A short story by Jack Bludis
Featuring Ken Sligo
“Girls, girls, girls!” I shouted out to the men looking for action on Baltimore’s notorious Block. “Blondes, Brunettes, Redheads. Get ’em while they’re hot!”
It was 1947, two years since the war. The only men in uniform were cops and a few foreign sailors in port, many who wouldn’t be able to get into the clubs because of their race.
“Here they are, right here. We want to see you inside. Come on guys! Nine beautiful girls and only eight beautiful costumes!”
Monday was a slow night and I was probably the only one who thought I was funny. After a rush of work as a private eye, I had hit on a slow period, and my part-time gig as a doorman at the Wannasea Club was the only thing keeping me going.
I looked down Baltimore Street to the Gayety Burlesque, the Paradise, the Two O’Clock, the Clover and the Globe. The last two weren’t really clubs — just strip joints with old movies, no booze, and sales of items and books that were borderline legal. But nobody was doing business tonight.
“Beautiful women that you can take home to mama!” I shouted. I thought that one was funny, too.
I saw motion on my left and I turned just in time to get smashed across the cheek with a beer bottle. I went blank for a few seconds. When my knees banged the ground, the bottle was hitting me across the back of the head. Bottles don’t shatter on heads like in the movies. They just keep doing their damage until they knock you out and crack your skull or break sharp enough to slit your face.
“Where is she?” he shouted.
I put up my arm and saw Tommy Phelps at about the same time I recognized his voice. He brought the bottle down again but this time I grabbed his wrist. I came up on a foot and a knee. Then I was on both feet, pushing him against a jalopy that was parked at the curb.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” I grabbed his wrists and he dropped the bottle. I was lot bigger than he was and it was easy to hold him.
“What did you do with her?” Tommy shouted.
“What are you talking about?”
“Ginger, where is she?”
“How the hell do I know?”
“She’s working with you.”
“No,” I said.
I saw his wife getting off the streetcar on the Block a few days ago. She looked all polished and made up– but not a good kind of polish, more like a hooker or B-girl. She seemed embarrassed when she saw me, and she hurried away.
“Let me go,” Tommy said.
He was crying and making little boy faces. He married Ginger while I was in England. Then he went over as a belly gunner on a B-17. He came back to the USA before I did, but he was shell-shocked and limping. She didn’t send me the Dear John until he was back home.
“I’ll let you go if you calm down.”
“What’s going on?” said Chip Vincent. He was part-owner of the Wannasea.
“Misunderstanding,” I said.
“I called the cops.”
“He’s a friend of mine.”
“That why you’re bleeding?”
I touched my nose. It wasn’t broken, but he was right about the blood.
“He’s got my wife,” Tommy whined as he tried to squirm out of my grasp, but I had him hard against the car. “She’s working in there!”
“Who’s his wife?” Chip said.
“She must be working someplace else.”
“Where?” Tommy wanted to know.
When I finally let him go, he brought up a knee. I turned away in time. A lot of guys try that. They have no idea how slow their reflexes are when they’re drunk. I pushed him against the car again.
A cop finally arrived. “You want me to run him in?”
“I want Ginger,” Tommy said.
I held Tommy against the car for a long time before he even came close to calming down.
“Can you put him on the streetcar?” I asked the cop.
“You wanna go to jail or you want to go on the streetcar?”
“I want my wife!”
He didn’t go easy, and it took a while to reason with him, but he didn’t make enough commotion to get himself arrested either. The last thing he shouted as the cop pulled him across the street in traffic was, “Where’s Ginger?”
I tried not to look at him, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him — even if Ginger had dumped me for him.
Ginger had been blonde, trim and sweet. I’d loved her when I shipped out and I thought I loved her even after I got the Dear John. For months, I saw her in every blonde. I thought I was finally getting over her. Now it was all coming back
Tommy was safely on the streetcar when a couple of dark-skinned men in foreign naval officer’s uniforms tried to get into the club. Decisions were touch and go in that regard. Negroes weren’t allowed in any of the clubs on Baltimore. Whenever they tried to get in, I explained politely that there were other places they would be welcomed on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I’d offer to flag a cab for them.
The officer with the thickest stripes on his khaki epaulets chuckled. “I am Captain Alexandro Moro of the El Lobo Blanco out of Havana, which is now anchored in your harbor. I would like to see your manager.” He said Havana like it had a “b” in it.
These guys had light skin and mostly Caucasian features. I made a final decision, based more on their rank than on their apparent race, and I let them inside.
When I went in for my break twenty minutes later, I saw that Captain Moro had latched onto Lola, who worked the bar. The other officer was with a redhead at a table. It must have been all right, because Chip didn’t come out yelling and he didn’t say anything about it later.
I couldn’t get Ginger off my mind that night and I had trouble sleeping. When I awoke at noon, my face and skull still throbbed from where Tommy has smashed me with the beer bottle. I gulped down three aspirin and decided to find out what was going on. I walked over to where Tommy and Ginger lived with his mother on McHenry Street, just around the corner from my place.
Tommy’s mother, who was even smaller than he was, closed the door in my face.
“I want to talk to him,” I said.
I knew that she heard me, but it was a few seconds before she opened the door again and squinted at me.
“You ain’t gonna hurt him, are you?”
Like most women in the neighborhood, Mrs. Phelps wore an apron and a flower-print housedress. It was August and dark spots of sweat showed at her armpits.
“He said something about Ginger being missing,” I said.
“Do you know where she is?”
“No, ma’am, but I want to help.”
“So you can get next to Ginger?”
“Because I’m worried about Tommy.”
“Can I come in?”
She squinted at me again. Then she opened the door wide, led me through the vestibule, and gestured to a springy, overstuffed chair with crocheted arm covers. Bing Crosby was on the radio in the kitchen.
“You don’t just work on the Block. You’re a private detective too, right?”
I nodded as she sunk into the sofa, whose springs had apparently collapsed. The blinds were drawn. She was trying to keep out the light, but all that managed to do was keep in the heat.
“She got herself a job in one of them nightclubs, answered a want-ad looking for blondes.”
“What kind of ad? Which club?”
“It wasn’t strippin’, it was just sitting at the bar letting people buy her drinks. She said the place was called The Alley.”
The Alley wasn’t actually in the 400 block of East Baltimore, but on a narrow cross street between Baltimore and Water. Still, it qualified as the Block.
At the Wannasea, we usually had enough bar sitters, but we placed the same kind of ad when we were short of redheads. What Chip really wanted was women who could learn how to strip down to pasties and G-strings while they walked around on the stage doing dips and sways, and maybe took a chance at showing a little nipples or pubis now and then. I figured the Alley used the same come-on.
“She been doing it long?”
“We ain’t seen her in four days.” That wasn’t the answer.
“But how long?”
“Couple of weeks.”
It had been about a week ago when I saw her. I hadn’t seen where she went, but it could have been the Alley.
I heard Tommy banging down the stairs. “Who’s there?” he called.
“We got company.”
He came around the corner from the dining room and stopped dead. He started to back away, then he said that he was sorry about last night.
“I’m really worried about Ginger.”
“He wants to help,” his mother said.
“We ain’t got no money,” Tommy said.
“As a favor,” I said.
Tommy stared at the floor. He probably figured the same as Mrs. Phelps did at first, that I wanted to get close to Ginger again. That was part of it, I guess. A piece of me still loved her, I liked Tommy too, and I didn’t want anything to happen to her.
“What’ll you do if you find her?”
“Bring her to you.”
“If she wants to come,” his mother said.
“Ma-ah!” He sounded like a little kid.
“I’m not trying to ace you,” I said, looking straight at him. “We’ll just have to see what happens–were you two fighting?”
“Hardly at all. She took the job because we needed money. Nobody’ll hire me. Not the way I shake. The limp don’t help either.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Do you have a photo?”
“To help people identify her.”
Tommy hesitated. Then he went upstairs and came back with an eight-by-ten, color-tinted photo in a frame. I remembered our last days before I shipped out and my heart leaped a little. I still had a cracked and crinkled wallet size of the same photo but without the color. I carried it with me to England, then to France, Belgium, Germany. It was a dream of youth–me going off to die, and her staying home to remember me. As it worked out, I didn’t die and she remembered me only until she met and married Tommy.
“Got a picture that’s less important?”
“Just the wedding picture. I want to hang on to that,” Tommy said. He unlatched the back of the frame and gave me the eight by ten.
“I have an extra if he loses it,” Tommy’s mother said. Then she looked at me. “You find her, there’s twenty dollars in it for you.”
It wasn’t much, but it was better than a bottle across the face.
* * * * *
Marie, Ginger’s best friend, lived a few doors from me. I asked her if Ginger could have run away from Tommy. She said there wasn’t a chance and gave me the names of three other girls Ginger knew.
The second girl I talked to was younger. She smirked and said that Ginger probably ran off with one of her customers. Some friend, I thought. I hadn’t even asked the question.
“You know that for sure?”
“No, but you know Ginger. She ain’t gonna hang around no crazy guy.”
“Did she say that?”
“No, but the way he shakes? I seen those guys. They ain’t no fun.”
“You don’t know Ginger.” I was defending Tommy.
She shrugged. “You’re the private eye, right?”
“I’m available to help,” she said.
She fluttered her lashes at me. I didn’t like her expression or her attitude. She was supposed to be a friend, but she had about as much interest in finding Ginger as I had in tracking down Amelia Earhart.
None of the girls I talked to were of much help. None except Marie who I had spoken to first. “She loves Tommy. She would never run away from him,” she had told me.
* * * * *
I called Vyto Kastel, a city homicide detective, told him my problem, and asked if he could put me in touch with someone in Missing Persons.
“The family report her?”
“No. I asked them about that.”
“Then there’s not a lot they can do. Baltimore City Police don’t work for private eyes.”
I explained my relationship with Tommy and Ginger.
“She the one sent you the ‘Dear John?'”
“Drop it. This can’t go no place good.”
“He’s a pal.”
“Yeah, sure he is. That’s why he took your girl.”
“Come on, Vyto.”
“Let it drop,” he said, and he didn’t want to talk to me anymore.
* * * * *
I was cutting it close on time, but since the Alley was on the same narrow street where I usually parked my pre-war Ford, I stopped in before I went to the Wannasea. I thought about taking my .38, but if I did that, I might find trouble where there was none, so I left it under the front seat of the car.
The Alley was a definite step down from the clubs on Baltimore Street. It was darker and it was also dirtier, which was hard to do. I was surprised that Ginger had ever worked there. She was one of those raised-properly girls from up on Wilkens Avenue. She graduated high school and went straight to work at Westinghouse. She was out of school only a year when I dated her.
Bobo Toledo, a big guy with a flattened nose and lot of flab over his muscle, was working the door.
“Ain’t you in the wrong place?” he asked.
“Is Phil in?”
“What d’ya want him for?”
“Personal business,” I said.
Phil Kogia kept his desk on the floor with floodlights over him. It gave him a kind of majestic look, which was probably the reason he did it–or maybe there wasn’t enough room in the back of his joint for an actual office. When Bobo leaned over his desk, Phil looked up. I didn’t think he could see me in the dimness near the front door, but he waved me in.
“You need another job?” he said as I approached his desk. Just about everybody on the Block knew my story.
“I’m looking for a girl.” I slid the tinted photo of Ginger across his desk.
Phil looked at it for a few seconds. Then he held it to Bobo.
“Her name’s Ginger Phelps,” I said.
“Yeah, she used to work here,” Bobo said.
“Ain’t showed up for a couple of nights.”
I looked from Bobo to Phil. “She get her last pay?”
“Never came back for it. Why you looking for her?”
“Husband lost her.”
“Yeah, asshole. He came in last night screamin’ and hollerin’,” Bobo said. “I had to throw him out. If you ask me, she skipped on him. Broad like that don’t hang around losers.”
I nodded, but not in agreement. “When’s the last time she worked?”
“She wasn’t here for a couple of nights. Last I seen her was at the Eutaw Diner with some old guy.”
“Fifty if he was a day. Gray hair, sugar-daddy type. Pinkie ring. Wore a tie. That was the last I seen of her or him.”
Phil snickered, but Bobo talked. “Who the hell knows from love? He had money and she wanted it.”
“Ever see him before?”
“I think he was from out of town.”
“Can I talk to your girls?” I asked Phil.
“We’re got a ton of those Cubans coming in.”
Bobo interrupted. “And we’re getting’ ready to open up.”
“From the yacht in the harbor,” Phil said.
“Used to be a destroyer. Guy owns half of Havana, way I hear it,” Bobo said.
I thought of Captain Moro last night.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s fasciniating, Bobo. You finished in here, Sligo?” Phil asked.
* * * * *
It was a slow night on the door, but that night, my biggest problem was determining who was and was not allowed to enter the Wannasea, based on skin shade, facial features, and of course, rank.
Maryland, like most cities south of the Mason-Dixon Line, allowed segregation. This week, though, the presence of the crew from the Cuban yacht altered the policy some. I had to turn away two sailors who were together and not quite Negroes.
Although I did not let them in, I chatted with them for a while. I learned that the millionaire who owned the ship also owned several hotels and nightclubs in Havana and that he was not only visiting Baltimore but meeting politicians in Washington.
Before they left, I told them that they could probably get into the Alley with no problem.
“You seem like a nice fellow,” one of them said. His English was almost as good as Captain Moro’s. “But why are you so nasty about us?”
“Just doing my job,” I said.
Sorting people by race was one of the reasons the door job made me feel like crap.
* * * * *
With few people even trying to get in, I thought a lot about Ginger. I tried to relate it to how I could find her, but the past kept coming back to me. I was alternately angry with her, and sad about her and Tommy. He was a good guy, not a thing wrong with him as a person, but I guess he was lonely, too. So was Ginger, but you don’t forget a “Dear John.”
I thought about when I had seen her, only a few days ago. Our eyes met and she looked away. For an instant, I thought she was embarrassed about marrying Tommy. Then I realized she was embarrassed about being on or even near the Block. I couldn’t expect a girl to wait indefinitely. Besides, I had a few one-nighters in England even before I got the Dear John.
When we closed, I drove over to the Eutaw Diner, which had once been an A&P Store. It was a couple of blocks north of the Hippodrome and near the Lexington Market. The place was lit up like a stage, and up close, the makeup on most of the women from the clubs looked like it was painted.
Captain Moro was sitting with a blonde from the Alley. They were holding hands across the table and she looked like she was in love. Like most of the girls, she knew how to pour it on. Some of them even married their pickups.
I waited for a small booth and ordered eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. When the Mercurochromed waitress came back with the coffee, I smoothed Ginger’s photo on the tabletop. She twisted her neck and looked at it.
“Yeah, she was in here,” the waitress said and wandered off to serve someone else. When she stopped back, I asked when she saw Ginger last.
“Couple of days ago.”
“Who was she with?”
She started to say something and seemed to rethink it. Then she shook her head, said “Nobody” and walked away.
Seconds later, Bobo Toledo slid onto the bench across from me and planted his finger on Ginger’s photo.
“Still working on it, huh?”
“That’s what I get paid for.”
“You ain’t gonna find her,” Bobo said. He pushed the photo at me. “She looks blonder than that?”
“Bleached?” I asked, remembering that when I saw Ginger getting off the streetcar, her hair was still dirty blonde.
“No, but it looks brown here.”
He was right. The photographer who had done the tinting had mistaken shadows for a darker color and had brushed it wrong.
“Who was in here with her?” I asked.
“Told you: old guy with a suit and tie and a pinkie ring. Sugar-daddy type. You tryin’ to trick me?”
“Nah, just . . .” I told him the whole, sad story.
“So you’re trying to find her for yourself?” He missed my point.
“Not that either. Trying to find her for–“
Why? Because I felt sorry that Tommy’s jitters kept him from getting a job? Was I afraid for him and for what might have happened to Ginger? Or was everybody right, was I trying to find her for myself?
“Big favor for a friend,” I said.
“Leave it alone. She was trash.”
I wanted to grab him and pull him across the table, but I caught myself. As much as I hated to admit it, he might be right. It had been more than six years since I even talked to her, and Tommy had been overseas for more than a year before the Krauts hit his belly turret and Uncle Sam sent him home. Who knew what else she might have done? Or who she might have done it with?
Time changes people. I had seen a lot of that lately.
* * * * *
I lay in bed thinking about Ginger and Tommy. I also thought about the office I was hardly ever in but that didn’t stop the rent from soaking up my bank account. I didn’t like the idea that I was doing the same job that Bobo Toledo did. He was slime, Kogia was slime. Hell, maybe I was slime, too.
The 7:00 A.M. B&O whistle had just blown over at the Mt. Claire Shops when somebody banged at my door. I grabbed my bathrobe and struggled to get down the stairs. I pulled back the curtain on the front door. Mrs. Phelps was standing on the top step, with Tommy on the sidewalk.
I pulled the door open and Mrs. Phelps charged in with Tommy behind her. The sheer force of her personality and her finger shaking in my face turned me around in my own living room.
“What’s the ideas of starting rumors about Ginger?” she said. “You was telling people Ginger ran away from Tommy.”
“I did not!”
“Marie said you did,” Tommy said. “Marie was Ginger’s best friend. She said you asked if Ginger could’ve run away.”
“I asked. I didn’t say.”
“It’s the same difference,” Mrs. Phelps said.
If I was going to stay in the private-eye business, I had to learn to ask questions without implying answers.
I apologized and told them what I had done so far.
“And you ain’t found nothin’!” Mrs. Phelps said.
“You still got some of my money left?”
Mrs. Phelps hesitated for a long moment. “You keep lookin’ ’til the money runs out,” she said. She was trying to keep from crying and it was showing in her voice. I realized that it wasn’t just for Tommy, but because she liked Ginger too.
She hadn’t given me the money yet, and I was way past the $20 point, but I would keep looking.
* * * * *
I stopped off at the Pratt Street docks where the El Lobo Blanco was anchored in the harbor away from the piers, but out of the lanes of the Tolchester and Betterton day-cruise boats. It wasn’tr a destroyer, like Bobo said, but it was half-a-block long, and bigger than any yacht I had ever seen. The owner might own hotels and nightclubs, but he probably owned a lot more.
At the end of the pier, two of the darker sailors helping a pure Negro in his civvies down the ladder to a launch.
* * * * *
I was barely in the door of the Wannasea when Chip Vincent charged me, like Mrs. Phelps that morning.
“What the hell are you doing to us? You’re not supposed to bother people in other clubs, especially on my time.”
“Nothing I did was on your time.”
“And don’t go turning away people if they’re from the yacht.”
“I can turn down American Negroes in uniform, but not Cubans?”
“You turned down a couple of guys last night. This is a special week. Everybody’s letting them in.”
“No, damn it! Cubans in uniform.”
“What makes them so special?”
Even in the dimness of the early-evening lights, I saw Chips cheeks flush.
“This Cuban guy’s special. Gonna do a lot of business with us here.”
“What kind of business?”
“And Negroes? We let them in if they have Cuban uniforms?”
“Just this week.”
“And if the ship comes back?”
“Probably then too,” he said.
* * * * *
When I took my ten-minute break, I used the pay phone to call Vyto Kastel at home.
“I can’t do anything on your girlfriend,” he said.
“You already told me that. Something else’s got me bugged. What’s going on with the yacht in the harbor?”
There was a slight pause. “Guy who owns it is supposed to be richer than the Rockefellers, but with better connections than the mayor and governor combined.”
“What is he? The President of Cuba or something?”
“In every regard.”
I thought of the three Negroes I’d seen earlier. “Any chance he’s shanghaiing sailors?”
“‘Shanghaiing sailors?’ Sometimes your ideas are as wacky as Abbot and Costello. If I don’t tell anybody they might not drag you off to the booby hatch.”
“Would you do anything about it if he was?”
“I’d call the FBI . . . If that’s what he’s doing, he’d be sending kidnappers up to the colored clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue. He wouldn’t be wasting his time on the Block.”
I told him about the two sailors putting the drunken Negro into the launch.
“Probably one of their drunken buddies. Nobody Shanghais sailors anymore, except in the funny papers. This ain’t Terry and the Pirates.
I shrugged, but I wasn’t convinced. The Cuban had managed to reverse segregation on the Block for at least a week. I wondered again what made him so special.
* * * * *
Captain Moro came in a little later and sat with Lola again. She left for a few minutes while I was on break, and I sat with him.
“Ah, my friend,” he said. “I thank you for talking so nicely to my chef. We were afraid that you would make a scene.”
“I didn’t let them in.”
“I know, but you let them down so gently.”
“Were you testing me?”
“We have heard good things about you. Don Pedro Cuervo has asked me to speak to you with regard to a position he has with his clubs in Havana.”
That made no sense.
“This business with the Negroes going from place to place. It was a test, yes. At each club, they were permitted to enter. You, you stopped them even under the agreement that Don Pedro made with the owners. He could use that kind of discretion in his clubs and at, uh, some of our other resorts.”
“You have a discriminating eye, yet you are pleasant.”
The guy was starting to make me sick.
“No. Do not leave. If you like, I can make arrangements for you to meet Don Pedro when he comes back from Washington. You’re salary will be quite enticing. I guarantee it.”
“No, thanks,” I said and I looked down at him.
“Such a waste of a man’s talent.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” I said. But, no thanks. I went back to my place on the door.If they had captured American Negroes for slaves, the only thing they might use them for is work on the tobacco and sugar plantations. Cotton yesterday, tobacco and sugar today. Who knows what will happen in the next year or two if the Cuban millionaires have their way?
* * * * *
When we closed up, I went down to my car near the Alley to see if I could talk to some of the girls as they were leaving. The first person out of the club was Bobo Toledo, who seemed in a hurry. I had just slid behind the wheel of my car and I watched in the rear-view mirror. It seemed only a few seconds before he zoomed past me in a new Dodge, onto Water Street.
He was in a hurry and I wanted to know what it was about. At first, all he did was drive home to a basement apartment on West Lombard Street. It was the same block where Vyto had lived before the war. He’d once told me about the thick-walled storage rooms in the basement of the 100-year old buildings. If Bobo had a basement apartment, he might be keeping her in one of the rooms, but I wasn’t going to charge in and make any accusations.
A light went on. For the hell of it, I waited.
I was about to leave when the light went off and he came out again with a huge ring of keys. He climbed back in his car and headed farther west on Lombard and made a left on Carey. After he went under the B&O Railroad bridge, he did a couple of quick turns and he was on his way out Washington Boulevard and away from Baltimore.
It’s not easy to follow a guy who’s running red lights– never mind ambers — but I stayed with him straight out Washington Boulevard. We were heading past Elkridge when a State Trooper pulled on the road and I had to slow down. The trooper pulled off at the Waterloo Barracks and I put on the speed again, but I’d lost him. I didn’t see taillights, not even in Laurel, which was more than half-way to D.C., so I gave it up.
He could be dashing off to Washington, but Bobo wasn’t the kind of guy who would have a meeting with Don Pedro Cuervo. I smiled to myself and thought about what Vyto had said about my ideas being as wacky as Abbott and Costello’s. But I’d just gotten another idea, and it was even screwier.
* * * * *
I sat in front of Bobo’s apartment for a few minutes but decided not to go in. I had an idea that Ginger might be in there, but it was only an idea. If the basement rooms were as fortified as Vyto said they were, I’d probably have to blast my way through, and still end up with ketchup on my face. Maybe even blood.
It was almost four o’clock when I headed back to the Eutaw Diner and took the same booth as the night before. The redhead who had waited on me yesterday had a black eye and a puffy lip. I tried not to look at her, but I asked about Ginger again.
“Last time I saw her she was with some sugar daddy in a suit and tie and wearing a pinkie ring,” she snapped at me. “I think he was from out of town.”
“When did you see her last?”
“Friday. Maybe Saturday, okay? Now, what d’ya want?”
“Yeah,” she said, and she marched away.
She was not nearly as friendly as the last few times I had been there. When she brought my coffee, I asked a few more questions. All I got was the repeated line about a sugar daddy with suit and tie and a pinkie ring.
“He was an old guy, about fifty,” she finally added. It was the same description Bobo gave me. The exact same description.
I was almost finished eating when Lola came in. I expected her to be with Captain Moro, but she was bleary-eyed, staggering, and alone. She spotted me and ignored me. She looked at me again, got up, and supporting herself on backs of booths, staggered over to where I was sitting. She hovered over me.
“Wouldn’t want to buy a little lady a cup of coffee would you? Might be well worth your while,” she said, snarling out the pickup line.
“Sit down before you fall down.”
“Yeah. That’s me. Sit down before I fall down.” She sat down hard on the bench.
I popped the last chip of broken bacon, savored it, and put my fork on the plate.
“What’s so terrible, Lola?”
“Cubans. That’s what’s so terrible. El Capitan Moro of his royal asshole’s yacht asked me to marry him last night.”
“You should be flattered.”
“Yeah, right. Tonight we went up to the Lord Baltimore to celebrate our pre-honeymoon.”
She paused long enough for me to think that maybe the desk clerk had refused to let them register because of Captain Moro’s dark skin color, but she fooled me.
“El Capitan saw my scars and made faces like he was making love to a monster. A girl ought never to have appendicitis.”
I didn’t tell her about the Captain Moro and the stripper from the Alley. He liked blondes.
“Put her coffee on me,” I told the waitress.
“Some sport,” Lola said. “Buy me breakfast and I’ll take you around the world.”
Lola wasn’t bad, but she had been handled by hundreds of men in her less-than-thirty years, maybe a couple of dozen in the last month.
“I need some sleep,” I said.
“It’s ’cause of the scars, ain’t it?”
“Nah,” I said. I left five dollars, which would cover hers and mine. I left more that she could split with the waitress.
On my way home, I wondered some more about where Bobo Toledo went after I lost him.
* * * * *
It was just after five a.m. when I got home. I was wired on coffee and evil thoughts, and I had trouble getting to sleep. I dreamed about Ginger in a police lineup of nothing but blondes. I selected her as the one who had committed the crime, but I did not know what the crime was. She escaped and I went after her.
I was awake and back to sleep and awake again in the heat and sweat. I had other dreams too, but I wanted to go back to the one about finding Ginger. Most of the time, I couldn’t even get the dream started. And when I did, I couldn’t make it come out the way I wanted it to, not for her and me, not even for her and Tommy.
I remembered hearing the Mt. Claire 3:20 P.M. whistle that sent people home from work at the B&O shops and shortly after that I fell back to sleep. My last dream was about Negroes in chains being marched onto a troop transport.
I woke up, thinking about the dream and the yacht. Maybe Vyto was right. Maybe I was crazy.
While I was looking for a parking space, I saw Bobo Toledo step from driver’s side of a low-slung milk van near the Alley. I drove around the block, giving him plenty of time to get to the club. I parked my car and went back to the take a look at the van. It had Virginia license plates, with the words “Alexandria” and “Grade-A Milk” painted on the side.
I peeped through the front and rear windows. The vehicle was empty–no milk, no empty bottles, no nothing. I had a few minutes so I went into the club. Because the Alley was off the Block, they were not open during the day. They had no customers yet and Bobo wasn’t on the door.
Phil Kogia sat at his desk under the bright light sorting out some photos and showing them to a good-looking and impeccably dressed man in his late thirties. Based on what I had seen during the last few days, I figured he was Cuban, maybe Don Pedro Cuervo himself.
As I grew closer, I saw that they were sorting eight-by-ten and few candid photos of women. I was almost close enough to see the photos in more detail when Bobo grabbed me by the arm.
“Where you think you’re going?”
“Want to talk to the boss.”
“The boss is busy.”
“I just want to talk to him.”
“Out. You can talk to him tomorrow.”
I wanted to ask Bobo about the milk delivery van with the Virginia plates and no milk, but I didn’t think he’d be very receptive.
I left. When I went into the Wannasea, Chip called me into his office.
“What did I tell you about sticking your nose in other clubs’ business?”
“I’m doing a job.”
“Yeah, well, don’t bother the competition.”
“And don’t be sarcastic. The girl’s gone. Forget it. You’re not going to find her and neither is her husband.”
I just looked at him.
“Come on, Ken. You know how it is down here. A girl gets an itch and she’s gone. Sugar daddy spreads a little cheer and she’s all his.”
“Kogia told me. Do us all a favor and stop making an ass of yourself.”
“I still owe my client some time on her advance,” I said. I didn’t tell him the twenty bucks that I was promised had long been spent.
He let out a long, low, and grumbling sigh. “Go do the door,” he said.
* * * * *
It was Thursday, the beginning of the weekend for some. I barked out my wares a little louder than usual, but my heart wasn’t in it.
“Here we have ’em, blondes, brunettes and redheads, all for your very own pleasure. Take a look, gentlemen.” I gestured to the pinups of women that were behind the broad glass window in front of the club. Most of them no longer worked here. A few had never worked here.
“Never a cover, never a minimum, but mostly never, ever a cover.”
I had to turn away a couple of college kids and I let in a couple of very dark Cubans. My high-school Spanish was rusty, but during one of my breaks, I thought I overheard them talking about shipping out in the morning.
“Come on in. Blondes, brunettes and redheads!” I shouted and something clicked.
During my break, I called Vyto and asked him if he could check with missing persons this late at night. I told him what I wanted to know and why.
“I don’t have to look that up. I already checked on it.”
“How does it fit with what I just told you?”
After a long pause, he said, “You get off at two, right?”
“I’ll pick you up.”
“Meet me at my car,” I said and told him where I parked it.
* * * * *
Just before closing I got tied up, had to roust a couple of drunks who were complaining about us letting in the Cubans and I was a half-hour late getting to my car. Vyto wasn’t there and worse than that, neither was the milk van that Bobo Toledo had parked earlier. I spent an agonizing few seconds trying to determine whether to act or chicken out. But if I didn’t act, everything I had done the last couple of days was a waste and I was a coward. I decided to drive to Bobo’s place.
The milk truck was there, and the light in the basement was on. Scoot, a guy who sometimes worked the door at the Palace, was standing on the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets. It looked like he was waiting for a bus, but there was no bus stop in front of Bobo’s apartment. I drove around the block, turned off my lights, and found a parking space on the other side of the street. It gave me a good angle on the milk van.
I was checking that my .38 was fully loaded when somebody opened the door on the driver’s side. I slammed the cylinder shut, but it was too late. I thought I was a dead.
“Move over. What took you so long?” Vyto said.
After I explained, I asked if he was getting any more help from the police.
“No help from anybody, anyplace. Just you and me. I made some more calls. We should be okay, but we gotta wait until they get away from here.”
“And if we lose them?”
“Let’s hope we don’t.”
“A lot’s at stake for just hopes.”
“A lot’s at stake if we move too fast. What made you think he might be keeping your girl in there?”
“She’s not my girl,” I said, maybe too quickly and too firmly.
“What made you think of it?”
“I knew Bobo lived in the basement on this block. You told me about the fortified walls down there. He could be keeping her prisoner.”
“Yeah. Storage bins, Yeah. Good place to keep somebody. Used to be old slave pens or something.”
Scoot was as nervous as a rattler. He looked here and there on the street. He focused each time. Once, he looked right at us.
“Just stay cool,” Vyto said. He slid down in his seat and so did I.
Scoot looked someplace else. Then down toward the basement door under the steps. He called something out that sounded like, “Looks good.”
The cellar door opened and Bobo came out with a blonde. I didn’t know where I recognized her from, but she wasn’t Ginger. Her mouth was taped shut and her wrists were bound behind her. Bobo held her by the arm until he pushed her toward the back of the van. She stumbled, and somebody yanked her inside.
“Three of them,” Vyto said. I wondered how he could possibly know how many blondes there were.
He sensed my panic. “Not blondes. Bobo, Scoot and some other guy,” he said.
The second blonde he brought out was Ginger, also bound and gagged. I wanted to charge over and set her free, but Vyto grabbed my arm before I could open the door.
“Let ’em load up. Then we follow ’em.”
I had almost given us away. “They gotta be going to the boat,” I said.
“Yeah . . .” He took a breath like he was going to say something else, but he just let it hang.
Scoot went inside and hurried another blonde from the Bobo’s apartment. He pushed her into the back of the van, climbed in with her, and closed the door from the inside. The light in the basement went off. Then Bobo came out and looked both ways on the street. He stepped behind the wheel of the milk van.
“This is it,” Vyto said.
The van pulled from the curb and started downtown. We stayed a block behind them all the way.
“How did you figure all this?” Vyto asked.
“Blondes, blondes and more blondes,” I said. “It’s one of the pitches we use at Wannasea. This guy Cuervo owns hotels and nightclubs, but I thought mostly about his casinos. You read between the lines, and he’s got to have whorehouses too. If he’s going to open Havana to the post-war tourist trade the way they say he is, he would want plenty of blondes–not just native Cubans.”
“But blondes are a dime a dozen,” Vyto said.
“Not real blondes. Besides, Ginger would never leave Tommy willingly.”
“You got more faith in women than I do.”
The van crossed Light Street and moved along the piers going east. When it slowed, Vyto drove around it and went two piers farther, where the fruit boats tied up. He stopped the car and turned off the lights.
“Let’s go,” he said.
The planks of the piers and the boardwalk were thick, but the sounds of our footfalls were plonk-plonking along.
Don Pedro Cuervo’s yacht was moored about twenty yards from the end of the pier where the milk van had stopped. Voices were echoing on the wood and amplifying across the water. I could even here some talking in the banana and watermelon boats.
“Walk on the street,” I whispered. I didn’t want Bobo and the others to hear us coming.
The night was clear and the nearly-full moon was still high. We were less than thirty yards from where the van had stopped. Vyto had been right — there were three men. The third was the officer who was with Captain Moro the night Tommy Phelps cracked me with the beer bottle.
He flashed a light three times toward the huge yacht that was now crowding the shipping channel. Someone on the yacht flashed back, and the officer on the pier gave a return of two flashes.
“Move easy and be ready for anything,” Vyto said.
He was a guy with the badge, so I didn’t mind him being in charge. I was just a guy with a gun. I had little doubt that Bobo, Scoot, and the ship’s officer were armed too. With all the banana boats and watermelon boats, I always expected the smell to be fresh, but as usual, the harbor was glazed with the stink of dead fish, oil slicks, and crap from emptied bilges.
Vyto took a deep breath, as if he were preparing to charge through a wall of flames. Scoot came around the van and looked in our direction. He must be half-blind, I thought, as we walked toward him.
Vyto tilted his head and said under his breath, “Casual. Keep walking.”
I was starting to get the feeling we were walking into a trap. I heard a commotion like someone climbing into a launch from the yacht. A few seconds later, the motor-launch started up. Scoot was still watching us, but I couldn’t see his expression because the moon behind him.
“Do we run or walk?” I asked.
“Walk… and keep that gun ready.”
Vyto and I kept moving. I had some questions that I didn’t have time to ask. We were about ten yards from the van when Scoot finally said something to Bobo. Bobo looked at us and recognized me in the moonlight.
“What’re you doing here?” he said. He wasn’t even looking at Vyto. “And why the hell are you pointing a gun at us?”
“We’re trying to keep some girls from getting shanghaied,” I said.
“Didn’t Chip tell you to keep nose clean?” Bobo asked.
The naval officer tried to move out to the end of the pier.
“You! Stay put!” Vyto shouted.
“Who the hell are you?” Bobo asked.
“Baltimore City Police.”
“Didn’t you get the word?”
“Not everybody gets the word,” Vyto said.
I heard a brief “whoop,” the beginning of a siren, and a radio car came out onto the pier. Two uniformed cops got out, guns drawn.
“What’s going on here?”
“These men, they are trying to stop us from going to our boat,” the Cuban officer said.
“Finally, somebody who got the word,” Bobo said. “Take their guns.”
…… “Christ, it’s Kastel!” one of the cops said.
“Take their guns,” Bobo said.
“Yeah, it’s Kastel,” Vyto said. “Arrest these men.”
I saw the flash and heard a shot. The cops had distracted Vyto and me, and the ship’s officer fired at Vyto. One of Vyto’s legs gave way and he went down. I fired back at the officer and missed. I heard rifle fire from the yacht and had to take cover.
“You’d better arrest them, or you’re going to have a dead detective on your hands,” I said to the cops.
Bobo fired at me and missed. I fired back and caught him in the shoulder. Apparently, I convinced the cops because they trained their guns on Bobo.
The next noise was Mauser fire like I’d heard in France and Belgium. Snap-snap-snap, coming from the launch. One of the cops went down, the other went to one knee.
Scoot took aim at the other cop, but I squeezed off first. I hit Scoot and he fell back. Bobo was groping for his pistol that was glistening in the moonlight. I dashed toward him and kicked it away.
I shouted at the ship’s officer who was going over the side of the pier and into the launch.
I started toward him, but as soon as someone on the launch saw me, they fired the Mauser again. As I ducked, I heard a roar and the launch pulled away. I crawled to the edge of the pier and fired, not knowing who I was trying to hit. Finally, I was out of shells.
“Call the harbor patrol!” I yelled to the cop who was trying to help his partner.
“You call ’em.”
“Then get a medic,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, and ran back toward the radio car.
There were more snaps of the Mauser from the launch. The cop running for the car went down, but he had only stumbled.
Vyto came up now, not thinking about guns or escaping foreigners. He was staggering and stumbling toward the radio car, too. He was bleeding.
I heard a shot and something whizzed by my ear. It was not from the Mauser or a rifle. I spun quickly to snap off a shot off at Bobo, who had crawled to the pistol that I kicked away, but I was out of shells. Bobo squeezed off another quick round. He was only a few feet away, but he missed again. I didn’t give him another chance. I kicked his arm and the gun tumbled free. Then I kicked him in the side of head, and kept kicking him until he went limp.
Scoot was moaning. The ship’s officer had gotten away and only now did I think about Ginger and the other blondes. I opened the back door of the milk van. There was no light inside, but I could see that the women were lying on the floor. They must have been terrified, first by the fear of where Bobo and the others were taking them, then by the gunshots, some of which must have gone through the walls of the van.
I found Ginger and hugged her to me. Then I removed the adhesive tape that was over her mouth.
“I want Tommy,” she pleaded and she started to cry.
I went limp. “Yeah, we’ll get him.”
By the time I freed the other women, there were two more radio cars and an ambulance on the pier.
The Cuban yacht had backed across the harbor, then stopped. Its engines were roaring but something was wrong. The huge yacht had run aground on the other side of the channel.
I heard the whoop-whoop and saw the flashing red light of the Harbor Police. Another small boat with siren, probably a Coast Guard cutter, came into the harbor as well.
The engine was still roaring, but the yacht was far too big to negotiate the narrow channel without the aid of a harbor pilot. They were stuck.
* * * * *
No one died and the Cuban yacht was released after a search by the Coast Guard found six more blondes and a redhead, three of them strippers, three bar girls from the various clubs and another woman somebody had just picked up off the street. All seven insisted that they were leaving for voluntary work in Havana.
Only the three women that Bobo had stored in his slave pens were kidnapped. Actually, they had been worse than kidnapped. After some political red tape, a couple of tugboats towed the yacht to a wider channel and set it free on the Chesapeake Bay.
No charges were brought against the owners or the officers of the vessel, although both Bobo and Scoot did time based on the testimony of the three women. Bobo and Scoot denied any other accomplices, probably in exchange for expert legal help. They ended up with less than two years in jail.
The policemen who were implicated lost their jobs. One does the door in the Alley, the other at the Palace. The vice squad was supposedly keeping an eye on both places, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Some of what happened to them came out when Ginger babbled to Tommy. More came out at the trial.
Not much justice was done, but I did get over Ginger and my nostalgia for the good old days before the war.
Mrs. Phelps insisted I take her twenty dollars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Bludis is a Hunt Valley, Maryland writer who has sold over 450 short stories and thirty novels under a slew of pen names. He writes about forties Baltimore eye Ken Sligo, forties LA gumshoe Rick Page and fifties Hollywood dick Brian Kane, and has been nominated for Anthony, Shamus and Edgar Awards. This story can also be found in Jack’s 2011 collection Munchies and Other Tales of Guys, Gals & Guns.