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Authors: Ellery Queen

French Powder Mystery (9 page)

BOOK: French Powder Mystery
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“Everything all right when you went your rounds? Do you cover this part of the store?”

“Yes, sir, everythin’ was okay on my rounds. No, sir, I don’t cover the main floor. That’s Ralska’s job, here.”

“Ralska, eh? What’s your first name, Ralska?” demanded the Inspector.

The third watchman expelled his breath noisily. “Hermann, sir. Hermann Ralska. I think—”

“You think, eh?” Queen turned. “Hagstrom, you’re taking this down, of course?”

“Yep, Chief,” grinned the detective, his pencil busy in his notebook.

“Now, Ralska, you were about to think something, no doubt very important,” snarled the Inspector. His temper seemed frayed and raw once more. “What was it?”

Ralska held himself stiffly. “I thought I heard somethin’ funny last night on the main floor.”

“Oh, you did! Where, exactly?”

“Right about here—outside this window-room.”

“No!” Inspector Queen grew very quiet. “Outside this window-room. Very good, Ralska. What was it?”

The watchman seemed to take heart at Queen’s calmer tone. “It was just about one o’clock in the morning. Maybe a few minutes earlier. I was in the part of the store near the Fift’ Avenue and 39t’ Street side. This here window faces Fift’ Avenue, past the night-office, so it’s a good distance away. I heard a queer kind o’ noise. Can’t make up my mind what it was. Might ‘a’ been some one movin’ around, might ‘a’ been a footstep, might ‘a’ been a door closin’—just don’t know. Anyway, I wasn’t suspicious or anything—you get so you hear noises that never happened on a night job like this. … But I went over in that direction and couldn’t see anything wrong, so I thought it must be my imagination. Even tried a couple of the window doors. But they were all locked. Tried this one, too. So I stopped in to have a word with Flaherty here, and went on ahead, with my rounds. That’s all.”

“Oh!” Inspector Queen seemed disappointed. “So you’re not certain of where the noise came from—if there was a noise?”

“Well,” responded Ralska carefully, “if it was anythin’ at all it came from this section o’ the floor near these big street-window displays.”

“Nothing else all night?”

“No, sir.”

“All right, that’s all for you four men. You may go back home and catch up on your sleep. Be back here tonight for work as usual.”

“Yes, sir: yes, sir,” The watchmen backed out of the window-room and disappeared.

The Inspector, brandishing the time-sheet in his hand, addressed the store manager. “MacKenzie, have you given this sheet any study?”

The Scotchman replied, “Yes, Inspector—thought you might be interested and looked it over on the way.”

“Fine! MacKenzie, what’s the verdict? Was every employee of the store checked out regularly yesterday?” Queen’s face was composed, indifferent.

MacKenzie did not hesitate. “As you can see, we have a simple check-out system—by departments. … I can certainly assert that every
employee
who was
in the store
yesterday checked out.”

“Does that include executives and gentlemen like the Board of Directors?”

“Yes, sir—there are their names in the proper places.”

“Very well—thank you,” said the Inspector thoughtfully. “Please don’t forget that list of absentees, MacKenzie.”

Velie and Crouther at this point reëntered the room together. Crouther handed the Inspector a key, an exact replica of the one in Weaver’s possession, marked “Master” on its gold disk as O’Flaherty had averred. The detective-sergeant relayed a negative report from the burglar-alarm company. Nothing unusual had occurred during the night.

The Inspector turned again to MacKenzie. “How reliable is this O’Flaherty?”

“True-blue. Would give his life for Mr. French, Inspector,” returned MacKenzie warmly. “He’s the oldest employee of the store—knew Mr. French in the old days.”

“That’s a fact,” echoed Crouther, as if anxious to have his opinion considered as well.

“It has just occurred to me. …” Inspector Queen faced MacKenzie inquiringly. “Just how private is Mr. French’s apartment? Who has access to it besides the French family and Mr. Weaver?”

Mackenzie scraped his jaw slowly. “Hardly any one else, Inspector,” he replied. “Of course, the Board of Directors meet in Mr. French’s apartment periodically for conferences and other business matters; but the only keys to it are in the possession of the people O’Flaherty has mentioned. As a matter of fact, it’s almost peculiar how little we people know about Mr. French’s apartment. In all my association with the store, and it’s a matter of ten years or so, I can’t recall having been in the apartment more than half a dozen times. I was thinking that only last week, when Mr. French summoned me there for some special instructions regarding the store. As for other employees—well, Mr. French has always been adamant in the matter of his privacy. Aside from O’Flaherty opening the door for the cleaning-woman three times a week, and letting her out just before he goes off duty, there’s not an employee of the store who has access or occasion to visit the apartment.”

“I see, I see. The apartment—we seem to be going back to that apartment,” muttered the Inspector. “Well! There seems to be very little left here. … Ellery, what do you think?”

Ellery swung his pince-nez with unaccustomed vigor as he regarded his father. There was a troubled glint in the depths of his eyes.

“Think? Think?” He smiled fretfully. “My ratiocinative machinery has been chiefly occupied in the last half-hour or so with a stubborn little problem.” He bit his lip.

“Problem? What problem?” growled his father affectionately. “I haven’t had a moment to think clearly, and you talk of problems!”

“The problem,” enunciated Ellery distinctly but not loudly enough to be heard by the others, “of why Mrs. French’s key to her husband’s apartment is missing.”

10.
Marion

“N
OT MUCH OF A PROBLEM
,” said Inspector Queen. “There is no particular reason for expecting to find the key—here. Besides, I can’t see that it’s of much importance.”

“Alors
—well let it go at that,” said Ellery, smiling. “I am always worried by omissions.” He dropped back, searching his vest-pocket for a cigaret-case. His father eyed him sharply. Ellery rarely smoked.

A policeman pushed open the window-door at this moment and lumbered over to the Inspector. “Young lady outside giving the name of Marion French. Says she wants Mr. Weaver,” he whispered hoarsely. “Scared to death at the mobs and the cops. One o’ the floorwalkers is with her. What’ll I do, Inspector?”

The Inspector’s eyes narrowed. He shot a glance at Weaver. The secretary seemed to sense the import of the message, although he had not heard the whispered words; for he stepped forward at once.

“I beg your pardon, Inspector,” he said eagerly, “but if that’s Miss French I’d like your permission to go to her at once and—”

“Amazing intuition!” cried the Inspector suddenly, his white face creasing into smiles. “Yes, I think I—Come along, Mr. Weaver. You shall introduce me to Mr. French’s daughter.” He turned sharply to Velie. “Carry on for a moment, Thomas. No one is to leave. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

Preceded by a revitalized Weaver, he trotted out of the window-room.

Weaver broke into a run as they stepped out onto the main floor. The center of a little crowd of detectives and policemen, a young girl stood stiffly, her face drained of color, eyes wild with a nameless fear. As she caught sight of Weaver, a tremulous cry escaped her and she swayed forward weakly.

“Westley! What is the matter? These policemen—detectives—” Her arms stretched out. In full sight of the grinning police and the Inspector, Weaver and the girl embraced.

“Sweetheart! You must get hold of yourself. …” Weaver whispered desperately into the girl’s ear as she clung to him.

“Wes—tell me. Who is it? Not?” She drew away from him with horror in her eyes. “Not—Winifred?”

She read the answer in his eyes even before he nodded.

The Inspector obtruded his elastic little figure between them. “Mr. Weaver,” he smiled, “may I have the pleasure … ?”

“Oh, yes—yes!” Weaver stepped quickly backward, releasing the girl. He seemed astonished at the interruption, as if he had forgotten momentarily the place, the circumstances, the time. … “Marion dear, may I present Inspector Richard Queen. Inspector—Miss French.”

Queen took the proffered little hand and bowed. Marion murmured a perfunctory pleasance, while her large grey eyes widened in stricken interest at this tiny middle-aged gentleman with the clean white mustache who bent over her hand.

“You’re investigating—a crime, Inspector Queen?” she faltered, shrinking from him, clutching at Weaver’s hand.

“Unfortunately, Miss French,” said the Inspector. “I’m genuinely grieved that you’ve had such an unpleasant reception—more than I can say. …” Weaver glared at him in bewildered wrath. The old Machiavelli! He had known all along what would happen! … The Inspector proceeded in a gentle tone. “It’s your stepmother, my dear—shockingly murdered. Terrible! Terrible!” He clucked his tongue like a solicitous old hen.

“Murdered!” The girl grew very still. The hand in Weaver’s twitched once, and was limp. For the instant both Weaver and the Inspector thought she would faint, and involuntarily moved forward to her aid. She staggered back. “No—thank you,” she whispered. “My God—Winifred! And she and Bernice were away—all night. …”

The Inspector stiffened. Then his hand fumbled for his snuff-box. “Bernice, I believe you said, Miss French?” he said. “The watchman mentioned that name before, too. … A sister, perhaps, my dear?” he asked ingratiatingly.

“Oh—what have I—Oh, Wes dear, take me away, take me away!” She buried her face in the folds of Weaver’s coat.

Weaver said, above her head, “A perfectly natural remark, Inspector. The housekeeper, Hortense Underhill, called Mr. French this morning during the conference to report that neither Mrs. French nor Bernice, her daughter, had slept at home. … You see, of course, that Marion—Miss French. …”

“Yes, yes, naturally.” Queen smiled, touched the girl’s arm. She started convulsively. “If you’ll come this way, Miss French—? Please be brave. There is something I want you—to see.”

He waited. Weaver gave him an outraged glance, but pressed the girl’s arm encouragingly and led her, stumbling, toward the window. The Inspector followed, beckoning to one of the detectives nearby, who immediately took his place outside the window-door after the trio entered the room.

There was a little rustle of excitement as Weaver helped the girl into the room. Even old French, shaking as if with ague, showed a light of reason in his eyes as he spied her.

“Marion, my dear!” he cried in a terrible voice.

She broke away from Weaver and fell on her knees before her father’s chair. No one spoke. The men looked uneasily away. Father and daughter clung to each other. …

For the first time since he had come into the chamber of death, Marchbanks, brother of the dead woman, spoke.

“This—is—hellish,” he said, savagely and slowly, glaring out of bloodshot eyes at the trim figure of the Inspector. Ellery, in his corner, crooked his body slightly forward, “I’m—getting—out—of—this.”

The Inspector signaled to Velie. The burly sergeant stumped across the floor and towered above Marchbanks, saying nothing, his arms hanging loosely by his sides. Marchbanks, large and corpulent, shrank before the huge detective. He flushed, muttered beneath his breath, stepped back.

“Now,” said the Inspector equably, “Miss French, may I trouble you to answer a few questions?”

“Oh, I say, Inspector,” protested Weaver, despite Ellery’s warning flick of the finger, “do you think it absolutely necessary to—”

“I’m quite ready, sir,” came the quiet voice of the girl, and she rose to her feet, her eyes a trifle red, but clearly composed. Her father had slumped back in his chair. He had forgotten her already. She smiled wanly at Weaver, who sent her an ardent glance across the room. But she kept her head averted from the sheeted corpse in the corner by the bed.

“Miss French,” snapped the Inspector, flicking the gauzy scarf from the dead woman’s clothes before her eyes, “is this your scarf?”

She whitened. “Yes. How does it come here?”

“That,” said the Inspector dispassionately, “is what
I
should like to know. Can you explain its presence?”

The girl’s eyes flashed, but she spoke calmly enough. “No, sir, I cannot.”

“Miss French,” went on the Inspector after a stiffing pause, “your scarf was found around Mrs. French’s neck, under her coat-collar. Does that convey anything to you—perhaps suggest an explanation?”

“She was wearing it?” Marion gasped. “I—I can’t understand it. She—she never did that before.” She glanced helplessly at Weaver, shifted her gaze and met Ellery’s eyes.

They looked at each other for a startled moment Ellery saw a slender girl with smoky hair and deep grey eyes. There was an unaccented cleanliness about the lines of her young body that made him feel pleased for Weaver’s sake. She gave the impression of straightforwardness and strength of will—honest eyes, firm lips, small strong hands, a pleasingly cleft chin and a good straight nose. Ellery smiled.

Marion saw a tall athletic man with a suggestion of nascent vigor, startlingly intellectual about the forehead and lips, cool and quiet and composed. He looked thirty, but was younger. There was a hint of Bond Street about his clothes. His long thin fingers clasped a little book and he regarded her out of pince-nez eyeglasses. … Then she blushed slightly and her eyes wavered away toward the Inspector.

“When did you last see this scarf, Miss French?” went on the old man.

“Oh, I—” Her tone changed; she took command of herself. “I seem to remember wearing it yesterday,” she said slowly.

“Yesterday? Very interesting, Miss French. Do you recall just where—?”

“I left the house directly after luncheon,” she said, “wearing the scarf under this coat I met a friend at Carnegie Hall and we spent the afternoon at a recital—Pasternak the pianist. We parted after the recital and I took a bus down to the store. I do seem to remember wearing the scarf all day. …” Her brow wrinkled prettily. “I don’t remember having it, however, when I returned home.”

BOOK: French Powder Mystery
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