Jocelyn Beauregard, Private Eye (part five)

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.

The details of Ted Holdren’s office were much more complicated than usual. For one, there was a giant safe laying face-down in the center of the room, with cracked and broken floorboards around it. Jocelyn was fairly sure Ted had a safe, but she didn’t know where he kept it. That was kind of the point of having a safe, right? To be kept locked and hidden? She had a safe herself, actually. Danny helped install it. She was about to write down in her notes where it was hidden, lest she forget later, but Danny had scolded her. Remembering the location and combination of the safe had turned out to be trivial concerns with coming by valuable materials to put inside of it, but Jocelyn liked to tackle these problems one step at a time.

For a moment Jocelyn considered the brilliance of “hiding” a safe face down in the middle of an office. It was obviously impossible to break into, in its current state. If a body wanted to keep his valuables safe, an upturned steel box in the middle of the room would certainly accomplish it. If it had been her idea, she decided, she would have put a checkered tablecloth and a colorful floral arrangement on it, to help bring the room together a little.

She eventually had to scratch that idea out, because while having no way to break into a safe does indeed keep its contents secure, it also prevents new contents from being added. The point of a safe isn’t to keep everyone out, she concluded; it’s to keep everyone out except one person.

There were other details to consider. Jocelyn quickly found Ted’s phone laying on the floor beside his desk, as though discarded there. It was off the hook, so Jocelyn righted it, hung it up, then picked it up again and tried to ring the operator. No connection. Following the wire from the phone, Jocelyn discovered that Danny’s suspicions had been correct: it had been cut.

The office looked like it had been rummaged through; papers and books were strewn everywhere, the desk drawers were all open and shuffled through, and the closet door was standing wide open. Jocelyn did note, however, that Ted’s pocketbook had been untouched, or if not untouched, at least left behind. There was a considerable amount of jewelry left in Tammy’s desk. The bookshelves had been emptied into piles on the floor, but with due diligence could have been reorganized into their proper configuration. Ted’s hat and Tammy’s fur coat were left on the coatrack, which had been shoved aside and was now leaning against the wall.

If Jocelyn were a thief, she could have made quite a nice payday for herself simply by lifting a few of these items and sneaking back out the way she’d come in. It was therefore obvious that the people who had paid Ted a visit, and had apparently carted him off, were not thieves.

Yesterday’s newspaper was strewn everywhere. Today’s paper was nowhere to be found. Underneath the sports page, still smoldering on the ground, was the butt of one of Ted’s cigars.

Before coming downstairs, Jocelyn had tried to open the other upstairs door. It was tightly locked, and peering through the keyhole she could see nothing but darkness.

That only left the basement, and that was the darndest thing of all — there didn’t seem to be a connecting door. Not in the cavity beneath the stairwell, not in the closet behind the row of identical coats, and certainly not behind a hidden floor panel under the desk. That last one only ever happened in the pulps, anyway. Jocelyn was fairly sure there was no outside access in the alley, either. The only way downstairs seemed to be to move the safe out of the way and seeing whether it was possible to squeeze through the hole it had made.

Jocelyn had a format to her notes that made sense to her and her alone. The tangle of loose letters and chicken scratch was a military-grade cipher, its inscrutableness second only to its complexity. None of this was by conscious design, of course, Jocelyn had just learned years ago that her brain always wanted to squeeze more details onto a page than her fingers would allow. Grammatical shortcuts were the key; an abbreviation here, an acronym there, letters squashed together to form jagged, modern hieroglyphics.

In a lot of ways Jocelyn’s mind was like a filing cabinet. Everything was compartmentalized and clearly labeled, each drawer subdivided by folder, tab and page. She could, however, only access a single folder at a time, which is what made her notes so valuable. Skimming and re-skimming her notepad was much more efficient than going over each of the details in her mind, and made it easy to cross-reference a detail from one drawer that she was currently focused on with another item in another drawer entirely.

Truth be told, this was one of her favorite part of the sleuthing gig. Curled up in her cot, chewing the end of a pencil, pitting her brain against the jumble of her notes… it was like unraveling a ball of yarn. Therapeutic, in its own way. Somewhere at the scene was a clue pointing in the right direction. She had seen it; she must have. She was too meticulous to have missed it. And everything she saw ended up in her notes. But she hadn’t noticed the clue as a clue, not yet.

Scanning over the notepad was just like being back in the office again. Jocelyn searched again for a way into the basement that didn’t involve falling into it with an oversized safe. She began to take stock of all the furniture in the room: Tammy’s desk by the front door; her chair, overturned; twin bookshelves behind her, to the left of the entrance, built directly into the wall. Empty, now. The books had been spilled into a huge pile on the floor. To the right of the front door: a wall full of framed newspaper clippings of Ted’s most famous cases; a closet filled with coats, shoes, and a dainty umbrella. Directly ahead: Ted’s desk, with two plain wooden chairs in front of it; the liquor cabinet, within arm’s reach; a huge standing electric lamp whose shade had been knocked off; the telephone, now discarded, its cord slashed. Behind the desk: a staircase leading up to the apartments. Set into the stairs: a storage cavity being used as a broom closet.

In the middle of everything: a huge metal safe, dropped haphazardly into the room.

Jocelyn’s train of thought was interrupted by a harsh, somewhat grumbly sound, and suddenly she was back in her own office. Glancing in the direction of the interruption Jocelyn saw what might, with some imagination and a great deal of squinting, have been a creature one could mistake for a tomcat. Or, at least, something relatively cat-like.

“ Finally got hungry enough to come back, I see,” said Jocelyn. The tom stared at her angrily as she set her notebook aside, slid her feet into her slippers and crossed the room to the icebox. “Share and share alike, that’s my philosophy,” announced Jocelyn as she emptied the last dribbles of a bottle of milk into a small saucer. She set it on the floor next to a hole in the wall, which the tom used as it pleased to enter and exit her office. The tom continued to stare at her with one fierce, brown eye and one glazed, milky-white one as it lapped up its meal.

Jocelyn didn’t know whether the tom had belonged to the previous tenant, or was the previous tenant. Either way, she didn’t have the heart to shoo it off, and wasn’t especially convinced it’d stay gone even if she tried. Its ears had been chewed away after countless skirmishes in alleys all over the city. Its tail had a permanent bend in it, and was always in a state of waving back and forth in a pained, halting motion. It was the only creature Jocelyn had ever seen that was two very distinct shades of black, each darker than the other.

Any other woman in the city would have had nothing for this piteous animal but a boot or a push-broom, but Jocelyn found herself doting on it. “Want to see what I got you?”

Excitedly, Jocelyn dashed back to her cot and fished a blue pillow out from underneath a pile of laundry. It had at one point been done up with a yellow frill all around the edge, but now less than half of it remained. It was embroidered on one side with the initials M. M. “There was a big stain on the other side, but I scrubbed that out. Someone in one of those old houses over on Vine was just going to throw it away, but now? It’s all yours.” She placed the pillow on the ground next to the front door.

The tom finished lapping up its milk, and without even considering the pillow it padded over to Jocelyn’s desk, leapt up onto her chair and curled into a black, furry lump. It continued to stare at her scornfully. “I think I’ll call you Pads,” she said lovingly. “Pads the chair-stealing tomcat.”

And then it clicked. Like two jigsaw puzzle pieces, Jocelyn immediately saw what she had missed. She flew back to her notebook and quickly scanned through several pages of scrawlings before declaring, “Ted’s chair was gone.”

There had been three wooden chairs in Ted’s office: one behind Tammy’s desk, and two in front of Ted’s. One of the police officers had moved one of them over next to the stairs for Jocelyn to sit in while they waited on the detective to show up, but Ted’s chair was nowhere to be seen. Jocelyn very briefly entertained the notion that perhaps his chair had simply been moved before she arrived, but it didn’t seem likely that Ted Holdren would spend his day sitting in the same sort of plain, uncomfortable wooden chair he provided for his clients.

Jocelyn wrinkled up her nose. “These men showed up with a large safe, dropped it in the middle of the room, took Ted and his chair, cut the phone line, then escaped out an upstairs window, without taking anything, and without using the ladder on the fire escape.”

With her very-thoroughly-chewed pencil, Jocelyn made a note of the missing chair. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation for all that,” she mused. “What do you think, Pads?”

The tom growled spitefully in reply.

“You too, huh? Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of.”

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