A Vital Clue
Betty perked, preparing to greet him, then stopped herself. Should she be so familiar? After all, Artie's true position was with the Madisons; he simply brought her aunt the fruits of his quahogging efforts as a sideline occupation. So she kept silent, hoping he would take the lead.
"Heyah, Dale," Jim Ellis called.
"Hey, Jim," Artie said carelessly. He crossed to the counter within a foot of Betty without a sign of recognition, so she responded in kind, idly checking the candy in her bag with satisfaction. He tossed a dime on the counter. "Pack of Camels, please, ma'am."
"Should you be smoking with that hurt throat?" the proprietress chided as she rang up the sale.
"Can't hurt much worse than it does now," he retorted.
"When you gonna let us see all your purty face, Dale?" the older man joshed.
"When it doesn't scare a three-year-old at two fathoms," laughed Artie, which brought on a spasm of coughing.
Betty decided that Artie had nothing to tell her, so shook her parcel once more and moved toward the door.
"Dale, you still working for Madison?" Ellis asked casually. "I heard you had a scrap with his young'un the other day."
Betty paused, then pretended to be attracted by the dress goods the two women had been looking at earlier.
"Oh, that," Artie said offhand, lighting up a cigarette. "Here's a list of the other things I need, ma'am."
Mrs. Grady examined the scrap of paper he handed her. "Tenpenny and twelvepenny nails?"
"Helping repair a dock," he said casually, "over at the Madison place. The 'scrap' was with young Madison's so-called buddy, Steve. You know, that kid might amount to something if he quit playing sycophant to that Carlisle simp."
"There's a ten-dollar word," the older man laughed.
Betty turned her head away from a soft bolt of blue-sprigged cotton gingham she was admiring. "It means Rory is a toady," she spoke up without thinking, then wished she had held her tongue.
The older man merely guffawed. "That pegs young Madison awright."
For the first time, Artie appeared aware of Betty's presence. "Hey, don't I know you?"
"That's Reely Albright's niece," Jim offered before Betty could even react. "Staying with her for the month. She and her dad are from Indiana someplace."
Gossip clearing-house indeed! They probably also knew about Dad's pneumonia and what he did for a living and her grades in school! But she simply feigned shyness and answered, "We met in Aunty's kitchen one morning, Mr. Dale. You were delivering clams."
"I remember," Artie laughed, taking a long drag at the cigarette.
"Here's your nails," Mrs. Grady said, behind him.
Preoccupied, he hefted the cardboard container she gave him, his eyes still on Betty. "Wait a minute, doesn't your aunt do some type of fancywork? Lacework?"
"Do you mean tatting?" Betty asked, truly puzzled.
"That's it. She mentioned it to me one morning. You know, I got something out on my cycle I'd like to show you. Old Mrs. Madison has some lace that needs repair. She asked could I take it into Newport to the milliner's, but maybe your aunt could be of some help instead."
"I'll try to help you," Betty said politely.
The older man tried one more time to ride Artie. "They got you riding a bicycle today, Dale?"
"Nope, the old man's new motor cycle," was the breezy response. "Told you he wasn't mad at me."
Leaving even Jim Ellis open-mouthed, Artie, his box of nails cradled under one arm, swung open the creaking screen door for Betty and followed her outside. Sure enough, parked several yards away from the front porch, away from the dust of possible oncoming motorcars or horses, was a spanking-new Indian motor cycle, complete with sidecar, all in brick red and chrome. Even Betty was dazzled by the piece of machinery.
"Can I give you a ride back to your house, Miss Elly?" he asked loudly and distinctly, so that not only the two elderly men on the porch, still rocking back and forth, could hear him. "We can show that piece of lace to your aunt and find out if she can mend it."
"Thank you, Mr. Dale," Betty said, with equal volume, biting her lip to keep from smiling as both Mrs. Grady and Jim Ellis appeared on the porch.
"Now you settle down there in that sidecar and then I'll put the nails down behind you. You won't be afraid, will you? Nothing to it," he said in quick patter, then mounted the big motor cycle and kick-started the engine. "Tie your bonnet on tight, now!" In a few minutes he had turned onto the road and had driven down it perhaps a mile, until well out of sight of the store and its staring patrons.
When he pulled the vehicle to a stop and cut the engine, Betty laughed. Far from being overwhelmed by the unexpected ride, she had enjoyed it. "My dad would say you were some piece of work. Is there really any lace?"
"There is, but I don't think your aunt can mend it. It's bobbin lace, not tatting, and even a dolt like me knows it isn't the same thing. But it was a good subterfuge," he admitted. "No need of the locals thinking I was trying to kidnap you." Now he grinned engagingly. "I really am repairing a dock."
When she had done with a fit of mirth over this newest invention, he added, "Look, I had something to show you."
He drew a chamois polishing rag from the interior of the sidecar. "I made off with this accidentally on Saturday. It was inside the equipment locker Stevie-boy had such a fit about my touching. It was in the way so I just shoved it in my pocket and didn't remember it until I was on my way home. I was mad as hornets at that little simp and only stuck around because Rory came back after you had left to apologize to me.
"When I got back to my room I pulled the cloth out of my pocket...and look what I found."
From the breast pocket of his blue chambray work shirt he withdrew a small, round pink sphere, rolling it between his work-coarsened forefinger and thumb. "What do you think?"
"Take a good look at it, kidand yeah, I know, you're not a kid."
She did so, temporarily mesmerized by the play of light on the iridescent pink skin. Then her mouth parted slightly in revelation. "A pearl?"
"About the size of one that might come off, say, a very expensive shell pendant?"
"But what was it doing in Rory's boat locker? Surely you don't think Rory was the one who stole Mrs. Carlisle's necklace?"
Artie whistled, tucking the pearl away in his pocket. "You know what they say, Elly'still waters run deep.' Carlisle's all mouth. Maybe it's meek little Rory who's gotten himself into hot water."
Betty pointed out, "'Still' waters don't run at all."
"You know what I mean." Artie shook another cigarette from the pack he'd just purchased, scratched a match to the heel of his shoe, and lit the cigarette with the resultant flame. "A follower like Rory gets in with a fast crowd at college, tries to keep up with the big spenders and gets himself in a jam. He's been Steve's chum since they were in diapers; probably has the run of the Carlisle house, might know where the missus kept her jewelry." He watched her face fall. "It happens all the time, kid," he added wryly.
"I guess I'm not as disappointed that he might have stolen the pendant," Betty admitted sadly, "as that he's tried to place the blame on Dick."
"I'll tell you, that part doesn't seem Madison's style," Artie admitted, "but he might have been scared enough to try and throw off suspicion. Dick was just a handy excuse. But lookwe don't know it was Rory, either."
She spoke up then, "That's right, and we still haven't explained Dick speaking to Mrs. Whatley from the powder room."
"Another poserbut we'll get this identification problem out of the way first. I know folks who know jewelry and I've got a half day off tomorrowI'll ask 'em about this...first find out if it really is a pearl. Then we'll see what comes along."
"You'll tell me what you find out?"
"I'll get word to you somehow," he said carelessly. "Now let's get you hom-"
He was abruptly seized with a spasm of coughing and in a moment had tossed the cigarette aside, grinding it out with his heel.
"I'm surprised Mr. Madison hired you with that cough," she observed.
"It helps when you offer to work for a little more than half the going rate," he answered once he caught his breath.
"You mean he's not paying you what he might pay someone else?" she responded indignantly. "That hardly seems fair."
"When you want a job bad enough, you get competitive." Although the road was deserted, Artie dropped his voice. "I think I was all old man Madison could afford. I don't think they're doing as well as they look. While I was eating lunch the other day the kitchen staff was complaining that they were short two girls and had to "double up." The garden looks a bit weedy, too. I have a feeling Madison's stretching himself to the limit to keep his wife and kid in clover. Which is why if Rory got himself in dutch for money, it may be why he found another means to get the cash."
Betty listened to his wheezy breath, noticing not for the first time his roughened hands and stained clothing. "I think it's terribly noble what you're doing for Dick," she declared boldly.
He lowered his head; in the brilliant sunshine she could see just a suggestion of eyes narrowed at her. "Noble? Me? Be nice to yourself, kid, and don't get the idea I'm William S. Hart or Rudy Valentino in disguise. I told you your folks would probably think I was bad news. I'm doing it because I owe Dick one, nothing else." His voice hardened. "You get it?"
Betty bit back her first response, which was to quote "I think the gentleman doth protest too much," and instead said meekly, "I 'get it.'"
"Good," he responded roughly, then kicked the motor cycle to life again.
The Shell Pendant Mystery is ©2002 by Linda M. Young