Set in 1950’s Seattle, The Hatbox Murders offers a delicious period mystery that’s perplexing enough to stump the Emerald City’s best detective—as well as mystery fans everywhere.
Inspector Michael Riggs doesn’t believe in “woman’s intuition,” but when head stenographer Margaret Baker insists that her friend and co-worker Ruby Pike most certainly did not jump off a bridge to end her life, Riggs reluctantly agrees to re-examine the closed suicide case.
He quickly learns that Ruby’s mousy cousin hated her while her rich uncle adored her, showering her with expensive gifts. Her shady boyfriend had a good reason to be rid of Ruby, but he also has an alibi. And there’s the handsome banker from her social circle, who had a compelling motive for getting Ruby out of the way. Add to that a tight-lipped boss facing financial ruin, a jealous wife, and a bitter landlady whose heirloom jewelry was pilfered, and it doesn’t take long for Riggs to realize that Margaret’s feminine intuition just might be right after all.
Unfortunately for Riggs, the only clues he can find are a gold watch with a cryptic inscription, a photo of a missing dress, and a pink hatbox. As the police chief starts to boil over, Riggs decides to call on Victoria Bell, an alluring Prussian librarian with a knack for solving crimes who has helped him with other cases. But this time, Bell is determined to stay out of the limelight. She only agrees to help with the case if her assistance remains a secret.
When the most likely suspect disappears and a second murder is confirmed, Bell and Riggs must pull out all the stops to identify the murderer without blowing Victoria’s cover.
Michael Riggs froze in the doorway. He didn’t mind Mondays as a rule, but he preferred to start them alone and with a cup of coffee.
He had the coffee in his hand, but he wasn’t thrilled with the woman standing in front of his desk. He didn’t like the distressed look on her face, and he didn’t like the way she was clenching the morning newspaper.
Riggs was still standing in the doorway when she glanced over at him. She had light brown hair that was pulled up neatly under her blue felt hat. And whoever had designed her dress would have felt gratified to see her wearing it.
The woman didn’t start talking right away, so the Inspector stepped bravely into his office and closed the door behind him.
He didn’t say good morning. One, because he resented her being there. And two, because it would encourage her to start talking. Instead, Riggs took off his gray fedora and hung it on the coat rack. The woman waited while the inspector walked over to his large wooden desk and sat down. He set his coffee in front of him: the one part of his morning that was still going well. He rubbed his mustache. The woman’s perfume was faint. The lilac scent reminded Riggs of his wife.
The woman was about to say something when a seagull landed on the ledge just outside the window. While she stared at the large bird, Riggs sized her up. She was about twenty-seven years old, well-poised, and fashionably dressed. The fullness of her dress skirt flattered her glossy handbag. Her hat was set with a felt flower and thin netting that swept above her brown eyes. She wore a strand of neat pearls around her neck that complemented her white gloves.
When she pulled off her gloves, Riggs wasn’t surprised to see a diamond ring on her left finger. Based on her clothes, the inspector guessed she was either a secretary or a sales girl at one of the nicer department stores. And based on the size of her diamond, Riggs guessed she wouldn’t have to keep working after she was married. But there was something about her that seemed familiar.
She shifted the newspaper between her hands. Riggs could see a headline about Marilyn Monroe’s recent marriage, but it wasn’t a Hollywood story that brought this woman here on a Monday morning. Most young women had never met a policeman, let alone barged into a Sergeant Inspector’s office. If this woman was half as smart as she was pretty, she had something important to say.
Riggs indicated one of the wooden chairs. “Please have a seat, Miss—”
“Baker,” she answered, in a voice that was steady but not overly confident. The room was so quiet he could hear the fabric of her skirt rustling as she sat down. “My name is Margaret Baker, and I understand you’re Sergeant Inspector Riggs. You’re the man in charge of murder investigations.”
Riggs took a swig of his coffee. It was mildly bitter. “That’s right. What can I do for you, Miss Baker?”
She unfolded the newspaper, and laid it out on his desk.
“Are you familiar with Roberta Pike? She died on the fifteenth of July, just over a week ago.”
Riggs glanced at the newspaper, although he didn’t need to. “My colleague is handling that investigation, Miss Baker,” he informed her. “Inspector Fisher is the man you want to talk to. His office is just—”
“I already talked to another investigator,” Miss Baker interrupted. “If Inspector Fisher is the man who’s been doing the investigation so far, he’s gotten it all wrong. I have to talk to someone else.”
Riggs absently rubbed a worn groove on his wooden desk. He objected to meddling with cases that weren’t assigned to him.
“The newspaper,” she continued, “The Seattle Post. It says Ruby jumped off the University Bridge. That’s not right.”
Riggs leaned back in his chair. “And what makes you say that?”
Margaret Baker took a deep breath. “Because Ruby would never commit suicide. She just wouldn’t.”
Riggs brought his coffee near his face until he could feel the steam. “Was Roberta Pike a relative of yours?”
“She was a friend,” Miss Baker explained. “I’m the head stenographer at Blackwell Enterprises. Ruby was the new girl.”
“I see. And how long had you known her?”
“Ruby only started working there three months ago,” Margaret admitted. “It was her first job as a stenographer, and I had to train her.”
“And you and she became friends?”
The woman nodded. “The other girls are friendly enough but they’re not very interesting; Ruby was different. She was so outgoing and confident. But Ruby was new to Seattle so she didn’t know many people. Since my fiancé was away on business, Ruby and I used to meet for dinner or to go to the cinema.”
“When did this start?”
“About six weeks ago.”
Riggs took a deep breath, but he kept his tone soft. “And did you know, Miss Baker, that your friend was in a tight spot financially?”
Margaret frowned. “No. Well, not exactly. I had the idea she wasn’t very good with her money, but she was quite young, you know. Ruby liked nice things, and sometimes it seemed like she was spending a lot more than she could afford. I know I earn four dollars more a week than she did, but I’m sure she spent more.”
Riggs leaned forward and asked, “And did you also know that on the night of the fifteenth, Miss Pike had a heated argument with her boyfriend, and he called off their relationship?”
Margaret Baker frowned.
Riggs suggested, “See here, Miss Baker, how about if you talk to Inspector Fisher, and tell him what’s on your mind? He’s a good inspector and a good listener. I know he’ll listen to what you have to say. Sometimes these things can be more complicated than they seem, and things don’t always work out the way they were intended, an accident—”
“No, Inspector,” Margaret objected. “I’m not just saying Ruby didn’t mean to commit suicide. It wasn’t an accident. I believe Ruby Pike was murdered.”
There was a long silence. For the first time in months, Inspector Riggs was without a case. His plan had been to take off his shoes, enjoy his coffee, and finally catch up on all the reports that he’d been neglecting. He wanted to send this young woman straight to Inspector Fisher where she belonged. Besides, he had a strict policy against jumping into another inspector’s work. It was a bad professional move and it was almost always a waste of time. Riggs had better things to do, but there was something compelling in Margaret Baker’s insistence.
Inspector Riggs finally sighed. “Okay, Miss Baker, tell me what you’ve got.”
“I know I didn’t know Ruby very long,” Margaret Baker admitted quickly, “but I can tell you that Ruby wasn’t the sort of girl to give into despair. She always saw solutions, even where no one else could, and she was always very determined.”
“But even happy people can get down,” Riggs reminded her.
“Not Ruby. She always saw a way out of her problems. They weren’t stopping points for her, just decisions. I don’t know how to explain her properly, but she was very confident. I suppose you could say Ruby was a little selfish, but she wasn’t the bad kind of selfish. Do you see what I mean? She wasn’t a sentimental sort of girl; she was the girl who always got what she wanted. She just wasn’t capable of anything else.”
“Let me ask you a direct question, Miss Baker. Do you have any proof—any bit of evidence whatsoever—that supports your suspicions?”
Margaret’s face fell. “No, Inspector, I don’t have any proof other than what I know about Ruby’s character—but that should be enough. I’ve talked to her family too, by the way. Not her parents, because they died before, but she has a cousin and an uncle. And they both feel the same way about it. Suicide just wasn’t in Ruby’s nature.”
“What about Ruby’s other friends, and your fiancé, Miss Baker? Do they all have the same opinion about her?”
“I only know her boyfriend, Sylvester, as an acquaintance, so I have no idea what he thinks. My fiancé never met her because she and I became friends after he’d left on an extended business trip. He’s been gone for the last four months, and he only just got back.”
Riggs opened his mouth to say something else, but Margaret went on talking.
“Ruby’s death wasn’t an accident because she wasn’t careless. And it couldn’t have been suicide because Ruby wasn’t the type—and that leaves only one explanation. Someone killed her.”
Riggs took a deep breath and finished his coffee. What he really needed was another cup, and he felt that what Miss Baker really needed was a sympathetic therapist. Death is never easy, and suicides are among the most touchy and painful in the business. But there was no proof of foul play. Ruby Pike was the new girl in the company. Margaret Baker was the head stenographer in charge of training her, and while Margaret Baker’s fiancé was away the two became good friends. Suddenly, Ruby is dead and Margaret feels guilty about moving on with her own life.
Riggs turned over the newspaper on his desk and was surprised to see a photograph of Margaret Baker, smiling back up at him from the social page. There she was in black and white, beside a tall, dark-haired man in gray suit. The photo caption read:
Mr. Otis Jenison, vice president at Jenison Co., returned yesterday from London where he has spent the last four months supervising the newly opened branch of Jenison Co. He was met at the airport by his mother, Mrs. Hubert Jenison, and his fiancé, Miss Margaret Baker.
Riggs looked at the young woman in front of him. The picture was charming, but it didn’t do justice to the woman sitting in his office. No wonder Margaret Baker had seemed so familiar; her social circles appeared in the newspapers. But she hadn’t tried to use her social connections nor her femininity to push her appeal. Instead, she’d come into Riggs’s office and argued as the dead woman’s friend.
“Miss Baker, assuming you are right, do you have any suspicions about who could have done it?”
Margaret shook her head. “No, I’ve thought and thought about it, and I just can’t imagine who would have done such a thing. But please, Inspector Riggs,” she appealed to him, “I know I don’t have proof and my beliefs are no sort of evidence the police can trust, but will you please look into the case? I know you’re more experienced than Inspector Fisher because he’s just an inspector, and you’re a sergeant inspector. That means you might see something he didn’t. I’m telling you, Ruby Pike was a wonderful, confident woman, and someone’s murdered her. Please, will you look into it?”
It was a reasonable request. Riggs took a deep breath and decided to toss his professional protocol and his good sense out the window. It would almost certainly amount to nothing. All he had to do was confirm Fisher’s findings before the police chief noticed.
“Okay, Miss Baker,” Riggs finally relented, “I’ll take a look at your friend’s file but I’m not promising anything. It will most likely turn out that your friend jumped or fell off that bridge.”