Friday, October 10, 2014

Empty Ballroom Blues

Chandler ducked under the temporary blue awning and joined the line outside the Black Hawk at Hyde and Turk, where black and white musicians played side-by-side, where reefer smoke polluted the air.  A lot of single ladies there, even on a rainy day in the middle of November.  The patrons were mostly white, with quite a few exotic-looking folks in the mix.  He loved coming here for cheap cocktails and free conversation -- mostly, it was the latter, for work.

Chandler eyeballed the cloud-breathing crowd.  He noticed some high-tone Marina and Heights types:  some pearls -- real pearls -- and white gloves.

He turned his collar up against the chill, then reached into his pants pocket to make sure he still had a dime for coat check.

Inside the club, a haze of blue-gray smoke hovered over the patrons.  The place was well lit.  Nick Esposito and his sextet had taken the stage, surrounded by a tight knot of black-clad enthusiasts.  The band started into Empty Ballroom Blues -- who knew where they'd end up?  At the tables sat various couples on dates, or quartets of office mates.  Chandler threaded through these to Felicia, the beautiful negress who ran coat check.  She wore an aquamarine, full-length gown cut to mid-thigh, and was shaped like an hourglass.

"Hey Felicia."

"Hey Chandler -- you still running with Jorge?"

"No, but I've run up on a new case."  He surreptitiously passed her a dollar bill and kept his jacket.  "Did two men come in recently, guys who didn't check their bags?"

"Yeah.  Seems to me it was around Thursday, 10:00 PM, last week.  And they stayed for all of 20 minutes or something."

"One of 'em's a dead body -- shoot-out with the cops."

"Bad news."

"Did the other one look like this?"  Chandler held up a photograph.

"That's him.  Purveying heaters, I take it?"

"Something like that.  Guy's a meat packer.  I'd say this is his sideline."  He passed Felicia a dime.  "Call me at the Olympic, room 24.  About midnight."

"You bet.  Hope it doesn't get that hairy."

"Next time, I'll bring flowers."

"Make it a Venus Fly Trap."

They both laughed.



Down at the Ferry Building, under the tall letters that spelled out "Port of San Francisco," Chandler watched the play of lights on the water.  He heard a foghorn, and could make out the looming bank of black, moonless sky threaded with a glowing, white mist.

"Looking for mermaids, stranger?"

Chandler looked up and to his left.  Next to him stood a well-knit young dude with blond hair and the face of an angel.  The boy's fists were jammed into his pea coat pockets.

"Nah, just waiting for my ship to come in."

"I hear you."

"What's your line of work, stranger?"

"The name's Charles -- Charles Temple.  And I'm a student at Berkeley.  Just in town for the weekend.  Before this I was up in Little China.  I got a hotel room on Clay Street."

"Nice.  I'm Chandler, work as a private dick.  Heading in early tonight, expecting a call."

"I'll walk with you.  Where are you staying?"

"The Olympic, on Eddy between Taylor and Jones."

"I know a spot near there."

"Yeah, me too."  The two walked towards Market, under the new Embarcadero Freeway.  "Just so you know," Chandler confided thickly, "I haven't swung that way since the war, well over a decade ago.  You probably weren't out of diapers."

"Oh.  I thought, 'cos you were so close to the docks..."

"Well, I wasn't exactly on the market..."

"What do you normally go for?"

"Something a little more pneumatic.  Shapely trim."

"Listen, brother, you take home one of those 36-24-36 numbers, she's back at your place, she pops the girdle, and you know what you get?"

"What?"

"KABOOM!  Exactly what you deserve:  the whole woman and nothing but.  Now, you can hop on that jelly roll, or we can go get a beer."

"Beer."

"Got a nickel?"

They'd gotten twisted around just north of Market.  The two were near Hotaling and the Financial District, where young guys used to get Shanghaied after one too many.  Through the trap door they'd go, then out to sea.  Chandler and Temple stopped about 40 feet from a rat-swarmed bin.

Temple turned to Chandler.  "You said you were a dick.  You packin'?"

Chandler offered the boy his piece, butt-first.  It was the snub-nosed .38 he'd had since Fleet Week of '41.

Young Temple cradled the weapon in his right hand.  His finger rested over the trigger guard, and he pointed the barrel away from Chandler.  One got the notion this kid could fend for himself.

"Good weight.  I'm used to rifles, really.  My dad hunts deer up in the Colusa mountains.  Anyway, I can smell the oil.  I respect a man who takes the time with what could save his life."

"Yeah, I'm better with rifles, too," said Chandler, feeling awkward and a need to impress this young buck.

There was a rustle of paper behind them.  Temple spun around, and in one eye blink, one fluid motion, cocked the hammer with his left hand and fired a round from the hip.  One of the dog-sized rats keeled over in the same instant.

They were sure never to be noticed in this neighborhood at this time of night.  It was very unlikely anyone around would report gunfire.

"Sweet shot," exclaimed Chandler.  "How'd you do that?"

Temple laughed a little.  "I used to watch the cowboy serials every week as a kid, at the cinema.  I always wanted to shoot a revolver like the hero did.  One day, I bugged my dad until he taught me.  He came out of the war an E-5, back in '39, missing a leg."

"Sounds tough.  Marine?"

"Sailor."

"Well, you pop like that I just might have to hire you as I'm thinking I might need a tail-gunner."

"Beats the calculus."  Temple drew towards Chandler and the two kissed, spontaneously and with the full force of drunken Olympians over the body of bleeding Hyacinth.  Chandler, as he wrestled his new, decidedly lean conquest in the dark, did a quick mental calculation to make sure he could offer the boy what the boy needed should he prove useful...



The antique black phone rang abrasively.  Chandler picked it up, held the speaker to his ear and the mouthpiece to his clenched lips.  "Hello?  Chandler here."

"It's your coat-check girl, the dusky dame done come up out the South to beat the white devil and find trouble in Frisco.  Or if not trouble, at least a new way of elocutin' things."

"Thanks Felicia.  Better safe than sorry.  Quick question."

"Shoot."

"Have I ever struck you as 'sweet' that way?"

"No, why?"

"Never mind.  I guess I never did have a reputation as a tom cat.  It's just, I ran into this kid.  Never met the like before.  He's got me going all sorts of gay!"

"Well, sir, I'll have you know I entertain fantasies of Tyrone Power, which is blatant miscegenation.  I say good night, sir!"  She hung up.



Chandler laid his head on the pomade-stained pillow.  The couple of Benzedrine he'd taken prior to going out were giving him a hard time, but he tried to allow the beer to lull him down.  Whether he slept or not, Conchita would give him a wake-up call around 6 AM.  He planned to take a cab out to Mission and 16th, where this scum bag gun dealer had a day job packing pork.

With the windows closed, Chandler couldn't even hear the theater-bound traffic coming down Eddy Street.  Most of his neighbors were families visiting the City from Humboldt, Napa, Sacramento, Chico.  The doorman and the desk clerk were ample security.  He probably didn't even need any check-ups from Felicia, though the case was a violent crime, and he could have spent some more time lingering with that Charles Temple.  He felt he had something to prove to the young man, whose Berkeley phone number he remembered as Bridge-3786.

Before finally dozing off, Chandler briefly wondered if he himself should go back to college...