I HEARD JELLY BLUESTEEN laughing his fool head off as I darted out the door in pursuit of the slime ball I was assigned to watch. If the guy had only swiped the till, I would have turned around and told Jelly to catch his own thief. But the guy snatched my overcoat on his way out the door. Inside was my new PI license and fifty bucks from our agency’s petty cash, making the thievery a personal issue.
The man I was after was the bartender at The Blue Mist, a popular sleaze joint on Sabine, a few blocks from The Next to Nothing Live Theatre. Jelly, the owner of The Blue Mist, came to our detective agency for help. He was certain one of his bartenders had been stuffing his pockets rather than replenishing the cash drawer.
My partner and boyfriend, Ralph Dixon, advised against taking the case since he suspected Jelly of being as crooked as his employees, but I was eager to get our new agency off the ground. Being a novice investigator, I could use the practice. Besides, the nighttime work would not interfere with my day job. Dixon reluctantly agreed.
It was my third night at the bar. My sleuthing required that I dress in male disguise and smoke and drink while trying to keep a low profile, which was easy since most folks came to The Blue Mist to do just that, except for the dressing in disguise part. But, hey, I might be wrong. After all, it was 1953, and weird things happened in downtown Austin, Texas.
I suspected this particular bartender the first night. He had a pattern to his pilfering. Once the joint became busy, he’d move to the far end of the bar where the overhead lights failed to reach. When someone paid for the drink, the guy pretended to stuff the money into the register, but instead he executed a quick flicking motion with his fingers, and the bills slid up his cuff.
Tonight had been busier than normal and I watched as a small fortune filled the bartender’s sleeve. At closing time, Jelly came out from the back room and caught my eye. I nodded toward the guilty party. The bartender noticed our sly communication and he suddenly became twitchy. Jelly hurriedly ushered the last drunk out the door, flipped off the neon OPEN sign, and reached for his billy club. In one swift motion, the bartender snatched a wad of cash from the register and my coat off the rack and made a beeline for the door. Since Jelly was too fat to run, I took up the chase, alone.
I pursued the guy down Sixth Street all the way to The Driskill Hotel when suddenly he darted down the alley and became swallowed up in the steam rising off the pavement. I thought I’d lost him until I heard a pile of rags bundled near the dumpster say, “He turned right at the end of the alley, Miss Sydney.”
I thanked the man whom I’d come to know as Backyard Benny, a bum who earned his moniker by sleeping in backyards and alleys in the downtown area. I took off in that direction as a tower of empty food crates tumbled in my path. Thanks to my long legs, I hurdled the debris, sending an annoyed family of raccoons scattering. In dodging the scavengers, I slipped on their food refuse, regained my footing, and within seconds I had the guy in sight again. Turning down Seventh toward Red River Street, he headed away from the downtown area and the streetlights illuminating the path to the State Capitol. My youth and athletic ability gave me the only hope of catching him before he vanished into the crevices of broken down warehouses, or worse yet, into the darkness of Waterloo Park. The guy was at least twenty years my senior and had obviously not graced the inside of a gymnasium since high school. But he did have the advantage of being prey, driven by survival and escape.
I was about forty yards behind him when I caught sight of a slow moving mass on the opposite side of the streeta collection of stumbling drunks, or so I thought. When I saw the glint of a switchblade, I realized the drunks were malcontents intent on relieving late-nighters of whatever cash remained in their pockets.
The guy paid no notice to the thugs following him. He leapt over a low wooden fence and disappeared behind a vacant house. I pulled my gun from my shoulder holster and fired a couple of shots into the air. Someone shouted, “Cops!” and the hoodlums fled. I wasn’t often mistaken for one of Austin’s finest. It must have been my man clothes. I prayed my long red hair would stay put under my fedora as I scaled the fence after him.
I should have listened to my wise and experienced partner and not gotten involved in this case. I should have also listened to him when he told me to meet him at the office as soon as the bar closed. That was almost an hour ago. But I couldn’t let this guy escape. My pride was at stake.
If I were lucky, Dixon would head down to The Blue Mist and Jelly would put him on my trail. If not, I might end up like so many other women who found themselves alone after dark on the bad side of town, looking for trouble and finding it. My gun would do me little good if a thug’s switchblade found its way between my ribs.
As I rounded the corner of a three-story warehouse, the side door flew opened and caught me in the right shoulder, knocking me to the ground. From the crashing noise, I knew the bartender had dashed inside. I followed, but pulled up short when the door behind me slammed shut and I was clothed in darkness. I stopped and listened. Nothing. No running footsteps. No tumbling boxes. No heavy breathing. Okay, I knew when to quit. I backed toward the door when I heard it. Music. Suddenly, the room lit up like Times Square. I now stood between a headless man and a rabbit whose nose twitched to the beat of my pounding heart. Dracula’s image reflected off the blade of the guillotine.
I jerked around to confront the Transylvania bloodsucker and came face-to-face with a girl dressed in organdy and lace; a blue sash wrapped around an empire waist and tied into a bow in back. This I could see from the reflection in the mirror behind her. On her feet were patent leather Mary Janes in the brightest shade of lavender I’d ever seen. She held a Bible to her chest. When she spoke in a clear, calm voice, I knew it was beyond hope that the smell of brewing coffee would wake me from the nightmare. I blinked twice. She was still there. So, I did the only sensible thing; I placed my gun back into its holster and asked her where she bought her shoes.
“I found them. Who are you?”
“I could ask you the same question. Did you see an old chubby guy running through here?”
“No one’s been here all night except me.”
“Why aren’t you at home?”
“You live here?”
She raised her eyes upward. “On top. Our apartment. I come down here when my dad snores.”
“Do you always dress as if you’re going to your First Communion?”
“I’m considering a new persona. Dad doesn’t like me coming down here at night. But I find the time alone in the prop room, playing dress-up, generates my creative side. Do you play dress-up too?”
The tone of her question was not that of an innocent child. It dripped of sarcasm spoken by a well-seasoned cynic. I looked down at my grubby suit and cowboy boots and sighed. “I do play dress-up, evidently. Listen, I got to go, and you’d better get back upstairs before your father wakes up.”
“After he comes home from work, he hits the bed and doesn’t wake up until late. He runs the theater next door.”
“The Next to Nothing Theater?”
“Where’s the front door to this building?”
I followed her through the warehouse, going in one door and out another, up a half flight of stairs, and down a long narrow hallway when she reached a door and pushed it open. Until now, I hadn’t realized that in chasing the guy, we’d doubled back. I was back out on Sixth Street and Sabine. The Blue Mist was across the street two blocks away. Then I noticed the marquee for the theatre. I stepped back and scanned the structures. The warehouse and theatre, and apparently this girl’s apartment, were all part of one huge building. We went back inside and returned to the prop room.
“I’m sure the guy came in that backdoor,” I said.
“He could have. To the left of the door are stairs that lead to the roof. He could have gone up there and down the fire escape. Why were you after him?”
“Let’s just say it’s business. Show me the roof.”
“Sure. What’s your name?” she asked, leading me to the stairs.
“No, your real name. I know you’re not a man.”
“Thank you. Sydney with a y and you are?”
“Florence, but you can all me Lydia, with a y too.”
“Is that a phonograph you’re playing?”
“My favorite record. It’s a special night.”
I listened. Billie Holiday singing “Blue Moon.” “Great song. Why is it so special to a young girl like you?”
“Not the song, the night,” she scoffed and pushed opened the door. “Tonight is a Blue Moon. Only comes around once every twenty-two months. I was a mere child the last time it happened. I wouldn’t miss it this time for anything in the world.”
“I wish it would show itself. It’s damn dark out there.”
“It was out earlier just for a moment when the clouds parted. It was magical.”
“Sorry I missed it.” We stepped out onto the roof and I found the fire escape, which led down into the alley. No use looking for the guy now. He could be halfway to San Antonio.
“Sorry I bothered your fantasy world, Lydia. Do me a favor and lock up after I leave. There are some dangerous people hanging around this neighborhood at night.”
“Oh, I’m not worried. If the bums around here know you, they pretty much leave you alone.”
“Maybe you should walk me back to my office.”
“Hey, come by tomorrow and I’ll get you a ticket to the show. It’s great entertainment.”
“I’ll do that. Gotta go.”
“Unless you’re known around here like me, I’d stay out of these alleys. Life is too wondrous and beautiful to squander in the cesspools of the devil.”
I jerked around, but Lydia had disappeared. When I shut the door behind me, I heard the lock click. I pulled out my gun for the eight-block stroll back to the office. All of a sudden, the hair on my arms stood up. I spun around, giving him the opportunity to grab my shoulders and push my back against the wall.
“You never listen, do you?” he said.
“Get used to it, buddy,” I replied.
His eyes narrowed. I replaced my gun in its holster and flung my arms around his neck as the wail of sirens drifted off in the distance.
“We’ll never get any work done this way,” Dixon said.
“It’s the Blue Moon.”
“It’s not the Blue Moon, believe me.”
He kissed me again, this time softer and gentler. My knees buckled.
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