Letters from a Dead Man by Susan Brassfield Cogan

San Francisco, 1935


Monahan wasn’t sure if a tugboat horn woke him or if it was the mist pricking his face like cold needles. He tried to sit up, but the pounding pain in his head made that a little too hard. He caught a glimpse of his surroundings–swashes of gray and brown. Flat gray sky, flat gray bay. A vacant lot somewhere on the east shore, he figured.


He drifted back up out of the abyss when a splatter of actual rain fell. Cold. He realized he was cold and people died of that. He whispered a prayer to nobody in particular, asking that he not be allowed to die in a vacant lot in San Francisco in the wintertime.


He heard footsteps. When Monahan opened his eyes, the most beautiful woman he had ever known was bending over him. She had big dark eyes you could get lost in. She wore her heavy hair long even though short hair was the fashion. Right now it was in a thick braid that fell over her shoulder. Lady Margaret, Countess of Chesterleigh. She didn’t belong in a vacant lot in the rain, crouching over a beat-up Irish cop, but she was a rare commodity anywhere.


“You’re alive.” She sounded surprised.


“So far,” he said and tried to sit up. She pushed him back down.


“Don’t move,” she said. “You have a concussion. Mr. Johnson will stay with you whilst I call for an ambulance.”


“I’m alright,” he said. “It’s going to take more than a tap on the head to get me out of the game.” He rubbed the sore place on his head and his hand came away with dark flakes of dried blood.


The ugliest man Monahan had ever known suddenly loomed over her. Mr. Johnson was nearly seven feet tall. He was a black man with half his face twisted and scared from some past incident that he refused to talk about. Monahan figured a cop probably wouldn’t want to know about it anyway. Johnson was her ladyship’s chauffeur.


“They’s a dead man over there.” Johnson pointed with his chin.


“Are you sure?” The countess jumped to her feet. She’d been a nurse in the war. That was fifteen years ago and she still had those reflexes. He knew she also still had the nightmares.


While she was gone, he managed to sit up. The pain in his head seemed to be receding, but the world still spun lazily around him. He was getting to his feet when Lady Margaret returned.


“It’s Bert Harmon,” she said. “I feared it would be he. He is dead. He has three bullet holes in his chest. Did you shoot him?” Monahan stood, swaying a little, and gave the question some thought. Remembering was hard.


“I don’t know,” he finally answered. He staggered over to the body. The countess was right, he was definitely dead.


“Memory loss is common for someone with a concussion,” she said. “If he is the one who knocked you unconscious, he did it elsewhere and dragged you here.”


“How the hell do you know that? And how the hell did you know it was this Bert guy?” Monahan was shivering with the cold and would be happy to knock somebody down for a cup of coffee.


“You are chilled,” she said. “Come, let’s get into the car.” She turned and headed for the big black Packard parked on the street. He had no choice but to stagger after her, his head still pounding. Johnson walked along beside him silent and as light on his feet as fog over the water. It started to rain again and Monahan realized he’d lost his hat somewhere.


Before long Monahan found himself wrapped in a picnic blanket extracted from the trunk and sipping single malt whiskey from Lady Margaret’s silver hip flask. He wanted a cigarette, but he put that off. He knew the countess didn’t like him to smoke in the car. He took another sip of the whiskey instead. His head still hurt but life was improving. He had Mr. Johnson drive them to a phone to call in the stiff. Then they went back to the vacant lot and waited for the meat wagon to arrive.


“You have sustained a scalp wound,” Lady Margaret said as if their earlier conversation had not been interrupted. “That would have bled copiously. When you stood I could see there was no blood on the ground beneath you. Therefore you were struck elsewhere and brought here.”


Monahan thought about that. “If the killer didn’t want me to witness the murder he could have just left me where I dropped. If I did witness the murder, the killer would have plugged me too. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.


“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “Neither does this.” She pulled out a small white envelope out of her handbag. “It arrived in this morning’s post. It instructs me to come here and collect you. It’s from Bert.”


“Bert? The dead man?”


“Yes, though I doubt he was dead when he wrote it.” She handed the note to him. “This is why I suspected Bert might be the dead man.”


Monahan took the note and read it. He found no extra information. “This means he knew hours in advance that I was going to end up lights out. That’s got to mean he did it. And if he did it, then somebody walked up afterward and shot him for it. That was nice of them.”


She grinned. How did she manage to look that beautiful this early in the morning? “Extraordinarily nice of them,” she said. “If a bit extreme.”


Monahan took another pull on the whiskey. “Maybe I shot him and knocked myself out as a punishment,” he said. She took the flask away from him and replaced the stopper. He didn’t protest, but took a flattened pack of Luckys out of his breast pocket. He fished out a cigarette that was still damp and a little crooked. He figured that wouldn’t spoil the flavor any. He rummaged in his pockets for his Zippo and couldn’t find it, though he did turn up a handful of newsprint in the pocket of his coat, which he tossed on the seat. He found his lighter in the breast pocket where the cigarettes had been.


A couple of black and whites finally showed up, sirens blasting. As Monahan gratefully pulled smoke into his lungs, he thought about the dead man who had sent a nice little note to her ladyship before getting capped in a vacant lot. Monahan knew he needed to know a lot more about Bert Harmon.

*   *     *


A few hours later Monahan was cleaned up, bandaged and fortified with coffee and aspirin. When he got to the Hall of Justice he got the report that Bert was shot with a nine millimeter and not Monahan’s .38.


Monahan did a little paperwork and then got Harmon’s address and number out of the phone book. Nobody answered when he tried the number. He was just putting the earpiece back on the candlestick when he heard a thread of silvery laughter. He’d know that laugh anywhere. Lady Margaret strolled into the squad room with a couple of drooling cops on either side, hanging on every word, both of them laughing and a little red in the face. Monahan stood.


“Break it up, boys,” he growled. “I don’t think she’s here to see you.”


Her ladyship smiled, “Thank you officers, you have been very kind.” The men shuffled and tugged their forelocks.


“I have some things to show you,” the Countess said when the men were out of earshot. She spread a sheet of crumpled newsprint on his desk. “Take a look at this.”


“Society Matron Arrested in Prostitution Dragnet” said the headline in big block type. Monahan read the first paragraph. “Moreen Harmon? Any relation?”


“Read further. She was his wife.”


He read further. “Holy Mackerel!” He looked up at her. She was perched on the edge of his desk. “Where did you get this?”


“From you. You left it on the seat of my car. My guess is Bert left it in your pocket.”


“Not a bad guess,” said Monahan. “But I can’t for the life of me see why.”


“Nor I,” she said.


“The officer in charge of the dragnet was Dean Fisk. He was one of those boyfriends of yours drooling on your shoes just now.” Monahan went to get him. Fisk was short and muscular and had an eye for the ladies. He liked working vice and Monahan had an idea why.


“Tell me what you know about Moreen Harmon,” Monahan said.


“Oh,” Fisk threw back his head and laughed a little too loud. “She was sure hot. Swore up and down she wasn’t a working girl. Said her husband told her to wait for him at that bar. Then we go and call her husband and he tells us they are separated and he hasn’t seen her in months. He refuses to bail her out, see? She went crazy when we told her that. I thought we were going to have to put her in cuffs.”


“Angry enough to shoot someone?” Lady Margaret asked.


“Sure, and then some. Why?”


“Somebody plugged her husband last night,” said Monahan.


Fisk shook his head. “She might a done it, but she didn’t need to.” He leaned toward the countess grinning big. “Guess who paid her bail?”


Monahan rolled his eyes. “We don’t wanna guess, Fisk. Suppose you just tell us.”


“Enrico Berelli, can you believe it? Gunner Berelli strolled in here plunked down a wad of cash and walked out with that society dame on his arm.”


“Thank you, Mr. Fisk,” said the countess. “You have been so kind and helpful.” She said it with a warmth and sparkle that made Fisk swell like a toad. He was practically preening. He did have enough wits left, though, to realize he was being dismissed. He took off after making a big deal about kissing the back of her hand and telling her what a lovely lady she was. Monahan sighed and endured it.


“That confirms several rumors I have unearthed this morning,” said the Countess when Fisk was gone.


“What rumors?”


“I knew Mr. Harmon lost most of his holdings in the crash of ‘29 and his financial position deteriorated in the years that followed. This morning I called Barbara Turner, one of the worst gossips on the peninsula. Among much other drivel she said Moreen left Bert six months ago and had taken up with a famous gangster. Is he really famous?”


“He’s not as famous as his boss. Diamond Morgan, heard of him?”


She raised her eyebrows. “Who hasn’t? A very dangerous man indeed.”


“Indeed,” Monhan echoed. “But Berelli is no slouch and that gives us a couple of suspects.”

* * *


Monahan spent the rest of the day getting to know Bert Harmon. The Countess was right, he’d been rich at one time, but he died owning just the building he lived in and most of the apartments stood empty most of the time. One thing struck Monahan as odd, though. Harmon had several valuable paintings that he’d managed to hang on to after he went bust. Then last week he sold one of them for about eight hundred dollars, way under the market value. A couple of phone calls revealed he’d never deposited the money.


The next morning the phone man was shouting for Monahan as he walked in the door. “Her ladyship is on the line,” he said.


Monahan took the call on the candlestick at his desk. “Good morning, Inspector,” she said cheerily. “How is your head this morning?”


“Fine, and yours?”


Her laugh warmed him. “My head is excellent, though a bit confused. I got another letter from Bert. All it says is to make sure I thoroughly read the morning newspaper.”


“The dead man sent you another letter?” he said.


“Yes. And I did as he asked. You should look at the top of page three of the Call.”


“I don’t have a newspaper handy. Just tell me about it.”


“Mr. Berelli was found this morning floating face down in the Bay. He had three bullet holes in the base of his skull.”


“Yikes!” said Monahan. “That’s news. I’d like say a dead man who can keep up a lively correspondence could also pull a trigger, but three holes in the skull is Diamond Morgan’s trademark.”


“You realize this means that both men associated with Moreen Harmon are now dead?”


“Unless she has a replacement in the wings, she is getting a little short on escorts.”


“I took the liberty of asking Mr. Johnson to watch Bert’s apartment last night,” she said.


“Did you, now!” Lady Margaret was always taking liberties with Monahan’s job. It never failed to irritate him.


“Yes. According to the gossipy Barbara Turner, Bert had several valuable paintings in his apartment. I was curious if the bereaved Mrs. Harmon would turn up to claim them.”


“Did she?”


“Yes, but in a very odd way. At about three in the morning two very large men pushed her out of a car onto the sidewalk. According to Mr. Johnson she was angry and not behaving in a lady-like manner.”


“She’s lucky to be alive,” Monahan observed. He told her about the sale of the painting.


“I would have paid him twice that,” the countess answered as if they were talking about a dozen eggs. “He must have needed an instant sale for some reason.”


“I think it’s time I went to see the Widow Harmon. I’ll let you know what I find out,” said Monahan.


“An excellent idea! I will meet you there in one hour’s time.” She hung up just as Monahan drew breath to order her to stay out of it.

*   *     *


When Monahan arrived at Harmon’s apartment house forty-five minutes later, Lady Margaret’s Packard was parked out front. Monahan pulled his old Ford up behind the Packard and got out.


“You need to stay out of this,” said Monahan growled when she climbed out of the back of the Packard. “I’m the detective and I know what I’m doing.” She smiled at him.


“Bert Harmon is sending his letters to me,” she said. “He wants me involved. Don’t you respect the last wishes of the dead?”


He had no real answer to that. He bit off the hot remark that jumped to his tongue and turned on his heel.


Harmon’s apartment was on the ground floor in the back. Lady Margaret was at Monahan’s elbow when he knocked.


It took a while for Moreen to answer the door. Monahan figured she might have still been asleep, but he thought it would be helpful to have her a little off balance.


Moreen was a bottle blonde. She’d slept in her clothes and her make up was smeared. She looked with bleary astonishment from Monahan to the countess. She’d had scotch for breakfast.


“Who the hell are the two of you?”


Monahan pulled back his lapel to expose the badge pinned to his vest. “Police,” he said. “I need to talk to you about the death of your husband.” Moreen looked pointedly at Lady Margaret.


“You’re Lady Chesterleigh, aren’t you?” said Moreen.


“Yes. We met at Mr. Picasso’s art opening three years ago. May we come in?”


“All right,” she said. “Come on in.” She stepped aside.


The apartment was neat almost to the point of fussy. Tidy little doilies were draped over the arms and backs of the chairs and on all of the end tables. A single wall was devoted to about a dozen paintings. They were hung like a strange jigsaw puzzle, their frames only and inch or so apart. There was a blank space near the ceiling where the missing painting must have hung.


Moreen dropped onto a couch. A knitted afghan lay wadded up at one end. That must have been where she slept. A small glass with a little amber liquid in the bottom and a lipstick stain on the rim sat on the coffee table. Monahan avoided the couch and took one of the chairs. The countess did likewise.


“So what do you want out of me?” Moreen said. “I did not shoot my husband. I only came back here to get what’s mine.” She gestured sketchily at the apartment.


“You had a reason to plug him,” said Monahan. He took the newspaper clipping about her prostitution arrest out of his pocket and tossed it on the coffee table. She looked at it and her eyes widened.


“That rat bastard,” she said. Monahan thought it was interesting that her diction was still tony, but her word choice had suffered from her association with Gunner Berelli. “He set me up. I would have killed him if I could, but somebody did it for me.” She pulled a cigarette out of a silver case on the coffee table and thumbed a matching lighter into flame.


“Gunner did it then. That’s mighty convenient, him being dead and all,” said Monahan.


“I didn’t kill Rico either. I loved him,” she took a drag on her cigarette. Monahan thought she sounded about as sincere as a circus barker.


“Where were you the night of the murder?” said Lady Margaret.


“I was at the Red Doll playing cards with Rico and a couple of friends.”


Lady Margaret smiled. “I am familiar with the Red Doll. The clientele is not entirely reliable.”


“It’s a gangster dive,” said Monahan. “It’s no alibi at all.”


Lady Margaret leaned forward in her chair, smiles gone. Monahan had seen that look before. He knew it was dangerous.


“I believe that you were present at the death of your husband, if you did not pull the trigger yourself,” she said.


“It’s not true and you can’t prove it,” Moreen said. Her tone was dangerous too.


“Mr. Franklin at the State Bank of California is a very good friend of mine,” said Lady Margaret. “Mr. Franklin also remained quite good friends with Bert, in spite of his poverty.”


“What of it?” asked Moreen. That was the same question on Monahan’s mind.


“Since you are a suspect in the death of your husband, Mr. Franklin agreed that Mr. Harmon’s assets should remain frozen until you are cleared of all suspicion.”


Moreen’s delicate complexion went pink and then all mottled. Monahan thought she looked sick.


“You. Bitch.” Moreen said it through stiff lips.


“Therefore, if you are innocent,” said Lady Margaret as if Moreen had said nothing, “It would be to your best interest to cooperate with Inspector Monahan to the fullest of your ability.”


Moreen thought that over. The ash fell from her forgotten cigarette and she brushed it absently from her skirt onto the carpet.


“Bert sent me a letter,” she said finally. “It had a hundred dollar bill in it. He told me some of his investments had paid off and he was rich again. He said he would pay me ten thousand dollars to divorce him.”


“And you agreed?” said Monahan.


“Surely you are joking. He had ruined my reputation. I told him I would not take less than thirty thousand. He said that would not be a problem. He told me to meet him at a certain address at midnight. He would bring the divorce papers and the money.


She stubbed out the cigarette and lit another one. “I knew something was wrong when we arrived at the address and it was a vacant lot. We almost drove away but we saw Bert standing out in the weeds.” She drew smoke into her lungs. “There were divorce papers but no money. He said he would mail a check when the divorce was final.”


She hesitated. Monahan had a feeling whatever was coming next might not be true. “I lost my temper. I told him no deal without the money. I told him I would get even with him for having me arrested. He laughed at me. He said the world now new what he had known all along. I jumped at him. I wanted to scratch his eyes out. Rico pulled me off of him and told me to go back to the car and wait for him there. I never did hear any shots. I think Bert was alive when we drove away.”


“Why was Gunner killed? Do you know?” Lady Margaret cut in.


“Diamond Morgan got a tip that Rico was stealing from them–skimming. It was a lie and we both knew it, but they found seven hundred dollars under the seat of his car.”


Monahan looked at Lady Margaret. “Seven hundred plus one hundred . . .”


“Makes eight hundred,” she finished for him and smiled. “Oh!” Lady Margaret laughed. He could see she got something.


Then, all at once, Monahan saw it too. He saw it all. He would never have figured it out if Bert hadn’t sent the letter to the countess about the death of Berelli. Bert as good as confessed that he rigged it.


“Good gravy in a boat,” Monahan said aloud. “The whole thing was a set up from start to finish.”


“I believe you are correct, Inspector,” said Lady Margaret.


Moreen looked from one to the other. “What are you two talking about?”


“Bert only had eight hundred dollars. He sold a painting to get it. He set you up. He put the money in Berelli car and mailed the tip-off letter. Then he lured you out to that vacant lot. He intended for you to kill him and go down for it. But he would need a witness and that’s why he had to have me there. Except that I–”


Moreen jumped to her feet. “You bastard! You lied to me! You knew all along I killed him! You were just playing me for a sucker!”


Monahan stared at her, stunned. He had started to say “except that I didn’t wake up in time,” but changed his mind as he got to his feet. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “Moreen Harmon, you are under arrest for the murder of your husband, Bert Harmon.”

*   *   *


Moreen didn’t think to wonder why Monahan didn’t arrest her the night she put three slugs into Bert. Monahan sweated most of the day until her confession was signed. Finally, though, she did sign and a matron led her off to the women’s floor of the San Francisco city jail.


The next day the story was splashed across all the papers. Every single article about it also mentioned the prostitution bust. Monahan smiled every time he read it. She must have humiliated Bert deeply. When she pulled that trigger, Bert died a happy man.


Late that afternoon, her ladyship invited him to have a drink with her. He suggested Cassidy’s Pub. The places she liked to go never had decent beer. When he arrived, old Cassidy was leaning over her booth pouring blarney in her ear making her laugh and her eyes dance. The old man was at least twice her age, Monahan thought, and she’s no spring chicken.


Monahan chased away the old man and ordered a glass of stout. Lady Margaret already had a glass of wine in front of her. Monahan didn’t even know Cassidy sold wine.


“I received another letter from Bert in the afternoon post,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell you about it over the telephone.” She pushed crisp white envelope across the table at him.


Monahan felt a hint of superstitious fear. “I wish I knew who was sending these,” he said.


Lady Margaret shrugged. “I think it’s Mr. Franklin, the banker, though when I pressed him, he denied it.”


Monahan opened the letter. “Now my spirit is at rest. Thank you for everything. Bert Hanlon.”

The End