“Dog pizza,” said Sal, first thing when I walked in. He was wearing a black apron, a bow tie, and a white shirt with garters on the sleeves, looking like the type of bartender who gets shot in westerns.
Sal’s is the kind of joint where when you open the door in the afternoon everyone looks up like rats caught in a spotlight eating the brains of a friend dead in a trap. No one is happy to be caught in a bar at four in the afternoon. Even the old alkies who migrate through the neighborhood in the morning to meet a shot already set up for them when Sal opens are a little ashamed; they growl at the light like Frankenstein at fire. Sal wiped down the bar with a tattered rag like he was mopping up blood from a fresh ax murder, listless, like he knew he was just stirring the gore on the surface. I cleaned up when he left.
“Dog pizza?” I said. It sounded like something Moo Shoes might bring up trying to throw me a curve. Yeah, my people have been eating dog pizza for a thousand years. It makes your willie wag like a puppy’s tail. Try a slice. Fucking Moo Shoes.
“Have I mentioned that my people are from Napoli?” asked Sal.
“You might have.” Only about eight thousand fucking times.
“Well,” said Sal, “it is a well-known fact that pizza is invented in Naples, as well as pasta—”
“And the douche bag,” I said.
“Really? I never hear that,” said Sal.
“Yeah,” said I, spinning up the engines. “In fact, when Leonardo da Vinci is in Naples he does the first early drawings of the douche bag. Naples is to douche bags what Kitty Hawk is to airplanes.”
“Yeah, well, I did not know that, but from now on I will add it to my story. Anyway, perhaps you have noticed that since the war, with all the guys coming home and getting married and trying to raise families, and with all the apartments in the city filled with citizens who come here to work in munitions factories and shipyards, new houses with yards are being built out in the Sunset District for these new families, so suddenly there is a preponderance of pets in the city.”
“Yeah, it means a shitload. Anyways, when I am at the store picking up coffee for me and the old lady, I notice that a guy can not only buy several kinds of dog and cat food, but also pet snacks, like doggie donuts and kitty crullers.”
“You don’t say?” I said.
“And then I am thinking, maybe if a guy can get an angle on that market, there is a sizable fortune to be made. So first I think, I am an expert in procuring and distributing certain beverages, so I think that perhaps a line of dog and cat spirits might work.”
“But no?” I guessed. Sal made the money to buy the bar during Prohibition, procuring and distributing certain beverages for very high profit due to their illegal nature, and since repeal he’d been searching for a new angle on that business. During the war he did quite well for himself by watering drinks and selling servicemen liquor at very steep markup during off-limits and curfew hours, but since the Japs surrendered, business declined more than somewhat.
“It turns out that dogs and cats do not care for liquor at all, but prefer licking their own balls to even the best bourbon.”
“You do this experiment yourself?” I asked. I was checking my back bar and my kegs before I started my shift. As usual, Sal had restocked nothing at all.
“There are some dogs who sometimes frequent the trash barrels out back, and I put a saucer down with some prime Kentucky goof juice to draw them in. But they stay away at some distance, variously scratching and licking their private parts with great enthusiasm. So I am thinking, perhaps they need to have a taste first, then they will take to drinking, so to draw them in, I grab a piece of pizza left over from my lunch, which I pick up at Napolitano’s down the street. And soon they are all gathered around, quite interested, as I tear off pieces of pizza and toss some to each mutt in turn, but even when I shove one’s nose into the bourbon, the mutt is not interested. Then it comes to me, what I am missing the point of, even if it is right there in my face . . .” Here he paused for dramatic effect.
And I, as has often been the case, did not shut up, as would have been prudent. “You tasted dog balls to see why they were so delicious?”
Sal scowled at me as he said, “No, smart-ass, I realize that what I need to do is make pizzas just for dogs. Little ones. Put them in boxes, and sell them to all the new families with their new dogs all over the new suburbs.”
“Well, it sounds as if you have found your angle, boss,” I said.
“Dog pizza in a box. Can’t miss.”
“I was thinking Sal’s Dog Pizza,” said Sal. “But it doesn’t have a ring like Doggie Donuts or Kitty Crullers.”
“I could work on the name for you,” I offered. Now I just wanted Sal to get out of the saloon so my afternoon regulars would come in. I could see a few had peeked in only to take a walk when they saw Sal still around. “I wrote a lot of poems when I was a kid.”
“Nah, I’ll figure it,” said Sal. “I need you to work on that other thing for the general.”
“About that,” I said. “I am not sure how, exactly, to go about such a task of finding a whole gaggle of young, single dames who will want to keep the company of rich old guys up in the redwoods.”
“Well, you will offer them plenty of cheddar, is how,” said Sal. “The general assures me this is no problem.”
“But why does he not just hire professionals?”
“Because muckety-mucks such as belong to the Bohemian Club wish to be appreciated for their charm and dignity and whatnot, and do not wish to feel that they have to stoop to paying for some tail. And furthermore, the general, who has worked himself up from being a grunt airman in the Army Air Corps to commanding a base somewhere in the middle of New Mexico, wishes to become a Bohemian, which he can only do if they invite him, and despite his rank and his medals, they do not, so he wants the Bohemians to owe him a favor.”
“I see,” I said, which I saw last night after overhearing them. Although I do not see why a guy who has worked his way up to being a general cares about being in a club that does not want him, unless that is the reason itself. The Bohemians were a fixture in San Francisco for quite a long time, and there was no little mystery about what went on at their camp up in the redwoods a couple of hours north of the city, but rumor was that very powerful guys from all walks of life gathered there to come up with some very influential capers having to do with running the world, such as the Manhattan Project and the New Deal and whatnot. It seemed that they had as members most of the last dozen or so presidents, as well as captains of industry and the odd artist or writer, which they kept around so their name wasn’t completely phony. But why guys with that kind of weight cannot procure their own female company, I cannot figure. “How does this task fall to you?” I asked.
“It falls in my lap by sheer luck,” said Sal. “Last night, Tony Cannelloni, who is a legacy member, invites me into the city branch of the club on Taylor Street. In the twenties I get liquor for the club, so I am well regarded by one and all. So we are in there, smoking cigars, and it is all very leather wingback chairs and dark wood paneling and whatnot, and in comes the general with another member, a guy who I think is a lawyer called Alton Stoddard the Third, who drops the general in our laps for safekeeping while he goes off to the can or something. Soon we get to chatting, and when Tony Cannelloni goes over to say hi to some other mook, the general reveals that he is only a guest, but he has been invited to the big to-do up at the camp next week, and he very much wants to be a full Bohemian, but he can’t find an angle. So we talk about this and that, and he realizes that I am no little connected in the San Francisco community, so he appeals to my expertise. ‘I need to bring something to the club they cannot otherwise procure,’ he says. And this leads to that and up comes the plan to bring the regular Bettys, and he hires me to do the dirty work, which I accept with vigor, as I need a fresh pull with the Bohemians, as they can be a very large source of filthy lucre for those of us in the entertainment business.”
“And so you turn this task over to me, why?” I asked.
“Because you are connected on the street,” said Sal. “But I am only here for a couple of years, while you—”
“I am married a long time and am no longer conversant in the world of single dames,” said Sal.
By which he meant, no one liked him, and except for Tony Cannelloni, Ronny Biscotti, and a few other Knights of Columbus not nicknamed after desserts, no one in the city would so much as slap Sal to get a bug off their hand, let alone do him a favor, as he had used up much goodwill in the pursuit of profit.
“I don’t know, Sal,” I said. “I do not think that I am your guy—”
“No, you’re my guy, Two-Toes,” said Sal. “Because I am not a war hero like you.”
And here something between anger and ice ran up my spine, for only Sal and very few others knew that I was no war hero, and he used the “Two-Toes” moniker to make this crystal to me.
“But, Sal,” I said, “why do we not just—”
“Do not for a second think that you can just get some girls from Madame Mabel’s on Post and dress them up like Bettys from next door, because the general is no sap.” (Sal always said “Madame Mabel” with her title, like she was a doctor or senator or had received an advanced degree in Salami Concealment from a respected College of Floozie Management.) “Make this happen, Sammy, or a little bird may tell the cops a story about a guy he knows who is going by an assumed name, a guy who clocked a cop and walked while being transported to a work detail for multiple drunk-and-disorderlies.
Am I clear, Two-Toes?”
In my defense, that was the last D&D I received. I’d lost my ID and I never gave them my real name, so while I may indeed have accidentally knocked out a cop and walked away from a work crew, they never knew who they were looking for. Of course there are fingerprints and a John Doe mug shot on file down at the county somewhere, but the guy in that picture is various shades of bruised and bleeding, due to three displeased, recently discharged Marines who I suggested had especially close relationships with their mothers. That picture probably doesn’t even look like me. Anyway, Sal set me up with a new name, an ID, and a job, where he pays me less than the going rate because I owe him. When I took the deal I never knew how much and how long I’d owe him.
“Clear,” I said to Sal. “I will figure it out, boss.” I just needed him to go—get out of there—in case Stilton came in while he was going on about the war-hero thing. Even if I was building nothing into something, pulling another Molly Warner made-up romance, even if I never saw her again, I didn’t want to see her right then, with the war-hero thing in the air.
Then the front door opened behind me and a shadow of weaselly caution fell over Sal’s face. Over my shoulder I saw Pookie O’Hara filling the doorway, 260 pounds of crooked cop in a rumpled suit that looked like it had had enough food wiped on it that if you boiled it for soup a poor family could eat for a week on it.
“Hey, Officer,” I threw to Pookie, but he just growled and made a show out of moving a barstool back far enough to get his big belly up to the bar. Normally he would remind me that he’s a detective inspector, and not a mere “officer,” but he was about to strong-arm a free drink, and since Eddie Moo Shoes once accidentally mentioned that I keep a glass behind the bar in which I have rubbed a dead rat, just for special occasions, which is entirely untrue but highly effective at assuring civility in certain citizens, Pookie let it go. I could tell this steamed his clams no little, which is exactly what I was going for. I didn’t want Pookie camping at my bar, and that veined pink potato of a nose showed he did more than a little bar camping.
Now Sal was in no mood to stay. Something was going on with Pookie. “Give my best to the missus,” I said, giving Sal the out that he was looking for, and it worked.
“I sure will, kid,” he said. “And she’s expecting me. I gotta go.” Then, under his breath, “Not a word to anyone about that other thing, right?”
“Right,” I said with a wink. “Dog pizza.” Clearly whatever angle he was playing with the general and the Bohemians, he did not want Pookie O’Hara to be a party to it.
He avoided looking at the big cop and headed out through the back. Pookie tried to call him back. Before I had a chance to ask the cop his poison, the front door opened again and sunlight blasted a smoky arc through the saloon, causing patrons to grab their hats for protection. When the door squeaked shut again and the light abated, the Cheese was sliding onto the stool at the end of the bar like a weary angel.
From Noir. Used with the permission of the publisher, William Morrow. Copyright © 2018 by Christopher Moore.