Read an Excerpt
The Green Ace
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1950 Stuart Palmer
All rights reserved.
The joker in Andrew Rowan's last will and testament, a document witnessed by the prison chaplain and one Paul Huff, keeper in the death-house, was supposed to be a secret. But there are few secrets long kept from the warden at Sing Sing. That earnest official got wind of it through the prison grapevine, swore efficiently if a bit rustily, and then put through a long distance call to Centre Street, which happens to be the headquarters of the New York police department.
Inspector Oscar Piper, grizzled and long-suffering skipper of the homicide bureau, muttered incoherent thanks for the tip-off and then crashed his desk phone into its cradle and yelped, "Judas Priest in a mixmaster, why does everything have to happen to me?"
He was talking to himself, but at that singularly inauspicious moment a certain spinster schoolma'am crashed the gates of his private office on business connected with the sale of tickets to a charity bazaar for the Fresh-Air Fund, and from his last words drew a natural but quite erroneous conclusion. "Oscar!" cried Miss Hildegarde Withers indignantly, "will you never tire of casting rude aspersions at my taste in hats?"
The Inspector looked up at his old friend and erstwhile sparring-partner without welcome or warmth. He could have said with some reason that the bonnet she wore today appeared to have had old fruit and vegetables cast at it already, but at the moment he was in no mood for badinage. "Oh, it's you again!" he said, shoulders sagging. "Whatever's on your mind I don't want any. Goodbye please!"
But Miss Withers sat down anyway. From her long and sometimes stormy association with Oscar Piper she knew that like most conscientious policemen the Inspector usually had a case of the jitters during the last days of anyone he had helped send up the river on sentence of death. "Ah!" she cried. "Something tells me you're fretting about the Harrington case again. Too bad Rowan isn't obliging enough to make a last-minute confession and set your mind at rest."
"Confession?" Piper winced as from a probe at an ulcerated tooth. "He made a will instead! The warden just phoned and broke the news. Somehow Rowan's managed to hang onto $3500 that I guess his defense lawyers didn't find out about, and he's leaving it to me!"
"What a nice gesture!" Then Miss Withers' gray-blue eyes narrowed. "Or is he trying to heap coals of fire on your head, perhaps?"
"More like a red-hot poker—but never mind. There's a stipulation in the will that I use the money, after he's dead of course, to make a full and impartial investigation of the murder for which he is being unjustly executed."
She smiled wryly. "Chickens will come home to roost, won't they, Oscar?"
Savagely the Inspector ground out a new, unlighted perfecto. "And when Andy Rowan pays his debt to society the week of the twentieth that screwball will goes to probate, and leave it to somebody to break the details to the reporters. Maybe you can guess what certain newspapers will make of the story."
Miss Withers nodded. "Read all abaht it! Rowan with Dying Gasp Bribes Police for Fair Play. I see the point." Then her eyes nicked toward the wall calendar, brightening. "But, Oscar, thanks to the warden's warning, there's still time! You have almost nine days before Rowan walks that long last mile through the little green door to the hot-sit."
"Hot-squat!" he corrected her wearily. "And there hasn't been a little green door in the condemned block for years. Also, what do you mean I still have nine days? Nine days for what? Reopening the case wouldn't bring out anything new. Besides, I'd have to tell the Commish my reasons, and I'd almost rather die first."
"You mean you'd almost rather Rowan died first, guilty or not."
But Piper wasn't listening. "Why does the fellow take it out on me anyway? Why doesn't he blame the jury that convicted him, or the judge, or the district attorney? I'm only a cop doing my job. I collect evidence and make arrests, that's all." The Inspector sighed, and mopped his brow.
"I know, Oscar. But now we really must consider the possibility that there is more to this business of the will than just an attempt at a sneaky posthumous revenge against the one person Rowan rightly or wrongly blames for his conviction. Just suppose for a moment that the man is really innocent."
"Suppose my foot! Let's not start that again. Rowan is guilty as hell."
"Perhaps so," the schoolteacher came back, frowning a little. "But there is always the possibility, however remote, of a miscarriage of justice. After all, the implication in the man's making this unorthodox disposition of his money is that there's a needle in the woodpile somewhere. Aren't you going up to Sing Sing and have a talk with him at least?"
"Nothing of the kind. Rowan isn't talking because he doesn't dare to. Somewhere in the files we've got the 16-millimeter sound film we shot of him the morning he was arrested— we all thought he was going to confess, and wanted proof that he hadn't been worked over in case he tried to repudiate the confession later. You ought to see it, he squirms and wriggles under the lights, and then clams up like a—"
"Like a clam? I can imagine, with all of you policemen shouting at him."
"Relax, Hildegarde! Rowan quit talking because there was one question he couldn't answer then or since. It's this—if he didn't murder the Harrington girl, then why was he driving around half the night with a shovel and her dead body hidden in the back of his car?"
"Circumstantial evidence!" snapped Miss Withers. "Thoreau's 'trout in the milk.' But couldn't it have been planted there?"
"Are you daffy? They don't plant trout in milk, they—"
"Please don't be intentionally dense. I mean, of course, that the girl's body could have been hidden in Rowan's car by some person or persons unknown, for their own fell purposes."
"No dice, Hildegarde," he said with weary gentleness. "Stop trying to set yourself up as a citizens' committee of one, will you? The police are only human and we make mistakes, but not about an open-and-shut case like this one. Listen a minute. The thing happened when you were away on your vacation last summer, so you missed most of it. Andy Rowan was a former hack newspaperman turned press-agent—one of those smooth, glib-talking boys who hang around Sardi's and Shubert Alley and Bleeck's. Midge Harrington was his client, a big glamazon who was supposed to be getting the full treatment. She was trying, with the backing of some businessmen's booster club out in her native Flatbush, for the Miss Brooklyn crown and a try at Atlantic City and the big Miss America splash later. It was Rowan's job to get her name in the papers and her face and gams in the picture weeklies. But Midge was a luscious hunk of stuff, with a pair of big round—"
"I was about to say, with a pair of big round heels. Nicely packaged goods, however. Pretty soon Midge and Andy were putting in a good deal of overtime, sometimes in the Stork and El Morocco and Pierre's and sometimes at his wife's town house up on Prospect Way, which was supposedly closed for the summer. I don't suppose they spent the long summer evenings bringing her scrapbooks up to date or playing canasta. But Andy got tired first—"
"Someone said, Oscar, that the tragedy of love is that two people never fall out of it at the same time. Not, of course, that I've had much personal experience."
He grinned. "Yeah, like in the song about the Strawberry Roan, they went up together and came down alone. About that time the beauty-queen campaign went haywire, which wouldn't make Midge any sunnier in the disposition. She was probably putting the screws to Rowan, trying to get him to elope with her and threatening to go to his wife and spill the beans if he didn't keep his promises. It was the simple case of a guy not wanting to lose his meal-ticket—his wife was a rich widow when he married her, and the straitlaced type to boot."
"By the way, I seem to remember that she didn't stand by Andy at the trial?"
"Can you blame her? It must have been a considerable shock to find that her handsome young husband had been playing boompsadaisy with a large economy-size blonde from Flatbush. When Natalie met and married Andy Rowan in Paris a few years after the war she was on an all-expense luxury tour and he had just been fired from a minor job with a foreign press bureau. She brought him home and put up the dough for his lush public-relations office over in the Chrysler Building. Hell hath no fury like a woman who's been made a fool of."
"Things aren't always that simple." Miss Withers craned her long neck, studying the papers spread out on the Inspector's battered old oak desk. "Oscar, I notice that even before you heard from the warden something had impelled you to dig out the official file on this case, so you must have had an inner twinge or two of doubt." She moved around beside him, and picked up a photo. "Andy Rowan's a rather good-looking boy, even in this awful police picture. The mouth may be a little weak, but the eyes are nice "
"Women!" exploded Oscar Piper. "I suppose a guy with nice curly hair and dimples can't be just as guilty as the next one?"
But she was skimming over the medical examiner's report. "Dead on arrival asphyxia and hyoid fracture well-nourished white female, identified as Midge Harrington, 18, showgirl and dancer address Rehearsal Arts Club by roommate Iris Dunn, 22, actress. No identifying scars, weight 156, height 5-11 My, Oscar, she was a big girl for her age, wasn't she?"
The Inspector nodded. "Yes, she outweighed Rowan, who was a dapper little squirt. Probably she could have taken him in a fair fight. But she never had a chance. We figure it was a sort of sneak punch. When he met Midge at his wife's house that night he probably staged a fake reconciliation and then unwrapped the necklace as a peace offering. If he stood behind her to clasp it around her neck, the way a man does at a moment like that "
"Why, Oscar!" cried Miss Withers, "I had no idea that you knew about such niceties. I'd have been willing to wager that even in your palmiest days you never gave a girl anything more than a pound box of candy, and then stuck around until the last gumdrop was finished."
"Okay, okay. Anyway, that's our reconstruction of how the murder occurred. With the necklace held tight around her neck, all Rowan had to do was to give just one hard jerk and it was all over, curtains." The Inspector riffled through the file and picked up another photograph. "Here, take a look at this and maybe you won't feel such a rush of motherly sympathy for poor Andy Rowan."
Miss Withers found herself staring at an enlarged close-up of the dead girl, obviously taken on a slab in the morgue, all wild hair and glaring eyes. She gulped, and then cocked her head curiously. "Oscar, that thing around her neck—?"
"That's not the murder weapon, just the stigmata it made. The necklace left an indelible mark in the tissues, four dots and a lozenge and so on. We know from this photo what it must have probably looked like."
"But you never succeeded in finding out where Rowan acquired it?"
"That we did not. But that sort of costume jewelry, brummagen is the trade name for it, is sold in half the stores in New York. You can't often trace anything like that, the shop-girls sell too many of them. Anyway, not finding how he got it was about the only weak link in the chain of evidence."
"And you didn't find the necklace afterward, either?"
"We figure he simply dropped it off the ferryboat, along with her clothes, on the way to Staten Island. You can't drag the whole Upper Bay. He probably wanted to drop the body too, but found too many people aboard who'd have heard that big a splash. He was picked up just half a mile from Midland Beach, you know. If he hadn't passed that stop sign he'd probably have dug a nice grave for Midge in the sand somewhere, and maybe we wouldn't have found her yet."
"It all sounds very damning, almost too damning." The schoolteacher stood up and crossed the room to stare intently at the view from the window, which gave onto a brick wall a dozen feet away. She said, "All the same, I'd like a talk with Rowan."
"A talk in the death-house?" Piper thought that was funny. "Nobody but his wife or his lawyers could get in there, and they've all long since washed their hands of him. He's as good as dead already, now that the appeal has failed. The Governor has intimated that he isn't going to take any action, not with the public up in arms about the nationwide wave of crimes against women and children. Besides, suppose you did get to Rowan? What do you think an amateur snoop could worm out of him at this late date that trained detectives missed?"
"There's such a thing as being overtrained! I confess now that I've always had certain doubts about the Harrington case just from what I've read about it. Suppose Rowan is innocent, as his writing that kind of will clearly indicates? Justice is justice, and on top of that I hate to see your hide nailed to the barn door by the yellow press. Perhaps Mrs. Rowan can be induced to help. What's her address, Oscar?"
"Still 144 Prospect Way, as far as I know. But Hildegarde—"
"I know. I promised not to meddle any more, but this is a serious situation. I simply must take steps to save you in spite of yourself from an awful mistake!"
"Oh, no!" cried the Inspector, feeling that the cure would be worse than the disease. So many of Miss Withers' well-meant attempts at assisting him in the past had backfired that he hastily leaped to his feet, saying, "Hildegarde, wait a minute!"
"Like time and tide, I wait for no man," she called over her shoulder. She was gone, leaving behind only a faint odor of soap, violet sec, and chalk dust.
Letting as usual no grass whatever grow under her stoutly clad feet, Miss Withers was soon hammering on the door of a big solid red-brick house overlooking Riverside Drive and the looming geometry of the George Washington Bridge. At first glance there was nothing here, even to her active imagination, to suggest that the place had ever been associated with murder and sudden death. The lawn was well kept, the shrubbery trimmed. But the windows were streaked and dusty, with drawn blinds, and no one answered her knock. Finally she started resolutely around to the rear, and almost stumbled over a fading sign stuck in the side lawn: "FOR IMMEDIATE SALE OR TRADE, Digby and Sons"
She rounded the corner of the house, almost plunging into the brown and brittle tangle that had been a rose garden, and stopped short. A young man in a leather jacket was just letting himself out of the kitchen door—a tallish, weedy young man who started visibly when he saw her approach.
"One moment!" cried Miss Withers. "Young man, if you're from the real estate brokers I'd like a chance to view the house."
"Real estate?" he said blankly, in a cultured voice that was a cut or two above his extremely casual clothes. "I don't understand."
"The house is for sale, isn't it? I'd like to look at it, and I want to get in touch with the owner."
"I'm afraid I can't help you," he said. "Sorry." And he started off.
"But if you're not from the realtor's, then who are you?"
"Gas man," he told her. "Just reading the meter." And he was gone.
Miss Withers hammered on the back door, without much hope. She even tried the knob, but it was locked. There were French doors opening out onto a sort of raised sun porch, but every blind was drawn. Finally she gave it up and went away.
A telephone call to the real estate office produced only the information that they did not have the address of any Mrs. Andrew Rowan or Mrs. Natalie Rowan, nor had the girl at the switchboard ever heard of her. The telephone book and city directory, were equally of no help whatever.
"I might have known!" observed the disappointed school-ma'am to herself as she left the phone booth. Mrs. Natalie Rowan had probably put her house up for sale through an intermediary and then taken herself off to some playground of the idle rich such as Bar Harbor or Santa Barbara, there to try to forget the unpleasant ceremony scheduled for the week of the twentieth. One could hardly blame her, under the circumstances, for wanting to be as far as possible from the last act of this sorry tragedy and all its attendant publicity. Still Miss Withers thought it would have been very helpful for her to know exactly where Natalie Rowan was, and just what if anything she was up to
Excerpted from The Green Ace by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1950 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.