St. Claire: Part Two

Continuation from August 19th’s post. Part One: William Jay has come to the club St. Claire not only to reminisce about his life in the Louisiana swamps during the Roaring Twenties when the booze needed to be hidden and the men weren’t always what they seemed; he has come to make his confession. “Part of the story,” he tells his dinner partner, “you already know…”

It was the summer of 1925, right in midst of the Roaring Twenties and only four years until the Crash— of course, they didn’t know that then— and New Orleans was a booming town, which meant that St. Claire was full every night. You could see the lights on the road for miles; they even came up the river in boats… just to have a good time. Of course, she was different then— the club. She wasn’t just some quiet place to play cards and enjoy good rum-runner’s booze— no, she was a real gentleman’s club with a band and a dance-floor downstairs and even a show or two during the weekend. Men came from everywhere to enjoy Mr. Warhouse’s whiskey and his rum, his good Jamaican Rum. Rich men came, card sharks came, boys on the verge of manhood came to dream of what their country could give them.

They would even bring their women. It was a nice place to bring women back then. Of course, they were never allowed upstairs— no one was except club members— and you had to pay through the nose to be one of those, which meant you were either very rich or very foolhardy. In those days there were a lot of both, darn them all!

Anyways… my father bought me a membership in twenty-three for my thirtieth birthday. It was some sort of rite of passage in those days and for two years I rubbed elbows with some of the richest and craftiest men in the South. I doubt you would know any of their names now. Most of them lost everything.

As it happened old Warhouse came down one weekend that summer in twenty-five, which was a surprise to everyone, you see, because he hadn’t even set foot on or kicked up dust around St. Claire since 1908. He entrusted the club’s management to Doug Stewart and then took off like a rocket. But back he came just as mysteriously as he had left.

I remember it like a photograph. When he came upstairs into the private section, I was sitting right over there at the bar, and the band downstairs was playing some sort of frantic jazz. The place was awash in lights and the fans beat back a sticker of a night. Doug Stewart stood behind the bar with his barkeep, a pleasant mannered black fella who went by the name, Old Faithful. Doug, Oldie, and I were exchanging a little lighthearted banter when all of the sudden Doug’s face went as blank as a sheet. He mumbled, “Well, I’ll be—” and scuttled out from behind that bar just as fast as he could.

I watched him go across the old carpet, and at the top of the stairs, he shook hands with this big man in an overcoat. The man was tall and broad and had a hard face with crystal blue eyes that winked when he surveyed the full tables around him. His black hair shone with pomade.

Next thing I knew Oldie was ticking his tongue next to my ear; his wizened face, a mask of disapproval. “Never thought I’d see him here again— no, sir!” And he ran a rag over his glittering glassware.

“Why do you say that, Oldie?” I asked.

He gave me one of his superior looks and pointed to where the big man, now devoid of overcoat, shook hands with Mr. Clay. “That there man is Mr. Warhouse, Mr. Jay. It is to him that you owe thanks for this fine establishment.”

I laughed a little at Oldie’s sarcasm. “You serious, Oldie? That’s Warhouse?” I studied the owner with interest before turning back to Oldie. “Shouldn’t you be thanking him for your job instead of explaining his position in such snide and unbecoming tones?”

“Hush up now, Mr. Jay. You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” Oldie frowned and glared sidelong at Mr. Warhouse before finally shaking his head and walking down the length of the bar.

I was just about to call his name when someone else called mine. I turned around and Doug charged me with Warhouse in tow.

“Will!” Doug slapped a hand down on my shoulder. “I’d like you to meet Gerry Warhouse. Gerry this is William Jay— his father’s Frederick Jay, big time Louisiana newsman. I suppose you’ve probably heard of him.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Warhouse said and smiled at me as we shook hands. It was odd because he had just a bit of an accent and seeing as I’ve heard that accent so much since, I was never to mistake it. Warhouse was German, and standing so close to me in his white suit and gaudy gold cuff links, I could see that he was an even harder man than I had at first surmised. I would later find out that he had fought in the First World War and was rumored to be friends with key people of a little German political party we would soon know imfamously as the Nazis. Altogether, my first impression of Gerry Warhouse was one of incredible cunning.

“I have met your father, William,” he told me and laughed that deep-throated laugh that seems to belong to many Germans. “You do not mind me calling you William, do you?”

“Of course not.” I too smiled because his presence was so full, so lively I could not help from feeling the excitement of it.

“Care for a cigarette?” He held out a gold-plated case inside of which lay two rows of hand-rolled cigarettes.

I nodded. “Don’t mind if I do.” I lit it with my own lighter.

Warhouse laughed as he watched me, and Doug called for a round of drinks. “I have a motto, William,” he told me as he lit his own cig-arette. The flame of his lighter flashed coldly in his blue eyes. “Would you like to hear it?”

“By all means.”

“When two people— two men especially— share a cigarette, there is a bond, you know… a kind of friendship that develops— if only for a moment. But when you smoke another man’s cigarettes you can never be the same. Don’t you think?”

I smiled a little sheepishly. “Sure.”

He laughed again. “No, don’t suppose. You know it. You smoke, you talk, you say things and you hear things. People do like the sound of their own voices, but when they open their mouths, they generally tell you something about themselves.”

Doug slapped my shoulder again this, time rousing me from scrutinizing Warhouse’s face. “Don’t listen to him, Will,” Doug cau-tioned. “He’s an old German snake. “Could have flown ribbons around the Red Baron if his eyes had been straight. He’s been bitter ever since… It’s his game to TALK ribbons around you now. He’s all backwash, really.”

Warhouse narrowed his eyes at Doug and chuckled. “My keen-sighted business manager,” he said.

Doug gave him a sunny grin and sat down on the other side of me. “I do try, Mr. Warhouse.”

“The reason I bring up irrelevant mottos is because I happen to know a few things of young William here through his father, and I was hoping to ask him for a favor.”

Doug raised his eyebrows. “Oh. Well, in that case—”

“A favor?” I mumbled, looking from Doug’s shinny, over-bright and unserious face to the ghostly smirk that curled around Warhouse’s cruel, Prussian lips. “What kind of favor?”

“My son’s coming here later tonight and, seeing that you’re around the same age, I’d like you to show him the club. Take him to town even, introduce him to some women. I’ll pay for it. Don’t worry.” His crystal eyes crinkled at the corners. It was not the look of a man who was told no.
I knew right then that Gerry Warhouse— if that was even his real name— was not a good man. I did not have to be told about his war record or about his current friends— there was just something about him that was Slimey.

“What’s your son’s name?” I asked, interested at least a little.

“His name is Giovanni Luciuk— Luciuk is his mother’s name. He lives with her most of the time, but soon, I am turning over ownership of St. Claire to him, and I would like him to see what he is getting.” Warhouse tapped the bar for a drink.

Oldie ambled up slowly and gave Warhouse a dead stare. “A schnapps, please.” Warhouse smiled as Oldie laid out the drink a moment later. “I want my son to have a good time while he is here, do you understand?”

I nodded. “Of course.”

“I must warn you, Warhouse,” Doug declared from my elbow, “you should have picked better if you want your son to see a good time. Will’s a bit of a stuffy bunny.”

Warhouse eyed Doug from across me and laughed; little jets of smoke streamed down from his nostrils. “Oh, I think he’ll do just fine.” And tucking in his tie, he added: “Now, if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, there are a few more people I’d like to say hello to. Oh, and Doug— see to it that when Giovanni arrives, they meet each other.”

“Sure thing,” Doug said.

Warhouse patted him on the shoulder. “Good man,” and slipped off into the room.

Doug watched him go with restless eyes. Finally, he turned back to me and his face was a little white. “What a darned awful shock that was.”

I pursed my brow. “You didn’t know he was coming?” I asked.

“Not on your life.”

I scoffed a little. “Bad luck.”

“Not as bad as you,” Doug said.

“What do you mean?”

“Rumor has it Warhouse has never even met his son… so I’d say you’re in for it. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’ve got to go tell my doorman to bring any Giovanni Luciuks straight to me so I can bring them straight to you.” He stood, but before he went, he rapped the bar. “Oldie, clean up these glasses. Don’t leave ‘em sitting.” And then he, too, raced across the lounge.

I shook my head and turned back to my drink and my good conversation with Oldie. I thought nothing more of Mr. Warhouse’s son. I had been around long enough then to know what a rich club member meant when he said “have a good time,” and I wasn’t too worried about anything.

I should have been.

Instead, I spent the night as I would have spent any other night at the club back then. I talked to Oldie a little longer and then shoved off for the card tables where I first lost a little of my money and then a lot of my father’s. A few of us spent the better part of the night like this. It wasn’t until between one and three in the morning that we noticed the band had stopped playing and everything was quiet downstairs. But Doug had noticed. By then, Doug was pretty anxious.

At three thirty the game wrapped up, and I was beat, but there was still no Giovanni Luciuk. I didn’t know whether to stay or go. As the other card enthusiasts collected their hats and made for the staircase, Doug called me back over to the bar.

His face was worn like it was at the end of every night, and the pits beneath his eyes glowered darkly. “I don’t like this—” he told me; his tired eyes roved over the room. “I don’t like it one bit. Warhouse left right around one o’clock and even then he was sure his brat was going to be here tonight. You don’t think he’s had an accident, do you? You know how some of these guys drive when they leave here.” He wiped a nervous film of perspiration from off his forehead. “If that kid had an accident within a two mile radius of this place, Warhouse’ll have my head.”

At that moment Oldie shoved forward a box of cigarettes. Doug grabbed one greedily and lit it.

“Listen,” he said to me, “maybe you should stay with me a little longer just in case.” And turning he called to the little errand boy who lived in a house behind the club with his family. Doug had him run down and tell his doorman to stay an extra hour. When the boy had gone, he turned back to me with a sneer and took a long drag on his cigarette. “Boy, do I hate rich people sometimes. Especially their bratty kids… No offense, Will. You’re the good kind.”

I smiled and lit another cigarette. People were always saying that when I was young— how good a man I was— but I always knew that if they could just see my mind and what I thought of them, their opinions would change. Well… maybe not Doug’s because I certainly did not have the mind of a rich man.

After we decided to wait, we were silent a minute when we realized we listened to more noise in our ears than just the clank and chink of bottles and glasses as Oldie locked up. From the open verandah windows and in from the sticky, heavy night came a funny ruckus: a few voices shouted to each other from beneath the insects’ chorus, and then we heard the solitary slam of a car door.

Both Doug and I got up, thinking some of our late card players had gotten into a half-hearted, drunken scuffle.

We came out onto the verandah into a seething Louisiana night. The sky broadened above us crystal-clear, the trees hung about us like prop shadows, and the air felt like a warm, heavy blanket. As we stepped up to the rail and looked down into the drive, the picture of it is all still weird in my mind.

There below us, askance in the drive, sat a gray coupe with its top down and its headlights on. The lights rent an eerie tear in the pitch-like night; they shone onto a jet black Rolls Royce. A man moved around in the stream of the headlights, and as he moved, his shadow wavered across the Rolls at moments. He bent down near the side of the car, and as he squatted there, someone called to him from the darkness. People stood below us on the lower porch.

“Hey!” Doug shouted. “Hey, there! What’s going on?!”

The man, squatting next to the Rolls, looked up and in the wash of the lamps his white face shone. “He’s dead, Mr. Stewart!”

Doug jerked at my side; the lines on his face contorted. “What?! Who’s dead?!”

“Dunno, sir! You should probably come take a look!”

Doug shoved off from the rail, mad and muttering. “Come on, Will. If it’s another dingbat whose heart’s decided to kick off at my club, I’m going to sue.”

We stomped down the stairs and through the lower rooms. There were five men left on the porch, and down in the drive stood Benny Miller.

Benny Miller was a wily little man of Irish and German descent. When we approached, he stood to all five feet two of his inches and gave us a haunted look. “I think maybe he’s an oil man, sir,” he said. “Never seen him before tonight.”

Doug sighed. Neither of us could see the body clearly. It lay crumpled on the other side of the wheel well, and we weren’t keen on getting close.

“Well, all right,” Doug said. “Let’s get him up from there and take him inside. Call a doctor.”

“Listen now, Mr. Stewart. You’d best not be touching him at all. There’s blood on the car and a hole in his chest. That man— whoever he is— was shot. I’d suggest getting Orr to call the police.”

I remember the sinking that happened in my gut when Benny Miller said that, and I remember the blank stare that Doug fixed on him. One heard about shootings in those days, but it never happened to anyone we knew. It never happened at St. Claire, and to be so invaded by the outside world seemed impossible. The mere fact of it happening adds to the weirdness of that night.

I was a hot headed young man back then; I just hid it well. And I was mad, mad at someone for ruining the fun of my club, my life. I took a step forward— past Doug’s paralyzed body, past Benny and his warnings. I wanted to see the face that had wrecked my night. I think Benny warned me not to look, but I couldn’t hear much in that moment. The wheel well was like a black chasm out of which stuck legs and a hand wearing an eagle-crested ring. When the shadows dissipated from the wheel well, I wasn’t that surprised. In fact, it made sense.

The dead man was Gerry Warhouse.

His dead face stared past my legs into the thick gray-black underbrush of the swamp. Like in life only a few hours earlier, his lips twisted up at the corners in an arrogant grin. I shivered because it was just as Benny said. In the center of his pale blue, silk shirt lay a bullet hole and a sluggish mark of blood. On the side of the car, behind his head, a larger streak of red marked the fender. He had been shot straight through his heart.

To be continued…

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