Cast of Wonders 428: The Curious Case of Miss Clementine Nimowitz – Part 4
The Curious Case of Miss Clementine Nimowitz (and her Exceedingly Tiny Dog)
by Alex Acks
Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4
“…and I’ve written it all down here,” Simms said, offering a tattered notebook to the Captain. “After a while, all the speculation got so wild I couldn’t keep track of it all. There wasn’t a single name that showed up on the list more than twice, I checked.”
Simms waggled the notebook at her, trying to draw attention away from her gently steaming coffee cup. They’d met up in one of the many coffee shops they routinely used for that purpose. Captain Ramos had entered with an exhausted, panting Chippy tucked under her arm like a purse and set him in her lap as soon as she’d sat. The little dog had proceeded to fall into boneless sleep, the Captain’s hand idly tracing figures on his pale little forehead. It was all very odd, disquieting almost. In Simms’s years of knowing her, Captain Ramos had never showed any sort of interest in animals, let alone affection—and hadn’t she been all set to shoot the poor thing before?
Though far more disturbing was the fact that she didn’t seem to be listening to him, in a real sense, rather than that studied nonchalance with which she normally took reports, indicating her mind was working furiously.
“I heard you the first time, Simms,” she said, tone rather grouchy. She snatched the notebook from his hand and thumped it down next to her cup, almost causing the coffee to slosh out. She did not, however, open it.
“Really? What was I telling you?”
She glared at him, the sort of liver-curdling look to which he’d by necessity become immune early on in their association. “Fine. Repeat yourself.”
“It’s all the notes. Look over them when you’re in a better mood. The summation is, I don’t think anyone’s got a bleeding clue who might have wanted to off Miss Nimowitz’s maid Elizabeth, let alone why. She was apparently one of those clean-living, universally well-liked sorts.”
“Annoying,” the Captain commented. “No hints of a dark secret life?”
“She stole a kiss from the butler across the street in broad daylight once.”
“That sounds promising.”
“She was also married to him at the time.”
“Oh. What of her husband, then?”
“He ended up serving during the last expedition when we were still allies with the Duchy of Missoula, and that was the end of him.”
Captain Ramos slumped slightly in her seat. “Right. No longer interesting. Heartily boring, really.”
Simms directed a reproachful look toward her, but he already knew it would do no good. Captain Ramos seemed to only have two categories for classification when it came to the world—interesting and boring. In his opinion, for that particular scheme boring was very much preferable. “Did find out one interesting bit that kept coming up, though.”
“Why did you wait this long to tell me?”
He had, and she hadn’t been paying him any mind. Simms considered, and after a moment decided that was not an argument worth having right now. “Cousin Morris and the maid didn’t get along at all well.”
She sat up a bit straighter, almost ejecting Chippy from her lap. The dog let out a sleepy yelp of protest, and she settled him back down by resting her hand over him. “Now that is interesting. In what way?”
“It seems that on more than one occasion, Elizabeth wouldn’t let him in to see Miss Nimowitz, saying her mistress was feeling poorly.”
“And this, after we have been told time and again what a healthy, wealthy horse this lady was. Though on the other hand, she was poisoned…”
“Oh, but it gets better.”
“Do tell.” Captain Ramos rested her chin in her hand, for a moment looking disturbingly coquettish in the rich dress she currently wore. Except for her piercing gaze, which Simms was fairly certain would have sent any suitor in his right mind screaming from the room after he was made to feel like a beetle about to be dissected.
He continued on, “There was an occasion that was, and I quote, ‘a few weeks ago’ when Morris, his wife, and a—and again I quote—‘man who looked like someone had stuffed a rat in a suit and put spectacles on ’im,’ cut through Elizabeth’s protests and bulled their way in to see Miss Nimowitz anyway.” A few weeks ago—while the timing wasn’t exact, the will naming Morris as the sole benefactor had been two and a half weeks old.
“Oh, now that is interesting.”
“Thought you’d like it.” Simms grinned.
“Anyone have a word to say about Deliah?”
“Not nearly so much. Most didn’t mention her at all; anyone who did just thought she looked well enough and was unfailingly polite to the working class folks. Which you have to admit, are the bits that are going to stick in anyone’s head.” Simms shrugged. “So I’m still betting on Morris. You find out anything good?”
“Perhaps.” Captain Ramos tapped her lips with one finger. Why did she look so pensive? “I ran across Deliah while I was in her neighborhood. She recognized Chippy.”
Simms felt as if his eyebrows were attempting to climb from his forehead and invade his hair. “You still have him though.”
“I know. That’s the curious part. Well that and what she had to say.” Captain Ramos sketched out the conversation, though Simms couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she hadn’t told him the whole of it.
Well, she often didn’t. It was one of her more annoying habits, and he’d learned better than to argue. “So you think it’s her, then?”
“I don’t know what I think, yet. I won’t be rushed to a conclusion. We’re still in the weeds.” She pursed her lips. “And Deliah seems rather too smart to off someone who intended to leave her inheritance to someone else.”
“If she knew.”
“If she knew,” Captain Ramos agreed.
Simms glanced out the coffee shop window at the sun, which was about to slip past the peaks of the distant mountains, barely visible through the city haze. “We’re not going home tonight, are we?”
“No, I think not. Chippy has still not produced our payoff.” Captain Ramos tapped her lips again. “And Deliah claimed she was going over to Miss Nimowitz’s house shortly. So we can presume the body will be discovered, and our little act of theft. That ought to stir up something interesting from the depths of the pot.”
While Simms had hoped to return to the mountains tonight and get there in time to put his daughter to bed, even he had to admit this drama had gotten a bit arresting. He swallowed down his complaints, ready to summon them back up if she even hinted they might have to sleep in the damned engine or worse, some flea-bitten hostel. “Hotel?”
“Hotel. The Smythes are still in town, after all.” She flashed him a grin. “Who knows, we may get to be part of the interesting thing that happens.”
Marta sent Simms ahead to the hotel with the luggage, a temporarily exhausted Chippy tucked limply under his arm like a child’s toy and visually lost against the expanse of his jacket. After checking in, he was to take the trolley to the station where the maid, Elizabeth, had her near fatal accident—or non-accident—and see if anyone there had been around during that time. It was a long shot, but there were those who used the trolley every day for work or hung about the platform regularly to beg, so there might be a witness around to be had.
For her part, she was more curious just what might be happening at Clementine Nimowitz’s house. She stopped to quickly change her clothes and add a bit of makeup to make her appearance something far more innocuous—day laborer was always a safe bet; no one ever looked at them—and returned to the scene of the crime.
Which had become another sort of scene altogether in her absence.
She perched on a low, decorative wall just down the street and covertly observed the hearse, drawn by matched black horses, that was parked in front of the house. A horse-drawn cab waited near it, and a steam-driven town car not far off, which both the horses eyed a bit nervously as it let out the occasional steamy exhalation. Mentally, she pinned the cab on Deliah, the town car on Morris, and was gratified to see those two parties burst from the front door a few minutes later and head to their respective vehicles, still shouting at each other.
Well, Morris was shouting. Deliah seemed to be very quiet, which only served to make him angrier. She said something Marta could not hear, which Morris answered with an enraged yowl. “I know damn well what you’ve been telling them! Trying to build support among her friends, eh? Well it won’t help you!”
Oho, was he referring to the boring and innocent Smythes, perchance? If only she’d been around for the beginning of this conversation, no doubt started over the accusingly empty safe.
Another quiet remark from Deliah, and Morris shouted, “I know you took the will you…you haybag!”
Deliah’s next comment, Marta could fill in just by knowing her well enough—”And little good it would do me, Morris you utter fat head, since if this goes to the courts you’ll win.” Well, the “fat head” comment was really Marta’s own mental embellishment.
“What are you implying?” he demanded.
“She’s very subtly implying,” Marta murmured to herself, “that you are the one who did this. That there must have been another will you didn’t want to have come to light.” Add that to the column of “Deliah didn’t know about the most recent will” evidence.
“Think he’s gonna hit her?”
The skin on the back of Marta’s neck did a good impression of trying to crawl from her body; she’d been so arrested by the argument she hadn’t noticed a kitchen maid slipping out of the great house behind to stand next to her. She gave the girl, who wore the hungry expression of someone who didn’t often get to have her full allotment of fun and gossip, a conspiratorial look. “I should hope he’s not foolish enough to do so in public.”
“Never know,” the maid said wisely. “He’s awful mad. Heard about him, I have. He’s got a nasty temper.” An interesting fact to know, but not something that really aligned with the patient care of a poisoner.
“You know bloody well she wanted her fortune to go to me! To Adelaide and me!” Morris shouted.
Deliah finally raised her voice, the tone nothing short of glacial. “I know no such thing. You barely even spoke to her except to tell her to stop tarnishing our good family name. Well, other than to demand more money for your so-called investments.”
With an outraged shout, Morris launched himself at Deliah. Not quite conscious of the gesture, Marta rose to her feet. Deliah’s hand moved quick as a striking snake, drawing her fan of all things, and suddenly the innocuous item was firmly pressed not-so-innocuously against Morris’s throat.
“Oh, good show,” Marta murmured, her normal detachment carefully set aside for a moment. It was a lovely sight indeed. Next to her, the kitchen maid quietly clapped her hands, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet.
Morris hastily backed away after that, face gone purple with rage. A few more shouted imprecations and he flung himself into the town car, jerking the machine into drive with a grind of gears that made Marta wince, and accelerated down the street.
Deliah tucked her fan away, smoothed one hand down the front of her coat, squared her shoulders, and stalked back inside. Marta watched her go with interest that felt a little more intense than normal, reviewing in her mind the way the woman’s hand had moved with such smooth, practiced ease to turn a fan into what seemed to be a weapon.
“Better than a play, that was,” the kitchen maid commented. After a moment, she added, “Oi. So are them trousers comfortable?”
Marta watched the door of the row house close, and shot the maid a grin. “You ought to try them some time.”
Tartly, the maid answered, “Cook says women who wear trousers are no better than they ought to be.”
Her grin took on a wicked edge. “Then we ought to be very good indeed.”
Marta stayed on the wall, as patient as the stone from which it was made, until she’d seen the hearse bear away Miss Nimowitz’s body and Deliah leave not long after. By then the gas lamps had lit up and down the street with a sputtering hiss, and the kitchen maid had snuck out once to bring her a cup of hot tea and ask if anything else “fun” had happened.
Thinking of Deliah’s odd mention of Kensington’s Compendium led Marta to pause at the telegraph office and send a few inquiries to scholars who might know more about the book before returning to the hotel. Simms had made himself into a great lump on one of the beds, boots off and be-socked feet giving the room a slightly unpleasant odor, a cup of cool tea at his elbow. A copy of the Post lay spread across his bed and half the floor in drifts of newsprint. A sudden yip from under the pile of papers indicated the location of Chippy, and he burst forth a moment later for a paroxysm of enthused greeting.
Simms glanced up over the top of the paper and directed a look of long suffering at her. “He only just went to sleep.”
“A bit like children, I’ve heard.”
“Dolly was never that loud.”
Marta picked up the coiled lead from the desk and tossed it to Simms. “Take him for a walk to tire him out, then.”
“You take him for a walk.”
“I,” she said, looking down her nose at him, “have handwriting analysis to do.”
Simms covered his face with the paper for a moment and muttered something unintelligible.
“I said I think you make this nonsense up half the time to get out of doing your half of the muck jobs,” Simms said. But he swung his feet over the edge of the bed and began to put on his boots.
“From your lack of enthusiasm, I presume nothing interesting came up at the trolley platform?”
Simms grunted. “There were actually quite a few people about who had been there at the time. It’s a busy platform where several lines cross. Or at the least they claimed to have been around. You know how people are. But—” he extracted a scrap of paper from his pocket “—there were nine votes for fell, eight votes for pushed—but none of them could agree who might have pushed her and no one mentioned a villainous fellow with a goatee—and twenty-one votes for gosh Mister Simmons, you have a cute little doggy, does he know any tricks. I did discover that Chippy can shake a paw and roll over, by the way. I figure the crowd liked it better than his more specialized trick of eating an old lady’s face and then her jewelry.”
Simms flipped a hand in her direction and stood, groaning theatrically. “Anything interesting on your end?”
“A bit of light entertainment.” She painted the witnessed fight in broad strokes for him. “It strikes me, Simms, that both of us have become lost in the bickering of the living, and thus all but forgotten the most important person in this equation.” She sat at the desk and began to go through the satchel she’d filled in Miss Nimowitz’s home, extracting the two wills and the Compendium. The valuables had already been sent back to the Roost with Elijah; all that remained in the limp sack now was the poisoned teacup. Marta spread out the papers on the room’s desk, its top scarred with water rings, and began paging through the book. “To wit: what did Miss Clementine Nimowitz actually want?”
Simms shrugged. “Best I can say is she probably didn’t want to get poisoned and then shot in the face. And then have a couple of rude buggers steal all of her jewelry.”
Marta snorted. “Did you give Chippy another dose of oil?”
“Two. For all that he’s cute and fluffy, he’s got the digestive fortitude of a cockroach.”
Marta snorted. “We may be taking him in for surgery soon.”
Simms hesitated, Chippy running in dizzying circles at his feet, jumping at the lead held loosely in the big man’s hands. “Gotten fond of the little fellow, you know.”
“I assumed so.” Chippy might have the intestines of a cockroach, but Simms had the heart of a forty-year-old matron with a penchant for misty watercolors involving kittens. “Have a lovely walk.” She didn’t look up as a moment later the door opened and shut, the sound of thumping boots, skittering claws, and excited yips fading rapidly down the hall.
Marta unfolded the wills and looked them over first but found nothing amiss with either; both were done by a typewriter, the only handwritten portions the signatures. Miss Nimowitz’s signature wasn’t significantly different between the two, but the handwriting was quite wobbly. She turned her attention to the Compendium and its three different sets of handwriting. She easily recognized the hand of the shaky notes peppered throughout as Clementine’s. Some of the comments, while difficult to read, were quite insightful. Others had been scratched out and replaced by one set of the neater handwriting, which offered coherent commentary where there had been only confusion before. The second of the neat hands was a mystery, its notes never corrected, but always quite intelligent.
Marta followed the notes all the way to the end and discovered a slip of folded paper glued to the inside cover of the book. “Hm.” She unhooked one of the folds and shook out a slim key, obviously mass-produced and milled on a standard sort of machine. She encountered keys like it all the time, and they could go to any number of locks. None of the locks she’d encountered in Miss Nimowitz’s house had been for this sort of key, however.
Out of idle habit, Marta retrieved a thin square mold she kept as part of her regular kit and made an impression of the key. She set the key down on the desktop and began another go through of the Compendium, searching for any hint of the key’s origin or intended purpose.
In the middle of her third go through, as she’d begun to recopy some of the notes in their varied handwritings to see if there were similarities in wording, a breath of air stirred one of the pages.
That was her only warning as a black-booted foot, at the end of a leg concealed in flowing black trousers, swung in from the side at her head.
Marta shoved away from the desk, tipping the chair over and continuing to roll backwards. A person covered head to toe in black, eyes cunningly obscured with a thin piece of black gauze, paused to sweep an arm across the desk, swooping up one of the wills.
Marta regained her feet and lunged at her attacker, going for a double-fisted attack. Always more of a brawler when it came to fisticuffs, she wasn’t quite prepared for the lightning fast block and counterattack. A hand straight as a knife blade slammed into her ribs. Marta gasped, but bulled forward, using the natural momentum to slam her elbow into her attacked arm, and then drive her other fist into his—her?—solar plexus.
The attacker made another clean, graceful block, hand snapping sideways and up. Marta tried to block the blow and only succeeded in bouncing it a bit higher so it hit her in the nose instead of the throat. While that might have been a good thing for her vital state, the stunning, cracking pain didn’t help her efforts at fighting. Blood poured from her nose.
Marta gasped and retaliated, this time more carefully keeping her fists up. She exchanged a series of blows with her assailant, catching him a decent blow across the chin. The black-clad figure reeled to the side, half-landing on the discarded chair. Marta hurried to press her advantage, only to be caught as her attacker snatched up the chair and smashed it into her side.
Momentarily stunned, Marta stumbled back to catch herself on the bedpost, only a firm grip saving her from a fall. The attacker took a quick glance around the room and snatched up the satchel, all but forgotten under the desk. Marta grabbed the item closest at hand—a cheap and ugly vase, what passed for decoration at this hotel—and flung it toward him, her hand steady despite the hits she’d taken. In a lightning fast movement, the attacker kicked the vase back at her—that felt somehow very unfair—and then dove out the window as Marta dodged her own projectile.
Marta flung herself at the window, sticking her head out just in time to see the feet of her attacker yank out of view, accompanied by the whining hiss of gears rapidly reeling up a rope. She grinned with blood-painted lips and jumped through the window and sprinted up the rickety fire escape.
The roof was deserted by the time she made it up and cast around. All of the nearby buildings were close enough that any could have been an escape route. Marta took another good look around, considering this new wrinkle. She was quite good when it came to fighting, thus it had been a while since she’d been that thoroughly put on the ropes. However, reviewing what had happened, much of it had been because of the factor of surprise, of being faced with an utterly foreign style.
Also interesting was the fact that the person she’d faced had been a bit shorter than her own natural height. Which was right about the size for Deliah—or Morris. Though she couldn’t help but recall the lithe movement of Deliah’s hand as she drew her fan as if it were a blade rather than a bit of decoration. That, versus Morris’s apparently legendary temper.
“This just got a bit more interesting,” she murmured to herself as she climbed back to her room. Only then did she note that the person had taken the key as well as one of the sheaves of paper. Even more interesting was which will had been taken: the more recent one, naming Morris as the sole heir.
End of Part 4
About the Author
Alex Acks is an award-winning writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. Angry Robot Books has published their novels HUNGER MAKES THE WOLF (winner of the 2017 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award) and BLOOD BINDS THE PACK under the pen name Alex Wells. Their steampunk novella collection, MURDER ON THE TITANIA AND OTHER STEAM-POWERED ADVENTURES, was nominated for the Colorado Book Award, and the sequel WIRELESS AND OTHER STEAM-POWERED ADVENTURES is available from Queen of Swords Press. They’ve had short fiction in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and more, and are a contributing editor at Book Riot. They’ve also written several episodes of Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game and races for their RaceLink project. Alex lives in Denver (where they bicycle, drink tea, and twirl their ever-so-dapper mustache) with their two furry little bastards.
About the Narrator
Sandra is a New York born and raised voice actress with a background in literature and writing. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she one-eighty’d so hard she’s finally in them and never leaving.
Some games Sandra’s voiced for include Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy and the critically acclaimed Wadjet Eye Games adventure RPG “Unavowed” as Mandana. Catch her on Twitter or Facebook under the handle “DustyOldRoses,” obsessing over good food, good games and the color pink.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.