Max Allan Collins
The buxom blonde stepped down off the little silver metal stairs of the train with a baby bundled in her arms and a worried expression on her pretty, pockmarked face. A porter helped her by the fur-trimmed arm of her tan fur-collared coat, providing a wooden stool where the final step ought to have been, and she gave him a flickering smile of thanks before trundling away from the Twentieth Century Limited, the sleek streamliner that had whisked her here from New York.
Natural for a mother to be protective of her child-particularly right now, with the papers full of what was already touted as the “Crime of the Century”: the kidnapping, night before last, of the Lindbergh kid from his sheltered nursery in a country home in the wilds of New Jersey.
Why the hell that should make a mother nervous in Chicago, Illinois, went beyond logic, but not beyond human nature, which of course has not a damn thing to do with logic. What mother wouldn’t identify with the unlucky Lindys? What mother wouldn’t read those horrible headlines and hear those hysterical radio commentators and not clutch her sweet infant closer to her bosom, which in this case was an enviable place to get clutched.
The catch was: I didn’t figure she was the kid’s mother.
As a matter of fact, I was ready to lay odds that this was Lindy, Jr., himself, and not her own precious little flesh and blood.
Only not so little: the child was big for a babe in arms-the Lindbergh child was, after all, twenty months old. And this kid was wearing Dr. Denton’s-like Little Lindy when he got yanked from his crib-and was wrapped up in blankets, rather than the snowsuit and cap you’d expect for a toddler.
True, I’d spotted dark curly hair on the child, rather than the missing boy’s famous blond locks. But, hell-I didn’t buy the dame’s hair color, either.
I was sitting on one of three chairs at an unenclosed shoeshine stand against the wall facing the tracks in the train shed of LaSalle Street Station. This particular chair was damn near home to me when I pulled duty here; the shoeshine boy, Cletus, a lad of seventy or so, didn’t mind-as long as I got up and wandered off and let him make a living, when the station got busy.
Which was what I needed to do anyway, about now, prowl around and keep an eye out for single-o dips, moll whizzers and cannon mobs. Besides, it was winter, and warmer in the train station itself, rather than out here on the noisy, windy platform.
I was a plainclothes detective on the pickpocket detail, under Lt. Louis Sapperstein, and it was my job to hang around train stations and bus depots and the like, just me and the perverts, looking to get lucky.
And maybe I had gotten real lucky, this afternoon-lucky as Lindy when he made it across the Atlantic. I was already the youngest plainclothes dick on the department; maybe I could be its youngest lieutenant.
We’d been handed a circular this morning, sent around by Chief of Detectives Schoemaker to every division in town, showing a brunette, attractive, hard-faced woman named Bernice Rogers, who was an “associate” of one Joseph Bonelli, “reputed New Jersey kidnap-ring chieftain.” Schoemaker considered both Bonelli and his moll likely candidates for the Lindbergh snatch. This was not so farfetched: most of the country had either Chicago’s Capone crowd or Detroit’s Purple Gang pegged as the culprits.
As if to ward off that suspicion, Capone himself-locked up in Cook County Jail, after his recent tax-evasion conviction-was filling the papers full of indignation, concern and reward offers for the return of the kid. Hell, Big Al was a parent, too, wasn’t he?
I wasn’t specifically keeping an eye out for Bernice Rogers. But a pickpocket dick’s duties include observing good-looking women, and making sure they aren’t crooked, as some good-looking women are known on occasion to be; I collared many a beautiful moll whizzer in my time.
Anyway, as I sat peering over my racing form at her as she approached, my gaze fixed upon that harshly pretty mug of hers, I unobtrusively slipped out Schoemaker’s circular from my topcoat pocket to compare the brunette on paper to the blonde in the flesh.
But I barely had the sheet out of my pocket when she walked briskly by, seamed silk stockings flashing. Apparently she had no luggage, other than that precious parcel in swaddling.
So there I sat, as the blonde barreled by, charging through the doors into the train station like she was a quarterback carrying the ball. That woke the kid up, finally, and it began to howl; well, it was alive, anyway.
I hopped down, leaving my racing form on the chair, and nodded to Cletus, who nodded back, as he slapped the shoe leather of some real customer; and I strolled, counterfeit casual, out into the big square airy waiting room.
And she was gone.
The stairs down to street level were directly in front of me; had she taken them? Was she already stepping into a cab at the curb? I looked beyond the stairwell, to the sprawling central newsstand, slow-scanning the half- filled waiting-room pews at left and right. No sign of her. The room was filled with filtered light, from a huge circular window so high it reached up and caught some sky above the el tracks that fronted the station; people bustled through the gauzy midday unreality, ghosts hurrying through the dust-mote-speckled streaks of sun, but none of those people was the blonde.
And then I heard the echoing howl of a kid and there she was: heading with her bundle back to the women’s restroom.
I weaved through passengers coming and going, found my way to one of the wooden pews facing where she’d gone in, and settled myself down.
I glanced over at the bank of phone booths. Should I call in? No backup from the detail was available anyway; even Sapperstein, the boss, was out in the field, over at Dearborn Station. I looked up at the silver-metal futuristic clock that loomed like a benignly neglectful God over the station’s sprawling waiting-room world: four-fifteen. Sapperstein would be heading back to the Detective Bureau soon.
Didn’t matter. I wanted this collar for myself, and right now. If it panned out, I didn’t want to share the glory. If it was a false alarm, then nobody need know. Should I go in the ladies’ room and grab her while she was changing a diaper? But what if it wasn’t her? Or worse, what if it was, and a bunch of innocent ladies got shot to shit with their scanties down around their ankles?
In less than two minutes, she exited the restroom as quickly as she’d entered.
I folded the paper, tossed it on the pew, yawned, and sauntered after her. She was headed for the stairwell.
Despite her armload, she bolted recklessly down the stairs toward street level like she was being pursued; which she was, only I hoped she didn’t know it. I followed her at an easy pace, buttoning my topcoat and snugging my fedora as I went. She had taken the stairs at the right. I took the ones at the left. I wanted to ease up behind her and slip on the cuffs.
When I got to the landing where the two stairways met, she was already gone. And when I took three steps at a time down to street level, hand sliding along the curving stainless-steel banister, I found she was still way ahead of me. I pressed through people huddled around the newsstand by the doors, and stepped outside, into an