A Burning Cold Morning (Part 46)

For the next two days Leo did not do much, choosing to linger around the motel and try to make a friend out of the manager.  He was not the most social of people but was also out of money and needed to build up a little bit of goodwill.  His hope was that he would be able to transfer that goodwill into being allowed to stay in the room on credit while he figured out a way to start generating some income.  It seemed to work as Margie, the thin, chain-smoking blonde who ran the place told him that she would give him two weeks before he needed to pay her.  Leo was pleased, both by the offer and at his own skill in pulling his plan off, although he learned on his third day there that Margie was expecting a few favors in addition to his eventual payment for the room.  Over the next three days these favors included handyman work around the property but by Thursday night she had propositioned him for sex and it was clear that refusing her was not going to be an option.  She proved to be a rather eager and energetic lover and the following morning, March 11th, an exhausted Leo realized he had to get some money together, pay her off and then leave.  He then collapsed into his own bed and slept for much of the remainder of the day.  

That weekend, in between trying to avoid Margie, he started to work on a plan.  Although he did not know anyone in the area, Leo started walking around to scout for opportunities.  This part of Los Angeles was  known as Van Nuys and, although having only been founded sixteen years prior, had a growing population and an established criminal element.  After a couple afternoons and evenings of asking around Leo made contact with a man named Clark Mason who needed some assistance with his numbers game.  Establishing his bona fides with this man through a series of discussions over cigars and whiskey, Leo found himself part of the operation a few days later.   It vexed him a bit, having to join up as a small time player in someone else’s scheme, but he knew he needed to get some cash together so he could move out of the motel.  Another week passed, long days followed by equally long nights meeting Margie’s demands, Leo trying to catch naps between pick-ups for the Mason operation.  Finally, he was set and he gladly marched into the motel office, plunked down the money he owed, demanded a receipt and walked off down the street.  

Cloud 9 Motel sign

Cloud 9 Motel sign

He only went six blocks away, to another cheap motel which was called the Waverley although the decrepit sign out front read Cloud 9.  Leo kept working for Mason while trying to develop a scheme that would, if not be as big as his Bakersfield operation, at least allow him to work for himself.  He also continued to be a voracious reader, finishing three more textbooks on civil engineering by the beginning of June 1927, and self-testing himself via the example exams in those books.  It was at this point that Leo believed himself to be fully educated in the field and he would claim at various points later in his life to be an actual civil engineer.  

He tried a few small schemes but quickly learned that all of the grifting, stolen goods trafficking and numbers operations in the area were tightly controlled by a consolidated group of criminals known as the Valley Boys.  Clark Mason was a member of that group and, once word reached him about Leo’s activities, had cautioned him strongly against running any further operations of that kind in the area.  That limitation, and Leo’s inability at the time to leave Van Nuys due to financial restrictions, were what pushed him into the next level of his criminal career. 

In the past he had of course pushed against such constraints, having been a bit of a maverick up to this point.  It was an interesting list; the theft of the money from the owner’s of his father’s baseball team, stealing goods from his own Army unit, embarrassing a well-known gangster in Kansas City and turning down Jerry Salazar’s offer to work together in Olympia.  Leo had definitely not been bound by conditions or restrictions that other people may have found reasonable to take into consideration.  This time though he did heed them as Clark Mason had made it a point to show Leo an example of the treatment that awaited those who infringed on the Valley Boys territory.  That example, delivered via a baseball bat to a man named Stan Liberman, had left an impression on Leo that he would not forget.  

Instead he decided to move into armed robbery, an area which he had made sure was not covered by any of the Valley Boys operations.  Mason had even told him specifically that his group only dealt in non-violent crimes as it allowed them to keep the police at bay as long as they were paying them off regularly.  Leo saw that as an opportunity and, although he did not have much experience in the area, started to formulate a plan for an armed hold up.  Although his initial thoughts were about banks and trains, he eventually realized that he needed to start much smaller and decided on robbing an oil and gas station.  He figured that such a place would have few complications as there was likely to be only a couple of employees on duty and he would be able to get in and get out quickly.  He also recalled something that his cellmate at McNeil, Robert Markword, had taught him about armed robberies.  He had told Leo that figuring out the patterns of the local police was important, as all law enforcement operations tended to operate in a routine way.  If you can figure out where the police are going to be at any particular time then you can plan the robbery, and your escape, accordingly.  Police, Markword stressed, are creatures of habit and almost never break out of their established routines.  Get them figured out and you will be in the clear.  Leo took that advice to heart along with another bit of Markword advice, which was to always have a second man there with a gun just in case you needed to control more people than anticipated.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 45)

As it turned out, Stanley did have the nerve to do it, and he quickly left town after taking all of the money he could find in the room, not just the cash that was sewn into Leo’s valise.  He was not sure exactly what prompted him to look through every drawer, every pocket and every piece of Leo’s belongings, but he did it and managed to secure a total of five hundred and eighty-five dollars.  Afterwards he would realize that he was angry at how he had been used, his talent with metals corrupted by a criminal and turned into something bad.  That act had now made it necessary for him to abandon his father and a relatively simple life, making him into a fugitive.  He would understand later that he was scared about the future and that the money made him feel at least a little bit more secure.  In the moment though, rifling through the room at the Mayfair, he just did what felt right and that was to take all of the cash he could find.   Right before he left he paused at the door, reached into the small burlap sack in which he had collected all of the money, and put a twenty dollar bill on the table for Leo.  That way he was not leaving him totally broke.

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

Leo healed slowly at the hospital, experiencing a few complications in the days immediately after Stanley left which had the result of denying the police the opportunity to talk to him.  In the moments he was awake and lucid Leo spent most of his time thinking about how angry he was with Lester and planning out a way to get back at him.  He knew that although the police were currently cutting him some slack due to doctor’s orders, that this would change soon enough and legal trouble could follow.  The remainder of his time was spent doing more reading on civil engineering, his books and other personal belongings having been brought to his room when the hotel officially kicked him out.  Upon the delivery of his property he had soon figured out that all of his money, save the twenty dollars, was gone but he had kept his own counsel about that issue.  It was something he would deal with later.  It was January 3, 1927 when a detective, different from the one who had first spoken to him, next sat down for an extended discussion with Leo.  

“Feeling better?” the detective, a heavy-set, green-eyed and balding man in a black suit, asked. 

“Well, a little but not much.  I’ve had some other issues.”  Leo had decided he was going to play out his injuries for all they were worth, trying to gain extra time to effect some kind of an escape.

“Yes, we were told, but they say you are now healing up pretty quickly.”

“We’ll see,” Leo replied slowly, trying to look as feeble as possible.

The detective went over his story again, pressing him for more personal details and not being as easily dissuaded as the last officer.  After a few minutes of verbal sparring about this the detective closed his notebook.

“Look Leo, you’re going to have to start being straight with me.  I’m going to track down the info on you and something tells me it’s not going to be all charity work and honest employment.”

“You have such little faith in me?”

“I’m not new to this game.  Besides, the Bakersfield PD already called down and want to speak with you.  That surprise you?”

“What do they think I did?” Leo asked.

“Well, they just said they have some questions for you, that’s all.  I guess if they really thought they had something on you, well then they’d be down here to arrest you.  But they do definitely want a chance to talk.”

“Hmm, well, I guess I’ll try real hard to get better than,” Leo replied sarcastically. 

He feigned drifting back to sleep and the detective left, although not before announcing rather loudly that he would be back soon.  Leo did his best to remain in the hospital’s care, coming up with a continuing list of ailments for them to check out, none of which proved to be medically significant.  None, except one that is, as a nurse had informed him that they thought he might be a diabetic but a few more tests would be required.  As all of this was going on, the questioning by the Pomona police continued and then, one day in late February, a Bakersfield officer accompanied the detective.  That interview was difficult for Leo as they did seem to have a good amount of information on his scheme but just not quite enough to arrest him.  He did his best to seem cooperative while not giving them any information that could seal his fate, a plan which worked because the Bakersfield officer left with only an admonition to Leo that he had better never return to the city.  After that, Leo knew his time was running out and he needed to get at least a little bit of distance away from Pomona.  

In his last interview with the heavy-set detective on March 3, 1927, Leo spent most of the discussion stressing that he wanted everything possible done to track down and arrest Lester for attempted murder.  Although he could not know where his old partner had run off to, he did provide what information he knew about his time Washington, Hawaii, and California, just in case that helped in finding him.  As they were talking a nurse came in, telling Leo that it was time for him to go for the additional diabetes tests, but Leo waved her off stating that he felt fine and did not want to have any more needles jabbed into his body.  She protested for a few moments but then withdrew, stating that a doctor would need to come speak with him.  Leo then told the detective that he was planning to move to Los Angeles but would stay in touch and be ready to come back once they apprehended Lester.  Later that day the doctor did speak with Leo, telling him that it was critical that he take part in the tests as an untreated case of diabetes could be deadly.  Leo promised to be more cooperative the next day and then, late that night he packed up his belongings and slipped out of the hotel during a few minutes when there was no one at the nurse’s station. 

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

He checked into a cheap motel on the outskirts of LA the next morning, registering as Leo O’Malley.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 44)

He definitely was much worse than when Stanley had left him in the bed.  The blood had leaked onto the sheets and although Leo opened his left eye when Stanley touched him, he managed only a groan in reply to the question of if he was feeling any better.  Realizing that they had absolutely nothing in the room that was going to be useful in trying to save Leo, Stanley left again and picked up a collection of medical supplies.  Twenty minutes later he was back in the room.  It took another twenty for him to get Leo bandaged up enough to stop the bleeding after which he collapsed into an arm chair, exhausted by the entire ordeal.  He napped for the remainder of the day, getting up hourly to check on Leo and change his bandages when necessary.  At one point, around seven-thirty p.m., his patient was alert enough to be asked just what exactly had happened, and Leo had responded by pointing to the envelope from his sister which still lay on the floor.  After a few more questions, which elicited short, pained answers from Leo, Stanley managed to understand some of what had happened.  By ten o’clock that night, with Leo more responsive and having regained some color in his face, Stanley was feeling pretty good about himself, thinking that he had actually been involved in saving a man’s life.  He drifted off to sleep in the armchair after eating some soup for dinner.

When he awoke at three a.m., neck sore and right arm asleep from the awkward position he had been in, Stanley stumbled over to the bathroom to get a drink of water.  Putting the glass to his lips, he began  drinking while turning around to check on Leo.  As he drained the glass Stanley realized that he had not seen his patient breath once in the entire time since he had gotten up.  Rushing over to the bed, he was relieved to find that although Leo’s respiration was extremely shallow and slow, he was in fact still alive.  Efforts to rouse the injured man failed though and in a panic, not wanting anyone to die on his watch regardless of the consequences, Stanley called the front desk and told them to send an ambulance.  When it arrived the attendants were accompanied by a police officer.

Stanley really did try to bluff the officer but he quickly lost track of the story he was trying to tell and finally broke down and told the truth.  That of course prompted the call for more police and soon a detective showed up just as Leo was being moved out of the room.  Just a few minutes later a reporter arrived and listened in as the detective interviewed Stanley.  They both then escorted him to a vehicle which took them all to the hospital where they were told that Leo was in surgery.  It was ten-thirty the next morning, December 26th, before anyone was allowed in to speak with him.  The detective and reporter both entered Leo’s room at the same time leaving Stanley sipping cold coffee in the waiting area.

Leo told some of the truth during that interview, including clarifying that although the hotel and Stanley all thought the man who shot him was Lorane North, the man’s real name was Robert Lester.  He dodged most of the questions about himself and filled in a few of the details about the supposed “Christmas check” that Stanley had told them was the source of the incident.   After that they left, the detective leaving an officer at the door and the reporter running off to file a story for the next edition of the paper.  When Stanley asked to speak with Leo the young officer on duty would not allow it but several hours later, when he was relieved by a grey-haired and bored looked corporal, he was allowed into the room.   Leo smiled slightly at him as he approached the bed.

excerpt from san bernadino paper on humbert shooting 27 dec 1926

excerpt from san bernadino paper on humbert shooting 27 dec 1926

“You better now?”  Stanley asked.  

“Yeah, yeah.  Much.  Just gotta figure out a way outta this place.”

Stanley looked down at the floor.  “I’m really sorry about getting you here, calling the cops and all.  I mean, I’m sure it’s gonna be trouble for you.  But I thought you were about to die.”

Leo waved a hand weakly in his direction.  “It’s ok.  I could’a done without you telling them what you did but it’s ok.  I probably would’a died back there, so it’s better that I ended up here.”

“I, I just didn’t know what to say.  The cops scare me, honest, they really do.  I just…’” his voice trailed off as he continued to look at the floor.  

“Really, it’s ok.  I’ll fix it.  Now come here, closer,”  Leo replied softly, his voice starting to lessen in strength.  

When Stanley bent down so he could hear, Leo reached an arm up and grabbed him by the back of the head.  His touch was cold and clammy, causing Stanley to wince involuntarily.   He looked up and Leo’s piercing blue eyes were staring at him.

‘You gotta get out of town Stan, you gotta leave.”  His voice was very low, just a faint whisper.

“Why?  What do you mean?  I’ll stay here and make sure they take good care of you.”

“No.  It’s time to get your facts straight.  You know we were breaking the law back in Bakersfield and being tangled up in this thing here ain’t going to make things easy.  They’re gonna get you too.  I might’a got you involved in some stuff you weren’t ready for, so consider this me making up for it.   There’s some money back at the room, it’s sewn into the lining of my valise.  Get back there before they think to collect it up and leave, go far away, and hide.”

Stanley had started to sweat profusely while Leo spoke, suddenly facing up to some of the facts that he had known internally for quite awhile.  He took a handkerchief from his pocket to dry off his face and neck.  

“I can’t, I mean, oh no,”  Stanley replied, wiping his face again.  “I cannot just leave, what about Dad, my stuff back there?”

Leo’s grip on his head had loosened due to the sweat but returned in full force.  “No.  You gotta go now.  Get the money and go.  Try Minneapolis, they’ll never think of looking for you there.”  Leo released his hold after that and closed his eyes, seemingly falling back asleep.  Stanley stood there, hat and wet handkerchief in hand,  wondering if he really had the nerve to follow through on Leo’s advice.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 43)

Stanley had gone on a pretty good tour of the hotel, even stepping outside for a few minutes despite Leo’s instructions to not do so.  He had picked the small side entrance door for his quick excursion and was just stepping back inside when he first heard about the shooting.  A tall man, well dressed and with a silver-headed cane, strode past quickly while commenting, “watch out for bullets” in Stanley’s direction.  It had been an odd thing to say and caught him off-guard as he had not heard anything out of the ordinary.  Not thinking too much of it, he continued on down the hallway toward the lobby.  It was the second person who mentioned it, a hotel bellman, that sprung Stanley into action.  That man had stopped him as he entered the lobby saying, “There have been some shots fired inside the hotel, sir.  Manager says all guests are to stay in their rooms until the police get here.” 

elevator 1926

elevator 1926

That comment had scared Stanley and he had complied, turning around and heading for the elevator.  Before he got on, it occurred to him that his roommates could have been involved in the shooting, which left him conflicted about returning to the room.  Stepping off the elevator, he paused in the hallway, listening for anything that might indicate danger.  Instead, he heard a low groan which prompted him to quickly open the door.  

It was obvious from his first look that something had happened in the room as the furniture was out of place and some items had been knocked to the floor.  He could not see either Lester or Leo and at first thought maybe the sound he had heard originated from another room.  He stepped through the door, closed it softly, and was just turning around when he heard it again.  It definitely came from inside this room.  Stanley stepped around the end table which had been pushed into the pathway toward the kitchen and saw Leo lying on the floor by the sofa.  His face was very pale and some drool and blood had leaked from his mouth and run down his cheeks.  The shirt he had on was partially pulled up and soaked in blood, and a small pool of it had also formed on the floor.  Stanley stayed there, frozen in shock, as Leo mumbled softly for help.  It took him so long to recover that his former partner had started to struggle to sit up, which prompted him into action.  Kneeling down, he touched Leo’s shoulder and pushed him back onto the floor.

“Easy, easy.  Lay down and stay still.  I’ll ring for an ambulance.”

“No,” Leo replied in a soft but urgent voice.

“I have to Leo.  I heard about the shots and, well, it’s you that got it.  I can’t fix this and you’re bleeding all over.  You need a doctor.”

“Shh, shut up. No.  I can’t go to any doctor or hospital.  Just help me up.”

“I can’t, I don’t know how to fix you from getting shot.  We need help.”

“We don’t damn it!” Leo snapped back, some strength back in his voice, “Get me up and onto a bed.”

Reluctantly Stanley complied and a few minutes later had managed to get his former partner situated somewhat comfortably, although blood still leaked out of the two bullet wounds.  Leo seemed to pass out for several moments but then woke back up and grabbed Stanley’s arm.  

“Listen, you have to keep the cops out of here.  Did they get called?  Are they here yet?’

“I’m not sure if they’re here but the hotel manger called them I think.  They told me to go back to my room until they arrived.”

“Damn!  How did they know it was our room?”

“Huh?” Stanley replied.  “Oh, no, not that.  I mean, I was in the lobby and they told me that all the guests had to go back to their rooms until the police arrived.  They don’t know nothing about me or us up here.”

“Oh, good, good.”  Here Leo paused and closed his eyes, breathing erratically for a minute or so.  Then he continued.  “Ok, so listen.  You gotta keep them out of here.  I can’t move right now, I gotta rest.  You gotta bandage me up, but that’s for later.  Right now you gotta keep them out of this room.” 

“How the heck am I supposed to do that?  Don’t ya think they will want to talk to all the guests, check their rooms?  I mean, what could I say?”

“I don’t know, I really don’t, but you’re going to have to figure it out.”  Leo then lay back slowly and either fell asleep or passed out, leaving Stanley to ponder what to do next.  It took him a few minutes but then a thought occurred to him and he ran out of the room.  He was just getting to the lobby when the police walked in the front door.  Fortunately, the bellman he had previously spoken with was not present.   Striding up to the officer Stanley began to speak excitedly about how he had been smoking outside the side door and had heard the shots coming from the alleyway that ran behind the hotel.  The officer pointed out that they already had several reports of them coming from inside the hotel, which prompted Stanley to tell about the man he had seen running out of the alley just a few seconds after he heard the sound of shooting.  That seemed to sway the officer who took the description and then stopped the next officer who entered the hotel, saying they had a suspect on foot who had left the scene.   Expecting that his ruse would not last long, Stanley hung around the lobby for another twenty minutes but the police never returned.  He would find out in the next day’s newspaper that his story had become the “facts of the situation” and the police had apprehended a known criminal who fit the description but had the audacity to insist that he had not been involved.  By some fateful stroke of misfortune this unlucky man also had a pistol in his pocket with some empty shells in the chamber. When he read it, Stanley just shook his head at the charmed turn of events that had occurred to cover up the truth.  For now though, once he felt comfortable that they would not be back soon, he rushed back up to the room to check on Leo.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 42)

It all began innocently enough, with Christmas breakfast being brought up to the room and Leo, Stanley and Lester telling past Christmas stories about themselves.  Stanley actually dominated the conversation as he had none of the reservations about detailing his past which the other two men possessed.  He told very specific stories, about presents, food, company and decorations, while Leo and Lester limited their contributions to references about the weather or maybe a gift they had received.  It was after the food was gone and the men were drinking coffee that Lester started in on Leo again. 

“Did you open that letter yet?”

“What’s it to you?  I told you it was my own damn business and not yours.”

“Why are you afraid to open it?” Lester taunted back.

“Leave it alone!” Leo replied, “just leave it alone.  Maybe we should all go back to silence.”

“Sounds good to me,” Stanley said.

“Let’s just take a look at it, can I see it?” Lester asked. 

“No, damn it!” Leo shouted back, standing up quickly and pointing, “you just need to leave this whole thing with the letter alone, ok?”

“You sure are a sensitive type, aren’t you?” Lester replied.

Stanley got up, collected the coffee cups and placed them on a tray that sat on the sideboard.  Then,  saying he was going to just go walk around the hallways and lobby to stretch his legs, he left the room.  A few minutes later, Lester also got up and walked toward the door.  However, as he passed by Leo’s overcoat, he quickly reached inside and felt for the pocket, then withdrew his hand.  Leo had turned to watch him and now strode quickly over toward Lester, who stood with the envelope in his hand.

“You give me that, you bastard!”

“Ha!  I knew that was where you stuck it.  Great hiding place.” Lester pushed Leo back as he approached, sending him stumbling lightly into a nearby side table.  “Just settle down.  I just want to see if it’s from that pretty little sister of yours.”

“You better shut up about her and you better give me that letter, right now,” Leo demanded, his face bright red in anger.  

“Come on now, open it up, let’s see if she sent another picture.”

“God damn you! Give it to me and stop thinking about her that way!”  Leo swung and connected with Lester’s side although the blow was partially deflected and did not seem to cause much damage.  The two of them wrestled around for a few moments before Lester turned in an advantageous direction and Leo took the opportunity to snatch the envelope back.  Both men were a little out of breath from the yelling and rough-housing and stood about ten feet apart, collecting their breath.   Three minutes later, Leo sat down and waved the envelope mockingly at Lester.

“Maybe I’ll go ahead and open it now that I have taken it from you.”

Lester did not reply and Leo ripped the edge of the envelope off, snapping it in the air as he did so.  That caused a smaller piece of paper to fly out of the envelope, one which drifted for a second in the air before landing just a few feet from Lester, who promptly picked it up.

“Well, well, my friend, it looks like you have come into a little money here.”

“Give me that,” Leo demanded.

“You just wait,” Lester replied, “because we both know that you owe me a bit of money.”

“Yes, yes I know.” 

“Now, this here check is for one hundred and five dollars, kind of a nice Christmas gift from your pretty sister.”

“You shut up.  You’ll get your money when the bank opens up Monday.”

“And, I have this check and you do not.”

“What does that do for you?  You can’t cash it so what good will it do you?”

“Well, I think we need to negotiate a little change in the repayment terms.  Like, due to my patience, and the fact that I had to come find you here, inconveniences, et cetera, I think you owe me seventy-five dollars now.”

“Bushwa, you crook!  I’ll pay you the fifty and not a penny more.” Leo lunged out of his chair but stopped about a foot from Lester, who was holding up his hand. 

“You did not let me finish, friend.  You pay me seventy-five or I plan a visit to your hotsy-totsy sister, you know, just to strike up an acquaintance, maybe a few dates, marriage, who knows.  I did read the return address on that envelope so finding her shouldn’t be much trouble.”

“I will kill you if you so much as mention her name again.  Now give me that check and I’ll get you your fifty dollars on Monday.”

“Like I said, it’s seventy-five or I start taking up an interest in your sister.”

“You stand up and fight me right now!” Leo shouted, dancing back and forth with his fists cocked up.  “Get up, damn it!  I won’t have this!”

Lester laughed but did not stand up.  Instead he leaned back and looked at Leo, who did not notice he also had slipped a hand behind his back.  

excerpt from san bernadino paper on humbert shooting 27 dec 1926

excerpt from san bernadino paper on Humbert shooting

“I won’t take this!”  Leo then strode over toward the fireplace and picked up the poker.  Whirling around, he rushed at Lester who calmly stood up, pistol in hand, and shot Leo twice.  He then tucked the check into his pocket, took several minutes to collect up his belongings, and walked out of the room while Leo groaned and bled on the floor.  A few minutes later he climbed into an Essex 5 and drove off.

1926 Essex 5

1926 Essex 5

 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 41)

After a moment of recovery Leo stepped into the doorway to block Stanley from entering.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Hi!” Stanley replied brightly, not picking up on the wariness in Leo’s voice.  “Boy, it took a bit to find you, but I did it!  I must have been to every other place in town but I should have started here.  This is a nice place, a good place for you.  Can I come in?” 

Leo repeated his question in a slightly more hostile tone and Stanley’s face reflected that he was getting the message.

“I didn’t mean no offense, I really didn’t.  I just, well, I had to get out of Bakersfield and I knew you were coming here and maybe could help me.  Besides, the mail came,” Stanley said while extending an envelope he had taken from his pocket.

“What? The mail, oh yes, the mail.  My mail, you mean?” Leo replied while looking at the envelope.  “Well, thank you,” he concluded and started to shut the door.

“It’s the police though, that’s why I’m here right now anyway, so fast, I just had to leave so fast.”

Leo stopped closing the door.  “The police?” he inquired.

“Yes, you bet,” Stanley replied in a nervous and excited voice that was gaining in volume, “they were right at Dad’s door,”

“Shut up and get in here,” Leo interrupted, grabbing the other man’s arm and pulling him into the room.  He closed the door promptly and, as he started to question Stanley, Robert walked out of the sitting area that was tucked into one corner of their room.  

Texaco truck circa 1926

Texaco truck circa 1926

It took a few minutes to get the younger Bittenhoffer calmed down but once that was done, the details came out fairly quickly.  Apparently, just the day after Leo had driven out of Bakersfield, the postman had delivered a letter to the clock shop which had been addressed to Leo Humbert.  This particular postman, new to the job just three days ago,  had actually taken the time to ask Stanley a few questions about, “who this Humbert was and why was he getting mail at the clock shop instead of a regular address.”  Stanley had managed to convince him that the addressee in question was a friend who was moving to the area and just needed a temporary place where his mail could be delivered.  As this part of the story was being told Leo had commented that it sure seemed odd that the post office was so interested in that piece of mail and that this did not bode well for his own prospects in the area.  Lester agreed and added they may all of them were in danger and should make plans to leave soon.  Stanley had then continued, revealing that his original plan had been to wait until after Christmas to contact Leo about the mail.  That had all changed later in the day, when he had been walking back to his Dad’s house after going into town to pick up some grocery items.  As he approached there were two policemen standing at the front door, already talking to Ben Bittenhoffer. Stanley had quickly hidden behind a large mulberry bush and watched for several minutes.  Although he could not hear what was being said, it looked like a tense conversation and his father looked extremely confused and worried.  That had been enough to spook Stanley completely and he had grabbed the few items of clothing he kept at the repair shop, some money from the bank and started to figure out how to get out of town and down to Pomona.   He had managed to pick up a ride from a Texaco truck driver headed out of Bakersfield and he had arrived late on the night of the twenty-second.  After a long night spent walking to hotels and boarding houses, and being met with hostility in more than one place due to his early morning inquires, he had finally decided to check the Mayfair.  That caught Leo and Lester up on the story and Stanley had slumped back in the chair with a, “I’m so relieved I found you, now I’ll be safe.”  Lester, who had remained quiet for most of the story, burst out laughing.

“You are about as stupid as I figured you would be,” he commented and walked back into the sitting area.

“What’s he mean by that?” Stanley asked.

“Never mind it.  Just let me think,” Leo replied.

After fifteen minutes or so, during which Stanley fell asleep, Leo sat silently, staring at the fake flowers in a vase on the mantle of the fireplace.  Then he got up and walked over to where Lester was sitting, reading the paper.  What followed was an argument that managed to wake up Stanley, who then overheard the details of how much Lester wanted him out of the room, Leo’s insistence that he needed to look after him, and both of their desire to get out of town quickly.  When they finished, Stanley feigned still being asleep and then “woke up” five minutes later.  

“What are we going to do now?” he asked Leo.

“We’re all going to stay right here in this room for now, and that means no one leaves.  We can’t be out on the streets right now.”

“But, this is Pomona.  They aren’t looking for us here.” 

“Boy, you really are,” Lester started, then cut himself off following a glare from Leo.  “Listen, here’s some information.  Police talk to each other, okay?  Pomona cops could easily be looking for us too.”

“Really?  I didn’t, I mean, yeah, I understand.  I guess I do.  So what do we do?”

“We stay here,” Leo repeated, “so just settle in and stay quiet.”

They passed a few hours in relative silence, Lester calling down for lunch for all of them around noon and managing to carry on a civil discussion with Stanley about clocks as they ate.  Just as they were finishing, Lester asked Leo a question.

“You know, you never did open that letter, did you?”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s none of your concern.”

“Well, I mean the man did come all this way to bring it to you,” Lester replied while gesturing over at Stanley, “don’t ya think we should see what it’s all about?”

“It’s personal, so shut up about it,” Leo snapped back at him.

“Sure, sure,” Lester replied with a sly smile.

The three of them managed to get through that day and the next, passing Christmas Eve playing cards, napping and reading newspapers.  They all even shared a small spice cake for dessert and listened through the windows to some carolers outside the hotel.  It was a pleasant night overall and none of them would have believed that the next day, Christmas, would include an attempted murder. 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 40)

View of Pomona, CA

View of Pomona, CA

It was only about one hundred and forty miles from Bakersfield to Pomona but Leo took his time, stopping twice to eat some sandwiches he had brought with him and once to hide when he thought someone was following him.   He also stopped to assist a woman and her son who were having some car problems and had pulled off on the side of the road.  He had enough knowledge to get their vehicle running again and was rather pleased when the woman called him a, “heaven sent stroke of good luck,” before she drove off.  Leo was not much for providing such acts of kindness but he admitted to himself that it made him feel pretty good, in a way that was different than when he pulled off a scheme or outwitted the police.  He drove without stopping again after that and by the time he actually drove over the hills and down into the “Queen of the Citrus Belt” it was evening and he was fairly tired. 

Pomona Hotel in better days

Pomona Hotel in better days

He took a room for the night at the Pomona Hotel, left most of his belongings in the car, and went to bed before ten o’clock.  At six a.m. he was awoken by a persistent knocking on the door.  When he opened it he found the smiling face of Robert Lester, who was holding two cups of coffee in his hands.

“Good morning friend.  I though you might want some room service.”

Leo, who had been quite startled to find his former partner standing there, recovered quickly.  Rubbing his hand across his face and feigning indifference he replied.  “Well, I don’t remember ordering anything but sure I’ll take some coffee if you’re bringing it to me.”

“Good, good, here you go,” Lester replied, pushing past Leo and walking into the small room.  “Not exactly the best place in town but I guess it suits you, huh?”

“It was late when I got in and this place was right on the road.  I took it and figured to look around today for something better.”

“Well, that’ll be the Mayfair for sure, if you’re figuring to step up a bit around here.  It’s a nice place but a bit expensive to live at, ya know?” Lester was grinning too much as he spoke and Leo realized what he was looking for although he was not going to give him satisfaction on that if he could help it.

“Hmm, well I’ll see about it when I go out.  Right now I’d like to have some peace and quiet.”  

“I can help you look around, we can look around together, check things out,” Lester replied, sitting his empty cup down on the floor.

“Sounds like you already know the place.  Why don’t I meet you somewhere later?”

There was no reply from Lester who had gotten up and was looking out the one window in the room, seemingly lost in thought.  Leo opened the door and stood to the side.

“I’ll see you later, Rob.”

Lester turned around slowly and walked up to Leo, stopping when the two were face to face.  “I know you’re wondering how I found you, and you’ll just have to keep on wondering my friend.  Take it as fact though that I can find you and I won’t be forgetting about my fifty dollars.  You go look around then and I’ll meet you for lunch at the Mayfair.”

“Maybe you will,” Leo replied defensively.

“I will.” 

Lester left without another word and Leo sat down on the bed, shaken on the inside more from the fact Lester had found him so quickly than by the actual encounter.   An hour later he checked out of the hotel and drove toward the center of town.  If he was going to stay around for awhile he wanted to be closer to the action.  By eleven a.m. he had grudgingly admitted to himself that Lester was right and the Mayfair Hotel was exactly the place he needed to stay at in Pomona.  The manager told him that there would be a room coming available later in the day and Leo, who had only had the cup of coffee as breakfast, sat down to eat lunch in their restaurant.  He found a little bit of humor in the fact that Lester had been correct but was not looking forward to having the fact brought up whenever his former partner arrived.   Ten minutes later Lester slid into the chair directly across from Leo and laughed right in his face.

Mayfair Hotel Pomona CA

Mayfair Hotel Pomona CA

“Pretty smart, aren’t I?” Lester asked after he had regained his composure.

“Fuck off,” Leo shot back loudly which turned the heads of a few nearby diners.

“Little testy aren’t ya?  Just lighten up a little my friend, I knew this place would appeal to you, that’s all.  Don’t take it so hard.”

Leo did not reply but resumed eating and neither of them spoke again until their meals were complete.  Shifting back in his chair while sipping on a whiskey, Lester nodded toward the approaching manager.

“Coming to get you for your room, I think.  How about you and me share it?  I could use a place to sleep for a bit and it’ll make it easier for me to keep an eye on my money.”

“Not likely.  Why would I want you around me that much?  Besides, I’m sure it’s a single set up so there’s nowhere for you to sleep.”

“It’s a double.  And you want me living here with you so I don’t follow you all over town.  That’ll get rather bothersome I suspect.”

Leo glared back at Lester.  

“Sir, your room will be ready in a few minutes.  Please come to sign the registration documents,”  the hotel manager asked.

“I don’t suppose it has a second bed, does it?”  Leo replied.

“Certainly it does sir.  Is that ok?”

“Yes, yes.  This gentleman will also be staying with me.”

“Very well.  I’ll need you both to sign of course.”

“Of course,” Leo replied sharply as he got up and followed the man, Robert Lester trailing close behind with a satisfied look on his face.   They registered as Leo Humbert and Lorrane North and twenty minutes later had settled into the nicely furnished two bedroom suite on the third floor of the hotel.  

The next morning, December 23rd, Leo experienced a sense of deja vu as he was awakened again by persistent knocking on the door.  He opened it and was met with yet another surprise when he saw Stanley Bittenhopper standing in the hallway, nervously tapping his fingers together and humming an unrecognizable tune under his breath.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 39)

That was as far as the conversation went though as a few seconds later a gunshot rang out that sounded like it was a few streets to the west of the L&S shop.  The policeman came running out of the alleyway, followed closely by Lester.  The officer continued on but Leo grabbed his partner by the lapels of his jacket.

“What the hell was that?  What were you going to tell him?” Leo demanded.

Lester seemed unfazed with finding Leo in close proximity to his police encounter and shoved him off, stopping to fix his collar before replying.  “Not a damn thing Leo, not a damn thing.”

“I heard you back there,” Leo continued loudly, “I heard it all.”  

“You better quiet down friend; what will all your nice neighbors here think about you being so worked up about the police and me?”

“I still heard it,” Leo repeated but in a much lower voice, and then he dropped his voice even further to a whisper and finished with, “and it’s Lee, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah.  Don’t worry about the police.  He came up to me on the street right there in front of the mercantile.  I got him to take it into the alley in case he asked about your place.  You know, so no on else would hear?”

“You said you were going to tell him the whole story.”

“I tell a lot of stories.  It wasn’t even about you, but if it had been I wouldn’t have given him anything useful, really ok?”

“I still heard it.  I don’t trust you,” Leo replied.

“Yeah, well then keep on with that.  I’m almost out of here anyway.”  Lester leaned in close to Leo’s ear.  “I’ll expect you to cash me out tomorrow and then I’m gone,” he whispered and then patted Leo’s arm and walked away.  

Leo had already been thinking much the same thing about getting out of town soon and was planning to approach Stanley later in the week to tell him that things were finished.  Lester’s demand caused him to push that timeline up even if that meant he would have to leave before Christmas.  He headed over immediately to the clock repair shop.  When he arrived Stanley put down what he had been working on and came right up to Leo with a smile on his face.

“See, I’ve been busy,” he said excitedly while gesturing at a box on the table, “it’s my most productive day ever.  Look at how many pieces I have.”

Leo gave them a cursory look before replying.  “That’s nice Stanley, good work.  But there is,” 

“Aren’t you gonna look at all of them?  It’s really good work.  I thought you would be pleased.”  Stanley had a slightly dejected look on his face as he spoke, then he reached into the box and pulled out a ring.  “What about this one?  It should get a nice price, huh?”

“Look, I’ve got something to tell you so just listen, ok?”  

Over the course of the next few minutes Leo explained things to Stanley, telling him that not only was the business over but he would also be leaving town.  He had braced himself for an unpleasant experience, which had been heightened by his partner’s eager demeanor about the new pieces, but he was surprised by Stanley’s reaction.

“So, that’s it?  It’s just over right now, done?” 

“Yes Stan, sorry about the short notice but that’s how these things work out.”

“Thank the saints,” Stanley replied, sitting down with a look of great relief on his face.

“You’re happy about it?” Leo asked.

“Oh yes, yes indeed.  It was killing me on the inside.  I was terrified of getting caught.  I don’t know what that would’ve done to Dad.”

“Well, then good.  You sure seemed to be an eager worker a few minutes ago so I was worried you wouldn’t take it well.  Now I feel better.”

“I just figured I owed you, you know?  I said I would do this thing with you and so I did, I kept working at it.  I didn’t want to let you down.”

“Well, you didn’t.”

“What about that other guy?” Stanley asked.

“Don’t worry about him, he’ll be gone too and won’t be bothering you.v Get this stuff melted down and I’ll come by tomorrow and pay you out.  You sure you’re not going to miss all the ladies at the speakeasy?”

“Good lord no, that was killing me too.  I figured I owed it to myself, to have a good time since I was doing crime, ya know?  But just recently I’ve really gotten tired of it.”

“Well then, I’ll see ya tomorrow,” Leo  replied and walked out of the shop.

That night, while counting up the money to distribute to his partners Leo realized that he was going to be a little bit short on one of the payments.  He had spent more than he should have recently, mostly on getting his car fixed up so that it would be ready to use in his departure from Bakersfield.  He knew that Lester kept his own accounting and would know if he was shorted, and that Stanley did not, but Leo had a sense of honor about these kinds of things.  He was going to have to tell one of them that they would need to wait for some of their money.  Knowing that Lester might be angry but would keep it between the two of them, and fearing the unknown about who Stanley might talk to if he got angry about it, Leo decided to short pay Lester.  The next day things in that regard went much better than expected.

1926 Ford Tudor Sedan

1926 Ford Tudor Sedan

Leo had met Lester at the park and explained the situation to him.  His partner’s only reply had been, “I won’t forget you owe me fifty bucks friend,” before getting up and strolling away holding the envelope of money Leo had given him.  The meeting with Stanley also went well, with the two of them parting as friends and Stanley stating that he intended to stay in the clock repair business now that he had a little extra money.  Leo cautioned him to be careful how he spent it and then they shook hands before Leo left the shop.   Just after he left, a thought came to him which caused him to turn back immediately.  He had forgotten about the check his sister would be sending, one that would be delivered to the clock shop and thus to Stanley.  He could not imagine what his now former partner might do with that mail, but he could imagine a few situations that might end up in exposure for him, his aliases or the scheme they had been running, especially with Stanley’s lack of criminal sophistication.  Rather reluctantly he told Stanley that he planned to be in Pomona for awhile and would send information back to him on where to send any mail that arrived.  Later that day Leo did a detailed cleaning of the place he was living at and the L&S shop before discreetly packing up his car and heading out of town.  He believed that only he and Stanley were aware of his plans to go to Pomona.  As it turned out, Robert Lester also knew and would be waiting for him.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 38)

At this point Leo glanced back at Lester who had a look in his eye that made it very clear he would not be forgetting this detail about Leo.  

“Get out! Now!” Leo shouted at Stanley, “Go back to work!”

“Who is he?” Stanley replied, pointing at Lester.  “Why did he say I didn’t know about what you two were doing?  What’s going on?”
Leo grabbed Stanley by the arm and shoved him out into the cold afternoon.  “Go back to work now!” he snapped before slamming the door shut and turning the bolt.

“Quite rough on him, weren’t you Leo?” Lester asked.  “He’s not exactly the criminal type, not by a long shot.  Is that who you’re into this jewelry scheme with?”

“You need to shut up too,” Leo replied.

Lester took a few steps so he was right in Leo’s face before he spoke in a low, rough tone while holding his hand against Leo’s chest.  “Don’t even try your tough guy act on me.  I’m not some dumb Dora or a Reuben you can fool with your little act and you ain’t the crime boss of Bakersfield either.  I tell you something friend, if you’re into it with that silly egg of a man than you’ll both be busted and locked up in little enough time.  I’m getting the hell away from this whole operation.”

“Settle the hell down, will ya?” Leo replied while pushing Lester’s hand off his chest.  “You don’t need to be worrying about him, I’ve got him under control, ok?  He isn’t even supposed to be out in town.  He just got a little confused when the mail came I guess, he’s a bit odd in that way.  But he’s no problem for us.”

“I really doubt that Leo, I really do.”  

Over the course of the next ten minutes the two men went back and forth but ultimately, with a promise to push hard on selling the stolen goods and to increase Lester’s cut, Leo won the man back.  With that resolved he ripped open the envelope and pulled out a letter.  As he did so a small photograph fell out also, landing on the floor.  It was of Olivia, a black and white image of her near a large tree with a small barn off to one corner of the picture.  It was a winter scene and the tree had clumps of frozen snow on the branches.  Lester reached down and picked it up, staring intently for several seconds before handing it to Leo.

“Your girl?”

“My sister,” Leo replied.

“She’s quite a bit of choice calico,” Lester stated, “any chance she’s coming out this way?”

Leo’s face flushed red instantly.  “You better shut up about her, and never bring it up again, you hear?  Never.”  

“Hmm, well, she’s very attractive is all, maybe someday I can meet her.”

Leo swung at Lester but missed by a large margin with the other man chuckling as he moved a few more steps away.  “Easy now Mr. Hombert,” he said, “just take it easy.  I won’t go bothering her but it’s good to know she’s out there.”   

“Damn you, get over here and say that to me!” Leo shouted, throwing the letter down onto the counter and putting up his fists.  “I won’t have you talking like that about her.”

“Easy, easy,” Lester replied as he clicked the door bolt open and stepped out, “you just take it easy and get back to selling things.”  With that he left and Leo remained, fists raised and face red, frustrated and angry.  When he finally settled down and read the letter it simply stated that Olivia had sold his items, would be sending the money soon, that she hoped he was well and wished him a happy holiday season. 

The events of that day brought considerable tension to both of Leo’s relationships with his partners, Stanley constantly bugging him to know about the “other man” and Lester mocking Leo or telling him that failure was imminent.  Lester also made almost a daily point of mentioning the Hombert last name and breezing out references to Leo’s sister, although always in a public place where any altercation would bring unwanted attention.  Once the Thanksgiving weekend had passed and the days turned to December things really started to pick up at the shop, with both the jewelry and the stolen items selling well to gift-purchasers who came into the store.  Leo even took to offering gift wrapping for an additional twenty-five cents on smaller items.   There was one more incident with the police at the shop also, one that Leo solved by buying the item back and throwing in an additional three dollars for the “unfortunate issue with quality” that the customer had experienced.  The pressure from the criminal community was mounting at a faster rate, with several more warnings from other grifters in Bakersfield and at least three other similar fake jewelry shops opening up in early December.  Leo knew the end was fast approaching but he was determined to make it through the Christmas rush if he could and then make a fast exit from town.  He knew that Lester was also making his own plans to leave after the holiday so Leo’s only concern was to break things off with Stanley in the smoothest way possible.  He was still formulating a plan for that on Monday, December 20th when he locked up the shop for lunch and started to walk toward the park.  As he approached the corner of his building he heard Lester’s voice coming from the small alley that ran between the L&S shop and the mercantile next door.  Leo also heard one other voice and that belonged to the policeman who had been into the shop twice in regard to customer complaints.  As he stopped walking and pressed himself against the side of the building to listen he heard Lester’s voice quite clearly.

“Ok, just take it easy, will ya?  I can tell you the whole damn story.” 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 37)

When they did, and after they had exchanged with each other the names they were currently living under, Robert Lester and Leo struck up an agreement to use the L&S store to move merchandise stolen by Lester in addition to the fake jewelry already sold there.  Lester was opposed to mixing the two businesses but Leo stuck to his belief that the one store could serve a dual purpose and eventually his partner gave in.  Leo did not inform Stanley about the arrangement and was determined to keep his two partners completely separate from each other while running the store himself to profit off their work.  With that deal done, and beginning to feel a bit like the crime boss he wanted to be, Leo went over to check on production at the clock shop.   When he arrived Stanley was hard at work, a fact that pleased Leo, and he stood around watching the other man work for about half an hour.  There were a good number of new pieces on the table and he carefully placed them into a box to take to the store.  There was even a very nice mantel clock with a gilded face among the items and Stanley replied in the affirmative when Leo asked if it was something he had made for sale at their shop.  That initiative impressed Leo and he figured maybe he had misjudged the other man yet again.  Then, right before leaving, he jokingly told Stanley to cut his hair, something which it was apparent had not happened in many months.  Stanley replied that it was all part of his new look and Leo shook his head and left feeling like things were definitely looking up.  

All continued fairly well through the end of October and well into November.  There were a few arguments between Lester and Leo, mostly about the low volume of stolen product that Leo was managing to move through the shop, and several times when Leo’s two partners came close to meeting.  That was something he really wanted to avoid and so he told Stanley that it really would be better if he stopped going out into town or anywhere else for that matter.  He should just keep working and Leo would bring him whatever he needed.  This generated quite an argument as Stanley was still enjoying his new lifestyle among the burgeoning social scene in Bakersfield.  Ultimately Leo resigned himself to the fact that the two men were going to meet and he was just going to have to deal with it when that happened.  As things turned out that did not take long, and soon after two uncommon things occurred  which resulted in their meeting on November 23rd.  It was fairly cold out that day and Stanley, dressed in a long trench coat with a plaid scarf wrapped around his face, walked into the L&S store around two o’clock in the afternoon.  Coming to the store was something that Stanley almost never did so he caught Leo by surprise.  Leo himself had already been surprised by an equally infrequent caller, Robert Lester, who avoided the shop as he always told Leo because, “it’s the place you’re going to end up being arrested at one day, and I sure don’t plan to be there when that happens.”  Today the on-going lack of sales by Leo had finally driven Robert to the store, demanding that he be told what was holding up the making of some profits on the items  he was risking his own freedom to steal.  The stamping of Stanley’s feet as he crossed the threshold of the store stopped the argument between Leo and Lester.

“What are you doing here?” Leo snapped at Stanley, walking over quickly and grabbing the man’s arm.  “I though I told you to stay away from town.”

“Who is this person?” Lester asked from where he stood by one of the shop’s display counters, “I don’t suppose this is that silly clockmaker you are in business with?”

“Who’s he?” Stanley asked with some fear in his voice, “and how does he know who I am?  What’s he doing here?”

“Ah, so this fella doesn’t know about us then, huh?” Lester shot back, “all these secrets Leo, very bad for your constitution you know.”  

“What’s he talking about Leo?” 

“Stop!” Leo shouted.  “Stop it and shut up both of you.”

Lester laughed but otherwise stayed quite.  Stanley cowered a little and then stood with suspicious eyes darting back and forth between the other two men.

“Listen, both of you.  Neither one of you needs to know anything about the other.  You are working for me, and you talk to me and me only.  Neither damn one of you should be here right now, it’s bad for us to be seen together.  Now, why are you here?”  Leo asked Stanley, still holding his hand up in Lester’s direction.

“I, well, I had to give you something.”  Stanley replied, his voice low but clear. 

“Are you sure this is something we should be talking about here?” Leo replied.

“Well, well, I don’t know.  But you did say to give you letters addressed to any Leo name that came to the shop.”  As he spoke he withdrew an envelope from the inside pocket of the overcoat.

Leo’s eyes clouded for a minute as he realized it must be a letter from his sister.  He really needed to contain the information on his real name but Stanley kept talking.

“It said Hombert but I still did what you told me, I told the postman I would take it.  Is that your real name?”

“Shut up!” Leo exclaimed as he snatched the letter from Stanley’s hands.  “That isn’t even the name on here,” he continued in an effort to make both men forget what had just happened.  

“Sure it is,” Stanley replied.

…to be continued