By Roxanne Dent
Chapter Six: “Muskrat Ramble”
“Willie Kasper is a character,” Harry informed me as we hailed a cab across town. “He eats with his mouth open. He’s pushy and loud, but has a memory for faces and names, a cop would envy.”
Willie had an office in the theater district in an old brownstone on Ninth Avenue. His secretary was in her thirties. Dressed in a black suit and white blouse, she informed us in marked Brooklynese he was on the phone. The door to his office was closed but we could hear every word.
“You won’t regret it. The guy I have in mind is perfect. Yeah, I know you already have three. Wait till you see him in a tux, honey. He’ll warm the cockles of your big heart. And he’ll make you look fabulous. That’s what you want, right? Great. He’s on the way. And I promise to be there on opening night with a couple of high rollers.”
He hung up and rushed out, shouting orders.
“Rita, call Slim and get him over to the Royal Theater pronto. Tell him to wear a tux. He’s going to meet the great Mae West. He’s auditioning for a role in her new play, “Diamond Lil.”
“You got visitors,” Rita said, in a nasal voice as she picked up the phone.
“Harry,” Willie exclaimed, “When was the last time you walked in here?” He was short, had a paunch and a bald spot on the back of his head.
“Six months,” Harry said. They embraced.
“I remember,” Willie said. “The Rayburn case. I don’t see enough of you lad.” His blue eyes sparkled. “And who is this lovely lady? An actress I hope. I am, my dear, as Harry will tell you, the best agent in town.”
“J. R. Turner, private detective.” I extended my hand.
He clasped my hand with both of his and looked me over. “With gams like yours? What a shame. You have my undivided attention. Come into my office. Rita, hold my calls.”
We sat on scratched, wooden chairs that squeaked. Willie rested his fingers on his paunch and studied us.
“So, you’re working a case together. Harry, the hard-boiled dick who always works alone and a woman detective. Interesting!”
“Knock it off, Willie,” Harry said. “We’re here for info on one of your clients.”
“I didn’t think it was my good looks.”
“Her name’s Wilda,” I said.
He made a face. “Rotten actress, but great gams. I sent her out a couple of times. She always caused trouble on the set. Last time, she ran off with a stage-door Johnny without giving notice.”
“You got an address?” Harry asked.
“Better. I have her picture. Her info, which is probably out of date, is on the back.” He went to a huge pile of photographs and dug through it, much like a Gopher digging for shrubs. “Haven’t heard from her in six or seven months. I wouldn’t send her out if I did. Leaving a show without giving notice, is death in my book.” He held out a picture.
I eagerly snatched the black and white. Harry looked over my shoulder.
“This picture stinks,” Willie admitted. She was probably low on funds and got a boyfriend to take it. She always had plenty of those. But Wilda was no dumb Dora. Never a knockout she knew how to make the most of her looks. Her hair was bright red when I knew her. What’d she do?”
“Maybe nothing,” Harry said.
“We just want to talk to her,” I said. “We have no proof she did anything wrong. Do you also handle circus and carnival acts?”
“Gus Rogers on 52nd Street handles that.”
I looked at the picture again. The paper was grainy. Wilda was laughing and looked to the right. A long scarf was around her neck, and she wore a big hat. She leaned back, and her skirt was up, exposing long, shapely legs. It was a flamboyant picture but difficult to make out what she looked like. I was surprised she gave it to an agent.
“Do you think her capable of murder?” Harry asked.
Willie thought about it for a second. “She might, if she thought it couldn’t be traced to her and it benefited her in some way. Not a crime of passion. Wilda was hard as nails. Like it says on the back her last known address was 251 East 28th Street, Number 2F. Keep the picture.”
We thanked Willie and left.
A bus arrived, and we hopped on for the ride downtown.
“Do you think she might be the woman who ran into you at Madame Roskovich’s?” Harry asked, as we sat down. I could smell his faint after shave, which was a pleasant citrus scent.
“Hard to say.” I studied the picture again. “What are the odds she’ll still be at this address?”
“It’s worth a shot.”
Wilda’s apartment was located above a tailor’s, in an old tenement. Children played hop scotch and stickball on the sidewalk. Across the street was a man who sold ice. Down the street was a cheese and butter store. I doubted it was the sort of neighborhood Wilda envisioned herself living in. But it would be cheap.
We rang the bell. No answer.
“The tailor on the ground floor might remember her,” I said.
We went in and a bell went off. A man with thin, grey hair, and a yamaca, came out from behind a curtain, a measuring tape around his neck.
“May I help you?”
“I hope so,” I said. “We’re looking to contact a woman who lives above you in 2F.”
“A family of four rent the apartment. They aren’t home yet.”
“Before them. A single woman named Wilda.”
“Oy vey, That one.”
Harry pulled out his license. “We’re private investigators.”
“She owe money?”
“Nothing like that. Wilda’s mother is dying and wanted to see her one last time,” Harry fabricated.
“Sorry to hear. She left eight months ago in the middle of the night, two months behind in rent. Perhaps it’s best a mother doesn’t know what became of her daughter. She was no better than she should be. She ran off with some man.”
“What did he look like? I asked.
“High quality clothes and shoes. Clean shaven, in his twenties. Car was a Cadillac. Mint condition. He was polite. Thin and restless. Not long after, she took off.”
“Any friends she might have confided in?” I asked.
“Never was a woman so universally disliked.”
“Thank you for your time,” I said. As we reached the door, he called out.
“The young man reminded me of my nephew Max.”
We turned. “How so?” Harry asked.
“His eyes. They were like Max’s. And he couldn’t stay still. Max was a good boy but got involved with the wrong people. He died in an alley, two years ago. Drugs. Broke his mother’s heart.”
“Sounds like her stage-door Johnny was Billy,” Harry said as we emerged onto the street.”
“Still doesn’t help us identify Wilda.”
One of the kids yelled, as a pink ball smacked Harry in the leg. He picked it up and tossed it back.
“I’m feeling nostalgic,” Harry said. “Have you ever had Toad in the Hole? Or a Ploughman’s lunch?”
“No,” I said with a laugh.
“You’re in for a treat. There’s a pub I know that serves English food. I’m starving. My treat.”
The Spotted Duck was a small English pub located in lower Manhattan, in the financial district.
I ordered the Ploughman’s lunch. It consisted of ham, bread and cheese, with a boiled egg and pickled onions. Harry ordered Toad in the Hole, sausages baked in batter.
I took a bite out of my sandwich and washed it down with a Coca-Cola. Harry had black tea. The information Gil gave me about Harry and his comment about being nostalgic, sparked my curiosity. “Did you grow up in London?” I asked, innocently, knowing he had.
“Lived there until I was sixteen.’
“What was your favorite memory?”
“Beating Glover Martin to a pulp.”
“I was sent to boarding school. He was older and tortured me for two years.”
“That was your favorite memory?”
“He never touched me again.” He glanced at me and smiled. “I have other less violent memories.”
“Do you miss London?”
“Sometimes. What about you?”
“I’ve never been out of the city, unless you count one of the other boroughs.”
“Don’t sound so glum. You still have time. You’d like Paris. A friend once said you can’t walk along the Champs Elyses without falling in love. I didn’t find love, but Paris at night is irresistible.”
“If I went to Italy I don’t think I’d come back,” I admitted.
“The food alone is worth the trip. If you appreciate art, Florence is a must. Venice is romantic and very old. Go in September.”
“The Historical Regatta takes place the first week. Thousands of people line the shores to watch the competition. The Gondoliers are in costumes. They steer typical, 16th Century boats. It’s a reenactment of the entrance of the Queen of Cyprus after abdication in 1489. Quite spectacular.”
“You’ve traveled a lot. I envy that.”
He put his cup down. “I was engaged once, but she broke it off. I’d paid for the honeymoon and decided to go without her.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been difficult.”
“I wouldn’t have gotten the money back if I didn’t go.”
“Were you able to enjoy it?” I asked
“I did. Does that make me heartless?”
“Not at all,” I said. I placed my hand over his. He looked at me with humor in is grey eyes. I withdrew my hand embarrassed by the flush that rose to my cheeks.
“Mavis’ funeral is the day after tomorrow at eleven a.m.,” I said. “The Morris Funeral Home. I promised Ivy I’d be there. I’d like you to attend and get your impressions.”
“I wouldn’t miss it. Funerals can be quite informative. I’ll pick you up.”
“It’s late. We should go.” I stood.
“I had an ulterior motive in choosing this pub,” he said. “My car is parked a few blocks away. I’ll drive you home.”
When he held my coat for me, I winced, as I put my shoulder inside.
“An accident,” I said.”
“What kind of accident?
“I was with a friend. It was late, and someone tried to rob us.” I decided to tell a version of the truth. I had a feeling Harry would see through an outright lie. “Shots were fired.”
“It wasn’t serious,” I said as casually as I could.
“There’s nothing more serious than getting shot.”
I was reluctant to share my suspicions with Harry. The last thing I needed was a man who thought I was a damsel in distress.
“You’re sure your injury has nothing to do with our case?”
“It was a robbery attempt.” I’m not sure he believed me, but his next question had nothing to do with the attack.
“Were you on a date?” he asked, as we walked to his car.
I didn’t see how that was relevant but could feel his grey eyes on me. “No.”
I shouldn’t have felt pleased by his comment, but I did.
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.