'The Woman in 31B Incident'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever, lovers, are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. They investigate the history of a body in a Hotel.

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.

—O—

"Murder, accident, or natural?" Alice starting as she meant to go on, consummately professionally.

"—er, er, we don't quite know, yet." Mr Parkinson, Manager of the Chelacote Hotel on Burnside and Galloway, Delacote City, NH, this bright June morning of 1934, was still a little stunned by the occasion under discussion. "Suppose we must wait for the medical opinion."

"Pity you didn't call us in earlier; what time's it now? Half-one in the afternoon?" Fiona curling an unappreciative lip at the manager's lack of foresight. "Cops' already been all over the joint, an' the body taken away t'the mortuary. Doesn't leave us much t'go on; have the cops sealed the room, by the way?"

"No, no." Mr Parkinson shaking his head hurriedly. "Just told me not to let it till they heard from the medical people; maybe a day or so."

"Ah," Alice on top of this piece of good luck like a beagle after a downed pheasant. "We can go over the place, then. Probably won't find much, but you never know. Did the cops grab all the deceased's belongings?"

"No. They said there didn't seem to be any sign of violence; so they left everything in place."

"Good, good." Alice entirely satisfied with this statement. "So, which room was it, again? But don't look for fast, if any, results. The deceased almost certainly being in transit without much identification; but you never know."

"We'll be pleased for anything you can discover, Miss Drever." Mr Parkinson showing all the relief he clearly felt. "The Hotel's reputation isn't helped by a body being discovered in one of its rooms. The quicker, er, innocent motivations can be identified, the quicker we can, er, dispense with any more, um, adverse publicity over the matter."

"Hmm." Fiona not much impressed by this uncaring attitude. "Which room?"

"31B, third floor."

"We're there." Alice taking charge with her usual calm aplomb; Fiona following dutifully in her loved partner's wake as, having been provided with the necessary door-key, they left the manager's office.

—O—

Inside the rather ordinary room Fiona and Alice stood silently, taking stock of their surroundings.

"Single room with bathroom." Alice, as was her wont, cataloguing the facilities down to the last nail. "Desk, bed, wardrobe, general furnishings—aha, suitcase."

Pouncing on this single item of personal luggage Alice hoisted it from the corner it sat in onto the ruffled bed; taking no stock of the fact that was where the body had resided.

"Hey, Al? The bed; what about clues?" Fiona's professional outlook being appalled to its foundations.

"Gah, the cops've been all over this place, already." Alice taking no prisoners as she flicked the catches on the suitcase. "Anything t'be seen, they'll have spotted it, don't worry yourself. So, what have we here?"

Fiona stepped closer, looking over her partner's shoulder as she picked at the cases' contents.

"Wha'cha got?"

"Gim'me a chance." Alice rifling through the case with delicate fingers. "OK, a blouse, green silk, hot stuff. Some underclothes, silk again. A couple of magazines, a pair of slacks, pale grey cotton. Leather gloves, a make-up bag—just the usual contents. A book, 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', by James M. Cain, hmm."

"Strange title, is it a clue?"

"Nah," Alice giving her loved other half a withering look. "just a book, is all."

"Oh."

Alice continued her search of the receptacle, throwing odds and ends on the bed cover as she did so. A few more small articles of clothing, a couple of handkerchiefs, a small leather case with a fountain pen, silver pencil, sharpener and pencil refills, and a letter without its envelope. This folded sheet of paper she held in her hand, studying it intently.

"Well, ain't ya gon'na read it?" Fiona itching to get on.

"Should we?" Alice reluctant to do the natural thing. "I mean, private, and all that."

This was too much for the cold detective by her side.

"She's kicked the bucket, dear; won't hurt her now, whoever the dam' reads her letters—read it an' see if it'll be any help, or not."

Encouraged in this slightly dubious manner Alice gave up the moral fight, unfolding the single sheet of paper.

"OK, let's see—right, it's from some friend or other, writing to Sylvia—want me t'read it out?"

"That would help, darlin'."

"OK, I get you." Alice pouting her lips censoriously. "it says—I received yours of the twelfth, dear, and am only now replying because what you wanted me to find out took some time. Dan Langton don't live in Laconia no more, he's re-located to Barrington, which will make your work harder, seeing it is another county. Anyway, at least you know where he is now. I thought we might—. The rest of the short note just talks about meeting this Sylvia in Portsmouth next month for a day out."

Fiona pondered these facts, her brow frowning deeply; which, if she had realised she would have stopped instantly.

"OK-OK, so we got two interested party's. Who'd ya say wrote this note, again?"

"One, Paige Graham, out of Hookset."

"Hookset? Where'n hell's that?"

"Dun'no, rings a bell sure enough, though; have to look it up on the map."

"Huh, good start." Fiona sniffing censoriously at this lack of the professional touch she so much adored and aspired to. "So, Dan Langton, what about him, ducks?"

"What about him?" Alice not much interested. "What's he to the dead body in the hotel? He's shacked up in Barrington, while the late deceased, deceased here in Delacote."

"He's a cog in the wheel; the lady's dead; we still, at the present moment don't know how; which, in my book, means we find the bozo an' put him through the grinder just as fast as the trains work."

"Oh, God!"

"So, Barrington. Nice name—where is it, exactly?"

Faced with the struggle of searching the entire map of the state for a small town she had never previously heard of Alice wasn't slow in finding an out.

"Langton, we don't know more than he's in Barrington, somewhere. Paige Graham, in Hookset, we got her address, re this here letter."

Fiona digested this possibility.

"Good thinkin', gal; we'll hit the one we can find fer sure first—Langton can wait. So, Hookset, that's in north Rockingham, near Merrimack, ain't it?"

"Nah, Strafford County, north of Manchester; now I recall." Alice finally remembering from a previous visit on another case, just over a year previously. "We went there, Manchester I mean, a year ago or so—forgotten?"

Fiona cast this inference aside with dignity.

"I never forget, lady; I just file some information in the secure vaults for future reference, is all."

"Har-dy-har-dy-har-har, lover."

—O—

Being on a tight schedule, and never trusting the trains, anyway, the ladies took Fiona's large DeSoto four-door sedan. Which meant that, the next day just after noon, they hit the outskirts of Hookset, Strafford County, on the main Highway going north to Concord. The community, it turning out, being a dispersed selection of small groups of buildings scattered somewhat haphazardly on the west side of the Merrimack River; for the most part being hidden in the surrounding forest country which spread all round, almost from citizens' back stoops for miles in every direction.

After touching on the first sizeable number of buildings set close enough to each other to logically allow of them at least being called a hamlet Fiona stopped the car, staring around at what little was visible.

"God, not much here. Doesn't seem t'be a centre to the place. Are we gon'na have'ta knock on everyone's dam' door, till we find dear Paige?"

"Ain't there a garage, or motel, or hotel, or large store?" Alice's deep-seated city-upbringing being no help at all.

"Looks like we're dam' lucky there's any houses at all, even."

On the sidewalk, as they conversed, an old man in a floppy hat, hunter's jacket, and glaringly red-checked shirt passed by, on matters unknown. Alice was quick to grab this Heaven-sent opportunity.

"Hey, mister?" She having slid the car's side-window down so fast smoke rose from the rubber sealing strip. "We're here on a family visit—looking for Paige Graham's house."

"Ah, yeah, sure enough." The man seemed willing to stop in his tracks to gossip with passing strangers. "Paige, know her well, nice lady. Ya lookin' ter visit, then?"

"Sure thing, great friend of ours." Alice lying like it was going out of fashion.

"Well, let's see, where be we now—ah, Bertrand Avenue." The man gazed back the way he had come, then forward into the future, then back at the women anxiously waiting in the car. "Well, fust, ya got'ta turn this fine-lookin' vehicle round some; she livin' down the other way, ya know. Go back t'the intersection—"

"Intersection?" Fiona lost for any meaning to this esoteric description of the lanes criss-crossing the local district. "Which intersection's that? I ain't seen no intersection since we passed through Manchester."

This admittance made the man bend over; laughing somewhat more strongly than the subject required, so Alice and Fiona thought.

"Ah, city folks, they sure enough have a different outlook on Life, an' natur', an' what-all." He snickered some more before regaining his composure. "Back-away's ya must'a crossed the town-centre; where Madison Road, Jesmaine Street, Landover Road, an' Bertrand Avenue, meets up. That there's the Intersection; you came this-away, along Bertrand Avenue; Mrs Graham lives out beyond Jesmaine Street. Ya goes back, turns along Jesmaine Street—thet's the one goin' west—then looks fer a one-storey shack painted light blue among the trees on the right, thet's her hidin' place. OK?"

"Sure thing, Mister; thanks." Alice giving a parting flourish of her right hand as she wound the side-window back up. "Let's go, Fay, you heard the man."

"God!"

—O—

The house in question was little more, as the man had suggested, than a single-storey shack sitting some thirty yards back from the road; which, itself, was hardly more than a wide lane. It was surrounded on either hand by stands of tall firs which, rearing high over its roof, allowed they were as thick to the rear as elsewhere. Fiona took great care locking her adored DeSoto before they started the long walk up to the house's front door.

"Who's to steal the dam' thing, out in the sticks here, baby?"

"Never can tell." Fiona determined to take no chances. "Don't ya read the papers? All sorts o'nasty goin's-on out in places like this. Better safe, than we have'ta take taxis an' the train back home."

"Huh! Ring the dam' bell, lady."

Actually, as they immediately found out, there was no bell; instead Fiona had to make do with rapping on the side of the inner door, after pulling back the fine-mesh screen-door. But they only had to wait a few seconds until the door opened to reveal the house's owner.

"Hallo, good afternoon, what can I do for you?"

The lady was in her early forties, brown-haired in a short shingled style, round-faced, and attired in a flowered dress, red on white. She had a cheery smile, and looked like everyone's favourite Aunt.

"Mrs Paige Graham?" Fiona leading-off with the main identification process.

"Yes; if you're here to tell me I've won some state-lottery or something I'm afraid you've come to the wrong house—I never buy such things."

"No, no, something, er, entirely different." Fiona now a little flustered. "You, ah, you wrote a letter to someone named Sylvia, just under a fortnight ago?"

Mrs Graham frowned, clearly wondering how these unknown women knew so much about her private doings.

"How do you know that? And why have you come to ask me?"

Knowing they had reached the crisis point Fiona buckled-to, facing the moment with a brave mien.

"We're both, Alice an' I, detectives, private, out'ta Delacote City." She tried to inject a quiet calm tone into her words, so as not to frighten the woman too much. "We've been engaged by a Hotel in the City to investigate an, er, problem they're facing at the moment."

Once again Mrs Graham frowned, clearly non-plussed by this apparent request.

"I haven't been to Delacote City in, oh, some six months."

"No, no," Alice interjecting here. "it's not to do with you personally; it's to do with this Sylvia lady you wrote to."

"Sylvia Marlaine? I've known her for, oh, five years now. What about her?"

Seeing no way of putting it any more easily or simply Fiona stated the hard facts, as being probably the best way forward for all concerned.

"She's dead. She was found in a hotel room two days ago. No-one yet knows for sure how she died; so the hotel authorities have engaged our Agency to find out the facts about the, er, the, er,—about Miss Marlaine. D'you suppose we could come inside, an' discuss the matter some more?"

—O—

The coffee had been brewed, mainly by Alice acting as kitchen assistant to the still shocked Mrs Graham; they sat in the bright front room on a long sofa; and Mrs Graham had asked the usual questions, to which neither Fiona nor Alice had any clear answers as yet.

"So you don't know how she—ah, how she died?"

"No, ma'am." Alice taking up the necessity of explanations. "All we know is she was found, in her bedroom at the hotel, with no signs of violence; but the cops are waiting for the autopsy results before they make an official statement, or take any kind of material action in the matter."

"Dear me, it's a real shock, you understand." Mrs Graham shook her head over her hardly touched coffee-cup. "Why, I spoke with her only last week. Tuesday, it was, no sign of anything wrong with her then; a little pale and peaky maybe, I thought, but nothing more."

"Did she tell you what she would be doing, in the near future?" Fiona searching for any fact, no matter how insignificant. "Tell you she meant t'visit Delacote, for instance?"

"No, no." Mrs Graham replacing her untouched cup on its saucer. "Just a friendly chat in the morning. She lives—Ah, that is, I mean, er, lived, in Pembroke, you know."

"No trouble, Mrs Graham," Alice trying for the gentle tone. "this sort of thing is always a shock; is Mr Graham going to be home, possibly?"

"No, he died ten year since; Rebecca, my daughter, she's off at University." Mrs Graham shook her head again. "What on earth could have happened? It's not like Sylvia at all."

"Had she been under any sort of strain recently, that you might have noticed, or commented on?" Fiona striking out on another angle.

Yet again Mrs Graham shook her head.

"No, she never told me there was any trouble or bother. Everything seemed to be just fine."

"You say she lived in Pembroke; if you could give us her address that would help us a great deal." Fiona gently steering the conversation towards important matters. "Did she live with anyone, by the by?"

"No, she wasn't married; lived alone, but in a nice house inherited from her mother." Mrs Graham perked-up somewhat discussing this point. "She, Sylvia's mother that is, was a relation of the Champollions; the Champollions of Concord, you know. Very wealthy family."

This made both Alice and Fiona sit up and take sharper notice.

"Ah, was Sylvia independently wealthy herself, by any chance?" Fiona cutting to the quick, a sharp gleam in her brown eyes. "Or, at least, rich in some sense of the term, at all?"

Mrs Graham considered this point carefully before replying.

"I suppose she was; though exactly how much so I never enquired, as you may well understand. But, certainly, rich in the way ordinary persons understand the term—yes, I would say so."

—O—

Supplied with the late deceased's address in Pembroke, and after reassuring Mrs Graham as much as they could, the ladies' left to continue their search for information further north. They crossed the Merrimack River back to the east side, continuing north for only a few miles before entering the outskirts of Suncook; a fact which woke Alice's views on local geography, she perusing the map they were using to find their way in hostile territory—the countryside in general.

"Suncook, from what I can make out here, it's part of Pembroke; a sort of preliminary suburb." Alice pored over the map, eyeing the fine details. "We better go on further north. I think Pembroke proper starts when we cross over the Suncook River; that should be the area we find Latimer Road in."

"You hope, doll."

"Never been here before—hope's all I got, sis."

"Har!"

Another ten minutes driving found them on an urban road in what seemed a personable small town; not large by any means, but certainly prosperous.

"Well, now, Latimer Road?"

But Alice was on top of this query.

"Look, there's a police office over to your right." Alice's sweeping gaze having taken in every detail of the locale in an instant. "We can park right outside it, too. Look sharp, baby."

"Grr!"

Inside the office there was a peaceful silence, as of a town where little actual crime ever took place—not what could be called real crime, anyway. The only thing which hit the women as they strolled up to the low public counter was a rich perfumy aroma of hot sun-warmed varnish, most of the room's fittings apparently being made of wood. Behind the counter the room housed a line of desks, all holding telephones, none of which was in use because the only person on duty was a single woman officer bending over a water-cooler in the far corner trying to fix something on it. Alice, ready and willing, tapped the counter bell with enthusiasm and confidence; the room re-echoing to the sharp ringing. The officer raised her head, glanced over at them, then returned to her former task; her back showing to all and sundry she had a mission she wasn't going to give up till it was finished. Finally, two minutes later, she placed some tool or other on a table nearby and condescended to approach her visitors.

"Yeah, ladies, what can I do fer you?"

"We're looking for Latimer Road." Alice containing her rapidly growing annoyance at being ignored with some difficulty. "Want to visit someone there; or, at least, find their house."

The officer gazed at Alice and Fiona with the trained police officer's sharp eye; missing nothing, taking everything in for future reference.

"You're both private dicks, ain't yer?"

Caught short, with no excuse coming to mind in a hurry, Fiona fell back on the truth.

"Yeah, we are. We're working with the Chelacote Hotel, in Delacote City; a woman passed away therein some two-three days since. No sign, yet anyway, of foul play, but the management want to go into the deceased's antecedents, just in case of, you know, dodgy goings on somewhere along the line."

"Name."

"Eh?"

"The lady's name—the deceased."

"Marlaine, Sylvia." Alice supplying this information through gritted teeth; she obviously under the impression information should be flowing in the opposite direction.

"Ah, yes." The officer turned from the counter, walking through the office to a distant desk where she bent over again, consulting a file there. Finally, satisfied, she ambled back, taking her time.

"We got a call from Delacote's Fifth Precinct, yesterday; seems they're snappier on the trail than you. Told us t'go out t'Latimer Road an' take a gander over the late Miss Marlaine's pad—the which officers from this Department did."

A silence ensued, Alice later positive she heard three flies buzzing on the distant windows, and a woodworm going about its lawful purposes in the frame of the nearest desk beyond the counter. Finally she broke under the strain.

"So?"

"Wha' ya mean,—so?" The officer obviously unwilling to share information without a fight, or even under extreme torture.

Alice sighed gently; she exhaling while Fiona inhaled in concern, knowing her partner's short temper.

"Look, officer," Alice's tone, using all her self-control, was now dangerously calm and quiet. "we're just here to carry out our duty, apropos the Hotel management back in Delacote. All we want is to verify some details, cast an eye over her house, then go about our business, is all. What's wrong with that?"

The officer frowned over this question, taking it very seriously indeed. Fiona, hoping to calm the situation before it got out of hand, finally stepped in.

"If your officers' found anything relevant to the case you've probably already sent such on t'Delacote an' the Fifth Precinct." She shrugged, as if the matter wasn't all that problematical. "If there's no reason for us not t'take a look over her house ourselves, as a result, then everything's hunky-dory—but if you found material that's of some importance, or think the house's still banned property, give us the wink an' we'll step back an' return t'Delacote, easy as pie. What d'ya say, officer?"

Another hard-won minute of Time struggled through life in the long empty aromatic office; then the officer made her decision.

"OK, we didn't find anything of any interest, that had any obvious relevance to the woman's death." She bent to open a draw under the counter. "Can ya show me your papers? Right, OK; you're bona-fide dicks. So, this here's the key t'the front door of One Seven Eight Latimer Road. It's a old mansion, three floors, with a roofed portico; brownstone, with window shutters painted a dark red; no servants. Two tall chimney stacks rising above the roof, one at each end of the building. Ya can't miss it. Bring the key back before five this evening, or I'll put an APB out on your butts, OK?"

"Thanks, officer."

"Great, just fine. Wonderful.—er, see you."

Outside in the street, standing by their sedan, Alice sighed in relief.

"God, what a woman. I very nearly told her what I thought of her, Pembroke, and the local Police Department in general."

"Just as well you didn't, baby." Fiona acknowledging the reality of their late confrontation. "If ya had we'd both be doin' a six month stretch in the cells in the basement of that dam' office, right now."

"Hu-urph!"

—O—

The inconvenience started as soon as Fiona's DeSoto pulled up at the road-side outside the mansion, itself easily identifiable from the police-officer's description. Sitting by the kerb-edge was a small open-backed truck, already half-full of various items of household furniture; none of which, to the detectives' expert eyes, looked like bargain store material.

"That there's vintage—I mean antique stuff, baby."

Glancing at the truck Fiona nodded in agreement.

"Looks mighty like someone's clearing out the house, takin' the good stuff first. That police-officer never mentioned shenanigans like this goin' on, did she?"

"She did not." Alice shrugging casually, getting into fighting mode. "Let's go up and see what the inmates, whoever they are, are up to—and why."

The house stood back some twenty yards from the sidewalk, a gravel path leading to the front door, protected by an overhanging portico held up by two imposing Ionic columns. The door itself was wide open, giving glimpses of a dark, though wide and high-ceilinged, hall within. Fiona and Alice strode in as if they and not the late Sylvia owned the joint. A large wide staircase ran up the right-hand wall to the upper floor; some ten feet up this a young woman stood looking further up, as yet oblivious to the fact she was no longer mistress, alone, of all she surveyed.

"Hey, Ted, ya ready yet? The truck's near full, an' we only got an hour an' a half t'get there."

"Ho, lady, what in hell's goin' on here? Ya got identification, or do I call the cops." Fiona in her element.

The woman spun round so fast she teetered, nearly losing her balance on the not overwide steps.

"Hoa! What the f-ck? Who're you?"

"We, lady, are the detectives." Alice entering the comedy on cue. "Detectives who've just been t'the local cop-shop, spoken with the female denizen there, and are now about to find a phone in this shack an' report what we're lookin' at right now. What the hell do you think you're doing?"

The woman, was now seen to be in her late twenties or possibly early thirties, brown-haired, thin-faced, with a sharp un-satisfied expression that looked as if it had taken up permanent residence some years previously, and a thin physique clothed in a loose dark brown cotton dress. At the moment her mouth was working up and down as if she meant, even wanted, to speak but just couldn't. Then she regained control of her voice.

"We, er, we, aah,—Ted! Ted! Get your ass down here, we got visitors."

From somewhere above and out of sight a deep voice answered this call for assistance.

"Visitors? What the f-ck! Ya told me this joint was empty; we'd have the whole afternoon t'work. What the hell?"

"Ted, bring yer baseball bat—these two females look as if they need some attention from someone who knows how'ta use one." The woman making her feelings towards her unexpected visitors wholly clear. "Hurry up, Ted."

Fiona glanced across to Alice, standing some two feet to her left on the wide tiled floor of the hall; they both being some twelve feet from the stair itself. Alice raised her eyebrows, regarding her partner with a calm confident expression, as of someone who knew exactly what was about to transpire, and what she and Fiona's response would be.

At the top of the stair a dark shadow appeared. On closer observation this showed itself to be a large, very much so, man some six feet tall and broad in proportion—and he was, indeed, swinging a light-coloured baseball bat in his left hand. He paused to take in the situation unfolding beneath him on the ground floor, glanced at the now openly sneering woman half-way up the stair close to him, then started down at an easy pace, swinging his bat in wide pretentious sweeps as if wanting to impress close friends with his professionalism.

"Out'ta the way, Laura, I'll deal with these two wh-res. OK, babies, not so dam' sure o'yersel's now, are ya, he-he?"

He came on till he was around five or six steps from the hallway floor, where he paused to impress his victims with his weapon, which he swung high over his head.

"Ya both want some o'this, or are ya gon'na beat it back t'where ya came from, b-tches?"

His voice was deep, and his expression full of a hardly suppressed desire to quit conversing and break into action instead. He took another threatening step down the stair towards his intended victims; at which point, moving smoothly with expert ease Fiona reached into her handbag, on its long strap over her left shoulder, her hand re-emerging holding her Colt .45 automatic. As she performed this socially necessary action Alice, beside her, dove her right hand into her own handbag to bring to the light of day her Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. Both ladies pointing their weapons at the persons taking up space on the staircase, holding the firearms two-handed, straight, and stock-still.

"Laddie," Fiona spoke in her coldest tone. "ya got half a second t'drop that child's toy. One word, one step further, one dam' anything further, an' I plugs ya from head t'toe."

"Lady, I don't like your tone none," Alice bringing her sensitive nature to the conversation. "so's I'm aiming right at your heart, supposing such resides anywhere in your body. My friend shoots the big hulk there, I shoots you, that's for dam' sure. Don't tell me you ain't armed; that means nothing t'me, I'll shoot you anyway, as being a threat t'life an' limb. You just stands where ya are, lady; an' hope your monster boyfriend don't do anything silly; 'cause my friend'll shoot him t'shreds sure as day follows night. An' when she does that, I follows some promiscuous, using you as target practice."

"The authorities'll probably have'ta bury you both in unmarked pauper's graves, in pieces." Fiona bringing the conversation to an end. "You, buster, lose the sports equipment, right now, or you're dead. Lady, stand t'the side, against the wall there, an' don't move nor say anythin'; your speakin' days bein' over, till you begs fer mercy t'the judge in court, that is. OK, bozo, what's it t'be? Life, or a dam' painful, messy death fer ya both?"

—O—

The police office, an hour later, was thronged with what seemed to Fiona and Alice the entire police presence for the whole county of Strafford. All the formally empty desks were occupied by at least two officers each; the telephones, across the office, were ringing almost constantly; and the noise of Authority going about its natural purposes was nearly mind-numbing. Fiona and Alice had been taken to a side-office where the local Superintendent laid his weary head of a day; through the outer glass wall of which the detectives could see the ongoing activity as if watching a lively lion's enclosure at the local zoo. Superintendent Barlow thrust his receiver back on the telephone stand with a heavy thump, turning to examine the two women yet again.

"Well, ladies, some hornets' nest you've kicked wide-open ter-day, an' no mistake."

"Seems that way, Super." Fiona smiling in reply. "Looks like you've managed to break a big crime in progress here."

"Yeah, looks more'n more that way, fer sure." Barlow inspected his finger-nails for a few seconds, then re-entered the fray. "That was Inspector Fletcher, Fifth Precinct, Delacote City; seems ter think you both is real daisies, nuthin' agin' ya at all. In fact, can't stop singin' yer praises, as if ya both were Archangels just down from the Place up Above fer a friendly visit."

"Ha-ha." Alice essaying a humorous note which, on taking a closer look at the officer, she realised was probably ill-advised.

"Yeah, so, just go over the details once more, will ya?" Barlow leaning his elbows on the desktop as if settling in for the long haul. "Mighty fine tale, I got'ta admit, by the by. Complicated, no sign of outright villainy, jes' some faint traces of something not quite right; an' you both followed your instincts all the way here on hardly no evidence or facts whatever. I'm impressed, no doubt about it, I'm impressed. If ya both hadn't insisted on goin t'the Marlaine mansion, those two'd have emptied the whole place. They already had a case of jewellery an' a box-full of Treasury Bonds that'd have set 'em both up fer the rest o'their lives—if'n they hadn't been so desirous of more still, an' were dead set on goin' through the mansion like termites through a dry wooden floor."

"We were just lucky, is all." Fiona trying gently to take some of the tension out of the atmosphere. "Remember, we ain't on a case for clients investigating the lady's death; just for the Hotel back in Delacote, who wanted to make sure they could outride any scandal, if such was goin' t'rear it's head—which, in course, it ain't, now."

Barlow frowned over this reading of the situation then, apparently finding nothing actually actionable in it, allowed it to freely echo round the small office.

"How'd they kill Sylvia?" Alice knowing it was probably the wrong thing to ask, but she couldn't help herself.

"We finally got the post-mortem report back." Barlow shrugged, seeing no reason now to keep the information secret. "They, Laura Bannion an' Phil Morgan, had made themselves pretty useful to Sylvia over the last year or so. Sylvia bein' one o'they naïve trustin' kind'a dames who never see the blackness behind the silver lining, if ya follow me."

Neither Fiona nor Alice were quite sure if they did, but neither was going to interrupt the Superintendent's flow.

"They'd finally inveigled themselves in'ta just the right place they wanted—Sylvia's good books, no complaints admitted." Barlow shook his head at the innocence of some; he having bidden this concept goodbye sometime in his early teens. "So they moved just under a week ago. They got a slow-acting poison, Niovane Nitrate the Doctors' say, administered it to Sylvia in her tea over three days; then, three days ago, gave her a triple amount; it bein' tasteless she never knew. Though it seems feelin' a little under the weather she went t'Delacote anyway, an' the rest is history. She weren't more'n an hour in the Chelacote Hotel a'fore she died, like a dry twig snappin' underfoot.—an' that was that. Laura an' Phil, unbeknownst still t'anyone or their grandpa's, waited their opportunity then, when they thought there weren't gon'na be any follow-up o'consequence, used their own key t'enter the establishment an' start strippin' it t'the bone."

"Why'd they take the furniture?" This still being something of a mystery to Fiona. "Lot'ta hard work, an' time-consuming; and they were on, so it looks, a schedule, anyway."

Barlow nodded, accepting this hypothesis.

"Yeah, they were gon'na take a late-night train t'Delacote, then another south t'NY. Lose themselves in the metropolis." Barlow shrugged again. "Why the furniture, ya say,—after they already had the Bonds an' jewellery? Jes' plain simple greed; they'd been told by Sylvia how it was all mostly antique an' mighty valuable in certain markets. They thought they could have it transported by rail anonymously t'NY and sold in the auction houses there fer even more spondoolicks than they already had. Greed, jes' greed, is all."

—O—

The next day, back in their cosy office in the Packer Building, Delacote City, Fiona and Alice settled down to discuss their latest adventure.

"Well, that was a little hither an' thither."

Fiona laughed at this quaint remark.

"Surely was that, an' then some." Shaking her head as they sat at the long desk, case-files spread higgledy-piggledy all over the top. "A nasty situation, all round. A nice kind woman tries to be friends with some deadbeats, she never realising same, an' gets poisoned fer her trouble. All simply over money, too."

"Every crime's just over money, when you consider them from all angles." Alice showing her stoical, if not Depression-led, outlook on Life. "Theft, burglary, murder nine times out of ten, fraud especially, grifting in all sizes. All for money."

"Humph, suppose all we can say, it keeps us in useful occupation, at least."

"Har-har." Alice rose to go over to the coffee-percolator. "Want cream?"

Fiona considered the dubious merits of the ambrosia that fattens to that of the lack of same when you really want something to cheer you up.

"Two long splashes, dearie; I'm feelin' like I need'ta emulate Cleopatra, reclining in a bath o'milk, soothin' the fractured nerves as well as doin' your wrinkles no end of good. Make it three long splashes, lover."

"God, what a woman!"

The End.

—O—

Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—