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New York is lousy with night clubs. There are strip joints, clip joints, jive joints, live joints, square joints, hip joints, crash joints, splash joints, crumb joints, class joints.
The Long-Malamed is class. All the way.
It is located on Fifty-fifth Street at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue. It is a narrow, two-story, rust-red building with a shimmering, scarlet, patent leather canopy, and a shimmering, scarlet-adorned doorman. Three steps up are heavy translucent glass-doors and, when you push through, you're in the small ante room which is the cocktail lounge of the Long-Malamed.
Separating the cocktail lounge and the night club room are two winding white marble stairways, each--I had been informed by Tobias Eldridge, the amiable genius behind the bar--leading upstairs to the well-furnished town apartment of Joe Malamed, one of the owners of the club.
I had never met Mr. Joe Malamed. He had recently moved up to the big time, coming from Miami and forming a partnership with a young man of many dollars, one Melvin Long. Joe Malamed had a wife, and I had heard, too, that she took an active interest in the operation of the club.
I was seated at a hinge in the bar, near to the door and opposite the check-room, working on a tall scotch and water, and watching Miss Irene Whitney.
Nothing had been stacked like Miss Irene Whitney since the Pyramids. Miss Whitney was tall and perfect. Miss Whitney has a shock of tousled short-cut iridescent auburn hair that was practically indecent, a lovely nose, and dark blue eyes. Miss Whitney also had legs.
At the hazard of a guess. I would suggest that Miss Whitney had been hired by the Long-Malamed onthe strength of her legs. That, anyway, is what her uniform declared. She wore spike-heeled black shoes, black opera-length nylons, a tiny flounced skirt (that was one flounce and no skirt), a black silk sash, a white silk blouse and a short sequined monkey jacket. Miss Whitney was a serious student of the drama, attending a dramatic school in the daytime and acquiring the wherewithal to do same by checking coats in nightclubs at night, and offering cigarettes and fuzzy little pandas for sale. Miss Whitney was a floor show on her own.
The floor show moved to me at the bar.
"Hi," I said. "How's Yale?"
"Yale." Disparagement made wrinkles on her nose, adding to its effectiveness.
Yale was a young man who attended Yale University, a school of learning. Weekends he came into town for the avowed purpose of giving a rapid rush to Miss Irene Whitney. My name is Peter Chambers, and I am neither as young, handsome, unsubtle or rich as Yale, but I was in there pitching too. This was Miss Whitney's second night in the employ of the Long-Malamed, and I'd been there both nights.
"Drink?" I said.
"Not with the boss sitting at the other end of the bar," Irene said.
Two men were seated at the far end. The one nearer to the archway was pale, slender and immaculately attired. He handled his drink with delicate fingers. He had straight white hair, parted in the middle, and neatly combed. He looked on the good side of sixty. The other was perhaps fifteen years his junior, a small man, a rugged little man with a ruddy sun-creased neck and a face as pink as the shrimp-fed flamingos at Hialeah. They seemed in the midst of a gentlemanly argument, the slender man's voice quiet and modulated, the small man's intense and rasping.
"Which one?" I said to Tobias.
"The one with the white hair. He's Joe Malamed."
"Who's the other one?"
"Remember Frankie Hines? Used to be a top jockey. Top jockey in the whole country. Don't tell me you don't remember Frankie Hines?"
Sure I remembered Frankie Hines. "That," I said, "was a long time ago. I thought he was dead, or something."
"Ain't dead nohow. Retired. Got a million enterprises. Got more loot than King Midas. Who the hell, Mr. Chambers, was this King Midas, anyway?"
I sipped and I smiled at Tobias Eldridge. Tobias was an old friend who had worked many of the top bars in our city of New York, as had I, except I was generally on the other side of the stick from Tobias. He was tall and thin with a shock of black hair falling over his forehead. He had a long inquisitive nose, a young face, and the knowing, old, ageless eyes that are the special prerequisite of bartenders born to be bartenders.
"King Midas?" I said. "A myth. Everything he touched turned to gold."
"That's Frankie," said Tobias. "Frankie Hines is loaded."
"Loaded," Irene said, "reminds me of the customers in the back room. They should be in the mood now for the cute little pandas, purveyed by yours truly, don't you think?"
"I think," I said.
Irene went to her check-room and I watched, appreciatively, as her hands went up over her head, attaching the strap about her neck. She came out bearing the tray of cigarettes and the pandas, winked at me, and proceeded with undulant grace through the archway and into the darkened room.
"You going in to see the show, Mr. Chambers?" Tobias asked. "It's going on any minute."
I was about to answer when Joe Malamed rapped on the bar for Tobias' attention. Tobias moved off, stumping the wooden bridge behind the bar, and refilled Malamed's glass.
The argument stepped up a notch, audible to me.
"Look," Joe Malamed said to Hines, "I owe you the dough and I admit it. But you're making a pest of yourself. Quit hounding me, and you'll get paid faster."
Frankie Hines said, "If I quit hounding you, I'll never get paid. And I'm sick and tired of waiting." He opened his knees and got off his stool. "If you want me to put the squeeze on, Joe, I got friends what can squeeze."
Malamed smiled up at Tobias. "Now he's threatening me."
"I beg your pardon," said Tobias, blandly.
"Nothing," Malamed said. "Forget it. And you forget it too, Frankie boy. You'll be paid inside a week. Now go in and enjoy the show."
"Can I sit at your wife's table?"
"Be my guest," Malamed said. "She's sitting with our book critic friend, Charles Morse, and a few other people. You know Charley?"
Frankie Hines had already disappeared into the darkness through the archway. Tobias returned to me.
"What's the hassle?" I said.
"Search me. When it's the boss who's in an argument, the bartender wears earlaps. You know how it is, Mr. Chambers."
The M.C.'s voice came through from the darkened room.
"...and now, ladies and gentlemen, Calvin Cole ... the great Calvin Cole ... the one and only ... in an Afro-Cuban fantasy on the drums ... assisted by Manaja ... the dancing dervish." Now he made his joke. "Hold on to your pockets, ladies and gentlemen. Darkness will descend upon the room. Total darkness." His voice rose to a high pitch. "Calvin Cole ... and Manaja."
All the lights went out. A tiny spot played on the glistening features of Calvin Cole as he rapped out his rhythms against the skin-tight drums he held between his knees.
"You going to watch?" Tobias said.
"What have I got to lose?"
I found a place just inside the archway, leaning against the wall, holding my drink. Now, lightning from the spot hit the stage in garish waves as Manaja began her torso-flinging performance. Her copper body had been rubbed with oil, reflecting the bursting flashes of light ... light and darkness ... light and darkness. I watched for some five minutes and then I went back into the gloom of the cocktail lounge. Tobias Eldridge was in the check-room, feet up like a banker, smoking.
"What's with you?" I asked. "You quit?"
"Resting," he said. Nobody at the bar except Mr. Malamed. Everybody watching Calvin and that Manaja. Wow, that Manaja! I got a needle for that Manaja."
I extended my glass. "Let's freshen this up, huh?"
Tobias sighed, ground out the cigarette in a sea-shell ashtray and stood up. "Okay. I'm ready." He stretched languidly. "That Manaja!" He walked behind the bar.
"I'll take Whitney."
He grinned. "So would I. If I could."
Mr. Joe Malamed had his arms crossed on the bar. His head nestled in his arms.
Tobias reached behind him for a bottle, and I moved to Mr. Malamed.
"I'm buying," I said, "as long as it's so lonely out here."
Mr. Malamed made no answer.
I touched him. His head moved. Blood made a bright red trickle on the white bar.
Tobias Eldridge gulped a brandy but it did nothing for the pallor of his face.
"This guy's dead," I said.
The lights went on in the inner room. Ruth Benson, the chanteuse, came on, singing her naughty songs.
"Dead?" Tobias said. "You sure?"
"One little bullet. Clean through the temple. I'm sure."
"One little bullet," Tobias said in wonderment. "One lousy little bullet." His voice reached up to falsetto. "Why, the guy was just sitting here, just sitting here with a drink..."
The first one out was Irene Whitney.
She saw what I held in my hands, and screamed. Piercingly.
Ruth Benson's song stopped. People poured out of the inner room. Screams topped screams. The men made a rush for the check-room, grabbing at coats. The cocktail lounge swarmed with hysteria.
I dropped Malamed back on the bar and fought through to the thick glass doors. I shot the bolt, locking the doors, and then I turned and spread my arms out wide like a young cop trying to hold up the pandemonium of onrushing traffic.
"All right," I yelled. "Everybody. Quiet. Quiet."
A young man in a tuxedo, dragging his coat, rushed me, trying to get out. I wound up a fist and caught him as he came. He went down clean. It helped. The noise simmered down to bubbling sounds.
"Quiet," I yelled. "Shut up, everybody."
Suddenly there was absolute silence. The women stared at me, goggle-eyed. The men stared at me exactly like the women.
"All right," I said. "A guy's been murdered. Nobody leaves till the cops come. That clear?"
There was no argument.
"Fine," said. "Now all you guys start putting your coats back into the check-room. And somebody get this drunk in front of me off the floor."
Somebody did. Some of the men moved to the check-room and hung their coats back.
I said: "All right. Now all of you go back to your tables. All of you go back where you were."
The crowd began to thin out. I said: "Any music in the house?"
A woman's voice came back at me. "Yes."
"Well, get them playing, will you?"
The woman's voice called, "Stan, get the boys together. Start them playing."
"Right, Mrs. Malamed. Right you are. Okay, boys. Let's go. On the double."
Soon there was music, soft strain.
"Okay," I said. "Everybody back in place. Nobody comes in, nobody goes out. Till we get the cops."
A young man, a guy with broad shoulders and black hair, shouldered through to me. "Thanks," he said. "Thanks a lot."
"Who are you?"
"Melvin Long, Joe Malamed's partner."
"Well, get them back to their tables, Melvin. Get them all back to where they were."
"You're Chambers, aren't you? Peter Chambers?"
"How do you know?"
"Seen you around."
"Okay. Now get them back, huh? Get them all back."
Soon enough the coats were back in the check-room and the customers were back in their chairs. Nobody remained in the cocktail lounge except Malamed, head-down on the bar near the archway, Tobias rigid near the brandy bottle behind the bar, Irene Whitney near the checkroom, and Melvin Long nervously rubbing his hands directly in front of me.
"You too," I said. "You and Miss Whitney. Back there exactly where you were."
Long said, "He's right, Irene. Come on. You were out on the floor." He led her through the archway and now I was alone with Tobias. I left my station at the glass doors and went to the bar. I said, "One for you, one for me, and then you call the cops."
I had scotch neat.
He had brandy.
Then he reached down, brought up the phone, stuck a trembling forefinger in the slot marked 0, and whirled the dial.
Posted January 14, 2010
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