Los Angeles, 1951
It was uncommonly hot that August, even for Los Angeles in late summer,
and there not being any clients beating at my door or telephoning me in
a panic I decided to knock off from the office and have an early
drink and dinner. I drove south and east, the ’34 Plymouth tucked amidst
the late afternoon Friday traffic, both windows rolled down and my suit
jacket off and folded on the passenger seat. I was still sweating, of
course. But there wasn’t really anything I could do about that. The sun
in L.A. can wear you out before lunch sometimes, and unfortunately my
office didn’t have the benefit of the new air cooling systems. Maybe
someday, I thought to myself, if I got a really rich client and got a
nice fat bonus, maybe then I could get one of the air systems and keep
myself nice and cool for a change.
But it didn’t look like that was going to happen today.
“Yeah, maybe that’ll happen sometime” I said aloud to myself and to no
one in particular. “Some rich guy will get framed for murder, and you’ll
get him out of it somehow, and he’ll be so damn happy he’ll give you up
to half his kingdom. Yeah, that’ll happen any day now. Maybe tomorrow,
I looked out my window and caught the guy in the car to the left looking
at me. He had caught me talking to myself.
“Kinda hot, isn’t it?” I yelled at him over the traffic. He turned away
and pulled his sedan up a few inches, as if to distance himself from the
apparently crazy guy in the car next to him.
“Everybody does it, guy” I said to the rear of his head. I fumbled
around with one hand and lit a cigarette as the traffic slowed once
again towards a stoplight.
I began to think about Chinese dumplings. As far as I was concerned
there was only one place in the city to get a really good order of
dumplings, that being the Alley Cat Lounge. The Alley Cat was my usual
stopover for a few drinks in the evening. It was a good place for a
little frivolous conversation about baseball or recent events and the
great food was a kind of secret among locals. It was also two blocks
from my house, which meant that I could leave the car parked if I
indulged in a bit too much of that frivolous conversion, which I
sometimes did. And best of all, it was refrigerated. If nothing else it
was great to take a couple hours break from the heat.
The Alley Cat only had six customers sitting around when I walked in.
Jack Blumenthal, the bartender, was filling in time washing glasses.
Nevertheless he had my usual rye and ginger ale ready by the time I took
a seat at the bar.
“How’s everything, Jack?” I said, taking a drink.
“Everything’s just fine, Pat” he smiled. “Been busy this week?”
“Not since Tuesday” I replied. “I’m hoping something will develop soon.
Purely for monetary reasons, of course.”
“Money’s always good” Jack said, touching up my drink a bit with the
bottle. “But of course, it’s not everything.”
“So why are people always wanting more of it, then, Jack. Tell me that.”
“Don’t know, Pat, don’t know. Maybe they can’t think of anything else to
do with their time.”
“But time is money, they say.”
“And money is the root of all evil, they say.”
“So that would mean, what? That time is the root of all evil? That
doesn’t sound quite right. Remind me to take a logic class, Jack. As
soon as I make a lot of money and have a lot of time to kill, that is.”
I smoked and drank. Jack poured me another without asking. Partly out
of professional habit and partly out of curiosity I checked out the
other customers in the bar. There was a middle age man and a young
blonde in one booth, looking happy as clams. The man was wearing a
well-made but conservative three piece grey suit, the blonde a white short
sleeved dress that highlighted her pale neck and chest. The man had his
arms confidently draped on the back of the booth, one of them casually
but rather possessively placed around the blonde’s back. They were
laughing about something or other, and she reached over and touched his
chest. Hollywood types was my guess, maybe a producer with one of the
many actresses the studios kept on payroll.
There were a couple of men sitting at one of the small tables
talking quietly and intently. They were wearing newer cut business
suits, but it was the shoes that gave it away. Hand made jobs, obviously
very expensive. Business types, for sure. I think I caught one of them
mention something about oil futures.
The other two patrons were a couple of women in their early thirties,
very professional acting, inexpensively but crisply dressed. My guess
was that they were nurses. I had known a few during the war. I was half
tempted to go up and ask them, but decided against it. They seemed quite
content talking to each other, so I thought, hey, why ruin it for them.
I conducted all this research looking solely in the long mirror behind
the bar, what I called the what’s-their-story game. A professional might
have caught me looking, or on the other hand they might not have. I was
pretty good at my trade, for some reason that I could never really
figure out. I gave myself a score of 80 for the research, since I wasn’t
quite sure about the nurses.
By that time I had finished off three drinks and was getting really
“You mind if I go say hello to Will, Jack?”
Jack nodded in the direction of the kitchen door. I lit myself a
cigarette and walked back into the kitchen. Will was busy with a frying
pan, cooking something up.
“Wow, that smells great” I said.
“No smoking in the kitchen, Army” he yelled at me over the fan noises.
“Don’t worry, I won’t drop ashes on your spotless floor, Will.”
I had known William Chen since before the war. He had just moved down
from San Francisco at that time and was trying to make it on his own as
a cook after a long stint with his relatives up north. During the war
most people in the Alley Cat took to calling him Tojo. It was an
unfortunate moniker that stuck down through the years even though he was
Chinese and not Japanese and even though he was as American as I was. Me
and Jack simply called him Will.
“Got some good-luck happy dumplings for me, Will?”
“Sure, Pat, I’ve got some bad-luck sad-sack dumplings for you. Be
about ten minutes. Now get the hell out of my kitchen.”
I requisitioned a bottle of beer from Jack and waited for the dumplings.
It was about six o’clock by then, and more people began to show up. I
was glad that I had arrived early. Will didn’t like to make dumplings
when it got really busy, something about the “complexities involved”,
whatever that meant.
Vikki, the waitress, arrived to help Jack take care of the weekend
crowd. She was a cool-looking blonde of the English variety, the kind of
girl you imagined you could kiss for about two straight hours. Vikki had
lost her husband at Guadalcanal and had two kids to support. We had dated
briefly in the past. Somehow things didn’t work out and it was probably
my fault. But we were still on good terms, and she always had a bright
smile ready when she saw me. She came up to me to say hello.
“You’re in early, Pat. How have you been?” she said, pressing up
against the side of my leg a bit.
“Hey, beautiful. I’ve been pretty good. What’s been going on?”
“Oh, the usual. Nothing, really. Have to make some money. Talk to you
later.” She gave my arm a squeeze and walked off to take care of some
Will brought the dumplings out. Six fat ones on an oval china plate,
with a smaller plate to eat them on and silverware, and a big red cloth
napkin. He placed a small bowl of some rather serious looking red sauce
off to the side.
“Sauce is extra hot tonight” Will told me. He had a devilish smile as
he said it.
“Uh, great. Thanks a bunch, Will.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or not about the sauce being
‘extra’ hot, considering that it was usually about the temperature of
molten lava streaming out of a Hawaiian volcano. But the sauce was part
of the dumpling experience, you might say. You could pass on it, just
like maybe you could pass on a really hot girl with a terrible
personality, or a high-paying but rather sleazy case, but in the end you
knew you were going to be just stupid enough to take the bad with the
good. I dipped a forkful of the first dumpling into the hot sauce.
“Holy…friggin…shit!” I mumbled as the hot sauce hit first my
mouth, then my throat, then my sinuses. Every time I had the hot sauce
it seemed hotter than before, but of course that was merely an illusion
because you tend to forget just how hot the stuff was the last time you
had it. But Will had been serious about the stuff, it really was ‘extra’
hot this time. The area around my eyes began to sweat. Jack set a nice
full glass of ice water in front of me and smiled, knowing full well
that water would only spread the molten lava further, possibly to other
areas of the mountain not yet affected. It was kind of an old joke
between the two of us.
“Yeah, right. Thanks Jack. Remind me to give you a tip sometime,
I decided to eat the rest of the dumpling without the sauce. It was
perfect, as usual, with just the right amount of chewiness and a great
taste to the meaty stuff inside. I had once asked Will what he filled
the dumpling with, but he only gave me a lot of bull.
“Mostly dog, some cat. But not too much cat. That ruins the flavor” he
explained in mock seriousness.
The Alley Cat began to fill up with the usual evening regulars,
mostly a few business types and secretaries, with the occasional city
politician thrown into the mix just to make sure the place didn’t get
too popular. I put another dumpling on the plate, once again dipping it
in the hot sauce. And once again, I regretted it.
Finished with the dumplings, I got another beer.
“Got a newspaper lying around somewhere, Jack?”
Jack raised his eyebrows a bit, went down to the end of the bar and
brought back the daily paper.
“Yeah, I know, it depresses me. But I have to keep up somehow. Part of
the job. And I have to say it’s better going through it at night than
ruining my day with it in the morning.”
I glanced at the local goings-on in L.A., and skimmed through an
article about the recent thing in Korea. Then I started turning the
pages over to get to the sports page.
“They say the communists want to take over the world, Jack.”
“Yeah, that’s what they say, Pat” he said, pouring a few drinks for some
“Hey, look” I said. “The Giants won again. Well I’ll be damned.”
When I left the Alley Cat it was about seven thirty, and the sun was
sinking but still holding on for a bit. It was that strange in-between
time called dusk, somewhat day and somewhat night; or maybe it was
neither really, I never could figure out a way to put it to myself. I
decided to take a short drive down the boulevard and back before going
to the apartment. The neon signs were on in the various joints along the
way and they looked brighter with each second that the sun fell. People
were driving, walking the sidewalk, talking. Some were just standing
around, as if trying to decide what to do on a hot, Friday, L.A.
evening. I turned around and headed back to my apartment.
As I unlocked my door I noticed an envelope had been slid under it. I
grabbed it and turned on a couple of lights, then opened the windows and
stripped down to my boxers and turned on the radio. It seemed even hotter
in my apartment than it did outside. I went into the kitchen and poured
myself a luke-warm glass of water out of the tap. I sipped a bit of it,
then took the envelope over to the bed and opened the note. It was from Mrs.
Rodriguez, my apartment manager.
DEAR MR. MAGINESS, it read. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU WERE NOT TOO BUSY
IF I COULD HAVE A FAVOR AND YOU COULD HELP MY COUSIN WITH A PROBLEM HE
HAS, HE HAS NO MONEY AND DOES NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE PROBLEM.
COME TO ME AND I WILL GIVE YOU WHERE HE HAS HIS BARBER SHOP. THANK YOU
Obviously not the big case I had been hoping for.
But Mrs. Rodriguez was a very impressive woman, and she had sometimes
let me slide a few days on the rent if I was waiting on an expense
check. She always told me that she felt much safer having me in the
building. “Please put money in envelope under the door when it comes”
she would tell me. Then she would usually close the door on me, and a
few days later I would stick the envelope under her door, as promised,
and that would take care of that. At least until the next time.
In any case, I didn’t have any clients right then anyway.
“What the hell, might as well” I said to myself.
I collapsed back onto the messed-up sheets, listening to some tinkly
little piano number on the radio running in the back of my head like
a musical pillow.
It wasn’t exactly my habit to fall asleep that early on a Friday night,
or any other night for that matter, so I found myself waking up a lot
earlier than normal the next morning. And since everything was kind of
out of kilter anyway I decided to go get some breakfast, which I
normally didn’t do. Unless you would call coffee and cigarettes
I shaved and showered and put on my light blue suit and a fresh white
shirt. It seemed like a good day for blue all around for some reason, so
I matched it with a dark blue-and-black striped tie. I had left my gun
at the office the night before, and it felt good not to have the thing
piled under my arm. I put on my hat and looked briefly in the mirror.
“Hmm. Ready for the day, Maginess, you worthless devil?”
I walked a few blocks over to the little diner that had been serving
up breakfasts since about ancient Greek times and ordered scrambled
eggs, bacon, toast, and a pot of coffee. I lit a cigarette and gave the
place the once-over. It seemed to have changed not one iota from the
last time I had been there, which must have been going on two years. I
had a client that I had to meet very early and the breakfast place, the
name of which seemed to be a mystery due to the lack of any posted sign,
had seemed like a good place to do it.
The eggs arrived before I had even finished my cigarette and I wolfed
the food down. There are two types of guys that will finish off a plate
of food almost as soon as it is set down in front of them. One is
ex-military guys like me who had to chow-down in a hurry. The other are
guys who have been in prison. I had been trying over the past few years
to take my time and enjoy my meals in a more leisurely fashion. But on
that morning I reverted to type before I even thought about it. It had
been quite a good number of hours since I had eaten the dumplings. Maybe
that had something to do with it.
I decided to stop at the news stand on my way back to the apartment.
Though I had got my fill of recent events the night before reading the
paper, I decided to pick up a dime novel or something. There was a new
issue of STRANGE STORIES out. The STRANGE STORIES serial had stories
about all sorts of weird stuff, from werewolves to ghosts at lonely
lighthouses. The stories were almost never more than ten pages long,
perfect reading for the office when I was waiting for a call or
otherwise had some time to fill.
“I’ll take this one, Eddie” I said to the vendor.
“That’ll be twenty-five cents, Mr. Maginess. Ya’ want that in a sack
“No, that’s all right, I’ll just put it in my pocket.”
I stuck the novel in my jacket pocket. It fit almost perfectly. I
wondered if there was some smart guy at the publishing company that did
that on purpose, so guys like me would have the convenience of it. That
was one of the nice things about the dime novel, that you could just
slide it into your pocket when you had something else you had to do.
Mrs. Rodriguez had managed my apartment for a good number of years,
dating to before my own stay there. I really had no idea how long she
had been manager or how it had come about, or what her connection was,
if any, with the mysterious owner who I had never seen. For all I knew
Mrs. Rodriguez owned the building herself, though I didn’t think that
likely. It was certainly possible that she had inherited it from a
deceased husband, or perhaps it was owned by a relative. In any case she
never seemed to spend much money around and she didn’t own a car.
She was happy to see me. “Ah, Mr. Maginess, please come in, you would
like some coffee, yes? Please, sit.”
I had never been inside Mrs. Rodriguez’ apartment before. Practically
every square foot of the place was filled with chairs, couches, tables,
and shelving, and practically every square inch of every horizontal
surface held assorted knick-knacks of one variety or another. I had to
walk a plank-like width of carpet to get to the chair she offered me in
front of a coffee table, which was entirely covered with magazines. As I
sat down and tried to get comfortable I counted six crucifixes and three
pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the walls, and that was just in
the living room. Something told me I would find of few more on the walls
of the bedroom, kitchen, maybe even the bathroom if I cared to look.
Mrs. Rodriguez handed me a cup of coffee in a tiny white cup. It had
a strong and slightly oily taste that reminded me of my time in Europe.
She launched right into the matter.
“Well, my cousin Tony, you know he owns a barber shop, and a man comes
in, a rich man, and Tony gives him a haircut and the man leaves a
package, and now Tony doesn’t know what to do with the package and the
man has not come back.”
I had to admire Mrs. Rodriguez’ brevity. If I could summarize my cases
like that it would save me a lot of paper.
“Okay” I said. “I’ll be glad to talk with him. Just give me his address
and I’ll go see him. I can’t promise anything, but if I can help him I’d
be happy to help you out in the matter.”
“Ah, Mr. Maginess, thank you so much” she said, already writing on a
small piece of paper. “Here is his address. He will be glad to see you
as he is very worried.”
“Is his shop open today? I thought maybe I could stop by to see him
today. Maybe we can get the matter resolved quickly.”
“Yes, he is open on Saturday at noon. Noon to five. Or six. Thank you so
very much. Would you maybe like some more coffee?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Rodriguez. I think I’ll just stop by my office and
then I will see your cousin as soon as his shop opens.”
“Ah, thank you, thank you” she said, as she led me by the elbow to the
door. “Have a good afternoon, and thank you very much.”
She closed the door behind me.
Maybe she did own the building, I thought, as I headed down the hallway.
With a no-nonsense demeanor like that, hell, she could be a chairman of
the board someplace.
My office back then was located on the third floor of the Paulsen
Building on Wilshire Boulevard. Not being able to afford a secretary
when I first started out, or anytime soon after for that matter, I had
settled on a large one-room office with two large windows facing the
street. I figured it would be a good idea to be able to check on comings
and goings on the street, and as it turned out that had been a pretty
good idea and had helped me a bit on several cases I had worked on.
Sometimes it’s good to keep a look-out for who is coming up to see you,
and most of the parking and the main entrance to the Paulsen Building
was located on Wilshire.
A fogged glass window was set into the door frame to the office. I had
the glass stenciled with my name, keeping it simple, Pat Maginess —
Investigations. I had a large desk and three tall metal file cabinets,
and a couple of chairs in front of the desk for clients. I had got them
all as war surplus when I first started out as a P.I., so none of it was
fancy but it was serviceable and the chairs were more comfortable than
they looked. For more informal interviews and to take the occasional nap
I had a couch set against the right wall with a coffee table in front of
it, set over a rather nice rug I had picked up at a garage sale. Off to
the left side there was a small bathroom with a sink. I had also
purchased a small icebox that I kept in the corner as well as a
hot-plate that I could sit a pot of coffee on. I kept any extra books or
reference materials on top of the file cabinets. There was a coat rack
near the door for my hat and coat.
I took off my hat, pulled out the dime novel and put it on the desk,
and opened the window blinds. In the mornings and with the blinds open
my office was usually very bright, weather permitting. I grabbed a beer
from the icebox, settled in behind the desk, put my legs up, and started
in on the dime novel.
The first story was called “The End of Rohmer.” It was about a Nazi at
the end of the war who had holed up in an old, half-demolished castle.
Ghosts came creeping out of the walls, demons come to haunt him out of
I was just about to finish the story, pretty much thinking that Rohmer
was going to come to some really bad end, when I noticed that it was just
past noon. As usual I had lost all track of time when I was reading. Oh
well, I thought, I’ll finish it later. I finished off the last few swigs
of beer, gathered up some office trash to take out, put the dime novel
in my pocket once again, and locked up.
Tony’s barber shop was located about ten blocks from my office. It was
close enough to walk, but I always figured it was more professional when
visiting a client to pull up in a vehicle, even if the vehicle was my
old Plymouth. It was going to be another hot day, but maybe not as hot
as yesterday. Traffic was light and I made the distance to Tony’s place
in about two minutes. I was lucky and found a place to park right
in front of the shop.
The sign said ‘Tony’s Barber Shop.’ There was the traditional barber
pole out front, and just to keep everything as one would totally expect
it a middle age barber, who I figured to be Tony, was routinely sweeping
a perfectly clean floor inside the shop. A little tinkly bell sounded as
I opened the door.
“Are you Tony?” I asked him, just to make introductions.
He stopped sweeping and nodded his head.
“I’m Pat Maginess. Your cousin Mrs. Rodriquez told me you had some sort
of problem you need help on.”
He simply nodded his head again, and returned the broom to the corner.
Great, I thought, it was going to be one of those. No matter what the
problem, no matter how innocent or dire, getting information out of some
clients was like pulling teeth.
I pulled out my notebook and a pen. “Okay, Tony, why don’t you just tell
me what your problem is and how you think I can help you with it. Just
start at the beginning.”
Tony didn’t answer me, but instead walked to the back of the shop,
went through a door, and a few seconds later returned with a small paper
package. He set it down on the counter behind the barber chair.
“Some guy left this” he said, as if it was some sort of a
disappointment that some guy had left it.
I went over and looked at the package. There was a bunch of yellow
type paper mailing material of the usual sort and some string, inside of
which was a large metal object. I pulled the object out from the paper.
It was a clock, an old antique one of the wind-up variety. The wind key
was in it, but from the time on the clock, which was ten o’clock, it had
stopped running at some time in the past. Whether that had been two
hours ago or two years ago was anybody’s guess. My first instinct was
that it must be worth quite a bit, but I didn’t want to assume that
right off the bat as I really didn’t know anything about antique clocks.
It seemed made out of high-quality materials, maybe some gold plating,
and the face of the clock looked like some sort of marble. I put the
clock down on the chair and examined the paper wrapping. There was no
writing or any mailing stickers on it of any kind.
“Okay. So you say some guy left this here?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I have to tell you, Tony. I’d really like to help you. But it would
help me to do that if I had as much informations as possible. A
little more detail, in other words. When did this guy come in?”
“Two days ago, on Wednesday.”
“Well maybe that would be more like three days ago now, right? This is
Saturday. In any case, I assume you didn’t know the guy, right?”
“No,” he told me rather sharply. “He was a complete stranger. I have a
lot of regular customers. He wasn’t one of them. He looked rich.”
“And why would you say that, that he was rich?” I asked him.
“He was very well dressed. You know, his suit was the expensive type.
Black suit jacket and grey pants, very good material I think. Every crease
was totally crisp. Grey vest, looked like silk or something. Dark blue
tie with one of those pin things on it. Immaculate. He kind of smelled
like a rich person.”
“Smelled like a rich person?” I said, writing in my notebook. I let
his comment go, as I sort of knew what he was talking about. Unlike
myself, rich men could afford to get their suits dry-cleaned more often,
maybe wearing them only once before getting them cleaned, which got all
the normal odors out. They could wear the expensive colognes and use the
really top line soaps to fight body odor. They tended to live in houses
and work in big offices that were farther away from the normal L.A.
street pollution. And they usually weren’t lifting concrete blocks all
“Well,” I said, “let’s assume he was a rich guy. Did you talk to him
much? Did he say anything about himself? Maybe what he did for a living,
where he lived, where he was going for the rest of the day? That type of
“He didn’t talk much” Tony said. “I talked to him a little, mostly
about the hot weather. He just kind of sat there, and every once in a
while he would say something like ‘Yes, of course’ or ‘I think you are
right.’ He had a great head of hair, snow white and very thick.”
“Hmm, not much information, huh. Did he drive, did you get a look at
“He just walked in, I didn’t notice how he got here. He left and got a
“A cab, huh? How do you know that?”
“He left, and then I noticed the package. I grabbed it and ran out
after him, that was about a minute or two after he left. Then I saw him
halfway down the block getting into a cab. I yelled at him and ran a
ways down the block, but the cab pulled off before I could get there. I
guess he didn’t hear me yelling at him.”
“And what time was this? What time did he come into your shop, and
when did he leave?”
“It was about three o’clock he came in. I finished up, and he must
have left about three-thirty or so.”
“And what cab company was the cab? Do you remember?”
“I think it was the white cab with the blue lettering” he said.
“City Cab? Does that sound familiar?”
“Yeah, I think so. City Cab, yeah.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Well, pretty sure. It was a white cab with blue lettering anyway.”
“That would be City Cab, then, they’re the only cab company in town
with colors like that. So he didn’t come back in to get the package
back, didn’t call, huh?”
“No” Tony said. He suddenly sounded worried. “I just want to get it
back to him.”
“Well maybe we can do just that. I take it you unwrapped the package?
Or was it unwrapped when he came in?”
“I got worried by yesterday. The guy hadn’t come back in. I thought
maybe there was something inside it so I could find him, get it back to
“Not a bad idea, actually. That would have been my first step if
you hadn’t already done it.”
“I just want to get rid of it” Tony complained. “It looks expensive. I
don’t want to be responsible for it.”
“I can understand that. I’ll tell you what. What if I take it off your
hands for a few days? It might help me to find him if I could do some
research on the clock, and it would be better if I had it with me.”
“Sure, take it” he said. “But what if he comes back in?”
“Well you just give him one of my cards here” I said. “Tell him you
gave it to me for safe keeping. In the meantime, if you see the guy
again around the neighborhood or he calls you or something, you contact
me right away, okay?”
“Okay” he said, with obvious relief.
“So, I’ll just take this with me. I’ll give you a call as soon as I
find anything out.”
Tony nodded and picked up his broom once again. But then he seemed to
change his mind about going back to the sweeping. “Want a free haircut,
A guy doesn’t get a chance for that every day, and I certainly needed
one. Not to mention the fact that it might be the only payment I
received for this particular case.
“Sure, Tony. That would be great. Just a little off the side and top
if you don’t mind. And you can call me Pat.”
I took off my hat and jacket and sat down in the chair and he started
working. Big case or not, paying case or not, it was an interesting
problem. The first place to check would be the cab company. If I could
find out something about where the old guy was heading it might help me
to find him.
And then I started thinking about what it would like to be rich. I
thought of how it would be if I could get my suits dry-cleaned every
day, and wear new shirts straight out of the wrapping. I thought about
what it would be like to put on a brand new pair of socks every day, how
new socks felt when you put them on your feet, and how it would be if at
the end of the day you could just throw them away knowing you had a new
pair to put on the next morning.
As the old saying goes, dreaming doesn’t cost you anything. It’s
reality that costs you something. Maybe sometimes more than you are
willing to pay.