Carolina Cromwell and The Mystery of the Grand Duchess (Part One)
New York, September 1930
In a dingy first floor office in a tenement on the corner of Mission Street and Rhodes, a young woman sat on a dusty, chipped wooden desk. Her long, shapely legs were crossed beneath her navy-blue skirt, one ankle jerking impatiently, and she drummed nail-bitten fingers beside a blue cloche hat, with white rosette, which sat between her and the telephone. A white-buttoned blue jacket, with one of the buttons missing, was carefully folded over the back of the wooden chair. Crimped dark hair framed her face, with its teetering arch of eyebrow pencil and crimson cupid’s bow of lipstick.
The office was otherwise bare except for a battered filing cabinet, a chipped wooden coat stand, and a tired looking clock on the wall showing the time of 2:35. The young woman looked at the clock and frowned, as if it were responsible for some slight or misdemeanour. She picked up a fashion magazine lying next to the desk telephone. It fell obediently open at a page showing an elegant young woman in a fur stole and glittering jewellery, her slim hand resting lightly on the arm of a dazzlingly handsome young man in top hat and tails. The woman on the desk sighed, and held the picture up before her.
Two distant bangs followed each other in quick succession, as if a reluctant and heavy door had been shoved open and then closed again. Heavy footsteps trudged up the stairs, and the woman looked expectantly at the semi-glazed office door. Its black lettering, edged with gold, was just visible through the frosted glass, and from inside read GGELF RETLAW
A loud, querulous, nasal woman’s voice screeched its way down from the next floor. ‘Mr Flegg! That young woman’s in your office again! She knew where to find the key! You shouldn’t tell people where you leave the key! Mr Flegg! Are you listening to me?’
There was a momentary pause before a deep, weary voice replied, ‘Yes, Mrs Angelis. I’m listening.’
‘You should be here to greet clients, Mr Flegg! That’s no way to run a business! Even a detective business!’
‘No, Mrs Angelis.’
‘My husband Theodore, thirty-five years he ran a business! Always met his clients! Twenty years gone come January. God rest his soul.’
‘Yes, Mrs Angelis. At peace. I envy him.’
‘You say what?’
‘I say nothing, Mrs Angelis. God rest your husband. Thank you for listening out for everyone who comes through the door. How’s the clairvoyancy business? Good, I’m glad. Have a good day, Mrs Angelis.’
The office door opened. A small, middle aged, barrel-shaped man, with a poorly waxed moustache, a chequered suit and a shabby felt hat came through it. He stopped and viewed the young woman without enthusiasm.
‘What the hell you doing here, Birdie?’
Birdie pouted. ‘You’re supposed to be back in your office at two. That Mrs Angelis, she said you should be back at two. Where were you?’ Her voice was a higher and younger version of the unseen Mrs Angelis.
The barrel-shaped man moved into the room, closing the door behind him. He hung the hat on the coat stand. ‘You mean you can tell the time?’
She grimaced at him. ‘I can tell the time, all right, Walter Flegg.’ Her voice went up another register. ‘I can tell it’s time you started paying me.’
He winced. ‘You been to the elocution lady this week?’
‘I ain’t paying fare to the elocution lady till you start paying me.’
Walter sighed. ‘I told you, Birdie, we’re in this for the long game.’
She gave a snort. ‘Ain’t gonna be a long game if I starve to death.’
‘What happened to the ten dollars I gave you?’
‘Rent happened, Walter. Food happened. Fares to the damn elocution lady happened. I ain’t going nowhere till you pay me. And get that damn street door fixed, else you'll have hospital bills for my broken arm.' She rubbed her elbow resentfully.
Walter took the jacket from the back of the chair and tossed it at her. ‘Get your ass off my desk. Grand Duchesses don’t go around sitting on desks.’
Birdie slid off the desk and smoothed the dust from the back of her skirt. ‘How do you know what Grand Duchesses do?’
‘I did my research, and so should you. The Grand Duchess Anastasia would not go around sitting on desks.’ He lowered himself into the chair, which creaked irritably.
Birdie sighed. ‘Well maybe I don’t want to be the Grand Duchess Anastaysha.’
Walter looked at her. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘I’m tired of it, Walter. No-one’s going to believe I’m some Grand Duchess. Everyone thinks it’s that other woman, that Hannah whats-her-name.’
‘Anna. Anna Anderson. And she is not the Grand Duchess Anastasia.’
‘She says she is.’
Walter thumped the desk with his fist. The cloche hat jumped. ‘Jesus H, Birdie. She says she is, I say you are. The difference is, Anna Anderson is in a mental institution, and you are not.’
‘And before she was in the mental institution she was living in Park Avenue, which I also am not.’ Birdie held out the fashion magazine. ‘Why can’t I be her?’
She pushed the page up to Walter’s face. ‘Her. The Honourable Carolina Cromwell. Why can’t I be her?’
Walter looked at the photograph. ‘I would say, Birdie, that you can’t be her because she does not seem to be either missing or dead.’ He scanned the paragraph below the picture. ‘She also happens to be British, which you are not.’
‘I ain’t Russian, neither.’
‘Believe me, if you think it’s tough to sound Russian, you got no hope of being some upper-class Brit.’
‘I look like her.’
‘You look like the Grand Duchess Anastasia.’
‘Yes, I do, but I look like her too. The Honourable Carolina Cromwell.’ Birdie rolled her tongue round the syllables. ‘Because they’re all related, ain’t they? Them Romanhofs and whatever the British royals are called. They’re all related. She’s some second cousin thirty-five times removed. Like my cousin Artie, he looks like me. I mean, he’s my first cousin, but my Pa’s always saying he oughta be removed.’
Walter looked at the tall, elegant, young woman facing the cameras. Underneath the smooth, immaculate hair and make-up, her eyes were as wide as an uncertain child’s.
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Yes, OK. You look like her.’
Birdie smiled in triumph. ‘More than I look like the Grand Duchess Anastaysha.’
‘Probably,’ said Walter. ‘But, I repeat, The Honourable Carolina Cromwell is not missing, or dead. It says here she’s in New York getting hitched to one of the junior Marensterns.’ He frowned at the handsome young millionaire in the photograph.
Birdie shrugged, then simpered at him over her shoulder. ‘I could marry a Marenstern. If I wanted.’
Walter laughed. ‘Birdie, if you can persuade people you’re the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas, Emperor of all the Russias, and you escaped the Bolsheviks through a hole in the fence and made your way to Brooklyn, then yes, you can probably marry a Marenstern.’
Birdie frowned. ‘All the Russias? There’s more than one?’