The apartment that Vince Egan had provided for Chuckles Bryson was situated in an ornate six-storey building sited along a broad, leafy avenue. Slitting throats was clearly a business that paid well in this town. On our first pass we walked straight by on the opposite side of the road, taking note of the stout middle-aged doorman patrolling the entrance to the building. “Don’t be fooled by the smart uniform,” murmured Jerry as we passed, “Egan runs a very rich gambling outfit from in there. I’ll lay odds of ten to one that doorman is packing some serious heat beneath that braided jacket and he won’t take kindly to strangers nosing around.”
So we carried on instead to a small café on the corner where we paid for a couple of coffees we had no intention of drinking and Jerry used his best smile to persuade the waitress to let us have use of the phone and the phone book. There was no answer when Jerry dialled the number to Chuckles’ apartment. I justified my patent sense of relief to Jerry by pointing out that, to borrow a phrase of Woody’s, we were far more likely to get something out of Chuckles’ empty apartment than we were from Chuckles himself.
That still left the doorman to get around. After a lengthy debate on the subject Jerry finally hit on the idea of paying a group of kids hanging around by the café a couple of bucks to run on down the street and pitch a few stones at the lower windows of the building. As anticipated, the doorman couldn’t resist giving chase and the few minutes for which he abandoned his post proved sufficient for us to slip in unnoticed and hurry up the stairs.
Everything seemed eerily quiet as we stood outside the door to Chuckles’ apartment on the second floor. I kept my eyes fixed nervously on the elevators opposite as Jerry drew an elegant silver penknife from his inside jacket pocket and jiggled it purposefully around in the lock. After a few tense seconds the lock gave way with a reassuring click and we swiftly slipped through the door, shutting it carefully behind us.
We stood in a long, narrow hallway. Through a doorway to the right could be glimpsed a bedroom and a flash of bright tiles that suggested an adjoining bathroom. Straight ahead an open door at the end of the hall showed onto a small untidy kitchen. We turned instead through a door to the left which led into a bright, spacious sitting room with a broad window overlooking the avenue. We paused for a moment in the centre of the room, looking around.
“I don’t know anything about the way Chuckles Bryson usually likes to keep his apartment,” I finally remarked, “but I have a feeling somebody got here before us.”
The room was in chaos, a more deliberate kind of chaos than you might expect to find where the owner of the room simply had no concern for order or cleanliness. Drawers were turned out, papers scattered all over the floor, seat cushions ripped to shreds. Somewhere beneath the surface disarray I thought I caught a glimpse of a plain, rather sterile apartment – neat functional furniture and a muted décor. The kind of place inhabited by someone with plenty of money but without much sense of style or inclination for comfort.
“You’re right, I don’t think this mess belongs to Chuckles,” agreed Jerry. He stopped and sniffed the air. “And I don’t think that hint of perfume belongs to him either. At least, I never had him down as a Chanel man.”
There was a brief pause before one of the long, heavy drapes framing the window was pushed aside and from behind it stepped Amber Allen. She was dressed in an expensively cut light grey suit, her auburn hair pinned up beneath a stylish blue hat and a fox stole draped around her shoulders. The impression artfully conjured was of a woman who had just stopped by on her way to the country club. “Well, don’t you two just keep on turning up like a bad penny?” she said in that rich, chocolatey voice of hers. “And I thought this was an exclusive neighbourhood.”
“It must be slipping,” replied Jerry tartly.
“I shall have to be sure to warn Harry the doorman to keep a sharper eye out for shady characters,” said Amber. “Incidentally, just how did you two get past him?”
“I guess he was a little distracted,” said Jerry.
Amber tutted. “He must be slipping too. That’s not like Harry.”
There was a brief pause. “You haven’t found it then?” I said, throwing a pointed glance at her hands which held nothing other than a small blue clutch bag.
Amber looked down and regarded her hands for a moment with an expression which suggested she was surprised and a little disappointed herself not to find Egan’s red book nestling in them. “No, I haven’t found it,” she regretfully confirmed. “Not that I really expected to find it here – Chuckles never was much of a book guy.”
“Yet you seem to have done a remarkably thorough job,” remarked Jerry, glancing around with an arched eyebrow.
“Well, it pays to be sure,” said Amber lightly.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier just to get Knuckles to ask his brother whether or not he had the book?” I suggested.
“I couldn’t be sure we’d get a straight answer,” confessed Amber, glancing thoughtfully out of the window. “Francis and Leyland have, well, kind of a complicated relationship. You know how it is with brothers. I’d like to think that once Frankie and I are running this town Chuckles will throw his lot in with us but, well… you never know.” She finished with a resigned shrug.
“That’s supposing you and Frankie ever do run this town,” said Jerry. “Time’s running short. I don’t know if you’ve heard but they say the D.A is already considering his options.”
“I heard,” replied Amber distantly, avoiding his eye.
“Perhaps you’d be better off spending your time planning a welcome home party for Egan,” I suggested with just a touch of malice. “See if you can’t get back into his good books.”
“Unless you wanted to cash in your chips and turn state’s evidence,” added Jerry lightly. “I’m sure I could get you a deal.”
Amber trailed a hand casually across the drapes. “You know you two really do work a very nice act together,” she said. “I really can’t blame you, Lord Jeremy, for trading in that other clown you used to work with.”
“Oh that’s no way to talk of poor Woody,” replied Jerry with mock offence. “Besides, I haven’t entirely traded him in just yet. He still has his uses.”
“Really?” Amber arched an immaculately sculpted eyebrow. “There was word he’s found himself a new handsome English gentleman to run around town with.”
“That’s alright, I’m not the jealous type,” remarked Jerry sardonically.
“So you’re all in this together, are you?” said Amber.
“There’s always room for one more if you wanted to join us,” Jerry offered.
“Oh, I get tired of running around in other people’s gangs,” replied Amber airily, glancing out of the window. “Much more fun to live by your own rules, don’t you think?”
“Not always so safe though,” I returned.
“Well, I’ve always got Francis for company and I’m afraid he is the jealous type,” said Amber with a seductive smile. She paused and took a longer look out of the window. “Anyway, I think you’d better look to your own safety before you start offering advice on that score. It seems the doorman didn’t entirely fall for your little ruse after all.”
Reluctantly obeying the wave of her hand, Jerry and I moved cautiously over to the window and peered out. Three men were striding determinedly down the street towards our building, foremost among them the mean, gaunt figure of Chuckles Bryson. His companions were variations on the same theme; hard, taut muscles contained within sharp, pin-striped suits and fierce glares gazing out from beneath slanted fedoras. The group were met in the street by the doorman who spoke urgently with them for a moment. At one point he turned and gestured up towards the very window we were looking out of, causing both Jerry and I to instinctively shrink back behind the curtain. When we dared peep back out again we were just in time to see Chuckles Bryson pat the doorman gratefully on the shoulder before he and his companions disappeared inside the building.
“I told you it wasn’t like Harry to let anything slip by him,” said Amber with a note of triumph as we edged uncertainly back from the window.
“I wouldn’t be so cocky if I were you,” I snapped irritably. “You’re in just as much trouble as we are if Chuckles finds you here.”
“I don’t think so,” said Amber breezily.
“You think he’ll be fine with you turning his apartment upside down, do you?” demanded Jerry. “I’m afraid it’s going to take more than a flutter of your eyelashes to squeeze your way out of this tight spot.”
“Then it’s fortunate I have brains I can use instead,” retorted Amber with an indignant flash of those green eyes. “Now let me see, how will the story go? I called around to warn Chuckles about some smart-ass private detective couple that showed up at my place this morning, asking questions about Vince. And when I get here, what do I find? His joint being ransacked by that very same couple, searching for… well, I just don’t know what.” Her voice rose as she spoke, gradually shedding the familiar knowing insight and adopting a note of feigned innocence.
“Do you really think he’s going to buy that?” I asked.
“Right now, as far as he’s concerned I’m still Vince’s girl,” smirked Amber. “Of course he’ll buy it.” She strolled casually across the room. “I think my story will be best illustrated with a pose by the door,” she said. “Gazing in frozen terror at the ransacked room.”
Jerry and I both stared at her in mute frustration for a moment or two but there seemed no denying that on this occasion we had been completely outplayed. We finally turned to each other, silently acknowledging that we had no option but to look to our own safety. Hurrying past the triumphant Amber, we paused uncertainly in the hallway. To head out of the apartment door would surely mean running straight into Chuckles and his pals. We glanced helplessly about for a few seconds before Jerry fixed his gaze upon the kitchen at the opposite end of the hallway. “Of course, the fire escape!” he abruptly declared, ushering me in that direction.
We ignored the raided cupboards and emptied drawers that indicated Amber had already been at work in the room and went straight to the window, through which the lattice ironwork of the fire escape glinted. Voices could already be heard outside the apartment door as Jerry hastily pushed open the window, pulled over a chair and held out his hand. “Ladies first,” he said with a smile.
Given the urgency of the situation I decided this was not perhaps quite the time for educating Jerry with a feminist perspective on outmoded notions of gallantry. Instead I took his hand and scrambled hastily up out of the window. Jerry followed rapidly behind.
Once on the fire escape I instinctively grabbed the ladder heading down to the ground floor but Jerry laid a restraining hand on my shoulder. “Not that way,” he murmured. “They’ll expect us to go down.” Instead he indicated the ladder leading up to the floors above.
By this time the door to the apartment had burst open and the hallway filled with urgent voices so, without pausing to think, I hurriedly scrambled upwards with Jerry hot on my heels. We were just pulling ourselves up onto the top floor platform when the sound of voices below – Amber’s low sweet tones countering Chuckles’ sharp nasal twang – abruptly ceased and we heard the sound of bodies scrambling out of the kitchen window after us. Jerry and I immediately pinned ourselves as flat as we could against the wall of the building and held our breath.
To my intense relief the footsteps proceeded one by one without pause directly down the ladder from the second floor. “You see,” Jerry whispered in my ear. “Elementary psychology.”
When the footsteps reached the alleyway below there was a pause and I couldn’t resist peering down to see what was happening. An intense debate seemed to rage for a moment in low, muttered voices between the three men. Finally, on Chuckles’ command, one of the men ran off down one end of the alley whilst Chuckles himself hurried away in the opposite direction. To my consternation the third man stayed put. He circled casually around the foot of the fire escape for a minute or two before leaning back against the ladder and lighting a cigarette in the manner of a man readying himself for what could prove to be a long wait.
I turned to Jerry. “Alright smartarse,” I murmured. “What now?”
Jerry glared down at the stationary gangster for a moment as though he thought he might will him to move off by some form of telepathy. When that didn’t work he reluctantly turned around and thoughtfully examined the window behind us. After a moments consideration he gave it a heave and, to his undisguised relief, it opened with ease. “Simple – we nip back through the building and get out down the fire escape on the other side,” Jerry told me with a casual smile.
“And if the residents up here should object to our trampling through their apartments and call the doorman?” I retorted.
“There are no residents on this floor,” Jerry replied. “Egan keeps it clear for gambling.”
Choosing to ignore his triumphant smile, for I thought it a triumph in no way earned, I hooked a leg over the window sill and gently slid down into the room beyond. Jerry eased his way down after me and carefully pulled the window shut behind him.
The apartment in which we landed had been knocked through into a single large room scattered throughout with card tables and roulette wheels. Through an archway to the right stood a large bar and the walls around it were lined with a number of intimate booths and plushly upholstered sofas to create a space for relaxation away from the serious business of losing money. The whole place was grandly decorated with thick carpets, polished mahogany surfaces and sumptuous fabrics. This was certainly no two-bit gambling den.
We walked cautiously across the empty room, half-expecting someone to leap out of some unseen nook or cranny to challenge us, but the room was utterly devoid of life and we reached the door on the other side without incident. There were a few tense seconds whilst Jerry flicked his penknife around inside the lock before it clicked open. After a preliminary peek confirmed that the corridor was empty, he cheerfully swung the door open and we both stepped out into the hall.
We had taken barely a step or two when we were frozen in our tracks by the ping of the elevator at the far end of the corridor. The elevator doors creaked open in what felt like alarming slow motion and to my horror a gaggle of middle-aged businessmen led by a short, slick guy in a croupier’s uniform poured out. As they began striding up the corridor towards us, chatting jovially amongst themselves, Jerry and I hastily bundled ourselves back through the door we had just come out of.
“Damn,” murmured Jerry as we stood just inside the apartment listening to the footsteps and voices growing slowly but steadily closer. “I completely forgot about the four o’clock card game.”
The footsteps continued to approach and I glanced helplessly about in search of somewhere to hide but the broad, open room offered little in the way of concealment and the great chasm between ourselves and the window by which we had entered seemed impossibly wide. Within a few seconds the voices in the corridor were almost on top of us. But just as I was bracing myself for discovery there came the muffled sound of a door opening somewhere and the voices suddenly faded away into silence.
I turned in wordless curiosity to Jerry. He frowned for a moment before breaking into a broad smile. “Of course,” he murmured. “They must be using the room on the other side of the hall.”
We waited a minute or two to let the gamblers get settled and then cautiously edged our door open once more, finally ready to make our escape. To our dismay we almost stumbled straight into the back of two thick-necked bodyguards idly loitering in the hall outside, waiting for their bosses to emerge from the card game. We darted back, thankfully unseen, and silently shut the door to our apartment once again before instinctively backing away. In the centre of the room I paused and looked from the door to the window and back again. “Brilliant,” I murmured to Jerry. “We’ve got sentries in the hallway and a sentry at the foot of the fire escape. What are we supposed to do now?”
Jerry glanced around thoughtfully for a moment. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait,” he finally said with a light shrug. “These afternoon card games never generally last longer than an hour or so.”
“An hour!” I exclaimed as loudly as I dared.
“There are worse places to get trapped,” insisted Jerry nonchalantly and he wandered over behind the bar. “Care for a drink?” He poured out two scotch and sodas and pushed one over in my direction. “You can at least rely on Vince Egan to provide you with the very best in bootleg liquor.”
“Not bad,” I conceded, taking a sip. “But what are we supposed to do for a whole hour? We can’t just sit here and get drunk.”
“I have one or two suggestions I could make,” offered Jerry lightly. “Though I’m not sure that boyfriend of yours would approve. What was his name again?”
“Peter,” I replied sternly.
“Ah, that was it. Happy together, are you?”
“I like to think so.”
“Although I can’t help wondering quite what kind of a boyfriend allows a beautiful young woman like yourself to go wandering around the landscape on her own,” said Jerry, leaning casually on the bar.
“Maybe the kind of boyfriend who realises it’s not up to him to ‘allow’ me to do anything,” I retorted pointedly.
“Oh of course,” replied Jerry smoothly. “You’re clearly a girl who knows her own mind.”
I said nothing but walked a few steps over to a large red sofa and sank down upon it. If he thought he was going to win me over with lines like that then this was going to prove a very long hour. There followed a brief silence during which I concentrated on drinking my scotch.
“Well, we ought to do something to keep ourselves entertained,” Jerry finally said, coming out from behind the bar. “How about a hand or two of gin rummy?”
“I don’t know the rules.”
“Then perhaps we could spend the hour simply getting to know one another better,” suggested Jerry, deftly sliding down onto the sofa next to me. I turned and gave him a look. “In a purely friendly manner, I mean,” he hastened to add. “After all, I’m sure you have plenty of fascinating tales to tell about your time in the landscape.”
“I don’t know about that,” I replied, somewhat distractedly. Up close the soft musk of Jerry’s after shave was undercut by a faint smell of tobacco. The overall effect proved to be far from unpleasant.
“Or perhaps you’d rather I went first,” Jerry went on. “Without wishing to sounding too immodest I’d like to think I’ve been involved in a few faintly entertaining exploits in my time…”
He continued to talk but for the moment I tuned him out, letting the words wash over me without paying much attention to their meaning. The combination of the scotch and Jerry’s rich voice was proving an intoxicating combination but the mention of Peter earlier had produced a disturbing jar to my conscience. For a minute or two I drifted away, distractedly counting the bottles behind the bar whilst I tried to resolve my conflicting emotions.
“…or there was that time I spent living amongst the Bedouin tribes of Arabia, on the hunt for a particularly ruthless assassin who was threatening to derail the peace conference in Damascus,” Jerry’s voice flowed on. “Now the Bedouin really are a fascinating people…”
“Jerry,” I suddenly said, having finally come to a decision.
“Just shut up and kiss me, will you?”
Jerry smiled. “With pleasure.”
We waited a good couple of hours before finally making our escape from the gaming room; an hour to let the gamblers in the opposite room finish their card game and another hour – well, you know – just to be on the safe side. It should have made us rather late for our rendezvous with Woody and Michael but when we finally got to the diner we found that they had only just arrived themselves, having suffered some ill-defined hold-up of their own at the warehouse down by the docks. On this occasion Woody was prepared to forego a detailed account of their exploits but the essential outcome was the same as ours – we’d all drawn a blank in our search for Egan’s red book.
“Maybe this Amber broad was just stringing you along about the book,” suggested Woody. “We’ve only got her word that it actually exists.”
“No, I’m certain it exists,” said Jerry thoughtfully. “The only question is where.”
“Well, we can’t search the whole damn town,” complained Woody.
“Not if the D.A’s already getting twitchy,” I threw in.
“Exactly,” agreed Jerry. “I’m afraid we no longer have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for things to turn up. If we’re going to get a result in this case we may have to take a few chances and make something happen.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” groaned Woody. He turned to Michael. “You know there ain’t gonna be nothing but trouble when he gets around to saying that.”
Michael threw Woody a sympathetic smile. “Any ideas how we can make something happen?” he asked Jerry.
“Perhaps,” replied Jerry elusively. “Our one advantage is that we know cracks are already starting to appear in Egan’s mob. It’s down to us to blow those cracks wide apart.” He paused, toying distractedly with a coffee stirrer for a moment. “I believe there’s only really one place we can hope to do that.” He paused and then looked up with a resolute expression. “If you ask me our best shot at finding that red book lies where it all started, at the Blue Room.”
To be continued…