The 1921 rape/manslaughter trial of silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle provides the gritty backdrop for Atkins's outstanding crime novel, in which Dashiell Hammett, then a Pinkerton operative living in San Francisco, plays a significant role. A wild party Arbuckle throws at San Francisco's posh St. Francis Hotel results in tragedy after an actress, Virginia Rappe, is mysteriously injured and later dies. As the author explains in a "behind the story" introduction, the future creator of Sam Spade was actually assigned to help the defense on the Arbuckle case. With enviable ease, Atkins (Wicked City) brings to life Hammett, Arbuckle, William Randolph Hearst and other real figures of the period. Those familiar with the historical case will be impressed by how well the book meshes fact and fiction. Genre fans who enjoy the grim realism of James Ellroy's post-WWII Los Angeles will find a lot to like in Atkins's Prohibition-era San Francisco. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Devil's Gardenby Ace Atkins
San Francisco, September 1921: Silent-screen comedy star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is throwing a wild party in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel-girls, jazz, bootleg hooch...and a dead actress named Virginia Rappe.
The D.A. says it was Arbuckle who killed her- crushed her under his weight-and brings him up on manslaughter charges. William Randolph Hearst's
San Francisco, September 1921: Silent-screen comedy star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is throwing a wild party in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel-girls, jazz, bootleg hooch...and a dead actress named Virginia Rappe.
The D.A. says it was Arbuckle who killed her- crushed her under his weight-and brings him up on manslaughter charges. William Randolph Hearst's newspapers stir up the public and demand a guilty verdict.
In desperation, Arbuckle's defense team hires an operative from the famed Pinkerton detective agency to investigate and, they hope, discover the truth. The agent's name is Dashiell Hammett... and what he discovers will change American legal history-and his own life- forever
In September 1921, silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was tried for the murder of budding actress Virginia Rappe after a wild, boozy bash at a San Francisco hotel. The case was particularly notorious because William Randolph Hearst unleashed the full force of his media empire on it, allegedly tainting evidence and claiming Arbuckle crushed Rappe under his immense weight. A key private investigator for Arbuckle was none other than a young Pinkerton agent named Sam Dashiell Hammett, who turned up much more than a botched police investigation and an unethical autopsy. On the margin of the case was a web of Hollywood intrigue and corruption worthy of its own scandal, fueled by the looming demise of the silent film and Hearst's desire to preserve mistress Marian Davies's acting career. Atkins's (Wicked City) latest noir historical thriller showcases one of the most infamous Hollywood murder trials with a compelling style and a deft blend of fact and fiction. Sure to appeal to Hollywood buffs and mystery readers alike, this is recommended for popular fiction collections.
Susan Clifford Braun
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
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Table of Contents
ALSO BY ACE ATKINS
Dark End of the Street
Leavin’ Trunk Blues
G . P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2009 by Ace Atkins
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Devil’s garden / Ace Atkins. p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02239-9
1. Arbuckle, Roscoe, 1887-1933—Fiction. 2. Rappe, Virginia, 1895-1921—Fiction. 3. Hammett, Dashiell, 1894-1961—Fiction. 4. Motion picture actors and actresses—Fiction. 5. Private investigators—Fiction. 6. Trials (Murder)—California—Fiction. I. Title.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
The American public is ardent in its hero worship and quite as ruthless in destroying its idols in any walk of life. It elevates a man more quickly than any nation in the world, and casts him down more quickly—quite often on surmise or a mere hunch.
—ROSCOE ARBUCKLE, 1922
The Arbuckle case was the funniest case I ever worked on. In trying to convict him, everyone framed everybody else.
—DASHIELL HAMMETT, New York Herald Tribune, 1933
July 31, 1917
He’d shadowed Frank Little for weeks, from El Paso to Butte to Bisbee, and for days now along the wooden sidewalks of the old mining town, built at
the base of bleak hills where dusty workers made their way up a crooked path to the foundry and deep down into the earth. They’d started work on the furnace then, and half of the brick phallus rose from the city, towering above the buildings and hills, and would soon smelt the copper they’d sell for twenty-six cents a pound to make pots and newspaper presses.
The town smelled of acrid metal and burnt meat.
Anaconda was open all night. There were saloons and whorehouses and one good hotel and dozens of bad ones, rooming houses where Sam had taken a bed. In the off-hours, when Little would wobble up the staircase and get an hour or two of sleep, Sam would lay on the narrow bed and read the Butte newspapers about a possible war with Germany and a ragged copy of Dangerous Ground, a novel about a Pinkerton he’d had since he was a boy.
It used to be an adventure. Now it was just a reminder.
He’d asked for the room two doors down from Little, where he’d loosened a plank by the stairs so he’d hear a squeak when the union leader went on his rounds. Sam had heard most of the speeches before, Little talking mainly about the country only having two classes, one exploiting the other, and how International Workers of the World wanted to make the fat cats pay for strong backs.
Little said he’d once been arrested for reading the Declaration of Independence on a street corner.
He talked about that mining disaster in Butte in June and how the boys in Anaconda worked under even worse conditions. He called the furnace chimney another ivory tower where the wealthy burned up the common man.
The Pinkerton’s client was supposed to be kept under wraps, but Sam knew it was the Hearst outfit, which owned a piece of pretty much every mine in the country. He was told to tail Little, make notes on the speeches, type out a neat report, and send it back to Baltimore. It was a basic assignment that didn’t need much thought.
The food wasn’t bad. Now and then he could sneak a whiskey at the bars. And two nights ago he’d found a fine, full redheaded whore named Sally who worked overtime off the clock.
Sam heard a creak, put down the copy of Dangerous Ground, noting the Pinkerton standing on the hill shining a beacon of light down on a hooved red devil leading a virtuous woman away, and he followed Little down the stairs through the narrow lobby and out onto Main Street. There were horses and wagons and an automobile or two, the gas lamps burning all the way past the Montana Hotel, down to City Hall and to the dead end of mountain and mine.
Little was up on some wooden crates, talking again, waving his hands wildly to men in overalls and women holding up hand-painted signs. The women looked determined; the men looked scared.
The light was just going down in Anaconda, the shadows on the hills showing purple and black with bright yellow patches. As Sam jotted down some of what Little said, really just repeating a speech he’d heard two weeks ago in Bisbee about those miners shipped off to die in boxcars, he felt a soft hand on his shoulder and turned to see a man dressed in a three-piece black suit holding a gold timepiece in his hand.
“Has a lot of wind, doesn’t he, friend?”
The man clicked the gold watch closed and removed a pouch of tobacco from his vest pocket.
“He’s gonna keep going. How ’bout a drink?”
Sam thanked him but said no.
“You’re the Pinkerton, aren’t you? One of them anyway.”
Sam turned back. The man grinned and spit brown tobacco juice on the ground. “Let’s have that drink.”
They found a saloon called Kate’s just off Main Street filled with miners and whores and a back table where a sweaty Chinaman cooked T-bone steaks on an open grill. Sam Hammett, just an edge over twenty but nearly white-headed, leaned back in his seat and put a match to a Fatima cigarette.
The man removed the wad of tobacco from his cheek and tossed it below the table.
Men in the front room had gathered around a piano. A whore was singing “Buffalo Gals,” and the men yelled and thumped their boots on the wooden floors, and in all the action and laughter, Sam and the man were alone.
“I won’t waste time,” he said. “I have a deal to make.”
“I’ll put up five hundred dollars over your Pinkerton pay to shut Little’s mouth.”
Sam burned down the cigarette, nearly coughing on the smoke. He watched the man but didn’t say a word.
“That’s not my job.”
“The money all comes from the same place.”
“Hearst?” Sam said, smiling, confident he was right.
“I’m not at liberty.”
“But you are at liberty to hire me out like a goon.”
“Not a goon.”
“Go hire some palooka,” Sam said. “This isn’t my line.”
He stood. The man grabbed his arm, trying to stop him, and tried to crush great wide green bills into Sam’s hand. “I’m not talking about a beating.”
Sam looked down at him, at his jug ears and iron-gray hair and dark complexion, and walked away into the crowd, brushing by a fat whore who grabbed his pecker through his trousers the way some shake hands.
He could breathe on the street, and he walked the wooden planks southward, back toward the emerging smokestack of the mine, and found Little there talking to a dispersing crowd more about the boys in New Mexico, Mexes and Indians and negroes all carted off like animals with no food or water, some of them dying in the boxcars, and then let loose in the desert.
Sam checked his watch.
He made a note.
He followed Little to another bar, where the man drank until the early morning with two burly miners. The man never seeing him. Sam remembering everything he’d learned from his mentor in Baltimore: not to worry about a suspect’s face. Tricks of carriage, ways of wearing clothes, general outline, individual mannerisms—all as seen from the rear—were much more important to the shadow than faces.
But then, outside, he made contact with Little’s eyes and the man noticed him and walked away from two men he was talking to, crossing Main Street, and came over to Sam and simply said, “Don’t I know you, brother?”
Sam shook his head, embarrassed, admonishing himself for being caught.
Little thrust out his hand, well-calloused and warm, and told Sam that it was damn good to meet him, pumping his hand up and down, and left him with a fresh pamphlet from the International Workers of the World asking, WHERE DO YOU STAND?
The men broke up their party in the blackness of a deep night, smoke and steam pumping from the foundries, passing men in leather aprons on the way to work. Tired, pinch-faced women washed laundry in tin buckets while skinny, pasty children played in dry ditches.
Little headed back to the rooming house and Sam followed, waiting five minutes until the man disappeared up the stairs, and then returned to bed.
An hour later, he didn’t hear the creak of the board—what woke him was the muffled cursing and the thundering boots on the landing. Sam pulled on his pants, slapped his suspenders over his bony shoulders, and ran out into the hall, but they were gone, running down the stairs and into the street, where he spotted four men in burlap hoods, one holding a torch, throwing Frank Little onto the bed of a wagon and whipping the two lead horses away.
Sam followed them on foot, but returned back to the rooming house at day-break. He shaved, dressed in fresh clothes, and packed his saddlebag. He had an hour till Western Union opened its doors. He would cable Baltimore for instructions.
He waited on the porch of the offices, the sun rising over the hills and covering crevices in white, hot light. He smoked a cigarette and was nearly done as the sound of horses approached, and he saw the sheriff and some of his men as they gathered and whipped their bridles to and fro, and skinny young Sam ran out to meet them to ask what was going on.
They were headed to the train trestle outside town and Sam followed, riding in the back of a Model T flatbed with a newspaperman at the wheel. The little truck jostled and threw him and he held on tight for fear he’d be tossed out on the road.
A crowd had already gathered under the trestle and there was pointing and shouting and a couple boys standing under a twisting body covered by a white hood and swaying back and forth from a twenty-foot hemp rope.
FIRST AND LAST WARNING had been painted in white across Little’s chest.
A big black camera snapped. The sheriff yelled for someone to get up there and cut the damn man down. One of the boys boasted he’d found part of an ear in the dirt and said Little hadn’t gone down without a fight.
Sam searched his pocket for his notebook but instead found the IWW pamphlet. When he pulled it out, the fresh ink bled on his fingers.
With his two best buddies and his movie star dog, Roscoe Arbuckle drove north in a twenty-five-thousand-dollar Pierce-Arrow that came equipped with a cocktail bar and a backseat toilet. Roscoe was a big man, not as fat as he appeared in those two-reel comedies that had made him famous in which he wore pants twice his size, but portly nonetheless. His eyes were a pale light blue, the transparent color of a newborn, and his soft, hairless face often reminded moviegoers of a child. A two-hundred-and-sixty-pound child stuck in all kinds of bad situations where “Fatty” Arbuckle, as he was known to America, would dress up like a woman, nearly drown, or sometimes get shot in the ass.
As they hugged the rocky, sunny coast of northern California, Roscoe had sweet thoughts of his new three-million-dollar Paramount contract and a weekend with ever-flowing Scotch and endless warm pussy.
His dog, Luke, who now earned three hundred a week, hung his head out the window and soon sniffed the fetid air off San Francisco Bay, while in back, Roscoe’s buddies Lowell and Freddie smoked cigars, played cards, and poured more whiskey for the chauffeur, who hadn’t touched the wheel since Los Angeles. And soon that big Pierce-Arrow glided down Market Street, passing cable cars on the way up the hill, and toward the Ferry Building, before curving with a light touch of the brakes into Union Square and the St. Francis Hotel.
Roscoe pulled up under a portico, honking the horn and tossing the keys to the doorman, and heard whispers of “Fatty” and “Fatty Arbuckle,” and he smiled and winked and took a few pictures with Luke for the newspapers before doffing his chauffeur’s cap and checking into the twelfth floor.
“Luke’s hungry,” Roscoe said, relaxing with a plop into a red velvet sofa. “Order up a steak.”
“For a dog?” Fred asked.
“For me and the dog. Make it two.”
“What about gin?”
“Use the telephone, have ’em send up whatever you like. And a Victrola. We got to have a Victrola.”
Crates and crates of bootleg gin and Scotch whiskey appeared in the suite as if by magic, carried in on the strong backs of bellhops, and Roscoe peeled off great gobs of money and placed it into their palms. The men ordered ice and table fans and opened up the windows as pitchers of fresh-squeezed orange juice arrived for gin blossoms. The Victrola was wheeled in on a dolly with a crate of 78s and Fatty selected James Reese Europe and the 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band playing “St. Louis Blues.” And the music came out tinny and loud and patriotic and festive at the same time and Roscoe sweated a bit as he moved with it. He cracked open another window looking down upon Union Square, feeling a breeze off the San Francisco Bay, hearing the sounds of the cable cars clanging, and spotting a crowd gathered down on Geary.
They were looking up at the perfect blue sky, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, and for a moment Roscoe thought the word must’ve spread he’d come to town. But he heard a noise from a roof, a motor, and one of the bellhops, now wheeling in a cart filled with silver platters of steaks—Luke licking his chops as he sat in a velvet chair—said there was a circus man about to ride his motorcycle over a tightrope.
Roscoe smiled and took his drink up to the roof just as the man, dressed in leather, with helmet and goggles, a woman beside him in a sidecar, revved off on a line of ridiculously narrow wire crossing over the people on the street, the paper hawkers and the newsboys and the dishwashers and the cooks, and the crowd whistled and clapped and yelled, their hearts about to explode from the excitement.
And Roscoe took a big swig of Scotch and clapped and applauded and yelled down to the crowd, the newsboys taking a shot of the famous film star cheering on the acrobat.
Roscoe walked to the hotel’s ledge and peered down, pretending to test the line and pantomiming a test walk, and then waved his hands off from the wire, and everyone yelled. All the dishwashers and maids and raggedy kids on the street. And that made Roscoe Arbuckle feel good, as he returned to room 1220 and asked his friend Fred to fetch up some women.
He twisted himself into a pair of striped pajamas and put on a silk robe and knew this was going to be a fine vacation, not planning on leaving the room till they carried him out. He cranked up the Victrola as far as it would go, playing his new favorite, Marion Harris singing “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
As he waited for the party to come to him, Roscoe cut up Luke’s steak and placed the silver tray on the floor, rubbing the nubbed ears of his old friend.
SAM HAMMETT HAD CASED the old slump-backed roadhouse for two nights, following up on a forty-dollar payoff to a San Quentin snitch named Pinto about the whereabouts of “Gloomy” Gus Schaefer. A few weeks back, Schaefer’s boys had knocked off a jewelry store in St. Paul, and the Old Man had sent him out to this beaten, nowhere crossroads just outside Vallejo to make sure the information they got was good. It was night, a full moon, and from the protective shadow of a eucalyptus tree Sam watched the sequined girls with painted lips and their rich daddies in double-breasted suits. They stumbled out onto the old porch and to their Model Ts and Cadillacs, while poor men in overalls would wander back down the crooked road.
Two of the Schaefers’ black Fords sat close to the rear porch, his gang upstairs laughing and playing cards, their images wobbly through the glass panes. Schaefer himself had appeared twenty minutes ago, Sam knowing instantly it was him, with the hangdog face and droopy eyes, leaning out an upstairs window, checking out the moon and stars, before taking off his jacket and resuming his place at the card table.
Sam craned his head up to the window and shook his head.
He found a foothold under the second-story porch and climbed, careful not to rip a suit he couldn’t afford in a month’s pay, and shimmied up a drainpipe, finding purchase on the rail, and hoisted himself over the banister with a thud.
He breathed slow, trying to catch his breath and feeling that wet cough deep in his throat. He tried to silence the hacking with a bloodied handkerchief.
Lying close to the windowsill, he could see the figures and hear them now, every word, as they talked about everything but the heist. Mainly about a batch of hooch loaded up in one of the Fords for a delivery to a tong in Chinatown named Mickey Wu.
One of the boys had a girl in a short skirt on his knee and bounced her up and down like a child. She clapped and laughed as the boy wiggled a poker chip over his knuckles.
Sam coughed again and bit into the handkerchief to silence himself. His hands shook as he righted himself on the railing, sitting there for ages, maybe an hour, before the conversation turned to another meeting, somewhere in Oakland, and a trade with Gloomy Gus’s wife.
Sam leaned in and listened, thinking about who the hell would’ve married a fella like Gloomy Gus, and then there was a small crack. The slightest splitting of wood that sounded like warming ice.
Sam held his breath, unsure what had happened, and reached for the railing.
Then he heard a larger crack, and within seconds the entire porch fell away from the roadhouse. Sam tried to hold on to the drainpipe, keeping the entire rickety affair up in the air for a few moments, enough that he steadied himself and got some air back in his lungs, but then the porch leaned far away and crumbled like a tired fighter into a solid, violent mess.
The Schaefer gang was on him before he could get to his feet. They extended their revolvers down as he lay on his back. The air had gone out of him like a burst balloon.
Four of them, including Gus, stared down at him. He tried to catch a breath.
“Shut up,” Gus said.
“You the cops?”
“I have some business.”
“Diamonds,” Sam said, two men pulling him to his feet as he dusted off the pin-striped suit. He tried to look annoyed at the dirt on his elbows while two of the boys poked guns into his ribs, another frisking him and finding the little .32.
Someone had hit the headlights on a Model T and Sam turned his head and squinted. Schaefer nodded thoughtfully, checking out Sam, with the shock of white hair and the young face and the wiry, rail-thin frame.
“In times like these,” Sam said, coughing, “a man can’t be too careful.”
Schaefer’s droopy eyes lightened. He smiled.
Sam smiled back. A crowd started to form on the roadhouse’s porch. The tinny sounds of the piano player started again.
“Somebody shoot this bastard,” Schaefer said.
“Don’t make a mess,” Schaefer said. “Put down a blanket or something first. We’ll dump him in the bay.”
They brought Sam upstairs, tied him to a ladder-back chair, stuck a handkerchief in his mouth, and locked him in a broom closet. He heard the men walk away and waited until he heard laughter and poker chips again to try to work his hands from the knots.
HER NAME WAS Bambina Del Monte.
Her name was Maude Delmont.
Her name was Bambina Maude Delmont Montgomery. Hopper-Woods, if you count the last two.
Her last husband, Cassius Clay Woods, was a real screw. He hadn’t known she was still married to the Hopper fella and was still sending her sap letters about eternal love and even little poems he’d written, really horrible ones about her eyes being like the sky and her skin the color of milk. Her eyes were black, her hair was black, and she had her father’s dark Italian skin. Who was this guy trying to fool? But that’s what happened to a man who’d slipped a vise on your finger and still didn’t get into your drawers.
It was after hours at Tait’s Café, a speakeasy on O’Farrell, and as usual Al was late. Paddle fans worked away the smoke that rose from marble-topped tables where couples sat in little wiry chairs. There was a big stage, but the stage was bare except for a placard announcing A SPRIGHTLY AND DIVERTING ENTERTAINMENT INTERSPERSED WITH GUEST DANCING.
She ate ice cream and drank bourbon, mixing the two a bit, and hadn’t a clue on how she was going to be paying if Al didn’t show up with some cash. He was the one who drove her from Los Angeles along with the girl, the whole way bragging how they’d soon be dining in Paris on a king’s budget.
But Al Semnacher didn’t look much like a king when he walked through the alley door of the speakeasy. He looked more like a goddamn rube, with his graying hair, low hairline, and horn-rimmed glasses. A guy who’d stutter if his hand touched your tit.
“Anyone ever tell you that you look like a rube?” she asked. “Why don’t you clean your glasses now and again?”
Maude rolled her eyes. “Just pay the tab and let’s fly. ‘The mark’? You never worked a con in your life.”
“Bourbon and ice cream.”
He wrinkled his nose, making him look like a spoiled-rotten kid smelling something he didn’t like.
“It’s good. Want some?”
“So it is,” said Maude. “Say, your girl doesn’t exactly look like her pictures.”
“The nightie shots or the one from Punch of the Irish?”
“Both,” Maude said. “She’s gotten fat.”
Al Semnacher leaned back into the chair and drummed his little fingers. He readjusted his thick, dirty glasses and leaned in, speaking in his little voice: “She needs money and we need her.”
“And she’ll stick with the script?”
“A variation on the Engineer’s Daughter. But it’s a long con.”
“I’m glad you listen,” Maude said, thumping her fist on the table. “But, Al?”
“Let me do the thinkin’ in this relationship.”
Al fiddled with the long spoon, dabbing out just a teaspoon of the melted ice cream. He winked before he slipped the spoon into his mouth and said, “I like your hair.”
“Do you, now? You don’t think I look like a boy?”
“With those knockers that’d be kind of tough.”
Maude reached down and hefted those big boobs on her skinny frame and asked, “She’ll get us in?”
“She’s been knowin’ ole Fatty for years now. His pecker will get hard just hearin’ her name. Trust me.”
Maude met Al’s eyes and she smiled, keeping the contact.
“You have balls, Al. No brains. But a big set of ’em.”
Sam had knocked over the chair and was working the ropes on a rusty pipe when the door opened and rough hands gripped him by the arms and jerked him into a room where the gang played poker. Gloomy Gus glanced over at Sam as he counted out some cash, tossing a wad to the center of the table, and said to one of his boys, “Thought I told you to kill the bastard.”
“Thought we’d wait ’cause of the mess.”
“Are you trying to say something?” Gus asked. One of the gang stooped down and pulled the handkerchief from Sam’s mouth.
“I came with an offer.”
“You came to us as a copper or a bank dick. Look at you, the way you’re dressed, you look like a copper from a mile away.”
“Can I explain my offer?”
“Explain, my ass.”
The boys laughed, Gus laughed, chomping down on an unlit cigar. His right incisor made of gold.
Sam was jerked to his feet by two men. His legs felt strange, tingling and light.
“I can give you five grand for it all.”
“Who sent you?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
One of the boys punched him hard in the stomach. He doubled over and, as the wind came back to him, spat blood.
“Five grand. Is this a joke?”
“How ’bout I sit in for a hand?” Sam asked. “Then you can get to killing me.”
Gus looked up from the cards that he’d begun to deal. He glanced over at the boys and shrugged, one of ’em just a kid, with jet-black hair parted down hard with drugstore grease.
Gus picked the cards off the table. He shuffled. He relit the old cigar, the tip glowing red-hot.
He stomped his feet in time with the music below them.
Sam wandered to the table, took a chair, and said, “Stud?”
“I call the fucking game,” Gus said. “So, Mr. Big Shot, you got ten dollars for the pot?”
Sam reached into his coat pocket and, having left his wallet with Haultain, smiled and said, “You stake me, Gus?”
Gus cut his eyes up from the deck in hand, and then just as slow and lazy, began to deal around the table.
They played until dawn, and Sam’s stomach felt hollowed out from the cheap gin they drank from fruit jars. Someone brought in some coffee and he drank that and smoked two more Fatima cigarettes and played two more hands and was feeling pretty good with the situation and was just about to bring up the diamonds again until one of Gus’s boys thundered up the steps, threw open the door, and yelled that someone had just set fire to their cars.
Gus’s dark eyes turned right toward Sam.
LABOR DAY MORNING.
Virginia was in the hotel bathroom, naked as a jaybird, door wide-open, powdering her face and big fat boobs before checking her red lips and pulling herself into a slip. Still no panties, mind you, just the slip, as she played and combed her mousy brown hair and danced a little fox-trot before flushing the commode and adding makeup under her eyes.
Maude Delmont watched from the edge of the bed, legs crossed, dressed in a cute little black dress and smoking a thin brown cigarette. She studied herself in the mirror on back of the door. Her black hair was bobbed, as every girl who read a magazine knew to do, and she’d painted her eyes up like some kind of Oriental.
She liked it. She didn’t look half bad.
Virginia must’ve been a hell of a looker based on those photographs of Al’s. But somewhere down the line, she’d developed an ass the size of a zeppelin and looked just plain tuckered-out. She’d been sleeping pretty much since they’d gotten to San Francisco.
Virginia Rappe. She pronounced it Rap-pay, telling people she’d learned that in France. But from the boring stories Maude heard on the drive, the only thing Virginia had learned in France was how to pick pockets of rich, dumb Americans and dance in her underwear.
Al was a lousy con man.
Virginia was a lousy whore.
But Al wanted to believe she was an actress, a star of tomorrow, and had told Maude a half dozen times about how six years ago Virginia’s face appeared on the sheet music to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” And Al would say it all serious, like a man in love, and that would make Maude laugh even more. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” She couldn’t believe he didn’t see the humor in talking about a tired broad like Virginia as if the girl was some kind of kid virgin.
Virginia walked through the shabby little hotel room drinking some gin, still wearing a slip up top but no dress. When she turned to Maude, Maude noticed a sizable patch of fur between her white thighs, like a French poodle being strangled, and she motioned to it with the burning end of her cigarette and coughed.
“Oh, shit,” Virginia said.
“You sure you’re up for this?”
“You asked me that ten times.”
“So, how do you know ole Fatty?”
“I worked for Sennett when he was there.”
“You really in the pictures?”
“I was in a restaurant scene. Fatty was throwing pies.”
“Did you get a pie?”
“Not a crumb.”
“I always wanted to be in pictures,” Maude said and recrossed her legs. “You sure you’re okay? You look a little peaked.”
Maude watched the girl’s hand’s shake as she combed her hair some more and tugged on her stockings and dress. Her face looked drained, and even with the makeup black circles rimmed her eyes as she turned back from the dressing table.
“After this is done, can I have dinner?” Virginia asked.
“Please excuse me.”
Virginia went back to the bathroom, where Maude heard gagging and vomiting and then the toilet flush. When she returned, Virginia asked, “Isn’t this the cutest little hat?”
It was a straw panama with a blue bow.
Maude ticked off the ash of her cigarette. “You might want to take off the price tag, honey.”
SAM FELT A LOAD of bricks against his neck and tumbled to his knees. There were fists and feet and cursing and spit, and a lot of blood after that. He heard a thud on the floor—half of an old brick had landed beside his head—and he tried to make his way on all fours as another gleaming shoe knocked him in the stomach and against the wall, and soon it felt like he was underwater trying to find the right way up, searching for air. He covered his face the way he’d seen fighters do and curled up into a ball, as there was more shouting but then less kicking, and for a few seconds he was left alone, until a final blow came to the ribs like an exclamation point to it all.
He could not breathe.
It felt like minutes passed until a sliver of air worked into his diseased lungs and he saw some light flat across the wooden floor and heard feet up and down the staircase, stumbling and bumbling like the Keystone Kops. He tried to sit but only fell flat to the ground.
Someone called his name and he opened the only eye he could.
The hands were more gentle this time but no less strong, and Sam felt himself standing through no fault of his own. His arm was draped around a man, maybe a head taller than him, and they were walking across the room in a crazy, jumbled dance, down the stairs and out to the back of the roadhouse, where the early-morning light split Sam’s skull.
He was flopped into a rumble seat and the ignition was pressed and they were off down the bumpy, curving road without a word.
“How you doin’ back there, buddy?”
Sam crossed a forearm over his eyes. “Why’d you have to go and do that?”
“Distract ’em,” Sam said. “Don’t you know I had that son of a bitch right where I wanted him?”
“You think Gus will be more upset about his Fords or the hooch I used to start the fire?”
“Good question, Phil. Ask it to me again when we reach The City.”
ROSCOE WOKE Up Monday morning on the couch, a watery glass of Scotch in his lap, hearing the sounds of Powell Street below. He glanced over at Freddie, tall, dark, athletic Freddie, who’d snuggled up with the singer he’d met at Tait’s Café last night as Lowell walked into the bedroom shaved and showered, a fresh drink in his hand, wanting to know what everyone wanted for breakfast. His girl, a skinny redhead who wore knickers like a boy, appeared from one of the two adjoining bedrooms, trying to straighten the flower in her hat. And Roscoe said he’d love some eggs and toast and coffee. And then he told Lowell, who was on the telephone to room service, to skip that coffee and have another case of gin sent up. He was feeling like gin blossoms this morning.
“Don’t you want to go out?” Freddie asked, slipping his broad shoulders into a navy blazer. He futzed with his thick Romanian eyebrows in a window’s reflection. “See the city?”
“Why’d I want to do a fool thing like that?”
Roscoe walked over to the window facing Powell Street and looked down at the rooftops of cars lined up for the valet. Freddie’s gal joined him and pinched his waist.
“You aren’t so fat, Mr. Arbuckle.”
“Thanks, girlie,” he said. “Hey, you wanna jump? I will if you will. You think any of ’em would care?”
She narrowed her eyes a bit but then caught his smile. She smiled back.
“You mind signing something for my kid sis?”
He turned and smiled at her. “You’re not leaving, are you? The party’s just started. Go ahead and crank up that Victrola.”
The girl found the “Wang Wang Blues” and “On the ’Gin ’Gin ’Ginny Shore,” and she and Roscoe were making a beautiful duet as the boys wheeled in the breakfast, Freddie on the phone to some showgirls he’d met at Tait’s last night.
About the time they’d finished eating, the mixing of gin blossoms in fine form now, the telephone rang, the telephone having rung nonstop since they’d all arrived, and Freddie said, “Come on up.”
“Who’s that?” Roscoe asked.
“You remember that big-eyed girl of Henry Lehrman’s? She was at Keystone a few years back.”
“Sure, sure. She comin’ up?”
“What’s her name?”
“A virgin what?”
By the time Virginia walked into the party, Roscoe was on his third blossom of the morning and greeted the woman with a slight bow. “I do know you.”
She winked at him.
Meet the Author
Ace Atkins is the author of White Shadow, Wicked City, Devil's Garden, and four Nick Travers novels. He lives on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi.
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