Death across the Chesapeake

 

Author’s note

 

This, the sixth adventure in the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mysteries, takes place in 1926, and finds Max and Allison in a mood to reminisce. Their first case, Death of a Flapper, was in 1922, when they had been married for over a year, and some have wondered what they did before that point. Up until now, their back story has been given short shrift, and revealed only in hints buried in the dialogue. In Death on the Eastern Shore, we find out another piece of their past and the strange way it affects a case in the present.

Although each Max and Allison mystery is a stand-alone, it is part of their history. Though Death of a Flapper is their first official, high-profile case, it was not their first brush with crime. Max, of course, solved a murder on his ship during his service in the Great War, an incident that has been referred to several times already in the stories. Between the war and Death of a Flapper, however, Max and Allison  were drawn into a puzzling case close to home, a case that might not be a murder at all. If it is, it must be handled with discretion, because it involves some very important (and reclusive) people in St Michaels.  This case, and the people  involved become part of a new case in 1926. This is the story of those cases and how they intertwined.

 

 

“Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you.”

Satchel Paige

 

 

 

1926:

The view through the transom

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1- The transom

 

 

Like mourners at a funeral, the small group of people stood in the hallway in front of the closed office door talking in hushed tones and shaking their heads.

“I’m telling you, it’s not like Charles to disappear. He always stops by for coffee in the mornings.”

“Right,” said a woman, “and when he’s out or his place isn’t open, he always puts a closed sign on his door.”

The concerned group was standing in the upstairs corridor of the Stilwell Building, next to the courthouse in Easton, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A small sign next to the door read;

 

Chesapeake Investments

Charles Leroux, Broker

 

“Knock again. Maybe he’s in the back.”

Someone banged loudly on the closed door. The sound seemed to echo in the hallway, but there was no reply, and no sound from inside Chesapeake Investments.

“Charles! Are you in there?”

“The transom’s open about halfway, so if he’s in there he can hear us.”

“I think something’s wrong.”

“No; it’s probably nothing. We should wait a while. He’ll show up and laugh at us for worrying.”

“Still, it’s really odd.”

“Should we call somebody?”

“Wait a minute. It looks like someone already did. Here comes the police.”

The heads turned to see a thin young patrolman appearing at the top of the stairwell. We walked towards the group with a look of curiosity on his face.

“It’s Fred DeGrange. Morning Fred. Who called you?”

“Morning,” Officer DeGrange answered. “I’m just doing a follow up. We got a call last night around nine. A passerby out walking his dog said he heard what sounded like gunshots from this building. We sent a man over and he found the place locked up, so we figured it was a backfire somewhere. Anyway, I thought I’d take another look this morning and see if anything might have been going on. So what’s everybody doing here?”

“Well, we’ve just been wondering why Charles hasn’t shown up. Tell you the truth, we’re a mite concerned, especially now that we know about gunshots.”

“This his space?”

“Right. Chesapeake Investments. He’s been here for about four months now. He’s here every day like clockwork. And any time he closes, he hangs out a closed sign. But today nobody’s seen or heard any sign of him.”

Officer DeGrange tried the door with a loud rattle. “Locked. And you say he’s usually here by now?”

“Not usually; always.”

“Well, if he is here, it seems he doesn’t want company.”

“You gonna bust the door down, officer?”

DeGrange pushed back his hat and scratched his head thoughtfully. “No sense breaking a perfectly good door if we’re not sure there’s anything wrong yet. Maybe he just had a family emergency or something.”

“But he always has that closed sign out when he’s not there. So if there is no sign, that means he should be there now.”

“Or maybe he never went home last night!” said someone ominously.

Officer DeGrange squatted and looked through the keyhole. “Can’t see anything. Looks like there’s a key in the keyhole on the inside.”

“Well, that proves he must be in there, doesn’t it?” someone said.

“Is there another door to this space?” DeGrange asked.

“No. This is it. There’s a window but it has bars because Charles handles money.”

DeGrange frowned in thought, then looked up at the transom over the door. “Tell you what. Anybody have a stepladder?”

After some discussion, someone went back into an adjacent office and came back with a stepladder.

“Now who’s the tallest?” said the DeGrange. “How about you?”

Grayson Dunlop, former star of the Easton High basketball team cautiously stepped up on the ladder and peeked over the edge of the transom. His eyes widened.

“Oh, jeez. Charles is in there, all right, but…”

“But what?”

“He’s lying on the floor.”

Now we break it down,” said the DeGrange. “Everybody stay back. I don’t want anyone in the room unless I tell you.”

DeGrange threw his weight against the door and it swung inward with a splintering crash. Inside was a neat office with a desk, several file cabinets, several overstuffed chairs, and a chalkboard on the wall covered with stock symbols and prices. In the center of the room, crumpled on a blue oriental rug, was Leroux lying on his back.

While the others clustered around the doorway for a better look, Officer DeGrange cautiously approached Charles Leroux.

“Mr. Leroux; are you all right? Mr. Leroux?”

In the doorway, a woman screamed. “Oh, my God; he’s dead!”

DeGrange looked at the body and noticed three ugly bullet holes; two in the chest and one on the wrist with powder burns clearly visible. He squatted down and felt the wrist for a pulse. There was none, and the flesh was cold.

DeGrange looked around. There was no sign of a struggle and nothing seemed out of place. The door had clearly been locked from the inside, the sole window was barred, and the transom was too high and too small for anyone to exit that way. There was no gun in sight, so it wasn’t a suicide, but who could have shot him, and how could he have done it? DeGrange shook his head.

“This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in the Stilwell Building. It just doesn’t.”

 

 

 

Chapter 2- Looking back

 

In a small house 15 miles to the west, just past the town of St Michaels, Allison Hurlock stood in the doorway of the cozy upstairs room and critically surveyed its contents. There were two easy chairs, a table holding a battered notebook and a porcelain statue of a tiger, and several framed documents on the walls.

“So where do we start?” she said finally.

Her husband Max exhaled a long breath as he looked around the room. “Good question, but if we are going to have a baby in a few months, we have to have a room for him.”

“Her,” said Allison.

“…and it’s either this trophy room or the spare bedroom, unless you want me to tackle an addition to the place,” said Max.

“One addition is plenty, Max. Look, the trophy room was my idea in the first place; to have a room to display our mementoes from the crazy cases we were involved in. But now we have to make room and paint the walls pink.”

“Blue.”

“Anyway, most of the items aren’t very big. We can put the stuff in the spare bedroom; maybe in a special corner.”

“Yes,” said Max. “That should do nicely until they can build a nice, tasteful Hurlock Museum.”

Allison walked into the room and absently petted the tiger figurine. “So I repeat; where do we start? I don’t want to just drag this all into the next room. We really need to make an inventory, or at least a list of what we have according to the case it came from. Then we can arrange it in a logical fashion; maybe even label the things.  I have a pencil and paper here. Why don’t I pull up a chair to that table and start with the list while you rummage through the loot.”

“All right,” said Max, picking up the old notebook on the table and thumbing through the dog-eared pages. “Here we have a piece of genuine Americana: a bootlegger’s notebook of all his clients and liquor runs. It’s a nice souvenir of our very first case together; that Taylor-Bradwell business in Moorestown, New Jersey back in 1922.”

“The Taylor-Bradwell business?” said Allison, raising her eyebrows. “You make it sound as if you were selling soap. It was a double murder; the son of one of your old Navy buddies and his former fiancée found shot to death in her locked bedroom.”

Max smiled. “A very interesting case, I have to admit. Normally, the police would assume a murder-suicide by a jilted ex fiancée, especially since the door was locked from the inside, but they were both shot several times in the head.” (Death of a Flapper)

“And, as I recall, with a gun owned by Robert Bradwell’s brother,” Allison added. “Add a third murder, a Shakespeare-quoting widow, and a nervous part-time bootlegger, and you’ve got a real brain twister. Not to mention the fact that you almost made yourself the fourth victim.”

Max blushed a little. “I think you were more sore at me than the killer was. Anyway, it ended well, and you got a good magazine article about flappers out of it.”

Allison leaned back in the chair and smiled. “Yes; I enjoyed doing the research on the fast-paced world of the flapper. Of course, I’ll bet you would have enjoyed it even more.”

“As a purely academic exercise, of course,” Max grinned.

Allison pointed to an ornate framed certificate hanging on the wall near the window.

“And then we have our honorary official lifetime membership in the otherwise exclusive Jekyll Island Club down in Georgia.”

Max looked at the certificate. “I suppose we should be especially honored to be the only club members that are not millionaires. And it all started with a letter from a damsel in distress.” (Death on a Golden Isle)

“It all started,” Allison reminded him, “with a poisoning, and Eva Dawkins’s fear of being arrested for her husband’s murder. Of course, you found out that she wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the predatory Miss Clarice Bailey.”

“Now, now, Allison. I realize that you girls weren’t the best of pals…”

“Somehow, I have trouble chumming up with a spoiled femme fatale while she was trying to steal my husband; it’s a social skill I never mastered and don’t intend to.”

Max smiled. “Clarice Bailey wasn’t nearly as irresistible as she thought she was…Say, here’s a little exhibit I almost forgot; a menu from your old Roland Park hangout, Morgan Millard’s, with a handwritten note on it from the great Houdini himself, right after he brought the house down at that séance by exposing the medium as a fraud.”

Allison looked at the note. “Beware of assumptions and misdirection it says. I still can’t figure out how he wrote that there and we never saw him do it.”

“That’s why they call it magic,” said Max, “but it helped solve the case of the lighthouse keeper murdered in his lighthouse near Crisfield.” (Death the Lighthouse)

“And it helped you save your two watermen friends from getting railroaded for the crime,” added Allison. “I’m glad that awful Gaston Means got his comeuppance.”

Max nodded and picked up a porcelain figurine from the table. “And here is our friend the blindfolded tiger statue from that case up in New York. (Death and the Blind Tiger) It’s the only time we ever received a clue from a murder victim before he was killed.”

“Creepy,” was all Allison could say.

“You know this tiger should go with the mash note you received from Dorothy Parker on the same case,” Max reminded her.

Allison smiled at the memory. “Just think; I was invited to the Algonquin round table by Dorothy Parker.”

“Only after she tried to cut you down with that tongue of hers and you stood up to her.”

“Yes. Country mouse indeed! Meanwhile, you were busy trying to solve a murder with more suspects than you could count. It would have been harder to find someone who didn’t want to kill Mr. Connelly. Still, it was so exciting being in New York.”

“More exciting than St Michaels?”

Allison gave him her “You have to be kidding” expression, and Max picked up another framed letter.

“For my money, this is the jewel of the collection,” Max said, holding the frame high.

“Oh, yes;” Allison recalled, “the letter from Glenn Curtiss inviting you to Florida to catch the invisible man who was killing off Florida real estate developers.” (Death in Unlikely Places)

“He’s one of the giants of aviation, second only to the Wright Brothers….maybe,… and he needed my help.”

Allison catalogued the letter. “Is that everything?”

“Well, there’s an ashtray from the Casa Zorayda speakeasy in St Augustine…oh, and the magic beans you picked up in the Voodoo shop.”

“The ones that were supposed to help me get pregnant.”

“I suppose they worked,” said Max, “although I think I helped.”

Allison smiled.

“Ah,”said Max, “here’s a copy of American Show Dog Magazine with that article you wrote back in 1920. The only dog article you ever wrote as I recall.”

Allison looked at the magazine and read the note pinned to the cover. “Good article, Allison. You covered Irish Wolfhounds almost as well as I do. Signed, Jacqueline Stilwell.”

“Jacqueline Stilwell,” Max repeated, shaking his head. “Now there was a character worthy of the Eastern Shore. I can still see her face when the police chief Vickers accused her of murdering her husband at their lavish mansion Casa Leone and my reporter pal Chip Carswell started digging up her  yard looking for the body.”

“Yes, and you got drawn into it as well,” Allison said. “I’m glad that’s over. Well, anything else?”

“A few odds and ends. We can put them in a box and stash it in the closet.”

“This isn’t so bad. We can arrange it in the guest bedroom. It’ll be like sleeping in a family album.” She folded the list and stretched. “What say we have a glass of lemonade to catch our breath?”

 

A few minutes later, Max and Allison were seated on wicker chairs on their porch with glasses of lemonade. The sun was getting higher and the cicadas were tuning up for the day. The surrounding woods were a mosaic of soft green with patches of sunlight scattered about.

Allison took a sip of her lemonade.

“How do you feel?” Max asked.

She shifted slightly in the chair. “Morning sickness doesn’t usually start until the sixth week or so and its only been about four, but sometimes I wonder if there’s a better way of doing this.”

“You’re doing fine,” said Max, looking at the brightness on the horizon. “You’ll be as good at motherhood as you are at everything else. All those souvenirs we just went through are yours as well as mine. We’re a team, and a damned good one.”

Allison took another sip and looked at the woods in silence for a while. Finally, she spoke. “We have been through a lot, haven’t we?”

“Hey, I told you our life was going to be an adventure. You should have known it the first time we met.”

Allison smiled. “Oh, yes. Most couples meet, court a bit, then get married for better or worse, but not us. We had to be different.”

“Well, to be fair, it wasn’t all by choice. There was a war, an epidemic, and a bunch of other complications…”

“Including a murder on a Navy ship and that weird business of the Irish Wolfhound at Casa Leone,” Allison reminded him. “How we wound up married with all that going on is a mystery in itself.”

“Maybe you should write that story someday,” said Max. “That would liven up some of those magazines you write for.”

“It would, but who would believe it? I hardly believe it all myself,” said Allison.

“The whole thing was pretty unlikely. I was working at a repair garage on Route 1 to pay for college at Maryland State in College  Park, and you were a Goucher girl returning from research in Washington.”

Allison nodded. “I remember it was raining in buckets, and I was on my way home from DC. I was low on gas and my tire was losing air, so I pulled into your garage. You came out in the pounding rain and asked if I wanted my windshield washed. It was the first laugh I had had all day. You filled my tank,  fixed my tire, and came by to see me the next day with flowers.”

“I told you; the flowers were for the car in case it didn’t make it.”

“Sure they were. We started seeing each other and you graduated and went off to join the Navy and fight the Kaiser. I graduated and went to work at the Sunpapers in Baltimore.”

“But I finally got back.”

“After solving a murder on your ship and chumming up with that Collette in France. I was worried about that.”

“Needlessly. Collette was someone I had to work with at the port of Brest to help with the repatriation once the Armistice was signed. She was a nice person who had a lot of tragedy in her life, including a husband killed in the war. France is full of Collettes.”

“But you liked her.”

“I liked her very much. She was intelligent, poised, and easy on the eyes, just like you. Most of all, she was not only a woman, but the only person I could talk to who wasn’t in the Navy. That meant a lot at that point, but I was always anxious to get back to you.”

“Then we got engaged and came over to the Eastern Shore and met some very interesting people. The best was your Uncle Bingo.”

Max smiled. “Good old Uncle Bingo. The world’s champion grouch…to everyone but you. He went off to California and left us the house as a wedding present.”

“God bless him. So years later, here we are; several solved murder cases under our belt and ready to settle down to a life of domestic tranquility with our new baby. ”

“And I have gone from employee to independent consultant, so I can make my own schedule. That should come in handy when the baby comes.”

“Yes. Do you think we’ll ever get involved in another murder case?”

“Don’t ask me. I didn’t go looking for the cases we did get involved in. They showed up at our doorstep. Still, I think things have finally quieted down.”

“Amen.”

Max put his arm around her and pulled her closer, then frowned.

“Do you hear that?”

“Just a couple of ducks having a domestic dispute.”

“I don’t think so. It sounds like….a car coming.”

“Well, tell them to go away. If it’s a Prohibition agent, tell him we gave at the office.”

“It’s headed this way apparently.”

Allison sat up. “Probably someone coming here just to break our mood.”

A Model A appeared around a bend in the driveway.

“That’s  Chief Vickers from the Easton Police,” said Max.

“And judging by his grim expression, he’s not here to sell us tickets to the policeman’s ball.”

The car crunched to a stop on the crushed oyster shell driveway and a short grizzled man with a bushy mustache was out and up the steps to the front porch in one motion.

“Mornin’ Max. Mornin’ Miss Allison.”

“What brings you down this way, Tom?” Max asked, getting right down to business.

Vickers wiped some perspiration from his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “I was in St Michaels just up the road seeing my sister. I called in to the office and they said  there’ s been a murder in Easton. Max I need your help. You too, Miss Allison.”

“Sorry, Tom. I’m pretty busy. Besides, you’ve had murders in town before. You certainly don’t need me.”

“This one’s different. Charles Leroux, a stockbroker, shot three times. They found him in a locked room.”

Max nodded. “All right. You have my attention. It just got interesting.”

“And it happened in the Stilwell Building.”

Allison groaned. “Oh, no.”

Max smiled. “Correction; it just got very interesting. But that doesn’t explain why you need me.”

“Come on Max. You’re the detective. Figure it out. Glenn and Jacqueline Stilwell own the building and named it after themselves. They live in Casa Leone, the biggest, most mysterious and lavish mansion on the Eastern Shore, and have a staff of security guards all around. They are wealthy and eccentric and aren’t shy about throwing their weight around. That means they draw attention. The Stilwells will be breathing down my neck to solve this case in their building before the tenants start to bail out. Jacqueline Stilwell has been sore at me since I accused her of murdering her husband and dug up half her yard to try to prove it back in 1920.”

“Yes; that was a bit awkward,” Max admitted.

“So what sort of cooperation am I going to get out of them? They’ll be demanding action on one hand and hampering me on the other. But she tolerates you and actually likes Allison. I need you both as a buffer.”

Max looked at Allison.

“I see the problem,” she said. “Max, maybe we can help out.”

Max sighed. “You know how I never really liked being a detective? Well I like being a buffer even less. But as usual, Allison’s right. We should help you out.”

“Thanks, both of you.  I’m afraid we can’t pay you, but…”

“Never mind that,” said Max. “So why don’t you head on back to Easton. Allison and I will drive up separately and we’ll meet you at the Stilwell building in an hour. If anyone asks, we were passing by and were curious. Then we’ll see how it goes.”

 

The chief left, and a few minutes later, Max and Allison were in their Model A and heading towards Easton.

“So it looks like we’ll have to tangle with the Stilwells again,” said Max. “I knew they bought that office building up in Easton a few years back, but I never thought we’d get involved with them again.”

“Our paths seem destined to cross,” said Allison. “Why, even before we were married, people were buzzing about Casa Leone, that huge estate the Stilwells were building. Then the rumors started to fly about the mysterious rich folks from Pittsburgh and their strange ways.”

“We got dragged into it even then,” said Max. “Chief Vickers and Chip Carswell at the Star Democrat paper were determined to prove  Jacqueline Stilwell had murdered her husband.”

Allison chuckled. “I remember that whole episode, and you can bet Jacqueline Stilwell does, too. It all started before we were even married and were in the town library with Iris Dalrymple and the formidable Mrs. Stilwell blew in, complete with Irish Wolfhound in tow.”

“I remember it, too. How could I forget? Too bad we couldn’t put that in our trophy room!”