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The Big Band Killer
The crowd is moving around me to the rhythm of the music coming from the band on stage. It's flowing. Loud. Fast and exciting; that's what I love about swing, it's easy to dance to if you just let the music do the work. I'm in a dimly lit club with a large crowd moving around me to the rhythm of the music. It smells like cigarette smoke, like most other places where people are having good time. The taste of the prime rib I just ate is mixed with the red wine I drank. For once I'm actually on the dance floor and not at the bar, and the only reason I’m even dancing is right in front of me. I had helped Ms. June Baker last week find some extremely expensive jewelry that had been stolen from her and made sure to ask her out after I had solved the case. Now she's dancing with me in one of San Francisco’s best clubs. I spin her around, making her red dress twirl out until it is nearly parallel to the ground, and pull her tight to me as the song ends. She looks at me with surprise in her deep blue eyes.
“Detective Malcolm Twain, I did not expect you to be such a great dancer. You have tired me out, I am going to have to sit down for awhile.” she says as the crowd around us roars with approval of the band.
My date and I find a table and sit down as the crowd dies down and a slower song starts up. June leans close to me across the table, a flirtatious smirk on her face as she begins to question me, obviously finding it funny to be questioning a renown private eye.
“How did you learn to move like that, detective?”
I lean back in my chair and light a cigarette. If I play this right, I'll have her wrapped around my finger.“Well, you have to have quick feet when you’re chasing down criminals.”
“Ah, I see. Just another skill you have acquired at your job.”
This is too easy. I've been in this situation plenty of times. I just need to let her know that there's more to this man than guns and criminals. Then it's as simple as making her laugh.
“Do you really think I am that one dimensional? I am not just a detective you know. I have many interests.”
She has taken the bait, now I just need to reel her in. “Yes, in fact I do. I play piano. I am very literate. I am a wine connoisseur and I have recently been developing my taste in fine art.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. You see, last month I was at a crime scene and there was beautiful painting right above the dead man. Later that very day I went down to the art museum and just looked around. I have to say I really like that Raphael guy. Now if you want man who only talks about crime, you should really date a cop.”
“You really are too much Detective. Or maybe I have just had too much to drink.”
I sit back up in my chair, put down my cigarette and lean in as I hold her hands. They are soft and pale and she blushes as I touch them. The dim lighting gives her skin a dark gold glow, just like a Raphael painting.“You know what they say: The best way to make a woman love you is to make her laugh.”
“And who exactly says that, detective?” she says as she leans in a little more. Her smile and her eyes tease me to do the inevitable. Now our faces are so close together that I can feel her breath. It smells like wine.
“I do.” I say as I lean in to kiss her, but that kiss is cut shorter than a midget’s trousers when a gunshot rings out across the dance floor.
The entire club snaps their attention to the string bass player who is clutching his gut. A deep red blotch spreads across his white shirt as he slumps to the ground. My mind instantly goes a mile a minute trying to figure where the shot came from. Lucky for me, the shooter gives himself away when he tries to run to the kitchen for a rear exit. He's blocked by a crowd of cooks and waiters interested in the commotion on the dance floor. He redirects himself towards the main exit. I instruct June to tell the bartender to call the cops and to tell one of the band members to put pressure on the bullet wound as the club begins to fall into chaos at the sight of a dying man. I start running off as she asks me where I am going. I turn around, halfway between her and the door. I have to give her something good. I run back to her and pull her tight to me.
“Duty calls, baby, and I am the only one around here who can answer the call of a gunshot.” I kiss her then run off to catch the idiot who ruined my date.
The shooter is far ahead of me by the time I get outside. It's a cool night and the sea air fills my lungs, giving me extra attentiveness and energy. It pulls me out of the relaxed state the club had me in and snaps me to attention. The night is bright with moonlight reflecting off the pavement. The instant I step outside, the city prepares me. There is work to be done. The shooter is at the bottom of the hill standing in the glow of a street lamp at an intersection. He is short and round and the grease from his hair reflects light. I know I recognize him, even from behind, but I can't tell where from. A speeding car screeches to a halt where he stands. The door swings open and he is about to get in when someone inside the car shoots him in the head. The car speeds off with no one but myself as a witness as to what happened. I run down to inspect the body. The neon sign on the store behind me casts ghastly shadows across the dead man’s face. I know this man, and he deserves what he got. He is a short, fat, greasy son of a b****, wearing a simple nondescript suit, tie and fedora. I know him the second I see his face. It is Al Marciano, a big time loan shark that I have been tracking down for months. He was the worst kind of criminal. Everything was done by a middle man. He never got his hands dirty. He never gave a second thought to selling out his minions or his colleagues. A true coward. I smile at his death, but nothing stops me from wondering why it happened. This was the exact opposite of his normal operations. I look in his suit-coat for some clues. He has a pistol with one shot fired, a switch blade and five hundred dollars in cash. I take one of the hundreds before putting the cash back in his pocket. I take it out again for another hundred, then run back up the hill to the club.
I am playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano when my best friend, Detective Isaac McIntosh arrives at the crime scene. The lights were brought up after the club had closed for the investigation so now light filled the club. The club was empty, except for a few police officers, I continue to play as he walks up to me and starts to talk.
“Do you have anything?”
He wants me to cut to the chase and he already knows that there are no clues here but that I had been able to come up with something through pure analysis of the situation. But I would never let him off that easy. “I am sure you were told just about everything on the ride here.”
“Hank Daniels, the bass player, was shot earlier this evening by Al Marciano. With no known ties to Marciano no one knows why Al shot Daniels. Marciano leaves the building and is shot getting into a getaway car. Hank is unconscious in the hospital, doctors say he's stable. Marciano is dead, and no one knows why.”
“There are a few things wrong with that.”
“And what would that be?”
I continue to play the piano as Mac glares at me. I know it is irritating him and he knows that's why I'm doing it. I think about what he said with a wide grin on my face. I love correcting old Mackie, almost as much as I love catching criminals. “It is 12:15 right now, and the shooting happened at approximately 10:45, so it happened yesterday. Also I have an idea why Marciano is dead.”
“Could you please explain Mal? I was dragged out of bed for this. I don’t have time to be theatrical.”
I stop playing piano and look at Mac devilishly. I love it when someone asks me to explain something to them. “Okay. So, we all know that our dearly departed friend Al is a dirty, rotten crook. So hated that even other criminals want him dead. Unfortunately for them, Marciano actually owes a lot of people favors and he’s known for putting out on these favors. But one wise guy decides that he wants two things. He wants to Marciano to do the dirty work for once in his life, then he wants to put a bullet in good Al’s fat, balding head. So the real question is who wanted Hank and Al dead?.”
I look at Mac with a big grin on my face. “This means I get to help with the case, right?” Mac glares at me knowing that he would not get any rest tonight.
“Yes. Where to first?”
I stand up from the piano bench and jump off the stage. “I say we start by dropping by our new friend, Hank.”
Mac and I arrive at the hospital where the shooting victim was at 12:31 AM, a little over half an hour later than I would have liked because McIntosh needed a doughnut and a cup of coffee. I exit my red Nash Ambassador and approach the large rectangle of a building with a large red sign that read: St. Agatha’s Hospital. The building is a bright white against the night, windows are sporadically lit, and a few night shift nurses are smoking outside the front entrance. The cold, hard, fluorescent light blinds me for an instant as I walk into the building. Mac and I stand in the lobby for a second to let our eyes adjust to the light. When we recover, we find a tomato in a nurse’s outfit glaring at us from behind a desk.
“Do you boys need anything?”
Mac is about to introduce us when I interrupt him. I honestly don’t know why he even tries to be official when he’s around me.
“I’m Malcolm Twain, Private Eye and this is Detective McIntosh of the S.F.P. D. We are here to talk to Hank Daniels about a shooting.”
“He was shot.”
I look at the woman in front of me, suspicious of how they would allow someone this moronic to watch over sick people.
“Yes, I thought that maybe the person who was shot in the shooting could shed some light on to why he was shot in the first place.”
The woman sighs and directs us towards room 330 on the third floor. Mac and I enter the room to find a short, round, man; not the ugly type of short and round, but the jolly kind. He is lying in the hospital bed eating some soup and toast and listening to the radio. For a man who had just been shot he looked as happy as can be. I approach him as he took another bite of his sandwich.
“Hello, my name is Malcolm Twain and my shadow over here is Detective Issac McIntosh of the S.F.P.D. We’re here to ask you some questions about the shooting.”
The man held up his hand to signal to wait a second, he swallowed and greeted us with a smile on his face.
“I was wondering when someone would show up to ask me some questions. Whoever tried killing me is an awful shot. The doctors said that the bullet didn’t do too much damage because it went through my string bass and missed all my major organs. Hit my appendix or something like that.”
Isaac decided to chime in for once after jabbing me in the ribs for the stick comment.
“Well, it’s good to hear you’re recovering well enough. Now, do you know anybody who might want you dead?”
Conner searches his memory for anyone who might want him dead and a grave look suddenly crosses his face. He looks between Mac and I suspiciously.
“I won’t get in trouble, will I?”
I see a glint in Mac’s eye once he says this. He sees that he might get another catch today. But I think Conner’s a good guy, whatever he’s done probably isn’t enough to be killed for, so obviously the best course of action is to kick his legs out from under him...Literally.
“Well, you see it all depends on … D*MNIT!”
Mac falls to the ground and I look down at him. He knows what I’m getting at, so he pulls himself up and says “Floor's really slippery, something must have spilled.” Mac brushes himself off and leaves the room mumbling something under his breath. Once Mac was gone, Hank told me how he and his friends had a bootlegging gig during the prohibition. They would sneak the alcohol in compartments in their cases to supply the upper class clubs with booze. Once the prohibition was over. Their boss wanted to start holding their venues up but Hank wouldn’t do that so he left town and went to San Francisco. Hank gives me the names of all the people involved with the bootlegging band except for the boss. All he could tell me is that he was British and went by Mr. B. Hank doesn’t have anything else so I decide to leave. I find Mac asleep in a chair outside the room. I look at my watch; it is now two o’clock in the morning. I kick the chair he's sleeping, startling him out of his sleep. “Lets get out of here, I hate hospitals. They smell like sick people.”
I’m back at the office, pacing while I try to think of how Al Marciano was connected to the bootlegging ring, but I can't; it is three o’clock now. I settle down into my large leather arm chair behind my desk. If this is connected to the old bootlegging gig then maybe his old team knows something. Conner had given me every name except the boss. I pick up the dark blue rotary phone at the edge of my desk and call Mac. I tell him to look up the names Hank gave me so he can start trying to track Conner’s old crew down. My heart sinks when the Mac calls back after getting off the line with police dispatch and starts rattling off the names.
“Carson Alley, killed last month. Michael Hancock, killed a year ago. Joseph Redding, killed in the same year.” One by one they had all been killed, apparently they all had the same idea as Conner and had spread themselves all over America. A total of fifteen men dead, no doubt it was the boss now. He must be some kind of crime lord to be able to pull this off. The only thing we can do is protect Hank and hope the guy reveals himself to us. Hank was the last of the bootlegging band; the next target of the big band killer.
I decide to walk to the hospital; it’s only a few blocks away and driving seemed like it would be a hassle. The night is quiet and peaceful. It is amazing to think that a man was killed only a few hours ago. But he was nothing to the common man; he was a low-life criminal and not even a very famous one. Everyone would go about tomorrow as if nothing had happened, totally unaware that they are just a little safer now. I am jolted out of my introspection by a man running into me as I approach the hospital. A nurse runs out of the building and yells, “STOP HIM HE JUST KILLED SOMONE!” I knew I was too late, Conner was dead. But the man who just ran past me knows who the mysterious British crime boss is. I pivot on my heels quick as greased lightning and take off after him. It doesn’t take long for me to get near him. He can hear my footsteps getting closer to him he darts into an alleyway and tips over a trash can as he throws something small to the ground. He is panting. He is afraid and that’s how it should be. I tackle him, pick him up by his suit collar and slam him against the wall making a pleasing thud as he winces in pain. His hands are covered in blood, and his eyes dart back and forth desperately for a way out. A smile creeps its way across my face as I light a cigarette with my free hand, take a puff and blow smoke in his face .
“I’m Detective Twain. Now why don’t you tell me who you just killed and why before I decide that you would look a whole lot better with a few less teeth?”
“You’re the police. You can’t hit me.”
He is sweating bullets. He doesn’t believe that I wouldn’t hit him. He thinks I’m a cop.
“I’m a Private Eye. Hired by the SFPD to solve this case by any means necessary. Right now you have a working jaw, that actually isn’t necessary. You talk or I’ll knock your block off.”
“Fine, fine. I’m working for this new big wig in town. Some Brit with a bowler cap. Calls himself Mr.B. That cat’s crazy. He made me kill that wounded bass player, I didn’t want to. I swear. I’m not even getting paid. Limey *ss told me to kill him or he’d kill my family. Thieves got families too, you know. He’s the one who killed Marciano after sending on a hit.”
“Why did he kill Al?
“For fun and money, but mostly fun.”
“And the bass player?”
“He said he was just cutting all ties to his past jobs.”
“Where can I find him?”
“He should be in Warehouse Nine in the industrial section of town., but I heard he was leaving the country soon.” I cuff the thug to a nearby drainpipe and run off to get some police backup and head to that warehouse as fast as I could. I
Mac and I approach the rusty red building with a big, black nine painted on the side with at least an entire squad of officers waiting for our command to follow. We enter the building and what we find is absolutely astounding. Nothing. All there was were a few tables and chairs scattered about. Barrels filled with ashes. Some had little bits of paper in them but nothing legible. But in one corner hung a white sheet, and in front of it, a theater projector. I flipped the switch on the side and it whirred to light projecting the ghostly face of a British man with a bowler cap and mutton chops. The monochromatic face spoke through the projector, some new technology I haven't seen yet, even in theaters.
“Congratulations Detective Twain,” the voice was mocking and pompous. Something about his voice lit a fire inside me. I could feel it the blood rushing to my face in anger. This was the one that got away. “I would have been disappointed if you hadn't figured it out. But it would seem you're just a little too late. Now I would like you to know that it would have been impossible for you to catch me. I left as soon as I shot Marciano. This whole event was constructed by me to test you, for I have taken interest in you, Detective. You will be a formidable adversary once we actually start our journey together.”
The film flickers off and I stand staring at the blank sheet trying to process what I had just seen. The implications of the truth were horrifying to me. If it was all a test, does that mean he had killed all those men simply for that purpose? No. No one could do that. Could they? Is it possible that he is just that crazy? Mac approached me and put his hand on my shoulder.
“You okay Mal?” I still stand staring at the blank sheet. In my mind's eye I can still see that smug grin on his face. He has challenged me. He will be back. He will kill more people.
“I have to find him.”