Jocelyn Beauregard, Private Eye (part twenty)

It was almost midnight by the time Jocelyn made it back around to Ted’s office. Danny first had to drop Dickie off back at his building, then drive back across town so Jocelyn could return the items she’d taken from Ted and Tammy’s desks. This late at night the office was deserted and locked up tight. Though Jocelyn was so exhausted she could scarcely drag one foot in front of the other, she still insisted the errand get done.

Danny helped Jocelyn get into the office the same way she had the first time around, by lowering the fire escape from the outside. He then climbed back into his cab so as to keep watch. “If you hear the ignition turn over, Joss, you’d best get out of there.”

Jocelyn assured him she wouldn’t be more than a few minutes. With the safe invoice and grocery list still tucked safely in her coat, she climbed carefully through the broken window into Tammy’s apartment.

The police had done a number on the room. All the items had been shifted around, from Tammy’s laundry to her pair of skis to the coffee percolator. Even her mattress was sitting askew on its box spring, the linens ripped from it and dumped back on top in a shameful heap.

Jocelyn froze, staring at the shadowy shapes in the room. She quickly got out her notebook and tried to find the page with the details about Tammy’s room, but there was nothing to read by except the moonlight filtering in through the window, which wasn’t enough for Jocelyn to make out her writing. Neither stepping back onto the fire escape nor turning on the inside light seemed like good ideas, considering she was trying to avoid drawing unwanted attention to herself.

But something was missing. Jocelyn closed her eyes and tried to see the room in daylight, on the first day she’d visited it. “The items in the closet…” she said softly. “They moved her skis. The ironing board is over in the kitchenette. The globe’s sitting on the bed. The birdcage! Where’s the birdcage?”

She opened her eyes and looked around but couldn’t perceive an empty birdcage anywhere. When she took a few careful steps towards the door she found it quite by accident when she caught the toe of her shoe in between two of the wires and nearly fell flat on her face. She managed to catch herself on the closet door, but the ordeal had caused an awful clatter.

Jocelyn shook the birdcage off her foot and set it off to the side of the door so as not to trip over it again. “That just leaves the big book…” she whispered to herself. She spent the next minute on her hands and knees, rummaging quickly but carefully through the items on the floor, attempting to find the dictionary-sized hardcover she had seen.

Before too long Jocelyn was able to convince herself: the book was missing. “Encyclopaedia Botanica,” she mumbled. “What an odd thing to steal.”

Suddenly Jocelyn heard a voice downstairs. “Nerts to you,” someone was saying in a hushed tone, “I’m tellin’ ya I heard it. Go check it out.” A second later, footsteps began coming up the stairs.

Jocelyn quickly grabbed a sheet from the bed, threw it over head, and ducked into the shadowy corner of the opened closet as far back in as she could squeeze herself. She couldn’t see anything, but neither could anyone see her, she was betting. She stayed as still as a corpse, and didn’t even dare to breathe.

The footsteps grew closer, and with them came the complaining: “What a numbskull. Jumpin’ at shadows, that’s all that is.” In another moment the footsteps joined Jocelyn in Tammy’s flat. They wandered around the room a bit, poking themselves at the items strewn about the floor, before finally coming across the birdcage. Jocelyn heard a similar clatter to the one she’d just caused, followed immediately by the sound of a fairly heavy body crashing to the floor, followed by some somewhat creative expletives.

Hey! Wake up the whole block, why dontcha!” called the hushed, angry voice from downstairs.

Aw, it’s just a blasted birdcage!” the footsteps voice called back. “Who put this bloody thing here!?”

There were some more noises which Jocelyn construed as the body belonging to the footsteps picking itself up and brushing itself off. “Building’s probably got rats,” the footsteps concluded, then exited the room and headed back downstairs.

Jocelyn was beginning to feel dizzy, so she allowed herself the slowest, quietest intake of breath she could muster. Then she resumed listening.

There weren’t nobody up there,” the footsteps voice said, “and the other room was empty. Nothin’ else up there but a water closet. I told you this weren’t gonna work!”

You clod, don’t you read the papers?” asked the downstairs voice, “This mug has enough hooch squirreled away to last ‘til the second coming. Whaddaya think the prohis are gonna do with all that? Throw a party and send us invitations?”

Ain’t proper hooch no-ways,” the footsteps voice said, somewhat dejectedly. “Papers say there ain’t a drop of rum or whiskey in the joint, just wine. Aren’t you supposed to drink that stuff with spaghetti and meatballs?”

You’re a meatball. We ain’t gonna drink it, stupid; we’re gonna sell it. Water it down some and sell it to new money who don’t know no better.”

The feds probably carried it all off by now.”

Nah, not in one day they didn’t. Keep lookin’. It’s not like the runt’s gonna have a liquor cabinet right out in the open is it?”

The next few minutes worth of sounds were faint and indistinct. A few were louder, and more identifiable, such as the sound of two men trying to move a desk without scraping the legs against the wooden floor.

Eventually, the footsteps voice piped back up: “Joe, we ain’t never gonna find nothin’. The feds’re probably watchin’ the joint around the clock, too.”

Oi!” the downstairs voice exclaimed in alarm. “What’d I tell you about usin’ my name like that!?”

There ain’t nobody here!” the footsteps voice said, joining its companion in normal conversational tone rather than the grumbly semi-whispers they’d been using.

Yeah, well, there ain’t nobody watchin’ us either, ‘cept that cabby outside, and we did for him, didn’t we? Now pipe down and keep lookin’.”

Jocelyn clapped her hands over her mouth in order to keep a gasp from escaping. Danny!

Another minute of indistinct rummaging sounds followed, then two sets of footsteps began climbing the stairs. “Waste of time,” said the voice that wasn’t Joe. “It’s just that dame’s flat, and an empty room, and a toilet.”

Yeah,” said the voice that was Joe, “what say we have a look-see anyway?”

They checked the empty room first, though there wasn’t much to check. They lowered the bed, and raised it back up. Jocelyn was too preoccupied with worry about Danny to consider whether or not they’d be able to find the secret panel in the dark, but even if she had, her question would have been answered almost immediately: “See? Told you. Nothin’,” said the voice that wasn’t Joe.

The footsteps again entered the room where Jocelyn was hiding. She clamped her hands across her mouth and closed her eyes tightly, expecting at any moment for the sheet to be yanked off and for her to be discovered.

Gee whiz, what a mess,” said the voice that belonged to Joe. Various items in the room were moved around; Jocelyn once again heard the clattering of the birdcage, the globe being knocked aside, and identified the mattress being overturned.

Satisfied?” asked the voice that wasn’t Joe.

There’s a secret wall or somethin’,” replied the voice that was Joe, “just like in the pulps. We just ain’t seein’ it.”

What, on the second floor? And you call me a meatball. Where’s this secret wall gonna go, out into the alley?”

Aw, nerts. We ain’t gonna find it in the dark anyway.”

I told you this was a bum idea!”

The voice that was Joe sighed. “Awright, let’s get outta here.”

The footsteps retreated from the room and back down the stairs. On the way, the voice that wasn’t Joe asked, “Didja really have to break the lock like that? They’s gonna know someone was here for sure.”

Why, you leave an autographed picture behind? Quit frettin’,” replied Joe.

Then an engine started up and puttered down the road, and everything was once again as silent as it was dark.

It took Jocelyn several moments to will her frozen, trembling body to move again. She began by wrestling her way out of the sheet, then using the closet wall behind her to help slide up to her feet. She scrambled back over to the window and climbed outside, then (perhaps unwisely) slid as quickly down the fire escape ladder as she could.

When she made it back to the street she saw Danny’s cab was still there, parked underneath the street light just outside Ted’s office. Danny himself was still in the driver’s seat, slumped over the steering column. His cap had slid off his head and was laying in the seat next to him.

Danny? Hey, Danny?” Jocelyn muttered, shaking his shoulder through the driver’s side window. She noticed he was breathing shallowly, and didn’t see any blood, although there was a rather pronounced lump just above his left ear.

After another few moments of shaking, and a few slaps to the face, Danny let out a weary groan. “My head…” he whined groggily, wincing as he touched the knot on his head.

Danny, we have to scram!” said Jocelyn, looking nervously down the street in either direction.

Danny looked straight forward and squited, craning his neck around a bit. “Can’t… can’t see straight,” he said.

Jocelyn didn’t wait for him to find his bearings. She opened Danny’s door and began climbing up into the cab. “Move over,” she said, shoving Danny over into the passenger seat, and situating herself behind the steering wheel.

Now,” she said, getting a feel for the wealth of pedals and levers within reach, “how do you work this thing?”

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