City of Secrets: New Excerpt

City of Secrets, a Miranda Corbie Mystery, but Kelli StanleyWhen young Pandora Blake is murdered at San Francisco’s 1940 World Fair and her body marked with an anti-Semitic slur, Private Investigator and former escort Miranda Corbie is soon entangled in a web of deceit and betrayal that is only overshadowed by the threat of impending war.

All too soon, Miranda finds herself  in a battle for her life, her identity, and her soul … as she becomes enmeshed in a City of Secrets.

 

 

Part One
The Fall

Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany? —Charles Coughlin, Detroit News, January 30, 1939

 

Chapter 1

Pandora was still pretty. White skin, blond hair. Roots not faded back to black and brown. Stretched across the platform, breasts firm, nipples plump, pubic hair shaved. Head hung over the edge, upside down. Frozen, still, marble. Perfect artist’s model, except for the blood dripping.

Drip- drop. Drip- drop.

Fred was standing in the stage shadows, hat in his hands. Tom skittered around Miranda, keeping up a monologue.

“I—I figure you know wh-what to do, Miss Corbie, bein’ a detective an’ all. You probably seen . . .  She really is—dead?”

Fred choked, his large brown fedora crumpled with sweat from where he was squeezing it. He took a step toward Miranda.

“Ain’t you better—ain’t you better do somethin’, Miss Corbie? Whoever did this to Pandora . . .”

She turned to face him. “Somebody threaten her? Try to get too close?”

He shook his head. “I  can’t say, Miss Corbie. Tom finds her like this—she ain’t supposed to be  here, she was always late, but you know, it don’t take much time to take off your clothes, and she—she never had to wear much makeup. . . .” He turned his back to her, faced the shadows again. A calliope started play­ing from the merry-go-round.

Miranda stood up from where she was crouched by the dead woman’s face. “You touch anything?”

“I cain’t—cain’t remember, Miss Corbie. I saw her,  might’ve shook her some.” Tom’s eyes came back to the dead girl, West Virginia accent thicker.

Miranda took the pack of Chesterfields out of her purse. Said carefully: “You know how this got  here?” She pointed to Pandora’s right breast, the one without a hole in it.

Under the swell, under the small, slow trickle crossing her chest and oozing from the stab wound. A word in blood.

Kike.

Bombs exploded from the Elephant Towers, rattling the wooden platform. Signal for opening time, second Golden Gate International Exposition, step right up, folks, and welcome to Treasure Island.

Miranda took a deep breath and lit a cigarette, staring at the dead girl.

May 25, 1940. Opening Day at the Fair to End All Fairs.

Closing day for Pandora Blake.

 

9:06 a.m. Miranda folded the newspaper over the B-western fence post outside Sally’s and flicked the Chesterfield in the dirt, waiting for the bulls to make an appearance, waiting for someone official to show up and tell her to go away.

Another explosion shook the Gayway, drowning out the Hawaiian and Spanish music from the turnstiles. Some genius in the PR department figured bombs  were news in Europe, why not drop them on San Francisco?

Girls in line at the hot dog stand tittered. Whiff of fresh scones from Threlkeld’s, fog peeling off Ripley’s Odditorium.

Tom stepped out of Artists and Models across the midway strip, his long body jerking itself in different directions. She waited, quick inhale, dropped the Chesterfield, crushing it in the sawdust. His hand shook when he grasped her arm. A little taller than her, about five eight. Patched and stained dunga­rees, worn, covered in dirt, electrical wire hanging from his pocket. Blue eyes watery, wide, scared.

“They—they takin’ her away, Miss Corbie. Don’t know no family for her, but—God almighty, seems like she needs somebody.”

Trembling all over. Rubbed his face into his blue work shirt, mouth con­torted, tears on weathered skin.

Miranda said slowly: “You sure you didn’t see anyone? They’ll ask you. They’ll try to break you. You know something, tell me.”

Head shake, hair sandy and lifeless. “I don’t see nothing. I’m settin’ up the lights for the opening, she’s the first act on the hour—we been practicin’ for the last week. I see her stretched out already, figured she was playin’ around.” He plucked at his rough blue shirt, stained with oil and sweat, looking down, whispered voice. “I walk over, thinkin’ maybe . . .  maybe she . . .  I don’t know.”

Miranda nodded, didn’t say anything. He choked back a whimper. Wiped his face with his arm again. Met her eyes.

“So I get Fred, and he says to find you. Alls I did was—was touch her a little. I thought she was playin’. So help me Gawd, Miss Corbie—I thought she was playing.”

The thin electrician held his face in his hands, shoulders convulsing with sobs.

 

9:27 a.m. Lost men in soiled pants sidling through early, looking for the sure bet, the certain thing, a grift  at better odds than Tanforan. Couples, hand in hand, mouths open, blushing at buying a ticket for Sally Rand’s, chubby bru­nette oohing over a cheap gold bracelet, boyfriend in glasses spending a buck for the engraving. “Nina,” he says proudly, and she blushes.

Kids kick up the sawdust, dressed in faded pinafores and big brother’s old knickers, clutching dimes for the roller coaster and the Roll-O-Plane and the lions in Captain Terrell Jacobs’s African Jungle, buying cotton candy and pop­corn, dropping peanuts down the Gayway.

Miranda waited and blew a smoke ring, missing Shorty and the rest of the Singer Midgets from last year.

Not the same Fair. Not the same world. Phony war over, a world war now, except we  weren’t a part of the world anymore.

We were Americans. Who needed the fucking world.

She shielded her eyes against the sun, checking attendance day numbers on the giant cash register. A shadow blocked her view. Grogan, smirk on his face.

“Time to talk, Corbie.”

 

Herman sat and sweated, sad brown eyes following Grogan’s cigar, crumpled derby on his lap. Looked back and forth between Grogan and Miranda.

He whined for the third or fourth time. “Lieutenant, it’s Opening Day. Mr. Schwartz got a lot invested.”

Grogan looked at the end of his cigar critically, stamped it out in the Fire-stone ashtray. “You think I like this any more than you do, Lukowski? We got fifty more men than usual today, whole goddamn city’s been throwin’ one hootenanny after another for the  whole goddamn week. Fiesta Days, my ass. It’s money, money for Schwartz, money for you. But there’s a blond dame up­stairs that got stabbed at your concession. And until the M.E. gets done with the crime scene, you  can’t get your girly peep show open again. So shut the fuck up.”

Grogan glanced over at Miranda. “I’d apologize for my language if there was any ladies present.”

Miranda blew the stream of smoke in his face. “How’d you manage to get promoted, Grogan? I figured you’d be headlining the Odditorium by now.”

Grogan leaned back in his chair until it squeaked. “You’re the freak, Corbie. First a whore, now a private dick. Get your picture in the fucking paper, and think you’re Carole fucking Lombard.”

She stabbed out the Chesterfield on his desk, rolling around the stub until the paper splintered and tobacco spilled out. “How long do I have to stay  here? I can’t wait long enough for you to find an idea. World  doesn’t have that much time left .”

His lips stretched, eyes tight under the heavy bags. “Long enough to deal with Captain  O’Meara.”

Noise in the outer room. Sally’s voice.  O’Meara stuck his head in and scanned the room, not looking at anyone in particular.

Said: “My office, please.” Grogan shoved his chair aside, gestured sarcasti­cally for Miranda to go ahead of him. Herman sighed and shrank farther into the office wall.

Sally was already inside, draped in a brown fox stole and an air of irritation. Surrounded by men, and not the kind she liked. Too old, too fat, too lawyer.

Major Charles Kendrick, one of Dill’s vice presidents, old man with a droopy white mustache and too much room in the seat of his pants. Francis Sandusky, director of concessions, Threlkeld’s crumbs still clinging to his pot­belly. Randell Larson, stiff in his young attorney starched Arrow shirt and unobjectionable navy tie.

The fucking Firing Squad.

Sally smiled at Miranda, grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

O’Meara struck a newspaper pose behind his desk, gray black hair shiny with Wildroot Cream-Oil, star on his chest as polished as the black leather shoes. He cleared his throat, spoke to the Certificate of Merit on the wall.

“I’m sorry to bring you  here under these circumstances. As you know, there’s been a death on Opening Day. A young woman—”

“Was murdered, Captain. Or don’t we use that word during Fiesta Days?”

Larsen shook his head, soft white hands folded in his lap. O’Meara’s blue eyes narrowed, crawling over her.

She  wouldn’t make it easy on the bastards.

“Miss Corbie, you’ve rendered service to the Exposition company on several occasions.”

“She’s the best protection my girls got on the Gayway. I’m not here much—you know me, I’ve got a finger in a lot of pies—but everyone at Sally Rand En­terprises can tell you Miranda Corbie is a valuable em-ploy-ee.” She enunciated carefully before blowing smoke out the corner of her mouth. “And a damn good broad. So what’s the beef? I’ve got a show to set up and a plane to catch.”

“Just a few questions, Miss Rand. Miss Corbie  doesn’t work solely for you, does she?”

“Ask me the goddamn questions, O’Meara. I know who I work for.” Miranda leaned over his desk. “I work for myself. Worked for Leland Cutler, too, before he was cut loose. You might remember him. He was president of this circus before the moneymen replaced him with Dill.”

O’Meara pulled open the mahogany desk tray, shut it. Trying to time it just right.

“As I said, Miss Corbie—you’ve been helpful. But the nature of this  incident—”

“Who’s the lawyer—you or Larson? Pandora Blake was stabbed and mur­dered. Somebody wrote ‘kike’ on her dead body, in her own blood. That sound like an ‘incident’ to you?”

The captain exhaled, color in his cheekbones. Larson shifted in the background, making a noise in his chest. Sandusky looked up from the floor, stomach quivering.

“Christ, you’re not exactly known for discretion. That Jap case a few months ago—you  were asked not to investigate—”

“I was told not to investigate. A killing nobody gave a fuck about, except to hush it up.” Voice derisive, eyes sure and hard. “I’ll say it again. Pandora was murdered. Her body defaced. Because somebody  doesn’t like Jews.”

Sandusky took a step backward. Gasp from Larson. Forbidden words. Fuck was fuck, but Jews were something more than profanity.

The major made a snorting sound, voice quavering. “She defiled herself. Appearing in a show like that.”

Sally’s voice slurred with the slight lisp she usually controlled. “Now wait a goddamn minute, sport. If you want to dress up in a powdered wig, maybe I’d better leave the room. My girls—all the girls—make money for this outfit. They’re about the only ones who do.” She dropped her cigarette to the floor and crushed it out.

The major retreated to San Juan Hill. Miranda set O’Meara’s horse-head lighter back on the desk with a thump, quick inhale, second-to-last cigarette.

“You know damn well I’m a private detective,  O’Meara. From now through September I work the Nude Ranch for Sally.”

Never dodge, never run, no blindfold. Johnny taught her that.

“I’m sorry, but—not anymore, Miss Corbie.”

Sally’s chair scraped the tile floor. “I hire who I want to hire. Who the hell are you to can my employee in front of me? Jesus, what are you people— Gestapo?”

Grim smile from O’Meara, no teeth in it. Hair back to gleaming, hands steady. Audition for Mr. District Attorney, champion of the fucking people. Just make sure you’re the right people, honey. No Jews or nudes allowed.

“Management considers Miss Corbie a security risk. We understand your position, Miss Rand, but keep in mind that private security personnel need ap­proval by the Fair management. That’s why we asked you to be present.”

“And here I thought it was my figure.” Sally shook her head, disgust making her face look its age. “Well, honey . . . that’s that. I can always use you at the Music Box. Hell, I could train you in the act—you got everything it takes.”

Miranda dropped ash on the floor, eyes locking on Grogan and his smirk.

“Thanks, Sally. I’ve still got my license.”

O’Meara nodded at Larson. The lawyer scurried forward with a typewritten document.  O’Meara let it drop, the paper making a smooth, expensive sound against the dark brown wood.

“You will if you sign this. It says you promise to not give out any informa­tion about the homicide. Or contact the press. And that you won’t initiate an investigation on your own or sign a contract with anyone who seeks to employ you in regards to it.”

Sally made a guttural noise, left hand on her ample hip. “An hour ago I was carrying a midget and leading a parade of freaks down the Gayway. If you ask me, the only freaks in this  whole goddamn fair are right  here, right now, trying to find some balls to scratch and coming up empty.” She motioned with her head to the door. “C’mon, honey. Let’s drift .”

“In a minute.”

Sally rearranged her fur, flounced out. Miller’s “Bugle Call Rag” and screams from the Roll-O-Plane filtered through the dusty window glass. Mi­randa rubbed out the stub on a corner of O’Meara’s desk. Picked up the docu­ment, checked the signatures. Folded it, wedged it behind the Chadwick’s Street Guide in her purse.

Sweat was beading up in O’Meara’s hairline. Larson opened his mouth to say something, shut it again. Sandusky and the major faded against the wall, mute chorus, packed jury.

She placed her hands on O’Meara’s desk, leaning forward. Felt his gaze draw downward, helpless. Spoke in soft tones, silky, like talking to an out-of­town Shriner at the Club Moderne.

“I know how many people depend on Treasure Island for their wages, Cap­tain. Better than you do. But that’s not what this is about.”

She stepped back, staring down each man in turn. “You bastards want to look the other way, pretend it never happened.” Her fingers closed into fists. They shook, and she held them at her side.

“Heil Hitler.”

She was almost out the door when Grogan raised his voice.

“You gonna sign it, Corbie? Keep out of it?”

She threw it over her shoulder.

“There’s a war on, Grogan. No more fucking peace in our time.”

They were still standing in silence when the outside door to the station house slammed shut.

 

She stayed on the island for the rest of the day, saying her good- byes. Electri­cians and stagehands and loud talk about a strike to get her back on the Gay-way. Barkers with crumpled faces, voices hoarse, pat on the shoulder and free admission to anything she wanted to see. She talked to Sally’s bunch, but the girls were mostly new, didn’t know Pandora, didn’t know Miranda, didn’t know about how she started with the Fair or about Leland Cutler or Phil or the Incubator Babies case, except from hearsay.

She caught Sonny from the coroner’s office at the dock, gave him a fin to let her  ride back in the morgue boat. The sun was setting behind the skyscrapers as Miranda stood in the stern, smoking a new pack of Chesterfields.

Dead girl on the Bay, bier coming home. Blond and beautiful. Willows whiten, aspens quiver. Goddamn poetry, her fucking father the fucking profes­sor and the fucking Lady of Shalott. He said, “She has a lovely face . . .”

Cigarette went out with a gust from the Bay Bridge, car lights crawling like ants on the top deck, Key System train shining, fast, modern, on the deck be­low. Took her Ronson Majorette three times to light the stick again.

Lovely face. Enough for big dreams. No family, not that anyone knew. Kept to herself, that one, always dreaming. Brushing her hair in the mirror. “Tirra lirra,” by the river. Then the mirror cracked, no Jews allowed in Shalott. Re­stricted community, don’t you know. Only Episcopalian knights allowed, and if you aren’t one of those, lady, you don’t sit at our table.

Sonny turned on a radio, Glenn Miller and Ray Eberle wishing on a star, goddamn Jiminy Cricket, and a little boy made of wood.

Geppetto’s Italy, not Mussolini’s.

The boat pulled up to Pier 5. The Delta Queen lay clean and quiet by Pier 1/1/2, overnight to Sacramento in style, but style was too old-fashioned for 1940. On September 29 the Fair would close for good, and so would the Delta King and Queen, faster world of train tracks and asphalt passing them by.

Red neon glowed on the Embarcadero, come to the Exposition, ferries  every five minutes. Bored morgue attendants stood on the pier in white coats and threw a rope to Sonny. Two uniforms waited in a car. Last look back at Treasure Island.

The Gayway danced and drank and sparkled, salt spray exploding in green and blue. White Star Tuna sign the only star to guide by.

When you wish upon a star

She stepped off the boat, stood by when they took the body out.

Your dream comes true . . . 

 

Chapter 2

Strauss, Sutro, Haas, Fleishhacker. Golden city and orange bridge built by Jews, mostly German, who took their place on hills, Nob and otherwise, and gave and gave and gave. Zoos, museums, schools. Jewish philanthropy and Chinese labor, founding fathers of San Francisco.

The early Jews tried to belong, heritage stretched as far as their pocket­books: Christmas trees in windows, seders after the Easter parade. And they made her a city, more than a town, a grande dame sparkling with phony gem­stones, showgirl flashing petticoats at the Palace Hotel.

Old San Francisco was gawdy and bawdy, but she had class enough to know it, posing for paint ers on the peninsula, strutting with ships through the Golden Gate. By 1915, she’d risen from the fire as the Athens of the Pacific, Paris of the West, her claim to cultural superiority owed to people she’d kick out of the Bohemian Club a few years later.

Because the waves washed up on shore. Flotsam and jetsam.

Eastern Europeans, bad Jews, dirty Jews, Jews who didn’t live in Cloud City, staring through the windows of Queen Anne mansions at the fog and the busi­nesses they built over decades.

And then the private clubs and apartment houses found reason to object. No Jews, no Reds, because really, they’re all the same. You can tell them, you can smell them, and they give the good ones a bad name.

Forget Hitler. We’ve got our own Jewish problem.

 

The phone jarred Miranda awake. Still wasn’t used to the sound, and only four people knew the number. Her hand reached for the heavy black receiver.

“Hello? . . . Hello? Who is it?”

No answer.

She swore, squinted at the clock. Quarter to nine.

Miranda stretched, floor cold against her feet, and padded across the shiny waxed surface to the window, yellow silk of the nightgown caressing her skin. Reached for a pack of Chesterfi elds on the end table, lighting up with a Mod-erne matchbook. Leaned against the sill.

The City was open for business, the Fair back in town, and it was all colored lights and Hum-A-Tunes and progress in America! Cavalcade of a Nation, and Let’s See the West in ’40, Mary. You say there’s a retreat goin’ on in France? Not from the Follies Ber-gaire. Who gives a damn about the frogs and krauts, any­way, been fi ghtin’ each other for years. You want salted peanuts with that hot dog, lady?

She’d miss the girls, miss the rough-voiced barkers, miss the souvenir shops and Threlkeld’s scones and Ghirardelli chocolate and quick-sketch artists and the college kids pushing old people around in chairs for fi fty cents. She’d even miss the corn-fed couples out from Omaha, stars in their eyes, gasping at the colors on the Gayway at night, girl leaning into him, hair mussed, mouth wait­ing to be kissed.

Too young, too inexperienced, too much from Omaha.

Miranda rubbed the cigarette out in the Crillo’s ashtray on the table. Maybe Pandora had been a small-town girl dreaming of the big city. Dreaming of something better than a dusty town and the boy next door, promise of her face and body a ticket to the Golden West.

Miranda looked out the window again, sun in her eyes.

All she could see was Spanish soil, Spanish sun, wine and tanned young men.

Johnny.

Before 1937.

When she was from Omaha, too.

 

San Francisco sunshine fresh, loud city, proud city, sparkled Sunday best, the kind they sold you on the radio and promised it could happen to you, too, if you bought the right deodorant.

Miranda walked down Mason and cut over to Powell on Sutter, past the Sir Francis and the St. Francis, bragging about how many honeymooners were in their beds that eve ning. Muscles in her calves were tight, and she stretched her stride, thin wool of her forest green skirt brushing her legs, pushing past tour­ists and factory workers and families back from church, headed for Treasure Island.

Cable cars panted, slow climb uphill, last gasp and a bell at the top, sales­man from East Los Angeles hanging off the side while his wife holds the cam­era, kids chasing tracks down Powell Street.

She threaded through the crowds at the turnaround, past Martell’s Liquor, past the tourists lining up at a magazine stand to buy the perennial bestseller Where to Sin in San Francisco, by one Richard Guggenheim, sinner.

Three doors down on the left, mister, three doors down on the left .

Coffee was strong at the Owl counter, Chesterfield enhancing the taste. Poached eggs on toast, side order of bacon, and a genuine Florida grapefruit, broiled. Left a dollar and a quarter on the table for the straggly-haired blond waitress shouting orders to the short-order cook.

Walked upstairs and back to daylight, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” playing on the Pig n’ Whistle jukebox. Miranda inhaled the stick, then let it drop, crushing it.

Three cartons in the Owl bag should see her through the next few days.

 

The Monadnock was belching tourists, west, east, booking with Union Pacifi c. Trying to get to the two last World’s Fairs before the end of the fucking world.

Shoved her way past a flower stand and a fat lady in a polka-dot dress. Gladys was busy at the counter helping a ten-year-old with a fussy grandmother.

She checked the newspaper rack, knew better than to expect a story. Trea­sure Island was four hundred acres but still easier to control than a Chinatown murder.

Eddie Takahashi they buried. Pandora they’d wipe out clean.

New York Timesheadline screamed: germans push drive to trap allies in north. More fi fth column jitters, Nazis in Mexico and South America.

Someone fed a nickel to the jukebox in the coffee shop, Tony Martin croon­ing “It’s a Blue World.”

She leaned up against the green-tiled wall, closed her eyes. A blue world with­out the Fair, without the money she’d counted on. The annuity from Burnett would help pay the office rent. She deserved it, too—her old boss had been a real bastard. But between the two phones at her apartment and new dresses from Magnin’s, only two days, maybe three. Not much time for Pandora Blake.

It’s a blue world without you . . .

Goddamn song. She’d seen the movie back in January, Music in My Heart, hard-on in my pants, same old Hollywood. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, happy endings all around for Tony Martin and Rita Hayworth forever and ever and ever.

Miranda shook out another Chesterfield. Tapped the stick on the wall, stuck it between her lips, opened her purse to look for the lighter. Fucking song wouldn’t end. Blue, blue world, always had been. No Spanish reds, no Russian grays, no yellow orange mornings. Black and blue, no other colors allowed.

No other men allowed.

The flame flickered yellow in front of the cigarette in her mouth. She looked up into warm brown eyes.

Gonzales.

He smiled, teeth white, wrinkles at the corners. “Good morning, Miss Corbie.”

She held his hand for a second, steadying the lighter. He looked less worried than the last time she saw him. Less like a cop.

“You heading somewhere, Inspector, or are things slow at the Hall of Jus­tice?”

His throat muscles tightened when he laughed. Gladys, breathless, finally ran out from behind the counter, threw her arms around Miranda.

“Sugar, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you at—”

“I got canned.”

Gladys’s mouth opened, bleached blond curls cascading into her eyes. She brushed them away impatiently. “What happened? Sally loves you—”

“Girl was murdered—nude model at Artists and Models. Dill’s got a lot of little men in lawyer suits who don’t like me much, called me a security risk.” She shrugged. “Figured I may as well hang for a wolf.”

Gladys looked back and forth between Gonzales and Miranda, her eyes lingering on his pinstripes. “Oh, honey—another whaddya-call-it—when you do those cases for free? Like the Jap kid—”

“Pro bono, Gladdy. Pro bono. I have a feeling Inspector Gonzales isn’t here to buy a ticket on the Yosemite Railway. My office?”

He smiled again, brown skin buffed and smooth. Gladys gazed at him, let­ting a sigh escape, before squeezing Miranda’s arm and running back to get some Rolaids for a middle-aged woman with an ugly scowl and even uglier hat.

“If you please, Miranda. I tried to call you this morning.”

She didn’t like the feeling in her stomach. Put it down to the Florida grape­fruit.

“Slept late. Shall we go?”

The elevator was crowded. Didn’t say anything on the ride to the fourth floor. Allen’s office door was closed when they walked by Pinkertons.

Probably at the Fair. Everybody was at the fucking Fair, everybody but her and Gonzales.

She fumbled once with the key but got the door open, stale air and ciga­rettes and a faint whiff of bourbon. Nodded toward the chairs in front of the desk, walked to the window and pulled it up with effort, room suddenly filled with the rumble of traffic.

“Sorry it’s musty. I open the place once a week in the summer. Used to.”

Miranda sank into the leather chair, thinking again how it was worth the commission she’d paid for it. Waved Gonzales down with the Chesterfield in her mouth. “Straight A’s from Elsa Maxwell, Inspector, sit. Tell me why you’re here, why you called. Or let me guess.”

The inspector sat crowded on the least comfortable seat, too big for the small wooden surface. Light felt fedora in his lap. Smiling.

She twisted the stub out in the Tower of the Sun ashtray. Looked up briefly, meeting his eyes. Shook another stick out of the open pack, tapped it on the desk. Sparked the desk lighter and inhaled, waiting for the heat to hit her lungs and keep her hands still. Someone punched a car horn on Market, three- second screech and a shout.

He sat back with his legs crossed, nodded toward the window.

“One way to start a street fight.” Conversational.

“Get it over with. You’re here to tell me to lay off. Eddie Takahashi all over again, except this time no newspapers, no family, no leads. No rope to hang myself with.”

He took out a gold cigarette case from his inside breast pocket, placed one of the gold-tipped French cigarettes between his lips. Dug out a matchbook, struck it on his shoe.

“Enjoy those while you can. Hitler doesn’t smoke.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You think France will fall?”

“So hard it won’t get up. Reynaud said he believes in miracles. The Nazis believe in tanks.” She blew a stream of smoke toward the window. “Japan’s got Asia and the Germans own Europe. The French and English armies are trapped. So yeah, Paris will fall. The whole fucking world will fall. Most of it’s on the floor already.”

Her fingers were tight on the arm of the chair. He bent forward again, dangling his hat between his knees. Ran his long brown finger along the in­side brim.

“You didn’t think so before, when you fought in Spain.”

Dong. Church bells. Always goddamn church bells.

“Long time ago, Gonzales.”

“And yet you still carry the pistol.”

Miranda pivoted to face him. “A good gun is a good gun, I’ve got a license, and what firearms I use are none of your goddamn business.”

He laughed. “Same old Miranda. Looks like you are taking on another lost cause, are you not?”

She twisted in the chair. Watched the smoke curl its way out the window.

“I was an escort, Inspector. I know something about lost causes.”

Gonzales smoked in silence for a few minutes, watching her. Miranda gulped the stick, then leaned across the desk and rubbed it out, half-finished.

“Japanese and Jews,” he said softly. “A strange record for a woman who deals mainly in divorce cases. A woman for whom the world has been dead for three years. But then, for you, perhaps not. And perhaps not for the times. What was it you told me . . . you fight because you can?”

He rose from the chair in one move, elegant, athletic. Fedora falling to the floor. Walked to where she sat, open coat hanging loose. Stared down at her.

“I am not here on official business. I heard about the murdered girl. Your name wasn’t mentioned.”

Miranda raised her eyebrows. “That would be a first.” She busied herself with finding the key to the drawer and opened it. Lifted out a half-empty bottle of Old Taylor bourbon.

“Drink?”

He shook his head, smiling. She uncorked the bottle, smelled it, hesitated. Stoppered it again, shoving it across the desk.

Took a breath. Stood up and met his eyes.

“So why the hell are you here?”

He stepped closer, still smiling. She felt her pulse quicken.

“I almost broke your nose once, Gonzales. Second time’s a charm. Are you gonna tell me why you’re here or leave now?”

He reached out an arm and took one of her hands in his. Held it for a mo­ment. Her voice was even.

“My reflexes are a little slow this morning. Better go while you can.”

Gonzales opened his palm gently and turned it upside down. Her hand dropped awkwardly to her side.

“I am leaving, Miranda. I’m going back to Mexico.”

Rush and roar, White Front, car door slam. Piano from the bar across the street. Girl’s laughter, long, low, flirtatious.

“You get fired?”

He shook his head. “No. I’m working with the House Un-American Activi­ties Committee.”

Her voice raised in surprise. “Martin Dies and his pack of Red-baiters? How the hell did you get mixed up with them?”

“They are not all Red-baiters, Miranda. The government is concerned about fifth column activities from the Fascists, too. So I’m taking a leave of absence— mutually agreed upon—from the San Francisco Police Department, and returning to Mexico. My family connection—my heritage—is a plus, for once.”

She nodded, staring at the floor. He reached out a hand, barely brushing her shoulder.

“I came to say good- bye. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

“I’m glad for you, Gonzales. If this is what you want to do.”

He tried to catch her eyes. “It is.”

He fished out a small piece of paper in his breast pocket. Picked up her hand again and put the paper in her palm. His fingers were warm and dry.

“My information. My family’s ranch. You can always reach me through them. I am not certain where I will be.”

“Thanks.” Her fist closed on the paper. She raised her eyes to his and held them.

“Thank you for saving my life.”

He took her fingers in his, gently, brought them to his lips. Moved closer. Covered her mouth with his, hungry, warm, demanding, and Miranda shut her eyes, fingers digging in his broad back, blending, dancing, warmth and heat, desire and urgency, and she could hear the buzz of the fighters and the can­nons booming in the dry hot sun.

“Good- bye, Miranda.”

He pulled away and turned his back and strode from the room, coat billow­ing behind him.

The door shut slowly, soundlessly until the click. She picked up his fedora from the floor.

It smelled like sweat, leather, and French-tipped cigarettes.

She put it on her desk, sank into her chair, and stared at it.

She knew he wouldn’t be back.

 

Chapter 3

A fire engine screamed down Market. Miranda jumped up from the chair. She wasn’t sure how long she’d sat, staring at a fucking hat.

She twisted the Bakelite knob on the old cathedral radio harder than she intended. Strung out the antenna line from behind the safe while she waited for the tubes to warm up, and then a crackle and then some imitation Boswell Sisters claiming that Everybody Loves My Baby and even if my baby is a sonofabitch, he doesn’t love anybody but me. Only me.

She walked to the desk, uncorked the Old Taylor. Opened the filing cabinet, found a glass from Castagnola’s and poured it half-full. Held it in her mouth a few seconds like Listerine, swallowed. Chased it with a Chesterfield, drawing the stick so hard the ash fell to the floor before she could flick it in the tray.

The singing group was replaced by a reedy-voiced bandleader and a hotel in the middle of nowhere, explaining the next number before he killed it. Mi­randa rose in disgust, turned off the radio. Stations all over the world, nothing she wanted to hear. Nothing but war news and Pepper Young’s Family and Our Love Is Here to Stay.

So Gonzales was gone. So what? Made it harder to get information out of the bastards at the Hall of Justice. Made it damn near impossible to get near Pan­dora Blake. But she’d be all right. She was always all right.

She came out on the other side, through Dianne and Burnett and every sad-case Shriner from Pasadena who tried to sit her on the bed and pat her shoulder and run his hand between her legs.

Poor bastards. Almost as poor as their dried-up wives, waiting for their fat-breasted husbands to come rolling home, always with less money. Stutter­ing, stammering, hunting the magic mouth, the red lips, miracle cure, proof of manhood. Eyes wide and scared and angry, wanting. Always wanting.

Miranda rubbed the Chesterfield out in the tray. Fuck Gonzales. Too rich, too pretty, let him go back to his ranch in Mexico and raise blue-ribbon cattle.

She dialed the combination on the old Wells Fargo safe, her fingers brush­ing against the holster of the Spanish pistol inside. Counted the money in the envelope: seventy-three dollars. Picked up his fedora from the desk and shoved it to the bottom, quickly shutting the safe again.

She was pouring more bourbon when someone knocked on the door. It swung open. Allen walked in.

“I heard you were here—came to see about lunch.” He looked at the bottle on the desk. “Didn’t expect to find you drinking it. What kind of mess are you in?”

The Pinkerton sat in the same chair as Gonzales. Frowned, got up, and moved to the wider one with armrests. Pulled out a pack of Camels, reaching for the One-Touch on Miranda’s desk.

“Nothing I can’t handle. Gonzales was just here, he’s going back to Mexico.” She set down the Castagnola glass with a thump, glanced up at Allen. “And I got fired. Peep show girl was murdered, and Dill and his cronies want it kept quiet. Seems I’m a security risk.”

Allen chuckled, paunch straining against his shirt buttons. “So why the hush-hush? Public eats that stuff up. They’ll make plenty of ticket money.”

“Because whoever killed her wrote ‘kike’ on her breast. In her own blood. And she was naked, getting ready for the opening act.”

He raised his thick eyebrows, whistled. “Sweetheart, I don’t know how you manage to be Johnny-on-the- spot, but Jesus Christ—try to stick to your Elks and Masons. No wonder they killed the story.”

“Maybe you want a drink?”

“No, but I can’t blame you if you do. What about Gonzales?”

She picked up the glass again, sipped the bourbon. “Gone. Sniffing out fifth columnists in Mexico for the Dies committee.”

The Pinkerton tapped his cigarette in the ashtray. “You OK on dough?”

“For a while. Got anything to throw me?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Slow season. War jitters. Husbands and wives rediscovering each other. Goddamn depressing business.”

Miranda grinned. “Who are you kidding? You’re a sap for your wife.”

Allen’s scalp turned red, and he took a final drag on the Camel before standing up. “How ’bout lunch? My treat.”

She said slowly. “Thanks. No time, though.”

He stretched, brushing some ash off his brown wool blazer. “We’ve got a file on some local Nazi lovers. Obvious ones like the Bund and Silver Shirts, some not so obvious. Might help.”

“I appreciate the offer. The cops’ve got this shut tighter than a drum. Tighter than the Takahashi case.”

The Pinkerton looked down at her, eyes worried. “You’re a hell of a shamus, Miri, but you almost got croaked in February. A lot of crazy sonsofbitches in San Francisco. Some of ’em run around wearing swastikas and picking fights with Jews.”

Miranda pushed herself up from the chair and stood, hands still on the desk. “I may have to drop it anyway—only got a few days before it’s back to the Moderne and cheating husbands.”

Allen grunted. “And they’re no cakewalk.” They walked to the door to­gether, arm in arm, and he turned to face her, lines on his red face deep.

“I’ll drop off a couple of mimeos. Make myself feel better. Be careful, Mi­randa.”

Her mouth twisted up at the corner. “Always, Mama. Always.”

He grinned and walked down the hallway, sound of his footsteps swallowed up by the laughter of a young honeymoon couple buying tickets to Niagara.

 

She phoned the papers, paid for the usual. “Can you trust your husband? Confidential, discreet.” Two weeks, Chronicle, Examiner, News, and Call- Bulletin.

Reached for the phone again and dialed Meyer’s home number. Opened another pack of Chesterfields one-handed. She was smoking too much, but she could give Life Savers a try some other fucking day.

“Mr. Bialik, please. I’m a client of his—Miranda Corbie.” Tapped her foot, waiting for the house keeper to deliver the message.

“Meyer? No—I’m in the office. Got fired. Sure they can. No, listen—uh-huh. Uh-huh. No, a security risk. Girl from Artists and Models was murdered— stabbed. Pandora Blake. And somebody wrote ‘kike’ on her breast. . . . Yeah. Yeah, I know. But they wanted me to sign a contract—yeah, I got a copy, didn’t sign—saying I wouldn’t investigate, would turn down the case if someone tried to hire me, all of it. Threatened to take away my license. . . . No, O’Meara.”

She smiled at the explosion on the other end, tapped the stick on the ashtray. “Of course I am. Who else will? . . . Yeah. No, I’m OK. Sally cut me a check for a week’s worth of pay and Burnett’s money takes care of the office rent. Ads’ll run tomorrow. . . . Yeah, yeah. I know. . . . Hell, yes—if you hear anything let me know. . . . OK. I’ll drop it by your office. Yeah. Pandora Blake. Let me know. Thanks, Meyer.”

She dropped the phone, stared at it. Pulled out the desk drawer and rum­maged for a Big Chief pad. Rubbed the cigarette out on the Tower of the Sun.

A church bell rang again, south of Market. Dong. Dong. Goddamn tolling bells.

She picked up the Esterbrook, blotted it. Wrote “Pandora Blake.” Chewed on the end of the pen. Blotted again. Wrote “Who is Pandora Blake?”

Looked down at the wet ink. Reached for another cigarette.

 

She’d gotten as far as “twenty- two, bleached blonde, pretty, parents? Jewish?” and “men?” when the phone blared. Watched it tremble for a second, hand hov­ering over the receiver.

“Miranda? Tried to reach you at home. I heard.”

Rick’s lilt was missing, voice heavy with concern. It irritated her almost as much as the lilt usually did, Rick and his half-Irish bullshit blue eyes.

“What did you hear, Sanders? That I got canned or why?”

Grunt on the other end, punctuated by the clack of typewriters pecking out a letter at a time. “Christ, Miranda, don’t take it out on me. I heard you got fired. Scat was iffy on the motive. Sam got back from Treasure Island this after­noon, glommed it from one of the barkers on the Gayway.”

She gripped the Esterbrook, wrote out, “A&M barkers,” on the Big Chief tablet. “Yeah. Iffy. They made Sally fire me because there’s been a murder, and Dill and the whole goddamn board want it blacked out.”

She could see him push his fedora back, leaning over the receiver so no one else would hear. “Give it to me, Miranda. I’ll blow it wide open.”

“I don’t think you will. Girl at Artists and Models was stabbed, probably ice pick. Before the official opening. Somebody used her blood to spell out ‘kike’ on her naked body.”

Exhale from Rick. San Francisco News room clatter got louder. “I’ll badger Gleason—if they’re clamping down that hard, he might buck it for an exclusive.”

 “They threatened my license—wanted me to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t investigate. I’ve only got a few days to give this.”

“So? What the hell’s wrong with you? Bring me in on it. You usually do anyway, and all I get out of it is—”

“A hell of a story. You can shove the Little Boy Blue act.”

A police siren screamed from somewhere up Market. Her stomach growled again. Miranda twisted the stick in the ashtray. They were satisfying a hell of a lot less than usual.

His voice held an edge. “Do we really need this dance, Miranda? OK, I could use an exclusive. Something sensational. But it’s not like we’re not friends . . . old friends. If you still even remember what the goddamn word means. What about the Takahashi case, Burnett’s murder, New York? It’s not like you don’t call me whenever the hell you need some quick information or sometimes just a padded shoulder.”

She set the receiver on the desk. Opened the drawer, looked at the pack of Chesterfields. Slammed the drawer shut again.

Rick and Miranda and Johnny. Old times, good times. New York times. Rick always there, watching her, trying to watch over her. Until he’d go away, leave for a while. Then back again, like a fucking stray dog.

She picked up the phone. “This is tighter than the Takahashi case.”

“And I came through for you.”

“You usually do. That’s the problem.”

Clack, clack, clack. Slow day in the newsroom. “Look, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, and it sounds like you started drinking a few hours too early. I’m coming over. Did you eat yet?”

“I worked through lunch.”

“Jesus Christ—it’s almost three o’clock! I’ll take you out for a hamburger.” He waited for a response, added casually. “And I wouldn’t worry about the blackout—Gonzales should be able to feed you information.”

Miranda said slowly. “He’s not around. Got drafted for the Dies committee. He’s off hunting fifth columnists in Mexico.”

Pause. Rick’s voice sounded like it had lost ten pounds. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, tops. I may even have a lead for you.”

She dropped the phone, willing the clang to pull her out of the verses in her head, calliope and cotton candy, red letters on a white breast. Gave in and lit a cigarette and inhaled until it glowed red. Until her lungs were numb again.

Miranda walked to the window and pushed up the sill as far as it would go.

Sharpies in zoot suit trousers and wide- brimmed fedoras, waiting for the counter girl at the five- and-dime. White Front and Municipal Rail, match race down Market, bells clanging. Black coffee and diesel in the fog, twisted, gray, dancing like Lotta Crabtree, a whistle of wind, and the pungent tang of euca­lyptus, straight from Marin.

It was always there for her, not always warm, but hard and fast and sure.

Her city. Where she was born.

Whore-mother, fickle nurse. Survivor.

Someone hit “Imagination” on the jukebox downstairs, Frank Sinatra crooning, spooning, floating to the fourth-floor window, to the woman with auburn hair leaning out the window, a cigarette between her lips.

 

“What’ll it be?” Short gray hair, close cropped, small mustache. Bartender tough-guy act straight out of Warner Brothers, squinty eye and all.

“Scotch and water. Miranda?”

“Bourbon and water, up.”

He grunted and turned his back, clanging glassware. A skinny man in his early fifties with a meat-juice- stained apron came around and asked if they wanted food.

“John’s special. You, Randy?”

She winced at the old nickname and handed back the menu. “Rare sirloin and a baked potato. Come with green beans?”

The barman slid two drinks across to them while the waiter stared at her. “Peas, lady. Say—ain’t I see you in the papers?”

“Yeah, bud, she’s Rita Hayworth. Move it along.”

He shrugged, disappearing into the kitchen. Rick looked at Miranda, took out a pack of Luckys and a Yellow Cab matchbook. Struck the match on his thumbnail and said: “OK, spill it.”

The bourbon wasn’t Old Taylor, but it was Old something and felt good going down. She swirled the highball glass, watching the bourbon melt the water.

“Pandora Blake. Worked at Artists and Models. You know the act—girls sit on a stage, and the so-called artists pay a quarter to take their picture. She was around for the last part of ’39 and came back this season. Opened the act for the early birds. A loner. I only talked to her once or twice. None of Sally’s girls knew her, figured she was stuck-up.”

Rick lowered his voice. “What about the—the ‘kike’ thing? Was she Jewish?”

Miranda shrugged, reached into her purse for her cigarette case. “Never came up. Tom found her before the show was even open—he works the lights, Fred handles the stage. Poor bastards got the third degree afterward, goddamn O’Meara looking for the easy out.”

“What time?”

“Tom got me at about eight forty-five. People were sneaking through early to line up at Sally’s or get on the Roll-O-Plane. She was stabbed with some­thing long and sharp. Probably an ice pick. They sell the goddamn things as souvenirs. Word was written in her own blood on her right breast. The left one was where the stab wound was.”

She swirled the bourbon again, took a long drink, holding it in her mouth before swallowing. Rick propped his arm on the counter, staring at Miranda, face red from the Scotch.

“This is one of those cases, isn’t it? Where you go off on some mission like you’re Sergeant York or Joan of Arc or J. Edgar Hoover. Get yourself in trouble, almost get croaked, till some knight in muddy armor like Gonzales shows up to save you.” He shook his head, threw back the drink in one motion. “Well, honey, it won’t be me. This isn’t Spain. It’s barely San Francisco.” His raised his voice until the bartender couldn’t pretend to be deaf.

“Another one.”

It took four tries for Miranda to light the cigarette with his matchbook. The skinny waiter pushed his way through the kitchen doors with two plates. She pinched the end of the Chesterfield and left it in the tin ashtray, then dug into the steak, heaping some butter and sour cream on the baked potato and help­ing it along with pepper and Tabasco sauce.

She finished before he did, relit the cigarette. The bartender tried to pour more bourbon, but she put her hand over the glass.

“You asked for the information, Sanders. I gave it to you. So fuck the Drew Pearson editorial, and fuck you, too.” She opened her pocketbook and took out a dollar coin and a bill, started to get up.

He swallowed a forkful of peas and choked, coughing over his plate. Reached for the Scotch and drained it. Wiped his mouth.

“All right, forget it. But Jesus Christ, Miranda, you were almost killed—”

“I’m not the goddamn princess on the glass hill. I earned my license. And yeah, I worked for Sally, but I took care of the whole Gayway, and Pandora Blake was killed on my beat. My watch. You can either help or get out of my way. Your choice.”

She was breathing hard. Rick finally found her eyes. He cracked a smile, his voice softer.

“Same old Randy.”

She glanced away. “This is business. Not auld lang syne.”

He cocked his head, wide mouth turned upside down. “Forgive me, Miss Corbie. I was overcome by Scotch and the scent of your perfume.” He dug in his pocket and slapped two dollars and fifty cents on the counter.

“I’ve got a lead—maybe. Let’s go.”

Miranda pushed a dollar coin toward the bartender. Downed the rest of the bourbon and water, wiped her mouth with the rough dinner napkin.

“What kind of lead? And where?”

“Trust me for once.”

She shrugged, stubbed out the cigarette on the gold tin ashtray, and fol­lowed him out of John’s Grill to Geary.

 

He led her up Webster Street, past the delicatessens and Japanese bakeries, past the faded Victorian boardinghouses. Radios blared from open second-story apartment windows, smells of tempura and pastrami and fresh-baked bread. A White Front chugged by on Sutter, where some Japanese and Filipino kids were playing marbles in a barbershop, pole spinning, cut and shave twenty-five cents. Miranda looked down Sutter when they crossed the street. No shoes from Mr. Matsumara today, no boarded-up Takahashi cleaners.

Hurried across Pine to California. Rick stood in front of a synagogue, squat Romanesque arches glowing pink gold in the dying sun. The sign read temple sherith israel.

He made a motion with his head for her to follow him. She walked through the middle arch into the dim, vaguely pink vestibule. An old man in patched overalls was kneeling on the cement with a can of strong- smelling lye soap and oily rags.

“Kike” was painted in large red letters on the inside wall.

 

Copyright © 2011 Kelli Stanley

Memory Book” a new, short-story prequel to the Miranda Corbie novels is also available here and as an e-book.


Kelli Stanley is the award-winning author of City of Dragons and City of Secrets, “starring one of crime’s most arresting heroines: angry, big-hearted, and fearless Miranda Corbie” (Library Journal, starred review). Kelli also writes the Roman noir series (The Curse-Maker, Nox Dormienda). She lives in San Francisco.

 

Comments

  1. Deborah Lacy

    This sounds great. Can’t wait to pick it up.

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