By Ron Miller
Featuring Velda Bellinghausen
I hate clocks.
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 & Ohio.
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 the lock.
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 the fire.
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 she doing?”
“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 artificial resuscitation.”
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, they–?”
“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 a look?”
“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 charge once.
“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 it?”
“‘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.
“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? The stove?”
“Yeah. All four burners were open.”
“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 was empty.
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 it?”
“How d’you figure that?”
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 her.”
“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 walls.
“The old lady’s skull bashed in like I thought?” I heard the ME ask.
“Looks like a jigsaw puzzle.”
“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 got in.”
“You see anyone leave the building?”
“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 this.
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 of me.
“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 against him.”
“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 name then?”
“I just called him Mike.”
“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 couple days.”
“I got an apartment over on Pith, the Zenobia Arms.” He frowned at that. “You know the place?”
“Yeah, I been over there.”
“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, wouldn’t it?”
“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 for you.”
“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!”
“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 the work.”
“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 ‘im.”
“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.”
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 ’em, neither!”
“I didn’t do nothing like that!”
“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 six thirty.”
“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 name?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“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 right.”
“‘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 so.”
* * * * *
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 again.
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 11.
“Whatcha got there?” asked Joe.
“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 the ends.”
“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?” Joe asked.
“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 bed.
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 jeweler.
“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 to him.
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 to them?”
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 fifteen minutes.
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 for some?”
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 hour.
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, thanks.”
“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 myself.”
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 E.S.
“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 shut.
“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 me?”
“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, calm yourself.”
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 imagine.”
“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, of course.”
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (2003)
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. Velda, featuring stripper-turned-detective Velda Bellinghausen, is his first hard-boiled novel.