- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Two sailors had thrown Jack Ellis into the elevator shaft on the eighth floor of the Ocean Palms Hotel. If the elevator hadn't been on the way up from the sixth floor at the time, Jack would have been a short order of ground house detective. As it was, he wound up with a right kneecap that reminded a sentimental surgeon at Los Angeles County Hospital of the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of Niagara Falls his mother had given him for his tenth birthday.
The two sailors, whom Jack had interrupted while they were dancing on a shoe-polish salesman from Sioux Falls, Iowa, had been scolded severely and sent back to duty on the U.S.S. Wasp. Sailors were top-priority items in 1942 and broken-down house detectives two for a mercury dime.
Before delirium set in Jack called me to ask if I wanted to fill in for him at the Ocean Palms till he was back on whatever they could construct to keep him reasonably balanced when he went unpatriotically after his next battalion of servicemen having a good time. Jack had been a security guard at Warner Brothers until about a year ago. I had been a guard at the studio a few years before him. We had similar backgrounds right down to being fired personally by Jack Warner. When I separated Jack's words from the groans, I told him that I'd be at the Ocean Palms that night. He said thanks and passed out. I heard the phone bounce away on the tile floor and a nurse shout, "Shit."
So for three weeks I was acting house dick at the Ocean Palms on Main in downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from my own office on Hoover and Ninth. My office was in the Farraday Building, which had seen much better days, but the Ocean Palms had not. The hotel went up in 1912 without high hopes and had managed, with the help of time, earthquakes and transients of uncertain ilk, to remain on the short side of respectability. The hotel had worn away a few dozen managers, a house staff of hundreds and as many house detectives as there were slaves who built the great pyramid.
The Ocean Palms keys to success were the war, proximity to the Greyhound bus terminal and low prices without pride. Soldiers, sailors and marines on passes checked into rooms and went out into halls looking for trouble. Small-town kids who wanted to break into the movies checked in and met sailors in halls looking for trouble. Salesmen with low budgets and prostitutes on the way down but not quite out roamed and met each other. The hotel got its twenty-five bucks' worth from me for three weeks until that cold Monday, February 16, 1942. The temperature had dropped to the thirties in Los Angeles. I heard it was 22 in San Gabriel.
It was noon when I walked into the Ocean Palms lobby, wearing one of my two suits and a topcoat that had been in and out of hock to Hy O'Brien of O'Brien's Clothes for Him so many times that Hy and I considered it community property. There was rain in the air, which threatened my bad back, and the news was rotten. Singapore had fallen to the Japanese. Burma and Sumatra were on the way out. Eleanor Roosevelt said women should register for the draft. Japanese enemy aliens and their American-born sons and daughters had till the following Sunday to remove themselves from restricted areas, meaning if you even looked Oriental you had six days to get out of Los Angeles. The news stunk and so did I. I had been sleeping days and working nights and bathing not at all.
When I entered the lobby, two men in coats were leaning against the registration desk. I recognized one of them and knew that as bad as the news was for the United States, it was going to get worse for me personally.
"Peters," said the shorter of the two, standing up with both hands in his pockets.
I had never known his name, but I knew his job. I had run into him in Chicago a year earlier when I was on a case. He looked a lot like Lou Costello but he worked for Frank Nitti, which didn't make him funny at all. He had tried to kill me once and saved my life once and had ordered me permanently out of Chicago. Maybe now Nitti had decided that the United States wasn't big enough for the two of us. The other guy in the lobby, a massive creature with a worried look, was dressed like a looming shadow of Costello. They both wore dark hats and coats. Both had their hands in their pockets. They could have gone on the stage and done a dance.
It was too late for me to run, and I was too easy to find if I did. Besides, this was my territory and I wasn't about to give it up without finding out why.
"How'd you like to take a ride with us?" the bigger one said in a voice that would have knocked over the palms in the lobby if they had not all been stolen years earlier. The big one moved toward me.
"A ride would be very nice," I said. "Mind if I tell...."
"We told the manager it was an emergency," said Costello. "He was very understanding."
"Don't get funny," the big guy said, bringing up the rear as we went back outside.
"I'll try to keep a straight face," I said.
Their car was a big black '39 Packard with California plates. I got in the back with Costello, who pulled out his .45 and dug it into my stomach, searching for a reasonable place to drill an extra navel. The big man drove.
"Palm trees, will you look at that, right on the street? Will you look at that?" said Costello.
I looked out the window at the palm trees I had seen almost every day of my forty-five years on this planet.
"Palm trees," I repeated.
Costello had one of those dark, weatherbeaten faces mass-produced by the grit of cities. He was tough, thick and compact.
"Marco and me been in Los Angeles four, five hours, that's all," Costello said, leaning toward me and nodding at the driver.
"You sure you got the right guy?" I tried.
Costello grinned. "I know you, Peters." He pushed the gun even further into my stomach and then leaned back to admire the palms.
"You going to tell me what's going on?" I said. "Or did you just pick me up to show you the sights and admire your taste in palm trees?"
The grin left Costello's face. "I don't like jokers. You remember that? Marco don't like jokers either, and we don't like bright boys either, do we, Marco?"
Marco's huge shoulders shrugged.
"Look what you did," Costello sighed. "You almost ruined our first morning in Los Angeles."
"Sorry," I said. "But you're not making this an Ovaltine day for me either. Where are we going?"
"Santa Monica," rumbled Marco from the front seat in a voice that suggested a botched ghetto tonsillectomy and gangster movies.
"You tell him nothing," hissed Costello. "Nothing. Nothing."
"What's the difference?" rasped Marco. "He'll see when we get there. He's certainly familiar with the environment."
Costello sat back to whisper to me and worked the gun barrel around to my kidney. "Marco's building his vocabulary," he sneered softly. "Reader's Digest. Thinks it'll make a difference."
"How many mugs back in Chicago you know can use a word like 'environment'?" Marco said.
"He's got a point," I said.
"Be quiet, bright boy," Costello whispered.
"I don't think I was ever a boy," I said. "I never had time to be a boy. And I'm not going to start being one now."
"Make you feel better to say that?" sighed Costello. "You feel brave now? Huh."
I shrugged, and he gave three quick jabs to my kidney with the gun barrel.
He smiled, and I tried to smile back. He held a fat, dark finger to his lips and said, "Shhh."
We drove for fifteen minutes in silence except for the traffic outside and the pinging of a light, cold rain. I cleared my throat. Costello pressed the gun into my sore kidney.
"I don't want to hear you breathe," he said.
"Which Santa Monica are we going to?" I said softly.
"Joke again?" he hissed. "What did I say about jokes?" He punctuated each word with a sharp jab. I groaned.
"Is there a plethora of Santa Monicas?" Marco asked, over the engine and my groaning.
"I only know one and it's not in Nevada," I said. "You're heading east."
Marco hit the brakes, sending us into a skid. We slid sideways into a muddy hill and stopped. Marco turned his thick, round head to face us over the seat. The rain streaming down the windows cast dark, quivering lines on his face. He did not look happy. He did not look angry, either. What I saw in that massive face and black eyes was a dangerous fear.
"I told you we shouldn't have come here," he said. "We don't know this place. Things are going wrong already. It's going to be calamitous."
Costello looked at Marco's frightened face and then past him out the window. "The Japs are not going to land here and they're not going to bomb Los Angeles. We just do our job and get out and nothing is going to happen."
Marco's eyes met mine and then turned dangerously to Costello. "Who said anything about bombs?" he said. He pointed a massive finger at himself. "I ask you. Did I say anything about bombs?" His hand moved inside his coat.
"Crap," sighed Costello, looking out the window at the passing traffic. "You're just scared. I know what you're scared of. I listened to you for ten hours on that plane."
"You shouldn't denunciate me in front of strangers," Marco said dangerously.
"Shut up and drive out of here, or brother-in-law or no brother-in-law, you're going to be through when we get back to Chicago," Costello said.
I could see by Marco's eyes that this was the wrong tack. "I don't think the Japanese are going to land here or bomb," I said evenly.
"See," said Costello.
"On the other hand," I said almost to myself, "we are due for a major earthquake."
"I don't like it," Marco said, looking out the back window for enemy Zeroes.
"We had no choice," Costello said, looking at me. "He told us ..."
"We could have declined," answered Marco. "We could have procrastinated."
"Talk English and drive," said Costello, taking the gun from my kidney and bringing it in front of him in the general direction of massive Marco, who was, if nothing else, an easy target at this or any distance up to a hundred yards. Rain shadows did a mocking dance on Marco's frightened face. He took off his hat to pat a sweating bald head. Then his fear turned to anger. A gun pointed at him was something he understood.
"I don't like where that gun is pointing," Marco croaked.
And I didn't like the whole damned conversation. In a few seconds I could be sprayed all over the backseat, the innocent victim of crossfire between two feebleminded refugees from a remake of Scarface.
"I'll tell you how to get to Santa Monica," I said. "I know a shortcut." I was in desperate need of a more sane level of kidnapper.
"Roosevelt ain't so sure they won't bomb," Marco went on, staring at Costello. "If he is sure, why's he want to move the factories East? And what about this earthquake stuff?"
"Politics," said Costello.
"Just turn the car around and go back on this street," I tried.
Marco and Costello were eye to eye.
"Palm trees all the way," I said. It had no effect, so I tried, "Isn't someone waiting for us?"
That moved them. Costello nodded, and Marco turned around. The gun found its way back into the nook it had carved in my kidney.
"Politics has nothing to do with it," Marco said, turning the car around and almost causing a collision with a truck. "Politics are irrelevant to the situation."
Nothing much more happened on the way to Santa Monica. We did stop for tacos and Pepsi at a stand I like. Marco went in while Costello and I peered through the drizzle in search of palms.
"I don't see the damned mountains," Costello grumbled.
"When the sky clears, you'll see them, and we'll go through some in a few minutes."
Marco ate five tacos and I ate two. Costello wanted me to pay for my own but we couldn't get the bill straight, so Marco said it was on him. He asked a few questions about earthquakes and we continued on our pilgrimage, three buddies out for a lark on a Monday afternoon.
It was almost two in the afternoon when we got where we were going. The rain had stopped, but the sky was dark, and disgruntled thunder rumbled over the ocean a few blocks away. We were in the parking lot of a new low white brick building, a one-story affair with a few construction company trucks still around to provide finishing touches. Costello led the way through construction rubble and into the building through a double wooden door marked Delivery Entrance.
Marco breathed tabasco sauce on my neck as we moved into the damp half-light. The lights hadn't been installed yet, and the building had that new smell of mud and clay with a touch of garlic. Something moved in the corner, and three men stepped forward from the shadows of the broad room we were in. A boom of thunder shook the walls.
"You do a little sightseeing on the way?" said the man in the lead, with a slight accent I couldn't place. He was about fifty, with thin, dark hair and a mottled complexion. He was wearing a clean white smock and had his hands in his pockets like a doctor approaching a troublesome patient. The two men behind him were also wearing white smocks and serious scowls. One of them carried a large plate.
The guy with the bad complexion stepped forward and looked at me. I seemed to be what he expected. I'm about five foot nine, weigh about 160 and have a nose smashed flat by fists and fate. I look as if I've seen it all and it has seen and danced on me.
"Mr. Lombardi ..." Marco began with what was probably going to be an apology, but Lombardi cut him off with a stare and clenched teeth that made it clear Marco had made a mistake in using his name. He held the glare for about ten seconds and then held up his left hand. One of the two guys in white, the one with the plate, stepped forward. I was sure there would be a dagger on the plate and I was about to be dispatched, with Marco following me in a matter of seconds.
"Try this," said Lombardi. He took the plate from the guy on his left and held it out to me. There were slices of pastrami, corned beef and salami and something else on it. I reached for the salami and took a bite.
"Well?" said Lombardi.
I looked around at Costello and Marco and the two guys in white while I chewed. They were all looking at me.
"Good," I said.
"Just good?" said Lombardi. "Try the pastrami and the tongue."
I tried the pastrami.
"Very good," I said. This guy had gone through a lot to get my approval of some cold cuts, and he didn't seem like the type who would respond well to criticism. I finished the pieces of meat and accepted the offer of a slice of pickled cow's tongue. I don't know how it tasted. It was a little hard to taste anything with Lombardi's face inches from mine, his right eyebrow up, his tongue a little out, waiting for my reaction.
I smiled and nodded in appreciation as I gulped down the tongue slice.
"See," grinned Lombardi, "a native likes it."
We were pals now. He put his right arm over my shoulder and led me into a corner away from the others.
"I got this idea back East," he whispered into my ear. "A guy I know said the delicatessen in Los Angeles was awful, couldn't get a decent pastrami, no smoked fish, lox, nothing. So about a year ago I decided to move out here, semi-retire, open a kosher-style factory."
"Kosher-style?" I asked sweetly.
Lombardi nodded and pointed back at the guy in white who had held the platter of meat. "Stevie's old lady was Jewish. Stevie will manage the factory."
"Oh," I said as we walked in a little circle, Lombardi's arm getting heavier on my shoulder. "And how do I—"
"You see," Lombardi went on, pausing only to touch a shiny new slicing machine delicately, "there are maybe a couple thousand, maybe more, restaurants in LA that should be carrying my line. With my two imported salesmen from Chicago and my own men, we should be able to convince most of them to take a good supply each and every day. You agree?" I agreed.
"Good," he went on with a wink. "Now this can run into big money—not as big as some other things I could have gone into, but this is a labor of love, you know what I mean?"
"A labor of love," I agreed, wanting to shift his arm from my shoulder.
"But," he said, stopping suddenly and gripping my shoulder, "there is a problem."
"A problem," I repeated, since repeating seemed to be getting me into the least trouble.
"A problem," he nodded sadly. "Someone is stirring into things I don't want stirred into, things from a long time ago that could embarrass a friend of mine, maybe cause trouble for my business. We don't want trouble for my business, do we?"
"We do not," I said emphatically.
Excerpted from High Midnight by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1981 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.