Hau Tree Green

They had changed the name, and it wasn’t called the Star-lite Lounge any more. Now it was the South Seas Room. The outside floodlights were green instead of blue, but everything that went on inside was the same. The drinks were still watered, there were the same pretty girls and even prettier boys at the bar, and it all came with premium prices. It promised some fun and a little danger, but if you wanted to buy some truly unusual company, a little reefer, or a cold gun, you were better off sticking with the Hi-lo Club.

“How old was the drowned boy?” Annie asked. “What was his name?”

We were sitting in my Ford, watching the door of the nightclub from a dark corner of the parking lot, waiting for the thin man to come out.

“His name was Allen,” I said. “With an ‘e’. He was fourteen. Not quite a boy, but not a man yet, either.”

“And the cops did nothing?” she demanded. “For Allen with an ‘e’? Who tried to save a drowning cat and was murdered for interfering?”

“Sheriff decided it was an accidental death.” I shrugged at nothing. “Dangerous place to swim---he wasn’t the first person they’ve pulled out of that reservoir. I talked to the Santa Teresa cops. Case closed, as far as they’re concerned.”

“You told me the boy was wearing shoes,” Annie said. “Who goes swimming with shoes on? This monster kills stray cats for fun, and now a stray kid---and he’s sitting in there soaking up whiskey sours, free as can be?”

“I’m not getting paid for this,” I reminded her. “I’m doing what I can. We’ll follow him now, and see where he lives. I’ll tail him for as long as it takes---until he trips on something that will put him away. He’s twisted, but he’s still a common hoodlum--- sooner or later he’ll do the wrong thing, and I’ll drop a dime and have him locked up.”

“The lesser of two evils is still evil,” she said. “He’ll get out eventually and start back up again.”

“He isn’t planning to stop drowning stray cats,” I said. “There might be a law against that---at least if it’s done in a reservoir where people get drinking water. I may be able to have him arrested for it.”

She got quiet again, and I passed the time mentally listing the Boston Braves’ decent pitching prospects for next season. That didn’t take long, so I tried to figure our what Annie smelled like, instead. I had gotten as far as the ocean, clean perspiration, oranges, some kind of flowers, and warm skin, when the front door of the club opened and Joey O’Meany came out.

He walked across the lot and got into an egg-crème LaSalle saloon that was frosted green by the floodlights.

“The thin man himself,” I murmured.

“Follow him,” Her laugh was lovely. “Maybe he’ll hold up a filling station on the way home and you can call the cops and get him put away for a month or two.”

“I don’t make the rules, Annie,” I said. “I can only work with what I’m given. I have to play by at least some of them.”

“Well, I don’t have to play by any rules, except the ones I make up,” she said, and got out. “I like dogs more than I like cats, but I won’t play favorites at a time like this.”

She slung the strap of her bag over a shoulder as she walked away. The saloon’s headlights came on and silhouetted her as she walked across the lot. She took her time, like a dancer walking onstage. She was beautiful when she moved, and O’Meany had time to get a good look at her. When she reached his car, she bent and leaned into the driver’s window. I knew she didn’t want an audience for whatever she had to say to him, but I also didn’t think she understood how dangerous he was.

I cursed under my breath, got the Browning out and held it in my lap. I sat with one hand on the door handle.

There was a sharp cracking sound, and the LaSalle’s windshield lit up whiter than the headlights. The flash was gone as quickly as it had come, and then the headlights went out and the big car was dark again. Annie got back in on her side, bringing a cloud of perfume mixed with burned powder. Her eyes shone.

“What did you do that for?” I asked. It was a stupid question, but the only one I could come up with on short notice.

“I told you I don’t like rules,” she said. “So I don’t play by them. As I also mentioned, I like cats.”

I held my hand out and she put the pistol into my palm. The barrel was hot. I wiped the prints off with my handkerchief and got out of the car. I heard snatches of music from inside the club, and the far-off hum of traffic on the coast highway. Nothing else stirred. I crossed the lot and slid the gun underneath the LaSalle. I didn’t look through the open window at what was slumped behind the steering wheel.

“I’m probably going to cry,” Annie told me, after I got back in. “When I’m by myself."

I was in shock, but I didn’t love her any less. Maybe I loved her more. I couldn’t think of anything to add to that, so I let the clutch out and drove us home.

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