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Eddie Banner Mystery part two: Out a dead man's window

He made it as far as the bathroom when someone started banging a fist against the door. The pressed plywood muffled the voice but Eddie heard him as if the guy was standing in the bathtub. “Century City Police, open up!”
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If you missed part one and want to catch up click here.

The Century City Tribune was a glass and brick building reflecting the sun into the middle of downtown like a lighthouse on a rocky shore. It was hard not to spot it as he crept through the heat and exhaust of downtown traffic. Eddie parked and dropped a nickel into the meter. He watched a stream of people walking in and out, working stiffs with hard eyes and grit lodged under their fingernails. No sign of a woman in a beret. 

No sign of a patrolling cop either as the meter clicked off his last second. Eddie bounced his last nickel in his open palm. He debated pocketing it before dropping it into the slot, feeling his stomach drop with it. 

A cold shade folded over him as he walked down three wooden steps to the bowels of the Tribune. The presses sounded like a tornado ripping through the basement, ready to toss the building into the nearby hills. An office sat tucked into a corner like the classroom dunce. The green paint dirtied by ink that hung thick in the stifling air. Eddie stuffed his hands in his pockets and tried to look busy while he whistled his way by the office. Faded black paint across frosted glass read A. Jennings. The name rang a distant bell but the screaming machines and choking air made it hard to think. 

He cornered two workers who gave both him and the photo the hairy eye and a head shake when he asked about it. He was making his way toward a woman with grease stains on her neck and arms when a small fry in coke bottle glasses grabbed him by the arm and marched him into the office. The guy shut the door trying his best to mute the hurricane scream of the presses. Eddie wasn’t sure if the ringing he heard was a telephone or just his ears adjusting. 

“Jeez Eddie where ya been? You know you damn near gave me a heart attack. What are you doing flashing that picture around? You got rocks in your head or what?” The guy sat across a desk cluttered with stacks of paper and knick-knacks. A Remington typewriter in the middle of it all, a shrine to the printed word. It took Eddie a minute to realize the guy in the sweater vest called him by name. He straightened up in his chair. “Hold on, who are you?” That stopped the guy cold. It was his turn to give Eddie the stink eye. “What’d you get dropped on your head? It’s me Bert, Albert.” 

“Well, Bert, some shill decided to use my skull for batting practice and hit one hell of a home run. So give me a break huh?” Eddie barked.

Bert looked at Eddie, his eyes swimming with good humour that slowly faded. He leaned back and gripped the back of his neck with his hand. “Oh cripes, Eddie.” His eyes rolled behind the projection screen glasses before he let out a bark of laughter. “Boy, some private eye you turned out to be.” He leaned forward in his chair sending an errant paper from the top of a pile to the cement floor. He rolled up his sleeves and patted his pockets for a pack of Chesterfields before spying them beside a brass paperweight. “Alright.” He sighed before lighting up. “You want the long version or the short one?” 

“Just tell me why this is under my sun visor,” Eddie said holding out the picture, afraid to lose it in the abyss of Bert’s desk. 

“That's Ms. Hessen. Margaret.” Bert’s eye’s scrutinized every shadow, his voice a squeak under the droning presses. Her name brought the picture to life in Eddie’s mind. He saw how her eyes lit up when she laughed, that raucous echo she could bellow when something was really funny; she would call it an ‘absolute treat’ while wiping tears from her cheeks. 

“Ms. Hessen was an anonymous source. She used to cover stories no one would touch. She was working on something big, she told me. A ‘rot so sordid it would make my eyes water.’ I think is how she worded it. He lowered his voice as smoke filled the room.

“What was it?” Eddie whispered. It was hard not to catch Bert’s paranoia. 

“She couldn’t say. She had scraps of information but her sources were starting to vanish, so she figured she was on the right track. That was two weeks ago. Then she vanished too."

“So you hired me.” It wasn’t a hard dot to connect. Eddie had a double vision image of sitting across from Bert on a balcony talking in the same hushed tones. He remembered the drone of traffic below. Cars zooming by in green and navy blurs. 

“So I hired you. Exactly. You two had a, uh, history. I figured I could trust you. And with your reputation, I thought I’d get my money’s worth from The Bomber. Eh, Never mind.” he waved off Eddie’s confusion and picked a piece of tobacco off his tongue before stubbing the cigarette out. “Wait a minute! I almost forgot, listen to this-” 

The door hinges squealed as it slammed against the wall, rattling the glass. A man in a grey vest stood in the doorway. His face was red as his tie and his horseshoe of hair the same mushroom soup colour of his newsprint-stained sleeves. He eyed both of them like a principal catching two truant boys in the bathroom smoking. 

“Jennings! Are you deaf AND dumb? I’ve been calling from the cable room for damn near ten minutes. Now are you running the union strike story or are we going to lose all of our readers to those half-wits at the Gazette?” 

Bert’s attempts at answering were steamrolled by the older man. “What I’m not hearing is ‘yes Mr. Ferguson.’” 

“Yes, Mr. Ferguson. We uh, we won’t lose anyone.” Bert added, eyes glued to the Remington.  

“Then pick it up and start working instead of slack jawing with the help.” 

The door slammed hard enough to start the glass rattling again. Bert gave the old man’s exit a crude salute, his thumb holding onto three out of four fingers. “ Listen Eddie, come by my apartment tonight at six. Maybe you can make heads or tails of an envelope Ms. Hessen sent me. You can at least remember how to read, right?” Eddie felt his molars grind. The noise here was getting on his nerves.  

“Ok, ok. Forget I asked” Bert held his palms forward. “Six O’clock, Bellevue Towers, off Frost Street. And for God's sake make sure no one follows you.” Bert started slamming keys on the Remington. Eddie took that as his dismissal and left the tuna can office, happy to be in the fresh air.  

Eddie whittled the hours away driving up and down streets he once knew. He drove by a boxing gym on Fifth that made his head pound hard enough to double him over. He pulled over letting the whine of rush hour traffic spill into his open window and gulping air. He remembered his old man holding the heavy bag while he worked combos among the stale iron stench of weights and sweat. The memory faded and he relaxed his jaw, his hands loosening from the wheel. He drove past a gunsmith and thought of his useless Colt in the glove box. He’d have to stick to his paws if he got in a jam. He thought of the heavy bag again, of his dad. His paws could use a workout. 

A sign in front of Bellevue Towers read it was where peace of mind met comfort. Eddie saw it as a place where greed met money. From the wainscotting and wingback chairs of the lobby, to the doorman with his twin rows of gold buttons shining like those in the elevator panel. Eddie buttoned the navy coat over his denim overalls but he still felt like yesterday’s newspaper blowing through the door.

He stabbed his thumb into the eighth-floor button and felt his guts rise into his throat. The doors opened to a hallway where marble tables held ornate lamps throwing golden light onto white apartment doors. His chukkas swallowed in a sea of shag as he glided down the hallway. 

On the third knock, Bert's door creaked open and Eddie felt a pinch in the back of his neck that made him wish he’d brought the Colt anyway. Couch cushions were slit, kitchen drawers emptied on the black tile floor, and Albert in the middle of it all. His body a perverse eye of the storm surrounding him, blood mixing with the silverware and cushion stuffing. Eddie's pulse raced as he took in the destruction, the invasion of privacy that ended in death.

“You deserved better Bert.” He closed the door and locked it. Eddie scanned the balcony but all he saw was a line of yellow headlights below. They had been quick, whoever they were. He thought of anyone who could have seen him at the Tribune and settled on the gas bag that barged in on them. Eddie shot a look behind him as he waded into the crime scene.

Bert’s bedroom was a reflection of his workspace. Souvenirs and trinkets neatly lined the shelves in defiance of the broken glass and crumpled bedsheets. Above his bed, a wall safe hung open, the painting that covered it laying a pile of smashed glass and cheap pine. It leaned on a dresser with the first two drawers pulled out and emptied onto the beige carpet. 

He stood on the bed, the springs protesting with coiled aggression and the wood frame screaming for relief. Someone had emptied the safe alright, but they were hurried, and people in a hurry made mistakes. Pinched in the hinge was a scrap of paper torn as it passed from hand to hand. Eddie looked at Margaret’s telltale shorthand scrawled across the ruled lines of a steno pad. He felt the gulf between them and wondered at her fate. He read what she wrote, a memory surfacing. “Charlie Perkins.” his voice hung in the empty space. He saw a bag of bones with a pencil line smear across his upper lip who sold his loyalties faster than the watered-down hooch he peddled at a bar called The Julep, the two words written on Margaret’s scrap. Eddie remembered leaning on Perkins in a few cases while he sputtered and yelped, trying to placate him with a second-rate Tom Collins. It was high time Eddie paid Perkins another visit, this time he wouldn't be so nice. The bed all but sighed as he made his way toward the door. 

He made it as far as the bathroom when someone started banging a fist against the door. The pressed plywood muffled the voice but Eddie heard him as if the guy was standing in the bathtub. 

“Century City Police, open up!” followed by three more knocks, faster this time, agitated. “If you don’t open the door I will force entry.” Eddie looked from the door to Bert’s broken body. He sneered. He’d been set up to take the heat and he’d walked into it like a sauna. 

“Amateur swing Banner.” He muttered before turning back to the bedroom. Behind him, boot treads met timber and made splinters. 

By the time he got to the foot of the bed, he was running. His boots sounded like artillery fire as he clomped across the carpet. He heard shouts as the cop broke the door in. After that, all he heard was wind and car horns as Eddie Banner broke out a dead man’s window and down the fire escape.