Fiction Saturday Encore
The Henway Chronicles
The fog was rolling in like a slinky coming down an escalator. I didn’t think it would ever stop. I was just a knife’s throw from the Embarcadero on my way to Wilma’s All-Nite Café for a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of cake.
My name is Henway, I’m a dick, head of the best P.I. outfit in town,
“Henway and ____.”
I’ve been thinking about getting a partner.
I’ve been in this racket for more years than I can count. I’m not much at math. I’m more of a people person and tonight I was hoping to meet up with some people.
When I came through the door at the café I could see the owner, Wilma Van der Sluice, behind the counter. Wilma ran her café like a maximum security diner. She made the rules and if you didn’t like it the service could really stink.
When she saw me come in she trotted my way, her two too massive braids bouncing up and down by her ears. She smiled and then suddenly disappeared from view. She bounced back into sight almost immediately, still smiling, but with an “It’s Better With Butter” wax paper square stuck to her forehead. Wilma was tough and she was used to these late night slip-ups.
“Hi, Lover Boy. What can I get you?”
“Hi, back at ya, Sugar Lump. I think I’ll check in with my friend there at the counter first.”
Sitting on one of the red vinyl stools was my mentor, the mug that got me into this business, Henry “Hank” O’ Hair. I dropped down onto the stool next to him.
“Hi, Hank, what’s shakin’?”
“Just my gun hand. Oh, it’s you. Hi, Kid.” He always called me “Kid.” He called everybody “Kid.” His memory isn’t what it used to be. It used to be bad, now it was worse.
Hank was wearing his trench coat and his aging Fedora, the one with the bullet hole in the brim, but that’s another, much longer, story. He was sitting there, staring at an empty cup. I gave a short whistle and Wilma came running our way, being more careful this time.
“What’ll it be you two hunks of handsome?”
“I’ll have a cuppa, Gorgeous,” I told her.
“Me too,” echoed Hank.
“Yeah, a coffee for me and another for my old friend.” Wilma jotted it all down on her pad, smiled that smile that lit up many a late night like a welcoming sign reading, “Vacancy,” and headed back to her station by the cake dish.
Hank looked a bit down like something or someone had him by the short hairs – and he didn’t have many left.
“You look down, Hank, like something or someone has you by –“
“Yeah, yeah, I know the rest of it, Kid. What’s bothering me? I’ll tell you. I’ve got a case and it’s got me. I’ve been looking for a guy and it’s like he’s dropped off the face of the earth and I’ve come up dry. He’s on the lam and I feel like I’m the goat here. I’ve looked high and low, near and far, and even sooner or later – nothing, nada, ne, yaga, yimba, a ole, nyet, nahin, and squat.”
“No luck, huh?” He shot me look that said things – I’m not sure what though.
Wilma came back over to us and set down four cups of coffee. She smiled and winked at me. It was either a wink or a return of an old problem she had with a tic.
“Talk to me, Henway,” she said, leaning over the counter, her nose just inches from the brim of my imported Fedora. “Tell me something that will give me chills.” I knew where this was heading. I played along.
“Sure, Lambs Lettuce, Do you have any German Chocolate Cake left?”
“One slice and it’s all for you, Puppy Eyes, if you say the magic word.”
“Houdini!,” shouted out Hank. “The guy must be a Houdini to have me not find him.”
Wilma sighed. “Close enough. I’ll get the cake,” and off she went, her braids bouncing like her head was on a tiny trampoline.
I didn’t like seeing Hank down in the dumps. I had to do something.
“What’s this Houdini’s name,? I asked Hank. He took a long and loud slurp of coffee, then spoke. “This ghost goes by the name of Lech Ontario. I’ve looked everywhere and Nem, nei, nahin, ne, ….”
I finished my first cup while he finished his sentence and then I told him that…”I gotta go see a man about a horse. I’ll be right back.”
The Euphemisms, both Guys and Dolls, were at the far end of the café. As I headed that way I passed by the aging Wurlitzer juke box. There were no songs on there newer than the theme from “The Love Boat.”
It was a slow night at Wilma’s. There was just Hank and me and one booth near the back that had two people – A blonde whose face could start any clock, and a guy who looked like his face could stop your clock – permanently.
Just past the juke box was one of the few payphones left in the city. On a hunch, I started leafing through the pages of the phone book that was bolted to the phone. It was then that I recalled that Hank had taught me everything I know – well, not everything. I learned how to finger paint years before I ever met him, but you get the idea.
There it was – on page 437, halfway down the page –
“Ontario, Lech – 1313 Blueview Terrace 552-3918”
After I finished washing my hands like the sign on the Guys Room door insisted I went back to my spot next to Hank.
“Hank, have you checked the phone book for this Ontario guy?”
“The phone book – did you look there?”
Without an intelligible word, Hank got up and slowly walked back toward the payphone. When he headed back my way he muttered, “Thanks, Kid,” and kept on walking. He vanished into the fog like a black cat in a coal mine.