Murder, She Reported Coming July 31 - wherever e-books are sold!
It was six-thirty at night and Elizabeth Adams was still at her desk. The newsroom was comparatively quiet—the usual cacophony of clattering typewriter keys absent for the time being.
Most of the reporters had fled to a tenement building on Eighth Avenue where a man was holed up in a standoff with the police. He’d just killed his wife and was threatening to kill himself.
Elizabeth shivered. She rubbed the back of her neck and stared at the piece of paper protruding from her typewriter. Her bones ached from the cold and she was hungry. She wondered why she had thought it would be glamorous to have a job.
Instead of sitting in this drafty newsroom, she could be resting comfortably in her family’s Madison Avenue apartment listening to the radio or reading a magazine and waiting for Mrs. Murphy to put one of her excellent dinners on the table.
Elizabeth’s mother had been horrified when Elizabeth had told her about the job—crying and twisting her monogrammed lace handkerchief between her fingers and asking why on earth Elizabeth couldn’t be more like Helen Cummings’s daughter Dorothy who was engaged to Humphrey Van Alstyne and spent her time planning her wedding. How was she ever going to explain to her friends that her daughter was not only working--she said the word as if it left a foul taste in her mouth—but working for some ghastly newspaper.
A woman was meant to only have her name in the paper three times in her life, her mother reminded her—when she was born, when she married and when she died. It certainly wasn’t meant to appear under some sordid photograph on the front page.
Elizabeth had laughed and had assured her mother that it would be many years before she had a credit line and probably many more years after that before she landed a picture on the front page.
Even Mrs. Murphy had gone pale when she’d asked why Elizabeth had come to the breakfast table with her hat already on, rushing through her boiled egg, and Elizabeth had replied that she had a job and mustn’t be late.
Elizabeth groaned and put her fingers back on the keys. She wanted more. She had had the crazy idea that she could right social injustices and further truth by working for a newspaper. So far she had been relegated to the role of office gal Friday fetching coffee, running copy to the editor, checking sources. She sighed. She knew she had to pay her dues.
The air stirred and the scent of Tabu wafted toward her. She looked up to see Estelle Draper bearing down on her. Elizabeth hastily put her head down and pecked out a few more words.
Estelle was wearing a brown and white tweed suit with a nipped in waist and a brooch on the lapel. Dark-rimmed glasses dangled from a gold chain around her neck.
Estelle was the women’s editor for the Daily Trumpet. She had made it clear from the beginning that she didn’t like her position as the only woman in the office usurped.
Elizabeth had taken pains to win Estelle over, bringing her a nickel cup of coffee from Horn and Hardart in the morning or a piece of lemon meringue pie from Schrafft’s when she learned it was Estelle’s birthday.
Estelle stopped beside Elizabeth’s desk and rapped it sharply with the yellow pencil in her hand.
“Almost,” Elizabeth mumbled, keeping her eyes on the paper protruding from her typewriter.
She hoped Estelle wouldn’t notice how little she’d done. She’d engaged in a bit of hyperbole when she’d told the paper she could type and she was laboriously picking out each letter of Estelle’s Dear Miss Draper column that ran in the paper every day under her byline.
Dear Miss Draper, Elizabeth read. My fiancé and I have broken it off. Do I have to give the engagement ring back?
Damned if I know, Elizabeth thought as she pecked out a few more words.
The scent of Tabu faded and was replaced by a sulfurous odor. Elizabeth sniffed the air. Eggs. It smelled like eggs. Her stomach grumbled.
She turned around to see Ralph Kaminsky, one of the veteran reporters, taking a sandwich out of its wax paper wrapping. Elizabeth knew without asking that it was egg salad on rye with sliced onions. So far she had never seen Kaminsky eat anything else. He’d chase it down with cold coffee left in the thick white mug on his desk and then follow that up with a cigarette.
She wondered why he wasn’t with all the other reporters racing to Connecticut in an attempt to beat each other to the story that was bound to be on the front page of every paper in town. Crime was his beat—this story was right up his alley.
Elizabeth didn’t know much about Kaminsky—only that he lived alone, had been with the Daily Trumpet since he was a kid hired to sweep the floors and that every afternoon at four o’clock on the dot—unless he was off chasing a story—he left his desk in the newsroom to head to the bar across the street for a shot of Old Schenley and a cold Budweiser chaser.
As far as Elizabeth could tell, Kaminsky lived for his job, ready to sally forth into the city day or night to report on wretched stories of murder, theft and the more horrific cases of assault and battery.
Kaminsky was all sharp edges—bony elbows and knees—with gray hair that stood up like the bristles on a brush and a long face with a prominent nose and purple circles, like bruises, under his eyes.
The telephone on Kaminsky’s desk rang, and he grabbed it. He muttered a couple of words, sputtering bits of his egg salad sandwich into the air.
Elizabeth cringed and looked away. Kaminsky scared her a little. He was blunt to the point of being rude and had no use for women invading what he viewed as the male domain of the newsroom.
“That crumb,” Kaminsky yelled as he slammed the receiver down so hard it jumped out of the cradle and hung alongside his desk, swaying back and forth, the dial tone blaring.
“Anybody know how to work one of these?”
Elizabeth turned around again to see Kaminsky brandishing a camera.
She hesitated then raised her hand. “I do.”
Kaminsky looked startled then barked. “Get your hat and coat. Sullivan’s got the flu and Gloria DeWitt is making her debut at the Waldorf and all predictions point to her being the It Girl of the decade. Boss wants pictures and a story.”
“We can walk,” Kaminsky said as he held the door open for Elizabeth. “Waldorf’s not far. It’s a swell place. Wait till you see it.”
Elizabeth didn’t tell him that she’d made her own debut at the Waldorf and had been there for numerous parties in the Marco Polo Club, dinners in the Empire Room and lunches at Peacock Alley.
Elizabeth pulled her collar up around her throat. The wind blew in her eyes and mouth, gritty with the exhaust from the cars and taxis racing up Park Avenue in an endless stream of red taillights.
“What’s your name again?” Kaminsky asked as he pulled a battered pack of Camels from his coat pocket.
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Adams,” Elizabeth said, breathless from trying to match Kaminsky’s long strides. She was hampered by a slight limp—a souvenir of having had polio as a child.
“What do your friends call you?”
Kaminsky snorted. “That’s a mouthful. I’m going to call you Biz. I hope you don’t mind.”
It wasn’t a question, and Elizabeth didn’t answer. Besides, she kind of liked it.
“Do you mind telling me something?” Elizabeth said as they waited for the light to turn green at Forty-Fourth Street.
“Depends on what you want to know.” Kaminsky cupped his hand around a match and lit his cigarette.
“Why isn’t Miss Draper covering this story? She’s the women’s editor. Why you?”
Kaminsky laughed. “You mean why send a man to do a woman’s job?”
“I suppose so.”
The light changed and they began to cross. Slushy water had collected at the curb and Elizabeth shivered as it sluiced over the top of her suede oxfords.
“It’s on account of the boss likes to hold a grudge, see. A bunch of us were having a nice friendly game of poker over at O’Leary’s on Third Avenue. Boss was feeling cocky seeing as how he was holding a set of quad eights. At least until I plunked down a jack-high straight flush.” Kaminsky chuckled. “Took a couple of doubles off of him, and he didn’t like it.” He shook his head. “Old man’s like an elephant—he never forgets.”
“This won’t be much of a story, I guess. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Kaminsky grinned at Elizabeth. “Listen to me, kid. There’s always a story. It’s the reporter’s job to find it.”
Kaminsky drew on his cigarette and the tip glowed like the taillights on the cars that continued to stream up Park Avenue. “Tell me about yourself,” he said, turning to Elizabeth.
“Not much to tell.” Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I mix a wicked Manhattan,” she said, “have a killer backstroke and can rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time.”
“And you know how to operate a camera,” Kaminsky said, dropping his cigarette to the ground and grinding it out with the toe of his shoe.
Elizabeth watched as the glow faded to a pinprick and went out.
“Where’d you learn to take a picture?”
Elizabeth’s heel caught in a crack in the sidewalk, and she took a moment to regain her balance. She didn’t want to admit that she’d been in a photography club at Wellesley and that her roommate’s aunt, the famed photographer Beatrice Harper, had taken Elizabeth under her wing.
“That Sullivan,” Kaminsky said without waiting for an answer. “He doesn’t have the flu. I’d bet a c-note he’s recovering from a bender. He can down a couple of six packs of Schlitz in one evening.”
Kaminsky accidently jostled the elbow of a woman in a black coat and a fox fur collar with the animals’ heads and tails intact. Their beady eyes glowed menacingly in the yellow streetlights as she passed them. Kaminsky doffed his hat and murmured an apology.
He sighed. “Sullivan’s a damned good photographer though.”
He stopped and put a hand on Elizabeth’s arm “Did I tell you about the time Sullivan strapped a camera to his ankle, snaked the trigger release up his pant leg and snuck into the execution chamber at Sing Sing?”
Elizabeth shook her head, nearly unsettling the brown suede Robin Hood hat she’d bought at Bergdorf Goodman with her first week’s pay. She grabbed for it and pulled it down more tightly over her dark wavy hair.
“Sullivan came out with the only known picture of someone in the electric chair just as the executioner was pulling the lever. Biggest scoop the Daily Trumpet’s ever had.”
They were nearing the Waldorf, and Kaminsky’s attention was caught by the line of sleek black cars pulling up to the entrance. Uniformed chauffeurs stood at attention as satin slippers and yards of tulle emerged from the open doors of the shiny Cadillacs and Lincolns.
An icy rain had begun to fall and umbrellas popped open like blossoming flowers over the crowd of young women scurrying toward the welcoming doors of the Waldorf.
The hotel was lit with spotlights and light shone from every window of its forty-seven story limestone façade. It was the tallest and largest hotel in the world and tonight it seemed more spectacular than usual. Even to Elizabeth, who had been to the hotel many times, it looked especially magical this evening.
Kaminsky whistled. “This is some wingding.”
Elizabeth squinted into the distance. “There’s Gloria DeWitt,” she said pointing to a figure cocooned in a mink coat emerging from one of the waiting cars.
Elizabeth had a sudden thought—what if someone recognized her? She’d have to tell the truth. Besides, there was no shame in having a job.
Kaminsky shot a glance at Elizabeth. “You know her?”
“My sister does,” Elizabeth admitted.
Kaminsky’s head spun around. “How in hell did your sister ever meet the likes of Miss Gloria DeWitt?”
Elizabeth swore she could see his reporter’s nose quivering with the scent of a good story. She scrambled for an explanation that wouldn’t be too revealing but fortunately Kaminsky rarely ever waited for the answers to his own questions unless he was interviewing someone.
“Holy mackerel!” He said. Get me a word with her and we’ll scoop every paper in town.”
Girls in dresses as elaborate as wedding gowns—yards of white tulle and satin festooned with flounces, ribbons, lace and bows—crowded the Art Deco lobby of the Waldorf, the huge ten foot by ten foot chandelier shining down benignly on their glossy privileged heads. The marble floor was polished to a high shine which reflected the staccato flashes of the photographers’ cameras.
Kaminsky, smelling of cigarette smoke and onions, looked out of place in his worn topcoat with the missing middle button and frayed collar. He put a hand on Elizabeth’s arm.
“You get some pictures, kid, and find Gloria DeWitt. Tell her we want an exclusive interview. Tell her we’ll put her picture on the front page. Hell, tell her anything so long as you get her to agree to it, understand?”
“Where are you going?” Elizabeth asked trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
“I’m feeling a little out of place surrounded by all these dames. I’ll be in the Men’s Bar. Give a holler when Miss DeWitt is ready to talk.”
Elizabeth watched as Kaminsky gingerly made his way through the swarm of young women. She envied him—she could do with a bit of Dutch courage herself.
The lobby was warm with so many bodies milling in one place. Elizabeth unbuttoned her coat and stuffed her gloves in her pocket.
A murmur went through the crowd and the girls began making their way toward the elevators that would take them to the Waldorf’s four story Grand Ballroom. The smiles and laughter were gone—their expressions now somber as they prepared to make their curtsies and be presented to society.
Elizabeth thought of her own debut—the endless planning, the nerves, the expense—all to introduce her to people she already knew and with the express purpose of getting her married off before she became too long in the tooth. It made her think of farmers selling livestock at the county fair or perhaps an auction at Sotheby’s—sold to the highest bidder—a guaranteed genuine virgin!
Elizabeth yanked the camera Kaminsky had given her from the case and popped in a flashbulb. She took a deep breath and began snapping. Swirls of tulle and satin topped with anxious white faces flashed before her camera lens.
The girls were disappearing from the lobby as quickly as a puff of smoke, but two of them stopped when they saw Elizabeth. They angled themselves toward the camera with expressions that told Elizabeth they had spent many hours practicing in the mirror.
“Will we be in the paper?” The blonde asked as the flashbulb went off.
“I hope so,” Elizabeth said. She imagined the photograph splashed across the front page with her name—Elizabeth Adams—underneath.
The girls gathered up their skirts and scurried off. The elevator doors swooshed closed behind them and Elizabeth stood alone in the now sedate atmosphere of the lobby.
She hadn’t found Gloria DeWitt. But the night was far from over. There would be dining and dancing after the presentations. She’d nab Gloria then.
Elizabeth headed to the sanctuary of the ladies restroom and pushed open the door. It was an oasis of calm, no less grand than the hotel lobby with a vase of blood red roses atop the marble fireplace mantle and a comfortable sofa and chairs. The room was filled with the fading scents of a dozen perfumes.
Elizabeth sank into one of the chairs with a loud sigh. She put her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes.
The sound of water running startled her and she sat up abruptly, her eyes flying open, her ears at attention.
The noise was coming from one of the stalls—small rooms with a real door and an individual sink and vanity—which were off the sitting area. Elizabeth had thought she was alone but was obviously mistaken.
The running water stopped and she heard someone crying. She tiptoed across the plush carpet and listened.
The sound was unmistakable—someone was having a good cry in one of the stalls. One of the debutantes?
Elizabeth knocked on the door.
“Is everything alright?”
A loud sniff and a hiccough and a small voice answered. “I’m fine, thank you.”
Elizabeth retrieved a new flashbulb and inserted it without thinking.
“If there’s anything I can do….” Elizabeth leaned against the wall. “Can I get you a tissue?”
The knob rattled and the door slowly opened. Gloria DeWitt’s famous face appeared in the gap—tear-stained and with make-up smudged.
Afterwards Elizabeth wasn’t sure how it had happened. She couldn’t have done it on purpose but somehow she had.
She’d pushed the button and her flash had gone off.
Peg Cochran also writing as Meg London..