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  • Writer's pictureBrittany Brinegar

Death by Flapper

Sneak Peek at the first installment in a Roaring Twenties Mystery!

Spring 1924

I gripped the brim of my cloche hat with one hand and held my dress with the other, fighting the unseasonable chilled breeze as I strolled the hectic street. Gasoline exhaust accosted me and I took a deep breath, hoping the anger would melt away. Fighting the wind was better than socking my brother in the nose. Whoever said you shouldn’t work for your family was on to something.

Model T’s buzzed in every direction and pedestrians piled on corners to cross. I shoved through the crowd, my irritation increasing rather than dissipating. He knew very well about my appointment to meet Mother and yet he insisted alphabetizing files was time sensitive. He should have been more concerned about the terrible legal advice he forced on his unsuspecting client. If there was a way for him to back out of court, he’d do it. Including dismissing a case with merit. But as his little sister and secretary, to say so was speaking out of turn. Based on the slack jaw expression, even the dopey client didn’t appreciate my valuable insight. When would I learn to keep my mouth shut?

I pushed the incident from my mind and tried to enjoy the beautiful afternoon. My new, positive outlook lasted thirty seconds before I pictured Mother, scolding my tardiness. The heels of my t-strap shoes thumped as I increased my pace. My lunch hour would not be enough time to deal with my mother and her latest scheme. All I wanted was a root beer float from Marvin’s Drug Store. I deserved one after the morning I had.

But there wasn’t time. Mother waited at Neiman Marcus on Ervay and Main, not far from the Adolphus Hotel, the site of the evening’s lavish ball.

Hesitating a block from my destination, I trained my attention on a lady gyrating in the middle of the street. She clutched the hem of her skirt and hurried to the corner. Her screams echoed over the noisy lunch crowd as she dropped a dime on a sketchy fellow strolling in the opposite direction. The round-bellied copper adjusted his nightstick and took off in a sprint.

The unsuspecting fella wore a suit and tie to blend with the businessmen on their lunchbreak but his unkempt hair and hatless appearance gave away his disguise. The wind draped the jacket to his side and I took note of the bulge. An untrained eye might dismiss the shape as a rolled-up newspaper but I knew better. He packed heat. And the way he gripped the satchel slung around his arm, he likely carried something not belonging to him.

My eyes cut between the slow-moving copper and the smug criminal and I decided Mother could wait a while longer to force a new party dress on me. The distraction of a heist in front of my eyes was too much to walk away from. A lump formed in my throat as I forced a painful memory down.

The crook checked behind him and spotted the copper barreling in his direction. The crook’s twig-like legs skipped into a run and he dashed across the street against the flow of traffic. A Ford spun on tires, brakes squealing to avoid a collision. A fancier yellow Studebaker with wood spokes and whitewall tires clipped the man and sent him spinning. But he recovered and weaved to my side of the street.

My gaze lifted to the copper in pursuit if one could even call it that. He smacked into a group of women exiting a department store and boxes of hats went flying into the air as if celebrating graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy.

The crook waved to a dairy delivery truck one hundred feet ahead. The getaway vehicle. I gritted my teeth, adjusted my purse on my arm, and took an angle to cut the crook off. With the copper otherwise engaged, the least I could do was delay the crook from reaching the escape plan.

Despite the modest heels, I sprinted. “Hey you, stop!”

The crook’s gaze met mine and he halted in his tracks. With his path to the getaway vehicle cut off, he jerked his neck to check for the sluggish copper who veered behind a row of parked cars. The crook offered me a parting shrug as if to say ‘what are you going to do about it?’ and vaulted for the oncoming streetcar.

His dismissal only increased my resolve.

He stole away on the first car but I managed to snag the caboose. I elbowed by a few gentlemen and made my way to the window. If the crook jumped off before the next stop, I wanted to know. A block away from our scheduled destination, he sailed from the streetcar and stumbled into a parked Model T. I did the same but made sure to bend my knees on the landing.

Thinking he was free, the crook strolled and returned to his attempts to blend. But his head on a swivel like an owl gave away his duplicity. I increased my gait to close the gap and when he glanced my way, I ducked behind a cart.

Confident he didn’t catch sight of me, I legged to the next corner like Ty Cobb stealing home but I pulled up too late and the crook locked eyes with me.

Instead of running away, he dropped the satchel and revealed the snubnosed heater. “You want an introduction to Roscoe?”

“Is he single? Because I could be in the market for a beau.” I skimmed the street for a way out of the pickle. The moment the crook pulled the gun, pedestrians scattered.

“Why are you tailing me, Lady? I’m gonna fill ya full of lead.”

If I showed up to Neiman Marcus both late and wounded, Mother would surely kill me. I held my hands in surrender. “No thanks.”

The crook’s elbow bent but he didn’t lower the pistol, as if he didn’t trust my concession. His finger twitched above the trigger. “That’s it?”

I forced a girlish squeal and ducked into the Sundial Theater, where the ticket taker knew me. “Only taking a shortcut, Sid.” He waved me on as I slid around a corner to the alley exit. On my way out I grabbed a broom and snapped the sweeping part with a swift kick. I continued outside with the splintered handle.

I sidestepped a garbage can lid and broken glass as I crept down the alley to rejoin the crook on the other side. He peered through the door I entered a few moments earlier and never spotted me behind him. He scratched the top of his head, baffled by my sudden disappearance. His gun lowered, opening the window for me to strike. With the broom propped on my shoulder, I froze mid-swing.

The red-faced copper arrived on the street and hollered between gasps. “You… stay… put.”

The crook adjusted his grip on the satchel and took off again. Two steps into his escape, he met the splintered end of my broomstick bat. I whacked the old boy in the noggin and when he melted to the ground, I put a knee on his chest and withdrew his piece.

Copper huffed to a stop beside me, bending to place his hands on his knees. “Ma’am, step away from this dangerous man.”

I eased backward and peeled away one white glove to better grip the pistol. I didn’t trust the fat officer or his heavy breathing. “I’ll cover him while you get your wind. What did he do?”

A group of onlookers gathered behind me whispering. One busybody lady regaled my exploits.

The crook rubbed his head where I smashed him. “You got a dame doin’ your work for you now, O’Neal?”

“Shut your piehole, McGinnis. You’re sloppy and got caught.”

“Not by you this time. I was in the clear until she came along.” He cut his eyes to me. “You won’t shoot me. I doubt you know how to hold…” He tightened his lips as I cocked the revolver.

“Put it away before you hurt somebody,” O’Neal said. He helped the crook to his feet and slapped the bracelets on him.

"What is his crime? Aside from the terribly obvious businessman disguise.”

“He knocked off the jewelry counter at Sangers.” O’Neal extended his palm. “Give me the gun, Ma’am.”

I handed it over. “No need to thank me, O’Neal. The reward of an arrest is all the gratitude I require.”

“Don’t get cross with me, young lady. I’m not above hauling you in for interfering with me.”

“You should get into better physical shape if part of your job involves chasing bad guys, Officer O’Neal.”

“Keep your opinion to yourself and stay out of police business.” He shoved the future jailbird along the sidewalk as the gathering crowd gave me an ovation.

Though the copper showed no appreciation, I didn’t hate the attention from the pedestrians. “Thank you.” I took a bow, realizing I was a little more like Mother than I cared to let on.

“She used the broom handle like the Babe uses his bat. A homerun.” A middle-aged man in straw hat and work clothes scratched two days of stubble on his chin. “I’m in love. Will you marry me? Beautiful and mean, just how I like them.”

“You wouldn’t know how to handle her, Pete,” his buddy said.

“Thanks for the proposal, Pete. My mother is trying to pawn me off and will be happy to hear I have options.” My gaze drifted to the grand clock perched above the bank building. “Uh-oh, speaking of Mother, she isn’t happy when kept waiting.”

“What about my proposal?”

Pete’s buddy smacked him on the shoulder. “She ain’t serious. Look at her and look at you.”

I grinned over my shoulder and offered a wave as he gawked at my walk.

I brushed the auburn hair away from my eyes as Mother pressed a hanger to my chest. She motioned to a full-length mirror on the third floor of the lavish department store. “You didn’t have the decency to arrive on time. The least you can do is humor me.”

“If you want to blame someone for me being late, talk to that son of yours.”

“Forget him. What do you think of the dress?”

I didn’t care for the price and already told my mother as much. “I can’t afford a pair of gloves in this store and neither can you.”

Mother adjusted her hat and forced a stage worthy smile. “Keep your voice down. Someone might hear you.”

“How long are you going to continue to put on airs, Mother?”

“This is hardly the time or place for this discussion. Besides, if all goes well tonight, our problems will be solved.” Traces of her native Texas drawl remained even after spending her twenties on the east coast.

I hung the dress back on the rack. “Mother, you can’t continue to live above your means. None of us can.”

Blue eyes cut both directions to ensure no one was within ear range. “I wish we didn’t lose all your father’s money after his passing but I’ve come to terms.”

"You have a funny way of showing it.”

“If only your husband made his intentions clear before, well…” She trailed off before wading into a more meaningful discussion and reclaimed the dress. “But the fact remains, we all expect a certain level of comfort.”

“Archie and I will be fine. We’re educated and capable.”

“Don’t be foolish, young lady. This party tonight is the beginning of our new lives.” The drama remained from her youthful career on the stage in New York. “Our next chapter. You will play your part.”

I fluffed my hairdo, not thrilled with the latest from the overpriced salon next door. Too short for my taste but it fit the style, covering my ears, and brushing below my neckline. “What’s wrong with the dress I wore on New Year’s Eve?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, darling. I will not tolerate you attending this party in anything but the latest fashion from Paris.”

“The price tag is outrageous, Mother.”

“It’s too late now seeing as I already made the arrangements. Now put it on so the seamstress can make adjustments. An expensive dress is no better than a burlap sack if not properly tailored.”

I stepped behind the changing screen, kicked off my T-strap heels, and slipped from the daytime dress I bought with my last paycheck. The sensible wool-silk blend gray dress hit below the knee and featured a teal collar and trim to match my eyes. Much more my style than the glitzy dress Mother selected.

I huffed and shook my head at the deep burgundy flapper dress. The beads and fringe were overkill, though I did note the contours of the waist could accentuate rather than conceal a curvy woman such as myself. With revelation, I gave in and stepped into the outfit.

Mother clapped as I weaved around the changing screen and her overreaction nearly sent me right back. “I take it you approve?”

“You should let me shop for you more often, my dear.” She called over the seamstress and they tugged on me as if I were one of the store mannequins. “And of course, we should drop the hem an inch or two.”

“It’s fine, Mother.”

“The dress is designed for a shorter woman,” she said. “Two inches will be appropriate, don’t you think Mrs. Stevenson?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I rolled my eyes. If Mother told Mrs. Stevenson the sky was green, the woman would respond with ‘yes, ma’am’.

Within an hour and the adjustments complete, Mother selected three-inch pumps in gold, drop pearl earrings, and a matching long pearl necklace. But I drew the line on the tiara headband. Perhaps it would work for my puppy, Ginger.

Despite my feet dragging, when I checked the mirror, I was not upset with the results. If I must attend the party, I might as well shine.

A chill raced down my back as I sensed someone watching me. I took note of a taller, cool blonde across the shop picking out a fan and jewelry. She raised her eyebrows and sauntered my way. In her mid-thirties, she had ten years on me. “Sorry for staring. Kiddo, but you are going to turn heads wherever you wear this dress.” Her twang was not Texas, but more Tennessee.

“Thank you. I’m wearing it tonight to the Governor’s Ball.”

“Ha, I should be mad. I figured I would be the belle of the ball. But no chance if you’re going.” She tossed golden locks over her shoulder and crossed her long legs as she tried on a pair of shoes. She kicked off the pumps and returned them to the salesman. “Far too uncomfortable for dancing.”

“Would you like to select something else?” he asked.

“How about something like my new friend found but in another color?” She smiled and the salesman did as she commanded. “I hope to see you there tonight. I’ve almost worn down my husband but he’s still attempting to make excuses on why we can’t attend.” She jutted her elbow. “I bet you and me can find a way into some fun.”

“I’m happy for a friendly face. These affairs are too snooty for my taste.” I checked my reflection again, spinning to review from each angle. I hated to admit my mother picked the right outfit for me. “I’m Penelope van Kessler.”

She reached to shake with her white-gloved hand. “Good to meet you. I’m Margo Hutchinson.” She shivered and rubbed her arms. “I should find a shawl. Those spacious ballrooms are always cavernous and cold. See you later, Pen.”

She sauntered away with the walk of a confident woman and Mother scowled. “She’s forward.”

“I thought you’d be happy to see me making friends. She’s going to the party.” I narrowed my eyes. “And her mother didn’t make her cut her gorgeous locks.”

“Her hair is pretty but not stylish. I want you to make the right impression. Dozens of eligible men will attend the soiree. Nothing can be out of place.” She reached for the tiara again.

“I draw the line at the haircut, the dress, and the accessories. I don’t make enough money to dress like a princess.”

“It kills me, Penelope.” Mother’s blank stare landed on the street outside. Downtown Dallas was an area dominated by overpriced department stores. “We still belong among the elite. I won’t allow a minor setback to derail our future.”

The minor setback was not so minor. My brother squandered the family fortune on speculative oil leases and he doubled down with money we didn’t have on a scheme to make a quick return. It failed as well.

“Why don’t you concentrate on finding Archie a wife instead of pawning me off?” My stomach flopped. “I’m not ready yet.”

“The ball will serve both purposes, darling. Let’s face it, you possess the assets in abundance to secure another husband. Your dear brother requires a nest egg before coaxing a young woman to marry him.”

I checked the time on the grandfather clock near the window. “Speaking of Archibaldy, he’s going to get sore if I don’t get back to the office.”

“He understands the importance of tonight. He won’t yell at you.”

“Horsefeathers,” I mumbled with an eye roll. “He lords over me on the job and I have to take it.”

“Don’t use slang. It isn’t ladylike.”

I raised the corners of my mouth to a wicked grin. “I could go back to using the other word, Mother.”

“I sent you to finishing school and to Radcliffe to make you into a lady and rid you of your father’s rancher and roughneck language. Don’t you dare.”

“Regardless, Archie treats me like an idiot and hates to admit I’m smarter than him. I could run his office but I’m relegated to fetching coffee, answering the telephone, and making appointments for him.”

“He is not compensated to his worth there, darling. He longs to run his own company once more. Don’t fool yourself about his true calling.”

I drifted to the mirror checking my hair again, a mix of Daddy’s brown and Mother’s red. More to stop from arguing with Mother and her blind spot with my half-brother. A dozen years older than me, Archie never got his hands dirty with real work and relied on using his silver spoon to get him through the day. His father was the third-born son of aristocrats in Newport, Rhode Island. Arch Senior found himself disinherited and living off the kindness of his brothers. But when Arch Senior passed away, the family kicked the ‘actress’ and her son out. Thankfully, my father came along, recently rich from striking oil, and rescued them.

Mother caught me by the wrist and turned me around. “Try these. Those other gloves clash with the fabulous gold bracelet I found.”

"Mother, is all of this necessary?”

“Try it on.”

I chuckled as the bracelet sparkled in the bright store lights. “Better than the one that crook McGinnis received today.”

"To what are you referring now?”

Mother didn’t understand and I certainly wasn’t going to tell her about my extracurricular activity before meeting her at Neiman Marcus.


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