'The MarcoMassimo's Bar at Midnight Problem'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— John Drage is a private investigator in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. He and his fellow investigator, Claire Baxter, relax at a high-class nightclub while on a case.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.
"Gim'me the gist o'the thing jes' once more, boss."
It was 8pm on a balmy July evening of 1935 in Delacote City, NH, on the sidewalk just outside the Clairmont Building, Westchester Street wherein John Drage had the offices of his wholly owned Private Investigators business, along with his young co-investigator, Claire Baxter. They at the moment about to take shelter in John's DeSoto sedan preparatory to doing some overtime in a good cause.
"Sure," John nothing loth in keeping his employees' up to the mark re hot off the press information. "MarcoMassimo's Bar, on Harding Street, is a swell hot joint—all the people who matter goin' there for refreshment of an evening. Live acts, dancers, singers, and music—trios, quartets, an' such-like. Top of the range entertainment. Which is the basis of the problem we'll be covering while we're enjoying an evening's free go at everything on offer."
"Whoopee!" Claire no whit put out. "Free food an' drink—Christmas has finally come at last the way I always wanted it!"
"Uu-iirph!" John groaning softly as they made themselves comfortable in the vehicle. "Right, so, first thing is the owner, Bernie Lufthauser, who's having the squeeze put on him by the big boys in the cheap suits."
"Protection?" Claire some astonished. "Thought that was old hat, especially for big joints like this Antonio's?"
"Oh, it's antique, certain; an' long lost its original flavor." John coming it the old-timer as he drove off. "Ancient, but still staggering along, with the help of a cane and the right pills. Anyways, someone's putting the joint on notice that if Lufthauser don't pay up of a month horrible things'll happen t'the joint, Lufthauser, an' some o'the folks who works for him."
"Comprehensive!" Claire pursing her lips at this catalogue of roguery and despicable business practices. "An' the ol' guy ain't standin' for it—so having called us in t'sort the bad guys out, eh?"
"Says in our advertising we're here t'protect an' serve the populace—"
"Thought that was the cops' job?"
"In a purely private manner, no—or not much—publicity as a result." John covering all angles. "So, here we be, anxious an' ready for all-comers. You know much about the Protection racket, an' its doings?"
Claire, sassy and sparky by nature, was up for this ridiculous question.
"Boss, a year ago I was a secretary in a failing business; a year a'fore that I was out'ta a job; a year before that I was sellin' encyclopedias round the streets in the Borscht Belt—"
"No, didn't sell one dam' set." Claire showing her teeth in reply to this insulting query. "So, what do I know about the Protection racket? Dam' all'd cover the whole sorry subject, sure."
The sedan rolled along quietly for a while, encompassing within its interior a silence as of the Ages considering their options—then John, who had been thinking, started explaining the facts of Life for his newest recruit to a dirty business.
"Protection takes a variety of forms." He nodding to himself as these all presented themselves to his imagination. "First ya got your basic threat—pay up once a week, say five dollars, or ya gets your windows broke sequentially over the following weeks."
"That'd make me wild."
"Just so." John agreeing fully. "Then ya got the next step up—middle of the road businesses, on back streets just making a minor profit in the year an' no more. Someone comes round, all polite as a preacher, an' gently makes it known that a constant unending laying-out of ten dollars a week'll probably stop you, the business proprietor, needin' medical treatment for, oh, a variety of personal accidents bound to otherwise occur over the ensuing months."
"An' don't think these is idle threats, young 'un." John becoming serious as he negotiated a cross-over. "These thugs ain't called so for nothing; given half a chance, and the carrot of twenty bucks, they'd roll over their own grandmothers, no questions asked, believe me."
John remained quiet for five minutes, as he drove along the most dangerous street in the city, Andover, renowned for minor bumps, scratches, and fender benders then, having steered between Charybdis and Scylla safely, returned to his lecture on violent crime.
"Final, comes the top o'the range wreckers. Some really successful business's have in-house security; guards or private security people in mufti, that sort'a thing. But this don't stop the Protection guys needlin' their way in. This time, though—it bein' mighty profitable and high in the Public eye—they knows they're onto a good thing if they can just convince the owners of whatever premises it may be that, indeed, their very lives, and those of their nearest and dearest, hinge on the slight matter of taking them, the thugs, seriously when they ask for a split of the profits over all time t'come."
"My-my; going large, ain't they?"
"Protection, at this level, always having big ideas—think the nastier of the Roman Emperors—an' I don't mean that softie, Nero!"
John drew the sedan up in one of the lesser streets of Downtown, where a number of late-night saloons, bars, small theatres, and cinematographs operated for the delight of the Public masses.
"Here we be, where we wan'na be."
"Where being where, exactly?" Claire always liking to know precisely where she stood, and which direction would be the safest for escape at short notice purposes.
"Harding Street, MarcoMassimo's Bar across the sidewalk right by us. Let me escort your Highness in, if you please."
"Delighted, I'm sure."
Inside, the bar showed itself to be operating under false pretences, it being a large show-house rather than a mere penny-anty saloon. The ceiling of the main hall was two storeys high, with extensive lighting throughout. The huge floor was covered with wide round tables capable of seating anyone from a cooing duo to a small army. In the centre lay a wide space for dancing, beyond which a small curtained stage some three feet higher than the surrounding floor allowed for singers and bands to set forth their wares. As John and Claire entered they found the evening's entertainment already in full swing; a female singer warbling away from the stage while a nice sized group of dancers were hoofing the light fantastic to her back-up band. The rest of the tables being well represented with customers also.
A small rotund man in a tuxedo came up to John, with eyebrow raised questioningly but submissively, as of a well-trained concierge.
"May I help you, sir? A reservation?"
"Drage; Lufthauser's expectin' me. Shall we wait here?"
"No, sir, please follow me, Mr Lufthauser has left instructions."
Two minutes later the duo found themselves gently but firmly, with all possible respect, wedged through the door of the manager's private office and left to fend for themselves therein.
"Hallo, Mr Drage, well on time, I find." Lufthauser rising from behind a long pale golden-brown desk to perform the required meeting ceremonies. "Your servant, I'm sure, madam."
Claire, somewhat overcome with all this quiet but still extremely luxurious respectability, found herself seated in a comfortable padded chair opposite Lufthauser as if by a simple act of nature, John in similar circumstances beside her.
"Well, shall we get down to business, ma'am-sir?" Before either investigator could reply the manager doing so to his own question. "A sad business, altogether; never had this kind of trouble back in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania wouldn't stand for this underhanded sort of devilry for an instant. They try there what they're attempting to try on me, here, and they'd soon find themselves twenty miles off, in the wild grasslands, with broken bones to remember us by. Wouldn't be back in a hurry, I can assure you. But here? I find Delacote City has rather more expectations in the way of Law and Order than would be thought natural back in Pennsylvania, I'm afraid."
Faced with this pragmatic outlook on Life in general and Protection racketeers in particular Claire and John found themselves somewhat taken aback, before John bravely came to the fore, though squeaking slightly with the effort.
"Aah, that sort'a thing certainly wouldn't go down well with the Fifth Precinct, Mr Lufthauser." John regaining control as he continued. "Even being threatened by thugs we still don't like the persons of the first part whipping out baseball bats and going to work, hugger-mugger, on the persons of the second part—it don't wash in the courtrooms, you'll find."
Lufthauser, apparently only too aware of this quaint kink in the law, shook his head sadly.
"Yes, yes, you're right, of course." He setting both hands firmly down on his desk, as now being ready for serious business. "Which is why I have engaged you both, sir-madam, to bring the clear winds of fresh weather in place of the former squally rains and gales. What's your plan, if I may ask?"
"Plan?" John caught off-guard for a moment. "Well, that rests wholly on the details you can provide."
"Of who these characters are who're tryin' to put the squeeze on you." John coming to the core of the matter. "Can you give us details of whoever came to you first to threaten you. What they looked like; what they said; what exactly they wanted you to do? That sort of thing."
Lufthauser bowed his head in thought, then came back like a fast bowler.
"Four days ago, I was here in my office, when two men—big men—men who meant business of a particular sort, and weren't afraid to let you see such." He glared at John, before turning a softer glance on Claire. "They breezed into my office, here, without restraint, or authority; just barged in, as the Brits say. One seemed to be the leader, or at least in charge for the nonce of this two-man assault. He was around six-three, round-headed with cropped hair. A face clearly of a past boxer, and not one who had won many of his former bouts, if you understand me!"
Claire for one knew exactly the type he described.
"—the other being a loathsome small thin man, of an overall oily nature; slick black hair, though receding as if not wishing to be associated with the person's head it strived to cover. Narrow features, exactly like a rat; and a quick nervous jerky manner, as if continually awaiting the starter's pistol in a race."
"Hmm, reg'lar toughs, both, by the sound of it." John musing on these descriptions. "Don't know the big guy; but the little rat, meb'be I got a finger on him."
Lufthauser perked up gallantly at this piece of news.
"Glad to hear that, a fine start—always good to know your enemy." He nodding wisely at his own perspicacity. "So, Big Guy started the conversation off in what I took to be his natural manner. You the bum who owns this decrepit joint, buster?, says he, growling like a bear in doing so. I felt grievous bodily harm was only round the nearest corner."
"I feel for you, I do." John watching Claire taking careful note of the owner's words. "What did you reply? Nothing that'd rile him, I hope?"
"Do I look like a lummox? No, I ain't." Lufthauser losing some of his carefully applied refinement before recovering himself. "From this very first remark I knew where we were headed; the only problem being, how was I to negotiate the forthcoming argument and still retain my physical well-being afterwards, if you follow me?"
"We do indeed see where you're coming from, Mr Lufthauser." Claire using her softest tone in order to soothe the anxious client, always a good policy.
"Sir, said I, what's the rub?" Lufthauser continuing the sorry tale of his personal Odyssey. "Joey, says he in response, grinning like a cheetah looking at a crippled fawn, I fancies I have a business plan for you, you ain't gon'na be able, or want, to pass up on. Well, to cut to the quick, he stated that, what with one thing and another the company he worked for was going into the Insurance business and I was gong to be one of their first customers. He then stated the policy which he felt was best for me; laying it out perfectly clearly that what would be required—come hail rain or gale; March, August, or December—was a weekly outgoing on my part of fifteen hundred dollars; the alternative being that, unpaid, I would simply be laying myself and my business open to all kinds of mistily unclarified but definitely dangerous accidents and mishaps, which would certainly cost me dear, both in personal health and general expences re the club itself. Well, what could I do? I said I hoped I had some time to think about it, and he grinned in a terrible cold way, saying that, sure I had till Sunday, when the boys, as he put it, would be round, whether or not—the outcome revolving entirely on my decision. So here I am; here you two are; and there are only four more days till Sunday."
John and Claire exchanged glances, not happy cheerful gay ones; rather the opposite, in fact.
"Don't give us exactly a wide latitude." John, as usual in these cases, manfully facing-up to the merely impossible. "Got'ta work fast, apparently. You didn't, by any chance, see what car they drove, or get its licence?"
Surprisingly to both investigators Lufthauser came up trumps with this question.
"Having some experience in these matters, back in Penn, I looked out one of the front windows as they left. A Plymouth four-door sedan, dark green, licence Kay Ell, Nine Six Four."
Staggered by this good fortune Claire froze for a few seconds before carefully taking note of the important information.
"That'll help a great deal." John recovering too. "We might be able t'pin them with that, sure. They didn't call each other by name, anytime at all, did they?"
Lufthauser pondered this query, delving deep in his memory.
"The little oily guy once said t'the bigger bozo something along the line's of 'Hey, Bri—ah, what'ya think of this joint?" Maybe going to call the big guy Brian, possibly?"
"Worth remembering." John nodding wisely, as if this answered the Sphinx herself. "So, this's Wednesday—we'll get on it, an' see what we can turn up. We'll keep you covered as to our progress, and thanks for all the useful information."
"No problem." Lufthauser sounding much happier now than at the opening of the conversation.
Two minutes later John and Claire were seated back in the DeSoto, discussing which direction they ought to take from here.
"We'll go back t'the office, then you can phone the Licencing Division an' find out who owns that Plymouth." John laying out a plan of operation. "I'll see what the Fifth Precinct's files wash up on some goon called Brian. With that name, and general build n'looks, shouldn't be hard."
"Only just started, and already we're goin' places." Claire smiling somewhat nastily at their good fortune. "Have the jerks cooling their heels in the cells before the end of the week."
"That's the kind'a spirit I like in my investigators; keep it up, young 'un!"
Back in the office, in the Clairmont Building, the duo settled down to discuss options.
"What've we got on the licence plate?"
"Kay-El, Nine Six Four," Claire on top of this with quiet efficiency. "Belongs to one Carmello Ramos, living in Garstone; reported his car stolen three days ago, not yet found."
"Oh, dam'." John making a face at this bad news. "Thought we were onto something there. These guys have at least some professional idea of how to operate."
"Yeah," Claire nodding her agreement. "What about the police files?"
John perked up mightily at this question.
"Ah, yeah, now y're talkin'." He grinning as he consulted his notes. "Seems there's only one Brian on record—he bein' Brian Morrison, thirty-five, record of general assault and robbery. Small beer, retail shops an' gas stations out in the sticks, that sort'a thing."
"Looks like he's branching out into the big-time." Claire pursing her lips as she considered this aspect.
"Hmm," John still deep in thought. "Which brings us to the major point of interest—who's at the centre of this affair? Who's bank-rollin' the grift, an' providin' the brains behind it?"
"How many gangs operate the Protection racket round Delacote way, anyway?"
"Not as many as you might think." John coming up with this from memory. "Protection being a rather wide-spreading concern. You know, if ya squeeze one business for money that'll give ya a few dollars a week, sure enough; but it won't allow of spending the Winter months in Aspen. You got'ta have a long list of victims, who you can be sure of squeezin' each week or month, thereby bringing in a confident yearly salary."
"So, even a city as large as Delacote couldn't be host to more than what, three gangs of the sort?"
"Not even that, I'd say." John considering the matter pragmatically. "Small shops or business's won't bring in enough to make it viable, unless you operate over a lengthy period of years; and nothing of that kind's going-on in Delacote as we speak. The cops'd know, an' my spies say no, it ain't so."
"But," John not put-off by this. "there is something working it's way up, all the same. My contact at the Fifth Precinct tells me they've, the cops, been gettin' sporadic tales of small business's bein' knocked over for no viable reason. The interiors battered an' broken, but nuthin' stolen, that sort'a thing."
"Ah," Claire au fait with the method. "sounds like Protection thugs going about their unlawful purposes, puttin' the fear o'God into their victims. Where's this naughty behaviour mainly taking place, boss?"
"Mostly in Garstone, an' The Causeway; from police reports."
"The lower end o'Society, where everybody's on their beam-ends, scraping for a living?" Claire scowling fearfully. "I don't like that one bit. Poor people trying their hardest to turn an honest buck, an' these sharks come along, squeezing them for all they can't spare? The sort'a times you really understand a baseball bat has far more purpose in society than just hitting a ball. Gim'me five minutes alone with one o'these creeps an' I'll show you what I learned as a young gal, baseball-wise!"
Garstone lay in the south District of the city, being also for the most part the earliest section still surviving from its original antecedents in the 1860's. Now, unloved by City Hall and the locale for ancient brownstone slums and business's operating on the knife-edge of liquidation, it had little of interest to offer the passing stranger—who would be well served by actually passing through and not stopping, for health reasons if nothing else. When John slid his sedan into the edge of the sidewalk half an hour after midday in Barclay Road there was no-one to be seen along the dirty thoroughfare, he having to complete an intricate maneouvre in order to miss a pile of assorted debris lying, like an ancient midden, by the road's side.
"Better cover your nose, or spray some perfume on your hankie, Claire." John grunting morosely as they sat in the car observing the local terrain. "Looks bad, but'll certainly smell worse."
Their destination was Abramsky's Outfitters, now allowing its wares to see at least a portion of daylight through a pair of dusty windows across the sidewalk from the investigators.
"Here we be." John glowering morosely at the premises. "From what my police contact tells me, this place's been hit in the last week; interior thrown around like a ship in a hurricane, but nothing too bad. Well, let's see what the owner's got t'say."
Jacob Abramsky, standing like a ship's captain behind his counter, initially eyeballed the two new customers somewhat suspiciously before gently bending to lay the baseball bat he held in his left hand back in its hiding-place.
"So, yez lookin' fer a suit? Or, meb'be, a nice outfit for the lady?" Jacob's voice trilling like a swallow in flight. "We got'ta nice array o'anything you want. Take a look at my wares, lem'me know what takes your fancy; I'll get out my tape measure an' go t'work in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Have any ord'nary suit ready in three days, guaranteed. O'course, my wife'll look after the lady when required."
John, however, already dapperly suited to his own satisfaction, simply got down to details without unnecessary preamble.
"You were knocked over three days since, Mr Abramsky?" John using his official scary tone, just to show he meant business. "The cops tellin' me your premises got regularly ransacked from stem t'stern. Bad show, eh?"
"Bad show!" Jacob suddenly becoming animated. "They comes in here like flies at a picnic, throwin' personal remarks of a derogatory nature around; then proceeds t'use my stock an' wares like playthings at a kid's party. All my best stock strewn about the floor like rags in a laundry! Was I mad, or what!"
"What'd you do?" Claire raising an eyebrow at the man's clear agitation. "In defence, I mean."
"What could I do?" Jacob throwing his arms wide. "They were big, an' mean, an' meant business. All I could do was cower in the corner, shout t'Bessie t'stay out'ta the way, an' watch 'em have fun throwing my wares around like kids on a beach, is all. Bums!"
John took another angle, as they stood in the shadows of the shop's main room.
"See ya got a bat; nice thing, a baseball bat. My assistant an' I were just discussing the finer points associated with using a baseball bat in the defensive line. Ya got'ta firearm?"
"Wish I dam' had!" Jacob no whit put-out by this sudden question. "But firearms; they shoots, an' makes wounds, an' kills people, y'know. Where'd that get me with the cops, after the event? Anybody could say anythin'; I could be had up in court for murder. Nah, guns is out, I'm sorry t'say."
"So, what's the reason for the buccaneers showin' up like that?" Claire attempting to get to the bottom of the affair, fine investigator as she was. "They didn't just turn up an' throw your suits around simply for the fun of the thing, I'm assuming?"
For the first time Jacob looked dejected, hangdog, and slightly nervous.
"Well, there's reasons, an' then there's reasons—"
"That ain't any sort'a an answer, either." John taking no prisoners. "You were knocked over for a reason, Mr Abramsky—let's hear it. It'll be better in the long run, you know. Help us enormously in our investigation."
Before the discussion could proceed any further, however, there was a disturbance at the back of the room, where a curtain separated the main show-room from the rear of the premises. This curtain being pulled aside to facilitate the appearance of a large man from his hiding-place in the back-room.
"Hi, t'you too, Sam." John recognising an old foe in an instant. "What brings you to Abramsky's Outfitters? Don't look like ya bought that suit here, meanin' no disrespect to yourself, Mr Abramsky."
"Ha, disrespect!" Jacob stung to the quick at this lack of esteem towards his capabilities in the suiting-up line. "What he's wearin? Rags, is all. Gim'me a fine bit o'cloth—the which I got in my back-room—an' I'll fit Mr Levinsky here with a suit'll last him the rest of his life, sure."
"No doubt," John nodding appreciatively. "I'm sure you're a fine tailor, Mr Abramsky; but we're talkin' Protection at the moment; so, what's up, Sam? By the way, may I introduce you to my assistant? Claire, meet Sam Levinsky; Sam, Miss Baxter, investigator extraordinaire."
"Charmed, I'm sure." Claire rolling out the ritz like an old hand.
"My pleasure, ma'am." Sam, on his part, echoing Rockefeller at his best.
"What's Jimmy Favelli want round these parts, Sam?" John returning to the business in hand like the professional he was. "Claire, Sam here works for Jimmy Favelli, over to Todmorton. Y'recall me tellin' you about said crook?"
"Hey, that ain't ni—"
"Sure I do, boss." Claire interrupting Sam before he could voice his criticism of the way the conversation was heading. "Big gangster, finger in every pie goin'—except fer a few, anyway. Didn't think he was into the Protection game, Sam?"
"He ain't." Sam miffed as anything at this description of his boss. "We don't do Protection, it not bein' nice from any direction. No, what Jimmy sent me here for was to protect—er, I mean offer our services in makin' sure these bozos, whoever they are, don't come the offensive again, is all. No payment asked or required, even."
John couldn't resist this offered chance for gentle remonstration.
"Coming the Father Christmas, is he—Favelli?" John smiling like a theatrical rogue in a melodrama. "Gettin' soft in his old age, or what? What's the grift, Sam? Come on, out with it; we're all friends here, after all."
Levinsky, a large powerful example of his kind, took the time to rake both his interlocutors with a sharp eye, refined by years of experience; then he sighed and came clean.
"Favelli used ter grow up round this way." His voice a low gentle, but somehow still menacing, growl. "What I mean—he spent his childhood hereabouts; got'ta likin' fer the district, as a cons'quence. Don't like outsiders comin' in an' raising dust-clouds without his say-so. Likes ter keep things Bristol fashion an' ship-shape across the board hereaways. This here attempt ter swing the Protection lay not washin' with Favelli, no way. So, here I is; an' if an' when they comes back it'll be ter face somethin' more powerful than a baseball bat, sure!"
Here he gently opened his jacket to reveal, in an inside pocket, the butt of a large revolver safely stowed away.
"Ah, in that case," John rolling with the tide. "neither me, nor my partner here, ever saw you in the premises. Bit of a heavy-duty response, ain't it, all the same?"
Sam was up for this request for enlightenment.
"The bozos rolled another guy, a dry-goods merchant, three days ago two blocks from here. Same modus, but the merchant had a heart attack, an' kicked one o'his own buckets. Favelli took some against that, big-time. So, now it's the heavy artillery first, an' no out o'court settlements or benefit o'clergy a'forehand."
"Well, one way o'conducting business." Claire, feeling left out, putting in her slightly droll two cent's-worth.
"Yeah; well, nice not ever havin' met ya, Sam. See ya around; I'll look for the story in the news-rags in due time. Should make interestin' reading."
"Sure to, seein' I never misses." Sam up for acknowledging his own due right and honour. "Bye, ma'am,—John."
Back in their Clairmont Building office the investigators mulled over recent events.
"Did that odyssey get us any further forward, boss?"
"Meb'be; meb'be not."
Claire sighed loudly, sitting beside the long desk. "That ain't an answer, that's a prevarication; don't prevaricate, it ain't polite."
"D'you think it's the same gang?" Claire still searching for enlightenment for herself at least. "I mean, those doing this Garstone lay, an' them tryin' to scare Lufthauser?"
"Could be, but I got my doubts."
"Yeah; they don't seem t'have the same method of pushing themselves into the limelight." Claire going over the differing states of play in her mind. "Lufthauser's bunch seem more—refined an' gentlemanly, somehow. Abramsky's lot are just a shoal o'layabouts with a bad attitude, by my reading."
"Something t'be said thataway, certainly." John agreeing with his assistant's view of the matter. "I think I'm with you, there. Two separate gang's, working the same lay, in differing Districts; meb'be even unaware of each other's presence in the same line o'business."
"Snakes and ladders; wolves an' cy'otes." Claire waxing some melodramatic. "Pirates an' buccaneers; naval officers an' weekend sailors;—"
"I get ya—OK?"
"The only way of clearing up this mess—the way I see it—is for us to stake-out Lufthauser's club, Sunday evening, an' face-off the thugs when they make their scheduled appearance. What d'you say?"
Claire paused before replying, never liking the worst case scenario of putting oneself in harm's way, client welfare or no.
"Well, it's a possibility, sure; but ain't there any other, easier, safer, way?"
"In the long term, no doubt." John pursing his lips. "But bringing the cops into the affair; letting 'em make up a greeting party for whoever turns up, that'll cost money, time, an' effort; as well as hardly decreasing any danger involved. Nah, I still think we two gettin' t'grips with the bozos who do turn up'll be the best way of figuring out just what the hell's goin' on."
"Well, you're the boss, boss."
"Thanks awfully." John grinning at his partner's response. "Look to your piece, Claire, we might be goin' duck huntin' on Sunday night."
"God, what a man. Do I get danger money?"
"Hell, no—just enjoy the thrill o'the chase, is all."
The next four days were curiously busy for the investigators; they having several cases on the go, some of more importance than others. Going through the City Archives for old papers and documents recording clients' ancestors and family lines—for use as evidence that the present client was in line for an inheritance—being hardly adventurous in its own right. Another case dealt with the early ownership of a large building on the outskirts of the city; this being relevant to whether the present owners had the legal right to allow modern upgrades to said building. Yet a third case pivoted around the search for a woman who had disappeared, for no known good reason; her family being anxious to find out her circumstances. All these taking up a great deal of time in research and foot-slogging on the streets. So the days passed swiftly before the dreaded day arrived, the afternoon of which found Claire sitting at the long desk in their office, examining her handgun.
"Smith an' Wesson, M and P model, point thirty-eight?" John taking a professional interest. "Nice weapon; can do some significant damage."
"Easy in the hand." Claire nodding in answer. "Doesn't have a hard kick-back, either. Don't want to break my wrist every time I fire the thing."
"There's that, certainly." John frowning over the problem. "What is it? Five-shot?"
"Six." Claire carefully shutting the cylinder without snapping it closed. "I've practiced a great deal, so now I can reload fully in seven seconds."
"Excellent, probably far faster than I could do." John smiling as he toyed with the weapon on the table before him. "But I've always been a follower of automatics; probably 'cause they're easier to reload. My butter-fingers always seemed to drop more cartridges than entered the chamber whenever I used revolvers. Bit of a schmuck that way, I'm afraid."
"What is that thing, anyway?" Claire taking more notice of the weapon her boss was brandishing in the air rather thoughtlessly. "Dangerous, is it?"
John glanced across at his partner, frowned for a second, then got the drift of Claire's remark.
"Oh-ah, sorry; lettin' myself go a bit too much, for sure. Nerves, y'know. It's a Colt M Nineteen-Eleven A One, forty-five—makes a lovely bang when fired, if nasty bangs are your thing. You ever shot anyone before?"
Claire reflected on this question, noting the pros and cons, before answering.
"Nope. I've only been an investigator for less than a year so far. The opportunity has not as yet arisen, if you see what I mean."
"Uum, yes." John indeed seeing where she was coming from. "I've shot—well, let's not be mealy-mouthed about it—killed two people. Both thugs out t'get me in their turn; I having no recourse but to plug them before they did the same t'me."
"A laudable outlook on your personal health status, boss." Claire understanding the position without trouble. "I'd have done the same, sure. So, what's the plan for tonight?"
Here John really did take the time to ponder; the principal thought being whether indeed he actually did have anything resembling a plan to put forward.
"Well, I was rather thinking, we just let things take their course an' take it as it unfolds, sort'a thing. That sound good to you?"
Claire, on her part, had a very strong antagonistic response towards a plan of this nature.
"That ain't a plan, that's looking to commit suicide." She shaking her head vigorously. "We got'ta have a plan—a real honest t'Goodness plan, that'll work—in our favor. So,—what, boss?"
After waiting half a minute, but only seeing John frowning like a demon over the problem, Claire came back with her take on the subject.
"We're going to MarcoMassimo's Bar tonight; it's famous for its evening shows; it takes in lots of profit from the big audiences and patrons; some slimebags want a cut of this cake; they're coming over this evening to make themselves unpleasant if pushed; what do we do in response, boss? Confront 'em like Wyatt Earp confronting the Clantons and MacLaurys; or Butch an' Sundance facing-off the Bolivian Army that time in South America?"
"Those two set-to's had diametrically opposed outcomes, y'know." John airing this wholly pragmatical point for lack of anything more substantial to offer.
"I know, boss." Claire losing her patience. "All I'm saying is, we got'ta have a plan, is all. It's not going to be the kind of confrontation—tonight in MarcoMassimo's—that'll let us get away with a few gentle words of remonstrance towards the parties of the first part. They're gon'na appear with baseball bats to the fore, audience or no; maybe with real guns, even. We got'ta have a plan. From my standpoint, like not going at all. Let's call the whole thing off; just asking Lufthauser, tomorrow, how things went. Then we can carry on the investigation from there?"
This shilly-shallying outlook, however, got right up John's left nostril.
"Claire, just like the Army, the Air Corps, the Navy, dammit, even the Police, we investigators have t'put our lives on the line for the sake of the client, or citizen—it's our part in life. So, tonight we're both showing up at MarcoMassimo's, all dolled up for the Ritz, and ready to do the Carioca with the best, OK?"
"Oh, if ya say so, boss."
"I do, it's our policy—that's a dam' order."
"Oo-er, yessir, sir!" Claire coming it the comic to good effect.
John sighed in defeat.
"Claire, I love ya!—er, in an entirely unromantic way, of course. Just in the line of business, y'understand." He simply digging the hole deeper the while.
"Boss, don't worry, I'll cover your back." Claire grinning at her leader's discomfiture. "After all, who else will?"
Sunday evening, MarcoMassimo's Bar, 10.45pm, the large high-ceilinged main saloon packed with happy patrons filling the mass of round tables circling the open dance-floor; the stage presently host to Marianne Hastings and the Phil Barton band. Couples dancing to the slow number, waiters rushing hither and to, and everyone making whoopee unreservedly. As a result when the four men in long woolen greatcoats and dark fedoras appeared at the main entrance nobody noticed.
The four men, after telling the interfering maître d' to take a hike for his health, looked around somewhat overwhelmed by the sea of faces and mass of bodies all making free with jollity and pleasure; this clearly being something beyond their normal ken. Then their leader, tall big and bulky in a gross overfed kind of way, found himself facing John in a tuxedo accompanied by Claire in a flaring claret red evening gown that made her look like Jean Harlow but without most of that lady's sexual menace, both ready for the fray and clued up to the ears with a plan.
"Hi'ya, Brian. It is Brian Morrison, ain't it? Yeah, I know it is. Why? 'cause I've inspected the police files on ya, Brian, old boy." John grinning with pleasure and love for all mankind, except the four in front of him at the moment. "The cops are all over this joint as we speak, Brian, my lad. They're out back, out front now too, also mingling amongst these fun-loving patrons; in civvies, but armed t'the teeth. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me there were more cops, men an' women, in this room right now than innocent cits'. So, the only question is, boys, do ya wan'na do the right thing, or instead get nabbed an' go to the Big House for lengthy periods of time, depending on what warrants happen to be out on ya at the moment?"
Brian, taken unawares by this unexpected approach—he thinking it was just going to be the usual appear-take the place apart-and then wave a gentle goodbye to the weeping owner routine,—found himself at a loss for a ready reply. Just as he collected his thoughts and did say something the audience erupted in an ecstasy of applause in reply to the warbling of Marianne, as she bid her followers a fond farewell for the evening. John waited till the noise had settled again before attempting his own reply.
"Didn't quite catch that, Brian. Mind repeating it?"
"I said—I said, what the hell!"
"And quite right too." John nodding, wholly in tune with his opponent. "Know how you must feel; come here, ready for business, baseball bats concealed under your coats, if nothing even more sinister,—by the way, must be dam' hot, wearin' those things in here—but that's by the way, as I said. What it is, young man, is if ya take those bats, or whatever else, out an' make a public spectacle of yourselves doin' so, the authorities—presently infecting these surroundings like a nasty case of green monkey disease,—will fall on you all like that Assyrian on the fold in the poem, is all."
"What!" Brian by now completely out of his depth.
"Stop repeating yourself, Brian." Claire cutting in, her eyes sparkling menacingly at all four men. "What a bunch o'deadbeats! Take a look over to the left hand side of this orgy; see the door there? Who's that standing by it, five men in uniform beside him. Come on, Brian, you've met him multiple times in your career, you know who it is; let your friends know, too."
So entreated Brian glanced over in the direction requested; he taking a short look, then turning to take a closer longer examination of the group of obvious uniformed police officers.
"Oh, God! It's dam' Fletcher, as ever was!"
"Only he, and no other." Claire grinning like a satisfied wolf. "No doubles, no imposters, only the real thing—Inspector Jacob Fletcher of the Fifth Precinct in the flesh, accompanied by a swathe of those he loves and honors in his turn—ie, cops in droves. This would be a good time to surrender, Brian—only sayin'."
After a few more seconds Brian broke eye contact with the police inspector, though clearly feeling more like a rabbit faced with a hungry stoat than anything else, to gaze dumbfounded at John and Claire in front of him. Then he turned to look at his cronies who, they all fully understanding their present predicament, glared back at the idiot who had led them into this lions' den. Then, for the second time, Brian regained the capability of speech.
"Aah!—surrender—aah, what d'ya wan'na know? Will Fletcher throw the book at me, if I don't squeal?"
"The Law book with full amendments, the City ordnances, the County telephone book, Madame Blavatsky's memoirs, and anything else heavy enough that comes to hand—yeah." Claire being mean in return for all the discomfort caused her by this group of nincompoops over the last few days. "Do you know how hard it was to convince Fletcher of the importance of hooking your individual asses on this caper? Took John an' I almost a full day, but he came round in the end, as you see. Half the Precinct's in here, or nearby, as we speak. Costing the City a fortune, an' Fletcher's determined t'get it all back out'ta your sorry hides in recompense, see if I'm right or not."
"Brian?" John chirping in here, like the first lark of morn.
"Be good—tell us who's bankrollin' this fiasco, there's nice." John taking as much enjoyment from the discomfort of his opponents as Claire in her turn. "You're goin' down—for God knows what crimes, warrants, or just made up delinquencies the cops decide t'dump on you all. Not forgetting the Third Degree, just for the hell of it,—the cops needing to have their bit of fun, you'll agree. Who's the boss, the Big Boss, Brian? Come on, you know you'll feel so much better when you sing. Who?"
Caught so firmly between Scylla and Charybdis, though he knew nothing of either, Brian looked at John, at Claire, over at Inspector Fletcher, now sporting a grin that would have done Bela Lugosi proud, and finally quailed before these massed ranks of Law and Order.
The private office of John Drage, Private investigators, Clairmont Building, Delacote City, NH, the next morning was full of happiness and joy, even though this was all in aid of the two official inmates of the office alone. John was happy, Claire was even happier, and the file on the MarcoMassimo's Bar case had just been officially signed into history by them both.
"That's that." Claire giving of her deepest feeling on the matter.
"Sure is, ducks—er, I mean, Claire." John sighing in his turn. "What a case, but at least Lufthauser was pleased; gave us a bonus on top of our fee, may angels sing him to his well-earned rest for the foreseeable future. I dearly loving a bonus, you know. Shows the Spirit of Humanity isn't wholly lost in present times."
"John, you're a poet;—what's my cut on that bonus, by the way,—only asking?"
Another 'John Drage, Private Detective' story will arrive shortly.