A middle-aged man taking stock of his life is to be expected. But for this to be my midpoint, I would have to make it to 94, and anyway it was the ghosts of my past haunting me, not my conscience, which after all was the nine millimeter Browning automatic I still carried all these years after my father killed himself with it—when I disappointed him taking the Outfit’s money to get ahead on the Chicago PD.
As I write this I’m closer to 94 than 47, which was my age in October 1953 when I caught an Ace Company cab outside the Kansas City Municipal Airport. The cabbie was colored, which in a city where the population was 10% that persuasion might not have been a surprise. Still, Negro hackies didn’t generally work white areas, though airport runs could make for a decent fare and those who didn’t like the driver’s shade could take the next ride down, and those who didn’t give a damn got a smile and a nod and no funny business like unrequested tours of K.C.
And I didn’t need one of those—I’d done jobs here before. The airport was five minutes from a downtown whose "Petticoat Lane" on Eleventh Street had smart shops and patrons who could afford to frequent them; around Twelfth and Main were the usual stores and palatial movie houses, a few blocks east was a civic center whose plaza included two of the taller buildings, the Courthouse and City Hall, with the massive bunker of Municipal Auditorium to the southeast.
Everything was still up to date in Kansas City. They were giving my toddling town a run on the meat-packing and agricultural fronts. They had an impressive art gallery, fine arts museum and kiddie-pleasing zoo, and the industries included steel, petroleum, and automotive manufacturing. And one once-booming local enterprise that had faded since the ’30s had made a big comeback recently.
"You in town about that kidnapping, boss?" the cabbie asked.
He was grinning at me in the rearview mirror. He looked like Mantan Moreland but with a flattened nose; that and his cauliflower ears made him a former prizefighter. Yes, I’m a detective.
"Why would you think that?"
Now he was looking out his windshield, which was my preference.
"Address rang a bell," he said.
"Anyway, boss, I read about you—you that private eye to the stars."
Life magazine had done a story about me when I opened my L.A. branch.
"Don’t recall your name, though," he said.
"Nathan Heller," I said.
"...So what’s Alan Ladd like?"
"What about Mitchum?"
That made him laugh.
For the record, I was an inch shorter than Mitchum and weighed around two hundred pounds, my reddish brown hair going white at the temples, and "almost leading man handsome" (the Life writer had said). I made up for the "almost" by being a success in my trade—president of Chicago’s A-1 Detective Agency. By way of evidence I offer the court my Botany 500 suit, Dobbs hat and Burberry raincoat, lining in—it was cold in Kansas City in October, and the sky was trying to make its mind up whether to rain or snow.
We rumbled across the Missouri River by way of the upper deck of the Hannibal Bridge.
No laughter now, as he asked, "You gonna help get that little boy back?"
"Do my best."
"I got a boy that age myself."
"So do I."
"I believe somebody took my boy, I kill his ass."
"So would I."
He laughed again, but the sound of it was different.
Just under a week ago, a bit before nine a.m., someone rang the bell at an exclusive Catholic elementary school here in Kansas City. A young, inexperienced nun answered and found a plump, pleasant-looking (though agitated) woman on the doorstep; about forty, the caller looked respectable enough in a brown hat, beige blouse and dark gabardine skirt. The woman even wore white gloves.
She presented herself as the sister of Virginia Greenlease, whose six-year-old son Bobby attended the school, and said she’d just rushed her sister, who’d shown signs of a heart attack while they were out shopping, to the hospital. Virginia was asking to see her son. The nun—new at the school, barely speaking English—fetched the child and turned him over to the woman calling herself the boy’s aunt. The boy went along dutifully, hand-in-hand.
Later that morning the mother superior’s second-in-command called the Greenlease home to check on how Mrs. Greenlease was feeling.
Mrs. Greenlease, who answered the phone herself, said, "Why, just fine."
The first ransom letter came a few hours later, special delivery.
We moved through an industrial area and then an unpretentious mix of commercial and residential, all pretty sleepy on an early Sunday afternoon. In the plush Country Club District, broad, winding boulevards followed the contours of the terrain, interrupted by public areas overseen by sculptures and fountains; a classy retail plaza ran to Spanish-style stucco and cream-color brick. The homes themselves were near mansions—not just "near," really—with impeccably landscaped, evergreen-garnished yards that in warmer weather were likely trimmed about as often as their owners saw their barbers.
"We in Kansas now, Mr. Heller."
We’d only been traveling fifteen minutes. "Over the state line already?"
"Yessir. This is Mission Hills. Lots of rich folks. You a golfer, sir?"
"I am." I disliked the sport, but sometimes it was the best way to keep clients happy.
"Well, they’s three golf courses to choose from. They keep ’em open till the first snow."
Autumn had turned the plentiful trees into a riot of color, orange, yellow, red, green, even purple, that last desperate burst of life before winter delivered death. But the grass was still green, brown barely intruding, with a scattering of those vivid colors making a patchwork quilt of lawns. Fathers were tossing footballs to sons while littler kids leapt into heaping piles of leaves with a fearlessness they’d yet to outgrow, their mothers leaning on rakes and looking on in worried surrender.
The cab was about to turn onto Verona Road from West 63rd when a figure in a fedora and raincoat ambled out from around the corner and planted himself before us with his arms outstretched. The cabbie hadn’t been traveling fast in this residential area, but it was startling enough to make him hit the brakes with a squeal.
Tall, his long, narrow oval face home to a prominent nose and jutting chin, eyebrows heavy on a high forehead, the interloper came over to the window the cabbie was rolling down and leaned in like an officious carhop.
"Local traffic only," he said, polite but with an edge.
I leaned up and said to the cabbie, "I’ll handle this."
I got out and said, "Nathan Heller. They’re expecting me at the Greenlease home."
"Special Agent Wesley Grapp," he said, stepping away from the cab, holding up ID with his left hand and offering his right with the slightest of smiles. His grip was firm but not showy. "You’re on our list."
I gave him about half a grin. "I’ve been on the FBI’s list a long time."
That got a chuckle out of him. "Yes, I’ve seen the file. It’s thicker than Forever Amber and about as juicy. What did you do to get on the Chief’s bad side? It’s not included."
The Chief, of course, was J. Edgar Hoover.
"Oh," I said casually, "a long time ago I told him to go fuck himself."
This chuckle came from somewhere deep. "That’ll do it. Call me Wes."
"And I’m Nate. So you’ve set up a checkpoint."
"We have. We’ll take you from here."
My overnight bag was in the trunk and the cabbie got it out for me. I gave him a sawbuck and made a friend for life.
Grapp walked me around the corner to his ride, a dark blue Ford Crestliner. I tossed the bag in front where a younger agent in suit and fedora sat behind the wheel—slender in horn-rimmed glasses—and Grapp and I got in back.
I said, "I guess you know Bob Greenlease called me in personally. You have no objection?"
"None. I’m all for it, actually."
That surprised me; the FBI didn’t usually welcome private detectives to the party. "Why’s that?"
"We’ve been pretty well frozen out of this so far. Helping as much as we’re allowed. Mr. Greenlease has kept us pretty much at arm’s length. The guy’s got a lot of clout. He’s working strictly through the K.C. chief of police."
Greenlease, a major stockholder in General Motors, was one of the wealthiest men in the Midwest. A self-made man from farming stock, he’d started out around the turn of the century making handmade cars and running a repair garage, then landed a franchise to sell Cadillacs; now he was the largest distributor of Caddies in the Southwest. His founding dealership, the Greenlease Motor Car Company, was where I first met him in 1937, when I was brought in to deal with auto parts pilfering by employees. And since just after the war, the A-1 had arranged security for the Annual Chicago Automobile Show, of which Greenlease was always a big part.
"Of course FBI policy in kidnapping cases," Grapp was saying, "means doing nothing that might jeopardize the victim’s safe return. And Mr. Greenlease insists on no surveillance of any ransom drop...or at least he has so far."
"Well, Mr. Heller...Nate...he’s called you in. Might mean a change of tactics."
"Yeah, but it’s taken almost a week." I’d half expected a call; the case had made the papers and even CBS-TV by way of Edward R. Murrow’s fifteen-minute national evening news. But that had amounted to little more than descriptions of the boy and the fake aunt. And expressions of ongoing sympathy for the parents.
"We don’t have a man on the inside," Grapp said. "So your cooperation could prove key."
"What have you been able to do?"
He offered me a smoke and I declined. He lit up and said, "With Kansas and Missouri butting up against each other, chances are good this thing has crossed state lines, which’ll give us jurisdiction. Already we’ve been able to intercept Greenlease’s mail at the K.C. Post Office and record incoming phone calls."
"So there’s been contact. Were you able to trace the calls?"
He sighed smoke. "We probably could have, and possibly closed in on the people responsible, but the family’s wish was that we do nothing that might hinder the boy’s return."
I frowned, shook my hand. "That’s crazy."
"I agree. Perhaps you can reason with Mr. Greenlease. After all, he’s taken a big step, bringing you in...considering your reputation."
"Somehow I don’t think you mean to flatter me."
A thick eyebrow went up. "Nate. Mr. Heller. You’re well-known for your underworld connections. And you’ve been in a number of well-publicized situations where you have, let’s say, taken matters effectively into hand."
"Gee whiz, thanks. But let me remind you, Wes, Special Agent Grapp, that J. Edgar Hoover assures us that there is no such thing as organized crime."
The young agent at the wheel frowned at me in the rearview mirror, but Grapp only smiled a little.
He gestured with the cigarette-in-hand. "Nate, let’s just say anything you can do to help this situation would be appreciated. Whoever did this goddamn thing must be aware that, even if state lines haven’t been crossed, the kidnapping law in Missouri means a death sentence."
"Understood. Since there’s effectively been a press blackout, what can you tell me? What don’t I know?"
The FBI man’s laugh was raspy and wry. "You have been spared experiencing one of the most sadistic, heartless series of letters and messages and phone calls any of us has ever seen. Six ransom notes, over a dozen phone calls. One wild goose chase after another." His eyes, a dark brown and almost black, narrowed. "We do know they have the boy, or at least had him—a medal he’d worn to school that day was sent along with the second note."
"When you say ‘they’...?"
"It’s at least two people. The woman who picked the boy up at school, and a man who’s been making the phone calls. He insists Bobby’s still alive. Talks about him being a handful and mentions a pet the child misses, how homesick he is. But, uh...they aren’t the smartest pair, these two."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, they were lucky they snagged the kid at all. The nun who answered the door was new, very young, an import from France who spoke little English, and if the mother superior—away on an errand—had been there to go to the door that morning? That damn woman would never have pulled off her impersonation."
"Think so, huh?"
He nodded curtly. "When the nun offered to show her the way to the chapel, to pray for her sick sibling? The dumbo dame said, ‘No thanks, I’m not a Catholic.’ Any other nun in that facility would’ve known that Mrs. Greenlease was a Catholic, meaning her sister would be, too!"
I let some air out. "That makes the woman a dope. But maybe the guy’s got more on the ball."
"You think so, Heller? His first ransom note? He got the address wrong."
They drove me down Verona Road, past a trio of cars with PRESS cards in the rear windows; a TV camera truck was pulled over there, too. A female reporter was using a phone in a box strapped to a tree, a little stool next to it for her purse and whatnot. United Press International had installed the phone, Grapp said.
The press had a good view of the house from there. Of course, "house" didn’t cover it. An imposing two-story multi-gabled structure with slate roofs and a cream-and-brown fieldstone facade awaited us when we pulled in the half-circle drive; it was almost a castle and not quite a church, and wide enough to be a hotel.
The FBI dropped me off and I toted my overnight bag to the gabled entrance. I must have been watched from a window, because the door opened after I’d barely rung the bell. In his mid-thirties, my host was of average height and weight with a squared-off head and a rounded jaw, his forehead so high it was like his features had slipped down too far on his oval face. His hair was dark and short, his eyes dark and bloodshot, his dark suit and tie unusual for a Sunday afternoon, unless an evening church service was in the mix. Yet somehow he still seemed disheveled.
"You must be Mr. Heller," he said, and stepped aside and gestured me in. He took my coat, hat and bag and set them on a chair by a mirror.
Then I was in a world of big rooms with dark woodwork, pale plaster walls, dark wood floors, tall leaded-glass windows; along the left wall, a stairway rose with a carved lion for a newel post. The interior seemed oddly at war with itself—everything Prairie-style and spare but for carved touches, as if the house couldn’t decide if it was a mission or a manor.
Few lights were on. This was a somber place—not necessarily always so, but right now the inhabitants could not quite acknowledge light, which even the tall windows seemed reluctant to admit.
He was about to lead me deeper into the house when he froze, remembering himself, and turned and said, with a stiff nod, "Paul Greenlease."
This was the adopted son of Bob Greenlease’s first marriage; Greenlease’s second wife, Virginia, had presented her husband with two late-in-life children, a daughter whose name I didn’t recall and of course the missing Bobby.
"I’ve been serving as the family’s spokesman," Paul said, offering a listless handshake. "Dad has taken this awfully hard."
We were standing in an entryway larger than most living rooms.
"I’m sure," I said. "How’s your mother doing?"
"It kind of varies, day to day. She’s been sedated a lot, frankly. Sometimes things seem to be looking up, then..."
"Then they’re down. I understand these creatures have you folks jumping through hoops—one message, one call, one snipe hunt after another."
He nodded, swallowed. "They’ve left us notes under crayon-marked rocks. They’ve taped letters underneath mailboxes. One note sent us to another note with instructions too confusing to follow."
"Sounds like you’re dealing with dolts."
He had an ashen look. "They want a lot of money. That’s not a problem, understand, but it took a while to get together."
He paused, not sure he should share this, then did: "Six hundred thousand. Dollars."
"Good God. That must be a record."
"I wouldn’t know. Is that a lot for this kind of thing?"
Lindbergh had been asked for $50,000. Of course that was a while ago. Inflation had hit every business.
"The very first letter specified federal reserve notes," Paul said, "in tens and twenties. Mr. Eisenhower at Commerce Trust is helping. He’s the president’s brother."
"Of the bank?"
"No, of America. You know—Ike?"
"Yeah." I didn’t mention I hadn’t voted for him. "And Ike’s brother got the money together?"
"Yes. And we tried to deliver it but it was raining and these letters have been kind of illiterate and...well, we left the money but the kidnapper called us later and said he couldn’t find it."
"We went back and picked the money up," Paul said, escorting me down a hallway. "We tried another time, but.... You should really talk to my father."
We stopped at a doorless archway. Very softly, he said, "Sue’s become a sort of appendage to Dad. She’s eleven. They’re sort of...helping each other through this."
"But it might hamper what gets said. Just so you know."
We moved through the archway into a big living room. Again, the room was fighting itself, stark Arts and Crafts furnishings, walls of square-panel mahogany, but a ceiling of ornate plaster work with a chandelier; a grand piano lurked in one corner, the fireplace going, dispensing warmth out of a coldly elaborate decorative mantel over which hung a gilt-framed painting, a family portrait of Robert Greenlease and his wife Virginia with a much younger Paul at his side and a toddler Sue by her mother’s. Bobby Greenlease, not yet born, was already absent.
A dark leather-cushioned Stickley sofa faced the fire and the back of Robert Greenlease’s head and his broad shoulders—he was in a blue satin dressing gown—were to me.
"Dad," Paul said quietly from where we stood just inside the room, "Mr. Heller from Chicago is here."
Greenlease’s hand raised slowly, like a slow child risking an answer in class, and he gently motioned me forward. He did not turn.
Paul nodded to me and disappeared and I went around to face Greenlease, who wore a white shirt and tie under the dressing gown, its lapels so dark blue they were almost black. His eleven-year-old daughter, blonde and cute in a plaid jumper, was curled up sleeping next to him on a brown leather sofa cushion, her head on his knee; his hand was on her shoulder.
In his early seventies, Bob Greenlease was a big man with a rectangular head and white hair, wispy on top. His eyes were wide-set and light blue behind browline glasses, nose hawkish, mouth a thin line, a face that could have been severe but wasn’t, because he so frequently smiled.
Of course he wasn’t smiling now.
Seated or not, he had an off-balance look, as if he’d just realized he stood at the edge of a cliff.
He whispered, "Thank you for coming, Nate. We’ll keep our voices down. Don’t want to disturb the girl."
He extended his left hand—his right remaining on his daughter’s shoulder—and we awkwardly but warmly shook.
I drew up a wood-and-leather-cushion chair, careful not to let it screech on the hardwood floor. "I’m so sorry about this terrible thing," I said, sotto voce.
"Your son is well? Sam, isn’t it?"
"Yes. With his mother in California. He’s six. Like your boy."
The tight mouth flinched. "Wish I’d called you in sooner. Should have been smart enough to take advantage of your prior experience with Lindbergh and all."
I knew what he meant. But I wondered how it made me an expert, considering how that had come out.
I said, "You don’t have to fill me in. I spoke to Agent Grapp and your son and heard all about this damn nonsense you’ve had to endure."
He nodded, just barely. "We seem to finally be on the verge of arranging the ransom drop. It’s been like something out of the Marx Brothers. But we’re to get a phone call at eight p.m. with the instructions."
The fire snapped at us and was almost too warm as it cast an orange glow.
"What do you want me to do, Bob?"
"Join the team. Two old friends of mine, valued business associates, have been helping out on this thing—Will Letterman, who runs my Tulsa dealership, and from my K.C. operation here, Stew O’Neill. You’ll meet them. Fine fellas."
"I’m sure they are. But you’re obviously dealing with dangerous, unscrupulous criminals. You need someone who can handle that breed."
His smile was barely discernible. "Which is why I wish I’d called you sooner. Are you too old and successful, Nate, to still carry that Browning semiautomatic pistol?"
I nodded toward the outer area. "It’s in my bag. Holster, too."
"Good. Afraid we don’t have room for you here, between the help and my support crew. I’ve had arrangements made for you at the Hotel President, just fifteen minutes away. I’ve got a new Cadillac waiting for your use, here in the garage—Paul has keys for you. Go get settled at the hotel and be back at seven-thirty. I’ll introduce you to Will and Stew."
"Fine." I got to my feet. "How are you holding up?"
"A lot of support here. Good people. My son and Will have been handling the press. My daughter sticks right by me, and my wife...well, Virginia has occasional rough moments, but she’s smart and strong. She took the call that came in today, herself, and let this ‘M’...that’s what he calls himself...have it."
"Yes. Told the bastard there’d been enough runaround. But afterward..." He swallowed thickly and the blue eyes behind the glasses were glittering. "...she rather...came apart. You see, she had specific questions that M couldn’t, or anyway didn’t, answer. Name of our driver on the latest European trip...what Bobby was building with his monkey blocks in his room. The caller skated over those, just said what a handful Bobby was being. I think for the first time, Virginia...well. You know."
I did know. She had realized how possible it was that her boy might already be dead.
The little girl stirred. She looked up at me with big eyes, as blue as her father’s, and grabbed his arm, startled, afraid. "Is he one of them, Daddy?"
"No, darling. This is Mr. Heller. He’s on our side."
Copyright © 2022 by Max Allan Collins