Story by James Blakey
Illustration Carol Wellart
I read the evening edition of The Press with my feet propped on my desk, the only way I could stretch them in this peach crate I called an office. Willoughby, the hotel manager, had converted my old office into a bank of phone booths and relocated me next to the boiler room, deep in the basement of the Rudolph. I loosened my tie, angled the fan a bit, and flipped to the sporting page. The Cardinals were rolling up the National League like Russian tanks through the Germans at Kursk.
The exploits of the St. Louis Nine were interrupted by the ringing of my phone. “DeMille,” I answered.
A whisper on the other end. Impossible to hear.
“You need to speak up.”
“This is the front desk.” A woman’s voice. Still a whisper.
“To whom am I speaking?” I asked.
“It’s Miss Adams.”
Didn’t recognize her name. Must be new. “What can I do for you, Miss Adams?”
“I’m concerned about a man who just checked in. Mr. Willoughby said if I had suspicions about a guest, I should contact the house detective.”
Willoughby won’t tolerate illicit activities in the Rudolph unless he’s getting a cut. “Okay, Miss Adams, what’s your concern?”
“The guest didn’t want to sign the register, and he has no luggage,” she said still in a whisper. “Frankly, he struck me as a real crumb.”
Back in the day, rum runners were the hotel’s biggest worry. I haven’t run into any Nazi saboteurs, only the occasional cheating spouse. Most of my time was spent keeping the guests from pulling back the blackout curtains. “What’s his name?” I grabbed a pencil.
“Leonard Wismer from Mays Landing. Dark-hair, thin and about five-six.”
I jotted down the description and imagined Miss Adams’ puffy lips, hovering close to the receiver, producing that soft, breathy whisper. “And what’s his room number?”
“He’s in 402.”
That’s one of the nicest suites in the hotel. Where you’ll find the big wheels from the Main Line when they visit the shore. If this Wismer was up to something, it wasn’t penny-ante. “Fine, I’ll check up on him.”
A chance to really stretch my legs. Later I could stop by the front desk and introduce myself in person to Miss Adams. I wanted to put a face and body to that sultry whisper. Redhead and medium height, I guessed. With a smattering of freckles.
— ♦♦♦ —
I camped out on four in an alcove near the elevator. Three padded chairs, I sat in the middle one, and an end table. The hallway was muggy, and I mopped my brow. Couldn’t open the window to let the breeze in because the curtain would flap, and the hotel would get fined by the air raid warden.
My stake out of Wismer’s room had lasted close to ninety minutes. No ladies of dubious virtue or slick-looking sharks had gone in or out. No one at all. The hands on the grandfather clock in the hallway read 9:55. Five minutes until Charlie, the assistant house detective came on duty. Then off to the Crab Shack, grab some dinner, and find some female companionship. I was ready to make a pass at Laura, the new waitress from Philadelphia with the cutest brown peepers. Failing that, I’d drink until I didn’t mind going home to Violet.
That’s not fair. Violet’s an okay gal and a fair cook. We have our good times, but it’s against my nature to stick with only one lady. No matter what the Church says. We don’t have kids, so no innocents are getting hurt. And I’m discrete. Most of the time. Well, I don’t go out of my way to embarrass Violet.
I turned the page of the paper to find a headline blaring “Jersey Devil Spotted Near Hammonton – Youths Describe Encounter with Infernal Beast.” Below was a crude drawing of a creature with a goat head and giant bat wings. A couple of teenagers hunting in the Pine Barrens claimed to have come across the beast. They shot at it to no effect and barely escaped with their lives.
As I continued to read about the monstrous encounter, the elevator doors slid openowered the paper to catch a glimpse of a blonde stepping into the hall. Tall, almost five-ten in those the heels. She looked in my direction for a moment, her candy-apple red lips curled into a half-smile when we met eyes. Or eye. Under a black beret, she wore her hair Veronica Lake-style with a golden lock covering her right eye. Her left eye was as blue as a cloudless summer sky.
The Crab Shack could wait.
I studied Blondie’s rocking hips and amazing gams as she glided down the hallway. Healthy and fit. No war-time rationing for her. She stopped at 402 and knocked. The door opened, and she stepped inside.
I folded my newspaper, laid it on the table, and stood. Floorboards creaked as I walked down the hallway, and I switched to tiptoeing. I pressed my ear against the door. A man and a woman talking. Impossible to make out the words.
The voices grew louder. Still couldn’t understand what they were saying. Not sure it was English. Maybe German? Blondie did have an Aryan look to her.
A woman screamed. I grabbed the knob. Locked. A gunshot, something shattered, and a thud. With my passkey, I unlocked the door. To avoid being an easy target, I flattened myself against the wall and pushed the door open with my right foot. Another gunshot. I pulled out my revolver and peeked around the doorway.
A guy was face down on the floor. Cheap gray suit and the size of Wismer by the clerk’s description. Shards of a shattered vase laid next to him. Blondie stood over him with a pistol in her hand.
I pointed my revolver at her. “Drop it and reach for the sky, Sister.”
She gave me that same mysterious half-smile from the hallway and the gun clattered to the floor.
Keeping her covered, I knelt by the body. Blood stained the carpet. Willoughby would be livid at the cleaning bill. Checked for a pulse. Nothing.
Before I even asked, she said, “It was self-defense.”
The vase broke after the first gunshot. Maybe he had it in his hands, ready to strike, she shot him, and then it fell to the floor. More likely she was lying, but no need to let on that I suspected.
I picked up her pistol, a .38 revolver, and shoved both guns in my pocket. The scent of lilacs cut through the odor of gunpowder. But more than her perfume, I smelled money. Her emerald green dress didn’t come off the rack and those reptile-skin pumps must cost more than I make in a month. A rich and beautiful dame in trouble? The possibilities were endless.
I trotted out my best reassuring smile. “I’d Edward DeMille, the house detective. Why don’t we sit down, and you can tell me what happened?”
She nodded, and we took seats at opposite ends of an olive, three-person davenport.
“I’m Mrs. Herbert Floyd.”
Her words were calm and cool. That’s not an indictment. People react differently to death. Even if they’re the one responsible. I should know. And I was right about the money. Herbert Floyd owned banks, railroads, factories, and most of the state legislature.
I glanced at the body. “And who is the deceased gentleman on the floor, Mrs. Floyd?”
“Please call me, Nancy.” She frowned. “His name is Leonard Wismer. But he’s no gentleman.”
“No?” I raised an eyebrow.
She shook her head. “He has…photos…of me.” Tears welled up in that big blue eye, the first sign of any emotion.
I offered her my handkerchief. On her forefinger a gold class ring from Atlantic City High, just like Violet’s. Local girl does well or rather marries well. “I’m guessing they’re not portraits?”
“No.” She dabbed at her tears. “A scandal would ruin my husband, us.”
“Wismer was blackmailing you?”
She nodded and the waterworks flowed.
“Five thousand dollars. Each of the past three months.”
A let out a low whistle. “And you were to pay him again tonight?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t raise the money.”
“Five thousand is a lot of dough for most people, but not your husband.”
She shook her head. “He doesn’t know. He can’t know. Herbert has me on an allowance. I pawned my jewelry to make the earlier payments.”
“And you told Wismer this when you met tonight?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “When I told him, I didn’t have the money, he became furious. Said he’d tell Herbert. That’s when I pulled the gun. I just wanted the photos. I wasn’t going to shoot him. I never used a gun before. But he grabbed the vase and threw it at me. I don’t even remember shooting him.” She edged closer.
The vase wasn’t thrown. More evidence she was jerking me around. Or was she in shock and not remembering clearly? If she was all fired up, could she pull the trigger on the revolver twice and not realize it? But she didn’t shoot twice in succession. The body hit the floor, then the second shot came, which suggested deliberate action.
“You don’t believe me?” she said reading the doubt on my face. The tears stopped. Did she realize they weren’t having the desired effect?
I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter what I believe. That’s a matter for the police and the courts.”
“The police? Do they have to be involved?” She leaned forward and clutched my arm.
“There’s a dead man on the floor. And you dusted him.”
She stared at me with that solitary blue eye. “If the police get hold of the photos, it’s a sure bet the papers will have them next. I can’t let that happen.” Her hand slid across my jacket and fingered my lapel.
With the Rudolphs’s thick walls, it was likely no one else heard the gunshots. Gave me time to come up with a plan for both the money and the dame. “Do we know if he brought the photos with him?”
She nodded. “Tonight was supposed to be the last payoff. He was going to turn them over to me.”
I gently removed her hand, stood, and made my way to the body. I knelt next to Wismer, hefted him over, and smiled. “He told you his name was Leonard Wismer?”
Nancy looked puzzled. “Why?”
“Because his real name is Vinnie Octaroro. He’s a blackmailer all right.” And more. A few years ago, Octaroro took a couple of potshots at me while I was running protection on the docks. I paid him back with a busted nose and a broken collarbone for his trouble. Mrs. Floyd had done me and the world a favor.
“What does that mean?” Her voice filled with concern.
I sighed. “Probably nothing. Makes sense that Octaroro would use an alias.” I searched his pockets. In his pants, I found a wallet with twenty-four dollars and close to fifty meat and gas stamps, ripped from their ration books. Vinnie had expanded from blackmail to the black market. In his inner coat pocket was a sealed envelope with what felt like thick papers inside. Could be the photographs.
Nancy knelt next to me, her arm brushing mine. The air thick with her lilac perfume, like I was in the middle of a flower garden in June. She reached for the envelope, her hand touching mine. Her faint breath on my cheek. “I need those.” Her voice a whisper that seemed oddly familiar.
I swallowed hard and kept my grip on the envelope. Those photos were my meal ticket out of the basement and beyond. Across his business empire, Herbert Floyd must have need of a problem solver. I scrambled back to the couch. “Octaroro didn’t have a gun. That could be a problem.”
She sat next to me. “I told you. He came at me with a vase.”
“You said he threw it at you. But it’s next to his body. Like he was holding it when he was shot.”
“What are you saying, Eddie?”
Now I’m Eddie? “I’m saying, I can help you, but only if you play it straight with me.” I fingered the envelope. “These photos provide a powerful motive. And there’s no doubt you shot him.”
She leaned closer. “And you can help me with that?”
Help her with a story? Or disposing of Vinnie? Could I get the body out of the hotel without being seen? Then dump him in the ocean. What was my incentive for risking multiple felonies? Just what was Mrs. Floyd offering?
Nancy pressed her leg against mine. “Would money help?”
“Money always helps. But I thought you were tapped out? The allowance and all that.”
“I could get more. But it would take time.” She slid her arms around me. “Or we could work out a trade.” She pulled me close and kissed my cheek. She nibbled on my ear. “Help me, Eddie.”
I kissed her, long and hard. Didn’t stop until I needed more air. I broke the embrace.
She leaned back, her lips curled into that half-smile, and my decision was made. I would help her and myself.
“Okay,” I said still gasping for air. “I need to think of a plan.” At that moment wracking my brain required more effort than usual. “We need to know if these are the photographs. If not, I’ll rummage around Octaroro’s place.” I paused. “Need to search it anyway, in case he made copies.” I didn’t need another blackmailer complicating things.
With my penknife, I slit open the envelope. Twenty-or-so photographs tumbled to the floor. I reached to grab them. There’s not much that shocks me, but these photos were indecent, prurient, obscene.
And not of Nancy.
They were of Violet.
The doorknob jiggled.
Nancy screamed. She tossed her beret on the floor, tousled her hair, and ripped the collar of her dress.
The door flew off its hinges and crashed to the floor. Lt. Scanlon and a couple of his blue-coated gorillas entered, guns in hand.
“Thank God, you’re here,” said Nancy. She raced across the room, hiding behind an officer and clutching his arm. “He killed that man and tried to attack me.” The tears flowed again like she turned on a faucet.
And now it made sense. Starting with the now familiar whispers of the desk clerk.
Scanlon grinned at me with crooked teeth. “Well, well. What have we got here?” He looked at Octaroro’s body. “Well-known underworld figure shot dead. Up to your old tricks, Eddie?”
My mouth went dry. No way some hotel guest heard the shots, called the police, and they got here this quick. Someone tipped Scanlon in advance, or he’s in on it. Add in the photos of Violet and my history with Octaroro and the noose was tightening around my neck.
In the hallway, the gongs of the grandfather clock began. Ten o’clock. Violet and her classmate Nancy hung a picture-perfect frame on me, and it only took five minutes.
— ♦♦♦ —
Written: By Justin Alcala, Art by Jon Stubbington
Unlike some agents, Oliver felt his place as a Pinkerton agent was a calling from higher authorities. He didn’t flaunt his divine duty, nor did he ever speak of it. He just knew it to be so. Oliver dutifully removed himself from his post as a Union scout and investigated.
He was given the mission to hunt down the Civil War’s first serial killer.