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A Night on the Town

Three novelists tackle the city’s hard-boiled side in these new short stories about crime and grime, set across the city’s past, present and future.

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Miranda bent her head, wool scarf itchy against her neck, as neon from the House of Pisco and Covered Wagon popped and buzzed in the still-moist night, blue, pink and green doing the shimmy in black puddles along Pacific Avenue.

The International Settlement, where she was looking for a lost soul on the rainy night after Valentine’s Day.

Tough part was finding just one.
Burnett sent her: unusual for her bastard PI of a boss, but he’d been moody, lately, off his game.
“Go on, Corbie, have a night on the town. You won’t be workin’ the place for once—no Johns to catch tonight. Just deliver the message. North Beach, International Settlement—look around.” Toothy grin under a moth-eaten mustache, eyes still worried and trying to hide it. “Fair opens in three days, so rest while you can—I want my bait fresh.” He tried to finish with a pat on the ass, but Miranda stared him down.

Charlie Burnett, a step up from Dianne’s, not exactly an escort anymore, but what the hell was she? She shook her head, blocking it out. She had a job to do.

The Settlement was busy, rain or no rain, love or no love, Cupid or no fucking Cupid, and Valentine’s Day was over, anyway. You could buy anything at the International Settlement, Pacific Avenue between Kearny and Montgomery, as long as you knew how to read the menu.

Out-of-towners tried to learn the new rhythms at La Conga or danced between tables to an out-of-tune sweet band on the floor of the Covered Wagon lounge. Pickles O’Dell and her B-girls occupied green leather bar stools and convinced Elks to try the house special at the House of Pisco, while sailors roamed in their Crackerjack suits, inhaling steaks at the Monaco, and everything and everyone flashed a price tag toward the big, broad men with the wallets, come hither, come hither, come hither.

 

San Francisco, the City of Sin, long at it before Los Angeles, and never one to monopolize. Hell, the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition would only be another footnote, another four hundred acres of high culture and low pleasures, a Magic Island filled with commerce and capitalism, the future and the past, from a Plexiglas Pontiac to Elektro, the Talking Robot, Sally Rand and her Nude Ranch blocking out all thoughts of war, war-torn and war-dead.

Her hands were shaking. Jesus, don’t think about Spain, not now.
Miranda pulled out a Chesterfield, long inhale. Listened to the music, the laughter, the sounds of too much Johnnie Walker and the desperation of not enough.

Not enough Johnny. Her Johnny. No Johnny come marching home again, no Johnny at all. She tossed the cigarette butt in the gutter and walked into the House of Pisco.

Forty-five minutes later, no Marian Easton.
She’d nearly broken the wrist of a fat banker from Iowa and slapped a younger drunk, pencil mustache crooked under his Schnapps. She’d flashed the photo, blurry and dim, and no one recognized Marian. No one cared.
So much for the International Settlement.

Outside of its confines was still North Beach, warm and expansive, like the Umbrian hills or the chianti on every table in Tuscany. Clubs and bars and restaurants lined every corner, air filled with the piquant odor of tomato and garlic, fresh baked focaccia and dark, rich brown coffee. Along with the same sorts of merchandise as the International District, just not as much variety.

Miranda took another half-hour to check off Tosca and all the other joints on Columbus, the turned down Broadway and headed for Finocchio's. A long shot, considering, but maybe…

Finocchio's billed itself as San Francisco's most "unusual" entertainment, illusion of men as women so complete, so real, and so talented—a better Sophie Tucker than Sophie Tucker—that the less sophisticated tourists refused to believe it and demanded their money back unless they could see “proof.”

The only proof they’d see was cement when one of Joe Finocchio’s bouncers threw them out. Lead from the hat check girl, a young brunette. Yeah, she’d seen Marian. Didn’t stay for long—she was crying. Ran out the door. Not sure where she went.

The girl looked at Miranda oddly. “I hope you find her, Miss. She—she didn’t look right.” Miranda sighed and checked her watch as she walked outside, the night air cold now, moisture dispersed, moon and starlight peeking through the gray-blue night.

Almost midnight. That gave her about three more hours to find Marian and deliver the message. Her stomach growled and she caught the unmistakable aroma of Lupo’s pizza, thin round pies with tomato sauce and sausage.

Fifteen minutes later she was wiping her face and hands with a napkin, energy renewed.

Where the hell was Marian Easton? Not at Mona’s, down at 440 Broadway, so she walked back up, stopping at Vanessi’s and Fior d’Italia, checking in at Joe’s New and Bruno and Marcello.

The music was loud, invariably swing or Italian, sometimes with a South American twist. Every club was busy with locals and tourists, floor shows, taxis waiting, and— at Café del Gilio and Mona’s—a line for the gambling rooms in the back.

No one remembered Marian Easton, but North Beach, unlike the International Settlement, was sorry about it.

Miranda hit the Riviera Restaurant on the Square, the church of San Pietro e Paulo glowing a dim white in the dark across the street. Another lead.

Waiter saw Marian; she looked confused, wandering. Muttered something about “Fizzy.” “Izzy?” Miranda asked eagerly.

The boy nodded. “Could be. I wasn’t paying much attention. Noticed her because she seemed—well, she seemed like she was in trouble.”

Ed, the bartender at Izzy’s, greeted Miranda when she walked in.
“Izzy around?”

Ed nodded toward the rear of the main room. He was a tall, lanky man of forty-five, high contrast with his short, three-hundred-pound dumpling of a boss, Isadore "Izzy" Gomez, proprietor of the one bar in San Francisco where anyone could ask for help.

Izzy'd come to San Francisco from Portugal broke, and his constant philanthropy, to needy cases both individual and corporate, kept him from achieving wealth more concrete than happiness. Famous for his black fedora, his grappa, and his always-juicy steaks, Izzy was also the softest touch in the City of Sin… one reason why that most sentimental of hard-boiled creature, the newspaper reporter, lined the stools at 848 Pacific Street.

Izzy’s. Just a few blocks from the International Settlement, and a whole world away. Even at two am, the bar was still half-full. After a hearty hug, Izzy made faces for a few minutes and finally pointed to a room off the warren in the back.

“She’s in there,” he said. “But you be careful wit’ her.”
Miranda pushed open the door of a storage room, filled mostly with bottles and mops and some broken down furniture. Marian sat slumped, head in her hands, on a saggy cot in the corner. Her wrists were covered in bandages.

Miranda’s voice was gentle. “I’ve got a message for you.”
The blonde looked up, hope making her face less miserable. “Remo? Did you—did he—”
“I’m sorry. It’s not from Remo. From your parents. They want you home.”

The girl shrugged, body disconsolate. Miranda sat next to her, springs on the cot squeaking. Miranda nodded toward the bandages. “You need those changed.”

The blonde looked up, down, studied the corners. Exhaled. “Conditions?”
“Aren’t there always? Look, from what I’ve heard, your old man isn’t doing very well.” She nodded toward the bandaged wrists again. “Neither are you.”

Marian sighed, deep, bottomless. “I’m out of money. Izzy put me up out of kindness.” She met Miranda’s eyes. “I’ve got to—got to change.”
“I’ll wait.”
The girl stood up, slowly, gathering her courage, then walked steadily to the dressing screen in the corner.

Neither said anything; Miranda lit a Chesterfield and watched the smoke make an arabesque. A few minutes later, Marian re-emerged. 

He was dressed in a tuxedo, short dark hair slicked back with oil, high cheekbones, sculpted like Donatello, burnished red.

“Could you—could you pretend to be my... friend?”

Burlingame was out of the way, unplanned, and Miranda didn't like surprises, but she'd see it through. See Marian through.

She reached over and dabbed a spot of makeup still on his chin. " I don't have to pretend. You'll be back. North Beach will be here. Maybe not Remo, but—"
"Skip it."
Miranda nodded. Marian knew the score.
He extended an elbow, eyes resigned.

"Shall we?"

She placed her hand gently on his arm and they pushed open the door and through the crowded tables to the cold, clear night on Pacific Avenue. An older man, still sitting at the bar, stared at them. "Nice looking couple." Ed, the bartender gave a noncommittal grunt. "It's North Beach, bub. Always a night on the town."

 

Kelli Stanley is a critically acclaimed, multiple award-winning crime fiction author whose work has been compared to that of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Herb Caen—three of her idols. Her most recent novel in the Miranda Corbie series, which is set in pre-World War II San Francisco, is City of Sharks. She’s lucky enough to live in the city about which she loves to write.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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