'The Unlocked Safe Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. They find themselves affected in a personal way by their latest case.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2016 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is a great deal of heavy swearing in this story.
"Unlocked; I mean, unlocked?"
Fiona Cartwright, co-partner in Drever and Cartwright, Private Detectives, considered this piece of information at its face value, which wasn't much; meanwhile glancing along the office desk to her loved other half, looking for some sort of empathy. But Alice Drever, not being a fool, kept her head down—scribbling industriously in her shorthand notepad.
"Hurph, Mr Tanley, I may be somewhat conservative by nature," Fiona, seeing no other recourse, went for the client's jugular. "but safes, by definition, are for keeping material safe in; by the usual, and quaintly logical, method of closing and locking the door. And you're telling my partner and I this one wasn't,—wasn't either closed or locked?"
"That, umm, is certainly the general nature of, er, the thing."
Mr Thomas Tanley, of Tanley's Seraphic Throat Pastilles fame, sat on the hard chair reserved for clients in the office of the detective duo in the Packer Building on the corner of Rosemartin Road and 12th Street, Delacote City, NH. On this balmy morning of Tuesday, March 6th, 1934, he had the honour of being the women's first new client of the week; he having arrived with a doozy of a tale.
"Ya gettin' all this, Al?"
"Yeah, every golden word." Alice brushed a strand of brunette hair from her brow, regarding their client with ill-disguised wonder. "Say, Mr Tanley, how d'you run a profit at your firm, seein' you keep the main safe open all the time? I just don't see it, myself."
"Ladies," The owner of the famous firm of throat pastille providers shuffled uncomfortably on his wooden chair; that part of his anatomy which found the situation most trying being more used to soft leather upholstery. "Let's not get this whole, umm, incident, out of proportion. I've been trying to make it clear this was a single, a one-off, affair. Of course we keep the safe closed at all times. Anyone needing to consult the contents, or add or subtract from them, must go to the Chief Accountant and bring him along with his keys to the Muniments Room where the safe resides. Only he, the Chief Accountant, has the authority or means to open and, er, close the safe."
Alice lifted her pencil to scratch her head, a frown of concentration furrowing her brow.
"Y'make it sound as if the safe had never been in a state of being left open an' unattended before; is that so?"
"So, what's the explanation for the dam' thing having been found gaping wide yesterday, then? An' these documents and recipes, y'say, being missing?"
"That," Mr Tanley allowed a certain tinge of disapprobation to enter his tone. "is what I came to you ladies to discover and explain. You being detectives and all."
A pause in proceedings followed this ill-judged remark. It started out as, in literary parlance, short, but as time slowly meandered along, became rather more pronounced than was quite comfortable for at least one occupant of the long airy room. Neither Fiona nor Alice took kindly to being made the centre of carping sarcasm; and, when such did rear its ugly head, Alice usually efficiently contrived for it to make a final matinee appearance in their client's bill. After the icy silence had progressed long enough, in Fiona's eyes, she returned to the fray.
"Mr Tanley, let's get our positions straight, shall we." When this black-haired descendant of the Valkyries read the Riot Act to misbehaving clients she could effect just the right tone of freezing disdain. "We here, at Drever and Cartwright, get along famously. We're top o'the range, private detective wise, an' people hereabouts gen'rally acknowledge such t'be the case. What I'm sayin' is, we don't need your custom, nor do we scare at the childish antics of egoistic fools. If ya don't wan'na engage us, go elsewhere by all means. You'll find it's no skin off our noses; but most likely, it'll be a deal o'skin off your arse in the long run, OK?"
Faced with this mutinous stance, of an nature for which Tanley had no previous experience to help him, there followed another pause while he regained control of his lower jaw—which had exhibited a decided tendency to drop to the floor. Finally he recovered himself enough to continue the conversation, in the mildest of conciliatory terms.
"-er, er, no criticism intended, I'm sure." He took a deep breath, trying manfully to return to the question under discussion. "What I wish to explain clearly is that our Chief Accountant, Mr Banford, is the key—er, quite literally—to the affair. The safe was opened and closed once before, yesterday. My partner, Miss Garnock, had to consult some documents. After which Mr Banford was in full view of everyone in the main office for the remainder of the morning. Later, just after eleven-thirty, he approached me in some agitation and escorted me to the Muniments Room where I found the safe open, and certain documents missing. That is really all we know of the affair. The rest will have to come to light through, er, sustained and detailed detective work, I'm sure. Which is why I present myself here before you today."
Alice and Fiona looked at each other; if, perhaps not with a wild surmise, at least with meditative frowns.
"How many other keys to this supposed safe are there, Mr Tanley?" Alice got down to the nitty-gritty. "Who holds them, and what were they doing during the relevant period, and where were they?"
"There are two other sets of keys to the safe." Here Tanley, sensing firmer ground, nodded happily. "But you can discount both, I'm afraid; I have one set securely locked in a drawer of my desk in my office, as stand-by in case of emergencies."
"And the second set?" Fiona raised an enquiring eyebrow.
"Kept at the Ranker Street warehouse, where our files and records gather dus—er, are stored for security." Tanley shrugged hopelessly. "No-one ever goes there. I mean, there is never much need to consult material held there. I'm sure the other set of keys will be perfectly, er, safe, there."
"But you can't be sure?" Alice, seeing clearly through a brick wall, further even than that character in Shakespeare, grasped this point with sharpened talons. "When was the last time you examined this mythical set of, ah,— safe, safe keys?"
Tanley, feeling the ground shifting under his feet once more, began squirming uncomfortably on his seat again.
"-er, that'd be some months ago." He gesticulated helplessly. "They are, I believe, in a security box there; so should be perfectly, umm, secure."
It was to Alice that the necessity of clarifying the position fell; she taking to it like a ravening wolf faced with a herd of sleeping deer.
"Seems t'me, Mr Tanley, the last thing your company deals in is security." The brunette, warming to her subject, leant across the office desk, fixing the unfortunate client with a basilisk stare. "Safe keys under the control of a single individual in the office; haven't you ever heard of duplicating keys? Who better placed for that than the Chief Accountant?"
"And a further set of keys dumped in a warehouse among the old files and debris of the firm." Here Fiona came in with her two-cents worth, grinning coldly. "Never checked, never examined; never thought anythin' of. Hell, man, an army of con-artists or grifters could get inta such a place, anytime they wanted. By this time I'm surprised everyone of a criminal nature in New Hampshire doesn't have their own set of duplicates of your keys, an' have just been bidin' their time. Till now."
"Yeah," Alice backed up her partner with her own expert knowledge. "If it's a suspect you're lookin' for, Mr Tanley, Fiona and I can only say, look at every criminal in the state, that's all. Security, my eye an' Betty Martin."
Tanley, having been head of his family's famous firm since almost his teenage years, was less than comfortable under this third degree interrogation; being rather more used to making others snap to it, than doing so himself.
"Well, all I can say is, if you don't want to take this case I suppose I can go elsewhere—"
"Oh, we'll take it, if only for the laughs." Fiona curled a censorious lip. "Just don't expect miracles, Mr Tanley. To put ya in the picture I'll give ya a rundown on what we'll need'ta do. First, we chat with your inestimable Chief Accountant—"
"Yeah, wouldn't be surprised if that's all that'll be needed." Alice helpfully gave this opinion, nodding wisely.
"But Mr Banford's been with us for,-for twenty years an' more—"
"Means nuthin', Mr Tanley, take our word for that." Fiona dismissed this plea with contempt, continuing her to-do list with enthusiasm. "Second, the Ranker Street premises are due for a complete overhaul, security-wise. A detailed look at the whole set-up there. If the keys are still in situ at all, it might be plain they've been tampered with, if not actually stolen—"
"Third," Here Fiona paused significantly, giving her partner a curious look.
Alice came up trumps, glaring at Tanley with darkened brow.
Another pause ensued, both women regarding their prey, er, client, with gloomy conjecture.
"What? What?" Tanley broke under the strain, diving into his jacket pocket for a silk handkerchief to mop his brow.
"You." Alice hissed this like an evil villainess on the stage.
"Me? What about me?"
"Hell, you have the only other set o'viable keys." Fiona explained his present unhappy position to the poor sap. "That places ya as the Chief Suspect. Surprised the cops haven't clarified this with ya, already."
"Yeah, you." Alice relaxed a little, giving the agitated man some scope for escape. "Stands to reason, you have the only other set of keys; who other than you could be in a position to benefit—only you."
"Shit. Oh, sorry, ladies—"
"Jeez, take it easy, ya ain't goin'ta be dragged down t'the Precinct yet awhiles." Fiona grinned broadly, though without much obvious sensitivity. "Maybe y'can give us an idea of your schedule, yesterday? P'raps it'll help t'clear matters up, regarding your own position at least, eh?"
A couple of windows were open in the long room, but the fresh air circulating didn't seem to be making the businessman any easier. He had started sweating profusely, working his yellow silk handkerchief overtime.
"Schedule?" He squirmed uncomfortably, clearly at sea in more ways than one. "I don't,-didn't, have a particular schedule. You can't work that way in my line of business; things crop up; problems have to be addressed as they make themselves felt; it's all come and go in a sort'a promiscuous fashion, if you catch my drift."
"Jeez." Alice looked up from her notebook, then continued diligently scribbling her mysterious hieroglyphics.
"So, how did things go, yesterday mornin'?" Fiona tried to bring their client back on track. "Start with your arriving at the office; go from there, an' don't leave anythin' out."
Quiet reigned in the sunlit office while the stocky forty-something man arranged his thoughts.
"Well, I came into the place just after ten o'clock—"
"Easy hours y'keep."
"Nuthin'." Alice, caught out voicing her thoughts aloud, bent even lower over her shorthand task.
"—er, so, then I looked at my portion of the daily mail." Tanley scratched his chin, attempting to bring the minor details of the previous day to mind. "Had a cup of coffee, then buckled down to a particular client's affairs I'm overhauling at the moment; renewing their buying contract for our wares, always a delicate business. That took me up to eleven-thirty, or just after, when Mr Banford came to my office to alert me to the emergency. That's it."
The office, this morning, seemed to be the local main thoroughfare for pregnant silences, another of which now echoed hollowly in the confines of the high-ceilinged room for an uncomfortable length of time—the two women taking this opportunity to think about the situation in hand.
"Well," Fiona mused slowly, taking a good look at Tanley as she did so. "I suppose,—when was it this Miss Garnock went t'the strong-room, again?"
"I would hardly call it a strong-room—"
"Hell, we know that—" Once again Alice's verve and effervescent nature got the better of her.
"—uurph, that would have been around ten o'clock, just after my own arrival." Tanley stared gloomily at his interrogators. "You'd have to ask her for the exact time."
"We intend doin' just that, Mr Tanley." Fiona nodded firmly, as one on top of her job. "Right, it's gettin' on for lunch at the moment. Alice an' I'll turn up at your office in the afternoon, t'give all the relevant suspects a grillin'. Y'never know, it might bring some forgotten detail or other to light. See ya then."
"Oh, ah, goodbye, then, goodbye."
"What d'ya think o'that, doll?"
"Not a lot, dear."
"Y're dam' right there." Fiona nodded in agreement with her paramour, as they both sat at their desk considering their latest client. "More holes in his story than a dam' Edam Cheese."
"Swiss cheese." Alice was up for the facts. "Swiss's the one with holes; Edam's just thick, solid, an' tasteless. Dutch, y'know; can hardly be called cheese at all, really—just solidified fat."
Fiona, dark-haired, tall, mean as a polecat when riled, and loving her partner with every ounce of feeling in her body, considered this information slowly and carefully, for what it was worth; then, coming to the logical conclusion that it was irrelevant, uninteresting, and bore no whit on the matter in hand, dismissed it from her mind, as she generally did with most of the irrational mutterings of her loved one.
"So, to return to matters that matter, lover; Tanley, is he it, or ain't he, darlin'?"
"Nah," Alice piped up firm and loud in her professional opinion of the businessman. "he ain't got It; Clara Bow needn't worry, he ain't got anythin' t'do with the affair—not intelligent enough, that's easy t'see. Must be someone else."
"What did he say was missin' from the safe, anyway?"
"I've got it all here." Alice, at this request, jumped to what she did best; listing facts and figures in a logical, clear, and informative manner. "Two cardboard folders containin' two sets of documents amountin' t'about twenty pages each. One gives the original recipe—"
"—for those things he manufactures,—cough sweets, pastilles, throat medication." Alice curled a supercilious lip. "Come in flat tins, y'suck 'em t'ease a sore throat or cold, or whatever. Sell like hotcakes, so I'm informed."
"—so, carryin' on from where I was interrupted," Alice always liked her little joke at her partner's expence. "the second set of documents held the recipe for the modern, improved, condiment—"
"Fay, will you for pity's sake stop interruptin' me, y'r puttin' me off." Having registered disapproval in this firm manner, Alice sniffed haughtily and returned to the perusal of her notes. "The original pastilles, not manufactured for the last twenty years or so, had a minute amount of cocaine in them—"
"Yeah, quite." Alice nodded in agreement. "Makes you wonder, don't it? Anyways, the new recipe's much more bland; nothin' t'take exception to in 'em now at all, apparently."
"Should dam' well hope so."
"But it seems Tanley keeps the thing, the recipe, close to his chest,—secret, in fact." Alice shook her head over the unknowable ways of the male mind. "Which, of course, makes it a thing of beauty and something t'lust after, in the wider throat pastille industry."
"You may well laugh, ducks—"
"—but there's money in it, all the same." Alice wasn't to be put off by her companion's carping criticism. "And so we've got this example of industrial espionage, right on our doorstep. Lovely, ain't it, Fay? Makes a change."
The brunette part of Drever and Cartwright considered her partner musingly.
"From mere murder, kidnappin', bank robbery, and general run o'the mill beatings-up an', er, things."
"More borin', is what y're sayin', then?"
"No, no." Alice rallied against this obdurate attitude. "More intellectually stimulating, dear, is what I'm gettin' at."
"I can think of more enjoyable ways o'bein' stimulated." Fiona gave her partner a long warm stare. "Some come t'mind, in fact, as we speak."
"I bet, lady." Alice grinned widely, leaning across to plant a gentle kiss on her loved one's cheek. "There, that'll keep you goin' for the day. Now, let's get our minds back t'the matter in hand, OK?"
The offices of Tanley's Seraphic Throat Pastilles lay in the dark winding interior of an old office-block dating back to Edwardian times; er, that is to say, Teddy Roosevelt's administration. The décor, in the set of offices, was entirely original Art Nouveau; all squirly leaves and branches embossed over every available flat surface on walls and ceilings, not to mention doors and mirror-frames. There was a great deal of dark woodwork, in the form of office partitions and wall paneling; all heavily varnished and, in the afternoon sun, giving off a thick sweet aroma which reminded both Fiona and Alice inexorably of their old schoolrooms.
The first on the list of interviewees, compiled a little earlier by Alice in fine form, was Miss Irene Garnock, Tanley's partner. Alice, sitting at a long oak table in a finely decorated boardroom, opened proceedings.
"Well, Miss Garnock, you're Mr Tanley's partner in the business?"
"Unusual to find a lady so high up the chain of command in such a large company, isn't it?"
"How do you mean?"
"Um, women generally find it difficult to get past the secretary level, don't you think?"
"I took a business degree at University." Miss Garnock, something nearing thirty and respectably good-looking, sat upright on her hard-backed wooden chair and raked Alice with a thirty-two pounder salvo. "I'm the daughter of one of the original Directors of the Firm. I continue a family connection, you might say. Does that answer your query?"
Seeing her partner laid aback so expertly Fiona came to the rescue, flicking officiously through a thin folder before her on the table.
"You've been in your present position for just over two years, is that so?"
"What do you think of Mr Tanley, as an individual?" Fiona felt it time to get onto personalities, fixing the lady opposite with a sharp eye. "And what do you think of the Company, as a whole; in today's business world?"
Miss Garnock took her time considering the merits of these enquiries; raising a thin dark eyebrow and examining each of her interrogators in turn, like curious specimens at the zoo.
"I fail to see the connection of your questions with present circumstances."
Fiona set her lips tightly; some people, in her oft voiced opinion, being just like clams when it came to extracting information from them.
"Just tryin' t'get a feelin' for how the firm's run, that's all." She waved a hand superciliously, as if the point was of no moment. "But, if ya find ya don't wan'na co-operate—"
Miss Garnock snapped to attention, lightning bolts flickering from her dark blue eyes.
"Of course I shall co-operate in any way possible, in order to find out what has occurred." She favoured Fiona with a glance that would have curdled pea soup. "As partner in the Firm, I am as anxious as anyone to discover the truth."
"So, —Mr Tanley?" Fiona felt she had, at least, scored a point.
"Mr Tanley is a person of the highest moral character." Her tone reflected the iciest of respectable distaste for the subject. "You will have to go far to find any form of criticism of him, you'll find. As to the Firm itself; we have always been at the forefront of throat pastille territory, none superior—as it, in fact, says on every tin."
Fiona began to feel as if she knew how dentists, and their patients, felt while teeth were being extracted; then she bucked-up, returning to the intellectual wrestling-match with renewed energy.
"Let's switch to your own movements." Fiona rustled a sheet of paper, as if it contained all the Knowledge of the Ages. "Mr Tanley told us you visited the Muniments Room, and the safe, just after he arrived yesterday; is that so?"
Miss Garnock sat back again, as if at ease once more with the way the interview was going.
"Yes, I had occasion to extract some files from the safe." Her expression was of the greatest disinterest, as if the point was of no moment at all. "Mr Banford, of course, accompanying me as required."
"What did you find there?" Alice jumped in again, mindful of taking the lady slightly off-guard. "Anything special catch your attention while in the room, or anything suspicious about the contents of the safe?"
Miss Garnock was once more in no hurry to answer—obviously a person who never let herself be rail-roaded under any circumstances—then deigned to reply, off-handedly.
"No, nothing. Why should there have been? Everything was perfectly normal, and in place, when I saw the safe yesterday morning."
This was too good an opportunity for Alice to miss.
"What makes you say that?" The brunette detective darted her question, like a kingfisher diving into a stream after a tasty bite; she scenting something of interest on the horizon at last. "Define 'perfectly normal' and 'in place', for me if you will?"
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Simply that it wasn't a perfectly normal day, in fact; and, eventually something was very much out of place." Alice virtually licked her lips, tasting success in her interviewing technique at last. "Tell my partner and I exactly what occurred when you and Mr Banford entered the Muniments Room yesterday? Any slightest detail, especially one you think nothing of, may be of the utmost importance—and Fiona and I are trained to catch just such matters; so, let's hear how your day went yesterday, if you please."
Miss Garnock, clearly taking this as an intrusion into private matters, sat back contemplating each detective in turn. Whether she might have finished by launching her own counter-attack had to be left hanging in the wind, because Fiona took up the cudgels on behalf of her loved partner at this juncture.
"Take us through the scene from when you both entered the Muniments Room." She smiled encouragingly. "Just as you remember it happening. Something interesting may come of it, if ya give us the chance."
Sighing deeply, Miss Garnock surrendered, anything to get this interview over with as quickly as possible.
"Very well." She paused to collect her thoughts, nodded to herself as if this had been entirely successful, and launched out on her reminiscences. "Mr Banford, having the key to the room, entered first. The safe is located in the side-wall on the left-hand side of the room. It reaches from floor to a few inches short of the high ceiling, partially walk-in. That is to say, you open a large metal room-sized door and enter a kind of small cupboard, with shelves on each of three sides. Some are wide, holding despatch boxes; other shelves are quite thin, with small security containers, only opened by other keys. There are also several metal drawers, most secured with keys, again."
"A regular bank-vault, nearly?" Alice scribbled in her shorthand notebook.
"Yes, almost, I suppose."
"And what happened when you yourself entered behind Mr Banford?" Fiona gently pressed the woman to continue her explanation.
"Nothing out of the ordinary, I have to say." Miss Garnock glanced at the two dubious faces fixed on her, and elaborated. "My reason for being there was to bring away some documents dealing with a particular business contract for the Firm. I was working on it, and meant to continue doing so yesterday morning. As I recall there was no disturbance or hold-up; I went to the shelf where the files were lying; picked the ones I needed; thanked Mr Banford, and left the safe-room."
"You left the safe, but remained in the Muniments Room?" This from Fiona, who was exploring her own theory of what may have occurred.
"Yes, that is so; I had to wait for Mr Banford to come out in his turn, so that he could lock the Muniments Room when we both left."
Alice had been taking all this down in her incomparable—and usually unreadable, Fiona often said—shorthand, but paused here to raise her head to look at Miss Garnock with a frown.
"So there was some period of time when you were outside the safe, and Mr Banford was inside, by himself?"
"—er, that is certainly the case." For the first time Miss Garnock began to look slightly unsettled, but rallied bravely. "Not that it lasted more than a few seconds—"
"A few seconds?" Fiona managed to imbue her words with deep mistrust.
"Ah, that is to say, perhaps two minutes or so."
Alice jumped on this gem like a hungry lioness.
"An appreciable amount of time, in fact." Now she bared her teeth like said lioness approaching its unsuspecting midday meal. "What was he carrying with him, when he accompanied you into the interior of the safe?"
"Why,—" Miss Garnock suddenly stopped, mouth opening and shutting noiselessly.
"What, Miss Garnock?" Fiona kept the pressure up, feeling they were on the verge of a breakthrough.
"It was,—it was an, er, small briefcase." She now looked profoundly worried, frowning deeply and casting glances at each detective in turn. "I took it for granted he had some documents or files relating to something to do with the Firm in it. That he might have been intending to place it in the safe; or was just keeping it with him for safety's sake while he accompanied me to the Muniments Room and back. I didn't really take serious note of it at the time."
There was a short pause, while Fiona and Alice absorbed this information; then Fiona rose to her feet, beckoning Miss Garnock towards the boardroom door; Alice remaining seated by the table, busily scrawling shorthand as if it were about to go out of fashion.
"Thank you, Miss Garnock." Fiona opened the door, ushering the rather pale lady out into the corridor. "That'll be all for now. Oh, by the way, don't say anything about what we've talked about to anyone—especially Mr Banford, eh?"
"Oh no, of course, certainly."
"Goodbye, goodbye." Fiona closed the door on the back of the clearly worried departing Partner and turned to Alice. "Well, what d'ya know? Gold-dust, eh?"
"Seems like it, doll." Alice grinned on her part, putting a final full-stop to her notes. "Am I right in surmising Banford's next on the schedule for the treatment?"
"Dam' straight, darlin'." Fiona bared her teeth in an evil grin as she sat by her loved partner's side. "Begins t'look as if we're in business ourselves, now."
The accountant, when he entered the boardroom, gave all the appearance of being at ease with himself and the world at large. Between them Fiona and Alice soon meant to change all that. Fiona was first to go into the attack.
"Take a pew, Mr Banford. Yes, there, just opposite us'll be fine." The preliminaries over she got down to business. "Now, perhaps you can enlighten us as to the reasons, necessity, and propriety for taking a briefcase under your arm into the safe-room yesterday? Only askin'."
Swept suddenly like this, out of a bright blue sky, by a full broadside, the accountant sat back with a nervous jerk, glancing from one to the other of the female detectives as at a form of wildlife he had never encountered before, but was just beginning to realise might well be carnivorous.
"Ah,-Ah." He broke out in a sweat, light gleaming from his high forehead. "Briefcase? —er, briefcase; just so,—umm."
"Come, come, Mr Banford." Fiona was in her element. "What did it contain; or, at least, what did it contain after you left the Muniments Room with Miss Garnock?"
Alice raised her head here to enter the fray.
"You see, my partner and I are thinkin' it wasn't just a banana, a beef sandwich, an' the latest copy of 'Collier's Weekly'." She rested her well-used pencil a moment on the shorthand pad, lifting one elegant finger to waggle it magisterially at her prey. "Muniments Room, and safe, supposed to be places of the tightest security; yet there you were, wanderin' around loose and unrestricted with a private receptacle under your arm for unknown purposes. You see our dilemma, don't you?"
The accountant rallied, though weakly; exuding no sense of confidence as he shuffled conspicuously on his chair.
"Oh, that briefcase. That'd be the, er, the Standish papers." A clearly visible drop of sweat trickled down his left cheek. "Merely documents of, er, a certain level of privacy. I thought it better to keep them with me while I accompanied Miss Garnock, that's all,—er,"
"And where are these papers now?" Fiona raised a dark suspicious eyebrow.
"Oh, I returned them to Mr Tanley, yesterday afternoon."
"The briefcase?" Alice always kept an eye on the finest detail of an interrogation.
"My own; that is to say, I have it with me at the moment." Banford essayed perhaps the thinnest most implausible smile the women had ever experienced. "I can,—I can, er, produce it whenever you like; that is to say if, er, you like, er,—"
"Empty?" Alice, of course, already knew the answer to this vital question.
"Empty?" Banford seemed to be rapidly losing contact with the world around him. "Oh yes, empty, certainly. That is, I have it by my desk as we, er, speak; if that is of any, umm, help?"
"None whatever, Mr Banford." Fiona skewered the hopeless interviewee with a basilisk eye. "Empty briefcases having a tendency t'be completely uninteresting. Y'see, I'm favourin' ya with years of detective experience here. Empty briefcases? No, by their very substance, or lack, indeed, they ain't of any interest t'anyone. Now, if you'd said it was full, an' full of secret recipes an' suchlike to boot; why, then y'd have our full attention, wouldn't he, Al?"
"So, was it?"
"Was it? Was it what?" Banford was by now resting wearily on the ropes, a defeated man.
"Full of secret recipe documents." Fiona gave her celebrated Medusa grin, guaranteed to instantly turn any guilty party to stone. "Well, Mr Banford; did you, t'employ a technical phrase, do it—purloin the letters?"
The air in the small boardroom smelt of old vellum documents, ancient dried ink, that strangely pungent aroma of newly sharpened pencils, and a hint of body odour from meetings long past. Apart from the pencils Mr Banford seemed, at the moment, to be markedly contributing to all the rest.
This answer, delivered in a soft defeated tone, caught the women off-guard; it not being at all usual for the perpetrator to admit their offence so completely at the start of an interrogation. Alice was first to recover.
"Yes? Yes?; yes, to what?"
"I took the documents containing the secret recipe." Coming clean seemed to imbue the short grey man with a new lease of life. He sat back, staring into the faces of the women opposite, as if ready to discuss his whole career. "I have them,—that is, I forwarded them to, ah, another person, yesterday in the post."
"Did ya indeed." Fiona was still suffering from the slight shock of his confession. "Passing over the why of the thing, for the moment—who did ya send the documents to? A minor point; but, y'll agree, of some slight overall interest, nevertheless?"
Banford grimaced, as if the subject disturbed, not to say pained, him.
"A man called Alfred Harris. He gave me an address in Garstone, to send them on to. No doubt he will have received them by now."
"Hmmph, so, the address?"
"One-Two-Two-Seven, Jameson Street, Garstone." Banford appeared ready and willing to discuss the whole thing.
"And why did you feel impelled to do this?" Alice was always interested in the personal aspect of criminal actions.
"What sort'a blackmail?" This from Fiona, who was regarding their suspect with some suspicion; things, she obviously felt, proceeding to easily by far.
Banford squirmed on his chair, coughed softly, glanced around from side to side, then looked at Fiona with something of an embarrassed mien.
"It was to do,—it was, er, to do with somewhere I went, a few weeks ago." Mr Banford began to flush deeply, lowering his gaze for a moment again. "You see, I'm married, with a young daughter. Eleven years; married, that is."
"And?" From Fiona, giving him space to tell his story in his own time.
"Well, er, you see, it's like this," Mr Banford took a deep breath, seemed to regain some iota of courage, and continued in a flat but firm tone. "I am married, but I also have, er, other tastes, er, feelings. Sometimes I go to places like the 'Pineapple' club, in Garstone."
Fiona motioned her partner to keep quiet.
"—you'll no doubt know all about that establishment." Banford continued, ignoring the women now, but just appearing glad to finally get the story off his chest. "It caters to, ah, a certain type of clientele; the, um, invert, if you will. Have you ever read Radclyffe Hall?"
"Yes." Alice, seeing where this was leading, softened her tone dramatically. "She wrote a book about a woman who was, er,—"
"Just so; as I am, I'm afraid to say, myself." Banford now seemed determined to clarify his position to the two women sitting with him, as if he felt it important they knew exactly what was what. "You see I'm, er, I'm—"
"Attracted to other men, physically, that is." Fiona worded her query gently, trying not to agitate Banford any more than necessary.
"Yes, just so." The accountant seemed relieved the women had grasped his explanation so swiftly. "And the 'Pineapple', I discovered some years ago, is an, er, meeting-place for such others of that, um, persuasion."
Things were becoming all too clear to the detectives; a classic form of blackmail, indeed. Alice finished transcribing her shorthand notes, glancing at Fiona by her side.
"Well, well, that puts the cat among the pigeons, and no mistake."
Garstone had a city-wide reputation; the term slum, or indeed rookery, might well have been coined especially to describe the nasty oily dirty alleys, small streets of antiquated nearly derelict buildings, and strong sense of illegality that imbued the noxious atmosphere throughout the whole area. It was, simply, Delacote City's deadbeat district; where all sorts of curious going's on took place, usually at dead of night; but not always. Being the site of the original city-settlement, there were several surviving bars and saloons which proudly asserted that Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, or even Billy the Kid, had honoured these establishments with their presence. Whether you believed in such wholly depending, of course, on how drunk you already were when the preposterous suggestion was made in your hearing.
Jameson Street was no worse or better than the average for the district; meaning pretty bad. About forty feet wide, tall tenements ran along both sides, of aged dirty redstone, iron fire escapes clamped to the frontages on all the levels, and the street itself just wide enough to let cars pass safely, if they were extra careful about it. Alice's Plymouth coupe was, hardly unexpectedly, entirely out of place among the few ramshackle vehicles lining the street at this point in time, of a late afternoon.
"Jee-sus, what a merry dump."
Alice, when annoyed, always relished saying it like it was.
"Easy, pard, here's a parking-space; slip in here." Fiona kept her tone calm, well-knowing when to let her companion have free rein. "One-Two-Two-Seven's just twenty yards along the sidewalk."
After they had climbed out the car, and Alice had made a public show of firmly locking her prized possession, they walked along to the flight of steps leading up to the entrance of the tenement in question.
"One of those blocks of cheap flats." Fiona recognised the set-up right away, as they entered the long somewhat decrepit lobby. "Let's see, yeah, here's a list o'the tenants on the wall. What was his name, again?"
"Harris, Albert—no, Alfred Harris." Alice was still simmering with a mixture of anger and contempt; at Jameson Street in general, and the person they were on their way to pay a call on in particular. "Are you sure I just can't haul out my .38 and plug the b-st-rd where he stands, when he opens his door?"
"That wouldn't be self-defence, darlin', that'd be your actual Grade A, Murder One." Fiona could be sarcastic with the best when provoked. "Wouldn't want that, would we; think of poor ol' Inspector Fletcher's heart, an' all the red-tape an' ever-so imaginative paperwork he'd need t'plow through afterwards t'make it look like an accident."
The fourth floor was, as could easily have been foreseen by anyone with experience of these joints, like something out of a William S Hart western movie; the faded diamond-pattern crimson wallpaper along the narrow corridor almost certainly dating from the 1880's. Room 412's door also looked original, plain wood with no paint or varnish. The women stopped outside to consider the matter.
"What do we do, then?"
"There's several possibilities." Fiona shrugged, dragging her .45 automatic out of her handbag meanwhile; partnering her companion's .38 revolver, already gripped in Alice's tight fist. "We bang on the door, askin' fer a conference. If he declines t'be associated with such, we kick the door in an' make ourselves welcome—"
"Taking matters as they pan out, as a result?"
"Oh yes, certainly—be ready t'shoot him t'pieces at the first opportunity, if necessary." Fiona nodded gravely. "O'course we got'ta mind our own backs; don't want Fletcher flingin' us in the slammer fer murder, do we? So try'n plug the b-st-rd in the legs, if possible."
"We go over the joint very thoroughly indeed." The black-haired detective knew exactly what was required. "Remember, we're lookin' for a folder of typed documents givin' the details of the recipe fer those dammed throat pastilles—it's bound t'still be somewhere in his possession here. Right, ready?"
"Yep, go to it."
Fiona's knock sounded, surprisingly, weak and timid as she barely touched the door-panel with her knuckles. This, of course, being a ploy t'catch their victim a little off-guard. After a few seconds there was the sound of shuffling footsteps and a low voice came through the still closed door.
"Wha'd'ya want? Who is it?"
"Telegram fer Mr Harris."
Fiona somehow contrived to make her naturally deep voice sound close to a young boy. Though rather amateurish, and not fooling Alice for a second, it did the business with their unsuspecting quarry. There was the sound of a chain being removed, then the click of a lock and the door partially opened an inch or two. Fiona instantly stuck the toe of her heavy leather shoe in the space and waved her automatic in front of her.
"Think we need'ta have a little chat, Alfred—shit."
Apart from the raising of surprised eyebrows Harris, in vest and pants, didn't let the grass grow under his feet. Stepping back he opened the door wider, then slammed it shut with all his force. It, of course, met the resistance of Fiona's foot in the doorway; banging against this member with immense impetus. It was painful.
"Jeez, Aagh, Christ-a-Mighty."
Fiona stepped back, dragging her wounded limb out of the way of a second assault; Harris shut the door with a slam, engaging the lock and chain once more; Alice grabbed her partner's shoulder and pulled her sideways away from the direct line of the door; then there came a fusillade from the interior of the room, the door splintering in fragments as several bullets shattered the dry old panels, embedding themselves, with puffs of plaster-dust, in the corridor wall opposite.
Fiona was still bent double, gasping for breath from her injury, but Alice, assured of her lover's safety, went to work. The joy of a .38 revolver is in aiming true, firing steady, and thereby off-loading five of the prettiest projectiles, in as neat a group, as could be wished; then you only took a handful of seconds, if expert, to reload and repeat the medicinal dose. Alice did all these in record time.
The door, after this sustained assault from both sides, had ceased in any way to be a physical entity. Alice let loose a third volley into the dim interior—Harris obviously living there behind closed curtains—and was rewarded by a high quavering scream, diminishing into a low sustained whimper of pain. Pausing, she turned her attention to her companion.
"How's it going, Fay?"
"OK, OK, God, that f-cker dam' near broke my foot." Fiona pulled herself upright again, limping as they both moved to the remains of the door. "God, it hurts; if he's broken somethin' in my foot I'll dam' well make sure he never has babies again, ever, see if I don't. Where is the b-st-rd? Is that him makin' all that dam' noise?"
The tenant of the room, Alfred Harris, was found, after a quick search of the small untidy room, lying by the side of a dirty bed, with several bullet wounds to his body and legs. His shirt, never of the cleanest, was soaked in blood, while a small pool was forming on the bare floorboards, leaking from his right trouser-leg. But he still retained his voice, and a querulous nature.
"You b-tch; you've shot me t'sh-t." He was writhing in pain and gasping for breath. "I'm dyin', here."
"So what?" Alice had no sympathy whatever, merely curling a cold lip. "Who cares, die then."
Fiona dragged a straight-backed wooden chair across and sat, leaning down to soothe her injured foot with one hand while keeping a tight bead on Harris with the .45 automatic in her other hand. The expression on her face, meanwhile, probably did more than anything to make the wounded thug remain where he lay.
"Where's the b-st-rd's gun?"
"Disappeared." Alice had taken a quick glance around. "Slipped under the bed, or somewhere, probably. OK, Harris, you piece o'sh-t, where's the documents from Tanley's? Come on, out with it, or d'you want another few perforation's in your skin—I'm up for it, y'know."
Alice's voice, added to the wicked expression on Fiona's face as she continued glowering at him, decided Harris he was in an untenable position; especially as, obviously, he didn't really know if he was actually on the verge of pegging out or not.
"In the dam' drawer, over there, dam' it." He contrived to writhe a bit more, trying to look contrite and as if ready to come clean on everything. "I'm dyin' here, call the medics, fer God's sake. I need attention."
"The only attention you'll be getting, you b-st-rd, is more attention from the barrel of my .38; get me?" Alice really was furious, blaming herself for letting Fiona get in the line of fire so easily. "Where're the photos, then?"
"Arrh, photos? What bloody photos?"
"The one's you took of Banford, t'blackmail him with, moron."
"Uhh, there ain't no photos, just a coupl'a letters he wrote t'a guy he knew at the dam' Pineapple club." Harris was by now lying prone, gasping weakly for every breath. "The documents're in that drawer in the chest. No photos, no ph—, I'm dyin', I'm dyin' here."
Alice glanced up, to see several people crowded in the broken doorway, goggling at the scene before them. She took instant advantage of this plethora of servants.
"Hey, you bums, wha'd'ya all think you're doin'?" She could be hard, when the occasion arose, as was definitely the present case; so she showed no mercy. "Get your g-dd-m behinds moving; you, get down t'the lobby, an' call the cops on the public phone there. You, dame, yeah you, blondie, get some sheets an' antiseptic or somethin' from somewhere—an' make it snappy. You, in the dark dress, find another phone somewhere, an' call an ambulance. The rest of you, get lost, before my bloody trigger-finger gets itchy again, savvy?"
In less than four breaths the corridor was once more empty, only the sound of hastily receding footsteps showing where the erstwhile audience were going. Seeing the wounded thug had quietened down, and didn't seem to be bleeding so heavily, Alice turned her attention to Fiona; who had risen and was now standing over by the low chest of drawers against the far wall.
"Yep, gold-dust; the documents are all here." Fiona turned to gesticulate with a cardboard folder in her hand. "There's another, with what seems t'be a coupl'a letters, like the bum over there said. Appears we've closed another case, doll."
"Chr-st, not before time, too." Alice came to join her partner, putting a soft hand on her shoulder. "Y'wounded, or what?"
"Nah, only my dam' foot. He bloody near squashed it flat; might'a broken a toe, even."
"Well, we'll get you to hospital, to get an examination; then it'll be back t'our condo, an' some well-earned downtime for both of us."
"Here, take these folders; Tanley, at least, will look on 'em as the Treasure of the Indies, I've no doubt. Aargh, my foot hurts somethin' awful."
"Here, lean on me, darlin'; won't be long till the meat-wagons appear, then y'll get hospital attention."
Fiona, though bruised and in pain, was still attentive to the source of their problems.
"What about bloody Harris? Is he bleedin' t'death over there, or what? How many bullets did ya manage t'plug him with?"
"Hopefully every bloody one I fired. F-ck Harris; here, let me help you to this chair, I think I hear the ambulance siren's in the distance. Easy there."
"Aagh, that's better. Thanks, doll."
"No problem, darlin', no problem."
"What I can't make out is, what the Hell is goin' on?"
Inspector Fletcher sat behind his overburdened desk, chomping on a cigar he had no intention of ever lighting; gazing at the two women sitting on the uncomfortable chairs on the other, public, side of his domain.
"So, out with it; an' come clean, mind, but quick,—I got'ta home t'go to this evening, y'know."
It was early evening, around seven o'clock. The wounded Harris had been transported to Hospital; where he continued to bleed, to no-one's particular interest. Fiona had been looked over by a doctor and pronounced to have a broken big toe on her left foot, with severe local bruising. As a result she now boasted a shoeless foot wrapped in heavy bandages, and a crutch under her left shoulder. Alice simply sat looking mean and angry. The story had been partially explained to the Inspector; but he wanted, as usual, far more detail.
Alice, in lieu of her wounded mate, sat forward and set out the matter in a flat quiet exhausted tone, missing nothing of the whole affair. In ten minutes Fletcher was au fait with the whole sorry scenario.
"Jeez, what a mess." He chomped some more on his cigar, thinking deeply as was his wont. "You OK, Fiona?"
"Only t'a certain extent, Fletch." Fiona essayed an uncomfortable grin. "My foot's givin' me gip; the Doctor gave me some pills, though he said not t'take too many—"
"Don't worry, darlin', I'll see t'that."
"What about this Banford?" Fletcher was already contemplating the various side-issues of the case. "Seems like he's perched on both sides of the fence. We'll be on him for theft, while he can be on bloody Harris fer blackmail. An interesting case."
"All depends on whether Tanley makes any charge against Banford, or not." Fiona, though in some discomfort, could still operate as the fine detective she was. "I have a suspicion Tanley won't want t'make any kind'a public hoo-hah of the whole thing. Keep it quiet, in fact."
"Yeah," Alice nodded, recovering some of her native spirit. "It'd make a fine to-do for the papers, if it all came out. He telephoned Fiona and I around an hour ago, t'be brought up to date. I have a feeling, like Fay here, he ain't gon'na take the matter any further, too."
"So what about Banford?" Fletcher never liked loose ends in a case.
"From what he told us on the phone, Tanley's got some idea of sending Banford on a multi-state tour of the company's outlets, fer a few months; t'do some local accounting audits, or whatnot." Fiona leant her head sideways, smiling slightly. "Tanley, curiously enough, apparently understands the personal tragedy Banford's in the midst of, an' seemingly wants t'help, more than anythin' else. Makes a change, I got'ta say."
Fletcher frowned at this then shrugged, under his loose-fitting jacket, and gazed at the women with a nonchalant air.
"Ho-hum, another case goes belly-up, more or less. Suppose I can amuse myself with squeezin' this rat Harris till he squeaks. He's gon'na go down bigtime, for all sorts a'reasons."
"If he lives, that is." Alice pointed out this minor problem, as of necessity.
"Does anyone dam' well care?" Fiona was still feeling the pain.
"Hell, not me fer one." Fletcher heaved himself to his feet. "Come on, I got'ta get home before my wife starts mutinying. Alice, get this gal back home, an' give her some tender lovin' care; it'll work wonders, believe me."
"Ha, I'll do my best, Fletcher. Bye."
The condo, at eight o'clock at night, seemed to be an island of warmth and quietness. Alice helped her wounded mate upstairs, along the corridor, and through the door of their private flat; then kept a firm hand on Fiona as she limped to the sofa and carefully sat down.
"Oh God, that's better."
"I'd say yeah, but I better not." Fiona looked glum. "That doctor said alcohol was out for the next four days, dammit."
"Oh dear." Alice contrived not to let her damaged lover see the small twitch of her lips. "I'll get us some iced fruit-juice, then. Say, what about love-making? Did the doctor give his opinion on that?"
"He did not." Fiona raised her head, lips tight as she regarded her lover. "An' if he had'a I'd a'took no notice anyway. No love-makin', indeed. Why'd ya bring the subject up, anyway?"
Alice paused on her way to the kitchen.
"Oh, just because I'll obviously be massaging your wounded foot for the next few days." She shook her short hair, looking decidedly coquettish. "Then, I suppose, that'll inevitably lead on t'other things—pastures new, y'know, an' all that. Just wonderin'."
"Well, hurry up with that dam' fruit juice." Fiona sat back on the sofa, grinning at the woman she loved so deeply and with such a heartfelt need. "Then, afterwards, when y've helped me t'the bedroom, we'll see what happens then. Any ideas? How does a semi-crippled woman make mad passionate love, anyway?"
"Ah well, I've got some thoughts about that, lover; don't you worry yourself over it." Alice turned to enter the kitchen, throwing her last remark carelessly back over her shoulder. "You may only have one foot for the next few days; but I've got two hands, both in operational order—an' I know what I'm gon'na be doin' with 'em too, doll."
To be continued in the next story in the 'Drever and Cartwright' series.