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
The office phone was ringing, but I couldn’t find it. My eyes were still stuck on the singer at Clide’s Oasis, a juice joint in the basement of a candy store across from Hyde Park. Kit Malone had it all, a smile that made you ravishingly hungry and a body hot enough to fry two eggs plus a side of bacon. She was also the property of Machine Gun McGooganheimer. If I’d done more than stare, I’d be feeding trout on the bottom of Lake Michigan instead of waking up on my office floor with a pounding headache.
The handset was under my desk two feet away from the receiver with the cord wrapped around an empty bottle of Golden Wedding Whiskey. I staggered to my feet. Damn! An operator with a voice as sharp as an ice-pick said she rang-through my open-line because it was an emergency.
The emergency turned out to be an accountant I’d grown up with in Montana, a town that had recently changed its name from South Fork to Cloverdale. It’s tough on a kid growing up anywhere … tougher if you’re Jewish. We met when I pulled three Hicks Brothers off him that were trying to take his lunch money. I’d eaten Knish at his long dead mother’s house too many times to remember. Lewis Goldstein was a mathematical genius who knew his apples, peas and onions. He could add, subtract, divide and multiply millions of dollars in his head while auditing a half dozen commodities clients inside a casino while shooting craps … and never drop a dime. Today he sounded like a rabbit with two nickels trying to bribe his way out of a vulture’s nest.
“I’m going to die this morning at exactly eleven forty-eight!” he screamed into the phone.
I figured he must have caught the wrong mobster cooking the books. “That’s bad, Lewis!” I told him. ‘Who would want to take an up-an-up guy like you for a ride?”
“It could be anyone or anything,’ he said. “All I know is the exact time it’s going to happen.”
I looked at my watch; it was eleven thirty. The cab ride downtown took fifteen minutes. “You still counting pork bellies?” J.R. Placer and Associates were the biggest commodities brokers in the Windy City. It was the last place I’d seen him.
“Yes! I’m at my desk. I’ve got eighteen minutes left!” Something reminded me of the worst two years of my life waiting for my number to fall in the filthy trenches during the Great War in France. His voice sounded like a Salmson 2 coming in for a landing with both wings missing.
“Get out of your office and into a public place,” I said. “Water Street is good.” It was Friday; downtown Chicago would be bustling with pedestrian traffic leaving early for lunch. “The more people around the better.”
“I’ll be on the sidewalk!” he promised. “You coming?”
“I’ll be there,’ I said.
I dragged a comb through my hair and kicked the bottle of Golden Wedding Whiskey back under the desk as I slammed my office door shut …the honeymoon was over.
I picked the wrong hack and I’ve hated myself ever since. The driver wouldn’t break the speed limit if you held a gun to his head … and I tried. I was pulling out clumps of his hair as we crossed the Franklin Street Bridge, lucky we didn’t go for a swim. It was eleven forty seven when we pulled up across from the high rise. I jumped from the moving cab when I saw Lewis trying to make himself part of the recently renovated building’s new brick façade. I told the driver to wait; he sped away as soon as my back was turned. I looked both ways crossing the busy street with a thirty-eight held loosely at my side. Some of the cars slowed down, while others hit the gas. If it was going to be a drive-by shooting it hadn’t happened yet, and now that I was here, it wasn’t going to be an easy one.
There must have been hundreds of people moving in both directions on the sidewalk. I was looking at hands and faces. You can’t always tell who’s a killer, but a mob torpedo is usually the guy least likely to draw attention and he’s always calm … too calm.
I was less than ten yards away from Lewis when the upper part of his body suddenly exploded in a white blast. A split second later, an eight-foot long two-by-twelve wooden plank knocked the brief-case out of a man’s hand before it bounced off the cement and slapped an overweight woman square in the fanny. The dented two-gallon metal can that had struck Lewis in the head dripped white paint in a wiggly line as it rolled across the sidewalk. I looked up. Two men dangled from a broken scaffold five stories up. The four-foot high letters they were painting on the J.R. Placer sign now had a long smear on the first R.
I tried to wipe the paint from Lewis’s eyes before he opened them for the last time. “Beshert,” he whispered as he took his last breath. I looked at my watch as two cops appeared and pushed me to the side. It was exactly eleven forty-eight. Lewis’s numbers were always right on the money.
I hung around talking to the cops and especially the sign painters after they were rescued by a fire-truck ladder. A bolt holding a pulley to the building had rusted through, causing one end of the hanging scaffold to fall. The bolt was an inch thick. If it was murder, the people responsible were years in preparation and incredibly lucky. Still, Lewis knew he was going to die and the exact minute that it was going to happen. I no longer had a client but a dead friend. I couldn’t afford to lose either one. I’d remembered standing up for him in grade school. The only way he could pay me back was by doing my math homework and inviting me for meals at his mother’s house.
“Was he a friend of yours?” “Dutch” Winze smirked as two ambulance attendants hovered over Lewis’s body.
“He still is and always will be,” I told the fat city detective.
“Friends of yours have a way of turning up dead.” There was now a smile on Dutch’s face.
“It’s a good thing we’re not pals,” I told him. “You would positively be next.”
“Your license is up for renewal next month,” Dutch grinned. “The mayor raised it fifty bucks. It would be a shame to have to shut you down.”
The one thing Harvey Winze hated more than anything else in the world was competition. He was ready and willing to hang out in the police station, eat donuts and let Al Capone or the other mobsters who ran the city call all the shots. I was the fly in his illegal beer that wouldn’t stop buzzing.
“Someday people are going to have had enough of your so called police work and take this corrupt city government down,” I warned him.
“I like to keep my finger on everything and no one is untouchable,” he laughed.
They lifted Lewis onto a gurney and the white paint left an outline of his body on the cement. “Too bad all crime scenes aren’t this well-defined,” a young reporter named Oscar Fraley marveled as he helped carry the stretcher toward an ambulance.
Lewis’s death had to be an accident, but I was intrigued as to how he’d known the exact time it was going to happen. I talked to the attractive secretary in his office, Gladys Monroe. Lewis had introduced me to her once. Her face went as white as the sidewalk paint when I told her the news and she dropped the newspaper she was reading. “Lewis didn’t have any enemies,” she sobbed. “Numbers were his whole life.”
She put her head in her hands and real tears fell on yesterday’s Chicago Times October 28th headline … STOCKS PLUMMET!
“We were going to a restaurant on Friday and to see a film The Broadway Melody.” Gladys’ eyes looked reflective. “Lewis didn’t care for musicals but he knew I did. I always dreamed of going back to Los Angeles to work in the film industry. Lewis was the only reason I moved here … so my daughter could be close to her father.”
“Lewis called me this morning and predicted his own death,” I told her. “Any idea where that came from?”
“He seemed distracted as of late,” Gladys said. “It wasn’t just the ups and down of the stock market. Lewis was convinced that numbers were the keys to everything in the universe. He was spending way too much time with that Soarta group two floors up.”
“Soarta?” I’d never heard the word before.
“They are a group of mathematicians from Asia doing some kind of research with some kind of new electrical equipment,” she said. “The elevators are crowded all the time with job seekers going up to that floor. I hear they pay people to fill out pages and pages of forms: eye color, shoe size, everything about themselves.”
Gladys pushed aside the Chicago Times and I noticed a pamphlet on negative film cutting careers lying under it.
“I remember Lewis saying you both grew up in Montana,” Gladys said. “The head of Soarta happens to be an American from your home town of Cloverdale … John Callahan, I believe Lewis said his name was.”
We talked a little more and then I left. It was depressing, Gladys Monroe had a three year-old daughter named Norma Jeane to care for. Now she was alone in a tough town.
It sounded like John Callahan and Soarta Incorporated were in the business of gathering information … I intended to gather a little of my own.
The security on the twelfth floor of the J.R. Placer Building was incredible. A long line of bohunks waited for the easy cash. I decided to wait too. I got to the front of the line twenty minutes later and was handed a printed form seventy pages together with three sharpened pencils. I was promised a clam when I finished. I was ashamed to admit that I could use the dough. My new job was to fill in a circle next to the closest correct answer to endless numerical questions such as height, weight, date of birth, finger-length everything about me. I was about halfway through the form when I saw what was apparently a white-haired Mr. Callahan stroll through the busy room and open a door at the back. It was like seeing a dead man come back to life. The guy was already skeletal and creepy when I was a boy. The stories they told about him couldn’t possibly be true. I caught the faint electrical hum of what sounded like thousands of vacuum tubes as the heavy steel door closed behind him. If it was a radio in there, they could pick up stations from Mars.
I took my time on the questions. They wanted to know the shape of the house I grew up in. I filled in the circle numbered seventeen next to uneven rectangle. A fat man brushed past me pushing a cart loaded down with obituary notices from newspapers across the U.S. He unloaded the paperwork onto a long table filled with women trying desperately to wear out the number two pencils in their hands. I wondered how the dead people got paid the buck for their information.
When I finished, I edged closer to the door John Callahan had disappeared into, determined to get a better look inside. Two bearded goons each at least seven-foot tall gave me the bum’s rush before I could reach the door knob. They slammed me onto the outside hallway floor with excessive force. One of the men dropped a crumpled dollar bill onto my chest. “Thanks for taking our survey,” he growled. I couldn’t help staring. Both the men had the same yellow canine-eyes you see on a timber wolf.
I limped over to Clancy’s the only speakeasy in town that let me run a tab. Last year, I’d tracked down Clancy’s kid sister after she’d run away from the family farm. She was working topless in a gin joint with a mob manager. I think I found her before she started earning her money between-the-sheets. A cop friend of mine arrested her for dancing without a license and I helped her father pay the seven-dollar fine. I don’t know if she’s still shucking corn in Wallace Bend, Iowa, but I hope so. Chicago is no place for a thirteen year-old.
Clancy and a half-dozen others were clustered around the radio when I walked down the stairs into the basement and asked for a beer. “Get it yourself,” Clancy said without even looking up. Something big was going on with the stock market. Wall Street had been setting fire to stock certificates all day and now it was a raging inferno. The excitement and panic in the news broadcaster’s voice was better than listening to Amos ‘n Andy. I filled the first mug and chugged it while no one was looking, then filled another. I don’t lie, cheat and steal from friends often, but I will if I have to.
A man wearing a grey Allerton suit and a Knap-felt hat stood up, removed the hat from his bald head and stomped it flat on the tobacco stained floor. “I’m cleaned out!” he yelled. He pushed his way out the door trading blows with two pals who tried to stop him. Seconds later we all heard screeching tires and the thud of a body dancing with a half-ton of metal coming from the street above. “Jim’s wife Dora is still gonna think he got off easy,” one of his friends said.
“How much did you lose?” Clancy finally noticed I was there. I looked around; at least a dozen pain filled faces were staring at me. If I said nothing, they’d probably ice me on the spot. “Everything,’ I said. “Every damn last dime!”
Twenty minutes later a man dressed to the gills in Italian wool and wearing a diamond watchband that was probably worth more than the State of Kentucky asked for Jamaican Rum and a Cuban Cigar. Clancy fetched the illegal booze and the expensive stogie from a locked cabinet after the guy slapped a stack of C-notes on the bar. The cigar was only half smoked when the man pulled a silver plated revolver from his coat pocket and stuck the barrel to his temple. He then softly crooned four lines from Ethel Water’s popular song Am I Blue … he had a fine voice.
It was a morning, long before dawn
Without a warning I found he was gone
How could he do it, why should he do it
He never done it before
Then he pulled the trigger. Bone fragments and blood coated half the people in the basement. I was untouched except for the gunpowder smoke that burned my eyes. I never mix the blues and booze … no matter how low I get.
I spent the rest of the day and half the night getting sloshed. Clancy didn’t even bother writing down my drinks. We all figured the way things were going, Chicago would be burned to the ground by morning.
At three AM Clancy pushed everyone out. The gutters along Michigan Avenue were littered with stock certificates now worth less than toilet paper. I heard a man’s hysterical laughter descending from the sky as I passed the Union Carbide building. The guy splattered like an egg when he hit the pavement.
It was too early to go to sleep and my office was too depressing. I decided to walk past the Placer Building. I had no place to go and I wanted a closer look inside John Callahan’s radio tube room.
This time the hallway outside the suite was empty. Security must have all gone home to tear up their own stock certificates. The lock on the door was a McMasters, impossible for all but the best can-openers to pick. It took me just five minutes with a bobby pin from Kit Malone’s hair that I’d picked up off the Oasis dance floor for luck.
The spacious room was dark with only starlight coming from an un-curtained window. Stacks of surveys lined the walls and filled the tables. I could see pulsing light coming from under the door that John Callahan had entered earlier. I counted to fifty twice before I took a deep breath and reached for the knob.
Flickering colored light came from one end of the cavernous room.
My first thought on entering was that I’d walked onto the set of the German Film Metropolis. Thousands of blinking vacuum tubes lined rows of shelves like a futuristic library where people read reflected light images instead of books. They were all hissing like snakes.
“I’ve been expecting you!”
I whirled around. John Callahan was even more of a monster up-close and in-person. White flesh hung from his boney face and arms like a roast that’s been slow cooked for a week. His filthy white coat and pants were in tatters. Parts of his stomach were transparent and I could see pea soup moving through his intestines.
“Sorry, I was looking for a bathroom. I must have opened the wrong door,” I stammered. I wasn’t totally lying. I could feel a warm tinkle running down my leg.
Callahan laughed … a sound that could terrify Lon Chaney. “I think we both know why you’re here,” he said. “You’re in luck, Mr. Jagger. We have your survey results and I’m sure you’d like to know the exact date and time that you’re going to leave this dreadful world.”
“No thanks, I want it to be a surprise!”
I turned and started to run. Four huge arms grabbed me before my feet could contact the floor. The security people who’d thrown me out before, lifted me once more into the air. They didn’t drag me into the hallway this time, but deeper into Callahan’s electrical labyrinth. John Callahan continued talking as he followed. “Your demise is going to happen much sooner than you think Mister Jagger … much … much … sooner!”
Those same wolf-like eyes were staring at me once more from at least a foot above my head.
This time they looked hungry.
To be continued …