Here at ECW, we’re of the opinion there’s nothing better to keep you warm than a thrilling new read. And we know that those of you who have yet to pick up House of Blazes by Dietrich Kalteis will want to snag a copy after reading this excerpt!
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. . . SLUMMER’S PARADISE
“I came back for what’s mine,” Levi Hayes said. “That and to kill a man.”
Levi walked on, Mack Lewis looking at him, thinking he might have passed the man for a stranger a couple days back, the five years taking its toll; he’d always called him uncle, though first cousin once removed was closer to the mark. A flicker of lineage between them: the set of the jaw, the quick brown eyes, both men tall, the shoulders broad. But Levi’s beard was showing grey, long hair going thin under the flat cap. Mack’s hair pulled behind his ears, the bowler on top.
“See, to the decent folks, the Barbary’s nothing but a back alley of vice and corruption,” Levi said, looking at the old brothels up Whiting, mostly boarded up, waiting to be torn away. Ghosts from another time. “A moral cancer on this Paris of the Pacific.”
“Learn that talk in prison?”
“Read it in the Call, talking about them and their cable cars and European opera and shit. How there’s no place for all the debauchery and killing going on all the time.”
“And you’re figuring what’s one more stiff?”
“Something like that.” Levi grinned.
Mack guessing the only time his uncle spent on the Paris side was when he was robbing the rich. Just back from serving his stretch, nabbed when he couldn’t explain the double eagle he laid down at the Ingleside track, trying to parlay his win from the first race on the nose of Black Cloud in the second.
The bet clerk possessing a sharp enough eye, noticing In God we trust missing from the face of the Liberty coin, a twenty dollar gold piece. The constable on duty clapping Levi in cuffs, same time Black Cloud finished in a dead heat.
The coin tied him to the inside job at the Old Granite Lady, the Mint down on Fifth. Levi shrugged when the presiding magistrate asked where he got the coin, not answering when asked about an inside man. The bang of the gavel sent Levi looking at a hard six in Quentin, less the twelve months for good behavior.
Sent up the same time the city blasted the hell out of Arch Rock out in the Bay, a menace to coast mariners, contractors drilling two hundred and sixty holes and packing in thirty tons of gelatin, blasting her skyward. The early edition declaring modern man now possessed the force of nature. Bottom of the page showed Levi’s photo, the caption calling him a scoundrel, begging what happened to the missing thirty thousand in gold coins.
They passed the last of the dilapidated buildings on the block, all going to wrack and ruin. Properties Marvin Healey acquired for future expansion, keeping up with the shipbuilding going on over at Potrero Point. End of the row, Levi stopped in front of a clapboard three-story suffering from long neglect, its paint peeling and faded, shingles missing, weeds waist-high out front. Looked like a good sneeze would take her to the ground.
Mack followed to the door, stepping over a board of nails. The sign hung above the door, red serifs long faded to brown, the gold outline flaked away: House of Blazes.
Snapping away a wood block holding the door closed, Levi shoved the door back on creaking hinges, walking into the dead air, a carpet of straw inside, dust playing in a shaft of daylight filtering down the stairs.
A line of ancient crates stamped with their ports of origin stood taller than a man along the west wall, boxes piled on the long bar. Casks and busted chairs clustered around a workbench, cobwebs hanging like streamers. Grime mossed everything colorless.
Mack held images of this place in its glory days, the long bar once packed with miners and sailors. Seen his own share of blind-drunk wrongdoing over at the Empress Dancehall, working as head bouncer. Nothing compared to this place and those times.
Pointing to where the Spanish chandelier once hung, big as a wagon wheel, Levi held out his arms, showing its size. Mack remembering.
“Had a gal early on called Hell Broke Lucy, wrapped to the eyes in a black rebozo, climbed up and swung from it, holding on with just her feet.”
Hadn’t heard this one, Mack let him tell it, always liked his uncle’s stories. That look he got in his eyes.
“Pap’s house rule was, any man climbing up to her got to go upstairs with her.”
“Anybody do it?”
“You’d think with sailors working tall-sail ships, somebody would, but more than one got busted up in the fall.”
“These fellows all drunk?”
“Pretty much.” Getting the look of a man visiting his yesterdays, Levi stared to where the dance floor had been, the bar brought in from Placerville, the stairs leading to the boudoirs.
“Girls dancing atop the piano, lifting their skirts and flashing their wares.” Levi pointing to where it stood. “Me, I’d be tickling the keys to ‘Wearing of the Green’ or ‘Bird in a Gilded Cage.’”
Mack remembering him playing, wasn’t too bad either. “Most folks learn piano playing in Sunday school.” Then laughing.
“Learned mine from a bouncer, fellow named Nikko. When he wasn’t busting up miners and sailors, he played a fine tune. Think he learned it at a proper school back east. Played till the brawling took toll on his hands. When he couldn’t play or fight no more, Pap slapped an apron on him, made him bartender.”
“Didn’t pay much, but the fellow had a way of adding to his per diem,” Levi said. “Found himself a fish at the bar, the kind that wouldn’t be missed so much. Served him drink laced with laudanum or some such.” Levi went behind the bar, swatting away cobwebs, shoving boxes aside, saying, “When every eye turned to Lucy on the chandelier, old Nikko sapped the fish and . . .” Levi found the lever under the bar and tripped the trapdoor. It sprang open with a thump, right in front of the bar.
Mack stepped close and looked down the black hole, a dank smell coming up. “This Nikko do this regular?”
“Regular enough.” Levi left it open, went and sat on a crate.
“Didn’t learn that at no proper school back east,” Mack said, sitting on a barrel.
“What came of these fish?”
“Woke up on ships needing extra hands, mostly. Some captain willing to pay Nikko for recruiting them. Past that, I couldn’t tell you.”
“Point is, this place rivaled the Bella Union, turned a fine trade before Marvin Healey found it a fitting place to stick his fucking shipyard.”
They sat quiet, Levi with his memories, Mack looking around, hoping Levi was getting to why they’d come.
A rat scurried across the floor, Levi stomping his boot, sending it darting between the casks.
“Can’t be thinking of turning this back to what it was?”
“Told you, came for what’s mine.” Levi pointed to the trapdoor.
“Gold from the Mint?”
“You hid it here?”
“Where’d you want me to put it, the bank?”
Mack never got to speak to Levi before the trial, couldn’t during proceedings, and never went to see him in Quentin. Prisons giving him the shivers.
The Examiner reported that officials were befuddled as to how the thieves could have busted into the Mint and got thirty thousand in coins past the troop of guards. Marvin’s brother Quinn, coming for Levi and making the arrest, searched the place top to bottom, but found nothing. Levi charged with the double eagle that was never issued. Flimsy evidence, but the Healeys saw that it stuck.
Rumor was Marvin Healey held sway with Meade, the magistrate presiding over Levi’s trial, favoring the guilty verdict. A city official and golfing buddy had the property seized a week later, and Marvin bought it at auction for next to nothing. Land for future expansion of his shipyards. Marvin Healey known about town as a man of high integrity, a man who knew how to grease a palm.
“Chief difference between me and Healey,” Levi said, “I do my robbing with a gun, that fucker does it with a pen.”
“How in hell you get all that gold past all them guards?”
“Dead ones. See, the Mint was infested to the roof beams. Started exterminating the vermin by the hundreds when I got this idea. Got myself chummy with the chief clerk, fellow name of Dimmick. A fellow with an equal taste for whiskey and women. So I poured enough in him, fixed him up with a fine gal, laid out my idea, and I had my inside man. Fifty/fifty. Dimmick stuffing rat carcasses with coins, right down the dead mouth. Six to a dozen, depending on the size of the rat, filled them like a sack, tossing them out a window, me waiting with a wheel barrow down in the alley. One or two busting open from the weight, but mostly they held up pretty fair.”
“And this Dimmick?”
“Being greedy on top of drunk did him in. Jury found him guilty on account of him forging the superintendent’s name, stealing from pay packets and some other shit. Never could tie him to it, but they handed him a hard seven for the rest. Man’s still in Quentin, drying his liver.”
“And his share?”
Levi pointed to the trapdoor.
“Saving it for him?”
“Fuck him, he’s a crook. You’re a nephew. Giving it to you.”
Mack lit up, standing, rubbing his hands, saying, “So what are we waiting on?” Going back to the trapdoor, looking down that hole.
“Didn’t exactly leave it out in the open.”
“So I’ll go fetch picks, shovels, whatever we need.”
“After I fetch back the deed.”
“Don’t need that. We’ll dig nice and quiet, nobody the wiser.”
“Healey fucked me once, not fucking me twice. Not going down there while his name’s on the place.”
“He just gonna hand it to you?”
“Uh huh. See, I got a plan.”
Another rat zigged out, Levi thumping his boot, the rodent zagging across the floor, lost between the crates. “Turns out Marvin’s missus likes the boys, likes them young and two at a time.”
Mack raised an eyebrow.
“See, the woman comes by Pearly’s Gates regular as a Sunday sermon. I’m guessing old Marvin’s a man about town, but not in the bedroom, so his good woman figures he’s not gonna miss a slice off a cut loaf.”
“Yeah, but what’s her getting her loaf cut —”
Levi raised a hand. “Had Pearly hire this photographer fellow . . .” Levi telling Mack they had to pay the man extra on account of Florence Healey being well-known for packing a derringer and rumored to suffer from vapors. The combination making the fellow nervous. But, for double his usual fee, he sat himself behind his tripod in the armoire in the boudoir, the door left ajar by an inch. The Healey woman liked to leave the lamps lit, adding to her visual delight.
“So, you’re gonna blackmail her?”
“Not her, him. Get old Marvin to hand me five hundred for the rest of the photos, ones I didn’t put in this envelope.” Levi reaching in the inside pocket, showing the envelope. “Dropping it off at his shipyard when we leave. He pays or I go and besmirch his good name.”
Mack grinned, thinking this could work.
“A lawyer draws up the papers,” Levi said, “witnesses the deal nice and legal. Marvin gets his five hundred back, and I get the deed.”
“So, you buy the place back with Healey’s own money.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Then you kill him.” Levi nodded.
Mack’s grin faded. “Heard a couple of sailors tried robbing Healey of his watch and fob out front of the Bull Run one time, figuring him for a dude. Only one of them made it to Quinn’s jail.”
“I’ll handle Marvin. Quinn, too.”
“You got it all figured,” Mack said, looking down the trapdoor again.
“Had five years for it.”
To keep reading, be sure to pick up your copy of House of Blazes today!