The Tower Treasure
By Darin Krogh
Two fights had gone the distance so it was late when the heavyweights climbed into the ring at Al Morse's. In 1949, Spokane closed up at midnight on Saturdays and you couldn't buy a beer until Monday. Not legally.
Downtown had a few blind pigs that discretely served spirits from their own reserve without regard for state mandated closing time. If things got desperate, I had my best friend in my pocket, Johnnie Walker, trapped in the pint bottle.
When the fights ended, I walked out, and left Cork and Mac to roll bones in Morse’s secret back room behind the card room. Dice wasn't my game.
I sought other recreation which was not abundant at Morse's Gym and Cafe. Women.
My clothes were up for it, a necktie and some shine left on my shoes.
Succor might be found at a joint five blocks east in a basement at Main and Division.
I walked that way under a light sprinkle.
A couple toting an infant and suitcases walked ahead of me on the sidewalk—just off the late train into the Union Station. Hoofing it to a room, probably the Empire Hotel next door to my destination.
I overtook them at a corner and said, "Good evening."
The husband tensed up like men do when it's dark out and a guy can't run or dodge while dragging a wife and kid along—the threat must be faced head on.
"Evening," he answered seriously with the vein on his skinny neck reflecting like a white worm under the street light.
After crossing over Division, I walked down the slippery steps to the basement entry of East 5 Main.
I tapped twice on the heavy door.
A slide in the door opened and a large watery eye peered out. It looked like the eye of an octopus that I had seen for sale on the pier in Los Angeles during the War.
The big bartender let me in and then bolted the door again.
The only other patron sitting at the bar was a well dressed woman with a va-va-voom body. Late twenties. She complained of being tired. Her eyes were slitting.
I sat one stool away and ordered a shot of whiskey after putting down a dollar.
The barkeep was even bigger behind the bar. He laid his huge mitt down, then pulled it away like a magician's hanky. A full shot glass sat in front of me.
"Fifty cents," he said and gripped my bill.
I was shaking off my damp suit coat when the woman reached over, clutched my glass and downed the contents in a single swallow.
The bartender didn't say anything, but brought another shot and took my remaining fifty cents.
I put my coat back on and moved down a few stools to sip.
I ordered again but the bartender announced that he had run out of booze.
In a selfless gesture, I pulled the unopened pint out of my coat pocket and set it on the bar, inviting the bartender and the thirsty lady to join in. She seemed to have gained some energy from the slug gulped out of my first glass.
The bartender lined up three shot glasses and filled them with my Walker which was twice the quality of the booze the house poured. He pushed one to the lady.
She reached out, hesitated, then fluttered her eyes like tired people do when they can't stay awake and toppled backwards off the stool onto the floor.
The barkeep came around to our side and tried to coax her to her feet.
She was awake but not getting up.
"Gotta' get her outta' here!" he said.
He seemed in a panic. I wasn't sure why. The door was locked and the place didn't have any windows.
The bartender ran to unbolt the door. Then he stood near the lady’s head, bent over and reached under her armpits while directing me to grab her ankles.
I backed up the steps and out the door carrying her feet while he brought along the remainder.
Just as the bartender cleared the door with her head, the big guy let go and spun back into the bar.
The door shut and the bolt slammed. Stunned at the bartender's quick move, I stood like an idiot staring at the spot he had occupied.
I dropped her legs and pounded on the door. No answer.
It was dark and starting to rain again.
Sleeping beauty rose from the dead and bid me to call her a cab.
A taxi was crawling along Division. I whistled.
The cab stopped and the driver came out in the rain to open the back door. I guided my tired friend into the cab. She flopped neatly into the backseat.
The cabbie slid back into the driver’s seat.
Just as I shut her door, a large pair of headlights jumped the curb and came up the sidewalk straight at us. Brakes squealed. It was a paddy wagon.
Three uniforms jumped out. One went straight to the basement door and banged on it with a night stick.
Another cop opened the taxi door and leaned in to scrutinize the woman in the back seat.
The other cop pushed up against me and fired off a series of questions that didn't allow time for any answers.
The officers huddled.
The three great legal minds resolved that (1) nobody was going to answer the door, (2) the woman should stay in the cab and (3) I, who had paid for two drinks but only drank one, would be charged with public drunkenness and transported from the crime scene in the back of the paddy wagon.
Another case of the Spokane blue stopping crime in its tracks.
It was only a few moments ride back down Trent Avenue to the jail at city hall.
The booking sergeant frisked me. He took my billfold out of my back pocket and thumbed through until he found something he liked.
"And sober," I answered.
He took my wallet and went through a door behind the counter.
I had worked switching for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad before the War. When I got home, the railroad saw fit to position me in security due to my billy-club skills developed as an M.P. in the Army.
A railroad cop was pretty much the same kind of work. G.I. heads and hobo heads sound the same when whapped with hard wood. But a hobo will sometimes come at you with a knife in the dark.
Drunk G.I.'s usually didn't offer that much.
I wrote my mother that I was working “freight theft and trespassing” in Spokane. I didn’t tell her that meant cleaning bums out of box cars.
The police sergeant returned.
"You stayin’ at the Chicago?"
"Get outta here." He flipped my billfold to me.
I counted my money.
Someone had lightened me a five spot but I didn't complain since it would have cost me ten to bail out after spending a night in the “ball room.”
I walked the few blocks to where my razor and toothbrush were sitting in a cup. I was thankful to crawl between dry sheets.
At sunrise someone banged on my door and slid an envelope under.
It was the railroad messenger leaving a note telling me that I had been called to work on the Sabbath, "Contact Del at the station."
I went down and borrowed the lobby phone.
Del advised of a high value shipment leaving town at noon today and some Big Shot was arriving on the twelve-thirty. There would be a brass band and a crowd. These situations required the presence of a “sharp railroad dick.” His words. Sarcasm dripping off them.
It was eleven o'clock when I walked onto Havermale Island.
Del's office was upstairs in the Great Northern depot. The S.P. & S. was a baby of the Great Northern Railroad.
I guarded the box of Idaho silver bars onto the noon outbound.
A crowd of about thirty, mostly lodge brothers were waiting on the platform to meet the V.I.P. coming off the twelve-thirty.
Some were armed with brass instruments. Others boozed up. Some both.
Keeping the drunks off the tracks was my job.
They were mustered at the spot where Mr. Big Shot would exit the train if the choreography went right.
I stood by and listened to their chatter.
The fiancé of the arriving V.I.P. was in the center of the group.
She was easy to spot among the lodge brothers, the only one with a narrow waist, high buttocks and a fine pair of pins. That was the back view.
The train coasted into the station.
The lovely fiancé pushed through to the front of the group to where I was standing on the platform.
She was stunning from the front too. Stacked.
And familiar. Some twelve hours ago, I had helped her off the floor and into a cab.
I swung my open palm in front of the group, "Stay away from the tracks."
"Who are you to say?” some idiot barked.
I slid my coat aside to reveal the official S.P. & S. security badge that hung on my belt.
"Certainly, we will," the doll said squinting her eyes at me. Her tight smile might have indicated that she had a recollection of my part in the previous evening, perhaps a foolish conceit on my part.
The V.I.P. stepped off the train.
Hands gripped and pumped.
Somebody proclaimed something.
Then she and they headed out to their cars and on to complete their gala event in the regal environs of the Spokane Club dining room.
The next day, the train moved on. A thick Spokane fog was left behind.
I hitched a ride from the yard to the depot for a drop by Del's office to get an inkling of next week's work schedule.
Del was chewing on an engineer who had recently made one box car out of two in the pea soup.
They went back and forth speaking to each other in loud and disrespectful tones.
The engineer wasn't having any of the blame, "Talk to Alden, he was switchin’," and then he bid Del an abrupt adieu.
“Anything new?” I asked, waiting my turn.
"Check your message box" he said in a cute tone that made me think I had been transferred to Wishram, the railroad’s equivalent of Siberia.
I reached into my company box to withdraw a single envelope.
Del followed me into the hallway.
"She asked for the 'railroad cop' working the twelve-thirty yesterday. Great looker. Outta your league." He laughed. "You told her you're a cop? Did you mention that your job is dragging puking bums outta box cars?"
"I just showed her my badge.”
“Guess it worked."
I left the depot before opening the envelope. It read, "Please meet me at the same place tonight: I'll buy you a drink."
No name was included.
I walked up Howard to Riverside.
Mother's Kitchen wasn't crowded yet.
My eye was attracted to the dinner special. It wasn't special.
After finishing everything but the entree, I headed to the cash register.
The cashier wiped her greasy hands on a greasier apron, then counted out my change.
I took a toothpick and went for the exit.
A man wearing a cabbie hat was sitting at the booth by the door. He was smoking and reading the late Chronicle.
I slid in and sat down across from him.
He looked up at me. "Need a lift, buddy?” he said talking around his cigarette.
"No," I answered, "You stopped for me last Saturday night."
"Oh? Where'd I take ya?"
"It wasn't me. It was a lady. Late. Downtown, on Division. The cops came."
"Oh, yeah, did they ever get a juke box for that ‘ball room’?"
"Don’t know. I didn't stay the night."
He looked back down at the paper and sucked his smoke.
"What about her?" I asked.
"What about her?" he mimicked without looking up.
"How'd she come out?"
"She’ll be fine."
"She's gonna marry a rich lawyer.”
“A friend of yours? You said you knew her that night."
"I said I knew who she was. A Good Samaritan like you might live to regret helping her."
I stood up to leave. "Pick me up at the Chicago at midnight?"
"At your service.”
His cab was parked at the door of the hotel like he said. A knifing wind visiting down from Canada blew out the fog and prompted me to bless the taxi industry.
I hopped in and shut the door. "Thanks."
"Where to?" he asked.
"East 5 Main."
He stared at me for a moment then pulled out into the street.
"What's that lady's name?" I inquired.
"The one on her mail box."
No more conversation passed between us.
When we arrived, I laid a buck on the dash and got out.
He folded the bill in one hand and drove off with the other.
I knocked at the door and the big bartender let me in. I sat at the bar.
The big guy placed a whiskey before me and turned his palms up as if to indicate a payment was required.
"I think I might have some credit here. About a pint’s worth of Johnnie Walker last Saturday night."
"We ain't responsible for items left on the premises."
I slid four-bits across the bar, "You closed up early that night.”
"Yeah, I had to get to bed. Church on Sunday.”
"She come in often?"
He didn't answer.
I sat and sipped half listening to an argument between two patrons at the bar.
Someone rapped on the front door.
Three guests were let in: an older couple and her.
She sat around the corner of the bar from me and ordered a drink. She chatted up the bartender and after a while showed some photos to the woman sitting next to her. Never looked my way.
What the hell? Maybe it was a joke.
I sipped until the drink was gone.
The bartender asked if I wanted another. I declined.
When I stood to go, the bartender laid another drink in front of me and leaned over to whisper, "The lady says she owes you one."
I looked her way.
She pointed to one of the three booths in the place and we both made our way there.
"Thank you," she said as we sat down across from each other.
She was the kind of woman who looked better up close. Her features were cut perfect, double dimples stabbed at the corners of her mouth and green eyes like a movie star. The cabbie was probably right. She was trouble.
"I always accept drinks from women."
"No," she said, "I mean thanks for last Saturday night. And for playing dumb at the train station."
"What’s this about?”
"I'm in a situation. You could make some money."
"On account of your job."
"Wait a minute. Might be some confusion here. I'm not a policeman. I work security for the railroad. The only time that I even talk to a real cop is when a bum gets killed by another bum. Or sometimes when I tote women out of a blind-pig on Saturday night.”
She smiled and drew her finger around the rim of her glass.
"No, no. A policeman wouldn't do in my situation."
"There's a wedding coming up that I wish to avoid."
"Simple. Don't go. Stay home and read a book."
"It’s not that easy. It's my wedding. To Mister Maxfield Dunbar."
"Your failure to attend is gonna be a surprise for him?"
"It has to be."
"He gets disappointed easy?"
She nodded, "He's got money and friends. And my sister, Vera."
"How'd he get her?"
"He's a lawyer. Defended her in court."
I scratched my head.
“Second degree. Vera knifed her husband, Gino, on one of the nights he was beating her to a pulp. He died. She almost did too. Max Dunbar got her off."
The bartender came over to service the booth next to ours. She shut up until he left.
"During the trial, Max found out about an old warrant out for Gino and an 'unnamed female.' Robbery and murder. On their move to Spokane, Gino held up a gas station in Tennessee and shot the attendant. Vera was waitin’ out in the car. Somebody saw ‘em pull away. Gino didn't tell her what happened until they got to Spokane. Gino’s dead but Maxfield figured out that the ‘unnamed female’ was Vera and he holds the warrant over her head. And mine because I love my sis."
"And you don’t wanna marry a guy like that?"
"He's an evil man. In and out of the courtroom. Very bad things. Much worse than blackmail. It won't be a lovely marriage. He loves me but needs his harem too much to give up his girlfriends. He also needs a wife at this point in his career. To make him respectable with town folk. He’s gonna run for city council. Then mayor.”
“And if you play the game, he won’t snitch off Vera?”
“Yes, but me and Vera gotta chance to make a break.”
"Uncle Vincent died. Dead Gino’s uncle. Two weeks ago."
"That family ought to get on the keep-filled budget plan at the cemetery."
“Vince was a good guy. And a railroad man like yourself."
"A freight agent. Worked for the Great Northern in the depot where I saw you on Sunday. Heart attack at fifty-five."
"Is this where I come in?"
"Not yet. Gino made some money from the war. A lotta’ money."
"Buying war bonds?"
"No. He stayed in Europe for two years after the War ended. Gino never gave any details about how he got the money but when he was drunk he would laugh and say that he got into General Marshall's purse."
"More than ten thousand bucks. That was his share anyway. An old army buddy came to town a year ago and gave him the loot. Gino handed it over to his Uncle Vince for safe keeping. He was nervous about it.
“Gino must have trusted his uncle?”
"Uncle Vincent was salt of the earth. Gino told him some big hero story about the money. Vincent believed him. He loved Gino. It almost killed him when Gino-the-war-hero died at home with a kitchen knife in his chest—not the way of heroes."
"Uncle Vincent wouldn't give Vera the money?”
“The old man was bitter. Couldn't bring himself to believe that his favorite nephew was a piece of trash that beat his wife twice a week."
She leaned forward and began to whisper, "After the funeral, Vera went to help clean out Uncle Vince’s old house. She looked for a clue to where the money was. Bank books, strong box, desk drawers—even under the mattress—everywhere in the house.
"Maybe. She found a map in an old Bible of Vincent’s. Might show where the money's hid. This is where you come in."
"I'm not much for map reading."
"Vera and me are offerin' you half, five grand, to help us get that money."
I looked into those green eyes. I was already half in love with her.
"Sure. I'm in."
She reached over and squeezed my hand.
"You've got to go to Vera and get the map from her. I can't do it. Max's friends hang around Vera and watch for me. He may have already figured out something about this."
"Can't she mail it to you?"
"Max has my mail searched. Even the phone is risky"
"Where's she at?"
"On Trent. One block east of Division. The southeast corner."
I knew the place.
"Third floor. You need to go now. They call her Cecelia. I'll get word to her that you’re coming."
"What's your name?"
"Roberta. Roberta Haney. I'll be waiting here."
She clutched my wrist and whispered, "Thank you,"
I left Roberta Haney and walked the block north to Trent.
It was about one-thirty in the morning but they worked late at Cecelia’s place of employment.
There was no sign, just a staircase up to the second floor. I headed up. The door man eyed me and waved me in.
The only light inside came from a little glass bubble in the middle of each table. Some of the tables had drinks waiting for their owners to return.
A couple of working girls were standing at the bar preying on a guy in uniform. I had been in the joint before but not to the third floor, where Vera, A.K.A. Cecelia, worked.
The third floor was referred to as The Burnt Forties. The name provided insight into the condition and age of the seasoned hookers who sold their wares at less than the prevailing prices. The top of the line girls worked on the second floor.
The place wasn't exactly a secret and whenever a wave of good government conscience floated through Spokane, The Burnt Forties got raided.
Del got busted on the third floor of the place one night. He wasn’t ashamed. He explained the wisdom of shopping the Burnt Forties by saying "in a dark room, all cats are grey."
The madam caught me at the top of the third flight of stairs and asked if I had something specific in mind or was just shopping.
"Lookin' for Cecelia."
I couldn't tell how the signal went out but in a few seconds a busty blonde in a nightgown came down the hallway. She could have been Roberta Haney from a distance.
When she got close, Gino's handiwork showed up on her face. Her pleasing stature couldn't compensate for rather prominent scars, missing teeth and a twist in her nose. She was too young to be working the third floor but her beatings had disqualified her from working down on the second.
Cecelia reached out to take my hand and then pulled me down the hallway into a room lit by one red bulb of low wattage. She closed the door all the way but an inch and sat me down on the bed.
"And what can I do for you?" she said standing close in front of me with her arms folded under her breasts.
"I'm picking up something for Roberta."
She reached inside of her gown and pulled out a warm envelope which she pressed into my hand, then whispered, "You better leave now."
I stood up and headed for the door. While I was walking back down the hall, Cecelia shouted after me, “WE DON’T DO THAT KINDA STUFF HERE! TAKE YOUR BUSINESS SOMEWHERE ELSE, SAILOR!”
I shrugged at the Madam on my way out and took the steps two-at-a-time down the flights to the sidewalk below.
As I approached the door at East 5 Main, a Ford coupe honked from across the street.
A woman's voice called my name from the car.
It was she who had sent me to The Burnt Forties.
I got into the coupe and reported my success.
Roberta suggested that we go somewhere private and divine the truth of the map. I suggested my room at the Chicago Hotel but she drove to a bungalow at the north end of Browne’s Addition.
She steered through the open doors of the garage, then turned off the car. With some urgency in her voice, she told me to quickly shut the doors of the garage. We quietly walked up the back steps into the house.
Two notable events occurred in that bungalow in the next two hours. One physical and one mental. It took two bodies for the former and two minds for the latter.
Some minutes after the first event, Roberta turned on the bedside lamp and asked for the map.
I reached over into my coat hanging on the chair and pulled out the envelope given to me by sister Vera.
We laid naked next to each other and regarded the map. I wasn’t able to fully concentrate due to her body and me wondering what the evil Maxfield Dunbar might do to a fellow caught in nude map study with his fiancé.
The map was drawn on Great Northern railroad stationery with Rocky The Goat standing above several pencil lines and an arrow pointing at an "X".
"We thought Vincent might have hidden the money at work." She kissed my cheek.
"You mean somewhere in the depot?"
"There was nothin’ in his house."
The depot had three floors and an attic. The attic was full height and used for storage and communications equipment. I had only been up a couple of times but there were too many walls on the map to fit the attic. Anywhere in the lobby would be risky. The third floor was the Superintendent's offices.
Uncle Vincent had worked in the freight office until his demise. That was on the second floor.
I studied the map again.
The "X" was inside a square inside a larger square with lines crossing several places. The words under storage at ladder were written faintly next to the “X.” I had seen lots of ladders in the depot but none permanent and what good was a map showing a ladder that wasn’t nailed down to one spot.
I tried to think of quiet places in the depot where someone could stash a bundle without being seen by the other employees.
Then the ladder and the unwatched location came together in the same thought.
Inside the tower was a permanent ladder to the clock at the top. The clock only got visited once a week by the janitor to crank up the counterweight. I'd gone up to the top once for a look see.
The tower entry was on the second floor. It had been like crawling into a manhole from the bottom end.
"I might know where it's at."
"In the train depot?" Her eyes flashed and she smiled.
"In the tower. I'll check out the map tomorrow. See if it fits."
"We've gotta have the money tonight," she pleaded, "Max will be back from Seattle tomorrow. He’ll have me under wraps until the wedding. Vera and I need to get outta’ town by morning. We need a head start getting back home to Tennessee to straighten out this mess."
She shut her eyes tight and tears squeezed out.
I blew air through my lips and shook my head. There would be tough questions if I was discovered breaking into the Great Northern. freight offices at three-thirty in the morning. And tougher questions if I was caught with ten grand of ill-gotten loot meant for the reconstruction of Europe.
But few of us are allowed opportunities to become a true hero. And I would be a true hero because I was not going to take one dollar, let alone five thousand, from the desperate Haney sisters. My services would have no strings attached.
We dressed and went to the car.
Roberta drove too fast to the lot on Havermale Island.
I got out and went into the depot. My keys opened doors until I got to the Great Northern freight office. I broke the lock on the freight office door and then slipped into the back room by the tower.
Like a French pig chasing a truffle, I crawled through the wall opening to get inside the tower. I ran my flashlight over the high rising tower shaft. A storage closet did protrude into the tower space at the second floor level near the ladder.
Under the storage bracing was a row of large masonry blocks. I tugged at the blocks. Finally, one block slid out and a dusty black leather satchel sat inside a hollow part of the tower wall.
I removed the satchel and replaced the facing block, then crawled back into the office.
The bag and I slipped out a side door to the parking lot just as the tower clock was about to chime four a.m.
Roberta drove up and rolled her window down.
I nodded and jumped in the passenger’s seat.
I worked the satchel’s belted latch and reached in to extract a dusty packet of twenty dollar bills with a U.S. government band around the waist. She reached in to pull out a couple more.
“Gino pays back,” she squealed.
The tower clock began to chime.
Roberta took advantage of the ringing to show her appreciation. She pulled a small pistol from her purse and pumped three rounds into my belly.
I don’t remember anything after the second shot. She must have rolled me out onto the Great Northern parking lot. That’s where the morning shift found me at five a.m.
They hauled me to Deaconess Hospital where I now lay.
The doc says that my innards are so scrambled that I won't be able to have a stiff drink at East 5 Main for at least a year.
The Haney sisters are on the lam.
And Maxfield Dunbar must have found out something about my involvement in the matter because he came around to visit me in the hospital.
He inquired about the Haney girls' sudden departure from the Lilac City and let me know that I was luckier than a certain gas station attendant who was planted in a cemetery in Tennessee.
It seems that Roberta forgot to mention that she was inside that gas station with Gino. And that it was she who shot the attendant dead.
But the rest of the story, that part about Vera waiting in the car and Gino not telling Vera until they got to Spokane, that was true, unlike the story I told the police about coming into work early and surprising a burglar on the second floor of the depot, then chasing him downstairs into the parking lot where he shot me three times.
They said no railroad property was missing.
I’d been gutshot defending the company’s property. That made me a hero.
Nobody got away with a thing.