A heavy rain dropped out of the night sky onto the busy streets of New York City, a deluge strong enough to wash the grimy pavement and send the slime rushing into the gutters. Neither grimy nor slimy, but more than a little damp, I was out for a walk that evening doing some rushing of my own: straight home to my apartment. Along the way, I picked up a paper at the local newsstand as was often my custom. I was a man of the world, you might say, and I liked to know what was going on in my little corner.
The name's Victor Boyo, police detective.
Now back to the paper. I found a dry doorway and stepped inside for a brief respite, not expecting to read much new in the way of news as I unfurled the rain-spattered pages. The year was 1931, and I already knew that the prices on imported goods were as high as my salary was low. The paper's narrow columns carried the same old stuff: thieves, murderers, bootleggers, and—
Hello, hello... A gorgeous dame by the name of Maria Merryface looked back at me, eye to eye you might say, from the black and white photo. Now there was a gal with real class, one you wouldn't mind towing around on your elbow as you graced the swankiest nightclubs in town.
Then I read the caption:
Mrs. Maria Merryface kills husband.
Police investigation underway.
Well, that was news to me. Why hadn't I heard a thing about it at headquarters? Was Captain Abernathy keeping me out in the cold? Not likely. I was his main man, his top dog, his go-to guy. I got the job done, and I was always in the loop. Maybe he figured this was an open-and-shut case. There it was, right in the paper: she killed her husband. Reporters wouldn't report such a thing if it wasn't so. Regardless, I figured the lady in the picture was in desperate need of a crack attorney.
I folded the newspaper as neatly as I could and resumed my stroll. The woman's face was still lodged in my head as I tramped quickly up the two flights of indoor stairs to my place. Things were quiet, and the hallway was dark. Shaking the wet collar of my trench coat, I reached to unlock the door and stopped. Because it was already open.
Yeah. Somebody was inside, and it wasn't me.
"Welcome, Mr. Boyo," came a gravel-coated voice from the impenetrable darkness of my living room. "Please do come in."
I felt for the heater I always carried along with me, tucked safely into the waist of my pants. One of these days, I planned to spring for one of those swanky shoulder holsters, but that day hadn't arrived yet.
Squinting into the dark, I shoved the door open.
"Close it, Boyo," the same voice ordered.
"You forgot something," I said.
"That's Mr. Boyo to you. Whoever you are." I shut the door and figured it was dark enough for my heater to make an appearance. Which it did, but I had to aim blindly. Never stopped me before. Hasn't stopped me since. "Is the power out?"
"We feel safer in the dark. Don't we, boys?" Deep chuckles came from opposite ends of the room.
Dang. They had me outnumbered.
Gravel-voice continued, "But if you're an unfortunate victim of achluophobia—"
"Gesundheit," I said.
"—then we'll let you have your precious light."
As soon as the corner lamp switched on, I got a good look at my uninvited guests. Three thugs in striped suits and felt hats held Tommy guns and stood around my sofa where their boss sat smoking a cigar with his feet up on my coffee table. The nerve of that guy. No manners whatsoever. He was a real big butterball and wore an expensive-looking white cotton suit. His thin grey hair was combed back and tucked into a derby as brown and fuzzy as a chestnut mare's patootie.
I'd already slipped my heater back into the waist of my pants and covered the bulge with my coat. I knew better than to try my luck against those Tommy guns.
"Mind telling me what this is all about?" I said.
The fat man rose and cleared his throat, pointing at me with his stogie. "Tomorrow morning, you'll be put on the Merryface case."
"How could you possibly know that?"
"Shut your trap, Boyo, and let me do the talking. I've got connections, see? If you're smart, you'll refuse. That is, if you plan to be alive this time tomorrow night, you'll turn the case down and find something healthier to do. Healthier for you, that is. "
"You make a habit of threatening cops?"
"I make a habit of telling idiots what's what." He motioned to his boys and they approached me en masse, heading for the door. "Joey. Give Mr. Boyo a little taste of what's in store for him."
"What's that, Boss?" said one of the gun-toting thugs.
"Give him a glimpse of the bright future that awaits if he doesn't play ball."
"Uh…" The thug scratched at his head, obviously at a loss.
The fat man sighed, shaking his head as he regarded the carpet for a moment. "When you want something done right…" he trailed off.
Then he plowed his fist into my solar plexus, and I doubled over, almost positive the room had capsized. With a groan, I dropped to my knees, straining to breathe.
"Let that be a lesson to you, Boyo. Do the right thing, and nobody gets hurt. Including yourself." They tromped out of my place and slammed the door shut behind them. Their heavy footfalls echoed down the hallway outside, fading into the distance.
"Good riddance," I wheezed, stumbling forward to turn the lock.
I smoothed back my hair, slick with pomade, and shrugged out of my soggy trench coat. The stench of the fat man's cigar hung heavy in the room. With a hand on my sore midsection, I went to the window and pushed the blinds aside. Through the bars on the fire escape, I caught sight of the same four men who'd just paid me an unwelcome visit. They stood at the curb below as a four-door Buick pulled up. Somehow, the gunmen managed to hide their Tommy guns from view as they climbed inside. Tucked them into their pants? Unlikely.
It really made me sore when uncouth guests arrived unannounced and stank up my place. Not that they made a habit of doing it or anything—strangers, that is. I'd never seen those four men before, and I hoped I never did again.
Tonight's encounter could have ended better. Worse too, truth be told. At least I was still in one piece, so that was something. It was touch and go for a second there. But I would have much preferred having the last say. A punchy one-liner would have been perfect.
Collapsing onto the sofa, I reached for my blower and dialed up my partner at headquarters. Bill always worked late, said it gave him peace of mind or some other nonsense being alone in the office. His wife was a loud and hairy slav, so I was pretty sure that had more to do with his home-avoidance tactics.
"Hey Bill. Could you come over to my place with a couple books of mugshots?"
"Sure thing, Vic. What's up?"
"Well, I just had me a little run-in with a guy who makes Capone look like a pixie. I'd like to put a name to his butt-ugly face."
Bill chuckled at that. I thought it was a good one myself. "Be right over, pal."
I struck a match off the rough seven o'clock shadow springing from my jawline and lit up a smoke from my half-empty pack of Lucky Strikes. With the pouring rain outside, it wasn't like I could air out the place. I had to combat the cigar stench my own way. Fight smoke with smoke. Yeah, that's the stuff.
Two hours passed before the blower rang, jolting me out of a light doze. A small pile of ashes lay on the carpet under my dangling cigarette. I reached for the phone and ended up wishing I hadn't. The news that greeted me was worse than the stuff I'd read in the paper. Because it involved somebody I knew real well.
"Sorry Vic," said the sergeant on the other end. The way he told it, he'd been making his rounds on a beat through a rougher side of town when he'd found Bill lying facedown in a dark alley…with knife in his back. "It couldn't have happened to a better guy, Vic."
I hung up the phone without a word.
"Poor Bill." I shook my head, unable to believe the sudden turn of events. "He was a good pal."
Next morning, the sun was out in the city and so was I. Signaling a cab, I stepped off the curb and looked both ways for any sign of my visitors from the night before. So far, so good. No sign of their ugly mugs or their Tommy guns. As far as the fat man knew, I'd heeded his advice and was steering clear of the Merryface case.
Little did he know, Captain Abernathy had called me from headquarters bright and early and ordered me to go see Maria Merryface at the women's correctional center. The trial wasn't until that afternoon, and so far, Mrs. Merryface hadn't moved her lips once. That is to say, she was being mighty tight-lipped about the circumstances leading up to her present circumstances.
Upon my arrival, one of the female guards the size and shape of a silverback gorilla shoved me into a drab visiting room.
"You got five minutes, bub," she said.
After the door slammed shut, I noticed a woman garbed in an unbecoming jumpsuit sitting at a small table in the otherwise empty room. A single bulb with a dingy shade—the room's only light source—hung from the low ceiling over the middle of the table.
I removed my fedora and cleared my throat. The woman looked up. It was her, like I figured it would be: the dame from that photo in the paper. Prettier than in the paper, though, what with all her dimensions intact. She blinked two-grand's worth of eyelashes at me and tossed a million's worth of gorgeous red hair over her shoulder.
"Who the heck are you?" she said in a sultry voice, spewing smoke out of the corner of her mouth. I may have failed to mention that she had a cigarette smoldering between her fingers. Which she did. Somehow it added to her sultry demeanor.
"Victor. Victor Boyo."
"The police dick?"
"I prefer police detective."
"Don't we all."
I wasn't sure what she meant by that, so I continued, "There's a rumor going around town that you offed your main man."
"That you rubbed out your husband."
"Oh, him." She took a drag on her ciggy. "What do you care?"
"I get paid to find the bottom of things."
She had me flustered just a bit, that much I admit. "Did you bump off your husband or not?"
"Would I be here if I didn't?"
"I'd like a straight answer, ma'am. Did you do it?"
"No." She tossed her cigarette onto the floor and stamped it out under a flat-soled shoe. "Not that anybody's ever going to believe me."
"Is there someone who would want him dead? Say, maybe a fat man who wears a derby and smokes foul-smelling cigars?"
"Doesn't ring a bell." She looked deep into my eyes then, reaching for my hand and squeezing it. "You know, I don't get many visitors in here. It's so nice to see such a friendly face. A little dim-witted, maybe, but I'm in no position to complain. What's that they say?" She pulled me toward her full lips. "Beggers can't be choosers."
The door slammed open, and the guard reappeared in all her muscular glory.
"No hanky-panky!" she roared, gripping me by the arm and roughly escorting me out of the room. She half-carried me, truth be told. "Time's up!"
"Call me sometime," said Merryface, lighting up a fresh cigarette. "If you find the bottom of anything, that is."
"Will do," I promised her, feeling a bit like the guard's ventriloquist dummy.
As a rule, I didn't write checks I couldn't cash. Neither did I make promises I couldn't keep. So I knew I would be getting to the bottom of this murder, rain or shine.
An hour later, I was sitting across from Captain Abernathy at his huge oak desk in a corner of NYPD headquarters.
"Well now, Boyo, it's a fine pickle you're in. Making moves on a widow, I hear? And a husband-killer, to boot?"
"Not at all, Captain."
"So she's innocent?"
"I was referring to the idea of any moves being made. Just a simple misunderstanding on the part of that husky guard, I'm afraid."
"So there wasn't any hanky-panky going on in there?"
"Hey, did your hear that Bill died?" I changed the subject.
"Aye. Poor Bill." Abernathy heaved a deep sigh. "And not a single suspect to hang his murder on. Times like this, I really hate Prohibition." He opened a bottom desk drawer and took out a bottle of Scotch. "Care for a drop, Boyo?"
"No thanks, Captain. Daytime is worktime for Victor Boyo."
"Tell that to Mrs. Merryface." He cleared his throat and filled a glass with a couple fingers' worth of the amber-colored liquor. "When your mother passed on and I took you in, I promised her something, Victor. You remember what that was?"
"Can't say that I do, Captain."
Abernathy tossed back his drink and smacked his lips. "Can't say that surprises me," he muttered. "Here's the thing. I need you, Boyo. You're an okay cop. Really, you ain't half bad. But I can't have you getting yourself into trouble like this—not with a murder suspect."
"I'm afraid it goes with the territory, Captain. This is a tough line of work we're in, after all."
His bushy eyebrows knitted slightly as though he were slightly confused. Then the expression cleared as though he'd set aside his confusion for the moment in favor of dealing with the matter at hand. I got all that by reading his face. Yeah, I was that good.
"I ain't denying that," Abernathy said. "What I'm saying is, you keep your nose clean, and I won't have anything to apologize for when I see your dear mother on the other side."
"So you'll lay off the Merryface case?"
That gave me pause. He's the one who'd put me on it in the first place, telling me to go over and interview the woman. He must have read the confused expression on my face (dear old mother used to say she could read it like a book, and she wasn't the only one), because he was quick to add,
"I need you to find out who killed Bill Blakely. That's your priority now, got it? Forget about Merryface, Vic. That woman's trouble with a capital T."
No arguing with that. But she sure was a beauty…
"Focus, Boyo," Abernathy said. "Bill's murderer is somewhere out there ready to kill again, and you're just the gumshoe to nab 'im."
"That I am, Captain."
With a quick salute, I took my leave and signaled a cab out front of police headquarters. I told the driver to take me to my home/office. Sure, most cops worked out of headquarters, but Victor Boyo tended to work best in his own comfortable environs. Call me eccentric, if you like. Lord knows, I've been called worse.
Halfway to my apartment, the driver caught my eye in the rearview mirror and said, "Not that it's any of my business, mister, but there's a car been following us ever since we left the precinct."
I turned around and looked out the back window. Sure enough, there was the fat man's right-hand thug, Joey, along with another ugly goon. They sat shoulder to shoulder in the front seats of a '28 Rolls convertible with the top down.
"Driver," I said, "turn right at the next intersection."
"As you say," the cabbie replied, turning the wheel hard to the right. The taxi swerved and screeched around the corner. The car behind us remained close on our tail. Too close. "Now what?"
I reached for my heater. "You know these streets better than I do. Lose 'em!"
The driver smiled a toothy grin and jammed the gas pedal to the floor. The Rolls was hot on our tail as we rounded another sharp turn. The thug next to Joey reached out his open window with a Tommy gun aimed in our general direction.
"Nice friends of yours!" the cab driver shrilled, one eye glued to the rearview and the other glued to the road. He was a talented gent, eyeball-wise.
"Believe you me, they ain't friendly." I reached for the door. "Excuse me."
"Hey, what gives?"
"Keep your eyes on the road, pal. Both of them."
As the cab tore down a vacant street into an abandoned neighborhood, I shoved the door open and swung out with it, hugging its frame. Figuring the best defense is usually a solid offense, I fired two shots at the Rolls. The first bullet blew out their windshield, and the second dented the hood. The car swerved wildly as the goons inside ducked and cursed. Then the Rolls' engine roared, and the thug with the Tommy gun aimed his muzzle straight at me.
"Bail out!" I let go of the door and hit the ground hard, rolling across the cracked pavement.
The goon made Swiss cheese out of that cab, shattering every window and punching holes through the steel. Yeah, he sure filled it full of daylight. Good news for the driver: he'd managed to abandon his post in the nick of time.
After swerving from lane to lane, the cab finally smashed into an abandoned house and burst into flames. The thugs laughed triumphantly as they sped past where I lay in a ditch beside the road, out of their sight and out of their minds. The Rolls' tires screeched as Joey whipped the steering wheel in a tight U-turn and headed back toward the city.
I breathed a sigh of relief and stuck my heater back into my pants. Rising to my feet, I looked around for the cabbie. Finding him nowhere, I shrugged and headed up the steps toward an abandoned apartment house. After kicking down the front door, I found what I needed right next to the splintered doorframe: a blower that still worked.
I dialed my home/office, and my secretary, Miss Oglethorpe, answered.
"Vic, where the heck are you? Sounds like you're in a hole or something."
"Rabbits have poor taste in company." I waited for that to sink in. It didn't seem to. "Never mind, just ring up Captain Abernathy and tell him his favorite detective is stranded a few miles from town in an abandoned neighborhood."
"Why not call him yourself?"
Good question. If only I'd had a better answer. "I may have forgotten his number."
"Oh Vic, you sure can be a doofus sometimes!" She laughed good-naturedly. "All right, lemme get a pen. Okay. Where are you?"
"Like I said. An abandoned neighborhood. I don't really know where it is, but it's definitely abandoned."
"Well, what's the street?"
I looked for a street sign outside. No dice. "I think they may have taken away the street signs when everybody cleared out." Sure, that made a little sense. "Listen, never mind. I'll walk home."
I figured I could take the same road Joey and his buddy had taken, right back into town. So that's exactly what I did.
An hour later, my sore feet arrived at my apartment building and took me up two flights of indoor stairs. Just when I thought I couldn't walk another step, I came to my home/office at the end of the hall. My secretary (working out of the entryway, which had been converted into her office) told me there was a man to see me in my office (the living room). I removed my hat and stepped inside.
The room was dim, but there was enough daylight filtering in through the blinds to see the silhouette of a man gazing outside. Tough to do in between those Venetian slats, but he managed. Probably by squinting.
"May I help you?" I said.
The man turned around, and as he did so, I instantly recognized him. His name was Marty O'Sheeny, and he was an underworld type with ties to the liquor business. He held his black fedora in his hands and twitched his mouth nervously. He wasn't tall at all and wore a narrow, false-looking mustache. His thinning hair was oily and combed back from his wide brow. I couldn't help but notice a bulge in his suit, but he wasn't happy to see me. The bulge was under his armpit, and that usually meant one thing. The shrimp was packing heat.
"Mister Boyo," he whined. That was his natural vocal timbre, unfortunately enough. "You were warned to stay off the Merryface case."
"Mayhaps. So who are you working for?"
"Well, I've been told now by two separate entities to give that case a wide berth. I figure one of them sent you to give me a friendly reminder. I have a feeling I know which one it was, but I can't say for sure. With you dealing in illegal liquor as you do, I figure my boss has to get the stuff from somewhere, and I know what he keeps in his bottom desk drawer. So he might have sent you." I paused dramatically, waiting for a response. O'Sheeny stared at me without expression. "But I doubt it. More likely, it's that obese fellow who came to visit me last night. Is that it? You working for the fat man now? I wouldn't have given you that much credit. He seems out of your league. Well, either way, point taken. I'm off the case, and I don't intend to pay Mrs. Merryface another visit, considering how the last one turned out. Now if you'll excuse me…" I walked to my desk.
"I'll not be confused by your excessive chatter, Boyo." O'Sheeny quickly reached into his suit jacket and drew out a shiny rod, which he proceeded to point at my head. "Nor will I be dismissed by a nonchalant walk to your desk."
The guy was a real ace at reading body language.
"We tried to bump you off earlier today, Boyo, but that obviously didn't work out so well."
"So that's why you're here—to finish the job?"
"In a manner of speaking. You're coming with me, you see."
"How can you be so sure of that?"
"Oh, you will. Trust me." Marty waved his rod like it was a new toy in need of attention. "Call in your secretary."
I couldn't do that. For all I knew, he'd try to kill her or something worse. Maybe kiss her. I wouldn't have wished that on my worst enemy.
"I said call her in." Marty lunged at me and rammed the rod's muzzle into my ribcage. The guy had the moves of a jackrabbit. "Now."
"Miss Oglethorpe," I called. "Would you please join me in my office?"
"Good boy," Marty hissed into my ear. Then he lunged to one side of the entryway. Light on his feet, like a ballet dancer.
"Vic, are you sure about this?" my secretary called from her desk. "Sounds like I'd be walking into a dangerous situation."
Smart gal. I should have known she would've heard everything. No door separated her office from mine, after all.
"You're right about that," I said.
"Shut up!" Marty hissed. Then he charged into the entryway and grabbed Miss Oglethorpe in a choke-hold. "Don't be a hero, Boyo," he cast over his shoulder.
"Wouldn't think of it."
I didn't like the way he had his rod pressed against my secretary's temple, but there wasn't much I could do about it at the moment.
"Want me to call the police, Vic?" she asked.
"He is the police!" Marty sneered.
She didn't look convinced.
"Tie her up, Boyo, or I drill a hole through her pretty little head." Marty backed away from her desk but kept his rod trained on her. "Gag her too, while you're at it."
I looked around for some rope or anything else that would suffice. No dice.
"You're useless." Marty sighed, exasperated. "Here." He tossed me two lengths of cord and a handkerchief. He just happened to carry such things in his pocket. Like an evil little boy scout—always prepared. "Get to work, and do it right the first time. Cuz there won't be no second chance."
Doing my best to decipher what he probably meant by that, I knelt down at my secretary's side and knotted her narrow wrists behind her back. I did the same with her narrow ankles. Not that I'd ever noticed before, but she had the bone structure of a bird—a nice one. Not a vulture.
As I moved to tie the handkerchief around her mouth, I said, "Sorry about this."
"No worries, Vic," she said. "Long as you're gonna be okay."
"No promises!" Marty said. He watched me knot the handkerchief while he put on his hat. "Now, Mr. Boyo, shall we go?"
We walked down the two flights of indoor stairs without a word between us. I led the way, and O'Sheeny followed. When we reached the busy street, Marty stuck his rod into his jacket pocket and told me to walk to the corner. As a cab slowed to pick us up, Marty waved the driver on. A few seconds later, a black Marmon sedan slowed to a stop. Marty opened the rear door and shoved me inside. Then he followed, slamming the door behind him.
"Hiya boys," he said to the thug at the wheel and the goon beside him.
"Where to?" said the driver, tipping his hat out of courtesy to a fine-looking dame crossing the intersection in front of him. She ignored him. Probably because he was butt-ugly.
"The abandoned neighborhood."
"You know which one," Marty snapped. "Step on it." He pulled out his rod and jammed it back into my ribcage. It was starting to feel at home there. "Nothing funny, Boyo."
The black Marmon screeched around the corner and headed for the vacant side of town which I had escaped a little over an hour ago. My feet ached at the memory.
Before long, rows of empty houses sped by. I'll admit it. I was getting a little nervous and sweating in my suit. What were they planning to do to me?
"Turn left," Marty said, fiddling with his rod.
The Marmon screeched around the corner, swerving into the opposite lane. Lucky for the driver, there wasn't any traffic. A house up ahead had the '28 Rolls convertible with the smashed windshield (courtesy of yours truly) sitting in the front driveway. Marty told the driver to pull up behind it, which he did, bumping fenders in the process. Guy was a real ace when it came to parking.
"Now Boyo," Marty said, reaching into my suit and confiscating my heater. I was hoping he'd forgotten about it, but no such luck. "Would you be so kind as to open the door?"
Like any good hostage, I did as I was told. The driver caught me by the arm as I came out, and he held me tight. Marty kept his rod out in the open and ordered me up the walkway toward the front door. The goon who'd been seated next to the driver retrieved his Tommy gun and passed me on the left, arriving at the front door first. His knuckles knocked out a rhythmic pattern strikingly similar to "Yankee Doodle."
"Hey, I thought you was dead," Joey said as he heaved open the lopsided door.
"You thought wrong," I replied.
"Enough banter," Marty said.
"I'm just getting started," I said. I was good at banter.
"Get inside!" he whined, shoving me forward.
As my foot stepped through the doorway, the screaming of police car sirens came out of nowhere. Literally. One second, the neighborhood was silent. The next, a whole squad of cop cars had converged on the scene.
As the cars sped down the empty street toward the house, Marty cast fearful glances in every direction, which was a sight to behold. Then he ran as fast as he could around the back of the house. The goon with the Tommy gun looked confused, so I took my chance and slugged him in the rock-hard jaw, stunning him long enough to take his weapon and knock him to the ground with it. Joey slammed the front door shut, probably running out the back to join Marty.
"Don't move," I said to the goon I'd decked, aiming his own weapon down at him. He was in no position to try his luck, and he knew it.
Kicking up a plume of dust, Captain Abernathy's squad car rolled onto the dirt front yard. He hauled himself out and shouted, "Boyo, you all right?"
"Yeah." I glanced at the goon massaging his sore chin. Not as sore as my knuckles, but I kept that to myself. "This one's all yours. The others might have gotten away."
"Can't be sure. Didn't see them run off, but I assume they did."
"Well, that's good police work," Abernathy muttered, scratching the back of his head. "Take 'im, lads," he ordered the half dozen uniformed officers with him, and they moved to apprehend the fallen goon.
"How'd you boys know I was here?" I said.
Abernathy squinted up one eye. "Would you be disgruntled if I told you I had a couple officers tailing you?"
"My feet are disgruntled, but that's beside the point."
"Right." He cleared his throat. "Anyhow, when they called to let me know you'd been kidnapped right out of your home—"
"Home/office," I corrected.
"—I came as fast as I could. Good thing I did, too."
"I had everything under control, Captain." I smirked at the goon as he was led away. He rolled his eyes at me. Rude fellow. "Say, has the Merryface trial started yet?"
Abernathy checked his watch. "Ten minutes. Why? You're not on that case. Or have you already forgotten our little talk?"
"Just call me a concerned citizen. I'd like sit in, take in the sights. You know."
He shook his head at me. "You've got it bad."
I wasn't sure what he meant by that.
"C'mon, Boyo. We'll take my car."