By Roxanne Dent
Chapter Seven: “The Nickel Empire”
The next day, the phone woke me at 9 a.m. It was Harry.
“Do you like hot dogs?”
“Huh?” I’m not at my best when I first open my eyes.
Never mind. Meet me downstairs at twelve. Wear comfortable clothes, footwear and bring lots of change.” He wouldn’t say why and hung up before I could protest.
I hoped this was a lead in the case and not a date. I wasn’t sure how I felt about dating a partner. It could get messy.
But I admit, I was intrigued. The weather was predicted to remain in the 50s. I pulled on a Tartan, wool skirt, black sweater, and an old pair of Russian leather boots with a Cuban heel. It wasn’t cold enough for a fur coat, so I dug out a black wool jacket.
No sooner had I stepped outside, then Harry pulled up in the flashy, red La Salle coupe. He opened the door. I got in and we took off.
He glanced at my feet. “Flats would have been better.”
“Don’t own any. So, what’s the big mystery?” I said as I sat back.
“We’re on our way to Coney Island.”
“If this is a date—
“It’s not, and it wouldn’t kill you to show a little excitement. Don’t tell me you never rode the Ferris Wheel or screamed your lungs out going down the roller coaster?”
“You’ve been sadly deprived, J.R. Now that the subway runs to Brooklyn, and costs five cents, mobs of people from all walks of life take the train and swarm Coney Island in the summer. The papers refer to it as the Nickel Empire.”
“You’re sure this isn’t a date?”
“Generally, I take my dates to fancier places then an amusement park, not that you won’t enjoy walking along the boardwalk and inhaling the sea air.”
I wound up the window. “It’s 50 degrees.”
“Ah, but there are bound to be fortune tellers and mediums, along with clowns, a Pavilion of Fun, scantily clad showgirls and the missing link.”
I sat up. “You think we’ll find someone who knew Madame Roskovich. Not bad, Barnes.”
“Thanks. I also thought one of the showgirls might know Wilda. I admit, it’s a long shot but the sun is out and we have nothing better to do until the funeral tomorrow.”
“Let’s not forget Alice ran off to join the circus. Coney Island may not be the circus, but it’s a carnival atmosphere. Maybe one of the barkers or performers remembers her, or Thomasina.”
He glanced at me. “You never went to Steeplechase Park with your parents?”
“My parents fought. We didn’t take many vacations together.”
“Sorry, I have a bad habit of asking too many personal questions.”
I shrugged. “I do it myself. Gum shoes are nosy by nature.” I opened my purse and removed the folded, grainy picture of Wilda. “I still have this. But I doubt Wilda’s own mother would recognize her.”
“But someone might remember Madame Roskovich and if she had a shill,” Harry said.
I perked up. “They might. How long will it take us to get there?”
“About an hour. You a fan of baseball”
“I’ve been to a couple of games.”
“The Babe hit his sixtieth home run last year. Everyone’s hoping he can beat that this year. The man’s a genius.”
Harry was easy to talk to. We discussed the pros and cons of Unions, and the abysmal failure of Prohibition.
Before I knew it, we heard the scream of seagulls, saw the ocean and signs for Coney Island.
Since it was a fall day, and cool there weren’t the crowds that packed Luna Park during the summer months, but it was the weekend and far from deserted.
Admission to the park was ten cents with rides costing twenty-five cents.
Harry parked the car and we walked along the promenade.
“Win a Panda for your sweetheart,” one of the barkers shouted out as we neared a booth.
“I’ve been practicing at the gun range for months,” I said. “How would you like a five-foot stuffed bear?” I joked.
“The loser keeps the bear,” Harry said.
I won. Harry lugged the bear around until he saw a six-year-old boy staring at it. He gave it to him. It was bigger than he was. His mother didn’t look happy about it.
We questioned the barkers, but they claimed they never heard of Madame Roskovich, Alice or Thomasina. If they did, they kept their traps shut.
We tried our talent at hoop throwing and won a kewpie doll. The next three times we lost.
“It’s rigged,” Harry whispered as we walked away.
“Or we aren’t as coordinated as we thought,” I said.
“Next up, the roller coaster,” Harry announced.
I stopped walking. “It looks rusty and unsafe.”
Harry grinned. “Don’t tell me your chicken, J.R.?
I kicked him. “What are you waiting for.”
I held on so tight, my fingers ached. My hair blew in my face, my hands turned sweaty and my heart hammered in my chest, but I refused to scream. When I exited my legs were shaky and my hands cramped. I turned to Harry and laughed.
“That was one ride, I’ll never forget.”
Everywhere we looked was something new. We strolled past clowns, elephant rides, the bearded lady, a midget in charge of tickets and trained dogs and monkeys.
We finally stopped for one of Nathan’s hot dogs, accompanied by two root beers.
Harry took a napkin and wiped my cheek. “Mustard. I take it you like the dogs.”
“They’re delicious. I’m having such a fun time, I almost forgot why we’re here.”
“Let’s try the tent with the jazz blaring out.”
Exotic dancers in skimpy costumes, danced wildly to the Charleston and the Black Bottom. We watched the show. When it was over we questioned the girls. They were all under twenty-five.
None of them recognized Wilda. They’d all heard of Madame Roskovich’s murder, but no one knew her personally. When I asked about Alice it was a different story.
“She was sweet,” a girl named Gladys said as she changed for the next show. “But kinda dim. She fell for The Great Mancini. A total cake eater. That chump never loved anybody but himself. After she got pregnant, he dumped her. She filled in when somebody behind the booths got sick and took on sewing when the costumes ripped. She was a wiz with a needle.”
“What about her daughter, Thomasina?”
Gladys laughed. “Ask her yourself. She’s one of the clowns in the tent at the end of the pier.”
On our way there, we spotted a purple striped tent with a sign, “Psychic Readings, by Sonja.”
Harry turned to me. “I feel lucky. Come on.”
The woman inside was in her 50s. Hunched shoulders, eyebrows heavily penciled in, Sonja wore kohl around her black eyes and a colorful scarf around her head. Her ankle length, velvet skirt was decorated with fake, silver coins and she wore lots of cheap jewelry.
We introduced ourselves and sat down.
Sonja smiled as she took my hand. “The spirits tell me the two of you have a great future together.” She spoke with a thick, European accent.
I pulled my hand away. “We’re private detectives looking for information. Did you know the medium Madame Roskovich?”
“Poisoned, wasn’t she? ” She sat back and crossed her arms. “That’s all I know.” She’d suddenly lost her European accent.
“We’re not looking to make trouble. We want to know anything you can tell us about her.”
“I knew Anna back when she was nobody. She got lucky, but her luck ran out.”
“Is that all?” Harry asked.
“My memory ain’t what it used to be. If you want to know more, I need encouragement.”
Harry placed a fin down and held it there. “We’re listening.”
“Her parents were Russkies. At the time I knew her, she was using her real name. I told her to change it to Madame Roskovich. It sounded more exotic.”
“So, you were friends?” I said.
“She was okay. Anna was different than the rest of us. She had a touch of real psychic ability.” She saw my face and snapped, “Yeah, that’s right, lady, it’s not all fake.”
“Why was she lucky?” Harry said.
“She struck out on her own and moved to Boston. A rich, old woman who lost her daughter consulted her and fell under her spell. She became a steady customer and the woman introduced her to her wealthy friends. When the lady died she left Anna some money. I heard she wasn’t the only one. That’s when she moved to New York City.”
“We heard she had a partner?” Harry said.
“Never met her but she was bad news.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“When I visited my sister in Manhattan, I ran into Anna once. You could see she missed the old days. She treated me to coffee and a Danish but kept looking over her shoulder. I asked her what was wrong. She said her partner, Wilda, was jealous of her friendships. I could see she was scared of the broad.”
I took out the picture. “Do you recognize this woman?”
Sonja peered at it. “Too blurry. Is that Wilda? Like I said, I never met her. You think she killed Anna?”
“Possibly. Is there anything at all you remember Anna saying about Wilda other than she was jealous? How did they meet?” I prodded. “Any scars, marks?”
“She said she was a better actress than a dancer. That’s it.”
Puzzled, I wondered what she meant. Wilda’s agent disagreed.
Harry removed his hand. Sonja snatched the five-dollar bill and it vanished into her blouse.
“What can you tell us about Thomasina, Alice’s daughter?” I said.
Sonja’s cooperative attitude vanished. “Why?”
“Did she know Madame Roskovich?” Harry asked.
“Thomasina was 10 when Anna left.”
I could sense antagonism.
Harry reached into his pocket. Sonja shook her head. “If you want to know about Thomasina, she works as a clown. The tent at the end of the pier. Red and white striped skirt and yellow braids.”
We thanked her and left.
“Next stop, find the clown,” Harry said cheerfully.
Roxanne Dent lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and has sold nine novels and dozens of short stories in a variety of genres to anthologies, including Paranormal Fantasy, Regency, Mystery, Horror, Middle Grade and YA. Her fantasy, The Day the Demons Came, recently sold to the anthology, In the Shadow of the Mountain, Elder Gods Publishing. And My Zombie Valentine, sold to Blood Red Shadows, Night to Dawn, and will be out around Valentine’s Day. She has also co-authored short stories and plays with her sister, Karen Dent. Their plays Young at Heart and Monkey Girl Blues, were put on at the Firehouse Theater in Newburyport.