Illustrations by Mark Fults



 

hey were auditioning a new dancer at Kelley’s Red Barn, so Manning passed up his habitual cigar and popped a mint in his mouth instead. He lingered near the door and watched the girl on stage with considerable interest.

She was a cute blonde with long hair. She might be a bit on the skinny side for his taste, but he had to admit what there was of her was arranged well. He supposed she represented what people meant by ‘willowy.’ She wore brown shorts and a white halter, and her legs and stomach were bare. Kelley Regan was not the man to let a stripper audition for his place with her tummy covered. Even so she had a paste ruby stuffed in her belly button.

The stomach was flat, the legs long and while they were slender, they weren’t without a certain shapeliness. The same with her hips. Manning changed his assessment of her from ‘skinny’ to ‘svelte.’ There was a nice, sinuous grace to her body.

“What’s your name?” Regan asked her.

“Lulu,” she said, around a wad of chewing gum. “What’s yours?”

Regan laughed. “Kelley Regan,” he said. “But if I like the way you dance, you can call me Boss.”

“Then I might as well start in now, Boss, because you’re really going to be happy about the movement.”

“Show me,” he said. “Go ahead, Eddie. Let’s see what she’s got.”

Eddie Lang, Reagan’s piano player and musical director was seated at an old upright piano to the side of the stage. He started in with “Minnie the Moocher.”

If she’d expected “Humoresque,” Lulu gave no sign. She started off by grinding her hips first to the right, then to the left, and then she began to strut around the stage. Manning thought maybe she’d never even heard “Humoresque.” She had a lot of energy, and came across as if the whole thing were just fun. If she got the job with four shows a night, Manning wondered how long that would last.

Manning walked through the room, weaving past the tables with their chairs stacked on them for the afternoon, and stopped next to Regan.

Right then the girl flung her arms out to the sides and did a bump and grind that would make any experienced stripper proud, and the paste ruby flew past the footlights. Manning caught it deftly in mid air. He held it up to show them and grinned.

“Nice catch,” said Regan.

The blonde looked flustered for a moment, but only for a moment, and she never missed a beat of her dance. She did a turn, strutted some more and looked great doing it, though that was not because of her dancing. Manning held the phony ruby up so it could catch the light.

A minute later, the number ended and the girl stood there while Regan applauded and Manning joined in. The girl came over to the edge of the stage.

Regan was not as broad as Manning, though he was as tall. He had dark hair, dark eyes and a clipped black mustache. The girl was tall and with the couple inches the stage rose above the floor she was just about eye level with the men. Still chewing on her gum, she said, “How’d I do, Mr. Regan?”

“Call me Boss.”

“You mean it?” she said. “You mean I got the job?”

“Sure. We’re closed tonight, but we’ll want you tomorrow. Be here about 1:30 and you and Eddie can work out your numbers with the orchestra.” The orchestra was the piano, a drummer and a bass player, but why strain at gnats? “And maybe Angie will help you with the dancing.”

“Angie?”

“Angela Larson,” Regan said. “She was my dancer before you.”

“Oh,” said Lulu.

“You might want this,” Manning said, holding out the fake jewel.

“But not for the act,” Regan said. “Your belly button’s too cute to hide. Go in back and ask for Alice. She’ll know what you need for your costume. We don’t want you covered up, you know.”

“Gee thanks,” said Lulu. “And don’t worry, Boss. ‘Cause I won’t let you down.”

Regan motioned to Manning. “Let’s go to my office.”

Regan’s office was a small room behind the stage. Maybe once it had been a closet. It had a filing cabinet, two chairs, some bookshelves, a small desk, a door, a railroad calendar on the wall the desk faced, and no windows.

Regan took the chair behind the so-called desk and Manning helped himself to the other one.

“Sorry to hear about Slausson,” Manning said.

“Is that why you’re here, Jack? To give your condolences?”

“Over Slausson? You know damned well he and I hated each others guts.”

Regan scratched his nose, then said, “So, then, Jack, just why are you here?”

“Just because I hated the son of a bitch doesn’t mean I want to see him murdered.”

“Murdered! It was an accident. His car went off the road.”

“Yeah, some accident,” Manning said. “Cut the bull, Kelley. I broke into Hogan’s last night and took a look at the brakes on his car. He had some help with that accident.”

Regan sat there a moment. “What the hell made you break into a garage in the middle of the night. You a gumshoe for the insurance company, now?”

“Me? Don’t be silly. I’m just a guy likes to stay on top of what’s happening, and when someone like Slausson gets bumped and it looks like an accident, I get suspicious. Let’s skip our usual run around and go for the truth. How long have we known each other, Kelley?”

“Since we were kids, and you know it.”

“The question was rhetorical. Since I got to this berg I’ve been keeping an eye on you.”

“This is the first time I’ve seen you except to wave at you on the street, Jack.”

“I haven’t been after you, Kelley, just keeping my eyes open. Like I said, we’ve known each other a long time. You’re a crook, but unlike a lot of guys in your racket, you maintain standards. If I’m going to worry about anyone in your racket, it’ll be one of the guys who’re really dirty.”

Regan smiled and leaned his elbows on the desk. “You know, if I weren’t completely legit, I’d almost take that as a compliment. But I still say Bert’s death was an accident.”

“Since I was at Hogan’s last night anyway, I checked out the registration on that vehicle. It wasn’t Bert’s car, it was yours.”

Regan leaned back. “I was supposed to go in town to pick up a friend at the bus station. There was a problem here, minor stuff about a delivery, but I had to stay to straighten it out. I sent my manager. Somewhere along the road the brakes failed on my car. Bert died in the crash.”

“So it was meant to be you.”

“It wasn’t meant to be anybody,” Regan said.

“What did the police say?”

“That brakes sometimes fail.”

“Yeah,” Manning said. “I guess they would.”

Regan said, “Why the hell am I talking to you about this? I mean it’s not like we’re bosom buddies or anything, is it?”

“It’s sure not,” Manning said. “But let’s face it; it’s not like you know a lot of people who’ll play square with you, either.”

“You know, that’s what gripes me. I’ve always tried to play square. I mean, I’m no saint, pal, but everyone always knows where they stand with me.”

Manning nodded and got up. “If that weren’t so, I’d let whoever it is kill you and get you out of my hair. Look, Kelley, let’s quit fencing. I think somebody’s after you. Tell me the details and maybe, just maybe, I can catch whoever it is before he’s successful.”

“You think so?” “Come on. It’s what I do.”

“I’m pretty good at catching people, too,” Regan said.

“Then you’re admitting someone wants you dead?”

“Of course I’m not.”

“God, you’re still as stubborn as a mule.” Manning sighed and turned toward the door. He stopped and turned back. “How’s Angie, these days?”

“I was wondering if you were ever going to ask. She’s great. You’re invited to the wedding, you know.”

“Wedding?”

“You better believe it. In a month. That’s why I made her give up her act. I only let her dance because it was a way to keep her around. But if she’s going to marry me, I don’t have to worry about keeping her around. And no wife of mine is going to take her clothes off for strangers.”

“Well, the new girl doesn’t seem to have what Angie had, but she’s something, all right.”

“The little blonde? She’s cute as a button. What did you think of her?”

“She’s got a hell of a wriggle on her.”

“She has that, and she’ll draw a crowd, that’s for sure. But she’s sure not a dancer yet, not that it makes much difference, the way she looks.” He paused a moment, then added, “Unless she was sent to kill me.”

“You think she was?”

“I just told you, nobody wants me dead.”

“Still, that’s an interesting idea, a stripper who moonlights as a killer for hire.”

Regan thought about it a moment. “Hell.”

Manning nodded again. “Was she around when your brakes were jimmied?”

“Cut it out, Jack. That was all an accident.”

“Sure,” said Manning.

He opened the door and left.

The main room of the club was empty now. The lid was closed on the keyboard of the piano and Eddie was nowhere in sight. Manning heard noises of activity back in the kitchen area. He suspected Lulu was back stage somewhere, getting fitted for her costume. That was okay, he didn’t want to be seen talking with her here, anyway.

He couldn’t wait to tell her what Reagan had said about her, though.

2

Cathy Casey dangled two pieces of red fabric between her right thumb and forefinger.

“Are you going to blow your nose with that?” Manning asked her.

“This is my costume,” she said. “This is what he wants me to parade around in on stage tomorrow.”

“Well, that explains why he doesn’t want you to wear the ruby in your tummy,” Manning said. “It would clash with the costume.”

“No,” said Cathy’s sister, Nora. “It would cover the costume.”

They were in the office of the detective agency the sisters had run ever since the death of their father. Nora, the darker-haired sister, was seated behind the desk.

“Why I let myself be talked into going undercover as a stripper, especially one named Lulu, I’ll never know,” Cathy said. She tossed the outfit on her desk.

“Who else but you?” asked Nora. “We had to get someone on the inside to keep an eye on things, and you’re the natural choice. You dance great, much better than I do.”

“You’re the one takes dance lessons,” Cathy snarled. “You’ve had dance lessons from the time you were six.”

“That’s ballet, dear. I don’t think a place like Kelley’s Red Barn is ready for ballet.”

“And besides,” Cathy told her. “If you don’t have a stripper’s body, I never saw one.”

“You’ve seen strippers?” Nora asked.

“Well, no. Of course not. At least not on stage. But look at you, Nora. Look at me. I’m too thin to be a stripper.”

“No you aren’t. You’re slender but you have a shape on you. And the right personality. Isn’t that right, Mr. Manning? Personality is very important in strip tease.”

“Actually,” Manning said, “the only personality any stripper needs is a willingness to strip down past her skivvies. No offense, Cathy. While you might find it hard to imagine, I have seen a strip show or two in my time –”

“Why would we find that hard to believe?” Nora said.

“As I said, I have seen a stripper or two and believe me, Cathy. You’ll do swell. And it’s all part of the job. You’ll be inside where you can keep an eye on Regan and keep him safe. And you’ll have great cover.”

“I’ll have what?” Cathy picked up the costume again and waved it in the air. “Does this look like it’ll cover anything to you? Some bodyguard I’ll be. I sure won’t be packing much heat in this thing. Chances are pretty good I’ll catch cold in it.”

“Well, then,” said Manning. “You’ll at least have something to blow your nose in.”

She tossed the costume onto the top of the desk and leaned back, arms folded, and set her mouth in a straight line. She was ready to listen to what he had to say.

Manning sighed. He’d been out of town when he got the call about Slausson’s death. He’d phoned the girls and suggested one of them go undercover at Regan’s. His suggestion that one of them get a job there as a stripper had actually been intended as a joke, but as luck would have it, there had been such an opening. He hadn’t given them any more details over the phone.

So he started now. “A few weeks ago my principal began an investigation of an outfit operating in Philadelphia that’s started expanding its business interests outside the Keystone State. Before you ask, their business is gambling, prostitution, shakedown and drugs. With prohibition over, they feel the need of a little growth, and they figure legal booze and the Depression have weakened a lot of smaller operators.”

“And they’re interested in Diamondville?” Nora said. “The Depression must be worse than I thought.”

“The times are bad,” Manning said. “But these guys are worse. Don’t worry about that, though. They bought into the Swank Club over on Vine about a year ago. We expect to take the Philadelphia operation down in another few days.”

“Then why are we bothering with Regan?” Nora asked.

Manning smiled. “Ordinarily, we’d not be too worried about anything outside of the gang itself, but Regan has one of the operations they figure on taking over. He wouldn’t go along. So they’ve decided to just go ahead and kill him, and get it over with.”

“So we’re to save him? From who? How?” asked Cathy.

“Why?” asked Nora.

Manning took a cigar out of his pocket. “Don’t get me wrong, Regan’s a crook. He ran a speakeasy until the voters pulled the plug on Prohibition, and while the stuff he sells now is legal, it is overpriced and might not be as legal as it appears to be. There’s gambling in his place, and let me also remind you that he attracts his customers,” – here he looked at Cathy – “by offering lascivious displays of female flesh in his entertainment. But he doesn’t peddle drugs, and he doesn’t strong-arm his customer. While he doesn’t worry too much if one of his girls has a little something on the side, he doesn’t take any kickbacks from it.”

“You’re telling us that whoever moves in on his operation will be worse?” Nora asked.

Manning bit off the end of the cigar and struck a match. “That’s for damned sure.” He touched the flame to the cigar, puffed it to life and leaned back. “And one other thing I suspect you need to know. Regan and I go back.”

“To where?”

“Childhood. We grew up together.” He took another puff. “So it was suggested I call him up. Not that he admitted anything to me.”

Cathy nodded. “Do we know who they sent out to kill him?”

“No.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out,” Nora said. “All we have to do is sift out the old timers.”

“You’d think it, wouldn’t you?” said Manning. “But we believe they’ve had one of Regan’s people in their pocket for months, maybe even years. The only two people we can eliminate as suspects are Regan himself, and Bert Slausson, the manager who died in the car wreck. That’s why I called you and suggested one of you go undercover at Regan’s.”

“Cover?” Cathy said. She picked up her costume and waved it at him again. “You call this cover?”

“You mentioned that before,” he said.

3

“So, Lulu,” said Alice the costumer. “Stand over there and let me get a look at you.”

Cathy moved into a sliver of light that fought its way through the grime smeared across the transom over the door to the alleyway behind Kelley’s Red Barn. She was wearing her red costume which felt to her like wearing nothing at all. She missed her paste ruby.

A cigarette dangled from one corner of Alice’s mouth. She was close to fifty, but not that close, and from the wrong side. She squinted at Cathy a moment and then turned away with a wave of her hand. “You’ll do, I guess. It’s not like the guys who come here are going to notice what you’re wearing.” She looked her up and down one more time, a scowl on her face. “Something’s missing,” she said. After a moment she said, “I know just what you need.”

She rummaged around in the drawer of a make-up table in the corner until she found something. She handed it to Cathy. “Here.”

“What’s this?”

“It’s a piece of glass, but with that the red color, it looks just like a ruby. Put it in your belly button. The customers’ll think it looks sexy.”

She walked off, her job complete. “You need to practice taking that outfit off yourself,” she called back. “You don’t need me for that. You want Eddie should play something while you do it?”

It had been an interesting afternoon. She’d come in early, worked out her routine with Eddie. Angela came in after lunch, watched Cathy dance, nodded approvingly, then took the whole thing apart and showed her how to put it together again. She was a blonde, not as tall as Cathy, more voluptuous. She had soft features and a very mobile face which she used expertly to communicate with the audience. Cathy felt she was doing a completely different routine now, but she also felt a lot more comfortable with it.

She did a couple of steps and wiggled some to see how the jewel felt in her belly button. Then she breathed in and out. It was tighter than the other one, so maybe it would stay.

“It’s not like you’ll be completely, er, naked,” said Regan. He was standing close by; she hadn’t seen him come in.

“I know,” she said. “I have a g-string and a pair of pasties under all this. Not to mention the ruby.” She looked up at him. “Uh, the jewel was Alice’s idea.”

“Yeah, I heard. Go ahead and wear it if you like. Maybe the customers will like it, and maybe you won’t be so nervous.”

He grinned and walked off.

Oh, god, she thought. Could everyone tell she had never done this before?

Regan hadn’t gone five paces when he heard his name called by a lilting voice.

He looked around. He’d never seen the woman who was standing there before. She was slender, wore a dark brown business suit that managed to cover her in a demure way while calling attention to her figure. She was tall and had a look on her face that managed to be impish and no-nonsense at the same time. She wore a brown hat with a feather, cocked to one side of her head, rather like Robin Hood.

“And who are you, Maid Marian?” he asked.

She held her hand out to him. She was wearing gloves and carried a small purse that matched her ensemble. “Miss Desmond,” she said, emphasizing the first word.

“Miss?” he said, taking her hand.

“Desmond.”

“No first name?”

“Olive,” she said. “But you can still call me ‘Miss.’ We need to talk.”

“What about?”

“A contract. Lulu’s contract. I’m her manager.”

“She didn’t mention she had one.”

“That poor girl has no business sense at all.” She looked past him at Cathy. “Isn’t that so, Lulu?”

“None at all, Olive,” Lulu said, and strolled away, bouncing in time as she went, as if mentally rehearsing her routine.

“I hope you gave her a dressing room,” Miss Desmond said. “This back stage area seems rather drafty, don’t you think?”

“She has a dressing room. It’s small, but it’s private. And the walls block the draft.”

“Good. Now shouldn’t we talk about that contract?”

“Actually, I’ve got one sitting on my desk right now. But I thought we’d wait until after her first performance before signing it. But why don’t you come and look it over.”

“I’d love to.”

He shook his head back and forth. “I had no idea she had a manager, especially one so attractive. And young. You don’t seem much older than she does. You could almost be sisters.”

“We’re cousins,” Miss Desmond said. “Distant ones.”

The stage door came open and a man entered the club. He looked vaguely familiar. He was about forty and carried maybe fifteen pounds he could have done without. He wore an expensive looking blue suit and carried his hat in his hand. He spotted Regan and walked straight to him.

“Hiya, Regan. You got a minute?”

“For you, Grayson? No.” He started past the man.

“Hey, hold on,” Grayson said, grabbing Regan’s arm. His manner became tougher. “We need to talk, smart guy.”

“Well, as I live and breathe,” Manning said, ambling up. “If it isn’t Sammy Grayson.” He grabbed Grayson’s arm and whirled him around. “How the hell are you?”

Manning had walked in right behind Grayson, but Grayson hadn’t noticed him at all. At the sight of him now, Grayson’s jaw dropped. “Get your hands off me, gumshoe,” he snarled.

Manning ignored that. He said, “Aren’t you in the wrong nightclub? I thought you were partners in that place over on the eastside. For that matter, I thought you were in Pittsburgh.”

“It’s none of your business where I am, oof!”

Manning held on to Grayson’s arm to keep him from falling, but he removed his fist from the man’s stomach almost as quickly as he’d put it in. Grayson clutched himself and coughed, desperately fighting to get his breath back.

“Sorry about that. I haven’t any idea how that happened, Grayson.”

“You’re going to regret doing that,” Grayson managed after a moment.

“Well, maybe later on,” admitted Manning. “But right now all I can think of is how good it felt.” He shoved Grayson against the wall. “You never answered my question. What brings you here?”

“You working as his bodyguard, now?”

“Kelly doesn’t need anyone to protect him from the likes of you,” Manning said. “In fact he’s probably going to throw me out for keeping all the fun to myself.”

“Oh, I think there’s still some fun to be had,” said Regan. He grabbed Grayson by the collar and suddenly propelled him toward the door.

“Hold on, hold on,” Grayson yelled. “We need to talk, Regan.”

Cathy was closest to the door. Regan said, “Sweetheart, would you open that, please?”

She moved briskly to the door and opened it, then stood out of the way. Grayson got his first good look at the scantily clad blonde as he went past and his eyes bugged at the sight. She favored him with one of her sweetest smiles, and Regan aimed him toward the threshold and planted the sole of his shoe effectively in Grayson‘s butt and shoved. Cathy closed the door as quickly as Grayson was through it, but they heard the clatter of falling garbage cans a moment later, as well as the sound of Grayson cursing.

Regan looked at her with new respect. “Nicely done, Lulu,” he said, and gave her a light kiss on the mouth.

That caught her by such surprise that she couldn’t say anything. She just stood there, gasping, as Regan walked off.

Alice came up, took the cigarette out of her mouth and said, “You ready, Lulu? It’s time for your dance, now.”

That snapped Cathy back to reality, such as it was. “Now?” she said. “You mean now?” But Alice had gone. Cathy stood there, staring after her when suddenly she felt a hand grasp her arm. “Come on, Lulu. It’s time to go to work.”

It was Nora. She propelled her younger sister toward the stage. Cathy said, “Hold on, I’m not ready.”

“It’s now or never, darling,” said Nora.

“I thought you were on my side!”

“No way. I’m your manager, remember? I got to think about our paycheck.”

She shoved her onto the stage.

Nora stood there like a deer in the headlights and then there was a noise unlike anything she’d ever heard before, and she couldn’t catch her breath. The curtains were opening; she figured out that was what the noise was. There didn’t seem to be anything she could do about her breath.

Then there was a completely different noise, applause and whistles and yells of encouragement from the audience, followed by music from the so called band.

“Oh, my God, no!” she thought. She whimpered and cringed a little. But she began to move then, more or less in time to the music and afterwards she couldn’t remember any of the rest of it. But she was standing there, in the middle of the stage bowing, and there was more applause, and more yelling, and the whistling was much louder.

She came off stage after another bow, and saw Manning and Regan, both gazing at her and nodding their approval; and Nora shaking her head, with no approval whatsoever behind the gesture.

That was when Cathy realized just how naked she was.

4

Cathy did that three more times before the night was over and she was prepared to swear it never got any easier. But at least the paste ruby stayed put.

Regan had not made any announcement that Angie was no longer dancing at the club, but none of the customers seemed to be upset about it. Cathy had no illusions about how good a dancer she was, but she had no illusions either that it was important. Not with the guys in that audience, few of whom had dates with them. Where she really felt inferior was in standing next to Angie. Cathy had always been a bit jealous of Nora, with her nicely curved figure. But compared to Angie, Nora was ordinary.

Finally she was through the final performance and all she had left to do was go home and collapse. But as she came off stage, she saw Regan and Angie waiting for her. She saw them and knew immediately what was happening. She was going to be fired.

“I’ll pack my stuff and get out now,” she said.

“The hell you will,” Regan said. “You signed a contract.”

“I don’t remember any contract,” Cathy said.

“Your agent signed it for you,” Angie said. “About five minutes ago.”

“You’re stuck here, now, kid,” said Regan.

“What? I thought you were firing me.”

“Firing you!” said Regan. “I’d be crazy to fire you. Did you hear that applause? The customers love you; they’ll be pouring in to see you every night you’re here. Then they’ll run upstairs and make me rich playing roulette.”

“Honey,” said Angie. “You’re sensational.”

“I am? No, I don’t mean that. I mean, I am?”

“You slaughtered them cousin,” said Nora. “You were born to dance naked in front of strangers.”

Cathy threw her arms around her sister and hugged her. “Oh, thank you,” she said.

“Meanwhile,” said Regan. “We thought we’d tell you our plans for tomorrow.”

“What plans?”

Regan said, “Tomorrow both of you are dancing.”

Cathy looked at Nora. “Both of us? Me and, uh, Olive?”

No, not Olive,” Regan said. He cast a look at Nora. “Although if she wants to, I sure won’t stop her.”

“You ever thought about it, Olive?” said Angie. “You look like you have a great body for stripping.”

“Let’s change the subject,” said Nora.

“I mean you and Angie,” Regan told Cathy. “Frankly, we weren’t sure of you until we saw you working an audience. So we haven’t told people Angie is leaving. I thought we’d have a big farewell show tomorrow, Angie saying goodbye and you saying hello, so to speak.”

This was amazing, thought Cathy. She wasn’t being fired.

Regan invited everyone to stay for a party. Even Manning was welcome, after the way he had helped throw out Grayson.

The party broke up and everyone went home – except the Dolls and Manning. Late as it was, they went back to the office.

Nora said, “You know, what I can’t understand is what part Grayson’s playing in all this.”

“He represents the gang from back east, doesn’t he?” said Cathy. In the back of her head she could hear the strains of “Minnie the Moocher” played with a heavy drum accompaniment.

“I suppose he does,” Nora said. “But that doesn’t make any sense. If they’ve got someone in Regan’s organization, I’d think Grayson would want to stay as far away as possible, at least until Regan’s dead.”

“It is a conundrum, isn’t it?” said Manning, playing with a cigar he hadn’t even taken out of the wrapper yet. “He ought to be off somewhere working up an alibi. It would be a great time to be in Washington letting the G-Men question him. Yet here he is. Doesn’t make a shred of sense, does it?”

“It can only mean something’s gone wrong,” Nora said. “Very wrong.”

“But what?” said Cathy.

Manning shook his head. “It’s not like Grayson doesn’t have the right to be here. His gang has an operation here. They own a club, they got a couple restaurants, even a hotel, though not one of our better establishments. But that still doesn’t explain why he would come straight out and visit Regan like that.”

“How’s the operation back east going?” asked Cathy.

“I don’t have the details, of course, but apparently the police are practically ready to make their move. My guess is Saturday, the day after tomorrow. This weekend for sure.”

“Then we’d better be on our toes,” said Nora.

“Can’t argue with that one,” said Manning.

He shoved the cigar into his coat pocket. “Damned if I know the answers. Ladies, what say we go home and sleep on it? Maybe in the morning one of us will have dreamed up an answer.”

“There’s another question I’d like the answer to, also” said Nora.

“Oh?”

“Yes. Supposedly Slausson was going to the bus station for Regan to pick up someone who’d just arrived in town. Yet I’ve not heard anyone talk about any newcomers.”

“Oh,” said Manning. “That is a good question, and I’d almost forgotten about it.” He got to his feet. “So that’ll be my job tomorrow, after I get some sleep.”

5

Cathy arrived at the club the next afternoon, right after lunch and Angie grabbed her and pulled her on stage as soon as she was in dancing togs. Together they worked for about two hours, putting together a routine for the evening. Cathy found Angie, in shorts and a halter, intimidating at first. But as they worked together, Angie’s skill and know how, to say nothing of her friendliness, made it easy for Cathy to relax.

Nora strolled in about an hour after Cathy, looked around and saw neither Cathy nor Manning. But she could hear Eddie pounding out something on the piano and figured Cathy was rehearsing. She found a chair where there was good light, pulled the March issue of Black Mask out of her purse and began to read the Donahue story, “Ghost of a Chance.”

Presently Cathy and Angie came off stage and Nora put the magazine away. Cathy saw her and came over.

“What a busy little beaver you seem to be this afternoon,” Nora said.

“Angie and I’ve been working out a routine for tonight. Nora, she’s something –“

“I’m Olive, remember.”

“Oh. Thanks for reminding me. Olive, she’s something. I’m learning a lot from her.”

“I’m so happy for you,” Nora said. “Is this a second career for you, dear?”

“Well, if this case takes much longer, it’ll be better all around if I look like I know what I’m doing,” said Cathy. “Have you seen Manning?”

“No; I was about to ask you.”

“Well,” said Cathy, “I’ve got to go change into my costume. Angie and I need to go through the whole act a couple times before the customers show up.”

She ran off, bouncing like the little showgirl she was becoming. Nora sat back down and opened her purse to bring out her magazine again, when the door opened. In strolled Manning.

He looked around, spotted her and ambled over.

“Where is everybody?” he asked.

“Lulu is changing into her costume. Real clothes were causing her to sweat or something.”

“Do I detect disapproval?” Manning said.

“You detect irony. They don’t wear things that skimpy at beaches. And mark my words, they never will.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Manning said. “I’d like that.”

“I’m sure you would. What did you find out about the bus station?”

“Oh, that was quite an adventure,” he said. “Only one bus came in about that time, and you know what? Nobody got off.”

“Nobody?”

“Not a blessed soul. What do you make of that?

“I’m not sure. What do –” She stopped talking for a moment and her eyes widened. “Oh, my God,” she said.

“What is it?”

“That tells us who the inside man was, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does, not that it clears up much,” he said.

“I think it’s all too clear.”

Just then the dressing room door came open and Cathy pranced out in her small but bright red costume with the bright red paste ruby in her navel. She came straight over to Manning and Nora.

“Is the case solved yet?” she asked brightly.

“Turns out it might be,” Nora said.

Cathy was surprised. “What? It can’t be. I got a show to do tonight.”

“Sorry,” Nora said.

Before she could explain, the other dressing room door opened and out came Angie, wearing something green that had just as little material in it as what Cathy was wearing. She was certainly a knockout; it didn’t take much imagination to see why she’d been so successful in her chosen field.

At about the same time the office door opened and Regan came out. Angie saw him, went over and kissed him, then sprinted over to Cathy. “Come on, Lulu. Let’s get to work.”

“Hold on,” said Cathy.

“Ah, go ahead,” Manning said. “I got to have a heart to heart with Regan, anyway.”

Angie took Cathy by the arm. “I just thought of a great way for you to spice up the finale,” she said.

That was when something pounded like a cannon ball on the door, and it flew open. A guy came through with a heavy battering ram in his hands and behind him came two other guys, both holding guns. They leveled the weapons and moved them in a sweeping motion around the room.

Right behind them came Sammy Grayson. He was wearing an expensive gray suit this time, and didn’t have his hat in his hand. He saw Cathy and Angie and pointed. “That’s her,” he said.

The man with the battering ram dropped it. He ran over and grabbed Angie by the arm.

“Not her,” said Grayson. “The skinny blonde. I heard Regan call her sweetheart.”

“Skinny!” shouted Cathy. “You son of a –”

The man grabbed her with one arm and clamped his hand over her mouth with the other. Her eyes glared with anger and she kept trying to talk anyway. Manning moved in on him.

“Oh, I was hoping you’d do that,” Grayson said, coming up behind him. He slammed his gun against Manning’s head. Manning dropped to his knees, clutching his head with both hands.

Cathy struggled and tried to kick the man who held her but he was wise to her tricks and guided her back to the door and outside. Nora followed cautiously after them.

Grayson was first outside, followed by Cathy, held by the battering-ram man. The two gunsels went last, and they went backwards, keeping their guns on the people in the club. Then they went out of the building and Nora moved to the door, pulling her small pistol out of her purse.

She was just hoping to get lucky, but Cathy was already being pulled into the back of an enclosed delivery truck with a bakery sign on its side panel. A driver was waiting and the motor was running. Grayson was nowhere in sight; probably he’d gone around to the other side to get in. The gunmen hopped into the back and pulled the doors shut. The delivery truck took off.

Nora stared after it a moment, then remembered Manning.

He was sitting on the floor. Angie was bent down next to him. Someone had gotten him a wet cloth and she was pressing it to his head. When he saw Nora he said, “Did they get away?”

“Damn it,” she said, by way of answer.

“Oh, great,” Manning said.

“I don’t get it,” Regan said. “Why did they take her?”

“Because you called her sweetheart,” growled Angie.

“What?”

“They think she’s you,” Nora told Angie. “She helped kick Grayson out of the place yesterday. You would have called her sweetheart, too.” She opened her purse and slipped her gun away.

“You always carry a gun?” Regan asked.

“Not that it did me much good,” she said. “Are you all right, Manning?”

“I got a headache, but it’s my pride’s hurt mostly.” He made it to his feet. “Let’s go.”

“Go where? Do you have ay idea where they’ve taken her?”

“Maybe. I talked with Harry by long distance this morning and he filled me in on some stuff. Let’s check it out.”

“Wait a minute,” Regan said. “Olive works for you? And Lulu, too?”

“Out of our way,” Manning said.

“So who’s this Harry character?”

“Just shut up,” said Manning. “You’ve caused enough trouble.”

6

“You sure you feel up to driving?” Nora asked, once they were underway. “That was some blow you took on the head.”

“I’m fine,” Manning snarled. “Any problem with my noggin was there before Grayson conked me. I should have expected something like this and been better prepared.”

Beside him in the front seat, Nora said, “How could you see that one coming? I thought Grayson was big time. This move was strictly bush league.”

“Isn’t it? Ah, Grayson’s an idiot. I’m sure he was sent here mainly to get him out of somebody’s hair. The Pennsy operation is going down today, according to Harry. My guess is they could feel the pressure building and he was the most useless person they had standing around, so they chose him. The irony is it could have given him a shot at getting clean away. I promise you, he won’t get clean away now.”

“Then let’s see if I have this straight,” she said. “The gang’s had a toehold here for about a year, checking out Regan, looking for a weak chink in the armor. Turns out they find one in Slausson.”

He nodded. “That’s how I read it. By threat or bribe, they get him to agree either to kill Regan or lure him someplace to be killed.”

“But how do you figure Regan found that out, because he had to have found it out, hadn’t he?”

“He sure did. Slausson must have gotten careless in some way. Maybe Regan overheard him talking on the phone, or somebody saw Slausson in a bar with somebody he shouldn’t have been seen with,” Manning said.

“So Regan rigs the brakes on his own car and invents that story about having to go into town to pick up somebody at the bus station, right? And another story about being too busy. Slausson agrees to make the pick up for him, not knowing about the brakes and sure enough, they fail and Slausson gets killed. So that makes Regan a killer.”

Manning shrugged. “It was him or Slausson, but it was sloppy. Lot’s of opportunity for innocent bystanders to get hurt.”

“Are you sure it was Regan who rigged the car?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so. I looked for an out, but if it was somebody else looking to bump Regan, then Regan had no reason to make up that bus station story. And if it was somebody looking to kill Slausson, they wouldn’t have known about the car in time to fix the brakes. No, it has to be Regan.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m sorry. I kind of liked the son of a bitch.” She looked around. They were approaching downtown, quiet on a Saturday. There was little traffic. “Do you have any idea where they might have her?”

“I can only think of one thing, and it pretty much depends on Grayson being an idiot. The hotel.”

“The hotel?”

“They own a hotel over on Vine, the O’Dwyer. It’s a fleabag, but they keep the fourth floor for their own use.”

“But they’re bound to figure we know about the place.”

“Like I told you, it depends on Grayson being an idiot. But it makes some sense. They’ve been here a year, they’ve got the hotel and the club and a couple of fronts, but they’ve kept a low profile. I suspect that’s because they want in on Regan’s operation. It just happens they’ve decided to make their move now. They lost Slausson and sent in an outside man to take over the job of clipping Regan, but they didn’t figure it was the sort of job that required a genius. If you got any better ideas, I’m all ears.”

“Not all ears,” Nora said. “There’s a knot on your head the size of an orange.”

“Is that all? It feels like a grapefruit to me.” He turned the corner and they were on Vine.

The Hotel O’Dwyer was up ahead. Manning drove past it not to fast but not slow, either, and turned on the side street just beyond it.

“Grayson’s not from around here; he’s bossy and arrogant. He gonna give a lot of orders and not take many suggestions. He won’t know the lay of the land and nobody will want to help him any more than they have to. So chances are he doesn’t know about any safe houses they might have handy. I’m just hoping he ticked off enough people that no one told him about any.”

He pulled into the alley behind the hotel and drove toward it.

“You just got lucky,” Nora said.

“Where?”

“Parked over there in the loading zone. It’s the bakery truck.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. Maybe our luck’s holding at that.” He pulled the car over and they got out.

The door to the loading dock was open. Manning pulled something out of his pocket and hopped up on the dock. Nora took her gun out of her purse and followed after.

“Keep it handy, but try not to fire it,” Manning said, glancing back at the pistol. She saw that he was holding a blackjack. “I’d kind of like to sneak up on these guys.”

They made it back to a service elevator without encountering anyone. The elevator wasn’t there, but they could hear it coming down. Manning led Nora to one side and they waited.

The elevator arrived and the door opened. A man came out and Manning slid up behind him and brought the blackjack down firmly on his head. The guy grunted and slumped to the floor.

Manning turned him over. “I don’t know him,” he said.

“It’s the man who was driving the truck. Is he all right?”

“Sure he’s all right. He’ll be out about an hour, that’s all.” He hit him again, as hard as before. “That should buy us a little more time.”

He pulled the unconscious man over to the side and hid him behind some boxes. They went up in the elevator to the forth floor.

The corridor was empty and there were none of the muffled sounds you hear from occupied rooms. Evidently the owners did reserve this floor for gang activities.

“There are a lot of doors in this corridor,” Nora said. “What’ll we do? Try them all?”

“We might have to,” Manning said. “Good thing I conked that clown twice.”

“Hold on,” said Nora suddenly. She was speaking in a whisper but she sounded excited. She rushed forward and bent down to pick something up.

“Look what I found.”

She was holding something up for him to see. It was a small red piece of glass – a paste ruby. It had been lying in the corridor in front of a door.

Manning leaned forward and put his ear against the door. After a moment he whispered, “I don’t hear anything.”

“I’ve got my skeleton keys in my purse,” Nora said.

“Don’t worry about them,” he said. “I got mine in my shoe.”

He kicked the door hard right under the knob and it sprung open.

There were three men in the room: Grayson and the two gunmen who’d been with him. In the back of the room, on a bed, they could see Cathy, still wearing only her costume.

There was a heavy smell of bourbon in the room. Grayson spun around and said something nasty. He was closest to the door so Manning reached him before he could do anything. Manning was holding a gun now, but he still had his blackjack in his other hand and he brought it down hard on Grayson’s head. The gangster yelped and fell down. He was seated, clutching his head. Manning kicked him in the face, knocking three or four teeth out in the process.

The two gunmen just stood there with their hands up. They moved away from the bed without being told.

Cathy managed to sit up on the bed. She seemed groggy. Her hands were tied behind her back. Nora moved around behind her to untie them. Happily, these guys weren’t Boy Scouts when it came to knot tying.

Once her arms were free, Cathy slumped back on her elbows. “Oh, boy,” she said, and hiccoughed.

“Have you been drinking?” Nora demanded. “You smell like a brewery.”

“I don’t think it was voluntarily,” Manning said. “I think they forced something down her to keep her quiet.”

Cathy said, “I thought you guys would never get here. Could you give me your gun, Nora?”

“Cathy, I know you’re mad at these guys, but wait until you sober up.”

Cathy shrugged and fell back on the bed. “Well, if you’re not going to give it to me, at least point it toward the door, there,” she said.

“Oh,” said Nora.

The door opened and the man who had used the battering ram poked his head out. “Don’t shoot,” he said. “I ain’t armed.”

Manning had already disarmed the two gunsels and handcuffed them to a radiator. To the man in the bathroom he said, “Come on out and we’ll verify that.”

With his hands up the man came out. “Turn around so I can frisk you,” said Manning. As soon as the man had turned around he hit him with the blackjack. “It’s easier to frisk a guy when he’s sleeping,” he explained.

On the bed, Cathy said, “Is it time for my dance now?”

7

Monday morning Cathy sat at her desk in the office at the Flatiron Building and stared out the window. She was wearing a conservative blue dress with white and yellow flowers. The dress was closed up to the collar, the hemline below her knees, the skirt demure.

Nora sat at the other desk, saying nothing.

Manning strolled in around nine-fifteen and said, “I heard from Harry this morning. Seems the G-Men and the local police spent Saturday afternoon making raids back in Pennsylvania, and Grayson’s not the only member of his peer group wearing a striped suit this morning. It looks as if pretty close to the entire gang is taken care of.”

“All of them?” Nora said.

“You never get all of them,” Manning said. “

“We did,” Nora said.

Cathy glanced at Manning. “What about Regan?”

“The cops have been talking with him about Slausson’s death. His lawyer is trying to get him a deal back east, turning evidence on the Pennsylvania gang, but I don’t know if that’ll work out, or if the Diamondville police will be interested if it does. They’ve got first claim on him.”

“That’s a shame,” Cathy said.

“Yeah,” Manning agreed. “I guess it was only a matter of time before he made a mistake like that. He should have grown up honest and respectable – like I did.”

“Respectable?” Nora said.

“But the case is not without its rewards,” Manning said. He had a package with him. He looked around. “You got a Victrola around here, don’t you?”

“Over there,” said Nora.

He took a record out of the package, went over to the record player and put it on.

The record player began to play “Minnie the Moocher.”

He looked at Cathy. “I thought you might enjoy a souvenir of your show business career.”

“I’ve already got one. The paste ruby.” She smiled. “I’m wearing it under my dress.”

####