“Do you want to call it a day?” asked Michael in a tone which suggested he very much hoped my answer would be yes.
I couldn’t really blame him. We’d spent most of the day trawling the area, searching for a hidden room in a neighbourhood stuffed with buildings where rooms were packed in tighter than sardines in a tin. And where the answer to nearly every question we asked seemed to be, “None of your goddamn business.” It was no wonder we’d so far drawn a blank. My eyes drifted idly down the street and momentarily fixed on a doorman in a braided uniform pacing the pavement beneath a canvas awning. “We could always take a look in the club,” I suggested.
Michael looked at the bright neon sign flashing over the doorway with the ghost of a frown. “The Blue Room? I don’t know. You’ve heard what they say about that place.”
“So it’s a bit of a gangster hangout,” I replied lightly. “So what?”
“Well,” said Michael, “I’d rather not wake up in the morning in the river wearing concrete boots.”
“That’s not going to happen. We’re just going for a drink – we’re not muscling in on anyone’s protection racket.” That hint of a frown continued to play across Michael’s brow. “Besides, everyone loves gangsters. They’re always nice to their mums and they throw money around like confetti.”
“They’re not going to let you in looking like that,” said Michael, casting a critical eye over my faded jeans and battered Converse.
“We passed a dress shop on East 47th that had a sign saying it stayed open late,” I said. “I reckon I could barter my way into something respectable.”
Michael continued to stare moodily at my shoes for a moment or two but I could sense he was wavering. “C’mon,” I said. “Don’t you think we deserve a drink?”
There was a lengthy pause before Michael finally yielded with a light shrug. “Alright, maybe just a quick one then.”
I smiled a mildly triumphant smile. I knew he’d give in sooner or later. Like I said, everyone loves gangsters.
At least, they do right up until the moment they feel the knife between their ribs.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning I went looking for the Ladies. I left Michael by the bar, skirted the edge of the dancefloor and weaved my way through a swathe of tables before a bored looking cigarette girl directed me down a narrow, curving corridor. The sound of the band soon faded and the featureless corridor curved on without sign of life for so long that I was beginning to think that I must be on the wrong track. But then I spotted a tall, elegant woman in a green dress disappearing through a doorway just up ahead. In the hope that she might be on the same mission I was, I hurried through after her.
The door led onto another narrow, featureless corridor, this time running straight ahead to a carpeted staircase. I was just in time to see the rear of the glamorous woman in green sashay up the stairs, hypnotically thrusting out a perfectly rounded hip with each step, glossy auburn hair bouncing in immaculately sculpted waves around her bare shoulders, before she vanished around a corner. For a moment I hesitated, considering whether or not I ought to turn back, but instead I set off down the corridor after her. I had no idea who this woman was or what exactly she was up to but she certainly didn’t look like the kind of woman who got lost on the way to the Ladies.
I didn’t get as far as the staircase though. The corridor leading up to it was lined with a couple of doors on either side. When I drew up alongside the second door on the right I suddenly stopped and turned towards it. It was just a plain, dark door, much like all the others around it, but there was something about this particular door that immediately made me think of the hidden room that we’d spent all day scouring the neighbourhood for. It seemed to be just a fraction smaller than the other doors in the corridor and, unlike those, it wasn’t topped with a small square of frosted glass. It’s not much to go on, I’ll admit, but when you’ve spent the entire day staring at doors of every shape and size you tend to notice the slightest detail.
I reached out a hand and tried the handle but the door wouldn’t open. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. Doors in the deserted back corridors of nightclubs are apt to be locked for any number of reasons. I remained standing there, gazing thoughtfully upon the door, until I was startled out of my reverie by the sound of another door opening somewhere just behind me.
I turned, instinctively ready to offer a flustered apology for intruding, but something in the face of the handsome, well-dressed man who emerged from the room opposite stopped me. For when he looked up and caught sight of me his first expression was not one of surprise or annoyance but of guilt. For just a moment he regarded me with the furtive expression of a naughty child caught with their hand inside the sweetie jar before he swiftly smoothed it out into something more neutral. We stood and stared curiously at one another for a moment. Then he broke into a broad smile.
He seemed about to speak but before he could get any words out my attention was distracted by a sharp yell from up the corridor. We both turned to see a great mountain of a man in a stretched grey suit coming down the stairs towards us. “Hey, whaddya doing there?” he yelled in a voice so deep it almost made the floor shake.
There was just time for the well-dressed man to surreptitiously shut the door through which he had appeared before the giant, in a couple of easy strides, was right on top of us. “This here is private property,” he growled. “What ya doing here?”
“I’m sorry, I was just looking for the ladies,” I replied in a slightly tremulous voice. The man mountain had that kind of effect. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall, with shoulders broad enough to set furniture out on.
The gorilla said nothing but turned his menacing blue eyes onto my unwitting companion. Ignoring the intimidating gaze the well-dressed man held a hand out to me. “Darling, there you are!” he exclaimed, fixing me with imploring eyes. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”
Somewhat taken aback, I hesitated and the man mountain narrowed his eyes. “This guy with you?” he demanded and he flexed his fists so that his knuckles cracked like a shotgun going off.
It may have been a reaction to the gorilla’s threatening gesture or it may have been the gently pleading look in the well-dressed man’s face. Alright, I’ll come clean, it might even have had something to do with the handsome cut of his features. Whatever it was, something compelled me to reach out and take the proffered hand. “Yeah, sure, he’s with me,” I replied as nonchalantly as I could manage.
The man mountain glared suspiciously at us for a little longer. Then finally he shrugged and said, “The powder room’s back that way.”
“Thank-you,” I said. “Very kind of you.”
He said nothing more but his fierce, threatening eyes remained fixed upon us as I turned away, arm in arm with my new-found companion. I could sense his malevolent gaze following us all the way as we walked back down the corridor and through the door at the far end.
We continued for some way along the curving corridor in silence, only stopping to breathe a sigh of relief when we were finally back within earshot of the band. My companion turned to me. “I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I don’t usually foist my attention on complete strangers in that manner,” he said with a light smile, “but I think you may just have saved my life back there. So thank-you.”
“Forget it,” I said with an exaggerated shrug. “I would have done the same for anyone.”
“Perhaps,” replied the well-dressed man, “but you ought to at least allow me to buy you a drink to show my gratitude.”
I hesitated. “Okay, but only if you tell me what exactly you were doing nosing around there where you so clearly shouldn’t,” I eventually said, my curiosity as usual getting the better of me.
He paused to consider this proposition for a moment. “Well, perhaps I do owe you some sort of explanation, Miss…?”
“Everingham,” I said as we continued on towards the dancefloor. “Natasha Everingham.”
“Lord Jeremy Tinsdale at your service,” he introduced himself in return with an ironic bow. “But please call me Jerry. Everyone does.”
We had reached the edge of the tables clustered around the dancefloor when the nagging consciousness of having heard that name somewhere before suddenly resolved itself with the memory of the proprietress of a certain Cuban detective agency and her fictional creation. “Of course, Lord Jeremy Tinsdale!” I exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, have we met somewhere before?” asked Jerry with a faint look of amusement.
“No, it’s just that I’ve met your…” The sentence faded away as I realised I wasn’t quite sure of the correct terminology for referring to a fictional character’s author in their presence. Should you say ‘author’? ‘Creator’? ‘Originator’? Perhaps fictional characters didn’t like to acknowledge that somebody, somewhere in the real world was responsible for their conception. “What I mean is, I’ve met, er, a colleague of yours,” I eventually spluttered as diplomatically as I could. “Felicity Fortescue.”
“Ah, good old Felicity,” replied Jerry without a hint of embarrassment. “She still running that detective agency of hers in Havana?”
“Sort of,” I replied, images of kidnapped showgirls and fake Sherlock Holmes running rapidly through my mind. “She was thinking of, er, branching out last I heard.”
“Oh well, good luck to her. She always was a clever old girl,” said Jerry. “If not exactly the easiest person to get along with. I worked in Havana with her for a little while but I’ve always preferred the freedom of running my own operation. You understand?”
I gave him a sympathetic nod to show that I understood.
He pulled out a chair at an empty table. “Cigarette?” he said, taking out a silver case from his jacket pocket as he deftly slid into the seat alongside me.
“No thanks, I don’t smoke.”
A brief look of vague bafflement flitted over Jerry’s face at this seemingly bewildering confession but he brushed it off with a light shrug. “You’ll have some champagne though, won’t you? It’s bootleg of course but pretty decent stuff all the same.”
I consented to champagne and whilst Jerry signalled a waiter I took the opportunity to run my eye over Felicity Fortescue’s foremost creation. I had to hand it to her, she certainly knew how to make sure her heroes were nicely put together. He was tall, something over six foot, but he filled out his immaculately tailored evening dress with a pleasing sense of proportion. His slickly side-parted hair framed a classically handsome face with warm brown eyes and a ready smile. He spoke in a rich English voice and altogether displayed a manner so impossibly smooth that if, in the real world, Felicity Fortescue had ever got around to selling the rights to her character to Hollywood it seemed a cinch he would have been played on the big screen by George Sanders or David Niven.
“So,” I said whilst Jerry poured the champagne which the waiter had brought over, “just what were you doing poking around back there?”
“I was on business,” replied Jerry simply. “If you know Felicity Fortescue then you must know something of the business I’m in.”
I hesitated. The obvious reference was to detective work but I couldn’t help recalling that Felicity Fortescue had mentioned her character stooping to a bit of escort work when times were hard. He certainly didn’t look like a guy on his uppers but you never could tell. Fortunately I was saved from making any immediate reply as a short, sturdy guy in a stiff white collar suddenly bowled over.
“There you are boss,” he said, breathlessly flopping into an empty chair opposite us. “I was beginning to think you must have run into trouble.”
“I did,” replied Jerry smoothly, “but thanks to Miss Everingham here I was able to run out of it again. Miss Everingham, may I introduce my associate, Darryl G. Forrest, commonly known to one and all as Woody.”
“Pleased to meet you I’m sure,” said Woody with a casual nod.
That at least seemed to answer the business question for I didn’t think gigolos had much need for associates and certainly not ones who looked like Woody. He was considerably shorter than the man he referred to as ‘boss’, with a stocky build and a broad, round face. He couldn’t have been more than thirty but his thick dark hair was already receding at a pace from his wide forehead and he spoke with a distinctive nasal twang.
The mention of associates also brought to mind Michael, whose existence I have to confess I had completely forgotten in all the excitement. “That reminds me, I’m here with someone myself,” I said to Jerry. “I’d better let him know where I am.”
“Him?” said Jerry, sitting up with a slight frown. “Are we talking husband?”
“No, he’s just a friend.”
“Then by all means bring him over to join the party,” said Jerry, relaxing back into his customary smile.
It didn’t take long to locate Michael, still loitering by the bar and showing no great concern over my lengthy disappearance. I steered him back to the table and made the necessary introductions. A slightly pained look of recognition passed over Michael’s face at the memory of Felicity Fortescue and Jerry poured him a glass of champagne with a sympathetic expression.
“You were going to tell me about this business you’re engaged upon,” I said to Jerry, once everyone was settled with drinks.
“Ah yes,” said Jerry. “Well, Woody and I run a sort of private detective outfit and we’ve been hired by the D.A. to try and help him put together a case. A chap called Vince Egan, who just so happens to own this very nightclub, along with several other rackets in town, shot a guy named Tommy ‘the Mouth’ McElway right by the bar there just before midnight on Saturday night.”
I ignored the pointed ‘told you so’ look that Michael gave me at the mention of violence. “That doesn’t sound like a very tricky case to put together,” I said. “Surely there were witnesses?”
“Sister, this shooting had more witnesses than Jehovah,” said Woody emphatically. “Only it turns out being the witness in a Vince Egan case ain’t altogether good for your health.”
“They tend to fall prey to unfortunate accidents,” explained Jerry with a wry smile. “The kind that end with a pickaxe in the back of the neck or a bullet to the head.”
“Can’t the police offer some form of protection?” asked Michael.
“It may be the police they need protecting from,” replied Jerry ruefully. “Someone on the force must be tipping off Egan’s mob for no sooner do they think they have the witnesses tucked up in a secure location than a carload of armed thugs is knocking at the door.”
“And now the D.A’s supply of witnesses is in danger of running dry,” added Woody.
“Which is where we come in,” said Jerry. “We need to find the leak and plug it whilst there are at least some witnesses still in a fit state to testify.”
“I’m still not entirely clear what you were doing prowling around the rear corridors of this nightclub though,” I said. “If you’re looking for a bent cop, isn’t the police station the obvious place to start?”
“So you’d think,” conceded Jerry, “but I’m afraid, law enforcement being what it is in this town, the possibilities at that end are at little overwhelming.”
“It’s like looking for a nickel in a slot machine,” suggested Woody sourly.
“We thought it might be easier to try and trace the link man who’s picking up the information for the mob,” said Jerry.
“With Egan banged up there are probably only four people he trusts to handle an operation this delicate,” explained Woody. “There are the two Bryson brothers who constitute his chief muscle. There’s his girl, Amber, and then there’s his accountant, Morrie the Bookman. It’s gotta be one of those.”
“And all of them tend to hang around the Blue Room nightclub,” added Jerry. “So we thought we’d come down and have a bit of a ‘poke around’ as you so delightfully put it.”
“Until you got chased out by a gorilla in a grey suit at least,” I said with a grin. “Who was that guy anyway?”
“Ah, that was one of our chief suspects, big Frank Bryson,” replied Jerry. “And I didn’t plan to run into him there, believe me. I was just hoping to have a quick look around without attracting any undue attention.”
“In that case I’d say your plan was a monumental failure,” complained Woody. “Cause big Frankie is right over there and he’s been giving our table the fish eye for the last ten minutes.”
We all turned in the direction that Woody indicated and there indeed stood the man mountain we had encountered in the corridor, his menacing blue eyes fixed firmly on our table. Alongside him stood a rake thin man with a sour face who was also watching our table with an unpleasant intensity.
Jerry threw a casual smile in the gorilla’s direction. “Oh well, perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing to draw our main players out into the open,” he mused. “The chap alongside Frank is his brother, Leyland Bryson, another name on our list.”
“Brothers?” said Michael incredulously. “I don’t see much of a family resemblance.”
“No, well it has been said that old Ma Bryson wasn’t entirely fussy about where she bestowed her favours,” remarked Jerry delicately.
“That lady had morals looser than a fat guy’s underpants,” threw in Woody.
“Anyway, they’re not to be tangled with lightly,” added Jerry. “They’re known around town as Knuckles and Chuckles.”
“I can see where you might get Knuckles from but Chuckles, really?” I said, throwing another glance at the sallow, miserable face of Frank Bryson’s brother. “He doesn’t exactly look like a barrel of laughs.”
“He ain’t, trust me,” returned Woody. “But he is skilled with a razor and he likes to leave folks with what they call the South Side Smile. That’s a big red grin that runs from here to here.” Woody ran a finger across his throat in graphic demonstration.
“Charming,” I murmured.
“Anyway, now you’ve heard our tale,” said Jerry, “perhaps you’d care to tell me what you were doing prowling about the remoter reaches of this club.”
“Like I said, I was looking for the Ladies.”
“If you’ll pardon me for saying so, from the way you were examining that door when I came across you it looked like you hoped to find more than just a Ladies room behind it.”
Michael swiftly turned to me. “You found the door?” he said eagerly.
“Probably not,” I replied with a weary shrug. “It was just… well, you know what it’s like when you’ve been staring at doors all day.”
“Why are the two of you so interested in the doors around here?” asked Jerry curiously.
“It’s a long story,” I said with a dismissive sigh.
“I’m not going anywhere,” returned Jerry lightly.
I looked questioningly at Michael. He glanced thoughtfully at Jerry and Woody for a moment and then replied with a ‘why not’ shrug. So I took a deep breath and, with Michael’s help, somehow stumbled my way through the story of Sturridge, the Explorer’s Club and the 273 rooms scattered across the landscape of the imagination. By the time I finished we’d drained the last of the champagne.
“That certainly sounds like one hell of a case you have on your hands there,” said Jerry, signalling for another bottle.
“That Explorer’s Club sure sound like one screwy mob,” added Woody sympathetically.
“Maybe we could offer you some assistance,” offered Jerry thoughtfully. “It sounds like a little local knowledge could be invaluable in helping you track down this room you’re looking for.” As he spoke he threw a questioning glance at Woody who responded with a casual ‘can do’ nod.
“I’m sure we could use all the help we can get,” said Michael. “But don’t you have your hands rather full with this Egan case at the moment?”
Jerry considered this point whilst pouring out fresh champagne for everyone. “Perhaps we could team up,” he suggested casually. “You help us with the Egan case and we’ll help you trace your missing room.” He paused. “Of course, our work isn’t without a certain element of danger…”
“That’s okay, we’re used to that,” I nonchalantly replied, perhaps a little quicker than I intended.
“I thought you looked like a girl who knows how to handle herself,” remarked Jerry with an arched eyebrow.
I avoided Michael’s smirking glance and did my best to stifle the faint flush I could feel rising in my cheeks by taking a drink of champagne. Jerry’s technique was undoubtedly a little cheesy but not entirely ineffective.
“How does it sound then if we pair up and each tackle a couple of suspects in the Egan case?” suggested Jerry. “Once we’ve nailed the snitch we’ll have all the time in the world to hunt out your missing room.” He paused for objections but none were forthcoming. “Excellent. Then how about if Miss Everingham and I check out Amber and Morrie the Bookman and you two,” – he nodded at Woody and Michael – “see what you can dig up about the Bryson brothers?”
“Yeah right,” drawled Woody unhappily. “We get to tangle with King Kong and his knife-happy brother over there while you tail the broad and the bookworm.”
“Alright then, you check out Amber and Morrie and we’ll take the Bryson brothers,” retorted Jerry smoothly.
But it seemed this suggestion suited Woody no better. “Aww, don’t give me no dames to tail boss,” he whined. “They ain’t ever nothing but trouble.”
“Fine,” said Jerry with a sigh. “We’ll take Amber and Chuckles Bryson. You look out for Knuckles and Morrie.”
“I guess that ain’t so bad,” Woody finally conceded after a moments consideration. “What do you say brother?” he added, looking at Michael.
“Why not?” said Michael with a shrug. “I presume that arrangement suits you Natasha?” he added, raising an eyebrow in my direction.
“Sounds okay,” I responded nonchalantly.
“That’s settled then,” said Jerry, raising his glass in order to offer a cheerful toast. “I’m sure we’ll have both our cases cracked in no time.”
To be continued…