The fact that it was less than a week since a man had been shot dead in the middle of the dancefloor appeared to have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the patrons of the Blue Room – the place was as lively as ever when we showed up again that night in our finest evening wear. On closer inspection though a layer of suppressed hysteria seemed to simmer just below the surface gaiety. All around us lowered voices tinged with anxiety discussed the circumstances of Egan’s arrest and the progress of the police investigation. Everyone it seemed was expecting trouble sooner or later.
We took a table on the edge of the dancefloor, ordered champagne and settled down for the time being to watch and wait, marking time till all our players had entered the scene.
The Bryson brothers were already in situ when we arrived, leaning side by side against a rear wall and glaring impassively out at the fun and frivolity before them. I couldn’t help wondering how far Chuckles had been taken in by Amber’s account of the events of this afternoon or whether he already suspected his brother’s loyalty. But there was nothing much in either the thin, sour face of Chuckles or the broad, fleshy face of Knuckles to indicate what thoughts, if any, lurked within.
We hadn’t been there long when Woody leaned forward and remarked in a low voice, “Looks like Morrie just entered stage left.” Discreetly following his directions I picked out a short, slender figure weaving through the crowd towards the bar. With his pinched, sallow face, sandy hair and glasses the Bookman couldn’t have looked more bookish if he’d worn a library card as a lapel badge. He certainly seemed ill at ease in the raucous, sweaty atmosphere of the club, eventually settling himself on a high stool at the very edge of the bar and taking short, apprehensive sips from a glass of lemonade.
It was nearly midnight before Amber finally made her appearance. The tight press of bodies seemed to part automatically before her as she made her way through the throng. She paused at the top of the short flight of stairs that led down onto the dancefloor and calmly surveyed the scene. For just a moment her gaze caught Knuckles’ eye across the bobbing sea of dancers’ heads but then she turned abruptly away and allowed an eager waiter to clear a table for her at the foot of the stairs. There she sat, smoking a cigarette and idly brushing off the attentions of a few foolhardy males who chanced their arm whilst she waited for who knew what.
We continued to wait also, sipping champagne and chatting aimlessly whilst we watched for the right moment to make a move. I was taking a turn on the dancefloor in the company of Jerry when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Amber stub out her cigarette and abruptly rise from her table. At the same time the song finished and we joined the other dancers in a round of applause, ostensibly fixing our eyes on the band but carefully following Amber all the while. She strode purposefully around the edge of the dancefloor, passing right behind us.
As she slid through the tables on the other side Jerry quickly murmured in my ear, “Follow her and see where she goes,” before slipping away in the opposite direction. I just caught sight of him striding up the stairs towards the bar before I was obliged to turn and push my way through the crowd in order to keep Amber in sight.
She marched right on through the tables, passed by the cigarette girl and headed away down the curved corridor that led away from the band and the bright lights of the main floor. I had a distinct sense of déjà vu as I followed those swaying hips down that same narrow passageway where I had first spotted them 24 hours ago. I wondered where she could be headed. Did she have another rendezvous arranged with Knuckles Bryson or had she suddenly figured out a clue that might lead her to Egan’s red book?
As the corridor curved onwards and the sounds of the band faded I began to feel a little lonely and anxious. I wished Jerry hadn’t felt that sudden urge to disappear in the opposite direction. Supposing Amber suddenly turned around and challenged me, what was I supposed to do then? She wasn’t exactly a threatening figure but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she didn’t carry some sort of gun about her person and I’d bet she knew how to use it. I wished there’d been time to notify Michael and Woody of my mission before I’d started down this bleak, deserted corridor. As it was, I could end up dumped in an alleyway with a bullet in my back and they’d still be quaffing champagne and joking together.
Just as these morbid thoughts were in danger of overwhelming me I was brought back to the task in hand by an unexpected move from Amber. About halfway along the corridor she suddenly made an abrupt turn to the right and disappeared through I door I hadn’t noticed before. This, it seemed, was going to be the moment of truth. I took a deep breath and ducked through the door after her.
The room on the other side seemed dazzlingly well lit after the gloom of the corridor so it took a few seconds of my blinking uncertainly before I realised that I had finally stumbled upon the Ladies bathroom I had been originally searching for when this whole adventure began. A row of toilet cubicles ran down one side of the room, a line of dressing tables along the other. An elderly woman sat knitting by the door, guarding a basket of stockings, cosmetics and other feminine necessaries whilst two lavishly dressed women sat gossiping on a sofa nearby. Amber was sitting at a dressing table about midway along the row, gazing languidly at her flawlessly made-up face. She must have caught a glimpse of me in the mirror for after a second she slowly turned and remarked, “You must be getting desperate. Can’t a girl even go to the bathroom in peace these days?”
I hesitated by the doorway for a moment, unsure how to respond. Then I walked boldly over and sat down in front of the mirror next to Amber. “Everyone’s entitled to use the facilities, aren’t they?” I returned.
“You’re persistent, I’ll give you that,” said Amber as she took a mascara wand out from her purse and began carefully touching up her lashes. “I thought maybe your brush with Chuckles might have persuaded you to lie low for a while.”
I peered for a moment at my own eyes, wondering whether there wasn’t a hint of a dark shadow beginning to show beneath. Maybe all these late nights were in danger of catching up with me. “And I thought you’d be too busy with the hunt for Egan’s red book to be hanging around in nightclubs,” I replied casually. “Or maybe you’ve given up hope of finding it.”
Amber sat back to admire her efforts. “Maybe I have,” she said. “For now.”
“So you’re just going to run right back into Egan’s arms?”
“If, as everyone seems to expect, the D.A plans to release him in the morning then I’d be a fool to do anything else.”
“Then what about you and Knuckles?”
“Sometimes you have to be prepared to play the long game.”
I looked at her curiously. If there was any anxiety lurking within then there was no sign of it in her smooth, nonchalant face. “So that’s that, is it?” I said. “A man gets killed, a town turned upside down and all for nothing?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say for nothing,” replied Amber. She took out a small bottle of perfume and dabbed a few drops around her elegant neck. “Vince may have wriggled his way out of this one but I’ve seen the chinks in his armour. When the next opportunity presents itself I’ll be ready.”
“How do you know there’ll be another opportunity?” I persisted, feeling an urge to prod at that unruffled exterior. “Egan’s bound to be on his guard from now on.”
“For a while maybe,” returned Amber. “But then things’ll drift back to the way they were. At some point Vince’ll get sloppy – men always do. Well, nobody knows his weak points better than I do. When the time is right I’ll strike again and I’ll strike hard. Believe me, Egan’s finished in this town. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
“You traitorous bitch!”
Both Amber and I immediately wheeled around to locate the source of this unexpected outburst and discovered Morrie the Bookman standing just inside the door to the ladies bathroom. I had no idea how long he’d been there but judging from the look of murderous rage he was flashing in Amber’s direction I figured he had probably heard most of our conversation. Over his shoulder I could see Jerry standing in the open doorway, watching proceedings with a light smile, and his dart towards the bar suddenly made sense. No doubt this was what he’d had in mind when he’d mentioned blowing apart the cracks in Egan’s mob. From where I was sitting it looked like a pretty good ploy.
The two women on the sofa had given a squeal of disapproval at Morrie’s outburst and the elderly woman with the knitting now tutted loudly at this masculine intrusion into her domain but Morrie seemed oblivious to the existence of anyone but Amber. “I warned Vince, I always said you were trouble,” he spluttered, practically shaking with anger. “I told him – Vince, I said, that twist of yours ain’t nothing but a gold-digging whore. But he wouldn’t listen. He swore to me you were on the level. Well, just you wait till I tell him what I just heard.”
Amber gazed at Morrie for a moment with an expression of sublime indifference and then turned back to the mirror. “You appear to have wandered into the wrong bathroom Morrie, though I suppose it’s an easy mistake to make in your case,” she remarked. “Do close the door on your way out, won’t you?”
This attitude of supreme detachment served only to drive Morrie into further paroxysms of impotent anger. “Do you hear me?” he screeched. “You’re finished lady! I’m blowing the lid on this scheming of yours. I’m telling Vince everything, chapter and verse.”
“And you think he’ll believe you, do you?” returned Amber in the same smooth tone.
This undoubtedly gave Morrie a moment’s pause. “Damn right he’ll believe me!” he insisted after a few seconds of ineffectual spluttering. “Besides, I got witnesses.”
“Witnesses?” retorted Amber. “Really?” And she gazed disdainfully around the room, inviting Morrie to assess the calibre of his witnesses. The outlook wasn’t entirely promising for the Bookman. The two women on the sofa had admittedly, after their initial squeal of disapproval, been following the argument with intense interest. But as soon as Morrie turned in their direction they immediately looked away, clearly unwillingly to get dragged into any mobsters’ dispute. The elderly woman by the door had already resumed her knitting, apparently now deaf to the disturbance. Which just left me and Jerry and I sensed a certain element of professional pride would deter Morrie from appealing to a couple of private detectives for support. He stood and silently glowered at Amber for a minute or two whilst the flush on his face edged a few stages down the colour chart from mild pink to deepest purple.
“Oh, you think you got Vince all wrapped around your little finger, don’t you?” Morrie finally flung back at her. “Well, maybe your stock ain’t quite so high as you think it is. After all, it’s not like you’ve been to see him once since he got banged up. I’m the guy who’s been visiting every day, taking orders, keeping the business running. We’ll see who he believes when the chips are down.”
There was a long pause before Amber slowly rose to her feet. She carefully adjusted her dress and then turned to face Morrie. “Maybe there’s a good reason why I haven’t been to see Vince in prison,” she said defiantly. “Maybe that reason is standing in front of me right now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” snapped Morrie.
“Suppose I tell Vince that I haven’t been to see him in jail cos I was afraid of running into you there,” said Amber, a sly yet seductive smile spreading slowly over her face. “Suppose I tell him you’ve been trying to fill his shoes in more ways than one while he’s locked up.”
Morrie gaped for a moment like a particularly dumbfounded fish. “You damn liar!” he finally burst out. “I ain’t never laid a finger on you.”
“Oh come now Morrie,” replied Amber coolly. “It’s not like you’ve never thought about it.”
Morrie continued to stand there for a few seconds, helplessly sputtering forth empty blasts of air as he tried and failed to find the words to express his outrage. Finally finding that his vocabulary had entirely deserted him, he reached instead for his inside jacket pocket. The movement was so swift and smooth that before anyone realised what was happening he was already pointing a small dark pistol directly at Amber’s head.
There was another, louder squeal from the two women on the sofa as they darted for safety, almost tripping over themselves as they both struggled to squeeze into the same toilet cubicle. The elderly woman slowly backed away into the corner, clutching tightly to her knitting. In the doorway the lightly amused smile fell from Jerry’s face and he leaned instinctively forward onto the balls of his feet, ready for action. In fact the only one of the bystanders not to react in alarm to the sudden danger was me, though this had nothing to do with any particular coolness under pressure but rather to a certain distraction of mind, preoccupied as I still was with something that Morrie had said a moment earlier. I had a feeling that I had just been handed the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle and whilst my brain tried to lock it into place the events around me didn’t quite register as they should.
In the meantime Amber handled the developing situation with admirable composure. There was perhaps a brief flicker of anxiety and for a moment she instinctively brought her hands up as though she thought her small, sequinned purse might somehow deflect bullets. But she quickly recovered her cool and by the time she said to Morrie, “Oh please, let’s not get melodramatic,” her voice held scarcely a tremor.
It was Morrie who blinked first. Having made the gesture in the heat of the moment he seemed to swiftly realise he hadn’t the determination to follow it through but a certain sense of pride was not going to let him back away too quickly. After an awkward pause he muttered, “I’m gonna kill you, you damn bitch,” but the tone of his voice carried nothing approaching the necessary resolution to suggest it was anything more than an empty threat.
Sensing the hesitation, Jerry stepped forward and held out his hand. “Give me the gun Morrie,” he said in a smooth, cool tone. “This isn’t the answer.”
“Out of my way,” muttered Morrie. He continued to point his gun but a slight tremor was now noticeable in his hand.
“Just hand me the gun Morrie,” coaxed Jerry. “You know you really don’t want to do this.”
“Oh come on Morrie, you really don’t think you’re fooling anyone with that ridiculous pose,” added Amber, relishing the whiff of weakness.
“That’s not helping,” Jerry told her sternly. “Natasha, I think you’d better take Amber out of here,” he suggested, still watching Morrie carefully.
I looked up, startled by the unexpected mention of my name, and in that instant the final stubborn piece of the puzzle dropped into place. “That’s it!” I exclaimed. “I’ve got it!”
All eyes turned, somewhat reluctantly, in my direction. “What are you talking about?” asked a puzzled Jerry. “What have you got?”
I looked in surprise at the pistol that Morrie was now rather limply holding out and then gazed round in slight embarrassment at the faces fixed curiously upon mine. “I got it,” I repeated somewhat sheepishly. “I finally figured out where Egan’s hiding his red book.”
To be continued…