Detective Walter M. Friday -- able, determined, gritty -- lurched out the grime-stained door bearing his name, not bothering to lock up the dingy office he called headquarters and home, the tiny walled-in box hunkered down in just another sad and typically squalid ghetto of his beloved City by the Bay. Feel the enwrapping fog, hear the muffled neighborhood screams and cries, disappear into nothingness . . .
Not one to spill his guts or lavish affection indiscreetly, yet this rudely handsome loner, Detective Friday, harbored a hidden, smoldering passion for his life's love -- work -- no concern for his person or ravages of the heart, ever certain to lie in a path not yet trod.
Lola . . . Lola: his newest client. Lola Fanfarre, was herself all too smoldering and unnecessarily voluptuous a desperate woman . . . desperate to find the man she loves.
The gumshoe loved a good and healthy sleuthing, but what Miss Fanfarre had related to him over the phone minutes earlier had him Dumfounded with an uppercase D.
Shaken but not stirred, given the elements of consternation whipping her emotions with a swizzle stick, Lola -- beautiful, gorgeous, adorable Lola -- was still in that lone phone booth on The Embarcadero when Detective Friday spotted her there, steaming up the glass walls. And his eyeglasses.
Her slumping back toward him, he approached the booth slowly, observing with the eyes of a seasoned agent of the law that the back of one of Lola's hands was wiping tears from her violet eyes, the other clutching the Don Ameche, wailing loud and clear its wish to be hung up. He cleared his throat gently to capture her attention; she turned without a start as though she surely knew it were he, and then she smiled that red slash of ruby red and sensuous, pouty lips.
"Hi," Lola Fanfarre purred and . . . fainted. . . .
Gently cradling Lola in the crook of one muscular arm, retrieving with his free hand the payphone handset and returning it to the patiently waiting switchhook, Walter let go a sigh of resignation over what he could never call his own as he peered wistfully into Lola's closed yet, nevertheless, ever mesmerizing violet eyes. Tearing his gaze away momentarily from the scrumptious visage of a somewhat less than pure and angelic pan-caked countenance, the worn and bitter guy reluctantly averted eyes downward. There, crumpled amidst the usual sort of dirt and debris one scarcely notices but shuffles aside with one's foot when entering a city phone booth, was what was clearly drugstore quality stationery -- violet --violet its heavenly hue.
The professional returned, the flesh-and-hotblooded man-about-town on the back burner at a low simmer, Detective Friday left the wad of paper in place on the floor, thumb, index and middle fingers delving into its center, and commenced spreading out the wrinkled edges. In the dim light, its barely filtering through dirt and dead bugs layered upon layer on an ancient light fixture, Walter squinted through his own smudged glasses to read what lay before him.
A Bay City telephone exchange: YUkon. YUkon. He must revive Lola. He needed her to confirm what he had quickly surmised. Was their destination the crookedest street in the world?
Nothing, absolutely nothing, about Lola was sensible. Her beauty was otherworldly, her bearing that of a queen, her voice grating but ingratiating.
After a few moment's time chafing her wrists and fanning her face with that scrap of violet stationery, Walter observed Lola's peepers fluttering open. She stared wide into those deep-blue hooded eyes of the man she could readily love but for the torch she held for Ricky -- Ricky LaCosta.
Detective Friday helped Miss Fanfarre to her 4-inch-stiletto-shod feet and she perked up to Bay City's fog-enshrouded skyline. Wobbly on kicks Dame Rutherford would have declared "not sensible shoes," yet Lola, steady on the arm of this guarded hunk of an inscrutable man, smiled that little smile that could sink a fleet of ships.
Fully vertical, convinced that they had to get a move on, Walter hailed a Yellow Cab. A boxy DeSoto pulled up to the curb and proudly displayed its gleaming teeth -- a bright, metallic grin of a massively tooled grill. The couple eased into the back seat, and the cabbie pulled into the pea soup and the night.
Settled into Chrysler Corporation's more modest but still luxuriously comfortable deep-cushioned comfort, the unconnected yet nonetheless striking couple raced through streets ghostly dark but for phosphorescent street lamps whose globes appeared floating unattached to the sidewalks below, haughty sentinels indifferent to lives lived and lost on the drenched pavement beneath their glowing auspices.
As Lola crossed one fishnet-stocking-encased leg over the other, her right haut talon jarred an object on the floor directly behind a driver concerned only with tonight's lucrative fare. Detective Friday -- as ever, on his figurative haunches and preternaturally alert to the slightest variation on the turning of a silent shadow -- grabbed Lola's kid-gloved hand as it instinctively reached down to assess any possible damage done her hose. With the other hand, Walter lifted his index finger to his lips for silence, that to quash any possible invective or curious chatter on the part of the lady.
Hands freed from the person of Lola and reasonably assured she got his unspoken warning, Walter pulled from his right overcoat pocket a pair of thick leather gloves, slipped them on, reached for the object . . .
Square and heavy.
Reaching discreetly across Miss Fanfarre's estimably alluring person, the tightly wound but nonetheless cool flatfoot gingerly raised the perfectly square, kraft-paper-wrapped box to his left ear and gave it a shake. And another. No mistaking the wooden-like rattling of scores of loosely packed English walnuts. Pulling out a penlight clipped in the left inside pocket of his navy blue double-breasted suit jacket, Walter shone the thin stream of light onto the box top. He and Lola both read the name and address that gave the indomitable detective pause and the lady the vapors:
555 Lombard St.
Bay City, USA
"What exactly did Rocky say to you over the phone, Miss Fanfarre?" queried Detective Friday.
"He . . . Rocky . . . he said I had better play pat-a-cake with him and be his moll if I ever wanted to see my Ricky alive again. But I'm true blue. I could never cheat on my love. Do you think this dilemma I'm facing is comparable to that set out in Frank R. Stockton's The Lady or the Tiger?" Lola mused with thoughtful reflection upon times of literary moments past but with no little incongruity.
"Yes," Walter assured her, without flinching.
Wally remembered his wild ride to the Top of the Mark so many, many years ago. Like it was yesterday.
The breathtaking vista awaiting him and his crazy-for-kicks friends punched them in their gut the moment they stared incredulously out the huge sheets of glass. Even scrappy kids -- if properly attired -- were permitted to take that unforgettable zip to the skyscraper's heights and then, afterward, the scream-inducing plunge back down to street level. Young Wally knew the grand hotel's house detective, Harry Peverell, who happened to be a longtime pal of the boy's dad, Manny. Harry took a shine to the curious and bright lad and let him in on some of the lesser in-house shenanigans played out by dishonest employees, confidence tricksters posing as guests and the milder forms of rampant extortion and blackmail.
Wally knew what he was going to be when he grew up. With Nancy Drew and Joe and Frank Hardy and Harry Peverell as role models, the intrepid sleuth-in-the-making wasted no time in pounding the pavement and gumming up his brogues.
Detective Friday's mind and stomach having returned safely to the comfort zone of the back seat of the Yellow Cab 'Soto (after his nostalgic plunge from the sublime to the ridiculous in the renowned elevator of the Hotel Mark H), Walter tuned back into Lola's nervous chatter on matters of Midwest animal husbandry as related to Professor Yves Martine's recent and controversial studies in aberrant human behaviors and why, as noted by Chesterton, there were few poems, if any, on the subject of cheese. He mused that this was the lady's way of diverting attention away from her understandable anxiety over Ricky's fate at the mean and inordinately pudgy hands of Boss Graziano.
Taking some further moments to get his bearings and shake off the vicarious adrenaline rush from his childhood reminiscence, the otherwise on-the-top-of-all-matters-great-and-small guy realized that he had failed to give the driver directions to the pair's lofty albeit tortuous destination.
Nevertheless, the cabbie pulled up to the swept and tidy curb of 555 Lombard as if, in point of fact, he had been already apprised of the upscale neighborhood, the address, the imposing structure to which a higher power had directed him. Right arm splayed across the soft curve of the front bench seat, Tony -- for that was the driver's Christian name -- turned his capped head, smiled as wide a grin as would be deemed friendly yet not broaching borders of professional propriety, and declared that here we are folks!
Walter handed Tony a fiver and told him to keep the change, grabbed the package, opened the door and, after planting his black wingtips firmly on the freshly washed sidewalk, turned back toward the cab and offered Miss Fanfarre his free hand. She smiled broadly as she shimmied upward and outward and dug her spikes into concrete fully accustomed to such exquisitely painful and clacking footfalls.
Jeeves stoically awaited the pair at the summit of Italian black marble stairs and beckoned them enter (with a near imperceptible sweep of white-gloved hand) through the imposing and glossy Chinese red door. Once inside the cavernous vestibule of enveloping, steamy warmth, this set in sharp contrast against the timber-shivering and penetratingly damp chill of outdoors, the expectant pair could fain ponder over what lay in store for them. As their eyes adjusted to an eerily subdued light from numerous wall sconces that disappeared to infinity down an artist's rendering of a study in perspective leading to that so-called vanishing point, Walter and Lola, as though in concert mentally and viscerally, knew that duty and love, respectively, brought them to the Devil's lair but no other reasonable and sane directive.
The richly paneled walls -- reaching some eighteen feet upward toward an intricately detailed, hammered copper ceiling -- were of walnut and, likewise, the grounding parquet below, whose rich hue was enhanced by expansive Oriental rugs of silk, were laid randomly one upon another in an indulgent superfluidity of conspicuous wealth. Upon a section of panel, in seeming incongruity to other elements of decor, yet nonetheless pleasurable in aspect regarding its relationship to the rest of this massive introductory chamber, was an inset painted in the deepest hunter green, upon which hung a gilt framed outsize oil painting of a tree.