Great tales spring from real truth,
but don’t let little things like facts
get in the way of a good story.
Little Big Man,
Lakhota survivor of the
Battle of the Little Bighorn
The morning quiet shattered. Outside on Main Street, a gun fired, big, like a Colt .45. I peered across the dance floor in the nearly empty bar toward the double door at the front and waited. The snapping sounds of .38s and .22s mixed with the big cannon, playing a crescendo in the street, before the .45 barked twice to finish the one-act gun play.
Everything was quiet. I counted to thirty. Whatever it was, it wasn’t my problem. I dropped my hand from the Smith and Wesson .38 in my shoulder-holster and picked up my fork. Only five months left on my detective license. I’d have to work something out after that to legally carry my piece.
With alcohol, gambling, and prostitution forbidden in the states, but readily available six miles south of the border in Tijuana, Mexico, Hollywood’s ascendant wealth fueled the growth of Tijuana’s pleasure palaces. The nicest was the Agua Caliente Hotel with a Casino, horse racing track, and golf course. Next was the Mexicali Beer Hall with a polished oak bar that ran the length of the block-long building, where cervezas, whiskey, wine, and cocktails could be had any hour of the day. The Margarita drink and the Caesar salad were both invented in Tijuana, and their popularity grew with the town.
But like any big American city, the glitz was just a veneer covering layers of grit, grime, and crime. Tijuana was a mile of bars, each one pretending to be the only one on the strip with liquor and pretty girls. The harder they tried, the more they blended into a lumpy mish-mash of sun-faded buildings as textured as overcooked oatmeal. Dingy side streets provided hiding places for the gin joints too ashamed to show their façadeson the main thoroughfare.
In the middle of the strip was a typical place distinguished only by a large gilded horseshoe over the doors. Inside on the right, an oak-topped bar ran half the length of the building with room for ten bartenders during racing season. The left wall was lined with one-armed bandits that stole change from patrons who lacked the will or skill to gyrate on the dance floor. In the evenings, a greasy little orchestra cranked out win, place, and show tunes from a raised platform. Beside the bandstand were rows of low-walled booths. In the last one, a hare-lipped man pulled pills from a keno game bag while a kid marked the board behind him for the few players to see. A poorly drawn but brightly painted bullfighter covered the wall opposite the bar. A metaphor for the town, what the artist lacked in talent he made up for in size.
It was December, and 1930 was fading into the past. A scrawny Christmas tree with too few branches and too much tinsel stood watch beside the front door. Greasy kitchen odors and the bar-back tang mingled with the smell of dirt roads and tobacco smoke from the dozen people who comprised the late morning crowd. A breeze stirred spider webs that spanned the transoms, trying to clear the air from the night before.
I sat in the front left booth, doing my best to chew what locals called a breakfast steak. It wasn’t so bad after I taught the cook to beat it senseless with a hammer before letting the flames lick it. The flavor mingled well with the tall Black and White Scotch whiskey for which I’d paid premium. The typical whiskey these bars poured was near poison, but at least it kept the water honest, most of the time.
My last trip to the Horseshoe was in 1927. A chiquita named Silvia had tried to get me to buy a flotilla of hooch on the first night. I bought just enough to acquire the moniker “Painless.” Too bad for her, I was there to snatch her boyfriend, Dockside Freddy, who was living under the name of a man he had murdered. I made sure he swung for it.
But that was old news on stone tablets. The Depression broke out on Black Thursday, October 24, 1929. Thirteen months later, it was tough all over, but the soup kitchen lines were shorter in San Francisco than most other cities. The American Detective Agency had felt the pinch, too. With fewer cases, I did The Chief a favor and retired, giving him one less mouth to feed. The pension wasn’t much, but it went a lot further in Mexico.
That’s how I found myself chewing tough beef in TJ. Time had passed, even in old Mexico. Silvia had two children by her replacement boyfriend. A new bevy of babes conned patrons into buying extra drinks. I was fatter, and no longer hunted men, but they still called me “Painless.”
The bar doors swung open, allowing a brief view of daylight to penetrate the dingy interior. Footsteps scuffed the wooden floor and stopped at the bar. I’d been off the clock for so long, I didn’t care who it was. Even so, I made sure my rod was ready in my shoulder-holster. I pushed aside the finished San Diego Union crossword puzzle and set my teeth to chewing another bite.
After a minute, the man found a beer and his way to my table. He held the neck of his bottle between his thumb and index finger. The next finger had a knuckle wrapped in adhesive tape: the signal of an undercover detective hoping for a meeting. My hat hung on a hook next to my booth, prohibiting me from fixing an imaginary dent, the counter-sign to his taped finger. I gave him a nod instead.
Tradecraft satisfied, he sat down. I would have known that freckled face with happy gray eyes anywhere. He was the big-boned Irishman, Sean McGervey, from the Los Angeles office of the American Detective Agency. His broad shoulders nearly filled his side of the booth as he sat angled with his long legs sticking out the side and into the room.
I swallowed my bite and shooed away the chiquita who trailed him.
“It’s business, Rosa. We’ll call you when it’s over.”
I eyed McGervey.
“What happened out front?”
“No idea,” he said, his face impassive.
“What brings you to Tijuana?”
“Chief asked me to find you.”
“I’m all out of prizes.”
“I’m on the clock.”
“What’s the story?”
“He needs you back.”
I drank some of my Scotch. McGervey pulled on his beer, his Claddagh ring clinking on the bottle.
“Forget it,” I said. “I’m retired. I’m done with chasing crooks. I chase girls now.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“They run slower here,” I said.
“He told me to pester you until you called him.”
Maybe my Chief hadn’t read my retirement memorandum.
“So that’s the price of submission?”
“Yours or mine?”
I pushed my meal to the side, lit a Fatima, and levered my fat body onto my feet.
Catching the bartender’s eye, I said, “I need to use the office, okay?”
“Come on, McGervey. Let’s go see what’s up.”
He followed me to the back where an ornate beaded curtain hid a hallway to a dilapidated office by the rear door. I sat behind the scratched mahogany desk and picked up the candlestick telephone. McGervey took the sturdy wooden chair next to the door.
I toggled the hook, blew into the mouthpiece, and brought the cone at the end of the wire to my ear. The operator came on the line.
“Hola,” I said in my best Spanish. “Por favor, San Francisco en los Estados Unidos. Numero West uno tres seis dos, y invertia el costo. Gracias.”
I hung the earpiece in its cradle and waited. McGervey crossed his legs. Detectives were used to waiting. I lit another Fatima off the old one.
I wondered what The Chief would want with me. With the Depression, there were plenty of men out looking for work. I wondered what McGervey knew, and what he was thinking.
The phone rang. I picked up the blower.
“Tengo listo su conexión.”
The shopworn voice of The Chief — the American Detective Agency’s San Francisco manager — came from the earpiece.
“How’s your tan?”
“Not bad, but it’s winter down here, too.”
“Are you bored yet?”
The Chief knew me, all right: I was nothing without something to stand for.
“What’s on the lot?”
“Alma Spreckels, widow of the sugar tycoon, has a situation. Her son, nineteen-year-old Adolph Jr., is being blackmailed for a wild night at Frank Torres’ Roadhouse in Half Moon Bay. Mrs. Spreckels won’t tolerate her status in the Social Register being compromised by scandal.”
“Blackmail’s a regular racket. You don’t need me to run that down.”
“It’s tricky nowadays. With all the bank closings, the crooks are putting their money with the mob. The blackmail money goes to Genaro Broccolo in San Francisco, then…”
“Why’s a gunsel like Broccolo running the mob’s bank?”
I rubbed the side of my nose, quelling an itch.
“He’s the Capo now. You remember Don Boca getting gunned down in July of ’29?”
I grunted in agreement.
“Well, it took a while, but Broccolo took over. He’s consolidated the rackets as far south as Redwood City. Like I said, he’s now the bank for the local hoods. The blackmail money gets dropped at a North Beach book, and is transferred to Frank Torres, the ex-yegg who owns the Roadhouse in Half Moon Bay. We can’t track who the money goes to after that.”
“Frank Torres, eh? And you think my long-time acquaintance with Torres will let me sweet-talk it out of him?”
“While my operatives work on it regular,” he said, his voice remaining flat, “you could set up shop at his Roadhouse and spot the blackmailers as they set up another mark.”
I rubbed the back of my neck.
“Who’re the other fish?”
“There are two more that we know of, but only Mrs. Spreckels is willing to pay to stop it. She doesn’t mind if the others benefit when we clean out the whole rat’s nest.”
“What’s your offer?”
“She’s paying premium. I can bring you in as a contract stringer, undercover, of course.”
That trumped learning to dance La Cucaracha. Maybe I could polish my armor and tilt at this windmill.
“Okay, I’m in, but I’ll need some new suits.”
I turned to McGervey.
“Let’s get me back into the shooting game.”
The 1920s were a fine, wild time, and San Francisco had answered the call of the wild. Prohibition had separated people into the Wets and the Dries. The City was so wet, it dripped. The Depression was a slap in the face, but it didn’t stop the party. Laugh and have another drink!
San Francisco ran on fun, and who knew fun better than Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle? Eight years earlier, after the petite Virginia Rappe had died during a three-day party held in Roscoe’s hotel suite, William Randolph Hearst had convicted Hollywood’s biggest comedy star of rape and murder in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner. It didn’t matter that Roscoe was acquitted: his acting career was over. He took up directing under the name William B. Goodrich.
Tired of Hollywood’s regular grind, he played Broadway in Baby Mine, then helped open Bimbo’s — an espresso-paced club here in The City — using the interior of his own failed Culver City nightclub, giving it to Bimbo’s for the cost of shipping. At night, in the hidden speakeasy, feather-festooned chorus girls danced to a jazz band while patrons drank gin from coffee cups, and Dolfina seemed to swim nude in a huge tank behind the bar. The chorus girls were probably still asleep during luncheon, but the dining room served a decent fare. The Chief was buying, and I was hungry.
I stepped off the Market Street car at Felton and bought a fresh rose for my lapel from a girl in the street curb flower booth while a handful of carolers sang.
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
gathering winter fuel.
I dropped my Fatima on the sidewalk and ground it out with my shoe. Shaking another from the pack almost emptied it. I bought fresh smokes from a newsie at a corner-stand full of men with large faces and pocket watches to match.
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine,
when we bear them thither. “
Page and monarch, forth they went,
forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
and the bitter weather.
While I had laid low in Mexico, my two favorite newspapers had merged to become the Call Bulletin. The masthead looked funny to me, but the headlines didn’t. Hunters Point shipyard just laid off 8,000 workers, cutting down to one shift a day and a four-day work week.
The tough times seen everywhere else had finally arrived in The City. I lit my Fatima with a wood match, and then walked the half block to Bimbo’s. A faint tang of brine wafted in from the bay.
The restaurant’s arched windows were draped in pine bough garland, and a man dressed as Santa Claus gave candy canes to folks, opening the door for them to enter. I left my hat and overcoat with the cloakroom girl, and espied The Chief.
He sat at a table against the wall, halfway into the main dining area. He was as plump as when I last saw him, but he looked a half shade grayer, older than his actual seventy-two years, and the herd of white whiskers on his upper lip had thinned. His baby-pink grandfatherly face was tinged with ash, but his blue eyes were still as sharp as Guillotine’s blade. His nicely pressed suit was tasteful while being utterly anonymous. A gentle smile displayed a politeness that went no deeper than the skin on which it hung, his compassion exhausted from fifty years of crook-hunting.
I dropped my fat body into a seat facing the street.
“I thought you’d be more tanned,” he said. “You don’t look much different than when you retired.”
“I haven’t fully converted to sun worship yet.”
“That’s good. I need an experienced man at the Roadhouse.”
Our waiter arrived. The Chief ordered the special of pot roasted beef with vegetables and coffee for both of us.
“Why me?” I asked.
“You were a reliable detective before you retired. With all the Wobbly activity, headquarters pulled my best guys for strike-breaking squads.”
Back in ’29, busting the heads of union organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World for the industrialists who’d hired the Agency had been the straw that had broken my camel’s back, and I’d quit.
“I don’t want to take a job so somebody can be freed-up to attack Wobblies.”
“It’s not like that,” he said. “I was already short-handed when this rich client showed up. I know you’re still steamed at the Agency, but I’m desperate for experienced hands. I need you back on the job.”
So I wasn’t freeing anybody up for a fight.
“My opinion of the Agency hasn’t changed, but I suppose I can stake out the Roadhouse for you.”
“Here’s what we have on the case, and some operating capital.”
He passed me a brown paper portfolio tied with red string, and an envelope containing a banker’s pack of C-notes.
“If you need more,” he said, “let me know. I’ll need your expense reports each month.”
“Like usual. So, what can you tell me?”
“Not a thing. The money trail goes cold at the Roadhouse. The Spreckels’ kid had his amusement there. It stands to reason you should be there watching.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“I renewed your detective license and had Josephine book you a room.”
He took a leather card case from his inside coat pocket.
“And I had the printer make some cards for you.”
I scowled. He gave me a few seconds of his blank expression.
“The cards say you’re retired.”
I rubbed my thumb along the side of my index finger.
“How antsy is the client?”
“She’s a patient bird. She’ll pay the blackmail for as long it takes, until we root out the whole problem. She doesn’t want this cropping up again.”
Our food arrived. We ate in silence.
A flurry of activity at the door got our attention. I looked and saw a woman nobody could forget. I sure hadn’t. I’d been a rookie working skip-traces in Illinois. She’d been breaking in as a dancer. The Agency had pulled me out just as we’d been getting close. That was when I was young and thin, when she was unknown.
Since then, Loie Fuller had set tongues to wagging on both sides of the Atlantic by performing her notorious “Serpentine Dance” in Paris at the Folies-Bergère. Her lithe form in flowing chiffon became the image of la Belle Époque, known on this side of the pond as the Art Nouveau period. That dream ended with a bang: a Vasić hand grenade, small arms fire, and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The Great War wasn’t so great. Yet, here was Loie, tempting me to dream again.
She passed our table without noticing me. We both had gray hair, and added padding, but hers was in all the right places. The lady with her was formidable — six-feet-tall in a long gown — her square shoulders suggesting a working-class lineage. She carried herself like a battleship at sea. They took the table in the center of the room while the maître d’ followed in their wake.
The Chief used an eyebrow to indicate the two women.
“That’s Mrs. Spreckels, and her friend… ”
A sigh escaped my lips.
“The crack in your façade‘s leaking air.”
Sarcasm was the only emotion he had left.
“I used to know her when we were young and reckless.”
We offered a moment of silence for dead dreams and missed opportunities. Then he told their story.
“Mrs. Alma Spreckels met La Loie in Paris, and the two became fast friends. The Spreckels widow was rolling in dough but lacked social contacts. The dancer knew everyone who was anybody but was often short on cash. Alma and Loie used each other, as famous friends do.”
I thumb-rubbed the itch that started in my index finger.
“Mrs. Spreckels is one of the biggest art collectors in America. She imported thirteen Rodin masterworks.”
“If she can afford French sculptures, she can afford us,” I said.
“That’s why we’re having lunch. She wanted to see you. I told her that it would have to be like this, so that nobody would connect you to the blackmail of her son.”
At least I had on a new suit for the occasion.
“She can look all she wants,” I said.
Mrs. Spreckels said something to Loie, who looked at me with an appraising eye. It took a minute before her eyes opened wide. She smiled.
I winked, and then smoothed my right eyebrow.
She turned and said something to Mrs. Spreckels. A short conversation ended with the client looking at The Chief. She gave a curt nod.
“You’re approved,” he said.
“I got that.”
Our waiter appeared.
“Any dessert today?”
I looked at The Chief.
He looked at me.
“Impress our client. Skip the pie and go to work.”
That was okay by me. Seeing Loie made my gut feel like it had already left the room. I stood. The Chief’s smile might have meant anything. He ordered apple pie as I left.
Since I’d need more freedom than riding the train could give me, and since the rich client was footing the bill, I hired a swanky gray Ford-A Tudor Sedan. I drove south to Frank Torres’ Roadhouse, wondering if I still had what it took to fight crime all by myself.
Bayshore Drive hugs the scrub-brush-covered coast from San Francisco to Monterey. On the north end of Half Moon Bay, it skirts an isolated bluff that overlooks Moss Beach. There, off Marine Boulevard, on Beach Way, Frank Torres had given up the life of a safe-cracking yegg to open his Roadhouse. Frank knew the perfect location to start his bootlegging operation, and Moss Beach was it.
A huge sign signaled the turn to Frank’s Place, promising “Dancing,” “Good Things to Eat,” and “A Restful Place to Stay.” I didn’t know how those who’d been blackmailed felt about the “restful” part. I pulled into a circular white gravel drive that connected Bayshore to the rows of covered carports where patrons could stow their cars out of the frequent coastal drizzle. Flowerbeds and ornate shrubbery flanked the car lot and outlined the club.
Frank’s was a large rectangular building, built of chalky white stone. Next door, the slate-blue asbestos shingle siding of the two-story Marine View Hotel stretched north along the bluff. An enclosed breezeway connected the two buildings. Depending on the season and time of day, swirling mists added a sense of mystery and romance that some folks found as attractive as the Pacific Ocean view.
Rumors were that Torres had picked the site because the bluff sat atop a sea cave, and he had tunneled into it, gaining access to the beach below. After multiple raids failed to find any sea cave access, the District Attorney and the San Mateo County Sheriff had given up searching.
But with the amount of Canadian liquor that Pacific Ocean smugglers were running through Torres’ place, that access had to be somewhere. Thirsty customers up and down the central California corridor made his Roadhouse the coast’s most successful speakeasy, thus also creating the perfect breeding ground for all manner of pikers and pills, all looking to pull off some big caper — including blackmail.
I parked the Ford-A Tudor in front of the hotel. The Roadhouse was starting the swing-shift party, the opening act for the night’s festivities. Christmas was still weeks away, but they already had enough holly and ivy decorating the lobby to tempt even Santa to visit this tough hole.
At one side of the main staircase, a towering Douglas Fir filled the lobby with its fragrant scent. All its ornaments were silver and gold, even the snowmen, angels, elves, reindeer, and Santas. Strands of silver beads glimmered like exotic pearls encircling its long green body. Points of white glowed from the center of tear-shaped, mercury-glass lights strung among the branches. I hadn’t seen anything like that down in TJ.
I tossed the car keys to the attendant and walked to the front desk. All the male employees sported red-and-green plaid bowties, threaded with silver and gold. They looked like wrapped presents under the tree. I gave the clerk my name.
“Your travel bureau called.”
He signaled the concierge, and then focused on me.
“You’re expected. Mr. Torres will be here momentarily.”
“I’d like a room on the top floor, on the end near the nightclub.”
“Mr. Torres selected a suite for you in the middle. It’s quite nice.”
“I’m sure it is, but unless he’s paying for it, I want a room on the nightclub end. And have the kitchen send up a pot of coffee and a sandwich.”
The clerk nodded and exchanged the keys.
“Here you are, sir, Room 228.”
He looked over my shoulder.
“Mr. Torres is here.”
I turned. The door to the breezeway connecting the hotel and the club clicked shut as Frank Torres crossed the lobby. He wasn’t wearing the requisite holiday bowtie. Above his broad shoulders, his long face, brown eyes, and thick black eyebrows showed no expression: a horse-face if ever I saw one. His mouth almost smiled as he held out his mitt for a shake.
“Look at you,” he said. “I thought you were dead.”
“I paid some guys to spread that around. It’s a useful rumor for a flatfoot looking to retire.”
His eyes narrowed. He stepped close.
“What do you want at my Roadhouse?”
“I got homesick. Maybe a month in the old stomping grounds will be the cure.”
His nostrils flared.
“Are you sure you aren’t here to stir up trouble?”
I hung a facsimile of sincerity on my face.
“I’m here for the scenery. Carmel is supposed to be lovely. I’ve never seen it, nor Monterey at less than car speed.”
He tilted his head forward and cocked an eyebrow.
“You’re not going to shoot me again, are you?”
“It just grazed your side. You know I was trying to stop the girl with the gray eyes from escaping with her dandy. Besides, I’m retired now.”
Torres was uncertain what to make of me, but I was a paying customer. That was probably good enough for him, as long as his boys kept an eye on me.
“Well, okay, but no bothering the plungers. I need them to gamble at my tables.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I gave him a grin.
“This is such a nice place. What’s it take to get the nickel tour?”
“You already know where my office and private quarters are.”
“Yes, but I want to see the whole shebang, now that I’m staying here.”
“I’ll think about it. In the meantime, please enjoy yourself. If you need something special, just ask.”
He made a gesture to the clerk, and then turned toward the stairs and his second-floor suite.
I stood there a few more seconds. In the distance I could hear the tune of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on a piano. The desk clerk pretended to clear his throat.
I looked at him. He placed a French postcard in my hand. On the front was a woman with her skirt hiked up, fiddling with her hosiery. Despite the season, she wasn’t standing under any mistletoe. On the back something was printed in fancy script:
Special Introductory Offer:
Two for the Price of One.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“You appear to be a man of discretion.”
I waited, card in hand. He lowered his voice slightly.
“The coupon can be redeemed with any of the ladies at the other end of the second floor from your room.”
I pocketed the card, thinking of how the young sugar tycoon may have been taken in by just such an offer.
“How nice. Since you’re so accommodating, send up a bottle of Rye and a siphon of soda water.”
A pair of black-suited goons looked out of a doorway, giving me the evil eye. They weren’t dressed in any holiday finery. I hoped that they weren’t looking for trouble on my first day back at work.
My hotel room was just off the stairwell next to the Roadhouseentrance. The side window afforded a good view of the front door. That left the highway side and rear exits uncovered. The last time I’d been here, those exits weren’t accessible by the public.
A maid of average height, with narrow shoulders and flared hips, was still at work on my room when I walked through the open door. Her uniform was so formal that she could have been mistaken for a nurse. Her raven hair was close-bobbed, like a flapper. It was out of style, but looked good on her. Her pert breasts rode high, the way fashion magazines preferred, but she was too far away from the runways of Paris to have been noticed, even with the sprig of holly peeking over the top of her polished silver name-tag.
“I’m sorry sir,” she said, her pale skin reddening. “I’ll just be a moment.”
Her makeup almost hid the late-healing stage of a black eye.
“Pay me no mind.”
I walked through the sitting room, the dressing room with a bathroom to the left, and entered the bedroom. My bag was open on the table between the wardrobe and the matching dresser. I slipped off my double-breasted suit-coat, and hung it on the oak Gentleman’s valet. The window facing the Roadhouse was raised, drawing air from the open rear window that overlooked the bluff and the ocean below. The sound of surf churning on the rocky coast was distant. A smell of fish mixed with brine and kelp carried on the breeze.
I returned to the sitting room and hung my Fedora on the Bentwood coat-tree by the door. Still wearing my vest over my shirt, I sat down. I snuffed my Fatima in the ashtray and lit another, sending a lungful of smoke to ride the breeze out the open door. I enjoyed the view while the maid finished dusting. She went to the door and peeked outside before going to her cart, quickly returning with bed linens. She scanned the parking lot as she cleared the door, looking relieved to be back inside as she disappeared into the rear rooms.
A bellhop appeared with a tray and set it on the table in front of me, deftly sliding the potted Poinsettia aside. He poured coffee from a large silver carafe into a Delft china cup with saucer, and then removed the linen cloth that covered a nicely stacked ham and cheese sandwich on pumpernickel. Dill pickle spears and a pile of cruditésfilled the rest of the plate. An icing-covered sugar cookie in the shape of a snowman rested on a small plate that matched the other hand-painted blue china. The fifty-cent room-service bill was pricey, but it was a resort hotel, and the client had the jack to pay the freight. I signed the chit and pulled a dime from my pocket for a tip. Over his red-and-green plaid bow-tie, the boy smiled and left.
I tucked the ivory linen napkin under my chin, over my collar and tie, and took a bite of the sandwich. My Fatima smoldered in the ashtray. A dash of horseradish in the dark brown mustard went well with the hickory smoked ham and sharp Irish cheddar. I left the pitcher of cream untouched as I drank some of the dark, strong java. I could get to like this kind of stake-out. It sure beat cold nights shivering in the rain outside a flophouse.
Between furtive glances toward the open door, the maid finished making the bed.
“What’s eating you, Sister?”
A startled look, like a rabbit in a hawk’s shadow, crossed her face. She blushed again.
“Whatever do you mean, sir?”
“You act like the rides in the parking lot are going to bite you.”
“I just don’t want to be seen, that’s all.”
She smoothed her unwrinkled apron.
“Who are you afraid of?”
“I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Not with me.”
I dug for my wallet.
“I’m a detective.”
I gave her my card.
“Like Race Williams in Black Mask magazine?”
I suppressed a grimace.
She ran her left index finger across my card, taking her time reading my name, and then looked up.
“It says you’re retired.”
I showed her my gun in its shoulder-holster.
“I can still settle somebody’s hash.”
She slipped my card into a hidden pocket, and wrung a pair of hands that seemed too small for her long arms and torso. Brushing her still unwrinkled apron, she looked up, searching my face.
I let her get what she could from my brown eyes. She must have found something she liked because she sat in the chair next to me, her hands clasped in her lap.
“What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth Claire Donovan.”
I looked at her name-tag, its narrow silver band too small to hold that many letters.
“People call me Cayte,” she said.
“What’s got you so jumpy, Cayte?”
“I’m afraid he’ll find me.”
Her slender frame shook as tears crawled down her cheeks.
This sort of thing was never good; there were agency directives against getting involved in domestic squabbles. She didn’t seem to have a grifter’s touch: she probably had a bona fide problem. Lately, the world seemed full of them.
“We moved here from Iowa, looking for a better chance. When he couldn’t find steady work, he started drinking.”
She pulled a cotton handkerchief from her apron and dabbed her eyes.
“He beats me.”
She turned away.
I took her hand, put it flat on her knee, and then patted it.
“I feel sick about leaving little Jack,” she said. “He’s only four, but I couldn’t take another beating.”
With her moist, imploring eyes, she looked like an angel in a de Riquer painting.
“I took a cab as far as my money would go. It dropped me here. John Contina, Mr. Torres’ nephew who plays piano in the club, saw me crying on the steps. He got me this job. He introduced me to Anna. She works here, and she lets me stay with her. I pay rent and for my own food and everything. I’m hoping to get my own place after New Year’s.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” I said.
She took my hand.
“Thank you for understanding.”
I understood that her man was a louse. No woman needed that, not even the ones I’d arranged to have locked away from the public. There are ways to break a man’s hands so he can never fight again.
I needed an informant, and this maid would fit the bill. I lit another Fatima.
“If you see your husband, let me know. I’ll fix it so he won’t bother you anymore.”
“But I couldn’t afford to hire…”
“On the house.”
“Thank you! Oh, thank you!”
“Now, go fix your face so you look okay when you finish here.”
I glanced at my sandwich. One bite gone, but now so was my appetite. I drank the java and poured another cup. I stared at the bright red Poinsettia a moment or two.
I had only her side of the story. Sure, her shiner told a violent tale, but that wasn’t enough to give her Carte Blanche. She could be a gold-digger with her own spin on the story to sell.
There was a tap on the door. Another bellhop stood there, older than the first one, but also wearing the festive holiday bow-tie, holding a basket covered in a cloth.
“You read my mind.”
I motioned him in. Through the open door, the chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” could be heard coming from the piano downstairs.
The bellhop placed the basket on the other chair, and unloaded an ice bucket, a soda water siphon, a fifth of Canadian Rye, and two highball glasses.
My mouth watered. I rubbed my chin. The room service bill said caviar and crackers, $5.I signed it and gave him four bits from my pocket. He, too, smiled and left.
I pushed the cold coffee away, took the napkin from under my chin and covered the sandwich plate, saving it for later. I put a cube of ice in a highball glass, poured three fingers of Rye whiskey, and filled the glass from the siphon. I took a long slow drink that drained half the glass, enjoying the crisp medicinal smell and the pale amber color.
I turned toward the maid, who had just emerged from the bathroom.
“All done?” I asked.
Her fresh coat of face paint all but concealed the mottled green and blue skin around her left eye. She looked at me with entreating eyes.
“You won’t say anything to Mr. Torres, will you?”
“I’m not the kind to kiss and tell.”
She blushed almost as red as the berries in the sprig of holly which graced her name-tag before she left, closing the door behind her.
She didn’t seem the type to try and play me, but as a woman, she could learn that trade quick. On the other hand, she could become an informant. I’d have to play my cards right to get the most from what I was dealt. Maybe I could see about sneaking a few cards from the bottom of the deck.
I drained my glass and fixed another. I undid my vest and tie, removed them, went to the bedroom, and put them on the oak valet with my suit jacket. I opened the valet drawer and put in my wallet, watch, tie-pin, and ring. I closed the bedroom’s side window and curtains, and then unpacked my luggage.
Lifting the leather bag, I turned it upside down and pressed the two recessed buttons on either side of the bottom plate. The clasps rotated and the bottom rose a bit, allowing me to lift it free. I checked the envelope of cash before taking The Chief’s brown portfolio back to the table.
The hatcheck girl said nothing as she passed me my ticket over the walnut counter decorated with holly. She was cute enough to be the bait in a blackmail gambit, but not outgoing enough for a recruiter. She smiled at the tip I left.
I squared my black bow-tie and tugged at the white shirt cuffs inside the sleeves of my dull black dinner jacket. It was fashionable enough without being the height of fashion: if I had to lurk in any dark corners or tail a suspect, shiny lapels just wouldn’t do.
The ‘shine pointed at my shoes. I sat for a treatment. He gripped a tin of black Shinola-Bixby in his left hand, a stumpy middle finger missing its tip showed over the rim. The pale skin around his wedding band was tinted green, but it wasn’t in honor of the season.
“Is that the new shoe polish?” I asked.
“Yeah, you use less of it, but get a higher shine.”
He touched the polish with his brush and set to work. Looking up, he gave me a slit-eyed grin.
“I’ve got the Win-and-Place for tomorrow’s third race at Aqueduct.”
“That’s dandy,” I said.
“Really, mister! If we can figure out the Show, we’ll have the Trifecta.”
“That may be tough; they’re running on the inner track, now. Dirt’s hard to figure, given New York’s weather and how different horses do in mud.”
“I knew you were a wise-head, soon as I seen you. I’ve got the horses, and you’ve got the angles, see? So let’s compare notes and place a bet.”
That yarn was old before I was young.
“I don’t play the bangtails.”
He gave me a bug-eyed stare.
“Your loss, mister, ’cause it’s a sure thing.”
“Of that, I’m certain.”
I was also certain that the shoeshine, though he was definitely a schemer, lacked the brains to run a blackmail racket.
I paid for the shine, and then crossed the festive lobby to the lectern at the entrance of the supper club.
The red-headed hostess’ slender form made her appear taller than her five-foot five-inch height; her average curves seemed statuesque on her compact frame. Her long neck finished in an almond-shaped face with wide-set green eyes, full lips, and a nose that just missed being upturned. She wore a long-sleeved black dress, hemmed so it grazed her well-turned ankles. Her requisite sprig of decorative holly was tucked behind her right ear. She raised the pen in her long-fingered hand.
“Would you like a table for the evening?”
“Yes, but just for supper. I hope to mingle after that.”
“Your waiter can answer any questions about our entertainment possibilities. Will anyone else be joining you this evening?”
“No, but perhaps I’ll meet someone later.”
“You just might.”
She winked and then made a few marks on the sheet in front of her. She couldn’t be serious, flirting with this fat old man; she must just play it cute for all the single marks that came her way. Maybe she was trolling for a blackmail target.
“Please follow me,” she said, taking a black fabric-covered menu from a recessed shelf.
As she led me into the club, the rear view was just as nice. An oval opening in her dress exposed her back, as pale as moonlight. California’s Bay Area fogs are no help in getting a little color into your skin. Maybe she’d like to share some Mexican sunshine with me?
And maybe I had a chance of getting ice in hell when I got there, too.
Three chandeliers and innumerable wall sconces cast a warm orange glow on the hardwood dance floor, flanked on each side by two rows of tables, each with Poinsettias in silver or gold pots in the center. Columns separated the ballroom from carpeted aisles that ran the perimeter of the building. I knew from previous Roadhousevisits that the back stairs on the inland side led to Torres’ living quarters on the second floor of the club.
Above the wainscoting, windows lined the wall facing the ocean-side cliff. Fringed valances stretched across the tops of each window while, at the wooden frames between them, the drapes were pulled together and yoked with a braided gold rope that matched the valance fringe. Every twenty feet, French doors offered access to the terrace outside that overlooked the beach and the ocean. The cloud bank on the horizon prevented the setting sun from shining through.
A square-shouldered young man of medium build with wavy black hair played a Steinway Baby Grand beside the dance floor.
The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
The placard on the easel read John Contina, the young man Cayte had mentioned. Frank Torres’ nephew. Being a relative must have liberated him from the obligatory red-and-green bow-tie. Still, anyone who worked here was a suspect in the blackmail scheme. My antennae were out.
The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
A band was setting up on a raised stage at the end of the dance floor while Contina continued playing traditional Christmas songs.
The holly and the ivy
Now are both well grown;
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.
Kid Ory’s Creole Orchestra was emblazoned on the boxed music stands of the band on the raised stage. My acquaintance with Kid Ory started in the early 1920s when he headlined Oakland’s Creole Cafe. He played most of San Francisco’s hot spots and ritzy parties before he left for Chicago in ’25.
At the Baby Grand, Contina segued from “The Holly and the Ivy” into “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The hostess led me to a table on the inland side of the building. A few people watched the ocean from the terrace. One gestured wildly, turning to her companion.
I pointed with my chin.
“What’s up on the veranda?”
The hostess looked.
“The whales are migrating south to Baja for the winter. They must have seen a spout.”
“I’d like to see one, someday.”
Her green eyes sparkled with mischief.
“Maybe I can show you a good spot to watch them?”
“That would be nice.”
I smiled as she returned to the hostess station. I wondered how big a tip I would need to get the guided tour.
A waiter arrived, and I ordered the night’s special of chicken consommé, artichoke-and-tomato salad, locally bagged grouse, potatoes, corn, string beans, and sliced avocado, with a finish of orange ice. A decade of Prohibition had killed the wine industry. Despite the dangers and criminal elements inherent in the illicit liquor trade, it was easier and less expensive to get a bottle of hard hooch than a mediocre bottle of wine. I ordered coffee with my meal.
Contina switched from traditional Christmas tunes to popular ones. He finished playing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and launched into “I May Be Wrong, but I Think You’re Wonderful.” For an owner’s nephew, he wasn’t half bad. Maybe he could make it on the circuit if he tried.
And maybe he was clipping the clientele to finance a road-tour.
Barely a third of the tables were full, but twilight was still an hour away as we early-birds took our supper. Most tables were occupied by groups of couples in evening wear. Men with hair plastered flat to their heads sat beside women in glad rags who wore finger-waved or curling-iron hairstyles and makeup by Max Factor, or some knockoff brand. The women’s hats were smaller this year, with shorter rims, and worn tilted to the side. Quite a few of the women wore no hats at all, and they had their hair done Greta Garbo style: side-parted with the wind-blown look, longer than the Clara Bow flapper length. Neither look had made it down to the chiquitas I was used to in Tijuana. White arms, shoulders, and collar-bones emerged from bright-colored gowns that also revealed bare backs. The hem-lines were longer than when I’d left, but the gams were still fine. Jewelry sparked in the dimming light as they sat bracketed by men in dark dinner jackets, tuxes, and bow-ties.
Several men wearing workday suits sat at two tables in the rear. The armpit bulges under their coats were barely noticeable as they ate without conversation. They must be some of Torres’ trouble boys having a repast before going on night shift. I examined them unobtrusively as I turned slightly in my chair, my arm on the back, pretending to gaze out at the ocean waves.
When my soup and salad dishes had been cleared, I got up and wandered toward the bandstand. Edward “Kid” Ory was the best trombone player I’d heard, and I listened to them all. After moving to Chicago, he became famous, working with the greats, like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver.
Kid saw me and stepped off the dais.
“Look at you!”
He grabbed my hand and shook it.
“I thought I’d seen a ghost, but it was only pale, pudgy you.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Edward. I thought you were in Chicago.”
I shook a Fatima from my pack.
“I was, but this Depression hit hard there. It was bad; too few jobs for too many musicians. I came back to play a few gigs with the guys I cut records with. Then I’m dropping out. My brother’s got a chicken ranch outside Los Angeles. I’m going to help him run it.”
He gave me a light off his smoke.
I took a deep drag.
“Sounds like me. I retired, but came back for a visit.”
I lifted my chin.
“How long’s this gig last?”
“Through New Year’s Eve.”
He took a drag and popped a smoke ring before shooting a thin plume of smoke through it.
“You coming back through on your way south?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re here again in mid-January.”
‘”If I’m still here, I’ll stop by.”
“You still owe me a bottle.”
“It was a crooked deck,” I objected. “But I’ll have a bottle sent to the dressing room for old times’ sake.”
I started to leave, but turned back.
“What do you think about the piano player?”
“Contina? He’s got a good touch and plays some fine stride piano. I offered to take him to Chicago, but he turned me down. He’s a good musician, but it’s not his main gig. Why?”
“Just making conversation,” I said.
We flicked our ashes onto a passing busboy’s tray.
“Well, I have to get set for the show.”
He turned to the bandstand.
I returned to my table as the waiter brought the main course. While I ate, I observed the room. Long ago, I gave up trying to guess what kind of lives lurked behind the façadesthat people wore in public. Folks usually fell into one of two categories: citizens or suspects. That sounded too much like The Chief, but it was all I had left after decades on the job.
The crowd of suspects at the two rear tables stood to leave without paying their tab or having dessert. Two of them conversed while the others left the club. The one facing me pointed in my direction. The other one turned to look.
It was “Spider” Aures, and he’d recognized me.
Excerpt from Roadhouse Affairs © 2014 Newton Love.
Cover Artwork “Onslow Avenue 2010”
© 2010, 2014 by John Hannah.
Used with the artist’s gracious permission.
Frank’s Place (Roadhouse) vintage photographs
© 2014 by Moss Beach Distillery.
Used with the MBD owners’ kind permission.
May not be reprinted or excerpted without written permission.
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