Noddy ushered Nick into the hallway. “He’s beside himself,” she explained, “everything’s in an uproar.”
Nick knew better than to ask what the uproar was about—it would likely lead to a puzzling explanation. Instead, he nodded, said, “I’ll talk to him about it.”
Noddy returned to the kitchen. Nick could hear Connie’s voice in the muffled conversation that leaked into the hall as he continued toward Liver Jack’s alcove.
Liver Jack was there, slumped in his squeaky armchair with the earpiece held to his head, bellowing into the telephone’s mouthpiece. “—don’t care what he thinks. Besides that, we could have a lot more clout—things go our way…oh, never mind,” he said, spotting Nick, “Gotta get off the line. ‘Bye.” He turned toward Nick. “This’ll blow your wig, Nick. Cermak was shot!”
“The mayor? Shot? What happened?”
“He was down there in Miami, meeting with the butter and eggs man—the President—trying to get some Federal money. Some guy started shooting at Roosevelt but missed and hit the mayor. The ward bosses are holding a big meeting.”
Liver Jack shook his head. “Critical. I wouldn’t wish Pushcart Tony any bad luck, but it don’t look good.” He looked off into a distance that wasn’t there, and his lips pushed out in a big pucker. Nick tried to figure what it meant, but nothing came. Finally Liver Jack said, “You talked to Danny Hinkley?”
“Yeah. He hired me. But I’m not real happy.”
“You got to be. It’s a job.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. When I was about to leave, he threatened me.”
“What d’ya mean, threatened?”
“Told me he’d have me killed if I crossed him.”
Liver Jack scanned the rose-printed wallpaper behind his desk, turned to Nick. “You’re not planning on crossing him, are you?”
“No. But the job’s pretty strange. Wants me to find an envelope that went bye-bye during the bank job. It was taken from his safety-deposit box.”
“Huh. What’s in the envelope?”
“Bunch of snaps.”
A frown split Liver Jack’s eyebrows. “That don’t sound like what he told me. He said he wanted to recover customers’ documents and stuff from the busted safety-deposit boxes. Customers’ important papers and ‘heirlooms’, he said.”
“The only ‘heirlooms’ he’s talking are nine photos. Probably of him and a dame.”
“Yeah. Well, but he’s paying you, right?”
Nick pulled the paper envelope from his back pocket, opened the flap and spread some of the bills so Jack could see. “He’s promised a big reward for the return of the snaps. Anyway, he’s paying expenses.”
“Hey! That looks like real dough—guess you’re sitting pretty?”
“Well, I—hey, wait a minute.” Nick saw that Connie had walked up behind Liver Jack.
She smiled. “Hello, Nick. How are you?”
“Okay, Connie.” Nick shoved the money envelope back into the pocket. He saw that Connie’s hair was wrapped in a towel and she wasn’t wearing lipstick. He smiled weakly. “I’m okay. Doing fine.”
Connie said, “You got a job? A payday?”
Liver Jack whirled around. “Now just a damn minute, Connie. You wasn’t invited into this conversation. This is between me and Nick.”
“Well pardon me, Mr. Big. But Nick’s still my husband, y’know.”
Nick raised a hand. “Listen, Connie. This is not what you think. It’s not a regular job…”
“How long you been eavesdropping, Sis?”
Connie said, “Sounds good, Nick. I think it’s great you got a payday. I was doing my hair, but I couldn’t help overhearing.” She stopped and looked soulfully at Nick. “Things are not half so keen for me—I’m just taking advantage of Jack and Noddy here...”
Liver Jack raised both hands in protest. “Wait a minute. I asked you a question, Connie. And Nick, you know it’s perfectly okay for her to stay here, as long as you two—as I understand it, are—”
“Okay, Connie, I get it.” Nick pulled the envelope from his back pocket, slipped two bills out and handed them to Connie.
Connie smiled again. “Gee, thanks, Nick. What’s this about a big reward? I overheard about finding something—what was it?”
Nick slipped the envelope back into his pocket. “There’s a reward, okay, if I can find the guys who dumped those deposit boxes the other day, and return this guy’s stuff to him. Not much chance of that, considering—”
“You’re talking the break-in at Washington Park Bank, right?” Connie frowned and gazed at the ceiling as she slowly stuffed the money into the cuff of her sweater. “Might not be anything, but maybe…”
Liver Jack grasped his sister’s wrist. “You know something about that heist?”
“Hands off, Jack! Nick, you saying there’s big money for you if you can find the guy’s stuff?
Liver Jack let go and beckoned with both hands. “C’mon, Connie. Out with it. What do you know?”
“I’m not sure. But there’s a guy. I heard him talking to some other guys.”
Liver Jack grinned. “What’d he say? Was he one of them?”
“This guy.” Nick’s face lit up. “You know him?”
“Just a minute.” Slowly now, subdued. “I’m trying to think. Artis, I think his name is Artis Greene.”
The entrance door was nearly hidden by a hulk in a wool suit. Nick thought the coat looked two sizes too small. The hulk’s feet were planted far apart as if to keep his heavy body from tipping over. Furrows marched up his dark-skinned brow as he smiled at Connie. He stepped aside and opened the door for her. “Welcome to Lennie’s,” he said. “Go right in, ma’am, your menfolk will be right along.”
She glanced inside and stepped through the doorway.
The hulk ran his busy eyes up and down Liver Jack. “Unbutton your coat.”
Liver Jack raised his index finger. “Now just a minute, buster…”
“It’s okay,” Nick said, thumbing toward the hulk. “just routine. They check you for typewriters.”
Liver Jack mumbled something, unbuttoned and spread open his overcoat. The hulk stuck his hands lightly inside the coat on the sides and moved them up and down. “Okay, have a good time.” Then, quietly, he checked Nick. “Okay,” he said, opening the door, “you gents have a good time.”
They joined Connie inside. Liver Jack turned to Nick. “Typewriters, Nick?”
“They say they’re checking for guns. What they really don’t want is flasks.”
Liver Jack grinned. “Sure.”
Connie said, “Pretty soon you’ll see—they’ll have to serve uncut gin. They won’t be able to serve it watered down.”
“Over there,” Nick said, “See if we can find a table.”
A sharp turn down a narrow corridor past the restrooms led them into a dim, windowless room. Music and babble mixed jangly as they squeezed through a maze of tables with seated patrons. The high ceiling was covered with tin squares embossed in elaborate curlicues. A four-bladed fan hung from it, its blades slicing cleanly through the blue tobacco haze though not a whiff of air stirred. They found a table with empty chairs and ordered drinks.
“Back here,” Connie said, “I can’t see much.”
Nick stared at Connie. Those acutely-edged magenta lips, with their wet look, had to have been carefully copied from the Marshall Field fashion illustrations he’d seen her study in the newspaper. “You said he plays the clarinet?”
“What? Oh, I think so.”
“What were you doing here, anyway?”
“Taking a break, Nick. But you wouldn’t understand.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Liver Jack raised one hand. “Okay, you two. Let’s remember what we’re here for.”
“Thanks, Jack,” Connie said, narrowing her eyes, “I completely forgot.”
On the far side was a narrow bandstand, barely wide enough for Eddie Condon’s smartly-dressed band men. Tables, chairs, feet and legs bounced to the beat of the fast tempo. Condon led the pace, strumming his banjo so quickly his hand became almost invisible. Two or three couples had wandered onto the tiny open area in front of the bandstand where they gyrated wildly to the number.
“That guy there.” Nick pointed. “Second from the left. Is that—”
Connie nodded. “Yeah, maybe that’s him.”
Liver Jack frowned. “Maybe? You don’t know the guy?”
“It’s been a while, Jack. What, you want me to just waltz over there, throw my arms around him and ask who heisted the Washington Park bank?” She tossed her head, flipping the curls around on her forehead. “I told you, I just met the guy. He’s not a long- lost pen pal.”
The band finished to applause, and Condon rose to the microphone. “Ladies and gents, please welcome Miss Abigail Starnes, and our rendition of the love song, “I Don’t Have to Love You.” The band began a slow introduction. Connie ran her lips along the edge of her glass and narrowed her eyes toward Nick. “Sounds like our song, huh?”
Nick’s eyes were on the singer, who wore a strapless evening gown. He didn’t answer.
The singer began, “Things between us have always been tough / I ask myself is love enough? / Though broken dreams are the kind that we share / You should never believe I don’t care // In the future there may be trouble / And each trouble I can no doubt double / There are ups and downs with every pair / Thinking we’re through isn’t fair”
“I don’t get it,” Nick said. “What kind of love song is ‘I Don’t Have To Love You.’?”
“You never heard it?”
He shook his head.
The singer began the final chorus: “We can always agree to disagree / We’ll never find a judge to referee / The rule is love has no rules, I gather / I don’t have to love you, but I’d rather.” She repeated the last line and held the ending note a long time.
Connie joined in the applause. “You didn’t get that part about ‘I’d rather’?”
“Yeah, Connie.” Nick lifted his glass and took a swallow. “I also got the part about agreeing to disagree.”
Liver Jack slapped his hand on the table and said, “Will you two put the kibosh on that?”
Connie rolled her eyes. “What do you two expect me to do?”
“We already talked about that.” Nick leaned toward her. “You’re going to talk to the guy, try to get him to open up about—you know, whatever he knows.”
“I can’t talk to him while he’s got a clarinet in his face.”
Liver Jack said, “’Course not. Easiest way is to get him to our table here when they stop playing.”
“Sure,” Nick said. “They’ll take a break every half-hour or so. You go over there, and—”
“You kidding?” Connie’s eyes widened. “This is Eddie Condon’s outfit. He’s big. He was with Red Nichol’s Five Pennies in New York …”
Getting into it now, Nick said, “Hey, look, he’s just like any performer. We’ll watch till he takes a solo. Then we make a big to-do, stand up, clap like crazy …”
“Sure thing,” Liver Jack said. “Make a big to-do. Then when they break, go over and tell him how beautiful the solo was—”
“You expect me to bring him over here?” Connie looked from Liver Jack to Nick.
Liver Jack smiled a wicked smile. “Smile big. You know—use your hips.”
Nick gave her a sober look. “Connie, it’s just like you’re on stage, really.”
“Okay.” Connie reached out a hand. “But you best cough up a tip, so he knows you’re serious.”
Nick reluctantly placed a dollar bill in Connie’s hand, and they concentrated on the band.
Eyes close together on a pockmarked face, the clarinet player looked frozen in place. When the band began “Basin Street Blues,” he remained seated while playing through the first two choruses. But then he stood and made a spiraling solo run in which the notes flew out of his instrument at an astounding pace. Nick felt completely baffled. Was he making it up as he played or had he memorized all those notes?
As the solo ended, Nick nodded to the other two, stood, and clapped his hands wildly. Liver Jack and Connie followed. The band stopped and Condon sipped from his drink and, without leaving his chair, thanked the crowd and announced another number. “One two—one, two, three,” and the band began again.
Later on, when the band took a break, Connie stood and squeezed through the crowd to the side of the stage where the clarinet player was rearranging his music. She smiled at him, bent close, and said something that neither Nick or Liver Jack heard because of the crowd noise. The player tilted his head upward and said something, then turned to bring his ear close to her face. He grinned. She handed him the tip, smiled again, then turned around. The clarinet player’s gaze followed her as she returned to the table.
Liver Jack bent forward with a leer. “What’d you say to him, Sis?”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Jack. His name’s Artis Greene, and I gave him the tip. Nick, I told him how marvelous that last solo was, that you really liked it and how much you wanted to meet him.”
Nick smiled. “What’d he say?”
“He’ll be here.”
At the next band break, the clarinet player came to the table, nodded and gave Connie a warm hello. His smile made the acne pocks almost disappear. He turned to Nick, introduced himself and thanked him for the tip. Nick offered his hand, and they shook. After introducing Liver Jack, he said, “Pull up a chair.”
“Can’t stay. Just a couple minutes.”
Nick felt charged, ready to take over. “You’re sure good. How many years you been playing?”
“Oh, it’s not so much the years.” He sat down. “It’s Jimmy Noone.”
“Chubby. Black as a spade, but he did impossible stuff with a clarinet. Learned a bunch from him.”
“How many years you been playing—professional?”
“Started when I was nine, all I wanted to do was play trumpet. Couldn’t afford a trumpet, though, so I ended up with a beat-up clarinet.” He laughed.
“You heard anything about that Woodlawn robbery? At the Washington Park Bank?”
“I heard.” He leaned back, ran his tongue along his upper lip. “Why?”
“Nothing much,” Nick said, fingering his glass. “What do you drink? Can I buy you a shot?”
“Nah. Thanks, got my own.” He withdrew a flask from under his suit jacket, removed the cap and took a slug. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them, and the damp pale discs with dark centers measured Nick. “Why’d you ask about that bank job? You’re not a cop, are you?”
Nick laughed. “Gosh, no. I’m just helping a guy out. He had something in one of those deposit boxes. He wants it back. I’m trying to find it for him.”
“You mean jewelry, a ring?”
Nick shook his head. “Oh, no, no—it’s—”
“Yeah, yeah. Jewelry would be gone by now. Fenced or hocked for what it would bring.” He leaned back, then glanced expectantly at Connie. She smiled at him.
“You live around here?” he asked.
“No. I’m living, well, staying with my brother here.”
He took another swallow from his flask, again shut and opened his eyes. He turned to Nick. “So what’s this something?”
“Just an envelope. The stuff inside wouldn’t mean anything to anybody. Pieces of paper. It’s only valuable to this guy.”
Greene leaned forward. “Will he pay for it? Like a reward, you think?”
“Probably. I’d have to ask.”
“Listen, I’ve got to get back.” He rose and gestured to Nick. “Gimme your phone number. A guy I know might get hold of you.”
Nick wrote the number on a paper napkin and handed it to him. Greene pushed the napkin into his pocket, looked nervously around while returning the flask to his inside pocket. “Nice talking to you folks. Maybe I’ll see you later.” He turned, slipped between tables, skirted the open area and resumed his place on the bandstand. Eddie Condon reappeared and the band began another tune.
Nick stood up and gestured toward the restrooms with his thumb. He went back along the wainscoting and turned into the hall. The door to the women’s restroom swung open toward him, then closed, revealing a woman leaving the restroom.
Although almost twenty years had passed since he’d last seen her, the shock hit him like a fast fist to his midsection. He halted, maybe six feet away, and stopped breathing, his heart thumping in his chest. Iris Jane Marker, supple in a silky dress with a V neck, didn’t move.
They stood facing each other for what seemed to Nick a lifetime—probably just a few seconds. Now he was back in the hallway at Lincoln High where they’d first exchanged a few words. A folder had slipped from atop the books she was carrying and she stooped to pick it up. He’d seen it fall, and leaned to get it. Their eyes met and froze on each other two feet above the floor. She laughed, that giddy, self-conscious laugh, and he said something stupid, like “You need that?”
“You kidding?” she’d replied, “Sure. It’s Miss Gehlert’s notes from History,” and suddenly they were in love. It seemed like an illusion, yet now it came back as intensely as the day it happened, a vivid, chromatic remembrance.
“Iris! I …”
Iris regarded Nick, her soft dark eyes unblinking, the arteries in her neck pulsing lightly. “Hello, Nick.” She advanced a step. The perfect arcs of her eyebrows gathered into a soft frown. “I didn’t think this would hap … but it has.” She quickly shifted her eyes from Nick to the main room, shook her head in small, precise movements.
Returning her gaze to Nick, she said, “I can’t talk now. Please let me by.”
“Wait. What’s the matter?” To Nick, his own voice sounded strange—strangled. He raised his hands, palms outward, as if to stop her. “Please.”
She shook her head again, cast her eyes downward and angled toward his side. At the last moment she fixed her eyes on him. “I can’t,” she said, “I just can’t.”
He was uncertain what to do, although he really wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her. He dropped his hands and moved aside.
She moved quickly past, trailing a faint scent of perfume. As her dress brushed his pants leg, he whirled to follow. “Iris, wait—”
As she entered the main room she spoke firmly over her shoulder. “Please don’t follow.” She disappeared around the corner.
He strode after her, face flushed, pulse racing. As he entered the main room, she was part way to the center amidst the crowd. He paused. She continued until, stopping at a table, she glanced back toward him, her face expressionless. With a sinuous sweep of her hand she smoothed her dress, seated herself, and turned to the man seated at the table. He had bronze hair, was wearing a white shirt and no tie. He spoke to her in words that were lost in the sounds of the room, apparently unaware of her hallway encounter.
Nick felt embarrassed, as though everyone were watching the drama unfold. His body quickly took precedence, however, urging him to return to his original errand. He turned and entered the restroom. When he came out, Iris and her escort were gone, their table empty except for two almost-empty glasses.
Nick made his way slowly back to the table, allowing his breathing to slow and saliva to return to his mouth. As he seated himself, Connie said, “What’s the matter? You look like you saw a ghost.”
“No,” He said, draining the rest of his drink and staring through her as though she were a piece of glass. “I just …”
“That Greene guy,” Liver Jack said with a grin, “looks like he really knows something, eh?”
Nick caught himself and turned to face Liver Jack. “Huh? What? I missed that.”