The first snow drifted down, from somewhere up there above the towering blocks of concrete. New York, the greatest city in the world and the only place I wanted to be. I pushed my way down 5th Avenue, that December evening of 1958, on my way back to my apartment on the 25th floor of a building in Brooklyn. The sign on my door read ‘Joe Swiderski – Private Eye’. I had had a bad day, playing hide and go seek with some broad whose husband suspected her of two timing him, and I still hadn’t gotten the evidence he wanted.
The shops were beginning to close and the rush for the subway made me step up my pace. Soon I was leaving the main streets, but still the grey buildings loomed above, overpowering, defying me to look up, and the snow was becoming a blizzard.
Suddenly I had the feeling I was being followed. I stopped to adjust my hat in the reflection of Macey’s window, but the only image that I saw was the all too familiar figure of a guy, weighing around 180 pounds, wearing a raincoat, with collar turned up and a trilby pulled well down.
I walked on; then suddenly ducked into a narrow alley, flattening my back against the wall. I held my breath, checked my gun and waited. A dog looked round into the alley. “Scram! Mutt” I growled, kicking at him, but he just looked at me, head cocked to one side. I kicked out again, “Scram” I spat. That did it. He grabbed my pants and tugged hard. I cursed him in the darkness.
Suddenly he let go. As no one else had appeared, I walked to the edge of the alley and turned purposefully for home again. Hardly had I taken the first few steps than the mutt had my leg, pulling and tugging again. I turned on him viscously; he yelped, then took a few steps in the opposite direction, stopped, looked round at me and when I didn’t move, he barked. I got the idea, the dog seemed desperate for me to follow. I decided to take a look. Every now and then he checked to see if I was still there and pretty soon we were back on 5th Avenue. For an instant my attention was taken by a shriek of brakes and when I looked back the mutt had disappeared.
I shrugged and made to move on, when I spotted him – inside Tiffany’s! “How the..!” I exclaimed. He began to scratch at the window and I figured I’d better find out how he’d gotten in. I went round the block into the service alley and there found a small door which had been newly jemmied. I took my gun from its holster and cautiously went in. “Jeez!” I muttered, as the door closed behind me. It had been that easy. I guessed I had stumbled on a burglary by someone with a lot of nerve. Once more the mutt appeared, eager for me to follow. Instinctively my grip tightened on my gun and I followed the dog down several flights of stairs, into the vault room. There the lights blazed but nothing seemed to have been disturbed. Then I saw her.
I knew she was dead. I’d seen too many stiffs not to be sure, but she’d not been dead long, that was obvious and maybe the killer was still in the building. I made a quick search and then returned to the body. “Jeez!” I breathed again. This dame was beautiful. I recognised her as Gloria Grant. She had become a star overnight, after a small part in the new James Dean film and she’d been pictured with him in the press.
I could see no mark on her, but sure as hell her death had not been natural. The murderer had laid her naked body on a full length, grey mink coat, weighted her eyelids with sapphires, stuffed her mouth so full of pearls that some of them had drooled out onto the floor. The nipples of her young breasts were circled with ruby
Rings and a large diamond lay in her navel. Her legs (Jeez! Those legs!) were crossed at the ankles and bound with gold chain. Rings had been forced upon every finger and toe and bangles pushed onto her arms and legs as far as they would go. Then I noticed the blood seeping from behind her head, slowly darkening her blond hair.
I leaned forward to touch the skin and became aware of a strange scent, not a perfume but somehow familiar. The dog began to bark and I knew I had to get out of there before the cops arrived asking questions to which I had no answers, yet. I ran up the stairs to the door, opened it a chink and when the way was clear, I casually ambled out. The blizzard had gotten heavier now and my apartment suddenly seemed the best place to be. The mutt followed – what the heck, I was stuck with him and anyway being a Private Eye can be a lonely business. On the way back I picked up a bottle of Bourbon and that night Mutt and I tried to figure it all out.
The next morning the papers were screaming murder, Tiffany’s were screaming for their security agents and my head was screaming for Alka-Seltzer. Eyes half closed, I made my way to the bathroom and stumbled over something. “You still here?” I growled and the mutt cowered, making me feel real guilty.
Later that morning, I had bought and read every Daily covering the murder and had a pretty fair idea of her background. It seemed a typical ‘local girl makes good’ story. You know, beautiful, ambitious young broad leaves poor family and small town for New York and fame – hurting a lot of people on the way. I decided to take a look at San Bruno, her home town and booked a flight for that afternoon. I put Mutt back out on the street; I knew he could take care of himself.
During the flight I couldn’t get that dame out of my mind. The way she lay on the mink and the pearls dribbling from her mouth. On arrival I called a cab (no expense spared – this one’s on me kid!). The cab drew up outside the family house, already under siege from the Press. So my real work began.
I visited her neighbour, her family, her friends, her enemies – and boy! Did she have enemies. This was no Miss Goody Two Shoes I was chasing. One dame invited me into her house, offered me a Bourbon and made a pass at me – well what the heck! A guy needs a little relaxation! She told me her son had been sweet on Gloria, but that she was a no-good broad and had treated him real bad when he’d gone to New York to get in the movies too. All the time I was there I could smell the now familiar scent. I made an excuse to use the bathroom and there found what I was looking for, Brylcream! I asked the dame for a photograph of her son and after playing a little footsie, reluctantly kissed her goodbye and made a dive for the airport and my return to New York the next morning. When I reached my apartment no guesses who was waiting outside the door – yeh!, Mutt.
I let him in and put on some coffee. I had to plan my next move carefully. One thing was certain, that guy had hated Gloria real bad, but now I knew what he looked like and that his scent around Gloria’s body was from the Brylcream he used to keep his new James Dean hair cut in place. I also remembered where I had seen him before. He too had had a part in that James Dean film. All I needed now was to find him, before someone told him I was looking.
I went to the local branch of the Casting Agency used by the James Dean movie makers and convinced the broad behind the desk that I too was a Movie Director. When I promised her a big part in my next picture, she gave me the address of the guy I was looking for, but when I got there he’d already gone, leaving me a note on the door which read “Gloria went to heaven the way she wanted, I did her a favour. You won’t get the same choice gumshoe!”
I decided more leg work was necessary and made my way back to the apartment to collect his mug shot, which I intended to take around the bars and nightclubs. As I stepped out of the elevator onto the 25th floor, I noticed my apartment door was ajar. I took my gun from its holster and soft-shoed along the hallway. Gently I pushed open the door and saw immediately my place had been turned over.
Mutt was gone – he was no fool! I checked every room. Suddenly Mutt came charging through the door and leapt at the window, barking and growling. I took him by the scruff and threw him back across the room, then turned to the window and opened it. As my head poked out a hand grabbed my throat. This guy was strong!
With one hand I reached for him and took hold of his greasy hair, disturbing the smell of the Brylcream. With the other hand blindly I brought up my gun and pulled the trigger, but I felt myself slipping as we struggled. Suddenly he let go, giving a terrible scream. Mutt had somehow climbed over me, taken his arm in his teeth and was hanging on for grim death. The guy began to slip on the icy ledge and Mutt let go as he fell away. I heard his scream disappearing into a dull thud as he hit the Brooklyn street below.
I turned back into the room, looked at Mutt and I swear he was grinning!
copyright Christine Bassett 2017