By Roxanne Dent
Chapter Two: “House of Spirits”
As I dressed, I thought it odd, a famous medium, who must have had dozens of people clamoring to see her, granted me an appointment on such short notice.
I don’t believe in mediums, or psychics of any sort. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all phony’s, out to bilk the suckers. I’d had plenty of experience with psychics, mediums and fortune tellers, when my mother was accused of murder.
My handsome father was kind, generous and funny, but too good looking. Women fell all over him. He was weak. Although he loved my mother, he couldn’t say no. All our neighbors heard the rows. When he was bashed over the head in the lobby of our building, after being out half the night, the cops arrested my mother.
They decided she killed him in a fit of jealousy and looked no further. I went to one psychic after another, hoping they could provide some scrap of information that would halt the trial. Not one gave me a lead.
It wasn’t until I contacted Mike Ryan, a private detective, that new facts about the other woman and her string of lovers arose. One of them was Lefty O’Bannon, a small-time hood who worked for the bootlegger, Vince Mangano. Lefty was known for his hair-trigger temper and violent past. The judge didn’t feel there was enough evidence. He refused to open the case.
Six months later, my mother followed the notorious Ruth Snyder. She was electrocuted. Two years after that, Lefty was shot in the back during a robbery. As he lay dying, he had an attack of guilt. He confessed to my father’s murder. Too little, too late.
I didn’t blame Mike. He became such an irritant to the police, they banned him from the station. When he went to the papers with what he had on Lefty, a cache of drugs and alcohol were discovered in his car. He swore the cops were crooked. They arrested him and pulled his license. A heavy drinker when I met him, Mike eventually drank himself to death.
His honesty, and refusal to back down, no matter the odds, impressed me.
I decided to follow in his footsteps. I liked the idea of saving an innocent from jail, or the chair. The idea of working for myself, was an added incentive. When my favorite aunt, Dixie Lee, who made her fortune in speakeasies, left me a modest inheritance, I invested the money in the stock market, doubled my monthly dividend, and hung out my shingle.
I slipped the briar rose, soft wool jacket and skirt on over my glossy, black bob, and stared at my reflection. I had high cheekbones, and full lips, not the little bow mouth that was so popular. My dark brows were too full to be in style. When I was young, I was all arms and legs. Now, I was tall, and on the thin side, with wide shoulders, long legs, and a slim waist. When I walked into a room with petite, blonde, bubbly Ivy, no one noticed me. I didn’t mind. I had a low opinion, not just of cops, but men in general.
As I stepped outside and hailed a cab, I was worried. I’d seen what could happen when the cops fixated on a suspect.
Unlike most fortune tellers, who lived in tenements in lower Manhattan, Madame Roskovich worked out of a respectable brownstone on West 55th Street. Around the corner was the 300 Club, owned by the mob.
The club was made famous by Texas Guinan, the brassy, blonde former, silent screen actress, circus rider and singer. I’d been there once. Texas always wore a necklace of padlocks, an ode to how many times the cops raided her establishment. She’d greet her guests with, “Hello sucker,” as they entered. They loved it.
The taxi swerved to the curb and stopped. I got out, paid the driver, went up the steps and rang the bell.
The door flew open. A woman rushed out, barreling into me, leaving a trail of Evening in Paris in her wake. I staggered and lost my footing. If I hadn’t grabbed the rail, I’d have fallen down the stairs.
“Hey, watch it,” I shouted.
The woman’s brown, slouch hat with a big bow was pulled down on her face, and her raccoon fur collar, prevented me from getting a good look. Startled hazel eyes fleetingly met mine. She ran down the steps and hailed a dimbox, which screeched to a halt. She got in and the cab took off.
Curious, I went inside and shut the door, wondering what information from beyond the medium told her to make her flee. I called out, “Madame Roskovich?”
No one answered. I peered into what appeared to be a waiting room. It was comfortably furnished with a couch and two chairs. A bunch of movie magazines lay scattered on a table.
“Hello, is anyone here?” The only sound were my heels clicking on the floor.
I knocked twice on the door at the end. When I received no answer, I turned the knob. The door swung open.
The room was dark, with wine colored, velvet drapes that covered the windows. There was enough light from the hall to see a body sprawled on the floor. I rushed over and bent down. I’d never met her, but I was sure the corpse belonged to Madame Roskovich. Somewhere in her mid-fifties, she was dressed in purple, satin robes. She wore lots of gold jewelry around her wrists and neck. On her head was a purple turban, with a diamond in the center. In the middle of her forehead was a bloody hole. Her body was still warm.
Someone shot the famous medium. Was it the woman who just left? I glanced nervously into the shadows in the corners or the room, or was the murderer still here? I heard police sirens in the distance. They might not be heading her, but past experience taught me it was no time to hang around a dead body.
Before I left, I turned on the lamp. The room was much as you might expect. A table was rigged to shake. Egyptian statues, and a large pentagram were painted on the wooden floor to impress clients. I searched for a date book. I found it in the bottom drawer of her desk. On top, tea things had been arranged. There were two cups barely touched. I took a sniff of what smelled like Darjeeling.
I looked up into the barrel of a snub-nosed 38. The man holding the pistol stepped into the light. He wore a grey suit and was gorgeous if you didn’t count the twisted, crepe-paper skin on the left side of his face. Like most men, he was clean shaven, his golden hair slicked back, slate grey eyes, with thick, black lashes. His aristocratic nose rivaled John Barrymore’s.
“Did you bump her off?” he demanded.
“I’m a client,” I said indignantly. “I had an appointment at four.”
His grey eyes were hard, as he looked me over. “You don’t look like one of her chumps.” He had a rich voice, like a radio announcer, and a slight British accent.
“I’m a private detective.”
He lowered the gun. “Me too.”
The sound of police sirens drew closer.
“You call the cops?” he asked.
“I just got here.”
“Coppers aren’t fond of private dicks. Let’s scram and discuss this over a cup of Joe at the diner on the corner.”
We just made it to Tillie’s, when the cops pulled up across the street. We slid into a booth by a window, where we could see what was happening and ordered two coffees.
“So, what’s your name, and what case are you working?” I asked, trying not to sound as suspicious as I felt. We watched a short, red-haired detective with a droopy mustache get out of one car and lead the others into Madame Roskovich’s brownstone.
“Name’s Harry Barnes.” He turned to face me. “And you, doll?”
“I’m not your doll.”
“My apologies. Never met a lady detective before, especially one as pretty as you.”
“Don’t waste your breath. I’m not susceptible to flattery.”
A look of surprise flitted across his face. “I meant every word.”
“My name is J.R. Turner.”
“Well, J.R., I was there to prove the woman was a fraud. What does the J. stand for?”
I hesitated but found no reason not to tell him. “Josie.”
“A cynical husband hired me,” he said. “He doesn’t believe in spirit guides, rocking tables, or ectoplasm. You?”
“A friend of mine was accused of murdering her rich godmother who was a client.” I took a sip of weak coffee.
“Did she do it?”
“Because she’s your friend?”
“Because I’m an excellent judge of character.”
He leaned over. “What’s in the book you stole?’ A smile lurked in his grey eyes.
I leaned back. “I haven’t looked yet.”
“I have a proposition if you’re interested.”
“Without doubt, you are the most suspicious female I ever met. I’m sorry. And I mean it. Sincerely.”
“For that massive chip on your shoulder, whoever let you down, lied to you or cheated on you. But I’m not him, and this is a legit business offer.”
I stiffened. Honesty made me realize he was right. Men, beginning with my father had let me down. Part of me wanted to slap him.
“With your mug, I’m sure you know all about disappointment.” I regretted the words the moment I said them.
He looked disappointed. I felt lower than a cockroach.
“My turn to apologize,” I said. “What’s the proposition?”
“Now that Madame Roskovich is dead, I no longer have a case. Two brains are better than one. Your friend if she’s innocent, is going to need all the help she can get. I know someone in the coroner’s office and a cop or two who don’t actually hate me.”
“What’s in it for you?”
“I’m tired of cheating spouses and missing pets. I went into this racket to solve murders.”
“The money may be zip.”
“It’s all yours.”
I hate being wrong about people. I imagined this out of work PI wanted to muscle in on my case for the dough.
“I’ll think about it and let you know. Give me your phone number.” While most people had phones now, it was a necessity for a private investigator.
He wrote the number on a napkin and placed twenty cents down for the check along with a nickel tip. “The second cup of coffee is free,” he said as he glanced at my empty cup.
I put the napkin in my purse and stood. “Done. Thanks.”
“My jalopy is right outside. I’ll give you a lift.”
“I have a hair appointment a block away,” I lied.
I watched him walk to a flashy, red, La Salle Coupe, and drive away. It wasn’t a jalopy, or the type of car a private detective could afford. I needed to make a few inquiries about Mr. Harry Barnes, before I gave him my answer.
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.