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The Case of the Criminal Queen

a detective story

It was a busy day for Homer Featherstonhaugh and as he leapt from the red London bus, as much as a man of his girth ever leaps, he had a loud enough song in his heart to make the sparrows quit their warblings. He dove into Bidwell’s and ordered a pot of tea and a cooked breakfast. Folks thought it was eccentric of him to eat in a workman’s cafe surrounded by boiler suits and such, or a sign that he was trying too hard to seem like a man of the people, a sort of reverse parvenu. ‘Silly old Homer’ they’d say, ‘Off on his odysseys again. The fellows must think him a daft old toff.’

In truth, he simply enjoyed the breakfasts, the like of which you couldn’t find in posh cafes. He sat enjoying his black pudding and reading the paper when Inspector Brusk plopped down in front of him. ‘Thought I’d find you here’ he said, removing his gloves and requesting a large strong coffee from a passing apron. ‘Douglas told me to fetch you from home, but darned if I don’t know your routine.’

‘It’s why you’re an inspector and I’m apparently an unpaid consultant’ said Homer, still looking at his paper. ‘Well, come on then, out with it. What den are you luring me to now?’

‘Chartreuse, as it happens.’ That caused Homer to crease down a corner of his paper and make eye contact with his uninvited guest. ‘The jeweller? Where every young buck goes to shoe his filly? This might be the roaring ‘20s Inspector, but marriages between men seem a little way off yet. Besides, even my mother couldn’t make me honest.’

‘You’ve a tongue to match your namesake’s for poetry, old man. But no, you’re wanted there because we’ve got a missing tiara and three suspects, one of whom might be…’ Here he leaned forward to whisper. ‘…the Criminal Queen.’

This caused Homer to not only abandon his paper but forget his breakfast, if only for a moment. The Inspector’s coffee came and he warmed his hands with it, inhaling the fumes of melted golden beans. Outside a little snow had started to fall. It was February and the skies were bitter. ‘You finish your coffee, I’ll finish my repast’ said Homer, ‘And then we’ll royally flush that Queen.’

***

The Criminal Queen had been the talk of London’s rags for several weeks. Her career started with the theft of a minor royal’s jade from Aintree Racecourse, although then she was known merely as the Magpie and her sex was assumed to be male.

But when a short-haired coatcheck girl with a dumpy figure and bottle specs vanished from an upmarket tearoom with several expensive fur coats, the audacity and nature of the crime caused Scotland Yard to theorise that a woman was at work. A third thievery, of several diamond rings from a cocktail party in Mayfair, came with a card composed in pristine calligraphy:

‘You call me a magpie
And maybe I am,
But I’m one who knows the art of disguise.

I’m able to look like any of them,
The princess, the It girl, the Queen…
And when I’m done they’ll be picked clean.’

‘What charming doggerel’ said Homer in the taxicab as he handed the card back to Brusk. ‘As I understand it, each of the previous crimes were committed against well-to-do women. The Aintree royal, several society dames, and a cocktail hostess. Yet Chartreuse, as I recall, is an establishment run by a man.’

‘You think that sex is of importance?’

‘Only if you’re stuck in a muddy French field with no women around.’

‘Very amusing, Homer; you know what I mean.’

Homer leaned on his cane with both hands and considered, staring idly at market stalls as they hurried by. ‘Oh, and one other thing’ he dimly heard Brusk say, ‘I know you’re a journalist, but if word of what happens in there reaches your columns, you’ll be burnt as black as that pudding you inhaled back at Bidwell’s.’

***

The chocolate-box frontage of Chartreuse was designed to dazzle passing eyes even in the drifts of winter. It shone like the gates of Heaven in its row of solicitors’ offices, tailors, and upscale pharmacies. The owner, one Matthew Lazarus, stood like St Peter in the entryway.

He was a man who talked through his teeth, upper lip raised, neck craned, and had a perpetually sardonic expression, like he couldn’t believe the world that he’d found himself in. Homer suspected that his countenance fell into obsequious charm whenever it was around types more respectable than policemen and journalists.

‘Mr Whitby is expecting you’ he said as he conducted them inside.

Douglas Whitby was a Chief Inspector with a handlebar moustache and spilt wine complexion that made him look like a rheumatoid old colonel, better suited to the porch of a colonial club than London. He was sharp enough, though, and shook Homer’s hand. They were in the lobby of the place, festooned with deep carpets, marble pillars, and crates and crates of stones worth more than most men’s souls in this economy. If the Criminal Queen was hoping to pick this courtier clean, thought Homer, she’s made a hash of it. ‘Where are my promised three suspects?’ he asked.

‘I’ve arraigned them in Mr Lazarus’ office, old chap’ said Whitby, ‘But first let me brief you on the crime. The card my Inspector is holding was found where a diamond tiara should be.’ He indicated one storey of a cabinet where only a raised cushion remained. ‘Our Criminal Queen must have been relying on the theft not being discovered until at least 11:00 AM, when Mr Lazarus was due to return from his morning conference, which he left for at 09:30. However, on being advised that a fellow board member had succumbed to a heart attack and therefore the meeting was cancelled, he returned at 09:50 and found the tiara gone. He noticed because he was due to arrange its purchase by a foreign royal later today. Only our three suspects have keys to the cabinet. Clearly the plan was to take the tiara, secret it somewhere, and in the following hour and a half be gone forever, much like our tearoom fur-trapper and racecourse rascal. Only, Mr Lazarus’ return put paid to that.’

‘Has the tiara’s hiding place been discovered?’

Whitby flushed. ‘Not as yet, old chap, not as yet.’

Homer’s brow creased. ‘It’s a very odd crime’ he said. ‘Why not just be off with the tiara? Why hide it and then return to the scene of the crime?’

‘It could be that our vixen concealed it before planning to return and make some excuse for her departure, but her employer’s unexpected comeback disturbed her plans’ suggested Brusk.

‘Perhaps’ said Homer.

***

The three suspects were arranged in chairs before Mr Lazarus’s copious desk. Homer took a moment to study the office itself before questioning them. It was done in the art deco style, painfully modern to Homer’s old-fashioned gaze, with golden fans on black across the walls and a faux black-marble desk possessed of oddly few drawers considering its size.

Atop it was a row of fine pens and a filled antique dip jar, as well as a display case containing no doubt equally vintage Chinese smoking pipes. Also on the desk, incongruously, was a pack of playing cards.

‘You must forgive my frank appreciation’ he remarked, suddenly conscious of six pairs of eyes regarding him nonplussed, ‘you have a lovely office, sir.’

Mr Lazarus smiled in a manner indicating that he didn’t always meet such kind appraisal of his modern taste, among his largely old world clientele.

Homer returned to the front of the room and took in his three suspects. They were Edith, Margaret, and Rose, all young women who in different attire could have passed as flapper girls. Clearly Mr Lazarus liked his front-of-house workers to be as handsome and unattainable to most as his product. One of these women, however, was the Criminal Queen, a sobriquet that belied their bland and lovely brows.

They all wore slightly boyish waistcoats over ruffed white blouses. Their outward clothes were tight enough to barely conceal their unmentionables, let alone a whole tiara. ‘Unless one of them’s sitting very uncomfortably’ was Homer’s gnomic remark on this subject.

Whitby, Brusk, and Lazarus were stood to one side of the room while Homer was conducting his preliminary inspection. The girls, understandably, looked rattled by the sudden presence of this rotund and well-dressed man with a military moustache silently surveying them. ‘You must forgive my rudeness, ladies’ said Homer at last. ‘My name is Homer Featherstonhaugh; I’m a journalist with The Times. I also serve as a sort of consultant for the police, given my, erm, insight into criminal matters.’

‘You look too fat to be cooper or crook’ said one girl, in a hard cockney accent that she no doubt moderated when on the shop floor.

‘Margaret!’ snapped Lazarus. Homer smiled. ‘My insight, admittedly, doesn’t come from having either chased or been chased. Why don’t we start with you, Margaret?’

Margaret straightened her posture in what looked more like defiance than respect. She presented herself as a tart and brassy young woman, confident in what she was owed and determined to not let anyone else tell her. If she was the Queen, she was a damned good actress. ‘What were your movements between 09:30 and 09:50?’ asked Homer.

‘I was at the front desk when Mr Lazarus left’ she replied. ‘I saw him on his morning ‘round, making sure everything was in its place, and then out he went.’

‘Did you or one of your colleagues help him to prepare for the conference at all?’

‘Rose brought him his sample case’ she said with a shrug.

‘And when he returned, the theft was discovered immediately?’

‘No’ she said. ‘He went back to his office, came out a few minutes later, and that’s when he raised the alarm.’

‘I see. And while he was out of the shop, did you leave your station at any time?’ She seemed almost offended by this. ‘Certainly not, sir.’

‘And can this be corroborated by anyone other than yourself?’ She jutted her chin at the next girl in line. ‘By her and no soul else, guv’nor.’

The next girl was slightly more middle-class than Margaret. Her parents probably owned their own shop selling furniture or oddments. Her hair was tied back and held in a school ma’am-ish bun. ‘Your name?’ asked Homer.

‘Edith, sir’ she said.

‘And is it true what Margaret tells?’

‘It is, sir. I was at the desk opposite.’

‘Did you at any time depart, perhaps for a loo break or something of the sort?’ Her mouth set into a hard line before she responded. ‘I did not’ she said. Clearly Lazarus kept his girls on a tight leash.

‘So both you and Margaret were out front when the theft happened. Did neither of you notice anything, no customers coming in and behaving suspiciously?’

‘No customers came in at all’ said Margaret.

‘And so you saw no-one approach the tiara cabinet?’

‘No’ both girls said in unison.

‘And were your eyes on each other at all times?’

‘We were both reading magazines’ said Edith, then added, sensing more than seeing her employer’s expression, ‘Since no customers were in.’

‘And Rose’ he said, turning to the third girl, who beside her shop mates was as trembling as leaves in wind, ‘Neither of you saw her?’ She gasped and shrank away as if he’d struck her. Margaret rolled her eyes. ‘She was out back putting brooches in cases’ said Edith, ‘As tends to be her regular duty.’

‘Is this correct, Rose?’

‘Ye-es, sir’ she said, holding a tissue to her upper lip and not making eye contact. She was one of those who attack life by seeming to cringe away from it, always on the verge of hysteria, as if by extremes of response she could slink away without too large a wound. ‘That’s a lovely accent you have’ said Homer, ‘Are you of Irish extraction?’

‘Oh yes, sir’ she said, brightening a little. ‘I was raised by the nuns in Waterford.’

‘You’re an orphan?’

‘Yes, sir.’ She allowed herself a little eye contact. Each pretty blue orb in its milky white setting was wet. With her ash blonde hair she could have been quite something, but there was an irregularity of feature that held her back. Her nose was a little misshapen, eyes too far apart, and overall complexion sickly pale more than downy like her female colleagues. And then there was her anxious tendency. Homer wondered why a man like Lazarus would hire this nervous little orphan. Then an idea came to him.

***

Once the girls had been dismissed and placed under watch of a constable, Homer conferenced with Whitby, Brusk, and Lazarus. ‘I have a notion, gentlemen, of where we might find our troublesome tiara.’

Brusk snorted. ‘Come off it, Featherstonhaugh’ he said, ‘Even you’re not that good.’ Homer smiled. ‘We’ll see’ he said, ‘Mr Lazarus, do you have about your person the keys to your desk?’

‘Of course’ said Lazarus, ‘But why?’

‘Does anyone apart from yourself have access to them?’

‘Absolutely not.’ Homer nodded. ‘Could you open your drawers for us, please?’

Lazarus glanced at Whitby, who nodded his confirmation of Homer’s whim, and then set about unlocking each drawer with keys from a ring on his person. None displayed anything of interest, but when he reached the bottom drawers Homer insisted on checking himself. Each time he got his hands inside and on the second pushed the bottom until it clicked and slid backwards, revealing a cavity.

Lazarus looked deadly pale, as if this time not even Christ’s intervention could resurrect him. With gloved hands Homer reached into the cavity like a surgeon and extracted carefully, pinching its ends with each index finger and thumb, a dazzling diamond tiara. He placed it on Lazarus’ blotter.

‘I don’t understand!’ he cried, ‘None of the girls have keys to my desk.’

‘Indeed they don’t’ said Homer. ‘Douglas, your men are outside?’

‘In force’ replied Whitby, eyes on Lazarus. ‘They’ve been told to not let anyone pass from this place without police guard.’

Lazarus walked to a chair and sank down into it. ‘You really can’t think I’m the Criminal Queen’ he said, voice edging towards hysteria.

‘You’re certainly her King’ replied Homer, daggers in his eyes. ‘The tearoom girl, she was one of yours, wasn’t she? I won’t ask who she was or how you met her, she’s probably at the bottom of the Thames by now.’

‘You don’t have a damn’s worth of evidence!’ he shrieked.

‘Perhaps not. But I’m guessing that we’ll find only your prints on that tiara. And Rose doesn’t seem the type to hold up under pressure; her vulnerability is why she became your next Queen, once the old one had to go for reasons you’ll share in time, perhaps.’

‘How on earth could you know any of this?’

‘Firstly by simple psychology. Edith and Margaret would have noticed if either the other or Rose was fiddling about with cases, but their boss? Just doing his morning ‘round. Secondly I asked myself why the tiara’s absence wasn’t noted immediately, why you needed to return to your office with the sample case immediately before coming back out and discovering it. I suspect, Mr Lazarus, that there was no conference as such, but that you planned to sell the tiara to some underworld figure who couldn’t attend for reasons of his own.

‘This left you in a bind since you had an appointment later today to sell the tiara to a legitimate client who wouldn’t have paid nearly as much. In order to prevent this sale you did what you were going to anyway, but a little earlier, and having taken time to conceal the tiara in your desk first. Rose would have sworn to anything, having helped you in your last campaign at the cocktail party. But no, I don’t think she’ll withstand police scrutiny. It was really very foolish of you to steal from your own shopfront; your managers won’t like that at all. I wonder what drove you to it? An opium addiction, perhaps, or gambling debts.’ Homer indicated the pipe and playing cards.

Lazarus spat an obscenity and demanded to see a lawyer. Whitby discreetly kicked the door with his heel and constables walked in with handcuffs. ‘Look on the bright side, old chap’ he said, ‘you’ll be in the papers tomorrow, with a royal name attached.’

‘I think you’ll make a lovely Queen’ said Homer, at which point Lazarus made an unsuccessful lunge for him. Brusk knocked him flat with a punch to the jaw and he was carried out by the clutch of constables.

‘All in a morning’s work’ said Homer, ‘Now, lunch at Bidwell’s?’
Written by Casted_Runes (Mr Karswell)
Published
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