It was a little after six in the evening when I spotted the girl I was supposed to meet. It was December 10, 1942, and she was sitting alone in the Longhorn Barroom of the Weilbach hotel in San Gabriel, Texas. She was installed at a table in the far corner of the room, dressed in a navy blue suit with one of those sailor’s collars that were popular that year. Petite and small boned, she had dark auburn hair, china blue eyes, and a splash of rust-colored freckles dotted across a delicately sculptured nose. I also noted that she was blessed with everything a woman’s supposed to have to make her interesting to a man. What intrigued me most about her, though, was the pinched, worried look that swept across her face each time somebody entered the bar. When I got closer to her table where I could see her better, I put her age as late twenties. “Hi,” I said.
She looked up at me with an expression that was half frightened, half plaintive, like that of a person who needs help badly but is afraid to ask for it. Or afraid of whom she has to ask.
“Waiting for somebody?” I asked.
“Ahhh_… yes,” she answered, quickly looking back toward the door.
“Mind if I sit down?”
She glanced nervously toward the doorway once again and shuddered. “I guess not. I’m not even supposed to be in here without an escort. The only reason the bartender let me stay was because I told him that I was waiting for a gentleman to join me.”
“I understand,” I said with a nod. The Weilbach was prim and proper about that sort of thing, at least on the surface. Fourteen stories of gargoyle-trimmed sandstone built in the high Victorian style of the previous century, its floors were Spanish tile, its furniture heavy mahogany and walnut, the sofas and chairs covered in leather and tufted velvet. San Gabriel itself is a West Texas city of about seventy thousand that lies on the Devil’s River halfway between Waco and El Paso, Waco being a town on the Brazos well known in Texas for hard religion and easy morals.
“The gentleman has joined you,” I said. “You’re Madeline Kimbell, aren’t you?”
“How did you know that?” she gasped, her eyes growing even bigger and more frightened.
“I’m the man you’re supposed to meet. Didn’t Jim Rutherford tell you what I’d look like?”
She shook her head, her wide blue eyes still wary.
“But he did say that a man named Virgil Tucker would find you here in the hotel bar about six-thirty, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. You’re Tucker?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Do you need to see my identification?”
“I guess not,” she replied with a nervous shake of her head. I sat down and smiled and tried to look as inoffensive as possible while she gave me a close examination.
I hoped what she saw was reassuring to her. I was in my midthirties and slim, with wavy, coal black hair that was going gray at the temples. My manners were impeccable, and I was decently dressed in a suit of dark blue pinstriped wool and held a cream-colored western hat in my left hand. The only thing about me that might have been alarming to her were my eyes, which were hard and gray and looked out at the world from behind thick-lensed glasses with thin gold wire rims. The previous year a woman I was dating told me they made me look just like Lucky Luciano, the big-wheel New York gangster who was in all the papers a few years back. She hadn’t meant it as a compliment.
“But how did you know who I am?” the girl finally asked.
“Do you see any other pretty redheads in this room?” I asked.
She gave me a nervous smile and shrugged. “I guess not. How do you know Jim?”
“He’s an old family friend. He served practically his whole border patrol career in Matador County, where I come from.”
She nodded, her eyes still a little wary.
“What are you drinking?” I asked.
She held up the half-empty bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon and wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I don’t really like beer all that much, but…”
In those days, bars in Texas couldn’t serve mixed drinks. They were limited by law to beer. If you wanted to drink something more potent you had to bring your own bottle and buy what was called a “setup,” which was a glass of ice and some soda or some other kind of mixer. This quaint practice was known as brown bagging, and was the norm of the day. For some unfathomable reason it was considered bad manners to take your bottle out of the sack. I’d brought my own, a fifth of James E. Pepper. The waiter appeared beside our table, and I asked the girl if she liked bourbon.
“You bet I do.”
I ordered two glasses of ice. When they came I poured a couple of ounces of whiskey into each glass. She picked hers up with a shaking hand and drained it in two long pulls, then put the glass down and looked across the table at me as though she was trying to make up her mind about something. At last she said, “A couple of guys are after me. That’s why I’m so nervous.”
“Who’s after you?”
“My ex-boyfriend, Nolan. And a buddy of his. I’m scared to death. Jim didn’t tell you?”
I shook my head. “We didn’t have much time when he called. I was in a hurry. He just said you were in trouble and asked me to help you.”
She gave me a hesitant nod, but she didn’t look like she was nodding inside. Instead, she appeared ready to jump out a window and run screeching down the street at the least provocation. I’m naturally calm, which should have reassured her but obviously didn’t. Maybe it was the Luciano thing.
“Maybe we ought to forget all about this,” she muttered as she glanced nervously toward the door once again. “I probably shouldn’t have listened to Jim and gotten you mixed up in this business in the first place.”
I studied her closely for a few seconds before I spoke. “Is that what you really want to do?” I asked.
She buried her face in her hands for a moment, then looked up at me with eyes that were on the verge of tears. “No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I’m just afraid somebody will get hurt.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you,” I said as reassuringly as I could.
“Mister, you don’t know Nolan and his friends.”
I gave her a serene smile. “You leave Nolan to me. I’m pretty good at dealing with the Nolans of this world. That’s why Jim sent you to me in the first place, so try to settle down.”
“Do you live here in San Gabriel?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No, I’ve just been in and out for a couple of weeks working on a case. I’ve got a room upstairs.”
“You do?” she blurted. “Can we go there? Now?”
I regarded her speculatively for a few moments while she seemed to shrink inside her own skin. “Sure, why not?” I finally said with a shrug.
I stood and held her coat for her. As she slipped into it, our faces were only a few inches apart. Her eyes widened and she muttered something under her breath and choked off a burst of manic laughter.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing. I’ll be okay as soon as we get somewhere that’s not public.”
“Come on, then,” I said, and took her elbow.
When I paid our tab, I got a small bucket of ice from the bartender, and we headed toward the elevator.
Once we were safely in my room, I carefully locked the door and began mixing each of us another drink. I didn’t really need one, but I wanted the girl to calm down as much as possible. If that meant getting her a little drunk, fine. She’d already removed her overcoat, and when I handed her the drink, she took a quick, nervous sip.
“Thanks,” she muttered. Then she put the glass on the nightstand, threw her suit coat aside, and began unbuttoning her blouse with trembling hands. “Can we hurry up and get this over with?” she asked.
“What?” I asked, puzzled.
“You know…,” she said and gave me a little shrug.
I tilted my head a bit to one side and stared at her for a few seconds, then smiled in amusement. “Silly, silly, silly,” I said and took her hands and gently pulled them away from the buttons. Her breasts were full and milky and above her bra they were sprinkled with freckles like her nose. I began to rebutton the blouse from the bottom up. “You’ve been reading too many cheap novels,” I said. “There are still a few gentlemen left in the world.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re not going to make me—”
“Do you do this with every man you meet?” I asked with a soft laugh.
“Of course not! I just thought it was what I was going to have to do to get you to help me.”
“I’m already helping you. And as far as getting it over with quickly, is it so difficult for you to believe that there’s been a woman or two in my life who’ve liked me well enough that they weren’t in such a hurry?”
Her eyes were big and round and full of surprise. She said nothing as I retrieved her drink from the bedside stand and handed it to her. “Sit down and let’s talk,” I said.
She took the glass and curled up in the middle of the bed. I took the armchair at its side and pulled a pack of Chesterfield Kings from my inside coat pocket. “Want one?” I asked.
“Oh God, yes. And how.”
I held my Zippo for her, then placed the ashtray on the bed so we could both reach it.
“Are you part Mexican?” she blurted out before she could stop herself. “I know it’s awfully rude to ask something like that, but you look like—”
“I don’t mind. My great-grandmother was a Mexican girl from San Antonio named Rosa Veramendi. She was said to be one of the great beauties of her day.”
“The Veramendi Palace!” she exclaimed. “I read about them in Texas history. The Veramendis were the leading citizens of the town back then.”
I nodded. “That was her family.”
“You look sorta like those pictures of the Aztecs that used to be in schoolbooks. That’s why I asked.”
“I’ve been told that before,” I replied with a shrug. “The Veramendis came up from Mexico City in the seventeen hundreds, so we very well may have some Aztec blood. But we need to talk about more important things. I want to know all about your boyfriend, Nolan. Why’s he chasing you?”
“Ex-boyfriend,” she corrected firmly. “He’s a deputy sheriff down in Jefferson County.”
“He works for Milam Walsh?”
“Yes. You’ve heard of Walsh?”
“Sure,” I said. Milam Walsh was one of a new breed of Texas sheriffs. Born in Port Arthur, he’d gone to France with the American Expeditionary Force in World War One, gotten a taste of Continental life and liked it. Once back home he worked his way through college, earning a degree in government and business administration. Then he turned his attention to politics and was soon hired as the city manager in the small, recently incorporated town of Kemah in Galveston County, a job and a time and a place that taught him a number of important lessons about how the world really works. After a few prosperous years he returned home to Beaumont to run for sheriff with the backing of several prominent local families and the financial support of the Maceo brothers of Galveston Island, two energetic Sicilians who controlled all the gambling on the upper Texas coast. Now in his midforties, Walsh was a smooth, sophisticated man enjoying the pinnacle of his career unburdened by either scruples or conscience.
“I met him once,” I told her. “A friend of mine in the attorney general’s office in Austin says he’s probably raking in ten thousand a month in bribes from the rackets. He’s got a yacht and a big house in the best part of town. Two fine cars. How many other county sheriffs you know that live like that?”
“None,” she replied. “And Nolan’s his chief deputy. They’re real tight.”
“Tell me about Nolan.”
“He’s thirty-two, and he grew up in Beaumont. He was a great athlete. Played for one of Detroit’s minor league teams for a couple of years, but he got hurt and never made the majors.”
“He’s already a chief deputy at just thirty-two?” I asked. “He must be an energetic lad. So why’s he chasing you?”
She shrugged. “He wants me to come back home and marry him. We’d been seeing one another for about a year when I broke it off. But the big jerk won’t let me go.”
“Who’s this buddy of his you mentioned?”
“An old guy named Heck McAdoo. He’s a county constable down home.”
“I see.” I nodded and studied her face intently until she dropped her eyes to look down at the bed. “But there’s a little more to this business than just a persistent boyfriend, isn’t there?” I asked.
“I hope to God I can trust you,” she said in a voice that was a near whisper.
“Call me Virgil, please. And it doesn’t seem that you have much other choice but to trust me.”
“No, I guess not,” she agreed. “It’s just that I’m so damned scared. Why did you want to get involved in a mess like this anyway?”
I shrugged. “Let’s just say that I owe Jim Rutherford, and I couldn’t very well turn him down when he called and asked me to help you.”
“What are you doing here in San Gabriel?”
“Chasing a ring of cattle thieves. Beef prices are rising fast with the war on, and rustling has become popular again.”
“Yeah. I’m a detective for the Texas Cattle Raisers Association. Before that I was a deputy U.S. Marshal for four years, but now I’ve got a Special Texas Ranger commission. The governor issues them to stock detectives so we can make arrests.”
“Then you’re a cop?”
“Technically, yes. But enough about me. Get your mind back on your problem and tell me your story. I’m entitled to know what you’re dragging me into.”
She drained her glass and took a deep breath. “I saw a murder.”
“Behind a nightclub over in Port Arthur.”
“Last Friday night one of my girlfriends and I decided to go to this place called the Snake Eyes Club. You know, snake eyes like in craps?”
“Sure,” I said impatiently. “Go on.”
“Anyway, the parking lot in front was full, so we pulled around back. My friend had to jump out and run in to use the bathroom even before we found a parking place. I’d just got parked and stepped out of my car when I noticed a man climbing out of a big Cadillac a few cars over. As soon as his feet hit the pavement two guys came up behind him. One of them slipped this noose thing over his head and started choking him while the other one tripped him and got him down on the ground.” She looked at me with stricken eyes. “They just killed him, that’s all. Just choked him to death.”
“They saw you?”
She gave me a nod. “I sorta screamed.”
“I jumped back in my car and took off. They tried to stop me, and I almost ran over one of them. Then I hid out a couple of days at my parents’ house, but when I went by my apartment to get some clothes my landlord told me two guys had come by looking for me. That’s when I went to Jim Rutherford. He called you and put me on a bus out here. He said it would be safer if I left my car at my place. That way people would still think I was in town.”
“Who knew you were coming to San Gabriel?”
“Just Jim and my folks. And my girlfriend Alma.”
Her girlfriend Alma. I shook my head, annoyed but not surprised. “What’s her full name?” I asked.
“Copeland. Alma Copeland.”
“Had you ever seen the killers before?”
She nodded. “Yeah. They work for a hood named Marty Salisbury. Ever heard of him?”
“No. What are their names?”
“One them is a guy called Johnny Arno. I don’t know the other one’s name, but I’ve seen both around Salisbury’s place several times. They’re always together, and people say they’re queer for each other. Anyway, the talk is that Salisbury was sent up here by somebody in New Orleans to take over all the gambling in Jefferson and Galveston counties.”
“I see,” I said. “And just who did they kill?”
“A lawyer named Henry DeMour. He was on the Beaumont City Council.”
“Oh my God!” I blurted out, almost dropping my drink.
“You know him?”
“Not personally, but I’ve heard of him. Hell, everybody has. He was one of the top attorneys in Southeast Texas. His family settled in Beaumont way back before the Civil War and got rich in the import/export business.”
“They’re old money, Gulf aristocracy. And I’ll tell you something else. If this Salisbury guy had a man like Henry DeMour killed, then Salisbury is either a very heavy hitter or a complete fool. How in the world did you get mixed up with people like these in the first place? You seem like a decent girl. They’re hardly the kind of friends I’d expect you to have.”
She shrugged. “Nolan and I used to go to Salisbury’s place a lot. He came to Beaumont about a year ago from New Orleans and opened up a fancy supper club called The Grotto in the old part of town.”
“It has gambling too, I suppose.”
“Yeah, in back. Blackjack, and a couple of craps tables and a roulette wheel. The place books good acts. Louis Armstrong was there a few weeks ago, and Harry James and His Orchestra are coming next month.”
“So it’s becoming the in place in Jefferson County, huh?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I’m surprised you haven’t heard about DeMour being dead. The story was in all the papers. Didn’t Jim mention it when he called?”
I shook my head. “Like I told you, he and I didn’t get to talk long. I had to move fast or miss an arrest.”
“Say, could I have another drink?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said and got up to splash more whiskey in her glass. “Where did you hear this rumor about Salisbury taking over the gambling?” I asked.
“It’s more than just a rumor,” she replied. “Nolan told me about it himself, and he gets around enough that he should know.”
I grinned at her. “Tell me something_… what do you do when you aren’t running around with gangsters and crooked cops?”
“I’m a schoolteacher,” she said sadly. “Can you believe it? Or at least I was up until a few days ago. Second grade. I guess I’m fired now since I just ran off without telling anybody.”
“How did you meet Nolan?”
“A friend introduced us at a dance last year. I thought at first he was a nice guy, but now I think he’s sort of a hood himself.”
“Well, he works for Milam Walsh,” I said bluntly as I handed her the drink. “That should have told you something.”
“I didn’t really know that much about Walsh at the time. Besides, Nolan can be real smooth and convincing when he wants to be. But he’s mean, and when he got mean with me and I left him—”
“We got into an argument, and he slapped me around. That’s when I broke it off. Anyhow, he said that he could square it with Salisbury if we got married. Otherwise, Salisbury was going to have me killed. But I think I’d rather be dead than married to Nolan.”
“How did he think he was going to square it with Salisbury?”
She shrugged. “I guess he had the idea that he could put enough pressure on the guy. Maybe close him down or something if he didn’t cooperate. I mean, Nolan is a cop and—”
“Not much of one, I wouldn’t think. Not from what you’ve told me. Have you ever met this Salisbury character?”
“Yeah,” she said with a nod.
“What’s he like?”
“He’s about thirty, smooth, a real sharp dresser. Quiet, doesn’t say much.”
“Okay. So now we know what your problem is, what do you want me to do about it?”
“Jim thought maybe I could hide out at your ranch. Do you have a ranch?”
I nodded. “My family does. Then what?”
“Jim said you’d know what to do.”
“I’m flattered that he has such confidence in me,” I said with a rueful laugh. “But you really ought to go to the state authorities. The Rangers, maybe.”
She shook her head, but before I could say anything more there was a loud knock at the door. I motioned for her to be silent, then rose soundlessly from my chair. By the time I was on my feet a second knock rang out, this one even louder than the first. I frowned and gritted my teeth. It was a cop’s knock—a knock with a persistent, demanding quality to it that said its maker was used to giving orders and having things his own way, and I found it sublimely irksome.
Quickly I pulled a long, lead-loaded billy club from under the bed, then stepped over to the door. Staying carefully to one side, I reached down and turned the knob. Just as I’d expected, the instant the door was opened a heavy body crashed into it and slammed it to one side, its useless safety chain ripped loose from its moorings.
The intruders had counted on surprise and they got it. The first man was moving fast and it was a simple matter for me to stick out my foot and trip him. He fell, crashing face-first into the coffee table, shattering it to pieces. A fraction of a second later his companion tripped over his feet and they were both down in a tangle of arms and legs. Swinging the club hard and fast, I hit the second man three times, once where his neck joined his right shoulder and twice more in the lower ribs. Then I pushed him roughly to the side with my foot. Tossing the club to the floor behind me, I stepped back and deftly slipped my Colt .38 Super auto from my shoulder holster. The big man on bottom rolled over and managed to get himself into a sitting position. I saw a thick shock of blond hair and an expression that was in transition from surprise to rage. “Hi, Nolan!” I said cheerfully and kicked him as hard as I could squarely in his handsome, bovine face.
Copyright © 2012 by Milton T. Burton