Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 23

Laura MacLeod Ernst

Sergeant Vic Olafson had a slightly bad taste in his mouth at the conclusion of the Sykes affair. He felt that there hadn't been enough gratitude. Howie, in fact, had never even thanked him. Moreover, in court the next day, he had caught what he was sure was a disapproving look from Sturgis Caldwell. He still liked both Howie and Sturgis, but who, he wondered, did they think he was trying to protect? It was, he supposed, just another case of intellectuals with weak stomachs. He would forgive, but, the next time Howie got in trouble, it would be different.

The next call for help came more quickly than even Olafson might have imagined. It was Howie's friend, Dr. Winton, who was in trouble. There had been an old sexual scandal in New York, and he was being blackmailed. As Howie explained it, Olafson sat back in the wooden chair imagining that he was the DA and Howie someone who had come in with a complaint. At the end of Howie's account, Olafson responded,

"It seems pretty clear-cut to me. When the girl, or her boy friend, says something to Winton that clearly constitutes blackmail, we arrest and prosecute. It'd be nice if we could tap his phone and get a recording we could use in court."

Howie, obviously uncomfortable, went on to explain how nervous Winton was, and how easily he could be ruined. At the end, he said,

"It's not just because he's my friend, Vic. We'd try to protect any respectable citizen in these circumstances."

Olafson, enjoying himself immensely, kept a perfectly straight face as he remarked casually,

"I guess you want me to act independently. Riley's still around. I could probably manage to shoot, at least the guy, the way I did Sykes. Maybe the girl too."

He let Howie almost swallow his teeth and turn green before he smiled to show him it was a joke.

As Vic stepped out of the courthouse into the bright morning air and headed for the Bollinger House, he mentally kicked himself. Here he was, hardly days after his resolve, fishing the young gentlemen out of trouble. He supposed that he must be soft-hearted, soft-headed most likely.

There was one thing to be thankful for. Police work in Bollinger was so much easier than in Chicago. Instead of thousands of hotels to check, he need only drop in on his friend Charley, the desk clerk at the Bollinger House. As soon as he stepped into the empty lobby, he was greeted loudly from behind the desk.

"Hi Sergeant. Are we harboring any criminals here today?"

Vic answered,

"Be patient, you will be soon."

There weren't many reservations for that night, and Charley knew all of them, except for one couple named Ernst.

"A woman called a few days ago. She sounded young."

Vic was pleased. If they had made a reservation as a married couple, they would surely register as one. That gave him the opening he needed, and also promised some recreation. He then made rather detailed arrangements with Charley for the evening.

A little later, Vic was sitting with Howie and Dr. Winton in Howie's office. He asked Winton,

"Doc, did she say anything at all that might give you the impression that she's married to this guy who's coming with her?"

"No, she certainly didn't. It didn't sound like it at all."

"Ok. Chances are she'll call you at your office some time this afternoon. Have your nurse take all the calls. If it's somebody she doesn't know, she'll take the name and number of the caller so you can call back. This girl, Laura MacLeod, is going to be registered as a Mrs. Ernst at the Bollinger House, so she'll probably leave the name of Laura Ernst or Laura MacLeod Ernst."

Winton was very serious, and Vic was sure he would follow instructions to the letter. He then continued,

"Before you call back, call me. I'll give you further instructions, probably to arrange a meeting at the Courthouse Cafe."

Leaving word where he could be reached, Vic went across the street. The Courthouse Cafe had a lunch counter on one side and booths on the other, with tables in between. At the very back, where it narrowed, there were two little-used booths, perpendicular to the others. Vic exchanged greetings with the counterman and went to the back of the restaurant. He asked,

"Are there any electric outlets back here, Joe?"

The counterman came back and showed him one at floor level, partly behind one of the benches. Vic nodded with satisfaction and said,

"Can you do me a favor, Joe? After the lunch rush, reserve these two booths for me."

Vic wasn't back more than an hour when Charley called from the Bollinger House. The Ernst couple had arrived. They were now having lunch. Charley's description of Mrs. Ernst checked as well as you could expect with Doc Winton's description of Laura MacLeod, except that Mrs. Ernst was blonde.

"Is she really, Charley? Did you get a look at the roots."

"I'm not an expert on that, Vic. It might be dyed, but it's not one of those amateurish jobs you can pick out right away."

No doubt she had gone to the beauty shop right before coming.

"Ok, Charley, thanks. We'll give you honorable mention in the dispatches."

A nice thing about Bollinger was that everyone wanted to help the police. Vic again thought back to Chicago and laughed grimly to himself.

It was another hour before the call came from Doc Winton. As Vic expected, the name given was Laura MacLeod Ernst. He then gave his instructions.

"Arrange to meet her at the Courthouse Cafe at two thirty, but I'll meet you there at two."

In Bollinger almost everyone ate at noon, and, at two, Vic was the only customer. Winton arrived soon afterward, and Vic lead him to the back booths. Vic there placed his tape recorder on the seat of one of the booths and plugged it in. He then wedged the microphone between the wall and the partition to the next booth. Winton was instructed to sit on the near side of the other booth and speak softly. After he had done so, Vic played back what he had said and pronounced himself satisfied. He concluded,

"You should be able to occupy this whole side of the booth yourself. When they come, lean back into the corner there a bit, as if that's the only way you can fit. That'll force them to talk louder, and right at the mike."

When Vic took up his position in the next booth, his body obscured the tape recorder, but he threw his coat over it anyway. He didn't think that he looked much like a cop, but the kind of sleazeball Laura would probably bring would be able to recognize a policeman in a Santa Claus outfit. By experimenting with his newspaper, and taking advantage of the little ornamental flanges at the entrances of the booths, he was able to completely obscure his face. At the same time, he could watch anyone who entered in the mirror behind the counter. He was aware of the old adage that the person you watch in the mirror can also see you, but it was unlikely that Laura and her friend, looking for Winton, would look in the mirror at all.

Just to make sure that they didn't look too conspicuous at the back, Vic called Howie and had him send over several of the secretaries to occupy one of the tables. They arrived quickly, and started up a conversation with the counterman. Vic again took up his position in the booth next to Winton and waited.

Laura turned out to be almost pretty, a well-dressed fresh looking girl in her twenties. She didn't look like a blackmailer, still less like the female criminals Vic was used to. His rule of thumb was that the only decent ones were the murderesses. Not all of those were decent, but there were a lot of ordinary upstanding women who killed their husbands or boy friends, often justifiably. Laura could have been a murderess, but it was hard to figure her for anything else.

The guy with her was another story. He fitted right in. Vic's first thought was that he wrote bad checks. There was an oddity about bad check artists that he was used to, but which continued to amaze him. Most of them looked so dishonest that you wondered how they ever got anyone to take their checks. He himself had had out-of-town merchants and hotel keepers refuse his checks, even with his badge and police identity card. But those same people sometimes took checks from guys like this. Little and scrawny, with jail written all over his pasty face, he had an insolent look that made you want to twist his arms off.

When they sat down with Winton in the next booth, Vic started his machine. In the next half hour, he could overhear a good deal himself. The girl was uncomfortable. She kept talking about a loan, and saying she wanted to pay it back. Vic guessed that she was half sincere and half fooling herself. If she had been alone, she would have ended up going to bed with Winton and getting twenty bucks or so as a gift. It was the slimeball who was putting on all the pressure. He addressed Winton as "doc" and pretended to be concerned about his welfare and what could happen to him. In the end, he put it straight.

"If you can't come across with five grand, doc, we'll just have to tell the medical people here all about that little go round you had with Laura when she was helpless in her hospital bed."

Vic looked at the machine, and saw that the recording needle was bouncing along at a good level. There was hardly any need to get anything else. However, not wanting to be seen, he waited until the Ernsts left. Winton had done a good job of acting scared and promising to raise the money. Vic congratulated him and played back the relevant exchange softly. It came out perfectly. He said,

"We'll never use this in court, but I can use it to scare the shit out of that bastard.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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