“It is a long road that has no turning.”— Irish proverb
No happy ending ever started in a bar.
The old friends had chosen to murder the afternoon drinking in the shadowy hotel pub mostly to evade December’s bitter chill.
“All I’m sayin’ is that any son of a bitch who sets off in a plane for California—and who then ends up landing in feckin’ Ireland—that son of a bitch is deserving of something far better than simple scorn,” Jimmy Hanrahan said, tapping a blunt finger against the other man’s chest. “Besides, he’s from your neck of the woods, Hec. He’s another Galveston boy.”
Jimmy looked out the hotel pub’s window at the fresh flurries accumulating atop old, too-high drifts. He shook his head and sighed.
Hector Lassiter rose and fished change from his pocket. He said, “Jimmy, only a romantic Irish expatriate like you would still think of defending Corrigan. Mention your motherland and you get positively dewy. As calamitous decisions go, you leaving Ireland was some flavor of tragic, I think.”
Jimmy was big and beefy and about Hector’s height— topping out over six feet, but also coming in a good bit over Hector’s weight. Jimmy went at least two hundred fifty pounds. He had graying-brown hair, blue eyes, and a nose broken so many times it looked like something no anatomist had invented a word for yet. Jimmy snorted and sipped his Irish whiskey. “Not already calling it a day, Hector? Eager to get back to the writing table? Or maybe you’re just off to siphon the python?”
“Huh-uh,” Hector said, flipping a nickel and then catching it in his hand. “Just going to improve the music.” He didn’t call it loud but checked: the coin came up tails.
Nat King Cole was singing Mona Lisa, a song Hector regarded as syrupy, yet it had been played nearly to death the past few months. Increasingly, Hector felt out of touch with the sorry drift of popular culture. The crime novelist sauntered over to the jukebox, scanned his options and plugged in a Percy Mayfield tune as well as Vaughn Monroe’s cover of Riders in the Sky.
Returning to his stool, Hector held up a finger for another shot of Jameson. Jimmy said, “What’d you opt for, Hec? Not more of that hillbilly crap you favor these days, I hope?”
The rangy Irishman had been Hector’s good friend since their late teens, going all the way back to Europe, and, later, to the bloody bootleg wars waged along the Great Lakes.
Back then, Jimmy was a relatively new cop. In ’36, the year Hector last reconnected with Jimmy in the Buckeye State for any real time alone, “Untouchable” Eliot Ness had been fresh from Chicago and chasing Al Capone. Ness had recently been appointed director of public safety for the Mistake on the Lake. Jimmy was swiftly tabbed as one of the force’s rising stars and promptly promoted to detective by Ness.
Because of the most recent European war and some lingering, bloody business spinning out of all that, it had been a long time since Jimmy and Hector had last crossed paths.
Jimmy was taking a rare vacation in Youngstown, of all places. Because Hector was also roaming the east on the way back south from a meeting with his New York-based publisher, they’d agreed to risk hooking up close by the Ohio- Pennsylvania border.
Mostly, their first couple hours together had been spent in grisly, Police Gazette-style shoptalk. Seemed Jimmy was in Youngstown chasing clues to a long unsolved series of mutilation murders—still doggedly pursuing his bête noire, the so-called “Cleveland Headhunter,” a.k.a. the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.”
The Butcher was credited with disarticulation and decapitation murders across the upper Midwest, crimes spanning decades and thousands of miles, but mostly grisly slayings committed around Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh.
Hector had relatively recently gotten caught up around the edges of a similar crime in Los Angeles, the harrowing case of the “Black Dahlia” as the breathless newspaper boys dubbed the tragically murdered and mutilated would-be actress Elizabeth Short. Some in police and conspiracy-theory circles thought the “Black Dahlia Avenger” and “Headhunter” killings linked. A letter sent the press a few years before the Dahlia’s mutilation murder claimed the Cleveland killer was fleeing the chilly Buckeye State for the City of Angels. The letter writer even referred to a severed head buried in almost exactly the location where Beth’s bisected body was later found.
For reasons of his own, Hector didn’t buy the theory of the Dahlia-Butcher link, not even a little, but he wanted to see Jimmy, so he’d made the icy run down from New York.
Percy Mayfield began crooning Please Send Me Someone to Love. Hanrahan listened to a few bars, grunted and said, “This isn’t so bad a tune. It’ll do.”
“It’s a great song,” Hector said. He stared into his glass, then said, “Jimbo, you’ve really gotta commence letting go of this Kingsbury Run business. You’ve been decades on this mess. The guy who murdered all those folks around these parts, that hombre’s gotta be long gone south of the sod by now. Please don’t let yourself be run crazy by it anymore, buddy.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes. “If only that seemed so, Hec. It bein’ over, I mean. But another lassie was cut up this past July. Just like the others. Exactly like the others. It’s the same fiend. I’ll stake my life and reputation, such as it remains, on all that.”
Hector narrowed his pale blue eyes. “You really believe that?”
The cop shook his head. “Not a scrap of doubt. And something else happened at an industrial site in Cleveland recently. A fairly large fellow was seen sunning himself on some steel girders that had been sitting there for almost two years. The man showed up every day for nearly six weeks. He spent about twenty minutes in the sun there each day.” Jimmy sipped his whiskey and shook out a Lucky Strike. He shrugged off a little chill.
Hector picked up his old Zippo and tossed it to the Irish detective. Jimmy caught it and said, “Now, this place is not the kind of place you lay out to catch some rays, Hector. Really not that kind of garden spot.” Jimmy said that last through a haze of smoke. He closed the lid and glanced at the engraving on Hector’s lighter that read, “One True Sentence.” Jimmy ran his fingers over the surface of the Zippo then handed it back to its owner.
Hector slipped the lighter into his sports jacket’s pocket. He said, “What’d this fella look like?”
“Fiftyish, like us,” Jimmy said. “That’d make him a young man when the Butcher was in his natural prime. This man, he had thinning gray hair and he was heavyset.” Hector bit his lip. “How exactly does this tie back to the Kingsbury Butcher?”
“The boyo stopped sunning himself, stopped right in the middle of summer. About the time he ceased cosseting his tan, the workers around the area started to notice this stench. Then, on July 22, a couple out for a walk found a severed leg in a field. Limb was still fairly fleshy. That set minds working about the stink under that steel pile, and we started poking around there. Under the steel, right where that sunbather had sunned for six weeks, we found a torso. Also some severed parts. One leg and both arms. The head turned up a few days later, close-by. Under the body was a May 1949 copy of the Cleveland News’ sports pages and a couple of pages torn from a phone book. Listings under the letter K.”
Hector blew smoke out both nostrils. “K for Kingsbury, you’re thinking?”
“Who’s to say with certainty?” Jimmy said. “But even our crazy coroner back in Cleveland, Mariposa, he admits it looks like the Kingsbury Butcher all over again. What do you think?”
“I think it’s just this side of chilling,” Hector said. “More than a tad skin-crawling, even. I think maybe—”
Hector was cut short by an urgent tug at his sports coat’s sleeve. He glanced to his side; saw nothing. Another tug. He looked down.
A blue-eyed, blond girl, maybe five, perhaps six, looked up at him, scared and imploring. “Please, mister, my mommy needs help!”
Hector exchanged a glance with Jimmy and they rose together. They drained their drinks and ground out their cigarettes. Hector called to the keep, “Room 301. Put it on my room’s bill, won’t you, sport?” Then he took the little girl’s tiny hand and looked around for a parent.
The little girl was dressed well and had festive ribbons in her hair. She was wearing a Black Watch plaid wool coat with attached cape and a furry muff dangling around her neck. High-gloss, black patent-leather shoes on her tiny feet. The girl clutched tightly to a lookalike doll dressed in a miniature version of her own outfit.
Jimmy lifted the little girl up and wrapped an arm under her to support her. Getting her face up even with his own and smiling, he asked, “And where’s your mother, angel?”
“Down there,” the little girl said. She pointed across the lobby to a descending flight of stairs under a sign that read “Restrooms & Shoeshines.”
The little girl said, “Mommy really needs your help, right now!”
Hector jerked his head for Jimmy to follow. He said over his shoulder, “What’s your name, honey?”
“I’m Shannon,” she said.
“Let’s hurry then, Shannon,” Hector said, patting his left side and then remembering he’d left his big old Colt ’73 hidden in his luggage upstairs. He cursed under his breath.
Hector took the steps three at a time. A sign at the bottom pointed left for the women’s restroom, and right for the men’s. He drifted leftward but the little girl in Jimmy’s arms said urgently, “No mister, the other way!” Hector obeyed.
An old black man was sitting in his own shoeshine chair near the door of the men’s room, fiddling with a brush and looking scared and ashamed for his own fear.
A woman yelled, “No!” There was the sound of a slap, then she snarled, “I said no, damn you!”
A man yelled back, “Bitch! You are coming back! Now do it quiet-like or we’ll hurt that kid. Boss man gave the all clear to rough her up good. Joe is up there right now looking for her. If he finds that girl first, it will not be a good thing for anybody. Do you get me?”
Jimmy deposited the little girl in a vacant stall. Closing the door on her, he pressed a big finger to his lips and said, “Sit tight, angel eyes. And do please hush!” A reassuring smile as he closed the door on her.
Hector could see the woman now—two women, really.
A pair of men were waving guns at the ladies. The thugs were dressed in down-market hats and overcoats but expensive-looking shoes. They turned at the sound of Jimmy’s instructions to the scared little girl.
Both men pointed their guns toward Hector and Jimmy. Hector turned to make himself a narrower target, then kicked the one standing closest in the crotch. The man doubled over and Hector grabbed the man’s overcoat lapels and tossed him behind for Jimmy to finish with.
The second man was shifting his aim, preparing to point his gun at Hector’s chest. Hector kicked that man’s hand and the gun went off, blasting a hole in the restroom ceiling. Hector grabbed the brim of the man’s fedora and jerked it down over the stranger’s eyes. The gunman was pointing wild now, as likely to hit the old shoe-shiner or the little girl cowering in the stall as to put a slug in his attacker.
Hector got hold of the man’s elbow while he was still blinded by his own hat. Hector put the man’s arm against the jamb of a vacant toilet stall and then slammed the stall door against the man’s wrist several times until bone crunched.
The man’s hand went limp and the gun smacked the tile floor, chipping marble. Hector scooped up the rod, a taped, skeleton-grip .38, and tossed it to Jimmy. The Irish cop’s man was out cold on the floor.
Hector’s man groaned again, tugging at his hat with his one good hand. Tsking, the author hauled the man up and then flung him headfirst into the toilet bowl. The man was still moving, so Hector did that a second time and then pulled the flush chain on the overhead basin.
Jimmy opened the stall door and picked up the little girl. “Everything’s fine now, puddin’,” he said. “You’re safe and so is your mother, darlin’ Shannon.”
One of the women, blond and blue-eyed like the little girl, fell to her knees and hugged the child close. “Oh, thank God,” she said. The woman wore an expensively tailored skirt with matching jacket and a long fur coat that looked real enough to Hector. The blonde’s hat sported a dangling fringe of black mesh that nearly reached her bottom lip. She was quite the looker, that was evident even through that mesh veil.
The other woman was prettier still and platinum blond. She was expensively appointed, too, but not in quite so business-like a fashion as her companion. There was more va-va-voom in the second woman’s slinky dress and half-stoll. The sexier one stroked the little girl’s hair and then squeezed her friend’s arm and said, “Katy, we have to go, right now. We have to do that before Joe gets back!”
Joe? Hector said, “Now what’s up with these toughs? What are they to you two, ladies?”
“There’s no time for that,” the slinky blonde said. She hauled her friend up from her knees. “Katy, come on! We have to fly!”
This loud click. No mistaking that sound, and particularly not amplified as it was off all that tile and porcelain in the men’s john: the sound of a gun cocking.
Hector cursed and said softly, “Howdy-do Joe!” Raising his hands, Hector turned slowly to face the gun.
Joe shook his automatic once at Jimmy, directing the cop to drop the revolver they’d taken off the other thug.
Jimmy lowered the hammer on the gun. He slung it in a sink basin, scowling. The Irishman evidently seemed to think it good strategy to rile the man. Jimmy said, “So, ya sorry pup, ya, you’re clearly a Dago thug. Which family do you work for? No denials now, ’cause you’re clearly of that oily ilk if ya get my drift. And you’re no Joe, you’re a Giuseppe at best.”
Joe sneered. “Who the hell are you two? I only ask so we’ll know whose funerals to send flowers to.”
Laying his accent on thicker, Jimmy said, “We’re just passers-by. Ya know the old Celtic saying, don’tcha boyo? Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in? In that spirit, we helped ourselves to a dab o’ bedlam, going in assured of the happy outcome on our end.”
“Ain’t you the tough, Joey,” Hector said, smiling. “But you better rethink this bad business, old pal. Jimmy here is plainclothes heat. Shooting Jimbo would be sowing the wind in wicked ways you don’t want to contemplate too hard. You know how cops are about police-killers. Hell, even the Feds would pile up on you for a bloody stupidity like that.”
Joe pointed his gun at Hector. “Okay, mouth, and who are you?”
“Smith’s my name,” Hector said. “John Smith.”
Joe sneered. “Yeah. So you’re another cop?”
Hector just shrugged.
Joe sneered and jerked his head a little to one side, cracking his neck. “What are doing with these two? Kefauver send you to protect them? If so, that woodchuck’s sure going on the cheap, ’cause you two mugs ain’t all that much.”
Hearing Jimmy was police put some spine into the old shoe-shiner. The elderly bootblack lashed out with his hand towel, striking Joe’s gun hand and resulting in a second bullet hole, this one in the men’s room’s floor. Hector grabbed hold of Joe’s lowered gun hand, forcing a finger behind the trigger before Joe could get off another wild shot.
In the mirror, Hector saw the slinky woman put a gloved hand over the child’s eyes. He thought, Good for her, gal must sense what’s coming.
Jimmy snarled and grabbed Joe by both ears and wrenched him back toward the sink.
There was an array of bottled colognes between the sink basins. Jimmy sprayed mist in Joe’s eyes and then turned on the hot water tap. He shoved Joe’s face under the scalding spray, then got him back up on his feet and rammed his head into the wall twice.
Hector nodded at the shoeshine man. “Thanks, brother. You carried the day. That said, if I was you, I’d surely be missing when these three come back around.”
Jimmy scooped up discarded guns, then took “Katy” by the arm. She was carrying the little girl now. Hector grabbed the sexy, still-unnamed blonde by her arm and they legged it up the stairs.
“Best we get distance on this joint,” Hector said, taking point across the lavish lobby. “These rats rarely travel in trios, more like battalions. And Jimmy’s right: they’re all mobbed up. They stink of Mafia.” Narrowing his eyes he asked the women, “So what are you two to them?”
Silence. Hardly any expression at all there on their pretty faces.
Jimmy said, “One of the boyos mentioned Kefauver. That’d be Estes Kefauver, I guess. You know, the toothsome Tennessee senator who’s conducting all these inquiries into organized crime. Am I right? Yes?”
More silence as they hustled the women across the lobby and out into the December cold. The icy wind lashed their faces and made their eyes tear up. The sidewalks and gutters were still mounded high with the snow and slush of the freak Thanksgiving blizzard that had swept over the Appalachians, spawning out-of-season tornadoes, knocking out power to an estimated million and killing more than three hundred people.
The thaw was just setting in south of Cleveland. Consequently, flooding from the melting snowdrifts, some more than twenty feet deep, posed a new threat throughout the Ohio River Valley.
“Car’s just around the corner,” Hector told Jimmy.
The Irishman nodded. “Always the Chevy man, you. Is this sled fast, Hector?”
“It’s a Chevy, dark blue. And yes, it’s very fast.” Hector’s wheels were brand new, a 1950 DeLuxe Styleline Sport Sedan with rear fender guards and chrome stone guards. Hector had also sprung for the optional sun visor because he lived in the desert—not that he got home to New Mexico so terribly much in recent days.
Jimmy nodded and squeezed Katy’s arm. “I asked a question back there, missy. Well, several questions were posed, but as I’m the one with a badge, I get priority on answers. That man said something about Kefauver and a protection detail. Are you a witness for the senate committee? Are you two tied in some way to one of the crime families who’ve been targeted by Kefauver’s hearings?”
Katy looked at her friend; the other woman shrugged.
“Honey, after what we did back there, you owe us. What are you called, doll face?”
“Hokey-doke, Meg,” Hector said, brushing some strands of yellow-white hair back from her eyes. Her hair was soft and maybe even her real shade. Surely didn’t look or feel like aperoxide job. She moved her head away from his hand. Hector smiled at that. Some spirit behind that tarted up face.
The women exchanged a last long look. Jimmy frowned and flashed his badge, just enough to show it was real, but he kept a big thumb over the name of the city emblazoned on the tin.
Katy nodded and hugged her daughter closer. “My name is Katharine Scartelli. My husband is—”
“Vito Scartelli,” Jimmy said, raw-voiced. “Hec, this woman is married to a monster.”
“I read the newspapers, too,” Hector said, cold all over now. “The boss of all bosses in the Great Lakes region.” He tossed Jimmy they car keys. “We’re dealt in, like it or not, Jimbo.” Hector added, “Or don’t you think?”
“Oh, I figure we’re already in deeper than we can conceive,” Jimmy said. “Always the way, it seems, when our paths cross for any time at all.” Jimmy stroked the little girl’s hair. Hector figured his friend was remembering another city, one a continent away, many years ago. Remembering another little girl in desperate danger. Lyon, France, and the last big war: all of that was certainly on Hector’s mind presently.
“Then pull around back of the hotel and wait for me, Jim,” Hector said. “I’ll exit through the service doors.”
It was starting to snow as Hector turned to head back into the hotel. A tiny voice, “Thanks, mister. Thank-you for saving my mommy and Megan.”
Hector almost said, “We’re nowhere near having done that yet.” Instead he smiled over his shoulder at the little girl and said, “You sure are cute, darlin’.”
Meg called to Hector, “Joe asked you what you do. Are you police? Perhaps a private detective?”
“Don’t insult me.” Pausing, Hector said. “I’m just a writer, sugar. But a careful one.”
Meg frowned. “Your name does seem familiar. Are you a journalist?”
“Not so much that either,” Hector said. He trotted across the parking lot in the snow.
Hector ducked back into the cozy hotel, straight into the barrel of a gun.