In the Christmas chill of 1944, Big Joe Welk is the hardcore crime boss in Oregon. He runs the rackets and the cronies who put the skim in his pocket. But he’s got enemies with a score to settle, and they’re willing to kill to make Joe pay. Miles Brodie is just a bargain rate lawyer handling divorces for Joe’s Tiki Bar girls. He’s barely squeezing rent money from his third-rate law practice when Big Joe hires him to find out who’s knocking off his pals...
Slab Town - A Murderous Romp in Wartime Portland
To casual observers, the biggest racketeer of Slab Town struck an odd chord – too flashy for a salesman hawking vacuum cleaners, too snappy for a college professor and much too flamboyant for a bank VP. Trailing a mistral of cigar smoke and expensive cologne, he could walk into any establishment on either side of the Willamette River and stop conversation. When he strode across the room, a motley retinue in his wake, all eyes looked away as he passed, a combination of fear, envy and admiration pasted on their mugs. Any doubters of Big Joe’s power and capricious mean streak had only to be caught in his stare boring like Superman’s x-ray vision through skin, bone and brains.
Joe could be generous to a fault with his pals and cronies who played ball and exceptionally cruel to those he tagged as unreliable, stubborn or not sufficiently sycophantic. But no matter what yardstick locals used to measure the man, Joe was in a category all his own.
By the time the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor in ‘41, Jersey Joe Reed must have owned half the west side of Portland. He got a cut of every two-bit, penny-ante racket going down from the sleazy dives and brothels on the waterfront to the high-stake poker games on West Burnside Street. Two of the biggest clubs on Burnside were in his pocket, and he made the Pago Pago Tiki Restaurant and Bar on Stark his downtown headquarters. If you had an in, were on the payroll or needed to grease Joe’s palm, you were led downstairs to meet the Man himself. The average Dick and Jane surrendered their packaged booze to the bartender, sat on the red-leather stools or bamboo-caned chairs beneath giant palm trees, sipped Pineapple Hurricanes and let the Tiki’s tropical décor woo them into ordering “Authentic” Hawaiian food with Slab Town’s signature touch.
It was a Monday, damp, drippy and cold – normal for this time of year. Almost any time of year actually. Ducks weren’t the only ones with web feet in this town. You either got used to the drip and drizzle or you headed south for the California border where the Rexall sold suntan lotion and dark glasses instead of Vick’s VapoRub and Kleenex. After a scorching summer by Northwest standards broke records with a heat wave that made us question whether air conditioners really were a superfluous luxury in the Rose City, Mother Nature was balancing the scale. December was soaking the city with bone-chilling temps well below average.
I was in my office a short hop from Burnside Street, polishing off an egg salad sandwich, leafing through a back issue of True Detective, hoping the phone would ring with a new client before the landlord showed up.
I’m Miles M. Brodie, Attorney at Law. My practice isn’t much to brag about, but it pays the rent most months with enough left over to keep Fern happy. She’s my secretary. Fern can type faster than a pigeon pecking popcorn, knows how to con the building manager out of a parking slot for my old clunker, and she’s got hellish street smarts. The real kicker in her resume is her knack for getting enough goods on who’s being poked by the Multnomah Circuit Court Bench to count for a few favors, and we know how to keep out of each other’s way.
“Hey, you gotta call.” She stuck her head in the door and snapped her gum. Fern always had a wad in her mouth, helped her kick the weed she’d tell me whenever I lit up. I figured her desk anchored with all the dried Wrigley’s stuck underneath must weigh more than my mother-in-law’s buxom La Salle. “I said you just got back from court.”
“What kind of case am I winning?”
She grinned. “This time it was the heart breaker – the triplets’ mom whose lout of a husband moved his lover into the upstairs spare bedroom and screwed her silly while the crippled wifey rinsed the dirty nappies downstairs. Gets ‘em every time.”
“Fern, remind me to give you a raise next payday.”
“You still owe me for the last payday.”
I ditched the egg salad and made a grab for the telephone. “So who is this poor, wronged woman?”
“Name’s Melba Malone, and she’s got a sweet voice, Brodie. Be gentle.” She flashed a thumbs-up for luck and closed the door. Before I wiped the mayo sauce off my cuff, I heard her typewriter clacking.
I was hoping this prospective client was another weepy-eyed, vengeful dame eager to ditch her cheating old man who’d given her the clap after a three-day Honolulu liberty when he and his shipmates poked the entire front line at Madam Maui’s. These days most of my divorce clients were referred by Doctor Freibold, the gynecologist on Flanders who handed them a sulfa-powder prescription with one hand and my calling card with the other. So this dame was either just back from the drugstore with fire in her drawers or she was some horny honey hot for the milkman or the 4-F furnace repairman.
“Miles Brodie,” I said once my fingers were unstuck. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Malone?”
“Call me Melba,” she purred like a tabby toting a belly full of fresh tuna. Fern had pegged this one.