Tears of the Dragon: An Elodie Browne Mystery

Tears of the Dragon: An Elodie Browne Mystery

To think of Chicago in the 1930s is to conjure up pictures of the Chicago Outfit and its earlier crime lords like Capone, to envision a gangsters’ and bootleggers’ haven ...

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Holly Baxter

Holly Baxter is an award-winning author born in Detroit who is excited to be starting a cozy series set in ...

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Prologue

The fog swirled between the black ship’s side and the concrete jetty as the heavyset man came down the gangplank. Fuel-slicked waves lapped gently at the dock pilings, constantly changing their iridescent pattern as they washed over one an- other, collided, broke apart, recombined. The traveler glanced up but could barely see the bridge of the ship that loomed above him. He had forgotten how thick the fog could be in San Francisco, but it was nothing compared to what he had grown up with back home. London pea-soupers were legendary.

On the shore vague globes of fuzzy illumination showed where lights struggled against the fog. They edged the roofs   of the warehouses, but were unable to penetrate the darkness that filled the gaps between them. There was a smell of diesel fuel, wet rope, sulphur, a stink of rotting cargoes, a sharp edge of something like vinegar in the air. Not the most salubrious welcome to the marvels of America, he thought.

He looked around, his right hand held lightly away from his side, the left encumbered by a heavy leather suitcase. There was no knowing what could come out of the fog at night, preferably not customs officers or police, or worse. He had hidden in the ship until the health inspectors had passed, having paid the captain well for the privilege of traveling from China in secret. He had his reasons, most of which were held in the suitcase  he carried. More in there than shirts, more than a change of underwear and a book to read. Few knew of his arrival, but it was best to be ready for anything.

Three figures suddenly emerged from behind a stack of packing cases, and he stiffened, his right hand reaching toward the inside of his jacket. Then, as they came closer, he relaxed, and his hand dropped again to his side. He recognized one, Li Wing, an old friend from Edmonton. The other two, while unknown to him, were also Chinese.

“General—it is good to see you, sir,” said Li Wing, in a low whisper.

The heavyset man nodded. “Is the priest from Chicago here?”

“Yes. We will take you to him. It is not far.”

One of the unknown Chinese stepped forward. “May I carry that for you?” he asked, in Cantonese, reaching toward the leather case, but Li Wing touched his sleeve and shook his head

“No,” snapped the General.

The man stepped back, eyes downcast. The General smiled. “It is my burden,” he corrected himself, saving the face of the man who had offered to help him. “The danger should be mine alone.”

Li Wing nodded. “We must go quickly,” he said. “A security patrol is due soon. There would be questions.”

“There are always questions,” the General said. “And at least two answers for every one of them.”

They walked down the dock, the fog flowing around them like liquid smoke. Their footsteps were oddly synchronized. Their shapes slowly blurred into the shadows. After a moment they had disappeared, and there was only the wash of the water and the sound of the foghorns like dying dragons in the dark.

 

Chapter One

“Hey, Deacon, we’re going to bust up a party over on Jefferson. Want to come?”

“No, thanks.”

Lieutenant Archie Deacon didn’t even turn to the voice that called. He was getting damned sick and tired of the raids on clubs and private homes where liquor was being served. He didn’t think people ought to be arrested for enjoying themselves. The bootleggers, now, they were legitimate targets, they were profiteering by breaking the law. An unjust law, to Deacon’s way of thinking. A law that should never have been passed. As an officer of the law he was paid to enforce all laws, but he didn’t have to enjoy it like so many of his colleagues. Nor gain from it.

He lit a cigarette, watched the smoke spin and curl upward in the draft from the passing group of fellow officers making for the door.

The growing levels of corruption in the Chicago police department also worried him. He came from a family of police officers, men who had believed in upholding the law and doing it decently and honestly. It was even getting to the point where some of his colleagues were laughing at him for not taking advantage of the many opportunities offered to them by bootleggers for a little “extra duty” like riding shotgun on big deliveries. The internecine warfare between the various Syndicates was another source of trouble, arguments over territory leading to beatings or homicides nearly every week. And witnesses who wouldn’t talk made things even more difficult.

Racial tensions ratcheted within and between the various ethnic populations of the city and suburbs. The Italians and the Poles and the Irish each had their particular problems, and he had been hearing some impossible rumors from Chinatown, for instance, about bizarre murders. But the police left Chinatown to itself, just as they avoided the other ethnic suburbs unless forced to deal with them because of Prohibition. City center was trouble enough.

Archie Deacon was not a goody-two-shoes by any stretch  of the imagination. Especially if you included his bad habits in your evaluation. (He was stubborn, inclined to sarcasm, underweight for his six foot height, smoked too much, liked jazz too much, and had red hair with the accompanying short temper.) It was not fear that kept him at his desk these days. He was not lacking in backbone. But he was becoming disenchanted with Chicago and what it was doing to itself. The politicians, the big businessmen, the bankers, the lawyers—they were profiting from the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment as much as the bootleggers. Greed was everywhere. The decent people—and they were still in the majority—hadn’t a chance. One by one they were getting dragged down, too.

“This one’s going to be fun, Archie,” somebody else shouted. “A big rich guy is throwing a ‘garden party’ for his kid’s sweet sixteenth. Gonna bag some fancy asses, for sure.”

“Fine,” Deacon said. He put his feet up on the desk and picked up a sheaf of papers. “Enjoy yourselves.” He could hear them muttering about him as they left. He sighed, knowing what they thought of him, and knowing at least half of them would accept bribes from the rich victims of the raid to “look the other way” while they slipped out the garden gate. It was getting so he could name fewer and fewer honest cops.

It was enough to drive a man to drink.

# # #

“That was my floor you were on,” said Bernice. “The whole foyer was redecorated last week.” She stirred her coffee absent-mindedly and looked around the cafeteria to see if there was anyone she knew within waving distance. Bernice liked to see and be seen. She returned her attention to her friend. “What the heck were you doing here so late?”

Elodie Browne had the grace to look ashamed. “I had this great idea for a new radio show, and the deadline was five o’clock. Mr. Herschel is very fussy about people meeting deadlines. In fact, he’s a pig about it.”

“So, why didn’t you just come in early, before he got there?” “I was in the neighborhood.”

“At eleven o’clock at night?”

Elodie shrugged. “I had dinner with my cousin Hugh at the Browning,” she explained. “It’s not far away. I told him about the idea I had, and he thought it was good. I jotted things down as we talked—he’s terrific with that kind of thing—and I was all excited. Hugh put me in a taxi, but I asked the cabbie to bring me here and wait while I ran upstairs. I just hit the wrong button in the elevator, that’s all.” She leaned forward. “This building is very creepy at night.”

Bernice giggled. “Sometimes I think it’s creepy during the day.” She took a sip of her now lukewarm coffee. “So you think someone was dragging a body around up there?”

“Well…”

“Honestly, you and your imagination,” Bernice scoffed. “More likely someone dragging a bag of rubbish to the chute. I worked on the tenth floor all this morning and I promise you, there were no bodies lying around.” She paused. “There were a lot of people, though. I heard a lot of voices at the far end of the floor. Normally it’s pretty quiet.”

“Maybe he put it in a closet or something.” Bernice grinned. “You don’t give up easy, do you?”

“It was just so…scary.” Elodie felt suddenly cold at the memory

“It was dark and you were confused, that’s all. Gosh, Ellie, you are some crazy kid. What the heck do you do up there on Fifteen—drink shoe polish?”

“Very funny.” Elodie scowled at Bernice. Here she was trying to be serious and Bernice wasn’t making the right noises at all. It was very exasperating. It had been scary last night in the dark. Even now, in the brightness of the cafeteria, daytime, people all around, she felt a little shiver inside.

“Well, the way you talk. You’re always seeing things nobody else sees, and being dramatic.” Bernice fluffed her hair with a negligent hand.

“I can’t help it if I have a lively mind,” Elodie protested. “Anyway, no harm done. I got back in the elevator and went up and put my idea on Mr. Herschel’s desk and went right back down again.”

Bernice leaned forward, her red corkscrew curls bobbing. “Didn’t make another stop on Ten just to see if you were right?” The scarlet bow of her mouth quirked up on one side as she teased her friend

Elodie was adamant. “Absolutely not. Anyway, I didn’t know it was the tenth floor I had been on. I would have said something, but when I got down to the lobby, the guard was still asleep. As it was, with the waiting and all, I knew the taxi fare would be more than my cousin had given me. That’s why I brought sandwiches today.”

“Yeah, me too.” Bernice looked around again. “As if I could afford a hot meal in this place every day. Coffee costs enough.”

“And dessert,” Elodie reminded her, glancing at the crumb-strewn plates before them. The Gower Cafeteria was subsidized for the building employees but was still too expensive for everyday eating. These days you had to save wherever you could. Once a month she and Bernice had a hot meal together, invariably on a Friday when they had been paid. Otherwise they made do with buying soup or dessert, which were cheap, and coffee, which was even cheaper and came with free refills.

The employee cafeteria was on the lower basement floor, entered by a discreetly anonymous door in the middle of the row of shops that lined the corridor. Even though it was meant solely for the office workers in the building, little expense had been spared. It had a bold mock Aztec decor. The walls were painted in a soft orange with brown and ochre wall sconces, and large angular chandeliers hung above the tables, shedding a rather unflattering light. The chair backs and the pattern in the linoleum echoed that of the wall sconces, but the floor was beginning to blur with wear. It was unlikely to be replaced any time soon, because the men who ran the building had their priorities.

On the mezzanine, three floors above the workers canteen, was a highly fashionable (and profitable) restaurant with waitresses and tablecloths and little lamps on each table. It served more or less the same basic meals as the cafeteria, but with richer sauces and at three times the price. There the décor was more dramatic, based on the rising shapes of fountains. Elodie had peeked in once, and was impressed with the dramatic scarlet and silver color scheme, the curving abstract murals on the walls, the flattering illumination from lighting recessed in star shapes on the ceiling, the wide spaces between the tables, and the gleaming black marble floor. Despite the tight times, both places were always busy in the middle of the day.

Elodie and Bernice felt lucky to be working in the biggest, newest building in Chicago. In fact, they felt lucky to be working at all. Jobs were very hard to come by in 1931, and there were dozens of candidates for every one that came up. They were lowly employees, but they accrued prestige from their surroundings. Designed by a famous architect, the Gower Building was the latest addition to Chicago’s lakeshore skyline. Completed in 1928, it had been fully leased. Then the Crash came. Now quite a few empty offices stood along the corridors, blank glass doors with no names on, and far fewer footsteps echoed in the long, marble-lined halls. So many companies had folded. Executives who had formerly occupied luxurious offices were now selling apples in the street, others who had once commanded large staffs stood alongside former employees in the lines outside the soup kitchens. Schools were frequently closed because there was no pay for teachers, civic amenities were sporadic and undependable, and crime was becoming a way of life for many.

But there were some signs of hope. There was talk of Chicago mounting a World’s Fair which would bring lots of business to the city, and the bigger companies were beginning to advertise again. “The Depression will bottom out,” people told each other. “Things can only get better.” But they were getting better very slowly for girls like Elodie and Bernice and their families.

“Say,” said Bernice, as they went along to the ladies room to powder their noses before returning to work. “Would you like to earn some extra money?”

“Doing what?” Elodie asked, cautiously. Bernice was a little inclined toward what Ellie’s mother called “the wild life.” This offer could mean anything.

“Oh, don’t be like that.” Bernice sounded a little defensive. “It’s nothing bad. My boss, Mr. Lee, is having one of his parties and they need help handing out drinks and stuff.”

“Oh,” Elodie said. “When?”

“On Saturday. Big party…they say Barbara Hutton will  be there. She’s one of Mr. Lee’s special customers, you know.” Bernice’s voice was possessive—as if she and the Woolworth heiress were bosom friends. “And maybe some film stars. Mr. Lee has lots of famous clients, you know.”

Elodie knew. Mr. Lee Chang was an importer of jade and other items of oriental art and lived in one of the big houses on Lakeshore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan. He was at the “new” end, rather than aligned with the old money that dwelt in the huge mansions closer to the city. Still, it would be nice to see inside his house. Bernice had often talked about how fantastic it was, because she had often “helped out” at Mr. Lee’s many parties. She had gone on at length about the “moderne” decor, with every possible luxury and convenience in the latest style. Mr. Lee was a very, very rich man.

“I hear he has a few other sorts of clients.”

“Oh. Them.” Bernice dismissed the people in question with a wave of her hand. “One or two—they have money to burn and no idea what to spend it all on. They think buying from Mr. Lee gives them class. They have no idea what they are buying, or what it’s really worth.”

“You mean he cheats them?” Elodie was amazed that anyone would take such a risk with People Like That.

“Not exactly.” Bernice lowered her voice. “But you know how it is with art objects…they’re worth whatever anyone is willing to pay for them. And Mr. Lee only brings in the best  of the best.” She paused. “Mostly,” she amended. “If they can’t tell the difference, well, it’s their look-out, isn’t it? The way they earn their bucks, who cares how they spend it?”

Bernice was talking about the bosses of the Syndicates, of course. The men who had prospered from Prohibition and con- tinued to do so, although there was word that this source of money might dry up—literally. The President was studying something called the Wickersham Report, which had come out in January. Word was that it was very contradictory. While some men on the Committee wanted Prohibition to continue, most said it wasn’t working. If the Congress eventually repealed the 18th Amendment, what would the bootleggers do then, poor things?

Whatever these entrenched criminals attempted, it was unlikely to be honest. Once a person gets into the habit of killing off the opposition it sort of lingers, Elodie thought. If one day they outlawed chocolate, for instance, these men would simply sell chocolate on the sly, the way they sold liquor. Their kind would always prosper.

Supply and demand, her cousin Hugh had said last night. “That’s what governs price, Ellie. Supply and demand. There were gangs in Chicago long before Prohibition came in. But they weren’t organized the way Torrio and Capone have done it. Now crime is a business, run on business lines. If Prohibition is repealed, then they’ll soon find other games to play, believe me, because the structure is already there, waiting to be used. They’ll never go away.”

Hugh was a newspaper reporter, and a hardened cynic at twenty-eight. His job on the Tribune gave him plenty of support for his attitude, as he mostly covered crime these days, and the bootleggers were the major contributors to that particular beat. Ever since the shooting of a minor Tribune reporter named Jake Lingle, the Tribune had been on a crusade against the Syndicates, even though it later emerged that Lingle had been in their pay as well as the paper’s. Crime and corruption were endemic in Chicago. The city had become famous for it. Or infamous.

Elodie loved to hear Hugh’s stories—the ones they couldn’t or wouldn’t print for fear of angering the “wrong people.” In her eyes, Hugh was just about as glamorous as a man could get, even though she had known him all her life. Somehow in the last few years he had acquired a patina, a gloss of knowingness that fascinated her. She felt quite naive by comparison, and wasn’t sure if it was natural or if Hugh deliberately made her feel that way. He did like to show off a bit, she reluctantly conceded. Still, he was fun, and he took her to places she would never see otherwise. But she sometimes wished that people would realize that Chicago was a very big city, also populated by good people, nice people, ordinary people. Not everybody was into crime, although it sometimes seemed like that. There were still legitimate businessmen, still happy families, still a reasonable life to lead without being involved with Them.

“Okay, I’ll help out at Mr. Lee’s party.” Elodie felt suddenly brave. There was surely more to life than meatloaf twice a week and writing copy for wart removers. And it would help her to forget all about what might have happened on the tenth floor last night. “Do we have to dress up in maid’s uniforms or anything?”

“No, just wear black.” Bernice grinned at her friend in the mirror, and Elodie grinned back. Elodie never wore anything but black. People assumed she was trying to be mysterious and glamorous, but the fact was, black didn’t show dirt, and was the cheapest material to buy because people needed it for mourning. And there had been a lot of mourning in Chicago the past few years. Her sister Marie made all the family’s clothes, and all four of the sisters had a weekly dry-cleaning session in the basement that left them reeling from the gasoline fumes. But it saved a lot of money. And it meant they were always well turned-out.

She hardly minded at all that some wags in the office referred to her as “The Widow.” In fact, she rather liked it. It made her feel special, which she definitely knew she wasn’t. In contrast, Bernice’s taste in clothes ran to the flamboyant and colorful. Indeed, today she was wearing a silk crepe dress in green with lots of little dots and arrows in red and purple. It had a cross-over ruffle-edged collar and long fitted sleeves. It must have cost her at least eight dollars, Elodie thought. She was a little envious because Bernice didn’t really need to work. Her father was an undertaker and people would always be dying. Bernice could spend all her earnings on herself, and did. Her claims to poverty were valid solely because every cent she earned went onto her back

Elodie Browne and Bernice Barker made an odd pair. Their friendship had begun when they ran into one another in the lobby one morning. They had attended the same high school, but had been mere nodding acquaintances there—now they each had found one friendly face in the huge population of the Gower Building. Bernice had many acquaintances, but surprisingly few friends. She seemed to find some sort of anchor in Elodie’s serious outlook on life, but spent most of the time trying to tease her out of it. For Elodie, Bernice had an air of almost frenetic excitement that amused and stimulated her. This party, for instance. A little bit of wickedness was just what she needed in her life. She had always been a “good” girl, working hard and seriously. Bernice was full of gossip and had a robust sense of humor that secretly tickled Elodie. She wished that she could be more buoyant and carefree, like her friend, but something had always held her back. Now she felt quite brave in taking on this extra job for the mysterious Mr. Lee and his rich friends. What would it be like?

They took the stairs to the lobby and waited for one of the many elevators banked on either side of the entrance hall. The elevator doors and their surrounds were one of the famous features of the Gower Building. They were of pale brass, elaborately engraved to the design of a famous French artist. They and the other golden decorations in the entrance were kept immaculately bright, and people often snapped pictures of them.

While the upper floors of the building were relatively austere, albeit lined in the best marble, the echoing C-shaped lobby of the Gower Building was bright with expanses of glass behind which were exclusive shops offering wares far beyond the reach of the thousands of employees who actually worked in the building. Despite the Depression, there were still wealthy women who could afford to sweep in and shop in the Gower lobby and concourses. For the moment it was quite fashionable to do so. That was why, in the central area of the main entrance, there was an electrically rotating podium that held constantly changing displays of things of interest to these high-spending visitors. Today there was a splendid white Lagonda on show, with deep red leather seats, big bug-eyed headlights, and highly polished chrome trim. A pair of equally polished and beautifully dressed models with marcelled silvery-blonde hair moved around the car, pointing out its finer features to any who enquired. Last week the display had been a stand of fine china from England watched over by a real butler in tails, and the week before that some odd shiny metal sculptures that nobody understood but which were supposed to be the latest thing on the Continent. Elodie found these displays both fascinating and annoying—they might amuse the rich, but they made her feel poorer than ever.

Bernice got off on the tenth floor. (Elodie sneaked a quick look through the open elevator doors and, sure enough, there were the dark red leather chairs she’d seen the night before. But no dead bodies.) She continued on up to Fifteen, which was fully occupied by Adcock and Ash Advertising Agency.

Elodie’s job was junior copywriter there. She mostly did “dealer blocks” and catalogues, but had recently received kudos for naming a new brassiere and giving it a snappy slogan: THE BANDIT LATEST THING  IN  HOLDUPS. Indeed, she was also gaining the wary attention of senior copywriters as in meetings she exhibited a quick wit and a way with words that put them on their guard. She had ambitions, most of which presently centered on the work she had come in so late the previous evening to deliver.

She had a very small office in the back of the floor, while the Creative Group heads and the top copywriters had big offices just off the main lobby. This carpeted area was open in the center, with the offices lining each side. Every time she walked through to her little cubbyhole, she would make a fresh choice as to which office she would like for her own. All were paneled in dark wood with pebbled glass above on the interior side, and each had a window that looked out over the lake. Her office had no windows and no proper door. But it was hers, and she was grateful. The secretaries had to sit out in the open, outside each senior copywriter’s or group head’s office. As she walked on, the lush burgundy carpet gave way to dull grey linoleum. She was back where she belonged. She slipped into her rather unsteady typist’s chair, looked at the framed picture on her desk, and sighed.

“I’m doing this for you,” she said to the faces that looked back at her. “Otherwise, I swear I would run away to the circus.”

Elodie Browne was the third eldest of four sisters. She was the first one to go to college—the oldest, Marie, had only finished high school, and the next oldest, Maybelle, had chosen to go to secretarial school. The youngest, Alyce, was still in high school. Their late father had left enough money in trust for them all to be educated, but only Elodie had been able to take full advantage of it. He had died in 1927, far too young, but had left them seemingly well provided for. Then the Depression hit, and there was no longer enough to send Alyce to university. Mrs. Browne was a teacher, and Marie ran the house. Maybelle worked at a fancy studio style magazine as personal assistant to a Very Important Man. Alyce mostly giggled and was adored by them all.

Fortunately, their house on Kercheval had belonged to their grandparents, and there was no longer a mortgage on it, so they were spared that particular burden. But the running and upkeep of it was expensive. There were three sets of wages coming in now, but for a while there Mrs. Browne drew no salary because the city couldn’t afford to pay its teachers. She, like many of her colleagues, had gone on teaching, just the same. Maybelle and Elodie contributed all they could, but the old house was slowly deteriorating. So much needed to be done. On the outside it needed paint—on the inside it was shabby but familiar, and filled with warmth and laughter. Well, most of the time.

Elodie shook herself out of her reverie and picked up her pencil. Outside in the hall people were laughing and talking, coming back from lunch, putting off the afternoon’s work just a little longer. She had half a catalogue still to finish, and was about to settle down to it, when she heard someone speaking as coworkers passed by.

“Did you hear about the fuss on the tenth floor?” Elodie stiffened

There was a murmur of other voices as the first one continued. “Some guy got robbed or something. Some kind of small-time importer who had one of those offices at the back? Place was a mess and there was blood on the floor. Nobody’s seen him today, and they can’t find him. They’re covering it up, but I know one of the security guys, and he told me all about it. The police are pretending not to be on hand, but they’re there all right, keeping their heads down. It looks pretty funny. Like maybe there’s something more about the guy they want kept quiet. Damndest thing.” The other voices murmured on, their tone both shocked and fascinated. Slowly the voices died away as whoever they belonged to moved down the hall.

Elodie stared at her hands. Her knuckles were white where she gripped the edge of her desk. She had been right. Something had happened on the tenth floor. Something terrible. If they were covering it up, that’s why Bernice hadn’t heard anything about it. She said she had worked in the mimeographing room all morning, printing out inventory sheets for Mr. Lee, so she wouldn’t have been as privy to rumors as usual. Elodie remembered seeing the purple inkstains on her fingers at lunch. Normally Bernice, like all the other secretaries in the building, was among the first to know everything that was going on. There was a  reception desk opposite the elevator banks on each floor, and it was a clearing house for gossip. The floor receptionists were the queens of information, both accurate and inaccurate. Poor Bernice, she would be livid when she realized she had missed something.

Elodie wished she had missed whatever it was. She definitely had been on the tenth floor last night. She had heard angry voices, the crash of furniture, the frightened cry and then the footsteps and the dragging sound. And when the elevator doors had finally opened to her panicky summons, she had been perfectly visible in the light that poured out.

Had she been seen?

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Tears of the Dragon: An Elodie Browne Mystery

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