The Dead Don’t Remember You: A Vincent St. Michael Novel
The moment Eleanor evaluated her, she knew there was something wrong.
Vincent St. Michael told her when she was hired to never say “observe,” but “evaluate.”
So, the new comer was strange. Not to be trusted.
Eleanor ushered her into St. Michael’s office and introduced her as Mrs. Crocker.
Eleanor took a corner chair and pulled out her tape recorder.
Mrs. Crocker faced St. Michael, who was seated behind his desk.
“As I explained over of the phone, it’s about my son,” she said.
“He’s been away for some time…and now he’s coming back, although I don’t know exactly when. I’m afraid that he’s mixed up with some bad company.”
“What do you mean by bad company, Mrs. Crocker?”
“Well, you know, people who would influence him…to do bad things.”
“Was he always a bad boy?”
“No. But he was troubled. Never really had a chance. His father left us when he just nine.”
St. Michael pulled out a notebook and gave Eleanor a knowing glance.
“I am a private investigator specializing in events related to the maritime industry,” said St. Michael. “So why are you here?”
“My son worked on passenger vessels, Mr. St. Michael. “And then on the docks. My attorney said you might be able to help us.”
St. Michael put down his pen and paper, and asked Mrs. Crocker to address the tape recorder with her story.
“OK. My son, age 17 gets his lottery draft notice five years ago. It’s number 113 in 1969, so he’s not going to college, and he has no other deferments, and he gets the bright idea to travel until they call him up. He surfs…pretty good, I’m told. So he thinks this will be a bright idea until he has to return to the Mainland from Hawaii. Did I say that he left for Hawaii? Well, he did. Not knowing anyone there or with anywhere to stay. He just left. Found a job with a shipping company and Good Bye.”
“May I interrupt? He finds a job on eastbound cruise vessel to the Islands? Doing what?”
“As a bar-back for the bartender, supplying him with ice and replenishments. That’s what he wrote me.”
“He found work at Pearl Harbor hauling crates off vessels piecemeal. Not a union position. Casual labor. Then someone offered him a job working on skyscrapers being built in Honolulu.”
“So he’s a strong young man?”
St. Michael lights a cigarette.
“No. Just compact. They thought he would like to take on an apprenticeship to be a highrise ironworker. Mostly with a death wish. Very risky job, but good pay. And brotherhood. He opted out of that on the first day. Petrified in the elevator. Barely made it out on the beam. He worked his shift, though, and then transferred.”
“To what? asked St. Michael.
“A foundation man. He found his calling. Liked to pour and smooth cement. Terra Firma.
“So how do you know this, Mrs. Crocker?”
His friend described this for me…although he didn’t have many friends. Maybe he’s an acquaintance.”
“Would you kindly name and describe this…acquaintance?”
“He has an aristocratic bearing, though I don’t believe he has much money. His name is Bernard Braxton. Charm to spare, and a popular contest surfer in the Islands and Southern California. They met at some party.”
“Not met through surfing?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Ben didn’t like big waves or competition. As I mentioned, he is uncomfortable at great heights.”
Eleanor rose from her chair and put a thick dossier on Vince’s desk. This was the Ben Crocker file put together just before his mother’s arrival.
“That should be all,” said St. Michael. He stood up and guided Mrs. Crocker toward the door.
“You may leave Eleanor with a check for this visit, and we’ll discuss our fees later if we proceed with the investigation.”
When the two women left, Vince opened the file. It contained several photos of Ben, including one shot of him surfing at Fort Point, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. That photo was blurred. Another posted picture by his car showed that he had a good build, pleasant smile. Well groomed. There was a high school diploma and transcripts indicating that he was just an average student.
A separate envelope contained shipping documents for his working passage on the Stateside vessel, Aloha bound for Honolulu. It was for one-way passage, with no assurances of continued employment.
Several letters and post cards were included, tied together with some burlap strings. They had the scent of coconut cologne and hashish. Cheap hash. Cheap cologne. And then something else caught Vince’s attention. The soiled and torn receipt from The Hotel Dam Ran Vey. A smudged thumb print on the lower corner may have contained blood.
Next on the agenda was a walk down to Longshoreman’s Hall. This was a stroll St. Michael enjoyed taking from his office in the Ferry Building. The fog would be rolling in at dusk and San Francisco’s natural air conditioner would be in full force by evening. He’d stop at a couple of watering holes on his way through North Beach, and then take his usual ringside seat before the preliminary bouts got underway. Posters advertising the main event graced many storefronts and even a few churches. The featured fight was to launch local favorite, Jack O’Malley, on his professional career. Vincent St. Michael was not widely popular with many of the longshoremen, but the union bosses and shipping company executives always greeted him warmly. He rarely talked shop at these events, but sometimes it could not be avoided.
“My nephew is looking for work in the PI business,” said one fight regulars. “Can you help him out…even as an intern?”
“You know my agency only hires women.”
“Yeah, why’s that?”
“For a variety of reasons,” said St. Michael. “Reasons you might not understand…but that’s the firm’s policy.”
While he was never comfortable explaining this rule, it was based on painful experience learned over the past few years. Men were not as observant as women, nor as patient. The women he employed came from a variety of backgrounds, but with one thing in common: most were damaged goods.
Divorced, or unwed mothers, for example. Others were closeted lesbians. Some not so closeted. One or two others may have been sexually abused when young, and had a natural suspicion of all men. This was especially valued at the St. Michael Agency, since most dockworkers were of that gender…unless convincingly disguised by a hormonal transformation.
The raging hormones here at Longshoreman’s Hall were in full throat tonight, noisily greeting the first lissome “card girl,” stepping in beneath the ropes of the ring. St. Michael recognized the blonde from one of the strip clubs. She might one day in the not-to-distant future being asking him for job, too.
Then the two novice boxers came out of their respective corners to push each other around in an uninspired first round. The second round ended suddenly for the guy in white trunks, who was knocked cold by a phantom uppercut.
During the break, St. Michael was approached by one of the SF police detectives working fraud-related cases.
“We understand that Mrs. Crocker paid you a visit today,” said the sergeant. “If she knows anything about her son’s whereabouts we’d like to have you share it with us.”
“Client confidentiality, Sarge. You know the drill. We had an introduction, that’s all.”
“So she’s not exactly a client yet?”
“She doesn’t fit the usual profile, but we might be able to help her. What do you know about Ben?
“A troubled kid. Actually trained with us at the Police Athletic League when he was younger. Had some potential as a lightweight. Started hanging out with the wrong element, though. Surfers, dope addicts. Guys like that. Lost interest in boxing and faded away. He’s also a draft dodger.”
“President Ford issued a proclamation offering amnesty two years ago. Maybe Ben did not get that memo.”
“The amnesty comes with certain conditions,” said the sergeant. “Namely that those involved agree to reaffirm their allegiance to their country and serve two years working in a public service job.”
“Then he can become a cop?
“Not if he’s a conscientious objector, he can’t. At any rate, we’re not granting him any kind of protection until he makes himself available. There are more people looking for Ben than you, me, and his mother. Lots of angry dangerous people.”
He tips his hat. “See ya, Vince.”
The sergeant went over to the other side of the ring to sit with a group of other uniformed officers. A new card girl stepped into the ring, announcing Round One of the second preliminary bout. This was slightly more entertaining, as both fighters were seasoned professionals. A technical knockout in the 7th, and the main event was up next.
Jack O’Malley was known and liked by this crowd. A North Beach local, he trained at Newman’s Gym in the Tenderloin, and never lost a Golden Gloves match as an amateur. His father was a bartender, as were all his uncles. Jack was known to have had a few drinks too many when he wasn’t training for a fight, but he always managed to stay out of trouble.
“This is his first ‘marquee’ fight,” someone behind Vince announced. “Jack ain’t ever been in there with a seasoned professional.”
Which was true, except that his opponent was nearing the end of his career and had every reason to just show up and find a nice soft place to fall down. The purse wasn’t much for victor or vanquished, but O’Malley might be more motivated if he truly believed this was a stepping stone for him in the fight game. St. Michael remained skeptical, as he had seen too many melodramas to believe this was On the Waterfront revised.
Contenders were in short supply in this “coulda, woulda shoulda” world of defeated dreamers.
A Marine Color Guard was summoned by the announcer as the boxers were being introduced. This was a group of four fresh-faced lads. Two were carrying national and Corp colors, flanked by two others bearing regulation rifles. Vince rose to his feet truculently, and bowed his head in a attitude of reverence and resignation.
A tired recording of the National Anthem droned from overhead speakers, and “God Bless America,” was called out at its conclusion. Not everyone in the crowd was standing. The war in Vietnam had met its inglorious end two years earlier, and many of the longshoremen were opposed to its mission from the very start. Some of the more Left Wing guys had, in fact refused to work vessels destined for Southeast Asia, even if they were just carrying humanitarian supplies.
The referee goes over his instructions with the two fighters, who glare at one another before returning to their corners. When the bell rings, powerfully built O’Malley comes out throwing haymakers and hooks. He’s not one to jab much. Nor can he slip a punch. His opponent just takes it, losing on points up until the fifth round. That’s when the crowd discovers what St. Michael had suspected all along. The Irishman has a glass jaw. Even before he hit the canvas, it was lights out. The ref and fight doctor rushed to the fallen idol to remove his mouthpiece and inspect the damage. His eyes had rolled to the back of his head, and a stream of dark blood puddles beneath his head. A priest climbs through the ropes, too.
Just in front of St. Michael, two women weep. One is O’Malley’s mother, the other, his fiancé. As the fighter slowly regains consciousness, the announcer overstates the obvious: the bout has ended with a knockout. A scratchy vinyl recording of “Oh Danny Boy” is now filtering through the speakers.
Twenty minutes later, O’Malley is on his feet, head bandaged, being gently escorted out. A good natured group of Boyos try to console him, but the boxer will have none of it. His eyes are starting to blacken and he’s suddenly become very old.
As St. Michael is finishing his beer, he feels a soft tap on his shoulder. It’s Eleanor.
“Thought I’d come by to give you a lift in my car,” she said. “It won’t be good for you to be walking home from here.”
“One of these longshoremen left a message on the office phone saying you might be followed by someone we’ve had fired. Remember the crane operator who claimed he’d been injured on the job back in July?”
“The one who two days later is spotted hauling a case of boosted scotch into his apartment?”
“Yeah. That’s the one. He’s made some threats that we might wish to take seriously. I spotted him in the parking lot with his biker friends.”
Eleanor’s vintage green Jaguar is parked near the gate, just beyond a phalanx of gleaming Harley Davidson choppers.
“You not riding that ‘rice burner’?” one of the bikers growled at St. Michael.
“It’s not Japanese,” he answered. “It’s Italian. And I’ll race you any day you wish.”
Eleanor squeezes his arm, and whispers, “Not here Vince. Not now.”
Once they get in the car, he rolls down the window and lights a cigarette. Then he passes the pack over to her.
“Still trying to quit?”
“It might be a good idea for you to do the same,” she says.
St. Michael keeps his eye on the side view mirror, but it does not appear that they’re being followed. As they wind their way up Telegraph Hill, Vince asks Eleanor to contact Mrs. Crocker’s attorney in the morning.
“I can’t figure out why this guy sent her to our agency,” says Eleanor. “Missing persons is hardly our specialty. He belongs to the World Trade Club. Would you like me to arrange a meeting for you two there?”
“Sure. But make it for late afternoon. The cocktail hour. I may need to be fortified.”
The car comes to a stop, and Vince begins to get out when Eleanor asks one final question.
“How do you feel about helping a guy who evaded his military duty when you conducted yours with such valor?”
“Naval intelligence was a desk job in Saigon. Very quiet duty.”
“But you were in combat during the Tet Offensive. I’ve seen the decorations, Vince.”
“That wasn’t combat, dear. Just a big street fight. And the Navy was giving out medals afterward to anyone who survived the assault. You should know that Mrs. Crocker’s lawyer – the one that referred her to our agency – was my commanding officer. Captain Porter. Now there was a hero. I owe him…big time. And I’m sure we both don’t blame Ben for trying to stay out of that war. No one should have gone. It was one very bad party.”
What he didn’t have to say was that a man did not have to serve in Southeast Asia to have “a Nam experience.” Ben may have had his own in version in Honolulu, and he might still be paying the price.
The next morning St. Michael is up with the sun. His apartment has eastern exposure, and is filled with light. Vestiges of fog remain close to the ground, but this promises to be a pleasant autumn day…what San Franciscans call their “real summer.”
He takes the elevator down to the garage where he keeps his production factory cafe racer, the 900SS Ducati. This motorcycle is no “rice burner” – or risotto burner for that matter – and he keeps it in mint condition by lovingly attending to its every need. After wiping it down and letting the engine purr for a few minutes, he adjusts his goggles and pops in his ear plugs. Then he takes it down the steep winding driveway to Café Trieste for his first coffee.
The goggles are an affectation, as he does not wear a helmet. The ear plugs are essential, as his hearing was damaged during the war. Two days of relentless shooting in close quarters had made Vince deaf for a while. Now he can’t abide the irritating volume of everyday life on the streets. The roar of choppers – both helicopters and Harleys – drive him mad. Nor does he care much for skateboards; basketballs; or car alarms. Peace at the café was what he was seeking.
And there was fellowship, too. The Trieste Motorcycle Club was convening that morning, as members fueled themselves on dark roast coffee before heading east for the Vacaville Raceway.
The place is filled with cops, too. He overhears them discussing the Golden Dragon massacre, which took a few blocks away in Chinatown. The attack happened just last month, and left five people dead and 11 others injured…none of whom were members of the rival Wah Ching gang.
“The Hop Sing Tong members were also hanging out when the gun play started,” said one cop to another. “You just don’t expect something like to happen at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning.”
St. Michael knew that the Joe Boys were getting their weapons from Vietnam via Hong Kong. They favored the .45 caliber Commando Mark III rifle and .38 caliber revolvers. These were not used in combat…but by street gangs in Saigon.
“The Columbus Day Parade are going to keep you guys busy,” Vince says. “But I understand Chinatown is going be pretty quiet for a while.”
Quiet was something Vince could use, too. There was talk of introducing Fleet Week in the City as an annual event. That would mean the incessant roar of fighter jet planes in the skies above San Francisco as the Blue Angels demonstrated their prowess and acrobatic exercises.
He overheard a discussion at one of the tables about Ocean Beach “breaking big” that day, and considered for a moment a drive down the coastal highway. The tourists would be out en masse headed for Half Moon Bay, however, and he thought better of it. Instead, he’d motor over the Fort Point and check out what the locals were doing with the swell. Fortified with a double espresso, he fired up his bike and was off.
A phalanx of Japanese motorcycles were parked beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, as were several pickups and muscle cars. As usual, packs of mongrels wandered around the waterfront looking for food and mischief. Waves were indeed massive, and wrapped around the point in menacing order.
Surfing at a place like this is a tribal experience, and those who had not been welcomed or initiated were quickly driven off by the leaders. The young men comprising this particular tribe – and they were all men – were masters of the left break. Either you drop in and embrace a “goofy foot” stance or take the sinister side by turning your back to the face of the wave. In other words, there was no right turn. And the drop was steep today. A moment’s hesitation, and you’d eat it for sure. Evidence of such consequences could be seen on the shoreline rocks where several boards lingered badly damaged.
This was entertaining, St. Michael reckoned. Not compared to the thrill of a motorcycle chase, but good fun. Violent, too. The territorial imperatives of the sport meant that you had to fight – and fight well – to defend your place in the takeoff order.
One tall rugged long-haired blonde demonstrated this several times. He took off on any wave he wanted with abandon, and was never challenged.
“Braxton!” one observer called out. “You be one baaaad Mukka Hai.”