A Burning Cold Morning (Part 22)

Leo sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“I always have known you were a sharp one Grace, sorry, Veronica.  You seemed it from the first time we spoke and I still see it now.”  He ran a hand through his thinning hair and then told her about his misadventure at Crombie’s.  When he was finished Veronica laughed and then stared at him for a few moments, blowing smoke into his face.

“Damn Leo, that story sure don’t say much about your level of talent, does it?”  Before he could reply she went on.  “You know, when I saw you out there, going past me on the sidewalk, well I had an inkling that you might be chasing me down.  I wasn’t too sure if that was a good thing or not but I followed you figuring we might at least get into business together, if you happened to be interested in such a thing.”  She paused again, blew more smoke and finished with, “But now I’m not so sure.”

Leo blushed deeply, pulled his glasses off and looked at the floor.  He was embarrassed, exposed again as a failure in the criminal world, and it quickly turned into anger.

“Damn it, don’t be thinking I’m some Dumb Dora!  I cased that place good and had a plan.  How was I to know,”

“You can’t know sometimes,” Veronica interrupted, “but that just was not a good plan.   Who makes a trial run to steal one box and check out what’s inside?  You figure out what’s in the boxes and then either pass or steal them all.  It’s that simple.  It was a dumb move, Leo, real dumb.”

“Damn it!”  Leo slammed his right fist into his left hand.  “I know what I’m doing Grace.  I can run some business with you.”  He returned his glasses to his face and looked up to see Veronica smiling at him.

“You are sensitive aren’t you Leo?  And you need to stop calling me Grace.”

“Sorry,” he replied, “just don’t, well, don’t go making me out like some kind of idiot.  We can do business, I can do this.”

She waited again, and as she did so Leo’s face retuned to its normal color and he composed himself, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes for a few moments.  Veronica eyed him while continuing to smoke her cigar, her brow furrowed as she calculated what to do.  Finally she reached over and touched knee.

“Yes, well maybe we can at that.  I think you just might be useful despite all your tall tales about Kansas City.”  Leo started to blush again but she reassured him.  “It’s alright, we all do it, little exaggerations here and there to make ourselves look tougher or meaner or whatever.  You don’t seem to have had much success so far but maybe you’re just unlucky, or maybe you just need a good partner.  I’ll come by on Monday and pick you up around five.”  She then reached over and dropped her cigar into the glass of water which had remained untouched during their conversation.

“Where are we going?” Leo asked.

“Plumb’s.”

Leo stared back blankly but Veronica exited his room saying, “Just be ready on Monday.”

After she left he leaned back and closed his eyes again.  Even though he had composed himself fairly well, the entire conversation he had just had was still running through his mind.  There was anger inside of him both for the way Veronica had laughed at him and also at his own criminal failings.  He was even mad at himself for getting mad, knowing that his outburst only made him look weaker.  He should have laughed back at her and just told her what they were going to do.  That would be the way a real hard-boiled man would have handled it.  Thinking about it did not resolve much though and he kept going over it in his head until he fell asleep in the chair.

He awoke around midnight, neck stiff and back sore from sleeping in such an awkward position and stayed up until daylight, this time thinking about what kind of business might be good for him and Veronica.  He wanted to show her he was in charge and could come up with a plan.  After eating breakfast he asked the hotel manager where Plumb’s was and then walked over to check out the place, determined to know where he was going before Veronica picked him up.  Maybe that would even give him some ideas for developing a plan of action.  He was disappointed though when he got there as it was just a simple cigar shop, full of the usual supplies and accessories.  Could she really be picking him up to go buy cigars?  Surely this was not a place she planned on robbing?  Maybe he was the brains of their new venture after all.  Leo poked around a little in the store but did not buy anything, giving a curt “Just looking,” response to the old man behind the counter who offered to assist him.  He left and kept walking, trying to come up with ideas and although a few came to him none seemed good enough to present to Veronica.  After an hour of walking he returned to the Governor, toes cold and ears hurting a little from the biting wind outside that day.  As he passed the desk the manager he had spoken to in the morning called out to him.

“Enjoy yourself at Plumb’s?” the man asked, a slightly mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Leo, thinking the man was in on some joke against him, just glared back and returned to his room.  He stayed in that weekend, writing down plans and then crumpling each one up and throwing it into the fireplace.  Veronica’s laugh echoed in his head constantly and he could see her scoffing at each one as not good enough, or stupid, or silly, or any other reason she could come up with to put him down.  It was not a very good way to start a criminal venture and he began to regret ever coming to Olympia.  He needed money though and realized he could not come up with a good enough plan on his own.  Veronica was going to be necessary.  By the time she picked him up on Monday he was resigned to that fact, determined to make the best of it for awhile and then see what happened.  Veronica was all dressed up when she arrived, looking about as good as Leo could have imagined.

“A bit fancy for cigar shopping?” Leo inquired.

She laughed before replying.  “You’re quite the detective, huh?  But you missed the picture entirely my dear.  We’re going drinking Leo, not shopping.  It’s going to be quite a toot so I hope you’re ready for it.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 21)

Leo was not the fastest man but he did have the advantage over the driver, who seemed to be having trouble moving at a pace much faster than a light jog.  The man did, however, have a rather loud voice and his cries of “Thief!” and “Police!” trailed after Leo as he ran out onto Fifth and then left around the corner onto Washington Street.  The man’s yelling was a little bit fainter there but increased again a few seconds later and Leo realized the driver was around the corner also and still chasing him down.  The overcoat was making it difficult to run but Leo did not have time to take it off and also did not want to leave it laying around for the police to find later.  So he kept on, people staring at him as he passed by, one hand holding his hat low over his eyes and the driver’s shouts chasing after him.  He crossed over State Avenue and then cut down an alley back toward Capitol Way.  As he neared the end of that dim passageway he slowed down to a walk and tried to hide the fact that he was breathing heavily by turning up the collar of his overcoat.  Two men engaged in a conversation glanced at him as he stepped onto the road but quickly turned back to their own business.  Leo was only two blocks north of Crombie’s and knew he could not walk directly past it to return to the hotel.  Instead he wove through a few other blocks and then turned onto Fourth right down by the waterfront.

It was here that another improbable coincidence occurred.  Leo needed to get to Columbia Street so he could walk the back way to the Governor and in doing so he passed directly in front of the Angelus Hotel.  By this point his breathing had recovered and he was doing his best to look relaxed and natural.  Veronica was out front talking to M.E. George and happened to look up at the passing figure, doing the classic double-take when she recognized the man she had known from McNeil Island.  Leo noticed nothing including how Veronica quickly excused herself from her discussion with the store owner and quietly followed behind him.  When he swung around the back of Seventh Street and ducked into the side entrance of the Governor, she stopped and sat down on a nearby bench.

Although not as sure about Leo as he seemed to be about her, she was always looking for a good partner in crime and believed Leo was at least useful in that regard.  She had made a decent place for herself in the criminal world, especially in these years of living in Olympia, but having a male partner could open up a few new angles for exploration.  It was curious that Leo was here, and it made Veronica a little bit nervous considering that he may have some back looking for her.  He did not even know who she really was and there had not been anything romantic between them for Leo to come back looking to reignite.  Either way, she needed to confront him, get some answers and then decide how to play this situation.  After a brief, playful discussion with the desk clerk she obtained Leo’s room number and several minutes later was banging at his door.

“Yes, what,” Leo began as he opened that door but then stopped cold.  His mouth moved a few times before he found his words again.  “Grace, good lord, what are you doing here?”

“I came up here to ask you the same damn thing Leo.  What the hell are you doing in Olympia?”

“Really, well, maybe we should talk inside.  Please come in.”

After getting her a glass of water Leo sat down and leaned forward.

“It was a shock to see you at the door Grace, but, well you might not believe it but I’ve been looking for you.”

“I don’t know if I should be flattered or afraid.”

Leo gave a small laugh.  “Really, no harm intended.  I was looking for you to see about getting some business started.  You know Grace,”

blue ribbon cigar box

blue ribbon cigar box

Veronica held up her hand to stop him.  “First of all, do you have a light?”  She reached into her heavy white cardigan and produced a Blue Ribbon cigar.  After Leo had produced a box of matches she lit it and breathed out heavily.  “And secondly, my name is Veronica.”

Leo just stared at her for several long moments but then recovered and replied.  “Well, that is a surprise.  I guess then I have been hunting for the wrong person all along.”

“Not the wrong person, just the wrong name.”  Veronica smiled as she said that, the act an unnatural one on her usually stern face and it looked more like the grimace of a dying patient trying to fight through a bout of internal pain.  It went away quickly, replaced by her usual scowl.  “So, to get back to the start of this conversation, what the hell are you doing in Olympia?”

Leo told her a story, not the real one of course as that reality did not really put him in the best light.  Instead, he told a version of it that was more suitable, one where he left Kansas City voluntarily because there was not enough money to be made there for a man of his talents.  He did include the mainly truthful fact that Tom Pendergast owed him a favor, the only point in his storytelling where Veronica openly scoffed at him.  She knew about the Pendergast machine, she told Leo, and there was not  much chance that a man like that owed even a penny to a small-time operator like Leo.  He tried to convince her, insisting that he had indeed made an impression on the man, but she would not believe it and cautioned him to, “stick to your little lies, not these grandiose things.”

Giving up, Leo finished his story by saying he had just arrived in Olympia and had been looking for her since then.

“That’s it?” Veronica asked.

“Yes.” Leo replied.

“You just passed the days away looking for me?”

“Like I said, yes.”  Leo tried to look sincere but it was not working.

“You’re either a terrible criminal, a terrible liar or maybe both.  I’m not sure at this point except that I’m disappointed.”

That seemed to hit Leo hard and he leaned back with a hurt look on his face.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Veronica continued, “I think you needed a place to hide from something, I don’t know what and it really doesn’t matter.  Maybe you remembered me, or maybe Olympia seems far away from everything else, or maybe you have some bushwa sentimental attachment to places you’ve been.  I don’t care about that either.  You are a criminal though, I know that for a fact.  And, you’re here and in my town, where I do business, so now you better come clean about what you’ve been up to.”

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 20)

Angelus Hotel Olympia Wa - courtesy olympiahistory.org

Angelus Hotel Olympia Wa – proprietor and staff of M.E. George Grocery – courtesy olympiahistory.org

The incredible coincidence of Veronica’s presence in the same town as Leo, not to mention her living less than a block away from where he was staying, would be unbelievable in any story.  It was, however, true in this one.  Veronica had lived at the Angelus Hotel, located at 204 West 4th, for almost six years in what was an unusual stretch of location stability in her life.  All of the rooms were on the upper floors, with the entire ground level dedicated to various retail establishments including the M.E. George grocery where she occasionally picked up part-time work.  The owner of that business, Michael Edward, was one of the few people in town who knew Veronica and did not consider her to be a complete scoundrel.  She was good with numbers and he would ask her to check his books and inventory from time to time, and she also filled in at the register when he needed some time off.  On this particular day, with Leo sitting in a park around the corner, Veronica was off to tend to one of her other schemes.

Capitol Way Olympia WA looking south - Crombie's is on the left

Capitol Way Olympia WA looking south (caption is incorrect) – Crombie’s is on the left

She walked out of her building and proceeded to pass directly in front of the Governor, walking past the park although neither her nor Leo glanced in each other’s direction.  Instead she walked on and Leo got up four minutes later and walked back toward Crombie’s Drugstore which bordered the park on the north side.  While out previously inquiring about jobs and scouting locations, he had been in the drugstore while a delivery was bring made.  The store had a back entry, which was open at the time and Leo could clearly see the truck, rear door open and piled up with various boxes.  The driver, a short man with a slight hunchback, was standing at the lunch counter eating a sandwich and having a loud conversation with the owner Jack Crombie about his disagreements with President Coolidge.  Leo had already been dismissed Mr. Crombie, told that they did not need any help at the moment, but he lingered, sipping on a soda he had purchased and counting the minutes.  Twenty of them passed with the truck wide open and the driver and owner oblivious to anything except their own conversation.  It was the driver’s final comment, “I’ll see ya in two days,” made after he finally went back and unloaded the boxes, which gave Leo the information he had used to develop his plan.

It had indeed been two days since that observation and he wanted to see if everything happened again in the same way.  Purchasing a soda, he waited but the truck did not arrive.  Not wanting to be looked at suspiciously for lingering too long, he walked out and across the street, leaning up against the cold brick of a mercantile business.  Forty minutes later Leo saw the truck come around the corner and a short time after could see the driver at the lunch counter.  Making notes in his pad he counted off twenty three minutes this time and then returned to his hotel room.  It took another four scouting sessions before he felt confident enough in the timing of the deliveries to decide to undertake the mission the next time the truck was scheduled to come to the drugstore.  That day was January 21st and he woke that morning eager to put his plan into motion.

United Suitcase ad 1911 - similar to the one purchased by Leo

United Suitcase ad 1911 – similar to the one purchased by Leo

This first robbery was planned to be a small one, just a snatch and grab from the collection of boxes in the rear of the truck.  Leo wanted to see both what exactly might be in those packages and also determine what kind of reaction occurred.  Would the one missing box be noticed?  Would it be assumed to have been stolen, or maybe just lost off the truck?  Would the police be called?  Once he had that information he would be able to develop a plan for a larger robbery or possibly a series of smaller ones.  He had dressed for the event in a light grey suit, a brown overcoat and a dark grey fedora. He wanted to be nondescript and the wider brimmed hat would also allow him to partially cover his face by pulling it low and bending the edge.  Leo’s plan was to grab the box, walk out onto the side street off Capitol Way and duck into an alley that was one block west.  There he could open the box, get a quick idea of its contents and transfer them to a rather bulky United brand suitcase he had picked up from a secondhand store.  Once that was accomplished, he planned to stroll back to the Governor, looking to anyone who noticed like a guest coming in for a stay.   That was the plan he had come up with anyway and after tucking the suitcase behind a pile of garbage in that alleyway he walked toward the drugstore. Leo then stepped into the driveway behind Crombie’s, truck already parked and the driver inside,  feeling confident that the day was going to be a success.

It was a few small but important details, changes to what Leo had observed as the usual pattern of these deliveries, which would lead to the downfall of his plot.  Leo had not been inside the drugstore when the truck arrived, observing instead from across the street.  He missed the driver’s comment to Mr. Crombie, made as he came through the back door, that his wife was sick and he needed to pick up some medicine for her.  He also had not noticed that there was a sign in the front window, “Cook Sick – No Food Today,” which meant of course that there would be no lunch for the driver.  Instead, Mr. Crombie offered to prepare the medicine while the driver unloaded the truck.  That had begun while Leo stashed the suitcase and he was just lifting a box out of the vehicle when the hunchbacked man emerged from the store.  There was a shout, the box fell to the ground, and the chase was on.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 19)

Governor Hotel, later renamed the Mitchell Hotel, Olympia WA

Governor Hotel, later renamed the Mitchell Hotel, Olympia WA

Exactly how Leo traveled during his return to Washington, or how long it actually took, is unknown but by January 9th of 1926 he is listed as a guest of the Governor Hotel on Capitol Way.   The hotel, built in 1890 and well situated in the heart of the city, was a place you would probably not expect to find a man with a price on his head.   It was a clean, respectable establishment, definitely one of the more well-known lodging locations in town and a place to get yourself noticed.  It was this, the opportunity to be among the local and visiting bigwigs, that likely drew Leo to the Governor.  Along with his long burning desire to be more important socially he also had the rebuke from Pendergast, and the accompanying failure to succeed in Kansas City, hanging over his ego.  He had really thought he was going to end up being someone in that town.  So, even though he could barely afford it, Leo checked himself into a very nice double suite and started to think about ways to make some money.  He also was thinking about something else.

His initial interest in coming back to Olympia centered on finding Grace Melcher, his lone visitor from his McNeil Island days.  Although he never did disclose what they had discussed during that visit, Leo made little secret of the fact that he had found her to be a very interesting woman.  As he had once told Chaz Mayfield, she was, “A woman you could do business with and not have to worry about her getting soft on ya.”   How Leo knew that is another fact which is not known as only the one visit from her is recorded and no other records exist of their having communicated.  One thing he did not know then or when he arrived back in Olympia in 1926 was that she was well known in the area for her passing attachments to criminals, her many and varied small-time schemes and for her chain smoking of cigars.  Her name also was not Grace Melcher.

veronica stillman 1926

veronica stillman 1926

Veronica Stillman, who eventually went by a variety of names including the one Leo knew her under, had been born in Tuckerton, New Jersey in 1901 to a father named James Williamson who worked as a fisherman, and a mother named Anna.  Her parents were not married when she was born nor would they ever be, and James was in and out of their lives throughout Veronica’s childhood.  Her mother, a slim and attractive blonde with pale skin and light green eyes, made money by robbing men that she lured to their small apartment with promises of sex.  She always targeted men who were not locals, pulling a knife on them once their clothes were off. She would then relieve them of whatever money they had and threaten to report them to the local sheriff for trying to do improper things to her poor little girl if they made any kind of a fuss.  That was just one example of the kind of cons and scams Anna was running and she was never shy about invoking Veronica when it suited her purposes.  Being involved, even indirectly, in her mother’s schemes from a early age led to Veronica growing into a cynical and rather cold young woman.  She also picked up her mother’s penchant for petty crimes and minor felonies along the way,  running her own operations on the side by the time she had turned fourteen.  At sixteen, in a reenactment of her own mother’s life, she ran off with a local fisherman also named James, and was soon living in Gloucester, Massachusetts as Veronica Gibbs.  That marriage did not last long and when she was eighteen she is listed as Betty Cooper on an arrest report in Chicago.  She becomes lost after that, next turning up as a possible accomplice to Roy Gardner during his McNeil Island escape, and then, as we know, she met Leo Humbert.  By the time he started looking for her in 1926, Veronica was a severe looking twenty-five year old woman with short, dark brown hair and hard brown eyes that looked at the world with a calculated lack of passion.

Capitol Way by Governor Hotel

Capitol Way by Governor Hotel

Leo only knew that he was trying to find Grace, who had told him she was from Olympia, and he was determined to do so.  The day after checking into the Governor Hotel he started asking around while also surveying opportunities to make some money.  He thought about going to the hardware store where he had worked during his short stint in Olympia after his release from prison but then remembered how much he had hated the job and the man for whom he worked.  There was a drugstore, Crombie’s, and Harris’ Dry Goods near the hotel and he inquired at both but was politely turned away.  He received the same response at all the other places he went, always going in with a story of his experience in whatever job it was, and always being told they were not interested in hiring him.  It probably would have been discouraging to most people but not to Leo, who was really using the job inquires to case each place for whatever criminal opportunity it might present to him.  He also was making contacts along the way and making note of the police activity in the area.  After two days of this, and still with no luck finding Grace, Leo sat in Sylvester Park contemplating his next move.   As he sat there on a unseasonably warm fifty degree day and scribbled notes on a small pad of paper, Veronica Stillman stepped out of her apartment building, which was directly around the corner from the Governor Hotel.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 18)

“Christ,” Leo replied while running his hand through his hair, “I have to blouse outta here if that’s the way it is.  But still, I want to be sure.  Can you take a message for me to Pendergast?”

“Still stupid huh?  Don’t you get it, you need to leave Lee!”

“Will you?”
“Damn, if it helps get you outta here, sure.  What’s the message?”

“Hang on,” Leo answered, rummaging around in his pants pocket for a moment before producing a neatly folded up piece of paper.  “Here, take it and get an answer quick, ok?  I can’t be around here much longer if I’ve been burned.”

Red had a look in his eye as he replied, sympathy mixed with anger.  “You’ve been burned Lee, you’re just too stupid to see it.  Go pack your bag.”

Red walked off, back out the door, and Leo returned upstairs, opening a suitcase but not putting anything into it.  He really wanted this to work out, for his risk to have been worth it, for his rank as a real criminal to be on the rise.  Forty minutes later he answered Red’s knock at his door.

“Well?” Leo asked with a look of hope.

“You really don’t get it do you, Lee?   I almost feel sorry for you, but just almost.  Someone as stupid as you probably deserves to be dead by now.”

“Damn you, what’s the answer?”

“It’s simple.”  Red held up his left hand as he spoke, like he was making a proclamation.  “Mr. Pendergast thanks you for your work but due to present circumstances cannot provide you with any immediate assistance.  He will in the future, if an opportunity presents itself, and you are welcome back in Kansas City anytime.”

“Bushwa!” Leo shouted back, sitting down on the arm of his Crocker lounge and burying his head in his hands.  “Damn, damn, damn!  I can’t believe they would burn me like this, after what I did.  That wasn’t no easy caper to pull off and then they give me the icy mitt?  I just can’t believe it.”

“Listen Lee, you gotta leave now.  I know this ain’t easy to hear, but it’s true just like I said it was and you’re a dead man in KC right now.  So, pack up your things and leave and do it right now.”

“How am I supposed to get out of here?  They’ve got the place surrounded, they must have by now, I’m trapped in this damn building and burned by everyone!”

Red sighed and replied.  “Stop the antics Lee, it’s not a good look for you.  I can get you outta here, just get your things packed like I told you to do already.”

“You really think you can get me out?  Safely?”

“Yes, yes I can and I will, now please.”  Red motioned toward the open suitcase and Leo finally got up and walked over to his dresser.

It only took him fifteen minutes to pack up his life in Kansas City and then he rang up the manager of the Savoy and turned over his key and final payment.  It was not a pleasant moment for Leo as he had hoped to make his mark in the city and had been planning on staying around for the indefinite future.  He was not happy at all with the way he was being treated by Pendergast, he still feared for his life even with Red’s assurance, and he was once again feeling like he had missed a chance to gain some kind of evaluated standing in the criminal world.  The only thing he felt good about was his own performance and behavior, except of course the scared and frightened emotions that embarrassed him so much when they came to the surface.  Maybe that was the thing holding him back, he just needed to get tougher and things would start to look up.

For now, he grabbed his suitcase and another smaller valise and followed Red down into the basement of the Savoy.  Once down the stairs Red walked fifteen feet and pulled back a large piece of plywood that was leaned up against the wall.  That revealed a door, and when they stepped through it was into a narrow tunnel which was dark and smelled of stagnant water.  Flicking on a flashlight, Red explained that this was an old access tunnel which the workers had used while constructing the Eighth Street trolley tunnel, and that it led away from the hotel and directly into the main tunnel itself one block away.  Leo was amazed but also a little put off by the claustrophobic and damp  feeling of the narrow passage, wincing each time he bumped into one of the walls.  Finally though, they approached a dark, iron door which Red opened with a key, and Leo emerged into the Eighth Street tunnel.

Eight Street tunnel

Eight Street tunnel

“You better hurry,” Red said, already turning back to return to the Savoy, “that trolley is going to come past here in about fifteen minutes.  Go that way.”  Pointing to Leo’s left, he waved and finished with, “And stay away for a good while.  They have a warrant out for you now on that Shannon theft, it’s under Lee O’Dare, which I know isn’t your real name.  So maybe you shouldn’t use that one anymore.  Good luck.”  He was gone after that, just a shadow being led down the passageway  by the flickering beam of the flashlight.  Leo made it, clearing the tunnel before the trolley came, and then he quickly eased out of town, a plan already forming in his head to return to Washington.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 17)

So that day passed and then the next two and Leo spent the time mostly just sitting around his room and reading.  At least he read when he could, as a majority of his waking moments were spent pondering the situation he was in and just how much danger there might be for him.  His thinking went in a circle, over and over again; Shannon’s mad and wants him dead, some thug is just waiting for him to step outside the Savoy to collect the money on his head by putting him down, Pendergast would not leave him in such danger, he was safe after all, Shannon’s mad…  On and on it went.

Walnut Street Kansas City Missouri

Walnut Street Kansas City Missouri

Finally, after breakfast on Tuesday, January 29th, Leo had convinced himself that all was indeed well, he was in fact protected and could carry on with his normal routine.  There was not a shred of evidence to support that, other than the fact that he was still alive, but he chose to believe it anyway.  Stepping out the front door of the Savoy into an usually warm winter morning, Leo took off at a leisurely walk.  He was feeling good and happy, mostly preoccupied with how he could approach Tom Pendergast to capitalize on his new association with the man, and he whistled a little bit as he walked.  His destination, a nondescript brown building on Walnut Street, was a poorly kept secret of the prohibition era, a place you could pick up a bottle or two of homemade liquor.  After stopping in, Leo took the longer way back to the Savoy, enjoying the weather and his sense of better things to come.

He even stopped and sat for awhile in Central Place, reliving in memory his time spent there after the car theft, embarrassed now about his shaking hands and worry.  Those were thoughts he preferred not to linger on, so he started walking again, eventually passing between Humboldt and Central Schools.

He probably never would have noticed the man if it were not for the fact that just as he was passing the schools he bumped into a woman walking the other way on the road and almost dropped his package of liquor.  Saving it required him to spin partially around and that is when he saw the man.  Tall, maybe six foot four, dressed in a black overcoat with the collar turned up, cigarette smoke drifting out from under the rim of a wide fedora.  It was almost too theatrical for Leo to believe, and he might have shrugged it off except for the flinch.  Just as he turned around he saw the man flinch, not in an exaggerated way, just a little bit, enough to tip Leo off anyway.  The man did not want to be seen back there, walking so casually along the road about one hundred feet behind Leo.  Right in that moment he realized that his calculations about his own safety, and Pendergast’s protection, had likely been very wrong indeed.

Speeding up his pace, Leo began to take the most haphazard route possible, cutting over at every block, still hoping that maybe it was not true; Eleventh to Oak, Tenth to McGee and then finally left onto Ninth.  From there it was a straight run to the Savoy seven blocks away.  Looking back, it was still true.  The man had followed him through all of those streets and was still the same distance behind him.  His fears confirmed and all hope gone, Leo ditched the liquor package on a door stoop and took off at a run for the Savoy, embarrassed but too afraid to care.  Three blocks later, another similarly dressed but much shorter man with a mustache stepped out from behind a vehicle, put one hand inside his coat and watched silently as Leo approached.  Glancing quickly back, Leo saw that the other man had maintained his same distance and the two thugs had him neatly sandwiched between them.  Leo had reached full panic mode just as a police car turned down Ninth from behind the smaller man.  It gunned its engine just a little bit, enough to get the man’s attention, and after looking back he removed his hand from inside the coat and got back into his own vehicle.  A quick look from Leo confirmed that the taller man had also stopped his pursuit, a welcome fact but he kept running anyway.  Passing the police vehicle with a small wave, Leo did not stop until he was safely behind his own door, collapsed onto hands and knees and breathing heavily.

It took him awhile to recover, and even longer to summon up the courage to leave his room, but Leo had to get a message to Pendergast.  Uncertain if the police vehicle was happy coincidence or a sign of protection, he needed to know as soon as possible.  Since he was absolutely certain that the men would be waiting outside for him if he left, the only way he could think of was to try to get a message to Pendergast through Red.  It took six hours of waiting, sitting nervously behind a large plant in the Savoy’s lobby, but eventually Red came strolling through the door and Leo bounded over, pulling him around the corner so they could not be seen from the road.

“They almost got me today, right out on the street!  I can’t believe it, right out on the street, in the open!”

Red pulled Leo’s hand, which was grabbing a fistful of his overcoat, away and shook his head.  “I told you Lee, ya were stupid to think that wasn’t going to happen.  I warned you.”

“I know it, damn it! Still though, you know, the police came at just the right moment, it saved me I’m telling you.  You think,”

“No,” Red interrupted, “that wasn’t nothin’ like what you’re thinking right now.  Nobody was trying to save you, it was just your own stupid man’s dumb luck.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 16)

crocker company lounge chair courtesy wisc.edu

Leo passed the remainder of that Christmas Day sleeping and sitting around in his favorite chair, a lounge from Crocker Company that had come with the place.  It was not a piece of furniture that he would have chosen himself, but it was well made and comfortable.  In the evening he made himself a simple ham sandwich for dinner and then went to sleep for the night.  Rising at six a.m. the next morning, he shuffled down to the restaurant for breakfast.  He was sitting there, just about to get his first sip of coffee, when he noticed that the place had become eerily silent.  The other patrons were all staring past Leo’s table, some of their mouths agape and most of them with slightly worried expressions on their faces.  A ball of nausea formed in Leo’s stomach as he slowly turned his head, expecting to see Shannon’s henchmen behind him.

tom pendergast

Instead, standing just a few steps away, was Tom Pendergast.   He was an imposing figure, stoutly built and with a round face that exuded a quiet confidence along with a kind of aloof warmth.  His eyes appeared large and peered out from beneath thick eyelids, their icy depth a stark contrast to the rest of his soft face.  The moniker of ‘Murdering Teddy Bear’ had been used more than once behind Pendergast’s back and Leo had to admit that it fit the man well.  He stood there, towering over the seated Leo, not saying a word but instead quietly surveying the clientele.  After several more long moments, he took two steps forward and placed his hand on Leo’s shoulder.

“How’s your breakfast?” Pendergast asked, his voice soft but raspy.

Leo’s hands were shaking a little and he grabbed the cup, still held aloft and about a quarter of the way to his mouth, with both hands to steady it.

“Just fine, just, just starting,’ Leo stammered in reply.

“Good, good.”  Pendergast patted Leo again on the shoulder before sitting down across the table from him.  Leo was lost for what to say and a minute or more passed in silence as he nervously sipped coffee while Pendergast peered at him intently.  Eventually Leo composed himself enough to speak.

“Did you like what,”

“Did you sleep well son?” Pendergast interrupted.

“Well, sure, yes, I guess, I did, yes I slept fine.”

“Good.  You deserved to,” Pendergast replied and then he stood up and walked off, back toward the entrance.  Quickly standing up to follow, wanting to hear some praise for his work, Leo took only one step before the large hand of an equally large man stopped him.

“Good work,” the man said and then slapped an envelope into Leo’s hand before finishing with, “now sit down and enjoy your breakfast.”

Ten seconds later the man,  Pendergast and three others who had been arranged near the doorway were gone and the clatter of people eating slowly returned to the restaurant.  As he sank into his seat Leo could feel eyes glancing over at him inquisitively.   Slowly opening the envelope, he found one hundred and fifty dollars inside, which brought a smile to his face.  Obviously, Pendergast had been impressed enough to give him a fifty dollar bonus on the job.  That had to be a good sign.  Spirits buoyed by the encounter, Leo ate a large, leisurely breakfast before retiring back to his room.  Around noon, while he was dozing off in the lounge chair, a hard knock sounded at his door.  Opening it, Leo was greeted by the somber face of Red Godding.

“Lee, you’ve got trouble,” he said, stepping into the room and then closing the door.

“You mean about the Shannon caper, I suppose?”

“Damn right about that.”

“Ya wanna know something?  Tom Pendergast came by this morning and personally thanked me for doing it, came right to my table at breakfast.”

Red replied only with a skeptical look.

“Well, he came to my table anyway, said I deserved a good night’s sleep, that’s the same coming from him I suppose.  And they paid me fifty extra clams so I must have made an impression, huh?”

“Look, I dunno why he would’a come to see you personally, it’s not really his thing.  But maybe he did.  The caper was his idea after all so maybe he thought it would be a good idea to let you know he appreciated it.  But that don’t mean nothin’ now.  You got a mark on your head from Shannon and you better leave town right now if you plan on living much longer.”

Leo blinked a few times in rapid succession, absorbing the idea that someone had actually put a price on his head.  That was frightening but he was not worried.

“Well, Pendergast’s gonna protect me, that’s what I figure.  I mean, I just did him a big favor.  He wouldn’t let anything happen to me after that, so why should I be afraid.”

“Good lord you are a stupid man Lee, a stupid, stupid man.  You don’t mean a thing to that man or anyone in his gang.  Maybe the real reason he came by was just to look at you before you died.  He had to know about that price on your head because Shannon put that mark out Christmas Day.  And maybe that fifty was just a way to say, get the hell out of town boy.”

Now Leo was not feeling so confident.  “Seriously?  They are just going to hang me out like that after what I did?”

“Without even thinking about it for a second,” Red replied.

“Bushwa!”

“Think what you like Lee, but leave here and do it today.”

Leo leaned back in his chair, slowly stroking his chin.  He still did not completely believe that Pendergast would abandon him, especially after coming to see him personally at breakfast.

“I’ll think about it,” he replied.

Red snorted in disgust, got up and walked out the door.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 15)

The night seemed to become even more frigid as he crouched among those trees, the cold washing quickly over his sweaty skin and forming a strange layer of frosty ice on his face and hands.  The shivers brought on by that quick freeze ricochet all over his body while he kept his eyes focused keenly out toward the road.  A car passed, and several minutes later another, and then fifteen minutes later they both came back, turning this time into the cemetery.  The vehicles patrolled the grounds and twice they stopped, men stepping out with flashlights and sweeping the beams over the dark recesses between the trees.  The searchers and their lights never came closer than fifty feet from Leo though, and his location and that of the Renault remained undiscovered.  After twenty-five minutes of driving around the cemetery the men parked both cars about one hundred feet away from the copse of trees and all got out to smoke cigarettes.  Complaining loudly about the cold, it also became evident that these men were in fact looking for whomever had stolen the Renault.  One large, bushy looking man brandished a shotgun as he explained what needed to be done to the culprit while the others worried about the consequences of returning to “the big boss” with empty hands.  Finally the men climbed back into their vehicles and headed off, splitting up as they exited the cemetery.

Leo had to admit that he was  very afraid at this point, the shotgun and leisurely description of what it was to be used for disquieting him and making his stomach uneasy.  Although he was already incredibly cold and certain he was going to end up with some pretty severe frostbite, Leo resolved to stay in the cemetery until it was time to stage the car on Christmas morning.  Hurrying back to the Renault with a faint hope in his head, he was rewarded when he discovered a blanket shoved under the passenger seat.  It was dark grey and made of heavy wool, large enough to cover him completely and keep him both hidden and warm.  Although he would have preferred the protection from the wind offered by the vehicle, Leo also did not want to be caught sleeping inside of it on the off-chance that these men came back and checked the cemetery again.  Settling down again into the trees, he wrapped himself up, tucked the edges of the blanket under his body and tried to think about being warm.

After about twenty minutes things got better, his body heat and breath trapped by the thick wool and creating a nice little pocket of comfort.  Eventually Leo drifted off a little bit although he was not warm enough to really fall asleep. He was in and out after that and constantly restless; warm and cold, worried and elated, tired and alert.  Five hours of this was all he could take and so, at five thirty a.m. on Christmas morning 1925, Leo stood up, collected his packages and walked back to the Renault.

It was not light yet although the eastern sky had just those first touches of the approaching sun in it, cold yellow hints of light flashing against the clouds.  He was not sure if the men had stopped looking, or if more had joined in as the night went on.  He did not know if the police were maybe involved by now, or if his bell ringer had squealed on him to someone in the Shannon gang.  What Leo did know was that if all of his risk, suffering and fright was going to be worth anything at all to him, he needed to finish the job.  Determined, he drove toward the river.

Luck was with him again as he encountered no one, not even a pedestrian on their way to an early holiday breakfast or a late returning night worker.  He drove all the way to Ninth Street and then turned left toward the railroad tracks.  He did see a few people then, all of them walking with their heads down against the crisp morning breeze.  No one seemed to be paying attention to him though, so Leo stopping hiding his face under a turned up coat lapel and focused instead on the end of his journey which was just six blocks ahead.

original union depot Kansas City

original Union Depot Kansas City

The old Union Train Depot had fallen into some disrepair since it was abandoned in 1914 in favor of the new Union Station on 25th and Grand.  That place had all of the attention these days, with its ninety-five foot ceilings and huge chandeliers.  The old depot though had historical significance to Kansas City and was especially important to the Rabbits.  Some of their businesses, both legal and illegal, were still run out of the broken down building and it was recognized as the gateway to the main Rabbit controlled areas down by the stock yards and freight houses.  It was for that reason it had been chosen by Leo as the place to leave Joe Shannon’s Renault.  Pulling up diagonally across from the Depot, so that the vehicle would block traffic on Lincoln, Bluff and Ninth Street all at the same time, he hopped out and quickly set up his props.

The sign he propped up against the windshield which faced directly into the traffic on Lincoln.  He then draped one of the dead rabbits over the front grill, it’s cold, furry legs reaching toward the silver Renault logo on the hood.  The other he laid on top of the fender of the driver’s side rear wheel, splaying its hind legs open and twisting the head so it seemed to be on backwards.  The sky was getting lighter now and a glance down Ninth confirmed that a few pedestrians were headed this way although it would be awhile before they arrived to view his work.  Taking a quick glance inside the vehicle to ensure he had left nothing behind, Leo allowed himself both a  smile and small shout of triumph before he strode quickly away down Lincoln.

Thirty minutes later he was sitting at the table of the Savoy’s restaurant and ordering Christmas breakfast.  As he ate that meal and then sat around reading the newspaper he did not quite comprehend the serious nature of his caper.  He saw it mostly as a prank meant to rub a little bit of dirt in the Rabbit’s eyes and embarrass their leader.  Pendergast knew in advance that it would be taken much more seriously than that by Shannon, which is exactly what happened.  As Leo relaxed and sipped coffee, an enraged Shannon, who had been forced to miss the annual Christmas breakfast he hosted for his constituents, was already well on his way to figuring out exactly who was responsible for insulting him.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 14)

Now that the moment was upon him, he was more nervous than he had hoped to be and was a little angry at himself because of it.  Leo wanted to be a cold, hard criminal, part of the Pendergast machine, and getting the shakes because he had to pick a lock in the darkness was no way for such a person to act.  His was, however, trembling as he tried to get the lock open and the picks fell several times from hands which were also starting to lose feeling from the cold.  Frustration building inside of him, Leo took a deep breath and tried again, still to no avail.  Glancing at his pocket watch he realized that ten minutes had already gone by and it was very close to ten o’clock.  Fumbling the picks again, he picked them up and this time, with his eyes squinted up in frustration and foggy breath blowing out in ragged bursts, he managed to get the lock open.  He then quietly pushed the door open, threw his packages into the car and waited for the bells.

Church Tower Kansas City

Church Tower Kansas City

Ten o’clock came and went but nothing happened.  Leo sat there in the vehicle of one of the most powerful men in Kansas City, in possession of two items that were going to be hard to explain, armed bodyguards only a short distance away, and with the the cold creeping into his body and waited in silence.  Ten oh-three, ten oh-four, and still nothing but the cold air and his own breathing.  At ten oh-five something slammed from the direction of the house and Leo almost took off running, but nothing else followed that sound and the silence returned.  Finally, at ten oh-eight the bells pealed in the distance and Leo pushed the button to start the Renault.  Nothing happened, so he pushed it again to no effect.  Realizing that he was going to have to hand-crank the engine, he swore and jumped out.

As he slid the hand crank into the generator unit, Leo could still hear the bells although he knew that was not going to last much longer.   The man he had paid had stated that after a few minutes of them ringing the priest, who lived two houses away, was going to come looking for a reason.  It took two attempts but finally the vehicle fired up and Leo sped out of the storage shed, clipping the edge of the door with the back wheel,  just thirty seconds before the bells stopped ringing.  He could hear the last sounds from them fading into the night as he turned east onto Twenty-Seventh Street headed toward Union Cemetery.

Leo still did not have a solid idea about hiding the car but his immediate plan was to stick to the middle of the city.  The Rabbits firmly controlled everything down by the river and the Goats had most of the southeast portion, east of the KC Rail Line, under their power.  That left a portion of the city, roughly bordered by four schools, where one was least likely to run into an operative of either side.  Turning north off of Twenty-Seventh, Leo took Broadway and then turned into what he considered to be the safe zone on Sixteenth Street.  As he passed the Webster School a small feeling of relief came over him although the adrenaline was still pumping fairly strongly through his body.  His senses were on high alert and several times he thought he caught the sound of a vehicle approaching; however, each time this proved to be false.  Turning north on Oak Street, two blocks later Leo arrived at Central Place, a park area almost directly in the center of his safety zone.  Still without a plan as to what to do for the remainder of the night, he pulled the vehicle over into a dark, tucked away corner of the park and listened for any sounds of pursuit.

As he sat there, finally out of immediate danger, the adrenaline finally left his body and his hands and legs began to shake uncontrollably.  Scolding himself again, Leo tucked his hands under his armpits and clenched his leg muscles in a attempt to get the shaking to stop.  Eventually it did of course and his breathing, which he had not noticed was irregular and fast, also returned to normal.  The night settled in quietly around him again, and although he was getting very cold Leo felt a strong sense of accomplishment.  He was certain that this was going to get him an invite to join up with Pendergast.

It was forty minutes later, around eleven o’clock, when Leo heard the distant but approaching sound of what seemed to be several vehicles.  Knowing that it was extremely unusual for multiple vehicles to be on the road late at night, and especially on Christmas Eve, he had the sudden sinking feeling that the theft had been discovered.  Knowing that these possible searchers would eventually make their way to his location, Leo started up the Renault again and headed back out onto Oak Street.  He was making things up as he went at this point, so he headed south down Oak even though that brought him closer to Goat territory.  Going that direction had to be better than going toward the river where someone was sure to recognize Shannon’s vehicle.  Willing the car to be quiet, Leo eased it down the road, watching and listening intently as he went.  Crossing over Eighteenth he was suddenly lit up by the headlights of another vehicle and a small yelp escaped his lips before he could control it.  As the vehicle went past, two old men who hardly looked his way, Leo fought down the impulse to shout profanities at them.

He could now see two sets of headlights trailing behind him on Oak, and seeming to gain ground.  Making a quick turn onto Twentieth Street Leo pressed the car hard and was soon going almost forty miles per hour.  The headlights turned his way, still seemingly in pursuit, so he turned hard onto Holmes Street and then west onto Twenty Third.  The lights still followed him; however, and he made another attempt to lose them by turning onto Grand Ave and really pushing the vehicle as hard as he could, eventually reaching a speed of forty-four miles per hour.  As he crossed over Twenty-Seventh Leo saw that he was back in the area of Union Cemetery and he impulsively slammed the brakes and pulled in, careening through the open gate and onto the dirt road that wandered among the graves.

Union Cemetery Kansas City

Union Cemetery Kansas City

Although he could no longer see any lights behind him he was certain that the chase was not over, so he drove deep into the cemetery and pulled the vehicle behind a large stone monument.  Shutting it down, he leapt out, taking his packages with him, and ran to a small copse of trees about twenty feet away.  Out of breath and sweating, he sat down and waited.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 13)

Early the next morning, Christmas Eve, he stopped the church’s maintenance man as he was unlocking the side door. Seven dollars later Leo had a promise from him to ring the church’s bells at 10 p.m. that night.  He had hoped for it to cost less, initially offering three dollars, but the man had been insistent, stating that there was a decent chance he would get fired over it and that he would need the additional money to tide him over until he found new work.  Leo also knew that technically the car was supposed to be stolen on Christmas  Day but that had been impossible to convince the maintenance man to go along with as “ringing them bells on Jesus’ day is surely a sin no money can save me from.”  So, it would have to be Christmas Eve, and maybe he could hide the car someplace overnight to make good on the original instructions.

With those things settled, Leo had some time to spare until he needed to start actually acting on his plan later that night.  As he sat nervously in his room that morning he came up with one final detail that he thought would ensure his place in Pendergast’s organization.  For that he needed to take another walk, this one outside the city limits, and go kill some rabbits.

These rabbits would be the animal kind, not their human namesakes that were controlled by Shannon.   Leo had brought a small pistol with him, tucked into his pocket as he made his way past Market Square and then alongside the train depot that fronted the Missouri River near the bridge.  Forty minutes later he was well away from the main part of the developed area in Kansas City and picking his way along the riverbank.  Red Godding, who was country-born and raised before embarking on his criminal career, often talked about killing rabbits down in this area of the river, bringing them back to the Savoy to make into stew.  Leo did not know much about hunting, having avoided it as much as possible during his own youth, but he figured that it could not be that hard to kill a few small animals.  This of course proved to not be true and several other men he ran into, armed with traps and rifles, gave him looks of pity and amusement as they saw him hiding with his pistol in hand.  Leo persevered though and, after two hours of crouching in river weeds and behind trees, he had two rabbits in hand to take back with him.

Stashing his kills in a box, Leo took a nap and woke up around six-thirty in the evening.  Knowing he had a long night ahead of him, he ate a large dinner down at the Savoy’s restaurant and then went back to his room to prepare himself.  He spent a little more time practicing with the lock and then pulled out a map of the city.  Although he had his original route well-planned and memorized, he wanted to be familiar with as much of the city’s layout as possible.  This was especially important now that he was stealing the car early and was going to have to hide out with it for awhile.  He came up with a few general ideas but nothing definite, hoping that he could finalize his plan on the way to Shannon’s house later in the evening.  Setting the map aside, Leo then pulled out a piece of wood that he had picked up out of the scrap bin of a lumber mill a week before while on a walk.  He had given the message some thought, wanting it to be derogatory enough to really impress Pendergast.  Written sloppily in black paint, the message read:

Shannon is a Zozzled Four-Flusher

Who’s The Next Dead Rabbit?

After the paint dried he wrapped it in burlap, cleaned up, and then got ready to depart.  It was cold that day, around twenty-six degrees by evening with the temperature still dropping, and Leo pulled on a sweater before shrugging into a grey wool overcoat and snapping his gloves closed at the wrists.  Shoving the rabbits into a canvas bag and tucking the sign under his arm, he put on his fedora, cocking the brim up just a little over his right eye, and walked out to steal Joe Shannon’s Renault.

As he walked south toward his target’s house, Leo thought again about what to do with the vehicle after he stole it.  He was a little bit uncertain about how Pendergast was going to view the fact that he was stealing the car on the wrong day, but he was certain that displaying it to mock Shannon before Christmas morning was going to result in not getting paid.  Kansas City was a big enough place, but Leo did not have any acquaintances who owned building where something as big as the Renault could be hidden.  All of his friends lived in rooms much like his own if not smaller.  Also, with large portions of the city controlled by one of the two factions, there really were not many places he could go that someone would not report seeing the Renault either to Pendergast or Shannon.  He continued thinking about it all the way to the Orphan’s House, trying to avoid the few people out for a late Christmas Eve stroll as much as possible, but had not come up with anything by the time he arrived at eight forty-five in the evening.

He rested there, in the darkness behind the Orphan’s House for fifteen minutes, stomping his feet to keep the feeling in them and blowing warm breath inside of his gloves.  He then picked his two packages back up and walked briskly toward Shannon’s house.  As he approached he could see two lights still on in the upstairs windows although the bottom floor was entirely dark.  Ducking off the road, behind a large tree and a group of cedar bushes, Leo waited and watched, hoping that all of the lights would be extinguished.  That, however, did not happen and at nine forty-five, with only fifteen minutes to spare until the bells rang, he knew that he had to make his move.  Walking rapidly up to the secured shed door, fedora now pulled down over both eyes, Leo set down the dead rabbits and the sign, yanked off his gloves and pulled out his lock picks.

…to be continued