A jazz age Mystery Series

by ellen Mansoor Collier



Everyone always warned me about Market Street after dark. Loud jazz played as I knocked three times on the unmarked wooden door. A muggy Gulf breeze shook the palm trees, plastering my silk frock to my body like a mummy’s skin. Amanda and I jumped when a drunk flung a bottle out of a Model T.

“What’s the hold up?” I tugged at the heavy door, peering into the tiny slot. It wasn’t like Sammy or Dino to keep us waiting outside the Oasis at night. I knew it was risky to come, but I wanted, needed, to see Sammy, to keep a promise I’d made to my dad before he died.

Two winos wolf-whistled and made a beeline for us, leaning like twin towers of Pisa. “Get lost!” we shouted, trading anxious looks, relieved when they changed course.

“I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.” Amanda shivered. “What if the cops show up?”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “Sammy has friends on the force.”

Still, how would it look if the Galveston Gazette’s society reporter was thrown in jail after a raid? I’d rather write the news stories than be a headline.
Besides, I couldn’t afford to lose my job, even if it was just a fancy title for “stenographer and slave.” But I kept coming back to Market Street, craving the thrill lacking in my daily grind.

Finally the door panel slid open and cocoa eyes glowered at us. “Who sent you?”

“Sammy. Sammy Cook.”

“What’s the word?” A deep, familiar voice.

“Dino? It’s me, Jazz. Jasmine Cross.”

“The password?” His voice like a dare.

On cue, I recited: “Babe Ruth hits homers out of the ball park.” The door groaned open and Dino’s bulk filled the entrance, big as a baby grand. His round, fleshy face reminded me of a hand-tossed pizza. He yanked us inside, scowling, irritated that I’d passed the test.

“Say, why’d you give us the third-degree?” I snapped, hands on hips, my floral mesh bag swinging on my arm.

“Gotta be careful. Never know what can happen in a bar full of hooch hounds.”

Amanda’s baby blues widened. “A raid?”

Dino wagged a sausage finger at us, blocking our path.

“All I know is a gin joint’s no place for ladies without escorts.”

“Since when do we need escorts?” I pushed away his beefy arm, tattooed “Rosa” over a blood-red rose.

“Jazz, how do you always know the secret password?” Amanda sounded impressed.

If I told her the truth, could she keep a secret?

“I’ve got friends in high places.”

“You mean in low places,” she joked as we rushed downstairs.

The Oasis hid in the basement of a brick Victorian building, a haven for sailors, oilmen, flappers and winos. As a front, it operated as a Mediterranean restaurant, serving food around the clock, day and night. Twice, undercover cops had stopped in for “a bite to eat” and almost shut it down. If Sammy heard rumors of a raid, he stashed the booze and served Coca-Cola in china teacups.

A hazy gray fog of cigarette smoke stung my eyes, scratched my throat. Brass ceiling fans did little to relieve the heat or sweet smell of gardenia perfume. Folks of all ages packed the room shoulder to shoulder, united in one quest: getting blotto. Busy night.

Doria, a beautiful life-sized figurehead Sammy rescued from a wayward ship, hung above the bar. Hands across her chest, she watched over us like a guardian angel.

“Doria is my true love,” Sammy often joked. “When she comes alive, I’ll get married. Knock on wood.” That was Sammy—always a dreamer, chasing rainbows and mermaids.

A dandy in a top hat played “Ain’t We Got Fun?” on the old grand piano, laughing with a few chorus girls dancing the Charleston. In their glittering beaded gowns, they resembled brilliant butterflies. Even in my floral silk frock, I felt more like a moth.

Amanda disappeared to powder her nose, but I knew she wanted to survey the scenery—meaning the men. With her big blue eyes and long golden curls she refused to cut or bob, she reminded me of a Renaissance angel. Appearances can be deceiving.

I elbowed my way to the bar where Frank waited on customers behind the long oak counter. A beveled mirror reflected rows of liquor bottles lined up like soldiers. Model ships and schooners sat on the shelves, next to tinted photos of Sammy, the owner, surrounded by voluptuous vamps, hair bobbed, faces perfectly powdered and rouged. Women swooned over his dark hair, hazel eyes and olive skin, calling him a “dead ringer” for the late Rudolph Valentino. Excuse the pun.

Frank looked spiffy in a red bow tie and suspenders.

“Hey, Frank. Is Sammy here?”

He shook his head, mixing a cocktail. “You just missed him, Jazz. He got a call and ran out in a hurry.”

“What’s so urgent?” Sammy rarely left the Oasis on weekends, especially with a full house.

Frank eyed the tipsy guys by the bar. “You know. Business?”

Monkey business, no doubt. Maybe Sammy was out with a dame or meeting a rum-runner on the docks or beach. Bootleggers often made deliveries on weekend nights—when the cops and clubs were hopping. Buzz, a freckle-faced orphan, helped out behind the bar. He was a bit slow upstairs, but did OK in a pinch.

“Hiya, Jazz! Can I getcha a soda?”

“How about a Dr. Pepper?” I tousled his sandy hair.

“A whiskey, on the rocks.” A good-looking gent pulled up a barstool by me with a smile. “Say, sport, have you seen Sammy?”

Buzz shyly shook his head ‘no.’

“I’m looking for Sammy, too,” I told the stranger.

“Join the crowd, little lady.” He loosened his collar and tie. “Is he your beau?”

What beau? Sure, I’d had my dance cards filled a few times, but I’d almost given up on men since my last steady skipped town and headed for Hollywood. So far, no cigar—or movie star.

“We’re just friends,” I fibbed. “Don’t worry, Sammy will show up soon. He’s usually here on weekends.”

Buzz served our drinks and the man handed him two bucks. “Let me get that, doll. Keep the change, sport.”
  Buzz grinned and stashed a bill in his Levi’s.

“Thanks, sir.” I studied his fine features, pricey gray suit and navy silk tie. He seemed out of place here, like a shiny new Cadillac in a crowd full of jalopies. Where had I seen him before? Probably in the society pages—he was the bold-faced type.

“Call me Horace.” His handshake was firm. “Any pal of Sammy’s is a pal of mine.”

“I’m Jazz,” I said, wondering what they possibly had in common. No secret that Sammy’s pals tended to have a lot more sass than class. “So how do you know Sammy?”

“Let’s just say we go way back.” He took a swill of his drink, his hands shaky. “Have we met before, Jazz? Do you come here often?”

Did he really think that corny line would work? As I started to turn away, he tapped my hand. “Say, if you see Sammy before I do, tell him I was here.” I noticed his red-rimmed eyes and pale, sweaty face, the whiskey on his breath. “Tell him it’s urgent. Life or death!”

Life or death? Was he serious or was the booze talking? Sammy always stopped serving liquor before his customers got too sloshed, but Frank didn’t seem to notice or even care.

“Will do, Horace. Thanks for the soda.” I could have dismissed him as just another drunk, but something about his tone, his high-class manners, set him apart from the regulars.

I excused myself and looked for Amanda, who stood out in the crowd, her blonde hair bright as a beacon. She was flirting with an Italian sailor who twirled her long ringlets as she spoke. I doubt he understood a word she said, but he got the message all the same.

“Ciao, bella.” He flashed a liquid smile. What a lounge lizard.

“Ciao.” I smiled, pulling Amanda away. “Arrivederci.”

The sailor’s face fell, but lit up when Amanda blew him a kiss. “Aw, don’t be a killjoy, Jazz,” she pouted. “I was just having fun.”

“That kind of fun can end in heartbreak,” I warned. “Come on, let’s get cocktails.”

Who was I to give advice on men with my lousy track record? Amanda had so many suitors I needed a scorecard. I admit, I often acted more like her chaperone than friend. We roomed at my aunt’s boarding house, and felt as close as sisters. A study in contrasts, she was tall and fair, while I was petite, with dark hair and blue eyes.

Circling the bar, we found a tiny table by the dance floor, and a bleached blonde strutted over to take our order.

“What d’ya want?” she drawled, sucking on a lollipop.

“A sidecar, please,” we said in unison.

The pianist broke into a fast ragtime number, and I watched with envy as a sleek young couple danced the foxtrot. If only I could be so light on my feet, with a snappy partner to lead the way.

Miss Peroxide returned, slamming down our drinks while we dug in our bags for change. “Sure you can handle this firewater?”

I faked a smile, ignoring her crack. “Say, have you seen Sammy?”

“What’s it to you? I’m his gal, not his babysitter.”

“Says who?” Amanda bristled, revealing her not-so-secret crush.

“Ask him yourself. Tell him Candy sent you.” She gave us the once-over before she scurried off.

“What a floozy!” Amanda huffed. “I think Candy needs a good dose of charm school.”

“And how,” I agreed to pacify her, nodding to a few flappers singing “Dinah” and “Always” by the piano. Some hangers-on sang along, swaying back and forth, a far cry from the church choir.

Across the room, a dashing man caught my eye, lifting his glass in a toast. Who, me? He edged closer, tilting his head toward the dance floor. Sure, I smiled back, eager to cut a rug. What a sheik! But I turned around when male voices amplified, drowning out the jazz.

By the bar, I saw two “Mutt and Jeff” look-alikes having a row. A tall, wiry guy raised his arm to strike—blocked by a short, pudgy fella in a sailor’s cap. Bar brawls were old hat: Beach and Downtown gangsters often faced off in public places to protect their turf.

The piano-playing stopped, the scuffle expanded until all I saw were fists flailing, men shoving and fighting. Loud voices cursed: “Palooka!” “Clodhopper!” “Bohunk!” and more choice insults.

Dino thundered downstairs, and pushed the men apart like a referee. “Knock it off!
  What do you think this is? A boxing ring?”

“I wonder what’s wrong?” I tensed up, craning my neck to see the commotion. Tall, Dark and Handsome had disappeared. Just my luck.
  As the crowd fanned out, I heard a gal scream: “Help!”

Amanda and I squeezed through the crowd, and I froze in place when I saw Horace, the dapper gent I’d met at the bar.

He was lying on the floor, motionless, passed out cold.

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