Stuart M. Kaminsky

High Midnight


Two sailors had thrown Jack Ellis into the elevator shaft on the eighth floor of the Ocean Palms Hotel. If the elevator hadn’t been on the way up from the sixth floor at the time, Jack would have been a short order of ground house detective. As it was, he wound up with a right kneecap that reminded a sentimental surgeon at Los Angeles County Hospital of the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of Niagara Falls his mother had given him for his tenth birthday.

The two sailors, whom Jack had interrupted while they were dancing on a shoe-polish salesman from Sioux Falls, Iowa, had been scolded severely and sent back to duty on the U.S.S. Wasp. Sailors were top-priority items in 1942 and broken-down house detectives two for a mercury dime.

Before delirium set in Jack called me to ask if I wanted to fill in for him at the Ocean Palms till he was back on whatever they could construct to keep him reasonably balanced when he went unpatriotically after his next battalion of servicemen having a good time. Jack had been a security guard at Warner Brothers until about a year ago. I had been a guard at the studio a few years before him. We had similar backgrounds right down to being fired personally by Jack Warner. When I separated Jack’s words from the groans, I told him that I’d be at the Ocean Palms that night. He said thanks and passed out. I heard the phone bounce away on the tile floor and a nurse shout, “Shit.”

So for three weeks I was acting house dick at the Ocean Palms on Main in downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from my own office on Hoover and Ninth. My office was in the Farraday Building, which had seen much better days, but the Ocean Palms had not. The hotel went up in 1912 without high hopes and had managed, with the help of time, earthquakes and transients of uncertain ilk, to remain on the short side of respectability. The hotel had worn away a few dozen managers, a house staff of hundreds and as many house detectives as there were slaves who built the great pyramid.

The Ocean Palms keys to success were the war, proximity to the Greyhound bus terminal and low prices without pride. Soldiers, sailors and marines on passes checked into rooms and went out into halls looking for trouble. Small-town kids who wanted to break into the movies checked in and met sailors in halls looking for trouble. Salesmen with low budgets and prostitutes on the way down but not quite out roamed and met each other. The hotel got its twenty-five bucks’ worth from me for three weeks until that cold Monday, February 16, 1942. The temperature had dropped to the thirties in Los Angeles. I heard it was 22 in San Gabriel.

It was noon when I walked into the Ocean Palms lobby, wearing one of my two suits and a topcoat that had been in and out of hock to Hy O’Brien of O’Brien’s Clothes for Him so many times that Hy and I considered it community property. There was rain in the air, which threatened my bad back, and the news was rotten. Singapore had fallen to the Japanese. Burma and Sumatra were on the way out. Eleanor Roosevelt said women should register for the draft. Japanese enemy aliens and their American-born sons and daughters had till the following Sunday to remove themselves from restricted areas, meaning if you even looked Oriental you had six days to get out of Los Angeles. The news stunk and so did I. I had been sleeping days and working nights and bathing not at all.

When I entered the lobby, two men in coats were leaning against the registration desk. I recognized one of them and knew that as bad as the news was for the United States, it was going to get worse for me personally.

“Peters,” said the shorter of the two, standing up with both hands in his pockets.

I had never known his name, but I knew his job. I had run into him in Chicago a year earlier when I was on a case. He looked a lot like Lou Costello but he worked for Frank Nitti, which didn’t make him funny at all. He had tried to kill me once and saved my life once and had ordered me permanently out of Chicago. Maybe now Nitti had decided that the United States wasn’t big enough for the two of us. The other guy in the lobby, a massive creature with a worried look, was dressed like a looming shadow of Costello. They both wore dark hats and coats. Both had their hands in their pockets. They could have gone on the stage and done a dance.

It was too late for me to run, and I was too easy to find if I did. Besides, this was my territory and I wasn’t about to give it up without finding out why.

“How’d you like to take a ride with us?” the bigger one said in a voice that would have knocked over the palms in the lobby if they had not all been stolen years earlier. The big one moved toward me.

“A ride would be very nice,” I said. “Mind if I tell….”

“We told the manager it was an emergency,” said Costello. “He was very understanding.”

“Don’t get funny,” the big guy said, bringing up the rear as we went back outside.

“I’ll try to keep a straight face,” I said.

Their car was a big black ’39 Packard with California plates. I got in the back with Costello, who pulled out his.45 and dug it into my stomach, searching for a reasonable place to drill an extra navel. The big man drove.

“Palm trees, will you look at that, right on the street? Will you look at that?” said Costello.

I looked out the window at the palm trees I had seen almost every day of my forty-five years on this planet.

“Palm trees,” I repeated.

Costello had one of those dark, weatherbeaten faces mass-produced by the grit of cities. He was tough, thick and compact.

“Marco and me been in Los Angeles four, five hours, that’s all,” Costello said, leaning toward me and nodding at the driver.

“You sure you got the right guy?” I tried.

Costello grinned. “I know you, Peters.” He pushed the gun even further into my stomach and then leaned back to admire the palms.

“You going to tell me what’s going on?” I said. “Or did you just pick me up to show you the sights and admire your taste in palm trees?”

The grin left Costello’s face. “I don’t like jokers. You remember that? Marco don’t like jokers either, and we don’t like bright boys either, do we, Marco?”

Marco’s huge shoulders shrugged.

“Look what you did,” Costello sighed. “You almost ruined our first morning in Los Angeles.”

“Sorry,” I said. “But you’re not making this an Ovaltine day for me either. Where are we going?”

“Santa Monica,” rumbled Marco from the front seat in a voice that suggested a botched ghetto tonsillectomy and gangster movies.

“You tell him nothing,” hissed Costello. “Nothing. Nothing.”

“What’s the difference?” rasped Marco. “He’ll see when we get there. He’s certainly familiar with the environment.”

Costello sat back to whisper to me and worked the gun barrel around to my kidney. “Marco’s building his vocabulary,” he sneered softly. “Reader’s Digest. Thinks it’ll make a difference.”

“How many mugs back in Chicago you know can use a word like ‘environment’?” Marco said.

“He’s got a point,” I said.

“Be quiet, bright boy,” Costello whispered.

“I don’t think I was ever a boy,” I said. “I never had time to be a boy. And I’m not going to start being one now.”

“Make you feel better to say that?” sighed Costello. “You feel brave now? Huh.”

I shrugged, and he gave three quick jabs to my kidney with the gun barrel.

He smiled, and I tried to smile back. He held a fat, dark finger to his lips and said, “Shhh.”

We drove for fifteen minutes in silence except for the traffic outside and the pinging of a light, cold rain. I cleared my throat. Costello pressed the gun into my sore kidney.

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