Miss Monstele is Missing
I paused in the front hall, leaned against the banister at the foot of the stairs and pushed at my hair. I’ve worn my hair up in a bun for as long as I can remember, which isn’t that long anymore. My husband Walter loved my long hair—it was blonde when we got married, hadn’t gone white yet — and I seldom had it cut all the years we were together. I was headed upstairs to…, to…, oh for heaven’s sake. Now, what was I going upstairs for? My memory is not as sharp as it was when I was seventy, that’s for sure. I glanced at the front door and saw two men standing on my front stoop.
I tugged at my greasy gloves as I watched them through the leaded glass gothic window Walter had installed in the front door. Walter had said he wanted a window in the front door so he could see who rang our doorbell; I always thought it was so he could see which one of his floozy girlfriends had come over to seduce him into a drink and some fun, at Little Joe’s Bar and Grill.
The taller man reached in his coat pocket and took out a small black folder, a little book just like the one Walter had kept. I just stood there watching them, wondering what they wanted. The shorter man kept stabbing his finger at my, my…what was he stabbing his finger at, anyway? Odd. I wondered what that buzzing sound was. I hear so much buzzing, ringing…I’m getting so fuzzy-headed in my old age. I giggled at the notion. I opened the door and the taller man shoved his little black book under my nose.
“Yes, what is it? Can I help you with something?” I put the gloves on the small marble-topped Queen Anne table next to the front door and rubbed my aching hands together. Now, what do you suppose…? What had I been doing to cause that? Lousy memory.
“Detective Lyle Worthington, Ma’am. This,” he motioned to the shorter man, “is my partner, Detective Dick Knight. May we, uh, come in?”
I stepped aside and both men walked right into my sitting room. “What is this about, Detective? I’m usually….” I couldn’t remember what I was usually doing this time of day. Napping? No. Knitting? No, I don’t knit anymore. I’m afraid I just can’t make any sense of my old knitting patterns. And my fingers just refuse to cooperate. I stared at the policemen. Where is Marjorie when I need her?
“Mrs. Humphrey, my partner and I are looking into a missing person report. Do you know a…,” Detective Worthington looked down at his notebook. “…Marjorie Monstele, Ma’am?”
“Why, yes. Yes, I do. And I wish she was here right now. She always answers the door. She is…, she was…, I hired her to….” I had to sit down. All the exertion earlier this morning—was that just this morning? My, it already seems so long ago—probably why my head started to feel fuzzy. “My memory is just not what it used to be. Do you gentlemen have that trouble?”
“No, Ma’am.” Detective Worthington said, but I saw his partner’s
look. “Well, I mean, yes, Ma’am, sometimes. I guess we all do sometimes, Mrs. Humphrey.”
“Would you gentlemen like to sit down? I’ll make us some tea, if you like.
I think I will have some myself, if you don’t mind.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Humphrey,” The taller detective said. “I believe I will
have some, but don’t go to any bother.”
“No bother. I’ll be just a minute. Please, gentlemen, make yourselves
comfortable.” I went into the kitchen, started some water heating and looked all over for my tea tin. Now, what do you suppose…? I thought I’d get out some cookies for our tea and opened the freezer. Well, for heaven’s sake. Now, how do you suppose that got in there? I wondered. I took my frozen tea tin out and put it on the counter next to the stove. I thought I’d better explain that our tea would be a little delayed while the tea tin thawed out. I poked my head in the sitting room door and saw Detective…, Detective…, now what did that nice young man say his name was? Well, I saw them both looking at my Walter’s pictures on top of the piano.
“That’s my husband, Walter Humphrey.” I walked into the room and stood beside the chair where the shorter detective sat. “He died just two years ago, March 15th. The Ides of March, you know.” The taller detective turned to look at me as he put Walter’s photograph back on the piano top.
“I’m sorry, now what did you say your name was again?” I smiled at the nice young man.
“Lyle, Ma’am. Lyle Worthington. Sorry to hear that, Mrs. Humphrey. Did he die of an illness? Or an accident?”
“Lyle! You shouldn’t be asking her that,” the short detective said.
“Oh, right. Sorry, Mrs. Humphrey,” Lyle said.
I think Lyle is such a nice name for him. “It’s all right. Walter died from a lingering illness.”
“Had he been sick long, Mrs. Humphrey?” Detective Dick asked. No, that’s not his name. Or is it his last name? I thought that’s what Lyle said his name was. Oh, good night! I removed my glasses and rubbed at my temples.
“Well, yes, you might say he had been. My Walter was a difficult man to live with, you know. He and I had been married for fifty-six years. Or was it sixty five? We didn’t have any children, but it wasn’t so much because we didn’t want any. My Walter just had too much, well, too much on his mind, you might say, to deal with children.” I saw the little yellow box on the floor next to the piano. I bent over and picked it up and set it on the bookcase by the window. “We have always had a problem with rats here. This old house. My word, it is a constant source of trouble for me. I was trying to get the dumb waiter to work when you gentlemen arrived but it seems to be stuck in the basement. Walter used to keep things up, but then my Walter developed a hobby, you might say. After that the rats kind of took over. I kept rat bait around but it didn’t do much good—for the most part.” I smoothed the wrinkles in my apron. I have always kept my clothes ironed and in a good state but ever since I lost my iron, well….
“Mrs. Humphrey, you said Miss Monstele works for you? In what capacity?” the handsome detective asked.
“She is supposed to be my companion. I needed someone to help me around here after Walter died. But Marjorie wasn’t working out, I’m afraid.” I pulled a dust cloth from my apron pocket and started back over to the bookcase. It needed dusting.
“Is there something on the stove, Mrs. Humphrey?” the shorter detective asked. I don’t know why Lyle doesn’t introduce us. The shorter man certainly seems nice.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “Why do you ask?” I opened the window. It refused to budge at first. Walter was never very good at fixing the sticking windows. The evening air was cool and felt good on my face, but it turned my steel glasses frames ice cold and, after awhile they gave me a frightful headache.
“I think I hear the tea kettle whistling, Ma’am.” Lyle said.
“Well, for heaven’s sake. Now, who, do you suppose, put the tea kettle on?” I went into the kitchen and turned the burner off. When I came back into the sitting room, Lyle was talking on my telephone. I went back to the bookcase and picked up my only copy of Little Women.
“Mrs. Humphrey, why do you say Miss Monstele wasn’t working out?” Lyle had hung up and turned toward me, holding his little black book in one hand and a pencil poised in the other.
“Well, she was very bossy. She argued all the time, and she was, you might say, loose,” I said. Just the mention of that young floozy made me feel a little grumpy.
“Loose?” Lyle asked.
I nodded and threw Little Women right out the window. I picked up Walter’s copy of Moby Dick. Now why do you suppose that name sounds so familiar? “Yes, she had a number of, um, well, male callers, you might say. I told her I didn’t like her bringing strange men into my house but she did anyway.”
“Did Miss Monstele live here then, Mrs. Humphrey?” I saw Dick write in his own little black book. Dick. That’s his name. Just like Walter’s book. And he’s about the same size as Walter, too.
“Yes, she did. I insisted on that. I might have needed help in the middle of the night, and what would I have done if she hadn’t been here?” I tossed Moby Dick out the window and it landed in the hydrangea bush Walter had planted two years ago, just before he had started getting sick. I always hated that hydrangea. I think it stinks.
“You said Mr., ah, Walter, had a hobby, Mrs. Humphrey. May I ask what it was?” Lyle stood up and walked over to the window and stood beside me.
“Walter liked women. He thought he was quite the gay blade in his time. He fancied every thing in a dress was looking at him. Over the years, he had a number of…,” I covered my mouth with my hand. I disliked where this conversation was going. Who were these strange men, to come here and ask me all these questions?
“A number of what, Mrs. Humphrey?” The short man was becoming just a little too nosy for my taste. I wanted Lyle to make him go.
“Affairs, that’s what.” I glared at Detective Mick, or Bright, or whatever, feeling angry all of a sudden.
Lyle touched my elbow. “Why are you throwing out these books, Mrs. Humphrey? Were they your husband’s?” That stopped me cold. I stared at Lyle, and the books, and the window, and my hands, and wondered what on earth was going on here. The constant buzzing, the ringing in my ears, my doctor said it was tinnitus, I think, whatever that is. My head was feeling fuzzy all over again.
“Come sit down over here for a minute, Ma’am.” Lyle grasped my elbow and led me to my ottoman. I sat down and he sat in front of me in Walter’s favorite wing back chair.
“May I ask you some questions, Mrs. Humphrey?”
“Certainly. What would you like to know?” I felt a lot better. Lyle made me smile. I liked him.
“Can you tell me your full name?” Lyle asked.
“Emma Louise Humphrey. This brocade is older than I am. Did you know that?” I rubbed my hand over the shiny worn fabric on the ottoman. The feel of my palms sliding across it made me giggle.
“When were you born, Mrs. Humphrey? May I call you Emma?”
I nodded at Lyle, and I sent my best frown to his partner. I never did get along with short men. Walter was quite short. “I was born in…ah, it was…oh goodness, would you look at the time?”
“How old are you, Emma?” Lyle asked.
“Now, you know a gentleman shouldn’t ask a lady her age.” I kind of glared at Lyle, then I smiled at him to let him know I was just being coy.
“Well, we’re not gentlemen, Ma’am. So you can go ahead and tell us.” Shorty spoke gruffly to me and I ignored him but I told Lyle, “I am seventy eight years old. I just happened to have been born on the Ides of March in 1898. Shortly before my father left for Florida with Teddy Roosevelt and his regiment. They were going to fight the Spanish, in, ah, um…,”
“Can you tell me today’s date, Emma?” Shorty asked, and I shook my head no.
“I’d tell him, but he didn’t ask me.” I pointed at Lyle.
“Well, how about if I ask you now, Emma? What is today’s date?”
“It happens today is March 17th. Want to know how I know that?” Lyle didn’t answer. He was busy writing in his little black book. “Do you like my ring, Lyle? My Walter gave it to me on our fortieth…no, fiftieth, I think, wedding anniversary. It’s supposed to be solid gold, but it turns my finger black. See? The stone is green jasper, or chalcedony. It’s my birthstone. March, you know. It’s also called bloodstone. Isn’t that interesting?”
Lyle looked at his partner, then he said, “Yes, it’s lovely. What year is it, Emma? Can you tell me that?”
“Certainly. It is, ah, nineteeeeeeeeen seventy, um, six.” I drew it out and laughed as Lyle cocked his head at me and Shorty wrote in his little black book. I stood and walked over to the table by the front door where I had left my gloves. I picked them up and returned to raise the lid of the piano bench and drop them right on top of George and Ira Gershwin.
“You said you were working on the dumb waiter when we came, Emma. What was wrong with it?” Lyle asked.
“Oh, it’s stuck in the basement. I used it all the time but I think maybe Marjorie fixed it so I couldn’t use it anymore.” I sat down on the ottoman so I could face Lyle. He seemed so sweet. I liked to look at his face.
“Let’s talk about your husband, Walter. May we?” Lyle said. I didn’t want to talk about Walter anymore. I had lived with the crotchety old goat for fifty-six years. Now that he was gone, I didn’t want to talk about him at all.
“What do you want to know about Walter? He’s dead and gone, and no more bother to me than, than…,”
“Than what, Mrs. Humphrey?” Shorty asked.
“Than that nosy, loose Marjorie Monstele, that’s than what.” I snapped at him.
“Well, just a few questions, you know, to satisfy our curiosity, Emma. You don’t mind, do you?” Lyle asked. He had just the sweetest smile and the kindest voice. Reminded me of my father who was about Lyle’s size.
“”Course not. Not if you really want to know, I guess.”
“Tell us about Walter’s illness. What did he have?”
“Well, Walter couldn’t hold anything on his stomach, and he had a lot of trouble with his, ah, well, um…,” I leaned forward and Lyle leaned forward so I could whisper to him through my fingers. I think these things should be kept private, so to speak. “…bowels,” I said, and I heard Shorty snort. Lyle looked around real sharp-like at his partner. “After awhile he developed a strange rash too,” I added and giggled.
“What kind of rash, Emma? Can you describe it?” Lyle asked.
I nodded. “It was a bunch of little brown spots, like little brown raindrops. All over his skin. It was real nasty looking.”
Lyle looked at his partner again, whispered something about arsenious oxide, and nodded toward the telephone. Arsenious oxide! Now, what in the world would that be? I wondered.
“Is there a phone in the kitchen my partner can use so we’re not disturbed?”
“Yes, there is,” I said as I rose and started through the kitchen door. “Over on the counter by the refrigerator.”
Detective what’s-his-face rose and followed me into the kitchen and over to the phone. “Would you like some tea, Lyle?” I asked.
“No, thanks,” There was that nice smile again. “Can we get back to your husband? Now, did he see a doctor?”
“Oh, no. Walter took no stock in doctors. That’s why everything worked out like it did.”
“I see. Did Walter take any medications? Any from a doctor or pharmacy?”
“Oh, no.” I gave Walter all his medicines. It was that or listen to his constant moaning.”
“Did you make the medicines then?” Lyle asked.
“No, I got them in a package. They come in boxes like the little yellow cardboard box I set down on the bookcase. I just added a little powder to his dinner every night, but he didn’t get any better.”
“Do you have any idea what happened to Marjorie Monstele, Emma?” Lyle asked, his voice barely a whisper, it seemed.
“Walter had no sense of fidelity, you might say. And neither did Marjorie. Well, the last time I saw Marjorie, I asked her to come get my breakfast dishes. I always like to eat breakfast in my bedroom upstairs. She always used the dumb waiter instead of carrying the dishes up and down the stairs. She was awfully lazy, you know. Well, I decided Marjorie would have to go. It was about then that she disappeared and I haven’t seen her since, that I can recall. Until I can get the dumb waiter fixed I suppose I will have to eat in the kitchen…or the breakfast nook. Heavens. I haven’t eaten there since my Walter died.”
Lyle’s partner hung up the telephone and came over to stand beside us.
“Dick, why don’t you go down to the basement and see if you can free up Mrs. Humphrey’s dumb waiter. I will wait up here with her,” Lyle said.
“Sure thing, Lyle. I talked to the medical examiner and he will make all the necessary arrangements.”
Lyle and I waited by the dumb waiter while Shorty disappeared downstairs. I pointed to a heavy cast iron doorstop that lay on its side below the dumb waiter. I usually kept it near the back door. “Do you like my gargoyle doorstop, Lyle?” He glanced down at it almost absentmindedly, then looked at it, then bent down and stared at it closely, turning it over carefully with the end of his pen. “Is this what you used, Mrs. Humphrey?”
I nodded. “Yes, I use it to hold open the back door. I have no idea how it got here though.” Lyle started to answer but his partner appeared at the basement door.
“Lyle, you better come down and look at this,” Shorty said. I noticed he avoided looking at me.
Lyle nodded his head at me, “Will you be all right here alone for a minute or two, Emma?”
“Oh, yes, I’ll be fine. Watch your head as you go down the steps. My Walter always hit his head going down those stairs. I can’t tell you what he said every time he did though.” Lyle followed Shorty down the steps and I waited until they got down, then followed them. They were both standing in front of the open dumb waiter door. Lyle held a handkerchief to his nose and I couldn’t blame him.
There lay Marjorie Monstele, smelling worse than Walter’s hydrangeas, all crumpled up on top of my broken breakfast dishes, her black-lined eyes staring at me just like they did right before…. Oh, for heaven’s sake! There was a plug and cord wrapped around her neck. And right in her lap was….
“Well, how do you like that? There’s my iron! Now, how do you suppose that got there?”