'The Greek Taverna Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. A meeting in a restaurant reveals a newspaper campaign which embroils the detective duo.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2018 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 sky was shining blue; the lunch-hour traffic on Pataloc Avenue for a change wasn't life-threateningly chock-a-block; and, on this bright Monday, 2nd April 1934, Alice Drever, of the renowned 'Drever and Cartwright' detective agency, was feeling a trifle peckish as she walked along the sidewalk by the side of her lifetime partner and lover Fiona Cartwright.
"I'm feeling a trifle peckish." Alice smacked her lips, newly glossed with a fetching tone of pale pink lipstick. "How's about you?"
"Yeah, I could eat something, sure."
"Huh, don't be so enthusiastic." Alice sneered gently. "What about the Greek Taverna on Macklin Street? When Georges sees us coming, me anyway, he'll break out the new saucepans an' go t'town."
"Yeah, OK." Fiona, thinking of other things, shrugged non-committally.
"God, this way, dear; here, lem'me take your hand."
On entering the wide high-ceilinged dining-room of the restaurant the women found it as yet only a third full, which suited Alice as she could pick their table.
"Here, come on, this one by the wall; so we can sit an' survey the other diners. I love watching other people eat; they're at their most vulnerable then, y'know. Some high-falutin' European psychologist says so; so I read somewhere just recently."
"Oh, that's what y'were scrutinising in the latest copy of 'Girl's Romance' magazine yesterday?"
"Idiot." Alice shook her head firmly, determined not to be bothered by such baseless insinuations. "Here's Georges coming, what'll you have, then?"
"Can't say, Georges hasn't reached us with the dam' menu yet, has he?"
"Clown. Hey, Georges, havin' a nice day?"
"Good afternoon, ladies; so nice to see you here again." Georges Butopolous was of a typical Greek nature, big-bodied, strong, round-faced, with an eternal expression of being well-pleased with the world and his station therein. "What may I cook for you today? Please, the menu."
Fiona and Alice leant over, studying the one copy of the wide menu, Alice's eyes lighting up as she registered the varying choices; then, as usual she chose for them both.
"I think we'll have rice an' herb Gemista, thanks, and lots of it."
"Surely, will arrive in less than no time." Georges nodded his appreciation of this fine dish. "Wine?"
"A bottle of Limnio'll go down well, I think."
"Excellent choice." Georges was over-powered with delight. "Shall be on your table in an instants, if not shorter times. I go, to kick the dam' chef in his kitchen otherwise he continues his siesta, no?"
Left alone the women settled comfortably at their table, glancing around at the other lunch-time diners; Alice, as ever, full of interest in everyone else's activities.
"Look, there's Caris Bellamy, over there."
"Yeah." Alice made no bones of pinpointing the other diner, watching her every move like a hawk. "She specialises in diggin' the dirt on all sorts of low-life's, what they get up to in bed, how they run their businesses, who they're swanning around with whom they shouldn't be; that sort'a thing."
"Mighty likely t'get her in hot water, one o'these days." Fiona was dismissive.
"It's called responsible social commentary, darling."
Before Alice could frame a suitable retort on-going movement in the nearby scene caught her attention.
"Oh-oh, look who's just joined her?"
Another woman, tall, brunette with neck-length hair, confident stance and well-kept body attired in a light-blue cotton dress swirling round her ankles, sat beside Miss Bellamy; they obviously already knowing each other judging by the handshakes and smiles of greeting which ensued.
"Old pals get-together, by the looks of it." Alice was intrigued.
"Stop bein' so nosy."
"Interested, is all."
Their food arriving at this point, necessitated Alice's focus reverting to the important matters in life. For the next ten minutes all that could be heard at their table was the sound of comfortable mastication as they dug into their vittles like starving Klondikers. Then Alice finally sat back, surfeited.
"Mmm, very nice." She glanced across the dining-room once again. "That lady over there with Caris is Annie Sheldrake, the reporter, y'know."
"Yep, I know, clocked her the moment she came in the entrance—didn't you, then?"
"Oh hoity-toity, madam." Alice sneered contemptuously at this crack. "Well, anyway, that's who she is. Wonder what they're up to over there?"
"None of our business; you havin' dessert? I am."
"Of course you are, dear; didn't think for an instant you'd be able to resist the temptation."
A few minutes later they were both digging into their portions of honey-soaked Baklava as if it was ambrosia itself—which, in fact, it closely resembled.
Eventually, as all good things must, their meal reached its conclusion, leaving only a few deserted crumbs scattered lightly over their dessert plates. Alice again sat back, even more surfeited than before.
"Now, that's a real meal, in my opinion." She essayed another sigh, but it morphed into a gentle belch which instantly convulsed her partner.
"Enjoy you're grub, don't'cher, lady?"
At this pleasant juncture, as the women were thinking about taking their leave of Georges, the tone of the afternoon suddenly changed. The entrance door swung wide and a large man entered to stand on the tiles just inside, surveying the room and its diners with obvious intent.
"Oh-oh, darlin', don't look now, but Sergeant Keisler's just polluted the joint."
Finding it impossible to do otherwise Alice snuck a swift glance, then hunched down at their table, trying to appear as invisible as possible.
"What the f-ck does he want? Us, d'you think?"
"Maybe, let's wait a while, an' see."
It soon transpired, however, Keisler had other fish to fry than two private detectives at lunch. He swivelled round and headed purposefully towards the table where Caris Bellamy and Annie Shedrake were still talking animatedly together, over a sparse pot of coffee—the bane of poor Georges' life.
Fiona and Alice listened entranced as the conversation, clearly audible from their position, began between the women at the far table and the new arrival.
"You're Annie Shedrake, ain't ya?" Keisler, big of body though only in his early thirties, started as he meant to go on.
"What if I am?" Annie was up for this kind of thing as if to the manor born. "What's it t'ya?"
"Sergeant Keisler, Fifth Precinct."
"So what? I know who you are, laddie." Annie broadened her grin, deliberatedly condescending towards the loud-mouthed cop. "Come t'give me a speedin' ticket, or what?"
"You'll get so what, don't worry." Keisler, though heavy, was small of frame and wouldn't stand up well in a fight, even against a woman like Annie; hence his general show of bravado. "It's news down at the Precinct, and City Hall, you're out t'get the dirt on Mayor Randle."
Annie surveyed the man standing by her side, remaining steadfastly unimpressed.
"I've been conducting some investigations in'ta certain activities of certain people in certain Public offices, sure." She tapped an imperial finger on the table-top. "But that's entirely legal an' above board; no-one can feel my collar for it; nuthin goin' on under the counter with me, y'see. Anyway, when I've completed my story it'll be all over the 'Delacote Daily News'—wait till next month, an' buy a copy."
Keisler, bereft of any more ambitious response, snorted unhappily.
"If your story ever gets that far, which is why I'm here."
"To pay a friendly call on a starving author?" Annie was just getting into her stride, enjoying every moment. "That's so kind—if y'could see your way clear t'stakin' me to a bent dime, a lead quarter, or maybe a three-dollar bill, I'd be eternally grateful. You'd be my Guardian Angel, you bet."
Never one for suffering a smarty-pants gracefully Keisler took a step closer to lean over the womens' table, and raised his fist with no show of politeness.
Fiona's voice, loud, imperious, and brooking no opposition, rang clear across the dining-room, echoing from the plaster ceiling. Keisler, caught off-guard, rocked on his heels, turned to view the source of his embarassment, and showed his teeth in another snarl when he recognised his enemy.
"Oh God, you two."
"Dam' straight, ya ape. What the f-ck d'ya think y're up to?" When incensed, and now was that time, Fiona could look more like an Avenging Angel than the real thing. "Where's your subpeona? Where's your warrant? Where's a signed copy of your orders from a superior officer? Who's the officer in charge of the case you're on? In short, ya bloody ape, where's your authority fer any single atom o'this fiasco you're belching forth over these ladies? Come on, make it snappy, these ladies have an appointment with their attorneys, t'make out papers against ya, fer thousands in legal damages. OK?"
Being wholly stymied by the absolute truth of her words Keisler stood irresolute; the wheels in his mind, to all those watching, visibly revolving as he tried to make out what his next course ought to be.
"Well, maybe I was a little, er, excessive—"
"Still, Assistant Administerial Manager Hambleton from the Town Hall, gave me strict orders t'roll these dames good, er,—"
Fiona was up for this feeble excuse.
"Go home, little boy, an' tell Hamble-f-ckin'-ton, if that's actually his real name, he can go an' diddle himself, OK? Got that? We're done here, Keisler, get lost."
Looking at the two detectives, Alice having joined her partner to sneer openly at the discomfitted officer, Keisler then glanced round finally realising he was now making a spectacle of himself, and the 5th Precinct, in public. Defeated, he gave all four women a grade A grimace, turned, and left; no-one being in the slightest sorry to see his rear-view disappear through the entrance back onto the street.
"Thanks, y'came along at just the right time." Annie stood to offer a hand to Fiona, and Alice. "Wan'na take a seat, an' hear the truth of the affair? I know who you two are, too. I'd like t'discuss the situation with you, if ya don't mind?"
Intrigued, Fiona pulled a chair out for Alice then sat herself, leaning her elbows on the table and looking across at the other two women.
"So, how can Alice an' I be of assistance?"
A short pause saw Caris and Annie exchanging glances, before Caris made the first move.
"It's like this, ladies, we know who you are—two of the most respected private detectives in New Hampshire." Caris fiddled with a sheet of paper she had been consulting on the table before her. "What the sergeant said was partially right; Annie and I are looking into what's going on in the Mayor's office. You two know anything much about Mayor Randle?"
"Only that he has a reputation for having been in the pocket of that old gangster George Barker, ten years ago." Alice dredged this fact up from the depths of her memory. "Lot'ta mud washing around says he still takes back-handers when the opportunity offers—no proof as yet, though."
"That's about how things stand at the present time." Caris nodded. Glancing at Annie. "But my friend and I have been doing some investigating off our own bat, and certain things have surfaced."
"Like what?" Fiona eyed the women with interest, local politics having more than a small concern to the two detectives. "Randle seems t'keep this sort'a thing well hidden, generally."
"Y'heard the news that a big national beer company is about to sign a contract to build a new factory on the outskirts of Delacote?" Annie took up the reins of the subject, frowning in concentration. "The Bigelow Beer Company? They make 'Old-Timers' and 'Splendid Diamond'."
"Yeah, I heard some rumour or other."
"From what I've been able t'nose out Randle has taken a hefty bundle of shares, fer free, from Bigelow's; all under the table, o'course."
"Ah-ha." Alice could see where this tasty piece of gossip led. "That's not very sporting of the ol' guy. Money fer nothing, never mind old rope."
"Yep, and all without the involvement of the IRS, either."
"Now, that's just not bein' American." Fiona sniffed austerely. "Ya got'ta pay yer taxes."
"Only if you want, sometimes, it seems." Caris' expression said it all. "I think I can grab the elbow of a solicitor involved on the periphery of the shady deal, though. A Mr Jonas Halfpenny; he has some documents that'll dish Randle for good, if we can get our hands on them. That's what I'm working on, right now."
"Sounds interesting." Fiona thought about the situation for a moment. "What part could Alice an' I play? Collar this solicitor in his den, maybe?"
"If you thought it worth lending a hand Caris and I would be glad for the extra help; we can pay whatever your fees are, no worries." Annie smiled across the table. "Caris and I, since we started this whole thing, seem t'be gettin' more an' more involved with what I can only call a bunch o' deadbeats of a particularly nasty type. You two have appeared just when we need you."
"Well, put like that, Fay an' I'll be glad t'help." Alice took her partner's acceptance for granted. "So, if you give us the address o' this slimy solicitor, we'll get started right away."
The avenue of choice for the headquarters of the majority of the legal profession in Delacote City was Symington Road, in the centre of the city. Both sides of the busy thoroughfare were lined with the tall offices of several score solicitors and other legal groups, dealing in every aspect of the legal world. Anderson, Collis, Graham, and Menzies had their pad a third of the way along, on the fourth to sixth floors of the American and Legal Life Insurance Building, all fifteen floors of it.
The fourth floor, when Fiona and Alice exited the lift, was a hive of activity; the company obviously believing that time was money, and the faster its operatives worked the more of the latter they could accumulate whilst using as little as possible of the former—this requiring a veritable army of subordinates to accomplish successfully.
The lady at the long public desk, barring further access to the premises, was a salty old hand; obviously having spent her youth going round the Horn on squareriggers.
"How can I help you?"
"We'd like t'see Mr Halfpenny."
"You have an appointment? What's your name?"
"No appointment." Alice was up for this, enjoying herself mightily. "Name? Tell him Nemesis has called t'say hallo."
"Tell him it's about Miss Caris Bellamy and Miss Annie Sheldrake, and beer. He'll see us."
"I'm sorry, if you have no appointment you will not be able to see one of our managerial level representatives." The receptionist's expression remained one of cold contempt. "If you wait on the bench over there I may be able in an hour or so to allow you to meet, for a brief period, a clerk."
"Listen, lady, I'm gettin' mighty bored." Fiona, giving of her best don't f-ck with me expression, pinned the receptionist with a cold eye. "Pick your phone up, dial Halfpenny, tell him if he doesn't want his next pay-cheque passed to him through the bars of his prison cell, he'd better drop everything an' see us now—sweetheart."
The lady, grey shingled hair bristling, looked her visitors up and down, finally registering she had a couple of loose polar bears in front of her. Then she took the straight road to Perdition.
"I shall have to call security. This is most—"
"Listen, lady, do you want me to get angry?" Fiona leaned over the waist-high desk, placing her face far too close to the receptionist's for her obvious comfort. "I mean, really angry? Because at the moment I'm merely slightly miffed. Call dam' Halfpenny, make it clear we will see the bozo, an' then settle back on your chair, satisfied you've done the right thing—capisce?"
Something in the light in Fiona's eye; something in the body-language she presented, something going click in the receptionist's mind, finally decided her that discretion was indeed the better part of valour. She picked up her phone, dialled swiftly, and surrendered completely.
"Mr Halfpenny? Two—ladies—to see you. No. No, I said. It's about Miss Bellamy and Miss Sheldrake. The–lady—here says also to mention beer. Yes, sir, beer. Oh, right. You may see Mr Halfpenny—through the corridor to your left, second door."
The receptionist did not offer them a fond farewell, instead eyeing the detectives balefully as they proceeded beyond her ken along the corridor indicated.
Mr Halfpenny, being a man of discretion, and quick on the uptake, too, was waiting by his open door when the ladies hove into view. He wasted no time—the motto of the company, in passing—before turning on the soft-soap in bucket's-full.
"Ha, Ladies, how nice to see you, new customers always welcome at Anderson, Collis, Graham, and Menzies. Please, allow me to precede you into my humble office. I hope these chairs are presentable. Allow me."
He swiftly closed the office door, then darted round the large section of a former forest making up his huge desk, before seating himself behind it in what came egotistically close to being a throne. Scrabbling slightly with clearly nervous fingers he rang reception on his intercom-phone.
"Miss Gallagher? Hold my calls for the next, ah, half hour. Yes. Yes. No. Definitely not, Miss Gallagher. No. Yes."
These formalities over he turned his attention to his visitors, gazing at them with an expression half of interest, half of bemusement, half of suave but politely subdued contempt, and the other third of distinct worry. Mr Halfpenny was not a happy Halfpenny.
"So, what can I do for you?" He essayed a calm smile, but it didn't come off at all well. "What's the problem?"
Fiona, well primed by her clients, was up for this starter.
"Well, my partner an' I have several problems, as it happens, Halfpenny." She made herself more comfortable, allowing the fine edge of a sneer to form at the corners of her lips, just for show. "There's the Mayor, fer starts."
"The, er, Mayor?" Halfpenny affected an air of unknowing which would have done a Chinese mandarin proud. "What particular connection does my company have with Mr Randle, that interests you?
Ignoring this weak attempt to gain information Fiona progressed to more important points.
"Then there's the Bigelow Beer Company, wantin' t'build a factory here in Delacote." Fiona raised an eyebrow saturated with suspicion. "Big things, beer factories, lots of profit involved, need a lot of backroom push t'get a thing like that movin'. Backroom—an' back-handers, too."
Halfpenny, caught short by this full-on attack, blanched like an innocent lad, and began gasping both for breath and any acceptable reply.
"It's—that's—I mean to say—Good God, madam, what are you insinuating?"
Alice here took up the reins of attack, smiling like a leopard meeting an unsuspecting rabbit round a corner.
"And, of course, we mustn't forget Miss Bellamy and Miss Sheldrake, must we, Halfdime?"
"It's Halfpenny, madam."
"Is it? Do I care?" Alice fired her best air of derision at the nervously twitching man. "Anyway, those two ladies, between them, have the whole sorry tale sewn up. The bribes, and the people who engineered the whole thing for the big boys behind the scenes—know who we mean there, Halfquarter?"
"It's all comin' out in the Press in a few weeks, Half-ass." Fiona swept back to the attack, though it was more of a massacre by now. "So guess why we've come t'beard you in your nasty little den, Half-can."
By this time Halfpenny was a mess; quivering in his chair, pale, and staring wildly at his visitors.
"This,—this,—what,—madam, I really must complain,—you have nothing—"
"In the way of hard evidence, no; not yet, anyway." Alice admitted this minor point. "But we all know. There's the rub, y'see? We all know; and when Miss Sheldrake finishes her investigations an' the Delacote Daily News reports her findings the whole country's gon'na know, too."
"Somethin' fer you to think about of a night, as y'tuck yerself up in bed with a cup of hot Horlicks, Half-whatever-the-dam'-coin-it-is. Come on, Al, we've done our duty here." Fiona rose with a majestic air, sneering down her nose at the discomfitted man. "Miss Sheldrake knows about your back-room dealings with Mayor Randle; so does Miss Bellamy; so does Alice here; so do I. In about four weeks the Daily News is gon'na splash the whole story. Where'll that leave you, Half-cock? G'bye, fer the present. If we visit you in clink what'd y'like for a present? Candy, or tobacco? Hmm, probably candy."
With this parting shot clouding the air of the office after its detonation, the women turned, walked to the door, and left with a dignified mien—happy as larks.
Halfpenny on the other hand, the office door slowly gliding shut behind the departing Valkyries, began to gibber.
"How d'you think that went, dear?"
The ladies were once more driving along Pataloc Avenue, in Fiona's new second-hand DeSoto sedan, discussing their latest success.
"Fairly well." Fiona sneered comfortably. "Certainly managed t'pin ol' Halfpenny t'his seat, like a butterfly on a card. He's definitely in it up to his scrawny neck."
"No doubt o' that." Alice nodded in agreement. "Bundles of shares flitting secretly between the Beer Company, Halfpenny, an' finally Mayor Randle's sticky fingers."
"Who's next on the hit-list, darlin'?" Alice was on a roll, enjoying the turn their morning had taken. "Bearding Randle in his den, or tryin' t'dig information out'ta Sergeant Keisler, at the Precinct?"
"Both difficult, I'm afraid." Fiona mused on the matter for a minute. "Tell ya what, doll, let's fall on Inspector Fletcher, like the Assyrian on the fold, an' upset his digestion fer the day. Wonder just how much he knows about his subordinate, Keisler, being made t'run in circles by the Mayor's Office?"
"If he has found out, he won't be a happy policeman, I bet."
"G-dd-m it t'Hell."
Inspector Jacob Fletcher was indeed distressed and somewhat annoyed by these revelations, having discovered their existence only an hour or so previously.
"Bloody Mayor's bloody Office." He raised himself to a standing position behind his small desk in his poky office, the better to crash his fist back down on the desk-top; with less effect than he planned because it landed on a pile of cardboard covered files sitting thereon. "Who in Hell does Randle think he is? Sending minions, behind my back, t'order my sergeants to do their slimy business for them?"
"Did ya tell him so, Fletch?" Fiona, sitting comfortably on one of the uncomfortable chairs the office provided, smiled broadly. "Get on the phone, an' rip him off, did ya?"
"I did my damnedest, yeah." Fletcher, reseated but no less volcanic of temperament, eyed his visitors from beneath a frowning brow. "But could I get past his bodygurds? No, I fu—that is, no, I couldn't. After ten minutes on the phone, an' passing through the hands of about ten bloody hangers-on, the nearest I got was some bozo callin' himself an Assistant Administerial Manager, whatever the fu—er, dam', that is. Hambleton by name; an' probably by nature, too, judgin' by the slickness he used ter sidetrack, an' finally bulldoze me off the fu—G-dd-m it, off the dam' line. I'll have him by the heels, though; see if I don't, one day, one dam' day."
A pause ensued while the irate Inspector fumed behind his desk. Alice eventually breaking this impasse.
"Well, as we told ya, we're on the case for Miss Shedrake an' Miss Bellamy." Alice, as was her wont, settled a new notepad on her yellow cotton skirt-covered knee, pencil at the ready. "Any details you'd like to share, that might be useful?"
"Huh, about this bribery business involvin' the Bigelow Beer Company an' dam' Randle?" Fletcher curled a disdainful lip. "Everybody, an' their mother-in-law, in Delacote knows he's likely t'put his back out, bendin' t'try an' lift the crate-loads o' share certificates he's been accumulating. Must be about a bloody millionaire, by this time, I shouldn't wonder."
"Must like beer." This, irrelevantly, from Alice.
"Nuthin', carry on, Fletch."
"Hmm, anyway's, maybe the best thing's t'haul Keisler in, an' let him explain what the hell he's been up to." Fletcher suited the word to the action, lifting his phone; speaking into it with one side of his mouth, while chomping down on an unlit cigar with the other side. "Gem'me Keisler. Keisler? Get yer butt in here, an' make it snappy."
"I don't get on with Keisler." Fiona felt this revelatory admittance necessary to clear the air.
"Keisler makes me sick." Alice being rather more forthright than the occasion demanded.
"Who does? I know what yer mean." Fletcher looking glum, chin supported by his hands, elbows on his cluttered desk.
The office door never being closed, Keisler walked right in to stand beside the seated ladies. His shortness of height allied to his great bulk giving him the appearance of being a somewhat domineering bronze statue of himself.
"Keisler, spill it."
The sergeant, caught unawares, glanced from his boss to the women and back again.
"About what, Inspector?"
"You know dam' well about what." Fletcher wasn't having any insubordination. "Bigelow, Hambleton, Randle, Sheldrake, Bellamy, shares, bribery, working secretly behind my fu—G-dd-m it, behind my back,—spill it."
"Well, that's a start—keep goin'." Fletcher, snarling.
"You weren't here, a coupl'a days ago." Keisler giving all the indications of a severe toothache. "This Hambleton guy came along an' as much as said he was workin' fer the G-men, under Randle's authority. He more or less dragooned me in'ta goin' along—sayin' if'n I let even you know what I was up to, he'd see I was made the sergeant in charge o'the State paper-clip acquisition Department, in perpetuity."
"Ha, so, a rise in position?" Fiona being catty, and liking it.
"So I goes along with him, what else could I do?" Keisler giving Fiona a look that would normally have killed a coyote stone dead at fifty yards. "I mean ter say, G-men."
"G-men, my arse, Keisler." Fletcher was above this pathetic scam right from the start. "What kind'a idiot are you? G-men are all a figment o'this bozo Hambleton's deranged mind. He's Randle's servant, if not slave. He's strung you a pack o' lies that a seven year old girl would'a had the gumption t'recognise from the start. So, what's the basic objective he wants you to hammer out, with these Sheldrake an' Bellamy gals?"
Demoralised, even humiliated, Keisler folded.
"He says the Mayor's Office would be ecstatic if these dames were told, in no uncertain terms, t'call it a day with their investigations." He shuffled uncomfortably, appearing to realise the impossibility of his position. "Seems they've been gettin' far too close to, ah, er, activities in the Mayor's Office he'd rather keep private. So Hambleton told me t'put pressure on the dames, an' make it quite clear t'them they was interferin' where their interferin' wasn't welcome. Y'see?"
Fletcher let an appreciable amount of that precious commodity called Time go by unheeded while he digested this information; then he broke forth, like one of the nastier Old Testament Prophets.
"Might as well be workin' fer Al Capone's mob." He shook his head, astonished at the susceptibility of his lower rank officers. "Keisler, I ain't never heard—in twenty-five years in the Force—anything so utterly idiotic or fu—G-dd-m it, absolutely imbecilic in my life. Keisler, yer a fool; kindly leave my presence, you are no longer required fer the day."
"The sort'a thing that'd appeal t'Keisler's nature—the whole of it, he not having a good side." Fiona came out with this character analysis after the subject had left the office. "What I rather figure would be useful is if my partner, here, an' I was to take a trip t'the Mayor's Office, an' kick his butt."
"Fiona," Fletcher, actually being on good first-name terms with the ladies, nodded agreeably at this suggestion. "That's the sort of thinking that appeals to my better nature; go to it. But keep me informed, mind."
The Town Hall sat at the top of Pataloc Avenue, just on the junction with Railles Street. It had half a block to itself; needing every inch, as it had comfortably unbuckled its belt many decades ago and spread itself across the urban landscape. It was big.
Begun in the 1880's, in a style no human being had ever before seen, or even had nightmares about, in the early 1900's it had suffered a wholesale renovation in the then popular Hudson River Bracketed style, if it could be so called; and indeed was so-called by many more conservative natures. In 1931 it had been given an ill-advised touch-up, incongruous details sprouting all over its multifarious facades reflecting the new Moderne style, in white stone—which clashed awfully with the original brownstone. In short the Delacote City Town Hall had cornered the nation-wide accolade for most horrendous architectural Public Folly for the past twenty-five years, without any other opponent coming anywhere close. As a result of which, as can be readily understood, Delacote City citizens loved every inch of the appaling edifice, as if it were their own personal offspring.
As they drove through the wide cast-iron fancy gates into the huge public car-park in front of the building Fiona and Alice were still putting the finishing touches to their plan of campaign.
"So, how d'you plan gettin' past Cerberus, again?"
"Oh, very funny." Fiona ostentatiously locked the door of her new-old DeSoto sedan before they headed for the vast front entrance of the Town Hall. "I have a plan, don't worry yer sparkling brunette hair, lovely lady."
"Only tryin' t'help." Walking at the taller woman's side, Alice sniffed off-handedly.
The entrance to the Hall was built along Classical Roman lines. Its rounded arch cutting far into the front façade of the building; the top curving round just under the cornice at roof-level, which was a good ninety feet above the ground. This entrance-archway then ran deep into the body of the building, visitors having to walk down what was essentially a vast tunnel for about twenty-five yards, before coming to a great screen or wall made from teak with windows inset with stained glass; a hold-over from the original semi-Art Nouveau of its almost original construction.
Through a heavy double-door, each wing apparently made of solid bronze fifteen feet high, and probably weighing the best part of quarter of a ton each, the thirsty traveller finally approached the Public desk in the vast interior hall making up the reception area; this itself reaching four floors high and lit by a huge glass dome in the roof. Everywhere was the most obnoxious dark brown marble, lots of brightly polished brass railings, and an echo loud and never-ending enough to hurt the ears. First opposition, the lady behind the public counter; who, at a glance, looked set fair to habitually eat live lions for her breakfast.
"We've come to talk security with a Mr Hambleton." Fiona looked the lady straight in the eye, and brazenly lied like a trooper. "I'm awfully sorry but I seem to have mislaid my appointment letter; but if you give him a ring, and tell him it's Miss Drever an' Miss Cartwright, about Mayor Randle's private business it should be fine. Oh, you might also tell Mr Hambleton we've already spoken to Miss Sheldrake and Miss Bellamy and Sergeant Keisler about the subject, thank you."
The lady behind the counter gazed at Fiona, then Alice, as if she were faintly suspicious they might be bringing the Black Death into the building; then, having no visible basis in law for leaping over the counter and eating them alive, she twisted her lips into something very far from a smile and picked up her phone.
"Miss Fairlane? Yes, reception; is Mr Hambleton free? Apparently there are two, hum, ladies who have an appointment." She glanced up at the waiting women once more, with even less of the Milk of Human Kindness in her eye. "Yes. Yes, that's what I thought. No. No. They say they're here about security; refer to a Miss Sheldrake, Miss Bellamy, and a Sergeant Keisler. Seems so, Connie. Yes, something to do with Mayor Randle's private business. Hum. Ha. Oh, well. Yes. Yes. No."
She replaced the telephone receiver on its rest with a care suggesting it was made of thistledown, gazed at the complete machine with downcast eyes for an appreciable time, then looked up to impale the nervously waiting detectives with a gimlet brown eye, too close to that of an angry cobra's for comfort.
"If you will please to take a seat on that bench over there, Mr Hambleton's office will ring down when they are free to see you. No smoking, and please try not to talk in loud tones. Thank you."
"God, reminds me of a schoolteacher I once had," This, of course, when Alice judged they were well out of earshot. "I love it when ya lie like that, lover—makes me quiver all over, inside."
"Fool." Fiona sat on the indicated wooden bench, shifting along to give her partner room. "As hard as bloody concrete; they don't think much about the public's comfort here, do they?"
"Y'ever heard of a Government Department that did? I haven't; such wouldn't be natural." Alice twisted round, taking a good look about at her surroundings. "Looks like the interior of Grand Central Station in New York. And that echo, God, it's ringing in my ears."
"Take it easy, we won't be here long, hopefully." Fiona had been doing some mental overtime, and had items of interest to share. "Listen, Al, there's some various ways o'lookin' at our present position."
"Are there? Or is that, is there?" Alice seemed a little hazy on the grammar of the thing. "My opinion—"
"Al, be quiet an' listen." Fiona cut across her lover's ramblings with practiced ease. "First, we're left t'sit here for the rest o'the afternoon—in which case you can be sure we've been rumbled, an' the cops are on their way—"
"But Fletcher wouldn—"
"Stop interruptin'." Fiona gave Alice a sniffy look. "Or a group of hefty men in uniforms appear an', about a minute later, our butts hit the tarmac outside, acompanied by strongly worded remarks to the effect we need never intend returning any time this side of the coming millenium."
"This is all—"
"Al, gim'me peace." Fiona now coming to the crux of her inferences. "Or, lastly, The dragon over there receives a phone call from on high an', in less time than it'd take you to complain about the service, we find ourselves in Hambleton's office listenin' to a growling request from said public servant to explain ourselves, before he ups an' shoots us."
"Well, there's that way o' lookin' at the situation, I gives you that." Alice was less than convinced. "From what I can gather, though, it—"
From what seemed far far away a telephone rang insistently. Glancing over the vast flat acreage of marble flooring, like the empty wastes of the Russian Steppes, the detectives saw the lady behind the counter pick up the instrument with no great rush; a moment later she waved an arm in their direction with a regal gesture which would have done the King of England proud.
"Oh-oh, here we go." Fiona rose, giving her arm to Alice as she too rose by her side. "Into the Valley of Death—"
The office of the Assistant Administerial Manager was so large, so exotically furnished in the grand style, so overbearing, it made one wonder what the actual Administerial Manager's office itself would be like, in order for it to outdo this present manifestation of indulgent extravagance.
On the other hand, the Assistant Administerial Manager himself, Hambleton in person no less, left a deal to be desired. Standing, if he was standing and not crouching low for some unknown reason, just under Alice's height; he presented an expression of mingled contempt, self-love, and hauture to those unfortunate enough to meet him. This he was now turning up to full blast for the benefit of his clearly unwelcome visitors.
"Coupl'a lady dicks, eh?" He had decided, seemingly, politeness need not be the order of the day. "Wha'd'yer want, then? Some rubbish about Mayor Randle and those two b-tches who're plotting t'throw mud at him, in those news-rags that'll fall low enough t'print their tosh?"
The offer not having been made, nor even referred to by Hambleton, Fiona and Alice nevertheless, ignoring this opening shot, strolled over to a very comfortable looking sofa against the far wall. Seating themselves with no outward hurry, they settled themselves on the Morocco leather surface, then regarded the cicerone of this vast office in their turn. Fiona being first to make her considerations known.
"This office meet your requirements, Hambleton?" Fiona sat forward, getting into her stride. "Is it big enough t'suit your big ego? Is it luxurious enough t'caress your sense o' exagerrated self-esteem? Is it fine enough t'allow you t'feel important of a mornin' when y'have your secretaries in t'give them their orders fer the day? Alice, take over, there's nice."
Nothing loth Alice sneered at the heavy-set man with all the intensity of someone who knew full well their target deserved all they got.
"Hambleton, do you know what makes the difference between this gigantic an' childishly ridiculous theatrical set y'call an office, and a cold bare concrete-walled jail cell with bars on its single small window, an' naughty suggestions hand-written on its walls?" Alice gave her victim no time to form a reply. "The act of being part of a fraud and bribery case aimed at doing the Public out of their taxes, and allowing a beer factory t'be built where it wouldn't help the city in any way, is what. Jest heavy bribes in your pocket, heavy bribes in Mayor Randle's pocket and, eventually, your next appearance in said jail cell—Randle having covered his tracks like a field in a snowstorm, all the while planning fer you to be his fall guy when the time comes."
Fiona picked up the theme once more, delighted with her partner's contribution.
"You're an idiot, Hambleton." She gazed into the now sweating man's face. "You've lived like a Sybarite all these past years, on all the plums an' perquisites you've squeezed out'ta your position; Randle helping you along from time to time—he being an even lower form of low-life than you. And where's it gotten you, in the end? Because this, now, is the end, buster."
Hambleton, as the duo of women spoke, had become more and more introverted. Now he scrambled to take a flashy coloured silk kerchief out of his jacket pocket to wipe his suddenly damp forehead.
"Randle knows full well everyone an' their puppy-dogs are hot on his slimy trail." Fiona turned the screw. "He's planned for this event fer years, probably. That's why he must'a taken up with you, years since, when he first got a measure of your own pathetic moral nature, what there is of such."
"He's had you marked as his patsy for years, Hambleton." Alice increased the pressure on her own account, enjoying every second. "The moment he feels everything's up, he'll throw you to the ravaging dogs of the Press, the Police, an' the howlin' Public screaming to know where their dam' money went all these years. Then he'll disappear to the Continent, Switzerland probably, to continue luxuriating in his piles o'filthy lucre, while you rot in a prison cell fer decades."
"Just that, Sunny Jim, just that." Fiona gave the twitching man another sneer of contempt.
"He hasn't offered you any of those piles of share certificates the Beer Company's been inundating him with, under the counter, has he?" Alice threw this choice surmise into the mix, with an evil grin. "—'cause why? 'cause he's already salted them safely away in a Swiss Bank; jest leaving you t'scrabble for the detritus an' loose change he's happened to find in amongst the fluff in his suit pockets, t'keep you happy these last few months. You're finished, Hambleton. So's Randle, come t'that."
"Your phone's ringin', Hambleton." Fiona brought this fact to the Assistant Administerial Manager's attention, as an act of kindness. "Think it's probably fer you; in the most personal way, if yer get my meaning. Answer the dam' thing."
Hambleton stumbled across the rich Turkey carpet to his distant desk, where he picked up the phone as one in a deep trance. Listening for a minute he replaced the receiver slowly, remaining still as a statue. Then he turned to the women, looking as sick as a dog, a nasty green tinge suffusing his bloated face.
"Reception,—reception called,—Inspector Fletcher's downstairs—want's to see me—urgently." For a moment it looked as if he was going to faint; then staggering, he recovered himself. "Oh, God."
"Just that, an' no more, Hambleton." Fiona spoke in a low whisper, regarding the defeated man with scorn and contempt strong in her eyes.
Alice said nothing, for she had nothing to say.
Next day Fiona and Alice were back at the round table in the Greek Taverna, Georges Butopolous standing grinning over them with a menu; Caris Bellamy and Annie Sheldrake making up the foursome for lunch.
"The Gemista an' Limnio again, Georges, I think." Fiona was happy as a lark. "We all like it, thanks."
"So, Randle's upped and disappeared?" Caris spoke, as Georges headed towards the kitchen. "No surprise there, then?"
"Yep." Alice took up the reins of the story's outcome, as far as it had been established. "Bit of a mess all round, I'm afraid. Inspector Fletcher thought he'd nab Randle at his country house on his estate north of Delacote, before coming to pick up Hambleton, who was with us at his office."
"Yeah," Fiona nodded, twirling a silver fork in the air like a Bowie knife. "But on reaching the estate he found the bird had flown—jest that in fact, because it seems Randle piled a huge amount of bags an' suitcases into his private two–engined plane, and took off from his private airfield on the estate yesterday morning; long before Fletcher, or Alice and I, had gotten going on the whole sorry affair."
"Seems he headed out over the Atlantic." Alice shrugged, as one who was not surprised in the least. "No-one on the Continent's heard any word from his plane so far today. Might have come down anywhere—"
"Or nowhere." Fiona added this with a raise of her left eyebrow which spoke more than words.
"Yeah, yeah." Alice sat back, pondering the likelihood of what this might mean.
"And Hambleton?" Annie, with her reporter's notebook already to hand, gazed at the detectives avidly. "Is it true—"
"He had a heart attack on his way t'be interrogated at the Fifth Precinct by Inspector Fletcher." Fiona shook her head, as one gloomily seeing a fair victim escaping at the last minute. "Dead on arrival at the Hospital, sad t'say."
"All that self-centred life-style of his." Alice waxed lyrical over the event, whether to be regarded as tragic or not. "All changed for a slab in the County Morgue, and a white sheet. Makes you think."
A subdued melancholic pause ensued; for all of twenty seconds, before Fiona lifted the spirit of the occasion.
"Makes yer think about what yer goin' t'order fer the sweet course, Al." Fiona regarding her lover and life-partner with an eagle, judgmental eye. "Don't even think about the Baklava—swamped in honey, as it is, it'll do your figure no good at all. I bans the Baklava, straight up. It's only fer your own good, darlin'."
"Oh, for God's sake, Fay." Alice was outraged, having drooled over this choice all morning. "Well, ain't any o' you ladies gon'na come t'my rescue, here?"
"Baklava's fattening." Caris chickening out without so much as a blush of shame.
"Think of your figure, Alice." Annie, trying not to laugh openly, also turning her back, metaphorically speaking, on her friend without a second thought.
"God, so much for pals." Alice heaved a sigh equally mixed of mourning, sorrow, and woe. "Well, what else the dam' is on the sweet menu? Whatever, it better be dam' good, or you'll hear about it tonight, my slinking sad-eyed lover."
This from Fiona, carefully keeping her head down and avoiding eye contact.
The next 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.