Statement No. 001:
I wonder if you found a trace of anything in the basement. Nobody will tell me. No one's saying a thing about it. I'm betting it's clean. Real clean. Like an infant's rap sheet. Like nothing happened. But I'm sticking to my account.
I'll go through it all again. Sure I will. I must look a sight, bruised face, torn up coat and all. My head and jaw ache like hell, but we'll skip that for now. You'll get your story, all right. For my own reasons. Sure. But you'll get it from me just one more time, get me?
I don't much care for your procedures or your methods—can't say I much care for your manners, either, as far as that goes. So get me—this is the last time. Is there someone else out in the squad room that needs to hear it? Get him in here pronto. After this, we're through. You can do what you like after, for all I care.
Maybe I'm the only one who can cobble it together. Start to finish. Sure. From the trumped up beginning to the big bang finish. That's what you're after, right? The shooting? You boys are all hopped up on that. Up and down the line, everybody cuts straight to that—the incident. But I've got my own interests to look out for. Remember that I came to you, get me? Nobody had to send for me.
Just one more thing, as long as I'm at it. You play patient with me and we'll all get along. And I'll tell it swell. My own way. Start turning up the heat, any one of you, and I might go dumb on you. Everyone got that? OK? Just so long as we're all clear. OK.
It started with Lucilla. It ended with Lucilla. Doesn't every case need a dame? She introduced herself as Lucilla Leblanc. Sure, I didn't buy it, either. Turned out to be the right name, all right. Just the wrong broad. Matter of fact, there was a whole line of Lucillas going back on the mother's side. Any of you ever learn her maiden name? Landusky. Lucilla Landusky. Anything's an improvement over that.
Mrs. Lucilla Leblanc swung into my office on the morning of the fifth. Swung's an accurate way to put it. A fine looker, all right. That surprises you? You'll catch on. She knew damn well how men looked at her. If I wasn't such a cynic I might have fallen for her routine, and right now you'd be grilling someone else. I put her at thirty-five. Light brown, shoulder-length hair. She wore it pulled back that first time. She came in on the slim side. A striking five-nine, but that's in heels. Her clothes smart, new, topped off by a dark blue pillbox with a half-veil that masked the color of her eyes. So there she was—attractive, well fixed, with something to hide. You could say she interested me immediately. Sure.
After the intros, we got down to particulars. She ran hot and cold as she spoke. One moment stern and jittery, the next cool and tempting. At the time I figured her for the high-strung type, or maybe testing the waters. Maybe both. What she wanted, she said, was a tail job, which was fine by me. I was supposed to tail her husband, she said.
"You want the old man shadowed," I nodded. "What for, Mrs. Leblanc?"
As coyly as she could manage it, she said, "I want you to catch him with her."
"That is delicate," I said. "You don't strike me as the demure type, Mrs. Leblanc."
With abrupt confidence she replied, "You strike me as the impertinent type."
"Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
"I've been working it into a big ad campaign I'm planning: 'Private & Personal Investigations. Discreet & Impertinent.' Catchy, don't you think?"
"It appears I'm wasting your time."
"It's just that matrimonial cases aren't my usual line, Mrs. Leblanc."
"Hmm. I would have thought that was bread and butter for a trade like yours."
I said nothing.
"In that case," she began to purr—she looked like she purred a lot—"What if we say this? Let us say my husband's life has been threatened and I need you to follow him. Just by some off chance? As a precaution, let us say. To play it safe."
"Just to play it safe."
"I am prepared to pay handsomely, with an attractive bonus for results."
"Just like that."
"Just like that." She had a wicked smile. I liked it.
She worked a crisp fifty dollar bill out of her clutch and placed it on the desk. She nudged it across the blotter. I kept my eyes on those eyes behind the veil.
"No," she was purring again. She made purring seem like the most natural thing. "We'll make that one hundred dollars to start." Another Grant emerged from the bag. "I'll pay an additional one hundred dollars if I get what I want."
"You usually get what you want, Mrs. Leblanc?"
"Usually." She wore that wicked smile like melted chocolate.
"What does that mean?"
"How do you know I can get you what you want?"
She surveyed the room. "You are a private detective, aren't you?"
"The stencil on the door says so."
"And you have followed people on occasion?"
"I've published monographs on it."
"Then we shouldn't have any trouble, should we?"
"Are you looking for trouble?"
"You're becoming impertinent, again."
"That one's on the house, Mrs. Leblanc. So, all together, that's two hundred bucks."
"That's the offer," purring through curled lips. "I like a man who can handle big math problems."
"So does my accountant. But you wouldn't like him. He's not nearly as impertinent as I am."
We kept up the clever banter while she carefully produced a small photograph of Mr. Leblanc.
"Is this recent?" I asked. "Somebody else has been torn out of it."
"Yes, fairly recent. Taken in the last six months or so."
"But the tear?"
"Will the picture do or not?"
"Sure, sure. It'll do," and I grinned as I considered the photo.
"Are you laughing at me?"
"You amuse me, Mrs. Leblanc, you really do, and no, I'm not being impertinent. I find it amusing that a lady such as yourself comes into my modest office. It amuses me that you're willing to pay me liberally just to pretend that you're not pretending why you're here. It amuses me to think that you must be so used to getting whatever you want. Do I amuse you at all, Mrs. Leblanc?"
"Not in the least. And you are being impertinent again." Her voice ran cold but her tongue traced that wicked smile.
I glanced at the man in black and white. Thinning, white hair. Pockets of shadows beneath the eyes. Hollows in the cheeks. He must've had a good twenty-five years on her. More like a bad twenty-five. It didn't add up that he should be the one stepping out. Complete confidence in a client is the exception in this racket. Everybody's hiding something—I wouldn't be in business, otherwise. But a certain level of belief is critical. The veil and the money were obvious. I could live with that. But the photo? That photo presented doubts.
"It's a funny species," I said.
"This'll do. What makes you think he's running around?"
"A woman knows these things."
"Perhaps my generous proposal will overcome any second thoughts as well as your aversion to this kind of work."
Second thoughts—she hit that one on the head. "OK, sister, you got me. I'll shadow your Romeo and see what gives."
"I know he'll be going out again tonight. He never leaves before seven. You can start tonight, can't you?"
"I may have to shift around a few things, but I'll pencil it in, Mrs. Leblanc."
"I'm writing down our address. Also my telephone number. My private line. I'll expect a full report in the morning. Will there be anything else?"
There's always something else. There had to be something else. Loads of something else. I shook my head.
Lucilla Leblanc snapped shut the little clutch, rose slowly, smoothed her skirt. She sauntered to the door, and lingered before it, laying her fingers on the doorknob. She pivoted towards me, gradual. She met me with a hard stare, a hint of that wicked smile arching her mouth. She breathed the word "impertinent" so faintly I barely got it. She threw the door wide and swung out.
I pushed back from the desk, crossed the office, and shoved the door shut. The echo of sharp high heels faded in the corridor. It's a quiet building.
Sure, I didn't buy her name, and her story played like a dodge. The one hundred bucks—that made me a believer. I picked up the two Grants, held them between my thumb and fingers, and slid them against one another. "Sure," I thought to myself. "Impertinence pays. Sure it does."
I spent part of my afternoon at the library. Who's Who and the like led me to The Bankers' Annual. I found Leblanc, all right, Mr. Peter-Louis Leblanc. Private banking, investment banking, etcetera. The house of Mercer, Leblanc and Furst. Big money. Serious money. The kind of dough a flatfoot or PI dreams about when he sees an RKO movie. Everything jived with Lucilla's info, right down to the exclusive address on North Lake Shore Drive.
As for the lady herself, I found something entirely different—zip. No listings, no society page blurbs, no nothing. For whatever reason, Mrs. Leblanc was under wraps. Way under.
After knocking off my homework, I blew in a call to the answering service. No messages. For better or worse, that made Lucilla the only game in town. I grabbed a quick bite in the Loop before heading to Leblanc's.
At 6:45 p.m. I parked the coupe on the inner drive. My spot furnished a clear view of the Leblancs' building, one of those gray stone monoliths opposite the lakefront. They lined them up that way, like a string of concrete forts, our last defense in case of Canadian attack. I lit a cigarette and waited.
At 6:55 a shining, black Packard pulled up. A hulking bus of a crate. Mr. Leblanc exited the lobby at seven on the dot, overdressed for the warm, fall evening. I recognized him easy, even bundled up. He displayed the enthusiasm of a hamper full of wet towels. He moved sluggishly, shuffling his way around the front of the Packard. I turned over the engine of my coupe and let her idle. The porter hopped out of the car and held the door. Leblanc, stiffly bent, worked himself in behind the steering wheel. He did not need, or did not want, a chauffeur. The porter let fly a goodbye salute. Leblanc did not.
You couldn't ask for a better tail-job. A subject made to order. Dull, easy. The Packard circled the block, headed north, and hung a left on Fullerton. The old boy held his route due west for quite a ways, well beyond hitting the sticks. He took a right at River Road, heading north. I checked my fuel gauge.
Two miles up River Road, Leblanc swung into the drive of a sprawling, Colonial number. The Palmer Mansion had nothing on this baby. Tall, iron gates fronted the edge of the property for a good block or more. The expansive lawn served as a parking lot. I took a quick tally, counted better than one hundred cars, and let loose a silent whistle.
Leblanc circled the rows of vehicles twice before parking his machine. He eased his way out the driver's side, stiffly. He brushed his coat, and paraded down to the oversized double-doors of the mansion. A duo of solemn doormen gave him the nod. The entry doors swung wide.
I settled for a spot on the side of the lawn opposite Leblanc's. I took my time approaching the house, unsure if the doormen would hang out the welcome sign. Despite lollygagging, I overtook a pair of old dames strolling arm and arm. I meant to skirt them when one made a slight misstep—her upper body heaved forward, the arms snapped upward, and her evening bag sailed off for a good ten-foot trip.
"Allow me, mademoiselle," I called.
Bounding beyond the couple, I snatched up the purse and wiped it on the sleeve of my coat with exaggerated delicacy. I returned to offer up the bag with a slight bow. I straightened up with a start, as if seeing double. Turned out I was seeing double. Turned out I was in the presence of Doreen and Laureen Messmer, identical twins. Kind of sweet and cute types, modeled in that overweight, spinsterish manner. They giggled as Doreen accepted her bag. Or maybe it was Laureen. I never did get the names straight—the only name that interested me was Leblanc.
I expressed mock outrage that these two damsels arrived unescorted. I worked my way between them and offered each my arm. They tittered in their fashion and smiled at each other and tittered some more. I sauntered through the double doors, a Messmer on each arm. The solemn doormen made extra room for us as we barely squeezed by.
The telltale sounds struck home as soon as you passed through those oversized, double doors. The mechanical whirring and chunking of slots, the flapping burps of cards shuffling, the sharp rattling of dice being shaken. Just inside I spied a cloakroom to the left, a wide staircase to the far right. An enormous bar began beneath the stairs that extended the length of the room. The rest of the first floor gave over to the crowded gaming tables.
"Do you partake?" one of the twins turned to me. "I'm sure my sister could use one, and I don't know why I should feel so parched myself."
"That's because you're just an old lush, my dear," the other said with a smile.
I replied it was oak with me.
On the way to the bar we passed the roulette table. I got myself a gander at a painfully serious Leblanc. Impressive stacks of chips towered in front of him. His coat remained buttoned. Either the old boy had thin blood or he didn't expect to stay long.
I made sure we found just the right barstools, close enough to the action. I could keep an eye on Leblanc in the bar mirrors with a strategic turn of my seat. I witnessed the old man's folly—nothing but straight number bets. To be precise, he played one number and only one number. Bet after bet, turn after turn of the wheel. Even the simple Messmer twins could've predicted Leblanc's fate.
Leblanc lost an entire stack of chips by the time we knocked off our first drink. His stakes shrank by half as we finished our second round. When Doreen, or maybe Laureen, raised her third nip, she spilled it in her sister's lap. I glanced over at the roulette table. Leblanc had gone bust.
The Messmer sisters excused themselves to the powder room. Leblanc stood to leave. He tossed a large, glittering coin to the croupier and plodded in the direction of the door. I casually approached the roulette table and leaned in with, "The old boy had it bad tonight."
"Sometimes you wins, mister," the croupier said. "Sometimes you lose."
I spied Leblanc at the exit. "He must have lost a small fortune."
"We don't keep no score, mister."
It felt good to step outside, away from the stale casino atmosphere. The air had that crisp autumn snap to it, the type that wakes up your spirits. The soft moonlight renewed things. It could fool you into thinking the world's at peace, we're all good, we're all innocent.
I reached for a cigarette, eyeballing Leblanc's silhouette shambling down the line of silent automobiles. As I struck a match, the sulphur flared up and died down, and the silhouette dropped out of sight like a shot.
I zigzagged down the lot, hunting for Leblanc. I found the old bird doubled over on elbows and knees. He strained to breathe, slow and shallow, in a rasp that outdid the crickets. He didn't look injured any. I bent down and braced his shoulders with my hands.
"What is it?"
He shook his head.
"You want a doctor?"
He shook his head. "A moment," he gasped. That's all he said.
I glanced up. No one to the left, the right, or behind us. We were alone. "You want to sit up?"
"A moment." That's all.
We held our wrestlers' posture for five minutes before he felt steady. I helped him onto the running board of the car next to us. His breaths grew longer and deeper. He managed, "Thank you, sir."
"I still think I should get you a doc."
"No, no, I don't think that will be required. Merely a moment's rest."
"Perhaps you'd like to duck back inside."
"I will not spend one minute more in that place than I have to."
So we sat. We cooled our heels on that strange running board in the middle of nowhere way the hell up River Road. I couldn't puzzle out what we were doing there, or whether it had anything to do with Lucilla Leblanc.
"I just realized, sir," he found his breath, "I must be keeping you from something."
"Don't give it a thought. You well enough to get on?"
"Certainly, sir. Yes. A little strain is all. Business concerns, you know."
"Sure. Maybe you need some time off."
"Ah. Yes, I shouldn't be surprised. But then there are obligations, aren't there?"
"I don't know. Are there?"
"Partners, wives, employees."
"I always considered myself a pretty good first obligation."
"Ah. What you've got there is a young man's game." As he spoke he raised his shoulders and crossed his arms. Thin fingers kneaded the upper arms.
"You getting a chill?"
"I worry most for my wife," Leblanc said. "The poor, lost thing. Lost for some time. Perhaps I've lost my way, too, from time to time. There are those who say, those who advise me, I shouldn't trouble about her. But confound it if that doesn't go against the grain. I don't believe that should be so difficult to understand."
"I get you."
"Do you, sir?"
"Sure, sure. You're OK. A little balled up, maybe, but you'll make out."
"Balled up!" he laughed, and he smiled to himself. He turned the smile on me, and I have to say it was a good smile. It tempted me to come clean, but I resisted.
"Think you can tool home all right?"
"Tut! I know I can, sir. I thank you, but I don't require looking after."
That's the first time a tail job told me the tail wasn't necessary. Of course, I followed him all the way back to North Lake Shore Drive. Leblanc arrived in one piece, without incident.
From that moment, I took his side. I was all for Leblanc, all right. I didn't know the score, but that made no difference. You're always taking sides, and I knew it like you know right from wrong—I'd stand against anyone who wasn't for Leblanc.
I rang up Lucilla the following morning at nine o'clock sharp. She picked up on the second ring. She played it cool, her tone dismissive, her words abrupt. Kitten had lost her purr.
"I've been waiting for your call. You always sleep in so late?"
"I wanted to make sure I didn't disturb you, Mrs. Leblanc."
"Never mind that. Did you catch them together?"
"So where did he go?"
"He drove out to a club in the boondocks. Up north on River Road."
"Not that awful gambling house."
"I've seen worse, Mrs. Leblanc."
"How'd he make out?"
"He dropped a pile."
"He can afford it."
"Then he collapsed in the parking lot."
"Your husband may not be a well man, Mrs. Leblanc."
"I see. Where did he go after that?"
"Did you get what I said about his health?"
"We already have a family physician. I asked where he went after that."
"Straight home, Mrs. Leblanc."
"I see." The line went quiet for a moment. "You better try again tonight."
"Yes, Mrs. Leblanc."
"He'll see her again. I know he's going to see her soon. I want you there, and I want you to call me as soon as you catch them together."
"Yes, Mrs. Leblanc."
Somehow, with Kitten's purr lost in the shuffle, I began to care even less for my client. As for Mr. Leblanc, I'd figured on tailing him again no matter what—wild Lucillas couldn't keep me away. I couldn't put my finger on the trouble, but it was there, all right. I'd decided to stick a while longer.
Leblanc followed his casino routine for the next three nights. Those solemn doormen at the club on River Road let me come and go without any static. I played my part, sitting in for a few hands of blackjack, throwing craps, just for show. As far as concerns Leblanc, I always made sure to blend in, just another faceless sucker among the crowd.
Leblanc opened each night with a pile of chips that could buy and sell anyone of us several times over. And each night he threw it away at the roulette table. Betting always on thirty-three. Always going belly up. The ritual went like clockwork save for one detail: it struck me that his table stakes grew smaller, one night to the next. I chewed it over plenty, and the more I chewed on it, the less I came up with.
I fell into the habit easy. I knew what to expect and faithfully phoned in my non-reports to Kitten every morning. She offered nothing much in the way of response. I had to confess to her that I didn't see what I was getting paid for. Kitten insisted I keep at it, so we left it at that. Not that I was looking for her permission, but I didn't tell her that.
That leads up to that final night. I had a good view of Leblanc from a nearby craps table. He came across more tense than usual. The way he curved over the table, the hunch of his shoulders, that grim pan. The final straw could've been anything, but when it came, he snapped. His hands balled into fists and softly pounded the table. Contempt washed over his face. He jerked to his feet, cashed in his chips without a word, moving abruptly, awkwardly. I remained in the background, casually hanging back—I saw no reason to sweat it.
Leblanc strode to the parking lot with a briskness I hadn't expected. I didn't think the old guy had it in him. His car sat a lot farther down than mine. I approached my coupe, keeping watch, and waited. Leblanc crossed the lawn, reached the Packard, and maneuvered himself in behind the steering wheel. I dug into my shirt pocket for a smoke. A soft, male voice from behind caught me off guard.
"Beg pardon, can I trouble you for a match?"
It happened just as I turned. It happened fast. It felt like a sack of cement crashing into my jaw. I caught a blurred, split-second glimpse of the johnny who jumped me before crumpling into the grass. Then everything dissolved to smoke. I never saw Leblanc again.
I came to, slow, with a grinding headache. The sunshine didn't help any. It took a few moments to register my surroundings as the passenger seat of the coupe. A sharp, throbbing pain kicked in along my jaw. Between the throbs, my memory flashed back to me in spurts. Sitting up made the pain worse. I found my billfold next to me on the seat. The Grants were gone. So was Leblanc's snapshot. Everything else in order. A gaze through the windshield placed me just off the intersection of 22nd and Cicero. I identified the Hawthorne Works looming ahead on the right. I fingered my jaw, painful to the touch, but my teeth felt intact.
I needed coffee before anything else. I had enough pocket change for that. I exited the car and assessed the damage in the side mirror. The bruising bloomed like a Technicolor experiment. I spotted an owl wagon about half a block up so I tested the waters, and my legs, and set off on foot.
Funny how being roughed up can turn any lousy cup of coffee into the best you ever had. The stiff manning the counter kept sneaking peeks at my face. The register girl was kind enough to offer some aspirin. The gravel in my head gave way to something softer during the third cup. The raging headache subsided to a dull grinding and I could actually think. A lot of good that did me.
I still came up empty regarding Leblanc's nightly sojourn. The man was no mean gambler, that's for sure. Not betting on one number. Not night after night. Beats me what got to him. And then somebody got to me, all right. I made as much sense out of it as trying to read a tote sheet in Chinese.
The big daddy question of them all threw me for a loop. I don't know why I didn't catch it sooner, laying there right in front of me. But when it struck me, it struck as hard as any blackjack to the jaw.
The headline in The American read, "Banker Commits Suicide." Above the fold, a photograph of Peter-Louis Leblanc. He hadn't smiled for the camera. The snapshot must've been taken years before the one the missus had forked over.
Suicide is never pretty. They all pull off their own level of ugly. The more you know the poor sap, the worse it plays out. A single witness stumbled on Leblanc's Packard, the lone auto in a Hyde Park lot, half a city away from his home and office. A spent, old man, flung back in the driver's seat. Like an abandoned marionette. Done in by a large caliber rod, probably a forty-four. The slug blew a huge crater through the top of his skull. Chips of bone, fragments of brains and bits of flesh sprayed across the Packard's interior. Late at night. No letter. No note. Discovered by a stock boy on his way home from an all-night drugstore. The stock boy said, "I've never seen anything like it." Sure.
The American ran a second picture, a portrait of Leblanc with his wife. That shot displayed her light hair, a wide face, and she appeared about the same age as her husband. That baby posed another question. Now we had two Mrs. Leblancs on the loose, one as phony as an alderman's promise. As if my head didn't ache enough.
My anger kicked in faster than the aspirin. I raced up north to the Leblancs' apartment building—I never gave the speedometer a thought. I handed my card to the concierge, told him I knew the late Mr. Leblanc, said I'm sure his wife would want to see me. He hesitated, a questioning look screwing up his face. He caught sight of the bruising, the soiled jacket, my whole, rough-and-tumble demeanor—he dropped the questioning look and buzzed upstairs at once.
The elevator opened directly onto a foyer and connecting hallway. The Leblancs must've let the entire floor. My whole walk-up could've fit in the foyer with room to spare. A subdued butler showed me to a large sitting room. Mrs. Leblanc sat dead center, surrounded by a warehouse worth of furniture. There were straight-back chairs and lounge chairs, loveseats, small sofas, end tables, coffee tables, console tables, table lamps, floor lamps, floor rugs, throw rugs. She appeared stiff and uneasy in her cane chair. As animated as asphalt. I took a seat in a wingback, right across the Oriental rug from her.
Mrs. Leblanc looked just like her picture in the newspaper, all right, with a few years thrown in. The regal widow, sure. Encircled by that hodgepodge of luxury. I could've expected the old dame to be plenty sad or upset. Heartbroken, even. Maybe the whole affair would leave her numb. Maybe everything would come crashing down on her later. I gave her a careful once-over—Mrs. Leblanc was terrified. You could see it on her face. As plain as anything. Alone and terrified.
I declined the offer of something to drink. I wasn't in the mood to have anything spilled in my lap—the old dame looked that shaky. I didn't feel in top form myself. A light-headedness tried gumming up the works I call a brain, but I ignored it. Mrs. Leblanc asked after my health, but making small talk didn't interest me. Neither did paying my respects. I cut to the chase.
"Mrs. Leblanc, what are you afraid of?"
A soft gasp escaped her lips.
I continued. "You don't believe he killed himself, do you? I can't think he did. He didn't strike me as the type. But I barely knew your husband, Mrs. Leblanc. It'd mean a lot more coming from you."
She parted her lips, and then hesitated. She looked about to speak, but kept mum. An air came over her that put a distance between us, as though she saw through me and into the next room.
She squinted in my direction, like I was difficult to make out all that way across the Oriental.
"What did you tell the police?"
She mouthed the word "nothing" without making a peep.
"But you could tell them something, isn't that right, dear?"
She closed her eyes, nodded, and drew in her upper lip.
"What do you know about it, Mrs. Leblanc?"
She started rocking in the cane chair.
I spat at her. "What do you know?"
"I," she paused. She glanced upward. "He couldn't. He just—" She paused again and took a breath. "I cannot accept it. Pierre-Louis would not do such a thing. Such a harsh thing. Such a vile thing."
"I'm with you as far as that goes, Mrs. Leblanc."
"Pierre-Louis was a very gentle man, in his own way. Serious. Perhaps too serious, but also gentle."
I had to keep pressing. "What else?"
"He liked snow. Did you know that?"
"What do you know about his trouble, Mrs. Leblanc? Tell me about that."
She squeezed her eyelids shut, placed an index finger to her lips and bobbed her head. I waited. She drew heavy breaths in a stop and start fashion. I leaned forward. The thin creaking of the cane chair squeaked as she rocked in place. Then, like a piercing alarm, like a fire alarm, the telephone rang with shocking loudness. Mrs. Leblanc let fly, "I blackmailed my husband!"
The old girl had come through. Her eyes opened and scrutinized me, again with that unsure squint. They held terror, all right. I sat still. The phone continued to ring. A third ring. A fourth.
"Maybe it's important," I said. She put her index finger to her lips and waited. "The butler?"
"I've left instructions."
After ten rings the telephone went silent. Mrs. Leblanc was ready to talk.
"I'll confess everything. I can't tolerate the shame. I must talk to someone. Can I trust you? You look like someone I can trust."
"There's no reason in the world you should trust me, Mrs. Leblanc. Just because I was all for your husband doesn't mean I'm for you as well."
"I see, yes." She spoke faintly, almost to herself, as softly as rainfall. "But I feel as though I can trust you. Did my husband trust you?"
"In a small way, I think he did."
"Is it all right if I tell you everything?"
You could see the old gal had reached the final station. Any strength, any resilience she'd once had was shot. Nothing left inside. Nothing left to lose. "I'm not going to stop you, Mrs. Leblanc."
"You see, I knew. I knew Pierre-Louis was seeing someone. He didn't love me anymore, or maybe he knew I hadn't loved him for years. Or maybe he just gave up. Perhaps that's why he found someone else. I don't know, really. After all that time, why should that have hurt me?"
"So you wanted to hurt him. To get back at him."
"To a point, I suppose so. What I wanted most of all was to run away from everything. Imagine that. At my age. But I would have had nothing, you see. Pierre-Louis made me sign all these documents before we married. We were happy and I didn't mind. Perhaps I was being young and foolish. That was so very long ago. One can hardly start over at this age. Now even so, when Mr. Jupiter first suggested we blackmail Pierre-Louis—how could I entertain such a notion? That's all it was to me at first. Just a silly notion, or his way of poking fun at me."
"Mr. Jupiter, the gambler."
"Yes, some call him that. I first met him at his club—I'd gone there on a lark. I'd begun going out nights when Pierre-Louis said he was working late. Soon after, Mr. Jupiter and I met again, quite by accident, in a restaurant near here."
"Yes. He began calling me and calling me. Finally, I just gave in. He was the most charming gentleman, really, and made the most pleasing companion. For a time. Until we began discussing my husband. I don't know what I was thinking. He was so young. I acted so foolishly."
"A younger fella. I see. What'd he work out for your husband?"
"At first he wanted to know if Pierre-Louis had any weaknesses. That's a funny sort of thing to be asked. And now, now Pierre-Louis is gone." She glanced upward.
"Don't drift out on me, Mrs. Leblanc. You said Jupiter wanted to know about your husband's weaknesses."
"Yes, yes, that's what he asked. I told him what came to mind, though not exactly what you'd call a weakness, was Pierre-Louis' obsession with his privacy and reputation. Any type of notoriety simply outraged Pierre-Louis. He refused to pose for the camera. Avoided every kind of publicity. He never even advertised in the journals, you know. Some businessmen are more discreet than others. Pierre-Louie was, well, practically invisible."
"But did OK for himself. And for you."
"I must say so. I really must."
"Jupiter must've smelled opportunity."
"I saw a change come over Mr. Jupiter. He became excited and distracted. 'This one is going to be easy, my dear, so easy.' I remember that's what he said, and his voice was cold and frightened me. 'So easy.' When I offered a slight protest, he grabbed me painfully hard. By my wrist. 'Isn't this what you want?' he asked. He pushed me away, said we were all alike, and marched off. I never saw Mr. Jupiter after that." She added in a whisper, "Just the thought frightened me."
"He was all fixed."
"Yes, he was. And I'm to blame for it. And now I'm to blame for Pierre-Louis."
"You think Jupiter's involved?"
"Pierre-Louis would never do anything like that, you see? He was a proud man. And something—"
"Do you think Jupiter could've been involved in your husband's death, Mrs. Leblanc?"
"Do you think Jupiter killed your husband, Mrs. Leblanc?"
"I don't know," she whispered. "I don't know." The words ran fast and breathless. "I know I am afraid of him." She went all petrified again.
"I think I'd like to meet this Mr. Jupiter." That gave her a terrific scare. Maybe I shouldn't have said it.
I left Mrs. Leblanc like I found her. There was nothing I could do for her. That didn't interest me, anyway. Still, I couldn't ignore that sense of sorrow that washed over that home. Maybe I just felt sorry for all of us. Take it as you like. I caught a maid on the way out and suggested she look in on Mrs. Leblanc. Maybe sit with her for a bit. "I'd die before I show that old crow any consideration." That was the maid's flat response. The staff had taken sides, and Mrs. Leblanc lost out.
I stopped home for a shower and a change, but an unscheduled collapse delayed me. That wrap on the jaw must've been harder than I figured.
The twilight ride to River Road went by in no time. My thoughts distracted me. Mostly I pictured Mr. Leblanc, discarded like last year's suit. No longer in style. Out of step. Then I reflected on Mr. Jupiter—finding him and taking care of him one way or another.
I reached Jupiter's club after sunset. The hatcheck girl referred me to a floor manager who looked more like a bouncer. He referred me to a set of double doors at the far end of the game room. A little sign in gold above the doorway read, "Private Office." A couple of torpedoes flanked each side of the entry.
"Jupiter's private office?" I asked.
Bruiser number one had a comeback ready: "Whatever you say, brother."
"I'd like to see him."
Bruiser number two chirped, "So would his wife and her attorney."
"Nix that," spat the first bruiser. "He ain't here, brother."
"He'll want to see me."
"As much as you want to see him?" That from number two.
"More," I said.
"Don't matter," shrugged number one, "cause he ain't in."
"You boys ever try this routine on the radio?"
"Why, you want to manage us?"
"I'll tell you boys what. You tell Mr. Jupiter that the PI who was tailing Leblanc is waiting for him at the bar."
"I will if I see him, brother."
"That's Leblanc," I emphasized.
"Say, I think I uncorked a nice Leblanc eighty-eight, once."
"Just tell him." I headed for the bar.
The second one called after me, "Maybe you should send him a cable, maybe."
I pulled up to the bar, wondering if I'd made my point. An empty stool was all the company I wanted and I found it. I ordered a highball. The first sip went down rough, which was fine with me. Jupiter's establishment didn't impress me, or his reputation, and it pleased me that his liquor followed suit. I enjoyed my displeasure for less than ten minutes. The interruption arrived in the form of a thin wheeze.
"So you have ferreted me out." The voice sounded soft and grainy and short on air, like a pump organ without enough juice.
I spun around to view the celebrated Mr. Jupiter. Put him around sixty. And a round man, all together. Dull, blonde hair circled his round head so closely you couldn't make out for sure if he was going bald. The eyes, tiny slits close to his nose, held two, tiny balls that glistened like black pearls. His monkey suit brought out the roundness of his shoulders, chest and gut. His short, round fingers displayed too many rings with too many stones. The capper, which was just right because it fit so wrong, was a short cigarette holder wedged between his tiny, round teeth. No doubt this egg couldn't belong to the real Mrs. Leblanc.
"Far from Rome," I mused.
"Pardon?" Jupiter wheezed.
"Nothing," I replied.
One of the gargoyles from the office hovered a little too close. "No need to crowd, Geoffrey," Jupiter said. "Our friend here might think we're expecting trouble." He bent towards me. "Should we be expecting trouble?"
I was all set to crack wise, but Jupiter kept wheezing and speaking.
"We dismiss all troubles here. My guests leave all their troubles outside when they enter my house. Look at them. Complacent. Content."
"I rather think hopeful. They find hope in my house. One more spin, one more roll. A turn of the right card could change everything."
"You're just a goddamn romantic."
"Why do you mean to bring trouble into my house?" The color in his round face went up one, rosy notch.
"Nothing you haven't brought on yourself."
"You're referring to this man? This Leblanc?"
"Well. I never heard of this Mr. Leblanc." He smiled to me. He turned and smiled at Geoffrey.
"He was an important man to know," I said. "A powerful man. In private banking."
Jupiter let out a thin sigh. "Well, as to that." He worked a gold cigarette lighter from his waistcoat pocket. "What need do I have for a private banker?"
"Even greed has its limits."
"No it doesn't." I felt like pushing just for the sake of pushing. "Not in your case."
Jupiter worked his thumb on the lighter. "Well, in any case, I have never met your Mr. Leblanc. I can't even say I've seen the fellow."
"And one of your best customers, too. Supported you plenty, night after night. That is, after you set him up. I'm sure it was easy for you to find some pretty, and pretty cheap, young thing to take him in."
"I don't associate with cheap!"
"Everything about you is cheap, Jupiter. I've looked around. Cheap and rotten and corrupt."
"You cannot speak to me like that in my own house!" He meant to be threatening, but the buzzing rasp came off like a whining child.
"It must have proved a cinch to pull the badger game on a man like Leblanc. Then a simple matter of blackmail. On the installment plan. That built-in method of laundering the cash—very smooth. I'll hand you that."
"You have no idea what you're saying." Jupiter ran a shaky hand across his short crop of hair.
"Leblanc became one of your best customers. Until he'd had enough. That's when he became troubled, and that turned him into trouble. You can't ignore a man with Mr. Leblanc's influence and connections. So I suppose he had to be removed. Ditched in Hyde Park with a hole blown through the back of his head."
"I repeat—you have no idea," Jupiter's shark eyes glared, "no idea what you are saying. Doesn't sound like anything we'd be involved in. No, wouldn't do for us at all." Jupiter controlled his words through clenched teeth. The red in his round face and neck boiled up another level.
"I find that hard to believe, Mr. Jupiter. Especially when I look around a cheap joint like this."
"Joint? You refer to my house as a joint?"
"I wouldn't be surprised if every dealer is packing. You telling me those aren't heaters in Geoffrey's pockets? No one's hands are that big."
"I must," he said with an extended wheeze, "afford myself some protection. It is de rigueur, after all, in a house like this. It is required and expected."
"Shall I tell you what I think, Mr. Jupiter?"
"You've told me enough!" He meant to go on but couldn't find enough air.
Geoffrey pitched in, "Tell me to take a poke at him."
Jupiter's round head made an abbreviated shake. "Later."
"I'm counting the hours," I smiled at Geoffrey.
"Enough," Jupiter wheezed.
"You're down to two syllables."
"Why what? Why am I here? Why did I want to talk to you? I'm beginning to wonder why my talking should make you look like a Pekingese with a case of the jitters. I could bring up honor and justice and that whole routine, but let's boil it down to this. I'm looking to do right by an old egg who deserved better. And I wanted to say it to your face, accuse you straight up. You and your confidence game killed Leblanc just as sure as if you pulled the trigger—of course you haven't the stomach for that yourself."
"Enough!" His wheezing bellow became a spasm of coughing.
"I've had my say, Jupiter. I'm done for now."
"Mmm, most apropos." Jupiter gulped some air, smiled, and bit hard on the cigarette holder.
Maybe that's not the shrewdest of moves, blowing your top like that when you're in another guy's territory. Especially when the other guy's got more torpedoes than I've got socks. Maybe I was being just hardheaded, but sometimes my line of work calls for it. So, sure, I received an escort, compliments of Mr. Jupiter.
It took three of them to walk me to my car, but only one to lay me out. It could've been worse, but it was bad enough. Two hard jabs to the jaw, the same jaw that was already as purple as a Crown Royal Whiskey bag, followed up by a knee to the stomach and a kick to the ribs. I remember throwing one wild punch that missed by a mile.
As I gasped for air, just before I descended into a black cloud inside my head, I heard a faraway voice: "What's that sickly, breathing sound?" The second bruiser laughed, "Oh, now I know. He sounds like Mr. Jupiter!"
There's not a whole lot of difference between almost blacking out and blacking out all together. Either way it was a while before my brains unscrambled and I could make out someone murmuring to me.
"Mister. Psst! Mister! Are you with me?"
The cloud began to lift and the ache kicked in.
"I say, can you hear me?"
I opened my eyes just enough to see a face nose to nose with mine.
I winced. "I don't know if I can hear so good, but I can smell your breath all right."
"If you're coming round then, I mean to speak to you."
"Yeah, I'm coming round. But I don't get it."
"Right. I'll be off, but you give me fifteen minutes. Meet me in the supply cellar. You know where that is?"
"You tell me."
"Down the right side of the building. Towards the rear. Got that? On the right, towards the back you go, you'll find steps going down to a door. It'll be unlocked, but don't let anyone see you. Just give me fifteen and I'll be waiting for you."
He scrambled to his feet, first crouching and peeking over the fender of my car. He straightened up, glancing left and right.
"Hold on," I said, "Hold on."
He inched backwards while speaking in a loud whisper. "We can't talk now. Shh!"
"I know you," I called.
He hissed as loud as he could while creeping backwards. "You—don't—really!"
"You work the roulette wheel. Leblanc always sat at your table."
"It's—more interesting—than that!"
"So why should I want to talk to you?"
I could barely hear him as he reached the end of the row of cars. "I'm Mrs. Leblanc's friend!"
With that he was gone. Sure, my head felt like a crazy game of pinball was going on inside. My jaw felt like an overinflated tire ready to blow. The whole thing screamed set up, but I figured I was close to the end. Real close. And his last line really was a grabber, wasn't it? I wasn't ready to leave. Not just yet. Not by a long shot.
I lay crumpled in the grass next to the coupe. I swung an arm up and over and caught hold of the passenger door handle. It took a few tries, but I released the catch and opened the door. The tough part was pulling myself up into the car and onto the seat. I thought I'd give the pain down my ribcage a chance to subside—it didn't take it. I popped the glove compartment and pocketed my thirty-eight. It wasn't just the pain I had going for me. I could feel the pain surging into a rich anger.
No one paid any attention as I staggered along the south side of the building to the cellar entrance. Ten jarring steps took me down to a second door. I worked it with my left while my right held fast to the revolver in my jacket pocket. The knob turned easy and the door swung easy. I inched forward onto a landing. Adjusting to the dim light from below, I could make out another set of stairs twelve feet ahead. I closed the door behind me, carefully. I stopped, listened, then walked to the end of the landing. The cool, damp air from the basement hit me as I began my descent. I felt my head start to clear. The low ceiling blocked the view except for the stairs beyond my feet. A faint voice rose from below.
"You can't be serious. I mean, you don't mean to do this. He'll be here any mo. Why me? Why? Why me?"
That was the croupier, the fake Mr. Jupiter. Sure. I held still, waiting to hear his playmate. The reply came like a cool, emotionless purr.
"You bore me, Freddie. You really do. How long did you expect I'd put up with the likes of you?"
I stole down the steps, one at a time. I reached the room at the bottom jammed with crates and cartons and shelves and barrels. I let the voices guide me.
"You look so surprised, Freddie. Really."
The cold laugh led me around to a small clearing. That's where I found the fake Mr. Jupiter, on a folding chair, rigid as a mannequin, the muzzle of a large automatic pressed hard against his temple. Gripping the butt end of the automatic, the first, or rather, the fake Mrs. Leblanc.
Kitten threw me that wicked smile. "You look like crap."
It wasn't much of a reunion, but Kitten felt chatty, and I got to straighten out a few things. I'd figured it mostly right.
Leblanc was merely the latest in a series of marks. Kitten claimed it was almost too easy for Freddie—she called him Freddie Bath—to cultivate Mrs. Leblanc as Jupiter. Mrs. Leblanc, she pointed out, got her husband's affair all wrong. Kitten, of course, was the dame he was seeing, but not until after Mrs. Leblanc and Freddie got together. The strait-laced husband never laid a finger on Kitten, never came close, never even tried. That's something she never understood.
Everyone took the bait on cue, including the mister's acquiescing to the blackmail. Kitten loved throwing in those big, Dale Carnegie words. According to her telling, the real Mr. Jupiter's involvement was limited to the payoff-laundering scheme, a service that cost her twenty percent off the top. What she hadn't figured on was Leblanc growing righteous. And she hadn't figured on Freddie getting cold feet when physical action was called for. That's when she put me on Leblanc's tail, about the time he started cutting back on his payments. Eventually she decided to end their arrangement, in a one-sided sort of way, but she didn't have time to pull me off. It was Kitten, not Freddie, who sapped me down in the parking lot.
Running Leblanc off the road proved easy as pie. That goes for hijacking him to the South Side. Thrusting a forty-four down an old man's throat and squeezing the trigger? Splashing his brains across the car roof? A cakewalk for her kind of woman. That left taking care of a stooge who couldn't pull his weight.
"You've probably known lots of Freddies," I said.
"There's always another Freddie creeping around the next dark corner," she shrugged.
"You're not going to let her do me in, are you? You can't let her!"
"This is her show, Freddie."
"But you can't!"
"I sure can, Freddie. There's nothing in this whole, sweet world anyone can do to save you."
I waited to make my play. She pressed the gun hard into Freddie's temple. Did she suspect I was holding? Maybe she did, maybe she didn't. I waited.
"Say something," she purred to me. "Say something impertinent."
Freddie lost it. His pale lips vibrated. He made this gurgling noise and babbled a rapid-fire string of nonsense. I didn't know what the hell he was trying to say. Kitten increased the pressure on the barrel until Freddie's head pressed against his shoulder.
"I wasn't talking to you, Freddie." She stared at me, that wicked smile showing her teeth. "Go on," she said.
I kept quiet.
"Maybe later," I replied.
"It's later than you think."
With smooth ease she wheeled the automatic in my direction. Freddie nearly collapsed. I waited. As the gun drew about, Kitten squinted her left eye. The forty-four came to rest, pointed at my heart. She smiled again, nearly laughing. I was ready.
"Go on. Say something—"
I made my play and Kitten didn't flinch. I leaned to the side fast, jerked up my pocket, squeezed off two shots. Bang—the first cut her chest open and her whole body recoiled, taking her back one step. Bang—the second blew through her gut as she went down. She collapsed fast and hard. Dead before you could count ten. The wicked smile faded even quicker.
The act of shooting, the deafening echo of the volleys, the sharp smell of spent bullets and burned cloth—it left me stunned, my nerves raw. My hand remained locked on the thirty-eight sticking out the hole in my pocket, trained on a target that was no longer there. Then Freddie caught my eye, cowering with his gaze fixed on something behind me.
The something wheezed: "Why do you bring trouble into my house?"
I meant to turn around but never got the chance. The heavy, padded weight crashed down hard and fast and I went out cold.
Sure, I woke up on Cicero Avenue. Again. Beats me why Cicero. I found the first cup of hot coffee I could, couldn't keep it down, but managed the second cup all right. That's when I came straight round to see you boys.
So, here I am. Plenty worse for wear, but trying to do what's right. See, this is about justice and honor and all the other stuff that fair play's about. That's why I came in. Sure.
I came in because I want to do just one last thing. I want to report a stolen thirty-eight.
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by Stanley Kubrick as a staff photographer for Look Magazine. Copyright in the photograph was donated to the United States by Cowles Communications, Inc. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671586/.