There’s a crowd at the bar when I get inside, but I hang back, alone, and watch. There’s a bucket swinging in my hand, rusted tin, filled with pinkish water, and my hands are dyed red. They match the walls of The Ruby, though it’s so packed tonight, you can barely see the diamond wallpaper through the crowd. A constant hum of people talking over each other fills the room, pierced by a loud laugh here and there, like the church organ shrieking over the choir.
A few people stare at me – I don’t know if it’s the bucket or just knowing who I am, but they don’t say anything. They look away, quick, back at a friend, or the stage, where the band plays It’s No Sin, the female impersonator’s voice struggling to be heard.
People are dancing anyway, hands clasped, bodies close, men with men, women with women, some men with women, even. I haven’t seen a mixed gay bar since the war, when women needed men to escort them in. All colors of people, too. Elsie has really gotten word out that The Ruby is the most welcoming queer bar in San Francisco.
Except maybe for me. News has trickled out about me, too – the gay PI with the office above the Ruby – but with it so has my past, and no one at a gay bar wants to get too close to a cop, even if he was kicked off the force for being caught in one. Especially not when he’s holding a bucket of what looks like blood.
I push my way through the people who won’t look at me, trying to be delicate, making sure the bucket doesn’t spill, and make my way to the bar. Gene is pouring out drinks with steady hands that were trained for the scalpel before someone sent photos of him and a beaux to his medical school. He looks gorgeous in the light. He glows. I know I should probably try talking to him more. But our kiss was months ago, and I was broken and bloody and glad to be alive. Since then, whenever I’ve gotten up the nerve to talk to him, he’s smiled and laughed, same as he has with any other customer.
He looks down at the bucket I’m holding, and frowns.
“Need the sink?” he asks.
“If that’s all right. I’m afraid I’ll spill it if I try to bring it upstairs.”
He moves to the left, making space for me, and I squeeze in next to him. Our shoulders touch and for a moment I think of asking him to dance, what that would be like, being out on the floor with him, shoulder to shoulder, arms around his waist. Like I belonged, I think. Like I was home.
I pour the red water out, and it sloshes loudly into the sink.
“That’s not blood, is it?” a patron asks, watching. He’s drunk enough to talk to me.
“Paint,” I say. “Someone wrote some not-nice things on the building a few weeks back. No one else had time yet, so I washed it off.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be a detective?”
I shrug, not sure how to answer. The motion tilts the bucket a little harder and the last of the red water splashes back on me, hitting me in the face. The patron laughs as Gene hands me a towel.
“He is a detective,” Gene says, as I wipe my face off, hiding my smile. I hand the towel back to him.
“Thanks,” I say, and go to wash my hands off, too. I scrub, and the paint won’t shift. My hands stay stained.
“Want a drink?” Gene asks.
“No,” I say. “Thanks.” I stand next to him a moment longer until he reaches past me to get a bottle and I realize I’m in the way. I leave the bucket under the sink where it belongs and retreat to an empty table away from the bar. Gene shoots me a look when I get there, but I can’t read it – maybe he’s confused about my not wanting a drink. I try not to order drinks. Elsie said they’d be on the house, but considering I’m not bringing in much money, like she hoped I would, I’d rather not drain her cash and her liquor. I’m supposed to be paying her a percentage of my earning from cases, but cases aren’t exactly pouring in. As a cop, they used to find me, now… I’m not sure how to get them. I wait in my office most nights, and sometimes someone will walk in, but most nights it’s empty, so I come down here, and stand to the side, hoping that’ll drum up business somehow. Tonight I at least got to make myself useful when one of the cocktail waitresses mentioned the graffiti. At least I cleaned up something.
Elsie sits down next to me. “Oh, will you just ask him out already?” she says, lighting a cigarette. She’s in a blue suit turned nearly purple from all the red light bouncing off the walls. Large ruby earrings sparkle from the shadows of her bob.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s been months of you two making baby eyes at each other and nothing happening. If you don’t do something soon, he’s going to assume you’re not interested in him. It’s nearly October already, Andy, get to it if you want to ring in ‘53 with him.”
“I don’t…” I shake my head and look back at him. He’s laughing at something a guy at the bar said. Maybe I’ve been making eyes at him, but has he really been making eyes at me, or just staring at my stare? “How would I even do that?”
“What?” Elsie blows out a smoke ring. “What do you mean?”
“I mean…” I don’t know what I mean. Two women, one in a suit, dance past us.
She sighs. “You just go up to him and ask him if he wants to get a drink.”
“He works at a bar.”
“Somewhere else,” Elsie shrugs.
“Elsie, Stan is trying to sneak another number into his set.”
I look up at Lee, the showgirl who’s interrupted us, and check for lipstick; deep red tonight. She’s in a yellow halterneck dress that sets off her dark brown skin, and a black wig that’s tied back in a bun with a large yellow flower. She sees me staring, and winks. I’ve know a lot of the show girls and boys in passing, but Lee has been the closest to welcoming. She told me flat out that when she’s got the lipstick on, to call her miss, and when it comes off, to call him sir, and if I did that, we’d be pals. Easy enough to check. I don’t want to mess it up and have the friendliest face in the hallway, maybe the whole city, stop talking to me.
“Oy vay,” Elsie says, looking at the stage, where Stan, the female impersonator, is readying the mic for another number. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Sorry Andy,” Lee says, “didn’t mean to steal her away.”
“It’s fine,” I say, as Elsie stands.
“You have a fella waiting in your office, by the way. Nice shoulders.”
“Sad or angry?” I ask. Those are the two types I get. Sad men, wondering if their boyfriends are cheating on them, and angry men, convinced their boyfriends are cheating on them. Cheap work, tailing men meeting other men, or going home to the wives they haven’t told anyone about, but I can’t be picky. I’m new at this, and I need to bring in whatever I can.
“Not sure,” Lee shakes her head. “I think he came up through the garage though.” The ground floor under the club is a garage with an entrance in the alley. There’s parking down there; my car, Elsie’s, some others – but with it being out of the way and a bouncer in the stairwell keeping an eye out for the cops, it’s an easy way up to my office without even setting foot in the club.
“Better get to work, then,” Elsie says, walking away, “and ask him out.” She glances meaningfully over at Gene.
“Ask who out?” Lee asks, grinning at me. “You finally find a boy you like, Andy? It better not be Stan.”
“No,” I say quickly. “It’s… something else. Thanks, Lee. Sorry I won’t get to hear you sing. I’ll try to get down before your set is over.”
“You’ll hear me through the floorboards, honey,” she says, walking after Elsie, her hips swaying. Gene’s eyes flicker to mine for a moment as I pass the bar, or maybe I imagine it, and he’s just staring at a drink at he pours it. I can talk to him later. Leaving a client waiting means they have time to reconsider and walk out. Elsie hasn’t set an expiration date on this little experiment of having an in-house detective, but I must seem like a bad idea by now. I bring in enough to feed myself, sure, but her percentage is much lower than the value of renting me the space, and we both know it. How long before she decides my office and apartment were better before, as storerooms for booze?
I have to shove through the crowds, and by the time I get halfway upstairs to my office, I can hear Lee singing How High the Moon. The floor above the club is just a hallway from one elevator to stairs, dark purple walls and lined with doors, most of them open. The two closest to the elevator are my office and apartment, respectively, but the other four are the dressing rooms, doors always thrown open, the hallway bustling with performers and musicians and sometimes waitresses here on break, or fans coming to leave flowers for their favorite performers. People laugh and talk as loudly as downstairs as they paint on make-up or fake mustaches, zip up dresses, button vests. At first, the chaos worried me, but it actually feels like home, the same sort of clamor as working at the police station, only now I’m not looking over my shoulder to see if they’re realizing the truth about me.
Right now, the hall is filled with white feathers slowly floating down through the air and scattered on the floor like flower petals after a thunderstorm. I glance into one of the dressing rooms and see Walter trying to squeeze into a white dress that’s covered in feathers. Sarah, already in a full tuxedo, is trying to pull up the zipper for him, but it’s not going, and he hops up and down, hoping to make it fit, shedding feathers as he does.
“It fit last week,” he says.
“You got fat this week.”
In the next room, two female impersonators are peeling off their makeup, cackling at a joke I didn’t hear. A male impersonator is leaning against the wall, smoking. When I nod, she nods back, which is something. They never nodded back the first few months I was here. Even if they’re coming to terms with my old life, they don’t love that I’m suddenly living and working next door. Clients don’t love it, either. Even with a covert way up here, the way people gossip, you need to be careful.
But I’m the only queer detective in town, so some of them still risk it. Even when I’m not here, someone always tells me if a client shows up. It’s still uncommon enough it’s noteworthy. Not that the cases are. I’d thought I could do something here, maybe make up for who I was. But all I do is follow people, tell people who love them their secrets. I’m not helping out the way I wanted. No one even trusts me enough to ask me when they’re in real trouble. Why would they?
Elsie had the door redone when I moved in, Amethyst Investigations stenciled in dark purple. I don’t love the name, but I get why she chose it – being affiliated with the Ruby, being another of Elsie’s gems – it means I’m trustworthy, like the Ruby is. Most welcoming gay club in San Francisco, most welcoming gay PI, too. In theory anyway. Certainly not everyone is buying it though, or I’d have more business. I wonder who’s desperate or angry enough to come see me tonight.
There’s a man sitting in the chair that faces my desk. His back is to me, but I can see he’s blonde, broad shouldered, tall. I close the door with a click and he turns around.
The recognition hits like an anchor that’s dropped too fast, crashing into the seabed, into both of us, sand flying up, fish fleeing, a heavy thud and a scar on the ocean floor.
He looks just as shocked as I feel. Well, at least that’s two of us.
“I didn’t realize it would be you,” he says, almost apologetically. He stands up. “I can go. I mean, I should go.”
I think about letting him. He can drift out the door like smoke and I can go back to thinking of him as a sour memory. But I can’t be turning down clients. And… I want to know. What happened.
From THE BELL IN THE FOG by Lev AC Rosen. Copyright ©2023 by Lev AC Rosen. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Forge Books. All rights reserved.