For those who came in late….

The time is the 1930s. The city of St. Nicholas, Maryland is being plagued by a series of lethal tenement fires; arson is suspected, but no arrests have been made. Meanwhile, business has been slow for private investigator Doug Davis, giving him a lot of free time on his hands. One afternoon while bending a bar rail at a local tavern, Davis is attacked by a drunk whose clothes smell like gasoline. Suspecting an involvement with the tenement fires, Davis searches the man’s pockets after the fight and discovers an address for a building in the warehouse district of town. [Part One]

Davis is part of an informal vigilante group known as The Vindicators; other members include wealthy socialite Jedediah Singletary (a.k.a. The Twilight Phantom) and the mysterious strongman known only as Prometheus. After contacting his fellow Vindicators, Davis leads them on a nocturnal investigation of the warehouse at the address he’d discovered. The Vindicators find a secret entrance to what they suspect was once a subterranean bootlegger hideout. Exploring the catacombs, the men encounter a giant bat as well as a handful of thugs. The Twilight Phantom is wounded in the fight, causing The Vindicators to cut short their expedition. [Part Two]

Davis telephones Singletary the following day, rousing the latter from a dream of his past life in Tibet, a dream in which Singletary’s dead lover Wei delivers a cryptic warning. Davis asks the socialite to check the county records office for details on the tenement properties which were burned in the suspected arson attacks… [Part Three]

Jed Singletary did his best to affect a jaunty demeanor, twirling his walking stick as he mounted the courthouse steps. His side smarted like the dickens from the slashing knife wound he’d suffered in the catacombs and he wished he were still home in bed, on the mend. But Davis had said this trip was necessary, and there was some apparent bad blood between the P.I. and a woman named Horvath who ran the records office, preventing Davis from making the trek himself.

Bad blood between Davis and someone in a position of authority, Jed mused somewhat mean spiritedly. Imagine that.

After checking the directory posted in the courthouse’s foyer, Jed had no problem finding the proper door. The painted words on the door’s smoked glass window panel confirmed that this was indeed the office where the county’s records were stored.

The office itself was gloomy in extremis; so many shelves of boxes were crammed into the room that the light from the windows was almost entirely blocked, and the electric bulbs ensconced within yellow glass ceiling fixtures provided poor lighting. A wooden counter blocked access into the room proper; behind the counter stood two cluttered desks. Jed didn’t see anyone in the room, but he did spy a bell sitting on the counter; he gave the bell a smart little jab with the head of his walking stick.

The sound brought a figure from a back room. Young, brunette, and quite pretty, the woman wore a simple flower print dress which swished about her knees as she walked briskly to the counter.

“May I help you?”

“Miss Horvath, I presume?”

The young lady laughed merrily, a musical sound. “No, no, sir. Miss Horvath is sick today. I’m her assistant, Miss Hooke. How might I help you?”

“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Hooke, and a bit of a relief. From the way a friend described Miss Horvath, I couldn’t possibly associate her rumored ogrish disposition with a creature as lovely as yourself.”

Miss Hooke raised a hand to her mouth and chuckled. “I can’t believe you’ve come here just to flatter me, Mr….Mr….?”

“Singletary. Jed Singletary.” He reached out a hand and she grasped it lightly. “I’m here because I would like to check the ownership of a few properties in which I’m interested. Flattering such a charming young lady as yourself is just a side benefit of my visit.”

Jed produced a list of addresses for the young clerk to read. “Please give me a few minutes to locate copies of the deeds,” she said. “Most of these addresses seem to be fairly close together, so this shouldn’t take too long.”

After bustling around various file cabinets and boxes for about ten minutes, Miss Hooke returned with an armload of folders and papers. Pushing her way through a low wooden gate to Jed’s side of the counter, the girl deposited the stack on the countertop; as she did so, her elbow bumped Jed’s side, directly on the still-throbbing knife wound. Singletary winced audibly.

“Oh, I’m awfully sorry!” the clerk cried.

Jed smiled wanly at her. “No, no, it’s quite all right. It’s not your fault at all. I strained a muscle playing tennis and it’s still a bit sore.”

The girl took a half-step back and studied Jed’s face intently. Her face brightened as she cried, “Now I know where I’ve seen you before! You’re in the newspapers all the time! They’re forever printing photos of you with heiresses and debutantes and such in the Society pages.”

“That’s right,” Jed nodded. “You’re absolutely right.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t recognize your name at first,” Miss Hooke apologized.

Jed laughed. “Miss Hooke, I’m sure you have many, many things more important to remember than a name you saw a few times in the newspapers, especially as you work in a very detailed and exacting job.”

Miss Hooke smiled a bit as she began to open folders and direct Jed’s attention to their contents. Jed found himself oddly pleased by her smile.

She is quite lovely, he thought, and she seems a lot more genuine and sincere than those “heiresses and debutantes” with whom I usually spend my time.

Jed pushed those thoughts aside as he got down to business. He started writing down information from the deeds, and noticed a curious pattern beginning to emerge. Most of the burned properties belonged to the same owner. And that wasn’t all…

After an hour or so, Singletary had all the information he (or, rather, Davis) needed. He folded his handwritten notes and placed them in his inside coat pocket.

“Thank you very much, Miss Hooke; you’ve been incredibly helpful.”

The girl smiled again, a bit more shyly this time. “Before you go, Mr. Singletary, may I ask you something? Miss Horvath would skin me alive for this…”

“But, fortunately, she’s not here,” Jed said with a smile. “How could I possibly refuse such a pretty young lady? What can I answer for you?”

“Um…” Miss Hooke seemed positively embarrassed now, drawing a line on the floor with the toe of one shoe. “I read in the papers about those fancy places you take those rich girls. What are they like?”

“The girls?”

“No!” the young clerk laughed. “Those places – the clubs and restaurants.”

“What are they like?” Jed looked at her for a long moment and smiled. “How’d you like to find out?”

Miss Hooke looked up at Singletary, dumbfounded. “Are…are you…?”

“Asking you out for a night on the town? Why, yes, I suppose I am at that!”

“Oh, no, no, no, no! That’s not what I was implying! I mean, I could lose my job! Miss Horvath –”

“Isn’t here and doesn’t have to know,” Jed interrupted. “What do you say?”

Miss Hooke looked down at the floor, smoothing the folds in her simple print dress. “Mr. Singletary, I’m not like those rich girls…”

“I know! That’s what I like about you!” Jed laughed.

“No,” the girl said sadly. “What I mean is…well…I work here in this office. I don’t have really fancy dress up clothes…”

Jed smiled and raised her chin with the edge of his forefinger. “Miss Hooke –”

“Barbara. My friends call me Barb.”

“All right, Barb. Call me Jed. Look, I’d offer to buy you some fancy clothes, but that would seem pretty forward I should think. But I really would like to get to know you better.

“You know what those fancy clubs and restaurants are like?” he continued. “They’re boring, and I don’t like most of them, truth be known. But there’s a place I would like to take you. It’s a little restaurant my friend Doug introduced me to, with the best fried chicken and apple pie I’ve ever had anywhere. So what do you say to this? We’ll have dinner there, get to know each other, maybe go see a movie after we eat. And then if you still want to go to one of those fancy places another time, I’ll fix you up with something to wear – provided neither of us feels too oddly about it, just a gift, no “strings” attached. How about it?”

Barb smiled, seeming to Jed to brightly illuminate the gloomy office. “I’d love to.”

“One condition,” Jed grinned. “You have to wear that same dress that you’re wearing right now – those little blue flowers match your eyes perfectly.”

Barb blushed, smiled, and nodded. Jed handed her his card. “You phone me and tell me when you’d like to go, and no matter what else I might have planned, I will drop it to spend the evening with you.” He reached to the side and opened the office door. “Thank you for your help, Barb. It was a joy to meet you.”

“And you, Mr. Singl– uh, Jed. Thank you for stopping in.”

Jed nodded to her and closed the office door behind him as he stepped into the hall. He lingered for a moment as he switched his walking stick to his other hand. A sound caught his ear and he smiled.

It was the sound of a young woman’s voice singing softly on the other side of the door.

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.