Authors: Ellery Queen
Queen's Bureau of Investigation
Here and there in the closed-case records of Queen's Bureau of Investigation will be found a file marked
Such files contain records of cases that turned up something of peculiar interestâin one an unusual clue, perhaps, in others a memorable criminal or a surprising situation.
Many of these cases went through the main office divisions of Q.B.I., such as the departments specializing in Murder, Holdup, Blackmail, Narcotics, Racket, Kidnapping, and the like. But some, of rarer types, were assigned to appropriate subdivisions of the Bureauâfor example, the Dying Message Dept., the Buried Treasure Dept., the Magic Dept. and, of course, the closely guarded top-floor office of the Impossible Crime Dept.
Here are eighteen such adventures in investigation.
Blackmail speaks its own peculiar dialect, but it has this advantage over other forms of expression: It is the universal language, understood by all.
Including the Sicilian. Mrs. Alfredo had heard its hissed accents, and she wept.
Ellery thought he had never seen a less likely victim. Mrs. Alfredo was as broad as a
, her skin had a time-grated Parmesan look, and her hands had been marinated in the Chianti of hard work. It seemed that she ran a very modest boarding-house in the West Fifties which sagged under a mortgage. How, then, blackmail?
But then he heard about Mrs. Alfredo's daughter Lucia, and Lucia's Tosca, and how encouraging the Metropolitan Opera people had been about Lucia's “
Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore
,” and Ellery thought he detected the sibilant accent, too.
Lucia's career was in jeopardy.
“On what ground, Mrs. Alfredo?” he asked.
The ground was foreign. In her youth Mrs. Alfredo had been a cook. One summer an employer had taken her to England, in England she had met an Englishman, and the Englishman had married her. Perfidious Albion! Within a month Alfred had vanished with her life's savings. What was worse, although eventually she recovered most of her money, the glamorous Alfred was discovered to possess another wife who claimed, and proved, priority. And what was worst, in inexorable course the poor woman found herself about to have Alfred's baby. Mrs. Alfredo, as she had begun to call herself, fled Bloomsbury for her adopted land, posing as a widow and never telling anyone except Lucia her bigamous secret; and in the prehistoric days when a house could be bought with the widow's mite she had purchased the ancient property in the West Fifties which was now her livelihood and the hope of Lucia's operatic career.
“Long time I scare that Lucia's secret come out,” she wept to Ellery, “but then a friend from Bloomsbury write me that Alfred die, so Lucia and I forget our shame. Until now,
Now it comes out. If I do not pay the money.”
The crudely lettered note had been pushed under her bedroom door. Five thousand dollars was demanded for silence about her daughter's illegal state. “How do they know,
Queen? Never do we tell anyoneânever!” The money was to be placed under the loose newel post on the second-floor landing of her house.
“A boarder,” said Ellery grimly. “How many boarders do you have, Mrs. Alfredo?”
“Three. Mist' Collins, Mist'â”
“Do you have five thousand dollars, Mrs. Alfredo?”
I do not pay off the mortgageâI save for Lucia's Voice Lesson. But if now I pay this money, Maestro Zaggiore give no more lesson! And if I do not pay, it will be known about me, about Lucia. It break Lucia's heart,
Ruin her career. Already she is cry and cry over this.”
“Young hearts take a heap of breaking and careers with real talent behind them don't ruin easily. Take my advice, Mrs. Alfredo: Don't pay.”
“No,” agreed Mrs. Alfredo with a certain cunning. “'Cause you catch him quick, hey?”
The next morning Mrs. Alfredo's newest boarder awakened in one of her feather beds to an enchantment. “
Un bel di
,” sang Cho-Cho-San, “
vedremo levarsi un fil di fumo
.â¦” The piano sounded as if it had served aboard the U.S. Gunboat
along with Lieutenant Pinkerton, but the voice coming through the aged walls rang as sweet and rich as a newly minted coin. And Ellery rose, and dressed like a struggling writer just in from Kansas City, and went downstairs to Mrs. Alfredo's dining room determined that Lucia should have her chance.
At breakfast he met Lucia, who was beautiful, and the three boarders, who were not. Mr. Arnold was small, thin, pedantic, and looked like a clerk in a secondhand bookshop, which was exactly what he was; Mr. Bordelaux was medium-sized, fat, garrulous, and looked like a French wine salesman, which was exactly what
was; and Mr. Collins was large, powerful, and slangy and if he had not turned out to be a taxicab driver Ellery would have turned in his honorary police badge. They were all three amiable, they took turns ogling Lucia and praising Mrs. Alfredo's
uovo con peperoni
, and they departedâMr. Arnold for his Cooper Square bookshop, Mr. Bordelaux for his vinous rounds, and Mr. Collins for his battered taxiâin a perfect corona of innocence.
The next three days were incidental. Ellery ransacked Mr. Arnold's room and Mr. Bordelaux's room and Mr. Collins's room. In the evenings and in the mornings he studied his ABCs, as he privately called the three boarders, discussing books with Mr. Arnold, wines with Mr. Bordelaux, and nags and dames with Mr. Collins. He tried to reassure Lucia, who was tragically desperate. He tried to get Mrs. Alfredo's permission to take the note and her story to the police, for their assistance along certain lines he had in mind; Mrs. Alfredo became hysterical. He advised her to deliver a note to the loose newel post saying that it would take a few days to raise the money. This she consented to do, and Ellery carefully refrained from insomnia that night, merely making sure that entry from outside the building would leave traces. And in the morning the note was gone and there were no traces.â¦ Ellery did all the things one does in such cases, and what he gathered for his pains was the knowledge that the blackmailer was Mr. Arnold the book clerk, or Mr. Bordelaux the wine drummer, or Mr. Collins the taxi driver, and he had known that from the beginning.
But the fourth morning dawned with a bang. The emotional hand of Mrs. Alfredo was on his bedroom door, and its owner cried doom.
“My Lucia! She lock herself in her room! She does not answer! She is at least dead!”
Ellery soothed the frantic woman and hurried into the hall. From three doorways three heads protruded.
“Something wrong?” exclaimed Mr. Arnold.
“Is it that there is a fire?” cried Mr. Bordelaux.
“What gives?” growled Mr. Collins.
Ellery tried Lucia's door. It was latched from inside. He knocked. No answer. He listened. He heard nothing.
“Dr. Santelli!” moaned Mrs. Alfredo. “I get
“Do that,” said Ellery. “Collins, help me break this door in.”
“Lemme at it,” said the powerful Mr. Collins.
But the old door was like iron.
“The ax of the fire,” howled Mr. Bordelaux; and he flew down the stairs after Mrs. Alfredo, carpet slippers flapping.
“Here,” panted Mr. Arnold, appearing with a chair. “Let's have a look through that fanlight.” He scrambled onto the chair and peered through the transom above the door. “She's on the bed. She's been sickâShe's just lying thereâ”
“Any blood, Arnold?” asked Ellery anxiously.
“No.â¦ But there's a box of sweets. And a tin of somethingâ”
“Oh, no,” groaned Ellery. “Can you make out the label?”
Mr. Arnold's Adam's crabapple bobbed before the little rectangular window above the door. “It looks like â¦ rat poison.”
At which Mr. Bordelaux appeared with the fire ax and Mrs. Alfredo with an excited gentleman in his undershirt who looked like Arturo Toscanini. They all tumbled in to find that Lucia had attempted to commit suicide by filling some chocolates with rat poison and bravely swallowing them.