by Rick Beck

Chapter 3

Power Steering

George had a meeting with Detective Jack Carter at noon. While the phone on Pops desk rang constantly, no one was sent out on a story. One other stringer had been hanging around. If something came in, George would graciously let the other stringer take it, if the story would make him late meeting Jack.

Detective Jack Carter had become George's closest source with the police department. George had been drinking with him, once he found out where cops drank, after going to work at the City News. The Anteroom was where respectable cops drank. When George wasn't drinking with reporters at Jerry's, he was drinking with cops at the Ante-Room. He was usually drinking with Jack.

From his earliest visits to the Ante-Room, George had been cultivating relationships with Jack Carter and Arnold Slopes, both detectives. Following the advice of his journalism teacher, he was cultivating the sources that could do him the most good.

George liked Jack. He was a kind of sad sack Sam Spade, with a bit of Dick Tracy on the side. In a marriage gone bad, Jack and his wife had hit a patch of bad road. Jack was working double shifts over night, getting off around noon, when he went to the Ane-Room for a few drinks. He went home to sleep while his wife was at work, leaving before she came home.

George was part marriage counselor, part good-old-boy, and part drinking buddy. He could confide in George, when he wouldn't have been comfortable telling men he worked with what he told George. When George went to the Ante-Room to drink, he imagined he'd be hearing stories about the cases that kept cops up nights. A good reporter could use what he heard to write stories about those cases, but Jack had confided in him about a case that had gone ice cold.

A low level hood, Jimmy Vogal was the prime suspect in an ambush murder. Vogal lawyered up after Jack hauled him in for questioning about the hit. With no evidence Jack wasn't able to haul Vogal in for another round of questioning.

Vogal drank in Loey's. It was a place where a lot of bad guys did their drinking. Jack wanted to go in undercover, but he'd been a cop for thirty years and he headed the city's major crime bureau. Not only was he known, but most of his undercover cops ended up making news when one figured in breaking a case that had gone unsolved for too long.

Seeing that this was right up George's alley. If he was helpful to Jack, his drinking buddy might return the favor, and George told him, 'if there's anything I can do to help, just say the word.' It was an offer he made only once, but in the case once was enough.

Jack wanted to talk to George about going into Loey's because no one would no him there. He'd tell anyone who asked, he was a hood out of Detroit in the city on business. He was told that Loey's was a friendly place for out of town talent.

Jack wanted to brief George one last time before he went into Loey's for the first time Friday night. George had been in the newsroom before seven that morning, but there wasn't anything for him to do. Now that it was getting closer to the time for his meeting with Jack, he didn't want to take anything but a story that wasn't going to take him far.

Fifteen minutes before noon George told Pops he was going to lunch. There was still one stringer in the newsroom. Pops nodded his head, continuing to mark the copy in front of him.

Jack was already in the Anteroom when George arrived. Jack looked beat and he had a drink in front of him. He'd been on an all night stakeout and on his way home. George told him there was nothing cooking at the City News.

Jack ran through what he wanted George to do. George remembered that he was from Detroit in town to do a job. He was to let anyone he talked to figure it out. That's all he was to say.

George could fit in anywhere. He was friendly without being too friendly. He drank with other reporters, cops, and now he was going to drink with hoods. Jack wanted him to keep his ears open. Vogal's boys drank at Loey's. They drank with other hoods and people friendly to hoods. If George kept an eye on Vogal's boys, there was a good chance he could pick up some useful information. He was to steer clear of Vogal. He was to listen and talk no more than necessary.

There was no trick to it. By the third Friday he went to Loey's, everyone seemed to know he was a hitter out of Detroit. George listened, nodded from time to time, and said nothing that told anyone anything about him.

The mystique surrounding him got him a few free drinks on nights he went into Loey's. Vogal had come and gone on several nights when George was there. He noticed the same guys came in and went out with him. George figured these were Vogal's boys. You could tell who the leader of the pack was.

On two different nights guys who came in with Vogal came over to talk to George. He was polite, quiet, and didn't encourage them to say across the table from him. The third guy was more interesting. The guy who came in next to Vogal and went out next to him came over to introduce himself one night.

"I'm Drew Trask. You're new," he said.

"Not that new," George said.

"You're out of Detroit I understand," Trask said.

"I am," George said with a very slight smile.

"Here on business I understand," Trask said.

George nodded, sipping from his shot glass.

"I'm Drew Trask, just wanted to say hello. Welcome to town."

"Thank you, Mr. Trask. I feel welcome at Loey's. Nice place," George said and Drew Trask walked away without sitting down.

Trask leaned to talk to Vogal before he sat down next to him. Vogal turned around in his chair to look at George. George nodded respectfully, as if he knew Vogal was a player. Vogal nodded back.

Vogal came and went from the bar in the evenings. There were always three or four men with Vogal. Drew Trask came in right behind Vogal and he sat next to him. The other men chatted among themselves. Vogal didn't have much to say but when he said it he said it to Drew Trask.

It was a few weeks after Trask had come to stand beside George's table, when he came back to where George was sitting.

"Do you mind if a sit down?" Trask asked.

"By all means, Mr. Trask. How are you this fine evening?"

"You remember me," Trask said.

"I make a point to remember people. You never know when you'll need to know who everyone is," George said.

"No one knows your name. What do they call you?"

"My name isn't important but friends call me George," he said.

"Since you are from Detroit, and my parents came here from Detroit, I'd like to consider myself a friend," Trask said.

"A is such an interesting word, don't you think?" George asked.

Trask didn't know what to say, as George intended.

"Of course, people in our business should never ask questions. You never know what the answer might be."

"Tell me about it," he said.

He didn't know what to make of George.

"Let me buy you a drink," Trask said.

"That's not necessary, Mr. Trask," George said.

"Jimmy..., Vogal, he'd be disappointed if I didn't buy you a drink. Consider it a little hospitality. Everyone knows Jimmy. Maybe come over and have a drink with him," Trask said with trepidation.

"Mr. Trask, I'm in your fair city on business. I do a solo. I find it's best not to get involved in local intrigue in the places where I do business. You seem to be a fine young man, but I don't care to be involved with your Mr. Vogal. My apologies but it's a rule I follow. After I'm gone, hardly anyone will know I was here. You can quote me on that."

Trask flagged down a waitress.

"What are you drinking. I must buy you a drink. Since I bothered you. It's only fair," Trask said.

"As you wish. Johnny Walker," George said to the waitress.

"Maxine, it goes on Jimmy's tab," Trask said to the waitress.

George did not object. He'd turned down an invitation to sit with Mr. Vogal. He dare not turn down the offer of a drink.

"If you'll excuse me, George. I will be going. Have a nice evening," Trask said and he left George alone.

Once the drink was delivered and consumed, George stood, straightened his jacket, and left the bar. He felt uncomfortable. He was under more scrutiny than he liked, and turning an invitation down from Jimmy Vogal might be taken as an insult.

George was sure that Trask reported everything George said to him to Vogal. George said nothing. The report would be short.

At the Anteroom on Monday, George reported to Jack. He told him about Trask. He told him that Vogal was trying to get a sit down with him, but George had said no. Jack nodded his approval.

"You aren't there to talk to Vogal, George. He's not a guy you want to be around. Characters like that have instincts that click in when someone says one wrong thing. A guy like Vogal wouldn't hesitate to hurt someone he thought was there to hurt him. Listen don't talk. Stay clear of Vogal. Trask, he's not a nice guy. He does what Vogal tells him. If you talk to him, he'll tell Vogal. I like that better than you sitting down with Vogal. Your mystery is your strong suit. No one wants to get on the wrong side of a heavy hitter from Detroit; not even Jimmy Vogal."

"They think I'm a hit man?" George asked.

"From what you told me. Yes. It's why I sent you there with that cover story. The local mob wants someone bumped off, they call Detroit. They'll send a man to do the job. That way their fingerprints aren't on the killing," Jack said.

"It's the conclusion they've drawn about you. Hit men are solitary creatures. They keep to themselves, trusting no one. They are hired to kill. It's a job they take seriously. No one knows who is getting whacked. No shortage of guys in Loey's who need whacking,"

George laughed but he knew it wasn't funny.

Jack was careful. He did not like using inexperienced people to do what he was sending George to do. There was always a certain degree of danger when you were in a den of vipers. It only took one person to draw some uncomfortable attention to a guy like George."

Another week went by as the summer heat baked the city, sending a large portion of the people toward the beaches. July was hotter than June and August would start out hotter yet. Even the nights saw the heat turned up to high.

Late in July Drew Trask came over to talk to George right after he sat down. Loey's wasn't crowded. It was early, but Vogal sat across the bar with his usual entourage. It didn't take long for Trask to come over to talk. Trask now came to talk each time George was in the bar.

Trask was half drunk and more talkative than usual. He no longer was feeling George out for Vogal. He liked to talk to men who did the kind of work he did, and that's when George hit the jackpot.

Trask began talking about a music store heist. It was a 'neat caper' that he pulled with Jimmy. Trask held the music store owners family hostage, and Jimmy went with the owner to clean out the safe. This was like a really sophisticated shop. They sold grand pianos and the best guitars, and classy brass instruments. The best available. The rumors said the safe was full on Thursday night. The owner took the money to the bank Friday morning.

They pulled the job on a Thursday night. They made a real killing. The music store owner was too scared to talk. There wasn't a word about the robbery anywhere. Jimmy and Trask swore they wouldn't tell anyone how sweet the job was.

And now Trask told George and George couldn't wait to call Jack. This would give him the probable cause to bring Vogal in for questioning, which is what Jack was after.

On the way home George stopped at a phone booth to tell Jack they needed to meet the next day at noon. Trask gave him something very interesting on Vogal.

George didn't mind doing a favor for Jack. He made it clear that anything that came out of what George did for him, George got the exclusive story before any other reporters were called.

George watched the clock as eight became nine and it was closing in on ten o'clock. Once again he couldn't take anything that would keep him away from the Anteroom at noon. This had been what he was at Loey's to do, but he still needed to do his job.

George was brought out of his daydream by Pops voice.

"Myers. Local desk. Speak up. Where? Thomas Circle. Got it. Yeah, I'm sending someone right now," Pops yelled, banging the phone into the cradle.

"Hitch, you're up. Fender bender, Thomas Circle. Get moving."

George looked around for the other stringer who had just been there. It was a few minutes after ten. He could cover this and still meet Jack on time. He grabbed the assignment sheet out of Pops' hand and headed for the stairs and the nearest bus stop.

The bus was waiting, closing its doors a minute after George took a seat. Ten minutes to Thomas Circle. He could make it easy. He looked around the bus. There were three other people on the bus with him in midtown in a thriving metropolitan area. Where was everyone?

A fender bender wasn't the way to earn his first Pulitzer but you never knew what might turn up. George didn't like to turn down a story. He could always call Jack if he ran late.

Everything took time. George had plenty of time.

The bus dropped him within sight of Thomas Circle a block away. The heat was on. July would soon become August and what he hoped would be the last of the intense heat and humidity. He had plenty of time and he wasn't going to hurry.

He'd cover this story like his career depended on it. Each story needed to be taken seriously, and if he ran late he could call the Anteroom and tell Carter what time to expect him. It wasn't ten-thirty. It would take but fifteen or twenty minutes to get the names and see how the cop read what had happened. A half an hour tops, and he'd have plenty of time to meet Jack.

George could see a tow truck on the far side of the circle. A police car was parked behind it. On his hook was a big old car that had its nose bent under with fluids leaking out of the front of it.

A cop leaned on the front of the car the tow truck driver was securing. They were chatting casually when he walked up to the cop.

The cop saw George coming, he was jotting something in a notebook, and he put the notebook in his belt, once George stopped next to him.

"OK, Paul, take her away," he said to the tow truck driver standing by the driver's side door.

"What year was that Cadillac?" George asked.

"1958. Big boat. Came into the circle like he owned it," the cop said, picturing it as he spoke.

Once the tow truck was out of the way, another twenty or thirty feet ahead was one of those big black Mercedes sedan. George could see the damaged front right side fender. The left front wheel was two feet up on the curb. There were no apparent fluids on the street beside it.

"He could aim for another ten year old car? He hits a top of the line Mercedes. It looks brand new," George said.

"Ain't that the truth. You are?" the cop asked, realizing George wasn't a curious pedestrian.

"George Hitchcock. City News."

The cops demeanor changed just enough to be noticed.

"You are?" George asked.

"Officer Lemon. That's the standard spelling," Officer Lemon said.

George hadn't written down what he said as he said it. Officer Lemon watched his hand create each word. He'd make today's news.

His mother would love that.

"Can you tell me in your own words, what happened?"

"You're joking, right?" Officer Lemon said, taking a good look at George. "Fender bender. What you see is what you get. Will this be in the newspaper. Will you use my name?"

"Officer Lemon, how many fender benders are there in the city each day?" George asked, knowing the likelihood this fender bender would make today's edition were slim to none. Officer Lemon relaxed.

"Cadillac entered there," Officer Lemon said. "Mercedes was heading counterclockwise and was struck about there."

Officer Lemon pointed out the locations as he spoke.

"She could drive that car home," he said. "She's waiting for her husband. Woman are so damn helpless. She's not hurt. You'd think the mayor's wife might have a little more gravel in her spine. No, she's got to wait for daddy."

"Woe,, woe, back up there, Cowboy. She's the mayor's wife? Why didn't you start off telling me that?"

"It's important? It's still a minor traffic accident. The kid was unconscious when I got her, but the ambulance had him on the way to General in five or six minutes. He was talking...."

"Someone was hurt? Officer Lemon, you've been holding out on me. Who was hurt?" George asked. "Officer Lemon, read me what you wrote in your notebook."

"Sure," Officer Lemon said, flipping open the notebook.

George turned the page in his notebook to start over.

"Cadillac vs. Mercedes. Cadillac failed to yield. He must have been going thirty. He hit the Mercedes behind the right front wheel. Drove the Mercedes onto the curb, where it is now. She could drive that Mercedes home. That cars a tank. She's waiting for her husband to give her instructions. Woman are so helpless," Officer Lemon took time out from his reading to put in his two cents worth.

"Mrs. Packard said she wasn't hurt. The boy wasn't hurt bad, More stunned, I'd say. No seat belt. Unconscious when I came on the scene. He was talking before they took him away. They took him to General. In my opinion, his nose was broken. Facial lacerations, not serious. He hit his head because he wasn't belted in. The Caddy hit the Mercedes a foot behind the right front wheel. Another foot behind that wheel and that kid would have eaten the front of that Cadillac. It's also a tank. Couldn't hit some other ten year old car. Had to go for the brand new Mercedes. That car as two thousand miles on it. Slap a new fender on it, it'll be good to go. Lucky lad, Jon Delesandro, 19. Student at Witherspoon Prep. He has a Kennilworth Avenue address. Witherspoon Prep is high rent," Officer Lemon said. "How's a kid from the poor side of town swing that?"

"Scholarship maybe," George said.

"I guess," Officer Lemon said. "Here, copy it from my notes. I got the information from Mrs. Packard. I didn't talk to the kid."

George wrote down the address and the boys name. He'd need to follow up. No telling if the head injury was more serious and with a politicians wife involved, well, that's why they called it news.

"Relationship to the mayor's wife. Different names. Not her kid. Her nephew. Did she say?"

"Relationship? Hey buddy, you're barking up the wrong tree. I don't know and I don't care. You do know who Mayor Packard is. For one thing, he's my boss, and I don't ask his wife nothing about her relationship to nobody. I like my job and I'd like to be gone when hubby comes to rescue Mrs. Mayor Packard."

George listened without understanding Officer Lemon's reluctance to question Mrs. Packard. He did know that the mayor had a reputation as being a man you didn't want to cross, but all they were talking about was a fender bender. It was news because she was the mayor's wife and she was in an auto accident.

"Driver of the Cadillac? What did you do with him?"

"In the backseat of my car. Someone is coming for him. Tom Collins. Fifty-four. He's from the burbs. You can copy his info," Officer Lemon said, pointing to it in his notebook, but George had no interest in Tom Collins. The story was the mayor's wife and the boy. He wrote down Mr. Collins' info anyway.

"Is that her over by the Mercedes," George asked, seeing a fairly nice looking woman in her early to middle forties standing nearby.

"That's her. Said her husband is on the way," the officer said. "I don't want to leave until they decide what they want to do with that car. The mayor will probably want to drive it to the Mercedes dealer. Can leave it there and I can't leave until it's moved."

"You don't mind if I use your name, Officer Lemon?" George asked.

"Mind? No. You said...."

"That's before you told me it was the mayor's wife. It will be in the newspaper. That is news and I'll report you as the officer of record."

"Cool," Officer Lemon said as George walked toward the Mercedes.

The fender was mangled but it was pushed upward. The tire hadn't been touched. It wasn't flat. George felt the thickness of the metal. It was a tank. He'd read about important people using Mercedes because of how solidly they were built. They offered maximum protection for its occupants if you bother to belt in.

In Mrs. Packard's case, she looked fine. George peeked at her over the hood of the car. She had noticed him approaching, and she watched what he was doing, while he inspected her car.

George stood. Walked around the car, and came face to face with Mrs. Mayor. Her red hair came out of a bottle. Her eyebrows were two shades too dark. Her complexion was good. Her eyes were brown and clear. She hadn't been drinking.

"Mrs. Packard," he said, flashing his I.D. like he'd seen cops do it. "Are you all right? Can I assist you in any way? I understand that your husband is on the way."

"Yes, I can't understand what's taking him so long," She said, looking for him in all directions.

"You sure you're OK. You don't want me to call someone to have a look at you?" George asked as politely as he knew how.

"No, I wasn't hurt, but the car. My husband will be livid. It's brand new. I never saw the car that hit me. He came from the side. He was going too fast. I've driven through that circle a thousand times," she said.

Not a mention of her injured passenger, George realized. The car was expensive. George would have been worried about it too, right after he was far more worried about an unconscious bleeding passenger. What was wrong with this picture? George didn't know but he intended to find out.

"You were going where, Mrs. Packard?"

"I was going home. We were going to have a nice lunch. Oh, my husband is going to be angry," she said again. "The man was obviously speeding. He was probably drinking. Look at my new car."

"You are sure that you're OK, Mrs. Packard?" George asked, as any concerned person would.

She'd just been in an accident. At times, after an accident, a person thinks he is fine, but serious injuries become apparent once the adrenalin in the body dissipates.

"I'm fine. I'd know if I wasn't," she said almost as though she felt insulted that George would ask.

"You were going home to lunch with the young boy. Can I ask you his relationship to Mr. Delesandro?"

"I can assure you he's not a boy. Who did you say you were?"

For the first time George sees Mrs. Packard is seeing who she is talking to. There is a question obvious on her face.

George knew this thread had been pulled as far as he'd be allowed to pull on it. He produced the I.D. he'd only flashed a few minutes before. He confessed to who he was.

"George Hitchcock, City News."

She looked as though she'd swallowed something unpleasant.

Studying his face, she also studied the I.D. It was obvious that this interview was over. She'd recovered her mayor's wife's demeanor.

"I've just had an automobile accident, Mr. Hitchcock. If you had any decency, you'd leave me alone. My husband will be here in a few minutes. You can save your questions for him, if you're that bold."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Packard. I hope you are feeling better. Do you know which hospital your passenger was taken to?" George slipped in for good measure.

Mrs. Packard turned her back on him, walking toward a bench nearby. Not a word about the kid. It's as if she'd been alone.

George wasn't about to jump to conclusions. He had enough to write the story. Mayor's wife in automobile accident. She had been in an accident, and she may have been shaken up, George consider.

It was a story that would definitely make the newspaper. For the first time, George was covering a story he was certain was going to make the City News, but he needed to talk to the Delesandro kid. He needed to make a trip to the hospital, but that could wait until after his lunch time meeting with Jack.

There was still time for him to return to the newsroom and write a preliminary story, saving the Delesandro interview for after lunch.

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