'The Gypsy Moth Problem'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— John Drage is a private detective in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. He finds himself involved in a convoluted mix of industrial fraud, drugs, aeroplanes, and unexplained death.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2020 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.
Of its type Klavine St. was a particularly mean street; half industrial offices of low character, half private brownstone dwellings long past their best days. Piles of dirt and debris along the edges of the broken sidewalk; more in the gutters; the few vehicles sitting at the side of the road either decrepit haulage trucks or twenty year old cars showing their age. It wasn't just a slum—it was a suppurating morass.
Delacote City, NH, this bright morning of May 1934, was its usual cheery self; citizens coasting along the sidewalks downtown like shoals of fish swimming happily off the Grand Banks, unaware of fishing boats closing-in. All the high-end neighbourhoods—Todmorton, The Heights, Haverford Park—were snappily turned-out, showing away for all they were worth; while some of the residents therein were worth a great deal. This however was Garstone, lying south of The Harbour and Causeway, reflecting all the disarray and déshabillé of a working-class District long set in its underprivileged ways.
John Drage, 32 year old scion of the Drage Private Detective Agency, was out on his latest case—which wasn't saying much. Being only a one-man operation, if you didn't count Sonia Henderson, his competent secretary—whom many didn't, to their disadvantage—he often struggled to take on all but the lowest, dirtiest, bedraggled cases, of which the present was certainly a prime contender.
Having left his Ford sedan by the sidewalk some distance away he was now approaching one of the lesser of the mercantile offices; this particular one being a one-story shed, with a dilapidated yard entrance-gate a child of ten could have forced. Going through the open entrance he entered the office, where only a dim light was allowed to penetrate through draped windows. There was no-one visible behind the low counter and the desk on the far side.
"Hallo! Anyone here?"
A door opened, allowing the bulk of a heavy-set individual to make two in the small room.
"Yeah, wha' ya want?"
John, never one to face-off an opponent when not required, shrugged non-commitally.
"Hal Everson on the premises? Got some business with him, if so."
The man's jowls, gleaming with sweat through a light coating of incipient beard, quivered in response; but, taking a long look at his customer, he finally nodded silently and turned to retreat through the door he had entered by.
Time passed—a lot of time; finally John, having glanced at the counter and noting the absence of a hand-bell, was considering rapping on the wooden surface when the door finally re-opened to allow another, different, individual to help in the task of depreciating whatever level of oxygen was still remained in the small room.
Seeing his mission was going to take the hard route John heaved an inward sigh.
"Who wants ter know?"
The man placed a pale hand on the counter, standing only two feet away from John—taking an inventory of the unknown Joe who had barged into his place of work.
Sighing openly this time John went for the formal approach, putting a hand in his jacket, to re-appear with a business card—noting the man's slight nervous wince as he did so.
"Yeah, I got a gat; but it ain't come t'that, yet anyway." John making no effort to put his interlocutor at ease. "Drage, John; private dick, OK?"
Everson took the card, studying it intently, as if imagining it might try lying to his face. He then gazing at John with raised eyebrows.
"What's the rub?"
"To you, none. To someone else, maybe quite a lot." John getting down to business. "You know Midge Letherby?"
"Why? Who's he?"
"She." John by now realising his day was going to be long and dreary. "Barbara Midge Letherby; daughter of Keith Calson Letherby, the Fountain Pen King."
"Oh, yeah? What's she got ter do with me, then?"
Glad to have finally arrived at the business end of his interview John eased his shoulders and got down to it.
"She ordered a Flint-Colling rotary aero engine from you three months ago—for her Gypsy Moth." John having read his file earlier that morning with as much attention as if it had been written by Dostoievski. "It was delivered to Meidener Field Aerodrome four days ago, since when it's been impounded."
"Oh, yeah? Why?"
"Because, on opening the crate at the hangar, the mechanics found two pounds weight of cocaine in a oil-paper wrapper, held tightly in the hands of a dead body, male."
"Oh, shit, not again! Another bozo on that lay?"
John could see he had made an impression so continued, more caustically than before.
"Let's drop the toing and froing, eh? I know the cops have been on your back these last few days. I know you ain't suspected of making the dead man dead; he being some past his prime when found, and clearly having sent in his chips somewheres back in his history before arriving in NH."
"Yeah, that's what I told the cops; but would they believe it at first, no, they wouldn't." Everson evidently having a personal peeve to air. "I only just got out'ta the third degree chair last night. Two hours sleep I've had; now you shows up. Chr-st, cain't I get a break, no-ways?"
"I'm here on the part of Keith Letherby," John unwillingly clarifying his position. "He being some mean about his darling daughter's innocent involvement in said low affair. Death and cocaine, Everson. Not a pretty combination, any way ya looks at it. You were the guy who sourced the engine and paid for it; so, tellin' me all ya know'll be a good starting-point."
"Chr-st, the cops all over again!"
But, faced with what even he could see was the inevitable, he shrugged his shoulders miserably and sang like a canary; not a happy one but, still, a canary.
"Those engines is sourced over t'Michigan, nowhere else; Lansing, t'be precise." He supplying this information with little, if any, enthusiasm. "The Grant Industrial Company holds down its HQ there; importers of heavy equipment. I rings 'em up two weeks since, gives 'em the details; yeah, they says, we got a Flint-Colling Radial—six hundred and fifty dollars. F-ck-off, I says. Four hundred and fifty, they comes back with—obviously wantin' t'get rid o'the thing at any cost, y'see. Y're gettin' nearer, I gives yer that, I says. Time passes, with the telephone line sounding like a convention o'swearin' pastors; then I gets the bottom line—Three hundred and ninety-five; Jeez, gim'me a break, he says, at the other, Lansing, end o'the line. Oh, OK, I replies; though it's agin' my principles—you pays transport costs, o'course. Sh-t, I hears at the other end o'the line, an' it goes silent; he havin' hung-up in a high dudgeon, y'see. Two days later I gets a receipt from Michigan makin' the sale all clear an' right by Hoyle; an' that's all I knows about it—me givin' 'em Miss Letherby's Aerodrome address as the destination."
"There, y'see?" John perfectly happy with this recitation of the woes of a businessman's life. "Clears you of all blame, entire. Now, the name and address of this company in Lansing, again, and the person you spoke to on the phone; after which I leaves ya in peace to go about your lawful purposes, blameless as a young chick fresh from the egg."
At Meidener Field Aerodrome, by the general hangars off to the right-hand side of the grass runway, Midge Letherby's Gypsy Moth sat outside its personal hangar, surrounded by a group of mostly dispirited spectators. The owner, Midge, stood in leather pants and jacket; her mechanic Joe Baines stood by her left side; while, on her right-hand, John Drage examined the machine which was the source of all the trouble.
"Where's the engine—the Flint-Colling rotary?" He getting down to business promptly.
"Still in its dam' crate, in some anonymous Government warehouse somewhere." Miss Letherby clearly not in a good mood. "The cops impounded it, in view of a dead body shoved in with it; it, the body, holding half a ton of cocaine in its dead mitts."
"You could still fly, couldn't you?" John eyeing the biplane in a wholly amateurish manner. "I mean, it still seems t'have an engine?"
"That's a Gypsy One engine," The mechanic butting in with the technical details. "an' it's busted; that being why Miss Letherby's been lookin' to a new engine."
John could see the obvious counter to this argument.
"Why not buy another Gypsy One, then?"
"They comes from England, at a cost that'd bankrupt Rockefeller." Miss Letherby laying it on the line for the hoi polloi.
The trio headed over to the shade of the hangar; where they could stand eyeing the immobile machine outside.
"Looks a good plane." John scrabbling for the perfect bon-mot, and failing honorably.
But even this faint, inexperienced, modicum of what passed for praise was enough to stir the plane's female pilot to life.
"Cruises at eighty-five." She smiling lovingly as she recalled the beautiful details. "Range around three hundred and twenty miles; could get her up to around fourteen thousand feet, if I wanted. Runs sweet an' smooth; at least she did till three weeks ago, when one of the pistons fractured and destroyed the whole engine—had t'make an emergency landing here."
"Ah." John not finding anything more particular in answer.
Midge could see his level of unknowing was probably vast, concerning anything to do with her loved aircraft, so set out in a different direction.
"What're you gon'na do now?" She staring at the detective with a dubious expression.
"Go across t'Michigan; hunt up the people concerned in the Grant Industrial Company there, in Lansing, who were involved in processing your order." John on home ground once more, showing his expertise in the matter. "They crated the engine up, so some one of them must surely know more than they told the cops, wouldn't you think. I'm very good at gettin' people who've forgotten major, and minor, details t'suddenly recall such, sharp an' clear."
"Not with the help of a cosh, I hope?" Midge recoiling from the realities of Life.
"Hell, no." John smiling widely at this often spoken query. "That went out years ago; now I only takes 'em up a dark alley, threaten t'break their arm, an' the result is sweet information all round—never fails."
Midge took time to digest this outlook on the criminal life, then cottoned on to John's esoteric sarcasm.
"Don't know how successful you are as a detective but, on the stage, you'd make a fortune."
The town of Lansing, Michigan, held up its honourable duty as state capital with that free and easy je ne sais quoi that only those born to the silver spoon can achieve. But, as with many of its comparable entities, it had a variety of widely dissimilar districts; for instance, the main Downtown area was full of high office buildings and skyscrapers; the ancillary industrial areas circling the centre were full of a variety of thriving businesses of all sorts; while on the outskirts, close by the wild outback, were situated several small commercial enclaves which, though apparently hard-working, never achieved the glory and success of their betters further into the metropolis. It was here on the periphery, amid potholes and cracked sidewalks, John found the grandly named Grant Industrial Company, Inc. Grand in name, but rather less so in premises; which tended to the 1890's red-brick one-storey tenement level, if that. Having found himself, after exiting his taxi, in a wilderness of intersecting lanes, small roads, and seemingly unpaved tracks, John finally stopped a guy wandering by on what passed for the sidewalk to ask directions.
"Yeah?" The man being in his fifties, dressed like an out-of-work carpenter, with an incongruously wide flat cap. "Wha's it?"
"I'm lookin' for the Grant Industrial Company's premises—any ideas?"
Apparently, judging by the quick and accurate response, this was a question the man was assaulted with several times a week on his lonely daily excursions.
"Ya takes thet there trail along till ya hits the tracks,-the rail tracks, thet is; then ya takes a left along Coventry Street, ya cain't miss it, 'cause its paved with cobbles; then ya turns right along Berminster Road, an' about halfway along ya sees the long red-brick sheds o'Grant's—OK?"
Ten minutes later, after adding nearly being sliced to pieces by a passing rail steam engine to his woes, John found his destination, and was not impressed.
"God! What a dump."
Negotiating the metal entrance gate, and entering a likely looking blue-painted door, he found himself, if not in the main office, at least somewhere similar. The room was high-ceilinged, walls half-paneled in dark oak, a long waist-high counter dividing the Public area where John now stood, from an area furnished with three wide desks, none occupied, a row of tall windows providing much needed light on the far side. On the counter sat that efficient helpmate to the curious passer-by, a service-bell; by vigorously bashing which with his left hand John soon found this item to be in sterling condition—its sound reverberating from the room's walls like a ship at sea sending out a Mayday call. At the far end of the room a door opened precipitously to reveal a tall young lady in an ankle-length skirt and short jacket, both of brown cotton, she rapidly approaching the clearly unwanted visitor at a rate of knots.
"OK, buster, enough with the bell-ringin'; this ain't Notre Dame, an' you ain't the Hunchback—give over."
"Sorry, I'm sure."
The good-looking brunette girl, for so she now revealed herself to be in no uncertain manner, gave John the once-over, relaxing a trifle as she found the sight not inconducive to having a happy day.
"So, what's the problem, big boy?"
"Names John Drage, private dick out'ta Delacote City, NH." John smiling cheerfully; his usual first step in disarming the help. "Working for Keith Letherby, businessman in a big way there. You, or this company at least, sent Hal Everson of same hailing-ground a Flint-Colling aero engine some week or so gone by."
The lady beyond the counter simply staring at him John raised his eyebrows in the well-known enquiring manner.
"Ya savvy, lady?"
"Sure enough, laddie." She giving back all of John's insouciance, with some added of her own. "What makes ya think I got anything t'say on the subject, t'anyone?"
Groaning internally but, hero as he was, grinning externally John entered the usual preliminary stages of the Great Game.
"Well, t'start with, congratulations where they're due—the engine arrived safe and sound at Meidener Field aerodrome some five days since, all according to Hoyle. Well done."
"Charmed, I'm sure."
John now entered stage 2 of the Handbook of Private Detective's interrogation technique—knocking your interrogatee off-centre with something they don't want to hear.
"It, the engine arrived in A1 condition—which the same couldn't be said for the corpse, male, accompanying said engine in its crate—nor the four pounds avoirdupois parcel of pure cocaine he was clutching in his dead hand. Any answers? It's just that I, Keith Letherby, and the 5th Precinct police back in Delacote City would, you know, really like to know."
In the silence which, somewhat inevitably, ensued John opined forever afterwards he could distinctly hear each individual particle of air dust and motes bumping into each other as they wafted around in the warm air of the long office amidst the sunbeams entering through the row of windows. Then the girl came back to life.
"Cocaine? Where in hell'd that come from?"
But John was up for this next step in the routine.
"Would'a expected your first thought would'a been—who's body, and why?"
But the girl was clearly made of more sterling stuff than to be knocked sideways by this sort of thing. Standing straight and tall to her full five feet ten inches, only two of the latter below John himself, she assumed the exact same expression Cleopatra must have used when informed the asses' milk delivery was late.
"Buster, you aiming for a fall? 'cause I know Ju-Jitsu, y'know. An' I have a left-hook that'd lay ya flat out on your back, no questions asked—wan'na try it fer size?"
At this juncture John realised he had been outplayed, and The Detective's Handbook could take a running jump to itself.
"OK, sister, let's start again, shall we?" He now assuming a real smile, in place of his former expression. "I'm only tryin' to do my job, is all. Can you, or your manager or whatever, help me out here, at all? What's your name, by the way—if that's not a state secret, too?"
Having subjected her visitor to another, more taxing, scrutiny the girl finally decided to take the scenic route, after all.
"Name's Claire Baxter. As to the manager, you're too late."
"Too late? In what way?"
"This place, here; this Grants Industrial Company, Inc—it's bankrupt, out'ta business, gone t'the dogs, shut-down, no longer in operation—in short, we're closed, now an' forever. So long."
Seeing Claire was indeed turning to leave his presence John acted swiftly.
"Lady—I mean Claire, if that's the case, I'm even more interested than previous. I mean, dead bodies, cocaine, and this business biting the dust, all in a week? You got'ta see the implications wafting about every which way?"
Claire paused in her exit, stood thinking for a few seconds, then turned to John once more; this time with a frown of doubt.
"Yeah, I see what's going-on; or, at least, I don't see what's going-on." She stared at her visitor some more, before making a decision. "You look kind'a trustworthy, I suppose—"
"An' I've been worried sick, these last three days." Claire looked at John almost appealingly. "You see I'm the only one left here. There's no-one else left of the staff or workers—all gone."
"What, all disappeared?"
"No-no; just been given their notice in letters at the beginning of this week, and kindly asked to take their month's laying-off wages an' beat it." Claire sighing as she recounted the sad tale. "I'm only here because I was the manager's, the owner's really, secretary and was tasked with shutting-up the whole concern and putting the premises on the market. I'm—I'm somewhat out'ta my depth, I got'ta admit."
"Ah!" John perceiving dirty work at the crossroads without too much effort. "Well, if it's of any use I can offer my services, free gratis of course, to help out. What I'd like first, though, is to see whatever records are still around pertaining to the aero engine business; then we can take a look at the letters your manager gave everyone, and his own files if you can find them; see if they contain any useful information you might have overlooked or not seen. Might be helpful in clearing the matter up, don't you think?"
Claire pondered this plan, looked at John, then stepped to her side to open the swing flap connecting Public with Private.
"Sounds like a good idea; come on through an' let's get started."
The late manager's office, Paul Vernon by name it turning out curtesy of Claire, was small unkempt and full of nothing pertinent to the investigation; John perceiving this after spending nearly half an hour going through all the available paperwork laying around in cabinets and loose files.
"Looks like Vernon cleared up most of his private material before hitting the road." John sitting in the vacant chair behind the desk while Claire did ditto with the visitors chair on the other side. "When'd you last see the palooka?"
"Six days ago—said cheerio on the Friday afternoon; I came in on the following Monday to a pile of letters with a covering note to the effect of tell everyone t'hit the road while I stay t'take care of putting the works on the market."
"Give any explanation, did he? Got the note, still?"
"Said he'd been called away to the West Coast urgently on business; left the deeds of the business, an' told me t'sell the place, sending the profits to the Tarleton Investment Company, Springfield, Illinois, when the deal was done. I'll get it for you; it's in my own desk outside."
Ten minutes later John replaced the note on the desk before him, leaning forward to rest his elbows thereon while cupping his chin in his hands, and staring disconsolately at Claire.
"Some complicated business, this."
Claire remained silent, obviously expecting more; when this didn't materialise, she did, however break into speech.
"If that's the best you can do—?"
John tried looking distressed in response but, seeing this tactic fell flat with the hard-nosed secretary, he sighed and sat up once more.
"He twitched his mantle blue, tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new."
"Eh? Ya losing it, buster?"
"Nothing." John returning to reality, taking a deep breath. "You're out'ta a job, now?"
"Seems so; great thinking, Sherlock."
"Ha!" John, against his usual nature, impressed with the woman's character. "Well, if you wan'na keep the wolf from the door a little longer, you could work for me, for a short time, at least. I needing a local secretary t'help out in this dam' case, an' all. What'd you say?"
Claire took the experienced course with this offer, she not by any means being dumb.
"Union rates, plus expences? Plus one day off a month."
"Jeez, Claire, you push a mean deal—OK, like you say."
The state of Illinois had a lot going for it in all sorts of ways; it having a finger in every industrial and agricultural pie on offer; nor forgetting Chicago had been the site of the World's Fair, just the year previous—so there was a great deal of superfluous swank still floating around everywhere.
John and Claire, however, having made straight for Springfield, had avoided the heart of the late festivities in Chicago, much to their dual delight, neither being much interested. They found a hotel, separate rooms of course, made themselves comfortable, then sallied out onto the streets in search of the Tarleton Investment Company; the local register telling anyone who read therein the company under discussion resided in the Cracker Building on W. Laurence Av.
This, when their taxicab dropped them at their destination, turned out to be a 12-storey skyscraper whose only tenants were businesses of various size and importance. The wide lobby held a long counter behind which stood, like a redcoated guard at Buckingham Palace, the solitary uniformed cicerone of the building. John, with Claire close at his heels, stepped up to the bar and broke into conversation.
"Hi'ya, which floor for the Tarleton Investment Company, thanks?"
"None, it's closed this two weeks past." The man, in his forties, grinning widely at being able to help so comprehensively. "Didn't leave no forwarding address, nor other place to send mail or customers—it's a dead duck, as far as being a functioning concern anymore is."
"Oh, ain't that wonderful!" Claire expressing her feelings without reserve.
"What about their old offices?" John trying to grasp the last piece of floating wreckage available to him. "Can I go take a look round? Just for old time's sake, you know?"
The concierge considered this arcane request, twisting his lips in thought the while.
"You could, I got the keys, sure enough. But you won't find anything—I mean, anything." He shrugged dismissively. "Before the three men in charge left they spent the last week ripping everything out, leaving neither scrap nor tittle behind. I can take you up, but all you'll see is a set of empty rooms—hell, they even tore up the linoleum, leaving the bare boards. Can ya believe it? They sure were determined to leave, no mistake."
"Oh, G-d'd-m it!" John peeved at this information, all round.
"So, it's back to Lansing, then?"
"Why so, Claire?" John's thoughts on other things. "What's in Lansing we want, now?"
"My apartment, for one." Claire sniffing austerely as they made for the sidewalk again. "And, it's the only place left, apparently, where the bozos have left a paper trail, little as it is."
They were now on the sidewalk once more, John waving heroically for a taxi.
"That's a thought with some substance to it." He nodding in agreement as he opened the cab door to let his secretary enter first. "Reckon you're worth your salary, meagre as it is, after all."
The next day the old Grant Industrial Company offices, back in Lansing, Michigan, were as they had been left; only showing a modicum more dust on every level surface, otherwise unchanged. John took the chair behind the desk in the manager's old office, Claire sitting opposite with a notebook and pen in hand.
Between them they had spent the majority of the morning, it now being close to midday, in shuffling through every available file anywhere to be found in the four rooms constituting the old playing-grounds of the moribund business—result, nothing.
"Say that one more time, an' something magical'll happen."
"Very funny." John in no way in the mood. "Nothing, absolutely nothing; I got'ta admit, these mugs are experts at covering their trail."
"Grifters gain experience with every grift." Claire coming forth with something central to the purpose. "Where does this leave us, and the investigation?"
"I got'ta think about it, some." John sighing deeply from the bottom of a hard done by heart. "Leave me, woman, that I might cogitate."
"Ha, never heard it called that before;—but, if the feeling's on ya—"
Claire rose, but was stopped immediately; John regarding her with some consternation.
"What? I don't get ya? Oh, anyway, I'm stumped, for the nonce, as Shakespeare says, somewhere."
"I bet." Claire no way inclined to imagine the Bard had ever said any such thing, anywhere. "What I'd do, in similar circs, is give the engine a going over."
"The engine—the Flint-Colling aero engine, the seat of this whole affair." Claire's eyes reflecting a sharp light as she posited this idea. "Everyone talks about the dam' thing, but where is it? And who's done anything concrete about it, as an engine, and artefact of the first part in the whole concern? Nobody yet, far's I can see. What about same, John?"
John sat back, closed his eyes, and let Claire's idea percolate into his subconscious; finally he came back to life a changed man.
"Claire, if it wasn't against company policy, I'd kiss ya. That's brilliant. The engine! Of course."
"Glad t'help." Claire smiling at her boss's reaction. "So, lem'me guess, it's back t'Delacote, post-haste?"
"You got it in one, lady. You know what this means?"
"Your first bonus, gal."
"Har! I thinks I'm gon'na like this job, buster—I mean, boss."
Keith Letherby was a big businessman and, like others of the same ilk, he had social position, high standing, power, and leverage in unlikely places. Two days after their return to Delacote City John and Claire stood in the Government warehouse containing all they both wished for at the moment in this physical life—the Flint-Colling aero engine, still sitting embedded amongst what remained of its original crate.
"Bloody big, ain't it?" John, not being an aviator in any shape or form—preferring trains to airlines—gazed at the mostly exposed bulk of the machine with a furrowed brow. "Looks far too large for that small biplane Miss Letherby owns. And where's the propeller?"
"It'll fit, have no fear. Propeller? Who cares?" Claire far more modern and laissez-faire in outlook. "Anyway, we don't care if it fits or not; what we care about is clues. How'd you go about finding clues on a crated-up aero engine? Me willing to learn, y'know."
John had a pragmatic answer to this query, turning to look around for the instrument of his choice.
"First we un-crate the dam' thing. See a crowbar anywhere?"
Twenty minutes later, after a lot of expended physical effort on both John's and Claire's parts, a bath-load of sweat, an instructional journey through the swearing catalogue of at least three languages, and bruised fingers for both, they had the engine clear of as much of its surrounding protective woodwork as they were ever going to achieve.
"God! You'd think the bozos who built this crate were thinking it was for a military tank, or something." John resting against a nearby table, gasping for breath. "I can't do anymore."
"Me neither; what's left, stays left." Claire making the immediate future plain for all. "Anyway, most of it's visible. Jeez, you see the amount of labels there are? Looks like every square inch of metal has a personal label. Where do we start?"
As one might expect, or possibly not, John's literary past reading came to his aid in this conundrum.
"We start at the beginning, go on till we reach the end, then stop."
Claire gazed at her gasping boss as at an escapee from a mental asylum, then sighed wearily.
"You start at that end, where the prop goes, I think; I'll start at this end, where the steering-wheel, or whatever, goes. First one t'find gold's a bonny buccaneer."
The ensuing hour was one neither participant ever wished to recall with baited breath long afterwards; it containing as much, if not more, swearing than previously; a lot more bruised fingers and torn skin; a deal more sweat, and some danger, when the engine shifted slightly nearly crushing Claire's left hand.
"You hurt? You OK?" John racing to the rescue approximately twenty seconds too late.
"Nah, an' yeah." Claire standing-up, taking a deep breath. "Scared down t'my shoes—yeah! Hurt—no."
"Thank God!" John truly afraid the girl might have suffered serious injury. "I think we better call it a day; I've had enough of the dam' thing, for one."
"I'll second that opinion, boss." Claire regaining her misplaced aplomb with dignity. "Find anything of interest?"
"The only thing I found was this label attached to that part of the engine—see, over there, under that copper pipe thingy?"
"Yeah? What's it say?"
"It's an address label, recording the source of that part of the machine, whatever it is." Claire unfolded the crumpled paper in her hand, bending to read it clearly. "Norquist Tooling Inc, Milwaukee, Wisconsin."
"Oh, sh-t!" John letting rip as he felt. "Oh, sorry; a bit fed up with things, y'know."
"I recognise the state of mind." Claire agreeing with her boss on all counts. "And, talking of states, I suppose I know where our next train tickets'll be for?"
"Lady, ya got it in one."
Later that evening, in the hotel they were staying at, Claire phoned ahead to Milwaukee, just to make sure the Norquist Tooling Company was still in existence and operational. This point being settled in the affirmative the detectives settled down to a conference on positions, aims, directions, and plans.
"What're we gon'na do?" From Claire, eager as a Girl Scout at a jamboree.
"Don't know." From John, all out of ideas, fiddling aimlessly with his whiskey sour.
Claire, not being so far down the primrose path of despair, sipped her coffee.
"What about my apartment?"
John woke up.
"Apartment? Whose apartment?"
A pause ensued, John trying to equate this fact with the ongoing case.
"I live here, in Lansing." Claire clarifying her intentions. "Me working, or having done so this last year past, for Grants, now deceased. Working for you, now; what am I gon'na do with my apartment here?"
"Though I got'ta tell you, I can ditch it easy as pie, mind."
"Ditch what?" John having trouble following the conversation.
"My apartment, here in Lansing." Claire making clear what, in her mind, was already tolerably so. "I own a house in Delacote, y'see. I was only slummin' it, working in Lansing here. I can get up an' go, just as easy as those bozos back in Illinois did. Shift my base back to Delacote, see? Be able t'work for you comfortably, then."
"Oh, I see." John having put the various steps together and come up with the right answer. "You live in Delacote, you can commute easy t'my office. I get it; yeah, that'd be great; makes things easier all round."
"That's settled, then." Claire took a close look at her boss's glass as they sat in the hotel's restaurant bar. "That's your third whiskey; if I was you, and wanted to wake up tomorrow compos mentis within any meaning of the term I'd switch to Évian, just sayin'."
John gave in gracefully.
"I think it's time we went t'bed, anyway.—er, that is—"
"I know what you meant, boss—g'night."
The state of Wisconsin was mostly famous for producing a wholly inappropriate amount of dairy milk and cheese, the rest of the agricultural land being given over to crops, a fact hardly relevant to John and Claire's present purposes; but, thankfully, Milwaukee itself was a hive of industry, with all sorts of machinery firms busy bustling away, emitting truly astounding amounts of steam, smoke, and unidentified dangerous gasses into the atmosphere from a multitude of high chimneys. Indeed, on some days it might be more reflective of reality to call the city's air supply more of a thick yellow smog lightly tinged with oxygen; John, on arrival, certainly thought so.
"Jeez, smell that—that's nasty. What is it?"
They stood on Washington Avenue, just outside the train Depot, gazing around at this industrial landscape, and not thinking much of the foreign wasteland.
"I think Milwaukee's just farted." Claire making this unkind observation with the calm certainty of one who knows they are right.
"Hur!" John turning to the more mundane needs of the day. "Hey, taxi!"
West Bruce Street, close to the winding Menomonee River, was all it could be expected to be—a barren landscape of industrial and manufacturing buildings, offices, and warehouses, all thickly shrouded in an even more poisonous atmosphere of expended gasses than elsewhere.
"Jeez, the smell's worse here, than back at the Depot."
"Well, boss, the quicker we find Norquist's place the better." Claire aiming for the high ranges, rather optimistically. "Where'd the cab driver say it was, again?"
"This way, I think." John not quite certain he had taken the right direction on waving goodbye to the taxi in question. "God, I feel like that guy who got lost in the Amazon forests."
"Yeah, probably." John's mind elsewhere as they walked along the street. "Hey! Here it is, by God!"
"Bully!" Claire smiling at her bosses' childish enthusiasm. "Here, lem'me lead the way, I got a way with reception personnel, y'know—watch me."
Inside the unprepossessing one-storey brick building they found themselves in a long office; an open area with bench seats against the wall for the Public and, behind an astonishingly long counter, the private demesne of the office proper, manned—or actually, womanned—by about thirty secretaries or stenographers, or, perhaps, both. Claire, nothing loth, battering the nearby desk-bell to within an inch of its life.
"Hey, nix the campanology lesson, will ya; this ain't St. Jude's." The speaker being a young fresh-faced blonde with, clearly, a sharp attitude. "I can hear ya; see ya too, if that's any better. What d'ya want?"
"The Boss." Claire making her needs perfectly plain. "Drag him out'ta whatever hole he's in an' tell him the Big Boys an' Gals wan'na play."
But the secretary-cicerone was up for this, licking her lips happily, ready for the main event of the evening, though it was still only 10.30am.
"Oh, we got ourselves a coupl'a clowns—I always did like the Circus, from when I was a gentle nice giggling gal in plaits—but that was long ago, lady. Wha' ya want, for real?"
Sighing heavily, though unwilling to peremptorily take over from his second-in-command, John came to Claire's rescue.
"We're here on business—business, y'know. We'd like to talk with your Boss about same business. Our business being of some interest and necessity to us. Please get your boss—before I jumps this counter, an' goes lookin' fer the guy myself, OK?"
Standing back a pace, for a better view of this Assyrian from the High Sierras obviously eyeing Norquist Tooling like the Fold, in the poem, the secretary raised her eyebrows—a beautiful sight in itself—and pursed her lips; still becoming, though somewhat reflective of a certain lack of general bonhomie, then she made her mind up.
"OK-OK, buster, don't get 'em in a tangle, will ya. Gim'me five."
Saying which she turned on her heels and started off for the far end of the office, clearly not aiming to return anytime soon. John turning to gaze at the unprepossessing benches along the wall.
"They look hard, but there ain't anythin' else—so, let's park ourselves, probably for the duration."
John was nearly right; in fact, it was just over a quarter of an hour later when the Siren returned to open the counter-flap and gesture her prisoners, without any accompanying smile, to follow her.
The manager's office was also what could only have been expected in the circumstances; small square low-ceilinged dingy in the extreme, with every available space covered with loose files, books, documents, and folded or partially unrolled plans. Behind the squat desk, itself creaking under the weight of further files and volumes of arcane knowledge, sat a strong solid square man in his fifties, though certainly still in fine physical condition.
"Garry's the name, Garry Parker,—don't mind Emily, she's young, an' will come right in the end yet, given the chance. So, what can I do for you both? Looking to expand your business in'ta heavy machinery? What d'ya produce, by-'n-by?"
Ten minutes later, not without some by-roads into uncharted territory when Garry misunderstood John's purpose, they finally came to some kind of understanding.
"Ah, the Flint-Colling aero engine? Yeah, well, yeah."
"You don't sound any too happy about the machine, Mr Parker?" John frowning with intent at this unhelpful answer.
"That dam' engine's been the bane of my life, since first we entered into contract to supply the dam' gearing for it." Garry shifting uncomfortably on his chair. "Not an engine usually supplied for purposes of keeping aeroplanes in the air, y'know. Generally used to power heavy agricultural machines, tractors, reapers, sheavers, an' suchlike."
"So why'd Grant's, in Lansing, want it in particular, then?"
"God knows." Garry shrugging disconsolately. "We scrambled around, finally found a company that'd supply one, with the relevant changes—a tractor engine straight off the assembly-line not being able, like I said, to power an aircraft, y'know."
"Which company?" Claire keeping tabs on the important issues.
"Carlsson's, Agricultural Equipment; out'ta Waukesha, just five mile west of here—"
"Thank God for that!" John relieved beyond belief.
"Nothing, go on."
"Well, I contracted with Grant Tooling and the Tarleton Investment Company, and Carlsson's Agricultural; and have I seen a single red cent from any o'them yet, I ask's ya? No, I dam' well haven't."
"Ah, like that, is it." Claire attempting a tone of quiet soothing understanding, and failing miserably.
"Lady, you're kickin' me when I'm down—give over."
"So, what do you two dicks, sorry ma'am, want again?"
"Were you, or your workers, actively involved in accessing the engine?" John hitting the sore spot of the investigation for the first time. "That is did anyone under your command actually handle any smallest iota of its bulk or being, at any time?"
Garry thought about this question with some concentration, before answering.
"No, is the answer." He shrugging once more. "We took care of the paper-work; saw that the correct changes to the back-up assembly systems were in order, and that kind of thing; all by phone and mail. Then we got the complete signatures and receipts when the thing was sent to Delacote. That's all I know; except for the fact we haven't been paid, yet."
"Is that so—I weep for you; I really do, having some sort'a idea how you feel." John nodding solemnly to back up his words and tone. "So, gim'me Carlsson's address in Waukesha, an' we'll get out'ta your hair."
"Easy, I got several of their receipts in this file—take a couple, they won't be missed; me thinking from what you've said I'm gon'na have to write the whole contract off, in the end.
"No doubt; well, thanks for your time."
Back out in the street they held a conference.
"First thing, we find a dam' taxi—"
"—second, we head for Waukesha—"
"—and third, we take down whoever's in charge, leaving the legalities to take care of themselves—God, I'm fed up with this case." John sighing heavily as they meandered along the dusty smelly street. "Jee-sus, where's this god-awful smell comin' from?"
Claire had been observing her surrounding environment and could answer this with some clarity.
"Fancy it's from that meat-packing plant, some further up the street—see, over there?"
"Jeez, let's get the hell out'ta here."
Sentry Drive, Waukesha, when their cab dropped them there was, to Claire and John's by now somewhat jaundiced views, a much more thriving get-up-and-go industrial district than those of its nearby neighbor. Carlsson Agricultural Equipment Inc., spread itself over a wide area; a three-storey brownstone holding the offices and fronting the street, while beyond were a multiplicity of engineering shops, power-houses and chimneys rising a hundred feet in the air and, of course, giving vent to thick dark noxious gasses.
"Thought you were supposed to come to Waukesha for health an' spa waters?" Claire a little behind the times, for once.
"If ever, certainly not anymore." John being as concise as need be. "I'll do the talking this time, OK?"
"Sure thing, boss."
Curiously, it took little talking before the duo found themselves in a well-appointed office, resplendent with all modern conveniences to the efficient working of an well-organized business. Behind the desk, clear of almost anything other than an inkwell and pens, sat a sixty-something rotund man clearly in full control of his environment.
"Samuel J Carruthers, what can I do for you?"
After the necessary explanations, which both Claire and John both had off by heart by now, a full discussion could proceed.
"Ah yes, the dam' Flint-Colling aero engine." Carruthers intoning this with a degree of dark foreboding that would have made a stage actor's name. "We have had, uum, some trouble over that contract."
"Details?" John having long since lost all wish to stick with the polite formalities.
"Well, let's see, we've had to forego payment on various ancillary aspects dealing with it, because of lack of payment from the original sponsors, you know." Carruthers spreading his arms wide in defence. "We don't get paid, how can we pay others?"
"Yes, quite." Claire opening a notebook and preparing to take down the generalities of the discussion. "So, what happened?"
Carruthers sat back, eyeing the ceiling as he brought his mind round to the incidentals involved.
"Apart from non-payment, we've since discovered the clients have filed for bankruptcy, and high-tailed it to who knows where." He twisting his lips sulkily over this point. "Then, we lost one of our best engineers, Robert Wilson; disappeared off the face of the earth, without leaving a goodbye note; don't know where the dam' he is. He being important because he designed the gearing equipment for the new engine. Without him we're a little at sea, re the dam' engine."
John considered this new information for some time, before getting down to specifics.
"How was he, previous? Happy as a lark? Or some dismal an' twitchy, overall?"
Now Carruthers took a moment to think this over.
"Well, t'tell the truth the latter of those hypotheses'd fit the position right well. Why?"
"When the engine, in its crate, was delivered to Meidener Field Aerodrome, Delacote, there was a dead man alongside the engine." John giving forth with this information, expecting a reaction—which is what he got.
"Dead man?" Carruthers sat up quickly, holding the arms of his chair tightly. "Sort'a medium height bloke, thin faced, sparse grey hair, wedding ring lined wholesale with small diamonds on his left hand, and the top joint of his right little finger missing?"
"To a tee."
"Sh-t, that's Rob. Oh, God!"
Some time passed while everyone considered these further developments, Carruthers being the first to break the silence.
"What does all this mean?"
"From what I can gather," John having meantime cleared up certain details in his mind. "the clients were in some sort of criminal clique with this Wilson guy, over drugs, I fancy. They sold 'em; he did the same, while also getting to be a user himself. Things got out'ta hand, he absconded with the gang's latest delivery; they took off for the wide horizon, and Wilson ended up dead in the engine crate with his ill-gotten gains."
"Yeah, that'd about cover the whole sorry odyssey, sure."
Back in his office in Delacote City, NH, the next day—with Claire at his side—John considered the outcome of his latest case.
"With that call from the 5th Precinct, Sonia just put through, everything's cleared up properly now."
"Except catching the villains." Claire wanting to make plain the main disadvantage of the case.
"There's that, surely." John bravely admitting the weaker points of his thesis. "But we got paid by old man Letherby, so all's sunshine an' roses, after all. And it brings up one further point in question."
"What'd that be, boss?"
"We got'ta get you issued with a private dick's licence, pardon my French, as soon as possible, if ya want to continue being my back-up guy—er, gal. How's about it?"
Claire thought about this sudden change in her life-career schedule, found it acceptable and said so.
"I'm up for it, boss."
"Great, break out the bubbly! Or, rather, how about dinner tonight at Riley's; just to make things doubly sure?"
Claire thought about this, too.
"OK, works for me. Bubbly, steaks, fine wine; but no hanky-panky—just so we know what the ground rules are, buster—I mean, boss."
"Oh, OK, if you insist."
Another 'John Drage, Private Detective' story will arrive shortly.