Offices of Liberty Investigations
St. Louis, Missouri 6:15 pm
Sunlight streamed through the lace library curtains and dappled brightly across the remnants of the simple meal. Fine China plates, cups and saucers were pushed to the edge of the desk. Cold sandwiches, tepid coffee and Mister Theo Colson had hence been dispatched, and all were being digested alone by father and daughter. Every remaining inch of the desk top was strewn with maps, railroad schedules and notes Alexis had taken during Theo’s deposition. There was also a retainer check Theo had brought over from his bank prior to closing, some two hours ago.
Benjamin Free leaned back in his chair at the desk and lit his fat pipe. Slow tendrils of smoke crept from his mouth and curled up through his mustache as he spoke, “Well, Alex, what do you make of it?”
She sat half-on the edge of the desk, tapping her pen absently on her pile of notes, “I think he’s lying. Lying like a fox waiting for someone to leave the hen house door open.”
She tossed her pen on the paperwork and stood to stretch.
“So, you think he is after more than just bringing his niece home safely?”
“I think many things he has told us are but shiny distractions.” She paced away from her father. “He tells a fine account of events, but I need to speak to some of the others involved before I can say more.”
She returned to him slowly. “The wife and the other daughter, for two. I fear there is a darker side to his Edenic household. He speaks of his family as an industrialist speaks of business acquisitions. The way he describes Emma leads me to wonder what his relationship is with her. She is sixteen, a rebellious age, to be sure—as you well remember, Father, but I fear her attitude may be due more to Theo’s oppression than her mourning the loss of her father. And such a short time since the death to swoop in and marry his brother’s grieving widow? It is . . . vulture-ish.”
“So far, my dear, you have only talked about your suspicions of our client and not one word about his reason for this check.” He picked up the bank draft and waved it slowly.
“Yes, Father, that is true, but I wonder if this check is not so much his payment or his penance. We can’t even be sure if he’s spending the grieving family’s money or his own—or how much there is of it.”
“Are you losing sight of the young woman in possible peril at the hands of the ‘highwaymen,’ as Mr. Colson describes them?
“I think that has only a little to do with it. If we take this case, we are not just tracking down the girl, we are getting involved in this whole other dynamic—unless you intend us to drag her home and just place her back in the same situation she was running from in the first place. Who’s to say we are not putting her in greater danger by doing what he asks?”
“Alex, this strays dangerously close to one of your crusades . . .”
“Yes, it does, but to not reach out to find this young girl and help her, could you sleep at night knowing she was left to the whims of the two men—or the enigmatic uncle? What could be better? We crusade and Mister Colson pays us.”
Her father leaned back and let the last splash of daylight through the window warm his face.
She knew she was near the edge with her father so she pushed once more. “If he goes to some other agency and they learned we stepped aside, your reputation and sterling record might get tarnished . . .”
He blinked and squinted at her, “Now you’re playing dirty.” He thrummed his fingers on the train schedule to Kansas City. “I don’t believe he’d be so willing to pay if he knew you were out to bury him.”
“I’m not out to bury him,” she scoffed. “Perhaps my instincts about him are woefully wrong, but there is a mystery here and you know how I do love a challenge.”
“I defer to your expertise, my dear,” he said, picking up that day’s copy of The Saint Louis Post and Dispatch. “After all, I was not the ‘Woman Who Foiled Bank Robber’s Escape—Without Firing A Single Shot’,” he read the headline to her and held it up for her to see.
She took the paper from him and scanned it quickly. “At least you convinced them to leave out that portrait of me. It is bad enough they compromise me by identifying me as a female agent, but how is an undercover detective supposed to detect if their face is plastered on the front page of the paper?”
“Where will you start?”
“Tonight, I will speak to the police and then make my way to interview the woman from the hotel—the neighbor, Estelle.”
“You already suspect what you will discover, don’t you?”
Indicating the newspaper again, “My instincts led me to that brothel, didn’t they?”
“Hm. About that. It was quite a keen assumption the bank robbers would hole up there . . . but why did you have to pose as one of the . . . employees? Your mother had a fit.”
“How else was I supposed to get close to them? Besides, it was quite enlightening how the other half lives, and I didn’t have to do anything, except catch them with their pants down. Literally.”
Her father laughed heartily. “Fine, fine. What will the next move be after the questioning?”
“This is only a very rough guess,” she said, picking up a train schedule, “but I would say we are going to spend a great deal of the retainer on train fare and telegrams of their descriptions.”
“Yes, the police sergeant let slip to Colson that the Estelle woman mentioned a Grandfather out in Arizona . . .”
“I had hoped Colson would let slip something more about the old man in Arizona.”
“There’s a lot of slipping going on here, Alex. Just make sure you don’t fall.”
“Wise words, Father.” She collected her notes and turned to leave.
Benjamin Free relit his pipe and called out to her. “Please try to be careful, and don’t come home too late! Your mother will not herself sleep until you’re abed.”
“That should be the company motto: ‘Be careful, and don’t come home late.’ Tell her I am out with that dreadful sop, Kendall—the one she keeps trying to prop me up with.” She trailed off and out of the office.
“He’s not a bad fellow, actually, if you give him a chance . . .” he whispered to no one.
Alexis Free hurried along the uneven, cobbled road, frowning as she reckoned what was to come. The disdain between private investigators and local law enforcement was similar to jealous suitors vying for the hand of the same maiden. The police believed they were the God-chosen mate for the damsel and the detectives were but greedy rapscallions leading the poor girl down the path of ruin. The private detectives, for their turn, were sure the police were but bumbling buffoons who could not possibly deliver true happiness to the girl.
That being the case, Alex rarely gave an indication of her occupation when dealing with the police, and today would be no different. Her being a private snoop was enough to get her tossed into the street, but the fact she was a woman investigator granted her a swift kick, to boot. So, she approached the sergeant’s desk with coyness and allure mixed with a healthy dollop of dramatic, sloppy dismay. Though she was no Sarah Bernhart, she could act with the best of them. By fluttering her eyelids and tilting her head just so, she plied her womanly allure thicker than marmalade on a biscuit.
“I was wondering if I may ask for information pertaining to the abduction of my niece, Emma Colson, earlier today?”
“You are related to that Theodore Colson fellow?” the man asked officiously.
“Yes, Sir,” eyes watering. “He is my brother.”
The sergeant bent low to whisper down to her. “Well, I cannot see the resemblance. You are a bit more refined and polite than that—” He cleared his throat and straightened.
She worked up a look desperate enough to get the sergeant to pull the report and read most of it to her. He deferred to her gentle mien and left out some of the gory details of the assault.
He recited much of what she already knew, but had two versions of the ordeal and the descriptions of the men, giving a more vivid picture of things. He also let slip the morsel regarding the Grandfather. His name was Gideon Colson, and the area near where he lived in the Arizona Territory was called Skull Valley, outside of Prescott.
“What is to be done now?” She asked, waving a handkerchief in her face, eyes aflutter.
“I’m sorry to say, not much, Ma’am,” he answered. “We have only so much manpower and it looks as if the two men and your niece have moved on to warmer climes by now.”
That was good news to Alex, for she didn’t have to worry about stepping on any shiny police boots on her way to Emma. The local uniforms were already smarting from a woman solving their most recent bank robbery for them. And they’d already rankled when the bank brought in their own investigators. It showed a lack of respect for the force, and their skills, despite the fact the under-confidence was earned.
She must have made a favorable impression as a damsel in distress, however, for the sergeant once again got low to the desk and added, “If you leave me your address, I can make sure I contact you personally if we discover anything else.”
She let it hang there a moment and then said, “You can contact me through my brother, officer.”
Deflated, he went back to his paperwork, but as she crossed the threshold of the precinct building, he stopped her. “Hold on a moment, there, ma’am!”
She froze and slowly turned. “Yes?”
“Did your brother get nose looked at? That was awful.”
“Yes, thank you,” she exhaled in relief. “He had it tended to, it snapped right back.”
Her next stop was Estelle at the Crawford. Estelle was not there. She was told Estelle was not expected to return to work until Monday. Her only day off was tomorrow, a Sunday.
Alex asked to speak to the night manager. When she handed the man her Liberty Investigations card, his polite but silent facade melted into gushing admiration. “Miss Free, we are honored to have you visiting our hotel! Please, anything we can do to help, just ask and it shall be done, if at all possible.”
She knew the reason for his swift change in demeanor was her recent notoriety. She’d actually counted on it. “If you could happen to inform me as to the address of this employee, I am sure I would be happy to return the favor at some later date . . .”
The manager had resembled a variety show magician with his black coat, shiny lapels and silk bow tie. This image was fortified as he made a slip of paper suddenly appear on the marble counter. Alex swept her hand across it and made it disappear just as quickly.
Hotels from time to time require problems or puzzles to be solved quickly and discretely. Why not have the great Alexis Free and the Liberty Investigations Company at hand to be of service?
She noted the address was near the Colson family home. She decided to resume her questioning in the morning. It would be more convenient to visit them both on the same trip. At least Alex’s mother would sleep soundly with her daughter home for one last night.