Lou Ryan, 1930's Private Detective, in the Windy City.
|I hate early morning visitors, especially if they wear a badge.
"Yes, Officer Smith, what can I do for you?"
"Mr. Ryan, I need your help; it's a personal matter."
"Oh, so you ain't here to rattle my chain about that recent business with Vinnie, and all those windows I shot out to get your attention?"
"No, this is another matter, Lou--if I may call you that."
"Yeah, sure, no skin off my nose. It's my name, see."
"This has to do with my wife, Estelle. She's been acting kind of cagey lately. I am afraid she is mixed up in some unsavory business. I want you to follow her and find out what it is."
"So, let me get this straight. You want me to spy on your wife. You think, maybe she's steppin' out on you, or something. I can do that, no problem. But, are you sure you want to go down that road?"
"I didn't say she is cheating, I said she's involved in something shady. I'm a cop; I can't have my wife mixed up in anything illegal. I could never live it down at the station, you know. I'm noticing she is skimming some money off the household budget lately."
"Okay, buddy, relax--your secret is safe here. I'll need a couple sawbucks up front for expenses you know, and I'll take a few sawbucks when I wrap it up. It sounds simple enough. I'll conclude this soon, so it won't financially break a fine uniformed servant like you."
It was amazing; the guy took out a wad of money and threw two hundred bucks on my desk. Maybe I'm looking into the wrong person's business. Just maybe, I should find out how this public working stiff got hold of such a wad of cash.
"I depend on the utmost discretion here. That should be enough cash to get you moving on this case. You can find her at Marshall Field's perfume counter. She's the red-haired salesgirl. Don't forget, she's never to know what is going on. If I find out you screwed up this job, you will pay for all the nasty business of last month."
He grabbed my hand and gave it a shake, then he left my office. My head was still foggy from last night's poker game and whiskey. The lousy losing-streak broke my wallet. I have a rule; I don't do work for public officials, cops, or lawyers. Today, I took on the badge's job and ignored my own rule. I needed the money; it's that simple.
It's a bright, Chicago morning, there's a chill in the air, but it feels good. Ever since that night Gloria came into my office, I can think of nothing but those big baby blues. She's certainly some dame, that Gloria. I hope the kid's doing okay.
I noticed Ernie's Grill was not too crowded, so I ducked inside. I hate crowds when my brain is busy. Today, my brain was mapping out where to begin with this cop's wife.
My stomach was full with the two eggs, over easy and a couple slices of fried minced ham with some dry toast. I had the energy needed to track down Mrs. Cop and tail her for a day. I have to check out her patterns, while Smith is doing his beat.
I headed straight for Marshall Field's and approached the perfume counter. It was such a girly place, except when some sucker had to get his wife or girlfriend a bottle of perfume. Dames, they're hard to please, you know. Today, I'm the only sucker around.
That must be Estelle at the far left corner. She has the red hair. The other woman is a brassy bleached blond. Well, here goes nothing.
"Hello, there, Miss. I need a little help, here. I just don't know one pretty smelling bottle of stuff from another. "
"Good morning, sir. I 'd be happy to help you. Now, who are you buying the perfume for, is it your wife or mother?"
"It's this da--, ahh, this lady friend of mine."
"Oh, it must be the upcoming Valentine's Day. I guess somebody is one lucky lady. I have had several gentlemen purchasing perfume in the past few days. Don't worry, I'll be gentle with you."
Why that little vamp just openly winked at me! She must be stepping out. I mean, she's got legs that go on forever. Her face is almost heart shaped, and so are her lips if that's possible. She carries her shape well, too.
"Well, I just don't know how to choose, see?"
"It's quite alright. If you could tell me something about her style. Is she athletic, homey or sophisticated?"
How the hell should I know what she is--she doesn't exist. Right at that moment, a flash of Gloria hit my mind.
"My gal's one feisty blond with sparkling blue eyes that a poor slob like me can fall into and just float. Her smile is wide and toothy. Oh, and she can be very mischievous..."
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I think I have enough here. My goodness, you have really been smitten by this woman. She is truly fortunate to have a gentleman friend like you who knows her so well. Some husbands can't give such a heartfelt description of their wives."
My face got hot. I was downright embarrassed over my flowery speech. What the heck was that all about? Damn that dame, she's got my head spinning. Oh, Gloria, I wish I knew how you were doing.
"Oh, yeah, sorry, did you say something?"
"Wow, I guess you were really lost in thought there for a minute. I was saying that this little bottle of fragrance ought to do the trick. It has a little hint of spice woven into a light floral, with a dab of vanilla. It is what many of my adventurous customers prefer."
"Oh, sure, that'll do fine. Ring it up for me, okay."
"Don't you want to know the price?"
I had that wad of cash that her husband gave me, just burning a hole in my pocket. I wasn't too worried about the price. By the time I could respond, she blurted out "five-fifty."
"Sure that's fine, bag it." It was a little steep for some smelly water, but I had to connect with this dame to get a feel for her personality.
"Sir, I will be happy to gift wrap it with our lovely Valentine's Day paper. Oh, she will love it!"
"Yeah, sure, do all that fancy stuff for me, okay?"
I patiently waited for the gal to wrap the perfume. Now I have to walk around all day with this flowery package in my pocket.
"Here you go, sir. I thank you for your purchase. I am sure your lady friend will adore you for this gift. You're one generous guy."
I had to get some information out of the dame. I decided a big smile and straightforward approach would be best.
"Hey, I'm curious. How long of a day do you work here? I mean, it must be tiring standing on your feet all day wearing high heels. You see, I have a friend that's a podiatrist, and he tells me salesgirls are his biggest group of patients."
"Oh, well I am used to standing on my feet. I must agree, my feet are really grateful when the shoes come off. I work from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, three days a week, and every other Saturday. It's not a full-time position, but it suits me just fine. Do you see Madelyn over there?"
I nodded my head in reply.
"She is the head of the department. She really depends on this job to survive. Now, that girl is on her feet at least twelve hours a day. Poor kid, her husband got sent-up a year ago. He is at Joliet serving a five-year sentence."
"Yeah? Gee, that's a tough break. What's he in for, if you don't mind me asking?"
She leaned in real close to my ear and almost whispered.
"He ran off with a bag of groceries without paying. When the clerk caught up to him, he resisted and hit the guy with some brass knuckles, knocking out a few teeth. It was that battery that got him the stiffer sentence."
"Oh, that poor gal, working so hard while her husband waits out his time in the big house. Times are bad, for lots of people, I guess. Hey, thanks for being such a great help to me with this gift. I do appreciate it."
"Oh, you are very welcome."
There she goes with that wink and a big grin.
I grabbed my gift wrapped purchase, and left with a smile and a wave at Estelle. I'm not sure she's cheating on the officer, but I do know that this lady has a secret.
I found a doorway, up the street a bit from Marshall Field's, to shield me from the biting cold wind. I kept my collar up and my hat snugly down to protect my face a little. It's three-fifteen, and Estelle should be coming out of work soon. Even a dame should be able to get out the doors fifteen minutes after her shift ends. I just don't understand all that hanging around and talking. A guy just punches the clock and leaves. He never looks back until he returns the next day to punch the clock again. Dames never seem to be in a hur...There she is! Estelle is certainly in a hurry, now.
I shadowed the leggy red-head at a good distance so she wouldn't feel spooked. I noticed that she wasn't wearing those high heels from work. Nice sensible flat shoes adorned her feet at the bottom of those luscious legs. Officer Smith must have something going for him to catch this dame.
After ten minutes of brisk walking, Estelle stopped at a newsstand. I stopped my stride and leaned against a lamppost about a hundred feet away. She reached into her handbag, pulled out a roll of cash and quickly passed it to the guy behind the stand. He grabbed the cash and reached under the counter, all the while looking across the street and to his immediate surroundings. He pulled the day's edition of the newspaper, and stuck an object between the centerfold. He quickly handed it to Estelle, and she walked off without looking back. This dame was definitely acting strange.
I picked up my pace so I wouldn't lose her when she turned the corner. I wonder what she got from that clerk?
I saw the legs when I turned the corner. She was a dame on a mission, alright. It's a good thing she changed those shoes when she finished her shift, because she was walking pretty fast. I've got to get in better shape. I do feel a little winded.
Estelle took a sharp turn down a familiar alley. It leads to the back door of my barber, which is one door up from my favorite speakeasy. Now, how would a cop's wife know about this place? Lenny's is well disguised as a smoke shop. Dames don't go in there; they hate that smelly stuff. Somehow, sweet legs was not offended by the infusion of cigar smoke because she walked inside without a pause. I figure I'll hang around for a little while. Maybe she's getting her hubby a birthday gift or something.
After twenty minutes passed by, I decided to think of a cover story to tell her when I walked into Lenny's. I was surprised to see she was nowhere in sight. Bruno, full-time bouncer, and part-time sales man at the smoke shop, looked up and gave me a nod. He held the trap door behind the counter open for me, assuming I was heading down to the cellar. It was a clever place to hide the booze and gambling room. I guess that's exactly where I want to be; evidently, it's where Estelle went.
I went down the steps through the dimly lit passageway. Over on the right wall there was a green light. Lenny uses the red light green light signal, so patrons know if it is safe to exit the trap door. If the light is red, they have to stay put. I passed by a very busy, smoky room, where guys were enjoying some spirits and laughing with a few broads, who work for Lenny. I didn't see Estelle anywhere. I walked back into the corridor and noticed a closed door at the far end. That's Lenny's office. I got close to the door to listen, and heard Estelle. Boy, she sounded angry.
"Lenny, I won't be threatened anymore. You can't do this to my husband. He is starting to get suspicious about the missing money."
"Not my problem, doll. Hey you were one of my girls before you met that beat cop. Now, you think you are too good for old Lenny. What do you think your husband is going to do when he finds out how you used to make a living? He will dump you, doll."
"He'll be crushed, Len. Don't do it, please! I just found out I am having a baby. I can't keep paying you off. "
"Oh, the cop can afford it. Didn't his old aunt croak last year leaving him a tidy bundle? He was the only living relative, I know she was a rich broad, too."
So that's where he got all that cash. Well, the officer is a pretty straight and narrow guy. Good, I hate crooked cops.
"It's not that he can't afford it; he will wonder why I'm spending so much money. You have to release me from my contract. You can't use me anymore, I'm pregnant! I can't afford to buy out my contract. Be reasonable!"
"Well, doll, pregnancy will keep you down for a while, but afterwards, you will be as radiant as always. The way I see it, you can either keep paying off your contract or get back on the job. You ain't showing yet. "
"Fine, Lenny, I tried to reason with you, but you just wouldn't have it. I can't let you ruin my life. I am happy with Jack, and I won't let you destroy him or me."
"Hey, Estelle, what are you doing with that gun? You can't mean to shoot me, babe. Where will you go? Bruno will hear it, and he will kill you -- and your baby."
"Look closer Lenny, it's one of those homemade silencers. Nobody will hear it except you. The last thing you hear will be the sound of your ribs breaking; busting your cold, black heart wide open!"
I had to do something quick. I didn't want that poor dame stuck with this on her conscience, not with a baby on the way and everything. This could go very bad. If I push my way in, she may turn the gun on me. If I don't go in, she will surely plug that rat, but good. I pulled out my .45, which also has a silencer and went for it.
"Estelle drop the gun, please sweetie, you don't want to do this. Let me take care of him."
Estelle had a puzzled look on her face when she saw me. She was so dazed by my entrance that she took her eyes away from Lenny. This gave Lenny the opportunity to reach into his drawer for his .45. It was as if the whole scene went in slow motion. Estelle's eyes were locked on mine. Lenny pointed his gun toward Estelle, and I just fired first. He fell hard.
The dame was still shocked. She mumbled, "Why?" "I don't understand" and "You killed him." She slipped her gun back into her handbag.
I noticed that look that a dame gets just before she faints. I moved in to catch her before she hit the floor. I fanned her face with my hat while she tried to regain her composure. Thankfully, she just started to black out. If she completely fainted, it would take more time to revive her and get her walking again. I didn't want to explain why I was carrying a dame out of this joint.
She got her voice back within a few minutes.
"I don't understand. Why are you here? Aren't you the gentleman I sold perfume to this morning?"
"Yes Ma'am, my name is Lou Ryan. I'm a private detective."
"Are you following me?"
There was no hiding the truth now. In fact, it would work to everyone's benefit if I let her in on the secret. Besides, the truth could be a little filtered, I suppose.
"Mrs. Smith, your husband hired me to follow you. He feared you were involved with something dangerous. He wanted me to make sure nothing would happen to you. The thing is Ma'am, he didn't want me letting you know I was hired to shadow you. So, the way I see this playing out is like this, see. I overheard your little secret through the door, about working for Lenny. I keep your secret, you keep mine, and everybody's happy."
"But, h...how will we explain about Lenny? You killed him, remember? "
"Lenny is a low-life, he won't be missed. I know for a fact Bruno would love to take over the business. Len's got partners, Bruno is one of the big silent ones, if you know what I mean. Now, they won't have to share as much of the profit. Lenny will disappear without either one of us getting involved. Let's just walk out of here all nice and casual like. Follow my lead."
"Well doll, did you enjoy our little game?" The dame looked like a deer in the headlights, but managed a little smile.
"Hey, there Bruno, we'll catch you later. I got to get the dame a cab. You have a good one, buddy."
"Same to you bud. Come back real soon, won't you?"
"Sure man, I'll be back before you know it."
We exited the shop and walked into the alley. I convinced Estelle to stop in a coffee shop a few blocks west of here. She was so shaken-up she just nodded her head. I sat her down and helped her devise a plan that would be convincing to her cop husband.
"Do you think he'll believe that is why I took the money?"
"Sweetheart, the plan is brilliant. Do you remember, when you mentioned about that poor gal at work whose husband is in Joliet, and how hard it is to make ends meet? I knew that would be the out. "
Estelle smiled and thanked me. Before she got up, I asked her to pass that gun under the table. A dame shouldn't be walking around with one of those things. Hell, they are dangerous enough without arming them. She knew the plan, now, she just needed to get back home before her husband, and get all dolled up for the announcement. I would make sure Smith was busy with me.
"Yes, Officer Smith, it's Lou Ryan. I've got your answers. Meet me at Joe's Cafe, across from the precinct in about an hour, if that's okay."
"I'll be there."
I hung up the phone and prepared for the big show.
Officer Smith was right on time. He had that nervous look on his face, not knowing what to expect.
"Well, Lou, you finished this job pretty fast. I'm impressed. So, what gives with Estelle?"
"Calm down now, buddy, it's not bad news."
I proceeded to tell him the cover story about that poor dame who works with his wife.
"So, you see, it was all perfectly innocent. That gal has kids, and her husband was sent up, you know. Your wife thought she could help her make ends meet until she got back on her feet. It was supposed to be a secret friendship bond that two dames can have. I think it has to do with not wanting anybody else to know how poverty-stricken she was. Dames like to keep up good appearances, especially when they have kids. I was sitting at the next table over when they met for coffee. I heard the whole thing. The dame was grateful and sobbing like a baby. Your Estelle was magnificent. She comforted her and told her she would keep her secret forever. I did hear the dame tell her that this would be the last month she needed a helping hand. She picked up more hours at work and would be fine. So that's all there is to it, buddy."
"Mr. Ryan--Lou, thank you. You were quick and efficient. She didn't know you were following her did she?"
"Oh, no, she doesn't even know I exist."
With that little confident promise, the cop pulled out another wad of twenties. He threw five of them in front of me. I pushed them back toward him.
"Forget about it, you paid enough for such an uneventful day of work."
He smiled broadly, shook my hand and left. Wait until he gets home and Estelle breaks the news about him becoming a father soon. I decided I like that cop. Another rule I broke today.
I finally reached my office building. I was surprised to notice the lights were on. I don't normally do that, but I was anxious to get this job done, and ran off like a bat out of hell. Even so, I held my .45, before I entered my office. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. There she was all smiles, sitting at my desk.
"Well, hello, Lou. Long time no see, eh?"
"Gloria, you certainly are a sight for sore eyes. Why are you here? Are you in trouble again?"
"Oh, no, I'm fine. I just had this crazy idea that you could use some help around here. First of all, you left your door unlocked. That is very unwise, Lou. Then, you left your desk unattended. Why, I took four messages while you were out. Those are four jobs you would never have known existed. And ... "
"Whoa, there lady, wait a minute. Are you telling me you want to work for me? I mean, I don't make a lot of money, you could only get a cut of my jobs, see?"
"That will be fine, Lou. I hocked all that jewelry Vinnie gave me when we were dating. I have enough money to keep me going for a while. So what do you say? Can I work for you, Lou?"
What could I say, the dame needed a job. She could take a message okay. She was easy on the eyes, too.
"Sure doll, we'll give it a try."
The dame ran up to me and planted a juicy one on my cheek. I liked it. I think things are starting to look up around here. I stuck my .45 back into my pocket and remembered something in another pocket -- the perfume.
"Here you go doll. Let's call this a welcome to the new job gift. It will also cover tomorrow, which is Valentine's Day you know. I mean dames like that day, right?"
"Oh, Lou, you are the greatest!"
"Back at you, kid."