Memory Book

A Miranda Corbie Story

A Miranda Corbie Mystery

Kelli Stanley

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

MEMORY BOOK (Begin Reading)

"You're the lady detective, right? Miss Miranda Corbie?"

Miranda brushed the Threlkeld's scone crumbs off her navy blue blazer and sipped the coffee. Made a face. Set it back down on the B-western fence post around Midget Village and looked at the eager girl in front of her.

About twenty, indeterminate blond, blue eyes shiny like a doll's. Small, fine shaped wrists, fingers good for sewing work, soft, long, and French manicured. College girl out for a lark on Treasure Island, picking up a different kind of education on the Gayway. The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, so goddamn educational.

The girl stared at Miranda as if she expected her to pull out a .38 and shoot something.

"I work for Sally Rand. I'm also a private investigator. If you need the law, there's a policeman right around--"

The girl shook her head, soft curls trembling. She was wearing a brown cotton print, one of the Junior Miss varieties from Magnin, sensible tan shoes and a yellow cardigan sweater. All she needed was a fraternity pin. Gust of wind from the Bay rippled through the cotton. She shivered.

"N-no, Miss Corbie. I... I think you're the only one who can help Gran. She absolutely won't let us go to the police, that's the first thing Madge and I tried to do."

Miranda leaned against the rough wood fence and stared across the yard, watching Shorty Glick pull a quick draw on one of the other midgets. A fat lady in black crepe laughed like a seal, See's candy caramel showing between her teeth. Shorty glanced over at her and nodded his ten gallon hat, sunlight glancing off the shiny, silver metal of his little boy gun.

Miranda reached into the front pocket of her jacket and shook out a Chesterfield. Her eyes met the college girl's while she lit the stick and drew down hard on the tobacco.

"What's your name--and who told you about me?"

The girl intertwined long fingers in a knot, untying them again. Spanish music, slow guitar and fast tambourines, floated from the turnstiles while shouts from the kids in the Roll-O-Plane drifted down the Gayway. Miranda sipped the coffee. Still too hot, but as black as she liked it.

"M-my name is Virginia Roberts. One of the waitresses over at the White Star Tuna restaurant saw--saw us upset, and when she heard Gran didn't want to go to the police, she said you might be able to help. She said you worked for Sally Rand. The man at the--the entrance told me where to find you."

"Does your grandmother know you're here?"

"Yes, Miss Corbie. Madge--Madge is my older sister--is with her. They're at Ghirardelli's right now."

Miranda blew a stream of smoke over the blonde's head, watched it drift apart across the midway. Door to Artists and Models opened, Artie Shaw's "Deep in a Dream" on aching clarinet, men shuffling out with stained fedoras, hands held low, faces smeared with sweat.

"What did your grandmother lose?"

Virginia's mouth gaped open, gums pink, teeth Pepsodent white. "My goodness, you--that waitress was right, she said you look more like a--a movie star, but you really are a detective, aren't you, Miss Corbie?"

She gave half a smile to the girl and dropped the Chesterfield, crushing it out in the sawdust with a navy blue pump. "I figured it wasn't a murder case. I've got to get back to Sally's." Miranda nodded toward the matching Western-style porch across the midway, SALLY RAND'S NUDE RANCH in foot high letters across the top. "It's two-fifteen now. I can meet you after five. The fee's twenty dollars a day, plus expenses."

Virginia opened a dark brown clutch purse with her hand, dug around, and pulled out a crumpled ten dollar bill. She handed it to Miranda, voice solemn. "I believe this is called a retainer. My sister and I can pay you, Miss Corbie, even if Gran doesn't approve."

Miranda tucked her purse under her arm, picked up the Hills Brothers coffee cup. "Save it for this evening. We can meet at the Owl Drug Store counter at five fifteen. What did your grandmother lose?"

The girl drew the sides of her sweater together, face darkening. A glint of gold shone on her neck line. "She didn't lose anything, Miss Corbie. It was theft. Somebody stole her Memory Book."

 

The island's Owl Drug Store was smaller than the Vatican City-like headquarters on Powell and Market, but still a temple to the middle man. Tourists fresh from Vacationland shopped with glazed-over eyes, bewildered, foot-sore, numb.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I've spent $12.35 on a Treasure Island china set, a silk tie, three boxes of hankies, and a bakelite radio. Buy a set of World's Fair glasses and an ice pick, my child, and go forth and multiply.

Miranda squeezed past the aspirin and foot relief customers, avoided a pair of newlyweds admiring a Golden Gate International Exposition card table, and got in line behind a little boy in a black and white cowboy suit holding a Whiz comic book. His heavy-set mother was biting her lips, trying to figure out if Tangee or Tattoo made her look any thinner.

She escaped the sales floor with two packs of Chesterfields and threaded her way to the lunch counter, finding elbow room at the far end. Took a deep breath and looked around.

No Virginia Roberts, no grandmother.

No surprise.

The Wurlitzer in the corner piped Ella Fitzgerald singing about her lost yellow basket, song struggling to be heard above three kids chasing each other around a table of tired mothers and the guffaws of the man in a postal uniform sitting on the opposite end of the bar.

A Tisket, A Tasket, she took my yellow basket ...

She caught the eye of the thin soda jerk, his white hat stained with chocolate syrup. "Coffee, please. Black."

He made an inarticulate noise in this throat and shoved a buffalo china cup and saucer toward her, sloshing the coffee. Miranda slapped a dime on the Formica, mopped the spill with a napkin.

"Watch what the hell you're doing--you could burn somebody."

A pudgy man in wrinkled brown turned toward her, face red. His cheeks got redder when he focused his eyes. His large hand smoothed back the reddish, curly hair, trying to mask the receding hairline. He leaned forward, smiling with yellow teeth.

"Uh--ain't I seen you somewheres before? Someplace nice, I'm thinkin' ..."

Miranda stared at the 1939 calendar on the wall behind the pie case, sepia scene of a little blonde girl hugging a German shepherd. She sipped the coffee.

September 13th. Not much time left for the Fair. No time left for anybody, no time, no time. Don't mean a thing if you ain't got that Aryan swing, German shepherds wearing swastikas and goose-stepping over Europe ...

"Lady--y' hear me? I said I've seen you somewheres an' I'm wonderin' where... you in a show, maybe? Yeah, a show a' some kind is what I'm thinkin ..."

Eyes flicked up and down slowly, pale gray tongue between his teeth. He sidled closer, left leg touching hers.

She set down the cup, staring at her large Scots-Irish fingers, peat picker hands. Tired, so tired. Maybe one day there would be no Nude Ranch and no Club Modernes, no jack-off in the corner of Sally's, pressing himself against the glass, no benevolent and protective Elk trying to stick a hand between her legs, his wife back home in Hayward, paying her to get the evidence.

Maybe one day. But not today.

She turned toward the pudgy man, his eyes eager, pleading, bowler over his lap.

"You've been to Sally Rand's Nude Ranch?"

He held his breath for a second, exhaled and nodded at the same time. Moved closer, pushing against her blue skirt, hairy hand splayed on the counter.

She picked up the coffee cup, drained the rest. "You can see me there."

Breath was faster, face and scalp redder than his hair. He held the bowler against his pants, leaned inward to the counter. The soda jerk was mopping another spill about five customers down.

"I seen--I thought I seen--well, honey... how 'bout lettin' me see, uh, more o' you outside o' them walls? I got a lot more than twenty-five cents."

His teeth parted in a leer, stench of flat beer and Choward's Lavender, and he stood up, still holding the hat over his hard-on.

Miranda tucked her purse under her arm. "So you're offering me money to fuck you, is that right?"

He gulped at the word, red draining to white. "Hon-ey... I, uh, ain't never heard no woman say that, uh, that word before... let's just say I'm, uh, ready to pay for a good time. An' from what I seen at Sally's I know it'll be good."

Miranda nodded, reached into her pocket and shook out a Chesterfield. "You did see me at Sally's. I work security."

His mouth opened and shut, red fading, bowler starting to slip.

She reached for an Owl matchbook from the counter, struck twice and lit the cigarette. Stared at him over the blue-gray smoke. "You're under citizen's arrest for solicitation."

He stood rooted, mouth still open, red back in his face, small eyes darting through the folds of sunburned flesh. Sweat beaded his scalp, and he shoved the hat on his head, fear giving way to anger, always to anger. Miranda blew a smoke ring, watched it drift over his head like a dirty halo.

Strangled noise in the back of his throat, push through the couples lining up at the counter.

One, two, three, and out.

She met the weak blue eyes of the soda jerk. Shoved the dime across the counter and threaded through the crowd at the Owl, Bing Crosby crooning "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams" from the Wurlitzer.

 

The giant cash register rang up another visitor, number 34, 435. Slow day.

A C-Route Elephant Train rumbled by on its way to the parking lot, the parents footsore and weary and crowded on the benches, trying to stay awake. Kids waved to passersby from the open coach cars, eating peanuts and popcorn, still looking for elephant ears on the decorated Ford that was pulling them.

Miranda leaned against the east wall of the Owl, facing the Gayway. Smell of corn on the cob, hot dogs and frozen custard cones, screams from girls on the Cyclone Roller Coaster, giant, wet splash of the Diving Bell. Shoot a paper duck, mister, you might win a Kewpie doll. Little lady looks like she wants one, don't she? C'mon, mister win something for your sweetheart...

She gulped the stick, watching the smoke curl down Nanking Avenue. She'd won again, and no bluff called. She could see the look on Grogan's face, oily and red above the police desk.

"Can't collar him for soliciting, Corbie. Once an escort, always an escort. If I arrest him, I gotta arrest you. I don't think you'd like that much, would you, Miss Private Detective?" And he'd laugh until he coughed, throat purple, then spit something on the ground near her feet.

Once a fucking escort, always a fucking escort.

Forget the Incubator Babies case, forget the fact that she solved Burnett's murder, Burnett who'd trained her to be bait for his divorce cases and nothing more.

"You're a good soldier, Randy, and you learn fast ..."The shrill laughter of summer virgins bounced against the walls of Vacationland, yearning matched with mandolins from the Latin American Court, Argentine dancers playacting love and the hot, South American sun.

Miranda shivered, pressing her back against the shiny stucco.

Somewhere on Treasure Island was Jose Iturbi, playing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, ladies in gloves and the latest coiffure by Marcel dreaming of leaving their husbands, dreaming of Spanish lovers and flamenco guitars and wine.

But the dream of Spain was dead, decayed, no laughter in Madrid, no Cava in Valencia.

No Johnny.

Her eyes closed, and the calliope from the Ferris Wheel started to play Someone to Watch Over Me ...

"Christ, Randy, you're hearing things again. Lie still. You can listen to my heart beat."

"I hear your heart beat even when we're not like this."

"Can you hear it now? Should be a little faster..."

"Johnny... Johnny, was that a plane? Are you sure--"

Fingers to lips. Skin over skin, weight over her, holding her, owning her.

"Shh. I told you I'd always watch over you. Trust me, Miranda. Trust me ..."

She opened her eyes, calliope back to carnival music, screams from Children's Village and the motorcycles on the Globe-A-Drome. Virginia Roberts was looking up at her, slightly out of breath.

"Miss Corbie? I thought that was you--I'm so sorry we were late, we couldn't find an Elephant Train and we were over at Festival Hall, listening to Jose Iturbi. Gran likes him, that's why she came today. Miss Corbie? Are you... are you all right?"

Miranda crushed the Chesterfield in the dirt. "Your grandmother ready to meet me?"

Virginia blushed, studied the ground. "She's--she's ready, Miss Corbie, but she only agreed because Madge and I insisted. The jewelry--the gold coins she brought for Madge and me--everything's been stolen, and..."

Miranda held up her hand. "We'll get the details later. Where's your grandmother?"

The college girl's sweater was buttoned now, but a heavy gust ripped beside them and she hugged her arms. "I--I hope you won't be upset, and you'll still take the case, Miss Corbie, but she wanted to meet at the Yerba Buena Women's Club. It's members only, so if..."

She smiled at the young girl, desperately trying not to offend, and the old battleaxe of a grandmother, holding her off at Island's length and insisting on propriety.

"Your grandmother has probably heard of me. Don't worry, Virginia. I'm a member, too."

MEMORY BOOK Copyright © 2011 by Kelli Stanley