'The Lutynor Residence Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever, lovers, are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. The detectives provide security in a famous modern Art Deco house.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2019 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.
"Who designed, pardon the expression, this wreck? Oh,—him."
Fiona had a long-standing distaste for modern Moderne architecture, and for Moderne architects as a whole, and for individual Moderne architects in person; the specific culprit under discussion being one of the most famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, of the present glut of such losers, in her opinion.
"What's wrong with just building an ordinary brownstone, three floors or so, steps leading up t'the entrance, an' a corridor inside givin' access to all the rooms, with a straight-forward staircase leadin' upstairs; not these dam' windin' swirlin' curved things with low iron handrails like what y'get on ocean liners? Eh? Eh?"
"It's the modern age, lover; nineteen thirty-four, an' everything." Alice striving to connect on an intellectual level with her lover, not with much success. "Onward, an' forward an', generally, upward. Progress, in short."
"An' so much dam' white paint it's near t'blindin' ya?" Fiona was not giving up without a fight. "Offset with the occasional thin pale green line—an' dam' curves every-dam'-where. I mean, what's the dam' meanin' of it all?"
Giving up the argument as hopeless Alice took her irate partner's elbow and quietly led her to the main entrance, where yet a further sign of unwanted modernity awaited them.
"What's that little sign say?" Fiona leaning forward to inspect the guilty object. "Press button and speak into grille when requested? What the hell?"
"It's a modern method of communicating, dear—"
But Alice was not allowed to go further—
"At least it's still a dam' door—an' doors' is made fer bein' knocked on; an' I mean t'give this one the beatin' of it's dam' life."
Having said her say, Fiona stepped up to the door, raised her fist, and gave the door the beating of its life—answer, after they had waited for the best part of a minute, came there none.
"What the hell?"
But further denigratory remarks were, thankfully, cut off at birth when the door finally did open, to reveal—a butler.
Now, as Alice well knew, Fiona had two great fears or loathings in Life—one Moderne architecture, the other butlers, in any shape or form—but mostly the British variety.
This particular specimen stood some five feet six in his splendidly polished boots; appeared to take great pride in his severely tailored but reserved morning suit; and spoke with a cultured English accent. The fact he presently viewed his visitors with raised eyebrows, registering disdain in each individual hair, and at the same time achieved the surprising double of looking down his nose with something very like contempt, had a great deal to do with Fiona's reaction to this unwanted surprise.
"If Madam is selling, I must sadly assert the fact we are not buying, thank you, madam."
As he stepped back, clearly with the notion of terminating the interview via closing the door firmly in both Fiona's and Alice's faces, Alice took the necessary steps; jumping forward to stick her shoe over the threshold thereby capping the butler's maneouvre like a chess champion. Thwarted, he stood and stared at his female interrogators, still with a wholly neutral expression.
"Hey, bud," Alice getting down to business promptly. "You just work here, while we're guests of the management, buster. Drever an' Cartwright, private dic—I mean, investigators. Your master, or Mistress, or whoever runs this gin joint, asked us to come, so we've taken 'em at their word an' here we dam' are. What about it, Jeeves?"
No way put out, the butler was up for this; merely raising his nose a trifle, to show he was now au fait with the necessary protocol surrounding the duo.
"Ah, the persons applying for the night-watch duties." Saying this in a tone of cool disparagement which got right up both Fiona's and Alice's noses. "If you will go round to the rear entrance I can admit you to the kitchen area where, no doubt, you can find yourselves a nook to stay in until your services are required later tonight. You will, of course, not be admitted to the front, private rooms, under any conditions. That way, thank you; and kindly be quick, Miss Parkinson will be coming downstairs momentarily and we do not want her hindered, do we?"
This, of course, was way too much for Fiona.
"You stuck-up ape; what d'ya think we are, under-skivvy's at your dam' mercy? We're professionals detectives, on a level of society you'll never reach, cocky; and we have personal invites from Miss Parkinson in person—so, let us in, go an' get yer Mistress, an' start packin' yer bags, 'cause ya won't be buttling anywhere round this District much longer, pal. Well, move yer butt, buster."
Frustrated in his intentions for the second time in five minutes the butler took a few seconds to run the latest information through his cerebellum then, taking everything in context and after careful thought, he wavered.
"If you both will step inside, to the main lobby, I shall acquaint my Mistress with you arrival." Nodding somewhat off-handedly at a nearby long sofa he turned to cross to a curved open staircase running up the side of the high-ceilinged room. "Kindly remain here till I return with further orders."
And, in an instant, he was gone; leaving the women in a state of near terminal disapprobation to almost everything, but especially butlers in any shape or form.
Having relieved their feelings the ladies took their seats with what dignity still remained to them.
"If we have t'work with that clown over the next few days I'm gon'na have a coronary."
"Not before I do, sis." Alice trying to take the high ground before her lover. "All the same I'm beginning to see where you're coming from, vis-a-vis butlers."
Again further discussion was interrupted by the arrival, flying downstairs like an out-of-control locomotive, of the mistress of the house.
She, on reaching the same level as her visitors, revealed herself as some five feet eight inches in height, athletically lithe of frame, and of an almost Grecian beauty, though her straw coloured hair was short and bobbed in the latest shingled fashion.
"Georgina Parkinson, ladies; how remiss of me, not to be here for your arrival." Georgina came forward eagerly, reaching out a welcoming hand, first to Alice then Fiona. "Wholly my own fault, not realising you'd appear so quickly. Reeves has told me of your, um, exchange of, er, formalities; he's off about his other duties at the moment. I do so hope you won't take his, er, attitude at face value; when you get to know him he's an absolute dear, though rather stand-offish to begin with."
"Yeah, he certainly came across that way with us." Fiona frowning without restraint. "I started by giving him rope t'hang himself, which he eagerly took up; then I decided to see how far he'd go, which was virtually over the horizon an' out'ta sight, sarcasm-wise; then I decided that one more word an' I'd have found my pistol-shootin' target fer the day, a sity'atin you've jest narrowly avoided by appearing without him. Gone about his duties, eh? Like packin' his bags an' hi-tailing it fer the state line?"
"Well, not quite that." Georgina allowing a certain tinge of embarrassment to affect her tone. "An old family retainer, you know; very difficult to get ri—er, find a new career for. Never mind, you'll soon settle down, and get to know him for the doll he really is. So, are you both au fait with the proceedings over the next three days?"
"Yeah, wan'na breakdown of our schedule? See if we're in tune with your set-up?" Alice veering over to her professional stance with ease.
"Why don't we go to the drawing-room; Reeves can bring us tea and cakes there." Georgina moving over towards another tall white-painted door. "It's a cosy little room, with a French window onto the garden; you'll love it. Shall we?"
The room was all it had been touted as; high-ceilinged, painted overall in white with thin pink stripes accenting the whole, a French window leading onto a wide lawn, and furniture in the latest style; the chairs, especially, being of the squareish chrome metal-framed variety with thin cushions in outlandish colours—Fiona was appalled, finding it hard to conceal her dislike. The low coffee-table, also, had a clear glass top to round things off.
Both Alice and Fiona tried to make the act of sitting on their chairs seem less uncomfortable than they actually felt, with little success.
"Our furniture is rather, er, modern, I'm afraid. Many find it quite difficult to adjust to it, to begin with."
"Yeah, Miss Parkinson, that I can believe." Fiona letting all her loathing sound in her own voice.
"Call me George, please; everyone does."
"What we want to do, to begin with, George, is find our own room and get settled in." Alice taking things as she found them. "As to our plans—lem'me see, you want us to oversee the party you're hosting this evening—diamonds an' rubies, an' what-all beyond comparison, you said?"
"Then, when you're away tomorrow and the next day, you want us to see to the security of the house and its contents in your absence?" Fiona breaking in here, having settled herself as much as she found possible. "What's Reeves part in the forthcoming show?"
"He'll be here tonight, in charge of the servants during the, er, soirée."
Georgina cast a glance to the door as it opened, revealing a young female servant bowed down under the weight of a large silver platter on which cups and a heavy-looking teapot stood; Reeves bringing up the rear like an accompanying destroyer in a convoy.
"Lemon, milk, cream, or Russian, ladies?"
An hour later Alice and Fiona sat in the relative safety and privacy of their own bedroom upstairs, going over their coming schedule.
"Got the guest list handy, of the folks who're gon'na roll up for the free beer this evening?"
"Ha! Les'see, ah, here it is." Fiona wrinkled the sheet of paper in her fingers. "God, there's scores o'them. First up's a Mrs Valerie Simpson; thank goodness George, bless her heart, has given us some biographical details for each hanger-on—makes it easier t'grasp their characters."
"Yeah, like fitting the crimes t'the perp, he-he."
"Huurph, anyway, where was I?"
"At the start, dear; ya hadn't got goin' t'any extent, really. Want another cup'pa tea; it's really nice, an' I love these pink-iced little cookies."
"I can see, that's yer fourth; ye'll be goin' fer the larger waist sizes, when we hit the clothing stores next week, I imagine?"
"Rrrr,—like a cat."
"What about the guests, t'return t'matters that matter?"
"Oh-ah, right." Fiona wrinkled her sheet of paper again, settled more comfortably in her soft leather armchair, and cast her eye down the list once more. "Valerie Simpson, mid forties, relict of a meat-packer King out'ta Pittsburgh. Could buy half the state o'New Hampshire, if she wanted. Not married now; likes t'think of herself as an aficionado of modern opera and the Drama. That's Drama with a capital D, ducks."
"Oh, does it make a difference? An', if so, please explain."
"To continue—an' no, don't ya dare take that fifth cookie, OK—next is Harold Carpenter, businessman from Portsmouth. He's rolling in the greenbacks too, apparently. Bit of a show-off an' ladies' man, as well. Watch yerself round him, dear."
"Hah, no chance, as you very well know, lover."
"Third, Clarence Lombard, second son of Benjamin Lombard of Lombard Jewellers, Fifth Avenue, NY—well, well, well."
"Impressed, dear? Is it the thought of diamond necklaces beyond number and compare, or his personality, just askin'."
"Darlin', how'd ya like bein' put over my knee an' given condign punishment fer yer sins, just askin'?"
"Good Grief, get on with the guest-list, for goodness' sake, we ain't got all night."
"Fourth, Devonia Farquharson, a county lady from England, here on an extended holiday. Her pa's, apparently, something big in shoes, over in the Old Country."
"George explains down here." Fiona peered more intently at the close-written note, the lamp in the bedroom giving a somewhat shadowy illumination. "She was born in Devon, one of the state's of Merrie Ol' England, ergo her first name; her last name's pronounced Fa-rkersen, seemingly. Pa's Head of a big shoe company, top o'the range—money, no problem. She drives a Jaguar two-seater sports car—"
"Whoo-eey, sounds like a go-er; I'll enjoy meeting her."
Fiona sighed deeply, then continued.
"Fifth, Bernard Dailley, banker from Wall Street—no need t'investigate his background, rollin' in it'll cover the whole thing."
"God, does George know any poor people, at all?"
"Seemingly not, unless you call next on the list poor." Fiona paused to smile evilly at her partner. "Clarice Veneratti, portrait painter to the Nobs."
"You know, she paints like that, what's her name?—oh, yeah, Tamara de Lempicka. I don't like her style, so I certainly won't like the Veneratti's, either."
"Gim'me a break, fer God's sake." Fiona reaching her limit. "And finally, last, comes someone called Reginald Tanqueray, young scion of an old English family, presently touring America for his health, George says here; it apparently being currently healthier for him to be here, rather than there, y'see."
"No, I don't—wait a minute—oh, I do see—scandal, how entertaining; at last, someone interesting to meet."
One of the positive points in favour of the Lutynor residence was its seclusion; sitting at the end of a long curving drive in the centre of its wooded estate the house was invisible from the merely public sidewalk—not that there was a sidewalk, three miles outside the city limits of Delacote City. The drive ended in a wide graveled forecourt in front of the main entrance to the house, affording adequate parking for a regiment of tanks, never mind a host of invited guests' vehicles; though it was looking like it might be a close run thing, at seven in the evening.
First to arrive had been a Rolls Royce Phantom II, perhaps the most resplendent car ever produced and owned, of course, by Clarence Lombard. Next in the ensuing arrivals were Miss Valerie Simpson's 1930 Cadillac sedan cabriolet; Harold Carpenter's Ford Tudor, Bernard Dailley's 1930 Lincoln Phaeton, Devonia Farqurharson's Jaguar SS1 red two-seater; and Clarice Veneratti's 1932 Ford Model B, the least of the flock. By 7.45pm the guests had all washed up in front of the self-serve buffet and the hoe-down was in full swing.
"God, look at all these dresses. Y'ever seen the like?"
Fiona, alive to her partner's astonishment, took a wide view of the main room on the ground floor where the major part of the evening's entertainment was due to unfold. The crowd were, as she looked around, mingling in gay abandon; singles bumping into singles, couples getting entangled in each other's strings of pearls, and small groups commingling together as if forced so by some strange tide, to form even larger masses of humanity all with disjointed needs and requirements.
"Hoi, two gin an' its', an' make it snappy, eh?"
"Where's the Evian Water?"
"Is this Ossetra? I only consume Ossetra, y'know."
"Bring on the port."
"English, China, Indian, or Russian, sir?"
"Good God, Parma ham, I adore Parma ham."
"No thanks, I had an early dinner."
"Yeah, quite a showin' of the great an' the good, if you're fool enough t'believe everything y'read in the papers." Fiona here giving Alice her considered opinion. "We'll see what they're really like as things go on, no doubt."
Excerpts From an Evening Crush.
"Hi, you, get me a bottle o'white, thanks."
"Speakin' t'me, laddie?" Alice live as an electric wire in an instant.
"—er, yes, er, ma'am—uum!"
"Y'see, treat this here social gaffe as a much needed learnin' curve, sonny." Alice smiling sarcastically, like one of Wagner's more p-ssed-off Valkyrie's. "I ain't one of the salaried help, I'm the security, professional status; and have the authority, an' willingness, t'throw out in'ta the gutter anyone I find failin' t'reach acceptable standards of social standin' at this here soirée—get me?"
"Right, y'can go about your revels now; that's a waitress over there, treat her with respect, 'cause if I get t'hear y'haven't, y've been disrespectful, in any form o'the term—well, laddie, just don't, is all."
Clarence, for it was he, visions of the spectres of former nanny's wafting through what passed for his mind, shivered in his Saville Row socks, paled even further than he had already and beat a hasty retreat.
"Nice one, gal."
"Just gettin' in'ta form, lover; gim'me time."
"—er, yes, a moment thank you, one requires to know the directions to the Ladies Retiring Room, if you please."
"I don't please."
A short pause ensued, while Miss Simpson tried to imbibe the meaning of this unusual rejoinder.
"I beg you pardon."
"You heard." Fiona beginning to enjoy herself, though keeping a straight face.
"What, I mean, what?" Miss Simpson clearly all at sea in face of this mutinous behaviour on the part of the merely salaried classes.
"Lady, I ain't no servant." Fiona staring down the well-dressed and well-proportioned woman in her silk evening gown. "What you're looking for is a servant which, as I just intimated, I ain't."
"Well, what, what is the—"
"Something up, my little chickadee?" Alice arriving in the nick of time.
"Lady wants a course t'the local gals' bog."
"What!" Miss Simpson shocked to her core by such common vulgarity; then backing-off as she remembered a lady of her class shouldn't know the meaning of the term.
"Oh, that's easy." Alice in command in an instant. "See that staircase, winding its way up the far wall? The exterior glass wall? Y'do? Right, go to the top, take a hard right an' it's the third along on your right. Got a notice readin', Ladies', on it; y'can't miss it. OK?"
Miss Simpson, in something of an eye-glazed reverie, wandered off in the general direction of the indicated stair, leaving the two security ladies triumphantly holding the field once more.
There are some people, faced with more than one person of the, apparently, lower orders doing nothing useful while their betters are in dire need, who just can't stop themselves from being obnoxious in the fullest meaning of the term; such a one being Harold Carpenter; his million and a half dollars, accrued through the sale of vast quantities of Dry Goods over the last twenty years, having given him all the wealth of the nouveau riche, along with all their crassness.
"Hey, you women there, what's the meaning o'loiterin' around while there's work t'be done?" Harold having gotten, through years of experience, his interactions with servants down to a fine art; if being wholly despicable across the board could be called an art. "The buffet needs restockin', the wine table wants more red, an' everyone else could benefit by y're presence t'see ter their needs—y'are both bein' paid fer yer work this evenin', y'know."
Fiona and Alice had been partners for years, doing everything by the book and as equals; but there are just some instances in Life where there has to be a pecking order; and in the presence of outstanding arrogance aimed at females Alice was always the instigator of the necessary level of character readjustment required in each varying case. Now, faced with Harold Carpenter at his most intolerable, she came out firing all guns like a battleship's triple-gun turret.
"Bud, three things, first, who the hell y'think y're talkin' to? Second, politeness is a moral ethic, clearly a concept foreign to your personality. Third, one more carpin' criticism o'either o'us an' I'll dam' well bust yer nose, sonny, don't think for a minute I won't. You can begin your apology anytime, loser."
Staggered into silence by the most critically negative response any female had ever given him in all his fifty-two years, Carpenter stood rigid, assimilating his position. Finally, even to him, the fact he had made a faux pas of astronomical proportions, vis-a-vis the ladies' standing, percolated through to that minimal portion of his brain used for communicating with those beneath him; this number having sadly proportionately increased in line with his increasing wealth over the last five years or so.
"Ah, Ah, er, Ah, Ah—"
"It ain't much of an apology," Alice skewering her prey even deeper. "but it'll do till something better comes along. OK, get lost, bum; an' remember, Fiona an' I are here for the duration; any more shenanigans like this last one you pulled an' you'll see the nasty side of our personalities, an' that you don't want, believe me. Why ain't you gone, like I said five minutes since?"
In fear, and trembling at what might still come his way, Carpenter, a spent force, disappeared into the crowd like a lone locust seeking safety amongst a cloud of its numberless brethren.
"Nicely done, young lady. I'm gettin' ter like you, y'know." Fiona giving praise where such was warranted.
And where was the unfortunately named Reeves whilst this bubbling cauldron of discontent was gathering force in the Lutynor residence? He had observed, like the intent and rigidly accomplished butler he was, all that had unfolded. Thankfully, as each incident was consummated the bulk of the guests appeared to be still unaware of anything untoward going on, for which he was hugely thankful. But, also aware that activities of this nature could, and certainly in these circumstances would, lead to outright declared war on several fronts, he made his play two minutes later.
"Ah, ladies, we meet at a most laudable moment." He parted his lips in what he supposed was a warm smile, but which only came across to the curious women as a grimace of internal pain. "If you both are not otherwise engaged I wonder if you would both accompany me to the kitchen—a question of certain comestibles, you understand; this way, thank you."
A minute later, having disengaged the two Valkyries from the crowd and brought them to a relatively private corner of the long kitchen where he ushered them into a small room, his pantry in fact, he let loose with his own weaponry.
"Ladies, ladies, what are you doing?" His tone reflecting that of a cathedral prelate catching an underling doing something particularly morally dubious, though thankfully still behind closed doors. "You cannot go on castigating the guests this way; I mean, they are upstanding members of their class and local and national Society—you can hardly, surely, know what you are doing?"
It was Fiona, this time, who took up the cudgels in their defence.
"Reeves, thank you, ma'am."
"Wasn't that what I said? Oh, right, Jee—I mean, Reeves, what the hell do you mean?" Fiona giving him one of her renowned glares; but this shot slid off the shoulders of an English butler like snow off a roof in the Spring. "Do you know what this country is?"
"I fear I must ask for an explanation, ma'am."
"You do know America is a Democratic Republic, Reeves?"
"Sadly, the point is known to me; one can only put one's faith in better times to come, I imagine, ma'am."
This lightning repartee catching both women off-guard a longish pause, amounting to a Great Silence, wafted through the small pantry before either could catch their breath.
"Whoa, nasty." Alice impressed by the butler, against her better judgement. "anyway, what's your grift, laddie? We ain't breakin' any rules, just pointing out to various individuals, whom even you will agree sadly need same pointing out to them, that there are certain requirements in the way of manners that any wholesome American woman simply cannot let pass. What I'm saying, Reeves, is that when someone sasses either me or my tall associate here with the long wavy black hair; well, blood flows, is all."
Reeves, not answering immediately, contemplated instead a small porcelain dish on the table they were all by now seated round. As such dishes go it was an ordinary member of its species; neither interesting nor exceptional in any way, but when you need to concentrate your thoughts quickly any port in a storm is gladly clutched at that offers. Finally, he spoke.
"Ladies, I find myself somewhat at bay." He glanced at both women in turn, though finding in each's visage only the raised eyebrows of enquiry. "What I mean is, you have both been engaged by Miss Parkinson with the duty of providing professional security in the premises while this present crush goes on; your said duties then flowing over into the forthcoming two days, also."
"Yeah, so?" Alice fishing for information.
"Well, a certain level of what I might describe as laissez-faire may well be propounded with few negative consequences, perhaps?"
At this point even Fiona, usually sharp as a tack conversation wise, found herself in the mist if not the actual fogbank.
"What in hell're y'talkin' about, Reeves?" Fiona shaking her head in confusion. "Stop speakin' Latin, an' come across with clean American; Al an' I understand American, y'know. English, I suppose'll do in a pinch, if ya must."
Regrouping his arguments, like a General at the Front, Reeves paused to find a likely rejoinder then came out fighting again like a hero.
"These people, as you may well already understand through your own intercourse, if you will allow me the term, with members of their kind, live in a world of their own; a world, a Society, where ordinary social mores simply do not apply." He paused for breath; beginning to see success beckoning enticingly, if still from a distance. "Their old Family ties; their money; their Social standing; the fact they mostly live in a private world where the majority of commonplace persons are regarded as outsiders; all these points combine to present the necessity that persons such as yourselves, and I, must give such a certain amount of lee-way; must allow them freedoms which may at first sight seem outlandish, but which are socially necessary in order for the status quo to, er, remain the status quo—if you follow me?"
It must be reported with honesty that, while Fiona and Alice spent a full minute simply staring at the butler, Reeves stood this silent attack with indomitable courage; more so than many criminals of the ladies' late acquaintance had in the past, even. Then Fiona spoke up once more.
"Al, I think, if I'm reading this here butler right, he's just told us both t'put a sock in it, an' start behavin' like adults in the immediate future an' not naughty children."
"Figure you're right, gal." Alice allowing she too was defeated by unanswerable logic and common-sense.
Fiona stood up, regarding the butler with a new view of his character.
"OK, Reeves, ya got us dead t'rights. We'll both go on back t'the minor on-going skirmish out there; but with the caveat we'll put on the soft gloves fer the rest o'the evenin', an' toss the steel gauntlets in the trashcan fer the same length o'time. How's that sound?"
"Perfectly acceptable, ladies." Reeves, once again the monarch of all he surveyed essayed a smile which, this time, came across with the goods. "This way, ladies; back to the fray, eh, ha-ha!"
The rout, meanwhile, in the main room went on undisturbed; the revelers having fun in an ever-increasing spiral which showed fair to becoming an actual shindig in the not too distant future—it being by now close to eleven o'clock in the evening and as black outside the brightly lit villa as the night it indeed now was.
There were many more guests attending the party than have as yet been fully described; the crowd was, indeed, a crowd and not simply the few major characters so far met with. So when Fiona and Alice rejoined the bash they had to inveigle their way through an ever-swirling throng of by now overly-cheerful party-goers who had long since lost most of their earlier stand-offish character; such beginning to show in curious encounters of varying sorts.
"I say, ladies, I've just been ear-marked for far too long by the Devonia, she knowing me back in the country of our ancestors, unfortunately, but still not willing to give me the benefit of the doubt over that last unfortunate affair of mine; shows such an impoverished capacity to relate a really good anecdote, don't you think;—er, where was I? Oh, yes—so, she's been repeating that story about me and the Chow at the Royal Chelsea Flower Show for the umpteenth time. Why, even Lord Carstairs, and he's a roué of the most distinguished pedigree, has long since grown blasé about the affair; which must say something in my favour, surely—umm, where was I? No, really, I've lost my train altogether—"
"To Portsmouth?" Alice trying her best to be helpful to Reginald Tanqueray, for it was he, though spicing her reply with just the right amount of understated sarcasm.
"—er, I don't think so; does anyone go to Portsmouth, these days? Aren't the sailors there intolerable; never understanding one's meaning no matter how clearly one expresses one's wishes?"
"You, an' flowers, an' a Chow." Fiona hoping a relation of severe facts might jolt his, obviously near moribund, mind into action.
"Oh, Ah, yes, by George." Reginald, again aimed in the right direction, coming back to his point—if anything he ever uttered could be said to contain such a ingredient. "So there dear Devonia was, battering my ear with yet another illogical trot round the salient details of the matter—the dog, the Show, and I, y'know. All a wholly innocent accident, could have happened to anyone; not that anyone believed so at the time, unfortunately, hence my extended sojourn in the Colonies, y'see."
Having given their solemn words of honour, so recently, to the incomparable Reeves, both Fiona and Alice now found themselves in a dilemma; they wishing to shake this intolerable Englishman in their jaws till bits flew everywhere, like a lion in the arena with a particularly juicy victim; but now constrained by simple politesse to hold their fire. The fact he was dressed in a linen suit of a particularly nauseating cream tone, in the lapel button-hole of which he had seen fit to place a large dark green gardenia not helping matters.
"Reginald?" Alice repeating her enquiry, hoping to focus the youth's near absent attention.
"Reginald—go away, there's a dear boy."
"Oh, Ah,—Oh, I see. Ah, yes, quite. —er, toodle-pip, then. Nice seeing you both again. Bye."
An instant later the throng had enclosed his disappearing frame in its midst like a twister in Kentucky taking care of a farm-shack.
"God, what's England comin' to?"
"Don't know, ducks," Alice putting a comforting hand on her paramour's wrist. "But if that's the best High Society over there has to offer we Yanks have the world all sewn up, for sure."
"Hallo, ladies, are you by any chance, er,—? No, you're not, are you? I mean t'say—guests, I take it? Not slaveys'?"
"We're the security." Alice coming to the fore before her already agitated partner unwisely sounded off. "Professional detectives—lose your purse, we'll have it back in two ticks; someone steal your diamonds we'll recover 'em before you know they're lost; anyone tries t'crash the party uninvited, we'll kick their butts in'ta the gutter with gusto an' enjoyment. Lost something, have you? Miss,—er?"
"—er, Veneratti, Clarice of the same Ilk." The famous artist examined the detective duo with considerable interest. "I've till recently been domiciled in Europe mostly; France and Britain, to be exact. Came over here t'paint Miss Parkinson's portrait; it's hanging in the other Drawing-room, as a matter of fact—want to see it?"
Fiona, so threatened with an act wholly opposite to her desires, came up with a winner in the line of excuses.
"Sorry, duty calls, y'know." She waved a casual hand around, taking in the whole room and its inhabitants. "Got'ta keep our eyes on the whole jamboree; see nothing untoward occurs. Miss Parkinson making it quite clear she goes in fear and terror of same happening on her watch—hence Alice an' I keepin' tabs on everyone. But I'm sure it's a perfectly wonderful dau—er, painting, all the same."
Giving Fiona a sharp glance, as if pondering how serious she was, Clarice turned and wandered off towards the door to the corridor, probably to check on the safe-being of her latest effort on canvas.
"Probably gone t'check on her daub." Fiona saying it as she thought it.
"Bit before-hand, ain't you?" Alice looking around at the crowd swirling about them as she and Fiona moved away from the edge of the room again. "I mean, you haven't even seen the dam' picture yet."
But Fiona was up for this, cutting it past short stop like an expert.
"She reputedly paints like Tamara de Lempicka; y'know—Moderne; I don't like her style, ergo—?"
Alice, her attention turning to more important matters, gave up the unequal struggle.
"Look, over there, is that a young man putting some silver cutlery in his jacket pocket, in a very devious manner?"
Called to attention Fiona glanced over to the far buffet table, but was still a trifle unfocussed.
"There's about five young men hangin' over the grub, there,—who d'ya mean, precisely?"
Before Alice could answer there came a scream from somewhere distant on the ground floor; this first outburst closely followed by a variety of other loud vocal ejaculations clearly reflecting someone's agitated state of mind.
"Come on, gal; it's along by the other rooms—the drawing-room, I think."
With this command Alice set-off at a run, Fiona close in her wake. Curiously, the crowd in the main room, after a short pause, obviously decided it was only someone's idea of a silly prank, and carried on their revels wholly unregarding and uninterested in the possible drama elsewhere.
The Yellow Drawing-room, so-called to distinguish it from the Pink Drawing-room on the first floor but at the opposite end of the building, was empty of party-goers; the only person in residence in the long wide room being Clarice, standing with both hands over her face and still emitting curious noises, like a weasel with the toothache.
"What's the problem, ma'am?" Fiona coming out all professional in an instant.
Clarice raised her head, gazed at the women detectives, then pointed with a shaking hand into the middle of the room.
"It's gone. It's gone. It's gone.—"
"Thanks, ma'am," Alice entering the fray. "we get your drift. What's gone? From where?"
Again the distraught artist pointed, apparently at nothing.
"My painting. My painting of Miss Parkinson, it's gone. It's gone.—"
In a valiant effort to cut off Clarice's ejaculations at source Alice came over to grasp the lady's hand.
"Where was it? And how large was it? Big, was it?"
"Life-size." Clarice's voice fragile as an icicle in the Spring.
"God!" Fiona raising her eyebrows in amazement. "How'd any thief cart a thing like that off?"
This question, seeming to hit at the artist's very heart, brought Clarice back to life and no mistake.
"How? They dam' well cut the canvas out'ta the dam' frame is how." She pointed melodramatically at something lying on the floor by a nearby sofa and so far unnoticed by the detectives. "There's the frame, in bits, an' you can still see the edges of the canvas where it's been cut by a knife. J-sus Chr-st, they've vandalised my painting, my work of Art. Jee-sus!"
The party was finally over; the guests had gone home, after providing their personal details to Inspector Fletcher of the 5th Precinct; and ditto to Fiona and Alice; the latter's notebook, fresh that morning, now full to the brim with details and facts. The time was a quarter past midnight, and the Moderne villa rang echoingly to the tread of the boys in blue now the crowd had dispersed.
"Eight thousand dollars?" Fiona was still attempting to come to terms with modern art prices. "How can someone's portrait possibly cost eight thousand dollars? It ain't possible."
"Oh, that's peanuts, darling." Devonia Farqurharson, seated on the sofa in the upstairs Pink Sitting-room beside the detectives, gave freely of her knowledge. "Glad I'm a personal weekend guest of the Parkinsom menage here; I can fill you in on the realities of Life, as it were. I once stayed in a country house, back in Nottinghamshire, where the dear old codger who owned the dump had paid fifteen thousand pounds, way back in his youth, for an Alma-Tadema; a big one, of course. Makes you think, don't it?"
"What's an Alma-Tadema?" Fiona still somewhat at sea as to what her and Alice's next move ought to be. "Similar to a Rolls Royce, or what? Not that it matters a dam'."
"No, no; another artist—a famous one—"
"Never heard o'the fella." Fiona, her thoughts elsewhere, on the important matter at hand.
"Don't know him, myself." Alice equally unknowing. "A buddy of Sargent, meb'be? Or Dufy, perhaps. We don't like Dufy, either, before you ask."
Seeing she was domiciled amongst the heathen Devonia wisely gave up the task of educating the Colonial womenfolk; giving over her attention to the consequences of the late drama.
"So, what do you intend to do?" She looked at the detectives with real interest. "I've never been elbow to elbow with a real life crime before, y'know. Read bags of Agatha Christie an' the like, of course; but never seen the real thing, like this. Gosh, entertaining, isn't it? Will there be blood, or a body, d'you suppose?"
It only taking a second for her to realise she had grasped the wrong end of the stick altogether she immediately beat a hasty metaphorical retreat.
"That is, of course, not that crimes like this ain't, er, altogether anathema to the law-abiding classes, of course. Don't take my words the wrong way; nothing further from my thoughts than to make it all a mere, er, joke, er, umm."
"If you'll excuse us, Miss Farqurharson," Alice pronouncing her name the way it was spelt, simply out of spite. She nodding vaguely at the foreigner as she held out a hand to her partner. "my companion an' I need t'go downstairs an' see what's going on—we being professional detectives, an' all."
"An' the fact we've been providing security here all evening not having a small part to play in things." Fiona gladly accepting the chance to break free. "See ya around. Bye."
"So, what happened?" Inspector Fletcher on top of his game as he bearded both women with a beady eye. "You were security? So, what went wrong?"
"Come on, Fletch, don't be that way." Fiona on the offensive immediately. "We were both noses to the grindstone just keeping tabs on those Hooray Henry's all evening. What a bloody shower."
"Yeah, if you'd been here t'see it all, you'd have had a fit, Jacob." Alice taking no insolence, either. "What a bunch of no-hopers; God, it nearly made my nose bleed, listening to them gabbing away about nothing remotely important for hours on end."
"The theft, the hi-jacking, the kidnapping of Miss Parkinson's glory." Fletcher waxing humorous because he felt like sticking the needle in even deeper. ""A f-ckin—er, I mean, a bloody large oil-painting—not a thing t'tuck under your arm an' walk unnoticed through a large crowd with, eh? So, who saw the culprit in medias res, as it were?"
Stung to the quick, Fiona became sarcastic as only she could, when pushed to it.
"Jacob, if both Alice an' I had stripped t'the buff, an' spent the rest of the evenin' in the same state, no-one would'a noticed—too wrapped up in their own egos t'notice anything at all goin' on in the real world around 'em, an' that's straight."
"Huh! Helpful, I'm sure." The inspector firmly rebuffed and no further along with his investigation. "Well, it'll just have to be the usual routine, talk t'everyone, get all the salient facts, start feelin' the collars of all the likely suspects, an' see what washes up with the tide, eventually. Might take bloody months. Either of you know of any likely buyer who's droolin' over the chance t'own a spankin' new Veneratti?"
"Never heard of the gal till we met her this evening, Fletch. Sorry." Alice shrugging her shoulders unhelpfully. "So, who wanted a Veneratti? Could'a been anyone in New Hampshire, far's we can tell."
"That's no help."
"Must'a been one of the guests." Fiona finally bringing cold logic to bear on the problem. "I mean, who else? If some outsider had wriggled their way in during the course of the evening, lot's of people would have noticed—there being a veritable army of temporary servants workin' here the while—Oh-Oh."
"Yeah, the servants," Alice cocking her head with interest. "never thought of that. The servants—by God, I wouldn't be surprised—"
"God, what a couple." Fletcher sighed softly to himself. "For your information when the whole thing came to a head Miss Parkinson, as you already know, kicked the party over the touchline an' told everyone to b-gg-r off. Good thing I arrived with the troops just in time t'prevent such. But what we weren't able t'stop was the Parkinson also tellin' the servants where t'get off, too. By the time Sergeant Kaiser had corralled all that remained there were only nine left of what had been around a total of twenty or so."
"How'd those servants leave?" Alice trying for the high ground, but without much hope.
"Cars, they all had some kind'a vehicle or other, this place bein' so far out in the sticks, an' all." Fletcher passing on the sad news with a glower accompanying his words. "Could be halfway across the state, or lost in Delacote, by now. It's gon'na be a long hard slog. Parkinson still gon'na pay ya both fer your services?"
This was a sore point for both women, Fiona finally facing up to the tragic nature of the end of their evening.
"No, she dam' well ain't." She gave Alice a miserable glance. "And, to finish things off, she's asked us to return her down-payment for our services post-haste, or she'll set her lawyers on us. G-d'd-mit."
"Oh, dear; oh, dear." Fletcher smiling gently at the first good news he had received that evening. "Isn't that a dam' shame? Well, g'night, gals; I'll be stayin' here fer a while, havin' important official duties t'perform over this here crime. Sweet dreams t'the both o'ye."
"B-st-rd." Fiona, under her breath.
"G-d'd-m fool." Alice, under hers.
"Naughty, naughty," Fletcher, who had heard them both, nonetheless. "go home."
Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.