Benjamin Wade is a laid back private investigator whose jobs are so mundane that he doesn’t even carry a gun. He thought his latest job was going to be easy.
He thought wrong.
Hired by beguiling Lillian Saxton to find a missing reporter with knowledge of her brother’s whereabouts in war-torn Europe, Wade follows a lead and knocks on a door. He gets two answers: bullets and a corpse.
Now Wade must unravel the truth about the reporter’s death, Lillian’s brother, and the whereabouts of a cache of documents that uncovers a shocking story from Nazi-controlled Europe and an even more nefarious secret here at home.
Monday, April 22, 1940
Even though I was new to this private eye gig, I knew something wasn’t right when I walked up the sidewalk to the front door of 518 Oak Street. It was definitely the house I wanted. The case had taken me that far.
What worried me was the silence.
It was the day after San Jacinto Day here in Houston. It was funny celebrating the anniversary of the victory that won Texas its independence while the Nazis were invading Norway. Everyone thought France might be next. We weren’t at war yet, jobs had returned to the city and lots of guys were working. That included me after my stint with the police and my subsequent enforced vacation.
No, what bothered me was the quiet. This was a neighborhood of bungalow houses. Families lived here, families with the husband off working and the mothers staying home with the children. The Depression might have subdued the job market, but it didn’t subdue the baby making market. I stood there, sun blazing through my hat, and looked up and down the street. Nothing. No one was out playing in the yard, walking the dog, or planting daffodils in the front flower beds. That’s what people did when they weren’t working. But that wasn’t happening on Oak Street.
Strange. As I looked up at the house, a nice bungalow with tan bricks and a small porch, something in my gut turned over. That kind of feeling had served me well back when I wore a badge, so I listened to it. Still, the leads I had uncovered pointed in this direction. It’s what Lillian Saxton had hired me to do: find Wendell Rosenblatt. He was a journalist who had gone missing a few days after he arrived here in Houston following a stint in Europe covering the war.
This was the kind of job I did: find people. I did the same thing when I wore the badge. I just found it easier with the power of the people behind me. Flying solo as a gumshoe brought with it an uncertainty, one that kept me on edge most of the time. It made me wary, more wary than when I wore the blue uniform.
I stepped up on the porch and listened. Still that strange quiet. Nothing, not even from inside the house. It needed a paint job. Houston’s heat and humidity can do a number on exteriors. Mine needed more than just paint.
I rapped my knuckles on the door. Instead of hearing footsteps, I heard something I didn’t really expect: gunfire. Bullets slammed the door with dull thuds that splintered the wood. The thick door saved me. Had it been a thin one, like the ones on my house, I would have been thrown back onto the lawn with new holes letting the sun shine into my guts. As it happened, I had time to duck and roll forward. I thought I had done alright, until the bullets smashed the windows right above me and shards of glass rained down. Keeping my head down, I scooted forward to the edge of the porch. Thankfully, the little white railing that fronted the porch didn’t extend to the side or else I’d have been trapped.
I slid off the porch and down the short cement steps, landing on the broken driveway. I won’t kid you: I was scared to death. My heart was pounding in my chest and I had to use the house as support while I tried to catch my breath. There wasn’t a car under the carport and the side-sliding garage doors were closed.
My ears still rang from the gunshots. It took me a moment to realize the shooting had stopped. Glancing down the street, I still expected to see people coming out of front doors or peering out from behind curtains. No one emerged from any house, but I saw some blinds open. Good. There were witnesses. Always good to have witnesses when the cops show up and start asking the gumshoe pointed questions.
As a rule, I don’t pack my gun when I’m doing footwork. I find it best to talk first, let the fists fly second, and lastly, bring out the iron if all else fails. My revolver was in the glove compartment of my car, but I was damn sure not going to run across the open lawn to try to get it. Doing so would put me in the firing sights of the shooter. It might even let him get away.
There was a part of me that just wanted to hunker down where I was, let the shooter retreat and leave me alone. I’d tell Miss Saxton “No, I couldn’t find Mr. Rosenblatt at the address given to me by the snitch, thank you very much.” I’d just been shot at, so I considered adding to the list of expenses I’d provide her at the end of the case.
But the itch inside my head turned me around. I wasn’t yellow, that was for damn sure. I preferred my fights to be as even as possible. I’d lost my share to my cocky mouth, so I had learned to tone it down a bit. Best practices and all. Getting shot at, however, did something to a man, showed his true character. And, there I was, trembling like a little girl while the sounds of footsteps in the house moved to the back.
From across the street, the blinds moved again and I caught a glimpse of white skin against a green dress. I couldn’t see the face, but the head was cocked in a way that told me the woman was on the phone. Damn. The police would be coming, sooner than I wanted them to. But I was sure not going to be the shrinking violet Mrs. Green Dress was most likely describing me as right now.
Steeling myself, I got up on my haunches and scooted near the back door. Without my gun, I resorted to clutching the only thing I could find on short notice: the broom leaning against the side of the house. It was so light I knew it’d be nearly useless. You never bring a knife to a gun fight and you sure as hell don’t bring a broomstick. Unless you’re the Wicked Witch of the West and, well, we know how that one turned out.
I peered around the back of the house. As with the front porch, there were three cement steps leading up to the back door. There were two large windows presumably from a breakfast room facing the back. I couldn’t risk moving under them for fear the shooter would spot me and have a clear shot. Above me was a small window, probably the one above the kitchen sink, judging by the sponge resting on the window sill. That left me in a quandary: where would the shooter exit the house? Out the front door risking the eyes of witnesses or out the back? A chain link fence enclosed the entire yard and the detached garage. In the driveway of the backdoor neighbor’s house I saw a black sedan. It faced the street, ready to drive away fast. My intuitive gut told me this was the shooter’s car.
I needed to end the stand-off. Picking up a few pebbles from the ground, I threw them at the front porch. They rattled around, sounding like boulders in the tense quiet.
The footsteps in the house moved quickly toward my position. The back door flew open and the shooter emerged. With the broomstick, I did the only thing possible: I stuck it out and tripped him.
He flew through the air, arms flailing. Truth be told, he looked pretty funny. He landed face first on the gravel. The impact knocked his hat askew but, surprisingly, he kept a grip on the gun. I sobered up when sunlight glinted off the polished metal of his gun, the barrel aimed directly at my heart.