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How many miles to Babylon? Chapter One

"This is a work in progress. I'm slow. I will appreciate any suggestions."

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There were still twenty days to go till Christmas, but everybody was celebrating. After twelve years, ten months and nineteen days, prohibition was finally over. It was good news for the drunks, but hard luck for the people who ran the speaks, the people who had kept the drunkards supplied with hooch during that long dark age. Fortunes had been made in illegal alcohol. Everything from brown plaid to coffin varnish found a steady market. I had made a little bit myself doing odd jobs connected to keeping the boozers of New York city from going dry. I'd been paid to bust up a few blind pigs and take down a few bootleggers during my seven years with the New York Police Department before that, and picked up a few extra dollars by turning a blind eye to others. Those days were finished now. Prohibition was over.

By some estimates there were over a hundred thousand speakeasies in New York City. I couldn't testify to the truth of that, but I had been thrown drunk out of about half that many myself. It wasn't even good dark yet, but from my window I could see staggering rummies who had just had their first legal drink in nearly thirteen years. Hell, a lot of them were having their first legal drink.

My secretary, Marla, had been fourteen when the amendment passed. She was having her first legal drink from a bottle I'd taken in trade from a Canadian rum runner. It was a bottle of Laphrohaig. I had been given seven cases of the stuff, thirty bucks, and two almost new tires for a job I'd done for the gentleman.

I was on my second to last case and was beginning to develop a taste for it. I raised my glass to Marla and tossed three fingers of smoky Scotch in my mouth and down my throat. Marla sipped hers, giving me a smile and a wink. She wrinkled her nose a little when she sipped. Laphrohaig took some getting used to. Of course, a good looking dame like Marla was used to drinking Champagne and martinis at 21. She didn't have to pay for her drinks. Somebody would probably be taking her out for drinks as soon as she got home and changed clothes.

I always expected every work day to be her last, to come in and find out she'd been hired away from me. The truth is, her secretarial skills aren't that good. I can type faster than her, and her filing system is a mystery even to herself. She tries hard though, is very loyal, and has the best set of gams I've ever been alone in a room with. Not that I'd ever have a chance to get those beautiful legs wrapped around me, of course. She was more than a couple of lengths outside my class. I was an old plow mule, and she only dated thoroughbreds.

You'd be surprised the things she learned on some of those dates though. Things about millionaire bankers and two bit politicians that I couldn't have found out in a thousand years on my own. I didn't have what it took to move among them. She had it, and she liked using it.

I sometimes thought that the only reason she stayed with me is that the business was only a couple of blocks from where she lived. It was even closer for me. I'd vacated my place about a month before and was sleeping on the black couch in the outer office. I took a shower a couple of times a week at the gym and washed off the rest of the time in the men's room. It was only a couple of doors down from the office, and, because there was a building janitor, it was kept pretty clean. The door on our office read Harrison and O'Flaherty Investigations, but Harrison was dead, I'm O'Flaherty.

Marla heard the door open before I did. She was already on her feet and starting for the door to the outer office before I realized we had company. I managed to put the bottle away and get my feet on the floor before she opened it again and a quiff breezed in past her. Behind the dame was a guy I recognized as Lyman Hull a torpedo for Willie Lee Brannon. I couldn't think of anything I might have done to upset Willie Lee. It was to late to jump behind my desk anyway. I made a mental note to hang out the closed sign the next time I was drinking in the office.

Willie Lee had paid his tribute to Salvatore Maranzano for years, then Lansky had Maranzano bumped in thirty one, and word was that Willie Lee had helped set up the hit. Whether or not Lyman was involved was anyone's guess. Hull thought no more about shooting a man than swatting a fly. He wasn't known to brag about his hits, anymore than a person would brag about stepping on a cockroach.

The dame was about Marla's age, but hard in the eyes in the way that girls get when they've been in the business awhile. Willie Lee made his money in bootleg hooch and whores, ranging from street walkers to high priced call girls. This one didn't look high priced to me, she looked cheap as last Wednesday's donuts.

“I need to talk business with you,” Hull said.

“Grab a chair and sit down,” I said. I stood up, went around the desk and pulled one up for the lady myself. It never hurts to turn on the chivalry. She smiled, pleased that I bothered to treat her like a lady. It had probably been a long time since anyone had.

“This here is Mindy Purcell,” He said. “You remember little Dicky Purcell? This is his sister.”

I remembered little Dicky. He was found floating face down in the Hudson with a couple of bullet holes in his head. He hauled for Bill Dwyer for a couple of years before somebody took a boatload away from him at the docks and gave him a couple of slugs in return.

“What's on your mind, Lyman?” I asked.

“Mindy needs someone to track down her sister Kate.”

“I got a picture of her right here,” Mindy said.

She dug into her pocketbook and came out with a picture of a girl who looked like she'd just been hired to play an angel in the movies. She had a soft, innocent face, a smile that would light up a room, and the kind of lips any man would want to put his against. She looked a little like Mindy, maybe a younger Mindy had that kind of innocent look too. Who knows? Life is hard on some people, especially girls who have to make a living naked.

“Where do you fit into this?” I asked. I had done work for Willie Lee before, but the word was he was going out of business now that the amendment had gone into effect. Out of the whiskey business anyway. The kind of second rate bathtub bustskull he sold wouldn't pass muster when people could buy the real stuff. The whores would probably keep him in cigars and silk ties for awhile, but couldn't satisfy his greed for long.

“You know Dicky and me was close,” Hull said.

I nodded. I had heard rumors, but I mind my own business.

“Well, he'd want me to watch out for his sisters.”

“When did she disappear?” I asked.

“Oh,” Mindy said. “She didn't disappear, somebody snatched her.”

“We think, anyway,” Hull said.

I started to explain that I didn't mean disappear like in vanished in a magic act, just wanted to know the date she'd been seen last, but Marla popped her head in the door and asked me if it was alright if she went on home.

“Sure,” I said. “I'll see you in the morning.”

“Nice girl,” Mindy said.

“When's the last time you saw your sister?” I asked her.

“Oh, must have been three years ago, just at Christmas. Christmas will be three years.”

“He means when did she get snatched,” Hull said.

“Oh. Well, Mama said she was home on Thursday night, a week ago, and called her up a couple of days later, but she hasn't seen or heard from her since.”

“What makes you think she was kidnapped?” I asked.

“Some of the people that lived in her building saw her getting in a car with some strange men,” Mindy said.

“Maybe they weren't strange to her,” I said. “Could have been someone she knew, just spending a little time away from home.”

“No,” Mindy said. “She wasn't that kind of girl.”

I bet myself that there was a time that Mindy wasn't that kind of girl either, but she probably couldn't remember that far back. Far as it goes, I used to be an alter boy myself. Hull probably had been too. Life plays hell on some of us.

“We think it might have been one of them white slavers,” Hull said.

“Fellow like the one you work for?” I asked.

“Hell no. Willie Lee don't hold a gun to nobody's head. Every girl he's got knew the score when she hired on.”

I smiled. We got all kinds of chains to hold people to us, some use iron and some use gold, but they're still chains. I knew that a lot of the girls who were turning tricks for Willie wouldn't be in the business if it hadn't been for the depression. Finding a job of any kind was tough, but for a woman it was harder. A lot of men were wandering the roads looking for work, and a lot of girls were wandering the streets. I'd done enough things to keep a little change in my pocket that I didn't judge anybody too harshly.

“They're plenty of girls who are willing to sell it,” I said. “Why would anybody risk the chair to make one do it?” They'd burn you for kidnapping, and if you crossed the state line, well, there was the Lindberg law.

“I told you he wouldn't believe us,” Mindy said. “Just like the laws.”

“It's not that I don't believe you,” I said. “The thing is thought, that there might be some other explanation for your sister's disappearance than being kidnapped into white slavery.”

“I told you, she didn't disappear,” Mindy said. Her face flushed and I could tell she was about to get up and storm out. I didn't want that to happen. I needed the money.

“What information do you have to support your theory?” I asked Hull.

“Well, there's rumors,” he said. “The girls...”

“Gossip?” I asked.

“Lots of the girls got stories,” Mindy said. “You just have to be willing to listen.”

“Girls sold overseas to sheiks,” Hull said. “Or to one of the old celestials that run the junk houses.”

I wasn't about to go over to Chinatown to check out that theory, not on my own anyway. The tongs had the Irish and the Italians both beat for organization. I'd worked Pell and Mott streets, and while the Chinese weren't as numerous as the white gangsters, they kept secrets a whole lot better. You might as well try to find a button in a silo. I didn't have any doubt that they liked pussy as well as the next man, but I had never heard that they were kidnapping girls and forcing them into slavery.

“But the rumor that keeps popping up is about a group of rich guys down south.”

I looked over at Hull. He had leaned forward in his chair and had his hands on my desk, his fingers splayed open. He had a diamond ring on his right index finger, and a gold signet on his ring finger. Either one of them would probably buy a new car. Of course he had sold his soul for them, but I had sold mine and all I had to show for it was a case and a half of Scotch and an office with the rent paid through the end of the month.

Mindy was covered in jewelry too, a string of pearls, four rings on four different fingers, and a bracelet with a row of what looked like diamonds on her left wrist. It all might have been real, but I doubted it. I'd seen some good fakes, and hers looked as good as any of it, but she just didn't seem like the type that men would shower diamonds and pearls on.

“By down south do you mean Philly?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I mean down south. There's supposed to be a group of rich people keeping pretty boys and girls as playthings. Some kind of private island or something down there off the coast.”

That was one I hadn't heard, which meant that I had no reason to doubt it. Maybe Hull would cough up enough for me to spend a week or sunning it up on the beach. Maybe I could even talk Marla into coming along. She'd probably demand separate rooms though, or, more likely, a whole separate cabin.

“They say that there's a place so far in the mountains that they have to fly people in and out,” Marla said. “And the groceries get carried up on mule trains.”

“I don't think they got mountains on the coastal islands,” I said. “Maybe you're thinking of Cuba or somewhere.”

“No, it's an island off the coast,” Marla said.

I started to point out that Cuba was an island off the coast, but figured she would just argue the point.

“Is there some reason to believe that your sister is at this particular place?” I asked. I had my doubts that she'd be there myself. She'd probably turn up in a week or two, hustling johns in one of the new nightclubs or working one of the houses. She might have the kind of looks it took to work one of the better places, the velvet and brandy circuit. On the other hand, some street pimp might turn her out to make few dimes for himself and keep her in line with a needle and a few hard smacks.

“Just a rumor,” Lyman said.

“Lyman,” I said. “You know I'm gonna level with you. That's a load of horse shit about the rich guys and the island. A thing like that going on, how come none of us ever heard of it? How could they keep that quiet? A plane's got to have fuel, boats got to leave the dock, and even mule trains are going to draw attention if they're loading up with groceries and packing floozies into the mountains.”

“My sister ain't no floozie,” Mindy said.

“I never said she was,” I said. “All I'm saying is how come I never heard about this mountain retreat? I got people whispering to me all over town, all over the state, in fact. I hear things that reasonable people would say is baloney every day, and I never heard one word about rich men packing whores into a mountain on an island off the coast on mule back.”

“They fly 'em in,” Mindy said. “Don't you listen?”

No point in asking her where a plane would land on the mountain. Hell, if they built a place on a mountain on an island that had mule trains, they could probably put in an airfield.

“I'm not saying I won't check into it,” I said. “It's just that you shouldn't expect me to find your little sister in a lodge in the mountains being held hostage by some degenerate millionaire. They're very likely an easier explanation than that.”

“All I'm asking you to do is look,” she said.

There were tears in her eyes. I'm a sucker for women's tears. Hers were streaking her makeup. I reached in my pocket and handed her a handkerchief. She dabbed at her eyes with it and then blew her nose, then offered it back to me.

“Keep it,” I said.

“The money ain't no problem,” Hull said. “If that's bothering you.”

“Last thing on my mind,” I said. “I just don't want you to feel cheated when I find her back home or visiting a girlfriend.”

“I don't care where you find her, long as you do,” Mindy said. “She's the youngest of us, just barely eighteen.”

I told them my rates. Lyman didn't flinch, just reached in his front pocket and took out a money clip. He peeled ten century notes off and tossed them across the desk to me.

“That should be enough to get you started,” he said. “I'll be settling up with you when you find her.”

The roll he took out of his pocket looked like it had ten times as much as he'd given me. I wonder who he'd bumped that paid that high. Maybe he won it gambling. I didn't even count it, just folded it and tucked it into my coat pocket. I could try to make it up with my landlady, even buy a used car. I hadn't had that much money at one time in a couple of years. I could keep Marla on the payroll a while longer. Maybe she'd begin to see something in me.

“I want to help,” Mindy said.

I tried to figure how she could help me, but drew a low hand.

“I can't just sit home and wait.”

That was exactly what I'd been about to suggest to her. She had very limited potential as a gumshoe. She could probably get men to talk in the same way that Marla did, but not the kind of men who'd be able to afford places in the Adirondacks or fly hookers in and out. Mindy could do that, but I didn't like the idea of risking her. She might find a real sugar daddy and retire from secretarial work. I worried enough about her with just the local boys.

“I can drive,” she said.

“Can you fly a plane or drive mules?” I asked.

“I might could drive a mule,” she said.

“You need a pilot, I got just the guy,” Lyman said.

“I'm not sure I'll be needing a pilot just yet,” I told him.

“What do you have to do first?” Marla asked.

“Well, it would help to know a little about your sister.”

“She's a good girl. She don't belong in no whore house,” she said. “I'd die if I found her turning tricks. I'd kill any man who made her too.”

I believed her. I hoped that the girl was just off visiting friends or even shacked up somewhere with a boyfriend. The odds of finding her in a whore house or a street corner were about equal to finding her corpse somewhere though. Most of the time when a girl goes missing it doesn't turn out well. People in fairy tales live happily ever after, the rest of us are lucky if we just don't die too hard and slow.

It was getting late and the money was beginning to burn a hole in my coat. I needed to get it into the safe, at least most of it. If I left the office with it I might find a crap game or somebody might tip me off to a horse that was a sure thing. The safe was in the wall behind the picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt that I'd hung up there the night after he was inaugurated. Before that I'd had a picture of some dogs playing poker.

“Well,” Hull said. “I got to see a man about a dog. Marla here can tell you more about her little sis than I can anyway. I know you won't let me down.”

He said that in a way that made me hope I didn't let him down. To Lyman Hull, killing a man was no different than swatting a fly is to the rest of us. If I took his money and didn't do the job to his satisfaction I could end up in a barrel in the harbor.

“I'll do everything I can,” I said. “You got my word on that.”

“I know you will,” he said. He bent over and gave Marla a little kiss on the cheek, and she gave him a return peck. Then he put his hat on and left. I hoped that he closed the outer door behind him. You never know who might walk in through an open door.

“I'm thankful that you took the case,” Mindy said when he was gone. “If there's anything I can do, just let me know.”

“Well,” I said. “You can make a list of her friends. People she might have gone off with, and people who might know where she is. Then I can get busy asking them questions. Tonight, though, I thought that I'd ask around to see if anybody has heard any of those rumors you and Lyman were talking about.”

“I'd be glad to go with you,” she said. “I know a couple of girls who can fill you in about it.”

I had laid a trap for myself and walked right into it. I'd hoped to get rid of her so I could get the money in the safe and find a place to crack one of the bills so I could have a few real drinks and maybe find a honey who'd be willing to let me come back to her place with her. I'd settle for one willing to come back to the office and spend a little time on the couch, but I held out even less hope for that to happen.

“Maybe tomorrow...”

“They're working tonight. I know right where they are.”

“Would you mind waiting in the outer office just a minute?” I asked. “I need to make a phone call.”

“I gotta use the ladies anyway,” she said. She uncrossed her legs, giving me a shot of the top of her hose and the lacy garters she used to hold them up. She got up smoothing her dress down and turned toward the door. “I'll meet you back in the other room in a few minutes. Don't leave without me.”

I watched her walk across the floor. It was only a few steps but she put everything she could into the journey. She had more sway in her walk than a hammock in a wind storm. Her dress clung to her backside like it had been designed that way. It probably had been. She made her living with what that dress showed off after all.

She left the room, and I took down Franky's picture. The safe was a cracker box, but it was all I could afford. Tomorrow I'd put it in a deposit box at the bank, but as much as I distrusted safes and burglars, I trusted myself less. I put the whole thousand in, taking out a couple of sawbucks I'd laid back toward next month's rent. With the seven bucks I had in my pocket I had enough for a good time and a cab ride home if I could ditch Mindy somewhere along the way.

I sat at Marla's desk to wait for her. While I was there I took the opportunity to look through her drawers. Nothing but office supplies. I was probably hoping she'd stored some pictures of herself wearing nothing but her birthday suit and a smile. I lifted up the blotter on her desk top and looked under it too. There was a business card there. It was from Anderson, Crease, and Walsh, attorneys at law. I crumpled it up and put it in my pocket. If they'd been interested in hiring me for some snooping she'd have mentioned it. They could probably afford to pay her more regularly than me, but now that I had the money to catch up on last weeks paycheck, I wasn't going to lose her to a bunch of shysters.

When Mindy came back into the office she had taken a lot of the makeup off. She had used a softer shade of lipstick, less mascara and eased off on the powder and rouge. She looked younger and softer. Nobody would have mistaken her for a school teacher the way she was dressed, but she looked less like a hooker and more like an easy girl out on the town.

I stood up, patted under my arm to make sure my gun was tightly holstered, walked to the door and held out my arm to her. Chivalry is never wasted.

Written by standingbear
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