Chicago, June 1937
The man in front of me tonight was my partner, Charles Escott, who was unaware of my thoughts while we waited for his client to show. I didn’t like the meeting place, but the client had insisted, and Escott had to earn a living. At least he’d invited me along to watch his back. Too often he ignored risks and bulled ahead on his own, which was damned annoying when it wasn’t scaring the hell out of me.
The air was muggy to the point of settling down in your lungs and forgetting to pay rent. I had no need to breathe regularly any more, but still found the heaviness uncomfortable in this hot, windless place. A car cruised by, briefly visible in the alley opening. The faint wash of light from its headlamps allowed Escott to see my face.
“Stop worrying, old man,” he said, speaking quietly, knowing I could hear. “Miss Weaver just wants to be careful.”
That would be Miss Mabel Weaver, his prospective client, who was late. She’d made the appointment hours ago when the sun was up and I lay dreamless and, for all other purposes, dead in the basement under Escott’s kitchen.
Yeah, dead. I’m undead now, the way Bram Stoker defined it, but don’t ask me to turn into a bat. He got that wrong, among other things.
I moved closer so Escott could hear. “Careful? Wanting to meet you in a dark alley is nuts.”
“Less so than wanting to meet you.”
He had a point, but Miss Weaver didn’t know I was a vampire, so it didn’t count. “Charles, this has to be a setup. Someone with a grudge paid some pippin to get you here. They figured you wouldn’t be suspicious if a dame called asking for help.”
“I considered that, but there were notes of hope, anger, frustration, and desperation in her voice that are difficult to convincingly feign…I think I know when someone is lying or not.”
He was uncannily good at reading people, even when there was a phone in between. I could trust his judgment; it was this damned alley that put my back hairs up. Just like the other place, it had stinking trash barrels, a scrawny cat nosing through the garbage, and sludgy water tricking down the middle.
This one didn’t have a body in it yet, but my mind’s eye could provide.
“I have my waistcoat on,” Escott added, meaning his bulletproof vest. His business occasionally required dealing with all sorts of unsavory characters—I was considered by a select few to be one of them—so I was grateful he’d bothered. How he could stand the extra weight of those metal plates in this heat was a mystery, though.
“You think you need it?”
He gave a small shrug, fingers twitching once toward the pocket where he kept his cigarettes. That told me he had some nerves after all. A smoke would have calmed him, but it was also a distraction. For a meeting with an unknown client in a dark alley he’d keep himself focused.
We glanced up at the sound of thunder rumbling a long, slow warning. I couldn’t smell the rain yet, but change was in the sky. It would get worse before it got better. Storms coming down off the lake from Canada were like that.
“Crap,” I said.
He grunted agreement. “If she doesn’t appear before—”
We jumped when the door in the building on my left abruptly opened, filling the alley with the noise and brightness of a busy kitchen. A large man in a sweat-stained undershirt banged out with two buckets of leavings. The scrawny cat went alert and darted toward him with an impatient meow, tail up. This was a regular event. Escott must have come to a similar conclusion, but he relaxed only slightly.
The stink of cooked food fought against the rotting stuff in the garbage cans a few yards away. Fresh or foul, unless it was blood, all food smelled sickening to me. Coffee was the one exception; I’d yet to figure out why.
The big man dumped the buckets’ contents more or less accurately into a trash barrel and tossed a large scrap of something to the eager cat, who seized it and ran off. The man fit one bucket inside the other, giving Escott and me a hard once-over.
We had no legitimate reason to be here, and I looked suspicious. Escott was respectably dressed, but I was in my sneaking around clothes, everything black and cheap, because sneaking around can be rough work. The man would be within his rights to tell us to clear out or dump us into the barrel with the leavings—he had the size for it.
“You waitin’ for someone?” he finally asked.
It was Escott’s turn to take the difficult questions. I made sure the guy didn’t have a gun or friends with guns.
“I’m from the Escott Agency, waiting for a Miss
Weaver. Is she an acquaintance of yours?”
She was too big-boned to be fashionable, but there was grace in her simple blue dress. A matching hat teetered on her head, barely held in place by several hatpins stuck in at various angles. The hat was an oddball thing with a brim that was supposed to sweep down to cover one eye, but now askew, as though she’d pushed it out of the way then forgotten. She had a small purse, but no gloves. My girlfriend never left her flat without them.
“Miss Weaver?” Escott stepped forward into the spill of light.
“Yes, but not here,” she whispered. She shut the door, moved toward him, and promptly skidded on something in the sudden dark. I caught her before she could fall. She gave a gasp of surprise. I can move fast when necessary, and this alley murk was like daylight to me. I decided to be kind and not tell her what she’d slipped in. Maybe that cat would come back later and eat it.
“Sorry,” I said, letting go when she got her balance.
“Mr. Escott?” She squinted at me, uncertain because my partner and I have nearly identical builds, tall and lean. Our faces are very different, and I look about a decade younger even though I’m not.
“The skinny bird with the English accent and banker’s suit is who you want. I’m just here for the grouse hunt.”
Escott shot me a “pipe down” look. “I am Charles Escott. This ill-mannered fellow is my associate, Jack Fleming.”
I tipped my hat.
“Mabel Weaver,” she said, and ladylike, extended a hand to let us take turns shaking her fingers. She had dusty red-brown hair, a long, narrow, humped nose in a long face, and a lot of freckles no amount of makeup could conquer.
“May I inquire—” began Escott.
“We have to be quick and not attract attention,” she said, glancing toward the kitchen door. She had a strong husky voice and sounded like someone unused to whispering. “The owner’s an old friend and let me sneak out the back.”
“Toward what purpose?”
“I’m ostensibly having dinner with my boyfriend and his parents. They’re my alibi—no one else should about any of this. I’ll tell you why if you take the job.”
“I heard about you through Mrs. Holguin. She said you pick locks, recover things, and can keep quiet. She said I could trust you.”
Escott does everything a private detective does, except divorce work, calling himself a private agent instead. It’s a fine point, allowing him to bend the law when it’s in the interests of his client. He’d found it profitable.
“Mrs. Holguin’s assessment is accurate. How may I assist you?”
“I need you to recover something my cousin Agnes stole from me. She’s my first cousin on my late mother’s side. We’ve never liked each other, but this time she’s gone too far.”
“What was taken?”
Miss Weaver wore a long necklace with a heavy pendent dangling from it. She held it up. Escott struck a match to see. Set in the pendant’s ornate center was an oval-cut yellow stone the size of a big lima bean.
She pointed at the stone just as the match went out. “This is supposed to be a nearly flawless intense yellow diamond. That color is rare, and one this size is really rare. Sometime in the last week my cousin Agnes got into my locked room and switched them. She had a copy made of this pendant, a good one—that’s real white gold around a piece of colored glass. She thinks I’m too stupid to notice the difference.”
“You want to recover the original?”
“And substitute this one, but I’ll handle that part. I happen to know she is too stupid to know the difference. When I get the real one back I’ll put it in a safety deposit box so she can’t steal it again, but it has to be done tonight. Can you help me?”
“Before I undertake such an errand I need proof of your ownership of the diamond.”
She gave a flabbergasted stare, mouth hanging wide. “Isn’t my word good enough?”
“Miss Weaver, please understand that for all I know you—”
I put a hand on his arm before he could finish. Accusing a client of being a thief using us to do her dirty work was good way to get slapped. She looked solid enough and angry enough to pack quite a wallop.
Another, louder rumble of thunder rolled over our little piece of Chicago. A stray gust of cool air made a half-assed effort to clear the alley stink, but failed and died in misery.
“Tell us a little more,” I suggested.
For a second it was even money whether Miss Weaver would turn heel back into the kitchen or give Escott a black eye, but she settled down. “All right—just pretend you believe me. The diamond is called Hecate’s Golden Eye. It’s been in my family for generations, passed down from mother to daughter. There’s no provenance for that.”
“What about insurance? Is your name is on a policy?”
“There is none, and before you say so, yes, that’s stupid, but I can’t afford the premium. The family used to have money, but it’s gone. I work in a department store, and it’s been enough until now because I lived in the family home, then Grandma Bawks died and left the house to Agnes, so I’ve had to start paying rent.”
“Your cousin charges you rent?”
“With a big simpering smile. One of these days I’ll rearrange her teeth. I’m moving out. I’d rather live in a Hooverville shack than under the same roof with her and that smirking gigolo she married.”
“Could you put events in their order of occurrence?” Escott asked.
“Yes, of course. I know all this, but you don’t. Hecate’s Eye belonged to Grandma Bawks—my late mother’s mother—and in her will left it to me. Agnes got the house. It’s a big house, but the Eye could buy a dozen of them.”
“It’s that valuable?”
“And then some, but Grandma Bawks knew I would always keep the gem and someday pass it down to my daughter. She couldn’t trust Agnes to do that. Hecate’s Eye has been in our family for generations; it’s always brought good luck to those who respect it.”
“Interesting name,” I said.
“It’s for the one flaw in the stone. It looks like a tiny eye staring at you from the golden depths.”
“Hecate, traditionally the queen of witches,” Escott murmured. “Does this diamond have a curse?”
“Yes. It does.”
For all that Escott’s friend and partner was a vampire, he had a streak of skepticism about other supernatural shenanigans. He’d also apparently forgotten that the customer is always right.
She put her fists on her hips, ready for a challenge. Most women fall all over themselves once they hear Escott’s English accent, but she seemed immune. “There are stories I could tell, but suffice to say that any man who touches the Eye dies.”
Her absolute conviction left him nonplussed for a moment. I enjoyed it.
“That’s why I have to be along, to protect you from the curse.”
“Keep going, Miss Weaver,” I said in an encouraging tone. She favored me with a brief smile. It didn’t make her pretty, but she was interesting.
“Grandma Bawks passed on two weeks ago. Before she went she gave me the pendant. She put it into my hand and gave her blessing the way it’s been done for who knows how long. I’m not the eldest granddaughter, but she said the stone wanted to be with me, not Agnes.”
“Agnes didn’t agree with that?”
“Hardly, but she wouldn’t say anything while Grandma was alive or she’d have been cut from the will. Agnes got the Bawks house and most everything in it; I got a little money, some mementos, and Hecate’s Eye, but that’s more than enough for me. My cousin wanted everything, so she stole the Eye. I had it well-hidden in a locked room, but somehow she found it.”
“Being female, your cousin is exempt from the curse?”
“She doesn’t believe in it, neither does that rat she married, but if he so much as breathes on it he’ll find out for sure. Her being female might not matter: Grandma gave it to me. The stone will know something’s wrong.”
“Curses aside, these are tough times,” I said. “A rock like that could buy a lot of money for you.”
“That’s how Agnes thinks. She’s never had a job
and her husband’s too lazy to work. She’s selling the stone to live off the
proceeds. It would never occur to her to try earning a living.”
“I don’t want the money, I want my grandmother’s gift back.” She looked at Escott. “You can go through the history of the family at the library, look up old wills wherever they keep those things, and I can show you Grandma Bawks’s will and her diary, and it will all confirm what I’ve just told you, but there’s no time. Agnes is selling the stone tonight to a private collector, then it’s gone forever. I must switch it before he arrives. Will you help me?”
Escott glanced my way, though he couldn’t have seen much more than my shape in the dark. I knew what he wanted, though.
“I believe her,” I said, hoping to get out of things.
“Best to be absolutely certain, though.”
He was right. Neither of us needed to be involved in a jewel theft, though my instincts were with Miss Weaver being on the up and up. She’d gotten truly angry having her word questioned. Honest people are like that.
“Miss Weaver? Over here a moment,” I said, moving toward the kitchen door. Might as well get it over with.
“A private word.” I opened the door just enough to provide some light to work with. She had to be able to see me.
“Will you do this or not?” she demanded.
I looked her hard in the eyes, concentrating. “Miss Weaver, I need you to listen to me very carefully…”
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