It was a laugh that carried from two thousand miles away.
|"You know," I said, looking up at Maury Ohls from the papers I was so diligently forging, "this is against the law."
The district attorney glared back at me. "I am the law!" he snapped.
You had to laugh if you weren't to weep. If anyone in Chicago less resembled Lady Justice, it was Maury Ohls. He was a squat man, with the craggy face and beaky nose of a buzzard, and he covered his domed skull with a rust-colored toupee so cheap and ill-fitting that first-time acquaintances sometimes mistook it for a piece of carpet he was using to keep his head warm. And far from being blind, Ohls had a gimlet eye that could screw its way to the heart of any case and find the personal angle and profit in it for himself.
He knew where all the bodies were buried, too, including a few I'd tucked away myself. So when he explained that we were going to screw Jessie-Belle Nabors out of her burlesque house, I only shrugged.
"She'll laugh when she sees these papers," I continued.
"Let her laugh."
"She does like to laugh."
"Don't I know it," Ohls muttered.
And Jessie-Belle did laugh when I dropped around a few days later to show the papers to her. Uproariously.
"Oh, bless me!" she cried as she recovered, and patted her ample bosom. She was dressed, as usual, in a silk gown that made up in frills and folds what it lacked in substance. And she was a woman of girth, to whom the endearment "dumpling" could apply in multiple ways, so when she put the force of her lungs and personality behind her laughter, it left the brocaded foyer of The Laughing Lady ringing.
"Why, darling," she gasped, "does Maury really expect this to stand up in court?"
"He has witnesses."
"Of course he has witnesses," she cackled. "And I'll have witnesses too! The question is, who will the jury believe. Me?" She bubbled over with laugher again. "Or that withered little stump with the red moss on his head?"
I glanced past her, toward the ballroom. Her band—loud, brassy, and as amused with itself as she was with herself—was braying a striptease tune, and I wanted to see if either Lena or Marjorie had stepped on. If they had, I would finish with Jessie-Belle later.
But she stepped between me and the doorway. I grimaced.
"Listen, Jessie-Belle," I told her, "it's nothing personal with Maury—"
"Like hell it isn't!" The smile fell off her face.
"So you sell to O'Banion, and Ohls makes the charges go away." I mimed flinging the papers into the cold fireplace.
"And I stay on as nominal owner?"
"Part of the price," I told her quietly, "is you find yourself another situation. One where—"
"One where I can't laugh at the little S.O.B. every time he comes in to see one of my whores!"
I turned to the door.
"You tell that little sawed-off shyster," she bellowed at my back, "that if he wants to play rough, that I'm a big girl, and I'll squash him so flat they'll have to use a spatula to scrape his hairpiece off the sidewalk, and a firehose to wash away what's left of him from under it!" She followed me out the door. "And you can tell him it's nothing personal with me, neither! Him and that moth he keeps in his wallet are always welcome here! Hell, tell him to come around tonight! We'll all have a good laugh!"
Ohls didn't take the invitation, but he took my report better than I expected. He didn't file charges right away, but arranged for a couple of busts before he made the formal arrest.
Then he slow-walked the case for months, letting Jessie-Belle's lawyers play every trick they could to get the case tossed, and countering each of her moves with an incremental countermove of his own. It was like watching a game of chess where only the pawns got played, and it took me awhile to twig that Ohls was employing an "anaconda strategy," slowly suffocating his prey with procedural moves. He didn't proceed to trial until our office heard she had sold off most of the lot and mortgaged the house itself.
By then it didn't matter that she was acquitted, for Ohls basically threw the case away. O'Banion's mob made a deal with the bank, and Jessie-Belle lost The Laughing Lady. Maybe I had a guilty conscience, but I cut out and framed the Tribune article with the farewell photo of her boarding the Super Chief for Los Angeles. Ohls snorted when he saw it.
But he was in a fine mood the Friday night after Jessie-Belle left town. It would be his first visit to her old burlesque house since she'd left—the first, in fact, in nearly a year. He was actually rubbing his hands with anticipation when he left the office that night, swaddled in a great coat, under a homburg that came down practically to his eyebrows.
He was in a much fouler mood when I saw him on Monday. I had to make my own trip to Jessie-Belle's to see why.
The old girl knew she was licked when she had to take out that mortgage, and that was when she sold the lot. Clever girl. She found a bird-lovers' association to sell it to, for an aviary.
She made only one stipulation: They had to install a cage of kookaburras on the property edge, in sight of the sidewalk leading up to The Laughing Lady's front door.
Have you ever heard a kookaburra laugh?
Winner of The Writer's Cramp: 2-28-21
Prompt: End with the line "She always found a way to laugh."
Last line afterward changed.