Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Throughout history, the human race has danced before, sometimes during, but never after tragedy unless it is perceived to be minor. An orchestra reportedly played cheerfully on deck as the RMS Titanic slipped below the icy water of the north Atlantic in mid-April 1912; it was their last performance. America in the 1920’s was a roaring party, too amazed by a century born of stunning technology to stress about prohibition. People moved faster than ever before and they flew through the air and cavorted all night long in private clubs called Speakeasies. The Wall Street crash at the end of October 1929 was but a shot in the dark, meant to scare away the bears from a bull market. The music was still playing seven weeks later … you just had to know where to look – or listen. The banks all still had plenty of money … they just didn’t exactly have it in their vaults.
It was two nights before Christmas; or, if you wanna be a putz about it, the night before Christmas Eve. Homicide Detective Winze shoved me toward a chair that had been broken and put together a dozen times. He closed his door. His friends, and some of his enemies, refer to him as Dutch. I call him lots of things behind his back, but always Harvey to his face because, as I often remind him, it was the name of a favorite dog I lost right after I moved to Illinois. Harvey hates me … and the name his mother printed on his birth certificate. I was obviously in his cluttered downtown office, complete with a dried-out Christmas tree lurking in the corner, because he needed something.
“Not all the fish inside Under Your Hat ended up on ice yesterday,” Dutch informed me as he lit a cheap Autokraft Box cigar that smelled like a dog turd and then blew the harsh smoke in my face. “Victor Albert Di Pasqua was in the basement getting more hair tonic when the music started. He missed the Lake Michigan prom by thirty seconds.”
I didn’t know anyone had been killed in the mob-controlled barber shop, I only steal my neighbor’s newspaper on Mondays, but I wasn’t about to say so. Vick Itchy Fingers Di Pasqua was a free-lance hit man for Capone, Moran and a dozen other gangsters. The hair tonic was most likely one-hundred eighty proof gin smuggled in to the Windy City by snow plow from Canada. I’d been to the lousy clip and tire joint only once, three years ago, but didn’t go for getaway driver Ramone Brunetti’s extra wide white-wall shaves around the ears. Everyone knew the place was a front for the rackets. “You found Harvey!” I pretended to be overjoyed and pointed at the stogie in Dutch’s mouth. “Whenever me and the mutt would go for a walk,” I told the captain. “I’d always pick up and wrap his gutter torpedoes in yesterday’s copy of the Chicago Daily. I never did try to smoke them!”
Dutch smiled and placed the foul smelling cigar in an ashtray just before he hit me. Only one leg on the chair broke. One of the cops must be good with glue and screws. I hoped my dentist was. Another cop came in, dusted me off and apologized for the captain’s bad mood. Dutch quickly forgot about the whole altercation … I didn’t.
“Mr. Di Pasqua showed up at Under Your Hat for a business meeting yesterday morning just before nine,” Dutch went on. “Itchy said a bunch of neighborhood brats had rolled together a snowman right next to the barber shop entrance, although no one saw them do it. The snowman was right out of Adam magazine. The frozen Sheik had coal chunks for eyes, was wearing your grandpa’s black silk top hat and had one of your grandma’s dried garden carrots for a nose. Itchy and some of the boys were going back outside and knock the damn thing down when Ramone sent him to the basement for tonic. You can’t have a bunch of kids hanging around a grown-up business; it causes all kinds of problems. Itchy was just coming from the back-room when the funeral music started … bam bam bam. He claims he got a good look at the shooter just before he ducked back down the stairs and crawled into some furnace piping. Seeing all of his pals iced by a Johnny Thompson M1928 must have turned his brain to mush. One of my detectives found him down there hiding an hour after you left.” I started to protest that I hadn’t been anywhere near the dive in, wouldn’t be caught dead there, in fact, but Dutch waved me to silence and his next words stunned me to silence - “Itchy swears on his mother’s grave it was the kid’s snowman that did the killing!”
Since Itchy wasn’t born but hatched under a stone, there were so many things wrong with that sentence I didn’t know where to start … in fact no part of this fairy tale made sense … least of all, why Dutch felt the need to involve me … unless it was to point out the one fact that was as clear as the snout on his pig-like face. In a voice of clear reason, I stated slowly, as though talking to a child;
“If Itchy was hiding in the cellar all this time, who reported the murders?”
“You did,” Dutch’s tone suggested he wanted to hit me again. But then something about the way my mouth gaped pleased. He smiled like he’d just caught me in a whopper of a lie as he opened a notebook. “You told us all yesterday morning that you stopped by Under Your Hat just after nine for a shave and haircut!”
I figured it was a frame-up. I hadn’t talked to Dutch or any cop for over a month. Funny but I couldn’t remember right off where I was yesterday morning. I decided to play along; most frame-ups collapse with their own weight. “So do you have this Snowman locked up? I didn’t know the Chicago PD had a refrigerated cell. What if the suspect melts before you can drag him into court?”
“You know damn well it was snowing heavy when we arrived!” I could almost see the steam pour from Dutch’s ears. “There was no snowman, no tracks, and we had to shovel slush from the street to roll the corner’s gurneys inside!” Dutch leaned across the table and grabbed me by the throat. He had big hands. “If I find out you know something you ain’t saying, I’ll have you sharing a crowbar hotel room with Peter Brandon Boils!”
Dutch didn’t scare me, but spending the night in that particular downtown jail cell did. Pit Bull Boils was a monster handed, psychopathic, eastside, strike-breaking, gorilla, famous for wringing disgruntled union member necks like chickens. He enjoyed his profession and in between dames and jobs sometimes twisted a single head for a donut and a glass of beer.
I decided to come clean. “I don’t know anything about your snowman,” I told Dutch, “and I don’t remember anything about yesterday.” I was being honest.
Dutch probably would have knocked me around some more, but the precinct phones were ringing like a high priced tomato basket on two-for-one night. “I want you back first thing in the morning with your three friends Who, Where and Why,” he told me.
I decided to pay a visit to Linda Dice Clayton. She was still officially Machine Gun McGooganheimer’s five-syllable property, she would be forever, but even though she was still breathtaking, the hardest-moniker-to-pronounce gangster in Chicago had lost most of his interest after she’d become pregnant. I walked through the Grand Terrace Cafe where an entertainer I’d dated for a few months was singing a sexy version of Walk Right In by Cannon's Jug Stompers. Kit Malone had a voice like an angel and unfortunately a memory like a horse-track bookie. She was another story. I walked low in the crowd toward the stairs.
L.D. opened the apartment door above the lounge wearing a see-through French nightgown and an J’ai été en attente pour vous smile that vanished when she saw who was knocking. The still gorgeous former nightclub dancer slapped me hard. I could hear a baby crying in a back bedroom. “Going out for a pack of cigarettes!” she spat the words. “I waited for you to come back until the sun came up!”
I felt like I was losing my mind. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what I did the day before. One thing was certain. I wasn’t in this apartment with her. A night with L.D. was something a person never forgets. My head was swimming as she pulled me inside. I was pacing in front of a steam radiator as she got dressed and took care of her child. I reached in my jacket pocket and pulled out an empty pack of Chesterfields … I like ‘em … and they satisfy. “Got a cigarette?” I begged. She slapped me … again.
I spent the night trying to get back into L.D’s good graces. Early in the morning I got lucky: she didn’t kill me. She shoved me into the hallway with a handshake and a tin-can cup of cold Joe. The baby laughed. A retired garment worker named Judy Wong tended her six-month-old daughter Margene for six dollars a week. L.D. worked in a bank for thirty-five. The smell of Daniel Josier Eau de Parfum lingered in the air as I dragged down the stairs and was overpowered by the harsh smell of muggle smoke drifting toward a high ceiling. I hated being me as I stared at a candle-lit Arcadia mirror on one wall of the Grand Terrace Cafe.
A floor bass and a trumpet player were the only band members who refused to break up with the night. They played and softly sang Blind Blake’s Diddie Wa Diddie in the dark … I walked on over. There's a great big mystery … and it sure is worryin' me … it's Diddie Wa Diddie … it's Diddie Wa Diddie … I wish somebody would tell me what Diddie Wa Diddie means.
A black-as-a-crow musician pointed to a mouse skittering across the dance floor as he thumped an open D string. “Me and Satch we learned our notes in New Orleans and our manners in Atlanta,” he whispered in a voice filled with religion. “We don’t pack it up till the last paying customer leaves. Ain’t that right Pops?”
“What did the rodent pay?” I asked as I watched the mouse vanish into a chewed hole in one of the stage baseboards.
Pops blew a finale note on his trumpet and smiled like thousands of sunrises to come as he picked up a marijuana cigarette burning in an ash-tray beneath a poster for Cab Calloway and dragged deeply. “Attention!” he laughed.
It felt like a dream. I wanted to be sure who I was, where I was and what I was doing. I watched the famous negro musicians load up their gear … and then Frank Jagger went out into the snow covered streets of Chicago looking for … satisfaction.
Nick Dunes, flashed a grin like a broken picket fence, as he stood halfway in the slushy street hawking an early morning edition of the Chicago Times. A half starved dog lingered next to him. The mutt looked like he’d take your arm off for an open can of Strongheart dog-food. “The Snowman strikes again!” Nick called to last minute shoppers jamming the sidewalks. They obviously hoped the cash they begged from the struggling banks would last until Santa’s sled arrived. “Nine Capone associates dead in hotel blaze!”
I tossed the kid a dime and asked for a paper. “What did you do with the last copy?” he scowled as he handed it over. “Use it to start another fire?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told him. The front page of the paper showed Alphonse Capone and some nervous business partners standing outside the Regal Hotel as the structure burned. At least three fire trucks were pictured trying to put out the blaze.
“You bought the first copy when I cut the bundle,” Nick said. “I ain’t sayin’ nothing … but you start messing with the big guy you can buy your newspapers somewhere else!”
“How long ago was I here?” I asked.
“Geeze, you didn’t look drunk … you don’t know!” Nick shook his red hair. “About twenty minutes ago! You climbed in a hack and headed downtown.”
A cab was parked in front of a movie theatre across the street advertising Clara Bow in The Saturday Night Kid on the marquee. I was pretty sure it was the same one. The hacks in Chicago all have their territories just like everyone else. “I thought I just gave you a ride?” the cab driver looked at me like I was the actor from The Man from M.A.R.S.as he started his engine.
“I forgot something,” I told him as I climbed in the back. The seat smelled faintly like Daniel Josier’s expensive perfume.
“Was it your jet-pack,” he asked eyeing me suspiciously. “I drove right back here!”
“Let’s do it all over,” I told him as I handed over a silver dollar. “Lately, I’ve been forgetting things.”
The cab-driver dropped me off at the same police station I’d been to the night before. Not right in front, but a half-block away. The street was crawling with cops, some were lying on the ground. Blood had turned the snow red in many places. More flashing lights were arriving all the time.
Detective Winze was standing next to a half dozen uniformed officers. He was giving a young cop, shivering like a cow in a meat locker, the third degree. “He was covered in snow,” the young officer insisted. “If it was some kind of mask … it was good!”
“And he had a carrot for a nose?” Dutch’s voice was drawing attention but no smiles.
“It was some kind of vegetable … orange.” The kid hung his head.
“How many we got going to the morgue?” Dutch asked two attendants pushing a gurney through the snow.
“About sixteen,” a white-faced ambulance attendant stammered, “and twice that many going to the hospital.”
I tried to walk past without being noticed. Dutch saw me. “At least I know where you was this time,” he said. “we’ll finish after I clean up this mess.” I saw a cop covered with blood talking to some of the police who had just arrived. “There was no weapon,” he argued. “The monster just tore us apart!”
“We got us a Jack Dempsey killer knocking off mobsters and now using his fists on cops!” One of the newly arrived officers complained to the others.
“There was no fists!” The blood smeared cop sounded incredulous, like he couldn’t believe what he was actually about to say, but he said it anyway. “It was a snowman!”
Over the past forty-eight hours, the only time my mind had been entirely clear was when I’d been listening to the jazz musicians in the Grand Terrace Café. Or maybe my brain only appeared clear because theirs had been so foggy. I wanted to know what I’d done yesterday. That blank part of my memory worried me more than an effigy made of snow killing mobsters and cops.
I owed four hundred and nineteen bucks to a high-rolling bookie named John Storm on the west side. I scratched up twenty a week just to stay alive. He had an army of guys working off the interest on their debts by keeping track of other in-too-deep gambling deadbeats. If anybody knew my whereabouts all the time day or night it would be him.
I waited for an hour and a half to get in to see him. A steady line of men and a half-dozen women filed in and then out of his office every three minutes. Most had a look of desperation and an unwavering burn your fingers with matches determination as they try to convince themselves that after this there would be absolutely no more gambling. Most would be pitching pennies in a back alley five minutes from now if they found a dime on the street or made a buck hooking freight monkeys on the docks. “Where was I yesterday?” I asked as I finally got into his office.
Any other mug would have jeered, “you serious, buster?” But nothing fazed this guy, ever. Storm rolled a high back chair over to a large filing cabinet. “What time?” he asked as he pulled out a thick file with my name on it.
“All day,” I told him.
He laughed without humor. “Stay away from the chinks and their Fi-do-nie he advised. “It’s bad for your business … and mine.”
It wasn’t worth it trying to convince him that I didn’t smoke opium in Chinatown. My three minutes were almost up.
“Joseph Callahan’s lab out on Parkland road,” he said. “9:14 AM until 7:36 PM.”
“And the rest of the time?”
“How the hell would I know,” he said. “I ain’t your baby sitter.”
I gave him the last twenty in my wallet. I had two fives left and a handful of ones.
“I might have some work for you,” he said as he dropped the bill in a desk drawer next to what looked like a 357 magnum. I’d bet money the gun was loaded.
“I don’t keep track of dead beats,” I told him.
“I know,” he said. “My brother in law did some work for me occasionally mostly as a driver. My kid sister has cried herself to sleep every night since the cops found his body. I want to know who put him on ice. Bring me a who and how and your account goes clean.”
“You’ve got an army of eyes and ears that cover this whole city,” I said. “Surely someone heard a shot?”
“That’s the problem,’ he wasn’t plugged,” Storm said. “He was found in the center of the Illinois State Highway just north of Kankakee. His truck was upside down in a ditch. He was frozen as solid as a two-hundred pound ice-cube. His eyes were open. Whoever …whatever did this to him … I think it scared him to death!”
It cost me five bucks to rent a car, another five for gas. I was almost broke. No cab driver would venture into this part of Western Illinois. The locals, those that hadn’t moved away, called the wasteland Devil’s Field. Four thousand acres of long dead vegetation and stale seed that refused to grow. The Bureau of Land Management puts out hundreds of fires every year but not one flame fighter would venture into this part of the state even in daylight. The twisted remains of trees turned to charcoal lined both sides of a snow packed road like mourners at a funeral as night loomed. And as darkness fell, so did snowflakes, bigger than a man’s hand.
I’ve only seen lightning during a snowstorm twice, never with such demented intensity. Million volt tridents of electrical mayhem arced directly overhead and turned white blankets of sky black. A crash brought down an ancient burned oak onto the drifted road and I plowed into a ditch. I would have stayed in the half buried car but I could see tiny lights on a hill. It had to be Callahan’s lab, I felt surer of that then I did my own name. The only problem was, no matter what Storm said, I’d never been here before.
The lights seemed less than a mile away, I shivered with every step I took. And it was getting colder, even though the snow stopped falling after I began to walk. The sky had cleared twenty minutes later. It was slow going. The drifts of star reflecting snow came almost to my knees. A frozen river dusted with snow lay almost exactly halfway between my stuck rental car and the Callahan Research Center. I was just starting to cross the wind swept ice when I spotted the footprints. About nine inches across, they looked like they could have been made by a giant bear but without toes. I had a gun in my coat pocket but my fingers were so frozen I didn’t think I could pull a trigger.
I was climbing the far bank when I heard a low thump, thump, thump coming from the direction of my abandoned rental car, growing louder as it approached me. What looked like swaying lamp light appeared from the direction of the lab. A far off voice shouted something. I could make out one word a frantic order to … run! Behind me, the cracking river ice sounded like a flock of sheep being slaughtered. Almost against my will, I turned to look back, and saw what my gibbering mind could only describe as a monster had started across the river – after me! Fear raced through my veins, my legs wanted to race too, but it was impossible to run in the deep snow. Even through my extra thick winter coat, I felt a blast of ice cold breath on my back and neck as I stumbled and turned at the last minute … and then I screamed.
TO BE CONTINUED …