San Moreno, California
Thursday, June 29, 1950
The plastic Hawaiian dancer swerved from side to side, glued to the dash. I was driving to the meet. Every song on the radio sounded dissonant, like they were playing two different songs in two different keys. I punched the buttons to find something and gave up when the news came on. I gripped the side of my head with my right hand and steered with my left.
I turned into my parking spot near the bank and put the car in park. For the umpteenth time, I thought back to the tunnels. I could picture them —gray, cold, and silent. But I was losing the details. What was it Jordan had said to me? All that came to mind was the sweat dripping down his face and the blood spattered on his chest as he silently pleaded for something. I never figured that out.
My head hurt. A ray of pain went through my skull like it wasn’t my own.
I need to stop thinking about the war, I told myself.
I got out of the car and sat on a rusty park bench with time to kill.
I was out on surveillance, awaiting the arrival of a powder-blue Cadillac driven by a known deadbeat named Hal Sanford. If there was one thing you got used to in the army, it was sitting around waiting.
A spotted towhee flitted past me, its feathers orange against the blue sky. As I followed its flight across the park, I pulled out a pack of Hermanos, glanced around, and lit up. The smoke was sweet but harsh and burned my throat in that familiar way. In a few minutes, things would calm down. I scanned nearby vehicles to stay sharp and pass the time.
There was a green Chevy Fleetmaster with a “Jail the Hollywood Ten” bumper sticker parked on the north side in front of the Pacific National Bank. The driver had slicked-back hair and was staring at the bank. I couldn’t tell if he was hoping for a loan or casing the joint.
In front of the Chilli-Villa, a blue-and-white ’49 Ford F-1 panel truck idled, a Dutch Boy Dairy sign on the side. The sign looked orange, or it might have been a trick from the light. The driver, in a navy uniform with bright-blue piping, was chatting up two women at the restaurant’s service door. Women love a man in uniform, even a milkman.
They looked like sisters or cousins in matching white aprons. The older one brushed hair from her eye and looked to the ground, avoiding his gaze. Her smile fractured. War widow, I surmised. The younger one was oblivious, hoping to catch his attention. When she did, her laughter filled the air, and he smiled like Liberace. There’s something between those two, I thought. He turned toward his truck, his smile vanishing as he swung a crate into the back. I couldn’t see it working out between them. He was damaged goods.
I took note of everything as I watched the parade of humanity around me. Interpreting gestures and emotions, layering in hidden motives. It didn’t mean anything to me except as a way to keep my mind off other issues. Just like smoking Hermanos. I took in another deep pull and let it out slowly. I was starting to feel it.
It had been five years since Mittelwerk, and I was still looking for Jordan. I wondered what he’d think of me now, the way I was living. What would I tell him? I’m doing all right, brother. How ‘bout you?
After I landed stateside, I took the train to Interlochen, ahead of Jordan’s memorial. I couldn’t accept that he was dead, so I stayed on one more stop to Traverse City. I walked three blocks to buy a pint and caught the next train south. In my haste, I lost my return ticket. The conductor waved it off. “Glad you made it back, son.” With that, I drank myself into a stupor that went on for months.
I disappeared in Detroit. I couldn’t go back to being a cop. Not after what I’d been through. So I rented a room and worked construction. I had loads of new friends, drinking buddies, that sort, and worse. I never told anybody what happened in the tunnels of Mittelwerk. How could I? I still didn’t understand it. And I sure as hell didn’t want anyone’s pity.
Now it was a new decade, and we were all doing great. At least, that’s what they told us. New schools and neighborhoods were popping up across the country. America was awash in new TVs, manufactured food, and a made-to-order red scare to keep everyone in line. Senator Joe McCarthy was peddling enemies in our midst—communists—and people were buying it like penny candy.
Well, maybe not everyone. Every frontline soldier had seen and done things he couldn’t speak of. Every family lost someone. And there was nothing that Spanish jugglers on Ed Sullivan or fifteen-cent Lucky Lagers could do to change that.
Sometimes it felt like another war was on the horizon. I’d heard on the radio last week that a Russian spy was arrested in New York. An Army sergeant named Greenglass who had worked at Los Alamos on the bomb. He spilled everything to the reds. The gall. Now he’s spilling more to the FBI. In Germany, we knew exactly who our enemies were.
Soldiers buried their memories, like they buried their friends, deep as they could. Hoping the pain would fade over time. And if it didn’t, maybe after a few years, a guy could save enough money to buy a cabin in the woods, take up fly fishing, and, one day, as likely as not, blow his brains out.
Like I said, I was doing all right. I didn’t even like fly fishing.
I hit bottom, though, drinking myself away in Detroit. It took me half a year to straighten up and save some money. The whole time, Faith kept writing. It was the one bright spot in my life. She believed in me even when I hadn’t. Eventually, she repeated her invitation to visit her in San Moreno. I had to see if there was something there or not, so I motored west and promised Faith I would never fall back to my old ways. That was more than a year ago.
Now we had a business going—the Robner & Waters Detective Agency. We’d solved some insurance cases and were starting to build a reputation. Today had been a slow morning at the office, which was not uncommon. Still, I had my daily rituals, flipping through pictures of Jordan, making my weekly action list, writing letters to congressmen and low-level army officials for support, making supervised visits to military records offices to search the Spinners, files labeled “Service Personnel Not Recovered.” As Faith reminded me, I was making as much progress as a monkey tackling Shakespeare.
I took another puff and the chaos of the world melted away just a little in the afternoon sunshine. I was tired and stoned and I didn’t care.
I started the morning at 4:00 a.m., as I had every day for nearly two weeks, hanging on the wire for an overseas phone call. I was chasing a lead from a Red Cross shortwave broadcast. The rollcall of displaced soldiers included a GI found in Berlin, comatose and disfigured. When the phone call finally came from Geneva, I couldn’t hear a thing for all the static. I shouted for them to telegram the vitals. Four hours later, it came in a three-squib, station-to-station message relayed by Western Union in Los Angeles: Five feet four, blue eyes, 58kg.
A dead end. I slammed another drink. It wasn’t even 8:00 a.m.
Faith arrived at the office at 9:00. She sniffed the air, looked at me, and turned to leave. But not before we had an argument.
She wanted us to drive up to San Francisco over the weekend, see some old friends of hers, layabouts Patty and Paul. Poets or artists or something. I’d forgotten about her plans and organized a gig on Sunday.
“So I have to cancel?” She crossed her arms. She was looking at me with her head tilted to one side.
“I’m sorry, honey.”
There was a long pause. Finally, she shrugged. “Well, if you’re with Mick, at least you’ll stay out of trouble.”
Mick had a charming, easy-going vibe, but he had his finger in all kinds of pies. For some reason, Faith thought of him as my guardian.
She wasn’t wrong. She wasn’t wrong about any of it.
We’d built our little agency together. It was meant to be a precursor to marriage. A test run to see if we could work together. That part was fine. But there were cracks. And every day I saw them getting deeper. I wondered whether I should patch them up or reach in with a crowbar and tear it all apart.
I was getting warm, sitting on the bench in the sunshine. The pleasant feeling was boosted by the jag from the Hermanos. It made me nostalgic, so I reached for my wallet, slipped my right thumb behind my P.I. license, and pulled it out.
It was a black-and-white photo of Jordan and me, taken long before the war. We grew up on a farm in Paradise Township, Michigan, a few miles from Kingsley. The picture kindled a lot of colorful memories. We were standing in front of our father’s International farm truck in the bright August sun. Brush cuts, big eyes, shirtless in dungarees. Absolute friends, arms over each other’s shoulders, knowing this last bit of summer freedom was coming to an end. I was all smiles, looking up. Jordan posed seriously, head tilted. Jordan was on a scholarship to study languages at Yale. I never understood that. I’d wanted a job, and so I was headed for training with the state troopers in Lansing. We shared the carefree optimism of young Americans about to enter the world.
Back then, I would challenge people with the photo to see if they could tell who was who, but now I didn’t talk about Jordan. He was lost and I was still here and I couldn’t get over it.
I stared at the photograph. None of the promises in that picture came through. There wasn’t a day I didn’t replay in my head what happened in the tunnels and what I could have done differently.
I leaned back against the park bench, closed my eyes, and drifted until the town clock struck three. I hoped Faith had cooled off.
A loud crack cut the air like a gunshot. It flew straight into my brain. I jumped to my feet, a sharp pain in my temple. My vision shimmered and the color drained from everything. For an instant, I saw the face of my nightmares. The man in the SS jacket. His face gaunt, like a skull. He stared at me and laughed.
I shuddered and squeezed my eyes tight. I thought back to Faith at the evac hospital in Nordhausen, when she whispered in my ear. I wondered if things would ever be okay again.
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. There was my target. A powder-blue ‘42 Cadillac four-door pulled in behind the milk truck. It was his car that had backfired. His brakes squeaked and blue smoke poured out of the exhaust. Sanford had let the Caddy go like an unpaid bill.
That’s why we’d arranged the meeting.
I followed Sanford at a safe distance as he made his way to the Bella Vista Inn, across the street. The hotel bar, the Galley Room, was a typical upscale watering hole with a big mahogany setup in the center; dim, red velvet booths around the edges; and thick drapes that obscured the windows. It was a private place to pick up, break up, or crack up, whatever the situation called for.
I gave him a minute, then strolled in and took a seat at the bar, close to the entrance. I dropped two quarters on the bar top for a beer. Best to leave a big tip in case I needed the barman on my side. As planned, Faith was sitting at the far booth, facing the door, so Sanford wouldn’t see me when he sat down opposite her.
Faith wore her red Hazel Bishop lipstick. Her hair was down. She was a knockout in her white blouse and a black-and-red paisley accent scarf, playing it up for Sanford. It was a variation on Mutt and Jeff, army interrogation. Faith was the friendly start. I was the heavy, on call. If Faith touched her right cheek, that meant I was to step in. If she brushed back her hair, I was to stand down.
Sanford had been a jocular client in the rag trade, but he turned shy once our bill was presented. He had a problem with disappearing inventory, which we cracked within three days. His dresses were walking out the door, two layers undercover with the night shift employees, a dozen or more every night.
Now his bill was six months overdue, and he wasn’t answering my phone calls. Faith had figured out a plan to get paid. She understood his type and got her hook in by suggesting they meet for a drink at a hotel.
Within two minutes of Sanford’s arrival, she brushed back her hair. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was the plan we’d agreed to, so I donned my hat and left. I tried to catch her eye, but Faith was a pro—once she made her call, that was it. Was she still angry from this morning?
Twenty minutes after I got to the office, Faith returned, too. I was sitting at the spinet tucked in the corner, trying to remember some long-lost jazz chords. My parents made me take lessons as a kid and I used to torment my teacher by playing boogie-woogie instead of Brahms.
I turned toward the door. Faith’s hair was tied back, her usual business style. She walked toward me and leaned across the piano and pulled a small packet of fifty-dollar bills from a Pacific National envelope, letting them flutter onto the keys, one at a time. Eight of them. That was more than we’d earned in all of June. Her eyebrows were raised high. She slowly pulled away her scarf and it looked like she had burst two buttons on her blouse. She winked. “Sanford came across, in full.”
She put her hands on her hips and beamed. “I told him he either walked with me to the bank to get the cash immediately, or I would drive to Inglewood to tell Mrs. Sanford why her husband worked so many late nights.”
Her eyebrows danced. “His eyes popped out even further than yours did.” She flicked the scarf at me.
I felt my face get hot and I started to stammer an objection, but she just laughed.
“Jack, don’t be such a prude. You should be proud of me. I used what I had to get leverage. That was brains, not body.”
It was hard working with someone you loved. The relationship seemed to always get in the way of business. Or maybe I had it backward.