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Authors: Ellery Queen

French Powder Mystery (4 page)

BOOK: French Powder Mystery
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Pointing to the words once more, for emphasis, the model sedately walked to the west wall, indicated with a flourish a small ivory button set in a nacreous panel, and touched the button with one long finger.

Before pressing it, she looked out once more on the jostling, expectant crowd before the window. Necks craned eagerly to see the marvel about to be revealed.

What they saw was a marvel indeed—so unexpected, so horrible, so grotesque that at the instant of its occurrence faces froze into masks of stunned incredulity. It was like a moment snatched out of an unbelievable nightmare. … For, as the model pushed the ivory button, a section of the wall slid outward and downward with a swift noiseless movement, two small wooden legs unfolded and shot out of the forepart of the bedstead, the bed settled to a horizontal position—and the body of a woman, pale-faced, crumpled, distorted, her clothes bloody in two places, fell from the silken sheet to the floor at the model’s feet.

It was twelve-fifteen exactly.

4.
“All the King’s Horses”

T
HE MODEL UTTERED ONE
horrified shriek, so piercing that it was distinctly audible through the heavy glass window, rolled her eyes wildly, and fell fainting at the side of the body.

The spectators outside still presented a tableau—they were stricken into silence, petrified with fright. Then a woman on the sidewalk, her face pressed immovably to the glass, screamed. Immobility became frenzy, silence a dull unpunctuated roar. The crowd surged away from the window, pushing madly backward, stampeding in terror. A child fell and was trampled in the crush. A police whistle blew, and a bluecoat ran shouting through the crowd, using his club freely. He seemed bewildered by the uproar—he had not yet seen the two still figures in the exhibition-window.

Suddenly the door in the window burst open and a lean man wearing a short pointed beard and a monocle ran into the room. His staring eyes took in the two motionless figures on the shining floor, traveled jerkily to the milling crowd outside and the policeman swinging his club, and returned with dazed disbelief to the floor. With a soundless oath he sprang forward, grasped a heavy silk cord in a corner near the plate-glass window, and pulled. A translucent curtain fell immediately, shutting off the view of the frantic people in the street.

The bearded man knelt at the side of the model, felt her pulse, hesitantly touched the skin of the other woman, rose and ran back to the door. A growing crowd of salesgirls and shoppers was collecting on the main floor of the department store, just outside the window. Three men—floorwalkers—rushed through as if to enter.

The man in the window spoke sharply: “You—get the head store detective at once—no, never mind—here he comes—Mr. Crouther!
Mr. Crouther!
This way! Here!”

A heavy-set, abroad-shouldered man with a mottled complexion shoved his way, cursing, through the crowd. He had just reached the entrance of the window when the policeman who had dispersed the crowd on the sidewalk ran up and dashed after him into the window. The three men disappeared, the bluecoat slamming the door shut behind them.

The bearded man stood aside. “There’s been a terrible accident, Crouther. … Glad you’re here, officer. … My God, what an affair!”

The head store detective pounded across the room and glared down at the two women. “What happened to the girl, Mr. Lav-ery?” he bellowed at the bearded man.

“Fainted, I suppose!”

“Here, Crouther, let me take a look,” said the policeman, unceremoniously pushing Lavery aside. He bent over the body of the woman who had tumbled from the bed.

Crouther cleared his throat importantly. “Listen here, Bush. This is no time to make an examination. We oughtn’t to touch a thing until Headquarters is notified. Mr. Lav-ery and me—we’ll stand guard here while you use the ’phone. Go ahead now, Bush, don’t be an egg!”

The policeman stood undecidedly for a moment, scratched his head, and finally left the room with hurried steps.

“This is one sweet mess,” growled Crouther. “What happened here, Mr. Lav-ery? Who the hell is
this
woman?”

Lavery started nervously and plucked at his beard with long thin fingers. “Why, don’t you know? But of course not. … Good Heavens, Crouther, what are we to do?”

Crouther frowned. “Now don’t go getting yourself all excited Mr. Lav-ery.” This is a police job, pure and simple. Lucky I was on the scene so quick. We gotta wait for the detail from Headquarters, Just take it easy now—”

Lavery regarded the store detective coldly. “I’m perfectly all right, Mr. Crouther,” he said. “I suggest—” he weighted the word with authority—“that you immediately marshal your store forces to keep order on the main floor. Make it appear as if nothing out of the way has happened. Call Mr. MacKenzie. Send somebody to notify Mr. French and the Board of Directors. I understand they’re having a meeting upstairs. This is—an affair of a grave nature—graver than you know. Go now!”

Crouther looked at Lavery rebelliously, shook his head, and made for the door. As he opened it a small dark man with a physician’s bag stepped into the room. He glanced quickly around and without a word crossed to the side of the two bodies.

He favored the model with a scant glance and a feeling of the pulse. He spoke without looking up.

“Here—Mr. Lavery, is it?—you’ll have to help—get one of the men outside to give you a hand—the model has merely fainted—get her a glass of water and put her on that divan there—send somebody for one of the nurses from the infirmary. …”

Lavery nodded. He went to the door and looked out over the whispering crowd on the floor.

“Mr. MacKenzie! Here, please!”

A middle-aged man with a pleasant Scotch face hurried up and into the room. “Help me, please,” said Lavery.

The doctor busied himself over the body of the other woman. His movements concealed her face. Lavery and MacKenzie picked up the reviving form of the model and carried her to the divan. A floorwalker outside was dispatched for a glass of water and reappeared in a twinkling. The model gulped, groaned.

The doctor looked up gravely. “This woman is dead,” he announced. “Has been for quite a while. What’s more, she’s been shot. Got it in the heart. Looks like murder, Mr. Lavery!”

“Nom du chien!”
muttered Lavery. His face was sickly white.

MacKenzie scurried across the room to look down at the huddled corpse. He fell back with a cry. “Good God!
It’s Mrs. French!”

5.
“And All the King’s Men”

T
HE WINDOW-DOOR OPENED QUICKLY
and two men stepped in. One, a tall lanky individual smoking a blackish cigar, stopped short, peered about him, and then, catching sight of the body, immediately advanced to the farther side of the wall bed, on the floor by which lay the dead woman. He favored the little physician with a keen glance, nodded and without further ado dropped to his knees. After a moment he looked up.

“The store doctor, are you?”

The physician nodded nervously. “Yes, I’ve made a superficial examination. She’s dead. I—”

“I can see that,” said the newcomer. “I’m Prouty, Assistant Medical Examiner. Stand by, doctor.” Again he bent over the body, opening his bag with one hand.

The second of the two men who had arrived was an iron-jawed giant. He had stopped at the door, softly prodding it shut behind him. Now his eyes flickered over the frozen faces of Lavery, MacKenzie and the store doctor. His own face was cold and harsh and expressionless.

It was not until Dr. Prouty began his examination that this man vitalized into action. He took a purposeful step forward toward MacKenzie, but stopped suddenly as the door shivered under a violent pounding.

“Come in!” he said sharply, standing between the door and the bed, so that the body was hidden from the newcomers.

The door was flung aside. A small army of men surged forward. The tall man blocked their path.

“Just a moment,” he said slowly. “We can’t have so many people in here. Who are you?”

Cyrus French, flushed and choleric, snapped: “I am the owner of this establishment, and these gentlemen all have a right to be here. They are the Board of Directors—this is Mr. Crouther, our head store detective—stand aside, please.”

The tall man did not move. “Mr. French, eh? Board of Directors? … Hello, Crouther. … Who is this?” He pointed to Westley Weaver, who hovered about the edge of the group, a trifle pale.

“Mr. Weaver, my secretary,” said French impatiently. “Who are you, sir, What’s happened here? Let me pass.”

“I see.” The tall man reflected a moment, hesitated, then said firmly, “I’m Sergeant Velie of the Homicide Squad. Sorry, Mr. French, but you’ll have to abide by my orders here. Come in, but don’t touch anything and let me give the orders.” He stepped aside. He seemed to be waiting for something with unwearying patience.

Lavery ran forward, his eyes distended as he saw Cyrus French stride toward the bed. He intercepted the old man, grasped his lapel.

“Mr. French—please do not look—just now. …”

French petulantly brushed him aside. “Let me be, Lavery! What is this—a conspiracy? Ordered about in my own store!” He proceeded to the bed, and Lavery fell back, a resigned look on his mobile face. Suddenly, as if struck by a thought, he took John Gray aside, speaking in the director’s ear. Gray paled, stood transfixed to the spot, then with an indistinct cry he leaped to French’s side.

He was just in time. The store owner had bent curiously over Dr. Prouty’s shoulder, taken one look at the woman on the floor, and collapsed without a sound. Gray caught him as he sank. Lavery sprang forward and assisted in carrying the old man’s limp body to a chair on the other side of the room.

Λ nurse in white cap and gown had slipped into the room and was ministering to the hysterical model on the divan. She went quickly over to French, slipped a vial under his nose, and instructed Lavery to chafe his hands. Gray paced nervously up and down, muttering to himself. The store doctor hurried over to help the nurse.

The directors and, the secretary, huddled together in a horror-struck group, moved hesitantly toward the body. Weaver and Marchbanks cried out together at seeing the woman’s face. Zorn bit his lip and turned away. Trask averted his face in horror. Then, in the same mechanical motion, they moved slowly backward to a corner, glancing helplessly at each other.

Velie crooked a huge finger at Crouther. “What have you done?”

The store detective grinned. “Taken care of all the details, don’t you worry. I’ve got all my men scrambled on the main floor and they’ve scattered the mob. Got everything well in hand. Trust Bill Crouther for that, Sergeant! Won’t be much for you guys to do, that’s a fact.”

Velie grunted. “Well, here’s something for you to do while we’re waiting. Get a big stretch of the main floor roped off right around this section, and keep everybody away. It’s a little late now, I suppose, to close the doors. Wouldn’t do much good. Whoever did this job is miles away from here by now. Get going, Crouther!”

The store detective nodded, turned away, turned back. “Say, Sergeant—know just who the woman on the floor is? Might help us right now.”

“Yes?” Velie smiled frostily. “Can’t see how. But it doesn’t take much to figure it out. It’s French’s wife. Blast it, this is a great place for a murder!”

“No!” Crouther’s jaw dropped. “French’s wife, hey? The big cheese himself. … Well, well!” He stole a glance at the slack figure of French and a moment later his voice resounded through the window as he roared instructions outside.

Silence in the window-room. The group in the corner had not moved. The model and French had both been revived—the woman’s eyes rolling wildly as she clung to the starched skirt of the nurse, French’s face a pasty white as he half-lay in the chair listening to Gray’s low-voiced words of sympathy. Gray himself seemed drained of his queer vitality.

Velie beckoned to MacKenzie, who hovered nervously at Prouty’s shoulder.

“You’re MacKenzie, the store manager?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“It’s time to get a move on, Mr. MacKenzie.” Velie eyed him coldly. “Get a hold on yourself. Somebody’s got to keep his wits about him. This is part of your job.” The store manager squared his shoulders. “Now listen. This is important and it’s got to be done thoroughly.” He lowered his voice. “No employees to leave the building—item number one, and I’m holding you responsible for its execution. Number two, check up on all employees who are not at their posts. Number three, make out a list of all employees absent from the store to-day, with the reasons for their absence. Hop to it!”

MacKenzie mumbled submissively, shuffled away.

Velie took Lavery, who stood talking to Weaver, to one side.

“You seem to have some authority here. May I ask who you are?”

“My name is Paul Lavery, and I am exhibiting the modern furniture on display upstairs on the fifth floor. This room is a sample of my exhibition.”

“I see. Well, you’ve kept your head, Mr. Lavery. The dead woman is Mrs. French?”

Lavery averted his eyes. “Yes, Sergeant. It was quite a shock to all of us, no doubt. How in God’s name did she ever get—” He stopped abruptly, worried his lip.

“Did she ever get here, you meant to say?” finished Velie grimly. “Well now, that’s a question, isn’t it? I—Just a moment, Mr. Lavery!”

He turned on his heel and walked swiftly to the door to greet a group of new arrivals.

“Morning, Inspector. Morning, Mr. Queen! Glad you’ve come, sir. You’ll find things in a rotten mess.” He stepped aside and waved a large hand at the room and its assorted occupants “Pretty, eh, sir? More like a wake than the scene of a crime!” It was a long speech for Velie.

Inspector Richard Queen—small, pert, like a white-thatched bird—followed the circuit of Velie’s hand with his eyes.

“My goodness!” he exclaimed in annoyance. “How did so many people get into this room? I’m surprised at you Thomas.”

“Inspector.” Queen paused at Velie’s deep voice. “I thought it might—” his voice became inaudible as he murmured a few words in the Inspector’s ear.

“Yes, yes, I see, Thomas.” The Inspector patted his arm. “Tell me soon. Let’s have a peep at the body.”

BOOK: French Powder Mystery
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