4AM. I never see 4AM from the sunny side, the farmer side, the knowing-where you are and not finding mysterious bruises on the inside of your knees side where you get up instead of throw up - except on a case, and my country was calling and I had stupidly picked up the phone, and an hour later fried Spam and two rubbery powdered egg piles gazed back at me from the aluminum tray reflecting my own snarling contempt for all things which exist at unholy hours of the day. The potatoes had more eyes than a Hindoo vegetable god, if there was one, and the coffee was as thick and old and gummy as bunker oil. There was a pile of hardtack biscuits and WWI canned milk on the table, of interest chiefly to starving historians with dysentery. I looked up to find who had perpetrated this war crime and caught a glimpse of the cook: more cheerful expressions graced the janitor's face at Gestapo headquarters. Frankly, I'd vomited better food at a quarter-star cafeteria in a Boise
tannery. But the meal at the base left plenty of stamps in the ration book, and it was a glory compared with the Depression, where for a month in 1933 I ate a wallpaper paste and onion skin soup that made Chaplin's shoe dinner look like a Waldorf salad.
I was poor, then. I once found a large hat and moved in. I couldn’t afford pants, so I wrapped a piece of string around my waist to have somewhere to put my thumbs. Later, I had a rough evening in New Orleans when I bet my cardboard belt - leased - on a nag named Wood Products Assembly and the rental boys came looking to collect. I drank coal dust coffee, took a job as a professional sidewalk smeller (something to do with cement curing) and once ate a pillow I'd carefully shaped like a delicious turkey. I got started detectiving after a job in Chicago where some swells paid me to stare at party-goers who outstayed their welcome until they became uncomfortable and left. It was only when I got The Case of the Drunken Rockefeller Spendthrift, mostly partly perpetrating the crime involved, that things turned around for me, if not the late young Mr. Rockefeller.
This morning I was grouchy in Alameda - a condition I recommend avoiding at all costs- when I boarded the U.S.S. Entername, a rust-streaked, smoke-belching WWI tin can, which never received a proper moniker due to a clerical error in 1918. It had one working 4 inch gun, a wooden torpedo-shaped slug instead of a torpedo, and some goateed bohemian jailbirds crewed her like they were worried about how Swann's Way would turn out. Squat and surly, her pumps showering the harbor, she was a stray dog peeing on California, and the cause of my visit, the civilian corpse dangling from the radio antenna, just added a thick pink frosting of charm on the cupcake of loathing. I clambered up the gangway holding onto my hat against the wind, cursing the day I first heard the word "Slagophurm," whose exiting exhaultation by the stiff now twisting in the breeze had pulled me here to a cardboard breakfast and the sorry sad-sack south-end of the north-bound seahorse of the war.
I was planning to give up my rusty .45 to the sailor but his bloodshot eyes, froggy air and a thick waft of Mary Jane told me he'd reefered-up good and the material world was no longer his concern. I offered it to him anyway, butt first, and he giggled like a 2 year old who'd been recently informed of the concept of underpants. On the jackstaff someone had raised a flag featuring a large, beige, hairy ass. The nasty old boat was cursed like a tax collector in a gypsy park.
A wirey, copper-colored man with a rusty beard and scattered silver hair wearing scrambled eggs on his hat and an 1890 suit came up to me with an outstretched hand and cheerful expression, the cracks spreading across his red, wind-whipped face, the irrepressible kind of joe that if the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse showed up he’d bring them hot chocolate, with marshmellows, and offer directions to the local elementary school.
"Captain Kane. Welcome aboard."
"Mack Brain. Thanks. Dead guy trouble, eh?"
"Yes, Sir. Normally we'd handle this internally, of course. But when he was found he was still alive, mumbling the curious word 'Slagophurm.' A short investigation turned up your work on - BELAY THAT, HORTZ! WELD THAT SECTION TO THE PORT SIDE! YOUR OTHER PORT!! - excuse me, similar cases in the area. "
"You want the Slagophurm case not figured out for twelve years, I'm your man."
"Quite. Well, anyway we're stumped, and we don't take civilian murder kindly in the Navy."
"This is the for-real Navy?" I said carelessly. Kane bristled like a wire-haired bristling terrier, and I felt like I'd kicked a kitten. "I mean, your ship's in active commission?"
"War, Sir, necessities of war."
After they lowered the corpse down from the radio antenna and I'd picked around a bit, rifling through his pockets for clues, I pocketed a silver dollar that was going to waste, but I was filled with ennui, suddenly, a gooey, heavy gray flood like a cloudburst of lukewarm poi. This was the longest string of unsolved murders in San Francisco since the 19 oughts when Malmsey Warper the All-Natural Radium Mineral Water King did in his estranged wife's entire extended family, one a fiscal quarter with his own product, which went on for years because A) they were Mormons and there were quite a few, and B) no one realized at the time radioactive mineral water was going to kill you.
I was looking right at the stiff's address book, seeing only stars and lines and squiggles. Total indifference. So his name was Pete Kneemaster. So he worked at somewhere in South San Francisco call Biffleson's Drug Importers. So he was covered in a mysterious red-brown dust. So he had a ledger page in his right pocket which suggested 3 or 4 hundred thousand dollars was being concealed at Biffleson's. So he had a pocket camera with undeveloped film in his right hand, and had arranged his body to spell something on the deck below with his own blood draining out. I couldn't be bothered to look down.
I was sedate as as settee. I was as grey as a Poupon. I was as litost as lemur dying of consumption. I had less motivation than a sauna rock with a considerable trust fund. At that moment, if Rita Hayworth stood lecherously two feet away from me wearing nothing but pink silk, a handful of cash and a disreputable hotel key, I would have made that noise of ultimate ennervation: I-unnunhnah.
"What is it, Brain?" asked Kane.
"I-unnunhnah." I said.
Somehow, captain of the 3rd worst ship in the Navy as he was (falling short of the U.S.S Tainted Meat Scow and the U.S.S. Sinky Whatshisface) he understood.
"Drink?" And offered a flask.
I have no idea why Capt. Kane was drinking Maine's Best Discount Watermelon-Mint Schnapps but I spit out alcohol fecklessly onto the deck and all over the dead guy, and the Captain's suit, and the pink horror dribbled onto my last clean white shirt, and I was about three seconds from leaping over the side to an ignoble death in the lead-rich mud of the East Bay when the ship's air raid siren sounded and everyone stared running around waving their arms like a girly bunch of extras from Golddiggers of 1933, except with 50 caliber machine guns, and from out of a gray misty grayness a sputtering little J-3 Piper monoplane bore down on us firing some pea shooter of death directly at Kane and me and we dove for cover behind a mounted raft while every working ship's gun lit up in the vague direction of Berkeley, precisely where the plane wasn't, leading later to a heartfelt personal apology from Admiral Nimitz to the parents of two fifths of the North Oakland middle school water polo team.
In the meantime, there was nothing so life-affirming as someone suddenly trying to murder you, which means you are at least important enough to be in someone's way enough to have you killed. An enemy meant that you were real. I was touched, and felt like crying, so instead I emptied the clip from my .45, except pointed West where plane was actually heading before the mists soaked it up like a good-quality kitchen sponge.
"Did anyone get the number on that plane?" I asked, yelling through the deafness and the yellow smoke and the smell of cordite.
Nopes echoed round the deck.
A pomegranate-headed sailor spoke up: "Had a name on the side though: Slago Industries." He hand his hand pointed in the air.
"Slago Industries. Son of a randy milkman!"
I stood there, limp-hatted, a penny postcard of a thunderstruck chump. Perhaps in the last decade I could have looked through the phone book to the entry just above Slagophurm. And then I looked down.
On the deck right below Pete the stiff was the word he'd wriggled out in blood in his last moments, written in letters 4 feet across by swinging his body around and watching where his last life-juice splatted, a giant bloody pen-corpse scribbling out a final shopping list for justice.
S L A G O
About then a Dusenberg so long it seemed to arrive about the same time it left pulled up to the dock area. Out floated a svelte and curvy silhouette that would have got my attention even without the semphore flags she was waving to get my attention: Lovey Wickersham. She wore a red pin-striped white dress like the Circus had come to new Orleans, with a fox-fur wrap and black patent leather shoes so high heeled the lines on the back of her stockings threatened to rub together and catch on fire. She was a side of bacon on a bread line, a cherry tart on a pile of cash, a fresh tall tomato so soft and slim and curvy and proud, moving like a taffy machine and strutting like a model.
"Mack! Darling! I..." she yoo-hooed, cooingly.
"Lovey! I know what Slago...
Suddenly I espied - because I do the Times crossword - a sniper on the roof on one side, and on the other ruffian gang of lugubrious Longshoremen sneaking towards her, waving bats, and on a third, a pack of fierce Weimaraners starting their curious attack.
"Get in the Car!!" I shouted.
She turned, but it was too late for that. The Weimaraners found their ground between her and the Dusenberg, threatening bodily injury by becoming visciously aloof. The sniper squeezed off a round, tearing one of the semphore flags beyond cost-effective repair. Then the Piper came back out of the fog, flying recklessly low, straight at her. The longshoremen began hurling suggestive remarks.
"The water, jump in the water!" I yelled.
"No!" piped up an alarmed sailor, "Sharks!" he said, pointing out the dorsal fin.
"Shit!" she said.
Then she adopted a position like she was about to jive dance her way out of trouble – reminded me of a still photo of Cab Calloway. The dogs barked, or perhaps, being Weimaraners, declaimed.
It may not have been in the cards for the U.S.S. Entername to turn the tide against the Japanese, or torpedo an aircraft carrier, or not accidently torpedo itself, which is why it was here being repaired, or even make it out of San Francisco Bay the following week without sinking from a faulty main shaft bearing, but she had one good fight in her, the Battle of Alameda Naval Station. And she gave it all she had.
When it was over, the sniper's body lay moistly on the roof, and the sidewalk, and floating in the bay. The evil longshoremen writhed in a pile underneath a wooden torpedo rolled down the dock by the reefer-loving sailor. Out of ammunition after the entire destroyer's gunfire had been directed at the sniper, a quick-thinking Ship's cook had dumped the corpse of Peter Kneemaster and a fifty-five gallon barrel of tartar sauce (an object which brought up more unpleasant eating in the Depression) into the water to distract the sharks, which was going to make for an interesting coroner's report. The twisted wreckage of the Piper stuck 40 feet off the ground on the telephone pole, where, gunless and frantic, I had to taunt the pilot using the Ship's bullhorn into distraction at a key moment by making loud aspersions about his sister, which as it turned out later, happened to be true. In fact, I had her number: Gomorrah 6501.
And Lovey, Lovey was alive, having coaxed the dangerously disengaged Weimaraners into the back of the Dusie with a egg salad sandwich. She waved to the crew and the only crew's cheer in the miserable 24 year career of the U.S.S. Entername raised and echoed into the fog.
"So what now?" Lovey asked later, as we headed back over the Bay Bridge.
"Slago Industries....And Where is it?" This last I addressed to our passenger.
In the back of the car the Weimaraners were relentlessly irritating the injured, dazed Slago Industries pilot by refusing to be petted. It was well that Lovey Wickersham was an amateur dog trainer. Not only had the Weimaraners entirely not killed her, although it was not clear how they were supposed to do that in the first place, but they were at her service, waiting for instructions. And the pilot in back, his blond moustache askew as his lazy left eye, was a friendly soul, in spite of trying to kill us, and wanted to everyone to like him. Especially dogs.
Cindy the Weimaraner was gazing out the window, moving slightly away from the pilot, Milton. Hard to miss the pilot after the crash, he still wore goggles and a silk scarf in the cabin cruiser, another disappointed WWI trainee.
As he tried to pet Cindy the dog she gave him a look that would have frozen hot tea. The other 5 dogs were no better. No wagging. No kisses. Only puppyish pomposity.
Lovey drove the Dusie over the bridge and into the city, the big engine humming like Vienna Boys Choir waiting for something to do, Milton was practically begging the dogs for attention: "Cindy-windy! Who's the doggie-woggie? Cindy? Cindy. Cindy!" A soft, grey, sleek silence. " "Goddamit, Dog!"
I leaned over the seat. "Where's Slago Industries, Milton?"
But Milton was obsessed. The canine affront was intolerable.
"Cindy, come here!" Nothing. Milton starting rocking back and forth in sheer frustration, slamming his fist on the ceiling.
"Now now, Mr. Killer, " said Lovey, "Don't scratch the car."
"Slago Industries, Milton..."
"Alright, alright, just call the dogs on!" said the still-bleeding pilot.
"Nookies!" said Lovey, brightly, and the dogs began to lick Milton like a fresh pork chop.
We'd dropped Milton off at what I liked to call 1 Flatfoot Plaza - the Dusenberg and Lovey and the cute but remote dogs worked their magic - Lovey was never loveylier; I hadn't so many helpful cops since the Myckaby Boys tried to burn down Bernie’s, San Francisco's biggest donut shop, as revenge for putting away Maw Myckaby, the notorious bakery arsonist, who burned down a baker's dozen of bakeries and two cake shops until she was finally caught trying to crush an elephant ear stand with a bulldozer; we never found out exactly why. Two-timing baker love, I’d guessed, but the cops just shot her.
Milton had spilled where Slago industries was, although I suppose we could have just looked it up in the phonebook. Lovey and I headed to Richmond, a little industrial town on the East Bay so rough I'd once seen fifteen bodies piled up around a malfunctioning bubble gum machine, and so depressing they had a special “Ego Control” spa and sent Hollywood starlets there sometimes to recover their senses by gazing for hours at painted bricks. We followed Milton's directions to an huge old brick warehouse with a tiny white sign that said: Slago Industries.
It was getting late in the day. The place was quiet as a dead insurance salesman, a non-sound I'd heard at least thirty times in my line of work. Gloom descended gloomily on the gloomy town; refineries, warehouses, dirt streets - it made Crumples the bartender look like Shirley Temple.
"There's a light on," said Lovey, pointing to a top window.
I didn't have the patience for patience just now. I pulled out the .45 and fired a round, the gun's report huge in the evening. It would have made more of an impact if some gun wasn’t already going off somewhere in town every two or three minutes, but a somewhat withered, elderly face peered out of the upmost window, with a expression sour enough to pickle an opera company.
"You. Open..." Lovey put a fragrant, soft hand on my shoulder and shut me up.
"We're terribly sorry sir," she said sweetly, "it was a silly place to clean a gun. May we come in?"
To my amazement, the old coot came down and opened the door.
He looked me over like I was a Goya etching of Napoleonic war crimes. "Come in. I am Dr. Richard Tarde, but some people call me 'Rich.' I'm pleased, in a sense, that you're still alive." He creaked like the step on the stairs you try to avoid to not wake your parents. I kept my rusty .45 on him.
"You won't need that," He said, waving his hand dismissively.
"I do if I need to shoot you," I said. "Like if you don't tell me what this is," and handed him the ancient brown bottle of Slagophurm found originally in the pharmacy in the Sunset district," and why innocent people keep using it for their last words."
"Innocent! Haw Haw!" He said, laughing like some people cough up bits of lung.
"What is it?!"
"That is not uncomplicated." said Dr. Tarde. “Please come with me to our reception area.”
He was thinner than the shadow of a thin man viewed edge on, with a grayish, blotchy skin that hung like a wet shirt on a bird cage, at least, that’s what I extrapolated from my view of his neck as we ascended the stairs.
We came out into a room that looked like Henry Ford’s bachelor lounge, for bachelors that had fought in the Boer War. Oil portraits of generals, doctors – and famous economists – hung on the wall. Tarde indicated that we should sit down, offered us a Port that tasted like leather and cherries and formaldehyde.
"Tell me, Dr. Brain, do you like money?"
"It's easier than beating people up for stuff."
"What if, hypothetically, 25% of everyone in the world were to beg to give you a dollar?" Dr. Tarde looked at me like a diminutive giraffe sizing up an acacia tree.
"A measly dollar to save their lives."
"Don't you think the term measly is unnecessarily perjorative?" I said. It had been a long day, and I remembered when a dollar could rent you a mansion in Detroit for a month, complete with passively aggressive butler.
"People beg for what Slagophurm promises."
"For example, me, now," I waved my gun a little. "What the Dickens is it? Why are so many people dead? Why am I here now, fuming and hungry, about to shoot you for stringing this out so long?"
"It's not a thing. It's a business plan." Dr. Tarde adjusted his bifocals so far down his nose they could catch deciduous nose hairs. The room was tall and dark, books and specimen jars displayed everywhere. A lone bulb lit his craggy face, like a scene from the Civil War Veterans Association's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.
"Looking at that bottle, Lovey, a gooey brown business plan," I said.
She wrinkled her nose.
Years of investigations had honed my senses. I felt a lecture coming on. Feeling along my .45, I released the safety.
"Who started Coca Cola, Dr. Brain?" Tarde asked.
"Pharmacist. Georgia, in bad business straits, I think."
"And Dr. Pepper?"
"Amazing how much cocaine they used to put in soda pop," I said.
"You may look like a giant lemur in worsted wool, Brain, but you've got a brain, Brain. Slagophurm. It is a business system, Brain. A 100 year plan. What we do is simple. We make problems, and we cure them. Once it was malaria and quinine – our mosquito breeding experiments were pioneering. Our monopoly our quinine- and gin- piled up cash like the dead in Calcutta. Later, we were in opium shipping. Its benefits are obvious. 50 years ago, it was cocaine in the soda water, marketed as a cure for opium addiction. Everyone bought. Then the cocaine was banned. We thought we’d be ruined. And then we discovered marketing for the masses. Everywhere, the Gibson girls, the logos, beaten into the masses’ tiny brains by repetition and the corruption of desperate artists. It was successful, but nothing like the opium profits.
“We owned the soda industry. So we simply worked with the mob to get alcohol banned."
I attribute the fact I didn't shoot him right then to the intervention of Jesus.
"And in fifty years, we plan to make Americans remarkably fat - with colas of course, as well as something we call a 'suburb,' and our designs for “Speedy Food” restaurants with names like “Biggie MacCheesey’s” and “Taco Clarion” and “Connecticut Fried Chicken” and open a string of diet books, drugs, expensive contract health clubs. Our studies indicate the American buttocks may expand to twice their present size, or even larger if Operation Ubiquitous Cheeseburger goes into efficient operation. When that happens, we supply all the needs of their fresh misery.”
"And now. Why kill us now? Why do people die now?"
"Compared to the market involved, World War II is barnyard fisticuffs, donkeys beating on pigs with sticks. A few lives of people who were interested but were not perspicacious enough to come on board is nothing. Of course, the plan for today was long ago in place- I cannot tell you the details, but it rhymes with 'bigarettes'. You can join us and profit beyond your dreams, or you can expose us and die. You did go to Medical School? "
"If by that you mean did I lie drunk on a Dominican beach near a copy of Grey's Anatomy for several months, then yes."
"Come on board Brain, we could use a little medical muscle; I find Doctors with suspicions about tobacco's many health benefits need regular persuasion. Consider it, Dr. Brain, consider a future of profits, expensive cars, fine dining and walks on the beach. " The old goat was animated like he'd just discovered the amphetamine bush. He may have been evil, but he was genuine. He really wanted me in on his little club.
"Slagophurm. Hmm."So how do I get in on this racket?"
"Mack!" said Lovey, astonished.
“Excellent!,” he said, smacking his hands together. “We’ll start you tomorrow, there’s a young fellow named C. Everett Koop I need you to ‘visit.’” Then a shadow crossed that already shadowy face. ”But about what about your young lady? Isn’t she rich already? How can we trust her?”
“Oh I can trust her.“ I kept my eyes on him as he rummaged around for some papers near an oak file cabinet next to the grand staircase. Then he turned.
“Dr. Brain, I notice you haven’t lowered your gun.”
“Well, Dr. Tarde, actually I don’t want your filthy money. Well, actually I do want your filthy money. But Mack Brain isn’t for sale. Not that he isn’t for rent. But not for anything immoral. Well, that’s not really true. Actually, that’s kind of why people pay me. But I never do anything really, really wrong, particularly on a genocidal scale, just for money even in large amounts, even if I will certainly compromise my passing general ethical principles for a good payday if no one gets hurt, or rather, if no one who doesn’t deserve it, or who has a good attorney, gets hurt too seriously in such a way that I would feel so bad about it I wouldn’t enjoy all the new money I’d gotten. And I would never strike a lady who wasn’t trying to kill me at the time. Gee, I just wish everyone could be nice to each other. Also, I love freedom.”
“Then, Dr. Brain, we are at something of an impasse,” he said with astonishing composure considering he just pulled out a silver derringer and grabbed Lovey by the arm while bringing the gun to her head. I made the mistake of hesitating to shoot him, clouded as I was by the unfamiliar problem of considering my moral universe.
And here Lovey made an amazing maneuver. I feel that I should remind you that Lovey had the kind of cleavage that would make Gable drop Olivia De Havilland on the stairs. She pulled what can only be described as a Perils of Pauline move, clasping her hands together, gasping, and looking away while turning deftly to perfectly present the recessing folds of delight to Dr. Tarde, who despite being old enough to remember oogling Mary Lincoln, was not dead, and looked down long enough for Lovey to kick him in the back of the head with those platform heels of hers, knocking off his glasses and unbalancing him forward, until he tumbled down the stairs, with an “Oof!” and an “Ow!” indicating each landing on the four stories.
We ran down after him, my gun drawn and Lovey picking up the silver derringer, until we found Tarde crumpled up on the first floor like yesterday’s Arts section in the Chronicle.
“Brain…save me…Brain…I am dying…Slagophurm must go on…” He was begging, wheezing like a steam tractor, “…nothing personal, but would you…”
“Get…a …better doctor?” And he died.
“Well, he’s pretty dead, I guess. Know what time it is?” I pronounced.
“No. This won’t stop these people, you know. Tarde is a one old fish in a division of Coelacanths. Slagophurm is big, Mack, and Slaggo Industries is only a little piece.. Actually, I think I have 400 shares.”
“Slagophurm is bigger than any of us. But we do whatever the hell we can wherever the hell we are. That’s how we stop them, all the crooks, all the bullies, all the goons and princes that see the human race as a cattle auction. But hey, that was a nice move, Toots!” I said.
”Remember it,” She warned.The Complete Rebar for Tootise Rolls stories are at IronCandy.blogspot.com.
Labels: detective tales