Terror at the Fair (Excerpt)
He had laid the last of the iron bars in place across the rails, making sure their positioning would cause the ancient and relatively lightweight locomotive to derail and crash, taking with it the open-side excursion coaches crowded with fairgoers. He checked his watch again: twenty minutes until the next train came by, and it always ran on schedule.
This being the darkest stretch along the line, the lethal bars on the track wouldn’t be seen by some chance passerby, not that people walked in this remote area of the fairgrounds anyway.
His work done, he stepped back into a cluster of bushes and knelt to wait, feeling the bulge in his hip pocket. He felt comforted to have it there, although it seemed beyond the realm of possibility it would be needed. No, this would be simple and efficient, the final act in his crusade.
It is almost over now, Papa. Just a few more minutes…
He heard something–footsteps? No, probably just leaves on a tree along the tracks rustling in the breezes wafting off Lake Michigan on the August night. There they came again, louder this time. Definitely footsteps! Perhaps one of the janitorial crew. They seemed very
good about picking up rubbish. Whoever it was would have moved on long before the train came along.
He saw the beam of light before he saw the figure. A silhouetted man carrying a flashlight walked slowly along the tracks, playing the light back and forth, back and forth, until its yellow halo rested upon the iron bars. The interloper with the flashlight squatted down to study the bars, then began picking them up and tossing them off the tracks.
He rose from his crouch in the bushes and wrapped his hand around the pistol in his jacket pocket. He walked toward the man, whom he now recognized, and called to him by name, pulling the weapon out. So now, one more must die.
“Snap, don’t you get tired of the grind around here? Same old thing every day and all?” Chief of Detectives Fergus Sean Fahey eyed me from under bushy, almost-white eyebrows, leaning back in his battered chair and taking a deep drag on a Lucky Strike from the pack I had dropped on his desk blotter, as had been my daily habit for years.
“Why Fergus, how can you say such a thing? I look forward to these lively and stimulating conversations with you each morning. That alone is enough to make me want to drag myself out of bed and make the trip in from Oak Park on a creaky old Elevated every day. Besides, I haven’t been around forever, even if it seems to be the case to you. All the others upstairs have logged more years here than I have.”
The old cop grunted. “That may be true, but none of those three has the slightest shred of ambition.” He referred to the trio of beat reporters on the other Chicago daily papers who, like me, had desks one flight up in the drab pressroom at Chicago Police Headquarters, 1121 South State Street: Anson Masters of the Daily News; Dirk O’Farrell of the Sun- Times; and Packy Farmer of the Herald-American.
“Shoot, I’m guessing you generate seventy percent of all the news coming out of this weather-beaten old building,” Fahey went on, taking a last puff on his Lucky and grinding out the butt in his tin ashtray. “All they do is grab onto your coattails. You get the news, then feed it to them like a mother robin giving worms to her brood in the nest. They each ought to be giving you a slice of their salaries.”
“I’ll admit I’ve got the best beat in the building, all right. Which is to say, your very own Detective Bureau, the heart and soul of the force, where most of the really good stuff is–murder, extortion, bribery, mob mischief–all of the things our noble readers crave and devour. But in truth, it cuts both ways. I get stories from the other boys on their beats as well.”
“Not very damned many, as far as I can tell,” Fahey snorted, running a thick hand through thin hair. “But why in hell am I trying to tell you your business? If anyone has stayed at the party too long, it’s got to be me.”
“Now Fergus, I’ve been hearing your ‘it’s time for me to walk off into the sunset’ routine for years now. We both know you love it here, for all the rhapsodizing I hear about that cottage of yours up in Wisconsin. After six months in those woods on a lake, you would be figuring out ways to un-retire. Don’t try to deny it.”
“I’m willing to give that life a try,” he said defiantly, crossing beefy arms over his chest.
“You are? If so, when are you turning in your resignation? That would make one heck of a good story for our readers.”
I had called his bluff, and he gave me a crooked smile. “Well…things are in turmoil in the department right now, so until everything gets straightened out…”
He let the sentence hang and I paused a beat, then another. I’d been here with him before. “Okay, how long do you think it will take to get things ‘straightened out’?”
“No comment,” he snarled. “Are you down here to bedevil me or to play newspaper reporter?”
“Point taken, Fergus. What’s going on? As you can see, my pencil is poised.”
“Oddly enough, things are very quiet today,” he muttered, shuffling through papers at the top of the heap littering his desk. “Nothing here to interest your fine Chicago Tribune readers, or the readers of those other rags represented by your colleagues upstairs.” He made the word “colleagues” sound like a synonym for leprosy.
“So first you tempt me by suggesting you have something worth writing about, and when I ask what it is, you dash my hopes by telling me your cupboard is empty, with not a single tidbit inside. I’m both disappointed and dismayed, Fergus. Well, thanks for your time. The boys upstairs are going to be disappointed as well.”
“No doubt they will. But as I said before, it’s still a good thing they’ve got you–and will have you for a long time to come.” If only that had been true.
I went back up to the pressroom to find everyone back from their respective beats around the building. As I walked in, they all turned to me expectantly, as they invariably do.
“Sorry, lads,” I responded to their unasked question. “Things are quiet as a proverbial tomb down in the Detective Bureau today. I hope one of you has something we can feed to our salivating city editors.”
Both Anson Masters, who covered the Crime Lab, and Dirk O’Farrell, who had Bunco and Missing Persons, shook their heads. “Okay, I’ll bail the lot of you out,” sighed Packy Farmer, who covered the Vice Squad. “Thank God you’ve got me here to save your bacon once more.”
“Once more? Oh, cut the crap, Packy,” O’Farrell snorted. “If we had to rely on you every day, we’d all be out on the street peddling the papers instead of writing for them. Now just what is it you have for us?”
Farmer leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk, torched one of his misshapen, hand-rolled cigarettes, and stroked his graying gambler’s moustache. “One o’ the biggest call-girl busts in the history of this toddlin’ town, that’s what I’ve got, boys,” he purred, looking at his notes and blowing smoke rings toward the ceiling.
“We await specifics, Packy,” Anson Masters rumbled, running a hand over his freckled, bald pate. “And deadlines also await.”
“Keep your shirt on, Antsie,” Farmer said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “A good story, like fine wine, must not be rushed.”
“Okay, Packy, you’ve had your fun,” I barked. “Now cut the horseshit and give us the goods.”
Farmer shrugged and favored us with one of his lopsided grins. “Ah, leave it to our good friend Snap Malek to keep us on the straight and narrow,” he said. “All right, get your pencils ready. Seems a very cultured youngish lady, name of Brenda LeBlanc–or so she says–age of thirty-six–also or so she says–has this very chic apartment ten floors up on Lake Shore Drive overlooking beautiful Belmont Harbor”–he gave us the address–”and that is, shall we say ‘headquarters’, for a very lucrative pleasure business.”
“And just how, pray tell, did our Miss LeBlanc happen to divulge all of this to some of Chicago’s finest?” Dirk O’Farrell posed.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” Farmer said. “It seems when–”
At that moment my phone jangled and I held up a hand for Packy to pause while I dealt with the call.
“Snap?” It was the familiar, hoarse voice of Murray, the Trib’s day city editor. “The ME wants to see you in his office at ten-thirty. Grab a cab and–yes, you can expense it.”
“What’s up, Hal? Am I in the soup for some reason or another?”
“Beats me. Maloney doesn’t share his thoughts. He just says what he wants.”
“Well, I’m right in the middle of getting the dope on this call-girl story, and–”
“Let it go for now. You haven’t got a deadline for hours. You can pick up on it later. Maloney expects to see you in his office in twenty minutes,” Murray barked in his usual machine-gun cadence.
Flagging a yellow cab on State, I made it to Tribune Tower in eleven minutes and strode into the two-story-high city room–or local room, as the paper likes to call it. J. Loy “Pat” Maloney, the managing editor, sat in his glassed-in office on the telephone. He looked up and motioned me in.
“Yes, I understand. Yes, of course, Colonel, we will get right on it,” the managing editor said, easing his receiver into his cradle. “That was the man, and he has a story idea,” Maloney said, gesturing me toward a chair in front of his desk. He didn’t have to explain that he had been talking to Colonel Robert R. McCormick, longtime editor, publisher, and principal owner of the Tribune.
“Is that why I’m here?”
“Oh no, no,” Maloney responded, tugging on the knot of his plaid necktie. “No, I want to talk to you about another assignment, Mr. Malek.”
“Really?” I made no attempt to conceal my surprise.
“You’ve been at Police Headquarters for a lot of years now, haven’t you?”
“Quite a few,” I answered, my mouth suddenly dry.
“Quite a few indeed, and you have done a fine job there, yes, a fine job indeed. Including the excitement with President Truman last year.* But everyone needs to stay fresh.
“Just so you’re aware,” Maloney continued, “we are looking at a lot of our longtime beat reporters with
* “A President in Peril”
an eye toward making some changes. Good for everyone, you know.”
“Just what…do you have in mind, sir?”
“You’re a darned good feature writer, Mr. Malek. I have read your stuff, of course, and I’ve also had a lot of confirmation of your writing talent from Mike Kennedy in the Sunday Room, who sings the praises of the magazine-length pieces you’ve done in the Graphic section on a freelance basis.”
I needed a cigarette but didn’t light up. “Are you asking me to move to the Sunday Room?”
“No, no, I’m not, Mr. Malek. We are getting ahead of ourselves. As you know, the Chicago Railroad Fair is opening in a few days for its second summer right along the Lakefront. They had such a good year in ’48 they’re back for an encore. Sort of like the Century of Progress World’s Fair that had its second season in–when was it?–’34.
“Anyway, we’d like you to be our man at the fair this year. A lot of famous and interesting folks will no doubt pass through it like they did last summer, when we didn’t have anyone permanently assigned there. We missed quite a number of good human-interest stories as a result.”
I would be overstating my reaction to say I was in shock, but in truth, Maloney had set me back on my heels. “Well, this doesn’t really sound like my kind of assignment,” I said after several seconds of silence.
“Oh, I really don’t agree there, Mr. Malek. I’ve already mentioned the idea to the Colonel, and he’s all for it. He’s had some very nice things to say about your work over the years.”
“How long would this assignment be for?”
“The duration of the fair, of course,” Maloney said. “It ends the first week in October.”
“Then what? For me, that is?”
“That’s a long way off, Mr. Malek,” the managing editor said, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands behind his head. “Let’s just take things one at a time, shall we?”
“And who, by the way, is going to replace me at headquarters?”
“Westcott. We’ve already talked to him about the move, and he’s enthusiastic.”
Ken Westcott currently put in his time as a general assignment reporter, not a bad sort, and a fair writer, although he tended to be more than a little lazy. Neither the Tribune nor the boys in the headquarters pressroom would be getting as many stories out of the Detective Bureau as I fed them on a regular basis.
“Is that all?” I asked the managing editor, clearing my throat.
“Yes, Mr. Malek,” he said with a smile meant to convey benevolence. “I think this is going to work out very well for all concerned.”
I couldn’t think of a response, so I got up, nodded, and left his office with my fedora in my hand and my chin bouncing off the floor.
Coming February 2011
from Echelon Press LLC