'The Multiplicity Problem'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— John Drage is a private investigator in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. He and his fellow investigator, Claire Baxter, work their way through a normal day at the office.

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—

"Every day's a new day. Who said that?"

John Drage, head of Drage Private Investigators, Delacote City, NH, on this bright morning of June 1935, paused in fiddling with the loose documents spread across his desk to stare over at his helpmate, and assistant investigator, Claire Baxter, sitting at her own desk in the wide brightly lit office.

"Who said it? Just about every dam' man an' woman in Delacote, at one time or another." He having risen on the wrong side of his bed that morning. "If that's the best your readin' in Philosophy's taught ya, you need better books."

Claire, however, in her as yet short career in investigation for her boss had swiftly grown to understand his every mood.

"She let ya down, last night? Well, didn't I say two days since she wasn't your type?"

"Claire?"

"Yeah, boss?"

"Can it, will ya? I got a headache."

"Sorry, boss."

Feeling both tired and frustrated John fell to, sorting through the morning mail and the messages provided by Sonia, his secretary, taken from the phone that morning.

"Chr-st! Why don't people stop complainin', an' let me have a quiet day once in a while?"

"What's at the top o'the pile?" Claire taking the optimistic view. "Something juicy we can stick our talons in, and surprise everyone with our efficiency?"

John made a rude noise.

"Sonia's phone notes, first." He curling a supercilious lip as he gazed at the pile of little yellow slips. "A Mrs Garridge explains that her pet cat, Tai-Dumpling, has got himself lost; requires us to find him within the day as she intends travelling to NY this evening, says ten dollars for our trouble will certainly be sufficient; signing-off by ordering us not to waste time, but to get to it—and, she says, she means get to it."

"B-tch!" From Claire, unimpressed.

"No, dam' b-tch!" John having a decided opinion at short notice. "Sayonara, Mrs Gammidge."

"Garridge." Claire always one for the correct politenesses.

"Whatever." John shrugging as he screwed the note into a tiny ball, consigning it to the waste-paper basket with another round curse. "Who's next? Peter Duncan, Head of Personnel at Hardy's Outfitter's, on Veronica Street, Portsmouth, asks us to provide security cover for the ensuing four weeks in their five storey emporium. Says twenty investigators should be sufficient; also says my salary, inclusive of all expences, will be $200 dollars flat, no negotiation."

Claire laughed out loud.

"Well, that puts us in a Mexican stand-off, don't it?" She sniggering some more. "Either we're idiots, or he is. So, boss, which's it gon'na be?"

"Claire, as your boss I denigrate your sense of humor entirely."

"I'd be sad an' distressed, if I knew what that meant."

"Huh!" John consigning this note, too, to the eternal flames. "Next! Alfred Doanes, of Manchester, says he's harboured suspicions that a Mr Donald Morgan, of Morgan's Gas Station, ditto town, has been watering down his gas for the last several months. Tells us, Mr Doanes this is, to get on it, spare no expence, and when we collar the dam' b-st-rd, his phrase, he'll give us twenty dollars out'ta the kindness of his heart."

"Gordon Bennet!" Claire, for once, lost for words.

John flicked the offending note into the waste-bin with an expert aim born of years of experience.

"What follows?" He picking up the next note as if it had come from an infectious diseases ward. "Caroline Shaw aged ten years, of this parish, says her pet canary, Bertha, flew out the window yesterday and she's been crying ever since—can we do anything to help in her hour of need? Oh, God!"

Claire pondered this request from a broken heart with all the serious attention it deserved.

"What're we gon'na do about that one, boss?"

John frowned morosely, bringing his years of knowledge of humans' in distress to bear on the matter.

"Canary's are mostly yellow, ain't they?"

Claire raised her eyebrows, watching her bosses mental gears moving forward at phenomenal speed.

"—er, generally, I think."

"And, I expect, one sounds pretty much like any other?"

"One might suppose so." Claire hedging her bets on this technicality.

"Which means, if we buy a new bird, an' present it to the weeping mistress, she won't know the difference—right?"

Claire prevaricated over this interpretation of reality, too.

"Well,—"

" 'course that's how it'll be." John, ignoring any and every difficulty, going for the straight road to success. "Go out an' buy one; take it over t'the address, here it is; say we were very lucky, an' we hope dear Caroline keeps a sharper eye in future on her pet. That'll do it. No remuneration required, by the way."

Claire paused to let this sink in.

"Ya sure, boss?"

John looked up at his assistant, with a wide-open expression.

"Yeah, I mean it, Claire. I ain't gon'na be the one who ignores a kid in distress, you bet'cha. Take an hour; get a top-o'-the line bird; make Caroline happy. After all, it may be the best thing we do all day."

Claire smiled as she rose to do her duty.

"I'm on it, boss. You're some guy, John."

John glanced at Claire, then bowed his head over his remaining letters.

"Sure I am, lady. John Drage, Father Christmas, all the year round. God, I'll be happy, but poor, when I'm old."

"But you'll have hundreds of friends who'll see ya right, boss." Claire exiting the office before John could say anything in reply.

"Uurgh, women; ya do one middlin' good deed, an' they think you're a saint. Women!"

—O—

When Claire returned to the office, just over an hour later, she found John on the telephone, in the middle of an interesting discussion.

"—which is what I said before. Nah, you can't ask me t'do that sort'a thing; it ain't legal. No, the money don't come in'ta it—it ain't kosher, is all. No, I won't, that's final. Hallo? Hallo? Huh, moron's rung-off."

"Who was that?"

"Someone callin' himself Colley Simpkins." John still shaking his head in disbelief. "Wanted me to go round to a party called Sully Heikenner, say this's what happens when ya get on the wrong side of Colley, then beat Sully about the head some with a rubber cosh!"

"Ah!" Claire au fait with the position now. "That definitely ain't legal; ya try that an' the cops'll have ya by the short one's quicker than Jesse Owens can run a hundred yard sprint."

"Don't I know it." John showing the curled lip of disdain. "I'm still deep in the morning mail; you got anything interesting in yours?"

Claire threw her light coat on the nearby sofa, sat at her desk and ran quickly through the half-dozen letters thereon.

"Les'see." She slitting open the first with the blade of a dangerous-looking paper knife.

"That's some chiv." John impressed as he watched his assistant in action. "Where'd you get it? Looks like one of Lucrezia Borgia's spares."

"Ha-ha!" Claire taking this in the spirit in which it was meant—as a very feeble joke indeed. "OK, first up. A Miss Wihelmina Armstrong requests our Company delve into the disappearance of her second cousin once removed—the sad event taking place on the Chicago-Denver Flyer in 1893, but she just coming round to the supposition there may have been dirty work at the crossroads, and can we help. Our completing the case within the next month would, she opines, be satisfactory; she ending with the absolute determination that she won't part with more than one hundred dollars, complete—and she'll need annotated receipts for every outgoing expence. Wha'd'ya say, boss?"

"What I could say ain't fit t'print, lassie." John considering the offer from Miss Armstrong in a high dudgeon. "Anything else?"

"Wait for it; this one's in a sky-blue envelope an' written on pale green notepaper." Claire avidly investigating her next communication. "Handwritten in red ink, too. God!"

"Lem'me guess, one of the artistic type." John being a man of the world, not in the least disturbed by this species of the Human Race. "Got a lot'ta friends of that ilk—good men, and women, many o'them, too. So, spit it out."

Claire muttered inaudibly for a moment, coming to grips with the contents of the bright note, then made her discoveries public.

"Aubrey Braithwaite wishes to let us know a young man with whom he has some acquaintance has recently disappeared from his usual haunts and fears for his safety; the young man's, not Aubrey's. Asks if we might consider looking into the matter."

John sat back on his chair, arms folded behind his head for support.

"Mmm, doesn't seem anything out of the ordinary there; could be a legitimate case—ring him up and get the lowdown. Anything left?"

Claire picked up the last envelope in the pile.

"Uum, gim'me a minute." She perusing the missive with attention, as all aspiring investigators should. "OK, Millicent Carruthers, the film actress, staying at the Lancaster Rose Hotel on Barthwell Road, Delacote, lets us know that, over the last week, two bracelets and a gold ring have disappeared from her jewellery stash in her suite, and what about same? Money no object, she adds."

"The sort'a case Drage Investigators was made for—you're on that, too." John perking up no end. "Busy day ahead of you; better get movin' pronto; time's money, an' money counts, lady."

"An' you?"

"Oh, I still got a hefty pile o'letters here; take me a while t'get t'the bottom of 'em. You go right ahead; I'll be here in shoutin' distance if an expert's knowledge's needed."

"Har!"

—O—

The day, as days generally do, meandered on at its own pace; trying bravely to do its best to keep the past connected to the future, with middling results.

"Mr Braithwaite? This's Drage Investigators, we got your note; d'you want to arrange an appointment for us to meet?" Claire handling her end of opening a new case with proficiency and inate panache. "You would? Excellent, two-thirty this afternoon? Fine, I'll be there, 'bye."

"Mr Hartly? Yeah, I got your letter here; what's this about a nephew being kidnapped?" John reading from the letter in front of him as he engaged in conversation on the phone with the originator of the missive. "Ya say here the boy was kidnapped; but then ya say he's stayin' with some relative over in Todmorton? Which is it? 'cause if it's just a family visit what's the problem? Oh, you're sure he's been kidnapped against his will by the relative? What relative, just to make things clear? Oh, an Uncle; friends, are they? Known each other since he was born, the boy, that is? All happy as a lark till now? What made the break, then? No break; you're just suspicious as all get-out? Mr Hartly, are you jealous? Is this a family matter, that's gotten a trifle out of hand? Perhaps you should sit down with this Uncle—oh, your brother!—and work things out? You don't like him? You don't speak to him? Mr Hartly, you ain't helping yourself here, y'know. Perhaps you may have been a trifle hasty? Yeah, I think that might come into it. You'll take time to reconsider the matter? Good, imagine what the cops'd say about this, if ya put it before them? What? Ya don't want the cops involved; you think you may have over-reacted? You'll put the matter out of your mind? Good, well, that's fine, Mr Hartly. Yeah, g'bye. God's- strewth!"

Claire, meanwhile, had entered the esoteric, not to say exotic, world of the Movies.

"Can I speak to Miss Millicent Carruthers, please." She frowning as she placed the phone's earpiece to the appropriate human appendage, wondering what tone to take. "Ah, hallo, Miss Carruthers, Drage Investigators here—what's that? Took me long enough? We only received your letter this morning, ma'am. You still think I ought'a been quicker off the mark—do I know who you are? Well, far as I can make out, some two-bit movie bum, making a sparse livin' off cameo appearances in 'B' flicks—am I near enough, lady? Of course you can take your custom elsewhere, no skin off our noses, here at Drage Investigators; but would you get so cheap a deal, allied with such a high level of expertise, for your dollar, ma'am? I think not. OK, you'll reconsider, seein' it's still early in the day—fine, fine. So, what about an appointment? Six-thirty this evening, at the Hotel? Suppose that'll do; but it's overtime, and we work to Union rates, y'realise? OK-OK, don't go off the deep-end. Yeah, I'll be there, rarin' t'go, g'bye. God, movie stars—they all think they're Goddesses—bunch o'bums!"

John had caught the tail-end of this conversation while he delved once more into his mail, looking up from which to grin at his associate.

"The Movies, Claire—a redolent fantastic world of colour, riches, and drama—and a bunch of actors of both sexes who'd mostly do better t'take up carpentry, or something other useful to Society. I wish ya luck."

"Urr, thanks, boss."

Then John buckled back down to business.

"Hallo, is that Morgenstaedler's? Can I speak to Izzy Greenberg? Hallo, Mr Greenberg—diamonds, what about such! Yeah. Oh, this's Drage Investigators—you sent us a—yeah, now you're on the ball. So, what's the biff? Some diamonds have disappeared en-route from Portsmouth t'Delacote? What security surrounded their transport? What! You gave 'em t'Chayim Perlman, to put in a paper packet in his jacket pocket for the journey! An' when he arrived here he'd lost the rocks? Good God! Yeah, I am surprised—what, that's the usual manner in which you and your companions generally transport diamonds? Good God! OK, I'll stop sayin' that. But, Mr Greenberg, have you any true conception of what security actually means? It's never gone wrong before? Goo—OK-OK! So, shall I come across an' take it up with you, or what? Three this afternoon? OK by me; yeah, 'bye. Good God, diamonds, in a paper bag, in a pocket! Good God!"

—O—

The Heights, Delacote City, NH, was a salubrious area; the hang-out of middling social class people who could legitimately call their daily work a career: Bank managers, business-men and women who hadn't yet quite climbed to the illustrious level of having their own key to the executive rest-room, self-employed persons who had made some kind of a success of their enterprises without making a spectacle of themselves, and artists.

Mr Aubrey Braithwaite lived in an apartment in the Lymington Building on Gelstadtler Road, The Heights; a twelve storey eminence built in the prevailing Moderne style, with a flat roof. When Claire knocked on his door he opened it in person.

"Miss Baxter?"

"That's me, ready to take up the cudgels in your defence at any opportunity."

"Come in, please." Mr Braithwaite showing himself to be of middle height, somewhere in his mid-thirties, of lightweight proportions and friendly aspect. "Throw your coat over the sofa, it won't mind. Take a chair here—a drink, maybe?"

"Cold water—or perhaps a soda, Cola, if you have any."

"Yes, as it happens I do. Give me a minute—be right back."

As he left by a side-door Claire had the opportunity to case the joint in detail, muttering to herself as she did so.

"Nice wide main room; rugs on the floor; modern furniture; rather flashy paintings on the walls, but real; I like the paintwork and decoration; not too fussy or cramped with unneeded furniture. Wouldn't mind living in a place like this, myself."

"Here we are—brought one for myself, too."

The next two minutes were taken up refreshing the dry interior with a cold drink to each's taste, settling back on their respective upholstered chairs, and eventually getting down to the business of the day.

"So, you say in your letter someone's disappeared?" Claire switching to the official mode with an easy air. "What makes you think that? And has he actually disappeared as such? I mean, he hasn't been heard of or been seen by anybody else in the interim, has he?"

Here Braithwaite became a little uneasy; it would be imprecise to say he blushed, but he certainly became coy.

"—er, it's like this; perhaps I should explain my present position; I mean, how I live, and such-like?"

"If you feel you must."

"Well, I'm,—that is—er, I live with—umm—"

Feeling that hitting the target's bull's-eye would clear the confusion before it got out of hand Claire came right to the nitty-gritty.

"You're an invert, Mr Braithwaite. That is, you enjoy the company, in every sense of the term, of males only. That the key to the matter?"

There was a pause as Braithwaite absorbed this sudden personal analysis, then he shrugged rather embarrassedly.

"In a nutshell, Miss Baxter." He sighing in relief the while. "I live here with my, er, companion, Denis—who is away for a couple of days. It's about another of my—of Denis' and my, acquaintances—Keith Ralston, a good boy. He left a, er, particular restaurant around eleven-thirty just over a week ago, and since then no-one, and I mean no-one, has set eyes on him."

"His place of residence?" Claire aiming for the general details to begin with. "Anyone seen him there, since?"

"He lives in a private house, in Todmorton, by himself." Braithwaite frowning as he brought the details to mind. "Only a live-in servant, male, there as well; whom, my phoning him several times, says his master has not returned as of this morning. Though, I have to say, I'm not quite sure if he's covering something up; just a mild suspicion, y'know."

"Ah, well obviously, I'll have to go there to interview this servant; find out what he knows in detail." Claire scribbling in her notebook. "The address?"

"One-six-five-two Carrington Drive." Braithwaite giving this from memory. "The man's names's Martlett, Lionel Martlett; a good fellow, been with Keith for years."

"And the restaurant where he was last seen?" Claire leaving no stone unturned. "Could be I may find something important there."

"The Yellow Cat, Brougham Street; rather a high-class place, I admit."

"Oh, I'm used to all sorts." Claire not turning a hair. "Now, what can you tell me about your, um, relationship with Mr Ralston? I need to know these things in order to better organise and direct my investigations, you see."

"Well, er, umm—"

—O—

Morgenstaedler's, Jewellers, turned out to be a large shop on Hallet Pavement, Downtown area, Delacote City. It had three long windows looking onto the wide sidewalk in this highly respectable part of town; its clients obviously taken from the best class—rich people. John, when he pulled-up in his battered Ford sedan, drew his grey fedora more tightly down over his forehead and prepared to do battle with the inmates of the emporium.

"Mr Greenberg around?" John trying out his idle but happy man-of-the-world accent, purely as a defensive measure. "John Drage, to see him by appointment."

Surprisingly two minutes more found John ensconced in a tight little private office lined with wood-panelling to the six-foot mark and packed with head-high wood filing cabinets of almost antique age. Behind a rather tatty desk, with a green leather covering that was peeling in parts, sat the office's owner, Mr Izzy Greenberg, one of the best jewellers in the city.

"Si'down, Mr Drage; it ain't a throne, but it fulfills its purpose; your butt'll be fine whiles you sit in it." Greenberg obviously having a hail-fellow-well-met attitude to his customers. "So, you're a private dic—er, investigator?"

"Licensed and everything, Mr Greenberg." John settling down more at ease than he had imagined he would be feeling. "So, trouble in the diamond world, eh?"

"Trouble? Oy, trouble don't come near it, Mr Drage; catastrophe, that'd be more nearer the mark. We lost our diamonds, Mr Drage—can you imagine? Lost 'em, entire—they're gone, and say what you will, they ain't comin' back, I know that fine. Imagine the loss, the insurance—not that they were, of course,—and the customer's confidence? Who's gon'na have confidence in us now, when we lose a pockeful of diamonds, like they're old dry popcorn falling out our pockets, I ask you?"

Having no answer to this heartfelt request, John remained silent; trying his best to look like the Sphinx, with a myriad of knowledge under his hat, if only he would condescend to share same.

"So Chayim, yutzi that he is, goes on board the Mainliner from Portsmouth, an' when he shleps off at Delacote his pockets is empty apart from fluff." Mr Greenberg's expression conveying shock, sadness, and disbelief all in one. "What can I do? The diamonds is gone, blown away in the wind; what is there to do? It's a great loss, is what it is."

"How much?" John determined to keep the conversation on the straight track.

"What?"

"How much were the diamonds worth, in total?"

"Oh—ah, not much, two thousand dollars, tops—don't think about it; don't let your hair go grey over it—it ain't no great loss, we'll live." Mr Greenberg suddenly showing less concern in the matter than John would have expected.

John, at this, took the time to study his client through narrowed eyes.

"Mr Greenberg?"

"Yeah, what can I do for you? You want a weddding ring? We, here at Morgenstaedler's, goes big on wedding rings; I'm sure we could easy fix you up with a bargain."

"The diamonds, Mr Greenberg!" John beginning to feel he was fast becoming a nuisance. "A crime has been committed—"

"Oy! We don't know that." Greenberg sitting up, agitatedly. "Could'a been an accident. Chayim, he's been with us for years; a schmoe, sure, on occasion—but a mensch, all the same. We all like Chayim."

John sighed softly; he clearly seeing the rest of the conversation was going to be no push-over.

"OK, Mr Greenberg—so, there's been a crime, but a crime you don't want to describe as such. Someone's half-inched your diamonds, but, what the hell, they're only diamonds. You send for me post-haste, but it turns out you're only crying crocodile tears. Mr Greenberg, you do realise I'm billing you by the hour during the ongoing course of this fiasco?"

"Money—schmoney!" Greenberg hardly reflecting any deep sorrow for the situation under discussion. "We win some, we lose some. That's business; all ya got'ta do is make sure, over time, ya win more'n ya lose. That way, ya see, at the end o'the year you make a profit—never fails."

John wasn't standing for this inept view of the business world.

"Mr Greenberg, if I had run my company along those lines by now I'd be pushing up the daisies, after having thrown myself off the Piscataqua River Bridge long ago. That ain't business; that's stupidity. Now, about these dam' rocks. Am I in, or am I out?"

"Oy, hell—OK, you're in."

"Right—so, tell me everything, in detail—from when Chayim fell out'ta bed this mornin', took a leak, his breakfast, then ran for the train still pullin' up his pants' braces."

"Oy, vey; you don't want much, do you!"

—O—

The Yellow Cat, on Cordwainer Road, was indeed a high-class joint; something between a fancy restaurant and a true-blue night-club, it was decorated up to its elbows in the most ornamental style imaginable. And yellow was the prime motivator in everything. On entering the premises, sometime after 4.00pm, Claire found the manager mooning around the tables like the ghost in Hamlet.

"Mr Clark?"

"Yeah, that's me."

"Claire Baxter, investigator for Drage Investigators." Claire putting on the official front. "We're working for Mr Aubrey Braithwaite, who's worried about someone who's lately dropped off the face of the earth, last sighting this joint."

"Oh, God, another one!"

"That sounds interesting." Claire grabbing this opportunity with both hands. "More than one patron's done a disappearing act from your premises? Why?"

Clark paused to glance around the wide room with its many tables, lightly sprinkled over with a few random waiters, before replying.

"Another detective agency, a coupl'a ladies, came in two days since an' gave me the third degree over Jamie Donaldson. How am I to know what these boys' get up to—I ain't their father, am I?"

Claire could see some light, far away certainly, but flickering in the background.

"Two men have disappeared, they both were patrons of your establishment, now they aren't?" She raised an enquiring eyebrow. "The last place both men were seen is here? So, who were they, what was their connection, when did you or your workers last see each of them?"

Clark took a deep breath; shrugging his shoulders in their grey Elroy suit, glancing around for support which, blatantly, wasn't there.

"Keith Ralston, that's the guy you're talkin' about, right? He was a long-term customer; then this Jamie Donaldson arrived. They struck up, you know, a buddy-buddy connection, and took it from there. Then, a week ago, suddenly, they were gone. What can I say? I don't know any more."

Claire considered this premise, then took the logical direction.

"Can you give me an address? You have bills, for their meals here; if they paid by cheque then you can provide their addresses. It's all in the line of discovering the necessary facts."

"Well, I suppose I can; but don't tell anyone you meet I put you onto them, right?"

"Sure, no problem." Claire nodding encouragingly. "We'll keep stumm on that, don't worry. So, addresses?"

"Gawd, gim'me a minute, be right back."

"OK."

—O—

An hour later Claire found herself on the sidewalk outside the Cannonfield Apartment Building, on Rochester Avenue, just outside the Downtown area. Inside she found a wide lobby with a small desk in the corner hosted by the reception clerk, a young man in his early twenties.

"Hi'ya, does Mr Jamie Donaldson live here?" Claire playing the sultry screen godddess lay, with some success. "It's just I got words t'have with said Joe. Give him a ring, say Miss Baxter from Drage Investigators wants t'wish him a happy journey. Also tell him Miss Baxter says not t'say no, OK?"

Within two shakes of a lamb's tail Claire found herself being ushered, with more haste than politeness, into a very fancy apartment indeed; two young men facing her, both with pale faces.

"Hallo-Hallo-Hallo, er, I'm Jamie Donaldson." The taller of the two taking up the baton of opening the discussion. "This's Keith Ralston, my lo—er, comp—er, friend."

"I get the drift, gentlemen; don't get yourselves in a twist, I'm friendly, too." Claire coming it a lady of the world for all she was worth. "So, what's goin' on? I only ask because we, Drage Investigators, have been licenced by half the population of Delacote to find out what the hell you two are up to. Going missing from your ordinary haunts; not telling a soul what you're doing; disappearing like real whiskey during Prohibition; not leaving a parting note: OK, so, spill it, lads; we're all ears."

A silence, redolent of the Ages ageing before the apartment's inmates' eyes, made its presence felt in the interim before Keith finally spoke up in both their defences.

"It's like this, Miss Baxter," He showing all the signs of inate distress in addition to an overdose of shyness. "Jamie and I are, as it were—ahem, that is to say, he and I—we, uum, have come to, er—"

"God, you're both lovers, a couple, joint stock-holders, together for the duration; anybody can see that." Claire clarifying the position for all. "Who cares, I don't; and Drage Investigators certainly ain't gon'na make such public, either—no way. Nor are any of your old friends, because that's what they are, y'know—your old friends; they all wishing to continue the connection, as well. So, what're you both up to? Gon'na spring for Niagara Falls an' a happy honeymoon, without benefit of clergy, sadly? Nobody minds, remember."

Another short pause ensued, while the youths regarded each other with mutually embarassed expressions.

"Well, yeah, that about covers everything." Keith admitting responsibility for the unfolding situation. "Bit of a fiasco, in the end, I admit. But our hearts're in the right place, believe me. Sorry everyone's been put out, worrying about us; but, er, all's well, and all that, hopefully."

"Should we write everyone a letter; telling them, you know, how sorry we are?" Jamie looking just as despondent as he sounded.

"You could do, to Mr Braithwaite and Denis for sure; we, Drage Investigators, will look after the others who matter."

"Oh, thanks—thanks awfully." From a relieved Keith.

"Dam' swell of you, Miss Baxter. Sorry, again, for causing any worry." Jamie looking as guilty as he ought.

"No trouble, all in a day's work, gentlemen." Claire taking the Regal stance as she was escorted to the door once more. "Just try'n stay in contact with those who love an' care for you from now on, eh?"

"Yes—yes, absolutely."

"Thanks very much; we'll both follow your instructions to the letter, certainly."

"Huurph, g'bye."

—O—

The phone in the reception room of Drage Investigators rang insistently; Sonia, the resident denizen of this particular habitat, taking up the receiver with a professional air.

"Drage Investigators, wha—oh, Claire, how's things? You're heading for the Lancaster Rose? Nice place, I'm told. So, what're you up to? Millicent Carrruthers? Don't like her, personally; too uppity. Yeah, I'll pass on your report. John? He's hitting the railroad station, got a lead about some pick-pocket, he told me. Was gon'na be back around seven or so, but I had a message for him—a Mrs Marie Lestrange, one-oh-four Parker Drive, called in to talk about someone possibly pulling an insurance fraud on her—seemed mighty agitated; wanted someone round fast as possible, so he put her down on his list—God knows when he'll be free, as a result. You're workin' on your own schedule, fine?—hear from you later, 'bye."

—O—

The Railroad Station in Delacote was always a busy centre of commerce and activity; the seven platforms continually crowded with passengers, either coming, going, or in transit in another direction. The railroad engines shot out their cargo of steam like clouds of fog, the smell of hot engine oil and steam carrying over the concourse of the Main Hall and the citizens of the city, as well as those from other localities, merging and pushing against each other like herds of wild animals; the outcome of which being that the area acted as a whirlpool for thieves, pickpockets, and grifters. This becoming immediately apparent when John arrived amongst the milling throng.

"Hi'ya, Patsy, havin' a good day?"

John's remark, to a passing grey-suited workman-type in a wide greasy flat cap having an immediate effect.

"Chr-st! Oh, it's you, Drage? Thought, for a mo', it was the cops."

John already had his story ready for such an encounter.

"Just as well ya met me first, Patsy. I got the gen, earlier, the cops are stakin' out this joint for the rest of the day. Your best bet'd be t'scarper pronto, before they feel your collar."

"Hell, another day down the drain. Thanks, Drage, you're a pal."

"Seen Eddie Callister on your travels?"

The low-level thief was already turning to make his precipate escape before the wholly mythical police discovered his presence, but hesitated long enough to answer this question.

"Over on Platform Three, he's aimin' t'travel on the Mainliner, leaves at six-oh-four pm—ya got ten minutes."

An instant later he disappeared in the enfolding crowd, leaving John master of his domain.

Five minutes later John stood close behind a tall thin man in a blue suit and black Homburg hat who, when the detective placed his hand on his collar, jumped in the air, letting out a wheezing squeal filled with fright and fear.

"AA—aargh!"

"Ease off, Eddie, it's only me—your favourite Uncle."

"Jee-sus! Drage, ya could'a given me a heart attack—I ain't built fer these kind'a frights."

"No doubt, especially when you're carryin' around two thou in diamonds in your jacket pocket, eh?"

"Say what?"

"Eddie, give over, there's a dear." John standing beside his prisoner, smiling softly like an Avenging Angel. "Half the city knows ya filched said rocks from a coney on the Mainliner some time since. I know, for a fact, you're presently on your way back to Portsmouth to grift for the reward, what is it—five hundred? Now, we can't have that, can we, Eddie? It being illegal as hell, an' all. Let me tell ya a secret, the cops have this station roped-off and under surveillance from the eyes of around thirty officers, some undercover. Soon as they see ya—'cause they know you're the one, Eddie—they're gon'na fall on you like a ton of brownstone."

"Oh, sh-t!"

By now John was having fun, gently stroking the coat-covered arm of his victim like a hyena about to pounce.

"But there's always blue sky behind even the darkest cloud, ain't there?" he smiling as he came to the crux of his conversation with the pick-pocket. "I know you got the rocks on you—you know you have the rocks on you—hell, the cops know you got the rocks on you. The only way you'll be leaving these present premises a free man is if ya don't have the rocks on ya. Hand 'em over, boyo."

"Oh, sh-t!"

—O—

The Lancaster Rose Hotel lived up to its reputation as being almost the best hotel in Delacote City; which, of course, meant only the affluent could afford it. Claire, on arrival, suddenly becoming victim to the fear she was inappropriately dressed—to wit, cheaply. But, like the heroine she was, she faced the challenge bravely and sauntered through the swing-door like a Princess, hitting the reception desk like an old pro.

"Miss Baxter, to see Millicent Carruthers, by appointment."

Five minutes later she stood in the suite of the famous film star with the lady in question striking a dramatic pose before her visitor.

"Helena, you may leave us, now."

The maid so named bobbed a curtsey to the room in general and made herself scarce, slipping into the corridor and closing the door behind her like a wraith in an Irish mountain mist.

"So, you've finally arrived? Thought you were never coming."

"I got other sticks in the fire, Miss Carruthers, investigators leadin' a busy useful life daily; but, here I am, so what can I do for you? Something about missing jewellery?"

"Humph; yeah, my rocks an' necklaces are disappearin' from this joint like ice on a lake in the Springtime. Gim'me another week here, an' I'll be broke on my uppers."

"That bad, eh? Dear, dear."

"That all ya got t'say?"

"No, not all." Claire a match for this amateur in bitchiness any day. "Say, we gon'na stand here on this carpet for the duration, or are we gon'na settle down on chairs an' have an intelligent discussion? Only askin' because if we are, gon'na stay standin' here I mean, I got'ta tell ya I got far more important matters t'take up my time, lady."

Faced with someone who, for once, actually stood up to her arrogant attitude, Millicent found herself in a quandary—take umbrage, throw the trollop out and so lose her jewellery; or simmer down, so having at least a small chance of recovering her rocks. Finally, a rare event in her usual routine, she took the intelligent course.

"OK-OK; God, people these days, no patience!" But she pointed to a long sofa. "Let's park ourselves there. Right, my rocks!"

"Yeah, it'd be useful if you can provide a detailed list of the items you've lost, for my records."

"Stolen!" Millicent taking offence at this lack-lustre description of her woes. "Thieves in the night; apparently they work overtime in this joint, lady!"

Sighing to herself Claire bowed her head over her notebook, wondering how many pages she would need for the forthcoming main attraction.

"OK, Miss Carruthers, start with the small stuff; we'll get to the major items in due course."

—O—

One-oh-four Parker Drive was situated in Todmorton, the high-end social district of Delacote City; home to the rich, the affluent, the higher class, and those Boston families who couldn't afford to live in Boston anymore, after the Crash. The house in question was a mighty villa rising four storeys into the wholesome air, obviously designed in the 1880's in the then racing Hudson River Bracketed style, and repented over ever since. When John brought up by the front door, itself like something Universal Studios would have drooled over, he found a bell-chain in lieu of anything more modern. Hoping it wouldn't be Boris Karloff who answered his summons, he bravely pulled on the chain and awaited events.

Quarter of an hour later, after short intermissions with a maid, the housekeeper, another maid, and a ten minute wait in a plush living-room, the lady cicerone of the establishment arrived, wrapped in a charisma of superiority which was almost visible.

"Mrs Lestrange?"

She paused at this to glare round the room, as if expecting to see someone hitherto univited to the crush.

"It would appear, young man, that your deduction may well be correct." Her tone one of disappointment with the young nephews. "Let us hope your capabilities grow stronger as you proceed. So, I have a suspicion that someone who has been arguing with me about my, humm, financial and insurance position is in fact attempting to pull the wool over my eyes. No-one, Mr Drage, is allowed to pull the wool over my eyes."

Absolutely convinced this act would, indeed, take some doing, John for an instant found himself almost impressed by the as yet unknown person under discussion—wondering how on earth he had the chutzpah to confront this virago in such a manner.

"Well, er, some details would help, ma'am.—"

"Do not use that epithet, thank you,—you may call me Mrs Lestrange."

"—urr, name of the individual in question; his home address; place of work; relation, if any, to yourself; what position, vis-à-vis insurance, he holds with you; and anything else you may feel useful to the investigation."

Mrs Lestrange looked at her visitor, as one in a museum examining the skeleton of a Tyranosaurus Rex, and simply not believing such.

"Hmmph, is this what they call the Third Degree, Mr Drage?"

"No-no; just looking for those facts which will help to enlighten us as to the true nature of what is going forward, ma'—er, Mrs Lestrange." John here realising his pick for the 4.35 at Meidener Field racetrack had come in last of eight. "Every little helps to blow away the mists of uncertainty, you know."

"Mmmph—well, the gentleman is one Mr Thomas Northcote; a person whom I have known for some three years or so." Mrs Lestrange, though without curling a visible lip, still clearly expressing the notion she thought little of the individual. "For some time he has been enquiring into my insurance status, he being something in Insurance in the City, or so he tells me. But recently, his attentions becoming somewhat more insistent, I took the trouble to discover where he actually works—what firm he represents, you understand. After much effort I am afraid I am still very much in the dark, he taking every opportunity to obfuscate the matter and turn the topic to other matters. This cannot go on, Mr Drage; I am now convinced his motives are of the lowest intent, and so I have engaged yourself to find out the truth."

"I see." John glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel. "Sounds like a typical grifter; for one thing, when or if you see him again, don't tell him anything about your standpoint, on anything."

"I had already made that decision on my own account, not being a fool."

"—er, yes." John finding the going getting tougher by the minute. "So, his address, if you have such. Home and business, if available?"

"Thomas Northcote, one-eight-seven Killairn Road, The Heights." She here pausing to sniff superciliously. "Not an address I am personally acquainted with. His business? I understand it to be, if my informants are correct, a firm named Castle-Bayne Protected Insurance Inc, of one-three-nine-four Alabaster Terrace, Downtown. Is there anything else you wish to know?"

"No, ma'—Mrs Lestrange." John rising from the uncomfortable chair he had been annoying. "This's enough for me to begin primary investigations, thank you. I'll keep you informed as the case progresses."

"I should hope so—I not paying you what I am for you to keep me in the dark; goodbye, Mr Drage."

"Ahh, goodbye."

—O—

Claire, somewhere around seven o'clock that evening, found herself in a short winding lane leading off the Causeway down by the Harbor. Her quarry being a low-life individual by the name of Harry Cummings, whose reputation preceded him. The house which was her destination presented a quiet almost anonymous front to the Public, a guilty stance in itself; but Claire, having previously been put in the picture by her boss, knew exactly how she was going to proceed in the coming interview.

Bang-Bang-Bang.

There followed a lengthy interim, causing Claire to raise her gloved fist to recommence the assault, before the peeling brown door opened to reveal the tenant.

"What's the beef? Someone murdered in the gutter, or what? The whole street goin' up in flames? What's the noise about? I got my supper goin' cold, y'know."

"Harry—Harry, who'm I to deny you your last real meal outside of the Big House?" Claire grinning like a leopard presented with a whole herd of three-legged antelope. "You go on up and finish your broth an' grits; I'll just go an' tell the 5th Precinct you're at home, an' they can pick you up at their leisure."

"What?"

"The Lancaster-Rose, Millicent Carruthers, and a very naughty chamber-maid, Helena, a friend of yours; with whom I've just had a pleasant conversation—she not wanting to do time in the Penn, y'know." Claire presenting her case like a prosecuting attorney. "Now, I ain't certain by any means—but I believe, if a full-on police search of this delightful villa you live in took apart the whole place, we'd find enough rocks, pearls, emeralds, and sapphires t'restock the Queen's Royal Jewels, curtesy of Helena Harris, of the Lancaster-Rose. What d'you think, Harry? Shouldn't we continue this discussion inside, out of the way of the delicate ears of your neighbours?"

"Oh, God!"

—O—

John had considered both Northcote's business and home address; but, it now being near 8.00pm. and the Insurance Company certainly being locked up and abandoned for the day, he settled for the home address. One-eight-seven Killairn Road, The Heights, being not a bad residence by any means, all told. A seven-storey brownstone, divided into apartments, all reached via a central stairwell, no elevator; Northcote, of course, living on the 6th floor.

Bang-Bang-Bang.

When the corridor door opened John unexpectedly found himself in the presence of an old friend.

"By God, if it ain't George Farwell, Grifter-by-Royal-Warrant to the Nobility!"

"Oh, Jesus, what d'you want?"

John was ready for this question, as of old acquaintance.

"The Church would say, your soul—a very insubstantial item, respecting you, in my view." John grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "The cops would settle for your corporeal body, in durance vile for a very long time; I, on the other hand, would be perfectly contented if you promise,—no going back on your word, mind,—to leave Mrs Lestrange alone from now on. Result of your doing so—the last item, I mean—happiness and joy all round. Result of your not doing so—a long stretch in Portsmouth Penn, old boy. Take your pick; but make it snappy, I've got a dinner-date, and I'm fifteen minutes late, already."

"G-d'd-m!

"Quite. Is that a yes?"

"F-ck off! Yeah, OK, I'll give the ol' bird a miss,—is that enough?"

"I'm thrilled all the way down t'my boots; keep up the good work, 'bye."

"Rrr-gh!"

—O—

The office of Drage Investigators, sans Sonia at this time of night, rang with echoes as the resident mouse-in-tenancy strolled about, examining its domain. A light flicking on outside in the corridor and the sound of a key in the reception lock disturbing its meditations it rushed for cover before it became the victim of an investigation itself—it by no means being a fool.

Claire, sighing contentedly, walked through to the inner private office, kicked her shoes into a corner, and sat down on the long sofa against the wall with a real sigh of pleasure. Hardly had she completed these preliminaries to taking it easy than the phone rang, as phones do—always when you'd rather they didn't.

"Hallo, who is it? Ya know what time it is? Oh, John, how's your day been? That way, eh? Yeah, me too. God, what a bloody day, I'm dead on my feet. So, what're ya doin' now? Ah, shleppin' off back t'your apartment—dam' good idea, think I'll do the same; to my apartment, I mean. Yeah, very funny; just keep hopin', boyo. Everything's turned out nice for you, then? Congrats—me too, a dam' hard day especially on the shoe-leather; I'm puttin' in a chit for a new pair of shoes, y'realise? Yeah, it all worked itself out, finally. God, what a multiplicity of cases, all in one day. When I joined this joint I thought I'd be settling down in a quiet backwater where nothing ever happened; how wrong can a gal be? Yeah, g'night t'you too—don't worry, I'll see myself out. 'Bye."

She replaced the receiver, glanced around the empty silent office, and came to a decision.

"Hit the road, change at my place, then go out to Mannstein's Late Night Diner for supper,—after which a soothing cup of cocoa an' my lonely, but beautifully warm, bed both beckon. Tomorrow, to g-d'd-m fresh woods, an' g-d'd-m pastures new. Aa-uurrgh!"

The End.

—O—

Another 'John Drage, Private Detective' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—