Read French Powder Mystery Online
Authors: Ellery Queen
“Mr. French—” Queen shook the millionaire’s shoulder gently—“Mr. French, is this your wife’s scarf?” He held the scarf up before French’s eyes. “Do you understand me, sir? Is this scarf Mrs. French’s?”
“Eh? I—Let me see it!” The old man snatched it in a sort of frenzy from the Inspector’s hand. He bent over it avidly, pulled it smooth, examined the monogram with feverish fingers—and slumped back in his chair.
“Is it, Mr. French?” pursued the Inspector, taking the scarf from him.
“No.” It was a flat, colorless, indifferent negative.
The Inspector turned toward the silent group. “Can any one here identify this scarf?” He held it high. There was no answer. The Inspector repeated his question, glaring at each one individually. Of them all, only Westley Weaver averted his glance.
“So! Weaver, eh? No nonsense, now, young man!” snapped Queen, grasping the secretary by the arm. “What do the letters
stand for—Marion French?”
The young man gulped, sent an agonizing glance toward Ellery, who returned the glance commiseratingly, looked at old Cyrus French, who was mumbling to himself. …
“You can’t believe she had anything to do—to do with it!” cried Weaver, shaking his arm free. “It’s absurd—crazy! … You
believe she had anything to do with this, Inspector. She’s too fine, too young, too—”
“Marion French.” The Inspector turned toward John Gray. “Mr. French’s daughter, I believe Mr. Weaver said before?”
Gray nodded sullenly. Cyrus French suddenly attempted to leap from his chair. He uttered a hoarse cry. “My God, no! Not Marion! Not Marion!” His eyes blazed as Gray and Marchbanks, the directors nearest the old man, jumped to support his quivering body. The spasm lasted for a brief moment; he collapsed into his chair.
Inspector Queen returned without a word to his examination of the dead woman. Ellery had been a silent witness of the little drama, his sharp eyes flitting from face to face as it unfolded. Now he sent a glance of reassurance at Weaver, who was leaning abjectly against a table, and then stooped to pick up an object from the floor which was almost hidden by the dead woman’s tumbled skirt.
It was a small handbag of dark brown suède, monogrammed with the initials
W. M. F.
Ellery sat down on the edge of the bed and turned the bag over in his hands. Curiously he lifted the flap and began to spread the contents of the bag on the mattress. He removed a small change-purse, a gold vanity-case, a lace handkerchief, a gold card-case, all monogrammed
W. M. F.,
and finally a silver-chased lipstick.
The Inspector looked up. “What’s that you have there?” he asked sharply.
“Bag of the deceased,” murmured Ellery. “Would you care to examine it?”
“Would I—” The Inspector glared at his son in mock heat. “Ellery, sometimes you try me beyond patience!”
Ellery handed it over with a smile. The old man examined the bag minutely. He pawed over the articles on the bed and gave up in disgust.
“Nothing there that I can see,” he snorted. “And I’m—”
“No?” Ellery’s tone was provocative.
“What do you mean?” asked his father with a change of tone, looking back at the contents of the bag. “Purse, vanity, hanky, card-case, lipstick—what’s interesting there?”
Ellery faced about squarely so that his back hid the articles on the bed from the observation of the others. He picked up the lipstick with care and offered it to his father. The old man took it cautiously, suspiciously. Suddenly an exclamation escaped him.
murmured Ellery. “What do you make of it?”
The lipstick was large and deep. On the cap was a chastely engraved initial,
The Inspector peered at it in some astonishment and made as if to question the men in the room. But Ellery halted him with a warning gesture and took the lipstick from his father’s fingers. He unscrewed the initialed cap and twisted the body of the stick until a half-inch of red paste was visible above the orifice. His eyes shifted toward the dead woman’s face. They brightened at what they saw.
He knelt quickly by his father’s side, their bodies still shielding their movements from the eyes of the onlookers.
“Have a peep at this, dad,” he said in an undertone, offering the lipstick. The old man looked at it in a puzzled way.
“Poisoned?” he asked. “But that’s impossible—how could you tell without an analysis?”
“No, no!” exclaimed Ellery in the same low tone. “The color, dad—the color!”
The Inspector’s face lightened. He looked from the stick in Ellery’s hand to the dead woman’s lips. The fact was self-evident—the coloring on the lips had not come from the stick in Ellery’s possession. The lips were painted a light shade of red, almost pink, whereas the stick itself was a dark carmine in shade.
“Here, El—let me have that!” said the Inspector. He took the open stick and swiftly made a red mark on the dead woman’s face.
“Different, all right,” he muttered. He wiped off the smudge with a corner of the sheet. “But I don’t see—”
“There really should be another lipstick, eh?” remarked Ellery lightly, standing up.
The old man snatched at the woman’s handbag and went through it once more, hurriedly. No, there was no sign of another lipstick. He motioned to the detective Johnson.
“Find anything in the bed or the closet here, Johnson?”
“Not a thing, Chief.”
“Sure? No sign of a lipstick?”
“Piggott! Hesse! Flint!” The three detectives stopped short in their search of the room and crossed to the Inspector’s side. The old man repeated his questions. … Nothing. The detectives had found no alien articles in the room.
“Is Crouther here? Crouther!” The store detective hurried over.
“Been out seeing that things were moving in the store,” he announced unasked. “Everything’s shipshape—boys’ve been hustling, that’s a fact—What can I do for you, Inspector?”
“Did you see a lipstick around here when you found the body?”
“Lipstick? No, sir! Wouldn’t have touched it if I’d seen it anyway. Told everybody to leave things alone. I know that much, Inspector!”
“Mr. Lavery!” The Frenchman sauntered up. No, he had seen no sign of a lipstick. Perhaps the model—?
“Hardly! Piggott, send some one up to the infirmary and find out if this Johnson girl saw it.”
The Inspector turned back to Ellery with a frowning brow. “Now, that’s funny, isn’t it, Ellery? Could some one here have appropriated the darned thing?”
Ellery smiled. “‘Honest labor,’ as old Tom Dekker had it, ‘bears a lovely face,’ but I’m very much afraid, dad. … No, your efforts in the direction of finding a lipstick thief are wasted. I could almost make a nice conjecture. …”
you mean, Ellery?” groaned the Inspector. “Where is it, then, if no one took it?”
“We’ll come to that in the course of inexorable time,” said Ellery imperturbably. “But examine the face of our poor clay again, dad—particularly the labial portion. See anything interesting aside from the color of the lipstick?”
“Eh?” The Inspector turned startled eyes to the corpse. He felt for his snuff-box and nervously took a generous pinch. “No, I can’t say that I—By jiminy!” He muttered beneath his breath. “The lips—unfinished. …”
“Precisely.” Ellery twirled his pince-nez about his finger. “Observed the phenomenon the moment I looked at the body. What amazing juxtaposition of circumstances could have caused a handsome woman still in her prime to leave her lips only half painted?” He pursed his mouth, fell into deep thought. His eyes did not leave the dead woman’s lips, which showed the pinkish color of the lipstick on both the upper and lower lip, on the upper two dabs of unsmeared color and on the lower one a dab exactly in the center. Where the lipstick had not yet been smeared, the lips were a sickly purple—the color of unadorned death.
The Inspector passed his hand wearily across his brow just as Piggott returned.
“The girl fainted,” reported the detective, “just as the body fell out of the wall-bed. Never saw anything, much less a lipstick.” Inspector Queen draped the sheet over the body in baffled silence.
HE DOOR OPENED AND
Sergeant Velie entered, accompanied by a steady-eyed man dressed in black. This newcomer saluted the inspector respectfully and stood waiting.
“This is Robert Jones, Inspector,” said Velie in his deep clipped tones. “Attached to the store force, and I’ll vouch for him personally. Jones was the man called by Mr. Weaver this morning to stand outside the apartment door during the directors’ meeting.”
“How about it, Jones?” asked Inspector Queen.
“I was ordered to Mr. French’s apartment this morning at eleven,” replied the store detective. “I was told to stand guard outside and see that no one disturbed the meeting. According to my instructions. …”
“And where did your instructions come from?”
“I understood that Mr. Weaver had ’phoned, sir,” replied Jones. The Inspector looked at Weaver, who nodded, and then motioned the man to continue.
“According to my instructions,” said Jones, “I strolled about outside the apartment without interrupting the meeting. I was in the sixth floor corridor near the apartment until about twelve-fifteen. At that time the door opened and Mr. French, the other directors and Mr. Weaver ran out and took the elevator, going downstairs. They all seemed excited. …”
“Did you know why Mr. French, Mr. Weaver and the others ran out of the apartment that way?”
“No, sir. As I said, they seemed excited and paid no attention to me. I didn’t hear about Mrs. French being dead until one of the boys dropped by about a half-hour later with the news.”
“Did the directors close the door when they left the apartment?”
“The door closed by itself—swung shut.”
“So you didn’t enter the apartment?”
“Did any one come up to the apartment while you stood guard this morning?”
“Not a soul, Inspector. And after the directors left, there was no one except the chap I told you about, who merely spilled his story and went right down again. I’ve been on duty until five minutes ago, when Sergeant Velie had two of his own men relieve me.”
The Inspector mused. “And you’re certain no one went into the apartment, Jones? It may be quite important.”
“Dead certain, Inspector,” replied Jones clearly. “The reason I stayed on after the directors left was because I didn’t know exactly what to do under the circumstances, and I’ve always found it a safe bet to stand pat when something unusual happens.”
“Good enough, Jones!” said the Inspector. “That’s all.”
Jones saluted, went up to Crouther and asked what he was to do. The head store detective, his chest held high, detailed him to help handle the crowds in the store. And Jones departed.
HE INSPECTOR WENT QUICKLY
to the door and peered over the heads of the seething crowds on the main floor.
“MacKenzie! Is MacKenzie there?” he shouted.
“Right here!” came the faint bellow of the store manager’s voice. “Coming!”
Queen trotted back into the room, fumbling for his snuffbox. He eyed the directors almost roguishly; his good humor seemed for the moment to have returned. The occupants of the room, with the exception of Cyrus French, who was still plunged in a deep lethargy of grief and indifference to what was going on, had by this time shaken off some of their horror and were growing restless. Zorn stole surreptitious glances at his heavy gold watch; Marchbanks was pacing belligerently up and down the room; Trask at regular intervals averted his head and gulped down some whisky from a flash in his pocket; Gray, his face as ashen as his hair, stood in silence behind old French’s chair. Lavery was very quiet, watching with bright inquisitive eyes the least movement of the Inspector and his men. Weaver, his boyish face strained and lined, seemed to be enduring agonies. He frequently sought Ellery with pleading eyes, as if asking for help which he knew, instinctively, could not be forthcoming.
“I must ask you to have patience for a short time longer, gentlemen,” said the Inspector, smoothing his mustache with the back of his small hand. “We have a few things more to do here—and then we’ll see. … Ah! You’re MacKenzie, I take it? Are those the watchmen? Bring ’em in, man!”
The middle-aged Scotchman had entered the window-room, herding before him four oldish men with frightened faces and fidgety hands. Ritter made up the rear.
“Yes, Inspector. By the way, I’m having the employees checked up, as Sergeant Velie instructed me to.” MacKenzie waved the four men forward. They shuffled a step farther into the room, reluctantly.
“Who’s the head nightwatchman among you?” demanded the Inspector.
A corpulent old man with fleshy features and placid eyes stepped forward, touching his forehead.
“I am, sor—Peter O’Flaherty’s me name.”
“Were you on duty last night, O’Flaherty?”
“Yes, sor. That I was.”
“What time did you go on?”
“Me reg’lar hour, sor,” said the watchman, “Ha’past five. It’s O’Shane I relieve at th’ desk in the night-office on th’ 39th Street side. These boys here”—he indicated the two men behind him with a fat and calloused forefinger—“they come on with me. They was with me last night, reg’lar.”
“I see.” The Inspector paused. “O’Flaherty, do you know what has happened?”
“Yes, sor. I’ve been told. And a shame it is, sor,” responded O’Flaherty soberly. He stole a glance at the limp figure of Cyrus French, then jerked his head back toward the Inspector as if he had committed an indiscretion. His cronies followed his gaze, and looked forward again in exactly the same manner.
“Did you know Mrs. French by sight?” asked the Inspector, his keen little eyes studying the old man.
“I did, sor,” replied O’Flaherty. “She used to come to th’ store sometimes after closing when Mr. French was still here.”
“No, sor, Not so very. But I knowed her right enough, sor.”
“Hmmm.” Inspector Queen relaxed. “Now, O’Flaherty, answer carefully—and truthfully. As truthfully as if you were on the witness-stand.—Did you see Mrs. French last night?”