Read French Powder Mystery Online
Authors: Ellery Queen
“You say you came to the store, Miss French?” interrupted the Inspector politely. “For any special reason?”
“Why—not particularly. I did think I might still catch father. I knew he was leaving for Great Neck, but I didn’t know exactly when, and—”
The Inspector held up a ridiculously tiny white hand. “Just a moment Miss French. You say your father went to Great Neck yesterday?”
“Why, yes. I understood he was to go out there for business. There’s—there’s nothing wrong—about that is there, sir?” She bit her lip.
“No, no—positively no!” said the Inspector, smiling. He turned to Weaver. “Why didn’t you tell me that Mr. French took a little trip yesterday, Mr. Weaver?”
“You didn’t ask me,” retorted Weaver.
The Inspector started, then chuckled. “One on me,” he said. “It’s true enough. When did he return and why did he go?”
Weaver looked compassionately at the limp, oblivious figure of his employer. “He went early yesterday afternoon to confer with Farnham Whitney on Whitney’s estate. A matter of merger, Inspector—the meeting this morning discussed just that. Mr. French told me that he was driven into the city early this morning by Whitney’s chauffeur—arrived at the store at nine o’clock. Anything else?”
“Not just now.” Queen turned to Marion. “Your pardon, my dear, for the interruption. … Now where specifically did you go when you came to the store?”
“To my father’s apartment on the sixth floor.”
“Indeed?” muttered the Inspector. “And why, may I ask, did you go to your father’s apartment?”
“I usually go there when I’m at the store, which isn’t often,” exclaimed Marion. “Besides, I was told that Mr. Weaver was there, working, and I thought it might be nice—to pay him a little visit. …” She eyed her father apprehensively, but he was insensible to words.
“You went there directly on entering the store? And left immediately from the apartment?”
“Is it possible,” insinuated the Inspector very gently, “that you may have dropped your scarf in the apartment, Miss French?”
She did not reply immediately. Weaver tried frantically to catch her eye, moving his lips, framing the word “No!” She shook her head.
“Quite possible, Inspector,” she said quietly.
“I see.” The Inspector beamed. “Now, when did you see Mrs. French last?”
“At dinner last night. I had an appointment for the evening and left almost immediately.”
“Did Mrs. French seem herself? Notice anything unusual, abnormal in her speech or actions?”
“Well. … She did seem worried about Bernice,” Marion said slowly.
“Ah!” Queen rubbed his hands together. “Then I infer that your—stepsister, is it?—was not at home for dinner?”
“No,” replied Marion after a hesitating silence. “Winifred—my stepmother told me that Bernice had gone out and would not be home for dinner. But she seemed worried nevertheless.”
“She gave no indication of a reason for this worry?”
“What is your step-sister’s name? Is it French?”
“No, Inspector. She retains her father’s name of Carmody,” murmured Marion.
“I see. I see.” The Inspector stood plunged in thought. John Gray shifted impatiently, whispered a word to Cornelius Zorn, who shook his head sadly and leaned resignedly against the back of French’s chair. Queen paid no attention to them. He looked up at Marion. Her passive, tired little figure drooped.
“One question more for the moment, Miss French,” he said, “and you may rest. … Can you suggest, from anything that you know of Mrs. French’s background of affairs, or from anything that transpired recently—last night, yesterday, perhaps—can you suggest,” he repeated, “a possible explanation for this crime? It’s murder, of course,” he continued hastily, before she could reply, “and I know you are naturally chary of answering. Take your time—think carefully over everything that has occurred lately. …” He stopped. “Now, Miss French, can you tell me anything I might wish to hear?”
There was naked silence in the room—a raw pulsing quiet that beat invisibly against the atmosphere. Ellery heard quick breaths drawn, saw bodies tense, eyes sharpen, hand twitch as, to a man, the occupants of the room with the exception of Cyrus French leaned forward, watching Marion French as she stood there, facing them.
But she said, “No,” very matter-of-factly, and the Inspector’s eyes flickered. Everybody relaxed. Someone sighed. Ellery noted that it was Zorn. Trask lit a cigarette nervously and let the fire die. Marchbanks sat frozen to his chair. Weaver made a little movement of despair. …
“Then that will be all, Miss French,” returned Inspector Queen, in a tone as casual as the girl’s had been. He seemed pleasantly absorbed in a contemplation of Lavery’s formal cravat. “Please,” he added, just as pleasantly, “do not leave the room. … Mr. Lavery, may I have your ear for the moment?”
Marion dropped back and Weaver sprang to her side, dragging a chair with him. She sank into it with a little smile, shading her eyes with a nerveless hand. The other snuggled secretly into Weaver’s eager grasp. … Ellery watched them for a moment, then turned his sharp eyes on Lavery.
The Frenchman bowed, waited, fingers riffling his short beard.
S I UNDERSTAND IT
, Mr. Lavery, you are responsible for this exhibition of modernistic house-furnishings?” Inspector Queen’s voice took a fresh note.
“That is correct.”
“How long has this exhibition been going on?”
“About a month, I should say.”
“Your main exhibition rooms are where?”
“On the fifth floor.” Lavery spread his fingers. “You see, this is more or less of a pioneer project in New York, Inspector. I was invited to exhibit some of my creations to the American public by Mr. French and his Board, who are very much in sympathy with the movement. Most of the purely enterprising details of the present exhibition emanate from Mr. French, allow me to add.”
“Just what do you mean?”
Lavery showed his teeth in a smile. “The matter of these window-exhibits, for example. That was wholly Mr. French’s idea, and I do suppose it has resulted in much advertising for the establishment. Certainly the crowds have flocked from the sidewalk outside to the fifth-floor exhibition rooms in such numbers that we have had to call in special ushers to handle them.”
“I see.” The Inspector nodded politely. “So these window-exhibits were Mr. French’s idea? Yes, yes—you have just told me that. … How long has this particular window been dressed so, Mr. Lavery?”
“This is the—let me see—the end of the second week of the living-room-bedroom exhibit,” answered Lavery, stroking his short modish beard again. “The fourteenth day, to be exact. Tomorrow we were to have changed the room’s contents, removed them to make way for a model dining-room.”
“Oh, the windows are changed bi-weekly? Then this is the second room you have exhibited?”
“Quite so. The first was a full bedroom.”
Queen mused openly. His eyes drooped with weariness; blackish pouches stood out beneath. He took a short turn up and down the room, halting once more before Lavery.
“It seems to me,” he said, more to himself than to Lavery, “that this unfortunate accident and its attendant circumstances dovetail too fortuitously. … However! Mr. Lavery, is this window-exhibit held at the same time each day?”
Lavery stared. “Yes—yes, certainly.”
the same time each day, Mr. Lavery?” pursued the Inspector.
“Oh, yes!” said Lavery. “The model has entered this window at noon of each day ever since the institution of the exhibit.”
“Very good!” The Inspector seemed pleased again. “Now, Mr. Lavery—in the month that these demonstrations have taken place, has there ever to your knowledge been one day on which the time-schedule was not adhered to?”
“No,” said Lavery with positiveness. “And I am in a position to know, sir. It has been my habit to stand on the main floor behind the window-room during the model demonstration every day. My lecture upstairs is not scheduled until three-thirty of the afternoon, you see.”
The Inspector raised his eyebrows. “Oh, you lecture, too, Mr. Lavery?”
“But of course!” cried Lavery. “I have been told,” he added gravely, “that my description of the work of the Viennese Hoffman has created something of a stir among the
“Indeed!” smiled the Inspector. “One question more, Mr. Lavery, and then I think we will have finished with you for the present.—This exhibition as a whole is not entirely a spontaneous thing? I mean,” he added, “steps have been taken to make the public aware both of your window-demonstrations and of your lectures upstairs?”
“Assuredly. The publicity and advertising have been planned most carefully,” rejoined Lavery. “We have circularized all the art-schools and allied organizations. The charge-accounts, I understand, have likewise been covered by personal letters from the management. The bulk of the public attention, however, has been secured by means of newspaper advertisements. Of course you have seen those?”
“Well, I rarely read department store ads,” the Inspector replied hastily. “And I suppose you have received all sorts of publicity?”
“Yes—yes, indeed,” and Lavery again flashed his white teeth. “If you would condescend to examine my scrapbooks—”
“Hardly necessary, Mr. Lavery, and thank you for your patience. That’s all.”
“A moment, please.—May I?” Ellery had stepped forward, smiling. The Inspector glanced at him, waved his hand briefly, as if to say, “Your witness!” and retreated to the bed, where he sat down with a sigh.
Lavery had turned in his tracks and now stood stroking his beard, his eyes politely questioning.
Ellery did not speak for a moment. He twirled his pince-nez, looked up suddenly. “I am quite interested in your work, Mr. Lavery,” he said with a disarming grimace. “Although I fear my esthetic studies have not exhausted the field of modern interior decoration. As a matter of fact, was much interested the other day in your lecture on Bruno Paul. …”
“So you attended my impromptu classes upstairs, sir?” exclaimed Lavery, flushing with pleasure. “Perhaps I was a trifle enthusiastic about Paul—I know him quite well, you see. …”
“Indeed!” Ellery looked at the floor. “I take it that you have been in America before, Mr. Lavery—your English is quite untouched by Gallicism.”
“Well, I have traveled more or less extensively,” admitted Lavery. “This is my fifth visit to the States—Mr. Queen, is it?”
“I’m sorry!” said Ellery. “I’m Inspector Queen’s unruly scion. … Mr. Lavery, how many demonstrations a day are given in this window?”
“Just one.” Lavery raised his black brows.
“How long does each demonstration take?”
“Thirty-two minutes exactly.”
“Interesting,” murmured Ellery. “By the way, is this room kept open at all times?”
“Not at all. There are some very valuable pieces in this room. It is kept locked except when it is being used for demonstration purposes.”
“Of course! That was stupid of me,” smiled Ellery. “You have a key, naturally?”
“A number of keys exist, Mr. Queen,” answered Lavery. “The idea of the lock is more to prevent transient trespassing during the day than to keep out possible night-prowlers. It is presumed that after hours, in an establishment as well guarded as this—provided with modern burglar alarms, guards, and so on—the room would be safe enough against burglary.”
“If you will pardon me for interrupting,” came the mild voice of MacKenzie, the store manager, “I am in a better position to clear up the question of the keys than Mr. Lavery.”
“Delighted to have you,” said Ellery quickly, but he began once more to twirl his pince-nez. The Inspector, seated on the bed, preserved a watchful silence.
“We have a number of duplicate keys,” explained MacKenzie, “to each of the windows. In this particular instance Mr. Lavery has one, Diana Johnson the demonstrator has one (which she leaves at the Employees’ Office desk when she leaves for the day), the floorwalker on this section of the main floor and the store detectives each have one, and there is a complete set of duplicates kept in the general offices on the mezzanine floor. I am afraid very many people could have secured a key.”
Ellery did not seem perturbed. He walked suddenly to the door, opened it, peered out over the main floor for a moment, and returned.
“Mr. MacKenzie, will you please summon that clerk at the leather-goods counter opposite this window?”
MacKenzie departed, returning shortly with a short, stout, middle-aged man. He was white-faced and nervous.
“Were you on duty all this morning?” inquired Ellery kindly. The man jerked his head in the affirmative. “And yesterday afternoon?” Another jerk. “Did you leave your post at any time this morning or yesterday afternoon?”
The clerk found his voice. “Oh, no, sir!”
“Very well!” Ellery spoke softly. “Did you at any time during yesterday afternoon or this morning notice any one entering or leaving this window-room?”
“No, sir.” The man’s tone was assured. “I’ve been on duty all the time; I couldn’t help but notice if any one had used this room, sir. I haven’t been very busy,” he added, with an apologetic side-glance at MacKenzie.
“Thank you.” The clerk left with eager steps.
“Well!” Ellery sighed. “We seem to be progressing, and yet nothing takes definite shape. …” Shrugging his shoulders, he turned once more to Lavery.
“Mr. Lavery, are these windows illuminated after dark?”
“No, Mr. Queen. The shades are drawn after every demonstration, and they are kept drawn until the following day.”
“Then,” and Ellery emphasized the word, “then I take it that these lighting-fixtures are dummies?”
Eyes long since dulled by waiting and wretchedness expectantly followed the direction of Ellery’s arm. He was pointing toward the oddly cut, clouded-glass wall lights. The eyes all turned, too, to observe the numerous queerly shaped lamps about the room.
For answer Lavery strode to the rear wall and, after a moment’s manipulation, removed one of the modernistic fixtures. The socket which should have held an electric bulb was empty.