D. R. Martin & Richard Audry Books

A Pretty Little Plot

Mary Cover v 3_edited-1 copy

Chapter I

The day Mary MacDougall’s two classmates were kidnapped began ordinarily enough.

The late July night had been hot and humid. Not a single refreshing breeze wafted through the windows of the sprawling apartment in the Collonade Building. It came as a relief when Nellie the housemaid rapped on her bedroom door promptly at seven, wrenching Mary out of a disagreeable slumber.

An hour later, her straw hat pinned firmly on her head, Mary was tramping up St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill, making for Selby Avenue and her long streetcar commute. Horse-drawn taxis, wagons, and carriages rolled by, the animals’ hooves clattering on the cobblestones.

Her ride took her through bustling neighborhoods and past corner markets, where grocers were sweeping sidewalks and setting up vegetable stands. Eventually the streetcar rattled across the bridge over the Mississippi River, and down Lake Street into Minneapolis. Along the way Mary read the morning edition of the Minneapolis Journal. More deaths from the heat wave blanketing the country. New diplomats appointed by President McKinley. A ten-million-dollar trolley network planned for Wisconsin.

Then her eyes fell upon the latest update from the Fosburgh trial in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Robert Fosburgh was accused of murdering his 19-year-old sister. Mary was instantly enthralled in the coverage of this courtroom drama. The defendant and his family insisted that masked intruders had shot the girl. Yet their accounts of what happened varied widely. Evidence found at the scene had been introduced at the trial—a pair of black half-hose stockings with white dots, a pillowcase that might have been used as a mask, spent matches that were not of the make the family normally used. Oddly enough, cash and valuable jewelry in the house had not been stolen.

Just last night at supper, Mary had recounted the facts of the case for her father. John MacDougall, rather than showing interest, had sighed with exasperation, peering intently at her.

“Mary, I can’t for the life of me figure out why you’re so fascinated with murderers and malefactors. It’s an unhealthy and unnatural obsession, especially for a proper young lady. Most unbecoming.”

Mary didn’t care if her preoccupation seemed a bit odd. She had always had a fondness for detective stories. She enjoyed trying to put herself in the criminal’s head—to figure out what made him tick. And she wondered about this Robert Fosburgh. Had there been a violent disagreement between siblings? Was his family trying to cover up a case of sororicide?

She was so wrapped up pondering the Fosburgh case that she nearly missed her transfer at Nicollet Avenue. Hopping out at her last stop, she trundled off toward her final destination—the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, perched on the top floor of the new public library.

This ornate temple of knowledge, at Tenth Street and Hennepin Avenue, was built of dark sandstone, with Romanesque arches capping its many windows and doors. Mary went in through its grand lobby and briskly ascended three flights of stairs, past thousands of books and a dozen librarians. She walked through the door of the art school and made directly for the row of lockers on her immediate left. Putting her hat and linen summer jacket inside her locker, she withdrew the dark blue smock that she wore in class. It was well marked up with dried splotches of color, this being the third week of class.

Donning the smock, she grabbed her kit of oils and brushes, and headed down the hallway, into the second studio to her right. As usual, quiet, shy Nan Burton was already there, all set up for a morning of instruction and painting. So, too, was chubby Eloise Memminger, a high school girl who, Mary believed, possessed the most talent in this clutch of aspiring female artists. Jane Babcock was present, as well. Jane had a real knack with the brush, but her special gift seemed to lie in idle chitchat and gossip.

Taking her usual place in the back of the room, Mary opened her kit of paints and brushes, and set it on the small table next to her easel. Today and the next few days were to be devoted to pears and oranges and suchlike—models for a still life. Her teacher, Mr. Edmond Roy, had assured his students that the skills learned by means of these homely summer treats would well serve a painter her entire life. Just think, he had said, what Monsieur Cézanne had created with the humblest of fruits.

Cézanne, in fact, was the very reason Mary had asked her father to let her come down from Duluth to the Twin Cities to attend this month-long class. John MacDougall kept an apartment in St. Paul for business purposes, and Mary was free to stay there—sometimes with her father, sometimes just with the maid and cook. Her father, in fact, seemed relieved that Mary had developed an interest that didn’t involve morbid analysis of criminal behavior. Art, after all, was a decent avocation that could be discussed in polite circles.

For Mary, it had been love at first sight. She had spent the summer of 1898 on a grand tour of Europe with her Aunt Christina. In Paris, they had happened upon an exhibition of Cézanne’s work, and Mary had been transfixed by his canvases. Then they had gone on a pilgrimage to Giverny, Claude Monet’s country home. After that, Mary had become a fanatic for Impressionist art.

When she read that Mr. Roy would be teaching a class for ladies on “Vibrant Light: The Aesthetic, Form, and Palette of the Impressionistic Artist,” she just had to sign up for it.

Promptly at 9 o’clock, Mr. Roy came into the room, wearing a crisply tailored suit and perfectly shined shoes. He carried a canvas bag in his left hand.

Mary didn’t understand how the man did it, but he could daub away for hours and never get a drop of paint on those immaculate togs. Some drips of color occasionally found their way onto his hands, but they were quickly removed with turpentine at the end of each session.

Mary suspected that Edmond Roy’s sharp but darkly handsome features were a point of interest for the other girls in the class. He had a somewhat exotic appeal, being of French-Canadian heritage, according to Jane. Mary could understand how easy it might be to become enamored of such good looks. In fact, a few of Mary’s classmates had acted almost forward with him.

Although now at the nearly marriageable age of eighteen, Mary felt that she was above such quotidian pursuits as love and romance. However pleasing to the eye Mr. Roy might be, she was only attracted to him as a means to improve her painting technique.

She was cordial to him, of course. And enjoyed talking about painting and artists with him, as well as sharing the occasional joke. But she would not want him to interpret her geniality as anything significant. In fact, she thought him a little too smooth, too handsome for her tastes. And, after all, he was an artist.

“Good morning, Miss Memminger,” Mr. Roy said with a beaming smile. “Miss Burton. Miss Babcock and Miss MacDougall. A lovely morning to paint some pears, wouldn’t you say?”

“Don’t suppose you brought any mangoes instead?” Jane asked impishly.

Mary could tell that Mr. Roy was uncertain about the seriousness of Jane’s query. But once Jane broke into giggles, his face relaxed back into a smile.

In addition to being the class gossip, Jane Babcock was a bit of a clown. She never let decorum get in the way of a good laugh. She seemed to enjoy teasing the painting instructor. In fact, Mary had noticed her staring at him with what could only be called unsuitable aspiration.

“Unfortunately, Miss Babcock,” the instructor answered good-naturedly, “we’re limited to what the market around the corner stocks this time of the summer. No mangoes, I’m afraid.” He pulled a pear out of his bag and placed it on a piece of maroon brocade draped on the modeling table at the front of the room.

Five more pears followed and were placed amidst the rich brocade in what looked, to Mary, like the perfect composition. Some were yellow and ripe with subtle bruising, some were still greenish. The little tabletop scene was so simple, yet so lovely.

The door behind them creaked open.

Mary twisted around as four more classmates took up their positions at easels scattered around the room. By now, Mary had gotten to know all of them, at least on a superficial basis. Most were single, but there were a couple of married women, as well. Everyone had on their smocks and carried their tools of the oil-painting trade.

The last to trail in a few minutes later were Harriet Crosby and Daisy Larkin. The rather plain-looking, mousy-haired Harriet was the only child of a well-known banker. She was apparently afflicted with allergies. Her eyes, behind their wire-rim spectacles, were often red and her nose runny, causing her to reach frequently into her purse and grab from a stash of pink hankies she kept there, all specially monogrammed. Mary thought it unfortunate that flowers were often placed in the studio as subject matter. Their pollen certainly added to Harriet’s misery.

Daisy, a pretty brunette, came from Davenport in Iowa, and was visiting relatives in Minneapolis for the summer. The two of them, Mary noted, had become quite good friends over the last couple of weeks. Mary didn’t know what they had in common, but she guessed that the introverted Harriet felt a bit daring, spending time with a girl like Daisy, who seemed quite worldly for someone of about twenty.

For her part, Mary found Daisy too fawning—a trait the young heiress increasingly encountered these days. As soon as they found out about Mary’s family fortune, new acquaintances could turn quickly from pleasant companions to flattering sycophants. She hated that.

This morning they were all to work on small canvases. Mr. Roy demonstrated how to sketch the tabletop scene quickly with charcoal, making it look unbelievably easy. Mary watched the subtle movement of his hand and brush as he laid paint on the canvas. His strokes were graceful and almost hypnotic.

Then he made his way around the room to offer his critiques. As usual, Eloise’s daubs were very nicely done, and Mr. Roy congratulated her on the outcome. He told timid Nan Burton that her work was very precise but her choice of colors lacked emotion—something, Mary figured, that couldn’t be taught.

Moving clockwise among the students, Mr. Roy next stepped up to Harriet’s easel.

“An admirable effort, Miss Crosby,” he said, bending close to her as he examined the canvas. “But perhaps you need to loosen your grip on your brush.”

Mary noticed that Harriet’s cheeks had turned a rosy pink and a silly smile had broken out on her face. Unfortunately for Harriet, she was unable to stifle a loud sneeze just then, which prompted Mr. Roy to back away from her a few steps.

Remembering an occasion or two when the instructor had leaned in close to her, Mary had to admit that the man had an agreeable presence, with a certain air about him that was undoubtedly appealing. But surely Harriet didn’t think his attentions and compliments signified anything other than a teacher’s encouragement of his pupil.

After all, an honest person would never describe Harriet as a beautiful girl. And Mary believed that men and women tended to end up with women and men of a similar degree of attractiveness.

That is, of course, unless money was in the equation. Money had often enough tipped the balance on the matrimonial scales. Indeed, Mary didn’t think herself particularly attractive. But if a potential suitor discovered how much her father’s lumber and mining interests were worth, he might well find her suddenly quite ravishing. Mary knew she had to be on guard against that eventuality.

Was Harriet also wary of that possibility? Or had she led too sheltered a life to contemplate such a thing? Mary understood that to an unestablished artist like Mr. Roy, the attractiveness of the Crosby family fortune might outweigh the plainness of Harriet’s face.

Annoyed that she was letting her mind wander, Mary focused her full attention on the canvas. The point of the morning’s exercise was to paint swiftly and decisively—short, sketchy strokes with little effort to blend colors. And by the end of the class, everyone was supposed to have finished a still life of six pears and brocaded cloth.

A few didn’t.

But Mary managed to pull it off, just barely. Her brocaded cloth was not that good—too blotchy, the folds not well depicted. But she thought she had caught the roundness and firmness, the changes of color and mottled skin, of the half-dozen fruits. The way the light caressed those forms was not bad really, not bad at all.

Mr. Roy, in fact, agreed.

“Nicely done, Miss MacDougall,” he said with a nod. “Nicely done. I would definitely keep the pears. Good color, nice sense of volume and shading. In fact, you have given them a kind voluptuousness that is quite sensual. Succulent pears to be eaten by two picnickers on a mossy, humid river bank.”

As he loomed over her right shoulder, Mary felt the warmth of his body and smelled the subtle floral aroma of the cologne he wore. Now his face was close enough that she could hear his steady, strong inhalations.

“But if I were you,” he continued, “I would perhaps make another run at the brocade.” He straightened up, lightly patted her on the shoulder, and then gently squeezed it.

And Mary, despite herself, caught her breath as she felt a little electric spark go through her.

Not an unpleasant sensation.

She sniffed, though, not liking the idea of it.

Mary understood that all human beings possessed animal reflexes. Indeed, she had seen friends of hers fall under the spell of physical attraction to the opposite sex. The outcome generally was not pleasant to watch—intelligent, reliable girls transformed into flighty, moody, emotional creatures. Mary hoped to spare herself a similar fate. She did not want to be susceptible to something as primitive and base as lust. It was so predictable, so ordinary, so dreary.

The clock was approaching noon, signaling the end of the class for the day. As usual, skittish Nan Burton gathered her things up quickly and fled the classroom before anyone else. How awful it must be to suffer from such shyness. Mary had heard but a few dozen words come out of Nan’s mouth in weeks, and she couldn’t even look anyone in the eye.

Mary slowly packed up her paint and brushes, making sure she had left no spots on the floor or herself. Out by the lockers, Mr. Roy was talking to Harriet Crosby, Jane Babcock, and Daisy Larkin. And Mary—as she put her smock and paints away—couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

“Oh, please do come, Mr. Roy,” Harriet pleaded. “We’ve had quite a struggle working up our nerve to even ask you.”

“It’d be lots of fun,” Jane put in.

Daisy looked up at the painting instructor and fluttered her eyelids. She really was quite fetching, Mary thought, and she seemed well aware of it.

“We would be so, so disappointed if you didn’t come,” Daisy said. “There would be three of us pupils, so propriety’s assured. Of course, if you have some other plans for lunch…”

Mr. Roy raised his eyebrows. “Well, as it happens, I don’t. And I have always wanted to try the fare at Saunders.”

Mary pursed her lips. Saunders, just down Nicollet Avenue, had the best menu in either Minneapolis or St. Paul, and wasn’t exactly cheap. She and her father had been there a few times. But a painter on an instructor’s salary would have difficulty just paying for a bowl of soup in that establishment.

“You’ve been so kind to us,” Daisy continued, “and taught us so much. Well, we’d just like to thank you with a special meal. Harriet said she’d treat us all.”

Mary nearly laughed out loud. Of course. Harriet’s treat.

“Well, why not?” said Mr. Roy. “I’ve nothing else to do this afternoon. We can turn it into a little seminar on Cézanne. You seemed quite interested in him, Miss Crosby.”

“Oh, I am,” the plain-looking banking heiress said. “Papa’s put me in charge of refreshing the art in our house. And I’d like your opinion on the best way to obtain a Cézanne. I’d like to have it in time for Mama’s birthday in September.”

Mary caught the expression on Mr. Roy’s face. Shock.

To simply put a Cézanne on a shopping list, like a lady’s hat, was clearly incomprehensible to him. Just one of the master’s canvases could cost thousands of dollars.

“Well,” he said, “I would be happy to advise you. At least as far as I am able to.”

“Excellent,” bubbled Harriet.

“Then let’s go,” said Jane.

Just then Mr. Roy’s dark eyes swiveled and caught sight of Mary, and his face brightened.

“And perhaps Miss MacDougall would care to join us, as well.”

Quite surprised, Mary regarded him, and then noticed that Daisy did not look pleased. In fact, Daisy’s expression bordered on poisonous. Hands off, she seemed to be saying. He’s ours.

“You are most kind,” Mary replied, looking directly at Mr. Roy. “But I’m otherwise engaged.” She wasn’t, in fact, but she was determined to maintain a classroom-only relationship with her charming instructor.

Mr. Roy’s face registered disappointment. But Daisy’s pretty features showed gratification and relief, as she turned to leave with the other three.

Eloise Memminger sidled up to Mary. “What are those four up to?”

“They’re off to a private meeting about visiting Monsieur Vollard in Paris.” Mary was feeling a bit puckish.

“Who?” said Eloise, blinking in bafflement. “Where?”

Mary rolled her eyes. “It’s nothing. They’re just going out to lunch together.”

As the plump painter ambled off, Mary regretted her sarcasm. Eloise’s knowledge had yet to catch up with her talent. But how could she not know the name of the world’s most famous art dealer? Ambroise Vollard was the man to talk to, if you wanted a Cézanne.

Chapter II

When it came to breakfast, Mary MacDougall was a creature of habit—a coddled egg, two strips of bacon, a cup of tea, and a bowl of oatmeal with sugar and milk. So it was the next morning.

Outside it was raining lightly, cooling the morning heat but possibly compounding the humidity, should the July sun break out later. Mary had pulled her curly, chestnut-colored hair back into a bun, but she could already see loose tendrils around her face frizzing up from the humid air.

John MacDougall had taken off bright and early that morning on the North Coast Limited to Chicago. He was needed there to finalize the purchase of a tract of timberland near the Canadian border. Sometimes it seemed to Mary that her father was in a perpetual state of business negotiations.

Mary snatched up the unread copy of the morning’s Minneapolis Journal in the front vestibule, folded it, and inserted it into the left pocket of her jacket. As soon as she stepped out of the rotating front door of the Collonade, she unfurled her umbrella and began her hike up to the Selby Avenue streetcar. She had ridden all the way to Snelling Avenue before she thought to pull out the newspaper.

She quickly scanned the front page, looking for any further news from the Fosburgh trial going on in Massachusetts. But a headline at the bottom of the page caught her eye instead.

 Banker’s Daughter Goes Missing

She gasped as she read the first sentence: “Yesterday evening, the family of Harriet Crosby reported the young woman missing.”

Mary had seen Harriet not more than twenty hours ago. What on earth had happened to her?

The article continued with an account of her disappearance.

“Miss Crosby, the daughter of William Crosby, president of the Nicollet Commercial Bank and Trust Company, failed to return home at the expected hour yesterday afternoon. She had been attending morning art instruction at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts.

“Police were notified early last evening and have begun inquiries into Miss Crosby’s apparent disappearance. Her description has been distributed among police bureaus in and around the Twin Cities.”

Mary slumped back in her seat and stared out the window. She felt slightly disoriented from the news—and, she realized, a tad bit thrilled to be so close to such a gripping situation. Questions teemed in her head.

Had Harriet taken off of her own accord? Had she been abducted? Or had she met with some worse fate? Had she vanished before, during, or after her lunch at Saunders? Had any of her three companions seen anything?

In Mary’s opinion, Harriet hardly seemed the type to run away from home. That scenario made no sense at all, considering all the comforts and opportunities her father’s wealth afforded her. And she had shown no indication of being the rebellious type. In fact, to Mary, Harriet Crosby seemed every bit the obedient daughter who would not stray far from the home fires. When the time was right, she would marry a fellow vetted and approved by her father. Probably a suitor chosen for the purposes of a business alliance.

But what if Harriet had been unlucky enough to run afoul of some unsavory character on her way home from downtown? The papers were full of stories about perfectly upright women who had met their fates at the hands of demented criminals. Murder could happen to the best of people. Even a banker’s daughter.

Not that long ago, the notorious H. H. Holmes had been hanged in Philadelphia for murdering dozens of unsuspecting women. After that, Mary had received a stern lecture from her father. “Mary,” he had said, “use the common sense that God provided you and don’t trust strangers.” Mary knew her widowed father worried constantly about his only daughter and she promised she would always put her safety first, wherever she was and whomever she was with.

And, for the most part, she meant it. She would not take unnecessary risks. But she was also her own person, and expected a certain amount of independence—rather like her mother and her Aunt Christina. She would not be owned. By anybody.

Her eyes fell back on the newspaper article. The story, of course, had been written late last evening. Maybe this mysterious disappearance had been cleared up by now. Mary would probably arrive in class and find Harriet in attendance. The events of yesterday would prove to have been some dreadful misunderstanding. An unfortunate mistake that would be fodder for gossip and jabbering for days to come.

But when she walked down the hallway to her locker and saw the gloomy expressions on the faces of the women already there, Mary knew that Harriet Crosby was still missing. She went up to Jane Babcock, who looked unusually somber this morning.

“I take it that Harriet hasn’t turned up,” Mary said.

Jane looked at her. “You haven’t heard, then.”

“What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t just Harriet who disappeared. Daisy’s vanished, as well.”

“Daisy’s gone, too?” Mary had never quite believed that figure of speech, you could have knocked me over with a feather. But now she gave it some credence.

Mr. Roy was standing near the studio door. At 9 o’clock in the morning, the heat and humidity were already seeping into the building, but the well-groomed instructor looked as cool and dapper as ever. He was talking with the two married women who attended the class, Mrs. Kirchheimer and Mrs. Washburn, with Nan Burton hovering quietly nearby. As Mary moved toward the group, she caught the painting teacher’s words.

“…a very enjoyable meal. I don’t often get the chance to have veal and it was a rare treat. I’m afraid I hogged the conversation, as I often do when the subject is art. But Daisy and Harriet and Jane seemed interested in my year in France. Genuinely so.”

“But what happened after you finished the meal?” Mrs. Washburn asked.

“We left the restaurant at about two o’clock,” Mr. Roy recounted. “Jane headed back to Hennepin Avenue where, she said, she’d board the streetcar that takes her home. I accompanied Harriet and Daisy back down Nicollet and then headed to my studio near Loring Park. Last I saw of them, they were walking down the street, heading for Donaldson’s Glass Block.”

He paused, then continued. “Didn’t know what had happened until I saw the paper this morning.”

With narrowed eyes, Mary studied the painting teacher. He probably had nothing to do with the twin disappearances. But he was a bit of a dandy and she wondered how trustworthy he actually was. Any man working amongst a gaggle of worshipful women had to be viewed with a certain amount of caution. The world could be a perilous place for guileless females.

“No doubt some scoundrel snatched them right off the street,” said Mrs. Kirchheimer, scrunching up her bulldog face. “I expect Harriet’s father is in line for a ransom note.”

That much was certain, Mary thought. If Harriet had been kidnapped, a large amount of money would be involved. Just as it would for Mary MacDougall, if her luck ran out.

Mrs. Washburn looked dubious. “But why take Daisy? I don’t think she’s very wealthy. After all, she’s from Iowa.” Mary knew from past conversations with the woman that Mrs. Washburn had a fairly provincial view of the world.

“She would have been a witness. Can’t have her blabbing until the money’s paid.” Mrs. Kirchheimer nodded her head with certainty.

Nan Burton looked appalled. Mary wondered if this unfortunate incident would scare the poor girl into permanent reclusiveness.

Mr. Roy shrugged, and then saw Mary standing there.

“Miss MacDougall,” he said. “You’ve heard the terrible news?”

“Terrible, indeed,” Mary said. “But maybe everything will be cleared up soon. Have you talked to the police yet?”

Mr. Roy shook his head. “No, but as soon as I read the newspaper this morning, I telephoned them. They’ve asked that I come and see a Detective Opdahl down at headquarters this afternoon. Of course, I’m anxious to tell him what I know.”

It was hard to read Mr. Roy. He was always friendly and talkative. But Mary sensed an impenetrable layer about him that kept him somewhat inscrutable. She felt there was more to this man than met the eye. What kind of secrets might he be keeping?

Eloise Memminger joined the group, looking up at Mr. Roy with a concerned expression on her face. “Mr. Roy, is the class cancelled for today?”

“No, Miss Memminger,” he answered. “It seems that everyone is here except the two unfortunate ladies. We’re working on irises today. I have a fine bouquet waiting for us in the studio so we might as well make use of it.”

“I believe that Daisy and Harriet would have wanted us to go on without them,” Eloise said.

Mary wanted to laugh. No, Eloise, she thought, Harriet and Daisy wouldn’t have given a fig about whether or not a bunch of female dilettantes painted a pot full of irises.

They would simply want to be freed from their predicament—whatever that may be.

Chapter III

Thursday morning, Mary decided she wouldn’t leave the apartment without first checking her morning paper. And it was a good thing she did. Because quite a bit had happened since she had left the School of Fine Arts the afternoon before. “Suspect Held in Women’s Disappearance,” the headline proclaimed.

What she read next caused her jaw to drop. The Minneapolis police had detained Mr. Roy as a person of interest in the vanishing of Harriet Crosby and Daisy Larkin. The authorities had received an anonymous tip that Mr. Roy may have had some part in the affair.

Mary had truly not wanted to believe he was capable of such a reprehensible act. But remembered the uneasiness she had felt the day before, as she observed the teacher. Apparently Mr. Roy had not been charged yet. Still, the police must have had good reasons to lock him up.

“Well then, there you are,” she said out loud, though no one was in the vestibule to hear her. She went back into her bedroom, newspaper still in hand, and sat down at her desk. The events of the last few days swirled around in her head. Today’s news brought a new seriousness to this case. Harriet and Daisy were still missing, most likely kidnapped. And the finger of guilt pointed at Mr. Roy.

But why would he have shown up yesterday morning at school if he had abducted—or even murdered—Harriet and Daisy the day before? And why would he have contacted the police to offer his account of their lunch together?

Slowly an idea began to form in Mary’s mind.

Perhaps the time had come for her to undertake a little sleuthing of her own. What would it hurt, as long as she acted with discretion? After all, the painting class was no doubt scotched—at least for today. She needed something to occupy her idle hands.