The Thirteen Feathers
A Velda Bellinghausen Mystery
by Ron Miller
......Ever since I quit Slotsky's
Follies, I'd enjoyed the luxury of sleeping late in the mornings.
But that morning, God knows why, my alarm went off at five o'clock.
Figuring coffee and donuts at Joe's might help me start seeing
in color, I stumbled out of bed to face the day.
...... And that's why
I was out on the sidewalk at the ungodly hour of six o'clock,
on my way back from the diner, when I saw smoke leaking from
the window of the Schlabiddny's apartment on the second floor
of the Zenobia Arms. The greyish trickle suddenly puffed into
a gout of smoke, like there was some Indian up there sending
love notes to his squaw in SoHo. This would have been disturbing
under any circumstances but it was particularly so because I
lived at the Zenobia.
...... Ducking into the tobacconist's
shop, I yelled to the counterman to call the fire department.
As I ran back onto the sidewalk, I saw a little yellow tongue
lick at the thin white curtains shifting with the spring breeze
that I had been enjoying.
...... Jesus! I bolted
across the street, nearly getting myself flattened by a cab whose
cursing driver I ignored. Earl and Rebecca Schlabiddny were a
nice old couple living on Earl's pension from the Chesapeake
...... At least the fire wasn't
any closer to my place. The Schlabiddnys live on the second floor
left and I live on the third floor right. A selfish thought,
but hell, my apartment was all I had.
...... I had just reached the
door of 2B when I heard the fire engine clang around the corner
onto Pith. I tried the knob but the door was locked. I pounded
on the panel and yelled. No answer. Smoke was starting to seep
under the door. The panel was hot to the touch. I called their
names once more, then backed up and threw myself at the door.
I bounced off like a ping pong ball. I then kicked at the door--what
I should've done in the first place. My third kick splintered
...... I leaped into the room
without looking and immediately regretted it. The place was thick
with grey, choking smoke. The fumes felt like sandpaper in my
throat and lungs. My eyes stung as if someone had dribbled rock
salt in them. I pulled a handkerchief from my back pocket and
held it over my nose.
...... There was a roaring from
the back of the apartment, where I knew the bedroom was. To get
there, I had to go through the kitchen. The smell of gas stopped
me. I glanced at the stove. All four handles had been turned
to High. And the burners weren't lit. The stove was leaking gas
like the Hindenburg. With shaking hands I switched the gas off,
thinking that only the open window in the front had kept the
whole place from exploding.
...... Not even halfway to the
bedroom, I could see the flames. I shouted the Schlabiddnys'
names again. No answer. Or if there was, I couldn't hear it over
...... Heavy steps clumped up
the stairs. I could hear shouts from the hall and from outside.
...... I woke up on the sidewalk.
A fireman removed a rubber mask from my face. "Hey, chief!
The dame's come to!"
...... I pushed myself onto my
elbows, the fireman urging me to take it easy. My throat felt
as raw as a sunburn.
...... "Water," I croaked.
...... The fireman handed me
a Thermos. I was chugging away when the chief came up. "How's
...... "I'll be all right."
...... "That was a pretty
brave thing you tried to do up there, Miss. Stupid, but brave."
...... "I was the one pulled
you out," said the fireman, taking back his thermos.
...... "I had to give you
...... That explained my unbuttoned
blouse. I buttoned it back up.
...... "You know what happened?"
the chief asked, helping me to my feet.
...... "I have no idea.
I saw smoke coming out the window, told someone to call you,
and went up to see what I could do."
...... "You saved a lot
of lives today, Miss. You're a hero. Lot of people were still
in the building. If we hadn't arrived . . ."
...... "The Schlabiddnys,
...... "Those the folks
lived in that apartment?"
...... "They weren't as
lucky. I'm sorry . . . if they were friends of yours--"
...... "I hardly knew them.
They were a nice old couple, though. She brought me cookies once."
No one had made cookies for me since my mom had died. I glanced
up at the window, where a black smear on the bricks above was
the only sign there'd been a fire. "You know what happened?"
...... "Not yet. Still got
some men poking around up there."
...... "Mind if I go take
...... "Well, now, Miss--"
...... I pulled my wallet out
of my back pocket and showed him my badge.
...... "A private detective?"
...... "They were nice people.
Besides, I got a personal interest. If I'd been home, I'd be
a cinder now instead of a heroine. Let me take a look to see
if my place is okay, will you? What harm could it do?"
...... But as soon as
I got into the building, I went straight to Schlabiddny's place.
The smell was bad enough in the other rooms but it was absolutely
overwhelming in the bedroom. The bodies had been covered by the
medical examiner. The chief said they were pretty much unrecognizable.
It smelled like the time Joe's grease trap had caught fire.
...... Half a dozen men were
messing around, their hands and faces as black and sooty as the
walls. They were mostly firemen and cops. I recognized several
from the local precinct, though I'd only met the lieutenant in
...... "Say," he said.
"You the dame what tried to save them old folks? That took
some kinda moxie, I tell you."
...... "Any idea how the
fire started?" I asked.
...... "Looks to me like
this did it," he said, holding up a mass of charred and
twisted metal. Frayed strands of wire hung from it, the bared
copper incongruously bright and shiny.
...... "What the hell is
...... "'Lectric heater.
Found it near the foot of the bed. Looks like they just forgot
about it and, well, there you are. Last mistake they ever made."
...... "What's that smell?"
...... "Ah, well, you don't
really want to know--"
...... "No -- it's like,
uh, oil? Don't you smell it?"
...... He sniffed the air.
...... "You got something
there, lady. Hey, George! Take a whiff. You smell somethin' funny?"
...... "Yeah, now you mention
it. Smells like kerosene, don't it?"
...... "It sure does."
...... "What smells like
kerosene?" asked one of the firemen, who'd just come into
...... "The bedroom does,"
I said. "Didn't you notice it?"
...... He sniffed the air.
...... "Yeah, I do."
...... "Look," I said,
"you might as well know. I only got past the kitchen before
I passed out, but the gas was on. The last thing I really remember
is turning it off."
...... "The gas in the kitchen?
...... "Yeah. All four burners
...... "What the hell?"
...... "I have no idea."
...... "You suppose it was
suicide? You knew the old couple, didn't you? You think maybe
they killed themselves?"
...... "I don't know. I
didn't really know them all that well. Just to say hello to,
really. They seemed happy enough, I guess."
...... "They weren't sick
or anything like that?"
...... "They seemed okay
to me, but I wouldn't really know."
...... "Know anything else
about them? Any kids or relatives you know of?"
...... "I haven't a clue.
There was some teenage kid living with them when I moved in a
couple of years ago, but he left shortly after that. Don't know
if he was a relative or not."
...... It was getting a little
crowded in the bedroom, and the smell was really starting to
get to me, so I went back to the living room and looked around.
There was soot all over everything, but without the charred,
greasy look the bedroom had. The place was all topsy-turvy, too.
Then I saw it -- a red feather. I noticed it only because it
was such an odd thing to see--the bright color standing out like
a streak of blood on the grey floor. I bent to pick it up and
saw another one. I found thirteen altogether.
...... There was an old-fashioned
rolltop desk sitting in one corner. It was open and I went over
to take a look. There were papers all over and a couple of the
drawers were open. Someone had gone through them in a real hurry.
Next to the desk was a big birdcage on a tall metal stand. It
...... I found the bird behind
a chair: a green and red parrot, as big as a chicken. Its head
hung swung loosely from its neck when I picked it up. I looked
more closely at the living room floor and spotted a dark stain
on the rug halfway between the birdcage and the door. I knelt
and felt the spot. My fingers came away wet and red.
...... I got back to my feet
and continued my walkthrough.
...... I looked up as a couple
of men stepped into the room. One was the cop I'd just been talking
to. The other was a small, fussy-looking man I recognized as
the medical examiner.
...... "Say, Velda, the
ME has some interesting news for you."
...... "It's murder, isn't
...... "How d'you figure
...... I held the bird up for
them to see. "Someone wrung its neck."
...... "Yeah. Well, we figure
it for a murder-suicide. Take a look at this."
...... He handed me a shapeless
lump. It was what was left of an iron, its wooden handle burned
away. The pointed end was crusted with blood.
...... "Looks to me like
the old lady's skull was crushed," said the ME. "My
assistant's looking at her right now. The old geezer probably
beat it in with that thing. Twice, judging from the blood stains
both in here and the bedroom. Then he might've dragged her into
bed, opened the gas, set fire to the bedroom and laid down beside
...... "But why would he
kill their parrot?"
...... "You got me."
...... "Say, chief,"
said a third man who'd just come from the bedroom, "you
might want to take a look at this."
...... I followed the trio back
into the bedroom. The horrible things in the bed had been uncovered,
so I busied myself looking at the soot-covered pictures on the
...... "The old lady's skull
bashed in like I thought?" I heard the ME ask.
...... "Looks like a jigsaw
...... "That's how we figured
it, then," said the lieutenant. "Murder and suicide."
...... "Well, no, not exactly,"
said the ME's assistant.
...... "What do you mean?"
...... "It was a double
murder. The old man's head was bashed in, too."
...... The lieutenant turned
to me. "You saw the fire start?" he asked.
...... "I saw a puff of
smoke and then, when I got to the building, I think I saw flames
at the window. The place was certainly on fire by the time I
...... "You see anyone leave
...... "Nary a soul."
...... The lieutenant ordered
a canvass of the tenants. All of them claimed to have been in
bed at the time the fire started. It was a pretty silly exercise.
I mean, who'd set a fire in one apartment and then return to
their own? There are some eccentric characters at the Zenobia,
but no one was that crazy. At least the interviews backed
up what I told the cops: the Schlabiddnys were quiet, unassuming
and well liked in spite of the fact that they kept to themselves.
...... Mr. Schlabiddny had owned
a parking lot a few blocks away, the income from which supplemented
what he received from his pension. They were comfortable. Their
needs were simple enough. No one believed they had any enemies.
There was a rumor among the tenants that Mr. Schlabiddny, who
reputedly had a horror of banks, kept a small fortune hidden
somewhere in the apartment. But everyone thinks old people do
...... I talked to my neighbors
in the Zenobia. They didn't know any more about the Schlabiddnys
than I did. I went up to my place, made a pot of coffee and poured
it into a thermos. I took this down to 2B, which now only had
one cop guarding the open door. He was a rookie named Buster
I'd seen around the neighborhood. He was right off the farm,
but was otherwise okay. I handed him the Thermos.
...... "Thanks, Miss Velda.
Just what the doctor ordered."
...... "Yeah. Take a little
of the stink out of your mouth."
...... "Pretty bad, ain't
it? Were they friends of yours?"
...... "Not really. They
pretty much kept to themselves. Nice old folks, though. She made
me cookies once."
...... "That was nice."
...... "Yeah. Mind if I
look around some more?" I batted my eyes at him and he blushed
like a schoolboy. He was just too darn cute.
...... "Yeah, sure. Can't
see what harm you could do."
...... I gave him a 200-watt
smile as a reward and went on in.
...... The bodies had been removed.
All that remained was a pervasive odor of cold grease. The cops
had taken the bird, too. I noticed that they'd gone through the
papers in the desk. I kicked around a little, not really knowing
what I was looking for. Poked around in the kitchen cabinets,
opened a few drawers, peeked in the bedroom closet. Going over
ground the cops had probably already thoroughly covered.
...... I tried to not look at
the bed. I was just circling it when something crunched under
my foot. Something bright stuck out from the edge of the big
circular rug that covered the floor. I figured it must've been
kicked there by one of the cops, firemen, or MEs.
...... I picked it up. It was
a man's watch. There was no crystal. I assumed that was the fault
of my big feet. Someone called me from the front. I stuck the
watch in my pocket and went to see who it was.
...... "There's nothing
more we can get out of this place," the lieutenant said.
"We're going to send some men around the neighborhood, see
if we can learn something. The way I see it, it was probably
a robbery gone wrong. Someone heard about the money the old man
was supposed to've had and broke into the place. Either the old
lady or the old man surprised 'em and were croaked. Anyway, that's
the way I'm working it right now. You hear anything, you'll let
me know, right?"
...... "But of course."
...... Back at my place, I stripped
and showered to get the smell off me and out of my hair. I even
brushed my teeth and used a mouthwash. I put on a clean blouse--the
one from this morning was streaked with soot and missing half
its buttons--and my only other pair of clean dungarees. The whole
building reeked like an old ashtray.
...... I walked down to Joe's.
It was well after noon by then, so I ordered a cheeseburger,
fries and coffee.
...... "Heard you were a
big hero today, Velda," Joe said as he set a mug in front
...... "Yeah. The mayor's
giving me the key to the city tonight. Think I'm overdressed
for the occasion?"
...... "They should just
be glad you're dressed."
...... "I'll take that as
an insult, thanks very much."
...... "Coupla old folks
got killed, huh?"
...... "Yeah. The Schlabiddnys.
They were pretty nice. You ever meet them?"
...... "Naw. Schlabiddny,
huh? Old man named Earl?"
...... "Uh huh. Used to
work for the railroad or something."
...... "Never met 'im, but
one of my regulars was talking about 'im. Had some kind of gripe
...... "A gripe? About what?"
...... "How would I know?
You think I listen to what anyone says in here? I'm a short order
cook, not a bartender."
...... "Well, what's his
...... "I just called him
...... "Yeah. Mike the plumber.
He worked on my toilet last month. Remember how it wouldn't flush
all the way?"
...... "All too well. Know
where his shop is?"
...... "No, but I musta
kept the receipt for his bill around here someplace. I'll try
to dig it up for you."
...... I got my cheeseburger
and fries and ate them. Three other people came in and ordered
their lunches and got them and ate them before Joe came around
with a greasy scrap of paper in one of his hairy paws. I took
it by the only clean corner. Printed across the top was: BRILL'S
MODERN TWENTIETH CENTURY SUPERIOR PLUMBING SERVICE and an address
on Serviss Street, which was only a couple of blocks over. I
finished my coffee, left a dollar on the counter for Joe and
strolled over to Serviss. It was a swell day for a walk.
...... Brill's shop was in the
middle of the block. There was a panel truck at the curb with
the same name painted on. I figured it meant Mike Brill was probably
available and he was. He came out from behind a pile of porcelain
sinks and toilets, and God knows what all. A chubby little dwarf
a good eighteen inches short of my six feet, he gave me a big
gap-toothed smile. Made his totally bald head look even more
like a Halloween pumpkin than it already did.
...... "Jeez, lady, they
didn't know when to stop when they poured you out, did they?"
...... "Yeah, and the weather's
nice up here, too."
...... He laughed like that was
really funny. "So what can I do for you today?"
...... "Joe over at the
diner told me you could help me."
...... "Old Joe, huh? Well,
he's a right guy, a real right guy. Man, what a pastrami sandwich
he's got. Always gives me a little extra, you know? Gave him
a good deal on some work week, two weeks ago. Professional courtesy,
you know? Any friend of Joe's is a friend of mine. Worth a five
percent discount. Ten for a pretty lady like you..."
...... While he went on, I invented
a project for him. When he finally got around to asking, I told
him I had a leaky kitchen faucet.
...... "Your place around
here? If it is, I can probably come around sometime the next
...... "I got an apartment
over on Pith, the Zenobia Arms." He frowned at that. "You
know the place?"
...... "Yeah, I been over
...... "You don't sound
very happy about it."
...... "Aw, it's nothing.
Just did a job for someone there five, six months ago that went
sour. Still kinda irks me. You know how those things can be."
...... "I do get irked sometimes."
...... "I do good work.
Ask anyone. Ask Joe. I gotta good reputation. Best in town."
...... "I don't doubt that
for a moment."
...... "Well, then, you
understand how it it'd be if someone went around bad-mouthing
you, telling everyone you do shoddy work. That'd really fry you,
...... "Sure would."
...... "You do a good job,
people still find something to complain about. Never can make
'em happy, you know what I mean?"
...... "I sure do."
...... "Sometimes I just
wanna take a wrench and . . . Well," he composed himself,
smiling again, "that's neither here nor there, is it?"
...... I also thought it'd be
a good idea to change the subject. I said, "I don't remember
seeing you over at the apartment building."
...... "Naw, I didn't do
any work there. I put in a new toilet at the old man's parking
lot. Say, I can come over tomorrow morning, if that'd be convenient
...... "I don't know. I'm
in and out of the place a lot. I'll give you a call, okay?"
...... "That'd be fine,
just fine. Call anytime. And tell Joe hello for me. He can refer
good-lookin' ladies like you to me anytime he wants!"
...... The parking lot was about
half a city block long, manned by a couple of guys who'd worked
for Schlabiddny since he bought the property about ten years
earlier. They'd heard about the fire and were just beside themselves
with grief. Liked the old couple so much. Most everybody did.
...... One of the men, "Bunny",
of all things, according to the pocket of his overalls, was an
old army buddy of Schlabiddny's who'd been crippled in a mustard
gas attack at Ypres. Pretty much left his lungs a ruin, too.
The other was a younger guy--younger relatively, since he was
probably sixty if he was a day. Once they got their snuffling
under control, I asked them if there'd been any plumbing work
done on the parking lot.
...... "Sure," Bunny
replied, "six months back or thereabouts, Earl'd had a restroom
put in back of the little office, shows what kind of swell guy
he was, always thinkin' of his pals' comfort, little things like
an indoor toilet and all."
...... "The work was done
by Mike Brill, Brill's Modern Twentieth Century Plumbing?"
...... This question brought
black looks to their already unhandsome faces. It certainly did
Bunny's lungs no good. He started wheezing like a pressure cooker.
...... "That... heee...l
ousy bastard. Talkin' 'bout... heee... a saint like Earl... heee...t
he way he done!"
...... "What happened?"
...... "Aww, he screwed
the job up. Didn't bring the right kinda pipe, forgot some a
his tools. Made all kindsa extra work for hisself... heee...
but Earl wouldn't pay for it... Heee said if Brill'd screwed
up he'd just hafta suck up the extra cost hisself... Heee didn't
much like the finished job anyway. Carl and me had to get it
in shape ourselves. Ain't seen such half-assed work since I was
in the Army... heee... Ain't that right, Carl?"
...... Carl nodded. "Earl
was dead right not to pay that bastard one penny more. But that
wasn't all that got Brill all hot. A coupla Earl's pals was openin'
a restaurant over on Bettcher. Earl told 'em 'bout how Brill
screwed up this job, and they found themselves a new boy for
...... "I imagine Brill
wasn't too happy about that."
...... "He called Earl the
nex' day an' told 'im he was goin' t' kill 'im nex' time he saw
...... "That right?"
...... "That's right."
...... "Well, it was probably
the heat of the moment. He was pretty ticked, you know."
...... "He kept on callin'
Earl, least once a week after that. Got so poor ol' Earl didn't
know what t'do."
...... Well, well!
...... I went across the street
to a drugstore and called the lieutenant.
...... "Brill's our baby,
then!" he said. "Smart work, there, Velda. I'll send
a couple a boys out to pick 'em up right now. You wanna be here
when we grill 'im?"
...... I told him that sounded
swell, hung up and got a chocolate coke at the fountain. I got
an extra squirt of syrup for smiling at the soda jerk. Swell.
...... By the time I got to the
precinct station, Brill was already in custody and was upstairs
in the process of being questioned. I went on up.
...... The lieutenant was in
the interrogation room with Brill. I watched through a one-way
mirror in the adjoining room. It was Mike Brill, all right. Squirming
in the wooden chair, sweating like a marathon runner and looking
even smaller than he really was. There was a speaker beneath
the window and their tinny voices filled the room.
...... "I never threatened
Earl!" Brill whined.
...... "Come on! You never
said you wanted to kill the old man?"
...... "All right, maybe
I once said something I didn't mean when he got me mad, but so
what? Doesn't everyone?"
...... "Yeah, but everyone
doesn't beat the brains out of a couple a old folks and barbecue
...... "I didn't do nothing
...... "Sure you did. You
threatened to, didn't you?"
...... "I -- I don't know
why I did that. I was sore is all, having that old guy tell me
my work stunk, costing me that big restaurant job. Never meant
any a those things I said. I'm really sorry I said them -- 'specially
since the old man's dead."
...... "I bet you're
sorry. It looks pretty bad for you, you know."
...... "But I told you,
I don't know nothin' about any murders."
...... "Where were you at
six o'clock this morning?"
...... "I was home in bed.
You can ask my mom and pop, they live with me."
...... "Were you home in
bed at six?"
...... Brill didn't answer right
away, but instead swung his head from side to side, as though
half expecting the walls to fall away and Ralph Edwards to walk
up and ask him the $64,000 question. That didn't happen, of course,
so all he could do was mutter, "I didn't get home until
...... "Plenty of time to
get back to your place from the Zenobia."
...... "I wasn't there!
I didn't kill no one! Friend of mine was sick. I spent the night
at his place."
...... "Yeah? What's his
...... "I can't tell you
...... "Why not? If he can
give you an alibi, talk. You can end up in the chair, Brill,
you know that, don't you?"
...... "I can't tell you."
...... Brill dug his heels in
and the interrogation seemed to have reached a dead end. I went
back out to the squad room and met the lieutenant as he came
out. Brill was right behind him handcuffed to a couple big cops.
He gave me such a look.
...... "We got our man,"
the lieutenant said, turning to me.
...... "I guess so. Hardly
looks the type, though."
...... "Who can tell? The
Battery Park Butcher looked like Mr. Peepers."
...... "Yeah, I guess you're
...... "'Preciate your help,
Velda. We would've caught up with him soon enough, of course,
but you saved us a lot of time and trouble."
...... "Always glad to lend
a hand, lieutenant," I said.
...... "I never met your
father, Velda. I wasn't transferred here until...well, after
all the trouble, but I hear he was a good man. He'd've been proud
of what you did today."
...... "I'd like to think
...... It was getting late, so
I accepted a ride back to my place from a couple of cops who
knew my dad. I was getting tired of hiking all over the city.
The Schoenfelds, the resident managers, had taken advantage of
the nice weather to open the place up. The place still reeked,
though. As I passed the second floor on my way up to my apartment,
I saw that the door of 2B was shut. A police notice tacked to
it announced that what lay beyond was a crime scene. It was the
only visible sign that anything unusual had happened that day.
...... I made a peanut butter
sandwich and a milk bottle full of martini and slung myself into
the old armchair by the front window. I thought about the day's
adventure until the martinis finally took effect.
...... I awoke the next morning
still in the chair. I unfolded myself painfully and stumbled
my way to the bathroom, where I stripped and got in the shower.
The cold water hit me like a baseball bat. I took it for about
ten seconds before leaping out and rubbing myself with one of
those great towels from the Astoria until I felt as raw as an
overdone sunbather. The treatment had worked, though. I felt
as though I could stomach a little breakfast.
...... Joe must've seen me coming
because he had a mug of steaming black coffee waiting.
...... "Jesus, Velda, you
look like something the cat coughed up."
...... By the time I'd finished
my second cup I was able to wolf down a couple of donuts, and
things looked a little brighter. At least I was seeing in color
...... I dug into the pocket
of my Levis, looking for some change and pulled out something
else. I stared for a moment before recognizing the watch I'd
picked up in the Schlabiddny apartment.
...... I turned it over a couple
of times in my hand. It was a nice piece, an expensive one, nicer
than what I thought the Schlabiddnys could afford. I noticed
that I hadn't broken the crystal after all. It looked as though
it had never had one. Or that it'd been removed intentionally.
Even odder, the watch had no hour hand. The single minute hand
was hard up against a copper rivet or pin soldered over the numeral
...... "Whatcha got there?"
...... "What do you make
of this?" I asked, handing him the watch. He took it over
to the window and looked it over, back and front.
...... "Huh," he said
finally, turning back to me. "Ain't seen anything like this
since the war. Someone's souvenir?"
...... "What do you mean?"
...... "Look here."
He took a toothpick and pointed at the rivet and hand. "See
those little bits of wire?"
...... I did, just barely. A
couple of tiny stubs stuck out where Joe pointed. I looked back
up at Joe and raised my eyebrows.
...... "There was wires
attached there. They're broken off now, but you can still see
...... "It's a timer. Saw
plenty of 'em in France. The Resistance used 'em to set off bombs.
You attach this little rivet to a battery or somethin' and a
wire from the minute hand to your bomb or whatever. Then you
run a wire from that to the battery. When the hand touches the
rivet, it completes the circuit, and boom!"
...... "At first, the cops
thought a faulty heater started the fire."
...... "Sounds like the
ticket. All your boy had to do was wire the thing up like I said,
put some paper around the coils, soak it with kerosene."
...... And just to be sure about
the boom, Brill not only soaked the bed in kerosene, he also
turned on the gas, expecting an explosion that would wipe out
every last bit of evidence of his crime. To say nothing of everyone
else in the building. He just hadn't counted on that open window.
...... "Why so grim?"
...... "Mrs. Schlabiddny
was home all day, the day before yesterday. One of my neighbors
saw Mr. Schlabiddny return to his apartment around ten thirty
that night. I don't know how Brill got into the place. Maybe
he said he'd come to apologize or something. However he did it,
he got in. He probably slugged her right away in the front room,
judging by the blood that was there. He waited to kill Earl,
then dragged the bodies into the bedroom and put them on the
...... Either between the two
murders or after, he ransacked the place looking for the money
he heard was there. Probably getting even for the restaurant
job. I have no idea whether he found anything, but the cops didn't
find a penny in the place. Then he took his own sweet time putting
together this bomb thing."
...... "Well, he couldn't
leave the place until at most fifty minutes before the fire started."
...... Then I saw what he meant:
the jury-rigged timer was only good for that maximum amount of
time--fifty minutes from twelve to eleven. The fire started at
about six o'clock, so the earliest Brill could have set it for
was about ten after five.
...... "Looks bad for your
little pal, Brill," said Joe, "not having an alibi
for that time. Tough luck."
...... A couple of customers
wandered in. Joe poured me a fresh cup and went to see what they
wanted. I sucked on the coffee and turned the watch over and
over in my other hand. It occurred to me that the murder must've
been premeditated. Brill couldn't have come up with such a device
on the spur of the moment. It took some considerable care to
make the timer, so he must have worked it up well in advance,
intending to use it to cover up the murders. It was diabolical,
that's what it was.
...... Lost in my morbid thoughts,
I was only absently looking at the watch. Something was catching
my eye each time the watch turned over. There were three letters
engraved on the back in ornate script: H. B. S.
...... I took the watch to a
...... "This is indeed a
very expensive watch" he said, shaking his head at the vandalism
inflicted on such a fine instrument. "It'd be worth several
hundred dollars if it weren't completely ruined."
...... "Where can you buy
a watch like this?"
...... "A Pietro Scelfo?
You can hardly buy one at all, not in this country at any rate.
See these little numbers?" He indicated some barely visible
figures just above the numeral 6. "That's the year in which
this watch was made. See? It is 1947. Pietro Scelfo made no watches
at all during the war-Mussolini forced him to make navigational
instruments instead. He went back to work in 1947, but died the
next year. There are only a handful of post-war Pietro Scelfo
watches in the whole world. The shame is that after the war,
Scelfo was a broken man, his craftsmanship a parody of itself.
Before the war, masterpieces, but afterwards, well . . . Still
valuable, mostly because of the name, but no longer very desirable.
He couldn't sell any outside of Italy. To see a post-war Pietro
Scelfo watch in this country is very unusual."
...... "Have you ever seen
this particular watch before?" I pointed out the initials
...... "No. This is the
first time I've ever had a Pietro Scelfo in my hands before.
Too bad it has to be in such terrible, such shocking condition."
...... "I take it that most
jewelers would remember this watch if it'd ever been brought
...... "Of course."
...... Well, that was something,
There were only about a thousand jewelers in the city. Hoping
it would save me some legwork, I asked the jeweler if he'd spread
the word around and he said, sure, he'd be glad to help.
...... But there are ways
to get these things done, things I would never have suspected
had it not been for the Hawkshaw International School of Detection
Home Study Course, Volume 8, Lesson 14: Cultivate Resources.
Best twenty-five dollars I ever spent. Hardly a day passed before
I heard from Freddy, a tubercular little rummy I'd met through
Chip, my erstwhile lover-cum-ace reporter at the New York Graphic.
Freddy told me a jeweler up in the Bronx had recognized my description
of the watch. How Freddy did these things I can't begin to imagine,
but what the hell? I splurged on a cab and was at the shop in
...... This jeweler was the oldest
man in the world, but he was sharp as a tack when he told me,
"Certainly I remember this watch. I did the engraving myself.
Tsk, tsk. Awful thing for someone to have done to a Pietro Scelfo,
even if it is a post-war production."
...... "You remember whose
watch it was?"
...... "Who do you think
I am? No, I have the name here in my records."
...... I waited while he searched
through a couple of old shoeboxes filled with scraps of flimsy
paper. He finally said "Aha!" and handed me one with
much the same flourish a magician would've handed me a materialized
bouquet. It was a job order for engraving the initials "H.B.S"
on the back of a man's watch. "Hector B. Steckler"
was scribbled at the top of the page, along with an address on
West Poffner St.
...... I remembered the name
now. Steckler was the kid, a young European--I never knew exactly
where from--who'd had been living with the Schlabiddnys when
I'd moved into the Zenobia.
...... He was a big blonde lad
a few years younger than me who might have been handsome if he
hadn't been so soft and puffy. His face was kind of like a marshmallow
with lips. Steckler was painfully shy. Not that I made any special
effort to know him. Spent all his time either home or out somewhere.
He'd moved out last fall and I hadn't given him a thought since.
...... The address was only a
couple of blocks from the jeweler's, so I hoofed it on over.
It proved to be a basement apartment in a not-too-shabby brownstone.
Steckler proved to be just as soft, blonde and cold-eyed as I'd
remembered him. But his invitation to come in seemed genuine.
...... He offered me a chair,
saying, "I was just brewing myself some tea. Would you care
...... I said sure, and he went
off to the back. I heard kitcheny noises that I supposed were
associated with brewing tea. I wondered where each door in the
apartment led. The room I was in was interesting enough that
I didn't dwell very long on the rest of the place. Not as low-ceilinged
as I would have expected, and quite large. Maybe twenty by twenty,
and filled with clocks.
...... Every level surface and
much of the wall space was covered with clocks of all kinds and
shapes. Three mammoth grandfather clocks loomed like black tombstones
in the corners. There were kitchen clocks, clocks shaped like
cats with eyes that goggled back and forth in time with their
pendulum tails, railroad telegraph clocks, combination clock-barometer-thermometers,
those clocks under glass domes with the little brass balls that
swing back and forth that I've always thought were vaguely obscene,
dozens of cuckoo clocks, clocks built into the stomachs of stuffed
animals, clocks held in the arms of naked ladies, ship's chronometers,
pocket watches hanging from brass hooks, mantle clocks, bicycle
clocks, automobile clocks, darkroom timers, Mystery Rotary Clocks,
little brass bird cages with a canary that indicated the hours,
wind-up sundials, calendar clocks, globe clocks and musical clocks.
I couldn't begin to imagine what the place sounded like on the
...... The clock in the middle
of the room caught my attention and held it much the same way
a snake is supposed to hypnotize a bird. It sat on top of a fluted
pedestal about four feet high. The thing was practically indescribable,
but it gave me the creeping fantods the more I looked at it.
It had probably been a pretty ordinary clock once, the kind you
sometimes see squatting on mantels, but Steckler had done things
to it. He'd turned it into some kind of collage/montage/sculpture,
covered with hundreds of photos clipped from magazines, from
bathing beauties to Lenin, Trotsky and Jimmy Durante. Some of
the pictures had been cut out of the kinds of magazines you can
only get under the counter in tobacco shops and liquor stores.
The hands of the clock had been replaced by a pair of slim, naked,
plastic woman's legs and the numbers by plastic doll's eyes.
The case had been built up from bits of scrap metal into a tall,
slender cone three or four feet tall. It was topped off, like
the spire on the Chrysler Building, by a bronze phallus that
looked far too much like a life cast for my peace of mind.
...... I went back to my chair
just as Steckler came into the room. He set a tray on the table
between my chair and one he took for himself. He poured the tea
for me, asking, "Milk? Sugar?"
...... "I prefer it black,
...... "That's the only
way," he said approvingly, "to get the full body of
the tea." Though I noticed that he added a lump of sugar
and a few discrete drops of milk to his.
...... "Well, cheers!"
he said, raising his cup.
...... "Cheers," I
replied and waited for him to take the first sip. You never know.
...... "Well," he sighed,
placing his cup and saucer back on the table. "Have you
been admiring my collection? I have a--thing for clocks, I guess.
Oh, there's nothing here of any real value. I just like tinkering
with them. I made that one over there myself." He gestured
toward the monstrosity with a deprecating wave. "It says
'Steckler's Meisterstuck' on it. That means 'Steckler's Masterpiece'."
...... "It's, ah, very interesting."
...... "Thank you. I must
say I rarely get such attractive visitors, Miss, ah, Bellinghausen,
you said? Ah! I have it! You used to live upstairs from me in
the old apartment building. How have you been?" He was faking.
I saw recognition in his eyes the moment I'd walked through his
door. "How are old Mr. and Mrs. Schlabiddny? I haven't heard
from them in months."
...... I gave him the bad news.
I watched him like a hawk, but he took it like a real shock and,
for the life of me, I couldn't detect a false note in it.
...... "Earl and Rebecca
dead? And you say they were murdered? When did this happen? Who
could have done such a thing?"
...... "Well, I was hoping
you might be able to help answer that."
...... "I don't know what
I could do. I moved away a year ago and had only seen them rarely.
Not at all since this past Christmas, as a matter of fact. All
I can tell you is that they were the most wonderful people in
the world. You see, I'm originally from Bolzano, in the Tyrol.
My parents were distant relatives of the Schlabiddnys. When Earl
and Rebecca learned that I wanted to immigrate to the States,
they offered to put me up until I got settled. They were like
a mother and father to me."
...... "Do you know Mike
Brill? Ever hear Earl mention him?"
...... He smiled shyly. "I'm
afraid not. Would you care for an almond cookie? I made them
...... I saw they were just like
the ones Mrs. Schlabiddny used to make for me.
...... "I'm not hungry,
but thanks for the tea and the time." I got up. "Sorry
to break the bad news."
...... I walked down to the end
of the block, where Steckler wouldn't be able to see me, and
stood thinking. He'd lied his head off.
...... A newspaper had been in
plain sight open to a story of the fire. He knew the Schlabiddnys
were dead and that Brill was being held for their murder. What
to do? What to do?
...... I know now what I should
have done, but instead I went on
around the corner to where the alley behind Steckler's place
came out. His brownstone was separated from the alleyway it by
a small yard maybe twenty-five feet deep with a gated wood fence
about six feet high cutting it off. I stood on tiptoe and peered
over the fence. Inside was a small shed and a brick incinerator.
The basement windows looked dark, so, putting one foot on top
of an ashcan, I vaulted on over. I landed on hands and knees
and froze like that for a long moment, waiting and listening,
but there was nothing but the sound of distant traffic. I stood
and went over to the shed. There was no lock, so I took a look
inside. There wasn't much but a lot of old junk.
...... Shoved into a corner,
however, was a small cardboard box that didn't look like it'd
been there for years, like everything else did, so I pulled it
out. There were a lot of rags in it and under the rags . . .
well, that was it. I spread the stuff out on the floor: the crystal
and rim of a watch, a handful of tiny split copper rivets and
a coil of fine copper wire. I put everything back in the box,
which I took outside and dropped onto the far side of the fence.
Then I went over to the incinerator and lifted the lid. It was
dark inside, but poking around with a stick I found something
soft. Two somethings in fact, as it turned out: a pair of bloodstained
trousers and a leather jacket. Inside the jacket were the initials
...... "More tea?"
said a voice behind me and I nearly lost a couple of fingers
as I jumped and the heavy iron lid of the incinerator slammed
...... "Why, Miss Bellinghausen,"
said Steckler, holding a Luger on me with the easy grace of someone
who really knew what to do with one, "whoever would've thought
such a high-class girl like you would ever be reduced to digging
through people's trash? Whatever is this world coming to?"
...... "I guess I could
do with another cup of tea."
...... "Come on in, then,"
he said, waving the gun to indicate I should go ahead. The back
door opened directly into his kitchen, where a teapot was hissing
on the stove. It just then started whistling shrilly and I thought,
if it'd done that half a minute earlier I'd've been over the
fence and down the alley like a frightened cat. Such is the bad
timing of the gods. Steckler plucked the kettle off the stove
as he passed it, and followed me on into the main room.
...... "Make yourself at
home. It's not like you're a stranger any more, is it?"
...... We sat facing each other.
His gun hand rested on the table, the snout of the Luger never
straying from me. With his other hand, he poured the hot water
into the teapot and replaced the lid.
...... "It should steep
for a good two minutes to get the full flavor."
...... I knew he was nuts then.
It takes at least five minutes.
...... "Look, Steckler,
I don't get it. Why'd you kill the old couple? You said they
treated you like a son. Seems pretty ungrateful to brain them
and then burn their bodies."
...... "Pooh. What did I
owe them? They talked me into coming over here. Talked my parents
into sending me, at any rate. I was perfectly happy back home.
Here, nothing's gone right. Look at this hole I have to live
in! You know what my place was like back in Switzerland? I can
assure you it was nothing like this. Now I have to live like
a beggar and I'm in debt to everyone. Was this my fault?
...... "No. The Schlabiddnys
got me into this, they owed it to me to get me out. I went to
talk to Rebecca but she absolutely refused to see things my way.
And why should she? She and Earl had everything they wanted and
needed. What difference did it make to them how I was forced
to live? Well, I knew the old man had some money stashed around
the place. I had as much right to it as he did. I saw my chance
when Rebecca went into the bedroom. As soon as she left, I went
straight for the desk, where I was sure Earl kept his money.
I was expecting at least five hundred or a thousand dollars."
...... "Why are you telling
...... "Why not? I'm certainly
not going to tell the police."
...... "What's to stop me
from telling them?" Which I knew was a mistake the moment
I said it, because his only answer was a wave of the gun. "Well,
look, tell me this at least: why the hell did you throttle the
parrot? I don't get that at all."
...... He snarled. "That
damned bird! I'd completely forgotten about it and as soon as
I opened the desk it started screaming its bloody head off. It
scared the hell out of me and when I turned toward it, there
was Rebecca, staring at me as I stood there with my hands full
of Earl's papers.
...... "Well, the next thing
I remember is kneeling over her with the bloody iron in my hands,
smashing it into her head, again and again and . . . well, that
was that and the bird was still screaming its head off so I grabbed
the damned thing off its perch and twisted its head and twisted
until I was sure it was going to come off in my hands. I took
care of him, all right."
...... "Jesus, Steckler,
...... He'd turned red as a beet
during that speech, his eyes popping out like hard-boiled eggs
and oily looking sweat breaking out all over his face. I thought
he was going to have an embolism. No such luck. He licked his
lips and took a few deep breaths.
...... "I knew Earl was
going to be home soon, so I hung around to wait for him. When
he came in the door, I brained him with the same iron I'd used
on Rebecca. It just seemed to be the right thing to do. I really
am sensitive about things like that in spite of what you must
think of me.
...... "I dragged his body
into the bedroom and put it in the bed next to Rebecca. Then
I went home to think."
...... It was only with fire
that he had any hope of eradicating all traces of his crime.
He rigged up a timing device from a watch and an electric heater
and returned to the Schlabiddny apartment. He splashed kerosene
over the bodies and bedclothes, then soaked a wad of rags and
paper which he placed on top of the heater's coils. With the
watch set for fifty minutes, he plugged the contraption into
the wall socket, turned on the gas and left.
...... "That's all there
was to it," he concluded. "And you want to know what
the real tragedy of the whole thing was?"
...... "I can't begin to
...... "I only found twenty-seven
dollars in the whole place. Can you believe it? I went through
all that for a lousy twenty-seven dollars."
...... "My heart bleeds
for you. Now that you have all that off your chest, what do you
plan on doing?"
...... "Getting rid of you,
...... This came as no big surprise
to me, naturally, but I still didn't like the way his pop eyes
narrowed and the way he licked those puffy, wet red lips of his.
...... "You're an awfully
good-looking woman, Velda. I thought so when I first saw you,
though you never gave me a second glance. I'd never seen anything
like you before. I must've tried a thousand times to say something
to you, but I might as well been made of glass for all the notice
you took of me. No women ever pay any attention to me."
...... "Well, you really
shouldn't have taken that so personally. I get a lot of guys
staring at me and I got so I kind of ignored it after a while.
Kind of a self-defense thing, you know?"
...... "For two years you
did nothing more than say 'good morning' or 'good evening', if
that much. And when I learned what you used to do, that was all
I could think about: you on that stage with all of those, those,
those men staring at you, seeing, seeing . . . lusting after
you, men who had no idea how to really appreciate you. You were
just meat to them. I found pictures of you. Pictures like . .
. like . . . I spent hours over them, memorizing every detail.
Jesus Christ, you had no idea how much you were driving me crazy."
...... "That wouldn't be
a drive, that'd be putt."
...... "Go ahead. Make all
the smart remarks you want. Fat lot of good they'll do you now.
I'm going to twist your head off like I did that damned parrot,
but before that I'm going to . . . going to . . ."
...... "You can't even say
it, can you? Would it be easier if you had a photo? Or maybe
I should turn my back?"
...... "I could shoot you
right now and do what I pleased with you, but that'd be sick.
I'm not sick. I don't go in for things like that."
...... "I'm sure you don't."
...... "Come on. Let's get
it over with. I've got a bus to catch."
...... "Really? What time
is it anyway?" I asked.
...... He glanced down at his
watch as reflexively as one of Pavlov's slobbering dogs, and
I kicked the little table sending everything flying into his
face. He screeched, flung himself away, overbalanced and toppled
backward, tumbling ass over teakettle, as it were. I leaped over
the whole mess, landing on Steckler's chest with both knees.
I heard a gratifying pop, and the air went out of him like a
punctured beach toy.
...... He still had the gun in
his right hand, and he swung it at my head. I turned and caught
the blow on my shoulder. I grabbed his wrist in both hands and
bit his arm as hard as I could.
...... He screamed and threw
himself violently to one side. I fell off. He tried to point
the gun in my direction. I kicked with both feet, caught his
gun hand, and sent the pistol flying across the room.
...... He was wheezing with a
horrible bubbling sound. I must've broken something good inside
his chest. He tried to get up onto his haunches. I kicked him
again and he fell back against the base of the big column that
held the crazy clock. The whole thing rocked back and forth,
once, twice, like a metronome, and then toppled over.
...... Steckler gave a single,
high-pitched bleat and that was that. The thing had skewered
him like a party weiner. There was a whirring sound from inside
the clock then it went bongbongbong, bong, bong . . . bong .
. . . . . bong . . . . . . . . . . . . bong . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . blungk.
...... If I were that sort of
person, I'd now write that Steckler had seen his finest hour.
Or his time had run out. Or I'd stopped his clock for good. But
I'm not like that.
...... All I'll say is that I
was glad time had been on my side.......
Copyright (c) 2003 by Ron Miller.
Ron Miller is the author/illustrator of more than 30 books, including the 2002 Hugo Award-winning "The Art of Chesley Bonestell". Most recently he received the American Institute of Physics Award for Excellence in Science Writing for his series of illustrated books about the solar system for young adults. He has also designed US postage stamps, worked as the production illustrator for several major SF motion pictures and had his artwork included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Pushkin Museum and NASA. His five novels to date have included an historical fantasy based on a character from "Orlando Furioso" and a tetralogy of steam-punk fantasies. The upcoming Velda, featuring stripper-turned-detective Velda Bellinghausen, is his first hard-boiled mystery.
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