White with Fish, Red with Murder
by Harley Mazuk
San Francisco, 1948. Frank Swiver is a down and out private eye with a taste for wine and women, not necessarily in that order. Frank readily accepts an unexpected job offer from well-known wine connoisseur General Lloyd F. Thursby to find the murderer of his very good friend, Rusty O’Callaghan. Invited to attend an exclusive wine tasting on Thursby’s private rail car, Frank takes along his secretary-cum-lover Vera Peregrino to complete his cover. Thursby entices his guests with the promise of a taste of a rare California wine: the Ravensridge Blackbird Noir.
All does not go to plan, though, when General Thursby is murdered before the wine tasting has even begun. Frank is caught up in the allure of his former lover, Cicilia, who also happens to be the dead Rusty O’Callaghan’s widow. Locked into the private carriage until the passengers reach their destination, the guests proceed to pull some corks and theorize who among them could be the killer.
When Vera is arrested for Thursby’s murder, Frank must change his perceptions and find the real killer, or lose both Cici and Vera . . . and maybe even his life.
Chapter 2: Night of the Honeysuckles
Vera rose and announced she wanted to go to her room. That gave me an opportunity to get out of there and compose myself before talking to Cici, so I offered to escort her.
“You’re in number seven, Miss Peregrino,” said Fenwick. “And you’re in one,” he told me. The first cabin we came to had a 9 under a half-moon of three stars. I assumed that would be Thursby’s. We passed eight, and I dropped Vera at her room, telling her I’d come for her at seven.
“Nineteen hundred hours.” She saluted, mocking the general’s voice.
At the far end of the car, from the galley and the lounge, were a toilet and shower room and cabin number one. It had a sitting area, which could be converted into a single bed. There was a good-sized window, covered by venetian blinds, closed, and burgundy curtains, drawn open. It had a connecting door on the side of compartment two.
An envelope on the bed had my name on it. I unpacked my duffel, opened the blinds, and sat down watching the backyards of Oakland glide by while I slit the envelope flap.
It was from Thursby. Inside was a check made out to Old Vine Detective Agency for $150, signed by Nick Fenwick, and a note from the general. I recognized his handwriting from the note that accompanied my invitation.
Thanks for coming. Enclosed is a check for your retainer. Let me know when that runs out.
Two things—first, there are some tensions among the guests. I can still take care of myself, but I wouldn’t mind having someone I can depend on to watch my back. And second, the police are doing nothing in the O’Callaghan killing. They closed the case as an accidental poisoning. I’m sure it’s murder, but I need some kind of proof. I want you to find it. Rusty O’Callaghan was my friend.
I suggest you commence your investigation with the widow.
My stomach knotted up, and a dull garnet haze came between my eyes and the paper after I read the words “killing . . . murder.” I hadn’t known Rusty O’Callaghan, but I knew of him, and I thought he was a lucky guy who had it all. He had money, good looks, and wit. He had Cici.
And I had Vera. A few hours ago, we’d met in the office on Post Street to go to the train in Oakland together. We had a couple of glasses of cabernet together, and one thing led to another, as it often did for us. And after we’d made love, she whispered in my ear, “I love you, Frank.”
“It’ll be exciting to go along as an op, not just a secretary,” she said. Vera’s scarlet cocktail dress was folded neatly over the back of one of my client chairs; my suit was hung up, but the rest of my clothes were all over the floor, and we both lounged naked, face-to-face, legs intertwined, on the old leather davenport that I had alongside one wall. Not entirely naked, she still wore her red, high-heeled shoes, and I had my fedora on the back of my head. The light coming through the office window fell on the downy yellow hair on her upper thighs. Vera was about five eight. Her height and long legs made her appear slender and elegant, like a fashion model or a rich girl. Yet from another angle or in a different outfit she might look like an athlete who rode a bike to work, or a sinewy, but healthy, farmer’s daughter. She had golden brown hair that fell across her shoulders just far enough to cover her breasts if she ever decided to do a Lady Godiva act. But now her hair had fallen back to the sides and she lay there, breasts revealed, in all her wanton beauty.
I wanted to say, “I love you too, Vera,” but for some reason, I didn’t. I couldn’t because something felt different from that time I had been in love, in love with Cici.
I splashed a little water on my face at the washbasin, and started to shave.
I remembered when Rusty O’Callaghan had died. I’d even clipped the story from the Examiner at the time. It was only a couple of months ago. He’d died at home one morning, the apparent victim of a bizarre poisoning.
Then, in the mirror over the sink, I saw the connecting door to compartment two start to open. I thought I’d checked the lock, but maybe not—someone was coming in. Everything was close in the small train cabin. I turned and was about to shoulder the door hard, but a whiff of scent in the air made me stop myself. Cicilia O’Callaghan came into the compartment quickly and closed the door behind her.
“Hello, Frank.” Her voice was deep, with a dry whispery note. It was the kind of voice that an actress might use for a passionate love scene. It was the kind of voice that would make the actor play the sap for her.
“Hi ya, doll. Still using the same perfume as the old days?”
“Night of the Honeysuckles, Frank. It’s been a long time. I’m surprised you remembered.”
There are some things a man doesn’t forget, like the feeling I had when you threw me over for Rusty. “Yeah, it brings back old times.” My voice sounded hollow to me. Cici had slipped into my room without shoes. Minus her high heels, she was about five feet four inches—of trouble. Of all the compartments in the general’s private varnish, she had to have the one next to mine.
“Thank God you’re here tonight, Frank. I need help.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. So I said nothing and drank in Cicilia with my eyes. After fourteen years, they were thirsty eyes and she was as refreshing as a splash of Vouvray, and more intoxicating too. Her skin had a healthy golden-olive glow, as if she’d been in the sun. Her black dress was simple and elegant, but un-widow-like. The low cut only emphasized her ripe and voluptuous breasts. With my height advantage in the small compartment, I was practically forced to eyeball her cleavage.
She followed my gaze. “You like what you see, Frank?”
“You know I always did, Cici. Who wouldn’t?”
“Rusty, for one. He couldn’t have cared less.” She sighed. “It’s nice to be noticed again.” The train rocked, and Cici bounced against me.
“Oh, yeah. Rusty O’Callaghan. Tough break about your husband. A poison mushroom omelet? You were there, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. I’d thought they were chanterelles.” She blinked her eyes. “Well, at least it didn’t happen at the restaurant.”
“I can see how that might be bad for business, poisoning the diners.” Rusty O’Callaghan had opened the popular restaurant, Chez Cici, where he’d installed Cicilia, his new wife, as chef.
“You say you need help, doll?” Night of the Honeysuckles seemed to be entangled in the waves of her hair, just under my nose. My mind drifted back to those nights fourteen years ago, when Cici would finish her waitressing shift at John’s Grill and we’d leave together and hurry over to my single room.
In ‘33, I was a recent Berkeley grad, trying to crack into a teaching job. I happened into John’s one night, wondering if I could afford a sandwich and a beer. The beer was only a nickel, but I paid with a piece of my heart.
Cicilia Ricci had been a waitress there. She was about eighteen then, maybe seventeen and a half, when I met her, and she was the stuff young men dream about. Petite, with dark-brown, almost ebony hair, she had emerald eyes. You know the color of the sea off Monterey sometimes when the sunlight angles across it? Her eyes were that kind of sparkling green that had their own light, and when I gazed into them, they lured me deep into their sea-green abyss. I’d kept coming back to John’s, to sit at one of Cicilia’s tables, but I wasn’t coming back for the food. I watched Cici move around the tables, we talked, she winked at me, or licked her lips, and a burning would start deep down inside me.
Ronald “Rusty” O’Callaghan had been a rumrunner in southern California in the 1920s who had blown into town late in 1933 when Repeal dried things up for him. He started showing up at John’s Grill. O’Callaghan would dig into a twenty-four-ounce T-bone and drink a half-pint of Scotch whisky. He gave Cicilia rides in his Packard. He told her tales of gun-battles off the Catalina coast, of punching a shark in the nose while clinging to a floating wooden crate of gin, and of paying off the LA cops, while outsmarting the G-men. He carried a thick roll of banknotes and laughed loudly. Rusty O’Callaghan, a man of action who had an air of danger about him, brought excitement into the restaurant. Cicilia Ricci must have felt that excitement, and felt it was all for her.
I’d despised Rusty O’Callaghan when he took Cicilia out of John’s, and I’d envied him when he married her. That was in ‘34, the last time I’d seen either of them, and the first time I had that empty ache inside. Rusty O’Callaghan sure was a lucky guy, and I’d drawn a losing hand. Now O’Callaghan was dead. A police spokesman had termed the death “suspicious, but presumably accidental.” And I’d lived to read about it.
I was bitter about being dumped, but that passion I’d felt for Cicilia never quit burning inside me. There’s been a little pilot light on these last fourteen years.
“I need money, Frank,” she said. “I’m a poor widow now, you know. Thursby owes me, but he won’t pay up.”
“Poor? I hear Chez Cici does good business.”
“Sure, Chez Cici does good, but doing good in the restaurant business just pays the bills. Owning one restaurant means working fifty-two weeks a year, and if you’re good, it’s a living, but that’s about all. It’s not enough. What I’ve got to do is expand. I want to open a branch in Sausalito.”
“So how’s the general owe you, doll? Did he run up a tab?” I breathed in the scent of honeysuckles warmed by body heat, maybe a little garlic and oil too, from all those hours in the kitchen, and a definite, undeniable undercurrent of muskiness, rising up from her center. It was making my head spin, but I sucked it in like a man struggling in the water takes air when he’s at the surface.
“Hardly,” she said. “Look, I found these in Rusty’s desk.”
Cicilia carried a little black bag on a thin strap over her shoulder, and she reached in and extracted a fistful of papers, half sheets, and some even smaller—the size of currency. She handed them to me as she spoke. “Gambling debts, Frank. They’re promissory notes for gambling debts.”
I flipped through them. Five hundred here, $1000 on another, $700, $2400. The same scrawl at the bottom of each one might have been “Lloyd Thursby.” It might have been the same hand that had signed the notes I’d received.
Cici kept talking, filling me in as I glanced through the IOUs. “Rusty used to go over to Thursby’s place four or five nights a week, around ten or eleven, and sit with the general and play cards for hours.”
“Looks like Rusty was a lucky guy.”
“Hah! Lucky?” She turned, sauntered over to the window, and peered out. “You couldn’t prove it by me. I never even knew he was winning, Frank. The soft-headed bum never brought home a nickel. He just took the general’s paper.”
“You show these to Thursby?” I followed her.
“Not yet. I just found them. But you can show them to Thursby. You can make him pay me. Thursby threatened me and had his goon throw me out.”
“Fenwick.” Cici turned back to me. “That hairy wine-steward.” Fenwick—I didn’t like the picture in my mind of him with his paws on Cici, giving her the bum’s rush. Something told me the apeman and I weren’t going to get along.
I felt a tug at my trousers. I’d been reviewing the notes Cici had given me and musing over Fenwick. When I glanced at her again, I saw her black dress on the floor in a circle around her feet. She was squatting down in front of me, her butt on the seat, while her fingers worked at my fly.
“Jesus, doll. What do you think you’re doing?”
“Oh, Frank. I can’t help it. It’s been so long, Frank. I’m so hot. I want you to make me feel like a woman again.”
It’d been a long time all right. Fourteen years is a long time. Did Cicilia think she could just walk out of my life without so much as a fare-thee-well, then sashay back in fourteen years later and pick up where she’d left off? Now she rose to her feet, her green eyes flashing and locked on mine. Reaching behind her back, Cici undid the clasp on her black bra. She slipped it off, tossed it across the compartment, and shook her shoulders. The IOUs wafted to the floor as I cupped each breast with a hand and plunged my face down into their softness.
Maybe you’ve walked with danger and laughed and said, “Let’s go; you can’t beat me.” Maybe you know what it’s like to go without something for years, like maybe you were a boozer who lived through Prohibition without getting a drink. Then all of a sudden after all those years you can have it again, and it’s better than ever. If so, I guess I don’t have to tell you what I felt, lying with Cici across the Pullman bed of my compartment. And if you haven’t done anything like that, maybe you wouldn’t understand the feeling I’m talking about anyhow.
I checked my watch, and it was almost seven. It’s not that I didn’t know where the time had gone. It’s more like I didn’t know where I had been. Wherever it was, I liked it there, and I didn’t want to come back.
“Okay, Cici, I’ll take your case. I’ll talk to Thursby.”
“Be careful, Frank. He’s dangerous.”
“I laugh at danger.”
“I knew I could count on you. I’ll give you ten percent of whatever you collect.”
“Twenty-five dollars a day, doll. Plus expenses.” She knew she could count on me. Hell, Cici could have seduced Mohandas Gandhi into donning a suit and tie, and he would have eaten filet mignon to please her.
“Right now, we’ve got to get dressed,” I said. “It’s seven o’clock.” I yanked her off the bed to her feet and reeling her in, planted a long kiss on her lips. “There’s wine out there to taste.” I sent her on her way to her compartment with a smack on the butt. That bitterness from fourteen years ago—it wasn’t completely gone, but Cici had sweetened me up a little.
I had two clients, and two jobs to do. I needed the work bad, but could I give Cici what she wanted and help Thursby too?
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