Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: Opening Pages

by Reb MacRath

R.I.P., Lew Miles: An Appreciation
by Nick Mercurio, S. F. Chronicle
January 8, 20__

    The music died a week ago in a small shed on Fisherman's Wharf, New Year's Eve. San Francisco's favorite son, Lew Miles, was tortured to death at age 73 by a maniac armed with a hole punch and drill. Cops remain clueless as to the identity of the sadistic killer.
    Maybe it's best to not know any more. The man the city came to know as Mr. San Francisco will be far better remembered as the hip PI of his memoir, Miles Style.
    Lew Miles took the town by storm when he arrived from Wyoming in 1968 with an inherited 200 grand. This short, two-fisted dynamo had the most of the three Cs: charisma, charm and chutzpah. Or, as Herb Caen said after their meeting, 'Damon Runyon meets James Bond'. Lew Miles Investigations hit the ground running the following year.
    In less than a decade the business had become so lucrative, that Lew expanded his small staff and focused on running his empire. Plus, on keeping his name in the papers and doing well-paid TV spots for Rolex and Anchor Steam Beer. Kids loved to chant his trademark lines: 'You know the drill' for Anchor Steam and 'A man knows the time or he doesn't' for the world's most famous watch.
    Lew 's long-time office manager, Val Sparks, has been confirmed as sole heir of Lew's substantial estate. Miss Sparks, 51, had been in Seattle the night Lew was killed and has remained in seclusion, refusing to speak to the press.
    Global Investigations may succeed in its efforts to buy LMI. They may even keep the name.
    But the music died on New Year's Eve, in a small shed on Fisherman's Wharf. And we all know the drill, as we now know the time.
    Ciao, Mr. San Francisco.

Murder on the Marina
by Nick Mercurio, S. F. Chronicle
January 13, 20__

    The Lew Miles tragedy has taken a more shocking turn. At 2:00 A.M. today, police received an anonymous call directing them to Miles' Marina address.
    Val Sparks, 51, Miles' manager and heir, was found beaten nearly to death. Further details on her condition and on the attack will be released later today. But the Chronicle has verified that nothing of value was taken despite the general impression of a burglary gone wrong.
    (Continued on page 2)



    It should have rained non-stop today. Glum thunder should have rumbled in a Robert Mitchum sky that promised far worse before long. I should have seen tree branches whipping. Heard the plash of drops on stone, sprung shutters whapbapbapping. But the gods had decided to turn on the sun and set it in a Spielberg sky with a thumbs-up sign from Disney. Hello to San Francisco, where the party never stops. Where you're sure your sweet ride with the lady called Luck won't end in a primeval forest with the dark and the fog coming at you.
    In the lobby of Saint Mary's I stood at the windows and gazed through smoked glass. We can't stop our clients from dying, I knew. But they shouldn't get murdered before we begin.
    And the ambiance here further darkened my mood. Rich ladies like my late client, Val Sparks, don't die in Stephen King horror hotels. St. Mary's pulls out all the stops for its terminal Beautiful People. I hadn't seen Val's ICU, but what could it have said that the lobby did not? Instead of the usual yellows and greens, I saw hip beiges, whites and tans, a few mellow splashes of yellow and gold. The air smelled rich with roses and the calm assurance that what went round would come around in the best care that money could buy. The freshly buffed marble floor glowed with self esteem.
    I sank into a chrome and leather chair worth my annual budget for scotch and cigars. As I sat there feeling sorry for both myself and Val, I shuffled through my hand of cards. Five 4x6-ers, college ruled. Each card contained a single fact with room beneath for further notes.
    Card one: 11/20. Initial application.
    Val applies online to have her lover Corrected for lying about his age. He's just stated that he's in his eighties, though she'd understood he was seventy-three.
    Form rejection. Not worth leaving Portland to slap some old man on the wrist. Plus, her rambling application exceeded my limit of 100 words.
    Card two: 11/28. Back again.
    Val reapplies, providing lover's name: Lew Miles, legendary S.F. dick. Says something weird is going on, with Lew sending her to Seattle.
    Form rejection: no reapplications.
    Card three: 12/31. WTF?
    Lew is found murdered on Fisherman's Wharf. A random killing, per the cops, with no motives and no leads.
    Card four: 1/10. Val's third application.
    Something's hidden in Lew's house, what or where she cannot say. Offers 50K if I help her find it. Pass.
    She counter-offers 100K. I agree to the job, pending payment. 1/12: Money's transferred to GC account.
    Card five: 1/13. Val's been killed.
    I learned she'd just died at Saint Mary's when I showed at her office this morning to meet. A home burglary gone bad, it seemed.
    Not much to go on. But more than I’d wanted to share with the cops who met me here at the front desk the minute I asked about Val. So I gave them the sanitized version that could fit on the back of a stamp. I didn't think it relevant to say I'd already been paid, as I always am, up front. Nor did I think it prudent to mention Lew Miles’ name.
    I’d met the great man only once, the year before I set up shop. Though he’d given me some free advice, it had nothing to do with his murder: Have a business card that lowers jaws—and put your lawyer's name on back.
    I gave the cops the business card Lew Miles had inspired. Along with it, I gave the name of my hotel. And they knew from my tone and expression that I had no immediate plans to leave town. So I sat a while longer imagining the gray rain that wasn't while I shuffled through my index cards and searched for the connection. A posh Bronx accent broke the spell.
    “Are you Boss MacTavin, honey?”
    I looked up, not far, to see a smartly dressed gamin of sixty or so who’d come up on my blind side.
    “I'm Boss,” I said. “And you?”
    “Estelle McIntyre. Please.” Estelle gestured to my chair, then took the one beside it.
    I smiled and waited patiently. For no one listens to the old, despite the great stories they all have to tell. Estelle looked once, then twice, at me and seized her opportunity.
    “Well, I had your description, and you do stand out. Six-one, extremely thin—though I’d disagree that you’re skinny. Slat-hard would be more like it. Black patch on your left eye. Right eye, the palest shade of gray. Spiky blond hair streaked with silver. Thick mustache, reminding one of the young Burt Reynolds.”
    “Still, how in the world would you know all of that?” I doubted she'd been to my site, Southern Scotch, or needed a Boss-type Correction. Along with the usual girlie delights, her handbag surely held brass knucks and an Armani stun gun.
    A young man I'd never seen before described you to a T, I mean right down to that rascally brogue mixed with a light Southern drawl. A cross between the Butler boys—you know, Gerard and Rhett? He gave me this to give to you.”
    She handed me an envelope that had been folded a couple of times and apparently stowed in a pocket. The folding looked so crisp and neat I thought of origami.
    I left the envelope unopened. “Can you tell me anything about this young pup?”
    “Maybe.” She batted her lashes.
    I laughed. “I admire your style, young lady, but I'm a wee bit strapped for cash.”
    “Like hell you are. I can tell at a glance that you’re loaded. But it’s not for me, for heaven’s sake. I modeled myself on my Aunt Esther, whose golden words to me were these: Marry for money, divorce for love—of a lot more money. That woman adored getting married, I swear. The gowns, the gifts, the bands—the gifts! But terribly, invariably, the honeymoon always...began. Back to the salt mines on white satin sheets. Anyway, where was I? Oh! I’m doing nicely, thanks.” Proud sniff.
    “I'm confused about how I can help.”
    It’s like this. We’re selling raffle tickets to help set up a bowling league. And I'm behind the quota all of us girls have to sell. The tickets are five bucks apiece. The raffle's in just two more days.”
    I arched an eyebrow, wondering why I felt so content to be stung. “How far are you behind?”
    “Five to steer clear of a write-up, all I really hope for. Heck, I haven't a chance for the best-seller's prize.”
    “Ohhh?” I asked her. “And why's that?”
    “Take a look at those two tootsies at the front desk. Super Glutes and Big Bazoom? I'd need a hundred to whup either one. Not that I need the prize, of course, a thirty-inch flat screen TV. Still, since I’m paying blood for cable, it'd be cool to watch it on plasma. Oh, well.”
    “I'll buy a hundred and sixty, my swivel-hipped, sassy young raptor.”
    She whooped. Then, while I peeled off eight hundreds from the ten I like to carry, she gave me what I'd asked for. “The stranger was in his mid-twenties. Not much taller than I am, let's say five-foot-five. Wiry build. Curly hair. Dressed in black from head to toe.” The last hundred went deftly into her bag.
    “Anything else?” I asked.
    She touched her lip. “He had an air about him, Boss, that I don't know how to describe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a walk more, well, let’s say...low down? He looked like he'd be right at home with those little guys in black pajamas on the Kung Fu channel. What do they call those dudes—Nancies?”
    I brushed her chin with my right glove. “If I were five years younger...Here.” I handed her one of the three special cards I store in a pocket inside of my belt. Three cards I give out once a year. They're exactly like my business card except for the two words 'Pro Bono' on back, replacing the name of my lawyer. My cell phone number's underneath, along with a special code to put the caller through...until the expiration date. The freebies are intended to save me from the Dark Side; the limit, from the poor house. “You'll get to use this card just once, so choose your moment carefully.”
    “Oh, I'm always extra-careful, Boss, to live completely carefree.”
    She gave my hand a playful swat, then left to get my tickets.
    I watched her go, admiring the sass that she'd managed to keep for so long. I spied but barely registered the stitch on the back of one stocking, a fray of leather on one shoe. I honored the image she tried to project: of a silver-tongued, gold-minded vixen without a care in the world.
    Then I tore the envelope's right side and snatched a yellow scrap within. Meticulous handwriting filled nearly half.
    Your dead client may still be your client. Tonight at 10. Lew's mansion. Come alone and unarmed or you'll leave empty-handed. If you can stop me from kicking your ass, I'll show you something really cool. You got the guts to earn your fee? Or is your name still Pete McGregor, at heart? I'll be in the bedroom waiting to see which man shows up.
    I heard Estelle call out behind me, but I kept going with a wave. I'd have been a fool not to feel edgy. I didn't fear a smackdown, as the writer seemed to think; I feared his knowing who I’d been and what had gone down in Atlanta.
    Six years ago there, as McGregor, I'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time one night. A flamed-out Scottish track star who loved the Deep South, which did not love him back. That night three thugs took me for somebody else, then gave me a beating that still makes me cringe.
    Meanwhile, I had a few hours to kill. So I did what any sane man soon to tackle a Nancy would do.


    I soaked in a claw-footed porcelain tub, large enough for my legs to stretch out at full length. The waterline came to my nipples. Any hotter, and I would have boiled alive. Herbs and balms from Chinatown, blended in precisely so, worked their magic with the steam.
    The prime top floor suite at the King Richard Hotel belongs to me three months a year: all March, June and November. My arrangement also includes two annual EVs: Emergency Visits of up to a week at a minute’s notice. For my business with Val I’d cashed in one EV, compelling a poobah to move down the hall with a free magnum of Dom Perignon. I may stay for a month or a weekend during the three months assigned. Regardless, I pay for each month like a guest, never mind the fact I co-own the hotel. And the various attendants receive the same tips as if I'd come each day. This largesse comes back around in wondrous little ways. Maids change the linens each day without fail. Even the ashtrays, though empty, get changed. A fresh mint is laid on the pillow and replaced with a new one come morning. I could roam the earth without finding smiles half as genuine as those I get when I show. The palatial suite itself holds prized antiques from other rooms I’d agreed to renovate. And it had amused me, I have to confess, to come to the city like this on my terms while Lew the legend rested these days mainly on his laurels. And on residuals for TV spots for Anchor Steam and Rolex.
    My KR business partner had shown a deft hand with the face lift. And putting him in charge of this proved one of my wiser decisions. Wiser still: preserving this spot from the wreckers. I’d had the TV and sound system antiqued so that they looked like what-are-thoses from the 19th Century. Mark Twain would have thought the phone had flown in from the future.
    Still, nothing pleased me like the tub I soaked in, preparing for battle—except the company of my half-Chinese, half-Fili lover. Mai Lin scrubbed my back while I studied the cards on the tray she’d affixed to the side of the tub. She’d added a sixth card a moment ago:
    Receipt of note and challenge.
    I'd considered that myself. Her notes underneath it astonished me, though. How did he know I'd already been paid? Why did my payment concern him? And did he want to beat me or want me to win so he could show me something?
    “You're very astute,” I admitted.
    I repeated the word and then spelled it for her. “It means you're keenly perceptive.”
    “So why did you not say that?”
    I watched her through the fragrant steam. “Because keenly perceptive takes two words and we should never use two words when one word will do.”
    “I see.”
    “Of course you do. And why?”
    She giggled. “Because I am astute. Slang, please?”
    I taught her two words whenever we met, as I had since she came from Manila the year she turned eighteen. I'd arranged for her sponsor, along with a job and a gratis suite at the KR. I owed her that and a lot more. Five years ago, I'd hobbled out of Piedmont Hospital with enough insurance loot to live in great pain without working. The AMA wanted to bleed me for years, but the Scot in me cried for alternative care. So I boarded a plane for Manila, in search of Fili healers. I found them—and found Mai Lin, whose own healing powers were greater.
    She'd settled in quite nicely here. And her proper English was coming along, though it still sounded bookish. Or, more precisely, DVDish. This would change, inevitably, as she hung out with American boys her own age.
    On the other hand, enter The Dragon Tattoo. Her obsession with Stieg Larsson’s books had grown into a mania. I could think of worse obsessions, true, and had read all three books twice myself. But I couldn’t see how a dead translated Swede could help with American slang. Oh well, at any rate, Mai Lin had gotten no piercings or tats. She rode the Kawasaki 250R I’d bought her last year for her birthday at almost illegal slow speeds. And she hadn’t taken to wearing her hair like a punk goddess. Yet.
    How about ‘cool beans’?” I suggested.
    Been there, done that.”
    Okay. ‘Hold it down’?”
    She shook her head. “I’ve...nailed that. Wait...” Through the steam I took in her expression in the gilded mirror across from the tub. I saw her smile, but not with her eyes, fine almond slits that had narrowed. “I forget what I wanted to ask you.”
    Suddenly she dropped the brush and rubbed at her eyes with a sleeve. And even through the heavy steam, even with my one gray eye, I spied something on her arm where the sleeve had risen. As she moved to the left, though, my view was obscured.
    I reached out a dripping arm and she took my hand. Gently then I tugged her back to her place beside the tub. “Come around, dear, I can't see you.”
    “You're angry with me, aren't you?”
    “Angry, darling girl? For what?”
    She came around and sat down on the floor beside me, her head barely reaching the side of the tub.
    I did not release her hand. “I need to look at that arm, dear.”
    “No, please.” She tried gently to tug free.
    “What's rule number one, Mai Lin?”
    “Whatever we need...we shall ask for.”
    “And two?”
    “Whatever we can do, we shall do.”
    “Good girl. I need you to look at me while I look at your arm.”
    “Can you not do that for me?”
    “Then you shall do it for me, as I've done all I can for you.”
    “Oh, Boss—”
    “Look at me, my dear. At me.” When I had her attention, I raised the kimono sleeve gently, my gorge and anger rising. From three inches above her right wrist to her elbow the tawny skin had purpled where it was not rubbed raw. As if a pair of massive hands had gripped her either in fun or in fury, then twisted, twisted back and forth. Done that to a willowy girl who barely stood five-one.
I rolled the sleeve back down. “Has anybody looked at this?”
    She shook her head vehemently.
    “You call the cops?”
    Henry Chin, her American father and my hotel partner, was the oldest school Chinese. He loved her enough to adopt her, bestowing his own surname when she arrived. Aye, he loved her like a daughter—but loved his family honor more. We’d have a talk tomorrow, one that he wouldn't forget. Meantime, my hour was coming. I stroked Mai Lin’s chin with one finger.
    “Rule number three?”
    “That's right. Once in this life and once only, whatever I tell you to do you must do, as long as it's in your best interest. This is. So tonight, when you leave, you must go to your room and I'll send my physician to see you. His business with you is between you and him.”
    “Rule three sucks,” she grumbled.
    “And yet you gave your word.”
    “I did. As you gave yours: rule number four.”
    “Oh, dear.”
    “We shall never deny one another...”
    “...what brings us mutual pleasure. But I can't before a fight.”
    Mai Lin helped me from the tub and then proceeded to dry me.
    “Rule number four, Boss, applies to your cards. My request is reasonable.”
    “But I don't need a...card assistant. And this may be a dangerous case.”
    “We shall never deny one another...?”
    “Aha! But how does your pleasure in learning—oh, my.”
    She'd stepped around and pressed herself against me in the back. Cupcake breasts with cherry nipples pressing through the silk. And now she took me in one hand, not wantonly but intimately, as if the pleasure I felt was her own.
    Byron might have been thinking of her when he wrote: 'She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies;/And all that's best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes...' But not even Byron could have come close to the sweetness of her voice:
    “It will please you to know that I'll use what I learn to—how do you say it, get down on someone?”
    I removed her hand and spun her around. “Get back at. You want revenge?”
    “Correction.” Her brown eyes met mine and gave nothing away.
    “But you refuse my help?”
    “I want you to help me to help my own self. Teach me how to use the cards and...Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
    “You're not to do a goddamned thing until we talk about it.”
    “Yes, Boss. Okey-dokey.”
    I couldn't quite read her expression. It seemed to be somewhere between scared-and-scarred, a condition I knew as well as the young Rod Stewart. But I had to trust someone and chose to trust her.
    “We'll meet again tomorrow night, if I survive this evening. By then—I don't care if it takes you all night—you're to have five index cards. Three, if you can do it. Problem, complications, possible corrections. Dig?”
    For the first time tonight Mai Lin flashed a real smile. “Yes, I do. My Big Bad Boss.”
    “Well, let's boogie on now. I've got to get dressed.”
    And yet she hesitated. There seemed to be a question she needed to ask and yet couldn't. It stung me to the quick to see her hesitate like that.
    “Rule number five, dear, is still in effect. Just as it always will be.” If you ever need money, just take it. Don’t ask.
    She touched my arm, insisting, “Everything is peachy-keen.”
    We dressed almost like strangers. The silence hurt as I geared up in the grays she'd laid out on the bed: tee, jeans and leather jacket. The last has a small Rebel flag on each sleeve, small enough that you’d have to look twice to make out. You could look all you liked without noting that the B of my belt's buckle is set in a snap-away circular blade. Finally, I donned the dove gray boots with crimson piping. I thought I cut a dashing figure, anything but threatening.
    And I enjoy maintaining my blendable physique. Though I train hard, it's not for show but rather to make sure the muscles I need will be there when I happen to need them.
    While I fiddled with my boots, Mai Lin approached the billfold I'd left atop the dresser. Stood before it as if she'd been sentenced to hell. Then took what she needed and stopped at the door to murmur our private goodbye:
    “Hey, boy,” she said.
    “Hey, girl.” I smiled, trying to keep the concern off my mug.
    Once she’d gone, I checked and found she’d taken every hundred. Though I had plenty more to replace those, the size of her need surprised me. What the hell kind of trouble had my lovely companion got into? And how could I help without breaking my word?


    I’d never seen a haunted house as lovely or graceful as Lew’s. And I’d seen several in my day. It ruled the block containing the Marina's most fabulous homes, though tonight it sat shrouded in darkness.
    In a block of Spanish-style mansions with red-tiled roofs and pastel-colored stones, Lew's home honored its neighbors while trumping them all. Across the stucco wall in front, chrome panels gleamed in the moonlight. More chrome and splashes of primary colors partied on the traditional roof. Even the home’s asymmetrical shape stood apart while blending, Franklin Lloyd Wright on a wild Spanish high.
I'd parked my Hertz two blocks away and brought along a canvas bag packed with some things I might need: lock picks, an alarm-silencing gizmo and rope if needed to help scale the fence. As it happened, I had no need of such toys. Though the Marina bustled, the side streets were as quiet as holes in the hills. I met no pedestrians. And none of the few cars that passed even slowed.
    No, I wouldn't need my tools. Beside the coded gate that blocked the pebbled drive I found a pedestrian entrance. This had a combination lock my host had left undone for me. I slipped through it, already knowing I’d find the front door unlocked too.
     Not just unlocked, a few inches ajar. Stepping into the fridge of a foyer, I closed the massive slab of oak. On the door’s back, I spied a yellow Post-It. I knew the handwriting just fine.
    No need for games. Bedroom’s upstairs.
    I set the bag down. Thought a second. Then slipped off my jacket. Whatever would happen would happen. But luck often favors the bold and prepared. So I did what I could as I cat-footed up the carpeted, circular stairway: I did the walking exercise. I'd learned this in Manila from a wizened martial artist who taught mano mano.
    For three months I did nothing but heal and stretch...and climb the walls, wanting to learn how to fight. I'd walk around his matted room for hours at a time. And he'd respond as he saw fit. If he spied swagger or slump in my step, he'd whale upon me mercilessly wherever I hadn't been broken. But rarely, when I walked just right, he'd place one gnarled hand at the base of my spine and urge me to straighten my backbone some more. When I'd learned how to walk, then he taught me to fight.
    At the third landing, I smelled the incense above. Sandalwood, one of my favorites. And now the moonlight that spilled through a skylight gently illumined the way. I steadied my breathing until I arrived sooner than I cared to.
    He sat lotused, under the skylight, on an oval Oriental rug centered in a sea of pine. His pale skin took me by surprise; close to alabaster. Though I couldn’t make out his eyes' color, I felt the heat in his frank glance. The tight curls atop his head might have been amber or auburn. He looked dangerously cute. And the small pale hands upon his knees did not invite a handshake. I raised my left leg, then the right, removing the pointy-toed gray-crimson boots. I kept my white socks on to cover the scars a man gets when crucified.
    He got up. Correction: He glided onto his delicate feet. He knew how to stand too. This might not go well, though I had half a foot on him, plus far longer arms and legs.
    He stretched his arms while he circled his neck. “Remember what the note said, Boss?”
    I stood there and waited and straightened my spine, giving him nothing to go on.
    “I've learned which man showed up,” he said. With that he walked straight up to me, stopping just out of my kick range. “You've stopped me. And I'll keep my word. But—call me irresponsible—I've simply got to know.”
    He contorted, whirled and sprang into a high spinning kick that could have knocked my head off.
He never got the chance, though, to pull the kick as planned. I may spar with a friend but he wasn't a friend and we needed to get something straight. So I went down in a lickety split, my thighs flush with the gleaming pine, my skull safely under the blur of his foot. As I split, I shot my hands up. The right hand caught him by the crotch; the left, by the neck of his sweater. My body jerked and down he went. Now I showed him what gloved hands could do, hands that had been crucified and couldn't clench completely. The blizzard of slaps left him gasping. I stopped.
    “You understand?” I asked him.
    “Never fight with a man who's been nailed to a desk and lived to tell about it.”
    “Master!” he cried.
    “Oh, shut up. Now that we've settled this rubbish, let's sit like girlie men and talk.”


  1. Oh my! Sexy Boss has finally found a little happiness with the lovely Mai Lin. He's so gentle and sweet with her {swoons}. They are beautiful together.--- Felicia

  2. Thanks, Felicia. Mai Lin is, next to Boss, my favorite character of all.


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