As I left the Phelps Building the sun smacked me in the face like a gorilla swinging a preheated frying pan. There was no shade to be found in the stone valley between the blank-faced buildings as I beat it up 2nd Avenue. As I crossed 57th Street I thought I was going to leave my shoes behind in the melting asphalt. Halfway up the next block was Jakes.
It was a blessed relief coming out of the murderous day into that cool sanctuary. I left my hat on the rack by the door and tried without success to sop the sweat from my face with an already sodden handkerchief. The bar was quiet despite the row of the usual derelicts and bums lined along the rail. Jake saw me come in and set me up with the usual before I managed to grope my way through the darkness to my stool. “Whadaya say, Charley?” he asked.
“I’ve got to get out of this town,” I said.
“Sure, sure,” said Jake. He went back to spit-shining the glassware with a marginally clean cloth. The booze would kill anything he left behind.
“I mean it, Jake. I just need one score and I’m packing it up. West. I’ll go out to San Fran and set up there. Living’s good out there.”
“You ever been there?”
“Course I’ve been there. You know where else is nice? Seattle. Lots of fine dames in Seattle.”
“I couldn’t live there with all that rain. It’d drive me crazy.”
“You been outside today?”
Jake poured me another. “You ain’t going nowhere. You’re stuck here like the rest of us.”
“Not me, bub. I just need one good one to put a little dough in my pocket and I’ll write you from Frisco.”
“Sure, sure,” said Jake, and he moved to serve one of the stiffs down the bar.
My eyes had adapted enough that I could survey the usual suspects propped against the mahogany bar. About the saddest bunch of rejects and losers you’ll ever see. I don’t know how I ended up there so often. Still, the booze was cheap. There was something different today, however. An odd feeling that didn’t belong, like someone had opened a window in the back room that opened onto a meadow of wildflowers in their riotous color fed by an icy mountain stream. Something that told of another place, beyond the sweaty stink of run-down men in a broken gin-joint somewhere in midtown. The others at the bar were glancing my direction in nervous anticipation. I glared them back into their own drinks.
The scent got stronger. I heard the sound behind me just as I caught motion in the corner of my eye. I spun around, ready for anything.
Anything except what I found there. “Mr. Lowell?” she asked in a soft, breathy voice with just a hint of Kentucky. I sit facing the door, so she must have been there the whole time, in the shadows of one of the dim booths along the back wall.
“That’s right, sister.”
“May I buy you a drink?”
I have a saying. Never say no to anything free. “All right,” I said. I have another saying. Nothing is free. There’d be payback, I knew. Looking at this lady I was willing to pay the price. I had no idea at the time how steep that price would be.
That she was a lady there was no doubt. She had more class in her little finger than all the rest of us in the bar combined. She was dressed in a sleek black number that hugged her graceful contours like a coat of silk paint. Her hair was long and fell in waves as dark as her dress except where they reflected the feeble lights in the bar. She looked at me, one eye lost behind those raven tresses, the other a bottomless pool in the dim light, her eyebrow a perfect dark arch against her porcelain skin. She smelled like wildflowers and money. She smelled like San Francisco. A cigarette hung unlit from her full, deep red lips. I produced a match and did the honors. When I was done I discovered a fresh drink waiting for me. The good stuff.
She breathed a plume of scented tobacco over her shoulder and fixed me with her gaze. “Mr Lowell,” she said, “I need your help.”
Tune in next time for part one of: The Widow’s Tale!