Collins, Max Allan - Nathan Heller 07

BOOK: Collins, Max Allan - Nathan Heller 07
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The Memoirs of Nathan Heller
 

True Detective

True Crime

The Million-Dollar Wound

Neon Mirage

Stolen Away

Carnal Hours

Blood and Thunder

Damned in Paradise

Flying Blind

Majic Man

Angel in Black

Chicago Confidential

Bye Bye Baby

Chicago Lightning
(short stories)

Triple Play
(novellas)

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright ©2011 Max Allan Collins
All rights reserved

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by AmazonEncore
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140

 

ISBN: 978-1-61218-097-7

 

To Barb—
with warm memories
of carnal hours in Nassau

“Life is struggle.”

—Axel Wenner-Gren

 

“L’homme est un apprentis. La douleur est son maître, et nul le connait, taunt qu’il n’a pas souffert.”
(Man is an apprentice. Pain is his master, and no one understands who has not suffered.)

—Count Alfred de Marigny

 

“Lay that pistol down, boy, lay that pistol down—pistol-packing mama, lay that pistol down.”

—Bahamian calypso folk tune derived from Al Dexter’s popular song

 
 

 

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
ooooh
or
aaaahhh,
but instead I just laughed and said, “I had one of those last year.”

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?”

“Marines.”

“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?”

“Walter.
You
do, Nathan.”

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
you
—on behalf of my principal client.”

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.

“The rich guy?” I said, wincing in confusion.

“The very rich guy,” he said, putting a slow Southern two-syllable emphasis on “very.”

“The richest man in Canada is what I read,” I said.

“Except he lives in the Bahamas, now—in Nassau.” Foskett’s eyes glazed over with admiration. “Here is a man who could live in a marble palace, big as the Taj Mahal, with a gilded dome sparkling with precious gems. Yet he prefers to live a relatively simple life in a tropical paradise.”

I managed not to laugh at that twaddle. “You don’t have to tell me why Oakes lives in Nassau—there’s no
taxes
in the Bahamas.”

Foskett seemed just a little offended. “Well, that too.” Then he brightened. “Don’t be misled: Mr. Oakes is very generous. I think you’ll like working for him.”

I shrugged. “I don’t mind working for rich people. In fact, I don’t mind saying I downright like it. But I do need to know what the job is first.”

The waiter came and we both ordered the finnan haddie. A green salad appeared almost instantly.

Instead of answering me directly, Foskett leaned forward chummily and said, “Let me tell you how I came to work for Sir Harry.”

I nodded, as if to say, Fine, while I began eating my salad. It was his nickel.

It seemed that once upon a time, in 1932, Oakes had business with the Palm Beach law firm in which Foskett was the juniorest of junior partners. The senior partners kept the bear of a man cooling his heels in the reception area for over an hour; Foskett, walking through, had smiled and apologized to Harry, who was fuming.

“Kid—d’you like working with a rude bunch of goddamn stuffed shirts?” Oakes had asked.

“Not particularly.”

“Come with me then,” Oakes had said, grabbing Foskett by the arm. “I’ll set you up in practice and be your only client.”

“Sounds like an interesting fella,” I said.

The finnan haddie was here; it was steaming, not particularly aromatic. What the appeal of this bland fare was I couldn’t fathom; not that good a detective. I dug in.

He was studying me like a legal brief. “How much do you know about Sir Harry?”

“Just that he’s self-made—a gold miner who hit the jackpot. Obviously British.”

“No he isn’t.” Foskett’s smile was a trifle condescending. “He was born in Maine. And yet he became a British baronet….”

I looked up from my fish and cast him my own condescending smile. “Walter, you don’t need to explain how a mining magnate became a ‘Sir’—money talks in England, just like in Chicago. The only difference is the accent.”

He frowned. “If you’re going to work for Sir Harry…”

“We haven’t established that yet, Walter.”

“If you are, I think you need a little crash course in just who this remarkable man is.”

While I ate, he talked. And I admit I was soothed by the Southern inflections of the attorney, even if his admiration for his wealthy client bordered on embarrassing. In any case, the story he told—Sir Harry Oakes’ story—really was remarkable.

A loner since his middle-class upbringing in New England, Oakes dropped out of Syracuse medical school, condemning businessmen and professionals for “making money off their fellow men,” yet paradoxically possessed by an overwhelming desire to accumulate riches. How could the young idealist accumulate wealth without taking advantage of his fellows? The answer seemed to be in the news of a gold strike in the Klondike.

For fourteen obstinate years, Harry Oakes wandered a penniless prospector, from Death Valley to Australia to the Belgian Congo, with many a stop in between, in search of the instant wealth mining could bring. Along the way he learned the skills of his trade, not to mention a hard-bitten form of self-reliance.

When he finally did find his mother lode—at Kirkwood Lake, Ontario, where Harry was convinced a bonanza awaited beneath its frozen surface—it took eight years of legal, logistical and financial struggles to make it happen; but eventually his Lake Shore Mines made him the richest man in Canada.

Foskett’s eyes were tight and gleaming; that flexible mouth savored every Southern-fried word he spoke. “Nathan—we’re talking about an individual who could write a check for two hundred million, and
cash
it—in
any
bank, anywhere.”

Despite his reputation as a cantankerous loner, Harry was also renowned for paying his debts: a Chinese laundryman who had grubstaked him when everyone else turned their backs was lavishly rewarded by the now wealthy Oakes. On the other hand, a hardware store owner who had refused Oakes credit suddenly found a new competitor opening next door, underselling him item for item, putting him out of business within three months.

More charitably, a teenage shopgirl Oakes had dated in Sydney, Australia, who once lent him money for passage back to America, was rewarded years later with a marriage proposal on a world cruise. He was forty-eight; Eunice was twenty-four. Five children were the happy result.

 

 

For business reasons, Harry had become a Canadian citizen in the early twenties; by the late thirties he’d taken Bahamian citizenship, due to the skyrocketing taxes in Canada, and the conspicuous absence of taxes in the Bahamas.

“You must understand,” Foskett said, pleading his client’s case earnestly, “that Sir Harry was one of Canada’s most generous philanthropists, above and beyond the jobs and prosperity his Lake Shore Mines had brought his adopted country. Even before the latest tax hikes, he was already Canada’s largest single taxpayer. He felt…
plundered.
…”

Now a Bahamian, Oakes shifted his charitable giving to London and Nassau, and the title of baronet was conferred upon him by the King in 1939. In the meantime, he became the uncrowned king of the Bahamas, a one-man development boom—adding an airline and airfield to Nassau, purchasing and renovating the British Colonial Hotel, increasing wages, expanding employment through the islands. Giving millions to island charities.

“Much of this charitable work,” Foskett said piously, “benefited the colored workers and their children.”

“Impressive,” I said. I’d finished my lunch. Somehow, despite all his talk, the lawyer had finished his as well. That was almost as impressive as his story. “But what does it have to do with hiring a Chicago private investigator?”

“That’s the problem, Nathan.” His face twitched in a gesture that pretended he wished he could be more helpful. “I’m not really at liberty to say. You see, it’s a personal matter, and Sir Harry wants to present it to you himself. He has asked that I request you meet with him in Nassau.”

BOOK: Collins, Max Allan - Nathan Heller 07
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