Story by Bruce Harris
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
The breeze curled and twisted Ted Reid’s cigarette smoke like a belly dancer’s midriff. Stained from years of tobacco, grease, and depravity, the broken window blinds did little to hide the flashing red and blue neon CHARCOAL STEAKS sign from the bar across the street. Ted Reid jumped. Relieved to discover the noise source a mouse, his heart didn’t have a chance to regain normalcy before a fist pounded on the thin door.
“Open up Reid.”
The flashing neon reflected off Reid’s pale face. “It’s open,” he said.
Surprised, the cop tried the doorknob and it turned. “Well look at you Reid. Your face looks like Old Glory. Very patriotic.” He laughed, but no humor showed in his dark eyes.
“You know?” asked Reid.
More laughter. “Know? Know that Max Kotler is dead? Know that I got called on my beat to investigate a murder? Know that you can’t handle a simple thing like shaking down a helpless coin dealer without killing him? Know that you created a real mess for me here? You want to know what I know? I know you got to explain things and make it fast.” Officer Sinclair spun his head around the room. “You got anything to drink in this dump?” the cop asked.
Reid didn’t know which question to answer first. He settled on the last one. “No. And I didn’t kill Kotler. He was stabbed when I got there.”
“Dead when you got there?”
“I didn’t say he was dead. I said he was stabbed.”
Sinclair walked toward Reid. “Don’t lie to me. Your life ain’t worth one of them 2-cent pieces Kotler displays in them showcases. Face it, you botched the job, put a knife in Kotler and took off with those silver dollars. I want them and now!” Spittle from Sinclair’s thin mouth showered Reid.
“I’m telling the truth. The damned silver dollars were still there. I panicked all right? After I saw the knife. I took off. Came here. And I don’t give a damn what you think.”
The smirk on Sinclair’s face came out of Hollywood scripting. “Empty handed? I don’t believe you.” He stepped closer, landed a brick-like fist into Reid’s stomach. “I don’t like liars. Maybe you left the silver dollars, but I’m sure you lifted something else.”
Reid’s mouth became a temporary cannon, part cough, part belch exploded. “What the hell you do that for?” he asked. Reid started to say something else but stopped. He needed to figure a way to rid himself of Sinclair. The dirty copper busted him for petty robbery nearly two years to the day and instead of arresting him, Sinclair extorted from him. Ever since Reid had been forced to pull off small neighborhood robberies, fence the merchandise and give the proceeds to the crooked cop. He hated it, he wanted out but felt cornered. An old story, Reid had a wife and a job, a salesman with an ice truck route. He made a decent living but made the mistake of other foolish men. In Reid’s case, it involved a redhead in a three-story walkup apartment in mid-August. He didn’t collect cash for an ice delivery, lost his job and his wife in the same week and was introduced to Officer Terry Sinclair after stealing a case of whiskey. The two drank the stolen booze. Stolen rocks from an ice truck belonging to Reid’s former employer cooled the drinks.
Ironically, Sinclair was right. Reid didn’t leave the coin dealer’s office empty-handed. He had told the truth about the silver dollars. He saw them on Kotler’s desk, but he didn’t take them. Kotler, bleeding badly, was still alive when Reid came to rob him, but barely. The single knife wound entered his chest and blood continued spreading across the coin dealer’s white shirt. A splatter of crimson seeped into the green carpet giving the woolen fabric a yellow appearance.
Kotler spoke first. Barely a whisper, “On top of the safe. Take it.”
Frightened, Reid fixated on the safe, its door open, coins and paper money strewn about. He saw tissue paper, grabbed it off the safe and opened it. “A penny,” he said. Reid looked at it. Dated 1943, the copper shined brightly as if it had been struck moments prior. He kneeled closer to the coughing Kotler. “It’s just a new penny.”
The dying man’s eyes closed, then opened. His lips moved for the last time. “Yes. No.”
Reid looked around the sixteenth-floor office. The place had been ransacked. In addition to the safe’s contents, desk drawers were removed and turned upside down. A bank bag containing numerous paper-wrapped coin rolls peeked out from behind the safe. Reid slowly backed out, careful not to touch anything. He must have just missed the murderer. Whoever killed Kotler probably heard the elevator and beat it down the stairs. Kotler’s office sat directly across from the elevator. Reid took no chances. He too took the sixteen flights down via stairway, headed for the first hotel he could find to hide out and think. He didn’t want to tell Sinclair about the tissue-wrapped penny, not until he could figure out what Kotler had meant by his contradictory dying words, “Yes. No.”
Sinclair’s’s voice broke Reid’s thought process. “You really messed things up. The heat is going to come down on this neighborhood. I’ll have a lot of brass hanging around me for a while. Unless…”
Reid never graduated high school, but he could read, especially faces. “I told you I didn’t do it. Listen, Sinclair, I’ve let you push me around for too damn long now. I’m not about to let you pin a murder rap on me. I had no reason to kill Kotler. Fact is, I had no reason to rob him except for you.”
“Shut up,” ordered Sinclair. “Let me think. This may work out a lot better for me. There’s even an eyewitness.”
For a moment, Reid thought about what had taken place at the coin dealer’s office. No one else was there, he was sure of that. “What are you getting at?”
“I checked out the place after the call came in, saw the stiff with a knife in his chest. I took the liberty of taking the silver dollars that you conveniently left behind. You seem to forget one thing, the elevator operator. He took you up to the sixteenth floor. He saw you. He took you down too, no?”
Without thinking, Reid’s “No” blurted from his mouth.
“What’s that?” asked Sinclair.
“You what, Reid?”
“I took the stairs down.”
Another smirk. “Really? Now tell me, why would an innocent man want to take the stairs down 16 flights rather than use the elevator?” He didn’t wait for a response. The cop answered his own question. “I’ll tell you why Reid, because you killed Kotler!”
Both Reid and Sinclair’s heads turned as the hotel room door swung open. Detective Ben Brosnan scowled. Two men followed him. One a well-dressed man, tailored suit and starched white shirt. Tall and thin he had the hands and fingers of a piano player. An expensive looking gold watch complemented gold horseshoe-shaped cufflinks. His thin black tie contrasted with thick black-framed eyeglasses. The second man looked familiar to Sinclair. He sported blonde hair combed straight back accentuating a pointy nose. His checkered sports jacket clashed with his pants. The jacket was too long and needed pressing. Brosnan spoke, “Officer Sinclair, this is Peter Wooley.” He pointed to the first man. “He’s an inspector from the United States Treasury Department.” Without changing facial expression, Wooley nodded.
“And I’m Matt Mitchell. Internal affairs” offered the other. Sinclair winced.
“What’s going on here Sinclair?” asked Detective Brosnan.
The cop straightened. “Um, nice meeting you Mr. Wooley.” He looked at Reid, Mitchell, and then Detective Brosnan. “I received a call about a murder on the 16th-floor office of a coin dealer, name Henry Kotler. He runs…I mean he ran Kotler’s Coins in the Galaxy Building on Chestnut. This is good timing Detective. I was just about to place Ted Reid here under arrest for Kotler’s murder.”
“I didn’t do it!” shot back Reid.
“Were you in Mr. Kotler’s office today?” asked the straight-faced Wooley.
“And the reason for your visit, Mr. Reid?” Wooley adjusted his glasses.
Reid hesitated. He glanced over toward Sinclair. The cop visibly stiffened.
“Well, I went there to buy some coins.”
“Are you a collector?” asked the Treasury man.
“Silver dollars. I collect silver dollars. Mr. Kotler had some nice…”
“I’ll help you out Reid,” interrupted Matt Mitchell. “You were there to steal some coins, weren’t you?”
Reid didn’t know what to say. He was afraid to glance Sinclair’s way again. “I didn’t kill Kotler. I saw the knife in his chest when I walked into his office. I…”
“Relax Mr. Reid,” Mitchell’s voice reassuring and empathetic. “I accused you of going to the coin dealer’s office for the purpose of theft, not murder. I’ll ask you again. You were there to steal some coins, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” admitted Reid.
“Can I interrupt?” asked Terry Sinclair. This man is responsible for the murder of Mr. Kotler. I have a witness. Killers are liars. I don’t believe a word he says.”
The stare from Matt Mitchell silenced Sinclair. “No, you can’t interrupt me,” he said with acidity. “Our office has had eyes on you for months. There have been too many petty crimes and robberies on your beat for it to be mere coincidence. We know what you’re up to and I’m here to place you under arrest. Hand over your badge and gun.”
“What?” screamed Sinclair. “Are you crazy? This guy killed the coin dealer. He…”
“Save it,” said Detective Brosnan. “Give it up Terry. We…”
Sinclair pulled out his police special. “No one moves. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but I’ve got this bum, Ted Reid here, dead to rights. He murdered the coin dealer and I’m arresting him. Anyone who tries to interfere is obstructing justice!”
Reid couldn’t believe his eyes. He knew Sinclair to be unstable and dangerous. At the moment the corrupt cop pointed his gun away from Reid, Reid jumped him. The two tumbled, rolled around on the stale carpet before Sinclair freed his gun hand.
BANG! A shot went off. A hole in the wall inches from the open window appeared. Everyone froze. Momentary silence came to end when Detective Brosnan yelled, “Stop!” The detective pulled Reid off Sinclair and applied handcuffs to the cop. Terry Sinclair spit.
Brosnan addressed Mitchell from internal affairs. “He’s all yours Matt. Get him out of here. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a cop that’s dirtier than my morning martini.”
Peter Wooley took it all in. Once Matt Mitchell escorted Officer Sinclair out, he addressed Reid. “Are you sure you didn’t take anything out of Mr. Kotler’s office?”
Reid thought of the 1943 penny. Burnt once by a law enforcement officer, he became hesitant. “I’m sure. Nothing,” he lied.
The Treasury man stared at stained and chipped ceiling paint. He focused on what appeared to be the remains of a swatted fly. “I see. Well, we still don’t know if you had anything to do with Mr. Kotler’s murder. Let’s go over to the Galaxy building and have a talk with that elevator operator. What he has to say should prove interesting.”
Feeling emboldened Reid declared, “I didn’t do it! And I certainly didn’t expect to see Kotler with a knife in him when I got to his office. But you make a good point about the elevator operator. He must have taken the killer up to Kotler’s office minutes before he took me up. I’m sure he saw the killer.”
The trio, Ted Reid, Detective Brosnan, and U.S. Treasury Agent Peter Wooley got as far as the Galaxy building lobby. A uniformed officer met them. “What’re you doing here Hal?” asked Brosnan.
“Someone found a body. Elevator operator. Appears to be strangulation. Poor guy. He’s worked here for years, knew everyone, never had a bad thing to say about anyone. Who’d want to do him in?” asked the policeman.
“Someone who didn’t want to be identified,” answered a solemn Wooley. He sneered at Reid. “Let’s take another look at Kotler’s office.” The three men rode the elevator, Detective Brosnan at the controls.
A sickening feeling revisited Ted Reid. The office was pretty much the same as it had been when he discovered Kotler on the ground, knife in his chest. The body had been removed, but the office had not been cleaned up or straightened out. Reid, ready to come clean about the 1943 penny and Kotler’s cryptic Yes, No response, stopped himself as Wooley spoke.
“Place is a mess,” he began, “I wonder what the killer found and took from here?” He turned toward Reid. “You said you didn’t take any silver dollars, but they’re gone now from the desk. Still, there is something else, that’s why I’ve been assigned to the case.” Wooley walked around, looked through a small bookshelf overflowing with numismatic books, and examined Kotler’s office inside and out. He addressed Detective Brosnan. “Have you been up here before? Other than the safe, are there any other spots where Kotler would keep valuable coins?”
Brosnan scratched his chin. “Nope, never been here. Collected stamps as a kid but never coins. Maybe there is a separate safe downstairs? You know, for the building’s tenants.”
“Not likely,” responded Wooley.
“Wait a minute,” said Ted Reid, “That’s strange.” His words surprised both Brosnan and Wooley. His eyes glared at the Treasury man. “You said the silver dollars were gone now from the desk.” Blank stares, he continued. “That’s true, but how did you know that? When I came here, the silver dollars were on the desk. Sinclair admitted to me that he came up here after Kotler was stabbed and took the silver dollars. The only way you would know that the coins were on the desk, is if you were up here before me. And, if that’s the case, you killed Kotler and no doubt killed the elevator operator because he could identify you.”
Before it all sank into Detective Brosnan’s brain, Peter Wooley pulled a government-issued service pistol and said, “Great work Sherlock Holmes.”
“What’s this all about?” asked a bewildered Brosnan.
“It’s about this!” Ted Reid took the 1943 shiny copper penny from his pocket, unwrapped it, and showed it to both men. “I don’t know what or why, but it’s about this. Am I right Mr. Treasury Man?”
“I’ll take that coin,” said Wooley, extending an open-palmed left hand while pointing the pistol at Reid and Brosnan with his right.
“A penny?” asked an incredulous Detective Brosnan. “You’re kidding.”
The smirk on Wooley’s face blossomed. “Not just any penny you fool. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on. Copper is at a premium. All the 1943-minted Lincoln pennies are being made with zinc plated steel, not copper. But, a few copper planchets were still in the presses from 1942 when the Philadelphia mint began producing the pennies. It was my job to make certain the presses were cleared of copper prior to striking the 1943 coins. If a coin like this became known, I’d get fired. I traced one to a roll of pennies that was distributed to The First National Bank of Philadelphia on Broad Street. When I inquired about it, I was told that the coin dealer Max Kotler had received a shipment of rolled coins of all denominations. I figured correctly this copper penny was contained in one of the rolls. So, not only do I save my job, but I also get a priceless collectible coin as a bonus. Hand it over Mr. Reid.” The gun pointed directly at Reid.
That explained why Kotler had said, Yes. No, when Ted naively stated, it’s just a new penny, thought Reid.
“No!” shouted Brosnan. “Don’t shoot. Give it to him Reid. You’ll never get away with this Wooley.”
“Drop the gun, Brosnan. That’s it, nice and easy. Put it down there. Good. I must have missed that penny, all wrapped up in tissue paper when I first came up here. Oh well, I’ll get away with it. Neither of you will stop me. It cost a few lives, but it’ll be worth it in the end. C’mon Reid, give it to me now.”
Reid stood still. “You’ll have to take it from me, Wooley.”
“Don’t be a fool, Ted,” said Brosnan. “Give him the penny.”
“Listen to him Reid,” said a smirking Wooley. “I’ll give you to the count of five. ONE…TWO…THREE…FOUR…FI…”
The door flung open. Hal, the uniformed patrolman from the lobby stood at the door. Peter Wooley turned and fired. Before his lifeless body hit the floor, Hal removed his weapon and got off a single shot. It was enough. Wooley fell against a glass display case, shattering it and his eyeglasses. Blood from the fatal gunshot mingled with blood streaming from the numerous glass shard cuts.
Detective Brosnan rushed to Hal, but there was nothing to be done for him. “One penny. Four dead” sighed Brosnan. “Let me see that thing.”
Reid handed it to the detective. “Looks like any other penny,” said Brosnan. “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know, maybe enlist in the Army. Like Wooley said, there’s a war going on. It’d be good for me, give me a fresh start. But first, I’m gonna get one of those charcoal steaks at the bar near that cheap hotel. Want to join me?”
“Why not?” answered Brosnan. “What’re your plans for this penny?” he asked, handing it back to Reid.
“After we eat, I’ll walk a few blocks to the Schuylkill River, make a wish and toss it in.”
“Yup. No more robberies. No more coppers.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Marshall Ernie Farrar had his hands full with a missing-man case and a Wells Fargo stage-coach robbery. Someone was trying to cover his tracks, but it won’t be who you suspect.