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Authors: Ellery Queen

French Powder Mystery (8 page)

BOOK: French Powder Mystery
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Silence had fallen in the room—a silence pregnant with beating hearts and racing pulses. All eyes were on the broad mottled face of the old watchman. He licked his lips, seemed to reflect, squared his shoulders.

“Yes, sor,” he said, with a little hiss.

“At what time?”

“’Twas just eleven-forty-five, sor,” replied O’Flaherty. “Y’see, there ain’t but one night entrance to th’ store after hours. All th’ other doors and exits are ironed up. That one door is on 39th Street, th’ Employees’ Entrance. There ain’t no way but that t’get in or out o’ the buildin’. I—”

Ellery moved suddenly, and everybody turned toward him. He smiled deprecatingly at O’Flaherty. “Sorry, dad, but I’ve just thought of something. … O’Flaherty, do I understand you to say that there is only one way into the store after hours—the Employees’ Entrance?”

O’Flaherty champed his blue old jaws reflectively. “Why, yes, sor,” he said. “And what’s wrong about that?”

“Very little,” smiled Ellery, “except that I believe there is a night freight-entrance on the 39th Street side as well. …”

“Oh, that!” snorted the old watchman. “Tain’t hardly an entrance, sor. Mostly always shut. So, as I was sayin’—”

Ellery lifted a slender hand. “One moment, O’Flaherty. You say, ‘Mostly always shut.’ Just what do you mean by that?”

“Well,” replied O’Flaherty, scratching his poll, “it’s shut down tighter’n a drum all night exceptin’ between eleven o’clock and eleven-thirty. So it don’t hardly count.”

“That’s
your
point of view,” said Ellery argumentatively. “I thought there must be a good reason for having a special nightwatchman at the spot all night. Who is he?”

“That’s Bloom over here,” said O’Flaherty. “Bloom, step out, man, and let the gentlemen look ye over.”

Bloom, a sturdy middle-aged man with reddish, graying hair, stepped uncertainly forward. “That’s me,” he said. “Nothin’ wrong in my freight department last night, if that’s what you wanna know. …”

“No?” Ellery eyed him keenly. “Exactly why is the freight-entrance opened between eleven and eleven-thirty?”

“Fer the delivery of groceries an’ meats an’ such,” answered Bloom. “Big turn-over every day in the store restaurant, and then there’s the Employees’ Restaurant too. Get supplies fresh every night.”

“Who is the trucker?” interrupted the Inspector.

“Buckley & Green. Same driver an’ unloader every night sir.”

“I see,” said the Inspector. “Get it down, Hagstrom, and make a note to question the men on the truck. … Anything else, Ellery?”

“Yes.” Ellery turned once more to the red-haired nightwatchman. “Tell us just what happens every night when the Buckley & Green truck arrives.”

“Well, I go on duty at ten,” said Bloom. “At eleven every night the truck rolls up and Johnny Salvatore, the driver, rings the night bell outside the freight door. …”

“Is the freight door kept locked after five-thirty?”

MacKenzie, the store manager, interrupted. “Yes, sir. It’s automatically locked at closing-time. Never opened till the truck comes up at eleven.”

“Go on, Bloom.”

“When Johnny rings, I unlock the door—it’s sheet iron—and roll ’er up. Then the truck drives inside, an’ Marino, the unloader, unpacks the stuff and stores it, while Johnny and myself check it over in my booth near the door. That’s all. When they’re through, they take the truck out, I unroll the door, and lock it, and just stay there all night.”

Ellery pondered. “Does the door remain open while the truck is being unloaded?”

“Sure,” said Bloom. “It’s only for a half an hour, and besides, nobody could hardly get in without one of us seeing ’em.”

“You’re sure of that?” asked Ellery sharply. “Positive? Swear to it, man?”

Bloom hesitated. “Well, I don’t hardly see how anybody
could,”
he said lamely. “Marino’s out there unloading, and Johnny and me in the booth right by the door. …”

“How many electric lights are there in this freight room?” demanded Ellery.

Bloom looked bewildered. “Why, there’s one big light right over where the truck is, and then there’s a small one in my booth. Johnny keeps his headlights on, too.”

“How big is this freight room?”

“Oh, about seventy-five foot deep by fifty wide. Store emergency trucks are parked there for the night, too.”

“How far from your booth does the truck unload?”

“Oh, way in, near the back, where there’s a chute from the kitchen.”

“And one light in all that black expanse,” murmured Ellery. “The booth is enclosed, I suppose?”

“Just a glass window facing the inside of the room.”

Ellery played with his pince-nez. “Bloom, if I told you to swear that nobody could get into that freight room, past the entrance, without your seeing him, would you do it?”

Bloom smiled in a sickly fashion. “Well sir,” he said, “I don’t know as I would.”

“Did you see anybody get in last night while the door was open and you and Salvatore were in the booth checking over the goods?”

“No, sir!”

“But somebody might have got in?”

“I—I guess so. …”

“One question more,” said Ellery genially. “These deliveries are made
every night,
without fail, and at exactly the same hour?”

“Yes, sir. Been that way as long as I can remember.”

“Another, if you’ll pardon me. Did you lock that freight door last night promptly at eleven-thirty?”

“To the dot.”

“Were you at that door all night?”

“Yes, sir. On my chair, right by the door.”

“No disturbance? Didn’t hear or see anything suspicious?”

“No, sir.”

“If—any one—tried—to—get—out—of—the—building—by—that—door,” said Ellery with startling emphasis, “you would have heard and seen him?”

“Sure thing, sir,” said Bloom weakly, glancing with despair at MacKenzie.

“Very well, then,” drawled Ellery, waving his arm negligently toward Bloom, “the inquisition may proceed, Inspector.” And he stepped back, making furious notes in his book.

The Inspector, who had been listening with a gradually clarifying expression on his face, sighed and said to O’Flaherty, “You were saying that Mrs. French came into the building at eleven-forty-five, O’Flaherty. Let’s have the rest of it.”

The head nightwatchman wiped his brow with a slightly shaking hand and a dubious glance in Ellery’s direction. Then he took up the thread of his story. “Well, I sits at th’ night-desk all night—never gets up, while Ralska and Powers here does the rounds every hour. That’s me job, sor—an’ besides I check out all those who put in overtime, like th’ executive people, and such. Yes, sor. I—”

“Easy, O’Flaherty,” said the Inspector, with interest. “Tell us just exactly what happened when Mrs. French arrived. You’re sure it was eleven-forty-five?”

“Yes, sor. I looked at th’ time-clock next th’ desk, ’cause I gotta put down all arrivals on me time-sheet. …”

“Oh, the time-sheet?” muttered Queen. “Mr. MacKenzie, will you please see that I get last night’s time-sheet at once? Even before the report on the employees.” MacKenzie nodded and left. “All right, O’Flaherty. Go on.”

“Well, sor, through the night-door acrost th’ hall I sees a taxi roll up and Mrs. French she steps out. She pays th’ driver and knocks. I sees who ’tis and opens quick. She gives me a cheery good-evenin’, and asks if Mr. Cyrus French was still in th’ buildin’. I says no, ma’am, Mr. Cyrus French’d left just as I came on duty this afternoon, as he had, sor, carryin’ a brief-case. She thanks me, stops to think a bit, then she says she’ll go up to Mr. French’s private apartment anyway, and starts to walk out o’ th’ office toward the private elevator that’s only used to go up to th’ apartment. I says to her, I says, Kin I get one o’ the boys to run th’ elevator up for her an’ open th’ apartment door? She says no thanks, right polite, sor, and rummages in her bag for a minute, as if to see she’s got her key. Yes, she had it—she fishes it out o’ her bag and shows it to me. Then she—”

“Just a moment, O’Flaherty.” The Inspector seemed perturbed: “You say she had a key to the apartment? How is that, do you know?”

“Well, sor, there’re only a certain number o’ keys to Mr. French’s apartment, sor,” answered O’Flaherty, more comfortably. “S’far as I know, Mr. Cyrus French has one, Mrs. French had one, Miss Marion has one, Miss Bernice has one—me workin’ here for seventeen years, I knows th’ fam’ly right well, sor—Mr. Weaver has one, and there’s one master-key in th’ desk in my office all th’ time. That’s half a dozen altogether, sor. Th’ master-key is in case a key is needed in an emergency.”

“You say Mrs. French showed you her key before she left your office, O’Flaherty? How do you know it was the key to the apartment?” asked the Inspector.

“Easy enough, sor. Y’see, each key—they’re special Yales, sor—each key has a little gold dingus on it with th’ initials o’ the person it belongs to. Th’ key Mrs. French showed me had that on. Besides, I know th’ looks o’ that key: it was the right one, all right.”

“One second, O’Flaherty.” The Inspector turned to Weaver. “Have you your apartment-key on you, Weaver? Let me have it, please?”

Weaver extracted a leather key-case from his vest-pocket and handed it to Queen. Among a number of different keys was one with a small gold disk fused into the tiny hole at the top. On this disc were engraved the initials,
W. W.
The Inspector looked up at O’Flaherty.

“A key like this?”

“Just th’ same, sor,” said O’Flaherty, “exceptin’ th’ initials.”

“Very well.” Queen returned the key-case to Weaver. “Now, O’Flaherty, before you continue, tell me this—where do you keep your master-key to the apartment?”

“Right in a special drawer in th’ desk, sor. It’s there all the time, day and night.”

“Was it in its place last night?”

“Yes, sor. I always looks for it special. It was there—the right key, no mistake, sor. It’s got a tab on it too, with th’ word ‘Master’ on it.”

“O’Flaherty,” asked the Inspector quietly, “were you at your desk all night? Did you leave your office at all?”

“No, sor!” answered the old watchman emphatically. “From th’ minute I got there, at five-thirty, I didn’t leave th’ office until I was relieved this mornin’ by O’Shane at eight-thirty. I got longer hours than him ’cause he’s got more to do on his shift, with checkin’ in employees and all. And as for leavin’ the desk, I brings me own feed from homes, even hot coffee in a thermos bottle. No, sor, I was on th’ watch all night.”

“I see.” Queen shook his head as if to clear the mists of weariness and motioned the watchman to continue with his story.

“Well, sor,” said O’Flaherty, “when Mrs. French left me office, I got up out o’ me chair, went into the hall, and watched her. She went to th’ elevator, opened th’ door an’ went in. That’s the last I saw o’ her, sor. When I saw she didn’t come down I though nothin’ of it, ’cause a number o’ times Mrs. French has stayed overnight in Mr. French’s apartment upstairs. I thought she’d done th’ same this night. So that’s all I know, sor.”

Ellery stirred. He lifted the dead woman’s handbag from the bed and dangled it before the watchman’s eyes.

“O’Flaherty,” he asked in a drawling voice, “have you ever seen this before?”

The watchman replied, “Yes, sor! That’s th’ bag Mrs. French was carryin’ last night.”

“The bag, then,” pursued Ellery softly, “from which she took her gold-topped key?”

The watchman seemed puzzled. “Why, yes, sor.” Ellery seemed satisfied and dropped back to whisper in his father’s ear. The Inspector frowned, then nodded. He turned to Crouther.

“Crouther, will you please get the master-key in the office on the 39th Street side.” Crouther grunted cheerfully and departed. “Now then.” The Inspector picked up the gauzy scarf initialed
M. F.
which he had found on the dead body. “O’Flaherty, do you recall Mrs. French’s having worn this last night? Think carefully.”

O’Flaherty took the wisp of silk in his horny fat fingers and turned it over and over, his forehead wrinkled. “Well, sor,” he said finally, in a hesitant tone, “I can’t rightly say. Seemed to me for a minute as if I’d seen Mrs. French wear it, and then again seemed as if I hadn’t. No, I couldn’t rightly say. No, sor,” and he returned it to the Inspector with a gesture of helplessness.

“You’re not sure?” The Inspector dropped the scarf back on the bed. “Everything seem all right last night? No alarms?”

“No, sor. O’ course you know th’ store’s wired against burglars. Quiet as a church last night. S’far as I know, nothin’ happened out o’ th’ way.”

Queen said to Sergeant Velie: “Thomas, call up the alarm central office and find out if they’ve a report on last night. Probably not, or we’d have heard from them by this time.” Velie left, silently as usual.

“O’Flaherty, did you see any one else enter the building last night except Mrs. French? At any time during the night?” continued the Inspector.

“No, sor, absolutely not. Not a soul.” O’Flaherty seemed anxious to make this point clear, after his defection concerning the scarf.

“Ah there, MacKenzie! Let me have the time-sheet, please.” Queen took from the store manager, who had just returned, a long scroll of ruled paper. He looked it over hurriedly. Something seemed to catch his eye.

“I see by your sheet, O’Flaherty,” he said, “that Mr. Weaver and a Mr. Springer were the last to leave the store yesterday evening? Did you make these notations?”

“Yes, sor. Mr. Springer went out about a quarter to seven, and Mr. Weaver a few minutes after.”

“Is that right, Weaver?” demanded the Inspector, turning to the secretary.

“Yes,” replied Weaver in a colorless tone. “I stayed a little later last night to prepare some papers for Mr. French to-day; I believe I shaved. … I left a little before seven.”

“Who is this Springer?”

“Oh, James Springer is the head of our Book Department, Inspector,” put in mild-mannered MacKenzie. “Often stays late. A very conscientious man, sir.”

“Yes, yes, Now—you men!” The Inspector pointed to the two watchmen who had not yet spoken. “Anything to say? Anything to add to O’Flaherty’s story? One at a time. … Your name?”

One of the watchmen cleared his throat nervously. “George Powers, Inspector. No, sir, I got nothin’ to say.”

BOOK: French Powder Mystery
2.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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