by Dan Swanson
When Lily DeLuna used to work the nightshift, she had often stopped at the Opal City Diner on her way home. It was well out of her way, but it was the only place open that late. She hadn’t been able to eat at all yesterday due to excitement about the upcoming nocturnal expedition, and she was hungry. So, following the familiar roads, she soon ordered her favorite meal: a large salad, a cheeseburger smothered with sautéed mushrooms and onions, large fries, and a chocolate malted.
During the meal, she reviewed tonight’s action in her mind, analyzing it as she had been taught. She was astounded at how short a time it had actually taken. From the time she left her car until she returned, it had been less than an hour. She searched her memory for details she might have missed at the time, and was shocked to realize that she had heard, but failed to register at least three gunshots.
The flare must have blinded the shooters, but they had shot anyway. What kind of idiots were they? Lily was worried that someone might have been injured because of her actions. She resolved to investigate further the next day. Thankfully, she would be relieved to find out that no one had been injured by any stray bullets.
This wasn’t the first time Lily had been shot at by bad guys, and she hadn’t much cared for it last time, either. (*) She hadn’t realized how serious this business must be. If these guys thought that keeping their meeting a secret was worth risking a murder rap, there must be more going on than a little influence peddling. She needed to reconsider her precautions, if she wanted to keep investigating — or maybe if she just wanted to keep living.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Secret Files: Lily DeLuna: Times Past, 1943: The Summer of ’43.]
Lily had long known that being a reporter could be dangerous when the wrong people objected to the stories she wrote. She had learned this lesson as a sophomore reporter for her high school’s student newspaper.
She had written an article critical of the boys basketball team. The senior captain and his sidekick tried to register their objections with their fists. That had been Lily’s first real fight, and were those boys ever surprised when Lily fought back. And she kicked as well; neither kid had ever seen someone use her feet in a fight, as almost nobody studied martial arts in those days. Lily landed a side-kick to the solar plexus of the sidekick, and his collapse distracted the jock just long enough for a spinning kick between his legs. Lily wasn’t vindictive, so she just walked away and never mentioned the incident to anyone, except to analyze the fight with her sensei — her mother. Those two had never bothered her again. Apparently, though, the jock appreciated something about Lily, because he asked her to prom that year. Lily thought that was more than a little perverse and had coolly declined.
She shook her head vigorously; now was no time for daydreaming. Once again she replayed the incident tonight in her mind, this time concentrating on her security precautions. Could someone have recognized her?
The eight people at the meeting could not have done so. Not only had they been blinded by the flare, but she had been wearing a full-face mask at the time.
Well, then, what about other observers? She had to admit that there could have been others farther away. But even they would not have been able to see who she was. And she was sure nobody had followed her.
She had told no one about this little escapade in advance, and they clearly hadn’t been expecting her, or she wouldn’t have gotten away so easily. She ought to be safe. And tomorrow, when she showed these pictures to her editor, Harold McCallahan, he would have to assign her to the story — finally. She might have to work with Jerry Ordun, who was shunned by everyone in the office, but over the past few days, she had found she actually liked him, and he knew a lot more about journalism than most people believed.
Finishing dinner, she paid her bill, leaving a half-dollar tip. The service here was much better at night than during the day. Surprisingly enough, she thought the food was better late at night as well.
Just as she got into her car, her waitress rushed breathlessly out the door. “Lily! You left a half-dollar on the table!”
“That’s your tip, Jill. Thanks for the great meal and the even greater service!”
“Lily, it’s too much. I can’t accept this! A quarter, maybe! Here, let me give you change.” She tried to hand Lily a quarter; Lily was having none of it.
“Jill, you deserve it. You work hard all night long, but you are always cheerful, and you provide great service. And the food is great, too! I’ll see you next time!” She started the car and drove off, leaving Jill standing there with a bemused expression.
What the heck! she thought to herself. Maybe I’ll treat myself to a makeover today! She walked back inside with a new spring in her step. What a great customer Lily was. Too bad she didn’t come by much any more.
Stones had a problem. He didn’t know enough about this DeLuna broad. She worked at the Register, and she lived in a small apartment building on Oakland Avenue, right across the street from where he and his boys now sat in their parked car. The neighborhood was a mixture of small houses and apartments. It all looked pretty dull to Stones.
But they didn’t know which apartment, they didn’t know whether she drove a car or not, and they didn’t even know what she looked like.
Kee-ripes! Dis is what ya get when ya rush a mistro, he thought, meaning maestro, or himself. Notin’ but foul-ups! Well, maybe that’s not exactly what he thought, but close enough. If we see some frail goin’ inta that building this early in the morning, dat’s pro’lly her. But if she’d got here before us, how would we know? He was about to send Eddie out to call Mac for more details on DeLuna, when a car turned onto the street half a block away.
“Hey, boss, nice car, eh? If it’s dat DeLuna broad what we’s lookin’ for, she must be pretty well-heeled! Man, I wish I had me one like dat!” Eddie said mournfully. Then he cheered up. “Hey, boss, if we waste the broad, can I have the car?”
“Shut up, Eddie! We don’t even know if this is her. If she’s got enough dough for a rod like that, you’d t’ink she’d find a classier place to live!” The neighborhood was quiet and safe, and a little run-down. Stones was right; the gold Cord purring down the street really didn’t seem to belong in this neighborhood.
“OK, youse guys, duck, so she won’t see us!” The Cord cruised past, not even slowing down. After it passed by, their heads popped back up, and they watched it continue on. About four blocks farther on, it turned left and kept on going. “Must not have been her! Anyway, we’re gonna go find out more about this skirt. Eddie, you stay here and keep an eye on this place. If she comes out in the morning, you give me a call at my office!” Stones had changed his plans; why should he sit in the stupid car all night? He kept Eddie around just for boring jobs like this. Eddie knew it, too.
“Gee, boss, does it have to be me, again?” Eddie was still disappointed about losing his new car. “Why do I always get the crap jobs?”
“Dat’s the only jobs I’m sure you wont screw up, pinhead!” he said, or words to that effect. “Now shaddup and get outta da car!”
Eddie wasn’t satisfied. “But, boss, how will I know it’s her? We don’t even know what dis dame looks like.”
“She looks like a reporter, dimwit! Why do I always have to do all yer t’inkin’ for you? Get outta da car, or else!” Nobody knew what Stones meant by “or else.” A couple of years ago, Banana’s older brother Ace had defied an “or else” order and had never been heard from again. So nobody really cared to find out. “And while youse wait, see if you can find out her apartment number. Talk to people — make like a gumshoe! Then gimme a call in a couple hours. No shootin’, no matter what!”
From the journal of Lily DeLuna:
I had finally convinced myself that I was being paranoid about this whole thing. There was no way anyone could have connected me with the incident in the park, at least not yet. Once my story was printed, sure, then I might have to worry, but not now.
However, when I turned right on Oakwood, I saw a car in my parking spot, and my mental alarms went off all over again! You have to understand, I live in a pretty close neighborhood, and we all have our “own” parking spaces. There is plenty of room for everyone, and none of my neighbors would ever park in my spot — or vice versa.
I was only a half-block away, and I could see there were four people in the car. Just how stupid are these guys? They couldn’t have known they were parking in my spot, but anybody ought to know that if it’s dark, and you are trying to be inconspicuous, you shouldn’t be smoking! Shouldn’t be smoking, anyway; filthy, stinking habit, but still, it helped me spot them. Do they think nobody’s going to wonder about four grown men sitting in a parked car at 3:30 in the morning? How many guys do you know that sit together in a dark car on a dark street?
So, rather than slowing down to park, I sped up a little, like somebody taking a shortcut in a hurry to get home. Was it the cops, or the mob? They were driving a 1949 Chrysler New Yorker — had to be the mob; the police wouldn’t be using a brand-new car for a stakeout. Could they be here looking for somebody else? The coincidence seemed too unlikely. Like I said, we’re a close neighborhood, and I didn’t know of anybody else who might draw mob attention. Oh, Mr. Smith likes to play the numbers and bet on horses, and the Armstrong family’s two sons have been picked up for drunk and disorderly a couple of times, but I doubt that anyone would send four thugs to deal with them.
So I went down a couple more blocks and turned left onto Center, headed back towards downtown. I parked the car a couple of blocks away, and then very carefully made my way through backyards, and let myself into my building through the back door. It was hard to believe no one was watching the back! But I guess they figured I was probably home by then, and they wanted to catch me going out. When I got into my apartment, I didn’t turn any lights on, but moved over to the window so I could watch them. What was I going to do about them? Did I have to do anything? It seemed like it would probably be quiet for a few minutes, at least, so I took the time to try to figure out how they had found out about me.
My earlier reasoning was still sound. Nobody could have recognized me at the park, and nobody followed me. So someone had to have ratted on me. The only person who knew I had any interest in Councilor Ross and Boss Neuertski was Mac. Why, that rat! I started planning a few surprises for him. Just about then, one guy hopped out of the New Yorker, and the car pulled away. This guy went over to the bus stop and sat down. What now, Lily?
I might be able to find out something from this guy, but then again, from what I’d seen so far, I guessed he wouldn’t be the smartest thug in the state. Did I really want to take a chance, or should I just get away?
I decided, true to form, that I needed to at least try to learn something from him. This story was getting bigger and bigger by the hour, and when little Lily (snort!) sniffs a story, nobody better stand in her way!
Good, I now had a long-term goal: get the story! But I still didn’t know what to do right now. Clearly I had to make sure they couldn’t find me. Which meant I would have to hang my hat somewhere else for a while. Lucky for me, the rent was paid through the end of summer.
I tried to pack a suitcase, which was a lot more difficult in the dark than you might think. I changed my clothes, selecting some of my more… revealing garments. I worried over shoes — for what I had in mind, I should be wearing the highest heels I owned. But I might have to fight or run — and have you ever tried to fight or run in heels? Some of those mystery-women manage it, but I don’t see how! Maybe that’s one of their super-powers — fighting effectively in high heels? That would be a fun code name, wouldn’t it? High-Heels Girl! Funny how your mind can wander!
I decided to carry the shoes and use that as part of my cover. Lucky I was saving some hose with runs in them — I wouldn’t have to ruin a good pair, running around without shoes on. The tight skirt might interfere a little bit, but it was short enough that I should be OK.
I left my bag outside the back door, then walked through the building out the front door and across the street. I turned away from the bus stop and pretended I didn’t see the guy sitting there. I carried my shoes in one hand, and tried to walk as if I was trying to make as little sound as possible. When I reached a lamppost I could lean on, I stopped and started to put the shoes on. As I had hoped, the guy hopped up from the bench and hurried towards me!
“Hey, you, wait up!” he said in an urgent tone of voice. I looked up and pretended to be startled and a little scared, dropping my shoes.
“Who are you?” I asked him, trying to sound scared. “What are you doing around here?”
“Listen, sister, I’ll ask the questions!” he said roughly. I almost laughed — he had been watching too many gangster movies!
“Are you a cop?” I asked. Clearly he wasn’t. He did laugh.
“What, do I look like a cop? What’re you doing here? Do you live here?”
Well, he had asked for it. “Do I look like I live here, smart guy?” And then in a lower tone, trying to sound regretful, I added, “Although I spend more time here than I do at my own home…” I then looked at him defiantly. “I was visiting my boyfriend. Now, unless you really are a cop, tell me what you are doing here, or bug off!”
“I’m lookin’ for a girl. Since you spend so much time here, maybe you know her? Broad named Lily somethin’ or other.”
“Well, sugar…” I answered in as sweet a tone as I could muster, “…if you’re looking for a girl, what’s wrong with me?” I struck that classic pose; you know, leaning against the lamppost, one arm behind my head, my other hand on my hip, one leg bent at the knee — you know the one I’m talking about!
“You sure your ‘boyfriend’ won’t object? What, he ain’t treating you good enough? Ha-ha-ha!” He really laughed like that! “Maybe he don’t give you enough presents, you know, those pictures of presidents? Ha-ha-ha-ha!”
“What he gives me is none o’ your business, bozo. Say, did you know you sound a lot like a jackass when you laugh?” I realized I wasn’t going to learn anything more from Sluggo here, and I wanted to end this “meeting” before the cops actually did show up. Sooner or later, Sluggo’s yelling was going to wake someone up, and then someone would call the police. And I really wouldn’t want to be thrown in a jail cell with a bunch of drunks dressed like this!
He stopped laughing real fast, then, and without warning swung his arm in a vicious backhand blow at my head. (Well, he probably thought it was without warning, but I was expecting some kind of attack!) If it had hit me, it might have knocked me down — maybe. But he didn’t even come close. I ducked, and when he didn’t hit anything, he stumbled, off-balance and wide-open. If I’d been out to kill him… but I wasn’t. I brought my purse around in a two-handed swing, just like a baseball bat. In fact, the penny rolls I’d dropped into the purse made it weigh just about the same as my favorite bat. I hit him on the side of the jaw, and his head snapped around away from the impact, spinning his body as well, and then he collapsed to the ground. I hear you saying, “He must have had a glass jaw!” Glass jaw, hell! That blow would have dropped Joe Louis in his prime!
I let out a sigh of relief when I discovered he was still breathing. After I had deliberately passed up an opening for a fatal attack, I would have felt awful about killing him by accident!
It had been a quick fight. Hopefully nobody had seen enough to know it was I dressed like this, or they might toss me out of the neighborhood! I had to get off the street soon before the early risers came out. I wasn’t sure what to do about Sluggo out cold on the sidewalk, so I decided to just leave him there. I hadn’t learned much, but I had confirmed that he wasn’t a cop, and they were looking for me. Time for little Lily to get a move on!
I quickly went through his pockets and took his wallet. He had a gun in a shoulder holster, a German Luger. Not something I would carry — I like my Smith and Wesson Police Special.
I broke open the Luger, pulled out the bullets, and left the gun lying on his chest. I couldn’t use the ammo, either, but I couldn’t leave the shells out where someone could find them and get hurt! One of my cousins had lost an eye when he was twelve playing with some .22 bullets some idiot had left out where kids could get at them. I knew better. I dropped them in my purse to worry about later.
I walked around back, put on the jacket and flats I’d left atop the suitcase, and lugged it to the car. I wanted to take my bike as well, but I didn’t have a trailer hitch on the Cord. I’d be back for it later today, though. I knew just where to go.
As I headed out of town, I couldn’t help but regret that I hadn’t learned more from Sluggo. Just in case none of my neighbors was awake yet, I stopped at the first phone booth and called the police, telling them that some guy was trying to beat up a woman on the street outside my apartment. They promised to be there within minutes. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see his face when he woke up in a jail cell, but I had other things to do. All in all, a pretty satisfying night, although maybe a little tame.
End journal entry.