Story by Michael McGlade
Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
Pittsburgh. Like hell with the lid off. Cold and … actually, just cold. An ice rink with bridges. Lots of bridges.
Glad to escape the storm, I stuttered into a downtown diner with that sweet wet smell of kerosene from the chicken heaters used to warm the place. My eight o’clock appointment was already there, his coffee cup drained. Tarry stain to his slitted lips.
— Been drinking here all night? I said.
— Since we spoke, yes.
I sat in the booth opposite him and Jacob extended his hand which was tremulous caffeine jitters. We shook on it.
— Ms. Shaw I really need your help.
— First, call me Isabelle. My clients call me Isabelle. And as long as you’re paying for breakfast, I’m listening.
He didn’t laugh. Glassy eyes like a gerbil. And with that fizzy auburn hair of his, a la Art Garfunkel, you could pick him out like blood on snow. If he’d been hiding out, here was the wrong place because I spotted him straight off and this isn’t two years of Private Eye casework talking.
— You stick out like a dog’s butt. I told you to go somewhere safe, Jacob. A friend’s house.
Jacob Weitz ordered more coffee. I cradled the cup in my hands for warmth and he drained his in two long gulps. He appeared unhinged. Maybe deranged. Hope I didn’t come all the way from NYC for a crackpot but it happens from time to time, hence the reason I usually only work women’s cases. It’s why I started the agency. It doesn’t say it above my door or on any of my literature if I ever bothered to get any literature that is, but in my experience men are like rubber bands — stretch and they snap.
— I worked a case for your sister-in-law, I said. A persistent stalking. She begged me to help you, Jacob. Last night, you sounded terrified. So, what is it you couldn’t tell me over the phone?
— HTC Labs, he said. I work there. Chemical engineer. Been there a year working on a project. Three of us working in isolation.
He stared at me like a museum exhibit.
— Must leave you plenty of time with your thoughts?
— Don’t you see? There’s three of us working on a single formula. Three separate parts.
— For security reasons.
— That’s what I thought. But talking to the other two I finally figured out what we’re making.
He glanced over his shoulders at the breakfast crowd, maybe twenty people in total, mostly still wearing their hats and coats. It was hard to shake the winter freeze. A big guy, probably a Norseman way back, smiled at me.
— We manufacture pesticides in the lab, he said. But what I’m working on is a nerve agent, part of the V-series. S-(Diethylamino)ethyl O-ethyl ethylphosphonothioate). VX nerve gas, to be precise.
— VX? Like the nerve gas in that film The Rock?
— And you’re making this?
— Been working on my part for the past year. I don’t see why they can’t take what I’ve been working on and combine it with the other two guys’ work today, tomorrow, whenever. It’s ready to go right now.
— Do you have any evidence?
His hands trembled.
— We don’t get let out with anything on us. All the evidence is in the lab.
— Can you get me some? Bring it out? Steal it?
— No. I’m never going back.
— If you don’t ever go back to work, it could arouse suspicion.
— I am not going back.
— OK, Jacob. But I don’t want you to be alone. You don’t have a wife or children … stay with a friend, then. OK? Until I get back to you, don’t be alone.
— ♦♦♦ —
Cold hit like a fist. Way below forty, too far below to even guess at a number. Jacob walked toward Wood Street station to catch The T to a friend’s house in Mount Washington and I crossed the street. Snowing now. I picked my way through the slush and noticed the wild bounce of headlight beams. A car coming fast. Right at me. I moved, feet slipped. Scrambbled. Got out of the way as the car barreled past. Weird, I didn’t hear a horn. Must be that Pittsburgh left I’ve been hearing about. I shook it off and carried on because I needed to check in with the police department.
— ♦♦♦ —
Detective Eddie Keaton was in his late thirties and had the brightest pair of cut-glass blue eyes. He was square-shouldered and had a five o’clock shadow when it wasn’t even nine. He stopped taking notes, set his pen down and interrupted me.
— Ms. Shaw, there are federal inspectors at that lab twice a week. It’s tight as a nun’s… well, it’s federally inspected. Never failed an inspection. One hunnert percent certified. I’d be inclined to side with them on this.
— Jacob Weitz is convinced–
— I’ve seen it before. White Coat Guys are forever quitting that place. Crack under the pressure and leave. They work hard, maybe too hard, and just snap.
— They leave town? I said. No one sees them again?
— They go back wherever they come from.
— Or they just disappear.
— Look, if you want to go asking around the lab, be my guest. Bring me some evidence, I’ll take it serious. You’ll have my full undivided attention. But otherwise, I have plenty of real work to get on with.
Typical male unable to multi-task.
— ♦♦♦ —
I went to Duke’s Bar down the street from my crumby hotel, which backed onto the Amtrak line. Duke’s was a real shot-and-a-beer kinda place. I needed both. I’d struck out all day. Had a look around HTC labs, let’s just say I didn’t exactly have visitor privileges but still hadn’t found anything and; the two chemists Jacob mentioned had the day off.
I leaned closer to the old steam radiator in the bar, sipped my whiskey shot, and dialed Jacob’s cell.
No answer. It clicked on his message service and I said to call back.
I scrolled to Detective Keaton’s number.
Put my cell down.
Didn’t want to tell him the good news.
The TV was showing the evening bulletin and that’s when my stomach dropped out. Jacob Weitz was dead. He fell in front of The T. the real news was to expect severe delays on the blue line. Reports indicated suicide, and all this had happened half an hour ago.
I called Keaton.
— Beat me to it, huh? Just about to call you, Isabelle.
— What happened?
— I told you. They crack, those guys. Like glass. Fragile. Happens all the time. Too highly strung. I think it’s the snow. Makes the jags snap.
— Suicide? What makes you say that?
— Reports from HTC Labs says he was let go yesterday suffering from work-related stress.
— It’s not suicide. It can’t be.
— Weitz was yanking your chain. Just a jag looking attention. Maybe nobody loved him at home. Thought he’d talk to a nice looking lady like you for a while…
— That’s not it.
— Well, all I know is now I gotta clean up the mess he left. Forgive me if I’m not in a peachy mood. This is all the shit I need…
Keaton took a deep breath.
— Isabelle, I’m always cranky, just not this much. Got a tough case-load. So, wha-chew-binupto? Any evidence to support the deceased’s claims?
— No. Nothing.
I gritted my teeth.
— Jacob had been nervous when we spoke. People who are fearful, intimidated, act like that when–
— Or he was delusional.
— He was scared, not crazy.
There was no point pursuing this further. Keaton wasn’t going to bend.
— I’ll be glad to get out of here, I said. Get back to New York.
— Can’t let you do that.
— Why not?
— You come all this way west and haven’t seen the good side of this city. Stay the night. I’ll take you to dinner. You PIs, always diming it, heard you never refuse a free meal.
— Not unless I’m having my time wasted.
I ended the call. Rude, I know, but I couldn’t believe Jacob was dead and now this guy was hitting on me. Being alone in an unfamiliar city didn’t bother me, but without local law enforcement support, and my only witness now dead, I needed to get back to the agency and bring them up to speed. There was something rotten at that chemical lab and if they were covering their tracks, more people would die. I wasn’t going to be one of them. Next time I got back to The ‘Burgh hopefully tomorrow as long as I could catch the last train out of here tonight, I’d have my partner with me.
I walked toward the exit.
The Norseman, the smiling blond giant from earlier in the diner, followed me outside.
— ♦♦♦ —
I crossed the street from the bar. Norseman followed. I could hear the mouth breather over the ripping wind. Snowplows and salt spreaders were at work and cars snuffled along the frozen pavement.
I carried a .38 special in my purse. Always did. Force of habit. I didn’t want to draw my revolver because last time I did, a man died.
I much prefer to walk my way out of a situation. I entered a warren of streets. These butter-colored houses all looked the same. Was running now. Turns and twists. Didn’t matter. Just needed to lose him.
I crouched in an alley and waited with my heart throbbing into my throat. I had the revolver raised and the cold needled my fingers blue. Another minute and I’d be shaking so bad I couldn’t hit a barn with a banjo.
A large man approached. In the drifting snow, I couldn’t make a facial identification. He came closer, almost on me now.
I trained the revolver on him.
He turned in a stiff ungainly semi-circle and a dog trotted up to him. A big black thing. Lots of fur. They walked on.
No one else there.
I didn’t feel like moving because the alley seemed safe but it’s hard to stay still in the wind.
— ♦♦♦ —
The sky blackened, so it would storm again. I entered my hotel and climbed the stairs to the second floor. It wasn’t exactly the Ritz, not a roach motel either. The hallway walls were the color of tobacco-spit and the air smelled of cooking oil and pine disinfectant. I slid the key into the door lock and twisted it open. I had ten minutes to catch the last Pennsylvanian back to New York.
I was shoved from behind and stumbled into the room.
Door snicked shut.
Norseman had followed me.
I’d used most of the evasion tricks I knew, which meant he was trained.
There were only two ways out of this room: the door or the window. It wasn’t a large room. A couple of steps and I’d make it to either exit.
Norseman blocked the door.
Another man was sitting on a chair next to the window.
I was caught between the two of them, standing dead center; but in the scuffle I had slid my hand into my purse and could now feel the snub-nose there. The man on the chair had a pistol on his lap and I guessed it was fifty-fifty who would get their shot off first. Even if I succeeded, Norseman would clobber me.
I needed a better way out of this.
I drew my hand out of my purse, slow, and the pale man watched, daring me, I think.
My hand brushed over a Dictaphone and I switched it on. Old habits die hard.
The window was open and wind made the drapes ghost out and I caught a whiff of velvet dust and mothballs.
An open window … something told me I’d be going through it face first if I didn’t say the right things.
Go on then, speak. You remember how to do that, don’t you?
My lips moved. No words escaped. Tongue like cactus.
The pale man sitting on the chair had his legs crossed, hands folded in his lap next to the pistol and he looked calmly like he was waiting at departures. I shivered because the heating was off. Pale Man didn’t shiver. He had skin the color of beeswax. Both men wore cheap, dark suits, the kind morticians bought wholesale.
— Who are you? I said.
Tried to talk confidently but the voice was all in my throat. I might as well have been knocking my knees.
— We are the men in the room, said the man on the chair.
I took a deep breath, needing the fear to melt away.
— You’ve come to the wrong place if you’re looking to push me under a train.
Pale Man cawed.
— Enjoying Steel City, Ms. Shaw?
— I’ve had a warm reception, I said. Enjoy killing Jacob Weitz?
— The news reports it as suicide. Terrible business, the taking of one’s own life.
— You killed him and now you’re here to kill me.
He took an object from his jacket pocket and tossed it at my feet. It was Jacob’s lab ID smeared with blood.
— I’d avoid the blue line if I were you. The service is experiencing severe delays.
My heart ricocheted around my chest and it took all my strength not to collapse.
— Did you record your conversation with Mr. Weitz?
I didn’t respond.
— I’ve done this too many times, he said. You’re trying to figure out how to escape unharmed but it’s an impossibility. However, should you give me that recording I will see to it you don’t experience much pain before you die. It’s the best I can offer.
I glanced at the bed where my suitcase lay upended, clothes strewn everywhere.
— Pawing through my panties was just a little bonus? I said.
Pale Man’s lips drew down into a lop-sided grin.
This room was a Spartan dive and there weren’t many places to hide an object, which left just one: my purse.
— Why did you get a room overlooking the train track? He asked.
On my salary, it was the best I could afford. The Pennsylvanian ran three times a day and I had felt its crush of noise in my chest late last night and early this morning. Its horn blast pierced eardrums.
If they weren’t expecting it… could be my only chance to get away.
Pale Man smiled that crooked smile of his.
— You’re manufacturing a nerve agent in the HTC lab. Jacob told me all about it.
His lips were two thin slits.
— Why then are the local authorities not storming the lab?
— You made a mistake killing Jacob. He told me about the other two chemists. I think they’ll be scared enough now to talk to Detective Keaton.
— I agree. They would indeed be easily persuaded to talk to Detective Keaton … if you somehow survived our meeting. But I am an expert at tailoring loose ends. And you Ms. Shaw are the last thread. Once I get the recording of your conversation with Jacob Weitz, I can do whatever I want with you.
Pale Man with his maggot-white skin.
I glanced at my wristwatch. The train was due to arrive. It was my only chance.
— I would cancel all further scheduled appointments if I were you.
— Does being this creepy come naturally to you?
He stared at me. Wet his lips. Continued staring.
— I shall let you have that one, Ms. Shaw.
— Don’t get chivalrous now. It would ruin my preconceptions.
Behind me, I heard Norseman breathing through his mouth.
Pale Man leaned forward.
— Tip the contents of your purse on the floor.
I lifted the purse, slid my hand inside and gripped the revolver.
Pale Man grinned, flesh crinkling like curds.
Wind throbbed through the open window with the reek of diesel locomotive. The train was close.
I had a half-chance, if I timed it right. Needed to keep him talking for a few seconds more. If he made me dump the contents of my purse on the floor now I’d lose my revolver.
— You made two mistakes with Jacob. He didn’t just talk to me. He gave me something, too. Smuggled it out of the lab.
Pale Man glanced behind me.
— She’s lying, Norseman said. He didn’t give her anything.
— How would you know? I said. I gave you the slip more than once already today.
Pale Man stared at me.
— I am not a bad guy. Once you get to know me I think you’ll find I’m a total bastard. I am going to hurt you for inconveniencing me. Now, empty the contents of your purse on the floor.
— Make me.
Norseman clumped toward me. Good. Pale Man stayed seated, leaned back and watched. Norseman shook me like the marble inside a spray-paint can but I didn’t release the purse. Couldn’t. Not just yet.
The train arrived and shocked its horn and my legs slushed even though I’d been expecting the noise.
Here was my half-chance.
Norseman had spun me around and was ripping the purse from me, so I pulled the revolver trigger. The shot struck his chest and he crumpled onto his knees.
The train’s air horn had startled Pale Man, who was hunched forward, hand on ear.
I had no other choice now but to go for him.
At step one, he noticed my approach.
At step two, he swung his pistol.
I was next to him and crashed my revolver barrel into the side of his head and noticed his eyes bulge like a toad with glaucoma.
— I guess I’m still a loose end.
By then he had slumped off the chair and passed out on the floor, and I went to the Norseman who gurgled, spluttered, then died. Nothing I could do to save him. I’d shot him in the heart and the smell of his blood was coppery.
Pale Man made a choking-burping sound like an over-fed baby.
— ♦♦♦ —
I was sitting in the passenger seat of a police-cruiser when Detective Keaton exited my hotel wearing the kind of flat cap that looked like it belonged to the captain of a tuna boat. He yanked it down to his brow, got into the cruiser and gave me a hot beverage cup.
— The other two chemists Weitz told you about are safe in custody. They’re telling us all about HTC and the nerve agent they’ve been manufacturing.
— How were they able to get away with it for so long?
— Greased the right people. And those they didn’t…
— They sent the men in the room after them.
–We’ve got the whole lab in lockdown. Made ten arrests. Looked like they were ready to move the VX gas out in the next couple days. Lucky you got here, Isabelle.
— I don’t feel particularly lucky.
I sipped from the cup. It was tea and Keaton had put too much sugar in it — almost spat it out.
— Didn’t have any coffee?
— Tea’s what they give people in shock.
— I’m not in shock.
I placed the cup in the holder.
— Going to drive me to the train station? I asked.
He started the engine and snicked the gear selector into drive.
— I can’t let you go, he said. You’re gonna leave here with a bad impression of my home city.
— What’s not to like? I said. Being constantly cold is the best kind of diet.
— I know a little place. Best dippy eggs there are.
The sun was coming up and a crumb of light fell on the fresh fall of snow.
— As long as you’re paying, I said, then I’m listening.
— ♦♦♦ —
They set him up in an apartment, on the banks of the Spree River. His things arrived soon after, his closet among them. Officially, he was a member of the Field Photographic Branch, of the OSS. His job was simple. Report any and all information, directly to base. A weekly report was to be sent and he was to keep “tabs” on the German defector. Unofficially, he was a glorified secretary, a go-between for the defector and the OSS. Operation Fox and Hound was underway. He found he had a certain knack for intelligence work, and together with his unmatched skills with a camera, he became a force to be reckoned with, in the “shadow war” of World War Two. But when his story was finally over…whatever happened to the Photographer’s Closet?