Orson Welles is a 20-year-old prodigy directing an all-Negro Macbeth for the WPA in Harlem. But Welles has a problem. His theatre, the Lafayette, is being picketed by angry Harlemites, wrongly convinced by the local Communist Party that he is producing minstrel Shakespeare. So angry, in fact, that Welles is receiving 10 death threats a day. And tensions only increase after one of Welles' actors, Ben Kanter, is arrested for murdering a white socialite seen stepping out with Kanter's girlfriend.
Kanter swears he is innocent, but can't prove it. Welles needs protection until opening night, when the world will see he is actually creating theatrical history.
Enter Sassafras Winters and Chinaman, the mystery-adventure genre's newest detective heroes.
Winters, a retired Chicago Cubs pitcher struggling to launch a new career as a private detective, is ably if not always happily accompanied by Chinaman, Winters' enigmatic valet, who holds a trunk-load of Ph.D.s and possesses a knack for being at the right place at the right time in history. Being hired by the WPA could be Winters' big break…if he can exonerate Kanter and keep Welles alive until opening night.
And that isn't going to be easy.
Steven Jones, a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, lives with his family in eastern Iowa. He is the author of the novel, The Bushwhackers, the novella "The Sceptre," and several graphic stories and adaptations, including Nightlinger, Tatters, Dracula, and The Adventure of the Opera Ghost. His editing credits include the paperback anthology Herbert West: Tales of the Re-Animator. Jones has a B.A. in religion and journalism from the University of Iowa, and was accepted into Iowa's prestigious Writers' Workshop MFA program. He is also the author of a King of Harlem prequel novella, "The Curse of Wrigley Field."
"American by birth, Husker by the grace of God"
I was born in Lincoln, NE, in 1960. (I'm OLD, ain't I?)
"How 'bout them Hawks"
I have lived most of my life in Iowa, and am a graduate of the University of Iowa where I earned my B.A. in journalism and religion.
I was a token Anglo-Swede growing up in an ethnic neighborhood of Cedar Rapids called Czech Village.
"Wait for the red light"
I was named captain of Hayes Elementary Safety Patrol in 6th grade. It has all been downhill ever since.
"I know what I want to be when I grow up"
I decided I wanted to be a writer at age nine while writing my first mystery "novel," an anthology of one-page mysteries called The Cases of Ace.
"Hey, kid! Wanna buy a comic?"
I started collecting comic books at age 15. I began trying to break into the comics industry as a writer when I was 18. I finally sold my first comics series, Street Heroes 2005, in 1987 to Malibu Graphics.
"Charity begins in the haunted home"
Between 1976-1982, I designed, aided the construction, or assisted in the operation of Haunted Houses for the March of Dimes and Muscular Dystrophy in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. Estimated amount raised: over $100,000.
"Behind every good man…"
I married my wife in 1990.
"Where did you come from, eh?"
My daughter was born in 1994.
"If at first you don't succeed..."
I finally sold my first novel in October 2003: THE BUSHWHACKERS, a western, will be available from Avalon Books in August 2004.
The telephone rang with the clash of cymbals. All in the same instant I recalled having trouble falling asleep, realized I must have finally dozed off, and mourned that I was awake again. The last time I looked at my watch it was nearly three o'clock. Now, a few seconds and three hours later, it was just after six in the morning.
I answered the telephone.
It was the desk clerk. "There's a Virginia Welles to see you, Mr. Winters. She says she's brought your car around."
"My...'car'?" What car? "Tell her to wait in the lobby. I'll be right down."
Downstairs, sure enough, Welles' wife was waiting for me. Virginia wore a simple cloth coat over a black morning dress with a white collar. She was no stunner, but she did exhibit a kind of quality that magnified her gentle prettiness into the type of beauty seen too rarely anymore.
"I hope I didn't wake you up," she greeted me. Her smile was so pleasantly insincere I couldn't be mad at her.
"What's this about a car?" I tried to sound cross. I failed.
Virginia opened her purse and rummaged about until she hooked a set of keys. She held them up and rattled them. They sounded like the jingle bobs on a pair of cowboy spurs.
"It's a present. From the Welleses to you. Orson's feeling generous."
"I haven't exactly woke up all the way yet. Could you be more specific?
"What's the problem, Sassafras? Orson telephoned me this morning to say you had business around town today. He suggested we help you out by giving you our car."
She dropped the keys back into her purse and clapped the thing shut.
"I hope you're in the mood for a walk," she said.
Despite my common sense, this was getting interesting. "Lead the way."
Virginia took me by the hand, as if we were the dearest friends, and we left the Cosmopolitan. Outside we strolled side-by-side. I was surprised I hadn't noticed before that she was nearly as tall as me. Her brunette hair was in a coiffure.
"How far away is it?" I asked.
"Not far. Have you ever been inside the Waldorf before?"
"Me? Give me a break."
"Good. Because you won't be going inside today, either."
We strolled the couple of blocks to the famous hotel under a morning sky that had blossomed into a rosy dawn. True to her word, Virginia veered us away from the famous hotel proper and led the way into its garage. "The last time I saw our car," she said, "it was parked in the basement."
"And how long is that?"
"Quite some time."
"You really use it, eh?" I was being sarcastic.
"Me? Never. I'm addicted to Checker Cabs." She was serious.
"Orson doesn't ever drive it?"
"Hardly. Orson can't drive."
Down in the depths of the basement, Virginia hunted patiently through the shadows until she triumphantly yawped, "Here's Big Bertha!"
She was pointing at the dusty remains of an Essex. Its body was dented and its wheel wells rusted, the concrete under its axles tattooed with grease and oil. Inside, behind the windshield, a generation of spiders had made a comfortable connection of cobwebs, which gave the glass the appearance of having been kissed by a brick.
"This is your car?" This had to be a joke.
I looked at the Essex again. "This is a joke, right?"
"This is our car."
"This car is a joke."
"Her name is Big Bertha. We drove her here from Lake Geneva last fall, before Orson secured work with either CBS or the WPA. We had high hopes, you see. Skipper gave her to us. She cost him thirty-five dollars when he purchased her."
"'Skipper'? Who's that?"
"Skipper is Roger Hill. Orson's mentor."
"Orson has a mentor?"
"Naturally. You know about Dadda?"
"Yes. Skipper really should have been Orson's guardian. Orson loves him so. More than he loved his own father I sometimes think, not that I can blame him. Skipper was the physical education instructor at the Todd School, but he was also in command of dramatics. He let Orson get away with murder. I don't believe Orson would have the success he does today without Skipper."
In its way Virginia's story was a sad one. But nowhere near as sad as the Essex. "Does this thing even run?"
"We drove her here under her own power. That's all I can tell you. I sort of thought I'd never see Big Bertha again. It's actually kind of nice. She brings back good memories. Orson and I weren't married very long when we came here from Wisconsin."
Virginia was suffering from a bad case of nostalgia. That was fine. I ailed from the same disease time and again myself. All honest people do. Her face was cool but her eyes were sad as she opened her purse and pulled out the keys again. "Here."
I took them from her. "Thanks. I appreciate it." It was a lie, but I was trying to make her feel better.
I opened the driver's side door to climb in. I expected the billow of dust that rose from the seat when I sat down, so I wasn't surprised by the musty smell. I even anticipated the repulsion I felt when I swiped away at the cobwebs, the architects scurrying for safety to the various nooks and crannies of the Essex. The only that could have caught me off guard was if the car started. But miracles do happen. With a cough, a wheeze, a backfire, and a chug the engine turned over.
I was quick to release the choke. The car's idle ran a bit rough but she seemed seaworthy. I looked at Virginia, a stupid smile of triumph smeared across my face. She smiled back, but it seemed as if she had patted a sad shade of blue makeup on her cheeks while my attention had been on the car.
"Can I give you a lift somewhere?" I asked after I rolled down the window.
Mrs. Welles shook her head and waved me bon voyage.
I took the hint, shifted into first gear, released the clutch, and prayed. The old boat threatened to move, then rolled ahead under its own power. Its bald tires somehow supported Bertha's weight, and most of the oil managed to flow where it should flow instead of out on the street.
Wonder if this thing needs any gas? Wonder if the gauge even works?
As I steered out of the garage I caught a glimpse of Virginia in my rearview mirror. The woman watched Bertha leave the way most people looked back on their childhood.
At the first stop sign I came to I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a page I had ripped from my phone book the night before. Circled in bright green was the listing for ANDRE DE SHIELDS, EXAMINER OF QUESTIONABLE DOCUMENTS, PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS, with separate addresses for his office and residence. The time was a quarter to seven, so odds were De Shields was home in bed. I coaxed Bertha to the 140s, where I drove around like an idiot for ten minutes until I finally found the dick's crib. It was a none-too-shabby residence renovated into a duplex. I had imagined De Shields living in some second-floor flat, his overcoat thrown over the bed and an easy chair situated near the phone. This place was nice.
Wonder how much he charges his clients per day?
Without a little apprehension I turned off the engine. At first the spark didn't want to die, but with a few gentle words, followed up with a swift but loving kick to the firewall, Bertha finally shut down. I settled back with the web spinners while late morning frost hazed the glass.
Putting a tail on De Shields was a long shot. I knew that. The smart money would have me concentrate on Ben or Rose. But De Shields worked for Claudette Denbrough, and the Andersons had been her lawyers long before Ben became one of their clients. De Shields was my only link to the Denbroughs, so for one day at least I decided to play a hunch and discreetly tag along with him.
An hour later the inside of the car was so warm I had to wiggle out of my coat. I folded it beside me and kept waiting. Three and a half hours after that a taxi rolled up to the curb, honked, and De Shields finally came out.
"About freakin' time."
De Shields climbed into the passenger side as the cabbie flipped up the flag on the meter. I crossed my fingers and turned the key to start Bertha as the cab pulled back out into the street. The Essex obliged me, and we trailed the hack.
At first things seemed to be going my way. Bertha had to work two years worth of kinks out of her system, but before too long she was performing like a pure-breed bloodhound. Meanwhile the cab had pulled onto Seventh Avenue and stayed on the thoroughfare past 135th Street into Harlem.
Oh, yeah, I thought. Here we go.
A cloud passed over the sun a few minutes later when De Shields's cab parked and let the peeper off in front of a large brownstone. A congregation of scruffy locals were milling in front of the building, slowly but surely making their way inside.
I had never seen this brownstone before, but I had heard members of Orson's WPA troupe talk about it often enough to recognize it. De Shields had come to pay a call on Heaven, headquarters for the ministry of Father Divine, Harlem's most popular evangelist and self-proclaimed Living Word returned to earth.
Divine was the director of a handful of other brownstone and storefront Heavens, scattered throughout the borough as well as in cities as far away as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Every Heaven catered to the public's spiritual needs and offered free meals to the destitute. Today was business as usual, as unemployed and homeless people milled outside Heaven's door, waiting for the noon whistle to blow.
I couldn't help wondering if De Shields wasn't so cheap he didn't come here to cop a free meal. More than likely he was following up some kind of a lead. The third possibility was that he was working on a case for Divine. Whichever the truth turned out to be, all Bertha and I could do was camp along the thoroughfare to wait for De Shields to reappear.
Traffic never stopped sweeping past us during our vigil, its direction regulated by a narrow strip of park that bisected the boulevard. Glancing up and down the street it was hard to believe that, come Saturday, Seventh Avenue would once again turn into the Great Black Way, glorified as New York's premiere promenade in The New Yorker and Age.
Every weekend, like clockwork, gussied men could be seen strolling the avenue wearing silk toppers and velvet-colored Chesterfields, walking with women in high-cuffed peek-a-toe slippers and dresses trimmed with kolinsky fur. Big name pimps and racketeers would cruise Seventh Avenue in Phantons and Rolls Royces, while prostitutes in expensive-looking cut-rate duds from Delancy Street patrolled the sidewalks.
During the week, however, all those silk lead sheets were neatly folded in their boxes. From Monday through Friday the gangsters and whores disappeared, and Seventh Avenue once more belonged to the laborers who earned their living along the Great Black Way.
Harlem's working stiffs maybe had two nickels left over to rub together after they scraped up enough ready each month to pay their landlord and the corner grocer. Many were too proud to accept Divine's charity, however, even for a free lunch. They managed each day with a butter sandwich packed in brown paper, or a pear stuffed into one of their coat pockets. If any of these Joes ever did find themselves with a spare dime for lunch, they instinctively avoided the smaller restaurants and cafes lining the boulevard. They knew ten cents at the right Seventh Avenue bar would buy a couple of beers where a guy could discreetly wolf his fill of free cheese, salami, and crackers.
The sun came back out from behind its cloud just before one o'clock. About the same time I spotted a couple of boys as they ambled down the thoroughfare along its parkline, tossing a bruised and battered brown baseball back and forth. Cars skimmed by heedlessly on either side of the kids, while the workers hurried back to their jobs. Very few people bothered to notice, much less appreciate, the children as they played their game of catch. I watched them until they were out of sight, and for a few minutes I felt a lot like I had imagined Virginia Welles must have that morning, when she watched me drive out of the Waldorf's garage with Big Bertha.
De Shields strolled out from Heaven a few minutes later. He looked satisfied as he picked his teeth with a fingernail, a ketchup stain on one of his lapels.
You grifter! You did steal a meal!
The detective flagged down a passing cab and climbed in.
Gee. Maybe he's actually going to get around to doing some work today.
I figured we would stay inside the borough, or maybe stop off at De Shield's office, but I was wrong. It didn't take long to realize his cab was headed uptown.
Okay. So where are we going now? Ben's lawyers?
Strike two. At West 55th the hack turned into the driveway of The Tamara, a tr`es chic apartment building. The cabbie waited long enough for De Shields to pay him, then sped away while his passenger walked across the forecourt. I hid back at the mouth of the driveway, long enough for De Shields to pass through an arched frame in dishpan mosaic and up a small flight of marble stairs. The entrance was at the inside of an L, where a Negro porter opened the door for De Shields. Once the detective was inside the lobby, I steered Bertha up the drive and past a pale blue neon light that pointed the way into the basement garage. No attendants were in sight, so I parked Bertha in the first available stall.
"I'll be right back," I assured the car as I patted its dashboard. "I promise."
Back upstairs and outside, I strolled to the forecourt to wait for De Shields. The doorman immediately gave me the once-over, so I started to march to an impatient tune and occasionally glared at my watch. He had no reason to doubt I was anything more than a guy who was here to wait on a gal or a pal inside the apartments, which wasn't all that far from the truth.
Fifteen minutes later De Shields stepped out of an elevator and into the lobby, his face cast down and his shoulders tucked in close. He looked disappointed.
I glanced at my watch one more time, tossed my hands into the air, and said, "Hey, to hell with her!" just loud enough for the porter to hear me before I tramped back into the garage. Once I was beside the stairwell I stopped, turned around, and watched as De Shields asked the doorman to flag down a taxi. In a rush I went back to Bertha, cranked her up, and drove out of the garage in time to see the detective leave the Tamara inside his third cab of the day.
Our next call was over in Gramercy Park West. The cab pulled up alongside a squat curb that ran parallel to a high brick wall speckled with hail chips and veined with bare ivy vines. The wall circled around a languid antebellum mansion, interrupted only by an iron arch in whose decorative rusting curlicues could be read the name "Denbrough."
Unlike our last two stops, De Shields told this cabbie to wait as he strolled through the arch and up the main drive. He stepped under the portico and knocked on the recessed front door, ignoring the lion's head knocker and careful to avoid metal filigree that resembled a portcullis. A starched butler with a face fresh from the embalmer's dutifully answered, and the detective was ushered inside.
It took a lot of willpower to keep myself from running up the Denbroughs' drive to introduce myself to Miss Claudette. Fortunately I didn't have to restrain myself too long. I hardly had time to shift Bertha into neutral and turn off the engine before De Shields stomped back out of the mansion. He was obviously outraged, his scowl uglier than the wrath of God. De Shields jumped back into his cab, slammed shut the passenger side door so hard the vehicle actually rocked, and barked, "The Astoria! Now!"
The cabbie was a wise man and did as he was told with as little fuss and delay as possible. Once De Shields was safely inside the salon, I parked my own car up the street and made my way back to the Astoria's picture window. As casually as I could I peeked inside between the hand painted 'I' and 'A'. De Shields was hunkered down in a rear booth, two bottles of Knickerbockers in front of him, one beer having already given up its life for the cause. The detective was sulking and steaming, not at all in a good mood.
My first reaction was to go inside and buy him a few rounds. Do my best to buck up his sagging spirits. That's what you did for a friend, and while the detective and I were hardly pals, I couldn't help but feel kindly towards a colleague. He could have zipped his lip about the Denbroughs, Rose, Ben, and Jack Carter, but hadn't, which I figured was worth something.
On the other hand, it didn't take an Einstein to figure out how De Shields would respond if I sauntered into the Astoria and confessed I had followed him from one cab to another all afternoon. A better idea seemed to be to backtrack and question the people De Shields had paid a call on at Heaven and the Tamara. But even there I had a problem. Who exactly had he talked to? And what would I ask them?
My best bet seemed to be to pay a call on the Denbroughs. Something had definitely happened at their place. Something I doubted De Shields was going to feel like telling me about anytime soon.
But there, again, was a problem. How did I approach Norton's grieving mother without offending her? One wrong word and Miss Claudette would probably never tell me what had set De Shields off.
You could always take Chinaman with you.
That was true. He was an expert in etiquette and fluent in hoity-toity.
Better yet, why not break the ice with a celebrity?
Orson. Now there was an idea. The brat spoke hoity-toity as well as Chinaman, and scarcely a day had gone by since rehearsals for Macbeth had begun that some Knickerbocker newspaper hadn't exploited his mug or his name.
So which is it going to be? I asked myself. Your big-nosed penguin of a valet or the Wisconsin Wunderkind with the untamed mouth?
There was only one intelligent way to decide. I pulled a silver dollar from my pants pocket and got ready to fillip it above my head. "Heads, it's Orson. Tails, it's the penguin."
The coin shot into the air.
It came down, I caught it, then slapped it on my wrist.
I pulled back my hand to see who had won.