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Fridays With Roy: A New Barry Gifford Story With A Death At Oak Street Beach

By Barry Gifford in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 13, 2015 5:43PM

Photo by Justin Kern

The warm sand, uncovered bodies, and all other signifiers of summertime are long gone from Chicago's Oak Street Beach. There are only the waves and the wind, and perhaps the occasional masochistic exercise enthusiast. The fact is that Oak Street Beach can be downright desolate, the perfect backdrop for a dead body, as in Barry Gifford's story this week. It's taken from a work in progress tentatively titled The Cuban Club.

by Barry Gifford

A girl’s dead body was found on Oak Street beach by a man walking a dog at five o’clock in the morning of March 5th. The body was clothed in only a black raincoat; there was no identification in the pockets. The girl was judged to be in her late teens or very early twenties, the most notable identifying mark being a six-inch scar on the inside of her left calf. She had light brown hair and brown eyes, height five feet four inches, weight one hundred and five. When discovered, the body was coated with a thin layer of ice. Forensics determined that the girl had been dead since approximately seven o’clock the previous evening. Her stomach and abdominal tract contained only particles of food; she had not eaten for at least two days. 

Twelve days later, at four p.m. on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps the most festive day of the year in Chicago’s substantial Irish community in 1958, a forty-eight year old woman named Mary Sullivan, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, who had been a resident of Chicago for twenty-two years, filed a missing persons report at the Division Street precinct, claiming that her daughter, Margaret, had not been in contact with her since March 2nd. Margaret, who fit the description of the corpse found on Oak Street beach on the 5th, including the scar on her leg, worked as a waitress at Don the Beachcomber’s restaurant—a strange, or perhaps not so strange, coincidence—and had been living with another girl, Lucille Susto, twenty years old, a recent arrival in the city from West Virginia, who also worked as a waitress in a coffee shop in The Loop. When questioned by police, Lucille Susto told them that she had not seen her roommate since the morning of the 4th, before going to work. Her recollection was that Margaret was not scheduled to work at Don the Beachcomber’s that night, a fact corroborated by the manager of the restaurant. Mary Sullivan’s husband, Desmond, Margaret’s father, had been living in Ireland for the past three years and was not presently in contact with either his wife or daughter; Mary did not have a current address for him. At six-thirty on the evening of the 17th, Mary Sullivan identified the body lying in the morgue as that of her daughter, Margaret. 

The man who discovered the body was Paddy McLaughlin, a doorman at the nearby Drake Hotel, who had been walking a standard poodle belonging to a resident of the hotel. McLaughlin, whose brother, James, was a sergeant in the Chicago police department, reported his find to the police immediately upon returning to the Drake Hotel with the dog. 

“Look, Roy,” his mother said to him while they were having breakfast on the morning of March 6th, “Paddy McLaughlin’s picture’s in the Trib.” 

The McLaughlins were Roy and his mother’s next door neighbors; their sons, Johnny, Billy and Jimmy were Roy’s best friends. Roy, who was eleven years old, looked at the photograph of Mr. McLaughlin dressed in his epauleted doorman’s uniform, the brim of his military-style hat fixed precisely in the center of his forehead, the tip of his aquiline nose almost touching his long, thin upper lip. 

“He found a dead body,” 

“I read the article, Roy. He must have had quite a shock.” 

When Roy saw Johnny that afternoon he asked him what his father had told the family. 

“He said there was nothing to tell other than seeing the girl lying on the sand wrapped in a black raincoat and then calling the cops. My Uncle James says if the body’s identified my dad’ll be called to appear at an inquest, if there is one. I’m thinkin’ about goin’ down to the beach to search for clues. Want to come with me?” 

Johnny was six months older than Roy. He was interested in science and read all about fingerprinting, blood types and various procedures involving detection.

“The police are doing that,” said Roy. “What makes you think we can find something they won’t?”

“Happens all the time. In the Hardy Boys books they’re always solving crimes the cops can’t. The other night on Ned Nye, Private Eye a kid discovered a foreign coin in a murderer’s apartment that could have belonged only to the victim, brought it to Ned, and that cracked the case.” 

A light snow was falling at eight-thirty the next morning when Jimmy and Roy arrived at Oak Street beach. 

“It’s freezing out here,” Roy said. “The snow’s covering up whatever evidence might still be around.”

Waves collapsing on the sand sounded like cats knocking over garbage cans in an alley. Lake Michigan was wrinkled gray and black. 

“You can’t see anything,” said Roy. “Not more than a few hundred yards, anyway. No ships in the distance, no planes in the sky. We should go to the Drake and get hot chocolate in the coffee shop.” 

“My dad doesn’t come on duty today until ten,” said Johnny. “We’ll go over then. The manager’s a pal of his so we won’t have to pay. Come on, let’s see if we can find something.” 

After forty-five minutes of searching all Roy had found was a broken pencil and a used rubber. After he unearthed the rubber he asked Johnny if he knew if the girl had been raped. 

“If she was, it probably didn’t happen on the beach in bad weather. She didn’t have any clothes on under the coat, so if the killer molested her he did it somewhere else before he dumped the body here.” 

Johnny found a toothbrush, cigarette butts, one child’s size pink mitten and a broken neck chain. He held up the chain for Roy to see and said, “This might be something.” 

A cop came along and said to them, “What are you boys up to? This is a crime scene.” 

“It isn’t marked off, officer,” said Johnny. 

“The snow’s coverin’ up the markers. You lads had best be moving along.”

“Do you know Sergeant James McLaughlin?” Johnny asked. “He’s my uncle. I’m Johnny McLaughlin.” 

“Well, when I get home tonight I’ll be sure to tell my wife, Kathleen, guess who I encountered on Oak Street beach this mornin’ in the sleet and snow but Sergeant James McLaughlin’s nephew, Johnny. Go on now, both of you.” 

“And my father’s Paddy McLaughlin, the head doorman at the Drake Hotel. He found the body.” 

“Next you’ll be tellin’ be your mother’s Rose of Sharon.” 

In the Drake coffee shop the boys sat at the counter and ordered hot chocolates. 

“I think the killer’s a rich guy who lives in a fancy apartment around here, on Lake Shore or Marine Drive,” said Johnny. “Probably somebody she knew who worked or she met at Don the Beachcomber’s. He raped the girl, strangled her—or maybe, if he was a real pervert, strangled her before raping her—then carried the body down in the dead of night.” 

Johnny and Roy were finishing their hot chocolates when Paddy McLaughlin came into the coffee shop and sat down on the stool next to his son’s. 

“Top o’ the mornin’, fellas,” he said. “Bobby, the night man, told me you were visiting. May I inquire as to your purpose?” 

“We were searching for clues to the murder,” said Johnny. 

“A cop ran us off the beach,” said Roy.

Mr. McLaughlin put two quarters on the counter and stood up. 

“I’ll be goin’ on the job now,” he said. “See that you get home safely, detectives. Don’t hitchhike, take the bus.” 

The girl’s killer turned out to be a regular customer at Don the Beachcomber’s, who, as Johnny figured, lived a few blocks from the beach. 

“Johnny got it right,” Roy told Jimmy Boyle. “He pegged where the creep met her and where he lived. “Johnny knew it the morning we went to Oak Street to see if we could find a lead.” 

“Did you find something?” 

“No, Johnny just put it together. Maybe he got a feeling from the spot his dad discovered the body.” 

“I heard on the radio about people who have a special talent to tune in to the sick mind of a killer,” said Jimmy, “to identify with him. It’s called havin’ a sick sense.” 

Margaret Sullivan’s rapist-murderer was a 42 year old bachelor named Leonard Danzig, an architect, who told the judge at a pre-trial hearing that he had been searching for several years for a direct descendant of the sister of Jesus Christ, whom he believed, like her brother, claimed to have been fathered by the Holy Ghost. Danzig said he felt it was his duty to abort what he described as an immoral lineage in order to cease the false prophesies that had wrought chaos since the blasphemy of immaculate conception. Danzig’s rationale for the rape was to anneal “the unspeakable insult.” 

Leonard Danzig did not stand trial but was instead committed for the remainder of his natural life to the Hermione Curzon Institution for the Hopelessly Irreparable in Moab, Illinois. 

“Jimmy Boyle’s father says Danzig should have gotten the electric chair,” Roy told his mother. “What do you think?” 

“You can’t execute all of the sick people in the world, Roy. There are too many. Once you start doing that it would never stop.” 

“Don’t you think the world would be better off if Leonard Danzig wasn’t in it?”

Roy’s mother, who had already been divorced twice and had a third marriage annulled, said, “Him and a few other men I can name.”