Story by Steve Laracy
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
It was early September and early afternoon at Bill’s Taproom. There were four of us inside: me; Bill, the bartender and owner; a fellow named Fred or Frank, I’m not sure; and Bing Crosby.
Bill and I were talking at the end of the bar near the window. Fred – I’ll call him Fred for the sake of convenience – was sitting at the other end by himself. I knew him as an occasional customer who showed up looking for action whenever his wife kicked him out. Bing was inside the Philco sitting against the wall on our side of the bar.
Fred was quietly nursing a beer. Bill and I were deep in discussion, switching back and forth between two vital topics. The first was the state of the economy and the recovery from the depression. The alternate discussion centered around a problem we were trying to unravel. If a train was traveling from San Francisco to Chicago and another train started at the same time going from Chicago to Frisco, exactly where on the map would the two trains pass each other?
Bing was singing about moonlight or tropical flowers or a similar subject when the front door opened.
The sun was shining brightly through the open door, an indication that Fred and I had arrived much too early or had stayed much too late.
The silhouette standing in the door was clearly a woman but not much else was discernible until she stepped in and the door closed.
She hesitated near the door for a moment, looking the joint over before deciding she would remain. Finally, she walked to the bar and took a stool in the middle of the bar, logistically as far away as she could get from both me and Fred.
She ordered a martini and I studied her while she waited. She looked to be in her twenties and wore a red wool jacket over a pale-yellow blouse and gray skirt. A large yellow straw hat with a wide blue band sat at an angle on her long auburn hair. The band and the brim of the hat were a little too wide and her nose was a little too small, but she tipped the scales somewhere between pretty and beautiful.
Bill walked down my end to fix the martini. He chipped some ice from a block in the sink and added it to a glass pitcher, followed by the gin and vermouth. As he twizzled the drink, he silently got my attention and nodded in Fred’s direction. Fred was looking at the dame with the interest of a lion stalking a crippled wildebeest.
After Bill strained the drink, I grabbed the glass and my beer and wandered down and took a seat next to the girl. She looked wary as I put her drink in front of her.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “this isn’t a pick-up. The guy at the other end has a history of bothering women. This will keep him out of your hair. You don’t have to talk. You can ignore me and drink your martini.”
She did just that for a few minutes before finally saying, “Thank you. I don’t need that right now.”
“My name’s Jack Kovacs. I live down the street.”
“Jenny Carr. I’m a lot farther from home.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I’m from Akron. I fell for a fellow from Chicago and left home and came here to be with him. I got here yesterday.”
“Did he know you were coming?”
“Yes. I called his apartment when I got here but there was no answer. I came to his apartment yesterday, but he was not in. I slept at a cheap hotel and came back again today, but he’s still not in.”
“Where does he live?”
“The Churchill Arms, across the street. I came over here to think. I hadn’t planned on what to do if things didn’t work out. I used most of my money on the hotel last night. I don’t even have enough for a ticket back to Akron.”
She started to cry lightly. I grabbed a handkerchief from my pocket and handed it to her.
“First things first,” I said. “Let’s see if we can locate this fellow. What’s his name?”
“Tall, maybe six feet. Kind of skinny. Black hair parted in the middle.”
“Do you have a picture?”
Jenny unhooked the necklace she was wearing. Attached was a large locket, powder blue with a white cameo profile of a woman’s head. She opened the locket and handed it to me. A photo inside showed a smiling Jenny standing next to a man of about thirty. I looked and handed the necklace back.
“Let me see what I can find out,” I said.
“I’m a private detective. I have some connections in the area.”
“I can’t pay you.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
Jenny handed me my handkerchief back and I got a slight scent of lavender.
I got up and walked down the bar where Bill was pretending to mind his own business.
“You don’t really expect to find this bum, do you?” Bill asked. “It’s pretty obvious he sold her a bill of goods.”
“Probably, but I’ll look into it anyway. You have that room in the back you keep for the help. Can you put her up for a few days?”
“The room’s empty now. I’ll have to clear it with Sophie, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Sophie has a big heart.”
I walked back to Jenny.
“Where are your things?” I asked.
“I left my suitcase in a locker at the bus station.”
“Finish your drink and we’ll go get it. Bill has a room in the back where you can camp a few days. He and his wife live upstairs. The room isn’t much but it’s warm and it’s safe.”
Jenny smiled with relief.
“I’ll take anything at this point,” she sighed.
As she got off the stool I caught the hint of lavender again. I grabbed her arm as we turned to leave and winked at Fred. I got an angry stare in return.
We were about halfway to the door when Bill called me back.
“What?” I asked.
“How fast were those trains going?” he asked.
“For the sake of argument, let’s say they were going the same speed.”
He thought a minute.
“Then I reckon they would pass each other around Cleveland,” he said, confidently.
Geography was never Bill’s strong suit.
— ♦♦♦ —
After returning Jenny and her bag to the Taproom, I walked across the street to the Churchill Arms. I was acquainted with Tom Morris, the house dick, and was hoping he could give me a lead on Johnny Phelps.
The lobby was up a couple steps from the vestibule. I walked across the well-worn tan carpet to the front desk. I started to ask for Tom, but then I saw him sitting in a Chesterfield chair against the wall at the far end of the lobby, reading a newspaper.
I walked over and pulled the top of the paper down.
“Hello, Tom,” I said, smiling over the top.
“Hello, Jack,” Tom said, lowering the paper, “what’s up?”
I took the seat on the other side of a small table.
“Can you tell me anything about a fellow named Johnny Phelps?”
“319,” Tom said. “Keeps to himself. I’ve had no trouble with him. What’s the game?”
“I met a girl that came from Akron to be with him, but he doesn’t appear to be home.”
“I haven’t seen him in a few days. I’ve seen him coming and going with a few different dames, but none seem to last too long.”
“Can you check to see if he’s in?”
“What’s your stake in all this?”
“I think he’s been stringing this girl along.”
“Did she hire you?”
“Then I reiterate, what’s your interest in all this.”
“Over the years, I’ve seen too many young girls come to the city from small towns to be with men like Johnny Phelps. The bright lights enchant them for a while, but they always end up with the wrong crowd with the wrong results. If I can stop this from happening to her, I’ll give it a try.”
Morris thought a moment, then got up and said, “Come with me.”
He walked to the front desk, held out his hand and said to the clerk, “319.”
The clerk turned to the board behind, grabbed a key, and handed it to Tom.
The elevator at the Churchill is self-operated. Tom pointed it towards the third floor and we were soon outside Phelps’s apartment. Tom knocked loudly a few times.
There was no response from inside, but the door across the hall opened.
An older man in pajamas and a smoking jacket peered out and said, “He’s not home.”
“Any idea where he’s gone?” Tom asked.
“Said he was going to Milwaukee for a few days. Had some business there.”
“What’s his business?” Tom asked.
“Don’t know. He doesn’t talk much. Maybe a salesman. He always has a briefcase.”
Tom waited until the man closed his door before using the passkey to open the door to 319.
As we entered he said, “Keep everything in its place so he doesn’t know we’ve been here.”
I nodded and started to look around. The clothes in the closet and other belongings scattered around told me he was away temporarily.
Tom was checking the kitchen while I was looking around the bathroom. I opened the cabinet over the sink. In a corner on the top shelf, I found a small cellophane packet containing a white powder.
“If he’s a salesman,” I shouted to Tom, “he left one of his samples behind.”
Tom came in and studied the packet.
“Cocaine?” he asked.
“That’s my guess.”
Tom rubbed his jaw and was quiet for a moment, then said, “Put it back and let’s get out of here.”
“Aren’t you going to do anything about this?” I asked, holding up the packet.
“I’m a house dick, I’m not the police. And neither one of us should be in here. Put it back.”
I did as instructed. We left the apartment, Tom locked the door, and we headed back down. Tom gave the key back to the clerk.
I asked the clerk, “Did Phelps say where he was staying?”
The clerk looked at Tom before answering. Tom shook his head affirmatively and the clerk responded.
“He said if I needed to reach him, he’d be at the Crown Hotel in Milwaukee.”
“What now?” Tom asked as he walked me to the door.
“Maybe I’ll take a trip to Milwaukee,” I answered. “Thanks for your help.”
“Don’t mention it. I’ve seen a few of those young girls passing through.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I stopped at my apartment and stuffed a .44 pistol into my jacket. I decided against a cab and walked to the Loop – I wasn’t getting expenses – and caught the express to Milwaukee from Union Station.
The Crown Hotel was a cheap transient stop a few blocks from the station. I entered and went to the front desk. The conversation with the desk clerk was short.
I used the stairs to the second floor and knocked on the door.
A voice on the inside hollered “Enter.”
When a drug dealer doesn’t come to the door to see who’s there, you get suspicious. I could tell by the voice that he was on the far side of the room and would not be surprised if there was a gun pointed at the door. I decided against pulling mine. Neither of us would want any gun-play at this time and place. I kept the .44 in my pocket and entered.
As I expected, I was staring down the barrel of a firearm, located in the hand of a fellow that fit Phelps’s description. He was sitting behind a table across a room that was decorated with a small sofa and a couple of wooden chairs and a folded-up Murphy bed directly behind where Phelps was sitting.
“Phelps?” I asked.
“My name is Jack Kovacs. A girl I met in Chicago asked me to track you down. She was expecting to meet you yesterday.”
“What’s that got to do with you? You a private dick, or something” he asked sarcastically.
“As a matter of fact, I am, but I’m not on the clock, just doing a favor.”
“I forgot she was showing up,” he said. “You know how it is. It’s hard to keep track of the dames sometimes. You can tell her I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Tell me a little more.”
“You’re not going to ask me what my intentions are, are you pops?”
“That’s what I had in mind.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll show her a good time for a week or two, After that she’s all yours.”
“I guess you’ll be able to finance a good time after the deal, I said motioning toward the bag at his side.”
“That’s nothing for you to be concerned with,” Phelps said, the smile turning nasty. “Now you have to leave. I’m expecting company.”
I started to respond but was interrupted by the whine of the elevator stopping and the squeak of the gate opening. Footsteps headed in the direction of Phelps’s room.
“It sounds like your company has arrived,” I said.
Phelps motioned with his gun to a small closet behind the folded-up bed.
“In there,” he said, “and keep your trap shut.”
I obliged and found myself in a closet just big enough for one.
A moment later there was a knock on the door and I heard the familiar “Enter.”
The door opened, and Phelps said, “Hello Harvey, hello Phil.”
Neither greeted Phelps in return, but one said in a raspy voice, “Got the stuff?”
“Yes, but there’s a slight problem, Harvey” Phelps replied. “It was more expensive than I thought. I’m gonna need ten grand, not five.”
“We had a deal, Phelps,” the raspy voice answered.
“Like I said, things have changed.”
There was silence for a moment, then a soft conversation I couldn’t make out, maybe between Harvey and Phil. Then Harvey said, “I’ve only got five grand on me. I’ll have to call the boss for the rest.”
“The phone is over there,” Phelps said. “Meanwhile, I’ll take the five grand and count it just to keep you honest.”
A moment later, I heard Phelps scream an expletive, followed by a chair falling and a loud crack, a sound I was all too familiar with. It sounded like a large caliber machine.
I continued to wait silently until I heard more footsteps and the front door open and close. I waited a minute longer and stepped out.
Phelps was lying beside the turned over chair. Harvey, Phil, and the bag were gone.
The bullet had pierced Phelps’s chest near his heart. I didn’t bother bending over to check for a pulse. Dead bodies were another commodity I was familiar with.
I thought for a minute and went to the window, which faced the front of the hotel. I pulled aside the cheap gauze curtain and looked down to the street. Two men, one holding the bag, were jumping into a waiting car, which quickly sped away.
I thought for a minute about getting out myself, but there were several factors compelling me to stay: my fingerprints scattered around the place, the desk clerk who got a good look at me, and the sound of footsteps scurrying around outside the door. The gunshot had not gone unheard.
I walked to the telephone and tapped the switch a couple of times. When the front desk answered, I said, “Call the police. 215 has checked out.”
I found half a bottle of rye on a table next to the sofa, uncorked it, lit a cigarette, and waited.
— ♦♦♦ —
The bottle was almost empty, and the ashtray was full by the time the police arrived. Two detectives entered, one about fifty who had clearly been around the block a few times, the other young and fresh-faced.
They walked over and examined the body. The older one had the nonchalant look of someone who had seen this before. The face of the younger cop became a pale shade of green and he quickly turned away.
The older one walked over to me, identified himself as homicide detective Ben Schultz and said “Talk.”
I gave him the back-story, explaining why I was present and what I had heard from the closet.
“You didn’t see it go down?” Schultz asked.
“No, but here’s my take. One of the men goes to the phone to call the boss. Phelps is distracted, either watching the phone or counting the money. The other pulls his gun. Phelps sees him and stands up and gets plugged before he can shoot.”
“How do I know you weren’t the shooter. Are you carrying?”
I pulled my pistol from my pocket and handed it to Schultz. He pulled the clip and saw no bullets were missing.
“I wasn’t involved but I can make it easy for you to find the two who were,” I said.
“How’s that? Did you get a look at them?”
“I didn’t get a clear look at their faces, but I can tell you this. Their names are Harvey and Phil, they both have medium builds and are wearing black suits and black fedoras, they are driving a two-tone black and red late model Hudson, they’ll be carrying a large tan Gladstone bag full of dope and one of them will have five grand on him.”
Schultz turned to his partner and said, “Put out a bulletin, Jeff.”
While Jeff was phoning, Phil looked at the body again and walked to the Murphy bed. He examined it closely, found what he was looking for and pulled out a penknife. He probed in the bed for a moment, pulled something out, and walked over and held it out for me to see.
“Judging by the size of this slug, the shooter was packing a cannon,” he said. “You say you were in the closet behind the bed?”
“If that mattress had an inch less padding, this bullet would have traveled all the way through that closet, except your body would have stopped it.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I got back to Chicago around midnight and splurged on a taxi to Irving Park and my apartment. After a couple smokes and a nightcap, I was ready for bed. I spent a fitful night dreaming of closets and mattresses and bullets.
The next morning, I stopped for coffee at the local luncheonette on the way to work. I picked up a Milwaukee paper and found the story on page two. Harvey and Phil had been picked up a short time after the bulletin went out. They still had the money, cocaine and the gun that killed Phelps.
Thankfully, my name was kept out of the article. Mention of my participation would have been a detriment to my health.
I spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon at my office wrestling with a solitaire deck and bottle of bourbon before deciding it was time to head over to the Taproom and talk to Jenny.
There were a few strangers at the bar and a lone couple at a corner table. Bill was in his usual seat at the end of the bar. I walked over and ordered a highball.
“Is Jenny here?” I asked.
“She’s in the back,” Bill confirmed.
“Send her out. I need to talk to her,” I said. I grabbed my drink and took an isolated table.
While I waited, I pondered my approach. I thought briefly of cushioning the blow with an invented story: This was his last job. He had met a swell girl and was going to go straight and settle down.
I quickly decided on the real story. Jenny deserved at least that much.
When Jenny came out, she was wearing an apron around her waist and a smile that hadn’t been there the day before.
“Are you ready to order, sir?” she said.
“What’s the deal?” I asked.
“Bill gave me a waitress job. Just enough for room and board and maybe a little left over. Did you find Johnny?”
I didn’t hold back.
“He’s dead. Shot in Milwaukee doing a drug deal.”
Jenny half slumped and sat down in the chair across from me. I pulled the Milwaukee paper from my jacket pocket and placed it in front of her.
She read for a minute, then looked up at me. There was a look of sadness on her face but surprisingly no tears.
“Did you talk to him before…” her voice trailed off.
“Did he tell you anything?”
Again, I gave it to her straight. Her expression didn’t change.
“Are you alright?” I asked. “You seem to be taking it well.”
Jenny gave me a half smile.
“To tell the truth, I think I knew all along. I was infatuated with him but in my heart, I knew this wasn’t love on either side. In the end, my decision to come to Chicago was more about getting away from Akron than it was about Johnny. Don’t get me wrong, I feel bad that he died, but that’s all I feel.”
“What now?” I asked.
Jenny thought a minute before responding.
“I guess it’s back to Akron. From what I’ve seen of Chicago, it’s not the place I thought it was. If I work here a few weeks, I should earn enough for a bus ticket back, with a little left over to see the city.”
“Chicago is not all that bad,” I said. I can show you around while you’re here.”
“I’d like that,” Jenny said, the smile returning to her face.
— ♦♦♦ —
Over the next few weeks, I took Jenny to dinner a couple of times and gave her the grand tour of the North Side during the days – Lincoln Park Zoo, Wrigley Field, Riverview Amusement Park. She even dragged me on the roller coaster, a venture I had avoided to this point. After an up and down ride, Jenny was smiling with excitement and my face was a darker shade of green than a certain rookie Milwaukee detective.
We developed a comfortable friendship that could have been more if we had let it and if we had more time. I was a better choice than Johnny Phelps, but hooking up with me was not what Jenny needed, probably what neither of us needed.
A couple of weeks after we met, I walked into the Taproom and asked Bill if I could talk to Jenny.
“She’s gone,” Bill said, “took the bus back to Akron this morning. Said to tell you goodbye and thank you.”
I was disappointed, but not as much as I should have been.
“I would have liked to say goodbye,” I said.
“I got the impression that this way was easier on Jenny,” Bill said. “She told me to give you something.”
Bill walked to the cash register and pressed the button to open it.
“I told her she didn’t have to pay me,” I said, a bit offended.
“She didn’t,” Bill said walking back to me.
He opened my hand and dropped a locket into my palm, a powder blue locket with a white cameo.
I opened the locket. The same photo of Jenny was inside, but the picture of Johnny Phelps had been cut off and replaced by a picture of me, smiling the familiar smile of a man who has had too many drinks. I looked confusingly at Bill.
“She asked if I had any photographs of you,” Bill said. The only one I had was this one.”
Bill pulled a photo out of his pocket, one I remembered from last year’s Christmas party, showing me and Bill and a few regulars. There was a hole cut out where I had been standing.
“Beer or whiskey or both?” Bill asked.
“Not right now,” I answered, putting the locket in my pocket and turning for the door, “I think I’m in the mood for a roller coaster ride.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Killing a man in a locked room is easier than you think.”
“Well, Kirby,” he said, ‘this conversation has taken an interesting turn. Shall we wager?”. Thus opens a cozy mystery that will leave you breathless.