After finishing the second bottle of champagne the four of us arranged to meet up a little later for breakfast, in order to allow everyone to freshen up and change out of their evening clothes into something a little more daywear appropriate. At a local diner, over coffee and waffles, Jerry and Woody filled us in on the details of the nightclub shooting at the heart of their investigation.
“Tommy McElway is a pretty minor hood who dabbled in the numbers game in a small way,” Jerry told us. “He was seen hanging around the bar at the Blue Room from about ten-thirty last Saturday night but there was nothing very unusual in that. Everyone goes to the Blue Room.”
“About midnight Vince Egan shows up,” said Woody, taking up the story. “He does the rounds, meeting the punters, doing a little glad-handing – y’know, the way big shot club owners like to do. Anyhow, it looks like he’s fixing to make tracks when all of a sudden Tommy McElway walks over, breathes a word in his ear and, bam! Egan pulls out a .32 and pots McElway right between the eyes. Right in front of the whole club. Even the local flatfoots couldn’t avoid making a pinch with a score like that.”
“Meaning, I presume, that under different circumstances they might not be so keen?” clarified Michael.
“Egan’s a big name in this town with a finger in just about every pie,” explained Jerry. “Bootlegging, gambling, protection rackets – you name it, Egan runs it. And it’s a fair bet he’s got a healthy number of city officials in his pocket.”
“And those that ain’t directly in his pocket are mostly too smart to think about putting the pinch on anyone with the Bryson brothers on their payroll,” said Woody, graphically skewering a piece of waffle with his fork to emphasise the point.
“Which makes it all the more puzzling for Egan to pull a gun in the middle of a crowded nightclub like that,” mused Jerry. “He’s certainly not averse to violence but he is normally a very cautious player. If he didn’t like whatever it was McElway said to him there are plenty of less public ways for him to deal with it.”
“This town is just full of lonely alleys,” muttered Woody.
We chewed over the possibilities a little longer, just long enough to finish our coffee and waffles, before splitting up in search of answers. Woody and Michael left first, still formulating their plans as they went. Once they had gone Jerry suggested we opened our campaign by talking to Vince’s girlfriend, Amber. Considering that the alternative would involve tackling the razor-wielding Chuckles Bryson, I was happy to agree.
Amber lived on the first floor of a stylish apartment building on the west side of town. A stout, stern-faced maid opened the door to us. “Miss Allen’s busy,” she snapped in response to Jerry’s polite request. “And she don’t talk to no private dicks neither.”
“Perfectly understandable,” an entirely unruffled Jerry smoothly replied. “But perhaps you could tell her that I’m under authority from the D.A’s office, so either she talks to me here and now or I’ll be back shortly with a warrant and we can have our little chat down at the police station.”
The maid scowled, muttered, “Wait here,” and disappeared inside, slamming the door shut in our faces.
“I had heard it was difficult to get the right staff in this town,” quipped Jerry lightly. “I can’t think where people get that idea from.”
A minute later the maid returned and reluctantly showed us into a bright, art deco-designed sitting room. It was a few minutes more before Amber herself walked in. She was a tall, willowy redhead wrapped in a Chinese print silk dressing gown that she allowed to slip just far enough down one shoulder to make it clear she was wearing nothing underneath. Her hair had that carefully arranged ‘just-out-of-bed’ look and she wore the minimum amount of make-up necessary to highlight her delicate cheekbones and sparkling green eyes. She acknowledged our existence with the barest of nods before settling into a chrome-edged chair. The maid followed her in, set down a cup of coffee on the table beside her and immediately left again.
“I’d offer you something,” said Amber in a low, smooth voice that dripped like chocolate as she picked up the cup and idly stirred the coffee, “but I’m sure you must be a very busy man Lord Jeremy.”
“That’s fine, we’ve just had breakfast,” said Jerry lightly, settling himself onto the sofa opposite. I sat down alongside him. “And please call me Jerry. This is my colleague, Miss Everingham.”
“Delighted,” murmured Amber with a careless nod.
I half mumbled a reply, being too busy trying to shake a feeling of déjà vu that only resolved itself when I finally recognised Amber as the glamorous woman in green I’d briefly followed at the club the night before. The coincidence immediately seemed significant but I couldn’t for the moment figure out why.
“Now then, what can I do for you?” said Amber, delicately sipping at her coffee.
“We’ve been authorised by the D.A. to investigate the unfortunate series of incidents that have befallen a number of witnesses in the Tommy McElway shooting,” Jerry began.
“Then you’re investigating in the wrong place,” said Amber smoothly. “That’s Vince’s business, not mine.”
“Ah but with poor Mr Egan currently residing in jail he’ll need someone to take care of business matters for him,” said Jerry. “Someone he can rely on.”
Amber shook her head with the hint of a smile. “Wrong play sweetheart. I haven’t seen Vince once since they locked him up.”
“That’s not very supportive of you,” I remarked archly. “Been too busy to visit?”
“What can I say? I have a phobia of enclosed spaces and I don’t like to see my men wearing stripes.”
There was a thoughtful pause, during which Amber sipped her coffee with an air of modest triumph, clearly feeling she had the measure of us.
“Cigarette?” Jerry said, suddenly pulling his cigarette case out of his jacket pocket. Amber accepted with a languid nod. She leaned forward to allow Jerry to light it for her, watching him coolly the whole time.
Jerry slipped me a smile that I couldn’t quite read whilst he lit a cigarette of his own, then he took up a pose leaning thoughtfully against the mantelpiece. “You know, the whole business of this shooting is really rather puzzling,” he said in a light tone that suggested he was just making conversation. “One can’t help wondering just what Tommy McElway might have said to make a man like Vince Egan lose his temper that way.”
Amber shrugged. “They don’t call him Tommy the Mouth for nothing.” Her voice remained smooth but for the first time I thought I caught a hint of tension in her face.
“Yes but you wouldn’t expect a man like Egan to be riled by the words of a two-bit hoodlum like Tommy McElway,” returned Jerry. “Guys like him are always trying it on, aren’t they? And guys like Egan don’t get to where they are without knowing how to pick their battles.”
Jerry paused to watch the smoke he had just exhaled drift away across the room. “And let’s face it,” he went on, “by all accounts Tommy was not quite the toughest guy around. It generally takes a lot of balls to walk up to the biggest man in town and whisper something in his ear that might get you a bullet in return. Why take the risk?”
“Like you said, I don’t suppose he expected Vince to react with all those people around,” replied Amber with an exaggerated show of indifference.
“Perhaps,” mused Jerry thoughtfully. “Or perhaps Tommy McElway didn’t quite understand the significance of the words he was saying. Perhaps someone set him up. Someone fed him the words and sat back and waited for the fireworks.”
Amber said nothing but continued to watch Jerry coldly. I watched Amber, fascinated by the tiny adjustments in her expression that hinted at things she was trying, but not quite succeeding, to hide.
“Of course that begs the question of who would know the words needed to get a reaction like that out of Egan,” continued Jerry. “I’d say it would have to be something more than just business, wouldn’t you? Something personal. That’s how you rile a man like Vince Egan.” Jerry paused for another long drag of his cigarette. “So it must have been someone who knew him pretty well.” He exhaled slowly. “Like someone who shared his bed for instance.”
Amber gave a harsh, brittle laugh. “You think I set up Vince to ice Tommy McElway? That’s crazy.”
“Is it?” said Jerry softly. “If you ask me the whole thing smacks of a woman’s touch. The perfect way to put Egan out of action without going to the trouble of dropping him yourself.”
“And why on earth would I want to put Vince Egan out of action?” demanded Amber. “I’m his girl, aren’t I?”
“Maybe you realised you wouldn’t be his girl much longer once he finds out you’ve been fooling around with big Frank Bryson behind his back,” I threw in casually.
It was a pure stab in the dark – a wild surmise conjured up from the memory of those silk-clad hips sashaying up the stairs to where Knuckles Bryson must have been waiting – but Amber’s reaction instantly told me I’d scored a bull’s-eye. She tried to smooth it over, concentrating for a moment on flicking ash from her cigarette, but the big guilty flinch with which she’d received my jibe had already told its story.
“Well, well, well,” said Jerry, casting an impressed glance in my direction before returning to Amber with a sly smile. “Big Knuckles Bryson, eh? It really does seem there’s no accounting for taste.”
“I’ve nothing more to say to you,” snapped Amber.
“Really?” said Jerry. “You might want to rethink that. It seems to me you’re not exactly sitting in a very comfortable place right now.”
“You’re going to find yourself in a very awkward situation if those charges against Egan don’t stick,” I added.
“And they won’t stick if the witnesses keep dropping like flies,” said Jerry.
“It seems like it’s in your own best interests to tell us everything you know,” I suggested.
“Well, ain’t you two just the cutest couple,” muttered Amber sourly. “You been working on this act long?”
“Not long,” admitted Jerry. “But it has panache, you have to admit.”
Amber hesitated, taking another nervous drag on her cigarette. “Alright, you seem to have it pretty well figured out,” she finally said, stubbing it out decisively. “I did it. I set Vince up to plug Tommy McElway in a way Vince wouldn’t be able to squirm out of. It was the only play I could see that would make things safe for Francis and me. Frankie’s a tough guy but he’s got a soft heart and I knew he’d never be able to turn around and ice Vince after all he’s done for him. So it was up to me. Besides,” she added after a brief pause, “Vince has run this town long enough. It’s high time he stood aside and let someone else take the reins.”
“Someone else meaning you and Knuckles Bryson?” said Jerry with a raised eyebrow.
“Why not?” Amber shot back. “I’ve got the brains and Francis has the brawn. We could make this work. Well, we could if…” The sentence tailed away and she picked up her coffee cup again, idly fiddling with the spoon.
“If…?” I pressed.
Amber hesitated a moment longer. “Getting Vince out of the way is only half the job,” she finally confessed. “If you want to run this town you need two things – money and connections. Vince has it all written down in a special book. It’s all in there – details of all his businesses, all the rackets, who’s taking payoffs – the lot. You have that book and you have the whole town.”
“You’ve seen this book?” said Jerry.
Amber nodded. “It’s a red ledger embossed with Vince’s initials in gold on the cover. Vince always kept it in a locked drawer in an office at the club. The plan was for me to lift it as soon as he was pinched. But there was more of a flap than I anticipated when Tommy McElway got shot. Guys yelling, women hysterical. And even with a dozen witnesses and a smoking gun in his hand the cops were still pretty slow to put the rap on Vince. Nobody was prepared to make a move till they had back-up stretching twice around the block. So anyway, what with one thing and another, by the time I went for the book it had already disappeared.”
“Do you think someone else made a play for it?” asked Jerry.
Amber shook her head thoughtfully. “Naw, I’m certain Vince got it away somewhere for safe-keeping,” she said resignedly. “Only I don’t yet know where.”
“It’s not going to mean much to you anyway if Egan beats the shooting rap,” said Jerry. “Tell me, who’s calling the shots on the campaign against the witnesses? Morrie the Bookman? Chuckles Bryson?”
But Amber had returned to distractedly playing with her coffee spoon. “I don’t know,” she murmured. “Whoever it is, they’ve been warned to play it on the quiet – Vince always keeps his cards pretty close to his chest.”
“Couldn’t you help us find out?” pressed Jerry. “You don’t want Egan walking free any more than we do.”
“He must have realised that you were the one who set him up,” I added.
Amber shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “He’ll have his suspicions but he can’t know for sure,” she said, slowly shaking her head. “I can soon win him back round if I have to,” she added defiantly.
“But would you really want to?” I asked. “You’ve made your play, surely now’s the time to see it through.”
“Throw your lot in with us and Egan will be out of your hair for good,” added Jerry encouragingly.
Amber twirled her spoon around the edges of her coffee cup a few more times and for just a moment I thought she was going to crack. But suddenly she threw it down with a clatter and looked defiantly up at us. “Sorry guys, but I can take care of myself and I don’t act stool for no D.A,” she announced abruptly. “The witnesses are your concern, not mine.” She rose imperiously from her chair. “And now, if you don’t mind, I’m sure we’ve all got a busy day ahead.”
To be continued…