By Brian Mosher,
When I first arrived in town in 1955, The Golden Albatross was run by Cassini, a fat Chinese man. No one was sure why he had an Italian name. You could ask him, but he wouldn’t tell you. The food at the Golden Albatross was neither Chinese nor Italian. It was also not very good. But it was cheap, and so were the drinks, which is what initially drew me to it. According to Sammy “The Lip” Henderson, it hadn’t changed much since 1945, when this story takes place. There were about half as many lights as there probably should have been, and nearly half of them didn’t work or didn’t have bulbs. The few windows were covered by shades – the wooden louver kind – blocking out any sunshine.
Cassini always kept the back door open, the one that leads to the alley that runs behind all the buildings for the length of the block. That was the only source of fresh air. Or, it would have been, except what blew in was mostly the stench of the whole block’s trash. The other door led to a staircase up to the lobby, which in turn led upstairs to what used to be called The Albion Hotel but had been converted into apartments. The apartments still had the same numbers on the doors from the Albion days. I lived in 6C, overlooking the alley in the back.
One of the advantages of being on the sixth floor is that by the time the trash odor rises that high, it’s been cut by the smoke pouring out of the factory chimneys on the other side of the alley. Of course, the view isn’t much, but you can’t have everything.
Cassini, who was at least sixty, was always behind the bar, from when he unlocked the doors at noon until he locked them again at 1:00 am. Except on Tuesdays, that is. On Tuesdays, his wife opened and closed, and worked behind the bar while Cassini enjoyed a day off. She was at least ten years older than Cassini, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She was still beautiful, with smooth skin that seemed almost like you could see through it. She was tough, too, as you’ll see soon enough.
I met Sammy soon after I moved in. He was what you could call a fixture at the bar, sipping gin and tonics and telling stories. He’d been a saxophone player but retired a few years before I arrived. Back in the 1920s, he’d led the best swing orchestra in the state. They had been the house band here, when it had been Sal’s Trattoria, and featured the amazing Molly O’Malley on vocals. By the 1940s, the band had shrunk to a hot little four-piece and was known as the Billie Spektor Combo, after the current lead singer. Billie, according to Sammy, wasn’t half the singer (or woman) that Molly had been.
Among the dozens of stories Sammy told me as we sat at The Golden Albatross’s bar during the summer of 1955, none were as convoluted as this one, which has three principle characters: The Author, The Policeman and The Singer. Like a lot of stories, it involves a case of mistaken identity – maybe even more than one. Also, there’s a magician with a very special hourglass.
The Author’s name was Michelle Swanson, but she never used her real name on her books. She had several different names that she wrote under – all men’s names, all with the initials M.S. One of her books, published under the pseudonym Maxwell Sheridan, was about a Portuguese sailor who discovers a pirate’s buried treasure on the Gulf Coast of Texas during the height of the Mexican-American war. The book jacket had a quote on the back from Ernest Hemingway: “Maxwell Sheridan is a man’s man, a writer of profound masculinity and virility.” Another one, under the pen name Milton Schulz, was a love story set in pre-Revolutionary War Philadelphia, which was praised by Margaret Mitchell for the author’s “uncanny insight into the female perspective.” So, Michelle was a good writer.
One of Michelle Swanson’s most successful pseudonyms was Michael Schanck, under which she had published a string of novels about a private detective named Billy Spector. The Billy Spector series earned her praise from and comparison to writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Significantly, Michael Schanck was also the name of the original owner of the Albion Hotel. He’d taken over management of the bar and changed its name to the Golden Albatross after Sal Avellino (who’d owned and operated The Trattoria) died mysteriously in 1942. When Schanck died in ’43, ownership of the building, the hotel, and the restaurant passed to his wife, Michelle.
Just to add to the confusion, you might recall that the jazz combo that played at the Golden Albatross every Friday and Saturday night featured a blonde chanteuse by the name of Billie Spektor. So, to recap, that’s a real-life Billie Spektor (The Singer); a fictional detective named Billy Spector, created by The Author, Michelle Swanson, writing under the pseudonym Michael Schanck; a real-life Michael Schanck, who had owned the bar where The Singer performed and had been married to Michelle, The Author; and, of course, The Policeman – who, I’m almost afraid to tell you was named Mitch Swanton, and who was a murderer.
In Michelle’s most successful Billy Spector novel, the fictional Billy Spector is hired by the owner of one of the country’s largest automobile manufacturers to find his missing daughter. The novel’s plot has more twists and turns than a mountainside road in northern Italy. In the end the missing daughter is discovered to have run away with a good-for-nothing scoundrel who hoped to weasel his way into her father’s business (or at least to get paid for leaving her alone). But along the way, the scoundrel is killed by a police officer whom he double-crossed many years before in a bank robbery scheme.
You see, the police officer was in on the bank robbery, providing the scoundrel with inside information about the bank’s security. He also helped hide evidence after the fact, all in exchange for a promise of half the proceeds. The scoundrel disappeared with all the cash, however. The police officer eventually tracks him down in a seedy hotel and shoots him. He figures no one will hear the gunshot because of the noise from the factory across the alley. But the whole thing is witnessed by the automobile heiress, who the police officer doesn’t realize is hiding under the hotel room bed when he barges in. It’s not long after this that Billy Spector finds the young woman, who’s still traumatized by what she’s witnessed. Sexual tension abounds, but Billy resists temptation, helps the local detectives solve the murder without involving the heiress, and then returns her to her grateful father. The final pages find Billy driving away, cigarette hanging from his lips, remembering the feeling of her mouth on his and wondering what it might have been like to sleep with a rich dame like her, but knowing he’ll never find out.
The book was such a huge success that it was turned into a movie starring a couple of Hollywood’s biggest names. Sitting in the Bijou Theater eating his popcorn, Mitch Swanton – the real-life police officer and murderer – felt like he was watching his own story. Except that in the movie, he gets arrested. In real life, there he was, sitting in a movie theater seat with a broken spring. When the closing credits told him that the screenplay was based on a novel by Michael Schanck, a lightbulb turned on over Mitch’s head. He remembered that the owner of the hotel where he’d tracked down that no-good swindler was named Michael Schanck. He knew this because the real-life Schanck had been one of his regular informants, the one who tipped him off that the swindler was staying in Room 6B of the Albion. (It’s always useful for a cop to know which out of town crooks and hoodlums are hiding out in the local flea-bags.)
The name of the movie’s heroic detective, Billy Spector, also rang a bell for Mitch. He recalled, as he stepped out of the theater and lit a cigarette, that a real-life Billie Spektor had been singing in the bar downstairs the night he killed the swindler. He remembered stopping in there for a couple of drinks after tossing the scoundrel’s body out the window into the trash pile in the alley behind the building. To Mitch, Billie had seemed like a beautiful woman, with a less than average voice and a body built for sex. He remembered asking the bartender to send her a drink from him, and the look on Billie’s face when the waitress had brought it to her on the stage and pointed back at him.
At the time, Mitch had interpreted that look as something like disgust – which he was used to, as ugly as he was. With a nose that been broken more than once and eyes didn’t seem to be the same size or shape, his face violated to prime rule of “beauty” be being far from symmetrical. Thinking back on that night now, he could see that maybe the look on Billie’s face had been fear, not disgust. Maybe she’d seen him shoot the swindler while hiding under the bed, just like the heiress in the movie had. Of course, maybe he was just being paranoid. It had been over two years since he’d shot that son of a bitch, and no witnesses had ever come forward. Still, he wanted to be sure.
The next night was Friday night. Mitch parked himself at the bar of the Golden Albatross and ordered a gin and tonic. He noticed that the bar had been moved further away from the wall, along with a few other minor changes, like the reduction in lighting. Fortunately for him, the entertainment schedule had not changed. Friday nights still meant the Billie Spektor Combo took the stage at 9:00 p.m. sharp.
Billie seemed a lot less attractive to him now than she had before. He wasn’t sure if she had changed or if the situation was giving him clearer vision. Regardless, as Billie sang her opening number, “Jeepers Creepers,” Mitch asked Cassini to send her a drink from him. He watched as the cocktail waitress, a beautiful young Black girl named Esther, took the glass from Cassini and carried it across the room to the little stage. He saw her hand the glass to Billie and point back over her shoulder at him. And he saw the same look on Billie’s face that he’d seen that night two years earlier.
This time, he was sure it was fear. What reason could Billie have to fear him . . . unless she knew what he had done?
Mitch paid Cassini for his drink and for the one he’d sent to Billie. Then, he slipped out into the lobby, where he bribed Patrick O’Malley, the desk clerk, to tell him what room Billie stayed in. Turned out it was 6B, next door to the one I live in now – and, coincidentally, the same room he’d followed the swindler to two years earlier, and then shot him before tossing his body out the window.
Mitch went outside, smoked a cigarette, and thought.
Meanwhile, back inside the Golden Albatross, Billie whispered to Sammy that she wasn’t feeling so well and needed to run up to her room to lie down for a few minutes. Sammy had grown used to this sort of thing, as Billie’s behavior had gotten more erratic lately. Maybe it was all the gin. In any event, Sammy had no problem stepping up to the microphone and singing a couple of numbers himself. The fact was, he was a much better singer than her. The only reason she was still the focus of the act was that patrons of places like the Golden Albatross were more interested in ogling a curvaceous blonde woman in a tight dress than in hearing real singing.
Well, what did Sammy care? He was getting paid either way.
Billie rushed through the lobby and ran up the five flights of stairs to the sixth floor, not waiting for the elevator. When she got to her room, she reached under the bed to pull out her suitcase. A strong hand gripped her wrist and pull her to the floor, where she found that ugly cop’s face smiling at her.
“Hey, doll. Fancy meeting you here.” He talked like he’d learned how to speak from watching detective movies. “Now why don’t you have a seat over there on the nice comfortable chair and we’ll have a little chat.”
He clapped one loop of his handcuffs around her wrist as he slid out from under the bed and forced her back into the room’s only chair, an overstuffed thing covered in a worn burgundy fabric. Once Billie was seated, he clapped the other end of the handcuffs around the radiator pipe.
“Remember me, blondie?” he asked.
“I remember you. You’re that cop that’s always poking around the lobby.”
“Yeah, but not always just in the lobby. Maybe you saw me somewhere else in the hotel one time?”
“Sure, I did. I saw you in the bar just a few minutes ago.”
He slapped her then, the back of his right hand across her left cheek. “Don’t try to be funny. You’re a singer, not a comic. So, sing. Where else have you seen me?” He backhanded her again, this time with his left hand across her right cheek. “I got two hands, see. I use ‘em both so neither of ‘em gets tired out.”
Billie was a naturally timid person, rarely courageous; but she was also something of a performer. It was the performer now who attempted to cover her fear with false bravado. “Now who’s trying to be funny?”
Two more backhands, one from each side in quick succession. “I’m just getting started, doll. Why don’t you tell me why you were so scared when you saw me in the bar just now, same as you did two years ago in the same place, and then we can figure out what to do next?”
Here’s where things took a turn that Mitch couldn’t have predicted.
Remember I told you this story involved a magician with a special hourglass? Well, his name was Vandini. On stage he was billed as the Amazing Vandini. In his act, he’d tell the audience that, after running away from home in Florence, Italy as a teenager, he had made his way to the Orient where he’d found the mysterious magic hourglass hidden in a labyrinth and developed his “amazing powers”. He’d tell the crowd that the hourglass gave him the power to stop time, allowing him to move freely about the theater while everyone else sat frozen and unaware.
The walls between the rooms in The Albion were thin (still are, for that matter), and sound passed through them freely. From next door in 6C (yes, where I live now) Vandini heard the entire interrogation and decided that he had to intervene on Billie’s behalf. He and Billie didn’t know each other, but he had seen her perform in the bar a few times. And knew she lived in the room next to his.
Tipping his hourglass on its side to stop the sand from flowing, Vandini crawled out through his window onto the fire escape and inched his way over to Billie’s window, where he saw her and Mitch frozen like statues. Mitch’s right hand was raised above his left shoulder, preparing to strike Billie across the cheek once more.
Vandini opened Billie’s window and climbed into her room, laying the hourglass on its side carefully on the bedside table and closing the window. He found the key to the handcuffs in the pocket of Mitch’s suit jacket, unlocked the cuffs, then re-locked them with one end still around the radiator pipe but the other end around Mitch’s left hand. He took Mitch’s gun from another pocket in the suit jacket, then lifted Billie from the chair and laid her on the bed. Then he sat himself in the chair, with the gun pointed at Mitch.
Finally, he righted the hourglass.
As the sand began to flow, Mitch’s right hand continued on its path, now heading toward Vandini’s cheek instead of Billie’s. At the same instant, Billie screamed, mostly from the disorientation of finding herself lying on her bed when she’d just been sitting in the chair. Her scream startled Mitch who stopped and tried to turn to face the bed – but he found that he couldn’t, because his other hand was cuffed to the radiator.
“What the hell?” Mitch shouted.
“Let’s all relax, shall we?” Vandini’s smooth, deep voice seemed to have a calming effect on both Billie and Mitch. The gun helped, too.
“Who the hell are you?” Mitch asked.
“Why, I’m the Amazing Vandini. Maybe you’ve seen my act.”
“No, I ain’t seen your act.”
“Well, that’s alright. You’re getting a taste of it now for free. I have to say, I don’t like the way you were treating Miss Spektor here. A gentleman should never hit a lady – unless that’s the sort of thing she enjoys, of course. I’ve heard there are some who do. Why don’t you try explaining to me – and her – exactly what it is you’re here for? Maybe we can all come to some sort of arrangement.”
“The only arrangement we’re gonna to come to is that you and the dame are going to jail, and I’ll be heading down to the bar for a drink.”
“That seems unlikely, considering I’ve got your gun and you’re handcuffed to the radiator. Now, what’s got you so upset with Miss Spektor that you’d want to be slapping her around like that? I heard you asking her if maybe she’d seen you before. Perhaps you’ve done something you’d rather the authorities didn’t know about?”
“I am the authorities. Detective Sargent Swanton of the city police. And you’re gonna be in a pretty big mess as soon as my partner comes up here from the lobby.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’ve got a partner in the lobby. We’ve all seen you around here, and you don’t ever have a partner. More of a lone wolf, I imagine. And even if you do, I’d be happy to explain to him everything I overheard from next door tonight.”
I’m going to stop time for a moment here myself – not with a magic hourglass, just with your standard narrator’s interruption. I think it’s important at this point to fill you in on what’s been happening with The Author, Michelle Swanson. Remember her? At the very moment that Vandini was handcuffing Mitch to the radiator, Michelle was downstairs in the Golden Albatross, whispering in the ear of her husband, Cassini. She told him that there was some trouble upstairs, but that it was going to be alright. She told him to make sure his shotgun was in reach, just in case. You see, with the help of her loyal employees, Michelle kept a close eye on almost everything that happened in her hotel. After Patrick O’Malley, the desk clerk, had told Mitch where to find Billie, he hurried to let Michelle know.
Years ago, after her first husband, Michael Schanck, had died, Michelle had married her lover Cassini, with whom she’d been having an affair for years. , She then transferred ownership of the building and its contents to him. But she was most definitely still in charge. There were rumors that she’d killed Schanck—or had him killed, since everyone knew she’d been having an affair with Cassini. The truth is, Schanck just died, without any help. He was seventy-five years old, after all. And just before he died, before he took his final breath, he told Michelle how he had seen Mitch Swanton kill that con man in 6B. He’d seen the whole thing from where he was hiding under the bed with Billie Spektor.
Michael and Billie had been having an affair of their own, for almost as long as his wife had been having hers with Cassini. He may have been old, but he was still handsome and virile enough for the much younger Billie to be attracted to him. They were just getting themselves dressed on that evening back in 1943 when the con man—Billie’s half-brother Joey—knocked on the door. Schanck had crawled under the bed while Billie let him in. Joey had been hiding out there off and on for the last few days, but when he’d gone out that morning, he told Billie he’d wouldn’t be back until the next day. Now he had returned early, surprising Billie (and Michael).
Soon, there was another knock on the door, and the voice of Mitch Swanton called Joey’s name. Billie slid under the bed with Schanck. Her brother opened the door. Mitch had entered, shot the man who’d cheated him all those years ago, and tossed his body out the window into the alley below, completely unaware of the two hidden lovers who’d witnessed his crime.
So, that was where Michelle Swanson had gotten the idea for the Billy Spector novel that was turned into a big movie. She changed some things around, added some bits, left some things out—the way writers always do. Since she hadn’t witnessed anything herself, she didn’t feel obliged to report it to the authorities. Besides, it would have been her word against a cop’s. Billie hadn’t told anyone anything because she was afraid of Mitch (most people were), and she figured it was none of her business anyway. And Schanck didn’t tell because he didn’t want his wife to know about his affair with Billie—until his deathbed confession. The body hadn’t been discovered until almost a week after the murder. That alley didn’t get a lot of foot traffic; and by the time the trash collectors came through to empty all the dumpsters, the body had been thoroughly chewed up by animals and insects, to the point of being unidentifiable. So, Joey was buried out in the potter’s field and forgotten about. Until now.
Now, back in 1945, Michelle went up to the sixth floor and slipped into room 6A, on the other side of Billie’s room. Michelle was the only one who knew there was a false wall between the closets of 6A and 6B that opened if you touched it in the right spot. Peering out from between Billie’s sequinned dresses and fake fur coats, she saw Vandini in the chair with a gun pointed at Mitch, who was standing and handcuffed to the radiator. She also saw Billie cowering on the bed. Weak, silly girl, Michelle thought. She had little patience for weakness; more than that, though, she despised those who took advantage of weakness in others. People like Mitch Swanton, for instance. And she’d had just about enough of him using her hotel as the location for his dirty work.
From the closet, she aimed her pearl handled pistol and shot Mitch Swanton in the side of the head. His lifeless body slumped to the floor, his hand still cuffed to the radiator.
Vandini and Billie both jumped. Michelle quietly slipped through the false closet wall, back into 6A.
“You shot him!” Billie yelled at Vandini.
“I didn’t,” he answered. “I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t shoot.”
“Well, what are we gonna do now? I can’t have a dead cop in my room.”
“True. Open the window.”
Vandini unlocked the handcuff from the radiator, lifted Swanton’s corpse, and tossed it out the window. (It was the second dead body to go out that way, if you don’t count the ones in the book and the movie.) Then he tossed Swanton’s gun down into the alley, where eventually some wino would find it and pawn it.
Swanton’s body, like the one he had tossed out that window two years earlier, went unnoticed for some time while the rats, dogs and maggots fed on him. Meanwhile, Vandini and Billie decided it was time to move on to a new city. They developed a new act together, with her as his magician’s assistant. She’d sing while he was cutting her in half or as he passed the giant hoop around her levitating body. It was a smash. And when he stopped time with his hourglass, she’d help him pick the audience’s pockets.
Michelle Swanson kept writing until she and Cassini finally retired in 1960. They sold the building and the hotel to a flamboyant Englishman, who in turn leased the bar to a German woman who renamed it The Brat-haus. With the proceeds, Cassini and Michelle bought a yacht and sailed the Mediterranean until Michelle died a couple of years later. No one’s sure what became of Cassini after that.
Sammy, of course, never left until he died. So far, neither have I.
Brian Mosher was born and raised in Foxboro, MA, and currently resides in Mansfield. He’s been writing poetry and short fiction since he was in High School in the 1970s, and has self-published 3 books: “One Bad Day Deserves Another” and “Moon Shine and Lemon Twists” (both in 2016); and “The Broken Mosaic” in 2021. His poetry has appeared in the online journal Verse Wrights and will be featured on Soul-Lit later this year, as well as his own Phlubbermatic blog.
His latest poetry chapbook, “Dreams and Other Magic”, will be published by Alien Buddha Press on July 11, 2023.