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The Hardcastle Case

Chapter Text

My sleep mask with built in headphones rested on my forehead as I pulled up a playlist on my phone. Anne sat next to me absorbed in her journal writing. I leaned over and kissed her goodnight before completely cutting myself off to the outside world.

I settled under the duvet, clicked the play button, and put the sleep mask over my eyes. A few moments of that incredible dream still held a place in my memory. Particularly how gorgeous Anne looked in a 1940s wardrobe.

The strings of one song disappeared and were replaced with one of my favorites. Ella Fitzgerald sweetly sang I’m Old Fashioned. A sigh escaped as I pulled the duvet up to my shoulders. Making out with 1940s Anne was wonderful to playback in my head. Her gorgeous brunette hair falling in luxurious curls on the shoulders of a button up blouse tucked neatly into slacks. She was just like Katharine Hepburn.

And then….

I’m pleased to announce that the time I spent healing in Ms. Lister’s bed wasn’t a one-off night of romance. After a couple evenings spent together, we were officially going steady. Now several weeks into the relationship, we were as happy as blissful teenagers. She held me tight as we danced to Ella singing about romantic ways of yesteryear. Just like the song suggested, the sound of rain tapping on my window was pretty swell. Anne raised our hands in the air so she could turn me around in a twirl.

As the record player needle moved to the next song, Anne kissed the top of my head. Begrudgingly, I pulled away from her but kept her hands in mine.

“Would you care for a drink? I have a lunch meeting with my Aunt tomorrow and I think I need some liquid courage.”

“Of course. But let me get it for you.”

Anne was about to drop her hold on me when I pulled her in for a slow kiss. “You’re too good for me, you know that?”

“Please. If anything, it’s the other way around,” Anne went to the kitchen where I kept the liquor.

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that remark, but I decided to drop it.

Anne quickly returned, holding out a tumbler half filled with the golden bracer I requested. She held another close to her chest.

We sat on my two-seater. I put my feet up on the arm of the couch and leaned into my girl’s arms.

“So, what’s the old battle axe going to grill you about tomorrow?” Anne enquired before taking a swig.

“All she mentioned on the telephone was that she saw your name in the newspaper and she is sure I have something to do with it.”

“Mmm. Well, don’t let her scold you out of a good thing, alright?” Anne placed her hand on my stomach. It was comforting like a dog resting her head.

“Of course not.” My brow furrowed and I threw back a slug of scotch.

****

I took a quick once over in the mirror at the Palm Ballroom’s lavatory. I picked at the edges of my sensible blue dress, straightening it as best I could. Ready or not, it was time for inspection.

The dining room was full of older society ladies fussing over tea and sharing whatever gossip they could get their hands on. I easily spotted my Aunt inspecting the lunch menu like it was a doctor’s vital notes.

“Good afternoon, Aunt Anne” I took a seat at the table. Hugs really weren’t her style.

My Aunt slowly looked up. “There you are. I was wondering what was taking you so long.”

“So, have you decided on lunch?”

“The veal as usual. I don’t know why I bother looking at this, always the same offering,” she waved her hand in disgust like the menu was a squirming insect.

I rolled my eyes as the waiter arrived. My Aunt’s constant level of annoyance evident, he quickly took our order and left.

“Now, I heard that Miss Anne Lister required assistance in retrieving a stolen object. All leads point to you, Ann, in providing that assistance. I would like to hear the truth from you.”

I closed my eyes for a second, bracing myself for the whirlwind of intense seniority. “Yes, Aunt. Miss Lister hired me for this situation.”
“I told you to stop playing detective. It’s dangerous and certainly not suitable for a woman. You have no need to work.”

“I am not playing,” I hissed. Like a baker punching down dough, I stamped down the urge to scream at her. “It gives me purpose. I love to help people.”

“You can help people by volunteering at the welfare charity.”

“Aunt, you know I –“

“And only volunteering at the welfare charity,” she snapped, cutting me off.
We sat in silence for a few minutes. My Aunt scanned the room for unsuspecting prey to capture and shine an unnecessary light on.

Our food arrived during the silent treatment. I thanked the waiter as he placed the fried scallops and coleslaw in front me.

Aunt Ann unfortunately found someone in the crowd to pick on. She told me some story about Mrs. McKinley’s dog digging holes in her neighbor’s garden.

I feigned interest when a welcome distraction stood at my Aunt’s side looking smart in a well-tailored jacket and pleated skirt.

“Detective Walker, my dear, what a pleasant surprise,” Mrs. Rawson beamed. “I wanted to congratulate you on closing your recent case. My friend, Miss Lister, gave me all the details.”

I smiled, relieved to have an ally.

Mrs. Rawson looked down at Aunt Anne as if she had just noticed her. “I trust you two are celebrating the victory. I don’t want to take up your time. Do keep up the good work, Ann. We need women like you to take on these important investigations. Don’t you agree, Mrs. Walker?”

My Aunt fumed but said nothing.

“Good day, Ladies,” Mrs. Rawson smiled, then left the restaurant.

There was nothing but silence as Aunt Ann’s face grew as red as a cardinal’s plumage.

****

I just finished the book I was reading when a knock came at the door. I beckoned the visitor to enter. A couple, simply dressed, introduced themselves as William and Alice Hardcastle. William, who looked like he hadn’t slept a wink in nights, immediately went into their story.

“Please, sit,” I gently interrupted him and gestured toward the chairs.

Alice looked at William with a soft smile and placed her hand on his arm. I could tell these poor souls had it rough and begged them to start again once they were seated.

“Our boy, Henry, was struck by a passing vehicle. The driver sped away, didn’t even pause. Henry….Henry lost his leg,” William choked out the last words and looked down.

William’s wife continued the account, her hand rubbing her husband’s back. “The police said they’ve done all they could to catch the driver. But it doesn’t seem like they did much in the first place.”

I frowned. “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, you have come to the right place. I will do everything in my power to track down the scoundrel.”

“Thank you, Detective,” Mrs. Hardcastle looked earnestly into my eyes.

“Can you give me any details that might be helpful to track down this person?”

“We were walking along 45th Street. Henry was getting hungry and spotted Sowden’s Café. He ran ahead of us to the crosswalk. He checked for cars then started walking. That’s when this big black car came racing down the street and hit him,” Alice’s voice wavered but she mustered through the information.

“Did you catch sight of the driver at all?”

“A man, maybe in his fifties,” William explained.

I lifted my head from my notes and set my pencil down. I always thought it was important to give folks who were down and out my sincerest attention. I looked up and met their eyes in turn. “That’s a good start. I will get on this right away, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle.”

The couple smiled and I escorted them out of the office, wishing them a good afternoon.

I made my way over to 45th street. The smell of fried food carried on a breeze across the street from Sowden’s Café. The allure for Henry was obvious. And it worked on me.

I walked into the small diner. It was well kept, each laminate table shined with cleanliness. I took a seat at the counter. Peggy Lee’s On the Sunny Side of the Street played on the jukebox. I perused the menu on the wall.

“Good evening, Miss. Can I take your order?”

A handsome young man with a pad and pencil at the ready smiled at me behind the counter.

“What’s the specialty?”

“Well, my family has a pig farm in the country. We take great pride in raising them. I would suggest the BLT or the fried ham sandwich.” The man smiled. He was boastful but didn’t lay it on thick.

I thought for a second and decided to go easy on my system. “I’ll have the BLT, please.”

“Strawberry shake?” He raised an eyebrow.

“How’d you guess?”

“Plenty of time spent taking folks’ orders.”

I laughed into a smile and held out my hand, “Ann Walker.”

“Thomas Sowden, but you can call me Tom,” he shook it with a firm grip. “I’ll be right back with that order.”

The Andrews Sisters sang out Rumors are Flying when a boy and a girl took two seats away from me. They held hands on the countertop and made puppy eyes at each other. I moved my gaze down and picked at the paper napkin in front of me. I could never canoodle with my Anne like that in this cafe.

My sandwich and a side of fruit was placed in front me.

“What’s got you down, Ms. Walker?” Tom had a sincere look of concern on his face as he placed the shake on the counter.

“Oh, it’s nothing to trouble yourself about, Tom,” I waved my hand in the air, brushing away my emotions. “But if you’re not busy, I have a question for you.”

Tom did a once over of the seating area. “No, I’m free at the moment. What’s up?”

“Did you see the car accident that happened a couple weeks ago?”

“Yeah, the little boy crossing the street. I was standing over there,” Tom pointed to the far end of the counter closest to the window. “That poor kid.”

“Do you remember any specifics about the car?”

“It was a black 1939 Cadillac convertible,” Tom suddenly looked bashful. “I’m saving up for a car myself. I know I could never afford something like that, but a man can dream.”

I nodded, making a mental note of the make of the vehicle.

“Anything else I can do for you?”

We both heard the door open and two loud teenagers rushed in.

“No. Thank you for your help, Tom.”

I took a bite of the sandwich and practically rolled my eyes backward. The bacon was peppered perfectly, the tomato was juicy, and the lettuce was crisp. Not to mention the mayonnaise was obviously homemade. The shake was delicious as well with real strawberry. They sure put a lot of love in their cooking.

When my plate was vacant except for a few crumbly inhabitants, Tom returned. I took the last sip of my shake and set the glass down. Tom placed the bill in front of me.

“This was the best BLT I’ve ever tasted. And believe me, kid, I’ve had a lot of sandwiches in my day.” I placed several dollars on the counter. “Here you are, Tom. Please keep the change for your dream car fund.”

Tom beamed, “Thank you!”

As I rose, Tom leaned over the counter and whispered. “I know you’ll catch that driver, Detective.”

“Have you thought about going into the business yourself?” I winked. “I’ll see you around, Tom. Thanks again!”

I went home to my usual evening routine of reading before my favorite radio shows aired. I inspected my stack of books yet to be read and pulled out one on Impressionist paintings. As soon as I sat down in my leather chair, the telephone rang.

I rolled my eyes at the interruption as I walked over to the desk and picked up the receiver. I tried my best to mask my disappointment with a chipper greeting.

“Good evening, Ann! I apologize, I know it’s your rest time. May I speak with you for a minute?” Anne’s deeply sweet tone was a welcome sound to my ears. She was obviously trying to be formal since she was calling from her family home.

“Of course, what is it?”

“Well, my family is going to have a get together with some close friends next Saturday. It won’t be grand like the Spring party, just a small gathering. I was wondering if you would like to join us?”

I bit my lower lip with nervous excitement. It would be nice to meet the family, even though I had to keep my lips sealed on a certain topic.

“I’d love to!”

“Excellent!”

There was a pause. I could hear a muffled voice in the background.

“Now, Ann, I hope I’m not keeping you, but I have another vitally important question for you.”

“That’s fine.”

“How was last week’s episode of that new series you were so excited about? Suspense, right?”

“Anne! Really, it’s my turn!” Anne’s sister, Marian, could easily be heard in the background.

I stifled a laugh. “Yes, that’s the one. It was an adaptation of Wet Saturday by John Collier. Have you read it?”

“No! Do you have a copy you can loan to me?”

“Enough, Anne! You can talk about this later!” Marian’s voice raised to a higher pitch.

I couldn’t help but cackle louder.

“Hmm, well, I guess I must give my dear sister a chance with the telephone. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow, Ann. Have a good evening.”

“Bye, baby,” I whispered, hoping Marian couldn’t hear me.

The phone clicked. I squeezed my eyes shut and sent Anne silent good night kisses in my thoughts.

I went back to my old reliable seat and turned to the first chapter of my book. A wide smile that was solely the result of my girl’s antics spread across my face.