I drove the Hudson downtown early to check on the store, as I did every Sunday since the robberies started — Kansas City thugs breaking into small town stores at night and cleaning them out. At first everything seemed to be just as I’d left it when I locked up. Muslin sheets over the tables, nothing out of place. No sign of a break-in. The heavy oak and glass doors on the six big display cases along the wall were closed, as I’d left them. But when I looked closer I saw the cases were empty. Suits and overcoats, wool, cashmere, all expensive name-brand goods, all gone.
My hands were shaking when I opened the safe where I kept the day’s take. It was empty. A hundred six dollars and change, gone, a good Saturday’s gross. I remembered the stranger I’d opened the store for the previous week, a snazzy dresser who said he was passing through and needed a shirt. He saw me open the safe to make change for his tenner. I’d been careless, letting him stand so close while I twirled the lock. Trusting people. You learn to do that in a town like this.
I looked around. Less expensive goods were untouched, work clothes, underwear, socks. But the dress shirt drawers were empty, and all the sweaters were gone. So were leather and wool luxury items, fancy lap robes and flask kits. The more I looked, the more I found missing. I’d been expertly picked clean — half the value of my inventory trucked away and fenced to a fly-by-night operation before I’d even had breakfast.
I couldn’t call the police. Mary’s father would know within the hour.
By 10 o’clock I was on the Interurban to Kansas City to see Harry Truman. Everything I know about men’s clothing I learned at the Truman & Jacobson haberdashery. I ran errands, dusted shelves, swept floors, and soaked up all I could about running a store. During the Christmas rush, Harry and Eddy even let me wait on customers. I learned about failure, too. They had been good to me, and I worked for free that last desperate month, trying to help save the little store on 12th Avenue. I was there the day they closed the doors.
When I got to Kansas City, I rang Harry up. It had been a few years, and he was presiding county judge now, in the Pendergast machine. But he valued loyalty above everything else, and all I had to say was, “Harry, I’m in trouble. I don’t know what to do.” An hour later I was sitting in a deep leather chair in the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel, trying to find Truman’s eyes behind those bottle-bottom glasses.
I told him the whole story. How I’d clerked in a couple of other stores. How Mary and I fell in love, and I got Mary pregnant. How her banker father raised hell at first, but finally set me up with a loan to start the store. Business had been good for a while, and both the baby and Mary were fine. Then I hit a rough patch, several bad crop years hurting everybody’s pocketbook, and I took out a second loan. I had to cut expenses, and one expense I cut was insurance.
“I can’t tell Mary’s dad any of this,” I told Harry. “He’d have a fit if he knew I’d let myself go naked.”
Harry listened quietly, shifting his head every minute or so to a slightly different angle, like an owl in a tree. When I was done, he asked questions. The man who had cased the store, what did he look like? Was his voice high or low? What kind of car was he driving? What exactly was taken, including brand names, weaves and styles?
“I think I can help with this,” he said, in that high nasal voice that could fool you into thinking you were dealing with a wimp. “There’s been a lot of this dastardly stuff going on recently. Not that I know anything about it directly.”
Did he wink when he said that? I’m not sure.
“I can talk to some of the fellows,” he went on, “find out who did this to you. If I do, the sonofabitch will need some beef steak for his eye, and maybe a supporter, too.”
Harry loved to talk tough. If I’d heard it once, I’d heard it a hundred times.
“You go on home and sit tight,” he said. “Keep your father-in-law out of the store for a day or two. And from now on, alternate the direction of the hangers you keep the suits on, so a crook in a hurry can’t just grab them by the armload. Make the sonofabitch work for his money.”
When I went down to open up on Monday, two men in flat caps and leather vests were sitting in a truck in the alley. I don’t know how long they’d been there, but the cigarette butts under the windows said at least an hour.
“Delivery from Kansas City,” the driver said.
“What is it?” I asked. “Who’s it from?”
“Delivery from Kansas City,” he repeated, shrugging, and he and the other man began to unload. As far as I could tell, nothing was missing. A hundred six dollars and change was tucked in one of the pockets.
I wrote Harry a thank you letter, said I owed him. I’m nervous about it, but he hasn’t written me back. At least not yet.
John Palen’s collection of short fiction, Small Economies, was published in January by Mayapple Press. He lives and writes in Central Illinois.