The mortars are lobbed with lazy indifference. There is no need to hurry. No need to rush. No one is going anywhere. The line moves inches forward. Inches back. The soldiers claw and scratch and scream and curse, hurling obscenities to deaf gods who stomp above them, who thunder as they pass and laugh and shake their heads at such unruly children who refuse to surrender and lay down their arms in peace.
The dying do what they do best.
The rain has been constant for several days, and it is business as usual in the trenches. The men on both sides go about their tasks, plotting on their war maps, sending messages that may or may not get through. It is kill or be killed – as usual.
The smells of sickness, urine, feces, blood, and death hover over the trenches like a rotten fog that never dissolves. And the dead about them do not seem to mind at all.
The soldier looks over at his friend, his buddy, and his comrade-in-arms. It will not be long, he thinks, crouching in the bottom of the trench to light a cigarette. How good it feels to draw the air into his lungs. The burn of this quick smoke is proof that he is still alive. He will suck the poisons deeply and smoke his cigarette until the butt is so small it scorches his fingers. There are only two left in the crumpled pack. Two precious American cigarettes.
Symbols of home.
His heart skips a beat.
The dying do what they do best.
His buddy screams out in agony. A cramp has seized his entrails. Diarrhea will soon come. And then, the blood.
“Hey!” the soldier yells to a nearby friend. “Gimme a hand, will ya?”
Together, both men try and lift the sick man, half-carrying, half-dragging him to the open pit they call a latrine.
“I think we can put him on the rail,” the soldier says.
There is a wooden fence that spans the pit. It is an odd affair and strips a man of any shred of dignity. A soldier is supposed to sit on it, pants around his boots, his naked buttocks hanging in midair, and release the awful foulness from his guts into the stinking pit behind him.
The two men look at the half-dead soldier. Both are still weak from dysentery that has plagued their unit for the last several weeks.
“Do you think we can do it?”
“Hoist me up!” the soldier croaked. “I ain’t gonna pud my pants like an infant!”
Both men strain to place the limp noodle atop the board.
He sways and almost falls, but somehow he retains his balance and sits atop it. His perch is a precarious one.
His two friends are almost as sick as he is, and overcome from the strain of lifting their buddy, they both fall to their knees, gulping the fetid air. They will their bodies to stand tall.
But it is no use.
Their strength has gone AWOL.
“Aaayyyyyyy!” the sickest soldier screams.
The pain is too much, and he raises his gray face toward the gray sky.
His body jerks uncontrollably. He falls backward into the mire and the ooze.
His two friends watch helplessly, too sick and too weak to rescue him.
The soldier sinks, unable to save himself – sinks, sinks, sinks until only a pale blue claw is left above the surface of the evil soup of human foulness.
One middle finger points defiantly towards the heavens.
He awoke with a start, staring wild-eyed into the inky blackness of the silent, empty room.
The gunshot popped, but there was no scream. His eyes didn’t even have time to register surprise. The bullet tore a neat hole through his skull, and his head dropped forward. He was dead faster than the time it took to inhale one last breath.
It was surprisingly easy.
Then came the sickening seconds of waiting – waiting to be discovered. Had someone heard the muffled sound of the shot? Would the police come crashing through to arrest and speedily execute justice? How could a heart beat so quickly and not explode?
After several moments, it became clear nobody had noticed anything unusual. It was eerily silent inside the house. And outside, as well. Could Fate have smiled?
Time to get away.
Flee the scene.
The clock’s hands resumed their normal course around the dial. A slight smile lingered on the killer’s face as the gloved hand locked the doorknob from inside. Silently, the door closed on the gruesome scene. The figure walked slowly, careful to wear a mask of serenity as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and got into the car. The engine cranked, and the car moved down the streets of a city just waking up to the beginnings of a brand new day. It was easy to dissolve into the landscape and melt into the stream of Life.
Another anonymous face in the crowd.
The publicity hounds were hot on Flix’s heels. The fact that he and Phalen had been able to crack the Canary Case so quickly, after being called in to assist the police, astounded many. The Cupid/Archer Detective Agency had more cases than it could handle. The phone started ringing off the hook. There seemed to be so many people with so many problems that needed to be solved with discretion and expediency. Flix shook his head in amazement.
“What is the world coming to?” he muttered. “How did people manage to get themselves into so much trouble?”
Nice feeling if you were running a detective agency, but it often meant Flix’s secretary was in a state of constant chaos. Having to turn away business was something akin to spitting in the Pope’s face, according to Mrs. Glenny.
“I think it’s a sin, sir,” Mrs. Glenny protested. “A pure sin! I feel horrible having to refuse to help clients so frequently.”
“Now, Mrs. Glenny,” Flix said, “Mr. Archer and I are only two men. We cannot possibly be expected to solve the crimes of this entire city. There are simply too many. We must pick and choose. There are only twenty-four hours in each day. We have to sleep, too.”
Mrs. Glenny looked skeptical.
“Don’t worry. It is only good business not to overload ourselves. We want to give the clients we do take our best efforts. Shoddy work will close us down quicker than anything.”
“You’re the boss,” Mrs. Glenny said. “But it still feels like throwing good money away.”
“We are doing quite well,” Flix said. “In fact, I think you are a wonderful secretary who deserves a little raise. I’ll make sure you see it in your next paycheck.”
Mrs. Glenny glowed.
“Thank you, Mr. Flix,” she said.
“Do not feel bad when I have to say ‘no’ to some of the people that come through that door. Remember, I am only doing what is best for us, Mrs. Glenny. It’s called sound business.”
The muffled noises of the backfiring Model T’s and other automobiles cracked endlessly outside the office windows. Horns honked. People yelled at each other. Street cars clanged their way up and down to their next stop. The riotous sounds of a living city echoed below. Flix ignored the bedlam and concentrated on the telegram.
He held the yellowed paper in his hands and reread its typed contents one more time.
Come to California!
To think of it – an offer to make a movie about them! And only a few weeks ago, Flix had fretted that they would not make a go of it. It would have been impossible to predict how quickly their fortunes would change.
And only for the better!
“Do you think it is wise to abandon these new clients for California?” Phalen Archer asked. “I’m just wondering because things have so recently picked up.”
His partner sat slumped in a chair at a small desk opposite Flix, a concerned look on his brow. Flix heard the incessant tap of Phalen’s shoe against the chair leg. Smoke curled from a forgotten cigarette slowly burning itself out in the old saucer Phalen used for an ashtray.
“I understand your concerns,” Flix said. “I know how dire things looked only a few weeks ago. But we’ve turned the corner. I want to establish us as one of the premier detective agencies in the city. I think if we can build on this, it will be phenomenal for business. This picture show is a way to distinguish us from all the rest.”
The tapping shoe picked up its pace.
“Go home. Pack your bags,” Flix continued. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The free advertising we will reap from this deal will carry us for a long, long time. If this venture is successful, we should have clients flocking to our door in droves.”
“But a movie, Cupid,” Phalen persisted, “I mean is that the kind of thing you want representing your firm? They’re so, oh, I don’t know.”
“Sleazy may be the word you’re looking for,” Flix said. “I know a lot of folks do not think highly of moving pictures or of the people who star in them. But trust me, movies are here to stay.”
Phalen picked up his cigarette and smashed it in the saucer.
“Silent movies are the best thing to come along since sliced bread,” he continued. “For every person who thinks they are the devil’s work, there are hundreds and hundreds who cannot get enough of them. And they have a track record. Moving pictures have been around since the 1890s.”
“But so many of the men who make them set up shop today and are gone tomorrow,” Phalen said.
“Many studios are fly-by-night enterprises, that’s true,” Flix said, “but so many others are legitimate, profitable businesses. Movies are so popular. Look at Mrs. Glenny. She’s practically abandoned her crime magazines for Shining Stars of the Silver Screen. It is all I can do to find her copies at the newsstand. They sell out constantly.”
Phalen looked through the open door separating the vestibule from the inner office to the secretary who was at that moment raptly engrossed in a magazine open on her desk. He shook his head impatiently.
“Why,” he said, “you encourage her by buying that fluff is beyond me.”
“It’s a harmless hobby,” said Flix. “And it makes her happy. A few nickels and dimes are a small price to pay for happiness.”
“Where was I? Oh, yes. Using Mrs. Glenny as a barometer, I feel confident that movies and movie stars are only going to grow in popularity. Mrs. Glenny is absolutely mad about them. And she is a very intelligent woman. Now, you must hurry. Our train leaves the station this afternoon. I am not looking forward to being confined in a railcar for nearly five days, but we have to do what it takes to get to California.”
“But why so far away for a movie?” Phalen asked. “They’ve been making movies here on our side of the Mississippi for years, too. Why is it that all of a sudden East is least and West is best?”
“Yes, they have,” Flix said. “But California is where the big movers and shakers are. The climate is great for one thing. Lots of sun. It takes good light to make motion pictures. And California is where the offer to make this movie about us is coming from.”
Phalen still looked unconvinced.
“Look at it this way, Phalen. Edison has forced motion pictures to move out West. You had studios making movies with his patented equipment here on the East coast all the time. Edison owned the patents, and he wasn’t happy when others started making big bucks off his machines. He got even more famous for suing them and trying to shut down their operations. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump over the border to Mexico to escape Edison’s men if you’re operating out of California. His guys can’t grab your cameras in a foreign country. His patents are no good there. That’s why the independents moved their companies. Edison is based in New Jersey. Why not move as far away as possible?”
“You’re talking the other side of the country,” said Phalen.
“I am,” Flix said. “But it just made good business sense. Land’s cheap out there, too. Plus, you have the beautiful, scenic views. Perfect backdrops and landscapes no one back East is familiar with. California’s film industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Opportunities are blooming in those mountains and hills, and a new city is growing along with it. It’s a place where men have a chance to make the wildest dreams a reality.”
“But,” Phalen said, “don’t you feel a little guilty about dropping everything and heading across the country?”
“Yes,” said Flix, “but I want to go there. My sphinx moths live out there. And there’s another species I really want to study – the Ascalapha odorata.”
“Am I supposed to know what the hell that is?” Phalen asked.
“No. It’s commonly called the Black Witch Moth. In Mexico, it is known as the Black Death Moth. Fascinating creature.”
“If you say so,” Phalen said.
Phalen glanced at the crumpled butt lying in the saucer. He opened his desk drawer and removed a fresh pack. He knocked the pack on his knuckle and pulled out a cigarette. He put it into the corner of his mouth. He dug into his pocket and removed a pack of matches. The smell of sulfur filled the room as he struck one on the bottom of his shoe. The match end flamed brightly. Phalen lit his cigarette and stared out the window.
“It truly is remarkable,” said Flix. “It’s not black but dark brown. It sips nectar. There is no such thing as a blood-sucking attack moth, but many people falsely believe there is. The wingspan of this creature is a half-a-foot or more. It’s often mistaken for a bat. That’s why people fear it so.”
“I think I’ve dated women who are related to them,” said Phalen, blowing O-rings and watching them dissolve into thin air.
Flix took no notice of his partner’s comment.
“They are nocturnal creatures,” he continued. “Truly harmless. Yet, they are often associated with death and bad omens. Folks in the Caribbean believe the moth is a witch warning you that someone has cast a spell. Some cultures think that if you see one shortly after your loved one has died, it’s the dead person’s soul coming back to say one final good-bye.”
Phalen got up and straightened his tie. He grabbed his suit jacket and slung it over his shoulder. He flipped his hat onto his head and adjusted its angle.
“Good-bye is what I need to say, Cupid,” Phalen said. “Gotta run. I’m supposed to be meeting Lillian for lunch. If she’s a no-show today, we’re through. That would be three times this week I’ve tried to see her. I don’t even begin to know what is wrong. I thought we were getting along swell. But lately, I just don’t know. I ask her on a date. She backs out. Always some lame excuse. Sick mother or something.”
“You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to,” Flix said. “If you’d rather concentrate on your relationship with Lillian, I understand. I thought you’d like to get out of the city. A vacation, you know. A chance to see the countryside.”
“Of course, I’m coming. Don’t mind me,” Phalen said. “I’m just blowing off steam. Lillian’s got me in a black mood. I’m more than a little peeved at her for giving me the brush off. You’d think she’d just say flat out she doesn’t want to see me. She’s stringing me along like a calf on a chain.”
“I keep telling you to force Lillian’s hand,” Flix said. “Make her commit one way or the other. That way, you would know how to go forward. Stop accepting her excuses. Stop asking her out. There are plenty of fish in the pond.”
“I know,” said Phalen. “I guess I keep hoping that Lillian and I can get back together and somehow rekindle those feelings we had before the war. It’s probably just wishful thinking, but I can’t seem to get beyond the idea, you know?”
“A lot of water has passed under the bridge,” said Cupid. “You’ve both changed immeasurably.”
“You’re right, I guess,” Phalen said. “Where will we be staying? You haven’t said. And from what I’ve been able to find out, this Hollywood place is very bucolic. A backwater, really. Nothing much there but sheep and sage brush.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I promise you our accommodations will be much better than the trenches!”
Phalen couldn’t help but laugh. As he walked out the door, he nodded to Mrs. Glenny. The secretary was so engrossed in her magazine that she missed his gesture. The phone had been silent for a change, and Mrs. Glenny was taking a break.
“Sleeping in an outhouse would be better than that!” Phalen said, sauntering out the office door.
A few days before.
“Sometimes, all it takes is fresh eyes when looking at a case,” Flix said. “Mind you, not always. But sometimes. There are times when you will never solve the riddle. But if you’re lucky, once in a while, the clues will sing to you like a canary and tell you all you need to know.”
He had been more than a little drunk when talking to his friend, Caspian Ramsey, at a favorite speak-easy. Flix was still celebrating the fact that he and his partner had closed the Wellingdon case.
Solving the case had seemed to get his mind off other bad memories.
The remembrances of war. Unbearable, horrific memories that haunted him still. It was a war that he had survived, but he still bore wounds that were slow to heal from his experiences in the trenches. Six hundred rounds a minute from machine guns. Men mowed down like grass as they advanced ‘over the top.’ Suicide by enemy bullets and flames of hell spewed from a canister carried on the back of Fritz. Mortars and grenades. Combat on a scale never before experienced. Sights and smells and sounds so terrible that no words could describe them. No one could ever understand unless he had lived through that hell. And that was the only word that came to mind when Flix thought of those times – hell.
He shook his head and flung away the cobwebs of terror that skirted the edges of his conscious mind. Here he was, sitting on a stool at a bar where he felt at home. He was breaking the law, but Prohibition was a foolish experiment doomed to fail in his mind. He was surrounded by fellow lawbreakers who were here to have fun or forget about their troubles and enjoy each other’s company. It was nice to wear that glorious cloak called anonymity and drink all you wanted.
The speak-easy didn’t care who you were, what you did for a living or anything else about you. As long as you knew the secret password and had enough money to cover the drinks you ordered, you were welcome to join in the camaraderie.
He took a long swallow of his drink and a hard draw on his cigarette. Alcohol seemed to dull the ghastly memories. A little. Nothing could erase them, but without the cauterizing nectar called scotch whiskey, the memories cut his soul like a razor. With it, the razor’s edge was dulled.
“Hey, Flix,” Ramsey said, “you gonna swallow that butt if you ain’t careful.”
“Yeah,” Flix said, stamping out the cigarette.
Not that it mattered. In this smoke-filled den, all you had to do was inhale to get high off nicotine and Indian hop.
Ramsey was a short, pug-nosed reporter whose suits were more wrinkled than a cotton bed sheet balled up and left to dry on its own. His tie always sported more than a few grease stains, leftovers from earlier meals, but his reporting was top notch. Drunk or sober, Ramsey never missed a good story when he stumbled over one. Everyone read the papers. And everyone liked scandal and gossip. A good headline from his buddy would be the best free advertising possible.
Flix noticed the spark in Ramsey’s eye as he finished off the scotch. He had an inkling, even then, of the headline in tomorrow’s Early Edition. After this conversation, the Wellingdon kidnapping would forever be known as ‘The Canary Case.’
“Thanks for the drink, Flix,” Ramsey said, adjusting his fedora for the umpteenth time.
It was a nervous habit that Ramsey couldn’t seem to shake. Though he seldom took the battered hat off, his fingers could not seem to leave the fedora alone.
“What’s your hurry?” Flix asked.
“Gotta run. Thanks again,” Ramsey said, rising to leave as fast as if the cops were pounding on the door in a midnight raid.
“Good luck with the byline,” Flix muttered.
But Ramsey did not hear him. He was halfway across the room. Flix watched as the reporter disappeared out the door and into the night.
“Another, sir?” the bartender asked.
“No thanks. Over my limit,” Flix said. “But you can make sure this flask is full for me, Buddy.”
The bartender topped off the silver flask and tightened the lid. He gingerly handed it back to its owner who secreted it in the inner pocket of his jacket.
“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver.”
“With friends like me,” the bartender said, “you don’t need enemies.”
Flix laughed, raising the empty whiskey glass up in the air in a fake toast. The bartender smiled.
“I better grab some chow,” Flix said, “before this stuff burns a hole through my shoe sole,”
“Good idea,” the bartender said.
Flix moved to one of the tables lining the far wall. This signaled the waiter that he was ready to order. The waiter walked over, a clean white towel draped over his arm. The menu was scribbled on a chalkboard set up at the entrance. Flix always made a point of checking it out before heading to the bar. He gave his order and settled back to listen to the small ensemble playing on the stage set up at the back of the room.
The hooch was palatable. The entertainment passable, but the grub in this joint was perfection. Flix knew the owner. His name was Auden Laslo. Auden was a brash, foul-talking Texan who swept into a room like a Texas twister.
Auden’s juice joint looked just like a Wild West Texas saloon. You entered from the usual back door, a thick steel-plated affair with a tiny slot for the doorman’s eyes, passed the doorman, (often Auden himself, who guarded it like Fort Knox), and you pushed open some rather cheesy-looking, dark brown swinging doors with the word ‘Saloon’ painted across both halves in bold white lettering.
Upon entering, your eyes were blinded by bright shades of red and rich textures. Red-velvet upholstered barstools and chairs. Red-patterned wallpaper. Red carpeting. The sea of crimson gave the whole place the look and feel of a brothel. A high-class one, but a whorehouse, nonetheless.
And Auden’s sense of décor balanced all that scarlet with a gargantuan bar of shining teak and mahogany that stretched the length of one wall, a cluster of green felt tables to the right, and a small black stage nestled in a back corner.
On the wall behind the bar hung a wagon wheel and centered under that was a large painting of a half-nude lounging lady. The bar shelves were filled with every color and shade of hard liquor known to man. Their contents seemed to glow with an inner light, beckoning the thirsty to imbibe. Not that Auden’s customers needed to be enticed.
To enhance the visitor’s experience, Auden had constructed discrete back rooms for gamblers and drug dealers and prostitutes. These closets had thick velvet curtains that provided privacy to anyone who wished to participate in the extracurricular activities offered by the host. The giant Texan was enthusiastic about giving his customers a great night on the town, and Auden wanted every guest to have fun, no matter his favorite pastime.
Auden’s joint popped like hot grease in a skillet seven days a week. It was always filled with hazy smoke from cigarettes and reefer and the low hum of music and conversations of revelers having a good time. Auden made sure his clientele never had to worry about raids, too. He paid almost double the going rate to ensure the fix was in. No cop would dare endanger the steady flow of cash that lined his pockets. It was far more profitable to ignore the illegal booze that flowed from the tall Texan’s bar.
Auden’s mother ran the small kitchen in the very back of the place. The faint sounds of music from the stage out front intermingled with the noises of clanking pots and pans in the kitchen.
Vera wasn’t much on looks. She was chunky and built like a box. Her voice sounded like gravel in a flour sifter, but the woman could cook. Nobody who had ever tasted her food ever argued that fact. And it was Vera’s cooking that made Auden Laslo’s Rum & Fun Saloon the bee’s knees.
Flix once asked Auden if he didn’t feel guilty about having his mother slave over a hot stove most nights while on the other side of joint people were having a rousing good time.
“Hell no, pad’nah,” Auden boomed. “If Vera’s steamin’ vegetables, she ain’t on the prowl for some poor sod to keep her steamed at night. Vera may be old, and she may be my mama, but I’m here to tell you that if I didn’t wear her out in the back that old bitch would be hornier than a pent-up bull in at the Chicago stockyard! Besides, Vera likes it in the kitchen. She’s the queen of her stove, and she knows how to stir up magic in those pots and pans better than a voodoo priestess casts spells. She also likes spending time with me. Thinks she’s keepin’ an eye on her little sonny boy.”
“Little sonny boy,” Flix laughed. “You’re six-five, if you’re an inch, Auden. And I’m guessing you passed puberty about twenty-five years ago.”
“Don’t I know it! But Vera says if I live to be a hundred, I’ll still be her little baby boy. Damn woman’s crazier ‘n a two-headed horse in a steeplechase.”
The good times continued far into the night until the drunken revelers cautiously made their way home to sleep off their carousing. Flix awoke the next morning with a hellacious hangover the size of Manhattan. Three-inch headlines screamed ‘The Canary Case Solved!’
“Good ole Ramsey,” Flix muttered, fumbling to answer the buzzing thunder of the doorbell that threatened to make his head explode.
“Did you see this?” Phalen asked, tossing the papers towards his friend.
“Of course,” Flix said. “They’re shrieking at me almost as loudly as you are.”
Phalen ignored him.
“You better get to the office,” Phalen said. “Mrs. Glenny is madder than an old wet hen. Seems you got four ink slingers in your office hanging around for an interview. Mrs. Glenny says they are ice skating on her last nerve. Better make it snappy, Cupid. I don’t know what would happen if she blew her fuse.”
“Gotcha. I’ll be there as fast as I can. Let me make a quick telephone call and see if Ramsey can’t keep his hounds at bay.”
Flix got dressed, talked to Ramsey, and made his way downtown as quickly as his pounding head would allow.
“My goodness! My goodness! Mr. Flix!” Mrs. Glenny began when Flix entered his office.
“Now, now,” said Flix.
He quickly cleared the office and tried to soothe his flustered secretary.
“Mrs. Glenny, I am sorry for this. My mouth got us into a bit of a journalistic feeding frenzy. Too much coffin varnish last night, I’m afraid. Anyway, my friend at the Early Edition gives me his word that his goons will leave you alone.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Mrs. Glenny. “When I saw that riffraff loitering about first thing this morning, well, I thought I might pop a garter!”
“Well, there’s no need for your blood pressure to boil. I managed to grab the latest copy of Shining Stars for you. My peace offering for all the trouble I seem to have caused.”
“Oh, Mr. Flix. You spoil me so.”
Smiling, she eagerly took the magazine from her boss and gingerly laid it on her desk.
“Somebody has to, Mrs. Glenny.”
Mrs. Glenny walked over to a cabinet and opened the door. She got a glass and poured two fingers of whiskey into it. She walked back to her employer.
“What’s this,” Flix asked as Mrs. Glenny handed him the glass.
“Just a little hair on the dog, Mr. Flix. Your eyes look a bit bloodshot. I just figured this might help dampen your headache a bit. I’ll get busy and brew you some strong, black Joe. You’ll be feeling better before you know it.”
“Mrs. Glenny, my pounding head is eternally grateful. Thank you,” Flix said, draining the glass. “Anything interesting on my desk?”
She shuffled through a mound of mail and handed Flix a yellowed envelope with the words Western Union Telegram boldly printed across the top.
“Yes, sir. There’s this. It’s for you. A couple of bills. That’s about all.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Glenny. I’ll call you if I need you,” Flix said, handing Mrs. Glenny the bills to pay.
“Well,” he muttered, tearing into the telegram envelope. “What have we here?”
I hope you enjoyed this part from book 4 of the series.