New York City, December 23rd, 1938:
“You’re nothing but scum, O’Brian.”
Eel O’Brian glanced up at the man standing on the other side of his table, reached for a half-empty bottle of gin, and began refilling his glass. “Shame on you, Detective Carriage. Here it is, almost Christmas, peace and goodwill, and you’re talkin’ like that. What would the preacher say?”
The big detective lunged across the table and batted the glass from O’Brian’s hand. Grabbing the man by the lapels, he pulled him out of his seat. “Don’t you dare talk about my old man being disappointed in me. If you want to talk about a disappointment, ask yourself how many nights your momma laid awake crying over her crook of a son.”
Eel O’Brian’s eyes went cold. “You feel that, flatfoot? That’s the barrel of a Thompson pressing against your ribs. Personally, I’ve made it a point to avoid killing, but my boys here, well, I ain’t certain about their moral standards. That trigger could be pulled, and they could be on a ship back to Dublin before the steam quits risin’ from your body.”
Corrigan released the man and straightened up.
“Boys,” O’Brian said, “I think it’s time for the good detective to leave. Kindly escort him to the door.”
The detective looked at the two men and silently dared them to touch him. He turned back to O’Brian. “I’m going,” he said. “But if I found out you had anything to do with the orphanage robbery, even God Himself won’t stop me from taking you down.”
“And you have a merry Christmas, too, Corrigan,” was O’Brian’s reply.
“What the hell did you think you were doing, Detective?”
Before Corrigan could respond, the chief continued his tirade.
“This ain’t some lawless border town in Texas, and you sure as hell ain’t no Ranger.”
“But, Chief,” the detective jumped in, “O’Brian’s involved in this. I can feel it.”
“Then prove it. If you can get the goods on him, fine. Come down on him like the wrath o’ God, and we’ll fry him like the two-bit hood we both know he is. Until then, hands off. For crying out loud, Jim, O’Brian don’t even jaywalk.”
When the chief turned his attention to his paperwork, the detective knew it was time to leave. As he left the office and began to walk back to his desk, every eye in the room tried to look anywhere but at him.
“I swear, Eel, I don’t know nuthin’.”
Eel O’Brian pulled the collar of his overcoat up in a feeble attempt to block the icy night wind from his neck. “Tony, Tony, Tony,” O’Brian said as he put his arm around the smaller man. “You’re just a rat, and rats are everywhere. Now, uptown, in them swanky joints, if they see a rat, they kill it.”
Despite the biting cold of the late December wind, Tony began to sweat.
“Down here, however, nobody pays no mind to the rats. They show up wherever, sometimes they hear things, and, for the most part, people just ignore them.”
O’Brian turned to his two associates. “See, boys, the thing about rats is that they can be coaxed with a piece o’ cheese. To coax a human rat, like Tony here, you got to find the right kind of ‘cheese.’ See what kind of ‘cheese’ it’s going to take.”
As he stepped away, his two companions jumped the smaller man. Tony’s eyes widened in fear as one of the men grabbed him from behind and clamped his hand tightly around Tony’s mouth. The sound of a sickening crack followed by Tony’s muffled cries brought a smile to Eel’s lips.
“So, tell me, rat,” O’Brian asked, “was that the right kind?”
Tony nodded as he cradled his broken arm.
“You think of anything you need to tell me?”
O’Brian put his arm back around the man. “You know what, Tony? I believed you to begin with. But now, if you hear anything, you’ll come straight to me, won’t you?”
Eel patted his cheek. “Good boy.”
“Take Tony down to the Doc and get him patched up.”
Detective Jim Corrigan milked the flathead 8 in his new Ford coupe for every one of the 85 horses he could as he hurried to the Siegel-Bailey Home for Orphans. All it had taken was a phone call from the director announcing the discovery of a frightened young witness who had only just come forward.
He arrived just after breakfast.
The girl was excused from chores and was waiting with the director when the detective arrived.
“Detective Corrigan,” the director said as he showed him where the girl was waiting, “this is Mary Ann.”
Jim removed his hat and overcoat and knelt down on knee in front of the little girl. “Hello.”
“Hullo,” the little girl said as she clutched an old rag doll tightly to her chest.
“And how old are you?” he asked.
“May I sit with you?”
Mary Ann nodded.
“Mr. Tandy tells me that you saw something the other night,” Jim said as he sat down on the couch beside the little girl.
Again Mary Ann nodded.
“I’ve been trying really, really hard to find the bad men who broke in here, and Mr. Tandy thinks you might be able to help me. Do you want to help me find them?”
Detective Corrigan wasn’t used to this type of interrogation. It was so much easier when you could just use a little intimidation, but he knew that this would require more patience than he had ever been given credit for.
Mary Ann looked at him, and tears began to well up in the corners of her eyes.
This would be so much easier if I could… He wasn’t sure where he was going with that thought; he just knew that getting information from six-year old little girls wasn’t properly covered in any of his training. “Don’t cry, sweetie. Everything’s OK.”
“Am I gonna be in trouble?” Mary Ann asked.
Jim put his arm around her. “Oh, heavens, no. If you can help me, then you will be a hero.”
She raised her arm and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I couldn’t sleep the other night ’cause I had a bad dream. Sometimes, when I have dreams, Poppy will fix me some warm milk.”
The detective glanced up at Mr. Tandy.
“One of the night staff,” the director said. “He checks in on the kids and makes sure everyone is where they are supposed to be.”
“Did you find Poppy?” Jim asked.
Mr. Tandy said, “Poppy, Mr. Poppodolus, was off that night. His wife has been very sick for the past few days.”
The detective nodded and told the girl to continue.
“I looked for him, but he wasn’t nowhere. I was coming back upstairs when I heard someone in Mr. Tandy’s room.”
“I thought he would fix me some milk on account of he’s so nice, but when I looked in his room, he wasn’t there. Two strange men were looking for something, and one of them was saying bad stuff to the other. I got scared and hid under a chair.”
“That was a very smart thing to do,” Jim assured her.
“One of the men found something, I guess it was what they were looking for, and they started to leave. The one man who didn’t say bad things musta hurt himself on something, ’cause the other man called him a bad name and told him to shut up. He said he’d take him to the docks when they left.”
“Why did you not tell the nice policemen when they were here the next morning?” Jim asked her.
“We’re not s’posed to be up at night unless it’s a ‘mergency. I thought I would get in trouble. I’m sorry.”
“The important thing is that you told me what you saw,” Mr. Tandy said.
“You’re an awful brave little girl,” Jim said with a wink, “and I happen to know Santa likes brave little girls.”
At the mention of Santa, the girl looked up at Jim.
“I’ll put in a good word with him, and maybe he’ll bring you a new doll for Christmas,” Jim told her.
“Do you think he will?” Mary Ann asked, her excitement rising.
“I’m sure he will.”
The little girl threw her arms around the big detective and gave him a hug.
“Can you do one more thing for me, Mary Ann?” Detective Corrigan asked her.
He stood up. “Were the two men as tall as me?”
Mary Ann thought for a moment. “Only one, but not as tall.”
Jim knelt back down. “Sweetie, you have been a big help to me. I’m going to go now and see if I can find the bad men.”
The girl gave him another hug and then looked up at Mr. Tandy.
“You can go,” the director told her.
“Bye, ‘Tective Corgan,” she said as she ran out into the hall.
As Jim stood up, he took the director’s hand and shook it. “She was very helpful. You were right to call.”
“Thank you, Detective, but you shouldn’t have promised her the doll. Even if we get the money back now, it’ll be too late to buy the children gifts.”
“Trust me, Mr. Tandy. There will be a doll under the tree with that little girl’s name on it. Good day.”
As he drove away, Jim thought about what the girl had told him. The only thing he couldn’t figure out was why would the two men go to the docks. Regardless of how much the men had grabbed, it wouldn’t be worth the time or effort to leave town by boat.
He was almost back to the office when it dawned on him what she had really heard. There was only one place a man could go to get taken care of if he was injured doing something not quite legal.
Jim slammed on his brakes and sharply cut the wheel. His Ford slid around in the middle of the street, and he headed back the way he’d come. It was time to pay a visit to the man known as Doc.