The Case of the Man of Ash: Chapter 2

A Detective Booth Mystery by B.T. Wallace (Rated G)

–Thursday Morning–

It would be a few days before I would be able to start on Miss Curwen’s case. In the meantime, I needed to file the paperwork with the Portland Police Department in regards to a missing body I had been asked to look into. Turns out that the husband had come home from a deployment and found his wife with another man. This made things interesting when he killed her and then dropped the body into the Willamette River. The complication was when she washed to shore under the Ross Island Bridge. The husband had spun a story that she had run off with the lover, and I had spent the better part of last week tracking down leads and false information.

Now the report was due, and as I tapped the final keys on the typewriter to make my statement for the prosecuting attorney, I took the opportunity to type up my expense report. The positive side was the amount of money I just acquired meant waiting for the court system to reimburse my time would not push me further into debt with my landlord. 

I took my file for the case, and headed down to the street. I would drop off the document and then check for transportation to Warrenton, Oregon. Leaving this coming Monday gave me the time needed to gather the items and make a few calls. The courthouse was not that far from my apartment, and the walk in the morning air felt peaceful and calm. However, my mind was not so at peace. The curious things left in my office and my brief memory of Miss Curwen’s eyes turning black did not sit right with me. I knew I would need to head down and talk to Father about it during confession hours this evening. 

Once the document was dropped off with the clerk, I hailed a cab to take me over to the airport. It would be quickest to fly over to Warrenton instead of taking the train. The ride was uneventful, the cab driver asked a few questions and put on the news radio. New York was preparing for a huge parade of troops; some one hundred thousand people were to march the city. That would be the largest show of our ground forces ever. Back when I entered the Great War, there was not so much pomp and ceremony as it appears for this war. After all, we are going to war again, and again the major adversary would be Germany under some man named Adolf Hitler. I can only hope that this war is quicker and fewer men die. It was heart-wrenching to come home to Boston in ’19. Too few of the boys I left with never came home. 

The cab pulled up to the office terminal at the airport. I tipped the man two dollars to stay the few minutes it would take for me to obtain my ticket. Entering the building, I made my way to the desk. I noticed that the young man who normally ran the front was nowhere in sight. Then again, we are gearing up for a war, and he might have been young enough. The congress voted to lower the draft age from twenty-one to eighteen. He was a bright young man, helpful and courteous the other times I have needed to come by the airport. Missing people who had the means sure did like to fly away from the area in their hasty escape. Instead, there was a middle aged woman working the desk. I approached her.

“Excuse me, is Carson still flying out to Astoria?” I asked, reaching for my wallet on the inside of my right jacket pocket. 

“Oh, sure he does!” She smiled at me. “His next flight is this coming Monday morning.”

“That would be great. Can I buy a ticket, please?”

The receptionist quickly worked to make me up a ticket. I handed over the money and she stamped my copy with a great big PAID. I folded the ticket and put it and my wallet together in my jacket.

“So, where is the young man who worked this desk?”

“Oh, you mean Tommy?” She waited for my nod. “Oh, that’s my grandson, you know, and he had done so well in his schooling that he has made it to officer candidate school. My little Tommy is going off to be an officer, and good thing too…”

She rambled on for a few minutes longer than I meant to be inside the building. Apparently, her neighbors’ boys had all enlisted into the army and were off to do the big parade. 

I had heard the story over the radio on the way over, so I nodded my head and quite bluntly said, “I will pray for your grandson, ma’am, for now I have a cab waiting and I must go.” With that, I turned and promptly started walking away. She said a few more words, and I pretended to hear them. 

Once I returned to the cab, I had a few more places to stop. The cabbie drove me around Portland on both sides of the river for three more hours. I paid for both of us at a diner and to fill his car with petrol again. It was amazing how much fuel a car goes through when you’re puttering all over town through traffic. When I finally made it back home, I stopped at the restaurant that sat beneath my apartment, and set about having dinner brought up to my office. 

By seven, I would make my way over to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church for confession, then I would say my evening prayers there and then come home. Fridays were always paperwork days, in which I would spend the day at the typewriter, eating two small meals and some fish. Saturday evening would be Vigil service and Sunday morning I would go to Mass. Typical weekends with no strange and extraordinary things. A Sunday paper and, once upon a time, I would sit and listen to a baseball game. Now I have heard those would be canceled for a while. It seems our boys are of a great fighting age and won’t be playing sports. There are always the dirt diamonds where the children like to play ball on a Sunday afternoon. I suppose I could wander down to the park and see if I could watch one of those pickup games.  

–Sunday Afternoon–

Service had ended and I was making myself towards the exit, when I caught the eye of a couple of young men wearing practically brand-new black Stetson fedoras, all black suits, and black bow ties. They stood out as if they simply came from a funeral service. Even their skin looked pale, or even pallid. Trying not to act like I had made a quick study of their persons, I turned my head the opposite way and struck up a conversation with some other parishioners. Then, I exited the church and took a sharp turn onto the street. I kept my pace brisk, and hurried along. Something inside my mind told me those two did not belong, and they were obviously staring at me. I turned the corner at the end of the church building onto another street, and standing on the walkway—looking directly at me—were the same two men. 

There was no mistaking it this time. On this particular morning, at this particular place, there was no one else these two men could have been waiting for. Not sure how this was going to go down, I unbuttoned my jacket—it would give me quick access to the weapon in my shoulder holster. If it came to that, I was certain that my speed would be fast enough to ensure at least one of them would be in a casket by tomorrow morning. Regardless of what these two were after, I still was on guard—being a retired police officer in this town had its ups and downs. You could never trust anyone who would blatantly be staring at you while you exited church, nor anyone who would follow you. Therefore, I approached cautiously. 

“Do something for you boys?” I asked without looking directly at them.

“How’s about we go for a walk,” one of them said. “Maybe go have lunch at Huber’s. We will buy.”

“Sounds good. Let’s walk.” It was a little disconcerting hearing them mention the name of the restaurant above which I currently lodge and have my office. What was even more particular was their accent. It’s been a long time since I heard anyone with that kind of drawl. Not exactly Southern, and not truly Northern. 

“Where are you fellas from?” I asked as I walked next to them, their gait maintaining pace with my own.

“We’ve come in from Richmond to have a little talk.” 

“You found me easily enough. How long have you been searching for me?”

“Mr. Booth,” one of them said, stopping and turning to look at me, “It will be easier if we simply sit down and have lunch. There is no need to ascertain who we are for now. I am Special Agent Brown, and this is Special Agent White. We are from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Save your questions for a few more minutes.”

Sounded reasonable enough. Having two agents from the FBI here to talk to me seemed odd. I have never had to speak to anyone about any of my cases, except for Officer Fredrick over at the HQ. He handled all of the small jobs I did for the department. Since the only open case I had at the moment was Miss Curwen’s, I could only assume they were after information regarding that case. Unless it was something else. The FBI did not simply show up in Portland, Oregon except when looking for a most-wanted criminal. Even then, everything was done by parcel and telephone. 

It did not take long to get to Huber’s. The walk was brisk, taking us a mere thirty minutes, time that I would usually spend thinking about the homily from Father John Mitchell, or to say a couple of prayers. However, today no such things were on my mind. The time was filled up with us three talking about baseball, and how we will miss games with the boys going off to war. Then, topics moved to discuss those events happening across the ocean in Europe with the war, and how Germany was already defeating some countries. Finally, we arrived and entered. I took my usual booth and the men followed. After our order for lunch was made and coffee was ordered, the men looked around and made sure no one else was in ear shot.

“We understand that you have a case commissioned to look for the missing uncle of Miss Curwen.” 

“Yes, she came to me wanting to discover what had happened.”

“Did she give you anything? Anything odd?”

“That’s an odd question, Agent White. She left me with an upfront payment and a key to the uncle’s house.”

“That’s all? She did not give you property that belonged to this uncle of hers, besides the key?”

“What more was she supposed to give?”

The agents were both getting flustered, and I refused to hint at or discuss the briefcase, journal or cylinder. These things alone were very odd, and became even more so with these two agents here to discuss them with me. It didn’t feel right. There were too many warning bells going off in my mind to try to beat around the bush and learn why they are asking about the objects. Our food arrived, and after a couple pleasing back and forth comments with the waitress, Agent Brown began asking me questions.

“The FBI considers Miss Curwen an important person, and her uncle is on a watch list.”

“That’s a complete fabrication. What are you two really here for?” Calling their bluff didn’t go over well. Agent Brown’s face began to flush red, and I knew a nerve had been struck. “There is no reason the FBI would be over here talking to me about Curwen, who I just met on Thursday, four days ago. Where are you really from?”

“Detective Booth, we are from Richmond, Virginia, and we are from the FBI, from the Office of Strategic Services. We are investigating the disappearance of two FBI agents, and the connection is Miss Curwen.”

“If she is the connection, why not bring her in?”

“That’s just it,” Agent White said. “We can’t find her. Reports of her appearance in Los Angeles in early February, then in March she was spotted in Seaside, Oregon, reportedly traveling to Bayocean. Then, we had eye-witness reports of her appearance in Astoria, and finally here in Portland. We have been following Miss Curwen for some time, and she has come to see you.”

“Right, and what am I supposed to do?” 

“Nothing.” Agent Brown said as he sipped his coffee. “Do not do anything. I mean, do the case. Go investigate. See if you can find the disappeared. But do not tell Miss Curwen we are looking for her.”

They did not wait for the check to come, but Agent White took out a crisp, brand new ten dollar bill and set it on the table. The check would be half that or less. They did not seem to care or actually look at the money in the bill fold. Easily, this was a roll of a lot more money than I would see in a year. Regardless, they both walked to the exit, put their hats on and walked in two different directions. Probably assumed I would go after them, but I knew better. Who pays for a lunch by setting down a brand new bill, then pays it no mind at all and nonchalantly walks out the restaurant?

To be continued…

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