Do you remember where you were when President Kennedy was killed? Even if you weren’t alive at the time, you surely know that a sniper in a high window was waiting for JFK to ride by on that infamous day in November.
Friday, October 25, 1963
The city’s oldest, most famous strip joint was just a storefront with 606 CLUB emblazoned in neon over its lighted-up canopied walkway. Another, smaller 606 neon sign crooked its summoning finger into the street, while windows promised delight by way of posters of Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio, and Tempest Storm, none of whom was appearing right now.
The 606 opened in 1932, back when strippers were called burlesque queens, and it hadn’t changed much in all that time. Sure, the walls got washed on occasion, the floors swept, the dishes scrubbed; but otherwise it remained a cozy, smoky, naughty retreat for businessmen, college boys, and in particular conventioneers.
The latter were the lifeblood of the joint, as the 606 was mere blocks from some of Chicago’s best-known, most commodious hotels. On the other hand, South Wabash was old Capone turf, not far from the site of Johnny Torrio’s Four Deuces, and within spitting distance of Skid Row.
This made the 606 just the kind of joint, in just the type of dicey neighborhood, where an out-of-town businessman carrying a fat wad of cash might think taking a bodyguard along wasn’t such a bad idea.
I couldn’t remember when I’d last done a bodyguard job. I was too old, too rich, and too famous for such piddling work. Well, maybe I wasn’t that old—let’s call it my well-preserved fifties—and “rich” might be overstating it, though ironically any fame of mine had rubbed off from such front-page clients as Mayor Anton Cermak, Huey Long, and Amelia Earhart.
None of whom, come to think of it, had benefitted particularly from my bodyguard services.
But I was on the spot, because this client was an old friend who had done some flack jobs for me when he worked for a local agency before moving to Milwaukee, where he had built a small PR empire out of several big beer accounts.
As for me—Nathan Heller—I was president and founder of the A-1 Detective Agency, which took up much of the seventh floor of the fabled Monadnock Building. My small empire included fourteen local agents (that’s what we were calling operatives these days) and branch offices in LA and Manhattan.
We’d met for beer at the Berghoff on West Adams, in the venerable German restaurant’s bar. It was the kind of place where cigar smoke trumped cigarette, the long narrow space sporting a polished wooden counter extending the entire length of the east wall, bowing out at the north end. This was a male preserve, literally so—like Spanky and Alfalfa’s clubhouse, no girls were allowed, other than the two female minstrels that were part of an ancient hand-carved clock behind the bar, amid old-world murals.
Mid–Friday afternoon, the bar busy but not crazy, we managed to negotiate a quiet corner toward the end of the counter. We had the Berghoff’s own Dortmunder-style beer, from one of its twelve taps—no other options, except for the private-stock single-barrel Kentucky bourbon on the back shelf.
Beer would do fine.
“Nate,” Tom Ellison said, “you’re a stand-up guy, meeting me at such short notice.”
Tom was easily ten years my junior, a Korean War veteran who had once been an athlete and still had the broad-shouldered six-foot frame to prove it. He wore a breezy-looking plaid jacket with a blue vest, blue-striped shirt, and blue tie. In case you’re wondering, I was in a dark-blue Botany 500 suit with a blue patterned tie. Tom was hatless, but I wore a narrow-brimmed shag-finish felt hat. From Dobbs.
“Everybody in the Berghoff bar is a stand-up guy,” I reminded him. There were no stools at the counter, just a brass rail for resting one foot at time.
Tom grinned and chuckled, which was more than my remark deserved. He was the upbeat type, perfect for the puffery racket, boyish with that blond crew cut, those sky-blue eyes, pug nose, and dimpled jaw. He might have been Kirk Douglas’s kid brother.
“I just mean,” he said, putting something serious into his tone, “I know you’re a busy guy, an important guy. Hell, they call you the ‘Private Eye to the Stars.’”
That was a Life magazine spread, and not a very big one.
“Only when I’m working out of the Hollywood office,” I said, and sipped the cold beer. It had a nice bite to it. You had to hand it to the Germans. They could make war, and they could make beer.
He leaned in and smiled the PR-guy smile. “Is it true they based James Bond on you?”
“It’s gospel. Ian Fleming has to send me a nickel for every book he sells.”
This he laughed at much too hard.
“Is it your wife?” I asked, on the outskirts of irritation. Half my agents worked domestic.
“No! No, hell, Jean is great. Jean is wonderful.”
“You don’t have to sell me on it.”
“Nothing to do with Jean. It’s probably … nothing at all.”
Now I was approaching the city limits. “Tom, we’re not standing in the dark drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon because we’re alcoholics. At least I’m not. You didn’t want to meet at my office. Why?”
My bluntness made him wince. “Well, I didn’t want to make this … official. I wanted it more social. More like a favor. Although I’ll pay you! I don’t expect you to listen to my stupid situation for free.”
Not his wife. Business, then.
“I’ll listen for free,” I said, and had another sip of the nicely sharp brew. “But when you did PR work for me, I paid for it. If I have to step up to the plate for you, you’ll pay for it. Fair enough?”
“Perfectly fair.” He glanced around.
No one was close by, and there were enough other mid-afternoon patrons in the Berghoff bar, lost in their conversations—plus the restaurant bleed-in of bustling waiters with the clink and clank of dishes—to give us privacy in this public place.
“You know, Nate, a guy in the press-agent game can come in contact with a lot of … colorful types.”
That I got. I pressed my nose to make it go sideways. The universal symbol for mob types.
He nodded, lifted his blond, almost invisible eyebrows. “Right. I guess I’d put Harry Gordon in that camp, though I didn’t know it at first. I met Harry in London, at the Savoy of all places. Met at high tea, would you believe it?”
I said nothing, hoping to encourage less travelogue and more pertinence.
“Harry was doing business with some fellas from France, who needed American representation, and it all just kind of fell into place. Thanks to Harry, I got more business in Europe than ever before.”
“Good for Harry. Good for you.”
Tom sighed as if that were anything but the case. “Later, here in Chicago, Harry introduced me to somebody that I think you know—Jimmy Hoffa?”
That got my attention.
I knew Hoffa, all right. I had worked for him when I was also employed by Bobby Kennedy and the Senate rackets committee. That double-agent period of my life was one I’d been lucky to survive. To this day, Hoffa thought I was his pal. I hoped.
“I was staying at the Bismarck Hotel,” Tom was saying, “trying to land an account with a furniture chain here. Harry took me up to Hoffa’s suite, also in the Bismarck, introduced us, and we chatted about why I was in town, and before I knew it, Hoffa had called up the furniture chain’s owner and…” He shrugged.
“And you had a new profitable client.”
“I did. Before long, I realized that furniture firm was in the pocket of the Teamsters. And those European clients also had ties to the Teamsters. Then there was a fleet of trucks in Florida that I represented that—”
“I get the picture.”
Had he figured out that Harry striking up a conversation with him at high tea hadn’t been serendipity? I didn’t bother asking.
Instead I just said, “So you’re having a case of conscience. You like to think of yourself as a legitimate businessman, and now you’re doing business with Jimmy Hoffa, who has more mob ties than you have silk ones.”
But Tom was shaking his head. “I’m a big boy. I am legitimate. Nothing I’ve done for Hoffa or any of the firms he’s hooked me up with has been remotely shady. Hoffa of course doesn’t like having his associations advertised, but that’s not a problem. I know how to get attention for my clients. But I’m also happy to be discreet.”
I shifted feet on the brass rail. “So what is the problem?”
“Well…” His boyish face clenched in thought; his eyes were searching. “… I’m a football fan.”
I pretended that wasn’t a non sequitur. “If you’re a Bears fan, you’re in luck. Looks like they’re on their way to an NFL championship.”
His eyes brightened. “The Bears are playing the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend.”
“Are they?” I was a fight fan.
“Well, like you said, they’re on a roll, and good seats for any home game are at a premium. Particularly at late notice. So this morning, at the Bismarck, I had breakfast with Harry Gordon.”
“Okay,” I said, like I was following him, which I wasn’t.
“I figured for once it was nice that I had this kind of, well, underworld connection…’cause who else could get me Bears tickets at this late notice?”
“Ah.” Now I was following. But I was wondering who Harry Gordon was. Not that I knew everybody Hoffa worked with—he had an army. Make that armies.
Tom held out his hands, palms up. “So I ask Harry if he can land me some tickets, and he says, ‘Piece of cake.’ Then he gets thoughtful, actually thinks for maybe twenty, thirty seconds before he says, ‘But there’s a favor you can do me.’”
“Well, he takes this number-ten business envelope out of his inside jacket pocket, and he holds it down between us, where only we can see it, opens the flap, and runs his thumb through a stack of crisp one-hundred-dollar bills … at least an inch thick worth.”
That was my cue to whistle, but I didn’t.
Tom paused for a gulp of beer. Then: “After that, he brings the envelope up and licks the flap shut and hands me the fat thing and smiles like a kid sharing a secret. ‘Deliver that to the 606 Club tonight,’ he says. ‘To a guy named Jake who will approach you after you sit down and order a drink. He’ll be a stocky little guy in a nice dark suit with a white carnation.’”
Maybe Ian Fleming should have been sending those nickels to Harry Gordon.
Tom was saying, “I asked him how this Jake character would know me, and he said, ‘You’re a distinctive-looking fella, Tommy. I’ll describe you. Not to worry.’ Not to worry, he says.” He shuddered.
I said, “What did you tell your pal Harry?”
“I told him … fine. What else could I say? I was out on business all morning, but then after lunch, when I stopped at the desk at the Pick? Another envelope was waiting—this one with a Bears ticket in it. Fifty-yard line, Nate.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but how expensive? What the hell have I got myself into? The 606 … I’ve never been there, but isn’t that some kind of strip joint? A dive over by Skid Row?”
“It’s only a few blocks from here, really. Normally I’d say it wouldn’t be that dangerous.”
“Normally. This isn’t ‘normally.’”
“No. You’re by yourself, packing an envelope with maybe—seven to ten grand in it? No. And that’s why you’re buying me another beer, right? Because you want me to back you up?”
“I’d feel safer with you as my bodyguard, yes.”
Obviously he hadn’t checked in with Mayor Cermak or Huey Long. Not that he could have, short of a Ouija board.
“I haven’t seen a naked woman in over a week,” I said. “Be my pleasure.”
The plan was I’d arrive at the 606 ten minutes in advance of Tom. We’d both take cabs (staggering the departure time) from the Pick-Congress, where the PR exec was staying.
A chill rain had let up, but the street in front of the neon-announced nightery was as slick and shiny as black patent-leather shoes. I stepped from the cab with an olive Cortefiel double-breasted raincoat over my nifty charcoal-gray worsted, tailored to conceal the nine-millimeter shoulder-holstered under my left arm. Browning, for those of you keeping track of brand names.
I didn’t often carry the nine-mil, these days. It was damn near as much of an antique as I was, being the gun I’d carried as a kid back on the Pickpocket Detail in the early thirties. It was also the gun my leftist father had used to blow his brains out in disappointment after I joined the Chicago PD. I’d never carried any other gun regularly, since I viewed it as the only conscience I had.
“Nathan Heller!” a familiar gravelly voice called out.
I wheeled to see the white-haired dwarf-like owner of the 606, Lou Nathan, trotting over. He wore a snappy brown suit, too-wide-for-the-fashion tie, and his trademark fedora with its unturned brim (to my knowledge, no one had ever seen him out of that hat), with his friendly features—slit eyes, knob of a nose, and slit mouth—aimed right at me.
Lou was one of those guys who always seemed to be headed somewhere else. On his way to chat up patrons, check on the bar, supervise the kitchen downstairs, make a surprise inspection of the communal dressing room (in the basement, where the strippers tried to avoid the heating pipes).
His favorite haunt, however, was the taxi stand out front of the club, where he would chin animatedly with the cabbies till his restless feet got the best of him.
Right now those feet were bringing the gregarious little guy over to me.
“Whatever have I done for such an honor?” Lou asked facetiously. “To have the famous Nate Heller drop by my humble establishment.”
I shook his firm little hand. “Been too long, Lou.”
“I thought maybe my girls weren’t good enough for you anymore,” Lou said. “They say these days you only date the showgirls at the Chez Paree and Empire Room.”
I grinned at him. “Maybe I just know you watch your fillies too close for a guy like me to ever get lucky.”
Lou didn’t allow his dancers to hustle for drinks between sets. A rarity in Chicago strip joints.
“With that handsome mug of yours,” Lou said, pawing the air, “all you ever have to do is flash a smile, and their legs spread like a wishbone.… Come on in, I’ll buy you your first drink.”
He did, and sat with me.
Patting my shoulder, he asked, “I ever tell you about how Jackie Gleason used to come in, every night, looking for cooze and watching my comics?”
“You mean, how the Great One wanted a job, only you turned him down because you didn’t think he was funny?”
“No, I don’t believe you ever did.”
He laughed, though that gag setup went out with the Bowery Boys. Then the slitted eyes gave my torso a glance, and I didn’t figure he was checking me out for a slot on the bill.
“That suit’s cut vurry nice.”
“Yeah. M.L. Rothschild’s top guy tailored it for me.”
“Vurry nice job. But a guy who’s been around, like possibly … me? He looks at you close and hopes that’s something harmless under your left armpit. Like maybe a tumor.”
“It’s nothing to sweat about, Lou.”
“You wouldn’t kid a guy?”
“Naw.” I gave my suit coat a gentle pat over the nine-millimeter. “Just happened to drop in for a drink after a job where I needed the comfort.”
“You say so,” he said cheerfully.
He stayed another thirty seconds, which made this a near two-minute conversation, possibly a new record, before he went scurrying off to his next stop.
I had asked for and received a booth in back, close to the door and well away from the stage, in the packed little joint. I turned my eyes loose. More women patrons than there used to be—female conventioneers, or open-minded wives or girlfriends. I figured the gals were letting the overly lipsticked, somewhat over-the-hill cuties up there working their way down to pasties and G-strings warm their guys up for them. Less work to do back home or at the hotel.
This former grocery was just a single room, maybe forty feet wide and two hundred feet deep. On one side was a long bar edging three tiers of tables accommodating perhaps seventy small tables facing a postage-stamp stage where one stripper after another was accompanied by a four-piece band: drums, guitar, accordion, and bass guitar. The room was dark, with a curtain nailed to the back wall, the ceiling-mounted lighting over the stage as nakedly visible as its subjects.
There was no cover, and the rum-and-Coke Lou bought me covered half of the two-drink minimum. Not watered down, either, unless that was special treatment courtesy of the management. I let my eyes slowly travel through the fog of smoke and across the jammed-in patrons at the tables, but the backs of all these heads didn’t do much for me, despite my detective skills.
I didn’t spot anybody who looked suspicious or dangerous or in any way out of the ordinary, at least not until Tom Ellison came in, looking pinched and anxious.
A raincoat over his arm, hatless, with his blond crew cut standing up as if in fright, he was in a camel-color suit with a plaid vest—I’d suggested he wear something that stood out, to help his contact spot him, and he hadn’t let me down. Gus, the pudgy, balding manager who acted as a sort of headwaiter, came up to tell him no seating was available except at the bar, and Tom nodded and thanked him and found a stool over there.
I just sat and sipped my drink and pretended to watch a skinny redhead with more breastworks than seemed likely prance around in a filmy harem costume. Really, I was keeping an eye on Tom, who wasn’t any more nervous than a first-time father in a maternity-ward waiting room.
The PR exec had fulfilled his two-drink minimum by way of a couple of martinis when a figure rose from a front-row seat and half turned to knife his way through the many tables to the bar—a burly-looking little guy with black hair whose color may have come from a bottle, and black shark eyes that searched out Tom.
No mistaking him—this was the contact, stocky, in a nice blue suit with red-white-and-blue tie, very snappy-looking, but not enough to offset his pasty barroom complexion or his rather blank-featured oval face with its five-o’clock-shadowed jowls. He looked like a Li’l Abner caricature that Al Capp hadn’t quite finished with.
I couldn’t hear the conversation. It was brief. Appeared friendly, the contact affable, Tom stilted. Smiles were exchanged, and the envelope handed over, casually, nothing surreptitious about it. Nobody was watching them but me. Everybody else was enjoying the redhead, who was down to her pasties now, tiny annoyances on the cantaloupe breasts, with the filmy harem pants next on the going-going-gone list.
The stocky contact guy nodded, smiled again, shook hands with Tom, patted him on the shoulder, and threaded back through the smoke and the crowd to his waiting table. Tom had been good about not acknowledging my presence, but now he looked right at me, and I nodded as imperceptibly as possible.
When the crowd burst into applause at the final reveal—Red plucked off her pasties and got a standing ovation out of a lot of guys, probably even those still sitting down—Tom gave the bartender a generous five-spot, and headed out.
I waited till the next stripper, a busty brunette, had shed a few garments, then slipped out of the club myself.
It was drizzling a little. Tom was waiting at a cab, about to get in, but pausing as I’d instructed him till he got the high-sign from me.
I nodded at him, indicating all was well with the world, and he disappeared off into the rain-slick night.
Me, I turned to go back into the 606.
I knew that little guy, that contact with the nice suit and the shark eyes. I knew him to be a Hoffa associate, but more than that I just … well, knew him. He was Jake Rubinstein, from the West Side, an old acquaintance but not exactly a friend.
He knew me, too, of course.
Which wouldn’t have mattered, but I was pretty sure he’d spotted me.
So I needed to go back in there and deal with him. I could start by asking him what he was doing back in Chicago. He’d been in Dallas for years, running his own strip clubs.
Under the name Jack Ruby.
Copyright © 2012 by Max Allan Collins