Read French Powder Mystery Online
Authors: Ellery Queen
Inspector Queen swung to his feet, grumbling. “You can’t get anything out of him when he’s in that mood. … Come along, Henry—you going, Fiorelli?—let’s get down to City Hall.”
I had been brushing up on my Xenophon, and when I ran across the passage relating to the Retreat of the Ten Thousand through ancient Armenia, the shoe reference gave me an idea for a short story. The incident is ridiculous in retrospect, although at the time I was quite oblivious to its humor.—E. Q.
T WAS ELEVEN O’CLOCK
when Inspector Queen left his apartment on West 87th Street in the company of Sampson, Cronin and Fiorelli, bound for the Criminal Courts Building.
At precisely the same moment, some miles to the south, a man stood quietly at the library dormer-window of a private apartment. The apartment was situated on the sixth floor of French’s, the Fifth Avenue department store. The man at the window was Cyrus French, chief stock-holder of French’s and president of its Board of Directors.
French was watching the swirling traffic at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street with unseeing eyes. He was a dour-visaged man of sixty-five, stocky, corpulent, iron-grey. He was dressed in a dark business suit. A white flower gleamed on his lapel.
He said: “I hope you made it clear that the meeting was for this morning at eleven, Westley,” and turned sharply to eye a man seated beside a glass-topped desk before the window.
Westley Weaver nodded. He was a fresh-faced young man, clean-shaven and alert, in the early thirties.
“Quite clear,” he replied pleasantly. He looked up from a stenographic notebook in which he had been writing. “As a matter of fact, here is a carbon copy of the memorandum I typed yesterday afternoon. I left one copy for each director, besides this one which you found on the desk this morning.” He indicated a slip of blue-tinted paper lying beside the desk telephone. Except for five books standing between cylindrical onyx book-ends at the extreme right of the desk, a telephone, and the memorandum, the glass top was bare. “I followed up the memos to the directors with telephone calls about a half-hour ago. They all promised to be here on time.”
French grunted and turned again to look down upon the maze of morning traffic. Hands clasped behind his back, he began to dictate store business in his slightly grating voice.
They were interrupted five minutes later by a knock on the outer door, beyond an anteroom. French irritably called, “Come!” and there was the sound of a hand fumbling with the invisible knob. French said, “Oh, yes, the door’s shut, of course; open it, Westley.”
Weaver went quickly through the anteroom and flung open the heavy door. He admitted a weazened little old man who showed pale gums in a grin, and with an amazing celerity for a man of his years tripped into the room.
“Never seem to remember that locked door of yours, Cyrus,” he piped, shaking hands with Westley and French. “Am I the first?”
“That you are, John,” said French with a vague smile. “The others should be here any moment now.”
Weaver offered the old man a chair. “Won’t you sit down, Mr. Gray?”
Gray’s seventy years sat lightly on his thin shoulders. He had a birdlike head covered with thin white hair. His face was the indeterminate color of parchment; it was constantly wreathed in smiles which lifted his white mustache above thin red lips. He wore a wing collar and an ascot tie.
He accepted the chair and sat down with a preposterously lithe movement.
“How was your trip, Cyrus?” he asked. “Did you find Whitney amenable?”
“Quite, quite!” returned French, resuming his pacing. “In fact, I should say that if we officially come to a complete agreement this morning, we can consummate the merger in less than a month.”
“Fine! Good stroke of business!” John Gray rubbed his hands in a curious gesture; they rasped together.
There was a second knock at the door. Weaver again went into the anteroom.
“Mr. Trask and Mr. Marchbanks,” he announced. “And if I’m not mistaken, there comes Mr. Zorn from the elevator.” Two men passed into the room, and a moment later a third; whereupon Weaver hurried back to his chair by the desk. The door swung shut with a click.
The newcomers shook hand all around and dropped into chairs at a long conference table in the middle of the room. They made a peculiar group. Trask—A. Melville Trask in the Social Register—fell into a habitually drooping attitude, sprawling in his chair and playing idly with a pencil on the table before him. His associates paid little attention to him. Hubert Marchbanks sat down heavily. He was a fleshy man of forty-five, florid and clumsy-handed. At regular intervals his loud voice broke in an asthmatic wheeze. Cornelius Zorn regarded his fellow directors from behind old-fashioned gold-rimmed eyeglasses. His head was bald and square, his fingers were thick, and he wore a reddish mustache. His short figure completely filled the chair. He looked startlingly like a prosperous butcher.
French took a seat at the head of the table and regarded the others solemnly.
“Gentlemen—this is a meeting which will go down in the history of department store merchandising.” He paused, cleared his throat. “Westley, will you see that a man is posted at the door so that we may continue absolutely undisturbed?”
“Yes, sir.” Weaver picked up the telephone on the desk and said. “Mr. Crouther’s office, please.” A moment later he said, “Crouther? Who? Oh, yes. … Never mind looking for him; you can take care of it. Send one of the store detectives up to the door of Mr. French’s private apartment. He is to see that no one disturbs Mr. French while the Board meeting is going on. … He is not to interrupt us—merely station himself at the door. … Whom will you send? … Oh! Jones? Good enough. Tell Crouther about it when he comes in. … Oh, he’s been in since nine? Well, tell him for me when you see him; I’m very busy just now.” He hung up and returned quickly to a chair at French’s right. He snatched his pencil and poised it over his notebook.
The five directors were poring over a sheaf of papers. French sat staring at the blue May sky outside while they familiarized themselves with the details of the documents, his heavy hands restless on the table top.
Suddenly he turned to Weaver and said in an undertone, “I’d almost forgotten, Westley. Get the house on the wire. Let’s see—it’s eleven-fifteen. They should be up by this time. Mrs. French may be anxious about me—I haven’t communicated with her since I left for Great Neck yesterday.”
Weaver gave the number of the French house to the operator, and a moment later spoke incisively into the mouthpiece.
“Hortense? Is Mrs. French up yet? … Well, is Marion there, then? Or Bernice? … Very well, let me speak with Marion. …”
He shifted his body away from French, who was talking in a low tone to old John Gray. Weaver’s eyes were bright and his face suddenly flushed.
“Hello, hello! Marion?” he breathed into the telephone. “This is Wes. I’m sorry—you know—I’m calling from the apartment—your father would like to speak to you. …”
A woman’s low voice answered. “Westley dear! I understand. … Oh, I’m so sorry, darling, but if Father’s there we can’t talk very long. You love me? Say it!”
“Oh, but I
whispered Weaver fiercely, his back rigid and formal. But his face, turned away from French, was eloquent.
“I know you can’t, silly boy.” The girl laughed. “I just said it to make you wriggle. But you do, don’t you?” She laughed again.
“Yes. Yes. Oh,
“Then let me talk to Father, darling.”
Weaver cleared his throat hastily and turned to French.
“Here’s Marion at last, sir,” he said, handing the instrument to the old man. “Hortense Underhill says that neither Mrs. French nor Bernice has come down yet.”
French hurriedly took the telephone from Weavers hands. “Marion, this is Father. I’ve just arrived from Great Neck and I’m feeling fine. Everything all right? … What’s the matter? You seem a little tired. … All right, dear. I merely wanted to let you know that I’m back safely. You might tell Mother for me—I’ll be too busy to call again this morning. Good-bye, dear.”
He returned to his chair, looked gravely around at the Board, and said, “Now gentlemen, since you’ve had a few moments to become familiar with the figures I thrashed out with Whitney, let’s get to work.” He brandished a forefinger.
At eleven forty-five the telephone bell jangled, interrupting a heated discussion between French and Zorn. Weaver’s hand leaped to the instrument.
“Hello, hello! Mr. French is very busy just now. … Is that you, Hortense? What is it? … Just a moment.” He turned to French. “Pardon me, sir—Hortense Underhill is on the wire and she seems disturbed about something. Will you talk to her or call back?”
French glared at Zorn, who was fiercely dabbing away the perspiration on his thick neck, and snatched the telephone from Weaver.
“Well, what is it?”
A quavering feminine voice answered. “Mr. French, something dreadful’s happened. I can’t find Mrs. French or Miss Bernice!”
“Eh? What’s that you say? What’s the matter? Where are they?”
“I don’t know, sir. They hadn’t rung for the maids all morning, and I went up to see if anything was wrong a few minutes ago. You’ll—you’ll never believe it, sir—I can’t understand—”
“Their beds aren’t touched. I don’t think they slept home last night.”
French’s voice rose in anger. “You silly woman—is that why you’re interrupting my Board meeting? It was raining last night and they probably stayed overnight somewhere with friends.”
“But Mr. French—they would have called, or—”
“Please, Hortense! Go back to your housework. I’ll look into this later.” He slammed the receiver on the hook.
“Foolishness …” he muttered. Then he shrugged his shoulders. He turned to Zorn again, palms on the table. “Now what’s that? Do you mean to tell me that you’d stand in the way of this merger just because of a paltry few thousands? Let me tell you something, Zorn. …”
RENCH’S OCCUPIED A SQUARE
block in the heart of the mid-town section of New York, on Fifth Avenue. On the borderline between the more fashionable upper avenue and the office-building district farther downtown, it catered to a mixed patronage of wealth and penury. At the noon hour its broad aisles and six floors were crowded with shop girls and stenographers; in mid-afternoon the tone of its clientele improved perceptibly. It boasted at once therefore the lowest prices, the most modern models, the widest assortment of saleable articles, in New York. As a result of this compromise between attractive prices and exclusive merchandise it was the most popular department store in the city. From nine o’clock in the morning until five-thirty in the evening French’s was thronged with shoppers, the sidewalks surrounding the marble structure and its many wings almost impassable.
Cyrus French, pioneer department store owner, assisted by his associate Board, exerted the full financial strength of his powerful organization to make French’s—an institution of two generations of French ownership—the show place of the city. In those days, long before the artistic movement had been communicated in the United States to the more practical articles of use and wear, French’s had already made contact with its European representatives and held public exhibitions of art objects, art furniture, and kindred modernistic ware. These exhibits attracted huge crowds to the store. One of its main windows fronting Fifth Avenue was devoted to exhibits of periodically imported articles. This window became the focal point for the eyes of all New York. Curious throngs constantly besieged its sheathing of plate glass.
On the morning of Tuesday the twenty-fourth of May, at three minutes of the noon hour, the heavy impaneled door to this window opened and a model in black dress, white apron and white cap entered. She sauntered about the window, seemed to appraise its contents, and then stood stiffly at attention, as if awaiting a predetermined moment to begin her mysterious work.
The contents of the window were arranged to illustrate a combination living-room and bedroom, of an ultra-modern design created by Paul Lavery, of Paris, according to a placard in a corner. This card acknowledged Lavery’s authorship of the articles on exhibition, and called attention to “lectures on the fifth floor by M. Lavery.” The rear wall, into which the one door opened by which the model had entered, was unrelieved by ornament and tinted a pastel green. On this wall hung a huge Venetian mirror, unframed, its edges cut in an irregular design. Against the wall stood a long narrow table, exhibiting an unpainted grain highly waxed. On the table stood a squat prismatic lamp, made of a clouded glass procurable at that period only from a unique modern art-objects factory in Austria. Odd pieces—chairs, end-tables, bookcases, a divan, all of unorthodox construction, peculiar and daring in conception—stood about the gleaming floor of the window-room. The side walls served as background for several pieces of miscellaneous utility.
The lighting fixtures in the ceiling and on the side walls were all of the “concealed” variety rapidly gaining vogue on the Continent.
At the stroke of noon the model, who had remained motionless since her entrance into the room, stirred into activity. By this time a viscid mass of people had gathered outside the window on the sidewalk, awaiting the model’s demonstration with hungry eyes and restless shoulders.
Setting down a metal rack on which were hung a number of simply lettered placards, the model picked up a long ivory wand and, pointing to the legend on the first placard, proceeded solemnly to one of the pieces on the east wall and began a pantomimic demonstration of its construction and properties.
The fifth placard—by this time the crowd had doubled in size and overflowed from the sidewalk—bore the words:
This Article of Furniture Is Concealed in the West Wall and Is Operated Electrically by a Push-Button. It is of Special Design, Created by M. Paul Lavery, and Is the Only One of Its Kind in This Country.