Statement No. 016:
You ever smell a rat? I'll just bet you have. Plenty of times. Maybe you don't know how you know it, you just know it. The back hairs on your neck stand up like needles. Or you feel a clenching in the pit of your belly. You read him like a bad menu. He goes down like a bum sour ball. You just know it--this mug is a rat.
Turned out this rat needed a dupe. A patsy's what he needed, all right. A patsy for a rat--sounds like a fair enough exchange, in a queer sort of way. But I found that out after.
Intro-wise, the rat's timing didn't help any. See, I got back to the office kind of late. On account of being down south a good part of the day. The last thing I needed was a visit from the boys in the 18th, but I knew you'd be showing up. A matter of inquiries regarding that Dooley case. All I wanted was to grab some chow, maybe a bath, and hit the hay. But there's nothing worse than entertaining the likes of you at home--there's nothing personal in that. I just like keeping things on a professional basis.
So I wound up back at the office. That's when the rat crawled in. In this case I'm talking about a rat in a seersucker suit. A real, counterfeit Ronald Colman type, pencil-thin mustache and all. He even captured Colman's halting, stop-and-go delivery--the rat talked with a limp.
So his opener to me--we're in my office, get it? He said to me, "You keep the most peculiar hours."
"It's a peculiar business."
"Apparently. You may wish to address that. In any case, I've got a job I'd like you to perform."
"Uh huh. You must keep some peculiar hours yourself."
"I have been unable to catch you all day."
"Did you try calling my service?"
"I possess an aversion to answering services."
"I have found the direct approach is the best approach."
"I'm all for that."
"Good. Then we're in agreement."
"What about this job you want performed, Mr.--"
"Mr. Stanford. You may call me Rex, if you wish."
"Like the university."
"Yes, but I didn't attend."
"So what's your story?"
"I have no story. I merely wish for you to accompany me to the airport."
"Everyone and their Aunt Agnes have a story, Mr. Stanford."
"My story is outside your province. I merely wish for you to accompany me to the airport."
"Taxi service, huh?"
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. Taxi service."
He clammed up all of a sudden. Like he was trying to recall the combination to a safe. I lit up a cigarette.
His narrow eyes came back my way. "I should inform you. There may be an element of danger."
"Imagine that. What kind of danger, Mr. Stanford?"
"You may call me Rex, if it pleases you."
"What about this danger?"
"There may be people who wish to stop me. There may parties involved whose interests would be that I should never reach the airport."
"Who are these people, exactly? How far do you think they're willing to go?"
"Who can rightly say? People in desperate circumstances will sometimes act--"
"Desperately. Quite. There's no telling to what extent their measures will reach."
"I'd say that qualifies as an element of danger."
"But that is, after all, what you get paid for. You do get paid for handling, let us say, trouble?"
"Uh huh. To an extent. If it isn't giving too much away, how's about taking a stab at guessing to what extent we're talking about? A little rough stuff? Knife play? Ack-Ack?"
"I suppose the threat to life and limb is always present."
"Then it's a matter of life and death."
"Just as sure, as they say, as Roosevelt and taxes."
"That must be one duesy of a story you haven't got there, Mr. Stanford. You don't want a taxi service, you need a body guard."
"I'm not seeking your protection. I only desire that you follow me and, if anything unusual occurs, act as your best judgment dictates."
I took a deep drag and stubbed out the butt.
"Perhaps my caution is ill founded. Perhaps nothing untoward will transpire after all."
"Let's have the story, Mr. Stanford"
"That is my business."
"You're making it my business."
"I am not prepared to go into any of that at this time. I offer no explanations."
"That's just swell, Mr. Stanford. You keep your secrets. Everybody's got secrets. But let me tell you something, Mr. Stanford--"
"I wish you would. I really do."
Stanford grinned. I've seen croupiers smile like that. Confidence men, too. Smug gees who know the game's fixed. The guys dealing rigged hands from the best seats in the house.
"I don't like working in the dark, Mr. Stanford. But I do it plenty. Sometimes my line of work calls for it. But that doesn't make me especially fond of it. And now you come along all bottled up and casual about it as you like. You're not protecting state secrets, Stanford. You've got something to hide. And you expect me to stick my neck out, just like that. Sure."
I lit a smoke, drew deep, and pushed out the vapor nice and easy.
"No, I don't think so. No dice, Mr. Stanford. Better get yourself another boy."
"I see." A thumb and index finger traced the pencil mustache, then pinched his lower lip. "This is precisely the dilemma! Imagine that I shared my so-called story with you after all. And then you still refused the job. I would be forced to trust in your silence, a silence that you would have no reason to owe me. Where would that leave me?"
"That's some quandary you've got there, Stanford. People with something to hide sure get a raw deal. You've got my sympathy."
"All I can say is that it's a shame. I had so wanted to hire you in this hour of need. You come so highly recommended."
"I wouldn't worry about that."
"Perhaps we can reach some sort of compromise?"
"What did you have in mind, Mr. Stanford?"
"Perhaps a certain percentage above your normal fee would induce a certain level of confidence on your part?"
"You can't purchase confidence, Mr. Stanford. You can buy my services, but you can't buy my confidence."
"Is that correct?"
"Yeah, that's about right. And the going rate for danger pay is no little percentage, either."
"What would you say is a fair amount?"
"Double. If you want me to stumble blind into some kind of shooting gallery, it'll cost you double."
Stanford rose. He crossed the floor and spoke to a far corner of the room.
"You really do put me in the most awkward position."
"Like heck I do. You walked in here awkward."
Stanford spun around quick. "Ha ha! Perhaps you've got me there. Perhaps you have." He swaggered to the desk, a fist at each hip. Coleman as D'Artagnan. "Very well," he said. "I accept your terms."
"Let's see. Today is Thursday."
"And yesterday was Wednesday. That makes tomorrow Friday."
"I expect to finalize my plans by early next week."
"My secretary will telephone you with the final arrangements."
"I see. And if anything comes up?"
"Miss Cooper will provide a telephone number. Of more pressing importance, she will give you your initial instructions. She might have further steps for you to follow in case I should encounter any unforeseen circumstances. On my way to the airport."
"Uh huh. I'll get instructions from your secretary."
"Miss Cooper is my private secretary. I rely upon her, utterly."
I wondered how much of the story little Miss Cooper knew. Maybe Miss Cooper was the story. But we'll let than one pass. I never met her, never spoke to her, never so much as received a message from her. Figure it as though Miss Cooper never existed.
The call blew in from Stanford himself on Tuesday morning. I inquired after Miss Cooper and Stanford ignored me. I guess other things occupied him, or the story had changed, or maybe Miss Cooper owed her creation entirely to Stanford's fancy.
Stanford mapped out every detail, all right. His TWA flight departed the Municipal Airport late Wednesday morning. I inquired after his destination. Stanford ignored me again and moved right into the layout.
I'd catch Stanford at the corner of Pearson and Michigan at 9:30 a.m., sharp. He'd hail a cab from there to run him to the airport. First, he'd cruise downtown. Maybe he'd switch cabs on the way, just to play it safe. I asked him if he thought he could spot a tail. He said he believed he could not. I told him to figure on changing taxis at least once. Twice would be better. He responded that he would, if I said so. I told him I said so.
Stanford had it in mind that I shadow him all the way to the airport. Not too close. Just keep him in sight is all he wanted. He'd be safe once he reached the terminal. He couldn't imagine anyone pulling anything inside the terminal.
Stanford expressed that he had every confidence in me. Should he be interfered with in any way, he relied on me to know exactly what to do. I told him to be more specific. He instructed me to use my imagination. That was a pip.
"Use your bean, old boy," he said.
"Apprise and apply. React as your professional horse sense sees fit. I don't know what they'll try, really I don't. I'm counting on you to adapt to the situation as it arises."
"Have you got that or not, old boy?"
"Sure. Everything's ducky. What if I need to inform someone? Is there anybody you want me to get in touch with?"
"That won't be necessary. If it comes to that--in any case, it will be too late."
He played it elusive and ominous all the way down the line. The same record he spun at my office. I figured he'd paid for the privilege. The line went silent for a few moments.
Then Stanford's hopscotch delivery sounded loud and clear: he declared that's all there was to it. I could consider the job done when Prince Charming reached TWA safe and sound. He covered his bases, he did--Stanford even asked for a thorough description of my car.
"Any questions, old boy? No? Then until tomorrow."
"Wait a minute, Stanford. There's one more thing." The one more thing hung in the air like a ribbon of blue smoke--hung and faded away. Stanford had rung off.
I had no easy time of it, but I managed to worm my way through several levels at TWA. Modern investigation owes Al Bell plenty, that's for sure. Mr. Grieg accepted my line and told me to hold for a Miss Finster--she'd get me all the dope. After waiting for three minutes, Miss Finster came on the wire and confirmed one piece: TWA held a reservation for Mr. Rex Stanford on its 11:40 a.m. Wednesday flight to New York's LaGuardia. That's all I learned from Miss Finster and TWA.
I still had that wound up feeling in my gut. It told me I needed an ace up my sleeve. I settled for a Flea.
Wednesday morning I tooled the coupe through light rain and heavy traffic. I found a space in front of a fire hydrant with my name on it. That put me about seven cars from the corner of Pearson and Michigan. The dashboard clock read 9:15.
At 9:25 some egg showed up with an umbrella the size of a picnic blanket. For a minute or two I couldn't make him out. Then he turned just so, the umbrella pitched back slightly. Even through the mist I could tell it was Stanford, the rat himself. He kind of bobbed, offering a half-bow in my direction. Then he made for the street. I fired up the coupe.
He flagged down a Checker with the hand that held a small valise. He opened the back door, leaned in to deposit the case. He held the umbrella beyond the door and snapped it open and shut twice before drawing it in and closing the door. The cab crawled into traffic, and so did my coupe.
I tailed Stanford's taxi closer that I usually might, what with the rain and sluggish snarl of southbound automobiles. At Lake Street he hopped out and pulled a quick change. I double-parked about four car-lengths back. Stanford peered at me through the mist. He picked up a Yellow Cab, popped the umbrella open and shut twice, and we were off again.
The Yellow made a right on Lake, then a left on Wabash as we entered the loop. The elevated tracks overhead made for a dark, cool canopy. Above that, the light rainfall added its own dark cloud. The fine drops made their way through the tracks and down to the street like a slow drip. Too many vehicles and too many traffic lights concerned me plenty. And we had barely started out. I had trouble keeping less than six cars between me and Stanford's hack.
The taxi pulled over a little passed Washington Boulevard. About halfway down the block on the west side. Stanford exited the cab with the umbrella, but no valise. Brisk strides carried him across the sidewalk. He yanked open the building door, faced the street, and pumped the umbrella twice before entering. From my angle it looked like he ducked into the Stevens Building. I held tight, figuring he'd be back for his baggage.
About two minutes ticked by before that oversized umbrella reappeared. He dashed to the car and vigorously shook out the umbrella before swinging into the back seat of the Yellow. The cabbie merged his vehicle back into traffic. I did likewise with the coupe.
Stanford's cab noodled its way southeast until we reached Cicero Avenue. Touring down Cicero felt nice and smooth. We left heavier traffic behind. The rain stopped, too. That's when my mind started feeding situation all over again. From the start the set-up amounted to a bunch of hooey. That line about trouble and danger and possible peril was the bunk. That wrenched-up feeling in my gut wouldn't let go. My gut reminded me that rats never played anything on the up and up. But I couldn't make out Stanford's game.
My pondering came to a standstill when a hook and ladder came up fast from behind, sirens wailing. Traffic on both sides of Cicero pulled over. The fire truck passed at a good clip and traffic resumed. I could see the red vehicle lumber to its left onto 26th street. That same traffic light at 26th almost caught me. I'd let my thoughts and the hook and ladder distract me just enough to wind up on the wrong side of the yellow. I punched it through the intersection and a gauntlet of car horns.
As I eased off the gas an explosion lit up the cab like Independence Day. Two, successive impacts struck like a one-two combination. The white and yellow flashes took just an instant. The jarring noise erupted like a train wreck, concussive and metallic. The roof bulged like an inner tube and the entire vehicle rose off the road. The doors expanded and blew out as the load came down.
Traffic responded two seconds later, breaking in unison as if each car was tethered to another. After my own double take, I zipped the coupe around the frozen vehicles until I reached the smoking heap. I stepped out of the car onto one foot. The concussions twisted the frame entirely out of shape. Every window had busted out. Flames overtook the front and back seats—I felt the heat on my cheeks. That's all I could make out moving inside the hack—fire and dense smoke. Whatever charred, mangled remains the blast left behind were ready for the dustbin.
I jumped back in the coupe and sped across 26th to the Sinclair Station. A uniformed attendant with greasy hair stood by a pump. He stared at the wreckage, his eyes bulging, his mouth dropped wide. I made straight for the payphone outside the office.
"Did you get a load of that, mister?"
"A planned accident, Mack."
"You better give the cops a holler."
"You betcha. Sure thing."
I climbed into the booth and dialed my service. The attendant passed by on his way to the office, craning his head over his shoulder toward the wreck. He muttered something I didn't catch.
"Hello, angel. That's right, it's me. Look--everything's gone south. You could say the job blew up on me. Yeah, kerflooey. But I don't have time to go into all that. Have you heard from Flea?"
I took out a pocket notebook, a pencil, and scrawled down the number.
"You might be a lifesaver, angel. If you don't hear back from me you can read all about it in the late edition."
I held down the cradle, released it and dialed.
I drummed my fingers for five rings. Then he picked up.
"Flea? Yeah, who else? Sure, I missed you, too. Look, I'm at Cicero and 26th. The trip's been cancelled on my end. What happened to you?"
Flea rattled through his tale. I had to stop myself several times from interrupting with, "You don't say?" He told it all with plenty of gusto. This is what I got out of Flea.
"Just like you told me, I'm Johnny on the spot first thing. So's I'm riding with a hack friend of mine. We was right on your bumper a couple a times. I figured you would of seen us. Anyway, I waits like you when he switches up at Lake Street. And then we takes off again. When he pulls over on Wabash, I'm maybe half a block back. We're inching up with traffic when the bird gets out of the cab and makes for that entryway. That gave me the sweats 'cause you told me to stick and I was going to stick. So's I dash out of my pal's taxi and hightail it after him. I guess you didn't spot me ducking in after him. I blend pretty good. When I comes in the door I almost run over the bum. He hadn't gone too far, see? He's standing there, waiting. As I walks by, I sees a mirror image coming right at me. There's this other guy, see, dressed just like the bird we're tailing. Real casual-like, that's how I played it. They never notice me while the first bird gives his umbrella to the second fella. He's got a few, quiet words for him, too. The second guy nods his head, goes back out to the cab and vamooses. Our bird watches from inside the entry, a little ways back, just to make sure.
"As soon as the cab flies away, our bird is off and running down the corridor. You know that Stevens Building throughway? You can enter on Wabash and cut straight through to State Street. Or the other ways round, of course. Anyways, he shortcuts it through to State and I'm right behind him. We winds up at the Greyhound station. He retrieves a suitcase and a slim, leather case from a couple lockers. Then he parks it on a bench and just sits."
I pressed Flea for any info he could come up with on Stanford's plans.
"I wasn't born yesterday, you know. I found out plenty. Our little bird's flying the coop, of course. Why else be in the Greyhound station? You know where's he off to? Not New York by a long shot. Try the West Coast. He thinks he's going to sunny California. Los Angeles, that's what he thinks. There's a bus that leaves in twenty minutes."
"Are you trying to tell me he's got a ticket to blow town in 20 minutes?"
"I've done you proud this time. You're going to love this one."
"Get on with it, Flea."
"I filched it, that's what. I've got his ticket. I copped his ticket and I've got his wallet, too. And his watch. This bird don't know if he's coming or going. Only he don't know he don't know it, yet."
"That's swell, Flea. You've done good. Awful good. There's just one thing more."
"Like they say in them fairy books, your wish is my command."
"Sit on him, Flea."
"Sit on him?"
"I'm calling the bulls. I want you to sit on Stanford till the cavalry arrives. You hold him there, no matter what. You got that? Stanford can't leave until the police show. Get me?"
"You can count on me, chief."
I pictured Stanford encircled by coppers. A rat surrounded by hounds. No place to turn, no place to run. No wallet, no ticket, no nothing. That gave me my first smile of the day.
I expect you're going to have one heck of a time sifting through this one. I wish you all lots of luck. The expired cabbie should be easy enough to track down. But unless Stanford starts singing, it's going to take a while to trace his substitute. Not to mention his game.
Sergeant Polhouse kicked it around some with me. Of course I haven't had a look-see at his baggage, so I'm just speculating off the cuff. This bird Stanford. Worked for a brokerage, right? That opens up several possibilities. A little embezzling, a little manipulation, what have you. According to Polhouse, Stanford's ex is pretty well fixed, and Stanford still handles her investments. That makes for a cozy twosome.
I'm curious about this Miss Cooper, too. Did she really exist? I'd like to know if she or anyone else had a role in any of this. Maybe it's simply a case of the rat mousing around. Maybe Cooper will turn up in Los Angeles. Or maybe he gave her the dodge and she's holed up in New York.
Those are possibilities. Lots to sift through. However it unravels, anybody waiting for Stanford better be plenty darn good at waiting. They might be waiting a long time. They might not see Stanford again in this life.
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by John Vachon as an employee of the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998005342/PP/.