Kansas City, 1934. Devlin Caine, a WWI veteran and former Pinkerton’s operative, is hired by a wealthy industrialist to check out a potential business partner. The job is simple and the money good, but for Caine, it’s a short step from checking public records to being roughed up in a back alley. Clearly there are things the client neglected to mention, such as Caine’s predecessor on the job being found in the Missouri River with a slug in his chest. When the man Caine is investigating turns up murdered as well, Caine finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between his client, a competing industrialist, and a local underworld boss all after a coded notebook Caine found in the dead man’s hotel room. Desperate to unlock the mystery of the notebook (and to protect his client’s beautiful young daughter), Caine plays the three men against each other in an effort to buy time. He knows only one of the three rivals can win this battle, and backing the wrong side will cost lives, starting with his own.
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Shadow of a Distant Morning
By William Topek
ireadiwrite PublishingCopyright © 2010 William Topek
All rights reserved.
Devlin Caine, Licensed Investigator
The first morning of October was a bright, clear one in Kansas City. I was sitting at the counter at Maxie's Diner on Main Street, taking some breakfast and giving the newspaper a light read between bites. Four laborers in denim trousers and thick shirts sat together around one corner of the U-shaped counter, the two in the middle talking quietly over coffee and smokes while the two on the ends gave their ham and eggs a working over. I stretched my neck and saw the elderly couple still in their booth, the wife taking dainty bites of French toast and the husband gumming his grits. A pretty girl of twenty wearing too much makeup sat by herself a few booths away, looking tired as she spooned down a bowl of cornflakes. Probably just came off the night shift at some local joint. No one else had come in after her. It was early yet; business would start picking up in the next half hour.
I went back to my paper. Melvin Purvis and his bunch were said to be closing in on Pretty Boy Floyd. They hadn't let up much since that bloody shootout at Union Station last year, where four cops had been killed along with the prisoner Floyd was trying to help spring. They were turning up the heat on Baby Face Nelson as well. 'Thirty-Four was coming out a rough year for public enemies — Bonnie and Clyde taken out in Louisiana last spring, Dillinger getting nailed in Chicago a couple months later. The cops seemed to be using as many bullets as the crooks these days, some of them taking just as many, too. I'd made the right decision about going into business for myself. When I left Pinkerton's a few years back, some former workmates approached me to see if I had any interest in joining the Bureau of Investigation. I hadn't. Checking out sketchy insurance claims and serving subpoenas isn't what you'd call a glamorous career, but the odds are better it will be a longer one. And sure, during the slow months I still take money to shutterbug for jealous husbands, but if any of them go shooting, it's not likely to be at me.
I noticed it was only two more days until the Cardinals squared off against the Tigers for the World Series. I had no idea who I'd be rooting for. I'd spent some time in both St. Louis and Detroit, and hadn't cared all that much for either place. Still, I'd probably put a few bucks on the Cards, not so much from any regional loyalty as the fact that I liked Dizzy Dean's style. It ain't bragging if you can back it up. That's what Dean had said at the beginning of the season, and back it up he did, coming back strong in the final weeks to yank the pennant away from the Giants.
The kitchen door swung open and the owner came out, making the far end of the counter in his brisk stride before the door could swing shut behind him. Al Vestovik (there was no Maxie, Al just thought the name had character) was barely over five-foot-three inches tall, and seemed nearly that wide across the shoulders. Used to be a pretty fair southpaw boxer in his day. What he lacked in reach he made up for in brute strength. He never went far, but he'd won enough purse money to buy this place in the Twenties. Al may have hung up his gloves, but he hadn't gone soft in the intervening years. Last winter a couple of punks tried to rob him one night after closing, one carrying a knife, the other a bicycle chain. The hearing had had to wait until both of them were out of the hospital. They might have had a better chance with guns, but I wouldn't put money on it.
Al bent down behind the counter and hauled up a tub of clean plates, his huge, hairy arms bulging under short sleeves. His shirt, work pants, apron and hat were all immaculately white, and would remain so throughout the day no matter how many times he had to change out the pieces. At least five or six, I guessed, knowing how hard the man worked. I wondered what it cost him in extra laundry bills, but Al insisted that people want to eat their food in a clean place. He knew his business; I'd never seen anyone step through the door and have second thoughts about sitting down.
He stopped in front of me, holding the tub of dishes like it was nothing.
"Breakfast okay today, Mr. Caine?" Al looked down at the few bites of egg and cottage fries left on my plate. Poor guy takes that kind of thing as a personal affront to his cooking. I've explained that it's my habit to leave a little, not to clog myself down with extra, but professional pride can be a tough thing to beat. I took out my worn leather cigarette case and fished for my lighter.
"Best yet, Al," I told him as I fired up. "If I was a bigger guy, I'd have licked the plate clean."
"You're plenty big for a couple eggs and a potato."
"Maybe, but a guy who works for himself has to have discipline. I figure if I can hold back from the last few bites of your cooking, I've got the sand for anything."
"Yeah, yeah," he mumbled, but I could tell he appreciated the effort. "How's your coffee?" My coffee was fine, but I wasn't going to press my luck.
"When you get around to it, Al, thanks."
"Coming right up."
He bumped his way through the kitchen door with a beefy shoulder. I barely had time to knock the ash off the end of my cigarette before he was back with a steaming pot to top off my mug.
"There you go, Mr. Caine."
"Al, how many times, huh? It's Devlin. Better yet, Dev."
He smiled and shook his head stubbornly.
"You're a customer, Mr. Caine."
"So? That makes me better than you?"
"Better?" His grin got wider and creases grew in the corners of his light brown eyes. "Who says you're as good?"
I laughed and blew smoke toward the ceiling as Al moved off with the pot to check on the other patrons. When the coffee cooled enough I took a few sips, then crushed out my cigarette, dropped a few coins on the counter, scooped up my newspaper and hat, and hit the door. Bright sunshine was pouring down onto the sidewalk, but the mercifully cool temperature we'd been enjoying of late seemed here to stay. Not a moment too soon, either. This past summer had been the hottest in living memory, and fall had arrived barely in time to save everyone's sanity. I walked over to where my two-seater Ford Cabriolet was parked. Black with a cream-colored, retractable top, I'd bought it two years ago when I finally had enough money to unload the Model A. The Cabriolet was my first new car and I kept it nice. Not bad for a man of thirty-six, especially these days. I climbed inside, started the motor, and pulled out into traffic.
The last half of "All I Do Is Dream of You" came through the car's radio as I headed uptown to my office. Coming up on my left I saw the usual line of people outside the squat, yellow brick two-storey that serves as the headquarters for Tom Pendergast, our local political boss. The people in line had come to ask for favors, work mostly, and the majority of them would leave happy because that's how Boss Tom likes things to go in his town. A good Catholic boy from St. Joseph, he started off working in his big brother Jim's saloon in the West Bottoms. The elder Pendergast worked his way up from saloon keeper to a seat on the city council. Tom got the seat when Jim retired and kept it maybe five years, but officialdom just wasn't in his nature. He figured there was more he could be doing for the city — namely, running it. Prohibition officially ended last year, but it never really came to Kansas City in the first place. Folks continued to wet their whistles while the cops wet their beaks, and you can thank Boss Tom for that. The man had built one of the strongest political machines in the nation, and I'd lay good money on his boy Truman getting that senate seat next month, assuming I could find anyone between Elmwood Cemetery and Swope Park willing to bet against me. Granted, the Elmwood crowd isn't all that much into gambling these days, but many of them are still damned loyal voters.
I shot over to Broadway and continued north, cutting east just shy of the Garment District. When I found my building, I circled around to the back, pulled into my spot, switched off the radio, and killed the engine. The sundries shop on the first floor gave off the scent of fresh soap and candles as I climbed up the back stairs to the second floor landing. I walked down the hall until I came to the door with "Devlin Caine, Licensed Investigator" stenciled in neat golden letters on the frosted glass window. Six dollars for a professional job, but easy to find on those nights when I've thrown back one too many at Lonnigan's and need to make it to my office couch to sleep it off.
My secretary wasn't in yet, so I unlocked the door and walked into the outer office, stooping to pick up Saturday's mail that had fallen through the brass slot onto the floor. I unlocked my private office, hung up my suit jacket and hat on the coatrack, and sat down behind my desk, picking up the brass letter opener and going through the mail. A few bills, a few circulars, and a check for ten dollars from Mrs. Pintner with a very sweet note asking if I could possibly hold onto it till the fifteenth. Stella Pintner was a little old lady from Sugar Creek who'd found my name in the telephone book. She held out a pretty desperate hope of finding her long-lost sister. She held out a lot more hope than I did, but she was determined, and if I hadn't taken her on, someone who'd charge her a hell of a lot more would have. I tossed the check into a desk drawer with the last three and forgot about it.
I grabbed some tobacco and papers and started rolling cigarettes to refill my case while I thought about the day ahead. Jennings was supposed to drop by and pick up my Leica so he could take photographs of some married woman necking in the park with her boyfriend, all so her poor sap of a husband could get his heart broken and pay good money for the privilege. Fortunately, I don't have to do too much of the garbage work myself these days. Kansas City's been good to me. I glanced over some handwritten notes on a pad. A local insurer had hired me to check out what they suspected to be a phony auto claim. Look at the bent fenders, talk to a few witnesses to the supposed accident. I'd wait and see how I felt later in the day, see whether I needed to get out of the office for a bit or if I'd just have Jennings handle it on his way back from the park.
I went over the books like I do at the beginning of every month (I pay an accountant to check my work, not do it for me). My contribution to the North Side Democratic Club had gone up again. Well, what could you expect? Now that booze was legal, the drop in bootlegging revenue must really be kicking the Italian mob in the coffers. At least they ran a pretty efficient racket nowadays. Hell, they didn't even bother to rough you up first. They just let you spend a few months paying to replace storefront windows and clean up fire damage until you got wise and figured it was cheaper to get on board. Cost of doing business, Dev.
Or was the membership increase anything to do with the recent shake-up in management? John Lazia had taken a bullet in front of his hotel on Armour Boulevard last June. Actually, he'd taken several, so his former Number Two, "Charlie the Wop" Carollo, handles the north side now. For months, rumors had flown around like bats hunting at summer dusk. Lazia had been in good with Boss Tom but made a clumsy grab for more power. He'd made promises to Chicago and New York and couldn't deliver. He was behind that bloodbath at Union Station and embarrassed his higher ups. Some pegged it for plain old mob rivalry, enemy gangs muscling in for a sweet piece of Kansas City home rule. Nobody knows the real story, at least nobody fool enough to flap his trap about it. Whatever the case, two men jumped out of the bushes in front of the Park Central Hotel at three o'clock one morning just as Lazia's car was pulling up. They let loose with some heavy iron and Carollo, who was behind the wheel the whole time and didn't even get his hair mussed, now has Lazia's old job. Make of that what you will — Lord knows the rest of us have — but that's one more thing cops and crooks share: lots of opportunities for advancement.
I reached for the desk lighter and lit the last cigarette I'd rolled, then leaned back in my chair and looked over at the collection of framed documents hanging neatly on the far wall: my private investigator's licence, my diploma from the University of Kansas, and a commendation I'd received during my time at Pinkerton's. Shingle, sheepskin and shine, reading left to right — my client-catching trident. Of course, the written reprimand I'd received for socking out my superior at Pinkerton's was not hanging in a nice frame on the office wall. It was hanging in a nice frame in my apartment bedroom.
Centered below the diploma were the medals I'd been awarded in the Signal Corps during the war. When you live in the Show Me State, you show 'em. Besides, it never hurts to advertise your veteran status, being as it can elicit either admiration or sympathy, and being as either can help bring in the money. I caught myself running a hand absently along my left thigh, but you can't feel a scar through wool, not even one that big.
"Good morning, Mr. Caine. Sorry I'm late."
My secretary was standing in the doorway looking bright and buoyant, her blonde locks brushed to a high shine. Gail Holloway was a twenty-two-year-old honey with a brain I'd been lucky enough to snag from the employment agency last winter. She was dependable, competent and could brighten up even a Monday morning at the office. She was actually ten minutes early, but she always apologizes when I beat her into work.
"Forget it, honey. How was your weekend?"
She shrugged as she slipped out of her coat.
"Okay, I guess. Mom and I went to the pictures."
"Let me guess, Clark Gable again." She lowered her eyelids and laughed, her white teeth showing against deep red lipstick. "You should just go to his house," I told her. "You probably own part of it by now anyway."
"I never thought of it that way," she mused. "I should start saving my ticket stubs."
I started to say something but was cut short by a knock at the outer door. I stood and walked over to watch from my doorway as Gail ditched her coat and handbag and went to answer the knock. I've seen my share of clients who try to catch me right when I open. Usually, they're in trouble and they need help, and they're embarrassed about both. They hope to slip in and out before anyone sees them, like they were visiting the local bawdy house. Maybe they've done something stupid or maybe someone has put the scare into them, so they stare down at their hands, avoiding my eye and talking in voices so soft I sometimes have trouble hearing them.
What they usually don't do is breeze into the office wearing an eighty-dollar suit and flash me a cordial, confident smile.CHAPTER 2
Nothing Terribly Complex
The man at the door stood around five-foot-seven, wearing a double-breasted gray suit that had been expertly tailored to hide some softness around the middle. His pink jowls had been meticulously shaved — probably by the same barber who trimmed his salt-and-pepper hair neat as a front lawn — and the hands lightly clasping a pearl gray Homburg had been recently manicured. I put him in his late forties. His clothes and bearing spoke of no small refinement, yet the ingratiating smile gave off no hint of snobbery.
"Good morning," he said easily, stepping inside. "My name is Thomas Lundquist. I was hoping to speak with Mr. Devlin Caine." His pale blue eyes held mine in polite inquiry. I nodded for Gail to take his hat as I stepped forward with a return smile to offer my hand.
"I'm Devlin Caine, Mr. Lundquist. Would you care to step into my office?" I matched the slight pressure of his grip as he thanked me and said that he would. I steered him gently through the open doorway, pulling the door closed behind us and taking my jacket down from the coatrack. Slipping the jacket back on gave Lundquist time for a brief gander at my wall. He made the usual polite noises and I countered with the usual modest replies before offering him a seat. His gaze flickered to the ashtray on my desk and I offered him a cigarette.
"I have my own if you don't mind." It was said without condescension. He took a machine-rolled smoke from a small silver case, the top inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and fixed it into an ivory holder. I leaned forward with the desk lighter, taking in the aroma of imported English tobacco before lighting one of my own. I put my hands on the desk in front of me and assumed a look of professional interest.
"How can I help you, Mr. Lundquist?"
"My employer would like to engage your services, Mr. Caine."
I was dealing with a buffer then, a pretty well-fixed one judging from his clothes and haircut, so whoever paid his rent had to be even better off. I'm quick the way I put things together like that.
"Are you at liberty to tell me who your employer is?"
"I'm the personal secretary for Ronald Graham."
Excerpted from Shadow of a Distant Morning by William Topek. Copyright © 2010 William Topek. Excerpted by permission of ireadiwrite Publishing.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Okay, I’m back on my second read of this novel, having only finished the first read last week. I am completely caught-up in this story. William Topek is such a captivating storyteller. When the author found out, on Face Book, I was moving to Kansas City, he wrote suggesting I might enjoy his book “Shadow of a Distant Morning,” as I would learn much about Kansas City’s history. I had not heard of Mr. Topek and had no idea he was such a remarkable writer. I have been living in Kansas City for over a month and his story has taken me back to a life lived here during the 1930’s which is mesmerizing. The research is very evident as he includes city landmarks and some very interesting history of the time when the city was ruled by the Irish and Italian mobs. For example, a shootout at Union Station where three cops and their prisoner were gunned down during a mob hit. The gun shot mark is still visible at Union Station. Another landmark, the Nelson Art Gallery, which is only a three block walk away from home for me, is where Devlin Caine, the main character, a Private Investigator, takes young and beautiful Melinda Graham; having been hired by her father, Randolph Graham, an affluent industrialist who wants her protected. Plus, the description of mansions on Ward Parkway which are still there, the cars of that era, the Kansas City fountains, and clothing each character wears are wonderful. I fell for Devlin, he’s cunning, a smart dresser and hilariously funny. You feel as though you are walking alongside him throughout this book, experiencing every moment of action, romance and thrilling adventure. This is a must read for mystery lovers, especially, if you happen to live in Kansas City.
What a great mystery! Kept my interest all the way to the end, could not put it down. Believable characters in an exciting and realistic plot. Loved the Jennings character, and Caine is such a smart detective, covering all of his bases, leaving no stone unturned. Love all the historical background of Kansas City in the 30's, especially the parts regarding the Mafia. Can't wait for the sequel.