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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Meadowlark Reader: Pete Stone, Private Investigator

Each Wednesday we will share an excerpt from a Meadowlark book. Sign up at Feed Burner to receive Meadowlark updates by email. 

Little Did I Know

Published: March 2020
ISBN: 978-1-7342477-3-2

The Municipal University lay in the northeast part of Wichita across town from my place on Lewellen Street. I drove north a couple of blocks and noticed homes decorated in orange and black, early birds ready for Halloween. When I came to the high school, I turned east on Thirteenth. Late morning traffic was light, and I made good time. The weather was on its best behavior, as fall weather often is in Kansas. The buffeting southerly winds had abated as had the summer’s searing temperatures. Clear skies beckoned and gave a soul promise. I drove with the top down on my Jones Six roadster and breathed the crisp autumn air.
October was my favorite month. I’d told the truth to the professor about my intention to knock off for a few days. My plans involved baseball and beer, and I’d earned a break. The World Series was scheduled to open the next day, and my pal Tom would have his Motorola tuned in to the games and a stool reserved for me at the tavern bearing his name. Red Barber and his cronies would woo me with their play-by-play. I’d smoke stogies and kibitz with Tom, dine on peanuts and hotdogs, and quaff mugs of Storz beer until the final pitch signaled the end of the fall classic and the onset of the dark season, those soulless months with no baseball.
I reached Hillside and turned north toward the university. At Seventeenth, I went two blocks east to Fairmount and drove onto the campus. I had a few minutes to spare, so I rolled across campus and admired the architecture and landscaping. Trees had turned scarlet and yellow, and golden mums bloomed in well-tended flowerbeds.
The Administration Building, an imposing redbrick structure not unlike other administration buildings, greeted students and visitors. Morrison Library, where my son had spent much of his time as a student and graduate assistant, boasted columns reminiscent of the Parthenon. A new Auditorium and Commons Building was the university’s most recent addition, a welcome gathering place for students. Many of them entered and exited, smiling and chatting together. I had read that the university president, W.M. Jardine, took pride in the recent addition, and I could understand why.
The semester was fresh and alive. Students wore expressions of hope and optimism. Final exams loomed a lifetime away. The youthful enthusiasm was contagious, and I confessed to myself that the World Series wasn’t all I looked forward to that week. I also intended to call on a certain lady, the widow Lucille Hamilton.

I found myself feeling younger, whistling a tune and tapping my fingers on the steering wheel. I pulled up in front of the Liberal Arts Building and parked next to a late model tan Hudson. I hopped out of my car and strolled up the walkway with a bounce in my step and a grin on my mug. I reached the door just as a coed approached. She greeted me with a warm, toothy smile, and I returned it. The young lady reached ahead of me for the door handle.  
“Here you are, sir,” she said. “I’d better get that for you.”
Her smile beamed. Mine faded. She pulled the door open and stepped aside to allow me passage. So much for the warm spark of youth, I thought.
“Thank you,” I said and touched the brim of my hat. Did I look that feeble? I tried not to hobble and somehow managed to get through the doorway. 
Inside, students strolled together down the hallway, chatting and laughing and calling out to each other. I passed down the corridor to Room 113 and knocked on the door. A booming voice invited me in. The office hadn’t changed since the last time I was there. Papers and books rested in uneven stacks on a desk and several chairs. An array of textbooks and other volumes cluttered the bookshelves, and dust and smoke cast a haze in the air. The overhead light was off, but sunlight filtered through the blinds on a window situated behind the large man seated at the desk.
“Pete Stone! Come in, come in! By Jove, it’s good to see you again. Sit down. That’s the stuff. Share one of your adventures with a cloistered old history professor. Tell me about the world beyond these ivied walls. Too much of my life is drawn from the pages of a book. Talk to me about real life, life on the street.”
I crossed the floor and shook hands with the man seated in a wheelchair behind the desk.
“Hello, Ethan,” I said. “It’s good to see you again. How have you been?”
“Fine, fine,” he said. “You know how history is. It simply repeats itself. Nothing ever changes.” He gestured toward a chair. “Go ahead. Sit.”
I glanced at my watch and took a seat in the only chair not covered with papers.
“I’m sorry, but I only have time to say hello, Ethan. I have an appointment upstairs, but I wanted to pop in and see you first.”
The large man furrowed his brow and drew on his pipe. Ethan Alexander, professor of history, was my son’s former teacher and mentor. The wheelchair he sat in was a souvenir he brought home from the Great War some two decades earlier. Rather than live in bitterness over the injuries he suffered, he turned his experience into a quest to learn and understand history and war and the national leaders who started them. As a history professor he shared the results of his learning through the books he wrote and the lectures he gave in the classroom. I had met him when working on a previous case. He had been helpful, and we had developed a mutual fondness and a friendship toward one another. It was good to see him again, if only for a few minutes.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “I suppose you’re here to meet with Wil Fallon.”
I had suspected that Ethan Alexander had referred me to Fallon.
“Yes, he called me this morning and asked me to meet him in his office. He also said I came highly recommended. Thank you, Ethan. I appreciate that.”
He brushed aside my thanks with a wave of his pipe.
“Don’t thank me, yet. I’m not sure about what you’re getting into. Frankly, I don’t think Fallon knows, either. Anyway, I wish you good luck. I won’t keep you if you have an appointment. Say hello to Wil for me and stop in again before you leave. Don’t worry. I won’t ask prying questions. It’s always good to see you.”
“And you, Ethan.”
We shook hands again, and I left his office. I climbed the stairs to the second floor, Room 205. The door opened on my knock, and a slight, elderly man ushered me in and closed the door. Instead of taking a seat or offering me one, he paced the floor, his hands clasped behind his back. He stopped beside his desk and turned to me.
“Have you spoken to anyone else?” he said.
“I stopped in to say hello to Ethan Alexander,” I said. “He sends his regards.” It didn’t seem necessary to mention my encounter with the coed at the door.
The man stared at a spot on the floor and nodded.
“That’s fine.”
He looked up at me and seemed puzzled as to why I was standing in his office.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Wilfred Fallon.”
He extended his hand, and I shook it.
“I assume you are Mr. Pete Stone, the man I spoke to on the telephone?”
“That’s right.”
He gestured toward a chair in front of his desk. I sat down, and he took his chair behind the desk. Fallon’s office was furnished much like Alexander’s with a desk, straight-backed chairs, and bookshelves, but the similarities ended there. Fallon’s office was as neat and organized as Alexander’s was cluttered and in disarray. Books lined the shelves in an orderly fashion. Papers on the desk, student essays it appeared, were arranged in a tidy stack. A Tiffany reading lamp stood next to the papers. A book lay near one corner of the desk, a copy of Modern American Poetry and Modern British Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. I recognized the book because I owned a copy, a gift from my son, Dan. Fallon’s copy appeared to be worn more than my own. Next to the desk was a smaller table with a typewriter resting atop it.
A bust of William Shakespeare perched on a pedestal in a corner of the office. A small fan hummed on a side table and kept the air circulated and fresh. I smelled no tobacco and saw no ashtrays and decided it would be a faux pas to light a cigarette in the room.
The dapper Professor Fallon wore a gray worsted wool suit with vest over a linen shirt and a red silk tie sporting a perfect Windsor knot. A gold chain lay across his vest and disappeared into a pocket, presumably with a watch attached to its end. I chilled at the recollection of the ghost wearing a pocket watch in my dream hours earlier. Fallon’s chain matched both the wedding ring on the appropriate finger and the wire spectacles resting on his nose.
Dark eyes, bright and alert, gazed out from behind the spectacles. Not a snowy hair on his head was out of place. The man made me feel like a sack of dirty laundry. It was a fair bet that his clothes and accessories cost more than I had in my bank account.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Stone. This is out of character for me. I’m afraid I don’t know where to begin. I’ve never spoken to a private investigator before. I’ve never had reason to speak to one.”
“Don’t worry, professor. Take your time. Most people I meet for the first time have never spoken to a private investigator. I’m like any other Joe on the street, just a guy trying to do a job.”
He fidgeted and drummed his fingers on his desk. He glanced at me then broke eye contact and sat back and crossed his legs and folded his arms across his chest. He may have called me and asked me to come to his office, but now that I was sitting across from him he was reluctant to speak. He removed the watch from his vest pocket and glanced at it.
“That’s a beautiful watch you’re wearing,” I said. “I own a modest collection of timepieces, but I’ve never seen a watch like yours.”
He smiled.
“No, there aren’t many like this one. Some people say only a handful exist. Others swear none exist at all, yet, here we are discussing the one I’m wearing. Are you familiar with the Wichita Watch Company?”
I raised an eyebrow and shook my head.
“Not many people are familiar with it. It has faded from memory. It existed for a very brief time some fifty years ago. A few city fathers and investors built a facility west of downtown, but before they could install manufacturing equipment, the economy turned sour. Many businesses struggled during that period, and a new business just opening its doors never stood a chance. The investors, bankers, cattle men, and land speculators, cut their losses to save their own businesses. The company went bust before it opened.”
“If they never installed equipment, how did your watch come to be?” I said.
“Probably a prototype designed to attract investors. I bought mine years ago from one of those investors, a retired banker, who said he’d grown tired of looking at the damn thing. He hoped he’d never see it again. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be worth something someday.”
I nodded and said nothing.
“Well, look what you’ve done,” he said. “You’ve got me talking.”
“Start at the beginning,” I said, “and take your time. Why did you call me? More importantly, what do you know about the woman’s murder that the police don’t know?”
He paused to gather his thoughts. I sat and waited.
“You said on the phone that you are familiar with the murder of Rosemary Joy. That was the young lady’s name, by the way, Rosemary Joy Cleveland. You said you know about the murder?”
“I said I read the papers. Like I mentioned, the police arrested a suspect, and the evidence against him looks solid. That’s the report. The case appears to be open and shut.”
 He nodded.
“Yes, yes,” he said, “that’s the report in the newspapers, alright, open and shut, except I don’t believe that assessment is accurate. I believe the police have the wrong man in custody.”
I listened to the fan hum and waited for him to continue. How and why had he reached that conclusion? He was an educated man. Did he know something, or was he batty? He seemed distraught but not off his rocker. If he hadn’t wanted to divulge anything, he wouldn’t have called me. Maybe he didn’t know how to tell me what he knew. I figured he wouldn’t lie to me, but he probably wouldn’t tell me the whole truth, either. I’d have to be patient. The fan continued to hum.
“You probably think I’m crazy,” he said.
I didn’t reply.
“I knew her,” he said. “Not well, but I knew her.”
Fallon straightened the already neat stack of papers on his desk.
“Rosemary Joy was a student of mine, not this term. She graduated in the spring. That’s how she preferred to be addressed, by the way, with both names, Rosemary Joy. She was such a lovely woman. You saw her picture in the paper?”
I nodded.
“Then you understand she was a part of a distinct minority here at the university. We have other Negro students, of course, but not many. Rosemary Joy was a nursing student. She enrolled in one of my advanced literature classes as an elective. I wondered why she enrolled in that class. It is intended for students majoring in English. She lacked the necessary prerequisites, so I called her into my office before our first session. What a pleasant surprise. I learned that she was well-read and knew the works of several contemporary American authors, Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner are two I recall. She had a burning desire to study other authors and their works. Her enthusiasm won me over, and I waived the requirements and allowed her to take the course. I didn’t regret it. She was intelligent, inquisitive, and always prepared for class discussions, admirable qualities often lacking in the average student.”
Fallon tented his fingers beneath his chin and stared at his desk.
“She didn’t have much money. She worked as a caretaker for an elderly widow, earned room and board and a little extra for incidentals.”
He raised his eyes to mine.
“During Rosemary Joy’s senior year, the widow died, and that meager income went away. She found part-time work in another home, but her last year as a student was a struggle. She was no quitter. She stayed with it and graduated with honors.”
Fallon smiled and seemed proud of his former student’s determination.
“So, you knew her and admired her,” I said. “That’s nice. I would think you’d find satisfaction in knowing that the police have her killer in custody.”
His eyes met mine.
“That’s just it,” he said. “I am not satisfied. I believe her killer is still out there somewhere. I believe the man in custody is innocent.”
“Why do you think that?” I said. “Who do you think is the killer?”
“I don’t know who the killer is. That’s why I called you. I want you to find her murderer.”
I felt like a drowning man treading water with no shore in sight.
“Tell me why you think the suspect is innocent,” I said. “Tell me what you know about him. And if you tell me you don’t know anything about him, I’m walking out of this office. You can find another gumshoe to toy with.”
I had vowed to myself to be patient, but my patience had limits. Fallon recognized that and nodded.
“I’ve never met or spoken to the suspect,” he said. “Rosemary Joy knew him. They were often together. His name is Henry Brown, by the way, although Rosemary Joy referred to him as Peanut. I don’t know why she used that name, but she called him that with affection. When she was a student, I’d see him from time to time, always at a distance. He’d hang back and wait for her to come to him. It was as if he felt the university belonged to Rosemary Joy, and he wasn’t a part of it, as if it were off-limits to him. It was her place to be, not his. She confirmed this when I asked about him. The university was her world, he’d told her, and he didn’t belong. Sometimes in the afternoon, Rosemary Joy and I left the building at the same time. I’d watch Henry Brown pick her up after class, but I never saw him come near the building. He stood next to his car. When she approached, he’d take her books and give her a hug or a peck on the cheek. Then he’d open her door for her, always the gentleman.”
“The papers mentioned that they knew each other,” I said. “There’s nothing unusual there. Murders are usually committed by someone known to the victim.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” he said, “but that’s just it. This wasn’t that kind of relationship. I haven’t made myself clear. The relationship between Mr. Brown and Miss Cleveland didn’t seem to be based on sexual intimacy. On the few occasions when I saw them together, Brown seemed to be protective, Rosemary Joy’s guardian, if you will. I sensed that if anyone ever tried to harm Rosemary Joy, they’d have to go through Henry Brown to do it. I can’t believe that he’d harm the woman he seemed to care for.”
I mulled that over.
“Based on what you observed, you may be correct,” I said. “Brown may have been her protector, as you say. Still, one never knows how people behave in private. Tempers flare. Passion takes hold. Bad things happen. Your observations may be genuine, but I doubt they’d carry much weight with the police. Did you see the pair at any time off campus?”
“No, no. I only visited with Rosemary Joy in the classroom and in my office. Like I said, I’ve never spoken to Henry Brown.”
He gazed at his desk and took a deep breath. The faint sounds of a marching band came through the window. Probably rehearsing for Saturday’s football game, I thought. Fallon met my eyes.  
“If you investigate this for me,” he said, “I will pay whatever fee you ask. If you remain convinced that Brown is guilty, I will accept your decision. I give you my word I will not pursue the matter further. In the name of justice, I have to know with absolute certainty that the man the police have arrested is Rosemary Joy Cleveland’s murderer.” 
We were interrupted by a knock at the door. Fallon rose and opened the door slightly. A glance at my watch told me it was twelve-forty. A voice came from the hallway, a male voice speaking in a deferential tone.
“I graded those quizzes, Dr. Fallon, and I put them in your box. I have a class at one o’clock. Will you need anything else today?”
“No, no, thank you, Arthur. That’s all for today. I’ll see you tomorrow. Bring your research to me along with your draft and notes. We’ll discuss your progress. Come to my office before ten o’clock in the morning.”
“Yes, sir. Will do, professor.”
Fallon closed the door and returned to his chair.
“Well?” he said.
“Frankly, professor, I think you’re wasting your money, and I suspect there’s more you’re not telling me. Also, I planned on taking some time off this week.”
He said nothing.
“I’ll spend a day or so asking questions,” I said. “See what I can find out. I’ll check around, but I’d advise you to be prepared for disappointment.”
I told Fallon I’d report back to him in a couple of days, but he insisted on giving me a week’s retainer and wrote the check without hesitation. I intended to take no more than a day or two to ask some questions and get some answers, even if they weren’t the answers that Fallon wanted to hear. There was no doubt in my mind that the murderer was downtown behind bars.
We concluded our business and shook hands. I left his office and took the stairs back to the first floor. Ethan Alexander’s door was ajar, so I knocked and stuck my head through the doorway. His office was empty. That was unfortunate. I’d hoped to ask him a few questions about his colleague, but I didn’t intend to cool my heels while Alexander delivered a history lecture. I placed a business card on his desk and left the building.
I got into my car and rolled away when I noticed Professor Fallon exiting the building. I slowed and turned to watch him. He had his arm wrapped around the copy of Untermeyer’s poetry anthology. He strolled toward the tan Hudson I’d noticed earlier, probably headed for lunch. I continued driving.
Misguided though he was, the professor seemed sincere. He believed Henry Brown was innocent, and I admired his conviction. He was determined to find the truth for himself. It shouldn’t take long to investigate the matter, I mused. The cops had the right man behind bars. I drove past the football field where the marching band rehearsed for Saturday’s big game and rolled off campus beneath a banner exhorting the Wichita Shockers to crush the Kansas Jayhawks. With luck, I would wrap up the case before the first pitch of the World Series on Wednesday, two days away. Little did I know how mistaken I was.

Copyright © 2020 Michael D. Graves
Emporia, Kansas

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