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The Penguin Pool Murder
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1931 Bretano's, Inc
All rights reserved.
What the Penguins Knew
TWO LITTLE BLACK PENGUINS were the first to know the secret. They became vastly excited, flashing their sleek black bodies through the water, and now and then coming to the surface to shriek Bloody Murder in a Galapagoan squawk. But for a time their intense excitement did not communicate itself to the greater world that lay outside the glass barrier of the tank.
Suddenly a woman's voice, reedy and shrill, rang against the ancient white-washed walls of the Aquarium. Even as its echoes died away, the figure of a frightened, rabbit-like little man scuttled past the dim corner under the stairs where the penguins were trying to blazon their secret. In his hand the fugitive clutched an oblong of black leather which all too evidently proclaimed itself to be a woman's purse.
His objective was a stair which led to the balcony above, but in his path there suddenly appeared the embattled bulk of a gray-clad guard. With a squeak like a cornered rat's, the little man whirled in his tracks and ducked back between the cases of stuffed exhibits, past the gaping and bewildered crowd. As he ran, there came from his bulging pockets a faint musical jingle.
The way to the main exit was clear now, though close behind him still pounded the heavy feet of the guard. The little man made a last frantic burst of speed—freedom was almost within his grasp—only to tumble ingloriously over a black cotton umbrella that dropped like a bar sinister across his path. His skull collided with one of the pillars, and for the time being the little man lay very still.
For a long minute there was a hush, and then Miss Hildegarde Withers, whom the census enumerator had recently listed as "spinster, born Boston, age thirty-nine, occupation school teacher," dusted off her umbrella and restored it to its place under her arm with a certain air of satisfaction.
"Serves you perfectly right," she admonished her silent victim. Then she turned her keen blue eyes on the milling crowd. "Abraham!"
A small sepian lad detached himself from the little group of third grade pupils who stood, awestruck and admiring, behind Miss Withers. "Abraham, pick up that handbag and give it to the lady."
Abraham obeyed with alacrity. The leather bag was eagerly seized by the woman whose shriek had set the echoes ringing but a few moments before, and its contents found intact. "I saw him trying to cut the handle with a razor blade," she was eagerly explaining to whomever would listen, "... and then he jerked it right out of my hand, he did."
The guard, fat and perspiring from his unaccustomed chase, took a firm grip of the prisoner's coat collar and jerked him into a sitting position. As he did so, three gold watches slid from the pocket and clinked musically on the tile floor.
"A pickpocket, huh?" said the guard.
"Quite obvious, even to the most limited intelligence," pointed out Miss Withers. "I guessed it myself."
"Stealing watches, too."
"Do they look like grandfather clocks?"
"We've got him, dead to rights," the guard mused. "Yes, mum. A case for the cops, I shouldn't wonder."
"Or for the ambulance, anyway." Miss Withers shooed her chattering charges toward the door. "Don't stand there like a log, my good man. Do something!"
The guard let go of his prisoner's collar, and the man slumped again to the floor. "I don't just really know what the official procedure ought to be in a case of this kind," he observed doubtfully. "The Director is busy with guests, and I know he doesn't want any publicity of this kind...."
"HEY!" A big bass voice boomed through the building like a husky fog-horn, clearing the crowd from the doorway like chaff before the wind. "Hey, there! What's all this fuss about?"
Six feet three of bone and muscle shoved its way belligerently through the crowd. "One side, one side, will you?" The policeman looked down past the two rows of shining buttons on his front to where the crumpled figure lay on the floor. Then he whirled on the guard, belligerently.
"Well, speak out, Fink! What is it? Alcoholism? Did you send for the ambulance?"
"Not yet, Donovan. And this is no alcoholism, it ain't. It's a pickpocket that I've nabbed." Fink held up the three watches as evidence. Immediately they were engulfed in the policeman's enormous paw. He bent over to survey the bruised face on the floor. Then he started.
Wetting his thumb, he whirled over the pages of a little black book that he took from his hip pocket. Finally he found a certain page, and read aloud with much puzzling over words....
"McGirr, John—alias Chicago Lew—height five feet three, weight one hundred and two pounds, wanted in Des Moines, Detroit and Chicago for petty thievery and picking pockets—" He replaced the black book in his pocket with a flourish. "It's him all right. We've been looking for this guy for two months, we have." He bent over the prisoner.
"Just you hold on there, Mickey Donovan!" Fink, the fat guard, stuttered with eagerness. "What about the reward, I wanta know? Is they a reward for this Chicago Lew? Is they? Because I lay claim to it, here and now. I want these people to witness it, I do. If they is a reward, I'm going to get it."
"Suppose there is?" Donovan put his hands on his hips and stared at the other. "I'm doing the arresting, ain't I? I'm the cop here, ain't I? I got the prisoner, ain't I? I recognized him, didn't I?"
The big policeman moved toward his prisoner again, but Fink thrust his face between.
"That don't make one bit of difference," insisted the guard. "Just because you're the flatfoot on this beat, Mickey Donovan, is no sign that you've got a right to walk in and hog the reward for this prisoner. He's mine, I guess. I leave it to anybody here, I do. Didn't I chase him through the place? Didn't I nab him here in the doorway? Didn't I ..."
"If there is any reward, I don't see why I shouldn't get it." Miss Withers left her little flock and strode forward, her umbrella held menacingly before her. Both Fink and Donovan drew back a step, as did the surrounding crowd.
"I stopped him with this umbrella, you know. He would have escaped if it hadn't been for me, and then this poor woman would have had to lose her handbag, besides the watches that were stolen from somebody...."
Immediately loud voices from the crowd announced that most of the gentlemen present had lost their timepieces, and that they recognized their property among the watches in Donovan's hand. The air became filled with strangely vague descriptions of the property, until Donovan silenced them with a roar.
"You can get your property up at the Police Property Clerk's office, if you can identify it to the Captain's satisfaction. Some of you never saw a watch before except in a pawnshop window. Leave off your jabbering, will you?"
"But I tell you, this man doesn't get taken out of here until we come to some agreement about the reward," insisted Fink. "Half of it, anyway. That I've got to have, Mickey Donovan! Half of it, or he doesn't go to jail. There's nobody here to make a complaint against him anyway...."
"Not a cent, Fink. You didn't know this guy was wanted anywhere."
"Half, I tell you. Why, do you think I'm maybe going to let fifty dollars slip out of my hands like nothing?"
"Not a cent, Fink. I saw him, and I knew him ..."
"Stop quarreling, you two!" The sharp and commanding voice of Miss Withers cut in with unmistakable authority. "Stop it, I say! Don't you realize that this man is hurt? He ought to be on the way to the hospital, and you know it. Suppose he should die while the two of you fight over the reward?" Miss Withers gestured dramatically with her umbrella. "You can't leave him there on the floor—"
Her voice died out in a thin whisper ... for he wasn't on the floor....
The pickpocket had vanished!
The spot where he had lain, so lifeless and inert, was very very bare. The crowd moved uneasily, each man staring into the face of his neighbor, and the surprised eyes of Donovan stared into everyone's ... but Chicago Lew had made himself scarce.
Somehow, while the two of them had wrangled over his body, he must have come to his senses and wormed his way, like the scared rabbit he was, out of these walls which had been his Happy Hunting Ground all morning. But nobody had seen him go.
Donovan reached the door in two great strides, upsetting an onlooker and several of the school children in his dash. But Battery Park stretched empty before him ... empty of Chicago Lew, if not of the usual crowd of idlers.
"He's gone," observed Donovan. "Damned if he isn't gone."
"He's gone, and the reward with him," moaned Fink. He mopped his brow.
Miss Withers marshaled her thrilled and delighted charges into line. "We'll go now, children," she ordered. "Isidore, there's no use trying to make that policeman believe that you own one of the watches in his hand, because both he and I know that you don't. Jimmy Dooley, stop whispering. It's time to go home, and you can't play around here any longer. We came to see fish, not anything so exciting as this. I ..."
Her hand went, out of habit, to arrange the blue beaded hat which rested like the stopper of a bottle on her angular frame. And Miss Withers gasped.
"Children, my hatpin! It's gone!" Her fingers felt feverishly through her hair. "It's the most treasured possession I have, and I wouldn't lose it for the world. My mother gave it to me years ago, and it has a genuine garnet set in it. It's the pickpocket, that's what it is. He took it!"
Donovan, who had been standing disjointedly at the door, shook his head ponderously. "A pickpocket wouldn't go for stealing anything like that, mum. He couldn't hide it, you know, and it wouldn't go in his pocket. They don't bother with such junk as that, just watches and money...."
"And a fine lot you know about it, to let one slip out of your fingers like that," Miss Withers pointed out acidly. "If the pickpocket didn't take it, I'd like to know who did?"
"Teacher!" A plump hand waved wildly above a dark bob. "Teacher ..."
"What is it, Becky?"
"Teacher, I saw your pretty red pin when we were coming in this morning, and it was sticking way out of the hat on one side...." Becky subsided. "Maybe you lost it?"
"Maybe I did," said Miss Withers. "Well, I certainly wouldn't ask either of these gentlemen in uniform to find it for me. Because if they did, they'd lose it again in an argument. Children, you'll have to help me. Use your bright little eyes, and go on back over everywhere we've been here in the Aquarium and try to find it. And the first to spy it gets a prize!"
"What sort of a prize, Teacher?" The question came as a chorus.
Miss Withers thought a moment. "How about a brand-new dictionary?" There was a silence which denoted a certain lack of enthusiasm.
"Well then, if you'd rather, the prize might be a ticket to any play the finder would like to see," amended the wily lady. She knew her children. They scattered with a rush, but she called them back.
"That's not the way to look," she explained. "You must go, all together, starting just where we did when we came in this morning. Then we'll be sure to find the hatpin unless someone has picked it up." She cast a suspicious look at the crowd, which was already melting away. Donovan and Fink still eyed one another hostilely.
"At least you won't have to fight over the reward any more," she gave as a parting shot, and then the search began. The children went eagerly on ahead, while Miss Withers dropped back.
Slowly they moved across the vast circle of the Aquarium, stopping at each tank and showcase just as they had done on the first round of the place, when Miss Withers had given a brief lecture on every point of nature study which she wished to bring out. Past the eels, past the flaming tropical fish, past the tortoises, the crocodiles, and the flashing schools of minnows. Across the great circle of the room, up the stair, along the great half- moon of a balcony, and down again....
Still no hatpin. No bright flash from the garnet stone which had once been given to the middle-aged teacher in the days when she was beginning to be a teacher and not even beginning to be middle-aged. No sign of the old-fashioned, beloved hatpin. A dozen pairs of eager eyes scoured the floor and the corners.
Down the balcony stairs again, with little black Abraham going on his hands and knees. Abraham had been stage struck ever since his mother's cousin played the part of the Lord God in Green Pastures, and he was determined to find the hatpin if it was to be found. It must be somewhere, and he wanted to win the prize.
Eureka! There it was, at the bottom of the steps! The dark-red stone was intact, the shiny steel undimmed. Miss Withers remembered, as she hurried up, that she had put back a wisp of her hair as they passed this way before. She made a mental apology to the absent Mr. Chicago Lew, who certainly hadn't picked her as a victim after all, in spite of appearances.
She graciously accepted the relic from the hand of proud Abraham Lincoln Washington and replaced it carefully in her blue beaded hat.
"Good boy, Abraham. The prize is yours," she announced. "And now we've got to hurry, children. It must be nearly one o'clock, and I'm getting hungry...."
Rapidly she counted noses, and found a considerable lack. "Isidore!"
There was no answer. She heard the hum of voices and movements through the building, and from the main doorway the excited tones of Fink, still explaining to the departing back of Officer Donovan why he was entitled to the reward if there was one and if the prisoner hadn't escaped.
Miss Withers called again. "Isidore! Isidore Marx!"
"Yis, teacher." A piping voice sounded from behind the stair. Miss Withers peered into the corner.
Isidore was staring at the penguins again. "Come along, Isidore. We're half an hour late now. This nature study class isn't supposed to take all day, you know. Hurry!"
But Isidore didn't budge. His nose was pressed tight against the glass of the last tank in the line, the tank hidden in the shadow of the stair down which they had come.
"Teacher, dese ducks act so funny!"
"I told you before, Isidore, that those are not ducks, they are penguins. See, they don't look like ducks! Those are black penguins, from the Galapagos Islands down off the western coast of Central America. Now don't bother about them any more, come along...."
But Isidore didn't move. "Look teacher how dese penguins hop up and down!"
Miss Withers was unusually tolerant, for she had just recovered a treasured keepsake. But she had arrived at the limit of her patience.
"Isidore Marx, you mind me!" she ordered in a voice that would ordinarily have sent any one of her group into tremors. And Miss Withers advanced, her umbrella held ready for action. But even as her hand fell on Isidore's shoulder, something caught her keen eye.
The little black penguins were swimming as they had not done when she pointed them out to the group of children an hour before. They were dashing madly around the tank, now and then leaping high out of the water to squawk and snap their pointed bills in the darkness of the hidden space above them. Miss Withers, peering through the glass, could only sense that something had excited them....
She stared up through the water, into the obscurity of the inner chamber. As she watched, something happened which made her wipe her glasses furiously.
The two little black penguins were fighting something, snapping and biting viciously at something ... something which was beginning to slide down upon them....
A dark and shapeless horror lowered itself with a rush, amid the frightened squawking of the frantic birds ... a dark horror which crashed into the water of the square tank like an awkward diver ... a twisted, nameless horror that made the water boil and the penguins scramble madly up the steep sides of the tank....
The water subsided and became clear again. Miss Withers realized that her lips were very dry, and quick as thought she pushed Isidore behind her. For she realized that she was staring into a human face ... a face in the water....
That face had something wrong with it. Something very wrong with it, she knew. It was the face of a dead man, and it was upside down. From the right ear a blur of blood, like a misty coral earring, was dissolving slowly....
Excerpted from The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1931 Bretano's, Inc. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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