A couple of confidence swindlers have an unexpected encounter.
| Early in 2016, I took a break from working on Beyond the Rails III to produce this enjoyable bit of fluff for the Den of Antiquity anthology produced by my writing group, Scribblers' Den. If you enjoy this story, there are a dozen just as good available on Amazon.com. The link is https://www.amazon.com/Den-Antiquity-collection-Steampunk-Scribblers/dp/09952767... , and all proceeds are being donated to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund. Something to think about while you're digging into this story about two pompous twits who don't believe a thing about what they're doing . . . At least, not at first!
* * *
"Have a look at this!" Charles Dexter Braxton trumpeted, storming into the seedy office like a general entering his headquarters, and tossing a week-old copy of the London Times on James Collier's rickety desk.
Brass and Coal flee London, the left-column headline declared. Pair sought on continent.
It went on to describe a pair of confidence swindlers who had bilked a member of the Royal household out of a substantial colonial development bond. Collier tossed it back on the desk without finishing it.
"S-so what?" he asked his portly associate. "It won't t-t-take them long to tumble to the fact that they're l-l-looking on the wrong continent. We should k-k-keep going west, and g-g-get ourselves really lost."
"And subject ourselves to the tender mercies of the red Indians, and those filthy cowboys? I hardly think so! No, Collier, my young friend, New York is the perfect place to hide. Why, look around, my boy! Have you ever seen such delightful squalor and confusion? The city sprawls for miles in every direction, and boasts every race and social class. Why, all of Scotland Yard's vaunted detectives couldn't find the Queen's consort himself in this rat's nest."
"We could make a c-c-clean start, Mr. Braxton, in an honest t-t-trade."
"An honest trade?" Braxton was incredulous. "What's the matter with the one we've established?"
"Well, n-n-n-nothing, I suppose, but, well, Mr. B-B-Braxton, what exactly is a p-p-paranormal investigator, anyway?"
"What does it sound like, James? We are detectives who investigate hauntings and possessions."
"B-b-but, the church does that. And anyway, n-n-nobody's ever proved that g-g-ghosts exist."
"It doesn't matter whether they exist, James, there are people who believe in them, and some of those people have money. Money that would ride just as well in our pockets as theirs. Now, what if you believe you're being haunted, and you aren't a churchgoer? Who will you turn to then?"
When Collier declined to answer, Braxton answered himself.
"To us, that's who, to Braxton and Collier, P. I.s. Paranormal investigators. You have a problem the police can't solve? Bring it to us, we can solve it!"
"B-b-but there are no such things as ghosts, M-m-mr. Braxton."
"Making such problems rather easy to solve, wouldn't you agree? There are people who believe there are, and if we can bring them peace of mind, I should imagine that they would be eager to pay for that. You see, Collier, we aren't swindlers. We're in the peace of mind business."
* * *
The well-dressed, expertly coifed woman, nay, lady, moved along the dimly lit hallway, feeling the grime of ages crunch beneath her elegant shoes. There was an undertone of menace in the nearly deserted brownstone, and she considered retracing her steps and fleeing the area.
Women die in places like this, the little voice of safety whispered in her ear. Die, and far worse!
But what she did was for her dear husband, and fear could not be allowed to spoil his chance for safety. So she continued along the gritty hallway, past office after office, most vacated, all dingy, looking for the names her dear friend Agnes had shown her in the Gazette. And at last she found it, its letters glowing in fresh paint against frosted glass yellowed with time:
Braxton & Collier, P.I.
She started to knock, then squared her shoulders and turned the knob. She stepped into an office that made the hallway look inviting, and for a moment she nearly thought that the investigators had moved on since they had placed their advertisement. An unoccupied reception desk stood in the center of the room, covered by a layer of dust nearly sufficient to grow potatoes. The bookshelves behind housed only spiders, diligently stringing their gossamer nets in their efforts to subdue the fly population. Again, she was impelled by a desperate desire to turn and leave, but reminded herself that this journey was about Atherton, and couldn't be abandoned. Hearing then a muffled voice speaking behind the closed door to her right, she gathered her courage, stepped up to it, and knocked, three sharp raps.
The voice stopped speaking, and a moment later, the door was opened by a tubby little man, comical in a suit with waistcoat, barely more than an inch taller than she. He was apparently as surprised to see a lady in these surrounds as she was to be here, and stood gawking at her for a moment.
"Forgive me, sir," she said, "but do I have the honor of addressing Mister Braxton or Mister Collier?"
"Why yes, yes you do."
The man stepped back from the door and waved her into the room with a bow.
"Do come in. I'm Charles Braxton, and this is my colleague, James Collier."
A tall, gangly gentleman with rumpled clothes and rumpled hair, rose behind his dilapidated desk.
"P-p-p-pleased to meet you."
"And you are the paranormal investigators?"
"We are," Charles Braxton replied, taking out his handkerchief to dust the seat of a visitor's chair. "Please, dear lady, take a seat and tell us what brings you to our humble place of business."
She hung the crook of her parasol on the back of the still-dusty chair, and mentally abandoning any hope of ever getting her maroon satin walking dress clean again, lowered herself gracefully onto the seat.
"My name is Marigold Reese-Pennington. My husband is Atherton Pennington, who until recently was the junior partner in McHenry, Ltd., a quite successful import firm here in the city."
"Was, Mrs. Reese-Pennington?"
"Please, call me Marigold. My husband was the partner of Phillip McHenry, who was loud and boorish, and treated Atherton abysmally, but he was a wizard of business, and the firm thrived. Last Christmas, Christmas eve, in fact, on the night of the company's Christmas party, Mr. McHenry took ill and died."
"Quite. He was only, well, he hadn't yet reached forty years of age. His doctor said it was a heart attack brought on by gross overindulgence. It doesn't surprise me, mind. Phillip McHenry was a man of vast appetites in many areas, if you take my meaning, and the party was awash in myriad confections, cured meats, and several forms of alcohol. It wouldn't have been difficult for a determined man to commit suicide by food and drink that night."
"No, I suppose not. But pray, milady, how do paranormal investigators figure into this most tragic event?"
"Mr. McHenry is haunting my husband."
"With God as my witness, Mr. Braxton, his spectre comes to him in the evenings when he has repaired to his den to read the papers."
"You've seen this apparition?"
"No, it only appears to Atherton, but I've heard him screaming epithets at it, and his side of a conversation. Only he can hear the other. Mr. McHenry treated my husband abominably in life, and now he's reaching out from the grave to continue his abuse, well, forever, as nearly as I can see. The poor man has taken to drink for succor. That's why I've come to you. This cannot be allowed to continue."
"No, of course not. When can we visit the premises?"
"At your earliest convenience, of course."
"And is your husband in favor of your retention of our firm?"
"I've told him what I intend to do. He doesn't imagine you'll be of any help, but he has agreed that you may be consulted."
"Splendid. Might we visit, say, just after the luncheon hour?"
"That would be perfect."
"Excellent. What is the address, then?"
"Twelve two-twenty-seven North Park Avenue. It's a two-story, fronts on the park. Any cabbie will know where it is."
"Delightful, my dear." He took her elbow to assist her in rising. "Just let us take care of a couple of pressing matters, and we'll be right along. Collier, escort our client to her conveyance, won't you?"
"Certainly, sir." He extended his arm. "Th-th-this way, milady."
* * *
When Collier returned, having seen the lady into a cab, Braxton was at the window looking out over the city, fairly rocking back and forth with glee.
"Can you imagine it, Collier?" he greeted his protege, "a Park Avenue address, and our first client!"
"Why d-d-didn't we just go w-w-with her?"
"Never look desperate, Collier, have I taught you nothing? A Park Avenue address. Why, the cost of that dress she was wearing would buy a month's lodging. I have a feeling, James, that we have stumbled into a most lucrative line of work!
* * *
Messrs. Braxton and Collier began to sort through the collection of odd, non-functional junk they kept crammed into the closet of the second office the moment their client was out of sight.
"It's most important that we look like we know what we're doing," Braxton instructed his partner. "Second most important is ease of transport."
"We'll have to carry all this about, load and unload, so it can't weigh half an Imperial ton, nor can it be too large to fit within a cab. With us, need I add?"
"N-n-no, of course not."
A color wheel attached to a gramophone motor became a "ghost detector," and a cartridge of compressed carbon dioxide, with its impressive rush of white gas, would make an effective "weapon" against a vengeful spirit. It took some doing, but the mechanically inclined Collier managed to conceal it inside a short brass pipe, attach a spring-loaded needle to puncture the neck, and attach an old pistol grip. If the light wasn't too good, it should pass muster nicely. A high voltage travelling arc display, erstwhile known as a "jacob's ladder," rounded out their "detection equipment," and space was made in their two battered suitcases for the lot.
"These l-l-look awfully shoddy," Collier complained, casting a critical eye on them.
"Nonsense," Braxton dismissed his concern. "That look says that we've been doing this for years! Nothing instills confidence in a mark like the appearance of longevity. These Americans have only had a country for a hundred years or so. When they deal with Englishmen, who have been a nation for a thousand, they expect to smell the must of permanence."
And so the field equipment of the ghost hunters who didn't believe the first word of any ghost story was assembled, and each of the tinkerer's concerns dismissed, point by point, by the orator. Once assembled and made as professional looking as was possible given their circumstances, they summoned a cab, loaded it up, and set out for the address provided. It was a lovely spring day, crisp and clear, and the two self-appointed experts on the paranormal rode in the plush back seat of the high steam carriage, enjoying the view of Central Park, the "forest within the city."
"I like this neighborhood," Braxton said to Collier, paying as much attention to the houses opposite the park as to the greenery itself. "It fairly reeks of money."
"That's m-m-most certainly so, Mr. Braxton."
"And not old money," Braxton went on. "Old money is old money because the owners know how to hold onto it. No, this street has the feel of people who have just come into it, and feel a delightful compulsion to spend it, and none too carefully, at that. Just the sort of people I like!"
"So, wh-what we gonna do at the house?"
"Ah, good you asked. Let's see, what would someone do if they believed in all this hooey?"
"F-f-f-find out all they c-c-could about the ghost," Collier suggested.
"Capital, James! An interview, then. Where have you seen it, how often does it come, and so on. Then get them to commit to using our professional expertise to relieve them of their, mmm, infestation. Take their money, set up our gear, make some strange noises in the middle of the night, and pronounce the haunting at an end. And since there are no such things as hauntings to begin with, we've a foolproof defence should we ever be accused of anything. Why, I do believe we could make a career of this, Collier. As long as there are stupid people in the world, there'd be no shortage of jobs, what?"
"Here we are, gents," the cabbie said, stopping the vehicle opposite a white-columned, red brick two story with a wide balcony above the door, "twelve two-twenty-seven North Park. That'll be three-fifty."
"Oh, I like the look of this," Braxton said, counting out the money. "I shouldn't be surprised if the door was answered by a butler. Thank you, my good fellow, and a quarter for your trouble. Let's get our gear, Mr. Collier. We have work to do."
* * *
Braxton and Collier walked up the three broad steps to the portico, taking in the spotless paint and the wicker outdoor furniture.
"Delightful aroma, money," Braxton observed. "We'll have to have some cards printed if we're going to deal with this sort of clientele."
"There's n-n-no knocker," Collier replied.
"Pull the bell rope," Braxton told him, somewhat annoyed.
The rope was duly pulled, and a rich gong sounded somewhere behind the double doors.
"Ah, even sounds like money!"
Footsteps could be heard approaching the door, and it was opened by a thirtyish woman in a maid's uniform.
"May I help you gentlemen?"
"Braxton and Collier to see Mrs. Pennington."
"Have you a card?"
"Not yet. We're newly established."
"Very well. Come in, please. May I take your coats?"
She took their coats from them and hung them in a small closet off the entry. Leading them to an alcove off the front hall, she directed them to a comfortable couch.
"Wait here, please."
"I told you," Braxton said when she rounded the corner. "This place has a delightful je ne sais quoi that just lifts the spirits."
"Is that French for m-m-m-money, Mr. Braxton?"
"Very humorous, Collier. It's French for that certain something by which you recognize the superior class of people. From the veranda, to the doorbell, to the uniformed maid service, everything about this place is just, I don't know, right."
"Good of you to say so, Mr. Braxton."
"Ah, Mrs. Pennington," Braxton said, rising. "We were just saying--"
"Yes, I heard. It's good to be appreciated. Will you come this way, please?"
She led them down a crossing hallway to a room at the front of the house, where a man sat hunched in a large chair facing the park out the large windows they had seen from outside.
"Dear," Mrs. Pennington addressed him, "these are the men who are going to restore your peace of mind."
Braxton nudged Collier, and shot him a knowing look.
The man in the chair stood, turned, and regarded them somewhat vacantly, like he might some flowers that he cared nothing about. His left hand held a saucer, and his right a cup, and it was apparent that if he weren't holding them seperately, the resultant clattering would be deafening.
"Ah, your ghost hunters."
"Don't start, dear. You promised to speak with them."
"I apologize, darling. Of course, you're right. Won't you sit down, gentlemen? I'm Atherton Pennington, currently the owner of McHenry, Ltd., at least until old man McHenry succeeds in killing me. I'm sorry, I've sort of derailed any attempt at civility. What might your names be?"
"Not at all, Mr. Pennington. I'm Charles Braxton, and this is my colleague, James Collier."
"Pleased, I'm sure. Have you been in the business long?"
"Not in this country, but we've come over from England, where the houses are old, and the ghosts are older."
"Well, that's encouraging. Do you think you'll be able to help me?"
"As you may know, every case is different, but it has been our experience that every case also has a solution. The crux of the matter is finding it. Suppose you tell us everything that has occurred from the very beginning. Your wife told us that your tormentor died at a Christmas party, was it?"
"Just after, actually. Dear, have Miss Devlin bring a fresh pot of tea, won't you?"
"The first thing you have to understand is that Phillip McHenry was a pig."
"Your wife did bring that out."
"I doubt that so fair a creature could convey Mr. McHenry's porcine nature in any adequate fashion. He had no grace, no manners, no personal habits that set him apart from the creature I so freely compare him to."
"She did say he had appetites."
"Appetites? I tell you, gentlemen, if you served him a meal in your home, you could count yourselves lucky if he didn't eat the plate it was served upon! He was a bully, a braggart, a condescending, mean-spirited jackass who managed to drive customers away from even a business so impersonal as importing."
"Please don't think me crass, Mr. Pennington, but if the business paid for this home, surely it wasn't suffering."
"No, importing is lucrative just at the moment. The demand for European goods is such that even a boor can make a decent living at it. But part of our success involved me smoothing the ruffled feathers of people who had had run-ins with his Lordship."
"He was a lord?"
"No. We just called him that because of his pompous arrogance. A lord! The man was more suited to a log cabin with a dirt floor."
"I think we have the picture now, Mr. Pennington. Why don't you tell us about his death, and the subsequent haunting?"
"Quite. Well, part of McHenry's pig-like persona was the way he could shovel in food, and the Christmas party was no exception. It was a party, you understand, so the food was not the sort served in a formal setting. Ah, thank you, Miss Devin," he said as the maid brought in a tray with a fresh pot of tea and all the accouterments. Mrs. Pennington poured and distributed, and soon everyone was settled with a steaming cup.
"Where was I? Ah, yes. The Christmas party. The food was catered, and consisted of confections and pastries, hors d'oeuvres, deviled meat, sausages, that sort of thing. There was alcohol as well. Bourbon, brandy, vodka, you name it. Just bottles and glasses, and every man for himself. Well, McHenry spent the evening shovelling in tidbits like a starving man, and washing each morsel down with a shot of whiskey. I don't need to tell you gentlemen that he was roaring drunk within the first hour. Abominable behavior as well. He tried to get every woman in the firm into bed, not that he wasn't too drunk to menace one had he gotten her there. Sorry, darling."
"It's nothing, dear," she said, blushing.
"Well, he closed the place up, somehow oozed out to the sidewalk and found a cab, and I presume went home. His housekeeper found him dead in his bed the next morning. Heart attack caused by overindulgence, his doctor said, and it could hardly have been anything else. I've never seen such a spectacle! I second-guessed him, brought back customers he had run off, generally kept the business thriving. Things any normal man should have been grateful for. Of course, McHenry was no normal man by any stretch of the imagination."
"No. Most ghosts have a motive for their hauntings, though. Did you insult his mother, frighten his child, something like that?"
"Never knew any family of his. I can't imagine a woman wedding herself to such a pig, and if he had a wife, he kept her a secret. Probably chained in his basement."
"Difficult to see what he might be after. What about the haunting itself? What form does that take?"
"He comes late at night. After dinner, I like to go into my den and read the evening paper. It's sort of a ritual. Relaxes me, gets me ready to sleep, you see. That's when he appears, a cold cloud of malice hovering over the fireplace. He accuses me of despicable acts, and warns me that I'll be joining him soon.."
"What despicable acts? Did you do something to him to make him seek revenge?"
"No. The only thing I can think of might be that I ordered the food for the party, but I didn't force him to eat any of it. I didn't force him to drink a gallon of hard liquor, either, for that matter."
"Hmm. Odd, though. When someone reaches out from beyond the grave, it would seem that he should have a powerful motive."
"Well, he doesn't, I can assure you. He's probably tormenting me because no one else could stand the sight of him. My wife seems to feel that you can relieve us of his curse, so I have to ask what form that relief might take."
"Primarily, one has to convince the ghost that he's actually dead, and it's time to move on. What we need to do, I think, is to recreate the conditions of the haunting with you going into the den with the paper, as is your normal routine."
"I- I don't know." Pennington paled visibly at the mere suggestion. "It's too much to bear."
"We would, of course, set up our equipment during the day, and be concealed in the room with you."
"And you could guarantee my safety?"
"You have to do it, dear," his wife encouraged. "You'll never be free of this thing until you face up to it."
"I suppose. And you have absolute faith in this equipment, do you?"
"Absolute. No ghost has yet evaded it, here or in England."
"All right, by God, I'll do it! I'll show you the den. You gentlemen can set up your gear, join us for dinner, and tonight, by all that's Holy, we'll lay a spirit to rest!"
* * *
The mantel clock gave a single chime; eleven-thirty, and still no ghost, not that Braxton or Collier expected one. They had put on a great show, measuring angles and setting up the color wheel on their phonograph motor, carbide lantern attached to the frame to shine its strong light through the colored pie-slices as it rotated. It had been duly tested and adjustments made in front of the subject so that he could clearly see the level of expertise involved. Collier was certainly no speaker, but was a gifted tinkerer, and his antics with measuring tape, barometer, and prism were the final touches to convince the client that they were worth every dime of their hundred dollar fee.
The supper to which they were treated was simple fare, but plentiful and excellently prepared, and after a bit of brief conversation at the dining table, the three men had repaired to the den and taken their positions for the evening. Pennington had seemed at first like he would converse with his contractors well into the night, but they pointed out that the conditions must be replicated as closely as possible, and that included refraining from conversation.
So Pennington had seated himself in the comfortable chair behind his desk while the ghost hunters had removed themselves to a bed of cushions they had placed behind a broad screen. The phonograph was placed to the side where Collier could easily manipulate it, and the harmless CO2 gun was ready to hand. The two men settled down for a boring evening as the room darkened at the setting sun until Pennington's reading light and the fireplace were the sole illumination.
Braxton and Collier made themselves comfortable on the pillows, occasionally passing some disparaging remark in a muted whisper, but for the most part, simply being bored. There was a moment of amusement shortly after ten, when they heard the distinct sounds of a drawer being opened, and the clink and swirl of a beverage being poured. Neither of them imagined that it might be lemonade. Things had gotten quiet for a half hour, then Pennington had begun to hum drinking ditties. Again, a few humorous remarks, and the hunters had settled in for a night's sleep.
Then had come the eleven-thirty chime, slightly rousing Collier, though no more than that, and now, some moments later, Pennington began to speak with the slurred tongue of a man thoroughly drunk.
"You're a bastard, Phillip, and you've always been a bastard!"
Collier shook Braxton awake, putting a finger to his lips as his partner started to speak.
"You think to have your way with me, but I've a surprise for you this time!"
Collier and Braxton peeped carefully around opposite ends of the screen, neither seeing anything out of the ordinary. Collier, as quietly as he could, got the carbide lamp started, and tripped the release on the Victrola motor, beginning the rotating display of different colored lights.
"You're a son of a bitch, McHenry, and I'm glad I killed you!"
Braxton and Collier turned to one another, wide-eyed, each asking the same question of the other with his eyebrows.
"That's right, you old bastard, you're dead! My friends say you don't know that, and as soon as you find out, you have to go on to hell where you belong! What do you think of that, eh? Pretty fix for you, isn't it?"
"He k-killed him?" Collier whispered.
Shhh! Braxton replied.
"You deserved it, Phillip, always treating everyone like scum! I did the world a favor, and not even you can deny it! Now my friends will lay your ghost low, and even the afterlife will have seen the last of you!"
"Charles!" Collier whispered intensely.
But as Braxton turned his head briefly to admonish his partner, he caught a glimpse in the passing green light, a shape like a bulky form, a small head-like protrusion at the top. Then the yellow lens came into line with the light, and it was gone.
"Stay back!" Pennington shouted. "Stay back, I say!"
He started to step around the desk, reaching for the fireplace poker, then stopped with a strangled scream and staggered back, hands coming up to ward off something only he could see. Braxton, still motivated only by earning his money, and with proper gratitude a bonus, seized the CO2 gun, and charged into the room.
"I'll save you, Pennington," he shouted, firing the useless weapon, still believing that all Pennington was seeing were his own delirium tremens. As the cloud exploded into the room, he saw it again, that bulbous, almost man-shaped blob, this time advancing on Pennington in a quick float. Then the dark blue lens came into line, and it was gone once more.
It wasn't gone to Pennington, though. The man cowered, screaming, raised hands waving in front of him before he jerked, or was knocked back into the tall, heavy bookcase behind the desk. As he caromed off, falling across the desk, the heavy piece of furniture rocked, tilted, then came crashing down across his back, heavy volumes pelting him, and driving Braxton back away from him.
All, then, was quiet once more.
"Collier, get some lights on," Braxton snapped, finally able to rush forward. The bookcase lay on Pennington's back, and when Braxton tried to lift it, it wouldn't budge. "Collier!"
His partner joined him, and between them they had barely gotten it up when a gasp from the door signalled the arrival of Mrs. Pennington.
"Oh, God, what's happened?"
"Help us lift this," Braxton said, and the three of them were able to move the huge bookcase to the side, and expose Pennington's form.
"He thought he saw something, recoiled from it, and turned the bookshelves over. Tragic."
Braxton knelt beside him, put a hand on his back, and leaned down to feel for his breath.
"He's still breathing," he announced. "Mrs. Pennington, summon a constable or someone, ask him to send for a doctor."
"Y-y-you saw it, right?" Collier asked as she dashed out the door.
"Saw what, Collier?" Braxton asked, turning Pennington over and loosening his collar.
"There are no such things as ghosts."
Collier was getting the gas lamps lit, and light was beginning to flood the room. As Braxton lifted the unconscious Pennington into his desk chair, the light glinted off something metallic under the desk. Seeing that the man wouldn't fall over, Braxton bent down to pick up a metal-bound leather case and a folded sheaf of papers. Face below the desk, he saw that it had fallen from a secret compartment that had been jolted open by the impact of the bookshelf. Being both a curious man, and an opportunist, he took the opportunity to open the case. Inside was a vial of an oily orange liquid, a tiny eye dropper, and a ring, its hidden compartment standing ready to receive the next filling. He unfolded the papers, seeing a long, handwritten page, and an invoice, a very expensive price for a product whose name he didn't recognize. Then he heard Marigold Pennington's footsteps racing toward the room, and quickly refolded it and tossed it on the desk.
Mrs. Pennington arrived, followed closely by a beefy police officer who took everything in at a glance.
"Wot's happened here?" the big Irishman demanded.
"Bookcase fell on this man," Braxton said. "Do you think you might fetch a doctor?"
"My partner's gone for a doctor," the cop answered. "They'll be here any minute. Now, just who is everybody, and what're ye doin' in here at this hour?"
* * *
"So you see, M-m-mr. Braxton, the flash of light here bounces off the m-m-mirror at the opposite wall, and any inco-co-corporial object b-b-between the flash and the m-m-m-mirror leaves an impression on the ph-photographic plate here."
Braxton studied the apparatus. It could theoretically be made as large as necessary, with two components on one side of the space, and the carefully angled mirror on the other.
"Collier, you're genius," he pronounced. He still wasn't about to start believing in ghosts, but it was shaping up to look like a lucrative business in which a disgruntled client would have a devil of a time proving fraud.
"Mr. Braxton," Emma, their newly-hired receptionist said as she opened the door, "there's a man here from the police department to see you."
"Police?" Braxton echoed. "What does he want?"
"Just want to have a word about Atherton Pennington," a big man in an ill-fitting suit said, pushing the knob out of her hand, and crowding into the room beside her.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said.
"It's all right. Go on back to work. What can we do for you, Mr. uh—"
"It's detective, actually, Detective Thaddeus Mitchell of the 48th Precinct. It was you who found that secret compartment in his desk, wasn't it?"
"Sort of. I think the impact of the bookshelf knocked it open. I found the contents when I tried to help Mr. Pennington."
"Interesting. Pennington was all heated up about the ghost of his former partner coming to kill him. That was why you were there?"
"That's right. His wife retained us."
"Ah, yes. Charming woman. He certainly had her fooled."
"Well, she was so deep in love with him and... Look, did you take the opportunity to read those papers?"
"I glanced at them. Wasn't really time, though. A man's life was in danger, and--"
"Yeah, blah, blah, blah. There was an invoice from a shop that caters to the Santeria practitioners who move up from Puerto Rico. It was for a liquid form of poison from an aquatic snail that can paralyze the heart muscles, causing almost instant death. The ring in the case, I suppose you saw?"
"The means of delivery. A few drops delivered unseen into a drink, and poof, a manufactured heart attack. Also in the letter was the witch doctor's assurance that the drug would work equally well on women. Apparently, he had asked whether, you know, because of their different constitutions and hormones, you see."
"So the thought down at headquarters is that he killed his partner, and planned to kill the little woman after waiting a graceful amount of time, but his guilt wouldn't leave him alone, created a ghost to torment him. Now, you gentlemen were there to exorcise a ghost. You didn't actually happen to see one, did you?"
"W-well," Collier began.
"No, we did not!" Braxton said firmly. "There were some odd shapes, but the light was dim, and one of our instruments uses lights of changing colors, so there was plenty of opportunity for eyes to play tricks, if you get my drift. We saw no evidence of any actual ghost."
"That's what I wanted to hear. Christ, police work will become just about impossible if we find that ghosts are able to go around killing people. As it is, we don't think we can send him to the gallows, but he'll certainly be one of the oldest prisoners in Sing Sing before he sees the light of day again. There's just one thing that I don't understand."
"What's that, detective?"
"That bookcase. It must have weighed three hundred pounds with all the books in place. And you say he just backed into it, and it rocked over?"
"I just don't see how that's possible. I mean, you'd have to rock it back and forth several times to finally bring it over. You said it took both of you and Mrs. Pennington to get it off of him, and that was after all the books had fallen out."
"I just can't see how one bump, no matter how hard, you see, could have tipped that over."
"Maybe the ghost had something to do with it."
"Maybe so," the detective said dismissively. "Anyway, we got the bastard before he could do any more harm, and the ghost of Phillip McHenry can rest in peace, wherever it happens to be. And, as Pennington's sole heir, the bereaved wife stands to become a very wealthy woman when she takes over the business."
"A good day for all concerned, then?"
"Hardly sounds as though he deserved one."
"No. Well, don't disappear, gentlemen. You'll be needed to testify at the trial. You gentlemen have a nice day, and watch out for vengeful spirits!"
And with that, the detective strolled out into the early spring sunshine.