A pissy grey mist greyed up San Francisco like a congregation of Lutheran actuarial table editors, and I chewed through my sure-fire investment plan: get extremely charming in the vicinity of drunk rich girls with daddy problems, a plan that would have to percolate while I munched on a stale donut drowned in coffee from Owl's Pharmacy, the little blobs of wax from the paper cup floating like icebergs on a hot oil spill, and as I watched a black funeral-special street car pass by on Market Street, its sole passenger undisturbed for once while lying down on public transit, a clutch of the local street walkers tried to look sad by smoking less rapidly. I spit into the gutter, but with respect.
And here was the Fairmont. I screwed up my dignity from zip to inscrutable and blazed my way in, staking out a stool between the stink of swank and the Pied Piper painting in the dark, woody barroom, where the coatrack, covered in minks, looked like a bigfoot with chicken legs. Soon enough, I was chatting up a steely Lana Turner-looker for a while before it got hard to see only one Turneresque tomato, thanks to enough quart-sized Mai-Tais to fill the whole toilet bowl I was planning to vomit in about two minutes- but hey, even two quasi-Lanas is never enough when your looking at a face so sweet you could mix it with butter and call it frosting and a bosom so patriotic she couldn't have seen her shoes if her legs weren't so long. Just the juice to forget Renata from the whole Errol Flynn hullabaloo- she'd hopped a steamer back to Brazil when her Aunt Juanita died and left her the more profitable half of a coat hanger factory.
The blond was blond as a Norwegian peroxide factory, and dangerous as that factory exploding, and if an entire baker's dozen of ex-girlfriends hadn't just organized through some sort of secret woman communications network into kind of ex-girlfriend trade union and mailed me a whole box of bits of things I'd left around, like keys, bullets, straight razors, empty bottles of Gin Boom's Even Rotter Rot-Gut, mismatched socks, an irritating sheaf of papers from their new attorney Bill Marginpale, a crushed pack of Lucky's, a receipt from Madame Very Happy's in the Tenderloin, my old .32, and a stick of ABC Beeman's gum from 1931, I might have tried to pretend to ignore her. But trying to ignore that lean, soft peppermint tab of all-girl saltwater taffy was like to trying to distract yourself from the noose you were about to stick your head in by trying to concentrate on the rotten cabbage people were throwing at you.
"Aethelgifu," she said. "You were going to ask my name. Aethelgifu De Havilaand." She held out her hand, her skin soft as a baby bunny in an angora hat full of whipped cream.
Doctor Mack Brain. Private GumDoctorVestigatorShoe." I said. Sometimes that worked, when English was my first language, instead of Rum-anian.
Her broomy eyelashes fluttered slowly, like a shop floor being swept by janitor still grumbling over his bad experience with General Sherman. The bartender came by, winking like a cheap lightbulb every 48 seconds to check on her and she indicated two more Mai Tais with a practiced wave of her fingers. The band in the Papagaya room played a slow one, South American, judging by the distant bongos and the plucky, mango-sweet melody that wafted through the grand hallway. I'm no music critic, except when Kate Smith tries the blues, but it was nice enough, an the swells in monkey suits and silk dresses danced like swans with trust funds, floating dreamily, like WWII was just local color.
Aethelgifu gazed at the dancers, her head high, her eyes half-closed, listening, maybe envying. She moved with distracted, deliberate grace, like a Ziegfeld dancer with an opium habit.
"I used to be a Ziegfeld dancer, but I had a bad opium habit, so I moved here. Fresh start, you know?" She said. "You believe in fresh starts, don't you, Doc?" Her hand grazed my arm. Those fingers were well-manicured, the little fingernails shining red like little fire engines, and one drove around in a little circle on my sleeve, looking for the exit to Treasure Island, where the fire was growing.
Aethelgifu looked away, more coy and desperate than a knocked-up debutante at the Association of Handsome Young Men of Inherited Wealth Convention, in just that way so she knew I’d be gazing across her neck at the shining cascades of platinum blond hair pouring down and over her bare shoulder and to even more interesting bits and byways on the Aethelgifu Highway. The metaphors in my mind mixed like a dacquri-mixing cement-truck.mixer. All of a sudden, it got real hard to thinky well.
She turned back to me, a proud, melancholy look in her saucery, intelligent dark eyes, the radiance of her face radiating like extra-radioactive radium. “Mack," she cooed, "I like your face, it’s a hard face, but kind, sad eyes, maybe like a rabid doberman puppy. The kind of face a girl whose had a bit of a rough go of it might trust in a pinch.” She leaned closer, her soft poofy parts unwrinkling my clothes. Her complex, compelling scent, a rare Chanel No. fxx(x,y)=∞, like buttered mints abandoned in a Mediterranean orange grove through which ran an playful otter in heat, wantonly wafted into my head without so much as a lease and a $14 deposit.
“I don’t know why Mack, but I trust ya. I’ve never met a man I trusted so quick like this. It’s something about the way you carry yourself, heavy with worry but always ready to push a girl out of the way of a cement truck that had it’s brake likes cut, a tough guy on the outside, and a cold streak that could freeze the airport, the kind of cool and strength that makes a girl feel safe, but inside, inside here, Mack, I can tell, you couldn’t hurt a ant, a least one that didn’t owe you money.”
Damn dames. No matter how many Squarehead skulls you play jacks with , no matter how many atomic robots you unman, no matter how many pimps you work over with a blackjack and a Al Jolson record for two-bit whiskey shots and nickles for tips for Crumples the bartender at the Rusty Hobnail, they still peg you for that soft little wet kitten nose of an organ back-alley docs like me call your ticker, and all your good sense goes out the window, so no matter how many times it's happened, when that silky little love muffin slips a sliver dagger right through it, you never see it coming. And that little kitten nose under my gaberdine suit was thumping now like the wall in an hourly Market Street hotel room, and though the shriveling, sober part of my brain announced that Aethelgifu De Havilaand instigates more disasters than secret European defense treaties in 1914, it was outvoted by the kitten in my heart, the drunk in my brain, the wolf in my pants, and then my liver uncharacteristically abstained and went and ordered another round for all of us, and I seem to recall nodding at every pretty little word the pefect red lips of Aethelgifu mouthed, like "spies" and "money," and "do" as in "him in." She was playing me for a sap and I was the maple tree, but on whose pancakes I was going was anyone's guess.
The upshot was that the next week I was in Sausalito at an all-night fondue, charades and money-laundering party. As the arrangement worked, my ex-girlfriend Jenny sent me an invitation. Normally, I'd think she was just showing off the all-steel and glass modern mansion, gleaming with windows above and below, left and right, around and through. It was like living in the ice man's storehouse. She's set up house with Pastely Marstonbury, her latest husband, the shipping magnate, who, no doubt due to his shrewd business acumen, was making a pile on nitrates in the middle of the World’s biggest war, and their suspiciously attractive live-in maid, another stunning blond, this one a sly little 500lb high explosive sex bomb, one Aethelgifu de Havilaand.
Pastley sat around counting huge stacks of cash from filling the world's appetite for explosive gases, and I had to ask myself why the U.S. Government wasn't kiting a check like usual.
"Sweet pile of cabbage, eh, Brain? Ever seen anything like it?" he said. He spoke like he was failing to swallow a digestive biscuit.
"Ever need a bookie, I can hook you up." I said. " I can get you a 1500 to one shot on whether a guy'd show a complete stranger a stack of clams like that."
Pastely had the build of a bowling ball and a personality to match: dense with hard resin and tough to stop with your face. I could never have guessed what Jenny saw in him except for the fact that he was behind a pile of hundred dollar bills so high I could barely see his hat. Dressed like a real society dame, with an expression that said "Help Me!", she looked better than a million bucks, which I could tell easily enough because it was sitting there right next to her, but a furrow creased her brow, she was trying to tell me something with her hands, flicking her eyes to her right, where a little red receipt book sat on a night stand.
Marstonbury even laughed like a bowling ball,"Hah....hooooooooo...HA!" "Naw, Brain, Jenny vouched. She said you was straight. That's good enough for me!" It was moments like this, looking right at a Spam-faced, beet-red, creamed-corn brained war-profiteer with all the charm of a pickled goiter, that got you thinking maybe Trotsky was on to something.
Aethelgifu walked in her maid outfit, her little, very little, form-fitting, tres French maid outfit, pretending she didn't recognize me, handing out little sausages in blankets and glasses of champagne. Pretty strange house-warming party, the four of us, Aethelgifu joining us after the fifth bottle of Moet, playing "Cash Charades," where you folded up the money to give origami clues. Pastely did his impressions by rolling up bills and sticking them up his nostrils and insisting he was a walrus at least six times. The total lack of charm never wore off. I feigned a sudden skin infection.
"Been fun, but Blorack's Disease, you know," I said, scratching my neck, "got to get back to the city for the anti, er - Blorak ointment."
Jenny called me a cab, and shot me a glance toward my pocket. Aethegifu shot me a glance toward the door. Pastely shot a glance toward Aethelgifu's cleavage, which glanced off and hit the ceiling before he fell off his chair plastered. Finally, dizzy with pricey booze and sheer cash fumes, I stumbled toward the door, scratching my arms, and grabbed the cab back to the ferry dock. It was growing light.
The ferry back to the city creaked and groaned, its ancient dough-pounder engine racing at 3 RPM through a flat Bay with an oil-clogged, bull-kelp choked mirror of the ship, skies dreary and feet weary in the 5AM gloom, foggier than a forced recital of the Federal Register with a hangover, the East Bay working stock gulping burned coffee from the commissary to get half awake for a full day of petty humiliation ahead. Then, the crack of a gunshot.
The sudden splash off the port side toward Angel Island washed away nothing but my last hopes of ever getting paid from Errol Flynn’s agent, a grateful movie pimp named Billy Mars, grateful because thanks to my detective work, an elaborate ruse involving an amateur production of Gold Diggers of 1933 to foil a clutch of L.A. Nazi sympathizers, and Renata’s quick if implausible disguise as a Western Union boy, Flynn was back filming battle flicks for the Allies, all sins forgotten, except of course the new statutory rape charge the San Francisco D.A. was all girly with excitement about.
I got outside to the rail, where I immediately recognized the body, bouyant as it was from his enormous, trademark yellow spotted ascot. Billy Mars was big in Hollywood, pal, but Billy Mars was shot, a floating, over-dressed corpse, his giant ego now just a deflating balloon in the collective memory of Tinsletown - that was reality, and he’d bit the foot-long chili dog of death while on his way to my office to drop off the check, as it turned out later. But the only future for that sea-soaked check would be three month’s office rent in a dingy Sutter street office for some lucky Dungeoness crab, were he so inclined to cash the it and enter the detective business and make it pay better than me, which he would because most sea-creatures don’t get their clients shot.
The ferry was still 20 minutes out, nearly drifting, her engine cut to about one turn every fortnight, just to hold position. There were four or five hundred people milling on the greasy decks, about half of them leaning over the rails on the weather side looking at Mars’ body bumping up against the gunwales while a third class boy with a big nose and acne to emphasize the fact tried to fish him out with a boat hook. I took a long swig of imported Mummanschnaaps, and tried to imagine Veronica Lake weaing a lake, and nothing else. As it put it back in my pocket, I noticed the sweet touch of money, and pulled out one of the bills from last night's bizzare party - Jenny left a lipstick kiss on it, and a scribble that said "Get this bill checked! - J." Counterfeit? I looked right into U.S. Grant's alcoholic face, just as ugly as it should be. It looked real enough. Didn't make sense anyway- why would a nitrate tycoon have millions in clown cash? One other thing: Marstonbury's red receipt book was in the pocket with it.
I approached the kid hooking Mars, dragging him out delicately by an Italian loafer. “I’m a detective, “ I declared, flashing my dick license for the first time today in an official context. I pointed to the body. “This is Mars. And the stiff owes me money.” I left the part about not working for the police out.
The 1st Mate walked up with false confidence, like you do when you’re almost in charge. He was young, short, balding, pale as bleached linen that just found out his life savings in pork bellies were selling short. Mars lay on the deck exactly like a drowned sleazebag Hollywood producer. “The Sea has claimed another good soul,” said the Mate sanctimoniously, his gold trimmed uniform two sizes too large.
“Not unless the Sea shot him during absolution.” I said, turning the body over to reveal the round, sticky gunshot wound in his gut..
I searched Mars' pockets for clues. A receipt for $42.50 from the Top of the Mark- sheesh, I knew a lot a guys that didn’t make that in a month. A check for $2300 from Soda Works Consolidated, LLC, for “consultation.” And, oh, a small brown leather note book, full of phone numbers with intials, and another set of symbols: squares, triangles, circles with dots, and hearts. Holy Beans. The actual Lana Turner's number was almost certainly in here. There: L.T. Cocomo 02020. Noted. I looked back at the 1st mate.
"Listen, Sea-Major, you’re going to have to get a complete passenger manifest before we dock. Radio the City Cops; we have to search everyone at the Pier. Someone on this leaky meat scow drilled your stiff here, and it wasn’t for oil.”
We chugged into the Ferry Terminal. I was feeling testy and judiciously emptied the magazine of my .45 in case the cops weren’t chummy. I felt a little sick, and vomited over the side. Unfortunately for the newspaper vendor below, we’d already arrived.
I made my way down to the search area. The line of hats on the dock shuffled as the police questioned everyone, all fairly routine, they took down the names, made sure no one had obvious blood stains or smoking revolvers, and sent them on their way. They took a few photos. I took a gander at the line, no luck, no clues. Just wave after wave of tired, donut-munching faces, about as interesting as a stack of 1923 laundry receipts. Nothing more here.
Back at the office. The sun was coming in the window directly into my head, and I adjusted the venetian blinds, which promptly fell off the brackets, my hands going right through as I tried to grab them and I struggled for three minutes to extract myself from the ensuing tangle of metal and string that eventually claimed one sleeve of my jacket, which tore off and left the hole in the armpit of my shirt exposed. SNAFU. I finally sat down, I leaned back, the chair squeaking, my torn sleeve and tangled ball of blinds lying on the floor, a few armpit hairs poking out of the hole in my shirt like curious marmots in spring.
I poured through Mars’ brown book and a few other papers, tracking down his latest movie projects for someone who might pay be to find out who perforated his candy-ass carcass. There was "Back to Attu," with Johnny Weistmueller as a heroic Aleut taking on Japanese minesweeper with torpedoes strapped on either side of his kayak, "Tahoe Landing" with John Garfield as a Brooklyn street tough with dreams of the first dockside dinner theater on Lake Powell, and "Bonnie Prince Charlie," starring Bela Lugosi as the young Scottish hero. It was a picture alright, a picture of Mars, the Hollywood golden boy, losing his grip. Something was distracting him.
Then, I got the mail.
I'd sent the $100 Jenny slipped me to the lab boys at Police Headquarters, with instructions to check it out and keep it for keeping the whole thing quiet. The report was on my desk. I opened it, pulled out the report of a photostat of a teletype from the Secret Service: funny money, and worse, the paper matched the government paper used in german currency. Squarehead dough. Kraut cabbage. Nazi moolah. Another German plot. Did Hitler really have nothing better to do than break my balls every three weeks?
One other request from the SF cops: go over the photos from the ferry. Here they were: face after face, mug after mug: Sausalito slackers, Marin bohemians, Larkspur la-di-dahs. But a lot more broken Californians, the hard years in their faces, all creeds, condemned to gratitude to the fat cats for $5 a week, a drying crust on a spent bowl of cream: hard lines, gaunt cheeks, sad, glazed, resigned eyes. The war brought work, but the Depression had carved the lines around those eyes. Here, San Francisco, in this Eden. If it wasn't for Roosevelt, these folks would be tearing people like Marstonbury a new cream hole. Nearly did anyway, a couple years back.
Focus: what was out of place? Something, someone. Here a view from an upper deck and a figure caught my eye, a squat, short man, from the back, with a European cut on a perfect, linen suit, the crescent side of his face just visible, with a huge cigar stuck in it. I knew the guy.Kriestenheimer
. That is, Max "Sparky" Kriestenheimer, the 5' 2" head of the Prussian Benevolent Society of San Francisco, and the General Secretary of the Luxemborgian Redecoration Society, confidente of the Viscount Phillerph Von Pforffer Van Der Pforffen the Fourth, suspected as the only actual Japanese spy on the West Coast and the only pro-fascist interwar Dusseldorf dadaist, strutting around without a care in the world, and there, there, I got out the magnifying glass: a little oil stain, and the wrong kind of bulge in the wrong pocket: a 9mm, and his right, respectively.
Kriestenheimer. I gulped the last of the Mummanschnapps. Half of Hollywood wanted Billy Mars dead, and he gets scratched by an itty-bitty two-timing art spy. If we could crack the Japanese codes, I'd bet the residuals on Gone with the Wind that somewhere there was telegram of appreciation to Tojo from David O. Selznick.
So Kriestenheimer was back. But why kill Mars?
I checked Marstonbury's little red receipt book that Jenny slipped into my pocket. Here was the mark for $3 million, about twice the stack I'd seen, with a note: SK/ U203. If I hadn't commandeered one myself six months before, I'd have missed the reference: a U-BOAT, U-203! As if war-profiteering wasn't enough, Marstonbury was on the take from the Nazis! But $3 million prop schlamoolias? What did the Krauts buy for that? Was Billy Mars somehow in the way? Was the Baking Soda company a German front too? Was Errol Flynn an alcholic?
I heard a click.
I looked up. The door was wide open, and the figure that was blocking my light was a welcome sight, a nimbus of blondness around her head, her body distinctly Aethelgifu-shaped, with an incomparable scent, like free pasteries in a Catholic girls reform school... in the South of France!
"Stand-up real slow, Mack, " she said, waving something shiny.
A wicked-looking Luger, aimed at my heart.
The Complete Rebar for Tootsie Rolls is at IronCandy.blogspot.com.
Please do not attempt to be a hard-boiled detective at home without extensive professional training and supervision.