ADVENTURE THE 4TH - RESEARCH
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Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
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Adventure the 4th – research
With nothing else to do but watch the steamy beads of rain beating down my window, I decided to break out with a little background check on Jock Hemmingway. He’s taller than I thought: a mile high player, who materialized from nothing six years before to build an empire worth several million dollars. Interesting choice of playmate, considering the widow Menendez is worth at least ten times as much. Still, greed knows no limits.
The interesting thing about Hemmingway is that he also owns a considerable amount of property and a few businesses in town that didn’t look very impressive on paper; some drug stores, a warehouse, a Chinese restaurant on Fifth and Elm, Davido’s Book Emporium on ninth and Fairfax. It just didn’t add up.
So I decided to dress down and get a closer look at his holdings by making the rounds. First on the list is Max’s Corner Stop, a hole that caters to the birth control and single mother trade. I’m barely inside the place when a fragile little garden gnome in a white pharmacist’s smock approaches.
“Can I help you, sir,” he asks.
He looks confused – like I just asked him to name the state capitals in reverse.
“Yeah…as in, the bird that owns…”
“Oh, no, no, no,” he playfully replies, the misunderstanding suddenly made clear, “there hasn’t been a Max here since I’ve been here and that was…oh, almost forty years ago. Can I be of assistance?”
“Uh…yes,” I say, “It’s the wife. She’s not doing so good.”
“Oh,” the geezer grins, “Expecting?”
“Hope not,” I reply, “Got three already.”
He toddles over to a rack near the counter loaded with cold remedies.
“Then perhaps one of these.”
So I take a look at what he’s offering. Aspirin, Sudafed, cough drops. I need to push harder.
“No, afraid not,” I say, “See I’m looking for something else.”
I’m not getting through to him on any bandwidth in this hemisphere so I point my satellite direct and send another signal.
“Something homemade, pops.”
The geezer gets miffed. I’ve insulted his ethical sensibilities.
“This isn’t that kind of pharmacy,” he explains.
“Oh, but you see I was told…”
I’m cut off at the pass.
“You were misinformed, sir.”
And with that, he toddles off behind the counter and into the backroom, hoping I’ll take the hint and just disappear. I don’t disappoint him.
. . .
I get even less cooperation from the next venue on my list – Fung’s Chinese Eatery. Out front and just to the left of the bay window is a pile of crates turned over and arranged into a makeshift shelter. The homeless guy taking a drag off of somebody else’s stogie catches my eye as I feed the meter. I almost toss him a couple of bucks on the way in, then think better of that misguided philanthropy.
My first thought walking through the front door is that the board of health hasn’t done an inspection since prohibition was repealed. The floor’s sticky and the chair upholstery stained and torn. The red velvet wallpaper is practically black, and, the front windows so yellow and stained I can barely see my car parked out front. Business must not be so hot, even if the smell of grease in the air is fresh.
A petite Eurasian, barely legal and probably working without papers, steps out from a corner, her hands locked in front like she’s just finished wringing the neck of a salty chicken or tabby cat.
“You order, please” she says.
“Yes,” I say, “For Alex Roma.”
She smiles as though she knows I’m lying but disappears into the kitchen just the same. This place can’t be turning a profit as much as it’s turning my stomach. A minute later the Eurasian returns.
“So sorry,” she says “No order.”
“Oh, but you must,” I tell her, “My wife called in just before I left the house. You know my wife?”
“No sir,” the woman replies.
“Well, there’s no reason you should. She’s hardly as pretty as you.”
The girl blushes, that sort of twittering pink flush that says I could probably get more than Chop-Suey for the asking price. Still, she’s honest as honest goes and not particularly able to hide the fact that her English isn’t as good as her Chinese. She’s legit only on the surface, probably four or five minutes off the boat and trading one oppression for another.
“Well, suppose you make me up something,” I say.
“Uh, let’s see now, chicken balls, fried rice, two egg rolls and a couple of fortune cookies.”
She nods and disappears again into the back. The sound of a radio playing top forty faintly echoes from the kitchen. I draw into my lungs the heavy smell of day-old lard being heated – just what a growing boy needs. A quick look-see behind the front counter uncovers nothing that’s suspicious; some napkins, menus, an empty cash box that probably hasn’t seen any tips for the last ten years, and, a thirty-eight in a shoebox next to it. In this neighborhood it’d be suspicious if there wasn’t at least one gun on the premises.
And although I haven’t a moment’s extra to get more personal with the address book I find tucked between the register and potted bonsai before my order’s up, I doubt there’d be much in it to take seriously.
I shell out for my stuff, leaving twenty for her troubles.
“Oh, t’ank you, sir.” she says with a soft smile, “you come again.”
“No,” I reply, convinced that too much of her cooking’ll give anybody a coronary before dinner, “I don’t think so.”
I toss the bag of artery-clogging goodies to Johnny-Homeless out front, still locked in the euphoria of his last bit of second-hand smoke curdling inside his lungs.
. . .
It’s almost noon when I arrive at Hemmingway’s warehouse on the wharf. It’s not easy to spot at first. There’s no marker, no sign. It pays to advertise, but maybe that’s the point. It’s the last building along the docks and the one in the worst possible condition. I don’t think the cement’s been repaved since the place was built. A cornerstone alerts me to the date of construction: Jan.11, 1944. After rattling a couple of locked doors I find a loading bay that’s rusted open a few feet from the ground. I pull myself up and in but it hardly seems worth the effort.
Inside is one big cavernous hole, damp dreary and empty. Tire tracks and skid marks on the asphalt tell a different story. Someone’s been using this place recently and not for stock car racing. On the opposite wall is a set of metal stairs leading up to a third story catwalk and elevated office that’s taken on the coloring of a crow’s nest, especially with the straw and rotting twigs that a pair of sparrows brought in through one of the open louvers to make their nest.
I’m not much on heights. But the stairs look safe. So, up I trek and try the knob on the metal door leading inside. Naturally, it’s locked. Happily, that never dissuades me.
Once inside I find a curiosity of sorts; some fairly new cabinets and a desk with a working telephone propped against the outer wall just under a broken louver. Somebody’s paying the bill. The question is, why? Venetians covering the windows that overlook the shop floor are grey-yellow and haven’t been dusted since the Eisenhower administration took office. Both the ceiling and floor tiles date back as much. But none of the cabinet drawers are locked and I suppose there’s no reason why they should be. Anyone giving this place the once over would mistakenly assume that there’s nothing left to steal.
The cabinets contain documents, some fairly new and crisp; others at least a decade old. I flip through a few at random, but there’s nothing that looks like it’s out of place or keeping secrets. The broken louver leading to the rooftop creaks back and forth with each subtle nudge of the wind outside. It’s a calming swish, back and forth, like a screen door caught in a summer breeze that needs oil. But then, I hear another sound – the grind of a fragile metal chain as it pulls on one of the rusted loading bay doors.
Peering through the crusty blinds I watch as an expensive import with tinted windows pulls off of street level. A couple of thugs I’ve never seen before exit from the driver and passenger seats. Although I’m looking in from a high angle, I still have a fairly credible view, and even from this height the driver looks like rigor mortis set in twenty years ago. Rigor’s partner is shorter, fatter and more animated. Opening the rear door on the passenger side Chub’s is handed a folder like the ones inside these cabinets. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where that one’s going.
I stand on top of the desk and pry open the louver with my fingers. But it doesn’t give and now I can hear the echo of footsteps on the first few rungs of metal not so far below. Moving fast and thinking less, I slip out of my left shoe and use its pointed toe to break open the last bit of rust holding my escape hatch in tact. The pane comes off its hinges, but I’m unable to catch it before it hits the floor with a considerable thump. The footsteps outside quicken, and just as I’m about to make my rooftop escape, I’m faced with the sudden bewilderment of short and stocky as he bursts through the door.
He reaches for his piece but I drop to the desk and use my foot to kick it out of his grasp. He’s big alright, but clumsy without his metal protection. After we shove one another back and forth in this claustrophobic space for a few minutes he takes a misguided swipe and I get the bright idea to smash the louver over his head. The impact sends him backwards against the wall of windows. They give like spun sugar and out he topples on his weighted ass. I hear the sickening thud of his body making contact with the cement a few seconds later.
No time to gloat. Somebody else is shouting orders below. I crawl through the gaping hole and roll onto the pressed metal rooftop. It’s slick from the rain and I find myself suddenly airborne then sliding towards the edge. But I recover quickly and sprint down the length to an adjacent structure. There isn’t a second to think as I take my leap of faith, barely covering the span in my jump.
The impact with a brick wall on the other side leaves me with a rusty nail sticking out of my ankle. I shimmy a nearby drain pipe and disappear in between a couple of BFI bins. I wait - soaked to the bone, piece drawn and set to make Swiss out’a the first dumb bastard who leans over the edge. But there’s no clatter of footsteps gaining behind me and a minute later only the faint echo and screech of slick rubber on tarmac to remind how narrowly I came to getting my wipers stripped. By the time I limp back to the other side of the warehouse Rigor and his boss are long gone.
The End...not for long.
Eddie Mars will return in his next adventure: Party Crashers
...on Feb. 17th, 2006.
@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).