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A cold November evening, 1940…

Posted in Writing

I’ve talked about my book a few times on this blog, but since I’m about a fourth of the way through, I figured I’d drop an excerpt. So here’s the introduction.

It was a cold and blustery November evening in 1940 when the dame walked into my office for the first time.

She was unforgettable, as the troublesome ones always seemed to be. Her silky brown hair rolled down her shoulders in waves and took on a red shine when it caught the light and her eyes were large in a way that would look innocent if they weren’t a striking amber that nearly glowed. Her coat was pine green, fashionably cinched at the waist and cut just below the knees, high enough to show off her heeled shoes and calves–very nice calves, for those who were interested–but low enough to fend off the autumn chill. She wore a matching green felt hat with a wide brim and black silk gloves over long fingers that looked more precise than delicate. Her face was radiant, her lips painted red and her tan cheeks dusted with rouge. All dolled up, though I doubted it was for me.

Neither men nor women did much to make my blood move, but I could appreciate beauty, and she had it in spades.

She strode into my office with the calm, confident walk of a woman who wasn’t scared to take what she wanted, which I liked, and a string of gleaming pearls hanging off her right wrist, which I didn’t.

“I don’t deal with specs,” I told her. Even with her standing two yards from me, I could feel those pearls burning the air. I had seen pearls like that often enough–crystallized human souls. Hers were beautifully procured, shining just as bright as real pearls, but they were souls nonetheless.

Only demons wore souls. A human would lose their own if they tried.

The spec wasn’t deterred. She pulled up a seat across from me and said: “Come, now. Don’t be rude.” Her voice was low and rich without being sultry, though it wouldn’t have taken much effort to get there. “I’m not a demon and I’m not here for your soul. I can call up the demon if you like, but me, I’m all human.”

Possessed, then. It wasn’t common–I could count the number of possessed people I’ve met on two hands, and those who let their hosts speak for themselves on one. Of course, I only had her word for it that she was the human half. I let that slide for the moment. Human side or not, there was a demon wearing pearls in my office who wanted something, and that always meant trouble.

Trouble didn’t stop me from being curious, though. It was a bad habit, I admit. It came with being a sleuth.

I said: “Well, you came all this way to see me. How can I help you?”

“I’d like you to solve something for me.”

“Shame. I thought you might have come for the company.”

“I certainly didn’t come here for you to be smart with me.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a silver cigarette tin with a swirling pattern engraved on the lid. She took a cigarette out and I struck a match to light it for her. She paused and took a slow drag, then blew out a cloud of smoke. She said: “I’m interested in a man. Beckett Moller, goes by Beck. He was shot dead about three nights ago out on Canal Street, some blocks north of Union Station.”

I sighed. “I’d love to help you, sister, but I’m a private detective and I don’t handle murder cases. That’s police work.”

“It’s not the murder I’m asking you about.”

That was still well out of my jurisdiction, but I said: “Go on, then. Don’t leave me in suspense.”

She took another drag on her cigarette. “A friend saw him again this morning. Alive.”

“The man’s got a twin?”

“Don’t be smart. It’s not becoming of you,” the woman said. “They saw him climb out of the Chicago River down around Chinatown, his coat still soaked with blood. When they tried to get a hold of him, he ran like a bat out of hell.”

“Pretty spry for a dead man. Are you sure he died to begin with?”

“He was shot three times in the chest from about a foot away, if you believe the eyewitness, and I do.” She reached over and tapped ash into my ashtray. “Somehow, I doubt he survived that.”

I leaned back in my chair and folded my hands together. “So what, you think he came back to life? Some spec or sparky trying to play God pulled a trick out of their sleeve to wake him up?”

“That’s exactly what I think, shamus.”

“Sister, I might not know any tricks myself, but I know enough to say there’s no magic to bring a stiff back to life.”

She raised a delicate eyebrow. “Then what happened to you?”

There’s a story I sometimes tell friends on especially dark nights at the bar between the third and fifth glasses of whiskey about the last case I did back when I still worked for the police.

It was a kidnapping case, a whole string of them all along the West Side towards the end of ’32. It hadn’t started out that way. When the higher ups handed Raymond and me the case, it was just one kid, Lillian Waters, a black girl, aged six, who lived out on Maxwell Street. Her folks told us she must have been snatched right out of the market. They never got a ransom note and even if they had, they had nothing to give. I remember the aunt telling me how Lillian was just the sweetest girl. She didn’t think anyone who knew the kid would ever want to hurt her, or maybe she just wanted to believe that.

I wish I could say Lillian really was that sweet, but I never got a chance to find out. We never found her. We never found her corpse, either, but considering all the things that could happen to a little girl who got on the wrong side of the city, that wasn’t exactly reassuring.

What we did find was a trail of evidence reeking of magic that led us straight into five other kidnapping cases, all children, all on the West Side. I can’t remember much about them anymore, no matter how much I try, but I remember finding there wasn’t any connection between the kids or their families or friends, except that they’d all been magicked and they all lived within throwing distance of the Sons of Asmodai.

Raymond wanted out at that point, and I couldn’t blame him. The chief didn’t care whether a black girl got found and the Sons were above our pay grade. They were like the Italian Mob, except instead of money they wanted souls, and the demons were fonder of their sparks than the Italians were of their Tommies. They got twitchy when coppers sniffed around their hideouts and twitchy specs killed people. It was enough to make anyone nervous.

Well, what’s a poor detective to do? Six kids snatched by the Sons, and that’s just the ones we knew about. God knows what the specs wanted with them, but I’d put a yard on them doing it again. Raymond made the smart choice and got out while he still had time. I didn’t.

Around this point, I pause and call the barman to refill my drink. My friends ask me what happened next.

I toss back my glass in one. Set it on the counter.

Isn’t it obvious? I ask. They killed me.

The woman sat there across from me, her cigarette hanging between her long fingers and her amber eyes looking sharp enough to slit a throat. She was smiling. I didn’t like that much.

I didn’t tell strangers about my death. It wasn’t polite conversation, and it raised questions I didn’t want to answer. Frankly, the less anyone knew about it, the better.

I told her: “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t play coy, Detective.”

“You’ll have to enlighten me, sister.”

She looked at me and blew a ring of smoke. “Last March, an Asian gumshoe got a couple of iron pills in the stomach for looking into an affair they shouldn’t have. Then August, there was someone with black hair and black eyes, sapped from behind and tossed off a roof for asking questions about a jewel theft. February, a Chinese girl sniffed a little close to a couple of sparkies and got dumped in the river for the trouble. Hear enough of these stories and I start to wonder.”

“Descriptions like that, they’re probably different people,” I said.

“Or one very unlucky, very stubborn one.” She leaned forward and crushed her cigarette into my ashtray. “Come off it, now. Even Chicago doesn’t have that many overcurious Chinese folks. Especially not private dicks, and especially not dames like you.”

She had me there. I’d gotten into plenty of trouble since I came back to life the first time and I wasn’t exactly difficult to recognize. The stories got around sometimes, but they weren’t nearly as common as she made them sound. It made me wonder what circles she ran in.

I leaned back in my chair. I said: “Alright then, sister. Say I believe you. Someone woke your bird up with a fancy trick or two. What does it have to do with me?”

“You’re going to find who did it and why.”

I scoffed. “Am I? I don’t quite like your tone, sister, and I can’t see why you’re so interested. This Beck fellow doesn’t seem to mean much to you.”

“Beck was an important customer,” she said. “We’re jewelers, see. Surely I’m allowed to be curious if he comes back to life?”

“That might be true, but you’ll need more than that to get me interested.”

She smiled that unfortunate smile of hers again and put eighty bucks on my desk. “I believe this will be enough to start.”

It certainly was, and then some. I took the money and said: “I’ll look around.”

She nodded in that way some people do when they think they’re the cleverest person in the room. “I’ve heard good things about you, Miss Detective. Don’t disappoint me,” she said as she gave me her card. “Call when you find anything. Canal 1721.”

The card listed “Vera Kujović – Cat’s Eye Jewelers” above an address in Logan Square and another telephone number. It was a nice card, much nicer than mine, with smooth card stock and neat black cursive. An elegant card for an elegant dame, though I didn’t feel charitable enough to say so.

“I’ll be sure to do that, Miss Kujović.”

“I look forward to it.”

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