Statement No. 020:
Eugene Feathers

"I OWE YOU AN APOLOGY."

Imagine hearing that. From a near stranger, no less. Don't get to hear that one much. Just about never from clients. Not to mention potential clients. I'd venture you boys never hear it from no one, no how. Leastwise, not from any of the mugs in this department. Certainly not from the higher ups. And almost never from John Q. Public.

Getting an apology is one for the books, all right. And that's just how Eugene Feathers got down to business. First, he unwrapped one of the thickest cheroots I've ever seen. Maybe the diameter of a quarter. Crinkled the cellophane in a fist and deposited it next to the napkin dispenser. Then he withdrew a wooden match from a silver-plated box. The sulfur ignited with a scratch of the thumbnail, and he cured the end of the cigar. After testing the draw, he pulled long and deep and laid a dense fog above the booth. The wisp of my cigarette didn't stand a chance.

Feathers' dry, green eyes fixed on me good. He looked dry all over. Not dry like powder and dust. Dry like taut leather. Rough and hard as sandpaper. Venture too close to this baby and you'd get skinned alive. A far cry from the toasted presentation he made at our first encounter. Sure.

His long frame leaned back and the spark of his green eyes fell on me like fiery comets. He stabbed at the tabletop with a long index finger as the pupils lit up. "Sir, I owe you an apology."

"No you don't."

"But I do."

"It's not necessary, Mr. Feathers."

"But it is!"

"All right, we'll say it's necessary."

"Let's not shilly-shally. I was all set to stand you up the other night. That I was. And that's not like me." He wagged his long, dry face. "You caught me at my worst moment. Yes sir, you did. I'm glad you did, and that's a fact."

"So you were a little worse for wear. Don't mention it."

"I'm making mention of it right now. I always square my accounts."

"Consider it square. Water under the bridge."

"You have also earned my gratitude. The way you came to my aid during that fracas."

"Fracas. Sure. More of a spectacle from what I saw. But you needn't mention that either--I know, you're just squaring accounts."

"That's right. That's right. Now that I've got that settled, there's the matter of my present concern."

"Uh huh. About that. The reason you wanted to powwow in the first place. Before the kid so rudely interrupted us. Your message said something about delicacy."

"Vanity, vanity. I trust all your clients view their personal situations as nothing if not matters of the utmost delicacy."

"That about sums it up."

"Then you may consider my case no exception to the rule."

"Uh huh."

"I'm here to tell you that I am to be married."

"Congratulations."

"I'll have you understand that my dear wife passed eleven years ago. I have remained alone ever since--are you a married man?"

"No, sir. I've heard stories, though. Rumor has it my parents got married, once."

"That's very clever of you."

"So what do your nuptials have to do with a private investigator? Or am I risking indelicacy?"

"This is where it becomes most delicate. But I'm not one for beating about the bush. Here it is. I am about to take my second wife. I am 65 years old, and I am rather wealthy."

"Is that wealthy as in well fixed, loaded or filthy rich?"

"A pistol, are you? I'll give it to you like this: if a suit ran, say, a couple of grand, I could afford to replace my entire wardrobe several times a year for the next fifty years." The cigar swept over the length of the table.

"That'll pass for well fixed.

"I could buy and the sell the owner of this establishment 10 times over. One hundred times over, for that matter."

"In that case, you're springing for lunch. But I'm guessing it hasn't been about the dough for some time. Despite all that scratch, you only retired recently, I'd venture. Say, in the last five years. More or less."

"That's right. How did you conclude that?"

"Just putting two and two and two together."

"And you got something out of it. That's smart, because it's all about numbers. Everything is all about numbers."

"Uh huh."

"You see the front awning? How many heads can you coax in beneath that awning? What's the average size order and what can you charge for it? Do you sell less coffee on a hot day? What other beverages do you have on the menu? What does it cost you to keep the kitchen stocked, the counter stocked, the tables stocked?"

"Was this your line, a hash house?"

"No, it was not, but it's all the same thing. I made my killing through insurance."

"That's one pointed twist of a phrase, Mr. Feathers. Insurance involves a heavy degree of fear mongering, doesn't it?"

"No, that is where you are wrong. You're talking about salesmanship. Of course you have to sell the policies, but it's no good if you can't make the policies pay. I made my money through a love affair with statistics."

"I know some fellas down at the 18th. That's all they talk about."

"Crime statistics?"

"Baseball."

"Yes. Very good. Statistics are statistics."

"Is that a fact?"

"Yes. That is a fact. But there's no money in baseball statistics. Insurance--that's another matter entirely."

"Uh huh."

"It comes down to probabilities. Call them likelihoods. The key is accuracy. Accuracy in figures, and accuracy in figuring. Your profession, for example."

"Uh huh."

"In light of our little adventure at Lucky's the other evening. There might be those who say there's a bullet out there that's got your name on it."

"That bullet and I have already been introduced."

"Then you are fortunate to speak of it. What about that one, fatal bullet? All it takes is one."

"That's right."

"It may come tomorrow."

"You have an uncommonly morbid side."

"It may come next year, or it may never come. I would be unable to predict that. No one could. But if I was able to study your profession, collectively analyze several hundred of your brethren, or say a couple thousand--"

"You could work out the percentages just like a baseball card."

"You're right as rain. And that's exactly what I did for automobile drivers. My firm was among the first to develop and establish policies for the motoring age."

"Is that a fact?"

"That's an achievement. There's no reason you should be aware of this, but one of the first, recorded automobile accidents in this country dates back to 1891."

"I must have missed that."

"Of course. Of course. And then Massachusetts became the first state to require liability insurance for all motorists. That goes back to 1927."

"A day to remember."

"One of the first known forms of insurance can actually be traced back to Babylonia."

"Babylonia. No fooling."

"No fooling about it. That's ancient times. That's 2000 B.C."

"As much as I'd love to sit here and chitchat actuarials all day--"

"Yes. Yes. I'm the one in need of an insurance policy."

Feathers dropped his head and eyed the cold cigar between his fingers. He extracted another match from the chromium box and lit up.

"I am much closer to the end of things, now. There are still things I mean to do, but I don't wish to do them alone."

"So you're getting hitched."

"Yes. I've decided to remarry."

"Congratulations."

"You said that before."

"Anyone in particular?"

"Yes, to someone in particular. That's usually the general idea."

"Then I'm generally all for it."

"As I was saying, I am 65 years old. Quite well to do. My intended bride is less than half my age."

"Uh huh."

One eye squinted shut. "Does that shock you?"

"Not particularly. I run across all sorts of proclivities. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."

"Good. I like them young. Lean and firm." He caressed and squeezed an imaginary body above the table. A trail of smoke momentarily outlined half an hourglass.

"So you're loaded, she's young, and everybody's happy. Where's the problem?"

"The problem arrived one week ago. I returned to town several days ago and find this waiting for me."

Feathers removed a long billfold from an inside jacket pocket. From that he pulled out a folded piece of paper. He held it out for me. I took it. Unfolded it. Read it.

Mr. Feathers:

I am writing to you as a friend with a dire word of caution.

Esther Crumb is not the woman you think she is.

She is a wicked woman.

She is incapable of love.

She cares only for the cold touch of the silver coin.

Her sole almighty is the sacred dollar.

She cares nothing for you.

She despises you.

She is the destroyer of men.

She will destroy you as she has the rest.

You would be wise to heed my advice.

This godless soul would be no kind of wife to you.

Ask the father.

Before it is too late.

Respectfully,

A Friend

The typed letter fit on one side of the sheet. No other marks, nothing on the back. Just a generic courier typeface.

"Esther Crumb?"

"Yes."

"Anonymous. Of course. How did you come by it?"

"It arrived by post. A local stamp. No, I did not save the envelope."

"Uh huh. Plain enough paper. Something you could pick up at any Woolworth."

"Yes, yes. But more to the point, here it is. That letter. It only served to bring up something I didn't care to admit to. Something I've been avoiding."

"Such as?"

"I won't be made a fool of!"

"All right."

"Miss Crumb says that she is in love with me. Maybe she is, maybe she is not. A person in my position has to consider these things."

"That's one for the Ouija, all right."

"There's no one on this green earth who can prove that she cares for me."

"Uh huh."

"I want to know if you can disprove it."

"I get you, Mr. Feathers."

"Make very sure that you get it. I am interested only in evidence. If she's already married. Whether she's running around. If by any stretch this is some sort of set-up. That's all that concerns me. I don't care what people say. I don't care anything about her past no matter what foolishness this letter suggests. But I will not be made a fool of."

"Are you in love with the girl, Mr. Feathers?"

"The poison of suspicion gets in your blood like a disease. Fear and ignorance feeds it. It spreads into everything like a web of lies. Alcohol only fuels it, and it grows on unspoken words and sideways glances."

The green eyes softened and he bowed his head. Then he jammed the cigar in his mouth and puffed vigorously.

"Okay, Mr. Feathers. Fill me in about Miss Crumb. I hope you're not going to tell me you picked her out of some chorus line."

"No I did not. I met Esther at a charity ball eight months ago."

"I see. You were both attending."

"Esther worked there. On some committee or other."

"What about her background? What do you know about her?"

"Precious little, by my own design. I'm interested in the future. I know that she's an orphan. Born and raised in the city."

"An orphan. Isn't that convenient."

"I'll write down her home address and telephone number for you."

"What about the letter?"

"Oh, hang the letter, man. It doesn't interest me."

"But there's someone out there who's got it in for you or Miss Crumb. Or maybe both of you."

"I would be concerned if there is any kind of threat to Esther. Otherwise, it means next to nothing to me." He snapped his fingers.

"No known enemies?"

"I'm not in the habit of keeping a list."

"Uh huh. How do you want it played? As far as Miss Crumb is concerned?"

"You have a free hand. After that go-round at Lucky's, I know you'll have my best interest at heart. You have my implicit trust."

"But things have a way of not always working out."

"I appreciate that. I appreciate that. I'm too old for games. Speak with her direct, if you must."

"Let the--chips fall where they may?"

"I thought you were going to say 'crumbs.' Just for a moment, there."

"I thought about it."

"I'm giving you a free hand. Execute your investigation as you see fit."

He wasn't whistling Dixie about that free hand, neither. Before we shook on it, he again displayed that large billfold. This time he removed an enormous check. The zeros trailed on. The kind of payday to make up for all the Leblanc's, Grigio's and Jane Doe's, all the ne-er-do-wells and pikers. The kind of payday to make you forget all the clients who try to stiff you or pull a disappearing act.

I told Feathers that his check put me on the spot. I didn't see how I could earn it. He laughed at that. Feathers actually laughed. I argued. He wouldn't relent, the stubborn old goat. He stood firm. So I told him I'd hold on to it, just for the meantime. I took the check with my free hand.

I burned up the next morning between the blower and the library. Got what I expected, too. Feathers panned out. So did his check. As good as money in the bank, or some such hyperbole. I nixed offers for a savings account, a Christmas club account and a safety deposit box.

The press covered the upcoming Crumb-Feathers union with the usual society blurb fanfare. Plenty of portraits of him. Nothing on her. That's all the dope I could find on little Miss Crumb. No more than I expected. That meant there'd be some long hours at the county office, though.

I placed two more calls after the library. First, I reached Minnie Murphy at City-Wide Secretarial-- that's the pool down the hall from my office. Minnie always stopped in whenever she hit a lull in assignments. For some reason, the kid's got this romantic notion about sleuthing. I figured she'd be keen on researching for me, and I figured right. She jumped at the chance. Cute kid. I fed her what particulars I had on Miss Crumb, and sent her off to the County Records Office.

Next I checked in with the answering service. No word from Flea--I had phoned him first thing to keep tabs on Crumb. Nothing from Flea meant she'd gone to work like normal, or that something broke and Flea couldn't get to a phone. A lot of details to be filled in later. It made for a late lunch, but I grabbed a quick sandwich and set off for the Rogers Park neighborhood.

The Guardians of Mercy Home for Girls presided over the block like a compound. The main building sat like a brick blockhouse. Its three stories and length commanded the view. The administration building, a bungalow job, appeared quaint by contrast. Set in between, a small play yard sat empty save for a young girl rocking in place on a swing.

I found Flea stationed across the street from the administration structure. His scrawny frame became animated the second he caught sight of me. Flea's a good egg, but easily excited.

"Have I got the lowdown for you!"

"Sure you have."

He coaxed out a butt from behind his ear. The thing curved around like macaroni.

"I've got all the dope. Did you know the home got squared away in the late 1800's? It took five parishes to start the joint."

"That's not exactly the history lesson I'm after."

"I'm getting to it, I'm getting to it."

He lit the smoke with delicate fingers. He began his recital between puffs.

"So's I follow the Crumb dame here like you tell me, right? Everything's dandy. She pops into the small house and I waits.

"While I'm waiting, there's this older nun. Plenty of substance to her. A heavyset broad, you know? She comes out of the big building, parades all the way round the yard, then goes back in. She does this every 15 or 30 minutes, maybe. A couple of times a girl or two scurry into the yard and this nun comes out and scurries them back.

"This nun, see, comes off like a real, old hand. You know what I mean? By the way she holds herself and how the brats run from her?

"So I says to myself, 'Flea, old boy, you're onto something here.' I'm thinking this nun knows plenty and can spill plenty. So I kinda worm up to her the next time she waddles out for patrol. I feed her this story about me being a newshound looking to cover the Crumb and Feathers engagement--but it'd be a sight better to play up the angle of all the good work the home is doing.

"She goes for it. Swallows the whole line. Agrees to have lunch with me. Oh, brother.

"I walks her just a couple of a blocks to this joint on Touhy, just off Sheridan. It's a pub, see? But I convince her that I hear tell they got this terrific lunch spread. So's we order a couple of coffees and sandwiches. And when they bring the joe, I tell the waiter, see, I'd like a little shot of brandy, just to top it off. Sister Lidwina puts on this demure act when I tells the waiter. But when the waiter comes back, I talk her into taking a drop, too--you know, because of the fall chill in the air? But she really puts one over on me. You know what? He tips the slightest splash into her mug and she goes, 'You can do better than that.' Ha! You can do better than that, she goes.

"So by the third cup, the sister and I are old pals. I'm her best friend in the world. Turns out she's been at the home forever. Before the Depression, even. Cripes, she didn't look that ancient. Anyways, I got the whole story on the Crumb broad. Ready?"

"I've been ready since I got here."

"This Father Timms. He's your man. See, he and this Sister Simon join up at the same time. She's sort of a big shot, now. Coming on at the same time and all, they get all palsy-walsy. Learning the ropes together and whatnot. Get me? They're always spending extra time together and having tea and the like.

"Then one day, Father Timms comes across Esther Crumb walking the streets in a daze. The kid's' just eleven years old at the time, half-starved, and half off her nut. Father Timms rushes her back to the home, natch. He oversees her recovery personally, like he feels one hundred percent responsible and all. When it comes out she's got no relatives, they sign her up. Now Father Timms is spending all his free time with the girl. Thicker than thieves, they become. Crumb is in and Sister Simon is out. Okay.

"Simon of course never likes the girl and always gives her a hard time. She even said to Sister Lidwina once, she says how Father Timms and the Crumb girl are too close. Okay.

"So life goes on at the home for about five years. Until something breaks. Lidwina claims she never got wise to what really happened, but it must have been a lollapalooza. Whatever it was, the girl takes to her bed for two days. She won't talk to no one, won't see no one. Even gives Father Timms the cold shoulder. Sister Lidwina brings her tea, cakes and soup, but Crumb hardly touches a thing. After two days, poof! The girl runs off. Without no word, no note, no nothing. Get me?

"So get this. It's five days later. No word from the girl. Sister Simon is off on some retreat. And you know what? Father Timms pulls the Dutch act. Strings himself up in his little room. And a man of the cloth? Ain't that supposed to be some kinda mortal sin?

"Anyways, you don't have to be no relation of Einstein to figure there's gotta be a connection between Crumb's holing up, her taking a powder, and Timm's shortcut to the great beyond."

I held out what was left of a pack of cigarettes.

"Keep it," I said. "You think Sister Lidwina's holding anything out on you?"

"I says she ain't. I mean, she told me everything else. And plenty more, too. But it's got nothing to do with Crumb."

"And there might be something in Sister Simon's timely retreat."

"You think so?"

"So what about this Sister Simon?"

"She runs the show, practically. Oversees the charity business. Fundraisers and the like."

"She interests me. Sure. You keep an eye on Sister Simon."

"Sure thing."

"I want to know where she goes. What she does. Get me?"

"Sure thing."

"I'll check in with the service, later."

"Sure thing."

"Can't you say anything else?"

"F'rinstance?"

"I don't know. 'Okay.' 'You bet.' 'Oak.' Something like that."

"Sure thing. What'll you be up to?"

"The Crumb girl. Would you say she looks like the golddigger type?"

"For my money, I say no. I'll tell you though, she's a scorcher!"

"Plenty of sex appeal?"

"She oozes it. Dripping with it. Way out of my league, of course."

"Krazy Kat's out of your league, Flea."

I hoofed it over to Sheridan. Found me a payphone and gave Sergeant Polhouse at the good, old 18th a jingle. There's one, right guy. I told him I needed to dig up everything I could on this Timms death. Polhouse knew a couple plain-clothes dicks at the 24th, he said. He'd make a few calls, he said. Then he asked what it's all about. I told him I didn't know, yet.

Nothing had changed when I got back to Flea. Neither Crumb nor Simon had left the bungalow--a real match made in heaven. I knew Simon could tell plenty. But she had no reason to squawk. And nothing pressured me to tip my hand, either. I decided to wait it out.

I gave it an hour or so, then hiked back to the payphone. The service had a message from Polhouse. If I went to the 24th station house, I'd find a package waiting for me from Lieutenant Strauss. I instructed Flea to stick to Simon like flypaper. I set off for the 24th.

The desk sergeant on duty was nothing but business. Maybe someone had given him the business. Or maybe someone should have. How is it you always find these little Napoleon's to run your front desks? He waves me to back off a few feet. So I mind my manners and stand back. He leaves me hanging, cooling my heels for ten minutes.

The sarge finally holds out the bundle for me, I step up and reach for it, and he pulls it back. He explains to me, in no uncertain terms, how "this here dossier" doesn't leave the room. He holds out the package, I reach for it, he pulls it back again. He asked if I got that. I told him I did. He orders me to sit anywhere I like, as long as he can see me. He holds out the documents, I make a grab with both hands, and he lets go reluctantly.

The phone jangled as I headed for a table at the far end of the room. The desk sergeant gave me the eye while he gabbed into the candlestick. Making myself good and comfortable, I held up the stack of documents and waved at the sergeant. His eyes rolled.

The Timms file made for a short and sweet study. Death caused by asphyxiation due to strangulation. None too pretty according to the pictures. Even the lousy photog couldn't gloss over the contortions dug into the priest's face. Not that I've ever witnessed a pretty death. Each one I've seen renders its own version of ugly.

Timms made it harder on himself than necessary. The overhead beam made for a strong enough support. And he tied the bed sheet awful tight. But he failed to rig it in any kind of way to snap the neck. He must have gone slow. He must have fought it. The pain in those photos made it loud and clear.

The Timms file contained a frank, handwritten note. He left out names, but he made his actions clear enough. Timms confessed that he attacked a young girl at the orphanage, that he forced her, brutalized her and raped her savagely. There was no excuse for his actions or violence, he wrote. The girl had trusted him and he betrayed her in the worst, possible way. He could never ask her forgiveness. He could never forgive himself. He prayed he would be judged by someone who could forgive him.

The police and the coroner wrapped up the Timms case with great dispatch. Bolted door. No other access. No cause for suspicion. Real open and shut. Nothing irregular about it. Just a regular old suicide. Sure.

I fired up a cigarette and reviewed the file. I discovered no further revelations regarding Father Timms himself. A follow up entry, dated a couple weeks after his death, would take the stuffing out of anyone: neither the state nor the home pursued the claims made by Timms in his suicide note.

I walked the folder back up to the front desk. I thrust the package toward the sergeant.

"Tell Strauss, much obliged."

The officer reached for the folder and I pulled it back. I offered it again, he stabbed at it, I yanked it back.

"I'll tell Strauss. I'll tell him."

I gave up the folder. "You got a public phone?"

The sergeant made an ugly curl of the lips and jerked his head towards a booth.

I rang up my service before placing a call to Crumb's apartment. No new messages. No answer at Crumb's. I turned up my collar and headed back towards the home.

I flashed a high sign to Flea as I entered the administration building. The sister behind a small desk greeted me with a pat smile. I told her I wished to speak with Esther Crumb. She told me Crumb had to be around somewhere. She pulled herself up and scurried through an archway at the back of the room.

Our words had caught the ear of a nun tending the filing cabinets. She halted her work to fix a stare at me. A hard stare. She made it obvious, too. So I fed it right back at her. She struck me as cold as her gaze. A very cool customer in full, black habit. Bone thin. Heavy glasses. She didn't move one inch. She just stared.

The first sister returned with the dame in tow. I've got to say that Esther Crumb made for a living bombshell, a real knockout. Striking, even in that plain, organdy number. Short, wavy blond hair, blue eyes, with just the right curves in just the right spots. She couldn't help working the curves as she moved--that's how she was built.

The nun pointed me out and drifted back to her paperwork. Crumb approached me with an outstretched hand. I gave her my card and she studied it. I explained, in low tones, that the boyfriend had received a threatening letter. That I'd like to discuss it with her. She agreed that we should compare notes, but couldn't talk there. I offered to buy her a cup of coffee or a cheap dinner, if she was willing.

Crumb sashayed out of the office to fetch her coat and purse. The scrutiny of that bitter nun held on me fast while I waited. She cackled to herself, thin and nasal, when Crumb returned and I helped her on with her coat.

Crumb informed the sister at the desk that she was leaving for the day.

My escort took us to a nearby beer garden. After placing the orders, I handed over the letter I got from Feathers. Her baby blues narrowed their way across the words. Then she hurriedly pressed the sheet back into my hands.

"That's just like the ones I received."

"That's what you meant by comparing notes."

"I received the first letter about one month ago."

"Uh huh. What did you make of it, Miss Crumb?"

"I dismissed it. Of course it sickened me, but that's due more to memories. The letter expressed itself in vague terms. It didn't threaten so much as it warned, if you catch my meaning. Very distasteful."

"I see. And then you got a second message."

"Around two weeks later. This time they were very specific, very direct. I was to break off my engagement to Eugene or he would be told what I've done. It was an ugly, ugly letter."

"Did it refer to you and Timms? About certain incidents? Your leaving and his death?"

"Candidly. In the cruelest tone."

"Uh huh. What did you do about it?"

"Nothing at all. I planned to tell Eugene everything as soon as he got back into town. I've tried telling him certain things before, but he's always refused to listen. He's a very proud man. Very stubborn, too. I believe there are some things in his past he won't discuss with anyone. Things he's ashamed of. I think it's his tight lipped nature that stops him from listening to me."

"There's been enough of that type of dancing, Miss Crumb. I know about Timms."

Her blank gaze remained fixed on me, her expression cool and empty.

"At least I know what Sister Lidwina knows. And what it says in the police report."

Her head dropped. "I see."

"You want to give me your version?"

"Not really. Father Timms. He attacked me." She lifted her head. "That's the last time I ever saw him. Does that tell you what you want to know? Does that satisfy your curiosity?" The baby blues paled behind tears. Her mouth remained hard.

"Did you tell anyone about it?"

"Just before I left the home. I went to Sister Simon."

"Uh huh."

"She wouldn't hear of it."

"That follows."

"She scolded me and accused me of making up stories. I felt I had to leave."

"Who else did you tell?"

"No one else. I've tried talking to Eugene. Anything else you'd like to know?"

"Look, Miss Crumb, I'm just trying to get to the bottom of this. Someone's got it in for you. I think Sister Simon's got it in for you."

"She's the one watching you back at the office."

"You noticed that? The stern one by the file cabinets."

"Yes."

"Did you know she and Father Timms were close? Before you came on the scene?"

"No."

"I believe she blames you for everything. For stealing his affection, for the attack, and for his death."

"But you don't know that."

"That's how it adds up. She was out of town when Simon died. She doesn't know about the suicide note. Nuns can be crazy jealous like anyone, Miss Crumb. Probably Sister Simon was human, once upon a time. It would explain a lot."

"That sounds almost too simple."

"I'm a big booster of simple. Complicated almost never works."

She dabbed her eyes with a napkin. Her voice was strong. "Are you're trying to tell me I'm in some kind of danger?"

"I know you got two threatening letters. And when those didn't work, Feathers got one. There's no reason to think she'll stop there."

"That's assuming it is Sister Simon."

"It all jives, unless you've got some other enemies we don't know about. According to you, she's the only one who knows your story. She's got cause to dislike you, she's got cause to want to hurt you."

"Now you're making me a little bit nervous."

"That tears it--it's time we got everything above board."

"Above board?"

"Let's go see your fiancÚ."

"Yes. Let's."

"I'll telephone ahead."

Whoever answered the phone at the Feathers domicile wouldn't put me through. "The master left instructions not to be disturbed," or words to that effect. Sure.

So I called into the service. Message number one from Minnie Murphy: nothing on Crumb I hadn't already learned. That was the good news. Message number two and the bad news: Flea shadowed Sister Simon to the Feathers house. I hightailed it back to Crumb and threw down some bills on the table.

"Grab you coat kid--we've got to move!"

I explained the layout to Crumb as we drove. She took it swell, like a strong kid. I knew a tete-a-tete between Feathers and Simon made for a bad combination. I couldn't imagine it going anyway other than all wrong. Feathers had a few years on her, sure, but I worried about what the tough old bird might do if he felt himself cornered--I worried for his sake, not hers. Simon couldn't do anything to him or Crumb, but Feathers didn't know that.

Crumb didn't wait for me when we pulled up to the Feathers Mansion. She popped right out of the car, so I gave quick chase. Flea dashed out from between some bushes along the drive. He took one look at our determined faces as we rushed by: "Holy Murgatroyd!"

When we hit the front door, I pounded with my left and leaned on the buzzer with my right. An old gink in full monkey suit swung the door open fast. He had words for me, all right, then caught himself when he recognized Crumb. We shoved our way through the foyer.

"He's in the study, miss!"

Crumb led the way down a lengthy piece of hallway in double time. She stopped at a massive double door. The knobs turned for her, but a bolt held fast from the inside. I gave it my best shot with my shoulder. No go. Then I saw Flea right at my side. We threw ourselves into the heavy doors and splintered our way through on the third round.

Sister Simon twirled in her chair with a start. A large throw pillow fell from her lap. Her right hand curled and tightened. Flea scampered around her and made a beeline for the overstuffed couch. Feathers' body sprawled awkwardly across the couch, like he'd collapsed. Flea laid his head on the old man's chest. He turned back to us.

"He's out cold, but breathing fine."

Crumb ran to the boyfriend.

Simon stared at me just like she did at the office. Cold and hard. Uncompromising. I strode up to her, reached down, and grabbed her wrist until she writhed. A bottle of chloral hydrate rolled out of her hand and fell to the floor. She actually looked ready to spit.

I said, "Save it for the jury, sister."





* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by John Vachon as an employee of the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998005334/PP/.