EASY ESSAYS
EASY ESSAYS
Syndic Literary Journal

AA ~ The Adventures of Henrietta Fine ~ Chapter Three

The Adventures of Henrietta Fine

By Paul Levitt

Narrated by Elizabeth Mansfield

Published by LeRoy Chatfield

 

Chapter Three

If I had missed Houdini’s phone call that night, I could have avoided all that ensued: the raid, the arrest, the flight, the bootlegging, and the sordid affair with the diamonds. In early June, he rang. I was glued to the crystal set listening to Smith and Dale’s comedy skit, “Dr. Kronkhite.” Mom said the call was for me. I told her to take a message. Dr. Kronkhite was looking down a patient’s throat. “Come now, say ah-ah. Open please, open wider. I can’t see a thing.” Not one to give up, Dr. Kronkhite kept up the exam. “So now again, say ah-ah-.” Silence. “Ah ha, I knew it—knew it!”

“You knew vot?” pleaded the patient. “Vot iss it?”

“You need glasses,” Dr. Kronkhite replied.

“Iss that all?”

“And that tongue of yours belongs in a delicatessen.”

When I heard that Harry had rung, I called back at once. He had agreed to perform at a weekend party in Long Island and needed someone to assist with his act. James Collins, his regular assistant, was visiting family in Ireland. Would I be willing to help?

“Go, go, enjoy yourself!” said Mom.

So on the Saturday, a steamy perspiring morning, I found myself sitting next to Harry as we headed for Long Island.

Harry and I had become thick when Mr. Courtney invited me to join his Thursday evening meetings in Brooklyn, where master locksmiths from all over the city convened in a local mortician’s basement to discuss tricks of the trade. A faithful member of that group, Harry insisted on driving me because he didn’t think the subways were safe. During those car rides I heard all about Harry. At the time, he was forty-eight and had pretty much given up escapology for touring the circuses in a new act, debunking spiritualists.

A short muscular man, with close-set eyes and black wavy hair, he talked gruffly and ungrammatically, hated off-color jokes, and said he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, though he came from Budapest. His real name was Ehrich Weiss, but not until years later did I learn that his father was a poor rabbi, reduced to supporting himself in a sweatshop cutting ties. Harry worshipped his mother, Cecilia Weiss, and not even Bess, his wife, mattered more. When talking about his mother, he would break down and weep. When she died, he was touring in Europe. In desperation, he tried to reach her through séances. “There’s a million of ’em cheatin’ the public because of the war,” he said on one of our drives. “People wannna be in touch with their kids who wuz killed.” Although he never said so, I suspected that his crusade to have spiritualists banned was to punish the few who had taken in vain Cecilia Weiss’s name.

When I asked him to teach me some of his tricks, he agreed, explaining, for example, how mediums altered their voice with a speaking trumpet and created spirit hands; how they used an assistant, or a switch attached to the table or floor, to pipe in music through a vent; and how they called up secrets from somebody’s past, a vaudeville act that always entertained me.

“I first tried that routine in Galena, Kansas,” said Harry. “It wuz summer . . . the air so heavy and hot you needed an oxygen tent to survive. I went to all the cemeteries around town and copied names and dates from the headstones. Afterwards, I popped into the library–some library!–and read through a lotta old newspapers. I even spent an afternoon sittin’ in the barbershop, gettin’ my hair cut and listenin’ to the local gossip, all the scandals and crimes. What a lotta hayseeds. The Opera House wuz full. Half of ’em believed in séances and the other half wanted to see for themselves all the hullabaloo. At first, I yakked about the spirit world. I closed my eyes. I opened them. I trembled. I said I could feel strange spirits in the air, sendin’ me messages. I named names, gave dates, told family secrets. Then I described the slit throat of someone who’d just been croaked. The Opera House wuz in an uproar. People were screamin’, a few fainted, some bolted out the door. America’s a country full of suckers. Out in the sticks, we got a saying, ‘You know where Americans go after they’ve been suckered? Back again for more.’”

As we drove over the bridge and headed for North Port, I hung on to my seat. A heedless driver, Harry would come up full steam on a stop and jam on the brakes. Often as not, he’d have one tire on the shoulder and one on the road. Speed seemed to excite him; the faster the car hurtled down the country roads of Long Island, the broader his smile became. He reminded me of a kid in a bumper car at Coney Island. But Harry drove a six-seater black Duesenberg that looked as long as a railroad car. The only thing missing was a porter. When you stepped into the Duez, you felt as if you were entering the Vanderbilts’ living room. The cushy leather seats made me wish I had a coat cut from the stuff. Harry had rolled up the top, which gave us the appearance of royalty. As we passed through the city streets, I couldn’t help but wonder how many car thieves were eyeing this chariot.

With a top speed of ninety, the car could overtake most everyone else on the road. Before long, we found ourselves stuck behind a long line of crawling catering trucks, all heading, I guessed, for the same place in North Port. Directly in front of us, a truck with the name “Guralnick: Pears of Paradise” painted on the sides and back, inched along behind trucks bearing lawn rentals, poultry, fresh vegetables, dairy goods, and confections. A truck near the front was inscribed, “Wan Dim: Lanterns, Fireworks, Candles, and Incense.”

Close to noon, we pulled into a gravel drive that meandered for several hundred yards through maples and oaks before reaching a broad grassy field, with stables and a garage that looked large enough to accommodate all the cars in Long Island. Two young men decked out in tuxedos and speaking with British accents came up to the car, offering to carry our equipment and cases. Harry asked about a dressing room close to the stage, where he might store his trunk, as well as folding cabinet and portable table. The tuxes pointed to a tool shed that had been converted, they said, for exactly that purpose.

“I hope you don’t mind,” said one of the Brits.

“Don’t worry,” said Harry, laughing, “I’ve played in some towns where the theater was as small as this shed.”

The stage, a three-foot high platform covered in canvas, stood between the house and the beach.

Shouldering the luggage, the tuxes led us up to the house, a sprawling French-style chateau facing the water and, across the bay, Lily Gillespie’s home. What a coincidence, I thought, as we followed the boys to the bedrooms, which the owner of the house had set aside for us. Mine, decorated all in red, with upholstered couches and chairs and a desk, held an aquarium, with exotic tropical fish swimming around pieces of coral and stones that glittered like diamonds.

“I hope you like it, pal,” said a voice from behind me. Turning around, I saw a man in white ducks and a blue sailing shirt. “Harry called to say that you’d be along.”

“It’s nifty,” I stupidly answered.

“If you need anything, just ask. Have the run of the place.” Just as magically as he had appeared, he vanished. When I saw Harry, I told him, “This joint has great help. Some fellow breezes in to welcome me and to say that you told him I’d be along and tells me to treat this place like my own.”

Harry chuckled, with a knowing twinkle in his eye.

For most of the afternoon, we practiced the act, in which Harry escapes from chains secured with a lock. We repeated my part until I could smoothly pass him a key unseen by the crowd. About three-thirty, we had finished rehearsing, so I went for a walk. The lawn buzzed with attendants, setting up tables and tents, and stringing blue Chinese lanterns from the house to the beach. Caterers scurried from their trucks to the kitchen, hauling crates. Although the party wasn’t scheduled to start until five, a boisterous swimming crowd had already gathered down at the beach, and were frolicking around the raft, which had chaises longues, benches, and chairs, two separate diving boards, and three sets of steps. A hydroplane bobbed at anchor no more than fifty yards off shore, and a crowed of nine or ten young men were showing off for the silent screen actress soon to become famous as the “It” Girl, Clara Bow. A year older than I, Clara was madly chomping a wad of gum and teasing some of the boys.

“Aw, g’wan, if you knew your onions like you was supposedta, you’da known that movie kisses don’t mean nothin’.”

I had read in Photoplay magazine that she had flown from New York to the Coast for a screen test with Metro.

“I hope you’re not one of dem minute men–the minute ya know a girl, ya think ya can kiss her.”

She had eyes that would drag any worm from his book. And in just a few years, her heart-shaped mouth would cause a million women to reshape their lips with pencils and dyes.

While all these dream-making trappings enhanced recreation, down the beach, at a boathouse and dock fit for a liner, two speedboats sat parked, looking like torpedoes ready for business, not fun. I saw the same hired hand who’d greeted me when I first arrived in my room walk from the speedboats to the head of the lawn, where he seemed to be eyeing the setting just like a big-shot director making a movie.

I heard a voice say, “Don’t be silly. He couldna croaked someone.”

They were talking about the owner of this sprawling estate, a person I still hadn’t met. When I asked Harry the name of the guy, he said Rodman, and quickly added that bootleggers often used different names. For some reason, the sins of its owner made this estate seem especially magical.

Before long, buffet tables littered the lawn and a large orchestra, with woodwinds and brass, had begun to assemble. A portable bar rose out of the lawn, with a genuine brass rail and three bartenders just an arm’s reach away from imported gins and ryes and rums and liqueurs and beers and mixers and chasers and gingers and ales. The first man to reach the bar, a guy wearing a silk checkered ascot and a pink shirt, toasted the Anti-Saloon League.

“Here’s to the sturdy people who ushered in Prohibition,” he said, raising his glass. “Every criminal in America loves ’em. The dear old 18th Amendment, the maker of millions. Those poor blind buzzards. They think just ’cause the saloon at the corner is closed, America is dry. What a lotta dumb clucks.”

I saw Harry talking to Joe Frisco, the stuttering comic and dancer who was making quite a splash in the nightclubs. Harry and Joe were comparing notes about the rigors of performing in the sticks. “Outside of New York,” said Harry, “it’s all Bridgeport.”

Harry indicated that he wanted to talk to Frisco about the evening’s performance, so I took a powder. Strolling to the top of the lawn, which gave me a clear view of the drive, I stood transfixed. Cars were pulling up right and left, parking every which way, as the Sheiks and Shebas floated out of their roadsters like migrating moths in search of the light. A rainbow of colored dresses spilled out on the lawn. But for all their differences, the women all seemed like John Held Jr.’s illustrations of flappers: hair bobbed, foreheads concealed behind silk scarves tied to one side, chests flattened, waists narrowed, hips slimmed, skirts shortened to reveal stockinged legs as glossy as ivory. Some women had rolled their stockings above their knees; some had garters; and some, special garters holding flasks. They all shone with rouged cheeks, face powder, poisonously scarlet lips, mascara, and a pencil line in place of eyebrows. Even with all their makeup they looked as if they were suffering from pallor mortis.

Cigarettes dangled from their lips, as they headed for the bar. In the sun, their gossamer dresses hung limply. Petticoats had fallen out of fashion, except among immigrant mothers and their children. I had to laugh, thinking of my Uncle Sam. I wished him the worst.

The revelers were swinging and swaying. You could see they were warming up for the band. If my mother could have understood their brassy talk, she would have shoved a bar of soap in my mouth for saying “damn.” I’d have needed a warehouse of detergents to handle this crowd, the women in particular. Hardboiled. They were all quick with the comebacks and brittle repartee. One flapper apparently had just fought with her beau. When he asked spitefully, “You think you’ll ever see me again?” she replied, “I should hope not, but unfortunately accidents do happen.” I could just hear my pop saying, “Now there’s real class!”

Uprooting myself, I moved to the veranda. The man in white ducks and blue shirt had evaporated, probably to return to his post in the house. As I looked at the lawn and the beach and the dock, I felt the presence of someone else. Turning round, I found myself face to face with a handsome young man who introduced himself as Mr. Juniper.

“It’s a house,” he said, indicating the Rodman estate with a sweep of his hand, “built for romance and wonder.” He asked whether I had met the owner; when I said no, he shook his head enigmatically. “There’s something about him . . . a generosity, an innocence, even though he’s a roughneck of sorts.”

Mr. Juniper dressed and spoke like a dandy. He gave me the impression that he couldn’t make up his mind about his host. From what he said, I gathered that this fellow was himself a dreamer of sorts.

“He invites me to his parties, though I’m not exactly sure why. I love the comings and goings, and the fragile, tender nights that backdrop stolen kisses . . . the lost innocence of this perishable age.”

“Perishable?” I asked.

“All ages. But especially this one, with people living for the moment in the aftermath of a great war.”

The man had a way with words.

“You see that place?” he said, pointing across the lawn at a neighbor’s house, with its thatched roof, timber-framed walls, and patchwork of brick, flint, and plaster. “Like this one, it expresses a hope–the hope of recovering the past. A Mr. Edward Fuller owned it, a man who loved Tudor architecture and glamorous parties.”

I knew that even though the Great War had dulled American enthusiasm for European culture, rich families were still building imitation French chateaux and miniature medieval castles, and trying to lure indigent noblemen to marry their daughters for the sake of a title. But I had to admit that Mr. Fuller’s house was beyond posh.

“The hold of the past on our imaginations comes from our inexhaustible desire for romance,” Mr. Juniper said. “Death and disease we filter out; toil and hardship disappear. Only the idea remains–of youth, love, beauty–which we embellish with our infinite hope. Truths and facts have hardly a chance when we come up against dreams.”

Several voices caught our attention.

“Bill Fallon, who drove me down here, said the party was being thrown by a fellow named Rodman.”

“Fits . . . with all the gangsters around.”

“I’ve never yet been to a party in the last two years when there weren’t at least two bootleggers, an alderman, and a cop. Don’t you just love Prohibition? It’s all so delicious!”

On that tasty note, Mr. Juniper and I left the veranda. He headed for the bar and I returned to the house. Passing through the dining room, which resembled a medieval hall, I strolled into the parlor. The layout of this astonishing house made me think of a string of boxes decreasing in size: the immense dining room, the parlor, the library, and finally a yet smaller room, which I was soon to discover. Upon entering the library, I found two men anxiously talking, seemingly oblivious to me. One sported a mustache; the other was devouring a large piece of cake. I eavesdropped.

“Where’s the stuff stashed?”

“In a fishbowl.”

“You serious?”

“I never kid about rocks.”

“Then I’ll see you down at the dock.”

“Not a minute later than two a.m. So don’t get distracted.”

“Not a chance,” said the mustache, and he pushed open a door that had been painted to look like a bookcase, and left.

The second man put his half-filled glass of milk and empty cake plate on top of a dictionary, and walked over to one of the bookcases. I could see that in the reflection of the glass bookcase he was admiring a mouthful of teeth that came not from mother-nature but from a dentist. He took a swallow of milk.

“It’s for my stomach. Indigestion. Milk’s healthy.”

“You suppose the guy who owns this place has read all these books?” I asked.

“Hank! Not a chance. But don’t get me wrong. He’s deep. Went to the Sorebone in Paris.”

The library was lined with glass cases, most of them locked. The few that were not contained mostly reference books, things like a world atlas, a set of 1912 Britannicas, Roget’s Thesaurus, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, How to Build a Better Vocabulary in Thirty Days, Parliamentary Speeches, a book of synonyms, a French dictionary, and numerous bound copies of Scientific American magazine.

The locked cases held books ranging in interest from cooking and gardening to philosophy and history. The complete works of Kant stood next to selections from Aristotle. I saw multi-volume histories of England and America, and the collected notes and diaries of famous explorers; the complete novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope; and French editions of Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. All these books, according to a note affixed to the bookcase, were bound alike in half-rust morocco, inlaid with light brown leather, tooled with gold on the upper and lower covers, and edged with gilt. The collection reminded me of the libraries of wealthy homes featured in the Sunday papers.

“What brings you here, miss?”

“I’m a locksmith.”

“On a job?”

“Yeah, but I can’t talk about it.”

“Really?” he said with some surprise.

The man with the manicured mustache stuck his head round the door.

“Must see you!”

Grabbing what remained of his food, the toothy man remarked as he left, “A guy can’t even finish his milk.”

Alone in the library, I saw a number of books on American exploration. I had occasionally read about those European voyagers seeking new routes to spices and gold or to some place called Eden. Braving the Atlantic and rivers in flood, pushing through dense forests and driving across vast arid wastes, the De Sotos and La Salles must have found in this fresh new world a land commensurate with their dreams. Suddenly, I could imagine myself floating down the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, paddling a canoe on the Mississippi with Zebulon Pike, and running the rapids in Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell. I remembered my father saying that these men were seeking a passage to their own private India, but found instead the Pacific. He was skeptical of dreamers. “That was then,” he said, “now the country has been mapped and pillaged–and still our restless spirit yearns to discover America. In place of birch bark canoes and rafts and pack mules and compasses, we navigate the new world with education and wealth. Is it any wonder the country is rife with door-to-door booksellers hawking the wonderland of knowledge, and extortionists, revivalists, and thieves stealing in every conceivable way?”

As I admired the library, I wondered what to make of these books, with the hundreds of matched bindings. Surely, the owner was someone who wished to find in the stories and facts a knowledge of history and self. All across America, people were talking about the value of school and the importance of knowing a trade. But because the task of learning is so daunting, most people seek shortcuts, through a command of vocabulary, or elocution, or religious texts. But on that day in June, in the Gothic library of a grand Norman house, my reflections gave way to the realization that the map of America on the far wall disguised a door handle. To my utter amazement, it led to a private room, the heart of the house.

******

Pulling on the inset handle, I silently inched open the door and let myself in. I intended just to take a quick peek. The room was a bedroom, furnished simply but tastefully: two chairs, a large double bed, a night stand, a tall wall mirror, and a mahogany dresser, with a toilet set of pure brushed gold that made me think of Cleopatra and burnished instruments of rare device. From another room I heard voices. Looking around for a safe place to hide, I retreated behind an oriental screen that hid a hamper overflowing with soiled clothes. Between the hinged panels of the screen, I could see entering the room the friendly man who had greeted me earlier and, of all people, Lily Gillespie!

“I must have forgotten to rewind the clock,” he said, as he glanced at the table.

“If we could just make time stand still.”

“Yes, we’d live happily ever after.”

“For a little while,” Lily added, chuckling at what she had said.

I was dumbstruck. This fellow was talking about marriage to Lily! But the most shocking thing was yet to come. She reached up and pulled him onto the bed, covering his eyes and nose and cheeks and mouth with kisses. Who was this man, really? From the cut of his clothes, I could see he had dough. There was something here that didn’t add up. This wasn’t some chorus girl; this was Lily Gillespie, who had wealth, beauty, intelligence, a college degree. I hoped this guy was special because she already had a dodo at home.

In nothing flat, he was returning her kisses and the two of them were rolling on top of each other. Startled, I leaned against the screen and it toppled. Lily glanced up, saw me, cartwheeled off the bed, and straightened her dress.

“Something wrong?” the man gulped, hastily adjusting his clothes.

“What are you doing here!” exclaimed Lily. “And your hair! You’ve had it marcelled. I just love it!”

Picking up the screen, I smiled dumbly, as Lily madly ran a comb through her hair.

“I want you to meet an old friend of mine.”

She was sure good to her friends!

“This is Hank Rodman . . . your host. He owns this glorious house. Hank, this is Henrietta.”

What in the world had made me think this guy was part of the staff; he never acted like one. I hate it when I dial a wrong number. Obviously, this guy was not what he seemed. He dressed like a swell but was lacking the starch; and as I learned later, he ran on wonder and trafficked in dreams.

Seeing the way Rodman and Lily longingly gazed at each other, I said to myself, “Well, given the nincompoop she’s married to, I can understand her looking elsewhere.” The lovers were like two butterflies hovering weightlessly over a field ablaze with emeralds and diamonds and shining automobiles, from which glided beautiful women arrayed in satins and silks and smelling of exotic perfumes. In the months to follow, I learned how he had grown rich in a soil made fertile by easy money, and drew breath from an atmosphere rendered romantic by blue gardens and midnight stars casting shadows of silver.

The view from his window looked across the bay to the green wind sock on the end of Lily’s dock, waving to and fro, as if to say yes, no.

“May I ask you a favor,” said Lily. “Would you be so kind as to forget the scene you just saw. In fact, forget that you even saw us together.”

Not that I would have ever blabbed, but I knew I couldn’t say no to this woman, not because of her beauty and style, which dazzled, but because of her voice, the way she used it to embrace people—and soften her indiscretions.

In the distance, we could hear the band start to play.

“Oh Hank, the entertainment’s beginning. We ought not to miss it. You must come too, Henrietta.”

The three of us made our way to the lawn, where dozens of folding chairs had been set out in rows, with an aisle down the center. Rodman led them up front, to several seats with little signs saying reserved. The instant we sat, the band started playing and Joe Frisco sailed out wearing a tux and a derby, and puffing on one of his trademark Corona cigars. He looked around, tipped his hat to his host, and deadpanned:

“Nice crowd you got here. It’s good you didn’t invite any more people or I’d have had to ph-ph-phone in my act.”

Expressively moving his hands and puffing on his foot-long cigar, Joe started to dance. A saxophone broke into a blue note, followed by the sweet rainbow sound of a clarinet, and then a trombone called a halt to the improvisation with the opening notes of Snake Hips. Joe’s jazz dance was often called oozy, probably because of the way he shuffled his feet, shrugged his shoulders, slouched, and negligently moved his arms and hands through the air. To the rhythm of the music, he jerked a hip to one side and broke out in a cakewalk, segued into a strut, and at the end returned to a shuffle. All his movements began at the hips and looked–depending on one’s frame of mind–suggestive and also detached. People howled their delight and clapped in time with the music. The louder the hand, the greater Joe’s efforts, until finally the act reached its climax, as Joe blew sparks from his cigar and the sax blew a mournful farewell. Frisco left the stage to thunderous applause.

Harry Houdini was next. As the band played, I left my seat to join Harry behind the stage in the shed, which smelled of oil and grass. He was already dressed for the show, wearing only a swimming suit and a robe. While he lugged the chains and the locks from the trunk, I carried the folding table and portable cabinet, which I prepared on the stage. Throwing off his robe, he declared that he had dressed this way in order to prove that he had no secret hiding places, not in his clothes and not on his person. No one asked for a rectal exam, though in years past Harry had used that avenue. From the way Harry was flexing his muscles and expanding his chest, you could tell that he loved to parade his physique. Holding up the chains and the locks, Harry invited the guests to examine them–to guard against fraud. He declared that he would gladly use someone else’s shackles if that person wished. A ruddy-faced freckled fellow, his hair the color of straw, came down the aisle and held up a lock.

“I dare you to try this one!”

Harry had to make sure that the lock could be opened. So he asked the stranger to show him the key and prove that it worked. If Harry accepted this fellow’s lock, he would examine the key and signal the depth of the cuts on the key. Most key blanks are cut according to a scale that runs from zero (no cut) to nine (the deepest). Harry had only to study the key and he’d know which numbers to pass on to me. If he decided the lock was beyond his control, he’d find some excuse to reject it, in which case he’d have the audience select one of his own. Checking the new lock and key, he agreed to use it. Next, he gave the crowd his standard line about the meaning of confinement and escape, a routine that immigrant audiences never failed to applaud. But I worried about how this group would react.

“It’s the great human wish to be free, from our past, from illness, from death, and from the shackles and shame of bein’ poor. That’s why millions of people have come to these shores. America,” he said, “is the land of escape, even for robbers.”

The audience grew restless. So Harry moved immediately to his challenge. He asked for volunteers to bind him in chains and secure the ends of the links with the lock he’d just now accepted. Several men jumped on the stage. Pinning Harry’s arms behind him, they bound him in the long length of chain, all the while Harry was telling this story.

“I knew a guy from Tin Pan Alley who did his composing in bed. His name was Corbin. He would write down on the sheets the rhythm of his night’s inspiration. ‘A one and a two and an eight, four, six, four, two.’ I mean nothing off color here, folks, but that’s why we call it sheet music.”

Harry had sent me the signal. The name Corbin identified which key blank to use, and all the numbers after “a one and a two” were the cuts in the key. I darted into the shed, where Harry had set up a portable key-cutting machine, and bolted the door. I could hear him inviting people to join him on stage to check the worthiness of the chains and the lock. He was trying to give me time to fashion a key. I quickly found in our collection of blanks the one that he wanted. Notching it was a cinch. Before you could part your hair, I returned, which was Harry’s cue to ask for a hug.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my assistant tonight is my niece. I’d like her to give me a hug–just for good luck.”

The audience approvingly clapped.

Putting my arms around Harry, I passed him the key. As soon as I descended the stage, he excused himself and entered the portable cabinet, supposedly to call on some magic that would allow him to slip out of his bonds. When he emerged completely unchained, the crowd erupted. It sounded like the Polo Grounds, what with all the clapping and whistling.

Free to spend the rest of the night by myself, I drifted at first among the moths and the barflies, gaining here and there a glimpse of romance among the smart set. The band had started up and the stage was now being used as a dance floor. Incense filled the air and candles flickered on the numerous tables that had miraculously replaced all the chairs.

One

woman, tugging at a man’s hand, complained, “You never want to dance. Come on!”

Another couple was spatting. “I saw the way you were staring at that blonde.

The man, shaking his head in amazement, replied,  “That dress . . . she’s like sausage meat in a casing. One slice and out she’ll pop!”

An exceedingly angry twosome were arguing. The man called to a fellow dressed in a duster. “Come over here, Eric.” The first man poked a finger in Eric’s chest and demanded, “Are you, or are you not, in love with my wife? Admit it!”

“You’re daft,” Eric said, and briskly walked off.

To clear the spite from my head, I wandered down to the dock. The evening air was cooler the closer one came to the water. A breeze must have been blowing somewhere high above because the clouds were continually changing shape. From time to time, the moon found a gap and came streaming through, flooding with phosphorescence the sea and the beach, and lifting out of the shadows the silent estates that bordered the bay. I sat there for what seemed like ages, until I heard some motor boats off in the distance. It was shortly before one a.m.

Four men passed me in the dark and revved up the two speedboats. Sweeping away from the dock, they roared off with their running lights dark. All was still, except for a few muted voices that seemed to come from the sea. About an hour later, a small van drove down to the beach, and two boats glided silently into the dock. Immediately a half dozen men appeared and boarded the motor boats, unloading wooden crates, which they carried toward Rodman’s garage.

Just then sirens sounded and a booming voice came over a bullhorn, “This is a raid! You are surrounded. Everybody inside the house!” In an instant, the lawn seemed overrun with men dressed in raincoats and cradling shotguns.

Fragmentary voices cracked through the dark.

“Over here!”

“Don’t let them get away.”

“The garage.”

“And stables.”

“That’s where it’s stored!”

A copper roughly grabbed me by the neck and shoved me in the direction of the house. “Get inside. Now!”

Streams of people were running toward the veranda, pouring through the open French doors. Led into the library, we stood around like Army recruits, waiting for our marching orders. “Where’s the owner of this pile of bricks?” barked one of the raincoats, his hat tipped so far forward all you could see was his mouth.

The room rippled with whispers. Rodman and Lily were nowhere in sight.

“I suppose none of youse knew they wuz bringin’ in booze tonight . . . or about the storeroom under the false floor in the garage?” The library fell awfully quiet. “Anyone here got a key to dese bookcases?” No one moved. “Patrick,” he growled, “break open one or two of ’em and let’s see what’s inside.”

I said to myself, books, you dumb bloodhound.

Some guy with a fire ax broke the glass and removed several volumes, which he gave to his boss.

“H. G. Wells, A Short History of the World. Schopenhauer: Essays. Pretty strong stuff.” Each volume he opened had been hollowed out–in order to hold a bottle of Scotland’s finest: Chivas Regal, Cragganmore, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Imperial, The Macallan, Royal Lochnagar, Talisker. There must have been a fortune in booze in the library; but I could just hear my mother asking how anyone could treat a book in this manner.

By now Rodman’s guests were overflowing with gossip and glee, at having been present for this great unveiling. All the stars but Houdini found it a lark. When the cops questioned Frisco, one of them asked him if he always stuttered. Joe replied, “Just when I t-t-talk.”

In short order, the theater people were told they could leave. I was all set to join Harry, who had successfully asked that I be released, when some big shot stormed into the library, wanting to know who occupied the red room with the fishbowl. The other cops called him Lieutenant Sullivan, but the cop with the hat and the growl addressed him as Sully.

“It’s mine,” I said, stepping forward.

“Crap, you’re just a minnow. Who you workin’ for?”

“Harry Houdini.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“She certainly is,” said Harry, putting his arm round my shoulder.

“Well, I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Houdini. I have no choice but to book her.”

“What the hell for?” asked Harry, who was known never to swear.

“For this!” replied the lieutenant, taking from his pocket a single diamond. “She had it concealed in a fishbowl. Blended in with the pebbles and sand. Damn clever. It’s one of the sixteen Farouk diamonds. Came from the Waldo Avenue heist up in Fieldston.”

My teachers used to call me a loudmouth, but I found myself speechless.

“We heard that all the gangs now use kids. Sweet deal. Two capers in one. Bring in the whiskey from Canada and pay for the goods with the diamonds. But we got a tip about both. Now the question is: Where did the kid store the rest of the rocks?”

“Sully, you’ve got it all wrong,” said the man I had met in the library, the one with the milk and the cake. The crowd, like the Red Sea, miraculously parted. The man walked up to Lieutenant Sullivan and the two of them warmly shook hands.

“A.R., who woulda guessed? Since when do you show up at the scene of your crimes?”

“Always with the cracks, Sully. You’re a real comedian.”

“How come you’re here?”

“I’m a friend of the man who owns this beautiful house.”

“Then maybe you won’t mind spilling his name? ‘Cause the house is registered to some bogus business.”

“Not at all, Sully. He’s a good boy. Industrious and honest. His name you can get from his lawyer, Bill Fallon, who’s right over there.” He pointed. “By the way, how’s the Police Officer’s Retirement Fund doing for dough?”

“Sorry, A.R., not this time. I’m gonna have to run the kid in and put out a warrant for–”

“I told you, ask Mr. Fallon.”

While Sully spoke briefly to Fallon, I could see the fellow called Gurrah ease open the door to Rodman’s room, the one behind the map of America, and let himself out. In the press of people, the police failed to notice.

“All right,” announced Lieutenant Sullivan, “let’s start taking names.”

The carriage trade and the party crashers began lining up. Harry whispered that he would contact my mom and get me a lawyer. But I was in no mood to be hopeful. I could just see it now: a school dropout, learning the locksmithing trade, trying to persuade the police she’s on the up and up. Hadn’t I broken into one apartment already?

By three a.m., all the moths who had swarmed to the bootlegger’s light were told they could leave. The only people held for further questioning were Legs Diamond and me. I later learned that Jack Legs Diamond was well known to the cops. He had started his criminal life as a kid, snatching purses, when his fast getaways earned him the nickname Legs. Nowadays he was known not for his sprinting ability but for his quick temper, dangerous dealings, and senseless gunplay, all of which I attributed to his puny stature. The cops led him one way and me another: to the squad car, in the custody of Lieutenant Sullivan. When I protested that I’d left all my belongings behind, he replied that he’d have someone bring them tomorrow. On the single-lane gravel drive connecting Rodman’s house to the roadway, innumerable cars were trying to exit. It was a cacophonous scene: tires spinning, horns honking, lights flashing, men and women swearing, and suddenly metal clashing. Two cars collided. Worse, one car was blocking dozens of others and couldn’t be moved. The owner had misplaced his keys.

“See,” he explained, “I was in a hurry and lost the key.”

I got into the squad car, but like everyone else we were unable to move. “Holy moly, whata we do now?” Lieutenant Sullivan exploded. If Palmer were here, he’d open that car as easy as a can of sardines. We can’t lift it, not with all these woozy bums. Somebody’s bound to get hurt.” I was seated in the back seat of the squad car, book-ended by two burly cops.

“Maybe I can help,” I said showing off. But As soon as I yapped, I had second thoughts. If I offered to break into the car wouldn’t that prove I was a thief? But I decided that the police were smart enough to figure that anyone under a cloud wasn’t about to prove she’s a car breaker.

“What do you know about locks?”

“Can you get me a tension wrench and a straight piece of wire?” I asked.

“A tension wrench we got in the tool chest. A pick, too. But no wire. Kellogg,” he said to one of her bookends, “get a hanger out of the house.” When Kellogg returned, Lieutenant Sullivan grabbed the toolbox and a flashlight and led me from his car to the one causing the snag.

A two-step process faced me. I had to open the car and pick the starter. Lifting the hood,

I took the metal hanger, straightened it out, and put a loop at the end. Running it through the clutch pedal into the car, I directed it to the door next to the driver, looped it over the handle, and pulled. Presto, the door lock released. The car had a Briggs and Stratton steering post, with wafer tumblers. I sighed with relief; Hurd and Yale car locks, with their pin tumblers, were harder to pick. With Lieutenant Sullivan training a light on the lock, I used the pick to jiggle the wafers. But wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t get them to fall into line.

“I didn’t think so!” Lieutenant Sullivan announced. “Now, get in the car. I’m not giving you a chance to escape.”

Annoyed with myself, I replied, “Hold your horses; I’ll get the job done.”

“If you’re trying to find a way to slip out–forget it!”

“Sully,” I said, deliberately repeating the name I’d heard his friend use, “I’ll have the car running in a jiff.”

“You got one more chance, kiddo!”

By this time, all the drivers who wanted to leave had surrounded the car. Faces peered in through the windows and a number of jokers were free with advice. Lieutenant Sullivan mumbled something about fishbowls and how I had angled him into the deep. Once again I applied the tension wrench and inserted the pick, trying not to push prematurely. Finally, the lock succumbed to my touch. The motor started at once. The owner, all smiles and smelling of cigars, swung open the driver’s door. I scrambled out; but before the owner could slide in, Lieutenant Sullivan stopped him. “I’ll move it for you.” Over the man’s complaints and the din, Sullivan yelled, “Thanks, kid. But if you’re innocent, how come you know so much about locks?” The police, I concluded, weren’t as smart as I thought.

In the dark and confusion, someone put a hand on my arm and whispered, “Follow me!”

Lieutenant Sullivan’s remark must have rankled, because I wheeled and darted after this figure, seeing only his back. Not for one sec did I think of the consequences of running away–or of stealing Sully’s tension wrench and pick, which I still had in my hands. Dodging cars, we ran down the road, until we arrived at a long black sedan, off to one side. “They’re holding Legs,” my rescuer told the driver. He told me to “Get in!” Then he turned to face me. It was the man from the library, the man Lieutenant Sullivan had called A.R.

The driver, elegantly dressed in a white chauffeur’s uniform, wheeled the car in front of others, causing a clamorous outburst of horns, and joined the procession driving away from Rodman’s estate. I sat watching and waiting.

“Don’t worry, miss,” A.R. said, “Sully’s so far to the rear, he’d have to sprout wings to overtake us.”

I could hear a bullhorn commanding all cars to stop, and out the window I could see flashlights making holes in the dark. But none of the cars in front of us stopped. In a few minutes the sedan, kicking up gravel, wheeled onto the cement and flew into the early morning light headed, as A.R. explained, for Vineland, New Jersey and a hideout that all the mugs used: the home of Nathan Boritski, a forger and glassworker living on Delsea Drive.

END OF CHAPTER THREE

Author Bio ~ Paul M. Levitt, retired English professor, lives in Boulder, Colorado and currently occupies himself with historical fiction. He has authored scholarly books, plays, and novels.  His fondest memories issue from writing radio plays for London BBC Radio and working with a number of outstanding English actors.http://paul-levitt.com/

Narrator Bio ~ Elizabeth Mansfield  is a British actress and singer and has been working in theatre, radio, TV and film since the 1970’s. She has performed many leading roles in UK regional theatres and London’s West End, in plays, music theatre and musicals, winning an Olivier Award nomination for ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ and ‘Best Actress’ in the London Theatre Awards, for her performance in Marie, at the Fortune Theatre. Web Address: www.ensemble-online.com

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