Private Investigation

New York, November 1952

Smoke poured from the sewer grates and a police siren wailed in the distance as Keith Reynolds, the city’s most renowned private investigator, walked towards the bar a block from his apartment. He stopped beside some ripped posters from the recent Presidential election declaring “I like Ike” and pulled a cigarette from his trench-coat. He held it between his lips and found a box of matches in the opposite pocket. He struck a match into flame on the wall beside him and raised it to meet the cigarette, his hands shaking. He lit the cigarette and dropped the match to the ground where it sizzled out on the wet sidewalk. His hand continued to shake, and he muttered a simple “shit” under his breath. Whether the shaking was a holdover from his time in the Marines or a result of the events of the past few days he wasn’t sure.

He continued to walk, with the sounds of sirens merging with a trumpet playing jazz music in the bar as he approached. As he entered the bar nobody looked up – there was barely anybody present, patrons outnumbered by the band and the bar staff. He sat at his usual spot – at the bar, furthest seat from the door. He left his fedora and jacket on, unusually for him, his eyes kept in shadow by the brim.

Without being asked, the bartender poured out some bourbon for him. The bartender had a face that had weathered storms and seen too many horrors to remember. His name was Sam, and his voice was as gravelly and worn as his face.

“Long day?” he began, out of habit more than from observation.

“Long week.” Keith replied, automatically.

“Wanna talk?”

Keith let the offer hang in the air as he took his first sip of the drink. Sam knew what Keith did and could read his look and mood without effort. Keith allowed him that. Here with Sam was the one place he could let off steam, his friend always steering clear of judgement.

“Yeah… Yeah I’ll tell ya about this week.” he conceded, sipping his drink again and feeling its warmth fill his mouth.

The story had begun a week after election day, innocuously enough with Keith sat in his office, wrapping up some recent work. A woman had appeared unannounced, she said her name was Holly Quinn. She was the most fashionable woman who had ever walked into Keith’s office, a fact which immediately put him on edge and made him dislike her. She wore a pencil skirt and a cocktail hat, and her makeup was impeccable. She had big doe-eyes, a button nose and thin lips. She was younger than Keith by about ten years – he supposed her to be in her late twenties, but the makeup was probably adding a few years on to what he could see.

She began by telling him that she needed protection from her boyfriend, who she wanted to stop seeing, but had threatened her if she decided to try to run away. So far so routine, but after some evasive answers, finally she had revealed that her boyfriend had been newly elected to the state senate. This alone presented Keith with plenty to consider, but Holly continued to reveal the reason he had become threatening – her discovery that he was being paid, bribed in fact, by one of the so-called “five families”, to keep the police off their backs as they brought in shipments of drugs.

“People have accidents all the time” she had recounted, “and the mistress of a state senator would barely get a mention in the papers. So you see, I can’t go to the police. I don’t know who I can trust. I have nowhere else to turn.”

Keith took another long sip of whiskey to finish off his glass, then set it down on the bar and muttered “Another” to Sam, who was already in the process of pouring it.

“I should have sent her out the door right then.”

“Why didn’t you?” Sam asked.

“I can’t help myself with a hopeless case. Sending her away I’d be sending her right back to him, and who knows what for her then?”

Keith had offered his apartment as a sanctuary for her once she’d regained her composure in his office. He resolved that if he was able to track down a shipment coming in, document it and present the evidence to the District Attorney, that would be enough to get Holly into a witness protection programme.

That evening he had taken her back to the apartment, where she made them dinner and drinks. She’d been a waitress, that’s how she’d met now-state-senator Richard Brooks. He had flattered her, taken her to parties, been a perfect gentleman – all an act, but she was young and easily impressed. Keith had listened dutifully, but it might have been any number of women he’d known. They had stayed up later than he had expected, drinking and talking. There was something in her manner and in her voice that intrigued him – it was almost husky, with a hint of an Irish accent. More than the make-up, her voice was what captivated him. He offered her his bed for the night but she wouldn’t accept, opting for the couch instead. Until half way through the night she had wandered into his room and demanded to be held.

Sam behind the bar raised an eyebrow, the meaning not lost on Keith.

“When a beautiful woman wakes you up in the night and asks you to hold her, I’ve yet to meet a man who would turn her away, especially after a few drinks” Keith smiled back.

“You say ‘hold’ but I think you mean the other thing.” Sam grinned. Keith didn’t deny it.

“It’s not like there’s a law against it.”

The following night Keith had set out with a steeled resolve and on the tip of a friend found his way to the docks. Sure enough, a shipment was being unloaded, and a man in a suit and tie was overseeing proceedings, smoking a cigarette and talking to a large Italian-American. Keith had seen his picture in the papers enough to recognise the well-dressed man as Richard Brooks.

Keith took some photographs, keeping all the while to the shadows, then headed back to his apartment. When he arrived, his heart sank almost immediately. Before he even reached the door of the building, he had sensed something unusual. The street was too quiet. His fears were confirmed as he reached his front door – kicked in and hanging on only one of the hinges. He drew his pistol and snuck inside the apartment, to find the place smashed to pieces. He rushed into his bedroom to find Molly lying on the bed, covered in blood that was already drying to maroon red. She’d been shot in the chest twice near the heart – with more precision than could be ascribed to a lucky shot. This was a murder, made to look plausibly like a robbery.

Back in the bar, Sam’s expression barely changed. The colour had drained from Keith’s face, and he had finished another glass of whiskey. He’d lost track of how many that was for the evening. Sam poured another without being asked.

“The police came, they questioned me for a little while, but they knew how they were going to write it up before they arrived. Robbery gone bad. One of those things. No need to follow up…”

“Did you tell them where you’d been?”
“Only that I’d seen a friend – they didn’t ask to confirm him as an alibi for me.”

“So you still have the photographs.”

“I haven’t processed them yet.”

“They’re radioactive Keith – you know that.”

“Say I process them, and I hand them over to the DA, or the press. What then? They’ll know where they came from. And I don’t know how entrenched the corruption is, how far it goes. How do you stand up to these people, with all the power and the institutions in their pockets? What can one guy do against a state senator? And yet, aren’t I obliged to do something? If the rich and powerful aren’t challenged, what’s to stop them doing anything they want, the law be damned…”

The band had stopped playing and Sam and Keith became aware of the quietness of the bar. Sam leaned in and looked Keith in the eye.

“You can’t talk like this Keith, not here. You’re forgetting what our fathers taught us; a drunken man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts.”

Keith downed his drink and stood. “If I do nothing, her death doesn’t mean a thing – I owe it to her to see it through.”

He adjusted his hat, pulled his trench-coat tight, and walked out of the bar – a man with a purpose once more.

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