I must've sat in that rickety chair of mine for a solid two hours, staring at that note and feeling my brain fry itself between my ears. I just kept going over it all again and again, unable to accept that some lowlife broad had played me like a fiddle. I mean, sure, I hadn't known at the time that she was a crook, but I should have known something was as fishy as the wharf. Instead I'd let her make a fool out of me like no one had before. I was determined to figure out how I was going to crack this case open, find the thread that would make her whole scheme unravel. Still, after two hours, I finally had to admit to myself that I was about as good at finding that loose thread as I was at figure skating. So it was that with an ache in my head and an emptiness in my stomach I decided to crack into some of my hard-won savings and spring for a hot dinner that didn't look and taste like a cold can of beans.
There was a place downtown, right on the line between the fancy and clean parts the tourists like and the rough places where the tourist's wallets and jewelry end up. It was called Jimmy's, and it was my favorite joint around, for both business and pleasure, and I knew quite a few. The drinks were cheap, the employees were usually friendly, and the seedy type that came in knew me well enough to be willing to slip me a bit of information on the side if I looked the other way to the fact that they probably had some dope on them. Sure, it would have been an illegal search to find it on them, but they didn't need to know that. There was one thing, though, about Jimmy's that made it my favorite spot, and the place I wanted to be most in the world that night.
"Heya flatfoot, you want the pastrami?" asked Jimmy Popodokolis, owner, manager, and maker of the best damn pastrami sandwich this side of the Atlantic Ocean. He was just dropping off another plate at the bar and turning to go back to the kitchen.
"You know me so well, Pops," I called out, watching him nod and leave. He had told me once that he'd been called Pops all of his life, and actually named the joint Jimmy's to get that to change. There are some things you should never tell a man like me. Still, we got along fine, so I suppose I got a free pass in that regard. Letting my eyes wander around the smoky interior, my eyes lit on a figure desperately trying to not make eye contact with me while he sat in a corner booth. I smiled broadly and sauntered over to the booth, plopping myself down opposite him and greeting him like an old friend. "Well hello there, Chuck! Long time, no see!"
"Ah, h-hey, Officer Finder. N-nice to, ah, see you again. What brings you around?" he replied, glancing around like a trapped rat. I suppose that description fits him rather nicely, as he'd been known to squeal with some pressure on him.
"Oh, Jimmy's pastrami, you know that. But don't call me officer, Chuckie. I'm a detective now, been off the beat for a few months." It was hard not to laugh as I saw beads of sweat show up on his forehead.
"That's, that's great, Detective. You working down at Central?"
I smiled my best imitation of a Cheshire Cat grin. "Oh, no! That's the best part! I'm working for the Feds!" I could almost hear him gulp. "Oh yeah, I can call people any time, day or night, and have them do all sorts of things. I can have people tailed, and I can have records looked up. For instance, I could have a parolee followed at all hours, and look up exactly where they're not supposed to be." His hand was drumming the table now, and I knew I was right. "And if the people tailing him were to report that he was at a place on the list of places he shouldn't be, well, I would just take one more call to get them thrown back in the slammer." In answer to my prayers, Jimmy came out and placed the pastrami and fries in front of me. I took a fry and bit it in half with a satisfying crunch, with my eyes locked on Chuck. "You understanding me, Chuckie?"
He broke. "Look, I know things. You know I do. What're you workin' on, Offi- I mean, Detective Finder? Maybe I can help you, and you can forget to make that last call? I mean, you're busy, aren't you? Well?"
I took a bite of my pastrami sandwich and looked thoughtful in order to hide my smile of success. Well, and to taste the heaven on rye that was sending intoxicating aromas right to my stomach. I savored it for a few moments, then swallowed it down. "Alright, Chuckie-boy. I might just be able to have a bit of memory loss, if you can give me something big enough to knock it out. What do you know about the theft at the museum?"
As I had agreed to deal, he had calmed down somewhat, but the mention of the museum made him tense right back up. I was worried I was going to give him a heart attack before I could finish my meal. Shakily, he replied to my question, "Nothing. I don't know nothing."
"Now, now, Charles," I said, reprimandingly. "If you don't then I'll have to keep this dinner short. I have a lot of work left to do, and a lot of calls to make..." I shot him a significant glance.
He squirmed, then his shoulders slumped, defeated. "Fine. I don't know a lot, but here's what I do know. There's been something going on. I don't know when it started, but all the real talents out there are getting snapped up by something new. They've stopped doing the stuff they're known for."
"Hmm? You mean they're getting whacked?"
He shook his head. "If they'd been rubbed out there'd be more buzz. They've just...stopped."
My eyes narrowed. "Who's on the list?"
"A bunch. Vic the Slick, the Trouble Twins, Frankie Poster...about all the muscle for hire right now..."
I whistled. His abbreviated list was a who's who of known felons. "How does that tie in with the theft?"
He glanced around and leaned in. "Word on the grapevine says that they've all pooled their talents, and the theft was their group's debut."
That didn't jive with what I knew about my female opponent, but I kept pressing. There was something else that didn't jive. "Pooled their talents? I've never head of any of them working with anyone."
He gave a brief, nervous smile. "Anyone will work with anyone, if it's worth enough. There's someone out there pulling the strings. I don't know anything about this person beyond a name. The Lady in Red."
I almost choked on the fry I was chewing on. There she was, and it was simply the perfect description of her. A lady in the truest sense, in form and bearing, and her eyecatching red dress had been dancing in my mind for hours. I leaned back. "So that's all you know?"
He nodded quite a bit, and I knew that my prey could see daylight finally. "Yeah, yeah. Except this isn't the end. I don't know what they're planning, but whatever it is, I've heard it will be vile."
I let Chuck go at that, and spent the rest of the meal in silence. A great meal and a few beers later, I headed back home feeling like I was trying to hold up that new bridge by myself considering the weight on my shoulders. A team? I'd never tussled with any of the talents, as Chuck had called them, but every cop knew of them. Some were too slippery to get charges on them, some were just tales heard from informants, but every single one was a black mark on this city. Now this dame had supposedly roped them into some kind of gang, and here I was, one lone dick trying to stand up to them. It was as crazy as the idea that we could stand on the moon.
I paused and looked up at the moon peeking through the clouds above as I stood at the door to my building. She'd given me a week, I was down to six days. I barely knew anything more than when I started this case, and didn't know where I could find out more. I would just have to give the folks at the precinct and Washington calls tomorrow, and hope that if I stirred up enough mud something would shine.
Frankly, I doubted it.