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Some time later, after the three hoods had been booked and dental impressions taken and the woman Ellen Mitchel processed likewise, relieved of her dress and skin and given clothing more suitable for jail, Tom had me in his office and gave me a good grilling. He wanted to know first of all why I had stuck my nose into something I said I wasn’t interested in. I told him about the four tough guys who had visited me in my office. “All they had managed,” I said by way of wrapping up the story, “was to convince me that keeping out of it was no guarantee of keeping out of trouble. I found myself needing a private dick, so I hired myself and told the dumb flatfoot to work fast.”
Tom scratched near his nose hole. “Makes sense,” he said grudgingly. “But, dammit Frankie, you’ve really handed me a mess! Just what the hell happened in that roadhouse? Why did Maxwell’s mob start shooting it out with their own boss?”
“Long story,” I began. “I figured I had two chances: I could get my car and start driving, or I could try to get out of the jam I was in by jumping into the middle of it. The first might have been safer but I don’t like being pushed around by anyone, least of all by over-reaching yeggs like Diamond. I figured that if I could hammer at him with what little I knew, play it up good, then maybe it would rattle him enough to cause some trouble. I was sure he thought he had things well fixed so I did my best to make him believe it was all coming unglued. He started tearing the ear off that Harrison bird and then, after a couple of well-chosen remarks from me, the gats came out and nature took its course. From then on it was largely a case of mistaken identity: the rest of the mugs who showed thought it was me behind the desk because they mistook Harrison’s last words and because it was too dark to see clearly.”
“So you saved your own neck by fixing it so Maxwell got sprouted by his own gang. Great. Why didn’t you come to me, for pete’s sake?”
“Uh, huh,” I said. “So a private dick gets his face ground in it. So what? There was only a 50-50 chance I’d get the protection I would need and you know it. Just routine intimidation, your captain could say. Nothing to worry about. And nine times out of ten he’d be right. But if I’d made a bee-line to headquarters I’d have made it the one chance he’d have been wrong.”
“I could have done something,” Tom protested in a thick growl. “You’re not giving me much credit for brains or influence.”
“It’s not your brains I worry about,” I shot back. “Oke, the whole thing could have gone up in my face; and, yes, I’ve made a mess of the work being done on Diamond’s gang by the prosecutor’s office. Worst of all,” I snarled with a savage leer, “I’ve kept you up past your bedtime.” Tom bristled. “Maybe I’m not the most civic-minded shamus in the world, but I did what I thought was best. If that makes your job too hard, then take away my goddamned license and I’ll pull my freight right now!”
“Take it easy, you mule-headed bastard,” Tom said in angry exasperation. “As far as I’m concerned they should give you a medal and the fucking keys to the city! But do you know how many open investigations there are into Maxwell’s activities? Diamond may be gone but his organization isn’t. The DA is gonna go completely apeshit when he hears about this. I’ve got to have something I can use to calm him down. Can you give me any idea what it’s all about?” While he was saying this he opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a bottle of rye and a pair of glasses.
I took his advice and calmed myself. I took the glass offered me but didn’t drink from it right away. I was thinking that I must be pretty well stewed to have snapped at Tom twice in one night. “What I know,” I said as he poured himself a drink, “has got holes in it big enough to drive a battleship through. You’d do well to question the tracker you hired and a certain too-clever Irishman. It’s just pure dumb luck that Oscar was at Diamond’s place and overheard the plan to pay me a visit, and that Nares was sniffing around and that Oscar knew him. What I was told didn’t affect my plans much, but it gave me a good piece of leverage when I did meet with Diamond. Otherwise I would have had to have worked much harder to get him worried and I might not have succeeded. The short version is that Diamond maneuvered Steinauer into a game he could only lose at, and lose so big that Diamond would have him by the balls. So Diamond must’ve thought, anyway. He had some kind of counterfeiting racket in mind. I don’t know anything more about it because Oscar said he doesn’t, either. Steinauer must have refused to go along with the proposition and so the bungling little gunsel was sent over. I think, now that I know about the squeeze Diamond put on Steinauer, that Nussbaum was only supposed to scare Steinauer into cooperating. That went completely wrong when Nussbaum got his directions mixed up. After that happened I think Diamond came up with another idea to put the heat on Steinauer and take care of the gunsel at the same time. He arranged bail for Nussbaum and then had him taken to Steinauer’s offices and sprouted. The plan as far as I can figure it was that Steinauer would be pegged for the hit, that he would know who had framed him, and that he would believe his only hope was to throw in with Diamond.”
“Sounds pretty complicated,” Tom said doubtfully. I used his interruption to finally take a swallow from my glass.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “but that’s more or less the yarn that Diamond spun out for me. I got the impression from the little time I spent with him that he thought he was far more clever than he really was. Simple, straightforward scams weren’t good enough for him. He had to get cute about them. Anyway, I think Steinauer had decided to skip after I let him know about the gunsel and that he—I mean Steinauer—is the one who cleaned out the vault. The rest of it, the ransacked desks and files, was just for show. Diamond wanted me to think that Nussbaum was caught frisking the dump by Steinauer and was sprouted for it. He also wanted me to think that Steinauer is the one who sprung Nussbaum. Don’t bother trying to make sense of that,” I said when a baffled look appeared on Tom’s face. “Naturally Diamond supplied the bail money, giving it to Mitchell or some other twist in his organization, who then saw to it that the gunsel ended up in Harrison’s paws. I think the truth is that Diamond’s boys took him to Steinauer’s office suite and sprouted him, then trashed the inner office and the front desk, and we were meant to conclude that Steinauer had a double motive for wanting to get rid of the gunsel. I also think there was something else they were supposed to do or leave behind for you to find, something that was supposed to make appearances look dead certain, but after taking care of the first two things on their list they saw the signs that said Steinauer had dusted. That’s when they tripped up. Diamond seemed certain there was something in the offices that clearly pointed to Steinauer as the natural suspect but I think his goons got distracted by the thought of Steinauer skipping and scurried away to catch him, leaving the job in the McBride Building unfinished. ”
“I guess Maxwell’s boys must have caught up with him,” Tom remarked grimly.
“And probably sprouted him,” I said by way of agreement. (The next morning we learned that the cops left at the road house had found Steinauer’s remains in the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator.) “I don’t know if that was the plan when they started after him, or if Steinauer was so stubborn in his final meeting with Diamond that they had to get rid of him, or if something just went wrong.” I shrugged. “However it happened, they found my card in his pockets, put two and nothing together and got five. The rest you know.”
“Not exactly,” Tom said. “There are things about that gun battle that don’t click.”
“How so?” I asked, giving him a questioning look. “Double-crossing is a way of life in the rackets. You know that. I know that. Nobody trusts anybody. I frazzled Diamond enough he started chewing out that Harrison dope who was confused enough that me saying Diamond was pulling the rug out from under him was enough to make him blow his top. Then he acted on instinct when I yipped about Diamond’s rod.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tom said impatiently. “That part makes good sense, but what about the rest of it? You’ve just about confessed a motive for wanting to sprout Maxwell yourself, and if I actually suspected you had a sproutella gun I’d put you on ice right now. So if you don’t want the book thrown at you, you’d better give me a convincing reason why Maxwell didn’t tell his boys it was him they were shooting at.”
“He did,” I said, “but they didn’t recognize his voice. I think Diamond had been sitting pretty too long and he’d gone soft. I doubt he’d mixed it up like that since his bootlegging days, and you don’t get the same sporting chance with sproutella you do with lead. When he tried to tell the mob who he was, he sounded like someone’s hysterical grandmother and not like himself at all.”
“He could have shown himself,” Tom insisted.
“He probably did,” I said, “in the end. He wouldn’t have had many alternatives when his ammo ran out. He had to hope that his boys could react fast enough, despite the darkness, when they saw their boss, not me, pop up.”
“Some hope,” Tom said with a snort. “There were eight of them, including the three we nabbed, who were throwing sproutella darts at him. It only takes one to take a soul down. He must have known that.”
“Well, after all, he was a professional gambler, you know,” I pointed out. “But when you gamble, inevitably you lose.”
“Yeah,” Tom snorted. “Very philosophical. Only there won’t be much I can do for you if the three we nabbed don’t corroborate your story.”
“I’m not worried about that,” I said. “They’ll be too busy trying to save themselves by trying to rat out Diamond and each other...and you’ll encourage them. You’ll probably get more on Diamond and his rackets now that he’s been sprouted, now that there’s nothing and nobody to encourage those birds to keep quiet. If you want something that can soothe the DA’s troubled brow, that’s it.” (Which is just how things turned out. Not only did the three turn stoolie and sell out other members of the gang, the safe they were trying to open contained—apart from thick bundles of cash—more evidence against Diamond and his gang than the prosecutor’s office could ever hope to have acquired by conventional means. A sizable collection of coins was also found in the safe. Many were genuine, were very rare, and were identified by Steinauer’s insurance company as belonging to the numismatists’ stock. They had probably been on Steinauer when he was captured. The rest were eventually determined to be probably fakes; they were good enough that a few of the numismatists consulted by the DA thought they were genuine. The grand jury concluded that Diamond intended to use Steinauer’s influence and reputation to shift expert opinion in favor of the fake rare coins.)
Tom was nodding at my arguments. “You’re probably right, there,” he said. “But what about that Mitchell frail? Where does she fit in to all of it?”
“Search me,” I said with a shrug. “She may only have been Diamond’s moll. If that’s so, it’s an even chance she knows anything worth listening to. On the other hand, show her to the clerk who took the bail money for Nussbaum. She might be the stuff you’re looking for there.”
“Could be,” Tom said, “but maybe a little too neat. Then again, the old-time racketeers don’t have many women in their organizations,” he continued, sounding thoughtful. “It’s possible she’s the link between Nussbaum and Maxwell.” (As it turned out, she wasn’t. Ellen Mitchell was merely a high-class call girl catering to flesh fetishists and Diamond only happened to be a regular customer. She wasn’t part of Diamond’s organization but being caught in her latex gear bought her a ten-year probation.)
“Possible,” I agreed, as if it had been Tom’s idea. “You got anything else you need to ask me tonight?”
“Yeah. You can tell me how to reach that Oscar you mentioned.”
I told him how to reach Oscar through the Chinese club. I also gave him the name of the hack driver who helped me shake my tail and the cab company he worked for. “Soapy said the name of the chauffeur driving the tail was Jim. Maybe he works for the same outfit Soapy does. I couldn’t see the cab well enough to tell. But I’m sure Soapy can get you in touch with him.”
“Yeah,” Tom muttered, writing things down. Then he said, “If this Jim corroborates the other cab driver’s story—and your own—that’ll help a lot even if we can’t find his passenger. Got anything else for me?”
“Sure,” I said and downed the rest of my drink. “A dirty glass.” I held it out to him.
“Thanks,” he said dryly and took it. “Oke, snoop, take the air.” I stood up and scooped up my hat and coat. “I’ll be calling on you sometime tomorrow...either for a formal statement or with a warrant for your arrest.”
I nodded. “See you then,” I said, putting my hat on my head and walking out of the office.
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