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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 Eight: The Cold Hand of Death

Loyle Crawford watched the Imperial Towers from across the road. A tall, gaunt man wearing an overcoat over a tuxedo stepped from the main doors of the hotel and lit a large cigar. He muttered something to the bellhop, who waved an airlimo forward to the edge of the red carpet.

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

The tall man buttoned the front of his coat then stepped into the waiting limo, the bellhop closing the cabin door behind him. Moments later, the airlimo's engines roared into life and it leapt into the air. It headed out over the waters of Lake Michigan as it gained altitude, before swinging around and heading west over the city.

Nathan Zachary nudged Loyle's arm. "Think that was our boy?"

Loyle Crawford shrugged. "There's only one way to find out," he said. "Let's go."

The two men crossed the road quickly and approached the front of the Imperial. Loyle fished a five-dollar note from his pocket as he walked up to the front door.

"Good evening, gentlemen," said the bellhop. "Can I be of some assistance?"

Loyle shook hands with the man, leaving the folded note behind. "I've heard there's some movie boss from the Nation of Hollywood staying here. I have a business proposition I'd like to discuss with him. You couldn't tell me if he's in at the moment?"

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood

The bellhop glanced down at his hand. "I'm afraid you've just missed Mr. Taggart, sir. He's checked out of the hotel and is on his way back to Hollywood as we speak."

"Swell," muttered Loyle. "That'll teach me to be more punctual. Do you know if he left a forwarding address?"

The bellhop shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir. You'd have to ask at the reception desk."

Loyle smiled. "Thanks anyway, pal."

Zachary held the door to the lobby open and let Loyle past. "Nice work out there. Very smooth," he said, grinning.

Loyle shrugged. "I've had some practice lately. Why don't you wait by the bar, while I find out what room Taggart was staying in?"

"It's worth a shot," conceded Zachary.

"Good. I'll be right back."

Loyle walked over to registration desk. The attractive young woman at the desk looked up at him.

"Can I help you sir?" she said.

Loyle nodded. "I understand Mr. Taggart has just checked out of the hotel. I was supposed to give him something. He didn't happen to leave a forwarding address, did he?"

"One moment sir, I'll just check." She opened a wooden box and flicked through a stack of index cards. "Smith...Spalding...Strücker...ah, Taggart, here we are." She pulled the card from the box and turned it over. "No, I'm sorry sir, he hasn't. Would you like to leave a message for him in case he contacts us again?"

Loyle glanced down and read the front of the card. Taggart, Mr. Henry J. Suite 404. "No, never mind. I have a contact number in Hollywood. I was just hoping to save the expense of international postage. Thanks anyway."

"You're welcome, sir. Sorry I couldn't have helped. Postage can be murder these days."

Loyle walked back to where Zachary was reading a copy of the Tribune. "Got it. He was in suite 404."

Without a word, Loyle and Zachary headed for the stairs. They walked quickly up to the forth floor, passing only an old couple on the second floor landing. "It's quiet tonight," observed Loyle.

"Perhaps a little too quiet," said Zachary, peering out onto the empty floor. "Places this quiet make me nervous. Come on, 404 is this way." He padded quietly down the hallway, his shoes barely making a sound on the thick carpet.

Loyle followed behind quickly, curious. Zachary was light on his feet, all right, and was as tough as nails. He knew the town and he always had all the answers.

There was more to him than met the eye, all right.

When Zachary had introduced himself, he'd called himself an "aerial entrepreneur." At first, Crawford had thought he was a simple gunrunner, or maybe an aviation security freelancer, a low-rent scoundrel with the fortune to possess good looks and a sense of style.

But that just didn't fit. He was too smooth, too on the ball.

The door to 404 was at the very end of the hallway. Zachary tried the knob; it was locked and refused to turn. He reached into his pocket and fished out a folding lock-knife; with a flick of his wrist, the blade snapped into place. "Keep an eye peeled. We don't want some nosy hotel dick spotting us."

Loyle nodded. He walked back to the corner of the hallway and peered around. "It's all clear down here," he whispered.

There was a soft click and Zachary swung the door to the suite open. "Come on, get inside before someone spots us."

Loyle padded down the hall and through the open doorway. That explained it, he thought. Nathan Zachary is a spy.

The Empire State and I.S.A. had been in a constant state of low-intensity hostility for years. It stood to reason that Zachary may have been an Empire State agent, looking to help Crawford clear his name...or at least keeping tabs on his movements and reporting them back to La Guardia.

For more information see:
The Empire State

Or else Zachary worked for the Industrial States of America...in which case, he was dead in the water, Crawford realized with a start. But no, that didn't wash. If Zachary had wanted to turn him over to the I.S.A., he could have done so long before now.

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America

Zachary closed the door behind him and locked it again.

"Where did you learn to do that?" asked Loyle.

Zachary closed the knife blade and slipped it back into his trouser pocket. "Europe, years ago. A mad Scotsman showed me how to do it. Now, let's take a look around this dump."

Zachary flicked on the light and whistled appreciatively. A large circular oak table with six chairs was closest to the door, with a roll top writing bureau in the corner behind that. Over near the window, a plush floral-patterned sofa and a pair of matching armchairs were arranged around an open fireplace; the coals were still glowing faintly.

"Isn't this a flash dive," said Zachary. "I'll bet you haven't seen anything like this for a while."

"Thanks for reminding me," Loyle replied, tossing Zachary a dark look. "Why don't you make yourself useful and check the bedroom? I'll poke around out here."

Zachary chuckled and moved off, as Loyle slid open the writing desk and looked around. Most of the pigeonholes in the desk were filled with writing paper with the Imperial Towers letterhead. A dark green blotter covered most of the desktop, and a pair of ebony pens with gold tips sat in an ornate holder in the back. Everything was perfectly arranged.

"Loyle."

Loyle glanced around to see Zachary standing near the corner to the bedroom with a solemn look on his face.

"You'd better come look at this."

"Why?" asked Loyle. "What have you found?"

"Just come look."

Loyle followed him through the door and past the bathroom. As soon as he rounded the corner into the bedroom, he stopped as though someone had punched him in the stomach.

Lying sprawled on the bed was Marlene Beckmann.

Her clothes were in a state of disarray, as though she had been in a struggle. Her nylon stockings were wrapped tightly around her neck, cutting into the skin of her throat. Her face was a pale blue color and her eyes were wide open in terror.

"Is she...?" stammered Loyle.

"Dead?" asked Zachary. "Yes, I'm afraid so."

Loyle checked the girl's wrist, hoping to find a pulse. "She's barely warm," he said, "so this was done a while ago."

He reached down and gently closed her eyes.

Zachary went out into the living room and came back with a tumbler of bourbon. "Here, drink this. I don't know about you, but I could sure use a belt." Loyle took the glass and downed the contents in one long gulp, Zachary following suit.

"Isn't there something we can—"

Zachary shook his head. "No, Loyle, there isn't. She's beyond help. She's probably been dead for well over an hour."

"I'd better get the hell out of here, Zachary," Crawford said grimly. "If the cops twig to this, I'm a dead man."

"Hold on, hold on," said Zachary, looking Loyle in the eye. "You're not thinking straight. There's no way they can pin this one on us. We were seen arriving downstairs not twenty minutes ago, and she was long dead by the time we got here. If they'll pin this on anyone, it will be Taggart."

"You think so? Do you really think that?" Loyle face was pale with rage. "Even money says that when the cops find out that the 'infamous' Loyle Crawford was even in this room—a room we broke into—they'll forget that Taggart even exists! The ISA would like nothing better than to pin this rap on me. They'll probably sell tickets to my hanging."

"You've got a point, Loyle," Zachary said quietly. "But let's take our time and think this through. I've been in tougher scrapes than this before."

Loyle went out into the lounge room and slumped into the sofa, fighting the anger and despair that threatened to overwhelm him. "I just want one damn thing to go right," he muttered. "Just one thing."

Zachary started pacing. "Let's think this through...this was obviously more than a case of bad timing."

"You think so?"

"Of course." He paused, sipping his drink. "Think about it for a minute. Chicago's a pretty tight town; people talk. You've been sniffing around for a while now, trying to track down the dame. Someone gets a bit spooked, so they need to stop her from talking."

Loyle shook his head. "That's drawing a pretty long bow, Zachary."

Zachary took another drag on his cigarette. "Really? She was supposed to play the Castanet Club tonight. That's a ritzy gig. She must have had quite an offer to throw that in and come here.

"So, what we have to do is track down her killer." Zachary concluded.

"We'll have to find out where Taggart went—" Crawford stopped and bent down to retrieve a folded newspaper from the firewood basket. "Well, I'll be damned," he muttered, tossing the paper across to Zachary. "What do you make of that?"

Zachary looked at the paper; it was just a racing form guide. "Taggart liked to bet on the horses. So what?"

Crawford's eyes lit up. "Take a closer look."

Nathan unfolded the paper and looked at it. The masthead read "Empire Daily."

He looked up at Crawford, impressed. "Sharp eyes, flyboy."

Crawford chuckled ruefully. "It wasn't that hard to spot. How many copies of an Empire State newspaper have you seen in Chicago?"

"Damn few."

Crawford nodded, tossing his glass into the fireplace. "Someone from New York was in this room earlier, and they're probably mixed up this mess...somehow."

Loyle turned the paper over. The paper caught the light in a strange way, and Loyle could make out the impression of writing at the top of the page. He raced across to the writing bureau and started fishing through the drawers.

Zachary came across. "What have you found?"

Loyle found a pencil in the bottom drawer and sat up again. "Somebody wrote something while leaning on it." He started gently rubbing the pencil back and forth across the impression, highlighting the writing. "I want to see what it says."

A few moments later, Loyle started down at the pencil-smeared page:

Midnight, Friday. Room 202, the Great Northern Hotel.

Zachary looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. "Midnight tonight. That's only an hour and a half from now. The Great Northern's a sleazepit on the other side of town." He looked at the puzzled look on Loyle's face. "What's up with you?"

Loyle knocked back the rest of his bourbon. "The handwriting. For some reason, it looks familiar...but I can't place it." He let out a deep sigh. "But it sure looks like I was right: someone I know—and trust—is setting me up, even now. I guess the only thing left for me to do is head over to the Great Northern and find out who's behind this."

He rose and extended his hand to Zachary. "Thanks for all your help. I guess I'll see you round sometime."

Zachary chuckled. "You think you're getting rid of me that easily?"

"You don't have to come with me, you know."

Zachary finished his drink and set the empty glass down on the table. "Without me, you'll just go and get yourself killed." He flashed Loyle a grin. "Besides, I'm enjoying this caper too much to call it quits now."

"Then let's go," Crawford replied. "We've got a killer to catch."

 


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