Photo by Razieh Bakhtom on Unsplash
I wasn’t in the mood to deal with this. My client, a Mr. Chester C. Chenay, was insisting he help me in my investigation. I explained to him I was the professional, and that if he was capable of solving the case he would have had no reason to hire me in the first place, but he was a man used to getting his way and wasn’t easily dissuaded.
Mr. Chenay was a stout little man of about forty with a handlebar mustache like the villain in a Charlie Chaplin picture. He looked a bit like a shrunk down Grover Cleveland. His most identifying feature, however, was a left hand bereft of a ring finger, forcing him to wear his wedding band on his right hand. I suppose he could have worn it on his left index finger, but having put it on while he was slim, he would have had difficulty getting it off now that he wasn’t. He’d been married that long.
His wife came across as a meek little hen, content to follow along in his shadow, occasionally clucking at the man when he spouted something especially rude, but otherwise keeping her mouth shut. I suspected from the way Mr. Chenay looked at her for approval after nearly every utterance that she wasn’t quite as timid as she seemed, and had merely adjusted to life with a blowhard by letting him pretend to steer the ship she was piloting.
He’d hired me to track down a maid who Mrs. Chenay believed had absconded with her favorite pearl necklace, coming to me after the police had lost interest. It seems Mrs. Chenay had been misplacing jewelry for years, and it had always turned up in unlikely places without anybody ever being charged. I didn’t think anybody would be charged this time either, but Chenay was willing to pay to find his wayward maid, so I was willing to hunt for her.
I’d made the mistake of telling Chenay I had a lead, and he insisted on helping me follow it up, saying he wanted to be there when I caught “The scoundrel.” He met me at my office at noon, showing up in a brand new Bentley Mark V. Turning up his nose at my heap, he insisted we use his car for the trip, despite my protestations that taking it to the neighborhood we were headed to would be like taking a stroll through Hooverville with hundred dollar bills pinned to our chests. He didn’t care. We were taking the Bentley.
When we pulled up in front of the dilapidated shotgun house in the ninth ward, it was like the circus had come to town. I told him to stay with the car if he wanted anything to be left of it, and climbed out to push my way through the crowd.
“What you boys doing here in that fancy automobile?” a man asked, spreading his thick brown hand out and pressing it against my chest.
“The police commissioner likes to ride in style,” I said loud enough for it to carry. The hand fell away from my chest and the man faded away along with the rest of the crowd. Aside from a handful of kids, the street was empty. Of course, they were still watching, peering at us from behind tattered curtains and from around the corner of the wooden fence surrounding an empty lot across the street. I hoped Chenay was spooked enough to stay put.
“We already got a Bible,” the old woman said, opening the door just enough to deliver the message.
“Good for you,” I said, using my foot to keep the door from slamming in my face. “I’m not selling anything.”
“You the police?” she asked, looking me up in down while pressing on the door.
“I’m looking for Marie Jenkins,” I said, evading the question. “She left her position without collecting her pay, and her employer wants to make good on it.”
“I never heard of no man going out of his way to give away money,” she said suspiciously, easing off the door just a little.
“It’s a tax thing,” I told her. “His accountant needs to clear the books so he can file all the deductions.” It didn’t make a lot of sense, but it hit the right notes. She turned her head and hollered for the girl. A second later I was standing in front of Marie Jenkins. Her skin was a light caramel and her hazel-green eyes might have been described as beautiful if it wasn’t for the hint of hardness in them. The thing that most attracted my attention, though, was the make-shift sling supporting her left arm. Unfortunately, I didn’t have long to study her. She took one look at the Bentley and tried to shut me out. That’s when Chenay lit the fuse.
“There’s the thief!” he shouted as he jumped out of the car. A second later he was stomping up the walkway. My toes having had enough abuse for the day, I let the door slam shut.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I shouted, grabbing him by the lapels of his top coat and spinning him around. I gave him a shove toward the car and wasn’t too gentle about it. He turned to complain but a bottle to the side of his head cut him off. It had come from the bushes running along the side of the Jenkins’ driveway. Chenay stood there, gaping at the blood he’d just transferred from his face to his hand. He needed more time to make sense of what had just happened to him, but I couldn’t afford to give it to him. That bottle had been the first volley. I pulled him to the car, threw him in the passenger seat, and climbed in behind the wheel. Seeing us on the run inspired the troops to rally. They swarmed out into the street armed with boards, hammers, bottles, and anything else they could lay their hands on that might inflict damage. Thankfully, I didn’t see any guns. I jammed the car into gear and got the hell out of there, forcing the men rushing toward us to the side of the road.
Thanks to his own stupidity, Chenay had come out of the expedition with a gash on his face that was sure to leave a scar once the stitches came out, and a bunch of dents in his car from all the rocks that had been bounced off it. He’d actually gotten off easy. As for me, I was through. I wished him luck finding Marie Jenkins again, and went off to find some clients less likely to get me killed.
I didn’t give another thought to Chenay or his missing pearls until about a month later when the morning edition of the Times Picayune told me Mrs. Chenay had been stabbed to death in her bed. The only thing determined to have been taken was a floral brooch of insignificant value. The article came with a reproduction of Marie Jenkins’ mug shot from an earlier arrest on an extortion charge. I read how Jenkins had been seen rushing down Chenay’s driveway by a neighbor who recognized her and recalled the reason for her termination from the Chenay’s employ. This neighbor stated he’d shouted to ask why she was creeping around her former employer’s property at night, but she’d fled in a roadster driven by a man in a broad brimmed hat and white gloves without giving an answer. The neighbor had noticed the gloves because the man had been waving his hands at Jenkins, urging her to hurry. The neighbor claimed the driver’s face had been obscured by his upturned coat collar, and that he might have also been wearing a dark scarf. My contact on with the police department confirmed the details of the story, adding that the killer had come in and exited through the French windows in the parlor, and that whatever weapon had been used on Mrs. Chenay had had an oddly curved blade and left a hell of a mess.
Eager to turn my curiosity into a payday, but not wanting to deal with Mr. Chenay again, I wrote down the name of the sister the article claimed Mrs. Chenay had left behind, and disinterred the phone directory from the pile of folders on the corner of my desk.
Mrs. Dorignac was everything her sister was not. Plump and boisterous, she didn’t seem the type to take gruff from anybody, least of all her husband who did his best to blend into the furnishings during our interview. She had more money than her sister and liked to show it off, smoking from a diamond studded cigarette holder which she held in her diamond adorned fingers. After a few minutes spent convincing her I was better equipped than the police to bring in her sister’s killer, she waved her cigarette in an arc that took it to the checkbook in her husband’s vest pocket. She didn’t need to say a word. He took a pen out of another pocket and started filling in the numbers I’d rattled off earlier. When I left, a little woozy from all the gin and tonics Mrs. Dorignac had forced on me, I was on the clock.
I headed over to Chenay’s to look up the neighbor mentioned in the article. The article hadn’t given his name or address, but there was only one house with a good view of the front of Chenay’s driveway and that was the one directly across the street, the view on the sides being blocked by hedges. I still wasn’t too sure though since a row of magnolia trees left only a small gap with which to view Chenay’s house. Walking up the pathway to the house I wondered if the term Garden District hadn’t originated right there. The property looked like a botanical garden. The smell reminded me of a funeral parlor.
The man who answered the door was wearing a green apron over his suit and clutched a small spade in his left hand. I wondered what kind of gardening emergency had come up that wouldn’t allow him time to change his clothes, but then some people insist on wearing a suit even when they’re home alone. He looked like the type. A tall man, he glared down at me through the pince nez glasses, seemingly glued to the end of his long nose, like I was a weed he’d found in his flower bed. I’d expected a butler, but it turned out I was speaking to the lord of the manor himself, Doctor Alfred Blout.
“I’ve already said all I have to say on the matter,” he told me. “I’ve no interest in being interviewed.”
“I’m not with the press,” I said, handing him the card I carried with “Jack Craig, Private Investigator” printed in big bold letters across the front. He read it up close to his face and then handed it back with a sneer.
“Did Chenay hire you?” he asked.
“I’ve been employed by Mrs. Chenay’s sister,” I said. “Mr. Chenay knows nothing about it.” That loosened him up a bit.
“Mrs. Chenay was a decent, proper woman—a wonderful woman,” he said. “She was very fond of orchids. We had many a conversation on the topic. She deserved better than that reprobate. The man was a gambler and a drunkard.”
“What makes you think he gambled?” I asked.
“It was common knowledge,” He said. “He’d lost his finger after failing to pay what he owed to some unsavory men when he was younger, but he still didn’t learn his lesson. He was always going about the club, begging for loans to pay off his debts. He became so obnoxious, they finally had to revoke his membership.”
After that I didn’t get much more out of him. He seemed plenty interested in revealing Mr. Chenay’s many faults, when he wasn’t extolling the virtues of Mrs. Chenay, but everything else bored him, including me. I didn’t get anything more about the night of the murder out of him than what had been reported in the papers. I asked if I could drop by again, and was told he’d be out of town for the foreseeable future, attending a horticultural convention in Chicago. Normally I’d have thought he was giving me the brush off, but looking around, I believed him.
My first stop after that was the morgue of the Picayune where a clerk I didn’t recognize helped me dig up everything they had on Marie Jenkins. They had a lot. Marie Jenkins, also known as Mary Jenkins, Maude Jenkins, and Marie Pacanier, had been quite the bad girl. She’d been arrested for helping to smuggle booze in 1931, vagrancy twice in 1932, petty theft in ’34 and again in ’35, and had been mentioned as the other woman in a divorce suit in 1936. What interested me most was the extortion charge she was up on in 1937. A man she was working for while under the Pacanier alias had accused her of blackmailing him over an affair the two had been having, but the case fell apart when the victim refused to confirm the affair. His line was that she was making it all up, but when it turned out the evidence wasn’t going to let him get by with that, he’d made a quick retraction.
Next I was off to the bank where Chenay kept his money. I’d pulled the manager out of a tight spot once, and was sure he’d be willing to bend the rules a bit for me. He was. I’d asked to see the records of Chenay’s deposits and withdraws since January, about the time he’d hired Jenkins, with the idea of looking for any unusually large withdraws that might indicate Chenay was paying Jenkins off. I found more than I’d expected. There were a series of withdraws of significant amounts, the last being made by Mrs. Chenay just a few days before the murder. A check Chenay had written to the New Orleans Gentleman’s club for twenty five dollars the day before the murder had been returned for insufficient funds. Chenay was broke.
It was still early, but I decided to head for Mocasso’s. The gin and tonics had worn off and I needed a drink to take the edge off the headache I’d gotten from staring at all that small print. By the time I got there the morning drunks were stumbling out to make room for the late afternoon drunks to start their shift. I was looking for a guy pulling a double, specifically a gregarious gentleman named Gustave Beauregard. Everybody with a story to tell found their way to Mocasso’s at some point, and Gustave was always there to listen. Of course, it usually worked out better if he’d done his listening in the morning before he started his afternoon crying jag.
I found him in his usual spot on the balcony, leaning on one arm over a Vieux Carre, flicking peanuts at the pigeons. The pigeons weren’t in much danger. I cut a path through the flock and dropped into the chair across from him.
“What is that?” he said, sneering at my beer.
“That’s what people who want to sit at the table instead of sleeping under it drink,” I said. “What’s the latest?”
“Rye, cognac, and a touch of sweet vermouth,” he said holding up his glass and shaking it to let the ice clink against the sides.
“I’m not interested in your cocktail,” I said. “Give me the dope on the Chenay murder.”
“I might have heard something,” he said, downing his drink, “but I’m having trouble remembering.”
I tossed a fin on the table and waited while he went to the bar to exchange it for another glass of poison. It was half empty by the time he got back to me, but his memory had improved.
“I was chatting with a fellow just this morning about the tragedy,” he said. “This young man claimed to know a friend of the young lady who was implicated in the crime, and suggested the two of them were making plans to relocate.”
“What about some names?”
“No names,” he said, “But would the address where this young lady and her paramour are currently, as you say, holed up, be of help?” I told him it would. He emptied his glass and pretended to be trying to recall the number.
Another five spot later, and I was on my way back to the Lower Nine. The address took me to a shanty behind a mechanic’s shop surrounded by two vacant lots, but I didn’t need to check the number. As I pulled up Marie Jenkins was right out front, her arm no longer in a sling, kicking the hell out of something that could have been a man curled up in the dirt. Behind her, a red coupe sat with its engine humming, the vibrations making the suitcase leaning up against the driver’s door seem to dance. Marie didn’t stop kicking as I pulled up. She didn’t even look up.
“Damn lousy muggle head!” she shouted, giving him one last kick before making for the shovel propping up the porch railing. I got to her just in time to keep her from bringing it down on the guy’s head.
“Stinking loser!” She was still screaming at him, but she was kicking at me now. I twisted the shovel out of her hands and sent it flying, losing my grip on her right wrist. Instead of taking the opportunity to try to break free, she squandered it, throwing her suddenly unoccupied claws at my face. Her nails had just started to dig into my cheek when I shoved her to the ground. Going for my cheek was her second mistake. She should have gone for my eyes.
I’d pushed her a little harder than I’d meant to, and it took her a second to get her breath after being bounced off the ground. She just sat there next to her boyfriend, panting and glaring at me. The boyfriend stared at me too, but judging by the grin he gave me, he liked me a lot better than she did. The guy was loaded up on a lot more than just weed.
“Looks like you had a trip planned,” I said, nodding toward the suitcase. “Too bad your driver punked out on you.”
“I didn’t have nothing to do with that woman getting killed,” Marie insisted. “And I wasn’t nowhere near that house the night it happened.”
“But you can’t say where you really were because that would land you in the slammer too,” I said, pleased with myself when she nodded at what had been a guess. I walked over to her car and shut it off, tossed her baggage in the back seat of my car, and then walked back to pull her to her feet.
“You taking me in?” she asked dejectedly, the last of the fight in her fading away. She seemed a lot smaller now, and almost fragile, now that her claws were in.
“Nope,” I said, pushing her toward my car. “We’re going to go see Mr. Chenay. You can tell me all about the special relationship you shared with him along the way.”
She didn’t have a lot to say to me at first, but she opened up when I offered to feed her on the way to Chenay’s. It turns out she’d worked up an appetite kicking the hop head’s ribs in. I parked next to a news stand still selling the papers with her face on the front page and suggested she pretend to be napping until I got back. She was hungry and exhausted, and glad not to be in the hands of the police, so I figured she’d stay put. I walked the half a block to the Central Grocery, ordered a muffuletta for her and a ham and swiss on rye for me, and asked if they had a phone I could use. It turns out they did so long as I was willing to overlook an extra quarter added to my bill. I called to get the train schedule from New Orleans to Chicago, finding out the Panama Limited rolled out in two hours, and then called Robert Landry over at the homicide division.
Marie was still busy decorating my front seat with crumbs when Landry pulled up in front of Chenay’s house. Marie wasn’t happy I’d invited the man who’d been hunting her to the party, but I assured her she wouldn’t be the one going off in cuffs, at least not for the murder of Mrs. Chenay. The three of us went up to Chenay’s door and Landry rapped on it.
I hadn’t been looking forward to spending the evening with the stout, nattily dressed blowhard who’d bungled my case, but I needn’t have worried. That man was gone, replaced by a sallow-faced disheveled wreck. The pajamas he wore under his robe were stained and rumpled and his hand trembled around the bottle of wine he’d brought with him to the door. He looked right through me and Landry, focusing his bloodshot gaze on Marie.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded, waving a finger at her. Landry answered for her, showing Chenay his badge. Chenay took a swig off the bottle, wiped his chin on his sleeve, and stumbled back into the house. We followed, ending up in the parlor where Chenay collapsed into a chair by the French windows the killer had come through. Marie and Landry took their places on the divan. I leaned against the mantle and lit a cigarette.
“You might want to call our man at the train station,” I said checking my pocket watch. Landry went out to the phone on the pedestal in the hall and came back a few minutes later, shaking his head.
“It’s still early,” I said. “He’ll show.”
“What’s this all about?” Chenay muttered, staring at the bottle he’d just let roll off his lap onto the floor. I wasn’t sure he’d understand me if I told him, but it didn’t matter. What I had to say was mostly for Landry.
“It’s about a woman with a husband who couldn’t stop losing money,” I said. “She probably knew he was a compulsive gambler when she married him, but women tend to operate under the delusion they can change a man. It never works out, as Miss Jenkins can attest. Even kicking the hell out of them won’t work the trick. This woman tried to keep her husband close, but he always managed to slip off to place a bet, though he’d gotten better over the years at hiding it. He worked out a system where he’d pawn her jewelry to pay his debts so he didn’t have to touch the money in the bank. She might have noticed the bank account, but apparently didn’t look in the jewelry box that often. When he’d win, he’d get the jewelry out of hock and put it back. Occasionally, Mrs. Chenay would notice something missing, but, considering her husband cured, never suspected he was the culprit.
“It went on like that for years, until Mr. Chenay had the misfortune to loose big at the same time Miss Jenkins came to work for him as a maid. Miss Jenkins found out about the loss and threatened to expose Chenay unless she was financially compensated. It put Chenay in quite a fix. He ended up having to dip deeper into the jewelry box than usual. What Chenay didn’t know was Jenkins was getting paid by Mrs. Chenay as well.” Chenay suddenly came to life, lifting his head for the first time since I started.
“What do you mean by that?” he asked, leaning forward like he was about to jump out of his seat.
“Your wife was being blackmailed for having an affair with Alfred Blout,” I said. “That’s why your check to the country club didn’t clear. She’d been making large withdraws to pay off Jenkins, something you wouldn’t have done for fear your wife would notice. Jenkins confirmed it on the ride over.”
“She’s a damn liar!” Chenay shouted. Marie started to get up, probably intending to give him some of what she’d dished out to the doper, but Landry shoved her back down.
“He’s the liar!” she shouted. “He knew about it all! That’s why he killed her!” It was my turn to push someone down. I shoved Chenay back down hard and stood over him to make sure he stayed seated.
I waited for everyone to catch their breath, before continuing: “Your wife noticed the missing pearls, probably when she ran out of money in the bank and was thinking of pulling the same trick you were, but it was probably Blout who’d insisted on hiring a detective to find Jenkins. Blout had confronted her, and she’d come out of it with a sprained arm. She isn’t one to scare easy, but Blout had spooked her, causing her to go into hiding. Not knowing where she was, or what she intended to do was too much for him to handle. Of course, you didn’t know anything about that. You were more concerned with what Jenkins would say to your wife. That’s why you made sure you were around to gum up the works.”
I’d known Landry since our days together as Treasury Agents, and I could tell he was getting impatient by the way he tapped the toe of his shoe against the floor. I wondered how long it would be before he asked me to wrap it up for him.
“So which one of them is the killer?” Landry asked, as though reading my mind.
Neither of them,” I replied. “Blout did it. That’s why I asked you to have him picked up before he boarded a streamliner out of town. He was probably wearing his gardening apron with his hand spade in the pocket when they started quarreling. After he’d lost his head and killed her with the spade, he decided to pin it on Marie. Only he couldn’t help trying to implicate Chenay too. He concocted the story about the man in the white gloves, hoping people would see it as Chenay trying to disguise his disfigurement. Later he told me Chenay had been kicked out of the club where he’d learned about Chenay’s gambling, but I found out Chenay was still paying dues, or trying to, right up to the time of the murder. I think if you check, you’ll find Blout was the one who got the boot, probably for his violent temper. Then there was the floral brooch—I’m guessing it was modeled on an orchid—that was taken. You’ll probably find it on him when you pinch him. He’d taken it after the murder because he’d given it to her, but didn’t think she deserved it anymore. Even after hacking her up, he was still angry at her.”
Landry rushed out to the phone to call the train station. When he got back with the news Blout had been taken, he found me alone with Chenay with the wind blowing dead leaves in through the open French windows. Marie had kicked off her shoes and made a run for it, and with my bum leg there was no way I was going to catch her. Even with two good legs I wouldn’t have tried. I was too busy squeezing Chenay’s arm, searching for a pulse. I never did find one. As best as I could guess, he’d had a heart attack.
Lamont A Turner's work has appeared in over 200 online and print venues including Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Metastellar, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His short story collection, "Souls In A Blender" was released by St. Rooster Books in October 2021.A second collection, "Bleeding Out In The Rain" is scheduled for release later this year.
Leave a Reply.
HalfHourToKill.Com is a literary website publishing authors of Flash Fiction and Short Stories in the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Noir. Feel free to submit your Fiction, Poetry and Non-Fiction work to us year round.
Site powered by Weebly. Managed by SiteGround