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

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 36)

western white pine

western white pine

They walked in silence for the entire two blocks, a few passersby looking at them with idle curiosity,  and entered the park from the north side.  It was a mostly open space with well-kept grass and an occasional bench for visitors to sit on.  At the western edge was a small group of fairly young Western White Pine trees and this is where Lester motioned Leo to go, something he complied with reluctantly.  He did stop next to one of the benches, peeking back over his shoulder only to see his former partner give a small shake of his head.  By this time Leo had determined he may have made an error in pursuing a confrontation with Lester, who seemed simply intent on fulfilling his apparent desire to get some payback.  He pushed the boughs of the young pines aside as they entered the copse, not bothering to hold them for Lester who remained close behind him.  Finally they were in the middle of the trees, well screened from view even if someone had passed very close to the two men.  Leo turned around.

“Listen, I know you think you have a beef with me Rob, but I’m telling you that I never did anything against you.”

Lester grunted in reply, pulling the gun, a Remington Model 51, fully into view and pointing it at Leo.

model 51

model 51

“Come on, don’t shoot, ok?  Listen for a minute,” Leo pleaded.

“That’d be about how long you’ve got rat, I’ll give you about a minute of mercy.  Then I’m going to shoot you.”

“I read your letter, the one you sent to Minnesota for me.  It wasn’t until just a little while ago really, when I ended up back there this spring, but I read it and I’m telling you that what you think about me just ain’t true.”

“Of course you’d be saying that now, now that I’ve got you at the point of this gun, but I know what happened.”

“You think I ratted on you?” Leo asked.

“I know you did,” Lester replied while looking Leo squarely in the eyes.

“I read it and headed out here directly.  I needed to set the record straight with you.  Why would I come looking for you like that if what you think I did is true?  Why would I see you and then chase you down on the street?”

Lester did not reply immediately, a slightly confused look on his face which he then shook off.  “I don’t know or give a damn why, but I’ve been waiting all this time to square up with you and it’s gonna happen right now.  Your minute’s up.”

“I’m no damn rat!” Leo shouted back, “and I won’t go down with you thinking I am.  I never told nothing on you, not in Hawaii, not in prison and not since.  I even wrote you a letter from McNeil telling you I never talked but I’m guessing you never got that, did you?”

“I didn’t.” Lester replied tersely, the gun still pointed at Leo.

“Well, I’m telling you I wrote it, hell I thought you were a free man at the time, they never even told me you got pinched on that scam.  I was rung up so fast in Hawaii and shipped off to the rock,  I never knew.  I swear though Rob, I never said a damn word about you or our business.  Now shoot me if you must but at least tell me you know I ain’t no rat.”

Lester continued to hold the gun on Leo but removed his finger from the trigger, tapping it instead on the slide of the gun as he continued to look at his former partner.  There was still steel in his eyes but it was softening a little, and then he slowly lowered the weapon.

“I’ve been angry at you for a long time Leo, a long damn time.  When they arrested me back then they told me you had given up the scheme, told it all.  They had details too, ones I thought would’a had to have come from you.  They knew so much I just plead guilty.  But I guess maybe they just did a good investigation.  I really held it against you though, figured you for a rat.”

“I’m telling you I’m no rat,” Leo replied sharply, “and you better tell me you know it.”

“You still ain’t in no position to be demanding things even if I do believe you,” Lester replied as he gave the lowered gun a small shake to illustrate he still had it ready for action.

“I think you see it now, the truth of it, and I need to hear you know I’m not a rat.”  Leo’s voice was earnest and strong, pleading and demanding at the same time.   “I know you’ve thought it for a long time but I won’t take that disrespect when it ain’t warranted.  Like I said, shoot me if that’s still what you’re after, but say it first.”

Lester looked back thoughtfully, seeing the anxious desire to be validated in Leo’s eyes, the absolute need to have his reputation cleared even if he died afterward.  He let it linger there for a few extra moments, just to make a point that he could not really explain, and then a slight smile crossed his face and he holstered the gun.

“Hell Leo, I know now that you ain’t no rat.  You’re square with me.  I hope that makes you feel better.”

“I does, it certainly does,” Leo replied as he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.  “What are you doing out here in Bakersfield anyway?”

“Escaping from Portland,” Lester replied with a wide grin before continuing, “I’m parched old friend, let’s go find one of those wonderful speakeasy’s they have around here and we’ll get caught up.”

They walked over to the National Bar, a soft drink stand run by a often arrested man named Albert Martin, and enjoyed several illegal libations over the course of the next two hours.  There was still a little lingering tension between them but the conversation went well up until Leo gave a very vague overview of the scheme he was running with the Clockmaker.  He had not intended to say anything at all about it but Lester had been pressing him hard and eventually it slipped out somewhere in-between the liquor and an old sense of camaraderie.   He left out the name of his partner and their store but did tell how they were making the fake pieces of jewelry.   Lester made his disapproval of that scheme apparent, telling Leo it was a sure way to get caught because someone would figure it out, probably sooner rather than later, and they would know exactly where they had gotten the fake item.  Once one person made a fuss, another would and soon the police would be down upon Leo and there would not be much of a defense to offer.  That comment sparked the nagging nervous feeling Leo already had considering what had happened at the store with the police and the other recent complications; however, he kept his cool and told Lester that the scheme was running fine and would continue to do so as long as no one ratted anyone out.  He said that just to make sure Lester got the picture about keeping his mouth closed, kind of a way to shut the barn door after leaking out information he never intended to disclose anyway.  Lester nodded in reply but kept pressing him, telling Leo to give up that business and get back into a scheme that the two of them could run together.  They argued back and forth for awhile and eventually Leo said that although he was going to keep the jewelry business he would do some side jobs with Lester.  That seemed to make the man happy and the two of them parted with a promise to meet back up in a few days.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 35)

“What do you mean, what does he know?  I told you, everything!” Stanley exclaimed, rubbing his hands together and walking slowly in a tight circle around the shop floor.  

“Will you settle down?  Just stop for a minute and tell me what he said.”

“He knows!  He asked me how the business was going!”

Leo reached out and grabbed his partner to get him to stop moving.  “What did he say exactly?”

“I told you!  He asked how the business was going!”

Leo rubbed a hand across his face, realizing that Stanley might be just a little bit unstable after all.  “That’s all he said Stanley?”

“Yes! That’s all he needed to say.”  

“You don’t suppose he might have been asking about your clock business?” Leo asked.

“Why?  What?”  Stanley replied, and then he stopped, a dumbfounded look on his face.  “Well, I mean, maybe, but why would he ask me that?”

“Maybe he was just wondering about it, or making small talk, or who knows why.  Did he mention the shop, or me, or anything about jewelry?”

By now Stanley’s face was bright red and his eyes were averted, staring down at the rugged wooden floor of his shop.  “No, nothing else.  Just like I said, he asked how business was. But…”

“But what?”

“Nothing,” Stanley muttered back, his face getting even more red.  Leo reached out his hand again and shook the other man’s shoulder.  

“Look at me friend, I think maybe you have something to tell me.  What did you say after he asked you that?”

There was a long pause and Leo knew he was not going to like the answer, but he needed it nonetheless.  He shook Stanley’s shoulder roughly and asked him again what he had said to his father.

“It, well, I thought he was on to us, you know.  I thought he knew about all of it.  I was just afraid, I didn’t know what to say.”

“But you did say something, so what was it?”

“I told him that it wasn’t my idea, that I was just doing the work, making the pieces but not selling them.  He was confused, starting asking me questions, and I, well, I just ran out of the place and over here.”

Leo stayed silent but his grip on Stanley’s shoulder increased, until his partner started to squirm under the pressure.  Finally he let go.

“Damn, damn, damn!  You stupid foolish dumb,” was a far as he got before he decided that berating Stanley was not going to be very useful.  He needed to figure out what to do next.  Collapsing back into the chair where he had been reading the newspaper, Leo sighed deeply and returned to silence, staring blankly down at the floor.  Five minutes later he looked back up.

“That’s all you said?  Absolutely nothing else?”

“Nothing else, I swear, nothing.”

“Ok, so now you are going to go back home and figure out just what exactly he might be thinking about what you said, and what he might be doing about it.”

There was about ten more minutes of protesting from Stanley but in the end he went and then met Leo the next day.  It turned out that his father was mostly confused and figured his son was having some kind of a fit, after which a long lecture on the effects of fire-gilding followed, and then it was dropped.  Ben Bittenhopper had mentioned through that he was going to be, “taking a stroll around,” to see what some of the new businesses were up to in town.  Leo knew that did not bode well, but things were less serious than they might have been.   As a safeguard he decided to shut the store for ten days, taking off into the nearby countryside for what he considered was a well deserved break.  When he returned Stanley confidently reported that his father had not mentioned the episode at all and had indeed toured the new businesses in town, returning only with some concerns about there being too many mercantile establishments.  Feeling he was in the clear at least for a little bit longer, Leo reopened L&S and they were back in business.  

A profitable three weeks followed and Leo was walking down the street behind his business on October 5th, on his way to eat lunch in a small park he liked, when he was brought to a dead stop.  Across the street, walking next to a short, blonde-haired woman, was Robert Lester.  

Leo took a few moments, following the couple with his eyes as he tried to convince himself that he was wrong.  After all the time he had spent looking for the man it was hard to believe that they had just walked past each other on a public street.  The man never looked back but it did not matter.  By the time he stepped off again toward the park, Leo was pretty well convinced that he had found the man he had come to look for in Bakersfield.  He was, however, not certain on how he wanted to proceed, weighing the need to get the “rat” issue resolved against Lester’s threat against him.  He thought about that as he ate, and for a whole day afterward, and then decided he was going to face the situation head on, just like he had originally planned.   He would go out and find Lester and talk to him and get this whole thing straightened out regardless of if it put his safety in jeopardy.   Knowing from his previous attempts that locating him through public records was futile, Leo took to spending one to two hours a day on that street behind his shop, just watching and hoping for a repeat appearance.  It finally came four days later, the man’s slight limp and arms that swung too much as he walked reconfirming Leo’s belief it was Lester,  and he ran across to confront the man.

“Robert!”

The man took three more steps before stopping, slowing turning around but reaching inside his jacket as he did so.

“Hold on, hold on, it’s just me after all, you remember don’t ya?” Leo said.

“You bet I know who you are,” the olive-skinned man replied, “and I got a score to settle that’s up on the board right now.  I plan to cash it in.”  Leo could see the gun, held just under the man’s jacket, free of its holster but still out of sight of the few others walking near them.

“You don’t need to do anything like that Robert, really, this is all a big misunderstanding, it really is.  I came here to find you, to straighten it up.  Let’s just talk for a few minutes, ok?”

Lester motioned his head back up the street in the direction of the park.  “Sure, we can talk if that’s what you want.  It’ll be much better to be in a secluded place anyhow.  After you then.”

Without looking back, but with his heart beating rapidly in his chest, Leo walked toward the park, his former partner a few steps behind him with one hand still nonchalantly inside of his jacket.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 33)

As mentioned before, Bakersfield in the 1920’s had a population of around thirteen thousand and much of the manufacturing and commerce of the town focused on the oil industry.  The first big oil strikes in the area had occurred just two decades before and there were large crews of men toiling away at extracting that black gold from the ground.  There was also a decent agricultural presence, centered around the growing of grains and alfalfa along with the raising of various kinds of livestock.  An additional number of people transited through the town on the railroad.  These three groups, but especially the oil field workers and the travelers, encompassed the people that Leo now planned to run his scheme against with Stanley.  Once he was satisfied that he had the right man picked out, it had been a fairly simple process to convince Stanley to join up with his idea, especially once it was explained how much money they might end up making as a result.  Leo breezed over any concerns about the police or penalty, ensuring his new partner that he was experienced enough to avoid any trouble.  As part of their deal Leo moved into the back area of Stanley’s repair shed, writing back to Olivia soon after to tell her of the change of address.  He still was waiting for that check from the sale of his possessions and his move to the shed solved another problem which had occurred to him soon after he had checked into the El Tejon.  He might have notified Olivia about the address but had not dared to tell her about the false name he was living under again, believing that she would refuse to send it to him given her previous anger over his aliases.  Now he simply told Stanley that he occasionally used different names and if anything showed up addressed to any, “first name of Leo, don’t worry about the last name,” well, that was to be given to him directly with no further questions asked.   Leo disliked the idea of anyone knowing his birth identity but he hoped his inexperienced partner would forget about the Hombert name quickly.  The idea of false names seemed to fascinate Stanley and Leo had to cut off the discussion to avoid telling him too much about his past.  He just ended it with, “it’s useful sometimes but complicated, you probably shouldn’t try it.” 

South Pacific train depot Bakersfield

South Pacific train depot Bakersfield

Their operational plan was simple.  Leo would purchase copper or brass which Stanley would turn into pieces of jewelry that were then electroplated to appear to be more precious metals.  Leo would take these items to a very small shop he had rented out in the main business area of Bakersfield where he hoped to sell them as “solid gold and silver”, mostly to drunk oil workers or unsuspecting persons passing through on the train.  His shop, which he had managed to get by offering the former occupant one hundred dollars to move, was well situated for the scheme as it was located right by the train depot and only blocks from several well attended establishments that were subverting the prohibition laws.  They started up production in late June of 1926 and Stanley had produced the first pieces by July 1st, just in time for the big holiday weekend.  It was on that day that Leo also informed his partner that he was changing his name again.

“Why now?” Stanley asked when told.

“It just works out better for me this way.  Up to now, well, I’ve been Lee O’Dare and that’s still a good name in this town.  Starting up our business I need to have a name that I can burn here.”

“Burn?”

“Well, yes, one that will be associated with this business we are running.”

“The illegal one, you mean?”  Stanley replied.

“Yes.  It’s just a good idea, don’t worry about it, just call me Leo from now on.”

“Leo O’Malley?”

“Yes.”

“So, what should my name be?”

“What are you, oh, never mind that, you need to keep your name, you’ve been here too long.  You can’t just change it after all that time.”

“But what if we get caught?  Isn’t that why you are using a different name?  So that if we get caught you can change it to something else when you run way?”  Stanley’s voice was rising as he spoke. 

“Who says I’m running away?  And we won’t get caught.”   Leo was getting tired of the questions.  “Now stop worrying about it.  Just produce the goods and I’ll sell them.”

“But, what if we do get caught.  I can’t stand it, I mean, my father would be devastated, he really would be.  It would be terrible.”  

“Just stop with the worrying.  I’ll worry, and you just work and keep quiet.”

“But what if we get caught?”

“Shut up!  I’ll protect you!”  Leo shouted back, raising his fist a few inches but then thinking better of it.  “Just shut up!”

Stanley wiped his eyes before replying.  “We’re going to get caught, I just know it.  But oh well, I guess that can’t be avoided.”  He then shuffled off back toward the front of his repair shop to go back to work.  Leo snorted and shook his head, thinking that maybe his plan to use Stanley had not been such a great idea after all.  This operation had to work though, it just had to, as it was his very own and he needed to prove to himself that he could be his own boss.  Any issues with Stanley would just need to be dealt with as they came up. 

The July 2nd opening of their store was a great success, aided by the general air of celebration for the Fourth of July festivities.  Everyone seemed in a good mood and were spending freely, with people clamoring for all kinds of goods including Leo’s falsely advertised jewelry.  His stock was depleted by the following Monday and Stanley had not kept up on inventory production over the weekend, choosing instead to do work for his father in their shop and also take a day off to relax.  That did not sit well with Leo, who scolded Stanley harshly and told him that he needed to get his priorities straight if they were going to make good money with their venture.

“But I can’t work on it all of the time.  My father will get angry, or suspicious, or both.  And if he starts asking questions, well, what am I supposed to say I am doing down here?”

“Fixing clocks obviously.”

“He knows there is not enough business to keep me that busy.  I don’t have many customers you know, this is mostly by hobby.”

“Tell him you have more customers then, tell him you have a big order.”  Leo was getting impatient again, his words spoken in a terse manner.

“That won’t work.  He’ll know, he knows everything about business in this town.  He talks to people.”

“Well, I don’t know what then but tell him whatever you have to.  The priority is our business, ok? Or don’t you want to make money?”

“I do.  But,”

Leo cut him off.  “Here’s your share for now.  Get to work.”

Staring down at the eighty dollars which Leo had placed into his hand brought a smile to Stanley’s face.  He thought about all of the things he could do, the women he could seduce, the fine food he could buy, maybe a good set of clothes for himself.  Closing his fist around the money he nodded and went back to work.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 31)

Stanley Bittenhopper was born September 19th, 1890 in Bristol, Connecticut.  He had an average childhood in an average household of the day, growing up as the youngest of four children in a middle-class family.  His father was a goldsmith who also worked as a jack-of-all-trades repairman and his mother ran the household while taking in neighbor’s laundry for extra money.  When Stanley graduated from high school in 1907 he was five feet eleven and weighed about one hundred ninety pounds, a lanky young man with dirty blonde hair and green eyes. 

Sessions company clock

Sessions company clock

Through connections that his father Ben had in town, he picked up an apprenticeship at the Sessions Clock Company, something considered to be a valuable way into an established line of work.   He stayed there long enough to gain an interest in clockmaking that would stay with him throughout the rest of his life, and picked up enough skills to make money doing so even after he left Sessions in 1911.   In October of that year his mother passed away and his father, with an empty house he did not want to live in and a life-long yearning for the west coast, sold everything and headed out to California.  He offered to take his youngest son along and teach him to be a goldsmith, an offer that Stanley accepted as he figured he could make more money in that line of work.  When the two of them arrived in Bakersfield on October 27, 1911 Stanley had to wonder what his father had been thinking.

When the two Bittenhopper men departed Bristol they had left an established, growing and robust city of around thirteen thousand people.  Getting off the train in Bakersfield they entered a place with a similar population but a totally different culture and atmosphere.  Their hometown on the east coast had been part of the original settling of the United States and was steeped in the history and traditions of its people dating back to the late 1700’s.  It had a settled economy, a population of established  families and the general air of the place was reflected in houses like that occupied by Stanley’s former employer at the Sessions Clock Company. 

Sessions Home

Sessions Home

Bakersfield was much younger, less refined and had an air of wild uncertainty about it.  Much of the community had been developed as a result of gold and oil being found in the area, bringing with it the unattached men and women from all over the place that usually flock to those kinds of locations.  It was a rough place and not one where either of the Bittenhopper’s initially felt very comfortable.  

Union Oil Company at Bakersfield 1910

Union Oil Company at Bakersfield 1910

They decided to stick it out though and eventually, over the course of a few years, they became well established in the area.  One benefit of a constantly evolving and changing place such as Bakersfield was that if you stuck around for a few years you became an old-timer in the area, “respected and connected” as Stanley’s father would say.  They also both welcomed the warmer weather, and eventually grew to appreciate the tone of the area’s interesting, constantly changing population.  By fall of 1913 they had a successful company established making, selling and repairing gold and silver jewelry and doing other kinds of metalwork.  Stanley also ran a side business repairing clocks, a venture that his father would not allow in their joint business due to the fire-gilding involved.

This was a skill that his son had picked up while working for Sessions, although it was certainly something that Ben Bittenhopper also knew how to do.  He had stopping doing it; however, many years prior believing that the rumored side-effects were true, if not actually worse than already realized.  He used electroplating in his metalworking and had taught Stanley the skills for that much safer practice.  He had trouble understanding why his son insisted on using fire-gliding when working on clocks.   They argued about it often, with Stanley repeating a version of the same reason every time; “Bob Miller at Sessions taught me that this was the best way, the only way to do it, and the results look better than your way, it’s easy to see.”  Ben disagreed of course and so, to keep things sailing along smoothly, they both agreed to stop talking about it as long as Stanley kept it out of the shop.  This he was happy to do, renting a small shack about a mile away from their house for his side work in the clock repair business.  

Most of his work there did not involve fire-gilding at all, as it was usually just internal repair work or the replacement of gears and broken clock faces.  As stubborn as he was with his father, Stanley was aware of the suspected problems with the practice and only used it when necessary, or occasionally to impress an especially pretty female customer by turning an ordinary looking clock into a eye-catching piece of workmanship.   He did love the way the pieces would turn out and he always felt that the risk was worth the result.

Fire-gliding has been practiced for centuries and can most easily, without getting into arcane details, be described this way:  When gold or silver is added to room temperature mercury, these metals dissolve and form an amalgam, which is a spreadable liquid metal thicker than just the mercury would be by itself.  Once you have coated an item (ideally some kind of copper-based material such as brass or bronze as these allow for better adhesion), you then need to boil away the mercury.  That process, where the mercury is heated to six hundred and seventy five degrees, is where the dangerous part of the operation occurs.  Although this process does leave behind the gold or silver (although in a rough form that often needs to be burnished) it also releases elemental mercury into the air, and that is definitely not something you want to be breathing.  Prolonged and repeated exposure to this kind of mercury vapor leads to neurotoxin poisoning with symptoms such as high levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.  This has often, especially in the past, been referred to as Mad Hatter’s Disease, as that occupation as involves repeated exposure to mercury.  The symptoms can linger for quite a long time, especially if the periods of exposure are not too frequent or intense.  It would take quite awhile to become evident but Stanley Bittenhopper, known around Bakersfield simply as The Clockmaker, definitely was being poisoned.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 30)

Leo flipped it around and saw the name R. Lester in the top left-hand corner, although no address was included underneath.  He thanked her for keeping it, tucked it into the pocket of his suit coat, and then spent the remainder of the day with his family, eating a delicious roast dinner and even helping with the dishes.  He was very interested in the contents of that letter, but also did not want to have to share it around if asked to, or answer any questions about it at all.  Olivia commented to him on his reluctance to open it, wondering in a quiet aside to him if this was more of his secrets, but he kept his cool and refrained from replying or opening the letter.  As he said good night to his mother that evening he felt strongly that he might never see her again and he hugged her closely,  longer than he might have otherwise.  He felt he had made amends and that this was his goodbye to her.  

Later, he slipped his finger under the edge of the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper.  The letter was dated June 17, 1925.

Leo –

I had figured to forget you and be the better for it but sitting around that prison just made me think about you all the more.  I noticed that you never had the courage to contact me, not that this is surprising given what you obviously are.  I decided to not let you go without calling you out for that, calling you exactly what you are, and that’s a rat!  You sold me out in Hawaii and that put me away for four years that could’ve been many more if not for getting out on good behavior.  You should’ve kept your mouth shut because now I got you on my list and I’ll be taking care of you the first chance I get.  I didn’t learn much in prison but one thing I did learn is that rats need to be taken care of.  I’ll be in Bakersfield if you have the nerve to face me like a man.  Otherwise, look for me to be finding you anytime, 

RFL 

Leo slammed his fist hard into the wall and crumpled up the letter.  He had never said a word to anyone about Lester and he surely was not a rat.  He had stayed silent about everything and was not even sure what had ever happened to his partner after his own arrest in Hawaii.  Leo had actually hoped more than once that Lester had in fact gotten away clean from that scheme.  He had even told Lester in that letter he wrote from McNeil that he had kept the code of silence.  Leo was furious, and became even more so as he thought about it, thought about Lester telling others about what a rat he was, how he had betrayed his partner in crime.  That could threaten to undo all of the progress Leo had made in making sure he was seen as a stand-up member of the criminal community.  After about fifteen minutes of  fuming away about it Leo did manage to realize that it was possible Lester had never received his letter, although that did not make things any better.  He still had to straighten matters out and make sure his reputation was repaired.  He had to get to Bakersfield right away and get to work on finding the man, which he knew would be a challenge as he had no address and doubted Lester would be very conspicuous.  He could find him though, he had to.

The next morning Leo called Olivia and told her that he was leaving immediately to take care of some business that had come up.  She was not sympathetic and scolded him for running away so soon.  She did agree to sell what little of value there was among his items in the trunk and to forward the money to him, and Leo told her he would send back an address as quickly as he could.  He then left on April 9th, his route and actions again unknown, and something must have happened along the way because he does not arrive in Bakersfield until May 3rd.  On that morning he checked into the just completed El Tejon hotel under the name Lee O’Dare, sending a brief note back to Olivia with the address that same day.

el tejon courtesy kern county library

El Tejon Hotel courtesy kern county library

For the next month of so he did what he had learned to do in any new town, which was to start to make inroads into the criminal community.  He felt that he had a little more credibility now, more time and experience under his belt, and that brought him a little more confidence as he started to make connections.  Leo passed on a few early opportunities, considering them to be beneath his level of skill, and spent most of his time looking in phone books and other public documents for Robert Lester.  He also made very discreet inquires, not wanting to give his former partner any warning that he was in town and looking for him, as he preferred the coming confrontation to be a surprise.  He figured that would give him the upper hand.  Although none of these early efforts led to Lester, Leo did meet one interesting character who would play a large part in future events.  That man was known simply as the Clockmaker. 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 29)

“Yeah, sure, sure.  So what’s the answer?  Did Mom say she would let me come up to the house?”

“Hardly Leo, she won’t hear of it right now.  She’s still hurt you took off like that and a lot more hurt over all these years of silence and worry  you put her through.  Father you could talk to, but not at the house, he won’t cross Mom on that, so you’d have to catch him out in the fields someday.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll think about that I guess.” 

They sat in silence for a few minutes after that, placing an order and then starting to eat their sandwiches after they came to the table.  Eventually Olivia spoke again.

“Don’t worry about it though, she’ll let you come over eventually.  She’s got that letter.”

Leo’s eyes narrowed a little.  “What letter?”

“You know, that explains something else too.  We just thought it was a misspelling on that envelope, it said Leo Humbert you know, like someone who didn’t know you too well wrote it.  But I guess that was the name you were using, huh?”

Leo nodded silently and looked back at her.  She tapped her fingers agains the table a few times and then continued. 

“Anyway, it came in the mail a while back.  It was in bad shape when it arrived actually, looked like it had been awhile in the mail before it managed to reach us.  She’s been waiting to give it to you and she won’t fail at that.  Besides, your stuff is still there too.”

“My stuff?  You can’t mean all that rubbish I left behind in the house when I moved out?”

“That’s exactly what I mean brother.  All your useless stuff that you just left there for us to clean up and be a reminder of you leaving, that you weren’t around anymore.   Rather inconsiderate I always thought.  I told father to get rid of it straight away but Mom wouldn’t have it.  So it’s all there in some trunk we had, packed away for your inconsiderate self to pick up someday.”

“Harsh words Ollie, I never asked anyone to keep it.”

“You should have taken it or gotten rid of it yourself, not expected us to.”

“Fine then.  Who’s the letter from?  Do you know?”

“Oh yes, thats another thing I spend my time on, keeping track of your trash and your letters.”

Leo thought it best to stop talking then as his sister was winding herself up into another lecture mode, sure to continue on with her discussion of his name change, inconsiderate behavior and other faults.   As they both finished eating Olivia blew out a deep breath.

“Some Lester person, I can’t remember if that’s his first or last name.”

“Huh?”

“The letter silly, it’s from someone named Lester.”

Leo immediately knew it had to be from Robert, his old partner in crime from the Kilauea Mercantile Company scam in Hawaii.  Although he could not recall ever doing so, he must have told him at some point that he was from New Munich, and apparently Robert had used that information to send him a letter.  Maybe it was in response to the one he wrote from McNeil, or maybe it had been written for some other reason.  Either way, he knew that he had to get it from his mother as he felt it was likely to include information that he did not want his mother or the police to read. 

“She didn’t open it, did she?”

“Of course not Leo, opening other people’s mail is not something us Hombert’s do.”  She said that louder than necessary and then walked out of the diner, leaving Leo with the bill and a slightly red face.

It took another twelve days but then Leo’s mother agreed to allow him into the house and he went there, dressed in his best suit and carrying flowers.  He had never really felt bad about the way he left, and had also not thought much about his family since then, but hearing his mother was hurt by it did give him some remorse and he hoped to make things right.  She was aloof when he first entered, remaining in her seat as he handed her the flowers and only nodding in reply to his, “It’s so good to see you Mom.”  That did not last long though, and after a very profuse apology from Leo and an awkward attempt by him at a hug, she finally stood up, grabbed him and pulled her long absent son in for a heart-felt embrace. Olivia had not mentioned the name change to their mother, and she did not bring up the supposed misspelling of his last name as she handed him the piece of mail she pulled from a drawer in her desk. 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 28)

ford ad 1926 sedan

Ford ad 1926 sedan

The two of them did manage to make it out of town safely, ditching the inspection car and running into a small wooded area where Leo had indeed stashed a getaway vehicle.  It was carefully hidden, parked in a small depression at the center of the woods and covered by a large, dark canvas that had branches and bushes arranged on top.  The car was as nondescript as it could be for the day, a black 1925 Ford Model T two door sedan, and they both climbed in quickly and started off south away from Olympia.  At Veronica’s request Leo took a turn and headed for Tenino, where she said she would catch a train to “somewhere far away from here.”   Before actually getting to the station Leo pulled off behind a tree and demanded that Veronica get the money belt out right then and there so they could split their money up properly and fairly.  After a few minutes spent lamenting the fact that Leo apparently did not trust her enough to count it out herself she complied and five minutes later they were back on their way to the depot.  As she got out of the car she asked Leo a question.

“How did you really know to hide those getaway cars?  Did someone tip you off?”

“No, nothing like that.  It was just good planning.”  He smiled back as he replied, obviously pleased with himself.

“You handled it pretty well Leo, you really did.  Stayed cool and got us out.  It’s more that I would have credited you with being capable of, you know.  You’ve always been a nervous fellow.”

“Well, I had to get better at this criminal stuff sooner or later I guess.  Especially as it seems the only life I’m going to be living.”

“Well, good luck to you.  Maybe we’ll cross paths again, we already have twice.”  She gave him a friendly smile, one of the more pleasant ones she had ever given anyone, and it made Leo just a little bit nervous.  “Where you off to Leo?”

He shook his head and replied.  “Don’t worry about that, and I won’t worry about where you’re going either.  Good luck to you Veronica.”

With that, he reached over and closed the door, taking a moment to wave at her before putting the car in gear and driving away.  He had no idea what he was going to do next, but he did know he needed to get very far away from Olympia as quickly as possible.  He drove to the point of exhaustion, finally pulling off the road outside Grant’s Pass in Oregon and falling asleep in the back of the car.  

The next day he felt comfortable enough to take some time to assess his options.   He had almost decided to head to California, somewhere in the northern part of the state, when the idea struck him to head back to Minnesota.  He was not quite sure why that suddenly sounded like a good idea, but he could not get it out of his head and eventually decided to heed the call and head back to his state of birth.  

Leo left Olympia in early March of 1926 and nothing is known about his route of travel, adventures or misadventures along the way back to Minnesota.  He also never mentioned when exactly he decided to return to New Munich, as his original plan was only to go back to Minnesota.  We do know that by March 27th of 1926 he was back near his family as an argument he had with his sister Olivia was overhead by some locals.  She was the only one from his family who would speak to him at this point and she had agreed to meet him for lunch at the local diner.  The argument started before the order was even taken.

“You know I did try to find you a few times.  I called around to your old friends, even that man you worked for is Sauk Center.  And the Army, I tried there too as you told me several times you were thinking about that as a way out of here.  I never found you though, but still, I didn’t forget.”

“It would have been hard to find me Ollie.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I changed my name when I left here.”

“You did what Leo?  How could you think of such a thing?”  Olivia had slapped her hand down on the table as she spoke and several of the patrons turned their heads to look at the two of them, although she did not seem to notice.  “What’s so bad about us that you can’t keep your real name?  How could you disrespect mother and father like that?”  She kept at him for several more sentences until Leo held up his hand to stop her.

“Listen, it wasn’t like that.  I just, well,” he paused and shrugged, “I just wanted a new start, that’s all.”

“Whatever would you need that for?”

“Nothing, no reason,” Leo replied, waving his hand, “can we talk about something else?”

“I won’t accept it Leo, I just won’t, that’s all.  You’ll be a Hombert to us forever so don’t try any other name out around here.  Don’t you dare, ok?”

…to be continued