A Terrible Secret
A muffled, unintelligible voice responded to the threat and the angry voice barked, "You liar!" when yet a third male voice hissed, "Stai zitto!" then in Italian-accented English, "You want everybody to hear ya?"
The conversation was now muttered, with two disturbing grunts breaking the whispers. Her heart in her throat, Betty tentatively edged the door fully open, expecting to see the three men directly outside, relieved to see nothing at all. Cautiously, she moved forward, each hesitant step taken noiselessly on the paisley-patterned carpet. She was careful to keep herself in the lee of one of the great potted palms until she could peer cautiously through the thick leaves to discover the meaning of the disturbance.
What she saw so horrified her that she spun about and dashed for the stairs, nearly tripping and sprawling in her haste to get away. She made her way to her seat in a daze, falling into it heavily, and virtually ignoring the young comedy team as they strolled upon the stage to thunderous applause and began their act.
Kit finally hissed, "Elly, what on earth is the matter with you? Gracie Allen is the funniest woman on stage today."
Earlier her sleuthing had been an adventure; now it became a trap. There was no one she could unburden herself to at the moment and certainly she couldn't spoil the rest of the day! So with an effort she pushed the episode to the back of her mind, concentrating on the pair on stage, leaning back in the plush seat as she listened to the woman chatter on about her brother. The couple was so funny that she was finally able to relax, and when the show finally ended and they departed the theatre for supper, she found herself exchanging bits of song and comic dialogue with Kit. She also enjoyed the cafeteria dinner although their cooking could never equal Aunt Aurelia's or her mother'sand bantered with her cousin and father during the long train ride home. If she faltered slightly at the end, no one blamed her, as it was nearly eight o'clock when they finally arrived back at Surf House.
It was then Betty pleaded a headache, which was not far from the truth, and retreated to the comfort of the bathroom and finally her bedroom. Her father, concerned, came up to tuck her in, something she did not resist that night, nor did the charms of the nearby St. Nicholas attract her. Eventually she fell into a troubled sleep.
Next morning she slept so late that Kit had to come fetch her for breakfast, triumphant in having caught her usually prompt cousin abed. "Go on, sleepyhead, stay under the covers then, and Mamma will toss your blueberry pancakes to the birds," she teased as Betty moaned from under her pillow. Only then did she slip from her bed, get dressed, run a hairbrush through her tangled locks, and wash her face.
A few minutes later, while staring sleepily out the back window of the dining room, she spied Artie Dale trudging up the path to the house with the usual bushel of quahogs. A plan began to form in her mind as she set the table for breakfast and listened to Artie and her aunt exchange their usual words, and heard the familiar clatter of his upending the bushel basket into the enamel pot.
Her eyes now bright, she turned to her father. "You know, Dad, I think this table could use some flowers."
He had been absorbed in the morning paper and looked up at her over his glasses in curiosity. "That would be nice, chickadee."
"There's a lovely patch of cornflowers blooming at the edge of the fence," she added, plucking a small china vase from the lowest shelf of the sideboard. "I'm going to pick some; it will make a pretty surprise for Aunty."
* * * * *
Having delivered his last bushel of clams for the day, Artie Dale tramped northward on the track that led away from the Albright property, planning to "hitch" a ride via some motor truck or automobile to his daily stint at the Madisons. Instead he was halted in his tracks by Betty's familiar form waiting for him. Her face was grave in preoccupation and she was tightly grasping a bouquet of cornflowers.
"Morning, Elly," he said jauntily. "Say, you did understand what I was telling you the other night?"
"What?" she asked in surprise, then recollected. "Oh, about the pearl. Yes, that was clever of you. No one suspected."
"Took an hour to plan what I would say if you weren't alone," he admitted. "I'm not usually good with that poetic junk..."
He seemed to sense she was not herself and not listening, and would have next teased her about the flowers being for him had he not finally realized the girl was troubled; instead, to his own surprise, the next words from his mouth were, "Elly, what's wrong?"
"I saw something dreadful yesterday," she told him.
They were standing very close to a flat, ragged outcropping of rock, one of the glacial variety that dots every New England landscape from the northern edges of Maine to the southern coasts of Connecticut. His curiosity now aroused, he gestured at this potential seat and then sat down himself, motioning for her to join him. "Elly, I came by yesterday to shoot the breeze with Pietro after he got in with his catch. He told me you went to a vaudeville show." Then, for her sake, he teased: "Look, I know this isn't Boston or New York, but surely the show wasn't that bad."
She had apparently adjusted to his queer sense of humor, for she answered quietly, "It was a fine day. We saw some of the stores and had ice cream and the show was wonderful. I've never laughed so much. It was something that happened while we were there." She paused. "But first I need to tell you what happened on the Fourth."
Quickly she told him of Rory's conversation and confession, and, when finished, concluded, "It doesn't sound as if Rory could be responsible after all."
"Any joe can fake sincerity," Artie returned unsympathetically.
It was on the tip of her tongue to retort, "Does that go for you as well?" but instead she added, "Then perhaps if I tell you what happened yesterday, you might think differently," with the dignity of a much older girl.
Swiftly she had told him of the encounter in the lounge of the Majestic and what details she could remember of the argument. "The Italian man's name was Tony and the other was 'Patsy.' Tony was tall and heavyset, Patsy a little shorter, with lighter hair. Should I have spoken to Dad and had him call the police?"
Artie patted her shoulder. "All that would have done was scared the bejabbers out of your father. Here's where I get to disillusion you, kid. Providence is full of mobsters, just like every other big city, and what you saw was called a 'shakedown.' The two big guys were probably loan sharks out to get their money back."
Just the name made Betty uneasy. "Loan sharks? What's that?"
Artie coughed, whether in comment or due to his health Betty was unclear. "If your pop needed money, he'd borrow it from a bank, right?" She nodded mutely. "Well, some people have bad reputations at banks or they don't want anyone to know they need money. So they go to loan sharks. These guys are like buzzardscharge you a lot of interest to borrow that cash, sometimes even 100 percent, so if you borrowed a C notethat's one hundred dollars you'd have to pay them two hundred back. The cops try to catch them, but it's like swatting flies in a stable. That poor guy you saw owed them money. They get nasty when they aren't paid back on time. Guess he was lucky he wasn't in some back alley getting his legs broken."
Betty flinched. "Artie, the 'poor guy' I saw getting...'shaken down' was Steven Carlisle."
He shook his head as if he'd misheard. "What?"
"I saw them very clearly between those palm leaves. It was Steven."
He made a peculiar, puzzled face. "Well, that's put a new wrinkle in the story, doesn't it?" He arched his bare eyebrows at her; ragged strands of hair were struggling to regrow. "I know what you're thinking, Elly. Maybe it was Steven who took the necklace. Of course the question is why. He probably has an substantial allowance. But he could have gotten in over his head, I suppose...you said Rory mentioned Steve had some tremendous debts."
Betty insisted, "And Rory mentioned they shared everything, including keys, which would explain the pearl in the boat locker!"
Artie nodded. "Stevie-boy could have stashed the pendant there until he was ready to take it into town. In the meantime one of the pearls worked loose. But there's still the housekeeper's report of hearing Dick upstairs. And Dick's visit to the pawn shop. The Carlisles could always make the point that if Dick was clever enough to take the pendant without leaving behind any evidence, he certainly could have jimmied his way into a boat locker." Then he grinned. "But I like the way you think." He cocked his head thoughtfully. "Explains why those goons didn't touch Steve, though. You don't rough up the ones you expect can pay you."
Now he tried the joke he'd avoided earlier. "Are those flowers for me?"
She pulled herself up from the rock with dignity. "They're for the breakfast table."
"Well, you'd better get them inside before the flapjacks go away," he advised. "I need to get hustling. But thanks for the tip."
She swallowed a bit miserably. "I hope you can help Dick."
"You and me both."
Then she tried a smile. "Anyway, the show was good. I have to admit Kit was right about that actGeorge Burns and Gracie Allen. They were-"
She sat back down on the glacial rock with a thump, so abruptly that he knelt at her side. "Kid-"
"Steve-" She raised shining eyes to him and said, emphasizing every word, "Steve does imitations. Impressions. He mimics people's voices."
The Shell Pendant Mystery is ©2002 by Linda M. Young