Book Four in the Persephone Cole Vintage Murder Mystery Series
Prefer to start at Book 1? There are excerpts for every book on the main page for Percy Cole: Vintage Mysteries.
The man hesitated before going into his office. He looked to the left, then to the right of the narrow hallway. He’d heard no one, seen no one; there should be no one, but it was better not to take chances.
Once inside, the man closed the door on rusting hinges, which had never seen a drop of oil. A creaking door was as good as a barking dog.
Through the open window he could hear war propaganda blaring. He crossed the small room and looked down at the street.
Shouting into a megaphone, a young soldier sat atop the headrest of a convertible’s back seat, free hand resting on the trunk. A late-model, light-green Packard, the car was every bit as sleek as the soldier. Driven by a WAC, the convertible rolled along at no more than five miles an hour while passersby cheered on both sides of the street.
“Buy war bonds now, or our children will be forever enslaved by the Nazis,” the soldier shouted over and over into the megaphone. Fear propaganda, thought the man, looking down. He was all in favor of it.
The man closed the window, feeling nervous. No. Anxious. Anxious to show her who’s who. To get on with it. To punish her. Punish her whole family. That Persephone Cole, her days were numbered.
Muttering, he sat down at his desk and opened the morning paper. “It had better be there,” he spat out to nobody but himself.
“Persephone,” Pop called out. “You got your name in the paper again. Might mean something.”
Percy Cole turned in her chair and faced her father, sitting behind his rolltop desk. He in turn, had pivoted in his chair to face her.
He may have been dressed in a blue work shirt and plain cotton slacks but everything on him was freshly pressed. She glanced down at her own khaki shirt and trousers, wrinkled but comfy. They had never seen an iron and probably never would.
Her sharp, green eyes continued to stare at Pop. Or rather, the newspaper held in front of his face, so close she could almost reach out and touch it. It was just another reminder of the ongoing problem of Cole Investigations outgrowing its space. The business already took up half the parlor, and it still wasn’t enough.
But on the bright side, it did mean Percy could read Pop’s newspaper from where she sat. The date, Monday, April 26, 1943, jumped out at her, along with the front-page headlines, “Easter Riots Break Out in Sweden” and “More Boys Deployed to Europe!”
Two neighborhood boys were already missing in action, another wounded. That didn’t count Pearl Harbor. Even Rendell, their assistant, had been sent back from the front lines after losing his right hand.
“So, Pop,” she said, picking up where they’d left off, “talk to me. What’s my name doing in the New York Sun? Did I win the lottery or something?”
But her father was quiet.
“Pop?” Still no response.
“Answer me, Pop. Pretty please with sugar on top.” She was in the throes of teaching her eight-year-old son, Oliver, that you can make all the demands you want, but to use the word ‘please’.
Pop shook the paper, folded it in half and then into a quarter. He gave his eldest daughter a smile. “It’s nothing, Persephone. I should have read it through first. Not worth mentioning.”
“But let’s mention it. What’s up?”
Her father still said nothing but let out a sigh. He reached across the short distance between them and handed the newspaper to Percy.
“Page fifteen, second column, the personals.”
Percy took the paper and went to the page as instructed. Finding the piece, she read aloud:
“Persephone Cole, Hotshot Investigator. Investigate this: Wilma Markovich: fifty-eight years old. Widow.”
Percy finished the brief ad, then looked into her father’s eyes. The blue of his shirt matched them exactly. “What’s this?”
“Just foolishness, Persephone. After that piece about you finding the senator’s granddaughter was in the papers, crackpots are coming out of the woodwork. Pay it no mind. That’s the price of being a celebrity,” he said. His words were smooth, but his sixty-four-year-old face had worry lines added to the ones time already put there.
“It was one crummy article, Pop.”
“Front page of every newspaper in the country for days on end,” he emphasized.
“The most important thing was the senator’s grandkid was safe.”
“And you’ve made some enemies in your time, child,” he went on, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Now their attention is drawn to you.”
Before her father could say more, the phone rang. Lately, over half the callers were reporters trying for a story on the “little lady” detective who captured three villains and rescued a nine-year-old child. She didn’t talk to any of them.
But Rendell, who usually fielded incoming calls, was out trailing a battered wife’s husband. The wife was a friend of Percy’s kid sister, Pop’s younger daughter, Sera. Not the sort of work either Percy or her father wanted to take on, but Sera begged until they gave in. Percy reached over and answered the phone.
“Cole Investigations, Percy Cole speaking.”
“Hey, Perce, it’s Ken.”
She and Homicide Detective Kenneth Hutchers had been “stepping out” for some time, and she no longer addressed him by his surname. But he still called her by the one-syllable nickname of Perce, as if saying the name Persephone or even Percy was too much effort.
“Haven’t heard from you in a while,” she said. “It’s barely nine a.m. What are you up to?”
“Up to my neck in murder, and understand you knew the victim.”
“Oh yeah? Who?”
“Wilma Markovich. Beat over the head with a tire iron in her midtown apartment. We got an anonymous tip about her…and you,” he added.
Shocked at hearing the name right after reading it in the newspaper, Percy tried to buy time while she collected her thoughts. “What makes you think I know this Wilma Markovich?”
Half listening to the conversation, Pop’s head snapped in Percy’s direction at the mention of the woman’s name. He said nothing.
“Come on, Perce,” Ken said. “You’ve been sent a love letter about her in the personals of the Sun. Just this morning.”
Percy glanced at the newspaper. “Doesn’t mean I know her.”
“Doesn’t mean you don’t, neither. I figure she was one of your clients. You got quite a few these days.”
“Not so many where I don’t know the names. There’s no Wilma Markovich.”
But the detective was insistent. “This caller says he heard two people arguing behind an apartment wall.”
“What apartment wall?” Percy demanded.
“The wall of her fancy-schmancy apartment in Murray Hill.” His annoyance at her asking the question radiated through the phone wires. “Then he says he saw a big, redheaded woman wearing a man’s fedora run out the door and down the stoop. Sound like someone we know?”
“They got stoops in Murray Hill? I thought they were too fancy for that. Front porches, maybe. But I don’t remember seeing any.”
The detective ignored her comment. ”Doorman says so, too.”
“Doormen say anything they’re paid to say. Who’s the caller?”
“Didn’t give his name. Says he doesn’t live there but was delivering magazines to the building when he saw and heard all this. But didn’t want to get involved.”
“Doesn’t sound on the up-and-up to me. You trying to pull a fast one, Detective? Need someone to pin this on?”
“Don’t be like that, Perce. When it comes to our jobs, you know we go our separate ways. I work for the city; you work for the client. Now, you acquainted with the lady or not?”
“I’m telling you, no. Sounds like a setup. You don‘t even have an eyewitness. Just some voice on the phone who doesn’t give a name and a doorman who probably got handed a fin. Regardless, it wasn’t me.”
“I got to check this out, Perce.”
“Then come down and check the files, if you don’t believe me.”
“Persephone,” Pop said, after clearing his throat.
Percy looked at her father. Something in his face told her to pay attention.
“Hold on a sec,” she said into the phone, then dropped the receiver to her shoulder, covering the mouthpiece. “What’s up, Pop?”
“I knew that name sounded familiar when I read the ad.”
“Yeah. She sent us a letter a couple of days ago.”
“What did she want?”
“Can’t remember. It’s in the inbox. I didn’t get a chance to talk to you about it yet. You hardly been in the office.”
Percy raised the phone to her mouth. “You want to go through my files, Detective Hutchers? Get a search warrant.”