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Hardboiled July. . .

The late Ella Raines.  You can almost hear the lonely, late night trumpet in the distance.

A couple of weeks went by without any leads.  June Knorr Ph. D. had blown town.  All I’d heard from her was a short note saying she wasn’t ready for anything serious.  Had to figure things out while she was at some archive overseas.  No explanation.  No expectations.  No apologies. 

            Some guys have all the luck.

            It was pushing 11pm, and I was getting tired of driving around thinking about it.  Mr. and Mrs. Goad seemed more interesting by comparison than my apparent inability in the romance department.  Seemed like a better idea to head for home and get some sleep.  Maybe things would look better in the morning?  Nah.  Who am I kidding?  They wouldn’t.  I’d be just as much in the dark about it later.  Certainly in a darker place.  What difference would six or seven hours make?

            A breaking news bulletin came on the car radio.  I turned it up and pulled to the side of the road to hear better.  An accident over on campus.  Some kids up on the roof of a ten story dorm.  One of ‘em made a wrong step and took the express elevator down.  Police and fire rescue on the scene.  University officials trying to locate family.  No further details at this time.  Stay tuned for further updates.

            Well hell.  Just about 15 minutes away that time of night.  Might as well drop by and see what’s what.

            When I pulled up, the cops had the street and sidewalks on both sides blocked off for about 50 yards in both directions.  Onlookers and rubberneckers all over the place.  Students, neighborhood residents who lived nearby, cops in vests, firemen, half a dozen emergency rescue personnel.  Their blue and red lights made things seem more like a street carnival or a dance club than the scene of an accidental death.  Jumpers, though, never make a favorable impression.  

I backed the car up and double-parked down the street.  Figured everybody had bigger things to worry about than a minor traffic violation all things considered.  There wasn’t any through traffic just then either.  For obvious reasons.  

I slammed the car door and hoofed it the rest of the way, nodding at a few beat reporters I recognized from The Dispatch and its rival The Bulletin.  The snow squeaked underfoot as I got closer to the scene.  When I reached the yellow tape and tried to duck under it, a young cop who I didn’t recognize blocked my way with his arms, and I heard a familiar voice off to my left shout,

“Just where the hell ya think you’re goin?” 

It was my old buddy Mulvaney.  We’d been in high school together 20 or so years ago but lost touch after graduation.  Never quite friends even then.  Our families moved in different circles.  Our lives took us in different directions afterwards.  He joined the army.  Married his sweetheart.  Then joined the cops when he got out.  Made detective not too long after that.  Me?  My soft skills needed work.

“What’s going on, Tom?” I asked, pushing by the young cop and locking eyes with him as I did.  Time to establish the pecking order.  He backed off.

“Damned if I know.  Bunch of college kids partying up on the roof over there.  Too much to drink, probably some pills, and one of ‘em took a swan dive over the side at some point.  Ten stories down.  What’s left is over there under that sheet.  Dead at the scene.  Ambulance guys are about ready to haul ‘im away.  My guys are talking to the other 10 or so who were up there now trying to piece together what really happened.  Some are still kinda wasted though and everybody’s upset, so it’ll be a while.”  I pulled out my lighter, lit a cigarette, and took a drag.  Exhaled.

“You don’t say?  Victim got a name?”

“Come on!” Mulvaney answered.  “You know I can’t tell you that before the kid’s parents have been notified.  “But off the record,” he lowered his voice, paused, stuffed his hand into a coat pocket, and pulled out a pad of paper.  Glanced at it.  “Um, Wierzbicki.  Connor Wierzbicki.  21 years old.  We’re trying to get a phone number for his parents in Chicago now.  Now, scram, and keep your nose outta this!  Keep your damn mouth shut anyway!”  

We shook hands.  He stuffed his back in his pockets, turned, and stalked off toward several of his underlings standing near the side of beef on someone’s mangled car, barking orders at them like the Irish Wolf Hound he was.

I headed back toward my car.  Managed to get it started on the third try.  So, it was Dr. Knorr’s friend Connor who was out of the picture.  Guess going to high school with Mulvaney all those years ago had its benefits.  So did the odd fifty spot.  When I could spare it.

On the way back to my place, I went over what I knew so far.  Wasn’t much to go on.  Mr. and Mrs. Goad.  Carlton and Babs.  Dr. Knorr and Connor.  Was there any connection between ‘em?  Or was it all a coincidence?  I knew more than I wanted to already about The Goads and their extra curriculars, but how were the professor and her dead student mixed up in it?  Hell if I knew.  Made up my mind to see what the word was on the street before I called it a night and made a detour to The Gateway where it was a pretty safe bet I’d come across one set of my two ears on the ground.

I found her without too much trouble.  Julie held up her usual wall just around a corner and down a darker, less traveled side street from a taproom on Lasalle downtown not far the Northern Union Depot.  Don’t ask how I knew her.  Just did.  She’d fallen on hard times several years back.  Didn’t like to see her out here, but that’s the way Julie seemed to want it.  No strings.  Still, I made sure she got a square meal from time to time and palmed her some spare change now and again too.  She smiled when she saw me coming and adjusted the wool blanket draped around her shoulders like it was a mink stole.  I had the feeling that she’d known better at one time.  Call it intuition.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” she kicked off.  Pulled a cigarette from her handbag, and I gave her a light.  “What brings you out on a night like this, stranger?”  she cooed.  I dropped my lighter back in my pocket.

“Not much,” I answered.  “How about you?  Been ok?”  I could just make out a black eye she’d tried carefully to hide with makeup.

“Minding my own business,” she parried.

“How is business?” I asked before thinking.

“Easy come.  Easy go,” pulling the blanket tighter around her upper body.  “Now, you didn’t come all the way over here just to ask that, did you?  What’s on your mind Sam Spade?”  That’s one of the things I liked about Julie.  She always managed to keep her sense of humor.  Even now on an evening like this.

“You hear anything ‘bout that jumper tonight over on campus?”

“Now what could I possibly know about that?”  Her eyes narrowed a bit, and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  I could tell she was chilled almost to the bone.

We bantered back and forth for a few more minutes until I thanked Julie, told to watch herself, and tucked a five spot into the pocket of her coat before she could stop me. 

“Listen, Julie.  Get yourself something hot to eat.  Maybe some soup.  Call it a night, and get yourself a better coat or some shoes tomorrow.  It’s the middle of January.”

“My knight in shining armor,” she snapped.  “Now beat it, ya dumb mug!  You've got no curb appeal.” 

  Sensing I wasn't wanted, I turned back toward the neon lights of Lasalle just as I caught sight of a lumbering shadow approaching her from the other direction further down the street.  Almost turned back in the end, but didn't.  Stay out of it advised a little voice inside my head.  I could just make out the details of their transaction as I reached the intersection and turned left back to where I’d parked the car.  Damn.  Why didn't I go back?

-- Heinz-Ulrich


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