Suspense Detective: 1953: Tomas Thomas, P.I., Chapter 2: Where is Harvey Autumn?

by Dan Swanson

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I called Bonnie on the intercom and asked her to escort Miss Autumn to the conference room while I cleaned up a little bit. When I walked in, she got right down to business.

“I would like to hire Dewey, Ketchum, and Howe to find out who this man is.” She handed me a color photograph of a blond man, with serious burn scars on his face and neck, who had obviously undergone extensive reconstructive surgery.

“OK. I’ll need more than just a picture, though. What do you know about him?”

“He claims he’s my brother. But he’s not. At least, I hope he’s not!” She was starting to sound desperate, almost like she was pleading with the universe to save her from something horrible. I looked at the picture, looked at her, looked back at the picture, mentally subtracted the scars… there was a definite resemblance there. He could easily pass for a relative.

I was finished inspecting the picture. No real information there, it seemed. “Ida, how can you be unsure whether or not he’s your brother?” It was almost a rhetorical question; I could easily think of two or three possibilities. But I needed to restart the conversation.

What I got was her life’s story. Probably more than I needed to know in order to solve the case, but I paid careful attention, anyway. You never know what background information might help you figure out who done it.

As she started telling her story, I suddenly realized what was bothering me about her. Her accent was pure Chicago — someone who had spent her whole life on Chicago’s Far North side. But her body language didn’t match. She wasn’t using her hands when she talked — she kept them folded in her lap. And her head movements were too restrained, too short, too few.

I’m not going to go into all the details here, but here’s a quick summary:

She’d had a brother named Harvey. Their parents had died when she was seven and Harvey was eleven. They had no known relatives, and ended up in an orphanage. In 1935, as soon as he was seventeen, Harvey had joined the army.

He remained in the army until his death in 1945, in the Battle for Berlin. Meanwhile, she had left the orphanage at seventeen and gone to work in the fashion industry, and by 1953 she had become a sought-after designer.

Early in 1953, she had been shocked when she was contacted by a Dr. Gilbert Gosain, representing the McClelland Sanitarium in Northern Indiana. Gosain told her that one of his patients, an amnesiac, had recently regained much of his memory after receiving revolutionary electroshock treatments (performed by Dr. Gosain, of course). He claimed to be Harvey Autumn, and all the research that Dr. Gosain had been able to do convinced him (the doctor) that this really was Harvey.

Gosain told her what he had discovered of Harvey’s story. This man had come ashore in Chicago off of a Great Lakes freighter a couple of months ago. The records that Gosain had been able to uncover showed that Harvey had joined the crew of this freighter in Quebec City. At the time he was hired, he had claimed to have just left the crew of a Transatlantic freighter that had shipped from Hamburg, Germany. He had kept to himself on both ships, and the crews knew almost nothing about him.

He had ended up at McClelland, because once he left the ship in Chicago, he somehow snapped and went wild. He went on a mindless rampage, attacking anyone nearby with wild punches and kicks, bites and head butts. He was a pretty big guy, and in his mindless rage, it took half a dozen policemen to finally subdue him. He was quickly judged to be mentally incompetent, and soon had been remanded to McClelland.

Gosain had immediately started him on electrotherapy, and the results were also immediate. And the process was unbelievably successful! Within days, Harvey had regained his identity, and shortly afterwards, enough of his memory and sanity that Gosain had decided that he could leave the hospital and continue his recovery in a more familiar environment.

Ida was thrilled to have her “dead” brother back! Harvey had always been her hero, the shining knight who had protected her when other kids at the orphanage picked on her. Dr. Gosain warned her that Harvey’s mind had been severely damaged, and he would never again be the man she remembered, but she was determined to take care of him as, years ago, he had taken care of her. Over the next six months, she discovered that Dr. Gosain was right.

She thought she was becoming paranoid when she started to suspect that this wasn’t really Harvey. He seemed to know things that proved he was Harvey. But she couldn’t believe that, even with severe brain damage, Harvey would treat her abusively. The last straw was when, yesterday, he had actually tried to rape her, and after she fought him off, he threatened to kill her if she told anyone!

That was enough. I was sold, I was on the job! I asked her a lot of questions, and we went over various parts of the story again. I was already starting to get a bad feeling about this case! She had put herself in danger just by coming here, and I wanted to help keep her safe. I suggested that, rather than going back home to her brother, she ought to think of someplace else to live for the next few days. She had been thinking somewhat along the same lines.

I was about to suggest to her that, on other occasions, some of our other female clients had stayed with Bonnie, when she suddenly belched. Not a little ladylike burp, either! It startled both of us, and I think she was incredibly embarrassed. Or she would have been, but just a second later, she screamed as if she was in terrible pain, put both her hands over her heart, tried to stand, and collapsed!

Since I took the anti-crime drug, I haven’t encountered many people who can move faster than I can. (*) I caught her before she could fall, and put her gently down on my couch. All the time I was screaming for Bonnie to call an ambulance. Ida’s face was whiter than anything I had ever seen before; it looked as if all of her blood had suddenly drained from her head. And in fact, this is what had happened.

A major aneurysm in her heart had burst, and her blood rushed out of the head and heart and into her chest cavity. Even as fast as I moved, she was dead before I touched her.


From the personal journal of Tomas Thomas, Private Detective:

If you are reading this journal, please don’t think I was as emotionless as the writing sounds. I’m writing this months later, and trying to be as unemotional as possible. At the time, I was almost hysterical! I was screaming, and I punched a hole in the wall of my office, and Bonnie actually threw a pitcher of water on me to get my attention! I had seen people die before in combat, including good friends, but had never seen anyone murdered. Watching someone die is never easy, but I found that watching the murder of someone who was apparently guilty of nothing but compassion was the most difficult emotional experience of my life.

The autopsy later reported that Ida had had a heart aneurysm and declared that it was a natural death, but I knew immediately after she died that she had been murdered. That autopsy would do nothing to change my mind. The timing — coming just after “Harvey” had threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the rape attempt, and she had ignored his warning and told me — seemed conclusive to me. Yes, I suppose it could have been a coincidence, but my gut told me otherwise.

This was a different sort of murder case than any of the others I had been involved with in my short time with DK&H. Usually there are several suspects, and the detective has to deduce which one is the murder, but in this case, there was only one suspect, and I had already deduced. Often, motive needed to be established, but in this case, I already had two motives — the murderer was trying to usurp Harvey’s identity, and Ida was about to expose him, and he had just attempted rape, and she was also about to expose that. And in many cases, the murder weapon was obvious — a gun, knife, rock, axe, bottle of poison, et cetera. In this case the murder weapon had been a heart aneurysm. How do you use a heart aneurysm as a weapon?

I had to fight hard to convince myself that I couldn’t have saved her, and that her death was my fault. She had already been dead when she walked into my office, she just hadn’t known it yet. I had to believe that, or my remorse and guilt would interfere with my ability to think clearly. And as much or more than any time in my life, I wanted to think clearly now!

There is a kind of natural antipathy between many cops and most private detectives. Some of it starts on their side — they feel that our very existence implies that they can’t do their jobs and need backup. I can’t blame it all on the cops, though, because some private detectives routinely break the law. And both sides are reluctant to share information, because both sides want to be able to take the credit when a case is solved. For the P.I., it may be a question of getting paid. For the cop, it may be a question of promotion.

So I wasn’t surprised when the patrolmen who answered Bonnie’s call were hostile. But I wasn’t in the mood to put up with it, either. I was just about to wipe the floor with them, which surely wouldn’t have been good for my future employment opportunities, when Police Detective Bill Brennan walked in. I had met Detective Brennan on my first case, and we had both immediately recognized a brother Marine. That started us off on the right foot, and I had made an effort to remain on good terms with him.

At the sight of him, I hesitated, and Brennan immediately picked up on what had been going on. He is as good with body language recognition as anyone I’ve met, including me.

“Thanks, boys! I’ll talk to Mr. Thomas, here. One of you head downstairs and bring the medical crew up here when they arrive, and the other, keep folks out of this room until my team has a chance to check the room.” Bill is the commander of the Chicago Homicide Investigation Squad.

The two cops looked a little disappointed that they weren’t going to get in some fun exercise busting the head of a private dick. Well, at least that’s what they thought. They both left the room. Brennan brought in his crew, and they started a careful, thorough, and — to my eyes — highly professional examination of the entire room. Detective Brennan interviewed me.

“Howdy, Injun!” That had been my nickname in the Marines, and only a Marine could have gotten away calling me that. “Don’t you have better things to do than baiting cops?” He stuck out his hand to shake hands, and that friendly gesture, as well as his smile, disarmed my flash of anger.

“They don’t know how lucky they are, Klattu.” Brennan was a UFO buff, and somewhat resembled Michael Rennie, who played Klattu in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still from a couple years back. After his crew found out he’d seen the movie a half-dozen times, the nickname was a natural. I noticed that nobody but me used his nickname in his presence.

“I’ve seen you fight; I know how lucky they are. But you’re damned lucky I broke it up — if they’d been able to get out an 11-99–” Police code for officer in trouble. “–every cop within fifty blocks would have been here in minutes, and even you can’t fight an army! You wanna be successful in the private eye biz, you are gonna have to learn to control your temper!”

I nodded, chagrined, because I realized that he was right. He had saved me from serious trouble. “Can you call your guys off? I didn’t have anything to do with this. She just stood up and died. Her face looks like she met up with a vampire, but there was nobody in the office but the two of us.”

He asked me some questions, and I ended up playing back the tape recording I’d made of our conversation. We always tape our discussions with clients, just so there won’t be any misunderstandings later on. Brennan confiscated the tape as evidence. I would have complained, but we had another that he didn’t know about. His crew finally finished collecting evidence, and the ambulance had arrived and removed Ida to the coroner’s office. Brennan sent along word to make this case his highest priority.

“Well, Injun, I’m convinced you’re clean. But somebody may want to talk to you again, so don’t leave town for a while, OK?” I nodded. “By the way, I know you well enough to know that, even though your client is dead, and you won’t get paid for this case, you are going to investigate anyway. I know nothin’ I say will stop you.

“So, I’m tellin’ you this right now. Once the coroner certifies this as an ‘Act of God,’ and he will, our interest in this case will be over. Unless he finds evidence that this was a murder, that will take about a day. So you steer clear of this until I give you a call, understand?” I nodded, he shook my hand, and we parted with some pleasantries. He really was a good guy.

But no way was I going to hold off until tomorrow! Still, I could make sure I stayed away from the police. I could use the time doing research in the public library and some of the local newspapers. Time to get started on the legwork!

Just as I was heading out the door, a carpenter popped into the room with some plaster and his tools. Great girl, that Bonnie! Always taking care of me. I was sure the cost would come discreetly out of my paycheck, and the partners would never see the bill. I made a mental note to have flowers delivered tomorrow.

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