Novels

Augustus’ Smarter Brother (part 4)

April 27, 2017

 

Digging Deeper

 

Jules maneuvered his car towards Chinatown hoping to find a parking space where it was not hidden in the shadows. There wasn’t anything to steal in the car but that did not prevent the curious from breaking in. The 1952 Plymouth did not like the hills. It was only a six-cylinder engine designed for economy, not power. The paint had faded and worn in places, displaying a hint of rust beneath. He didn’t see any reason to replace it since it got him to where he needed to go. A little wash and dash of wax made the old buggy look fine.

“We should have brought my car,” complained Augustus. “We hardly look like lucrative detectives driving through town.”

“Stop you’re whining, Augie. I’ll avoid the really steep hills. I can make it up California Street with her. She’s not that bad. And besides, we don’t want to look like detectives. It’s like waving a red flag at a bull, dummy. We need to be inconspicuous.”

“Oh right,” responded Augustus. “Now that you mention it, I read that somewhere.”

Two blocks from the apothecary they found a place to park. Julius had not formulated a specific plan at this point but decided to ask about the Chinese woman in a round about fashion. Perhaps the woman will be dropping by while they are there. A few veiled, tactful questions might yield names.

Chinatown looked so different in the daytime. The dark, secretive allies of the night before held signs in Chinese, often in red. The buildings also had many splashes of red decorating shutters and trim. At night the red turned black without lighting. An odd fact considering, fire engines in the city were all red. Then again, police cars were black and white. But they also had bright flashing lights to warn people.

In the daylight they had almost missed the apothecary. It was an unpainted building with a sign in Chinese. One could assume it was the calling of those inside the building. Julius noted the apartments above the establishment, four stories. Side doorways and stairs gave access to those residences. He had not noticed them before. Streaks of rust ran down the sides of adjacent buildings with fire escapes. The unkempt buildings were the slums waiting to burn down or be condemned. The city didn’t care about this part of town so the former was the only urban renewal in Chinatown.

From the outside Julius could not detect any movement within. The whitewashed windows made it appear vacant. Julius tried the door handle; it twisted open revealing the same bins and displays they had seen before. No one was at the counter but a noise from the back suggested someone was about to meet them The apothecary appeared looking blandly at the two men, his recent memory placing them there the night before.

“Good day, gentlemen,” said the apothecary his words heavily accented. “How is father?”

“Our father is dead,” blurted out Augustus. Julius kicked his foot sideways to keep his brother quiet.

“My brother means our father is dying,” corrected Julius. “I fear our grief, at his suffering, has made us feel as if he were dead already.”

“Oh, yeah,” amended Augustus. “Grief. That’s what I meant.”

“Ah, yes,” replied the apothecary a bit more wary. “I know of such grief. My own father has left this earth a short time ago. He was very old.”

“I was hoping we might come to some agreement about, … ahem!.. remedy we spoke of. I know you do not sell to Caucasians. But perhaps someone else can purchase it for us.”

“Perhaps,” responded the apothecary noncommittally. “Many come with problems. I do not ask questions. They use herbs the way I tell them. That is all.”

A sleepy Chinese woman came through the door. She was dressed comfortably in a silk robe and strikingly beautiful. Augustus couldn’t help staring at her. She rubbed her eyes and smiled back at him. The smile was insincere but inviting.

She babbled something in Chinese to the apothecary, who brought out a small package for her. She paid him exchanging a few more animated words. On her way out the woman swung her hips more suggestively than when she entered, an obvious attempt to impress the men.

“Lady just hear of your sadness,” reported the apothecary pointing at the departing woman. “She say she expert in making man happy again. Live upstairs. Very good.”

“What does she have to make us happy?” asked Augustus staring at the place where she exited.

“Lady have talent in physical pleasures,” answered the apothecary. “Very reasonable and very good.”

“Uh, that’s not exactly what we had in mind,” responded Julius. “Though I appreciate the gesture.”

“Yes, grief not always satisfied with woman,” replied the apothecary.

“Oh, I don’t know,” ventured Augustus. “I wouldn’t mind…”

Julius kicked his brother again.

“There was a woman who you said used the remedy,” said Julius. “Not to be disrespectful to you or to her, I would still like to talk to her about the results. Perhaps she can direct me in how it works.”

“I cannot say whether this woman would wish to speak with you,” returned the apothecary, his face maintaining calm. “She come in this time of day. Miss Liu uses my herbs and remedies to help others in Chinatown, those, who cannot afford a hospital doctor. She is better than a white doctor. Very skilled woman in medicine.”

“I see,” commented Julius. “Fascinating. I never knew anything like that existed.”

“Many things happen which outsiders know nothing of,” added the apothecary.

“Since we have to wait,” Augustus suggested pointing to the floor above.

“We would not like to miss the healing woman, Augie,” said Julius glaring at his brother. “We’ll wait outside.”

“By the way,” added Julius. “What does Miss Liu look like?”

The apothecary shrugged saying, “She Chinese. Not so young like lady upstairs.”

It wasn’t much of a description but then Julius wasn’t an expert at distinguishing specific characteristics of Asian women. Augustus looked toward the ceiling as they went out the door. Julius didn’t want to know why. Julius felt the woman might not come in if two Caucasian men are there. The locals were wary of non-Chinese in their community. It was best to give the woman room and hope Miss Liu would feel comfortable enough to disclose details of her practice.

“Augie, we will wait for awhile,” announced Julius. “If Miss Liu doesn’t show up in the next twenty minutes, we’ll go back to work and try again later. There’s still a lot to do in the office before closing. This little charade is not a priority.”

“Do you think we could grab something to eat?” ventured Augustus. “I’m starved.”

“There are some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the car,” answered Julius. “If you’re that hungry go back and get them. I’ll stick around here.”

“Peanut butter and jelly?” complained Augustus. “What an imagination! Couldn’t you at least make something good?”

“My wife is still out of town and I used up all the cold cuts in the fridge,” reported Julius. “I wouldn’t complain if I were you. You could have made your own lunch. I told you where we were going last night.”

Augustus stomped off like a spoiled child to get the peanut butter sandwiches. Meanwhile Julius stood at the corner a few buildings away from the apothecary. From his vantage point he could see everyone who came and went from that building. He could only take a guess which woman would be the one he sought.

Five minutes later a woman from the apartments above came down to the apothecary. She was dressed very much like the young woman who came in before. He could barely make out her face but believed she was young like the other woman. False alarm, he thought. The woman glanced at him when she left, holding something to her chest. He heard her giggle as she opened the door to the inside stairwell.

That old man must be telling everyone about us, he thought. I wonder what’s taking Augie so long with those sandwiches. He should have been back by now. I hope he hasn’t done anything stupid.

A few more minutes passed before Augustus showed up. He was eating noodles out of a cardboard bowl with chopsticks. It was comical watching him scoop up a large amount of noodles only to have most fall back into the bowl before getting them into his mouth. Julius was sure the locals found it equally funny. Augustus’ suit had several spots where the noodles had flailed, spattering drops of cooking oil.

“So, where’s the peanut butter sandwiches?” asked Julius.

“Oh, yeah, I decided to buy this at a little hole in the wall I found,” answered Augustus. “It smelled good when I was walking by. Guy didn’t speak any English, either. Had to point a lot to get him to sell me some of this.”

“And where are the sandwiches, Augie?”

“I never made it to the car, Jules. It took awhile to get my food, so I came back as soon as I did. Didn’t want you to worry about me. Boy, I don’t know what kind of meat this is but it’s pretty good.”

“Maybe it’s better you don’t know what it is,” mumbled Julius aware of the unique diet of the culture.

Julius stared at the apothecary’s place, his stomach growling. A peanut butter sandwich would have been nice about now. His brother’s omission was not one of meanness; Augustus never looked beyond his own needs. The slightest distraction would send him off on a rabbit trail. Julius accepted this about his brother and held no ill toward him. Yet it was frustrating at times.

Julius looked at his watch. No one entered the apothecary. It didn’t look very hopeful. It will take three minutes to walk back to the car, another ten to twelve minutes to get back to the office. If they left now they would only be fifteen minutes late from lunch. But why should he worry? He was the boss. He sort of made his own hours anyhow. Julius decided to wait a few more minutes.

People on the streets passed the men by, some looking and some completely oblivious to their presence. Augustus had finished his noodles and wandered about trying to dispose of the cardboard bowl. He found a trashcan in an alley across the street, depositing his garbage on the top of the lid. The can was overflowing and would have spilled its contents had the lid been removed.

A Chinese woman walked by Julius giving him a quick glance as she turned the corner towards the apothecary. Her face did not betray her age. It was full, pleasant and common. Julius could see it in her eye, the suspicion she felt. She did not stop, continuing up the street until she reached the apothecary. The woman looked over her shoulder at Julius, deciding to enter the building in spite of her suspicions. Was this the woman?

The lady of questionable virtue came down from the upper apartments and walked towards the corner where Julius was. She smiled looking him over with renewed interest. Augustus was still in the alley attempting to scrape something off the bottom of his shoe.

“Father die, you not happy,” she said putting on her best come-hither look. “I make you very happy. You like?”

“Sorry miss, I’m afraid that’s not what I need at the moment.”

“Then you go away,” she snapped. “My corner here. You find other corner.”

At that moment Augustus returned looking back at his foot as if it were trailing a piece of toilet paper.

“God, that alley was disgusting,” he grumbled. “The smell was enough to knock you over. I stepped in something too. I don’t think it was anything nasty; I’ll have to check later.”

He looked up to see the lady on the corner. He smiled flashing his eyes at the lovely working girl. She pursed her lips in a suggestive kiss, sliding a leg through the slit in her dress. Though covered by a thick coat, he could see she possessed all the elements an attractive woman should have. His thoughts were derailed when Julius yanked on his arm.

“We need to walk back to the apothecary, Augie,” declared Julius. “I think our woman, Miss Liu has arrived.”

Augustus followed reluctantly looking back at the young woman on the corner. At the door Julius stopped short, Augustus almost running into him..

“We can’t go barging in like a herd of buffalo,” he muttered. “You wait here while I go in.” Sensing an argument he added, “I’ll let you know what happens, Augie. I just don’t want to woman scared off. This won’t take long.”

 

Naughty or Nice

Nathan Knox continued his elimination process by calling other suspects on the list. One name on Bernie’s list was a woman called Krystal Epstein. He checked to see if the woman had a record. That was pretty standard for all suspects. To his surprise she had a long list of negative encounters with the police in several of the Bay Area cities and counties. The violations listed from confidence scams, theft, breaking and entering to soliciting sex. Miss Epstein was preparing for a long life of bending the laws and a long residence in jail. The more recent activity was damage of private property.

Nathan pulled the file to read the specifics. The report was filed with the San Francisco Police Department, a Bernard Schwartz claiming Miss Epstein of 7510 Ulloa willfully threw a large block of concrete through the complainant’s car window, damaging the windscreen and tearing the leather seats. The suspect then deposited a foul smelling substance inside the car.

The police dropped the charge due to insufficient evidence. Neither the concrete block nor the foul substance could be traced to Miss Epstein. It was only supported by the word of Mr. Schwartz without witnessing the action. Relationship between the two was ascertained as casual partners or ex-girlfriend.

Nathan sighed picking up the phone to arrange a meeting with Miss Epstein. The gut was telling him not to bother. His feet ached because he had forgotten to change the arch supports in his shoes. Flat feet and fallen arches had taken its toll when he was a beat officer. As an investigator he still managed to be on his feet more than he wished. Miss Epstein was the next best lead he had. Obviously this woman had it in for Bernie and likewise.

“Hello,” began Nathan standing at the doorstep. “Are you Krystal Epstein?”

“Who wants to know?” she answered. “I could be; then again, I might not be. Depends.”

“My name is Inspector Knox of the San Francisco Police Department,” he continued. “I’m investigating a criminal matter regarding Bernard Schwartz. I understand you had an association with Mr. Schwartz, recently.”

“Yeah, and they can’t prove anything,” she shouted back. “The charges were dropped. I hope you’re not digging this up because Bernie paid you off. That would really piss me off. I have my rights, you know.”

“No, Miss Epstein,” corrected Nathan. “It has nothing to do with the car incident. Mr. Schwartz is dead, perhaps murdered. Haven’t you read it in the papers?”

“Dead?” she responded surprised. “Why you calling me then? You think I would kill Bernie? Ha! The man had serious enemies, more than me. I only want to hit him where it hurts, pal. Get my meaning?”

“I see,” replied Nathan. “You were pretty angry with him, then?”

“Bernie screwed me good,” she continued. “Bastard even took money from me, one thousand dollars. Claimed he was investing it for me. I found out he was investing it in some brunette bimbo. I didn’t care about the other girl. He wasn’t exactly my exclusive client, if you know what I mean. But we made a deal. I would be his regular for six months and then he’d set me up with a good investment instead of paying me outright.”

“So you weren’t angry with him because he was cheating on you?” asked Nathan. “You provided a professional personal service, implied of course. Then he didn’t honor the financial arrangement.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she answered mockingly. “That was part of the gyp. He didn’t want to pay up front. Gave me some story about doubling my money in a few months. I looked at his house and car and figured the guy might be right. Guys with money do that kind of thing. He lied to me, of course.”

“You didn’t wish to pursue the matter legally?” asked Nathan.

Krystal rolled her eyes. “It’s not exactly something I can bring up in court, Mr. Knox. Think about it.”

“Yes, I see,” he returned. “So then you did nothing?”

Her mouth twisted into a stupid expression. Once again she rolled her eyes.

“This is off the record?” she inquired afraid her statement can be used against her. “Not that I had anything to do with it, but there was the car thing. You could say that was a little payback.”

“Did you spend a lot of time in Mr. Schwartz’s house?” asked Nathan.

“No, he preferred using another location for our business arrangement.”

“I thought you said something about him having a nice house,” suggested Nathan.

“Yeah, I only saw it once when he needed to stop to get his rotten cigars. I saw enough to know the man was rollin’ in dough.”

“Miss Epstein, do you have any drugs or poisons in your home?”

“No drugs,” she answered slightly irritated. “You trying to set me up? Got ant poison. That’s all. Why? Did Bernie get knocked off with ant poison? Now that would be something. A guy like him, it should have been ‘rat’ poison.”

“I’m afraid I can discuss that with you, Miss Epstein. I think that’s all I have for now. I may need to talk to you sometime in the future. I would prefer you stay in town for the next couple of weeks.”

“Hey, I have work outside of the city, pal,” she grumbled. “I can’t always be around when you feel like it. I have a regular, er, client in Sausalito on Fridays. I’d give you his number but I doubt his wife would be too happy taking my messages there. I’ll be around, don’t get you shorts in an uproar.”

Nathan left the residence of Krystal Epstein, his gut feeling telling him she was just another dead end. However, the issue of money gave her a perfect motive for the crime. Though rough around the edges, she appeared to be the type to do petty things in retribution. The damaged car was more her speed, not murder.

There was also the question of access to Bernie’s home. Krystal didn’t have a key to the house, or so she implied. She could be lying about that but he doubted that. Nathan will have to chalk her up as a viable suspect despite his gut feeling. The list of potentials grew by the minute. Bernie’s habits opened another direction of questioning. If he did frequent street women, there was the possibility of someone else, or another pro having a vendetta against Bernie.

 

Undercover

Miss Liu swiveled around when Julius entered the shop. A whispered exchange followed between the apothecary and Liu. She kept her eyes to the floor, avoiding Julius’ gaze. She was a woman in her early forties, plain and common as far as Julius could tell. She had a face that could disappear in a crowd of her fellow Chinese. The apothecary beckoned Julius with a wave of the hand.

“This Miss Liu,” he announced softly. “I tell her about your father. She very sad for you.”

“Does Miss Liu speak English?” asked Julius.

“Yes, she speak but not very good,” returned the apothecary. “In this country only two year from China. Learn some English from British. Not enough.”

“Perhaps you can help if she doesn’t understand me,” suggested Julius. “I wouldn’t want to offend her.”

“Yes, I understand,” answered the apothecary. “Good idea.”

“Could Miss Liu tell me how well the remedy worked on her client?” questioned Julius. “Was it fast and painless? You can understand why I ask such a thing.”

There was a brief exchange of words in Chinese followed by some head shaking and hand gestures.

“She say, she not use,” replied the apothecary. “Sell to other Chinese woman, who have sick relative. She say, remedy work very well. Use many time before with others. Other woman ask same thing. Other woman, never use before. Not know how quick.”

“Did she know the other woman?” inquired Julius.

Another flurry of singsong foreign words moved between the woman and the apothecary. Miss Liu was becoming uncomfortable with the questioning.

“She say, woman older. Friend of woman tell about Miss Liu,” answered the apothecary. “Many times better not to know. Remedy very strong and make trouble with police in this country. She never know what Chinese woman use for. Never ask.”

Julius could see the doors were closing on this conversation. To pry any more would kill any possibilities of finding the right person. He decided to end the inquiry.

“Thank Miss Liu for her help,” said Julius. “I don’t suppose she would help me in my situation. I could pay well for her services.”

The apothecary translated for Miss Liu with her shaking her head at the end.

“Miss Liu say she can only do for Chinese,” returned the owner of the shop. “But she wish father pass quickly. She very sad for you.”

Julius was about to leave, stopping short of the front door. He reached inside his pocket and extracted a business card. He handed it to Miss Liu with a nod and left the shop without another word. He wasn’t sure why he had done that, an impulse or something. The woman didn’t speak very good English and wouldn’t be able to call him in the first place. On the other hand, it might show his on-going need for information about the remedy/poison. Maybe then, she might decide to accommodate him.

Augustus lingered at the corner, watching people pass by. Tourists paid no attention to him and the Chinese eyed him with suspicion. A few working girls waltzed in front of him to see if he was interested in their services. Men often cruised this part of town, looking for sexual diversions. Lunchtime and evenings were the prime times for such activities, the girls taking full advantage.

“So, what you find out Jules?”

“Not too much, I’m afraid,” answered Julius. “The woman, Miss Liu sold the poison to another woman. She didn’t know her so I couldn’t dig any deeper. Besides I could see she was getting nervous. I don’t know if any of this will help Mr. Knox.”

“Who cares about him?” replied Augustus. “We’re the ones who will bust this case wide open. The cop will only blow it.”

“Augie, I have to remind you, they are the professionals, not us. I’m only doing this because you had to stick your nose in it and involve me.”

“Why don’t we tail this Liu woman when she comes out?’ suggested Augustus excited. “My crime detection books say accomplices always return to the killer. She’ll lead us right to her.”

“No!” exclaimed Julius. “We’re going back to work and finish up the day. We’ve already taken an extra forty minutes in our lunch break. Remember we set an example for our employees. I’ll tell Mr. Knox what I’ve learned. He can take care of the rest.”

“But Jules!” complained Augustus. “We got the woman in our sights. How can you pass this up?”

“No, and that’s it,” barked Julius. “No arguments. I’d be willing to bet Miss Liu won’t be leaving by the front door. She looked pretty tense.”

“How can you be so sure there is a back door?” grumbled Augustus.

“It’s simple, dear brother,” answered Julius. “When we were in the shop, I could see a staircase and light behind the curtain. Most of these places have back allies for garbage cans and such. Where do you think all these allies lead to? There’s got to be a back door. Let’s go.”

 

Kitchens and Kittens

Nathan followed a couple more leads with as much success as before. Suspects were pilling up like cordwood. He had enough motives to bury Bernie twenty times over. What he didn’t have was any concrete evidence against anyone. The day had worn down to a fruitless outcome. He will go home kick off his shoes and hope dinner was ready. His wife will continue to yap about remodeling the kitchen and that was fine for the time being.

The driveway to his house had a huge dumpster parked in it. A trail of debris lead down the front steps, a man sporting a cowboy hat followed the same path to the dumpster carrying more debris.

“Who the hell are you?” demanded Nathan.

“Freddie Oldhouse of A-1 remodeling,” answered the man. “Who the hell are you?”

“I live here,” replied Nathan incensed with the attitude of the stranger. “What are you doing here?”

“The misses said she wanted to remodel the kitchen,” reported Freddie. “You’re lucky I was free this week. Just got finished with a big job downtown. Took two months to wrap up. Was there so long I thought they were going to start charging me rent.” He laughed at his own joke. “Your kitchen shouldn’t take more than a month to square away. It depends on whether the wall we take out is a bearing wall. Gotta check that before we do much more.”

“Remove a wall?” replied Nathan in shock. “I never heard anything about removing a wall.”

“Hey, I only work here, pal,” Freddie returned. “I do what I’m told.”

Nathan rushed up the stairs to find his kitchen stripped of cabinets and plaster. Bare studs with electric wires and plumbing were all exposed. Gladys sat calmly in the living room reading Sunset magazine dog-earing several pages.

“Gladys, I thought we were still talking about remodeling,” grumbled Nathan. “You never said we were going to start this week. What about the stove you wanted to look at? Don’t you think we should figure out the size and all?”

“Don’t be silly, Nate. Freddie told me he can get it at contractor’s cost for us. He also said something about a deposit for the work. Do give him a check before he leaves. I wouldn’t want him to stop working.”

Nathan looked around surveying the chaos in the kitchen, which also extended into the dining area. The refrigerator buzzed and hummed right next to the china cabinet. Pots and pans were stacked against another wall. The contents of the kitchen cupboards lay scattered across the dining room table. Nathan could not say what he was thinking. He will retreat to his study and consider how to deal with his crazy wife. At least there he can get away from the mess. He had some serious work to do on the Schwartz case before dinner anyhow. His two amateurs had turned up a few new leads to follow. Nathan will have to decide what to do with the information.

Both of his daughters lived away from home. Nina, the oldest was married, living in Colorado; Zoe was attending UC Davis, seeking a degree in veterinary medicine. The girls used to share the added room in the garage area. It was spacious and adequate for the girls’ purposes. When they moved out Nathan had nabbed the room for his study. Zoe would use the second bedroom upstairs when she came. He liked the room because it was away from the rest of the house. Gladys referred to the study as ‘the dungeon’.

Nathan could still hear booming and banging as he descending the garage steps. Freddie was making his last adjustments before calling it a day. The upstairs was littered with bits and pieces of plaster and wood chips.

“Sanctuary!” he thought to himself opening the downstairs study.

It smelled funny to him. There had always been a musty smell to the place because of the dampness of San Francisco. But this was a different smell. A terrible thought occurred to him. The sewer might be blocked and leaking somewhere. That meant getting a plumber and more money.

Flipping the light switch on, the reason for the smell became clear to him. In the far left-hand corner near his desk was a box filled with sand of some sort. And around his feet sat two tiny kittens mewing, anticipating some reward. The larger of the two sported a deep orange coat with stripes, while the other was a soft gray color. Nathan was not an expert on cats, but little fellows had to be quite young, given their size.

The little gray kitten stretched his paws upward toward Nathan’s leg. Digging in with his claws he began to scale Nathan’s suit pants.

“Ow!” yelled Nathan detaching the small fuzzy creature.

“Gladys!” he shouted from the door. He repeated that until he heard her footfall on the stairs.

“What, honey?” she called back.

“Uh, what are these things in my study?” he asked.

“Kittens, silly,” she returned. “You’ve seen kittens before.”

“Yes, I have,” he answered exasperated. “But what are they doing in here?”

“All the noise upstairs frightened them,” she began. “So that was a better place for them. Besides, I didn’t want anyone to step on the little fellows. Aren’t they the cutest things?”

Communications between husband and wife often lack clarity. Men tended to become linear in their discussions, while women covered a much broader area of interest. Nathan had such a relationship with Gladys. Though he loved her, he didn’t always understand what she was trying to tell him. He would have to resort to specific questioning to get to the bottom of this new situation.

“Okay, I know what they are and sort of why they are in my study,” he replied. “Where, exactly, did they come from?” He was sure to emphasize ‘exactly’ to be sure his message could not be misinterpreted and end in some rabbit hole she may choose to go.

“Zoe brought them from Davis,” answered Gladys. “She rescued them from the pound and decided to keep them. They wouldn’t allow her to keep them in the dorm so she brought them home. I think they’re very cute. Zoe said she will take them back once she and Billie find a place to rent. So many silly rules in the dorm.”

“Billie? Who’s Billie?” probed Nathan unaware of this new information.

“Oh, I’m sure I told you about him,” Gladys continued. “He’s a nice boy who is in his last year at Davis. They spend a lot of time together when they aren’t studying. Zoe really likes him.”

“Studying. Yes, I see,” followed Nathan. “Roommates.”

Nathan was about to throw his objections into the mix about his daughter sharing a place with, to his mind, a relative stranger. But his attention shifted back to the ankle-biting kittens. While Gladys and Nathan discussed the matter at hand, the tiny orange kitten had begun to chew on Nathan’s shoelaces. One of the plastic tips had already been destroyed.

“Gladys, I’m not crazy about kittens in my study,” he said firmly. “I have important papers in here. I can’t have a bunch of kittens running about. How am I going to focus on my work with them chewing on my shoes and climbing on my leg?”

“It’s only for a little while, Nate. Don’t be such a grouch.”

Nathan knew this was not an argument he was going to win. Gladys and the girls had always gotten what they wanted as long as he could remember. His job was a facilitator. Nina had wanted horseback riding lessons. Zoe wanted tap dancing lessons. The list went on and on, Nathan bending to their demands. For now it was the kitchen and the kittens.

 

Calm Before the Storm

Julius called Nathan Knox with the information he had managed to dig up. It wasn’t much to go on but it was better than the information Nathan had to date. The necessity for the brothers to be involved beyond this point was beyond their call of duty, which suited Nathan fine. Julius was glad to return to his work, though his brother sulked since returning from Chinatown.

The timing was good considering Julius’ wife Clara had just returned from her visitations with family and old friends. Julius would be back on his diet without the beer he loved. Even without the beer he enjoyed the stability of his normal life. And business was good. Bernie’s passing left a significant gap in the stationary business. Bernie’s silent partner, Alan Cooke was truly silent. And the remainder of the workers at Schwartz and Cooke had no one to run the show. Bernie had played his cards close to his chest, letting no one in on his dealings.

The morning started off with a lukewarm Dr. Pepper. The soda machine had been accidentally unplugged in the early morning by the contractor fixing the overhead skylight. Julius didn’t care. He busied himself with the new orders piling up on his desk, Bernie’s people bailing. Later he will slip down to the coffee shop for a Danish pastry, a no-no his wife would be displeased with. His diet left him hungry most of the time. Clara will never know.

Augustus continued to sulk producing nothing in the way of real work. Even so, Julius didn’t care. Diane and the other girls will pick up the slack as they always did. An odd feeling struck Julius at mid-day. Looking over the new orders he became aware of the significance of them. A man had died. This was the legacy of a terrible murder. Taking joy in such luck was wrong; the thought had tempered Julius’ mood.

“Augie,” said Julius at the end of the day. “Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight? Clara said she was making a nice lamb stew with string beans. I know she makes enough for a small army so there will be plenty.”

“Naw, I think I’m gonna go home,” returned Augustus with his elbow on the desk his hand supporting his chin. “I’m not feeling very social. Thanks, though.”

“You’re not going to poke your nose into the murder case again?” inquired Julius a hint of concern in his voice. “Mr. Knox warned us about fooling around with his case.”

“Naw, I’m thinking of starting a new business,” he returned, moodily. “Thought I’d become a writer or something. I saw an ad in Sunset about becoming a writer. Have to send $9.95 for the information about it. Writers make lots of money. How hard could it be to crank out a couple hundred pages for a book? Maybe I could write a murder mystery.”

“That sounds safe,” admitted Julius. “The offer of dinner is open if you change your mind.”

Augustus pushed himself up from his chair, grabbing his coat of the coat rack. He sighed deeply slipping the coat on with effort. Julius watched him trudge to the door and leave without saying another word. He felt sorry for his brother. Augustus meant well but never seemed to settle on anything that was just right for him. Of course, what was right for Augustus was limited to his attention span.

Julius worked for another forty-five minutes before wrapping up all the new orders. He called his wife letting her know he would be a little late. Diane and the other girls had left long before. Alone in the office, Julius was made aware of the sounds not heard during the day. The old building creaked and vibrated with the change of temperature and the passing of large trucks. Ninth Street was the main drag off the freeway, tons of traffic passing every minute. The wheels of commerce never stopped even though people died every day. The thought made him feel insignificant.

Julius looked at the clock on the wall. He heard the hand click to the next minute, 6 pm. There were a few small orders left. None of them needed to be written out until the next morning. He should leave before Clara starts to worry. Lamb stew does not keep well. Clara did not like being kept waiting, either. It was understandable. In marriage you make promises to be considerate of each other. Despite the diet, Clara was a pretty good wife.

The steps to the ground floor moaned as Julius descended. They were a bit imposing since the builder of this ancient structure had designed shallow, steep steps. That was just the way of things in the downtown area. The building was probably built long before there were building codes. His father had made several repairs and changes years before. Old buildings needed constant care.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and prepared to set the alarm. Thirty seconds later he was outside locking the door. A stiff wind blew down Ninth Street carrying grit and discarded bits of paper. He shielded his eyes from the gust seeing one person a few yards away. At first he couldn’t make out who it was. The drunks often slept against buildings and doorways. His building did not have a good place for these people to spend the night, so it was odd to see someone.

His eyes focused on the person, a female, noting the slight build and the scarf wrapped over her head. She had her back to him and did not seem like the usual bums found around Ninth. He figured she must live in one of the cheap apartments around the area. Rent was cheap in these places over warehouses and businesses; perfect for transient tenants, who might stay a month or more. The old and destitute lived in these places. Another gust of wind made him turn away. When he turned back the woman faced him.

He couldn’t tell for sure who it was. She looked Asian, though it was difficult to tell with her wrapped up like she was. The woman looked directly at him and approached cautiously. In a few steps, Julius could see it was Miss Liu.
Meanwhile, Augustus, true to his word was filling out an order for a writer’s kit. The money didn’t seem like a lot to him. On the other hand, he couldn’t see why he needed to spend a dime to be able to write. All he had to do is sit at a typewriter and begin. Why waste money on some stupid kit? He should give it a whorl, before investing $9.95 for a pocket dictionary and a “How To” manual.

He pushed aside a bunch of boxes and books, making a clear spot for his typewriter. The only thing that remained was to seek out his typewriter, which was hidden somewhere in his house. The machine was an inexpensive portable machine. Augustus preferred the electric one they had in the office, the IBM Selectric. It was the newest thing on the market. If you held a key down it sounded like a machinegun. But the portable would have to do for the time being, until he published his first book and invest in a better machine.

After an hour of searching the typewriter was unearthed under a pile of detective novels and magazines. Cobwebs laced the interior with a thin coat of dust for good measure. He had to clean it up before pounding out the next best seller. After a little work with a vacuum hose and sewing machine oil the old typewriter came back to life.

Poised at his desk he loaded a piece of paper into the machine. It took a little while to remember how to set the margins and tabs. It wasn’t as though he had used this instrument often.

He wrestled over a title for the book. Titles are everything in a story. A catchy title can make or break a novel.

“Hmm! What about?” he mumbled repositioning himself. “Chinatown Poison! That’s it.”

Augustus typed the title at the top. Now all that remained was the story beneath. But how does one start? He began with this bit:

 

It was a sunny day in Chinatown. The streets were filled with Chinese. The Chinese all looked like trouble. There were some white people too but not many. Marlon asked himself why there were so many Chinese in this particular area? Did it remind them of China? Or was it because the place had a creepy feeling and they liked that?

 

The literary beginning suffered from the lack of training and wasted hours spent reading cheap detective stories. For the first page and a half he wrote a series of questioned. There was no substance except a glimpse at Marlon, the detective and the location, Chinatown. After an hour Augustus had finished two pages. Writing wasn’t as simple as he thought.

Perhaps he needed to set the scene somewhere else, he thought. In that case I’ll have to change the title. Maybe the Chinese aren’t interesting enough. Europeans should be a good subject for mysteries. That could be it. It might flow easier with people who weren’t so hard to figure out. I’ll tackle the new beginning after a quick burger at Mel’s or Tic Toc. My hunger could be slowing him down; giving me writer’s block. I’ve heard about things like that.

Augustus ended up at Zimms on Nineteenth Avenue. The place was a little pricier but less of a hassle with teens and cars, Mel’s being one of the major hangouts for the teens in the city. Augustus liked to go to check out the cute girls but the young girls wouldn’t give him a second look. Zimms, on the other hand was closer and dealt in a mature clientele. Lincoln High School was a few blocks away. The kids hung around there after school but not at night.

Augustus brought along his two pages and a red pencil. He decided he would revise the story injecting English, German or Russian characters. A couple stools down from him sat a cop munching on a huge burger with fries. He was just about finished, ready to pay. The manager of the restaurant waved a hand to dismiss the charge. Cops ate free at Zimms. The owner liked the visibility of police in the place. It kept the troublemakers out and discouraged thieves. Augustus was not so lucky.

Augustus drew a red line through the title. It didn’t make sense to call it Chinatown Poison if it took place in Europe. There was the possibility, however that some cities in Europe might have areas relegated to the Chinese. He re-entered the same title in red. This process continued for the next thirty minutes while he chomped on his burger. At the end the pages were almost entirely red with changes.

The waitress strolled over to him, watching what he was doing.

“Hey, buddy,” she said casually. “This isn’t a library. We got people waiting for a seat. If you’re done, I’ll get your bill.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” complained Augustus. “There’s only one couple waiting at the front door. Someone else will be leaving soon, I’m sure.”

“Listen, if you order something expensive, we are flexible,” lectured the waitress. “A lousy burger gives you a half hour, tops. You don’t leave, we can call a cop. See the sign over the menu?”

“RESTROOMS FOR PATRONS ONLY,” he read out loud.

“No, the other one,” she continued.

‘NO LOITERING’

“Define loitering,” insisted Augustus.

“That’s what you’re doing, my friend,” she answered. “I’ll be glad to wrap that pickle and tomato if you like.”

“That won’t be necessary,” he snapped. “Next time I will seek a friendlier place to eat. You may have just lost a customer.”

“I’m sure the news will break Mr. Zimm’s heart,” returned the waitress scooping up the money Augustus put on the counter.

 

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