I outlined my plan to Alexandra as we once again took the streetcar south into town. West of the university was an affluent neighborhood, all stately Victorian homes and tree lined streets. I’d done my best to make my friend look like a respectable member of society, instead of a flapper fond of wearing men’s clothing and smoking in public. The dark blue sailor dress and matching cloche almost made her look like a lady, but nothing could hide the mischievous twinkle in her eye.
We disembarked at the end of the street. I had my pin from the Widow’s and Orphan’s Association, and after a quick search of Mother’s jewelry box, I pinned hers onto the collar of Alex’s dress.
There was no sign a massive party full of illegal booze had raged at the house on Fifth Street just two nights before. It was quiet and well kept, a brightly colored Victorian in shades of sage and violet, with a tower on one side and a white porch wrapping around and disappearing at the back. Nestled in the crook where the tower joined the rest of the house, a massive lilac bush dripped with fresh blooms, the fragrance wafting toward us on a gentle breeze and noticeable from three doors down. A carriage house had been converted into a garage; a spot of oil on the packed earth between two rows of tire tracks marked where an automobile usually stood.
Two doors down, an old woman sat on her porch, enjoying the breeze and sipping iced tea. The mail truck rounded the far corner, coming to a stop. The mailman leaped out and began delivering his letters. It was quiet. Idyllic. It made the newer neighborhood we lived in, full of tidy bungalows, seem posed and false; this was natural elegance, whereas our neighborhood of mostly middle class families who had only just found financial security during the manufacturing boom of the Great War looked like some old face stretcher, an old woman applying too much makeup in an effort to look younger or more stylish. It would never be able to compete with this regal neighborhood.
If the look of it made me pause, Alexandra was unaffected. She, of course, grew up in a house much like the one we were approaching, though the Grant home had more the look of a brick fortress, and was much larger.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder at me.
“Nothing. Just taking a look around.” I jogged to catch up, and we rang the bell.
A pinched-faced blonde maid answered. “I help you?” she asked in broken English.
“Yes. My name is Dru Faust. We’re with the Policemen’s Widows and Orphans Association. Might we speak to the lady of the house?”
She frowned, but eventually stepped back to let us into the foyer. “Wait here,” she ordered, then turned on her heel and marched down the hall.
As soon as her back was turned, Alexandra pointed to the open door on our left, which lead into a parlor. “Through there. It’s on the left. Behind the bookcase,” she whispered.
I darted into the cozy parlor, tip toeing across the rug until I reached another door. This one was partially open. Peering through, I slipped inside and closed it behind me.
I found myself in a formal library, one that probably belonged to a lawyer or someone in politics, if the gold-leaf titles I glimpsed were any indication.
“On the left, behind the bookcase…” I muttered. Immediately on my left was a heavy mahogany bookcase. It appeared too heavy to move, and didn’t stand out in the slightest from the rest of the well appointed office. There were always stories in the paper–or sometimes around the dinner table after Mother had been called in to help with a raid–of clever places people hid contraband. I felt all along the side of the bookcase, all the while listening for footsteps. The click of heels on wood made me pause, but it was only the lady of the house returning to talk to Alexandra. Her voice was muffled, but Alex’s carried just fine as she launched into her pitch. I tried to search a little faster.
I couldn’t find a catch anywhere along the edge of the bookcase. Peeling off my gloves, I tried again and found a nearly invisible seam halfway down the bookcase, but could not find any way of opening it.
I let out a rush of air, stepping back to get a better look at things. Maybe one of the ornaments or books was the trigger? I started shuffling things around as carefully as possible.
Footsteps in the hall. I’d lost track of the conversation.
“Let me just get the checkbook,” the hostess said, her voice just outside the door.
Panicking, I searched for a place to hide. The checkbook would, of course, be in the desk.
The doorknob turned. I reached for the door to the adjoining room, jerking it open.
In the narrow passage connecting the office to the parlor, I pressed myself against the wall, heart hammering, and watched through the narrow gap as a statuesque women, blonde hair marcelled to perfection, retrieved a slim leather book and fountain pen from the top drawer.
Two other things caught my eye from that vantage point. The first was that the wall between the parlor and the office would have to be at least twelve inches thick.
The second was the telephone wire, which trailed along the floor until it reached the bookcase, vanishing behind it.
Now why would a telephone installer put a connection somewhere it couldn’t be accessed? I wondered. All of the bookcases matched; they had clearly been in the room much longer than the wiring for either the electricity or the telephone, so why go to the trouble of moving such a heavy piece of furniture when there were two feet of empty wall just beneath the window?
“Thank you so much. I know the Foundation will put this money to good use,” Alexandra gushed. Their conversation was coming to an end, and I still hadn’t gotten a look at the liquor cabinet.
Slipping back into the office, I decided to try my hunch, examining the candlestick phone. It was very similar to the one in our front hall, but I noticed a switch on the base ours didn’t have. I pressed it. With a creak of hinges, the top half of the bookcase swung out, revealing a fully stocked liquor cabinet, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in almost three years. French and Italian wine shared space with imported Scotch whiskey. Not a connoisseur myself, I hardly recognized most of the labels.
Bottles lined three of the four hidden shelves, some of them stacked two or three rows deep in places. Knowing my time was running short, I hurried over, shifting them as quietly as I could.
There, on the second shelf, in the back row, I found it. The dark colored bottle with the yellow label, printed with a picture of a castle. Hudson Castle whiskey.
This bottle didn’t look like the one in Daddy’s lab, however. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the label wasn’t right. Uncapping the top, however, I took a quick whiff and confirmed the contents were definitely the same.
Knowing a half full bottle would be missed, I put it back, closing the cabinet and went back to the door. About to sneak back to the parlor and signal Alex, I froze. The same maid who let us in was dusting the mantle in the parlor. I was trapped!
I crept to the hallway door, but there was no way out. I would have to walk past the woman or the maid.
Quietly, I waved a hand to get Alex’s attention. She was just shaking hands with the blonde woman, thanking her for the donation. I tried to signal the predicament I was in, but couldn’t seem to. Distract her! I mouthed. As soon as they stopped talking, the woman would come back to the office to put away the checkbook, and I’d be caught.
“What kind of flowers are these?” Alex asked suddenly, pointing to a vase full of roses on the hall table.
The woman stared at her for a moment, as if not comprehending such a question. They were very obviously pink roses.
“I mean, did you grow them yourself?” Alexandra recovered quickly, barreling on: “I’m not much for horticulture myself, but I admire those who have a talent for it. I can’t seem to grow anything!”
The woman demurred, making some reply about a gardener as I ducked back into the office. I checked the parlor again, but the maid was still there, moving on to a shelf full of ornaments.
With no choice, I crossed to the window, throwing back the heavy curtains half covering the glass. Outside, a row of hedges came right up to the level of the window. I could see right down the street, to the front porch where the old woman sat on a swing, sipping her iced tea.
I just had to wear pink, didn’t I? I chastised myself as I threw up the sash. I couldn’t pick something like green, or brown, that would blend in with the foliage!
Throwing a leg over the sill, I ducked through the narrow opening, tumbling into the bushes with a startled squeak as I lost my balance and crashed into the evergreen branches. The window slammed shut behind me, catching the sash of my dress. Scraped and bruised I hopped up to free it just as the office door opened. I ducked, praying the woman wouldn’t see the length of pink satin peeking out.
After several moments I peered into the room again, relieved to find it empty. Prying open the window, I freed the sash, snatched my cloche from the branch it was stuck on, and jogged back to the sidewalk, careful to stay out of view of any windows.
At last, Alexandra came outside.
“What happened to you?” she asked, eyes huge as she took in my torn stockings and dress. There was no hope for the stockings, but I thought Rose might be able to repair the tear in my hem, if only I could come up with a story about how I’d gotten it.
“I fell out a window.”
“You–how on earth did you manage that?”
I sighed. “I lost my balance as I was climbing out the window.” My knee was bleeding sluggishly, and there was a deep scrape on my arm. I examined it, and tried to clean it with my handkerchief and a little saliva. It wasn’t enough to tackle the sap stuck to my skin, though.
Alexandra hid a grin, linking her arm through mine and dragging me away. “Let’s get out of here before the neighbor’s decide you’re a suspicious character,” she said, nodding to the old woman on the porch swing, who had set aside her iced tea and was watching us intently.
Wincing, I walked a little faster. “Next time, maybe we can come up with a better plan.”