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Harry Paul Lonsdale's
A Nicholas Chase Cigar Mystery
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Chapter One
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TO THE RIGHT of the white door stood a man-size barechested figure with fringed buckskin leggings, brightly headed belt with a sheathed knife, moccasins, and multicolored feather headdress. The right arm of this fanciful American Indian rose in a graceful arc. The hand, forming a kind of salute, shielded squinting black eyes. The cupped left hand cradled a bundle of wooden cigars.
Six months after this artifact of American merchandising had been set up in front of the store, the Indian vanished, purloined by stealth in the dead of night.
In its place Nick Chase had found a hand-printed note:
We have your Indian. He will be returned unharmed upon delivery at high noon tomorrow to the foot of the statue of John Harvard a box of twenty-five superior cigars. These cigars must be suitable to the elevated stature of the survivors of a brutal testing of the mettle of a blessed band of men who are likely to be this nation's political leaders in the decades to come.
WARNING! Inferior cigars will be an invitation to a calamitous outcome.
Assigned to investigate the theft, Detective Jack Lerch of the Cambridge police force asked Nick, "Did you see a movie some years ago about Harvard Law School students called The Paper Chase?"
"The only movie I remember seeing about Harvard," Nick said impatiently, "was a sappy thing called Love Story."
"I believe The Paper Chase was also a book before being made into a film. The law professor in it was played by John Houseman. This was before he made TV commercials for a Wall Street firm. If you'd seen the movie you would have learned that the first year of law at Harvard is quite arduous. Those who complete it in real life have been known to want to blow off a little steam. I think your Indian was just too tempting a target. The leader of these bandits probably passed your store every day on the way to class. I venture to say he could even be one of your regular customers."
After pondering this for a moment, Nick gave a quick nod. "You may be right. I know a young man I could nominate as a very likely suspect,"
"I remember when I was kid," Lerch went on, "I phoned places that sold cigarettes, tobacco, and cigars and asked if they had Prince Albert in a can. If the answer was yes I would yell, 'Well, let him out.' The taking of your Indian was probably the same sort of thing."
"On a somewhat larger and more daring scale," Nick said.
"Of course, I appreciate how you must feel about the theft, you being an ex-cop, so if you decide to press charges . . ."
Having pulled the Prince Albert-in-a-can joke himself, Nick said, "Forget it. I'll just let this silliness play out."
With cigars delivered as demanded, the Indian reappeared two nights later. Attached by tape to the hand holding the bundle of cigars was an envelope containing a postal money order for the cost of the cigars.
Reporting this by phone to Lerch, Nick laughed. "This was a pretty dumb gang of kidnappers, wouldn't you agree? One of these guys literally signed his name to the crime."
"If you want to prosecute I can pick him up," Lerch
replied. "Of course, a felony conviction will rule out a career in law for this poor guy."
Rather than being redeemed, the money order had been framed and displayed on the wall behind the sales counter, to be joined by thirteen others in as many years.
Also framed on the wall was an original copy of the world's most famous poem on cigars, "The Betrothed." In the handwriting of its author, Rudyard Kipling, it began:
Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout, For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.
Describing Maggie's demand that he choose between marrying her and continuing to smoke cigars, it concluded with:
A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke; And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke. Light me another Cuba: I hold to me first-sworn vows, If Maggie will have no rival, I'll have no Maggie for spouse!
Lest a passerby on the north side of Brattle Street miss the meaning of the traditional wooden icon of the American tobacco seller, a three-sided bay window displayed products for sale within. And an engraved bronze plaque to the left of the white door provided conclusive testimony to the nature of the business transacted by the proprietor:
No less true, and set aside all joke, From oldest time he ever dealt in smoke; His capital all smoke, smoke all his store, 'Twas nothing else; but lovers ask no moreAnd thousands enter daily at his door.
Above the entrance, raised gold-leaf letters on a dark green background proclaimed:
Always the Finest in Cigars, Tobacco, Pipes
Should a patron wish to know the particulars of the owner and how it happened that he had established such a store, he could obtain the answer by examining another item hung on the wall behind the cash register. Adjacent to the fourteen postal money orders was the framed cover and three pages from a nine-year-old edition of Cigar Smoker.
The magazine was noted for covers featuring celebrities with a cigar in hand or mouth; its debut issue in the spring of 1980 had featured W. C. Fields, followed in June by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the late Orson Welles in September, and in the Christmas edition movie actress Meg Holly in a floppy Santa Claus hat. Subsequent years had featured a glittery roster of stellar names in popular culture. Yet for the magazine's tenth anniversary the figure on the magazine cover had on the dress blue uniform of a lieutenant of the New York Police Department.
Why the publication had chosen to put Nick Chase on its cover had been suggested in the accompanying headline:
Cigar Smoker's Latest Hall of Famer
Went From Top Cop to Premier Cigarist
The article inside had pointed out, Nicholas Chase had been a tall, flat-bellied, lion-maned, hard homicide detective with a square no-nonsense jaw and tight street-smart half smile with a cigar jutting from it like an accusing finger. Back then the detective of the NYPD's murder squad had been the sharpest sleuth to stalk shadowy streets of a great metropolis since Sherlock Holmes first donned a deerstalker hat to shake Dr. John H. Watson from sound slumber with 'The game is afoot.'
"Some ten years later," the article went on, "Nick is
still six feet two, but his weight has gone from 195 pounds to 215 and his belt size has expanded from 38 to 42. The mane is thinner and silver-gray. Sleek three-piece suits tailored by Brooks Brothers, which he wore in New York City during his police career, have been replaced by cardigan sweaters, color coordinated trousers, and tweed jackets with suede elbow patches chosen for maximum comfort rather than to provide room for a detective's shoulder holster and snubbed-nose .38-caliber revolver."
What had not changed, noted the article, was Nick's passion for cigars. Nor had he abandoned the brand he smoked as a dapper crime buster. It was an H. Upmann Lonsdale. But the 1962 American embargo on imports from Communist Cuba forced Nick to switch from Havana-mades to those rolled by exiles in the Dominican Republic.
Another difference between the Nick Chase of the 1960s and the 1990s was where he obtained his Lonsdales. As a cop he had bought them a few at a time in Nat Sherman's store in Manhattan. Now he kept boxes of them in stock in his own store on historic Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Readers of the magazine profile learned he had been born in 1934 in Brooklyn and had joined the New York Police Department after graduating from high school in 1952. Married in 1960 to a beauty named Maggie Singleton, he became a father in 1961. His son was named Kevin. Daughter Jean was born in 1967. Maggie died of cancer in 1969.
Promoted to the rank of detective in 1962, Nick had spent the next twenty years working homicides. Shot in the hip and relegated to desk duty, he retired with a full pension and a disability allowance the next year. Bored and tired of puttering around in a garden at the back of his house in New Rochelle, New York, he used his savings, proceeds of Maggie's life insurance policy, and funds from the sale of the New Rochelle house to lease the building on Brattle Street.
A few blocks from Harvard University, The Happy Smoking Ground soon ranked in the cigar industry's yearly survey as one of the top five small cigar stores in the United States. This had been why Cigar Smoker chose to add him to its "Cigar Hall of Fame" and put his photo on the cover. With the honor had come a lifetime free subscription to the magazine and an impressively weighty bronze plaque that now hung next to a frame that held his gold NYPD detective shield.
Kept in a drawer was the Smith & Wesson .38 police special revolver he bought on the day he had received the shield.
Though he had never been compelled to fire it, he had been forced to draw it four times. The last was the instant before he was shot by a young man who had then been cut down by the guns of other detectives. The youth had not survived long enough to learn that his bullet succeeded in killing a career. Had it not, Nick would not have left the police force, not become bored with his retirement, not decided to move close to his children, not gotten the idea to open a cigar store, and not been able, as he peered beyond the wooden Indian, to note the unusual appearance on Brattle Street early on a Monday morning of the man who had sold him the Kipling poem.
STANLEY RUPERT'S SUNDAY had began badly and gotten worse as it wore on.
First, while anticipating a couple of leisurely hours in the delightful company of Roger Woolley examining a new exhibition of Theodore Roosevelt letters and diaries in the Widener Library, he had been accosted by Jerome Lazarus.
With gaunt face as pale as death and scarecrow-thin arms flailing he had dashed across the foyer to the grand staircase below John Singer Sargent's World War Murals, shouting as he approached, "Stanley, it's urgent I speak to you."
"Can't you see Woolley and I are about to do the Roosevelt exhibit? Come to the shop at four o'clock. There's nothing that can't wait. Now please go away and leave Woolley and me to see the Roosevelt show in peace."
Turning aside, Lazarus said dejectedly, "I only hope four o'clock won't be too late."
Clearly stunned and embarassed, Woolley waited until Lazarus was gone and said, "I think you ought to talk with him now, Stan. He's terribly upset."
"Nonsense! This is another case of Lazarus proving that a Ph.D. after a man's name doesn't prevent him from making himself a jackass. He seems to become more bizarre day by day, and giving up smoking has only made him worse."
The Roosevelt papers, though cleverly arranged, had offered nothing worth more than a few minutes of lively discussion during a stroll to brunch at the Cambridge Hyatt Regency at a table with a splendid view of the Charles River. But two hours later as he and Woolley crossed Harvard Square he had seen an apparition that stopped him cold in his tracks.
"Stan, you look positively dreadful," Woolley exclaimed. "Are you ill?" Characteristically assuming the worse, he asked, "Is it your heart?"
Rather than explain the reason for that moment of alarm he lied. "My heart is perfect. It's indigestion. I shouldn't have had the clams for lunch." And with that, he and Wooley parted company.
Then four o'clock came and went without Lazarus keeping their appointment. When telephone calls to Lazarus's apartment proved unavailing, he had driven to Lazarus's address, saw no lights in his apartment's windows, and continued on to his own Victorian house on Cowperthwaite Street. When his phone rang he answered in expectation of hearing Lazarus's voice, only to have to listen to another pleading harrangue, the third in a week.
After hanging up he secured doors and windows downstairs, turned on the lights of front and back entrances, and retreated to his bedroom. Leaving the door ajar to see the shadow should anyone move along the corridor, he positioned his reading chair to face the door and settled down with a Luger pistol in his lap.
Looking around the bedroom, he found the walls lined with shelves of books concerning the dubious history of mankind. But he also found the record of his own lengthy and eventful life: framed pictures of a baby in his mother's arms, bow-tied schoolboy with a forced smile in formal pose while in the sixth grade, a self-conscious, selfdoubting teenager in ill-fitting tuxedo beside a girl who had been his senior prom date, whose name six decades had erased from his memory.
Beside these innocent moments of his life was a portrait of a sad woman trapped in a failing marriage entered into during the war. Next to this, photos of the daughter she had been forced to raise alone: Millicent as a child and on the
day her father did not show up to give her hand in marriage, and Millie's son Rex at age four, now grown into young manhood.
A slightly-out-of-focus snapshot taken the year before his younger brother Norman's untimely death showed Stanley, Norman, and Norman's son Harry in front of a Las Vegas casino, proving the saying that the acorns do not fall far from the oaks.
A camera had caught Harry's future uncle and the youth who would be Rex's grandfather near war's end with Lazarus, Sid Gold, and Johnny Little. Though helmeted and unshaven, they looked like boys playing a game of soldiers who deserved spankings by their fathers for smoking the cigars jutting from their cocky smirks. A second photo taken on the deck of Lazarus's seaside retreat showed the quartet a few years older, but even more smug because they had by a twist of history become wealthy beyond their richest dreams.
"Oh what a tangled web we weave," he muttered as his eyes shifted anxiously from the pictures on the wall toward the door, "when first we practice to deceive."
Yet, Stanley thought, as Matthew Arnold had observed, history was a great Mississippi of falsehood. But not all the charlatans set their hands to writing. Stuart Mosley willfully twisted historical facts to suit theory in a paper proven more fraudulent than scholarly; George Dickson brazenly thought he could engage Stanley's expertise to swindle the entire world of fine art.
By exposing them he had validated Nietzsche, adopted doctrinaire of the Nazis, who espoused in The Twilight of the Idols that history amounted to nothing more than belief in the senses, the belief in falsehood. Watching the doorway, he wondered if he might have been footed by his own senses while crossing Harvard Square. Could what he thought he had seen really been, as he told Woolley, the clams at lunch? Had belly tricked eyes?
After long hours with neither flesh nor an avenging spirit appearing in the hallway, he got out of the chair, carried the heavy Luger to a window, and peered between the slanted roofs of nearby houses and beyond them to the black swath of Memorial Drive that would soon bustle with cars of the morning rush taking people to jobs in Cambridge and Boston.
Beyond the cities' geographic divider in pale and tenuous first light , the view of the Charles River seemed to be the handiwork of a superb landscape painter. Soon a slender figure in a racing scull spoiled the illusion. Bringing life to the scene and looking like a black water spider, the combined silhouettes of rower and boat left a meager wake that lengthened and widened in a V so shallow that it dissolved before touching either shore.
As he turned away from the window, a movement near the open door caused him to leap back with fright. Jerking up his arm and pointing the pistol, he realized the movement had been himself reflected in the glass showcase that protected his collection of antique cigar boxes.
Eyes drifting down from his backward image settled upon a mahogany humidor. Smiling, he laid the gun beside it and stroked the box tenderly, for nothing in his life had ever proved quite so effective in dispelling his anxieties, both real and mistaken, as opening it, selecting a cigar, lighting it, and then losing himself in eddying drifts of clouds of smoke.
Throughout the history of the five centuries since Europeans had been introduced to cigars by the natives of the Western hemisphere, every aspect of smoking tobacco had been construed as a metaphor. To smoke was to recognize in the ash and in the smoke itself the transitory nature of life, for what was the fate of man but to flare up for a time and then burn out?
Sir Walter Raleigh, he recalled, had bet Queen Elizabeth I he could weigh the smoke of his pipe. When the bemused monarch took him up on the wager, he began by weighing his fully packed pipe. He then smoked it until only a little ash remained in the bowl and placed the pipe on the scale again. The difference in the weights, he claimed, was the weight of the smoke.
It was a trick that could not have worked had Sir Walter tried it with a cigar. Smoke tobacco in a pipe, and the pipe is left intact and tangible. A cigar vanishes with its smoke.
Lifting the humidor's gleaming mahogany lid in anticipation of dispersing shadows of haunted memory and a disturbing vision that had not vanished like cigar smoke during the long vigilant night, he found the cedar-lined box empty. Ordinarily this would have meant sending his assistant to fetch two or three boxes from his private locker in Nick Chase's humidor room. But as he gazed into the box, sinking disappointment quickly gave way to soaring inspiration. The key to the problems of his troubling Sunday, he realized, was to visit The Happy Smoking Ground himself.
Consequently, two hours after the sun rose over the cities flanking the Charles he passed with the indifference of years of familiarity Nick Chase's wooden Indian and poetic plaque, dashed under the green sign, and stepped into the store.

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Twilight Lane, from Avon Books, at The Online Mystery Network,
is produced and published by Newfront Productions, Inc.

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