Statement No. 017:
Maybe I'm one lucky guy, from time to time. I get my moments. Every now and then things fall right into place. You don't see it coming, then all at once things line up right before your eyes. Without your so much as your lifting a finger. Nice and neat. Like a set of dominoes that can read your mind. Or like playing checkers with a kid. You see the board, the pieces in perfect alignment, just begging you to clean up. It can fall right into your lap that way, sometimes, and all you've got to do is hold out your hands. Like being on a packed elevator when the stranger next to you decides to faint.
Funny thing is, the morning I met her I couldn't see for nothing. My eyes played hard to get. They just couldn't open. Beats me why. Just one of those mornings. Or maybe the first a.m. phone call from Lieutenant Mackey did the trick. There's nothing like being roused out of bed by a bunch of fool questions you answered five times the night before.
You boys deal much with this Mackey? He ran me through the particulars of the Stanford case. Piece by piece, blow by blow. I gave him the interview, the set-up, the ride to the airport, the big bang finish. Mackey wanted the whole nine yards and I gave it to him. He leaned especially hard on the missing secretary angle. I told him I never met Miss Cooper. Never laid eyes on her, never even spoke to her. He asked if I was positive. I told him I was positive. Maybe you need to be part moron to become a captain in Cicero.
Mackey moved on. He inquired about Flea, the extra operative I put on Stanford. I informed Mackey that Flea knew less about it than I did. Flea, I told him, knew nothing from Miss Cooper. His bit began and ended with shadowing Stanford. End of story.
Mackey guessed that was all for now. I figured that was a good guess. He warned me not to go anywhere. I replied I planned on going to the john and then to the office--if that was jake with him, of course. He told me not to get smart, then hung up before I could prove how smart I could get.
I felt half asleep when I reached the office. Call it a fifty percent improvement. The coffee smelled good, though. I had a mug rinsed out, the urn ready to pour. That's when she knocked. I called out to come ahead. She cracked the door, peeked in, but couldn't see me from her angle.
"It's all right," I said. "Come ahead."
She walked in, throwing the door closed behind her. The bang gave her a jolt.
"Have a seat. Would you like a cup of joe?"
"No thank you." She grinned like a kid, for just an instant. I pegged her for forty.
She sat with her legs crossed. They made me smile and my eyes began to open. I carried my mug to the desk. "Sure I can't offer you a cup?"
"Mm mm," she shook her red curls. "But I would like a cigarette. Do you have a cigarette?"
"You've already got one going."
She looked down at her hand. She stubbed out the smoke on the floor stand next to her. I dug a pack out of my pocket and extended it across the desk. She selected a stick and placed it between her lips like a kiss. She fingered through her clutch. I struck a match and held it out. She leaned the tip into the flame. She pulled deep, leaned back, exhaled a blue cloud toward the ceiling.
"Thank you for that." She hit a sweet and husky tone in one breath.
"I suppose this is where I should introduce myself."
"If you like. That's the usual procedure." I blew out the match.
"Is there an unusual procedure? I should imagine you've seen many peculiar things from that side of the desk."
She took a pull, I took a sip. She braced her hands on the arms of the chair.
"It's strictly a shot in the dark, but I'm thinking you have something peculiar on your mind."
"Shall I have a guess?"
"Now that I'm here, it's difficult to say it out loud."
"It's awkward trying to tell a stranger."
"Would you like a priest?"
"You're kidding me."
"Yes, I'm kidding you."
"I'm not sure. Either you're trying to put me at ease, or you're laughing at me."
"Actually, I'm laughing at myself."
"Is that true?"
"I keep myself in stitches all day long."
That got a smile out of her as sweet as a Hershey's Kiss. It faded quicker than vapor. She took a second drag and stubbed out the smoke.
I said, "I could ask you to rate the peculiarity on a scale of one to 10, but that would probably get us nowhere."
"Why don't you start by telling me your name."
"First name? Last name?"
"Miss Mathilda Olive."
"All right, Miss Olive."
"I've come to you because I've encountered some trouble." She looked at the cigarette. "Do other people always just come right out with it?"
"There's no always in this racket. It takes all kinds, like they say. Some birds like chewing the fat, others grill me about the job. A few get right down to it, but I'd have to say no, most times people have to warm up to it. Like a relief pitcher."
"I had in mind something like a dancer limbering up."
"That's right. Like we're tap dancing around it now."
"We are, aren't we? I mean that I am."
"Don't let that worry you, Miss Olive. I'm not on the clock."
"It's just too outrageous."
"I don't just mean outrageous for me. I wouldn't believe it if someone else told it to me."
"This is the kind of thing that just doesn't happen."
"But it did."
"I'll say it did."
"When did whatever happened, happen? What say we start with that?"
"Last night--you're coaxing it out of me, aren't you?"
"I'm trying my level best, sister."
"But it's not easy, I know."
"You say it happened last night."
"That's right. I think this was the most horrible thing I've ever faced."
"You've just gone from outrageous to horrible."
"All right, all right. Give me another cigarette and I'll talk."
I laughed as I set the deck close to her edge of the desk.
"I'm glad you're amused."
"You make out like you're down at the squad room."
"I do feel like I'm making a confession."
She stood, taking a smoke from the pack. I tossed her a book of matches. Something told me she could catch it; she speared it with her left. She lit up, drew deep, threw the book on the cigarette stand. Then she began pacing. She paced towards the door, then towards the desk. Away from me, then back to me. Three times.
"Why don't you try just coming out with it?"
"I should just spit it out, is that it?"
"That's the idea."
"All right." One more drag. "All right. Here goes: last night I discovered a dead body in the trunk of my car."
I said nothing.
"Did you hear me?"
"I heard you, all right. I just thought I'd let it reverberate on the ether. Just to give it the full effect.'
Miss Olive studied me with hard, blue eyes. A small crease drew a frown above the bridge of her nose. Her lips parted slightly. She studied me like you study a knife-throwing act. I studied her back.
A wrist brushed back some red curls. "So what you do you think?"
"Lady, I think you pack one hell of a wallop."
"That's me, Joe Louis in a skirt."
"So you found a stiff in the trunk. You popped the lid and there it was. Just like that."
"Just like that."
"Anyone you know?"
"Never saw them before, alive or dead."
"You're sure. You got yourself a good look."
"A very good look."
"I don't suppose you have any idea what a strange corpse was doing parked in the trunk?"
"That sounds like a very bad setup for a very bad joke."
"The laughs are all yours, sister."
"What would I be doing with a dead body in my Lincoln?"
"The Lincoln is all yours, right?"
"It doesn't look very good, does it?"
I grabbed a cigarette. Miss Olive copped the matchbook from the stand, flicked it onto the blotter. She took a seat.
"So what do you think? I already asked you that, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did. You better give me the works."
"The full treatment. The story."
"I don't have a story. There really isn't much to tell."
"The corpus delicti didn't worm its way into the luggage compartment all by itself."
"That's a lucid hypothesis."
"Some of my best hypotheses are lucid. Just make it a short story, Miss Olive. Give me an outline. Put it any way you like and fill me in."
"When I went out to the car last night, there she was."
"The body. The corpse. The little bundle in the trunk. It's a woman."
"Uh-huh. Go on."
"Where did you drive yesterday?"
"I didn't use the car at all yesterday."
"Okay. The day before?"
"Nope. I haven't driven for days. I don't think I've used the car for at least a week. But I see what you're getting at."
"I'm just a little curious about when the spare tire could've been stowed."
"I doubt she's been there very long. I mean, dead bodies do begin to--"
"Fester's a good word."
"Yes. Well, she looks quite intact. I didn't detect any odor. They do fester, don't they?"
"That they do. Dead bodies are awful good at it, too. That would mean your uninvited guest dropped in very recently."
"I told you it was outrageous."
"So exactly when did you use the car last? Where did you go?"
"I can tell you precisely. Two days ago. A friend borrowed it."
"Their vehicle was in the shop."
"I don't suppose you've talked to your friend about any of this."
"I can't reach them."
"Imagine that. Incommunicado. How terribly inconvenient for you. Any chance your friend has a name?"
"That's where it gets awkward."
"That's why I wanted to talk to someone else about it."
"Any notion where your friend may have driven?"
"Not a clue."
"I'll tell you how it went. That's what you want to hear, isn't it? Cigarette."
I pitched her the pack; her left nabbed it. Ditto with the matches.
"Three days ago my friend telephones me and asks to borrow the Lincoln. Some kind of conference came up at the last minute. Some big shot client. Naturally the car's in the shop. The whole song and dance--this has happened before. The emergency meeting's all set for early the next morning. This was late afternoon. I was just about to go out with friends. So I said I'd leave the car parked in the driveway with the keys in the ignition. When my girlfriends showed, I pulled the Lincoln out of the garage, I left the keys, and we took off.
"It wasn't terribly late when I returned home. On the way in, I noticed the car was gone, and that was that. I didn't give it another thought.
"My friend rang me up the next day. I'd say mid or late morning. About dropping off the car. I had planned on doing some shopping downtown, so I suggested we meet up in the loop and save him a trip. There was a funny moment during the call, too. I asked how the meeting went and there was no answer. Then he said, 'Fine, fine,' and the conversation moved on. For some reason I noticed that pause. I don't know why.
"I got to Exchequer a few minutes to four. I planned on not eating. I just wanted to get my keys and go. So I waited. Four-fifteen: no friend. Four-thirty: I ordered a drink. A quarter to five: I put in a call to the office--my friend hadn't been in all day. I guess this is all sounding pretty suspicious."
"Uh-huh. So you left Exchequer."
"That's right. My friend never showed. That's happened before. It didn't annoy me especially, no more than usual. From there I had a rendezvous for cocktails and an early dinner. I gathered my parcels and caught a cab back to the north side. I returned to the house between 7 and 8 p.m."
"Are you sure about the time?"
"Yes, but I had to figure it out the next day. I'd gotten a bit tipsy--I'm afraid I drank more than I ate.
"When I got home, the Lincoln was sitting in the driveway. I brought the parcels into the house. I snapped on the radio. They were playing, 'I Love a Mystery.' That meant it hadn't struck 8 o'clock, yet.
"I went back out to the car. I wanted to snatch the keys and see if my friend left anything behind. That's happened before. Laundry, golf clubs, what have you. I found a box of Mallomars on the front seat. A little bow stuck on top. I've got a fondness for Mallomars."
"Thanks for the loan of the car. Sorry for standing you up."
"Something like that. Except he's never been sorry for anything. Not once. It simply made me annoyed all over again."
"There's nothing else in the front seat, nothing in the back seat. So I go to peek inside the trunk."
"Surprise is right. Can you picture the scene? I'm half-way stupefied, the keys dangling from one hand, the Mallomars in the other, and there's little Miss Corpse, sitting pretty."
"Did you try listening for a heartbeat? Check her pulse?"
"I wasn't about to touch her. You could tell she'dó"
"Yes, to put it indelicately."
"How did you know she was dead?"
"I don't know. Isn't that funny? I just knew it."
"What did you do then?"
"I closed the trunk. Plenty fast. You could say I felt the teensiest bit shocked. I don't know why, but I recall that I turned around to see if anyone was watching. Strange, isn't it? I experienced shock, disbelief and guilt all at once. I saw no one around. The street out front was quiet. I raised the lid again and looked at her. She looked at ease, lying there in the shadows. Like a great sense of calm overtook her."
"Not a care in the world."
"That's right. She'd never have to put up with anything again."
"So you got your car back, a strange stiff, a snootful and a box of Mallomars. What was your next move?"
"I made a beeline back into the house and poured myself a double."
"That's a reasonable reaction."
"I thought so."
"Probably not the best move under the circumstances, but understandable. You didn't leave the trunk open, did you?"
"Of course I didn't leave the trunk open!"
"I'm just trying to conjure up the full, rich pageant. Then what?"
"It swept over me all at once. I was all in. I lay back on the couch and must have dropped right off."
"Just like that?"
"I must have. Next thing I knew it was morning."
"Let's get back to the dead body."
"Yes. By all means."
"You never saw her before. Can you describe her? Did you notice anything unusual about her?"
"Wouldn't it be easier just to show you?"
"You mean she's still in the trunk?"
"Sure. Parked right outside."
"You've been sitting on this since last night? You havenít reported this to anyone?"
"Didn't I tell you that?"
"Are you covering up for your friend, Miss Olive? Is that what this is all about?"
"It's not exactly like that."
"Why don't you tell me exactly what it is like?"
"When I awoke this morning, I thought about phoning the police. I really did. Then I thought about how they might take it."
"Can you hear the questions?"
"Do you know the deceased? How do you suppose it wound up in your trunk? Is this the first time you've discovered a corpse in your vehicle?"
"Uh-huh. The cops leave no unanswerable question unasked."
"That's what I figured."
"So what did you plan to do about it?"
"I hoped to find out as much as I could beforehand."
"And here you are."
"Here I am."
"Okay, sister. You want me to take a look-see?"
The red curls bobbed with her head.
"Sure you do. But the boys in blue have to be clued in right after. And it'd look better coming from you."
"Whatever you say."
"As long as that's clear. I don't mind sticking my neck out--"
"As long as it doesn't get caught in a trunk with a body."
"Where are you parked, exactly?"
"Right across the street. Maybe a door or two north."
"Uh-huh. This isn't the kind of inspection to conduct in the middle of Clark Street."
"That's very good thinking."
"I get accused of that on occasion. Sometimes my line of work calls for it. You better pull into the alley on the side of the building. You'll see a coupe towards the back. You can park it right behind that. I'll meet you in the alley."
"Don't get pulled over."
"I'll watch the lights."
She swung out of the office. She looked almost as good going out as coming in. I pocketed the smokes, the matches, grabbed my hat. I ducked out the back of the building and took the fire escape down to the alley.
I waited for her, leaning against the side of the coupe. I braced one shoe on the running board, folded my arms, and chewed over Miss Olive's yarn. She seemed on the level all right, but so did the mug trying to sell me the Michigan Avenue Bridge the other week. Even if she spoke the truth, we all know you never get the whole truth. Most times you get your story on the installment plan.
The Lincoln lumbered down the side street entrance from the north. She steered around the corner of the building and snugged up behind my coupe. Miss Olive slid out and stepped to the rear of the car. I planned to make this short and sweet.
"She's a beaut," I said.
"I always liked Lincolns."
I pushed off the coupe. I stepped up to the front of the Lincoln. I eyeballed her hood, headlights, grill, front bumper. I strolled down the passenger side, surveying the tires, doors, windows. The car could've just come off the showroom.
"What are you looking for?"
"I haven't the faintest idea."
I stood next to Miss Olive. I fired up a cigarette. "Ready for the unveiling?"
"There's no time like--" She raised the trunk lid. "The present."
I took it in, hands on my hips. I pulled long on the cigarette. I blew out the vapors from the side of my mouth, one eye squinting.
She was a pretty little thing. Early twenties. Bobbed, dark brunette. Eyelids shut. Wide but balanced face. Small mouth. Slight build. Flat on her back. Hips twisted slightly. Legs together, bent at the knees, thrown to her right. She wore a long, wool number. Large flaps flowed from around the collar like overgrown lapels. The long sleeves bloused slightly just below the elbows. Two large buttons just beneath the breast line. Conservative business dress all the way. Mid-ankle length. Her left arm trapped a small, tan purse against her torso.
"She's ready for the long box, all right. Is this how you found her?"
"Pretty much--I don't get you."
"Has she moved a lot?"
"Hardly at all."
"Things tend to shift in traffic."
"You also drive exceedingly slow with something like this in the back."
"So deduce, already."
I shot her my blandest take. "For starters, that's no beauty mark above her right eye."
"It looks like a hole."
"That's a hole, all right."
"What makes a hole like that?"
"Maybe a .22."
"A small caliber gun."
"Gruesome. It looks very clean."
"Too clean. It's not what killed her."
"You can tell that?"
"She was already dead when she got plugged. You can tell by the coloring beneath the skin. Look around the wound. The bullet didn't make it out the back, either."
"I'll take your word for it. But why would you shoot a dead body?"
"It wasn't for target practice. The killer wasn't taking any chances."
"Appears someone choked her to death. Done by hand. Bruise marks around the throat. Could be the shooter and strangler are the same person. Could be. Probably a lefty."
"You don't say?"
"The placement of the bullet hole. Natural for someone holding a rod in the left hand. The thumb marks at the base of the neck are more pronounced on the left.
"I can see that. Is that all?"
"I'd peg our victim for a clerical position."
"You'll have to explain that one."
"Professional dress. Looks like stock office attire."
"She's got some signature fashions in department stores."
"Looks kind of dowdy for Hollywood."
"Strictly middle class. Sears carries this line."
"You don't like the Sears type."
"I'm not. But we're talking about her type."
"She's from the secretarial pool, all right. Her nails are cut short for typing. There are smudges on the fingertips of her left hand."
"Looks like it to me. And I'd say she's got herself a boyfriend. What do you make of that pendant?"
"It's tiny, but the stone looks real enough. Does that strike you as the type of thing a working girl would buy for herself?"
"No. It looks like a little something from the little boyfriend."
"Did you peek in her bag?"
"I couldn't--I didn't--no."
"You didn't touch a thing?"
"That's good. That's very good. That's what you tell the cops."
"So what's in there?"
"Nothing to I.D. her. That's been cleaned out. But she wore glasses."
"How can you tell?"
"They're in a case in the purse. Farsighted. She needed these for work. But she took them off and put them neatly away. Killers aren't usually that tidy."
"A keychain. Two house keys. Two peppermints. Here's a book of matches. From The Exchange."
"The Exchange? I know that bar. Pretty swanky."
"It's just off La Salle."
"That's right. Near the Financial District. It's a hangout for broker types. It's not the kind of joint where gals from the steno pool grab an after work cocktail."
"Okay, sister. It's all starting to come together. And it's a damn small world, too. Who's your friend? The one you say you lent the car to?"
"Can I have another cigarette?"
"Answer first. You're going to have to give your story to the cops. You might as well tell me."
"I guess I might as well."
"Out with it."
"He's my ex-husband."
"So you took back your maiden name after the divorce."
"And what name does he go by?"
"Uh-huh. In which case I'm guessing who we've got here is one Miss Cooper. But you know that."
"What do I know?"
"It's over, sister. Not a bad set-up. Your timing turned out lousy, but there's no way you could've known."
"Whatever you're getting at, you've got me stumped."
"It's no use playing stupid. Besides, it doesn't suit you."
"Just say it. What are you trying to say?"
"Little Miss America, there. I'm saying you popped her, Miss Olive."
"You're really on the up and up. You're trying to tell--"
"I'm not trying anything. You did it, all right. I'm just trying to figure out why."
"Go ahead, bright boy. Tell me. Tell me why I did it."
"Either you like him that much or hate him that much. My money's on the hate angle."
"Is it really?"
"Sure, sure. It's a swell frame, but it doesn't wash. The time-line angle's brilliant, though. I'll hand you that. Stanford would need an alibi to cover anywhere from 24 to 30 hours. Normally that would be next to impossible to swing."
"Here's where you get stung, Miss Olive. The day you say your ex phoned and picked up the Lincoln? He spent part of the morning playing hide-and-seek with me and a couple of taxicabs. By early afternoon he'd been collared by the cops. He's been under lock and key ever since. He never telephoned you to borrow your car. He never picked it up. He never arranged to meet you at Exchequer, he never returned the auto. And he most certainly never knocked off Miss Cooper, here. Your ex has got the police to swear to that alibi."
That got Miss Olive sweating. The little crinkle returned above the bridge of her nose. The red curls began to quiver, just ever so.
"Of course you're completely in the dark, Miss Olive. The Cicero police kept it quiet, so far. The papers won't get the full story for another day or two."
Behind those baby blues, Miss Olive's wheels spun faster than a slot machine. She was looking for an out. She was looking fast. I gave her a moment. I got curious to see how she'd play it.
"You're going to turn me in, aren't you?"
"You don't have to."
I said nothing.
"If you knew how it was from my side--Rex Stanford cheated me in every way. He saw other women and used my money to pay for it. If you had any compassion--"
I said nothing.
"No, not you. Maybe you don't understand such things. Or maybe you don't forgive a thing."
"I don't forgive either of you."
"No, I guess a man like you wouldn't."
She dropped her head. She brought her clutch against her breast with both hands.
"I'm begging you." She spoke with her chin raised high.
I said nothing. She dropped to her knees. Right there in the alley, she dropped down to her knees.
"Please. I'm pleading with you. Don't take me in." A sob came up from her throat and accented the words. "Please." She dropped forward onto all fours. "Don't take me in. I couldn't stand it. Don't take me in."
"It's no use, sister. You're going over for it. Just like your ex. You're both poison."
She reared up, uncoiling like a spring, one hand clawing its way into the clutch. I shot forward, my kick catching her hard beneath the jaw. As she splayed backwards, a .22 flew from her fingers and landed in the open trunk. Miss Olive folded onto the pavement. Down for the count. Out cold. My kick landed better than I thought.
Among the spilled contents of her bag: a pack of butts and a couple forms of I.D. for Miss Cooper. One of my business cards caught my eye, too. I stooped down and picked it up. A note scratched on the back curled my lips:
"Rex--Give this one a try. Highly recommended. M."
I fired up a stick. Miss Olive looked at ease, napping there in the alley. Like a great sense of calm overtook her. I made a note for myself. Never trust a dame when she's on all fours. Especially when she's on all fours. Sure.
* 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/resource/fsa.8a33112/.