Jocelyn Beauregard, Private Eye (part twelve)

Having completed NaNoWriMo ’10, I’m going to share one section of my story here every Friday until you’ve read the whole thing. Hooray for easy update days! Enjoy.

Jocelyn paid a late afternoon visit to Ted’s office. It was no longer the hotspot of activity it had been the day prior; the police had shifted their attention to fanning search parties out across the city. All over town people who knew Ted or his secretary were being interviewed about his whereabouts. Did he have any enemies? Did he owe anyone money? Had he been overly amorous with anyone’s wife? Jocelyn had the sneaking suspicion these avenues would all lead to dead ends, but she made a mental note to follow up with Detective Clark about them later, just in case.

Police presence had been reduced to a single officer standing guard outside Ted’s office door. He let Jocelyn inside immediately and assured her he would be no interference. “The last thing I want around here is excitement,” he said, sleepily. Jocelyn wasn’t sure whether or not he was serious.

Ted’s office was more or less just how she had left it. A few small items had been shifted around; the newspapers on the floor had been neatly stacked to one side, and the hatrack had been set back upright. Jocelyn tilted the hatrack back over and scattered the newspapers haphazardly on the floor. If she was going to notice any new details, the ones she already knew had to be back in their proper place.

Jocelyn gave the safe in the middle of the room a quick once-over. It didn’t look as though anyone had bothered it much. It was still the most mind-bogglingly out-of-place object in the room. Satisfied that there was nothing more she could do with the safe without a jackhammer or a crane, Jocelyn headed upstairs.

The second floor was simply a short hallway with a communal bathroom at the far end, and a one-room flat on either side. If she stood in the tub, Jocelyn could peer out the window in the bathroom and look out over a small garden, meticulously cared for by one of the building’s tenants, filled with flowers of all shapes and colors.

The right-hand apartment was the one Jocelyn had previously entered through; she expected it belonged to Ted’s secretary Tammy. The left-hand door was locked on her last visit, but it was open now, and that’s where she turned her attention.

The room was practically a mirror image of the one Jocelyn was already familiar with: tiny kitchenette on one side, closet on the other, floorboards in between. The difference was, this apartment was very sparsely furnished. There was no bed, no tables or chairs, not even a window. The only source of light was a bare electric lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, operated by a pullchain.

There was, however, a floor-to-ceiling standalone cabinet along the back wall, which Jocelyn found to be curious. The room already had a closet, and its occupant seemingly had nothing to store, so why the extra space? It made more sense when she tried to open the cabinet and was about flattened by the fold-out mattress that emerged. She dove out of the way with a surprised shriek, waited for a few tense moments to see if the guard outside had at all noticed the resulting crash, then regained her composure and added this new discovery to her notebook.

A few moments later Jocelyn had confirmed that the closet was empty. In fact, the only items in the room which led Jocelyn to believe it was ever occupied was a lather brush and straightedge razor sitting on the counter next to the wash basin, over which hung a mirror which may as well have just been a jagged sliver of glass.

Whether or not anyone lived in this room, someone certainly shaved here, from time to time.

Disappointed, Jocelyn crossed the hall to take another look at the lady’s apartment. It was certainly the brighter of the two rooms, thanks to the window leading to the fire escape. And though it was more cluttered Jocelyn got the distinct impression this room was larger than the other one. She spent a few moments walking between the two rooms, attempting to discern whether her mind was playing tricks.

Jocelyn wrinkled up her nose. She had to be sure. She entered the lady’s apartment, stood in the doorway to the closet, and took seven long strides over to the kitchenette. She then did the same thing in the empty apartment, starting again from the closet. This time she took five long strides, and kicked the side of the kitchenette with her sixth.

The room was definitely smaller.

Jocelyn knocked on the back wall of the closet, but immediately felt foolish when she couldn’t determine whether or not it sounded hollow to her. She would have had to knock on something she knew was hollow to form a basis of comparison, so she closed the closet door and knocked on that. She still wasn’t sure. Both knocks just sounded distinctly wooden, to her.

The only movable piece of furniture stacked against the suspicious wall – indeed, the only furniture in the room at all – was the fold-out mattress. It was certain to be heavy, but Jocelyn was sure she could nudge it if she folded the mattress back up, latched the door and put her shoulder into it. Folding up the mattress and latching the door was easy enough, but the shoulder part proved to be futile. Closer examination revealed the fold-out bed wasn’t standing flush with the wall as Jocelyn originally assumed, but was actually set back into a slight recess. There was no way behind it other than to pull the entire fixture away from the wall, which wasn’t going to happen with Jocelyn’s slender frame.

She couldn’t go around the cubby, and she couldn’t go behind it. She began to wonder if she could go through it.

This time Jocelyn tried to set the mattress down lightly, but she misjudged its weight and it still hit the floor with a decently sizable crash! This second crash wasn’t quite so jarring as the first, so Jocelyn didn’t need to pause to regain her composure; she immediately scrambled onto the bed and began scrutinizing the interior walls of the cabinet. After a few moments of knocking Jocelyn delightfully noted she now had a basis of comparison for the sound of hollowness; there was definitely some quantity of empty space behind the wood. She also observed a seam spanning the width of the cabinet, some three feet from the floor, forming a kind of rectangular panel. With some doing she could work her fingernails into it, but the panel wanted to neither slide nor give way.

“Jocelyn?”

Hearing her name spoken so suddenly was quite jarring; so much so that Jocelyn bolted upright and thumped her head on the top of the bed cabinet. She crumpled back onto the mattress with an “oomph”. When she looked up at the doorway she saw, standing between various stars and tweeting birds, Officer Ken McMannes. He was wincing on her behalf.

“Criminey, are you okay? I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“I’ll be fine once this ringing clears up,” said Jocelyn, rubbing her head. “Golly, but you came out of nowhere.”

“I only just arrived, actually. I was outside the door when I heard that loud crash. The flatfoot downstairs – what’s his name, Keltzschlinger? — said it was the second he’d heard, but he didn’t want to disturb the investigation. I came up to make sure you weren’t hurt.” Ken gave a half-hearted shrug. “I guess you wouldn’t be, if I hadn’t come running.”

“The opposite of my knight in shining armor,” Jocelyn joked nervously. Which was peculiar, since Jocelyn was not normally the type to tell nervous jokes. She wondered if perhaps the whack to the noggin had shaken part of her sense of humor loose.

“Well I’m not a doctor or nothin’, but I guess I won’t worry too much about it since you’re not unconscious of bleeding. So are you on to somethin’ there, or what? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Two minds are better than one,” said Jocelyn. She turned her attention back to the wooden panel behind that mattress. “Come join me on the bed, and I’ll show you—“

Jocelyn immediately caught herself. “I didn’t mean, join me in bed, of course. This isn’t even my bed.” The way Ken crossed his arms and cracked a wry smile told Jocelyn she was only digging herself even deeper. “Not that you could join me in bed, even if it were mine. That’s not what— I don’t even have room for a real bed. I sleep in a cot, but it’s not big enough for two people even if—oh, golly.”

Ken did, in fact, join her on the mattress, and he brought his wry smile with him. “I certainly wish you’d stop me before I go and make a spectacle of myself,” Jocelyn told him.

“What, and miss this delightful shade of pink you’re turning? Not for the world. Contrasts nicely with that yellow hat of yours,” replied Ken.

“There’s… this seam,” Jocelyn said, desperately hoping for a change in topic. “There’s something behind here, but I don’t know what.”

“What, like a secret compartment? How nifty,” Ken replied. Jocelyn was relieved when he turned his gaze away from her and towards where she was indicating the thin break in the wood. “I wonder how our boys missed this.”

“I almost missed it myself,” admitted Jocelyn. “It’s quite subtle.”

Within moments Ken had run through the same list of ideas Jocelyn had had concerning the panel: he tried pushing it, sliding it, and prying it loose with his fingertips. When none of these methods panned out he sat back and stared at it, which at least wasn’t any less effective than anything else he’d tried.

“It’s a thinker, that’s for sure,” said Ken. He began glancing expectantly around the room. “Maybe there’s a button or a lever somewhere?”

Jocelyn figured any mechanism that required a button or lever to operate would be overcomplicated for something that should be as simple as a wooden panel. Another idea did come to her, though. “Maybe…”

Jocelyn hopped to her feet and raced over to the foot of the bed. “Hold still,” she said, and with a faint grunt began to lift the mattress back into the wall.

“Whoa, what are you doing?” protested Ken. “You’ll squash me in here!”

“No, no, this will work,” Jocelyn assured him. “Get as far up as you can, and put your feet flat on the wall panel. Yes, like that. Okay, allez hop!”

When she put her back into it, Jocelyn was able to lift the bed without any trouble. Upon latching it back into place Jocelyn heard a dull shuffling sound on the other side, followed immediately by Ken’s voice, muted somewhat: “Jocelyn, it worked! The wood section folded downward, and there’s space back here!”

“It works like a pivot,” Jocelyn said. “We couldn’t move it while sitting on the bed, because it was attached to the bed.”

“A spectacular feat of modern engineering,” Ken replied.

“What can you see back there?”

“Not much. It’s near pitch black. Not a lot of room to move around, either.” There were a few moments of shuffling and detached grunting, then: “Wait, I think I found an opening. It goes down into the floor. I can feel the top rung of a ladder here.”

Jocelyn was beginning to feel quite antsy, with her entire investigation being relayed to her through a mattress. “Is there any way to get me through? Can you open the passage from your side?”

There was another several seconds of thumping and banging. The mattress bulged outward momentarily. Then, a response: “I think if I put all my weight against the bed it’ll tip back over. Stand back.” Jocelyn did, and Ken was as good as his word: the bed came crashing back downward a third time, only now a uniformed police officer came tumbling out of it.

“That was an adventure,” Ken said as he stood up and brushed himself off. “Get that side of the mattress, will ya?”

Jocelyn helped Ken stand the mattress up against the wall, leaving just the metal bed frame attached to the wooden panel. “Now let’s stand it back up, and we should be able to climb through,” said Ken, and Jocelyn watched the panel fold downward as he stood the bed frame up. Once it was firmly in place there was a gaping hole in the cabinet leading directly into the wall, exactly as expected.

Jocelyn wrinkled up her nose. “You think we would have tried that first,” she said.

“Yeah,” Ken agreed, “you’d think. After you.”

Jocelyn peered into the hole. There was no doubt: this is where the room’s missing space had been invested. Just a few feet in Jocelyn noted the actual wall of the building, and there did indeed look to be a passage leading downward, with metal rungs leading downward to the first floor.

“By my reckoning, that looks to go right down behind the closet downstairs, with all the fancy coats,” stated Jocelyn. “What a clever way to disguise a secret tunnel! Nobody ever thinks about how deep a closet is when they’re putting their coat away.”

“I know I never have,” said Ken. “So, we going down there, or what?”

Jocelyn was dying to know what was in the most well-hidden cellar in town. She entered the tunnel backwards, on her hands and knees, so as to easily grab the metal ladder and climb down. The passage was dark, and what little light was streaming through from the electrical bulb in the empty flat was blocked once Ken entered and began climbing down himself.

Jocelyn counted thirty-two rungs before she touched the concrete floor at the bottom. The air here was noticeably cooler than up above; she was certainly below ground level. As Ken moved his way down the ladder, Jocelyn took a few careful steps forward with her arms extended. She found a dangling chain, giving it a quick tug illuminated the room with three dangling overhead bulbs.

She must have stared at the room in wonderment for a few moments, at least, because Ken had time to finish his descent, catch up with her, stare in wonderment himself and then declare, “Holy smokes, I’ve never seen so much booze in all my life!”

The details of Ted Holdren’s cellar were simple: four huge wooden racks, each housing dozens of bottles of wine. At the far end of the room, between the edges of the two center racks, was a small, plain table and wooden chair. On the table sat a large, leather-bound book.

The ceiling was rather low, and the rafters reinforcing it were cracked and damaged near the center of the room, as though an extremely large, heavy object had been dropped onto the floor above.

“This isn’t just hooch,” said Ken, examining some of the bottles, “this collection is the real deal. Some of these are fifty, sixty years old.”

“They’re all itemized in this ledger,” said Jocelyn. The ledger itself was as old as anything else in the room; Jocelyn had to take special care turning over the brittle pages. The vineyard and vintage was dutifully recorded for each bottle, along with notes about its acquisition. Conspicuously absent were any sort of indication as to the price of each bottle, nor any mention of who had built the collection. Every few pages the handwriting in the ledger changed, so the collection had obviously passed through several sets of hands over the years. Jocelyn couldn’t tell if any of the handwriting belonged to Ted or Tammy, or not.

Ken attracted Jocelyn’s attention by calling “Look here,” from the corner of the room. He was standing in a corner of the room, where a shelf had been built into the rack, upon which sat a white lace doily, a corkscrew and two absolutely beautiful crystal wineglasses. “I wonder if these have even been used. They look as old as my grandmother.”

“Don’t those usually come as a complete set?” asked Jocelyn.

“Sure, I guess, but these are the only two here. Hey, you want to try them out?”

Jocelyn responded to that with an icy, disapproving glare. “I was kidding,” Ken assured her. “Anyhow, I don’t even want to think of what all this is worth. A fortune and a half, that’s a sure bet. It’s an awful lot of risk for a man to take, especially a newspaper darling like Ted Holdren.”

“Maybe he owns it legally?” offered Jocelyn. “Say, a special collector’s license?”

“If there were such a thing, you could bet every malcontent in town would figure a way to wrangle himself into one. No, this is just straight up contraband.”

Ken suddenly became much more dour, like a child who had come to the sudden realization that playtime was at an end. “Jocelyn, I need to call this in. I hate to say it, but Ted Holdren might be better off if he just stayed missing.”

As soon as that happened, Jocelyn knew, the cellar would be crawling with cops. Possibly very disgruntled cops, each of which whose every thought was consumed with ideas on how best to sneak a bottle away without anyone else noticing. She whipped out her notebook and asked, “How much time can you give me?”

“Closest callbox is over on 5th. I’ll use the one up on 8th. And I’ll walk slow.”

Jocelyn smiled and gave a thankful nod, then Ken tipped his hat to her and took his leave back up the metal ladder. She immediately set to work; she had a lot of notebook to fill up in a short amount of time.

Once she had recorded the details of the wine cellar to her satisfaction, Jocelyn shimmied back up the ladder and down the stairs to the main office to do some good old-fashioned snooping. She was relatively sure there was nothing left to discover there, but it would have been foolhardy to leave the scene entirely without samples of Ted and Tammy’s handwriting.

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