I gaped into the black hole in the cold steel barrel of a 9mm Luger, its barrel a drain, a drain opening to fear and doom, like a 2AM call to an old lady’s plugged toilet in suburban Billings. But what grabbed me like two fingers up the nostrils was the look in the big brown eyes on the face of the angel that was ready to get me reacquainted with my maker: a look of betrayal, of rage, of anger, of revenge, of fear, of contempt, of determination, then a brief moment of whimsy and perhaps gas, then back to hatred, accusation and murderous intent, emotions that boiled red like vermillion borscht under a big blond cloud of hair so shining and turbulent it might have been the Turner sunset on my life.
Aethelgifu De Havilaand stood aiming that Kraut pea shooter. I’d been there in the office deep in thought and Portnoy's Problems gin, poring over the coroner’s report about the late, unlamented Hollywood sleazesack Billy Mars when she'd strutted in purposefully, sporting a tailored hunter green twill suit, matching pumps, a green brim hat with a broad black band, and an extra clip of 9mm, all of which set off her perfect fire engine lips. Her face was like marble, smooth and white as a golf club salesman, but one tear rolled down her cheek and gouged a black line from her mascara on her on face as she balanced the shooty tool in a white glove, her hand shaking slightly with tension, her eyes blinking in amazement that it was her own hand about to drill the only man she ever wanted with the steel bit of vengeance, the man known as Mack Brain, the very me himself, who'd burst through the hard candy shell of her heart by licking it enough to finally crunch through to the cherry nougat of love.
I still held the photo of Sparky Kriestenheimer leaving the ferry with what looked like a gun in his pocket, a fine, worthless reminder that I should have had a gun in my pocket. An image rattled in my head like a bee trapped in a gumball dispenser: a gloved, tapered finger pulling that metal hook and a little hunk of lead waiting patiently in the chamber to explode forward by the fall of the hammer's blow and a nickel's worth of saltpeter, sulfur and carbon, and how very little wool would slow it down, worsted or not. The only thing between me and that cold, indifferent bullet and a manila death in an office partition was the emotional state of a girl so stunning passing doves tended to smack into utility poles. And before either of us said anything I got the feeling she was about to floss me right out of the teeth of life.
One muffed word, and it was case closed. They'd hang an estate sale sign on my office: 3 bucks for a typewriter, a buck for a ratty old couch with unusual stains, a three sheaf stack of unsolved investigations, 3 cents each, and a Monkey Wards suit with a small hole over the heart needing a Latvian tailor. Three months bach rent would never get paid. A case of Guatemalan scotch would never be drunk, at least not by me. A hundred two-bit insurance scams would go awry. Twenty or thirty Kraut schemes would get on unmolested, putting the wax polish on the defeat of freedom. A soon-to-be divorcee in Emeryville would never get the snaps of her husband in bed with an infamous Chinatown entertainer simply known as “Sheleila Wu” and three or four curious and illegal electrical devices.
The silence was thicker than pea and concrete soup. I could smell her there, her scent like baby bunnies prancing through a field of fireweed, which for her was the smell of fear. Sutter street below was odd, quiet. No streetcars, swells, or streetsweepers or streetwalkers or street brokers or street mimes, at least none who were making any racket. Twilight turned deep night-blue, like the evening's valet had suggested something more formal. The wallpaper continued to be beige and overwrought. Somewhere, a chicken clucked.
Aethelgifu suddenly looked cold, dangerous and out of place, like a tiger sizing up a baby elephant seal. But even now, she was hotter than habenero pie.
"Don't move anything, Mack. Nothing. Especially not that. I don't want to kill you. Not till I'm ready."
"Baby, I apologize." I said.
"For what?" she asked.
"That was a shot in the dark," I said. "Bad choice of words. What'd I do?"
"I can't trust no-one," she said, girlishly, a little distracted, brushing her hair back with the barrel.
"You're gonna shoot everyone you can't trust? Is there free ammo now with every bottle of peroxide?"
"You can shut up, smart guy!" She said, and waved the pistol femininely and threateningly, like a silk hanky of death. She put another silk-gloved hand silkily around the wooden grip.
I looked at her face. Worse last sights than Aethelgifu in a fit of homicidal humors.
"You’re not a Nazi, are you, Aethelgifu?"
"And you're NOT!?"she yelled, with a clap of fresh rage. She lined up the gun on my face, her pupil bisected by raised sights, her head tilted, a bead of sweat rolling down her cheek and right past a perfect lower lip, another tear starting, mascara running, and her long blond locks falling over her other eye. "Pastely got you to set me up! I’m… you...."
I'm not proud of what I did next.
It wasn't a sudden, cat-like move that started with me leaping over the desk and ended with Aethgifu swooning in my arms, the Luger dropping on the floor with a thud; it wasn't a remark so clever and endearing, like "Shoot me with a Kiss, Sugar Baby," that a smile crept across her face and she ran to me, crying and begging forgiveness till she fell listless into my arms and we kissed sweeter and harder and steamier than two freight locomotives with a trainload of caramel colliding on the licorice tracks to the Big Rock Candy Mountain; it wasn't something darker, like taking the .32 I never carried in my shoe and gunning her down lovingly from under the desk, the light of her eyes winking out poignantly in sepia tones from under the cheesecloth over the lens.
What I actually did was faint. I wish I could say that I meant to faint, as a clever ruse, but no, maybe it was too much coffee and Mummanschnaaps on an empty stomach, but more likely it was old-fashioned cowering-type, scardey-baby fear- I blacked out and fell over like a Western Cedar with the vapors.
Before I opened my eyes I recognized the all-too familiar engines of a Dornier flying boat, droning on like Gobbels about a Little Rascals movie, winds whipping its ugly metal face. I had a headache like angry Scotsmen were using 4 lb sledges to adjust a newspaper press in my skull. I woke to see Aethelgifu tied up, gagged, facing me on the other bench, eyes as wide as Kate Smith on seeing five bowls pudding after a three hour fast, pleading with her parenthetical eyebrows, shaking her head. I was tied too, hands in front, already sick to my stomach as the Kraut plane pitched and plunged and yawed through heavy rain and pre-dawn darkness, somewhere unpleasant over somewhere else horrible.
It was a situation I preferred to being dead, but only just. How in Zombie Jesus did the Nazis keep getting me? I may be as slippery as an eel playing power forward for the Oilers, but the Huns are as persistent as a Fuller Brush man, except with Panzer divisions. Dastardly bastards. If I could just get the ropes free. But I was safe from Aethelgifu’s murderous tempest: I'd gone from the spoon back into the soup, from the fork back into the frying pan, from Curtains to window treatments.
A man inched up through the cabin. Of course: Pastley Marstonbury, Aethelgifu's war-profiteering employer, with all the charisma of last Thursday's legume loaf, escorted by his tubby little spy-pal, Sparky Kriestenheimer. They groped along lines in the open cargo bay, trying to keep balance. Marstonbury drew himself up like the caricature artist at the state fair doing a bad picture of himself and scaring off the customers.
"You may be wondering why you're still alive," said Pastely.
He leveled a revolver at me, trying to look tough. The tall, overweight, shoulderless wonder, dressed in white linen: it was like being threatened by a bowling pin. "You can thank my wife Jenny for that - she pleaded for your life. We stumbled on your little domestic spat just while we were deciding whether to kill you. So, Congratulations. You've been promoted from corpse to the next pop-quiz at Torture Middle School. "
Jenny. She'd saved my life for the fourth time, and all I'd gotten for her was a two-for one coupon for Morphine at the Owl pharmacy.
And now Pastely tickled Aethelgifu's chin with the very Luger she'd held so describably against me. A rage grew in me, a rage like never before, a rage big and angry and off-beet colored and it started to leak out of my ears and spill on my last clean shirt, and you never get that kind of rage out, not with bleach and an army of tired, diminutive Lativian house maids. That bastard was touching her. Pastley looked about as threatening as a narcoleptic hamster, but he had a gun, and a gun changes a chump to a dangerous chump faster than you can say Fatty Arbuckle. Aethelgifu turned away from him, glancing at me as if to say:
"Mack, Dear, I'm awfully sorry about all that about to shoot you business. Clearly, I was misled by Mr. Marstonbury here, who had convinced me you were a Nazi spy, when, on present evidence it can really only by deduced that he was the spy all along. What a perfect silly I am! If we ever get out of the alive, I promise I'll make it all worth your while with some special lady tips I picked up from the Raj's daughter in-law-...."
"ENOUGH!," said a German commander, slapping her and silencing the already silent silence, a tall, gaunt man with a demeanor like he was perpetually waiting for replacement upholstery for a '28 Buick.
"Where are...we? " I looked outside through a small greasy window...a dilapidated coastal town, grey and white buildings, apparently devoid of life, a few orange groves and palms.....occupied Africa?
Sparky sparked up. "Your beloved San Jose, Dr. Brain!"
"San Jose is not beloved," I countered.
"We have been planning precisely this for many months. Soon, the entire Bay Area will be under the Furher's control, part of the glorious new Reich!" Sparky snapped his heels and stumbled slightly as the Dornier lurched, landing moistly into San Francisco Bay, from where it had probably taken off a few minutes ago.
"You been eating Crazy Pie!”
"Your mockery, already superfluous, will soon be even more especially superfluous!" It wasn't the best threat, but to be fair to the Nazis, they threaten people all day, pushing around little girls and insulting old women and terrifying milk farmers and getting families to turn each other in and stabbing meter maids and bullying ice skaters and shooting innocents by the van load in the back and sometimes they simply run out of material.
"Behold!" said Sparky, a little self-consciously.
The plane taxied up to a concrete ramp, a huge dark ship suddenly came into view in the early morning light, its bulk cutting out the sunrise. It sported deck houses fore and aft like a tanker, and flew a Texaco logo and a big Mexican flag, and, as if to emphasize the point, the ship was festooned here and there with colorful decorations and pinatas.
The enormous rusty Mexican ship heeled over like a hippopotamus with lumbago as she kept her engines at full, turned to starboard and power up to the flats just to the East of our flying boat. I got a glimpse of her stern: the Santa Angeles, out of...Mexico City. Something was very wrong. First of all, there was no tug, or dock - she was being driven up on the beach. Second, Mexican sailors - particularly deck officers - do not commonly wear sombreros.
We were taken off the plane; me, Aethelgifu, a couple of gopher faced guards, the officer with a cold, unrefreshing gun on my neck and Pastley and Sparky giggling like a couple of bobby-soxers. Bullies and sadists - the total bastard class throughout time. I was getting mad again. When I got half a chance I'd tear out their pancreases and play organball in the nearest squash court, or better still, send them through eighth grade again.
We watched as the ship, big as a skyscraper and twice as fast, ground heavily into the beach with a soft crunch and a huge, reverberating rattle. Someone hooked a heavy cable to a bulldozer to pull the ship as far in as it would go.
"… night nighty, Brain," said Kriestenheimer. And a blindfold went on.
As the lights went out it hit me. It was more than subterfuge. We were about to be invaded. That ship was about as Mexican as a ski chalet.
Kriestenheimer kept pushing me along with the gun, toward the ship.
What to do? Nothing was obvious, and something huge and horrible was happening, like a hot air balloon deflating on top of a kiddie pool. All I could think: Act, man, act, act faster than a Barrymore with an overdue bar tab!
Then I could hear us passing an throaty diesel engine , the bulldozer, just to my right. It was Aelthefigu that gave me the opening. She suddenly screamed out: “Earthquake!”
Actually there was no earthquake. But all the meticulous German briefings went over the possibility in some detail; unfortunately for them, they were ready for just this contingency, had a plan, and immediately dropped to the ground and covered their heads.
Or so I was told. But now there was a running bulldozer right here: I felt around and climbed on the tracks, feeling around with my fingers from under the ropes till I found the controls: it shuddered like an alcoholic belly dancer as I somehow got it moving with my hands on one lever and my teeth on the throttle.
The blindfold was tight and it was all dark and linen-ny but in a second I was going forward, sensing the downward slope of the muddy beach and kept moving, kept spinning around and driving that little bulldozer until I felt the crash and shudder as the blade smacked the iron of the ship, reversed, sort of, drove hard forward again - but the Krauts weren't shooting yet.
A second. A second to save San Jose. I had a feeling I’d regret this.
Crash and crash and crash again. Finally - a huge hole opened in the brittle old ironwork: my head snapped back - and with it the blindfold, and I plowed through the sand and water right through the ship's starboard bow, the iron side tearing open with a sound already horrible enough without the mariachi band playing on the fore-deck. And suddenly, out they started to spill, not oil at all, but four or five hundred fully-equipped German soldiers, a pinata of paratroops, a dozen or two fighting around the hole to get by the dozer blade to scramble to the beach, and I had a second or two with the blade blocking when they couldn't fire into me.
I drove forward again, trying to plug the hole in the ship like stuffing mice back down a drain with a hammer. A Luger piped up behind me, bullets ricocheting off the metal seat back- must be Kreistenheimer. Pastely was hiding somewhere, Aethelgifu was out of sight. I felt the moment and started to sing, sounding the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the heavens, the transmission grinding in tune like a hurlyburly, and I shoved the blade hard in the maw again and again, cramming in a couple three unlucky Heinie troops for tar and oakum. In the chaos a few sombreros floated down from the ship and settled on the shallows, the water growing pink.
Finally, the dozer blade was stuck fast in the hole. I’d managed to solve the problem I’d just created. But now I had to run back up the flats without getting shot, hands still tied, and stumbled up the beach, bullets whizzing around by now, and I managed to get behind a huge rusty old anchor, which looked like it dated back to 49er days, but was solid enough to spit back modern gunfire.
I let out just the sort of breath you take when you don't really have time to take a breath before something else really exciting happens.
Then from under a fluke, Aethelgifu popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, except without a bra, and holding a knife, its blade dripping with blood. She turned her deep brown eyes on me, moist with feeling. I sat there, unmoving. That silk gloved hand suddenly thrust upwards, severing the rope around my hands, and we kissed, kissed like kissing fish under the Mistletoe, her body squishy and tight against me, her lips soft and warm, her knife dropping to the beach right next to Pastely’s ghastly body, which wouldn’t have spoiled the mood except for the full company of German soliders clambering up the ship’s ladders 20 yards away, sounding like a thousand tin cups being dropped into a scrap pile. No time for the better mushy stuff now, so I just squeezed her breasts affectionately and kissed her forehead and picked up the knife.
“Stay here, Smooshy-kins.” I whispered in her ear.
“You’re mussing my hair, Macky-Moo, but if you have to save San Jose, go ahead, Skooshy-Booshy face.” She said, fighting back tears, her hands on my lips.
“Binky-boo, I’m sorry I was so slow solving this case.”
“Oh Darling! And I’m so very sorry I thought you were a Nazi-watzi!
The long cable still tethering bulldozer and ship lay on the beach. An idea popped in my head.
“Baby-Waby, I need to get on that ship. Stay here and ….“ I gave her the plan. She looked up at me like a baby doe watching a car wreck. But it couldn’t be helped.
I ran now, ran like lighting and grabbed a sombrero and started swimming close in on the sea-side of the ship, the sombrero a perfect cover, drifting innocently and festively along the waterline to the rope ladder coming off the stern quarter, and began climbing just as the storm troopers were gathering to disembark on the shore-side of the tanker. I crested the side and swung onto the deck only to face the back of a guard. No time. I slammed the sombrero over his head and strangled him with the decorative tassels. He died quiet, and somewhat festive.
“Siesta in peace, Sea-Kraut,” I said.
The attention of the whole company was towards shore, and I was able to slip into the wheelhouse, grabbing the telegraph, pulling the lever and signaling the engine room for full reverse. The three deck officers came at me but they too where encumbered by their sombreros as I let the full force of my rage fly in a flurry of fists, beating the three Bosches down to the steel decks in a bloody heap. Then then ship shuddered heavily and the whole deck company fell into a chaotic pile of confused Krauts as the Santa Angeles
backed at full power into the Bay again. Now I could only hide and hope that Aethelgifu got the rest of the plan in action.
She had. With the late Pastley’s burp gun on the remants of the Dornier’s crew, she forced them to drag the long loose cable connecting the bulldozer still sticking out from the hole in the bow, and the ship itself, and put the loop on the anchor as the ship steamed away at nearly 10 knots.
The cable tightened, and with a sound like a ten ton cork it snapped the bulldozer out of the hole like a drainplug. The bow opened to the sea as the ship still backed deeper in to the channel at full speed, and the Santa Angeles began to sink like the heart of whatever Republican it was that ran against Roosevelt in 1936, taking Hitler’s hopes of a dastardly sneak attack on the Bay Area into the deep.
Unfortunately, it was also taking me with her, but by this point the naval air base at Alameda woke up and a flight of Wildcats was coming to strafe the Dornier. And one of our own PBY Catalinas was coming for the Santa Angeles
as she was sinking slowly, and just as the chilling waters of the Bay started lapping on my shoes and three hundred Krauts were heil-hitlering Davy Jones, the PBY landed near and sent out a rubber boat to rescue the one flat-foot, distinguishable from my total lack of swastika or sombrero.
Back in the office, the photos of the Billy Mars autopsy weren’t any more glamorous the second time. He was even dead by Hollywood standards. But the report was pretty conclusive: Mars was ventilated by a 9mm- almost certainly Sparky's. He'd got onto Kreistenheimer and Marstonbury when they tried to hire him to produce a post-Bay Area invasion propaganda film - California Über Alles -
meant to pacify the new Bay Area Reichsland. Not only had he been stopped from paying me for the Errol Flynn affair, he'd been stopped from tipping me off about the whole surprise attack when he'd fallen dead off the ferry into the Bay, and he'd screwed his last talent.
I needed a drink and dragged my own butt to the Rusty Nail
. I walked in that dank, overturned whaleship, smelled the century old tar, and saw a pile of angry grey laundry in a bow tie - Crumples, of course - who was about as happy to see me as if I was handing him the hospital bill for the consumption treatment for his three late daughters. He grumpily put ice in a mason jar - if that was possible - and filled it with a clear liquid of uncertain origin. He'd never poisoned me rapidly yet, and I drank a good draught which tasted something like off-market Bolivian Absynthe, but plywoodier.
Then a scent to my left: angels, pomegranates, a entirely different kind of fresh laundry, and a little bit of love-funk. I turned to see Aethelgifu, smiling, wearing a pink dress more tightly formed than a Prussian rifle drill team, and whole lot foofier.
"Shoot me with kiss, Sugar Baby?" I said.
And a bigger smile crept across her face. And then she pulled another gun.(For your continued edification, the complete and ever incomplete Rebar for Tootsie Rolls
is at Ironcandy.blogspot.com.)