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  • Writer's pictureBrittany Brinegar

Death by Fortune

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



Summer 1924


Tobias and Margo waited on the first floor and one of the parking boys returned from fetching Tobias’ auto – a sparkling vanilla white car.

I ran a hand along the exterior. “This is new?” I circled the vehicle. “A Chevy.”

“Yes, a 1924 Chevrolet Superior Series F.” He pointed out features to me. Boys and their cars. “It comes with tools, a tire jack, a gauge for speed, outside lockable door handles, an oil pressure gauge, an electric horn, a choke pull knob…” He droned on and lost me.

I pointed to the road. “Does it go there?”

“Indeed.” He almost cracked a smile. Margo took the front seat and I swung my own door for the back. The new vehicle rode well, better than Archie’s Buick. Probably because my brother kept running over curbs, signs, and into ditches.

“Where is Howard’s office, Hun?” Margo tossed her blonde locks.

“Near the campus of Southern Methodist University.”

I perked up. “Not far from my neighborhood. Let’s head to the Hilltop.” My helpful navigation saved us ten minutes once Tobias gave in and agreed to follow my suggestions.

The sturdy four-story building was a few blocks from the campus and overlooked White Rock Lake. Several doctors and dentists occupied the ground floor. According to the placard by the elevator, the utilitarian building had a real estate office and a farm bureau office on the second floor. A rather pretentious-sounding law firm took the third and the top housed Howard Sinclair’s company.

When the elevator doors opened, a young platinum-blonde woman in a gray and tan dress cut her eyes away from us and skipped to the lift with her head down. “Don’t bother, no one is in the office.” She veered and opted for the staircase. The heels of her white t-back shoes clicked as she stepped with urgency.

Despite the quick interaction, I noticed two things. Her youth and her beauty. The fine fabric of the dress and the new style placed her as at least upper middle class. Her cherub cheeks and lively body probably drew the boy’s attention. “Should we ask her why she’s...”

“Let’s go inside.” Tobias headed to Howard’s door – the only one on the floor. Gold embossed letters read HOWARD SINCLAIR AND ASSOCIATES. Tobias used the key we were given and unlocked the door.

“Are you the police?” A stocky woman in a professional dress stood with a steno pad and an open mouth. She wore round, wire-framed eyeglasses like Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, she favored my favorite president, minus the mustache of course. Though there was a shadow on her upper lip…

“Uh, what happened in here?” I asked as I took note of the office’s messy state. “Spring cleaning gone haywire?”

Tobias twirled in a circle, evaluating the area and the woman. “Who are you?”

“Mrs. Pettigrew, head secretary. I rang the police so don’t try anything.” She smacked a ruler against her palm. She didn’t speak softly and the stick she carried was not big enough.

“We work for Mr. Sinclair’s family,” Tobias said. “We are looking into the circumstances of his death.”

“Just because he killed himself doesn’t mean people have the right to snoop through his belongings.” Mrs. Pettigrew crossed her arms. “We must wait for the authorities.”

“Check Mr. Sinclair’s calendar for me…” Tobias guided her to the front area and shot a look at us to search the rooms.

The messy outer office consisted of a half-dozen desks and a wall of filing cabinets. The drawers and files were open and strewn about. I bypassed four smaller offices and peeked inside the big one. “Someone tore the place apart.”

Tobias paced near, leaving Mrs. Pettigrew searching through an oversized leather itinerary. Likely double-spaced in neat, perfectly aligned typing. A younger secretary spent hours each day keeping it in tip-top shape.

He lowered his voice. “I am going to question the woman who hurried away from here. Once the police arrive, our search will be limited. Check his office.”

As her husband jogged away, Margo slipped inside with me and left her oversized purse on the floor. “Something tells me the little blonde chippy was searching for something.”

“Agreed.”

Margo’s blue eyes cut to the door. “The over-officious woman is coming this way. I’ll occupy her while you take a look around.”

The office exuded an air of sophistication and elegance with dark, rich wooden furniture adorned with elaborate engravings. A mahogany desk took center stage, commanding attention. A leather chair with a high backrest and armrests tipped over.

The walls were covered in thick, textured dark green wallpaper. Crown moldings added a grandeur touch. Above the desk, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson hung on the wall. I took long strides to check for a wall safe behind the painting. Nothing.

I scanned to the other side of the massive office. A globe on a sturdy wooden table in the corner and a painting of Napoleon alerted visitors to Howard’s worldly knowledge and interest. Messy papers spilled on the floor.

A reading nook with a plush armchair called to me. A tall shelf with well-worn books, recent newspapers, and magazines lorded over the space making it more intimidating than cozy. I ran my finger along the spines and flipped through a few periodicals. Most dealt with finance and business.

A shiny gold and cut-glass chandelier hung from the ceiling over a bar cart filled with spirits. A framed photo of Howard and his wife hung on the wall. I floated on the Persian rug covering the polished hardwood floors.

What was the blonde chippy after? And did she find it?

I slid the bar cart away and pushed an uneven spot on the wall. It slung open to a safe. Locked. A distant siren made my heart race.

Margo called to me from the doorway. “I convinced Mrs. Pettigrew to run downstairs and meet the fuzz. I insinuated there were armed men headed this way.”

“The police are likely only minutes away.” I pointed to the false wall.

“You found the safe.” Margo rubbed her hands together. “What in the world made you check there?”

“I noticed Waley has the same bar cart and a false wall. I figured something good might be hidden.” I grinned. “Please tell me your hubby can crack a safe.”

“Oh, he can.” Her beam matched mine. “You inquired about our little name – The Heist Society. Well, I won’t bore you with all the stories but it started with something along these lines.”

The wailing siren grew closer. “What do we do about the coppers? I doubt Top Hat can crack it before they arrive.”

She spoke faster than her normal slow Memphis drawl and explained my part. “We create a diversion.”


 



Bolting from the elevator, I spotted Mrs. Pettigrew stretching her neck to check the front doors. Two coppers ran from their vehicles to the entrance. Margo hooked the secretary’s arm and guided the worried woman away from what she called potential gunplay.

I intercepted the coppers. “Third floor at the law firm. They tore apart the office in the northeast corner. We think we heard a gunshot.” The two men sprinted to the elevator and punched three.

Tobias limped from outside and veered toward me. “A man on the staircase impeded my pursuit. By the time I trailed the blonde woman outside, she sped away in a taxicab.”

Margo took his arm. “Did you reinjure the knee? Because we need to hurry and crack a safe. We sent the fuzz to the wrong floor but they will figure it out soon enough.”

He flexed his leg. “I can walk it off.”

I spoke up. “We found a hidden safe.”

He nodded. “Behind the bar?”

“Yep.” Margo placed a finger under his chin and lifted it to check the scuff. “It’s an Alpine Safe and Lock variety. If memory serves, you need seven minutes if you don’t use the soup.”

“Soup?” I asked, trailing away from the elevator. We took the stairs and Tobias blocked the pain of his knee.

“Soup is nitro. Nitroglycerine,” Margo said as we hoofed to another floor. Once we reached number four, she waited by the outside door and let me answer my curiosity as to how one cracked a safe.

Tobias removed a stethoscope from the black bag Margo left on the office floor a few minutes earlier. He put a finger to his lips as he spun the dial and listened. He turned a click. He didn’t rush and I started to perspire.

My eyes darted to the door. “Hurry.”

He glared and jotted a number on a pad. “This requires patience. And silence.” He clicked the dial to the right once. He nodded and moved it back to the left. A longer spin all the way around four times until he halted. He shook his head.

“Eight minutes, Top Hat. If we want the contents, pick it up.” I glanced inside the black bag. “Or dig out the soup.”

“You can’t rush. Some take longer.” He wiped his hands and adjusted the stethoscope. At last, sweat ran along his nose and dripped.

Margo’s heels rumbled along the hardwood floor. “The elevator dinged, Hun.”

He jotted a second and third number. “There are twenty-seven possible combinations but I have the three numbers.”

“Police!” The voice from outside announced their arrival.

Tobias gritted his teeth. “Alright, I am going to blow the hinges with nitroglycerin. Create a diversion.”

“Won’t that be loud?” I asked.

“Hence the diversion.”

I scrambled to the outer office. “Sorry, officers I sent you to the wrong floor.” Both had weapons drawn. “And I was mistaken about shots fired. This was simple vandalism.”

The beefier of the two officers holstered his gun. “What’s this dame doing up here?”

The older one with graying hair cut me with steel eyes. “Miss, what game are you playing?” He motioned the pistol toward me.

I gulped. “Do you guys know Officer Budding? I’m dating him. He’s a swell fella. What are your names? He mentioned a couple of handsome boys who work the area near the campus.”

Beefy chuckled. “Smitty, I thought Bud made this one up. He’s right about her being so pretty.”

Gray Hair shook his head. “All well and good but I still want an explanation on why you were on the first floor and sent us to the wrong one.”

I shrugged and giggled as I leaned near the beefy one. “Silly me. I forgot the floor. What a Dumb Dora I am.”

A pop sounded and puffs of smoke escaped the room where Tobias toiled.

“Is someone else here?” The beefy officer asked.

Margo made a flashy entrance to be sure they didn’t look in the other direction as her husband zoomed across the balcony to the fire escape. “The vandals ransacked everywhere. Thank God the police are here.” She eased closer. “Didn’t that sound like an explosion from Mr. Sinclair’s office?”

As the two policemen scrambled with guns drawn, Margo yanked me to the door. Tobias met us on the ground floor with a fistful of papers. “Likely not worth the effort.”

I scrambled to check the contents in his hand. Legal documents. I scanned a torn page. “Divorce proceedings.”

Margo snatched the papers. “Nothing else inside?” She checked my work. “Mumbo jumbo to me.”

I took the file back. “Trust me. I worked in a law firm for a few months. This is a divorce filing for the state of Texas.”

“I wonder if Blondie took the rest of the contents?” Margo asked.

“What is the rest?” I asked. “Did y’all expect to find something else in the safe?”

Tobias jutted his chin. “Perhaps someone wants us to find the paperwork on the divorce.”

Margo nodded. “My theory on Sinclair’s second wife killing him is looking better already.”


 

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