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Volts From Underground

A work in progress...

Chapter 1 Traversing the City

            Sal  Manda was tired. This was his standard condition. He woke up tired. He frequently stayed up late at night because he was too tired to go to bed. He shuffled around town in worn out shoes, looking like a guy who needed to take a week off.

            He couldn't take time off because he didn't have a regular job.  His business card described him as a private investigator, but he didn't have an office and he didn't actively seek out jobs from those kinds of people who hire investigators, such as small businessmen and upper middle class wives. He just walked from coffee shop to diner to speakeasy, spending what little money he had and listening to gossip, hoping to somehow turn something he heard into income.

            When he left school in the sixth grade, he was a real go-getter, tagging along on his father's ice truck, building his muscles lugging huge blocks of ice up two or three flights, sometimes more. This was back around the turn of the century, when Utica was at its greatest size in terms of population, economy, and whatever other measurements you could find.  Back then the Italians were already flooding into the city, taking over Bleeker street from the Irish and the Germans.  They had two newspapers and two Italian priests. Sal was only three when his parents immigrated, so he remembered nothing about his birthplace in southern Italy.    His parents encouraged the use of English in the home, so Sal knew next to nothing of the Italian language.

            As Sal rose toward manhood, the city of Utica began it's slow decline. By the time Sal was 18 he was able to find work as a security guard and then apprenticed himself to a thriving detective agency.  Ten years later, the World War rolled around and Sal spent his year in uniform stateside, one of the lucky ones. Back in Utica he discovered that the agency was downsizing and he had to strike out on his own. He had business cards printed up and actually got some interesting assignments, building a reputation for honesty and doggedness.

           For a couple of years things looked good for Sal, and then the slow decline of the city caught up to him.   He ran out of new places to try, and there just wasn't enough repeat business.  Now five years after his release from service, he felt he was a has-been that never had his chance to shine. He hated prohibition.  It seemed to turn the whole population into criminals. Even those who didn't break the law seemed to have no respect for the rules that were supposed to make civilized living a comfort and joy.

            It was spring now, and city was coming alive like a clan of bears awakening from hibernation. The streets were alive with activity, sputtering cars jockeying for position in competition with streetcars and horse drawn carriages.  They made an incredible racket clattering across the cobblestones. The sidewalks were crowded with people both standing still and moving in all directions.

            Sal paused and leaned on a lamp post at the corner of Bleeker and Albany streets, checking to see what had invaded his left shoe.  The pain he had ignored for the past few blocks now demanded immediate attention.  He took the shoe off and shook it out. A pebble not much larger than a grain of sand tumbled out onto the street. Sal shook his head in disbelief that such a small object could cause him so much discomfort.

            A few feet behind him he noticed a crowd had gathered around a man who had an accordion slung around his neck. The man was holding a leash and at the other end of it was a very active monkey, that seemed to be everywhere  at once. The monkey held a tin cup and he was thrusting it in people's faces. They were laughing and mostly ignoring the cup, while nodding their heads in time to the traditional Italian folk songs emanating from the squeezebox.

            Sal saw that near the street performer, the proprietor of a fruit stand was also engrossed in the show.  And while his attention was distracted. A very shabby man was loading fruit into a canvas sack partially hidden behind his back. He would take an apple, glance around guiltily and then reach behind him and let it fall gently into the bag.  Sal studied the man. He hadn't shaved in a few weeks and his uneven beard made him look like he had seen a lot of hard times. His eyes were sunken and showed lack of sleep.  His hair hadn't been combed in a long time.  His jacket was missing one pocket and another was hanging by a thread. His shoes were scuffed so badly that Sal could not determine the original color.

            Sal edged closer to the owner of the fruit stand, a man Sal knew slightly. His name to one and all was Signor Rigatoni. Sal put his hand on Rigatoni's shoulder and bent slightly to say softly in his ear "I think you have a problem, Signor." He placed a hand on Rigatoni's shoulder and guided him to turn in the direction of the man, who was already picking up the sack from the bottom and turning to walk away.

            Sal yelled, "Hey, you!" and pushed his way through the crowd in attempt to grab hold of the shaggy man. As soon as he heard Sal's voice, the shaggy man hoisted the bag a little higher, wrapped his arm around it like it was football and at first walked more quickly, but soon broke into a trot and then a full fledged sprint.

            Sal finally broke free of the crowd and began to run himself. Never a very fast runner, he was sure the man could outrun him, but he counted on the bag of fruit to slow the man down enough to equalize the contest.  But the man also realized this and flung the sack in the gutter and disappeared around a corner. By the time Sal reached the corner, the man has nowhere to be seen.

            Sal picked up the fruit and put it back in the bag. Most of it was ok. No marks. A couple of pieces would have to be thrown away, or offered to the animals that prowled around the fruit stand. Sal walked the hundred yards back to the stand and handed the bag to Signor Rigatoni, who wailed his analysis of the health of each piece of fruit as he put it back on his cart.  He unpeeled a brutalized banana and handed it to the street performer's monkey, who was standing nearby at the end of his leash while his owner smoked a cigarette.

            "Sal, you a good man, a true friend.  I like to help you some way. But I no got much to spare.  You know times are getting tough. But here's a half a dollar as a reward for your kindness."

            Sal took the large coin in his palm with a wry grin on his face.  He wondered what he would do with the unexpected windfall.  He decided to venture out to the outskirts of town and take a look around. He walked to the corner and hoisted himself onto a street car that had taken on half a dozen other passengers. He handed the conductor his fifty cent piece and pocketed his forty five cents change.

            The streetcar crawled along Bleeker Street for a couple of blocks and then turned left and then right onto Broad Street.  Sal could see the New York Central railroad tracks in the distance to his left, past the mostly underdeveloped fields. The late spring weather was causing the grass to grow quickly and it waved around in the breezes that flew unimpeded. Every now and then a small factory could be seen, black smoke billowing out of smokestacks on the side of the building, workers milling in and out of the places, their faces strained with the labor of keeping up the pace necessary to show a profit to the factory owners.

            Finally the streetcar turned right onto Culver Avenue. At his first opportunity, Sal disembarked. Walking up Culver, he looked in admiration to his left at a large park that was carefully tended by many garden architects.  On his right there were a number of cottages recently built by second generation Uticans who wanted to have their houses look out onto the green splendor.

            Sal jingled the forty five cents in his pocket. Maybe a cup of coffee would perk him up. He spotted a cafe that he had been in several times before a block ahead.  He shuffled over the sidewalk in his laconic manner, enjoying the brisk spring breeze.

            A large cowbell attached to the top of the door to the cafe announced Sal's entrance to the half dozen customers sitting on stools along the counter toward the back of the cafe.  There was nobody at any of the several tables adorned with checkered tablecloths.  There were a couple of stools unoccupied and Sal slipped onto one in the far corner, catching the eye of the young counter boy and saying in a soft voice, "Joe." This was the customary term for coffee at that time in places such as the ones Sal frequented. The counter boy gave a curt nod and soon returned with a steaming cup. Sal added neither sugar nor milk to the coffee and did not wait for it to cool before taking the first sip.

            The conversations up and down the counter were mainly about sports, with a little politics thrown in.  With spring came baseball, and the fortunes of the New York major league teams were speculated upon, as well as the prospects of the upstate minor league teams, which waited for the weather to get a little warmer before opening their seasons. Horse racing was a hot topic, with the chances of a horse named American Flag being debated. American Flag was the offspring of the mighty Man of War, who had dominated the racing scene a few years back.

            The political discussions centered on the continuing amazement of the fact that Mayor Frederick Gillmore returned to office for his second term. He left the Mayor's post after just one term that ended in 1911, but returned as part of a statewide tide that swept Democratic Party candidates into office throughout the state. This was surprising in view of Republican Calvin Coolidge's solid support among New York voters in the presidential election.

            Sal didn't participate in the discussions. He sipped his coffee, stared longingly at the glass counter behind the bar that displayed several varieties of pies  with slices cut out of them. Sal was not ready to eat yet.

            The effects of the caffeine were beginning to penetrate Sal's senses and he rose to make his way to the door. Before he got there, a man from the other end of the cafe got up and intercepted Sal before he left.  Sal recognized him: Frankie Cirro, a man who had hired Sal to do a small job a few years ago.

            "Hey, Manda!  Long time, no see!  Where you been keeping yourself?"

            "Ah, here and there, trying to stay busy.  Haven't heard nothing about you.  Still in the same racket?"

            "Nah, I don't sell women's clothes no more. I set up a movie theater over on Lafayette street. A guy from California laid out a whole bunch of money and I supervised a bunch of bohunks who put in real comfortable seats and a big screen. Even built a honey of  a candy stand in the lobby. The money man likes the job so much he makes me manager. What do you think of that?"

            "Sounds good, Frankie.  You get a lot of people watching those movies nowadays, don't ya?"

            "Yeah we fill the seats pretty good, as long as we can find some flick that nobody else in town is showing yet.  It's a scramble, going to Syracuse and Albany and making off with the hottest releases ahead of the pack. But I got some good guys who know the ropes now."

            "Well that's great. Say, if you ever need any investigating done, don't forget old Sal. I got time on my hands at the moment, and..."

            "Nothing right now, Sal, sorry. But you still in that little apartment over on Nichols street?"

            "Yeah."

            "Then I know where to find you. I don't live so far from there myself.  I still live with my Mom and Dad, can you imagine? Up Albany Street. Well, I'll come look you up soon as I find myself needing some jamoke watched or something like that."

            "Great." Sal turned to leave. Frankie put his hand on Sal's shoulder.

            "I almost forgot. I heard a couple of guys mentioning your name a couple of weeks ago. I didn't hear what they were saying, but they were well dressed and they didn't look like they were from around here. Maybe they were looking for you."

            "Where did you see this?"

            "In a speakeasy on the west side, Lenox Ave. It was real late and I wasn't exactly awake, but I know it was your name they were throwing about."

            "Wonder what they wanted?"

            "No clue. Well, see you later, pal."

            "Yeah, later." Sal left the shop as Frankie turned back to his place at the bar, with his half eaten pie waiting for him.

            Sal continued his trek up Culver Avenue, following the outline of the city park.  He reflected on the fact that he still hadn't been in one of the many movie theaters that were springing up all over town.  He remembered the nickelodeons of his youth and imagined the stories now shown on screens were just larger versions of the silly little scenes he watched through the viewports on the machines in the nickelodeon. He'd have to drop in on Frankie some time to see what it was all about.

            Now the park was lined with tall bristly hedge bushes. Sal couldn't see into the park at all, but he heard voices coming from the other side of the bushes. One was a gruff man's voice, talking in unintelligible undertones.  Another voice was distinctly female, rising in volume as the tone of anxiety in the voice increased. Soon Sal heard phrases such as "Stop it!" and "Back off!" these were repeated several times, and then there was the alarmed "If you don't leave now I will call for help."

            Sal was already crossing the street, looking for a break in the hedges, when he heard the female voice cry out for help.  He had to sprint a half block back to the beginning of the hedges, but it was only the work of a moment to recover his lost ground. He did not find the scene he was expecting to see.  yes there was a burly man roughly holding the arm of a fairly well dressed woman. But as soon as Sal approached them, the man spun around and pointed a very ugly pistol in the direction of Sal's midriff.  The woman, far from looking alarmed, had a very self satisfied smug expression on her face.

            Sal raised his hands in the air to indicate his submission to the superior force.

 

Chapter 2 Hustle and Bustle

            It was only nine in the morning and the wide expanse of Genesee Street was jammed with vehicles flowing through the caverns of downtown Utica.  The noise of all the horses and metal monsters clattering over the cobblestones was deafening as it echoed against the glass and steel of the tall buildings that lined the street.  A long squat building some three stories high seemed to dominate the attention of people on the sidewalk.  This was the F. W. Woolworth's Five and Dime store.  A lot of people were looking for a bargain and this was the place to start. A lot of people could only afford to buy many necessities if they found a bargain, and this was the only place for them.

            A smallish woman strode through the crowds as if they were objects on an obstacle course that she needed to just barely avoid as she aimed  to achieve her objective in the most efficient manner possible.   She wore a hat that was several seasons out of style and a jacket that had seen better days, but was in good repair. Her expression was one of focussed determination. Her name was Penelope Potts, known to one and all as Pepper, an indomitable bundle of energy.  Her objective this morning was to get into Woolworths, buy what she needed and return home with the goods as quickly as she could.

            Pepper was out of work at the moment. She had graduated from high school and tried several trades such as seamstress and sales clerk, but they did not suit her, and she was not one to stick around where she did not find herself interested.  Her father was a well established obstetrician. Her father and mother said it was fine with them if she stayed home and helped with the family chores until she found a man or found herself.  It was progressive of them to think that finding a man was secondary to figuring out what she wanted to do with her life. Pepper had several boyfriends, but never found herself getting serious with any of them.  They were fine for tennis and golf, but she didn't care to spend moonlit evenings floating around a lake with them in a small craft.

            She swept across the street a second or two before the traffic policeman waved to the waiting throng. The policeman  gave her a stern glance as she crossed at the head of the pack, but she easily ignored him.  The Woolworth's opened precisely at nine and the a clerk was just unlocking the door from the inside as Pepper reached for the handle. He managed to open it wide before her hand reached the handle.  With a wide grin he said "Good morning, Pepper." She was well  known to most of the clerks in the store.

            Inside the store, long narrow aisles stretched into the distance for what looked like forever.  On either sides of the aisles, items where piled into bins.  Most of the items had prices of five or ten cents and the variety was mind boggling.  Upstairs there were more expensive items such as rugs and clothing, but on the ground floor the bargains ruled.

            Pepper returned the gentlemanly young clerk's smile wordlessly and hurried to the notions counter where she collected a half dozen items that her mother asked her to procure: pins, needles, thread and several other small objects.  She knew the price of each one and by the time she reached the sales counter she had reached in her purse and counted out the exact change needed for the purchase. The sales clerk was well aware of Pepper's expertise in these matters and only glanced at her objects and the coins placed in his hands before he rang up the amount on his cash register. "Thanks, Pepper" he said as she took the bagged items from the clerk.  She gave him another of her wordless smiles and strode toward the door.

            Outside the wind was picking up and Pepper drew her jacket close around her, thinking she should have dressed for colder weather.  The advent of spring made her think that summer was right around the corner, but the cold would linger in the area for at least several more weeks. She knew the next bus that was heading toward her home on the Parkway would not arrive for twenty minutes or more, so she decided to walk a few blocks up Genesse Street to stave off the cold.

            She peered into the faces of the people who were walking toward her on the sidewalk, searching for familiar faces. Finding none, she tried to listen to scraps of conversations to see if there was anything interesting going on that she did not already know about. As she was about to pass the Gold Dome Savings Bank, she saw several figures emerge and stand in the doorway.  One was clearly a bank employee, dressed in a dapper suit with a carnation in his lapel. The other two were large men, dressed in heavy coats that gave the impression that they did not admit that winter was over.  One of them was old and grizzled looking, but still large and powerful looking. The other was slightly shorter, well groomed with a look of aloofness that proclaimed his disinterest in the conversation of the other two men.

            When Pepper approached, her ears perked up as she heard them mention a name she knew.

            "I assure you, gentlemen," the bank employee was saying  "that this Manda does not now nor ever before had an account in our institution."

            "I can't understand it,"  the grizzled man growled. "We've been to every financial institution in the city and no one admits to doing business with Salvatore Antonio Manda. What does he do, stuff his money in a mattress? Does he pay cash for everything? Or maybe he sleeps in an alley and eats out of a garbage can."

            He went on, but Pepper had passed out of audible range. Wow, someone's looking pretty hard for Sal Manda, she thought.  She knew Sal for ages as a guy who always had an interesting story to tell.  She had met him when she briefly worked as a waitress at a donut shop uptown a few years ago. She knew he must have some money because he never left the shop hungry and he was a decent tipper.  She would have to remember to let him know about this conversation the next time she ran into him on her wanderings around town.

            Pepper crossed the street and strode to the bus stop a minute or two before the bus arrived. She boarded and found a vacant seat near the middle of the bus and sat down. The bus rumbled up Genesee Street until it came to the broad highway that connected the city's expanse of public parks.  Turning left, the bus bellowed smoke and ground gears as it began the final mile toward the Potts family home.

            It was shortly after ten in the morning when she got off the bus and quick marched the few yards to her front walk.  There were still small piles of snow lining the walk, and she thought that a few good sunny days would take care of it.  She was always delighted when the snow turned from slush into a memory.

            Inside the house she presented the items from Woolworths to her mother as if she were a big game hunter bringing home a trophy animal.  Her mother smiled at her and took the items, rising from her breakfast table to go to her sewing nook and set to work on her morning tasks.  Pepper looked around the house for her father, finding him in the cellar, dressed in old clothes and going through gardening equipment.  He wouldn't have to visit his patients or hold office hours until the afternoon, so he was indulging in his principle hobby. Gardening occupied his time throughout the late spring through mid fall, and it occupied his thoughts the rest of the year, as he read magazines and books on gardens both vegetable and floral.

            Pepper asked her father if there was anything special he need her to do for him, but he told her just to go ahead with her usual tasks.  She went to a shelf and removed a container of chemicals her father had combined for the cleaning of the bathroom, and took it upstairs.  The bathroom was on the second floor, where all the bedrooms were. Pepper took out all the furniture and set to work scrubbing the commode and the floor tiles until they were almost blinding in their cleanliness. That done, she scrubbed the sink with similar vigor and stood back to admire her efforts.

            The sun was streaming through the window. It felt like the temperature had jumped about ten degrees over the last hour.  She longed to be outside again.  She returned her cleaning materials to the basement and headed for the kitchen. There wasn't much in the icebox, but she cobbled together a sandwich with bits of leftover chicken and some slightly moldy cheese.

            She found her mother bent over a dress, fixing a torn seam. "I'm going out for a little while, Mother. I'll do some more cleaning when I get back.  It's too nice outside to miss the day."

            "Goodbye, dear. Have a nice walk and stay safe," her mother said.

            Pepper's spring jacket was the perfect cover now for her spring walk and her sensible shoes made her feel like she was floating down the sidewalks of the city.  The sun was high in the sky and bright. She felt like a million dollars, and thrilled to the chatter of hundreds of birds in the sky, in the trees and on the the telephone wires.  She had no clear destination.  There weren't many people out walking and those that did pass her by did not make eye contact.  She felt like she was invisible, walking on an alien planet for the first time in the history of mankind.

            The buds on the trees were waving back and forth in the breeze, just barely hiding the leaves waiting to unfurl and fill the city with green splendor.  There were a few early flowers peeking out of the ground near some of the houses she passed by.

            Turning onto Mohawk Street, Pepper looked down the gently sloping hill that lay before her. Almost straight ahead, perhaps a bit to her left, she could see the teeming mass of large buildings that composed downtown Utica.  Beyond that she could see the upsweep of hills that marked the edge of the Mohawk Valley.  Between downtown and the hills ran the twisty Mohawk river and the very straight Erie Canal.

            As she approached the bottom of the hill, Pepper walked by a large house with an expansive front lawn.  On the brown grass that had only recently reappeared from underneath months of snow, was a card table arrayed with cups and a pitcher of a pink liquid.  In back of the table, four small children milled about. There were two straight back chairs and no two children stayed in them for more than a moment at a time. If they didn't jump up on their own accord to take care of some whim they were pushed off by another child with the unstoppable need to sit.

            Pepper stopped in front of the children and two of them shouted out in near harmony "Buy some lemonade, lady?"

            They were cute, if a trifle overactive.  Pepper smiled and asked "How much?"

            "One penny a cup" one of the smallest ones said.

            Pepper pulled a tiny purse out of her jacket pocket and searched through it, pretending as if it was a giant sack with a million items in it.  "Now let's see, what's this?  No...that's not a penny. What about this. Ah, here it is!" She reached out  a hand holding the tiny copper coin, and the largest child took the coin and deposited it in a cardboard cigar box at one end of the card table.  Another kid poured the lemonade into a two ounce cup and handed it to Pepper, who looked at it skeptically. "Who made this?" she asked.

            "My mother," said a little girl.

            "Does your mother know you are out here selling her lemonade?" This brought no response.

            "Where is your mother?"

            A tiny kid said in a tiny voice  "Lying down."

            "Lying down? Where?"

            "In the kitchen."

            "The Kitchen!  Quick, which is your house."

            All of them pointed straight back across the lawn. Pepper sprinted up the garden path to the house with the children trailing behind her. A back door was unlocked and it was the work of a moment to walk in and find the kitchen. A tall woman in a long apron was stretched out flat on her back. There was an ugly red bruise on her forehead, but there was no other blood to be seen. Pepper's eyes quickly scanned the kitchen and settled on a large shiny metal spatula.  She grabbed it and put it close to the supine woman's nose.  A very fine fog settled on the surface of the spatula.  "She's alive, thank goodness" Pepper thought as she rushed out of the house, wondering what would be the fastest way to summon help.

Chapter 3 - The Professor Searches On

            It only takes a small cloud crossing across the sky at just the right angle to block out the sun for a few minutes.  This cloud was almost certainly generated from the frustration the entire being of Professor Weltzshmertz Von Sangfreud as he huffed and puffed his way down the boulevard away from the Gold Dome Savings bank, with his valet trailing along in his wake. The valet, whose only known name was Beets, kept his nose high in the air to show his utter disdain for the populace that surrounded them.  He seemed to glide rather than walk. He had to glide quickly though, because the Professor was approaching their vehicle, which the Professor referred to as a limousine, but in reality was just another flivver identical to all the others on the road.

            On a spring day, when the air temperature is as fragile as fine china, any cloud makes the temperature plummet.  But since the two men were dressed as if it were still the dead of winter, they barely noticed the drop.

            "I can't understand it. I can't understand it. This man has simply melted into the very bowels of the city and has left no traces behind. There must be a way to find him. I will not be thwarted.  I must follow my plan."

            "Begging your pardon, Sir" Beets interjected after he had assisted the Professor into the rear of the automobile  and himself slipped into the driver's seat. "At what point would be efficacious to formulate a new plan? One that does not include a specific private investigator?"

            "At no point! The last will and testament of Homer B. Johnnycake refers specifically to a Salvatore Antonio Manda. He is to be the instrument of our investigation into the disappearance and rediscovery of the missing papers that will insure the immortality of the memory of the honorable Johnnycake and secure lifelong fame and fortune for myself. Not to mention the security of lifelong employment for yourself. You don value job security, don't you?"

            "Most assuredly, Sir.  I just wish there was a way to alleviate your frustration. It can't be good for you health, to storm about day after day like you do."

            "My life is not worth living without the success I know is within my grasp. I will get those papers, or die trying. Take me to the editorial offices of the Daily Press."

            "Yes sir. Right away sir." Beets pushed a few buttons and turned a lever and the car sputtered into life. When the puttering sound reached an acceptable rhythm, Beets engaged the gears and pulled away from the curb. The car went several blocks north and crossed a small bridge that ran over the Erie canal.  Beets turned left onto Broad Street.  The large elm trees that lined both sides of the wide street stretched upward and out to reach each other. It was almost like driving along a cobbled street deep in a forrest. But they could see the large brick and concrete buildings stretching up behind the trees as they rode along Broad Street.

            Beets parked the car in front of the most ramshackle building in sight.  The building seemed to be heaving sighs as it struggled to remain erect among it's newer and healthier neighbors.  The large windows on the upper stories were dirty and bird excrement accumulated on every available ledge.

            The Professor scanned the unpromising structure as he emerged from his vehicle. His heart sank. This did not seem to be the place to go to in order to get any reliable information. But he straightened his posture and marched toward the entrance to the building with Beets close behind.

            The door was locked. Beets rapped sharply on the glass with a gloved hand.  The professor and Beets shuffled their feet and tried to stay warm as they waited a full minute before they could see inside an old man, stooped over almost to his waist, shuffling toward the door. He shouted  at them through the glass, "The Press is a morning newspaper. Our offices don't open up until two in the afternoon."

            The professor shouted back at him "Surely there must be some people here now we can talk to. I want to place a classified advertisement among other things."

            The old man sighed and unlocked the door. He glared at his two visitors.  "Got a couple of people upstairs might be able to help you. Better if you came back later, though."

            "We'll take our chances with the current help, thank you" said the professor as he strode toward the elevator.

            "Elevator operator don't come in for a while yet.  Stairs are over to your left."

            The professor angrily turned and climbed the stairs with Beets in his wake. The two were out of breath by the time they reached the second floor.  They pushed open the  stairwell door and found themselves in a large open area with desks and file cabinets scattered almost haphazardly throughout.  There were papers overflowing over every flat surface.  At the far end of the room a man with a green eye shade affixed to his forehead was sitting at a desk, bent over a large piece of paper with a stubby pencil in his right hand scribbling away.

            The professor approached the man at the desk and said, "Excuse me, my good man, could you be of assistance to me."

            "I doubt it," the man said, in a voice just a bit louder than if were muttering to himself.

            The professor drew in a deep breath to collect himself. "I'm searching for a certain individual and I was hoping that I might use the facilities of this newspaper to assist me in that endeavor."

            The seated man still did not look up from his labor.  He drew the fingers of his left hand through his greasy hair and said, "Why not try the police?"

            "The police are simply not an option available to me, for reasons best left unsaid.  Could you please stop for just a moment and give me your undivided attention?"

            The man through his pencil down on the paper and looked up angrily at the professor. "Look, mister, this ain't the Missing Person's bureau."

            The professor reached in his pocket and pulled out a silver dollar. He placed it carefully on the edge of the desk. "Ever hear of Salvatore Manda?"

            The clerk look longingly at the large coin but eventually shook his head mournfully.  "Nah." The professor made no move to pick up the coin, so the man slowly moved his hand toward it, saying "Try the morgue upstairs. Bingo ain't supposed to come on until two, but it seems like he's always there. I think he sleeps there." The professor still made no move, so the man slowly picked up the coin and put it in his vest pocket. "Just one flight up. End of the hall to the right. Big sign on the door. Can't miss it."

            "Do you have reason to believe this  Bingo would know the person I am seeking?"

           "No, but if there was ever a story in the paper about Manda, Bingo will find it. That's the best I can offer. The best the Press can offer."

            "Very good then. Thank you." and the professor spun on his heel and walked back to the stairs. Beets hung back a moment to stare at the paper on the man's desk to see if he could make sense of it.  The paper had boxes drawn all over it, with lines connecting the boxes. Inside the box tiny words were written.

            Beets asked "What is that?" and the man replied "It's an organizational chart.  The management decided they wanted me to sort out who works for who.  This was due last night. I still ain't got no clue about a large chunk of people. It's a wonder the paper comes out every day with even a little bit of information in it."

            "Good luck, " Beets called over his shoulder as he strove to catch up with his employer, who was already on the fourth step up the stairs that led to the third floor.

            The lights in the hallway to the third floor were not lit and the little bit of light that slipped under the cracks at the bottom of the doors gave the hall a gloomy aspect.  They walked carefully down the hall, eyes wide open to take in what they could in the dim light. At the end of the hall they saw the door with words painted on the glass that read "Daily Press Morgue."

            The professor knocked but got no response. Beets knocked louder with the same result.  After some moments of hesitation, they tried the door. It was not locked. The door opened into a large room lined floor to ceiling with manilla folders and papers on shelves that looked like they were on the verge of collapse. The shelves stretched into the distance. "Hello?" the professor called.

            They heard a voice from around a corner. "Over here," the person yelled.

            Rounding the corner they saw a huge man with shocking red hair sticking straight up from his scalp.  He was on the floor, stretched out, alternating between writing in a large ledger and looking over a newspaper spread out next to him. When he saw his visitors he clambered to his feet. His head practically touched the ceiling.  He smiled broadly and held out his hand in greeting. "Moidah, Moidah! Ain't had no outside visitors here in a long time.  What can Bingo Dougherty do to help youse guys?"

            The professor shook Bingo's hand. He felt like he was inserting his hand inside a bowling ball. "We were told you might be able to help us find a certain individual" the professor said. "What exactly are you doing here?"

            "I'm the paper's librarian," Bingo said proudly. I make a note of everything that's in the paper and then cut the articles out and put them in folders which are saved so I can dig it back out whenever a reporter needs info on someone or something that was in the paper before so they can say the same thing and add onto it in the next edition of the paper, see?"

            The professor and Beets nodded their heads.

            "Only there ain't too much call for this kinda stuff because the reporters on this rag tend to make things up as they go along."

            "Could you please check to see if there are any articles clipped that would include information on Salvatore Manda?"

            "Sure, sure. Let me see." Bingo consulted with his ledger briefly and lumbered off around a corner, his eyes fixed on the tabs that jutted out from the edges of the file folders. "Manda, Manda, Manda" he muttered to himself. Finally he pulled a file off a shelf and returned to his waiting visitors. "Not much here, but it's something."

            In the folder were a handful of articles from several years ago relating to a homicide in which Sal Manda had assisted the police in finding and returning to Utica a key witness who had fled to a neighboring state. The professor read each article carefully several times, but there didn't seem to be a lot of personal information in them. Finally the professor tossed down the folder making a sound of disgust.

            Beets touched the arm of the professor and said "Perhaps we should go and placed that classified advertisement, sir."

            But at that moment Bingo shouted "Wait a minute!" He was staring at a grainy photograph from one of the articles in the folder.  "Moidah, moidah, I know this guy! Sal... yeah... Sal.  He used to live upstairs from me uncle.  A real loner. I've been in some speaks with this guy, and not all that long ago at that."

            The professor reached in a vest pocket and pulled out a card with his name and telephone number on it. He handed it to Bingo. "If you can get Manda to call this number, have him mention your name and I'll return here the next day with five dollars for you."

            Bingo stared the card, wide-eyed.

            "What do you say," asked the Professor, "Will you help me?"

            "Well sure, I can go to my Uncle's neighborhood and hit the speaks, as a few questions. What do you want with this guy?"

            "Nothing bad. Something good in fact. We wish to hire him. He's a detective."

            "That makes sense. I thought there was something deep about him. He wasn't like most of the bums ya see in the speakeasies."

            "Well, thanks.  My valet and I will be grateful to you for what ever you can do to get him to come to us. In the meantime we'll go and submit that classified advertisement."

            "Yeah, sure. See you later, I hope." Bingo collapsed back onto the floor and resumed his work on the ledger.

            The professor returned to the first floor and after eliciting some further information from the reluctant old watchman, they found the advertising department and waited impatiently for almost an hour before a clerk showed up. He assisted them in completing the forms. After paying the fee for the advertisement, they shook the dust of the building off their clothes and motored back to the professor's home, some miles outside Utica.

Chapter 4 - Sal and Pepper

            The mug holding the gun took no pains to cover his face. This worried Sal. He looked vaguely familiar. Sal wondered if the mug would think the same of him. Where had he seen this guy before? The mug had a small crescent shaped scar in the center of his right cheek. It looked like someone tried to take a bite out of him some time ago. He had dark bushy eyebrows and stooped slightly. After what seemed like an eternity the mug spoke.

            "OK, mister. Hand over your wallet, turn around, and slowly walk away. "

            Sal shrugged, his hands still raised above his shoulders. He smiled sadly. "You sure got bad luck, buddy. I don't even HAVE a wallet."

            The robber was unconvinced.  "Come on, hand it over." Sal stood stock still, saying nothing, just trying to look sympathetically at his accoster.

            "Maybe I should just drill you and go through your pockets."

            "Would you kill a man for thirty cents?" Sal asked, and slowly lowered his right hand and pulled the change out of his pocket. He held it out to the couple.  "Perhaps you'd like your lady friend to verify that there isn't anything in any of my other pockets.  Well, she might find a little lint, but that's all."

            The woman scowled and said "I told you this scam wouldn't work, you chump."

            "Shaddup," her partner ordered.

            She ignored him. "You had me almost convinced with all your fast talk that we'd take just a few minutes to get a roll of bills. We been here for almost an hour and the only fish we catch hasn't any dough. Digs, I gotta tell you what a dope you are."

            It finally came to Sal. "Digby Durham, that's who you are!"

            The mug looked startled and his finger tightened on the trigger. But he recovered enough to ask Sal, "Who the hell are you. How do you know my name."

            "Oh, let's just say I was in the wrong place at the right time one night when you decided to throw your weight around. There's a bouncer at O'Brien's who sure would like to go another round with you. I think his eye is still a little black from last year."

            Durham almost smiled. "Shiners don't last that long. He had it coming to him, pushing me around like that.   I picked up that five spot that was just sitting on the bar. Big deal.  If he had asked nicely I might have given it back. But no, he had to show that he could smack me around.  Well nobody smacks me around, see?"

            "Well now that we've established that you are tough and I'm broke," Sal said, "Can I put my hands down?"

            "First tell me who you are."

            "I'm Elihu Thurston the fourth. I'm an eccentric millionaire who loves to wander the streets of the city with no more than a couple of dimes to rub together."

            "Very funny. A real comedian. What am I supposed to do with you now? Just let you walk away to find a policeman?"

            Sal very slowly lowered his hands. Durham didn't seem to mind. "Listen," Sal said, "I'll give you my word that I won't talk to the cops if you let me go on my merry way."

            Durham glanced at the woman. "What do you think, doll?"

            She was staring at Sal and she was thinking hard. You could tell by the furrows on her heavily made up brow.  " Maybe we can use him, Digs. Maybe he can get us some money after all."

            "How so?"

            "We'll escort him at gunpoint to some place that has money and have him take it.  He obviously needs it as much as we do. After he makes the heist, he can't go to the police unless he wants to go to jail himself."

            "Say, that might work.  Where do you want to go?"

            "Let's head over towards James Street. There's some pretty swanky stores around there."

            "OK." he turned back to Sal.  "Walk a couple of steps ahead of us. Act casual. Don't try anything funny, or I'll plug you in the back. Don't think I wouldn't, cause I would. When I or the doll tells you to turn left or right, just do it and don't ask no questions. When we get near a place we'll tell you what we want you to do."

            "I'd love to help you out, but my mother is expecting me home for dinner in a few minutes and she'll be very upset if I don't show up on time. I'm never late for dinner."

            "You're breaking my heart. Get moving!"

            Sal shrugged and walked past them and shuffled down the path in the park that eventually led back to the sidewalks of Culver Ave.  They walked in silence for almost a half an hour until they were making their way along the eastern end of James Street. Sal was on the lookout the whole time for an opportunity to break away, but nothing presented itself.

            Finally, about a block ahead they could see the sign for Pelfrio's bakery.

            The woman elbowed her companion and said "I'm getting tired. I can't wait till we get to the big bucks stores. Let's have him knock over the bakery and we can get out of town."

            "OK doll, it's your scheme.  We'll do the bakery." He called to Manda. "Bub, stop!  Here's what you do. We all walk up to the store. You go in and tell the guy there's a man outside with a gun who is going to shoot up the place if he doesn't had over all the money in the store. You got thirty seconds to come out of the store with the money. If I count to thirty and you ain't out, I start shooting, and you are the first to get it, understand?"

            "You talk so clearly, you should be on the radio," Sal replied.

            "Shaddup, wise guy and get moving."

            Sam's brain was boiling. He scanned the street up and down. No possible source of assistance. He looked at the bakery as he drew near. It was a detached structure, Looked like there was an apartment above it and a basement below.  The entrance was up a short flight of three concrete steps with a railing on either side. A plate glass window displayed an arrangement of cakes and other baked goods.  A backdrop precluded any view to the interior of the store. There were backyard fences behind the building, indicating there would be no easy escape through any rear entrance.

            Sam was still wondering what to say as he opened the door to the bakery.  A cowbell rang noisily as the door swung open and then closed behind him. The bakery appeared smaller from the inside. Behind the counter a couple of feet from him, a moon eyed teenager with a face full of acne looked at him with a complete absence of expression.

            "Are you the only one here?"

            "Dad's out making deliveries."

            "Look, we've only got a few seconds before a guy outside is going to come in here with a gun, shooting to kill. Do exactly as I say."

            The girl's eyes widened and her mouth fell open.

            "Open the register. Take out the cask drawer. Dump all the money on the floor." The girl stood stock still. "NOW!" Sal rushed toward the counter and the girl reached out and pressed the "no sale" button on the old register and it clanged open. She took out the drawer.  She turned it over and a handful of bills and a lot of silver hit the linoleum with a clatter.

            "Now give me the drawer." She handed it to him. He looked around. "Go get that sack of flour and that dishrag that's over in the corner." She turned and fetched the items. Sal took the sack and emptied the flour into the cash box, spreading it around quickly. He draped the rag over it. He was about to pick it up when he had one more thought. He bent down and untied both of his shoes, making sure the laces were trailing on the ground.

            He picked up the cash drawer and headed for the door. "Be ready to lock the door and scram out of here as soon as you hear me call you." he called to the girl without looking back.

            Outside Durham was slowly counting, his girlfriend gripping his shoulder with white knuckles. He was on "Twenty-eight" when the door to the bakery swung open. He could see his stooge holding a tray in his hands. It had a white cloth covering it. He watched as Sal started down the three concrete steps. On the second step Sal began to stumble.

            "Your shoes..." Durham shouted as Sal staggered down the last step and lurched toward Durham, the cash drawer in front of him. With his left thumb he pulled the cloth off the tray and thrust it Durham. The flour went into his eyes and Durham began to howl.

            Sal leaped to Durham's side and grabbed his right arm with both hands. Pulling downward, he kicked at the gun in Durham's fist. It took three kicks but the gun finally went flying down the street. "OK girlie, get moving!" Sal yelled at the top of his lungs. He ran in the direction of the gun, with Durham's girlfriend right behind him. Durham wiped his eyes clear and followed. Sal scooped up the gun without breaking stride and ran up the first side street off James he came to.  He could hear the door to the bakery closing and he hoped the girl would make it to a safe place.

            Sal ran for a good ten minutes without looking back. Exhausted, he finally glanced over his shoulder and saw there was no one trailing him. He slowed to a walk and continued to glance back every few feet. The coast remained clear.  He bent down and tied his shoes.  Man, what a pain it had been to run all that way with his shoes untied. His feet were killing him.

            He opened the gun as he walked on and removed the four bullets. He placed them in his pocket. When he passed by a commercial establishment with a large dustbin out in front, Sal paused to thrust the gun deep in the bowels of the container.

            The sun was high in sky as Sal walked on. It was a beautiful spring day, but Sal did not take time to examine any of the trees for buds. He was looking for a policeman, either on foot or in a vehicle, that he could tell his story to.  They needed to get that maniac Durham off the streets.  And who knows where he got that girl from, but she was trouble too.  Maybe she was behind it all, or maybe this was her first excursion into the high life of armed robbery.

            After another fifteen minutes, Sal found a place to discard the bullets, into a hole in the curb that led down to a big rainwater pipe under the street.

           Suddenly Sal could see in the distance some excitement surrounding a large house on Mohawk Street.  There were several policemen out in front of the house and a large crowd on the sidewalk trying to see who was being carried out of the house on a stretcher by some men clad in white. There was one cop attending to the crowd. Sal approached him. "Man oh man, you would not believe what I just went through!  I need some help from the police real bad."

            The policeman looked at Sal skeptically. "You don't look hurt."

            "No, but I just been held up at gunpoint and then forced to help the creep try to rob a store."

            "How'd you get away from the guy?" the policeman asked, still sounding like he thought he was humoring an insane person.

            Sal sighed. He plunged into the whole story, knowing full well that it didn't sound believable.  He could even feel the people nearby edging away from him, but not too far because they still wanted to hear the whole tale.  The policeman was slowly shaking his head as Sal finished. Suddenly Sal felt someone tugging on his arm. He spun around to see a very pretty young woman with a worried look on her face.

            "Aren't you Sal Manda?" she asked.

            "Why yes.  Do I know you?"

            "Remember The Toddler's Inn?  A couple-three years ago?"

            "Oh yeah! Pepper!"

            "That's right!" said Pepper, amazed that Sal remembered her name.

            "What's going on here?"

            "Well I was just taking a walk and saw these young kids selling lemonade and I asked them where there mother was.  They said she was in the house laying down. So I went up to the house and found her lying on the floor of the kitchen. I saw that she was still alive, but she had a big bruise on her forehead.  I ran outside and found someone in a nearby house who let me call the police station."

            "Is that her?" Sal asked as the men in white walked right by Sal and Pepper and began hoisting the cot into the wagon.

            "Sure is."

            "Hmm," Sal murmured as he looked at the bruise on the woman's head.  There's a little bit of dark blue shoe polish underneath that dried up blood. Somebody wearing blue shoes kicked her!"

            "Maybe she was in a fight with someone," Pepper said.  "Another woman.  I don't know any men who wear blue shoes."

            "Look around through the crowd. There's a chance that the kicker is trying to blend in here."

            Pepper and Sal wandered separately through the crowd and moments later, Pepper was motioning to Sal to come over to her.  Pepper held a finger to her lips and pointed to the feet of a broad, powerful looking woman who was standing right in front of her. The woman was wearing a large pair of blue shoes.  The shoes looked recently shined, except for the tip of the right one, which looked like it had been wiped off sometime after the shine had been applied.  Sal squatted down behind the woman. He could see a faint tinge of red on the very tip of the shoe.

            Sal stood up and tapped her on the shoulder. "Excuse me, madam, do you know who lives in this house."

            "Certainly," the woman said in a far from friendly tone, she's my next door neighbor. She's Annabel Strebel."

            "Do you know what happened?"

            "No, I just got here to see them carrying her out.  No great loss. The hussy had been flirting with my husband for the last few weeks. "

            "So you went over to her house this afternoon and had it out with her, maybe?  Told her to lay off your man.  She probably told you to get lost and you grappled with her. Maybe you managed to throw her down and while she was on the floor you gave her a swift kick. A swift kick with you big blue shoe."

            The woman went purple in the face. "Who the hell do you think you are?" She reached out to grab Sal's neck with her hands. Sal let her grab him, but he started shouting to attract attention. Soon the same policeman he had been talking to was pulling the woman away from Sal.

            "What's going on here?" asked the policeman.

            Sal replied "This is the one who knocked out that woman in that house over there."

            "My, my, we DO have an active imagination, don't we?" the policeman said.

            Pepper stepped up. "She admitted it! I heard her!"

            The woman was beside herself with rage. "I did nothing of the sort!"

            Sal said, look at her right shoe. There's blood on it."

            "These people are totally huts!" the woman shouted.

            But the policeman had taken a good look at the shoe.  "Well now, lady, just calm down. Suppose I have one of my colleagues ask you a few questions...down at the police station." He took the angry woman by the arm and escorted her to a nearby police car.

            Sal looked at Pepper. "It's probably a good idea for us to disappear before that cop comes back," Sal said.

            "Follow me," Pepper said, and she darted off back up the hill toward the parkway.