences—that includes gas."

"Good Gracious, Miss, er, Miss, er—Miss! Is that not—"

"Standard for the course! Won't get any better rate anywhere in the City."

"Oh, yes, of course; well, then—certainly, I accept. Will a cheque do? Or do you prefer cash?"

Claire was ready with her standard reply to this question.

"Cash is fine, Mr Bellermine." She looking suspiciously at her new client the while. "Anytime in the next few minutes you feel like coughing up—er, putting your hand in your wallet, feel free!"

—O—

The manuscript, having been placed in John's capable hands by a relieved Mr Bellermine, now lay spread out on the long desk being perused by both parties of the second part—John especially not impressed.

"Look at this awful hand-writing! I can't hardly read a word; how on earth did his editors make head or tail of his works? Surprised any got into print at all!"

"There's a trick to it."

"Some trick, wish I knew the secret." John unwilling to give up his carping criticism. "What was he using as a pen, too? Looks like meb'be a bit of sharpened bent tin or something."

"Probably a hard steel nib in a wooden holder."

This only bringing out the sarcastic streak in Claire's Boss.

"Oh, how'd ya know? You were there, I take it?"

"Idiot! Get a grip." She, on the other hand, taking no prisoners. "If this is kosher it's the greatest literary discovery of the century. No wonder folks are after it under cover of night. Better make sure our office is tighter than Fort Knox while we have it."

John, his pride brought into the equation, wasn't having this.

"My—our!—safe's a Sampson Low, built in Nineteen-ten and as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. No safebreaker need apply, unless he brings half a ton of gelignite with him!"

But by this time Claire's attention was focused elsewhere.

"How many pages are there?"

Caught short John paused to raise an eyebrow before shuffling the loose pages together and going through them with a thumb dampened in the usual manner.

"You look like a Bookie's runner goin' through racin' slips!"

"Ha! I've been around, lady." John intent on his counting. "One Hundred an' Sixty-three! Why?"

"Just so's I know's all." Claire sniffing aristocratically. "Every detail's a detail to a good detective, after all."

"God, women!"

"What was that, Boss!"

"Nothing, Claire, just mutterin' t'myself, take no notice." John eager to escape without injury, mental or physical. "So, the safe? Got your key?"

"Course I got my key—you got yours?"

Curling a supercilious lip John searched in his jacket pockets before turning a paler shade of pale.

"God, think I left it in my other jacket—dam'mit!"

Claire sighed.

"Which is where?"

"At home!"

"At home?" Claire depressed beyond measure. "Your home? Chesapeake Road, The Heights? It'll take you at least an hour an' a half t'get there an' back. The stars'll be out by the time you return."

"Wait for me, Claire."

"Wait for you! I'll be dam'med if I do." Claire up in arms at the very thought. "I got a dinner date tonight, buster, an' I ain't holdin' off on it for an old novel, never mind who wrote the dam' thing. You get out home an' be back before six-thirty, 'cause if you come later you'll find the office cold an' empty; Dickens' finest work sittin' on the desk here, waiting on you, 'cause nothing nor nobody else'll be here, get me?"

"Oh, sh-t!"

"Precisely."

—O—

The manuscript, once securely in the office safe, still remained a bitter bone of contention between the two investigators; Claire of the opinion that every thief, bootlegger, bunko-steerer, grifter, shoplifter, safebreaker and pickpocket in the City would have it in their sights by this time; John contrariwise, certain the news had by no means yet leaked out and that Delacote was still sublimely unaware of the presence within its purlieus of the greatest literary treasure of Modern Times.

"Should we read the dam' thing?"

Caught short without backup John prevaricated, always a good policy.

"What?"

"Read it! Should we?"

John gave Claire a look replete with misunderstanding.

"Why in Hell should we do that? What's it to us?"

Claire was ready for this brush-off.

"The greatest liter—"

"God! Yeah! Ya keep pushin' that angle but, so what? I ain't literary, it don't mean diddly-squat t'me, ducks." John showing all his base nature without fear or favor. "It can be as glorious as it sees fit, I ain't readin' a dam' single page. Got better things t'take up my time—Racin' Rogers is out there, somewhere, pickin' unsuspectin' people's pockets at the Meidener Fields races like it's a National Event; I got my beady eyes on him, not some blotted papers from Eighteen-sixty."

"Seventy."

"Whatever—still a dam' long time since." John not prepared to admit defeat at any cost. "Anyway, what could it possibly be worth t'anybody? I ask you! If it ever gets into print, who'll buy it out there? Hardly anyone, doll; it ain't got a market of any worth whatever. They'll print two hundred copies an' later pulp a hundred an' fifty at least, mark my words."

Claire shook her head, as facing an irrevocable foe.

"John, you're a—a cretin!"

"An' dam' happy to be so, too!" John refusing to be a victim under any circumstances.

"How long are we gon'na chaperone the dam' thing, anyway?" Claire approaching another angle of the case.

"Bellermine says he's negotiating with a Publisher to edit an' print it; don't know how long that'll take. Meanwhile it sits in our safe at standard daily rates, whch ain't doin' our profit margin no harm at all."

"Huh!" Claire more responsible altogether. "Which only means Bellermine's shuffled the danger off onto us! We get to have our heads broken, or shot, when the crooks gather to have their fun!"

By this time John had taken just about a much as he felt reasonable over the manuscript.

"Claire, you'd think it was an original Declaration of Independence the way you go on about every villain in the US eager t'try their hand over it. Gim'me a break; the only thing we'll get by watchin' over it'll be corns on our feet from shuffling up an' down the office carpet worryin' about it."

"Mark my words, just mark my words." Claire attempting to portray a soothsayer with a message. "Remember the Ides of March!"

—O—

The first attempt at burglary came on the following Tuesday at lunchtime, and was rather elegantly done in its way. The general routine at lunch was for everyone to bail out the office like it was a sinking ship, Claire, John, and Hellen their constant secretary, leaving the suite of rooms empty but locked. On returning just over an hour and a half into the afternoon on that Tuesday they all three found a scene od desolation greeting them. The main outer door, which opened on the public corridor of the building's third floor, stood slightly ajar, having been expertly picked; inside they found the interior door leading from the public reception room to the long private office also open, inside which in its turn they found marks and signs of some heavy duty tampering with the safe standing beside the far wall—scratches around the lock, scrapes by the hinges, stains by the combination dial, and a peculiar aroma hanging in the air.

"Almonds!" John well up on this facet of safebreaking. "Gelignite! Someone's been tryin' t'blow the safe, then thought better of it, for some reason. Well—well!"

"Told ya so!" Claire's tone overflowing with an air of self-satisfaction.

"Huh!"

"I'll call the locksmith, t'change our locks." Helen perfectly composed as usual. "Shall I order another safe while I'm at it?"

"Hell, no!" John shaking his head sternly. "Ya know how much these dam' things cost? No, it's done me well over the last ten year, it did my Pa well over the twenty-five before that, an' it did my Granpa well for the nine year he had it. It's hardly scratched, anyway, a coat of paint an' it'll look like new."

Claire stood straight and proud in the office, sure of one thing at least.

"Well, it shows the news is out, anyhow! Everybody an' their Granma knows we got the goods now. Wonder who'll be next t'try an' swipe it—an' when?"

"Oh, God!" John just coming to terms with this reality. "Wonder where we could stash it, more safely? Any ideas?"

"Fort Knox?"

"That ain't helpful at all."

"Sanders Security Warehouse?" Helen coming up with an at least promising idea.

John considered this for a moment.

"Nah, too public, anyone can walk in an' out whenever; robbin' that joint'd be a picnic t'most of the goons in the City. Nah, we need somewhere different, somewhere they'd never think of lookin'. Well?"

Claire snorted at this question, knowing her limitations.

"What d'ya mean, Well!? Am I the Oracle of Delphi, or what? I ain't got nuthin', thanks."

"Wom—"

"Don't even think it, buster!"

"Oh!"

But being female, and able thereby to consider several topics at once with equal concentration, Claire did finally have a brainwave.

"Got it!"

The following silence could be heard out on the street three floors below, several pedestrians glancing up to see where the cold vacant breath of Arctic chill was coming from, before John found voice.

"Have you indeed! Well, Helen an' I sincerely hope whatever it is it ain't catchin'! Wan'na go home t'bed an' a hot compress? Shall I make ya a warmin' mug of Horlicks, or what? Just say the word!"

Ignoring this childish rejoinder Claire smiled with all the self-satisfaction of the Cheshire Cat.

"We put it in a tin can an' bury it out back of your Forest shack up in the White Mountains, where you go to fish, hunt, an' contemplate Nature when you're feelin' down an' lonely. I mean, who else knows of it but me an' Helen?"

John's jaw, never habitually liable to dropping like a stone, did so on this occasion, he staring at his co-Investigator as at a new planet in the Firmament.

"Ah—Ah—Ah! Yeah, that sounds a good idea. I was just gon'na suggest it myself, well done, Claire!"

"Fool! Let's go, it's still only ten-forty-five, we can make it before seven this evenin', if your Chrysler holds up."

—O—

The White Mountains at this time of year were just gearing up for Winter, which meant intermittent patches of snow below the snowline proper and a distinct chill in the air; Summer and Fall having given up the unequal fight and taken up residence in the Bahamas for the duration.

John's Chrysler sedan, two years old now and beginning to groan, had made it but only just.

"It got us here, but it ain't gon'na get us back." John makig a statement of simple fact.

"Nah, looks like we'll need'ta hire a jalopy in Littleton, thank God it's only five mile away."

"Grab your coat an' mittens, it'll be freezing inside till I get the stove workin'. Bring the tin can with you."

"As if I'd forget." Claire snorting through widened nostrils in disdain. "Are we gon'na bury it out back, then?"

"Nah, don't like the thought of buryin' it; too much could go wrong," John shaking his head. "been thinking it over on the way up; think its best we hide it inside the shack somewhere."

"OK by me." Claire shrugging her shoulders. "Just remember, anybody reaches us here the first thing they'll do is ransack this place like the Visigoths did Rome."

"Huur!"

Half an hour later they sat in the living-room holding mugs of coffee while the corner stove sent out warming banks of heat.

"Well, we're here." Claire clarifying their position. "Only problem—what d'we do now? Thought of a good hidey-hole yet?"

"Nah, gim'me time, it's been a tiring journey up here; think I'll put it under my bed tonight, hide it tomorrow. You settled into your bedroom OK?"

"Yeah, all's well." Claire nodding sleepily. "Once the boiler's up t'heat I'll fill that stone hot water bottle an' warm my tootsies with it in bed. You?"

"Oh, I'm a frontiersman through an' through, I'll survive—meb'be a touch of frostbite in the mornin', but what the hell!"

"Idiot! G'night then, boss."

"—'night, Claire."

—O—

Bang!

The shotgun blast, at just after 8.00am the next morning, shattered the left window at the front of the shack, glass and bits of wood flying everywhere into the living-room; John and Claire, still taking breakfast in the back kitchen, jumping off their chairs in shock.

"—the Hell!"

"Incoming, boss," Claire sharper on the uptake than her still sleepy boss. "Got your automatic?"

"My bedroom—hold the fort while I get it!"

Claire reached into her handbag, never far from her, producing a handy .38 revolver fully loaded and ready for anything. She stepped over to the connecting door to the defiled living-room but did not enter, instead using the frame as protection while she cautiously peered into the room, trying to see anything moving outside through the remnants of the window.

"Any action?"

"Nah, can't see anything, don't fancy goin' in yet—another blast from that shotgun'll wreck the room."

"Yeah, best stay here an' wait for movement." John nodding his agreement. "They got'ta do something, don't expect they came al the way up here just to break our window."

"They?"

"Always look on the dark side in situations like this; safer that way! Might only be one, mind you, but I ain't gon'na be a hero jumpin' around like Douglas Fairbanks t'find out. Let's wait an' see."

"Good thinkin', boss." Claire in wholehearted agreement herself.

Five minutes went by with no further action, the investigators finally losing patience.

"Can't crouch here all day, something's got'ta happen."

"Yeah, but on whose side, boss? Would we be better out than in here?"

"Not sure, better give it another five, I think."

Time slowly passed, Claire thinking the hands on her wristwatch had become glued in position on the dial for all the forward movement they showed, then—

"Hey, you in there, throw out the manuscript, then beat it in your car. I'll let ya both go, easy, take my word fer it! That way no-one gets hurt, OK! Do it!"

"What's the plan, boss?"

"This!"

John leaned out past the edge of the kitchen door and aiming generally through the hole in the wall that had previously been the late window let fly with three shots—

Bang—Bang—Bang!

instantly another shotgun blast raked the interior of the living-room with its pellets.

Bang!

"Now's our chance, Claire—out the back door an' round each side, you take the left, open up on the general area close t'that tall pine tree left of the trail, that's where I think he's holed-up. Ready? Go!"

Thirty seconds later both were in position on each side of the shack; Claire spotted the tree indicated and fired her revolver straight at its bole around chest height; John invisible on the other side of the shack joined in with his automatic—chips flying from the tree's bole as bullets hit from two directions at once. Something dark slipped sideways before slumping to the ground, hidden by the encroaching knee high clumps of ragged grass. There was no more sign of incoming fire.

"Did we hit the b-st-rd?"

"Meb'be. Wait a while, see if there's any movement."

Claire settled down, crouching on one knee while she carefully reloaded her weapon. After another couple of minutes had passed quietly John spoke again.

"Reckon there was only one after all—and we may have gotten him. You take the defensive while I go out an' scout the scene, OK?"

"OK, John,—careful!"

A few seconds later Claire watched anxiously as John ran over the intervening open ground, keeping as low as he could. He reached the tree, cautiously siddled round it, then kneeled to examine something close to the ground before waving back to the shack with a 'come here' motion of his arm. Half a minute later Claire stood by his side.

"Ah! Palooka took one right in the throat. Nasty! No-one else?"

"Nah, single operator. Recognise him?"

"Nope, never seen him before." Claire cold-bloodedly raking the deceased with a close glare. "Some hitman from out'ta town. Any ideas who might be behind him? What I mean is, will he be the first of many, or what?"

"Hope t'God not!" John sighing deeply as he rose to his feet. "Well, this means contacting the local Sheriff and sorting out the paperwork—take hours for sure."

"If he don't just arraign us as the murderers, just to simplify things!" Claire taking the cynical outlook as by Nature endowed. "What about the dam' tin can? We still gon'na do what we came here t'do with it?"

"Suppose we better." John nodding agreement. "One thug's arrived, no doubt there'll be others, but all we can do is hide it, anyway. We'll need to tell the Sheriff everything, of course, which might complicate matters."

"Not if he decides to put an armed guard on us." Claire looking on the bright, not to say rose-tinted, side. "That'd be a help."

"Won't happen." John shaking his head, as one who knew. "Don't have the money to cover such, or the men, I bet. Nah, the Sheriff'll just waste our time for most of the day, try t'confiscate our weapons, then let us go, eventually."

Claire had meantime been thinking on her feet.

"If we hide it in the shack an' tool off t'the Sheriff ten dollars t'a bent tin cent the shack'll have been torn down in our absence. We got'ta find somewhere else t'hide the dam' manuscript."

"We could just nix the whole Sheriff thing?" John thinking on his feet as they returned to the front door of the low shack. "Bury the body, an' say nothing to no-one, ever. That'd work."

He looked at his co-worker, turned a fetching shade of pink, and folded.

"Nah, don't suppose it would, after all."

"You bet'cha there, buster." Claire glad her boss had seen sense at the last minute. "So, where'd we hide the dam' can?"

"Lem'me think—lem'me think."

—O—

The office in the 5th Precinct in Delacote City, NH, was as poky, dusty, and airless as it had ever been these last thirty years. Inspector Jacob Fletcher, sitting behind his desk, glared at the two investigators on the other side with a callous regard.

"How many times is this I've bailed you out? No, don't answer, it's too many is the answer. So, you both shot someone yesterday, up in the White Mountains? The story you gave in explanation, about this manuscript and Mr Bellermine, is all tosh! Where is this Bellermine? We've tried to locate him an' failed across the board. Far's we know there ain't a Mr Bellermine, anywhere. He ain't on the FBI records, or the local records, either. He don't exist."

This information, entirely unexpected as it was, caught both John and Claire on the back foot, they glancing at each other in incredulity.

"You saying the manuscript's a hoax, is that it?" John searching for clarity.

"I'm clear Bellermine's a hoax. What the manuscript has to do with anything I don't know, nor care."

"Bellermine paid us for the next month—surely that means something?" Claire opting for her accountant's hat.

"Just a Big Grift's all. Seen 'em before in spades." Fletcher shaking a disbelieving head. "I don't know the details, but you're both bein' taken for chumps, that's clear. Go back t'the Mountains, get the manuscript, bring it back here an' put it in my eager hands. Then we can possibly get on."

Back in their office in the Cailley Building John and Claire sat at the long desk in their private office staring at the bundle of loose leaves that made up the manuscript in question.

"Just as well we decided not to hide it, after all." Claire pursing her lips in thought.

"Yeah, we have it here, before our eyes, so we can study it in detail." John frowning over the pile of handwritten pages. "So, how do we prove it's a fake. Or real, come to that?"

"I suppose we should try and find some of Dickens' real handwriting? Shouldn't be too difficult; I could ring up the Lagan Library, their Reference Department almost certainly has some examples."

"Good idea, do so." John sighing in relief at a positive angle on the problem. "In fact, go along there yourself, take a couple of pages, see if their experts can throw any light on the matter. Doesn't matter if it's fake or real, clarity's what we're looking for; we can take it from there, whichever, then."

"OK, boss, be back in a couple of hours."

—O—

The Joan L Lagan Library, on the outskirts of Downtown, had all the resplendent style that Art Nouveau could in its day provide; red stone, fancy scrollwork, heavy timbering and coloured glass in every window allied with rooms twenty feet in height and corridors whose ceilings were three floors above the walker's head. The Department of English Manuscripts revelled in almost all these stylistic extravagances.

"So, what's the deal?" Claire eager for any answer.

"I'm only looking over these pages myself off the cuff, you understand?" Miss Jenny Balscombe, resident in charge, frowning in a curiously hesitant manner as she scrutinized the pages of manuscript Claire had brought along. "I can only give my opinion, not a definite scientific analysis."

"So?"

"I'm sure these are definitely fakes, sadly; several details point that way, first you see in this original verified Dickens' letter the words are widely spaced though each word is somewhat difficult to read because the letters are run together in an often hard to decipher manner." Jenny pointing to the deficiencies as she spoke. "At first glance it looks easily readable but on further examination the difficulty, er, manifests itself. Now, apropos the pages you have provided, I bring your attention to these pages of the manuscript of Barnaby Rudge we have the honor of holding."

"They're a mess!"

"Precisely." Jenny nodding in agreement. "No typewriters in those days, you had to write, then rewrite, then rewrite again, ending with a manuscript that has two or even three levels of editing across it. Very messy. Now, your page of what is meant to pass as a manuscript of Edwin Drood?"

"They're clean an' fresh, only the one level of writing, no editing or rewriting. What does that show?"

"Either this is a final Printer's copy, all the previous editing done on earlier manuscripts, then this fresh copy made of the completed script; or, it's a quickly written amateurish fake."

"I take it you're going for the latter?"

"Yeah. Take note of this real Dicken's page; note as I said the spacing of the words and how the individual letters of each word run somewhat indistinguishably into each other? Then look at your pages—very closely spaced words, very highly angled to the right as opposed to Dickens' usual straight vertical angle, and the letters of each word clearly differentiated. A wholly different handwriting than Dickens'. Your manuscript is clearly a fake, and not a very good one, either. Sorry!"

"Oh, don't apologise." Claire shaking her head. "No skin off my nose, just wanted the real gen on it, is all. Thanks."

"My pleasure." Jenny shuffling the various pages on the desk together, being careful to keep the real well apart from the unreal. "There's your pages back. Pity it wasn't kosher; I mean, the official ending of Edwin Drood! It'd be a literary sensation."

This last remark piqued Claire's interest.

"Just how much of a sensation would it have been? If it had been printed, published I mean, would it have been a worldwide bestseller? Make a lot of money?"

Jenny pursed her lips before answering.

"Probably not. For one it'd have to go through the hands of several expert editors who knew their game inside out. Then it'd be published by an accredited Academical Publisher in a relatively low print run at a high price; not something aimed at a Public audience you understand. That might come along somewhere down the printing line, say five years from now, in paperback."

"So it wouldn't make a splash, then?"

"No, more of a slight ripple; it wouldn't make anyone a millionaire, for instance, nor anywhere near."

"Thanks."

—O—

Back at the office John was vastly underwhelmed with Claire's report.

"That's all we need." He shrugging in despair. "Fletcher'll have a field day of recriminations when he finds out. At least the ball's in his court now—fake literary scam, one man dead as a result of trying to do for us! Bellermine vanished without a trace. Do you know what the hell's goin' on, Claire? 'cause if you do pass it on, please."

"Haven't the foggiest, boss." Claire admitting her lack of understanding of the complex case. "One of our real doozies, that's for sure."

"Bellermine's the heart of the case, I'm sure of it." John following his own route. "Why'd he come to us in the first place? What was his intent? What did he hope to achieve? He spun a story round the manuscript, had us take it under our own security, then sent a hitman to, if not rub us out up in the White Mountains, at least make us give the manuscript up again. Why?"

Claire had been pursuing her own line of thought meanwhile.

"Rub us out!"

"What? That's what I just said."

"Yeah, rub us out!" Claire springing to life as her theory grew on her. "What if that's what was at the bottom of the whole thing? Bellermine wanted, for his own purposes or someone else's, to kill us both so set up this crazy plan to get us up to your out of the way shack in the mountains where we could be easily annihilated; but it all went sideways when they sent a useless thug instead of a professional."

John pondered this scenario, finally nodding slowly.

"Yeah, fits the bill, takes in all the toing and froing. Still, seems a dam' complicated way of getting us both out the way. And why? What did we do that niggled someone so badly they shelled out for this idiotic hit?"

"Could'a been almost anyone—after all, we are a Private Investigation company!" Claire merely looking reality in the face. "We've put all sorts of goons behind bars or under the daisies over the last few years. Anyone or their granma could have put out a contract on us, I suppose."

"Who was Bellermine, then? The Big Boss?"

"Don't think so," Claire shaking her head again, this having become something of a habit recently. "Just a hired hand told to do the job; he figured out this complex plan to get us somewhere out of the way in order to hit us without Public concern in the matter but in turn hired a low class thug instead of a trained and expert gunsel, with the results we've just experienced. Know what that means, boss?"

"What?"

"it may not be over! Bellermine, or whoever, may still hold us in contempt and be at this very moment figuring out another better hoax to get us by the short hairs!"

"Oh, sh-t!"

"Nicely put, but not helpful. I wan'na know when I next go out t'lunch I'll actually be comin' back for the afternoon shift, not lying in some gutter riddled with bullets."

John considered this complication in all its facets, to the detriment of his good humour.

"This's gettin' way out'ta hand! Would Fletcher consider armed guards for us, d'ya suppose?"

"I don't suppose, not in the least. The very furthest thing from his mind he'd ever think of."

"God! Suppose you're right. So, the ball's in our own court, then?"

Claire, however, had a plan.

"We got'ta finger Bellermine, whatever grubby rathole he's hunkered down in. Whoever he is he's got a record somewhere. I don't mean Police records, but on the streets. Who's our best nark at the moment?"

"Tommy The Owl?" John on familiar ground here. "Lenny the Wrench? Simmy the Punch?"

"Archie Three-Fingers!" Claire coming up with the goods herself. "He knows everything that happens on the street two days before it happens. He's our guy."

—O—

Walker Road, Garstone, Delacote City, NH, was in the least salubrious district in the City; on all the publicity leaflets for tourists Garstone was never mentioned and on the maps provided it was carefully airbrushed out of existence, as having no corporate or physical existence whatever. However, exist it did and did so primarily to the nostrils of the passing pedestrian, there being several Works of an olfactory nature in full flow within its many degraded tenement streets and back-alleys.

No. 2347 Walker Road was one of these tenements, six storeys high, faced with grey granite now dirty with age, broken down rusty metal fire escapes defacing the frontages, sidewalks a disgrace of broken paving-stones while the road itself was pockmarked with holes and trenches as if the battle of Arras had recently passed over it. Archie's apartment lay on the fourth floor along a nasty smelly corridor where the paint on the walls was in the final stages of peeling completely onto the torn linoleum covered floor, itself a disgrace to human living conditions.

"God! This ain't a hovel, it's a sunken ship!" Claire stepping carefully, trying not to smell what she could all too easily smell. "Where the dam' is it? Wan'na get out'ta here as quick as lightnin', boss!"

"My very own thought! OK, here we are. Get ready, when he opens the door make sure an' stick your toe in the crack before he shuts it again. Got that?"

"Go for it, only hurry!"

Thump—Thump!

John's banging on the soiled exterior of the door brought forth a rattle as a peephole opened at head height. Before anything unsatisfactory could occur John wordlessly held up a handful of dollar notes, making a fine spread of them to get the full effect. The door opened.

"Why, hallo, Mr Drage, long time no see, come on in."

The tenant of the dingy apartment fully reflected the state of his living quarters; dressed informally, white hole-ridden string vest, none too clean, pair of slacks that had seen sterling service since 1920 and showed it, and a general sense of not knowing exactly, not to say exactly, what soap and water either were individually or their respective duties when combined. His physical features left much to consider too—thin elongated pock-marked face with a chin that could have done duty as a rifle's bayonet, teeth that stuck out so far they were almost level, and a sallow complexion that would have done a man with dysentery proud. The fact his shoes, in name only, were torn and scraped giving just that extra je ne sais quoi that made the man.

"What in hell's that smell? Is it you, buster?" Claire coming out fighting in the first round like a good 'un.

"Hey, lady, is that nice!"

John, however, was focused.

"Look, Archie! Greenbacks; mine now, but could be yours for a little exertion on your part, if you're up for it."

Archie, clearly never having been a man of means, eyed the bundle of money like a piranha its unsuspecting lunch.

"How—how much's that?"

"Twenty!" John's tone that of an unctuous teacher faced with a less than bright pupil. "All I want's some answers; you're good at answers, ain't ya, Archie? Just a coupl'a minutes of your time an' all this money could be yours. Wha' ya say?"

"Gim'me! That is, er, wha' ya want? Make it snappy, if ya can—I got places t'be this afternoon."

"Yeah, Meidener Field!" Claire up on the recreational habits of the masses. "The hoss races can wait, laddie, we got words t'exchange with you. Tell him, boss."

So, in words of few syllables, John did just that.

Archie nodded, as one who understood the position fully.

"Ah, that scam! Yeah, that scam's been goin' the rounds fer the last six month, fer sure."

"What?" Claire outraged by the blasé manner of the nark. "The Edwin Drood manuscript? What in hell d'you know about Edwin Drood, ya creep?"

"Up t'six month since, not a dam' thing, lady." Archie shrugging what passed for his shoulders. "But since then, hell, I could pass as a Professor in English Literature on that dam' subjec' now!"

"How so?" John more than interested.

"It's, the manuscript, been hoiked around the usual grifters for six months." Archie, happy to be able to provide the goods, grinned at his interlocutors,—an expression which did him no favors,. "Samuel Yates, the forger, made it up—him an' his daughter; tried to sell it fer big bucks t'the Lagan Library, but the experts there quick put a stop t'that grift. Then they, Yates an' Daughter, tried t'sell it on the open market for a while, till a character callin' himself Bellermine showed, snappin' it up like a starvin' sailor. So, what about it? Ya wan'na I should find the dam' manuscript? It's a fake, ya understan'?"

Claire exchanged glances with her boss, they both of the same mind on at least one detail of this sad tale.

"So, the dam' Lagan Library already knew all about the grift when you went to see them?" John looking daggers at Archie as he directed his remark to Claire.

"Yeah, I got words t'have with that dame." Claire powering up for a rerun with the lady at the Library. "Words she won't like!"

"Nah, nix the dam' manuscript, it's in my hot little hands as we speak, Archie. No, what I want, an' real fast, is Bellermine. Point me in his direction an' there may well be a bonus comin' your way—get me!"

Archie brightened-up at these words like a green field coming to its full potential as the Summer sun shone out from behind clouds hanging over it.

"Can do! Well, sort of, anyway; I don't know about Bellermine, but Yates hangs out at two joints, usual—Hagley Way, The Heights, Four-Three-Seven-Five. Or a shack out in the country, say ten mile north of the City limits—Gallienne House it's called; but don't get any big ideas, it's only a deteriorated bungalow seen better days; needs a new roof, new walls, new winders—Hell, it's a dump, ya can't miss it! Find Yates an', most likely, he'll be able t'point ya in Bellermine's direction; they once bein' tight as peas in a pod in the day."

"And Yates'll be there? One or the other place, for sure?"

"Yeah, boss, bound ter be; only two boltholes he has access to these days. If he ain't at either he'll, by necessity, be sleepin' in a ditch, only other recourse the bum has, like I said; he not bein' the forger of note he once was, if ya get my drift. What about it, then?"

John looked at Archie,—he eyeing the money in the Investigator's hand as if it were the answer to all the ills of the World, which it probably was to the nark,—then shrugged and handed the wad over.

"There, an' don't lay it all on Bercerine in the Two-thirty, that nag'll come in last for certain, I speak from experience!"

—O—

The Heights, set out on the rolling ridge behind the main City, was a nice middle-class district, mostly semi-detached houses in reasonably large gardens, which the tenants liked to describe as their estates. Hagley Way on arrival showed as one of the lesser examples of its type; semi-detached villas but with no gardens, just facing straight onto the wide street with no back gardens either, their rears facing a dingy alley cobbled in 1895 and not looked after since. 4375 showed as a down-at-heel example, paint peeling rather more extensively and obviously than the nearby tenants would, one supposes, like.

"Hit the button, Claire; let's see who's in residence."

Doing as ordered the two investigators then stood waiting like salesmen who knew the door would never open to them—but it finally did, just as Claire was gearing-up for another heavier assault.

"Well, wha'd'ya wan'? The young woman who had appeared seemed hardly in the mood to buy anything on the doorstep, eyeing her visitors with a glare the Medusa would have envied.

"Where is he, Miss Yates?" John coming to the heart of the matter without idle preamble. "Inside? If so, drag the bag o'bones out pronto, we wanting a few choice words with the bum, OK?"

"Who ya talkin' about?" She attempting the innocent ploy, something she had not been capable of these past ten years. "Get lost!"

"Daddy, lady." Claire coming out for the second round. "Pops! The lad who perpetrated the Drood manuscript. Yeah, we know all about that. In fact, for two bits me an' my boss here could have ya both in pokey for forgery above an' beyond the call of duty in a trice. Ya know what a trice is, ducks? A very short time indeed!"

"Oh, sh-t!"

"Just so." Claire aware of final success, like Wellington at Assaye. "Lead the way inside, I never liking doorstep conversations, so redolent of the hoi-polloi, don't ya think?"

—O—

The road leading north from Delacote City was a branch of Ocean Boulevard not resurfaced in ten years, the many potholes atttesting to this sorry state of repair almost every five yards.

"God, this's doin' my Plymouth no good at all!"

"Soldier on!" John shaking an unconcerned head. "I can see the bungalow up ahead; kind'a dilapidated even from this distance. There's a broken-down pick-up by the left side. Got your gun?"

"Why should I need my gun? This ain't the OK Corral."

"Whoever's behind this dam' grift set us up for comfortable beds under the daisies, don't forget, I just wan'na return the favor."

"Ah, in that case, yeah I got my roscoe."

"Fine." John peering ahead as they rolled up to the house and stopped opposite the front. "One door in the middle, windows each side. Don't know if there's a back exit. When we get out you go round an' see. Remember, shoot first, questions can wait for another time, OK?"

"Sure thing, boss. If there's any shootin' t'be done, it's gon'na be me who does it!"

This bloodthirsty event was, however, postponed for a short while when the door opened at the first knock by John, revealing an elderly man somewhere in his late seventies and not looking much as if he was pleased with any of it.

"Mr Yates?"

"Yeah, that's me. What ya want?"

"Well, for a start I have the Drood manuscript in my possession; something that I'm gon'na burn t'ashes later t'day without fail. What're your thoughts on that, buster?"

For reply Yates heaved a long sigh, staring at his visitor as a prisoner would his prison warden.

"So, it's over, then?"

"Pretty much—"

Bang—Bang—Bang!

From out back of the bungalow came a rapid series of shots, echoing in the wide fields surrounding the small house, then came a yell from Claire.

"Can ya hear me, John—I got the b-st-rd! He tried to run an' took a shot at me, downed him in two. He's out'ta it!"

"Oh, f-ck!"

"Bellermine?" John making the obvious assumption.

"Yeah, or whatever he wanted to be called these days." Yates shaking his head sadly. "Used t'be a good grifter, but we all eventually fall on hard times, don't we?"

"Grifting ain't a career, it's an idle pastime with generally negative results." John showing his philosophical side. "OK, better let us come in an' then we can get the gen on the whole sorry affair—OK?"

"Yeah—yeah." Yates a beaten example of his kind. "Come on in; that girl out back OK?"

"Claire? Yeah, has everything under control; she'll be joinin' us in a minute. OK, so what's the story, pal? I expect great things of you, ya know. Ah, hi, Claire, Yates here's gon'na split like a public announcer on the wireless."

"I'm all ears." Claire replacing her revolver in her handbag. "The dope out back tried to riddle me as he dived out the rear door, but wasn't a good shot. I, on the other hand!"

"Dead?"

"As mutton, boss."

"Oh, dearie!" John hardly surprised or caring. "Looks like most of our problem's solved already. Just Yates' tale to go an' we can wind everything up nicely for Inspector Fletcher. Start talkin', ol' man, you got a ready audience here, if nothing else."

—O—

The only change in Inspector Fletcher's office in the 5th Precinct seemed to its visitors that it was somewhat dustier and more airless than ever. On the far side of the desk Jacob Fletcher sat ruminating on the story John and Claire had just outlined, he chewing on an unlit cigar the while as was his habit.

"Yates's in Clink, Bellermine's dead, an' we still don't know who was responsible; who the Big Knob, the Head Honcho, was?"

"Nah, Yates nor Bellermine never knew his name or situation, just got paid by mail." John shaking a slightly worried head. "Could have been anybody. If we were looking for suspects, considering our professional standing, we'd have to go through the Telephone Directory page by page."

"Hardly helpful." Fletcher reflecting on this partial ending to the case. "Means, of course, ya both ought'a keep a keen watch out for the next few weeks—no sayin' he, whoever he is, may want to try again."

"You're so helpful and positive about the whole thing, Jacob." John aiming for sarcasm and almost succeeding.

"You're so negative!" Claire taking the realistic road, as was her nature. "Someone out there havin' put a price on our scalps, an' all you can do is commiserate! Was hoping at least for a round the clock guard for the next six months, maybe five men at a time!"

"Dream on, lady." Fletcher not in the least put out. "The Police Department serves the general, an' grateful, Public, not the entitled individual. Look after your own hides; after all, ya both went into the Private Dick game with open eyes, didn't ya?"

"So long, Jacob." John seeing their cosy chat was at an end.

"Friends, huh!" Claire taking a rather more personal attitude. "Stab ya in the back for the price of a box of cheap cigars, more like! Cheerio, buster!"

—O—

It was 8.30pm and the long private office smelt of burnt ashes, John and Claire having spent the last half hour reducing the Edwin Drood manuscript to its essential atoms.

"Got that small rake, Claire? Shovel it around in the stove a while—make sure the ashes are powdered to fine grain. I don't want that dam' manuscript reappearing again for any reason whatsoever."

"On it, boss."

John idly strolled over to the chest of drawers in the corner where the whisky decanter and glasses spent their uneventful day.

"Want a slug, gal?"

"Yeah, easy on the soda, I need a real pick-me-up."

"With ya there."

A few peaceful minutes were spent in the preparation and sampling of the liquid which brings strength to lost souls, then the two investigators sat back on their shared sofa, contemplating the State of the Nation.

"So, who killed Edwin Drood in the end, lady?"

Claire paused, glass touching her pink lips, to stare at her boss with wide open eyes.

"Who cares who killed Edwin Drood? Not me."

"Didn't you read the manuscript, then?"

"Read it!" Claire sure of her position on this topic. "Are you mad! It was written in pseudo-Victorian, with quill pens, in a very soggy handwriting. Took me the best part of half an hour t'read one line. No, I didn't read the dam' thing from start t'finish. What's so special about who killed Edwin, anyway? Whatever the answer it'd have been the imaginative choice of Yates, not Dickens. Doesn't hold water, y'see!"

John pondered this unanswerable rejoinder, finally acknowledeging the truth of the matter.

"Yeah, suppose you're right. Would have been nice t'know all the same. But, there we go—"

"There's something more important we also don't know, laddie!" Claire finally addressing the elephant in the room.

"Who wants us deceased, with cold loathing an' detestation?"

"Got it in one." Claire taking another sip of her amber drink. "Wonder how long we'll have to go about looking over our shoulders? Could get dam' boring dam' quick!"

John suddenly laughed, though not with his usual heartiness.

"What's so funny—share, boss."

"We don't know still, who killed Edwin Drood, and we also don't know who's got it in for us, either. Rather a coincidence, don't you think?"

Claire took another, deeper, draught of her thirst-quencher.

"Wish Dickens' had had the temerity to finish his dam' novel before he kicked-off! Or hadn't started it in the first place. Life would have been so much more—acceptable, as a result, don't ya think, boss?"

"Yes—oh, yes—Yes, indeed; can't argue there, Claire. Another top-up?"

"Goes without sayin', boss!"

"Ah!"

The End.

—O—

Another 'John Drage, Private Detective' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—