Death Stalks the Runway: Ray Irish Mystery Case File #1
Chapter 1: A Reluctant Lady
A rainy mist deadened the tapping sound of footsteps in an alley between Charles Street and Dock Avenue. The tall, slender woman glanced back into the dark. Her black beret flicked droplets into her face, and she wiped her eyes. The dim form of someone still followed.
It wasn’t her imagination!
Anxiety filled her, and she picked up the pace. Coming out of the alley, she turned the corner and followed the sidewalk along Dock Street. The weak, yellow lights coming from antique street lamps revealed a nearly deserted street. Dark windows lined both sides of the path. She kept up the tempo, along with her worry.
I shouldn’t have taken the job.
Gerald Swan was such a louse. Putting her out there like some floozy for his buyers. She glanced back, and the person was still following her. He was thin. She was relieved. It wasn’t Butch. He’d want his take. The woman noticed the neon light flashing, Vinnies, and she hurried across the street. When she looked back, the person following her stopped momentarily between two cars. She let out a sigh of relief. Just one street to cross, and she would be out of danger. The woman reached the curb and heard the roar of an engine. A large, dark car screeched to a stop in front of her. As she turned away, a large man wearing a mask jumped from the back seat. He grabbed her arm with a gloved hand and turned her back toward him.
“You were warned!” His ominous tone was loud and clear.
“No…” she yelled when she saw his other hand suddenly lift and splashed something on her face. The liquid struck the side of her face, immediately sending waves of pain through her jaw and neck. She screamed in terror and agony as the acid burned through her skin. While the woman fell to her knees, the man let go of her arm. He threw the glass he held on the sidewalk where it shattered.
“Tell your friends what happened!” he told the screaming woman as she crawled to the sidewalk curb. He slid back into the car while his sobbing victim scooped the dirty water in her hands, splashing it on her face and shoulders. The woman’s pitiful cries brought out a few of the customers inside the diner. A waitress hurried over to help. Comforting the sobbing woman, she helped the victim to her feet. When she saw the blue-white, mutilated skin peeling away from the victim’s lower face, the waitress frantically screamed for someone to call for an ambulance.
“Something bothering you?”
Tucker Gaylord looked at his friend across the table, then shoved his cigar back in his mouth. He started puffing on it, sending out smoke like a freight train.
“No, but I suspect we’ll soon have a visitor,” Ray Irish replied, as he took another sip of whiskey. He was watching Bucky Lumley, who fidgeted on a stool at the hotel bar. The slim man kept casting glances at Ray’s table. Bucky’s red hair, along with the large camera he always carried, stood out in the nearly empty room. It was after lunch, and the crowd had already thinned out. Ray decided to ignore the photographer for the moment.
“Must be getting some liquid courage,” Tucker observed through the smoke around his head. “I’m glad I have a detective to keep a watch. I still say you need to come to New York. There’s a lot of business for a hard-head like you.”
Tucker and Ray went back a few years. During the war, they met inside a brothel in Darwin, Australia. The two men woke inside the US Navy brig the next morning. The Aussies didn’t approve of the two Seabees wrecking a brothel in a drunken rage. In Ray’s defense, after several months in the jungle, he didn’t appreciate a whore trying to lift his wallet. Tucker just wanted to break something that night. The two men kept in contact after the war ended.
Ray frowned when he observed Bucky finally screw up enough courage to come his way. While the kid was one of the best photographers in the city, he also had a bad habit of stepping into messes. They were the messes that involved Irish solving them, and usually on the cheap.
“Hey, Ray, I wanted to tell you about this gal I’ve been doing photoshoots with. She is really something,” Bucky exclaimed as he plopped down at the table. He placed his large camera down, moving some glasses in the way. “You can take these expensive New York models and throw them all together. None of them could touch her.”
Irish cast a bemused sidelong look at the intruder, who had a nose that looked like a ski sloop from the side. He also had a straightforward manner that almost always got a grin out of Ray.
“Take it easy, Bucky.” Ray winked at Tucker, who sat with a mildly annoyed look across the table. “You’ll blow a fuse.”
“Aw, come on. What I have is on the level. You have to see this girl. We could partner up as agents. She’ll make us a fortune,” the man insisted.
“Bucky, you know I’m just a dumb shamus. Now quit pitching this to me. Everyone at this table knows you came over to talk to my drinking partner. Now introduce yourself and make it quick.”
Ray’s friend grinned as he turned to Tucker and quickly introduced himself.
“Sorry, Mr. Gaylord, it was the only way I could think of to introduce Louise to you. I recognized you from the fashion shows along Dock Avenue. Mr. Swan told me you have an agency in New York.” A red splotch climbed up his pinched cheeks. “I don’t think you’ve seen the model I’m talking about, Louise Brooks. Otherwise, you would have her signed up. I’ve been doing photography for years, and I’m telling you that this tomato is super. She’s like a porcelain goddess that you can touch. She has that look where all you want to do is sit and watch her, like a statue at the Met. I know it sounds fantastic, but I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles, it’s the truth.”
Tucker glanced over at Irish, who rolled his eyes.
“That’s quite a pitch,” Tucker said as he glanced at his watch. “If Irish says you’re alright, I guess I can take a few minutes to look her over. I suppose that’s why I’ve come down this way since the first of the year. Ray told me once that there were pretty women here.”
“No, I told you I had good whiskey in this damn town,” Irish interceded. “It’s you who has the eye for the models. Well, that and wives. What is it now, four of them? It’s a wonder they’ve never taken your agency away in alimony.”
Gaylord gave him a glare. “That’s because I know how to treat women,” he growled as he clamped down on his cigar. He turned to the photographer. “Bucky, is it? I can always use new talent,” he continued. “Long and lean is in demand. That’s how I like them. As long as they’re pretty, I can groom them and put them in the right places. It takes something special to become models, especially in New York. Cutthroat competition means thousands are looking for a way to the top. Have you signed her to a contract?”
“Well, I’m trying.” Bucky’s enthusiasm suddenly fell. “She’s got a kind of manager. He tells me she’s not interested. I don’t get why she’s reluctant. Ray mentioned he knew you, so I told her I knew you personally. You know, kind of building myself up.” He hesitated. “I mean, I’m trying to get into the game. Anyway, when I mentioned you were in Oyster City the last few months and talking with the small shops about talent, she seemed interested. I guess she’s just afraid of success.”
Tucker’s eyes widened at the suggestion. “I see,” said Tucker slowly. “Perhaps she already belongs to an agency? What’s her name again?”
“Louise Brooks,” he replied. “She only works around here. I’ve done some layouts with her. She has an outstanding personality and looks for pictures. Shop owners clam up when I talk about representing her. I’m pretty sure she’ll sign on when she meets you.” The photographer thoughtfully drummed his fingers on his camera.
“If this were New York, I’d say she’s mixed up with the Association.” Gaylord inhaled more of his fragrant cancer smoke, and Ray’s head lifted at the statement.
“Not the best choice of words, I’m afraid, but appropriate. I’ve had friends run into them. It’s the underworld types who work that way. They control some of the female models that are just getting started,” he explained. “Gangsters use model agencies as a front for their racket. They take big hunks out of the model’s pay. Then, they provide their type of insurance to the small dress and fashion companies. You know what I mean by insurance! But I’ve never heard of such activity here.”
“Are you telling me racketeers control modeling and the tailors? I find it hard to believe,” Ray admitted.
“Then you’re going to be surprised,” his friend teased. “The small dressmakers and ready-to-wear clothing houses can only afford to hire a few models at a time. That’s why they’re ripe for this type of extortion. The guys in the racket will go to one of these businesses and force the owner to hire their models for an upcoming exhibition. If the owner squawks, then they get roughed up. The same thing goes for their shop. If the owner refuses to pay for insurance, then puff. The place goes up in flames.”
“What about the girls?” Bucky asked. “They could just refuse to work for these guys.”
“You are a babe in the woods,” he said. “Any women who tried to work independently as models will get beat up or worse. The guy makes a percentage of the women under their control, just like they’re prostitutes. The model finds it easier just to go along. They’re hoping they can escape to a reputable agency.”
“It sounds like something that Guy Young might have run when he controlled the rackets here. But he’s dead and buried.” Irish looked at his hand. His missing finger came from Young’s downfall.
“Perhaps someone is pushing into this city.” Gaylord blew his cigar smoke into a ring. “This place has plenty of small shops of tailors and dressmakers. Plus, you got rid of Young; it might have given someone ideas. Money brings in people with ambition.”
“Nobody’s taken over,” Irish told him.
Tucker shrugged with a grin as he looked over at Bucky. “Well, Ray would know better than me.” Tucker winked. “Don’t forget to give me a call about this model,” he told Bucky as he held up his empty glass. “Come on, Ray; finish your drink so I can get back to my hotel. I’ve got phone calls to make and people to see. While the whiskey is good, I’ve got other things to do.”
After dropping Tucker off, Ray drove along Peach Street, paying no attention to the gorgeous day outside. His mind remained on their conversation. Despite the outward dismissal, Ray wondered if his friend was correct. A bad guy with another racket pushing into the city was not rare. Oyster City had enough murder and mayhem to make Chicago look like a paradise at times. Jacobi’s gang moved into Annapolis recently. Perhaps that gang moved further south. As he turned his gray Nash Lafayette into a parking spot, Irish decided it wasn’t worth worrying about for the moment. He had enough problems trying to find work for next month’s rent.
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The next morning, Ray had his feet propped up on the office window ledge while reading the newspaper, when the phone rang. He gave the offending device a scowl. Several rings later, he finally picked up the receiver. It was Bucky’s voice coming through the line.
“Ray, I need a favor.” The photographer’s nervous tone caught his attention. “Someone is following me.”
“I don’t do favors anymore. It’s strictly cash and carry,” Ray reminded him. “It’s my New Year’s resolution. No more deadbeat clients. According to my landlady, I’ll end up sleeping in the gutter.”
“Come on, Ray, I’m on the level and I’ll pay you for the work, I promise,” Bucky told him. “I want you to figure out who’s doing it.”
“What are you talking about? Nobody wants to follow around a lug like you carrying around a camera.” The shamus took a drink of his coffee. It was cold.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about,” his friend replied. “At first, I thought it was just the darkness as I walked to my car. But I swear this black Ford was following me. This morning in front of the house, I saw it. When I noticed it again, I took some pictures of the car. It took off before I could get close. I don’t think the photos will come out alright much, since I was moving around at the time.”
“You want me to check with the cops about a black Ford since there are only a couple of them in Oyster City.” Ray’s sarcasm dripped along the wire.
“Yeah, you’re hilarious,” Bucky told him. “Instead of jokes, maybe you could shadow me and find out who it is. Do you want the money or not?”
Irish didn’t have to check his wallet to determine the need for some cash. His crazy landlord would stop by pretty soon in her search for his office rent.
“Alright, you’ve hired a shamus. Have you been taking pictures through keyholes again?”
“No, nothing like that,” Bucky said. “Strictly legit spreads, mostly for advertising work. The only oddball stuff is some of the experimental shots I do at my place. I use infrared film for night shots, so I can open that gallery I keep telling you about. It drives my sister crazy.”
“Alright, I get it. Your life is nice, and you go to church on Sundays,” Ray grumbled.
Clients rarely tell you anything relevant until you explain it.
“I’m looking for anything strange. A tail job is usually a way for the person to get information or to pin something on you. Maybe one of your advertising partners got upset about your photos, or you took a picture of a girlfriend who might not be single. See what I’m getting at?” He poured his cold coffee into the dry bucket holding the fossilized remains of a dead plant by his desk.
“Oh, I get it. Nah, there’s been nothing…” He hesitated. “Well, there’s Louise’s manager who warned me the other day about hanging around the models. But he’s all bluster.”
“Where are you hanging out today?”
“I’ve got a shoot that I’m doing at Swan’s Boutique,” he said in his eager voice. “It’s a fashion show for out-of-town buyers. The owner hired me to get some shots to use in his ads while this thing is going on. It’ll be around noon, so meet me there a few minutes before. If you’re nice, I’ll introduce you to some of the girls.”
“Yeah, I won’t get my hopes up,” Ray replied. “I’ll see you there.”
Irish spent the rest of the morning in Frank’s Diner next door to his office. It was a place he could think about events while watching the stream of people going by on the sidewalk. Plus, he didn’t have a coffee pot in his office. Mildred’s high-pitched Brooklyn accent greeted every customer who entered. He had an on-again-off-again relationship going with the buck-toothed waitress. The fact that she was talking to Ray meant he was on her good side this week. Mildred was also a rumor mill of local information. She didn’t have many good things to say about Swan’s establishment.
“A girlfriend of mine told me about Swan. He’s nothing but a two-bit chiseler,” she recounted. “I hear he uses second-hand dresses he has redone into his new styles.”
“What about Bucky Lumley, any rumors running around about him?” he asked. “He has a way of finding trouble.”
“You mean that redheaded kid running around with the camera? No, I haven’t heard anything about him,” she replied as she picked up his coffee cup. “You know this is going to cost you a movie again, sweetie?”
“I’ll set it up when I get my client to pay up,” Irish promised with a smile. Mildred happily winked when she picked up her dollar tip.
Irish drove over to Swans in his Nash. He had the driver’s side window down, trying to keep the car bearable in the summer heat. He found a parking spot along Dock Avenue. Walking along, he peered into the shop windows as he looked for Swans. Ray spotted the red-haired man come out of the shop ahead of him, surveying the area.
Bucky had a smaller camera hanging around his neck. It was swinging wildly as he approached Ray. The photographer escorted him into a worn building and up a flight of stairs to a third-floor showroom. The shamus looked over the room, where about half a dozen buyers were standing around or sitting near an elevated walkway. Another half were a dozen older women huddled near the front. When he overheard some conversations, Ray decided they were more interested in local gossip than the fashions.
The décor of the room consisted of semi-white copies of Greek pillars lining three gold-colored walls. Sun faded purple drapes strung between the columns, allowing natural light to flood in from the line of windows on two sides.
“I’ve already set up my camera over there on the tripod. I’m ready,” Bucky declared. “Gerald Swan’s an odd bird, but he pays cash. He even let me use this building for testing some of my camera work. Swan told me he had some ideas about using me for special projects in the future.” He grew excited.
“I’ve got this special camera I’m testing. There are critters getting into his storage rooms in the back of the building. That’s where he keeps the billets of cloth and such. Swan uses it for his card games with other shop owners.” Bucky’s eyes were scanning the crowd as he spoke. He didn’t see Ray’s bored expression. “The other night I was experimenting with a camera using infrared film and timed exposures. I caught some of the vermin coming into the place after I left it there. It’s still working; I just reloaded the film this morning. You can see the pictures when I get them developed.”
“Not interested in your pictures, just my job. The plan is I’ll leave early and start tailing you when you leave. Just remember, I get forty-five bucks a day for being your shadow,” Ray muttered.
His attention turned to the middle of the room where a tall, rail-thin man in a gray striped suit stood on the platform, announcing they would start the show.
“That’s Swan,” Bucky said as he hurried back to his tripod.
Swan’s bold purple tie and matching shoes stood out as he thanked his buyers for attending. While the host gave a boring introduction to his newest designs, Ray retreated to the back of the room. He didn’t realize he was standing near the dressing area for the models. However, as the models passed by, he grew content with his choice.
It’s a tough life watching these women as a part of your business!
He did not know whether the dresses worn by the models were second hand or not. Then again, Ray didn’t care. He wasn’t a boy scout. He appreciated their long legs along with the way they moved on the platform. Plus, they filled the clothes out nicely. Comfortably leaning against the wall, Irish noticed Bucky motioning for him. The photographer pointed to a woman just coming into the room.
It was Bucky’s discovery!
Louise was a pretty woman who walked with the grace of a cat. It was correct that she looked like a porcelain figurine with dimples on her cherub-like face. However, she didn’t appear too fragile to touch. Her appearance gave a little extra touch to the clothes she wore. Ray guessed it was the difference necessary for models.
The long dress she wore was bold and not to Ray’s taste, but Louise carried it with all the panache of a high dollar New York model. He recognized her pale blue eyes could strike deep into a guy’s soul. However, she wasn’t as tall as most of the other models in the room.
His gaze followed Louise down the length of the runway. She joined the others at the end of the platform where the buyers were engaged in murmured conversations. Bucky was happily taking pictures of the event, his flashbulb going off like fireworks. Finally, he broke away from his camera and walked over to Irish.
“What did I tell you?” Bucky whispered. “Is she some dish or not?”
“Yeah, she’s a cute dame. Tucker might be interested,” he told him warily. Irish noticed the buyers were moving in close. While the mostly male audience pulled and tugged at the clothing, Ray wondered if the girls felt like prime rib in a meat market.
“What’s going on now?” he asked.
“Yeah, you might get bored for a while. The buyers will go through looking at the styles they want for their shops. Swan will start taking their orders,” Bucky replied. “This is the end of round one. I’ll grab Louise when she goes back to the dressing room for round two.”
“Why? I don’t have an agency,” Ray told him.
“Yeah, I know, but you’re a friend, and a friend of Gaylord. I saw how you were watching her,” Bucky replied.
“I doubt she’d be interested in my work.” The shamus glanced at Louise, who had several men around her. Obviously, Bucky had a crush on the woman. Unfortunately, Tucker wouldn’t feel the same way. She wasn’t long and lean.
“Besides, she’s probably not a whiskey drinker either,” Ray told him.
Bucky laughed as he walked away.
While the crowd slowly went back to their seats, Ray turned his attention to Swan, who busily scribbled into his book after each conversation.
As the models started back to the dressing area, Bucky slid through the line and took Louise by the arm. He guided her to the shamus. Ray believed their walk turned every eye in the room in their direction.
“I wanted you to meet Ray Irish. He’s a good friend with Tucker Gaylord.” Bucky coaxed her along. “Ray came over just to see you today.”
Louise appeared interested; her eyes brightened as she drew near. Ray extended his hand, and when she took it, he noticed under her interest there was something else. He had a fleeting glimpse of her fear.
“I ... I’m not supposed to talk to anyone,” Louise said. “My manager won’t like it.”
“I didn’t know you had a manager. Who is he?” Irish asked.
“I need to go!” She gave them a false smile. “I have to get to the dressing room and change.”
“Sure, I understand,” the shamus stated. Bucky suddenly caught his arm. He stared behind Ray.
“That’s Butch, her manager!”
When Ray turned back, a man in a smartly tailored suit stepped into the room from the fitting-room door. His broad, brown face wasn’t cheerful as he eyed Irish and Bucky. The man’s eyes protruded a little, like his collar was too tight. He also carried a massive chest and arms to match. Irish immediately thought of a troll from the way the squat framed man moved as he walked past Louise.
“Get out of here,” he told the girl, his bass voice so low that Ray had trouble hearing it.
Ray moved in front of the guy.
“Are you her manager?”
“Just keep your nose out of this, bud. What I do is none of your business.” The man laid his large hand against Ray’s chest. Ray looked down at the man’s thick, scarred knuckles. Irish guessed he was an ex-boxer. While Ray was a head taller, the man’s massive bulk demanded respect.
“You better remove that hand or lose it,” the shamus warned him with a growl.
The squat man gave Ray a cold stare. Bucky tried to intercede.
“Everyone calm…” His attempt stopped when the squat man swept his arm into Bucky’s chest. The force sent the photographer back several feet.
Ray struck the squat man’s jaw. It was like hitting a hunk of cement. The shamus had no time to worry about the pain when the man came after him. The stranger put his head down and clutched at Irish, trying to grapple him with a bearlike grip. Ray pulled away, striking him again with little effect. While Irish was a large person, he recognized the danger if his opponent got those massive arms around him.
His opponent charged again. This time, his shoulder caught Ray in the chest. While the crowd inside the room looked on with the interest of fans at a boxing match, Ray fell back against the wall. The shamus reared up on a knee that caught his opponent in the groin. It was a partial strike that allowed Ray to throw a couple of punches into the man’s face.
Another rush from the squat man pushed them into the draped curtains along the wall. The crowd that watched the festivities yelled out as the displays fell from their hooks, sending dust and debris around the area. Ray felt a strike to his belly, followed up with an uppercut that sent him into the wall again. In desperation, he flung a dusty piece of drapery hanging next to him, sending it at the onrushing man. The cloth fell across the squat man’s head, obscuring his vision. It was enough for Ray to slip away. Before his opponent could counter the move, the shamus hit the side of the man’s knee with the flat of his foot. Ray’s opponent groaned and went to one knee. Irish finished him by kicking the man in the face. It wasn’t the smartest move Irish ever made. However, Ray heard a snap in his foot and felt the shooting pain flow into his leg.
You broke something, you damn fool!
The crowd around closed in while Irish limped around the squat man on the floor. He swore aloud, like the ex-sailor he was. Bucky crouched down to verify the squat man was not dead.
“He’s unconscious,” the redhead stated.
He lifted himself and went over to get another camera. Bucky rushed back, pausing at intervals to take pictures of the room and the man lying on the floor.
“That’ll make the paper,” he said confidently.
“You sound like Catherine. By the way, thanks for all the help. You act like her as well,” Ray grumbled.
Bucky smiled and was about to return a crack when the man in a gray striped suit confronted them.
“You’ve ruined everything. My buyers didn’t come here for a boxing match. How dare…”
“He’s not wrecking anything for the moment,” Ray interrupted, still trying to catch his breath. “Now, who is this human tank named Butch?”
“Look at my room. You started this. Leave before I call the police,” the man told him in a panic. He turned to Louise, who stood there in shock. “This is your fault as well. I saw these two men talking with you,” he declared. “You’re fired! Get out of here.”
“Mr. Swan, calm down,” Bucky joined the conversation. “You might want to worry about your buyers.” He nodded toward the door.
“Oh, my God. The buyers…” The shop owner nearly had a heart attack. He ran his hands through his slicked back, black hair before running to the front.
“Mr. Phillips, Mr. Owens, please wait!” His reedy voice carried through the room as Swan hurried through the scattering crowd.
“Ray, you get lost. I need to calm down Swan when he gets back. He still owes me money for today. I got some splendid pictures I can sell,” Bucky said. There was excitement in his eyes.
“Alright, I’ll hang outside and follow you home,” Ray told him. He glanced over at Louise, who was staring down at the battered man on the floor. He noticed she wasn’t trying to revive him. In fact, none of the women standing around were too upset.
“Alright, if you spot something, just let me know. I’ll call you if I hear anything more.” The photographer took off through the few remaining attendees.
“Louise, who is this guy?” Ray asked.
She looked up with fear covering her face.
“He’s—Butch. He gets me these jobs.”
Ray took her by the arm and led her toward the dressing room.
“I don’t have a contract with him,” Louise explained. She glanced at him. “He runs all the models around Oyster City.”
“What do you mean? I’ve never heard of him, and you act like you’re scared to death of him,” he said when they reached the dressing room entrance.
“You really shouldn’t have done that,” she whispered, as if she were afraid that someone would hear her. “Something bad will happen now. Swan is right. I’ve seen what Butch can do.”
“If you know something about him, I can call a friend of mine who’s a cop,” he tried to reassure her.
“No, I can’t talk to the police! Now leave me alone.” She pulled away and disappeared into the next room.
Irish watched after her for a moment. Then he glimpsed Bucky talking with Swan. He decided to leave so he could take up a position to follow Bucky. As he walked out of the building, Ray kept thinking about Louise and her fear of her manager.
The next morning, Irish sat at his desk. His attention focused on nursing the black eye he had received from Butch the day before. He barely heard the steps coming up the stairs to his office. Tucker Gaylord entered without bothering to knock. His enormous frame filled the door, and he had a grin on his face. He threw down a copy of the morning paper to his friend.
“The boy at the corner told me to give you this,” he said as he lifted his leg to dust off one pant leg. “I guess I’m your delivery boy this morning.”
Tucker wore a blue suit and a brown fedora. His solid frame filled the suit in an over-stuffed sort of way. His face glistened a little in the shaft of morning sun coming in the window.
“Where have been keeping yourself?” Ray asked with a grimace as he turned his chair. His foot still hurt from kicking Butch’s face.
“Oh, just meeting with those pretty girls who want to make it big in New York.” The man brushed his pant legs before he sat down. Ray noticed the cuffs were wet. His friend leaned back, putting his hands behind his head. “It’s a tough life in my racket. Where’d you pick up the shiner?”
“Oh, that was at one of your damn fashion shows. Bucky told me he had someone following him. But I think it was just a con to get me to meet that girl he thinks will be your next model,” Ray growled.
“Wow, you have more fun with them than I do. Did the girl have a jealous husband?”
“No, it was some guy that thinks he owns her,” the shamus explained. “It was strange. The guy came over like a pimp. It’s that gal that Bucky wanted you to meet. I hope you can do her some good. She seems like a nice kid.”
Tucker pulled a cigar from his coat and put it in his mouth.
“Well, I’ll be around my hotel room,” he told Ray between puffs to get the cigar lit. “Why don’t we get dinner tonight? I’ll buy the drinks.”
“You came all the way to my office to tell me that? You ever hear of a phone?” The shamus smirked.
“Nah, I had an appointment early this morning. Got to take care of things, you know what I mean? Call me later.” Tucker blew out a smoke ring and grinned as he left.
Not long after Tucker left, Ray finally opened the newspaper on his desk. The headline on the right-hand column stated: LOCAL PHOTOGRAPHER FOUND MURDERED.
Disquiet fell across him as he skimmed the article. He came to the name of the victim.
He read the details of Bucky Lumley’s murder. According to the Beacon reporter, Bucky’s sister woke to two men talking around five-thirty in the morning. She went to the door of his darkroom, then she heard a fight going on. She couldn’t enter the room and called the police. When they arrived about ten minutes later, they broke down the door and found Bucky’s body. Someone beat him to death, and the room was in disarray.
The image of Butch sprung to Ray’s mind as he swore aloud. He grabbed his coat and hat from the coat rack on the way out of the door.
Lieutenant Arizona Charlie Campbell looked up as Ray entered the office. He frowned.
“Shamus, you’re in the wrong office,” he growled.
“I saw the paper this morning about Bucky Lumley. He was a friend,” Ray told him.
“He’s over at the morgue. I just got the case,” Arizona said curtly.
“I might have a lead on who did it,” Ray replied.
Arizona turned in his chair to face Ray, his round face suddenly showing an interest.
“A guy named Butch,” he said. “Bucky and I were at one of those garment shows over on Dock Avenue. Butch had a problem with us talking to a model. He lost. Maybe he got an urge for some payback.”
“What does this guy look like?” the detective asked Ray. The shamus gave him a brief description. A knowing grimace fell across the cop’s face.
“The man you’re talking about is Butch Grimes. He’s a small-time chiseler and a former boxer. He’s also been around the station.” Arizona picked up his phone and called someone. A few minutes later, one of the desk sergeants arrived with a file. Arizona flipped through several pages while the man stayed by the door.
“Here it is,” he continued. “Yeah, he’s got a couple of short stretches in jail for assault and battery. There’s a suspicion he’s got ties with the Jacobi gang as well.”
“Well, he’s vicious enough to kill Bucky,” Ray reminded him.
“Maybe so, but he didn’t.” Arizona closed the file and tossed it on his desk.
“How do you know?” the shamus asked.
“When Bucky died, Butch Grimes was downstairs early this morning swearing out a complaint against someone,” the policeman told him. “It was when Bucky’s sister called. Butch claims two men assaulted him in a dress shop along Dock Avenue. The complaint states a large man wearing a brown fedora, helped by a red-head photographer, beat him unconscious at this show. Does that sound familiar?”
Ray scowled at the news.
“That’s just his word against mine,” he growled. “You’re telling me a thug shows up before sunrise to make this report? Pretty convenient, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t. A victim can come to our place anytime. Grimes claims he has Mr. Gerald Swan as a witness to this assault. It appears I have reasonable cause to book you,” Arizona explained. “Now when do you hang around with Bucky? I thought Cat was your photographer pal?”
The tone in the cop’s voice revealed more than a passing interest.
“Alright, you don’t need to put on the press. Bucky hired me as his shadow yesterday. He thought someone was tailing him,” Ray explained. “When Bucky introduced me to one of the models, Butch Grimes came at me. I defended myself, no matter what Swan says.”
“Maybe so.” The policeman leaned back in his chair. “Tell me about Bucky. Why was he worried?”
“I’m not sure. The kid just told me that someone in a black Ford was following him,” he explained. “That’s all I know at this point.”
Arizona rubbed his chin.
“Are you planning on looking into this or leaving it to the cops?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
“Bucky was a friend. I want the son of a bitch who killed him,” Ray told him simply.
“Alright, I figured as much. I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll let the complaint slide unless Swan comes down to the station to push it,” the detective told the shamus. “In the meantime, you don’t poke your big nose into Sirk’s investigation. Let him run down the leads and keep him informed about any leads. You got it?”
Irish stood and placed his brown fedora on his head.
“Just like I always do,” he stated. He pushed past the desk sergeant while Arizona grunted and shook his head.
The shamus drove out to Bucky Lumley’s place after meeting with the police. Lynn, his sister, opened the door to the Victorian townhouse. She carried the same thin-face and slanted nose as her brother. With her pinned back hair and dark glasses, the woman might be mistaken as an old maid with a passing glance. However, her stylish clothes and forthright manner surprised Ray.
“You’re Ray Irish,” Lynn said with a tired smile as she showed him into the small, dark living room. She pointed him to the green sofa, accented with dark wood and carved claw feet.
“Bucky talked about you so often. I could have placed you in a crowded room,” she told him. “Detective Sirk just left with the other policemen. It’s terrible how they act. I’m not sure what they think.”
“Yeah, I understand. I waited until the cops left, since you would have your hands full. I realize this is not a good time, but I wanted to talk with you about what happened,” Ray said after pulling off his hat. Lynn sat at the other end of the sofa. “Maybe I can help.”
“It’s alright,” she assured him. “I’m sure Bucky would like it if you got involved. I’d like to have someone around right now. There’s so much to do. We don’t have any family here, so it’s just…I mean, it was just Bucky and me.”
There was an embarrassing silence.
“He was always nuts about photography, always trying to get the right picture,” Lynn finally stated. “You know, he built a dark room. It’s next to the kitchen. Used to spend hours in there or doing experimental pictures around the house with his various contraptions.”
His sister broke off, and Ray recognized the difficulty of keeping her composure.
“It was pretty terrible, seeing him, after...after it was over.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Ray said. “He was a good kid.”
Lynn laughed weakly.
“He said the same thing about you,” she explained. “You know, he was older than he looked. I told him he needed to get out of the darkroom and meet girls. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. After our parents died, he shut himself away from people for a while. I wanted him to meet a girl and…” The woman’s voice stopped as she retreated to her thoughts.
“Listen, don’t beat yourself up,” he advised. “Whoever did this gets the full blame.”
“In his way, Bucky was kind of screwy, but good-hearted.” She wasn’t paying attention. Her eyes focused on the floor. “I don’t know what he must have gotten involved with. Bucky didn’t tell me much. I thought he was just taking pictures of pretty women for ads.”
“That’s what I thought as well,” Ray agreed. “Did he mention anyone following him?”
His question caused Lynn to look at him.
“No, he didn’t. Was he in trouble?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “He told me a black Ford was outside yesterday morning. Did you see a car like that hanging around?”
“No, I didn’t.” She stifled a sniffle and looked up at the ceiling. “I wish Bucky would have told me.”
“What did he do after he came home yesterday?” Irish glanced at the ticking mantle clock above the fireplace.
“We had dinner, and he told me about your run in with that man at his photo shoot. He was grateful you jumped in to help him.” She paused. “Say, could that dreadful man have something to do with his murder? I didn’t tell the police about that.”
“No, that man was at the police station when this happened. I already spoke with them this morning,” Ray assured her. “What did he do after dinner?”
“Bucky went to his darkroom.” She showed him the narrow hall that led to the kitchen. “It’s at the end. He built a room next to the kitchen for his work,” Lynn told Ray. There was pride in her tone. “I didn’t think much about it. He spent a lot of time there doing his work. I went to bed around nine.”
“What happened then?” Irish asked.
“I was asleep, but I woke when I heard voices coming from downstairs. It was very late. I didn’t check my clock.”
“How many people did you hear?”
She shook her head tiredly. “I’m not sure. I think it was near sunrise. Bucky was getting excited about something. I remember him saying your name.”
“You heard my name?”
“I thought so, but I can’t swear to it,” she said. “We’d been talking about you at dinner, so it might be from that. At first, I thought I was just dreaming of the voices. I mean, Bucky never had people coming by here late at night. Then I heard my brother yell out. I thought it was in the alley out back. When I got out of bed, I realized it was in the darkroom downstairs. I could hear glass and equipment breaking inside when I ran to the door. Someone locked the door, and I couldn’t get in. I heard Bucky yell for me to call the police.”
Lynn stopped and finally broke down. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse on the table next to the sofa while Ray waited.
“You didn’t get a look at him, did you?” he asked after she stopped crying.
“No, the phone’s in here. The killer must have heard me calling the police. I heard the back door open and slam shut while I was talking with them,” she explained. “After that, I went into the darkroom and found Bucky.
Ray asked about a journal or a notebook where her brother might have kept his contact information. The woman shrugged as she escorted him to the back of the townhouse.
“I guess it might be in the room.”
Lynn stayed in the hallway, explaining she couldn’t go inside to clean the darkroom yet. He patted her on the shoulder and went to the entrance. He noticed a camera on a hall shelf that was jury-rigged to point down the hall. It had a remote timer on it. He asked her about it.
“Oh, that was his latest experiment with some type of film,” she told him. “I’m afraid I don’t remember much about it. I was always finding things like this around the house.”
The area took up half of the original kitchen, and the entrance had a blackout curtain on the inside. On one side of the room, there were several rows of shelves displaying an array of cameras and photographic equipment. The equipment on that side of the room remained untouched. On the other side, the counter holding the developing trays and jars was a mess. Rolls of exposed film and broken jars lay on the floor. Bloodstains streaked down the black cabinets and pooled on the linoleum floor along with the spilled chemicals. Carefully avoiding the glass, Ray inspected the room. The destruction of the trays and film suggested his friend’s pictures were important to the killer. Irish headed to the kitchen.
“Did you find anything?” Lynn asked as she remained in the hallway.
“I’m not sure,” he stated. “I have to find out more about his clients.”
“Find the person who killed Bucky,” she implored.
“I’ll damn well try,” he told her. “Let me know if you need anything.”
A minute later, Ray left the house through the backyard. He barely noticed the tall grass as he focused on an idea that sprung to mind. Someone got to Bucky’s photos. However, the places where the photographer worked were still around. He’d start along Dock Avenue.
Irish arrived at Swan’s Boutique. The owner was not glad to see him. Gerald Swan’s face turned pale when he recognized the shamus. He appeared ready to retreat to the nearby cutting room.
“Swan, I’m not here to cause you problems,” Ray told him. “I’m investigating a murder.”
“You start a fight while some of my best buyers are here, and now you want a favor?” His pitch changed at the incredibility of Ray’s request. He surveyed the detective for a moment. Irish did the same and noticed a wound on the thin man’s one hand, and he had a piece of tape over it.
“Bucky took a lot of photos for you,” Ray said. “Did he ever shoot pictures of your clients?”
Swan hesitated at the question.
“No, I don’t know why he would. I pay for the best shot of the model and her clothes,” he replied.
“Yeah, but from the various angles that he was taking pictures, I’m sure some of your clients could be in the photo.” Ray was speaking mostly to himself. He saw Swan’s eyes widen at the suggestion. The shamus pressed further.
“You know Butch Grimes. I want to know where he hangs out,” Ray told him.
Swan’s face shade went to a pale yellow.
“Who is this Butch? I know no one by that name.”
“He’s that thug who was bleeding all over the floor yesterday. Do I need to do the same thing to you to get your memory back?” Ray warned him.
“Oh, you’re talking about him!” Swan put on an act. “He comes with the girl. Every time he comes with the girl. He might be her brother or something. I’m not sure. They come and go!”
“Is that the story you’re sticking to?” He closed in on the smaller man. “Grimes was using your name down at the police station against me.”
Swan’s eyes flashed defiance.
“I don’t know him,” the owner repeated.
“Alright, give me the girl’s address?”
“Address... I don’t know the girl. I told you I get so many women running through here I can’t keep track of them all,” Swan continued to lie.
“You’re telling me that bombshell Louise just shows up, and you hire her on the spot along with Butch.” Ray’s voice dripped with sarcasm. He briefly considered shaking the truth out of the shop owner. However, spending a night in jail wasn’t going to help find Bucky’s killer.
“You’re setting yourself up for a lot of hurt when I get to the truth,” Irish told him flatly as he turned away.
Ray walked the block, going into the shops, looking for leads to Butch’s address. The fear he saw in the shop owners’ faces told him enough. Their lies confirmed the thug ruled by intimidation. The scraps of information led to one conclusion. Butch had several models that he forced the shops to use. When Ray mentioned insurance, the owners grew even more nervous, which completed his search for the truth. An extortion racket controlled the shops. But he remained suspicious about who controlled the racket. Butch Grimes acted as a loner and a muscle man, not the brains of the group. Still, nothing Ray found tied back to Bucky’s death.
When Ray slid into the driver’s seat of his Nash, the sun was red in the evening sky. He realized he was at a dead end for the moment. He drove back to his office, thinking that a shot of Irish whiskey might help. During the drive, he had the sensation of being followed. He took a couple of quick turns through alleys along Cherry Street, but no car was following him. He finally pulled up to his building as the streetlights turned on.
The phone was ringing when Irish entered his office. It was Tucker Gaylord.
“I thought we were having dinner tonight?” He sounded angry.
“Yeah, well, sorry about that,” Ray told him. “I got a case dumped on me. Someone murdered Bucky Lumley last night.”
“Who?” Tucker asked.
“That red-head photographer you met,” Ray grumbled.
“Oh, that explains why he never called me. I’m sorry to hear it,” his friend stated mechanically. “Did the cops get them?”
“No, not yet. I’m checking on some people Bucky was dealing with. Give me a rain check tonight.” Ray pulled open the drawer on his desk. He took out a bottle of his favorite drink.
“Yeah, I get it. I’ll check in with you about how things are going,” Tucker said.
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Irish said before hanging up.
Ray leaned back in the chair and swirled the drink in his hand. He was looking out of the window at the Beacon’s latest news. Tensions remained high in Germany. Closer to home, they finally finished the Palomar Observatory telescope.
His mind on the day’s events, he didn’t hear the door open to his office. A reflected movement in the window he looked out of caught Ray’s attention. He saw the reflection of a pretty woman carefully peering into his office behind him. The man turned to the door and stood.
“Louise, please come in,” he told her. The dismay on her face caused him to proceed carefully. “It’s all right. I’m the only one here.”
“I…I heard about Bucky,” she told him. Louise wore a simple white dress and a funny-looking yellow hat with flowers in it. She glanced down the stairway before shutting the door. Ray stepped next to her and locked the door.
“Come in, and sit down,” he reassured her.
She shook her head. “No, not right now. Can you check outside and see if anybody is watching? I kept feeling like someone is following me.”
Ray immediately went to his desk and turned off the desk lamp. He went to the window and looked over the street while standing in the shadows. He didn’t see anyone looking at the office. Then again, the sidewalk was still busy.
“I’ll stand here and keep an eye out. Did you leave with Butch after I left Swan’s place yesterday?” he asked, while she stepped closer to his desk. It was hard to see her face in the dim office light. The lamp in his bedroom next to the office showed her silhouette.
“No, after Grimes got to his feet, he went to Swan’s office. I knew Butch would be after me about Bucky and you, so I left. They didn’t even pay me. After I went to my apartment, I got nervous, so I went to stay with a friend. I heard the news about Bucky this morning,” she explained. “I came here to tell you who might have killed him. It was Butch.”
“I told the police it might be Butch Grimes,” Ray said. “They told me he was hanging out at the police station about me pounding his face.” He waited for her reaction.
“Oh,” she replied carefully. “Are you sure? He was really upset.” The shamus recognized she had a plan behind her arrival.
“Lady, don’t play footsie with me,” he demanded. “Someone beat my friend to death. Butch might be the first choice as the killer, but it was someone else. Maybe you know something about that?”
“No!” she replied too quickly. Ray stared at her silhouette. The darkness could not cover her trembling. He waited in the disquieting stillness.
“Maybe you know there’s someone behind Butch who calls the shots? That’s why you’re here, but you’re afraid,” he declared.
It was a hunch that got him a nibble.
Finally, Louise nodded.
“I don’t know who it is,” she insisted before looking down at her hands. “Someone called the apartment after Clarissa got it. It was a male voice. He told me I would get worse if I went to the cops about the arrangement I have with Butch. When I told Clarissa about leaving town, Butch heard about it. He told me I’d get the same treatment.”
“Are you planning on leaving now?” he growled out the question.
The woman walked in front of the desk, and he could see her distraught face.
“I wanted to help you. Bucky was friendly, like a lot of guys who I meet. He really wanted to get me a shot. I guess I was hoping you would figure out it was Grimes.”
Louise looked away.
“Then your conscious is clear, is that it?” Irish let his scorn blast out. “That isn’t justice, lady. It’s a crock.”
“You don’t understand. I’m afraid, and I want to stay alive. If anyone of us were to talk, they’ll come after us. Clarissa tried, and they...” She looked down.
“I’m not a brave person,” she confessed.
“Look, I’m not sure why someone killed Bucky. Odds are that he might have stumbled onto something when he was trying to help you. You just mentioned being followed. Bucky told me the same thing before he bought it,” he pointed out. “Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe not. Do you want to take that chance?”
She looked up again.
“I don’t know anything more than what I told you, I swear. It was just a voice. Butch is enough for us to deal with,” she confessed.
“You said others are in the same boat as you are. I spoke with some of the shop owners on Dock Avenue today. It appears your boss is doing this with several more women.”
Ray took another approach.
“Tell me about what happened with Clarissa.”
The phone on the desk rang sharply and caused Louise to jump. She kept staring at the loud object like it was a snake.
Ray went to the desk and picked up the receiver.
“Keep talking to the dame, and you’re gonna end up buried in an unmarked grave,” a man’s muffled voice warned him. While hard to understand, Ray heard the last line.
“Drop it, and you’ll live, Irish.”
There was a click at the other end of the line, and Ray slowly put the receiver back on the phone carriage.
“Mr. Irish, who was that?” she asked, sensing trouble.
“Just a wrong number, I guess.”
Chapter 2: Showdown
The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs toward Ray’s office caused Louise to panic. Irish pointed to his bedroom. She dashed inside, closing the door behind her.
Tucker Gaylord walked in without knocking. He focused on the shadow behind Ray’s desk.
“Are you playing in the dark?” he asked.
“No, just got in,” Ray lied as he turned on the lamp. The small bulb gave off enough light to give the room a mysterious air.
“Since you ditched me, I got my drinking done early,” Tucker said with a grin. He pulled out a cigar and lit it before sitting in the chair.
“Actually, you’re the man who could help me out,” Irish replied as he came up with a plan. “I want you to meet someone.”
Ray went to his bedroom door and opened it. She waved Louise into the room.
“Louise Brooks, this is Tucker Gaylord. I’m sure you’ve heard the name. He runs a model agency in New York.” He went to her and guided the nervous woman into the room. His friend rose from the chair, carefully looking at her.
“Is this the girl Bucky was talking about?” he asked with a smile. “Well, I can see he had a good eye.”
Gaylord smiled and extended his hand. Louise remained distant.
“It’s alright, you’re among friends,” he told her as he glanced at Ray. Unenthusiastically, she shook his enormous paw.
“Here’s the scoop,” Ray said. “Louise is being hassled by a thug who controls some models along Dock Avenue. It’s just like that association you mentioned the other day. I thought you might do me a favor and put her in a room at the hotel for a couple of days until I can get her out of town.”
“Yeah, I could do that,” his friend agreed. His focus remained on the small woman. “There are plenty of opportunities for you. I think you have the look and form they are looking for.”
Ray did a double take at Tucker’s statement before he turned to Louise.
“Tucker’s a friend, and his pockets are deeper than mine. He leaves for New York City in a couple of days. Maybe he can arrange some contacts for you out there.” Ray glanced back at Tucker. His friend’s face changed from concern to a smile.
“You bet! This kid will do just fine,” he agreed.
Ray stared at Tucker for a moment.
“You’re pretty generous,” Irish replied carefully.
Tucker scowled, then smiled at Louise.
“He’s just jealous. I’m always generous with my girls. Say, are you tied down with anybody here? An agent, husband, or boyfriend?”
Her expression softened as he coaxed her into an answer. Finally, she shook her head.
“No, I’m not married or anything like that,” she nearly whispered. Louise looked over at Ray.
“What if they come after me? I can’t leave,” she told him.
“Why not?” Tucker demanded.
“Listen, all you have to do is you tell me everything about Butch and his operations,” Ray interceded. “I’ve got a friend down at headquarters who’ll run him out of business. That way, you’re in the clear, and the models will be safe. Nobody will know beyond this room.”
“He’s right,” Tucker agreed and shoved his cigar in his mouth. “You want to be a model? You can’t let fear run you. Once Ray gets the cops, that squat looking thug will run for the hills.” He smiled at Irish, who carefully nodded. Ray went to his desk and took a pencil and paper from his top drawer. As he sat down, he kept glancing at Tucker, who continued to talk with Louise about her future.
It took a bit more persuasion before Louise finally agreed. Tucker was a pretty good salesman. As she sat by the desk, she told Ray about things she witnessed with Butch and the shop owners along Dock Avenue. Ray asked a few questions and wrote everything down. Tucker kept quiet, withdrawing from the conversation while repeatedly lighting his cigar. The smoke filled the room. Then Louise mentioned Clarissa again.
“I just thought of something. You have to help my roommate. Butch will blame her if I leave,” she stated. Louise gripped her handbag hard and twisted it. “I should have thought of her before I agreed.”
“Clarissa?” Tucker asked with interest.
“She’s the girl I live with. They threw acid on her several months ago,” she explained. “It was terrible. All she did was take a small job from Swan. It was nothing really, just a last-minute kind of thing. Clarissa told me that when she left, someone began following her. A car drove up, and a masked man threw the acid in her face. Her life’s been a nightmare since that happened. We’ve used up all of our money on her hospital bills.”
“That’s terrible,” Tucker replied as he pulled out his cigar.
“I remember that case,” Ray stated. “It was in the papers. I don’t think the cops ever arrested anyone for it. You said Swan was involved?”
“Yes, he had several buyers in from out of town. Anyway, that’s what he told her. Clarissa would do a private showing, and some guy got upset with her. She never explained what happened. Butch warned us before that all the work goes through him, and he collects the cash for his cut. Clarissa wasn’t afraid of him.”
“Tough gal, I like that,” Irish stated. “Why didn’t the cops get Butch for it?”
“Grimes had an alibi,” Louise told them. “Clarissa told them about the threats. But two shop owners claimed he was with them in a poker game that night.”
“Convenient,” Ray replied. “Same people vouching for a guy who collects money to keep their places from burning down.”
“Yeah, but even Clarissa says Butch didn’t do it. After she got out of the hospital, he came by the apartment to pick me up for a job. I heard him tell Clarissa that she should just leave town before something worse happens,” Louise said.
“Say, that seems like a pretty smart idea. If you know that much about this organization, they’ll come looking for you. Listen; let’s drop the idea of a hotel. I’ll foot the bill for you and Clarissa to go to New York City with me,” Tucker suddenly offered. “Ray gets this creep off the street; you’ll be the toast of New York.”
“But I couldn’t ask you to do that for us,” she told him.
“Are you sure?” Irish asked his friend. “Word could get out about your help. That’ll put you at risk. I don’t see how that benefits you.”
“I’m turning over a new leaf. I’ll be her agent now. Louise can make it up to me when she’s walking the catwalk. I get fifteen percent.”
Irish drove Louise to her apartment. Before they left, Tucker promised he would get the women their train tickets to New York in the morning.
On the way to Louise’s place, the woman remained quiet. The light from the streetlamps and neon signs passed through the windows, showing the woman lost in thought. She only looked up occasionally to guide him. He parked the car in front of a block of row-houses clad in stucco only a few blocks from the dock area. Her dark apartment was in the basement. A streetlamp shining over the area gave them enough light to follow the marble steps down to the front door.
“I suppose I should thank you for the help, but I still don’t like it.” She stopped at the bottom step. “I think we’re making a mistake. If the police don’t stop it, then the rest of the girls are in danger.”
“I know the right people to clean this mess up,” Ray reassured her. “Go pack your bags, and I’ll keep an eye out for any unwanted visitors.”
The front door suddenly opened, and the yellow light revealed the outline of a tall blonde woman at the door. She wore a blue dressing gown that accented her pale olive skin. When she stepped out into the street, she held a silver revolver in her hand. It was an old.32 caliber. The gun pointed at Ray’s chest. However, the scarring on one side of her face kept Ray’s attention.
“Clarissa, it’s alright,” Louise told her. “He’s a friend. Clarissa Singer, this is Ray Irish. He’s a private detective on our side.”
The woman gave the shamus a once over and waved them inside.
As they followed her, Clarissa turned on the living room lights. She had the grace and poise of a model, along with a long and lean body. However, the animal that disfigured her made it permanent. The corrosive liquid burned deep enough for the mouth to draw up in one corner, partially exposing her teeth. The eyelid on that side of her face drooped. Ray stared at the injury, causing Clarissa to respond.
“You like the way I look so much? You should get a picture,” she snarled.
“No need, I’ve seen worse,” he replied lightly. “The son of a bitch that did that deserves a special place in Hell.”
Clarissa paid no attention to his comment. She gazed at Louise.
“You little nitwit, are you trying to scare me? What happened?”
“I stayed away because I think Butch might be looking for me. Then I called, but you weren’t here.”
“That’s because I was looking for you,” Clarissa responded.
“I’m sorry, I left the Swan’s place early after, and I’ve missed another appointment this morning,” Louise told her. “Mr. Irish knows Tucker Gaylord. We need to pack. Tomorrow morning, we have a trip to New York. Mr. Irish got Mr. Gaylord to take us. We can get away from this crummy place.”
She glanced at Irish suspiciously.
“Are you sure it’s legit? I mean, you’re pretty and all. You remember what that one talent agent told you,” she said.
“Yes, it’s fine. Mr. Gaylord was pretty happy to see me tonight at Ray’s office. He’s a pretty nice guy. He’s even fronting us with the money for the tickets. I think he wants to be my agent,” she explained to Clarissa.
The scarred woman’s eyes hardened, and she shook her head.
“No, dear, I’m staying. You’ll have to hit New York on your own. I’ll get even with the bastards.” Her voice trembled from an internal rage. It was a bitter anger Ray knew.
“You don’t understand,” Louise told her hastily. “Mr. Irish was a friend of Bucky Lumley. He’s trying to find his killer. It could be Butch who’s involved.”
Clarissa did not appear to be listening. Ray stepped next to the two women.
“Listen, Louise has told me everything. There are a couple of good cops in Oyster City,” he explained. “I’ll get them to look at your case. Maybe they can get you justice.”
Clarissa turned on him.
“Justice! Who the hell wants justice?” she spat out. “Someone down on Dock Avenue had something to do with it. The only reason I haven’t shot Butch is the fact that I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it. But he’s still a louse...”
The sound of the door buzzer interrupted her.
“It’s him...” Louise said in a hushed tone. “He’s coming for me.”
Clarissa whipped out her gun, pointing at the door.
“I hope he does.” Her grimace looked like a crooked line. “I just hope it is.”
“Slow down,” Ray told her as he pulled his .45 auto. “I get dibs to find out about Bucky’s killer.”
“No.” Clarissa’s voice was flat, final. “I’ll handle it myself.”
Louise challenged them, her fearful eyes glancing between the two guns.
“Wait, it could be anybody,” she whispered. “Let me check first.”
The buzzer rang again, followed by a knock. Louise pointed Ray to the corner of the apartment by a bookshelf. Clarissa tucked the gun into the dressing gown she wore. She placed herself on the backside of the door.
“Louise, I see your light on. I know you’re in there,” Gerald Swan’s angry voice came through the door.
Louise opened it, and the thin, tall man confronted her. He wore an immaculate blue suit and waved Louise back so he could enter.
“I hired you for a show. You didn’t bother to show up. How dare you?”
“Leave her alone.” Clarissa stepped out from behind the door.
“You keep out of it,” he told her. “You were my best model until you didn’t listen to them. Louise is the best one I have left, and we have a contract.”
“You shut up! You and that swine, Butch, can go to hell,” Clarissa came at Swan. He slapped her.
“My turn,” Ray snarled as he rushed from his hiding place. He struck Swan as the man turned to him. The punch sent Swan on his butt. Ray’s fist hurt, but he glared down triumphantly.
“The women told you to get lost,” he growled. “Don’t make me see if I can break your face.”
Swan quickly recovered with his icy stare on Irish. He rubbed his jaw. Clarissa and Louise were standing in stunned silence while they watched Ray. The scarred woman recovered first.
“You understand now that she isn’t working for you,” she told Swan.
“You just dug your grave, mister.” Swan ignored her as he lifted himself from the entrance floor. His focus remained on the shamus. “You’re interfering with business. Around here, that gets people mad. Butch will come for you.”
“I thought you didn’t know Grimes,” Ray told him with a smirk. “You can tell him he won’t like meeting me again.”
Swan backed up as the shamus took a step forward. He pointed to Louise.
“You’re about to end up like your friend when people hear about this,” he told her shakily. Irish started after the man, but he was already up the stairs. He passed by an older couple who stood in the middle of the sidewalk before disappearing into the night. Ray stopped at the street level when he saw the shocked looks coming from the couple. He realized his gun remained in his hand.
“Bill collector,” he told them gruffly. He shoved the weapon into the holster under his arm.
“I should have shot him,” Clarissa stated when he returned to the apartment. She put her gun on the counter.
“He talks like he knows a lot about the people running the show,” Ray said. “Do you think he’s part of it?”
Clarissa started to laugh, then stopped. “Now that you mention it, I can’t say for sure. I always thought Swan took orders from Grimes.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought,” Louise agreed. “I heard some of the other shop owners tried to put up a fight at first. Swan never would.”
“Might be a good front to keep people guessing,” Irish commented. The thought gave him an idea. He looked at his watch. It was nearly ten.
“I’m going to check in with a friend of mine about Swan and Grimes,” he explained. “In the meantime, get your stuff together and stay in the apartment until I get back. Don’t open the door for anyone but me.”
“I’m still not leaving,” Clarissa insisted. Ray glared at her.
“Louise doesn’t need a dead friend. Why don’t you think about that while I’m gone?” His reproach surprised her. The shamus turned to Louise. “Straighten Clarissa out,” he told her. “You can stay at my office until you leave with Gaylord.” He paused at the door. “If someone tries to break in, don’t hesitate to use that gun.”
Clarissa watched Irish leave, intrigued by his peculiar stride. He had a rugged, square face and penetrating brown eyes. There was pain behind the eyes; she recognized it. He was also the first man who didn’t react with distaste when he met her for the first time. She sensed he stared at her to understand the depth of her bitterness. It surprised her.
“He’s right, you know!” Louise’s voice brought her back. “You need to come with me.”
“What do you know about him?” Clarissa ignored her friend, who walked back into her bedroom with a suitcase.
“He’s already taking charge, like all the other guys. He’s no different,” she declared.
“Bucky told me he’s the private detective who helped the police capture the gangster, Guy Young, a few months back. I guess he was in the war,” she replied. “That’s how he knows, Mr. Gaylord.”
“I guess that explains his strange walk,” Clarissa commented as she walked into the bedroom they shared. The two twin beds had the same peach-colored covers. Clarissa had found the covers at an estate sale.
“You saw his missing finger, didn’t you?”
“Really? I didn’t notice,” Louise said. She already had half of one drawer in the suitcase. “Maybe you should be a detective? Come on, start packing.”
Clarissa smiled, not surprised. Louise was flighty and too trusting. She needed someone to protect her. Clarissa sighed and went to the closet. After glancing over at her friend, she began to pack.
Irish drove through downtown Oyster City until he pulled next to the newsstand owned by his friend, Pappy. The street remained deserted, and the energetic newsy was closing up his newsstand for the night. Like normal, he wore a brown sweater over his black vest and dungaree pants. His blue pork-pie hat nearly covered his gray hair.
Ray honked his car’s horn.
“If you’re ready, I’ll give you a lift home,” he told the thin, black man.
“Just give me a minute,” he replied with a smile. “You know Emma makes me bring home the fashion pages from the Herald Tribune.”
Irish nodded and leaned back in the seat. Pappy was the first person he met when he arrived in Oyster City. A veritable encyclopedia for local history, news, and rumors, the newsy was Ray’s source of information. Everyone from beat cops to reporters came by his stand during the day. It allowed Pappy to fill in the gaps.
After locking his stand with a padlock, Pappy slid into the Nash, carrying an armful of papers and magazines.
“I appreciate the ride home,” he told Ray. “It takes some of the wear off the old bones. Here’s the latest issue of Startling Stories for you. I know how much you like your pulps.”
“Thanks for the magazine. You better watch out, or you’ll end up with a belly like me if you use a car all the time,” the shamus warned as he drove away.
He asked how Emma was doing.
“Oh, she’s fine. She asked about you the other day,” Pappy replied. “I expect she’ll be pestering me to invite you over for dinner again.”
“Well, I don’t turn down free food. You know that.” Irish turned along the familiar route to Pappy’s apartment building.
Emma had died several years before and now lived as a ghost in the apartment. It was a claim Ray never rejected. Pappy was a loyal friend. Besides, Ray saw enough in the war to believe that the spirits of the dead walked with the living.
“Alright, Ray, what’s on your mind?” Pappy asked. “You’re on a case, I can tell.”
“Yeah, I have a couple of names for you,” he admitted. “Gerald Swan and Butch Grimes. They play down on Dock Avenue. Swan runs a women’s clothing shop. Grimes is a tough working a racket, either top guy or partners with someone.”
“Umm, Swan is a name I know. He was in the papers a few years ago. The insurance company claimed he burned down his first shop,” Pappy said. “I just remember there were lawyers involved.”
“No police involved?” Ray asked.
Pappy shook his head.
“No, it didn’t even make page one. You said the other name was Grimes. I can’t say I’ve heard the name.”
“Maybe about the model who had acid thrown in her face? Arizona told me the Jacobi gang might use him.” Ray pulled in front of Pappy’s building.
“No, that name don’t ring a bell,” the newsy confessed. “Might be a newcomer if Jacobi is using him. Sorry, but I’ll ask around if you want.”
“Only those you trust,” Ray warned. “Butch is a gorilla with a nasty temper.”
Pappy slid out of the car with a chuckle.
“That’s about all you ever run into,” he said. The newsy dropped a paper and picked it up. “You need to take a hint from my Emma. You remember she told you to pay more attention to the social and fashion sections of the paper? That’s where the better half, those with the money live.”
Ray smiled at the advice.
“I guess I’ll have to listen to Tucker more often.”
Pappy closed the car door and looked inside.
“Who’s that?” he asked with a grin.
“Tucker Gaylord, he’s a big shot up in New York. He handles a lot of models with his agency,” Irish explained.
Pappy’s grin turned to a puzzled line.
“Can’t say I’ve heard of him or the company,” he admitted. “Well, I guess I don’t know as much about such things as I thought. Thanks for the ride. I’ll expect you for dinner next week.” He stepped around the car to the sidewalk, then turned back to Ray’s open window.
“You know it will surprise Emma that I invited you before she did,” he told him with a laugh.
Ray gave a vacant smile as his friend disappeared inside the building. He continued to watch the building for several minutes before driving away.
Ray pulled into a parking space along Peach Street, next to his office building. As he climbed the dark stairway to his office, his thoughts remained on the information from Pappy. It left him confused and suspicious. As he got to the top of the stairs, he unlocked the door and entered. He didn’t see Butch, but he felt his presence. It was the man’s fist that slammed into the side of Ray’s head that confirmed that Butch was waiting for him. The attacker stepped from behind the open door and struck the reeling shamus again. This time, it was a well-placed shot into Ray’s lower back. Irish fell to the floor with a loud groan.
“We’re almost even now, shamus.” He stood over him, pulling Ray’s gun from his holster. Butch pointed it at the man lying on the floor. “Keep on your belly while I talk. I heard you want the guy who killed that photographer. I’m making you a deal.”
“What deal?” Ray coughed out.
“You stay away from my girls. In exchange, I will give you a friendly tip to keep you healthy. To show you I’m on the level, I’ll give you the same warning I gave your friend, Lumley. What do you say?” he asked.
“I’m listening,” the shamus replied.
“Listen, flatfoot, I’ve had nothing to do with that mug Lumley’s murder. I got no reason. He might have talked to my girls, but they knew I ran the show,” the thug explained. “He tried to get Louise’s contract from me, but I told him that wouldn’t happen.” Butch straightened, keeping the gun on his prisoner. “He was good with his pictures of my girls. I just didn’t like how he took pictures of everything and everyone all the time. It was dangerous. I told him that.”
“So, you throw acid on your model, but you don’t kill people,” Irish replied as he looked up. Butch gave him a glare.
“She was the best looker I had.” He shook his head. “Why would I damage my best product? Listen, I’m a businessman. I don’t kill people, no matter how rough I am. I might slap them around to get their attention, but dead customers don’t pay. It’s the same way with my girls. My customers liked Clarissa on the catwalk. I might get rough, but I’d never hurt her like that.”
“Then who did the acid treatment? You gotta know who hurt your business, as you call it.” The shamus tried to understand the guy’s angle. He appeared to be on the level.
“I wasn’t even there. I heard about it afterward. Clarissa will tell you that. Problem is, the guy has a screw loose about dames,” Butch said. “He treats every girl like this—wives, models, it don’t matter. All she had to do was spread her legs for the guy. Hell, he’d offered to pay her that night. She got all uppity on him.”
“You’re all heart. It sounds like you need a different partner before you end up as an accessory to murder,” Ray observed.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got my reasons, even if he goes bonkers,” the thug told him.
“I don’t get why you’re not protecting your partner with that gun of mine.” Ray prayed he wouldn’t accept the dangerous advice.
Butch glanced down at the .45 auto in his hand.
“I told you I’m on the level. I ain’t no murderer. He’s a partner with the contacts I need, not my kin,” he explained. “You’ve got problems with him. Keep poking your nose in Lumley’s death, and you get a bullet. I’m telling you, it won’t be from me. Walk away, and we all live happy.”
Ray turned over on his side.
“Tell me who it is, and I’ll only go after him,” he suggested.
Butch smiled grimly.
“I don’t rat out partners,” he growled. “I play the cards I’m dealt with. And I ain’t going to let someone try to pin a murder on me.” Grimes swung his foot, and his leather shoe slammed Irish in the head. The stars shot through his vision before the lights went out.
“Hey, wake up! Come on, Ray, wake up!”
Ray felt a hand tapping him on the shoulder. He glanced up. The broad face of Tucker Gaylord looked down at him.
“What the hell happened?”
Groggily, Ray forced himself to sit up. He gingerly touched the bump on his forehead.
“Butch dropped by and left me this,” he replied. “He swore he had nothing to do with the murder. I think he was really on the level about it. He could have pumped a bullet into me, but he didn’t. He warned me that someone else was gunning for me.”
“That’s crazy. How can you trust a guy that just knocked you unconscious? I’m not a detective, but you need to go see a doc about your head,” Tucker told him.
“Maybe, but why come tell me about it? I got something else from what he told me. There are more rats than just him involved in this racket.” Ray slowly got up from the floor.
“It has something to do with Bucky and his photographs,” he said, mostly to himself.
“What the hell are you saying?” Gaylord’s concerned face stared at Irish. “Are these tied together? How?”
Ray shrugged and walked to his desk. He opened the drawer and pulled out a pint of Irish whiskey. He took a shot from the bottle.
“It could be Butch’s foot just rattled my brain too much. However, I remembered Lumley was doing more than just taking shots of models. He told me he was experimenting with time-lapse photos on his camera. He was excited about his pictures of animals running around in the place at night.”
Ray took another swig.
“I’m willing to lay odds that someway, somehow, Bucky got pictures of the group leading the racket. I think it’s the tie-in that got him killed.”
Tucker remained quiet for a moment. Ray couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
“Pictures inside a dark building. I don’t see how he can do that, even with time exposure. I thought any movement would blur the picture.” Tucker ran his hand through his hair. He bent over to pick up Ray’s gun. “Maybe Bucky was yanking your chain?”
“No, he wasn’t joking,” Ray told him. “Not about photography. He’d bore you to death about it.”
“And if you’re wrong? What about the girls?” Tucker asked as he drifted to the desk. “You could get them killed.”
Ray paused, offering a drink to him. Tucker shook his head.
“I guess you’re right. I can’t forget about them,” Irish agreed. He picked up the phone.
“Who are you calling?” Tucker placed the pistol on the desk.
Ray shook his head, ignoring him. As the phone rang, he picked up his gun.
“Sirk, it’s Ray Irish,” he spoke into the handset. “Did you find any infrared film in Bucky’s darkroom, especially on the floor in that mess?” He paused while the detective grumbled about not being a message boy.
“Don’t give me that crap,” Ray told him. “It could be important to your case.”
“Alright, I’ll bite,” the policeman told him. “Yes, someone exposed several rolls of the stuff intentionally. Now tell me why it’s important.”
“Can you develop any of that film?” the shamus asked. As he listened to the answer, his shoulders sagged.
“Nah, we found every can open up. We wondered why. You have a theory?”
“There’s a tie in between Butch Grimes and a silent partner who is involved in a racket with those clothing merchants along Dock Avenue,” Irish stated. “I think Bucky got a picture of them together. It might be the motive for bumping him off.”
“Might be? What am I supposed to do with that?” Sirk complained.
“Maybe you pick up Butch to expose the whole thing,” he replied. “He might have an alibi, but maybe his partner doesn’t. Light a fire and get the rats to scatter.”
Sirk grunted at the suggestion, then told Irish he would think about it. He hung up before Ray could push.
“Well, what happened?” Tucker asked.
“I think I lit a fire,” Ray told him. “But I’ve got another idea just in case. Are you still willing to help get the girls out of town? Maybe this evening?”
“Sure…I mean, why this evening?” Tucker seemed distracted.
“I’ve got some ideas. I need Clarissa to help me.” Ray went to his coat rack and pulled on his fedora. He looked down at his suit and decided the wrinkled cloth would wait.
“I think you know who the silent partner is,” Gaylord stated.
“Yeah, I’m going to check on the girls and then Swan. I’ll meet you later at your hotel later,” he told him.
“What happened to you?” Clarissa asked when she saw Ray’s beat up face.
“Grimes came by to visit me last night. He left me sleeping like a baby.” He tried to grin, but stopped at her stony stare.
“How are you and Louise doing?”
“Worried, but nobody’s bothered us,” she told him.
Dressed to leave in her light blue blouse and dark blue pantsuit and she I pinned her hair up.
“Where’s Louise?” He looked around the small apartment. Packed bags were by the door.
“She went down the street to get a few things for the trip. Are we still going? Louise still thinks you’re on the up and up.”
Clarissa’s tone indicated she didn’t see Ray the same way.
“I didn’t get this bump because I’m playing for the other team,” he scowled. “You’re leaving tonight. Right now, I have to track down Butch. I planted an idea in Detective Sirk’s head about him. I need to find him before the cops do. Do you know his address?”
“Yeah, I know all right,” she said. “When I was in the hospital, I asked a friend to follow him home one night. She gave me the address.”
He went to the counter and opened her purse. Next to the purse sat a rose-colored hat with a side veil. She turned back to give him a slip of paper to Ray.
“I planned on walking up and putting a bullet in him. Then I found out that he wasn’t the one who ruined me. He’s still a bastard.”
“Well, I’m going to have a chat with him. He let it slip about a partner. Maybe I can put a scare into him,” he stated.
“Scared? Why would he worry about the cops?” she replied. “He wasn’t around when I got this.”
“He’s worried enough to warn me to drop you girls and keep my nose out of the murder. I’m curious about why he’d bother with me. He could have used my gun to bump me off last night,” he pointed out. “I think I know why. Now I want some pressure on him. He might cut a deal.”
“He’s vermin. You shouldn’t let him off for what he’s done,” Clarissa warned.
“You’re right. However, this is Oyster City, and I can make promises that the cops don’t keep,” he said smugly. “I’m playing the odds that he wouldn’t mind if his partner took a fall. As long as that means Butch keeps his little racket.”
Ray opened the door.
“Thanks for the help. Keep your door locked and make sure Louise stays with you. I’ll let you know what’s next when I know,” he said.
“Wait up, I’m going along,” she told him. “I just have to leave Louise a note.”
“Sorry, but this is my show. You might not like the way I handle things.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Sarcasm filled her voice. “I’ve had acid burns. I think I can handle whatever happens.” She put her hat on, and the black veil partially covered her injury.
“Leave your note,” Ray told her.
The address led Irish and Clarissa to a red brick building in the upscale area of Oyster Street, at the corner of Madison and Broadway. The mailboxes along the wall had the room numbers. There was a button below each box to ring them into the building. Irish pressed several of the buttons along the wall until the front door unlocked. He held the door open for Clarissa.
They went up the carpeted stairs to the second floor and found Butch’s apartment about halfway down the hall. Ray pulled his gun and slid up next to the door.
There was no answer. Ray knocked harder, and the dark brown door inched inward. Irish slowly pushed on the door. Shadowed darkness greeted him with the blinds down, and the curtains closed.
“Keep back,” he ordered her.
Ray slid inside. He saw the squat man sitting in a chair, facing the closed window.
“Alright, Butch, the cops are heading your way. It’s time to talk,” Ray stated.
The man didn’t move, and he appeared to be looking at the curtain rod near the ceiling.
Ray slipped over to the side of the room. As he came around, he instantly recognized Butch would never move without the help of rigor mortis.
Butch was missing his forehead. As Ray drew closer, he saw an exit wound splattered the man’s brain all over the curtain. The light turned on behind Ray.
Clarissa gasped at her view of the corpse in the chair. Then she went quiet. The veil screened her eyes, but he noticed her grimace.
“It seems a partner made certain that he wouldn’t talk,” she told him.
“Yeah, shut the door,” he replied quickly. “Don’t use your hands.”
He looked around as she closed the door with her foot. On the floor was a towel with burn marks.
“The killer wrapped the towel around the gun to silence it,” Ray stated. He quickly inspected the room, then looked out of the window at the sound of squealing tires. Detective Sirk slid out of his car with a uniformed sergeant getting out of the passenger side.
“It’s the cops,” he told her. “Come on, we don’t need to answer questions. Our answers won’t help Butch.”
Ray whipped out his handkerchief from the coat pocket and opened the door. He led Clarissa down the hallway to the back stairs. They left the building, entering the alley and worked their way back to the sidewalk.
“Shouldn’t we go up and tell them what we found?” Clarissa asked as they reached Ray’s car.
“No, I’m worried about Louise,” he explained. “I’ve only got a hunch, and I don’t like what I’m thinking.”
“It must be Swan,” she said as they got in the car. “Do you think he’ll go after Louise?”
“He’s involved. I’m just not sure what he’ll do,” Ray stated.
She decided the shamus knew something that he was struggling with. Ray found a five and dime store a couple of blocks away and parked in front.
“We’ll call Louise and tell her to stay put,” he told her.
They went to the phone booths in the back. Clarissa got Louise on the line and warned her to stay at the apartment. While the two women spoke, Ray went to the counter. He ordered two egg sandwiches. As he waited, Clarissa slid onto the stool next to him.
“She told me it’s been quiet and everything’s packed,” she said.
“That’s good. If Louise doesn’t answer the door, she’ll be fine.” He paused while the soda jerk brought them sandwiches and two glasses of water.
“Nothing for me,” she said. “I’m still a little green.”
“Yeah, it never gets better,” he agreed.
He had the sandwich down in two bites. Clarissa slid her plate next to his.
“Here you go. You missed breakfast.” She smiled.
“Don’t mind if I do. I need the food to heal up,” Ray quipped.
He grinned, happy when he saw the woman’s eyes brighten. It was the first time he noticed her eyes were hazel.
“Is this normal for you? Bad guys beating you and finding corpses?” She frowned as he looked at her.
“Normally, it’s just the beatings,” he said lightly, then downed the rest of the second sandwich. “No, a good chunk of the time is boring. Following some two-timing husband or checking out whether a guy is defrauding an insurance company, things like that.”
“You like it,” she observed. “I’m guessing you consider each case a personal challenge. If I saw your office, would you have each pencil fully sharpened, and everything was in its proper place?”
“Yeah, you can tell with my pressed suit and shirt,” Ray laughed. “Truth is my place is a dusty mess. I like logic and things that make sense. Each case requires me to figure out who’s lying and why. Oyster City throws in the violence just to keep me on my toes. Are you from here?”
“No, I came on the train and ran out of money,” she admitted. “At first, the modeling looked like a way to get what I wanted.”
Clarissa paused, as if she just realized something.
“And what do you want?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter with this,” she said, pointing to her face. “Let’s get back to reality. What’s next?”
He stared at her for a moment.
“Hold your speech for another time. What is next?” she repeated.
“We go get Louise, and I drop you both off at the Hotel Alexander. Hopefully, Tucker will be there,” he said as he rose from the stool. Ray laid down the money for the meal on the counter.
Irish pulled his car in front of Clarissa’s apartment. They hurried inside and found no Louise. However, Clarissa noticed a piece of paper on the counter. It was a note from Louise. She was going to Swans. That was all the scribbled words told them.
“My God, what’s she doing?” Clarissa shook her head.
“I’m not sure, but I know where I’m going after I make a phone call,” Ray replied.
His first call to the Hotel Alexander told him that Gaylord was out. Ray called Arizona, but he wasn’t at his desk. He left a message with the desk sergeant.
Clarissa followed him out of the apartment. Ray glanced back and decided against trying to talk her out of joining him. He’d just hope his hunch was correct. Otherwise, he was charging windmills.
They arrived along Dock Avenue as a line of gray clouds closed over the city. Ray’s car stopped half a block from Swan’s place. A few parking spots ahead of him, he noticed a black four-door Ford. It reminded him of Bucky’s reason for getting him involved. He glanced at the plates as Clarissa caught up with him. She noticed his angry face.
The street had a few shoppers who browsed the windows of the tailor shops they passed. When they reached Swan’s boutique, a handwritten sign on the door told them the shop was closed. Ray tried the handle, finding the door locked.
“Someone’s playing games. I’m done playing,” he growled to himself. “They want me to come through the back door. I’ve got other ideas.”
Irish went to the alley between the rows of buildings and glanced around the corner. The only thing he saw among the shadows were the trash bins. Entering the alley, he pulled out his .45 auto. When he was sure the area was clear, he went to the fire escape. Ray turned back to Clarissa.
“Go next door and call the police station. Get a hold of Lieutenant Campbell and tell him to bring men to this address in a hurry,” he demanded.
“No, I’m going with you,” Clarissa said hotly. “I told you I want the son of a bitch that hurt me.”
Ray took a deep breath and holstered his weapon.
“I understand that, but do you want to get Louise killed in the process? Odds are, this is a trap to finish us. They saw your note to Louise. Quit arguing with me and get to a phone. I’ll keep them busy until the cops get here.”
He took her by the arm and forced her back to the sidewalk.
Clarissa broke away.
“Damn it, I have a bigger stake in this than you do. I’m going in there, and you can’t stop me.”
Her voice rose, causing a man who was passing by them to stare. The bitter resentment along with her hideous wound gave her an evil appearance. Ray noticed others along the street observing them with growing interest.
“Alright, calm down,” he said. Quickly, he directed the woman back into the alley. “I won’t do anything until you get back.”
Her bitter expression remained just more skeptical.
“Listen, I haven’t lied to you yet. Now hurry, we’ll still need to find Louise and keep her safe when the cops show up,” he quickly explained. “I’ll scout out how to get inside. They expect us to come in through the back. I promise I won’t go into the building until you return. Move. We don’t have time to waste.”
His words finally got through. Still reluctant, the woman slowly walked toward the sidewalk. While Ray looked up at the windows above, he felt her continued glances before she finally turned the corner.
Well, I crossed my fingers, and she didn’t notice.
While he felt Clarissa deserved a chance for her revenge, Ray believed she might get herself and him killed in the process. He pulled down the steel ladder leading to the second floor and began climbing. The squeaks coming from the old metal echoed loudly in the alley. The shamus prayed the noise didn’t carry through the walls.
Irish carefully tried the two windows he could reach on the second floor, but found them tightly sealed. The scaffolding led to a door which was covered over by plywood years before. As he went up to the third floor, the rumble of thunder rolled across the alley.
Glancing up, he saw the clouds above were a dark black-gray. He cursed under his breath. The windows were out of reach above him. The platform ended at the only door on the third floor. He reached the weather-beaten door and found it locked. It moved in slightly as he pressed against the door. Ray recognized the rotting wood around the frame. He stood back and put his foot against the handle. Using the steel railing as a brace, he used his leg to press against the door. Slowly, the splintering wood gave way, then held.
As the rolling thunder grew closer, Ray dropped his foot. He heard Clarissa call out to him as he struck the door with his shoulder. This time, the door gave way, and he nearly fell inside. Pulling his pistol, Ray quickly went through the opening.
Inside, he found a false wall in front of him which ran nearly the length of the room. As he followed the wall, he realized he was behind the facade of columns and drapery that Swan used for his showroom. Quietly moving along, he came to a door that led him into the dressing room. It was too dark to see, so he pulled a match from his pocket and flicked it with his fingernail. The flash of light showed him empty dressing tables and mirrors lined along one windowless wall. Lockers and couches were on the other side.
Blowing out the match, Ray went to the curtain that led into the showroom. He heard the distant sound of muffled crying. Pushing through the curtain, the shamus tried to locate the source of the sound. The windows outside filled the room with a dusty light. A flash of lightning outside showed him movement on the runway.
It was Louise!
She was lying in the middle of the platform, trussed up like a turkey on Thanksgiving. Her mouth gagged, and she was weeping. As Ray stepped toward her, she heard his movement. Her head lifted. He misunderstood her muffled yells and wide eyes. There was the snap of a lever, and a blinding spotlight beam of white light highlighted the bound woman.
“It’s about time you got here,” Tucker’s voice filled the room. “I was about to have some fun with Louise.” He stepped out of a shadow, holding a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun on Ray. “I’ll bet you’re surprised to see me,” he said smugly.
“No, not since I passed your car downstairs. New York license plates on a black Ford,” Ray replied as his gun remained pointing to the floor. “Same car that was tailing Bucky. You and Swan set this racket up using girls who want to be models and keeping the shop owners along the street terrified of going against you.”
“Yeah, I wondered if you were smart enough to figure it out. But I wouldn’t get too confident, shamus. You stepped right into my trap. You bought into the idea that nothing can touch you.” Tucker moved closer; his expression of triumph was clear.
“You thought I would really set this up at the back door? Come on, this is where it started for you. Swan told me. Now we finish it.”
“You’re not quite the genius you think you are. A couple of things kept bothering me about you the last few days. First, you’ve been coming into town for the last six months like a big shot. I bought into it,” he admitted. “But a friend of mine exposed the truth. The New York City newspapers had nothing about your agency in the fashion pages. I’m betting anything you had was a front for something else.”
“You would win the bet,” Tucker agreed with a grim smile. “My whore first wife was screwing a racketeer while I was gone. I let it slide for a while since she introduced me to the right sort of people when I got back from overseas. My wife disappeared. Rumor has it she’s wearing concrete boots at the bottom of a river.”
“Let me guess. You started off as a gangster’s heavy, beating up the shop owners just like Butch,” Ray stated. “Then, you got ambitious. You heard Guy Young killed himself and set up a racket for yourself.”
“I guess you are smarter than you look.”
Tucker edged along the wall. Ray could tell he was trying to line Ray up to ensure the shotgun blast wouldn’t take out a window. The shamus kept hoping he would soon hear sirens as he played for time.
“I remember how you acted with women. It figures you can’t keep a wife.” Irish backed up a step. “That was another thing that pointed me toward you. You were really quick to offer help for Louise. That’s not the way you operate. On top of that, Butch told me about the guy who flung acid in Clarissa’s face. It reminded me of when you jumped into my argument with the whore in Australia. You just don’t like a woman who stands up to you.”
“Shut your trap,” Tucker warned. “A whore’s got no right to say anything. Clarissa could have been an outstanding model. I made her a legit offer. She got uppity, and I took care of it.”
Ray saw Gerald Swan enter the room. He had a silver pistol in his hand.
“What were you planning on doing with the girls when I said that I was going to let you take off with them to New York?” Ray asked. “Clarissa can’t be a model anymore, and Louise is not long and lean. Like you said, she’s cute, but not the type to get on the runways there.”
“I got friends who’d take care of them. In a couple of weeks, they’d be hanging around the docks, turning tricks while I got my cut. Then I’d be back here, expanding operations. With Swan’s business providing the front for our operations, finding more thugs ain’t hard. And there are plenty of other businesses that we can offer our fire protection. Swan and I are just getting started.”
Swan smiled at the compliment.
“Too bad. Nobody’s going to know what happened to you, Irish,” he said. “I already pulled the film in Bucky’s camera. Once we determined Lumley got pictures of us, Tucker had to take care of him. There’s nothing left but your word now. That’ll go to the grave with you.”
“You forgot my conversations with the cops. I had my suspicions about both of you.” Ray slowly backed away as Tucker drew closer. “What makes you think I didn’t already tell somebody about this racket?”
“Because you’re one of those stupid people that believes in loyal friends. And you like to play things on your own,” the man with the shotgun said, then laughed.
“Well, Ray, it’s the end of the line,” Tucker told him. Ray glanced around, looking for a place to dodge while hoping his gun hand would be fast enough.
“Yeah, for you.” A calm voice came from the shadowed entrance to the dressing room. “I’m going to kill you.”
Clarissa stepped into the room with her gun pointed at him.
Gaylord smiled savagely at her. His gun turned toward Louise. Swan swung his pistol at her.
“It’s the next great model,” he mocked her. “Swan, kill her.”
Swan shot at Clarissa when she fired her gun. Her bullet struck Gaylord in the leg, causing him to flinch when he pulled the trigger of his own gun. The blast of pellets struck the platform below the bound woman. However, he remained standing. As Tucker tried to level his barrel at Ray, he was too late. Irish fired his weapon. The .45 bullet hit Gaylord in the face. He fell back to the floor with most of his face gone. Already moving toward Swan, Irish fired off two more shots that struck the man who collapsed.
Adrenalin still on high, he closed on the shop owner. The thunder outside rumbled closer as he looked down at the dead man’s open eyes. The case was closed.
He heard a moan with footsteps near him. As the wind started pelleting rain against the windows, he turned to see Clarissa coming toward him.
“I told you I would get the son of a bitch,” she declared with a look of disbelief on her face.
Then he saw the discoloration on her blouse. Ray rushed toward her. She fell forward, dropping the gun, which clattered across the wood floor. He went to his knees, pulling her over onto her back. A flash of lightning struck nearby, exposing the spreading blood.
“Damn it, you should have stayed away,” he grumbled.
Ray placed his hand over the wound on her lower belly. She grimaced when he pressed to staunch the bleeding. Over the pouring rain, pounding on the roof above, they heard the sirens finally drawing close.
“Untie Louise,” she told him as she took his hand and moved it away from her injury. She placed her hand on the wound.
“Alright, but don’t go anywhere,” he told her, then winked before he hurried over to Louise.
The small woman was quiet, unsure of what to expect. Ray quickly untied her arms before going back to Clarissa. After getting the ropes off, she followed him over to her friend while removing the gag. She grabbed Clarissa’s hand.
“You’ll be alright,” she pleaded.
“We’ve got to get her to the hospital.” Ray scooped Clarissa up in his arms. “Louise, get down to the front door and unlock it so we can get her out of here.”
She paused, staring at her friend. Clarissa nodded, and Louise hurried away. Ray started for the stairs. The woman in his arms watched him.
“I heard what Gaylord told you,” she said with a grimace as he carefully went down the steps. “I can’t understand how I could have missed Swan and Butch working together.”
“It was a racket designed to fool everyone. None of the other shop owners realized Swan sent Butch after them. He could play the victim and get the information about models and firms they hired,” he explained.
“I’m sorry he fooled you.” Her words came faintly through the pounding rain on the nearby windows.
“Save your strength,” he huffed as he reached the ground floor. Irish leaned against the wall to catch his breath. Louise was already at the front door.
Arizona rushed inside, along with several uniformed men. The detective saw the blood and immediately ordered his men to help Irish.
A minute later, Ray and Clarissa were in the back seat of a patrol car speeding to the hospital. The rain continued in torrents, and the car skidded as the sergeant driving pushed the limits of the vehicle. Arizona and Louise sat in the front seat. They listened as Ray give the detective more details about the events inside the warehouse. Clarissa rested her head on Ray’s lap. Her face was pale, and she was quiet.
“You should have waited,” the detective told Ray.
“No, it was between Tucker and me at that point. Louise meant nothing but bait for Clarissa and me,” the shamus replied. “He’d have killed her if you were there first. Tucker had nothing to lose.”
“So, Gaylord wanted to take over for Guy Young,” Arizona guessed.
“In his own small way,” Ray agreed. “I’m guessing during one of his trips to Oyster City, he realized the whole thing was ripe for control. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were involved with the Jacobi gang up north. My bet is those poker games got them information. Gaylord planned on creating a modeling agency front just like his gangster friends.”
He looked down at Clarissa, who gave him a weak smile.
“Thanks for saving Louise,” she said.
“No, you did more than I did to save her.” He grinned. “Once we get you fixed up, you can expect an invitation to the best restaurant in Oyster City.”
“I’ll bring my veil,” she replied.
“Like hell,” Irish told her. “We all carry scars. It’s what we do with them.”
“It’s not the same,” Clarissa insisted.
“When you get out of the hospital, you and I can have that argument. Until then, just don’t make fun of my walk, and we’ll get along great,” Irish told her with a grin.
Clarissa took his hand and nodded her thanks.