Gracie Allen in this case is not a famous artist, but a worker in a perfume factory. She involuntarily gives the enchanted Philo Vance all the important clues in this murder of a gangster, in those days when Riverdale in the Bronx was a rural paradise. Vance meets her when she interacts with nature, and then again in a trendy restaurant where her brother plays an important role. For a moment, her mother appears, a gentle, faded lady who turns out to be as sharp as Gracie.
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CHARACTERS OF THE BOOK
CHAPTER I. A BUZZARD ESCAPES
CHAPTER II. A RUSTIC INTERLUDE
CHAPTER III. THE STARTLING ADVENTURE
CHAPTER IV. THE DOMDANIEL CAFÉ
CHAPTER V. A RENDEZVOUS
CHAPTER VI. THE DEAD MAN
CHAPTER VII. QUEER COINCIDENCES
CHAPTER VIII. AT THE MORTUARY
CHAPTER IX. HELD ON SUSPICION
CHAPTER X. AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR
CHAPTER XI. FOLKLORE AND POISONS
CHAPTER XII. A STRANGE DISCOVERY
CHAPTER XIII. NEWS OF AN OWL
CHAPTER XIV. A DYING MADMAN
CHAPTER XV. AN APPALLING ACCUSATION
CHAPTER XVI. ANOTHER SHOCK
CHAPTER XVII. FINGERPRINTS
CHAPTER XVIII. JONQUILLE AND ROSE
CHAPTER XIX. THROUGH THE SHADOW
CHAPTER XX. HAPPY LANDING
CHARACTERS OF THE BOOK
John F.-X. Markham
District Attorney of New York County.
Sergeant of the Homicide Bureau.
A worker in a perfume factory.
A perfume mixer and scent-tester.
Maître d’hôtel of the Domdaniel café.
Dixie Del Marr
Singer at the Domdaniel café.
C. Amos Doolson
President of the In-O-Scent Corporation.
A perfume salesman.
Gracie Allen’s mother.
Gracie Allen’s brother.
Head of a large criminal ring.
Benny the Buzzard (Beniamino Pellinzi)
Delpha (Rosa Tofana)
} Detectives of the Homicide Bureau.
Doctor Emanuel Doremus
Assistant Medical Examiner.
CHAPTER I. A BUZZARD ESCAPES
(Friday, May 17; 8 p.m.)
Philo Vance, curiously enough, always liked the Gracie Allen murder case more than any of the others in which he participated.
The case was, perhaps, not as serious as some of the others–although, on second thought, I am not so sure that this is strictly true. Indeed, it was fraught with many ominous potentialities; and its basic elements (as I look back now) were, in fact, intensely dramatic and sinister, despite its almost constant leaven of humor.
I have often asked Vance why he felt so keen a fondness for this case, and he has always airily retorted with a brief explanation that it constituted his one patent failure as an investigator of the many crimes presented to him by District Attorney John F.-X. Markham.
“No–oh, no, Van; it was not my case at all, don’t y’ know,” Vance drawled, as we sat before his grate fire one wintry evening, long after the events. “Really, y’ know, I deserve none of the credit. I would have been utterly baffled and helpless had it not been for the charming Gracie Allen who always popped up at just the crucial moment to save me from disaster.... If ever you should embalm the case in print, please place the credit where it rightfully belongs.... My word, what an astonishing girl! The goddesses of Zeus’ Olympian ménage never harassed old Priam and Agamemnon with the éclat exhibited by Gracie Allen in harassing the recidivists of that highly scented affair. Amazin’!...”
It was an almost unbelievable case from many angles, exceedingly unorthodox and unpredictable. The mystery and enchantment of perfume permeated the entire picture. The magic of fortune-telling and commercial haruspicy in general were intimately involved in its deciphering. And there was a human romantic element which lent it an unusual roseate color.
To start with, it was spring–the 17th day of May–and the weather was unusually mild. Vance and Markham and I had dined on the spacious veranda of the Bellwood Country Club, overlooking the Hudson. The three of us had chatted in desultory fashion, for this was to be an hour of sheer relaxation and pleasure, without any intrusion of the jarring criminal interludes which had, in recent years, marked so many of our talks.
However, even at this moment of serenity, ugly criminal angles were beginning to protrude, though unsuspected by any of us; and their shadow was creeping silently toward us.
We had finished our coffee and were sipping our chartreuse when Sergeant Heath, looking grim and bewildered, appeared at the door leading from the main dining-room to the veranda, and strode quickly to our table.
“Hello, Mr. Vance.” His tone was hurried. “... Howdy, Chief. Sorry to bother you, but this came into the office half an hour after you left and, knowing where you were, I thought it best to bring it to you pronto.” He drew a folded yellow paper from his pocket and, opening it out, placed it emphatically before the District Attorney.
Markham read it carefully, shrugged his shoulders, and handed the paper back to Heath.
“I can’t see,” he said without emotion, “why this routine information should necessitate a trip up here.”
Heath’s cheeks inflated with exasperation.
“Why, that’s the guy, Chief, that threatened to get you.”
“I’m quite aware of that fact,” said Markham coldly; then he added in a somewhat softened tone: “Sit down, Sergeant. Consider yourself off duty for the moment, and have a drink of your favorite whisky.”
When Heath had adjusted himself in a chair, Markham went on.
“Surely you don’t expect me, at this late date, to begin taking seriously the hysterical mouthings of criminals I have convicted in the course of my duties.”
“But, Chief, this guy’s a tough hombre, and he ain’t the forgetting or the forgiving kind.”
“Anyway,”–Markham laughed without concern–“it would be tomorrow, at the earliest, before he could reach New York.”
As Heath and Markham were speaking, Vance’s eyebrows rose in mild curiosity.
“I say, Markham, all I’ve been able to glean is that your tutel’ry Sergeant has fears for your curtailed existence, and that you yourself are rather annoyed by his zealous worries.”
“Hell, Mr. Vance, I’m not worryin’,” Heath blurted. “I’m just considering the possibilities, as you might say.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” smiled Vance. “Always careful. Sewin’ up seams that haven’t even ripped. Doughty and admirable, as always, Sergeant. But whence springeth your qualm?”
“I’m sorry, Vance.” Markham apologized for his failure to explain. “It’s really of no importance–just a routine telegraphic announcement of a rather commonplace jail-break at Nomenica. Three men under long sentences staged the exodus, and two of them were shot by the guards....”
“I’m not botherin’ about the guys who was shot,” Heath cut in. “It’s the other one–the guy that got away safe–that’s set me to thinkin’–”
“And who might this stimulator of thought be, Sergeant?” Vance asked.
“Benny the Buzzard!” whispered Heath, with melodramatic emphasis.
“Ah!” Vance smiled. “An ornithological specimen–Buteo borealis. Maybe he flew away to freedom...”
“It’s no laughing matter, Mr. Vance.” Heath became even more serious. “Benny the Buzzard–or Benny Pellinzi, to give him his honest monicker–is plenty tough, in spite of looking like a bloodless, pretty-faced boy. Only a few years back, he was strutting around telling anybody who’d listen that he was Public Enemy Number One. That type of guy. But he was only small change, except for his toughness and meanness–actually nothing but a dumb, stupid rat–”
“Rat? Buzzard?... My word, Sergeant, aren’t you confusin’ your natural history?”
“And only three years ago,” continued Heath doggedly, “Mr. Markham got him sent up for a twenty-year stretch. And he pulls a jail-break just this afternoon and gets away with it. Sweet, ain’t it?”
“Still,” submitted Vance, “such A.W.O.L.’s have been taken ere this.”
“Sure they have.” Heath extended his off-duty respite and took another whisky. “But you must’ve read what this guy pulled in court when he was sentenced. The judge hadn’t hardly finished slipping him the twenty years when he blew off his gauge. He pointed at Mr. Markham and, at the top of his voice, swore some kind of cockeyed oath that he’d come back and get him if it was the last thing he ever did. And he sounded like he meant it. He was so sore and steamed up that it took two man-eating bailiffs to drag him out of the courtroom. Generally it’s the judge who gets the threats; but this guy elected to take it out on the D. A. And that somehow made more sense.”
Vance nodded slowly.
“Yes, quite–quite. I see your point, Sergeant. Different and therefore dangerous.”
“And why I really came here tonight,” Heath went on, “was to tell Mr. Markham what I intended doing. Naturally, we’ll be on the lookout for the Buzzard. He might come here direct, all right; and he might head west and try to reach the Dakotas–the Bad Lands for him, if he’s got a brain.”
“Exactly,” Markham interpolated. “You’re probably right when you suggest he’ll head west. And I’m certainly planning no immediate jaunt to the Black Hills.”
“Anyhow, Chief,” the Sergeant persisted stubbornly, “I’m not taking any chances on him–especially since we’ve got a pretty good line on his old cronies in this burg.”
“Just what line do you refer to, Sergeant?”
“Mirche, and the Domdaniel café, and Benny’s old sweetie that sings there–the Del Marr jane.”
“Whether Mirche and Pellinzi are cronies,” said Markham, “is a moot question in my mind.”
“It ain’t in mine, Chief. And if the Buzzard should sneak back to New York, I’ve got a hunch he’d go straight to Mirche for help.”
Markham did not argue the possibilities further. Instead, he merely asked: “What course do you intend to pursue, Sergeant?”
Heath leaned across the table.
“I figure it this way, Chief. If the Buzzard does plan to return to his old hunting-grounds, he’ll be smart about it. He’ll do it quick and sudden-like, figurin’ we haven’t got set. If he don’t show up in the next few days I’ll simply drop the idea, and the boys’ll keep their eyes open in the routine way. But–beginning tomorrow morning, I plan to have Hennessey in that old rooming-house across from the Domdaniel, covering the little door leading into Mirche’s private office. An’ Burke and Snitkin will be with Hennessey in case the bird does show up.”
“Aren’t you a bit optimistic, Sergeant?” asked Vance. “Three years in prison can work many changes in a man’s appearance, especially if the victim is still young and not too robust.”
Heath dismissed Vance’s skepticism with an impatient gesture.
“I’ll trust Hennessey–he’s got a good eye.”
“Oh, I’m not questioning Hennessey’s vision,” Vance assured him, “–provided your liberty-lovin’ Buzzard should be so foolish as to choose the front door for his entry into Mirche’s office. But really, my dear Sergeant, Maestro Pellinzi may deem it wiser to steal in by the rear door, don’t y’ know.”
“There ain’t no rear door,” explained Heath. “And there ain’t no side door, either. A strictly private room with only one entrance facing the street. That’s the wide-open and aboveboard set-up of this guy Mirche–everything on the up-and-up. Slick as they come.”
“Is this sanctum a separate structure?” asked Vance. “Or is it an annex to the café? I don’t seem to recall it.”
“No. And you wouldn’t notice it, if you weren’t looking for it. It’s like an end room that’s been cut off in the corner of the building–the way they cut off a doctor’s office, or a small shop, in a big apartment-house. But if you wanta see Mirche that’s where you’ll most likely find him. The place looks as innocent as an old ladies’ home.”
Heath glanced round at us significantly as he continued.
“And yet, plenty goes on in that little room. If I could ever get a dictograph planted there, the D. A.’s office would have enough underworld trials on its hands to keep it busy from now on.”
He paused and cocked an eye at Markham.
“How do you feel about my idea for tomorrow?”
“It can’t do any harm, Sergeant,” answered Markham without enthusiasm. “But I still think it would be a waste of time and energy.”
“Maybe so.” Heath finished his whisky. “But I feel I gotta follow my hunch, just the same.”
Vance set down his liqueur glass, and a whimsical expression came into his eyes.
“But I say, Markham,” he drawled, “it would be a waste of time and energy, no matter what the outcome. Ah, your precious law, and its prissy procedure! How you Solons complicate the simple things of life! Even if this red-tailed hawk with the operatic name should appear among his olden haunts and be snared in the Sergeant’s seine, you would still treat him kindly and caressingly under the euphemistic phrase, “due process of law.’ You’d coddle him no end. You’d take all possible precautions to bring him in alive, although he himself might blow the brains out of a couple of the Sergeant’s confrères. Then you’d lodge and nourish him well; you’d drive him through town in a high-powered limousine; you’d give him a pleasant scenic trip back to Nomenica. And all for what, old dear? For the highly questionable privilege of supportin’ him elegantly for life.”
Markham was obviously nettled.
“I suppose you could settle the whole situation with a lirp.”
“It could be, don’t y’ know.” Vance was in one of his tantalizing moods. “Here’s a worthless johnnie who has long been a thorn in the side of the law; who has, as you jolly well know, killed a man and been convicted accordingly; who has engineered a lawless prison break costing two more lives; who has promised to murder you in cold blood; and who is even now deprivin’ the Sergeant of his slumber. Not a nice person, Markham. And all these irregularities might be so easily and expeditiously adjusted by shooting the johnnie on sight, or otherwise disposing of him quickly, without ado or chinoiserie.”
“And I suppose”–Markham spoke almost angrily–“that you yourself would be willing to undertake this illegal purge.”
“Willing?” There was a teasing tone in Vance’s voice. “I’d be positively delighted. My good deed for that day.”
Markham puffed vigorously at his cigar. He was always irritated when Vance’s persiflage took this line.
“Deliberately taking a human life, Vance–”
“Please spare me the logion, Reverend Doctor. I know the answer. With Society and Law and Order singing the Greek chorus a capella. But you must admit my suggested solution is logical, practical, and just.”
“We’ve gone into that sophistry before,” snapped Markham. “And furthermore, I’m not going to let you spoil my dinner with such nonsensical chatter.”
CHAPTER II. A RUSTIC INTERLUDE
(Saturday, May 18; afternoon.)
The next day, shortly after noon, we met Markham in his dingy private office overlooking the Tombs. Ordinarily the District Attorney’s office was closed at this hour on Saturdays, but Markham was in the meshes of a trying political tangle and wished to see the affair settled as soon as possible.
“I’m deuced sorry, don’t y’ know,” said Vance, “that you must slave on an afternoon like this. I was hoping you might be persuaded to come for a drive over the countryside.”
“What!” exclaimed Markham in mock surprise. “Are you succumbing to your natural impulses? Don’t tell me Mother Nature’s sirenical tones can sway a hothouse sybarite like yourself! Why not have Van lash you to the mast in true Odyssean manner?”
“No. I find myself actually longin’ for the spell of an Ogygian isle with citron scent and cedar-sawn–”
“And perhaps a wood-nymph like Calypso.”
“My dear Markham! Really, now!” Vance pretended indignation. “No–oh, no. I merely plan a bit of gambolin’ in the Bronx greenery.”
“I see that the clear-toned Sirens of the flowered fields have snared you.” Markham’s smile was playfully derisive. “If Heath’s ominous dream is fulfilled we’ll later be steering a stormy course between Scylla and Charybdis.”
“One never knows, does one? But should it come to pass, I trust no man shall be caught from out our hollow ship by the voracious Scylla.”
“For Heaven’s sake, Vance, don’t be so gloomy. You’re talking utter nonsense.”
(I particularly remember this bit of classical repartee which certainly would not have found its way into this record, had it not been that it proved curiously prophetic, even to the scent of citron and the Messina monster’s cave.)
“And I suppose,” suggested Markham, “you’ll do your gamboling in immaculate attire. I somehow can’t picture you in vagabondian trappings.”
“You’re quite wrong,” said Vance. “I shall don a rugged old tweed suit–the most ancient bit of coverin’ I possess.... But tell me, Markham, how goes it with the zealous Sergeant and his premonitions?”
“Oh, I suppose he’s gone ahead with his useless arrangements.” Markham spoke with indifference. “But if poor Hennessey has to invite strabismus for very long I’ll have more to fear from him in the way of retribution than from Mr. Beniamino Pellinzi.... I don’t quite understand Heath’s sudden case of jitters over my safety.”
“Stout fella, Heath.” Vance studied the ash on his cigarette with a hesitant smile. “Fact is, Markham, I intend to partake of Mirche’s expensive hospitality tonight myself.”
“You too!... You’re actually going to the Domdaniel tonight?”
“Not in the hope of encounterin’ your friend the Buzzard,” replied Vance. “But Heath has stirred my curiosity. I should like to take a closer look at the incredible Mr. Mirche. I’ve seen him before, of course, at his hospice, but I’ve never really paid attention to his features. And I could bear a peep–from the outside only, of course–at this mysterious office which has so fretted the Sergeant’s imagination.... And there’s always the chance a little excitement may ensue when the early portentous shadows of the mysterious night–”
“Come, come, Vance. You sound like a penny-dreadful. What arrière pensée is being screened by this smoke of words?”
“If you really must know, Markham, the food is excellent at the Domdaniel. I was merely tryin’ to hide a gourmet’s yearnin’....”
Markham snorted, and the talk shifted to a discussion of other matters, interrupted now and then by telephone calls. When Markham had completed his arrangements for the afternoon and evening, he ushered us out through the judges’ private chambers and down to the street.
After a brief lunch we drove Markham back to his office, and then headed uptown to Vance’s apartment. Here Vance changed his suit for the old disreputable tweed, and put on heavier boots and a soft well-worn Homburg hat. Then we went out again to his Hispano-Suiza, and in an hour’s time we were driving leisurely along Palisade Avenue in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
Both sides of the road were thickly grown with trees and shrubs. The fragrance of spring flowers hung in the air, and we caught a fleck of bright color now and then. On our left, beyond an unbroken steel-mesh fence, a gentle slope dipped to the Hudson. On the right the ground rose more abruptly, so that the rough stone wall did not shut off the prospect.
At the top of a slight incline, just where the road swung inland, Vance turned off the roadway, and brought the car to a gentle stop.
“This, I think, would be an ideal spot for minglin’ with the flora and communin’ with nature.”
Except for the fence on the river side, and the stone wall, perhaps five feet high, along the inner border of the road, we were, to all appearances, on a lonely country road. Vance crossed the broad and shaded grassy strip that stretched like a runner of green carpet between the roadway and the wall. He clambered up the stone enclosure, beckoning me to do likewise as he disappeared in the lush rustic foliage on the farther side.
For over an hour we trudged back and forth through the woods, and then, as we suddenly came face to face with the stone enclosure again, Vance reluctantly looked at his watch.
“Almost five,” he said. “We’d better be staggerin’ home, Van.”
I preceded him to the roadway, and started slowly back toward the car. A large automobile, running almost noiselessly, suddenly came round the turn. I stopped as it sped by, and watched it disappear over the edge of the hill. Then I continued in the direction of our own car.
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