Thrilling Detective, August 1944
THE first familiar figure-and in this case it was a figure-that Paul Britton spotted within the smart red and white portals of the Garnet Club, belonged to Toni Evans, the sleek, dark- haired young beauty who ran the check room and cigarette concessions. From the top of the steps, he could see that the seams of her stockings were as straight as twin plumb lines as she stood on tiptoe to place a pair of hats on the top shelf.
He removed his own hat and waited while she handed the customers their checks. Then he advanced and laid his hat on the counter. It took her a few seconds to notice him, and he used the time to the hilt in enjoying her lush, fresh loveliness. He decided that Toni must have blossomed out since he'd last seen her, or that eighteen months away from the New York scene had seriously impaired his judgment.
"Maestro!" she squealed, and throwing a pair of firmly rounded and pleasantly undraped young arms around his neck, kissed him full on the lips. Then, pulling away from him abruptly, she said almost shyly, "Gee, I'm sorry! I forgot. I guess I must be glad to see you."
"I guess you must be," said Paul, grinning and delving under his uniform jacket for a handkerchief, to undo the lipstick damage. On second thought, he pulled her to him over the counter and returned the embrace. It was, he decided, definitely worth while.
"You've grown up, Toni," he said. "You look years younger."
"Hey!" said a rough male voice behind him. "Just what kind of a place do you think this is, Lieutenant?" a hand on his shoulder spun him around. Tom Morris, gray-haired, stocky, lumpy-faced owner of the Garnet glared at him from less than a foot away.
"Hello, Tom," said Paul, extending a hand that was taken limply.
Morris' surprise was almost ludicrous. His eyes popped, and his Adam's apple ran up his neck like a pink champagne bubble.
"Paul!" said the club owner. "Why don't you let a guy know when you're coming. I'd have had out the fatted calf, or the closest to it-what with all this rationing. Say-I heard you got a commission the hard way, but aren't those silver bars?"
"That's right," said Paul. "I was lucky-too lucky, maybe. It begins to look as if I'm buried down South teaching for the duration."
"I think he's wonderful," said Toni proudly.
Tom Morris cast an annoyed glance at her, then led Paul away, an arm linked through his.
"Will Jerri be glad to see you!" he said. "She's still singing here and still carrying a torch that bothers the dimout bosses."
"I'll bet," said Paul without much feeling. Even down South he could read the Broadway columns. He changed the subject. "How's the band sound with Stan Johnson running it? Okay?"
"Okay," said Morris, "but not like when you were here. Come on over to the round table and say hello to Jerri. She'll shoot me at sunrise if you don't. Come on, fellow, the place is yours tonight."
The Garnet was a rectangular room that had once been the basement and kitchen of a midtown Manhattan mansion. In one corner next to the door was a quarter-circular bar. In the center of the back wall was the orchestra stand, flanked on either side by doors leading to kitchens, offices and dressing rooms. The lighting was dim and pleasant.
Business looked good to Paul. He glanced across the shifting heads of the dancers on the small floor to where tall, blond Stanley Johnson was conducting the small but excellent orchestra that had once been Paul's own. Johnson didn't play a horn-he had been pianist and arranger in the old days. Now he contented himself with waving a baton.
The round table, an idea which Tom Morris had lifted from John Perona of El Morocco, was just that-a round table in a favored spot near the door where the owner could entertain guests and favored clients. At the moment, only two people were sitting there.
JERRI LANE, Paul saw, even in that flattering light, had not weathered the last eighteen months as well as had little Toni out in the hat checkery. Unquestionably, clad in strapless white satin, she was close to being the perfect golden blonde-but there were suggestions of tautness around the corners of her eyes and mouth that spoke of living on nerves and masseuses instead of on sufficient rest.
"Paul!" she cried. "How marvelous! You're looking wonderful, darling."
Despite the enthusiasm of her words, Paul got the impression that she was merely saying them, not feeling them. He offered a silent prayer of thanks-he'd been a little afraid of this reunion-and glanced at the other occupant of the round table.
Artie Aleno saluted him casually with the hand which was not wrapped around Jerri's forearm on the table. It had a cigarette in it which described a figure eight of light in the dimness. He was a close-faced, swarthy man of indeterminate age, who wore his costly dinner jacket as suavely as a ballroom dancer-or a waiter captain. He was also, unless he had slipped, an extremely opulent racetrack bookmaker.
"Just get in town?" Aleno asked him. Something in the gambler's indifference was a bit too studied.
As he made a polite reply, Paul wondered if the man were in love with Jerri. There was something proprietary in the way his arm rested on hers, but with a Broadway character, that could mean anything or nothing at all.
"You look pretty terrific, Paul," said Jerri, flashing him her best smile and disengaging her arm gently but firmly from Aleno's grip.
Two years back, that smile would have sent chills up his spine and under his ribs. Sixteen months in the Army changed a man's perspective.
"Strictly G. I.," said Paul. "You look pretty terrific yourself, Jerri. How about it, Artie?" He glanced at the gambler, who allowed his eyebrows to move in a sort of shoulderless shrug.
"Miss Lane is a very beautiful young lady," he said.
Paul repressed a shudder. He'd forgotten that people talked like that. Tom Morris came back from somewhere then, put a hand on his shoulder.
"Just seeing that the champagne got iced," he said. "Now how about getting up there and leading the boys for a couple of numbers? It will be like old times. Jerri can give you a plug."
"No thanks," said Paul. "I got a faceful of dust on maneuvers last week, and it still isn't out of my skin. I don't know what my lip would do if I tried to blow a horn. I'd be terrible, Tom."
"So what?" said the owner. "Nobody'd care. But everybody here would like to see you try one. Come on, kid, it would help business. Do it as a break for me, will you?"
Jerri added her entreaties, and finally settled the issue by rising to consult Stanley Johnson on the stand. Johnson's eyes followed her glance, spotted Paul and beckoned to him with both hands. There was nothing for it. A spotlight picked him up as he rose, and the music stopped.
Jerri gave him the works, made him out pretty much of a hero, which he wasn't, told the two hundred-odd souls present that he was back in better shape than ever to blow them a few high ones, which was certainly not the case.
"And now," she concluded, "which one of Paul Britton's old specials would you like him to play for us?"
Paul had, in the meantime, ascended the platform, where someone had handed him a horn. He turned his back to the audience, pressed it to his lips, tried a couple of runs. He might, he thought get by if he didn't try to press too much in the upper register.
"Hey, Paul," said Stanley Johnson softly in his ear. "Did you get that wire I sent you yesterday?"
"Yeah," said Paul. "I got it, but I couldn't make sense of it. That's what brought me up here. I was overdue for a leave anyway."
"Am I glad of that!" said the baton wielder. "I'm up against something I can't handle without your advice."
"Good thing I'm not in Africa or Australia," said Paul, wondering what was up. "Where and when can we talk?"
"I'll meet you backstage as soon as you get through," said Johnson. "In the orchestra room. Have the band play a number on their own."
"Okay, Stan," said Paul. "See you in ten minutes if my lip doesn't pop first. Maybe we'd better go across the street for coffee."
"Maybe," said Johnson. "We can settle it later. Boy, I sure am glad you could make it."
There was, Paul thought, as he watched the orchestra leader leave the stand and walk to the dressing-room door, no doubt about his sincerity. Johnson was a friend of long standing, anyway. He wondered what in hades had gone wrong up here.
Jerri sang "Begin the Beguine" for the opening number, and Paul managed to back her up without difficulty. It felt good to be up there playing again with the boys behind him. There were new faces in the lineup of course-the war had seen to that. But Stanley had selected and groomed replacements so well and so carefully that the style and quality of the outfit remained almost the same as before.
HE TOOK a chorus and, by taking it easily and in conservative fashion, managed to get through it without damaging either the tune or his lip. Then Jerri, with a flourish that brought a hearty round of applause, turned the band over to him alone and retired from the spotlight. Paul ordered a "Muskrat Ramble" and gave the down beat.