Louise has finally gathered the courage to take the police civil service exam, but when she returns to her secretary job at the midtown publishing house of Van Hooten and McChesney, she’s shocked to find the offices smoldering from a deadly, early morning fire. Huddled on the sidewalk, her coworkers inform her that Guy Van Hooten’s body has been found in the charred ruins. Rumors of foul play are already circulating, and the firm’s surviving partner asks Louise to investigate the matter.
Despite a number of possible suspects, the last person Louise expects to be arrested is Ogden McChesney, an old friend and mentor to her aunt Irene. Louise will have to search high and low, from the tenements in the Lower East Side to the very clouds above the tallest skyscrapers, to get to the bottom of an increasingly complex case . . .
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2. How would you aid a police officer in making the arrest of one or more violent criminals?
My forehead broke out in a dewy film of panic. Ever since this past summer when I'd found myself in the middle of a murder investigation, I'd envisioned myself as a policewoman in the New York Police Department. In my dreams, I would rise quickly through the ranks by dint of hard work, bravery, and cleverness to become a detective. I set my mind on taking the police civil service exam and studied every night after my workday as secretary at the publisher Van Hooten and McChesney. I also set aside Sunday afternoons, as well as any other moment I could sneak a few glances at my well-thumbed pamphlet of New York City's municipal ordinances. I was nothing if not determined.
Yet here I was, taking the long-awaited test, and my cleverness had deserted me at Question 2.
Where to begin? The question was so broad as to render it ludicrous. One or more could mean anything from a single thief to a rioting mob. Were these hypothetical criminals armed? That would make a difference. And what was this police officer doing? I imagined a square-jawed hero in blue taking on a knife-wielding gang. Conversely, I conjured up a novice as weak-kneed and untested as I would be cowering behind the closest solid object between him and the malefactors.
Being bogged down with possibilities might be the opposite of drawing a blank, but it was just as lethal to a test taker. Never mind that I actually had aided a male police officer in the arrest of a violent criminal. Even Detective Frank Muldoon, not my biggest booster, had admitted — eventually — that a seasoned policeman couldn't have played his part in taking down the killer any better than I had done. But a civil service exam wasn't the best place to spin tales of my past derring-do or to crow about my triumph over Detective Muldoon's reactionary attitudes regarding women in law enforcement.
During all my months of preparation for this moment, I'd assumed I was exceptional. An original. Yet the sound of a hundred pencils scritching against paper filled the hall, and all those pencils were pushed by the hands of women with the same dream. The majority of them looked to be in their early twenties like me, although a smattering were a bit longer in the tooth. Judging from appearances, they came from all walks of life: hard-looking, severe women; young women who might have worked at the five-and-dime; a few whose rough clothing and crude shawls gave them the air of being fresh off the boat; even one or two who were so well dressed that I wondered if they'd mistaken this for the entrance exam for Bryn Mawr.
The young woman next to me possessed the bearing of a debutante and had set out this morning in a frock of winter white topped with a ridiculous hat festooned with ribbons, wooden berries, and imitation songbirds around its brim. In order not to soil the silk with pencil lead, she'd removed her right elbow-length glove and draped it over the back of her chair. Yet even she scribbled away, undaunted by Question 2.
What kind of policewoman would I make if I couldn't even face down the exam with the fortitude of this pampered Miss Vanderbilt type? Giving myself a mental shake, I resumed writing. My background is German, not Irish, but what flowed from my pencil onto that test paper was 100 percent genuine blarney. I outlined my intention to assist the stalwart, competent male policeman by offering an extra pair of hands, or my feet to act as his Mercury to fetch help from other stalwart, competent male policemen. I emphasized that my most important duty would be to follow the policeman's orders with alacrity. On and on I wrote, until I filled the required space with my tidiest Palmer method script.
Of the approximately 10,500 officers and detectives the New York Police Department employed, around seventy were female. At most, perhaps ten or fifteen of us in this room would be offered an assignment on a probationary basis. As I handed in my test paper, my odds of attaining one of these sought-after openings seemed slim at best. What did I have that any of these other hundred women didn't?
"When will we hear back?" I asked the sergeant at the front of the room.
He took my papers, tossed them without a glance on top of the stack at his elbow, and then leveled his cold-eyed stare on me. His scowl and gruff manner conveyed how far beneath his dignity he considered proctoring women's exams to be. "After they're graded."
"How long will that be?" I asked. "Weeks? Months?"
"It takes as long as it takes."
A wiseacre remark about the brisk efficiency of the NYPD died before it reached my lips. Something told me Sergeant Doom wouldn't be appreciative.
As I headed for the exit, I debated what to do next. Return to work? I still had my publishing job, thank heavens. But in our flat, my roommate, Callie, would be getting ready for rehearsal, and she'd be curious how the exam went. The urge to commiserate proved too strong to resist. Besides, no one at the office was expecting me. Last night before going home, I'd slipped a note under Guy Van Hooten's office door telling him I had a tooth that needed seeing to and wouldn't be in this morning. Normally I would have informed Mr. McChesney, since Guy was rarely in mornings, but Mr. McChesney was home sick yesterday and I wasn't sure he'd be in today.
I hadn't wanted to proclaim my law enforcement ambitions to anyone at work, and now I was glad I'd held my tongue. If my worst fears about the test results were realized, at least I wouldn't have to confess my disappointment to more than a small circle of confidantes.
I was mentally mapping out my route from the Centre Street headquarters back to Greenwich Village when I froze in surprise at the top of the beaux arts building's granite steps. The dark figure of Detective Frank Muldoon strode toward me, his severe expression making him look like a bird of prey homing in on some unfortunate little mammal. In this case, the mammal was me. Even stranger was the sight of Callie practically skipping at his heels to keep pace with him. The pair created a study in contrasts. He was in gray and black from fedora to shoe leather. She was blonde, with eyes the color of cornflowers, and wore a fitted dress of dusky rose. One tapered, gloved hand clutched at a gold wool cape and the other at a splendid velour hat trimmed with an egret feather.
Apologies bubbled out of Callie even before the two reached me. "I'm sorry — I had to tell him," she called out. "He just showed up and was asking all about what you were up to. Then he started making all sorts of accusations against you, and —"
Muldoon bristled. "I haven't accused her of anything ..."
The word yet hung unspoken in the crisp air.
"Insinuated, then." Callie's frantic gaze was warning me, but of what I had no idea. "He was insinuating like crazy, Louise." They were stopped now, and the full force of Muldoon's glower zeroed in on me. I was ninety-nine percent certain I hadn't committed a crime, but in the sights of that hawkish gaze even Saint Peter might have squirmed a little.
"What's happened?" I asked him.
He answered with another question. "What are you doing here, Louise?"
As if he didn't know. "Taking the civil service exam to become a policewoman." The look of irritation and disdain on his face riled me. "I told you my intentions last summer."
"I didn't think you'd follow through with the preposterous idea."
Preposterous, the man said. To the woman who'd saved his bacon, professionally speaking, not four months ago. "Evidently it's a good thing I did decide to take the exam this morning, since I need an alibi for ..." I tilted my head. "What is it I'm supposed to have done?"
Before he could respond, Callie blurted out the news. "Your boss — he's dead."
That took my breath. Ogden McChesney was an old hypochondriac, but no one had suspected he was really at death's door. "Poor Aunt Irene," I said. "She'll be heartbroken. Mr. McChesney was one of her oldest friends —"
"Not Mr. McChesney," Callie said. "It was the young one."
"Guy?" That didn't seem possible. Guy Van Hooten, scion of the firm, was just over thirty. He wasn't in the pink — too many late nights, too much booze — but he certainly couldn't have dropped dead from stress or overwork. Indolence was his watchword. Some weeks he never even showed his face in the office.
Heaven knows he wasn't my favorite person in the world, but I'd never wished him ill. At least, not a fatal kind of ill. "How did he die?"
Muldoon's mouth flattened to a grim line. "We aren't sure."
"It was a fire," said Callie, in full town crier mode now. "The Van Hooten and McChesney building burned down, and Guy was found inside. Detective Muldoon here told me all that's left of your office is ashes."
The shock of my place of work's burning to the ground — perhaps sending my safe job up in flames along with it — would take time to absorb. Right now the startling news of Guy's death still gripped me. "When did this happen?"
"This morning," he said.
I tried to knit this together. Detective Muldoon was chasing down absent employees after a fire. Fires broke out all the time in the city. But a young, healthy man not being able to exit a burning building before the conflagration consumed him? That did seem suspicious.
"You'd better come back with me to Thirty-eighth Street," he said in a more kindly tone.
Maybe my test taking had convinced him I didn't kill my boss. But from the set of his jaw, I was now certain a murderer was what he was hunting. And I was inclined to agree. I could count on the fingers of one hand the times I'd seen Guy drag himself into work before noon. What else would account for his being at the office bright and early on a Thursday morning, apart from murder?
* * *
If Callie had come with us, she would have seen that Van Hooten and McChesney wasn't quite reduced to ashes. More of a blackened brick shell. But Callie still had her chorus rehearsal for an upcoming musical comedy, Broadway Frolics, to attend, so I accompanied Muldoon to my old workplace without her.
"Isn't this a little out of your territory?" I asked him as we approached Thirty-eighth Street. Last summer he'd been working out of my local precinct, in Greenwich Village.
"The Twenty-first Precinct's short-handed at the moment. Downtown keeps assigning detectives for special task forces, which ends up reshuffling us all."
I was going to respond, but at that moment we rounded the corner of Thirty-eighth and I saw the damage. A lump formed in my throat. It was one thing to be told my office had burned down, but quite another to view the smoking remains of where I'd spent so many hours. Van Hooten and McChesney's building on East Thirty-eighth had never been distinctive. In recent years the three-story brick edifice had lived in the shadow of newer buildings that had mushroomed on either side. Yet seeing its charred orifices exhaling tendrils of smoke filled me with a sadness I hadn't anticipated. A few glimpses through the broken windows hinted at the devastation inside. I wasn't sure I wanted to see more.
Guy Van Hooten had died in there. I was still struggling to accept that horror as I lifted my skirts and picked my way across wet sidewalks strewn with tiny bits of blackened debris. Policemen canvassed bystanders and neighboring houses to find out if they'd noticed anything suspicious earlier that morning. A bright red motorized fire truck, at least twenty feet long, still blocked the street traffic. Facing it were three horses standing abreast harnessed to an older, smaller engine. The old and the new, muzzle to fender. Firemen were reeling in the hose of the smaller vehicle, while other of their brethren milled nearby ready to douse any lingering flame. Overall, men in uniform were only slightly outnumbered by neighbors and gawkers.
Muldoon broke away from me to confer with police officers, so I drifted over to where my coworkers were huddled together in their coats and hats. The people from the offices upstairs congregated near the next building over. Jackson Beasley, with whom I shared the front office on the first floor, stood off to one side by himself, his black bowler crushed low on his bald head. He always held himself slightly aloof.
"It's about time you got here," Timothy Banks, our copy editor, told me. He was bundled in a long coat and his blue-and-white striped, slightly moth-eaten Columbia University scarf.
Next to him was Bob Sanders, our accountant. Slight, mousy, and nervous, he seemed an odd office mate for Timothy, a tall, jovial type, but they got along well. It was odder still that of the two, Bob was the family man and Timothy the perpetual bachelor. Jackson occasionally referred to them as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, partly, I thought, out of envy of their friendship.
Bob glanced sidewise at me through his thick glasses and gave me a nudge. "We were beginning to suspect you burned the place down."
You aren't the only ones. I looked over at Muldoon conferring with a fellow detective. Why hadn't he simply sent an officer to my flat to question me? He hadn't needed to go himself. Maybe he'd wanted the satisfaction of snapping the handcuffs on me if I'd looked obviously guilty.
"Has anyone learned more about what happened?" I asked.
"There was one lady who was walking her dog early this morning," Bob said. "Guess she lives in one of the apartment buildings. Timothy's seen her before. She said she saw a strange man lurking around the building this morning in an old brown overcoat and a blue plaid scarf."
"Or maybe green plaid," Timothy said, with a slight roll of his eyes. "She's not sure."
"Brown coat, plaid scarf," I repeated. "That's it?"
"Said he was medium height." Bob's mouth twitched into a frown. "Or maybe tall but hunching over."
Timothy shook his head. "That old bat doesn't know what she's talking about. She's the crazy woman who yelled at me one day for stopping to pet her poodle. She was afraid I was going to kidnap it." "Oh, her." I'd had my own encounters with the crazy poodle lady. Once, she'd accused me of stealing a potted aspidistra from off her windowsill. Not the most reliable of witnesses. "Has anyone been inside?"
Timothy shook his head. "The firemen won't allow it. The building's unstable. Part of the stairwell collapsed, and so did a section of the roof."
"The books are probably all gone, too," Bob said.
I guessed he meant the financial books, though I didn't suppose the other kind survived the conflagration, either.
Timothy nodded. "It's all gone."
As if to punctuate that thought, a loud crack followed by a crash sounded from inside the burned building. Shouts erupted. Two men were inside and came running out, followed by a cloud of smoke and debris huffing out the door and windows. "The staircase!" someone shouted, and firemen surged forward with a hose as spectators moved back.
During the hubbub, I drifted over to Jackson, who wasted no time filling me in on the morning's gruesome details. "Guy was hunched over his desk when the firemen found him, his body burned all over." He lifted his hat and wiped a handkerchief over the broad expanse of his brow, which, thanks to his receding hairline, seemed to account for almost half the acreage of his head.
"How awful," I said.
In a drawl that eight years spent on and off north of the Mason-Dixon line had not eradicated, he went on, "I had to identify him, which wasn't easy to do, I assure you. Guy was a cinder. And the smell ..." He shivered. "Well, I'll spare you my description of that. You all don't have barbeque pits up here, anyway."
My stomach churned. Good thing I'd been too nervous to eat this morning.
"But the saddest part," he continued, "was that in death he was hunched over in a seated position — the very picture of a carbonized office drudge. Guy Van Hooten! Can you imagine it?"
Though they'd been college acquaintances in their Harvard days, Guy and Jackson were very different. Jackson was a worker bee, while Guy ... wasn't. "Why was he here so early?" I wondered aloud. The only time I'd seen Guy in the office so early was one morning last summer when he'd stayed overnight at the office, drinking. Maybe that had been the case this morning, too.
"That was my very thought," Jackson said. "'It can't be he,' I told myself when the firemen informed me that there was a man in Guy's office. I was the first one here, you know, although a neighbor had already called the fire department. A few windows had broken — the heat, I guess — and smoke was pouring out of the place. I didn't go in, but I never dreamt there was anyone inside the building. Especially Guy. Otherwise I would've attempted to save him."
The claim struck me as more boastful than true, but who doesn't dream of acting heroically? Especially when the danger of actually being called upon to do so has passed. "It must have been awful for you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder in Midtown"
Copyright © 2019 Elizabeth Bass.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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