Nighthawks – Chapter Seven: Hero in the Shadows

     Jackson Cooper lay prostrate on his office sofa, drunk again, as Emma McCarty punched away at her Remington portable.  The comparatively tiny machine was nowhere near as elegant as Cooper’s Underwood Noiseless, but she hated the beast…the typewriter, not Cooper.  Her fingers were a whirl on the glass keys as the story unfolded from her mind onto white paper.  She had a deadline to meet.  Nix that, he had a deadline to meet.

As Emma typed, a radio in Cooper’s office provided background noise, “Welcome, listeners, once again to another rainy night in this wondrous and monstrous city of ours.  Coming to you, live, across the ether.  Soothing sounds for desperate souls on this foul evening.  There is something mysterious afoot on this night and even your ever-confident host, Johnny Murrell is ill-at-ease.  Is it something in the air?  Is it the precipitation causing these apprehensive feelings of dread?  No longer content to observe the denizens of this fair city, I feel I may have to come down off my mountain and take direct action.  Well, not so much my mountain as my booth at this radio station.  I am talking, of course, of the upcoming emergency mayoral election.  Ever since the sudden and purely accidental death of our beloved mayor, our city has been in a state of frozen anticipation.  Who will the new mayor be?  Which party shall hold sway over the city?  It’s up to you; it’s up to me; it’s up to every member of our cozy little metropolis.  In honor of the rain, here is Ethel Waters and “Stormy Weather.”

Jackson Cooper snorted something unintelligible as he rolled over in his sleep, nearly falling to the floor.  No one at the paper knew the truth.  No one at the paper knew of their arrangement.  The city’s most daring and respected investigative journalist was none other than Emma, a twenty-year old receptionist for a drunken lout.  He had the name; she had the talent.  At one time, Jackson Cooper lived up to his billing, but that was before the bourbon took hold, squeezed tightly and refused to let go.  The highly-trusted Ms. McCarty had seen the devastating effects of the booze and wrote her first piece from Jackson’s notes.  It had been an expose on jury corruption in certain trials involving highly influential, yet criminal members of certain organizations – gangs.  Even though the awards and laurels eventually dried up – Cooper hadn’t.  Since then, Emma had been doing the legwork and the writing.  She had become quite good, even in her own hypercritical mind.  She had filed stories covering sewage disposal, the homeless, and the treatment of veterans of the Great War; all in Cooper’s name.  No self-respecting rag was going to give a crime gig to a woman.

Now she was fresh on the trail of something new; something big.  She was set to meet an informant later that night.  First, she had to finish her current piece.  A piece on the innocent lives lost in the recent barrage of gangland violence.  Someone needed to speak for these people, and neither police force was doing anything.  It wasn’t her best work, but the story still needed to be told.  Slamming both the Metropolitan and Municipal police forces was a good way to get oneself into some serious heat, but Emma never really cared for her own well-being.  Her new story was going to be bigger – if it were true.

Cooper had received a telephone call from someone claiming to be from Goldridge Sanitarium and had firsthand knowledge of patient abuses going beyond anything imaginable.  The caller refused to go into any sort of detail over the phone, but set up a meeting for later that night – tonight.  Emma’s only problem was that Jackson was in no shape to leave his sofa, let alone meet with a nervous informant and convince him to tell the drunken reporter what exactly was going on at Goldridge.  Her only hope was to convince the whistleblower to trust her, no easy task.

She had finally finished her story, grabbed the copy and hurried out of the newsman’s office to the editor’s office.  She was cutting it close; a lot closer than usual.  The vibrant girl burst into the editor’s office with no regard for decorum.

“It’s done.”  She professed, setting the story on the old man’s desk.

“He’s cutting it mighty fine this time, Miss McCarty,” the gruff old editor uttered pointedly, “Where is he?”

“He’s asleep on the sofa in his office; the story took a lot out of him,” she responded.

“I’ll have to edit this on the fly.  The typesetters need it now, if we are to make the evening edition.”  He said as he rose from his swivel desk chair.  He went out to the press room; she hurried behind trying to keep his pace.

He handed the piece off and joined the typesetter, so he could edit the article as it was being prepared for publication.  The smell of ink filled the press room.  It was a smell Emma had grown to love.  Satisfied her story would make the evening edition, Emma headed back to Jackson’s cramped office.

Once back in the office, Emma nudged Cooper in the ribs with the toe of her shoe.  He groaned, but made no discernible movements.  She knew he was done for the night and she now needed to come up with a plan before her meeting.  There was little time for a complex plan or even a good plan.  She had to find someone who could stand in for Cooper.  Hopefully, the informant had never seen Jackson Cooper before, which was quite possible, considering the newsman believed the story should be the focus, not the newsman.  She rushed from the City Star’s offices to an apartment building not too far away.  She knew she was probably going to regret the idea, but she was desperate.  On her way to the nearest taxi stand, she passed the offices of the paper’s rival, the Daily Tribune.  It wasn’t much of a rival; it regurgitated the mayor’s talking points.  The paper was as corrupt as it came.  She also passed, the long ago closed watchmaker’s shop.  She sometimes stopped and peered in the dirty windows.  The walls were still lined with clocks of every sort…long ago ceasing to keep time.

 

Emma paid the taxi driver upon arriving at her destination and made her way up to the third-floor apartment.  She took the stairs, as the elevator was out-of-service again.  She hadn’t seen Jake Browne in over a month, but by her reckoning, he still owed her.  She knocked on the door and waited patiently for an answer.  In mere moments, the door opened to reveal a very pretty blonde girl.  Her bob flattered her features, even though they did just fine on their own.

“Is Jake in?”  Emma asked, suddenly ill-at-ease with her plan.

“Jake, some bird at the door for ya!”  The girl yelled, over her shoulder.

A response came from somewhere within the apartment, “Who is it?”

The girl’s face crinkled slightly, “I don’t know from nothin’ but I need to hoof it, darlin’.”

The girl slipped by Emma, into the hall, headed toward the stairwell, humming some tune while carrying her shoes.  Emma’s attention returned to her objective, “Jake?”

A light flickered to life in the apartment.

“Emma?  What a surprise, come in here at once!”  Jake said in his overly ecstatic, but sincere manner.

Emma thought it best to jump right in with both feet and not wait to be asked, “I need a favor.”

“Sure, sure,” Jake muttered, not really paying attention, but searching the room for something.

Emma sighed, and waited for the search to conclude before going ahead with her proposal.  Finally, Jake found the object of his quest – his lighter.  He lit a Lucky, sat down and motioned for Emma to do the same.  Emma seated herself after moving some laundry from the chair to the coffee table.

“What can I do for the lovely Miss McCarty this night?”  Jake asked after they were both settled.

Emma grew embarrassed by what she was about to propose to the piano-player, “I want you to go with me to meet a source for a story I’m on.”

Jake was the only person Emma had told about her alter-ego.  She knew he had a big mouth, but she trusted him and had needed to tell someone of her accomplishments.

“No problem, let’s go.”  Jake responded enthusiastically as he got up and began to search for his hat and coat.  As concerned as the man was for his appearance, the unkempt state of his apartment never ceased to bewilder Emma.

“There’s just one more thing…just a little thing,” Emma continued, “You’re Jackson Cooper for the night.”

Jake sat down, “Why?  Where is that lush?”

Emma swallowed hard before explaining, “He’s sleeping one off in his office and I need you to play along, so this guy doesn’t spook and dry up before I can find out what he knows.”

“I don’t like this, doll.  I’ll do it, because I still owe you.  I’ll always owe you, but it doesn’t set right.”  Jake confessed.

“You just need to sit there and listen to his story.  I’ll ask any questions that need asking.”

Jake grimaced, opened the top drawer of his dresser, and removed his thirty-eight.  He opened the revolver to double-check it was loaded and closed it before sliding it into his coat pocket.

“What’s that for?”  A stunned Emma asked.

Jake smirked, “Never can be too careful these days.  Let’s go.”

They both headed for the door before Jake thought to ask, “Where we goin’ anyway?”

“Some waterfront dive…the Elysium.”  Emma answered and walked out into the hallway.

Jake let out a long exhalation, “Of course we are,” he murmured to himself as he locked the door behind him.

 

*

 

By the time evening had arrived, Detective Travis still could not make head nor tails of the mysterious journal he had discovered in Burris’ rooms.  He ran off a checklist of possible leads, in his head: the journal and the mysterious woman visitor.  It was a frustratingly short list.  He still didn’t know what his victim had done for scratch and none of his neighbors could or would help the police.  None of them could help with a description of the woman either.  According to various residents: she was tall, she was short, she was average height, she was thin, she was blonde, she was red-haired.  Eyewitnesses were notoriously poor, but this was worse than he had expected.

He turned his attention to the book before him.  His best bet to decode the gibberish was to take it to a friend of his.  He was on the way to the Goldridge Sanitarium to see what Charles could make of the writings.  Dr. Charles Swann was an expert in the paranoid mind and he had been a close friend since childhood.  Even when their lives had diverged, with Charles off to medical school and Mike signing up for the police academy, they remained in touch.

The sanitarium was several miles outside the city-proper but was still technically within the city limits.  The old hospital was enormous and never ceased to make the detective’s skin crawl.  It was a combination of the gothic architecture and the state of the people housed at the facility.  Travis could hold his own with any criminal mind the city could produce, but put that crazed mind in a gown in the hospital and suddenly he was at a loss.  He was uncomfortable visiting the place, so he did so only when necessary for a case.  As his automobile approached the gigantic stone structure, he regretted accepting Charles’ invitation to bring the book to the sanitarium.  He now thought it would have been better to wait until after business hours to meet Charles somewhere else – anywhere else.

The gravel of the long drive crunched mercilessly under the auto’s tires.  Travis hated that sound.  He parked in front of the main entrance, ignoring the sign prohibiting parking.  He ambled up the large flight of slate steps to the double reinforced doors of the hospital.  The doors were remarkably heavy, the detective noted.  The large lobby was cold and devoid of life, minus the nurse behind a large counter across the lobby from the doors.  He approached the nurse, becoming suddenly self-conscious of his gait as he walked across the large abandoned lobby.  His footfalls, the only noticeable sound, echoed in the domed room.

He flashed the nurse his badge as he spoke, “Detective Travis, Metropolitan Police Department to see Dr. Swann…he is expecting me.”

The nurse acknowledged the appointment and pushed a button on a large panel in front of her on a small switchboard, “One moment, please.”      Travis nodded and backed away from the nurse’s station and took in the amazing architecture of the old building, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore – it’s all art-deco crap these days.”

The nurse smiled as a polite response.  A second nurse entered the lobby; this one much more attractive by the detective’s standards.

The pretty nurse spoke once she got closer to the detective, “Detective Travis?  I’m nurse Hansen, please follow me.”

Travis followed the nursed down a long hallway toward Dr. Swann’s office, unable to take his eyes away from her feminine attributes.  He was a sap for a woman in uniform.  They reached Dr. Swann’s office before she spoke again, “Go on in; he’s expecting you.”

“Thank you, Nurse Hansen,” the detective muttered as he walked by her into the doctor’s office.

 

“Mike, good to see you,” the pudgy psychiatrist said with true sincerity, “I was more than a little shocked you accepted my invitation here.”

The detective shook his old friend’s hand before responding, “It’s important.”

Dr. Swann’s smile faded, “A case?”  He asked, his gravity equaling his previous enthusiasm.

“Yes.  A murder case that is just plain queer.  I’ve barely dug in and I’m already scratchin’ my head.”

“What can I do to help, Mike?”

“I need your expertise.”

“Go on,” the doctor said intrigued by his friend’s demeanor.

The detective gathered his thoughts for a moment, “What kind of delusional mind keeps a journal, but writes in a code so no one can understand it exceptin’ himself?”

“Do you have this journal with you?”

“Yes, I brought a copy for you to keep, if you think you can crack it.  I’ve also got the original, which I need to keep with me.”

“Let me see the original.  The handwriting can be as telling, if not more so, of the author’s state of mind.”

Travis nodded and handed the original book and a notebook containing Travis’ handwritten copy, across the desk, to the doctor.  Dr. Swann examined the original journal carefully for several minutes, leafing through the pages, before speaking again.

“This is just preliminary, off-the-cuff observations, mind you.  Nothing concrete.”

Travis nodded his understanding.

Dr. Swann, then continued, “The handwriting is frantic and seemingly rushed.  It is chaotically written, but the content seems organized in some fashion.  I can’t determine if this is the more likely the work of the killer or victim without some more details on the case.”

After Travis laid out the facts of the case as quickly, yet as detailed as he could, the doctor replied, “I think this is most likely the work of a third party.  It doesn’t seem to fit with the victim as he was described by the neighbors and it doesn’t seem plausible the killer would just leave this behind after being so meticulous up to now.”

Travis nodded in agreement, “That was my thinking.  I had hoped you could decode the entries for me.  I hope it will provide some clues as to what happened to this poor sap…or why.”

The doctor’s countenance darkened, “Possibly.  It appears on the surface, to be a simple replacement cipher.”

“Meaning?”

“Simply put, one letter is substituted for another according to a pre-determined key.”  The doctor answered.

“Does that mean you can crack it?”  The detective spouted, overly excited.

“Given time, I may be able to figure it out for you.  The problem is there are seven letters that occur too frequently with no word breaks…It is quite odd.”

The detective’s mood returned to its dour norm, “That makes it harder?”

Charles smiled, “Considerably.  See, with word breaks and the knowledge a word like ‘the’ occurs quite frequently in the English language and that it regularly begins a sentence, it would be easy to find those letters in an entry and the rest fall like dominoes.  With these odd lines comprised of different combinations of only seven letters…it is baffling.  Other lines seem to use more letters, making it more likely to crack the code there, but still no word breaks.  With no word breaks and no punctuation, I have no way of knowing where words begin and end.”

“Damn….”

Charles clarified, “I believe I can do it.  I’ll just need some time.  Also, I don’t believe this is a journal, as such.”

The detective grew concerned, “What do you mean?”

“The entries are too odd.  These lines with only seven letter combinations can’t be sentences as we know them.  I can’t explain further until I know what these mean.  Maybe a ledger of some sort?  I can’t say for sure.”

After some small-talk, Detective Travis bid his farewell to the doctor, with the promise to call him in two days to check on the status of the decryption of the book.  He pocketed the original and exited the office.  Although, he knew the way out himself, he did not object when Nurse Hansen volunteered to show the detective out to the lobby.  She was way out of his league, and he knew it, but she was a sight.

 

After the drive, back into the city, Travis needed a good night’s sleep to put his thoughts together.  He approached his apartment building with only one thing on his mind – his bed.  He ignored the doorman’s pleasantries on his way into the lobby.  He’d apologize later.  He wasn’t up for the fake, “How d’ya do t’night, sir?”  Routine.  The elevator seemed to take hours to arrive at the lobby.  Once inside, it seemed to climb floor to floor much more slowly than usual.  The gears and cogs grinded and squealed as the tiny box progressed to the correct floor.

The elevator came to an abrupt halt at its destination and briefly shook.  Travis had not gotten used to that particular quirk of the building, despite having lived there since the divorce.  The detective made his way along the long, satisfactorily lighted hallway, toward his door.  The brown carpeting, probably considerably darkened with years of dirt and filth, tried to cling to his shoes.  He didn’t want to know what the sticky substances on the carpeting were; it was not the most reputable of buildings in the city, but it was the best he could afford.

He unlocked the door to his apartment and felt relief wash over his body as he entered the small room.  His day was finally over.  His nostrils detected the strong fragrance of some sort of perfume.  He had just long enough for his mind to register its presence before a sharp pain in his head caused him to refocus and all went black.

 

*

 

The night air was cool and made to feel even cooler after the closed-in stuffiness of his apartment.  The pitiable dog snarled and spat as they walked by it; the feral beast believed its bone was in jeopardy and reacted.  The bone-polisher was in a sorry way; its ribs showed through the mange.  The dog didn’t have long left in this world.  Jake ignored the snarls of the creature and continued on his way, arm in arm with Emma, trying to forget the sorry creature.  Jake suddenly felt a severe pain in his left foot and noticed he was limping.  He knew why the pain was there – he had been shot in the foot, after all, but he had a feeling he was pain-free just moments before.  What is going on?  Something is off….  Emma had gotten them lost in their search for the Elysium, but Jake knew it wasn’t her fault.  Everyone got lost trying to find the joint for the first time.  Sometimes they got lost every time they went looking for it.  It would be found when it was ready to be found.  Of course, Jake knew exactly where it was located.  He wasn’t so sure he wanted Emma to find it, at all.  This meeting of hers didn’t seem on the up and up to Jake.  He could be being paranoid, but that’s what kept him drawing air in this city.

“I don’t understand,” Emma murmured over and over again, more to herself than to Jake, as they searched the endless maze of alleys and corridors.  Jake was conflicted; he wasn’t sure which was more dangerous: the meeting at the Elysium or wandering around the waterfront at god-knows-what-time.  He retrieved his watch from its customary pocket, popped it open and grimaced.  The conflict in his mind quickly became moot, the Elysium was only a block away and there was no way Emma could miss it now.  He returned his watch and kept pace with Emma’s tiny, yet quick strides.  Jake’s only real hope now was that this so-called informant would get cold-feet and dry up before they got to the bar.  He managed to catch a glimpse of a well-dressed man in cheaters walking down the opposite side of the street.  Ordinarily, the man wouldn’t have stood out, but this was the third time Jake had seen him while he and Emma were searching for the Elysium.

They arrived at the bar in short time and stared at the building face, each thinking something drastically different.  Jake was hoping for a packed house, while Emma thought about what a dump the place was.  They looked to each other, and Jake took the lead, pushing the door to the Elysium open.  Emma followed immediately behind, almost running into the back of Jake.

Upon entering, Jake relaxed briefly, the place was packed tight.  Jake knew from experience what happened when people wandered into the Elysium when it was nearly empty.  He managed to spot Isaac Midnight before the reverse could occur.  He raised a hand and Isaac nodded an acknowledgement.  The sign meant, tonight, Jake was just some Joe in a strange bar.  Isaac hurriedly made the rounds, quickly explaining the play to anyone who mattered.  While this occurred, Emma was busy scanning the scene, looking for something, which she wasn’t sure what it looked like.

Jake loudly interjected over the din, “Let’s grab some paint and find a seat.  This guy wants to find us, let’s let him.”

Emma nodded in agreement, instead of trying to answer over the loud noise of the crowd.  They pushed their way to the bar – scotch, neat for him; Gibson for her.

They managed to find an empty booth at the back.  Jake smiled, funny how that always seems to happen to me.

The couple sat facing each other; Emma scanning the crowd, Jake needing to turn in his seat to do the same.  They waited.  Emma sipped her drink; Jake downed his in one motion.  He signaled a waitress for another, which Emma noted, arrived surprisingly quickly, given the size of the crowd.  They waited.  By the time, Emma was on her second Gibson, Jake was on his fifth scotch.  Still, they waited.

Emma was happy Jake was off the heroin.  It had been hell helping him through that time.  She had put up with a lot during that stretch, but still hated calling in a favor because of it.  It really wasn’t fair.  She thought, Jake telling her he still owed her for what she had done for him was his way of continually thanking her without getting all sappy.  At least, she hoped that was what it was about.  He was the only man she really, truly cared for, and she didn’t care if he didn’t feel the same.  It wasn’t love anyway; it was something else that bound them together.  She couldn’t even explain it to herself, although she tried many times.

Jake excused himself, to the men’s washroom.  She continued to wait.  Whomever she was to meet was late.  She was growing apprehensive of the whole deal.  Was she being played?  She didn’t see any angles that led to that conclusion.  Maybe her man got cold feet, or was found out.  So many scenarios ran through her head at once, she made herself dizzy.  She decided to give the informant another thirty minutes, at thirty-one minutes, she was out of this dive.

Jake didn’t have long to wait for his turn at the commode.  As he washed his hands at the sink, a subtle motion in the corner of his eye, caught his attention.  A small, yellowed envelope had been slid under the door.  He scooped it up quickly and pulled the door open to check the hallway.  Empty.

He checked the envelope, which was sealed with wax.  Only Jackson Cooper’s name was written on the face.  Since he was Cooper for the night, he decided he was in the right to open the envelope.  He tore off the side and removed the contents.  It was a single sheet of paper, yellowed with age, just as the envelope had been.  An address and a name were typewritten on the paper, with no other information.  The destination was unfamiliar to Jake.  He decided it was time to get out of the Elysium.  Anywhere was better than here, for Emma.  He pocketed the envelope and headed back to the table where Emma was waiting.

 

*

 

Rebecca’s fingers nervously tapped the leather-bound volume, in front of her.  She had done as the Augury had demanded; now she just wanted to be rid of the damned thing.  The King’s Head Tavern was nearly empty.  Upon her arrival, the bartender informed her, Drakestail would be with her momentarily.

She fought back tears as she waited.  She hadn’t wanted to hit that poor police detective, but she had no choice in the matter.  She had checked to make sure he was still breathing – after she had the journal.  She hoped the man would be alright.

The large man at the end of the bar kept eyeing her.  She couldn’t tell if it was to keep an eye on her for Drakestail, or if it was out of lust.  The latter soured her already fragile stomach.  Her red dress was not appropriate for a woman alone in a bar like the King’s Head.  She was definitely drawing unwanted attention from the few patrons.  She didn’t think the Augury cared much for decorum when he brought her back up the River, to the city, to complete this task.

As guilty as she felt, the theft of the book seemed like a very small price to pay for keeping Isaac alive.  She knew it was too late to save soul from this city, but she needed to make certain Isaac survived that shootout on the corner.  They were both meant to die, but she cut a deal with the Augury to save her beloved Isaac.  Somehow, the Augury was able to keep up his end.  He caused Isaac to be late for their date, saving him, but in a cruel twist; he was just late enough to survive, but just in time to witness her own slaying.  The Augury was cruel, but at least Isaac was alive.

While, lost in her thoughts, she failed to notice the little moneylender enter the bar from somewhere in the back.  He made himself comfortable across the table from her.  She had a difficult time believing this little man was as ruthless as she had been told.  He was short, a touch doughy around the middle and what was left of his hair was graying.  His suit was well-made and tailored perfectly to his odd form.  It was his eyes, though – they gave him away.  He had cruel eyes…dark, but not dark enough to hide the cruelty.

He glanced to the book on the table, under Rebecca’s hand before speaking, “That’s it?  That’s what is so important?”  He asked, more to himself than to Rebecca.

“I guess so.  I didn’t open it.  I don’t want to know what is in it.  I just want to be rid of it and done with the whole thing.  My debt is cleared.”

“That it is.”  Drakestail said, still staring at the leather-bound book.

She slid it across the table before getting up.  She briefly paused, but then quickly walked out of the King’s Head Tavern.

Drakestail didn’t touch the book at first.  He settled back, filled a pipe with tobacco and smoked while he tried to piece together what was happening in the city.  His city.  He hated not knowing what was so important about this damned book.  He shrugged, picked up the journal and took his lighter to it.  It caught surprisingly quickly.  He walked over to a trash can and dropped the burning book into the can and walked away.

As the little man returned to his customary booth, he heard Johnny Murrell come over the ether.  The King’s Head Tavern had the radio set tuned to Murrell’s show whenever Drakestail was holding court.

The radio host began, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got a bit of skinny for you this evening.  This news will hit the papers in the evening editions, but remember, you heard it here first.  It seems, the city has finally gotten its man.  That’s right, the mayoral race is over…the election results are in.  After years of bluebloods running the city, it seems the common Joe has pulled off the upset of the century.  It has been given to me, with no lingering doubt, that Gustavus Drakestail is our new mayor.  The man from the ghetto has clawed his way all the way to the top of the food chain.  Congratulations, Mr. Mayor…here is Cole Porter with ‘You’re the Top’.”

Drakestail smiled as he sipped his drink.  That Augury sure does work fast.

 

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