Chapter Four of the Charlie and Declan Cowriting Project, written with Harriet Stuart.
Charlie sat down next to Declan on his couch while the policeman took a seat in a chair opposite them after clearing off a stack of Declan’s photographs and newspapers off of the chair and onto the ground with unnecessary roughness. Beside her, Declan winced.
“What exactly is this about, Inspector?” Charlie asked innocently, crossing her legs in his direction and running a hand through her hair.
“Constable, actually. Constable Jackson.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Charlie said, smiling at him. “I was just thinking you have the bearing of an inspector.”
Constable Jackson’s expression softened slightly, and he smiled at her. “One day, perhaps, miss.”
“Undoubtedly. But what is this about?”
“Some evidence has been uncovered possibly linking Mr. Erikson to a murder that occurred earlier this afternoon. I’d simply like to ask him a few questions concerning it.”
“A murder?” Charlie asked, brow furrowing. “I assure you, Constable, Mr. Erikson couldn’t possibly be guilty.”
“I can speak for myself,” Declan said, glaring at Charlie. “And yes. I can’t possibly be guilty.”
“We will be the ones deciding that,” Constable Jackson said. He pulled out a small notebook. “Are you the Declan Erikson who has been supplying Norman Jameston with illegal alcohol on and off for the past year and a half?”
“No,” Declan said. Charlie resisted the urge to sigh. He was trying much too hard to sound surprised. “I’m a photographer. I have a job.”
“You wouldn’t mind if I obtained a sample of your handwriting and signature for comparison to numerous receipts we found in his establishment, then?”
“I really feel that that is unnecessary, Constable,” Charlie said. “And regardless, what does the alleged supply of alcohol have to do with a murder?”
“We have witnesses that claim that Mr. Erikson went into Mr. Jameston’s… establishment shortly before the time of the murder. Through the receipts, we have confirmation that he was there.”
The nearly burnt-out cigarette fell from Charlie’s fingers to the floor. “Norman wasn’t the one who was killed, was he?”
“He was, miss. Did you know him, too?” Constable Jackson’s eyes narrowed. He may not have been the sharpest, flirting with a woman in a suspect’s home, but he could make the connection that anyone who knew a seller of illegal alcohol might be a purchaser of illegal alcohol. Charlie silently cursed at herself.
“He was the owner of the milliner’s shop,” she said. “Of course I knew him. I had no idea he was involved in the alcohol trade, though…” Hopefully the constable would believe the lie. Or at least, hopefully the murder was a more pressing subject.
Not that that made her feel better. Relying on Norman’s death to keep her own name clean… Still, it was a good thing they had stopped at her father’s shop so she could drop off the alcohol she’d bought instead of bringing it here…
“Regardless, Mr. Erikson was seen going into the shop shortly before. Mr. Erikson?”
“I was hardly there five minutes,” Declan said. “As your witnesses can surely confirm.”
“You were the only individual seen going in,” Constable Jackson said.
“And he left with me,” Charlie said. “Not five minutes after arriving.”
Constable Jackson turned back to Declan. “Oh, really? And why were you at a milliner’s?”
“He was meeting me, of course,” she told him. Where was this lie going?
“At a milliner’s?” The constable raised an eyebrow. “Did you buy a hat?”
“Yes!” Declan said brightly. “Charlie, did you leave it in the back? Why don’t you go get it? It should be in the closet…”
“Of course, darling,” she said, lightly touching his shoulder before standing and going into the backroom again. Apparently they would be playing a couple. That worked.
Charlie opened his closet, and started rifling through his clothes, looking for a hat that could reasonably pass as a lady’s. He had so many outfits… poor ones, rich ones, construction workers, office managers, even women’s dresses… everything. She suspected it was for his photography—but why would you need construction workers’ clothing for photography? He was a mystery to her. Eventually she found a cloche hat, which she placed on her own head, adjusting slightly in the ornate mirror that was still on the table in the corner of the room.
She was about to leave when she spotted Declan’s button collection, still sitting on his bed. The grey button from his diplomat’s coat was right on top… Not putting too much thought into it, Charlie took the button and slipped it into her purse, then put on a pretty smile and exited into the sitting room again.
“We both agreed it was quite lovely,” she said to Constable Jackson, waving a hand in the direction of the hat. “Isn’t that right, darling?”
Declan smiled. Only a slight twitch in his fingers gave him away. “You’d look lovely in anything.”
She grinned at him, sitting on the couch again. She slid closer so their legs touched and took his hand. “We came here immediately after. Declan’s a photographer. We wanted to take some photographs.”
“Memories are fleeting, after all.” He squeezed her hand.
“Best to save them while we can.” Charlie looked up at him. “Before the moment’s gone.” Declan smiled at her, and it seemed almost… genuine.
Constable Jackson cleared his throat. “You’re his alibi, then?”
“I suppose I must be. I haven’t left his side since, oh… two this afternoon?”
“Hm. Mr. Jameston was killed, we think, at about three.”
“I assure you, we were quite occupied at that time,” Charlie said, letting a slightly suggestive smile cross her lips and leaning up against Declan.
Constable Jackson eyed Charlie, and then Declan. “I suppose you’re clear… for now.” He sighed. “This was our best lead… can you sign this, miss? In case we need you to testify again, if we find more evidence against Mr. Erikson?”
“I’d be glad to,” she said, taking the paper and pen from him and scribbling out her signature on the line, then printing Charlotte O’Brian beneath it. “Will you be needing anything else? We were hoping to go and get ice cream before you interrupted…”
“An explanation of the receipts, perhaps?” Constable Jackson asked.
“I’m sure that this man isn’t the only Declan Erikson in the entirety of New York City,” Charlie said.
“Even still, we need to cover all our bases, miss. Mr. Erikson, if you could retrieve a sample of your handwriting, please? A bill or similar?”
“I don’t believe you have a warrant for that, Constable,” Charlie said, her voice hardening some. “Mr. Erikson does not have to provide you with anything.”
Constable Jackson’s face reddened. “Well— I— We had suspicion—”
“Mere unfounded suspicion is not grounds to illegally obtain Mr. Erikson’s handwriting. As I’m sure you know, Constable.”
Constable Jackson stood up. “Fine. But we will be back if we can’t find any other suspects. And you’re on our records now, Mr. Erikson… These days, alcohol is a crime.” Constable Jackson grimaced. “Stay out of trouble. Both of you.”
“We will, Constable,” Charlie said, grinning at him again. “If you wouldn’t mind…” She motioned to the door. Reluctantly, he left the room, slamming the apartment door behind him.
Charlie let out her breath and slumped back against the couch as soon as he was gone. Declan leaned back next to her, slowly, like he didn’t trust the couch. His face was white, and his hands were shaking. He held one up before him, watching the little tremors, and then ran his hand across his face.
“Are you all right, Declan?” Charlie asked gently.
“I…” Declan put his hand down, but didn’t open his eyes.
Declan opened his eyes. “You have no idea. What you just did.”
“I think I just stopped him from arresting you. Unless… you wanted to be arrested?” She pulled out her cigarettes and offered him one.
He took it, his fingers shaking. “I can’t be arrested, Charlie. I’ve been playing such a dangerous game… I’m not supposed to be doing anything illegal… I can’t be arrested.”
“Good thing I was here, then.” She clicked open her lighter and lit the cigarette for him, then lit her own. She slowly exhaled a thin stream of smoke, trying to let the breath take as long as possible.
Declan rested his cigarette in the ashtray on his table, then reached into his pocket and leaned towards Charlie. She wasn’t sure what he wanted. All she knew was that she had been numb ever since the constable had said Norman was dead.
He wasn’t supposed to be dead. Not Norman. He… He was practically a second father to her, and… And why was Declan so close right now? Looking at her like… like he had the other night…
Declan put one hand on her shoulder, running it down her back until he found the button that kept the neck of her dress closed in the back. With the other hand, he held up a knife.
Charlie tried to scoot away, but she hit the arm of the couch and didn’t have anywhere else to go. “What are you doing?” she exclaimed.
Declan flipped out the knife blade. “Hold still, unless you want to get hurt…” He put his other arm around her, the knife still in his hand.
“What are you doing?” she repeated slower.
“I’m saving the moment.” The cold handle of the knife touched her back, and then there was a tiny snip, and Declan took his hands away. “They pass too quickly, remember? So I save them. When they’re important. And you just saved my life—for free.” Declan smiled, slightly. “That’s the most important kind of moment.”
It wasn’t for free, Charlie thought, a pang of sadness flashing through her heart. He could think it was, though. For now.
“So you took my button. Is this a habit? Stealing the buttons of every important person in your life?”
“Yes. It’s a family tradition.” Declan pocketed the button. “My mother has two rules: never take a life, and never forget anyone who saves yours. This is how we do that.”
Charlie shook her head a little. “So you come from a family of button snatchers. That somehow doesn’t surprise me.”
“Yes. See, you don’t want to meet them.” Declan stood up. “So… do you still want to go get ice cream?”
“I…” She hesitated.
Norman was dead. And she was about to get ice cream with Declan? What was wrong with her?
“Yes, I’d like to get ice cream,” she said softly.
“Okay.” He glanced at her. “Charlie… I take it you knew Norman? Well?”
She nodded. “Yes. Yes, I knew him well. Did… Did you?”
Declan shook his head. “He was only a business contact. But… he always seemed like a very nice man. Not everyone I sold to was like that. Most were rough men. But Norman… was nice. I don’t know who I’ll sell to now. And I don’t want…” Declan sighed. “Murderers just bring trouble with them. I can’t afford trouble, Charlie… I’ve been too reckless as it is.”
“I thought you were a professional trouble-seeker?” she said, slipping on a mask to hide the slowly growing ache in her heart. It was all she knew how to do. “I thought we were peers in that business.”
Declan smiled slightly. “We are. But as much as I am an expert at trouble… Charlie…” He turned to look at her, his face still pale. “Even I have my limits. Being suspected of murder, being arrested… I can’t do that.”
She stood up and faced him. “Then we should make sure that doesn’t happen. Let’s find trouble, Declan. And let’s bring it to justice.”
“What?” Declan took a step back.
“Someone murdered Norman. I know it wasn’t you. But the police are going to keep thinking that until presented with a more logical suspect. So let’s find the person who really did kill him.”
“You want us to track down a murderer?” Declan chuckled. “I just told you. This is where I draw the line for trouble. There are police for a reason, Charlie. They’ll find whoever killed Norman. Don’t worry about me. I’ll just… lie low until this blows over.”
“Maybe it’s not you I’m worried about,” she snapped, then winced. That wasn’t the way to win him over. “Maybe I’m just afraid that the police are incompetent and my friend will never be given justice.” She paused and took a step toward him, dipping her head a little. “And… and maybe I am worried about you. I… I don’t want to lose someone else I care about.” There. That was better.
“If you want to keep me safe, then don’t force me to play detective with you.”
Stubborn, she thought. Maybe the game would be ending sooner than she’d thought. Declan was fun—but Norman was her family. “Fine then. I’ll handle things alone.”
“You’re not serious?”
She very much was serious. And Declan was being boring. She was beginning to think she may have overestimated his potential as a distraction…
“Charlie,” Declan continued. “You don’t have to do anything about this. It’s not your fault—I’m sorry Norman was killed, but you don’t have to get involved. The police will sort it out, and now that you’ve given me an alibi, we can just step back. And anyway… they’re not going to find another Declan Erikson. I need to get out of here before they come back to arrest me for smuggling.”
“Then leave,” she said. “Save yourself. But I’m not letting this go so easily. I’m sorry, Declan. But I have to do something.”
Declan sighed. “It’s not safe.”
Charlie laughed. “Do you really think that matters to me? If I cared about playing it safe… I never would have kissed you.”
“You really do love trouble.” Declan shook his head. “But what would your father say to that, Miss O’Brian? I might have a true story to tell him. Unless—” His eyes twinkled, “—you give me my photograph.”
“Help me find the murderer and I’ll give it back.” She crossed her arms. “Otherwise, leave me alone to do this work. It’s your choice.”
“Be the Watson to my Sherlock Holmes,” she said.
“That’s unflattering. And very involved.” Declan turned away.
“Do you want your photograph back or not?” Charlie crossed her arms and stared him down.
“Yes, I want the photograph,” Declan said. “But I want to not be arrested even more.” He paused. “I think.”
And this was why she was still playing with him. The boy was ridiculously attached to that photograph… Why?
“I think it’s time for you to make a more concrete decision about what you want for your life, Mr. Falker.”
Declan laughed. “If my family couldn’t make me choose, you most certainly can’t, Miss O’Brian.” He took a few steps toward the door, then turned back to her and ran his hand through his red hair again. “You’re serious. You’re going to go look for a murderer… all on your own…” He looked so concerned. He was really so innocent for someone who spent his time in speakeasies and smuggled liquor. She was a little girl to him, and so he wanted to protect her.
The question was, should she let him think he could?
“You really care that much?” Charlie asked him quietly. “Why? I’ve given you an out. You don’t need to be involved in the slightest. So why do you care what I do?”
Declan looked at her. Hard. “Because you’re a pretty girl, with a father who loves you, and a quick wit. I don’t want to see harm come to you.” He smirked. “And besides—if something happens to you, how am I supposed to get my photograph back?”
“You realize,” she said slowly, “that if you don’t help me, I’m just going to do it myself anyways. And you’ll have a lot better chance of keeping me out of harm if you come along.”
Declan sat down on the couch and put his head in his hands. “I am never kissing a girl. Ever again.”
She sat down next to him. “Does that mean… you’re going to help?”
He looked up at her. “Damn it, it does. And then I am leaving. Because I was wrong—you’re not my colleague. You’re definitely my superior when it comes to the business of making trouble.”
“Trouble is easy,” she said. “Trouble is exciting.” She stood up again. “And you really shouldn’t say never. You have no idea what moments the future may hold.”
“You are going to ruin me. You realize that you could get yourself arrested, right? Either for the trouble we’re about to get into, or for consorting with someone who’s going to be caught as a bootlegger in… oh, probably two or three days?”
“I suppose that just means we have two or three days to keep you from getting caught. And don’t worry. I excel at avoiding arrest.”
“You had better.” Declan stood up and walked to the door. “So, Sherlock, are we still doing ice cream?”
She smirked. “Ready when you are, Watson.”
He held open the door for her, and, still wearing his hat, she stepped out into the hallway. After grabbing a camera—a smaller, portable one, not the one that set onto his tripod—he followed her, locking the door behind them.