Jocelyn Beauregard, Private Eye (part nineteen)

Danny was a little surprised to see Jocelyn had a passenger, and even more surprised when she insisted on climbing into the front seat with him. She asked him to take her to a quiet place where she and her guest could talk, so Danny agreed to just drive around a calm area near the bluffs, figuring the cab was as good a place to talk as any. As soon as they were underway, Jocelyn took the pistol from her coat pocket and showed it to Danny.

“Mary and Joseph!” swore Danny, “Give that here, woman! Geez oh Pete, you tryin’ to kill someone?”

“I’d really rather not,” admitted Jocelyn as she handed the gun over.

“Hold your hands out,” Danny said. Jocelyn cupped her hands tightly; Danny opened the chamber and six bullets slid out into them.

“I presume this is yours, eh, kid?” asked Danny, glancing over his shoulder at Dickie in the back seat.

Dickie nodded. “She found it under my pillow.”

“Far be it for me to tell you how to conduct yourself in a young man’s bed, Joss,” lectured Danny, “but if you get to the point where you’re waving a gun around—“

“Finish that sentence and maybe I’ll wave it at you,” Jocelyn scolded, her face turning slightly pink. “Danny, this is Dickie Mitchroy. Laura Bell’s big brother.”

“A serviceman, eh?” said Danny. The cab only swerved and rocked slightly as Danny turned around to offer Dickie his hand. “Well, put ‘er there, soldier.”

When Dickie realized he was watching the road and Danny wasn’t, he nervously participated in what may very well have been the world’s shortest handshake. Danny was nonetheless satisfied. “So why was your piece under your pillow, of all places?”

“Didn’t figure I’d need it, seeing as how I was just walking down to the Western Union and back. I was just sending a telegram,” explained Dickie. “Listen, Laura Bell doesn’t know I’m back from the service. And I’d just as soon keep it that way, you know? I have a buddy who’s still overseas… I send him a telegram with something sweet to say to Laura Bell, and he sends the message to her in my name. She sees the point of origin and thinks it’s coming from me. I send her money when I can, too, but that’s not too often.”

“I don’t understand,” said Jocelyn, “why do you want her to think you’re still deployed?”

Dickie sighed deeply. “I’m a nitwit, you know, just a big, selfish nitwit. It’s just so hard to see the farm like that, you know? Every time I go back I can’t help but feel like there’s no point to it at all.”

“Even so,” said Jocelyn, “don’t you think you should be there for Laura Bell? She put on a real brave face when I met her, but it’s plain to see things are tough for her.”

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Dickie pleaded, “I want to be there for her. I do. It’s just… well… look here.” He pulled out his pocketbook, opened it up, and removed a well-worn piece of paper folded into quarters. Jocelyn took it from him and very carefully unfolded it.

“It’s the deed for the vineyard,” Dickie continued. “It was left to me in my father’s will. Kind of left to me, anyway. Read that bit in the middle.”

Jocelyn skimmed down the page to the place Dickie had indicated. “’…hereby bequeathed to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Mitchroy,’” she read.

“See, I can only inherit in earnest if I’m married. Pops wanted to make sure the vineyard kept the Mitchroy name, see? Now, I’m courting the most wonderful gal. A real life angel, really, but… shucks. This whole business with Ted Holdren, curse his name. It’s all gotten so terribly complicated.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know where Ted was,” Jocelyn said.

“I don’t. Believe me, I about died when I read he’d gone missing. I want him found just about more than anyone.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Here, I have a picture of her,” said Dickie, somewhat sheepishly. He pulled yet another folded-up piece of paper from his pocketbook; this one was a cutout from an opera programme, printed in French, with a portrait of a beautiful young woman. In the corner of the programme was a red, inky smudge, still somewhat recognizable as a set of lips.

“This is Mariana Paoletti!” exclaimed Jocelyn. “I have a 78 with her aria on it!”

“That was the first thing I’d ever heard her sing, back when I was in the service. Me and some of the boys had a couple days’ leave, and thought we’d go to the opera and have a few laughs. We were expecting, I dunno, fat broads in Viking helmets. But then Mariana came out and sang that song and… I know it sounds dumb, but I fell for her right then and there. I knew that was the girl I was gonna marry.

“Over the next few weeks I found out all I could about her. I wrote her letters, and I’d lay awake at night wondering if she’d actually read them. Whenever I could, I’d get back into town and see her show again. She wasn’t the star, see. She wasn’t drawing any crowds, just me. But she was gaining popularity fast. I knew if I didn’t find a way to get close to her, I’d lose my chance forever.

“And then one night someone let it slip. One of the boys caught up with someone from the stage crew at an old pub. They’d just let him go for sleeping backstage during the show, and he was drowning his sorrows while shouting to anyone who’d listen about how the young girl in the show was a fake. My pal told me, he says, she’s not even Italian. She grew up in an orphanage right here in America, and not even a stone’s throw from my hometown!

“The opera people had to cover it up, of course. It’d be a scandal, right? But I’d never heard nothing sweeter in all my life. Next letter I wrote her I told her all about my family, and our vineyard, and about how I thought our wine could whoop that stuck-up French stuff any old day. When I didn’t hear back from her I found out where she was staying: some old hotel a few blocks from the theater. Her room had a balcony that overlooked this little courtyard with a fish pond in it. So one night after the show I climbed up there and hid, and waited for her to get back. She was frightened at first, and almost had me arrested right on the spot, but once I explained who I was… jeepers. She’d read my letters after all. The smile on her face, when she realized I was the one who sent them, that’s the brightest thing I ever laid eyes on.

“We were together a lot after that. We had to sneak around on account of the opera people didn’t want her consorting with the locals, but the truth is she wouldn’t have even if she could. She was homesick, mostly, and was having a real rough time of it. Just having me to kick around with did her a world of good. She… she called me her Romeo.”

Dickie’s eyes were closed through most of his reminiscence, and when he finally opened him he noticed Jocelyn was staring at him intently, eyes glassed over, drunk on his romantic story. “Shucks,” he said, “quit looking at me like that.”

“Sorry,” said Jocelyn. “Golly, it’s like something out of a fairy tale.”

Dickie’s face wilted. “Yeah, well, this fairy tale has a mean ending. By the time the tour was over Mariana had built enough of a following that the opera people had a mind to press some records. She was happy she was finally coming home, but my service wasn’t up for a few more months. We agreed to write every day, and I told her I’d come straight to her side once I was back.

“Well, I hit the bottle pretty hard after that, and ended up getting into a spot of trouble with some bobbies. It was just a barfight that spilled out into the street, but it was considered conduct unbefitting of a soldier, and I got my walking papers.”

Danny’s face went to stone upon hearing that part of the story, but he said nothing.

“I’m just glad my old man was already in the ground at that point, or I’d have broke his heart. And Laura Bell still doesn’t know. I wouldn’t even know how to face her. But at least I was on my way home. The plan was to find Mariana first, that way I could go home with good news along with the bad.

“When I found her, she was delighted to see me, but told me she’d landed in a spot of trouble. She had this friend, a police detective, who was trying to close the book on this Ted Holdren bum. Well, Ted had recently contacted her and told her if she didn’t tell her friend to lay off he was gonna cause them both a lot of public embarrassment.”

A huge lump formed at the back of Jocelyn’s throat at the mention of Max Barrett, which took a great deal of stamina to swallow.

“What she found out was, Holdren had a bunch of old wine he wasn’t supposed to have… including a bottle from a speakeasy her cop friend had taken down a year or so prior. So I told Laura Bell I was coming home on leave, and booked a few days at this dump in the industrial quarter to make it believable. I swiped that old bottle of burgundy when I was out visiting the farm, then I went to see Holdren myself. Gave it to him as kind of a peace offering, you know? Thought maybe whatever he had planned, he’d leave Mariana out of it.

“Well, not long after that, the whole scandal hit the papers. Their whole… sordid affair. Why, if that jerk weren’t a cop I’d have chased him down and pummeled him silly. I’d been so stupid, really… but I couldn’t really blame Mariana, could I? It’d been just as tough for her as it was for me. I wanted to forgive her, and start over, but the opera people had already spirited her out of town; one scandal was bad enough, but two? Guess they figured they should cut their losses.

“So I went to see Holdren again. About pummeled him silly, too, but didn’t figure that would solve anything. He told me he could track Mariana down, but I’d have to pay his standard fee, which… was a little beyond my means. So I started working at the docks to save money, and eventually took some jobs on at the local dice joints. Nothing real bad, you know, I’m not out there breaking arms or anything. Nothing Pops would be ashamed of. But I just about had enough money saved up when Holdren turns up missing.

“And that’s it. That’s the whole story. Mariana’s off who-knows-where, no Holdren around to track her down anymore, and what’s worse, I figured this whole police investigation would lead back to me as soon as they found that burgundy. Then you turn up, and… well, you know the rest.”

“I certainly do,” agreed Jocelyn. For the time being, she decided against sharing her involvement in Dickie’s woes. “What about your man, Ed? Where does he fit in?”

“Aw, Ed’s all bark,” said Dickie. “He’s an old timer who used to be in the same line of work I’m in. He lines jobs up for me, sometimes. Once Holdren went missing, he told me he’d help me out if anyone came sniffing around with too many questions.” He smirked. “But make no mistake, he’s a cantankerous old goat, and I’m sure he had what you did coming to him. He’ll take his lumps and get over it, I’m sure.”

Danny couldn’t contain his curiosity at that point, and asked: “What in the world did you do to this fella, Joss?” When Jocelyn explained, Danny grinned from ear to ear. “Now that’s the way to get things done!” he exclaimed.

Jocelyn, who had just finished recording a summary of Dickie’s story in her notebook, began chewing on her pencil. “That explains the wine connection,” she said, mostly to herself, “but it doesn’t get us any closer to finding Ted.”

“Did you run down that safe angle at all?” Danny asked her.

“I did,” Jocelyn said, and briefly recounted her bizarre experience with Mr. Swanson, his orange beard and his round, sloppy son-in-law. “It looks like Ted was getting a floor safe installed, but called to cancel the order at the last minute. A safe showed up nonetheless, but it didn’t come from Swanson and Schneider.”

“Some guys have all the luck,” mused Danny.

“What’s this about a safe, then?” asked Dickie from the back seat.

“It’s the most curious part of the crime scene at Ted’s office,” explained Jocelyn. “There’s a gigantic safe laying face-down right there in front of his desk – ker-plunk – just like someone dropped it there. It fell over with enough force to damage the floor around it.”

“From what I seen, Ted’s fortunate that thing didn’t fall clear through into his basement and smash up all his booze,” Danny commented. “Not that it is likely to stay un-smashed as it is, with the prohis climbing all over it.”

Dickie removed his cap and scratched his head, plainly trying to recall something important. After a moment he said, “I ask because there was word going around a week ago or so that one of the bosses was looking for a couple of palookas to do a safe job. I figured it was breaking into a safe, but apparently it was just moving one. I would have gone for it, but Ed told me to stay clear.” He put his cap back on, then added quietly: “If the job involved kidnapping Ted Holdren, now I know why.”

Jocelyn was taken aback to hear an instance where Ed had done someone a favor. More importantly, she had a new lead. “Do you think you can find out who did it? Finding those guys might lead us straight to Ted!”

“I don’t know,” Dickie sighed. “This whole thing already leads back to me… it might be best if I keep some distance from it. I could ask Ed to put the word out.”

For the first time since she’d left Dickie’s building, Jocelyn felt bad about leaving Ed tied up with a sock in his mouth. The least she could have done is used an apple. “Do you think he would?” she asked earnestly.

Dickie nodded. “I’ll tell him you put my gun back in my face. One thing I still don’t get, though… how’d you find me? I mean, nobody’s supposed to know I’m in town. I ain’t even told Laura Bell.”

“Someone knows you’re in town,” warned Jocelyn, “someone on the force. The detective your Mariana was seen with.”

Dickie looked as though someone had just knocked the wind out of him. “What? That jerk? What in the world does he want with me?”

“Ain’t it obvious kid?” Danny asked. “You come to town callin’ after his mistress. He wants you out of the way. You be careful he don’t drop you off a bridge.”

Jocelyn shook her head. “That doesn’t sound like Officer Barrett. He’s vindictive, sure, but he’s too by-the-books. He’d never go that far outside the law to get what he wants.”

Danny scoffed. “Desperate men, Joss.”

“So, wait, you two know this man?” Dickie asked, leaning forward in his seat.

“We’ve had our run-ins,” Jocelyn admitted. “His name’s Max Barrett. He’s the one who asked me to find you.”

“He’s like a junkyard dog,” Danny added, “so you take care he don’t get his teeth in you.”

Dickie slumped back in his seat, and the color drained from his face. “So he already knows where I live?”

“No,” Jocelyn assured him, “it took me all day to hunt you down. And he doesn’t have the latitude I do, since he’s currently wrapped up in Ted’s case directly. He’ll never admit this, but he’s still in pretty hot water with the chief. He needed me to do the legwork he couldn’t do himself.”

“And you just agreed!?”

“Junkyard dog’s got his teeth in Joss too, kid,” Danny interjected.

Jocelyn sighed. “I’ll tell him I couldn’t find you. He’s already convinced I’m incompetent, so he’ll believe it.”

“I’d sure appreciate it,” Dickie said, sounding somewhat relieved. “I don’t get on well with dogs.

“So that just leaves you, I guess. What’s your stake in all this? What do you care if Ted Holdren is ever found?”

“Ted’s a…” Jocelyn trailed off. She honestly didn’t know what Ted was. At first she thought she had taken on this investigation in order to do right by someone who had helped her while she was down and out, but then she’d learned he was instrumental in putting her there. And she still couldn’t bring herself to come clean to Dickie about her involvement in Mariana’s latest scandal.

Truth was, Jocelyn was finding out, Ted Holdren was every bit the scumbag Max Barrett always said he was.

“I think I get it,” said Dickie. “It’s the same reason Laura Bell keeps right on growing grapes, even though there’s no profit in it anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean… it’s just what you do. Isn’t it? It’s not about Ted. It’s about the mystery. You can’t leave it unsolved. Just like with Laura Bell, it’s not about the wine. It never was. It’s just what she knows.”

Danny laughed. “This kid’s got you figured out, Joss. I never knew you to even leave a crossword unfinished.”

Jocelyn wrinkled up her nose. She wasn’t sure how much she liked being figured out. “In any case, if you find anything out, you can ring me at my office. I’m up on 13th.” She jotted down the information on an empty page in the back of her notebook, then tore it out and handed it to Dickie.

“Yeah, sure,” said Dickie. “And, ah, I’ll need my heater back, too. You can bet I won’t be leaving it under my pillow anymore.”

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