Love's Labour's Located
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Stormont, but I don’t think I can take you any further.” Romeo Arcadi shifted his taxi into park and arched his body to look back at her.
Bessie Stormont glanced down at her watch—10:30—and then shifted her gaze to the side window. The Labour Day parade, which had begun at 10 a.m., had passed through this section of its route, but now the surrounding streets were overflowing with celebrants carrying signs and shouting support for workers’ unions. The majority were making their way down to the waterfront to continue the festivities with picnics or baseball games, while others were looking for less puritanical activities at the local taverns, which had permission to open early for the occasion.
“I think you’re correct, Mr. Arcadi. I expect I’ll make better time on foot.” She waited for him to open her door and accepted his help to exit the cab.
“Shall I walk with you?” he asked.
“Oh, dear me, no. Thank you.” She squared her shoulders and headed off toward the downtown church, a lone salmon swimming against the current.
Bessie had forgotten it was Labour Day when she arranged to meet the president of Kingston’s chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire to collect the money that had been raised by local churches on behalf of the widows and orphans of the war. As the Order’s treasurer, it was Bessie’s responsibility to deposit it in the bank—which unfortunately was closed today because of the holiday.
A figure she recognized was bowed over, head in hands, on the church’s stone steps. As if sensing Bessie’s approach, she raised her gaze and leapt to her feet. “Oh, thank goodness you’re here,” called out Mrs. Gallagher, the minister’s wife, as she rushed down the steps to greet her.
Bessie was taken aback. The woman’s usually cheery expression was distraught, and she was sure there were tears barely constrained in her gentle brown eyes. “Is something wrong, dear?”
“I don’t know how it could have happened, but the money’s gone. All of it.”
Bessie’s breath was lodged in her chest, and she felt herself wobble uncertainly. But a glance at the other woman told her now was not the time to show weakness. Someone needed to take charge and it was obvious it would not be Mrs. Gallagher.
Bessie took the woman’s arm and climbed the steps, drawing her into the alcove at the entrance to the church. “When was the last time you saw the money?” she asked gently.
“Mrs. Bollinger from St. George’s had just dropped off the last of the funds from yesterday’s services. We took it to the reverend’s study to put with the rest. Then we went outside to watch the parade. When we came back inside, the collection box was missing,” she sobbed. “Oh, Mrs. Stormont, there was more than two hundred dollars in it!”
“Shhh, take a deep breath, dear.” Bessie followed her own advice and proceeded. “Now, let’s take this a step at a time. You and Mrs. Bollinger went into the reverend’s study.”
“Mrs. Cuthbert was there, too.”
Bessie didn’t know Cassandra Cuthbert well enough to have formed an impression of her. In her mid-forties, she was younger than past presidents of the Order, and had received Bessie’s support in the recent election because she was well-spoken and enthusiastic, and heaven knew, new blood was sorely needed in the forty-eight-year-old organization.
“And then the three of you went to watch the parade?” Bessie asked.
“Yes. Oh, and Juliana Ross was there, too. She’s a reporter for the local radio station and was here interviewing the parade participants and people in the crowd,” Mrs. Gallagher said.
“You were all together for the whole parade?”
“The staging area is right up the street and so we saw it from the very beginning, yes. It started right at ten o’clock on the dot. I remember Miss Ross commenting on the punctuality of it.”
“When it was over, did you all come back into the church?” Bessie asked.
“All except Mrs. Bollinger. She went home.”
“Miss Ross, too?”
“Yes, I invited her in for a cup of tea. It would have been rude not to.”
“When did you go back into the study?”
“After we picked up our tea, Mrs. Cuthbert suggested she and I count the money, again, now that we had St. George’s contribution. She wanted to make sure everything was in order before you arrived.”
“How thoughtful,” Bessie mused. “How long would you say you were away from the study in total?”
“Maybe twenty or thirty minutes.”
“Just the length of the parade plus going to the kitchen to pour a cup of tea?”
“Well, no.” Mrs. Gallagher’s shoulders drooped. “After we dropped off the money in the reverend’s study, I went to the kitchen to check on Mrs. Rinehart. She was preparing the lunch we hold every Monday for the homeless veterans. Mrs. Cuthbert stopped at the ladies’ room and then joined me outside.”
“And Mrs. Bollinger?”
“She was with me the whole time.”
“Mrs. Rinehart didn’t join you outside to watch the parade?”
“No, she was elbows deep in dishwater. I offered to stay and help her, but she insisted she could manage.” Her eyes rounded. “Surely, you don’t think…”
Bessie shook her head. She couldn’t imagine Mrs. Rinehart, the long-time housekeeper of her old friend Senator Harold Overstreet, stealing money from widows and orphans.
But if she was the only person inside at the time…?
Darn her granddaughter! Ever since Charlotte had become a reporter, her suspicious nature had started to rub off on Bessie.
Mrs. Rinehart? Surely not!
“Was the study door locked?” Bessie asked.
Now the tears rolled down Mrs. Gallagher’s cheeks. “I never think to,” she admitted. “Silly of me, I know, but…” She looked down at the ground. “I hate to think we’ve come to that.”
“Could someone have snuck inside through a side door during the parade?”
“It’s possible, I suppose. We don’t start serving lunch to the homeless until noon, but our doors are never locked. Still, I can’t imagine any of our community doing this. Most are veterans themselves; they’d never take money meant to help the loved ones of their lost brothers.”
“Of course.” Bessie took Mrs. Gallagher’s hand. She sympathized with her dilemma. The reverend and his wife had devoted themselves to improving the lives of the less fortunate in Kingston. Neither could contemplate the possibility that a member of their flock would be capable of betraying them—and their neighbours—so heinously.
“Where is Mrs. Cuthbert now? I should speak with her, too,” Bessie said, giving the woman’s hand a gentle squeeze of support.
“She’s lying down in the study. She’s always been a bit high-strung, and this has certainly devastated her.”
Bessie walked through the sanctuary, exiting out the door into the hallway that led to the rest of the building. Just around the corner, Mrs. Rinehart was speaking with a young woman Bessie didn’t recognize. However, given the tape recorder hanging from a strap over her shoulder and the microphone she was holding, this had to be Juliana Ross, the radio reporter.
“Mrs. Stormont, have you heard the terrible news?” Mrs. Rinehart called out to her.
“Yes, it’s awful,” Bessie said. She turned to the young woman. “You must be Miss Ross. I’m Elizabeth Stormont. You might know my granddaughter; she’s a reporter, too. She goes by the name Charley Hall.”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Stormont, everyone knows Charley Hall. She’s a real inspiration for us girls trying to break into the reporting racket. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Bessie smiled as the young woman fumbled the microphone to free her hand in order to take the one Bessie had extended in greeting.
“I feel so badly,” Mrs. Rinehart said. “I was even inside the building when the lout stole the money. Not that I could hear much outside the kitchen, what with the boiling of the soup and running water for the dishes.”
“Didn’t you want to watch the parade? Knowing you, I’m sure you had everything for the lunch well in hand. You could have spared a few minutes to go with the other ladies,” Bessie said gently.
Mrs. Rinehart shrugged. “You’ve seen one parade, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Besides, I hate being outside when those bells start up. Between them and the commotion from the parade, I get a headache just thinking of it.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Miss Ross added. “With all that noise from those tolling bells, I had to come inside just to record the intro to my story.”
“Intro?” Bessie asked.
“Yeah, it’s the bit with just me talking, explaining about the parade.”
“Well, thank you both. I should speak with Mrs. Cuthbert. I understand she’s taking this all very badly.”
“If you give me a moment, I’ll get you a cup of tea to take to her.” Mrs. Rinehart ducked through the door into the kitchen.
Miss Ross looked over her shoulder and leaned in closer. “Just between you and me, I’ve heard that the Cuthbert family has fallen on difficult times. She had to let her driver go, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.” Bessie took a step back and forced her face to relax into a neutral expression. She despised gossip.
From the furrow between Mrs. Rinehart’s eyebrows and her pursed lips as she appeared from the kitchen, the Overstreet’s housekeeper had overheard the comment and felt the same about it.
Still, opportunity and motive: isn’t that what they always look for in those detective novels? Mrs. Cuthbert was alone when she supposedly went to the ladies’ room. And if she was in financial trouble…
“I brought a cup for you, too, Mrs. Stormont.” Mrs. Rinehart interrupted Bessie’s contemplations by handing her a tray with two teacups, a small pitcher of milk and a bowl of sugar, and then returned to the kitchen.
Bessie pushed open the door to the reverend’s study. “Hello, Mrs. Cuthbert, I’ve brought you some tea.” In the dim light, she saw Cassandra Cuthbert push herself up into a seated position on the leather sofa. “It’ll help restore you.”
“I don’t think tea is going to be enough,” Mrs. Cuthbert said.
Bessie placed the tray on the coffee table and took a seat on the sofa as well. “I doubt very much Reverend Gallagher has anything stronger; this is a United Church, after all.”
“I wasn’t suggesting—” the woman began, and then realizing Bessie had been teasing, she tried to return the older woman’s grin. “Thank you, Mrs. Stormont.”
Bessie watched Mrs. Cuthbert stir only a smidgeon of milk into her cup. She added a generous dollop of milk and two scoops of sugar into her own: luxuries after the deprivations of the war.
“How are you doing, dear?” Bessie asked after both had taken their first sips.
“I am crushed. I just don’t know how this could have happened. Oh, Mrs. Stormont, I’ve only just taken over as president. Now, everyone will think I’m incompetent.”
“I understand your worry, but I was asking about you, dear. How are you doing? I know you lost your son in the war. He was in the Royal Navy, I believe. These last few years couldn’t have been easy for you and your husband.”
Mrs. Cuthbert stared down into her teacup. When she raised her gaze her lovely hazel eyes stared off at a memory hovering over Bessie’s shoulder. “It’s been difficult, I’m not going to lie,” she said quietly. “My husband is so overwrought by Norman’s death, he hasn’t been able to return to work fully, and that’s meant we’ve had to make some personal sacrifices.” Her expression cleared and she returned her gaze to Bessie. “But you know what that’s like, I’m sure.”
“Yes, we’ve all had to make sacrifices of some sort in recent years. But perhaps you would benefit from the widows’ and orphans’ fund. After all, you lost your son—”
“Oh, no!” Mrs. Cuthbert’s teacup rattled in its saucer, and she set it down quickly. “We may have had to let our driver go, but we are still far better off than many others. I’d never take a penny of the money meant for—”
The rest of her sentence was cut off by the tolling of the eleven o’clock church bells.
When they quieted, Bessie rose and excused herself. She had a phone call to make. She knew who’d taken the money.
Do you know who took the money?
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Bessie’s call was to the Kingston Police Department. When constables Marillo and Adams arrived, they searched Juliana Ross’s radio bag and found the missing cash. The reporter put up no resistance.
When asked why, Miss Ross said all that money proved too great a temptation for a single woman seeking independence. She had been interviewing members of the crowd waiting for the parade when she saw Mrs. Bollinger arrive. As a member of St. George’s congregation, she recognized her and realized her purpose in coming. Miss Ross snuck into the church through a side door and waited for the women to leave the study. She then slipped in (to her amazement the door was unlocked), took the money and then left through the side door again. She then went to join the three women just as the parade started, pretending to come from among the crowd.
“She was too cocky and that was her downfall,” Bessie said as the young woman was escorted to the police squad car. “If she had just taken the money and left, no one would be the wiser. But she didn’t leave. She boldly joined you to watch the parade and then accepted your invitation to come inside for a cup of tea.”
“How did you know?” Mrs. Gallagher asked.
Bessie pointed up. “Miss Ross claimed the noise from the bells drove her into the church to record the introduction to her story. But the bells toll on the hour. In this case, they rang out at ten o’clock, the start of the parade, when she was outside with you. This means she lied about when and why she came into the church.”