So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
If you’re a cop, the best thing you can hope for is to have a partner like Ski Agassi. That, and a beautiful lady who loves you. I was thinking about both, lying on my hospital bed watching morphine drip into my arm. It started as a small bubble, very slowly turned into a teardrop, then silently fell into the tube. I was concentrating on that process, wondering how long it would take for that drop to weave its way through my veins and into my brain when the doctor came in.
His name was Meisel, a short man with alert eyes and graying hair and a jovial attitude that helped, considering the situation. I had a hazy recollection of having met him briefly when I had arrived at the L.A. hospital the night before. He had a large envelope under his arm.
“Morning, Sergeant Bannon,” he said. “How’s the pain?”
“I’m kinda numb all over.”
“Good. If it becomes a problem, call the nurse and she’ll give that little knob a twist and make it go away.”
“What do they call you, by the way?”
“Like the letter zee?”
“Okay, Zee, here’s where we stand. They did a pretty good job back at Walter Reed. Basically your left leg is fine. And they’ve got the bones in that right leg lined up. The ankle is still a mess but we’ll take care of that in due time. The good news is that I’m the best there is at this kind of thing. I’ll get you back on your feet without so much as a limp. The downside is it’s going to take time.”
“How does six months sound?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. It had already been three, six more sounded like forever.
He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead he took an X ray from the envelope and slapped it against the windowpane. He pointed to the bones in my right leg. The leg looked a lot better than the first time I had seen a picture of it. Then, the bones looked like a bunch of scrambled, broken toothpicks. The shinbone was shattered in a half-dozen places and the ankle was twisted almost backward.
The bones still looked like toothpicks but now they were straight, and held in line with metal pins. The foot still looked like it had been tacked on as an afterthought.
“We’re looking at three more operations. One to get the shinbones back together and two more on that ankle. Then two to three months teaching you how to walk again. At first you’ll be staggering around like a drunk stork.”
I laughed. “Better than crawling,” I said.
Meisel nodded and smiled broadly. “Good attitude. At least you’re back in California. How about family? You’re not married?”
I hesitated a minute and said, “No, sir.”
“You list your next of kin as Ski Agassi?”
“My partner when I was a cop before the war. I… haven’t really been in touch for a while.”
He pulled a chair up and sat beside me.
“I’ve reviewed your records, Zee. It helps me to know how you got your wounds.”
“I was a traffic cop, Doc. Drove my jeep over a land mine.”
“You were trapped in your jeep with your legs almost broken off and you took out a German Tiger tank with a bazooka.”
“Wrong place at the wrong time.”
“They don’t hand out Silver Stars and Purple Hearts for driving over land mines. Look, I’ve treated a lot of wounded soldiers. I know there’s a certain amount of guilt involved in survival. But you have to help me help you to get well. Your frame of mind will have a lot to do with how fast we accomplish that. I’m an expert at the mechanics. But you need friends for support.”
“I’m just not ready to…” I paused, trying to frame the rest of the sentence.
“Hell, son, heroism is not a choice you make, it’s made for you. It certainly isn’t something to be ashamed of. I don’t care what you tell people, tell ’em you broke your leg skiing in the Alps for all I care. But you need support in this effort. You’re facing a long and dreary process. The last thing I need is for you to go getting depressed on me.”
He slapped his hands on his knees and stood up.
“Besides,” he added, “if you think you’re going to be a burden on people who care for you, you’re wrong. You’ll be a bigger burden if you cut them out.”
“Hey Doc,” I said, as he started toward the door.
“What day is it?”
“It’s August tenth.”
“Christ, I’ve really been out of it. The last thing I remember was getting on the train. That must’ve been… two weeks ago? I keep losing time with all this morphine.”
Meisel stopped and stared at me with curiosity.
“They kept you very sedated on the train because of your foot.”
“I guess so. I don’t remember the train ride. I barely remember meeting you last night. Anyway, thanks.”
He came around the bed and leaned over.
“You don’t know about the bomb?”
“My God,” he said. “We dropped something called an atomic bomb on Japan five days ago. It wiped out a whole town called Hiroshima. We dropped another one on Nagasaki yesterday. They expect the Japanese to surrender within the week.”
“Aw c’mon.” It’s all that morphine, I thought.
“Zee, the war is over.”
I just stared at him.
“And I slept through it,” I said finally.
He started laughing, a big belly laugh. And then I joined him. The first time I had really laughed in a long time. He was shaking his head as he walked toward the door.
“It’s you and me against that leg from here on out, Zee. We start at eight in the morning. No food or drink after midnight. I don’t want you puking on me in the middle of the operation.”
Ski showed up four days later.
The big bear of a man appeared in the doorway. He was wearing a red silk tie and a white shirt under a dark blue suit, expensive, the kind that comes with only one pair of pants. And he was carrying a black briefcase. I remembered him being heavier, perhaps a little taller, a bit younger, a lot sloppier. That’s the way the memory works. Nothing changes in your mind. Nothing ages. Everything is just as you last saw it and I hadn’t seen Ski in four years.
“That must’ve been some big dog that bit you,” he said, nodding at the cast on my leg.
“You look like a damn stockbroker,” I said. “That what happens when you make lieutenant?”
“It’s my Sunday suit. I decided to come formal now that I outrank you.”
That tickled me. Some things never change. He pulled a chair over beside the bed, sat down, and my hand disappeared into his giant paw.
“I missed you, pal,” he said gently. “You’re lousy when it comes to writing home.”
“Ah, I didn’t have anything to say you couldn’t read in the papers. How’d you find me?”
“I’m a cop, remember? I’m also your next of kin. They kept me informed.”
“Meisel called you,” I said.
He smiled. “That, too.”
“He’s part shrink,” I growled.
“It’s nice to have a sawbones who gives a shit,” he said. “Called anybody since you got here?”
I stared at him for a second or two and shook my head and that ended the Q and A. For the next thirty minutes he brought me up to date on the squad. Lieutenant Moriarity had retired and moved to Florida to fish out his life. A guy named Mancusa, who needed a road map to put his socks on, had made captain. Jerry Fowler, one of our pals in homicide, was killed in a car wreck one night on the way home from a bar. Ski had replaced me as sergeant and then moved up to lieutenant when Mancusa was promoted.
“All I do is make assignments, chew ass, or pat people on the back, whichever’s appropriate. It’s dog work. I miss the old days.”
“Waste of a good cop,” I said, my speech beginning to slur. “Th’ Ponder Man.”
Agassi was one of the best homicide cops I ever met. We made a good team. I’d pick clues out of the carpet and he’d ponder. That’s what he was best at, pondering. He would sit and stare into space and all the clues and evidence would swirl around in his head and come together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Then I’d step back in and tie up the loose ends. He once solved a murder case pondering and making phone calls while sitting in a hospital bed with a bullet in his side. There were still some loose ends to that one.
“Oh, I have a lot of time to ponder,” he said.
He reached down, picked up the attache case, put it carefully on the bed beside me so it wouldn’t rattle my leg, and snapped it open. It was full of file folders.
“Four years of pondering here,” he said. “I call it the Eureka File. The doc says you’re gonna have a lot of free time on your hands for the next couple of months. Maybe this’ll keep you from getting too bored. Call it a welcome home present.”
The morphine was taking me down and my eyes were drooping.
“You’re obsessive,” I mumbled.
“Completely,” he said with a smile. “Meantime, I’ll drop in every week or so. Least I can do since I’m next of kin.” He patted my hand but I was in never-never land before he got out the door.
A few days later when I was lucid enough to open the briefcase and start looking through all the information, I was astounded. There were copies of public records, news clippings, interviews, bits of historical facts to put all the information in perspective, as well as his own evaluations and observations. The material was arranged chronologically, starting at the turn of the century; an amazingly articulate archive of a case that had haunted me since I had left the force in the fall of 1941 to join the Army. I recalled some of the facts, but not in the contemplative and explicit detail with which Ski had arranged them.
During the next few months, as I explored and scrutinized the documents, sometimes with gossamer, narcotically induced hallucinations, sometimes with clearheaded and discernible perception, the Eureka affair took on a narrative life that I knew would draw me back to people who were engraved in my mind, and to a place I thought I had left behind forever.
It had all started at the turn of the century, at a time when eighteen million people still rode horses, there were only eight thousand automobiles on the horse paths called roads, and most lamps still used kerosene…
The two young men who rode over the crest of the hill were a study in contrast. One was tall and lean, his black hair curling around his ears, his dark brown eyes bright and naive. The other was an inch or two shorter, with a tight, muscular body, light brown hair clipped short, and pale blue eyes that were wary and cautious.
Ben Gorman, the taller of the two, was Jewish. The other, Thomas Brodie Culhane, was Irish. Gorman, seventeen, was the son of Eli Gorman, the richest man in the San Miguel valley. Culhane, six months younger, was the orphaned son of a deep-sea fisherman and a washerwoman.
The two young men had been playing baseball on the other side of the rise, on a ball diamond laid out on the flat, comparatively dry side of the hill. It had been a ragtag pickup game with nine boys from Milltown, ten miles away. Brodie and Ben and three of the Milltowners made one team. Five against six. But with Ben, the mastermind with the magic arm, who could throw the ball like it was a lightning bolt, and Brodie, the slugger who hit the ball with the same energetic fury with which Gorman pitched, on the same team, it was so one-sided that the losing team quit after five innings and they all headed home.
As usual, water was running down from the hills, splashing in from the ocean, falling from the sky, gravitating to the haphazard collection of buildings that called itself a town. A valley town that lay at the bottom of a high, forested ridge that surrounded a broad bay in the Pacific Ocean and that attracted water the way honey attracts a bear.
The two horses, Ben’s a sleek, brown, thoroughbred stallion, Brodie’s a pure white stallion, shied away from the muddy road but even the hillside was soggy and the two boys had to keep them in tight rein so the horses wouldn’t slip and fall in the slime. Brodie hated mud. Had hated it for all his seventeen years-at least as far back as his memory went. And now daily spring rainstorms had turned the mud into syrup. Even in the dry season, when the mush turned to dust and stung your eyes and got in your mouth and in the wrinkles of your clothes, it was still mud to Brodie. It conjured memories of his mother struggling over a boiling cauldron of murky water, dropping railroad workers’ clothes into it and watching it turn the color of chocolate as she stirred the muddy duds.
It was a tough town they were riding into, a mile down the hill. The main street, deeply rutted and sloppy from the rains, led past a rough-and-tumble collection of bars and eateries; basic essentials like a grocery store, a hardware store, a pharmacy, and a bank; an icehouse that served the town’s only industry, a fishery; and several docks to house the fishing boats. Several homes, wooden shacks really, huddled behind the main drag, shelter for the people who worked in the town and the tough rail-layers. And behind them, hidden among the trees, was a long barracks that housed the Chinese workers, who kept to themselves, had their own stores, bars, and, it was rumored, an opium parlor, although nobody knew for sure since only Asians entered its grim confines.
It was one tough town, where table-stakes poker games were played behind storefront plate-glass windows in view of God and all his children; where fancy ladies advertised their cheap allure from windows above the hardware store; where, in the middle of Prohibition, bars advertised bar-brand drinks for twenty cents and imported brands for two bits. It was a town founded by hard-boiled railroad gandy dancers at the end of the track, where the sheriff, who had once ridden with Pat Garrett, kept the peace riding down the middle of the unpaved main street with a. 44-caliber Peacemaker on his hip and a strawberry roan under him.
The railroad gandy dancers, who finally had a wide-open town where they could raise hell when the grueling job of laying track was over for the day, had named it Eureka.
Eli Gorman, Ben’s father, often warned the two boys to stay out of the town, to ride the ridge of the mountain on their way to and from the ball diamond, but they were thirsty and decided to get a soda pop at the pharmacy, one of the few legitimate businesses in town. To Ben, who lived in the biggest mansion on the Hill, it was an exciting adventure, a quick trip to Sodom. But to Brodie, who had been brought up in a frame house on the edge of the harsh and violent village, it merely bolstered his hatred of the entire environment.
As they approached the main street, the horses became nervous and jumpy.
The moment reminded Brodie of the day he and Ben had first met. It was at this same intersection, four years ago. Brodie was walking back from the baseball field, had his glove tucked in his back pocket. As he crossed Main Street, he saw Ben Gorman riding up the road from the beach.
Two blocks up Main, in a saloon called Cooley’s Ale House, two drunks were arguing at the bar. Nobody paid much attention; drunken words and brawls were common among the hardworking railroad men. Then suddenly, one of them pulled a pistol from his back pocket and took a shot at the other. The bullet clipped an ear. The injured man backed through the swinging doors of the saloon, drew his own gun from an inside pocket, and fired a shot at his assailant, who was hit in the side. The man with the bleeding ear backed all the way out the swinging doors, shooting away as the other one charged toward him. Bolting through the door, the one who had started the gunfight was hit again and, as his knees gave out, he emptied his gun at the man with the pierced ear. They were only a few feet apart. The one with the bleeding ear was riddled with bullets. He threw his hands into the air and fell backward off the wooden sidewalk into the muddy street. The other crumpled like a paper sack on the wooden sidewalk. Both men were dead in seconds.
Down the street, Ben’s horse bolted and reared up at the flat smack of gunshots. Ben leaned forward in the saddle, hauling in the reins, but the horse was totally spooked. It began to back down the hill. Brodie dashed into the muddy road, grabbed the bit on both sides of the horse’s mouth, and held tight.
“Easy, boy, easy,” he whispered in the stallion’s ear. “It’s okay, it’s all over.” Without taking his eyes off the spooked horse, he asked Ben, “What’s his name?”
Jericho started to bolt again, lifting Brodie’s feet out of the mud, but he pulled him back, still whispering, staring into the fiery, fear-filled eyes.
“Easy, Jericho, easy. It’s all over. Calm down, son. Calm down.”
The horse grumbled and started to back away but Brodie had him under control. He gently stroked the horse’s nose.
“Got him?” Brodie asked.
“Yeah, thanks. I don’t think he’s ever heard a gunshot before.”
“Must not spend a lot of time in Eureka.”
Ben held his hand out. “M’name’s Ben Gorman.”
The younger boy shook the hand. “Brodie. Brodie Culhane.”
They decided they deserved a soda. Ben rode his horse slowly up the street to the pharmacy while Brodie clomped beside him on the wooden decking that passed for a sidewalk, shaking the mud off his boots.
“Sorry about your shoes,” said Ben.
“They was brought up in mud,” Brodie answered.
They got to the pharmacy, and Ben jumped off Jericho and tied him to the hitch rail. They both looked up the next block on the other side of the street, where a crowd had gathered around the two bodies.
“I never saw a shooting before,” Ben said with awe.
“Happens once or twice a month. Sometimes I pick up a dime for helping Old Stalk stuff them in the box.”
“You touch them!” Ben’s eyes were as round as silver dollars.
Brodie laughed. “They’re dead; they don’t bite.”
“Two sarsaparilla sodas,” Ben said and reaching in his pocket took out a handful of change and smacked four pennies on the small round table as they sat down. “My treat,” he said.
As they sat down to drink their sarsaparillas, Brodie’s mitt fell from his pocket, and Ben snatched it up, admiring it for a moment before handing it back.
“You a baseballer?”
“I play a coupla times a week.”
“They got a diamond down toward Milltown. Kids from the school play sides-up there. One side or the other always picks me. I ain’t much at catching but I can knock the ball clean out of the field if I get a bite at it. How about you?”
“No,” Ben said, shaking his head and looking down at the floor for a moment. “I’m from up there,” he said, jerking his thumb toward the Hill as if embarrassed to admit it. “Aren’t enough kids in our little school to get one team together, let alone two. But I practice pitching. I throw at an archery target.”
“You any good?”
“I can pitch a curve. I’m not much at batting but I can sure pitch.” He paused a minute, and said, “Think they’d let me play?”
“Sure, ‘specially if you can pitch. Pitchers are hard to come by. I usually go on Thursday and Sunday. I get off those days. I gotta work Saturdays.”
“How old are you?” Ben asked.
“Fourteen comin’ up. How about you?”
“I turned fourteen in September.” They sipped their drinks for a minute or so and then Ben asked, “Where do you work?”
“I wrangle horses for the railroad. Up at end-o’-track. Get outta school at one, go to work from two ’til six. But it pays good-twenty-five cents a day.”
Ben almost swallowed his straw. His weekly allowance was more than Brodie made working five days a week.
“How do you get to the ball field? Must be three, four miles over there?”
Ben thought for a moment, then said, “Tell you what, I’ll meet you up at the ridge road at two on Sunday. I’ll bring an extra horse.”
Brodie smiled a cautious smile.
“Yer on,” he answered.
Almost four years and they had been as close as brothers ever since.
“We’re gonna catch it if Mr. Eli finds out we come down here,” Brodie said, as the horses slogged through the mud.
“Then we won’t tell him,” Ben answered with a brazen smile.
“Yer old man knows everything.” He paused and rephrased the thought. “Mr. Eli’ll know we were in town before we get home. No way we can lie to him, Ben.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Ben reached over and slugged Brodie’s arm. “Gotta live dangerously once in a while.”
They reached the edge of town.
Eureka was the unfortunate legacy of a robber baron named Jesse Milstrum Crane. In 1875, Crane, a con man and gambler, escaped west to San Francisco with a trunk containing close to a million dollars, leaving in his wake a dozen irate investors in a defunct railroad line pillaged by him, one of many cons that had earned him his fortune. The heavyset, hard-drinking, womanizing swindler saw new opportunities in the wide-open western city. He bought an impressive house on Nob Hill, joined the best club, opened accounts in several of the city’s biggest banks, and planned his grandest scheme yet-a railroad down the coast to Los Angeles, which he called the JMC and Pacific Line-and he offered his rich new friends an opportunity to buy into the company. His two biggest investors were Shamus O’Dell and Eli Gorman. As the tracks were laid south down the rugged coast, Crane was busy behind the scenes, scheming to steal every dollar he could from the company.
He might have succeeded, except one night his past caught up with him. As he was walking up the steps of his opulent home, a figure stepped out of the fog, and Crane found himself face-to-face with an eastern businessman he had cleaned out five years earlier.
“You miserable bastard,” the man’s trembling voice said. “You ruined my life. You stole everything I had…”
Crane cut him off by laughing in his face. “You whining little.. ” he started-and never finished the sentence.
The man held his arm at full length a foot from Crane’s face and shot him in the forehead. The derringer made a flat sound, like hands clapping together. Crane’s head jerked backward. His derby flew off and bounced away in the fog. A dribble of blood ran down his face as he staggered backward against an iron fence and fell to his knees. He looked up at the face in the fog, tried to remember his assailant’s name, but there had been so many…
The second shot shattered his left eye. Crane’s shoulders slumped and he toppled sideways to the sidewalk. He was dead by the time his killer fired a third shot into his own brain.
Accountants quickly discovered Crane’s embezzlement, and Gorman and O’Dell took over the company, which included the sprawling San Pietro valley, ten miles west of the track and a hundred miles north of the growing town of Los Angeles. It was their decision to build a spur to the ocean and build estates on the surrounding heights. But the spur also brought with it “end-o’-track” and a raunchy honky-tonk, ten miles west on a Pacific bay, that serviced the roughnecks who did the harsh job of laying track and who settled arguments with fists, guns, or knives.
With them came the gamblers and pimps.
And with the gamblers and pimps came a hard-boiled young gangster who had learned his trade on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. His name was Arnie Riker and he soon ruled the small town with a bunch of young toughs he had brought in from the big city.
As Ben and Brodie came down the road, their horses reined in, Arnie Riker was sitting on the porch of his Double Eagle Hotel, which commanded the southeast corner of the town. It was the largest building in town. Three stories, nearly a city block square, and badly in need of a paint job. It also housed a whorehouse, boasted the town’s largest bar and gambling emporium, and had a pool table in the lobby. Riker’s chair was leaning back against the wall of the hotel, his feet dangling a foot off the porch floor. Riker was a dandy. He was dressed in a light tan vest and pants, with a flowered shirt open at the collar, his feet encased in shiny black shoes and spats.
Four of Riker’s hooligans were in the lobby of the hotel shooting pool. Rodney Guilfoyle was leaning across the table, lining up a bank shot. The sleeves of the eighteen-year-old’s striped shirt were pulled back from the wrist by garters at his biceps. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. He slid the pool cue across the table and stood up. He was close to six feet tall, lean except for his thick neck and the beginning of a beer belly, which sagged over his pants. His red hair was an unruly mop. He looked through the big window in the front, and saw Ben and Brodie turn into the main street.
“Looka there,” he said, “the sheeny rich kid and his pal.”
He walked out on the porch, down the steps to the wood-slat sidewalk and, as the two boys rode past, he flicked his cigarette at them. It arced past Brodie’s face and bounced off Ben’s shoulder.
“Hey, kid,” Guilfoyle said to Brodie, “who’s your kike friend?”
Brodie did not hesitate. He handed his reins to Ben.
“Hold my horse,” he snapped as he swung out of the saddle and landed flat-footed on the wooden walk in front of the red-haired lout.
“What d’you want?” Guilfoyle sneered, his thumbs hooked though his suspenders.
Brodie didn’t say anything. He was sizing up Guilfoyle, remembering what his father had told him early on about street fighting: Size up your foe. Look for his soft spots. Distract him. Hit first. Go for his nose. It hurts like hell, knocks him off balance, draws blood. Draw first blood, you win.
Guilfoyle had three inches on him and probably twenty pounds. But he was a dimwit, which meant he was slow. And he had bad teeth, rotten teeth.
“Your breath is uglier than you are,” Brodie said. “I can smell you from here.”
On the porch, Arnie Riker frowned and leaned forward. His front chair legs smacked hard on the porch floor.
Guilfoyle’s smile evaporated. He looked puzzled.
Brodie took the instant. He kicked Guilfoyle in the shin. The big kid yowled like an injured dog, lost his balance, reached down and as he did, Brodie threw the hardest punch he could muster, a hard right straight into Guilfoyle’s nose. Brodie felt Guilfoyle’s bones crush, felt the cartilage flatten, felt the warm flood of blood on his fist.
Guilfoyle staggered back several steps, blood streaming from his nose, pain gurgling in his throat. Brodie quickly followed him, hit him with a left and a right in the stomach. Guilfoyle roared with rage, threw a wild left that clipped Brodie on the corner of his left eye. It was a glancing blow, but it snapped Brodie’s head and he saw sparks for a moment. But it didn’t slow him down. He stepped in and kneed Guilfoyle in the groin, and as the young thug dropped to his knees, Brodie put all he had into a roundhouse right. It smashed into Guilfoyle’s mouth and Brodie felt the big redhead’s teeth crumble, felt pain in his own knuckles.
Guilfoyle fell sideways off the walk into the mud. He lay on his back, one hand clutching his broken nose and busted teeth, the other grabbing his groin. Tears were flowing down his cheeks.
Riker stood up, his fists clenched in anger.
“Stand up,” he yelled. “Stand up, you damn crybaby.”
Guilfoyle groaned, rolled on his side, and tried to get up, but he was whipped. His hand slid in the mud and he fell again. He spit out a broken tooth and smeared blood over his face with the back of his hand.
Disgusted, Riker spat at Guilfoyle, and turned to the other three toughs who had joined him to watch the fight.
“Knock that little shit into the middle of next week,” he snarled.
One of them reached inside the door and grabbed a baseball bat. The three of them started down the steps.
Ben had eased the horses up to the hitch rail. He got off his horse, tied them both up, and hurried to join Brodie.
The three toughs walked toward Brodie, who didn’t move an inch. He was sizing them up as they sauntered toward him. He’d feint a left toward the one in the middle, smack the one holding the bat with a right to the mouth, and hopefully grab the bat and even things up.
It never happened.
A shadow as big as a cloud fell across them. Riker’s hooligans looked up and Brodie looked over his shoulder.
Buck Tallman was sitting on a strawberry roan, his back as straight as a wall, his blond hair curling down around his shoulders from under a flat western hat. His face was leathery tan with a bushy handlebar mustache, its ends pointing toward flinty gray eyes. He was wearing a light-colored leather jacket with fringe down the sleeves. His sheriff’s badge was pinned to the holster where his. 44 Peacemaker nestled on his hip. It looked as big as a cannon.
He smiled down at Riker’s young roughnecks and at the stricken Guilfoyle.
“One on one’s a fair fight,” he said, looking straight into Riker’s eyes. “Three on one don’t work with me. Understood?”
Riker didn’t say anything. The three ruffians nodded and went meekly back into the hotel. Riker stared down at the beaten Guilfoyle, who was still sprawled in the mud, and shook his head.
“You’re pitiful,” he growled. Then he turned and went into the brothel.
Buck Tallman was a product of the previous century, of lawless western towns where violence was a way of life. Tallman had brought to Eureka the harsh morality of that frontier, had ridden with Pat Garrett and Bat Masterson, and had dime novels written about him.
Nobody messed with Buck Tallman. Everybody knew he was hired by the men on the Hill, the Olympus of the gods who owned the railroad and the land, and had friends in high places in Sacramento. They called the shots. In Eureka, Buck Tallman’s job was to keep the peace within the limits they set.
Tallman leaned forward in the saddle and held his hand out to Brodie, who grabbed it and was swung up behind the saddle of the colorful rider.
“Thanks,” Brodie said.
“What are you two doin’ down here? Y’know how Mr. Eli feels about that.”
“Going to get a soda,” Ben answered. “We’ve been playing baseball up on the field.”
Tallman looked back at Brodie. “You got a little shiner there. Needs some ice.”
As they rode the block toward the pharmacy, Brodie put both hands under himself and swung over onto his own horse. They pulled up in front of a small shop with a large window announcing “Gullman’s Pharmaceutical Parlor,” with a rendering of a mortar and pestle under the lettering.
“Hey, Doc,” Tallman called out.
“Yes, sir,” came the answer from inside the store, and Gullman stepped out.
“How about bringin’ us three strawberry soda pops? Put ’em on my tab.”
“Good enough,” the owner answered. “They’re good and cold; Jesse just come back from the icehouse.”
“Good, throw some ice in a small bag while you’re about it,” Tallman said.
Gullman returned quickly with the three sodas and a paper bag of ice.
Tallman wheeled the roan around and headed toward the ocean, with Ben and Brodie following. They tethered their horses to a tree at the edge of the beach and hunched down Indian-style on the sand. For a change, the sun was out. The sky was cloudless. It was so clear you could see the waves breaking at the entrance to the bay, almost two miles away.
Brodie dug some ice out of the soggy bag and winced as he pressed it against the welt on the corner of his eye. Water dribbled down the side of his face.
“You’ll be goin’ back East soon, won’t you, Ben?” Tallman said.
Ben nodded. “Papa and I are going to Boston in a month to get me set up. Soon as school’s out.”
“You gonna marry Isabel?”
“Well, she’s going East to school, too,” Ben said, his face reddening. “But it’s too early to be thinking about getting married.”
“How about you, Brodie? What are you gonna do?”
Brodie picked up a handful of sand and watched it stream from his fist. “Haven’t thought much about it,” was all he said.
Tallman was mentor to the two boys, had taught them how to stand in the stirrups at a full gallop to take the load off the horse’s back; how to draw a gun in a single, fluid move, skimming the hammer back with the flat of the hand, pointing the piece-like you would point a finger-before making a fist and squeezing the trigger, all the while without changing expression. No hint of a move in the eyes or jaw muscles. No giveaways. And stay loose, don’t tighten up, concentrate on the eyes and face of your foe.
“Their eyes’ll tell you when to squeeze off,” he had told them. “It’s a look you never forget.”
“Like what?” Brodie asked.
“Plenty a things. Fear, hesitation, a little twitch of the eye, anxiousness. It’s a giveaway look for damn sure. You’ll know it, if ever you see it.”
The talk didn’t mean much to Ben, who loved a shotgun and the hunt, while Brodie loved pistol shooting.
“So who’s the best shot you ever knew?” asked Brodie.
“Phoebe Moses is the best shot alive,” he said without hesitation.
“A girl!” Ben said incredulously.
“C’mon,” Brodie said.
“Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses. You boys know her better as Annie Oakley. I met her a few years ago when Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was in Chicago. She shoots over her shoulder with a rifle better than me, Wyatt, Pat Garrett, or her husband, Frank Butler-who was damn good himself-can shoot with a pistol. You could toss a playin’ card in the air and she’d put a dozen shots in it ’fore it hit the ground. Her and Frank are still with the show, far as I know.”
“How about that abalone shell down there,” Brodie said suddenly.
“What shell?” Tallman asked, casually looking down the beach.
Brodie looked down the beach. A red abalone shell was lying at the edge of the surf about fifty feet away. He had to squint to see it clearly. “The red one. Down the beach there.”
Tallman didn’t need to ask what Brodie wanted him to do. He simply stood up, stood straight with his hands hanging loosely at his sides. His eyes were narrowed slightly. Nothing in his face
changed before his right arm moved fluidly up, his hand drawing the. 44 as it passed his hip, his left hand fanning back the hammer as his hand stretched out, and BOOM!
Both boys jumped as the gun roared.
The red shell exploded. Pieces flying left and right, the main piece jumping straight up. As it fell, Tallman fanned off a second shot and it disintegrated.
And just as quickly, the gun was back in its holster and Tallman reached up and tenderly stroked the curves in his mustache.
“You mean that one?” he said.
He took out the pistol, flipped the retainer on the cylinder open and emptied the spent casings into his hand and dropped them in his pocket, then inserted fresh bullets into the slots and flipped the retainer shut. He handed the gun butt-first to Brodie.
“Give it a try,” he said.
The Irish kid took the pistol, stuck the gun between his pants and shirt so the hammer would not catch on his belt. It was on his left side, the butt facing to the right so he could cross-draw. He looked for a target. Twenty feet away a bottle rolled on the beach at the edge of the surf.
He shook his hands and shoulders loose.
His right arm moved swiftly across his body, hauled the big Frontiersman from its resting place. His left hand snapped the hammer back as he raised the gun at arm’s length and squeezed his hand. The gun roared, kicked his arm almost straight up. Sand kicked up an inch from the bottle.
“Well, damn,” he muttered.
“That was a good shot,” Tallman said, nodding assurance. “Just a hair to the right.”
Brodie smiled, dropped the empty casing into his hand and gave the casing and the gun back to the sheriff.
“How about you, Ben?” Tallman asked.
“Nah,” Ben answered. “You know I never got the hang of it.”
Tallman looked over his shoulder. The sun was turning red, sinking toward the horizon. He slapped them both on the shoulder.
“You boys better get on up the Hill. Be dinnertime soon.”
They rode the length of the beach to the cliff trail, a wide walkway huddled against the face of the cliff, which rose six hundred feet up the sea side of the Hill and ended at the edge of Grand View, the O’Dell estate. The grand, white-columned mansion sat back from the main road at the end of a drive lined on both sides by small bushes. Behind it and six hundred feet down, the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon.
It and the Gorman estate were the two grandest houses on the Hill.
A one-horse surrey was coming up the road from the strip of stores that serviced the families on the Hill. The driver was a powerfully built black man in his twenties, who spoke with an almost musical lilt. His name was Noah. Rumor had it that Shamus O’Dell had bought Noah’s mother at a slave market on one of the Caribbean islands. He had bought her as a housekeeper, not knowing she was pregnant. Her son had been raised by O’Dell and educated by his wife, Kate. Noah was fiercely loyal to the family, sometimes acting as a bodyguard for Shamus; sometimes watching over Delilah, who was O’Dell’s daughter and one of the three girls in the carriage; sometimes driving the family automobile, a German Daimler, which looked like a formal horse carriage powered by a gas engine and was the only automobile in the valley.
O’Dell never took the car down the hill, fearing the brakes might not hold or it would get mired in mud. So he showed off in it sticking to the broad, forested, five-mile-wide northern mesa, the Hill, where the families of fourteen tycoons lived, five appearing only on weekends. Noah proudly squired O’Dell along the horse trails that served as roads, taking him to the club where the rich men and their male out-of-town guests drank at the bar or played cards. On occasion, Noah drove Delilah to the two-story schoolhouse, where tutors taught the dozen or so children of the barons who lived there year-round.
Two of the girls in the surrey were facing Ben and Brodie as they reached the top of the cliff. The third girl was sitting opposite the other two, with her back to the boys.
When Noah saw the boys, he reined in his horse.
Delilah O’Dell, seventeen and the oldest of the three, already flaunted a sensuous and independent nature that would define her through the years. She was well developed for her age. Blazing red hair cascaded down over her shoulders and curled over her breasts. She ignored Ben, fixing her green eyes on Brodie.
“Looks like you’ve been rolling those horses in the mud,” she said haughtily.
Ann Harte, the girl sitting next to her, had just turned fifteen and was extremely shy. She giggled nervously, looked down, toyed with her purse, and murmured, “Hello.”
Brodie was staring at the girl with her back to the two riders. “Oh, Del,” she chastised, “that’s rude.” Then she turned and stared back at Brodie.
Isabel Hoffman was as fragile as Delilah was lusty. She would turn seventeen in two weeks. Jet-black braided hair hung down her back. Deep brown eyes stared softly from a face that had the quality of fine china. Sharp features accented high cheekbones. She was dressed in a white pinafore. She was always dressed in white or pastel, unlike Delilah, who favored bright, sometimes garish colors. Sometimes black, when she was feeling moody.
Today, Delilah was dressed in black.
The valley was owned by the JMC and Pacific, which O’Dell and Gorman had inherited when Jesse Crane had been gunned down. Shrewdly, Gorman had opted for a smaller share of the property-but his share completely encircled O’Dell’s. The Irishman could not develop his property without entry and exit rights through Gorman’s property and Gorman, knowing O’Dell’s plans for the future, refused to give them up.
But O’Dell owned the six square blocks that included the town of Eureka.
“Something the matter, Del?” Ben asked.
“You know what’s the matter,” she chided, still looking at Brodie.
Ben thought for a moment and said, “Is this about the game?”
She finally glared at him but did not answer.
“That’s between my father and yours,” Ben said quietly. “We’ve all been friends since I can remember. What’s it got to do with us?”
“Yes.” Isabel nodded. “I agree.”
“My father says we’ll have to leave if he loses. But he won’t lose.” Delilah looked at Brodie and her full lips curled into a slight smile. “When he was young he played poker for a living. Over in Denver.”
“I don’t know whether my father can even play poker,” Ben said.
“So when he loses,” Del said with a snicker, “will you leave?”
“Mr. Eli hasn’t talked about it,” Brodie interrupted.
“He’s the only one in town who hasn’t,” said Isabel. She looked at Ben and said, “Aren’t you worried?”
“It’s not for our houses, just the land in the valley.”
Del looked down and picked at her skirt. Her tone became more plaintive. “Daddy has such a terrible temper. He said if that old.. if Mr. Eli wins… he’ll leave on the spot and go back to San Francisco and never set foot here again, and Mother and I will follow as soon as school ends.”
“I’m sorry it’s come to that, Del,” said Ben.
“Me, too,” Brodie said. “But we can’t do anything about it. Just wait and see what happens.”
Ben reached down and squeezed Isabel’s hand.
“We gotta go. It’s dinnertime.”
She nodded and looked at Brodie, who wheeled his horse around as he touched the bill of his cap.
“See you at school tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder.
Noah snapped his whip and the surrey moved up the road toward Grand View. Delilah looked back as they pulled away, her eyes fixed on Brodie’s back as the two boys headed toward home.
The only time Brodie ever saw Eli Gorman in less than business attire was on Sunday at lunch when he sometimes wore a silk smoking jacket. Even then, he wore a tie. Short and somewhat stubby, his heavy-lidded but steady brown eyes never wavered, alert and always interested. He spoke in a deep, level voice, which he rarely raised, even in anger. His face was thick-featured, topped by thinning black hair, and concealed behind a graying mustache and goatee. Most people found his appearance intimidating.
In business he was tough but fair, a shrewd, well-informed, quiet fox who had attended some of the finest schools in Europe and emigrated to the United States with his father, a banker. He mastered the English language, had not a whit of an accent. At twenty-one, he attached himself as an intern to Andrew Carnegie, the powerful steel magnate, who later moved him into the railroad business, where Gorman proved a wily match for the robber barons who controlled the network of trunk lines that criss-crossed the country. In his mid- thirties, Gorman found himself in San Francisco, comfortably rich thanks to a generous inheritance and artful investments in his burgeoning business.
It was there he finally began to enjoy life. He met and, after a year of ardent courtship, married Madeline Lowenstein, the tall, handsome, cultured daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate. Maddy gently sanded off his rough edges and they idolized their son, Ben, who had come late in both their lives. Then fate had led Eli to robber baron Jesse Milstrum Crane, to the Frisco-Los Angeles railroad fiasco, and, ultimately, to his unfortunate partnership with Shamus O’Dell.
Now, at fifty, the old fox was a man whose persona was dictated by tradition. In his religion, ethics, family, and friendships, his life was stable and comfortable, if somewhat ritualized. He tried to keep his business run the same way. But now, uncharacteristically, he was about to risk his ownership of half the valley in a poker game that would pit O’Dell’s greed against his vision.
Madeline knew about the game and supported his decision. And the boys knew about the game because it was a topic of gossip all over the valley. But it was not a subject Eli discussed openly with his family.
Eli stared across the elegant dining table at Ben and Brodie as the evening prayers began. Eli was inspired by their friendship, which transcended social standing, by Ben’s ability to see the value of this young boy, toughened by the streets of Eureka but with an innate sense of honesty and loyalty. And Brodie was smart, no longer brandishing the hard-boiled attitude he first had shown that day four years ago when Ben had brought him home-a tattered ragamuffin whose mother was a washerwoman. Eli was proud that Brodie saw and admired the same values of trust and friendship in Ben. When Brodie’s mother died of lung fever four months later, Eli had unofficially adopted the boy, given him a room over the stable, and paid him five dollars a week to groom the horses.
Brodie was grateful for his new life and showed it in many ways. Every Friday, starting at sundown, he voluntarily performed or directed the chores of the servants during the twenty-four hours devoted to prayer and atonement during which all other activities were forbidden to Jews. When Brodie had been invited to share meals with the family, it was his choice to wear a yarmulke-a voluntary act that deeply touched Eli.
When the prayers were over, Eli piled food upon Maddy’s fine china plates and passed them around. He sat at the head of the table wearing a prayer shawl, his pince-nez perched on the bridge of his nose.
“So what were you two up to after school?” Mr. Eli asked as he chewed a mouthful of meat loaf.
A little too casual, Brodie thought. The old fox knows.
“We had a little problem in Eureka,” he blurted, before Ben could avoid the truth.
Ben winced but was speechless. Eli looked up and stared at his son. His tone was quiet but firm. “What were you doing in Eureka?”
“We went to the pharmacy to get a soda.”
“There’s a soda shop up here on the Hill.”
“We were real thirsty, Papa,” Ben said. “We played baseball for two hours.”
“You don’t know enough to take a canteen? A bottle of water?”
“We shared it with the kids from Milltown, sir,” Brodie pitched in. “They didn’t have none.”
“ Any. Not none. The word is any.”
“Yes, sir, any,” Brodie said.
“There was a… uh… mix-up,” Ben said.
“What kind of mix-up? Did you have words with somebody?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ben.
“So harsh they gave Thomas a bruise over his eye? Words that fly through the air and make an eye black-and-blue?” Eli was the only one who called Brodie by his given first name.
“It was a fight, sir,” Brodie said. “With a guy named Guilfoyle.”
“He called me a kike,” Ben said.
Maddy looked down at her plate, embarrassed by the bigoted remark.
Eli took another bite of food.
“And you stood up for Benjamin?” Eli said to Brodie.
Brodie looked down at his lap. “He said it to me, not Ben. Besides, Ben, he does the thinkin’ and I… uh… I do the.. ”
“Fightin’?” Eli said, mimicking Brodie’s tough talk. “Brains and brawn, that it?”
“That’s about it, sir.”
“Look at me, Thomas. Don’t look away, that’s a sign of weakness. Always look a person straight in the eye.”
“Yes sir,” Brodie answered and fixed his gaze on Mr. Eli’s dark brown eyes.
“You’re a very bright young man, Thomas. A bit impetuous, but that’s the Irish in you. Don’t undersell yourself. Just because you’re handy with your fists doesn’t mean you’re stupid.”
Eli looked at Brodie. “This Guilfoyle, is he the young hoodlum who works for Riker?”
“And he was looking for a fight, was he?”
Brodie nodded again.
Eli nodded toward the black-and-blue streak over Brodie’s eye.
“He’s quite a bit larger than you.”
“He whipped him good, Papa,” Ben chimed in. “The miserable skunk..”
“Benny, please!” Maddy said.
“Sorry, Mother. Anyway, he only got one punch in and Brodie-”
“Yes,” the father interrupted. “He whipped him good.” He thought for a moment and added, “Well, I’m glad you won, Thomas. Winning is always preferable to losing. But I have forbidden you both from going into Eureka for just this reason. Are we understood on that?”
They both nodded.
“Mother, have you anything to add?”
Madeline Gorman, who had been listening quietly to the conversation, looked up from her dinner.
“I don’t approve of brawling,” she said softly. “But sometimes it is a matter of honor, Eli.”
“Yes, my dear, I understand that. The point is, they weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.” He cleared his throat and added, “Well, enough said of that. Let’s enjoy our dinner.”
The full moon was brighter than the lanterns flittering at the corners of the wide paddock. Brodie had showered off both horses and stabled the brown. Now he stood brushing the white horse in slow, easy strokes, smoothing out his coat and sweeping the tangles from his mane, and talking to him in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Frisky tonight, huh, Cyclone?”
The horse snorted and casually stomped a hoof.
Brodie stroked his forelock, patted his neck, rubbed his soft muzzle.
“Liked that run on the beach, din’tcha? You like runnin’ on the sand.”
The horse growled and bobbed his head.
Behind Brodie, the end of a cigar glowed in the darkness.
“You really love that animal, don’t you, Thomas?”
It startled Brodie, although it was not uncommon for Mr. Eli to stroll down to the pasture for his evening cigar. He never smoked in the house; Mrs. Gorman hated the smell of cigars.
“He’s the first thing I ever owned, sir. Three dollars, imagine that. He’s one handsome fellow, he is.”
“Thanks to you.”
“And you, sir,” Brodie answered.
The white stallion, a horse bred to be ridden, had been hitched side by side with a muscular dray horse, hauling railroad ties in a wagon. The white strained but did not have the powerful legs of the dray. The driver, a big-chested, angry man, was lashing out at the white.
“You lazy son of a bitch,” he roared. “You worthless, good-for- nothing nag. I’ll show you who’s boss.”
He jumped down from the wagon and pulled a pistol from his back pocket. Brodie, who was working on the railroad that summer, jumped down from a railroad car and ran to the man.
“Don’t shoot him,” he begged.
The big man glared down at him. “Who the hell are you?” he growled. “Get outta my way.”
He cocked the pistol, held it toward the horse’s head.
“I’ll buy him,” Brodie cried out.
Brodie had five silver eagles in his pocket, his pay for the week.
“Two eagles,” he said. “I’ll give you two dollars.” He took out two coins and held them in the palm of his hand toward the man.
“I’d rather shoot the lazy bastard,” he sneered.
“I’ll make it three. Is it worth three dollars to shoot him?”
The driver stared at the three silver dollars.
“Christ, yer crazy,” he said. But he took the three bucks and unhitched the horse. “How you gonna get him home?”
“I’ll ride him,” Brodie said.
“You ain’t even got a saddle.”
“I’ll ride him bareback.”
“Shit,” the driver said, and spat a stream of tobacco onto the horse’s neck. “You get on him, he’ll throw you all the way to Albuquerque.”
Brodie rode the horse six miles bareback, using a rope for a bridle. He was thrown four times and he was skinned up, his one shirtsleeve almost torn off and a bruise on his cheek. When he got to end-o’-track he bummed a ride into Eureka on a wagon, with the horse he named Cyclone tied to the back. Then he led the horse the last four miles up the cliff walk and across the top of the hill to the Gorman estate.
Eli remembered the day Brodie came home with the animal. Skinny, its ribs standing out like a museum skeleton, its flanks festered with whip scars, its eyes crazy and fear filled.
“I’ll pay for his food and take care of him,” Brodie pleaded. “You can take it out of my salary.”
Old Gorman had smiled.
“I think we can handle the food bill,” he said. And as he turned away, he looked back and said, “I admire you, Thomas. You have a big heart, which is a gift. But it isn’t much of a horse for three dollars.”
Brodie had nursed Cyclone back to health and, in so doing, they had formed a bond. No one else could ride him, no one else could even climb into the saddle without being thrown head over heels. Horse and boy were devoted to each other.
“You have a natural love for animals,” Gorman said, tapping the ash from his cigar. “I’ve watched you with the other horses and the dogs. I admire that.”
He pointed to the end of the pasture, which was separated from the edge of the cliff by a high, white fence that surrounded the twenty-acre grazing land.
“Let’s take a walk,” Eli said, nodding down the pasture. They strode side by side, with Cyclone clopping slowly behind Brodie.
“Have you thought what you’re going to do when school ends?” Eli asked. “Ben will be going back East to Harvard in a couple of weeks. How about you? The state has a very good college down in Los Angeles. Then maybe take on law school.”
“I ain’t… I’m not smart enough.”
“You do yourself an injustice, Thomas.”
“I make C’s, sometimes a B or an A but mostly C’s.”
“There’s smart and there’s smart. Ben is smart about business. Someday he’ll run mine, he’ll be responsible for this valley. For what happens to it. But he needs somebody who is smart in other ways. Ben is naive about things. He trusts everybody. He needs someone-one person-he can trust without question, a partner who will take care of things Ben doesn’t see.”
“You mean like somebody who can take care of a guy like Guilfoyle when he smarts off?”
“I mean somebody who understands why people like Guilfoyle are the way they are. Someone who understands that and will handle that part of the business. The kind of smart Ben will never be.”
Brodie twisted his apple into two pieces, and held one half behind him. The horse gently took it from his hand and ate it.
“I…” Brodie started to say and then stopped.
“I don’t wanna be a roughneck all my life.”
“I don’t imply you should. What I am saying is that it takes a man of unique talents to handle the roughnecks. My son doesn’t have that kind of talent.”
“And I do because that’s where I came from. That it, sir?”
“You grew up in that life. Now you’ve seen the other side of the coin. I’ll be glad to stand for your schooling.”
“I don’t wanna go back to it, Mr. Eli. You spoilt me that way.”
“ Spoiled. I spoiled you that way.”
“You’ve already risen above that, Thomas. But railroading is a harsh business. It not only requires shrewd business sense, it requires a man who can think ahead of trouble and handle it.”
“And that’s me?”
“I see that kind of strength in you, yes.”
They reached the end of the meadow and walked to the corner of the high fence that marked the edge of the cliff. To the south, past two neighboring houses and O’Dell’s mansion, they could see the glow of Eureka.
“I had a vision the first time I saw this valley,” Eli said softly, almost to himself. “And I still see it. I see a pretty village at the bottom of the valley. I see decent homes for workers. I see this valley, the way it is now, lasting forever. A place for good people to live and flourish. I see Ben and Isabel Hoffman marrying, they’ve been sweet on each other since they were children and she’s a nice Jewish girl. I see them raising a family here, surrounded by its beauty. And I see you watching his back, keeping the law. But it won’t happen as long as O’Dell owns half the valley, and Riker and his ilk run Eureka.”
“Buck Tallman keeps the law, sir.”
“Buck is an honorable man, but he’s in his fifties. He tolerates gambling and womanizing and hard drink and brawling. He keeps it controlled, but he was a town-tamer, Thomas. He is from another time. My vision of the valley will never become a reality as long as men like Buck let men like Riker have their way. And my vision won’t happen if O’Dell has his way. He will chop down the trees, turn all of this into power plants and paper mills and shanties for the workers. It will become a slum like Milltown.”
Brodie was uncomfortable talking about the subject. It was not something Eli had ever shared with either of the boys. But his curiosity was rampant.
“Couldn’t you just, uh, buy him out?”
“Been tried, Thomas. This has been going on for two years. O’Dell owns the part of the valley that includes Eureka. He’s a rowdy himself and a spoiler. Our problems could never be worked out. The game was O’Dell’s idea-although I must admit it is the only solution.”
Brodie hesitated for a moment and then said cautiously, “What if it doesn’t turn out the way, uh…”
“It?” When Brodie hesitated again, unsure if he had overstepped his bounds, Eli said, “Ah. You’re referring to the game.”
Brodie nodded. “Everybody knows about it, sir. The whole town’s talking.”
“And what are they saying?”
Brodie turned to Cyclone, held the other half of the apple in the flat of his hand, and the horse took it. “That O’Dell’s a gambler and you ain… aren’t.”
“So they think O’Dell will win?”
“Well, that’s what they’re saying. Riker’s giving five-to-one odds favoring Mr. O’Dell.”
“You familiar with poker?”
“When I lived down there, I used to play a little penny ante with the other kids.”
Eli looked at the youth for a moment, then reached in his pocket, took out some bills, and handed Brodie ten dollars.
“Bet this on me to win. You’ll win fifty dollars after you pay me back the ten.”
Brodie took the bill and stared at it for a moment or two. Ten dollars was a lot of money to Brodie.
“I never knew you to play poker,” he said, folding it carefully and putting it in his pocket.
Eli puffed on his cigar and said, “You know who Andrew Carnegie is?”
“I know he’s real rich.”
“He’s a steel man, Thomas. Made his fortune manufacturing steel. When I was a young man back in Pittsburgh, he took a liking to me and he moved me up in the business. He and some of his rich friends had a poker club. Played once a week. A tough game. Fairly large stakes. One day he invited me to play and I told him I couldn’t afford it.”
Brodie laughed. “What’d he say to that?” he asked.
“He said, ‘You can afford it if you win.’ He sat me down and in one afternoon taught me some of the secrets of poker. Then he gave me two hundred dollars and told me to come to the game that night. I won seven hundred dollars. And became a member of the poker club.”
“What were the secrets?” Brodie asked eagerly.
Eli looked out at the shimmering reflection of the moon on the ocean.
“The most important one,” he answered, “is the art of the bluff.”
Brodie watched Eli walk back to the house, saw the back door open and close. He leaned on the paddock fence for a long time, thinking about everything Eli had said.
Now, suddenly, he had to make some hard decisions.
And then there was the other problem.
He went in the barn and came back with another apple. He broke it in half, gave one to the horse and took a bite out of the other one to chase the dryness from his mouth. He got a bridle and a blanket, slid the blanket over Cyclone’s back, and put the bit in the horse’s mouth. Slinging the reins over the horse’s back, he jumped on and quietly rode out of the paddock and down through the woods to a pathway near the cliff’s edge. Brodie rode south, toward the lights of Eureka. The O’Dell mansion was lit up like a church, its lamps flickering through the trees.
He turned the horse back into the woods and stopped, slid quietly off his back, tethered him to a tree, and gave him the rest of the apple.
“Be quiet, now,” he whispered, then ran his hand down along Cyclone’s mane and slid the blanket off his back before sneaking into the woods. He walked a hundred or so feet to a greenhouse and slipped inside. It was dark. He walked down the aisle of flowers and plants to the rear of the glass shed and stopped, looking back at the big house a hundred yards or so away. A light glowed in the corner room. A signal.
“You’re late,” a soft voice said from the darkness.
It startled him.
“I… we, Mr. Eli and me… we had a talk,” he stammered, and before he could say anything else, she moved quietly from the darkness, gliding to him and putting her arms around his waist.
“I was afraid you weren’t coming,” Isabel Hoffman whispered.
She was so close he could feel her heart beating, a rapid tapping against his chest. He could smell her hair, feel her breath against his throat. In his young life he had never known such longing, never felt a connection with anyone that went so far beyond friendship.
“We have to talk about something,” he said, but she lifted her face to his and kissed him. Her lips were wet and trembling with desire, and he was overwhelmed by her ardor, as he always was and had been for the two months they had been meeting secretly, two or three times a week, in her mother’s greenhouse. It was a tryst that had begun with a note he found in his geography book one morning. It had started innocently enough. They had met at the bakery on the Hill to study for a test. Ben was at his father’s bank, where he worked after school for two hours every day. She had been a little flirtatious at first, then their mutual attraction escalated quickly. She was like a lure, shimmering on the end of a line, and he was hooked.
Now his emotions were in turmoil. He knew how Ben felt about Isabel, but his own longing for her had masked any sense of betrayal.
He was so dizzy with longing he took her in his arms with passionate desperation.
She took the blanket, pungent with the odor of the stallion, spread it on the soft earth in the darkness of the greenhouse, lay down and drew him gently to her, and, in a voice quivering with desire, she said, “I never knew it would be like this, Brodie. I never imagined it would be so wonderful…”
The Social House, as the men on the Hill called it, commanded the northern crest of the valley and had once been a large, sturdy barn and stable, owned by a horse breeder from San Luis Obispo, thirty or so miles away. When the horse breeder died, Eli Gorman bought the property from his estate.
The barn was refinished with teak and mahogany walls, Tiffany windows and lamps, and a slate bar imported from Paris. Fourteen bar chairs lined the bar, and fourteen tables and chairs occupied the sprawling, cathedral-ceilinged main room, each chair with a brass plaque identifying a member, nine of whom lived in sequestered mansions on the Hill. The other five had elaborate cottages and came from Los Angeles or San Francisco on weekends and holidays.
There were two other rooms, one the office of the manager of the club, a fluttery little perfectionist named Weldon Pettigrew who had been the concierge of a Chicago hotel, the other occupied by the telephone switchboard, run by a widow named Emma Shields, who had been trained in New York. The barkeeper, Gary Hennessey, had been imported from a hotel in New Orleans and spoke with an accent that was part Irish, part New York, and part Cajun.
Through the years, three apartments-for Pettigrew, Hennessey, and Mrs. Shields-had been built beside the clubhouse, and five small offices had been added to the clubhouse so its members could conduct business in private. Shields was the only woman allowed in the club except on rare occasions, when entertainers were brought in from San Francisco for the evening, and on New Year’s Eve, when all the family cooks prepared a feast and the new year was ushered in properly.
At all other times, it was a place where the tycoons gathered to smoke cigars, sip brandy, talk business, play cards, and keep in touch with their businesses by special long-distance phone lines. There was no restaurant. If a member wanted to eat, food was cooked at home and delivered by servants.
Tonight was a particularly special occasion at the Social House.
Tonight was the poker game between Eli Gorman and Shamus O’Dell.
The boys went to Brodie’s room on the pretense of studying, but quickly sneaked off through the woods to the Social House, Ben clutching his father’s opera glasses so they could see better. They cautiously entered through the back door and went up the stairs to the storage loft, crawling over cases of whiskey and sweeping away spiderwebs until they found a secluded place where they could watch the main floor without being seen.
They stared down at the arena.
All the tables but one had been moved to the side of the big room. A single table, with a felt cover and three chairs, held down the center of the room, spotlighted under the chandelier. Six bar chairs formed an arc five feet away from the empty spot at the table and six more were behind the chair opposite it. They were separated by an occasional brass spittoon. There were large Waterford ashtrays in front of each place at the table, with matching water glasses beside them and a Waterford pitcher to service them. The chandelier cast a sphere of light on the table. The twelve chairs were outside the orbit, in the dark. From the setup, Brodie figured there would be twelve spectators, six facing the empty seat at the table and six behind the dealer. Nobody would be seated behind the two players.
The game was set for 8:00 p.m.
Fifteen minutes before game time. The ritual began.
Buck Tallman arrived first, carrying a saddlebag. He draped his jacket over the middle chair. He was wearing a bright red vest, a white shirt with a blue string tie, and tan leather pants. The boys had never seen him that elegant. He carefully rolled up both his shirtsleeves halfway to the elbow. He sat down and growled across the room to Hennessey.
“A cup of black coffee if you please, Mr. Hennessey.”
He planted the saddlebag close to his right, opened it, took out ten virgin decks of cards, and placed them side by side in front of him. Hennessey, who was wearing a tuxedo for the occasion, brought the cup of coffee and placed it on the felt next to Tallman’s elbow. He nodded his thanks.
Spectators began to filter into the room and fill the gallery.
Eli Gorman arrived two minutes before the hour. He was dressed in a dark blue suit. A gold watch chain draped between the vest pockets on either side of his chest. He was carrying a black leather doctor’s satchel. He shook hands with Tallman and placed the satchel on the table.
His chair was below the boys. He sat with his back to them, but Brodie checked his position with the opera glasses. They would be able to see his hand over his right shoulder.
Gorman took out a thick packet of land deeds tied with twine and laid them next to the decks of cards. Then he took out a packet of ten-, twenty-, and hundred-dollar bills, stacked them in individual stacks, and counted out ten thousand dollars.
O’Dell was five minutes late, dressed in a garish light blue suit, an open-collared checked shirt, and a gray derby, which he hooked over the arm of his chair. His goods were in a small leather suitcase. He put his deeds on the opposite end of the line of cards from Gorman’s. He counted out ten thousand dollars in tens and hundreds.
Hennessey poured each of them a glass of water. O’Dell ordered a glass of Irish whiskey. Gorman shook his head when Hennessey looked at him. The bartender vanished into the darkened room.
Twenty thousand dollars lay on the table.
Tallman said, “Gentlemen, the game is poker. I will deal for each of you. Five- and seven-card stud and three-card draw, no wild cards. In straights and flushes, high card wins. If it’s a push, the pot will carry over to the next game. The ante is ten dollars. The limit is table stakes, the minimum bet will be ten dollars. The first player who can’t call a bet is out. Winner takes all, the deeds and twenty thousand dollars. Either player may ask for a new deck at any time. If so, the deal goes to the other player. I will flip a coin and the caller will select the first deck. Then you will draw a card for the first deal. We will take a fifteen-minute break whenever any of us requests it. Any questions?”
There were none.
Ben leaned close to Brodie’s ear. “What’s table stakes?” he whispered.
“Means you can bet whatever’s in the pot.”
Tallman said, “Then we’ll begin. Shake hands, gentlemen.”
“Forget it,” said O’Dell.
Gorman looked at Tallman and shrugged. He took his pince-nez from a vest pocket and set it near the end of his nose. Tallman took out a silver dollar and flipped it.
“Heads,” O’Dell snapped. The coin landed on the table, spun around, and came up tails. Gorman selected a deck and Tallman broke open the seal, took out the jokers, dropped them in the saddlebag. He swept the cards around the table, mixing them up, and splayed the deck out between the two players. Gorman pulled an eight, O’Dell turned a jack.
“Your game, Mr. O’Dell.”
“Five stud,” O’Dell said, in a high-pitched tenor voice that was a sharp contrast to the voices of Tallman and Gorman.
“Ante up,” said the dealer. O’Dell threw a ten-dollar bill in the center of the table and Gorman covered it.
“The game is five-card stud,” Tallman said. He shuffled and arched the cards together several times. He lay the deck in front of O’Dell, who cut them.
Tallman dealt the first card to Gorman. Both got one card down and one up. Eli lifted the corner of his hole card, let it snap back. A six of hearts.
Gorman drew a four of clubs. O’Dell, a seven of diamonds.
“Seven bets. The limit is twenty.”
O’Dell bet twenty dollars. Gorman called.
Sixty dollars in the pot.
Second up card: O’Dell, a queen of diamonds, Gorman, a nine of hearts.
Tallman: “Queen bets. The limit is sixty.”
O’Dell bet the limit again. Once again Gorman called.
A hundred and eighty dollars in the pot.
Third card: O’Dell, a seven of clubs. Gorman, a two of spades.
O’Dell had the lead with a pair of sevens. Gorman had a nine high. One card to go.
Gorman’s expression never changed as he stared over his glasses with his heavy-lidded eyes, glanced back at his card and stared back at O’Dell.
At this point, O’Dell’s open hand was a winner. The only way Gorman could win was if he paired his nine on the last card and O’Dell didn’t help his sevens. O’Dell sneaked a peek at his hole card. Gorman just stared at him, studying his expression, his eyes, any tics he might discern. O’Dell’s hole card could triple his sevens or pair either of his other three cards for two pair. The odds were strongly in O’Dell’s favor.
Tallman: “The limit is one-eighty.”
O’Dell shot the wad. Gorman folded and O’Dell pulled the bills and piled them loosely beside his left elbow. Gorman had lost ninety dollars on the first hand.
The game went on. Hennessey moved quietly, like a ghost, filling drinks.
The winning hands went back and forth. Brodie kept the opera glasses on Eli’s hand and watched with surprise when Eli folded a winning hand of five-card stud, folded again when his down card gave him a straight to O’Dell’s three of a kind. In one seven-card game, Eli had a well-hidden flush, O’Dell obviously had three of a kind. Eli called O’Dell with a large bet, then folded the winning hand.
Cigars and cigarettes glowed in the dark. Smoke curled upward, lured by the heat of the chandelier. The game went on. In a five-card draw hand, Eli drew one card to a four-card heart flush and caught the fifth heart. O’Dell drew two cards. He bet two hundred dollars and Eli called him. O’Dell had three kings.
“Beats,” Eli said, and threw away the winning flush.
Brodie was astounded. What kind of bluff was he playing?
When the pot was high, Eli was purposely losing every bluff he tried. Brodie was confused. What was the art of the bluff Mr. Eli had talked about-throwing away winning hands?
At 10:15, Eli called for a break.
“The old man must be gettin’ tired,” O’Dell whined in his high voice as he headed toward the bar with most of the gallery. Eli stood up and stretched and worked the kinks out of his shoulders and neck. Buck Tallman intertwined his fingers and snapped them, then shook them out.
“How do you feel?” Tallman asked.
“Maybe the cards’ll start falling a little better.”
“The cards are falling just fine,” Eli answered.
“The way I figure, you’re down about two thousand.”
“The night’s young.”
At 10:30, Tallman announced, “Let’s play cards.”
O’Dell strolled back to his seat. Eli was already seated.
“You got any objections to raising the ante to twenty bucks?” O’Dell said, looking at Tallman.
“Mr. Gorman?” he asked.
Eli shrugged and said, “Why not make it a hundred?”
There was an audible reaction from the gallery. Tallman tried to control his surprise. O’Dell snickered. “What’s the matter, Gorman, you so tired you wanna go home early?”
“Do I take that as a ‘yes’?” Tallman said.
“Hell, yeah,” O’Dell said and threw a hundred-dollar bill in the pot, which Gorman covered. Since Gorman had called for a new deck, it was O’Dell’s game.
“Mr. O’Dell, your call.”
“The game is draw poker,” said Tallman, and dealt each man five cards down.
O’Dell picked up his hand, squeezed the five cards out. He had three eights, and a ten and six of mixed suits.
Eli watched his reaction while slowly shuffling his hand by slipping the top card under the bottom one. Then he looked. He had three kings, a five, and an ace of hearts.
“The limit is two hundred dollars,” said Tallman. “Cards?”
O’Dell bet the two hundred and Gorman called.
“The limit is six hundred. Cards, gentlemen?”
O’Dell took two cards.
So, thought Gorman, he, too, had triples or a pair and was holding an ace kicker. Gorman only took one. He held the kings and the ace, hoping O’Dell would figure him for two pair or four cards to a straight or flush.
“Goin’ for that inside straight again?” O’Dell bit. He chided, “Don’tcha ever learn?”
He looked at his two new cards. He had not helped. His best hand was triple eights.
Gorman watched him closely, looking for anything, a tic, a flinch, a hint of a smile. O’Dell licked his lips, took a sip of whiskey.
“Mr. O’Dell, the limit is six hundred,” said Tallman.
O’Dell thought: Got him. Didn’t help his two pair or fill his straight or flush.
“Bet a hundred,” said O’Dell.
“The limit is seven hundred.”
“Two hundred back at you,” said Eli.
It caught O’Dell flat-footed. He sat for a moment. Gorman figures me for the opening pair. He probably had two pair going in so he figures even if I paired my openers he’s got me beat.
“The pot is nine hundred dollars.”
Gorman had tried bluffing too many times before.
“Call,” O’Dell said.
Gorman laid his hand down and spread out three kings.
O’Dell’s eyes narrowed and his face reddened, but he said nothing. His three eights were beat. He threw in his hand.
“Three kings wins a thousand dollars,” said Tallman.
Now Eli had O’Dell’s holdings down to sixty-nine hundred; Gorman had sixty-seven hundred. A mere two hundred dollars separated them.
“I’d like a new deck,” Eli said again.
Tallman held the old deck between two hands and tore it in half, dropping the pieces in the saddlebags. He opened a new deck, mixed and shuffled them.
“The game returns to Mr. O’Dell,” he said.
With the right hand and the right timing, Eli could take O’Dell. O’Dell, playing arrogantly, had not counted his money. It lay in a loose pile by his elbow. But Eli knew. He had been counting both his money and O’Dell’s. Now Eli had to play cautiously. The stakes were getting so high, if either of them made a mistake it could cost them the game, the stakes, and the valley.
O’Dell called seven-card stud.
Tallman: “The game is seven-card stud.”
The players anted up a hundred apiece.
“The limit is two hundred. Cards to the players.”
He dealt two cards facedown to the players. O’Dell lifted the corners of his two cards. An ace of spades and a jack of hearts. Gorman peeked at his two cards, but Brodie could not see them well enough to read them.
Tallman dealt each a face card.
O’Dell: jack of spades.
Gorman: four of diamonds.
“Jack bets,” said Tallman.
O’Dell bet two hundred. Gorman called the bet.
Tallman: “The pot limit is now six hundred.”
He dealt the second cards up.
O’Dell: three of hearts. “Jack, three,” said Tallman.
Gorman: jack of clubs. Tallman: “Jack, four. Jack, four bets.”
Gorman studied the cards.
“Check,” he said.
O’Dell bet a hundred dollars. Gorman called the bet.
Tallman: “The limit is eight hundred.”
O’Dell: jack of hearts. “A pair of jacks and a club three,” Tallman said.
Gorman: three of hearts. “Heart jack, diamond four, a heart three. The pair bets.”
O’Dell’s tongue lashed at his lower lip. He started pulling hundreds from his pile.
“Eight hundred,” O’Dell snapped.
In the darkness, there was a sudden spate of whispered chatter.
“Quiet please, gentlemen,” Tallman admonished softly. “The bet is eight hundred. Pot limit is sixteen hundred dollars.”
Gorman studied his three face cards: jack, four of diamonds, three of hearts. He stared across the table at O’Dell, who was wearing what could pass for a smile.
“Call the sixteen hundred,” Gorman said.
Tallman sighed. “The limit is thirty-two hundred. Cards to the players.”
He dealt the last face card to O’Dell: an ace of spades. “A pair of jacks, three, and the ace of spades,” said Tallman.
Gorman caught a four of diamonds. “Two of diamonds, jack of hearts, three of hearts, four of diamonds. Three cards to a straight.” He looked at Gorman, who was expressionless.
“The pair still bets. The limit stands at twenty-four hundred,” Tallman said.
O’Dell said, “I’ll make it easy on you, old man.” He counted out twenty hundred-dollar bills and dropped them in the pot.
“The bet is two thousand,” Tallman said. He looked at Gorman, who was staring at O’Dell. “Two thousand buys you the last card. The pot stands at forty-four hundred. ”
Gorman hesitated. Was this a sucker bet to keep him in? Why would O’Dell make a soft bet? He studied O’Dell’s hand. A pair of jacks, an ace, and an eight. Possibilities? Three jacks or three aces. He had the cased jack of clubs and a cased ace. Either a pair of eights or a hidden pair in the hole. Unless all three of his hole cards were eights, he could not have four of a kind. Odds for a straight or flush were zero. A full house was the best hand he could have. With a pair of jacks showing, Gorman figured O’Dell had either two pair, jacks and possibly aces, or a jack high full house.
Eli would know after the last down card was dealt. If he had a full house he would check, gambling that O’Dell would bet, and O’Dell could raise him out of the game.
At this point, a full house, four of a kind, or a straight flush could beat Gorman.
Gorman called the two-thousand-dollar bet.
“The pot limit is sixty-four hundred dollars.”
An audible gasp from the darkened gallery. Hennessey brought Tallman a fresh cup of coffee, his sixth of the night, and he took a breath and a sip.
The last card.
Gorman watched O’Dell take a quick, cursory look at his down card, which told Gorman that O’Dell had his full house, probably jacks and a pair of aces or eights.
Gorman bent his hole card up, looked at it, and let it snap back on the felt.
Brodie got a quick look at it. A three of diamonds.
A pair of threes! Brodie thought. What are his other two hole cards? Even if Eli had another three and a pair of jacks, O’Dell’s full house would beat Gorman’s. This was a hand Eli couldn’t bluff.
O’Dell did exactly as Gorman anticipated. He checked.
Either he had two pair and was hedging, or it was a sucker bet. He’d figure Gorman, with a straight, would bet. O’Dell would raise him and drive him out of the game.
O’Dell swept up his stash and counted the hundreds. Gorman’s expressionless eyes watched him. He had sixty-nine hundred dollars left.
He looked across the table at Gorman’s neatly stacked cash. Easy to count. Sixty-seven hundred dollars.
Gorman looked at him for a minute or more. O’Dell finally looked away, lit a cigarette.
Gorman bet a hundred dollars.
The bet reduced O’Dell’s stash to sixty-eight hundred, Gorman’s to sixty-six hundred.
The pot was sixty-six hundred, the maximum bet.
“Looks like you’re gonna get your beauty sleep early tonight, old man,” O’Dell sneered. “You think you can bluff me out with a little straight?” He counted out a fistful of hundreds and dropped them in the pot. “The limit: six thousand six hundred dollars.”
He leaned back in his chair and smiled.
Eli sat quietly for a moment. Then he counted out his last dollar and dropped sixty-six hundred dollars on top of O’Dell’s bet.
“I’ll just call,” Eli said. “If you’ve got that filly, let’s see it.”
O’Dell’s left eye twitched. He looked at Gorman but saw only the dead stare he had seen all night.
He turned his first two hole cards over. An ace and a jack.
“Jacks full,” he snarled. “Let’s see that little straight of yours.”
“Oh, I have the little straight,” Gorman said, and smiled for the first time during the evening.
Gorman turned his first two hole cards over.
An ace of diamonds, a five of diamonds.
O’Dell started to reach for the pot.
Gorman turned over his last card. A three of diamonds.
“But they’re all diamonds,” Gorman said. And he laughed. “A straight flush.”
O’Dell stopped and looked at the trey of diamonds with disbelief. He wiped his mouth with his hand. Beads of sweat gleamed from his forehead. He looked at Gorman with hate.
The gallery began to babble. Hennessey poured himself a double bourbon.
“You kike bastard,” he bellowed, grabbing his full house and throwing the cards at Eli. A couple hit Eli’s chest, the others fluttered to the floor.
Tallman slammed his hand on the table.
“This was a gentleman’s game. Act like one!” he ordered. “Ace-five straight flush is the winner.” He took O’Dell’s stack of deeds and placed them on top of Eli Gorman’s land titles. “Winner takes all.”
Eli stood up and raked nineteen thousand eight hundred dollars into his satchel.
O’Dell was left with two hundred dollars, only enough for an ante. He would be beat on the first up card. He was trembling with rage. The gallery was crowding around Gorman, slapping him on the back, congratulating him, thanking him for saving the valley.
O’Dell threw his suit jacket over his shoulder and propped his derby on the back of his head. He started toward the door and over his shoulder he yelled, “Hey, Gorman.”
Eli stared at him through the friends gathered around him.
“I just want you to know that I sold the six square blocks of Eureka to Arnie Riker this afternoon for a dollar. You got rid of me, I’m leaving tonight. But you’re gonna have Riker up your ass until the day you die.”
The celebrating was over, and Ben and Brodie had gone off to bed. Eli decided to have a final cigar and told Maddy he would be upstairs in a few minutes. He went out the back door, snipped the end off his stogie, and lit it. He heard Brodie’s voice down near the stable and followed it out to the paddock.
Brodie was feeding Cyclone an apple, telling the horse about the game.
“It was really somethin’ to see,” he said softly to the white horse.
The remark surprised Eli.
“Do you have something to tell me, Thomas?” he asked.
When Brodie didn’t answer, the old man went in. “I can read you like I can read a hand of cards. I can see it in your face.”
“A kind of admiration toward me I’ve never seen before.”
“Well, sure. You won the game.”
“Not just that.”
Brodie could not lie to Eli Gorman. He stuck his hands in his pockets and thought for a moment and said, “We was… were… there, Mr. Eli. Ben and me were hiding up in the loft.”
“What!” he snapped, his face clouding up.
“Ah, c’mon, sir, you think we could pass it up? We were behind you and we had the opera glasses. I saw every hand you played.” Brodie flashed his crooked smile. “You were really something, Mr. Eli.”
Eli glowered for a moment more, then the glower slowly turned to a smile. He nodded.
“I should have guessed,” he said. “Too good a show to miss, eh?”
“But I got one question,” Brodie said.
“What question is that?”
“On that last hand? Why did you only bet a hundred dollars?”
“Did you watch him? He’s a sloppy player. He never counted his money, he just piled it up. I’m a numbers man, Thomas. I knew after every hand where we both stood.
“The pot was sixty-four hundred dollars. I knew O’Dell had his full house already, he barely looked at his last card. And I had my straight flush. O’Dell had sixty-nine hundred, I had sixty-seven hundred. By betting a hundred dollars, it limited the pot to sixty-six hundred, which is what I had, so there was no way he could bet me out of the game. When I beat him, he had two hundred dollars left, just enough for an ante and one bet, so he was beat. Had I bet the limit, he could have raised me four hundred, and with only two hundred left, I couldn’t call the bet and he would have won.”
“I saw you throw in four winning hands during the night.”
“Actually five. So he pegged me for a poor bluffer. On that last hand, he figured me for a small straight and thought I was trying to bluff him out with a small bet when he checked. There’s no way he wasn’t going to bump my hundred-dollar bet and run me out of the game.”
Brodie shook his head. “You didn’t have your winning hand until the last card.”
“That’s right. If I hadn’t drawn that three of diamonds when he checked I would have checked, too. He would have won the hand, but I still would have had sixty-seven hundred dollars.
Eli ground out his cigar, started for the house, then stopped and turned back around. “Did you learn anything tonight, Thomas?”
“Oh yes, sir. I learned two things.”
“And what were they?”
“The art of the bluff,” Brodie answered. “And the luck of the draw.”
Writing the letters was the hardest part. He had already packed all his belongings in two saddlebags, which were under his bed. His entire fortune-four hundred dollars, most of it paper money-was in a cigar box tied with twine in the bottom of one of them. He had twenty gold eagles in the pocket of his only suit, blue serge, a bit shiny at the elbows. He put the pocket watch Eli had given him once, as a Hanukkah present, in his jacket pocket.
He sat down on the edge of his bed and reread the letters he had written to Mr. and Mrs. Gorman and to Ben. He had struggled over the words for two days, writing and rewriting. He was no poet and he knew it. In the end, the letter to the Gormans was simple and to the point. A thank-you note for all they had done for him. It was time for him to leave the sanctuary they had provided, leave their care and affection. Time to find his own way in the world. They would understand.
“You have been the family I lost,” he finished. “I thank you for the offer of college, but I think we all know I am no student. It is time for me to find my true place in this world. I will miss you two and Ben and this house. I love you in my heart. Thomas Brodie Culhane.”
The letter to Ben was harder.
“You are the brother I never had and the best friend I will always have,” he wrote. “You and Isabel have your future planned out. Right now, I have no future. There is nothing here for me in Eureka. I will leave Cyclone at the sheriff’s office. I’m sure Buck will bring him home. Take care of him for me. He’s the first thing I ever bought with my own money that was worth a damn. I leave this place to take on the world, Ben. I know you will understand. If you ever need anything- anything — I’m sure you will find me and I’ll come running. Have a good life, and thanks for taking care of me all these years. Brodie.”
The letter to Isabel was impossible. He wrote and rewrote it a dozen times, crumpling each one and throwing it on the floor.
“Dear Isabel,” he finally wrote. “You and Ben will be going back East to start a new life in a few weeks. He is the man for you. He loves you dearly and will bring magic to your life. It is time for me to leave here and look for my future. I will remember you forever. Brodie.”
He rode down the pathway and tied Cyclone to a tree, gave him an apple to munch on, and looked up at the Hoffman house.
The light was on in the corner room.
She had sneaked out and was waiting for him.
He decided to wait until she went back to her house and leave the note for her in the greenhouse.
Then he thought better of it. Her mother or father might find the letter.
Even worse, it was a cowardly way to bow out.
But he approached the secret hideaway fearfully. Thirteen years of poverty and the loss of two parents he adored had left him emotionally barren. He had learned affection and self-respect from the Gormans, had found in Ben a brother figure in whom he had confided his fears and his joy.
Isabel was different. Isabel had been his first love. She had awakened emotions he had never felt before. Each eagerly had surrendered their virginity to the other. She had revealed in Brodie a gentleness of spirit that both awed and terrified him.
How can I say good-bye, he wondered, when my heart aches at the thought?
He knew what he had to do, knew he had to dig deep down inside himself, to reach back four years, to search for and rekindle the cynicism, the toughness, the solitude of the kid who had grown up in Eureka and who, when his mother died, had cowered alone in his bed in the corner of the laundry until Ben had come and found him and taken him to the Gorman mansion and a new life that was far beyond his wildest dreams.
He entered the greenhouse resolutely.
She rushed from the darkness before he was halfway to the back. She was wearing a nightgown and a silk robe covered with tiny embroidered roses.
His throat closed. He couldn’t swallow.
“Daddy told me about Mr. Eli. Isn’t it wonderful! It turned out so perfectly,” she said joyously.
She threw her arms around him, hugging him, and her hair swept his face. He kept his hands at his sides.
She stepped back and looked up at him, and saw something she had never seen before. There were tears in his eyes.
“Brodie…” The first hint of apprehension.
His lips moved but no words came.
“Brodie,” she said, lowering her head a trifle, staring at him, her head cocked slightly to one side.
He touched her cheek and realized his hand was shaking.
“Something’s bad,” she said, and tears flooded her eyes. She put two fingers against his lips. “I don’t want to hear anything bad. Please.”
“Isabel… I’ve got to… I have to go away.”
“What do you mean, ‘go away’? Where? Where are you going?”
He looked at the ground. He could not stand to look at her face, at the tears edging down to her chin.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. But it’s not fair for me to stay here.”
“Fair! Fair! ”
“Look at me, Isabel. Please. I got nothing. All the clothes I own wouldn’t fill the corner of a closet. I got four hundred dollars in a cigar box and that’s all I got in the world…”
“Stop it!” she said.
“Ben loves you. He can give you everything you want.”
“I don’t care!” she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I love you, and I know you love me.”
“I left a note for Mr. Eli and Miss Madeline, and one for Ben. I’m leaving, Isabel. I’m leaving San Pietro valley for good. It’s best for everybody. Especially you.”
“It is not best for me,” she said, anguish accenting every syllable. “You care about Ben, you care about the Gormans. Don’t you care about me?”
“We’re just kids,” he said harshly. “It’s puppy love.”
“That’s what you think? Puppy love? ” She was crying hard now. “Is that all I mean to you?”
He couldn’t stand the hurt. He reached out to her but she backed away, into the shadows at the back of the greenhouse. She sat down on the hard earth.
“You’re just throwing me away.” Her voice was like a whispered wail, a cry in the night, her grief so deep that Brodie did not know how to respond.
“I gotta go,” he said in a voice he didn’t even recognize. “It’s best for everybody.”
“How do you know what’s best for me?” she moaned. “I thought you loved me. I thought you would protect me and…” Her voice dissolved into more tears.
Jesus, he thought, why won’t she understand?
“My heart hurts,” she sobbed. “It will never stop hurting. You’ve turned my dreams into nightmares.”
“If you’re going, then go. Get away from me.”
He stood his ground for a few moments and then backed down the aisle to the door. He couldn’t tell her there was a crushing hurt in his heart, too.
As he turned the doorknob, her voice came to him from the darkness.
“I read a poem once,” she said in a voice tortured with misery. “It said ‘First love is forever.’ And I believed it.”
He ran from the greenhouse, ran to Cyclone, jumped on his back, and rode down the path, away from the Hoffman house and around Grand View and down the precipitous cliff road from the Hill to Eureka.
The town had gone crazy. It was like New Year’s Eve. The bars were full, men were staggering in the street, shooting their guns into the air. Some of the girls were dancing on the wooden sidewalk. The news was out about Riker.
Light from town spilled out on the beach, and Brodie leaned back and smacked Cyclone on the rump. He dashed off down the beach.
“Go, boy, go!” Brodie yelled, as the stallion galloped in and out of the surf as he loved to do. They raced past the town, and then Brodie wheeled him around, and they trotted back to the swimming beach. Brodie slid off his back and for the next two hours he talked to the horse, emptying his heart out, explaining to him why he was leaving.
He understands. I can see it in his eyes. He knows I gotta do this.
The wagon to end-o’-track left at 5:00 a.m. And the weekly supply train to San Francisco left at seven. The sun was a scarlet promise on the horizon when he led Cyclone up to the sheriff’s office and tied him to the hitching post. He threw a saddlebag over each shoulder and went into the office. The deputy was half-asleep at his desk.
“What you doin’ down here this time a day?”
“I gotta go out of town,” Brodie answered.
He laid an envelope on the desk.
“My horse is tied up outside and I got a note here for Buck. I’m asking him to take the horse back up to the Gormans for me.”
“Hope the hell nobody steals him,” the deputy said, looking out the window at Cyclone. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
The wagon was loaded with hungover iron workers when Brodie climbed aboard. A few minutes later, the driver cracked his whip and they started up the hill. As the wagon reached the crest, Brodie looked back at the town where he was born and where his life had changed forever in the years since the death of his mother. A great sadness flowed over him. Then he turned his back on Eureka and dismissed it.
Good-bye forever and good riddance, he said to himself, and he knew he would never return.
Fate had other plans for Brodie Culhane.
In the spring of 1917, a dispirited President Woodrow Wilson, the liberal idealist who had ardently resisted America’s intervention in the war in Europe, was finally forced to admit the inevitable: America was about to be drawn into the most savage conflict in the history of warfare. In 1914, nine European nations were embroiled in what would become known as the Great War, a conflict unparalleled in its brutality. On one side, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Russia, among others. Opposing them, Germany, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire.
It quickly became apparent that World War I was to become a campaign of mud, trenches, barbed wire-and machine guns, the first time the deadly weapon was used in a major war.
By the time the United States entered the conflict, the trench war was approaching its grotesque and barbaric finale…
A thick fog laced with the smell of death lay like a shroud over the battlefield. Then there was a howl in the sky as a star shell arced and burst, briefly revealing a ghastly sight. Silhouetted in the heavy mist was a wasteland of staggering destruction. Trees, fragmented by constant artillery shelling, were reduced to leafless, shattered stalks. Fence posts wrapped in rusting barbed wire stood like pathetic sentinels over trenches that snaked and crisscrossed the terrain. Shell holes, surrounded by mounds of displaced earth, were filled with rancid rainwater. There was no grass, nothing green or verdant, just brown stretches of mud, body parts dangling from endless stretches of wire, abandoned weapons, and corpses frozen in a tragic frieze of death.
And there were the rats, legions of rats, scurrying back and forth in the no-man’s-land, feasting on the dead.
A few hundred yards beyond the haze-veiled scene, the Germans were gathering for another attack-there had been dozens through the years. The star shell burned out and darkness enveloped the shell-spotted battlefield.
Brodie Culhane was chilled even though it was early September. His boots and socks were soaked and he had removed his puttees, which were in rags. Damp fog wormed through his clothing and clung to his skin. The machine-gun nest he had set up had an inch of water in it from a rainstorm the night before. There wasn’t a spot of dry ground for miles in any direction. It made him think of Eureka. All around him was mud. Mud as demanding as quicksand, sucking a man’s legs down to the knees with every step. As he stared into the darkness, another star shell burst overhead, illuminating the grim no-man’s-land that lay between his machine-gun line and the Germans.
From Switzerland to the English Channel, the French had lined their border with trenches and barbed wire, four rows of each separating them from Germany. Now, almost four years later, the grim sight before him defined what had become known as the Western Front.
He was dying for a cigarette. And in the deadly silence, a song suddenly echoed in his head.
You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore…
It was their first day on the line. They were marching down a road past a park on the outskirts of a French town called Chateau Thierry, heading north toward a game preserve called Belleau Wood. One of the squads started singing, as if it were a parade. One platoon singing one song, a second company answering with another.
You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore,
When the m-m-m-moon shine’s, over the c-c-c-cowshed,
I’ll be w-w-w-waiting at the g-g-g-garden door.
You may forget the gas and shells, parlay-voo,
You may forget the gas and shells, parlay-voo,
You may forget the gas and shells,
But you’ll never forget the mademoiselles,
They were still singing when the Germans fired the first volley. Machine guns. His men went down like string-cut puppets.
Barely six months ago.
Behind him, the radiophone buzzed, its ring muzzled to prevent the enemy, a few hundred yards away, from hearing it.
The radioman, a clean-cheeked youngster, answered it, cupping the mouthpiece with his hand. He gave the receiver to Culhane, who could feel the youngster’s hand shaking as he took it. The nineteen-year-old had developed the shakes after only two weeks on the front.
“Culhane,” he whispered.
“Brodie, this is Jack Grover. The major wants to have a chat. I’m on the radiophone by the five-mile post.”
“Stay where you are,” Brodie answered, “I’ll come to you. You’ll never get that tricycle of yours through this damn muck.”
“Appreciate that,” Grover answered with a chuckle, and the radio went dead.
“Relax, kid,” Culhane’s voice was calm and deep as an animal’s growl as he handed the phone back to the radioman. “Nothing’s gonna happen for three or four hours. Think about something else. Think about your girl back home or Christmas or something. Fear’s worse than the real thing.”
He checked his watch in the masked glow of his flashlight. It was three-fifteen.
“I gotta run back to HQ,” he told the kid. “Cover the stutter gun.” He grabbed his rifle, crawled out of the nest, and headed east in a crouch toward the dirt road four hundred feet away, mud snatching at his boots with every step.
Grover was waiting on the motorcycle when Culhane emerged from the dark. His clothing and face were caked with mud, he was unshaven, and his eyes were dulled by lack of sleep.
“Jesus, you look like hell,” Grover said as Culhane clambered into the sidecar.
“Haven’t you heard, this is hell,” Culhane answered. Grover wheeled around and headed back down the muddy road.
Temporary HQ was a two-room bunker a mile from no-man’s-land. It had wood-plank floors, sandbags for walls, and the ceiling was made of fence posts and logs. The first room was occupied by the top sergeant, a beefy old-timer named Paul March. Wooden planks stretched between upended ammo boxes substituted for a desk. A radioman named Caldone was huddled over his equipment and a runner was catching a nap on a cot in the corner. A tattered piece of burlap served as a door to the other room, the major’s office.
“How’s it going up there?” March said to Culhane.
“Wanna take a guess?”
“No thanks,” March said. “Let me be surprised in a couple of hours when we join you for tea and crumpets.” He walked to the burlap curtain and knocked on the wooden frame that supported it.
“Yes?” The voice from inside the room was deep, with the soft roll of the South in it.
“Sergeant Culhane’s here, Major.”
“Good, show him in.”
They entered, saluted, and Major Merrill walked around his desk to grab Culhane by the arm.
“Good to see you, Brodie,” he said.
“Glad I’m still around.”
The major was a big man, broad-shouldered and muscular, his hair trimmed almost to the scalp, his dark blue eyes dulled by too many attacks and counterattacks and too many “regret” letters written to mothers or wives or sisters. He was a year younger than Culhane, but the war had put ten years on his face. Culhane had served under him for two years, starting when the battalion was formed in South Carolina. Merrill was a compassionate man in a business where compassion was a liability.
“Jesus, you’re a wreck,” he said to Culhane.
“So I’ve been told,” Culhane answered. Haunted eyes peered out from his mud-caked face.
Major Merrill looked Culhane over.
“Sergeant March,” the major called.
“Yes, sir,” March answered, peering through the burlap curtain.
“Do you think you can find me a pair of dry boots, ten-and-a-half C, and some dry socks and puttees?”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
To Culhane, the major said, “I could hear your boots squishing when you came down the steps. A soldier has a right to go into battle with dry feet, damn it. Sorry I can’t get you a fresh uniform.”
“I’ll be up to my ass in mud two minutes after I leave here, anyway,” Culhane said. “But it’ll be nice to have dry feet for a little while. Thanks. Okay if I smoke?”
Merrill watched Culhane’s mud-caked hands as he took out a pouch of tobacco, papers, and matches wrapped in tinfoil to keep them dry. Not a tremor, he thought, as he watched Culhane roll the cigarette and light it.
Culhane took out a roughly sketched map and spread it out on Merrill’s table, but Merrill pointed to the other curtain in the room.
“There’s a makeshift sink and some clean water in there. Why don’t you wash up before we talk. My razor and strop’s in there if you want to grab a quick shave. I’ll get us some coffee.”
March came back with fresh footwear, and Culhane put on the socks and boots. When he returned to Merrill’s office, there were two tin cups of coffee sitting on the table. Merrill took a silver flask from his back pocket and laced both with brandy while Culhane rolled another cigarette.
“According to our intelligence, whoever the hell they are, the Germans are lining up to take another crack at us,” Merrill said.
“What a surprise,” said Culhane. “When?”
Culhane looked at him for a moment, then asked, “What’s the weather look like?”
“We’re supposed to pick up some wind about sunrise. That’ll clear the fog, then it’s going to be a bright, sunny day.”
“A break for us, for a change.”
“If we can stop them this time, I think they’re beat. They need to make this breakthrough and get behind our troops. Brodie, you’re going to have to…”
“… stall their front line at my forward post until you can move the company up,” Brodie finished the sentence.
Merrill laughed. He had not laughed for some time. Culhane could sense a lot more relief in his laughter than joy.
“Where will you be?” Brodie asked.
“Fifty yards behind you. The company will move up to within fifty yards of your position before the Krauts start shelling us. I’m gambling that they’ll think we’re in the trenches, and pepper the trench line between them and us. If they find out we’ve moved back from the line, they’ll raise their big guns and blow us to hell and gone. Your gunners are our front line. As soon as you make contact, we’ll attack.”
“How long do I have?”
“With the mud? Ten minutes. Can you hold them for ten minutes?”
In a place where a minute equals an hour anywhere else in the world? He shrugged. “If that’s what I gotta do, that’s what I gotta do.”
Culhane turned his hastily sketched map toward Merrill and pointed out his positions as he spoke. “I got ten machine-gun nests set up along our perimeter with overlapping fire. Max Brady’s in charge of the line. I got sappers out there planting mines in the trenches only. The mines are marked with circles on the map. I’ve got my two best shooters on the road and Rusty, the human ear, in a trench about fifty yards out. They should hear something before the shelling starts. The Krauts have four trenches to cross, a lot of wire, the mud, and the mines. The trenches are laced with ’em, Major. Warn our boys to jump across them. If they fall in one, there’s a four-in-one chance they’ll land on a mine.”
“Classic setup for an ambush.” Merrill smiled. “You outguessed me.”
“I need the fog to lift, because if we can see them, we can hold them in place. But if the fog holds and they get right on top of us before we can engage them…”
He let the sentence die.
“So you have fourteen men holding that line?”
“Actually eighteen, counting me. We have two radiomen and two corpsmen up there, too.”
“You travel pretty light.”
“I got the seventeen best men in the company. You got the rest.”
Merrill leaned forward and stared at the map. “So we need the fog to hold, to cover us,” Merrill said, “and then lift just as they attack so you can zero in on them.”
“That’s about it. My two point men and Rusty the Ear are out there listening for movement. They’ll fire flares when they’re sure the Krauts are on the move. Then you can lob some star shells over them and, with luck, we’ll get a nice look at ’em.”
“They’ll charge at that point.”
Culhane nodded. “And move their artillery down the road. If they lead off with a tank, we can take it out with grenades. If they bring on the caissons first, we’ll kill the horses and stop their artillery dead in its tracks.”
“It’s a daring plan,” Merrill said. Then he nodded. “But if it works, we can drive them right into the river. They’ll have to surrender.”
“A lot’s gonna depend on the fog.”
Major Merrill reached in his pocket and took out a lieutenant’s gold collar bar, put it on the desk, and slid it toward Culhane.
“I knew you’d be ready, Brodie,” he said. “You’re the best I’ve got. I’m giving you a battlefield commission. Colonel Bowers approved it last night. I don’t have a commissioned officer left in this company.”
Culhane stared at the bar for a full minute. He reached out with a forefinger and spun it around.
“How’d you like to tell some kid’s mother that her son was blown to bits for five miles of mud, Major?”
“I do,” Merrill said quietly. “I write the letters every day. I tell them their sons died heroes.”
“There aren’t any heroes in a slaughterhouse.”
“Brodie, in four years, the battle lines along the western front have moved less than ten miles in either direction. It isn’t about taking ground, it’s about artillery and machine guns and bodies. We’re expendable because we can be replaced. The guy back on the production line cranking out those howitzer shells and firing pins and cannon barrels, he’s the one who’s important.”
“So whoever runs out of ammo, guns, and bodies first loses?”
“That’s about it,” Merrill said. Then added: “I’m giving you a battlefield commission. You’re the best Marine I ever met.”
They finished their coffee in silence. Somewhere to the west, they heard a shell scream to earth and explode. The tin cups jittered for a moment and some dirt dribbled down from the ceiling of the bunker.
“I’d like to pass on that. The reason you don’t have any comms left is they’re the first ones the Krauts knock off. I’ll do whatever you call on me to do, but I’ll keep my stripes if it’s all the same to you.”
“You’re a lifer, Brodie. Do you realize what life will be like for a Marine officer when this is over?”
“I may not stay in. If I’m not rat meat by the time this is over, I’m thinkin’ of taking a crack at civilian life again.”
“You’re throwing away what, fifteen years?”
“Closer to sixteen. I lied about my age. But I think it’s time I went back to the hole I left.”
“California. Called Eureka. Sits right on the Pacific. That’s where I first learned to hate mud.”
“Why go back to it, then?” Merrill asked.
“My best friend lives there.” Brodie smiled and added, “I’ve got a godson I’ve never seen.”
“What’ll you do there?” Merrill asked.
“There’s a sheriff there, an old-timer. He was kind of a mentor to me. Taught me to ride and shoot, do things with a sense of style.”
“You thinking of taking his place?”
“Nobody’ll ever take Buck Tallman’s place,” Brodie said. “Better get back. Dawn’s just around the corner. Thanks for the dry boots and the coffee.”
Merrill stood up, offered Brodie his hand, and they shook. Saying good-bye, just in case.
“Just remember,” Brodie said as he brushed through the burlap doorway, “once it starts you’ll have ten minutes. And not one minute more.”
Rusty Danzig huddled against a battered sandbag in a shallow trench forty or fifty yards in front of the machine-gun line. His eyes were closed and his legs were curled up beside him. His rifle was resting against his legs. He could have been mistaken for dead or asleep, but he was neither; he was listening.
He had his ear pressed against a piece of burlap to keep it dry, and he had been listening for two hours in the darkness. Not for sounds he knew. Not for the sound rats make skittering across a board or chewing on a corpse, or the thunk of a shell as it splattered deep into the mud before exploding, or the sound barbed wire makes when the wind rattles it. Danzig was listening for the unusual. The sound of boots slogging through the mud, or a metal canteen accidentally scraping against an ammunition belt, or someone trying to muffle a cough. The sounds of life in a field of death.
Danzig was a South Boston tough guy who did not take well to orders. He would nod, say “Yes, sir,” and then do it his own way. He was a short, burly, black-haired man who had great ears. He claimed he could hear a fly clear its throat from a hundred yards away. He was fifty yards in front of Culhane’s foxhole, in a trench that was mined on both sides of him. The second most dangerous position in the planned ambush.
The most dangerous spot was reserved for Big Redd, whose father was a Chiricahua Apache, his mother a white schoolteacher from Minnesota. The big Indian was the forward sniper. Redd had once told Culhane that he had joined the Marines just to get off the reservation, where his father was a drunk and his mother the schoolmarm. The Marines got the best of that deal, Culhane had thought. We got a great tracker and hunter, with the instincts of a mountain lion. Eyes, ears, and nose were part of the combination. The tall, muscular man could smell a horse half a mile away with the wind at his back. His job: listen for the sounds of an advance and, as soon as possible, shoot the lead horse pulling the caissons with a clean front-on shot, two inches to the left of its foreleg and a little higher. A heart shot that would drop the horse in its tracks. Then pick off drivers, officers, whoever he felt was worthy of an old frontier Sharps. 30-caliber shot to the head. Delay the line, cause chaos, and when it got too hot, run like hell. Culhane once asked why it was Redd’s favorite assignment even though it was the most dangerous. Redd’s answer: Because it was the most dangerous.
The number-three suicide spot was reserved for Lenny Holtz, from Bend, Oregon. Son of a crippled lumberjack and his bitter wife. A born sharpshooter who, like Culhane, had lied himself into the Marines at fifteen. He was a sapper along with Danzig-first planting mines in the three trenches between the Marines and the Germans and, if he didn’t blow himself up, then acting as Redd’s backup. Anybody that got past the Indian’s Sharps rifle was meat for Holtz. His shooting eye was as flawless as Danzig’s ears.
The three best men Culhane had were in the most vulnerable positions. The ten machine gunners were spread across a fifty-yard-wide perimeter. Max Brady was his lead gunner. Their job, once the charging Germans reached the farthest trench, was to lay down a deadly. 30-caliber barrage, force the survivors of the gunfire to jump into the mined trenches, and create panic in the German front lines until Merrill charged with the rifle company. Newsmen had nicknamed the Marines “Hell Hounds” because they screamed like wounded dogs when they engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Throw in mud, fog, and barbed-wire fences, and in the red glow of sunrise it became a howling, bloody ballet of death. The American Marines aimed not only to kill the Germans but to break what fighting spirit was left in the war-weary German infantrymen. Culhane thought it would work, but, he knew, not without taking its toll…
Max Brady orders the machine-gun barrage. The Germans fire back. In the first exchange, a sniper bullet rips through the bridge of Brady’s nose and takes out his eye. He stuffs a handkerchief in it and keeps firing.
Red dawn. The fog turns pink in the sun’s early rays. Danzig hears it first. A hundred and fifty yards away, a horse snorts. At almost the same instant, Redd smells horse flesh. But before either can fire a flare, the German. 88-millimeter howitzer barrage begins. Merrill was right. The Germans are shelling the no-man’s-land between the two enemies, gambling that the major has moved his forces into the trenches to await an attack. Danzig is caught in the middle of the deadly onslaught from the sky.
“Rusty, get outta there now. Run for it. Come in, come in!” Culhane yells. The beefy Bostonian jumps from the trench and zig-zags toward them, a chunky silhouette in the pink mist. He is yelling, “A hunnert-fifty yards, a hunnert-fifty yards,” as the howitzer barrage rains down around him. Ten yards from Culhane’s position, a bomb explodes. It is a few feet away from Rusty. He is knocked to his knees, clutching his throat. Blood spurts between his fingers.
Culhane fires a red flare, signaling Merrill to attack, and then jumps out of the foxhole, runs to Danzig, and pulls him to his feet. He shoves Danzig into the foxhole a moment before another. 88 goes off.
At their posts, Redd and Lenny peer into the mist. They can hear the horses snorting and the wheels on the caissons squealing. They are getting too close for comfort. To their left, the whole trench area is being bombarded.
And then a miracle. The wind comes.
The mist swirls and blows away.
The road is bound on both sides by four-foot-deep ditches. In the morning’s glare, Redd sees the first horses. Four of them, pulling a heavy gun. He aims, finds his mark, and fires. The Sharps kicks into his shoulder, then the lead horse’s head flips up, and the animal falls straightaway to the ground. A moment later, Lenny Holtz drops the other horse in the lead team. The remaining pair panic; eyes scared, nostrils flared, they bolt. Redd’s next shot takes the driver. He topples forward into the crazed horses. Lenny drops the third horse and the fourth breaks loose and gallops past them. The second horse team goes crazy. A commander, obviously an officer, is screaming at the second driver to get his horses under control. Redd waits a moment until he gets the officer’s profile in his sights, aims just in front of his ear, but before he can fire, the side of the German’s head erupts. Lenny has beaten him to it.
“Redd, come on, the shelling’s stopped!” Lenny yells. “We gotta get out of here!”
But Redd sees something else. Behind the second caisson is a tank. A stubby little box topped by a tin can of a turret, with a cannon swinging back and forth. Below it is a window with a machine gunner, both looking for targets.
Behind him, he can hear Merrill’s troopers yowling.
“Go on,” Redd yells back. “I’m going to get me a tank.”
“Sure am.” And Redd runs up the gully toward the Germans.
“Well, shit,” Lenny snarls, and follows him up the opposite side of the road. Behind him, he can hear Merrill’s yowling “hounds” as they wallow through the mud toward the advancing lines. Ahead of him, Lenny sees another German officer ordering several men to shoot the four horses in the second team and push the caissons into the ditch so the tank can get by. Lenny kills him and begins picking off the men who had been ordered to shoot the horses.
Redd doesn’t shoot anything. He just keeps running up the gully toward the tank.
With the firing of Culhane’s flare, Merrill blows his whistle, a shrill signal that the attack is on. The company, in staggered lines, races toward the enemy as the morning wind sweeps across the battlefield and the fog swirls away. A hundred yards in front of him, the front element of the German line is mowed down as the machine-gun trap opens up on them. The Hell Hounds charge forward through the mud and the battle becomes even more surreal.
A white horse, like a manic ghost, its eyes crazed, its nostrils flared, suddenly materializes from what’s left of the fog, gallops into the attacking force, knocking men down and stomping them as it snorts and whinnies with fear.
“What the hell!” Culhane says. He screams “Kill the horse!” as the crazy animal flails among the advancing Marines. A soldier shoots it in the leg and the hobbled animal goes even crazier, whinnying wildly and kicking out its back legs even as it begins to fall. Culhane jumps from his nest, runs toward it. For a moment, his mind sees an image of Cyclone, the beautiful white horse from his youth on the Hill, then quickly flashes back to the frantic horse, and he fires a shot from his. 45 into its brain. The horse’s head snaps and it collapses. The wave of Marines sweeps on.
Culhane races back toward his machine gun, hears the banshee scream of the howitzer shell, feels the hot concussion smack his back, the shower of mud, a searing pain in his right leg as he is blown into his shallow foxhole. Culhane looks down at his leg. It is shredded by shrapnel.
He thinks he hears somebody, somewhere, screaming, “Corpsman! Corpsman!”
Big Redd sticks close to the wall of the gully. The German artillery line is in havoc. They are too busy shooting horses, shoving them into the gully to clear a path for the tank, and getting shot, to pay attention to him as he creeps up beside the tank. On the other side of the road he can hear Merrill’s men charging the trench line.
In the tank, the machine gunner sees Redd as he steps back to grenade the tank. He fires a burst.
In the ditch, Redd ducks as bullets spout along the rim of the gully. He falls against the wall, spins about ten feet down it, jumps up, the Sharps already against his shoulder, and fires one shot. It zings down the machine gunner’s barrel and hits him in the forehead.
Redd lobs two grenades under the front of the tank’s screeching gears. Both grenades do the job. The tread splits in two and rolls off its runners. Crippled, the tank turns to the right. The turret man swings the cannon toward Redd, but before he can get off his shot the tank goes over the opposite side of the gully and crashes on its side.
Lenny crawls out of the ditch and runs toward the advancing Marine line. The German infantrymen are still bottlenecked at the trenches; hundreds are being slaughtered by both the American gunners and the mines when they jump into the trenches for cover. As Lenny jumps over the last trench, his foot slips in the mud. He scrambles to keep from falling into the deadly pit. He tries frantically to get a handhold but the mud defeats him. He slowly slides over the rim of the trench, flips over, and falls headfirst into it. When he hits the murky floor, he hears the deadly click of a mine as it is triggered. He dives away and rolls over as the bomb explodes. The blast slams him against the trench wall, showers him with shrapnel, and blows off the lower part of his left arm.
Above him, the attacking Marines jump across the trench.
“Hey,” he yells, “somebody gimme a hand!” He holds up his good arm and one of the charging Marines falls to the ground, reaches down and pulls him out of the death trap. It is then that Holtz realizes his other arm is gone at the elbow.
“Maybe I shoulda said ‘gimme an arm,’ ” he moans, before passing out.
As Merrill leads his men toward the embattled Germans, he runs past Culhane’s foxhole and drops down beside him.
“The trap’s working like a charm,” he says and then he sees Culhane’s leg. “Sweet Jesus!” he cries out.
“Don’t let ’em take my leg, Major,” Culhane says, his voice so weak Merrill can hardly understand him.
Merrill looks through the charging company of Marines and sees a red cross. “You, Corpsman, get over here!” he orders.
Culhane grabs a handful of Merrill’s shirt.
“I got you your ten minutes, Major.” His voice gets stronger. “Don’t… let… them… take… my… leg.” He begins to shake. Shock is setting in. The corpsman drops beside them and puts a tourniquet on Culhane’s upper thigh.
“Promise me, damn it!” Culhane yells above the din of battle.
Merrill grabs a leatherneck by the arm. “Listen to me,” Merrill bellows, shouting above the sounds of the Hell Hounds screaming, the peal of bayonets clashing, the thunder of guns. “You stay with your sergeant, get it? You stay with him when you get to the field hospital. You stay with him when they operate, and you tell whoever takes care of Culhane that I said if he takes off that leg, I’ll personally take off one of his.”
“Yes, sir, Major Merrill.”
“Th’nks,” Culhane stammers, and Merrill races into battle. He doesn’t hear Culhane’s last whisper before he passes out: “Good luck.”
The winter rainstorm passed quickly and bright hard sunlight urged buds into blossoms in the winter garden Madeline had loved so much. Eli shifted in his wheelchair and stared at the flowers through the large library window. His mind, as sharp as it ever was, raced back through time and he remembered the first time he saw her. San Francisco. She was wearing a pink dress with an enormously wide-brimmed hat and she was framed by ferns in the corner of the Garden Terrace restaurant. Thirty-two years old and she hadn’t looked a day over twenty, and when she smiled as they were introduced, he was immediately her captive.
His memory dissolved into another image. A young boy in tatters, with such an arrogant, cocky smile, standing beside Ben the first time Eli ever saw him. He saw that image reflected in the window but he seemed older and taller, no longer a teenager but a man in a uniform. Then he snapped out of his reverie and realized he was staring at a reflection.
“Hi, Mr. Eli,” the voice behind him said.
He wheeled his chair around and looked up at Brodie Culhane in Marine dress blues, medals-a Purple Heart, Silver Star, French Croix de Guerre-gleaming on his chest, eyes as bright as new coins, the smile as challenging as ever. He had grown into a handsome man, his face a bit lined by age and harsh experience. And he was leaning on an oak cane.
“Well, look at you, Thomas,” Eli said affectionately and held out his hand. Brodie clutched it eagerly. Eli’s hair, what little he had left, was white and his body looked ravaged, his legs mere twigs, but his face seemed as smooth and ageless as ever.
Brodie leaned over and put his arm around the old man.
“I knew you’d come home,” Eli said, embracing him, patting his back. “Sooner or later, I knew you’d come back to us.”
Brodie hooked a chair with the crook of his cane, pulled it to him, and sat down as Eli wiped his eyes with a handkerchief, then blew his nose.
“So, how’s the leg?”
“Another month and I can throw away the cane.”
“Look at you! I wish Maddy were here to see you. Not a day went by she didn’t mention you.”
“I’m sorry,” Brodie said. “I know how much you must miss her. I tried to write you from the hospital but, you know me, I never was much for writing.”
“How long were you laid up?”
“Eighteen months. They put my leg back together with glue and tape. I had to learn to walk again, but it’s almost good as new.”
“Did you stop at the bank and see Ben?”
“Not yet. Mr. Graham was on the train with me. He remembered me. Dropped me off here on his way home.”
“They have a taxi now, you know. Very sophisticated. My God, Ben will faint with excitement when he sees you.”
“How’s his pitching arm?”
“Not what it used to be. He coaches the high school team now.”
“Got a high school, huh?”
“It was time for a good school. We have twenty-two families living on the Hill now. There are a few families in Eureka who attend. And the kids from Milltown come over on the bus.”
“And Eureka has a sidewalk and paved streets. Never thought I’d live to see that day.”
“Well, Riker had to do something. You hardly see a horse and carriage anymore. All automobiles.”
“Is Cyclone still alive?” Brodie asked. “Last time I talked to Ben, he said the old boy was still kicking.”
“And still as handsome as ever, like his owner.”
“I wonder if he’ll remember me.”
“Animals have an amazing memory. It may take him a while but I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten.”
“He’s twenty-three now. And my godson is almost twenty. I can’t believe it.”
“Quite a young man. Fair college student but more interested in football and girls.”
“Ben says he’s not interested in banking.”
“He’ll be twenty this year,” Eli said, waving his hand. “He’s got plenty of time to make up his mind. He’s down in Los Angeles with Isabel. They’ll be back tomorrow. Why didn’t you tell us you were coming in today?”
“I like surprises. Isabel as beautiful as ever?”
Eli nodded. “Like Maddy, she gets prettier every day. She has a birthday coming up in a few months. Thirty-seven. I think she’d rather forget it.”
“Slowed down some but he’s fine. Tells everybody he’s sixty. Hell, he’s got to be at least seventy but nobody knows for sure.”
“Is that why I’m back here?”
“You’re back here because we miss you. And Ben needs you. We talked about that once, a long time ago.”
“I remember the conversation.”
“I’ve worried over that a lot. Was it I who drove you away?”
“Don’t think that. It was time for me to leave here, see what the rest of the world looked like.”
“Well, you certainly accomplished that.”
“Seen London, Paris, New York, Chicago. Been down South.”
“Everybody needs a home to come back to, Thomas.”
“My room over the stable still available?”
“I’ll build you a house.”
Brodie laughed. “What would I do with a house?”
“Get married. Have a family.”
“We’ll talk about that later. I hear Delilah came back to Grand View after the O’Dells were killed.”
Eli nodded. “She turned the place into a private club. Well, that’s what she calls it. It’s a high-dollar bordello. She has a small casino; excellent restaurant; beautiful, educated young women. Movie stars come up from Los Angeles. Businessmen from San Francisco and points east. They come in private train cars, Stutz Bearcats, yachts. She’s made her own fortune in addition to the one her father left her.”
“I found out about the O’Dells in the New York Times. They ran a list of all the victims when the Lusitania went down. I was reading down the column and all of a sudden there it was. Shamus and Katherine O’Dell, San Francisco.”
“I suppose Shamus had his good side, he just never showed it to me. And Kate was a fine lady. Loved him dearly, although I’ll never know why.”
“Water under the bridge, Mr. Eli.”
“It’s hard to forget the past when you live with it every day.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Prohibition starts in two weeks. Things are going to be tough around here. Social House is a private club so we’ll be alright. And they’ll never shut down Grand View. I know a couple of senators and at least one governor who’ve visited the place. The good news is, it may put Riker out of business. I’ve tried to buy him out since the night O’Dell left. The town is still as rotten as ever. It attracts rowdy crowds from fifty miles around.”
“Prohibition won’t hurt Riker. If anything, he’ll make more money. He’ll board over the windows and put up a front door with a peephole, just like they’re gonna do in New York and Chicago. Hell, the Feds’ll be too busy worrying about the big cities, they won’t be snooping around a little place like this.”
“That’s bad news,” Eli said. There was still anger in his tone after all the years.
They talked for several hours, about Eureka, about what Brodie’s job would be, about Ben, whose dream for the valley was more elaborate than Eli’s. About plans to form a county board, get a new prosecutor, clean up Eureka. No decent middle-class families would live there the way it was.
“You’ll be special deputy under Buck,” Eli said. “When he retires, you will become sheriff of the whole damn shebang.”
Twenty years and nothing had changed. Eli Gorman had a plan and Brodie Culhane was the last piece to fall into place.
The conversation finally wore Eli down, and Brodie and the nurse helped him to bed for his afternoon nap. Brodie strolled across the big backyard, past Maddy’s winter garden, and through the trees to the barn. The white horse lounged near the far end of the paddock, chewing on grass. His winter coat was matted and there were snarls in his mane, but he looked as strong as ever.
Brodie whistled to the horse. The white’s ears went up and he responded immediately, peering across the length of the paddock with curiosity. Brodie whistled again.
“C’mon, pretty boy,” he said softly. “I got something for you.”
He had brought two apples from the house.
Cyclone loped down the length of the paddock, approaching Brodie cautiously at first, sniffing the air, grumbling and snorting, his ears standing straight up. He’d come close and back up, come closer and back up.
“Look what I got,” Brodie said, and held up one of the apples.
Cyclone moved closer. Brodie held the apple between his hands and twisted it in two. The horse watched, his nose checking the air. Brodie rested half the apple in the palm of his hand and held it toward the horse. Cyclone snorted, bobbing his head up and down. He walked sideways, away from the apple, and leaned his long neck out, checking it. Brodie leaned through the fence and held it.
“C’mon, boy,” he said softly. “Pretty boy, come and get it.”
Finally he came close enough to roll back his lips and snatch the apple-half with his teeth. He munched it noisily and stepped closer, sniffing for more.
“Do you remember, pretty boy? Is it coming back?” He took the makings from his pocket and awkwardly began to roll a cigarette. A piece of shrapnel had injured his left hand and it was difficult. He finally prepared the paper and then the wind blew the tobacco off. “Damn,” he said, and started over. When he finished, the butt looked like a small pretzel but he got it lit and took a deep drag, all the while talking softly to Cyclone. He gave the other apple-half to him, and this time Cyclone came closer, let him pet his muzzle.
Brodie went into the barn, found a brush, and entered the paddock. The horse backed up, his eyes cautious and uncertain. Brodie broke the other apple in half, and this time Cyclone came over and got it. Brodie very slowly began to brush his side. The horse was still skittish, but he stood still as Brodie brushed his sides and then his mane and then finally stood close to him and petted his long nose.
“Wanna go for a ride?” Brodie asked gently. “You’ll have to wear a saddle. I got a bum leg, I don’t think I can handle you bareback.”
Cyclone grumbled but held fast. Brodie returned to the stable and came back with a blanket, bridle, and saddle. Every move was slow and easy. He put the blanket on Cyclone’s back first. The horse jumped a bit but Brodie soft-talked him, then eased the saddle over the horse’s back, reached under his belly and buckled the straps. So far so good. He put the bit in his mouth and laid the reins over Cyclone’s back, and the horse bolted. He trotted a dozen yards away and stopped, his ears twisting, his nose testing. Brodie held the last half of the apple in his palm. The horse slowly returned, this time bumping against him before taking it.
“Let’s give it a try, pal,” Brodie whispered. He leaned on the cane and got his right foot in the stirrup. The horse grumbled but stood fast. Brodie swung his injured leg carefully over the saddle and sat down.
Cyclone backed up, started to bolt again, and Brodie leaned over his neck. “Easy, pretty boy. It’s just you and me.” He kept talking, and walked Cyclone around the paddock a few times, then eased him into a trot. They circled the paddock a few times and Brodie steered him to the gate, reached down, and unlatched it. Cyclone walked slowly out of the paddock.
“Okay, son, let’s go for a ride.”
He rode around the barn, then down the path toward the ocean walk. The sun was slowly sinking toward the horizon, its reflection shimmering on the waves far out toward the entrance of the bay. The path was overgrown and unused, and Brodie walked the horse down it. Through the trees he saw the Hoffman house, and a moment later the greenhouse. He stopped and stared at it through the trees.
Even with memories of the war fresh in his mind, it had been the worst night of his life.
He went on, riding down to the wall around Grand View and then heading along it toward the road. From inside the house he heard music, strident military music, yet with a different kind of beat. He stopped and listened to the faint tune. There was something familiar about it. He rode down to the road and turned in front of the house.
Tall iron gates protected the house from intruders. A small guardhouse was situated on the far side of the gate but it appeared to be unmanned. Rows of tall hedges bracketed the road that led to the white-columned mansion a hundred yards away. Behind it, beyond and below the sheer cliffs, the ocean was serene. A Japanese gardener was meticulously snipping the grass around the gate. He saw Brodie and, smiling, he stood up and saluted.
“Speak English?” Brodie asked.
“Yes, suh, very good.”
“Miss Delilah is an old friend. I’m going to ride down to the house and say hello.”
“Need to call first,” the gardener said, pointing to the guardhouse.
Brodie eased Cyclone through the gate. “It’s a surprise,” he said. The gardener stood motionless as Brodie trotted down the paved road to the house. The music got louder as he reached the house and tied the horse to a fence post. He got his cane from the saddle pocket and went to the door. He could hear the music more distinctly now and realized it was a recording of “Memphis Blues” he had heard in Paris years ago. He rang the doorbell.
A minute passed, then the door opened and Noah stood there. He was wearing a blue jacket, tan cord pants, and immaculate knee-high leather boots. He stared curiously at Brodie for a long moment.
“What’s the matter, Noah, don’t you recognize an old friend?”
Curiosity melted into a smile.
“Mistah Brodie?” Hints of the Caribbean still haunted his accent. “Mon, look at you. Ain’t you the fancy one.”
“You’re not looking too bad yourself. May I come in?”
“Yes, suh. I’ll tell Miss Delilah you’re here. Mon, she is goin’ t’be some surprised.”
Brodie entered a wide, two-story foyer. A winding staircase faced him on the other side of the large room and led to a balcony on the second floor, with four hallways leading away from it. It was a pleasant room, with handsome stuffed chairs, antique tables, Tiffany lamps, vases of flowers, and two large davenports. In a stained-glass window over the doorway, a knight was challenging a dragon with his lance while a lovely damsel cowered nearby. High above the vaulted room, a crystal chandelier shed a comforting blanket of light down on the room. There were several closed doors leading away from the foyer. Brodie heard the laughter of young women behind one.
“Now aren’t you the dashing one,” a dusky voice said from above. Delilah stared down from the balcony, decked out in a dark green, floor-length dress and a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with white roses. Her red hair was braided in a ponytail draped over her shoulder.
Brodie smiled up at her.
“Going to the opera?” he asked.
She looked at the cane.
“Can you make it up the stairs?”
“I’m a little lame, I’m not crippled,” he answered, and managed the broad stairway with little problem. She led him into her apartment and turned around.
“Does a girl get a kiss after twenty years?”
He started to kiss her on the cheek, but she turned her face to his, leaned hard against him, and kissed him fully on the lips, holding the kiss for half a minute before stepping back.
“I think you’re blushing,” she said. “Marines aren’t supposed to blush.”
“I haven’t been kissed like that for a long, long time.”
“How’re you doing, Brodie?”
“The leg’s almost healed. The rest of me’s whole.”
“Thank God for that.” She laughed.
“I wasn’t sure you were here,” he said, and pointed to a Victrola in the corner. The needle was scratching endlessly at the end of the record. “Actually, I was attracted by the music. Is that record by James Reese Europe and the Hell Fighters Band?”
“You’ve heard them?” she said, lifting the needle off the record.
“I saw them. In Paris. The French loved the band. Called it ‘Le Jazz Hot.’ Almost made me want to dance and I don’t know a step.”
“Well, you’ll have to come by. I’ve got all twenty-four of his records. We’ll play music and I’ll teach you the Charleston.”
“I’ll take you up on that.”
“Have you seen Ben?”
“Not yet. I spent a couple of hours with Eli.”
“The stroke almost did him in but he’s handling it well.”
“How about you? I hear you’re the richest lady in California.”
She arched her eyebrows. “Just California?”
Brodie laughed and sat down on a settee. “You live here?”
“I run a tight ship here. Have to make sure my high-class clientele is happy. Three rooms are all I need. What are you drinking?”
“A little bourbon and some ice.”
“So you haven’t seen Ben or your young Eli or Isabel yet?”
He shook his head.
“Stick around. He comes every night at six to have a cup of coffee and look at the young girls.”
“How is he?”
“Not as quick as he used to be but tough as ever.”
“You know what they say, myths never die,” Brodie said.
She chuckled. “Nice to think so. Back to stay?” she asked.
“Why not?” Brodie answered ruefully.
“That’s the best news I’ve heard since Prohibition,” she said as she filled a pebbled glass half full with hundred-proof Kentucky bourbon, dropped two ice cubes in it, and poured herself a little Scotch. She raised her glass to him.
“Here’s to sin,” she said. “Without it, we’d both be up the creek.”
They touched glasses.
“So Prohibition doesn’t worry you?”
“Honey, it’s going to make my business much sweeter and your job a lot livelier.”
“I haven’t taken a job yet.”
“You will, Brodie. That’s why you came back. It’s what friendship and love are all about. And I haven’t used the word ‘love’ seriously in a very long time.”
“Eli says everybody has to have a home to come back to and he’s right. Eureka ain’t much but it’s all I got. I couldn’t stay in the Marines. I got a battlefield commission the night I was wounded. A year later they upped me to first lieutenant while I was in the hospital, and they made me a captain just before I was discharged. No future, nice pension.”
She sat down on a crimson davenport and leaned back on one elbow.
“Why did you leave, Brodie?”
He shrugged. “To see the world.”
“You want to know the truth? I was running away from what I just came back to.”
Brodie rode Cyclone back to the stable and gently took off the saddle and bridle. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” Brodie said softly. “Be like old times.”
In the darkness, a cigar tip glowed. “Let’s hope so,” a voice said, and Ben Gorman stepped into the light.
“Give you a start, brother?” he asked. The two men rushed together, hugging and laughing like children. They walked briskly back to the house, both chattering away, cutting each other off with one story after another. Ben didn’t talk about the future. He didn’t have to.
A cool September afternoon nine months later.
Brodie Culhane parked his Ford under the trees behind the bank and turned off the ignition. He took out the makings and struggled to roll a cigarette. He focused on the job, folded the thin paper around his forefinger and sprinkled tobacco into the groove. Then he started to twist the paper with the thumb and forefinger of both hands. It was almost perfect and he smiled to himself, licked the glued edge of the paper, and twisted it shut. It wasn’t a work of art but it was better than smoking harsh store-bought cigarettes. As he lit it, he heard the back door of the Ford open and close.
“I hope that’s you, Slim,” Brodie said, blowing a smoke ring and not turning around.
“I get real nervous meetin’ before dark,” came a jittery voice from the floor of the backseat.
“Hell, you called me. What’s so urgent?”
Slim was a skinny little man who worked the desk at Riker’s Double Eagle Hotel. He picked up an extra five a week by keeping his ears open and passing information to Culhane.
“Sompin’s in the wind.”
“Riker brought in four toughs from outta town today. They came in the hotel about four. All of ’em are heeled, I could tell when they came to get their keys.”
“How do you know they’re Riker’s people?”
“He made the reservations. Told me not to put ’em in the book and be quiet about it.”
“How’d they arrive?”
“Black Ford coupe.”
“What do they look like?”
“You know the type. They never blink. Leader seems to be a guy named McGurk. Has one of those purple splotches on his face.”
“How long they here for?”
“Riker didn’t say, but they ordered up a bottle and when I got to the door, I heard Riker mention Buck and Miss O’Dell.”
“What’d they say?”
“Ain’t sure, Cap’n. I just heard the names and somethin’ about a piece of the action.”
“Were they talking about Grand View?”
“That’s all I know. I can tell you this, Riker’s been jumpy as a cat all day. Like I been tellin’ you for a while, he wants some of that outta-town high-roller action up there. Then there’s all this talk about them on the Hill forming some kinda council and shuttin’ him down. And there’s those two times his boats got sunk out in the drink.”
“I don’t know anything about that. You think these guys are shooters?”
“All I know is I seen rods bulgin’ under their coats. I know when a bozo’s loaded. I’m supposed to tell Schuster when I see it, but I figure since it was Riker set ’em up, he knows if they’re carrying or not.”
“You off duty?”
“Just got off. I really got bad jitters meetin’ like this in broad daylight.”
Brodie took a five out of his pocket and draped his arm over the back of the front seat.
“Here’s an extra fin. Why don’t you go over, play a little poker, and keep an eye out for those four. I’m off tonight. Gonna eat dinner at Wendy’s, then maybe go up to Delilah’s. Call me if anything looks screwy to you.”
“Okay. Thanks.” The door opened and shut quietly.
Brodie drove the four blocks to the diner and went in. Wendy was barely in her twenties and had inherited the eatery from her father, who drank too much, ate too much, and a year earlier had dropped dead behind the counter one morning while fixing an order of ham and eggs.
She was a plain girl with ashen hair and a ready smile for her customers. She leaned across the counter as Brodie entered.
“Come to whisk me away to the Garden of Eden?” she said.
“I came for the meat loaf special,” Brodie said with a crooked grin. “If it’s real good, maybe I’ll whisk you away after I eat.”
“I’ll settle for that.”
“Where is everybody? The joint’s empty.”
“It’s early.” She reached under the counter and handed him the newspaper.
“Okay if I use the phone a minute?” Brodie asked.
“Anything for you,” she said, and put the telephone on the counter. Brodie got the operator and called the sheriff’s office. Andy Sloan, the assistant deputy, answered.
“Andy, it’s Brodie. Anything going on?”
“It’s quiet. I got a guy back in the lockup for beating up his old lady and that’s about it.”
“Is Bix there?”
Bix was the jailer. He had lost a leg at the Marne and hobbled around on a homemade crutch, a quiet man who made terrible coffee.
“Take a drive up on the Hill and nose around, then stop off at Delilah’s and hang out. I’ll stop by after I eat.”
“Maybe. We got four heeled out-of-towners in a black Ford at the Double Eagle. I don’t think they’re lost.”
“I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“See you at Grand View in an hour or so.”
He hung up and took his usual booth in the corner of the place and read the paper. A few customers came in and sat at the counter. Brodie was finishing a piece of pie and washing it down with coffee when Wendy said, “Here comes trouble.”
Arnie Riker was a man who strutted when he walked, swinging his arms like a soldier on parade and swaying back and forth. He was crossing the street, followed by his blond bodyguard, Lars Schuster, a muscular ex-prizefighter with the mashed nose and cauliflower ears to prove it.
“Hell, they’re comin’ in,” Wendy groaned. “They never eat here.”
“I don’t think they’re coming in to eat.” Culhane picked up the paper and held it in front of him, staring over the top. “Just treat ’em like customers. If there’s a problem, let me handle it.”
Riker and Schuster entered the diner, sat at the counter across from Culhane. Brodie ignored them, stared at the sports page of the newspaper.
“What can I do you for?” Wendy asked as cheerily as she could.
“I hear you make a great cup a coffee. You make a great cup a coffee, Wendy?”
She went to the urn and drew two cups of coffee and put them in front of Riker and Schuster.
“You tell me,” she said, still smiling.
Schuster ignored the cup. Riker took a sip, rolled it around in his mouth, and swallowed it.
“Not bad,” he said. “Maybe I’ll stop in now and then-when I’m feelin’ blue. Coffee perks me up.”
“You feeling blue?”
“Yeah. Maybe you heard, I lost a fishing boat the other night. Lucky there was a Coast Guard boat nearby and they pulled my boys out.”
“That was lucky,” Wendy said. She was getting nervous.
“Or maybe it wasn’t luck.” He swung the counter seat around and stared at Culhane. “Maybe a boat full of Feds came aboard first and threw all my fish overboard and pulled the plug on the boat, and then the Coast Guard pulled up to make sure nobody got hurt.”
Culhane ignored him.
“It’s happened to me twice now. Always way out there,” he waved toward the ocean. “Never anywhere near shore, and they never make a case against me or any of my people. Don’t that seem odd to you?”
Wendy walked away to wait on a customer. Riker continued to stare at Culhane.
“I said, ‘Don’t that seem odd to you?’ ” he repeated.
Culhane laid the paper aside.
“Was that crack aimed at me?”
“It was a ‘what if’ kinda question. Like what if the big shots on the Hill wanted to dry me up without causing a big investigation here.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“You’re the law around here. You’re just waiting for Tallman to drop dead of old age.”
Culhane smiled. “Haven’t you heard, Riker, Buck’s gonna live forever. Maybe you ought to stop fishing at night.”
“Ain’t you the funny one.”
“What’re you crying to me for? I don’t have anything to do with the Feds. And I don’t know anybody in the Coast Guard.”
“Maybe your pal Bucky has friends in high places. Or Gorman. Or some of those other big shots on the Hill.”
“I wouldn’t know, Riker.”
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass whether you believe me or not. But if I was you, I wouldn’t call me a liar.”
The blond muscleman started to get up.
“Where are you going?” Brodie said to him.
“Relax, Lars, we’re just talkin’ about ‘what if’ here. Ain’t that right, Culhane? For instance, what if I owned a piece of Grand View? Me and Delilah would be partners and maybe all this harassment would go away.”
“Maybe it would go away if you had a heart attack. Or ‘what if’ somebody stuck a. 45 up your ass and blew your brains out.”
“Hey there,” Schuster said and stood up.
From the corner of his eye, Brodie saw a black Ford wheel from behind the Double Eagle Hotel onto the main drag a block away and screech toward the Hill. Four men were in the car.
“What the hell…” Brodie said.
The phone rang and Wendy answered it.
“It’s for you, Brodie.”
He grabbed the phone. “Yeah?”
“It’s me. Don’t use my name.” Slim whispered on the other end of the line. “They just left here.”
“Thanks, Andy.” He hung up and headed for the door. The blond henchman jabbed a thick finger into Brodie’s chest.
“Mr. Riker’s still talking to you,” he growled. Brodie grabbed the finger, bent it back almost to the wrist, heard it crack. The gunsel bellowed. Brodie twisted the bodyguard’s arm up and backward, grabbed the back of his hair, and slammed his face into one of the stools. Blood squirted from both sides of his face. He made a gurgling noise, and Brodie lifted his head and slammed his face onto the stool again.
Riker, eyes bulging, was riveted to the spot. Brodie threw the limp hoodlum on the floor, reached under the gangster’s arm, and pulled a. 32 from his shoulder holster. He turned and aimed the pistol at Riker.
“I ain’t heeled,” Riker screamed, holding his hands high.
Brodie jammed the hoodlum’s. 32 under Riker’s chin and frisked him anyway, then grabbed a handful of his shirt.
“Where’s that bunch of yours going?” he demanded.
“I don’t know what you’re…” Riker stammered.
Lars groaned, raised himself up. Culhane kicked him in the jaw and he fell on his back.
“If that bastard ever touches me again, I’ll kill him on the spot,” he whispered in Riker’s face, and shoved him into a chair, which flipped backward. Sprawled on the floor, the gang leader trembled with fear as Brodie aimed the. 32 at him.
“What if I just put you out of everybody’s misery,” Culhane said. Then he pointed the gun toward the ceiling and emptied the bullets on the floor. He turned and dashed out the door.
Wisps of fog drifted past the sprawling Grand View mansion, leaving damp streaks on its ghostly white facade and dampening the hedges that led to the front door. The full moon was a hazy aura in the mist.
The black Chevrolet cabriolet pulled up to the tall iron gates, and a hard-looking man got out and walked to the postern, where a security guard stepped out on the other side of the gate.
“Do you have a card, sir,” he said in a flat, no-nonsense voice. The hard-looking man took a. 38-caliber pistol from under his arm and pointed it straight at the guard’s forehead.
“Will this do?” he hissed with a nasty smile.
The guard studied the gun and the face behind it, then walked over to the gate, unlocked it, and pulled one side open. The armed man stepped inside, stuck the gun in the guard’s back, led him back to the postern, and shoved him inside the small guardhouse.
“Sorry, pal,” he growled, and slashed the guard viciously across the jaw with his gun. The guard grunted and collapsed on the floor. The gunman pulled the telephone lines from the wall, walked back outside, and jumped on the running board of the Chevrolet.
“Okay,” he said, and the car inched down the long drive through the fog to the house. The gunman jumped off the running board and three other men piled out of the car behind him. The leader was Charly McGurk, a slick-looking little weasel wearing a gray fedora. There was a purple wine-stain birthmark on his right cheek. He put the gun back under his arm and they went to the giant double doors and he rang the bell. Inside, he could hear chimes gently stirring. A minute later, a burly chocolate-colored man with temples beginning to show a little gray opened the door. Noah’s eyes widened as the gunman put a hand on his chest and eased him backward. His cohorts followed him into the mansion.
They entered the wide, two-story foyer. McGurk looked up the winding staircase that faced them, then turned his attention to Andy Sloan, who sat at a table sipping coffee. Sloan jumped to
his feet as the four men entered, and his hand fell on the butt of a holstered. 38.
“Don’t do nothin’ stupid,” said McGurk. “Sit down.”
Culhane decided to take the old horse trail up the cliff to Grand View. It had been widened and there was a wall separating it from the drop to the rocks below. He started up the road, downshifted into low, and hugged the steep rise on his left.
Halfway up he ran into fog and slowed to a crawl, the transmission groaning as the Ford climbed toward the top.
At Grand View, three hooligans stood behind McGurk, their hands resting inside their suit jackets.
“We’re here to have a chat with the lady of the house.” He turned to Noah. “You-dinge-go get her.”
Noah’s jaws tightened. He looked at the deputy, who thought a moment before nodding. Noah went up the stairs, knocked on a door at the head of the steps. A moment later it opened and Delilah, handsome in a pale yellow evening gown, stepped out and glared down at the four men. She said something to Noah, who disappeared down one of the halls leading from the balcony.
“Who the hell are you?” she said sternly.
“You must be the O’Dell lady, all that red hair and all,” McGurk said with a sneer.
“So Mr. Riker wants to have a chat at the hotel. He sent us up to bring you down there.”
“What’s the matter, does he have a broken leg?”
McGurk rolled his tongue across yellow teeth.
“He said he wants to see you…”
She cut him off. “He wants to see me? Tell him he knows where I am and to come alone. Or maybe try a phone call, unless he’s forgotten how to talk, too.”
“Mr. Riker wants you to come along with us,” said McGurk in a harsh voice just above a whisper. “He wants to have a little friendlylike chat now.”
Buck Tallman stepped out behind her. His pure white hair flowed down over his shoulders. He was wearing a buckskin vest over a plain white shirt, and dark brown flared pants. A. 44 Peacemaker was hanging low on his hip and his badge glittered where it was pinned to the holster. His right hand hung loosely next to the six-gun.
“Well, well, if it ain’t Buffalo Bill hisself,” McGurk said, and chuckled. “You ain’t invited, old man.”
The tall lawman moved Delilah behind him and came down the stairs, his eyes glittering behind hooded lids. One of the gunmen walked to the middle of the room. The sheriff reached the foot of the staircase, strode resolutely forward, and stopped a foot from him. The other three goons divided up. McGurk near the door, another one next to Andy Sloan. The fourth thug sidled to the lawman’s right and lounged near a side door to the foyer. They had the room covered.
“He said…” the lead gunman started.
“Shut up,” the lawman said in a deep, gravelly voice. Then: “You oughta brush your teeth sometimes, your breath smells like a dead cat’s.”
As Culhane neared the top of Cliffside Road there was a shot, then another, and then Grand View exploded with gunfire.
For an instant, Brodie’s mind flashed back to a foxhole near the Somme, to a white horse racing through the fog, to lying in the hospital, where he had made the decision to come back to San Pietro. He flashed back to the fear he felt getting off the train, knowing he was really back in Eureka.
Now he knew that something terrible was waiting at the top of the Hill.
What he didn’t know was that the events of the next few minutes would change his life again, would be beyond his most terrifying nightmare, beyond fear of death or the fear of battle that lay behind him.
Another gunshot cleared his mind. He slammed on the gas and skidded around the curve, into the drive to Grand View. More gunfire. Brodie wheeled up the drive and skidded to a stop. An armed and wounded gunman staggered out the front door, reeled sideways along the row of hedges. Brodie saw the wine-stain birthmark on his cheek, jumped out of the Ford, using the open door as a shield.
“You there, McGurk, drop the gun,” Brodie yelled.
McGurk, still lurching along the hedge, turned and fired a shot that hit the windshield of Brodie’s car. It exploded, showering the inside of the car with shards of glass.
“I only ask once,” Brodie muttered as he laid his arm on the sill of the door window, aimed an Army. 45, and fired a single shot. It hit McGurk just above the left eye. His body arched into the air, the gun spun out of his hand, and he fell into the hedge with his arms spread out like he was singing an aria at the opera. He stayed there.
Brodie ran toward the door of the mansion. He didn’t bother to check McGurk, he knew he was dead. When he reached the door, he flattened himself against the wall, then whirled around the corner and dove into the house.
A moment later, a shot rang out. Then another. And another. Quick shots. Bang, bang… bang.
A second or two later, a woman’s scream split the dense night air like an axe splitting a log. And she kept screaming.
Although he didn’t know it then, Thomas Brodie Culhane would hear those screams for the rest of his life.
It was just another day in Los Angeles. A black Rolls-Royce hearse, glass sides draped with silk and lace, carrying a fifty-two-year-old movie star, has a flat and holds up traffic on Sunset Boulevard for forty-five minutes. As a crowd gathers, his wife rolls down the window of her limo and yells, “He got a heart attack screwing some seventeen-year-old slut,” over and over again.
Out in Los Feliz, a four-year-old girl has gone missing for most of the day before she is discovered next door, floating facedown in the backyard pool.
A twenty-two-year-old unemployed Mexican named Suarez Bailuz kills and robs the forty-two-year-old clerk of a greengrocery on Racine and then, for no apparent reason at all, shoots her dog, a toothless little pup, fourteen years old and blind in one eye. Then he steals her ’36 Ford, runs out of gas in Coldwater Canyon, and shoots himself. His nineteen-year-old wife, who does not have a radio, reports him missing when he doesn’t come home for dinner.
On the west side, a forty-one-year-old ex-Marine, who had lost a leg in the trenches in 1918, spends most of the day drinking in a bar, staggers out the door, loses his balance, and falls in front of the right front wheel of the Ventura bus. A woman standing nearby faints and somebody steals her purse.
Out in Westwood, the manager of a movie theater smacks his wife for spilling his dinner and she returns the favor by stabbing him in the back of the neck with an eight-inch boning knife. He runs out of the house and drops dead on the front lawn, in front of some kids playing stickball in the street. While they stand around laughing and pointing at the knife that is still sticking in his neck, the investigating officers go in the house and find the new widow sitting at the kitchen table, smoking an Old Gold and reading Look magazine. She offers them a beer.
On La Cienega, a forty-six-year-old bartender shaking a martini drops dead of a heart attack.
And in the press room at homicide central, the police reporter of an L.A. gossip sheet is griping because he has nothing to write about.
“Just another day at homicide central,” the desk sergeant, named Conlin, says as he closes out the log at the end of his shift and scribbles the time and date-7:00 p.m., May 26, 1941-at the bottom of the page.
My partner, Ski Agassi, and I were running late getting back to the station house when the call came in. A woman had drowned in the bathtub in a pleasant subdivision called Pacific Meadows.
“Ah hell, let’s take it,” I said, “we’re only two minutes away.” I U-turned and headed west on Santa Monica.
“Let the new shift catch it, Zeke,” he growled. “We don’t get overtime for these jaunts, y’know.”
“It’ll take a half hour,” I said, snatching up the radio mike and calling the desk, while Agassi shook his head. Regulations ruled that any unobserved or accidental death should be considered a homicide until the coroner said otherwise. It was a courtesy for two homicide detectives to take the call.
“I’m starving, Zeke,” groaned Agassi, who at forty-two weighed in the neighborhood of two hundred sixty pounds. The boys at Division called us Laurel and Hardy-but not when we were in earshot.
“You’re always starving,” I said. I was three inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter.
Pacific Meadows was a deceiving name. A low slope shielded the tiny community from the ocean so there was no view of the Pacific. And the neighborhood was built on the shoulder of the slope as it rose to form one of the many canyons that separate L.A. from the Valley, so it could hardly be called a meadow. But it lived up to the serene promise of its name. It was a pleasant oasis neighbored by a sprawling rundown section of L.A. that had not yet recovered from the Depression.
The houses of Pacific Meadows, mostly one-story stucco or brick bungalows, were built close together and, although inexpensive, always seemed freshly painted. The lawns were well kept, the streets clean of debris. The neighborhood was a mix of once-affluent families-who had lost everything in the Crash, survived hard times, and had begun to rebuild their lives on the low end of the scale-with civil servants, who had weathered the catastrophe with low-paying but regular jobs. Bus drivers, court clerks, secretaries, office workers, schoolteachers. Salt-of-the-earth types. Pride and perseverance was reflected in the pleasant, well-kept environs, the sounds of kids at play, an occasional dog barking, the clatter of lawn mowers. It was the kind of community where people kept their door keys under the welcome mat.
We passed a house I recognized. I had been here once, about five years earlier, just after I was promoted to the homicide division. A man, whose name I couldn’t put my finger on, had taken a leisurely bath, donned his best Sunday blue serge suit, stuffed towels under the cracks of his garage door, and then cranked up his used Studebaker and waited for carbon monoxide to end his misery.
He had been the vice president of a textile company in New Jersey, with two kids in private school and a small estate on the affluent side of the tracks, when the Crash wiped him out in ’29. For six years, he and his family moved from place to place, riding the rails, flopping in Hoovervilles, living off soup kitchens and handouts, struggling to keep the family together. His two children had grown into teenagers with little hope of overcoming the social stigma sudden poverty often carries with it. When they reached the coast and California became the Pacific Ocean, he lucked out and found a job as a stock clerk in a hardware store just off Melrose. Over the next two years, he worked his way up to assistant manager, making enough money to rent a house in the Meadows and buy a used car. Then he was passed over for the manager’s position.
It was his final humiliation; hope had betrayed him once too often.
I remembered his wife and kids staring mute and dry-eyed as a couple of cops carried the sheeted stretcher out of the garage, their dreams of a new life wiped out by the turn of an ignition key.
Agassi also was familiar with the place. He had once considered a house in Pacific Meadows before finding one more to his liking on Ogden Avenue in Hollywood. Agassi had the kind of pleasant face that big men often affect to offset their intimidating size, but now he wore a frown, a reaction to what he called my “eager-beaver attitude.”
“He doesn’t have a wife waiting dinner on him,” Agassi grumbled at the windshield, mostly under his breath.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Grab a left here,” Agassi replied.
The house was three blocks from the corner, a pleasant redbrick, one-story with a front porch and a white picket fence surrounding the front yard, split by the walkway to the front door. The left half of the yard was neatly mown and smelled of fresh grass. The other side hadn’t been touched. A spotless green ’39 DeSoto sat in the driveway.
People were standing in front yards, staring with morbid curiosity at the house and chatting in whispered tones. A cop was interrogating a man and woman in the yard of the house next door and taking notes. His partner was standing by the front gate with his hands clasped behind him, like a sentinel on the bank of the River Styx. He came out to meet us as we parked behind the patrol car. He was Officer Ward King, he told us, and his partner was Howell Garrett.
“What’ve we got?” I asked after the introductions. King ran the essentials as we headed toward the front door:
“Verna Wilensky. Mid to late forties. Lived alone-her husband was killed in a 126 four years ago. Lived here about sixteen years, owns the house. The woman next door found her. Garrett’s talking to her and her husband now.”
“Good enough,” I said. “Keep them on tap, we’ll want to talk to them, too. Any idea how long she’s been dead?”
“No, sir, but judging from conditions in there, my guess is since last night.” Agassi checked his watch. It was 7:18. He sighed with resignation.
The sickening, sweet smell of death tickled my nose as we entered the house. King took a small jar of Mentholatum from his pocket and handed it to me.
“You may need this,” he said. I dipped a dab from the jar with my index finger and spread it under my nose.
Ski did the same, saying, “Jesus, I hate this.”
“I know you do,” I said gently. After three years together, there wasn’t a lot we didn’t know about each other.
The house was neat as a Marine barracks, nicely appointed with expensive furniture. There were framed prints by the Masters on the walls. A leather sofa, with two easy chairs facing it, dominated the center of the room. A large etagere that looked like an antique commanded one wall and the floor was covered with a Turkish rug. In one corner was a large, cathedral-style, ebony Magnavox with a Stendhal turntable attached to it. I didn’t know much about furniture but I knew record players. The Stendhal was the best turntable made, with a price tag that would scare John Rockefeller.
Two windows were open, their chintz curtains fluttering in the breeze.
“I opened the windows to air the place out,” King explained. “It’s back this way.” He clicked on his flashlight and led the two of us through a bedroom with a large canopied bed to the bathroom.
I suddenly said, “Chester Weatherspoon.”
“Huh?” Agassi said.
“I just remembered the name of a guy who killed himself out here a few years ago,” I said.
“Terrific,” Agassi said, and rolled his eyes at King.
“You’ll need this, Sergeant,” King said, and handed me the torch. “The fuse is blown but I didn’t want to touch anything until you got here.”
“Good procedure,” I said. “How about Bones?”
“On his way.”
It was a large bathroom, about eight by eight. King’s torch picked out the details of the room. Facing us: a large old-fashioned tub with legs that looked like the paws of a gryphon, a window behind it with a dark shade pulled down. To our right: the sink, imbedded in a large counter covered with jars of creams, expensive brands, not the kind you find in Woolworth’s, a sterling silver comb and brush, a bottle of Chanel No. 5, a pair of clip-on earrings, a tube of toothpaste, a small hand-painted jar filled with bobby pins. Above the sink: the medicine cabinet, with a shelf between sink and chest. The side of the shelf near the tub was wrenched away from the wall and slanted toward the floor. To the left: the toilet, with a bathrobe carefully folded on it and a pair of slippers beside it, a door that I assumed led to a closet, and a full-length mirror. A small stool squatted beside the tub. On the stool: a candlestick holder almost obscured under the melted remains of a taper, a drinking glass with a half inch of clear fluid in the bottom, a pack of Chesterfields, a leather-and-chrome Ronson cigarette lighter, an ashtray. A couple of movie magazines lay on the floor beside the stool.
The stench was much stronger than in the foyer. Ski took out his handkerchief and held it over his nose.
“Why don’t you go in the living room, check out the desk,” I said. “Get a line on survivors. We’re going to have to notify somebody about this.”
“Thanks,” Agassi said, and hurriedly left the room.
Then to business.
Verna Wilensky looked to be about five-three or five-four and heavy for her size, one-fifty, maybe one-sixty pounds. Her dark hair was cut in a pageboy. Her eyes were open and her face was beginning to bloat. She was lying on her left side, her right arm bent at the elbow and trapped under her body, her left arm floating half submerged like a water-soaked tree branch. Both hands were tight-fisted. Her knees were doubled up as if she were sitting sideways in the tub. Her face was underwater. The radio lay against her left shoulder. There appeared to be scorch marks on her shoulder and a dark bruise on her right temple just above her ear.
“I hate it when they die alone,” King said.
“Everybody dies alone,” I answered. “Get used to it.”
We heard the siren of the meat wagon as we walked back outside, and a moment later it pulled into the driveway behind the DeSoto. The coroner, Jerry Wietz, fondly known as Bones, got out and stepped over the small fence as he walked across the lawn to the porch. He was about six feet tall and skinny as a scarecrow, with short-cropped white hair and jet-black eyebrows over brown eyes.
“Hi, Zeke,” he said, offering me a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. “What’ve we got?”
“Widow named Verna Wilensky. Mid forties. Dead in the bathtub. Her radio’s in the tub with her. Next-door neighbor tagged her about half an hour ago.”
I didn’t offer any more information or make any suppositions. I knew Bones liked to work from scratch.
“Well, let’s take a peek,” the coroner said. I led him and his photographer to the scene, offering him King’s torch.
“The radio’s still plugged in,” he said.
Bones turned to King and said, “The fuse box is probably in the kitchen, son. If you don’t find a spare thereabouts, use a penny. Got a penny?”
King left. Bones unplugged the radio and draped the cord over a corner of the sink counter. He turned his chin up an inch or two and sniffed the air, then aimed the light into the tub, slowly swept the length of the body with the light, reached in, and touched her throat.
“Happened last night,” he said.
A minute later, the lights came on. He gave me the flashlight, walked slowly around the entire inner periphery of the room, his eyes checking everything, and said to his cameraman: “Wide-shot from the door, close-up of the shelf where it’s pulled out from the wall there, full on the tub, two snaps of the body from feet and head, a full of her, and a tight on her head and shoulder. Also a close-up of the stool.”
He picked up the glass with his index and middle fingers, took a whiff.
“Gin drinker,” he said, and put it back.
“I’m gonna have a chat with the neighbor while you’re doing your work,” I said.
I gave King his flashlight and went next door.
Garrett, a beefy cop who talked in a half-whisper, filled me in on the details. According to the neighbors, Loretta and Jimmy Clark, Verna Wilensky was their best friend. She had come home, as usual, at 5:30 p.m. the night before. They had chatted for a minute or two, then Wilensky had decided to mow the lawn. When darkness crept up on her, she went inside. The DeSoto was in the driveway when Clark and her husband left for work that morning, which was normal. When they got home and the car was still in the same place and the yard still half-mown, Mrs. Clark had gone over to check on her. The front door was unlocked, as were most front doors in the neighborhood, and her nose led her the rest of the way.
“Good enough,” I said. “I’ll take it from here.”
Loretta Clark was a wisp of a woman, her hair cut in a bob. Her blue eyes were red from crying and she clutched a lace handkerchief in her hand like she was afraid it would fly away. Jimmy Clark was a slab of a man, with stooped shoulders, very little hair, a bulge for a stomach, and eyes fading with age. She did most of the talking.
“How long has Mrs. Wilensky lived here?” I asked, after expressing my condolences.
“We moved here in ’27,” she said.
“It was the day Lindy flew the Atlantic,” Jimmy interrupted. “She invited us over to listen on her radio. That’s how we met.”
“She had been here about three years at the time,” Loretta continued. “I guess 1924, maybe.”
“How about family? Kids, parents?”
She shook her head. “They were both only children, parents were dead. They never had kids.”
“Verna and Frank, her husband. He was killed by a hit-and-run four years ago. A truck went through a red light and ran him over.”
“He was on his motorcycle,” Jimmy added.
“I don’t know what we’ll do without her. Losing Frank was bad enough but…”
She let the rest of the sentence dwindle out and started sobbing.
“Would you like a drink of water or something?” I asked.
She turned to Jimmy and said, “Get me a highball, would you, Jimmy?” And then turned quickly to me. “Will that be alright?” she asked, as if taking a drink of liquor violated some unwritten rule of the dead.
“I’m sure Verna won’t be offended,” I answered, and Jimmy left on his chore.
“She was the most generous person I ever knew,” Loretta Clark went on. “We went to the movies once or twice a week and she always bought the tickets. And she had wonderful taste, nothing but the best for Verna. She called me ‘Sis,’ that’s how close we were.”
“Where was she before she moved here?”
“Texas. But she never talked about it. She was shy in so many ways. Hated to have her picture taken. It even embarrassed her for us to say thanks, that’s just how she was.”
“How’d they meet?” I asked.
“He owned an auto repair shop. Something broke in her car and she took it there to get fixed. He brought her home on his motorcycle. We were astounded. She wasn’t the adventurous type at all. After he left, she was absolutely giddy. They clicked right from the start. Six months later they were married and they were perfect together. She was gaga over him and he absolutely adored her. It took her three years to get over the accident.”
Jimmy returned with a highball the color of battery acid and she knocked down half of it without taking a breath.
“What was her maiden name?” I asked.
“Hicks,” Jimmy offered. “Verna Hicks.”
They talked a little longer but I learned nothing new, excused myself, and headed back to the Wilensky bathroom.
Bones had finished his work and he began a ritual I had watched dozens of times over the years. He lit a Lucky Strike and paced slowly back and forth in front of the tub while he verbalized his initial reaction:
“Last night the widow Wilensky starts to mow the lawn, runs out of light, decides to finish in the morning. Comes in, mixes herself a gin and tonic, fills the tub, lights a candle, turns on the radio, and settles in for a smoke and a drink with her favorite movie magazines. At this point, her life is suddenly being measured in seconds. When the water gets tepid, she starts out of the tub. Her foot slips. She reaches out to keep from falling, grabs the shelf with the radio on it. The shelf pulls loose, she falls back in the tub. The radio is right behind her. In an instant, it turns from an instrument of pleasure to a deadly weapon. It hits the side of her head and falls into the water. There’s a loud pop, about as loud as a. 22 going off, maybe a spark or two, but the widow Wilensky doesn’t hear it. If she had put a toe in the tub, it would have given her a nasty shock, like sticking your finger in a lamp socket. If she’d put her foot in, it would have knocked her across the room, maybe killed her if she had a bad heart. But fully immersed? A hundred and twenty volts hits every pore in her body, every orifice. Everything stops at once-heart, lungs, liver, brain, the works. She’s dead instantly.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that, she’s the late widow Wilensky.”
“Very poetic,” I said with a smile.
Bones stopped pacing and took one last look at the cadaver. “Of course, that’s off the cuff, but I think an autopsy and the pictures will bear me out.”
“Usually do,” I said.
“Thanks, m’boy,” the coroner said with a fleeting grin. “Okay, let’s get the cleanup squad in here and take what’s left of the lady downtown. I’m pretty backed up. Maybe day after tomorrow before I finish the post.”
“Fine. I’ll sit on my report until then.” I shrugged. “What’s the hurry, right?”
Bones nodded. “Wherever she was going,” he said, “she’s there now.”
Bones left and the cleanup boys moved in. King and I walked out on the porch, and I rolled a cigarette and lit it with my Zippo.
“How about the dog?” King asked.
“Dog?” I said. “What dog?”
“There’s a dog in the backyard. Should I call the pound?”
“That’s the routine when there’s an animal involved and nobody to take care of it.”
“That’s okay, I’ll take a look. You and Garrett can go along, we’ll finish up here.”
“It was a real honor working with you, Sergeant Bannon,” King said. “I read all about you dropping those four bozos on that western set over at Columbia last year.”
I smiled. “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” I said.
“I read the reports.”
I laughed and said, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”
“I got two more years before I can take the exam for third-grade detective,” King said. “I’m studying.”
“Well, I got lucky that time,” I said. “Thanks, King. You did a nice job here.”
“Maybe I could put you down as a reference when I make the application?” He said it as a question, as if he were talking to someone else.
“Sure. Ward King. I can remember that,” I said.
“Thank you, sir,” the cop said, and flipped his forefinger off the bill of his cap. He had a ramrod kind of walk. A stiff ass, I thought, but he did good work.
Agassi was avidly reading through the papers from a hefty strongbox he had found in the large bottom drawer of the desk. There were stacks of bound checks and several papers lying on the desk. Ski Agassi loved research, loved going through papers and files and piecing together the everyday lives of victims. I loved visual details.
“Boy, this lady was really organized,” Agassi said. “Got bank records dating back to 1924. No will so far. No letters, nothing to connect her to anyone.”
“Keep digging,” I told him. I went into the kitchen and dropped the cigarette butt down the drain, then flipped the light switch by the door. The backyard lit up like Christmas.
I opened the door and stared down at a hulking mix of German shepherd, Irish setter, and God knew what else. Red with streaks of black in thick fur. Gold-flecked, inquisitive eyes. Paws the size of salad plates. His tail whisked the back porch.
Sitting down, he came up to my chest.
He growled at me, and I stared back at him but stood very still.
“It’s alright, he’s friendly,” Loretta’s voice said from next door.
“He’s growling at me.”
“He wants a bone,” she said. “When he wags his tail and growls that way, he wants a bone.”
I looked down at him, then cautiously reached out and scratched the top of the dog’s head. “Sorry, pal,” I said, “I’m fresh out of bones.”
“Try the icebox. Verna gets them from the butcher. Dog food’s in the pantry.”
I left the door open and checked the refrigerator, found three shank bones wrapped in red butcher paper, and took one back to the dog, who clamped teeth the size of railroad spikes on it, turned and started out to the yard, then stopped. He looked back over his shoulder at me, then he went down the steps, loped out into the yard, found a suitable dinner spot, circled it a couple of times, lay down, and chomped on his treasure.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Rosebud!” I gasped. “ He’s a male, for God’s sake! That’s an awful name for a big mutt like that.”
“I know. She named him after a character in a movie she saw. She just loved the movies.”
“It wasn’t a character, it was a sled.”
“You mean like a kid’s snow sled?”
“Yeah, a snow sled.”
“She never told me that. Just like Verna. She had a screwy sense of humor.” She paused for a moment and said, “What’s going to happen to him now?”
“Couldn’t you take him?” I suggested.
“We have two cats. He hates them and they hate him.”
“Then I guess he’ll go to the pound.”
“They’ll put him to sleep!” she said with alarm.
“Maybe somebody will adopt him.”
“That’s where she got him,” Mrs. Clark said. I could hear a new sob coming. “They were about to put him to sleep and she just couldn’t bear the thought. Actually, she went to get a smaller dog.”
“He must weigh seventy, eighty pounds,” I said, watching the big dog tearing up the bone.
“He’s such a sweetheart. She lets him in at night. He’s trained.”
“Swell,” I said.
“How terribly sad,” she said. “First he loses Verna, now they’re going to give him the gas. He deserves better.”
I closed the door and went back to the living room.
“I hate a day like this,” I said. “It’s depressing. The great American love story.” I sat on the arm of one of the sofas and started rolling another cigarette. “Two lonely people meet, fall in love, work hard, weather the Depression, buy a little love nest in a nice neighborhood. What happens? He gets ironed out by a hit-and-run and she fries herself in the tub. Simple but sad.”
“Maybe not quite,” Ski said, still rifling through the papers in the strongbox.
“Maybe not quite what?” I asked.
“Maybe not quite so simple,” the big man answered.
He had taken off his jacket, his tie was pulled down, and he had pulled his suspenders off his shoulders. He had been sweating and his handkerchief was stuffed in the back of his shirt collar. The lid of one of those large fireproof steel boxes was open, and there were stacks of documents, wrapped with rubber bands, spread out in piles on the desktop.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I thought I might find something to lead us back to where she came from,” he said without looking up. “Maybe find some relatives or something.”
“This, which I think you’ll find most interesting.”
He dropped a large bundle of what looked like letters in a separate pile. They were bankbooks. Lots of bankbooks.
“Check this out,” he said. He opened one of them and leafed through the pages, stopping now and then to make a comment.
“I figure her salary was forty bucks a week, that figure appears every Friday so I assume she got paid weekly. Nothing else stands out
… except the papers on the house-paid in full at the time, in March of 1924, four thou. There are four car registrations, all paid in full at the time of purchase, the last was the DeSoto, bought in September 1939-looks like she got a new car every three years or so. Always cash. There are the usual bills for water, electricity, taxes. But lookee here. On the third of every month, like clockwork, five hundred smackers automatically go into her savings account. She paid the house loan, the cars, the furniture out of it, and very little else. Five C’s a month, Zeke, the deposit slips are here but no mention of where the money came from. I went back ten years so far. Every month, like clockwork, on the third. And here’s the kicker-her savings book.”
He laid it down in front of me. Verna Hicks had $98,400 in her savings account.
“Jesus,” I said.
“Yeah. All these financial records were in this box. It wasn’t even locked. Her house and car papers, everything; even her husband’s birth and death certificates and life insurance policy. Paid her five grand. And a bill of sale for Wilensky’s business. She sold it two years ago. Seven thou and nickels. But not a mention of the five hundred. It isn’t some kind of investment, the backup papers would be here. What do you think of that?”
“Maybe she had a married friend.”
He was digging through other bankbooks and flipping through them. He whistled through his teeth.
“These books go back, let’s see, here’s one from twenty-six, twenty-five… and that five hundred keeps popping up. Damn, Zee, her savings book shows she had these deposits going back to 1924. She opened it with four grand cash. She’s been banking that five a month for, what, seventeen years! Right through the Depression and all.”
He took out the car papers and checked them out.
“She paid twelve hundred cash for the DeSoto.”
He looked at me. “Hell, she could’ve been living uptown with that kind of dough.”
“Well, she must’ve been saving it for something.”
Agassi shrugged. “What?” He dug around in the box and came up with a small green envelope and dumped a small key into his palm.
“Safe deposit key,” I said. “Maybe there’s something there. What’s the bank?”
“West Los Angeles National. There’s two things missing,” he said.
“No birth certificate. And no will.”
“Ninety-eight G’s and no will?”
“Yeah, and she was totally organized. I mean, every scrap of paper she ever got’s in here. But no will or B.C.”
“How about her purse?”
“I emptied it. The usual woman things, her wallet, and car keys. The wallet has eighteen bucks in it. According to her license, she was born April 14, 1894. She just turned forty-seven. That’s it.”
I took out the makings, rolled one, fired it up, and took a long pull, then said, “You know who gets all this and the savings account if there’s no beneficiary?”
“That don’t seem right somehow.”
“Yeah, whoever said life’s fair?”
He handed me a newspaper clipping from the Times. A two-column shot buried on the business page, it showed a group of women and one guy standing in a cluster around a small, plump brunette who was smiling sheepishly. The short story that accompanied it told us that Mrs. Verna Wilensky had celebrated her sixteenth anniversary with the Los Angeles tax assessor’s office. It was dated seven weeks ago.
Agassi nodded. “Not another personal thing in the whole damn house. I went through the closets and drawers while you were next door. Nada.”
“A paid-for house and car, ninety-plus grand in the bank, and no will.”
I smoked for a few moments in silence, leaning back and blowing the smoke toward the ceiling. I stared down at the collection of checks and deposit slips, picked up the clipping. Then it hit me. I walked into the bedroom and then back into the living room.
“Do you notice anything peculiar?” I asked Ski.
“Other than the small fortune in the bank?”
“Pictures,” I said. “There aren’t any pictures of any body, except that clipping from the paper. No pictures of her, her husband, no family shots. Nothing.”
Ski stared at me blankly.
“Even the picture of her in the paper is kind of goofy. She isn’t looking at the camera. She’s staring down at the floor.”
I went back to the bathroom, stared at the broken shelf near the tub, pictured the corpse in my mind.
A very shy lady. A lady without a history for almost twenty years. No family pictures, not even a picture of her late husband. Not a wedding picture, or vacation shot with the Grand Canyon in the background.
So who was she saving the money for?
I got a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“How about the Clarks?” I said.
“People next door.”
“What about them?”
“You’d think if she didn’t have any family she would’ve left something to her best friends.”
He thought about that for a minute and nodded.
“Or at least left it to her dog,” I said.
“There’s a dog?”
“Out back, gnawing on a bone.”
“What happens to it?”
“Well, that’s pretty shitty.”
“Want a dog?”
“I got three kids, a goldfish, two canaries, and a dachshund who hates strangers. How about you?”
“I live alone, no pets allowed.”
“Too bad, so the dog goes to the pound. What do we do now?”
“Look, we don’t know a damn thing about this woman before she moved here in 1924,” I said. “The Clarks say she came from Texas somewhere. Her license says she’s forty-seven. She didn’t just hatch seventeen years ago. Where the hell was she for the first thirty years of her life?”
“Well there ain’t anything in this house that’ll tell us the answer to that question.”
“I want the house sealed. Nobody else in or out.”
“Aw, c’mon, Zeke.”
“Tomorrow I take the bank, find out where the checks came from, and get into her safe deposit box; maybe there’s a will in there. You take the job, see if somebody down there knows anything about her that might fill in her background. Maybe we can find a survivor. Then check Motor Vehicles, see if they have any further background on her.”
Ski shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“What’re you building, Zee?”
“Precaution,” he said dejectedly. “Precaution of what?”
“Just precaution. That’s our job, Ski. Got to be cautious.”
He growled under his breath and got up.
“I’ll post a man at the door.”
“Until after the autopsy.”
“This lady didn’t want anyone to know her before she was thirty-or apparently since. Let’s find out why. I’ll take everything we’ve got, go over the records when I get home, put together everything we know about her.”
“How about the people next door? Maybe we should take another crack at them.”
“They’re not going anywhere. Let’s see what we come up with. Maybe it’ll jog their memories. I’ll lock the place down. Take the box out to the car. I know how the smell gets to you.”
“You’re a jewel, Zee.”
“Then can we stop and get something to eat? I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving, Ski.”
“I eat for three.”
I closed and locked the windows, then went to the back door and looked outside. When I opened it, Rosebud stared at me. A nub of the bone lay at his feet.
“He’s probably hungry,” Mrs. Clark said. She was on her back porch with another drink. Jimmy sat beside her on the porch swing, sucking on a beer. “His bowl’s under the stairs. She leaves it there during the day in case he wants a snack.”
“What are you, his guardian angel?”
“Somebody has to care.”
“You’re doing more than your share,” I said. “This dog eats better than I do. By the way, do you have any photos of Verna?”
“She was funny about that. Hated to have her picture taken.”
I got the bowl, went into the kitchen, opened a can of Ken-L-Ration, and gave it to him. It vanished. He sat down and licked his chops. Then he looked over at the door. On a hook beside it was his leash.
“Ah hell.” I sighed.
I leashed him up, got the rest of the bones from the refrigerator, stuck a couple of cans of dog food in my pockets, got the front door key from under the mat, locked the front door, and we went out to the car. I opened the door and the dog jumped in the backseat without being invited.
I got behind the wheel and laid the bones on the seat beside me. Agassi didn’t say anything until we were a block or two away.
“What’s that?” he asked, nodding toward the butcher-paper bundle.
“I’m not that hungry.”
“I thought you’d eat anything, Agassi.”
“ ‘I save the bones for Henry Jones ’cause Henry don’t eat no meat,’ ” he sang the line. It was an old blues song.
“I know, he’s an egg man,” I said, finishing the line.
We drove another block. Agassi looked at the dog.
“I thought he was headed for the pound.”
“I’ll take him tomorrow.”
“What’s the hound’s name?”
“… Slugger,” I said.
I lived on Barker Avenue, a quiet road off Sunset near La Mirado. They hadn’t paved the road in front of the house since the CCC came through in 1936, but I had learned to maneuver the potholes and ease over the six-inch ridge between the road and my driveway without breaking an axle. The driveway ended at the house. No garage. There was a weather-worn tin mailbox on an erect four-by-four beside a cement walk up to the front door, a couple of dusty oleanders under the windows, and a cyprus tree near the street. The front lawn was fairly respectable and was freshly mown. The kid three doors down made thirty cents every ten days cutting it for me.
All in all, a respectable family neighborhood without the desperate sense of community pride of Pacific Meadows. Nobody was trying to impress anybody. People minded their own business, and if you were a little on the eccentric side, and wanted to fill your yard with plastic purple doofus birds or cement over the grass and paint it chartreuse, nobody would give a damn.
I decided Rosebud needed a name change, so I was going to reprogram him simply by calling him Slugger from now on. When I was a kid, my first dog was a little white mutt with a black circle over one eye, kind of like the dog in the Our Gang comedies. I called him Skippy. My mother was always finding fault with him. “It’s sinful the way that dog goes around wetting on the trees,” or “It’s sinful the noise he makes when he drinks.” Everything Skippy did was sinful and ultimately he started answering to “Sinful” and ignoring “Skippy.” He lived until he was about thirteen and he was “Sinful” for most of his life.
I pulled up in the driveway, parked, got out, and went around to the other door and opened it.
“Okay, Slugger,” I said, “welcome home.”
He stared at me with his big tongue hanging out.
I stepped back, clapped my hands, and said, “Come on, Slugger, let’s go.”
“You Slugger, me Zeke,” I said. “Let’s go.”
He just looked at me.
“Damn it, Rosebud, I…”
He was out in a flash, walked straight to the mailbox and peed, then to the cyprus tree, then to a couple of the shrubs. Then he lay down in the middle of the lawn, rolled over, and began twisting to scratch his back. Then he got up, shook off with a great flapping of his big ears, walked to the front door, and sat down.
Reprogramming was going to take a while.
The house was a white bungalow with green trim that was built the year Calvin Coolidge was elected president. A nice living room, a kitchen with an alcove that protruded from the house and looked like it was an afterthought. It had a nice space under it where Slugger could get out of the sun or rain. The dining room could accommodate a table and about four people comfortably. Since I never had company anyway, I had turned it into an office, with a child’s blackboard and several different-colored chalk sticks, and two erasers so I could slap them together to clean them. The bedroom was large enough to fit a double bed, a dresser, two bedside lamps, and an easy chair and lamp for reading. The bathroom had a good-size tub and a stall shower.
My record player was the most expensive thing in the house. It was in the corner of the living room and had record shelves made of orange crates on both sides of it.
Beside it was a battered bookshelf my father had left to me, filled with his eclectic collection of books: Leaves of Grass; James Joyce’s Ulysses and The Dubliners; Winesburg, Ohio; Moby Dick; The Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay; Byron’s Don Juan; Poetry and Prose of William Blake; A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield; A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises; War and Peace; The Red Badge of Courage; Conrad’s Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness; two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest; a collection of Shakespeare’s works, Roget’s Thesaurus and a Webster’s dictionary, and his favorite, The Great Gatsby.
When I was a kid, he read aloud to me from all these books, although I didn’t understand most of the words at the time. In his fading years, when the gas he had inhaled on the Western Front had taken its toll and breathing came hard to him, I took up the chore and read to him. It was an evening ritual. He sat in his rocking chair and I would read for an hour or two until he finally fell asleep. He slept sitting up; breathing was particularly difficult when he lay down. Sometimes I would simply open a book and start reading passages to him or he would ask me to read something in particular. He loved poetry, and would often stop me and correct my cadence.
Some quotes had stayed with me through the years, and sometimes after a particularly difficult day I would turn to the bookcase and read aloud to myself. Among his favorite verses were the opening lines of “The Dream,” which he often recited to my mom:
Love, if I weep it will not matter,
And if you laugh I shall not care;
Foolish am I to think about it,
But it is good to feel you there.
But I think his favorite was Shakespeare’s sonnet:
When, in disgrace
With fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries…
As he neared death, his choices became more melancholy and he often asked me to recite the last lines of Millay’s “To a Poet Who Died Young”:
Many a bard’s untimely death
Lends unto his verses breath;
Here’s a song was never sung:
Growing old is dying young.
My mother was never the same after his death. She kept the flag from his coffin, still so carefully folded by the honor guard at his funeral, on a night table beside her bed, sweeping her hand gently across it each evening as she said good night to him. Within a year of his passing, she had fallen into a deep depression. She died in the state hospital for the insane.
That experience-going to visit her, holding her hand as she stared bleakly and unspeaking at the ceiling, ignoring the occasional screams and hyena-like laughter of the other patients-still invaded my nightmares at times.
I opened up some windows to air the place out and let Rosebud into the backyard. The tenant before me had dogs, which accounted for the fenced-in backyard. The dogs also had dug up the yard until it looked like a bunch of archeologists had been digging for dinosaur skeletons back there, which accounted for the “no pets” edict. The landlord had made a halfhearted attempt to iron out the yard and had thrown some rye grass around, but now there were more weeds than grass. Near the back there were a yucca plant and a couple of shrubs, which would give Rosebud something to pee on.
I wasn’t good about lawns. I didn’t like cutting them, I didn’t like watering them. And I didn’t like sitting on them in a canvas beach chair reading dime novels. So basically, the backyard looked like a deserted battlefield from the Great War.
I let Slugger out and he immediately laid claim to the yucca plant, the shrubs, and everything else over six inches tall in the yard.
I went into the office and put my case on the table and emptied it, making neat stacks of things so I could find them easily, then went into the living room and piled a stack of ten records, randomly selected, on the player. The first to come up was Basie’s “Sent for You Yesterday and Here You Come Today.” It got my blood running and I went in the kitchen, poured myself a slug of Canadian Club, dropped one cube of ice in it. I went back to my office and sorted through the check receipts, putting them in order, and then listed them by bank and date on the blackboard, looking for patterns. But there wasn’t anything to really go on. It was like trying to play a tune on a piano with no black keys.
So I packed it in for the night, took a hot shower, sprinkled on a little talcum powder, got into my silk pajama bottoms, and went into the living room. Rosebud was sitting in front of the record player with his head cocked to one side, listening to Benny Goodman’s “China Boy.” He looked like that cute little white RCA dog who had grown up and turned out to be a big ugly mutt.
I turned off the player, locked the doors, turned off the lights, and got in bed. Rosebud came up beside the bed, looked at me for a moment or two, then made that little circle like he was chasing his tail in slow motion, lay down, and snorted.
A minute after I turned off the light and arranged myself for sleeping, I felt him crawl onto the bed. He did it with sly caution. A leg, then another leg, then his back legs, then his body sliding across the covers. It took him about five minutes to make the journey. Then he crept around again in that little circle he made before lying down. He settled in, gave a big slobbery sigh, and he was out.
I awoke from a deep sleep to hear Rosebud scratching on the back door. A moment later he came into the bedroom, sat next to the bed, and growled at me. I opened one eye and stared at him.
“Don’t you ever bark, Slugger?” I said.
I hip-hopped barefoot back to the kitchen, let him out and left the door cracked for him, fed him and filled his water dish. I went to my bathroom, shaved and showered, and put on my dark suit, the one I wear when I’m going to be talking to nice, decent, everyday people who are anxious to cooperate with the law and usually tell you more than you want to know. Muscle and blackjack not required.
I put another can of dog food in Rosebud’s bowl, refilled the water dish, and put them outside in the little cave under the alcove.
He watched every move, and when I started back into the house, those dark eyes followed me to the door.
“Try not to bark or make a ruckus,” I told him. “Spend the day looking for Slugger.”
Fifteen minutes later I was tooting the horn in Ski’s driveway. I picked him up every day. He had a brand-new Plymouth but his wife, Claire, used it to take kids to school, go shopping, and do whatever women do all day long to make life pleasant for the rest of the family.
My five-year-old used Olds needed new shocks, the fan belt squealed like a pig on the way to the slaughterhouse, and I had to stand on the brakes to slow down, not an easy thing to do since I had to move the seat all the way back to accommodate Agassi’s frame and drive with the tips of my toes. There was a hole in the upholstery on the passenger side, which was covered by a blue embroidered pillow with a couple of palm trees framing yellow letters that said “Welcome to San Diego.” And it had that old-car smell, a mixture of oil, gasoline, cheap carry-out food, and an ashtray that hadn’t been emptied since Hitler was selling hand-painted postcards on the streets of Vienna. It got me there, which was all that mattered.
We stopped at Wally’s coffeehouse, which is on the way, and got coffee in paper cups and a bag of sinkers, and Ski read the newspaper as he always did, running an occasional headline by me if it was something he thought I needed to know or a comical item like: escaped kangaroo kicks preacher to death at bus stop.
As we pulled away from the curb, a flatbed truck went by, going the other way. There were two large billboards on the bed. Red letters on a field of white: buy bonds keep America free join the armed forces today
Two starlet types in red-and-white bathing suits were standing on a little perch to keep from falling out, waving blue high hats, while a loudspeaker over the cab was blasting Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” loud enough to raise the dead.
Ski started grousing. “I hate Kate Smith,” he snapped. “I really hate hearing her bellow when I’m not fully awake yet.”
Smith wrapped her song and Irving Berlin’s forlorn voice began moaning, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
“I hate that, too,” he growled.
“Why should you care,” I said. “You’re forty-two, you got a wife and three kids, and you’re sixty pounds overweight. They’ll be drafting blind men before they get to you.”
“Christ, you’re thirty-four. They’ll never get to you either. Besides, you’re a cop. Immediate deferment.”
“That sounds unpatriotic,” I said.
“I think you want to go if we get into it with the Krauts,” he said. “Mr. Gung Ho.”
I started laughing and he finally broke up, too, and turned back to the paper.
“So what’s the plan for the day?” he asked.
“I go to the bank, you check where she worked. We’ll meet at the Kettle for lunch.”
“How about Moriarity?”
“What about him?”
“It’s an accident. He’s gonna want to know what the hell we’re up to.”
“Let’s see what we come up with. Then we’ll worry about the lieutenant.”
“Great, just great,” Agassi moaned.
The drive to the West Los Angeles National Bank took me past the entrance to Pacific Meadows. There was a small sign beside the road into the neighborhood that read:
Pacific Meadows no solicitations speed limit 10 we have children
It was a nice touch, the kind of understated warning you usually find in snottier neighborhoods with a lot of flowers around the entrance gate, and private police who patrol in unmarked cars and make more in tips at Christmas than I make in a year. Across the main drag from the entrance was a strip of necessity stores: a candy store and newsstand, dry cleaners, drugstore, greengrocer, butcher shop-which I assumed was where Verna Wilensky got Rosebud’s bones-a shoe cobbler, and a burned-out shop on the end, with an empty lot beside it.
A few blocks farther on was a small nameless village that was showing the signs of restoration. Freshly painted shops mingled with shuttered stores that were still waiting for tenants getting back on their feet from the Depression.
The West L.A. National was on the ground floor of a freestanding, three-story building that had professional offices on the upper floors. The entrance was in the middle of the block and had brass-trimmed, etched-glass doors and a small plaque next to it that told me the bank was founded in 1920 by Ezra Sutherland. It was cheerier than most old banks I was familiar with. The teller cages were mahogany. The high glass partitions, which had become popular when John Dillinger and his pals were fond of making sudden withdrawals from banks, had been removed. There was a long table down the middle of the room where depositors could fill in their slips. A vase of fresh flowers held down its center. On the right side, behind a hand-carved railing, were several desks where clerks made loans and did whatever else clerks do in a bank. All boasted freshly cut flowers in vases. Four towering cathedral windows lined the walls, providing warm sunlight to the big room. A large glass chandelier hovered majestically overhead.
In the far corner on the left was a stainless steel Standish- Wellington vault, its door standing open. In the center of the far wall was a door, which I assumed led to the president’s office, and another, probably to a secretary’s office. A pleasant-looking woman in her mid to late thirties occupied a large desk in front of the big shot’s office. A single red rose, flared out in all its glory in a fluted bud vase, sat on a corner of her desk. It was a pleasant room, less threatening than most banks.
I took off my fedora and walked the length of the bank to the woman with the red rose. Her nameplate said she was Amy Shein, executive secretary, and a plaque on the door behind her told me the office was occupied by Rufus Sutherland, President.
“Good morning, Miss Shein,” I said and showed her my buzzer. “Sergeant Bannon, Los Angeles Police Department. Is Mr. Sutherland busy?”
She looked a bit alarmed when she saw the badge but got over it quickly and smiled.
“May I tell him what this is about?” she asked pleasantly.
“It’s a routine matter,” I said. “Nothing serious. No crime has been committed.”
“Well, thank goodness for that,” she said, and went into the office. She was gone for less than a minute, then came out and stood at the door and motioned me in.
“Mr. Sutherland, this is Lieutenant Bannon from the police department,” she told the boss.
“Sergeant,” I said. “But thanks for the promotion.”
Sutherland smiled from behind a teak desk that wasn’t quite as big as a basketball court and just as barren: a leather blotter holder, a pen and pencil set, and a telephone. There were two large, framed Audubon originals on the wall behind his desk. One was an eagle. I didn’t recognize the other bird which was red and black and quite a bit smaller. Behind him, on top of a cabinet that matched the desk, were a dozen framed photographs of all sizes, family pictures. Otherwise the room was as impersonal as a form letter.
Sutherland was a tall, erect man in a blue summer suit with a white breast-pocket handkerchief. His salt-and-pepper hair was a little too long for a banker’s and he had a tennis player’s tan, manicured fingers, and brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“Rufus Sutherland,” he said, extending his hand. We shook and I took the chair he motioned to. I could feel tension in his hand.
“I hope this isn’t something serious,” he said. “My daughter.. ”
“Nothing like that,” I interrupted. “It has to do with a customer of yours. Verna Wilensky.”
He seemed relieved and then: “Is something wrong with Verna?”
Obviously the news had not reached the bank yet.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” I said. “Mrs. Wilensky is dead. An accident at her home.”
“Oh my God,” he said, sitting up even taller in his chair. “What happened?”
I gave him as much information as was necessary without getting into bloated faces floating under bathwater and other lurid details. I could tell the news upset him.
“She was one of our most dependable depositors, certainly the most loyal,” he said. “Came in once a month to go over her statement. Never complained. A lovely lady with more than her share of bad luck. I assume you heard about her husband.”
I nodded. “Are you familiar with her account, Mr. Sutherland?”
“Well, no more than for most of our depositors. The tellers and secretaries handled her everyday affairs. But she always stopped in to say hello. Used to come in with that big dog of hers.” He leaned forward and a smile played the corners of his mouth. “Big old stud named Rosebud, can you imagine?”
“We’ve met,” I said with a smile.
“Well, what can I do for you, sir?”
I picked up my briefcase, sat it on a corner of the massive desk, and snapped it open.
“We found these papers in her desk. Mostly banking things. She has quite a sum of money on deposit and we haven’t been able to locate a will.”
“Oh my goodness,” he said. “Hard to believe she was intestate, she was meticulous in all her dealings.”
“Apparently both she and Frank Wilensky were only children. I’d like to locate survivors if there are any, before the state gets its greedy hands on her estate: life savings, house, car, et cetera.”
“That’s very considerate of you.”
“I understand she came here from Texas.”
“Well, I’m not real sure. It’s been a long time. My father was director at the time. That was back in the early twenties. He died several years ago and after that Millie… Miss Harrington… handled her affairs.”
“The thing is this,” I said. “She accumulated a rather large amount of money, apparently from a five-hundred-dollar-a-month stipend. But we haven’t found anything to indicate where that money came from. I am hoping the bank might give us a lead. It could be a member of the family, a child, relative. Would it be possible for us to go over her accounts and see the checks that were deposited?”
The request made him nervous. He stroked his chin and cleared his throat.
“That is, of course, confidential. Do you have a court order…?” He said it tentatively, as though unsure of himself.
“I can get one but considering the nature of her sudden death and the very real prospect of the state stepping in to take over, I was hoping we could do this right away. Better than having the state boys trooping in here waving subpoenas in everybody’s face. They aren’t known for their manners.”
“All I want to do is go back through her records and see if there are any names, addresses, anything that we can follow up on. I’ll of course keep this all on the Q.T. An hour or two is all it should take.”
He thought about all of that for a minute or two. He seemed a little nervous about circumventing the court. I took out my badge and ID and laid them in front of him to reassure him. He perused them, then looked up sharply.
“Homicide division?” he said.
I gave him my most reassuring smile. “Just routine, Mr. Sutherland. Anytime there’s an unwitnessed death, we have to investigate. She was dead for almost twenty-four hours before her neighbor found her.”
“I see,” he said. He took off his glasses, folded them, and tapped them on his desk for a moment, then reached under the ridge of the desk and pressed a button.
A moment later, a handsome woman came in through a side door. She was tall, five-seven probably, late twenties, with ebony-black hair down to her shoulders, severe black eyebrows over gray eyes, and million-dollar legs sheathed in sheer silk, at least from the knee down. She was wearing a tailored, double-breasted charcoal-gray suit with a small diamond-and-ruby pin in the shape of a dolphin on her lapel, and an oyster-white, high-necked silk-and-lace blouse. She stood as straight as a Marine topkick. Pure elegance. She also had a million-dollar tennis tan like the boss.
“Millicent, this is Sergeant Bannion from the police department. Sergeant, this is our vice president, Millicent Harrington.”
“It’s Bannon, no i,” I said, taking her hand. She had a sturdy tennisplayer’s grip and a smile most women would kill for. I hadn’t been as close to a woman this aristocratic since I brushed against Katharine Hepburn at a premiere at Grauman’s a year or so ago. She was the star of the picture. I was picking up some after-hours change spotting dips for the manager of the theater.
Then my mind started working overtime. She had the same tan as Sutherland, her stockings cost more than my entire wardrobe, and the pin in her lapel spelled Tiffany. And a vice president. Sometimes I hate being a cop.
“I have some bad news,” Sutherland said. “Verna Wilensky is dead.”
Her reaction was immediate and profound. She gasped and pressed the fingers of one hand against her lips. Her eyes widened to the size of silver dollars and then began to tear up. She sat, keeping her knees locked together, and seemed to sag into her suit. Sutherland whipped the handkerchief from his breast pocket and handed it to her.
“Sorry to be so abrupt,” he muttered, and sat back in his chair.
Her backbone stiffened again. “What happened?” she said after dabbing her eyes.
“She slipped in the bathtub and drowned,” I explained. “I’m sure it was painless. She was kayoed… knocked out instantly.”
“Poor Verna,” she said sorrowfully. “She had so much going for her. Then she loses Frank, now this.”
“She died intestate,” Sutherland said. “Sergeant Bannion is hoping we can find something in her file that will lead him to a relative or some legitimate kin. Would you help him, please? Whatever he needs.”
I didn’t bother to bring up the i he insisted on putting in my name.
“Of course,” she said, and laid Sutherland’s handkerchief on the corner of the desk.
“Thanks a lot,” I said, shaking his hand, and followed Miss Harrington into her office.
“You might want to open a window,” she said. “It’s a bit stuffy in here.”
I slid the window up and looked down in the parking lot behind the building. There were two cars near the back door, a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith and a yellow Pierce-Arrow convertible with leather seats the color of the sky on a clear day.
It completed the package, as did the office-right down to the pale yellow silk drapes and sky blue carpeting that tickled my ankles. Pretty cushy, I thought. A gorgeous woman, a million-dollar office, a Pierce-Arrow ragtop. Sutherland was keeping this lady in grand style.
I looked around at the paintings on the wall, the antique furniture, the Mueller radio built into the wall. On her desk there was an eight-by-ten photo mounted in a sterling silver frame with its back to me and an elegant, hand-painted pencil holder that looked like it could have been a gift from the King of England.
“This is very impressive,” I said.
She was smart, too, to go along with everything else. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly and one corner of her mouth turned up in what was almost a sneer.
You blew it, I thought. She knows you’re on to her. Get back to business.
She picked up the handpiece of a white phone, dialed a couple of numbers, then, “Jane, bring me the Wilensky file, please… yes, everything.” She hung up.
“So, Sergeant Bannon, what exactly are you looking for?”
I decided to play it straight up.
“As you know, the state is going to get the estate if we can’t find a family member with a legitimate claim. Mrs. Wilensky had almost a hundred gra… a hundred thousand dollars in her savings account, most of which came from a, uh, stipend of some kind she got every month.”
Jane, a mousy young woman with dirty-blond hair, came in with a large accordion folder, put it on the corner of her desk, and left without a word.
“Five hundred dollars,” she said with a nod.
“I was hoping we can get a lead off the cashier’s checks. You do keep a record of them, don’t you?”
“No, bank checks go back to the issuing bank when they’re cashed. We do make photocopies, although I doubt it will be much help to you.”
“They were always cashier’s checks. No names, just the issuing bank.”
My disappointment was palpable.
“Can we look them over anyway?” I asked.
“All of them?”
“I’m sorry, I know you must be awfully busy, but sometimes the smallest thing…” I shrugged and let the sentence die.
“All the way back to the beginning?”
I nodded. “Nineteen twenty-four, I think.” I leaned down to get my briefcase and my jacket flopped open. As I sat up, I saw her eyes fixed on the Luger under my arm.
“Will it make you more comfortable if I put this in my pocket?”
“I’m sorry. I’m well accustomed to firearms, I’m a member of the Bel Air Skeet Club. I’ve just never seen a hidden weapon except in gangster movies.”
“It’s called a concealed weapon, not a hidden weapon.”
“Oh. Well, don’t put it in your pocket on my account.”
I opened the briefcase and showed her the contents. “These were in a lockbox at her house. Statements going back to the mid twenties. There was some other stuff, papers on the car and house, bill of sale for Frank Wilensky’s business. But no will and no birth certificate. Seems strange for someone that, uh…”
“So, you want to see the copies of the original checks and deposit slips.”
For the next hour or so, we went through checks and deposit slips and I made notes. When we were through, I had a list of all the cashier’s checks going back to the original $4,000 cash deposit. At one point my Parker pen ran out of ink and she loaned me a gold fountain pen with no trade name on it. I felt guilty just leaving my fingerprints on it.
“How about a break?” she said, finally. “Coffee?”
She went to the wall behind her desk and slid back a panel. There was a small stove and refrigerator behind it. A French coffeemaker was sitting over a low flame. She poured coffee into two bone china cups and put them on matching saucers.
“How do you take it?”
“Two sugars, a splash of milk.”
She dropped a couple of cubes of sugar into one cup and got a bottle of real cream out of the refrigerator.
“Will cream be alright? I’ve never been much for milk.”
“I’ll just take the cream, forget the coffee.”
She laughed then, a genuine laugh that came from somewhere around her ankles.
“This is quite a setup,” I said. “Do all VPs have offices this cushy?”
She turned the framed photo around. It was a shot of Millicent and Sutherland in tennis togs. He had his arm around her waist.
“Only if you play tennis with the boss,” she said.
“Oh,” is all I could think to say.
“Of course, it helps if the boss is your father.”
I almost swallowed my tongue.
“It’s been fun watching your deductive brain at work,” she said with a smile, and leaned back in her chair. “Are you usually this impulsive drawing conclusions?”
I could feel my face turning color.
“I hope not,” I said. “If I am, there are a lot of innocent men dancing to the piper.”
She cocked her head slightly.
“Dancing to the piper,” I repeated, “means doing time. Prison. Look, I’m sorry I misjudged things. I’ve never seen a woman executive with an office this impressive. Or one dressed like you are.”
“Well, there aren’t too many of us around-yet. But that’ll change, so you may as well get accustomed to it.”
“Suits me fine,” I said. I nodded toward the radio. “What kind of music do you like, classical?”
“I like classical.”
She smiled, the kind of smile that made me feel I wasn’t in on the joke.
“Is that the way I strike you? Tchaikovsky?”
“Well, who then?”
“Actually I prefer Tommy Dorsey although I think Miller’s easier to dance to. And Duke Ellington when I’m blue.”
This time I didn’t even try to disguise my surprise? “Dorsey, huh? You must be a Sinatra fan.”
“You’re a drum freak, then?” I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice.
“Always have been.”
“Then you know Krupa’s the man. He makes Rich sound like he’s using chicken bones for drumsticks.”
She scowled. “Krupa’s all technique. Buddy has the speed and punch, and he’s far more inventive.”
“I never argue with a woman, but you’re wrong.”
“I never argue with a policeman, but you’re wrong.”
I was dying for a cigarette but there wasn’t an ashtray in sight.
“Look, I’m about to get the heebie-jeebies for a smoke. Mind if I step outside for a couple of minutes?”
She opened a drawer and produced a china bowl that looked like it was on loan from a museum.
“You really want me to put ashes in this?” I asked, taking out the makings.
“It’s an ashtray,” she said. “Here, try one of mine.”
They were Sherman Select, an inch longer than regular cigarettes and half as thick, with a gold filter on the end. The paper was light blue. Three bucks a carton if they cost a penny. The gold case they were in cost more than Verna Wilensky’s house.
She got up, walked around the desk, produced a gold Dunhill lighter, and lit my cigarette. The tobacco was mild and sweet, not harsh like the Prince Albert pipe tobacco I used.
I took a couple of good drags and let the smoke hang around in my lungs before I blew it out.
“It’ll take about three of these to get one good smoke,” I said.
She chuckled. “My grandfather used to roll his own.”
“I like to roll ’em. Sometimes it gives you a little time to think when you’re kicking wits around with some bohunk.” Her face went blank again. “Interrogating some hooligan. That’s before we take him to the back room and go to work on him with a rubber hose.”
She laughed again, this time without taking her eyes off mine.
“Let me get back to business for a minute,” I said, and took the safe deposit key from my vest pocket. “Can we make use of this?”
She stared at the key for a long time. A safe deposit box is supposed to be sacred, except, of course, if the G-men want to take a peek.
“I can get a court order to go into the box,” I explained, “but all I’m looking for is a lead. The state boys will come snooping around soon enough when they get a whiff of what’s involved here.”
“I take it you and the state boys don’t get along.”
“I’ve got nothing against them except where this kind of thing is concerned. Somebody’s got a right to that estate and for my money it isn’t the state of California.”
“Maybe she left it to her dog,” she said, and then suddenly jerked straight up. “My God, what’s happened to Rosebud?”
“He’s bunking in with me temporarily, until I find some of Verna’s relatives who’ll take him on. It was that or the pound.”
“You took Rosebud in?”
“He wouldn’t have it any other way. I offered to get him a cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel but he preferred slumming with me.”
She crooked her finger. I followed her out onto the floor of the bank to the vault. A uniformed guard was sitting on a stool reading Argosy magazine. When he saw Millicent Harrington, he jumped up as if a bug had bitten his rear end.
“George, my friend wants to visit his safe deposit box. Why don’t you just sit back down and read your book, I’ll take him back.”
“Geez, Miss Harrington, I’m sorry. It’s been a real slow day and..”
“I won’t tell if you don’t, George,” she said. She led me back to the stainless-steel box room, found the matching key on a hook, and went down the row of stainless steel drawers until we got to the right number. She put both keys in, opened the door, and took out the metal strongbox. It was small, the smallest size available.
“Not much in here,” she said, after leading me to a private room where we could examine the contents.
It was a bust. Just some love letters tied with red ribbon. I flipped slowly through them. All of them were from Frank, all to “Vernie my love”: birthday cards, Christmas cards, some just telling her how much he had missed her during the day. Frank was a real romantic. I could understand why Verna Wilensky had wanted to die when he was killed.
The last one was different.
The envelope was yellow with age and there was no writing on it. Inside was a yellowed sheet, the ink faded and almost illegible. All it said was “Two more days. I can hardly wait.” I looked at the back and checked the envelope once more. Nothing else.
“What do you make of that?” she asked.
“Who knows? Not the same handwriting as Frank’s. Pretty old, judging from the fading and all. Maybe she was seeing somebody before him.”
“Loretta Clark might know.”
“She came in with Verna occasionally,” she said. “Nice lady. Verna called her ‘Sis.’ ”
“She told me.”
There was nothing else of consequence in the box.
I put the note back in the envelope and returned the pile to the box and we put it back in the vault.
“By the way, what’s your first name?”
“Zeke. My friends call me Zee.”
My eyebrows asked the question.
“I was married once, right out of college. It was mostly rebellion, I guess. My father hated him. His mother hated me. And it turned out we weren’t all that crazy about each other. So after six months we decided to go our separate ways. It was very amicable. We decided not to trade money. We used to call each other occasionally, but that eventually died of attrition. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. How about you?”
“Haven’t even gotten close.”
“Glad to meet you, Zee.”
“Glad to meet you, Millie.”
We returned to her office.
“I’m sorry that was such a flop,” she said.
“It wasn’t a flop,” I said. “Almost all the cashier’s checks were sent from banks in the San Pietro area. San Pietro, San Luis Obispo, Yucca Springs, one from Mendosa.” I ran my finger down the list, quickly counting up banks in that general area. There were one hundred ninety-six deposits, including the money from the sale of Wilensky’s shop and the original $4,000 deposit. Quickly figuring as I ran down the list, at least two-thirds of them had come from up there. I decided to make an accurate tally that night.
“Would it help if I got you a list of all those banks and who the managers are?”
“That would be a big help.”
“I could even call some of them and suggest they cooperate with you.”
I thought about that briefly but decided to finesse that idea for the moment. “I think maybe surprise might be more valuable to me at this point.”
She picked up the phone and got Jane again and told her to get up the list from the state bank registry.
“Anything else?” She asked.
“Something that’s been gnawing at me since last night. How often does someone come in off the street with four thou in cash?”
“Not very often.”
“Can you imagine a woman coming all the way from Texas, which is where she told everybody she was from, carrying four large in her suitcase?”
“Four large what?”
“A large is a thousand dollars.”
“Oh. Well, yes, it is unusual.”
“So maybe she wasn’t in Texas. I mean, that’s a large chunk of cash even if she just carried it around the block.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Especially in 1924 when women were a little less, uh…”
“So what does that lead you to believe?”
“That maybe she never was in Texas. That maybe before she showed up here and bought a house, she may have lived someplace else nearby.”
“That’s very interesting. And how would you go about finding out?”
“I have no idea.”
She laughed again.
“Think about it,” I said. “That was almost twenty years ago and there’s been a Depression during that time. Banks went out of business, apartment houses closed down, a lot of people have died. And by the way, there were no photos in the house. Not a single picture except a clipping from the newspaper several weeks ago. So to be practical, I think I have to consider this: that Verna Hicks Wilensky was born that day in 1924. Whoever she was before that is just so much history and very possibly a waste of my time.”
“You mean you may just forget the whole thing?”
“Not exactly, but if I draw a deuce then I’ll have to let the state take it all.”
“How about Rosebud?”
“Well, one thing’s for sure. It’s one part of her estate the boys will definitely not be interested in.”
“Will you keep him?”
“It’s against my lease.”
“Somehow I don’t think that worries you too much.”
“Thanks,” I said and smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“As it was meant.”
“There’s one other thing,” I said, taking out one of my business cards. “If the state boys should show up, give me a call, will you? I’m racing the clock on this and I’d like to know when the dogs are at my heels.”
“I think what you’re doing is quite noble,” she said.
I let that pass by.
“One other thing. If it’s just one of them that shows up, be sure to check his ID. Try to remember the name and buzzer number, it’ll be in the upper-right-hand corner. They’re supposed to travel in pairs, it’s a rule. A house, a car, and a hundred grand adds up to a lot. In my business, people get killed for a lot less. One of them just might let greed outrun his brain.”
I wrote my home number across the top of my card. I don’t know why. Well, yes, I do. I was dreaming.
She looked at the card and snapped it with a fingernail. Then she abruptly changed the subject.
“Just out of curiosity, what does a cop do for fun? Besides adopt stray dogs.”
“Go to the movies. Grab a good meal somewhere. Take a dip in the ocean occasionally. How about you, besides tennis?”
“I like to dance,” she said.
“No kidding. Jitterbug?” It was a joke. I couldn’t imagine her swinging around and kicking up a storm on a dance floor.
“Of course. Do you dance?”
I leaned across the desk toward her and said, “Promise you’ll never tell anyone what I’m about to say?”
She crossed her heart with a finger.
“I once won a loving cup at the Saturday-night jitterbug contest at the Palladium. To Benny Goodman’s ‘Don’t Be That Way.’ Me and Julie Cluett. We also got twenty bucks.”
“Were you in high school?”
I shook my head. “Four years ago. I was scared to death one of the boys on the force would find out. Now when I go, I tell the guys I’m doing security.”
“How often do you go?”
“Whenever there’s a big band. I don’t dance much, I just stand up around the bandstand with everybody else and listen. He’s going to be there next week, you know.”
“At the Palladium?”
“Yep, with Buddy Rich, Sinatra, the Pied Pipers, the whole gang.”
“I’ve never been to the Palladium,” she said.
It sounded like a pick-up line but I knew better.
“It gets very hot and crowded.”
“Are you going?”
I smiled. “I’m doing security that night.”
She laughed again. Then she paused and asked, “Do you ever need an assistant?”
And there it was. One thing she wasn’t, was shy. A lady whose cigarettes cost more than my car was pitching me. I wondered how long it would take for the novelty of that to wear thin.
“Look,” I said, “let’s put it on the table. I wouldn’t know a dish of caviar from a bowl of Wheaties.”
“So? I’ve never met anybody who was dancing for the piper. What’s that got to do with anything?”
I couldn’t think of an answer for that so I just stared into those gray eyes.
“Well, if you do decide you need an assistant, my number’s Vandike 2578. I’ll write it down for you, it’s not in the book.”
“Vandike 2578. I remember things like that.”
“How about that? A cop who loves dogs and dancing and remembers phone numbers.”
I took out the makings.
“Want to try one of mine before I leave?” I asked her.
“I… yes, why not?”
I rolled two, fanned them dry, and gave her one. She lit hers with her gold Dunhill, I lit mine with my Zippo.
Obviously a match made in heaven.
I met Ski at a restaurant on La Cienega called the French Kettle, which was a high-sounding name for a lunchtime hangout for reporters, politicians, and cops. The prices went up for the dinner trade. The place was owned by an ex-prizefighter named Andre DeCourt, who was once a very promising middleweight. He was one of those good-looking Frenchmen with dark shiny hair, a straight nose, and green eyes. The story goes that Andre worked his way up the rankings to a match with a muscle-bound hammer named Ray Rowles, who was next in line for a title shot. Andre was the favorite and the odds were up to about fifteen to one. Andre decided it was time to quit before he started looking like Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, who in turn looked like a bus had run into him, so he took all his savings, laid it off on Rowles, beat him to a pulp for seven rounds, and then lay down and took a nap. He used the winnings to open the restaurant, then took a rematch with Rowles, played with him for two rounds, and knocked him all the way to Madagascar in the third. Then he retired for good.
It was one of those high-ceilinged, wood-and-brass eateries that looked more like a cattle baron from Denver owned it than an Americanized Frenchman. There were booths around the perimeter and cubicles filled in the middle of the room. They all had high, etched-glass partitions, which looked fancy and expensive but were there mainly for privacy. When newsmen and politicians talk, they want privacy. Cops don’t really care, they don’t have anything to say. The place opened at 7:00 a.m. and closed at 11:00 p.m. In the morning they served eggs Benedict to die for, and the sandwich menu at lunch was two pages long. I couldn’t afford to eat there at dinner. If I wanted to spend that much money for a meal I’d go to Chasen’s. I had never been there either.
Andre was always there, seated in a small booth for two in the front of the place near the cash register. He always wore a tuxedo. At seven in the morning he was in a tuxedo. He changed the shirt three times a day and he wore a very subtle cologne that made you forget he once earned his living with sweat and a right uppercut. He also carried a tab for the breakfast and lunch trade, which was a nervy thing to do-newsmen, politicians, and cops not being known for their credit ratings. The newsies and dicks because they didn’t make much money, and the politicians because they were on the take from the start and who’s going to sue the mayor or a city councilman for stiffing a check or two?
He got up when I came in and gave me a fifty-dollar smile.
“Zee,” he said, “ Bonjour. Ski is here already. Over by the window in the corner.” He led me over there, handed me a leather-covered menu the size of the Rand McNally World Atlas, and retreated to his post.
Ski was devouring a large piece of Boston cream pie, which was his idea of an hors d’oeuvre.
“Why do you always eat your lunch backward?” I said.
“I don’t like to start with a bowl of weeds with a tomato sitting in the middle of it.”
The waiter came by and I ordered a corned beef on rye and a Coke.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “I met a new friend.”
“Oh yeah? Male or female?”
“She a looker?”
“Your jaw would hit the floor if you laid eyes on her.”
He gave me a nod of approval.
“Her old man owns the bank-and she has an office that would make Marie Antoinette jealous.”
He beamed lasciviously. “Do I hear wedding bells?”
“Yeah, sure, Agassi. I met her three hours ago and rolled her a cigarette. That was my big trick for the day. One of her cigarettes cost more than my car.”
“Which would be what, thirty or forty cents?”
“Very funny. So, what kind of a day have you had?”
He finished the pie and pushed the dish aside like a kid finishing a vegetable plate.
“Well,” he said, “I didn’t find a lot about who she was. But I found a lot about who she wasn’t. I talked to everybody at the tax office. Talked to them privately. She told just about everybody there she was from Texas. One of them she told she was from Waco, another one from San Antone, then there was Dallas, and Wichita Falls, which I thought was in Kansas. She arrived on the scene as Verna Hicks in early 1924. Was very discreet about her private life. Nobody knew she was dating Wilensky until she got married. Nobody’s ever been to her house, in fact few of them even know where it is. She was an excellent worker, always punctual, never missed a day. An ideal employee according to her boss. She turned down promotions several times.”
“Probably because the money wasn’t worth the responsibility, considering she had that five C’s floating in over the transom every month.”
“My thoughts exactly. Anyway, I went back to the station house after I left there and called the Bureau of Records in Waco, San Antone, Dallas, and Wichita Falls, and then checked the state bureau in Texas. Guess what?”
“They never heard of her.”
“You got it. The DMV here says she originally gave an address on Highland. I checked it. The street number doesn’t exist and never did. She changed it to the Meadows address when she renewed the license. They don’t check those things unless you get stopped for something serious.”
“In other words, Verna Hicks doesn’t exist prior to 1924.”
“Now why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“But why did she suddenly surface then?”
“Because she had to be somebody, Ski. Apparently when she moved here she decided to stay awhile. The net is, she could be anybody from anywhere, even her age could be a phony.”
Our meals arrived and he dug in.
“Your turn,” he said. “Did you come up with anything-besides Miss Vanderbilt?”
“I want to put it all together on the board. The checks came from a lot of different banks. Once or twice from here in town. But most of them seem to have come from up around San Pietro.”
He looked up sharply when I mentioned San Pietro.
“Hell, that’s Culhane territory,” he said.
“Culhane? He’s running for governor.”
“Not officially. He’s about to announce. He’s running against Claude Osterfelt and Dominic Bellini.”
“I read something about it in the paper but I didn’t take it seriously. Whoever heard of him?”
“The Times had a big spread on him last week. World War I hero. Racket-buster. Cleaned up his town, ran the gangsters out. It used to be called Eureka, which was like Frontier City, USA. Open gambling, prostitution. During Prohibition they served drinks over the bar. The sheriff was an old gunfighter named Buck Tallman. You have heard of him, right?”
“That was a long time ago. That’s history. Wasn’t he shot in a whorehouse or something?”
“Something like that. I’m thinking of running up to San Pietro. It’s only about a hundred miles up there.”
“The banks aren’t gonna tell you anything, Zee. All that stuff’s confidential.”
“I did pretty well this morning.”
“Ahhh, that’s because you rolled Little Miss Rich Britches a cigarette and showed her your heater.” He thought for a moment and added, “Are you hunching on this?”
“I’m your partner. You think there’s more to this than just an accident, don’t you?”
“I don’t think Mrs. Wilensky was knocking down five hundred bucks a month for years and then slipped in the bathtub and got fried. That much coincidence makes me nervous. I’m not sure, but I think the check trail leads to San Pietro.”
“Moriarity’s gonna laugh you outta the office.”
“Hell, it’s worth a shot.”
“Moriarity’s gonna have a seizure.”
“I can con him into it.”
“Culhane’s a tough character, Zee.”
I shrugged. “We’re both lawmen. Maybe he’ll work with me.”
“Uh-huh. Maybe I’ll lose fifty pounds in my sleep tonight, too.”
We split up again; Ski was going to check out the crime reporters at the downtown newsroom, some of the old-timers who might know more about San Pietro than what had been reported through the years. The newsies always had something in their back pocket. Stuff that was all rumor with maybe ten cents’ worth of truth in it. Stuff they couldn’t back up properly. Maybe they had a city editor who’d been sued once and was gun-shy of everything if they didn’t have pictures, sworn statements, three sources, and a sworn statement from God that it was on the level. Ski was good at tapping them. He’d been around seven years longer than me. He’d go in with a pint of Seagram’s Seven in his pocket, tell some jokes, give them a little piece of gossip they couldn’t use, then sneak around to the subject and take out the bottle.
“What are we looking for?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully. “Maybe just a word here and there.”
“It’s what, seventeen years ago?” he said. “And for all we know, she was on Mr. Somebody’s sleeve long before she showed up in Pacific Meadows.”
“I know it, I know it,” I said. “It’s worth an hour or two. Maybe something happened up there in the early twenties, some two-bit scandal not worth an inch of ink down here. Something that’ll give me more to go on than a bunch of bank names.”
Ski went his way and I went down to the main newsroom of the Times to look up Jimmy Pennington, who was one of the best reporters in town. We had started out at the same time, about two years after Verna Hicks Wilensky wandered into town with four grand in her girdle, a new name, a new house, and a new life except for somebody from the past who was underwriting her five C’s a month. I could feel the nudge in my gut. Maybe it was because I’ve known a lot of people who disappeared. Just vanished, click, like that. I was in Missing Persons for two years. But this was the first time somebody had appeared out of nowhere. No previous history. No birth certificate. No high school prom pictures. Zip. But she had to appear from someplace before she appeared in West L.A.
Pennington and I were both rookies at our respective jobs in those days and I helped Pennington out when I could, giving him a tip that put him an hour ahead of everybody else. In those days there were seven newspapers, including the gossip sheets. An hour is as good as a week in the life of a breaking story. In exchange, he mentioned my name whenever he could. One hand washing the other. Now he was the top-slot reporter. The only homicide he would be interested in was if the mayor knocked off his mistress in the presidential suite of the Bel Air Hotel. But he had a memory like an encyclopedia, so he was worth a trip across town.
I stopped in the coffee shop on the corner, got two cups of black coffee, and took the elevator to the third-floor newsroom. I found Jimmy, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, talking into two phones at the same time, one cradled between his ear and his shoulder. With his free hand he was taking down notes. He was short, five-seven, but husky, had curly blond hair, and loved the ladies.
I sat on the corner of his desk, put a coffee in front of him, and rolled a cigarette. He mouthed, “Light that for me,” which I did. I stuck it between his lips and he kept writing and talking at the same time, the butt bobbing between his lips like the cork on a kid’s fishing line. He finally hung up one of the phones and wrapped his hand around the mouthpiece of the other.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Want to pick your brains a little.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m covering two stories at once and I got a deadline in two hours.” He held up a finger and said, “Okay, Ned, I need all you can get me in one hour, got that? Sixty minutes. The beast is breathing down my neck. Thanks.” He hung up the phone and flopped back in his chair like a man who had just suffered a coronary.
“I don’t have a brain left to pick right now.”
“What do you know about Thomas Culhane?”
“Jesus, Zee, don’t you ever read the papers? There was a three- column profile on him last week, second section front.”
“I mean the stuff that wasn’t in the papers.”
His eyes narrowed. “What’re you on to?”
“Nothing. I have to go up there on a civil matter. I hear he’s a tough cookie.”
“You’re in homicide, what’re you doing chasing a civil matter?”
“It’s an accidental death. I need to find a survivor to close out my report.”
“That’s all there is to it,” I said, which at that point was true.
“He likes cops. He’s been one most of his life.” He paused and took a sip of coffee. “Why would Culhane get tough with you?”
“Who says he’s gonna get tough? You know me, I just like to have a leg up.”
“What kind of civil affair is this, again?”
I could see his nose twitching.
“I’m looking for a family member. It’s an accidental death and I don’t want to file the report until I notify the survivors.”
“That’s why Bell invented the telephone. That’s this gadget here.” He pointed to one of his phones.
“Ski told me Culhane was bad news, but you know Ski. He can make a federal case out of a hard sneeze. I happened to be in the neighborhood and I thought I’d get your take on him.”
He opened a desk drawer, which was his filing cabinet, and rooted around in the cloud of clippings that puffed up out of it. He finally found what he was looking for, snapped it out of the pile, and slammed the drawer with his knee.
“Here. That’s thirty inches on Culhane. Three pictures. He’s running for governor, you know, or did that get by you, too?” His face screwed up like he had just swallowed a tumbler full of white vinegar. “Jesus, what are you smoking these days?” he said, looking at the cigarette I had rolled him.
“You heard the one about beggars being choosers?”
“I ran out of Camels an hour ago and I haven’t been off the phone since.” He took another drag. “I don’t think Culhane has any secrets in his closet. He’s tough; hell, he had to be to clean up Eureka, which was what the town was called before they dolled it up and started calling it San Pietro. It used to be the meanest town in central California. Now it’s a playground for people with real money, the kind that tip with Ben Franklins and give their kids Cadillacs when they pass the fifth grade. But he runs the county with an invisible whip. You get out of line and crack! you got a welt on your back and you don’t have any idea where it came from. On the other hand, he can be a charmer. He can get a smile out of a dead cat. You won’t have any trouble with him. Like I said, he loves cops. Hates reporters, loves cops.”
“How come he hates reporters?”
“He played rough back when. One of his cops… what was his name?… it’ll come to me… anyway, the cop knocked off a mobster named Fontonio, who was taking over the mobs up there. You know, starting a gangster’s union-everybody joins up or they end up floating facedown to Hawaii. Woods, that was the cop’s name, Eddie Woods. He claimed self-defense, there was a gun in Fontonio’s hand; except everybody who knew the man, including his wife and bodyguards, said Fontonio was afraid of guns. Didn’t carry one, didn’t have one in the house. That’s what bodyguards are for. Then they couldn’t trace the heater. The boys up in Sacramento were about to look into it when Woods resigned, the D.A. dead-docketed the case, and that was the end of that.”
“So why does Culhane hate reporters?”
“Some of the muckrakers implied Culhane had Woods do the job. It did look pretty fishy. But Culhane said he had nothing to do with it. Then Woods said Culhane had nothing to do with it. And when Woods quit, the case went bye-bye. Culhane never forgot that. He said the press tried to ruin his reputation and, as far as I know, he’s still got a hard-on about it. He’s Irish just like you: you don’t get mad, you get even. Culhane gets mad and even. That isn’t in the story. It’s irrelevant now.”
“When did this happen?”
“I vaguely remember it. We’re talking mid twenties, thereabouts. I was just finishing college at the time and you were one of the Dead End kids. You know me. I remember weird stuff but I can’t remember what I had for lunch.”
“What happened to Woods?”
He shrugged. “Hell, I dunno. I heard he was a P.I. down here, but that was a long time ago.”
“I have great respect for your memory, Jimmy.”
“It’s a gift. My old man was a card shark. He could count cards in his sleep. Must be in my blood.”
The phone started ringing again. He snatched it up and snapped, “Pennington; hold on a minute.” He cupped the mouthpiece.
“No kidding, what’s your interest? Are you on to something?”
“Like I said, it’s a civil thing. If it works out, it wouldn’t rate more than three lines on page twenty-two.”
“You wouldn’t shit me after all we’ve been to each other?”
“When did I ever shit you?”
“This got something to do with that lady who took a bath with her radio?”
“How’d you hear about that? I haven’t even filed a report yet.”
“I’m trying to locate a relative so I can let the family know before it hits the obit page.”
I don’t think he believed me, but the other phone started ringing again and the clock ticked closer to his deadline and he got busier than a centipede running across a hot rock. I thanked him, took the clipping, and got out of there before he got any nosier.
I stopped at the grocery and picked up some tomatoes, a bottle of milk, and a pint of chocolate ice cream, and walked to the end of the block to Lupo’s butcher shop. Lupo was about five-five and all muscle, one of those people without a neck. His head was shaped like a fat pumpkin, with skimpy black hair, and he had bull shoulders that bulged out just below his ears, and a torso that went straight down from under his arms. He could carry a side of beef between his thumb and forefinger. His apron was splattered with blood and he wore rubber boots folded over at the knee. I was afraid to bring up sensitive subjects like sanitary conditions when I was in the shop.
“How about a nice T-bone or porterhouse steak, Zee,” he said with a grin.
“Thirty cents for a pound of steak?” I said. “The cows must be on strike.”
“That’s a good one.”
“How about some bones for my dog?”
“Since when you got a dog? What kind?”
“I don’t know, Lupo, he doesn’t have a birth certificate.”
“Another good one,” he chuckled. “How many bones you want?”
“How does six sound?”
“Six! He must be some big dog. What’s this hound’s name?”
I thought about that for a minute and finally I said, “His name’s Rosebud.”
“ His name?”
“He’s a used dog, the name came with him. I tried to change it to Slugger but every time I call him that, he looks around to see who Slugger is.”
He wiggled a finger at me and I leaned toward him.
“He’ll come to Rosie,” he said in a low confidential voice. “Anybody asks, tell him you named him after Slapsie Maxie.”
He was sitting under the yucca plant staring up at a mockingbird that was singing like a blue jay, when I walked out on the back porch.
“Hey, Rosie,” I called, “how about a bone?”
He came loping across the yard and leaned against me, and I scratched him behind the ears. We went inside and I dished out his can of food and put it on the floor, and he went at it like a hyena attacking carrion. Then I gave him a bone.
“You can eat that in here,” I said, but he walked to the screen door and waited for me to open it. “You’re some creature of habit,” I said, and let him out.
I took out the clips Pennington had loaned me. Culhane’s was a surface biography, no scandal attached. His picture showed a handsome man with a hard jaw and sun-creased skin. He was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and a striped tie, and wearing a black fedora-mischievous pale eyes under the brim, and a vague smile. He was leaning against a wall, with his thumbs hooked in his belt. Beside it was a second picture of a younger Culhane, dressed in a workman’s shirt and dark pants, with one of those round, peaked hats the cops wore back in those days and the puttees he probably had worn in the Marines. He was stern-faced and looked ill at ease in front of the camera. He had his foot on the running board of a four-door Ford ragtop. Beside him was the sheriff, Buck Tallman, who was sitting on a big roan. Tallman was a tall, erect man in a western shirt and a buckskin vest, who obviously ran the county from the back of a horse and used a. 44 Peacemaker as a convincer. He had a ten-gallon hat pulled down over gentle eyes, and a proud smile under a handlebar mustache. It was a face that demanded respect, a face that concealed a harsh life on the frontier and a lot of history he probably wanted to forget or had rewritten through the years. He could have been fifty or a hundred and fifty. Together, they kept the peace, which, according to the story, was not as easy as it might sound. Eureka had been like a border town, wide open, noisy, and mean, a town where gambling, boozing, and whoring were the main occupations. Under those circumstances Tallman was not an anachronism, although he might have become one by the time the two of them had decided things were changing and it was time for San Pietro to change, too.
From the story, I learned that Culhane was born in 1884 in that wide-open, sin-ridden town. In 1900, at the age of sixteen, he lied about his age and joined the Marines, ending up on the Western Front, a sharpshooter who won a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre in the last battle of the Somme. He came home in 1920 and went back to work as a deputy sheriff.
In 1921, Tallman was shot down in what the paper described as “the massacre at Grand View House, the town’s most respectable fancy house.” A new county council immediately named Culhane the sheriff. A year later he was duly elected to the post on the promise that he would clean up San Pietro County and “make it a town and county we will all be proud of.” During the years that followed, he kept that promise. He drove out the mobsters and gentrified San Pietro. Now it was a thriving tourist town.
There was a sidebar relating to the 1922 arrest and conviction of a gangster named Arnie Riker for the murder of a young woman named Wilma Thompson. Riker, of course, had claimed he was framed by Culhane. Not surprising. I never met a hooligan yet who didn’t cry “frame” when faced with the goods. He got the gas chamber, later commuted to life without parole on an appeal.
All in all, a favorable piece without a hint of the kind of scandal and corruption that must have been rife during the early days, and one that gave no hint of the stuff I had been hearing from Ski and others about Culhane, except for one thing. When asked about his political platform, Culhane told the reporter, “You’ll find out when I’m good and ready to tell you.”
That sounded like the Culhane I was expecting to meet.
Lieutenant Moriarity gave me the deadeye when I tapped on his door. Moriarity was a short, bulky, almost bald guy, with eyes like a ferret and a voice an octave lower than an opera basso. He had been a cop so long he didn’t remember that early in his life he had been a bouncer in a speakeasy where drinks were served in shot glasses and you got a dirty look if you asked for water on the side. That had been twenty-five years ago, when he was twenty-one years old with no plans for the future. The war had changed that. When he came home in 1918 with a couple of medals and a machine-gun hole in his side, a captain he had served with suggested he take a shot at being a cop.
He had been on the P.D. ever since, understood the politics of working in a city where the real rules weren’t written in any book and where his main job was to keep his captain happy, which meant a minimum of annoyance. The best way to keep Moriarity happy was to “keep it all minimum,” which was his way of saying don’t rock the boat, don’t look for headlines, solve your cases as fast as you can, and stay out of what little hair he had left. With that in mind, he didn’t get too upset if occasionally you beat on some bohunk’s head to get a piece of important information or gentled a confession out of some obstinate lowlife with a few swift, well-aimed kicks where it hurts most. He called it the glove option, as in “always use a glove if you gotta get rough. I don’t wanna see some riffraff on the front page looking like he walked into a waffle iron.” He also believed that the best crime reports were those that stayed as close to the bone as possible, his
theory being that the less said, the less the ambulance chasers had to go on. “The guy’s dead, he has a hole in his head, he was lying in the gutter, period. Don’t get poetic, save that for the D.A.”
Violating the basics could earn you a serious talk with the boss, which meant a chewing-out people someplace in Idaho could hear. A couple of years ago, some of the boys sneaked into his office one night and nailed leather straps to the armrests and legs of one of the chairs in his office and affixed a pot to the backrest. It was a pretty good parody of the hot seat. Instead of having a stroke, Moriarity loved it. He put it in the corner of the office, which was pretty barren except for his desk and chair, a coatrack, a small conference table in the corner, a couple of real chairs, a framed picture of FDR on the wall behind him, and an American flag in a wooden holder on the corner of his desk. If he pointed to the hot seat when he called you forth, he was planning to rearrange your ass.
On that morning, he was drinking black coffee and scanning the morning Times when I tapped on the door. He waved me in. I stood in front of him and rolled a cigarette.
He looked me up and down. I was wearing my best off-the-rack Bond blue suit, a white shirt, and a reasonably decent tie.
“Where’s the funeral?” he asked.
I took that as an invite and sat in the chair across from him.
“So what’s on your mind, Bannon. And I’m hoping deep down inside it isn’t going to make me dyspeptic.”
“The Verna Wilensky thing,” I said, lighting the butt.
“The one got fried in her tub?” he said, surprised.
“That’s not the problem.”
I ran the litany on her, finishing with, “She didn’t have any birth certificate, no insurance policies, nothing like that. Five hundred a month for seventeen years. That’s uh…”
He gave me the deadeye. “A hundred and two grand. What’s the matter, drop out of school before they got to math?”
“Ho, ho, ho.”
“Hell, she probably had a sugar daddy. Who cares? She drowned in the bathtub, for crissakes, what else do you need to know? And keep that crap about her lollipop money outta the report. It’s distracting.”
“I’m curious about something.”
“You ain’t got enough to do? I can fill your plate if you’re bored.”
“You know me, I like to bundle ’em up nice and neat. She was in her forties, all alone, her husband got waxed in a car wreck four years ago. No survivors and no will. Maybe we can find some relatives who’ll give her a decent burial and a headstone.”
“We’re cops, Bannon, this ain’t the bleeding hearts club. Tell it to the Red Cross.”
“They’re only interested in the living.”
He dug a Tampa Nugget out of his desk drawer and lit it. It smelled like he was smoking a Hershey’s bar. He stared at me for a minute or two.
“This isn’t one of those nudges you get, is it, Bannon?”
“I don’t like coincidence. There’s a lot of it here.”
“That ain’t what this is about. You’re lookin’ for something else here, I can feel it in my bones.”
He growled, and gnawed on his cigar.
“We dug up some things,” I said, and gave him a report on what Ski and I had learned the day before, including Wilensky’s shadowy past and the mysterious cashier’s checks. I left out the background check on Culhane.
“I’d like to take one more day and run up the coast.”
He squinted his eyes and looked at me suspiciously.
“Where up the coast?”
“San Pietro? That’s Culhane territory.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“The same Culhane who’s running for governor against Osterfelt and Bellini.”
He gave me the deadeye.
“So, what about Culhane?” I asked innocently.
He responded as only Moriarity can. He was a product of what I call the bureaucratic system of ambiguous response. Moriarity could be standing knee-deep in a pouring rainstorm and if you asked him if it was raining out, he would probably respond with something like, “It’s hard to say” or, more likely, “I think Gary Cooper shoulda played Rhett Butler.” In the bureaucracy, the less specific you get, the safer you are. So when I asked about Culhane, he thought a minute, and said that he had heard that Culhane was everything from a demagogue to a commie; from dangerous, tough, heartless, corrupt, merciless, and a cold-blooded murderer to heroic, compassionate, charming, and, as far as the citizens of San Pietro, California, were concerned, “Joan of Arc with a pecker.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
He thought for a minute and said, “I think God has a great sense of humor.”
I smiled and waited, but he didn’t have any more to say on the subject.
“So, why get so excited about Culhane? I’m going up there to talk to a couple of banks.”
“Thomas Brodie Culhane. His friends call him Brodie, everybody else calls him Captain. Nobody calls him Tommy or Thomas or anything kin to it.”
“How would I know? Maybe he doesn’t like the name.”
“Well, he’s stuck with it.”
“Not if he doesn’t say so.”
“That’s the way he is, then?”
“That’s the way he is.”
“What’s he captain of?”
“He was in the Marines in the war.”
“Sounds like a real bulldog.”
“If God’s a bulldog, that’s what Culhane is. If you’re going up there to snoop around, dance on your tiptoes.”
“I’ll avoid him.”
“He’ll know you’re there before you do.”
“Maybe I should make a courtesy call.”
“If he doesn’t beat you to it.”
“Hell, all I want to know is who’s been supporting Verna Wilensky for all those years.”
“Read about it in the scandal sheets.”
“It’s not a hundred miles. I can be back late tomorrow night.”
“I suppose you wanna take Agassi up there with you?”
I didn’t want to push my luck, so I told him I thought I could handle it alone. “I’m just gonna check a couple of banks and see what they can tell me.”
“I suppose you want a car and some play money?”
“That’d be nice. I don’t trust my heap for more than twenty miles at a clip.”
He sighed, opened his desk drawer, and took out a pad of expense forms and car chits. “Why don’t you get rid of that junk pile. Get yourself something decent. Hell, you just got a raise.”
“Is that what that was? I thought it was a tip.”
“Funny. Hell, you can get a brand-new Pontiac coupe for eight hundred bucks at Nordstrom’s showroom over on Welch Avenue. I just saw the ad. Tell ’em you’re a cop, maybe they’ll give you a break on the price and arrange a little loan.”
“Maybe in your world; not the world I live in.”
“Christ, what a hard head you got.”
I didn’t say anything. He glared up at me for a second and shook his head while he scribbled things on the two pads.
“Here’s for the car, tell them to fill it up. And you can draw ten bucks for meals. Keep the receipts.”
“Gee,” I said, looking at the chits, “I may just lam it down to Mexico and retire.”
“Send me your address, I’ll put you on my Christmas card list.”
“Stay outta trouble up there.”
“I’ve heard that line before. I’m still remembering the time you went up to Tahoe to pick up that firebug and ended up in the hoosegow for smacking an undercover cop.”
Before I could say anything else, Moriarity shook his head. That meant he was tired of our banter. And tired of me.
“Get outta here,” he said. “If you get hung up, there’s a fishing camp right on the water about ten miles south of town. A buddy of mine, Charlie Lefton, owns it. Tell him I sent ya.”
“Get hung up.”
When I left Moriarity’s office I checked my mail slot. There was a message from Frank Templeton, the manager of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, inviting me to a screening of The Ziegfeld Girl on Thursday night. “Screening at 7:30, get there about 7:20. We have a couple of rows ribboned off for big shots, of which I consider you one. Yuk, yuk. Bring a friend. Frankie.”
Templeton and I had gone to school together and I occasionally did some after-hours security work for him. My name was on the permanent guest list at the box office.
I sat down at my desk and looked around. Drab would be a compliment. The walls of the big squad room were covered with wanted posters, notices, the assignment board, and an enormous map of the greater L.A. area.
My desk was in the center of the room, surrounded by other desks, all of which looked pretty much alike. On mine were an in- and out-box, with a telephone, a notepad, and a gaudy ashtray from The Oyster Bed in Ventura. There was a typewriter on the stand next to it. The ashtray and a half-finished report in my in-box were its only distinguishing traits. I leaned back in my chair and thought about Millicent Harrington and Zeke Bannon. The picture was pretty bleak.
I could picture the scene: coming home for dinner and her asking me what I did in the office, and me telling her about the fellow who walks up the street after dinner to get a newspaper and a drunk jumps the curb and splatters him against a wall; or the woman who comes home unexpectedly and finds her husband in bed with a neighbor and she, unheard over the sounds of passion, gets his pistol from a drawer and walks back in and kills them both with one shot, through the back of his neck and into her forehead; or the starlet who dreams of being the next Betty Grable and is sleeping her way up the ladder and ends up in Topanga Canyon very naked, very dead, and very pregnant; or the way a man falls when shot dead, not gracefully as in the movies but like his bones have turned to dust and he has collapsed into his own skin.
Oh, by the way, darling, please pass the cream.
But I thought it might be fun for a little while to squire a lady of class around town. What the hell, a security man can always use a beautiful assistant, especially when Tommy Dorsey is providing the mood music.
A movie would be as good a place as any to start.
I called her office. The secretary plugged me through.
“Hi, this is the police calling,” I said in my most threatening monotone.
“Hi,” she said. “I was just thinking about you.”
“Must be a slow day.”
“Look,” I said. “I hate to call on such short notice but I have an invite to a sneak preview Thursday. I thought you might like to join me.”
I waited two seconds for her answer. “Sounds great!” she said with enthusiasm. “What time?”
“We’d have to be there by 7:20, so I thought we could grab a quick bite at a little place I know down the street. Is 5:30 too early?”
“Do you know how to find my place?”
“I’m a cop, remember?” I paused a moment and said, “How do I find it?”
Another laugh. The house was on Boxwood Drive, on the south side of Coldwater Canyon.
“Got it,” I said. “Five-thirty, then.”
“Yes,” she said, and hung up.
I hung up, sat for a minute, then broke out in a happy laugh.
A detective named Travers looked back at me. “Geez, you musta got some good news,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I had five bucks on a nag at Santa Anita and he came in first.”
“Oh,” Travers said. “I thought maybe you heard your mother-in-law just died.”
I called the photo department at the Times, got hold of a guy in the darkroom I knew named Jerome, and asked if he could blow up the picture of Wilensky for me.
“I got two speeding tickets hangin’ fire over there,” he said.
“Gimme an hour.”
Then I called the coroner’s office and asked them if they’d dig up one of Bones’s close-ups of Wilensky.
I was down in the garage waiting for them to tank up the company Chevy when Ski found me.
“Thanks,” he growled. “Going on a little pleasure trip and you tell the boss you don’t need me.”
“I didn’t think he’d go for two of us taking the ride.”
“San Pietro’s like the Riviera. The movie stars go up there to play around. Rich boys to play golf and act studly with their girlfriends.”
“I got ten bucks for expenses. Maybe I’ll run into Clark Gable and treat him to a night on the town.”
“Hell, you’re not gonna find anything on Wilensky, Zeke. If she had relatives, she woulda left a will.”
“I got one of those feelings.”
He rolled his eyes. “Sheesh. Every time you get one of your feelings, I end up in the hospital and you get a promotion.”
“That happened two years ago. Aren’t you ever going to get over it?”
Louie, the garage man, pulled the Chevy up and hopped out. He had washed it; water was dribbling off the running board. “Treat it like a lady, Zeke,” he said, tossing me the keys. “She’s a cream puff. I altered the radio in her. You can pick up local stations.”
“Well,” Ski said, “you and your little cream puff have a good time. I got stuck with Gruber for the day. He eats garlic for breakfast. The last time he brushed his teeth, Herbert Hoover was vice president.”
“Give him a pack of Dentyne.”
“He can’t chew gum, his teeth are so rotten they’d fall out.”
“Then keep the windows rolled down.”
“It don’t help. You stop at a light, people on the sidewalk stagger around gasping for breath.” He clutched his throat and his mouth bobbed like a fish out of water. I broke up. Ski should have been in the movies.
“I’m going to miss you, partner,” I said.
“What about Little Miss Moneybags?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I’ll spring for four bits and call her long distance.”
“Oh, that’ll really impress her. If it ain’t folding money, those people toss it out the car window. Loose change bags down their pants.”
I laughed. “See ya later, pal.”
“Be careful up there. They play rough.”
I shrugged. “I’ll tell them I’m an insurance man looking to give away some money.”
“Oh yeah, they’ll really believe that story.”
It was an easy drive. The traffic was light and after I passed Santa Barbara, the two-laner was almost deserted. Occasionally a truck would rumble past going south with a load of produce, the driver giving me a friendly wave. A yellow Lincoln limo passed me as I was leaving Santa Barbara. The chauffeur was stiff as a mannequin and was hanging on to the wheel as if he was afraid he’d blow out of the car if he let go. Four kids, all of whom looked to be under six, were playing tag in the backseat. One of them looked out the window as they cruised by and stuck her tongue out at me. I smiled at her and she looked as startled as if she had walked in on Mommy and Daddy having a nooner.
I thought a lot about Millie, then my mind went to work, back to the list Jane at the bank had prepared for me. The night before, I had sorted through the bank names on that list. Then on my blackboard I had listed in different colors the ones with the most checks to their credit and, vertically under them, the dates the checks were received. It boiled down to four banks in San Pietro, one in Mendosa, a little town south of San Pietro, and a bunch of banks in nearby towns like San Luis Obispo and Chino. And there was a smattering of other banks: a couple in L.A., a couple in San Diego, one in San Francisco, probably mailed when the sender was on a business trip. Then I rearranged them by dates and ended up with a chart.
A pattern had begun to emerge. No two checks were ever sent from the same bank back-to-back. They were spaced evenly, with the oddball dropping into the mix occasionally. But basically it was Bank A, Bank B, Bank C, Bank D, Bank E, Bank F, and so on. There were seven main feeders and the other three were spaced in here and there.
A check every eight or nine months, not often enough to raise any suspicions at the banks.
Somebody was being very cautious about the five hundred a month. A lot of work went into the plan, somebody was keeping track. Somebody had a little book with all this data neatly written out, the dates probably projected ahead for six months or six years. And it had been going on for at least sixteen years, probably longer than that considering she was four grand ahead when she checked into the West L.A. National and the modest house in the Meadows.
Using cashier’s checks and moving from bank to bank was clever. If this was blackmail, the money trail would be almost impossible to follow-unless the blackmailer meticulously kept a list of every check, year after year. If Verna Wilensky had been blackmailing someone all these years and kept such a list, why wasn’t it in a safe deposit box somewhere instead of in a desk at home where it would be easy to snatch? Perhaps Verna Wilensky was simply a fastidious record keeper. Clever or meticulous? I wondered which applied to Verna.
One thing was certain, whoever had been paying her five hundred bucks a month for all those years was either rich or corrupt.
Five hundred dollars is a lot of money now. It was really a lot of money in the heart of the Depression. But the checks came like clockwork on the third of every month.
Why? What did she have on this person, if that’s what it was?
I thought about the picture of Verna Wilensky, the one from the newspaper. A dumpy little middle-aged brunette in a cotton dress, staring off-camera with a shy grin. She didn’t look like a woman who had done something nearly two decades ago that had kept her in niceties for all these years.
But then, they never do. When I was in Missing Persons I had a case involving a Beverly Hills banker who was as clean as fresh bedsheets: a deacon in the church, beautiful wife, three kids, perfect health, president of the Rotarians, never played around or even flirted with another woman. Mr. Wonderful. His name was Rupert Archman. Archman vanished one day and so did fifty thousand of the bank’s dollars. Poof, just like that. Three months went by. Then a car drove in front of a fast-moving freight out in Burbank one afternoon. The driver was welded into the wreckage. We had to check his teeth to determine who he was.
It was Archman. Eventually we traced his footsteps. They started in Reno, where he picked up a naked dancer seventeen years old, took her down to Tijuana, blew the fifty on booze, gambling, and little brown cigarettes, and when he ran out of dough she ran out on him. So he came back to L.A. and drove his car in front of a train. No note, no nothing. He wasn’t even wearing his wallet.
I always liked my partner’s take on it: “Hey, two months living it up with a seventeen-year-old punch. What else could ever live up to that?”
Why? I had no idea. What did I know? I was twenty-four at that time, three years on the force. You have to be a lot older than that to crawl into somebody’s brain and trace its scars with your fingertips. Maybe you never get that old.
Or maybe it was something simpler with Verna. Maybe she had an illegitimate child, couldn’t take care of it, and sold it to some rich couple who couldn’t have children. It wasn’t that unheard of in the early twenties, even less unusual during the Depression. I was hoping it would be an answer like that, something with a little heartbreak attached. A story the sob sisters would give an arm and a leg to get exclusively: mother who sold baby drowns in bizarre bathtub accident
But deep down in my gut I knew better.
A few miles on, I approached a dilapidated roadside fruit stand and pulled off the highway onto the crumbled macadam of the shoulder, its ground-up pieces showering the underbelly of the Chevy like shotgun pellets. The ramshackle stand looked like it had been built from washed-up beach lumber. It was at the bottom of a hill. Rows of orange trees lined the crest. There was a small picnic table beside the stand, with sagging seats and a mildewed beach umbrella that shielded one side of it from the sun. I was attracted by the hand-painted sign that told me I could get fresh orange juice for a nickel. My mouth was dry. I stared over a shelf the width of the shack, covered with oranges the size of melons, at a small, round Mexican woman the color of a pecan nut, who sat forlornly on a rickety stool in a corner of the small shack. She was reading the Spanish edition of a dog-eared paperback with a lurid cover: A well-endowed woman with her dress ripped in shreds was looking saucer-eyed at a large Chicano gent who had either murder or amour on his mind, it was hard to tell which. Behind her were several shelves holding straw baskets of apples, papayas, and some anemic-looking strawberries.
She gave me a smile that revealed two missing teeth in the center of her mouth. I learned quickly from the little woman that five cents was for the small size, indicated by a paper cup she held up that was roughly the dimensions of a Dixie cup. The only other size was big enough to hold a keg of beer. My Spanish was negligible so I took the bigger cup and pointed to a spot about halfway to the top.
“Quanto?” I asked.
“Fi’teen?” she answered, making it a question.
“Sure,” I nodded.
She picked five of the prettiest oranges from the shelf, took them to a small table near the back of the shack, sliced them with a machete which she then buried in the side of the table, and started squeezing them; the juice, golden and sweet-smelling, poured into the base of the squeezer, which she then emptied into the cup. I put two dimes on the counter and told her to keep the change.
She had no trouble understanding that. She flashed her toothless smile and returned to her stool and her book.
I took a seat near the end of the picnic table under the umbrella. The juice was warm but sweet as sugarcane and I took it down in small sips, letting it wash the inside of my mouth before swallowing it. I stared up the hill behind the stand as I drank. Near its top, a young woman in a white silk shirt and jodhpurs was riding a black-and-white pinto stallion. Her jet-black hair was tied in a ponytail that snapped in the wind. She knew what she was doing. She traversed part of the hill and then wheeled the horse around as expertly as a cowboy dogging a steer and went at full gallop back the way she had come, leaning forward in the stirrups, her rump barely touching the saddle, like a jockey steaming down the homestretch. Then she pulled him around and trotted over the crest of the hill and vanished into the orange grove.
I was a long way from L.A.
I finished my juice, threw the cup into a battered garbage pail filled with sour-smelling refuse, got in the car, and went on my way.
A mile or two on the other side of Santa Maria, I saw a forest-green sign with bright yellow letters that read san pietro 2 miles. I turned onto State Road 7. It was a narrow but well-paved road on the crest of a foothill. Pine trees shouldered up close to the road and hid the ocean from view. About a mile later, the road curved through a draw in the hillside and suddenly San Pietro lay before me. A small sign pointed south to Milltown and Mendosa. I stopped, got out, and leaned against the front fender while I took in the scene that spread out in front of and below me.
It looked as if a fist the size of a mountain had slammed into the foothill that petered out at the sea, forming a secluded bowl where the town sat as though resting in the palm of that giant hand. On three sides, the foothill sloped up for perhaps a mile. The ocean formed the other side of the village.
It was hard to imagine that the peaceful town that lay at the foot of the hill had once been one of the toughest towns in the county. I wondered how the corruption and violence had affected young Culhane, who grew up with such a spectacle representing his future. Why had he come back to a place like that after the war? Was it anger that had motivated him to go nose-to-nose with the lawless element that ran the town? Or was it greed? Was Culhane a product of under-the-table politics? Had he really cleaned up the town? Or had he merely exchanged one form of corruption for another? And was he a keeper of the law? Or was he above it?
Whatever had motivated Culhane, it had worked for the town once known as Eureka. San Pietro was now a town that might have popped off a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. The downtown section was twelve blocks long and as many blocks wide. The storefronts were white and trimmed in grays and light blues and reds. At the south end of the town, dominating a low, flat shoulder of the foothill that ran out at the sea, was a large U-shaped hotel. The open side of the U faced the ocean. An Olympic-size swimming pool surrounded by beach umbrellas and cabanas and emerald grass was embraced by the sides of the two-story resort. On the south side of the building were four tennis courts, with canvas panels facing the sea to cut the ocean’s wind. Across the street was a large parking lot half-filled with Packards, Maxwells, Caddies, Pierce-Arrows, and a smattering of Rolls-Royces. A Ford or Chevy would have been as out of place in that lot as a three-hundred-pound girl in the Miss California contest.
Separating it from the rest of town was a large public park with a fountain at its center. On one side of the park was a large three-story building built in the Mexican style, with an orange tiled roof and pale yellow walls and a United States flag flying from the spire of the tower that dominated it. Facing it on the other side of the park was a movie house. On the ocean side of the park were the public docks.
Sailboats rocked serenely at its piers. Others were anchored nearby, captained by rugged individuals who preferred anchoring free of land. Farther out in the bay, a white Grebe yacht trimmed with teak drifted idly at anchor. It looked as big as a football field and sat low in the water. I reached in the car pocket, retrieved my binoculars, and focused on the yacht, sweeping the deck slowly from the stern. The brass fittings were buffed and spotless, the hardwood decks glittered in the bright sunlight, the portholes and windows were as immaculate as a Florentine mirror. I moved the glasses a little farther. A woman lay on the large front deck facing the sun, on a beach blanket that would have covered my living room. She was stark naked. A few feet away, a white-haired man in white ducks, canvas shoes, and a red-and-white-striped shirt was sitting with his feet on the rail, drink in hand, staring out to sea as though she didn’t exist. I suppose if you can afford a setup like that, you take everything for granted. I hoped I never got that rich.
Moving in from the sea and surrounding the village on the north and west were tree-lined streets, where I assumed the common folk lived in pleasant bungalows. Beyond the residential section, the hill rose up sharply. A wide, sweeping ridge swept around the bowl, forming a broad mesa. I was parked on one side. A golf course consumed most of the ridge to the east and north. Facing me, hidden among pines and water oaks, was where the rich obviously lived.
The roofs of mansions peeked above the foliage spotting the hillside as it rose to the crest of the foothill. A two-lane road curved up the side of the hill and vanished into the thick trees. A strip of stores a couple of blocks long wound through the trees and then, a few city blocks farther on, the ridge ended on a cliff overlooking the ocean. A three-story Victorian mansion sat as close to the edge of the cliff as was safe. From it, a narrow road tortured its way along the cliff a mile or so down into the village. It was like Olympus, where the gods of this sequestered community could look down on the common folk and dictate the mores, morals, and standard of living of mere mortals.
So this was it? A town of maybe two thousand people? A town so serene and peaceful a lizard sitting in the sun would probably die of boredom. A town which, like all small towns, probably harbored secrets darker than a pedophile’s soul. A town that had nurtured and reared the man who might become the next governor of the state.
As I was standing there, binoculars in hand, a black Pontiac came down the road on my side and slowed almost to a stop. The car drifted past me and a roughneck as big as a billboard gave me a hard stare out of his one good eye. The other eye was frozen in one position and stared straight ahead, while the serviceable one stayed on me until the car was well past. Then it picked up speed again. The license plate read sp 3 and the attitude told me they were cops. Small-town cops. Cops with muscle who wrote their own rule books and, for nothing at all, could give you more grief than a broken back.
Moriarity was right. They knew I was there before I did. It was time to move on. I rolled down my sleeves, pulled up my tie, put on my suit jacket and gray fedora, and headed down into Culhane Land.
The road took me down the hill and into town in front of the city park. Up close, the town was just as charming and quaint as it was from afar. It was also eerie. The street gutters were spotless-no leaves, candy wrappers, or cigarette butts. A Mexican smoking a stogie was sitting on a park bench next to a wheeled refuse can with a push broom resting in it, waiting to sweep up anything alien that might hit the pavement.
Down at the city docks, to the delight of a bunch of small children, two bronze fishermen were hauling a large swordfish from the stern of a cabin cruiser. Several older citizens were holding down canvas beach chairs under red-and-white-striped umbrellas that lined the edge of the wharf; some were reading books or dozing, others were gazing out across the bay as if they expected the Queen Mary to come steaming into the harbor at any minute. A small arrow-shaped sign with private beach printed on it was at the edge of the pier pointed northward.
The black block letters on the marquee of the Ritz theater, a two-story adobe building painted bright yellow, advertised The Road to Zanzibar with Hope, Crosby, and Lamour, and selected short subjects, “Shows at 3, 7, 9”; and the windowed one-sheets across the face of the theater told me that The Ziegfeld Girl and In the Navy with Abbott and Costello were coming soon.
It was a warm day, on the muggy side, but a cool breeze wafted across the bay, stirring the eucalyptus trees that spotted the city park and bringing the heat down a couple of degrees. There was a festive air about the place. Red, white, and blue balloons bobbed in the wind from shrubs and park benches; up near the main street men were setting up grills and ice-laden chests. A couple of sandwich boards spotted through the park invited one and all to enjoy hot dogs, soft drinks, and watermelon at a noontime picnic, courtesy of the Culhane for Governor Committee. The word free in bright red capital letters adorned the top and bottom of the boards. Culhane was upstaging the Fourth of July by a month.
The spired building facing the theater across the park was the municipal building. The big clock on the facade of the spire told me it was 11:10. The black Pontiac was maybe three blocks behind me. I turned right on the main street, which was called Ocean Boulevard. Quaint. It was paved with cobblestones and the streetlights were old-fashioned gas lamps. After that, the town got kind of creepy, as if George Orwell had come up with the concept and Norman Rockwell had hired the architect so he could do the Saturday Evening Post cover.
I was heading north on Ocean Boulevard with the big-money hotel behind me and another park several blocks ahead. The theater and Wendy’s Diner filled the block on my left. A pleasant-looking, three-story hotel called the San Pietro Inn was on my right. It also filled the entire block. An old-fashioned bar called Rowdy’s Watering Hole held down the north corner of the hotel.
After that and for the next eleven blocks, the street on both sides was a succession of stores, all built hard against each other, varying only slightly in height, width, and color: gray with white trim, pale blue with dark blue trim, green and white, white and green, and so on. There were two basic designs: gabled roof and flat roof. And they came in three sizes: small, medium, and large. They offered everything from a tobacconist and a record store to a jeweler and a restaurant advertising delicious home cooking. In between were a haberdashery, confectionary, shoe store, bookstore, newsstand, deli, pharmacy, soda fountain, children’s shoe store; more services than 2,000 people could need or want. And just one of each kind. No competition here, except for restaurants, bars, and banks.
The exceptions to this architectural deja vu were four banks and the library, each of which were brick and commandeered an entire block. They stood out like mausoleums stand out among tombstones.
The other park formed the northern perimeter of the town. I checked the rearview. Mutt and Jeff were a block behind me. I pulled into the tiny parking lot next to the library and stopped. They stopped. A block away, in the middle of the street. I pulled out and turned left, drove back past them and went to the municipal building, parked by the curb, and went up a half-dozen wide, deep steps into the building.
It was sturdily built, its thick walls holding the heat at bay. A long, wide hallway led straight through the interior. To the right were the D.A.’s office, the judge’s sanctuary, and the courtroom. To the left were the police department and city jail. On the second floor were the municipal offices and the council’s meeting room.
At the end of the hall on the right was Culhane’s office. I decided to play it dumb, as if I had never heard of Culhane or anything else about San Pietro county. I wanted the chance to meet the man and size him up face-to-face.
I went through a glass-paneled door and came head-on to a hefty, pleasant-looking Hispanic woman in a blue police uniform, sitting behind a counter that ran almost the full length of the big room. She had a deputy’s badge pinned over an ample breast, was smoking a thin cigarillo, and looked like she could handle herself just fine in any situation. A small nameplate told me her name was Rosalind Hernandez. Behind her in the corner was the switchboard, commandeered by a skinny little white lady in a plain cotton dress, who looked over her shoulder at me with a bored stare of mild disdain.
There was a small gate at the end of the counter and a door on the opposite wall, which I assumed led back to the squad room and jail. Also on the wall were two large, color photographs, one of FDR, the other of the governor, separated by a large American flag, which hung vertically almost to the floor. On the wall to my right a large, round Seth Thomas ticked forlornly as the second hand whiled away the time.
Hernandez looked at me and arched her eyebrows as a way of greeting me. I laid my card in front of her.
She read it, turned it over, turned it back, laid it on the counter, and tapped it with a finger.
“What can I do for you, Sergeant?” she asked with authority.
“Is the sheriff available?” I asked with a smile.
“No, sir,” she said. “And he goes by captain, not sheriff. Captain Culhane.” She said it in her official tone, without a trace of an accent. She looked up at the clock. “I expect he’ll come back about five to twelve and make a pass at the gent’s before he goes out to greet the voters.”
“In that case I’ll just wait over at the picnic,” I said. “Would you give him my card? Tell him I need a word or two with him?”
She looked at a blue-covered log book, traced down the entries with a finger, and said, “No appointment?”
“Afraid not,” I said.
She gave me another once-over and nodded. “I’ll tell him.”
“Thank you. I’ll catch up with him at the picnic.”
“Good luck on that,” she said, and settled back to listen to the clock tick.
I drove back to the other end of town to the Pacific National Bank. The list Millicent’s mousy assistant had prepared for me told me that Ben Gorman was president and manager. There was a large parking lot behind the bank. A black 1933 Pierce-Arrow limousine was parked near a rear entrance, and the chauffeur was leaning against the wall beside the door, having a smoke. I got out and went around to the front door. There was a plaque beside the twin eight-foot, brass-trimmed doors that told me: founded by elijah gorman, eureka, california, 1895.
When I entered the bank, I looked down the length of the main room to what seemed to be the big shot’s office. It was on the left, a corner office about the size of Soldier’s Field. A secretary was seated at a walnut desk, talking into a cradle phone. A tall, slender-faced man in a checked jacket was framed in the half-open door behind her, talking to someone I couldn’t see. He looked at me as I came in and pushed the door shut. I walked back to the secretary’s desk and she cupped her hand over the mouthpiece.
“Can I help you?” she asked, trying to be pleasant and not doing very well at it.
“Mr. Gorman, please.”
“He’s gone for the day.”
“Really? It’s not even noon yet.”
“It’s Wednesday,” she snapped at me. “And Mr. Gorman’s business is none of yours. He can leave anytime he wishes to. As you can see, I’m on the phone. Excuse me.”
I wanted to barge past her and kick open the door like Cagney might do, but instead I nodded and went back the way I came. I went around the back to my car, got in, slumped down behind the wheel, and rolled a cigarette.
The Pierce-Arrow driver finished his smoke and ditched his cigarette in a red pail filled with sand. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Then the back door opened. The driver bounced smartly over to the sedan and opened the door for the same tall, hawk-faced man I had seen in the bank. He was over six feet, with jet-black hair streaked with gray, and was smartly dressed in a black-and-yellow-checked sports coat, dark gray pants, and what appeared to be riding boots. He jumped in. As they pulled out of the lot I checked the tag. bg1.
I left the lot by the rear driveway onto Presidio Drive, a short street between Ocean Boulevard and the waterfront. In the rearview mirror, I saw the black Pontiac ease from behind a parked car and drop in behind me. I decided to play a little game with my shadows. I drove past the rear of the First Bank and Trust of San Pietro, turned left onto Ocean, doubled back the way I had come, passed the bank, and turned down an alley next to it. I parked, went in the bank, stood inside the door, and watched the Pontiac park on the other side of the street.
According to my list, the head knocker here was Andrew McBurney. This time I showed my credentials to a small, blond woman with a toothy smile and a pleasant attitude who looked to be in her late twenties. She was chewing gum.
“My name’s Bannon,” I said, matching her smile. “I’d like a word with Mr. McBurney, please.”
“Sure,” she said. She went to the office door, stuck her nose in the door and said, “Mr. McBurney, there’s a Sergeant Bannon from the Los Angeles Police Department to see you.” I heard a muffled answer, and she turned back to me and swung the door wide.
It was a large gloomy office. All dark wood. Shades pulled halfway down. A dismal lamp on the corner of the desk in a puddle of light. The parquet floors, which had been beautiful once, were scarred and pitted as if someone had worked them over with a jackhammer.
McBurney was a short, almost bald, little Scotsman with a built-in scowl and ashen skin littered with liver spots. He was wearing a knit shirt open at the throat. His desk was a massive walnut antique that came up to his chest. The rest of him protruded from its top like the clown in a jack-in-the-box. I offered him my hand, which he took without standing and waved a hand toward a chair.
“Alright, what is it?” he asked in a no-nonsense tone.
I gave him the Verna Hicks Wilensky spiel, from the radio in the bathtub to the fact that she was intestate. He listened with a bored expression and about halfway through my presentation started drumming his fingers on the desk. Then I laid out the part about the cashier’s checks. Then I sat back and waited for a response.
“That’s it, that’s what you’re taking up my time about?” he said. “The woman’s a fool, dying without a will. And you know better than to ask something like that,” his voice now hissing like a snake. “Cashier’s checks are confidential. It’s the bank’s sacred trust not to share them with anyone. If I could, I wouldn’t show them to you. None of your goddamned business. But I can’t show them to you, Mr. whatever-your-name-is from the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s against the law. You should know that if you are who you say you are.”
I felt my blood rising. I took out my wallet, opened it, and, leaning over the desk, put it in front of him.
“I am Sergeant Bannon of the L.A.P.D., sir,” I said. “I was hoping we could finesse the state tax boys. I’m looking for a name, that’s all. The last check from this bank was dated two months ago. Certainly it wouldn’t be that hard to find.”
“Are you deaf?” he said, his voice rising. “I said I wouldn’t if I could. And I am not in the habit of finessing the state tax people. Commissioner Weatherly is a personal friend of mine. I certainly do not want to jeopardize our friendship-and violate the law.”
He slid the wallet back across the desk to me.
“Out,” he growled. He stood up. He was no more than five feet four and was wearing lime-green golf knickers, bright red kneesocks, and cleated golf shoes. He stormed past me, the shoes digging new wounds in the inlaid floor, and flung the door open.
I got up and left the office, and the door slammed at my back.
The little blond secretary stared at me open-mouthed.
“Guess he doesn’t want to go to the policeman’s ball,” I said.
“It’s Wednesday,” she said apologetically.
“That’s what Gorman’s secretary said. So what?”
“All the banks close on Wednesday at noon.” She looked at her watch. “Which is in two minutes. The big shots play golf.”
“Well, that shoots down a long trip,” I said.
“I’m truly sorry,” she offered.
“You’re sweet,” I said, and asked, “Is there a back door? I’m going down to the pier, save me some walking.”
“Follow me,” she said. “It’s the least I can do.”
She led me down a short hallway and opened the door for me.
“Sorry you wasted your day,” she said. “If you stay over, come back tomorrow, maybe he’ll be in a brighter mood.”
“Anybody who wears golf shoes on a floor like that will never be in a bright mood,” I said, and thanked her.
I stepped into the alley next to the bank, left my car on the opposite side of the building, walked rapidly down to Presidio, and headed for the park. When I got there, I mingled with the crowd and kept an eye out for my two shadows. They didn’t show. I got myself a hot dog, slathered it with mustard and onions, picked up a Coke, then sat down on a bench to enjoy the free lunch and wait for the captain to make his appearance.
At 12:02, a maroon Packard Super-Eight touring car drove up on Ocean Boulevard, turned into the street in front of the municipal building, and parked. A hard-looking guy with short-cut brown hair and a built-in frown got out of the driver’s seat and strolled around the car-a guy who was a stranger to a smile. Before he could get to the back door it popped open, and I got my first live look at Thomas Brodie Culhane.
He was about my height, five-ten and change, broad-shouldered, with a waist that a Gibson girl would die for. A hundred and seventy pounds, no fat, shaggy eyebrows over pale blue eyes, short-cut brown hair that a lot of sun had lightened, bronze skin over a craggy face, and a square jaw with hard muscles bunched up under his ears. He was wearing a three-piece blue gabardine suit. He peeled off his jacket, tossed it in the backseat of the car, and rolled the sleeves of his white shirt about halfway to the elbows. Then he pulled his tie knot down six inches and took it off over his head without untying it, and let it join the jacket. A gold watch fob arched from one side of his vest to the other. When he was stripped for action the driver handed him a freshly rolled cigarette, and Culhane lit it with a wooden match, which he fired with his thumb. He was wearing his shield on his belt. No gun.
He was followed by a taller man, a little beefy but not soft, with white hair and a wary, expressionless face. He wore a white linen suit with a dark blue shirt open at the collar. He fell in behind Culhane and alongside the unsmiling driver.
There was a crowd of about one hundred and fifty people already gathered, and they stood stone-still while Culhane arranged himself. Then he waved and the crowd broke into the kind of whoop-up you expect when the home team scores a winning touchdown against its archrival. Down near the pier, what I assumed was the high school band struck up “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.” They were awful. But nobody was complaining. Culhane walked across the street to the park and the crowd closed around him like water filling in behind a diver’s splash. They were waving hand-painted signs: culhane for governor, captain to the capitol, things like that. Several were waving American flags.
I remembered what Moriarity had said. Joan of Arc with a pecker. He was right about that. It was a festive occasion for a man whose life had been spent as the sheriff of a county that would fit in my glove compartment and who was getting ready to take on a couple of machine politicians who probably owned most of the state legislators in Sacramento.
He strode casually through the crowd, most of whom he obviously knew, calling kids by name, roughing up their hair, hugging the women, and shaking hands with the men. He walked in an easy lope with a touch of swagger to it. A man in control, self-assured, and cut in the heroic mold.
I stayed seated, watching his trek through the crowd. I finished my hot dog and started to roll a cigarette. That was when he saw me. He looked through the crowd and his eyes locked on me. The smile never left his lips but the eyes changed from a kind of mischievous delight to blue ice cubes. I stood up, leaned against a Monterey pine, and waited for him to come by.
It took him fifteen minutes to get there. He veered from one side of the park to the other, strolling easily through his fans and flicking a glance my way every so often. I didn’t move. I let him come to me.
I watched Culhane work his way toward me through the crowd. He didn’t look directly at me but I could tell I was fixed in his peripheral vision. He took his time closing in on me, like a snake toying with a rabbit. When he was ten feet away and still greeting his fans, I took out a wooden match as he had done and snapped it with my thumb to light my cigarette. The match broke and the top half blew away in the wind. Culhane turned and looked at me, took a match out of his vest pocket, walked over to me, snapped it afire, and cupped it against the wind.
“Allow me,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the light.
“I presume you’re Bannon.”
“Zeke Bannon,” I said, and held out my hand. He had a handshake like a gorilla’s.
“Brodie Culhane,” he said. “Call me Captain.” He had a relaxed smile. If something was bothering him he didn’t show it. He was a very cool customer and I was beginning to understand why the mere mention of his name perked up so many ears. He was in complete control of his environment and he was comfortable with that power. This was a guy who had brushed off fear in all its forms a long time ago.
“You got my card, then?” I said.
“And I’m dying of curiosity.” He rested a hand on the shoulder of the big fellow in the white suit. “This is our ex-D.A., Brett Merrill,” he said, and jerked a thumb toward the driver, “and my right-hand man, Rusty Danzig.”
He took my elbow and led me to the edge of the park, out of the crowd.
“So, what can I do for you, Sergeant?” he said when we were near the street and sheltered under a big water oak. Merrill stood nearby being as innocuous as a big man can be. Danzig patrolled the perimeter of our spot in the shade like a watchdog.
“I guess you could say I’m up here on a mission of mercy.”
“Oh?” he said lazily, while smiling at someone passing by. “That’s stalwart of you.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know a woman named Verna Hicks, would you? Her married name’s Wilensky. Probably left here in the mid twenties. I was hoping to find a parent or family of some kind.”
He stared at me, almost bemused.
“That’s twenty years ago, more or less.”
“I take a great deal of pride in knowing everybody in this domain,” he said. “But I am at an age where fifteen years ago might as well be the turn of the century.” He turned to Merrill. “Name ring a bell to you, Doc? I don’t think we have anyone named Hicks in town.”
Merrill pondered a minute and shook his head. “I don’t recall anyone named Hicks ever living here.”
“What did she do?” Culhane asked.
“She got dead.”
That held his attention.
“Was she murdered?”
“What gave you that idea?”
“Your card. Bannon, central homicide…”
“Of course, right,” I said, rolling my eyes in embarrassment. “No, she slipped getting out of the bathtub and pulled her radio in on top of her.”
“My God,” Merrill said.
“Christ, what a way to go,” Culhane said, showing a modicum of concern. “How old a woman was she?”
“Her license says forty-seven.”
“You sound like you don’t believe that.”
I smiled. “Well, you know how women are about their age.”
He chuckled but said nothing. I could almost hear the cogs whirring behind his eyes. He knew there was more coming. He was waiting for the stinger.
“There’s a wrinkle to the story,” I said.
“Isn’t there always?”
“She died without a will and left a sizable estate. No survivors, no letters, nothing to indicate anything about her prior to 1924.”
“What happened in 1924?”
“She moved to L.A. Here’s the wrinkle: She worked in the tax assessor’s office making forty bucks a week. But she bought her house with cash. Her car, which is a two-year-old DeSoto, and several other cars before it, were all paid for with cash. And she had ninety-eight-plus grand in a savings account.”
He whistled low through his teeth.
“So what brings you up here?” he said, and turned and knelt to give a kid his autograph.
“The ninety-eight large. Since 1924 she’s been getting five bills a month in the form of cashier’s checks. A good many of those checks came from the banks here.”
He didn’t look up immediately. He gave the kid back his pen and stood up slowly. The blue eyes narrowed.
“I figure if we can get copies of one or two of the checks and look for the sender’s name, maybe we’ll find someone that’ll stand for a decent funeral or hire a lawyer to try and nix the state out of her inheritance.”
Nothing changed in his face. The blue eyes just stared at me. No response.
“That sounds like a missing person’s dodge,” he said after a minute crawled by. “How come a homicide cop is doing that kind of work?”
“I caught the case as I was leaving for the day,” I said. “My boss gave me a day or two to see if I could turn up anybody. He doesn’t like the tax boys any more than I do.”
“And your boss is who?”
“Lieutenant Moriarity. Dan Moriarity.”
“I may have heard that name,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Why here?” Merrill asked.
“Because most of the cashier’s checks came from the four banks here. I was hoping you might grease some rails for me. One of the bankers threw me out of his office and the other one bluffed me out.”
“McBurney called and screamed about you wanting some kind of confidential info, but he’s a gruff old bastard. He’s eighty-one and Scottish through and through. He saves minutes in a glass jar under his desk.”
It was a nice play. He was letting me know that McBurney and probably Ben Gorman had already checked in, as well as the two comics in the Pontiac. Having said it, he changed the subject.
“What do you think of our little town?” he said pleasantly.
“Very interesting,” I said. “Looks like a Norman Rockwell painting.”
“Like Rockwell, do you?”
“He’s a little too cute for my taste.”
“What is your taste, Sergeant?”
“I’m a van Gogh man.”
“Ah, so you like the new guys. I prefer the old-timers. I like Rembrandt.”
“I’m younger than you are, I never met him.”
He was enjoying the patter, like a dueler tapping epees with an opponent before the match gets serious.
“About the banks…” I started.
“Sorry,” Culhane said. “I can’t help you with that.”
“It’s against the law,” Merrill interceded in a pleasant voice with a touch of the Southeast in it. “You’d need a judge’s order.”
“And why bother?” Culhane said. “Seems to me if somebody went to all that trouble not to be found, somebody doesn’t want to be found. Just an observation.”
“Because the way it looks now, her dog, the next-door neighbors, and I are the only ones who’ll be there to drop a rose on her grave.”
“Had a dog, huh? What happened to it?”
“He’s probably sleeping under the yucca plant in my backyard.”
He gave me a slow, knowing look. His lips parted in a grin. “You got a soft streak, Bannon. Better watch it; in our business that can get you killed.”
“A guy could make a threat out of that,” I said, smiling back.
“Nah, not a chance, not in this town,” he said. “We watch over our visiting firemen.”
“That why those two heavyweights have been on my tail since I got here?”
“You noticed them, huh?”
“Well, they could have been a little more obvious. One of them could have stuck his thumb in my eye.”
“The boys don’t get much practice. There’s not much call for tail jobs in San Pietro,” he said casually.
“I’m just trying to finish off the lady’s days with a little class,” I said, getting back to the subject again.
“Sure you are,” he said. “You’re not at all interested in who’s been slipping her five C’s a month and why, are you?”
I ignored the jibe.
“So you don’t know who she is-or was?”
“I never heard that name before you mentioned it.”
“Maybe you knew her under another name.”
“That’s possible, but if I did I wouldn’t know it, now would I?”
“Well, Captain, somebody up here knew her real well.”
He gave me a long, hard stare.
“You think she was blackmailing somebody,” he drawled. It was not a question.
“It’s an option.”
“An option that doesn’t concern me.”
“A majority of those checks came from the four banks here in San Pietro.”
“Coincidence,” he said.
“I don’t believe in coincidence.”
He fell silent again. His eyes never left mine. Then an ironic smile crossed his lips.
“You really expect me to fall for that crap about poor little whoever not getting a decent send-off?” he said. “You’re up here sniffing around and annoying some substantial citizens and you haven’t got dip. When that radio cooked her, school was out. Who the hell cares what went on before? Even if she was grifting somebody, it’s immaterial now. The point is, the lady’s dead and whatever there was, if there was anything to start with, died with her. You’re acting a little like a goddamn tenderfoot. Or…” he paused a minute and raised his eyebrows until his forehead wrinkled. “Or maybe there’s something else going on in that noggin of yours.”
I could feel the muscles in my face tightening up. He was goading me. I backed off and let my pulse slow down.
“I told you what was going on,” I said, perhaps a little too softly.
“I know what you said,” he answered. He put his hands in his back pockets, with the thumbs pointing down. He very slowly paced up and down in front of me. “But you could be from Osterfelt’s camp or Bellini’s, up here nosing around to see if you can stir up a little dirt on me. Or maybe you’re planning your own little grift? Find out who was sending those checks and become the new beneficiary. See what I mean?”
“She deserves a little decency,” I said quietly. “I don’t give a damn if it’s the President of the United States; whoever was sending her that money knows her and that somebody ought to be told.”
“And you want to do the telling.”
“It’s my case. It’s my responsibility.”
He stopped pacing and just stared at me.
“Look,” I said, “maybe you could prevail on one of your banker pals to look it up and pass it on to the proper individual. You can leave me out of it.”
“It’s against the law for the banks to do that,” Merrill said. “It’s confidential information protected by state law.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to locate the judge and seek a subpoena,” I said. “What’s his name again?”
Culhane said, “I wouldn’t bother. Gus Wainwright’s got bad breath, a bad heart, the gout, and his brain’s missing about half its gray matter.”
“Actually,” Merrill said, “the banks are federal now. You need a United States judge.”
“All for a dog and a coffin,” Culhane said, shaking his head.
“I guess the nearest judge would be Homer Jennings over in Santa Maria,” I said. “He’s usually cooperative with the police.”
Culhane’s face changed an iota. The eyes, which had softened up a bit, went dead again. The muscles in his jaw tightened and loosened.
“There’s nothing you can learn in San Pietro,” he said sharply.
“I’ve got a job to do, Captain. I’m going to keep at it.”
“You do what you have to do, Sergeant Bannon,” he said. “I’ve got constituents to talk to. Have a nice trip back to Los Angeles.”
He turned and went about his business.
I looked at my feet as if expecting to see the gauntlet he had just thrown down, but there was nothing underfoot except the emerald grass.
I watched him stroll away, working the crowd, then I walked around the corner to Wendy’s Diner and had a grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwich and an egg cream. My two friends appeared out of nowhere and parked across the street.
While I was eating, I pondered the discussion with Culhane. He knew who I was, knew I’d been to see the little Scot, probably had talked to Gorman. Now he knew why I was there and he didn’t believe the funeral story for a minute. He was a hard-boiled egg covered with sweet chocolate and he had just given me my walking papers.
I was also thinking about the events that coincided with Verna Hicks’s departure from San Pietro, if indeed she had ever been here. I didn’t have a thing. All I really knew was that Buck Tallman had been killed two or three years before Verna Hicks had shown up in L.A. Hard to make a connection there. Maybe Moriarity was right. Maybe I was spinning my wheels.
I decided to take one more shot. I walked down Ocean Boulevard and found the office of the San Pietro Sentinel, a narrow little building painted a pale yellow, with a gabled roof. There was a counter inside the front door and behind it a hot-metal typesetter, trays of fonts, and two desks littered with copy and notes, some of which had blown to the floor, prompted by a desktop Diehl fan that revolved in a half-circle aimed at the business end of the room.
A man in his late thirties, wearing gray work pants, a red-striped shirt, and a solid-blue bow tie, was working at the keyboard of the typesetter. He had a boyish face betrayed by thinning, light brown hair that grew to a widow’s peak over watery eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses. He lowered his jaw and peered at me over the rims as I entered the office.
“Yes?” he said.
“You the editor?”
He nodded. “Charlie Goodshorn; what’s your pleasure?” He had a friendly but high-pitched voice that sounded like it had never changed.
I showed him my badge. “I’m doing a little background work,” I said. “I was wondering if I might check your morgue for a span of two years or so, back in the mid twenties.”
He went back to work on his typesetting and said, “Sorry, sir, that wouldn’t be possible. I’d be glad to help you but I can’t.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “See that scorch mark down the wall?”
There was a jagged streak down the wall the color of hot chocolate, with arteries spreading out to the left and right of it.
“Lightning hit us hard four years ago. We saved this side of the office, but the building next door took a beating. What wasn’t burned was so waterlogged we had to throw everything away. All our files and back issues were lost.”
He finished what he was working on and spun around on his stool and leaned forward, hands on his knees.
“Was it something in particular?” he asked.
“How long have you been editor?” I asked.
“Since my dad died in 1933. I was working for the Denver Post. Really liked Denver but somebody had to take over the business.”
“You a weekly?”
“We went to five days a week two years ago.”
“Is it working for you?”
“Glad to hear it. I was interested in the Buck Tallman shooting. You weren’t working here then, were you?”
He chuckled. “I was delivering papers back then. I know about the event but what I remember you could put in a thimble.”
Another bust. I thanked him and started out the door.
“Tell you somebody who might give you a hand on that.”
“Who would that be?”
“Barney Howland. He wrote for the paper for years and also shot pictures. He likes a taste every now and then, but when he’s sober he has quite a memory. Likes to talk, too.”
“How would I find him?”
“He’s on Third Avenue just off February.”
“February’s a street?”
Goodshorn laughed. “The streets are named for the months of the year,” he said. “Twelve streets, twelve months. Easy to remember.”
“Thanks, Mr. Goodshorn.”
“Want me to give him a call, see if he’s in and willing to stand for an interview?”
“That would be a help.”
He had an old-fashioned stand-up phone and he pulled it over, lifted the receiver and dialed a number, and waited for a moment or two. “Gladys? It’s Charlie down at the Sentinel… Just fine, thank you, and you?… That’s just wonderful. Is Barney about? Would you please tell him there’s a gentleman here from the Los Angeles police who would like a word with him? Uh-huh. Alright, I’ll send him on over. His name is…” He looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
“Mr. Bannon. Thanks, dear.” He hung up and said, “He’s waiting for you.”
“I appreciate that, Charlie.”
“My pleasure,” he said with a smile.
For a newspaperman, he had a remarkable lack of curiosity.
I left the news office, walked half a block to a drugstore, and invested six bits in a pint of Jack Daniel’s Black Label. Then I crossed the street, walked down to the bank, and retrieved my car. There was no profit to be made trying to dodge my two shadows, so I started the car and waited until they drifted down past the bank. Then I pulled away and circled the block and pulled in behind them. I tailed them for ten or fifteen minutes as they tried to figure out how to get behind me again. Finally they pulled over and stopped. I pulled over and stopped. We sat for a while. I rolled a cigarette and lit up. I watched them, through their rear window, discussing the situation.
They decided to make their move. The Pontiac suddenly lurched ahead past the library and screamed around the corner to the right. I pulled up to the edge of the library and watched them through the trees. They drove up beside the park and turned right again at the next street. I gave them thirty seconds and then followed, pulled slowly down to the street they had turned into, and looked. They were turning back to the right, circling the block. I went straight ahead and turned left at the next street. I was on Third. I drove as hard as I could without endangering anyone. The next cross street was February.
I slowed down and stopped at the third house, a pleasant, one-story, wood-frame bungalow tucked into the quiet street three blocks off Ocean Boulevard. A black Olds that had seen better days was parked in the driveway, and a large collie lay in the front yard, sleeping in the shade of the oak tree it was leashed to. I went to the front door, and seeing no bell, opened the screen door and knocked on the glass. A moment later the door was opened by a pleasant little woman. She looked to be in her sixties with skin leathered by the sun and gray locks bunched in a hairnet.
“Yes; are you the gentleman from Los Angeles?”
I showed her my credentials. “I’m Bannon from the L.A. Police Department. Mr. Goodshorn called about me.”
“Is something wrong?” she said, stepping back and swinging the door wide.
“No,” I said, entering the foyer. “I’m working on a civil case involving a woman who may have lived here at one time.”
“Oh my, I rather doubt it. We’ve been in this house since before the war.”
“No, not here in this house, in San Pietro.”
She bunched up her shoulders and giggled. “How silly of me. It’s this way.” She led me down a narrow hall to a basement door, opened it, and called out, “Barnard, someone to see you.”
“Who is it?” he yelled back.
“A gentleman from the police in Los Angeles,” she answered, pronouncing Angeles with a hard g.
“Well, show him down, Gladys,” Howland answered in a gruff voice. “I’m not gonna come up there and carry him down.”
She nodded down a tight wooden staircase to the cellar, which was dark and smelled of mildew. Barnard Howland was sitting in a far corner, in a makeshift office. A desk, two chairs, a typing stand supporting an old, upright Royal, and half a dozen file cabinets lined up against the wall. A single light hung from the ceiling over the desk. A small, oblong window provided the only other light. Howland was a small man tucked into a wasted frame. The loose flesh of his face was creased by the years, and strands of white hair hung from under a green eyeshade pulled down over his forehead. I guessed he had been a handsome man in earlier years, but time and booze had eroded his looks and now he just looked like a crotchety old curmudgeon. He was wearing a shapeless pair of wool tweeds, a white shirt buttoned to the top, no tie, and a vest that was hanging open. He peered up at me through indolent, brown eyes over the top of a pair of wire-rimmed half-glasses that had slid halfway down his nose.
“Barney Howland,” he said in a cracked and rheumy voice, and offered me a hand that trembled slightly. “Pardon me for not getting up. At my age, I’d rather not use up that much energy for formalities.”
“Zeke Bannon,” I said with my friendliest smile, and showed him my credentials. He pulled my wallet a little closer and stared at it through the glasses.
“Sergeant, eh? Homicide yet. Well.” His eyes brightened a bit, and he straightened up slightly and waved me to the other chair. “What’s goin’ on? We don’t have many homicides up here anymore, not since the good old days. Now it’s silly stuff, y’know. Wives hitting their husbands over the head with a skillet for fartin’ at the dinner table.” He leaned forward and said with confidentiality, “A love-nest slaying occasionally. Wrong shoes under the bed; know what I mean?” He winked.
“It does seem like a well-mannered town,” I said.
“Well-mannered,” he sniffed contemptuously. “I like that. Hell, you can get a ticket for not cutting the goddamn lawn often enough. Now back in the twenties when it was Eureka, it was one hell of a place. Wide-open gambling, whores wiggling their little asses up and down Ocean Boulevard, loan sharks, bookies, bad boys running the town. Hell, we had a shooting a week, sometimes a couple. It was like Dodge City, for crissakes. Ever hear of Buck Tallman? Deputy for Wyatt Earp back when the West was the West. He was our sheriff. Wore a gun belt down on his hip with a. 44 Peacemaker, a Stetson with sweat stains around the brim. Hah, now there was a real man. Nobody screwed with old Buck. Why, it took four two-bit gangsters to bring him down and all four went down with him.”
As he spoke, my eyes grew accustomed to the limited light. Behind him on the wall were several framed Sentinel front pages, streaked and yellowed with age.
“I’ve heard about him,” I said. “Wasn’t he killed in the Grand View House massacre?”
“Heard about that, have ya?” He puffed out his chest as much as he could, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the framed mementos. “That was my story. I covered all the good ones. Shot my own pictures, too. Had a darkroom back there behind the furnace. There’s my old four-by-five.” He pointed to a battered Speed Graphic sitting on a Coca-Cola crate in the corner. “Old Snapper never failed me.”
I got up, walked over to the framed pages, and strained my eyes to read them. The old man stood up and swung the light toward the wall. There were three of them.
The lamp threw a slash of light across the yellowed front page of one of the papers. A teaser line said: a tragedy at grand view.
Under it, the headline: sheriff tallman, deputy, slain in gunfight.
And under it, the subhead: four mobsters also die in hail of lead.
A four-column photograph accompanied the story, showing hospital attendants wheeling a sheeted body from the Victorian mansion; and beside it, a two-column vertical shot of the slain lawman.
On the other side, a three-column story headlined:
Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of murder
Under it, another story about an auto wreck and some other stories.
The photo of Tallman showed him hands on hips, handlebar mustache accenting a hawk nose, tight belly cinched in by the gun belt slung from his hip, cowboy boots adding two inches to his height. He looked every bit the photos and drawings of gunfighters I had pored over in dime novels when I was a kid.
“So that’s Buck Tallman,” I said.
“Every inch a man,” Howland said in his creaky voice. “Loved the ladies, loved children, hated the black hats. Every Fourth of July he’d have a showdown on the beach. Quick-drawing, keeping tin cans hopping in the air. The kids’d crowd around him getting autographs, and he with that smile would make flowers bloom. Hell, I still miss him after all these years.”
“That was what year, the year of the shooting?”
“September of 1920.”
“Culhane was involved in that, wasn’t he?”
“Got in at the end of it. Him and Buck shot the last one down and then Buck fell dead.”
I went back to my chair, took out the pint of Jack Daniel’s, and put it on the desk in front of him. His eyes got young for a moment. He chuckled, and stared at the bottle.
“You must be psychic.”
“I never knew a good newshound who didn’t appreciate a taste now and then,” I said.
He looked at me and his eyes narrowed a hair.
“So what is it you want?”
“I want to know what wasn’t in the papers.”
“You’re not working for one of those crooks running against Brodie, are you, son? Looking under beds and what have you?”
“No, sir. I’m trying to get a line on a woman named Verna Hicks, who may have lived here back in the twenties.”
“She died night before last. Slipped getting out of the bathtub and her radio fell in with her and cooked her. I’m trying to locate a relative or somebody who might have known her. She was a widow, no kids.”
“So why do you want to know about Grand View?”
“You shook my curiosity. You know cops, we just naturally want to know the backside of the story.”
He turned the bottle of Jack Daniel’s slightly so he could read the label, and studied it with the kind of affection one usually associates with a grandfather looking at his granddaughter for the first time. His tongue swept his lower lip. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and took out two old-fashioned glasses. They were dusty, with streaks of dried amber on the bottom.
“Hope you don’t mind a dirty glass,” he said. “My wife’s temperance. Be chancy taking them up to the kitchen to wash them.”
“I’m sure old Jack’ll kill anything that might be lurking in those two glasses.”
He worked the top off the bottle, splashed a generous slug in both glasses, and slid one across the desk to me.
“Here’s to Bucky,” he said, offering his glass. I clinked it and took a sip, trying to avoid a dead fly that floated to the top. Howland took a long whiff of the whiskey, then drained half his glass and let it linger in his mouth for a few seconds and pursed his lips before swallowing it, then leaned his head back, stared at the ceiling, closed his eyes, said, “godamighty damn,” and sighed passionately. He sat back up, stared at the half-full glass, nodded slowly, and said with awe, “The hell with you, Seagram’s Seven.”
He put the top back on the bottle and slid it to me.
“It’s yours,” I said.
His smile was all the thanks I needed. He opened the bottom drawer and slid the bottle under a telephone book.
“What was that lady’s name again?” he asked.
“Her married name was Verna Wilensky. You might have known her as Verna Hicks. Would have been in her mid twenties in 1920. Brown hair, little on the plump side, five-two or five-three. Probably good with numbers; she was in the tax assessor’s office down in L.A.”
I took out the two pictures and showed them to him. The blown-up shot from the newspaper was too grainy and unfocused to be of much use, and the shot from Bones’s lab was grotesque at best. He took a look and then stared at me. “I couldn’t recognize my mother from these,” he said. “That’s a long time ago, son.”
He took the phone book out, flicked through the pages to the h ’s, and ran his finger down the page. “No Hicks listed. And the name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“It narrows the field to none.”
His laugh turned into a cough. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth. “So you wanna know about that night at Grand View, huh? Well, Bucky was sheriff and Brodie was his chief deputy. Bucky and Culhane were good friends. Brodie was a hero in the big war. I think he was born about 1882 or ’83, thereabouts, so he was in his thirties. Bucky was probably sixty although nobody but Buck knew how old he really was. Older’n God.
“Like I said before, the town was wide open back then. Through the years, all the action had attracted the bad element. Arnie Riker ran the criminal side of things. His sidekick was Tony Fontonio. Both of them nasty to the core. Culhane was for facing-off with them, running them out of town; but Bucky was more the live-and-let-live kind. He figured you keep your finger on them, slap ’em in the cooler if they got out of hand, things’d be alright. See, a lot of people were making money off the trade, and Bucky, he had worked the law in places like Tombstone and Silver City. Hell, he was used to dealing with gunslingers, rustlers, back shooters; Riker was a pansy in his book.”
He rambled on, about how Bucky and Culhane controlled the bootlegging to make sure the town got decent hooch during Prohibition; how Culhane hated Riker and Fontonio with a passion; how Riker walked a thin line to keep on the good side of Buck Tallman.
“The trouble came when Riker decided to take a cut of the Grand View House action. You been up there?”
I shook my head.
“Delilah O’Dell owns it. It was in her family. Delilah went to Europe, to the best schools, had it in gold. Then Shamus and Kate O’Dell went down on the Lusitania. Delilah was always a heller. Favored her father in that respect. She came back and opened up a fancy house. I guess you knew that.”
He took a sip of whiskey, savored it for a minute, and went on.
“A very fancy house. Movie stars came up there, still do. Tom Mix and Buck Jones were regulars. I hear Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, David Niven, all that bunch still come up for a breather between pictures. There’s a little gambling parlor on the first floor in the back. Poker pots can run as high as a thousand bucks. Delilah runs it like it’s the Ritz. Beautiful women, great food, the best of everything. Some of our leading citizens occasionally slipped through the side door. And still do.”
He stopped and laughed. “Delilah could own this town if she ever threatened to write a book,” he said around a chuckle. “But she’s a classy lady. Would never happen.”
“So what happened that night?”
“It was never proved, but the story went that Riker decided to make a major play. He brings in four tough gunmen headed by a real dangerous hooligan named McGurk, and they go up to Grand View to tell Delilah she has to kick a percentage back to Riker.”
“Riker?” I said. “He’s the one got gas for a murder?”
“Yeah, a year or so later. So anyway, Bucky is upstairs in Delilah’s apartment having a coffee, which he usually does during the evening. His deputy, Andy Sloan, is downstairs, keeping an eye on things, when they come in. Delilah comes to the head of the stairs and wants to know what’s going on, and McGurk tells her to come down and talk. At that point, Bucky enters the picture. He goes down the stairs and gets nose-to-nose with one of McGurk’s boys. I think his name was Red something-or-other, and Buck tells him where to go and how to get there. There’s some back-and-forth, then just like that, Red pulls his pistol and shoots Bucky in the stomach, and all hell breaks loose. There were forty-two bullet holes in the walls, furniture, and the men in the room. Poor old Andy gets his head blown off and he goes down. Only McGurk gets out of the place. He runs into the street with two bullets in him, and here comes Brodie Culhane in his Ford and drops him with a single shot in the eye. Brodie was a Marine marksman in the war, won a bunch of medals. He’s not a flashy shot like Buck, he’s a deadeye. Then Brodie goes into the house, and one of Riker’s guys is still standing. He and Bucky are twenty feet apart on opposite sides of the room, both full of lead. Bam, bam, bam. Brodie and Buck both finish off the last of Riker’s gunmen, but he gets one last shot off and it finishes Buck. According to both Delilah and Culhane, his last words were, ‘Just my luck, killed in a whorehouse.’ And he falls dead. Delilah was the only witness to the gunfight, and Culhane and Delilah are the only ones left when it’s over.”
He lifted his glass, drained the last drop of Black Jack, and licked what was left off his lips.
“And that’s what happened that night at Grand View. Everybody knew Riker was behind it, but no way to prove it.”
I slid his glass over and poured the rest of my drink in his glass.
“I’m driving back to L.A. tonight,” I said. “You finish this.”
“I can’t hit it too hard, myself. I get a little giddy, she’ll catch wise,” he said, taking the bottle out of the drawer. “How about pouring it back in the bottle for me. I got a touch of the palsy.” He opened a jar of Black Crows and offered me one.
“No thanks,” I said, “I never had a taste for licorice.”
“Kills the smell,” he said. “Gladys has a nose like a foxhound.”
I took one, rolled it into my cheek, and let it sit there while I poured half a glass of Jack Daniel’s back in the bottle. He chewed his up and took another.
I took out the makings and offered to roll him a cigarette, but he shook his head. “Had to quit, gave me the cough. But go ahead, I still love the smell.”
“So that was all in the papers,” I said, rolling a butt. “What wasn’t?”
“After it was all over, some rumors started. Riker probably started them but there were enough gossips around to spread the stories. The men on the Hill formed the county council, named Culhane sheriff, and he ran for the office about six months later. His promise was to clean up San Pietro. A lot of people didn’t want to see the town dry up and go legal. The story goin’ ’round was that Bucky was still alive when they both shot that last goon. Then Culhane turned his gun on Buck and finished him off. Anyway, that was all bull, just a story made up by the black hats who knew their days were numbered. The rich boys on the Hill wanted the town cleaned up and Culhane was lined up with them.”
“How about Delilah?”
“Delilah laughs it off. Anyway, with Buck out of the way, Culhane was the man to dance with.”
“Is there any truth to this?”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” he said. “Besides, only two people know for sure what happened that night, Culhane and Delilah. You got to accept their word. And Culhane did what he promised. He and Brett Merrill, the D.A., sent Riker up to the gas chamber for killing Wilma Thompson. Riker claimed he was framed and some people believed him.”
He shook his head as he leaned over and took a deep whiff of my smoke.
“The evidence was overwhelming. Riker had a thing for the girl. He had no alibi. Her blood was in his car, in his boat, and all over him. And there were two eyewitnesses. A girl named Lila Parrish and her date, a soldier. Later, Riker appealed the case and his sentence was commuted to life without parole. Last I heard, he was still up in Folsom dancing to the piper.”
I tapped an ash off my cigarette and shook my head. “Any other scandals?” I asked.
“There was the thing with Eddie Woods.”
“Who’s Eddie Woods?”
“Ex-cop, one of Brodie’s best. Flashy dresser and a kind of ladies’ man. After Riker was sent up, Fontonio took over the mob. He was the last straw. Culhane was determined to get rid of him and shut down the town. Woods shot Tony Fontonio. Eddie went to his apartment to deliver a subpoena. He says Fontonio went for a gun and he plugged him. But Fontonio’s bodyguards, his wife, and some legit people in town all said Fontonio never carried a gun. The attorney general called for an investigation, but Eddie resigned and Brett nol-prossed the case and that was the end of that.”
I went back over to the front pages. One of them featured a 36-point banner headline, boxed in black: president harding dead at 57
The story ran down the left-hand side of the page. On the right, under it, in slightly smaller type: riker murder trial goes to jury
There was a fuzzy picture of Wilma Thompson, a slender blonde in a nondescript dress, wearing a coy smile, with the ocean forming a vista behind her. The picture of Lila Parrish didn’t help much. She was rushing away from the courthouse and hidden behind the soldier. Short, dark-haired, nice figure.
The picture of Eddie Woods surprised me. I had expected a beefy, tough-looking cop; what I saw was a kid, maybe twenty-three or twenty-four, with a cocky grin and a pencil-thin mustache, which was the rage in those days. He was a flashy dresser, wearing a checked suit and a dark tie, and was standing in front of the municipal building.
And in the lower right corner, this: ex-mobster rodney guilfoyle elected mayor of mendosa
With a picture of a burly, hard-looking galoot in a light-colored, three-piece suit, a cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth, and his thumbs tucked into the pockets of his vest.
“Who’s this guy Guilfoyle?” I asked.
“That’s a real irony, that page. After Fontonio was killed, the third man in line was Guilfoyle. He left and took what remained of Riker’s gang down the road to Mendosa. It’s about twenty-five miles south of here, in Pacifica County. Then all the joints moved down there with him. You probably heard of it, people call it ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ after that outlaw gang because there’s so many crooks down there.”
“Can’t say as I have,” I said. “Is he still alive?”
“Oh yeah, and it’s still a wide-open town. Guilfoyle was mayor for two or three terms and then he ran for sheriff. Still is.”
“What’s Culhane think of that?”
“They hate each other. Have for years. Guilfoyle’s a killer-or has people who do it for him. But they each stay on their own side of the county line.”
“Mr. Howland, thanks for the history lesson,” I said. “You’re one helluva storyteller, but I’ve got to be going.”
“Sorry I couldn’t help you about the Hinks girl.”
“It’s Hicks,” I said.
“Right, Hicks. Come back again. I enjoyed the visit.” He patted the drawer and smiled. “And Jack thanks you.”
“Anytime,” I said.
It was five o’clock when I left Howland’s house. The black Pontiac wasn’t waiting for me. The maroon Packard was.
The heavyset chauffeur was leaning on the front fender, rolling a cigarette as usual. When he saw me come out, he wiggled a finger at me and opened the rear door. I walked over to the car and looked in at Culhane.
“Hello again,” he said in a gravelly but pleasant voice. “Hop in.”
I looked around. The streets were empty.
“Don’t worry, I won’t shoot you.” He laughed.
“What about my car?”
“Couldn’t be safer,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna heist it, not in this town.”
I crawled in and sank to my hips in an elegant, maroon velvet backseat. The plush floor carpeting belonged in somebody’s living room. The car had push-button windows, a radiophone, an Atwater-Kent radio built into the back of the front passenger seat with four loudspeakers in back and two in the front, and a small cubbyhole, which held a bottle of Irish Mist, four highball glasses, and a small, hammered silver ice bucket.
“Very plush,” I said patting the seat. “Where’s the bathtub, in the trunk?”
He chuckled. Okay, pal, I thought, just what is your game? It didn’t take long to find out.
“We got off on the wrong foot,” he said. “I’m sorry; you’re just doing your job.”
“What about all that paranoia: I’m snooping for your competition, I’m trying to set up my own grift…?”
“Forget I said it.”
“Okay, it’s forgotten.”
“I got an hour to kill,” he said, “I thought I’d give you the twenty-five-cent tour.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ve seen the village. We’re going up on the Hill.”
“What’s the Hill?”
“It’s where the money hides,” he said.
He rested his right ankle on his left knee and took out an old-fashioned gold pocket watch. Culhane snapped it open and checked the time, and said to the driver, “We got some time, Rusty, take the scenic route.” And to me, “You don’t have an appointment right now, do you?”
“I don’t know, my date book’s back in the car.”
Culhane laughed. “You got one for every occasion, don’t you, Cowboy.”
We drove around the park. Two small kids were on the swings. They were swinging in opposite directions and ducking every time they passed each other. An elderly gent was standing next to the slide, gently trying to coax his granddaughter, who was sitting on the top rung and hanging on for dear life, into sliding down. More Norman Rockwell stuff. Cheery little robots having the time of their lives.
“By the way, are my boys doing any better?” Culhane asked. “I had a talk with them.”
“I got behind them and dogged the Pontiac for a while,” I said. “In case you’re interested, I’m not planning to litter the sidewalk or rob a bank. Why the hell am I getting the squeeze?”
“You’ve had a curious effect on some of our most substantial citizens.”
“You’ve already told me that. I’m just doing my job.”
“You sticking with that story about burying the widow?”
I sighed. “What would suit you better: I needed a day out of town because the weather’s been awful? Incidentally, speaking of banks, I find it interesting that there are four of them in a town this size. I would think one, two at the most, would be sufficient.”
“A lot of very rich people live up here,” he said as we approached the Hill. “They like to own a piece of the institution they bank with.”
“And if there aren’t enough pieces they start their own?”
“That’s the way it plays.”
We slowed down as we approached a steel gate as imposing as the Great Wall of China. The uniformed gateman stooped over and saluted Culhane as we drove through to enter a natural greenhouse. Trees shouldered the road and formed a wall between the street and the residences, all of them shielded by the foliage.
“I’m sorry I can’t help you with that bank thing,” he said. “I called a couple of bank people and they are adamant about not showing those checks without a subpoena.”
“I didn’t have any trouble in L.A.”
“You’re more sophisticated down there. We’re just country folks.”
He said this as we passed mansions and estates, hidden back from the road among pines, live oaks, cypress trees, and eucalyptus. The lawns were manicured and bordered with flowers, all open in all their glory: yellow daffodils, roses, sword lilies, begonias, daisies as big as a spare tire. Occasionally, there was a car parked under a porte cochere or sitting in the driveway. Through the foliage I spotted a four-seat Mercedes convertible, a Rolls, two Lincoln touring cars, and a Stutz. The houses were even more impressive. No two were alike; every kind of architecture imaginable was represented in this discreet but elegant neighborhood.
The road wound its way to the top of the foothill, where it traveled along the ridge with the town spread out below us. A silver Duesenberg roared past. I glimpsed the driver, a dark-haired fellow wearing a navy blue golfer’s tam cocked over one eye. A mile later, as the road turned back into the trees, we passed a gate that led to a Tudor-styled, three-story, brick-and-beamed manor. It dominated the ridge and was about two hundred yards back from the road, sitting on about twenty acres of property. The third floor had steepled and stained-glass windows. The gate was open and a black Pierce-Arrow was sitting beside the house, in front of the matching garage, in a turnaround as big as a baseball diamond. The hired man slowly rubbed wax deep into its already sparkling finish. Behind the house, the crest rolled down and away from the house to a paddock and pasture, and half a mile or so beyond it, at the foot of the cliffs, was the Pacific Ocean, looking as serene and placid as a fish pond.
“Nice little place,” I said.
“That’s the Gorman estate,” he answered.
“He’s the one who wasn’t at the bank when I went calling, then walked out after I left, and drove off in that Pierce-Arrow.”
“He plays golf every afternoon,” Culhane said, and not apologetically. “That was him in the Duesenberg on his way to the club.”
“He’s got lousy manners.”
“Nobody invited you to go in his bank,” Culhane said, snuffing out his cigarette.
“He doesn’t strike me as the sort who would worry too much about the confidentiality of a bunch of checks that were addressed to a woman who is now dead.”
“You have to get to know this community,” Culhane said. “Then maybe you’ll understand.”
“You mean they’re all so goddamned rich they’re innately rude?”
He threw me a sideways glance but made no response to that.
“What are we doing up here, Captain?”
“I just told you; I’m introducing you to San Pietro. The part the tourists never see.”
“You invited me to leave town two hours ago.”
“It was a dumb thing to do. I was a little paranoid. Osterfelt and Bellini are both bottom-feeders. They’ve got their hands in most of the pockets in Sacramento. I wouldn’t put anything past them.”
“Is that why you’re running for governor?”
“I’m running for governor so I can get out of here. Except for my years in the Marines, I’ve been in San Pietro all my life. If I don’t move on now, I never will. I’m almost sixty.”
“I can understand that. It’s a cute little spot but I can see how it could get very boring after an hour or two.”
“I can beat those two bums,” he said with a touch of bitterness. “Sometimes you need leadership that hasn’t been tainted by longevity.”
“You think you can change anything up there?”
“Probably not,” he said, and grinned, “but I can sure drive the bastards crazy.”
I laughed along with him. “Hell, that makes it worthwhile, then. What makes you think you can whip a couple of ward heelers like those two?”
“Numbers,” he said. “Right now, no one’s calling the game; it’s close to fifty-fifty, with Bellini getting the edge. But those voting for Osterfelt are doing so because they think Bellini is a bigger crook. And vice versa for the Bellini voters. All I need to do is get forty percent of the voters who want an honest man, no matter who he is.”
“That’s pretty cynical.”
“That’s politics: cynicism and hypocrisy. It doesn’t require anything but a quick tongue and a big grin. It certainly doesn’t require intelligence or honesty.”
As we came around a bend in the road, the trees thinned out and I saw a house two hundred feet back on the right. It was a three-story, classic Victorian, at the end of a pebbled drive lined on both sides with sandford hedges. There were a scattering of avocado trees interspersed with tall, slender Roman pines behind the hedgerow. I couldn’t tell what was to the right of the drive behind the hedgerow, but there was a lot of land back there.
The gate was ornate and impressive, ten feet of black iron, with curlicues and spirals to make it seem less imposing. They didn’t work. The gate said “keep out” in no uncertain terms, but just in case the message didn’t come across, the fence adjoining it was an eight-footer with spikes at the top of the stanchions. A guardhouse at one corner of the fence completed the picture. The gates were open.
“Can we slow down a minute?” I asked.
Rusty stopped the car and I lowered the window on my side.
The house was white with pale blue trim and had five towering gables across the front. There was a twelve-foot, arched porte cochere, with beveled supports, over the entrance. The door was leaded glass. Even at two hundred feet, its facade shimmered with prismed light. The drive separated about seventy-five feet from the entrance and circled into it, forming a grass island, in the center of which was a small nude statue of a Greek goddess holding a tilted jar. Water poured from it into the small pond at her feet. There was an adjunct to the road that led straight from the covered entrance into what I assumed was a parking lot south of the mansion.
I had seen the place from the other side of the basin and knew it had a broad lawn in the rear that ended at the edge of cliff that dropped straight into the Pacific.
I was guessing there were at least fifteen bedrooms above the first floor. The main floor probably had a library, billiard room, dining room, living room, and whatever other cubbyholes were necessary to let rich people know the owner was richer. Behind the mansion, far out over the Pacific, the sky was black with storm clouds forming on the horizon. About halfway down the drive a gray rabbit stuck its head out of the hedge, looked around, and started to hop to the other side. It stopped suddenly, turned, its feet kicking up stones, and bolted back to safety moments ahead of a speckled hawk that swept across the road, its claws distended, and then pulled up sharply over the hedgerow.
No other name but Grand View would have fit.
It made the Gorman place look like a dollhouse.
“Now that’s a sight,” I said.
But in my mind I imagined gunshots in the night; Culhane charging through these gates in his 1920 Ford; a thug named McGurk staggering out of the house and blowing out the windshield before Culhane dropped him into the hedgerow with a single shot in the eye. I imagined Culhane rushing the living room. Three more shots. A woman’s scream.
And I wondered who shot whom when those last three gunshots rang out in the night.
I sat back in the car seat.
“I’ll bet the inside of that joint would give John Jacob Astor a start,” I said.
“Cost you five bills to find out.”
He handed me one of Rusty’s freshly rolled cigarettes and we lit up. Rusty dropped the Packard into gear and pulled away. The window slid quietly up as if someone in the house had prompted it.
About twenty yards ahead of us, a road curved off to our right and then dipped sharply down and curved around the cliff and out of sight. The ocean was in front of and below it. Another spectacular view. A bright red sawhorse with lanterns on both ends of it blocked the road.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s Cliffside Road. We closed it several years ago; too dangerous.” He tapped Rusty on the shoulder. “Let’s take Cliffside down,” he said. If that made the driver nervous he didn’t show it. He stopped, got out, swung the sawhorse out of the way, got back in the car, drove a dozen feet beyond it, then got out and moved the sawhorse back in place. We started down a narrow, steep, curvy, precipitous road in first gear. There was no guardrail. Four feet from the road, the cliff made a dead drop two hundred feet straight down to the rocks and the ocean. Three feet on the other side, it went straight up. The Packard hugged the safe side of the road, rocks and pebbles spitting under the wheels. About a hundred feet along, we rounded a sharp curve and came on a wide shoulder in the road, big enough to handle six or seven cars. There was a waist-high stone wall around its entire perimeter and an old, crumbling stone bench on one side.
Without being told, Rusty pulled off on the shoulder and parked. He pulled on the hand brake and turned off the ignition with the car in gear.
“Better leave your hat in the car,” Culhane said, tossing his black fedora on the seat. I did the same and followed him out on the shoulder, trying to conceal my terror. A hard wind rose swiftly up the side of the mountain from the ocean, whipping Culhane’s hair around his ears. I don’t like heights. I don’t like narrow roads and steep cliffs. I also don’t like drop-off shoulders on those narrow roads.
“It’s perfectly safe,” he said, walking to the edge and standing with one foot on the stone wall.
“You’re giving me the creeps,” I managed to tell him.
“It’s okay,” he said. “This is the safest spot on the road. Don’t look down, you’ll be fine.”
I walked slowly to the stone wall. When I got to it, I reached down and grabbed it with both hands. I looked straight out at the Pacific. Black storm clouds broiled far out to sea and I could see the rain line sweeping across the ocean. A white pontoon plane with a blue stripe down the side banked into the mouth of the bay a mile away and circled toward us, flying parallel to the cliff. It circled all the way around the basin and swept in over the sailboats, then settled down slowly. The two pontoons smacked into the bay and churned twin wakes behind them. It turned and taxied slowly toward the pier.
“That big house on top of the hill is the O’Dell estate,” Culhane said. “He and Eli Gorman started all this. They were partners in the railroad. One was a gruff old Irishman who mostly gambled for a living, the other was an orthodox Jew and all business. They were always at each other’s throats. O’Dell wanted to sell the bottomland by the ocean for a paper mill. Gorman said he wasn’t going to live with a stinking paper mill in his backyard. They put the deeds for all this property on the table, each of them put up ten grand, they played poker for the whole thing. Winner take all. O’Dell lost, and left and never came back. He and his wife died when the Lusitania was sunk. A caretaker kept the house up until Delilah, their daughter, inherited the house and his bankroll.”
“Pretty fancy for a whorehouse,” I said.
“That’s a misnomer,” he said. “It’s a private club, and way too rich for your blood-or mine. Five hundred to join on a one-night basis, plus the cost of the entertainment. A lifetime membership is ten thousand.”
I whistled through my teeth.
“You’d be surprised if I told you the names of some of the full-timers.”
“Why did Delilah O’Dell do that?”
“People here despised her because she was an O’Dell, rich as Croesus and a smart businesswoman to boot. They snubbed her, so she got even, and turned Grand View into the classiest whorehouse on the West Coast, probably in the whole country.”
“Prostitution is against the law,” I reminded him.
“Not in this county. Neither is gambling. And neither was drinking during Prohibition.”
“How do you justify that?”
“I don’t have to. Buck Tallman said it best. ‘You can’t stop folks from drinkin’, gamblin’, and whorin’ around. The best you can do is make it safe and pleasant for them. They pay the bills.’ Does that offend your sensibilities?”
“Not a bit,” I said. “I happen to work under a different set of laws.”
“Hell, you know you can find a game or get laid in L.A. any time of the day or night. As long as the right palms are greased, everybody looks the other way.”
I couldn’t argue with that so I changed the subject. “You know, maybe I prefer old man O’Dell’s vision for this place. He was out in the open about it. Put it right on the table. Soak ’em for the land, let them build a mill. Let ’em stink up the air, poison the ground, ruin the water, cut down all the trees, and sit back and count their money. Gorman made a playpen for people with big bank accounts, charged them three or four times what they’d pay anyplace else, and made loans to all the peons who work for a living. Now he probably acts like a humanitarian.”
Culhane looked surprised. “Jesus, who stepped on your jewels?” he said.
“If I have to make a choice, maybe I prefer greed over hypocrisy. I’m giving it some thought.”
I could see him staring at me from the corner of his eye, a somewhat bemused expression on his face. He was trying to figure out if I was for real or just being contrary. He looked back at the bay.
“That’s Rudy Shaeffer,” Culhane said, pointing at the pontoon plane. “He works three days a week and then flies up on Wednesday and spends four days at the Grand View.”
“How does he make his money?”
“I never asked.”
When my stomach calmed down, I cautiously looked over the side, and immediately got that queasy feeling again. Below us, halfway down the precipice, was a small shelf covered with half a dozen pine trees. Something glittered in the rubble that surrounded the trees. I looked closer and made out what looked like a large, rusted bedframe. Near it, a semicircle of steel seemed to grow out of a pile of dead branches.
“There’s something down there,” I said.
“It’s a 192 °Chevrolet coupe,” he said, without looking down. “It gets so foggy up here at night you can’t see your feet. Some nervy kid was going downtown. He lost control of the car, didn’t make the curve, went straight over the side, and caught fire. We didn’t find him until the next morning. The road was twice as wide in those days and it had a guardrail. It’s eroded away through the years.”
“Did you know him?”
“I knew everybody in town then, and I still do.”
“You didn’t know Verna Hicks.”
“Then she never lived here.”
I reached into my inside pocket and took out the five-by-seven shot of Verna from the newspaper. I pointed to Verna Wilensky. The wind rattled the photograph and he held it with two hands. He stared at it and looked at me with one eyebrow cocked.
“And which one would she be?”
I pointed to the blowup and he laughed.
“I’m supposed to recognize this lady? All I can see is the top of her head and her nose. And the picture looks like it was shot at the bottom of a canal.”
I showed him the original and he just shook his head. Then I gave him a look at the morgue shot.
“Jesus!” he snapped. “I hope to hell you don’t show that to anybody. They’ll puke on your shoes.” He shoved the shot back at me.
“Why did you come down this way?” I asked. “Just to give me the willies?”
“I didn’t know you had a problem with high places. My life changed forever one night, on that stone bench right over there.”
He didn’t answer, just looked off at the horizon and tilted his head up at the sky. “Storm’ll be here soon,” he said.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. As we neared the Howlands’ house, the first big drops of rain splattered against the windshield. Rusty pulled up behind my car and stopped. He leaned back with a sigh, his hands locked behind his head.
Culhane said, “You’re a smart cop, Bannon. I appreciate that. But I say again, there’s nothing here for you to learn. You ought to head back before the rain gets serious.”
“Why did you take me on that little cruise?” I asked. “To let me know that there are a lot of rich people on the Hill with connections all the way to the governor’s mansion and probably to the White House?”
“I don’t want you to have the wrong impression about San Pietro.”
I understood the veiled warning in his remark.
“I don’t,” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “I’ve put up with politics and money in my time.”
I started to get out of the car. “I think I’ll grab a bite before I head back to L.A. Where’s the best steak in town-that I can afford?”
“The diner. A buck and a quarter. I’ll give them a call; it’s on the county.”
“No thanks. I have ten bucks expense money. If I don’t spend it Moriarity will cut me back to five the next time out.”
“I’ve been a cop almost all my life,” Culhane said. “I know about cops. I’ve known good ones, bad ones, crooked ones, stupid ones, and some so rotten it would make you sick to your stomach you ever put on a badge. You’re a bloodhound. You stick your nose up in the air and get a whiff of something and then you bite it and don’t let go. Just be careful, Cowboy. Don’t get your nose stuck up the wrong dog’s ass.”
And they drove away.
The rain that had started as a quiet mist developed into a full-fledged storm by the time I drove the length of the town to the diner. The wind had picked up, bringing with it dark clouds creased with lightning and heavy with a steady downpour.
My sessions with Howland and Culhane had yielded little. Howland’s take on the massacre at Grand View House and the trial of Arnie Riker for the murder of Wilma Thompson was passable but shaky reportage at best, laced with sour mash and the kind of myths old-time newsmen like to spin over dinner or drinks at the bar. Culhane had completely avoided talking about the Grand View massacre and the Riker murder case and Eddie Woods.
The diner’s red, flashing neon sign promised comfort from the storm. It was a classic-chrome-trimmed, with leather booths, and a long counter half circling the kitchen. The odor of cooked meat and onions and strong coffee stirred my appetite. I took a booth in the corner; ordered a rare T-bone, soft scrambled eggs, sliced potatoes and onions, hot rolls, lemon meringue pie, and a Muhlenbach beer; commandeered a crumpled but readable afternoon edition of the Times from the seat of an abandoned booth; rolled a cigarette; and smoked while I scanned the headlines and waited for dinner.
The story I was looking for was buried back in the second section in the obituaries, three paragraphs under the headline: woman drowns in bathtub accident. It told me less than I knew already and ended with two lines: “The name of the deceased is being withheld pending notification of next of kin. No funeral arrangements were available at press time.” Jimmy Pennington was smart enough to open the door in the event there was more to the accident than I had indicated. That’s why he was the best reporter in town.
I put the paper aside when my dinner arrived, and dug in. Culhane was right: the steak was an inch thick and cooked to perfection, the rolls crumbled in my hand when I buttered them, and the beer was served in an iced mug. I was too busy devouring my meal to notice the black Pontiac pull into the parking lot and the two guys in the front seat who did not get out.
I finished a leisurely meal, ordered a second cup of coffee, had a smoke. I knew my quest for facts about Verna Wilensky’s mother lode was wasted time, and the rain was showing signs of letting up. Then there was Rosebud, waiting for his dinner and bone. It was only 7:30, I could be home by 11:00, so I decided to head back to town. The waitress wrapped the bone in cellophane and put it in a paper bag for me. I tipped the waitress a buck, probably the largest tip she had ever received, turned up my collar, pulled my hat low over my eyes against the rain, and quick-stepped around the corner of the diner toward my car.
As I reached the door a voice behind me said, “What’s yer hurry, bohunk?”
As I turned, an arm the size of a steam pipe wrapped around my chest, pinning both arms to my sides. The bag with my dog bone fell at my feet. A second man, a mere outline in rain and darkness, stepped in close and threw an arcing jackhammer punch deep into my stomach. It doubled me over. My hat flipped into the mud at my feet. Air whooshed out of my lungs. Sparks dimmed my eyesight for a moment. Pain swelled upward from my stomach and my dinner soured the back of my throat. I swallowed hard as he stepped in closer and landed another rib-bender. My knees buckled and I sagged toward the ground, but the guy holding me dragged me back up and growled, “Go home to your mama and stay there, big shot.” As the muscleman swung his arm back for a third shot at my gut, I kicked him, with everything I had left, in the groin. I felt muscle, bone, and tissue smash under the kick. It lifted him an inch off the ground and sent him backward, doubled over and screaming.
As he fell to his knees, I swung my head forward, then threw it back as hard as I could. It smashed into the face of the thug holding me from behind. I smacked him with the back of my head a second time. He yowled, and his grasp loosened enough that I could swing around and break loose of his grip. Facing him, I smacked his face with the top of my head. The back of his head shattered the car window. His arm dropped to his side, and I threw a hard, straight jab into his face, ruining what was left of his nose. Then I saw the empty sleeve of his other arm tucked in his coat jacket.
He had held me with the only arm he had. He made a funny little sound and fell straight down as I turned to the other attacker, who was gasping for breath and trying to scramble to his feet in the mud. I stepped in close and threw a haymaker down to the side of his jaw just below the ear. Both his hands splashed into the mud, and I hit him again with a roundhouse right that knocked him up and over on his back. He lay there, arms flung out at his sides, his mouth open and gobbling rain.
I turned back to the first guy, who was on his hand and knees, and finished him off with another right, straight down to his temple. He fell face forward and splashed into a mud puddle without another sound.
The whole melee took less than two minutes.
When I rolled my first attacker over, to keep him from drowning in mud, his coat flopped open and I saw the badge pinned to his vest and the. 32 under his arm.
I had been doing battle with my old pals Laurel and Hardy. I took a closer look at One-Arm’s partner and stared at an empty eye socket. I looked around in the rain for a minute but didn’t see his glass eye.
“Well I’ll be damned,” I muttered to myself.
I was doubled over from the blows to my stomach but not too unsteady to reach down and rip the badge off the big guy’s vest. Then I relieved him of his pistol, picked up my hat and paper sack with the dog bone, got in the car and drove off, leaving them both staring up at the rain.
I drove around the corner and past the park. Rain and wind had pretty much washed away all evidence of the noontime picnic, and the red words on the sandwich boards advertising fireworks tonight 9 p.m. ran down the length of the boards like streams of blood. I stopped in front of the municipal building, took the bone out of the paper sack, and put the gun and badge in it.
My ribs were throbbing and I had trouble standing up straight, but I made it up the steps and entered the police department. Rosalind had been replaced by a tall, slender rail of man in a blue uniform. He was smoking a cigar and reading Life magazine. He looked up through bored eyes as I put the bag on the counter.
“This is a gift for Captain Culhane,” I said. “Please see that he gets it.”
“Who shall I say it’s from?”
“He’ll know,” I said, and got out of there. I aimed the car for L.A. and got the hell out of Dodge.
When I got to 101 I turned on my flasher and pushed the gas pedal close to the floor. Rain bubbled through the shattered car window and sprayed on my neck. My ribs felt like they were broken. Just the touch of my hand when I reached down to check brought tears to my eyes.
I turned off the flashing light and slowed down going through Santa Barbara, then flicked it back on and leaned on the gas again. I drove straight through to Sunset and headed east. The streets in L.A. were bone-dry. I was home by 10:30.
I pulled into the drive and sat for a minute. My gut was still throbbing. I got out of the car carefully, swinging my legs out the door first and then pulling myself to my feet with my hands on the doorsill. The pain didn’t get any worse; it couldn’t have. Stooped over, I made the door, unlocked it, and got inside. I went in the bedroom, pulled off jacket and tie, and opened my shirt and checked my torso in the bathroom mirror. Two dark red bruises the size of dollar pancakes formed a sideways figure eight at the bottom of my rib cage. The one-eyed man could hit.
I got the Ben-Gay out of the cabinet and went back in the bedroom. Rosie was scratching the back door, so I put the bottle on the night table and groaned my way to the back door. He was so happy to see me he jumped up on me and gave my a sloppy kiss. His paws hit me right at ground zero and added new pain to my aching gut.
“Jesus,” I yelled. He jumped back, looking like I had whacked him on the rear.
“It’s okay,” I said, and got down on my knees and held my hand out to him. He came over and leaned against me, and the heat of his body felt good against the bruises.
“The old man took a bit of a beating,” I said.
I fed him, gave him a bone, left the back door open, and went back to the bedroom. I lay down on the bed and eased my pants off. The Ben-Gay burned as I carefully spread it over my abdomen, but then it began to work its magic. I lay there looking at the ceiling until the pain eased. I don’t know how long I lay there, thirty minutes maybe, long enough for Rosie to finish with the bone and come back in. He put his front paws up on the bed and looked down at me, his nose twitching from the pungent odor. I scratched him behind the ears and took deep breaths and waited for the ache to subside.
When I could move I got up, locked the front door, got the Canadian Club and a water tumbler, dropped a cube of ice in the tumbler, and went back to the bedroom. I sat on the edge of the bed, poured myself a half-glass of whiskey, rolled a cigarette, and lit up. Just inhaling hurt.
Rosie sat at my feet, looking concerned. I patted the bed.
“Come on up,” I said. He jumped on the bed and sat down and looked down at me with concern.
“I’m okay, pal, nothing broken,” I told him. That seemed to satisfy him and he went to his side of the bed, did his little circle thing, and lay down.
My trip had earned me more than a sore stomach. I was sure now that the Wilensky woman’s death was no accident.
I swallowed half the drink, smoked awhile, finished off the drink, and doused the cigarette. The whiskey soaked up a little more of the pain. I lay down on my back, worked my way under the sheet, and turned off the light.
It had been a very long day. I was asleep before Rosie started to snore.
I t was 7:15 when the phone woke me up. I don’t know how long it had been ringing. I rolled over to reach for it and I felt a hot wire slash across my stomach.
“Oww!” I yelped. Rosie jerked awake as I reached across him and picked up the receiver.
“Yeah,” I moaned.
“That you, Zeke?” I heard Bones say on the other end of the line.
“What’s the matter, you sound all in. Have a rough night?”
“You’ll never know just how rough,” I groaned.
“Want to stop by the morgue on your way in? I got the post-mortem ready for you.”
“Right. Thirty minutes.”
“No hurry,” he said gleefully. “None of my patients is going anywhere.”
“Cute,” I said, and hung up. I called Ski and told him I was running a little late, and to call the precinct and tell Ozzie, who handled the radio, that we had to stop off at the morgue on the way in.
“How’d it go up there?” he asked.
“I’ll give you a report when I see you,” I said, and hung up.
I struggled out of bed and went into the kitchen to let the dog out, then realized I had left the back door open all night. Rosie was in the yard, watering the trees and shrubs. I went into the bathroom and turned the hot water as high as I could take it and let it wash over me for about ten minutes. Then I shaved; dressed in my tweed jacket, dark gray flannels, a dark blue shirt, and black tie; set out Rosie’s food and water for him; and left to pick up Ski.
“What happened to the window?” was the first thing he said when he got in the car. Then he took a closer look at me and added, “What happened to you? You’re as pale as white bread.”
“I met Captain Culhane,” I said.
“What’d he do, hit you with a sledgehammer?”
“That’s about right,” I said, and gave him a quick report as we headed downtown.
“It’s a bust,” I finished. “We can forget Verna Wilensky. Nobody up there is going to help, and legally we haven’t a case for a subpoena.”
“You going to let him get away with rocking you like that?” he said angrily, the blood rising to his face.
“Oh, I did my share,” I said, and told him how the fight had ended, and about putting the gun and badge in the bag.
“The old man’s gonna want to do something about this,” Ski said. “He’ll be mighty pissed off that a cop did that to another cop, especially to one of his.”
“I made my point,” I answered. “I don’t want to hear the name Culhane or San Pietro or anything like it for the rest of my life.”
“We could go back up there and make life miserable for him,” the big man said.
“Ah, we’d be outnumbered. Of course, it seems like he only hires the handicapped. On the other hand, the one-eyed guy didn’t need both eyes to damn near break me in half.”
“I’d like to have a piece of the son of a bitch,” Ski said. “You shoulda taken me with you, partner.”
“You probably would have killed one of them. The last thing we’d want to do is spend twenty years in that place.”
You can add morgues to a high place on the list of things I hate. Perhaps it’s the smell of formaldehyde, blood, and alcohol that permeates the sterile confines of what Bones calls “the coolest place in town.”
The room was white-tiled, with a bright light hanging from the ceiling over each of the tables, and a butcher’s scale hanging from the ceiling beside the lamp. Each table had a ridge running all the way around it, and a sink at the foot into which water, blood, and any other unwanted material was channeled. A spigot hissed aerated water into the sink. The mixed odors of alcohol, blood, disinfectant, and death permeated the cold air in the room. There were half a dozen stretchers, elevated at the head and sloping down to the foot. Beside the table, a stenographer wearing a face mask sat at a wheeled desk, equipped with a shorthand writer. In the corner, almost inaudibly, a record player was providing something by Bach.
A large woman’s corpse lay on its back on one of the tables, her dark hair showering over the raised end of the table. The body was the color of spoiled meat, and was split open from chin to Venus mound. Bones, in a white butcher’s apron and wearing yellow gloves, was leaning over the corpse, digging around in the cavity, and dictating to the stenographer. He looked over the top of his glasses when I stuck my head through the swinging doors of the examination room.
“Zeke, m’boy,” he said cheerily. “Want to take a look? See what cyanide does to the innards?”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
He stopped what he was doing and told the steno, whose name was Judith, to take a break. She stood primly, straightened her skirt, and left the room through a door on the far side. Bones peeled off the gloves, turned off the light over the table, and pulled off his gown. He dropped gown and gloves in a large trash bin near the door.
“Feelin’ any better? You look like hell,” he said.
“I sprung a couple of ribs,” I said.
“She must’ve been quite the athlete,” he said wryly.
“Don’t I wish.”
“Where’s it hurt?”
He stopped and reached out with both hands, feeling the bottom of my rib cage.
“Right there,” I said.
His nimble fingers worked around my sides and back again.
“Nothing broken. You’ll probably be sore for a couple of days. Let’s see what Mrs. Wilensky gave up.” He led me to his office, which was adjacent to the laboratory: a cubicle of a room large enough for a desk, a couple of file cabinets, three chairs, and a table that held a coffeemaker, a couple of mugs, a tall sugar shaker, and a bedpan full of ice, in which a bottle of milk rested. There was a calendar on the wall, displaying a drawing of the human form with all the vital parts identified on it. The motto on the bottom read topfer’s surgical instruments in large letters, and under that stainless steel precision tools for every occasion.
Ski was sitting in one of the chairs, staring stoically at the calendar. Ski could look at body parts all day long, but the aroma of death in all its incarnations really got to him.
I sat down next to Ski and Bones sat at his desk, which was piled with papers, books, a phone, and a human skull, which had an ashtray wedged inside it, just behind the gaping mouth. He rooted around in a desk drawer, ultimately coming up with a file folder, and proceeded to read from his report.
“Could you just reduce that to simple English?” Ski said after a moment or two.
Bones smiled, retrieved his cigarette, and leaned back in his chair.
“I make her closer to forty than forty-seven. Bleached blonde. In simple English, both lungs were full of water and traces of lye and other ingredients consistent with soap.”
“In other words, she drowned, as we suspected,” I said.
“Yes and no,” he said.
“Now what does that mean?”
“She drowned all right, but remember what I told you about electrocution?”
“Yeah, it’s the big freeze,” Ski said. “Everything stops on a dime.”
“Very good. So…?”
“So what?” Ski said.
“So how’d all that water get in her lungs?” He grinned like a man holding four aces.
It took a minute to sink in.
Ski said, “Uh-oh.”
I didn’t say anything. I just stared at him.
“In simple terms, boys, the lady was dead before the radio fell in the tub with her. You got yourself a nice, sweet homicide here. And a murder one unless the killer just happened to be strolling past Wilensky’s bathroom on his way home and decided to hold her underwater for four or five minutes. She broke a toe thrashing around and there’s some skin under a couple of her fingernails.”
“Please don’t say ‘I told you so,’ ” Ski said to me.
What had been conjecture on my part was now a reality. The assurance that Verna Wilensky was murdered in cold blood didn’t make me feel good. It streaked through me like a cold wind had sneaked through my pores. It chilled my heart. And with that came the realization that perhaps Culhane knew the truth and was simply toying with me, safe in the belief that somebody had beat murder.
“My guess is that whoever killed her knocked that radio in as an afterthought,” Bones said. “As most killers would, he probably thought he’d committed the perfect crime.”
We both sat there and stared at him.
“Homicide,” he said gleefully, and snapped his fingers. “Did I make your day or what?”
I put on the red flasher, tweaked the siren, and made it to Pacific Meadows in a little under twenty minutes. I didn’t say anything on the way. Instead, my mind was working overtime. I was thinking of Verna Wilensky’s last minutes.
She draws a hot bath, lights a candle, folds her bathrobe neatly, and puts it on the toilet seat. She tests the water with her toe. Then lowers herself carefully in the tub, settles, takes a sip of her gin and tonic. Lights a cigarette.
Sinatra murmurs a love song on the radio.
She doesn’t hear the window in the living room slide up, doesn’t hear or see the figure slip through.
He walks across the room, peers around the corner of the bedroom doorway. He sees cigarette smoke swirling in the light from the candle. He slips into the bedroom.
He takes off his gloves and suit jacket. Lays them on the bed. Rolls up his sleeves. Flexes his fingers. He sidles up to the bathroom door, peers around the corner.
Verna lolls in the warm water. She takes another drag on the cigarette and snuffs it out, drains most of her drink. She is feeling light-headed. She closes her eyes, hums a little tune.
She doesn’t see the shadow wriggling on the wall as the candle dances to the movement the killer makes walking into the room. He walks up to the tub. Stands over her, flexes his fingers again.
His knuckles crack.
She opens her eyes. Looks straight up and sees the shape of her killer hovering over her. Before she can scream, he grabs a handful of her hair and thrusts her head underwater.
She begins thrashing.
Her killer is a shimmering silhouette filtered through water.
He plunges his other hand in the water and shoves her body against the bottom of the tub. The water roils as she fights to free herself.
She reaches up, scratches the killer’s hand. He pulls it away and her head breaks the surface of the bath for a moment. He plunges his hand down and shoves her head underwater again.
She is kicking and flailing her arms.
The last pain she feels is her toe, breaking against the side of the tub.
Bubbles burst from her nose and mouth.
She looks up through heavy eyes, sees her deliverer’s arms, wriggling as the bathwater floods into her lungs.
Then blessed sleep.
The killer holds her under until the bubbles stop. Until the thrashing stops. He stands up, looks down at his work. The music ends and the disc jockey’s funereal voice comes on. He begins to introduce a Glenn Miller tune.
The killer leans on the shelf, jogs it, feels the screws rip loose from the wall. He jumps back, holding his hands over his head.
The radio splashes into the tub, hits her on the jaw as sparks pop from it. The water sizzles for a second.
Then it is quiet.
The killer, satisfied, returns to the bedroom. He wipes his arms free of water but does not dry them with a towel. He rolls down his sleeves, puts his gloves and jacket back on, leaves by the window.
A dog barking.
“Jesus, look out!”
Ski’s voice snapped me out of it. I was in the opposing lane. I swerved back just as the city bus rumbled by, its horn bellowing angrily.
“My mind wandered for a minute,” I said.
“Yeah, so did the car.”
“I was just thinking about the case.”
Bones had already dispatched Oachi Okimoto, his best man, to the Wilensky house with a forensics team, and I had called radio dispatch and asked for King and Garrett to be assigned to us for the day. I told them it was for a neighborhood canvass but left out all other details.
Oachi Okimoto was already on the job when we got there. Okimoto was a short, thin, Japanese fellow with close-trimmed black hair, yellow eyes behind horn-rimmed bifocals, and delicate, manicured hands. He had on a white shirt with a striped bow tie, dark pants, and loafers. Okie was a pleasant little guy and very good at the trade. He had a map of the entire area spread out on the dining room table when we got there.
“Hi, boys,” he said in a soft, very precise voice. “Big surprise, huh?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Ski.
I explained that I had two uniformed cops on the way and would round up two more teams as quickly as possible. His three assistants were busy dusting everything in the house but the ceiling.
“Don’t forget the toilet,” Ski said. “Maybe he had to take a leak. Nobody wears gloves when they take a leak and flush.”
Okie told us that Bones had already pulled the dead woman’s prints for comparisons.
“She lived alone and, from what I gather, didn’t have many visitors except maybe the people next door. They were close.”
“I’ll get prints on them,” Okie said. The front door opened and Officer King stuck his head in. “Hi, Sergeant,” he said, “what’s up?” I motioned him in. Garrett was sitting in the squad car. King came in and stood at attention. He did everything but click his heels.
“This stays under your hat for now,” I told King. “Wilensky is now a murder one.”
“Wow,” he said. “How?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Ski said, with a touch of sarcasm. He didn’t like King; Ski didn’t like attitude.
“I want that angle soft-pedaled,” I went on. “I’m trying to keep this out of the papers for now, although it gets less likely by the minute. The story is: there was a heist in the neighborhood, we’re looking for strangers starting early Monday morning up until say ten Monday night. On foot, in a car, you know the drill on that. Kids’ll be a good bet, there’s a lot of them in the neighborhood, they’re all over the place on bikes. Be careful with them, though; they tend to make up things to get in on the act. I have to go back to the precinct now. Ski will be in charge. Okie has a map of the whole neighborhood. Use it to plan the canvass.”
I jerked a thumb at the house on the corner. “Start next door and work this block first.”
“The folks on the right are out of town,” King said.
“How do you know that?”
“I checked when we came on the scene the other night. According to the Clarks, they left for San Francisco on vacation early Saturday morning. Be gone two weeks.”
Ski walked to the living room window and stared thoughtfully at the house. “Bunch of papers on the porch,” he said. “Apparently they forgot to put a hold on it.” Then he turned suddenly and walked to a low, flat, coffee table near the front door. He picked a key off the table.
“I noticed this key when we came in that night,” he said. “I figured it was an extra key to the front door, but maybe the vacationers gave it to Verna in case she needed to get in the house while they were gone. Neighbors do that.” He handed the key to King and told him to check the door but not to go in the house if it worked. I left for the office.
Louie was washing a radio car when I pulled into the garage. The cream puff looked like it belonged in a circus. It was rain- and mud-streaked, and the busted window gave it the appearance of something you’d find on the back row of a used-car lot. Louie looked at it, then at me, then back at the car. Then he saw the window and his eyes bulged out of his head.
“What’s that?” he said, doing a little nervous jig and pointing at the window.
“I had a little problem.”
“What problem! Look at that window!” he said, and tears began to form. “Just look at that damn window!”
“A bird flew into me,” I lied, handing him the keys.
“A bird! What kind of bird did that, a friggin’ ostrich? A flying elephant? Did Dumbo fly into the car?”
He was still raving when I headed upstairs to the squad room. Moriarity was on the phone scowling when I walked in. He wiggled a finger at me and hung up the phone as I entered his office. I sat down across from him.
“Maybe you oughtta be in the hot seat,” he snapped, for openers. “Louie just called me. What’s this about a bird the size of Beverly Hills busting the window in the car?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Just give me the Reader’s Digest version. I only got six hours left on this watch.”
I gave him a blow-by-blow, starting with the black Pontiac following me, including my chat with Howland and the tour of the Hill with Culhane, and ending with my run-in at the diner.
“A couple of his cops tried to beat you up?” he said, his face storming up.
“I’d say that was on their mind.”
“I’ll call that son of a bitch and…”
“Hold on a minute. There’s more…”
“I don’t want you going back up there,” he said flatly. “And forget Verna Hicks or Wilensky or whatever her name is. Frankly, I don’t give a damn if she gets buried or not. I don’t care if they embalm her and hang her off the city hall flagpole. And if you got a thing for dead broads, go over to the morgue and pick out a different one.”
He was standing when he finished, his brow furrowed like a freshly plowed field. Then he added, “I like the trick with the gun and badge. That was inspired, Bannon.” He started pacing, a bad sign. “Christ, I told you not to waste time and money going up there,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you that?”
“As I was about to say, there’s something else.”
“Wilensky’s lungs were full of water.”
He flat-mouthed me. “She drowned, fer crissakes. What’d you expect to be in there, hundred-proof Scotch?”
“I just left Bones’s office. He completed the autopsy. Verna drowned alright-before the radio ever fell in the tub.”
He stared at me, letting that sink in. While he was working on it, I explained how drowning and electrocution work.
“Jesus. Aw, Jesus-fucking-Keerist!”
“Bones has sent a team from forensics back to the house, and I dropped Ski off there. I got two uniforms casing the neighborhood but we really need at least two other teams. We got a homicide now, Lieutenant. I say Ski and I go back up to San Pietro and get serious with those people.”
“Damn it. Damn it, damn it.” He paced the room again, this time for a full two minutes, running both hands through his meager hair. “The captain’s gonna have a baby right in his office over this.” He paced some more. “You know the politics involved here, don’t you?”
I nodded. “It’s a murder one. Politics doesn’t have anything to do with it anymore.”
“Oh, yeah. Tell that to McCurdy. He’s gonna be gettin’ it from Chief Holman, and he’s gonna be gettin’ it from the mayor, who got it from the governor, who got it from God-knows-who. I know what’s on your mind, Zeke. You’re gonna try and pin this on Culhane, who is about to announce his race for governor, and that, pal, is gonna reverberate all the way to Alaska.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You think whoever killed her was the payoff guy, right? The five-C’s-a-month guy through all these years?”
“Or had her iced. Yeah. That’s a pretty good supposition.”
“And you got your eye on Culhane for this, don’t you?”
“It’s a pretty good supposition.”
“Stop saying that. It’s giving me a stomachache.”
I closed up again and sat there.
He whirled, and jabbed a forefinger at me. “Okay, why now? Why pay off for all these years and then suddenly pull the plug on her?”
“You just said it, Culhane’s running for governor. The price of silence suddenly went up.”
“I suppose you already got a candidate for the guy who shoved her under, too?”
“I’ve got an idea.”
“Well, ain’t that a surprise. It’s your idea got us into this mess in the first place.”
“You’re getting steamed up over nothing,” I said. “Maybe they all hate Culhane. Maybe they’ll promote you.”
“Yeah, and maybe the swallows will pass up Capistrano this year and fly into the garage downstairs and crap all over Louie’s goddamn cream-puff sedan.”
“It’s a murder one, Dan; what do you think they’re going to do, shove it under the carpet?” I shifted in my seat and that hot wire lashed across my ribs again. I winced. “Damn it!”
“Christ, you’re a wreck,” he said. “You seen a doc?”
“Bones checked my ribs. I’ll be okay in a day or two.”
“In answer to your question, no, they’re not gonna sweep it under the rug, they’re gonna look for a fall guy-which is you-which leads to me. I’ll end up mowing the grass at city hall until I retire; and you? You’ll be collecting garbage down in Tijuana. You’ll have to turn wetback just to get back across the border to get a decent meal.”
He went back behind his desk and sat down and lit one of his sugar-coated cigars. Silence tiptoed around the room.
“Did it occur to you that maybe, just maybe, this don’t have anything to do with Culhane?” he said finally. “Maybe she was shacking up with some guy, and his wife came over and did her in. Maybe she was running dope across the border on weekends and her Chicano pals gave her the bath. See what I mean? There could be a lot of scenarios. You got some coincidences workin’ here and it looks like a closed case to you. Think about it, Bannon; you got to find the killer and tie him to Culhane and tie it all back to something that happened over twenty years ago.”
“It’s all we got for the present,” I said. “Bones is going to misplace the autopsy report long enough for me to go up there and lay the story on Culhane and see his reaction. That will tell me a lot. Then if the banks want to keep playing hide-and-seek, we’ll run over to Santa Maria and get Judge Wainwright to give us a search warrant. The money trail leads up there.”
“And if it peters out?”
“We lose nothing. We take it to McCurdy when the post is released and let him tell us how to deal with it.”
“I really don’t like it when you fast-talk me, Zeke.”
“So was Custer’s Last Stand.”
“So what do we do? Shall I call Bones and tell him to send over the post? I’ll do a report and then take it to McCurdy before it goes on file for the press?”
His eyes brightened when I mentioned that idea. He puffed on his cigar and stared across the desk at me. “You got five minutes to convince me otherwise.” He looked at his watch.
I said: “When Culhane became sheriff he promised to clean the mobsters out of Eureka, which is what San Pietro was called then. That meant getting rid of Arnie Riker and his number two, Tony Fontonio. Riker was arrested and convicted of murdering a young girl named Wilma Thompson. It was a solid case because, among other things, they had an eyewitness named Lila Parrish. The case went to appeal, and Riker’s sentence was reduced from death to life-no-parole because Lila Parrish vamoosed right after the trial and nobody could find her. Then a year later, Eddie Woods knocked off Fontonio, Eureka turned into San Pietro, Culhane had the Fontonio case dead-docketed, and everybody lived happily ever after.
“Now get this: Woods was in charge of the Riker investigation and Woods burned Fontonio.”
“And you think you can get all that together in an airtight package? That’s what it’s going to have to be, Zeke. No holes, and right now all I see is Swiss cheese in that story. For one thing, you’re assuming that Lila Parrish was lying and the Riker case was a frame and Eddie Woods set it all up. How the hell do you plan to put that together? Your chief witness, if it is Lila Parrish, is probably the dame on the slab in the morgue.”
“All I need to do is find one person who can identify the person who sent the checks to Verna Hicks.”
“And prove it was a frame. And Hicks and Parrish are one and the same. And Woods did the number on her. And Culhane sanctioned it.”
I didn’t answer that.
He shook his head. “So far you haven’t broken a lot of ice on that pond,” he said.
“It wasn’t a homicide until this morning. That’s a pretty good icebreaker.”
More cigar smoke puffed out of his mouth. He spun his chair around and looked through the plate glass walls of his office into the squad room for a long minute, then swung back.
“You plan to take Ski this time?”
“I told you to take the National Guard the first time you went up there.”
He sighed joylessly.
“When do you want to go?”
“Is this Thursday?”
“It was when I got up this morning.”
“I got a date tonight. How’s tomorrow morning sound?”
When I left Moriarity’s office, the switchboard operator called me over. “You got a call from a Millicent Harrington at the West L.A. National Bank,” he said. “Here’s the number. She says she has some info for you.”
I went back to my desk and dialed her number.
“Hi,” she said, “remember me?”
“If I forgot you, I’d need a brain transplant.”
“I’m flattered, I think,” she said with a light laugh.
“I may have a tip for you. I called a woman I know at the South View Bank and Trust. It’s on the list. Her name is Patty North. She remembers selling the cashier’s check for Verna Hicks two months ago.”
“Does she have a name for us?”
“No, but she has a great description of the man who bought it.”
I looked at my watch. It was 10:50.
“How about I pick you up in thirty minutes. Maybe we can grab a bite of lunch after we talk to her.”
“I’ll call everybody on the list if that’s all it takes to get you to take me to lunch.”
I went down to the garage and told Louie to bring the cream puff around.
“Not you again,” he snarled. “I just put the window in.”
“Good. I’ll try not to drive into any flying elephants this time.”
Without another word, he disappeared with a swagger into the depths of the garage. A minute or two later I heard the Chevy crank up and then he came back, got out, and handed me the keys.
Millicent was waiting just inside the doors of the bank when I pulled up. She was so gorgeous I got a little numb when I saw her. She was dressed in a light taupe business suit with a pink scarf at her throat and a lime-green Robin Hood hat cocked jauntily over one eye. She never took her eyes off me as she walked toward the car.
“You look like you own the bank,” I cracked, holding the door for her.
“Not quite yet,” she said with a smirk. She sat on the seat, swung silk-sheathed legs in sideways, and crossed them at the knee.
“It’s the South View Bank and Trust on West Sixth and Fairfax,” she said as I got in the car. I slipped cautiously under the wheel but still got enough of a kickback from my sprained ribs to grimace a little.
“Is something wrong?” she asked with concern.
“Nothing serious. A confused cop tried to use me as a punching bag.”
I let it drop there, although I could see her look of anxiety and curiosity. She lit two of her gold-tipped butts and handed one to me. Then she kissed two fingers and laid them on my cheek.
“Thanks,” I said, and took a quick look her way. She was staring at me with obvious affection, her mouth slightly open.
“You can get in a lot of trouble with a look like that,” I said.
“I hope so,” she answered.
I drove down Western, grabbed a right on Sixth, and headed west to Fairfax. The bank was in the center of an upper-middle-class neighborhood. It was a one-story, yellow brick building boxed in by a women’s clothing store and a pet store. Patty North was a tiny, well-groomed strawberry blonde in her mid forties, with bright eyes and a perpetually cheery smile. She was head teller and had a little cubicle in the rear of the bank. After introductions, we sat facing her and she took out a file, placed it on her desk, and laid one hand on top of it.
“This isn’t quite kosher,” she said. “But Millicent assures me it’s for a good cause.”
I didn’t mention murder at this point. I didn’t have to. She started right in.
“The gentleman came in a little after noon on a Monday, which was the first,” she began. “He was five-eight or five-nine; about forty, give or take a year or two; trim, with a little tummy. Very tan, dark brown hair with some gray in it, and one of those skinny mustaches like William Powell’s. He wore a wedding ring on the usual finger and a Masonic ring on the fourth finger of his right hand. He had a kind of cocky smile and he dressed with flash. A cream jacket with a thin red check, tan slacks, two-tone brown and white shoes, a brown fedora, and he was wearing aviator sunglasses, which he did not remove. He didn’t say much. He put five one-hundred-dollar bills on the desk and spread them out like you would spread out a pinochle hand, and he put a twenty-five-cent piece on top. That’s what we charge for a bank check. He didn’t look at me straightaway but kind of kept his head down. He said, ‘I require,’-I remember because he said it that way, require — ’a five-hundred-dollar cashier’s check made out to this person.’ He had the name Verna Hicks written on a sheet of paper, which he slid across the desk to me. I said to him, ‘Who is the issuer?’ And he said, ‘Is that necessary?’ And I said, ‘No, but it’s customary.’ And he said, ‘Nix it, just give me a receipt.’ That’s the way he said it, Nix it. So I typed out the check and signed it, and he put it in a brown, letter-sized manila envelope. It was already addressed and stamped. He said thank you and left. The entire transaction took about five minutes. I did notice he had a jaunty kind of step to his walk.”
As she spoke, a face flashed in my memory; a face I had seen in Howland’s basement on one of the framed front pages. A flashy dresser, thin mustache.
“You have an amazing memory for details,” I said.
“Photography is my hobby, particularly portraiture,” she said. “There was just something about him. The flashy clothes, the little mustache, the sunglasses, and his voice. There was a harsh quality to it, kind of tough. He was distant but not unfriendly, just seemed to want to get the transaction done and get out of here. It was one of those faces you’d love to capture on film, although I could tell from his attitude that was the last thing he would have been interested in.”
I thought for a minute or so and then asked Patty if she had a copy of the phone book. She reached in a large, lower drawer and got it. I flicked through it to the yellow pages and found what I was looking for. A quarter-page ad listed under private investigations. The ad told me that Eddie Woods was an experienced private investigator with eighteen years know-how, was bonded, and had references. His office was on the mezzanine floor of the Olympic Tower, on West Olympic and Almont. I jotted the phone number down.
I knew the place, a prestigious office building with a marble lobby only slightly smaller than the lobby of the city hall. It was known simply as the Olympic. Eddie Woods was in high cotton for a private eye. Jerry Geisert was a divorce lawyer for the stars, and probably one of Woods’s clients, since he was located in the same building and on the same floor.
An idea was gnawing on my brain. There was a sprightly little restaurant across the street from the Olympic called Francine’s, which specialized in excellent home cooking. I closed the book and suggested all three of us go there for lunch.
Millicent looked at me out of the side of her eye, obviously disappointed that I had asked a third party to join us.
“I have an idea,” I said by way of explanation.
It took fifteen minutes to drive to Francine’s. I parked on the side of the building, went in, and found a table in front, facing the Olympic Tower. The place was just beginning to fill up with the lunchtime trade. The decor was as simple as the bill of fare. White-and-red-checkered tablecloths, menus printed up that day, paper napkins.
“Millie, order for me, will you? I want the turkey pancakes, and corn fritters with lots of maple syrup, and an iced tea. I’m going across the street. I shouldn’t be more than ten, fifteen minutes. Patty, watch for me to come out and pay special attention to the person who’s with me, if there is anybody with me.”
“Is this detective work?” she asked, bright-eyed.
“You betcha,” I answered.
The lobby was all marble, bronze, and teak. Twin circular staircases curved up from each side of the room to the mezzanine where, the directory told me, Woods was located in rooms 106 and 107. I took the stairs up.
There was a doctor’s office in the corner suite. Attorney Jerry Geisert’s suite of offices took up about half the floor and Woods was located in the two offices next to Geisert.
The lettering on the pebbled glass door said edward woods, confidential inquiries and it was locked. The door to the adjoining office was open. I walked down to it and stood in the entrance. The lettering on this door said “Private.”
The office was neither flashy nor drab, small nor large. When I looked in, I faced a mahogany desk of average proportions. Against the right wall was a red leather sofa, beginning to show its age, as were the two matching leather chairs that bracketed it. Somebody had told Woods leather impressed people. They forgot to tell him less is better than more. There was a dark wooden hat tree in the corner near the door, and on the desk, a large glass ashtray that could have qualified as a deadly weapon, a leather-wrapped Ronson table lighter, a familiar green package of Luckies, and two phones, one a conventional black job with a handset, the other an old-time stand-up, which Woods was whispering into.
I stood in the entranceway and lightly tapped the glass in the door. He held up a finger without looking at me. A moment later he hung up, waved me in, stood up, and offered me his hand. Twenty years had changed him very little. He still looked younger than his age, still sported the pencil mustache, still had a full head of hair as well as a bronze beach tan and bit of a paunch. His jacket was hanging on the tree. He was wearing a white silk shirt with a thin, pale blue stripe, and an inoffensive tie, red suspenders, and no belt.
“Edward Woods,” he said with a practiced smile. “My secretary’s gone to lunch.”
“My name’s Bannon,” I said.
“Have a seat.”
I dropped my hat on his desk, and as I sat down he looked straight into my eyes. His memory was getting a nibble.
“I’m about to go to lunch, too,” he said.
“Nice fish,” I said, nodding toward a six-foot marlin mounted on the wall.
“Two hundred and sixty pounds and every ounce a fighter. Took me seven hours to land that baby. I quit going after game fish after that. Anything that will fight that hard to stay alive deserves to die of old age.”
“That’s an admirable philosophy.”
“Thanks. What can I do for you?”
“Ever heard of a woman named Verna Hicks? Or Verna Wilensky, which was her married name?”
His eyebrows drew together and his eyes went from interested to suspicious. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew out a couple of smoke rings.
“This a missing persons thing?” he asked. “You might do better starting with the police.”
“I know where she is. She’s down in the city morgue waiting for the state to bury her.”
A casual smile crossed his lips and his eyes became less intense. He nodded more or less to himself and chuckled.
“Sergeant Bannon, right? Central homicide.”
I nodded. “If we’ve met, you’ve got a better memory than I do.”
“You’ve been in the headlines a few times. This about the dame whose radio took a bath with her?”
“You heard about it?”
“It was in the Times. Just a couple of graphs. No name on her. Didn’t sound like a job for homicide.”
“You read every line in the paper?”
“Always looking for an angle,” he shrugged. “You’d be surprised what a guy can pick up if he keeps his eyes open and reads every page. I read the gossips, too.”
“There’s an angle in this one. She died with a lot of money in a savings account. I’m trying to locate survivors.”
“Well,” he said, standing up and walking to the tree to retrieve his suit jacket, “she’s no relative of mine.”
He slipped on the jacket and went back behind his desk but didn’t sit down. My eyes wandered to the photographs on the desk. One was a sepia tintype of Woods, Culhane, and Buck Tallman. The other was a tinted studio shot of Woods standing with his arms around the waist of a pretty, black-haired woman who looked to be in her late thirties.
“Very pretty woman,” I said, nodding at the picture.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll tell her you said so. That’s my wife, Hazel. We’re celebrating our tenth anniversary today. We check into a little hotel, have room service, put out the Do Not Disturb sign… a little tradition we have.” He looked at his watch and then back at me, and raised his eyebrows.
I stood up, too.
“The Hicks woman died with almost a hundred grand in the bank.”
It didn’t shake him one way or the other.
“Most of it came in the form of five-hundred-dollar cashier’s checks that showed up once a month over the last seventeen years. Most of them were sent from up San Pietro way.”
“Is that a fact?” He came around the desk, took my arm by the elbow, and led me toward the door. “Come on, I’ll go down with you.”
He was a very smooth character. If I was annoying him, he didn’t show it. He set the latch on the office door, pulled it shut, and tried it to make sure it locked. We walked down the marble stairs together.
“You see some connection between the checks and her radio jumping in the tub with her?” he asked on the way down.
“No. It just keeps gnawing at me. A woman with that much money in the bank, no will, and suddenly dead.”
“Happens all the time. Nobody thinks they’re gonna die. They put things off.”
As we walked out the front door, I turned around in front of him so he was facing the restaurant and stuck out my hand.
“Well, thanks for your time,” I said. “I was hoping since you left San Pietro about the same time the checks started, the name might ring a bell.”
“Sorry,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I don’t hear a thing.”
As he started to turn, I said, “How about Lila Parrish? Didn’t she disappear about that time?”
He stopped, and turned around. His eyes narrowed.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“She’s never turned up, has she?”
People scurried around us on the sidewalk. The street was full of cars going places during the lunch hour. A horn or two beeped. He walked over very close to me and said, “There’s a lot of funny ideas in that question.”
“I don’t get you,” I said.
“Sure you do. You tell me this Hicks dame was on somebody’s pad for five bills a month. Then you tell me the checks came from San Pietro. Then you ask about the other broad, Parrish, who was a witness in one of my cases. I could hop about two feet and make something out of all that. Parrish skipped out, pal. Nobody knows where. I, for one, haven’t seen her since the trial. Nobody else I know has either.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
“You know what I think, Bannon?”
“I think you’re more interested in finding out who was sending money to that lady than finding her family.”
“I’d like to see her get a decent send-off, that’s all.”
“Then pass the hat around the station house, you ought to be able to pick up twenty bucks. Here…” He reached in his pocket and took out a small roll of cash, peeled a five off it, and slapped it in the breast pocket of my jacket. “That’ll get it started.”
He turned and disappeared in the river of pedestrians.
I jaywalked back across the street to the restaurant. When I got to the table, Patty North was so excited she was bouncing in her chair.
“It’s him,” she said. “He’s the one. How did you know that?”
“I’m a detective, remember?” I said, sitting down at the table. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
I reached in my pocket, took out the crumpled five-spot and dropped it on the table.
“What’s that?” Millicent asked.
“He just started a fund to bury Verna.”
“What a wonderful idea!” Her eyes brightened and she said excitedly, “We can go back to the bank after lunch and open an account. I’ll put in fifty.”
I laughed. “Millie, with fifty bucks we can lay her away in a solid silver coffin, with the Philadelphia Symphony playing ‘Goodnight, Irene.’ ”
The waiter brought our meals and we dug in.
“Now, Patty,” I said, “you are sure that’s the guy who bought the check for Verna Hicks, aren’t you?”
“Oh, absolutely,” she said, nodding her head emphatically. “There’s no question about it.”
“You did a great job,” I said. “Thanks.”
We finished lunch and I dropped Patty North off at her bank with more thanks.
On the way back to the West L.A. bank, Millicent said, “He’s the one you’ve been looking for, isn’t he?”
“Yes and no,” I said.
“I don’t understand.”
“His name is Eddie Woods. He was a cop up in San Pietro, got in some trouble, and left about the time Verna Hicks showed up down here. Now we know for sure he bought at least one of the checks. The next question is, who gave him the money to buy it.”
“He didn’t buy it himself?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “He wouldn’t have had that kind of dough back in the late twenties and early thirties. Whoever made that deal with Verna was wealthy. He knew he could pay off for as long as it took. Woods wouldn’t have driven all the way back to San Pietro to buy the other checks, everybody there knew him. I think his was probably a one-shot deal. I goofed.”
“How?” Millicent asked.
“By looking for a single buyer. Obviously the checks were bought by different people through the years. Whoever was paying off Verna probably brokered the buy through a middleman. And that’s going to make it even harder to trace them back to the number one.”
“I’m sorry,” a crestfallen Millicent said.
I smiled at her. “Don’t be. It was a great break. She’s a regular Charlie Chan. One thing I am sure of, thanks to her. Eddie Woods knows who the number one is.”
“How do you know that?”
“He was too far up in the hierarchy not to. Maybe he is the middleman. I have to go back up to San Pietro tomorrow. I think I can get some answers now.”
“If we have the money to bury Verna, can’t you just forget it?”
“I don’t understand.”
I got very serious. “You’ve got to keep what I’m going to tell you under that cute little hat of yours for the next day or two. You can’t even confide in your father.”
“Alright, what is it?”
“Verna Wilensky was murdered. She was drowned, and whoever did the trick dropped the radio in the tub with her to make it look like an accident.”
“Oh my God!” She covered her mouth with her hand. Tears suddenly gathered in her eyes.
“Now it’s a homicide, and I’ve got to find out who killed her.”
“Can’t you ask Woods?”
I tried to smother a laugh. “I don’t think that would work with Mr. Woods. He’s not going to give up that information, not after all these years of covering it up. I may be able to hammer information out of him but I’ll save him for later. First I want to see Culhane’s face when I tell him this is now a homicide case and they’ll have to stop playing coy.”
I pulled up in front of her bank and struggled out of the car.
“Please don’t get out,” she said.
“They kicked in my ribs; they didn’t kick my manners out of me.”
I walked around the car and helped her out. As she stepped by me, she brushed my cheek with her lips.
“We still on for tonight?” I asked.
“We better be.”
“I thought we might drop by the C-Note after the show.”
She tossed me one of her million-dollar smiles. “I’d love that,” she said. “Wherever it is.”
I stood there and watched her disappear into the bank. And I thought to myself, So that’s what they mean by the luck of the Irish.
I made a call to Ski at the Wilensky house and got one of the forensics men. After I identified myself, he confided Ski was out in the neighborhood.
“Anything new?” I asked.
“Ski thinks whoever iced the lady laid up all day in the house next door and then went after her when she got in the tub.”
“When Ski gets back, tell him I’ve got a call to make and then I’ll be on over.”
“Sure,” he said, and we hung up.
I made one more call and then drove across town to a little bar called Murphy’s Eight Ball, which was a hangout for off-duty cops and newsies. It was 3:30, too early for any action. The bartender was unloading bottles of beer in a cooler behind an empty bar. In the rear, a tall, rangy guy chewing on a wooden match was practicing side-pocket bank shots at one of the two pool tables. Up front, the dozen tables and booths all were empty. Jimmy Dorsey’s “Amapola” was muttering from the jukebox, its volume turned down to a whisper. The bartender looked up through bored eyes and gave me half a smile.
“Zee,” he said with a nod. “Little early for you, isn’t it?”
“I’m meeting Jimmy Pen,” I said. “Draw me one, will you?”
He took a frosted mug from the refrigerator and tilted it under the beer spigot and jimmied the glass full without putting too much head on it. I picked up a rumpled copy of the early Times edition and retreated to a booth as far away from both men as possible. Under a wall lamp that put out about as much wattage as a penlight, I read the banner head: bismarck attacked. The lead graph told me all I needed to know: the British Navy had hunted down the German juggernaut, which had sunk the HMS Hood and all its hands three days earlier. A battle royal was going on somewhere in the North Atlantic. I leafed back to the obits but there was no follow-up on the Wilensky story.
The door opened and a shaft of sunlight cut through the dark interior as Jimmy Pennington strolled in, hat on the back of his head and a newspaper folded and stuffed in his jacket pocket. He was carrying a brown nine-by-twelve envelope. The door swung shut behind him and he peered around the room until he spotted me.
He pointed to my glass and said to the barkeep, “Hey, Jerry, gimme one of these, will you please?” as he sat down, dropped his hat on the seat beside him, and laid the envelope by his elbow. Then to me, “I don’t believe it, you can actually read,” as he pointed to the dog-eared early edition.
“I can count all the way to ten, too, if I take my shoes off,” I said.
“You must want something awful bad to offer to buy me a drink.”
“I’m going to do you a favor, pal,” I said.
“ And pay for my drink? You don’t believe I believe that, do you?”
“Why are all you newsies such cynics?”
“If I am, I learned it from you. So what’s the scam for today?”
“No scam. I’m offering you a trade.”
Jerry brought the reporter his beer and a dish of pretzel sticks. I told him to put it on my tab.
“The last time a cop bought me a drink, we still had Prohibition.”
“That’s worth an item right there.”
“I assume all this has something to do with the stuff you asked for.”
“A reasonable assumption.”
“What the hell are you interested in Mendosa for? It’s off your beat by about a hundred miles.”
“I’ll get to that. First, I’m going to offer you an exclusive story. Your end is, you can’t break it until the five-star tomorrow afternoon.”
“How big a story?”
“It’ll put a smile on your face.”
“Hell, I’m not an editor, I…”
“Don’t hand me that shit, Zee. After fifteen years you know a banner story when you see one. Above the fold or below it?”
“What do I know about folds? Do we have a deal?”
“It’s a pig in a poke. What’s your angle?”
“You’ll understand when I finish. After we’re through talking, I’ll go back and write my report, which will back up everything I tell you. You can write the story ahead of time but you have to hold it until 4:00 tomorrow. I’ll file the report then, and that’ll give you a scoop.”
He thought for a minute and said: “Make it 5:00. We hit the street at 5:30 and all the competition’ll be off and drunk by then.”
“I can work that.”
“This some kind of undercover job you’ve been working on?”
“You want to listen or play twenty questions?”
He took a sip of beer, took out a little green pad and the stub of a Ticonderoga pencil, and stared at me.
I gave him a pretty straightforward rundown on how we found Verna Hicks Wilensky, Bones’s initial reaction, then got into the stuff in the strongbox, and finished with the five-hundred-a-month and the cashier’s checks. That got his attention. I continued with my trip to San Pietro, how the bankers were giving me the cold shoulder, left out the encounter with the two cops, and then dropped the second shoe: Bones’s reanalysis of the situation. He stopped writing and took a long swig of his beer when he realized he was on top of a murder case.
I then recounted the Wilma Thompson murder case, the appeal, and the missing witness, Lila Parrish; Eddie Woods’s probable assassination of Fontonio, his connection with both cases; and finally the fact that most of the checks came from San Pietro. I didn’t tell him I knew Eddie Woods had sent at least one of the checks; I kept that for my hole card.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“For Christ sake, you want me to write it for you?”
“You’re trying to tie this to Culhane’s tail,” he said, and it wasn’t a question.
“I can’t tell you that, it’s privileged.”
He chuckled. “The hell you say.”
“You didn’t get to be top-slot reporter on the Times by having somebody else do your thinking for you,” I said.
He tapped his pencil on the table several times and stared at me, then said, “You want me to grease the tracks for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t act dumb. You’re going up against Brodie Culhane and you want me to point the finger in his general direction.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, I said it.”
“You want the story or not, Jimmy?”
“I got the story. Question is, what am I gonna do with it? And how are you going to tie this to Culhane?”
“You’re beginning to sound like Moriarity.”
“I’m sounding like my editor. Can I quote you that you’re looking for a connection up in the San Pietro area?”
I juggled that around for a minute. Before I could answer, he said, “And how do you plan to tie Woods into this? So he lives in Los Angeles, so do a million and a half other people. And what’s the connection with Mendosa?”
“Let’s talk about that for a minute. What’ve you got for me?”
He slid the envelope over, opened the clasp, and pulled out a sheaf of clippings. “Most of this stuff was written by Matt Sorenson, who covered state news,” he said.
“Where is he now?”
“The big time lured him to New York. But he used to talk about Mendosa. He wanted to blow the roof off the town, but it’s outside our circulation area and the publisher squeezes every nickel so hard the buffalo gets a hernia. Most of what Matt wrote was what he could get over the phone, mixed with AP and UPI reports.”
“You need these back?” I asked, lifting a handful of clippings.
“Yeah, but there’s no rush.”
“Tell me what you know about Mendosa.”
He finished his beer and ordered another.
“Since when did you start drinking on the job?” I said.
“I’m through for the day. I’m gonna take full advantage of your tab.” He lit a cigarette and started: “When Culhane got rid of Riker and Fontonio, the number-three man in the mob was Guilfoyle. He took a powder. He moved down south to Mendosa. It’s in Pacifico County. It wasn’t much of a town, a lazy little place. Its main claim to fame is a sanitarium, mostly a spill for drunks, druggies, and senile old folks their kids want to dump. Guilfoyle didn’t have much trouble taking over and turning it into another Eureka. It wasn’t quite as wide open but the town turned dirty from head to toe.”
Pennington rooted around in the clippings and found a photograph. “Take a gander at Guilfoyle. He’s a real package.” He slid it across the table to me. I held it under the anemic light and saw a tall, beefy mutt in a light suit, uglier than a cross-eyed moose. He had thick features over a bull neck and two hundred pounds of muscle and flab. A cigar was tucked in the corner of his mouth and he wore a derby low over weasel eyes. His lips were curled into a smile that was closer to a sneer.
“Straight out of central casting,” I said.
“So what’s your interest in Mendosa?”
“One of the checks came from a bank up there.”
“If you think you had trouble with Culhane, I’d steer clear of Mendosa. Guilfoyle could get you two years for disturbing the peace if you sneezed in town.”
“Let me try something else on you. Supposing when Lila Parrish vanished she went down the road and hid out in Mendosa for a while. Then migrated down to L.A. and changed her name.”
“You think Verna Hicks was Lila Parrish?”
“Think about it. All these events happened within about eighteen months, starting with Riker’s trial in late 1922 and ending with the Fontonio hit in 1924, the same year Verna showed up in L.A., telling people she was from everyplace in Texas.”
“That’s another stretch, Zeke. Supposing Lila Parrish is living with her husband and family in Dubuque? Does the word slander mean anything to you? Do you have anything other than a hunch leading you there?”
I decided to play my hole card. “Can we go off the record a minute?” I said.
He pondered that. Reporters hate to go off-record for anything.
“Is it important, or one of your Canadian Club dreams?”
“Okay, but I get it first when you’re ready to go public.”
“It’s your story all the way.”
“What a sweetheart. Okay, let’s hear it.”
“One of the more recent checks sent to Hicks was bought and mailed from here in town. The buyer was Eddie Woods.”
That perked him up a bit. “You can prove this?” he said.
I nodded. “The teller who sold him the check ID’d him to me over lunch.”
“It’s still a stretch.”
“Look, I’ve given you all the background we have on Hicks. You can point out that she showed up down here after Lila Parrish vamoosed. The dates are more than coincidental.”
“How about the checks. Can I get photos of them?”
I nodded. “I’ll list the number of checks and how many came from the San Pietro-Mendosa area. I can’t give you the stats of the original checks because there may be some question about how I got them without a search warrant. I don’t want to get anybody in trouble over this.”
“How about her checks?”
“Fair game, they were in her safety box at home. I can also make the deposit books available to you.”
“Until the story breaks. Then anything in the report is fair game.”
He laughed. “You’ll be all over the papers again.”
“I won’t be here.”
“Where will you be?”
“Up north,” I said.
“Anything you get, I get first. That’s part of the deal.”
“Must be nice,” I said. “Having me do your work for you.”
“Works both ways, pal,” he said, and then with a leer added: “By the way, mind if I mention that pansy dog of yours in the story?”
“Where did you hear about the dog?”
“I can’t tell you that,” he said. “It’s privileged.”
I had a different feeling going to the house in Pacific Meadows this time. Murder changes everything. Just knowing it happened is sobering. But inside the house, Ski was jubilant, as was Bones.
“Progress,” Bones said. “We’ve got enough fingerprints from this place and the empty house next door to keep the F.B.I. busy for a month.”
“I don’t have a month. I don’t have a week. Every day, this case slips further away.”
“We’ve made some progress,” Ski said casually.
“All talk and theories. I need some hard evidence.”
“Oh,” Ski said sardonically. “Well, how about this. The killer is about your size, maybe a little shorter, ten pounds heavier. He was wearing dark pants, a dark shirt, and a bowler. He cased the neighborhood for an hour or so the day before he killed her. At about 6:00 a.m. the day of the killing, the killer parked his car in the empty lot at the end of that strip of stores up on Main. He walked down six blocks to the house next door, after ascertaining that nobody was home from the papers gathering on the porch and possibly calling once or twice. He sat at a table near the front door for the whole day. Actually, he ate a sandwich, which he probably brought with him, and took the refuse with him when he left.”
I sat there entranced as Ski painted a verbal portrait of the killing. And he was almost as good at it as Bones.
“When Verna went inside, the killer went out the back door, went to the side of her house, and watched her until he heard her drawing a bath. He wouldn’t have used the front door, too chancy, but none of the windows were locked either. He went in, took off his gloves, went straight into the bathroom, and about 9:18 p.m. he shoved her underwater. He held her under for about five minutes. Then he noticed the radio, pulled down the shelf, and let it drop in the tub with her. He went out the same way he came in, walked back up to his car, and at about 9:50 he drove away.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked.
“An old man two blocks over had a stroke six months ago. He sits on the front porch swing all day, every day. He saw the guy drive by four or five times. Tan-and-black ragtop. He thinks a Ford. A kid left his baseball mitt up at the ball diamond. He went up there on his bike to get it when he got up about 6:15 a.m. He was riding slow because he had a flashlight in one hand to see where he was going. When he passed the house, he saw the guy we described jimmy open the door. The guy had a small penlight in his mouth and the kid got a good shot of his hands. He was wearing black gloves. Gloves in May?”
Bones picked up the story: “He sat there all day, waiting for it to get dark. He sat by the front door so nothing would surprise him, even brought a sandwich, and ate it there. We know Verna never locked her windows. We found some threads under the bottom sill; he probably tore his jacket coming in. He went in the bedroom, saw her in the tub, took off the gloves so he wouldn’t have to carry them away wet, then he rushed her, shoved her head underwater, and you know the rest. He left the same way, walked back up to the stores, and drove off into the night. We know that because a druggist and his wife were doing inventory, and they saw a guy in a bowler come out of the Meadows about 9:50 and drive off in the brown-and-black ragtop that was parked at the end of the strip all day.”
“No facial description?” I asked Ski.
“Have you put out an APB on the car?”
“Yeah, but they can’t stop every black-and-brown Ford in the county.”
Bones said, “We got a fresh print off the shelf the radio was on. Another one off the commode trigger, like Ski suggested. We also picked up several prints off the table next door. Nobody eats with gloves on. We’ll isolate the prints in Wilensky’s bathroom and compare them to the ones on the table. If they match, and we can find the guy, we got our case.”
“How soon will you know whether they match?”
He pursed his lips and thought about the question for a minute. “Five days?”
“It’s gotta go to Washington and then go through the F.B.I. process.”
“I’ll push for four. And that’s fast.”
I nodded. Then Ski threw one in from the deep outfield.
“I think this bird’s an ex-con,” he said.
Bones looked at him with surprise. “How do you figure?” he asked.
“Who else would set up a job where he has to sit in one spot all day but a guy who’s spent a couple of years sitting in an eight-by-ten cell day in and day out.”
Bones smiled. “If he is, his prints could be on file here in the state.”
“It’s too easy,” Ski said. “We ain’t gonna get that lucky. This guy’s a pro. Casing the job, figuring out how to do it, noticing the papers on the porch so he knew there was nobody home. He had it all figured out.”
“Yep,” Bones agreed. “But even pros make mistakes. If he had just thrown the radio in the tub without drowning her first, she would have been killed instantly, and we would never have known the dif. Ironic, isn’t it? That blunder may just get him a noseful of gas.”
Me? I was wondering what kind of car Eddie Woods was driving these days.
I was high up on Beverly Drive when I found Boxwood. I could see why Millie asked me if I wanted directions. It wasn’t much of a street-barely two lanes wide and unpaved. The sign was lost among shrubs and trees. I made the sharp turn and followed the bumpy road around several curves. There was an occasional mailbox but the area was so heavily forested you could hardly see the houses from the road. Then the woods to the south began to thin out and I could catch fleeting glimpses of Beverly Hills and to its right, in the early evening haze, the sprawling Twentieth Century-Fox lot. I could see the big arc lights occasionally streaking into the evening sky from the sets where Tyrone Power or Gene Tierney or Don Ameche, the reigning monarchs of the studio, were probably shooting a scene in New York or Singapore, courtesy of the designers and carpenters who created movie magic.
I came on the property suddenly. The forest closed in on me again, I went around a shallow curve, and there it was. A stone wall about three feet high enclosed several acres of woods. The mailbox was imbedded in the wall. I could see the house flickering past through the trees, about two hundred or three hundred feet back in the woods. I turned in an open gate and drove down the dirt road that wound lazily around trees and wild bushes to the house.
It was a surprise. In my mind I had pictured one of those big Beverly Hills mansions, but this house was rustic, a high-peaked, one-story built of stone and wood. Cedar shingles surrounded an enormous chimney that was in the center of the structure. I drove past the carport, its door raised and the Pierce-Arrow Phaeton parked inside, up to a massive teakwood front door.
I was wearing my best suit, the blue linen double-breasted, with a pale blue French-cuffed shirt, a yellow tie with little blue dingbats, my best cordovan wing tips, and the small gold cuff links that, with $784, were my inheritance from my father. I had sixty-five bucks in my wallet including another ten Moriarity had given me for expenses. I was dressed to the nines and why not. I was going to take a Coldwater Canyon princess to the deli for dinner and to a free movie.
Chimes rang softly somewhere inside. The door opened immediately and she was standing there, her grin as wide as Sunset Boulevard and her eyes sparkling as they caught the rays of sun filtering through the trees.
“Hi,” she said. “Any trouble finding the place?”
“Came right to it.”
“I know, you’re a cop,” she said. “You can find any street in town and you remember phone numbers.”
She took my hand and led me into the house, stepping aside as she did. The dog sat behind her. A pure white German shepherd, larger than Rosie, his pointed ears straight up on alert, his eyes, coal black at the center ringed with flecks of yellow, looking straight at me.
“I keep running into dogs every time I go through a door,” I said.
“This is Montana,” she said. “He’s very well trained and very friendly, as long as you don’t do something stupid.”
“Is that supposed to reassure me?”
“He’s a dear. You’ll grow to love him, just like Rosebud.”
“I’m calling him Rosie, after a prizefighter.”
“I know who Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom is,” she said with fake exasperation.
“How come you call him Montana?”
“Because that’s where he came from. Dad has a little spread out there, uses it for hunting. His caretaker’s dog had pups and I got the pick of the litter.”
A little spread. For hunting. With a caretaker. In Montana. What am I doing here?
I walked past her into a wide hallway that went all the way through the house. There was a staircase on the right side that curved around to the second floor, where what looked like two rooms were tucked into the eaves of the otherwise A-frame structure.
“I’ll be ready in five minutes,” she said, trotting up the steps. “Make yourself at home.” She stopped about halfway up, leaned over the banister, and pointed out directions to me. “The bar’s to your left at the end of the hall, sitting room to the right, terrace straight ahead. Montana will show you around.”
And she disappeared.
Montana stood up and walked slowly toward the rear of the house as if he understood every word. I followed him.
There were archways on both sides of the hall. To my left was the kitchen and to the right, a library, which smelled of leather, its shelves jammed with books. One chair, enormous with an equally enormous ottoman, held down a corner of the room, with a coffee table on one side of it, an unruly stack of magazines on the other side, a floor lamp behind it. The record player and her records filled almost an entire bookshelf behind the chair.
The main room was at the end of the hall and ran the full width of the place. It was huge. The fireplace, an island of brick and brass, served as a room divider, separating the barroom on the left from the sitting room on the right. The ceiling soared above, forming the back side of the A-frame. Skylights made both rooms bright and inviting.
The sitting room was furnished with white goose down sofas and chairs. It was a room decorated for comfort. On a table at one side of the living room were a dozen or so photographs: pictures of Millicent as a child in riding clothes on a black horse; family groups; Millicent on graduation day with her father standing proudly beside her. And one photograph of a roguish-looking young man in an RAF uniform with the insignia of the Eagle Squadron-a group of Americans who, in 1940, had formed their own flying squad within the British Air Force. Scrawled across the bottom was: “To my dear heart, Mill the Pill. Keep the faith. Hugh. 11/14/40.”
An enormous window faced the terrace, with French doors on either side.
And what a terrace.
I followed Montana onto a length of neatly mowed lawn, twenty feet I guessed, up to the swimming pool, which stretched the length of the terrace and looked at first like a reflecting pond. I walked around one end of it out to the edge of the terrace and watched a broad facade of water, almost as long as the pool itself, pouring like a solid sheet straight down on rocks a dozen feet below and, in turn, running into a small pond surrounded by wildflowers. Then there was a tennis court, and beyond it the forest sloped down to a natural stream that tumbled down the hillside. The stone wall ended five feet from the stream, with a gate at its center. On the other side of the creek, nothing but trees. A sudden breeze took the heat out of the air and brought with it a guarantee of rain.
I was in a place far, far away from the L.A. I knew.
“So this is where Adam bumped into Eve,” I said to Montana.
“I assume from that remark you like it,” Millicent said, behind me.
I turned and walked back to the doorway. She was dressed in a pastel blue, lightweight cashmere blazer, white blouse, a pleated yellow silk skirt, and a matching silk scarf around her long, aristocratic neck. She was so chic she embarrassed the word.
“If Eve looked as good as you, Adam wouldn’t have been interested in apples,” I said.
She blushed, her lips parted slightly, and she stared up at me for several seconds. Then she smiled and said, “Wasn’t it Eve who was interested in apples?”
We stood a foot apart, staring at each other, until she broke the spell. “Come on, we’ll be late,” she said. And to Montana, “Alert, Monty.” His attitude changed. He suddenly got serious. He pranced around one corner of the pool and off into the woods.
“He’s beautifully trained,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said brightly. “When he’s on alert, he gets very officious.”
“I can tell. Shall I close this door?” I said as we went back into the house.
“No, leave it open for him, he likes to patrol the place when I’m not here. Or take a swim. Or chase a rabbit. I lock the front door but it’s for show. No thief in his right mind would take him on.”
She turned on a couple of lights and we headed for the door.
“I’ve always had shepherds,” she said, leading me toward the door. “My first was Buck. I named him after the dog in Call of the Wild.”
“Buck was a malamute,” I said.
“Not in my head he wasn’t,” she said with an arrogant lift of her chin.
When we got outside, she turned toward the carport and tossed me her car keys.
“Let’s take the Phaeton,” she said. “You drive.”
“Aww,” I said, “and I’ve got the company’s best car.”
“How did you swing that?”
“I have to go up the coast early in the morning.”
“Is this about Verna?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be back tomorrow night late.” And dropped it at that.
We made small talk as I kept the car in third gear and wound our way down to Sunset Boulevard, where I turned left, heading up to Hollywood. A block or two from Grauman’s I pulled down a side street and parked in front of Harry’s Absolutely Genuine New York Delicatessen.
British sink Bismarck
And the subhead:
Nazi juggernaut blown from sea;
ENGLISH fleet avenges hood loss
I threw a dime in the cigar box on top of the papers and took two.
Harry’s was just what it claimed to be. Black and white tile floors, red leather booths, white linoleum tabletops, wooden chairs with heart-shaped backs. Lots of light. The smell of salami and pastrami mixed with the rich aroma of the bakery.
Harry, at the front counter slicing turkey, looked up and yowled, “Hey, Zee, where ya been? I thought you died.”
“I’ve been busy, Harry.”
“So, you don’t eat when you’re busy?” He shook his head in disapproval. “Better not let Mama hear.”
“Where is she?”
“Home with the grandkids. It’s Tuesday. Who goes to the deli on Tuesday? Sit anywhere, Zee. Menus on the tables tonight.”
We sat across from each other in one of the front booths and I gave Millie one of the two newspapers I’d picked up by the entrance. Her mouth was agape as she scanned the headline about the Bismarck.
I started reading the story. British dive-bombers had jammed the rudder of Germany’s proudest battleship and it had circled helplessly while the British closed in and blew it to bits. According to the account, the Bismarck lost 2,400 men in its final battle.
Harry came to the table and read the headline over my shoulder.
“Harry, this is my friend Millie,” I said. He stepped back, looked her over, and put his hand over his heart.
“Beautiful, exquisite,” he said, rolling his eyes. “My heart goes pitty-pat. What you think, Zee. You think we get into this war?”
“You want to live in a world with Hitler on one side of us and T?oj?o on the other?” I asked.
A two-column yarn in the lower left corner of the front page described a near riot caused by America Firsters, pacifists who were against America getting into the war, and a group of American Legionnaires. There was a photo of angry men in overseas caps yelling at a group of businessmen carrying signs that said lindbergh says stay out of europe, and an ugly cartoon of a leering Roosevelt with Death swinging a scythe behind him and a caption that read roosevelt the warmonger.
“Now there’s an irony. A bunch of business types on a picket line calling Roosevelt a warmonger, and the British and Nazis are blowing each other up in the North Sea.”
“Corned beef and cabbage is the special,” Harry said, to loosen up the tension. “I musta had a premonition you were coming, Zee.”
“Sounds good to me,” Millie said, and handed him her menu.
“On two, with draft beer,” I said.
“Splendid,” Harry said, and rushed off to the kitchen to get our dinner.
Millie shuddered. “Every day it’s something awful,” she said, turning her attention back to a war which couldn’t be too far away. “My heart stops every time I see that photograph of the Nazis marching past the Eiffel Tower.” She paused, and added, “You think we’ll get into it, don’t you?”
“Just a question of time.” I nodded.
“Will you have to go?” she asked me.
I shrugged, trying to brush it off.
“Do you remember the war?” she asked.
Did I remember it? Oh, yeah.
“I was nine years old when my father went off to France,” I told her. “I had a poster in my room. Uncle Sam without his top hat and coat. An angry Uncle Sam pointing straight at me and saying ‘I Want You.’ It scared me to look at it. Every day was a dread, every time the telegraph kid came down the street on his bicycle, we prayed it wouldn’t stop at our house. I’d lie in bed at night and cry. I cried every night because I didn’t think it was possible for my father to survive.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching across the table and taking my hand. “Did he?”
“What was left of him,” I said.
I didn’t tell her about the day my dad came home. My dad was a big guy with a crazy Irish sense of humor. The man who got off the train was like a shadow of that man. He had been gassed and it had reduced him to a wraith with sunken eyes who had seen a thousand horrors. His hands shook and he coughed a lot. He couldn’t hold a job. He wouldn’t talk about the war. I know now my dad had been dying. It took him twelve years, but each day he died a little more, until his lungs finally gave out. My mother died along with him. She lasted three years longer, the last two in such misery I still try to block it out of my mind.
This war, when it came, would be worse.
So I just said, “Sometimes I think it would be worse to wait at home than be in the middle of it.”
“I’ve already lost someone in Europe,” she said, staring blankly at the newspaper.
“Nineteen forty. My cousin Hugh. Crazy cousin Hugh.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was always crazy about airplanes. Learned to fly when he was a kid. When they formed the Eagle Squadron he raced off to London and joined up. I got a card from him after his first flight. He had shot down a Messerschmitt his first time out and he was so proud. Two days later he went down over France.”
“I’m sorry.” It sounded pitifully inadequate. I decided to lighten things up.
“I saw his picture in the living room. ‘Mill the Pill’?”
It got a laugh out of her.
“That’s what he called me. Hugh was the hell-raiser in the family and I was Miss Proper. Growing up we fought like brother and sister, but when I was a teenager going to school back East he took me in hand.”
“So you turned into a hell-raiser, too?”
“I’m still trying.”
“And what’s the most audacious thing you ever did?”
She thought about it for a full minute.
“I sneaked over the wall at Miss Brownington’s School for Girls and went to see King Kong at the Radio City Music Hall.”
I faked surprise. “Wow!” I said.
“That was a major step for me, sir,” she said haughtily. “I could have been expelled.”
Not likely, I thought. Not when your father owns half of Montana.
The marquee said “Special Preview Tonight” and there was a long line at Grauman’s Theater when we got there, plus the usual crowd of tourists looking at the wide walkway leading to the ticket booth with all the hand- and footprints of the stars immortalized in concrete. Frank was standing in the entrance in his tuxedo, smiling as the paying customers streamed in. He waved us over and led us into an almost full house. There were three rows toward the back roped off in velvet for the special guests.
Most of those seated in the “velvet rows” were studio execs. Producers, flacks, and their friends. The stars, if they showed up, would come in when the house lights dimmed.
Hedy Lamarr came in as the lights lowered, tall, dressed in a white hooded dress, her jet-black hair framing porcelain features. The ice princess, aloof, unreachable, the epitome of a Hollywood glamour queen. Frank unhooked the velvet rope and she took the aisle seat. Her escort, whom nobody noticed, stepped past her and sat down.
Jackie Cooper came in next, accompanied by an older woman I assumed was his mother. I hadn’t seen Cooper in a movie since he was a kid. Now he looked to be about fifteen. Judy Garland came in last, and sat with a small, strange-looking man with bug eyes. The studio people nervously awaited the audience reaction to what was obviously one of their major pictures of the year. James Stewart, Lana Turner, Lamarr, and Garland were the stars. It was terrific. Three young singers and dancers make it big in the Ziegfeld Follies. There was a spectacular Busby Berkeley dance number, but Garland stole the show with a heartbreaking rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” The picture got a big hand from the audience and the stars slipped out while the cast credits were still rolling.
We stopped to thank Frank and then ran through the first drops of rain to the Phaeton. Big drops began to fall, splattering against the windshield as we got in the car.
“How about a nightcap?” I asked.
She leaned over close to me and said, “That would be very nice.”
Maury’s C-Note was on Santa Monica near Moreland, on the edge of Beverly Hills. Maury Castellano had started the club with a one-hundred-dollar tip from Victor Mature, which he’d gotten when he was maitre d’ at Robie’s Nightclub on Vine, a popular hangout for the movie set. He had used the C-Note to option a large garage and raised money from friends to remodel it. It was a comfortable supper club with pretty good food and a piano bar. The walls were lined with photos of Hollywood’s greats and near-greats.
I let Millie out at the door, parked the car, and ran through the rain to join her.
Maury held down the corner of the main bar and got up to jiggle my elbow when we entered. He did not like to shake hands.
“Hey, Zee, long time no see.” He grinned.
“I’ve been fighting crime,” I said with as straight a face as I could muster, and introduced him to Millie.
He bowed low, made a pass at kissing her hand, and said to me, “The Bucket?” I nodded.
The attraction for aficionados was the back room, where a bass player named Chuck Graves held nightly jam sessions with musician friends. The room had become a spot for big-name musicians to stop by and sit in with Graves’s trio. Chuck’s daytime job was as a studio musician, playing in the orchestra at Columbia Pictures.
The room, located in the rear of the club behind closed doors, was small, a mecca for true jazz lovers who cared more about music than decor and comfort. It seated about fifty people, on bridge chairs. The tables were just big enough to hold a couple of drinks and an ashtray. The place didn’t really get jumping until around midnight but things were lively enough when we entered.
A cloud of cigarette smoke clung to the ceiling like fog. It was hot. The mismatched furniture looked like it had been picked up off street corners, the walls were painted black, and the stage was a platform supported on concrete blocks. A fan high on one wall over the rear door was doing a failed job of sucking out the smoke and heat.
I didn’t recognize anybody in the room, although some looked interesting: a big man with lazy eyes in a checked sports jacket, who Chuck said was an actor, making a name for himself in westerns, and who leaned forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees, chain-smoking, listening to every note; a bald man doing a crossword, tapping his foot to the music but never looking up; a woman in a leopard coat, sitting with a little man in a tuxedo who was sweating like a sumo wrestler.
The group consisted of Graves; a tall, ebony-black piano player with a grin almost as wide as the hall; a horn player named Turk Ziegler, who used a mute most of the time; Bravo Jones, a balding alto sax man in the baggiest suit I ever saw-no tie; a skinny drummer in a striped shirt and a bow tie; and a diminutive colored man with a thin mustache, dressed in a Sunday suit and tie, playing electric guitar. They were wrapping up a lively version of “Airmail Special” as we entered. We sat at one of the dime-sized tables near the bandstand and ordered drinks from a waiter who looked like he was wilting.
Graves, a tall, rangy, good-looking blond with a musician’s pallor and sad brown eyes, walked over to the table with a kind of loose-limbed slouch. His soft, mellow voice drove the girls crazy, especially when he sang sad ballads.
“Hi, copper,” he said with a wry grin. But he didn’t look at me, he was staring at Millie. He kissed her hand and added, “Chuck Graves, at your service, ma’am.”
“I’m over here,” I said.
“Oh, I know, son, but I doubt anybody cares.”
She looked embarrassed until it dawned on her that we were joking around.
“We can’t stay long,” I said. “Millie’s a working lady and I got to go up the coast at dawn.”
“That’s cool.” And to Millie, “Next set’s for you.”
The band came back, Chuck said a few words to them, and they looked over at the table. The piano man and Chuck laid down a beat, and Chuck started to sing:
I’ve flown around the world in a plane,
Dined on caviar and champagne,
And the North Pole I have charted
Still I can’t get started
Chuck sang from the heart, soft as marshmallows, and finally wrapped it up:
I’ve been consulted by Franklin D,
Greta Garbo has had me to tea,
I got a house, a showplace,
Still I can’t get no place
We stayed an hour.
When they wrapped for a break, Millie blew a kiss to Graves and I waved to the rest of the crew. I dropped a fiver in the bucket. From the corner of my eye I saw Millie add a hundred-dollar bill.
Maury held an umbrella over Millie’s head as we raced out to the car. He helped her in.
“Hey, Zee,” he said, “don’t get lost so much. We miss ya.” And to Millie. “Make him bring ya back, okay?”
He ran back into the club.
“Do you know every body in town?” she asked.
“This was my beat when I started out,” I said. “It’s my old neighborhood.”
I started to put the key in the switch but she laid a hand on mine and stopped me.
“Was Chuck playing that song for me or you?” she asked.
“ ‘I Can’t Get Started.’ ”
“Maybe he was telling me in his own way that…”
“Stop right there,” she said softly. “You can go anyplace with me, Zee. I’d fly around the world in a plane just to come home to you.”
She laid both hands on my cheeks. Her hands were as smooth as fine suede. She drew me to her and kissed me. Her lips were soft and full and giving, and she folded into my arms.
I shoved the gear stick into second to get it out of the way and slipped over to her side of the seat. She shifted, facing me, and her leg slid over mine. She reached over, her hand moved down my spine and pulled me to her. I could feel the heat of her as she crushed against me.
We never stopped kissing but I could hear her sigh deep in her throat and she began to tremble as my hands explored her.
I don’t know how long we were there.
Long after the rain stopped.
I picked up Ski a little after seven in the morning and took the same route I had taken going up to San Pietro the first time. Ski spent most of the trip dead asleep, sitting straight up with his arms folded. He didn’t like long drives.
When we passed the fruit stand on 101, I looked up on the hill but the beautiful young girl on the pinto pony wasn’t there. Maybe it had been a vision. Maybe there wasn’t any girl on a pony dashing across the hilltop. Maybe it was subconscious. Maybe Millicent was the young girl and the pony was her baby-blue Phaeton. Maybe I was thinking too much.
At the turnoff I nudged my partner.
“Almost there,” I said. “Any time now a black Pontiac will probably drop in behind us.”
But it didn’t. I stopped at the overlook and gave Ski a quick visual tour of San Pietro, the Hill, and Grand View House. I looked out on the bay but the Grebe yacht was gone. We drove down into town.
I parked in front of the city hall. The maroon Packard was parked haphazardly a few yards farther on.
“That’s Culhane’s prowler,” I told Ski as we got out.
“Does very well for the sheriff of a county the size of a saltine,” Ski said.
“The county owns it,” I said. “I guess that makes it legal.”
Ski just snorted derisively. I left him to stroll around the park.
There was no sign of Culhane or Rusty, but I couldn’t imagine them being very far from his rolling office. I went in to the police station. Rosie was behind the counter. She recognized me when I walked through the door.
“Hi,” I said. “Remember me?”
She graced me with what might have passed for a smile and said, “He’s fishing. It’s Friday.”
“Ah. Wednesday everybody plays golf at noon, Friday morning they go fishing. When do they take their ballet lessons?”
“The captain wouldn’t know one end of a golf club from the other.” She looked at the Seth Thomas on the wall. “He should be in any time now.”
“I’ll just go down and wait by the pier.”
“It’s a free world,” she said, looking for something else to do. As I was headed for the door she mumbled, “He said you’d be back.”
I went back to the car, drove to the foot of the street, and parked next to a silver Duesenberg Murphy convertible, which was sitting in a diagonal parking strip between the park and the pier area. Ski wandered over munching on a snow cone.
“That’s a cute little buggy,” he said. “Must be fifty G’s worth of car, at least. Are you sure you’re allowed to park next to it?”
“That’s Gorman’s car,” I said.
“He’s the shy banker?”
“Shy or ill-mannered or maybe both. Take your pick.”
Along the length of the pier were several booths, capped with bright umbrellas, offering everything from hot dogs, soft drinks, and sandwiches to booze. Between them and the pier were patio tables with the same patterned umbrellas providing shade. Beyond the pier, the ocean stretched off to the horizon under a cloudless azure sky.
We sat down at one of the tables and checked out the harbor. To the north, on the public beach, a couple of kids were building a sand castle while their mother was stretched out on a canvas beach chair, reading a book. Farther down, four bobby-soxers were horse-wrestling in the water, the girls teetering on their boyfriends’ shoulders. I raised a pair of binoculars to look up the side of the cliff to the overlook and then on up to Grand View. Only its spires were visible above the trees. Then I pulled the glass down below the overlook to the ledge. From my angle I could just see the edge of the ledge and the tops of the pine trees, bent and flat-topped from the ocean winds. Something started gnawing at the back of my brain but I couldn’t sort it out.
“See anything interesting?” Ski asked.
“Not from this angle. There’s a ledge about halfway up that mean-ass road on the side of the cliff.”
“With the flat-top trees?”
“Yeah. There’s also what’s left of a 192 °Chevy on that ledge.”
“No kidding. What’s it doing there?”
“Some kid lost control of his car and went over.” I handed him the binoculars. “See the little spur up there with the stone wall around it?”
“It’s foggy up there every night. Apparently he missed the curve. They put the wall around it after that. The road’s closed now.”
“Ain’t you the fountain of information,” Ski said. “You ought to apply for a job as a tour guide.” Then he said, “There’s somebody up there.”
I looked up, but the overlook was too far away to tell anything with the naked eye.
“It’s a woman,” he said. “Rich; she’s wearing a hat and gloves. Carrying flowers.”
I took the glasses. Ski was right, she was rich. You can always tell. Even when a rich woman dresses down, she’s dressed up.
She walked to the edge of the wall, looked out over the ocean for a minute or two, then down at the ledge, and threw the bouquet over the side. I watched it tumble end over end, catch the updraft, and skewer out flat before it fell off the wind stream and dropped almost straight down. It caught for a minute on one of the trees then vanished, cut off by the angle of my view. When I swung the glasses back up to the overlook, the rich woman was gone.
I pulled down the glasses and stared up the side of the cliff without focusing on anything. The nibble in my brain became a big bite.
I looked back out at the bay but there was still no sign of a power boat.
“I just thought of something,” I said. “Have a hot dog; I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
“Are you embarrassed to take me?” he asked, feigning hurt feelings.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
I got in the car and drove down the main drag to February Street and grabbed a right, followed it down to Third Street. Nothing had changed at the Howland house. The collie was still sleeping in the front yard and he didn’t open an eye as I walked past. Mrs. Howland answered after my first knock.
“Remember me?” I asked. “Sergeant Bannon, L.A. police.”
“Oh yes. My goodness, and I’m just a mess.”
“Is Barney here? I won’t be but a minute, I need to ask him a question.”
“Yes. Come in.” She led me to the staircase and called down to him.
“Barney, that nice young fellow from Los Angeles is back. Should I send him down?”
“Mr. Bannon? Of course,” he yelled back.
I went down the steps and he was pecking away at his Royal.
“I have a question, Barney,” I said as we shook hands. I walked over to the framed front pages and found the one I was looking for. The story in the right-hand lower column with the picture of a ruined car, which I had breezed over the first time. The headline read: eli gorman jr. dies as car plunges off overlook
I remembered Culhane telling me his life had changed one night at the overlook.
“Who was Eli Gorman?” I asked.
“The kid’s grandfather. The dead boy was Ben’s son, named after Mr. Eli. Mr. Eli owned the whole valley. He won it in a poker game with his partner, Shamus O’Dell.”
“Of the Grand View O’Dells?”
I looked back at the framed front page.
“The car wreck. What happened?”
“Eli Junior was goin’ down to see a silent movie. He was a young hell-raiser, all those young-uns up there were always doing crazy things. He should never have gone down Cliffside; it was so foggy you couldn’t see the end of your nose. He missed the first curve and went right off the overlook. The car burned but of course nobody even noticed that. They didn’t spot it until the next day.”
“What do you mean, nobody noticed it?”
“That was the same night Buck Tallman was killed.”
When I got back to the park, Ski was still scanning the bay with the binoculars. A big Chris Craft with a mile-high flying bridge was entering the mouth of the harbor.
“This is probably our boy now,” he said. Then, “How’d the quickie go?”
“I just got another chapter in the history of San Pietro.”
“Ahh. Enlighten me.” He lowered the glasses.
“That car wreck up on the overlook?”
“It was Ben Gorman’s son. The wreck happened the same night as the Grand View shoot-out.”
“You ought to write a book.”
“A lot of action for one night in the life of a small town.”
“They happen that way. In threes. Something else big probably happened that night. Somebody’s cat got run over. Somebody’s Mercedes got a flat tire.”
I looked back up the cliff. “I’ll bet that was his mother. Or sister,” I said.
“Makes sense,” Ski said. “So what?”
“I don’t know. So something.”
“So why don’t you ask old man Gorman. That’s probably his boat.”
“I’ve got better things to ask him.”
“We going to ambush him when they come up?”
“We’ll ambush both of them.”
“My favorite endeavor,” he said with a smile.
We drank lemonades-“fresh squoze,” Ski informed me-and watched the big boat cruise up beside one of the docks. The engine growled as it went into reverse and the sea boiled up behind it like water boiling in a pot. Then Rusty appeared from behind us somewhere and strolled down to meet it. He was dressed, as always, in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. He didn’t acknowledge me. A deckhand grabbed the tie line, wrapped it around a cleat, and drew the bow in tight against some rubber tires attached to the side of the dock.
Culhane stepped off the cruiser as Rusty reached behind an ear and came up with a cigarette. Culhane lit it, then Rusty jerked a thumb back toward us. Culhane stared at us through dark amber sunglasses. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, baggy khaki pants, and white deck shoes. He turned back toward the boat, and the cigarette bobbed in his lips as he said something to somebody I couldn’t see. Then he came toward us with that loping, casual step of his. We held our chairs down. Rusty disappeared around the car and got in on the driver’s side, to roll another cigarette, I assumed.
He came up to the table and said with a crooked smile, “You’re a real bad penny, Cowboy. I see you brought the whole riot squad with you this time.”
“Captain,” I said with a nod. “This is my partner, Ski Agassi.”
Culhane pulled his sunglasses down an inch and stared over them at me. He nodded at Ski, who sat as he usually does, straight-backed, with his melon-sized hands on his knees. Culhane went to the booth and ordered a lemonade.
“It really wasn’t necessary; you made your point the other night,” he said as he came back to the table and sat down. “I owe you an apology about that. There was some… miscommunication between the boys and me. I assume you didn’t get mussed up too much, considering the outcome.”
“The one with the one eye kicks like a mule. Did he locate it, by the way?”
He nodded. “It was okay after he washed the mud off. That was some fancy footwork you showed Max and Lenny.”
“The one with two arms should have grabbed me.”
“That would be Max. Lenny hits harder.”
“Lenny hits very hard. I’ve still got a couple of very sore ribs. Out of curiosity, are all your cops walking-wounded?”
He looked over at me and said, “Lenny lost his arm and Max lost his eye in the same battle. And the reason Rusty doesn’t say much is he caught shrapnel in the throat at the same time. It missed his jugular but took out his voice box.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that so I kept my mouth shut.
“Three damn good cops nobody else will have,” he said. “There’s a couple more around. You’ll probably meet them if you make this a habit.”
“That the fight you won the Silver Star and Purple Heart in?”
“You been doing your homework.”
“It was in the Times. That’s the kind of juice they always salvage from canned resumes. Which reminds me, Max broke the car’s window with his head. It cost the city eleven bucks to fix.”
“Did you have to pay for it?”
“No, thank God. On my salary that’s a significant sum of money.”
“Two and a quarter a month plus another fifty after you put in your first ten years.”
“You been doing a little homework yourself.”
“Public record. I’m a taxpayer; they have to tell me.”
“What else do you know about me?”
“You made detective after only five years on the force and got kicked up to sergeant three years later. That says a lot about your capabilities. Got a bit of a temper, which gets you in hot water on occasion. You drive a four-year-old Olds, which cost you a hundred bucks used, live in a one-bedroom house. No debts to speak about. You’re unmarried, thirty-four years old, went to college for a coupla years, California State, then dropped out to become a cop. Why, I don’t know.”
“I ran out of money,” I said. “And got tired of slinging hash in the White House hamburger joint on Sepulveda for fifteen cents an hour when everybody else was getting rich playing the stock market.”
“They all went broke two years later.”
“Yeah. And I had a guaranteed job with a pension and a health policy.”
“Somehow I don’t think the amenities had a lot to do with it.”
“What gives you that idea?”
“I told you before, I been around cops all my life. The best and the worst. I can read ’em all. You’re the most dangerous kind.”
“Dangerous?” I laughed.
“Yeah. You’re a bulldog. When you’re on to something, you bite it in the ass and don’t let go, even when it’s the wrong something.”
“Is there supposed to be a message somewhere in all that?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
I let that go and backed up a few sentences. “Those amenities you were talking about get more and more important as time goes by,” I said.
“The way you play the game, I’d take the short-end odds you won’t be around to collect that pension.”
I gave him a long stare and said, “You keep saying things that sound like you mean something else.”
He chuckled. “Nah, just a guess. You like to play just off the edge, don’t you?”
“Like coming up here, announcing your arrival, annoying a lot of leading citizens, then going right back at it after I tell you there’s nothing to be learned. You take down two boys twice your size and give me the message in a paper bag.”
“Is that why you had your boys work me over?”
He looked out over the bay and sipped his lemonade before answering.
“My friend Brett Merrill once told me I should never make a wish out loud, there are people around who might believe me and make it happen. I do that. Something happens, I get a little pissed, maybe I say something like, ‘I wish a piano would fall off a tall building on that guy,’ something like that. I don’t mean it, I’m just bitching out loud. Next thing I know, a Steinway lands on somebody.”
“Lenny hits like a Steinway.”
“You do a pretty good job taking care of yourself. Playing the edge. That’s why you’re a sergeant when most guys your age are still wearing out their shoe soles on a beat out in the boondocks somewhere. I’m not criticizing, mind you. In my book it calls for a certain amount of admiration.”
I changed the subject suddenly. “You didn’t tell me the victim in that car wreck at the overlook was Ben Gorman’s son,” I said.
He gave me the hard eye and said, “You didn’t ask.”
“It wouldn’t have occurred to me.”
“Me either. It was a car wreck. A young man we all loved was killed. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“It happened the night of the Grand View massacre.”
“Well, we didn’t find the car until the next morning. Somebody coming up Cliffside spotted it.”
“That was some night.”
“It was the saddest night in my life,” he said. “I lost Buck Tallman and my godson, back-to-back.”
“He was your godson?”
“Ben Gorman is my best friend.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound…”
“That’s a decent thought. Thank you.”
“Is that what you meant by your life changing forever on the stone bench up there?”
“Isabel and Ben never got over it. Neither did I.”
“I think we saw her about a half hour ago.”
“Isabel Gorman? Where?”
I looked up the cliffside. “Up there. Dressed to the teeth. She threw some flowers down the side.”
He stared up at the overlook for several seconds and then nodded. “She does that once a week. Has for over twenty years,” he said, and there was a deep sadness in his voice.
Ski didn’t say a word. He sat there with his hands on his knees, watching through eyes that revealed neither boredom nor interest. But he wasn’t missing a thing.
Nobody said anything now. I looked back out in the harbor. The big cruiser was tied down at the end of the pier. Gorman was nowhere to be seen. The Duesenberg was still sitting there.
“So old Ben’s going to give me the dodge again,” I said finally.
“I keep telling you, there’s nothing to be learned about that dead woman up here.”
“Yeah, you keep telling me. You aren’t trying to oil me, are you, Captain?” I said, smiling.
“I’d know better than to try.”
“Wouldn’t do you much good this time,” I said.
“Oh? How come?”
“Ski?” I said, and the big man took two folded documents from his inside pocket, then laid them on the table in front of Culhane. He spread them apart with the flat of his hand and eyed them for a minute.
“Search warrants,” I said. “For all the banks. One gives us access to the bank records, the other to safe deposit boxes at our discretion. Moriarity got them from Judge Weidemeyer down in district court.”
He stared at the two folded warrants without speaking. A lot of things kneaded through his tough face. He shook his head ever so slightly, then he suddenly stood up. “I’m going to take a shower,” he announced.
“I’d like to take a gander at the public records,” Ski finally said. “Will that be a problem?”
“Nope.” Culhane didn’t bother turning around. “Second floor, records department. Ask for Glenda, she runs the department. Tell her I sent you.”
With that, he got in his car. It made a U-turn, drove past the city hall, and turned right, toward the Breakers Hotel. Ski went up to City Hall. Me? I sat there by myself and stared at the Duesenberg.
I’d been nursing my lemonade for about ten minutes when Rusty pulled up in the Packard. He gave the horn a toot, got out, came around and opened the back door, and wiggled a finger at me. I went over and got in, then he drove me around the corner and up three blocks to the front of the Breakers Hotel.
I followed him into the lobby, which was as quiet as a cemetery and as elegant as a tiara. It was about a hundred feet across the lobby to the French doors that opened onto the gardens, swimming pool, and a small outside cafe. The grass was so even I imagined a Japanese gardener on his hands and knees clipping it with a pair of fingernail scissors. Beyond all that, the Pacific Ocean graced anyone who could afford to stay in the place.
The front desk and the concierge’s desk were pure mahogany, as was all the exposed wood in the room. The desk clerk and the concierge were both dressed in navy blue jackets with coats of arms on the left breast. About ten square miles of Persian rug covered hardwood floors. The chairs and sofas were plentiful, conservative, and expensive. To my left was a step-down bar, with about two dozen tables and a French slate bar on the far side. On the opposite side of the room from it was a cafe, with perhaps a dozen tables. The bartender was polishing a pebbled Waterford old-fashioned glass. He held it up to the recessed light behind the bar to make sure he hadn’t missed any smudges, then stacked it on a small shelf behind him. In the restaurant, a waitress in a dark green uniform was arranging the sterling silverware on the linen tablecloths.
Nobody spoke above a whisper, if they spoke at all.
Rusty led me down a long hall, which was to our left and at right angles to the lobby. On the left side of the hallway, more French doors leading to the tennis courts. On the right were the rooms. The hall ended in a T, which was Culhane’s suite. Rusty tapped on the door, then opened it with a key, and ushered me in. I heard the door close quietly behind me and I was alone.
A large room. New carpeting, expensive hotel furniture but hotel furniture nonetheless, more French doors facing the ocean. A fireplace in one corner, with a copper screen, and over it a large piece of what appeared to be a hunk of very faded, red driftwood mounted on the bricks. Beveled paneling stained the color of sun-blanched wood. Light-colored curtains and drapes. Against the right wall, an old rolltop desk with three framed photos on its flat top. A deep-piled white sofa about eight feet long, with matching chairs on both sides, facing the ocean. Bedroom and bath to the right and back toward the lobby. On the left, an alcove with a wet bar facing the living room, and behind it, a small kitchenette. A floor-model RCA radio in the corner adjacent to the desk with a record changer on top of it, which was playing Edith Piaf’s “L’Etranger.”
It was a bright, cheerful suite of rooms with a spectacular view, and a surprise to me. I was expecting dark wood and masculine furniture, with a stuffed marlin over the fireplace and a gun rack in the corner. I was expecting a dirty shirt thrown over the sofa, ashtrays running over with cigarette butts. A glass ring or two on the wooden table. Then I remembered it was a hotel, decorated by the hotel’s interior designer. The few personal touches and the photographs were as out of place as a waiter’s thumb in a bowl of soup.
I walked over to the desk and saw what was apparently part of a leg cast. There was a small gold lieutenant’s bar pinned to it. It was the only visible souvenir of his remarkable war record anywhere in the room.
I checked the piece of driftwood. It appeared to be off the stern of a boat. The black lettering, which was cut off by the shattered wood, said Dool… and under it Prin… Both were faded by sun and sea, and were barely legible.
“That’s what’s left of my old man’s fishing boat,” Culhane’s voice said behind me.
I turned. He was standing in the doorway that led to his bedroom, wearing a dark blue terry-cloth robe and scrubbing his hair with a white towel. He threw the towel over his shoulder and went behind the bar.
“Irish Mist suit you?”
“Doesn’t get any better.”
“Straight up, one cube of ice?”
“That’s a good guess.”
“It’s my drink.”
He filled two highball glasses with more than generous slugs and dropped one ice cube in each. It was a little early for me but I wasn’t going to pass up a glass of Irish whiskey.
“Tommy was a fisherman,” Culhane said, handing me my drink. “He and Kathleen Brodie came over from Doolin, County Clare. She was fifteen when they married.”
“When was that?”
“Eighteen eighty-four. They raced the stork all the way across the Atlantic. They were determined I’d be born on American soil and they just made it. I was born on Ellis Island in the physical examination clinic.”
“How’d they end up out here?” I asked.
“No fishing in New York City. So they bundled me up and headed across the country to this ocean. Fishing was all he knew. He hired out until he saved enough money to buy his first boat, called her Doolin Princess after my mom, and painted her bright red, Mom’s favorite color.”
“I mean how did they end up in San Pietro?” I asked.
“Back in those days this was a fisherman’s community. The natural bay, great fishing waters ten miles out there.” He waved vaguely toward the Pacific. “Hell, there used to be an icehouse just about where you’re sitting, ice to keep the fish fresh until they got back on the Hill. So this is where they settled. We lived in a little shack up in the village, when it was called Eureka.”
“And you use your mother’s maiden name instead of your father’s first name?”
“That was his idea. He said one Tommy in the family was enough.”
He turned and held his glass up to the piece of wood.
“Here’s to both of you,” he said.
“They’re both dead?” I asked, joining the toast.
“Yeah. Tommy went out one day with his three-man crew. A heavy blow came up and we never saw him again. Couple of months later a guy down in Milltown who knew me saw that on the rocks. That’s all we found. No other wreckage, no bodies. The Pacific has an ironic name. It can be damn unforgiving.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“He was okay, Tommy Culhane was. Good husband, good father, and one hell of a fisherman. Nothing breathing scared him.” He chuckled, and added, “Loved a good brawl as long as it wasn’t over anything serious.”
“How old where you?”
“Eleven. My mom died two years later. In the state hospital, of pneumonia.”
I knew about institutions like that. My mother had spent two years in and out of such dismal places, ending up in a state hole jokingly called a hospital. No matter how you dolled them up, nothing changed. There were always the smells of Lysol mixed with feces lingering in the halls and rooms; always burly men in sterile white pants and shirts, who called themselves “attendants” and resolved “incidents” by bending fingers back or hitting places that did not bruise easily; who slaughtered the King’s English but used long medical terms as casually as a preacher throws around cynical hypotheses like “God” and “Christ.” My mother’s fingers were permanently crippled and her dementia was so deep that lethargy was a generous way of explaining her state of mind. She lay comatose for a month before she died of what was wryly diagnosed as pneumonia. I knew she was not comatose, I could tell by the way her eyes flicked briefly toward me. There was a momentary hint of recognition in that glassy stare when I went to visit her. I think she found some semblance of comfort in retreating into her own troubled and chaotic psyche. The last time I saw her she was skeletal and her gnarled fingers lay limp and useless at her sides. Truth be known, she died of starvation, which I learned is not an unpleasant way to die. For a few years after her death, my dreams were often haunted by the sudden intrusion of her mummified look and by the way her hand felt when I held it, like a bunch of twigs. I would awaken squeezing my own hand. Eventually these troubling images became less and less frequent but they never fully vanished.
And I thought about Brodie Culhane; about a thirteen-year-old kid left alone in a rough-and-tumble waterfront town like Eureka, a town without laws or morals; a kid growing up with a strong sense of justice in spite of it all, a sense of justice possibly tempered by expediency.
“What’d you do?”
He took a hard sip of his drink, let it roll around in his mouth for a second or two before swallowing it, and smiled. It was a fond smile, a good-memory smile.
“I became a stableboy.”
He shook his head. “But I was the Gormans’ stableboy,” he said rather proudly. “After the funeral, Ben took me up to meet old man Gorman. Mr. Eli took me by the shoulder and said, ‘I’ve got a job for you,’ and led me to the stable. I had a small apartment over the stalls. I’ll tell you, the old man could be a real pisser but he looked after me like I was a gold nugget. I was treated like family, rode to school every day in the shay with Ben, ate dinner with them at night. I even had a yarmulke for meals and holidays, but he had the buggy take me down to the Catholic mission every Sunday for mass.”
“How come he treated you so well?” I asked.
“My mom was their washerwoman. And I was Ben’s best friend. Still am.” He went back into the bedroom. “I’ll be about five minutes,” he said.
I walked over to the rolltop and looked at the photos. One was a tintype, obviously Culhane with his mother and father. Culhane looked to be about seven or eight, a tough-looking little boy in a hand-knit sweater and a cap pulled down above one eye. He was wearing knickers and one leg sagged down around his ankle. Even at that age there was defiance in his wary smile. His father was a big, hefty, dark-haired man with a robust smile, his arm resting on Culhane’s shoulder, while his mother was a wisp of a woman no more than five feet tall, dressed in a long skirt and a sailor’s pea jacket. In the background was the Doolin Princess.
The second photo showed Buck Tallman in the saddle of a big Appaloosa. Culhane was standing in front of the horse holding its bridle. A good-looking kid in his late teens or early twenties, whom I assumed was Ben Gorman, was sitting behind Tallman, his hands around the big lawman’s waist.
The last picture was of Culhane standing with a young man who had one arm around Brodie and his other around the waist of a small woman. She looked to be in her early thirties, striking and beautifully groomed, with the dark hair and sharp features of a Jewess. Next to her was Ben Gorman. I assumed the woman was Ben’s wife, Isabel, and the young man their son, Eli, who had died in the car wreck. From their dress, the picture appeared to have been taken in the early twenties. It was an intimate photograph; they were all hunched together and smiling warmly at the camera.
He returned to the room dressed in black pants and a lightweight plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up halfway to his elbows.
“Nice photo,” I said, nodding toward the picture.
“Isn’t it though,” he said, and led me toward the French doors.
“Give you a start, brother?” Ben said. The two men rushed together, hugging and laughing like children. They walked briskly back to the house, both chattering away, cutting each other off with one story after another. Ben didn’t talk about the future. He didn’t have to.
“Eli and Isabel will be home in the morning,” Gorman said. “The kid’s dying to meet you. You’re his hero, Brodie.”
Culhane dreaded the meeting.
He was edgy when he and Ben had breakfast but tried to conceal it. They joked about the past, about kids who had grown up and moved on, about Delilah O’Dell and her infamous club. Ben drove them out to end-o’-track, and Brodie strolled back and forth trying to appear casual. He tried to roll a cigarette but his left hand was still stiff from a shrapnel wound and the tobacco fell out and was whisked away by the wind. He balled up the paper and stuck it in his mouth.
“Here comes the train,” Ben said gleefully. “Come on, come on.”
He took Brodie by the arm and they walked up to the makeshift station as the train rounded a bend and appeared through a thicket of pine trees. As the big engine hissed and puffed to a stop, he saw the kid on the platform between cars, looking through the steam, seeing his father and waving, and then, behind him, the tiny, dainty figure of Isabel, one hand holding her hat to keep it from flying off. The kid helped her off the train as Ben and Brodie went to meet them.
Time had been more than generous to her.