Jack arrived at Baker’s Street a few minutes before ten. Instinctively, he pulled his car in the side alley. Years of being a detective on the force and as a PI had taught him to never park directly on a street where an investigation would take place. The mid-morning chill hit him as soon as he stepped out of the car. He pulled up the collar of his over-coat and stuck his hands deep into the pockets. He glanced up and down the alley, another instinctive move. He walked down the alley and checked Baker’s Street up and down before proceeding toward the Tea House.
The Tea House sat between an Italian restaurant and a small gift shop. It was a local tea and coffee shop, but classier than most diners. Jack knew the place well. His ex-wife frequented the place before she packed up and moved back to Los Angeles. Jack had proposed to her there between tea, coffee and sweet rolls. He grumbled at the memory. Shook his head to clear the fog and opened the door. A small bell alerted the wait staff.
“Mr. Diamond!” the owner called out. She was a rotund woman in her late fifties, greying hair twisted up in a bun, a round jolly face and smiling blue eyes. Jack always found her a bit too pleasant for his taste.
“Hello, Mrs. Matthews,” Jack said politely as he took off his over-coat.
Mrs. Matthews waved off her server and attended to Jack personally. She led him to a table in the back by the window. The same table where Jack had proposed to his ex-wife. He knew better than to protest the location, so he just sat down.
“Alone today?” she asked him as she brought over a steaming cup of coffee and some sweet rolls.
Jack looked out the window and then down at his watch. Ella D’Amore was already ten minutes late. “Someone should be joining me in a few moments, Mrs. Matthews. This will do fine until then.”
“It’s so good to see you again. How is Mrs. Diamond?”
Jack stirred his coffee and tried not to frown. “Afraid she went back to LA,” he finally replied. He knew Mrs. Matthews wouldn’t go away unless he answered her.
“Oh I am sorry to hear that. You too made such an adorable couple,” she said as she crossed her hands across her protruding belly, a sad pout on her lips.
The bell rang. Jack looked up and there stood Ella D’Amore. The thought of saved by the bell wandered through his mind. If he didn’t know she was a night club singer, Jack wouldn’t have recognized her. The sexy dress from the night before had been replaced with a modest white dress with roses, white gloves and red flats. Her hair was down around her shoulders too instead of tightly bound as the night before. She almost looked respectable, Jack surmised as he stood up.
“Your party?” Mrs. Matthews asked as she turned to see who Jack was staring at.
Jack nodded and walked over to Ella. Took her hand and guided her to the table. He pulled out a chair and waited for her to sit down. Then he sat across from her.
“Tea or coffee?” he asked her.
Ella looked out the window for a moment. Then looked back up at Jack. She frowned. Her eyes were wide and unblinking. She removed her gloves and sat them on the table beside her purse. Finally, she tilted her head up at Mrs. Matthews.
She waited until Mrs. Matthews was out of earshot and leaned in toward Jack. “I think this is a mistake, Mr. Diamond. I shouldn’t have come.”
Jack slid his hand across the table and placed it on hers. “This was your idea, Miss D’Amore. Not mine.” He removed his hand and flashed a crooked smile at her.
She gave him a half-smile back. “Please, call me Ella. And I know, Mr. Diamond. It’s just…” her voice trailed off as Mrs. Matthews returned with her tea. Ella thanked her and waited again for the woman to leave, then continued. “If Victor finds out I am here talking to you…” She stopped again as her expression changed from nervous to slightly frightened.
“Call me Jack, Ella. And don’t you worry about Victor.”
Jack pulled out his cigarette pack and a matchbook. He offered a cigarette to Ella and she accepted it. He took out a second cigarette and placed it between his lips as he eyed Ella. This wasn’t the same flirtatious, confident woman he’d talked with the night before. He lit her cigarette and then his own. Her fingers shook as she puffed on the cigarette. After a few moments, she sighed deeply and snuffed it out in the ashtray.
“Thank you, Jack. I needed that,” she said as her face softened and her hands stopped shaking. She lifted the tea cup to her lips and took a sip.
Jack leaned back in his chair and took a long draw off of his cigarette. He needed to break the ice with Ella. “You were amazing last night,” he finally said.
Ella blushed. “Thank you, Jack. I am glad you stopped in.”
“It wasn’t entirely for pleasure,” Jack replied with a slight laugh.
“I gathered that. Listen Jack,” she whispered. “This business with Charlie White and Jessica…” she stopped for a moment and looked out the window again. Her eyes scanned the street and then she looked back at Jack. “Victor wasn’t truthful with you. Charlie White was a regular. He had a thing for Jessica.”
Jack sat upright in his seat and raised a brow. “You don’t say?”
Ella nodded. “I don’t know for how long though. I’ve only been at the club for a couple of months.”
“Were you and Jessica close? Did she confide in you at all?”
Ella glanced off into the distance and smiled. “She was a lovely girl. A great voice too. I don’t know why she wasted her talent at The Wild Card.” She focused back on Jack who had leaned in even closer. “Yes, we were friends or as close to friends as we could be. We shared an apartment too.”
“Did she ever mention anything about Charlie White to you?”
“Yes. She loaned Charlie some money.”
Jack’s eyes widened. Millie White hadn’t mention any financial problems. In fact, she had said business was booming for her husband. “Did she say why she loaned him the money?”
Ella fidgeted in her seat. Her eyes darkened. “Like I said, Jack. I probably shouldn’t have come.”
Jack placed a hand over hers again. “Ella, if you know something, you must tell me.”
She turned her head and sighed heavily. “He will kill me if I tell you.”
Desperate for more information, Jack squeezed her hand. “I can get you some police protection. Get you away from the club. Ella, I must know!”
Ella looked back up at Jack, scanned his face for a moment, her eyes filled with tears. “Gambling debts,” she finally whispered.
Jack removed his hand and sat back in his seat. Gambling debts? He mused her words over and over in his mind. Was Victor running an illegal gambling house too? Was that why people went in past business hours and stayed so late at his club?
Just as he was about to question Ella about that, the bell rang on the door.
The Stacked Deck is a noir-style WhoDunIt serial which will appear as 31 parts, told every day in March. I hope you will join me again tomorrow for another exciting part of this story!
This serial is copyrighted ©2016 Lori Carlson. All rights reserved. Permission must be granted to distribute or copy this serial (unless reblogging). Thank you.
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