Black Orchid Novella Award

We’re pleased to present the 2018 BONA winning story by Mark Bruce. We liked his crisply drawn characters, unusual setting—Sacramento in the early ’60s—and his well-plotted whodunit. AHMM and the Wolfe Pack, the official appreciation society for Rex Stout and his enduring duo, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, cosponsor the contest to promote the novella form and the classic rationcinative detective. For more information on the organization and the contest, go to Nerowolfe.com.

Minerva James and the Goddess of Justice

by Mark Bruce
 

When she aimed the pistol barrel at my forehead I began to question my choice of career.

“It would be a shame to put a bullet between those two beautiful blue eyes,” she said.

“I would have to agree,” I said.

*   *   *

Days before, I’d been summoned to an office on L Street in downtown Sacramento, near Capitol Park. The building was a smooth-sided granite edifice, with a dozen windows like questioning eyes looking out onto the green expanse of the park. From any of those windows you could see the Capitol Dome.

Only a few blocks away sat the dilapidated area of buildings on I Street known as “Old Town.” The great debate in Sacramento in 1962 was whether to tear down those Gold Rush era wooden firetraps or restore them to their former glory as a tourist destination.

Personally, I believed that most people would rather visit Hades than Old Town. I blamed the criminal element—the California Legislature convened right down the block.

I sat in a subdued but tasteful waiting room on the tenth floor—shag carpeting in muted blues, healthy plants in large pots, indecipherable art on the walls.

The receptionist was a no-nonsense redhead who had taken my name and then had given me nary a glance. I’d tried to start a conversation by commenting on the beautiful February weather and the prospect of an early spring. I suggested it would be helpful to the newly transplanted San Francisco Giants in attracting crowds for their pennant run. She ignored me.

I’m six foot one, one seventy. I have lustrous brown hair and what women call a “pretty face.” I think I’m ruggedly handsome, but my round chin and full lips betray me.

My best feature? My deep blue eyes, the shade of an early morning ocean. Women consider me good-looking, affable, charming. I do my best not to disappoint them.

The receptionist was not in my fan club. I noted that her wedding ring finger was bare. She had short hair, a heart-shaped face, and impassive brown eyes. It irked me that my charms were lost on her, but it takes all kinds to make a world.

You are telling yourself that Carson Robinson is a dog and a sexist and all those other terms we use now to describe the Neanderthal attitudes of the past. Like most men of my generation, I was an idiot when it came to women. I tended to underestimate them. But I never viewed women as toys.

So I put her out of my mind and instead sat in the waiting room, hat in hand, thinking. Why had I been called to the offices of the most notorious lawyer in Capitol City?

Minerva James. If you live in Sacramento, the name stirs memories of flashy murder trials, million-dollar harassment cases, and the unfortunate end of the only man she ever married.

Minerva James didn’t come cheaply. You hired her because freedom meant more to you than money. She had an enviable record in front of juries, both in her early career as a prosecutor and later as the most ferocious defense attorney in the Valley. Clients paid big money for that record.

Why would a high-class act like Minerva James summon a beaten veteran like me? I had only just obtained my license after two years of struggle and an initial failure to pass the licensing exam. I was not the type of hot-shot investigator that Minerva James’s clients would happily pay for.

“Miss James will see you now,” the receptionist said, rising from her desk. “Follow me, please.” She did not add please don’t stare at my caboose on the way in. Studiously, I did not.

The redheaded receptionist opened the door to a large office. The windows looked out to the expansive Capitol Park and the Capitol Dome. Wallpaper was warm blue. Abstract art dotted the otherwise bare walls. A bronze statue of Lady Justice stood on a podium in the right corner. There were none of the usual idiotic awards from local civic groups or photos of the lawyer with famous politicians. Minerva James did not need to impress you.

The lawyer’s desk was half the size of the Titanic. Every inch of surface was taken with papers, file folders, and—I could see underneath an open facedown book—a black revolver.

The few framed photos on the desk were turned away from me. The lawyer was looking over papers so all I could see of her was a head of curly black hair cut in a style best described as “sensible.”

“Mr. Robinson,” Minerva said, not looking up at me. She didn’t stand up. “Have a seat.”

I moved a few thick law books from the leather captain’s chair in front of her desk and parked myself. I said nothing. As Mark Twain once observed, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

Minerva James scanned a legal document, made a notation, then gave herself a little smile. “Just finishing up,” she said more to herself than me.

She finally looked up and I nearly gasped. She had the stunning grave beauty of a Roman statue of the Goddess of Wisdom, with her long patrician nose, elegant face, and lips as if carved in stone. She had a young face even though she was likely twenty years older than I.

What went through me like a lightning bolt were her eyes. They were deep and searching gray.

“Mr. Robinson,” she said, in a low, dark voice that was nonetheless musical. “You were referred to me as a man I might utilize to our mutual benefit.”

“Referred? By whom?” I asked.

“Never you mind,” she said. She pulled a file toward her and scanned a few papers from it. “You were in the Army.”

“Five years.”

“In combat,” she said, a question in her voice. In 1962, America was supposed to be at peace.

“A place you’ve never heard of called Vietnam,” I said. “I was an advisor.”

“Did you give them the benefit of your advice?” she asked.

“Yes, but they didn’t want to take it.”

“And your advice was . . .” she said.

“To get out of that godforsaken jungle as fast as we could while our investment in money and lives is still minimal.”

“You don’t subscribe to the domino theory?” she said archly.

“Our allies are corrupt and have no fight. Our enemies are highly motivated. That’s a bad combination for any nation, even one with God on its side.” I folded my arms. Was this all about my discharge for insubordination? But she merely nodded.

“So you can think for yourself,” she said.

“If I am asked to do a job, I do it well,” I said. “But I don’t believe in sugar coating . . . uh, garbage to make it go down easier.”

“As I was told,” she said. “Mr. Robinson, I am in need of a private investigator. I have a case in which there might be some danger. It calls for a man of perception and nerve.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “What’s the case?”

“You’ve probably read about it in the Sacramento Bee,” she said. A copy of the Bee sat amid the papers on her desk. I noted the headline circled in red.

“Holy Moses, you’re not talking about the Jack Handley case,” I said.

“Indeed,” she said.

Jack Handley was the scion of a family of real estate moguls. The Handleys owned about a quarter of the land between the Sacramento Valley and Monterey. Jack Handley and his girlfriend had been seen engaged in a screaming fit at The Broiler, a hangout for politicos and celebrities. She had stalked out. He had followed her. In an alley ten blocks away, the girl had been found dead, her breast punctured with what the papers called a stiletto.

Minerva shuffled a few papers on her desk. When she saw I had caught up, she examined me with her distracting gray eyes.

“Mr. Robinson, if I asked you to do something dirty and underhanded, would you do it?”

“No,” I said. She looked at me in surprise.

“I thought you needed work,” she said.

“I need a soul, too,” I said. “And that is not for sale.”

She gave me a brief smile.

“Usually when I ask a man that question, he tries to engage me in a philosophical argument on the changing nature of morality and situational ethics,” she said.

“I know better than to challenge the Goddess of Wisdom to a debate.”

She burned a gaze into me, her gray eyes suddenly aflame. She was impressed.

“Very well, then,” she said, pulling a contract out of the folder. “Twenty-five dollars an hour, a two-hundred dollar retainer, expenses. You are to give me regular reports.”

I reviewed the contract. Despite the expensive nature of the pay, it was
rather standard, the signature required in blue or black ink, not blood. I signed.

She picked up another file.

“This is a copy of the police report and the autopsy on the case. The client will be in at one o’clock to talk to us. You are never, I repeat, never to talk to the client without me. Is that clear?”

“Yes, boss,” I said.

She gave me an appraising look to see if I was being sarcastic. Satisfied, she reached over the desk with the file. As she handed me the folder, our hands brushed. I felt a bit of static electricity spark between us. I was going to make a comment, but thought better of it. She read my mind anyway.

“I want to be perfectly clear about something,” she said in a stern tone. “Our working relationship is not some cheap television show where you are the sexy P.I. and I am the beautiful lawyer you work for and secretly love. I will not tolerate any romantic nonsense. I’ve had problems with other male investigators because they think they are devastatingly handsome and that I can’t resist them. You are, admittedly, better looking than most. But I can easily resist you.”

“I believe that, boss,” I said.

She stood and walked over to the window looking out on Capitol Park. She was wearing a blood-red blouse and a pearl-white business skirt. She had the stern curves of a statue.

“It is difficult to practice law in this town as a woman, and a single woman at that. It took me years to establish myself, and I am not about to risk it for a pair of pretty blue eyes.”

“Understood, boss.”

She came back over to the desk and sat down.

“I need to rely on your professionalism. If you can’t keep foolish notions out of your head about single women lawyers, you need to tell me now so we can part as friends.” Her expression was imperious.

“Boss, the thought never crossed my mind. I am fully aware of what happens to mortals who would have dalliance with a goddess.”

*   *   *

The receptionist guided me to a small office down the hallway. Inside, a midsize desk sat near the back wall. A small window looked over the park. I sat in the metal swivel chair and regarded the file.

The Bee articles detailed how Victoria Posner had been found dead in an alley in Old Town. A picture of the girl as she’d looked in life accompanied the story: long, dark hair, sweet round nose, round chin, sparkling eyes. She looked like trouble. You could see it in the mischievous turn of her face.

The puncture wound on her chest appeared to have been made by “a long thin knife, similar to a stiletto,” the paper said. The stiletto had been deadly accurate, puncturing the heart. There was very little blood around the wound, which was unusual. When the heart is stabbed, it should create a geyser of blood.

One article noted that police had arrested Jack Handley, the son of a famous local family. He had been seen chasing after the deceased after an argument about Victoria’s alleged infidelity. He had said something unwise in the nature of “I will kill you before I see you with that man!” How helpful to the police, I thought.

In my limited experience since gaining my P.I. license, bystanders heard what they thought they should hear. They’ve been indoctrinated by television.

One article ended by noting that Jack Handley was being held on five hundred thousand dollar bail. Which meant that he was out—his family could afford to put up a cash bail. All Jack had to do was show up for court, and they would receive every penny back.

I looked at the coroner’s report. The heart had exploded, it said. The blood had stayed in the body rather than spouting out of the wound. There was no speculation as to what weapon might have been used.

The police report stated that homicide detectives had gone to Jack’s Twenty-fifth Street apartment near Saint Francis Church and found the young lad waiting for them.

“I knew it would come to this,” he had told police. Then he’d made damaging statements about how Victoria had broken off their engagement that night and how angry and desolate he had been. “I wanted her dead,” he told the cops. But he’d stopped short of saying he’d killed her.

A memo in the file from Minerva noted she was going to move to suppress the statements Jack made to the police on the grounds that he had not been given his rights to remain silent, per the Fifth Amendment. This was four years before Miranda v. Arizona. Minerva was ahead of the curve.

Police had talked to Victoria’s Sacramento State roommate, who did not help Jack at all.

“She was humming the song Last Date the whole time she was getting ready to go out. She seemed almost giddy, almost cruel in how much this would hurt Jack. Then she put a little pistol in her purse. ‘You never know how things will turn out,’ she said before she left.”

The police had also talked to patrons of The Broiler who had heard the argument. The consensus was that the argument went like this:

“I’m done with you, Jack. You’re a weakling and a coward.”

“Why don’t I show you just how strong I can be?” Jack did not say this in a loving way.

Victoria had laughed.

“What are you going to do? Kill me?”

“This big shot you’re mixed up with won’t make you happy.”

“Happy? Who cares about happy? I care about my career.”

“I can help you,” Jack suddenly began to plead. “My family can help you.”

“I’ve got better help.”

“Please!” He had grabbed her sleeve. She’d shaken it loose and had pulled the pistol out of her purse. Jack backed off.

“See?” she said cruelly. “A coward.”

“You will pay for this humiliation,” he said.

Then she’d picked up her purse and had vacated the premises. Jack pursued her into the night.

The police report noted that Victoria Posner was a student at Sacramento State, the new college in the Valley. She had been interning for State Senator Kelsnor at the time of her demise. This death would likely cause a bit of trouble for Senator Kelsnor, as he was thinking of a run for national office to become a grown-up senator in Washington. The police report noted he and his wife Renata lived in nearby Citrus Heights.

The officer writing the report did not think Victoria’s political work had anything to do with her death. This was the work of a jealous lover, he said, pure and simple. He had no idea as to how the jealous lover had exploded the poor girl’s heart while leaving only a negligible mark on her body.

I wondered if the girl had been having an affair with Senator Kelsnor. But in the packet was a photo from the Bee of a social function the same night of the murder. Senator Kelsnor stood with two members of the Women’s Democratic Club and their husbands. There had been a campaign fund-raiser that night, and the press had been invited. Sort of hard to kill a girl while wearing a tux, despite what James Bond makes you believe.

I made notes. I made a to-do list. I wrote out questions I needed to ask witnesses. And I kept in mind that often the harried and too-busy cops misheard things, got statements wrong, or otherwise made mistakes because they’d made up their minds about how something was supposed to have happened. As the old cliché goes, I know what happened, don’t confuse me with the facts.

The receptionist opened the door to my office without knocking.

“Miss James wishes for you to join her in the conference room,” she said. “The client has arrived.”

“Thanks. By the way . . .” I smiled, trying to defrost the icy reception my charm was meeting. “If we’re going to work together, I should know your name.”

“My name is irrelevant,” she said. “Miss James and the client are waiting.”

*   *   *

A large, yellow pine table polished to a shine dominated the conference room. Along the back wall was a credenza. Coffee and assorted fruits were set out. I didn’t dare pour myself a cup.

Jack Handley was a handsome if winsome fellow. He had a shock of black hair and quizzical brown eyes. He looked like he couldn’t take a punch. He looked like he’d never had to.

He wore a blue shirt open at the collar and blue jeans. He sat in the chair as if it were too much effort to sit still but he was bravely bearing the ennui.

Minerva sat at the head of the table, studying the file before her like a holy writ. When I walked in, she looked up and regarded me gravely.

“Mr. Robinson, this is our client Jack Handley,” she said. Jack and I shook hands. His hands were moist and his shake barely there.

“Nice to meet you, Jack,” I lied.

“Jack is out on bail,” Minerva said unnecessarily. “This is our first conference and I’d like you to take notes. If a question occurs to you, feel free to ask it.” Her tone indicated that I was not to ask questions.

“Okay, Miss James,” I said. Calling her boss in front of the client would be a bit too cheeky.

She started with the basics: how he and the deceased met and became involved with one another.

“It was just one of those things,” he said. “I went to Sac State because my grades weren’t good enough for the UC’s.” The University of California system was rather stodgy on issues like grades. The recently formed State College system was less concerned with such and would have welcomed a rich scion like Jack. “Anyway, Vicky and I met in a poli-sci class. She was a whiz. She had that stuff at her fingertips. A natural. I struggled. She helped me. One night I let it slip that I was from wealth, but she said she’d already figured that out. Because she’d said, ‘Don’t think it means I’ll sleep with you just because you have money.’ She was a proud girl.”

He let a little smile stumble across his face at the memory.

“Of course, we ended up being lovers anyway. It was just one of those things. Late nights hitting the books and the next thing you know . . .”

“Yes,” Minerva said. “We don’t need details. Were you engaged?”

“Yes and no,” he said. “I loved that girl, loved her madly. The family was a bit apprehensive at first, but she charmed them all. It was going very well. But then she got involved with someone else. Someone powerful, she said. Someone who could help her political career.”

“Who?” I asked. Minerva looked at me in annoyance. I tried not to shrug.

“She never said,” Jack sighed. “Just that it was someone who was already in office who could help a girl like her get the right start in politics.”

“Did she mention the senator she worked for?” Minerva asked.

“No. But that’s who I thought it was. Senator Kelsnor. He’s an old guy—in his fifties. She was young and attractive. They worked hard together—at one point I barely saw Vicky. When I complained, she said she’d let me take her to dinner at The Broiler.”

He shook his head.

“There are better places in town. But she said she liked The Broiler because a lot of politicians and big shots frequented the place. She was completely besotted with politics. So I took her there.”

He paused.

“Then she hit me with it: She didn’t want to marry me. It wouldn’t look good, being married to a rich guy whose family was involved in a lot of shady real estate deals. She wanted a clean break. I argued with her. My family may not always play by the rules—business is a hardball pursuit—but we don’t do ‘shady’ deals. I’m afraid we got loud.”

Minerva gestured at me.

“Mr. Robinson, would you read to Jack the account of the discussion reported in the police report?”

Anticipating she might want something like this, I had brought the report with me. I read the account to Jack.

“That’s sort of what happened,” he said. “Except I never said anything about humiliating me and I certainly didn’t say something like I was gonna kill her before she went with someone else. That’s kind of something they’d say on TV, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Minerva said.

“What about telling the cops you knew it would come to this?” I asked. This time the boss didn’t glare at me.

“I did say that,” he said. “But what I meant was that Vicky was playing a dangerous game. I could sense that this guy she was involved with was too powerful to let a twenty-four-year-old girl have an affair with him and then use him for a stepping stone. If news of the affair got out, he’d be ruined.”

“Because he was married?” I asked. Jack scrunched up his face trying to remember.

“That’s what I thought at the time,” he said. “But now that you ask, she never mentioned a jealous wife. Still. Most politicians are married. There had to be a wife. And if the public found out a fifty-year-old married guy was having a fling with a young girl, he’d be done.”

I nodded.

“I think that’s why she was carrying the gun with her. She said she was going to meet someone after dinner who was going to secure her future. She didn’t say more, but when I saw the gun I thought there was going to be trouble.”

“She didn’t bring the gun for you?” I asked.

He spread his hands out apologetically.

“Not me,” he said. “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

*   *   *

After the client was gone, Minerva gestured me to come to her office. I thought I was going to be scolded for asking questions, but she gestured to the captain’s chair and stood near the window looking out on the Capitol Dome.

“In the past,” she said without preamble, “I’ve had problems with men thinking they’re smarter than I am. So they try to catch ‘the real killer’ or ‘solve the mystery.’ I blame movies and television. The big strong male P.I. always solves the crime and gets the girl.”

She sighed heavily.

“Boss,” I said earnestly, “I’m delighted with not getting the girl. As you’ve guessed, women tend to fall all over me. Thing is, I’m a bit of a lone wolf. I’m not looking for a wife or a girlfriend. So it makes my life all the easier that there’s no sexual tension between us.”

Her arched eyebrows raised.

“The person who referred you to me knew both of us well,” she said. “And I thank you for that. But what I was trying to tell you is that I do not want you thinking you’re Sam Spade.”

“It is an occupational hazard,” I said.

“One you must avoid, Mr. Robinson.” She walked over to a corner of the room where, on a pedestal, stood the bronze statue of blind Justice. Minerva touched the statue’s head lovingly.

“This is a reproduction of the bronze Lady Justice that sits atop the Placer County Courthouse,” she said. “Her Latin name is Justicia. She is the Goddess of Justice.”

“Justicia,” I said like a good student. She nodded.

“You will notice that in one hand she has balance scales and in the other a sword. The scales are to weigh the evidence. The sword is to punish the guilty.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“Our job for the defense is to work with the scales. We’re looking for reasonable doubt. It is not our job to solve the case or bring in the guilty unless that benefits our clients. Capturing the guilty is the job of law enforcement and the district attorney. And a dangerous and sometimes deadly job it is. They are the sword. We are the scales. Am I clear?”

“As a mountain stream, boss,” I said. “You want me to bring you back information that you will use to help the client. You’re Nero Wolfe and I’m Archie.”

Her brows contracted for a moment, then relaxed.

“Ah, Rex Stout. That’s not a bad model to work from, Mr. Robinson.” She turned again and looked at the Capitol dome, her pearl white dress catching the afternoon sun.

“Now,” she said, “I think you have places to go and people to see. Report to me after each interview. Find a pay phone. I will tell you which interviews to reduce to writing and which to keep between us.”

“Thanks for trusting me, boss,” I said sincerely.

“Please earn that trust, Mr. Robinson,” she said.

*   *   *

The Broiler had been around for years. Back before Democrats were hapless Hobbits and Republicans were voracious wolves, in the years when the two parties were truly two sides of the same coin, the politicians would gather at The Broiler to strike deals over steak and potatoes, then toast the deal with a nice scotch and soda.

The place smelled of charred steak and scotch. I walked in a little before five that afternoon. The Broiler was nearly all booths dressed in red faux leather and dark pine tables. No music played overhead—the inhabitants of The Broiler did not wish to be distracted by even the blandest of music. The dim lighting made it seem like a cave.

It was a poor choice to take a date—unless your date was in love with politics. Then it was like hanging out at Sardi’s in New York—you never knew who would come in.

A young man in dark slacks and a white shirt with a clip-on black bow tie met me at the front. He asked if I had a reservation. I wanted to make the old Groucho joke of having reservations about eating in a place like that, but I decided to play it straight. I told him why I was there.

This elicited a frown from his delicate young face.

“Just a minute,” he said.

A few minutes later an older, portly man with a round face and a wreath of gray hair around his otherwise balding head came out the back. He wore the same attire as the young man.

“I’m the manager of The Broiler,” he said in a tone in which one might say I’m the captain of this ship and I can have you hung by the yardarms. “What can I do for you?”

I explained again who I was and why I was there.

“I’m sorry, but I cannot allow you to disrupt this place of business,” he said with finality.

I nodded as if he was saying the most reasonable thing in the world.

“Very well,” I said. “I had hoped to be discreet. You know how notorious this case is. But I respect your right to refuse informal inquiries. I will tell Miss Minerva James that we’ll have to subpoena the entire staff for the preliminary hearing next week. It’s on a Friday. You’re not too busy on Fridays, are you?”

The man’s imperious expression crumbled to panic.

“You can’t do that!” he sputtered. He actually sputtered. I got a bit of spittle on my coat.

“I believe the defense is given subpoena power for reluctant witnesses,” I said. I turned to go. The man grabbed my sleeve.

“It will be impossible to close the restaurant on a Friday!” he said in a pleading tone. “And the publicity would kill us!” What he meant was, if The Broiler became known as a hangout for criminals, the politicians would stop coming. Something about competition.

I nodded again.

“There is that possibility. You have my sympathies. But you know who I work for. She is not a person to be trifled with.”

His face grew even more ashen as he considered the possibility of the wrath of Minerva James.

“Look,” he said, pulling me aside as if others were listening, “can’t we work something out?” The dealmaking of the pols had rubbed off on the help, I thought.

“Well . . .” I drawled in my best Jimmy Stewart.

“Perhaps a complimentary T-bone steak dinner,” he said conspiratorially.

“Perhaps,” I admitted, realizing I was hungry. It would save the boss the cost of such a meal on the expense account. “But I can’t go back to Miss James empty handed. I need to talk to someone.”

His face fell.

“Could be,” I continued, “that you could have the waiter who served Mr. Handley and his date the night of the incident also serve me. And allow him to talk to me. I think that might be sufficient.”

The man shook my hand as if I’d just sold him a Buick.

*   *   *

I ensconced myself into the faux leather seat, which gave in with a pleasing whoosh. The portly man assured me he would take care of everything. I smiled and thanked him. It was all very polite considering that he really wanted just to kill me.

In a few minutes a female sprite in black pants, white shirt, and clip-on tie appeared at my table.

“Sir, your steak will be out in a few minutes,” she said.

“Thank you, my dear.” She looked about twenty-two. Short strawberry blonde hair, green eyes, freckles. “Are you the unfortunate girl who waited on Jack Handley and Victoria Posner the last time they ate here?” I asked.

A dark cloud passed over her face.

“Those two,” she said with distaste.

“Your manager told you I was an investigator?” I asked.

“No, sir,” she said. Her face shut down.

There are rules. I must tell all witnesses that I am a P.I. and that I am working for the defense. No undercover in this business, despite what Mickey Spillane tells you. I showed her my P.I. license.

“Please sit for a moment,” I said.

“We’re not allowed to sit with the customers,” she said.

“I think this once there’ll be an exception.” It was the license that convinced her. It looks so damned official and we are taught from our childhood to answer the nice policeman’s questions. The girl sat.

“Now, there,” I said. “I’m not going to try to trick you or get you into trouble.”

“I’m just nervous,” she said. She tried to smile.

“Nothing to be nervous about,” I said, then added in a joking voice, “unless you were the one who killed Victoria Posner.”

That comment produced a quick flash of shock, anger, then fear. Interesting.

“Your name?” I asked, pretending I hadn’t noticed the slip. I took out my little notebook, which resembled the ones the cops use.

“Sherry Case. I’m a student at Sac State.”

“What do you study?”

“Poli-Sci. I’m hoping to become an assistant to one of the legislators like Vicky is. Was.”

“You knew her?” I asked, trying to mask my surprise.

“Classmate,” she said.

“Friends?” I asked. She hesitated.

“No,” she finally said.

“Rivals?” I asked. She looked at me in surprise. I didn’t need an answer. It hit me in a flash. “Rivals for Jack?”

She got up.

“I don’t need to answer these questions,” she said. “I’ve got rights.”

“Please sit,” I said conciliatorily. “I know you didn’t kill Miss Posner.”

She regarded me suspiciously.

“How do you know that?” she asked.

“Because she was dead before you got off work that night,” I said. Actually, I knew no such thing, but it seemed to calm the girl. She sat.

“Okay,” she said. “Yes, I had eyes for Jack. We even dated for a while. But I wanted to wait until we were married. Then Vicky came along and she had no problem with sex before marriage. Guess which girl the young rich guy wanted to be with?”

I nodded in sympathy. “So when you had to wait on them that night it must’ve been hard.”

“I’d done it before. I think Vicky liked to bring Jack here to taunt me. Truth is, I’ve given up on him. He is a coward. Just as she said.”

“What did they talk about that night?” I asked.

“They would stop talking when I’d come to serve them,” she said. “I only heard bits and pieces.”

“Such as?”

“She was tired of him. He didn’t like that. It hurt his rich boy’s ego to think a working girl could throw him over, with all his money. It wasn’t ending well.”

“What about the shouting in front of the whole restaurant?”

“I was in the kitchen. I heard yelling but when I got out to the dining room Vicky was stalking out and Jack was sitting at the table looking like a cat who’d had water dumped on him.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “The police say Jack followed her out the door.”

“Nope,” she said. “He just sat there for a while. Then he paid his bill and slunk out the door.”

“What about the gun? Police say she pulled a gun on Jack.”

She laughed.

“I’d have paid money to see that.” She wiped a tear of laughter from her eye. “He is a coward, as I said. He probably turned into a ghost when she pulled that little pistol on him.”

“You’d seen it before,” I said.

“Yeah. It was a derringer she carried on her all the time. She used to tell the other students that she was dealing with some dangerous people in the Capitol and she needed to be sure she could protect herself.”

“Evidently she didn’t get the chance,” I said.

“Evidently.” Sherry shifted in her seat.

“What about this big shot that Jack seems to think she was having an affair with?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Sherry said. “She was not shy about using all of her tools to get ahead, if you know what I mean.” She turned toward the kitchen. “Look, I really should get back to my other tables. I have a VIP over there and he needs to be pampered.”

I looked to the table she gestured toward. A familiar face sat amidst three well-fed pols in gray business suits.

“Isn’t that Ronald Reagan?” I asked.

She winked at me.

“He’s evidently working on giving the nominating speech at one of the Republican conventions coming up. He has political ambitions. Word is, he might even run for governor.”

I laughed. Yes, I’m afraid I laughed.

“A washed-up second-rate actor like him?” I said, shaking my head. “He costarred with a chimpanzee, for heaven’s sake. Now, if it was Henry Fonda . . . People already think of him as Young Mr. Lincoln.”

*   *   *

The next morning I made my report to Minerva. She sat at her desk looking through me, absorbing every word. Today she wore a dark blue blouse and another pearl white business skirt. I didn’t mention Reagan for fear she’d think I was kidding her.

When I finished there were three minutes of silence. She had not taken a single note. Finally she turned, looked out the window and spoke, almost as if to herself.

“This is good. Sherry Case can be a possible suspect. Jealous over Vicky’s hold on Jack. Despite the argument, she could still believe that killing Victoria would be eliminating a rival for marriage into a rich family.”

She looked at me.

“Did you find when she left work that night?”

“Of course,” I said. I knew she’d ask. “Her shift was over at one. The Broiler closed at eleven, but there was cleanup.”

“Hmm,” Minerva stroked her chin. “The body was found in the alley at one.”

“But,” I said, “she took her dinner break at ten. Two hours after Jack and Victoria left the restaurant. Victoria’s body was found twenty minutes’ walk from the restaurant.”

Minerva looked me over with pleasant surprise.

“You know this because?”

“I walked it myself,” I said. I felt like I was about to be given a gold star.

“It would be tight, but it would fit. Not impossible,” she said, again looking out the window. “The problem would be the weapon. She couldn’t have brought it with her to work.”

“What about those long skewers they use for shish kebab?” I asked.

“Oh, very good, Mr. Robinson. Very good. Very well. We have a suspect that can provide us with a bit of reasonable doubt. But let’s see what else we can find. Please write up your interview with Miss Case and give it to Arachne.”

“Arachne? The spider?” I asked stupidly. She smiled mischievously at me.

“Surely a man of your sensibilities noticed the femme fatale at the front desk.”

“Can’t say I have,” I lied. She didn’t dignify this with a response. She looked at a paper on her desk.

“You’ve done well so far,” she said, not looking up. “Who do you plan to talk to next?”

“Senator Kelsnor,” I said. “I think he was having an affair with Victoria. That would have ruined his career. She was his assistant, after all.”

Minerva shook her head.

“If you’re thinking that, you’re on the wrong track. He’s not one of those philandering politicians. He’s scrupulously honest. Word is, he’s struggling financially but refuses to take any ‘assistance’ from lobbyists. Have you made an appointment?”

“No. No one at his office will answer the phone,” I said. “I’ll have to pay him a surprise visit.”

She closed her eyes for a moment and leaned back in her chair.

“Yes,” she said. “That may lead to interesting results. Please go ahead.”

Funny, I hadn’t intended to ask her permission.

*   *   *

The state senate offices were near the old Capitol building. The building had been built right after the Civil War, when America thought that it had an emotional tie to ancient Greece for its democracy and ancient Rome for its prowess in war. The building was a large domed structure, with Corinthian columns along the portico. Above the entrance was a cornice upon which rests a statute of Minerva—the goddess, not my boss—surrounded by statues symbolizing education, mining, industry, and justice. To me they looked like lobbyists trying to influence the goddess and being sternly turned away.

The state executive offices are in the same park to the left of the Capitol dome. The gods of prosperity and agriculture—lesser gods whose proper names are not etched on their statutes—lounge around the entrance. The offices themselves are rather humble, a little den of smaller offices and one larger one for the elected senator. The corridor was quiet when I went looking for Senator Kelsnor the next morning after making sure the senate was not in session.

I knocked on the door with the senator’s name, but no one answered. I knocked twice, then three times. I called “hello.” Nothing.

On a whim I turned the ancient doorknob. It was open.

I walked in. The place was a mess. Papers crowded every spare inch on the desks and spilled over on the floor. There were letters and proposed legislation that the senator was supposed to read. Manila folders of indecipherable documents. A typewriter sat on a metal desk, but no paper was in the roller.

On the walls were a few faded pictures of palm trees and other Southern California scenes—Senator Kelsnor represented the Los Angeles district. There were also the meaningless awards and citations from various civic groups that adorn the walls of every legislator.

A photo of the senator with his arm around Governor Pat Brown in eternal buddyhood reminded everyone that Senator Kelsnor was a Democrat. A framed photo of President Kennedy smiled down from the wall, though the frame hung crookedly.

The window looking out on Capitol Park needed to be washed.

“Oh, hello,” an attractive brunette said, coming in from the back rooms. She wore a modest blue dress that nonetheless flattered her curvy figure. She had lovely brown eyes and red lipstick. She seemed to be in her early forties. “Sorry no one was here to meet you. Are you a constituent? Do you need the senator’s help?”

I showed her my P.I. license and mentioned who I worked for.

“Oh, yes, I read in the paper that the young man’s family had hired Minerva James.” She said the young man and Minerva James in a tone usually reserved for an unpleasant small mammal living in the basement. “We know nothing about the young woman’s demise. Except, as you see, she left us in a mess.”

“She left it like this?” I asked.

“Young girls. You know how they are. When I was an Army nurse in Korea, I would’ve had my rank busted if I’d have left the hospital like this. But the youth of today has no discipline.”

“I was in the Army,” I said, “and I know what you’re talking about.”

She gave me a warmer smile and my manly hormones lit up.

“Did you know Victoria’s boyfriend Jack?” I asked.

“No. She never brought him around here. But it doesn’t surprise me. The girl was aiming high. She had more ambition than a woman should.”

I didn’t contradict her.

“Did her, uh, ambitions include anyone else that you know of?” I asked, assuming an innocent air.

“You are referring to Senator Kelsnor?” she said archly. “No. Not in that direction. The senator is not that sort of person.”

“My boss agrees with you,” I said.

“Then your boss is a woman of unusual perception. Senator Kelsnor is a man of scrupulous ethics. He will leave this office poorer than he came. More’s the pity. The man could use a nice retirement, but he’ll have to go back to his law practice. It will likely kill him.” She sighed. “If only he would agree to try to make just a little money from this office.” Then she realized what she was saying. “I didn’t mean . . .”

“Of course not. I heard nothing,” I said.

“If I were you, I’d talk to Senator Susan Blake. She and Victoria were doing some special work on the Old Town renovation project. At least, that’s what Victoria told me.”

“Wouldn’t that be a local matter?” I asked.

“State funds will be used for the restoration,” the woman said. “Anyway, Senator Blake would know more about Victoria’s extracurricular activities. I assure you, her relationship with Senator Kelsnor was strictly business.”

“You seem pretty certain,” I said.

“I should be, young man,” she said, giving me a wink. “I am the senator’s wife.”

 

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Copyright © 2019. Minerva James and the Goddess of Justice by Mark Bruce