By Roxanne Dent
Chapter Five: “Ain’t She Sweet”
I slept through the night. When I awoke, my arm was stiff. It ached. I had a small scab and an ugly black and blue bruise. I took an aspirin and gently sank into a bubble bath with lavender oil. I listened to “I Wanna Be Loved by you,” by Helen Kane on my new radio. It was an expensive, early birthday gift from me to me.
By 10:00 a.m. I’d spent enough time loafing. It was going to be a busy day. I stepped out of the tub and toweled off. Pulling on a tailored, wool suit in olive green, with black velvet trim, I applied a light dusting of powder, and put on my favorite Flame lipstick before I called Harry. We made an appointment to meet in Washington Square Park by the fountain. It was one of my favorite spots.
As I stepped outside, it was chilly, but the sun warmed my back. I was comfortable in my winter suit, accented by a chartreuse, wool scarf, hat and gloves.
I spotted Harry the moment I approached the fountain. He was wearing a snazzy grey suit and a hat tilted on one side. He watched a pair of lovers, who only had eyes for each other. I couldn’t read his face but wondered if it cut him up inside to see them so happy. Or did he think how naïve they were, and what disappointments awaited them down the road.
He turned, saw me and smiled.
“Nice day,” he said.
“It is. I’ve decided to take you up on your offer.”
“Good. Would you like to hear what I discovered about Mavis Bankes?”
I stared. “How did you know that was my case?”
“I’m a detective, remember? I checked with my friend at the morgue. Other than gang rub-outs and Madame Roskovich’s murder, the only suspicious death was the poisoning of a wealthy, society matron.”
“So, what did you learn?” I asked, as we wandered over to a bench and sat down.
“Her son’s suicide appears to be just that. He was an addict who saw no way out of his misery.”
I was disappointed. “Nothing I don’t already know.”
“Ah, but I took Betty, the upstairs maid out dancing.”
“Really! Did she tell you as you twirled her around how Billy got involved in drugs?”
“He met a girl.”
“Wilda. The name’s German. It means untamed. From all I gathered, she lived up to it.”
“An actress I presume.”
“A chorus girl.”
“And Mavis invited her into her home?” I couldn’t hide my surprise.
“She might have done what wealthy families the world over do, pay her to disappear.”
“In your investigation into Mavis’ life, did you come across a girl named Alice?”
“Her ward. Sent her to good schools but the girl ran off to join the circus and had a kid out of wedlock. Mavis had nothing more to do with her.”
“What happened to Alice’s child?”
“Think Alice joined Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey?”
“I doubt they’d hire her without a unique skill. Local carnivals are more likely.”
“Let’s check, anyway,” I said. “Alice might be dead, and the kid could have vamoosed, but someone might remember them. Another avenue to explore is Billy’s fiancé. His fascination with the seamier side of life makes his relationship with Clara, a bookstore clerk, and according to Ivy, no Sheba, odd.”
“They might have met at the bookstore. Before he succumbed to opium, Billy spent a lot of money on rare books,” Harry said.
“I think we should meet her.”
“I agree, Harry said. “Betty mentioned the sainted Clara visited Mavis every day until two days before Mavis’ death. They had a heated argument and the butler was told not to let her in.”
“I thought so. Book Row is a short walk from here,” Harry said.
We headed toward Fourth Avenue.
I loved books and visited the area several times a month. There were forty-eight, second-hand bookstores, covering six, city blocks. Among the bookstores, was the Strand. Writers came to chat, sell their books and find an out-of-print, precious edition to purchase. We decided to go there first. If Billy enjoyed purchasing rare books he would frequent The Strand.
The store was packed floor to ceiling with books. There were two clerks busy with customers as we entered.
“Check out the dowdy girl in the back,” Harry whispered. She wore a faded, beige dress with a lace collar and sturdy, brown shoes. Her mousy hair was pulled up into a severe bun in back. She wore glasses and not a speck of makeup.
“No Sheba,” I agreed.
The girl finished with a customer and began walking toward us.
“Are you Clara?” I asked, as she reached us.
“How can I help you?”
“We’re private detectives. We wondered if you could take a ten-minute break.”
“We’d like to buy you a cup of coffee at the coffee house around the corner and ask a few questions about Mavis Bankes.”
“I already spoke with the police.”
“We aren’t the police,” Harry said.
“You needn’t talk with us if you’d rather not,” I said, hoping she’d be less nervous.
She looked at me. Her eyes were brown, but they looked darker than the hazel ones belonging to the woman who barreled into me.
“I don’t mind,” she said. “Mavis was good to me and I’m due for a break.”
Once settled she ordered tea, a beverage Ivy referred to as noodle juice.
“We understand you were engaged to Mavis’ son, Billy,” I said.
Tears filled her eyes. She brushed them away with the edge of a napkin. “We met at the Strand. Billy was a connoisseur of old books and plays. That is before— “ She stopped and took a sip of tea.
“Before he became addicted to opium,” Harry finished.
“Addiction is a terrible curse. Before we met, that horrid actress got her claws into him and introduced him to the stuff.”
“You mean Wilda?” I said.
She shrugged. “I never knew her name.”
“I understand you met Ivy Langford, Mavis’ goddaughter,” I added.
“A flapper. Mavis was very disappointed in her.”
“And yet, she left her a great deal of money,” Harry said.
“Mavis considered her family. Family was everything.” I detected a faint bitterness.
“If Billy lived and married you, no doubt things would have been different,” I said.
“I know what you’re implying. I’m not materialistic. Billy was the love of my life. But he was weak. Mavis hoped I would be able to help him break his habit but it was too strong.”
“Have you ever consulted a medium?” I interrupted.
She set her cup down. “I don’t believe in such things.”
“Mavis did,” I said.
“After Billy died, it seemed to give her comfort.”
“Did you ever meet Thomasina?” I asked.
“If you mean Mavis’s ward, she was gone before I met Billy. He felt sorry for her and occasionally slipped Alice money.”
“Who do you think poisoned Mavis?” Harry asked.
“No idea. It was a dreadful shock.”
“We heard you visited Mavis every day and even spent the night until last week,” I said.
Clara flushed. “We argued about her wasting money on all those visits to a psychic. They’re charlatans. She became quite agitated. I regret it now.”
“She must have been very upset to bar you from the house,” Harry said.
Clara stood and put her coat on. “She would have forgiven me if she lived. I have to get back to work.”
We watched her leave.
“Well, J.R., we make a great tag team. What do you think of the fiancé?”
“Dowdy and meek, but definitely bitter about the money.”
“I agree. And we only have her word for it they quarreled about the visits to the psychic. When someone who looks like a poor church mouse, tells you they’re not materialistic they’re lying. Let’s see what we can find out about the mysterious Wilda.”
“I know an agent.”
Roxanne Dent lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and has sold nine novels and dozens of short stories in a variety of genres to anthologies, including Paranormal Fantasy, Regency, Mystery, Horror, Middle Grade and YA. Her fantasy, The Day the Demons Came, recently sold to the anthology, In the Shadow of the Mountain, Elder Gods Publishing. And My Zombie Valentine, sold to Blood Red Shadows, Night to Dawn, and will be out around Valentine’s Day. She has also co-authored short stories and plays with her sister, Karen Dent. Their plays Young at Heart and Monkey Girl Blues, were put on at the Firehouse Theater in Newburyport.