Authors: AJ Sikes
Emma and Eddie had no reply to that, so Brand went with his only idea.
“I can tell the coppers I came up and found him like this. Our one problem is that you used your father’s gun.”
“How did you—”
“It wasn’t in the old man’s office. And the coppers can add as well as anyone, including me. They’ll match the slug they pulled out of the wall in your dad’s office to the one that went through the cockpit window. We can hope they don’t find it, and maybe they won’t with all this snow on the ground and more coming. But the coppers know their stuff, and one thing they know best is how to find evidence that’s just waiting for them to pick up.”
“So what? They can’t prove I took the gun.”
“That’s true. They can’t, and I sure as hell won’t help them. But we have to expect they’ll be looking for you. You disappeared the night your old man cashed in, and his gun disappeared, too.” For a moment, Brand thought about telling Emma he’d seen her father. But the tension between them kept his tongue calm. Now was the time for facts, not fairy tales.
“They’re probably after you as a person of interest, and if they find you with that gat, they’ll lay a charge of concealing evidence, which’ll lead to murder once they match up the slugs like I said. Our one safe bet is this. The Outfit’s done in Chicago City; they’re over with and I know why. The game that’s coming to replace them won’t waste a chance to swat me like a fly if I connect them to this, but I can steer it so Nitti’s crew takes the fall for you shooting Falco.”
Emma’s eyes rounded at his words. She stepped closer, her face half lit by a weak glow coming in from beyond the cabin windows.
“What are you talking about? Who’s coming? Is it someone involved with Dad? What do you know?”
Brand weighed his options. She still had that pistol in her hand. A hand that had begun shaking while she made her demands. So he gave them both the story. How Archie had brought them in and sent Brand off on Nitti’s trail. He told them about his conversation with Nitti, what he’d been put through, what he’d been told to put out on the airwaves, and why. He left out the part about the monster and the G-man though. Best to keep that under wraps in case somebody higher up got their hands on Miss Farnsworth and her jazz man and got them to talk about this little chat in the airship. Instead, Brand told them Nitti’s boys had thrown him out in the snow after roasting his feet for him, that he’d passed out and, when he came to, that the gangsters were all dead inside the building.
“So that’s where I was while you were putting Archie to sleep. I’ll tell the coppers all of it, just like I told you, except I’ll say one of Nitti’s boys went out at the beginning and came back right before they tossed me out the door. That’ll match up with my thinking when I got here, that it was one of them who did Archie. It isn’t airtight, not by a long shot, but it’s the best we can do, unless you’ve got—”
All three of them ducked down at the sound of a patrol boat sailing overhead. A searchlight cut across the street beside them and tracked down to the machine shop where it stayed, lighting up the building and the yard beside it.
“They’re here. Go on. Get moving. Get out of sight and stay there.”
Emma and Eddie climbed down from the airship; their feet hit the mooring deck as sirens whined from farther down the street. Brand watched them take cover as two police sedans raced past the mooring deck. In the coppers’ wake, two figures sneaked down the stairs to the shadows below. Brand went to the telegraph at his desk. He waited for the lights of Emma’s car to swing around before tapping out a wire. He hit the last stop as Emma and her lover rolled away down a side street, disappearing into the night.
Detective Wynes replied to Brand’s wire and showed up a few minutes later. A team of gurneymen followed to clean up the mess Archie left in the cockpit. Two uniformed officers popped in when they were done. Brand let out a breath he’d been holding when Wynes confirmed that no G-men were en route. “They’re handling whatever happened in the machine shop down the way. You two,” Wynes said to the coppers. “Take a look around.” The officers set to inspecting the airship, starting with the quarters in back and the galley. Brand sat at his desk and let them work. He bristled when they asked him to stand so they could rifle his desk. But compliance was the only card he had left to play, so he stood on shaky legs and limped off to the side.
“What’s with the gimpy act, Brand?” Wynes asked.
Brand took a breath and told Wynes he’d start at the beginning. “I was racked out in my bunk. Archie had us overhead during the Mayor’s speech, said he’d caught news of Capone getting picked up and figured the news would be at City Hall. Then Nitti shot the Mayor and Archie followed Nitti’s car this way. That’s his hideout in the machine shop, by the way. Or it was.”
“And you didn’t think to send word our way. You’re looking at an obstruction charge, Brand.”
“I would have called it in, but I like I said, I was asleep in the back when Nitti shot the Mayor. Archie didn’t wake me up until we were docked here. I couldn’t very well call in a story I couldn’t prove yet, could I?”
“You mean you wanted to get the scoop first, and then you’d have the decency to inform the authorities.”
Brand sniffed at Wynes’ jab and reached for his tobacco and papers. Wynes let him roll one up and get it lit before working on him again.
“So what’s the story here, Brand? Didn’t like the way Falco handled this girl so you shot him?”
“Yeah, and then I called you and the boys here to come by and make sure I did a good job of it.”
“Cut the funny stuff. That kind of talk’ll get you locked up, Brand, and I’m still not ready to drop the obstruction.”
Brand had another retort primed and ready to fire, but he held back and gave Wynes the story he’d worked out with Emma and Eddie. He got to the part about seeing the tramps pop in and out of thin air and almost slipped up, but he kept his cool and related his ordeal with Nitti.
“They tossed me out with the broadcast in my coat pocket and no shoes on my feet. I passed out for a bit. They’d worked me over pretty good. When I came to I went back in and—”
“You went back inside after they threw you out? What for?”
“My feet were freezing or on fire, I couldn’t tell which. I figured they’d lit out of the place anyway when I saw the doors hanging open. When I got in there. . .” Brand shook his head and let his eyes drop the floor.
“Yeah? What’d you see, Brand?” Wynes had a sinister smile playing across his mug, and for the second time in as many days Brand wished he’d had more practice playing poker. Facing off against Wynes had always been a trick. Brand steeled his jaw and let his eyes relax before saying, plain as day, “I saw something no man should ever see twice. I’d already seen it over there. Bodies in a tangle with pieces missing from both ends and all points in between. It was worse than the hit on Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh, yeah. The hit on Valentine’s Day. You know, every guy down at the precinct has a theory about that story you put out. Something about pink elephants stepping on your neck, making it so you can’t see straight because you’re too busy thinking sideways. Of course, the people trust you, Brand. You’re always telling them what they need to know.”
Brand felt the heat in his belly rising into his throat, choking off any attempt he might have made to reply. Wynes dropped the grin and got serious again. “So, you go in looking for some shoes. The crooks are all dead and you picked up Nitti’s gat and dropped it on your way out. It was empty, you say?”
“Yeah,” Brand said, unable to prevent the sneer from creeping across his face.
“And then you hot-footed it back here and found Falco shot. I still like you for it, but let’s hear what you’ve got to say in your defense. Who did Falco?”
“Had to be that bird from Nitti’s crew. The one who left when they started working on me. He came back just in time to pitch me out the door.”
Wynes seemed to buy it, but he smelled something and let Brand know it. “All right, Brand. Stick around, and be ready to answer more questions. When we find the slug that took Falco’s brains on a joyride, I’ll be in touch. One’ll get you twenty it’s got a match somewhere, and my money’s on that somewhere being somewhere you’ve been.”
Brand sniffed and wiped a thumb under his nose. The two coppers finished searching the ship and reported to Wynes they’d found nothing, except for the bottle Brand kept in his desk.
“Contraband, Mr. Brand,” Wynes said. “We’ll have to take this back to the precinct and we might as well take you with it. C’mon.” Wynes reached a hand to help Brand to his feet, lifting him by the arm and helping him over to the cabin door. One of the officers preceded him down the ladder and the other followed. A patrol boat had come alongside the Vigilance and tow cables connected the two ships. The coppers released the mooring lines and took Brand off the deck to their sedan waiting below. Brand stared out the window and watched the Vigilance follow in the smaller patrol ship’s wake. He wondered if he’d ever see her again.
Brand missed the weekend editions because he spent the days going in and out of sleep in between rubbing Novocream on the soles of his feet. And that was after Wynes grilled him so much that Brand thought he should be rubbing steak sauce on his feet instead of the cream. Even so, he thought he’d hear something that might explain what was happening in the city. The Mayor had been shot, Capone was under wraps. That sort of news should have made the rounds, but the street outside Brand’s rooms stayed quiet through the snowstorm on Saturday and grew quieter still in the gray mists of Sunday. When Brand stepped into Chief’s office on Monday morning, he was prepared for a chewing he’d never forget. But his boss had nothing to say. He just handed over a bulletin without even looking up from a stack of papers on his desk. The papers all had a symbol at the top that matched the one on the bulletin.
“Every thirty minutes. That’s all we got for today. Just keep it going. I’ll let you know if it changes.”
Brand didn’t stick around to ask questions. He’d seen Chief in low moods before. This one beat them all, so he just made his way down to the broadcast booth, looking over the bulletin as he rode the elevator. By the time he hit the fourth floor his jaw and neck felt tight, clenched to contain his rage. The page had the Governor’s seal at the top and bore the address
Ministry of Public Information, Chicago City
Brand stopped with his hand on the doorknob of the broadcast booth. The sound engineer stuck his head out.
“Mr. Brand? We’re supposed to be on the air.”
“Yeah? Keep the mic warm for me, why don’t you.”
The engineer sniffled and whipped back into his cabinet. The sliding door closed behind him with a sharp
and Brand saw the lights in the broadcast booth flicker twice, signaling everything was a go. He let them flash on and off again before going inside and taking his seat behind the mic.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Mitchell Brand with the…
The page read
Ministry for Public Information
, but Brand couldn’t get his tongue around those words just yet.
…with the Chicago Daily Record. Martial law is in effect in Chicago. I repeat. Martial law is in effect. The Mayor’s assassination has forced the Governor’s Office to assume control. This will ensure an orderly transition to new leadership. Curfew will begin at ten-thirty tonight. All citizens are to remain indoors until five-thirty tomorrow morning. That is all.
Brand shut off the mic and pitched the bulletin down the waste chute behind him. As he turned back to the mic, Chief slid the door open and gave Brand a look that told him he’d better stick to the script next time. He had a copy of the bulletin held out in his left hand. When Brand didn’t take it right away, Chief flicked it at him and let it fall to the floor. Brand got the message loud and clear, but Chief wanted to make sure it stuck.
“The Daily Record doesn’t exist anymore, Mitch. Got it?”
Before Brand could get anything out of his mouth, Chief turned on his heel and was gone. Brand snapped up the page from the floor and hit the hall in a flash, catching up to his boss at the elevator.
“What gives, huh? The Governor’s Office isn’t here to help establish new leadership. They are the new leadership. You and me both know it. We’ve never heard of any Ministry of Public Information before because until this morning there wasn’t any such thing.”
“Mitch, this isn’t coming from me. Just go back into that booth and stick to the page in your hand. Every half hour unless you want to try on the city’s jewelry. They’ve got a set of bracelets for anyone doesn’t toe the line like they’re told. Chances are I’ve got a phone call waiting for me at my desk, and it’ll be all I can do to convince the guy on the other end that you’re ready to play ball.” Chief snarled out the last few words.
Brand stared at his boss, his old friend from the trenches of the Great War. It never does to throw a punch at a memory like that, so Brand turned around and stalked back to the broadcast booth with the bulletin in his hands.
“Load of damn hokum,” he muttered and took his seat behind the mic. He knew that for a fact even if he couldn’t prove it. But what good would that do for people on the other end of the wire? They were ready to believe almost anything Brand had to say, and he was stuck with nothing to say but what was printed on the page in front of him.
That is all.
Brand knew the bulletins weren’t all the Governor had to say. At the bottom of the page he read a warning in red ink. It ordered no transmissions or broadcasts other than this one and threatened the penalties of
for violation of the order.
Below that, Brand saw the words
Further instructions to follow
Chief came down an hour later with a fresh cup of coffee, spiked from his desk bottle. Brand still didn’t have more than two words for his boss, but Chief quietly slipped away before Brand got the second one out, leaving the newsman sitting there with hooch and a curse burning his tongue. He swallowed both and gave the bulletin again a minute later. After a day of this, Brand felt like he was just waiting for the moment when a G-man would come in to say he’d given his last ever broadcast. Late in the day, Brand got pulled off the mic, but it was Chief who did it. When he came into the broadcast booth at six o’clock, Chief looked like he’d gone a few rounds with a bottle in between bawling his life away. His eyes were red and puffy and his cheeks were slick with the stain of sadness. Chief’s nose wrinkled and his bottom lip trembled with every word.
“I just got the order to stop the bulletins, Mitch. You can go home. If you want to.”
Brand tossed the bulletin page down the waste chute behind him for the second time.
“What’s this about? If you got the scoop, how about letting an old pal in on the joke. What does the Governor’s Office know about the news?”
“Somebody thinks they know enough. They’re replacing me tomorrow, Mitch. Guy named Jameson Crane.”
Chief turned away and walked a shuffling gait back to the elevator. Brand watched him go and then stormed down the hall to the washroom where he let a few tears out in between shouts of rage. Could this be happening? Chicago City turning into a jailhouse town? Sure there were no bars on the windows and you could walk free down the street, at least for now. But putting a muzzle on the news like this meant bigger changes than Brand had expected. His questions were answered. The Governor’s Office was running the show, and they’d planned every move with precision. But what did they want with the city? What would make the Governor want to take control of Chicago City?
Later that evening, Brand stewed on those questions while he emptied his own desk bottle. When that failed to improve his mood, Brand stormed out of his office and upstairs to the print room. He stood there, staring at the Brackston auto-press. The machine would never churn out news again. Just whatever the new leadership saw fit to pour all over the people. It took a while, but Brand managed to jimmy a printing drum loose at one end. The pin he’d removed fit snugly into a recess between the platen and ink rollers. As satisfying as it was, the act of sabotage didn’t cheer him up. Looking out the doors to the mooring deck, he saw the empty stretch of concrete where the Vigilance should be tethered.
“She’s a crime scene now, Brand,”
Wynes had told him. He’d wanted to protest, but without a pilot what good was an airship. Brand could have flown the ship himself; he’d had some time at the helm over there. Not enough to qualify him for flying through Chicago City’s airspace though. Too many hazards: radio beacons, the lawman’s silver pigs, and the few civilian craft that took the air now and then. In his mind he imagined the shackled bulk of the Vigilance swaying softly in the gathering flurries. His mind saw her just as she had been two nights ago when Brand struggled up the ladder, his feet half blistered and flopping around in a pair of shoes taken from a dead gangster.
He thought about that night and how it ended. The ghosts of Nitti’s victims swirling around the mobster’s head. The monster. Nitti and his boys torn to pieces. Through the whole ordeal, Brand had been helpless to change his circumstances. He bristled at the same feeling of helplessness as it swelled in his throat. He wanted to smash the Auto-press, but he’d have needed a bazooka to do more than just dent the thing. And his fingers already ached from the workout he’d given them monkeying with the drums and rollers.
Slamming the loading doors open, Brand stepped outside, letting the chill blow across his face, chattering his teeth. He pulled his collar up and snugged his hat down as he walked out onto the open deck, eyes locked on the space where the Vigilance should be. He stopped short and felt the cold against his cheeks, felt his watering eyes sting in the icy wind. The dark emptiness at the edge of the deck called to him. He took another step and heard a scream on the wind. He looked up just in time to see a dark shape plummeting down from above. Brand recognized Chief’s face in the seconds before jumping aside and clapping both hands over his ears.