Read French Powder Mystery Online
Authors: Ellery Queen
The small dark doctor stepped uncertainly forward from a corner. His teeth gleamed as he said, “Yes, sir?”
“Have you anything to add to Dr. Prouty’s analysis, Doctor?” questioned Queen, with disarming gentleness.
“Not a thing, not a thing, sir,” said the store physician, looking uneasily at Prouty’s retreating figure. “A precise if somewhat sketchy diagnosis. The bullets entered—”
“Thank you, Doctor.” Inspector Queen turned his back on the little physician and beckoned imperiously to the store detective.
“Crouther,” he asked in a low tone, “who’s your head nightwatchman?”
“O’Flaherty—Peter O’Flaherty, Inspector.”
“How many watchmen are on duty here at night?”
“Four. O’Flaherty tends the night-door on the 39th Street side, Ralska and Powers do the rounds, and Bloom is on duty at the 39th Street night freight-entrance.”
“Thanks.” The Inspector turned to Detective Ritter. “Get hold of this man MacKenzie, the store manager, find the home address of O’Flaherty, Ralska, Powers and Bloom, and get ’em down here as fast as a cab will carry them. Scoot!” Ritter lumbered away.
Ellery suddenly straightened, adjusted his pince-nez more firmly on his nose, and strode over to his father. They held a whispered colloquy for a moment, whereupon Ellery quietly retreated to his vantage-point near the bed and the Inspector crooked his finger at Westley Weaver.
“Mr. Weaver,” he asked, “I take it that you are Mr. French’s confidential secretary?”
“Yes, sir,” responded Weaver warily.
The Inspector glanced sidewise at Cyrus French, huddled exhausted in the chair. John Gray’s small white hand was solicitously patting French’s arm. “I’d rather not bother Mr. French at this time with questions.—You were with him all morning?”
“Mr. French was not aware of Mrs. French’s presence in the store?”
“No, sir!” The response was immediate and sharp. Weaver regarded Queen with suspicious eyes.
“I? No, sir!”
“Hmmm!” The Inspector’s chin sank on his chest, and he communed with himself for an instant. Suddenly his finger shot toward the group of directors on the other side of the room. “How about you gentlemen? Any of you know that Mrs. French was here—this morning or last night?”
There was a chorus of horrified noes. Cornelius Zorn’s face grew red. He began to protest angrily.
“Please!” The Inspector’s tone flung them back to silence. “Mr. Weaver. How is it that all these gentlemen are present in the store this morning? They’re not here every day, are they?”
Weaver’s frank face lightened, as if from relief. “All of our directors are active in the management of the store, Inspector. They’re here every day, if only for an hour or so. As for this morning, there was a directors’ meeting in Mr. French’s private apartment upstairs.”
“Eh?” Queen seemed pleased as well as startled. “A private apartment upstairs, you say? On what floor?”
“The sixth—that’s the top floor of the store.”
Ellery stirred into life. Again he crossed the floor, again he whispered to his father, and again the old man nodded.
“Mr. Weaver,” continued the Inspector, a note of eagerness in his voice, “how long were you and the Board in Mr. French’s private apartment this morning?”
Weaver seemed surprised at the question. “Why, all morning, Inspector. I arrived at about eight-thirty, Mr. French at about nine, and the other directors at a little past eleven.”
“I see.” The Inspector mused. “Did you leave the apartment at any time during the morning?”
“No, sir.” The reply was snapped back at him.
“And the others—Mr. French, the directors?” pressed the Inspector patiently.
“No, sir! We were all there until one of the store detectives notified us that an accident had occurred here. And I must say, sir—”
“Westley, Westley …” murmured Ellery chidingly, and Weaver turned to him with startled eyes. They fell before the meaning glance of Ellery, and Weaver bit his lip nervously. He did not finish what he had begun to say.
“Now, sir.” The Inspector seemed to be enjoying himself in a tired way—utterly disregarding the bewildered eyes of the many people in the room. “Now, sir! Be very careful. At what time did this notification come?”
“At twelve-twenty-five,” replied Weaver in a calmer tone.
“Very well.—Every one then left the apartment?” Weaver nodded. “Did you lock the door?”
“The door closed after us, Inspector.”
“And the apartment remained that way, unguarded?”
“Not at all,” said Weaver promptly. “At the beginning of the conference this morning, at Mr. French’s suggestion, I got one of the store detectives to stand guard outside the apartment door. He is probably still there, because his orders were specific. In fact, I remember seeing him lounging about outside when we all rushed out to see what was the matter down here.”
good!” beamed the old man. “A store detective you say? Reliable?”
“Absolutely, Inspector,” said Crouther, from his corner. “Sergeant Velie knows him, too. Jones is his name—an ex-policeman—used to be on a beat with Velie.” The Inspector looked at the Sergeant inquiringly; he nodded in confirmation.
“Thomas,” said Queen with one hand digging into his side pocket for a pinch of snuff, “see to it, will you? See if this Jones fellow is still there, if he’s been there all the time, if he’s seen anything, if any one tried to get into the apartment since Mr. French, Mr. Weaver and the other gentlemen left. And take one of the boys along to relieve him—to relieve him, you understand?”
Velie grunted stonily and tramped out of the windowroom. As he left, a policeman entered, saluted Inspector Queen and reported, “There’s a ’phone call out there in the leather-goods department for a Mr. Westley Weaver, Inspector.”
“What’s that? Call?” The Inspector turned on Weaver, who stood miserably in a corner.
Weaver straightened. “Probably from Krafft of the Comptroller’s office,” he said. “I was to give him a report this morning, and the meeting and everything that happened afterward drove it out of my mind. … May I leave?”
Queen hesitated, his glance flickering toward Ellery, who was absently fingering his pince-nez. Ellery gave a slight nod.
“Go head,” the Inspector growled to Weaver. “But come right back.”
Weaver followed the policeman to the leather-goods counter directly facing the door of the window-room. A clerk eagerly handed the telephone to him.
“Hello—Krafft? This is Weaver speaking. I’m sorry about that report—Who? Oh.”
A curious change came over his face as he heard Marion French’s voice over the wire. He lowered his voice immediately and bent over the instrument. The policeman, lounging behind him, surreptitiously shuffled closer, trying to catch the conversation.
“Why, what’s the matter, dear?” asked Marion, a note of anxiety in her voice. “Is anything wrong? I tried to get you at the apartment, but there was no answer. The operator had to search for you. … I thought father had a directors’ meeting this morning.”
“Marion!” Weaver’s voice was insistent. “I really can’t stop to explain now. Something’s happened, dearest—something so …” He stopped, seemed to be wrestling mentally with some problem. His lips tightened. “Sweetheart, will you do something for me?”
“But, Wes dear,” came the girl’s anxious voice, “whatever is the matter? Has anything happened to father?”
“No—no.” Weaver hunched desperately over the telephone. “Be my own honey and don’t ask questions now. … Where are you now?”
“Why, at home, dear. But, Wes, what
the trouble?” There was a frightened catch in her voice. “Has it anything to do with Winifred or Bernice? They’re not at home, Wes—haven’t been all night. …” Then she laughed a little. “But there! I shan’t worry you, dearest. I’ll take a cab and be down in fifteen minutes.”
“I knew you would.” Weaver almost sobbed in a tense relief. “Whatever happens, sweet, I love you, I love you, do you understand?”
“Westley! You silly boy—you’ve frightened me out of my wits. Good-by now—I’ll be downtown in a jiffy.” There was a tender little sound through the receiver—it might have been a kiss—and Weaver hung up with a sigh.
The policeman jumped back as Weaver turned—jumped back with a broad grin. Weaver flushed furiously, started to speak, then shook his head.
“There’s a young lady coming down here, officer,” he said swiftly. “She’ll be here in about a quarter of an hour. Won’t you please let me know the moment she gets here? She’s Miss Marion French. I’ll be in the window.”
The bluecoat lost his grin. “Well now,” he said slowly, scraping his jaw, “I just don’t know about that. Guess you’ll have to tell the Inspector about it.
haven’t the authority.”
He marched Weaver back into the window-room against the young man’s protests at the heavy hand on his arm.
“Inspector,” he said respectfully, still grasping Weaver’s arm, “this feller wants me to let him know when a certain young lady by the name of Miss Marion French gets here.”
Queen looked up in surprise, a surprise that deepened rapidly into brusqueness. “Was that telephone call from your Mr. Krafft?” he asked Weaver.
Before Weaver could speak, the policeman interposed: “Not by a long sight, sir. ’Twas a lady, and I think he called her ‘Marion.’”
“Look here, Inspector!” said Weaver hotly, shaking off the bluecoat’s hand. “This is asinine. I thought the call was from Mr. Krafft, but it was Miss French—Mr. French’s daughter. A—a semi-business call. And I took the liberty of asking her to come down here immediately. That’s all. Is that a crime? As for letting me know when she arrives—I naturally want to spare her the shock of walking into this place and seeing her step-mother’s dead body on the floor.”
The Inspector took a pinch of snuff, glancing mildly from Weaver to Ellery. “I see. I see. I’m sorry, Mr. Weaver. … That’s right, isn’t it, officer?” he snapped, whirling on the bluecoat.
“Yes, sir! Heard it all plain as day. He’s telling the truth.”
“And mighty fortunate for him he is,” grumbled the Inspector. “Stand back, Mr. Weaver. We’ll attend to the young lady when she arrives. … Now then!” he cried, rubbing his hands, “Mr. French!”
The old man looked up in bleary bewilderment, his eyes blank and staring.
“Mr. French, is there anything you would like to say that might clear up some of this mystery?”
“I—I—I—beg—your—pardon?” stammered French, raising his head with an effort from the back-cushion of the chair. He seemed stricken by his wife’s death to the point of imbecility.
Queen regarded him with pity, looked into the eyes of John Gray, whose face was threatening, muttered, “Never mind,” and squared his shoulders. “Ellery, my son, how about a careful look-see at the body?” He peered at Ellery from beneath overhung brows.
Ellery stirred. “Lookers-on,” he said clearly, “see more than players. And if you think that quotation is inept, dad, you don’t know your son’s favorite author, Anonymous. Play on!”
NSPECTOR QUEEN MOVED OVER
to the other side of the room, where the body lay between the bed and the window. Waving aside the detective Johnson, who was rummaging among the bedclothes, the old man knelt on the floor beside the dead woman. He removed the white sheet. Ellery bent over his father’s shoulder, his gaze detached but characteristically panoramic.
The body lay in an oddly crumpled position, the left arm outstretched, the right slightly crooked beneath the back. The head was in profile, a brown toque-style hat pushed pathetically over one eye. Mrs. French had been a small slender woman, with delicate hands and feet. The eyes were fixed in a sort of bewildered glare, wide open. The mouth drooled; a thin trickle of blood, now dark and dry, streaked the chin.
The clothes were simple and severe, but rich in quality, as might be expected from a woman of Mrs. French’s age and position. There was a light brown cloth coat, trimmed at the collar and cuffs with brown fox; a dark tan dress of a jersey material, with a breast and waist design of orange and brown; brown silk stockings and a pair of uncompromising brown walking shoes.
The Inspector looked up.
“Notice the mud on her shoes, El?” he asked
Ellery nodded. “Doesn’t take a heap of perspicacity,” he remarked. “It rained all day yesterday; remember the downpour last night? No wonder the poor lady wet her patrician feet. As a matter of fact, you can see traces of the wet even on the trimming of the toque.—Yes, dad, Mrs. French was out in the rain yesterday. Not very important.”
“Why not?” the old man asked, his hands softly moving aside the collar of the coat.
“Because she probably wet her shoes and hat in crossing the sidewalk to the store,” retorted Ellery. “What of it?”
The Inspector did not reply. His seeking hand plunged suddenly beneath the coat-collar and reappeared with a filmy, color-clouded scarf.
“Here’s something,” he said, turning the gauzelike material over in his hands. “Must have slipped down inside the coat when she tumbled out of bed.” An exclamation escaped him. On the corner of the scarf was a silk-embroidered monogram. Ellery leaned farther forward over his father’s shoulder.
he said. He straightened up, frowning, saying nothing.
The Inspector turned his head toward the group of directors at the other side of the room. They were huddled together, watching his every gesture. At his movement they stared guiltily and averted their heads.
“What was Mrs. French’s first name?” Queen questioned the group; and as if each one had been addressed individually, there was an instant chorus of “Winifred!”
“Winifred, eh?” muttered the old man, letting his eyes return fleetingly to the body. Then he fixed Weaver with his gray eyes.
“Winifred, eh?” he repeated. Weaver bobbed his head mechanically. He seemed horrified at the wisp of silk in the Inspector’s hand. “Winifred what? Any middle name or initials?”
“Winifred—Winifred Marchbanks French,” stammered the secretary.
The Inspector nodded curtly. Rising, he strode over to Cyrus French, who was watching him with dull uncomprehending eyes.