Detective O’Halloran was undoubtedly more than a little surprised when Jerry and I, still resplendent in our evening dress, strolled into his office at police headquarters in the early hours of the morning. He was even more surprised when Amber and Morrie the Bookman, having temporarily put their quarrel to one side in their curiosity to find out what I might know of the red book, traipsed in after us. Personally I would have been much happier if we could have ditched them somewhere along the way for in truth I was already beginning to have doubts about my ‘Eureka’ moment. The blinding flash of inspiration I’d had in the Blue Room toilets seemed to wither pretty quickly in the fresh air and what had seemed blatantly obvious in the club was beginning to seem rather unlikely by the time we got to the station. In fact, if it wasn’t for a brief flash of anxiety in Morrie’s face when I had suggested our destination to Jerry then I might well have been inclined to pass the whole idea off as some kind of elaborate joke purely intended to defuse the tension.
But Jerry had, after listening to a brief outline of my idea in the short cab ride from the club to police HQ, at least not been inclined to dismiss the notion entirely out of hand. So when O’Halloran pushed aside the enormous stack of files he had been ploughing through and asked what he could do for us I took a deep breath and said, “I realise it’s not quite visiting hours Detective but I’d appreciate it if you could take us to Egan’s cell.”
O’Halloran scratched the back of his head uncertainly. “No offence miss but Egan’s a tough nut for anyone to crack. I can’t see what you think you’re likely to get out of him at this time of night.”
“Actually, it’s not really Egan I’m interested in but his cell,” I replied. I paused and took another deep breath. “I think he has a book stashed somewhere in there. A red ledger embossed with his initials in gold on the cover which contains details of all his operations.” O’Halloran whistled lightly but said nothing. Acutely conscious that several pairs of vaguely incredulous eyes were fixed upon me, I pressed hurriedly on. “His accountant here, Morrie, told us that he’s visited Egan every day in order to keep his businesses running while he’s locked up. If Egan’s passing him instructions he must have his red book to hand. Therefore he must have it stashed somewhere in his cell.” I threw a quick glance at Morrie as I said this. Was that another nervous flinch that crossed his face or was I seeing things? “Besides,” I added, switching my glance to Amber, “I think we can safely say every other possible hiding place has been thoroughly checked out. It has to be there.”
O’Halloran shook his head thoughtfully. “It’s a fine theory alright but I just can’t see how Egan would be able to hide a thing like that in his cell.”
“You said yourself that you’ve felt obliged to keep the guards away from his cell as much as possible in case they might be susceptible to a pay-off,” I returned. “If the book was smuggled in during the chaos of his arrest then it would seem pretty safe thereafter.”
O’Halloran sat back and scratched his head once again.
“It’s got to be at least worth a look, hasn’t it?” suggested Jerry.
“Ah, I suppose so,” O’Halloran finally conceded with a sigh.
“This is highly irregular Detective,” interjected Morrie as O’Halloran climbed up out of his chair. “I imagine the Police Review Board would have something to say about disturbing prisoners in the middle of the night.” There was once again those faint lines of distress around his eyes and mouth but I couldn’t quite figure if they were signs we were on the right track or merely indications of a natural anxiety.
“Keep your hat on Morrie, we’ll make sure your boss still gets plenty of beauty sleep,” said O’Halloran. “You can come along and see for yourself if you’re so worried.”
“What about me Detective?” instantly piped up Amber. “In that case you can have no objections if I accompany you also.”
“Fine,” shrugged O’Halloran. “But I’ll have no monkey business from either of you or we’ll find you a place of your own to sleep down there.”
Amber merely smiled sweetly in return. Morrie replied with a curt nod.
O’Halloran led the way out of his office, along a maze of corridors and down a steep flight of stairs before we came upon the entrance to the police cells. A beefy, bald headed sergeant looked up from the newspaper he was reading with some surprise. O’Halloran waved away his startled greeting and brusquely informed him we wished to visit Egan. The sergeant hastily unlocked the heavy, barred gate guarding the entrance to the cells and led the way down a long, dim corridor.
We passed a couple of large, communal cells first, from within which a rag-tag assortment of drunks, hookers and petty thieves stared dolefully out. Then came several smaller individual cells occupied by a variety of shady looking characters before a long row of empty cells led right down to the very end of the corridor. Here, occupying a stark, grey cell in splendid isolation, we finally found Vince Egan.
An initial look over the room in which Egan had been confined for the past week couldn’t help but make my heart sink for it appeared conspicuously devoid of places to conceal books or indeed items of any description. There were bare stone walls, a flat concrete floor and a solitary barred window. The only items of furniture were a bucket, a small footstool and a long narrow cot upon which was stretched out the figure of Egan himself. He slowly turned his head with a lazy curiosity at the sound of our footsteps.
“Alright Egan, on your feet,” called out O’Halloran, indicating to the sergeant to open the cell door.
Egan slowly sat up on his bed and looked out over the small party gathered around the front of his cell. He did not appear to be a particularly tall or well-built man but there was something about his appearance that, even garbed as it was in a dull grey prison uniform, was undoubtedly imposing. There was such a hard, menacing quality to his face that it might have been carved out of granite and he gazed out at us with cold, flint-like eyes. There may have been a few lines across the forehead and a few wisps of grey hair at the temples but he still managed to convey the impression that he could snap you in two without breaking a sweat.
“Can’t a guy get a little shut-eye these days without half the town descending on him,” Egan drawled, his eye falling one by one on each of his late night visitors. Amber, I noticed, hung back slightly and avoided his gaze. Morrie swallowed hard when he met his boss’s eye but said nothing. “You know, I’ve a good mind to write to the mayor and complain about the treatment in this lousy joint of yours, O’Halloran,” Egan added as he stood up. “Or maybe I’ll just wait and have a word personally. I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeing him soon enough.”
“Stand him over there Joe,” O’Halloran ordered the sergeant, ignoring the jibe. “If he makes a move, sock him.”
The sergeant obediently shoved Egan over to one corner of the cell. O’Halloran turned round. “It’s all yours,” he informed me with a fatalistic shrug.
Jerry followed me into the cell and we both stood in the centre of the room for a moment, looking around and trying not to feel too dejected. As long as we were here there seemed nothing for it but to conduct as thorough a search of the bare, unpromising room as we could. It didn’t take long to strip the bed. Jerry checked over every inch of the metal frame while I tore apart the threadbare blanket and thin pillow. Then we checked over the small stool and examined the (mercifully empty) bucket. In less than two minutes we were standing back in the centre of the cell, looking hopelessly around.
I turned for a moment to look at Egan. There was an enigmatic half smile on his face that clearly indicated confidence but was that confidence that he had nothing to hide or confidence because anything concealed was sufficiently well-hidden to escape detection?
Jerry turned to spend a few moments fruitlessly testing the bars on the window. I looked briefly down at the floor but that was clearly a bust – solid concrete from wall to wall without so much as a chip in the surface. So I turned to the walls themselves, running my hands distractedly along the heavy grey stones.
At first glance they certainly looked solid enough but I allowed myself to wonder for just a moment whether by chipping away at the mortar surrounding them it wouldn’t be possible to prise one loose. Whilst continuing to run my fingers along the gaps between the stones I threw another glance across at Egan. That half smile seemed to falter just a touch.
I looked thoughtfully around the room once more. If you wanted to prise a stone loose I figured you probably wouldn’t want to do it in the middle of a bare wall in plain view, you’d be more likely to choose a dark corner or somewhere concealed by the furniture. After a few seconds further contemplation I walked over to the upturned bed, pulled it further out into the centre of the room and crouched down by the wall behind. Slowly I ran my hand along the stones. About a foot and a half short of the corner I dislodged a small cloud of loose mortar. I gave the stone a push and felt it move slightly.
Everyone was watching intently now. Jerry ducked down alongside me and together we hastily brushed away more loose mortar. Soon there was enough space for Jerry to slide his fingers in around the stone and after pushing and pulling for a few seconds more he was able to pull it free entirely. It dropped to the floor with a dull thud. With a certain degree of hesitation I reached my arm into the dank, dark crevice left behind and felt around. In an instant my fingers grasped onto something. I pulled it out and examined it. The red cover was rather damp and dirty but running my fingers across it I could clearly trace the outline of the letters ‘V.T.E’ embossed across the front. With a distinct sense of relief I passed it over to Jerry.
He opened the book, his smile broadening as he flicked swiftly through the pages. “Well done,” he said, looking back up at me. “Never doubted you for a second.”
We both rose to our feet and Jerry held the book out to O’Halloran. “There you are Detective,” he announced. “Everything you might ever want to know about the illegal business operations of one Mr Vince Egan recorded in his very own hand.”
O’Halloran flicked eagerly through the pages himself and gave a low whistle. “Well, I never…”
The stunned silence with which the rest of the onlookers had greeted the discovery was now abruptly broken by Egan himself who suddenly lurched forwards, yelling at Morrie the Bookman, “You dumb fuck! You led ‘em right to it, didn’t you?” The beefy, bald sergeant, taken by surprise, struggled to hold Egan back whilst he continued to utter violent threats. “I’m gonna see that sawdust-filled head of yours is ripped clean off your shoulders…”
The pair continued to grapple for a few seconds before the sergeant managed to knock Egan down with a savage blow to the side of the head. O’Halloran, Jerry and I took this opportunity to slip hurriedly out of the cell, enabling the sergeant to beat a hasty retreat and lock the cell door just before Egan got back to his feet. Even then, as soon as the prisoner was upright he launched himself at the door, rattling the bars and continuing to issue a string of lurid threats at his accountant.
An ashen-faced Morrie retreated some way up the corridor where he stood for a moment, staring at the floor like a man concentrating very hard on not bringing up the remains of his dinner. Finally he looked up. “I think I’ll be leaving now Detective,” he said in a rather shaky voice to O’Halloran.
“So soon?” said O’Halloran with a smile. “I thought the party was only just getting started.”
“You can’t hold me here,” bleated Morrie anxiously. “I’m not charged with anything.”
“Not yet you’re not,” replied O’Halloran casually.
Morrie’s mouth opened and shut but words appeared to fail him. He swallowed hard several times and for a moment I feared he was going to pass out then and there.
“Ah, you can show him out for now Joe,” O’Halloran instructed his sergeant, taking pity on the unhappy accountant. “But I wouldn’t go making plans for any long trips in the near future. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the railroad station until we’re ready to haul you and the rest of the mob in.”
Morrie said nothing but shuddered slightly as he turned to follow the sergeant up towards the exit, Egan’s continued threats drifting menacingly up the corridor behind him.
“I think it’s time I was leaving too Detective,” said Amber lightly. “Thank-you for your hospitality.”
“It can always be extended wherever necessary,” returned O’Halloran cheerfully. “Maybe I ought to be keeping a spot warm down here for you as well?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” replied Amber smoothly. “Not all of us are foolish enough to record our misdeeds in a book.” She was about to follow Morrie and the sergeant up towards the exit but paused for just a moment and turned to Jerry and I. “I congratulate you both on a fine piece of detective work,” she told us with an ironic smile. “I said from the start that you two made a good team.”
“And what about the pair of you?” said O’Halloran as Amber disappeared up the corridor after Morrie the Bookman. “I figure I owe you both a drink but it’ll have to wait. I’m afraid I’m going to be kept a bit busy with this for a while.” He could scarcely contain his glee as he tapped the red book.
“That’s alright,” said Jerry. “We’ll have a drink on your behalf just as soon as we get back to our friends at the club.” He turned to take one last look at Egan, still railing futilely against the bars of his cell. “And I suppose we’d better enjoy the hospitality of the Blue Room while we can. Something tells me it’s going to find itself under new ownership very soon.”
“Now that was worth the climb, wasn’t it?” said Jerry. “Your trees and your meadows are all very well but if you ask me there’s nothing to beat the beauty of an urban sunset.”
I had to admit he had a point. We were standing on the roof of a lofty apartment block on the Upper West Side. As the day faded there was undoubtedly something pretty special about the way the lowering sunlight flashed between the tall narrow buildings and glistened off the tarmac far below. “It’s not bad,” I conceded.
From up here it was certainly hard to believe that there was a city in turmoil down below. O’Halloran had had his force busy since just before sunrise, turning over homes and businesses and making arrests far and wide. Now it seemed there was scarcely a corrupt politician or crooked businessman in town who wasn’t either already behind bars or sitting uncomfortably at home, waiting anxiously for the inevitable knock on the door. Morrie the Bookman and Chuckles Bryson had been amongst the first to be picked up, their personal sins having been writ large in Egan’s red book. So far Amber’s words about keeping her own misdeeds unwritten had proved correct and she remained at liberty, though if she still had designs on running the town then her plan was going to need a rethink as Knuckles Bryson had been collared in the early afternoon on charges of assault and extortion. For the time being she appeared to be keeping her head down but I wasn’t willing to bet against her stepping back into the limelight sometime soon.
“Now, a beautiful sunset requires a good vintage to set it off,” said Jerry. He turned around and fished a bottle of champagne and two glasses out from behind a skylight like a magician producing a rabbit from a hat. “And a beautiful companion to share it with,” he added with an enticing smile.
I accepted the glass he offered with a gracious nod. Jerry undoubtedly had a tendency to pick his lines from the cheesier end of the spectrum but when you threw in the champagne, the handsome smile and those warm brown eyes they had their effect. “This is all very nice,” I said as he poured the champagne, “but it isn’t getting us any closer to finding that room we’re looking for.”
Since the Egan case was now officially cracked Jerry had kept to his word of helping us in our search for the hidden room of Sturridge’s prison. For the best part of the day we’d been trawling through the apartment blocks of the Upper West Side whilst Michael and Woody had been checking over the area around the docks. So far neither pairing had had anything positive to report.
“Oh but I think we’ve earned ourselves a short break, haven’t we?” responded Jerry cheerfully. “Now, what shall we drink to?”
“How about to a peaceful and law-abiding city?” I suggested, gazing out across the rooftops.
“It’s a nice thought but I wouldn’t get my hopes up,” replied Jerry with a sigh. “Egan may be finished but there’ll soon be others vying to take his place. I give it a week, two at the most, before this town is sucked into the mire once again.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t love it,” I countered with a teasing smile. “If nothing else it promises plenty more excitement for you and Woody.”
“You too, if you wanted,” suggested Jerry lightly.
“Me?” I said, rather startled.
“That is if you fancied sticking around,” added Jerry. “You’ve shown rather a talent for detective work. And as Amber said, we do make rather a good team.”
“But what about Woody?” I protested. “You’re teamed up with him, aren’t you?”
“Well, of course. Woody certainly has his uses,” conceded Jerry. “But he doesn’t look half as good in an evening dress.”
I gave him a rueful smile. “You forget, I’ve got 273 rooms scattered right across the landscape to track down,” I pointed out. “I couldn’t stay here even if I wanted to.”
“Why not let Michael take care of that,” suggested Jerry casually. “For a while at least. He seems a perfectly capable chap to me.”
Just as I was about to reply he leaned in and offered up another of those charming smiles. For just a second the words caught in my throat. I wouldn’t call it a hesitation as such, more of a temporary distraction. I composed myself with a sip of champagne and finally told him firmly, “No, I’m sorry. The hunt for Sturridge is my hunt, whether I like it or not. I’m afraid you and Woody are just going to have to get along without me.”
“Ah well, you can’t blame a chap for trying,” replied Jerry with a light shrug. “In that case I suppose I may as well go ahead and tell you where you can find that hidden room of yours.”
“What?” I said. “You already know?”
“Do you remember that door you were examining so carefully in the back corridor of the Blue Room when I first bumped into you?” said Jerry. “Well, after you’d told your story it occurred to me that maybe there was something a little bit odd about it. So last night I persuaded the cigarette girl to take a walk down the corridor with me. Even when I knocked on the door right in front of her she could barely see it was there. I have a pretty shrewd idea that if you go and wave that little gadget of yours at it you’ll find that’s the door you’re looking for.”
“Bugger, I knew it!” I exclaimed. I took another slug of champagne, feeling a warm glow of satisfaction. Then suddenly I turned to Jerry. “Hang on a second. We’ve spent the whole day traipsing up and down apartment buildings when you already knew the room was hidden in the club?”
“You can’t blame me for wanting to spend a little more time with you,” returned Jerry smoothly. “If I’d told you sooner we might have missed out on the sunset. That was worth a little bit of traipsing, wasn’t it?”
“I’m not sure my feet would agree with you,” I said, giving him a fierce glare.
“You forgive me though, don’t you?” said Jerry, adopting a hangdog expression.
“I’m not sure I do,” I retorted, fixing my gaze out over the rooftops, determined not to give in too easily.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel I suppose we’d better head straight for the club,” said Jerry, reluctantly picking up the champagne bottle. “We can have this whole affair wrapped up in no time. And then you’ll be free to leave the city for good.”
He continued to regard me with a plaintive expression but I didn’t offer an immediate reply, preferring to keep my gaze fixed out across the reddening sky.
“But I did hope you enjoyed spending time with me enough to at least stay and finish the bottle before you were ready to rush off on your quest again,” suggested Jerry, leaning forward and holding out the champagne bottle towards my glass with an appealing look.
I held my gaze on the horizon just a moment longer before eventually turning towards those enticing brown eyes. “Well,” I finally replied, holding out my glass for him to refill. “I suppose it would be a shame to waste such a beautiful sunset.”
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will continue shortly with Episode Fifteen…