Excerpt from Iced Diamonds
book two of the Persephone Cole holiday mystery series
(formerly titled Persephone Cole and the Christmas Killings Conundrum)
“Are you that fat lady detective?” The male voice spoke in a hurried manner on the other end of the line.
I don’t know about being a lady, Percy thought, being born and raised on the lower east side, but I am substantial and a PI. So two out of three ain’t bad.
“Yeah, that’s me, Persephone Cole. Although, I would have preferred to be called full-figured, plump, stout, portly, hefty, zaftig, rotund, corpulent, chubby, or how about roly-poly? Something with a little thought in it. But who’s this and what do you want?” She pulled a small bag of pistachio nuts out of the pocket of her slacks with her free hand, tossed the bag on the telephone table, and routed around for a nut, while she listened.
“My name’s Waller, William Waller—”
“Like Fats Waller?” she interrupted, grabbing a salty nut out of the bag. Okay, you unimaginative creep. We can all make fat cracks. The other end of the line went stone, cold silent.
Percy popped the nut in her mouth and using years of practice, separated the two shells with her front teeth, and sucked out the meat. She picked the two shells out of her mouth and chewed, as she dropped the shells into one of the ubiquitous ashtrays scattered around the apartment for this sole purpose.
A sudden loud voice coming from the kitchen radio crackled an announcement of the need to buy war bonds. The United States had been in the war for over a year now and most everyone was tapped out, but the voice droned on, just in case.
“Hold it a minute, Waller,” Percy commanded. She cradled the phone against what has been referred to from time to time as her ample bosom, and shouted down the hall of the railroad flat to the kitchen.
“Hey, shut that door, will you, Pop? I got a potential client here.” The swinging door swooshed closed between the hallway and the kitchen. Uncle Sam had been muted, at least for the moment.
Percy put the phone back to her ear to the sound of heavy breathing. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought it was an obscene phone call.
“I’m back. What can I do for you, Mr. Waller?” She tried to keep her voice pleasant and professional, but it may have been a little too late for that. She reached for another nut.
“There’s a dead elf in my storefront window.”
“Excuse me?” Her hand froze midway to her mouth.
“One of those Santa elves from down the street. You know, Santa Land. I want to know what he’s doing in my display window.”
“Yes, they’re here now. I never saw him before.” His tone at first sounded puzzled then it changed. ‘You’re a real smarty pants, aren’t you?”
“That’s what they tell me.” Never give a jerk an even break, that’s my motto. “So why are you calling me if the cops are taking care of it? How’d you get my number?”
He lowered his voice. “I want to hire you, but I need to talk to you about this in person, not over the phone.”
“I don’t come cheap, Mr. Waller.” Actually, I do come cheap, but I’m about to hike up the price for you, buster. Fat, huh? We’ll see about that. “I’m twenty a day plus expenses, with a three-day guarantee.”
Percy paused, having trouble believing what she was asking, herself, and added, “It being the holiday season and all, I’ll make it a two-day guarantee. But it’s still twenty bucks a day.”
“Very well, Mrs. Cole, whatever you say. Just get here.” The words came out rapidly, and in what Miss Schultz, her English teacher, might have called a ‘terse manner’.
“It’s Miss Cole and where’s here?”
“Fifty-ninth and Fifth Avenue, right off Central Park. Waller and Sons Jewelry.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
He paused, mumbled “Thank you,” and disconnected.
She cradled the receiver on her shoulder. The last-minute attempt at manners on his part surprised her, even though the address he gave was in a pretty hoity-toity part of Manhattan.
I should have stuck to the three-day minimum.
She hung up the phone with gusto and the rickety telephone table her mother insisted on calling ‘dainty’ wobbled and nearly fell over. Since she could remember, this genuine knock-off of an exact replica of a Louis the Sixteenth, had been hanging out in the hallway of their Lower East Side apartment threatening to collapse. Her mother inherited it from her favorite aunt and despite both women’s tender ministrations and conviction of its value; Percy suspected its demise was eminent while its net worth was about thirty-nine cents.
She snatched up the bag of nuts, crammed them in her pocket, turned around in the narrow vestibule and took a quick gander at her reflection in the matching knock-off mirror. The bulge of the nuts only added to the bulges everywhere else. She loved Marlene Dietrich-style pant suits but they only came so big. When last weighed, Percy came in at 172 pounds. At five foot eleven inches, she often piled her hair on top of her head, gaining another three inches of height. This made her taller than any woman she’d met and most of the men serving overseas in Hitler’s war games. At thirty-five years of age, Percy preferred to think of herself as impressive, even in her Marlene Dietrich-style pant suit, which had been let down as well as being let out.
A quick scrutiny of her face made her wince. Without makeup, blondish-orange eyebrows and eyelashes looked almost nonexistent. In fact, her unhealthy pasty look was of someone living in a cave, year after year, never seeing the light of day. It was the usual redhead’s plight.
One of the best inventions, in Percy’s opinion, was cake mascara. She still had hers from high school, circa nineteen twenty-four, a testament to its longevity and her rare usage. Percy toyed with going into the bathroom, lathering it up, and applying some.
Naw, this is good enough for jazz.
She shook her head and long curls trapped in the rubber band at the crown of her head flopped everywhere. Red and amber-streaked ringlets shimmered in the light coming in from the lone window of the vestibule. Even she knew her thick red hair was one of her best features.
But only when it’s under control, kiddo, and that’s not today; too much moisture in the air. Maybe I can add Pop’s fedora to my mop before I leave, so I don’t have to think about it.
She headed to the kitchen which bustled with the usual early morning activity. The radio blared in the background, her father sat in his wheelchair with his bad leg resting straight out in its cast and him yelling at her younger sister.
“Serendipity, do you have to do that here?” Pop leaned in as far forward in the wheelchair as his belly and leg would permit. “And while we’re eating breakfast? That smell is enough to drop flies. Now put that away. And pay attention to me when I’m talking to you.”
Better known as Sera, Percy’s kid sister ignored their father and continued to apply red lacquer to short, squat nails. Percy had the same short squat nails and wouldn’t dream of bringing attention to them, but that was Sera.
Ignoring the uproar, Mother stood at the stove humming a tuneless but annoying little ditty. Percy’s eight-year old son, Oliver, sat at the end of the table, hunched over his oatmeal, short, blue-black hair plastered down from the morning bath. He, too, was paying no attention to the battle of wills going on at the table, lost in the further adventures of the Green Lantern. While he read his comic book, he hummed a similar ditty to that of his grandmother.
Percy tried not to think about her son having inherited her mother’s daffiness. Some things are better left alone. She reached up instead, and turned off the radio blasting the Andrew Sister’s version of “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anybody Else But Me.” For an instant, silence reigned. Then everyone started to talk again.
“Sorry, Pop.” Sera’s voice was, however, devoid of any contrition. She tossed dyed blond curls. “But I have to get to the factory by eight and I won’t have any time to polish my nails after work. I’ve got a big date tonight.”
“How lovely.” Mother spoke in a dreamy tone, the only one she used when awake. “So many young men you see, Serendipity, and nearly every evening. Have I met this new boy, what’s his name?”
Sera didn’t answer.
“She probably can’t remember his name, grandma,” Oliver said in a guileless tone, without looking up from his comic book.
“Out of the mouths of babes,” muttered Percy.
Mother turned from the stove and dumped a large dollop of hot oatmeal into an empty bowl before an empty chair. Percy sat down and picked up a spoon.
“I’m in a hurry, Mother, so nothing else for me.” Percy poured diluted, condensed milk over the warm cereal. She hated oatmeal and loathed canned milk, but neither eggs nor bacon had seen the inside of their kitchen in months. “Pop, I just got a job.” She shoveled in a large spoonful of the cereal, trying not to taste it.
Everyone except Oliver turned and stared her. Money being tight and Pop unable to work with his broken leg, it left Percy to be the major bread winner of the family. They were having what President Roosevelt referred to as ‘lean times.’
Pop was the first to speak. “What kind of a job? Is that what the phone call was about? You know, we don’t take just any job.” He raised his hand, pointing his index finger at the ceiling before making his further statement. “Cole Investigations has standards.”
“Pop, it’s a jeweler on Fifth Avenue. This Waller guy seems like a real jerk, but who am I to say no? Something about a dead elf left in his store window, and the cops are already there. It sounds in and out, but I did manage to get a two-day guarantee.” She looked around at the rapt attention her remarks had drawn. “And, I’m making twenty bucks a day plus expenses.”
“Twenty bucks?” Oliver looked up from his comic book, astonishment written all over his sweet, freckled face. “A day?”
“Oh, my,” remarked her mother, doing her usual Zazu Pitts impression. “So much money! And for one day! Why, our rent is only nine dollars and we live here thirty days out of the month, sometimes thirty-one. Isn’t that right, Father?” Mother stopped stirring the pot of oatmeal, turned, and glanced at her husband for support.
Used to his wife’s zaniness, Pop looked at her and smiled. “It is, indeed, Mother.”
“And in February, it’s twenty-eight,” murmured Sera, blowing on her nails.
Their parents had called each other ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ since Percy could remember. Probably because Pop was named after Habakkuk, a biblical prophet. Mother’s real name was Lamentation. With her willowy shape and long, white blonde hair, Mother looked more like a Dandelion, threatening to blow away at any moment.
Percy’s family had a history of unusual, if not downright peculiar, first names on both sides. Her older brother’s name was Adjudication, and no doubt the main reason he’d become a lawyer. So, stuck with Adjudication, Serendipity, and Persephone, the Cole offspring was glad for the usage of nicknames, such as Jude, Sera, and Percy.
“I don’t want you to put yourself in jeopardy on this job, not even for a king’s ransom, Persephone.” Pop turned back to his eldest daughter. “If I could go with you—”
“Don’t worry, Pop,” she interrupted. “Like I said, this should be in and out and the fastest twenty bucks—no, make that forty bucks—Cole Investigations ever made.” She gulped down the last of her breakfast, got up, and took the car keys off the hook by the back door.
“Think Ophelia has enough gas in her to get me midtown, Pop?” The 1929 Dodge was the family car, old, black, and ugly, but its engine came to life each time you pressed down on the starter. The gas gauge was one of the many things that no longer worked, and between rationing and only being able to afford to put in one or two gallons at a time, father and daughter ran out of gas more times than they cared to think about.
“Put in five gallons, Persephone, right before my leg turned bad.”
“That was two months ago.” She gave it some thought. “Man, has it been that long?”
Pop smiled. “Nobody else driving it now except you.”
“I would if Pop would let me,” Sera interjected, with a pout.
“You got all those boyfriends to tote you around, Serendipity. You don’t need a car.” Pop’s voice was kind but firm.
“Well, the last time I got home on fumes.” Percy gave out a laugh and shook her head. “I’d better take the subway. It’s faster, anyway.” One thing about living on the Lower East Side, a couple of blocks walk to the BMT and it got you nearly everywhere in Manhattan.
“Get off at fifty-seventh and Fifth.” Pop talked as if she hadn’t ridden the train a thousand times. “And good luck with the job.”
“I’m taking your fedora, Pop. My hair’s a wreck. Hope you don’t mind.” She snatched the hat off the rack near the back door then ran to the end of the table, reached over and tousled her son’s short, damp hair. “You be a good boy and do everything Grandma says, Oliver. Don’t forget your raincoat. And come straight home from school. Okay?”
He dropped his comic book and grinned up at her, the child who gave her life meaning. “Okay, Mommy.” He screwed his face up, closed his eyes, and she placed a noisy, wet kiss on his forehead.
“You’re just so yummy, I could eat you up just like a pistachio nut.” Percy grabbed him in a bear hug and pretended to smother him. He giggled and so did everyone at the table. She left to the sounds of laughter.