Posted on 2012-10-31
She oozed into my office in a cloud of perfume. A sniff that was meant to sound delicate and came across as pure theatrics was followed by a handkerchief daubing at tears. Crocodile tears; those eyes were measuring, not sad. The dame crossed the room at a pace somewhere between a slink and a strut. Clearly, she knew just how to use every advantage she'd been given. When she reached my desk, she leaned across it, quite deliberately giving me an eyeful. "Mr. Tilney," she breathed, "I need your help."
"The pearls are fake, angel," I said, leaning back and putting my feet on my desk. "If you paid more than two dollars for them, you've been robbed."
That got me the first genuine emotion I'd seen... a glare that lasted until she remembered she was playing Damsel in Distress. I filed away the glare in my memory to keep myself from doing anything stupid if she played the siren card later. Meanwhile, she'd turned on the waterworks again.
"It's James," she sniffed. "He's gone missing and I'm so worried about him."
Brother, husband, or whatever this James was, I was willing to bet she was more afraid of losing her meal ticket than her heart. Still, a case was a case, and a tec trying to establish himself couldn't afford - literally or figuratively - to be too picky about his clients.
"James who? And when did you see him last?"
"James Morland, my fiance. He and his sister live with the Allens."
The Allens? I wasn't sure I'd heard of any Allen family, much less one that deserved emphasis. I made a mental note to ask Ellie - my sister was much better at the gossip column stuff than I was. It also gave me a second and third line of inquiry: the sister and the other family. "And when did you last see him?"
"He drove me home from the pictures two nights ago. In the Isotta-Fraschini."
More name-dropping? Still, anyone that could afford an Isotta had some money in the bank. "If it's only been a couple of days, he may just be busy, Miss....?"
"Thorpe. James would never be too busy for me. Usually he calls two or three times a day."
"All, right, Miss Thorpe. I'll see what I can find for you. My secretary will explain my fee."
She let some of those tears spill over. "I...I don't have much money, Mr. Tilney. Couldn't you...?"
Her boyfriend drove an Isotta and she was hoping to talk me into working for free? Not on your life. "As I said, Ellie will explain my fees."
She pouted, but I just turned away to look out the window. Even watching feet go by was an improvement on her third rate attempt at vamping me. After a few moments, there was a huff, then the sound of footsteps, followed by my door not quite slamming, and the extended murmur of voices - Ellie's soft and hers hard - before the outer door opened and shut. I brushed off the dirt my shoes had left on the blotting pad, knowing full well my sister would be in to discuss things in a minute and not wanting a lecture on housekeeping (or my lack thereof). Sure enough, I'd just finished up when there was a tap on my door. "Come ahead, precious."
Ellie didn't waste time, bless her. "We'd better keep that one paying in advance. Anything we try to bill her for later is going to be like whistling down the wind. That said, I got enough out of her for a week, plus another hundred for expenses. What did she want, big brother?"
"Missing fiance. Name of James Morland, and connected to the Allens. Who are the Allens, anyway?"
"Allen? I'm not... wait." She got that distant look in her face, and I knew she was rapidly reviewing every society column she'd ever read. She might be a soft touch for genuinely needy cases (I'd spent a week finding a dog for some red-headed orphan), but she had a memory like a steel trap. "Phillip and Marjorie Allen. 50s, no children. Shareholder in Fullerton Shipping. No proof, but suspected ties to bootlegging."
"Interesting. Ever hear about this Morland fellow?"
She was quiet for a long minute. "No. Nothing."
"Well, I'll start with the Allens, and see what I can find. Don't forget to pay the landlord on the way home tonight, will you, precious? B12 Woodston isn't much of an address, but it's the only office we can afford." I reached for my hat.
"Dad wants you to come home, you know."
I sighed. We were on that again? "The General can wish on a star. Besides, he only wants me to come home so he can stop being embarrassed that his son is a gumshoe. Good night, Eleanor." I loved my sister, but I really hoped she'd have gone home for the night by the time I got back.
Of course it was raining when I trudged outside. I stopped by a phone booth to look up the Allens' address in the directory, then fired up the Tin Lizzy to motor over to the middle-with-pretensions-to-upper-class neighborhood where they lived. As I pulled up to the curb, I could see a face in the window. It disappeared as I climbed out of the car, and I was barely halfway up the walk when the door burst open. A girl hurtled out and threw herself into my arms. "James! Thank god you're home! I was so worried!" A noisy and child-like burst of tears followed.
I gently pulled free from the death-grip on my ribs. "Sorry, sweetheart, I'm not James."
"Oh!" Wide eyes stared up at me, heedless of the rain that was plastering her curls to her head. "I thought... Who are you?"
"Henry Tilney. I've been hired to help find James."
"Who hired you? Mr. Allen? He's so kind!"
I wondered how she'd take the correction I was about to make. Presumably this was the sister Miss Thorpe had mentioned, but maybe there were additional complications. "His fiance hired me, actually."
"Fiance? He doesn't have... did Bella and James get engaged? Why didn't he tell me?"
Wasn't that a fascinating tidbit? This girl was as open as her purported sister-in-law-to-be was cagey. She was also rapidly becoming soaked, and while no man would have minded the view, she couldn't have been much more than a kid. Besides, my trenchcoat wasn't doing such a hot job at keeping the rain off, either. "Look, kid, do you mind if we move this discussion inside where it's dry?"
"Oh!" (This kid was never going to set the world on fire with her talk.) Hands slapped over her mouth, and her big brown eyes got even wider. "I'm so sorry! And here you are, getting soaked! Of course you can come in!"
Twenty minutes later, I was dry, in possession of the facts as Catherine and a vague Mrs. Allen knew them, and in danger of floating away due to all the cups of coffee and tea Cathy kept pushing on me. James Morland was 20, worked in some unspecified capacity as Phillip Allen's assistant, and, going by his photograph, looked every bit as naive as his sister. Moreover, neither James nor Phillip Allen had been home for at least three days. Mr. Allen's absence didn't appear to concern his wife at all; apparently, he had a long-standing habit of leaving on business for several nights at a time, and she placidly trusted that he would appear in a few days as usual with roses and presents for her. Though less frantic than the boy's sister, Mrs. Allen was also puzzled by James' disappearance, since he never accompanied Mr. Allen on his trips.
Pushing away the fifth (or was it sixth?) cup of coffee, I asked, "Did you know that James was taking Miss Thorpe to the pictures Tuesday night?"
Cathy shook her head. Either this kid was clueless or she was the greatest actress since Bernhardt - and she didn't seem that bright. "No. The last thing he said to me Monday morning was that he was going to help me find something for Sally's birthday."
"Sally?" Was there a girlfriend #2?
"Our sister. She's next oldest after me."
"Does she live here, too?"
"No, she lives with our parents, just like Matthew, Reggie, Mary, Phil, and Anna do. Peter and Tom joined the Army after graduation - I think we'll see them at Christmas."
I didn't think families came that big in the city any more. Ten kids? And why weren't these two at home with the others? Then another thought occurred to me. Did Miss Thorpe know about the size of her boyfriend's family? Somehow, I had the feeling that she was picturing him as the wealthy orphan or the Allens' heir, not third or fourth out of ten.
"And are you and your brother in frequent contact with your parents?"
She nodded eagerly, the half-dried curls bouncing. "Oh, yes! Well, I call Mother nearly every day. I think James remembers to write every week...or when he needs money."
Typical young man, then. "In other words, they aren't likely to know anything more about his whereabouts than you do?"
"No, Mother hasn't heard a thing. She hasn't even gotten last week's letter from him yet."
Mrs. Allen looked up from where she'd been browsing a fashion magazine in the corner. "Oh, dear, Cathy! I seem to have gotten jam on my blouse. Do you suppose there is any way to get raspberry out of silk?"
I should have bitten my tongue, but she was so clearly in her own world that I couldn't help myself. "I'm afraid it's ruined, ma'am. If it were satin or cotton, you might be able to save it, but silk is pretty hopeless with a stain. Or muslin! Muslin is just marvelous for getting cleaned."
The girl blushed. I took another look at her (she was drying out enough to be safe in that respect) and wanted to hit myself in the forehead. Of all the fabrics Ellie had ever waxed lyrical about, I had to pick the one this kid was wearing to praise.
It was definitely time to get out of there. I wasn't getting any information, and I was getting myself deeper in trouble. I stood up and placed my card on the table. "Mrs. Allen, Miss Morland, if you hear anything from Mr. Allen or Mr. Morland, please give me a call."
I'd made it halfway back to the safety of my car when Cathy Morland came running out the door (I found myself wondering if the kid ever walked anywhere). "Mr. Tilney! Mr. Tilney!"
She made a little face. "Kid. I liked 'sweetheart' better." Before I had time to react to that, she perked up again. "I just wanted to thank you so much for trying to find James. I don't have a lot of money - I'm bad about remembering to save instead of spend - but whatever Bella's paying you, I'll match it. ...Um...It just may take me a while to pay the whole sum."
Now I knew how my sister had felt when that orphan showed up with the piggy-bank to pay for finding the mutt.
"Don't worry about it. One fee per case is enough."
She bit her lip. "But I have to do something." Suddenly her face lit up. "I know! I'll help you with the case!"
I knew I should have gotten out of there faster. "Seriously, kid, don't worry about it. This is my job, and I do fine at it." Before she had a chance to say anything else, I headed to the car, and left her standing in her puddle of rainwater & enthusiasm. It was definitely time for this private eye to head back to Woodston, pull out the fold-down bed, and get some shut-eye.
Three a.m. is a terrible time of day. It's even worse when your phone is ringing. I rolled over and grabbed for the receiver. "Tilney."
"Henry? It's David. Ellie said you were looking for a kid named Morland?"
It was times like this when I couldn't decide if it was a curse or a blessing to have my sister seeing a man in Law Enforcement. "Yeah?"
"I think you need to come down to the East River Bridge. Or rather, the dump under it."
That didn't sound good. "I'll be there as quick as I can."
It's fortunate that the streets are nearly empty at that time of day. As it was, I nearly ran over two sets of street sweepers and one craps game in an alley. When I got to the bridge and found David Osbourne, with the assistance of a bum called "Duke," the love of my sister's life was looking over the sad remains of what had been a fairly decent looking kid, now half-buried in garbage. The curly hair definitely highlighted the resemblance. "Morland?" I asked.
Osbourne nodded. "Morland."
"Gunshot. Don't turn him over - it's not pretty."
"Shot from behind, then?"
"Yep, and at pretty close range. I know you've just started on your case, but any thoughts on who might want to off him?"
I couldn't help snorting. "So far I've met one dame that sees him as her meal ticket, one frantic sister, and a new-rich broad that either lives on opium or isn't quite all there. The broad, by the way, is the wife of the kid's boss - Phillip Allen."
"Allen? He wouldn't happen to be an older man, grey hair, heavy set with a bit of a paunch?"
I felt a headache coming on. This case just got a lot more complicated - and probably a lot less lucrative. Assisting the police generally equated with "on the house." "Don't tell me."
David nodded. "Over there, half-stuffed in the Maytag."
It was rather scary to think that my first thought was how I was going to break the news to the kid. "Maybe they wanted to make him come clean."
He made a face. "Of all the times for your sense of humor to kick in."
"Sorry. About all I really know is that the kid is one of 10, most of whom still live at home with the parents. Why the Allens had this one and his sister living with them, I haven't heard yet. Ellie said the Allens were new-rich shareholders in Fullerton Shipping and she thought there might be bootlegging ties, but you'd know more about that than I would."
"Nah," he waved a hand, "I leave that to the Feds. Mob ties, huh? It would explain why it was both of them at once, but it doesn't make sense. That sort of hit is generally either a lot cleaner or messier. In other words, usually there are a lot more bullets or else you can barely see the hole."
"Well, it's so late, it's early. Maybe if I hit the speakeasy by the docks, I can find someone who knows something about Fullerton shipping."
I'd been half hoping the joint would be pretty much empty, and I could crawl back to bed with a clear conscience, but no sooner had I walked past the bouncer when I saw an old friend & valued source. Even when Fred Wentworth had been in his drunkard years, he'd known everything that went down, legal & illegal, from Boston to D.C. Now that he was married and (mostly) dried out, he was even sharper. Even better, a whiskey cut half-and-half with water was a lot cheaper than the bottles of gin used to be. I dragged myself over to the bar, caught the bartender's eye and nodded at Fred. "His next one's on me."
Fred glanced over. "Tilney. You look like something the cat dragged in."
"I feel like it. Who invented three o'clock in the morning?"
"My theory is that God needed a time for hangovers."
"Could be. What do you know about Fullerton Shipping?"
"Which half? The respectable cargo company or the smugglers with ties to the Dutchman?"
"Probably the second, since Phil Allen and his protege just turned up in the East River Bridge Dump."
"I haven't heard about any shakedowns - wait. You said the kid is dead, too?"
I don't know why I said it. "The boy kid, yeah. Not the girl."
He raised an eyebrow. "I didn't know there was a girl, old chum. Anne will be delighted to hear it."
"The kid's a baby, and not the baby doll kind. The sort that still plays with dolls. Now what were you going to say about the brother?"
"Just that it makes no sense."
"David said that, too. If you keep waiting for things to make sense, you're going to die waiting."
"No, it's just that Allen had ties to the underside, but the kid didn't. He had one of those naive and innocent outlooks that I thought only existed in The Bobbsey Twins books. And weirdly enough, the whole crew seemed to make a pet of him for just that reason; they completely shielded him from the illegal side of things."
"Still, he could have gotten caught in a sting by rivals. Any thoughts on which other gangs could be competition?"
"Not right this second." The clock over the bar chimed, and Wentworth looked at it and swore. "Sorry, Tilney, but I promised my wife I'd be home by now."
"I've been a tec too long to get between a man and his wife. Night, Wentworth."
Wentworth left humming "Annie Laurie." Boy, did he have it bad.
It was entirely too early when Ellie breezed into the office and opened the curtains so the sun could stab me in the eyes. "Good morning, Henry! It's a beautiful day, and there's a pretty girl waiting to see you."
I groaned. "Precious, no morning is beautiful when a man has been crawling around a garbage dump at three a.m." Then the second half of her sentence hit me. "Girl? What girl?"
"Quite a pretty one, I think, though it's hard to tell with the smoked glasses and the oversize trench coat and fedora. I think she's read a little too much Carroll John Daly."
I groaned again. It could only be one person. "Young kid? Curly hair?"
Ellie looked delighted. "Oh, you know her?"
I sat up just so that I could bury my head in my hands. "James Morland's baby sister."
"Yeah. And Morland was the reason I was at the dump, along with David."
"Just give me five minutes to find my pants and figure out how to tell her. Oh, and coffee, black as sin, if the burner's working."
Things weren't any better five minutes later when the kid bounced into the office. She looked like an overdone copy of a Black Mask cover, and I had the feeling that I knew which way her literary tastes ran. I knew it for sure when she came up along side me and muttered out of the corner of her mouth, "What's the score, partner?"
"For starters, take that outfit off. You aren't Race Williams. Second, I'm not your partner. I work solo."
Ellie's timing could not have been worse. She poked her head around the door and chirped, "The General's on the line for you, Henry."
After I got off the line with as short a conversation as I could manage without having him come down to harangue me in person, I turned back to the kid. "Third, you need to sit down. I don't know how to make this pretty. Your brother's dead. Phillip Allen, too. The police found them both last night."
Those big brown eyes started to fill, and somehow she was bawling into my shoulder while I patted her head like an idiot and made stupid promises about everything turning out all right. The logical part of me was busy screaming that nothing with a dead brother is ever going to involve the phrase "all right," and that I needed to get away from the kid right now. Unfortunately, none of the rest of me was listening.
When she finally subsided to sniffles, I gave her my handkerchief and said, "So you see, it's a police matter now. You should go home."
Wrong thing to say. That little chin got very stubborn. "Oh, no. I'm going to help you find out who did it and why." She drew herself up straight and, obviously quoting from a magazine story, added, "I can take care of myself."
"No, kid, you can't. It would be taking a lamb to the slaughter." For some reason, saying that kicked off a train of thought. "Look, I'll drop you with Mrs. Allen - someone needs to tell her about her husband - and then I need to swing by City Hall."
"Oooh!" Her eyes lit up. "You have a Lead."
"No," I sighed. "It's a hunch, and probably wrong."
"It's a Lead. We have to follow it." She glowed with zeal. I wanted to bang my head against the wall.
So somehow I found myself bringing her along when I went to the Marriage Bureau. "Henry Tilney, P.I.," I introduced myself to the wet-looking little clerk behind the grill. "Can I ask about a license that might have been filed here in the past two days? Groom's name of Morland."
The clerk, E. Bertram by his nameplate, dug in the files for a few minutes. "James Morland, 21, to Isabella Thorpe, 22? Filed Tuesday afternoon with blood tests?"
"But James isn't," Cathy started. I dug an elbow in her ribs. This wasn't the time to argue about ages and whether or not her brother would falsify a document. The groom might have been as pure as the driven snow, but his bride was unadulterated vamp. She'd lie about her eye teeth if she thought there was a dollar in it.
"That's the one, Mr. Ferrars, and thank you so much." I turned away from the window, dragging a still-sputtering Cathy with me. Around the corner, there was a convenient phone booth. I pulled her in and closed the door. "Listen, kid, how well do you know your brother's wife?"
"Bella? We met her a couple months ago, when the Allens hired James as Mr. Allen's assistant and asked me to come along to keep Mrs. Allen company... you see, they attend Father's church when they come to their country house, and they've always been kind to us."
That answered the problem of the Morlands' residence with the Allens. A combination of kindness and cheap, grateful labor. It also explained why the kid had all the survival instinct of a lemming. "So you don't really know this dame at all?"
"Well, she's too busy to have much time for me, but she's so glamorous, and kind to me when she doesn't have a date with James."
"Listen, kid, she thinks your brother had money coming - lots of it - from the Allens."
"But we don't." She shook her head.
"That's not the point. She thinks so, and she thinks that as his widow, she will have money coming."
"I don't believe it," she protested. I could believe that. "Now, if you'd said John was greedy."
"Who's John?" I don't like new players at late stages of the game.
"Bella's brother. He keeps asking me on dates, but he's smarmy."
My brain kicked into overdrive. "Listen, kid, I don't have time to explain, but I need you to go home. Don't let Mrs. Allen go anywhere, particularly near the Thorpes. It's a matter of life and death. I'll phone as soon as it's safe."
"So, you see, he thought that by murdering your brother, either you or Bella would stand to inherit the Allen fortune, and he'd be able to off Mrs. Allen and rake it in just as soon as you and he were married."
It was two days later and the kid, the ditzy broad, and I were sitting in my office while I explained to them the events of the last couple of days, including the chase along the river of the Thorpes by the Fullerton Gang (which, to Cathy's delight, turned out to include my brother) and the Thorpes' subsequent arrest by David Osbourne & the police. I was dead tired, wet, and pretty glad that Ellie had thought to collect from Bella Thorpe in advance. I doubted she was happy to pay for me sending her to prison.
"Well, thank you, Mr. Tilney," said the broad, rising to leave. "You have been very kind and I shall always treasure your advice about silk."
I couldn't help looking at the kid. "Does she even realize her husband is dead?" I hissed.
"Oh, yes," she assured me earnestly. "She just...copes with the world a little differently. And she says no man but your husband should ever see you cry."
Warning bells went off in my head. The kid had bawled all over me. Twice. "I wish this could have turned out better, kid, but I'm just a gumshoe, not a miracle worker. Best of luck to you."
"Goodbye, Mr. Tilney. You were wonderful."
As the door closed behind them, Ellie raised an eyebrow at me. "You do realize she'll be back, don't you?"
I hate it when she's right.The End