A Burning Cold Morning (Part 23)

Elmer Plumb was an interesting man in his own right but had an even more interesting father, Elihu Plumb.  That man, along with his brother William, their father Alva and all the members of their various families had traveled from Wisconsin to Rocky Prairie, Washington in 1861.   They were part of the first pioneer group to travel via Mullen’s Military Road and one evening that wagon train ended up camped out with a large group of Bannock Indians during their journey west.  That night, with the Indians restless and threatening to take action against the pioneers, the Plumb family men had tried to borrow some ammunition to protect themselves but were refused.  Exactly how or why they had none of their own, especially given the norms of the time, is lost to history but they did manage to survive although it was a rather nervous night.  At some point after three a.m. the Bannock’s made off with some of the oxen and supplies from the wagon train but never attacked the group.  After a few more misadventures they all arrived safely in Washington and the  family set up a homestead and began to try to make a living.  Over time Elihu would become recognized and revered as one of founding fathers of the Olympia area.   Along the way Elmer Plumb was born in 1863 and although he worked the family land until he was twenty, he then headed out to Olympia to seek his own way in life.  Much later, after a wide variety of ventures in that city, some successful and some not, he opened up a cigar shop on East Fifth Avenue.  It was a respectable business and provided a good living for Elmer; however, his entrepreneurial nature was always on the lookout for opportunities.  The advent of Prohibition brought such a opening, and he quickly converted the storage area of his store into a speakeasy.  Those establishments, some of them abided by law enforcement and some not, provided the liquor that the public continued to crave despite the nationwide ban on its sale.  Elmer made sure that he was on the good side of the Olympia police and because of that enjoyed a bustling business in his former storage area.

Elmer Plumb at the register of his cigar shop in Olympia

Elmer Plumb at the register of his cigar shop in Olympia

The front, legal side of Plumb’s Cigar Shop was of a typical arrangement for the time.  The shelves were crammed full of boxes of cigars and the various accessories that went along with that habit.  The most prevalent item not related to smoking that he sold was candy, most of it being dispensed from penny gum ball machines.  It was a simple, quiet and legitimate business and, although there was a door which allowed Elmer to slip into the other side of his operation, everyone else entered the speakeasy via the alley.

Elmer Plumb at the counter of the other side of his business, the speakeasy in the old storage area. Note the keg in the far back corner.

Elmer Plumb at the counter of the other side of his business, the speakeasy in the old storage area. Note the keg in the far back corner.

Once you had given the appropriate password at that back door you would step into a narrow passageway that ran alongside a counter which Elmer had installed for his alcohol seeking clientele to step up to and order drinks.  The shades on the windows were always drawn down, although small slivers of light filtered in through the top and there were cans on the floor into which customers could toss cigarette butts and exhausted cigars.  He sold candy on that side also and still retained his cigar shop supplies on the shelves along the back wall.  This was not the kind of noisy speakeasy that was popular in other cities where prohibition was looked at mostly as an inconvenience.  In Olympia, although the police allowed them when the money was right, they still needed to be discreet and hidden.  At Plumb’s you got your drink and carried on quiet conversations with your fellow lawbreakers.  Parties were strictly reserved for private residences.  At five-thirty p.m on January 25, 1926, when Veronica and Leo stepped through the door, three other men and one woman were already enjoying an early evening libation.   Elmer Plumb stood behind the counter polishing a glass and looked up when they entered.

“Hey ho Mr. Plumb!” Veronica called out along with giving him a little wave.  “What’s new?”

Elmer pushed his glasses up further onto his nose and replied. “I can’t say too much, dear.  Things are the same as always.  Now, who’s this new fella?”

“An old friend so don’t worry.  Leo, say hello to the owner of this fine place, Mr. Elmer Plumb.”

Leo gave a curt nod but said nothing.  Veronica poked him in the ribs and said, “Now Leo, you’re not going to make yourself any friends acting like that, especially in a place like this.  You want to be social and friendly so say hello.”

“Hello then,” Leo replied and forced a slight smile onto his face.  He still was unsure about being in the speakeasy, not from any sense of morality but because he did not know anyone there except Veronica.

“Come on Leo,” Veronica said and then whispered into his ear, “if you want to do some business in this town you better get used to these kinds of places.”  With that she stepped further down the passageway eventually stopping next to a tall, thin man with a red complexion and a fat, twisted nose that had obviously been broken several times.  The man, Jerry Salazar, was the only mixed-blood gangster in Olympia who was allowed to operate without interference from the other criminal operations in town, all of which were run by white men.  It probably helped that he looked more like the boisterous Irish men that populated his mother’s side of the family.   It could also have been because Jerry was a ruthless killer who had eliminated sixteen family members of gangs that originally tried to run him out of Olympia.  He had everyone’s attention and respect.   Elmer slid a glass of champagne across the bar to Veronica as she turned to the tall man.

“How’s my favorite egg today?”

“Living large as you say Ronnie, living large.  What’s this quiet fella all about?”  Jerry had a slight accent to his speech, a small drawl from somewhere in the southeast.

“He’s alright Jerry, someone I met in the McNeil days.”

“That right?  Why ain’t he drinkin’?”

Veronica turned to Leo.  “You better get something or else everyone in here is gonna think you’re with the bureau.   Izzy and Moe might be gone but nobody trusts a person who’s not drinking.”

Izzy Einstein & Moe Smith in one of their famous disguises - they used them to catch unsuspecting violators of the Volstead Act during prohibition. They were both dismissed from the Bureau of Prohibition in 1925 even though they had racked up thousands of arrests with their methods.

Izzy Einstein & Moe Smith in one of their famous disguises – they used them to catch unsuspecting violators of the Volstead Act during prohibition. They were both dismissed from the Bureau of Prohibition in 1925 even though they had racked up thousands of arrests with their methods.

Leo turned to Elmer who was already sliding a whiskey across the counter.  He took it and then Veronica introduced him to Jerry.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 22)

Leo sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“I always have known you were a sharp one Grace, sorry, Veronica.  You seemed it from the first time we spoke and I still see it now.”  He ran a hand through his thinning hair and then told her about his misadventure at Crombie’s.  When he was finished Veronica laughed and then stared at him for a few moments, blowing smoke into his face.

“Damn Leo, that story sure don’t say much about your level of talent, does it?”  Before he could reply she went on.  “You know, when I saw you out there, going past me on the sidewalk, well I had an inkling that you might be chasing me down.  I wasn’t too sure if that was a good thing or not but I followed you figuring we might at least get into business together, if you happened to be interested in such a thing.”  She paused again, blew more smoke and finished with, “But now I’m not so sure.”

Leo blushed deeply, pulled his glasses off and looked at the floor.  He was embarrassed, exposed again as a failure in the criminal world, and it quickly turned into anger.

“Damn it, don’t be thinking I’m some Dumb Dora!  I cased that place good and had a plan.  How was I to know,”

“You can’t know sometimes,” Veronica interrupted, “but that just was not a good plan.   Who makes a trial run to steal one box and check out what’s inside?  You figure out what’s in the boxes and then either pass or steal them all.  It’s that simple.  It was a dumb move, Leo, real dumb.”

“Damn it!”  Leo slammed his right fist into his left hand.  “I know what I’m doing Grace.  I can run some business with you.”  He returned his glasses to his face and looked up to see Veronica smiling at him.

“You are sensitive aren’t you Leo?  And you need to stop calling me Grace.”

“Sorry,” he replied, “just don’t, well, don’t go making me out like some kind of idiot.  We can do business, I can do this.”

She waited again, and as she did so Leo’s face retuned to its normal color and he composed himself, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes for a few moments.  Veronica eyed him while continuing to smoke her cigar, her brow furrowed as she calculated what to do.  Finally she reached over and touched knee.

“Yes, well maybe we can at that.  I think you just might be useful despite all your tall tales about Kansas City.”  Leo started to blush again but she reassured him.  “It’s alright, we all do it, little exaggerations here and there to make ourselves look tougher or meaner or whatever.  You don’t seem to have had much success so far but maybe you’re just unlucky, or maybe you just need a good partner.  I’ll come by on Monday and pick you up around five.”  She then reached over and dropped her cigar into the glass of water which had remained untouched during their conversation.

“Where are we going?” Leo asked.


Leo stared back blankly but Veronica exited his room saying, “Just be ready on Monday.”

After she left he leaned back and closed his eyes again.  Even though he had composed himself fairly well, the entire conversation he had just had was still running through his mind.  There was anger inside of him both for the way Veronica had laughed at him and also at his own criminal failings.  He was even mad at himself for getting mad, knowing that his outburst only made him look weaker.  He should have laughed back at her and just told her what they were going to do.  That would be the way a real hard-boiled man would have handled it.  Thinking about it did not resolve much though and he kept going over it in his head until he fell asleep in the chair.

He awoke around midnight, neck stiff and back sore from sleeping in such an awkward position and stayed up until daylight, this time thinking about what kind of business might be good for him and Veronica.  He wanted to show her he was in charge and could come up with a plan.  After eating breakfast he asked the hotel manager where Plumb’s was and then walked over to check out the place, determined to know where he was going before Veronica picked him up.  Maybe that would even give him some ideas for developing a plan of action.  He was disappointed though when he got there as it was just a simple cigar shop, full of the usual supplies and accessories.  Could she really be picking him up to go buy cigars?  Surely this was not a place she planned on robbing?  Maybe he was the brains of their new venture after all.  Leo poked around a little in the store but did not buy anything, giving a curt “Just looking,” response to the old man behind the counter who offered to assist him.  He left and kept walking, trying to come up with ideas and although a few came to him none seemed good enough to present to Veronica.  After an hour of walking he returned to the Governor, toes cold and ears hurting a little from the biting wind outside that day.  As he passed the desk the manager he had spoken to in the morning called out to him.

“Enjoy yourself at Plumb’s?” the man asked, a slightly mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Leo, thinking the man was in on some joke against him, just glared back and returned to his room.  He stayed in that weekend, writing down plans and then crumpling each one up and throwing it into the fireplace.  Veronica’s laugh echoed in his head constantly and he could see her scoffing at each one as not good enough, or stupid, or silly, or any other reason she could come up with to put him down.  It was not a very good way to start a criminal venture and he began to regret ever coming to Olympia.  He needed money though and realized he could not come up with a good enough plan on his own.  Veronica was going to be necessary.  By the time she picked him up on Monday he was resigned to that fact, determined to make the best of it for awhile and then see what happened.  Veronica was all dressed up when she arrived, looking about as good as Leo could have imagined.

“A bit fancy for cigar shopping?” Leo inquired.

She laughed before replying.  “You’re quite the detective, huh?  But you missed the picture entirely my dear.  We’re going drinking Leo, not shopping.  It’s going to be quite a toot so I hope you’re ready for it.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 21)

Leo was not the fastest man but he did have the advantage over the driver, who seemed to be having trouble moving at a pace much faster than a light jog.  The man did, however, have a rather loud voice and his cries of “Thief!” and “Police!” trailed after Leo as he ran out onto Fifth and then left around the corner onto Washington Street.  The man’s yelling was a little bit fainter there but increased again a few seconds later and Leo realized the driver was around the corner also and still chasing him down.  The overcoat was making it difficult to run but Leo did not have time to take it off and also did not want to leave it laying around for the police to find later.  So he kept on, people staring at him as he passed by, one hand holding his hat low over his eyes and the driver’s shouts chasing after him.  He crossed over State Avenue and then cut down an alley back toward Capitol Way.  As he neared the end of that dim passageway he slowed down to a walk and tried to hide the fact that he was breathing heavily by turning up the collar of his overcoat.  Two men engaged in a conversation glanced at him as he stepped onto the road but quickly turned back to their own business.  Leo was only two blocks north of Crombie’s and knew he could not walk directly past it to return to the hotel.  Instead he wove through a few other blocks and then turned onto Fourth right down by the waterfront.

It was here that another improbable coincidence occurred.  Leo needed to get to Columbia Street so he could walk the back way to the Governor and in doing so he passed directly in front of the Angelus Hotel.  By this point his breathing had recovered and he was doing his best to look relaxed and natural.  Veronica was out front talking to M.E. George and happened to look up at the passing figure, doing the classic double-take when she recognized the man she had known from McNeil Island.  Leo noticed nothing including how Veronica quickly excused herself from her discussion with the store owner and quietly followed behind him.  When he swung around the back of Seventh Street and ducked into the side entrance of the Governor, she stopped and sat down on a nearby bench.

Although not as sure about Leo as he seemed to be about her, she was always looking for a good partner in crime and believed Leo was at least useful in that regard.  She had made a decent place for herself in the criminal world, especially in these years of living in Olympia, but having a male partner could open up a few new angles for exploration.  It was curious that Leo was here, and it made Veronica a little bit nervous considering that he may have some back looking for her.  He did not even know who she really was and there had not been anything romantic between them for Leo to come back looking to reignite.  Either way, she needed to confront him, get some answers and then decide how to play this situation.  After a brief, playful discussion with the desk clerk she obtained Leo’s room number and several minutes later was banging at his door.

“Yes, what,” Leo began as he opened that door but then stopped cold.  His mouth moved a few times before he found his words again.  “Grace, good lord, what are you doing here?”

“I came up here to ask you the same damn thing Leo.  What the hell are you doing in Olympia?”

“Really, well, maybe we should talk inside.  Please come in.”

After getting her a glass of water Leo sat down and leaned forward.

“It was a shock to see you at the door Grace, but, well you might not believe it but I’ve been looking for you.”

“I don’t know if I should be flattered or afraid.”

Leo gave a small laugh.  “Really, no harm intended.  I was looking for you to see about getting some business started.  You know Grace,”

blue ribbon cigar box

blue ribbon cigar box

Veronica held up her hand to stop him.  “First of all, do you have a light?”  She reached into her heavy white cardigan and produced a Blue Ribbon cigar.  After Leo had produced a box of matches she lit it and breathed out heavily.  “And secondly, my name is Veronica.”

Leo just stared at her for several long moments but then recovered and replied.  “Well, that is a surprise.  I guess then I have been hunting for the wrong person all along.”

“Not the wrong person, just the wrong name.”  Veronica smiled as she said that, the act an unnatural one on her usually stern face and it looked more like the grimace of a dying patient trying to fight through a bout of internal pain.  It went away quickly, replaced by her usual scowl.  “So, to get back to the start of this conversation, what the hell are you doing in Olympia?”

Leo told her a story, not the real one of course as that reality did not really put him in the best light.  Instead, he told a version of it that was more suitable, one where he left Kansas City voluntarily because there was not enough money to be made there for a man of his talents.  He did include the mainly truthful fact that Tom Pendergast owed him a favor, the only point in his storytelling where Veronica openly scoffed at him.  She knew about the Pendergast machine, she told Leo, and there was not  much chance that a man like that owed even a penny to a small-time operator like Leo.  He tried to convince her, insisting that he had indeed made an impression on the man, but she would not believe it and cautioned him to, “stick to your little lies, not these grandiose things.”

Giving up, Leo finished his story by saying he had just arrived in Olympia and had been looking for her since then.

“That’s it?” Veronica asked.

“Yes.” Leo replied.

“You just passed the days away looking for me?”

“Like I said, yes.”  Leo tried to look sincere but it was not working.

“You’re either a terrible criminal, a terrible liar or maybe both.  I’m not sure at this point except that I’m disappointed.”

That seemed to hit Leo hard and he leaned back with a hurt look on his face.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Veronica continued, “I think you needed a place to hide from something, I don’t know what and it really doesn’t matter.  Maybe you remembered me, or maybe Olympia seems far away from everything else, or maybe you have some bushwa sentimental attachment to places you’ve been.  I don’t care about that either.  You are a criminal though, I know that for a fact.  And, you’re here and in my town, where I do business, so now you better come clean about what you’ve been up to.”