Suspense Detective: 1953: Tomas Thomas, P.I., Chapter 3: A High-Speed Chase

by Dan Swanson

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Research isn’t much fun, usually, but with my photographic memory, at least I can hurry through it. The problem for me is making sure I look at as little extraneous material as possible. I spent several hours in the morgue at The Tribune, followed by several more at The Defender.

Harvey was named in some old sports stories in The Defender. Seems he was pretty good throwing the javelin, and he had received some national attention while he was still in high school. He would possibly have competed in the 1936 Olympics if he hadn’t enlisted. One of the stories talked about his background, and I found out that he and Ida had grown up in the Guardian Angel Orphanage.

There were stories about Harvey joining the army in ’35, and each time he got a medal during World War II. And his obituary. The obit gave me his last unit. No relatives other than Ida were named.

Over the past four years, Ida’s name had started to show up on the fashion pages. About two years ago, she had resigned from one of the big local fashion houses and created her own lines. She had been an instant success, and her lines had even been picked up in New York, Paris, and London. She had been included in The Defender‘s list of “Chicago’s 100 Most Eligible Women” in 1952.

I found some stories in the news sections as well. Search as I did, I couldn’t find anything about Harvey’s rampage on the waterfront, or the court hearing that remanded him to McClelland. But I did find a story on the court proceedings to declare him officially alive again. And shortly thereafter, another hearing in which he was declared to be mentally competent again, and given probation. I got his lawyer’s names from these stories. It struck me as somewhat strange that he had been represented by two different law firms in these two cases.

I checked the phone books and found addresses for the orphanage, the sanitarium, both law firms, and Ida’s office, as well as her home address.

Nothing on their parents, even though I went back to 1900.

A good start, and enough newspaper research for a day. I put my notes in an envelope and mailed them to Bonnie, and then headed home for the day.

I started up my old Studebaker pickup and headed south out of town. I’d recently moved to Calumet, Indiana. As I turned onto Michigan Avenue headed south, I realized that one of the cars behind me had made the same turns I had, the last four times. I turned left on East 31st, and this same car was still back there. This wasn’t that unusual; I was headed for Lake Shore Drive (U.S. 41) to go south, and this was the best route from where we’d started. And it seemed like a pretty flashy car to tail someone in: an Aston Martin DB2.

Still, I thought I’d check it out. I turned south on Calumet Avenue, and he followed me. So I pulled into a gas station and watched him drive by, still headed south. When I’d filled up, I headed back north on Calumet, and then east on East 31st. I turned south on Lake Shore Drive and picked up speed. A few miles later I slowed down a little, and sure enough, there he was again. This guy had to be following me; no way could it be coincidence after the detour I’d taken.

I wanted to find out if he was just following me, perhaps to find out where I live, or chasing me. If he was only following me, when he realized I knew he was there, he would just peel off and give up, trying to make me think it was coincidence, and pick it up again later, perhaps with a less obvious car and maybe a couple of teams rather than just one. If he was chasing me, I’d know it in seconds. I could only think of one reason someone would be chasing me — to do me harm!

Well, I wasn’t going to lead him home, that’s for sure, but I wanted to find out who it was. There was no way I could outrun him. However, unless he knew the local streets as well as I did, I was pretty sure I could outwit him. I slowed down a bit more, and then, when he got a little closer, I stomped on the gas, hoping to convince him I had just seen him for the first time. He sped up as well. That answered that question — he was chasing me.

My reflexes make me among the safest drivers on the road, even at high speed in moderate traffic. But the guy chasing me didn’t have enhanced reflexes, and in the mirror I saw him run someone off the road. I had to get off Route 41 before he killed someone!

I had driven all over the Calumet area before I rented my beachfront house, so I quickly reviewed the roads in my mind. I needed some narrow, twisting, rough roads to offset the tremendous speed and acceleration advantages the Aston Martin had over my pickup truck. The DB2 certainly cornered better, but my reflexes might offset that advantage. A quick right at the next intersection, a half-mile and another right, onto a narrow dirt road — yup, that was the one I needed.

I waited as long as I could before I braked for my right turn. I slammed the brakes on hard, downshifted, and pulled the wheel hard over — and the back end broke loose as I started to fishtail. I was ready for that, took my foot off the brake, and steered into the slide — and man, I was around the corner and away, hardly even slowing down! I was back in fourth gear almost instantly and lost hardly any speed.

I’d never been one for driving at high speeds, but that turn sure had been exhilarating! Maybe I’d take up amateur racing after this. Sure enough, the DB2 followed, and now that we were on a road with no other traffic, it started to close in on me. Racing down a deserted, tree-lined road, it was hard to believe that we were only a few miles from downtown Chicago.

As I approached my next right turn, the Aston Martin got close enough that I could see two people in the front. The passenger leaned out the window and started shooting at me. I didn’t need to guess at their intentions any longer!

He was shooting a pistol, and on this rough road he missed his first shot. His next shot hit my tailgate, which really made me angry. It was an old truck, but I kept it in pretty good condition. I really couldn’t afford to replace the tailgate, though.

Suddenly, I stood on the brake as hard as I could! The truck started to slide around again, but this time I was ready for it, and just before I lost control again, I released the brake and accelerated again.

Aston Martins are high-performance cars — very expensive and worth every penny! They have always advertised based on performance — “Zero to sixty to zero in eleven seconds!” was one ad I remembered. Even so, when the driver behind me jammed on his brakes, the DB2 fishtailed a couple of times, and the driver panicked and over-steered, and his car went into a spin. Unfortunately for me, it didn’t roll, but it did come to a complete stop. By the time he was moving again, I had gained a quarter-mile.

My turn was rushing towards me. I braked again, downshifted to second, and made another fishtailing right turn. This was the road I’d picked to finally give me an advantage in this chase. It was narrow, unpaved, and rutted, and it gave me satisfaction to know that it was tearing the hell out of the Aston‘s suspension. But he kept coming. I was pulling away even farther when the road straightened out into a clearing.

The woods here had been cleared for a farm, but the family had gone bankrupt, beaten by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and the place had been deserted for around twenty years. The house had been built in the 1880s, and built to last. I had traipsed through the place and considered buying it, but it was really too big for me, and I wasn’t really the fixer-upper type.

I had misjudged things — I had figured that, by the time we got here, I would have been far enough ahead to fly across the clearing safely. Instead, the Aston Martin burst into the clearing behind me only a hundred yards back.

Once more, the passenger leaned out the window. This time he was holding something different; he held it like a pistol, but it looked much bigger. I kept glancing at the rear-view mirror, trying to figure out what to do next, and I just happened to be watching when he pulled the trigger. It was larger and slower than a bullet, and it left a trail of smoke behind.

Holy $#!*! A pistol rocket-launcher! I slammed into a hard left turn, and suddenly I was in the field, and this time the rear end went all the way around, and the damn truck stalled. But the missile missed, and another second later it flashed into the trees at the far end of the clearing and exploded!

I was out of the truck and running towards the old farmhouse before the explosion. I wasn’t running flat out; I wanted to make sure they saw me, and maybe not lob another rocket at my truck. I tell you, never trust the bad guys! I guess they were making sure I couldn’t get away, but just as I reached the corner of the house, my poor truck blew up. These guys were serious! Well, so was I. I would just have to “borrow” their car when this little party was over.

I heard the engine stop and the doors open and close. Three guys were yelling at each other. There must have been a third guy in the back seat of the Aston Martin. That couldn’t have been a comfortable ride, especially over those bumpy roads! One of them was giving orders to the other two, and he had a German accent. The other two sounded very Chicago. From the back of the house, I couldn’t see them, but they couldn’t see me, either.

I thought about going down the cellar stairs and into the house. Maybe I could sneak through it and take them by surprise. But then it occurred to me that if I stayed outside, I should be able to use my superior speed to greater advantage.

Good thing I didn’t rush inside, because suddenly there was the sound of glass breaking, and then a massive explosion inside the house!

Even my speed and reflexes weren’t enough to avoid that blast. When I heard the glass shatter, I dropped like a stone to the ground, and suddenly all hell broke loose! The rocket exploded in the front hallway, against the stairs, and stuff started flying!

The back wall remained standing, although all the windows blew out, and the debris started to rain down on me. I started crawling towards the stairwell for the basement, just as a broken fragment of what must have been a main beam from the roof crashed down and hit me!

Fortunately, it didn’t hit me squarely. It hit a glancing blow to my left shoulder, which knocked me down, and I fell into the stairwell. It was only about six feet deep, but my head slammed against the top stop, and I bounced twice more before I reached the bottom. I lay there in too much pain to move, even to try to escape other falling debris. My left shoulder seemed to be separated, and I’d never felt pain like that before! My vision was hazing over with red, and I could hear a loud pounding in my ears, and I was retching from the pain. And this was before I realized that I had at least two broken ribs and a concussion!

The only stroke of luck, if you could call it that, was that the beam that had smashed me so painfully into the stairwell ended up laying across the upper opening — which probably saved my life.

The first rocket must not have satisfied them, because shortly afterwards there was another explosion, and the back wall of the house came down. The beam kept a section of wall from falling in on me, and most of the rest of the debris landed on the wall section. But I wasn’t off the hook yet!

A shard of glass blew through one of the cracks and hit me in the left shin, slicking through to the bone and sticking there. Fortunately, there isn’t much in the way of muscle covering the shin, and the bleeding wasn’t too bad. I realized that I wasn’t in nearly as much pain as I would have expected; my earlier injuries must have driven me into shock. And all I could hear was the pounding in my ears.

Well, I decided that I could do nothing and bleed to death, or try to take care of myself and hope these guys were through. I decided on door number two. I pulled out my Swiss Army knife and cut away my torn pants leg, then wrapped the cloth around the glass sliver and pulled it out. You may be getting queasy reading about this, but it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounded. Something was definitely dulling my pain. I then used part of the pant leg as a bandage and tied it on with the rest.

A few seconds later, debris stopped falling, and I realized I couldn’t hear anything. Two explosions that close to me had definitely not been good on my ears.

So there I was: injured, deaf, and trapped in the basement stairwell under a pile of debris. At least, I thought, it can’t get much worse!

I stood up as best I could, and climbed the stairs to see if there was any way I could start working my way through the rubble. I didn’t want this stairwell to become my tomb! What happened next should teach me never to tempt fate. Just as I stood up, I heard a third explosion! This one must have been much closer than the others, because even through my current deafness, I could still hear it.

The debris over the stairwell protected me from the actual blast, but the ground shook so hard I lost my balance, and came down hard on my left leg. Which, of course, collapsed, and I pitched forward, banging my head on the concrete wall, which knocked me unconscious.

When I came to, I somehow knew I had only been unconscious for a few minutes. I figured I had better get out before something else bad happened. So I…

So I what? I can’t remember! How can I be sitting here writing this down, months later, if I can’t remember how I got out of that stairwell?


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