Read The War Against Miss Winter Online

Authors: Kathryn Miller Haines

Tags: #actresses, #Actresses - New York (State) - New York, #World War; 1939-1945 - New York (State) - New York, #Winter; Rosie (Fictitious Character), #Mystery & Detective, #Winter; Rosie (Fictitous Character), #Historical Fiction, #World War; 1939-1945, #New York (N.Y.), #Fiction, #New York, #Mystery Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Historical, #War & Military, #New York (State), #General

The War Against Miss Winter

BOOK: The War Against Miss Winter
6.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

For my mother, who always told me I could do anything,
my father, who gave me the resources to make
it possible, and especially for Garrett, who
made sure I never gave up.

1 Death and the Fool


On New Year’s Eve I went to the final casting call of 1942, the last opportunity I’d have to say I was in something that year that didn’t involve wearing a mask, a fur suit, or hawking kitchen products at the Lions Convention. I was trying out for a new musical called
You Bet Your Life,
which, thankfully, had nothing to do with the Germans. Unfortunately, judging from the score, it also had very little acquaintance with the Western scale. The audition was a standard cattle call in a room large enough to serve as a field hospital. Hundreds of women with 8 x 10s in hand lined the walls while two men—one big, one small—roamed in a parallel line judging our attributes. I made it through “too old,” “too short,” and “too fat,” before one of the proctors stopped before me.

“Name?” he asked.

“Rosie Winter.”

His pencil scratched across his clipboard. “You sing?”

“Like a bird.”


“Better than Pavlova.”

He took a gander at gams that had so little muscle it was a wonder I could climb stairs. “What was the last thing you were in?”

“The backseat of a Willys-Knight.”

I was dismissed at “too much personality.”

I was used to rejection, but my dismissal from
You Bet Your Life
didn’t just signify another lost part in another bad show; it meant I’d officially hit rock bottom. I hadn’t been cast in anything in six months. Not only
was it time to consider another career, I was going to be kicked out of my boardinghouse, an establishment that only offered low cost rooms to
actresses. If that wasn’t enough to put the sour on my puss, the love of my life had shipped out the month before after deciding the navy had more to offer him than I did.

On the bright side, I had a day job. I worked at McCain & Son, a small detective agency located at Fifth and East Thirty-eighth, a spit from Broadway. I’d found the job courtesy of the Ladies Employment Guild (motto: Girls, get a LEG up on the workforce). When I started, there were only two employees, Jim McCain, owner and operator (and, I assumed, the “& Son” of the title) and his secretary, a well-endowed, well-preserved middle-aged doll I eventually learned was named Agnes, but was usually referred to as honey, baby, or cupcake. As much joy as Agnes brought into Jim’s life, at some point he figured out that he couldn’t function in an office where the only alphabetical thing was the soup. That’s why he hired me.

While Agnes did whatever it was Agnes did, I answered phones, scheduled appointments, filed, and fantasized. I’d grown up reading the pulps, so working for a private investigator was a dream for me. I imagined I was the lithe and lovely sidekick to a dick whose piercing gaze could immediately discern truth from trouble. Together, we’d break into dark warehouses, guarded mansions, and underground lairs, hunting down evil-doers with names like Captain Zero, the Bleeder, and the Domino Lady. Alas,
Dime Detective
got it all wrong. As far as I could tell,
was a synonym for
and both were dull work. Jim waited in his office for clients to call. Then he waited for cheating husbands to leave their chippies’ houses. Then he waited for his film to develop as proof of the affair. There was nothing glamorous about it.

At least, I think that was the case. There was another side to Jim’s business, a side we couldn’t see. Through the front door came the cuckolded men and betrayed women with their desperate rheumy eyes, but there was a back entrance too, where clients demanding anonymity entered Jim’s office by climbing up the fire escape and through a window. Agnes and I never saw these people, but we could hear the low drone of
their voices as they recounted misdoings that never ended up in the notes Jim gave me to type. I gave these mysterious strangers names like the Mumbler and the Lisper and grew capable of identifying who was who based on only a whispered sibilant
. As Agnes and I passed our time in the reception area, I spun tales about what was happening in the inner office. Money laundering, numbers running, strike breaking—I attributed all of it to those nameless, faceless individuals who’d been reduced to vocal tics. Agnes silently listened to my musings, a wry smile hinting that she was far more aware of the truth than she’d ever let on.

I liked Agnes. I liked the job. I liked Jim. He was loud and boisterous and so disorganized he could lose things he never knew he had. I didn’t know him very well, but I trusted him in some implicit way. He was one of the few bright spots remaining in a world that was rapidly approaching complete darkness.


I walked to McCain & Son and rewarded my failed audition efforts with a consolation cup of joe from Frankie’s Diner. As I entered our suite, I stumbled over a mountain of mail that had been pushed through the door slot. Even though Agnes and I had closed the office on Christmas Eve, the reception area had a nasty stench that hinted that Jim had been working in our absence and had been kind enough to leave food to rot over the holidays. As the radiator groaned its welcome, I gathered up the mail, clicked on the lamps, and dumped my purse on one of the reception chairs. Churchill, our office stray, emerged from the potted dieffenbachia and gave me an irritated yowl.

“Daddy not feed you?” I asked. Churchill didn’t answer, but then one couldn’t expect the devil’s minion to bother with such formalities. I retrieved a tin of cat food from a cabinet, dumped it into his bowl, and crushed the can for the local scrap drive. With nary a thank-you, Churchill raced to the dish and buried his face in the unappetizing mash.

I clicked on the Bakelite for company and turned the dial to WJZ,
where they were counting down the last hours of 1942 with that year’s chart toppers. As Kay Kyser crooned “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” I sat at my desk and sorted the mail into letters, bills, and anything else. The anything else included several days’ worth of newspapers and a pamphlet some kind soul had thought it important enough to slip through the slot. Beneath a crude caricature of FDR the cover announced
in big, bold type. Bund propaganda. Great. I tossed it into the trash bin and glanced at that day’s
. The new list of navy casualties was out, conveniently divided by state. For the local boys the
went one step further, including the names of their wives, parents, and mailing addresses. I scanned the dead and wounded, grateful that the name I looked for came early in the alphabet. He wasn’t listed. Jack was all right.

Bing Crosby started singing “Be Careful It’s My Heart.” I turned off the radio.

I set the paper aside and uncovered a gold-trimmed, leather-bound ledger. The IRS had recently notified Jim that businesses were expected to maintain records and the issue was laid at my feet like a disemboweled mouse I was supposed to dispose of despite my delicate stomach. I opened the book and scanned figure after figure that Jim had identified as “miscellaneous” costs. Sunlight escaped his office and illuminated a column of debits. Jim never opened his door beyond what it took for him to exit the room, and here it was not only unlocked but ajar.

“Hello?” I called out. Churchill stopped eating and the two of us froze, waiting for a response. When none came, I walked to the doorway and again listened for signs of activity. Churchill abandoned his meal and joined me at the threshold. “Hello?” We inched into the room. While the outer office had been cozy, Jim’s joint was cold enough to hang meat. Bookshelves lined one wall but instead of holding books they were filled with files that never found their way into my hands. A massive oak desk was anchored near a window and covered by enough papers to obliterate its surface. A phone devoid of the cord that joined receiver to base teetered atop a stack of outdated directories. An empty bottle of scotch and two cheap crystal tumblers huddled on the blotter. There were three
chairs: one for the man himself and two—unmatching—for whomever he was speaking with. The walls were bare except for a pair of certificates: one from the police academy and another from City College.

The stench I’d caught a whiff of in the reception area mingled with Jim’s cigar smoke and Churchill’s piss until it brewed a scent I swore I could taste. I pulled up the black-out blinds, hoping to air out the room, and discovered that the windows were already open. I checked the bin for the source of the stink. Empty. I opened up his desk. The only unusual things in there were a .38 and an unopened bottle of gin.

Churchill paced before the desk, exuding all the warmth of a rolling pin. We usually kept to our turfs, and his desire to accompany me could be read only as feline affront.

“Scram,” I told him. I pointed a finger toward the reception area and he responded by slinking over to the closet door and rubbing his rump against it. A tortured sound escaped the lower reaches of his belly. Just when I was convinced I’d imagined it, the sound repeated, twice as loud. Churchill’s paw—claws extended—rose into the air and made contact with the wood.

“Enough, Churchill. Out. Shoo.” I hit my hand against the desk, hoping to startle him, but he never paused in his activity or let his eyes leave mine. “Is there something in the closet? Is that what you’re trying to say?” I stepped toward him as he continued his work. When I was close enough to touch wood, he dashed out of sight. I turned the knob and looked inside.

Jim swung from a phone cord that had been bound around his hands and neck before being looped over the clothes rack. His skin was a deep bluish gray and hung from his bones as if the adhesive that had once joined them had begun to fail.

I backed away until I hit the corner of the desk. I’d been to plenty of funerals, seen loads of stiffs, but they were cleaned up, made up, ventriloquist’s dummies—not this statue still frozen in a moment of violence. I wanted to scream, but the impulse was swept away by a desire to retch. That too disappeared and all I wanted was to never lay eyes on that thing in the closet again. I was scared, not that whoever had done
this still lurked in the office but that Jim would pull free of his noose, step out of the closet, and announce that as a newly inducted creature of the night, he was required to eat my brains.

But this wasn’t the one good story in that month’s
Tales of Terror
. This was a man I liked and my being afraid wasn’t going to release Jim from his predicament and give him the rest he deserved.


The coppers showed up twenty minutes later. By then I’d drained the gin, cried myself dry, and paced a permanent trail in the hardwood floor. Instead of giving me the third, a bull in a too small uniform asked me for my name then told me to take it on the heel and toe. I couldn’t bring myself to leave though. I leaned against the doorjamb that separated my office from Jim’s and watched through a haze of cigarette smoke as my former boss was examined, photographed, and cut free from his noose.

The leader of the effort was a sour-faced lieutenant named Schmidt who sat in Jim’s chair and scratched notes on a pad. From his uninterested look you would’ve thought he was at the opera fighting to stay awake.

I mopped my face and willed the gin to clear my head. “Anything else I can do?”

“Naw,” he said. “I think we got it all, sweetheart.”

I nodded but still found myself unwilling to scram. “What do you think?”

Schmidt piled his feet atop Jim’s desk, smudging the files with imprints of his heels. “About what?”

“The war,” I snapped. My sarcasm was lost on him. “The body. What do you think about the body?”

He shrugged as though to say,
If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all

Flashbulbs went off in the empty closet, momentarily blinding me. I left my post in the doorway and approached the desk. “How long do you think he’s been dead?”

He kept his eyes on the notepad. What I’d assumed were notes about
the case was actually a grocery list. “The coroner will have to call it, but based on the stink and the bloat I’m guessing the stiff’s been here since Christmas.”

I drummed my nails on the desktop until he looked up at me. “Is there any sign of who might’ve done this?”

He flipped the notepad closed and sighed. “It’s pretty cut and dried, doll. We see this sort of thing all the time. Lots of people get depressed this time of year, more so since the war.”

“Yeah? And do they usually tie their hands first?”

He shifted his feet until the stains on the papers grew into half-moons.

“Lieutenant, were you raised in a barn?” A question entered his eyes and he shook his head. “Then get your feet off my files. They’re not a goddamn doormat.”

He slid his legs off the desk—causing further disorder—and slammed his size tens into the ground. “You got a mouth on you.”

“How else am I going to eat?” I put my hands on the desk and bent down to his level. “Look, I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but Jim McCain isn’t some holiday suicide. He was bumped off, plain and simple.”

His face lit up with his best baby-took-her-first-steps smile. “What’s your name, doll?”

“It’s not doll, that’s for sure.”

“Fair enough, sweetheart. Are you by any chance a police officer or maybe a detective?”

I looked for a lie to show him up and couldn’t find one. “You know the answer to that.”

He flipped through his pad until he located the statement I’d given to the bull. “No,
Miss Winter
, you’re an actress, and I’m sure a damn good one at that. Can’t be easy coming in here and finding the man you worked for doing the dance. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you might be a little emotional, your thinking unclear.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered me one. I declined with a shake of my head. “You’re not thinking like a detective, so
maybe you don’t see what I see. Here’s how it is: your man Jim isn’t doing so well financially. We’ve found a few letters from the IRS that make it look like he was in Dutch.” He shuffled through his notes and flashed the Bund pamphlet at me. “Seems like he was making new friends too.”

BOOK: The War Against Miss Winter
6.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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