Max Allan Collins
The low-flying seaplane made a shimmering mosaic of the tropical waters beneath: blue turning bluer, then graying, even whitening over coral or sand. Shallow waters seemed emerald one moment, red as a Chinese robe the next, then-without warning-midnight blue. Islands, tiny, scraggly, apparently unpopulated keys-the sort pirates hid out on two or three centuries ago-dabbed the sea with more color, like a bold impressionist painter: pink beaches lined with mangroves, or pines, or palmettos. Then, nearing a larger island called New Providence (a particular pirate favorite), shallows that were sapphire turned emerald again in a lagoon surrounded by sand so white it might have been snow.
Beyond the lagoon rose the capital of the Bahamas, Nassau, sprawling over a modest hillside, white and pink and yellow limestone buildings peeking out among lazy palms, pastel ghosts haunting a world of vivid green under a pure blue sky. Glittering coral roads coiled through this landscape like sensuously loose jewelry on the necks and wrists and ankles of pretty native girls. Dazzling in the morning sun, it was a vista at once exciting and restful-you couldn’t wait to run breakneck to a beach, and fall fast asleep.
A spray of silver brushed the wings, then beaded the windows, as the seaplane skimmed into the harbor; in other times, a steamer or two would likely have been anchored there, but during wartime, such pleasure ships were strangers in Nassau. A few wealthy tourist types had taken the thirty-five-buck Pan Am seaplane ride with me from Miami, but no diving boys or dancing girls would be waiting for them. Not during off-season; not during the war. That was okay with me. I was here on business.
A working vacation was the way it had been pitched to me. But I know a contradiction of terms when I hear one.
It didn’t start in Nassau, of course. Some would say it began in New England, or maybe Canada; still others might consider the beginning of this tale of murder, greed and romance (is there any other kind?) to have been on the tiny island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
But for me it began, as always, in Chicago.
“Mr. Heller?” he asked, straw fedora in hand. He was of medium height, a square-shouldered, erect man exuding quiet confidence. Even if I wasn’t a detective, I could’ve put together his Southern drawl, his tan, and his tan linen suit, and figured he was from below the Mason-Dixon line. “Nathan Heller?”
“That’s right,” I said, half-rising in my side booth at Binyon’s restaurant. “Mr. Foskett?”
“That’s right,” he said with an easy white smile in his smooth tan face, sliding into the booth across from me. “But call me Walter, if you would. I hate formality, don’t you?”
If he really hated formality, he would have asked me to call him Walt. But I said, “Hate it like the plague, Walter-and call me Nate.”
He had unblinking brown eyes and the sort of rubbery mouth that seemed to taste the words he spoke; otherwise, he was blandly, unmemorably handsome in that invisible manner common to so many attorneys. And he was one.
“You mind if I smoke?” he wondered, but he didn’t take out his cigarettes first, like most people who ask. He was a Southerner, all right. I knew several in the service and they were so fucking polite I wanted to strangle them.
“Not at all,” I said. “I already ordered myself a drink. Can I get you something?”
“A martini would be pleasant.” He probably had a good ten years on my thirty-seven. He removed a Chesterfield from a gold case, tamped it down and lighted it with a gold Zippo; his hands looked soft, unused, and his nails were manicured.
I waved one of the waiters over. Binyon’s was a male bastion in the Loop; lawyers, brokers and businessmen appreciated its wooden booths, spartan decor, and no-nonsense service. The clatter of busboys fought the loud talk of business and the whir of ceiling fans, while the aroma of unpretentious, well-prepared meat-and-potatoes cuisine mingled with cigarette and cigar smoke. It was as close to heaven as you could get without sex.
It was also close to my suite of offices, which was in a building just around the corner on Van Buren. Despite Binyon’s and the nearby Standard Club, the neighborhood was pretty borderline. Street level was a hodge-podge of hockshops and saloons and flophouses and winos in doorways; tenants in our building included a palm reader, a dentist, a probable abortionist and several shysters of the sort Mr. Foskett here wouldn’t likely meet in court.
But I’d started out with a one-room suite in trade for moonlighting as the building’s night watchman (living in my office) and now, a decade or so later, July of 1943 to be exact, we had most of the third floor, and the A-1 Detective Agency (of which I was self-appointed president) had three operatives and a one-woman secretarial pool.
When the war was over, the male work force would swell, and I could expand further, and move into bigger, better digs. I’d had some financial success and publicity over the years, and occasionally attracted an upper-class client like the Palm Beach attorney sitting across from me in a Binyon’s booth.
“I appreciate your willingness to meet for lunch,” Foskett said, “particularly at such short notice.”
“No inconvenience. I eat lunch here every day, anyway.”
“What would you recommend, by the way?”
“House specialty’s the finnan haddie. Stay away from the meat dishes-they’re good, but the servings are regular kid’s portions.”
He shook his head. “One of the sad realities of these dark times.” He smiled almost wickedly. “Perhaps you’d like a vacation with pay…to a tropical isle?”
I guess that was supposed to make me go
His eyebrows raised. “Really?”
“A little tourist trap called Guadalcanal.”
Now the eyebrows lowered and tightened. “I wasn’t aware you’d served. What branch?”
“I have a brother-in-law in the Marines. Here’s to you, sir.”
He lifted his martini glass and toasted me; I smiled a little and nodded and sipped my rum and Coke.
“I’m afraid I was too old to lend a hand,” Foskett said with what I was supposed to think was regret.
“So was I. But if you get drunk and lie about your age to the recruiting officer, it does wonders. What brings you to Chicago, Mr. Foskett?”
He said this with quiet melodrama-he was obviously a corporate lawyer, as opposed to the trial variety; but he had a little ham in him, just the same.
“I’m in Chicago just for today, Nathan-flew in yesterday evening, flying out again this afternoon. I’m here to see
More melodrama. I’d asked him to call me Nate, but I guess a Walter prefers a Nathan.
“And who would that principal client be?” I asked, just a little testily. The phone call arranging this a week before had been evasive, but when a Palm Beach attorney wants to buy you lunch, why not?
But now I was starting to get a little worried. A Florida attorney just might have a “principal client” of the mob variety, since that sunny state was home-away-from-home for so many of the boys. I had a partly deserved reputation as an ex-cop with mob connections-though with the death earlier this year of my sometime mentor Frank Nitti, those connections were largely severed-and this could be about that.
And I didn’t want it to be.
“Sir Harry Oakes,” he said with a smug little smile.
He might have said Walt Disney or Joe DiMaggio. The name was a famous one, but out of context, it sounded like nonsense.