Tom Hickey batted smoke away and caught a breath. His little office, once a pantry, had no vent. He tamped out his pipe and stared at the door, thinking he ought to open it and trade pipe smoke for kitchen fumes. Nope, he decided, better to choke in here than to listen to a nightclub crowd with nothing on their mind but Japs. And if he ducked outside for a walk, any way he turned there would be families dragging themselves or getting herded toward the roundup, grinding their teeth, slapping away tears. Kids younger than his daughter would cover their eyes until he passed, so they wouldn't have to look at the enemy.
The mood he was in, there seemed no refuge from the wretched state into which the world had careened. If he took the night off and went home to his wife in their cottage on the bay, he would likely find his wife surrounded by neighbor ladies, arguing about the relocation. Madeline would hold to the party line. War's war. Any suspicious characters, you disarm. Madeline was the realist in the family.
Suppose he took a walk on the beach, then he would envision the battles across the sea, on Bataan, Corregidor and other islands that used to sound like paradise. And he would feel like a weasel for sitting it out. Sure, they tagged him unfit, but he could serve in the merchant marine or even labor at a defense plant. Being 36 years old and a borderline diabetic didn't give a man license stuff his pockets with blood money. To sit counting the loot, sipping Dewar's, and smoking out the office of Rudy's Hacienda, while at the same time flames leap from isle to isle across the Coral Sea. While, only blocks away, the Japanese Americans are boarding the busses that will dump them into a holding area at the Santa Anita racetrack until they get shuttled off to God knows where.
Tonight he had counted a four inch high stack of bills. Twelve hundred dollars in one afternoon and early dinner. The best Saturday since December when Rudy's opened for business, and all on account of the roundup. The spectacle had drawn rubber-necks and vultures from south to the border, east to the mountains, north half way to Los Angeles. Watching other people's misery appeared to whet the appetite for food and drink.
A fist attacked the door, pounding so long and hard the noise drowned Tom's first command to enter. At the second round of knocks, he shouted, "What?"
The door flew open and into the coat rack, knocking a hat to the floor. Larry the bouncer strode to the desk, leaned his arms and whole weight on it. He had the face of a heavyweight brawler, only now it looked crimped and timid. His voice, which usually bellowed, was hardly more than a peep. "Boss, some guy knocked off Mel, down at the corner, and bagged the dough."
Tom sprang up. "You sure Mel's dead?"
"Not sure. But he stopped squirming. Lola called the cops. I heard an ambulance siren.”
On the supper club floor, things were as usual around 7 p.m. on a Saturday. Every table occupied. Naval officers, their wives or dates. Older men, sharp dressers all, paying mock attention to the chatter of the far younger women. A few enlisted men and their girlfriends on the big splurge.
Lola stood weeping beside the hat-check stand. She was a curly brunette with porcelain skin, burgundy lipstick that overlapped the borders of her lips. A lacy tutu fringed her plump rear end. As Tom approached, she began to whimper. She and Mel had been sweet on each other until last week. She crooked her arm and threw a roundhouse punch at Tom's chin. He caught her wrist.
"Why'd you have to send Mel to the bank?" she moaned. “All the time you send Mel, why don't you go? You're the tough guy. You've got a gun. Mel don't pack any kinda protection. He's a good boy." She slapped her eyes with the heels of her hands and whimpered again.
"Sorry," Tom muttered, and hustled out the door then turned left on the sidewalk and double-timed to the corner, where a crowd ringed the action. He wedged and shoved his way through. The medics were hoisting the cot into the ambulance. A couple old women in long black coats stood bent and wailing. As the ambulance pulled away, lights out, the couple dozen rubber-necks dispersed, most of them heading up C Street toward the roundup.
A pair of uniformed cops stayed behind. The younger of them scribbled in a notepad while the older cop, in a deep monotone, questioned a witness. Apparently, the violence had given the witness a case of jitters. He was a sailor in dress whites who wrapped and unwrapped his cap from around his index finger and kept shifting his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. Even with drab blond hair, a big head and a ruddy complexion, he was handsome, rugged but graceful. He looked like a college quarterback.
Tom leaned against the wall, eavesdropping. He knew the cop. Ellison.
"We don't need your help, Tom," the cop said.
Tom pushed off the wall and stepped closer. "All the same, it was my bartender got robbed and killed, while delivering my money, because I sent him. I'll stick around."
"Yeah, I heard you was a partner in Rudy's, along with that Jersey mobster. What's his name?"
"Say, maybe he knocked off your boy. Maybe he wants both halves of the loot.”
Tom pointed to the sailor. "Get on with it."
Ellison turned and rolled his hand for the kid to proceed with his story. The sailor talked carefully, measuring his words. "See, I'm just walking up to the news stand to buy a pack of smokes and chewing gum, when out of the corner of my eye I glimpse this fella who's striding up the sidewalk like there's a fire. All of a sudden he stops cold. And ducks into this door-stoop." He jerked his thumb at the dark entryway a few feet to Hickey’s right.
"I didn't hear nothing. Couldn't see. Ten, twenty seconds later, there's a shot then two more. Like he wanted to make sure the guy couldn't squeal. And this Jap comes running out, got something tucked under his arm like a football. He beats it around the corner."
The young cop told the sailor to repeat. He did, in nearly the same words. A squad car pulled up across the street. A lab crew climbed out.
Tom double-timed back to Rudy's, dodged the headwaiter, the chef and the rest who wanted the story. Lola, he couldn't dodge. He allowed her to glare at him long enough to gather that he felt like hell, before he turned into his office and the shut door.
He scooped the keys out of his pocket, selected the little one and opened the upper right desk drawer. One of his rules to live by was -- chase after a shooter, bring along a gun. Only the drawer was too light. He prowled under real estate documents and bank statements. No gun.
Lately, as partner in the supper club, with more private investigator work than he should’ve accepted, with his daughter growing into a young lady and his wife lodging regular complaints about his attentiveness and availability, he might have been preoccupied enough to stash the .38 elsewhere. Say the glove box of his car.
He rushed out, turned left through the kitchen, tripped on a mop handle, cussed and stumbled into the parking lot. The two reserved spaces closest to the door were empty. His and Castillo's. He whistled, called over the lot boy and demanded to know who had driven his car away. The boy swore the space had been empty when he came on duty at five. Before five, the lot was free, and nobody worked it.
Tom hustled back inside, to his office and once again rifled through the drawer. His spare keys were also missing. He stood a minute considering who might have burned him. One possibility eclipsed the rest. Besides his partner, the guy with most opportunity to open the desk was Fred Takahashi, the janitor until this morning, when he picked up his final check and tearfully said goodbye. Fred could easily have discovered the spare desk key on the hook behind the file cabinet. He had Rudy's to himself from three to nine a.m. every day but Tuesdays.
In case anger might flush away his guilt and sorrow, Tom kicked a beer can. He stomped out of the lot onto 3rd Street, turned the corner and strode past a young man pulling an old woman along toward the roundup, while the woman screeched and tried to thrash out of his grip. He passed a trio of girls about his daughter’s age, two of them Japanese, weeping in each other's arms. At the corner of 4th and Broadway he climbed stairs, unlocked and opened a door whose lettering read: Hickey and Weiss, Investigations. From the upper right drawer of a weathered maple desk, he lifted a holster and snub nosed .38 with a dusty rosewood grip. He wiped off the grip, checked the cylinders, removed his coat and strapped on the holster. He pocketed a handful of spare cartridges.
The roundup was on C Street between 10th and 11th, out front of the YWCA. All the windows of the Y were lit. Residents leaned out gazing over the crowd. A few sat on the fire escape. A thousand or so milled in the street. The ones who talked used voices so bitter and painful you could read the emotions even if the sounds were foreign. Sudden high-pitched wails and screeches of outrage electrified the cold, damp air. Adults except the oldest stood, while children gripped the mothers' legs or sat on blankets, suitcases or duffel bags. For all they knew, Tom was there to single them out and drag them off to mock trials or execution. Even tough young men who normally swaggered recoiled at his approach, as he studied the faces searching for the generous mouth and high cheeks of Fred Takahashi. The swarming crowd made him dizzy.
"Mister Hickey. Mister Hickey!"
He spun and got clutched by a small, pale young woman with big eyes and ebony hair plaited into ropes. "Mister Hickey, is my brother at Rudy's?"
The girl was Fred's sister Janey, who used to make salads at Rudy's until she landed a better job, stocking airplane parts for Consolidated.
"Aw, doggone." She stared at his feet, rubbed her cheeks with both hands. "I'm getting awfully worried. . ." She motioned for him to bend down close then whispered, "I can trust you, can't I?"
"What do you mean?"
"If he was the guy stole my gun and my car, robbed Mel on the way to the bank and shot him dead, I'm going to run him in."
She staggered backward and stood motionless except her eyes bulged and her head shook frantically even after Tom grasped her arm. He led her to a curb, helped her sit and sat beside her. He laid a gentle hand on the back of her neck, under the hair, and turned her head to face him. "Why are you worried?"
She wagged her head, signaling Tom to let go of her neck. Then she shot a glance each direction, even above. "Until yesterday, he was trying to talk me into running with him, to Mexico. He swore he wouldn't let them lock him up… Somebody killed Mel?"
She bared her teeth as though to hiss. "Why Fred? Because he's Japanese?"
"Because somebody got into my desk, and a witness saw a Japanese guy running."
"Not my brother."
"Sure. Not Fred." He nodded until she appeared to believe him. "Look, give me a clue where to find him, or I have to go to the cops. Now, who do you think is more likely to shoot your brother on account of he's spooked, or just for the sport, the way things are tonight -- me or your average lawman?"
She covered her face. Little moans issued from behind her hands. At last they played out. Then her voice came like a melody of peeps. "When I left the house, his suitcase was sitting by the door. I left him a note."
"About an hour ago."
The Takahashi place was on Irving Court, off Highland in National City. A Craftsman bungalow, the front porch spanned its width. In the back yard, dried corn stalks rustled. The family used to run a little truck farm, until the old man died and his widow went to care for a sister in Kyoto, Japan. Fred and Janey tried to keep up the farm. Apparently they had failed.
Tom watched through the rear window of a yellow cab parked on vacant lot behind a pepper tree. There was cloud cover and thick darkness, the only light spilling out of cracks between window shades and casements. The cabbie, a has-been opera singer named Mario, sat tugging on the ends of his mustache, clicking his tongue or combing his thick gray hair, while Tom watched, listened, entertained and cast out troublesome thoughts, about Fred as a hard working, congenial young man. Sympathy, he didn't need. Sympathy makes you slow, hesitant. You either go for blood or don't go.
A light fog blew in. Tom was wiping his glasses when a crisp rustle issued from the corn. He tapped Mario on the arm, touched a finger to his lips and listened. Nothing. He climbed out of the cab and tiptoed across the lot toward the rear of the Takahashi house and stationed himself at the edge of the lot, about twenty yards from the screened back porch, between two patches of dead tomato vines. Distant sirens droned. A neighbor laughed. Tires whirred along the nearby boulevards. He heard the clacking of a far off trolley, and at last a thud like somebody jumping off the front porch onto a soggy lawn.
Tom bolted that way and got his foot tangled in a tomato vine. By the time he kicked free and reached the street, the person was starting down the hill fifty yards west. Tom sprinted to the hill, heard a motor racing then a screech, and saw a black Chevy speeding away.
He sprinted back to the cab, jumped in and gasped, “Keep the Chevy in sight.”
The whole West Coast was on blackout, awaiting another attack. A crescent moon and stars glowed feebly behind the ocean haze. In a taxi without headlights, Tom thought he might as well be chauffeured by a blind man. The cab fishtailed off the dirt onto the road, zoomed to the hill and down, clipped a hedge of oleanders making the left turn, reached Highland in time to watch a parade of dark cars chug past a funereal speed.
"Lost him," Mario announced. "Give up?"
"You know any shortcuts to the border?"
"You bet. We can circle out east where nobody's going to object to the headlights."
"Step on it."
At a break in the procession, Mario swung the left onto Highland. He caught 30th and followed it to Sweetwater Road, poking behind the other dark shadows until the city limit when he switched on the headlights and roared around three cars.
They swooped down into Bonita Valley, swiveled between rolling hills, cut back onto Otay Lakes Road and climbed a mesa while Tom attempted to reason. Would Fred actually try for the border, to pass through the gate when the border guards were bound to stop any Asian? Would he attempt to cross in a stolen car? Maybe. Desperate people aren't the shrewdest. Still, odds were Fred had other plans and Tom would loiter around the gate a couple hours while the culprit, maybe disguised as an old Eskimo woman wearing dark glasses, caught a flight to Anchorage.
He considered using the next pay phone to report the stolen car and his suspicions to the law, though Janey had begged him not to. He hadn't made any promises, even when she pleaded for his word not to shoot her brother.
They sped across the mesa about five miles without sighting another vehicle. The last leg of Mario's shortcut was a gravel, dirt, washboard trail through a cattle ranch. Here and there clouds parted and moonlight bathed the dingy shacks of vaqueros. A tractor bounded across a field, lights out. As they zoomed past a ranch house, a gunshot echoed off the hills behind them -- some patriot warning them to douse the lights and slow down. Mario said, "Mister, you pay any fines or damages."
He cut the lights as they approached 3rd Avenue, which led them through San Ysidro and on to the border compound, a gathering of shacks that looked like barracks hacked in two and boarded at the ends. Tom paid the fare and good tip. The cab spun a U turn and lined up with the three others heading back north, waiting to pick up a fare the Mexican saloons and gambling clubs hadn't clipped for his last dollar.
Tom adjusted his coat so the holstered gun wouldn't show. He strolled across the line, nodding casually to the U.S. border guard.
The guard at the Mexican station was a youngster in army fatigues, one of the special force the Mexican government had given Presidente Cardenas, to secure the frontier. Tom offered the boy his hand. The guard back-stepped.
In a mix of English and amateur Spanish, Tom explained that a pal had grabbed his car, as a prank. If the boy would simply allow him to hang out until a certain black '41 Chevy appeared and then engage the driver in a chat for about 30 seconds, he would find himself fifty dollars richer.
The boy scowled. But fifty dollars would equal two months pay. At last, he held out his hand.
Tom hadn't realized how commonplace was his car. At least one of every dozen vehicles was a black, '41 Chevy coupe. He watched the license plates. Peered at the drivers. Checked the right front fenders, since a drunk in Rudy's parking lot had flung open a car door and nicked his Chevy's paint.
The guard watched him out of one eye and waited for a head shake and wave before passing each black Chevy through. Over an hour and twenty minutes, six of them had crossed. None driven by an Asian.
The seventh had a license probably made by some imprisoned wise guy: IQ 065. It jolted to a stop, and Tom gave a quick, sharp whistle. When the guard looked over, he nodded. The driver was no Asian. He was a blond sailor in dress whites. His large head rested on a stubby neck. The witness to the robbery and murder. Driving a black, '41 Chevy. The plates, he had switched out. But he hadn’t touched up the nick in the right front fender.
The guard approached the driver’s window, his rifle pointed upward, the stock in the crook of his right arm, at ready to drop and fire. The sailor leaned out the window. The guard pitched questions rapid fire, while Tom used his key and his left hand to silently open the passenger door. He stepped onto the running board and slipped onto the seat. His right gripped the snub nosed .38.
The sailor heard the door click shut, spun half way around. "What the . . ."
"Buenos noches. Handle's pretty well, doesn't she?"
A quick thinker, the sailor wheeled back toward the window, to enlist the border guard's help, only the Mexican had returned to his post beside the little shed. Already he was lighting a cigarette. The sailor squeezed the steering wheel and mumbled, "What're you, a hijacker?"
"Let's don't talk just yet. First, let's drive. Twenty five miles an hour, straight ahead, until I say different."
Last spring, a mother had viciously chastised her son for his licentious ways. A week later, she engaged Hickey to locate the kid, who had disappeared. Tom discovered that the son enjoyed Mexican girls and betting on cockfights at various ranchos along the border. But it was the Tijuana police who found him, half buried in mud on a bank of the Tia Juana River, under the bridge about half way between the border and the downtown saloons. Apparently the kid had been on the bridge and dove, fell, or got pushed.
As they crossed the bridge, Tom commanded the sailor to turn right at the far end, off the road onto a car path that led back around and under the bridge. When they hit the first large rut, something in the trunk that could be heavy luggage flew up and whacked the lid.
Tom commanded the sailor to park directly under the bridge. He used his free hand to dig the flashlight out of the glove box and shine it around. He spotted fire rings and other signs of encampments but no one in sight.
"What're we doing here?" the sailor stammered. "What's your game, mister?"
"Get out and spread eagle on the ground. Face down."
The sailor opened his mouth to argue. Tom stopped him with blow from the flashlight, a backhand to the upper lip and nose. Groaning, the sailor slowly reached for the door handle, opened the door and eased out, while Tom rounded the car. A motion of his head dropped the sailor, first to his knees then flat.
"Give me your billfold."
The sailor dug into his front pocket, laid the billfold on the dirt. Twenty-seven dollars and a Nevada driver's license in the name of Peter Rohn.
Tom reached into the car, plucked his keys out of the ignition and carried them around back. When the trunk sprang open, he caught the stowaway in his flashlight beam. "How's tricks, Fred."
Takahashi wept. His head wagged from shoulder to shoulder, slowly, as though to staunchly deny to the world and to himself that any of this nightmare was real. He climbed out of the trunk.
"Get the suitcase," Tom said.
Fred pulled a small canvas satchel out of the trunk and dropped it at Tom's feet.
Tom rummaged through it, using his foot as a tool, and found mostly underwear. "Grab a few undershirts." He ordered Takahashi to blindfold the sailor and tie his hands behind his back, and then to blindfold himself. That done, Tom aimed the two men in the direction of the dirt mound that seemed to hold up the north end of the bridge. He shoved and commanded them to walk.
Both blindfolded men stumbled and dragged their feet. As they approached the hill, Tom commanded, "Hold it. Turn around…. There we go. Now, before we proceed, let me clue you. A guy robs me, I might give him a break, as long as he squares things. The same guy lies, tries to make a fool out of me, he's a goner. Now, who'll talk first? Fred, you're on."
"Boss, when I gave him the keys, I made him promise to take your car back. It was supposed to be at Rudy's by closing time, so that you'd never know. Boss, I…"
"Hey," the sailor squawked. "He's giving you the business, can't you see? Here’s the way it went -- After the cops take my statement, see, I'm on the way back to my post, only I run into the lousy Jap here. I spot him sneaking into an alley down by Kettner, carrying the moneybag. I creep up behind him, catch him in a headlock, lift his rod and say I'm going to turn him in. But he wants to deal. Half the loot, he says, if I deliver him to TJ. That's all I done. Say, what’s the gain if I turn him in? Not a dime, and the dead guy's dead all the same."
Tom let silence fall and hang a while. To him, those moments felt strangely precious. Then a pariah dog trotted nearby and splashed into the knee-deep river.
Tom reached around Takahashi, loosed the blindfold and let it drop. He mimed shooting the gun, pointed at Fred and at the ground, a few times until the man’s bewildered expression cleared and he nodded fervently.
Tom back-stepped and aimed at the hillside. As two reports echoed like ricochets off the bridge, Fred yowled, dropped to his knees and collapsed with a final groan.
"Hey! What?" the sailor wheezed.
"You want to say a quick prayer, or talk straight?" Tom asked.
"Okay, okay," the sailor yelped. "The whole story, here it comes, take it easy. See, it was Lola, not me. Me and her were getting to be an item, and she's got a beef with this guy Mel, says he was stepping out on her. Well, one night, her and the Jap are copping a drink after closing time, and he's blabbing about his plan to ditch the roundup, get himself to Mexico. Lola comes out with, ‘What say we swipe the boss’s car. I'll get you to Mexico, bring the car back and nobody's the wiser.’ So he lends her the office key, and when she's in there, she finds the gun and decides it might come in handy. She gives me the rod, says I oughta rob Mel and we can blow town before I ship out, on account of she knows I been dreaming about getting blown to smitherines over there. I ship out, I’m a goner. See, I got nothing to lose, everything to gain.
"Well, I'm wearing a bandana when I latch onto Mel and drag him into the door stoop, but he catches on. Recognizes my voice, I guess. Says my name and grabs for the gun So I plug him. Wouldn’t you? Self defense, mister. That's all. Besides, it was Lola's game, not mine. Hey, if it's the dough you're after, she's got it stashed.”
Tom stood quietly shaking his head until Takahashi sat up and said, “Mel? Is Mel okay?”
"Beat it," Tom snapped. "Clear out, and don't let me see your mug, ever."
While Takahashi latched his suitcase and vanished into the pure darkness along the riverbed and the sailor stood cussing Lola and his own foolishness, Tom thought about the roundup. Especially Janey.
And he thought about how easily a life could go to ruin.
Lola was wild and fickle, but hardly all bad. Just last week, she had sat in his office over a nightcap after closing, asked for his thoughts about love and family. Now, once he had turned the sailor over to San Diego cops at the border, he would go back to Rudy’s and put the final touches on Lola’s ruination.
He thought about the whole damned fragile world.