'The Murder Alibi Problem'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— John Drage is a private investigator in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. He and his fellow investigator, Claire Baxter, are embroiled in trying to break an alibi.
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.
The lady was in her fifties, though looking somewhat older, as she sat demurely on the hard chair provided for all potential clients in the private office of John Drage, Private Investigators, on a sunny morning of July 1935 on the 3rd floor, Clairmont Building, Westchester Street, Delacote City, NH. She was dressed respectably, if a trifle shabbily, in dark grey coat and dress with a similar small brimmed hat. Her composure was somewhat uneasy but, as the two investigators on the other side of the desk well understood from experience, this could be put down to first-time nerves.
John Drage, head of his wholly owned business, was still annoying the low end of his thirties while his assistant and fellow investigator Claire Baxter held down the similar bloc of the preceding age group. He had been roaming the streets, pacing doggedly in crime's footsteps, his whole life while Claire was relatively new to the business, but learning fast.
"So, it's not on your own behalf you've come today, Mrs Barnes?" Claire trying her best to put the woman at ease.
"No; well, not me personally, no." She clearly having trouble finding the right words. "You see, it's my daughter Olive's best friend, Milly Johnson—they were walking in Treaton Park around ten o'clock on a Thursday evening about five weeks since. They just having had an evening at the cinematograph on Hamden Street and thinking a short quiet stroll in the Park afterwards, it being a fine evening, would be nice for them both. But they were set upon by a thief who shot Milly dead when she resisted; then he escaped."
"I read about the incident in the paper when it happened." John coming to the fore, showing he was up with events. "The cops put the pinch on someone, a big nob doin' it for kicks apparently; but couldn't make it stick, as I recall?"
Mrs Barnes became animated, losing much of her initial shyness, as the case was outlined to her.
"Yes, that's right." Her voice becoming stronger as she spoke. "A Gregor Stevens, some sort of office manager in a trucking business. He was suspected straight-off by the police; Inspector Jacob Fletcher of the Fifth Precinct was very kind, expecting all the time to put the suspect in a cell and have him in court as fast as ever—but it never came off—something just wouldn't stick. It seeming his alibi was unbreakable—he just couldn't be placed at the scene of the murder, even though my daughter more or less identified him in a line-up at the police station."
"Ah, well," Claire shaking her head morosely. "that's the problem—more or less. More or less just doesn't cut the mustard in a Court of Law, ma'am."
Mrs Barnes nodded in agreement.
"We all found that out when we met the lawyers." Shaking her head at the memory. "The District Attorney was all kindness and sympathy, but stated right out the suspect's alibi held up at all points—he just couldn't be the thief and shootist. But, he also said, it was quite apparent to one and all—meaning his Attorney Department and the police, that Stevens was indeed the culprit; just his present alibi was rock solid, false as it must be—but it couldn't be broken. So, no trial; an' Stevens's still walking the streets a free man as we speak. I tell you both, my daughter Olive's afraid to go out in public hardly now. She works as a secretary at Hambles Tractive Company and every day now she goes to work or returns in the evening is a trial in itself to her. Can't you do something, anything, to help? We feeling somehow responsible for poor Milly, you see."
"Cases like these are usually a trifle hard for Private Investigators." John covering the technical angle concerned. "You see we, P.I's in toto that is, aren't allowed to shove in amongst an ongoing murder case of that type. But, seeing as it's now over, an' the dust settling, so to speak; well, we can dip our oar in the water, to a certain extent, at least."
"That's very good of you." Mrs Barnes obviously greatly relieved. "Don't worry about being paid, by the by, I have something laid aside, and I must look after my daughter and do what can be done for poor Milly's relatives, you understand?"
"Our rates are known across the State for being generous in the extreme, Mrs Barnes." John colouring slightly as he addressed this benevolent aspect of his business. "You aren't going to be mulcted of your life-savings, don't worry."
"You've given us all the personal facts we need." Claire here rising to show their client out. "The rest we can dig out of the archives and official reports and such. We'll get on it right away, Mrs Barnes."
Two minutes later, the investigators were alone in their office once more.
"Well, wha'd'ya think, Boss?"
"Alibis', they're usually a mixed nest o'snakes an' vipers, both." John scratching his chin as he re-seated himself at the desk. "Especially those that have this false air of authenticity. A bad alibi smells t'high heaven, lassie; that's why Inspector Fletcher an' the D.A. both think it's a wrong 'un—they both bein' able t'tell same three miles off against a tail wind."
"Uumph, so what's our first step gon'na be?"
"The archives." John perking up with a broad grin as he looked squarely at his assistant. "First, ya hit the filing Departments of the 'City News' an' the 'East Coast Herald'; they having all the back copies you'll need for information on the incident, the case, the alibi, the character of the accused, if he actually made it into the rags, and, oh, so much more."
"Thanks a lot; it'll take me weeks." Claire stoically facing reality, chin in air.
"Report tomorrow afternoon, full details; not that I'm pushy or anything, but time matters an' it's great experience for you, beavering away in the dark dusty vaults after the bones of the case."
"Ha, thanks." Claire fairly certain it would be no such thing. "What'll you be doing, meanwhile; not that I'm jealous or anything?"
John sat back, hands folded behind his head showing all the signs of going nowhere in the near future.
"I'll be puttin' the Fifth Precinct, hopefully Inspector Fletcher in person, through the Third Degree on the telephone; that being where the gems of the case'll be hidin'. If there's some important detail, that hasn't surfaced in Public yet, I'll find it out—me bein' an investigator an' all."
Claire, putting her hat on preparatory to exiting the office, paused to give her boss her No.1 expression of derision—but it had no effect; he, in their still short acquaintance, having already been exposed to such too many times for it still to have any power over him.
"Don't forget your coat; it's a long way t'the 'City News' office, an' it's rainin' now, outside."
The business conference, a week later in the offices of Drage Investigators, was centred on one topic and its surrounding details.
"What's the lay on the Johnson case?" John getting right down to it, whilst nibbling a chocolate biscuit to accompany his coffee.
"Well, let's see." Claire all efficiency as she sat at the desk alongside her boss. "I've scrabbled around in the vaults of every newspaper in the city—like Tutankhamun's tomb, if you wish to know—"
"Not really." John affecting disinterest while trying not to choke on a crumb.
"Hiirph! So, the bones of the case, if I may put it that way, are quite simple." Claire now well into her reporter's persona. "Olive Barnes and Milly Johnson were in Treaton Park at nine-thirty-five on a Thursday evening. They were strolling along a winding bush-lined path when they were accosted by a thief—"
"What'd he look like?" John on the ball like an expert.
"Slightly taller than me." Claire consulting her copious notes. "That is, about five-ten or so. Slim build, fast mover, dressed in dark grey clothes, jeans, sweater, short jacket, zip front, flat dark cap on his head. Had a thick moustache, known to be false by those in the know."
"—tone of voice, light tenor, mid-west accent;—attitude, determined and cold as a dead fish—"
"He appeared from the cover of the bushes, stood in front of the two women, ordering them to hand over their purses or he'd shoot 'em." Claire reciting from her notes again. "Milly told him what he could do with his revolver and made a movement towards him. There was a shot, Milly fell to the ground, and the thief ran off back into the bushes—end of story."
"Revolver?" John picking on this detail attentively. "Sure about that? Not an automatic?"
"Police cased the area pretty thoroughly," Claire nodding as she spoke. "no sign of an ejected cartridge, and the bullet they recovered from—, er, the bullet they recovered fits a revolver scenario; point thirty-eight. And Olive did opine for revolver over automatic, when she thought about the question; though she admitted it was pretty shadowy in the tree-lined Park walk."
"Ah!" John sitting back fiddling with his coffee cup as he descended deep into thought. "That's unusual; most two-bit thieves take what they can find vis-a-vis weapons; which generally end up being old worn-out automatics with a history behind them as long as the Roman Empire. A revolver now, that speaks of personal association; a weapon the perp knew he had to hand."
"Not any longer, boss." Claire pointing out the certainty of this supposition. "By now he'll have long gotten rid of it, somewhere."
"Yeah, there's that, surely." John admitting the lost cause for what it was. "No hope of finding it now, you're right. Carry on."
So requested Claire, curtesy of her voluminous notes, took up the tale once more.
"Olive shouted for help, another man eventually showed up and went for assistance, the cops appearing about ten minutes later. There was nothing to be done for Milly, and the case went on from there."
"How'd they, the cops, finger this Gregor Stevens guy?"
"Seems he's been on their short-list of looneys for quite some time already." Claire shaking her head in some disbelief. "Been marked as hovering round the environs of several other incidents over the last two years, but never pinned in place for certain. Always excuses, justifications for his near presence, alibis that hold water though full of metaphorical holes enough t'sink a battleship. The Luck of the Irish behind his actions, apparently."
A pause ensued, the two investigators pursuing their individual trains of thought; then John took up the story again.
"Well, as to my soundings of the rich an' famous, the drop-outs an' bums, the do-ers an' the don't-ers, the cops an' D.A.'s Office, well, there's a tale t'tell."
"As how, boss?" Claire all ears.
"Seems this joker, Stevens, first hit the scene around two years ago, as you said;" John scraping his chin with a finger as he consulted his own mental notes. "A small general store robbery t'begin with; his presence nearby being explained away in a manner that held up in cross-questioning so no charge was brought."
"After which it appears he showed up on the misty horizons of so many other later cases the cops finally became suspicious as all get-out."
"I'd dam' well hope so." Claire showing her moral foundations.
"Yeah," John agreeing wholeheartedly. "So, Inspector Fletcher of the Fifth Precinct took it on his shoulders to delve into the suspect's past in detail, and came up with a can o'worms."
This was too much for Claire.
"Come on, split, boss. What?"
So encouraged John smiled softly, venturing on the meat of his discoveries.
"Gregor Stevens, age thirty-four, height five-ten, physique lithe but muscular, quick on his feet but not a stayer in a fist-fight. He's been noted as being somewhere on the periphery of no less than fourteen cases of robbery with violence over the last two years. Personal history, arrived in Delacote from somewhere in the Mid-West, no-one knows exactly where. Job, area manager for Leitmann Automotive Parts on Mardon Street, Delacote. Nothing bad recorded about him there, everyone of the opinion he does his job well enough."
"What kind'a guy is he?" Claire searching for the personal amongst the dross. "How's he get on with his co-workers, or friends, or whoever?"
"Difficult t'answer." John shaking a worried head. "As to his co-workers, they take him as they find him; no troubles but no what ya might call tight relationships with anyone. Friends? Who knows? I got an idea he's a loner at heart, makes his own entertainment."
"Knocking over small shops and defenceless people at darkest night?" Claire offering her own opinion. "A jerk, in short."
"Mmmph." John studying a sheaf of his own notes. "What the cops are certain of is his presence at so many other small time knockdowns. They sayin', correctly of course, that he just couldn't be attending the peripheries of such a number without bein' involved himself—stands t'reason."
"Present in what way? At these various showdowns?"
John refreshed his memory by consulting his own paperwork again.
"Let's see. Three armed robberies against individuals; Milly, sadly, being the only one actually fired on." He glanced at the sheets on his desk once more. "Five robberies of small shops, no-one injured so far there. Several curious incidents; he used a stolen car on three occasions to stop trucks and rob 'em of medium sized amounts of money they were carrying incognito."
"Surely the cops could put the kibosh on him for those?" Claire sounding indignant at said officers' lack of verve in the matter.
"He wore a mask and neutral clothing, as well as the afore-noted thick moustache." John shook his head gloomily. "A disguise heavy enough even those he'd been face to face with couldn't pick him out'ta a line-up, so he walked free."
"But why was he even lingering in the vicinity, all those times?" Claire addressing the heart of the problem. "The cops must have known, quickly enough, he was suspicious perp Number One? If he was picked up so often at the scene of each crime, why couldn't the cops hang onto him, for God's Sake?"
"Well, it's complicated." John admitting the convoluted nature of the subject. "He was never actually there, actively identified in person that is, when the robberies took place; it was only after investigation by the police that they found he had been in the vicinity at the time each incident occured. He always having aforesaid unbreakable alibis for the exact time of each associated crime, though. That being how things stand at the moment."
Having had quite enough of the physical aspect of the situation Claire now knuckled down to the metaphysical.
"OK, what about these dam' alibis?" She curling supercilious lips in using the word. "There ain't no alibi yet invented, it being itself false, that can't be broke by the cops—a simple logical fact. A bad alibi standing up to investigation clean as a whistle being, in itself, a logical fallacy."
"I do think; and my conclusion is as reported." Claire taking no prisoners. "So all we need do is strip each of these alibis on record down to their essentials—strip 'em naked, as it were, and we'll necessarily find the underlying framework o'truth—stands to reason."
John grinned widely.
"I love to see a positive mind at work; makes me feel the World's all right an' turning properly."
"Fool." Claire sniffing with intent. "If you weren't my boss, I'd be miffed."
"Har!" John in no way embarrassed. "If you want we can go over each alibi in turn? There're fourteen of them, mind."
"Jeez, does work never cease?" Claire overcome with astonishment at the panorama opening before her unwelcoming gaze. "Say, I got an idea."
"Spit it out." John eager for any help at all. "Let's hear it."
Claire took a few seconds to marshal her thoughts, then gave of her best.
"We copy details from your notes, and what I've dusted off from the newspaper archives; then we go to each person concerned: that is, those who personally backed Stevens in his alibi. Those, in fact, who were his alibi on those occasions. Remember, a majority of the alibis are based on mere timing—he was physically placed, by these alibis, somewhere at least a short distance away from the scene an' enactment of the crime under discussion as an' when it went down; but the others stand or fall on personal testimony by witnesses saying they were actually with Gregor at the appropriate times. We put those bozos through the mill till they droop with exhaustion and we get the truth out'ta them. Would that work?"
"Hasn't worked for the cops so far; what makes you think we'd do any better?"
Claire was up for this; her social mores having only limited barriers before the underlying animal nature came unrestricted to the surface.
"The cops ain't me, that's why."
Claire's expression as she said this recalling to John's mind a particularly frightening Universal female vampire movie he had been stupid enough to sit through some weeks previously; the memory still lingering.
"Claire, you're scaring me. I think you may have something. Shall we start with the first robbery?"
"Let me loose, boss, I got an appetite for blood, and I'm eager t'quench my thirst."
"Jeez, ya do scare me, Claire." John shaking his head. "Believe I'll lock my bedroom door an' windows this evening; ya never bein' too safe, ya know."
"This it?" Claire standing by John's DeSoto sedan as they stared at the street-level row of shops, under the three further storeys of private residences above, lining the sidewalk along Sempsin Street in the lower part of The Heights district of Delacote City; a line of buildings obviously put-up at the turn of the century, though apparently kept in fairly good condition since.
"Yip," John meanwhile making sure the sedan's door was securely locked before they both walked over the battered sidewalk. "—'Carl's Café', owner says Gregor stayed there the whole afternoon of the robbery of the Iverson truck,—two thou' bein' stolen by a man with a moustache, revolver, and a nasty attitude."
"What's the owner's name, again?"
"Paul Staivers, forty-nine, some back-history of low-level thuggery an' stealin', but nuthin' serious. Purports t'goin' straight these days."
"Ha!" Claire clearly not convinced of said turn-around.
Inside they found a small but clean and well-kept eatery; tables lining the right-hand wall, tall padded stools against the long counter on the left. Several customers were already happily taking advantage of the place's menu, judging by the way they were hunched over their plates, this allied to the rich spicy aroma of well-cooked food.
As they stood just inside the entrance a stocky man in a tux came up to address John with a somewhat forced smile.
"Hallo, sir, ma'am; welcome t'Carl's, we here offering only the best, wha' can we do fer ya both this afternoon?"
John took control of the situation straight-away, like a professional.
"You Mr Staivers?"
The smile, hardly deeply founded to start with, disappeared in an instant.
"God, 'tecs—I'll be dam'med." This in a low almost pleading voice that had lost all its unctuous quality, "Wha' ya want? We can't talk here. My office's through the back; come on, this way."
A minute later the trio stood in a small room furnished with square desk and filing cabinets in the recognised style. Staivers reluctantly waving a hand at the two straight-backed chairs on the public side of his desk.
"OK, what's the beef?" He looking less than happy as he seated himself. "All our paperwork's up t'date, no under the counter goin's-on here. So,—what?"
"You recall your ol' pal, Gregor Stevens?" Claire coming out fighting from her corner right away.
"Oh, God! That?" Staivers shrugging his wide shoulders in disgust. "Thought the cops had dealt with that tale long since. What's up now? Someone come squealin' out'ta a dark corner sayin' there's dirty business at the fuc—the cross-roads, or what. My—I mean Gregor's, alibi sticks solid, anyhow, that's kosher."
"We're just running a line on the whole shenanigan, is all—for a client." Claire clearing up the fog of unknowingness, to some degree. "Your tale—that is, the alibi you hold for Gregor, is that he was in here with you—or, at least, well within your sight, for the whole afternoon of the Iverson truck robbery—that so?"
Staivers took time to consider the various outcomes of answering this question, making no effort to hurry his cogitations; finally sitting up a little straighter, preparatory to engaging in combat.
"Stevens came in here around eleven–thirty that morning." He picked at the peeling leather surface of his desk as he spoke, eyes carefully focused on this task and not his visitors. "It was a Thursday—the regular day we play poker. Me, him, an' a coupl'a other guys—a reg'lar foursome; been doin' it fer, oh, nigh on two year or so. We stayed the whole afternoon, with some breaks; Gregor leavin' around four o'clock, twenty dollars better off, I admits."
"The cops felt the collars of these other two guys, apropos the alibi?" John putting in his two-cent's worth as necessary.
"Yeah, put 'em both through the mill big-time—you'd a'thought we was all back at San Quentin." Staivers shaking his head mournfully, overcome by bad memories.
"The result being?" John keeping the pressure on, like a true gumshoe.
"Wha' d'ya think?" Staivers glancing at his interrogator with a sad mien. "They told the truth, so the truth held-up, is all. The cops couldn't break us, 'cause we hadn't anything t'break. I mean our story was kosher all the way through from skin t'bone."
Claire and John exchanged glances of their own, neither convinced by this plea for belief.
"You say there were some breaks." Claire needling at the edges of the alibi's seams, looking for a loose thread. "How long were they, how many of them were there, an' did you lose sight of Gregor for any appreciable length of time. Be precise."
Staivers leaned his elbows on the desk, giving Claire a sharp once-over; the results certainly not improving his state of mind. He appeared to be about to reply, then sat back, reconsidering what might have been an injudicious remark. Finally—
"Yeah, there were some breaks. How many? Can't rightly remember. Maybe three, or four, not more'n that." He shrugged again, a glaze of sweat appearing on his round forehead. "Y'ask did Gregor go off anytime—"
"No," John interjecting here, to keep the man on track. "just, did ya lose him yourself, anytime?"
"Well, comes t'the same thing, don't it?" Staivers now substantially affected by the atmosphere of suspicion infiltrating the office confines; he putting a hand to his shirt-front to loosen his bow-tie. "Meb'be once, fer a time, yeah."
"How long?" Claire using her fangs to good effect before her victim could escape.
"Aah,-well, a guy's got'ta take a dump when the feelin's on him, don't he?" Staivers becoming ever more restless. "What, some twenty minutes, might'a been half an hour. Gregor always havin' said he suffered somethin' awful with his gut, y'unner'stan'."
"Oh, great!" Claire sniffing censoriously.
"Ya got'ta back door t'these premises?" John sticking to the facts.
"Yeah, at the end o'the corridor the bog—I mean the restroom—leads off from."
"Just so." John quietly saddened by this news, which was only to be expected.
"How far from here was the Iverson truck rolled-over?" Claire coming back to the important issues herself.
"About two blocks maximum." John having these bare facts available when required. "He could'a pretended an upset stomach, gone out the back way, held up the truck, an' been back within quarter of an hour, easy."
"So much for an unbreakable alibi." Claire baring her lips in disgust.
"Oh, don't think the cops didn't reach this far too," John magnanimously giving the Force the benefit of the doubt. "But it's still unproven—that he did such. His alibi, here playin' poker, still stands 'cause this dope ain't got the sense t'keep an eye on the bozo."
"Hey! I resents that." Staivers standing up for himself from the safety of the other side of his desk. "Wha' could've I done? How was I t'know? He said he had a crappy gut, bin' along t'the bog plenty o'times a'fore, we all jes' took it fer granted he did the same that time, too. Meb'be he did! What's ter say your theory stands up in court—it bein' only mere guesswork, from what I can see?"
"Thanks," John rising alongside Claire, intimating the conversation had reached a natural conclusion. "You've been no dam' help at all; but thanks, anyway. Hope t'God I never set eyes on ya again."
"Huh, nuts t'ya, too—the both o'yez."
"Come, Claire, let us depart from this joint, I fear we are not wanted around these parts any longer." John putting on the Ritz for show as they headed for the door.
"Just a low gin-joint, anyway, dear." Claire, like Katherine Hepburn, resolutely holding up her part in the scene. "I used t'go t'better speak-easy's than this durin' Prohibition."
"B-st-rds!" But Staivers at least had enough sense left to mutter this under his breath as his office door closed behind the two investigators. "God! G-d'd-m alibis, more trouble than a dam' straight-up murder rap!"
The day was still enjoying the energy and enthusiasm of its relative youthfulness, it being only some after midday; Claire, as John drove them into mid-town, picking up the slack in the case like a veteran.
"Where to now, boss?"
"Olsen Road, apartment two-one-eight Harrogate-Taut Building." John reciting from memory. "Stately home of one Sara-Anne Montgomery, show dancer at the Peridot Club—she obligingly stating that she an' Stevens spent a happy connubial afternoon together, in every sense of the term, on the day of the Harrison rap."
"The Harrison incident?" Claire mulling over the details herself. "Les'see, yeah, the Harrison Stores joint sits on Keplinger Street, less'n a block from Olsen Road. Sara putting in writing, an' signing same, to the effect Stevens never left her sight during the whole term of the robbery. What was the haul, again?"
"Two hundred and forty dollars." John grunting deeply as he pulled the sedan into the side of the road. "Here we are; third floor, I believe, no elevator."
"Huh, stands t'reason; why should our day be easy for us, after all?" Claire scowling as they entered the building.
Miss Montgomery, on opening the corridor door to her visitors, proved to be every inch the club dancer of general repute; tall, slim, well-balanced, and of regal bearing and expression. Her voice, however, betrayed her origins—somewhere in the lower part of Brooklyn, NY.
"Wha' the dam' is it, now? Ya bums know wha' dam' time it is? I got'ta show this evenin', ya know; I got'ta get my dam' sleep in, or I'm a lost cause on the dance floor."
"Easy, Beryl." John taking control like an expert compere. "Only wan'na ask ya a few questions—about a certain alibi of note ya came up with some time since; ya knows the one I mean, sure enough."
Sara gave the two a head to toe examination through dark green eyes, sniffing haughtily while doing so, finally reluctantly stepping back to open the door wide.
"Get yersel's in here, pronto—an' my dam' name's Sara-Anne—Miss Montgomery to you two shamus's. Wha' ya want?"
Ensconced on a long sofa in the living-room, but not offered tea and biscuits by their suspicious hostess, the subject of prime import came to the fore.
"You gave Gregor Stevens a rock-solid alibi the day the Harrison Stores robbery took place, some half a block from here—your beau apparently in your presence the whole time said robbery was under way." Claire placing the foundations of the discussion on public display. "Now, Uncle Tom Cobley, the Fifth Precinct to a man an' woman, my Boss an' I, an' most of those others who know about these things, knows fer sure Stevens—lolling in your arms or no—did carry out the crime. So, baby, where's the crack in your story? 'cause as an alibi, your tale jes' can't stand—Stevens definitely being the bozo who did the evil deed. So, hit us with the real deal, lady."
Faced with such contemptuous disbelief Sara came out fighting, as her native clime would only have expected.
"Say, what is this? The Third Degree?" She snarling like a wildcat offered the vegetarian option for lunch. "We was together the whole time, is all. Nuthin' more t'be said. The cops went over the whole dam' thing fer hours—it all holding up the whiles."
"Yeah, that being the whole problem." Claire not to be put off by mere facts. "One we got the robbery, two someone must'a carried it out, three we all—all us in the know—knows fer certain said perp was Stevens, four your alibi therefore must be a piece o'shi—er, nonsense from head t'toe."
"Hey!" Sara miffed all the way down to her cotton socks. "Ain't ya got any respect fer anyone? He was with me, sure. We got up to—er, we sort'a—er, we was together the whole time, an' that fact stands, see."
While this dual face-off was going forward John had been doing some deep thinking, not without result.
"You say you both were together the whole time—from half-past one to four-forty-five?"
"Yeah, that's about right?"
"Were there any moments, or longer lengths of time when—for whatever reason—you were separated?"
Sara opened her mouth to retort in fine style, then thought better of her action, taking time out to consider the question logically.
Time passed, unobstructed by any activity within the room, mental or physical.
"—er, it's only that, now I come ter think on it—"
"What?" Claire losing what little patience she had come provided with.
"It's just that, around three in the afternoon, Gregor decided t'take a bath." Sara's eyes opening wide as she recalled this damning fact. "Never thought of it before; but he must'a been in the bathroom some, oh, forty minutes or so."
"Unseen by you?" John seeing clarity forming through the mists of obfuscation hitherto broadly on show.
"Oh, yeah, he usually kept the bathroom door locked all the time." Sara nodding as the facts reassembled themselves to memory. "He sayin', often, he liked a bit o'privacy in the afternoon to wallow in the suds quietly. Wouldn't ever reply if I called through the door, on occasion, either."
"How long did this fiasco last, on the day of the robbery?" Claire frowning horribly at the now depressed dancer.
"It must'a been, oh, half an hour, meb'be longer—forty minutes, meb'be. I can't straight recall."
John shook his head mournfully.
"Long enough for Stevens t'have robbed three stores. Well, there's the break-out—he robbed the store while you thought he was in the tub. Can we take a gander at this dam' bathroom?"
Sara, now all willingness to co-operate, led them across the living-room to a short corridor with two doors leading-off, one on each side; along at the end, facing the interested trio, was another door.
"Bathroom to your left, my bedroom on the right, door t'service stairs leading t'the rear alley down the bottom, there." Sara being succinct with her details as the three surveyed the scene.
Claire examined the locale for all of five seconds before coming up with the obvious scenario.
"He takes a bath, runs the water, locks the door, you attempt entrance and or conversation, find no answer an' assume he's up to his old privacy trick. Ya take time-out on your sofa, during which Stevens slips out the bathroom, locking it behind him with a key he obviously has, exits the rear entrance, perp's the robbery, quietly returns, hits the bathroom again, then hollers fer a warm towel after his ablutions, and you're none the wiser while he's two hundred bucks, and the thrill o'the chase, better off."
Another pause,—as of the Egyptians considering, and taking their time doing so, whether building a Pyramid was really a good idea,—filtered through the apartment.
"Uumph! Quite." Claire allowing she understood Sara's distress. "So much for unbreakable alibi's. Not that it don't still stand up, o'course."
"Yeah, there's the rub." John agreeing wholeheartedly. "We can see where the cracks occur; but there's still no way, now, of proving same."
"Well, you've been a great help, Miss Montgomery." Claire offering sympathy as she and John rose to leave. "He obviously figured all this out over the long term; waiting his opportunity to make the robbery, keys an' all; setting the whole thing up just perfect for his purposes."
"Dam' ingrate." Sara not to be appeased by mere words. "Next time I see the jerk his balls'll be history, fer sure!"
"Aa-mm!" John taking the neutral stance on this topic. "Well, er, goodbye."
"I got'ta old rusty saw-bladed knife in the kitchen." Sara still focused on her options for the future. "Do nicely, that will."
"Uu-rr." Claire leading John by the hand as they exited the apartment back into the safety of the corridor. "So nice to have met you, Miss Montgomery."
"So, we know now what his general modus operandi is, at least." Claire settling back in the sedan's passenger seat as John once more drove them across the city. "What now?"
"The alibi for the Johnson murder." John scowling through the windscreen. "Time t'hit the big-time, now we know what t'look for. I got a good feeling about this, Claire. Really feel we may break the case, with luck."
"We'll see." Claire being by nature a trifle more pragmatic in outlook.
As they drove on Claire sat scrutinising her notes, to some good effect.
"Right, so, on the night of Milly Johnson's murder Stevens adamantly testified he was in the audience at the Peristyle Theatre on Indiana Street. He arriving there with a lady friend, one Lucy Bailey, around seven o'clock and not leaving till eleven-fifteen, well after the murder."
"Sounds a concrete story." John humming softly between pursed lips as he went over the scenario mentally. "The Peristyle bein' located around two blocks from Treaton Park. But now we know he probably skipped-out for some period of time just before till just after the murder. All we got'ta do is bend this dame Bailey's arm till she comes up with the kosher goods, an' we're clear."
Their copious notes and archive newspaper material having provided the necessary details it wasn't more than ten minutes later John pulled his DeSoto up outside Miss Bailey's residence, an apartment block on Kealey Road, central The Heights; altogether a sumptuous residential area.
"Looks like Stevens was aiming for the top rank in Society." Claire noting this fact as they entered the block and took the elevator.
"Let's see what we can do to stymie his social climbing, shall we?" John now all panther on the trail of breakfast.
Miss Bailey, on innocently opening her apartment door to the two keen investigators, soon found herself the centre of a type of attention she didn't much care for.
"What for you're calling me out on it?" She facing-off her opponents in her living-room. "I didn't do no murder, nor did Greg, neither. I mean, he was sittin' beside me at the Theatre all evenin' long. How'd you expect t'brush that fact aside, may I ask? It stumping the cops all ways t'Portland, Oregon an' back, an' all."
Having gained significant insight into Stevens' methods it was Claire who fired the first shot in deconstructing Miss Bailey's take on matters.
"How were Greg's guts standin' the fast pace of social interaction that night?" She raising a suspicious eyebrow to emphasise her question.
"His gu—say, how'd ya know about his, er, problem?" Miss Bailey suddenly taking more than a little notice of the conversation. "He's been troubled that way ever since I first knew him. Yeah, there was a time, that night, he went t'the theatre rest-room to, ah, seek relief. I took no note, it being, as it was, a regular thing with him."
"You didn't mention this to the cops when they took your statement—officially holding-up Stevens' alibi as a result?" John, with rather a cold tone, getting to the heart of the matter.
"—er, can't say I did." Miss Bailey coming over coy. "The cops never pushed over-hard for the, umm, minute details of his alibi, the second by second schedule, just asked me t'corroborate his overall story which, being true as far as I knew, I did."
John and Claire exchanged glances, they now certain they were on the right track.
"How long was he away, out of your view?" Claire seeking the gory details that would break the case for certain.
"How long?" Miss Bailey considered this with some deliberation. "Well, now you ask, quite a time, in fact. It was just before the intermission between Act Two an' Three. He said he had'ta do his thing an' left in a hurry; wasn't till the intermission was on that he returned—must'a been all of half an hour for sure, if not a trifle more."
"What about—" Claire about to pursue another detail before she was interrupted.
"Say, now I recall, there was something else, sort'a fishy now I thinks on it, he did that evening."
A quietude, as of passing aeons, filtered through the brightly lit room before either John or Claire summoned strength enough to reply to this unexpected news.
"Ah, what would that be, ma'am?" Claire recovering first.
"I didn't tell the cops this, either." Miss Bailey contriving to look meek, shy, and sorry all at the same time. "Well, why should've I, it weren't nothing at the time."
"What wasn't nothing?" John stepping in to sweep aside the remaining clouds of mist surrounding Miss Bailey's reminiscences. "I mean, what was this item? Something Stevens did?"
"Well, yeah." She furrowing her brow recalling the details. "We'd left the theatre t'come back here; he driving his Plymouth, y'know. Well, he stopped suddenly near a derelict lot, saying he had'ta take a leak again. God, his guts, always bringing them up, he was, pardon the expression."
"So?" Claire jollying her witness along with the subtle easy-going air of a prosecuting attorney.
"So, he got out'ta the car, disappeared in'ta the dark in the bare lot, then came back two minutes later an' we came on t'my apartment here, that's all."
John was now on ground he understood intimately, taking advantage of this with relish.
"Can you place this vacant lot, Miss Bailey? I got a street map here, can you pinpoint the place, to a general area, at least?"
Miss Bailey pored over the unfolded map, running her perfectly manicured finger over the crackling paper, pale pink nail varnish glinting in the light, till she stopped at a point four blocks away to the east.
"That'll be near enough; must'a been there, 'cause we'd just turned-off Grover Road an' only gone a few more yards. Yeah, that's the place."
"Many thanks, Miss Bailey." John starting up like a sprinter after the firing pistol had gone-off.
"Bye, lady." Claire not far behind.
Devane Street, just before the intersection with Grover, was at this time of evening dead—that is to say barren of either pedestrian or vehicular traffic.
"Couldn't be better." John muttering this enthusiastically as they exited his sedan for the umpteenth time that day. "Right, it's a rectangular lot; a few bushes and patches of long grass; the light's failing, so better watch out for rattlesnakes. You know the routine?"
"Rattlesnakes! God!" Claire quite aware they would be the least of her worries. "What about the used needles, piles of poop, broken bottles, stinking cast-aside old clothes, and other stuff? They not counting, or what?"
"Get a grip, lady." John insouciantly taking the moral high ground. "You start on the left side, I'll take the right; we'll make our way from here back across the lot over t'the far side, OK?"
"Yeah, I got'cha, boss; mind that broken bottle there."
It was a bare five minutes later, though only after her shoes had already suffered irretrievable damage from a variety of probably best unidentified substances, that Claire hit the jackpot.
"Yeah?" John being some twenty yards away across the lot.
"There's a sodden brown-paper bag here, with the wooden butt of a pistol showing."
Five seconds later John had crossed the lot to stand by his assistant's side, peering down into the muddy grass at the newly discovered object.
"Well, well," His voice echoing all the satisfaction both investigators felt. "Now isn't that just dandy? With or without fingerprints that there's a doozy of a piece of evidence."
"Yeah." Claire au fait with the possibilities herself. "Allied to Miss Bailey's testimony, and the Police Scientific Department matching the bullet t'the weapon; well, the case's solved."
"Well done, Claire. Sharp eyes."
"T'ain't nuthin', boss; just doing my duty."
"Stevens's in a cell in Central Courthouse as we speak." Inspector Jacob Fletcher of the 5th Precinct sitting back on his office chair, sharing the glad tidings to one and all—these being, at the moment, John and Claire.
It was the morning after the two investigators had called out the Force to search the vacant lot, also identifying the dumped revolver and telling their tale of multiple alibis and their individual shaky seams.
"What with your information showing up a couple of the alibis for the nonsense they were, we've since been able to do the same with others." Fletcher went on, happy as a lark. "The whole case's coming together like a easy jigsaw. A couple more of his erstwhile girlfriends have welched on him so far, with others in the works, I bet. Our Lab even got a fine print off the cylinder of the revolver, though it'd lain in the wet grass for weeks; the paper bag protecting it from the weather some, y'see. He's pinched fair and square; his Defending Attorney won't have anything t'do but beg for thirty to life, instead of the chair, is all."
"Very nice news indeed." John grinning like the Cheshire Cat, with reason. "I like it when the bad guys get theirs'."
"Mrs Barnes'll be pleased, too." Claire reverting to the start of the case. "Milly being an orphan, with only a distant Aunt who didn't know her, Mrs Barnes has acted like a mother to her. She'll be glad Stevens' has come a cropper, at last."
"Oh, yes." Fletcher nodding in turn. "There's no doubt now, he was the villain in all the past cases, too. But as for Milly; well, he's goin' t'the chair, never mind what excuses his attorney tries on the court: that's certain. All unofficial so far, y'understand; but when he goes, he won't be missed by anyone at all."
"Yeah, maybe girls can walk in Treaton Park with more degree of safety from now on." Claire looking at the good outcomes of the matter.
"For a time, we hope." Fletcher frowning all the same. "But Delacote's a big city; an' big cities have big crime rates; an', well, crime don't go away when the dawn comes, sadly."
"All the same, the way I look at things," Claire waxing philosophical for once. "every weed torn out'ta a vacant lot; means a new rose in the Public Park for citizens t'enjoy. Soppy, I know; but, hell, that's me."
John leaned over to place a hand on the sleeve of his assistant.
"Love ya for it, Claire. Don't ever be any different."
Claire, having no other recourse, blushed.
Another 'John Drage, Private Detective' story will arrive shortly.