Kansas City, 1935. Private detective Devlin Caine receives a telegram from his estranged older brother, a Baltimore banker who's been framed for embezzlement. At his brother's request, Caine comes to Baltimore, expecting nothing more than to offer a little useful advice. But in short order, he finds himself deeply involved in an elaborate confidence scheme.
Never try to con a con, but Caine finds himself forced into doing just that. And he may just have the experience and know-how to take on a veteran master of the long con. But can he handle three different government agencies, his former boss, and a violent Chicago mobster who also appear on the scene?
Working in a strange city and employing cons on top of cons, Caine struggles to save not only his brother's career, but possibly his own hide.
ISBN ebook: 978-1-926760-71-1
FICTION | Mystery & Detective - Hardboiled
Word Count: 115,000
List Price: $4.99
Published: June 1, 2012
"Topek twists and turns the plot, leaving the reader guessing where he is going with the storyline, but then it gradually all makes sense and you find you've been on one heck of a thrilling ride. His writing is true to the era, brilliantly bringing the nineteen thirties to life." - Minding Spot
“Topek transports you back in time through the seamless use of authentic details, descriptions and dialogue. The plot is full of twists and turns and will keep you guessing until the very end.” Suzi Davis - author of Amber Frost
“Topek managed to use the recognizable archetypes of the genre without seeming hackneyed or cliched. All the things you expect from a hard-boiled detective story are there, but the story remains vital and surprising. I strongly recommend it.” Karen M. - Reader
“Are you going to the police, Mr. Caine?”
The man sat across the desk from me, haggard and beaten-down, dark circles under his eyes and a defeated slope to his shoulders. He was close to my age – somewhere in his middle thirties – pale, with thin reddish-blonde hair and a thinner reddish-brown mustache. The blue in his eyes had been washed out like a billboard faded in the sun, and the way his tailored suit hung told me he’d lost weight recently. Beneath the jacket was yesterday’s shirt.
He raised his head, meek and uncertain, and looked at me. I got the feeling part of him wanted me to say yes, because then at least whatever was costing him so much sleep would be over for him.
I wiped a hand across my face and glanced down at the free bank calendar on my desk. Wednesday, March 20th, 1935. I’d be turning thirty-seven in less than a month. I had a date planned for that evening with a twelve-year-old bottle of scotch, and was beginning to wonder if the man sitting across from me would get to the point in time for me to keep it.
“That depends on what more you have to tell me, Mr. Ryland,” I said to him. “Or if you’re going to tell me more. So far all I have is your name and your own vague admission that you’re involved in something illegal. That isn’t enough for me to go running to the cops. If you want to walk out of here now, you have nothing to fear from me.”
It was the second time that morning I’d offered someone the chance to walk away.
* * *
Three hours earlier, I was driving into work when I passed three or four men huddled around a small table in the alley between my building and the next. Probably nothing to it, but it was enough to make me curious, so I parked my car in its spot and walked around the corner for a better look. I leaned against the bricks and lit a cigarette while I took in the scene twenty feet away.
Four men, and the table was actually a traveling case with legs that folded out, the sort favored by peddlers hawking cheap neckties, miracle hair tonics, and other wares of dubious quality. Traveling cases were also useful for setting up impromptu games of chance, especially the kind where the random element is taken out by means of loaded dice or marked cards or – as was the case here – sleight of hand. Three playing cards lay face down on the top of the case. Lord, I thought, there are still people in Kansas City gullible enough to get hustled at Three Card Monte?
I probably would have let it go if I hadn’t gotten a good look at the mark. Worn, outdated clothes, scuffed-up shoes, a jacket with patches on the elbows, and a bowl haircut fringing out beneath a faded hat that had seen better days. A Missouri farmer, I guessed, come to town to sell a hog or maybe pick up some new tools for the summer growing season. He wouldn’t make it into the city often and he’d want to linger awhile, soak up a little excitement before heading back to early mornings with the chickens and milking cows, and long days tilling the fields. An eighteen-carat rube, the kind who sweated hard for his money and rarely saw any big-city action. The perfect mark for short-con operators.
I took a drag on my cigarette and strolled up at a leisurely gait. The dealer kept up his patter, inviting the three men gathered around the case to find the Red Lady, meaning either the queen of hearts or the queen of diamonds. Probably diamonds – a connection to money.
There was a cry of excitement as the man on the farmer’s left succeeded in picking the queen from the face-down cards and received the payoff for his ten-dollar bet. The smiling farmer was itching for another turn. How hard could it be? He carefully studied the dealer’s hands as they moved the three cards – not too quickly, really – in an aimless pattern around the tabletop. The farmer was sure he had it this time. He pointed confidently and watched the dealer flip over the three of clubs. Cries of “Ohhh!” and “Hard luck!” and the farmer tried to laugh it off, but I could see in his face it hadn’t been his first wrong pick that morning. How much had they already taken off the poor sap? The cards were moved around again and the man on the farmer’s right picked. You could tell the farmer knew it was a wrong pick, knew the queen had ended up in the middle and wondered how the guy could have missed that. The dealer proved the farmer right, flipping over the six of spades before revealing the red queen in the center.
The dealer looked up as my shadow fell across the table, offered me a grin. He was short with a smooth face under a cloth cap. Late twenties, but road-traveled and cagy.
“Care to try your luck, Mister?”
I gave him a big, stupid smile back.
“How’s it work?” I asked.
“Easiest thing in the world,” he said, scooping up the three cards and purposely dropping one so I wouldn’t get the idea he was a sharp. “You got a black six, you got a black three, you got the Red Lady, queen of diamonds, see? I put ’em all face down an’ I move ’em all around, and you tell me where the lady can be found. You’re right, you win, you’re wrong, you lose, but you gotta watch close ’less you wanna sing the blues.” The rhyme came out with verve; he was putting stroke into his patter for the new mark. Of course, he left out the part about how you’ll never find the queen unless for some reason he wants you to, how he’ll hide it from you each and every time, how he’ll cheat and keep cheating until you run out of money or just give up.
I made my smile bigger and stupider.
“That’s all you gotta do? Find the goddamn queen?” I laughed and fished out my wallet. “Hell yeah, I’ll take that action.” I dropped a fin on the table and he showed me the three cards one at a time. I saw the switch when he pretended to lay the queen face down because I was watching for it. Good enough to fool the yokels, but I’d seen lots better.
He slid the cards around with long, slender fingers and I pointed like a good mark to the card that hadn’t been the queen of diamonds since before this round even started. I furrowed my brow in confusion when he turned over the black six. I let him take another fin off me before passing the play back to the guy on the farmer’s left. Another correct pick, but then the guy on the farmer’s left was a shill, in cahoots with the dealer. His job was to make the game look like child’s play, easy money that only a chump would walk away from. The guy on the farmer’s right was a shill, too. His job was to pick wrong and give the impression this really was a game of chance, that anybody could miss the queen. The only man at the table really playing this game (and losing) was the farmer. At least that had been the case until I stuck my mug in.
The farmer and the shill to his right lost a ten-spot apiece, and the dealer grinned up at me again.
“You still in, friend? Think you can find the Red Lady in the end?”
“Hell, yeah,” I said, holding my money out over the table and hesitating. “Got a question first though.”
“Charlie Carollo know you boys are operating this deep inside his territory?”
The dealer’s smile hit the ground like a fat man busting a porch swing. Mentioning Kansas City’s leading crime boss had made exactly the impact I hoped it would. We weren’t really all that deep inside Carollo’s territory – more like on the outskirts – but these boys hadn’t been in town long enough to know any different. They knew the name, though. I’d never met Carollo and sure as hell didn’t work for him, but I let the dealer register my dark brown eyes and olive complexion and draw his own conclusions.
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