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 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 32)

Lucky Strike

Lucky Strike

 

By the time that Leo and Stanley met, the Bittenhopper’s had been in Bakersfield for over a decade.  Ben was content in his surroundings and job, making enough money to get by and enjoy just a few select luxuries that he favored such as smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes and going to the movies.  He had in fact just returned from seeing The Flying Ace when he interrupted Leo and Stanley’s first meeting.  As he walked back from the theater he remembered that there was a piece of unfinished work that Stanley had promised to complete by the next day and he decided to stop by his son’s clock repair shed to remind him.  As much as he disliked going to the place, he just planned to duck his head in the door for a minute to speak to Stanley.  As he did so he observed Leo, a stranger to him of course, standing by the work bench although no one else was in sight.

The Flying Ace

The Flying Ace

“You here getting work done by my boy?” Ben asked.

“If you mean the clockmaker here, well, not exactly but I stopped by to talk to him.  You’re his Dad?”

“Where is he then?”

Leo motioned toward the darker area at the back of the shop.  Several seconds later Stanley emerged with a clock in his hands.

“Hey Dad, what are you doing here?”

“Just stopping for a second to remind you about that work for Jack Peters.  He’s coming for it tomorrow so you better get over to our place and get it done.  Who’s this fella?” 

“I’ll get it done, I said I would.  You better go before you get the vapors or something,” Stanley replied in a friendly but mocking tone, a small smirk on his face.

“Funny boy, very funny.  This fella?  Who is he?”

“What’s it to you?” Leo asked before Stanley could reply.

“I just ain’t seen you around before and I wondered.  Nothing wrong with being new, we all were at one point or another around here.  I just like knowin’ the people, that’s all.”

“Le, umm, yes,  Lee’s my name and I’m just here for a bit, shouldn’t be anyone you need to remember anyway.”  Internally, Leo scolded himself for almost blowing his alias which could have been an issue as he had introduced himself to Stanley very clearly as Lee O’Dare.  

Ben started closing the door and called back over his shoulder, “Don’t you forget that work Stanley.” 

Once he was gone Leo let out a low laugh.  “Kind of rough on you, huh?  Treats you like a kid.”

“It’s always that way, but he’s not a bad character.  Just sees me as a youngster still I guess.  We work together, me and him, gold and silver stuff mostly.  He’s right though about that other job, I really need to close up here.  This one will work for you, I think.”  He extended the small clock he had in his hands to Leo, who took it and gave it a quick glance before nodding.  “It’ll do.  How much?”

“I have to say that I don’t get many folks that come here just to buy a clock.  I’m not really a seller you know?  I just fix ‘em for people.”

“Yeah, well I like used things and I heard about you when I was asking around town about some other business ventures I’m looking into.  It peaked my interest.”

“What did?” Stanley replied, an openly quizzical look on his face.

“The work you do, I mean, mostly the stuff with your Dad I guess.  I heard you two were goldsmiths but I figured you might be more interested than he would be in a business proposition I might have for you.”

“Fixing clocks?”

“Not, not that at all.”

Stanley still looked puzzled and stayed that way as Leo paid him for the clock and then left after saying, “It’s just an idea for now but I will come around and we can get to know each other a little better.  Maybe then we can discuss business.”

Over the course of several more visits and some additional time the two of them spent hanging out together around Bakersfield Leo confirmed several key factors about Stanley.  One was that he did not have much of a conscience when it came to small crimes that did not seem to hurt anyone.  He even admitted that on occasion he had pulled a minor scam on customers that irritated him, were too demanding or whom he just did not like.  This usually involved substituting inferior material in some piece of metal work or inflating the price on a simple job.  He had to be careful of course as his father was a completely honest business man, so the opportunities had been few and far between up to this point.  It also became apparent that Stanley was not happy with his own lot in life, wanting to make more money and have better things.  He also very much wanted to woo one, or preferably some, of the pretty ladies he saw around town or who came to him with repair work.  He figured he needed money to do that properly.  And lastly, although older, Stanley was willing to have Leo, or Lee as he knew him, be the captain of their operation.  

That operation was one that Leo had developed as he sought out opportunities for a viable criminal enterprise in Bakersfield.   He was determined to find a way to run his own operation, to be his own man and not have to work for anyone else, preferably ever again.  He was tired of the demands, rules and betrayals he had experienced at the hands of those he had worked for previously and believed this move to the west coast was his chance to establish himself as a top operator.  Initially nothing had presented itself other than offers to work for other criminal operations, all of which he had turned down.  Then one day, while he was sitting outside of a bar and smoking a cigarette, he observed a local scam artist selling pyrite to an unsuspecting traveler who believed it to be gold.  Although he had no intention of getting into that swindle, a fortuitously overhead conversation the next day did give him another, similar idea.  That discussion happened to be between two men at the general store and it centered on the idea of electroplating.  Leo was unfamiliar with the term but he gathered enough to realize that it generally involved making things that were not gold or silver look like they were in fact those precious metals.  He probably would not have connected that idea with profit if he had not observed the pyrite scam the day before, but the beginning of an idea now formed in his head.  All he needed was a qualified and willing tradesman, one who needed money, had few scruples and was willing to work for Leo.  In Stanley, he had found such a man.  

…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

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 27)

“Leo, we have to leave, right now!”

Closing the book he was reading Leo looked with slight confusion at Veronica.  “What’s wrong with you?  And what the hell are you talking about?”

“The police, you know Cromwell, that desk officer we’re paying off?  He just found me at Plumb’s and told me.  He said that the Seattle police nicked one of our driver’s and he gave the whole thing up.  Apparently he had some other trouble up there already, some old charges or something, and he gave us up to make it easier on himself.  They’re getting warrants for us now.  We have to go!”  She was a little out of breath as she finished and placed her hand on her chest as she attempted to recover.

Leo rubbed his head slowly then stood up.  Taking her arm and directing her toward a chair he replied.  “Settle down, will ya?  You’re looking like a scared rabbit right now.  Are you sure this information is good?  What if Cromwell is trying to spook us?  Maybe he’s working a plan for the police here to get us to make a hasty move.”

Veronica, who had her breathing under control, stood back up.  “I am not waiting around here to get picked up, no way that happens.  I’ve worked with Cromwell before, same deal as we have with him now. His info has been good and I know him enough, he’s not playing their side.  We need to leave!”

“I can’t go so fast, I have to get some things together.  At the least we have to get the money so we can split it up.  We’ll need it for traveling.  Plus, I’ve got a few things out there that need finishing.  If you’re in such a rush, go on and go then.  I’ll get out of here soon enough.”

Veronica stomped her foot down and put her hands on her hips.  “I’ve already got the damn cash,” she said as she patted the money belt under her dress.  “Don’t you think for a minute that I am trusting you to stay back here while I go.  You’re far too weak to face the police and not give me up, you’ll crumble like a cookie if they get you in cuffs.  You are going with me, and we are going now.”

“I would not!” Leo shouted back, angry now as his criminal toughness was being questioned.  “I’m no rat, I wouldn’t say anything about you.  Besides, I’m not going to get picked up.  They can’t just get a warrant and be here in a few hours, it takes longer than that.  I’ll be long gone by morning.  Give me my cut and then you can go if you want to.”

“Again the fool.”  Veronica reached out and grabbed Leo’s right  arm, squeezing hard and looking right into her eyes.  Speaking slowly and deliberately she said, “When I said they are getting warrants, I meant they are getting them signed right now.  And they are not going to wait.  Cromwell said they already have a couple of officers waiting to head over here on those fancy motorcycles.”

olympia pd

Leo shook his arm loose but now looked troubled.  He had to admit that he really did not know how long it would take the police to show up if they did, in fact, already have warrants waiting to be signed.  He blew out a deep breath.

“Damn then, let’s go.”

After ten minutes of quick but methodical packing by Leo the two of them exited the Angelus and then went around the back where Veronica had stashed her own suitcase and a small additional bag.  Once they had them in hand Veronica turned to Leo.

“Now what?  We never have come up with a plan to get out of here, we probably should have.  Here we are, two of us with our luggage in hand and out in the street.  How are we going to get out of here Leo?”

He seemed to have something else on his mind and appeared to be nowhere near as panicked as Veronica.  He did have a slight jittery feeling in his chest, a sense that danger was coming, but he was much more under control that his partner.  He paused, looking north with a furrowed brow.  He had just shook his head and turned to look south when Veronica spoke.

“What are you so damn calm for?  Can’t you tell we need to get going?  Let’s go!”

Leo picked up his bag and stepped off, saying, “Yes indeed, let’s get moving.”  Veronica did not know it but Leo was more prepared for this situation than she was, privy to information he had never shared with her.  It did not, however, include these exact circumstances and he had needed a few moments to evaluate what to do next.  He could tell that Veronica was not is a state of mind that was going to be of help in their situation and it would be up to him to get them out of Olympia safely.  He knew they could not be on the street looking like wanderers for long as someone was sure to take notice.  He did not want anyone to be able to say they saw the duo headed in any particular direction.  He also knew that once the police did not find them at the Angelus a full-scale effort would likely be made to look for them on the streets and in places they frequently visited in town.  Getting off the streets was the first priority.  Motioning with his head, Leo headed onto Columbia Way toward the rail line.  Veronica hurried to catch up.

1925 Ford Track Inspection Car courtesy owlshead

Three minutes after the two of them stepped off down Columbia two police motorcycles pulled up in front of the Angelus and the officers began the process of looking for them.  It took nine minutes for them to determine that neither Leo nor Veronica was present in their rooms or nearby, at which point the hunt was on, just as Leo had predicted.  By this time he was already in the process of stealing the track inspection car from the side rails by the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot down at Capitol Lake.  Veronica thought he was crazy to even try it, and she said, “Besides, how are we going to get away in that?  We’ll be trapped on the tracks!”  Leo, however, kept working and soon had the odd looking vehicle running, at which point he grabbed Veronica’s bags and tossed them onto the back seats.

“You wanted out, this is how we are getting out.  They are going to be looking on every street for us but no one will imagine that we would be rolling down the tracks.  We’ll look like workers out to inspect the line.”

“Seriously, you…” She stopped talking there though and reluctantly climbed in, at which point Leo handed her his hat.

“Put this on so you at least look sort of like a man.  I’m not so sure they have many women working for the railroad.”

“And what if they report this thing stolen Leo?  What then?”

“That’ll take awhile to get back to the police.  By then I plan to be far enough away that it won’t matter.”  Leo squinted into the sun as he got the vehicle moving down the tracks.  It was an odd thing to drive and it took him a minute to get the hang of it, but he did and was able to stop successfully as they came to the merge with the main line that ran through Olympia.  Jumping out, he pulled the lever that switched the track so he could travel onto it, and then he got back in and they continued on.  Veronica had covered her face with her hands but put them back in her lap once they were traveling south on the rails.

“How did you even think about this plan anyway?” she asked him.

Leo grinned before replying.  “All that reading, well, it just paid off.  Part of it was about railroads.”

She was silent for a few minutes but then had another question.  “And what happens when we get away?  We can’t stay in this thing for long. You know they are going to come after us as soon as it gets reported as stolen.”

Leo just grinned again but did not reply.

“Well?  What’s the next part of your plan Leo?”

“Don’t worry, I already have it set up.  I stashed a car, two actually, one north and one south, just in case we needed them someday.  Should be there in about fifteen minutes.   Then we can go wherever we want to.”

More silence followed until Veronica thought of a more pressing question.

“What if there’s a train coming?”

Leo, who was too happy about the fact that he was getting them out of town, that his plan was working, kept grinning as he replied.  “I guess we are just going to have to trust to luck.”

Veronica covered her face again and they continued on down the tracks.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 26)

Leo blinked a few times before answering Jerry’s request to come into his room.  The man was acting courteous and polite but Leo knew this was not going to be some kind of delightful social call.  Salazar’s next words made that even more clear.

“How about you go and fetch Ronnie up here for us also, ok?”

“You want Veronica here too?”

Jerry just looked back at Leo in reply.

“You want me to leave you here, in my place?”

More silence followed and then Leo quietly shuffled past Salazar, who was partially blocking the doorway, and went to get his partner.   When they had both returned Jerry slowly closed the door and asked them both to sit down.  He remained standing as he began to speak to them in his slow drawl.

“Now, I’m goin’ta make this just as simple as possible for you two.  I don’t know what happened with our deal there bud,” he began, gesturing toward Leo as he spoke, “but apparently you decided not to go into business with me.  That I count against you.”  Salazar then turned his attention to Veronica and continued.  “Now you Ronnie, I know you came over to talk but like I said, quite frankly, I don’t want you runnin’ no business with me by yourself.”  Veronica started to protest but Jerry silenced her with a scowl.  “I respect you though, for showing up and for the business you’ve already done in this town.  You never crossed me yet, well not before the Scott’s robbery, and I’m putting you in the positive column in this little situation we have.  You two see where I’m at?  I’ve got this fella in the bad column, some unknown guy I sit down with for awhile to discuss business and then he turns his back on me.”  Jerry held his hands in front of him, right hand lower than the left.  “And then over here,” he continued while moving his left hand up, “I’ve got Ronnie, a respectable piece of our little criminal community here in Olympia.  So you see,” and at this point his hands were held evenly next to each other in the air, “we got a balance, just barely I tell you, but we’re at a balancing point so to speak.”

He stopped talking and looked back and forth between Leo, who was sweating a bit and tapping his fingers across his knee, and Ronnie, who still looked angry but was otherwise calm and collected.  Salazar let things linger like that for several long moments and then he spoke again.

“Now I gotta tell you, it ain’t goin’ta take even the littlest piece of a screw-up on your two’s side to seriously upset this delicate balance.  And if that happens, there ain’t goin’ta be anything you can put back on the other side to even things up.  You two understand me?”

Both Leo and Ronnie nodded in reply.

“So, what’s going to happen is that right now I’m goin’ta see thirty-four dollars and thirty-eight cents appear right here in my hand like fucking magic,” Jerry said while tapping his right palm with his left index finger, “and I better not have to wait very long for it.”

Leo looked at Veronica but she was already up and moving toward the door, whispering, “I’ll just be a quick minute,” as she passed Jerry.  As the two men waited not a word was spoken and Salazar’s right arm remained outstretched, palm up, waiting for the money.  Veronica returned about two minutes later and laid thirty-five dollars gently across his palm.

“It’s a little more, I didn’t want to waste time counting out change.  I’m sorry about all this Jerry,” Veronica said, “I really am.  I know the deal around here but you really got me mad when you wouldn’t go into business with me.  I’ve done my time, you know what I can do and,”

“That’s enough,” Salazar interrupted, “we ain’t goin’ back over that again.  We’re moving forward.  This money right here,” he said as he closed his fist around the cash, “represents exactly fifteen percent of what you stole yesterday from the grocery store and that’s goin’ta be the deal going forward.  Fifteen percent of everything, you understand me?”

“Yes, yes, I do,” Veronica replied although Leo only nodded in reply.

“I know this town and everything that happens, every crime, who committed it, what they took, even when the police don’t know a damn thing,” Jerry said, “so don’t try to cheat me.  Otherwise…”  He held his hands evenly up in front of him again, and then abruptly dropped his right hand.  “You’re both finished.”  Drawing a finger across his neck for emphasis, Salazar turned and walked out of Leo’s room.

They sat there in silence for about four minutes and then Veronica slowly walked toward the door.  She was just about to step out when Leo, who now had a face flushed red with anger, spoke.

“Do we really have to pay him?  I can’t imagine having to cut that fool into our profits, it ain’t right.”

“Leo, like I’ve said before, you’re the fool.  I might have been temporarily out of my mind but I’m all better now.  We can do this business we talked about and pay Jerry Salazar every damn penny we owe him, or you can get out of Olympia right now, tonight I mean, and never come back.  I’m mad as hell right now about this, mad as hell at Jerry, but I’m not looking to end up dead.  So either come get me in the morning and we go forward under his terms, or be gone forever.”

The next morning, after a night spent awake pacing his room and being angry about pretty much everything that was happening, Leo knocked loudly on Veronica’s door.   From that day, and for the next thirty-three days, the two of them lived as peaceful of an existence as the car stealing scheme they were running would allow.  When they were not busy with that, Veronica hung out at the speakeasy and ran a few side grifts that Salazar agreed to exempt from their agreement.  During the daytime down periods Leo sat in his room reading civil engineering books he picked up at the local library.  When Veronica asked him why such a mundane topic interested him Leo would make jokes about how he planned to get famous by building the nation’s best sewer system.  In reality, he took notes relating to information that he believed would help him in two main areas: bank robbery and prison escapes.  At night he took part in what had fast become his favorite activity, hanging out at the secret strip clubs in Olympia.  Although Veronica mocked him constantly for this vice Leo kept going and became quite friendly with several of the women who worked there.  Together they both made good money and spent it freely, and all seemed well.  Then, on Monday March eighth, Veronica burst into Leo’s room with very bad news.

…to be continued