Better Than Dead—20

by Colin Deerwood

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I was looking down the barrels of half a dozen police specials while they slapped the cuffs on me. I don’t think they suspected me of causing the carnage but they were it playing safe. I had started to explain but a police sergeant with the shoulders of hod carrier and face like a splintered plank told me to shut my yap until the lieutenant got there. They’d called for an ambulance and the coroner’s meat wagon. The ambulance was for the hulk in pajamas from the Bombay gang. From what I’d seen, the Asp twins, Al, and Al’s sister, Della, all had an appointment with a slab at the morgue. Kovic’s boys hadn’t fared much better. The guy with the shovel and one other unlucky goon in a pinstriped suit would be joining them. Mr. K and whoever else of his mob had made their escape. The nurse with the ambulance looked me over and gave a shrug and smile. “He’ll live,” she told the sergeant, “Looks like his face knows its way around a knuckle or two.”

I was about to make my usual wise crack about she shoulda seen the other guy when I saw the detective coming up under a full head of steam. I might have guessed. It was Hogan.

“You!” He pointed a finger in my face. “Tell me you didn’t have anything to do with this, wisenheimer!” He was giving me that withering guilt inducing stare that cops and priests can do so well.

I had to tell him that I did and didn’t. He didn’t like what he was hearing so he dragged me over to the fender of a big Packard that I recognized as belonging to the Thieves. He had me repeat the first part again.

I told him I’d been kidnapped but in order to explain how I’d been kidnapped I had to explain about the explosion at the Serbian Social Club. I couldn’t talk about the explosion at the social club without saying why I was at the social club and I knew that I didn’t want to admit to why I was there so I had to say that I was rescuing a damsel in distress who unfortunately had been killed by the explosion or the fall that it had caused.

omalleyHogan was shaking his head all the time I was telling him. “You believe this bum, O’Malley?” he asked the sergeant who was nodding in agreement. “You gotta lay off the dime detective fare, pal. It’s turning your brain to pulp!”

“He’s right about the explosion at the social club down by the railyards, Lieutenant. We got a call early in the AM about an explosion and sent a squad car to investigate. They were told that it was a boiler blew up and that they didn’t need any cops, what they needed was a plumber. All the same the squad did a perimeter inspection and didn’t find anything suspicious except for some debris that appeared to come from four floors up.”

“They didn’t find the body!?” I blurted.

Hogan didn’t try to hide his disbelief. “A body? Whose body?”

“Becky! The girl I’d gone to, uh, save. She fell from the terrace when the bomb exploded.”

“Now there’s a bomb.” I could tell that Hogan was starting his predictable slow burn by how red the tips of his ears got.

“Uh, right, the bomb that was planted there to take out some of the fascist mob.”

Hogan raised his eyes as if imploring the heavens.

The sergeant shook his head. “We’ve been looking for you, Ask, in connection with the murder of Ralph Silver, a two bit ambulance chaser.”

“And they have crates of Tommy guns hidden in the attic!”

Now Hogan brought his face close to mine. “Tommy guns, you don’t say.”

“Right, and Kovic and his gang were planning something, something big. I saw the map of what they were planning,”

“A map.”

“Something is going to go down, I heard Kovic say that they were gonna do it soon. They had the custom shed and the federal building downtown staked out.”

Hogan frowned. “The Federal building? That’s where the grand jury’s meeting to indict Kovic for tax evasion. Today.” He turned to the sergeant, “Get Neckker and his boys on the horn. If this palooka’s right, Kovic is going to try to ice the jurors. And get a couple of squads to following me down to the docks and the customs shed.” And then to me, “You better be right.”

“How about you take me out of these cuffs?

The sergeant shook his head. “We’ve been looking for you, Ask, in connection with the murder of Ralph Silver, a two bit ambulance chaser.”

“Naw, you can’t pin that on me. That was Kovic’s doing. He had Ralphie killed and then waited for me to show up and discover the body. Ralphie and me, we go way back, I’d a never. Just ask Hogan, he knows.”

Hogan nodded and the sergeant reluctantly keyed the bracelets.

I was curious. “How did your guys know to find Kovic down here at the abandoned warehouse?”

O’Malley explained. “One of the squads spotted this Packard as fitting the description of a car involved in a robbery at the Eastside Post Office. When he got out to take a closer look, he heard the gunfire and called for reinforcements. By the time they got here the shooting had stopped.”

I glance into the backseat of the Thieves’ car, and there it was, the bundle the tailor, Rebecca’s father, had mailed to me. I yanked open the door and pulled it out.

“This is mine, it’s addressed to me. I’m taking it.” I insisted.

“No you’re not.” Hogan took it from me. “It’s evidence. Because if it is what I think it is, why would these guys hold up a post office on a Sunday to get a bundle of old clothes. You got a lot of explaining to do, Ask. You’re coming with me. And when we get this matter at the customs shed settled, you’re coming downtown and we’re going to have a talk, a real long talk about how you come to be involved with Kovic in the first place.”

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It was just like those crime shows you hear on the radio. They put out a Calling All Cars bulletin. The patrolmen jumped on the running boards and were hanging on to the door frames, cranking the sirens and lights blazing. The squad car took a corner on two wheels and everyone in the back shifted toward the center of gravity. Reaching for a grip, Hogan let loose of the bundle and it landed on the space at our feet. And then we were there. A police van pulled up behind and unloaded half a dozen guys with long guns. Hogan took charge and deployed his men. Before long the robbers who had been trying to bust into the customs shed were being led away with their hands over their heads.

They’d forgotten about me. And I was just as glad. I picked up the bundle from where it had fallen and made my exit from the cop car. There were still uniforms heading for the fray, pistols in hand. I tried to make myself invisible in the dawn’s early light.

calling all carsThe commotion was drawing a crowd of shipyard and dock workers just arriving to begin their shifts or leaving after a long uneventful night. Anything out of the ordinary was going to attract them like moths to a flame. Unfortunately I wasn’t invisible enough to get past the police line. They weren’t letting anybody in or anyone out. I scanned the faces of the crowd of workers being held back by the coppers. I recognized one of them, from Annie’s tug, The Narcissus, the tall one. I could tell from his expression that he recognized me, and he turned away quickly to disappear into the crowd. I lurked in the rapidly shrinking shadows dreading that Hogan would notice I had gone missing and raise the alarm. I did not at any cost want to go downtown to have a little chat and explain about Rebecca. Then I saw her, perfection in a sea of broken faces. It was Annie. Her mate had gone to fetch her. She caught my eye and gave a nod. She was up to something.

As they were marching the bad guys into the back of the black Mariah and the cops were wrapping up their operation, I could see Hogan by the side of the squad car looking around like he wanted to find something. Just then the crowd surged against the police line. A fight had started in the crowd and the cops on the line rushed in to break it up. That was my cue to fade into the melee. I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked down to see the short one of the Annie’s crew leading me to the opposite side and away from where the action had been. We skirted the cargo bins and piles of pallets. The next thing I knew Annie was striding alongside me. She was smiling. “First the cops were looking for you and now you’re working with them. Who are you, mystery man?”

“It’s a long story.”

“You can tell it to me over a cup of java.” She cast an appraising eye over me. “You look like you might need it.”

I handed the bundle of clothes to her. “I thought I’d return these to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you or those rags again, but from the looks of you, I’d say you better hang on to them.”

Once below deck I settled behind the little table in the galley and sipped at the scalding hot brew. “Thanks for getting me out of that jam. Again.”

She gave me that beatific smile that always spun my head. She had a lot of miles on her but she was still a beauty and I guess she got a hint of what I was thinking because she kinda blushed and said, “Always glad to help a sailor in distress.”

“I ain’t no sailor.”

“Don’t give up. You’re still young.”

I groaned. “After the last couple of days, I don’t feel that young.” And I had to tell her how I ended up with Rebecca and how I’d foolishly let her follow me when I went to get my revenge on Kovic. I left out the part about the diamonds, but I had to tell her about the Thieves of Bombay, and how my friend Alice had been attacked by goggle wearing bandits and was saved by a former Russian aristocrat peeping tom, and how Rebecca’s old man was an anti-fascist bomb maker and that it was his bomb that had caused her death even though I held myself partly if not completely responsible. And how I ended up at the docks and the customs shed because I had no idea what Kovic was planning there except that my alerting the cops had stuck a stick in his spokes.

ADS Annie21“Gold,” she said with a frown, “Gold and jewels. People are fleeing the war in Europe and sending their wealth abroad. It’s an open secret. Everybody on the docks knows about it. But it’s scum like Kovic that’s gonna try and heist it.”

I nodded. “Yeah, now all the more reason for me to lie low. I got the cops, the Thieves, and Mr. K all trying to get a piece of me.”

“You’re safe here, mystery man. Nobody needs to know you’re not part of my crew.”

I shook my head, “I don’t want to get you involved in this, it’s dangerous. I got people after me that want to fill me full of lead, fit me for a pair of cement socks, or lock me up and throw away the key. I need to go to ground till the heat blows over. And I just thought of a way to do that.”

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Maybe the blow on the head knocked some sense into me. I didn’t want let on about the rocks, but my plan was to go find them in the coalbin and I had to do that in a hurry. I looked into Annie’s eyes as I stepped from the gunwales and onto the dock. I waved this time. “I won’t forget you.”

She waved back. “I’m not counting on it. Good luck. You know where I live.”

I grabbed a trolley to my office on 9th. I waited outside for about an hour and no one looked out of place. I tripped up the steps and through the door. Half way up the flight to the second floor, I heard the super’s door creak open. When I got to my office there was a new padlock, and I didn’t have the key. I heard the shallow breathing behind me and turned to see Curtis peek his head above the railing.

“Why’s there a new padlock on my door, Curtis?”

When I didn’t scream at him he stepped up to the top of the stairs. “Yer behind on yer rent. So th’owner said. . . .”

“I don’t care what the owner said. Curtis. I have to get into my office. It’s my place of business. I have business to conduct so that I can get paid and in turn pay my rent. You don’t have to go to Yale to figure that out.” I’d lowered my voice partly because I was exasperated at another road block. But Curtis was interested in my argument because hardly anyone talked to Curtis—they just told him what to do or listened to his excuse. He cocked an ear and strayed closer.

“Listen, I got five bucks here in my pocket. I can put it toward the back rent or you could forget I gave it to you.” He gave me a baleful look considering the offer. I made like I was going to pull the money from my pants but instead snagged his skinny arm and slammed him against the wall, not hard, but enough to get his attention and let him know that I meant business. “You got the key, Curtis?” The ring of keys he carried on his belt made him feel important and he never went anywhere with them.

“No,” he said feeling his face where it had hit the wall.

I wrenched his arm and bumped him with my chest. “See this face? Yours is gonna look worse. I don’t have time to mess around and I won’t mess around.”

He got the hint and fumbled with his keyring. Once the door opened I shoved him in ahead of me. I looked around. I wasn’t going to miss the dump although it had kept the rain off my head and was not a sidewalk where I could pass out drunk. It wasn’t a place I’d bring a dolly to. More of a lair where I could go lick my wounds. There wasn’t anything that had any value to me in the jumble of junk except for the one item squirreled away under a blanket in the closet. That was Ted’s diorama.

I grabbed a handful of change from my pocket and threw it on the floor. “For your trouble.” I said as Curtis scrambled to gather the coins.

I made my way over to Alice’s studio with the art piece under my arm. She wasn’t home but I knew where she kept the key. Inside the smell of fresh brew coffee said she would be back soon. I stripped off the clothes I was wearing and put on the working clothes that Annie had insisted I keep. I found the satchel where I’d left it under the kitchen table and stuffed the suit, vest, and pants into it. The cement damaged shoes, too. I placed Ted’s art piece under his portrait on the wall and found a pencil and wrote on a scrap of paper “I’ll be back to pick up my things later today. We have to talk.” I looked up into Ted’s eyes. They didn’t move.

coalyardPulling the flat cap down over my eyes, I made my way over to the coal yard. There was a queue of coal wagons backed to the chutes and I figured the guy with the papers in his hand was the foreman. Holding a sheaf of papers was not a hard job but the scowl on his face wanted you think that it was. He didn’t like the look of my mug, either. I asked him if he knew the coal company that delivered to the address of the building where Rebecca’s old man had his used clothes store because I had to do some work in the basement and didn’t want to do it if they were going to dump a load in the bin. The foreman was distracted by a wagon that had not pulled close enough to the chutes and the ore was spilling onto the ground. “Oreville Coal Company!” he yelled as he ran to chew out the coal wagon driver.

The coal company was a few block over from where the used clothing shop was located. The secretary looked like she’d had a rough Sunday and could barely keep her eyes open. I had to repeat twice what I’d come in for, the coal delivery schedule. She grumbled at having to lift the heavy ledger covers and ran a meticulously manicured finger down a row of entries. She shook her permed thatch and muttered. “This time of year, we’re on call, no more than once a month, if that.” I was out the door before she finished.

I found the super sitting on a stool inside the doorway to the building. I told him that I was with Oreville Coal Company and that there’d been a complaint about the way the coal chute operated. That was a surprised to him but he agreed to let me take a look and fix the problem. I glanced at the door to the tailor shop. There was a government seal over the lock. The super had to tell me all about how the G-Men busted into the building after a crazy woman, girl, actually, and her father who were obviously some sort of criminals or saboteurs if the feds were after them. He led me through the closet and to the stairs down to the basement. It looked familiar and the overhead light worked. I made a bee line for the coal bin. It had been dark the last time I’d passed through just days ago but judging by the amount of coal in the bin, it didn’t appear to be any more or less, and the super confirmed that he hadn’t used but a couple shovels full to keep the furnace going being the weekend and all. I scanned the greasy smelling chunks but nothing looked anything faintly resembling the little white pouch the diamonds had been in. I got that sinking feeling. I wasn’t going to find the diamonds because they weren’t there.


Next Time: High Tailing It Out Of Town

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