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The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2004 The Rue Morgue Press
All rights reserved.
That Lonesome Road
A small and excited wire terrier answered the doorbell, paws sliding on waxed floors, whiskers flying. He sniffed at the crack under the door, growled menacingly, and barked. The bell rang again, and the dog raced back through the apartment, scratched at the bathroom door, making the afternoon hideous with sound.
Inside the bathroom his mistress turned off the cold water. "Quiet, Dempsey! Will you be quiet?"
It was the hottest day of the hottest summer that Manhattan had seen for many years, and Miss Hildegarde Withers, weakening in her resolution to improve the vacation time by attending summer school at Columbia, was shamelessly cutting classes.
Beside her tub was a chair, upon which rested a tall glass of iced tea, a heap of assorted thick textbooks dealing with criminology, penology and sociology, and a palm-leaf fan. But the angular schoolteacher had been engrossed in the latest issue of True Crime magazine.
Tearing herself from "The Fiend of Johnson's Corners," she hastened to hang makeshift clothing upon her frame and hurried out to answer the summons, Dempsey dashing around her slippered heels in great excitement.
The youth in the blue uniform backed nervously away as she opened the door. "Don't mind the dog," Miss Withers advised him reassuringly. "His mother once frightened a messenger boy, and so he has been trying ever since."
Dempsey wagged his tail, cocked his head, and opened his formidable jaws in a doggish laugh.
His mistress signed for the message, pulled the little dog inside, and closed the door firmly. Then she read the following message:
WOULD A LADY OF TASTE AND RESOURCES CARE FOR A PERFUME NAMED ELIXIR DAMOUR SOLD CHAIN DRUGSTORES URGENT ANSWER CARE TRAIN FORTY MEXICAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS EN ROUTE LAREDO MEXCITY
Miss Withers read it over three times, with growing apprehension and wonder. In the past five or six years it had been her habit to interfere regularly in some of the most interesting murder cases of the New York Police Homicide Division. On a number of occasions her help had even been grudgingly requested by the dour and grizzled Irishman at Centre Street. Inspector Oscar Piper was possibly her best friend. Certainly she was his severest critic. But she had never expected to be called upon in a matter of this kind.
"I knew something would happen to that man if he went traipsing off with all those Democrats," Miss Withers said to Dempsey. "On the excuse of opening an international highway, of all things!"
She dressed hastily, hardened her heart to the appeal of the little dog who hopefully brought her his leash and harness at the door, and went hurrying out of the apartment. As she went she murmured "Elixir d'Amour!" Then a sniff. "That man is up to something!"
All that the inspector had been up to was an attempt to fill inside straights. Four men had been trying to forget the heat, the dust, and the blinding sunshine of south Texas by playing penny ante in one of the middle sections of the Pullman, cards and chips strewn over the table hooked under the windows.
And then the conductor, a tall pumpkin-faced mestizo, bent above them. "Señores, it is not permitted!" was the gist of his potpourri of Spanish-English. His words and manner were apologetic, but there was the faintest twinkle of satisfaction in his dark eyes.
"That's okay, we're honored guests of the Republic," they told him. But the conductor only shook his head. "It is not permitted," he repeated.
When he had gone the four card players looked at each other. Then three turned to face the fourth, a gaunt cadaverish person with a bluish chin, who reminded the inspector somehow of one of the great brown buzzards who had been hovering over the train since they wound out of Laredo fifteen minutes ago.
He had introduced himself as Rollo Lighton, newspaperman of Mexico City. The newspaperman, he intimated. Sent up to cover the ceremonies of the opening of the Pan-American Highway.
"Well, that's that," Lighton said. "It seems that the presidente has signed an edict forbidding gambling on trains. We're over the Rio Grande now, you know "
So that muddy ditch had been the Rio Grande! At that moment the train stopped on the edge of nowhere with an unexpected jerk. A stack of white chips slid into the lap of the inspector, who was sitting in the corner next the window, fanning himself with a new straw sun helmet.
"Cripes!" said that worthy gentleman in deep disgust.
The tubby little man beside him stooped to help pick up the chips. He wore shiny black clothes, a large undented Stetson which narrowly escaped being of rodeo proportions, and an innocent and childlike smile.
"You want to watch that hombre Hansen, pal," advised Rollo Lighton. "I've heard that money and chips stick to his fingers."
Hansen flashed a wider smile from under the hat. "Only blue chips, friend." He pushed the rescued stack toward their owner. "We're stopped for customs," he explained to the others. "When they get through the baggage we might move into your drawing room where it's private?"
He was addressing the alderman. Francis X. Mabie, Manhattan district leader (and devoutly wishing himself back there at the moment) turned on his warm professional smile. "We'll see, we'll see about that." It was the tone he used in promising to secure a low license number, promising to fix a speeding ticket. "If Mrs. Mabie has no objections He folded his hands comfortably across his plump facade. Alderman Mabie wore with dignity what the Chinese call "the curve of well-being."
"Your new frau isn't down on poker, is she?" pressed the inspector, presuming a little on the basis of old acquaintance.
"Feeling the heat a little, that's all," Mabie said. They were all feeling the heat. For three days they had been jammed in Laredo with a mob of tourists, lost in a fog of band music and oratory, sweltering in an oven of actual and figurative hot air.
Now that the presidente of Mexico and the vice president of the United States had collaborated on the final severance of a sagging ribbon across the International Bridge, the ceremonies were over. Nothing remained except the trip to the Mexican capital as guests of the sunny southern Republic. Most of the captains and the kings had departed over the new highway via the motorcade, but there happened to be a few pessimistic dignitaries who had heard that the lovely old valley of Monterrey basked in a temperature of 115 degrees, that certain hotels in small towns along the new auto route boasted fleas as big as cockroaches and roaches big as mice. It was also pointed out that about eighty miles of the new highway, from Tamuzunchale over the very tops of the highest Sierras Madre, were still unpaved.
These less adventurous souls had chosen the more prosaic if more dependable ferrocarril, with its highly recommended "climas artificiales." But the cooling system was not yet making any appreciable difference in the dusty heat of the cars, nor did the view of Nuevo Laredo's backyards serve to inspire anyone.
"Those customs boys are taking hell's own time to get through this train," Hansen observed, looking at a large timepiece of yellow gold. "Anyway, aren't we supposed to receive the courtesy of diplomatic immunity, or whatever it is?" Alderman Mabie demanded.
Lighton rasped his dark chin with a long curved fingernail. "This is just like any other train," he pointed out. "You should have gone on the motorcade if you wanted fanfares and salutes. Anyway, don't worry about customs here. With my drag "
"Don't tell me anything about customs," Al Hansen put in, pushing his Stetson over one eye. "Say, I once got three bullets through my hide—right there it was too—from these customs boys. Just because I was trying to deliver some goods to a customer of mine south of the river "
"What sort of goods?" the alderman asked, to fill in the pause.
"Machine guns, for Pancho Villa," Hansen enlightened them. "It was in the spring of 1913, and I had the guns disguised in beer casks, only I forgot to wet the outside of the casks—"
"I'm too dry to listen," the alderman cut in. "Right now I'd like some of this Mexican beer we've heard so much about. But it doesn't seem to be any use punching this bell "
It wasn't much use. Somewhere else a bell was being rung again and again, so that sharp staccato buzzes came from the porter's closet.
"Portero!" called Lighton hoarsely. Nothing happened.
"PORTER!" Hansen's voice was like a foghorn. A baby down the aisle began to whimper softly, and the old couple from Peoria who wore Texas Centennial hatbands awakened and looked hopefully around for signs of bandits.
Somewhere a door opened, slammed again, and then the porter went past the four men at a jog trot. His swarthy Indian face was impassive as ever, but he seemed to have difficulty in speaking. As he passed he spewed a few words in Spanish over his shoulder and then disappeared toward the front of the car.
Rollo Lighton's jaw dropped open, showing yellow snags of teeth. "He says something about the lady in the drawing room!" he gasped.
"Something that sounded like 'muerte'," chimed in Hansen. "I know damned little Spanish, but I know that "
They all tried to stand up at once, struggling out of the cramped seats. Oddly enough it was the quiet little Irishman next to the window who was first into the aisle, somehow gaining stature as he elbowed the others out of his way. The straw sun helmet rolled forgotten under the seat as Oscar Piper, veteran inspector of the Homicide Division, New York City Police, galloped forward like an old fire horse at the clanging of a three-alarm.
Up until this moment his much-anticipated share in the junket of the New York Democratic delegation had turned out to be one unutterable bore, but now, if only "muerte" meant what it sounded like
Down the aisle, along the narrow washroom corridor, to the door of Drawing Room A. Piper threw it open, then drew sharply back, barring the doorway with his arm to the others. He sniffed, frowning.
"Don't go in there!" he ordered. "Let it clear!"
His keen gray eyes, professionally trained to notice everything, snapped a picture of that Pullman drawing room, a picture in such clear focus that he could have described it under oath in court a year later.
A little room, crowded with much-labeled luggage, a room with two bodies on the floor.
The man was in the dull-gray uniform of a customs examiner for the Republic. His boyishly lean face was of an unearthly ashen-gray color now, and he was staring at the ceiling with wide bloodshot eyes. He looked pitiful and faintly comic, all akimbo as he was—like a dropped and forgotten marionette.
Piper knelt beside him, looked up with a deep crease between his eyebrows. "Dead!" he said softly.
He moved the body slightly from where it lay across an open traveling case, a case which exposed gleaming silver fittings, the glint of crystal bottles For a moment the inspector turned his back to the frightened, inquisitive people in the half-open doorway
"Adele!" the alderman was moaning. "Adele!
Oscar Piper bent over the woman who was lying between the two seats, as if flung there by an explosion. She was a more than pretty woman, if a bit thirtyish. Incredibly soft and yet heavy in his arms she was
"Give me a hand here!" he commanded. There was a moment of hesitation, and then Francis Mabie stepped gingerly over the body of the customs man, took his wife's silken legs
They got her out of the drawing room, to a seat in the Pullman. Piper forced back the crowd.
"Isn't there anything we can do for her?" Mabie was crying.
There was, and the inspector was doing it. His first-aid methods were so successful that Adele Mabie was sitting up when the porter came trotting back up the aisle, followed by train officials, more customs men, and a bald dumpling of a man with a goatee, who smelled vilely of tequila and carried a small black bag.
The group pushed past them, disappeared through the door of the drawing room.
"I—I guess I must have fainted!" Adele Mabie spoke softly, painfully.
"Quiet, Adele! You mustn't try to "
The inspector's hand was clenched in his coat pocket. He was an old acquaintance, indeed he had been one of the guests at Adele Mabie's wedding reception, but she did not know him now.
"It would be better to talk," he said softly in her ear. "What really happened in there?"
"Now see here, Inspector!" Mabie was furious.
"Best if she answers," Piper said. "Well?"
"I don't know!" the woman cried. Even in her distraught condition her fingers automatically picked and patted and arranged the loose strands of her dark hair. "I don't know what happened! Just that the customs man—"
"You don't know him? Never saw him before?" Piper demanded.
She shook her head blankly. "Of course not. He was such a nice man, too! Barely looked at my bags, and he didn't say a word about the three cartons of cigarettes or anything. Just smiled and made a joke or two in his funny cute accent, and then "
She shivered. "I don't remember "
The others came crowding back around them. There was curious Lighton like a great eager bird, pudgy Hansen with the wide childlike eyes. Behind them were the other passengers of the car, the old couple from Peoria, the Mexican-American family with the three fat-cheeked children, the two giggling señoritas with the ample hips, and even an elderly Spanish gentleman with handlebar mustaches and a gold-headed cane.
The inspector scowled at the crowd, and then with sudden decision he took the woman by one arm, motioned her husband to take the other. "Come out on the rear platform," he insisted. "The air will do you good."
The door slammed behind them. "Now please come clean with me, Mrs. Mabie!" he pleaded.
"Listen to me!" cut in the husband angrily. "You forget that you're not in New York now, Inspector!"
"Neither are you, and you're going to find it out," Piper said. "How about it, Mrs. Mabie?"
She drew back against the bulwark of her husband. "I have—nothing to tell you," she said softly. "Nothing."
"You can't tell me anything about why this poor devil in there was holding this gripped in his hand when I found him? With the stopper out?" The stern policeman produced a small amber-colored bottle, shaped like a flattened hexagon. In florid green script it bore the legend "Elixir d'Amour" and beneath in smaller letters "bottled expressly for Longacre Square Pharmacies, N.Y.C."
Mrs. Mabie still shook her head slowly, like one of the trick dolls sold on street corners.
"You don't see anything queer about the fact that somebody just takes one whiff of your perfume and cashes in his checks? And almost takes you along with him?"
She shook her head. "Honestly, Inspector! I have a headache—"
"We'll all have headaches before this is over. If you don't let me help you—"
"It's all a nightmare," the woman whispered. "All a nightmare, and I'm going to wake up in a moment." She nodded as if to clear her head of cobwebs. "You see," she went on, speaking as if to a very small child or to a deaf person, "that bottle isn't mine!"
"I suppose the brownies put it in your traveling bag? I suppose—"
"I never saw it before in all my life!" declared Adele Mabie. "Why, I only use De Markoff's Essence at forty dollars an ounce. And why you imagine that I would plant a drug "
"I didn't say drug, but I'll go farther. It was poison!" he told her.
" plant poison in somebody else's cheap perfume bottle, just to kill a poor unoffending little Mexican customs man whom I never saw before in all my life—"
"That's it!" The alderman's voice gained strength. "Why should my wife poison a customs man or enter into a suicide pact with him? You grumble at customs. You don't try to—"
"All right, all right," the inspector cut in. "We'll agree that it was the brownies, after all. But it's going to be a hell of a defense to take into court."
"Into court?" the woman echoed blankly.
"Yes, when you go up for second-degree homicide, or criminal negligence, or whatever it was."
Adele Mabie moaned a little. "She's fainted!" came from the alderman, as he manfully struggled to keep his wife's limp form from sliding to the floor of the platform.
Inspector Oscar Piper opened the door to let two stretcher-bearers through with their burden, a blanket drawn over its face. "And that is that," he said. "We had a chance to do something for her, but she went and fainted. Now we can only hope Mrs. Mabie won't wake up in a Mexican jail."
"But it wasn't her perfume bottle!" Mabie gasped. "Why, they can't do that to her! I tell you, she had no more to do with this than I did!"
"Uh huh," said the inspector. When the train finally hitched its way into the station of Nuevo Laredo, he got down and sent the telegram.
Excerpted from The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 2004 The Rue Morgue Press. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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