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Chicago, April 1937
Normally I wouldn't be caught dead—or even undead—in this kind of eatery anymore, but my partner Charles Escott needed my help with a case. He had a skittish client who insisted on being along for the ride and wanted someone to hold her hand and keep her out of trouble—that is to say, out of his hair—while he worked.
I looked across the table at Mary Sommerfeld, and tried to give her a reassuring smile, but she wasn't having any of it. She kept darting nervous glances to her left, my right, and several times I had to stop myself from doing the same. If I wanted to see what was going on there, I could use the pocket mirror cupped in my palm.
"Keep your eyes on me," I muttered. "Try to eat something." After all, I'd bought her the more expensive fifty-five-cent dinner (beverage extra), and I hated to see good food going to waste. I assumed it was good, anyway. My judgment on fine dining was no longer reliable. The only thing that didn't smell nauseating to me in this joint was my untouched coffee.
"But he's not doing anything," she muttered back.
I took her to mean my partner. "Mr. Escott's had lots of experience at this kind of thing. Give him time, he'll come up aces for you."
She grimaced and seized a fork, glared at it, and made a point of wiping it thoroughly with her napkin, which I thought unnecessary. Granted, the joint wasn't the Ritz Hotel, like what she was used to, but then it was a few steps above a greasy spoon, like what I'd beenused to before I stopped eating solid food. It was clean and well lighted, with no lip-rouge stains on the glasses, and the ashtrays were emptied regularly. Not my kind of place these nights, but still fairly respectable.
Escott had chosen it because you could seat yourself, hence my place in a booth with Miss Sommerfeld, and his at a table twenty feet away with Jason McCallen. From my vantage I could easily block the front and back exits in case McCallen decided to hoof it before our business with him was done.
Our client wasn't too happy being so close to him, but with her short dark hair hidden by a gray cloche hat and the rest of her covered up with a matching coat and galoshes, she looked like a thousand other Chicago women for this time of year. Besides, McCallen was angled away from us, and would have to turn to spot her.
I'd tried to dress to blend in as well, leaving my pricey double-breasted suits and silk shirts in the closet in favor of a nondescript jacket and slacks, both in dark blue. My newsboy's cloth hat was stuffed in a pocket, and I wore black shoes with gum soles. My hair was trimmed, combed, and slicked straight back from my face. The impression I hoped to give was that of a laborer taking his girl out on a Friday-night date. Nothing fancy, but not insultingly cheap.
Miss Sommerfeld pushed her vegetables around and savagely speared a single kernel of corn. She shoved it into her mouth and chewed on it for half a minute.
"Stop staring at me," she growled.
I broke off and looked down at the mirror. Instead of paying attention to business, I'd been distracted by how long it took her to eat the corn kernel.
The tiny image in my hand shivered and settled. It was the same as the last time I'd checked, with Escott and McCallen at their table facing off over cups of cooling coffee. My partner was lean and tall, beak-nosed, dressed neatly in a stuffed-shirt sort of way, looking like a fussy bank teller. McCallen was just as tall, but more massive, with at least an extra fifty pounds of solid muscle riding easily on his shoulders and arms. He was big, hairy down to his knuckles, and dressed like a longshoreman. I couldn't blame Miss Sommerfeld for seeking help with the Escott Agency in dealing with him.
According to her story, McCallen had taken away an envelope of papers that were not his. They were worth a lot to her, enough to hire us to get them back again. She didn't want publicity, so the theft went unreported to the cops, and her lawyers had no clue about the incident.
When she first came to Escott's office early this afternoon to rent his services as a private agent, he made a good stab at trying to find out the contents of the envelope, but she clammed up and shook her head.
"It's personal and private," she told him. "Nothing illegal, I assure you, but they don't belong to him. Will this cover your fee?" Then she put five matching pictures of Andrew Jackson on his desk and that was that.
He called home at sunset to give me the short version of the deal and what sort of help he would need from me if I was available. I was—at least until around two in the morning when my girlfriend got off work.
"Are you out of your mind accepting a case without knowing the whole story?" I asked, running a hand over my beard stubble as I leaned toward the mouthpiece of the kitchen phone.
"Miss Sommerfeld's within her rights, Jack," he said lightly. "And it's not as murky as you think. I happen to have more background on her than you do."
The background being that she was an heiress to a fortune in saltine crackers. No, really. McCallen had been a foreman in one of the factories or plants or bakeries or whatever it is you call a place that makes crackers. He'd been romantically linked with Mary for a couple of months, until her parents in Michigan heard what was going on and packed her off to Europe. A little hobnobbing with other rich kids in the south of France had done the trick. Mary found herself accepting a marriage proposal from some minor prince and returned home in triumph.
"It is my opinion," said Escott, "that the diamonds on her engagement ring could easily buy my house with some considerable change left over for lavish decoration."
"So you do a good job for her and maybe she recommends you to rich friends in need?"
"That's always a possibility." He made no effort to dampen the smug satisfaction in his tone.
"What about the papers? Got any idea what they might be?"
"From her manner I'm assuming they're indiscreet love letters written to McCallen when things were still amicable between them. She must have gotten them away from him at some point, then he thought better of it and stole them back. Her royal engagement could go up in smoke if he decides to use them against her."
"Where do you come by that?" I shifted from one bare foot to the other. He'd caught me just as I'd opened my eyes for the night. I'd launched straight out of my basement lair to catch the ringing phone and had only thin pajamas between me and any lurking draft. I don't feel the cold like I used to, but I hate drafts.
"She's both angered by and frightened of him," he answered. "I also believe there is more than a touch of guilt involved. You'll see for yourself when you meet her."
Which I did after catching a shower, shave, and dressing according to his suggestion. I arrived at Escott's office ready to play muscle for him should the need arise during his negotiations. He introduced me to Miss Sommerfeld as his assistant. She gave me a regal nod, perhaps practicing for her future life with her prince, then insisted on coming along to supervise. Escott started to object, but bit it off. I could almost hear him thinking about the hundred she'd dropped on the desk. With that kind of money involved, the customer is always right.
Earlier that day he'd worked out a money deal with Miss Sommerfeld and arranged a meeting with McCallen by telling him he would hear something to his advantage. The idea was simply to buy the envelope and contents back from him. If McCallen decided to be cooperative, all was well and good, and we could close and tie it up in a bow tonight; if not, then Escott would have to get sneaky and really put me to work.
Knowing a thing or two about human nature, I figured McCallen to be a blackmailer. All he had to do was sell what he had to any of the more jaundiced tabloids and he'd not only rake in a pile of dough for himself, but break up his old girlfriend's pending marriage. That was the lesser of two evils, though. Another strategy would be for him to wait, then quietly squeeze money out of her over the years, which would pay a hell of a lot more in the long haul. Either way, Miss Mary Sommerfeld was in for a rough time.
"Well, Mr. Fleming?" she asked through clenched teeth. She'd resisted looking across the room for several minutes now.
"They're still talking. Eat some more. You don't want to draw attention."
She subsided and pushed her food around. No one was paying any mind to us, but I wanted her quiet. The place wasn't noisy, but there was enough conversation going on to make it difficult for me to pick out Escott's voice from the rest. A couple at a table in between us finished and left, and once the busboy had cleared things I was just able to eavesdrop on my partner's negotiations.
"It's a perfectly fair offer," he said in his most reasonable tone.
McCallen, whose voice started somewhere near his feet, rumbled a response. I couldn't catch the words.
"I cannot answer that," Escott replied. "I'm only acting on her behalf, a neutral go-between and nothing more. All she asks is that you return the entire item, no questions asked, in exchange for a substantial reward."
"The goods belong to me," said McCallen, loud enough for anyone to hear. Mary gave a hale jump, and I put up a warning hand. She'd gone beet red from suppressed fury and her eyes glittered. It was even money whether she'd break into tears or charge across and attack him with the steak knife she clutched in one shaking fist.
"Let Escott do his job," I said in a soothing tone. "He's just getting warmed up."
She finally put the knife down and drank a gulp of coffee. It could have been sulfuric acid and she probably wouldn't have noticed.
I checked the mirror again and listened hard, but now Escott was talking low and quiet, leaning slightly forward. He must be to the point of laying the law down for McCallen, letting him know that petty theft was one thing, but extortion quite another. McCallen's face was hidden to me, but the set of his shoulders screamed alarm bells.
"One hundred!" he yelped in disbelief. "That's ridiculous. It's worth far more than that!"
His outburst drew notice from the other patrons and even the sleepy girl at the cash register bothered to look up from her receipts. McCallen had no mind for them, though, only his own troubles.
"I refuse, categorically," he said. "You can tell her that, or better, I'll tell her myself." Now I picked up a distinct Scottish accent. I wondered if Escott's own English accent was working against him for once. I'd read somewhere that the English and Scots didn't get along too well.
Mary started to gather herself to rise, but I fastened her with a warning look. I didn't put anything behind it and was doubly gratified when she chose to stay seated in reaction to my one raised eyebrow. I took it for granted that I might have to make my next suggestion a little stronger, though. She seemed ready to boil right over.
But Escott was still talking and McCallen still listening, which was a promising sign. He must have wanted more than a month's good wages out of the deal. Mary had authorized a payment of up to five hundred dollars to get the stuff back, which was a hell of a lot of dough for anyone's pocket.
McCallen was shaking his head. It wasn't just an ordinary refusal, but something in that categorical class from the way he wagged back an forth like a bad-tempered bear. He sneered at Escott's latest offer. "Two hundred—it's worth ten times that much and more. Greedy? I'm not being greedy, only practical, and if she'd wake up she'd see it herself. No, sir, I'll not be listening to you or to anyone else she sends. Tell her to call me when she comes to her senses and not a moment sooner."
Everyone in the joint heard him and paused in their eating to stare. Escott started to speak, but McCallen was already boosting from his chair and turning to leave. He had a solid square face, piercing brown eyes under thick brows, a grim set to his mouth, and looked about as easy to stop as a runaway bulldozer.
I pocketed the mirror and slid to the edge of the booth to be ready in case Escott wanted me to do anything, but Mary was faster. She tore out and put herself right in McCallen's path.
"You're not going anywhere, Jason McCallen," she snapped.
He stopped in his tracks, surprised by her sudden appearance, and looked down at her, for she was tiny next to him. "Well, well," he said, a bemused smile supplanting the irritation on his mug. He spared a quick appraising glance for me as I stood by her, and evidently decided I was no real threat, then pressed his full attention on the girl. "Mummy and Dadums let you out with only two chaperons? You are taking chances."
"I want those papers back. You must give them to me."
"Oh, I must, eh? Or what, you'll throw a tantrum?"
"They're not yours!"
"They were the last time I looked."
By now Escott had come up to join the party. He didn't appear too ruffled. "Perhaps if we adjourned elsewhere we could settle all this tonight without getting acrimonious," he suggested.
"Give them back!" insisted Mary, ignoring him.
McCallen only grinned. It was in the wiseacre class, with intent to annoy. "No, I won't."
"You have to."
"Girl, I don't have to do anything—except this." He seized her head in both his hands, bent low, and planted a kiss right on her mouth. She struggled and beat on him, but he just as quickly released her, grinning ear to ear.
Bad idea to let her go like that—she cut loose with a scream. It was short, but made up for its brevity in loudness and outrage. She took a swing at him, which he blocked like flicking off a fly. Then Escott stepped between them. I didn't have time to tell him that that was also a bad idea, and if he'd bothered to think it over he would have agreed with me. Instead, he charged into the thick of things and landed one solid punch against McCallen's jaw, which wiped most of the grin away. McCallen staggered back a step, but swiftly came around and went under Escott's guard, catching him in the gut. The force of the blow knocked him smack into me, and we both went tumbling down. I heard several women screech at this, but ignored them because the back of my head cracked against a table as I fell.
A very sturdy table.
Suddenly boneless, I dropped the rest of the way to the floor and stayed there, half-blinded by the intensity of the pain.
God damn it, that hurt!
I couldn't do much, only put my hand on the blazing sore spot and curse the pain. Any other man might have been knocked cold, but no such luck for yours truly. I stayed conscious through the worst of it, aware of the uproar and gaining another bruise or two as Escott scrambled off me to go after McCallen again. Too late, through slitted eyes I saw he'd already made it to the front door. He turned and flashed his teeth, barked a single laugh, then out he dashed to lose himself in the evening crowds.
Escott looked winded, but rounded on Miss Sommerfeld, either to breathlessly reassure her or to apologize. She didn't give him the chance. She shrieked one more time, embarrassment, anger, and massive frustration all packed into one short outburst, then tore off in tears for the ladies' room, rubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand.
He looked down at me, wheezing and a little doubled over from the punch he'd taken. "That didn't go too terribly well, did it?"
"Uh." I grunted in agreement from the floor. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, it hurt.
"Jack? You all right?" he asked, peering at me.
I held the back of my head hard, as though to keep my brains from leaking out, shut my eyes, and tried not to swear too loud.
"Was it wood?" he continued, not without sympathy.
"Were it metal instead, it might have been a bit awkward if you'd disappeared in front of everyone."
At the moment disappearing was one thing I wanted to do, but couldn't. Wood injuries have that effect on me. It's stupid, but nothing I could do anything about. "What 'bout you?" I asked between one wave of crashing pain and another.
"Winded only. Can you stand?" He helped me up, but I was still unsteady. When I staggered against him I figured out how he'd missed more serious damage. He was wearing his bulletproof vest. He usually did while working a case. In the winter he claimed the layer of small overlapping steel plates kept him warm by cutting the wind. McCallen was probably nursing some knuckle bruises himself for his punch.
"Charles, this stinks," I groaned, fighting for balance.
"Indeed. I believe the management is about to ask us to leave."
That was putting it mildly. The manager stormed up just then and told us to get the hell out or he'd call the cops. Lots of other people were talking at once, wanting to know what was going on and if there would be more of it. One couple ducked out, forgetting to pay their bill, and that set up a squawk from the girl at the register. Escott was on top of things, though, and waving a five-dollar bill under the manager's nose to catch his attention.
"I believe this will be more than sufficient to cover the various damages, sir. I'll just retrieve our lady companion from your powder room and we shall be happy to vacate the premises." He put the five in the man's hand then tottered toward the back to bang on the door, calling for Miss Sommerfeld to come out. He was careful to use only her first name. She eventually emerged, sniffling and red of eye. He took her arm and swept her away, urging me to hurry as well.
I heal pretty fast, even from wood, but it still hurt like the devil as I stumbled out after them accompanied by laughter, hoots, and other verbal disapproval from the café patrons. Not the best of exits, as Escott might have said. He'd parked his big brown Nash fairly close and was handing Miss Sommefeld into the passenger seat as I came up. I crawled into the back and resisted the temptation to lie down again. The change in elevation I endured while standing up had been enough sick-making fun for one life.
Escott hit the starter, flicked on the lights, and shifted gears, easing us into the traffic. He threw a wry look at the café front as we sailed past. "I'm glad that's not a place I normally frequent lest I should regret its loss. I fear we none of us will be welcome back there again."
It didn't matter to me: I'd stopped eating—so to speak—last August. Miss Sommerfeld had probably never been in such a place before and likely never would be again. We'd come out ahead on that, at least.
She seemed pretty much recovered in terms of self-possession, but was in need of outside repairs. Her lip rouge was smeared across her chin and her mascara had melted and run down both sides of her nose. She was also very much on the boil.
"Now what?" she demanded, her voice thick. "He's still got my papers."
"Mr. Fleming and I shall recover them," said Escott, sounding more confident than I felt. I noticed my specific inclusion on the deal. He had some dirty work planned for me. That's how it usually worked when something went wrong.
"How? Jason knows about you and will be on guard. He's sure to move them, or put them in a safety-deposit box."
"Not to worry. We'll merely fall back, regroup, and plan the next attack."
"You're not going to hurt him, are you?" She sounded excited at the prospect.
"I doubt that will be necessary. Have you his home address?"
"Yes, of course, but—"
"Excellent. As you stated, he will be on guard, but in a day or two he will relax and be more vulnerable to—"
"A day or two? Do you have any idea of the kind of damage he could do in that time?"
"Yes, Miss Sommerfeld, but he appears to be an intelligent man. He's not going to spoil his opportunity to profit from his situation. Am I correct in my assessment that we are not dealing with a merely greedy man, but a man who has been seriously injured in an affair of the heart?"
Her mouth popped open, then she looked down. I didn't need the occasional flash from a streetlight to see she was blushing. "He took my engagement to Prince Ravellia pretty hard and wants to get back at me. That's why he's being so mean about this."
"Then it is not so much money he wants from you as revenge?"
"He's a pigheaded idiot!"
I could almost say the same for Escott. The bonfire in my skull subsided enough to allow me to think again, and react, and I wasn't too happy with him. He should have let me handle McCallen, and not just from when things fell apart, but from the very first. I could have looked him right in the eye, told him to hand over the stuff and walked out, saving us a load of bruising and the client a truckload of annoyance. I'd tell Escott so, too, but not in front of Miss Sommerfeld.
It would be a repeat of what I'd said to him many times before and probably have the same impact as ever—none at all. His agency was his business; he called the shots. I was, in a manner of speaking, only the hired help and did what was asked of me. Though I could do a hell of a lot more and with much less risk, the danger was what he loved about his work. All it did for me was inspire a lot of hair-tearing worry that he'd someday get himself killed.
Ninety-nine percent of the time business was of the quiet sort; only rarely did things get rough, but when they did, Escott always put himself in the middle of it. He used to be an actor once upon a time; maybe he'd never gotten over that craving to be stage center with the spotlight burning on him. The trouble with that is you can't see who in the audience is about to toss the first tomato.
We made it to his office, and as though to put the last nail in our coffin, the wind had changed, saturating the area with the unique stench of the nearby Chicago Stockyards. Mary Sommerfeld wrinkled her well-bred nose and hauled out a sodden handkerchief to block the stuff. As usual, I just stopped any pretense of breathing. Escott was on his own. After all, it was his office. At least the rent was cheap.
Our client decided to hop into her own car and go home. Escott's talk on the drive back had persuaded her to keep us on for one more try. She threw a hasty good evening to us, hurriedly revved up her brand-new Pierce-Arrow, and sped off into the night. I hoped she'd think to roll the windows down to flush the inside air once she was upwind.
Escott was already trudging up the steps to the second-floor rooms that were the official address of the Escott Agency. The name itself was neatly painted in gold and black lettering on the pebbled glass insert of the front door. He unlocked and walked in, shedding his hat and topcoat, placing both on a hall tree just inside.
The front room was small and plain, with durable furniture and blank white walls. He had his operator's license framed and standing on one of the file cabinets, more as a declaration of his legal right to work than as decor. He claimed that clutter was a distraction to clear thinking, both for himself and the customers. If they had nothing interesting to look at, then they could better concentrate on their business with him.
The place had been tossed over by some mob goons a couple of months back, but you couldn't tell it now. Escott was ferociously neat about his person and surroundings. His desktop was bare except for a receipt book and an ashtray. He put the book away in a drawer and hauled out some paper from another, then pulled out a fat-bodied fountain pen.
"Jeez, you still carrying that?" I asked, gesturing at the pen.
"War booty," he said.
It gave me the heebies just looking at the thing. Though it could write same as a regular pen, it also had a trick reservoir inside that had once held cyanide, not ink. Push a catch on it and out came the hypodermic needle that delivered the poison. Not too long ago the damned contraption had caused yours truly a whole lot of grief that still made me shudder whenever I thought of it.
"Jack, you look as though you've bitten a bad lemon, and we both know the impossibility of that," he said, scribbling the date at the top of the first page.
"Only because we both know I could have handled this without the fun and games. If you hadn't stepped in like that, I could have fixed a whammy on McCallen and had him purring like a kitten."
He shrugged, quite unconcerned. "When he so grossly insulted Miss Sommerfeld I just couldn't help myself. I do apologize for your bang on the head, though. Most unfortunate."
"It's part of the game, but about me taking the lead on some of these ..."
He paused in his writing and lifted his chin, one eyebrow going up and the rest of his face like Fort Knox.
I sighed in disgust and turned away to look out the window. The blinds were down, so I didn't see very damn much. "Cripes, Charles, I thought the idea was to deliver what the client wants, not get ourselves killed."
"Too late for that—at least in your case."
I ignored that one. "You know that in a deal like this I should have been the one talking to McCallen."
"First come, first served."
"I was the one to set up the meeting with him in the first place. He would deal with me because he'd know my voice. Having another man to reckon with might have scared him off."
"Nothing short of an earthquake would have scared that bruiser off."
"True, but I didn't know that until I saw him. Next time you set up the appointment, then you can make the negotiations."
"Not fair, you know I'm out of things during business hours. How about we take turns?"
He didn't say no right away, but pulled his pipe out and took his time getting it stoked and smoking. "I'll think it over," he finally said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"That's another way of saying no."
He gave a mild scowl. "I'm discovered, then. Very well, I concede that you have a valid point about raising the success and efficiency of this firm by making use of your abilities, but I was under the impression you were reluctant to do so. After the incident with that woman—"
"I was stupid and made a mistake. I'm past that now." Stupid and greedy and out of control with my appetite. The woman he referred to had recovered from my feeding, thank God, with no memory of what I'd nearly done to her, but the whole thing was burned forever into my mind. It would never happen again.
"Right, then. We'll take turns, providing your involvement is appropriate to the situation."
"What d'you mean by that?"
"Should the next case be the mere delivery of an item, such as the last time, I should think you'd feel rather wasted. It required a cross-country train journey, which for you is a rather complicated."
"What complication? I just lock myself into my trunk and have it shipped to the right city."
"Really, Jack." He sounded pained.
"Yeah, I know, the porters could load me onto the wrong train and I end up in Cucamonga instead of Boise. Okay, I'll concede some as well, but if we get in another like this one, you put me on the front lines."
"Done and done, but the final decision is mine."
I wanted to argue him out of that one, but held off. It was his agency, after all. I could count myself lucky to have gotten this much from him and quit while I was ahead. "Okay. What else do you have planned for tonight?"
"Writing out a report on what happened for the files, then I'll probably go home." He opened a panel in his desk and drew out a portable typewriter.
"Have you eaten lately?" Sometimes he needed reminding.
"I'll pick up some Chinese on the way back," he said absently, fitting two sheets of paper and a carbon into the carriage.
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