When I first started hanging out here, about 10 years ago, the place was run by an obese Chinaman named Cassini. No one was really sure why he had an Italian name. You could ask him, but he wouldn’t tell you. The food was neither Chinese nor Italian, and also not very good, but it was cheap, and so were the drinks. There were about half as many lights as there probably should have been, and nearly half of them didn’t work or didn’t have bulbs. And, of course, since it’s half underground, there were no windows.
Cassini used to keep the back door open, the one that leads to the alley that runs the length of the block, behind all the buildings. That was the only source of fresh air. Or would have been, except that what blew in from there was mostly the stench of the whole block’s trash. The other door led up a short staircase to the lobby of The Chessman Hotel. It’s not called The Chessman Hotel anymore – it’s not even a hotel now, having been converted to apartments - but the rooms are still there, with the same numbers on the doors. I live in one of them, 6C, overlooking the alley in the back. One of the advantages of being on the 6th floor is that by the time the trash odor rises that high, it’s been cut by the smoke pouring out of the chimneys of the factory on the other side of the alley. Of course, the view isn’t much to write home about, but you can’t have everything.
Anyway, back to the place on the ground floor, The Golden Albatross it was called then. Again, there was no clear reason why. I doubt there’s ever been an albatross in town of any color since they’re pretty much exclusive to the southern hemisphere. Cassini was always there behind the bar, from when he unlocked the doors at noon until he locked them again at 1am. Except on Tuesdays. On Tuesdays his wife opened and closed, and worked the bar. She was at least 20 years older than him, and he was at least 60. She was still beautiful, though, with smooth skin that seemed almost like you could see through it. She was tough, too, as you’ll see soon enough.
I never saw Cassini eat, but he must have to have gotten that big. He was so big, in fact, that he’d had to have the bar moved further away from the back wall when he first took over. That was back in the 30s, way before I started coming here or moved into room 6C of the Chessman Hotel. But Sammy told me about it. Sammy, he’s even older than Cassini, and he’s spent more time in this bar than he has at home. He knows pretty much everything there is to know about the place. I could spend hours just listening to him talk about the old days. Actually, I have spent hours…hundreds of them, it seems…listening to his stories. I want to tell you one of them now.
This story took place in 1945, and involves three principle characters: The Writer, The Policeman and The Singer. Like a lot of stories, it involves a case of mistaken identity, maybe more than one. Also, there’s a magician with a very special hourglass.
The Writer’s name was Michele Swanson, but she never used her real name on any of her books. She had several different names that she wrote under, all men’s names, all with the initials M.S. One of her books, published under the name Maxwell Sheridan, was about a Portuguese sailor who discovers a pirate’s buried treasure on the Gulf Coast of Texas during the height of the Mexican-American war. The book jacket had a quote on the back from Ernest Hemingway: “Maxwell Sheridan is a man’s man, a writer of profound masculinity and virility”. Another one, under the name Milton Schulz, a love story set in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia, was praised by Margaret Mitchell for the author’s “uncanny insight into the female perspective”. So, she was a good writer.
One of Michelle Swanson’s most successful pseudonyms was Michael Schanck, a name under which she had published a string of novels about a private detective named Billy Spector. The Billy Spector series earned her praise from and comparison to writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Significantly, Michael Schanck was also the name of the original owner of the Chessman Hotel and the Golden Albatross, before Cassini. Now, one of the Billy Spector novels had a plot that was virtually identical to a real life murder that had taken place in the Chessman hotel. So much so that the real life killer, who was The Policeman I mentioned earlier, felt certain that The Writer, “Michael Schanck”, must have known what he’d done. Just to add to the general confusion, in those days there was a jazz combo that played in the Golden Albatross every Friday and Saturday night, featuring a blonde chanteuse by the name of Billie Spektor. So, to recap, that’s a real life Billie Spektor (The Singer); a fictional detective named Billy Spector, created by The Writer, Michelle Swanson, under the pseudonym Michael Schanck; a real life Michael Schanck, who owned the bar where The Singer performed; and a murderer, The Policeman, who I’m almost afraid to tell you was named Mitch Swanton.
In the novel, the fictional Billy Spector has been hired by the owner of one of the country’s largest automobile manufacturers to find his missing daughter. The way the story unfolds is pretty convoluted, with more twists and turns than a mountainside road in northern Italy. In the end the missing daughter is discovered to have run away with a good-for-nothing scoundrel who had hoped to be able to weasel his way into her father’s business, or at least to get paid for leaving her alone. The problem being that along the way he’d been killed by a policeman whom he’d crossed many years previously in a bank robbery scheme. The fictional police officer had been in on the bank robbery, providing the scoundrel with inside information about the bank’s security. He’d also helped hide evidence after the fact, all in exchange for a promise of half the proceeds. But the scoundrel double crosses him and disappears with all the cash. The policeman eventually tracks him down in a seedy hotel where he shoots him. He figures no one will hear the gunshot because of the noise of the machinery in the factory across the alley. But the whole thing is witnessed by the young automobile heiress, who the policeman doesn’t realize is hiding under the bed of the hotel room when he barges in. It’s not long after this that Billy Spector finds the young woman, who’s still traumatized by what she’s witnessed. Sexual tension abounds, but Billy resists temptation, helps the local police detectives solve the murder without involving the heiress, and then returns her to her grateful father. He drives away in the end, cigarette hanging from his lips, remembering the feeling of her mouth on his and wondering what it might have been like to sleep with a rich dame like that, but knowing he’ll never find out.
The book was a huge success, and got turned into a movie starring a couple of Hollywood’s biggest names. Sitting in the Bijou Theater eating his popcorn, the real life policeman and murderer, Mitch Swanton, felt almost like he was watching his own story. Except that in the movie, he gets arrested, while in real life here he was sitting on a seat with a broken spring. When the closing credits told him that the screenplay was based on a novel by Michael Schanck, a lightbulb turned on over his head because he remembered that the owner of the hotel where he’d tracked down that no-good swindler was named Michael Schanck. He knew this because the real life Schanck was one of his regular informants, and had been the one who tipped him off that the swindler was staying there. It’s always useful for a cop to know which out of town crooks and hoodlums are hiding out in the local flea-bags.
The name of the heroic private detective in the movie, Billy Spector, also rang a bell for him. He recalled, as he stepped out of the theater and lit a cigarette, that Billie Spektor had been singing in the bar downstairs that night. He remembered this because he’d stopped in there for a couple of drinks after he killed the scoundrel and tossed his body out the window and into the trash pile in the alley behind the building. Billie had seemed to him to be a beautiful woman with a less than average voice and a body built for sex. He remembered asking the bartender to send her a drink from him. And he remembered the look on her face when the waitress had brought it to her on the stage and pointed back at him. At the time, he’d interpreted that look as something like disgust, which he was used to, as ugly as he was. Thinking back on it now, though, he could see that maybe that look on her face was fear. It occurred to him that maybe she’d seen him shoot the swindler while hiding under the bed, just like the heiress in the movie. Of course, maybe he was just being paranoid. It had been over a year since he’d shot that son-of-a-bitch and no witnesses had ever come forward. Being on the police force, he’d know if there had been. Still, he wanted to be sure.
The next night was Friday night, and he parked himself at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic while he waited for the band to take the stage. Mitch noticed that the bar had been moved further away from the wall to accommodate the new owner/bartender’s rotundity, along with a few other minor changes, like the reduction in lighting for instance. Fortunately for him, the entertainment schedule had not changed. Friday nights still meant The Billie Spektor Combo took the stage at 9:00 sharp.
Billie looked a lot less attractive to him now than she had that night a year ago. He wasn’t sure if she’d changed or if it was just the different situation that was giving him a clearer vision. Regardless, as she sang her opening number, “Jeepers Creepers”, he asked Cassini to send her a drink from him. He watched as the cocktail waitress took the glass from the fat Chinaman and carried it across the room to the little stage. He saw her hand the glass to Billie and point back over her shoulder at him sitting at the bar. And he saw the same look on Billie’s face that he’d seen a year ago, but this time he was sure it was fear. What reason could she have to fear him unless she knew what he’d done? He paid Cassini for his drink and for the one he’d sent to Billie, and he slipped out into the lobby where he bribed the desk clerk to tell him what room Billie stayed in. Coincidentally, it was 6B, next door to the one I live in now. It was also the same room he’d followed the swindler to a year ago, and where he had shot him before tossing his body out the window.
He went outside and smoked a cigarette and thought.
Meanwhile, back inside the Golden Albatross, Billie whispered to her saxophone player, Sammy “The Lip” Henderson, that she wasn’t feeling so well and needed to run up to her room to lie down for a few minutes. He’d grown used to this sort of thing as Billie had gotten more and more erratic lately. Maybe it was all the gin. In any event, Sammy had no problem stepping up to the microphone and singing a couple of numbers himself. The fact is that he was a much better singer than she was anyway. The only reason she was still the focus of the act was that people who come to places like The Golden Albatross are more interested in ogling a curvaceous blonde in a tight dress than in hearing real singing. Well, what did he care? He was getting paid either way. (By the way, before I forget, Sammy “The Lip” is the same Sammy that told me this story.)
Billie passed through the lobby and ran up the 5 flights of stairs to the 6th floor, not waiting for the elevator. When she got to her room she reached under the bed to pull out her suitcase, but felt a strong hand grip her wrist and pull her to the floor where she found that ugly cop’s face smiling at her.
“Hey, doll. Fancy meeting you here.” He talked like he’d learned how to speak from watching detective movies. “Now why don’t you have a seat over there on the nice comfortable chair and we’ll have a little chat.”
He clapped one loop of his handcuffs around her wrist as he slid out from under the bed and forced her back into the room’s only chair, an overstuffed thing covered in a worn burgundy fabric. Once she was seated he clapped the other end of the handcuff around the radiator pipe.
“Remember me, blondie?”
“I remember you. You’re that cop that’s always poking around the lobby.”
“Yeah, but not always just in the lobby. Maybe you saw me somewhere else in the hotel one time?”
“Sure I did. I saw you in the bar just a few minutes ago.”
He slapped her then, the back of his right hand across her left cheek.
“Don’t try to be funny. You’re a singer, not a comic. So sing. Where else have you seen me?” He slapped her again, back handed again, but this time with his left hand across her right cheek. “I got two hands, see. I use ‘em both so neither of ‘em gets tired out.”
“Now who’s trying to be funny?”
Two more backhands, one from each side in quick succession. “I’m just getting started, doll. Why don’t you tell me why you were so scared when you saw me in the bar just now, same as you did a year ago in the same place, and then we can figure out what to do next?”
Here’s where things took a turn that Mitch couldn’t have predicted. Remember I mentioned at the beginning that this story involved a magician with a special hourglass? Well, his name was Vandini. On stage he was billed as The Amazing Vandini, who after running away from his home in Florence, Italy as a teenager had found his way to the mysterious Orient where he’d found the magic hourglass hidden in a labyrinth, and developed his “amazing powers”. He’d tell the audience that the hourglass gave him the power to stop time, allowing him to move freely about the theater while the members of the audience sat frozen and unaware. At the time that Mitch Swanton was trying to beat Billie Spektor into telling him that she’d seen him kill that swindler a year ago, The Amazing Vandini was in room 6C (yeah, the one I live in now). The walls between the rooms in The Chessman Hotel were thin (still are, for that matter), and sound passed through them freely. Vandini heard the entire interrogation and eventually decided that he had to intervene on Billie’s behalf. He and Billie didn’t know each other, but he had seen her perform in the bar a few times and knew she lived in the room next to his.
Tipping his hourglass on its side to stop the sand flowing from one chamber to the next, Vandini crawled out his window onto the fire-escape and inched his way over to Billie’s window where he saw her and Mitch frozen like statues, Mitch’s right hand raised above his left shoulder preparing to strike Billie across the cheek once more. Vandini opened Billie’s window and crawled into her room, laying the hourglass carefully on the bedside table, still on its side, and closing the window behind him. He found the key to the handcuffs in the pocket of Mitch’s suit jacket. He unlocked the cuffs, then re-locked them with one end still around the radiator pipe but the other end around Mitch’s left hand. He took Mitch’s gun from another pocket in the suit jacket, then lifted Billie from the chair and laid her on the bed. Then he sat himself in the chair with the gun pointed at Mitch. Finally, he righted the hourglass. As the sand began to flow, Mitch’s right hand continued on its path, now heading toward Vandini’s cheek instead of Billie’s. At the same instant, Billie screamed, more from the disorientation of finding herself lying on her bed when she’d just been sitting in the chair. Her scream startled Mitch who stopped the swing of his hand. As he tried to turn to face the bed where the scream had come from he found that he couldn’t because of his other hand being cuffed to the radiator.
“What the hell?”
“Let’s all relax, shall we?” Vandini’s smooth, deep voice seemed to have a calming effect on both Billie and Mitch. The gun helped, too.
“Who the hell are you?” Mitch asked.
“Why, I’m the Amazing Vandini, maybe you’ve seen my act.”
“No, I ain’t seen your act.”
“Well, that’s alright. You’re getting a taste of it now for free. I have to say, I don’t like the way you were treating Miss Spektor, here. A gentleman should never hit a lady…unless that’s the sort of thing she enjoys, of course. I’ve heard there are some who do. Why don’t you try explaining to me…and her…exactly what it is you’re here for? Maybe we can all come to some sort of arrangement.”
“The only arrangement we’re going to come to is that you and the dame are going to jail and I’ll be heading down to the bar for a drink.”
“That seems unlikely, considering I’ve got your gun and you’re handcuffed to the radiator, don’t you think? Now, what’s got you so upset with Miss Spektor that you’d want to be slapping her around like that? I heard you asking her if maybe she’d seen you before…perhaps you’ve done something you’d rather the authorities didn’t know about?”
“I am the authorities. Detective Sargent Swanton, of the city police. And you’re gonna be in a pretty big mess as soon as my partner comes up here from the lobby.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’ve got a partner in the lobby. We’ve all seen you around here, and you don’t ever have a partner. More of a lone wolf, I imagine. And even if you do, I’d be happy to explain to him everything I overheard from next door tonight.”
If you’ll allow me, I’m going to stop time for a moment myself, not with a magic hourglass but just with your standard narrator’s interruption. I think it’s important at this point to pause and take a moment to fill you in a bit on what’s been happening with The Writer, Michelle Swanson. Remember her? At that very moment, she was downstairs in the Golden Albatross, whispering in the ear of her husband, Cassini, the rotund Chinaman. She was telling him that there was some trouble upstairs, but that it was going to be alright. She told him to make sure he kept his shotgun in reach, just in case.
You see, Michelle kept a close eye on pretty much everything that happened in the hotel. She had inherited the building, including the hotel and barroom, when Michael Schanck, her first husband died. She also used his name as a pseudonym for those Billy Spector novels. Soon after that she married her lover, Cassini, with whom she’d been having an affair for years, and transferred ownership of the building and its contents to him. There were rumors that she’d killed Schanck, or had him killed, since everyone knew she’d been having the affair with Cassini. The truth is, though, that Schanck just died, without any help. He was 75 years old, after all. Just before he died, with almost his final breaths, he told her about how he had seen Mitch Swanton kill that con-man up in 6B. He saw the whole thing from where he was hiding under the bed with Billie Spektor.
Schanck and Spektor had been having an affair of their own, for almost as long as his wife had been having hers with Cassini. He may have been old, but he was still handsome and virile enough for the much younger Billie to find herself attracted to him. They were just getting themselves dressed that evening when the con-man, who was Billie’s half-brother, had knocked on the door of Billie’s room. Schanck crawled under the bed while Billie let the con-man in, and listened while he explained that he was on the run from a cop he’d double crossed. Soon there was another knock on the door, and the voice of Mitch Swanton called the con-man’s name. Billie slid under the bed with Schanck. Her brother opened the door. Mitch entered, shot the man who’d cheated him all those years ago, and tossed his body out the window into the alley below, completely unaware of the two hidden lovers who’d witnessed his crime.
So, that’s where Michelle Swanson got the idea for the Billy Spector novel that got turned into a big movie. She changed some things around, added some bits, left some things out, the way writers always do. Since she hadn’t witnessed anything herself, she didn’t feel obliged to report it to the authorities, plus it would have been her word against a cop’s. Billie hadn’t told anyone anything, because she was afraid of Mitch (most people were), and because she figured it was none of her business anyway. And Schanck didn’t tell because he didn’t want his wife to know about his affair with Billie…until his deathbed confession. The body hadn’t been discovered until almost a week after the murder. That alley didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, and by the time the trash collectors came through to empty all the dumpsters, the body had been pretty well chewed up by a variety of animals and insects, to the point of being unidentifiable. So, he was buried out in the potter’s field and forgotten about. Until now.
Now, Michelle went up to the 6th floor and slipped into room 6A, on the other side of Billie’s room. She was the only one who knew that there was a false wall between the closets of 6A and 6B that opened if you touched it in the right spot. Peering out from between Billie’s various sequined dresses and fake fur coats, she saw Vandini in the chair, gun pointed up at Mitch who was standing and handcuffed to the radiator. She also saw Billie cowering on the bed. Weak, silly girl, she thought to herself. Michelle Swanson had little patience for weakness, but more than that she despised those who took advantage of the weaknesses of others, people like Mitch Swanton. And she’d had just about enough of him using her hotel as the location for his dirty work. From the closet, she aimed her pearl handled pistol and shot Mitch Swanton in the side of the head. His lifeless body slumped to the floor, his hand still cuffed to the radiator.
Vandini and Billie both jumped up in shock. Michelle quietly slipped through the false closet wall, back into 6A.
“You shot him!” Billie yelled at Vandini.
“I didn’t, though”, he answered. “I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t shoot.”
“Well, what are we gonna do now? I can’t have a dead cop in my room.”
“True. Open the window.”
Vandini unlocked the handcuff from the radiator, lifted Swanton’s corpse up and tossed him out the window, the second dead body to go out that way. Plus the one in the book and movie. Vandini tossed Swanton’s gun down into the alley, too, where eventually some wino would find it and pawn it.
Swanton’s body would, like the one he’d tossed out the same window a year ago, go unnoticed for some time while the rats and dogs and maggots fed on him. Meanwhile, Vandini and Billie decided it was about time they both moved on to a new city. They developed a whole new act, with her as his magician’s assistant. She’d sing while he was cutting her in half or as he passed the giant hoop around her levitating body. It was a smash. And when he stopped time with his hourglass, she helped him pick the audience’s pockets.
Michelle Swanson kept writing until she and Cassini finally decided to retire, in 1960. They sold the building and the hotel to a flamboyant Englishman, who in turn sold the barroom downstairs to a German woman who renamed it The Brat-haus. With the proceeds, they bought a yacht and sailed the Mediterranean Sea until Michelle died a couple of years later. No one’s sure what became of Cassini after that.
Sammy, of course, never left; and, so far, neither have I.