Murder on Saddle Creek Road: Lipstick, Lies and Alibis is a fictional detective noir story in 14 sections. It is copyright 2020 by Adam Fletcher Sasse. All rights reserved.
Keller Jefferson, P.I., sat in his 1954 Nash Cosmopolitan colored dark blue and pearl white. Idling roughly, he gently revved the engine. He loved his little car, even though it was a few years old and starting to show wear and tear.
Holding a coffee in one hand, he kept his other hand on the steering wheel and listened to the rain pouring on the roof.
A five o’clock shadow across he face, Keller looked like he hadn’t slept in days, because he hadn’t. He was on a case the cops couldn’t crack, and that’s what brought him here to Jim Pane’s Liquor Store on Saddle Creek.
Keller Jefferson was here to solve a murder.
Earlier on that cold, dark April day, a petite rap on his office door startled Keller Jefferson to wake up.
“Who is it? What do you want?,” he barked out instinctively, wiping the drool from his lip and lifting his head from the desk.
“Detective Jefferson? I would like to speak with you.”
Keller liked the sweet, smooth voice talking to him. Standing up, he adjusted his tie and reached for the door handle. Seeing the reverse letters across the door’s window, he often smirked when he saw the business name, “Near North Side Private Investigations,” although he was secretly proud that it also said, “Two Generations Serving Our Community.” He used the same phone number his father had when he started the business, WE-1543.
Swinging the door open, Keller saw her standing there like a visage from a glossy magazine. The remarkably beautiful woman had perfect skin and her hair was done just right. The dress she had on looked like a million bucks.
“Please, come in.”
As she brushed past him, an elegant perfume slyly calling his attention. Instinctively taking her coat and hanging it on a coat tree, Keller asked how he could help her.
“My husband is missing and I need you to find him.”
Her voice was cool and without emotion. As she rested into the chair in front of Keller’s desk, he asked, “When did you last see him?”
“Earlier today when he left for work. He left our apartment at five-thirty in the morning, the same as always. The thing is, he always comes home at three in the afternoon, but he didn’t do that today.”
“Maybe he stopped at a bar? Or went to a store to bring something home for you?”
“He never does that. Joe worships me and hates to disappoint me, so he’s never late. But things have been happening around him lately, and I’m really scared for him – and disappointed too!”
I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, Keller thought to himself. They talked for another half hour, going over routine questions about the marriage, the husband and his habits. He avoided the typical question about life insurance. He reassured himself that his dame was too classy to off her man.
It turned out the husband, Joe Cooper, followed constant routines. He always dressed sharp, he always left and came home at the same times, and everyday he brought his wife, Cenolia Cooper, fresh flowers from the florist in the Goodlett Building at 20th and Lake Streets.
Speaking in a firm but unconcerned voice, Cenolia sat in Keller’s office seemed more concerned about her missing flowers than her husband. Something didn’t add up, but despite having his qualms, Keller told her he’d take the case as soon as she handed him a deposit check. He knew the cops wouldn’t take a missing person case this early, and he figured the Joe Cooper wouldn’t be hard to find.
Cenolia reached into her fur-covered satchel and handed him cash. “I hope this will do?” Keller snapped the crisp bills into his money clip.
After the woman left his office, Keller made some calls, grabbed his coat and headed out into the evening. It was a drab spring day, and raindrops pattered across the cracked sidewalk. North Omaha’s rain-filled air smelled like dirt mixed with sweet cottonwoods, and Keller took a deep breath.
As he saw the night setting in, Keller sighed “Dammit” as he walked off into the dark night.
“Naw Keller, I ain’t seen him today man,” said the man flittering about the Goodlett’s flower shop.
He had on an apron and was squeezing a bunch of huge carnations into a vase. Keller knew exactly which flower shop Cenolia was talking about her husband stopping at, because he came here to get flowers for his dates.
“I seen him everyday, but he ain’t come through here today.”
“Alright, thanks man. Lemme know if you see him?”
Keller shuffled out the door and into the rain, quickly slumping into his Nash. Despite only being five o’clock, it was dark out. He wanted a whiskey, and couldn’t wait to get home to sleep. He wasn’t excited by the case, but this chick had his imagination.
Flicking on the headlights, his tires slid and squealed across the old streetcar tracks while he did a u-turn on 20th Street. When he turned onto Lake Street, his car vibrated across the brick streets.
Gunning toward the new liquor store by his house before it closed at six o’clock, Keller decided to chase a few leads along Lake Street as he headed home. His squatty little car didn’t handle well in the rain, and it was raining harder now.
Keller stopped at Aronson’s Fruit Market at 30th and Lake Streets. Cenolia Cooper said her husband came here often, but the store worker there said he rarely came into the stand.
“Yeah, I know who he is bro, because he usually goes into Bill’s,” said Aronson with a gesture of his head to the side. Bill’s Package Store was next door. Keller whipped outside and into the next door down.
“Oh sure, he’s always whipping into here and grabbing a sixer of Storz, then whipping out into traffic like there isn’t another car on the road – even at rush hour!”
Joe Cooper sounded reckless. Keller knew bad things happen to reckless men, especially reckless men who are married to beautiful dames.
Moving quick out of this store, Keller pulled the Nash into the street and almost rear-ended a bus. He hated the way those smoggy beasts belched out smoke, stopping and starting without warning and acting like the kings of the streets. Keller’s down-geared the little Nash and kept moving west on Lake Street.
Joe Cooper was a salesman in the dry cleaning industry. Keller pulled into the Puritan Dry Cleaning plant at 3737 Lake Street, where Cenolia said he would have stopped during the day. When Keller got there, the plant was emptying out for the day. He caught the attention of a nice looking lady with a beehive hairdo.
“S’cuze me, ma’am, have you seen Joe Cooper today?”
“Oh yeah, that asshole came in here around two o’clock.” Her tart words took Keller off-guard.
“Joe came in here completely wasted! You know, normally he’s a decent enough guy, but today smelled like Friday night at McGill’s Blue Room!”
McGill’s Blue Room was a dank jazz club at 24th and Lake, right across the street from Keller’s office. That’s where Keller went on Fridays, Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. When he wasn’t at McGill’s on Mondays and Wednesdays, he went to the Aloha Club or the Off Beat. Keller was a man of subtle routines.
Suddenly, he recognized the woman.
“Marissa, is that you?”
“Yeah – who are you?”
“Oh, I’m down at McGill’s all the time. I’ve seen you down there with your boyfriend before, and heard him say your name.”
“Nice, creep. You following me? Why do you care about that Joe Cooper anyway? You following him, too?”
“I have a knack for remembering names. I’m gifted that way.”
“What are you doing follow me?”
“I’m a private investigator, Marissa.”
Her demeanor calmed a bit, and they were able to talk. After asking her a few questions, Keller header out. She hadn’t revealed anything useful.
When he got to 40th, Keller swung his car southward to Hamilton Street. After swinging into the Phillips 66 on the corner of 40th and Hamilton for gas, he ran across the street to grab a coffee and a cruller donut from Martin’s Pastry. Munching on the donut as he drove, Keller thought about how much he loved Martin’s.
Heading west on Hamilton, the Nash bumped over rougher, older brick streets until he swept west onto the freshly paved Saddle Creek Road. After that he pulled a hard right into Jim Pane’s liquor store, which had just opened up earlier that year.
“Dammit,” he said, shifting the car into neutral. Instantly, he solved the case – or so he thought.
Cenolia Cooper walked out of the liquor store at the junction of Saddle Creek Road and the Northwest Radial. She had a brown paper sack under one arm and a man on the other. Damn if she still looked like a million bucks.
Laughing loudly, she and this man looked like the happiest lovebirds Keller had seen in a long time, ever since Trudy was in his life. Just as soon as his imagination started remembering her, he instantly snapped back into the moment and decided he’d plodded all this way just to find Mister and Missus Cooper arm-in-arm heading out for a good time.
But something was off. The man didn’t look anything like the description Cenolia had given him just a few hours earlier. Instead, he was a sly looking guy with stubble on his face in an old zoot suit with patent leather shoes and slicked-back hair.
Cenolia’s red lipstick was bright and happy, and the couple got into a long, low, soft top, jet black Cadillac Series 62. The man’s Fedora began to flip off when he brushed the door jamb of the Caddy, and suddenly Keller saw who it was.
In that moment, Keller knew he was wrong about everything so far. What he didn’t know then was that he didn’t know what he thought he knew then, either.
The Caddy cruised out of the lot, scraping its rear bumper on the driveway as it pulled out. Keller recognized what that grinding sound and those little sparks could mean. Following them from a distance, the cars headed north on the Radial highway, and then onto Fontenelle Boulevard.
At Ames Avenue, the Caddy cranked westward and pulled into The Beautiful Villa by 49th Street. Keller knew this was a hootch house left over from the Great Depression, when cars filled with college kids would sneak out to the edge of town to drink illegal booze and listen to cool jazz. Back then, Keller was one of those hep cats. He pulled his little Nash into the back of the club and turned off his lights. The engine sputtered anxiously as he shifted into neutral and held his foot down on the brake.
Keller watched as the Caddy crept past the club and pulled up a hill into an estate. They didn’t notice him. Surrounded by trees and gardens, there was a large house at the end of the driveway with golden lamps glowing in the windows.
The car came to a stop and the couple got out and popped the trunk. Keller saw the distinct look of the Caddy’s shocks as they lightened and the rear of the car raised. He could make out the dark silhouettes of Cenolia and the man, but he also saw a third person being dragged out of the back of the car. Conspicuously lurching toward the building at the end of the driveway, they went inside. Keller knew it was a garage from the sound of the wooden doors folding open and shut.
Next, the threesome went from the garage into the house. When the door opened, Keller saw a chandelier in the hard white light coming from the foyer. The rain stopped, and Keller knew it would be a while before they came back out. Sliding low in his seat and covering his face partially with his hat, he dozed off into much-needed sleep.
The pop of a small handgun shook Keller from his rest, and he was startled into an upright position. Looking at his wristwatch, Keller saw that it was two in the morning. The rain began to fall again.
Suddenly, the Caddy went flying past him, racing carelessly down the driveway. The detective in him wanted to chase the car, but he also wanted to go snoop around that house and garage. Suspecting there was a crime scene waiting up there, he hopped out of the Nash and ran to the phone booth next to The Beautiful Villa club.
“Operator Wendy. Number?”
“Get me the north precinct police station please.”
Keller was more than familiar with the cops at this shop because they were constantly on his case. Knowing the captain had advantages though.
“North precinct, Sargent Callahan speaking.”
“Hey Steve, it’s Keller Jefferson. Can I talk with Shawn?” A silence, and then Shawn’s familiar, brusk voice.
“How ya doin’ little brother?”
The two talked over the situation for a few minutes, and Captain Shawn Jefferson agreed to send a patrol unit to the old Mergen Mansion on Ames where Keller heard a gunshot.
“You gonna make it to Mom’s for dinner on Sunday?” asked Shawn.
Keller hated to commit to these things, because he didn’t like disappointing people when he didn’t show up.
“We’ll see,” and clunked the phone into its holder.
Keller walked over to the Nash, seemingly in no rush. He watched the rain collecting on the roof, and realized how tired he was. I’ll quit for the day, he thought to himself, and hopped in.
Just as soon as he slammed his car door shut, a man fell across the hood of the Nash.
“What the hell, Keller?”
Captain Shawn Jefferson stood above his brother. Keller was sitting slouched in the emergency room wearing the ratty overcoat he’d worn for a decade, and Shawn was in his crisp cop uniform. The Immanuel Hospital at 34th and Meredith had been a meeting place for them for too long, in too many instances.
“I tell you man, he just fell onto my hood!”
“The bullet in this guy matched your gun, idiot. And you’d just called me from a phone by his house! There’s no car around matching your description, and when my detectives went to the Cooper’s house, they met Mr. and Mrs. Cooper in their bathrobes. They said they’d never heard of you, let alone visited you before. So I need to know what the hell is going on here, for real this time! Is this another one of your wild goose chases?”
“Aw, come on Shawn, you know I do good work man, and when was the last time I lied to you?”
“You lied all the time when we were kids, Keller! Now you’re doing it again. I just can’t figure out why you had it in for this guy.”
“Shawn, I was trying to find him. I swear, this is Joe Cooper! Whoever you saw at their apartment wasn’t him.”
“Apartment? My guys went to a house, a nice place up by the Birchwood Club.”
“The Birchwood Club? Cenolia Cooper gave my their address in an apartment at Strehlow Court.”
“Crap, have we been duped? We have to track these people down. I’ll send units to the address on Minne Lusa Boulevard and to the apartment. Which way are you going to go?”
“Oh, I have a hunch.”
Keller got a ride to his car, drove back down Ames to 30th Street, then to his office at 24th and Lake. Shuffling to the back of the building to walk up the fire escape, he want through a back door into the hallway where his office was. Looking across the way though, he saw the door was ajar. He hated to pull out his piece, but he unholstered his Colt .45 and slid against the wall toward his office door.
Swinging open the door fully, he strategically waved his gun across the room. He flicked on the light, and on first scan it was empty – but trashed. All of his files had been riffled through, his bookshelf pulled down, and his desk barreled through. “I sure do have a lot of crap here.” He reassured himself there nothing of value though.
Turning around, Keller pushed the door shut. As it lightly clicked into place, he pulled out his chair and slumped into it. Keller needed some sleep.
He woke up to a sharp rap at the door.
“Jefferson, Detective Jefferson, let me in!”
He recognized the voice as Cenolia, and he hopped up to swing the door open. The woman came in and studied his face. Her fingers gently touched his cheek.
“Are you okay? You look exhausted,” she said, surveying his baggy eyes and whiskers.
“Me? What about you, dame? What are you up to?” With that, he caught sight of himself in the mirror. He did look ragged.
“Ah Keller—can I call you that?”
“Keller, I’m in a real pickle here! You see, I’m not who…”
Suddenly, this lovely body slumped over and hit the floor, hard. Jefferson swung around to see her sprawled out below him, lifeless. Instinctively, he ducked low, expecting more shots to keep coming.
After a few moments, he scooted towards his desk and pulled the telephone off. It dumped hard toward the floor, but he caught it before it clanged.
“North precinct, Sargent Callahan speaking.”
Keller whispered loudly, “Hey Steve, it’s Keller again. Can you get Shawn on the phone? It’s kinda urgent.”
“The Cap’n just headed out to your office! There were reports of shots fired in your building and he assumed you were involved.”
“Good call.” Keller hung up and waited.
Keller sat across the table from Shawn at the Loyal Diner, staring out the window into the early morning enveloping the view.
“What do you think this mess is, Keller? You’ve been telling me what it isn’t, but not what it is.”
The brothers had been going over the case for the last hour, since 4:30am. Keller’s chicken-friend steak and eggs sat half-eaten and his coffee was cold. He was loosing tolerance for Shawn’s interrogation.
“Come on Shawn, lemme get outta here. I told you I think I have this whole thing buttoned up.”
“Keller, I can’t just let you slide out of here again. There was a dead woman in your office when I got there, and you were seen arguing with her just a while earlier.”
“I told you man, that wasn’t me. She’d just barged in, and then she fell dead.”
“Go, just go. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Keller leapt from the booth at the diner, grabbed his Fedora and overcoat, and headed for the door. Shawn didn’t have to tell him twice.
Keller’s dark blue and pearl white 1954 Nash Cosmopolitan raced through the puddles up 30th Street. Racing past Jerry and Johnny’s, Keller remembered the last time he was at the club with Trudy on his arm for a nice diner. There was a little six-set playing that night, with a guy he knew from the neighborhood playing sax, his old buddy Preston. When they were kids they’d climb the fire escape at the Dreamland Ballroom to listen to the jazz greats who came through town. Although he couldn’t play a lick of jazz, Keller always loved watching those players jam.
His thinking drifted, and he wondered what would become of the AmVet Club, the Harlem Club and McGill’s joint. Surely the jazz wouldn’t go on forever!
Suddenly it was bright outside, and he was blinded as he whizzed up to the Sinclair filling station. While the kid attendant topped off his tank, Keller decided he’d cut over on Lake Street and go up Florence Boulevard.
Revving the little car up as he pulled out of the station, Keller quickly changed his mind. He swung around to Trimble’s place a few blocks away. It was a grey mansion that looked like a medieval fortress, complete with a turret and rough hewn stonework covering the place.
Walking inside was opulent. That early in the morning, the place still smelled like sleep during the week. With red velvet walls and dark mahogany woodwork throughout, on the weekends it was all liquor and sex. Those were the days when old man Trimble put up a lot of the fanciest singers that came through Omaha, including Basie, Fitzgerald and Armstrong, Vaughn, Ellington and Gillespie. Trimble’s Castle was legendary.
A young woman came around the corner with a six a.m. scowl on her face and said shortly, “Whatchu need sugah?,” like she was talking to her own nephew.
“I’m looking for a smug romeo ma’am, a fella about my height and build, but with slender hands.”
Keller’s hands were wide with short, thick fingers, the kind his auntie called “sausage fingers” when he was young. She always said if he was anybody else, everybody would think he was a “beer drinkin’ bubba.” Luckily, he wasn’t anybody else. His mama always said he was “built like a brick shithouse,” and Keller liked that better.
“Yeah, I seen a fella who looked like that, with a hat like yours and some bright-lipped woman on his arm. They got in a fight though, and she ripped outta here a few hours ago. I think he’s still sleeping upstairs, in room three.”
Keller grabbed the banister and launched upstairs, fast.
“Call Captain Jefferson at the North Precinct,” he barked over his shoulder.
While the lady floated to the phone, Keller knocked hard on the door with the side of his fist. He heard a bustle and bang, and he knew his perp was scrambling to get out of the room. By the time he busted open the locked door, the man had climbed out the window. Keller looked out, only to see the man climbing off the porch roof and then running up the boulevard.
He went downstairs and called his brother.
“Send two cars to the Goodlett building.”
Then he jumped in the Nash and took off, racing just two blocks away.
As he pulled in, he saw flames leaping from the second story of the Goodlett Building. The florist shop on the first floor was on fire too, and old man Goodlett stood outside his building yelling and screaming at the fire. His wife was doubled over in tears.
“What happened?” Keller asked as he ran from his car to the people.
“That son-of-a-bitch torched our building!” screamed Mrs. Goodlett at Keller.
“What is his name, Mrs. Goodlett?” Keller felt chagrined, thinking that for all the times he’d seen him, he should’ve known.
“That’s Crawford Harris, Lewellyn Harris’ son.”
Sitting at his brother’s desk at the precinct office, Keller put it all together for his brother, slow but straight-forward, as was his style when he was being interrogated.
Cenolia Cooper had soured on her marriage to Joe Cooper because he was too submissive. Instead of the flowers and the fawning, she wanted a shady strongman. But she couldn’t stand the thought of divorcing him, either.
What Cenolia knew that nobody else did was that her husband had a small nest egg in life insurance.
She probably met Crawford Harris at a club or church, or at the same flower shop he met Harris at. She led him through a scheme to kill her husband and get ride of his body, the whole time leaving the insurance money out of the story.
After killing him, Cenolia and Crawford put the body in the trunk of the Caddy and planned to meet. As part of the plan, she paid a visit to the Near North Side Private Investigations office to establish an alibi.
After they got back together that evening, these wicked lovebirds went to the liquor store, dumped the body at the mansion by Beautiful Villa, and then went to Trimble’s to celebrate.
What he didn’t understand is why Cenolia had a crisis of conscience and came to his office in the middle of the night. Was she hoping to confess her misdeeds? Seems like Crawford was onto her though, and shot her while she was standing in the office. Stumbling back to Trimble’s, he got drunk and tried to sleep off the stench of death surrounding him.
By the time Keller almost caught up with him, Crawford had a plan in mind to distract the cops. Crawford decided to burn down that old Goodlett building, then cut out of town. When he heard the pounding on his door at Trimble’s, Crawford knew he had to bail fast. He got the gas cans, lit the store on fire along with the old couples’ place upstairs, and bolted away in the Caddy.
“Now,” Keller explained to Shawn, “we have to find Crawford.”
“Who was at that house where they dumped the body?”
“I’m just not sure bro. Can you have your boys track down the owner and find out more? You know I’m not allowed to just waltz into that club.”
Suddenly, Sergeant Steve Callahan came busting through the door. “You’d better come quick, boss.”
Captain Shawn Jefferson grabbed his hat and marched out the door, where his eyes cut through a small crowd towards the front door. A man stood manic, yelling at everyone around him to talk with Jefferson. He was holding a gun to his head.
The captain stepped forward and volunteered, “How can I help you son?”
“Where the hell is Jefferson? Who the hell are you?” the man screamed.
“I’m Captain Shawn Jefferson, the head of this precinct. Who are you?”
“I’m Crawford Harris, you idiot, and I’m not looking for you!” He sounded hysterical.
“Calm down, son, and let me help you.” Captain Jefferson waved his hand at his officers to lower their guns. “I’m Jefferson.”
“No you’re not! I want that detective! That bastard made me do this!”
Just then, Keller walked past the crowd and next to his brother.
“There you are! This is all your fault Jefferson!”
Keller Jefferson, Private Investigator, had little patience for this type of insolence. He replied to Harris slowly.
“You made your bed young man, and you get to sleep in it. Now lower your gun and let’s have a conversation.”
“SCREW YOU,” Harris said, pulling his legs together and standing straight. The gun, pointed at his own head, suddenly cracked loudly. The body of Crawford Harris fell quickly to the ground, and the precinct was quiet for a moment.
“Dammit,” Keller said out loud.
As the rain drizzled over Forest Lawn Cemetery, people began shuffling away from Cenolia Cooper’s funeral. Keller Jefferson stood behind a large oak tree and watched the gathering.
He wondered how many client funerals he’d been to, and realized he wasn’t going to get paid the rest of his money.
Suddenly, thoughts gripped his mind. Why was this broad so hot to me? Would Pops like the way I did this? Why am I at this funeral? Did she
In a blink though, he turned quickly and shook it off.
Walking to his 1954 Nash Cosmopolitan, he was reaching for his door handle when a pretty hand rested on his arm.
“Are you Detective Jefferson?”
The sweet voice immediately reminded him of Cenolia, and when he saw her face he was stunned. This woman looked just like the one he just saw lowered into the ground. It took him a minute before he replied,
“Yes, I’m Jefferson. Who are you?”
“I’m…” she stammered for a moment.
“I’m Cenolia’s twin sister, Cherise.”
Keller sat silently for a moment, then heard the thought come from his mind and out of his mouth: