Charlie’s Golden Cannery—the joint was about as classy as its name. The old red bricked casino sat on Bond Road, a block off Boulder Highway on the outskirts of East Vegas. The façade looked ready to give up the ghost and collapse from the next good slam of the door. It was a neighborhood ripe with slums and the bums and unfortunates to fill them. I wondered if the place had serviced the hardy souls who’d built the Hoover Dam almost two decades ago. It was a grand place for their ghosts to mill about. I parked my Ford Coupe next to a lighted storefront, crossed the street, and entered.
The last rays of the setting sun cut through the heavy fog of smoke that reached from floor to ceiling. The ragged-out red carpeting had seen better days, probably out-dating the dam. What passed for neon lights hissed and blinked behind the bar and the stage where a lady Negro singer was exercising her pipes, accompanied by a quartet dressed in white gabardine suits. The throngs crowding the tables and rows of one-armed bandits seemed deaf. The lady was good, damn good. The only good thing in this whole rundown shithole.
I sidled over to the bar and ordered a double rye from the grinning, beefy bartender. He had two gold teeth filling the black maw of his wide mouth. They tried to shine in the poor lighting. Those teeth seemed to be the only gold this joint had seen in years. “I’m looking for Jasper Spence,” I said to him after dropping a dollar bill on the bar and telling him to keep the change.
“Jasper ain’t here,” he said with the voice of a punch-drunk boxer. His scarred eyes and broken, hooked beak told me I wasn’t far off the mark.
“Look here,” I said, pulling two more George Washingtons out of my wallet and dropping them under his dull, ugly mug. “Jasper told me to meet him here at seven, and by my watch and that wall clock behind you, it’s seven. And I don’t want Jasper thinking I’m tardy.”
The bartender’s eyes narrowed, showing the way to the confused look on his face. “Late,” I said, “late is another word for tardy. I don’t want Jasper thinking I showed up late for our meeting. After all, he invited me here. It’s rude to show up late when somebody expects you to be on time. And I don’t want Jasper thinking I’m rude.”
A slight gleam of recognition twinkled like dim candlelight in his eyes. “Yes sir. I’ll tell Jasper you’re here right away, Mister . . .?”
“Dinger,” I said. “Just tell Jasper that Dinger’s here . . . and on time.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Dinger. Right away, sir.” And with that he disappeared around a corner behind the bar.
I hiked myself onto a stool and leaned against the bar, sipping rye and enjoying a Billy Holiday ballad the lady on stage was performing. If I wasn’t looking at the songstress, I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Miss Holiday herself doing the honors. So much for the half drunk, unappreciative crowd intent on blowing the rent and food money for “just one more” shot at the ever-elusive fortune which lay so close to their greedy, needy fingertips. Just one more hand and the kids will never go hungry again. I swear to God on it.
The last refrains of “The Very Thought of You” were fading when a dame wearing a red dress like a second skin rounded the bar and beckoned me over with a wave of a crooked finger. I followed the beautiful brunette skirt as she led me down a long, dark hallway illuminated by sconce lights every ten feet or so on opposite walls. When not watching the hypnotic swaying of her hips, I noticed the carpeting had been rejuvenated from a worn, faded red to plush burgundy that might’ve been laid in the past year or less. Things must be looking up for Charlie’s, I thought.
The gal left me in front of a door with Jasper Spence, Manager painted in gold lettering on the pebbled glass. I watched her sashay out of sight, and rapped a quick tattoo on the glass. A gruff, “Come in,” beckoned me from behind the door. A husky, broad-chested man sat behind a desk as disheveled as he appeared. An ashtray overflowed onto the desktop with cigar butts and ashes. His ratty coat was unbuttoned. Fat jowls, a long strip of salt and pepper hair dividing a deep receding forehead, and puffy, slack eyes like coal greeted me with a crooked smile showing tobacco-stained teeth. “So, you’re the hotshot private dick I’ve heard so much about,” he said, thumbing both suspenders holding up his trousers. “You come highly recommended, Mr. Dinger.”
“The pleasure’s all mine, I assure you, Mr. Spence. Now, how can I be of service? Service, by the way, that’ll cost you a hundred bucks a day, plus expenses.”
The phony smile faded to a wide, thin horizontal gash in the doughy face. The black eyes narrowed, meshing thick brows together like one long caterpillar. “You not only come highly recommended, but damned expensive, Mr. Dinger. I can hire a dozen flunkies for half of what you’re asking.”
I took off my fedora to fan myself, not so much from the heat, but from the stench of cheap stogies and sweat. Spence was a pig. The blue-striped shirt he wore sported underarm stains down to his ribcage. Word was this boar hog took a different young dame to bed every night of the week. Dames desperate to “make it” as showgirls in Vegas’ better clubs via Spence’s recommendation, and then on to Hollywood through his “personal” connections. The chump was gutter trash. But I’d answered his beckoning call for purely personal reasons. “So, hire ’em,” I said and turned to leave.
“Not so fast, Mr. Dinger. Please, hear me out.” There was almost the hint of begging in his voice. “Have a seat, please. Can I offer you a cigar?” He opened a box sitting on the desk. “Or, a cigarette?” He fumbled with a silver cigarette case and opened it.
“No thanks,” I said. I sat in the cushioned chair nearest the desk and fished out the pack of Chesterfields from my coat pocket. He offered a lighter. I accepted.
“Okay,” he said, biting off the tip of a nickel cigar and finally lighting it after several strong puffs. “A hundred a day and expenses? You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Dinger.”
I blew a stream of smoke across the table into his face. “No, I don’t bargain, Mr. Spence. That’s my going rate. Take it or leave it.”
Spence leaned back in his plush chair. It groaned in protest. “No, no, there’s no problem, no problem at all. I need someone who can get the job done. I hear you’re the one private dick in town that can be counted on, no questions asked.” He crossed one leg over the other, took another puff, and grinned, the stogie clenched in the corner of his mouth. “So, we got ourselves a deal?”
I returned the grin. “It depends, Mr. Spence. What’s your beef? Word is, you’re not pleased with the monthly vig you been paying Victor Rizzo. He is the person keeping this dump afloat, or did you forget about the loans you made with him? If you’re smart you’ll keep Rizzo happy. You pay him, he pays the cops, everybody stays happy.”
That knocked Spence off his guard. He stood, sputtered and stuttered, trying to come up with an answer to my little speech that had waylaid him like a left hook out of nowhere. Before he could recover I doubled with an uppercut that sent him reeling. “Remember a doll you ‘helped out’ a few months ago? Her name was Gloria. Gloria Raines. Nineteen years old, from Bainbridge, Georgia. Here, take a look—take a good long look, and remember!” I grabbed the back of his neck and jerked his fat face against the desktop. Reaching in my pocket, I found the photo of the once beautiful Georgia peach and shoved it under Spence’s ugly mug.
“Take a good look, you bastard! Remember that face? Remember what you did to it? The slices you made so she would never have a chance in Hollywood, even if she did have the talent for it?” I lifted his head up a few inches and slammed his mug into the hard surface. Something broke, bones, teeth, maybe both. I didn’t give a damn. I lifted the fat head and slammed it down a couple more times, then tossed the worthless bastard onto the floor. I pulled my .38 snub nose and shoved it into his bloody, broken face. “Beginning now, Spence, you’ll pay Miss Gloria Raines a hundred-fifty bucks a month, every goddamn month, until the doctors fix that pretty face back the way it was before you cut it up. If you miss one payment, just one, I’ll be on your ass like stink on shit! You read me, Spence?
Later that evening I wrote a bank note for the first three hundred bucks toward getting the young dame her looks back. The doctors in Atlanta were optimistic, she said, when I’d telephoned her and told her the money was on the way.
So was I.