Thursday, July 11, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Two

My eyes went back to the photos as I walked back into my office. I sat down and picked both up. They didn't look as if they'd been taken recently. These were photographs from the collection of Vivian Vanderhoff. I stared at the book. The leather was cracked and in some places completely gone. The pages looked to all be there, but many looked loose and jammed in with the others. All in all I thought the book looked thousands of years old.

"Yet still intact," I marveled aloud. Vivian had all but called it a family heirloom, and it looked like one. No street value to it at all.

The claw? Well, that just looked like rich person's hoakum; the kind of old relic that people who can afford it buy just so they can say they own it. And yet Vivian had acted as if she absolutely had to have both. And why would a lowlife con man like Arnie Probst become obsessed with items that could in no way make him rich? I'd delt with grifters like him. All they cared about was how much they could take people for. Some just took passers-by for a few berries at a time. Others were like Arnie; they'd pull off any con they thought they could get away with, and Arnie had gone for the biggest. He'd married his mark. He must have been a pretty smooth talker to convince someone like Vivian Vanderhoff to let him put a ring on her.

I looked back at the book. The Codex Rusembrae. I had no idea what the title meant. Sounded vaguely Latin to me. I knew about as much about Latin as I did how to make a fine Martini. Which was a shame because if I knew how to make a fine Martini, I wouldn't need to frequent gin joints so much. It was a bit easier now that we didn't need to use drums anymore.

What this book was, and why it was so important to Vivian Vanderhoff...something about it got my hackles up. When people act like Miss Vanderhoff was acting, it's usually a bad sign. Drugs, illegal rum-running, money laundering, or guns. Sometimes even people. Young girls and boys from other lands, or the country, picked up off the street and whisked away to be sold as property. I'd dealt with all that sick sort of stuff before, and this didn't feel the same, but it didn't feel right.

That was the reason I'd really taken this case. I didn't believe Vivian Vanderhoff really needed these items, nor did I feel they were even slightly as important as Betty Parkins. But Vivian really wanted this book, and the Claw. Something like this book, worthless, and belonging to a person who likely had several other heirlooms and wouldn't miss just one, usually isn't something a dame like her hires a private dick to track down.

But the truth was, even more pressing matters were still weighing on me. I still had a missing girl to find, and while doing so I had to try and keep my mind off last night's events. I straightened my tie, took my deck and Fedora off the desk, and headed out.

"I'll be back after lunch, Glenda," I said over my shoulder as I pulled my flogger off the rack. 

"I'll be holding my breath until then," she said with a sardonic twist on her pert little lips.

"That's my girl," I said, with the same twist. Quite the peach, was Glenda.

My first stop was the newsstand on Fiftieth. Sandy Bernscott knows everything that's happening in his neck of town. Every day I stop by his stand for a paper and the latest rumble.

"Hey, bo," I said, stopping and scanning his rack.

"Zeddicker, you old so and so," he said with a grin. "What brings your ugly mug down here today? New case?"

"New twist," I said. "Old case."

"Aw, don't tell me that little girl is still missin'," he said, his face falling.

"Still. And the case is getting colder, not warmer."

"That's not the usual for you at all," said Sandy, grabbing me a paper. I slipped him a Lincoln along with the fifty cents. "What went down?" he asked.

"Trail seemed to get hot last night," I said. "I'd arranged a meet with Three-Fingers, but he blew it off. Sent a chopper crew instead. They thought they'd drop me, but something grabbed 'em." I'd never used so accurate a phrase in my life. "I have a feeling that he'll have gone to ground after that, but I need to know where he's holding up."

"You think a guy like Three-Fingers is advertising where he is if he don't want to be found?" Sandy shook his head. "I'm afraid I've got nothin' for you on that score, Zed. But, hey, I think some of his boys are still hangin' around. Last I heard ol' Cicci was down at the Eat 'n Bounce last night, chattin' up waitresses and shootin' dirty looks at everybody."

Cicci was known. He wasn't one of the goons I saw taken apart the night before. It sounded like Sandy either knew nothing of what had happened, or didn't want to talk about it, and for that I was grateful, but not surprised. As far as I knew, I was the sole living witness to that display, but by now someone had to have come across the remains. I got deep enough into gangland, and someone would know about it.

"You wouldn't happen to know where Cicci is now, would you?" I asked. The old vendor shook his balding head.

"The Eat 'n Bounce was the last I heard of him for sure, but I do know he's still runnin' play. If he suddenly wasn't where he was expected, I'd know."

"Thanks for that much," I said. I meant it; most people turn their heads away the minute a known mobster walks by. Sandy was one of the few who kept his ear to the ground at least as good as I do. I now knew that while Three-Fingers was hoping four hatchet men would be enough to blip me off, one of his lieutenants was making enough of a show in the Eat 'n Bounce to make its way back to Sandy. I also had a place to start looking for him.

"It ain't much, Zed," said the old vendor. "I'm sorry. Things are gettin' quiet 'round here. People who like to talk suddenly shuttin' their yaps."

"I have a feeling something big is going down," I told him. "It's not your fault, Sandy. But keep your ears open."

"Always do, friend," he said, a sad smile on his face. I turned to go, but another thought struck me.

"Sandy," I began. "Ever hear of a fellow by the name Probst? Arnie Probst. He's a small-time fakealoo artist."

Sandy cocked his head in thought. "Arnie," he said. "I know of an Arnie. Yeah, some fellas from Racks have talked about him. Likes to bump gums and fleece the ladies and a few palookas. What you wanna know about him?"

"Any idea how to spot him?"

"You gunnin' for him? Did he have anything to do with the girl?"

"No," I said. "This is a side case. Nothing big, but he might have something that belongs to someone else."

"Might?" grinned Sandy. "What I know about him, I'd say he definitely does. He's harmless for the most part, though, if you watch your valuables and don't get taken by his graft job."

"Sandy," I said. "How do I spot him?"

Sandy paused and licked his lips. It occurred to me that Sandy might have fenced some of the stuff Arnie had conned off people in the past. I knew not everything Sandy did was above board; hell, most of the people I had watching the streets for me weren't entirely innocent. Made little difference to me; I'm not a cop, nor have I always been within the law.

"I'm not worried about anything else he might have taken," I said. "Just working a smaller case that might involve him. Whatever you know..."

"Oh, well," said Sandy, clearly more relaxed. "Like I said, he's just a con man. Not even a serious one. But if you're lookin' for him, well..." He paused again. "Go to Racks tonight. Look for a small guy with a long nose, thin mustache and a gold ring. The ring's got three tiny rubies inset. That's your man. That's Probst."

"Thanks again," I said. I slipped him another five-spot. "I'll be back tomorrow. Keep those reliable old ears open."

"Always do," he said again, more serious this time.

My first priority of the day was finding Cicci. If my guess was right, he probably had a girl with him in the Eat 'n Bounce. He wasn't the type to go out alone. If he wasn't with his boys, he'd have some doll with him. Probably some chippy he laid down a C for. I'd stop in for a cup of Joe and ask around.

The Eat 'n Bounce was a mid-sized diner on the south of town. It catered to workers and people in Cicci's line of work. It wasn't the type of place I frequented, but plenty of gangsters did, and I was sure that at almost any hour of the day I'd fine either a member of Three-Fingers' or one of his rivals' crew having a bite. If I didn't, the owner might talk if I flashed him enough folding green.

Turned out the owner wasn't there. Pouring cups was a pretty little twist who looked barely out of her teens. There were only three other patrons aside from me. Lunch rush hadn't hit. A slight man with glasses and pens in his breast pocket sat to my left. He had the look of an accountant, which meant he probably did books for one of the city's players. If he was any kind of accountant, he wouldn't be dining on the south side. On the far end of the bar was a grubby-looking man in coveralls. Worker.

On the farthest end of the room, in a booth by himself, facing away from me, was the man I decided I would be talking to before I left. He was dressed somewhat nicely. Not extravagant but he was the only one here wearing a suit. A nice pork-pie sat on the table across from him. I didn't know who he worked for, but he worked for somebody. You learn to look for signs with people. Here was a man out in the middle of the day with a fairly nice suit and hat. He could have been a lawyer or businessman, but they don't tend to dine in the industrial or poorer parts of town, where this guy was. Also their posture is better. This guy looked like he might have money, but acted like a man who didn't.

"Just a coffee," I said. "Black, please." The girl poured my cup as I watched the Suit's back. He seemed hunched in his booth, trying to seem beneath notice. Which means he was drawing my notice straight to him.

"You wouldn't have been on duty last night, would you?" I asked the waitress after she had finished pouring. I put a flirty grin. I figure she was more likely to answer honestly if she thought my interest was in her.

"Naw," she said with a grin of her own. "Shelly was. I took over for her around five."

I smiled again and took a sip of my coffee. "Not much goin' on right now," I said casually. "It usually this dead in here?"

"Oh, not really," she said. She was turning a little pink. The lines I was using could lead to a "what time are you off" question and it seemed like this girlie wouldn't have minded if I had asked her that. This worked for me, because she wouldn't be scared or suspicious of my questions, and would make her more likely to answer honestly. "This time of day, it usually is. I hear there was some excitement last night, though."

"Oh, yeah?" I smiled. We were getting somewhere now, and I'd barely started talking to her. I kept Suit in my peripheral as she talked. "What sort of action?"

"Shelly told me there was a hatchet man in here," she said. "Had a little tomato on his arm. She was this busty blonde thing and one of the other guys at the bar tried chatting her up. Next thing Shelly knew, the guy's got a muzzle in his face and the gangster tells him to blow."

"Really?" I said. This girl liked to talk. The number of local blonde ladies of the evening wasn't small, but it was a good lead. Maybe I could enhance it with whatever I could get out of Suit when I was done here. "Sorry I missed that."

"Yeah," she said. "Me too. I just get the hangovers and coffee breaks."

"Which would you say I am?" I teased.

"Well, you ain't hung over," she laughed. "So what do you do?"

"Security," I replied. Our conversation was over. "You've been a doll."

Her face fell somewhat. Dames, am I right? Anyway, I had bigger fish to fry. Suit was done his meal and digging in his breast pocket. I made ready, but he was just dealing out some loose bills for a tip. I stood and walked over to his booth, sitting down as if I knew him.

"Heya, bo," I greeted. "Nice day."

"Whaddaya want?" grunted Suit. I knew I was right about him now. A lawyer, businessman salesman would have asked something more like "who are you?" or "what can I do you for?" This guy knew I was after something, and didn't bother hiding it. Also he did have a gun under his jacket. Wallets didn't bulge like that.

"Cicci was in here last night," I began. Might as well be direct. "You know where he is now?"

The hood's eyes narrowed. "Who?" he asked.

"Don't play that game with me," I growled. "You know Cicci. Everybody knows him. He was in here with some ankle, and that means he probably went to a flophouse afterward. Any of this sounding familiar?"

"Listen, pally," muttered Suit. "I don't talk to cops. And I don't know anything about Cicci. I don't run with him."

"Yeah?" I put my hand close to his wrist. He tried anything, I could grab him before he got too far. He noticed this, and sweat broke out on his forehead. "Who do you run with?"

"I told you, I don't talk to cops," he squirmed a bit, trying to see if he could get his gun hand to his holster before I grabbed him.

"I'm no cop," I said. "Just an interested party. Listen, word is that most of you are making yourselves scarce."

"There's always a few of us around," he said, trying to bring an edge to his voice.

"Really? Well, unless I miss my guess, there's not a lot of incentive in it for you. Something happened last night, didn't it?"

The punk was really sweating now. "I don't know nothin' about that," he muttered.

"About what?" I asked. "Something did happen, didn't it?"

"Leave me alone," he growled. "I didn't have nothin' to do with that."

"Do with what?" I asked again. "Listen, boyo, I don't know or care who you are. What I do care about is where Three-Finger is holing himself, and I need someone who'll talk. This ain't about your cheap stuff. I know something happened last night and by now, it's probably the talk of gangland. It's got the big boys scared, and what scares them scares me."

"What's it to you, anyway?" he asked. "If you ain't a cop, who do you work for?"

"I work for me," I said. "And I gotta know where Frankie Three-Fingers is, or who can tell me where he is."

"Three-Fingers ain't in town no more," said Suit quickly. "He left Cicci running things but nobody seen him after last night."

"So you do run with him," I said. The punk's eyes widened.

"I ain't nobody," he said. "But what you said about something happening? Well, I don't know what happened, but the big boys all cleared out of here by midnight. Cicci acted like he weren't worried. I don't know where he is now."

"Maybe you don't," I said. "But you know where he was supposed to be. That's why you're suddenly squealing. You know something ain't right."

"Nothin's right," said the hood quickly. "Ain't been for a while now. People are disappearing. It's downright spooky. I mean, people always disappear this end of town. But there's usually a reason for it. There ain't no reason for this."

"You were supposed to meet Cicci here, weren't you?" I asked. The hood barely nodded. "And then?"

"Then we were supposed to go to the Chilton," he said. That was a hotel in the heart of gangland. "That was supposed to be where he worked from until Three-Fingers came back."

"But he wasn't here, and he wasn't there, either, was he?" Suit's nod was barely perceptible this time.

"How long's this been going on?" I asked. Suit was genuinely afraid, and not of me.

"Too damn long," he answered. "I don't know for sure. But guys..." He paused and licked his lips. "Guys been disappearin' from locked rooms, from cars that were bein' watched. I...I don't go out at night no more."

"What's your name, friend?" I asked.

"I ain't your friend, and you don't need my name," said Suit. "Just...listen, if you're involved in this, get outta town. That's where I'm gonna go. It ain't safe here no more."

"Hey," I did grab his arm now. "How does no one else know about this?"

"Let go of me," he said with a snarl in his voice.

"I will," I said. "Just tell me. How did this not get out?"

"Because it doesn't happen!" he squeaked. "It ain't...natural. How can stuff that doesn't happen...happen? What do you say about stuff like that? Who'd believe you?"

"You've seen something, haven't you?" I whispered.

"No," he replied flatly. "I never saw nothin'. Now let me go."

I let him go. He immediately rose, put his hat on, and departed. I stared after him.

Something had been going on in the underworld for some time, and this was only just now reaching me. The major players were getting scared, and this middle-man was clearly terrified. I had to find Cicci and I had to find him now.