Monday, July 17, 1922
“Why do I let you talk me into these things?” George asked, cutting the engine on his Ford. The car coasted slowly to a stop on the tree lined road.
The three days since our last adventure in the woods allowed the ground to dry out. Mud puddles no longer created hazards on the roadway, and someone had removed the downed limbs.
“Because you’re a gentleman who won’t let a lady do dangerous things alone.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant. I was trying to talk you out of this.”
I opened the door and leaped lightly onto the gravel. “Are you coming or not?”
I paused at the edge of the trees, listening closely. I could just see the barn through the branches.
This time I’d come prepared, choosing sturdy shoes, trousers, and a work shirt. In my bag, I carried the folding camera Daddy used to record his experiments.
As noiselessly as possible, we approached the structure. At first, it looked just as it had on our last visit–ramshackle, like another good strong wind would bring it tumbling down.
“I still don’t understand why you think this place is connected to what happened to Archie.”
“It’s just a hunch.”
“You know there are lots of people with stills around here, right? And more bringing booze in from Canada. They might be completely unconnected.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence.”
George heaved a massive sigh, which I ignored. We were just at the edge of the clearing around the barn. Now that I took a chance to study it, I could see the incongruities: the thick underbrush stopping suddenly about ten feet from the barn. The fresh tire tracks on the overgrown drive.
It all contrasted sharply with the signs of neglect. Storm debris still littered the ground, and the fallen branch on the half-collapsed roof hadn’t been removed.
“George, wait!” I grabbed the back of his shirt just in time. There, stretched along the ground and nearly hidden by tall grass, was a thin wire. It stretched all the way around the edge of the clearing. I followed the line with my eyes to a tree branch where a bundle of empty cans dangled.
That explains the awful noise during the storm! I thought.
“Is that some kind of trap?” George whispered, leaning in close.
A fearful chill ran down my spine. “An alarm. Yes, I think it is. And it’s meant for us.”
“Dru, we have to get out of here. What do you think is going to happen if we set one of those off?”
“The men we ran into last week will try to use us for target practice again.”
“Exactly. Now come on–“
George reached for my arm, but I was already stepping over the tripwire.
“Shh!” I waved him off, tiptoeing over the thick grass toward the barn. Something was caught on the tall weeds. I wanted to see what it was.
Not so much as a leaf stirred as I closed the distance. Though there was no immediate threat of danger, my heart hammered even faster, harder even than when I hid in Mr. White’s office.
The thing which caught my eye was a scrap of paper. I plucked it free, smoothing it out for a better look. The paper was pale yellow, with dark blue ink. Though it was torn and water damaged, I recognized it immediately as the bottom half of a Hudson Castle Whiskey label.
As if the label would point me in the right direction, I looked around quickly, half expecting the still to magically appear. Nothing changed, however. In the distance, I could just make out the sound of the river.
The river! Of course! I stashed the paper in my pocket and peered around the corner of the barn. The only person in sight was George, half hidden by the bushes. He waved frantically for me to come back, but I shook my head, pointing toward the water.
Without waiting for George to follow, I jogged down to the water’s edge. More tracks cut into the soft earth. Footprints, and the wheels of a cart. There wasn’t a dock, just a soft, muddy bank with a relatively steep drop into the water, but there were many overhanging branches, and a small pool sheltered by a downed tree and several boulders–the perfect place for a small craft to pull up and unload its cargo to a waiting crew.
I bent down for a closer look at the tracks. I could discern at least two, maybe three, different sizes of boots overlapping each other and criss-crossed by the cart wheels. Then, under one of the bushes, the glitter of broken glass caught my eye. Pulling one of the shards free, I held the bottom of an oblong bottle. Part of a yellow label was still attached.
“Dru! We need to go.” George finally caught up. He didn’t dare speak above a whisper as he reached for my arm, hauling me back toward the car. I held a finger to my lips to silence him, and raised the bit of glass so he could see, pointing to the tracks leading from the water’s edge.
George closed his eyes. I wasn’t sure if he was in awe at my deductive skills, or just exasperated. Judging from the way he grabbed my upper arm and physically dragged me away from the water and back in the direction of the road, I had to assume it was the latter.
I had enough, I thought, so I followed him willingly back to the edge of the clearing, carefully avoiding more tripwires along the way. We were just crossing into the woods when the rumble of an engine caught my attention.
“Wait, just a minute.” Crouching behind a tree, I watched as a blue car rumbled down the overgrown lane. Instead of parking in front of the barn, the driver jumped out, looked around, and pulled open one of the rusted barn doors, hiding the car inside.
“Dru, we should go while he’s inside,” George whispered, once again tugging on my arm.
“Wait. I want to see when he comes out, and if he brings anything with him.”
“We already know there’s nothing in the barn.”
“Then what is he doing there in the first place?”
George pressed his lips into a thin line, but he didn’t have an answer.
We waited for what felt like an eternity. My watch said it was only about ten minutes, though, before the door opened once again. A few moments later, the engine started and the blue car rumbled out, pausing just long enough for the driver to close the door again before speeding off down the lane. Remembering my camera. I quickly pulled it out and snapped several pictures of the car and driver. In the back seat, several boxes or crates were stacked.
“Satisfied?” George asked. He hadn’t let go of my arm since the car pulled up.
“Yes. Let’s go home.”
We waited for the sound of the engine to fade into the distance before leaving our hiding place and hurrying back to George’s Model T.
Still wary after our last trip, I kept an eye out while he turned the crank. For once, the old car didn’t seem to object too much and we were off and running in a jiffy.
“Now what?” George asked after we’d driven in silence for several minutes. I pulled the piece of glass from my handbag, and the crumpled label. Though both were weathered and dirty, I thought the papers were a match. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the contents of the broken bottle to test against our other samples.
Replacing the items in my bag, I stashed set it aside. “Why don’t we go say hello to Archie? I’m sure he could use a friendly face or two.”
The patient was sitting up in bed when we arrived, looking cheerful and much more lively than we’d left him the day before. Alexandra, unsurprisingly, was already there and we caught them in the middle of a game of cards.
“You’re just in time. I was about to clean her out,” Archie grinned, scooping up a handful of peppermint candies and coins scattered on the coverlet.
Alexandra made a face, but was obviously not put out by the loss, if it meant her brother was feeling better. “I’ve been letting you win. As soon as you get home though, I’ll beat the pants off you!”
He only laughed. “I’d like to see you try!”
Archie dealt George and I into the next hand, and we passed a cheerful afternoon playing poker and rummy. Unsurprisingly, the invalid was the clear winner, the mound of spoils on his night stand soon growing to include three dollars in pennies, nickels, and dimes, several foil-wrapped candies of various flavors, two hairpins and a button.
“So where have you two been?” Archie asked, dealing out the cards for our next hand of rummy.
“Oh, nowhere,” George replied, too quickly.
If he was trying to avoid detection, he’d gone about it in exactly the wrong way. Archie’s eyes lit with mischief. “Oh, come on. I’ve been cooped up here for days! What’s been going on? What have I missed?”
“George has just been very kind in escorting me while I investigate the people responsible for your hospital stay,” I said, deftly laying out a four card run of diamonds and discarding.
“Oh, don’t encourage her!” George groaned.
I tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. “He was very gallant. But there weren’t any bootleggers around to worry about.”
“No. Not until they drove up and nearly found us in their backyard!” he shot back.
“Oh, you have to tell us everything!” Alexandra abandoned her cards completely in pursuit of the story.
In order to tell them about our search of the barn, I had to tell them about the day we discovered it in the first place. Though I kept my voice down and tried not to draw any attention from the nursing staff as they puttered around the ward tending to the other patients, Alex let out a gasp when I got to the part about Elizabeth, George, and I being used as targets. The nurse two beds away looked up, shooting us a glare as she tucked the sheet around the empty mattress with military precision.
“Are you two crazy? You could have been killed!” Archie hissed when I was finished. But he looked thrilled.
“That’s what I’ve been telling her!”
“George, you worry too much.” I picked up the two of clubs he’d just discarded, adding it to the pair of twos already in my hand. Fanning them out on the bed, I discarded my last card. “You’re starting to sound like Elizabeth.”
As we tallied up points, Archie demanded more details on our findings. He’d already heard about the previous day’s adventure from his sister, but was eager to find out more.
When George, Alexandra and I were done with the tale, Archie shook his head. We were done playing, but he still shuffled the cards thoughtfully, an old habit. “Wow. If you keep this up, Dru, the police will have to turn the case over to you completely. Maybe Chief French will deputize you.”
“Don’t tease,” I said, nudging him gently.
“No, really. I think the cops were more interested in busting up the party than in catching the bootleggers who made me sick.”
My brow furrowed. “The cops showed up at the party?”
“Yeah. That’s why Officer O’Neil was here the other day. Some neighbor called the pigs on us. I only just got to my car in time. I thought for sure they were going to arrest me, but I managed to get away.”
“So then O’Neil was here to question you about the party, not the liquor?”
Archie nodded. “He said he thought I’d been punished enough, so he wouldn’t take me in. I think he thought I was just a kid.” He grinned wickedly. Where his sister had a sleek, mature look that could make her seem years older, Archie still had a baby face and was frequently mistaken for someone in high school, even though he would be starting his second year of college in the fall.
“You haven’t heard of anyone else from the party getting sick, have you?”
“That officer said two other people were taken to the hospital, but I don’t know who. To be honest, I didn’t know many people there. I heard about the party from a friend of a friend; we were sort of crashing when we showed up.”
“What about Mr. White? Did the officer say anything about him?”
“Was he arrested?” Howard White was probably the one who bought the liquor in the first place. He would know where it came from, or at least he would know someone who would.
“He didn’t say.”
I pondered that for several moments. Mrs. White certainly hadn’t acted as if her husband had just been hauled off by the police. In fact, I suspected she would have been arrested as well, if that were the case. “And he didn’t say anything about taking you in? Not even for formal questioning?”
Archie shook his head. “No. He said he was just here as a favor to your ma. Why? Are thinking of telling him to arrest me?”
“What are you thinking, Dru?” Alexandra asked. Her eyes bounced from her brother to me and back like she was watching a tennis match.
“Just that something doesn’t add up. George, are you going straight home after this?”
A little caught off guard at suddenly being addressed, George nodded.
“Would you mind dropping me off at the police station on the way?