Exclusive Excerpt: The Yellow Canary (The L.A. After Midnight Quartet) by Steve Neil Johnson

Exerpt:

December, 1956

  Chapter 1

He heard the music, wisps of sullen jazz that ached with loneliness, through the open back window as the unmarked patrol car cruised past the bar. No name above the bar door, just a flashing sign in the shape of a caged bird, the glow of neon reflecting yellow ripples in puddles on the gum-scarred sidewalk.

Jim Blake leaned back in the rear seat and told himself to relax.  All he had to do was wait for someone to ask him home.  How hard could it be?  He rested his right hand on the armrest, but his fingers couldn’t keep still.  He lit a Chesterfield and tossed the match out the window.

The Santa Anas had kicked up that evening, a restless wind scuttling leaves and litter in the gutter, an arid heat that blew through the window and left his face taut and his throat dry.

At the wheel Sergeant Hollings slowed to a stop down the block, nestling the Plymouth Savoy between two parked cars.  He glanced over his shoulder at Jim and beamed.

“You ready to get lucky?”  Hollings’s grin was wide.  His bristly dirty blond crew cut and chubby cheeks gave him a boyish look, despite being nearly forty.  But Blake had heard around the precinct house that the sergeant’s amiable manner belied a stubborn streak and an unerring sense of right and wrong.  It had kept him from involvement in the gambling, prostitution, bookmaking, and loan sharking payoff scandals that had almost brought the department down.  Hollings wasn’t one to ever back off, and that had gotten him in trouble with the brass and left a once promising career floundering in Vice.

Blake wasn’t going to let that happen to him.

Riding shotgun, Detective Ryan shifted in the front seat to look back at him.  He had a beer keg for a belly, so it wasn’t easy.  “Let’s look you over, you handsome devil.”  He raised one bushy eyebrow—thick as a mustache—and licked his lips.  “Mmmmm, they’re going to eat you up.” He was enjoying himself too much to even try to wipe the smirk off his face.

“The tie will get them,” Hollings commented, playing along and nodding approvingly.

“Yeah, they like bright colors.”

Blake felt his cheeks flush and smiled gamely; he had expected a hazing on his first night on the job, and it looked like he was going to get it.

Hollings gave him a wink.  “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

Climbing out of the back seat, Blake hesitated on the sidewalk, pulling on his sport jacket.  He was a big man, six foot two, with broad shoulders.  He had bought the jacket hurriedly this morning from a men’s store on Vermont, and it felt a little tight.  It was hard to find jackets off the rack wide enough to accommodate the span of his shoulders, and he hadn’t had time for alterations.

“Oh, a little piece of advice,” Ryan said, leaning out the window, his expression suddenly serious.

Blake bent toward the front passenger window expectantly.

“If you have to pee, hold your dick tight and your buns tighter.”

Shaking his head, Blake forced a grin, and turned down the street.  Hollings rolled down his window and stuck his head out.  “And if they ask you if you’re butch or fem, be sure to tell them you’re fem.”  He chortled loudly.

He made his way toward the bar.  The sidewalks were nearly empty tonight, but it was early.  A few figures, their voices scarcely carrying above the din of traffic, huddled at the corner, and across the way a man exited a tavern, quickly put a hat on his head obscuring his face, and strode rapidly away.

Blake remembered this strip from shore leave during the war, spanning Fifth Street from the downtown central library to the blocks east of Main, where dozens of bars had been plastered with warnings for service members, off-limits to military personnel.  The queer run.  The streets had been filled with people then, carousing from bar to bar, the all-night coffee shops packed, the parks alive with shifting shadows.

He wondered briefly if he’d made the right choice.  He’d also been offered a position in the abortion unit in the homicide division, but had turned it down.  Investigating and arresting the victims of botched back-alley abortions—mostly poor women, Negro and Mexican, who didn’t have the money to go to the legit physicians who clandestinely performed the procedure—left a sour taste in his mouth.              Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.  And in a short while, he would be out of Vice, and he could forget the whole thing.  He’d had bad memories before.  The war.  The war, and other things.  No, he’d made the better choice.

The city had changed so much in the last decade that he hardly recognized it upon his arrival last week.  The sprawl spread straight to the ocean, and gas rationing and the tops of headlights painted black to protect the city from bombing had given way to a building boom and streets snarled with traffic.  The new super highways promised to change all that, and construction was underway all over the city.

Gone were the days when servicemen squeezed two to a bed in overcrowded Ys, and the sound of snoring young men would follow him down to the communal bathroom late at night, where a constant commotion of soldiers coming and going from the ports in Long Beach and San Pedro left the showers busy all night long.

After what had happened here, it was a wonder he could come back.  But ten years was a long time, and the city had called to him, first in his nightmares after the war ended and he had returned to Wisconsin.  And then, as a gnawing ache that wouldn’t let go until he gave his notice to the Milwaukee Police Department and hopped a train to the coast.  Yes, a short stint in Vice, and then he would be on to better things.  He’d be making $464 a month, one dollar and eighty-two cents per hour after taxes, social security and his contribution to the Widow’s Fund were taken out.

And all he had to do was sit at the bar and wait for someone to ask him home.

Though sodomy was a felony that could carry a life sentence in California, none of that would even come into play this evening, he had been assured during training.  Section 647 of the Penal Code prohibited soliciting a lewd act.  A misdemeanor.  A vag-lewd rap.

A sudden gust of dry wind lashed at his face, and he closed his eyes against grit flung upward from the sidewalk.  It had always been a dirty city, that hadn’t changed.  Bits of litter squabbled in the gutter, and the front page of a tattered tabloid darted up and pressed against his ankle, then was swept away.  He had seen the scandal sheet earlier that evening: an obviously doctored photo of a city councilman and a sultry blonde B-movie actress cropped in the shape of a heart below the masthead, and the blazing headline proclaiming the two had run off to a secret love nest in Mexico.  The whole city was talking about it.

As he approached the bar, his stomach didn’t feel right, and he drew deeper on his cigarette, as if that might soothe him, exhaling a plume of smoke through his nostrils.  He tossed the spent cigarette into the street and quickly lit another.

Blake hesitated at the door, gazing up at the neon sign above, momentarily mesmerized as the yellow glow played on his face.  He couldn’t tell if the bird was supposed to be flying, or just trying to escape his cage.

Music drifted through the closed door.  Now it was rock and roll.  He recognized the song by a singer who was raising a ruckus with young girls—the one who sounded like a Negro—and had been popping up on The Ed Sullivan Show.

He took one last drag—forgetting he had just lit the cigarette—flicked it in the gutter, and stepped inside.  It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness of the bar, a lazy pall of smoke hanging in the air and softening the shadows.   The establishment was filled with well-dressed gentlemen, alone and chattering in groups; at first, it seemed like any other after-work spot, most of the men in suits and ties, a few more casual.  An ordinary layout: a pool table to the right, a brightly lit juke box opposite, and beyond the crowd of men, a liquor bar and stools at the far end.  A bit better heeled, perhaps, than the cop bars he’d frequented in Milwaukee.

But then something happened he wasn’t so used to.  He felt every eye in the bar drift his way, assessing him in a manner that was hard to define; a bold stare, then the gaze shifted away.  There had been a lot of that during the war, in commissaries, in the barracks, in the holds of aircraft carriers, in the open shower stalls at the Y.  Eyes that lingered, then drifted.

His face felt suddenly hot and the room overbearingly oppressive.  He found himself avoiding the glances of the men he passed and headed straight for the men’s room.  His training had led him to think this would be easy, but now that he was here, inside the bar, he felt something strangely like panic.  The can was in an alcove off the far end of the bar counter, next to a side door that led to the alley.

Blake was relieved to find himself alone in the bathroom.  He splashed water in his face at the sink and patted his cheeks on the revolving cloth towel from the wall dispenser.

He gazed into the small mirror.  A crack, snaking diagonally across the glass, seemed to separate his head from his body in a disturbing way.  He had never liked the way he looked—seeing too much of his father in his square jaw and wide-set eyes that seemed too dark to be blue—but others seemed to differ, and he had noticed people’s admiring glances since the days he played football in high school.  His hair was black and wavy—sometimes to the point of unruly—and an unrepentant curl often looped down on his forehead that no amount of Brylcreem could keep in place.

He was a lot older now than when he’d last been in L.A., nearly thirty.  He’d been a kid back then—with fake papers to get him into the Navy—but tall and broad and scrappy enough to convince his commanders he belonged there.

Jack Spencer had been young, too, just a few years older.  His terrible death still haunted him for so many reasons.  His death, and the long, hot train ride to Barstow, where Blake told lies to Jack’s parents, maybe the best thing he had ever done.  They had been kind people with hurt in their eyes, and he’d wondered at how different Jack’s childhood must have been from his, in this small desert town surrounded by brothers and sisters.

His own mother was barely a memory, the Ivory soap she smelled of long after she bathed him, the flowered cotton apron she wore in the kitchen when baking him brownies.  And after she was gone, only his father, always with a bottle; he’d seen him only once upon his return from the war.

When he went back into the barroom, nobody seemed to notice him.  He found an empty stool at the far end of the bar near the restroom and sat down.  He glanced around casually as he waited for the bartender, who stood at the other end of the counter mixing a drink, to fill his order.

Idly he wondered why his training officers had chosen this particular bar.  There were so many along this strip, like the Crown Jewel, with its neon crown above the front door and a strict coat and tie dress code.  Maxwell’s, near Pershing Square, with its unsavory crowd of self-pitying drunks, shrieking queens and young studs looking for an extra dollar and a place to sleep for the night.  And further west, the bars on La Brea, lots of them, and the Pink Poodle on Pico and the Red Raven on Melrose.  He’d heard about them all in training.  His eyes came to rest on a cage hung above the bar, fluttering with yellow canaries.

“I think it’s sad, keeping them like that, stuck in a smoky room.  They ought to be out, making things more beautiful in the world.”

Blake turned to the speaker, who was sitting on the next stool, noticing him for the first time.  He was slight, somewhere in his thirties, nattily dressed in a crisp business suit, his hat lying beside his drink on the bar.

“My name’s Jim.”  Blake offered a firm handshake.  The man’s eyes brightened and he looked heartbreakingly glad someone was talking to him.

“I’m Charlie.”

“Good to meet you, Charlie.  Come here often?”

“Not so much.  I’m not really a bar person, you see.  I work downtown, with the Department of Transportation.  Accounting.  How about you?”

“I’m new in town,” Blake drawled.  He remembered what he’d been taught.  Be friendly.  Engage them in conversation.  Gain their confidence.  Act like they’re the most interesting person in the world.  Wait for the pass.  Or any attempt at physical contact.  “Still looking for work… and a place to stay.”

Maybe he had gone too far too fast, because the man swallowed nervously, an expression of longing on his face, as if he wanted to ask Blake home but didn’t dare hope, and looked away shyly.

Suddenly he felt sorry for the guy, and wondered if there was someone else, anyone else, he could snare.  His eyes began to wander around the room, pausing on a figure who looked like none of the others, standing aloof, leaning in a dim corner by the juke box, the neck of a beer bottle gripped in one hand, his thumbs planted in the pockets of his Levi’s.  He had on a skin-tight black T-shirt that showed off his narrow waist and muscular chest.  His biceps were large and in the dimness Blake spotted a tattoo, something winged, like so many men got in the war.  The man was pointedly ignoring everyone in the bar; when his eyes rose and he surveyed his surroundings, it was as though he saw through them.  Trade, Blake thought.

A queeny young man who appeared underage kept passing by the man, looking him up and down in undisguised admiration.  The boy’s shirttails were tied in a knot at his abdomen like a calypso dancer, and his pastel lavender Capri pants could get him arrested on the street.

The man in the black T-shirt continued his pose of utter indifference, but that didn’t seem to deter the kid.  Through the fog of smoke and milling bar customers, the boy seemed to sense he was being watched and caught Blake looking his way.  He tilted his blond head, his eyes narrowing, his mouth forming a frown.

Blake turned away.  He didn’t want to arrest a kid.  Finally the bartender approached, the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up, and asked for his order.

“Draft beer would be fine.”

“You got it.”

The bartender nodded, looking him over in something akin to recognition, and went down the bar.  Just then, the kid in the calypso shirt leaned over the bar and spoke to the bartender in a hissing tone, glancing over at Blake.  There was a knowing smirk on the young man’s face, and Blake couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard the words, “Hollywood Reject.”

The bartender didn’t seem to need a moment to think about what he’d been told; he went directly to a high shelf behind the bar, rather ceremoniously picked up a glass, and filled it from a tap and set it on the counter before Blake.             Blake couldn’t be sure, but he thought a murmur arose from the crowd behind him.  To Charlie, the bartender said, rather pointedly, “Can I refresh your drink?” He gazed down at the slight man and subtly—so subtly Blake wouldn’t have noticed if he wasn’t alert—shook his head at him, warning.

Charlie swallowed and blinked, and looked over at Blake, his eyes suddenly filled with anxiety.

“Oh,” he said, in almost a whisper.

Blake peered down at the dry glass in front of him and realized he had been made.  Glancing down the bar, he saw all the other glasses were dewy with condensation, taken from a refrigerated box under the bar.

The music on the juke box had stopped and the room was strangely quiet.  He looked around and was struck by the realization that everyone in the bar was watching him.  Not directly, but out of the corners of their eyes.  Waiting.  He had seen that look before, like cattle in a slaughterhouse.  Several men broke from their friends and headed for the front door, putting their hats on before they got outside.

Charlie swiveled toward him, as if to get off his stool, panic written on his face.  He lost his balance and his knee touched Blake’s and his right palm landed briefly on Blake’s shoulder.

It was enough.

Blake slid his badge and identification onto the bar beside his glass.  “You’re under arrest,” he announced.  “I want you to get up quietly and follow me.  Do you understand?”

Charlie nodded, but he couldn’t seem to stand on his own, and Blake had to grip his arm with both hands to keep him from collapsing.

The bar patrons stared at them, openly now, and there was something in their gaze Blake hadn’t seen before, and it wasn’t the look of cattle.  Suddenly he felt unsafe.  The front door appeared way too far to him and the path too crowded, so Blake pulled Charlie past the restroom and to the side door.

The door slammed shut behind them, and when nobody followed, the sense of alarm Blake had felt just moments before quickly dissipated.  A stale wind blew down the dark cobblestone alley lined with dumpsters overflowing with garbage.  It brought a fetid smell to his nostrils and he could feel slick grease on the stones under his feet.  One direction led to utter darkness, the other, the lights and traffic of Fifth Street a dozen or so yards away.  A scattering of stars rose overhead.

Charlie collapsed to his knees, clinging to Blake’s legs.  “Please,” he begged.  “Please don’t do this.”  He looked up pleadingly.

“It’s just a vag-lewd charge,” Blake said gruffly.  “You pay the fine and you forget it.”

“I’ll lose my job,” he whimpered.  “I’ll lose everything.”

Blake looked toward Fifth helplessly and wished he could just get out of this stinking alley.

The grip of Charlie’s hands tightened on his slacks.  “I’ll have to register for the rest of my life.  I won’t be able to get another job.”

“Not if you plead.” He wasn’t actually sure of that, but he felt a strange need to reassure this slight little man who had looked at him with such longing minutes before.

“Please,” Charlie whispered.  He looked up at Blake and light from Fifth Street glinted on his darkened face, catching the tears welling in his eyes.

Blake was getting annoyed now.  His training officers would be wondering what was taking him so long, and that sick feeling in his stomach had come back.  “Look,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s just the way things are.”

Then Charlie’s entire body began to shake.  Blake had seen grown men cry before, in the war, in battle, but not like this.  His whole body seemed to convulse as he clung to Blake’s legs, and a deep sound came from his throat, an eerie wail that floated in the darkness all around them.

“Aw, c’mon.  Get up.”

Charlie shook his head, silent now, cowering at his feet.

“You knew what you were doing, coming here.”

“I’ll never come back here again.  I promise.”

Blake sighed.  His mouth was dry and more than anything he needed a cigarette.  Reaching into his jacket pocket, he found his Chesterfield pack and lit up.  He tossed the match on the ground.

He looked to the far end of the alley, lost in darkness, a darkness pure and deep.  He could let him go, he thought.  Just let him walk into the night.  No one would know.  Tell Sergeant Hollings and Detective Ryan there had been no nibbles tonight.  Try as he might, he couldn’t get any of the fruits to make a pass.  He wasn’t cut out for it.  He must not have whatever they were looking for.  Then he could just up and quit this job and forget the whole thing, forget the assessing eyes that lingered, the smoke hanging low, the hot oppressiveness of the bar, forget that ache that had brought him back here in the first place.  Just hop the next train to Wisconsin and crawl on his knees to get his old job back.

He sighed again, exhaling a plume of smoke.

Charlie looked up at him hopefully.  His voice croaked.  “Please?”

Then Blake heard something in the opposite direction, perhaps the backfire of an engine, and he turned his head and saw the unmarked Plymouth crawling down Fifth.  It stopped there, at the entrance to the alley, and through the windshield he could see Hollings and Ryan gazing at them and knew his decision had already been made for him.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Paul Winters loved their nights out with the girls.

He grinned and winked at David across the table in the Roman Room of the Biltmore Hotel.  David took a sip of wine and grinned back at him.  Earlier that evening they had picked up Jeannie and Pat, Jeannie sitting across from him in the front seat of his Ford, Pat with David in the back, just like a real double date.  They had joined a dozen of their crowd at a long table under wrought iron chandeliers in the Pompeii-inspired sunken dining room and to all intents and purposes they appeared to be a group of married couples sitting side-by-side enjoying a night on the town.

After a toast to Paul for winning another high-profile case and sending a Sunset Strip gangster to life in prison for the killing of a mobster rival, the conversation turned to the other headline everybody was talking about.  City Councilman Bullock had run off with a starlet named Victoria Lynn and they were reportedly holed up in a love nest in Tijuana.

Paul had seen her in supporting roles in several films—she made at least three a year—and remembered her as a rather stiff blonde beauty.  Jeannie, who worked as a make-up artist at Universal and knew all the Hollywood gossip, was holding court.

“It’s all a big lie,” she announced breathlessly.  She had a shiny turned-up little nose, bouncy auburn hair, and a petite frame.  Paul had brought her as his date for last year’s Christmas party at the D.A.’s Office, and they’d had a big laugh together when everybody said what a great couple they were.  “None of it even happened.  It couldn’t have happened.”

Parker Huston, two seats down, leaned his chubby torso forward in his seat, his cheeks red from a bit too much to drink, and picked up a steak knife as if readying himself for battle.  He rarely suffered being wrong about anything regarding movies or the film industry’s social scene.  The fact that he worked as a librarian and had no connections whatsoever in Hollywood or to movie stars was beside the point.  “Now, dear, how is that possible?  It was in Confidential, and everybody knows that particular publication has spies everywhere and pays for information.”

Pat suddenly came to attention.  Nobody—especially Parker—was going to question her girlfriend’s credentials on anything Hollywood.  Or maybe she was just wrangling for a fight because her high heels fit too tightly.  She had looked so miserable in full make-up, a frilly dress and a stole that evening, instead of the jeans and checkered shirt she usually wore for her landscaping business, that Paul felt sorry for her.  Even her short hair, usually straight and the color of straw, had a limp wave in it.  Everybody had been instructed to make a big fuss about how good she looked, but Paul just saw a boy forced into drag.

David had known Jeannie for quite a while through his political activities and a homophile magazine the two volunteered at, but the girls had become close to them only after a frantic call in the night from Jeannie that Pat had been arrested for masquerading.  Paul had quietly advised her attorney that the late nineteenth-century law against wearing the apparel of the opposite sex had been ruled unconstitutional in 1950—despite the fact that vice officers continued to use the statute to arrest men and women whose clothing violated gender norms.  Pat had been released the next day.

“Go ahead,” Pat urged, eyes shining, “Tell them.  Tell them about Victoria Lynn.”

Jeannie glanced around at the surrounding tables to make sure no one was listening, then bent low in a conspiratorial whisper.  “She’s a Lizabeth Scott, if you know what I mean.”

That caused a buzz around the table, and Paul crooked his head at David quizzically.

In response, David grinned and cupped his hand to the side of his cheek and mouthed the word dyke.

Then Paul remembered.  A nasty exposé in Confidential the year before had sent Scott’s career into freefall.  According to the tabloid, her name and number had been found in the top secret address book of a madam who provided a stable of gorgeous blondes to male—and female—stars.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Parker put in, clearly trying to wrestle back control of the conversation.  “The most glamorous stars are.  Dietrich, Hepburn, Garbo…”

“You think everybody in Hollywood is,” David said.

“I think everybody is, because…” Parker replied, refilling his glass, “everybody is.”

“Victoria Lynn is a goddess” Pat announced.  “I love that woman!  And she’s one of us.”

“Don’t get her started on Victoria Lynn or we’ll be here all night,” Jeannie warned.  Her lower lip pouted.  “I’m totally jealous.”  But Paul noticed the two women were playing footsy all the while under the table.

The maitre d’ brought a note to David, who read it silently, frowned, glanced up at Paul, squinted his eyes meaningfully, then rose and excused himself.  Paul watched as David made his way across the restaurant, past the standing filigreed candelabra, and into the main lobby.  He wondered what he was going to do about David.  He was so adorable, and they had such a great time together, but he was way too young for the deputy district attorney.  Just out of college, and the seven year age difference was a huge gap in maturity and sensibility.  Despite David’s rather conservative Jewish upbringing, he could be impulsive—and indiscreet—and that was dangerous in a lot of ways.  And the political stuff… just this evening on their way to pick up the girls he’d carped about how wrong it was that they had to pretend to be Normals—as David called them—in order to be welcomed in a group in restaurants and nightclubs.

“But you love going out with Jeannie and Pat!” Paul had pointed out.

“That’s not the point!” David had groaned.

Paul took a Marlboro pack from his pocket, lit up, and laid the red-and-white box beside his wine glass.

Pat began to sing melodiously, “You get a lot to like, filter, flavor, flip-top box!” mimicking the commercials on TV.

Parker added his two cents worth, only after making sure the waiter was beyond hearing range. “Oh, my, my.  You do know, Mr. Marlboro Man, Mr. Paragon of Masculinity, Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome, Mr. Future District Attorney, back in the twenties that particular cigarette was originally marketed to women… and nelly queens.  The slogan back then was ‘Mild as May!’”

“It’s poison,” Jeannie said disgustedly.  “Did you read that article in Reader’s Digest?”

“That’s what the filter’s for,” Paul countered, grinning good-naturedly, and tapping an ash into a glass tray at the center of the table.  “It’s to keep all that muck from going into your lungs.”

Parker’s eyebrows rose theatrically.  “You do realize that filter used to have a red band printed around it… to hide lipstick stains?”

“Only you would remember that,” Paul said.  “From experience, no doubt.”

“I know what I know, and once a cigarette for nelly queens, always a cigarette for nelly queens, no matter the packaging.”

Paul noticed David had returned to the dining room, but was hesitating by the door, signaling to him, and he knew by the expression on his face that something was wrong.  Here we go again, he thought.

He put his cigarette pack back in his jacket pocket, and said, “Excuse me.”

“If you’re planning a jaunt across the street to Pershing Square, count me in!” Parker quipped, taking a sip of wine.

Paul crossed the room quickly and found David in a state of agitation.  He’d seen him like this before, and knew what was to come.  He couldn’t help but be a little annoyed.

“I got a message from Billy,” David began excitedly.  “I think it sat at the front desk for about an hour because they weren’t sure where I was seated.  A fellow was arrested at a bar downtown tonight and taken to Lincoln Heights.  I just called the jail…”

Paul glanced at his watch wearily.  It was getting late and it had been a long exhausting day.  All he really wanted to do was go home and climb into bed with David.  He felt that spike of resentment he got every time his boyfriend pressured him to get involved in these situations.  He couldn’t help everybody.  It didn’t look good at the D.A.’s Office: so far nobody had asked any questions, but he never knew when his interference might get noticed and come back to haunt him.  And, anyway, he had only so much influence in cases like this.  “What does he want?  Legal advice?”

“No,” David said.  “He’s dead.”

Purchase the series’ first three novels here: 

https://www.amazon.com/L-AFTER-MIDNIGHT-QUARTET-Book/dp/B01MYT5SK7/ref=sr_1_1_ha?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1492272679&sr=1-1&keywords=the+yellow+canary

 

 

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