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