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Solve by Christmas

By Amber Schamel

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Chapter One
Denver, December 1, 1913

At last, Jasper Hollock, Private Investigator, was going to get his first real case. He cleared his throat to keep from letting out a whoop as he jumped from the trolley and dodged traffic across Broadway. After two years of monotonous union cases, it was about time. One of these days, he’d put criminals behind bars instead of employees out of work. This day would be his first step toward the destiny God had ordained for him.

His overcoat streamed behind him as his long strides carried him toward the Rudin Sugar Company building. The brick structure loomed ahead, lined with windows across the middle and top floors. A flash of movement signaled the employees were about to begin the day’s work.

Shoving his left hand into his pocket, he ensured the note was still present before opening the glass double door and slipping out of the cold. He’d come as soon as Denny appeared at his apartment door with the note. Dare say, he probably beat the errand boy back to the factory—hardly a fair brag considering he paid the trolley fee while the poor adolescent rode his bicycle through the slushy streets. But he needed to get more facts. The janitor’s short explanation was not anywhere near enough.

Details, people. Details. Didn’t they know life and death could be found in details?

He mounted the stairs two at a time to the second floor. Mr. Rudin’s secretary glanced up from his papers as Jasper passed. “Morning, Mr. Hollock.”

“Detective Hollock, if you don’t mind. Would you be so kind as to let Mr. Rudin know I must speak with him directly? I’m to take a look upstairs, and afterward, I will need to speak with him.”

The man raised an eyebrow above his monocle. “Already done, detective. I was just about to send for you.”

Jasper halted and turned around. “Were you?”

“Indeed. It appears Mr. Rudin would like to speak with you as well. Shall I show you in?” The elder man placed both his palms on the desk as if to rise.

“No, I have a short order of business first.” Spinning on his heel, Jasper continued down the hall. He could feel the secretary’s glare on his back. Old Mr. Stosch liked to keep things prompt, but this couldn’t wait.

Turning down another corridor, Jasper came upon the janitor standing sentry over the factory laboratory door, mop in hand. The man’s shoulders loosened, and his mop wavered. “There you are, Detective Hollock.”

“Now, now, Charlie. What’s all this? You said next to nothing in your note.”

“I couldn’t, sir. Didn’t want to raise an alarm without talking to you first.” The mop of hair on his head rivaled the one in his hand. He brushed gray strands out of his eyes. “I was coming to mop up before the boys begin, and I found the door ajar.”

Jasper chewed the inside of his cheek. The laboratory doors were never left unlocked, much less open. “Any sign of tampering?”

“None. Well…” Charlie’s eyes flitted to the doorway. “Leastwise as far as I can tell.”

Crouching to examine the knob and lock, Jasper searched the metal surface for scratches. After pulling his magnifier from his pocket, he held it up to the lock and surrounding area. He puffed a hot breath against it, but no grease or finger marks appeared. Curious, indeed.

“Detective, I locked up on Friday night, I know I did. I just can’t understand how it would have been open.”

Jasper took his time before standing. He patted Charlie’s shoulder. “Not to worry, man. We’ll get it sorted out.”

A sugary scent wafted through the room. Bright lights dangling from the ceiling gleamed on countless shelved glass vials, and various pieces of equipment standing at attention on desks lined up in smart rows—a drawer on one end hung partially ajar.

“Are you the only one with a key, Charlie?”

“The lab manager has one. And Mr. Rudin, of course.”

The windows along the far wall, facing Broadway, appeared neither broken nor tampered with, but a round splotch of wet darkened the wooden boards. The wetness stretched from the original site to the window and back again to the door. Charlie had apparently mopped up. “Was there some kind of spill in here recently?”

“Not that they’ve mentioned. I’m thinking it was done when whoever it was snooped around. There was a broken vial, too.”

Interesting. Jasper tucked that piece of information away for later. He took a brief stroll around the room. “Is this window usually left unlocked?”

Charlie’s boots squeaked as he crossed the floor. “No, I don’t see why it should be. Do you think the perpetrator came in that way? Then snuck out the door? That’d explain why it was open after I left it locked.”

Lifting the window frame, Jasper peered out. “How would one get up here without being seen from the street? Is there roof access somehow?”

“Dunno. I haven’t paid much attention. I guess I could go up and take a look.”

“Details, Charlie. Details. They’re important.” Jasper pulled his head back inside and shut the window securely. “When will the lab manager be in?”

“He usually comes in around nine, I believe.”

Jasper flipped open his pocket watch. Eight thirty-five. “I will have to return to question him then. Lock it up, won’t you? No one besides the manager comes in until I return. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Charlie’s chest puffed out. “No one in but him.”

“Thatta boy.” Jasper gave the janitor a nod and headed toward Mr. Rudin’s office. He could always think better when walking. If someone had broken into the lab, what might they want? And what harm could come to Mr. Rudin’s company because of it? Whatever the intent, Jasper would stop it before any harm touched his dear old patron.

“Could Mr. Rudin beg an audience with you now, Detective Hollock?”
Jasper rolled his eyes at the secretary’s sarcastic tone. “I’ll forgive you, Mr. Stosch. I couldn’t expect a secretary to understand matters of more pressing consequence than newspaper advertisements.”

Mr. Stosch folded the newspaper he’d been perusing and straightened his monocle. The man’s drooping brown eyes reminded him of an old hound. Perhaps it was a result of reading too many newspapers. “I read the newspaper by Mr. Rudin’s request, Mr. Hollock.” He stood and opened the door to the proprietor’s office. “Mr. Rudin, Detective Hollock to see you.”

“Yes, well, show him in. Oh, but come here a moment, Stosch.” Mr. Rudin waved them inside as he crossed from a filing cabinet. Half a grin hid under his curled white mustache, and instead of sitting, he rocked back and forth on his heels. “Do close the door.”

Jasper claimed the chair facing the desk and crossed one leg over his knee. Mr. Rudin was robust as ever, except for the lines between his eyebrows. Perhaps he hadn’t slept well.

Mr. Rudin gripped the back of the leather chair he stood behind. “Stosch, I was thinking.”

The secretary clasped his hands behind his back. “Yes, sir.”

“It is December the first today, getting right on toward Christmas. I’d like to give a little something to each of the employees. A gift of sorts. What do you recommend?” He leaned forward and extracted a candy from the dish on the corner of his desk.

“Well, sir, most workers would be pleased to get an early leave for the holiday.”

Mr. Rudin popped the candy in his mouth. “Quite right, but I expected to give them something tangible. Some memento of my appreciation for them. Perhaps a golden coin or something.”

Jasper smiled as he studied the elder man. Mr. Rudin was just that type of fellow. He’d been considerate and kind to Jasper’s mother when she arrived in Denver with nothing more than the clothes on her back and the babe in her arms. What would they have done if the Rudins hadn’t taken her in as housekeeper? Since then, the sugar baron had been like a father, teaching him how to golf and even shoot. With a pistol very much like the one now sitting in the man’s leather chair. How odd.

“Thank you, Stosch. That is all for now.” After the door closed behind the secretary, Mr. Rudin’s gaze shifted to Jasper. He pressed his lips together. “My boy, I have a new case for you.”

A grin spread across Jasper’s face. This was it. The moment he’d been waiting for. His employer would reveal some secret stolen from the lab, and he’d have his first case of any consequence.

Rudin took a breath and stepped around his chair. “I will warn you ahead of time…it won’t be an easy one.”

“I can handle it, sir.”

One white brow rose above Mr. Rudin’s deep-set eyes. “I’m a hard case.”
Jasper frowned. “Sir?”

Bending down, Mr. Rudin picked up the revolver. “I’ve struck a deal with God, Jasper, and you’re my angel.”

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