The Big Cinch, Chapter One: Goodwill
I tapped the Judge’s office door, once, then twice more. At his beck and call day and night, I was. “That must be him now,” Judge Dolan rumbled through the oak panel. “Come on in, Joye.” He was behind his desk, and a swell doll in a smart black dress sat across from him. He gave me a nod and a wink and said, “Mrs. Humphrey, please meet my assistant, Mr. Sean Joye.”
The lady stopped rooting through a beaded bag on her lap and looked up. Pale blue eyes behind a short net veil met mine. They gave me the once-over. A high-society doll and not a bad looker at that. She hadn’t bobbed her hair yet, like half the women in the city. It was all pinned up, mysterious-like, under her wide-brimmed purple hat. Whatever this job was, it couldn’t be all bad.
“Sean, this is Mrs. Taylor Humphrey,” said the Judge. “She brings me an interesting problem.”
“Mr. Joye,” she said, extending a small hand with long, slim fingers. “Please call me Violet.”
I didn’t think she meant it. I shook her sweaty palm, which smelled of Shalimar and jumpy nerves. “Mrs. Humphrey, an unexpected pleasure. This fine morning is now brighter, indeed.”
Her look told me, “Cut the blarney, paddy,” but she said, “The old woman in the lobby predicts snow. The ghost from the elevator shaft told her so.”
I didn’t know which old woman she meant but pretended I did, doubling down on the brogue. It seldom failed me. With American women, anyway. Gents? Not so much. “Pulling your leg was she?”
At that time, I didn’t know any better than old granny tales, that ghosts were merely folks carried off to Faerie, come to pay a bit of a visit to our mortal realm. Not that I’d ever seen any of the fae, including ghosts. At least, not in the courthouse lift. Other places perhaps? I’d just as soon not dwell on that.
Violet returned to the bag and fished out a photograph. The Judge took it, gave it a glance, and handed it back to her. “Why don’t you explain your problem to Mr. Joye?” He folded his hands across his tweed waistcoat, leaned back in the chair, and smiled. I’d never seen him more pleased with himself. “Of course.” She took a deep breath. “This is difficult.” I dumped my coat and fedora on the coat rack and pulled up a chair. “It’s about my sister, Lillian. Lillian Arwald.” She indicated the photograph in her hand and handed it to me.
A pretty young woman—a child, really—in a white, high-collared dress that hung near her ankles, smiled out of the sepia-toned picture while her eyes challenged the world. She looked about sixteen years old. Long blonde hair was pulled back from her face with a fancy comb and hung in loose curls down her back.
“We had a small family squabble, and now Lillian’s run off.” Violet looked down at her lap. She bit her lip, like she was about to cry or something.
I didn’t buy it. Something had spooked her, but it wasn’t the need to discuss her sister’s indiscretions with a circuit court judge. “Do you think she’s in danger?” I leaned in closer. “Sounds like a job for the cops.”
“No, no. Nothing like that. Her debut is this weekend at the Piasa Lodge Ball.”
“A party. Where young ladies are presented to society.”
I nodded like I understood. I didn’t understand. “And it’s in a piazza? Somewhere on the Hill, I guess.” I tried with difficulty to picture which courtyard in the tidy Italian neighborhood, not far from where I stayed, could hold a fancy society party—in February, to boot.
“No. Piasa. Pie-uh-saw,” Violet said as she crossed her arms. “The American Indian mythological figure? The painting on the river bluffs discovered by the first French explorers?”
The Judge looked embarrassed at my ignorance. “At least a dozen businesses in St. Louis and even more across the river in Alton are named for it,” he said, smiling at her. “And, of course, the premier civic booster organization of the city.”
Well, la-de-da. “So, nothing else for her to hide from?”
“She’s been a bit wild.” Tapped the picture in my hand, Violet said, “That’s from a few years ago. Now her hair’s cut short. Skirts too.”
I liked the twinkle in Lillian’s eyes and something about the smile. The girl had a secret or two, just waiting for the right moment to bust loose.
“She’s just in a phase,” Violet continued. “She’s engaged to be married to a respectable attorney.”
“Trouble with the boyfriend?”
“Perhaps.” But from the look on her face, the boyfriend had nothing to do with it.