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Thread: An Orange and Black Shroud

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    An Orange and Black Shroud

    An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part One

    Charlie ducked, but not nearly in time to fully avoid the giant's crashing fist sending him down.

    I watched my husband spin on the floor, rolling away to avoid the big man. Lucky for Charlie, the man wasn't coming after him, just standing, fists clenched, ready to do it again.

    "Should I take that as a 'Yes'?" Charlie asked.

    "Keep talking to her that way and I'll give you more where that came from," the man replied.

    "John, stop!" Melba crossed the porch and stood between her late husband's chauffer and Charlie. She placed her hand gently on the man's shoulder. Possibly a little too gently. "They're just talking. And they don't know what they're talking about!" she said a bit triumphantly.

    "I want him to stop," John replied in his usual flat tones. "He can't talk that way about you."

    Perhaps I should explain. We were at the late David Howard's North Baltimore house. The man on the ground was Charlie Aaron, better known around Baltimore as the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. The brute standing over him was John Hart, chauffeur to the late Mr. Howard. Melba was the Widow Howard; you could tell by the mourning weeds. She wasn't very good at being a grieving widow; you could tell by how tightly the mourning weeds fit.

    My name is Susanna. I'm the one who got us all here.

    ####################

    A few days ago Charlie and I went out for dinner and our monthly movie. While we were out, we saw his former boss at the Orioles, David. He was looking pale, and sickly, with his very expensive clothes hanging off his frame like an understuffed scarecrow. He'd lost a lot of weight recently; he seemed smaller than his skin.

    He and Charlie made small talk, while I tried to keep an eye on the skinny little maître d’hôtel with the unconscionable B. O. who was leading us to our seats. He hadn't noticed yet that we weren't behind him anymore, until he got to our table and turned. I waved to him, pointed to Howard, and gestured that we'd be along. Like a good little boy, he scurried back to take my purse and place it at our seat. Glad he was the seater and not the waiter, or my appetite would have been gone.

    While I watched him take it away, Melba Howard came in from the powder room. I smiled, remembering the Boston drunk tank where I’d once ordered her to take good care of her then-new husband. Looking at her, I could see that I should have told her to take better care of herself, too. The blonde in her hair was coming from a bottle now, and she was using too much of it. She could have donated pounds to her husband and they'd have both fit their clothes better. On him, the loss made him look gaunt; on her, the gain to her small ex-showgirl frame made her look like a third-rate Mae West after a bad weekend.

    We said our hellos and goodbyes, when David declared that he was going to the restroom. Since he probably stopped needing to announce his bodily functions when Grant was President, I assumed there was something more going on. It took Charlie a bit longer to figure it out, but he finally did, and while I went back to our seat, Charlie and David went toward the boy's room. Just before they got there, I saw David whisper something to Charlie, and pull him out a side door to the parking lot.

    I had just about decided on the Schwinkoteletten mit Apfeln over the Hasenpfeffer when Charlie returned. He slid into his seat and said, "That was weird."

    "What?"

    "David. He asked me to help him."

    "With what?"

    Charlie picked up his menu, which was a waste of time, as usual. I could have ordered for him before we got here. "That's what's weird. He thinks someone is out to get him."

    "You mean, as in, hurt him?"

    "He doesn't know," he replied. His voice was incongruously reedy considering his six feet tall, "athletic once and gone to spread" frame. "He really didn't say very much that made a lick of sense."

    "Did he say who?" I asked.

    "Mostly a bunch of folks who he should be able to trust more than me."

    "Do you think he's...well, he is getting older, and isn't in the best of health," I said with an unstated question at the end.

    Blunt as ever, he restated my implied question. "Do I think he's going senile?" he asked. "Don't know. I hope not. For a man that full of life to lose it that way...ugh."

    The waiter arrived, and Charlie looked to me. I told him what I wanted, and he relayed the request, along with his own order. I silently mouthed along with his "Sauerbraten and spaetzle, red cabbage, and applesauce." When he looked back at me, I just smiled.

    The dinner was good, as always. The company was pleasant, as always. A nice night. If I'm going to rattle around a big empty house all day, I need nights like this from time to time.

    When we got to that house, I asked Charlie if he wanted me to go with him to see David. "What? Oh, that. Tell the truth, I'd rather not go at all. It's late. Maybe I'll call him tomorrow."

    "No, Charlie, you should go. This is pretty unusual behavior from him. Besides, Kotter's Market is open all night, you can pick up some eggs for breakfast." It's nice to keep him useful.

    With that, I was done for the day and it was time for bed. I woke briefly when my husband came in, just enough to see that it was after one, and then went back to sleep.

    continued...
    Last edited by birdsin89; 04-17-2014 at 06:28 AM.
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    ...continued

    After sending Charlie off to work the next morning, I spent most of my time reading one of my birthday presents from last month; The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, by Agatha Christie. When he came home from work, he looked stricken. When I asked him the matter, he just showed me his copy of the News-Post.

    I skimmed the article, occasionally muttering, mostly under my breath. "Businessman, socialite, scion of the Howard family, shot in his car."

    "It's my fault."

    I looked up from the paper. "What?"

    Charlie repeated. "It's my fault. He asked me for help, and I passed him off as senile."

    I folded the paper, put it down. "Did you kill him?" I asked.

    "What? No, of course not. Susanna, I-"

    "Then it's not your fault."

    "But I may have been the last person outside his family to speak to him."

    There are times when I love my husband's...let's call it 'simplicity'. Then there are times when it gets in the way. "Charlie, it says here he was shot. Did you shoot him? Do I have to keep asking you that?"

    "No!" he said. "But-"

    "Was he alive when you left him last night? I'm assuming the answer is yes, Charlie."

    "That's what I'm trying to tell you! I didn't see him last night." I must look perplexed, because he explained. "I left the house to get you the eggs. I stopped at Kotter's, got them, and was driving to Howard's place. Then I looked at my watch, realized it was after eleven, and decided I'd call on him today after work."

    "Then why were you out so late?"

    "By the time I'd figured all this out, I was half way across town. I thought about a trade I wanted to talk to Connie about at the winter meetings, and went to the office to do a little research."

    "Then you came home?"

    "Right."

    "Without ever seeing David?"

    "Right."

    "Where's your pistol?"

    "What?"

    "Charlie, where's your pistol. The automatic you keep upstairs."

    He smiled. "Probably still upstairs, why? Do you think I did it now?"

    I shook him off. "You have a .45, right? What else?"

    He's stopped smiling. "I also have a .38, and a .22. Susanna, why-"

    I had to explain it to him. "Charlie, I know you didn't do this. But sooner or later, the police are going to find someone who was at Miller Brothers'. They'll find someone who saw you talk to Howard, and saw him take you outside to talk in private. Then they'll ask you what you talked about, and if you saw him after that."

    "And I'll tell them no, and that's all I'll say!"

    "And you'll tell them no, and you'll tell them that he wanted to talk to you but didn't. Because otherwise they'll find out some other way. Then they'll ask you for an alibi for last night, and other than Kotter's, you won't have one. I won't be able to help either.

    "Then they'll ask if you have any guns. When you tell them that you have a .38, they'll want to see it, because that's what they say was the murder weapon."

    He looked a little worried then. "Susanna, you know this is crazy. And it won't hold together for very long, either."

    I decided to loosen up on him. A little. "Of course I do. But it's still going to happen, and you should be ready for it."

    Glumly he nodded. "I suppose you're right." Then he went back to smiling at me. "That was a pretty good interrogation you did there, Officer Aaron."

    "I've been married to you for thirty years. If there's one thing a wife learns in that time, it's how to get secrets from her man." But he'd given me an idea.

    He saw it. "And if there's one thing a man learns, it's when his wife has one of those looks. What are you thinking, Suse?"

    "Just that we should do what David wanted."

    "What's that?"

    "We should help him."

    "Well, sure, but, Suse, he's a little beyond our help now, isn't he?"

    "We can help him if we help the police to figure out who killed him."

    "Of course we can, Suse. But don't we think the police can figure it out for themselves?" He was using his Mr. Reasonable voice again.

    I hate Mr. Reasonable. "We've just spent time absolving you from blame. It's going to take the police much longer, because they don't know you or trust you. As soon as that maitre d' tells them that you and David went outside to talk, you're probably the number two suspect, and the time they spend investigating you is time they won't spend looking for the real killer."

    "Who's number one?"

    I smiled at him. "Melba, of course. When a husband is killed, always suspect the wife."

    "Can I assume that's a general statement and not a warning?"

    "If you like." Pays to keep 'em guessing. I went to the phone.

    "What are you doing?" he asked me.

    "Calling the police. Just saving them time."

    He looked very unsure. "Is that really a good idea? They'll get to me sooner or later."

    "Charlie. The sooner you're cleared, the sooner we can get to work."

    And so it was that, an hour later, a young, muscle-bound police detective with no neck and the improbable name of Lance Blake was in our living room.

    Now, just between us, I'll admit that I had jumped the gun on my push to get involved. I was excited at the prospect of having something to do instead of bouncing off the walls of this big old house. But after the talk with the detective, in which both Charlie and I had to use increasingly smaller words to find ones that would sink in, we learned that, within less than 24 hours of the crime, Melba Howard had already been officially cleared by Police Major Callaghan himself. I bit my tongue to keep silent from then on, until Charlie closed the door behind Blake.

    "Glad that's over," he said.

    "It's not over at all, Charlie."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Unless Melba has an absolutely air tight alibi with witnesses to say where she was when it happened, there's no way they should have cleared her so fast."

    "Well, maybe she does. Besides-"

    "Charlie, what time did...it...happen?"

    "The papers say around 2 A.M., I think. Why?"

    "If she had somebody with her at 2 A M. who presumably wasn't her dead husband, don't you think it might not make for the best alibi?" I know, it was weak, but I was counting on Charlie adding 2 and 2 and coming up with 5.

    Which he did, bless him. With a sigh, he said, "Who do we need to talk to first?"
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Two birdsin's stories at once will be a treat. It is interesting to see Susana's perspective on things after reading about her being Charlie's support system for so long.

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    ewing6: Thanks! I hope it's a fun little side trip. Someone else's perspective was one of the big reasons I wrote it this way - much as I like Charlie, there have been plenty of times when I've wanted to say something about a person or event and stopped myself because he wouldn't have known it, or seen it that way.

    * * *

    An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Two: Tuesday morning

    "So, what have you been up to lately, Andy?"

    The young man who my husband and I had come to see as almost another son removed his glasses, began to brush them off. After years of knowing him, I knew full well that this was just his way of composing himself. Of thinking before speaking.

    Of preparing a lie?

    Andy Snyder, formerly with the Orioles and now the Director of Player Development with the Boston Red Sox, finally looked up. We were at his fathers' house in East Baltimore. Andy's mother had died several years ago, and his father Randolph’s taste in room furnishings and decorations hadn't changed much since the turn of the century, even though all the furniture seemed to be new. Or at least, unsullied by human contact.

    "Not much, Mrs. Aaron."

    I almost had to smile. “Mrs. Aaron,” it was, and it would remain “Mrs. Aaron” despite almost twenty years, and what seemed like almost twenty thousand home cooked meals. Made me feel old.

    Which, to him, I suppose I was. Andy’s 32 to my...older than 32.

    “Glad that’s settled then,” I smiled at him. I continued to look at him, waiting for him to break the silence first.

    Andy stared at his hands, folded on his lap. He looked uncomfortable, there was no denying it. My challenge was to determine if he was uncomfortable because he was lying, because he was upset, or just because my husband was in the room with us. You see, as I’ve said, Charlie and I had thought of him as a son for many years. The trouble with that is that eventually all sons have to push away from the family table to strike out on their own. And sometimes, the pushing produces some friction.

    Andy’s push had been more forceful than many, with an announcement of his leaving Baltimore at a meeting of the charity he’d been so involved with for so long. The announcement had been carefully calculated to embarrass Charlie, and had done its work well. Even worse, my husband hadn’t seen it coming – but then, Charlie would be the first to admit that he often doesn’t really see the people around him.

    Well, the second to admit it, if I'm around.

    “Sure, Mrs. Aaron. I’m always happy to see you.” He didn’t sound it.

    “Likewise, Andy. What brings you back to Baltimore? Player development takes time off in November?”

    “No, but the director thereof does. I made arrangements to come back to go to the BUC ball.”

    The BUC. Baltimore United Charities, home of the aforementioned announcement and embarrassment. It was an umbrella group for plenty of other charities in the area. With one annual high society ball, usually held in November, where the highest of the high hats gathered to write big checks and assuage big egos. Andy had gotten Charlie and I invited every year back when he lived here and worked with the group. We always called it our late Halloween, when we dressed up like those from the other side of the tracks.

    “So you’ve stayed in touch with them, haven’t you?” Charlie asked.

    Andy turned to stare at my man. Even I could see that he wasn’t looking at him the way he looked at me. “Yes. Why wouldn’t I?” And if I could have laid my hands on the blocks of ice that fell between them with the tone of that sentence, I could have built a wall in China.

    “No reason at all. They’re still your friends. But you didn’t come back last year, did you?”

    “No,” he said to his feet. “I had other things on my mind last year.”

    Right. Last year was when Andy, after several attempts over the years with his wife to become parents, instead became a widower. Charlie and I had both gone to the funeral. Heck, Charlie had made a spectacle of himself, crying on Andy that way. We’d both come away thinking things were patched up. We appeared to have been mistaken.

    “I came back because there was plenty more to do here. Have you ever been to Boston in the fall? It’s too warm for winter sports, too cold for summer ones. I like to come back.”

    And now, beyond a doubt, he was...not lying, exactly. Just not telling the whole truth.

    “Sure, Andy. Who wouldn't?” I said. Which appeared, at least, to put me on his side, opposite my husband.

    And it worked. “Right. Besides, this was the best way to talk to David.”

    “Why’s that?”

    “Since his secretary tends not to put my calls through any more.”

    Well that was interesting. Though moreso to Charlie than to me. And sure enough, he jumped right on it. “Why not?”

    Andy looked at him with some disdain. I pretended to do the same.

    “Because he didn’t have a whole lot more to say to me.”

    Before Charlie could jump in, I did. “So that’s why...” I let it trail off, hoping he’d fill in the blank.

    He did. “That’s why he and I argued at the BUC ball, Mrs. Aaron.”

    continued...
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    ...continued

    ####################

    The BUC ball was held this year at the Merchant’s Club, on East Redwood Street. It was once the club for Baltimore’s elite, and even as competition had come up for it over the years, it still was one of the top. Dark wood abounded in a ballroom that was old enough to have once been lit by gaslight, and now that electrics had taken over, the light still somehow seemed to flicker and glow. Bars that had been not so much removed as politely ignored during Prohibition were now going full steam around the decorated dance floor, while bartenders in tuxedos worn every night poured for men who wore better ones less often.

    Even when not hosting a society ball, members of the club were among the city’s finest. At an event like this, the wine would flow like water. Which made sense, as the whole purpose was to get the dollars to flow like wine.

    Politicians oozed their way in, always ready to make the acquaintance of a new campaign donor, or a down on his luck millionaire who could use a crony's hand up from somebody at City Hall or in Annapolis.

    Andy had approached David Howard just a few moments ago, the light reflecting from his glasses giving him an avian appearance. Pleasantries were exchanged, but that hadn’t lasted long.

    “But Mr. Howard, you can’t do that! The organization-“

    “Don’t you presume to tell me what I can’t do, youngster. If I want to strip to my skivvies and swim in the harbor, I can do that, do you understand?” Howard leaned back, satisfied as though he’d made a point.

    “Um, sure, I guess,” Andy hesitated, confused. “What I meant to say was – “

    “What you meant to say doesn’t matter at all, do you hear me!” Howard thundered. Eyes began to turn from all over the room, wealthy eyes always on the lookout for a weakness in a rival. Shipping and industry magnate Mark Broz edged closer, though Howard appeared to take no notice. “What you really said was that I can’t decide how to spend my own damn money, and I have to tell you that you don’t get to tell me anything like that!”

    “Mr. Howard, all I meant was – “

    “Irrelevant! Let me tell you something, young man. I was not only making financial decisions that you can’t even imagine before you were a gleam in your daddy’s eye, I was also fighting my way through money problems you can’t begin to understand!”

    “Mr. Howard, please.” Andy said it quietly, but unlike anything he’d said before, this seemed to penetrate the older man’s dudgeon.

    Not enough to get him to stop. If anything, its very abject quality made it worse. Dropping his voice, but not enough to prevent half the room from hearing him, Howard went on. “Listen to me, youngster. I remember you when you were what, fifteen years old? I helped you up since before your balls dropped, and I don’t care if you want me to write bigger checks to a charity or give a job to some halfwit or bail your daddy out of prison, you will not hound my secretary over it and you will have the decency to approach me with respect when you ask for it.” Howard leaned back, satisfied apparently for the moment that he’d managed to put things in their place.

    If the look on Andy’s face was any indication, he had. The young man’s hands clenched into fists, almost of their own volition. His mouth drew to a tight line, and a frost lingered on his voice. “Howard. I talked to you because nobody else thought they could. It was a mistake. How’s about we make sure it never happens again, all right?” He turned and walked away, leaving the old man standing, smug and satisfied, near the edge of the dance floor.

    ####################

    “And now he’s gone, and I won’t have a chance to make matters right between us,” Andy concluded. He looked to be coming back from a faraway place, but I noticed that his fist had clenched while he talked all the same.

    “So Mr. Howard over-reacted,” I said, still trying to convince him I was on his good side. Which, mostly, I was. “He’s been doing that lately. At least, the society pages hint at it. What was it you said that set him off?”

    “That’s the frustrating thing, Mrs. Aaron,” he breathed. “I wasn’t asking him to do anything that he wasn’t already doing. I just wanted him to keep it up.”

    “What?”

    “His donations to BUC.”

    Charlie and I glanced at each other. Sometimes being married to the man helps with the non-verbal cues. He interjected, “Was there a problem with the donations?”

    Andy nodded, still looking at me. “You see, BUC was going to lose him as a major benefactor. Most of the money Howard had regained over the course of the Depression, he’d managed to lose again during the secondary one.”

    I turned to Charlie. He shrugged very slightly – this was news to him, too.

    “And what were you doing about it?”

    “I was trying to convince him to stop making those ridiculous investments he was suddenly following.”

    “What sort?”

    “Oh, you know how it is. A gambler gets behind, he starts making bigger and bigger bets, at longer and longer odds, to try to win it all back in one gulp. Mr. Howard’s investments had gone from solidly growing slowly to big gambles, especially with the rest of the economy turning down again.”

    “And he was trying to get it all back,” Charlie restated. “And you were trying to help him.”

    “I already said, I was doing it for him.”

    “But also for the BUC.”

    “Yes, Mrs. Aaron, also for the BUC.”

    “And he wasn’t going to do it, was he?”

    Andy laughed, somewhat bitterly. “He pointed out that he’d made and lost two fortunes already, and therefore had no real reason to listen to a man still pursuing his first.”

    I raised one eyebrow. “Had he already lost this second one?”

    “Oh, yes. He was worth – “ he stopped himself short.

    “Yes?” I asked.

    With a deep breath, Andy continued. “I was just thinking, it's kind of ironic, really. He had come closer to bankrupt this time than even ten years ago.”

    I took a guess. “But he still had plenty of insurance, didn’t he?”

    Andy nodded again. ”He was worth more dead than alive.”

    I glanced at Charlie for a reaction. He nodded too. “Probably true. He told me after the first Crash that he could afford to take some big chances because he was heavily insured.”

    Something must finally have penetrated to Andy’s brains. “And plenty of people knew it, too, Mrs. Aaron. Not just me.”

    Mmm-hmm. “Andy, what have you been up to since the BUC ball?”

    He laughed. He’d definitely twigged to why we were really there. “You mean, what was I doing on the night Mr. Howard was murdered?” I didn’t laugh back. Neither did Charlie.

    “Oh come on, Mrs. Aaron!” Charlie and I kept our faces stone-like. “You’re not kidding?”

    Our silence was a fine answer. “Oh, all right. I was right here with my father. My brother came by, and then went home. I got some Chinese takeout, Father and I ate it. I read, he went to bed. Eventually I did too.”

    “And nobody saw you after your brother left except your father.”

    “I’d think not, unless there was a very disappointed peeping tom.”

    “Do you have the receipts for the takeout?” Charlie asked.

    “No. Trash pickup was yesterday. I guess you’ve got me, Sherlock. Slap the cuffs on, close the book and don't bother talking to anybody else. I’ll go quietly.”

    That seemed odd. “Who else should we talk to, Andy?”

    “Well, for a start, do you think I’m the only one who would have lost money if David Howard continued to squander what was left?”

    “Of course not. So we should probably see his son Daniel, shouldn’t we?”

    It caught him by surprise. “Wait, that’s not – I mean, I suppose.” I don’t think he had wanted to name any names – basically, he’s still a nice kid. Nice young man. Doesn't want to think he's shifting blame to somebody else. Even when that's exactly what he's doing, whether he realizes it or not.

    I looked out the window, to the street below. I saw Officer Blake getting out of his black and white, heading up the walk. “Andy, we’ll do that. And I’d appreciate it if you don’t mention to the officer what we’ve been talking about.” Charlie took his hat off the stand, I nodded to Andy, and we let ourselves out.
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three: Tuesday afternoon

    "What did you think?"

    Charlie was driving us up York Road, toward the home of Daniel Howard. I didn't answer him right away, recognizing that it was a type three question. Type one is interrogative, designed to get a response. Type two is rhetorical, designed to help prove a point.

    Type three is what I call pontificatory, designed to feign interest in one person's thoughts while setting the asker up to deliver a monologue on the answer. This had type three written all over it.

    And sure enough. "I think he's got a pretty good motive. Two, even. Andy loves the BUC, and it was going to lose a lot of the Howard money. Plus, the old man humiliated him at the party in front of a lot of people."

    I nodded, and kept listening to Wayne West's show on WOR, and the final notes of the most romantic song ever made. Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade. May as well keep listening; the question was still type three.

    "It surprises me that somebody like Andy could have done this, but I guess you never know with people, do you? I mean, I know he's capable of hitting a fellow from out of nowhere, but I wouldn't think he'd go this far."

    Nod.

    "So, Suse, is it really worth it to see Daniel then?"

    Wait, that was type one. "Why wouldn't it be?"

    Charlie hesitated as he signaled a turn. "Well, because, if we think Andy did it, why talk to Daniel?"

    I turned to face him, as West spun up Will Glahé and the Beer Barrel Polka. "Who says we think Andy did it?"

    He's so cute when he's confused. "Um, I just did?"

    "No, Charlie. You just said that Andy had a pair of motives, and you're absolutely right about that. But you're too smart to let just that make the decision for you." One day he's going to catch me feeding his conceit like that.

    Not today, though.

    ######################

    "Thank you for coming," Daniel Howard said as he let us in. Unlike Randolph Snyder's place, this one had been decorated within the past decade. Just not by the man in front of us.

    Daniel was much less pasty these days than when we'd first met. Having to work for a living, as opposed to simply inheriting, will do that for you. His hairline, which had begun receding when Valentino was still alive, had almost receded off his head by now. Somehow it made him look better, though that nose, still too large for his face, didn't help. He was only ten years older than Andy, which made him about that many years younger than Charlie and me.

    His wife was with him. The former Veronica Martindale, of a family of no small means, she was a fun-loving, wise-cracking blonde at every party I'd ever seen her. Here, though, she was in her more natural habitat as a devoted wife, with more demure clothes and a quieter mouth. She'd let herself go a bit since snagging her man, but then she's not the first to do that. On the whole I'd say she was attractive without ever getting near pretty, which explained why she'd married a down-on-his-luck Daniel who was no great catch himself in the looks department.

    We made small talk for a while, the way you do when you're with somebody who's lost someone close. Lots of evasions and platitudes, with everybody previewing their words before speaking to make sure you don't say something like "a shot in the dark", which would normally mean nothing and under the circumstances could hurt.

    Eventually we heard crying from little Johnny, and Veronica went off to deal with him. The fact that it wasn't a maid's job told me plenty.

    It gave Charlie a different impression. "Ronnie seems to be settling into being a mommy pretty well. Congratulations again on the boy."

    Daniel took a pull on his pipe and smiled a proud papa smile. "It's just swell, old man," he said. Which surprised me a bit.

    Charlie too, as his eyebrows climbed his head. "You haven't called me 'old man' in years, Daniel," he said with a small smile.

    "Haven't I? No, I suppose not. That's another me, who only you seem to be able to bring out any more." Considering how that "other him" had gotten along with my husband, until Charlie'd been forced to deal with him more strongly, it was a cinch he didn't want to revisit his past around most people.

    I remembered him the way he was, though. "How's Ronnie taking to not having servants any more, Daniel?" I asked quietly.

    Didn't seem to phase him, the smile stayed around the pipe. "Better than I'd have thought."

    "She knew it was going to come to this when she married you, didn't she?"

    A nod. "Of course. It was no secret that our branch of the Howards was in dire straits five years ago."

    "How about now?"

    He quirked his head to the side like Nipper the RCA dog. The tilt made his smile slip a bit, too. "I wouldn't say we're poor, Susanna. Ronnie's family helps a good bit with the baby expenses, the house is hers. And my job pays the bills."

    "But nothing like the way you used to live, is it?"

    His head turned a bit further. He shook it off, again like a dog, this time with a fly on its ear. I could guess he was wondering why I was pursuing this. He'd figure it out soon enough.

    "No, I suppose not. It's more like the way you live now," he made a joke of it.

    "Now, you see," I said, "I don't understand that. I see how you were living hand to mouth like this," I waved my hand around to encompass the living room bigger than Charlie's and my first house. "What I don't get is why? Your father had rebuilt a good bit of the family fortune, hadn't he?"

    Daniel's joviality was slipping fast. "What would that have to do with it?"

    I could see that Charlie was getting concerned. After years of effort, he'd finally built a decent partnership with the man, and here his wife was messing it up. I wanted to remind him what we were really here for.

    But he showed me that he was at least paying attention. "Because a spread like this, even with help from the Martindales, has to run a pretty penny. If you had some money from the family fortune, you'd be even more comfortable, Daniel."

    That got a reaction. Granted, the reaction was a sharp bark of a laugh, but it was still a reaction. "What's so funny?" I demanded. "If your father had more money, you'd live better. And if he continued to manage the family money as badly as he has been for the past couple of years, you'd have lost it again."

    Daniel stared at me. For the first time, I felt an urge to move behind my husband. I supressed it, but it was closer than I'd have thought. "Mrs. Aaron," he answered, formally and coldly. "You don't seem to understand at all. I've been outside the family money for years now. My father hasn't been inclined to share much of anything with me for a very long time.

    I played a hunch, based on a long ago memory of a fleeting impression. "Was that ever since he found out about the affair you were having with his wife?"

    It was a close race, but Daniel looked more shocked than Charlie.

    continued...
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    ...continued

    ##################

    Daniel takes his wife onto the dance floor at the Baltimore United Charities ball. He held a spot on the board, one vacated by Andy Snyder a few years ago, and so was known by just about everyone there. And, from the smiles around him, liked, too. Or maybe that was for Veronica.

    It most certainly didn't extend to his stepmother. The general reaction to her at the ball was to ignore her. Nothing impolite, not with this crowd, of course. She didn't attract negative attention, or positive attention. She didn't attract any attention at all.

    She didn't seem to share that equanimity, though. Or couldn't fake it well. Not from the way she glared at Daniel and Veronica, whenever they weren't looking at her.

    Which was most of the night.

    ##################

    "Mrs. Aaron, I'll thank you to keep your voice down and your vile accusations to yourself." Daniel's voice was a chill arctic wind, and I again wanted to let Charlie take the lead without wanting to. I wouldn't say it out loud much, but it was nice to know he was around.

    Most of the time. "I agree, Susanna," he said sternly to me. But then he turned to Daniel and went on. "She shouldn't have spoken in a normal voice about it, in case you never told your wife about your past. And the accusations are pretty vile. Then again, so was the action itself."

    Daniel stepped forward, and to hell with pride, I moved quickly behind my husband. Who, for his part, moved up just as quickly. "Don't, Daniel. We've made it almost twenty years without ever coming to blows. You know you're only angry because she's right, anyway. So just don't."

    He worked, visibly, to get his emotions under control. I knew it was more than a little unfair to hit him like this even before he'd buried his father. On the other hand, I also knew he and his father had never gotten along at all. Even before he began sharing the old man's latest wife.

    "I'll...admit that there was once something between the two of us. It didn't last long, and it was probably eight or nine years ago. Several years before I met Veronica." He said that last as though it answered everything.

    Charlie sneered. "Oh, good, while you were making whoopee with your stepmother, at least you didn't have to worry about being unfaithful to your girlfriend."

    "I was a different man then. And as I was saying, I admit it happened, but it was all in anger."

    "Anger?" I asked.

    "Of course," he said, and his control was back. "We were both angry at my father. Neither of us were good enough for him. Beyond that? Well, you know her. She's younger than I am. She certainly was attractive enough, and at least for the immediate purposes, so was I." He trailed off into silence, reflecting on who knew what.

    After a moment he broke it. And did the most creepy thing I could think of. He smiled, and it appeared to be genuine. "You're trying to figure out who killed him, aren't you?"

    Told you he'd get it eventually. Charlie looked to me for the lead. I nodded.

    He seemed relieved. "I didn't think you'd behave quite this boorishly unless something were behind it. Well done, both of you."

    "So, now that that's out in the open, where were you that night?"

    He took a deep breath. I could see he was about to dig in for another fight. Then Charlie jumped in.

    "Daniel, why not just tell her? You're right, we're trying to help." Quickly he told of his own conversation with David the night he was killed, despite the daggers I was shooting his way. Seemed like too much to give up for my tastes, but it worked in one way. This time Daniel's deep breath was just a sigh as he sat down, heavily, on a beautiful antique chair.

    "I was out for most of the night, just as I am plenty of nights. I was at work." He smiled again. "Charlie, you remember how much of a pain in the ass Dale Lockman was when he was writing those columns against you? Try working for him. I must spend four nights per week back at the office."

    I could see Charlie thinking. "How far away is the office?" I asked him. Not Daniel, but him, and deliberately so.

    Charlie just nodded, turned to Daniel. "What time did you leave home, when did you get to the office, who did you work with, and when did you get home?"

    Daniel told him. I looked back to Charlie.

    "Nearly as I can tell," he said, "you could have easily had enough time after leaving work at 1:30 in the morning, gone to your father's house, shot him, and come back here."

    Daniel nodded. "You're right. I could have. But I didn't. I didn't like him much, but there was nothing in it for me to kill him. And I think you know that." He packed his pipe again, content for the moment to turn his attention away from us. Some dynamic in the room had changed, and we all could see it.

    That's the moment when we heard Veronica's footsteps in the hall as she returned. But before she could get to us, she turned and answered the ring of the doorbell, and let Detective Blake into the foyer. I could see that it was time to move on. Daniel did too.

    "Besides," he said without looking up, "remember I'm not the only child of David Howard who hasn't been happy with him lately."

    I turned to Charlie. I'd hoped to avoid this.

    No I hadn't. I'd been hoping we'd get to a point where I could say it.

    "Daniel's sister, Charlie. We need to talk to Helen."

    My husband turns the most interesting shade of pink when he blushes. I think even Detective Blake noticed.
    Last edited by birdsin89; 11-07-2014 at 02:30 PM.
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Four

    "Charlie, why were you so sure so soon that Daniel isn't the killer?"

    We were driving once again. Wayne West's show was over, and we were headed home.

    "Does it matter? I'm not on this little excursion for my brains anyway."

    Oh. Grumpy, upset. pouting Charlie. Probably my least favorite version aside from Mr. Reasonable. Still, I thought I knew what had him upset, and it wasn't that I wasn't asking his opinion while we questioned people. So, to overcome that, I asked it again. Then I leaned in close.

    "Of course I love you for your mind, baby," I whispered in his ear, taking a playful nip. Well, there are pleasant ways to assure a man of his value, after all. In my most breathy tones I added, "Tell me...what's on your...mind."

    He glanced at me, as I'd expected. And started laughing. "What the hell was that?" he asked.

    "Think of it as my appreciation for you doing this with me."

    He got that smirk, the one I do like. "Think of it as a small down payment on your appreciation."

    I giggled. I never do that, but he had been nice so far today. He'd earned it. "But really, why were you so sure?"

    "Because there's no reason for it. He got nothing with a dead father that he didn't have with a living one. He didn't get the respect he's wanted for years. He didn't get the money he's been denied. He didn't get any acknowledgement that he himself was David Howard's greatest blind spot. Nothing."

    "Except the satisfaction of ending the life of a man who he'd wanted all of that from for his entire life."

    "Well, yes. Except for that."

    I'd better throw him a bone, I thought, or risk putting him back in the angry mood. "I see your point, dear. You're probably right about it, too." That should do for a start. I thought of directions I could take the conversation that would have made our arrival at home, let's just say, a lot of fun. Then I thought of how much I wanted exactly that. Sure, because I love the lug. But also because, tomorrow morning, I wanted him thinking of me.

    After all, we were going to see...her.

    ##################

    The troubles began the instant we walked into the Merchants Club that night of the BUC ball.

    Honestly, I didn't recognize her. Why should I? I don't think I've seen the woman since 1923. It was pretty obvious right away that Charlie knew her, though. I haven't seen him look so bloodless since his last kidney stone attack. I asked him what the problem was, and would have sworn he'd just said Hell.

    Took me a while to figure out he'd said Helen. As if I thought there was a difference.

    Helen Howard had been a very attractive young woman, even I would have to admit. Dark hair, big dark eyes, and the kind of smile that tells a man that good times could be in the offing if the right cards were played. Her petite figure had been perfect for the twenties - kind of flat and lacking in curves, but worn well.

    Now, well past thirty, and with years of marriage and it seemed to me at least one child behind her, she...still looked good. And seemed to know it, if we can judge by the attentions she was getting from the youngish man with her. And the attentions she was giving him in return were well beyond what was expected at such a hoity-toity club. A bit beyond what was expected for a burlesque joint on Baltimore Street, too.

    "Helen...Howard?" I asked. Somehow, she wasn't the picture I had of her, even though I recognized the face even after all these years.

    Charlie's voice came cold, and flat, but with a slight waver. "Helen Spink. Married into the Philadelphia Main Line Spinks years ago."

    "And is Mr. Spink really that much younger than she, or has she aged particularly badly?"

    One corner of my husband's mouth quirked upward. "Neither. That person she's with is not Lawrence Spink." He looked closer. "I believe it's Max Broz. Mark Broz' son.

    "Huh," was about all I could say. "He looks...fit." Charlie gave a quick take in my direction. "He'd better, considering how he has to hold her up while she leans on him like that," I quickly added.

    Seemed to work, as he looked around. "There's her husband over there. Wonder what Philadelphia money is doing in Baltimore?"

    My eyes hadn't left Helen. "I don't think the matter is what the money is doing."

    We still enjoyed the evening for ourselves. Before long, it was almost a game. like dodgeball. Dodge-tramp. But in order to dodge her effectively, to keep her from encountering Charlie, I had to keep an eye on her. So I have an idea just how many men she found herself with before the night was done. On the other hand, I didn't have to watch too long - all we had to do was stay near her husband, and we could be reasonably sure she wouldn't come close to us all night.

    It's entirely possible I'm exaggerating this. A bit. Charlie would undoubtedly say so, the chivalrous twit. I don't think I am.

    I knew better than to bring it up. Ever again.

    ##################

    With my mission accomplished on the night after visiting Andy and Daniel on Tuesday, we set out at a proper society visiting time Wednesday. Charlie took off work again to accompany me, and we left at the crack of ten. Daniel had told us the hotel where Helen and Lawrence were staying. We stood in the hallway, outside their door. Charlie was doing nothing but looking at the room number. "Do you want me to knock?" I asked quietly.

    He knocked.

    Helen herself answered, which was surprise number one. People at her level usually travel with at least one maid. First hint that maybe she wasn't at that level any more?

    "Well of all the people I never expected to see at my hotel door," she said, appraising us both, "one of you is certainly on that list." I'm pretty sure I was supposed to go into vapor lock trying to figure out why she expected to see Charlie. I smiled to myself, in hope that that was the best shot she had.

    "Come in Charlie. Susanna." There was a shift in tone between the way she said our names. Don't know if Charlie noticed it. To be fair, he was so wrapped up in himself and his own thoughts right then I doubt he'd have noticed if the fire alarm had gone off. I wasn't, so I took his arm and stepped into the room.

    It was a luxurious hotel room. Nothing special about it as luxurious hotel rooms go, though not all of them have air conditioning units in the windows. Meaningless in December of course, except as a way to tell the winter guest that coming back in the summer would be a treat.

    Helen looked about the way she did at the BUC ball, though not as fancy. She was in a simple white blouse and black skirt, her hair was down, and there was not much in the way of makeup on her face. I think I may have seen a hint of a covered scar on one cheek, but what little makeup there was was well applied and I couldn't be sure.

    Years ago, when it was the rage, I used to play mah jong with friends. One night several years after the fad was over, all of my sons were either home or visiting us, and Will had brought one of his girlfriends. I think it was the one who Charlie thinks I don't know that Will was living with. Anyway, we all started to play, and I remember seeing a look come over her, as she went from "I'll do this because it might be good for some laughs" to "I'm in a game and I plan to win it".

    I saw the same transition on Helen's face now.

    continued...
    Last edited by birdsin89; 11-10-2014 at 12:59 PM.
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    ...continued

    "What brings the two of you here today?" Emphasis on the word "two", and back to the same old point.

    Putting on my sweetest voice, I replied, "We're here to offer our condolences on the death of your father."

    She hadn't been looking at me before. She still wasn't. "That's sweet of you. But you didn't have to come by for that. A card would have done." Now she turned to look my way. "Wouldn't it?"

    "Oh, come now," I positively simpered. "How often are you and your husband in Baltimore?" This time the subtle inflection was on the word husband. I do know how to play the game too. "Why, it's been years since either of us have seen you."

    "Maybe you, dear," she replied. "And Larry isn't around now. I forget which moneybags he's meeting with this morning. Maybe McMillan? Broz?"

    "And will you be meeting with a Broz today too?"

    She ignored that. As she probably had to. "Thank you for your concern, Charlie. Daddy always liked you, you know, and spoke very highly of you." And the subject was changed.

    Mostly. I raised four boys; I know how that's done, and how to get around it. "Yes, David was a wonderful man. I'm sure he liked it when you and Lawrence visited, didn't he?"

    "We didn't see each other very much over the recent past, with me living in Philadelphia, dear. You know how it is when you're separated from your father, don't you?"

    I admit it, I was stunned. Not by the relatively weak riposte, but by what it showed about how much Charlie had disclosed about me to her over the years. I heard Charlie's intake of breath, too. He knew this was going to be a topic for another time. And I knew I had to regroup, quickly.

    "Well, of course," I said, buying a moment. "But didn't Larry come to see him fairly often? If you're going to come to Baltimore to talk to moneybags, the Howards are one of the families you see, aren't they?"

    Score. She laughed. "Not for a long time, dear. But there have always been other reasons to come to the old town." She said this while staring at Charlie in what was probably meant to be a more predatory look than it really was. And I decided that I'd had enough.

    "Like young Max Broz, for example."

    "What ever do you mean, dear?"

    Sigh. "All right, dear. I mean that you have been coming to Baltimore, when you have, for a couple of reasons. Neither of which have anything to do with your husband. Except that I'm guessing he's lost almost as much of his family funds as you have, and both of you are trying to get in bed with local money." He's just trying to do it figuratively, I didn't add - so carefully didn't I add it that there was no way she could have missed it.

    "And that offends you? That brings you here this morning, to do what? Condemn me?"

    Where did that come from? No matter - I learned a long time ago, when the other side is firing non-sequiturs at you, you're winning.

    "No, honey. That's just a side benefit. I'm here to see what might have explained your behavior at the BUC ball last week. And now that I have, I'm here to confirm my guess about the Spink money drying up in this economy just like the Howard. Which, I suppose, I've also done."

    Helen laughs. "And what does all this mean?"

    "It means that you would have been quite happy to get a sudden burst of cash from your father. If he wanted to give it to you, fine. And if he didn't..."

    For just one moment, I managed to shock her. "You think I killed him for it?" Then the shock was gone again, quickly enough to leave a less confident woman to wonder if she'd seen it at all. "Oh, dearie, you really don't understand me, do you?" The fact that her cheer seemed for all the world to be genuine was, I admit it, unnerving. Until she continued. "Besides, there are plenty of ways short of murder for a girl to get what she wants, aren't there? Even if what she wants is just some meaningless fun." She turned at the last to leer broadly at Charlie - which was as good a reminder as any that he was still in the room, since he'd looked for the past few minutes as though he would have happily melted through the floor. Now, he just looked humiliated.

    "Fine, Helen. Let's just cut through it. Where were you the night your father was shot?"

    She looked back at me again, which at least took her attention from him. "I'm not entirely sure I have to tell you anything, dear. But why not? I have nothing to hide. Nothing you haven't already figured out, that is. I was out until about 4 in the morning."

    "Where?"

    "Max Broz's place. With him."

    And this is what you mean when you say you have nothing to hide? Damn. But still, something wasn't adding up. "You weren't planning to leave your old-money husband, not even if the money ran out. That's not the way things work in your circles, is it? So what were you doing?" I was thinking out loud on that last, trying to pick up on her longer-term plans.

    She misunderstood. "I was f--king him." I could almost hear the sound of Charlie's wince. "Does that shock you?"

    "The action, or the fact that you can swear like a sailor? Doesn't matter - there's less and less all the time that would shock me about you. Are you willing to let word get around that that's where you were? Are you using Max as your alibi?"

    "Dear, I don't need an alibi. That nice beefy detective who's handling the case for Daddy's friend Major Callaghan will come around sooner or later to ask me more serious questions than the ones he did already. And I'll put on the poor pitiful me act, and have him eating out of my hand in no time. Unless that gets boring.

    "So no, I won't be incriminating lovely, stupid Max. Not to the police, anyway. But you know, and I know, just where I was. And just what I was doing." She turned back to Charlie. "And just what it was like," she almost whispered.

    Then she turned back to me. "So you can both get out of here now. You can move on to whatever it is you think you're doing. Maybe you can go talk to my brother, see if you can embarrass him. He's much easier for that than I am. Or maybe dear stepmother."

    "Why Melba?"

    Another laugh. "You just accused me of murder, in so many words, based on the fact that I'm a woman who enjoys a good tumble now and then, and my husband is losing money. Don't you think that exactly describes someone else in this little drama of yours?"

    And we were shown the door. It wasn't until the car that Charlie could even talk.

    "She wasn't like that...before...you know."

    "She's not like that now, de-...honey," I said, with as much honest tenderness as I could put in my voice. There wasn't much - I wasn't feeling very tender at all. But he needed it now. "She was playing to me, Charlie. Some of the things she said never happened, some happened but not the way she said they did. This was nothing more than a verbal cat-fight."

    He put the Packard into gear, pulled out onto the street. We saw Detective Blake driving up to the hotel behind us.

    After a few moments of silence, I heard, softly, "I'm sorry I wasn't more help."

    I didn't have time for this. I'm afraid Charlie's ego is going to have to fix itself for now. I needed to think. Something Helen had said was tickling my brain. It was there, all of it. If only I could trust that the part of her story that was giving it all to me was one of the parts that was true.
    Last edited by birdsin89; 11-10-2014 at 01:47 PM.
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Interesting little mini-series. Kinda reminds me a little of film noir.

    Wonder who did it?

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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Alan Smithee: Glad you like it! Thanks for reading, and wonder no more.

    * * *

    An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Five

    One more drive. I think we're close now. It was all coming together for me, I could feel it. I couldn't explain it, but I could feel it. I told Charlie.

    He was doing much better now. "Wonderful. Are you planning to call all the suspects together, so you can confront them all, and have Detective Blake make the arrest right there?

    "Why would I do that?" Possibly a bit abruptly - I'd kept a pretty tight rein on my emotions at Helen's, but that didn't mean I wasn't angry.

    It must have been pretty abrupt, even he noticed. No, that's not fair either, but sometimes I...agh!

    Charlie looked confused. "Like Miss Marple. You're British. It's what you do."

    "I haven't been British for 40 years. And if I'm going to be a British detective, I want a deerstalker hat and a violin."

    "Um, yes. Listen, Suse, about, um...I'm sorry."

    "We dealt with this a dozen years ago." And that's all I'll say about how hurt I was by the realization of how much of my life story he's apparently shared with others. No, not with others. Just the one.

    He thought I was cross with him. He was right, but that wasn't it now. I was thinking, and it was hard enough just cutting through what I was feeling in order to do it. I didn't need him to distract me as well. So as long as he thought that, he left me alone to ponder.

    I had seen everything I needed to see that night at the BUC ball. I knew it. I didn't know what it was, yet, but it would come to me. It simply had to.

    ##################

    Charlie and I were among the first to arrive at the ball this year, as usual. His tuxedo still fit him pretty well, though I suspect he's having it tailored behind my back. He let me pick out another new gown, though, and I have to admit it - as normally sensible as I can be, I do still have a bit of a weakness left over from my childhood for fancy dress.

    One of the pleasant parts of arriving early is that you can watch as everyone else arrives. And with a group of stuffed shirts like many of these, they don't just show up, they make an entrance. It's like our own small version of the Hollywood Red Carpet. I've already seen the Brozzes, the McMillans, and the Purcells. My son Will's boss Mr. Martin is there, talking to a Senator.

    I'm pleased when I see Andy Snyder, one nice surprise. I could go many years without seeing Helen Spink, but am not given the option. Daniel and Veronica Howard have arrived, just before Mr. and Mrs. Bishop of the W, B & A. A few minutes later, David Howard bounds from his car, rushing to see the governor, and incidentally leaving Melba waiting at the car as her chauffeur hands her her wrap. But he has to rush back to the car to move it so that George Mackubin and the missus could arrive.

    I stood and watched as the cream of the Baltimore society pages prepared to show each other how great they were. And, as I do every year at BUC time, I made a note to drop a check at the storefront mission and soup kitchen we passed two blocks away.

    ##################

    Whatever it was that I knew still hadn't come to me, but was even closer, when Charlie interrupted my thoughts by announcing that we'd arrived.

    The Howard House in northern Baltimore, off Charles Street, was actually in a neighborhood that had seen better days. Those days being about twenty years ago. Not that there was anything wrong with it now - the house was as big and intimidating as it ever had been, the lawns as carefully manicured, the drive as carefully tended. It was just something almost undefinable about the place that said "I'm still a champion, but my surroundings aren't holding up their part of the bargain."

    The house was a Victorian mansion but it looked equally ready to provide barred windows as a dungeon, turrets to defend the approaches, or gingerbread to keep Mad King Ludwig at bay. It was big, and expensive, and over-decorated. Which also described the lady of the house, when we saw her on her porch. They probably called it a veranda.

    We stepped up past the hulking chauffeur, who was working on the car, and approached Melba. She hadn't seen us at first, but quickly put on her widow's face when she did.

    "Oh, Charlie, Susanna, isn't it terrible?" she asked in a whiny, little-girl voice that I assumed was put on. At least I hoped it was.

    Charlie probably saw it too, but went on anyway. "We're very sorry, Melba. We wanted to offer our condolences in person, but you've been very hard to talk to since..."

    "Those evil police men have been here almost all the time! I've told them everything, and they keep coming back, even when Major Callaghan assured me and the goons in the press that...that..." she faltered, going off into tears of mourning. All right, not exactly tears of mourning. Sniffles of bad acting, maybe.

    "Yes," Charlie said, looking uncomfortable again, though in a different way than earlier today at the hotel. "Anyway, that's why we haven't seen you sooner. Very sorry about that." There followed a few moments of talk about funeral arrangements and so forth, while I looked around. Something looked out of place. Finally, it hit me.

    "Melba," I asked in one of the many awkward silences, feigning nervousness, "May I have one of your cigarettes over there?" I pointed to a pack of Camels on a small table. Charlie swiveled quickly and got a lovely look of bewilderment. He knows I don't smoke.

    "Oh, those?" she said too casually. Then her eyes widened a bit and she said, "No. I'm sorry, but..." the tears came again, "those were David's. I..." and her head was back in her hands.

    Charlie edged over to me, and whispered so softly that I missed some of the words "...don't smoke..."

    "Help me out," I whispered back. He shook his head and leaned in again, but by then Melba was done with her cloudburst.

    "Oh, Charlie, what am I going to do?" she asked plaintively. The chivalrous galoot went to put an arm around her.

    "I know it's hard, Melba. You'll soldier on, and know that David is in a better place."

    Was the look of annoyance that crossed her face for a second my imagination? "Oh, I know that. I just..."

    She took a deep breath, and looked sheepishly at us both. "Can I tell you a little secret? I feel so very badly for David, of course, but a part of me is just so angry with him, and that makes me feel even worse."

    "This is it," I thought, "and I have to play it carefully now." What I said, though, was "That's perfectly normal, Melba. The one left behind gets angry at being abandoned, even when it's-"

    "Oh, it's not that. Well, yes, it is that, but also, what am I supposed to do? It's not like I can go back to work." She pointed generally to her body, which even she seemed to know was not going to get her the gigs that had attracted David in the first place.

    Did you ever have one of those moments when you see something breakable about to fall off a shelf? You see it, and you know you can't do anything to stop it, except wait and watch as it hits the floor and shatters. That's just how I felt when Charlie opened his mouth, and my plans to be subtle and clever vanished.

    And then he reminded me why I married him, by doing it better than I would have. "Of course, Melba. It's even worse I'm sure when it's not a death by natural causes. After all, if someone wanted him dead, he must have done something to cause it." At her little demure and insincere nod, he went on. "If he'd just not done whatever he did that made someone want him dead, he'd still be here and you'd still be..." and he trailed off, having baited the hook.

    Nibble. "Charlie, I never really knew what to do in David's circles, you know that. I was just so young, and so over-whelmed by this big, great man. He saw me, and went after me me, with all his money and all his power. What was a poor girl supposed to do?"

    Funny, I don't remember this innocent naif so much as a New York showgirl who started drinking with the rich out-of-town businessman that night a decade ago. Maybe my memory was failing me. Somebody's sure was.

    "You did just fine, Melba," Charlie was continuing. Putting some play on the line now. "You were a lot of fun, when he needed that. He was at a bad time in his life, and you gave him a lot."

    "You know I did!" she agreed readily. "He took me away from everything I've ever known, and brought me here. I tried, Charlie, I really tried to be a dutiful wife. It was all so new to me, but I did it, didn't I?"

    "Of course you did," he answered. "You helped him to live life, to enjoy what he had. And you were just what he needed, with his children grown up and out of the house." Which, I had to admit, was a very nice way of saying that she spent all his money and got between the older man and his family. Except, of course, when she slipped into bed with one member of that family. Sometimes I'm proud of my husband.

    "Right," she said. "And now what can I do? I'm not getting any younger, you know. How am I supposed to find - " and this time she didn't trail off so much as cut herself off. I could almost read that tiny little mind, afraid that she might have said too much. But did she really know if she had?

    continued...
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

  12. #12
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    Re: An Orange and Black Shroud

    ...continued

    "Nonsense, Melba," Charlie chimed in, and my opinion of him went up again. "You're still a very beautiful woman. And I know that David always felt that way about you, right up to the very end." Exactly what she wanted to hear, and almost certainly untrue.

    Melba cast a quick glance at the driveway. John had finished whatever he was doing, and was approaching cautiously. Somehow he managed not to completely block out the sun, even as big as he was.

    I'd have never thought he had it in him, but Charlie had done it. It was my turn. "I don't know, Melba. It might still be a bit of a challenge for you to catch somebody. There has to be a fairly limited market for ex-showgirls who've poisoned their husbands."

    All heads whipped in my direction, and Melba put on her best acting chops. Sad for her, but there was never much call for subtle acting in 1920s showgirls, so she didn't have much to work with. "Susanna, what are you talking about?" she sniffled.

    I walked toward her, still keeping a slight distance and with Charlie able to get between the two of us at a moment's notice. "I said you were poisoning him, Melba. Was it his morning coffee? That's the traditional approach. And I'm guessing arsenic, in small doses. He had plenty of the symptoms, and we just thought it was stress and old age." I'm bluffing more than a little bit - what I know about arsenic poisoning comes purely from years of reading murder mysteries.

    "Um, Suse?" Charlie has that look he used to get when we disagreed on how to discipline one of the boys. He didn't want to say I was wrong in front of them, but he clearly thought I was. "Wasn't David shot?"

    I thanked him silently for bringing it up. It had given me the chance to watch her face carefully when he did, and see the momentary flash of relief - and smug triumph. "Somebody got impatient, Charlie. No matter what she did, David was still a strong man, and he wouldn't die. Even worse, remember those rumors of divorce? He was thinking about it." Another bluff, but one I was sure of. Since his first wife had died, David Howard had never stayed married for long. There would have been rumors, and Melba was well past her expiration date.

    "Susanna, all of that is just so terrible of you to say," Melba squeezed out through the crocodile tears. "If you must know, his health wasn't the best because he was trying to kick his cigar habit. Because I don't like them." She sniffed again, broadly, trying to show us that her husband was so very selfless and loved her so very much. "So he switched to cigarettes. And you know what those can do to a person. They're called coffin nails for a reason. I tried to tell him to go back to the cigars, but he had just made up his mind that he would change...for me..."

    Click.

    "And you're so smart, thinking I could have ever killed my husband. Well for your information I was coming back from a nightcap at the Yorktown Club when David was shot. Ask John, he'll tell you."

    That notable, for the first time, drew himself into the conversation, his pig eyes never leaving...Charlie? "I was with her. And you need to stop saying all this terrible stuff."

    "What's the matter John?" I asked, with as much sarcasm as a mother of four and wife of Charlie Aaron can muster. "Afraid if we keep talking, we'll find out all about what happened that night - and what everybody did?" I could see that the thought was working its way through the neaderthal brow to the brain, and thought it might be nasty when it finally got there. Charlie saw it too, and stepped between the brute and me.

    And then Charlie ducked, but not nearly in time to fully avoid the giant's crashing fist sending him down.

    I watched my husband spin on the floor, rolling away to avoid the big man. Lucky for Charlie, Hart wasn't coming after him, just standing, fists clenched, ready to do it again.

    "Should I take that as a 'Yes'?" Charlie asked.

    "Keep talking to her that way and I'll give you more where that came from," Hart replied.

    "John, stop!" Melba crossed the porch and stood between her late husband's chauffer and Charlie. She placed her hand gently on the man's shoulder. Possibly a little too gently. "They're just talking. And they don't know what they're talking about!" she said a bit triumphantly.

    "I want him to stop," John replied in his usual flat tones. "He can't talk that way about you." He nudged her as gently as she'd touched him, toward me. She went uncomplainingly.

    "Come on, John, you can do better than that," Charlie taunted. It wasn't so much waving a red cape in front of a bull as just poking it with the sword, but without the advantage of having a sword in your hand. It brought the predictable result, when John swung on him again. Moving pretty well for an old man, Charlie ducked it, and even launched a fist to the big man's gut.

    If it had an effect, I couldn't see it. Charlie glanced to me, and said quietly, "That may not have been the best idea I've ever had."

    I knew there was close to nothing I could do about the fight except help with bandages and support when it was done. So I slipped closer to where Melba was watching with wide, interested eyes. "I was wrong, wasn't I? It wasn't the coffee. It was the cigarettes." Still transfixed by the violence in front of her, Melba's head dipped slowly, and then rose in what looked for all the word like a nod. I placed my purse on the table between her and the cigarette pack in question, hoping Melba and John would forget they were there until I could show them to somebody else.

    When I looked at her again, she'd turned to stare at me. I could see that she'd caught on, even in that dim, rodent-like, cunning little mind of hers. That it was over.

    "How long have you been having the affair with John?"

    Melba laughed. "Affair sounds so...formal. We were having sex. And he may have thought it meant more."

    John turned to us. He'd heard that. It caused him to lose his concentration on my husband for just a moment. Charlie took the moment, and landed a shot to Hart's jaw. I think he was aiming for the temple, but probably couldn't reach that high. Hart just looked flustered, but didn't move other than to shake his head like a horse bothered by a fly. Charlie reared back and launched another one, aimed for the same spot. I don't know who was most surprised when John staggered a bit, and finally dropped to one knee. I swear the veranda shook when he touched down.

    Still confused, he said, "We were going to be together."

    Charlie stepped in closer, but still out of reach of the big man's arms. "No, you weren't," he said quietly, and not without some sympathy.

    I turned to Melba. "John didn't have your view of the matter. Not everybody from the lower classes can fully appreciate their real role when someone from higher up deigns to look at them. You couldn't, at first. So when you finally let slip some pillow talk, or when he figured it out maybe, that you were poisoning his boss? He assumed it was so you and he could run away." I turned to Hart, "So you decided to speed the process up, and shot him."

    Hart didn't react at all. Then he did, and it was the one reaction I was hoping he wouldn't do. See, by keeping him focused on a fistfight with Charlie, we'd managed to keep him from remembering that he had a pistol in a shoulder holster. Not uncommon for a chauffer to also guard the body of his charge, even if he guarded Melba's with a bit more of a proprietary interest than he had David's.

    Hart brought out the gun, but it didn't look as though his heart was in it. Still, the bullet doesn't care if the man who pulls the trigger is sad or happy when he does it. He raised the gun, pointed it in my direction. Then in Melba's. Then mine again.

    Charlie launched himself across the ground and hit him with all his weight. The gun went off, and shattered one of the French doors that led from the veranda to the house.

    "Everybody freeze!" came a strong, clear voice. "Hands up!"

    I looked to the driveway. "Detective Blake," I said. "I have never been so glad to see you."

    ###################

    For the next hour or so, explanations were made, and cuffs applied, It was quite a while before I finally got to talk to Charlie again. "You know, you could have helped me with the fight," he said, fiddling with his new bandage. "That punch hurt. I knew you were angry with me on the ride over, but really..."

    "Nonsense," I said sweetly. "I simply could see that you had things under control."

    He smiled, then got that little smirk he has at those times I most love him. "You know that now I can't disagree without calling my own manhood into question."

    I smiled back. "I would never question that." He chuckled a bit, and we headed to our car.

    A couple of steps later, I stopped. "Charlie," I said.

    He turned. "Yes?"

    I leaned up and in and kissed him. "Thank you."

    He kissed back. "You're welcome. For what?"

    "For not doubting that I could solve a crime. For letting me do it. For helping me do it. For-" He stopped me with a gentle finger to my lips.

    "Now I'm even more boxed in, aren't I?" he teased. "I never doubted you could do it at all. But I do wonder how. I didn't exactly see any smoking gun clues. But you kept going and then, bang, there it all was. How did you do it?"

    "Charlie, there are two types of detectives. There's the "find clues" kind, and there's the "poke it with a stick and see who finally incriminates himself" kind. Or, in this case, herself."

    He nodded, and then smirked "Wait, that makes me..."

    "A big stick. And a very handsome one."

    It was a nice kiss to end a case on.
    The Orange and Black(Sox) - The Complete Saga

    Part One - The First Ten Long Years: The Orange and Black(Sox)
    Part Two - Ten More Years! (Orange and) Black Times
    The Mini-Series: An Orange and Black Shroud

    Part Three - How Long Can This Go On? Charlie's War

    The Never-to-be-Completed Sequel: Brooklyn Blues

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