Read an Excerpt
The Return of Blackie Doyle
As my train drew closer to New York City, the dining car’s rhythmic sway offered no comfort to the painful memories I left behind two years earlier. I ignored the blank sheet of paper in front of me. Rain spattered against the window, and lightning streaked above the countryside. The train didn’t slow as we headed into a torrential storm.
“Sir?” The waiter carried a carafe of coffee to the table, smiling like a vaudeville tap dancer.
He cocked his head. “You been tapping your pen on the coffee cup.”
I was? I slid the cup closer to him. “I’ll have a little more coffee, please.”
He filled the cup and moved to the next table where two men argued about the proper size of their wager over the prospect Prohibition would be repealed before 1933 came to a close.
I tried to tune them out and focus on revising to my publisher’s satisfaction the last chapter of my latest mystery.
Since departing Tampa, I’d tossed out half the paper I brought with me. I had nothing, and Mildred, my editor, wouldn’t be happy.
The dining car door hissed open. A middle-aged woman with a fox stole curled around her neck entered smiling, as if she expected a round of applause. To my surprise she carried my latest novel, The Return of Blackie Doyle.
The sight of one of my readers never failed to lift my spirits. Writing spared me the financial calamity suffocating the economy. Judging by the woman’s fur, her flowered silk dress, and her diamond necklace, she wasn’t hurting either.
Beside her stood a bored-looking blonde in her early twenties, wearing a lemon-colored dress and a pearl necklace. Tight curls poked from beneath a chamois hat. Matching gloves completed the Garbo look. The only accessory out of place was the round black-rimmed glasses the actor Harold Lloyd would’ve envied.
They parked themselves beside my table. “I told you, Dorothy. It is Jake Donovan.” The woman set the novel in front of me. “My daughter would love you to sign your novel.”
“It would be a pleasure.” I gave them the polished smile Mildred helped me perfect, but I couldn’t avoid staring at the beady dark eyes of the dead fox around the woman’s neck. “Won’t you have a seat?”
The mother eased into the chair closest to the window. She set a beige handbag on the table and signaled the waiter. Instantly I regretted the invitation since she looked as if she’d settled in for the remainder of the trip.
The Prohibition debaters at the next table stared at the woman’s timid and stunning daughter. She perched across from me, on the edge of her chair, as if she might get up and leave any minute. Her blue eyes avoided contact while she adjusted the perfectly placed silverware in front of her.
The waiter filled the two women’s cups and retreated.
The mother pulled a silver flask from her handbag and stirred a splash of booze into her cup. “I’m Peggy Greenwoody.” She took a gulp like an ironworker at an all-night diner. “Call me Peggy.”
Her last name clawed a memory from a recent conversation with my Florida poker buddies. “Greenwoody. Any relation to Oliver Greenwoody, the war hero?”
“My husband.” Her face lit with prideful glee. “Oliver can’t get away to the country so we’re visiting him for a few days. Saturday he’s taking Dorothy and me to a Broadway play. It’s the final weekend of Night Whispers with William Maddow and—”
“Laura Wilson.” My Laura. The burning dread returned. I glanced through the rain-swept window. My thoughts drifted back two years to Penn Station when I stepped onto the train with a final glance back, still hopeful Laura would come to see me off—hoping she’d come to talk me out of leaving.
Glancing at me for the first time, Dorothy stirred her coffee like it was the best Joe ever. “I hear she’s marvelous.”
“What takes you to New York?” Peggy asked me. “You on your way home?”
Home? I hardly knew the meaning of the word anymore. “Business.”
I signed the title page Dorothy, Blackie Doyle hopes you enjoy his story. Best wishes, Jake Donovan.
Mrs. Greenwoody snatched the book, flipped to the last page, and read a moment. She pointed to a line below my photograph. “Says you currently live in Tampa, Florida, but grew up in New York City.” She glanced down at the book as her daughter stared at me. “You were an amateur boxer!”
“My father boxed a little to put food on the table when my sisters and I were kids. I never boxed, but I grew up in a tough neighborhood. The bio is my publicist’s way of explaining all those fights I got into as a kid.” I pointed to a small scar above my right eyebrow, courtesy of Laura’s old man.
Mrs. Greenwoody read aloud, “After serving his country during the Great War, Jake Donovan joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He opened his own detective agency in 1927—”
“The year the Babe socked sixty,” I said.
Confusion flickered across Mrs. Greenwoody’s face. “The Babe?”
“Babe Ruth, Mother. George Herman.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the young woman. “The Bambino.”
Dorothy grinned. “The Sultan of Swat.”
Her mother’s life was obviously so full she didn’t have room for the Babe. She ignored our baseball banter and picked up where she left off in the bio. “In 1927. Two years later Donovan began a mystery series about fictional detective Blackie Doyle.”
A surprising tease danced in Dorothy’s blue eyes. “Are you a two-fisted ladies’ man like Blackie Doyle?”
Behind her large black glasses hid an attractive, intelligent woman with a sharp sense of humor. I chuckled. “If I behaved like Blackie, I’d get slapped by women a lot.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She leaned forward and removed her glasses. “You wear a white rose in your lapel, like Blackie.”
I chuckled. “That’s our only similarity, let me assure you.”
Her flirtatious smile would’ve curled most men’s toes, but I could use another complication in my life like I could use an ulcer. I preferred the shy Dorothy Greenwoody who hid behind large black glasses. This Dorothy was beautiful and trouble. “If you ladies will excuse me, I should return to my room and get to work finalizing my next book. My editor doesn’t think Blackie should settle down with one woman.”
“I most certainly agree.” Dorothy’s manicured nails toyed with her pearl necklace. “He’d lose his roguish charm with just one woman.”
“Unless it’s with the right woman.” Mrs. Greenwoody held my gaze then gave a quick nod toward her daughter. “We’re staying at the Plaza for a few days. Perhaps you’d join us for a drink.”
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be in town, but thank you for the gracious invitation.”
“You never married, Mr. Donovan.” Mrs. Greenwoody closed the book.
The young woman’s face flushed. “Mother, please.”
With Dorothy’s looks, she hardly needed her mother to play matchmaker. At least the two women helped place my sense of dread over my return to the city on hold.
Mrs. Greenwoody finished her coffee. “Dorothy, if I’d waited around for your father to ask me to dance, I probably would’ve married someone far less interesting. Probably Christian Chandler.” She gazed through the window.
It didn’t take a writer’s imagination to assume she pictured a young, dashing Mr. Chandler, a man with less dough and fame than Oliver Greenwoody, but one who curled her toes years ago.
I winked at Dorothy. “So you’re interested in me romantically, is that what I’m hearing, Mrs. Greenwoody?”
Peggy bellowed with laughter and slapped the table. A dozen passengers gave her disapproving stares. If she noticed, she didn’t show it. “I might be too much woman for you, son, but my daughter here . . . ”
I signaled the waiter for the check.
Dorothy slid a foot up the side of my leg. She hid a playful smirk from her mother.
Despite my detective past, I’d completely misjudged this young woman. I scooted the chair back a ways, but her foot continued its caress beneath the tablecloth.
The waiter set the check beside my cup. “Thank you, sir.”
I hurriedly signed and slid the chair back. I shook Mrs. Greenwoody’s offered hand.
Her eyes locked on mine. “A pleasure.”
Dorothy shook my hand and winked. “Enjoy your visit, Mr. Donovan. Don’t get slapped.”
An hour later, just after dark, the train pulled into Penn Station. I stepped off in the city I hadn’t expected to see for years. Yet, here I was.
Hopefully it would only take a couple of days of pounding on a typewriter and sweet-talking Mildred into a compromise ending. Two days were enough to visit the old neighborhood, as long as I didn’t run into Laura.
I tipped the porter who retrieved my bags. Before I could step outside and hail a cab, a man called, “Mr. Donovan. Jake Donovan?”
I nodded toward a thin man in a brown suit and scuffed shoes. Chewing on a toothpick, he flashed a gap-toothed smile.
He spit out the toothpick and shook my hand, revealing the frayed cuffs, calluses, and chipped nails of a hardworking man. He tipped his hat and grabbed my bags. “Mildred sent me. I’m your driver until you’re safely on the train back to Florida.”
My editor, a stickler for details. I needed someone to drive me around New York City like Shirley Temple needed more dimples. The man’s frayed cuffs said he could use the job, so I swallowed my pride.
Outside I breathed in the thick, damp air. The man sidestepped rain puddles and led me to a green Model A coupé double parked beside an empty cab. He opened the rear door. “Mildred says I should get you checked into the hotel.”
I climbed in the backseat. “Nice car.”
“Ain’t she a beaut? Mildred rented it. Says you should ride in style.”
“She thinks of everything.”
The man set the bags beside him in the front seat. He stuck a fresh toothpick in his mouth and started the car. We sped from the station. “Never met her, just by phone. She a looker?”
Mildred? I’d never thought of her in that way. Forty, stylish, and totally devoted to her work and her authors. “She’s very businesslike.”
“Businesslike.” He winked at me in the mirror. “I get the picture.”
I didn’t want to give him the wrong impression of the person most responsible for my success. Without her, I’d still be a gumshoe sharing a cramped office, across from a seedy hotel, with Mickey O’Brien. “She’s sophisticated, attractive in a—”
“Sure she is.” He displayed the skills of a New York cabbie as he swerved around a slow-moving car and splashed two men setting up a ladder in front of a hardware store.
I braced my feet on the floor. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Didn’t toss it yet. Name’s Frankie. Frankie Malzone.”
“You have a card?”
Frankie pushed out a laugh. “A card. That’s rich. Naah. I’m one of the country’s twelve million without a real job. I hang out at The Diamond House, pick up jobs from time to time, like this one. Enough to keep the old lady from smacking me across the head about earning a living. You been to The Diamond House? It ain’t no gin joint.”
I dropped in once or twice with Laura back when we were . . . what were we before I moved to Florida? A couple, an occasional gossip item in the newspaper. Nothing more.
I made polite conversation to take my mind off the man’s driving. “You have kids?”
“No kids. Edith ain’t exactly my wife.” Frankie blew through an intersection, bringing an angry blast from a cab’s horn. “You’re staying at the Carlyle. Fancy, schmancy. Guess you’re pretty important.”
“Not to anyone I know.”
Frankie laughed and slapped the dash. “Excuse me for saying, but you’re not what I expected.”
“What’d you expect?”
He shrugged. “Tailored suit, silk tie, expensive shoes, sure, but behind all that you seem like a regular Joe. Anyways, she says—Mildred—I should look out for you, fix you up with whatever you need.” He glanced at me over his shoulder. “You interested in a broad? I know some classy dames . . . and some not so sophisticated.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think I’ll have time for romance.”
“Romance. Good one.” Frankie snorted. “How ’bout a nightcap? The Diamond House’s got some smooth booze . . . and broads.”
I checked my watch. Still early enough to drop by and see Gino and Mickey. The Yankee Club was a couple blocks from my old office, now Mickey’s—O’Brien Detective Agency.
“A nightcap won’t hurt, but take me to The Yankee Club in Queens.”
Frankie studied me in the rearview mirror. “You’re serious? A hundred thousand speakeasies in the city and you gotta pick that dive? That place gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s not in the best of neighborhoods.”
“I grew up in that neighborhood.”
“You did good to get out. No offense.”
Frankie continued to weave his way through the crowded streets that grew increasingly familiar. Not much had changed, except for a few more boarded-up shops.
I closed my eyes as he continued to yap about the city I knew so well. For a moment I dozed off. I gripped the edge of the seat as he swerved in front of a convertible, bringing another blast of a horn. “You in a hurry?”
“Naah. We’re here.” Frankie parked across the street from what looked like a boardinghouse. An unlabeled door hid the speakeasy. I leaned forward as he reached beneath the seat. Frankie pulled out a pistol and stuck it in his jacket.
“Leave the gun.”
“It’s mostly for show.” Flashing innocence, he stuffed the piece beneath the seat.
I climbed from the car and locked eyes with a billboard touting the final week of Night Whispers at the Longacre Theatre. Large photographs of the two leads gazed from the billboard. I saw only Laura, not the image of the famous Broadway actress she’d become.
I came to know Laura in her first play at school, a thirteen-year-old Becky Thatcher with painted-on freckles. I played Tom Sawyer. Our first kiss came onstage during rehearsal in front of our teacher and a dozen classmates including Gino and Mickey. Memories of our second kiss still gave me goose bumps. I pictured the girl in high school who hid the truth about her old man smacking her around—until I took care of the problem.
Frankie followed my gaze. “You wanna take in a show, ’cause I can get tickets. I know a guy.”
I shook my head and pulled a couple of bills from my pocket.
Frankie stared at my hand. “A tip? Don’t insult me.”
“Buy Edith some roses.”
He flashed a sheepish expression and stuffed the money in his trouser pocket. “Last time I brought home flowers my old lady accused me of cheating on her.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the point. I’ll buy her some chocolates. When I bring her candy, I never get no questions.”
We crossed the street dodging puddles. I rapped on the front door.
A panel in the door slid open. A familiar granite face gave us the once-over. “You got a membership card?”
“Hello, Danny.” Danny Kowalski didn’t appear to remember me. Good thing because Gino and I stole his bike when we were in fourth grade and Danny was in sixth. Though the three of us palled around through high school, Danny never got over the prank.
I thumbed through my wallet and found the dog-eared card I thought I’d tossed a long time ago. I slipped it through the opening.
The door opened enough to reveal Danny had gained about thirty pounds of muscle and a tough-guy sneer I hadn’t seen before. Wearing the biggest tuxedo I’d ever seen, he stuffed the card into my hand and let us inside.
A framed photograph of Gino and Babe Ruth hung alongside the door. Ruth had scribbled Cheers, Gino. Babe #3.
I held out my hands and faced the main room crammed with a couple dozen packed tables on a black-and-white checkerboard floor. On a stage beside the dance floor a familiar-looking blonde in a white backless dress performed a bluesy rendition of “Body and Soul” backed by a three-piece jazz band.
“I’m a friend of Gino’s.”
“If you say so.” Danny patted me down and did the same to Frankie. He led us to a table in the center of the smoke-filled room. Frankie and I wedged our way into black lacquered chairs.
Frankie surveyed the crowded room. His uneasy expression told me he would’ve preferred to have the piece with him. Several sets of eyes took note of my arrival. A few cops, former cops, and a couple of gangsters I helped put away.
Gino Santoro sat at the bar. Thirty-four, like me, he still retained the boyish face I remembered. He wore a pin-striped three-piece suit and black-and-white brogue shoes like Fred Astaire. One hand rested on the knee of a redhead in a tight-fitting red satin dress with a slit up the side. My friend hadn’t changed much in appearance or his appreciation of flashy women.
Danny nodded toward the bar. “You want I should tell Gino you’re here?”
“Tell him it’s Jake Donovan.”
Danny paused a moment, as if searching his memory, then made his way through the crowded tables. He spoke to Gino and pointed to our table.
Gino jumped to his feet and grabbed his hat off the bar. He left Danny and the redhead and hurried toward us.
“Welcome home, Jake!”
Home, that four-letter word again. I accepted the embrace.
After the hug, Gino kissed my cheek. “You ain’t staying at this crappy table wedged in like f***in’ sardines.” He pointed to a corner table near the dance floor where two men, bank-teller types with glasses, made eyes at the singer.
Frankie and I followed Gino. One of the men glanced up from the table. “Gino.”
“But, Mr. Santoro—”
Gino grabbed the man by the collar and tossed him against the next table, spilling drinks on a man who barely noticed.
The bank tellers retreated to the table we’d vacated, glaring like I was some hotshot who ruined their evening. Others glanced my way, including a fat red-jowled thug in a gray suit who gave me the evil eye from a table near the front door.
“Have a seat.” Gino looked at Frankie, as if seeing him for the first time. “I know you?”
“Yeah.” Gino’s eyes narrowed. “Weren’t you mixed up in the mess at the mayor’s office last year?”
Frankie held out both hands. “How was I to know his secretary was an embezzler? I never knew a dame could stuff so much dough into a brassiere. I shoulda searched her.”
“He a friend of yours?” Concern creased Gino’s brow.
I liked Frankie, in spite of his driving habits. “From way back.”
“I’m from way back, since what, we was like six?” Gino dropped his hat on the table and sat between Frankie and me.
He gazed around at three busy cocktail waitresses then signaled a cigarette girl wearing black fishnet stockings. “Doll, bring me three glasses and a bottle of scotch . . . the good stuff.”
“I ain’t your doll, Gino. Not no more.” She spoke in a high-pitched, squeaky voice. “Besides, I ain’t no cocktail waitress floozy. I’m a cigarette girl, and in case you didn’t notice, I work for tips.”
Gino waved her closer. “Here’s a tip. Bring me and my pals a good bottle of scotch and three glasses or you’ll be selling matches on a street corner this time tomorrow.”
She set both hands on her hips. “You’re still sore about the other night. It happens.”
Gino’s face flushed. He reached into the tray hanging from a strap around her neck, grabbed a one-dollar cigar, and stuffed it into his suit coat pocket. He tossed a five-dollar bill onto the tray.
“A Lincoln. Thanks, Gino.” She headed for the bar.
“She’s got a nice caboose, but she don’t seem to realize we’re in the middle of a depression here.” Gino ruffled my hair. “You come to your senses and moving back or just paying a visit?”
“Book-writing business.” Gino smirked.
I considered explaining the content issues with my editor that couldn’t be fixed over the phone, but he and Frankie didn’t seem too interested in publishing problems.
Gino slipped a silver case from his suit coat pocket and offered me a cigarette. I shook my head, and he nodded. “That’s right. You never was a smoker. You never drank too much or chased dames, except for Laura. Remind me again why we’re friends.”
Frankie removed a Camel and lit it with a match then held the flame for Gino. Gino lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and blew out a long cloud of smoke. “So, Jake, how’s life in Tampa playing shuffleboard with all the old folks?”
I laughed and explained how Tampa was everything I hoped it would be. Mildred was right. The city gave me a fresh start and allowed me to focus on writing. I described the apartment that overlooked the ocean, small but functional for a man who spent half his days in front of a typewriter.
Gino flicked cigarette ash into the ashtray. “You made it big, you lucky bastard.”
The cigarette girl returned with a bottle of scotch and three glasses. She set them on the table then turned on her heel and flirted with a customer a couple of tables over.
Gino’s flicker of irritation told me the girl meant something to him. He filled the glasses half full and raised one in a toast. “To lucky bastards.”
The three of us drank; then Gino asked the question I knew he’d get around to asking. “You seen Laura?”
“On a billboard outside.”
“Wiseass.” Gino shook his head. “It’s a shame. I always thought you two were destined to be together forever. You know, like Romeo and Juliet or something.”
“They ended up dead.”
“You sure?” Gino ran a hand over his slick black hair. “That’s right. Now I remember. You paid attention in class while I was out schooling the ladies.”
At the table in front, the fat man glared. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
I didn’t want to talk about Laura. “How’s Mickey? He wrote and bragged about the success of his one-man detective agency and asked if I missed the line of work. I always wrote back, but the letters trailed off the last few months.”
Gino blew a puff of smoke in my direction. “How come you write Mickey and not me?”
I sipped the scotch. “Mickey can read.”
Gino pointed to Frankie. “Anyone else talks to me like that, he gets a fist sandwich. I ain’t seen Mickey for a month, maybe two. Come on. He’s right down the block, you know? Of course you do.”
Didn’t sound like Mickey. First his letters stopped. Now Gino hadn’t seen him. Something stunk, and I had to find out what. “You think he’s okay?”
Gino shrugged. “Maybe he got himself a new dish.”
Frankie polished off his scotch and refilled the glass. “I heard he’s working some big case.”
Gino raised an eyebrow. “You know Mickey O’Brien?”
Frankie crushed his cigarette into the ashtray. “Everybody knows Mickey.”
While the jazz band continued to play, the blonde singer crossed the dance floor and set one hand on my shoulder. “You probably don’t remember me. I wasn’t a blonde last time you were in.”
“You remember!” She kissed me on the cheek. Her perfume reminded me of blueberries and cut through the room’s cigarette smell.
Over her shoulder, the fat thug downed a shot of booze. He slid his chair back and bulled his way through the tables, his beady eyes darting between Gino and me. “I thought it was you.”
Bridgette retreated behind my chair. Gino started to get up, but I grabbed his arm. I didn’t want any trouble. He sat down and signaled to Danny at the front door.
The fat man stopped at our table and pounded a fist into one hand. “Jake Donovan.”
“That’s me.” I studied his face, which reminded me of a mug shot I’d seen. This guy was a two-bit thug. “Jimmy Vales, right?”
“I figured you’d remember, since it was you who sent me up the river for bank fraud.”
“The police did that. I just did the legwork for the bank that hired me.”
Jimmy grabbed the half-full bottle of scotch and cocked his arm like he’d shatter the bottle against my head.
Gino jumped to his feet. “Not my good stuff.”
The jazz band stopped playing, and the room grew quiet.
Jimmy set the bottle on the table. “I spent three years in the clink ’cause of you, Donovan!”
“I thought the judge gave you five.”
He cleared his throat and hawked a load of spit next to my shoe. “Good behavior.”
“Wise guy.” Jimmy clenched his fists. “Get up.”
“Take a powder.” Gino dismissed him with a wave.
“This don’t concern you, Gino. And get away from Jake, Bridgette, you tramp.”
I’d had enough. He could insult me because we had a history, but I couldn’t let him give Gino the business and offend a swell girl like Bridgette. I rose from my chair and gestured toward the fat man’s fly. “I have no respect for a man who walks across a place like this with his zipper at half-mast.”
When Jimmy glanced at his fly, I socked him in the kisser, a right cross that would’ve made Blackie Doyle proud. Two jabs to his face split his lip. Blood gushed from his mouth.
Jimmy stumbled backward. Frankie tripped him, and the fat man fell against a table. Gino slammed Jimmy’s face on the table, spilling our drinks and leaving a trail of blood. He fell on his back and cracked his head on the floor, writhing in pain. Like a Florida sea turtle trying to right itself, he thrashed and pawed at the blood flowing down his face.
Frankie stood and reached behind his back. He drew a pistol and aimed it at Jimmy. The same gun I saw him stuff beneath the car’s front seat? Danny’d even frisked him. I’d underestimated Frankie. He was good.
Danny slid to a stop and yanked the beaten man to his feet.
Shaking off Danny’s grip, Jimmy wiped blood from his face with the edge of his hand. As Danny led him away, he pointed a thick index finger my way. “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch. I mean it. I’ll kill you!”
Frankie’s mouth dropped. “Whoa!” He stuffed the gun in his suit.
“Don’t sweat it. Jimmy rarely follows through on death threats.” Gino clapped me on the shoulder.
I hadn’t returned to the city to replay old times. As a detective, trouble had a way of finding me no matter how carefully I planned things, but I wasn’t a detective. I wrote mysteries, had a novel to finish, and, in spite of Gino’s reassurance, a vengeful thug wanted me dead.
“It’s like you never left, goombah.” Gino refilled my glass. “What a night. Booze, broads, and a barroom brawl.”