'The Collister Building Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are lovers and private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. They spend some down-time at home.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2017 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 some light swearing in this story.
The Heights, that middle-class district of Delacote City, NH, sat on its low ridge above the rest of the coastal conurbation basking in the mid-March sunshine of this Wednesday morning of 14th March 1934. Casemount Street ran south-west north-east, giving the west side residents a wide view across the city to the sea. The Collister Building, a stately 14 floors high and built in that flamboyant fiddly red sandstone manner which heralded the last gasp of Art Nouveau, was now a complex of condo's; of which one on the 9th floor belonged to Fiona Cartwright and her inamorata Alice Drever, owners and operatives of the famed 'Drever and Cartwright Detective Agency'; renowned across the whole state of New Hampshire—if, sadly, nowhere else of consequence—for always, nearly, getting their man-or woman, as the case might pan out. On this particular morning, just after breakfast, they were sprawling on their leather sofa at ease with life; they having, for once in a blue moon, taken a week's holiday from detecting local crime.
"Inspector Fletcher'll probably be swamped with carjacking's, assaults, bank-robberies and murders galore." Alice contemplated the obvious consequences of their temporary absence from the scene with rather more gusto than the situation might have been supposed to demand, but she was that kind of a gal. "Never mind, it'll take his mind off the price of cigars for a while, till we get back. How about a long cool drink, Fay?"
Fiona, reclining at length—and she had a lot of length—in the style of Madame Recamier, at the opposite end of the long sofa, merely waved an apathetic hand in the air.
"What about a long cool drink, darling?"
"I mean, how's about you uncoiling y'self and going through to the kitchen and putting a couple of said items in motion." Alice sniffed with refinement, then had the bad judgement to speak her next thought out loud before she could stop herself. "Can't get the dam' servants, these days—Aouch."
This last ejaculation was caused by her supposed lover quickly leaning forward, catching the ankles of her partner, and with one smooth motion rolling the lighter brunette onto the carpet.
Order was restored after a few action-packed minutes ending in a close embrace and the exchange of some deeply-felt kisses of the purest amorous nature. They then pulled themselves together, all thoughts of refreshment forgotten, to enter their shared bedroom to dress properly for the coming day.
"I mourn, y'know, for nineteen twenty-seven, an' those skirts that stopped short well above the knees." Alice, now in her pale yellow silk underskirt, eyed an array of woolen skirts and jackets spread out across the bedspread. "Ah, wonderful days."
"Nobody else does; 'ceptin', o'course, the men." Fiona held a far more pragmatic view of changing fashion. "God, the zip on this dam' skirt's stuck agin. Can y'help me here, Al?"
Well-used to her compatriot's poor zip-undoing skills, Alice knelt at her partner's side to untwist the recalcitrant object.
"Wait a bit, stop fidgetin' so; OK, there, feel better now doll?"
"Yeah, thanks; dam' zips." Fiona slid smoothly out of the skirt, then unfastened her blouse with less trouble. "Right, think I'll go for this blue wool ensemble t'day. What d'ya think, honey?"
Alice stood by the side of the bed, running an expert hand over the clothes being held up for examination by Fiona.
"Nice texture, not too thick. Like the shade, nice mid blue." Alice nodded in satisfaction. "The jacket's just right; 'll fit neatly round the waist, and the skirt's just the right ankle-length—and the whole thing's not too tight, 'll flow nice an' loose round your calves. Yep, you'll look stunning in it, darling."
Five more minutes saw the duo almost fitted out and ready for the day's fray; though Alice, as was her wont, was still dallying around in her underclothes. It wasn't their intention to do anything of a particularly energetic nature; other than a drive along the coastal road in the afternoon, maybe; ending the day with a meal at a good restaurant down by Ocean Boulevard. But their morning they meant to take quietly, just lying around, or sitting out at the table on their small balcony with its view over the city to the blue ocean beyond. Alice especially, when they had the free time, liked to sit there, watching the yachts and ocean liners in the bay coming and going from the Harbour.
However Alice's attention was at present focussed more on immediate circumstances, than any romantic vision of the vast ocean behemoths cutting through the whitecaps out on the bay; she having had her fill of such vessels some couple of months previously, when all had not gone well for her and Fiona—no, not by any means. However, dust under the carpet; mud in your eye; and ancient history, Alice now having something far more important at hand to attract her attention.
"How's about raiding 'Carrington's', Lady's Fashion House, Fay?"
"Why? What for?"
"I need a new ensemble-skirt, blouse, and jacket." Alice liked her clothes, having a wardrobe packed with items going back to the good old days of the short skirt. "I was thinking Redfern, or Balenciaga; wha'd'ya think?"
"Balenciaga over my dead body, doll." Fiona emerged from the bedroom, carrying a long dark blue woolen coat and small-brimmed straw hat of a lighter tone. "Those things cost the National Debt; who's gon'na pay? Not you, nor me either, come t'that."
Alice sneered, with what she fondly hoped was contempt, at this criticism of her taste; but found herself more interested in what her partner's immediate plans were.
"Where d'you think you're going, dolled up in that get-up? Y'got plans I don't know about, or what?"
Fiona, tall slim perfectly poised and imperious to the nth degree under this interrogation, merely smiled a wintry supercilious smile—which had no effect on her paramour whatsoever, as usual.
"I, young lady, have an appointment at the 'Ballister' Restaurant, for morning brunch." Fiona dropped her hat on a chair and swung the coat over her shoulders, smiling at her lover as she did so. "With my latest flame, if ya really wan'na know. She's, oh, brunette, a little shorter than me; has a snappy attitude I like, an' is, well, just the cat's pyjamas all round. Alice's her name, if y're interested."
"Sh-t, I forgot." Alice shot up from the sofa, making a bee-line for the bedroom. "Sorry, sorry; where's my soft yellow skirt an' blouse. Not still at the laundry, please tell me that."
Pataloc Avenue, one of the busy main thoroughfares in the commercial centre of Delacote City, was packed with shoppers, pedestrians, citizens going about their lawful purposes; and, no doubt, a substantial percentage of same out about nefarious plots, devices and stratagems. Alice had parked her two-seater Plymouth Roadster some way along the Avenue, Fiona still not having found a suitable replacement for her recently wrecked Buick; they electing to brave the crowded sidewalk for the rest of the trail to the 'Ballister' restaurant.
It was only early March but the majority of the female population seemed to have decided, unilaterally, that something approximating to Summer fashion ought to be the order of the day from now on. As the two detectives progressed along the stone-paved sidewalk they saw the usual floral prints, and colour co-ordinations; but, increasingly, there were several modern dresses and skirts on view flaunting those jaunty angular coloured stripes in dashing shades on light backgrounds which so much reflected the Art Deco, or Moderne, mood of the Age.
As far as Fiona went she was generally conservative, with slight leanings towards a pale modernism; while her brunette partner, loved all the same in every bone of her delicious body, embraced the Spirit of the Age wholesale and without restraint—to Alice Art Deco was the new religion, and she loved every aspect of its manifestation. Many had been the arguments over art, fashion, house design, books, and all other general aspects of social life affected by what Fiona insisted on calling the latest virus of the Times. To this end they had not, finally, taken a condo in the 'Armitage' Building—a fine example of recently built Moderne, in all its glorious white stucco, polished steel banisters, and curved corners—but had settled for the restrained conservative 'Collister' Building, of an earlier and, Fiona considered, calmer era—though Alice had fitted their condo with such a plethora of modern equipment and new-designed furniture they may as well have just settled for the 'Armitage' after all, as Fiona acidly remarked on many occasions when white backgrounds and thin green lines began to adversely affect her mental state.
The 'Ballister' restaurant sat at street level in the 'Grand Union and Central Insurance' Building, most of the twenty upper floors being leased as offices. The restaurant had started life in the 1890's as an oyster and champagne Bar, but over the years had transmogrified into its present incarnation as a pure Moderne restaurant catering to the well-to-do, mainly by force of high prices. For Fiona and Alice this was something in the line of a guilty pleasure—they usually confining their outdoor eating to sandwich bars or coffee shops.
Fiona had, of course, taken the elementary step of booking a table in advance; so, when the maitre d' hove in view she was ready with names and numbers. Their table turning out to be set against the wall on the far side of the main dining room, with a wide view of most of the other diners and the line of tall windows looking out onto the busy sidewalk of Pataloc Avenue.
"Whew, this is swish, and no mistake." Alice settled herself on the tall-backed chair and nonchalantly rested her elbows on the snow-white tablecloth, looking about with keen interest. "Place's well patronised; look, over there—Mrs Grantley, in person; well, well, well."
The lady in question was one of those solidly-built effusive positive persons who had a finger in every upper-crust social pie; with a penchant for throwing money at charitable causes as if she were going down on the 'Titanic' and had no further use for filthy lucre.
"Huh." Fiona was unimpressed. "She's just showin'-off, like most o'the other diners here, by the look o'them."
"What does that make us, dearest?"
"Bona-fide steak-chompers, is what, lover; only here fer the grub." Fiona sniffed with a superior air. "Here comes the waiter with the menu. So, what takes your fancy for a late breakfast; or early lunch, whatever rocks y're boat, gal?"
Alice finally, after a deep and considered perusal of the menu which had the waiter hopping discreetly from foot to foot with impatience, chose scrambled egg with sliced tomatoes and boiled mushrooms. Her tall dark paramour, shaking her head slightly, took all of five seconds to place an order for ham and fried egg with green beans. They both chose coffee to wash the feast down.
"Hey, these knives and forks are real silver, Fay." Alice bent forward to investigate the fork she presently held in her left hand. "Go on, pick yours up, feel the weight—pure silver—whee."
"Gods, stop makin' an exhibition o'yourself,—and me, come t'that." Fiona sighed gloomily, the situation rapidly descending to the low ebb she had sadly expected, all things considered. "Try an' look as if you're a member of Society, an' not a tweeny-maid out on the tiles, will ya?"
The large dining-room stretched some ninety feet along its rectangular length, with a high coffered ceiling; some hundred or more people sitting at the many tables; all, judging by the noise of conversation, having a splendid time. The detectives went at their own pace, leisurely making their way through their meal with considerable enjoyment, chatting about idle topics that had caught their attention over the last few days.
"I hear 'Blazer' Cartwright took a bullet a coupl'a weeks ago, down in Massachusetts."
"Yeah." Fiona nodded, polishing off a mouthful of ham with satisfaction. "Idiot tried t'rob a country bank. Could'a told him that's old hat these days. Three bank guards opened up the instant he produced his own pistol—blew the sap t'fragments."
Alice quietly masticated a forkful of scrambled egg, all the time considering this delightful piece of news.
"Whatever happened to Harold Trocker?"
"Nobody really knows fer sure." Fiona waved her fork in the air, before recollecting her manners. "The cops pulled a body out'ta the upper reaches of the Piscataqua a coupl'a months ago; many think it was him, but they couldn't be sure."
"Oh. This scrambled egg's delicious; how's your ham?"
"Tasty, very tasty." Fiona nodded, only just refraining from smacking her lips. "Nice joint, all round; must come here again. Say, there's Miss Belinda Alcott, over there."
Alice nearly choked on her latest forkful, twisting to see even as she coughed for breath, sending fragments of egg all over the tablecloth. "I don't see her. Where?"
"Sittin' at one o'the street window tables, third from the main entrance, see?"
"Ah, right, got her. She lives on the twelfth floor of our old ruin, don't she?"
"Of course she does." Fiona curled a disbelieving lip. "As if ya didn't know; ya goggle at her from a distance every time we pass in the entrance hall, don't ya?"
"I do nothing of the sort." Alice was affronted. "Greta Garbo's my piece of fantasy film fluff, as you very well know, dearest."
The women studied the distant lady as if she was an interesting specimen at the zoo, before Alice finally put both their thoughts into soft whispered words.
"What's that young lady's local claim to fame again? Oh yeah, someone's reputedly, even allegedly, taken several eight-millimeter home movies of her engaging in, ha-ha, indoor sports of a highly personal and varied nature." Alice, no-wise embarrassed, paused to dispose of another forkful of scrambled egg. "Movies it's been widely surmised, according t'the Daily Clarion anyway, several persons high in Society and local Government have already seen and are even now in the throes of substantiating."
"As a result of which she's presently looked on by many as a cheap floozy; by others as an immoral adventuress; and by the remainder as no better than she should be, and a lot less than some." Fiona smiled her patented scurrilous smile, Mark 1. "But when you're a B-movie actress I suppose all these rumours are merely grist to the publicity mill. Yeah, Jake Chevens from the 'Clarion' wrote up all the gory details a coupl'a days ago in his gossip column. He bein' an' ol' pal of the great Bel, y'understand?"
"What? Y'sayin' it's all a put-up job?" Alice was outraged at such underhanded chicanery. "I'll be dammed."
"Just another piece o'lightweight journalese, t'fill the empty corners of the 'Clarion' an' like-minded rags; an' propel Bel's name in'ta the Public eye, so she gets noticed by the big film producers." Fiona could be scathing when faced with the right subject matter. "Chevens an' she probably cobbled the whole thing together themselves."
"Jeez." Alice was scandalised. "What depths'll an actress stoop to, for publicity? Bringing the Collister Building in'ta disrepute, an' everything. An' why didn't I hear anythin' of it?"
"I've heard o'worse than that, doll."
"Well, don't tell me, I don't wan'na know." The blonde half of the detective agency masticated a mouthful of scrambled egg in a harassed contemplative manner, then relented. "Why didn't you elaborate on this hot news earlier?"
"Questions, questions, always with the questions." Fiona assumed an expression of superiority. "Because you'd have laughed in my face, dear, is why. One snappy tale of fancy going's-on at the Collister, maybe you'd be right. Two, possibly still room fer doubt. Five so far, no more doubts; it's definitely a put-up job."
Alice paused in the massacre of her scrambled egg to gaze piercingly at her opposite number; she could see clearly where this was going.
"And have you some devious idea of doing something about it, love of my life? This amateur film-making on our doorstep?"
Raising her eyes to the gaudily painted ceiling of the long dining-room Alice bit her lower lip to hold back the retort she so wished to make; but politeness and love won out. She lowered her brown eyes to consider the tall dark lady sitting opposite her, and sighed.
"Tryin' t'get information out'ta you, dear, is like tryin' t'snatch gold nuggets out'ta the grip of an old Klondiker." Alice shook her head sadly. "Tell Auntie everything, lover; before she hauls off an' clonks you one with her Colt .38 ballasted handbag."
At this point the waiter reappeared to whisk the used plates away, replacing them with cups, milk and a coffee-pot; then the diners were alone once more.
"Well, if'n y're really so interested," Fiona raised an eyebrow towards her scowling partner, as she poured for them both. "Alright, it's like this—"
"Y'said that before, get on with it."
"OK, OK." Fiona affected a grumpy look, caught her lover's exasperated gaze, and took pity. "Well, it all started six weeks ago with a gal called Miss Deborah Hanning. You recall what she saw, accordin' t'reports in that rag ya favour so much, Al?"
"No, my beauty, I don't. So cough up with the goods, an' make it snappy."
Seeing her loved better half's patience was now at an official record low Fiona sat back and spilt the beans for real.
"Miss Hanning, as I hope you know, apparently lives on the same floor as the floozy in question—"
"Ol' Belinda, you mean?"
"O'course, who else d'ya think I'm talkin' about." Fiona raised her own eyes to the glorious view above. "Will ya try'n keep a grip on the matter in hand, please?"
"Oh, carry on, woman; you make such a fuss over trivialities, y'know."
Having finished her first cup of coffee Fiona sat back, dabbing her lips genteelly with a napkin; not forgetting to take another quick glance at the party under discussion on the far side of the restaurant.
"Well, can't say I've ever set eyes on, or heard of this lady before. But, the Clarion reports, Miss Hanning came out of her room into the corridor some weeks ago an', passing Belinda's door which was slightly open, caught a brief glimpse of extraordinary going's-on, er, going-on inside the apartment."
"What? What?" Alice's consternation was more than apparent, it was paramount. "What kind'a things—the mind boggles?"
"Nude things, dearie." Fiona was up for the whole sorry scenario. "Impolite things; exotic, even erotic, things; Bel, apparently according to this mysterious Miss Hanning, was in a state of nature, an' doin' it."
"Yep, very definitely It, an' no other; not a fraud—the real hullabaloo-baloo."
"Jeez, taking the scene a bit far, wasn't she?"
"That's probably what Inspector Fletcher said, when the whole happy saga was brought t'his attention an' he discussed the matter with his mates, back-aways." Fiona paused to laugh lightly. "Ol' Jacob likely hardly knew how t'take the whole thing, I bet, poor soul."
"The 5th Precinct flummoxed? That's no new news, happens all the time." Alice could be cutting when in the mood. "So then?"
"After Miss Hanning, who I don't think anyone's ever actually set eyes on, there was the curious case of the cardboard box left on the steps of the 'Clarion' front entrance—"
"I remember that—that's how the paper got first dibs on the whole scandal. It contained one of the first, and by all accounts hottest, of the films." Alice nodded eagerly, taking another sip of coffee. "And it's just grown bigger an' bigger from there, like that gal in the old story."
"Seems so." Fiona now arrived at the nitty-gritty, frowning darkly across the restaurant at the unknowing subject of their discussion. "An' that, as ya say, was only the first of several, remember. Chevens an' Bel between them seemin' t'have decided that bulk mattered more than quality."
Alice paused in her own examination of the diners seated around and about their table, fixing her loved partner with a beady eye.
"What about the others?"
"Y'said there were five in total."
"Oh yes." Fiona nodded, accepting this call to return to cold hard facts. "Five weeks ago Mr Landers, the nice retired financier from the sixth floor, was sitting in the Collister entrance hall smoking a cigarette an' reading Colliers Weekly when he had to leave his chair for a short time—on returning he found a package on the small table beside his antique gold cigarette lighter and packet of cigarettes."
"What? Another of the films?"
"Yep." Fiona nodded sagely, with all the coolness of the bon viveur. "Even more salty than the first—Landers unwound a few feet of it an' screwed his monocle in'ta place t'get the best view, an' apparently forthwith wished he hadn't, he-he."
"Oh dear, I am sorry—no, I'm not."
"Al, can it—where was I? No, don't interrupt." Fiona heaved a sigh, then caught the tail-end of her anecdote in passing. "And what turns up by his elbow four weeks ago when he was sittin' in the exact same chair, in exactly the same position?"
"What? What? Y'want me t'have three guesses, or what? Get on with the dam' story, Fay."
"Sorry, I'm sure." Fiona sneered with as much contempt as she could ever muster against the lady she loved most in all the world—which was, of course, absolutely nil—contempt, that is dear reader, not love; do keep up. "The third article, or reel I suppose we should call it, appeared by his elbow—he bein' prone to forty-winks of an afternoon in the leather armchairs in the entrance hall. He woke to find the awful object sittin' on his cigarette an' whisky-glass table; he not havin' seen anyone suspicious in the immediate surroundings either before or after the great event. He, by the way, returned the offending objects both times t'the respondent, her name bein' scrawled faintly on the bottom of the cardboard cases the films lay in; she immediately, apparently, sendin' 'em on t'the Clarion post-haste, pretendin' innocent outrage at this diabolical robbery of her intimate effects. What d'ya think o'that, gal?"
"Not a lot; has she no shame. Why'd she publicise the whole sorry mess, instead of keeping quiet? Oh, I see.""
"So, what about the fourth an' fifth incidents?"
Fiona paused to laugh at this description of the trail of events she had related.
"Wouldn't go so far as t'call the whole shebang an actual Incident, Al."
"Neither would I, ducks. Get on with it."
"Urrh. Yeah, right." Fiona raised her eyes to the ceiling once more, it being as it were always on call for these emergencies, then lowered them to gaze at her companion again. "The fourth little contretemps consisted of Miss Rosamunde's Gossip Column in the Delacote Clarion, that's ol' Chevens under a pseudonym y'know, receiving an anonymous letter purporting t'dish the dirt, in glorious two-strip colour, about our dear Belinda—all sorts a'nasty insinuations an' claims."
"About what?" Alice's thirst for gossip getting the better of her. "Details, details."
"Of a moral an', er, physical nature of the most outrageous kind, dearie."
Alice paused to furtively glance over at the victim of their conversation.
"Whee, an' the Clarion actually printed it?" Alice frowned, as reality kicked in. "Wouldn't that open them wide t'a writ for libel?"
"Not if ya don't quote verbatim, no,—but just infer an' assume, an' go quietly round the edges of the thing—which is what the eager beaver lawyers at the Clarion rag seem'ta have managed t'do."
"Well, well." Again Alice pursued the realistic path. "How's ol' Belinda behavin' in the circumstances? Would expect her t'be up in arms, like a Valkyrie; threatening blood an' storm across the board—not t'mention proposing actions towards the perpetrator that'd bring his expectations of ever raising a family t'a sudden end."
Fiona had finally finished her second coffee, placing her cup on the fine china saucer like a lady before mopping her lips genteelly with her napkin.
"Which brings us up to date, gal." Fiona nodded carefully in the direction of the subject of their present subdued intercourse. "The fifth, an' final incident so far. Bel's let it be known—"
"—through the Clarion, o'course?"
"Too true." Fiona nodded in agreement, twisting a curvaceous pink lip contemptuously. "She's spoken out t'the rag's top reporter—"
"—lem'me guess, Chevens again?"
"Gal, are ya ever gon'na let me finish, or a ya gon'na butt in forever?"
"Sorry; carry on, lover."
"Right—where was I?"
"I don't know, you're tellin' the story."
"Shee-yucks." Fiona sighed deeply, took a deep breath, thought kind thoughts, and proceeded. "She, Bel that is, has let it be publicly known she's put out a reward, more or less dead or alive, to the first bohunkus or idiot who pinpoints the source o'the Nile."
"What? What? Is it riddles, now. Where'd I miss the change of subject?"
"I'm speakin' allegorically, Al—"
"Jeesuss; will you warn me next time?"
"Fool, where was I—"
"I don't kno—"
"Leave it, gal. OK, so now there's a monetary reward—."
Catching Alice's eye Fiona stopped her partner before the brunette's pretty lips parted.
"Shush. A reward totaling $2,000."
"Jaysuss." Alice thought about the in's and out's of this for all of ten seconds. "How's about we step up t'the 12th floor an' present our business card, Fay? Just askin'."
Fiona was having none of this sloppy thinking.
"No. Sorry, didn't mean t'shout." Fiona looked around to see if her raised voice had penetrated the general noise of the crowded eaterie, but relaxed when no-one seemed to be taking any notice. "We ain't, in any shape, way, or form, goin' t'get our pretty feet wet in this particular puddle, lady."
"Why not?" Alice, as ever, could see the blue sky beyond the clouds. "After all, $2,000 is more'n a bent lead cent, y'realise?"
"The which we don't need; us not bein' down on Skid Row as it is, OK."
"Well, if you put it like that." Alice essayed a small pout. "So what you're saying is we just let this ghastly nonsense run its course, up on the 12th floor; while we take no notice, down on the lowly 9th. Y'thought about what that'll do for our hard-earned reputation, Fay?"
"Wha'd'ya mean, gal?"
"Ain't it obvious?" Alice leaned forward, the light of victory in her brown eyes. "We, the proprietors of the best Detective Agency in New Hampshire, hamstrung an' defeated by a two-bit actress an' her shenanigans goin' on above our very heads in the condo block we live in? We'll never live it down; could ruin our living for good. Looks t'me as if we got no choice but t'butt in, at the earliest possible moment—if we wan'na save our shirts from public contumely an' derision."
There was a quiet pause, as Fiona took in the substance of what her partner had said.
"Contumely—didn't realise y'knew what that meant, Al."
"Idiot." Alice was having none of it. "So, what d'we do? Something? Nothing? Or the in-between solution, take our suspicions t'jolly old Inspector Fletcher, even though he's under the illusion we're out'ta his hair for the next week?"
"Oh, I suppose we got'ta do somethin'." Fiona surrendered with a low sigh. "But we ain't getting personally mixed up with the lady, Al. We ain't claimin' the reward, an' we ain't goin' cap in hand t'ask her t'put us on the job. No, we'll just pursue some undercover investigations on our own account, OK?"
"Iirph, suppose it'll have to do." Alice nodded across the table, over the remains of their lunch. "OK, I'm in. So, what's the plan?"
The first visit, after their return to their condo, was to the building's manager in his first floor office, sitting to the side of the large entrance lobby.
"Why're we spoilin' Mr Leveson's day, again?" Alice always liked to have all her activities well grounded on fact. "What's he know, that we'd wan'na know, about this whole dubious mess?"
"Ah, dear Deborah." Alice saw the light as they walked across the tiled lobby. "When did you say you last met the gal?"
"I said I'd never met the trol—er, lady, ever." Fiona gave her partner a knowing glance. "An' I have a strong suspicion no-one else on this planet has, either."
"Oh, a ghost? Ooo-er."
"Fool—ah, hallo, Mr Leveson, got a moment?"
The manager stood five feet eight inches in his slippers; which, of course, he would never have allowed himself to appear in public wearing. His business suit exuded a calm elegance many people failed to emulate; while his manners were right out of Debrett. His office, while not actually being exotic, gave all the appearance of the domain of a person who knew what was what, and where.
"Take a seat, ladies." His voice was low, gentle, but at the same time imposing. "We don't see each other nearly enough, I'm afraid. What can I do for you today?"
"Just thought we'd pop in an' chew the cud awhile's, Mr Leveson. It bein' a nice day, an' all."
The manager, producing a slight curve of the lips which might be allowed in certain lights to approximate to a smile, sat himself behind his low pale wood desk. Gazing at his two visitors he drummed on the surface of this highly polished piece of furniture while the cogs revolved. Then he nodded.
"No doubt, no doubt." He glanced from one woman to the other, clearly on top of his game. "What do you wish to know? Something to do with your, ah, detective agency activities? Not involving our own pleasant building, I hope?"
"—'fraid so." Alice was never one to fear jumping into the lion's den, and unceremoniously evicting the large feline tenant. "It's about the 12th floor—"
"Yes, quite." Alice carried on coolly. "All sorts'a broo-ha-ha goin' on up there, apparently—according to the Clarion, anyway. So Fay an' I just thought we'd, y'know, poke our noses in. Wha'd'ya say?"
"Uu-urr, about what exactly, Miss Drever?"
Here Fiona felt impelled to throw her own towel into the arena.
"About Miss Belinda Alcott, fer one. An' fer another, the mysterious Miss Deborah Hanning. Don't know if ya can tell us anything significant about either; but, if so, we may be able t'sort somethin' out before this whole sorry mess evolves any further. You know, save the Collister's reputation from bein' clapper-clawed by the public any further, eh?"
"Yes, yes, quite."
Mr Leveson here descended into a trance, slowly scratching his chin with the fingers of his right hand; his eyes quietly roving over the surface of his desk while his left hand, left to its own devices, apparently tried to tap out a difficult passage from one of Schubert's later piano sonata's: then he came to a decision.
"Well, it might be all to the good, I suppose." He sighed deeply, then raised his head to confront the detectives face on. "Alright, I've felt for some time things needed seeing-to up there; and you ladies may well be the answer I need. So, what do you want to know?"
"What sort'a gal is this two-bit film actress, anyway, for starts?" Alice leaned forward, notebook in hand; her interest aroused in a wholly gossip-column manner she would probably feel ashamed of later. "What kind of guests or visitors does she usually have, an' what's her night life like. Just general details, y'realise; no need t'get personal; er, much, anyway."
Having made his fateful decision Mr Leveson came clean with all the gory details that were presently available to him.
"She has parties several times a week—two or three." The tight pursing of lips showed his visitors how this kind of thing went down officially. "Often lasting into the early hours of the night. You wouldn't believe the numbers of complaints I've had from tenants above and below her condo—not to mention the poor victims on the same floor. The night manager has actually been mobbed by complaints, and complainees, on some occasions."
"Sounds dramatic." Fiona raised a censorious eyebrow, which obviously echoed Leveson's own attitude.
"All of that, and then some." He nodded sadly. "It can't go on; I've been liaising with the owners of the building over the last three weeks, and their decision is that she will have to go. The only problem is in signifying this to her without her causing a public scene that'd make the Biblical Flood look like a gentle ripple in a child's bath."
"Uum yeah, see what ya mean."
"An' what about the lady who, purportedly, saw all sorts'a juicy going's-on up there a few weeks ago?" Alice was still fixated on the more colourful details.
"Ah yes, the remarkable Miss Hanning."
"Why'd ya say that?" Fiona recognised a significant tone when she heard it. "What about her? Who is she anyway? An' where is she at present? I, fer one, wan'na have a long deep conversation with the lady."
"You, and many others." Leveson shook his head gloomily. "But, like them, you will have to accept disappointment—the lady, as far as my investigations have proceeded, does not, and has never, existed in this world."
Fiona and Alice sat back on their wooden hard-backed chairs, glancing at each other, suspicions confirmed.
"It said, in the Clarion, she lived in an apartment on the 12th floor, somewhere near the subject under discussion." Alice frowned over her notebook.
"Well, she doesn't—didn't—never has, in fact." Feeling his tongue tripping over the insalubrious facts, Leveson took a moment to catch his breath. "All the condos' on that floor have been occupied for over a year by various tenants—none of them Miss Deborah Hanning, and none knowing the slightest thing about said lady. She does not, and never has, resided in this building."
"So, the story produced by the Clarion, under Chevens' byline, is stuff an' nonsense."
"Just that." The manager looked disgusted. "The proprietors of the Collister have been considering bringing an action for slander against the ra—er, newspaper."
Another pause ensued in the quiet office, while all three considered the matter in all its aspects.
"So, then, what's to stop us just waiting till the merry actress is evicted on her ars—um, into the street, with unceremonious haste by the relevant authorities?" Though Alice, even as she spoke, felt she was missing something vital.
"Because haste will be the thing most obvious by its absence, madam." Leveson growled in a contemptuous tone of voice. "If we, the Collister proprietors, do that we'll open ourselves to a legal fracas that'd last months, possibly resulting in extensive damages against us. Our hands are tied."
Alice considered this news in silent dejection.
"So what's needed is a plan t'force this film star in the making t'head for pastures new, without leaving tears an' tragedy in her wake?" Alice came up with an inviolable answer in a twinkling. "You got a plan, Fay?"
Caught short in this unexpected manner the lady in question could only prevaricate.
"Gim'me a chance, gal; but, maybe, maybe."
Inspector Jacob Fletcher's office in the 5th Precinct building lay on the third floor. It was a tight airless untidy little box with just enough room for a small desk, two chairs, wooden-backed, and a filing cabinet of grey metal. The door was always ajar for the simple reason Fletcher had long ago become impatient with the draught and banging of its opening and shutting by various visitors all day long. When Fiona and Alice barged in unceremoniously in the early afternoon he was sitting behind his desk flicking through a file of documents whilst talking unamiably into his telephone.
"Wha'd'ya say? Well, say it again. What? What? No. Jerk." The latter ejaculation uttered after replacing the receiver. Then he noticed his latest prospective customers standing simpering before him.
"You two, eh. Wha'd'ya want? Thought y'were both on vacation."
"Wha'd'we want?" Alice grinned annoyingly, never being one to pass up an opportunity. "We wan'na pick your brains, Fletch, like Fay here pickin' away at a lobster. An' no, we ain't on vacation—thought the citizens of Delacote needed us more than we needed a suntan. So, what's up? Any juicy murders, or whatever?"
"Faarf." Fletcher closed the loose thin cardboard-bound file he had been examining with a bang; the only person in the women detectives' experience capable of achieving this seemingly impossible act. "It's about that dump y'both live in, ain't it? What is it, Canister, Banister?—"
"Collister." Fiona smiled widely as she sat down. "Do get on."
"Hah." The Inspector riffled around on his crowded desk-top before finally recovering a short cigar which he proceeded to clamp between his teeth without lighting. "That dumb bi—second rate actress, what's-her-name, tryin' t'pull the wool over the Public's eyes with her dam' stunts. Dodgy personal movies, hiirph; that's all my eye an' Betty Martin."
"So ya don't have any confidence in Alcott's story?" Fiona nodded sagely, as if expecting this reaction. "Quite right. An', I suppose, y'don't give much credence t'Miss Hanning's little tale, either?"
"Miss Hanning? Miss dam' Hanning?" Fletcher chomped down on his cigar so hard the remnants fell back on the untidy desk. "Took my boys nearly two weeks t'realise she dam' well didn't exist. I sent a report up t'the Super, askin' him t'file charges against Alcott; but he ain't moved in the matter yet. Too scared of bad publicity; that Alcott dame's got the impertinence an' bravado of—of a dam' Roman Emperor."
"What about dear Mr Landers, from the Collister, finding those two films by his elbow?" Alice hummed a quiet tune through slightly parted pink lips. "About the only hard evidence for the films' existence we have, ain't it? Before Bel and the Clarion got their mitts on 'em, an' they subsequently disappeared into the Clarion's vaults."
"Garbage." The Inspector dealt with this unhelpful fact like an expert. "He might'a seen films, as films. But what's t'say the broad starring in 'em was Belinda at all? Was Landers a bosom buddy o'Belinda? I think not. What's his eyesight like? Not much, I bet. Whoever the brunette broad in those films he took a passing glance at was, she certainly wasn't our Bel, that's a certainty. A put-up job a child o'ten could'a seen through fer the fraud it undoubtedly was. Those dam' films, at least starring the radiant Bel, don't exist an' never have—it's all just part o'this ongoing sordid grasp fer publicity on the dame's side."
"So what you're saying is, Fletch, if someone came up with a foolproof plan t'get the lady off all our backs, you'd dance in the street with glee?" Alice smiled gently at the red-faced officer. "An' Fay here's just the gal t'come up with said plan. Wan'na hear it?"
"Jeez, the way I feel at the moment if I thought it'd be useful I'd go ask the newspaper kid on the corner fer help." Fletcher growled like an angry serval. "What is it, then? An' it better be good; Alcott's sharp, she not bein' born yesterday nor yet the day before."
Fiona sat back in her chair, reflecting on the details of the plan she had discussed with Alice on the way up to the office.
"Well, it ain't exactly kosher, t'start with."
"Rules can be bent, or forgotten about in the heat o'the moment; keep talkin'."
"It's just I thought we could turn her whole story against her, lock stock an' barrel."
"Wha'd'ya mean? Gim'me details."
Here Alice could no longer keep quiet.
"We use these supposed films against her, like she's been using their supposed existence for her own purposes." The brunette showed her white even teeth as she reprised the plan. "It all depends on whether they were taken surreptitiously, for private purposes, or deliberately for public release, y'see."
Fletcher took time to scratch his short iron grey hair.
"Well, that's what's happened; she's released 'em publicly; at least, admitted the dam' things exist; if only, in reality, in her sordid imagination." He paused a moment, as if something had just occurred to him. "That's t'say, released in'ta the sweaty hands of the Clarion—which has jawed a lot about 'em, but never actually let anyone, includin' the police, see 'em."
"That's the core of the story, Fletch." Fiona sat upright, dark eyes shining. "No-one's seen 'em 'cause, like la Hanning, they don't exist. Except for the purposes of Alcott's devious publicity needs. She bein' a bona fide actress, an' all."
"Where y'goin' with all this?"
Alice again found the strain too much for her nerves.
"Don't you see, if Alcott can use non-existent films for publicity purposes, so can we." Alice grinned like a newly satisfied hyena. "We're going to go to her, in her eyrie in the Collister building, an' tell her the Hays Office is investigating the films, which the Clarion has finally turned over to them after legal threats."
"But the dam' films don't exist, at least with her in the starring role; just some other broad doin' her thing with unashamed impertinence an' no regard fer modern morals; thought we'd confirmed that?"
"O'course they don't; but Alcott can't admit that, can she?" Fiona's grin was larger than the Cheshire Cat's. "Not without makin' a public fool of herself. We'll tell her the Hays Office has concluded the films weren't surreptitious, but made deliberately for public consumption—"
"Which makes 'em pornographic." Alice stated this with deep relish.
"It's a position which gives the sorry excuse fer a lady no leeway, y'see." Fiona was now firmly on top of the situation. "She can't agree they were made for the public; that'd make her no better'n a wh-re. An' she can't say they were taken without her consent, because at some point she'd have t'produce 'em, an' they don't exist."
"But they don't." Here Fletcher still found himself a little at sea. "So how can you make this Hays Office thing stick?"
"By pretending the Delacote Daily News, and various other newspapers around the state—exceptin' the Clarion o'course—will print the Hays Office findings. That'd ruin her career fer sure."
"And we'd give her a get-out clause by tellin' her the findings of the Hays Office would only hold in the state of New Hampshire, where she's been makin' all this publicity hoo-hah." Alice spread her hands gleefully. "We tell her if she up sticks an' heads for pastures new—say for preference California, or Arizona—she'd be in the clear, the case would be dropped. Everybody benefits. Wha'd'you think, Fletch?"
The following silence was so intense the two women could clearly hear three cops, some way down the hallway outside, discussing the chances of horses in the three o'clock race at Meidener Field. Fletcher meanwhile was so wrapt in thought he appeared to be asleep, then he woke up.
"I like it." He nodded, assuming that strange expression which passed with him as an open smile of content. "Like ya say it ain't in any way kosher, but it surely will get results. When d'ya intend springin' this whole surprise on Alcott?"
"Soon as we leave here, Fletch." Alice stood beside her partner, brushing down her yellow cotton skirt. "Act while the iron's hot, y'know."
"If Alcott feels moved t'phone the Precinct an' talk t'ya, what'll y'say?" Fiona paused in the doorway as she spoke.
"I'll back your story t'the hilt, is what I'll do." Fletcher nodded, jaws clamped tight on his new cigar. "If'n the lady felt it necessary t'pull cotton-wool over our eyes in this business, I don't see why we shouldn't return the compliment. Good luck, gals."
The corridor on the 12th floor of the Collister Building was straight, long and wide. Although the exterior architecture preceded the current rage for Art Moderne the interior decorators had obviously come under this later influence, much to Fiona's disgust. The floor was clad in bright red plastic tiles; the walls were snow white, and two thin bright green lines ran along them at shoulder height—Fiona shuddered as they fetched up before the door to 127.
"Nuthin'." The tall black-haired detective pulled herself together. "Got it down pat what we're gon'na do?"
"Should have, by now." Alice sniffed. "You've been lecturin' me about it for the last half hour. I know the score."
"OK, here goes."
Fiona stepped firmly up to the, yes, light green door; paused to draw breath, then pushed a red-tinted fingertip firmly on the bellpush, centred in a large silver metal triangle on the door,—after which selfless action a faint ringing could be heard from inside the condo. Then the door opened.
"Who're you? If it's autographs, f-ck off; if it's interviews, I only talks t'the Clarion, so bust a gut goin' back down the dam' stairs. Hey, wait a minute, I knows you two—oh, crap."
The film star in person, Belinda Alcott herself none other, stood five foot six inches from floor to ceiling. She had short tightly shingled brown hair with long narrow features culminating in a chin which could have opened tins of ham without effort. Her present, usual, expression was one of smelling pig-shit, and not liking it.
"Well, that's the lovin' preliminaries over an' done with." Fiona stood proud, like the Statue of Liberty though with slightly less of the milk of Human Charity about her. "Can we come in an' jaw awhiles, or d'ya want the street-folks t'listen t'your every comment?"
"You're the two detective gal—ladies, from lower down, ain't ya?" Belinda cast cold brown eyes over her visitors. "So, what's the game? I only talks t'the public through my lawyer, Samuel L Cairnes."
"An' we only talk t'likely suspects a step away from a long stretch in the Big House face t'face, dearie." Alice here showed her fangs.
"Oh dam', come in, if ya must—this way."
The sitting-room, facing onto the street, was awash with afternoon sunshine from three tall windows. The furniture and general design was wholly Art Moderne; to such an extent the room gave the appearance of being only half-furnished: the overall atmosphere standing somewhere far too close to the Siberian Steppes for Fiona's taste.
"So wha'd'ya wan'na come annoyin' the hell out'ta me for?"
Belinda sat in an easy chair covered in startlingly bright chintz, not bothering about ushering her visitors to any similar place—they choosing to sit on the long sofa of their own accord.
"What we got, dearie, is the goods on you; down t'the last nail in the coffin, y'can be sure o'that." Fiona bared her splendid white teeth in something far from a smile. "You've led the Public, an' poor Inspector Fletcher, a merry dance over this nonsense about stolen films o'ya skylarkin' around in the nude, doin' nude things with people. Makes fer great publicity, when it's just a pile of horse feathers; but when it's real, then it becomes merely nasty an' sordid."
"Which position is on the verge of happenin' in the next day or so, lady." Alice nodded, smoothing her skirt over a shapely knee. "We got the gen on your capers, an' you'll probably go down for, oh, ten t'fifteen for sure."
"What in hell'r you both talkin' about?" Belinda was clearly flummoxed, but still managed to turn a paler shade of pale, her guilty conscience showing for the first time. "I ain't done nuthin' wrong. If someone snitches copies o'private films o'me doin', er, personal things, how's that my fault? All I wants is them films destroyed, so's my reputation's not splattered with mud in every local rag in the state. What's wrong there?"
"Nothing, lady, nothing; if it were that simple, that true; but it ain't, is it—as we all here know." Fiona fixed the now slightly nervous actress with an unforgiving stare that would have made a pack of wild coyotes flee for cover. "You put this story about secret films in'ta the public domain, fer your own aggrandisement; but now your problems are all comin' home t'roost on your doorstep."
"Yep," Alice sat forward to emphasise her words. "This afternoon it's us two, Fay an' I, ringing your doorbell. Tomorrow, it'll be every news reporter in New Hampshire, closely followed by Inspector Fletcher's Vice Squad."
Belinda looked from one detective to the other, not finding encouragement in either's attitude.
"What ya got? What's goin' down?"
Fiona sat back and glanced at her partner, letting her take centre stage. Alice came up to the challenge,
"Y'see, it's like this, you allowed these films t'come onto the public market—"
"I did not." The actress tensed in her chair, tightening her lips into a sharp line. "They were only meant fer my own, er, entertainment—"
"Fancy ideas of entertainment ya have." Fiona couldn't help this interruption.
"—but they were, umm, stolen; yeah, that's it, they were stolen, by some scummy b-st-rd." Belinda looked from Fiona to Alice appealingly. "How could I help that? All I've ever wanted is justice fer myself."
"Ha." Fiona again snorted in derision.
"Well, I do."
"Too late, sister." Alice returned to the fray, now warming up nicely. "The whole thing's taken on a much more serious tone. Inspector Fletcher, it's being said, had a subpoena stuck on the Clarion yesterday; now, as we speak, those films have been torn from the hot clutches of the Clarion editor and seemingly placed in the sweaty mitts of the Hays Office—who aren't pleased in any way shape or form. They're prognosticatin' on several levels; about bein' made for Public consumption; pornography; an' wh-res in general."
"T'cut t'the quick, lady, in about two days max you're gon'na get hit with a summons fer common prostitution an' exhibitin' pornographic films." Fiona paused, a gentle smile showing at the corners of her mouth. "That'll mean a five year stretch, fer sure. Just thought we'd come an' warn ya; purely out'ta common decency, y'unnerstand."
Another pause ensued, as Belinda tried to come to terms with being physically threatened by something she well knew didn't actually exist. Her frown deepening as this philosophical paradox rapidly became too much to handle.
"How can that be?" She was clearly all at sea, though perking up visibly as the clear impossibility of the thing became more certain. "Those dam' films don—er, that is—umm. Say, how can the dam' Hays Office get involved with something—something—so, er, ephemeral?"
"Ephemeral." Alice laughed outright. "That's good. It ain't what the Hays Office actually decides—it's what every newspaper in New Hampshire—"
"—exceptin', probably, the Clarion." This from a sneering Fiona, grinning from ear to ear.
"—will be printing tomorrow." Alice had the whole situation at her fingertips. "They're all, an' we know this for a fact, goin' t'print a long detailed article, covering discussions apparently taken straight from the boardroom of the Hays Office, in which your reputation is kicked around the block somewhat—ending up in tatters."
"You started this whole charade fer publicity," Fiona shook her head censoriously. "An' that's what ya got, t'start with; lots an' lots o'grade A1 publicity that propelled your name up in the sky, like lights outside a theatre. But now the other newspapers are gon'na print what they believe the Hays Office would really think of what you've been supposedly doin'."
"The which ain't in any way going to be sweetness and light." Alice nodded assuredly. "When they print the decision they believe the Hays Office has reached about ya, your reputation'll sink like the Titanic, never t'be seen again."
"Those films ya invented were meant t'take ya in'ta the big league, get your name seen an' heard about by the big film moguls." Fiona speared the brunette with storm-dark blue eyes. "Instead o'which they've become your own personal iceberg—an', like the ship in question, ya never saw the mess comin'."
Silence reigned once more in the wide sunlit room. Fiona and Alice, knowing when to hold off, sat back and smiled at each other; while Belinda sat keyed up, elbows on knees and chin in hands, surveying the likely course of her career after the papers hit the streets the next day. The existence or not of the films under discussion didn't matter any longer; what mattered was the adverse publicity which would inevitably follow on from a range of newspapers printing negative facts and sleazy undefendable opinions about her. For a second-rate film actress that would certainly mean disaster on an appalling scale.
"We got a get-out clause." Alice twisted her pink lips in something like a smile as she looked at the defeated fraudster.
"Alice an' I have the ears of the editors of pretty much every newspaper in the state." Fiona sprang the trap with cold efficiency. "Exceptin' the Clarion, o'course. But, like ya realise now, no-one's gon'na give the Clarion's spurious nonsense any further respect after tomorrow."
"But there's still a way out."
"Oh yeah? An' what the hell'd that be? 'cause from my angle I don't see it."
"One of the main points the news articles tomorrow'll be concentrating on, will be the fact all this sordid crap only affects the state of New Hampshire." Alice ran with the story as if it were definite, assured, fact. "But if, say, you were t'up sticks an' head for foreign climes—"
"Nevada maybe, Arizona'd be good, but California'd be best." Fiona ran this list off in a rippling gleeful tone.
"—for foreign climes, like I said." Alice continued, no whit put out by these interruptions. "Then there'd be nothing the Hays Office could, supposedly, do about it—they'd, as the papers would report in a day or two, quietly drop the whole thing and never bring the subject up again. D'you see where this is going, dear?"
The shell-shocked actress leaned back in her chair, taking in as much of this sudden change in her private affairs as she could readily absorb at short notice.
"Are ya tellin' me that if I up-ship an' blow the state, t'somewhere's far far away, this whole sh-t-storm'll blow over without my name an' reputation bein' kicked around the sidewalk like an old rusty tin can?"
"That's it, baby." Fiona saw victory approaching like a cavalry charge at Waterloo. "Just that, an' nothing else. Stay here doin' nuthin', an' read about yourself an' the Hays Office tomorrow. Give us your word you'll be out'ta the state fer good in, oh, two weeks tops, an' your reputation stays intact, private, an' gloriously virginal. OK?"
"Well, that worked out just fine in the end, didn't it, lover?"
It was only late-afternoon, and there was still a lot of time available to parade the busy streets and shops of the city. Fiona, sighing deeply but biting the bullet, made her play as they walked along Pataloc Avenue.
"Belinda's seen to; she'll keep stum till she disappears in a week or so—"
"The Collister, and I for one, won't miss her shenanigans." Alice, having a basically conservative nature, sniffed coldly.
"—and, as you showed willing so well in the whole affair, I figures it's only polite t'offer ya a little present."
"Oh, pressies, I love pressies." Alice was enchanted, grasping her lover's wrist in an iron grip. "What? What? Come on gal, tell."
"Ya did mention something, earlier t'day didn't ya, about 'Carrington's', Lady's Fashion House?"
Alice nearly tripped over her low-heeled shoes at this unexpected offer.
"Jeez, are you kidding?"
"No kidding, lady." Fiona, having made the decision, faced the consequences bravely. "Whatever sort'a clothes, or accessories, or undies, or whatever, ya want—Auntie here'll cough up for it all."
There being nothing Alice could say in reply she hauled the tall dark woman by her side to a stop on the sidewalk and, impervious to all around, pulled her shoulder down and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
"Hey, gal, we're in public here—y're embarrassing me."
"Silly girl." Alice could see dream-visions in the blue sky above of all the wonderful fashions she had been gloating over in the magazines for the last three months, all coming unexpectedly to reality. "So, Balenciaga?"
"Hell, no; I ain't Rockefeller."
"Not a chance; at $20 a square foot, you got'ta be joking."
"Oh, suppose I can settle for Clarice Jenkins, then; her stuff's getting a good name these days." Alice sighed sadly, at the loss of her brightest hopes.
"Jenkins? Ain't she one o'these dam' contemporary Art Moderne designers? All jazzy zig-zag colours on white backgrounds, an' suchlike?"
Alice knew from experience her partner's dislike of this style; but there were some moments when a gal just has to stick up for her own desires and opinions.
"She is a modern woman of taste and fashion, darling." Alice gave her lover the coup-de-grace with a broad grin. "You may not think much of her dresses on the shop mannequins; but just think about them on me."
Fiona, pushed to it by circumstances beyond her control, did just that—and suddenly everything was well with the world.
Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.