Prospect Avenue is nothing more than a dirt road ending in bulrushes behind a roadhouse. It’s a popular rendezvous point along the Detroit River for bootleggers like Jack McCloskey. But there’s more than just rum-running going on these days; there’s a growing trade in opium and people, as McCloskey finds out when he rescues the survivor of a bad smuggling deal.
As if this wasn’t enough, McCloskey is also trying to get his dinner club back on its feet, while his girlfriend, the indomitable Vera Maude, has a wedding to plan … and it’s not her own. He’s trying to hold things together while police corruption and domestic strife threaten to pull it all apart. Then, a series of murders brings powerful groups into conflict and may drag McCloskey into the fray.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
IN THE SOUP
Thursday, August 2, 1923
The roadster was bouncing like a mattress at the Honeymoon Motel. McCloskey stole a quick glance at the passenger wedged between him and Shorty and saw an expressionless face lit by the dim glow of the dashboard light. While it may have been a hot, humid night, his rescue was shivering like they had just pulled him out of purgatory, and smelled of standing water and mouldering grass.
McCloskey had to shout over the roar of six gung-ho cylinders. "Hey, kid ... you all right?"
Nothing but dead eyes staring straight ahead at the open road. McCloskey was starting to think this one spoke neither the King's nor anyone else's English; either that or he was being shy with it. He was also thinking he had seen eyes like this somewhere before: sinking in muddy trenches. With one hand on the wheel, McCloskey fixed his own eyes back on the tarmac. He had to be careful; there were no streetlights in these parts and at this hour it was mostly drunks ricocheting their cars off roadhouses and the few cops still silly enough to be tailing them. McCloskey just kept dodging. His mind went back to a conversation he had overheard in a barbershop the other day, a discussion about the current pace and trend of things. He was also reflecting on how it seemed to keep falling upon him to pull the bodies out of the mire. Like when he pulled his near-dead brother out of a foxhole in France.
Another member of the crew, Mud Thomson, had been with them on this particular rendezvous, a trip meant to forge a new business relationship. McCloskey saw it as another opportunity for Shorty to shine, but Mud had a certain edge to him, and McCloskey wanted to make sure it stayed sharp. Between the roadhouse and the shore he had told Mud in a few select words to be inconspicuous tonight. Mud had simply nodded and took to the road.
McCloskey and Shorty were heading to Oriental House, the place before Chappell's. It wasn't far, just a skip down the road. McCloskey was counting on someone there knowing the lingo. The joint snuck up fast, so he started with the clutch and the gears until he smelled the metal burn.
He hung a sharp right into the parking lot. Shorty and what's-his-name reached for anything that might keep them from spilling out the door and onto the narrow boulevard. The roadster held together and stirred up some dust before grinding to a halt near the entrance. There were only two other vehicles making shadows under the floodlights, their drivers probably settling their tabs right about now.
Shorty climbed out first. "Jack, he got my shirt wet ... my trousers, too."
"Send me the bill."
Apart from the shivering, the celestial still wasn't moving. With a combination of gestures and loud talk — "C'mon ... let's inside ... there" — McCloskey got him walking.
Like Chappell's, it was a big old house built with good intentions, but now found itself standing on the wrong side of town, refashioned into an eatery and illicit drinking establishment. They made their entrance, trying to keep it low-key, but their looks and demeanor probably screamed a little too loudly.
In the foyer was a lectern that must have graced a church in its previous life. An eagle was emblazoned on the front, holding a sign in its beak that said NO RESERVATIONS. McCloskey made his inquiries with the man standing behind it, a certain Frank Rymes he read to be the proprietor. Rymes looked them up and down.
"No," he said, answering McCloskey's opening question. "We ain't got no Chinamen here."
"What do you mean you don't got any Chinese? Isn't this place called Oriental House?"
"We're working an Oriental theme here, mister. Check the decor; we got bamboo." Rymes gestured towards the curtain that led to the dining room, a doorway to the Mysterious East.
McCloskey walked over to the bamboo curtain and parted it with two hands. There was a waiter addressing the floor with a broom and turning chairs over onto tables. McCloskey dropped the curtain and returned to the lectern.
"Let's see the menu."
Rymes gave him a card.
"You got noodles?"
"Of course we got noodles. It was our dinner special."
"Okay then," said McCloskey, scanning the card, "we'll take some chicken lo mein to go. I think my friend here could use a hot meal."
"I think he could use a towel. What, you drag him out of the river?"
Shorty said, "As a matter of fact —"
"Just make the noodles. Hey wait — you serving?"
Rymes stopped and turned. "Nah, us and Chappell are in agreement."
McCloskey grabbed both sides of the lectern. He was thinking there might be an opportunity here. "This agreement sounds to me like it might be a bit one-sided."
Rymes shuffled and blushed. "They pay me a small stipend to stay dry," he said, "and in exchange I keep out of trouble."
"Ah," said McCloskey. He'd get a couple of the boys to come back later and lean on Chappell, maybe swing some lumber ... but a soft pine. They'd save the oak for the next visit, the next conversation.
"Be right back," said Rymes.
While Rymes and an unseen Reggie put together a takeout package, the trio wore the glaze off the tile in the foyer and tried to relax. McCloskey pulled out his pocket watch, examined its dead hands, shook it, and then held it to his ear.
Gotta get this thing fixed.
Shorty was tapping the side of the fish tank and managed to scare a goldfish that looked big enough to be an appetizer. The stranger stood there, silent, dripping and shivering, his arms wrapped around his shoulders in a feeble effort to warm up.
Rymes came out with the goods: three little white cartons. McCloskey popped one open and his partners gathered around him.
"This?" he said. "What's this?"
"It's what you asked for."
"These noodles ... it looks like spaghetti."
"Trust me, the locals don't know the difference."
McCloskey handed the carton back. "No, no they wouldn't, especially not after you've dazzled them with the decor. C'mon, boys."
Shorty hesitated, did a double take between McCloskey and Rymes, then grabbed the celestial's elbow and led him back out to the roadster. "Where to?" he asked.
"Downtown," said McCloskey.
"Yeah," said McCloskey. "Now."
"You know," said Shorty, stopping suddenly, "you got that thing again."
McCloskey stopped. "What thing?"
Shorty let go of the Chinese so that his hands could do some of the talking. "That thing you get when you get going on something and I'm not sure exactly where you're going with it."
"When I get going on something?"
"Yeah," said Shorty.
"Maybe not in front of company."
The soggy stranger stood still, observing, listening.
"Get in, everybody," said McCloskey. "Let's go."
They got situated and he pushed the engine into gear, letting the roadster's rear wheels kick gravel at the cars parked behind him, speckling their varnish. He turned onto the Drive.
McCloskey was going to take this up with Chung Hong. Hong was high up in the Chinese community. He owned Oriental Dry Goods, a barbershop, a piece of a diner on Wyandotte, and was partners with one of his brothers in a laundry. Thursdays were his weekly poker game, so he'd be sitting in the back of his dry goods place with a few of his fellow countrymen, stone-faced, holding a fan of dog-eared playing cards. No food and no booze; just cards, cigarettes, and a few dirty looks.
McCloskey cruised slowly across the Avenue so as not to draw any attention and then took a right onto Goyeau. He pulled into the first alley on the left. Stray bits of light fell on ashcans, crates, and greasy cobblestone. He navigated a parking spot without disturbing too much of the refuse. Even garbage had a reputation to uphold.
The three disembarked, again, and McCloskey found Hong's door. It's never difficult to find, what with the green-and-yellow dragon crawling up the brick and across the lintel, looking down upon all who came to call. McCloskey gave the door a few quick raps. A tiny slot opened, exhaling hot, sticky tobacco smoke, and a voice wrapped around a foreign tongue.
McCloskey leaned his elbow against the jamb. "English."
"To know the road ahead ..."
"Ask those coming back."
The slot closed and the door creaked opened. McCloskey stepped forward, but the scene made Shorty and the stranger pause.
A red paper lantern hung over a round table where four men were seated, looking like they had just finished a hand. One of the men was Detective Morrison. Morrison could tilt the Earth's axis with his girth and swagger. McCloskey managed not to look surprised at seeing him there. He then noticed a figure standing in the shadows, stripped down to his shirtsleeves, holding a cigarette, and with one arm folded across his chest. He stepped forward into the light and, leaning over the table, butted the heel of his cigarette into an ashtray with a bronze snake coiled around it.
"To what do we owe the pleasure, Mr. McCloskey?"
McCloskey gave a short bow. "Chung Hong."
Morrison stood up and reached for his hat.
"I hope you're not leaving on my account," said McCloskey.
"See you next week?" asked Hong.
Morrison nodded and the burly gatekeeper grunted something mild and unlatched the door.
"Did you see the look on his face?" asked Hong.
"Like he's never been caught with his pants down."
"Something we used to say in the trenches."
"Ah. You know him?"
"Our paths cross occasionally," said McCloskey. "We try to keep out of each other's way."
Hong sat down and exchanged words with two of the other card players, younger men, perhaps his sons or nephews, who then got up and moved through the dark and into the store. McCloskey heard them ascending the stairs. An older gentleman — a brother or a business partner — remained seated. McCloskey was still trying to figure out the cast on Hong's playbill. It seemed the players kept changing.
"Sit down," said Hong, "and introduce me to your friend."
Shorty and the stranger each pulled up a chair.
"I don't know his name," said McCloskey.
"He doesn't speak English?"
McCloskey glanced over at the stranger. "I'm not sure. He said a few words when we pulled him out of the river."
"Where?" asked Hong.
"Prospect Avenue," said Shorty, "right behind the Westwood."
Hong nodded, eyes closed, and then looked over at the elder seated next to him. The old man had a few words to add. There was some more discussion and nodding before McCloskey could jump back in.
"I thought he might relax a bit if he got to talk to one of his own people," he said. "Can we start with his name?"
Hong asked the young man.
"Lee Quan, or Quan Lee," said Hong, "depending on your affiliation. He knows some English, but he doesn't like his accent."
"Okay," said McCloskey, "so what's his story? Is he in some kind of trouble?"
Hong strung some queries together, at the same time condensing and translating the answers. "Canton ... a long boat ride, and then ... odd jobs ... labour ... kitchens."
McCloskey identified a few cities through Quan's accent: Vancouver, Calgary ... "Moosejaw?" he asked.
"Yeah, Moosejaw ... and then Montreal ... Toronto. After that, he didn't know where he was."
"But he kept moving. Why?"
Quan and Hong were having their own conversation now, and then Hong picked up the translation once more.
"No, he's not in trouble ... nothing serious ... the other fellow, the one who must have drowned ... he did not know him ... he was paired with him in Toronto ... by the people handling their passage here." Hong paused and turned to face McCloskey. "Jack, there might be two others on the farm."
"Where the boat came from."
McCloskey glanced over at Shorty and then turned back to Hong. "Ask if he knows whereabouts. Ojibway? LaSalle? Amherstburg?"
Hong didn't even bother asking. "Jack," he said, "the kid has no idea where he is. All he knows is he's at the border." Hong said a few more words to Quan and then brought the other gentlemen into their conversation. Hong then turned to McCloskey and, lowering his voice, said, "Jack, these smugglers, they take their money and, rather than get caught on the river with foreigners like Quan, just spill them over the first chance they get. Those guys could have been in a drawstring sack, maybe a canvas mail bag."
"Jesus," said Shorty.
"Are we fools to ask if he's even got papers?" said McCloskey.
Hong knew what the answer would be, but he asked Quan anyway. "No," came the reply, "they were stolen in Toronto." The two exchanged a few more words and then Hong turned back to McCloskey. "His father came here first, and earned the money to cover the tax on Quan. His father is still in Vancouver, but too ill to travel. Quan was legal, now he is like a ghost."
"What did he say?"
"He says he heard he could make himself lost in America."
McCloskey leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. "Or make himself the Border Cities' newest resident. Chung, do you think you could —"
"Jack, I can't. Now's not a good time. You know I've taken people in before, but —"
"You've got no work for the kid? C'mon, Chung."
Hong had more words with Quan, and then said, "He wasn't just washing dishes. He says he can cook; that's what he was doing in Montreal and Toronto."
"Okay, so what about your kitchen on Wyandotte?"
"And who in my family should I let go to make room for him?" Hong had a notion. "Jack, what about your club?"
Back in April, when McCloskey was looking for ways of diversifying his interests, he took out a lease on a space in the Auditorium Building. It had been doubling as a rehearsal studio by day and a dance hall by night. He thought he could turn it into a dinner club. He expanded the kitchen and handed the entertainment reins over to Pearl Shipley, a local girl who had made it to vaudeville and eventually Hollywood before one scandal too many sent her running back home. There was a rotation of guest acts, but the regular entertainment was provided by a troupe dubbed the Windsor Follies, a chorus line of six girls who could also carry a tune, all schooled by Pearl. The place was doing all right, but something was missing, and that something was a proper menu. A mix of East and West to set it apart from all the other joints, thought McCloskey.
"You're not worried about the competition?"
"Different clientele." Hong smiled.
While Quan was trying to catch a word or two, Shorty was trying to catch McCloskey's drift. "Jack —"
"I wouldn't entirely do away with the roadhouse food," added Hong.
"No, a new Chinese-Canadian menu," said McCloskey, his wheels turning, thinking out loud, "and hey, you can help with the kitchen and tableware."
Hong leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. "I don't come cheap."
"Nothing but the best." McCloskey paused, and then, leaning closer to Hong said, "Pardon my forwardness — and this stays within these walls — but I gotta ask. Are you getting cozy with Morrison?"
Hong smiled. "I'm letting him think he's getting cozy with me."
"I thought it might be something like that. And your friend here?"
"Let's call him my counsel."
"All right, let's call him that," said McCloskey, scratching his chin again. "Know any English tutors?"
"Jack, you are asking and asking."
"Hey, I pay my debts."
"That's my problem with you." Hong paused for a moment, thinking. Or maybe it was just hesitation. "My niece, at the laundry, she's good. Both of you meet me there tomorrow morning at ten. Quan can have his first lesson. That much I can do. You putting him up for the night?" Hong was obviously heading off what he thought would be the next request.
McCloskey looked over at Quan. "Until we find something."
"We? Anything else?" asked Hong.
"Yeah, you got anything to eat?"
Hong chuckled. "Go see Ping at the Cadillac. You know how he likes to cater to you night owls."
"Jack," said Shorty, "can't we hit a grill somewhere instead?"
"I'm hungry," said McCloskey. "Let's grab a quick bite downtown and then you can hit the sack."
Quan said something to Hong; Hong nodded and the young man rose from the table. It was his turn to speak.
"What is it?" said McCloskey.
"He wants to know your name."
"Oh ... tell him he can call me Jack, and this piece of work here is Shorty. There, we're all friends now."
Quan pointed at McCloskey and said, "Jie-ke." And then he tried "Shorty." It wasn't pretty.
"We'll work on that," said McCloskey.
The three headed for the door. Hong stopped them, and with his hand on McCloskey's shoulder said, "Jack, let's try to keep the kid out of trouble."
McCloskey knew what Hong was talking about.
"Yeah," he said, "let's."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Prospect Avenue"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Januska.
Excerpted by permission of Dundurn Press.
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.