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Hole Lotta Shakin’
A Tony Mandolin Short Story
By Robert Beers
During the late 1800’s and into the years before the quake, San Francisco was called, The Paris of the West, and rightly so. Stepping into the atrium of the Palace was like entering a world of opulence, a Caribbean Cruise liner on dry land.
Frankie and I were greeted by uniformed porters and valets and even dressed as we were, few of the hotel’s guests or employees gave us a second look. As I looked around, I could see why. As far as costumes went, we weren’t even in the semifinals. There were top hats, formal and semi-formal gowns and outfits moving in all directions. I saw an Arab, in full desert dress walk by, accompanied by two officious-looking men in three piece suits with bowler hats, and headed the opposite direction, an old man in a white linen suit with an equally white head of bushy hair and—“
I took Frankie by the shoulder and turned him in the right direction. “Do you know who that is?” I hissed.
There was a pause and then, “Oh… my… gawd…”
I replied, “Mark Twain himself, Samuel Clemons, America’s first true standup comedian. Too bad we can’t talk to him.”
“But… why?” Frankie almost wailed. “I mean, Mark Twain… I know, those damned butterflies.” He pouted beautifully.
“Come on,” I said, “Let’s find some food.”
I headed towards the first liveried person I could find, a guy wearing the typical scarlet jacket and one of the funny little pillbox hats.
“Hey, kid,” I said, causing him to turn around.
When he saw me he stepped back a bit, “Uh… yes, sir?”
“In which direction is the bar?”
“Bar? Oh, you mean the lounge. It’s right through there sir, where you see the daylight.”
I’d forgotten about that. “Thanks, kid,” I said. “Come on Frankie, you’re going to love this.”
He murmured, “I’m loving this already.”
As he looked up at the atrium skylight nine floors above us, he said, “Oh… wow…”
I remembered reading about this place, seeing old, faded black and white photos, but the reality was far, far more impressive. I could see people looking down from the balconies that jutted from the atrium walls, each of them fronting a floor, where some of the nearly 750 rooms sat.
On the floor where we stood, were scattered rather intimate looking places where people could sit and have a private conversation while enjoying an adult beverage or two. The bar was a good several yards away, the floor of the atrium being the size of the standard hotel’s entire footprint. Palm trees in big planter pots were everywhere, giving the place its name, the Palm Court.
Frankie asked, “Where’s the painting”
He waved a hand in the general direction of the bar, “The Pied Piper by Maxfield Parrish. We should be able to see it, it’s six feet high by sixteen feet long…”
“And not painted yet, big guy. We’re too early. It went into the new hotel that isn’t built yet, remember?”
I was about to offer my condolences and suggest we find a waiter when someone went sprinting past me, shoving me to the side.
“Thief! Thief! Stop that man!”
I didn’t think. I just reacted. As I spun, I pulled out my truncheon and threw it at the thief’s feet, the way Monahan taught me all those years… ahead. The trick worked, His feet got tangled around the bouncing shaft and down he went, ass over ears.
I took three long steps and grabbed the guy, turning him over. I had to jerk back to avoid the knife as he slashed at me. It was one of those Italian stilettos, long and probably sharp enough to shave with. And to make matters worse, he held it like he knew how to use it.
I said, as I held up my coat sleeve as a sort of shield, “You can’t get out of here, you know.”
He sneered, “Yeah, who’s going to stop me, you, old man?” And then he lunged, aiming to stab.
I twisted to the side, reached down and got him in a wrist lock, bending the joint in a direction it was not meant to go. As I did so I wondered if martial arts was still the private secret of the city’s Chinese population.
“Aaaghh!” The knife clattered to the marble floor.
I held him there, “Do not move and it won’t break.”
“It’s broken already,” he cried.
“No,” I said, “It just feels like it. Stay still and stay quiet now.”
I heard applause, and turned around, thinking, “Oh… crap.”
Nearly the entire population of the bar was standing and clapping, and all of them looking at me. The one clapping and grinning the widest was Frankie.
A stocky man with a cleft chin wearing what looked like a very expensive pinstriped suit was walking rapidly across the floor toward me. He too was smiling, just about as big as the big guy.
The thief made an attempt to pull away and shrieked, “Ow!”
“I told you,” I said, looking down at him, “Don’t move and it won’t hurt.”
“You are my hero!” The guy in the suit boomed, holding out both hands.
“Thanks,” I said, “And you are…”
“Enrico,” He nearly shouted, grabbing my free hand in his and pumping away as if I was a car jack. “Enrico Caruso.”
Then, as I stood there imitating a beached carp, he bent and shouted at the thief, “Give me my necklace!”
The guy muttered, “He’s crazy. I got no necklace.”
I shifted my grip just a bit, and asked, “What was that?”
He winced and pulled one of the larger collections of compressed carbon I’d seen outside of a museum. “Okay! Okay! Please let go.”
I took the necklace and handed it to Caruso. It was another thing I’d forgotten. The world’s greatest tenor was in Frisco before and during the earthquake. Feeling slighted because he did not think he’d been treated with due deference by the authorities during the aftermath, he never returned.
“Ahhh…” He held the necklace up, letting the light play along the facets, “This is for my lady.”
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a wad of cash and held it out to me, “Here, for the hero.”
I waved my hand, but he didn’t pull the money back, “No, take it, please.”
“Take it, man, or you’ll insult him.”
I recognized that voice. I’d recognize it anywhere, and anywhen.
Taking the money along with additional enthusiastic thanks from the original Italian Tenor, I looked at the source of that voice and said, “Bain!”
Except is wasn’t my Bain. This one wasn’t haggard and he didn’t smell like an abandoned distillery. “You know me,” he said, “but I’ve never seen you, or that style of clothing and the only place I’ve seen that style of fighting is in Imperial Japan, and there isn’t any smell of that country about you. Who are you?”
I still had hold of the thief’s wrist. “Uh, can this wait until the police pick this guy up?”
Bain looked at the thief and shrugged, “It would be kinder to let him go. I doubt he’ll be back here again. No one has summoned the police yet. That’s your job, according to popular opinion,” he finished while looking around.
I released the wrist and toed the thief away. “Go on,” I growled, “Get out of here.”
Bain nodded in approval. “Very good. You can think. That’s another glaring difference.”
Frankie came over and asked, “Uh… aren’t you Landau Bain, the wizard?”
Bain looked at the big guy, saying nothing, and then he shrugged and said, as he turned away, “Come with me.”
We were led across the floor over to the bar. Bain slapped the deep reddish wood of the bar and shouted, “Boothby!”
A man peeked around the bar and said, “Umm, Bill’s not here today. He’s laid up.”
“Who’re you?” Bain demanded.
“I’m, uh… I’m Steve, the new guy?”
Bain hadn’t changed. Drunk or sober he could make anybody nervous. “Steve? Steve who? What’s your real name?”
“Steve Hunt,” He said.
“Well, Steve Hunt, what do you know about cocktails? You’re the backup for the best mixologist in the world, you know. That’s William “Cocktail” Boothby.”
You had to give the guy credit. He held his ground. “I’m still learning, sir, but I do have about three dozen memorized so far. I was even able to teach one to Bill myself.”
Bain looked impressed. “Really? What was it?”
“It’s one I was taught when I was in Cuba, You place mint leaves and 1 lime wedge into the glass. Then crush the mint and lime to release the mint oils and lime juice. Then you add two more lime wedges and a bit of sugar, crushing again to release the lime juice. I do not strain the mixture, but fill the glass almost to the top with ice. I pour white rum over the ice, and fill the glass with soda water.”
“Ah,” Bain said, “The Mojito. I was wondered who would be the one to bring it to these shores.” He held out a hand, “Glad to know you, Steve Hunt. I like a man who knows his rum.”
“Yes sir,” Steve grinned as he shook Bain’s hand. “Want me to make you one?”
Bain shook his head, “No, give me a beer.”
Steve, shaking his head as he pulled the handle, did not see the smile Bain sent my way. I’d seen hints of a sense of humor from the wizard, but a sober, un-crabby Landau Bain was going to take some getting used to.
“You two fellows want something to drink?” Bain asked.
“I’d rather eat,” Frankie said.
I agreed, “Yeah, I’m getting pretty hungry myself.”
Bain nodded as he sipped his beer, “You know, I could eat myself.” Turning to Steve he said, “Have one of the waiters come see us over…” he looked around and then pointed toward the far side of the court, “That setting over there.”
Steve nodded, “Right away sir. Shall I add the beer to the tab?”
Bain nodded, “Of course, and add a decent tip for yourself.”
Once we were all settled, and Frankie and I stowed our coats and hats, Bain pointed at my slacks pocket, “You might want to count that. Enrico can be rather extravagant in his thank yous.”
I’d forgotten about the money already. I pulled it out and noticed the outside bill was a hundred.
Bain murmured, “Well, that top bill will buy you a nice house…”
I counted the money. “There’s ten thousand dollars here.”
Frankie breathed out, “Oh my god…”
I looked at him and said, “That’s the third time you said that Frankie.”
He pointed at the money, “Justified.”
Bain added, “Either be a really big tipper, which will do nothing but draw attention to you, or you had best have some smaller denominations.”
I said, “Yeah, I do. There’s a couple of tens in the roll.”
“Way too big,” he growled, “Even in this place a nice dinner for three, including drinks is about four bucks. On that, the tip shouldn’t be more than an extra dollar, and that would be considered being very generous.”
I rattled my other pocket. The silver dollars clinked.
Bain cocked his head, “Five of those things? Good, very good. That’ll more than cover dinner and the tip, and the last dollar can be the ante.”
“Ante?” Frankie and I spoke in unison.
Bain smiled, “Nice. Like trained seals. Ante, as in poker. You want answers, and a poker game is the best, and potentially most profitable way of getting them.”
The waiter arrived and both Frankie and I ordered the porterhouse and beer.
Bain ordered the roast chicken and a dry white wine some winery in Northern California was bottling called Gallo Blanc.
As we were eating a couple of the biggest steaks I’d ever seen, Bain said, “All right. Now that you have some food in you, tell me this, when are you from?”
I nearly spat my beer through my nose, “W-what?”
He chewed and swallowed and then sipped some of his wine. “You heard me,” he said. “One of the things a wizard can do is see auras, and both of you show the strain of time travel. So again, when are you from?”
Frankie opened his mouth. I said, “No spoilers, big guy. All right, the date was March, 4th, 2017.”
Bain’s eyes became hooded, “Over a hundred and ten years? This century must seem like the dark ages to you two. Have they discovered that colony on Europa yet?”
“Huh?” Frankie asked.
I said, “No, we’re still expanding the space station, but they are working on perfecting flying cars.”
“Huh,” Bain grunted, “So Tesla was right after all. I’ll have to apologize.” Then he gave me a much, much harder look, “Why are you here, and why now?”
So, keeping my voice low I brought the Bain of the past up to speed on the case that started the whole thing. When I got to the part about the blue goop spitting tube he stopped me.
“Hold it,” He said, then he took a sip of wine and added, “Something about that sounds familiar…”
“Landau Bain, as I live and breathe! Where’ve you been keeping yourself son?”
I looked up and there, standing right before us was Sam Clemons, old Mark Twain himself. Still wearing that white linen suit, but this time holding an honest to goodness Cuban cigar in his fingers.
Frankie squeaked, and I had to put a hand on his shoulder to settle him down. Time travel was not the place for fanboy geekiness.
I was too late. Clemons looked down at Frankie and asked, congenially, “Cat got your tongue, boy? Spit it out now. I don’t bite,” he pulled on his cigar, blew the smoke out and then added, with a smile, “Much.”
Bain rescued me, “Sam, ease up on the guy. I don’t know why, but it seems he’s a real fan of your work and is just a bit star-struck right now.”
“Well… isn’t that nice,” Clemons said shifting the cigar to the other side of his mouth, “I was wondering if the black folk would catch the reason I wrote Jim the way I did. You know, that gives me an idea. Why don’t you bring your new friends over to the poker game tonight? Yes… that’ll be just the ticket. Let’s see if Harris can keep his streak going with new blood in the game. And let’s see if they’re as progressive as they claim they are.”
He pulled out the cigar, looked up at the balconies and then said, “See you later fellas,” And walked off, chuckling.
Frankie was panting. “Sam… freaking… Clemons… called me boy…”
I said, “Easy big guy, it wasn’t anything racist—“
Frankie turned to me showing a huge grin, “Do you know the stories I’m going to have?! No one will be able to top this!”
I heard Bain murmur, “I don’t think your friend’s upset.”
The waiter came by asking if the food was to our liking. With Clemons’ visit, I’d forgotten about it. I glanced at the plate, bare of anything other than the steak bone, I said, “Yes. It was.”
Then he asked, “Will you be paying now or upon check out sir?”
Bain said, “On check out. Thanks, Andrew. That will be all for now.”
He held up a hand, forestalling my next question. Then he said, “Caruso gave you enough money to purchase an entire floor of this hotel for a year, with maid service, board and additional… entertainments. From what I can tell, you won’t be here that long, so why not have your stay be somewhere comfortable? It is far better than a noisy, smelly hostel, right?”
Frankie said, “I’m in. Where do we sign?”
Bain looked at the big guy and smiled, “I like him. He’s different.”
All I could think of was what caused Bain to change as much as he has?
He stood, dusted off his pants and put on his coat. “I will come by your rooms at six this evening and escort you to the game. Be ready, and be aware, most of these people cheat… badly.”
“Rooms?” I asked.
He nodded, “Of course. You can afford it. I believe the numbers are 503 and 504. Both have a window onto Market Street. Nice view. Remember, six o’clock. Oh, and I’d suggest that both of you visit the tailor shop. Right now you stand out like a six-alarm fire.” And then he walked off.
Frankie said, “Tony, I’m a bit confused.”
I sighed, “You and me both, big guy.”
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—- Personal Notes —-
Part one of seven! I had so much fun with this piece, I fell in love with Roberts characters months ago and was so excited to hear he would let me read this piece for you guys. I’ll be dropping an episode every Monday until it’s done.
—- legal —-
Artwork for this video was provided by Robert Lee Beers.