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Chapter One:
The Best Laid Plans

Chapter Two:
Facing The Music

Chapter Three:
From Bad To Worse

Chapter Four:
Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Chapter Five:
Scene of the Crime

Chapter Six:
Dancing with the Devil

Chapter Seven:
Turn of an Unfriendly Card

Chapter Eight:
The Cold Hand of Death

Chapter Nine:
So Close...

Chapter Ten:
Hunting Season

Chapter Eleven:
Leap of Faith

Chapter Twelve:
Incriminating Evidence

Chapter Thirteen:
Unhappy Homecomings


Stripped of Honor!

- A Tale of the Broadway Bombers -

By Geoff Skellams


Chapter Seven: Turn of an Unfriendly Card

"That's quite a story, Crawford," Zachary said. "So, you're no closer to finding the traitor's identity?"

Loyle looked out the aerotaxi's windows at the Chicago skyline and shook his head. "No."

For more information see:
Loyle "Show-stopper" Crawford

He turned back to Zachary. "I've just about run out of money, and I'm as good as dead if the I.S.A. militia—or their bounty hunters—catch me.

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America

"If I don't find the traitor soon—and get the hell out of Chicago," Crawford sighed, "I'm as good as dead."

Zachary chuckled quietly. "Never say never, Loyle. If there's one thing I've learned, its that there's always a way out, no matter how tough the situation."

Loyle shot him a bleak look. "That's easy for you to say."

Zachary just smiled. "Oh, I know how tough it can be. I lost a fortune in the crash of '29. There were times when it looked like I'd never make it, but here I am now."

"And what exactly do you do?" asked Loyle.

"I guess you could call me something of an...aerial entrepreneur," said Zachary. "I tend to make money wherever I can." He pulled a pair of thick Cuban cigars from his pocket. "Cigar?"

Loyle took the cigar and unwrapped it. He savored the aroma before biting off the end. Zachary leaned over with a lighter, and Loyle inhaled deeply; the smoke from the excruciatingly expensive cigar steadied his nerves. For a—smuggler? mercenary?—Zachary sure knew how to live.

Zachary sat back in the seat and blew smoke towards the roof of the aerotaxi's cabin. "So, do you have any ideas about who this singer is? Hopping from bar to bar looking for her isn't really helping."

Loyle took another puff on the Cuban. "All I know is her first name," he said. "The waitress thought she went by the name Marlene."

Zachary looked at Loyle with a bemused look on his face. "Tell you what. You sound as though you could use a friend right now. I'd like to help you out. I know some people who have connections, and between us, we should be able to track down this Marlene dame before too long at all. What do you say?"

Loyle wanted to believe him. It seemed like months since there was someone he could rely on. "Why are you doing this? What's in it for you?"

Zachary laughed. "You're a tough nut to crack, Major. I thought you would have jumped at the offer of some help."

Loyle stared at the smoldering tip of his cigar. "There used to be people I thought I could trust. One of them sold the Bombers out over Lake Champlain, and that's how this whole mess got started."

For more information see:
The Broadway Bombers

He looked straight into Nathan Zachary's eyes. "I'd really like your help, Zachary...but I promise you, if you're setting me up, I'll kill you myself."

"Swell!" said Zachary, his eyes dancing with mirth. "I guess we know where we stand then." He leaned over, slid the window to the pilot open and mumbled some directions. The aerotaxi banked sharply to port, as Zachary settled back into his seat. "Let's go see an old acquaintance of mine. He knows most of the singers in this town; if anyone knows where Marlene is, Frank does."

The aerotaxi flared out and touched down gently on the roof of a medium-sized hotel. Zachary slid a ten-dollar note through to the driver before following Loyle out of the cabin. The pair of them crouched and ran clear of the spinning rotor blade.

"So, who are we here to see?" asked Loyle, as the aerotaxi opened its throttle and leapt into the air again.

Zachary stopped the butt of his cigar on the concrete pad and mashed it out with his foot. "His name's Francesco Lugosi. He's somewhat notorious, really. Got his hands in all sorts of pies; gambling, brothels, bootlegging...that sort of thing."

"Sounds like a nasty piece of work," said Loyle. "How do you know him?"

"Now that," said Zachary with a wink, "would be telling." He pushed open the glass doors to the hotel's rooftop lobby and held it open for Loyle. "After you."

Loyle walked through into the lavishly appointed room. The décor was a rich burgundy; everything seemed to match in some way, from the carpet to the leather couches. Even the paintings on the walls had shades of red in them, accentuated by soft lighting that made the room both opulent and cozy at the same time.

Loyle felt the pangs of homesickness; he knew several hotels like this back in the Empire State.

For more information see:
The Empire State

The girl at the desk looked up at them. "Can I help you, gentlemen?"

Zachary nodded. "I hope so, sweetheart. We're here to see Mr. Lugosi."

"Certainly, sir," sad the girl. "Who may I say is calling?"

"Nathan Zachary and...friend. Tell him I've come to collect. He'll know what I mean."

The girl picked up the telephone and dialed with prim precision. She repeated Zachary's message and nodded before hanging up. "Mr. Lugosi will see you," she said sweetly. "He's on the tenth floor. The elevators are around to the right."

"Thanks, doll," said Zachary, with a lopsided, cocky grin.

Loyle followed Zachary around to the elevator car. The driver slid both sets of doors closed before turning to them. "Where to, gentlemen?"

"Tenth floor, please," said Zachary.

"Very good, sir," said the driver, spinning the wheel to start the car on its ascent.

"Are you sure about this?" Loyle asked.

Zachary grinned at him. "Relax. I've got everything under control. We'll find out what we need to know and we'll go. There's nothing to worry about."

"That's when I tend to worry most, Zachary," Crawford replied.

The elevator car came gently to a stop and the driver slid the doors open. Zachary handed the man a tip before leading Crawford into the corridor and around to the right.

"You've been here before," said Loyle.

"Once or twice."

Zachary stopped outside room 10A and rapped twice on the door with his knuckle. "Now remember, let me do the talking."

A solidly built man wearing an Italian suit opened the door. His hawk-like nose dominated his face, flanked on either side by wicked looking scars. His dark, piercing eyes were set deeply beneath heavy, scowling eyebrows.

"Yeah? Waddaya want?" the giant growled, cracking his massive, scarred knuckles threateningly. "Speak up or get out."

"We're here to see Mr. Lugosi, Luigi. We're expected...now get out of the way."

"Zachary, you little bastard," Luigi said, stepping forward and reaching for Zachary, "I oughta break your scrawny neck."

Crawford tensed, ready to rush the giant thug—and was surprised by Zachary's apparent lack of concern. What the hell is wrong with you? Crawford thought. That gorilla'll tear your head off, Zachary...

"It's all right, Luigi," a man's voice called from inside the room. "You can let them in."

Luigi cursed and stepped back, allowing Zachary and Loyle to enter. The big man took their hats and lay them on a table by the door, scowling at them the whole time.

An older man with patrician features stood up from the settee. His graying hair was thinning on top, and his face was red from too much strong drink.

"Zachary?" he demanded. "What's this about? Our agreement was that I didn't have to pay until the end of the month!"

Zachary laughed. "Relax, Francesco. I'm not here for the money. I'm after some information instead. But I knew that if I said I was after the money, you would let me in without as much grief."

"One day, you'll wear out your welcome, Zachary."

Loyle caught Lugosi staring at him. The man's patrician features twisted into a dark, angry scowl.

"Ahh, introductions," said Zachary, stepping between the Loyle and Lugosi. "Frank Lugosi, I'd like to introduce you to—"

"I know who this S.O.B. is," interrupted Lugosi. "Loyle Crawford, of the Broadway Butchers...'retired' recently, I hear. Good riddance to bad rubbish."

Loyle winced at the reference.

Lugosi jammed his finger into Loyle's chest. "You've got moxie coming here, boy. You cost me ten G's when you shot down my shipment of Kentucky's finest over Manhattan."

"Next time, send it someplace else, old man." Loyle shot back. "Or, better yet, hire pilots that know up from down."

"Keep making with the smart mouth, Crawford," snarled Lugosi, his hand balling into a tightly-clenched fist.

Zachary stepped between them. "Gentlemen, gentlemen. Let's not get carried away."

Lugosi glared at Loyle over Zachary's shoulder. "It's a shame you never made it up the river, 'Major.' I know some boys who would've liked a nice long chat with you."

"I'm sorry to have deprived them of my company," quipped Loyle.

Zachary shot Loyle a stern look that spoke volumes. "Well, now that we're all friends, why don't we get down to business?"

"I've got nothing more to say to you. Now get out!" snapped Lugosi.

Loyle didn't like where this was going. It was obvious that Lugosi wasn't going to help them. "Come on Zachary, let's just get the hell out of here."

"Don't be in such a hurry, Loyle." Zachary turned to face Lugosi. "Francesco, you've known me for a long time. All we're after is a little information. You still owe me a couple of favors."

"I'm not going to help that bastard."

"You're just being unreasonable. Tell you what, how about I sweeten the deal?"

Lugosi's eyes narrowed. "What have you got in mind?"

"A little wager. You win, I'll forget about the money you owe me. We win and you give us the information we're looking for. Let's say one hand of blackjack. I'm sure you've got a croupier around here someplace. What do you say?"

Loyle stared at Zachary in shock. "Are you nuts? You want to risk this on a game of blackjack?"

Zachary just grinned. "Come on, Loyle. Where's your sense of adventure? Live a little."

Lugosi's eyes sparkled. "You're serious about this?"

Zachary nodded. "Absolutely."

"Then I accept on one condition." He pointed at Loyle. "He plays the cards, not you."

"What do you say, Loyle?" asked Zachary.

Loyle sighed. "Do I really have any choice?"

"That's the spirit!" chuckled Zachary.

"Excuse me a moment," said Lugosi. He walked over to a telephone in the corner. He picked it up and dialed a number. "Yes...I need a dealer sent up straight away...Yes, bring the cards...Five minutes? Good." He turned back to Zachary and Loyle. "The dealer will be here shortly. Drink?"

"Scotch, if you have it," said Zachary, grinning. "Loyle?"

"Scotch is fine." Loyle leaned across to Zachary. "What kind of damn fool game are you playing at here?" he whispered.

"Will you relax? I know exactly what I'm doing."

"I'm overwhelmed with confidence," Crawford muttered.

There was a knock on the door just as Lugosi handed them their drinks. Luigi opened the door and then stepped back to let in a man dressed in a white shirt and a striped vest. He had the black visor of a casino croupier and carried an unopened deck of cards in one hand. "You called for me, Mr. Lugosi?"

"Do you know blackjack?"

The dealer nodded.

"Good, we need to play one hand. On the bar is fine."

The dealer walked behind the bar and cracked the seal on the deck. He pulled the cards out and began to shuffle them rapidly. "Very well gentlemen, standard rules. Court cards are worth ten; aces are worth one or eleven." He placed the deck on the bar in front of Lugosi, who quickly cut it. The dealer picked up the cards again, putting the two halves back together. "Ready?"

Both Loyle and Lugosi nodded. The dealer laid the Ten of Spades in front of Lugosi. He then dealt the Seven of Clubs to Loyle.

Lugosi tapped the card in front of him. "Hit me."

The dealer added another card: the Queen of Hearts. "Twenty," he said.

Lugosi waved his hand over his cards, smiling smugly. "Luck's being a lady. Well, Crawford, let's see you beat that."

Loyle looked down at Lugosi's cards, seeing his one remaining chance of clearing his name rapidly vanishing. He tapped his card.

The dealer turned over the Eight of Hearts. "Fifteen."

Loyle tapped again, and was rewarded with the Four of Spades. "Nineteen."

Lugosi burst out laughing. "Well, it looks like I get to keep my money then, Zachary."

Loyle felt his stomach knot up. One card and his fortunes could be reversed...or flushed for good.

He closed his eyes, steeling himself—

—and tapped his cards again.

"Hit me."

Lugosi smirked. "Fat lotta good that'll do you, flyboy," he said with a grunting chuckle.

The dealer turned over another card and Loyle heard Zachary take a sharp breath; Lugosi stopped laughing.

Loyle opened his eyes and stared down at his cards.

The Two of Diamonds stared back.

"Twenty one," said the dealer. "The gentleman wins."

Loyle turned to Lugosi in time to see the color completely drain out of his face. "I don't believe it," said the older man. "I was certain..."

"Will that be all, sir?" asked the dealer.

Lugosi nodded weakly and the man let himself out.

Zachary clapped Crawford on the back with sincere admiration. "That was one of the damnedest things I've ever seen, Loyle. Hell, when you closed your eyes, I thought you were going to throw in the towel."

Loyle looked at him. "What choice did I have? With nineteen, I'd lost. I had to hit again."

"When I said 'live a little,' I'd didn't think you'd taken me to heart." Zachary turned to Lugosi. "Well, Frank, it looks like you owe us some information."

Lugosi threw back the rest of the scotch in his glass and shuddered. "What do you want to know?"

Loyle fished the photograph of the singer from his pocket. "I need to know who this woman is and where I can find her."

The older man stared at the picture for a few seconds before nodding. "Yes, I know her," he said. "Her name's Marlene Beckmann."

"Where we can find her?" asked Loyle.

Lugosi looked up at him. "Give me a few minutes and I'll make some calls." He walked across the room and went through a door, closing it behind him.

Loyle gulped down his scotch to steady his nerves; he still could not believe his luck.

Zachary was still chuckling as he poured himself another drink. "Maybe I should take you to the casino more often. Another scotch?"

Loyle nodded, holding out his glass. "I think I used up all my luck for tonight. I'll save what's left for the air."

The door on the other side of the room opened and Lugosi came back in. He came across to the bar and handed Loyle's picture back. "Beckmann was supposed to play the Castanet Club tonight, but something came up. A private show for some big shot from Hollywood, over at the Imperial Towers, by the lake. That's all I could find out."

Loyle breathed a sigh of relief. This was the first solid lead he'd had since he'd arrived in Chicago. "Don't worry, that's enough."

"Say, that wasn't so bad now, was it?" said Zachary, patting Lugosi on the back. "I knew you were the man to talk to."

"Just get out of here," growled Lugosi, "before I get mad."

"Don't be sore loser, Francesco," said Zachary, his jocularity gone in an instant. "You know how much Luigi hates it when I deck him."

Crawford was stunned at the sudden shift in Zachary's demeanor. Gone was the cocky and mischievous smirk, replaced by a cool, dangerous look that was all business. His stance had shifted subtly, ready to launch a punch at Lugosi...or to pivot and deal with Luigi.

There was more to Zachary than met the eye, that was for sure.

Lugosi stepped back—as surprised as Loyle by Zachary's change in composure—looked at Luigi, then nodded weakly. "All right, Zachary, all right."

Zachary's smile was back in an instant. He took his hat from the table by the door and settled it on his head. He tossed Loyle's hat to him before turning back to Lugosi, tossing him a jaunty salute.

"It's been swell, Frank, as always. Come on, Loyle. We've got a show to catch!"

 


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