A Few Hours Before Valentine's Day, 1946...
Frozen in her two-dimensional universe, the Dragon Lady smoked her cigarette and eyed her victim with cool confidence, unaware of the bomb ticking a mere two inches behind her. Dressed in a Chinese gown that hugged tight across her breasts and hips, the gun-toting pirate queen taunted the handsome captive chained to the wall of her dungeon.
She was a figment of a cartoonist's imagination.
The bomb was not. It was a crude contraption -- dynamite, detonator, dime store clock -- packed in a cardboard shoebox and wrapped in page one of the Sunday funnies where the buccaneer bitch ruled.
From panel to panel, harmless within the borders of her comic strip, the Dragon Lady toyed with her victim, playing out a never-ending game of cat and mouse. Whoever had wrapped her around the shoebox was playing for keeps. The whole package was hidden behind the extra rolls of toilet paper on top of the water tank attached to the wall in the men's room of Club 7-11 -- a good six feet above the head of the Marine sergeant taking a crap.
Oblivious to the muffled ticking of the timepiece inside the box, the
sergeant sat on the throne and tapped his toes to the beat of Glenn Miller's band blasting from the jukebox on the other side of the thin wall.
"Pennsylvania six, five, oh, oh, oh..."
He finished his business, stood, pulled up his trousers, then reached for the chain and gave it a yank, flushing the toilet. Stepping out of the stall, he paused in front of the mirror for a final inspection -- made sure the buttons on his uniform shirt, the edge of his belt's brass buckle, and his fly all lined up straight in a proper military gig line.
Everything checked out. Time to hit the tables. Maybe pick up a babe who'd like to blow on more than just his dice for luck.
Detective Steve Pope looked up from his mug of beer as the Marine sergeant walked out of the men's room. "There's another leatherneck, Virg. Told you this was one of the classier bust-out joints. It's not just for losers."
His cousin, Detective Virgil Ducker, snorted. "I still don't understand why we can't have our drink at the Glenn Rendezvous, like we always do."
Pope shook his head. "I don't want to be known as Pete Schmidt's boy."
"What's with you? After all this time, you pulling out that old Boy Scout act again?"
"I'm tired of him waving his money in front of me." Pope felt the muscles in his jaw tense.
Ducker leaned across the table, putting himself nose to nose with Pope. "So what, shoving a few C-notes into your pocket is suddenly a big problem?"
"It ain't just Schmidt -- he's the worst of them. But everywhere a cop goes in this town, it's the same damn thing. I just want a drink. No strings."
"Oh, yeah?" Ducker pulled away a little, pointed his thumb at the bar, and grinned. "How much you wanna bet this bartender doesn't slip us a few bucks on the way out?"
A brassy-haired woman in a low-cut red dress, showing off coming attractions for later that night, sneered at Pope as she walked by their table on the way to the jukebox. He recognized her as one of the gals from a whorehouse he and Ducker had raided a few months ago, down in the Bottoms. She fed the machine a handful of nickels.
Pope retreated into his own thoughts, as Benny Goodman raised the decibels in the bar to a level he'd have to shout over for Ducker to hear him. This wasn't the place to be discussing the pros and cons of taking bribes.
He looked around the smoke-filled bar, checking out the patrons. They didn't look much different from the customers at the Glenn Rendezvous. Most were men -- some in uniform, some in decent-looking suits. A few had women sitting with them, but most were on their own. Like the one over at the bar -- a Navy flyboy, with a chest full of medals and campaign ribbons, a pair of silver wings pinned atop it all.
Now that the war was over and the Nazis and Japs had had their asses kicked in, seemed everyone wanted to celebrate. Especially the boys who had done the fighting in Europe and the Pacific. Contrary to the fears expressed by some who'd stayed behind, those boys hadn't been transformed into mindless killing machines, monsters thirsting for more blood. They were still Newport's sons and brothers and fathers -- a little older, a little sadder. All they wanted, for now, was to taste the fruits of their victory and unload the money burning a hole in their pockets. Little Mexico's swanky casinos and disorderly houses welcomed them with open arms and forbidden fruit.
Even the bust-out joints were sprucing up. The owner of Club 7-11 had given his walls a fresh coat of paint and repaired the more beaten-up tables and chairs. A string of colored lights left over from Christmas stretched across the mirror behind the bar.
Business was good, most of it generated by the gambling on the second floor. Pope watched the steady stream of men climb the wooden staircase, cocksure this was their lucky night and itching to toss the dice or feed the hungry slot machines. A couple of slots had even been placed on the main floor by the rest rooms, for those who were too lazy to climb the stairs.
But sometimes too much success was not a good thing. Pope knew that the Big Four of the Cleveland Syndicate were getting grumpy. Seemed their two biggest night spots -- the Beverly Hills and the Lookout House -- weren't full every night. Word had it that Buck Brady over at the Latin Quarter had been making a dent in their profits, so he'd been warned to get out of the business.
Pope did a quick head count. It was unlikely Club 7-11 would be next in line.
"You guys want a little company?"
Pope turned and looked up into the face of the brassy-haired hooker,
catching the smirk that played on her lips.
"Sure," Ducker said. "What're you drinking?"
Pope stayed quiet. He wished his cousin still had a wife to go home to. In fact, he'd had enough of this day and was ready to go home to his own wife and kid.
The hooker kept her gaze on Pope. "I don't think your good-lookin' pal here's too keen about the idea."
"You're right," Pope said. "We were just leaving. Ready, Virg?"
Ducker eyed his half-filled mug of beer. "Nah, I think there's still a good fifteen minutes left in this glass."
Shouts from the floor above triggered the cop's reflex in Pope, shoving aside any thoughts of arguing with his partner. He caught a glimpse of the bartender reaching under the bar. Pope knew that was where he kept a baseball bat.
Ducker stopped flirting with the hooker and turned to look.
One of the club's bouncers moved into position at the bottom of the wooden staircase. As Pope watched, a fat man in a wrinkled business suit came stumbling down. "You fuckin' cheats," he screamed. "You can't get away with this!"
The bouncer caught the fat guy by the shoulders just before he landed
face-first on the hard tile floor. A second bouncer, the one from upstairs, came down two steps at a time, grabbed the customer by the ankles and lifted.
"Give me back my money," the fat guy shouted at the floor as the bouncers hauled him towards the exit.
Ducker turned to Pope. "High class joint, huh?"
"Okay, a bust-out joint is a bust-out joint."
The bouncers tossed the irate customer into the street.
"So much for the floor show," Pope said. He stood and pulled the coat off the back of his chair. "I'm going home, Virg."
Virgil remained in his seat. "Okay, Steve. See ya tomorrow." He winked at the hooker, who was still standing beside their table, and nodded towards the empty chair.
Pope thought about the fat customer, as he pushed his arms into the sleeves of his overcoat. Some people took losing way too seriously. Just a couple of years ago, some poor fella coming out of one these joints was so upset, he'd had a heart attack.
But nobody's dragging those suckers into the clubs, Pope reasoned. Only an absolute virgin thinks he has a chance at coming out a winner. It's an indisputable law of nature -- if you manage to build up your winnings and keep playing, sooner or later you're going to lose it all. So come on in, drop your wallet on the table, and laugh at the thought you're going to beat the house.
Pope adjusted his hat, pulling it forward on his head. As he did so, he glanced over at the bartender, who was stashing his club back under the bar. Their eyes met. For an instant, Pope wondered if the guy's hand was going to come back into view with an envelope, a little something for his retirement fund.
The bartender's eyes shifted. He swung his head quickly toward the front entrance.
At the same time, Pope heard a commotion on that side of the room. A woman screamed, and Pope felt the edge of the table top slam into his leg as Ducker jumped up out of his chair.
Pope wheeled around.
The fat man, the sucker in the wrinkled business suit, stood in the doorway, a .22 automatic in his pudgy fist.
Customers dove for shelter underneath the tables. Men in uniform, who had seen their best buddies get their heads blown off in combat, hit the deck.
"Police!" Pope shouted as he drew his service revolver from its shoulder holster, a split second after Ducker had pulled his.
Fatman yelled something unintelligible and shot at one of the bouncers.
Ducker fired and missed, shattering the narrow window in the club's front door.
Fatman jerked his head. Eyes bulging, nostrils flaring, he looked like an angry bull glaring at the two detectives.
"Drop the gun," Pope shouted.
Fatman aimed his automatic.
Pope took a step to one side and dropped into a crouch. He fired three times.
So did Ducker.
Bullets smashed into Fatman's soft chest, knocking him back against the door and out onto the sidewalk.
Ducker, his gun at the ready, quickly moved to the entrance and stepped outside.
Pope straightened up out of his crouch and followed, the blood pumping hard through his veins. He was pretty sure Fatman was dead, that it was one of his shots that had killed him. Pope had never killed anyone before. But as soon as he'd fired his third shot, he knew he'd made a hit -- like there was a line going straight from his trigger finger through the gun's barrel and into Fatman's heart. Pope's brain was already replaying the last ten seconds.
The bar's customers started emerging from their shelters and pressing
forward to get a look at the body sprawled just outside the door.
Ducker shouted at the bouncers, "Keep them away." He went over to Fatman and kicked the automatic from his hand.
Blood running from the hole in Fatman's chest soaked his white shirt and the lapel of his wrinkled suit.
Pope was surprised to see the guy's massive chest still heaving. Blood was starting to pool out from underneath Fatman's body. "Someone call an ambulance," he shouted.
Pope stared down into the face of the man he'd just shot. Fatman's eyes still bulged, but with shock, not anger.
Why'd you do it? Why did you make me shoot you? Even if Pope had asked the question aloud, he wasn't going to get an answer. At that moment, the bulging eyes went flat. He looked at the guy's chest. No movement.
Pope shoved his revolver back into its shoulder holster. He'd only shot at targets on the practice range -- never had to fire at anyone in the nine plus years he'd been on the force. It had all happened so fast. The guy was gone and there was no way to undo it. Suddenly, Pope couldn't get enough air in his lungs. His stomach muscles twisted and saliva collected in his mouth.
Can't throw up in front of all these people. Turning on his heels, Pope pushed his way through the crowd, back into the club. He marched straight for the men's room.
Doors slammed against walls, as the detective barged into the rest room and into the nearest stall. Head in the toilet, puking his guts out, he was oblivious to his surroundings.
He didn't hear the muffled ticking coming from the package on top of the water tank -- where the Dragon Lady waited, smoking her cigarette.