Max Allan Collins

Chicago Lightning


The first operative I ever took on, in the A-1 Detective Agency, was Stanley Gross. I hadn’t been in business for even a year-it was summer of ’33-and was in no shape to be adding help. But the thing was-Stanley had a car.

Stanley had a ’28 Ford coupe, to be exact, and a yen to be a detective. I had a paying assignment, requiring wheels, and a yen to make a living.

So it was that at three o’clock in the morning, on that unseasonably cool summer evening, I was sitting in the front seat of Stanley’s Ford, in front of Goldblatt’s department store on West Chicago Avenue, sipping coffee out of a paper cup, waiting to see if anybody came along with a brick or a gun.

I’d been hired two weeks before by the manager of the downtown Goldblatt’s on State, just two blocks from my office at Van Buren and Plymouth. Goldblatt’s was sort of a working-class Marshall Field’s, with six department stores scattered around the Chicago area in various white ethnic neighborhoods.

The stores were good-size-two floors taking up as much as half a block-and the display windows were impressive enough; but once you got inside, it was like the push carts of Maxwell Street had been emptied and organized.

I bought my socks and underwear at the downtown Goldblatt’s, but that wasn’t how Nathan Heller-me-got hired. I knew Katie Mulhaney, the manager’s secretary; I’d bumped into her, on one of my socks and underwear buying expeditions, and it blossomed into a friendship. A warm friendship.

Anyway, the manager-Herman Cohen-had summoned me to his office where he filled me in. His desk was cluttered, but he was neat-moon-faced, mustached, bow-(and fit-to-be-) tied.

“Maybe you’ve seen the stories in the papers,” he said, in a machine-gun burst of words, “about this reign of terror we’ve been suffering.”

“Sure,” I said.

Goldblatt’s wasn’t alone; every leading department store was getting hit-stench bombs set off, acid sprayed over merchandise, bricks tossed from cars to shatter plate glass windows.

He thumbed his mustache; frowned. “Have you heard of ‘Boss’ Rooney? John Rooney?”


“Well, he’s secretary of the Circular Distributors Union. Over the past two years, Mr. Goldblatt has provided Rooney’s union with over three-thousand dollars of business-primarily to discourage trouble at our stores.”

“This union-these are guys that hand out ad fliers?”

“Yes. Yes, and now Rooney has demanded that Mr. Goldblatt order three hundred of our own sales and ad people to join his union-at a rate of twenty-five cents a day.”

My late father had been a diehard union guy, so I knew a little bit about this sort of thing. “Mr. Cohen, none of the unions in town collect daily dues.”

“This one does. They’ve even been outlawed by the AFL, Mr. Heller. Mr. Goldblatt feels Rooney is nothing short of a racketeer.”

“It’s an extortion scam, all right. What do you want me to do?”

“Our own security staff is stretched to the limit. We’re getting some support from State’s Attorney Courtney and his people. But they can only do so much. So we’ve taken on a small army of nightwatchman, and are fleshing out the team with private detectives. Miss Mulhaney recommended you.”

Katie knew a good dick when she saw one.

“Swell. When do I start?”

“Immediately. Of course, you do have a car?”

Of course, I lied and said I did. I also said I’d like to put one of my “top” operatives on the assignment with me, and that was fine with Cohen, who was in a more-the-merrier mood, where beefing up security was concerned. Stanley Gross was from Douglas Park, my old neighborhood. His parents were bakers two doors down from my father’s bookstore on South Homan. Stanley was a good eight years younger than me, so I remembered him mostly as a pestering kid.

But he’d grown into a tall, good-looking young man-a brown-haired, brown-eyed six-footer who’d been a star football and basketball player in high school. Like me, he went to Crane Junior College; unlike me, he finished.

I guess I’d always been sort of a hero to him. About six months before, he’d started dropping by my office to chew the fat. Business was so lousy, a little company-even from a fresh-faced college boy-was welcome.

We’d sit in the deli restaurant below my office and sip coffee and gnaw on bagels and he’d tell me this embarrassing shit about my being somebody he’d always looked up to.

“Gosh, Nate, when you made the police force, I thought that was just about the keenest thing.”

He really did talk that way-gosh, keen. I told you I was desperate for company.

He brushed a thick comma of brown hair away and grinned in a goofy boyish way; it was endearing, and nauseating. “When I was a kid, coming into your pop’s bookstore, you pointed me toward those Nick Carters, and Sherlock Holmes books. Gave me the bug. I had to be a detective!”

But the kid was too young to get on the force, and his family didn’t have the kind of money or connections it took to get a slot on the PD.

“When you quit,” he said, “I admired you so. Standing up to corruption-and in this town! Imagine.”

Imagine. My leaving the force had little to do with my “standing up to corruption”-after all, graft was high on my list of reasons for joining in the first place-but I said nothing, not wanting to shatter the child’s dreams.

“If you ever need an op, I’m your man!”

He said this thousands of times in those six months or so. And he actually did get some security work, through a couple of other, larger agencies. But his dream was to be my partner.

Owning that Ford made his dream come temporarily true.

For two weeks, we’d been living the exciting life of the private eye: sitting in the coupe in front of the Goldblatt’s store at Ashland and Chicago, waiting for window smashers to show. Or not.

The massive graystone department store was like the courthouse of commerce on this endless street of storefronts; the other businesses were smaller-re-sale shops, hardware stores, pawn shops, your occasional Polish deli. During the day things were popping here. Now, there was just us-me draped across the front seat, Stanley draped across the back-and the glow of neons and a few pools of light on the sidewalks from streetlamps. “You know,” Stanley said, “this isn’t as exciting as I pictured.”

“Just a week ago you were all excited about ‘packing a rod.’”

“You’re making fun of me.”

“That’s right.” I finished my coffee, crumpled the cup, tossed it on the floor.

“I guess a gun is nothing to feel good about.”

“Right again.”

I was stretched out with my shoulders against the rider’s door; in back, he was stretched out just the opposite. This enabled us to maintain eye contact. Not that I wanted to, particularly.

“Nate…if you hear me snoring, wake me up.”

“You tired, kid?”

“Yeah. Ate too much. Today…well, today was my birthday.”

“No kidding! Well, happy birthday, kid.”

“My pa made the keenest cake. Say, I…I’m sorry I didn’t you invite you or anything.”

“That’s okay.”

“It was a surprise party. Just my family-a few friends I went to high school and college with.”

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