The Road to Pine Tree (part 5)
Recap of Part 4: Wilcox is hot on the trail of the elusive Haynes sisters and finds himself sniffing around the swanky Regency Room, one of the Big Apple’s hottest night spots. But before he can follow the clues to the end of the line, Jack discovers that he’s not the only one that road the rails up the coast from Miami.
As the train pulled out from New York, Jack tried to think of what the beef between the Armenians and the Jeffries organization could be. His thoughts were interrupted when a G.I. in an ill-fitting uniform got up to go to the washroom and offered Jack a day-old newspaper before he left. Every seat but his own seemed to be filled with a G.I., but Jack was too busy puzzling out the case in front of him to think about how odd that was, especially for that time of year.
The “Society” section of the paper had an item that caught his attention with a large picture. It was some kind of figurine, a stylized knight on a white horse. Jack would have judged it as some dime store novelty, but the caption proclaimed it a priceless, cultural artifact. More than that, it had gone missing from a museum in Europe some months before and authorities had come to believe it might have been smuggled into the United States. Jack absentmindedly wondered what the reward for finding such a thing would be—big, for sure—before reminding himself that he had his very own payday to worry about. He passed the newspaper along, adjusted the revolver that sat uncomfortably in the holster under his sport jacket, and then tried to get some shuteye.
When the train bumped to a stop a few hours later Jack thought it was pandemonium.
“Hey, friend,” he asked a pudgy redheaded G.I. wearing sergeant’s stripes, “what’s all the ruckus about?”
“You’re on this train and you don’t know about the surprise for General Waverly? Now I’ve heard everything!”
Jack had no idea what to make of that. He was about to start asking around the station, but it instantly became clear that every available motor vehicle had been pressed into service to carry men from the station to a nearby ski lodge. On a hunch, Jack bet that that was where he wanted to be. He certainly couldn’t say that his hunches were never wrong, but something felt different. Or maybe the frigid Vermont air was going to his brain. If it weren’t just about to snow, then that Miami-born boy thought he would never understand what the sensation just before the flakes began to fall must be like.
Gridlock prevailed and the station wagon that Jack crammed into along with more uniformed men than he dared count didn’t get anywhere near the entrance to their destination. The crowd was funneling into the main building of what turned out to be the Columbia Inn, but Jack, even as cold as he was, decided to work his way around the back. It certainly wasn’t the most glamorous technique, but he had never pretended to be a glamorous investigator.
A gang of stagehands was scurrying about, far too busy to pay attention to him, which was fine. Jack preferred to be unnoticed when he could. But it also meant they were too busy to be any help to him. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and waited.
There was some kind of big production going on inside, a full-on stage show it must have been. In between musical numbers there was the low, muffled buzz of conversation. Outside, however, it seemed almost unnaturally still and quiet. It reminded Jack, in a way, of the hot, sticky stillness that often hung in the air just before one of Florida’s familiar afternoon thunderstorms.
Not knowing how long all the carousing might continue, Jack bummed a cigarette and a light from a beanpole of a stagehand when the pasty fellow lit up one for himself.
“What’s all this about, anyway?” Jack asked.
“I never got all the details,” he said with a deep voice that seemed all wrong for his physique. “But I’m the last to know everything anyway. I just tote whatever needs totin’ and take my pay envelope at the end of the week. And Wallace and Davis pay pretty good.”
“Wallace and Davis?” Jack inquired. “I thought their show was in New York.”
He took a long drag on his cigarette before saying, “Oh, sure, yeah, but they moved the whole thing up here for rehearsal for some reason. Has to do with the guy that owns the place, I think. But like I told ya, I’m always the last to know.”
Jack looked up just then to see something dancing in the light that hung over the barn across the way. After a moment he realized what it was: snow.
There he was, a man much closer to the end of his appointed number of journeys around the sun than the beginning, and he had only ever seen snow in pictures or the movies. It was cold enough to well—Jack didn’t quite know what. Yet there was a special kind of beauty to it that made his heart ache, made him wonder whether his kids would ever get to experience it the way he was right then.
“Say, pal,” Jack began, turning toward his smoking companion.
“Sorry mister, I gotta go,” the beanpole said briskly before disappearing inside.
Jack turned up his collar, shoved his hands back in his pockets, and scooted as far back under the narrow awning as he could to get out of the snow. It was nice to look at, but he still didn’t want it down his shirt if he could help it. The case of the Haynes sisters was on his to-do list, but not a case of pneumonia.
A minute or two later Jack whipped his head around to a loud clank and a steady creaking off to his left. A blaze of stage lights and the swell of an orchestra shot out of a crack in two slowly-opening barn-style doors. It was that Bing Crosby song being sung by a bunch of performers in the most garish, red costumes he thought he’d ever seen. He crushed out his cigarette and moved to get a better view of the scene.
There was a huge Christmas tree in the center of the stage. On the back side of it were the Haynes sisters; the pictures did them justice and he recognized them instantly. One of them—Betty, he thought—handed something to one of the men they were with. He proceeded to drop the gift and wrap the woman in a passionate kiss.
Jack wanted to make his move right then, but every eye would have been on him. Besides, trying to corral them on the authority of a Florida arrest warrant that he did not have and did not obtain himself was pretty thin gruel to begin with. The show was over a few minutes later and to his relief the girls didn’t mingle with the crowd. Before he pursued them—and the two men he assumed must be Wallace and Davis—he snagged the bric-a-brac gift that had slid down the side of the tree.
“Say, uh, Mr. Wallace,” Jack cried out over the din. “I think you dropped this.”
Jack raised the thing in the air, catching the singer’s attention.
“Thanks, friend,” came a rich, baritone reply. “Just follow us and bring it to our green room.”
The Haynes sisters exchanged a glance with one another and then gave Jack a queer look, but said nothing.
The green room, surprisingly, was empty except for the five of them. Jack set the figurine down on a table next to a case of champagne, realizing just at that moment what it was he had been holding. It was none other than the stolen artifact he had seen in the newspaper only a few hours before. Or if it wasn’t, it was an exact copy.
“Well, I’m sure you folks have some celebrating to do, Mr. Wallace,” Jack began, “but before I leave you to it, would you mind if I ask the girls here some questions?”
Wallace furrowed his brow, but the other fellow jumped up from his chair. He was tall, but thin, with more of a dancer’s body than a fighter’s. Jack liked his chances if it came to rough stuff.
“Now look here Mister—well, what even is your name anyway? Are you some kind of reporter or something? It was a pretty dirty trick to pull to get backstage with us! Why don’t you just beat it before you make me really mad?”
“The name’s Jack Wilcox and I ain’t no reporter. I’m an investigator. And no one’s going anywhere until I get some answers about this!”
Jack lunged back toward the table and grabbed the figurine. With his other hand he whipped out his revolver and trained it in the general direction of all four of the performers. Everyone, Jack included, was too stunned to move.
“I’ve been tracking these girls all the way from Miami and now I mean to get some answers. Pick up that phone and let’s get the sheriff down here. Now.”