As promised, here’s the conclusion to my 1950s Private Eye short story. Enjoy, and thanks for stopping by.
The Cursed Table Caper – Part 2
A loud “Ahem” came from my right. Hazel Burns winked, then jerked her head toward Mr. Money Bags like her neck was in spasm. Outside, scraggly Carl stumbled past O’Dell’s but didn’t enter.
With subtlety tossed in the crapper, I swapped booths and slid in across from Money Bags. “Come here often?”
He jerked his hand from beneath the table, sat bolt-upright, but remained mute.
I slapped the c-note on the Formica. “Lookin’ for this?”
Money Bags’ eyes widened behind horn-rimmed lenses. “I beg your pardon. Please, I, uh…I’m expecting someone.”
“You? Here? You gotta be kiddin’…or doin’ something illegal. Now how ’bout some answers.”
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“Why’d you plant the Franklin under the table?”
“I…I am not at liberty to say. And I’ve done nothing illegal.”
A black Ford sedan pulled to the curb outside.
I grinned. “In that case, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”
The door to deep-fried everything swung wide. Detective George Baker with the St. Louis Police stepped inside. He winced as if somebody had smacked his cheek, then rattled his head and ambled to the booth.
Baker introduced himself by flashing his badge. “This the man you called about last night, Murphy?”
I winked. “None other. Here’s the cash he’s tryin’ to pass.”
Baker pinched the one-hundred-dollar bill by the edge and held it up to the light. After examining both sides, he pulled a magnifying glass from his breast pocket and further scrutinized the questionable c-note.
Money Bags’ eyeballs pinballed between me, Baker, and the rest of the diner. Sweat beads began to decorate his forehead. Nervous was an understatement.
Baker tossed the bill on the table. “Well, it looks like—”
Before George could relate his findings, Money Bags scrambled from the booth, then out the door. I attempted to follow, but George grasped my shoulder. “Let him go, Murph. The bill’s clean.”
“But why did—”
“Can’t say, but there’s no law against taping good money to the bottom of a diner table––if you call this dive a diner. That all you need? My nose would appreciate some fresh air.”
“Yeah. Thanks, George.”
Baker double-timed out of O’Dell’s. He paused beside his car for a lung-filling breath of downtown traffic, Peabody Coal, and the east-side stockyards, then got back in the sedan and drove away.
I pocketed the suspect bill, paid my tab, then mimicked Baker’s retreat. A block from the diner, I found Carl in an alley, propped against a building like he’d consumed ten bucks’ worth of cheap booze in one night. Guess Hazel was right. Carl would never grace the Rockefeller’s parlor. “You bother to eat anything, Carl?”
“Huh? Oh…it’s you. No, sir, I…I ain’t et anythin’ since…”
I considered the troublesome hundred bucks. “C’mon, let’s take care of that. Afterward, we’re goin’ to the YMCA––get you a shower. Then to Famous-Barr for clean duds.”
Although the whys and wherefores regarding Money Bags remained an ambiguity, the unexpected windfall would lift Carl from the gutter—even if it was likely temporary. I’d been that low before and knew how it felt. Sure, I could’ve used the cash––who couldn’t? But Carl needed it worse. After all, no man should have to survive on scraps from O’Dell’s. And who knows, after he’d cleaned up, maybe Carl could even land the new custodian job at the Y. Regardless, my conscience would be clear. Tonight I’d sleep well.
That afternoon, a knuckle dance on my door interrupted the Cardinals’ game on WIL. I protested, “Just a minute,” then tucked in my shirt and dragged a few fingers through my wavy hair.
“Okay, okay. I’m comin’.”
Clad in a double-breasted, blue suit, starched white shirt, black silk tie, and spit-shined shoes, an elderly gent stood column-straight in the sixteenth-floor hallway––a rare sight at my office. A Hamburg hat topped the man’s neatly cropped mane. Despite the wire-rimmed glasses, his clean-shaven face was undeniably familiar.
My staring prompted the gent to speak. “I know this must appear rather dumbfounding, Mr. Murphy, but it’s me, Carl––actually, Milton Westbrook.”
Money Bags stepped into view.
“What the…? What’s this all about? Why the masquerade?”
Money Bags shook his head, then ushered Mr. Westbrook and himself into my office. The old man parked his fanny in the client’s perch. Money Bags grabbed a spot on the couch against the far wall. After I sat in the squeaky swiveler behind my desk, Carl––Milton Westbrook––shared his story.
“I’m a wealthy man, Mr. Murphy. But wealth does not guarantee health. Once I learned of my impending fate, I devised a plan of action––a final quest. With the aid of my faithful assistant, here, I’ve been searching for a decent man to help carry out my plan. I’m certain you’re that man.”
“From what you traded off to find your crusader, it must be serious.”
“Okay, but why me?”
“When faced with unexpected financial gain, you considered another person’s welfare before your own––a rare trait these days. Plus, your occupation as an investigator is ideal.”
“Caught me on a good day, I guess.”
I leaned back and glanced at the hazy St. Louis skyline. Yesterday, a cursed table had focused my attention––and battered my noggin. Who’d have guessed that curse would turn into a blessing. Or had it? “So, Mr. Westbrook, what is it you want me to do?”
“I need you to locate my son––and only living heir––and bring him home.”
Money Bags seemed to cringe, then scowled. When he noticed me eyeballing him, his glare relaxed and switched from his employer to the window.
I refocused on his boss. “Your son missing or just on a lark?”
Westbrook’s shoulders sagged. “I’m not certain. We had a heated discussion over his future and the responsibilities of taking over my business and estate. Then he left.”
“Not sure I––”
“My son was adamant about establishing himself as an artist rather than being tied down to any business, or its family’s coat strings.”
“Money’s not important to him?”
“Apparently not. Although the monthly checks I send to a post office box continue to get cashed.”
“So you’ve talked since the argument?”
“Yes. My son is living in the Florida Keys.”
“Him and Hemingway. How long ago was that?”
“Nearly a year. Before I knew I was dying.”
“I’m sorry, I––”
“Although your sympathy is appreciated, my condition is not your fault.”
I lip-shrugged. “So, why didn’t you hire somebody to watch the P.O. Box and have ’em drag your son home sooner?”
“Initially, I wanted to give him space––allow him ample time to truly contemplate his future.”
“Once my illness was verified, I had Leonard hire an investigator to––”
“My apologies.” Westbrook motioned behind him. “Leonard, here, is my assistant.”
Money Bags offered a stone-faced nod.
I returned the gesture. “Okay. Go on.”
“Leonard hired a private investigator to do just as you proposed. Payment was made to cover his fee, and the check was cashed. But we never heard from the man, or were able to re-contact him.”
“Skipped out with your cash?”
“So it would seem.”
“Why didn’t you contact the police?”
“This is a personal matter. Besides, neither I nor my son have broken any laws.”
“What about the investigator? Far as I know, fraud’s still illegal.”
Money Bags––Leonard––eased back into the couch cushions.
I head-jerked his direction. “What about your trusty assistant? He in your will?”
“Of course. But it’s my son’s birthright to carry on the Westbrook name, and the estate.”
Though he tried to resist Leonard’ scowl distorted his expression once more.
“What if your son isn’t just gallivanting around?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if he’s out of the picture and someone else is cashing the checks––all of them?”
Leonard tensed and leaned forward.
Westbrook’s frown deepened. “An imposter? But who?”
I stared at Leonard. His eyes narrowed as he reached inside his suit coat.
“Who writes the checks and maintains your books, Mr. Westbrook?”
“Leonard is also an accountant and has handled my––” Milton Westbrook spun around in the client’s chair. We both stared down the barrel of the .38 revolver in Leonard’s hand.
Westbrook gasped. “Why? I trusted you. Included you in my estate and––”
Leonard stood and spat at his boss. “A measly five percent. I was your confidant––your one true friend. I handled all your affairs for eighteen years and played by your rules. I know your business operations better than you. Yet, you insist on delegating control to your worthless son––who hasn’t cared about you or your business since his mother died over ten years ago.”
“I went along with your stupid quest, too, planting money in dozens of eateries, while hoping ‘Carl’ would die at the hand of another back-alley wino––or from eating at that filthy diner. I’d have kept the hundred-dollar bills, too, if you weren’t always watching.”
Westbrook’s chin drooped to his chest.
I intervened. “So, what now? Even if you ice us, your boss’s will hasn’t changed.”
Leonard smirked. “The revised will that Milton signed under the guise of a business contract names me as sole executor to the entire Westbrook estate––in lieu of its disinherited blood heir.”
Milton Westbrook’s body snapped to attention. “You ungrateful bastard!”
“No, Milton, that would be your son. I’ve earned everything I’ll inherit.”
“You’ll never get away with…”
Convinced Leonard’s plan involved his boss and me playing our roles from six-feet under, I inched my hand from the desktop. While Leonard and Westbrook continued to debate the legalities of who deserved what and why, I slowly reached under the desk for my security system holstered beside my right knee.
Me skating across the office in my squeaky swiveler caught Leonard off guard. The pain from a bullet in his gun hand matched the pain from shooting himself in the foot when he flinched. Westbrook grabbed the wayward revolver, then held his moaning ex-assistant at bay. Glad my aim with a snub-nosed .38 hadn’t waned, I scooted back to the desk and dialed my pal, Detective Baker.
That evening, Milton Westbrook and I sat in the corner booth at O’Dell’s. After Hazel learned Carl’s true identity, she brewed a fresh pot of coffee and kept our cups topped off. Westbrook apologized for his bothersome charade with a hundred-dollar tip.
I leaned back in the booth. “So, what’s the chances of you reversing the finagled will?”
Westbrook sighed. “An annoying formality. Because I’m not dead, my lawyer and I can revise anything Leonard may have contrived.”
“Including renaming your son as sole heir?”
He smiled. “Indeed––and completely removing Leonard. I still can’t believe he lied about all those checks and deposited the money in his own account.”
I shrugged. “Tell ya what. I’m overdue to visit my mother in Florida. While there, think I’ll swing down to the Keys––maybe check on your son and convince him it’s time to come home.”