By Roxanne Dent
Chapter Ten: “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye”
Ivy hadn’t prepared me for Mavis Bankes’ townhouse on Riverside Drive and 78th street. It was a mini-mansion, that rivaled William Kassam Vanderbilt’s, Cornelius’ brother. A black wreath with a black satin bow, decorated the front entrance.
The butler told us his name was James, but informed us in clipped tones, the house was in mourning.
“We’re private investigators. We wish to speak to the servants for a few minutes,” Harry said as he flashed his license.
“The house has a skeleton crew until the will is settled, sir. The two maids and cook’s assistant are out for the day.” He moved to shut the door.
“What about you,” I said.
He gave me a fishy eye as if to say, “You’re not a detective.”
Harry poked me in the ribs. “Miss Turner will take notes,”
I wasn’t happy relegating me to note taker but understood his strategy with the hostile butler.
“We’re here on behalf of Ivy Langford,” Harry said.
His instinct to mention Ivy hit the mark. The butler softened.
He stepped outside and led us to the servants’ entrance, located on the side of the building. The hall opened into a huge, old-fashioned kitchen with a long, scarred, wooden table. He sat down before a mug of what looked like cold tea.
I removed a pad of paper and rummaged around in my purse for a pencil.
“How long have you been the butler?” Harry asked.
“Your employer’s death by poison must have come as a great shock.”
“Indeed, sir. Mrs. Bankes was an indomitable spirit. It’s still difficult to think she won’t ring the bell and demand her tea. She always took it with lemon and honey.” He cleared his throat. I fear the police have arrested the wrong person. Miss Ivy has her faults, but there’s no real harm in her.”
“Two tragedies in one household must be hard to bear.”
“You refer to her son. His suicide hit my employer very hard. Very hard indeed, although it was not unexpected given his nature.”
“Mr. Bankes’ fiancé must have been shattered,” I said.
“If you say so, miss.”
“You didn’t like her?” Harry asked.
It’s not my place to like her, sir.” He shifted on his seat. “But now that Mrs. Bankes is gone I admit, I didn’t take to Miss Clara.”
“Did you think she was after Billy for his money?”
“To tell you the truth, I never believed Mr. Bankes was serious about her. He was not one to go for the plain, quiet ones.”
“But Mrs. Bankes was fond of her,” I said.
“Yes Miss. She needed someone to confide in. Miss Clara came every day and they would discuss Mr. Banks, sometimes in his presence. Miss Clara talked about his potential, how much she loved him and wanted to help him to get clean.” He made a face. “When Mr. Bankes was present, Miss Clara would fuss over him, smooth his hair, straighten his tie. I felt it was more for show than affection.”
“We heard a few days before Mrs. Bankes died, she quarreled with Clara,” Harry said.
I stopped writing, struck by an idea that began to take shape. I barely heard the butler’s reply.
“That they did, sir. Quite violently.”
“Do you know what the argument was about?” Harry pursued.
“No, sir. But Mrs. Bankes gave orders not to let her in if she came again.”
“Did you ever meet the actress who supposedly led Billy into drugs?”
“Thank you, James,” Harry said. “You’ve been most helpful.”
“I hope so sir. I would hate to see Miss Ivy convicted of murder.”
“I can see you’re positively bursting with excitement,” Harry said as we emerged onto the street.
“What is it?”
“A crazy idea I’d like to think through before I share it.”
“I thought we were partners?”
“We are, but I need some time alone to flush it out. I’ll send you word. When you receive my message, leave immediately.”
I didn’t wait for Harry to argue with me. I’d spotted a bus. I ran to the corner, hopped on it and paid my nickel fare for the ride downtown.
As I rode, I devised a plan to flush out the killer of both Mavis Bankes and Madame Roskovich. It was risky and involved using myself as bait, but I had a hunch it would work.
When I returned home half the building was on the stoop waiting for me. Isabel, the poet was reading tarot cards. Miguel, the actor was in tears. Elliot, the painter in his paint spattered smock, was furiously pacing back and forth muttering to himself and pulling his long, black hair. They heard the news Ivy had been arrested and surrounded me.
“Everyone calm down. I’m working on setting her free,” I assured them.
“Tell us what you need,” Miguel begged. “It is outrageous the little bird has been arrested. I would give my life for her.”
“Of course, you would,” I soothed as I pried his hand off my arm. “I have a plan. Stay close.” I rushed upstairs where I scribbled two notes and gave them to Paolo in 3R to deliver the moment my visitor arrived.
Upstairs, I opened the drawer at the bottom of my desk. I removed a pile of papers and magazines. Underneath was a false bottom. I pulled out a Colt Smith & Wesson Revolver, given to me by Jake the Snake, when I decided to become a detective. It was the nicest thing he ever did. I placed it underneath the couch cushions, where I could reach it easily.
Now that everything was in place, I had doubts. I had no actual proof.
What did one wear to meet a murderer? I wanted freedom of movement and comfort. I decided on an Asian, wide-leg pants set in royal blue silk. The actress Gertrude Olmstead wore a version of it when she played opposite Rudolph Valentino in the 1925 film, ‘Cobra.’”
I kept glancing at the clock. At ten after six, I’d almost given up, when I heard the buzzer. I jumped and reminded myself it was probably Harry. I buzzed back.
When I opened the door, Clara stood there. She wore the same grey wool coat, and slouch hat she wore to the funeral.
“May I come in?”
“Please do,” I said. “I wasn’t sure you would come.” I caught sight of the top of my neighbors’ heads on the landing above and felt less jittery.
I went inside and moved to the sofa. I indicated Clara should sit in the chair across from me.
“May I take your coat?”
“No. I won’t be long.”
She crossed her legs. She did have great gams.
“You said in your note, Clara wasn’t my real name.”
“Your real name is Wilda.”
“I told you before I never met the woman.”
“That’s one of the many lies you told.”
“You accuse me not only of lying but poisoning Mavis and shooting Madame Roskovich. What do you base those ridiculous accusations on?”
“You’re an actress, a much better one than people give you credit for.”
“I work in a bookstore.”
“But you didn’t always. In fact, I’m surprised you’re still there. You first met Billy in the theater. When you realized he came from money you pursued him. His mother despised show people. She refused to meet you. That’s when you changed tactics. You hoped to win her over as the plain, self-effacing Clara and took a job as a clerk in a bookstore.”
“You act like I’m some sort of Mata Hari. I’m not clever.”
“Yes you are. Your hold over Billy wasn’t as strong as you hoped. He refused to marry you so you introduced him to opium in the hope he would become dependent on you. He became hooked, but your plan failed when he committed suicide.”
“You’re in he wrong profession.You should be a writer of lurid novels.”
“After his death, Mavis consulted Madame Roskovich, no doubt at your suggestion.”
“I told you, I don’t believe in psychics.”
“Except this one proved useful. You fed Madame Roskovich information that impressed Mavis. She went every week and paid a hefty fee which you split with the medium. She was your partner after all.”
“At some point, Mavis must have told you she intended to leave you some money in her will in memory of her son.”
“Did you forget I’m not in the will. Ivy is. You were present when she was arrested for murder. All you have is a wild story. There’s no proof of any of this.”
“Something changed Mavis’ mind. Was it Madame Roskovich? Milking suckers was one thing. Murder another. Did Anna realize the police were suspicious of all those sudden deaths? Did she want to cut ties and disappear? Or rat you out to the cops for a deal?”
At the mention of the medium’s real name, Clara stiffened. “You’re insane.”
“I think you found out she was going abroad. That’s why you shot her.”
“This is all a silly fantasy you concocted to save your friend.”
“According to the information on the back of your resume, you played the part of a self-effacing companion in one of the plays you were in.”
“For the last time, I’m not an actress.”
“Your resume says different. One of your talents was card reading. Is that how you first teamed up with Madame Roskovich?”
“If the police suspected me of murder they would have arrested me.”
“Don’t worry. If the police search hard enough, they’ll find the proof they need.”
“The gun you used. It wasn’t at the murder scene. I doubt you threw it in the Hudson. It’s valuable. If you sold it it can be traced. Also, the arsenic you put in Mavis’ indigestion tablets can be traced to whoever purchased it. That’s just for starters.”
I was so full of myself and the points I was making, I wasn’t quick enough to see her pull out a 38 snub-nose revolver. I slid my hand into the cushions of the couch to reach for my own gun.
“I wouldn’t,” the woman across from me said. I stared mesmerized. Like the great, John Barrymore who used no makeup in the early scenes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Clara’s features morphed into those of the greedy, degenerate actress, Wilda Carter. Underneath the makeup, faint lines appeared around her eyes. I’d never noticed. I realized she was older than she looked. Her mouth was thinner and her skin coarser.
She stood up and moved closer. “On second thought, you might have a point.” She aimed the gun at my head. Her voice was hard as she cocked her weapon.
I tackled her low knocking her off her feet. The gun exploded, drawing the residents of 5 St. Luke’s Place who were crowded in the hall outside my flat. They all barged into my living room.
Paolo, Jack, Lewis, Cybella and Rose descended on Wilda like a bunch of Octopi. They ripped the gun out of her hand. Two hundred and fifty-pound Lewis squashed her flat, preventing her from moving.
I picked myself off the floor. With relief I heard boots as they clomped up the stairs. Harry arrived ahead of a red faced, Detective Murch and two officers.
“That woman is Wilda Carter,” a serial murderer, I announced. “She murdered a bunch of women in Boston and New Jersey after they left money to her partner, Madame Roskovich and murdered both Mavis Bankes and her partner. And she tried to kill me. The gun on the floor may be the one she used to shoot Madame Roskovich.”
The police secured Wilda who cursed like a dock worker and dragged her off.
“What took so long?” I snapped at Harry.
“I had trouble convincing the cops.”
“Did Chester get Ivy out on bail?”
“Darling, thank heavens you’re not dead,” Ivy squealed as she squeezed past the police and the residents who converged on her and hugged her.
“You look marvelous for someone who just spent a night in jail,” Cybella exclaimed.
“What dreadful things you must have seen,” Rose said with a shudder.
“Our little bird was so brave and now she is free,” Miguel said.
“And who is this gentleman?” Ivy asked as she reached me eying Harry.
“My partner on the case. Harry Barnes.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Ivy said. She held out a slender hand. “I’m so grateful to the both of you to see the light of day.”
“It’s evening,” I said, amused.
She looked from Harry to me and smiled. “Josie can be a tad bit pedantic at times, but she’s a dear friend and a smashing detective. I never liked Clara, but I didn’t for one moment, think she was a murderer.”
“Since some of the deaths occurred out of state the FBI will take over the case,” Harry said.
“They’ll follow up the leads Josie sent them.”
“If the gun proves to be the one used to kill Madame Roskovich,” she won’t be able to explain it away. Even if they can’t prove she poisoned Mavis I think they’ll dismiss all charges against you, Ivy.”
“You mustn’t worry, darling,” Ivy insisted. “I started out being a common jailbird, with no hope at all sunk in despair. Now I’m free, surrounded by friends.” She clapped. “We must celebrate.”
“I have half a bottle of Vodka,” Ralph offered.
“I’ll bring Jamaican rum,” Rinaldo piped up.
Rose raised her hand. “Gin.”
It wasn’t long before we had enough liquor to rival a speakeasy. Mrs. Garrett in 4C, who was marooned in her top floor flat, and paid others to bring her food as she feverishly typed swashbuckling pirate novels with Douglas Fairbanks in mind, had never been so excited. She promised to join us and offered to bring a Mexican chicken dish.
I was happy for Ivy and elated at the five grand I would be collecting. I could see by tomorrow morning my apartment would be trashed. There was nothing I could do to stop it.
Harry leaned in and whispered. “You promised me a dance.”
I was proud of myself and all nerved up from the excitement. I didn’t want to stay inside and drink giggle water until I burned with a blue flame. If I were honest, I looked forward to being held in Harry’s strong arms and swung around the dance floor.
“Not in these clothes,” I said. “Give me a minute and meet me outside.”
I snuck into my bedroom and shut the door. I pulled out a dress I’d never worn. It was a beaded, party dress in bright red, which complemented my black bob. It had a V-neck and low back. I wrapped pearls around my neck and chose a pair of dangling pearl earrings and red heels. I grabbed my black coat and red scarf and opened the door.
Smoke and laughter filled the room. At the front door, Ivy approached me.
“Do you mind?”
“Nope. Where’s he taking you?”
“Big shoulders, slim hips. I bet he’s swell. Don’t show your face until the sun comes up. I mean it. You have fun.”
“We’re celebrating the closing of a case, Ivy. It’s not a date.”
“Bushwa.” Ivy slammed the door in my face.
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.