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It's 1938 and P.I. Toby Peters is watching Atlanta burn in the biggest scene in the biggest movie ever made. When an extra is found lying dead in a ditch, Toby could swear he sees Clark Gable--Rhett Butler himself--watching from the shadows. Now, years later, Gable is receiving anonymous death threats in poetry. And frankly, my dear, why should Toby give a damn?
Aside from the fact that a giant Samoan named Andy was not standing on the chest of a little man named Charles Westfarland, and the tables and chairs weren't torn and shattered in front of the bandstand, the Mozambique Lounge in Glendale looked pretty much the way it had when I had last been in it almost ten years earlier.
It was early in the evening, Sunday, February 28, 1943, and I had come to see a client who had asked me to meet him at the Mozambique. I said I could, and he had started to give me directions; I cut him off and told him I knew the place, knew it well.
The Mozambique was dark and heavy with the same smell of alcohol and tired lust it had a decade ago. Two couples sat at one of the white-and-red-checkered tables in front of the bandstand, where a bored-looking old guy who looked like Clifton Webb was playing a pretty damned good boogie-woogie version of "There's a Breeze on Lake Louise." At the table next to the two couples, who were laughing like phony extras, a trio of uniformed sailors sat nursing Gobel beers and wondering whether they should pay attention to Clifton Webb or swap prewar stories. Two of the sailors were about ten years old and probably didn't have any stories but the Three Billy Goats Gruff. The third sailor was a lot older. In fact, if he could act, he probably had a good shot at playing Sheridan Whiteside in a road-company production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Seaman Whiteside was doing the talking.
The red-leatherette booths along the wall to my right were empty except for a guy in the far corner, hidden in the shadows and smoking. The bar was long, dark wood shined like a mirror from hell, the pride of Lester Gannett, who owned the place and poured the drinks. I was sure that when I last saw him four years earlier Gannett had been leaning on the bar the way he was now. But back then he hadn't been pouring something amber from a bottle into the tumbler of a little girl made up like someone's bad idea of a lady of the evening. The kid in the army air-corps uniform next to her smiled and looked at Lester in the hope of getting some acknowledgment of his good luck at landing this infant version of Lana Turner.
"Wow," said Sidney, perched just about where he had been a year before the war started. Sidney ruffled his white feathers and closed his beak, looking at me as to one more rich in hope. Sidney was an old cockatoo. The Mozambique was perfect. It even smelled like the jungle.
Lester noticed me. His round head cocked to one side like the old bird next to me, as he tried to place my dark eyes and busted nose.
I walked forward and sat on a stool five down from the painted passion flower playing hooky from eighth grade. Lester slid along behind the bar, bottle in hand, whimsical smile on his face. He looked a little like the moon with pockmarks.
"Officer ... don't tell me. Let me remember."
"Peters," I said, adjusting my tie in the bar mirror and surveying the room.
"Peters? No, that's not it," said Gannett.
"Pevsner," I said. "I changed it to Peters."
"Right," said Gannett. "Pevsner. I got a memory or what?"
"I get a prize for remembering my own name?"
"Sure thing," said Gannett with a grin. "Name it."
"Beer," I said.
"Suit yourself," he said with a shrug, letting me know that money was no object when it came to someone as important as an ex-cop who could remember his own name. "Been a while."
"About ten years," I said. "I'm not a cop anymore."
Gannett, reaching over to hit the tap handle and fill a mug with beer, kept grinning and pouring.
"That a fact?" he said.
"A fact," I said, watching the foam spill over the side of the mug he placed in front of me on a cardboard coaster. "Want to take the beer back?"
"To your good health," he said with a shrug.
"And yours," I agreed, toasting him and taking a drink.
"So, what you been up to?" he said, figuring maybe that I hadn't just dropped into the Mozambique for old time's sake.
"Worked security at Warner Brothers. Been doing private investigations for a while," I said, downing more beer.
"Tagged you for the army," Gannett said, leaning over and cleaning up the beer spill on his slick bar.
Gannett hadn't tagged me for anything, hadn't even thought about me since Babe Ruth retired from the Boston Braves.
"I'm pushing fifty, Lester," I said.
"No shit," he said, shaking his head. "I'd have said you were thirty-five tops. I'm fifty-two and look it, but you ..."
I looked at myself in the mirror behind the bar. The face belonged to a middleweight who had gone too many losing rounds at least two decades earlier.
"I'll bet you tell that to all the customers," I said, downing the rest of the beer and eyeing the empty mug.
"Most," Gannett agreed. "Most. Want another?"
This time I shrugged.
"It's on you, Peters," he said. "Old times is old times, but ..."
I fished out a quarter and plucked it on the bar.
The piano guy who looked like Clifton Webb finished his song and two people applauded politely, the kid with the infant hooker and the old sailor. The piano player nodded and launched into "Moonlight and Roses."
One night back when I was a Glendale cop, my partner Matt and I took a call about a fight in the Mozambique. Matt was a wheezer thinking about retiring to a small orange grove near Lompoc. I was a guy with a wife and gun.
The fight was over when we got there. A guy as big as a red Los Angeles trolley with an unsmiling flat face was standing on the stomach of a decidedly smaller guy who wasn't moving and may not have been breathing. They were right in front of the bandstand. Tables and chairs were overturned and any customers who might have been around five minutes earlier were all on their way home to listen to Stoopnagle and Bud.
"He's a Samoan," Lester Gannett had whispered to us from behind the bar.
"The big guy or the one on the floor?" I asked.
"Big guy," he said. "Other one's Charlie Westfarland or something like that. Welsh, Irish. Something. Who knows?"
"Helpful information," I said, while my partner tipped his blue cap back and sat at the bar, facing the path of destruction to the bandstand.
"Little guy, Charlie, thought Andy was a Jap," Lester explained. "Said something. You know. Harmless. And Andy goes stark nuts."
"Big guy?" I asked.
"Big guy," Gannett confirmed. "Been coming in for a week. On a construction job, something over near the cemetery. Who knows? Will you just get him the hell out of here? Night crowd'll be coming soon and I got a singer. It's Friday, you know. I got a singer, Fridays."
"Give you seven to four the Samoan falls off the other guy inside a minute," said my partner.
I looked at the two men among the mess of broken chairs and scattered tables. The big Samoan, a dreamy look in his eyes, was riding the unconscious guy as if he were a log.
"Matt," I said. "Little guy might be dead."
Matt touched his chin, thought for a beat, and said, "Even money. Take dead or alive. Your pick."
I'd left him sitting there trying to make the same bet with Gannett, who seemed to be considering it seriously.
"Andy," I had said, my hands folded in front of me as I approached the Samoan, my best Officer Gently smile on my face. "What've we got here?"
Andy returned from Oz and looked at me with no expression. He just kept rocking on little Charlie's bigoted chest.
"Well," I said. "I'd say we've got a situation."
Andy reached up and scratched his thick neck.
"I'd say you'd better step off the very quiet gentleman so I can see if he's alive."
Andy stopped scratching and continued to eye me, as if I were about to do something that might interest him. I looked back at the bar. Matt had laid some bills on it. Gannett was matching them as he watched us.
"They're betting on whether I'm going to have to shoot you," I said.
Andy turned his head away as if I were boring him, and I lost eye contact. A very bad sign.
"I've never shot anybody, Andy," I said softly. "Don't want to. Look, I don't know you. You don't know me. Fella you're standing on is probably a son of a bitch who deserves a good beating. He's got that. You wind up on trial for murder and you both get more than you deserve."
Andy was either listening or tiring. He stopped rocking on the fallen guy's stomach and almost fell. Someone behind me, probably Gannett, gasped, his bet in jeopardy.
"Aw, the hell with this," said Matt, who'd come up behind me. He pushed past, kicking the remains of a chair out of the way. Matt stepped up to Andy, who with the added ten inches of the fallen guy's body was about twenty feet tall. Matt hit the big guy full and hard in the face with his night stick.
The bonk of oak against bone echoed through the painted jungle of the Mozambique and Andy toppled backward onto the stage, his nose split. Sidney the cockatoo screamed "Wow."
"Bet's off," shouted Gannett. "You knocked him off."
Matt stepped over the little guy on the floor and onto the bandstand, where he gave the motionless Andy a second bonk on the head. I kneeled over the little guy and put my ear to his chest. Something was rattling in there besides broken ribs.
"Resisting arrest," Matt had wheezed, trying to turn Andy over. "Give me a hand turning this fat Jap over so I can cuff him."
"He's Samoan," I said, and turned to Gannett to shout, "Call an ambulance."
"Wow," Sidney screamed again.
"It's no fun anymore, Tobias," Matt said as we turned Andy over on his stomach.
"I know what you mean," I'd said.
Six months later I had traded my Glendale blues for Warner Brothers greens. Now I was back in Glendale, back at the Mozambique, and looking for my client.
I was fresh off a job with a few dollars left. I'd cleared enough to pay Mrs. Plaut a month's rent, get my clothes repaired and buy a new Windbreaker at Hy's for Him, and have No-Neck Arnie bring my Crosley back to life, including a new door and a patchwork transmission. I'd also cleared enough to take Carmen, the ample cashier at Levy's on Spring Street, to two dinners, a Jimmy Wakely triple-feature, and an all-night Wrestle-Rama at the Garden. In gratitude for this lavishness I had received two generous wet kisses, a momentary left hand between my legs while I was driving her home, and an invitation to a taco dinner at the apartment she shared with her eleven-year-old son who in his kinder moments called me Wolfman.
I needed work and a fresh start.
I needed the new client in the shadows of the red-leatherette booth, who had told me to meet him at the Mozambique.
"Guy in the booth," I said to Gannett without turning my head from my drink. "How long's he been here?"
"Ten, fifteen minutes maybe," Gannett answered. "He's four ahead of you. He your old partner?"
"Why?" I asked.
"Looks familiar," said Gannett. "And looks like he's spoiling for something. So if you boys are bringing trouble, I'll ask you to find another bar. No skin off my ass either way. Know what I mean?"
"Seems clear enough to me," I said, getting off the stool.
"That's my motto," Gannett said, moving down to the army air-corps kid who was buying Herbert Tarryton's and paying for cheap bourbon for himself and the painted girl. She was holding up a hell of a lot better than he was.
"Can you move it, pops?" the tipsy air-corps kid said, waving a five-dollar bill toward Gannett. "Lady's thirsty."
"She can hold her liquor," I said.
"Seems that way," Gannett said, meeting my eyes.
"I'd say she was maybe fifteen, sixteen tops," I whispered.
"Just turned sixteen," Gannett whispered back.
"Pops," the young man rasped and then seemed to forget what he was going to say.
"She's cute," I said to Gannett behind the bar.
"Me and her mom think so," said Gannett.
I nodded. "Your kid?"
"Family business," he said. "Lillian, that's the wife, is too old for it. Bad legs, those veins you know. Varicose. Hard for her to stand and, let's face it, the looks go."
"Family business," I echoed.
"Jeannie's drinkin' tea from a bourbon bottle," he whispered, nodding at his daughter and ignoring the boy in the air-corps uniform. "She only works two, three nights a week. She's a good kid, she is. Good student. Glendale High. Sophomore. Thinking of going to Stanford if the grades hold up."
"You must be proud of her," I said.
"I am," said Gannett, the barkeep smile gone. "If you're really undercover, you've got nothing here."
"No skin off my ass either way," I said.
"Hey, pops," the young airman shouted over the piano, "you gonna wait on us or do we walk?"
"You want another beer on the house?" Gannett said to me as he held up a hand to quiet the kid.
"No, thanks," I said, turning toward the booths along the wall.
"Talent's all gone downtown," Gannett said behind me. "The fleet's always in. The troops are always shipping out. Girls go where the money is. Family man has to make a living."
The piano man was dourly humming "I Want To Be Happy" to the keys of his piano as I inched past the two couples at the table.
One of the men, a guy with short gray hair, said, "... and Abie says ... he says ..." The guy was choking with tears of laughter as he said in what he thought sounded like the voice of an old Jew, "So vot vould you vant from me, I should pay him cash?"
The other man and the two women at the table broke up. One of them slapped the table.
"Pay him ca ..." one of the women gasped. "Oh, Frank."
One of the young sailors at the next table had picked up the tail end of the joke. He didn't find it funny. I would have given my old partner seven to four that the young sailor was named something like Bernstein and that he was now waiting for an anti-Semitic punch line. The automatic sensor on the back of my neck was ready to distance me and my potential client from a scene that might make Andy the Samoan's body-rolling act four years ago look like amateur night at St. Anne's Church.
I slid into the dark booth across from the man, who took a drag on his cigarette. The glow showed a familiar but slightly heavier and much more serious face than the one I had expected.
"Peters?" he said.
"Peters," I confirmed, holding out my hand. He took it.
Clark Gable was dressed in a long-sleeved black pullover shirt. His hair, graying at more than the temples, was cut military short.
"Where've we met before?" he asked in a manner that could only be viewed as hostile.
"Four years ago. Hearst Castle. I interviewed you about a case I was working."
"Yes, I remember now."
"And before that," I said. "First day of shooting on Gone With the Wind. I was working security. An extra got killed, fell on his sword. You were there."
"Yeah," said Gable. "I remember that night. I stayed out of the way, talked to a few people on the crew, some extras. Then that guy got killed. Don't remember you, though."
"I've got one of those faces."
"Okay, enough small talk. What are you pulling here?" Gable asked as I settled back in the booth.
"I don't respond to blackmail or threats," Gable said, trying to control himself. "And I don't have much left in the way of patience or understanding."
"I'm missing something here," I said.
The piano player rolled "Anything Goes" to a gentle flourish and applause from Lester's daughter.
"Wow," Sidney cried from the bar.
"Thank you, lady and bird," the piano player said wearily as Gable handed me a folded piece of paper. I spread it and read the typed poem:
They die until you understand,
They die by weapons in my hand.
My father wept to be so cut
From fortune, fame deservéd, but
I'll avenge the wrongs and slight
To be there e'er the Ides and right
Those wrongs and claim his prize
And give to you a great surprise.
First there was Charles Larkin
And next Al Ramone. Do harken
For on it goes and blood be thine
Unless you learn to read my s.i.g.n.
When I'd finished, I looked up at Gable, whose hands were folded on the table in front of him.
"Turn it over," he said.
I turned it over. My name and address were printed in the same ink and same handwriting as the poem. I looked up at Gable, as the piano player said without enthusiasm: "And now, direct from appearances on the 'Voice of Firestone' and major roles in such movies as They Got Me Covered and Gone With the Wind ..."
"You don't get it, do you?" Gable said, his eyes narrow, unblinking.
I started to speak but Gable nodded toward the bandstand. I looked toward the piano player, who was saying, "... San Fernando Valley's answer to Bing Crosby, Nelson Eddy, and Russ Columbo all rolled into baritone—Alan Ramone."
Excerpted from Tomorrow Is Another Day by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1995 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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