Conspiracy of silence, p.1

Conspiracy of Silence, page 1

 

Conspiracy of Silence
 


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Conspiracy of Silence


  Copyright Information

  Copyright © 2011 by S. T. Joshi

  Published by Wildside Press LLC

  www.wildsidebooks.com

  ALSO BY S. T. JOSHI

  Conspiracy of Silence: A Joe Scintilla Mystery

  H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West

  Junk Fiction: America’s Obsession with Bestsellers

  Potash & Perlmutter: Stories of the American Jewish Experience, by Montague Glass, edited by S. T. Joshi

  The Removal Company: A Joe Scintilla Mystery

  A Subtler Magick: The Writings and Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft

  Tragedy at Sarsfield Manor: A Joe Scintilla Mystery

  The Weird Tale

  Chapter One

  When that blonde bombshell walked into my office, the last thing I was thinking about was crime.

  It was a crisp day in November. The year was 1936. My office had been empty for days, so I was just sitting back, feet on the desk, still chortling over FDR’s crushing defeat of the hapless Alf Landon in the presidential election two days before. (Oh, yeah—there was also a third-party candidate, one William Lemke, a stooge of Father Coughlin and Francis E. “Share the Wealth” Townsend, but no one paid much attention to him.) I had half toyed with voting for Norman Thomas, but figured it would be a waste of effort. FDR had, in his first term, craftily steered a middle ground between the mossbacks of the Republican Party, all screaming that he was leading the country down the path to a socialist hell, and the firebrands on the left, like Townsend and the late and unlamented Huey Long. No one had expected the extent of FDR’s victory: Landon couldn’t even win his home state of Kansas, managing only to snag the conservative New England states of Maine and Vermont.

  But back to the blonde bombshell.

  Practically everyone who walks through my door seems shy and hesitant, and this broad was no different. After all, who needs a private investigator except someone wanting the dirt on a cheating spouse, or the dope on a missing relative, or some way he or she can skirt the law or get out of a jam? Add to that the fact that, once you open that door, you come face to face with me and not some kindly and smiling receptionist? The New Deal had done some good, but not enough for me to hire back my Nellie. She had, I’m sure, long ago gone to greener pastures.

  So here I was, face to face with a tall, slender, fur-covered dish (it was cold outside) whose large green eyes and spots of color on her cheeks made it clear she wanted to be anywhere but here. Before even speaking a word, she was breathing heavily.

  Maybe I’m not the most reassuring guy in the world. I don’t have what is called the avuncular manner. I just want to get down to business, whether it’s with a slip of a girl like this (she couldn’t be more than eighteen) or a hardened ex-con trying to escape one more trip to the hoosegow.

  So I didn’t do anything but look at her. She looked back at me—for a moment—then looked away.

  Finally she spoke. “Are you . . . are you Mr. Scintilla?”

  I took pity on her. In my gentlest voice I said, “Yeah, I’m Joe Scintilla. What can I do for you?”

  That seemed harmless enough, but the babe reacted as if I’d electrocuted her. Her eyes got even bigger, her breathing even more stertorous, those bright spots on her cheek even more scarlet.

  “Just sit down, ma’am, and relax,” I said. “Take your coat off.”

  She did so. And it was my turn to turn bug-eyed.

  This lady was built. No flat-chested flapper-style for this piece of work—that was so passé. She had a good figure and she knew it—knew also that the long black dress that hugged her form was just the thing to set men’s hearts and minds aflame. If that fur coat hadn’t told as much, that dress and the various trinkets of jewelry that ornamented her ears, neck, and wrists stated in no uncertain terms that she was no pauper. That might be good news for me, since it’s hard to get money out of paupers.

  Placing her fur over the back of the chair, she sat down. She still said nothing. I looked at her. She looked at me.

  Finally: “I’m Lizbeth Crawford.” She paused—as if expecting me to recognize that name. When I made no response, she went on:

  “My father was—er, is James Allen Crawford.”

  I looked up sharply. Him I’d heard of, although the details were now vague. A scandal of some kind a dozen or more years ago . . . a murder trial . . . something like that. Wealthy guy—family had made money in rubber, being one of the early suppliers for Henry Ford’s motorcars. I didn’t know whether the guy was dead or alive—and neither, it seemed, did his daughter.

  She failed to meet my gaze when I looked at her. All she did was clutch her handbag and look down at her feet. At last she raised her head and said:

  “He’s in Rahway State Prison for the murder of his brother, my uncle Frank—Frank Crawford,” she said in a small voice. Then, without warning, she cried:

  “But he didn’t do it!”

  Those rosy blotches on her cheeks had now suffused her whole face. She looked at me almost truculently, as if daring me to deny her utterance.

  But all I said was: “What makes you say that?”

  I had spoken quietly, but it’s as if I’d slapped her in the face. I thought she would break down and cry. I really don’t like women crying in my office.

  I was starting to remember more of the case. It had been a fairly big deal, not only because it came on the heels of the notorious Leopold and Loeb case, but because it had involved such a prominent and wealthy businessman. It had also ended the same way: although Crawford didn’t have a Clarence Darrow to save him from the chair, he had pleaded guilty and gotten a stiff prison sentence. Unlike Leopold and Loeb, he hadn’t killed merely for sport—it was believed to be a crime of passion of some kind. But at this point the details became hazy—for me, at any rate.

  So, as a way of getting this dame to cough up what she knew—and, more importantly, what I could possibly do about it—I said, “Didn’t Mr. Crawford confess, or something?”

  She let out an immense sigh—the kind of sigh you give when a particularly dense schoolboy continually gives you the wrong answer to an easy question.

  “Yes, he confessed,” she said, “but that means nothing. I know he didn’t do it!”

  I said nothing but just raised my eyebrows a fraction of an inch. Even that mild expression of skepticism seemed to have the desired effect, for she finally spilled the beans.

  “Look, Mr. Scintilla, I just turned eighteen last week. As a result of that, I’ve . . . I’ve come into some money from my trust fund. So I have as much money as you could possibly ask for to prove . . . to show that my father didn’t commit this crime.”

  I replied coolly. “I don’t doubt your ability to pay, Miss Crawford, but it’s hard to prove a negative.” I didn’t study philosophy at Johns Hopkins for nothing. “If your father didn’t kill your uncle, someone else did. And not only that—”

  But she didn’t let me finish. Seizing on my words, she reached into her handbag and slapped down on my desk a stiff sheet of paper, with some typewritten names on it. “There!” she cried, as if that proved her case.

  I looked down quickly at the paper, then back at her. “What is this?”

  “That’s a list of people who were at a party when my uncle Frank died . . . was killed, on March 19, 1924. I was only about five and a half, but I got that list from my mother. One of them had to have done it!” She glared at me with those big green eyes of hers.

  This was all getting a bit strange. In the first place, the idea of investigating a twelve-year-old murder didn’t seem like the most profitable use of my time—except in the crude sense that I could bill this dame for a lot of legwork that would probably go nowhere. And in the second p
lace . . . well, I couldn’t put it more bluntly than I did.

  “But Miss Crawford, your father confessed to the murder. Why would he do that? Why would he spend more than a decade—and, I imagine, the prospect of several more decades—in the penitentiary for a crime he didn’t commit? What’s in it for him?”

  Her eyes turned to glints of adamant.

  “That’s what I want you to find out.”

  Chapter Two

  Over dinner at Lüchow’s—her choice, and her tab—I at last got a bit more out of Lizbeth.

  “Since I was so young when . . . when all this happened,” she said a little breathlessly, “I don’t of course remember much. A lot of what I know I’ve learned from my mother, and my grandmother, and . . . and from visiting my father in prison.”

  She looked up at me between mouthfuls of a chef salad. Those pleading, little-lost-girl eyes could make many men believe just about anything she wanted.

  “There really isn’t a kinder, gentler, more loving person in the world than my father. There’s just no way he could have committed this crime, even in the heat of passion.” Her expression turned a little darker, even though I’d said nothing and, as far as I knew, my own countenance didn’t change one iota. “I know what you’re going to say . . . ‘Mafia dons are kind to their children, too. And what evidence do you have? Where’s the evidence?’”

  She wasn’t a bad mind-reader.

  “OK, maybe I don’t have much hard evidence, but I know what’s in my heart, and I know what’s in my father’s heart. He’s hiding something, protecting someone, covering up something. . . . Something’s not right here. And my mother and grandmother are no help: it’s as if they want him to stay in prison!”

  Her outrage heightened her color again. I won’t deny that, pale or flushed, she was nice to look at. The primal male in me wanted to do nothing but wrap her in my arms and defend her to the death . . . but the sensible businessman said, Let’s go slow here and see how this plays out. Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong. But I need something to go on.

  She continued. “Our family is probably the best example anyone’s ever come up with that money doesn’t buy happiness.” She let out another big sigh, but this one had a certain element of self-pity in it. After I’d heard her story, I concluded she had more than a little reason for self-pity. “We made lots of money in rubber, and my grandparents bought a nice tract of land in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, not long after it was set up as a borough in 1895. They built a big house there—it’s where I still live, although maybe that won’t last much longer. . . .”

  I didn’t know what she meant by that: Was she about to get married? Or was her digging up this old matter of her father’s murder case going to lead her family to ostracize her?

  “My father had two brothers—Bill, two years older, and Frank, three years younger. Bill was killed in the war, in early 1918, several months before I was born. My grandmother was able to pull strings and get my father and Frank out of military service—my grandfather had had contacts with the Army and the National Guard and, and so Grandma was able to convince them that her two sons were needed to help with the family business, which in fact was providing rubber for Army planes and jeeps.

  “After the war, my parents gave me the best possible upbringing.” Possibly I had looked askance at that, for she burst forth with: “I don’t mean money! Sure, we had money, but what they gave me was love and comfort. I never felt I was ‘privileged’—just loved and cherished. I could tell you so many stories about how my father would come home from a hard day’s work and seek me out—even before he greeted my mother—and take me on piggy-back rides all around the house, or bring me toys—nothing costly, just little things he’d picked up at a five-and-dime—or read me stories . . .”

  She choked up a bit. “Sure, nothing special, nothing that any father wouldn’t do for his daughter . . . but I felt special, and I got more love out of him than . . .”

  She paused abruptly and didn’t finish the thought.

  “I’m trying to figure out what the relationship between my father and his brothers was. I have to believe—I’ll tell you about that later” (she gave me a quick and rather nervous look and quickly turned away)—“that it’s somehow connected with . . . with what happened. As I say, my uncle Bill was killed in the war, and my father was crushed—it took him years to recover, I’m told. He revered Bill, as the eldest brother and the future leader of the family. My father’s always had the greatest respect for the family line, and he’ll do anything to protect the family from shame and scandal . . .”

  I didn’t have to raise my eyebrow more than a fraction of an inch before she exploded:

  “I know what you’re going to say! But I’m sure this whole business is some kind of cover-up—as I said before, it’s like he’s shielding someone . . . or something. That’s why you just have to find out what’s behind it all. . . .”

  The look she gave me was so appealing, almost frenzied, that I figured I’d best say something. I long ago became aware that in being a private investigator you have to be part detective and part psycho-analyst—and maybe part father confessor also.

  “Listen, Lizbeth, I’ll do everything in my power to help . . . to get behind this business. There seem to be some . . . peculiarities that need to be explored. But you gotta give me something more to go on.”

  “I know that.” For a few moments she fished through her handbag, looking for something, then abruptly stopped.

  “Listen, you have to understand what it was like with my father and Uncle Frank. I’m not sure I understand, but I’ve heard things. . . . It’s hard to imagine two brothers being so different. With Uncle Bill dead, my father felt that the whole weight of the family—including the family business—fell on his shoulders. And he knew that Frank was a pretty thin reed as far as that went. As the youngest son, Frank was . . . well, a bit irresponsible. Just wanted to have a good time. Was very fond of the ladies, I hear—couldn’t keep away from the skirts.” She blushed and went on quickly. “And Frank couldn’t care less about the rubber business—so long as it gave him enough money for him to do what he liked.”

  At this point Lizbeth slapped on the table—our dinner was long finished—that sheet of paper she had shown me at my office. It was a list of the people who had been in the house on the night of the murder (or, shall we say, the death) of Frank Crawford, and it looked uncannily like the cast of a play:

  PEOPLE PRESENT AT THORNLEIGH HOUSE

  MARCH 19, 1924

  James Allen Crawford (my father)

  Frank Crawford (my uncle)

  Florence Bisland Crawford (my mother)

  Helen Ward Crawford (my grandmother)

  Eva Dailey (Frank’s fiancée)

  Daniel and Norma Bisland (my mother’s brother and sister-in-law)

  Dr. Nathan Granger (the family physician)

  Lizbeth somewhat sheepishly mentioned that Thornleigh was the name the family had given to their house in Pompton Lakes. The look she gave me—and the look I must have given back—made it pretty evident what she left unspoken: “I know, not many Americans give names to their houses—only those who want to pretend they’re some kind of aristocracy . . . .”

  In any event, some items on the list were of immediate interest, not to mention one overriding query that had to be settled at the start.

  “So why were all these people there at all at this time?” I asked.

  “Well,” said Lizbeth, “of course my father and mother, Uncle Frank, and Grandma lived there. Mama’s brother and his wife were visiting—they’d been there a week or more, I think. It was just a dinner party—I think my father had arranged it.”

  I looked down at the list again.

  “So Frank was engaged to be married?” I said.

  For some reason Lizbeth colored a deep scarlet. “Well, I suppose. I’m not sure. . . . We all thought they would marry, but, as I just mentioned, Frank was a bit of a playboy . . . I guess he wasn’t cert
ain whether he wanted to be tied down so soon. I think”—her voice descended to a whisper—“I think he had some other . . . involvements also. I’m not sure whether Eva knew about them. Frank invited her, just to round out the party to make it an even eight.”

  “And what about this doctor guy? Is it customary to invite the family physician over for dinner?”

  Lizbeth shrugged. “I don’t know. He was a friend of the family—he’d been with us for years. He treated my grandfather in his final illness, a decade or so earlier.”

  It was my turn to let out a sigh.

  “So you think one of these people—not your father, I mean—did the deed? Seems a bit risky to have done it with all these people about. Do you know any details of the . . . the death?”

  She shrugged again—it was almost a shiver. “Not many. Remember, I was there too—even though I was only about five and a half. I just remember some commotion in the downstairs study, and Dad coming out of the room with this strange, frozen look on his face and saying that he’d just killed his brother. Said his brother had been making advances toward . . . toward my mother.” She looked down at her lap.

  Gently I said: “Is that true?”

  She looked up quickly, eyes blazing. “How do I know? I was five! They won’t tell me anything . . .” Suddenly she seemed like a little girl, resentful of being excluded from adult affairs that didn’t concern her.

  “What does your mother say?”

  “Well, of course she denies it—says it was all in my father’s head . . .”

  “Don’t you believe her?” This too was spoken gently.

  In a small voice Lizbeth said: “I don’t know what to believe . . . anymore.”

  I leaned back in my chair. There were a few glints of light, and perhaps a few avenues of exploration, but I was still fumbling largely in the dark.

  “So, Lizbeth, what do you want me to do? Would it do any good to talk to your father?”

  She gave me an exasperated frown. “I doubt it. He just sticks to his story. ‘I killed Frank, I killed Frank.’ He’s just been stuck in that prison for twelve years, and he looks terrible now . . . doesn’t even seem to be my father anymore.” Her eyes were glistening. “I’m the only one who ever visits him. My mother and grandmother never go—never. And even I am finding it a bit hard . . . he’s so unhappy, and he’s hiding something . . . carrying some horrible weight on his shoulders.” The tears were falling now. “If we can just find out what it is, maybe he can get better.”

 
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