Winner of Global Ebook Awards Silver 2016. Lefty Award Finalist, Best Historical Mystery, 2016.
Excerpt from the third book in the Persephone Cole holiday mystery series.
The Chocolate Kiss-Off
July 15th, 1941. I will always remember this date. This is the day I found out her name, who she is. When I come face to face with her, will she know who I am? Will she be sorry? I will make sure of it, if it takes years.
The banging on the front door merged with the crying of a familiar voice. The sound shot through the thin walls of the apartment like a police siren blaring across forty-second street.
Though it was four forty-five a.m. on a Friday morning, Persephone “Percy” Cole sat bolt up-right, wide awake, and mind alert. She threw back the covers, leapt out of bed, snatched her robe from the end post, and raced out of the room. No time for slippers or pushing long, flaming-red hair out of her face.
The bedroom was the largest of the four in the railroad apartment, but no one else in the family wanted it. Day or night you could hear every noise in the hallway. But Percy Cole, one of Manhattan’s first female detectives, liked being the first to know what was what. It suited her.
Reaching the front door within seconds, she grabbed the knob, just as the thumping and calling increased in volume. Without hesitation, Percy flung the door open wide. The only person in the world that called her Persela was Mrs. Goldberg.
The long-time family friend and neighbor froze at the door’s opening, a fisted hand drawn back midair. More than a foot shorter than Percy, the older woman threw back her head and looked up, open-mouthed. Words formed on the woman’s lips but no sound came forth.
Fear or something closer to horror tracked itself across her face, and came to a stop in pale blue eyes. Percy’s own green ones became sharp and searching.
“You’d better get in here, Mrs. Goldberg, and tell me what’s wrong.”
The five-foot eleven-inch woman stepped aside to allow the rotund one entrance to the apartment. But instead of moving, Mrs. Goldberg picked up the two bottom corners of the long, bibbed apron she was wearing and chucked them over her head.
Bursting into tears, she stood weaving in the doorway. Percy reached down and wrapped a strong arm around the hooded woman, guiding her into the most cluttered room of the lower east side apartment, the parlor-slash-office.
Fast movements returned the detective to the front door, where she gave a quick glance in both directions to see if any neighbors came out into the hall, curious about the commotion. Satisfied the answer was ‘no,’ Percy shut the door. Another glance down the hallway of the apartment showed the doors to her son, sister, and parents’ bedrooms all remained closed.
Good. I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but I don’t want to be interrupted yet.
Mrs. Goldberg was where she’d been left, sniffling in the center of the parlor. With gentle fingers, Percy lifted the apron from the top of the weeping woman’s head, causing tufts of salt and pepper hair to stick out every which way in the process. She studied the round face, red from crying.
“Sit down, Mrs. Goldberg. You don’t look so good.”
“How can I look good? My boy’s in jail.”
Shock colored Percy’s voice. “Who’s in jail? Howie?”
“How many boys do I have?” Mrs. Goldberg’s exasperation overrode her fear.
“He’s been arrested!”
“Howie? Our Howard Goldberg? There’s got to be some mistake.”
Percy stifled the urge to laugh when she saw the older woman’s distressed expression. She waited for Mrs. Goldberg to say more. But instead, the woman let out a wail. It ended in a screech similar to a beginner’s violin being played by one of the neighborhood kids.
Percy hurried to close the parlor door, hoping the rest of the family would remain sleeping, although things were getting dicier by the minute. She turned back to the wobbly woman.
“You need to sit, Mrs. Goldberg, before you fall down.”
When she got no response, Percy took the woman by the elbow and led her to the faded brocade sofa dominating the section of the room nearest the door. She repeated the command in a tone usually saved for the family dog.
“Sit.” Percy gave a gentle push.
Still sobbing, Mrs. Goldberg fell on the sofa, let out a hiccup, and wiped her nose on the edge of the apron. Percy eased into the matching overstuffed chair, and leaned forward.
“You look like you could use something to calm your nerves. Mother’s sherry? Sweet but soothing.” She gestured to a half-filled bottle of sherry perched on the radio console at the end of the sofa. “Or Pop’s whiskey? Strong but numbing.” She studied her friend and neighbor.
“Whiskey it is.”
Percy patted the other woman’s hand in an encouraging manner, stood, and disappeared behind a gold and cobalt blue screen covered with strutting, iridescent peacocks. As far as Percy was concerned, the screen was an unwelcome legacy from a deceased great-aunt, but her mother loved it. As it served to separate the Cole Brothers Detective Agency from the family parlor, Percy chose to ignore the tasteless addition to an already crowded room.
Mrs. Goldberg let out another sob before the words tumbled out. “He called me from the police station. My Howie! Arrested for murder! Oy vey iz mir!”
“Murder? In that case, I could use something, myself. You take a couple of deep breaths while I’m pouring,” Percy said from behind the screen. The sounds of a drawer opening, a top being unscrewed from a bottle, and a quick pour into two glasses could be heard. “Start at the beginning.”
“What beginning?” Mrs. Goldberg’s voice trembled on the other side of the barrier. “Who knows the beginning? He calls and tells me he found a dead woman in the chocolate this morning when he gets to work and when he tells the police, they arrest him, my Howie, for murder.”
She was silent. Even her breathing seemed to stop.
Percy returned from behind the screen carrying two full shot glasses. She shoved one in Mrs. Goldberg’s hand, who sat in a daze.
“Go on, drink that,” Percy said, swallowing about half of the amber liquid in her own glass in one gulp. “Good stuff,” she muttered in appreciation.
She sat down again opposite Mrs. Goldberg, who took a tentative sip of the alcohol and coughed. But the woman’s color returned and Percy was satisfied. She leaned in again.
“Okay, so Howie found a dead woman?”
Mrs. Goldberg nodded vehemently. “Yes. Persela, he says the police, they think he killed this woman he found in the chocolate. But you know my Howie; he wouldn’t hurt a fly, such a gentle boy, such a good boy, always remembering my birthday and so kind to animals. All the ones he would bring home to doctor and take care of, years and years of them. You remember those pigeons, flying all over the apartment. Such messy birds, pigeons. I was covered in pigeon droppings for weeks.”
“At the chocolate factory, right?”
“Yes, yes. Oy, those pigeons. Remember?”
“Forget the pigeons.”
Mrs. Goldberg wiped her eyes and went on, not hearing Percy’s comment.
“But could you tell that boy anything? No. Three baby birds he carried with him wherever he went for nearly a month. He nursed them back to health no matter what anybody said,” Mrs. Goldberg added, with a touch of pride.
The memory of Howie as a nine-year old boy flashed through Percy’s mind. Howard Goldberg—Howie to his friends and family—was a true mensch, Yiddish for an all-around good guy. He was not only a dear friend, but also godfather to her son. As far as Percy was concerned Captain America had nothing on him.
“When did Howie call you from the police station? What time?”
“Who could know the time? I was making the Challah for the store, like I do every day, that’s all I know. He said he didn’t want me to hear it on the radio. Who plays the radio? All I hear about is that Hitler and Benny Goodman. Then he said I was the only call he could make, so to be sure to run up and get you.”
“That would be Howie who called you.”
“Who else? Hitler?”
“Just clarifying, Mrs. Goldberg.” Percy took the nearly full shot glass from Mrs. Goldberg’s hand and placed it on the side table, while the woman continued talking.
“And what does that mean; I’m the ‘only call’? Are they charging money to make these phone calls? I told him to always carry a dollar on him, always, but does he listen? No, I’m just his mother. You never know when you’re going to need money for an emergency, like now.” She started to sob again, and picked up the corners of her soggy apron, dabbing at her eyes.
Percy’s mind raced, paying little attention to Mrs. Goldberg’s chidings of her son’s disregard for a mother’s golden words.
“Did he say which station he was at?”
Mrs. Goldberg didn’t answer, but shook her head. She became distracted and over-wrought again, her face taking on a pleading look. Her hands clasped together in a prayer-like manner.
“Persela, help my boy. You’re a detective with a badge—”
“A license,” Percy murmured, deep in thought.
“A license, a badge, who cares, and so what?” Anger and indignation flared up in Mrs. Goldberg, replacing the fear. “You know he didn’t do this. Him! As if he would put somebody in his vat of chocolate like a bon-bon. Not my Howie. It takes him hours and hours to make his chocolate. He’s so proud of it. Why just the other day—”
“Forget the chocolate.”
“Forget the chocolate, forget the pigeons. Such fuss.”
“Right now we need to find him. If we’re not careful, he could get lost within the system for days. You’re sure he didn’t say where he was?”
Percy stood and looked down at her neighbor. The woman stared back, unblinking.
“He lives and works in Brooklyn.” Percy answered herself. “Let’s see.” Percy scrunched her forehead in thought. “He’s probably being held at the closest precinct to the factory. That would be the Ninetieth. Did he mention Williamsburg? The Ninetieth?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Mrs. Goldberg looked startled. “The Ninetieth? There are ninety police stations in Brooklyn? It’s just a little burg. What kind of dangerous place is that, there should be so many police stations?”
“Forget the police stations.”
“Oy, so much to forget, who can remember?”
“I’ll start with the Ninetieth,” Percy said more to herself than Mrs. Goldberg. “With any luck, he’s there. Then I’ll phone Jude.” Percy noticed the terrified look returning to the other woman’s face. “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. We’ll get him out of this.”
It was a large promise, but even without any facts, Percy knew one thing. While anyone is capable of murder given the right circumstances, the Howard Goldberg she knew would never kill someone and put them in a vat of chocolate. To him chocolate was sacrosanct. Percy looked down at Howie’s mother.
“You okay? You want to lie down for a moment?”
Mrs. Goldberg shook her head, caught up in her thoughts. Percy studied her with sympathy.
That’s how I’d be if my son got arrested for murder.
“Here’s an idea.” Percy leaned down and stroked the woman lightly on the shoulder to get her attention. “Why don’t you go to the kitchen and rustle us up some coffee? I’ll make a few calls to see what’s going on. You know where everything is, right?”
Mrs. Goldberg rallied, stood, and smoothed out her apron. “Better than your mother, Persela. How she can find anything the way she keeps that kitchen of hers, I’ll never know, but I’m not one to complain.”
“Of course, this room has so much gold paint it’s enough to wake the de…” Mrs. Goldberg broke off speaking as suddenly as she’d started. “What am I doing, talking about paint when my son…” She brought one hand to her face, pressing fingers against quivering lips.
“Easy, Mrs. Goldberg.”
Percy put a sturdy arm around the short woman’s shoulders again. Mrs. Goldberg leaned into her, looking small, fragile and old. Percy hated seeing her like that.
“We’ll find out what’s what and take care of it. You go make that coffee. Mr. Goldberg still out of town?”
“My Seymour comes back from sitting Shiva tomorrow. Seven whole days he’s been in the Bronx. How will I tell him?” Mrs. Goldberg’s entire body began to tremble. “First, my Seymour’s brother dead from cancer and now this! Our Howie!” She shook her head sadly, moving with heavy steps toward the door. “I’ll go make with the coffee.”
Percy watched her go out the door then turned. She headed again to the corner of the room where the Cole Brothers Investigations office resided. Behind the screen, two small dark oak desks sat, one belonging to her, the other to her father.
Sitting down, she opened her desk drawer, pulled out the phone book, looked up the Brooklyn police station in question, and dialed the number. Even though it was barely five o’clock in the morning, the phone answered on the first ring.
“Ninetieth Precinct. Officer O’Hara speaking.”
Percy heard a world of attitude in those few brief words. Officer O’Hara sounded young, yet already jaded. The low-income residential and factory district had high crime and little love for coppers. It turned even rookies into worn-out cynics fast.
“Good morning.” Percy tried to make her voice sound business-like but polite. “I’m looking for a Howard Goldberg and wondered if he was brought there this morning? Maybe an hour or two ago.”
“Who wants to know? This his wife?”
If I say I’m a private detective, there’s going to be twenty minutes of crapola and then he’ll only hang up on me.
“Yeah, I’m his wife. Is he there? He called his mother but didn’t call me, the louse.”
“A real mama’s boy, huh? Yeah, we got him.”
“What’s the charge?”
“We’re holding him for questioning on suspicion of murder.”
“On what grounds?”
“On the grounds of the victim got found in a big bowl of his chocolate with a rope around her neck pulled tighter than my mother’s girdle. You’d better get a lawyer, lady. It don’t look so good for him.”
“If he’s around, I’d like to talk to him.”
“Naw. He’s in his cell by now. It being Friday, he won’t be arraigned until Monday morning. He’ll be spending the weekend in the slammer. Don’t worry, we’ll treat him right, honey.” Officer O’Hara left off with a laugh indicating just the opposite.
“Thanks.” She hung up then muttered, “And don’t call me honey.”
Percy reached into the top drawer and snatched a stick of Doublemint gum from a pack. Opening it up, she folded the gum into a wad and shoved it in her mouth, chewing absentmindedly.
It was an old trick her father showed her years ago to keep Mother from knowing he ‘tipped the bottle’ from time to time. Mother tipping the sherry bottle never seemed to count.
She dialed her brother, Jude, and looked around at the cramped quarters as the phone rang. Two file cabinets, worn but cared-for, were crammed against the wall into a space too small for the amount of business they were currently doing. She let out a sigh.
Percy grew up with the room functioning as the office for the detective agency started by her father and uncle. Uncle Gil’s sudden death and Pop’s recent broken leg had taken their toll on business. Cole Brothers Investigations—once thriving—had receded more and more into a corner of the parlor.
When Percy got her investigator’s license six-months earlier, she assumed the lost partnership position. Despite many people’s initial scorn of a female detective, the business was resurrecting itself.
Pop was gone on a big case in New Jersey, and she was juggling two other cases, one arriving only the day before. Percy wasn’t sure how she’d fit Mrs. Goldberg in, but she’d do more than that; it would take precedence over the other jobs she had going.
Shame to toss them aside, though. Good money. And they’re both mostly legwork. Time to spread out and make some changes.
Her brother, Jude, finally answered on the eighth ring. He didn’t sound as wide awake as Officer O’Hara, but he didn’t sound as jaded, either.
February 5, 1942. This monumental day has come and gone. It took over a year of waiting and planning, but the deed is done. She didn’t deserve to live after what she did to me. Let others make of it what they will. I am vindicated.