Gus took a window seat, glad to find the plane only half full. He was eager to digest the information Arlo had given him and put it all into a plan of action during the two hour flight to Chicago. His thoughts were soon interrupted when a portly woman plopped down in the seat next to him, placing her large carpet bag purse in her lap, spilling herself and her bag over his arm rest and into his plans.
“This is SO exciting!” she babbled with amazement. “Can you believe that at 76 I’m making my First Ever plane trip – to see my First Great-Grandbaby?! My daughter told me, ‘If not now Mom, when?’ So I took her advice and here I am! I told Harold – that’s my husband- he would just have to get by on his own while I took this trip- my ‘Bucket List’ as my daughter Valerie calls it. Can you tell I’m a bit nervous?”
Gus nodded and managed a weak smile. For the best part of the journey she yammered without a pause. Gus tried to smile in the appropriate places without it becoming clear he wasn’t listening. Finally, unable to process the weighty thoughts whirling in his head, Gus undid his seat belt, excused himself under the guise of going to the restroom and made his way down the aisle toward the back of the plane.
Standing by the galley, he stood for a moment and took a deep breath. He stared out into the darkness. “Last call for coffee.” the flight attendant smiled. Gus nodded and she handed him a cup. It tasted slightly burned and was clearly the last dregs- but he was glad to have it.
Blowing slightly to cool it off, he turned and surveyed the cabin. Just the usual suspects taking the last flight in to the Windy City…
Taking another sip, Gus’s eye came to rest on a man sitting midsection, three rows directly behind his seat. Wearing a hat pulled low over his face, he sat at attention, trying to look nonchalant. Gus recalled seeing the man dash into the plane just as the doors were closing. Gus squinted hard and tried to make out the man’s characteristics but the hat served its purpose well.
He handed his coffee cup back to the attendant. “Thanks. How much longer ‘til we land?” “Better return to your seat now Sir.” came the answer. “Should be 20 minutes.”
Gus started slowly up the aisle. Approaching his row he caught the eye of his talkative seatmate. She smiled and attempted to make herself smaller so he could squeeze past.
Suddenly without warning, Gus let out a grunt and stumbled, catching the back of the seat rest to steady himself. The woman let out a stifled shriek as his weight pressed against her.
Just as he hoped, the man sitting three rows back jerked his head toward the commotion, affording Gus just enough time to make out the mystery man’s features before his head dipped low again.
Entering the O’Hare terminal, Gus bought a city map and looked around for the information kiosk. Finding the entertainment section, he spotted a narrow green brochure matching the name on the matchbook Arlo had found in the missing woman’s car. Just as with the matchbook, it read, ‘Tony’s Grotto– Oldest and Best Jazz Club on the swingin’ Near North Side. Great Jazz nightly!’ Gus took a couple of the brochures and then checked out ads for small hotels near the club.
It was still very early morning as Gus took the shuttle to the heart of downtown and then a cab ride to the hotel. The Camden had surely seen better days but was still adequate for his needs – those being a long nap and something for the burning in his gut.
With early check-in not until 11:30, he entered the coffee shop and sat at the counter. It was crowded with office workers on the way to work and late night revelers reluctant to go home.
The man behind the counter didn’t bat an eye as Gus ordered a raw egg in a glass of half and half. When things began to clear out, Gus took a booth at the back of the coffee shop and sat with his back facing the wall, waiting for check-in. None too soon, he was finally able to pick up his key.
He didn’t even notice the musty, mildew smell as he turned on the AC for white noise and fell into bed. It would be after 4:00 PM before he even turned over.
Unwrapping the tiny soap, he took a cold shower and then upon exiting, switched the tap to hot and draped his rumpled shirt and trousers over the shower rod for steaming.
Slipping into the scratchy robe provided, Gus sat on the bed and looked in the phone book for the names Arlo had given him; first up, the name on the torn scrap of paper from the impounded car.
To his frustration, there was no ‘Eleanora Fagan’ listed in the Metropolitan area or surrounding vicinities. He did find the name and number for a ‘Lindy Abrams’- the name on the registration of the vehicle and hopefully the name of Ms. X, the woman SOMEBODY wanted dead.
Taking a breath, Gus dialed the number and waited while it rang.
Five rings later a breathless female voice answered, “Hello!”
Gus responded, “I’m calling to speak with Lindy.”
There was a momentary pause on the other end. “Lindy isn’t here. This is Samantha, her roommate…Can I take a message?”
Armed with what he needed to know, Gus took the bull by the horns. “Samantha, My name is Gus Walker. You don’t know me but is there somewhere we could talk? I have some information about Lindy you might care to know.”
The voice on the other end of the line became wary and Samantha said hesitantly, “Say! What’s this all about? You could be just another creep in a world full of creeps! What could you possibly have to tell me about LINDY?”
“I understand. ” Gus tried to be reassuring. “I came here from New York, I’ve seen Lindy and she’s in need of our help – there’s been an accident…”
‘An ACCIDENT??!” Samantha gasped and then stammered her reply. “Look, there’s only ONE place I’ll agree to meet you. I’m a cocktail waitress at Tony’s Grotto. If you want to come there tonight – I’ll meet you on my break but be forewarned. We’re a close knit group. The bouncer’s a tough SOB so if you’re not on the up and up you could be in a world of hurt Pal.”
“Fair enough, I’ll be there at 10.” Gus reached for a cigarette as he hung up the phone.
Placing the knife and fork on his greasy plate, Gus paid the check and left a tip. On his way out of Della’s Diner he realized he needed to get rid of the stale coffee and nicotine taste in his mouth before heading to the Grotto.
Catching the eye of the cashier, Gus asked for directions to the nearest drugstore.
Walking out the door and heading down the street as directed, Gus turned the collar of his jacket against the wind. After a few moments, he began to detect footsteps behind him, keeping time with his own. Slowing his gait, Gus fumbled in his pocket and retrieved his rumpled pack of smokes. Dropping them on the pavement, he stopped suddenly and bent to pick them up.
The figure behind him sped up and passed him- just under the light of the street lamp. It was a man-wearing a hat- trying to look nonchalant. Gus recognized him immediately. His Mystery Friend from the airplane.
Back at Angie’s, Jessie and Theresa were making great strides with their patient. ‘Blue Eyes’ as they’d named her, was now sipping soup and tea from a spoon held to her lips and her eyes were staying open longer with more recognition and even signs of gratitude.
Feeling confident enough to leave her in Angie’s care for a bit, and needing a change of clothes or two, they headed to the local thrift store in the village a few miles away.
‘Blue Eyes’ was dozing, so Angie took advantage of the time. Taking Jip her old dog down the long drive, she made her way through the locked gate out to her rural mail box. The dust from a retreating car was evident a few hundred yards away and it hung in the heavy afternoon air. Reaching her mailbox Angie found a long flower box resting against the post. Picking it up with a look of surprise, she called to Jip and they returned to the house with box in tow.
There was no name on the box but because Angie feared the contents might wilt, she opened it. The florist box was lined with pleated satin and the flower arrangement was comprised of white carnations in the shape of a cross, trimmed in red. The fragrance, thick and heavy, filled the room.
Angie sniffed the flowers and smiled. “Must be for our little patient… How thoughtful!”
She was still admiring the ‘bouquet’ when Jessie and Theresa drove up in the old farm truck. Two pair of Levi’s, 4 softly worn cotton tees, 2 root beer floats at the ‘Kustard Creem’– all for under ten bucks. “We’re livin’ in the wrong place, kid!’ Jessie laughed and elbowed Theresa as they made their way inside.
Laying their purchases on the table, the ladies began to share their town adventures with Angie. Laughter filled the room as Theresa modeled her ‘new’, gently-used ‘I’m with Stupid’ T-Shirt. Hooting with laughter, Angie reached for the coffeepot.
Jessie turned to put her purse on the chair. It was then that she saw the flowers. They formed an elegant cross and a whiff of sweetness rose from them but it was not the usual carnation smell Jessie was accustomed to.
Glancing over her shoulder to make sure Angie and Theresa hadn’t noticed, Jessie leaned in for a closer look. Her body stiffened with the surge of adrenaline that shot through her veins and she felt her throat tighten. There in the very middle of the cross sat one lone gardenia- white and pure as snow.
Jessie bit her lip and drew a breath.
Turning back to Theresa and Angie and steadying her voice as much as possible, Jessie asked
“So, Angie… where’d the pretty flowers come from?”
“Flowers?!” Theresa’s laughter stopped abruptly and she immediately caught Jessie’s eye. Angie smiled and answered, “Found them with my mail this afternoon! Must be for Miss Blue Eyes!” She went on, humming and tidying the kitchen counter.
“Jessie…” Theresa moved to Jessie’s side and stared with foreboding at the ominous floral message. “We need to call Gus—NOW.” Jessie whispered. “Come out to the porch with me and make sure Angie doesn’t follow you.”
Together the women huddled on the screened in porch as Jessie dialed her cell. Theresa noticed that Jessie’s hand shook as she did so.
After a few moments of silence, Jessie’s gaze met Theresa’s. “No answer….”
© copyright 2018 Laurie Allyn all rights reserved
Laurie Allyn is a professional jazz singer with a storied past. Singing in smoky clubs in Chicago during the 1950’s and 60’s, she went on to record an album in Hollywood. When the recording label went bankrupt, she turned her attention to professional modeling. Now living outside Seattle, she writes mysteries and continues her singing career.