Read by Edoardo Ballerini
Read by Brittany Pressley
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The 1950s are on the horizon, and Archer is in dire need of a fresh start after a nearly fatal detour in Poca City. So Archer hops on a bus and begins the long journey out west to California, where rumor has it there is money to be made if you’re hard-working, lucky, criminal—or all three.
Along the way, Archer stops in Reno, where a stroke of fortune delivers him a wad of cash and an eye-popping blood-red 1939 Delahaye convertible—plus a companion for the final leg of the journey, an aspiring actress named Liberty Callahan who is planning to try her luck in Hollywood. But when the two arrive in Bay Town, California, Archer quickly discovers that the hordes of people who flocked there seeking fame and fortune landed in a false paradise that instead caters to their worst addictions and fears.
Archer’s first stop is a P.I. office where he is hoping to apprentice with a legendary private eye and former FBI agent named Willie Dash. He lands the job, and immediately finds himself in the thick of a potential scandal: a blackmail case involving a wealthy well-connected politician running for mayor that soon spins into something even more sinister. As bodies begin falling, Archer and Dash must infiltrate the world of brothels, gambling dens, drug operations, and long-hidden secrets, descending into the rotten bones of a corrupt town that is selling itself as the promised land—but might actually be the road to perdition, and Archer’s final resting place.
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WITH A NEW DECADE LOOMING, Aloysius Archer was on a creaky bus headed west to California to seek as much of a life as someone like him could reasonably expect. A roof over his head, three squares a day, a pint of decent liquor every now and then, and a steady supply of his Lucky Strikes to keep his mouth supple and amused. And a job. Actually, more of a profession. He needed that right now. It was like seeking water while in a desert, you just required it and didn’t care how you got it. Otherwise, he’d be a chump, and there was no future in that.
He took off his hat and swiped at his short, dark hair before resettling the fedora into place.
Hell, maybe I am shooting for the moon after all. But why not?
Archer wasn’t yet thirty. After fighting in the Second World War, he’d spent time in prison for a crime of which he was essentially innocent, though the law hadn’t recognized such nuance and stuck him behind bars anyway. However, he would have gladly pled guilty to a charge of gross stupidity. It had involved a woman, and Archer just seemed to lose all of his common sense when they were around.
He was a little over six-one, and his frame had been hardened first by the Army and then by prison, where the strong didn’t necessarily survive, but such an attribute certainly improved your chances. He had a serviceable brain, quick-enough wits, and a work ethic deep enough to carve a good life somewhere given the chance. Archer was hoping to find that opportunity in a town on the water in California where he was eager to start his new phase in life under the tutelage of a veteran private eye named Willie Dash.
But first, he had to get there. And these days, nothing was easy, particularly long-distance travel across a country that was so big it never seemed to end.
He looked out of the bus’s grimy window and eyed the street-spanning metal sign they were passing under:
RENO THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD
He had no idea what that meant, but it sounded intriguing. They pulled into the bus terminal and he grabbed from the overhead rack his large, brand-new leather satchel. He had on a two-piece tan wool pinstripe suit, with a patterned green single-Windsor-knotted tie, fronting a starched white shirt and topped by his crown-dented fedora with a brown band. Everything else he owned in the world was in the satchel. It wasn’t much, but it was a lot more than he’d had when the prison doors had opened not that long ago.
He got a recommendation on a place to stay the night from a gal behind the bus counter with blonde hair that wrapped around her neck like a naughty mink stole and mischievous blue eyes to match. She had a curvaceous figure that reminded him of the photo of a swimsuit-clad Ava Gardner he had kept in his helmet during the war. After telling her he was headed to California, she handed him a map, along with a recommendation for where to grab his dinner.
“My name’s Ginger,” she said with a broad smile. “Maybe I’ll see you around town later.”
He doffed his hat to her, returned the smile, and trudged on, his grin fading to a grimace. He didn’t care if she was Ginger Rogers, he was keeping his distance, naughty hair and eyes be damned.
“You look lost, soldier,” said the voice.
Archer was outside the depot now, fully immersed in the delicious heat that seeped up from the pavement and gave him a hug. The speaker was a man in his late sixties, straight as a rake, thin as a lathe, with tumbleweed-white hair and a fluffy mustache that dipped nearly to his chin. He had on a dark suit that needed a good sponging and a creased black hat with a soiled burgundy band. A silver watch chain spanned his dappled white vest, which covered a sunken chest and belly.
Archer put his satchel down on the pavement, pulled a half-full pack of Lucky Strikes from his pocket, struck a match on the bottom of his shoe, and lit the end of the cigarette. He waved the spent match like a sparkler and tossed it down. The man looked so lustfully at his smoke that Archer slid one out and offered it to him. He accepted with gratitude on his features and used a dented chrome lighter to do the honors. They puffed for a bit, each squinting at the other through the spawned, mingled fog of twin Luckys.
“Just in town,” replied Archer with a bit of a shiver as the sun began its descent after a hard day’s labor, and the heat shriveled down into the pavement like a receding flame.
The man eyed both the satchel and the bus depot behind and nodded. “Can see that.”
“And I’m not lost. Just going to my hotel.”
“Didn’t mean geographically. More metaphorically.”
“You sound educated, or are you just fortunate with how words spill out of your mouth?”
“Time fills your head up, if you allow it. Some don’t. They just put a lid on and end their life as they began it, ignorant as babies.” He put out a shaky, thinly veined hand with dark spots here and there. “I’m Robert Howells, but my friends and some of my enemies call me Bobby H. And you are?”
Archer shook his hand but said, “Why do you want to know?”
“Just making small talk, son, don’t get jumpy on me.”
“I go by Archer.”
“Your first time in Reno?” asked Howells.
Archer puffed on his smoke and nodded slowly. “Just passing through.”
“On to California? San Fran? Los Angeles? That’s where Hollywood is. Most beautiful women in the world. Streets paved with gold, and the water tastes like wine.”
“And none of that is true.”
“Not a bit. Well, maybe the gals. But they ain’t free, son. And there goes all my standard conversation right out the window.”
“Fact is, I am heading to California, but it’s a place north of Los Angeles. According to the Rand McNally.”
“You have a certain look the camera might find interesting. Maybe I’m staring at the next Gary Cooper?”
“I have no interest in being the next Gary Cooper or looking into cameras. I’m not saying I can’t act, because I pretty much do every time I open my mouth.”
“What is your ambition then?”
Archer finished his smoke and patted it dead on the pavement with the heel of his right wingtip. “No offense, Bobby H, but I don’t know you. And trouble with strangers is not something I’m casting about for.”
Howells frowned. “You seem closer to my age, at least in your lack of adventurous nature.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Do you know why they call Reno the biggest little city in the world?”
Archer shook his head.
“It’s because you can get whatever New York or Philadelphia or Boston or even Los Angeles can provide.”
“And what do you think I want?”
“What do most young men want after a war? You fought, I take it?”
“That’s nearly five years gone by now.”
“But it was a big war with long legs. We won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.”
“So what do I want?” Archer asked again.
“A good time with no duties appurtenant thereto.”
“Appurtenant? Now you sound like a lawyer. They run second to dead last in popularity with me to undertakers. And it’s a long way up from there.”
“Do you wish a good time with no consequences?”
Archer wondered if the old man was drunk or doped or both. “I never assumed there was such a thing.”
“In Reno there is.”
“Well, good for Reno. And what do you get out of telling me that?”
“You don’t believe in generosity for generosity’s sake?”
“And I don’t believe in Santa or pennies from Heaven either. Ever since age seven.”
“For a young man you seem old and gray in spirit.”
“And getting older every minute I’m standing here gabbing with you.”
“The passion of youth has been smote clean from you, and that’s a damn shame, son.”
Archer lit another Lucky and eyed the man, awaiting his next move. It was at least passing the time in the biggest little city on earth.
“Okay, I can understand your cynicism. But let me make another observation. One that has personal advantages to me.”
Archer flashed a grin. “Now we’re getting somewhere. I knew you had it in you.”
Howells fingered his chin. “You look like a man able to take care of himself.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”
“Here it is then: Can you protect others?” asked Howells.
“Who are we talking about here?”
“We are talking about me.”
“And why do you need protection?” asked Archer.
“I have enemies, as I said.”
“And why do you have enemies?”
“Some folks have them, unfortunately, and I’m one of those folks. So what do you say?”
“I have no interest in making your enemies my enemies. So you have a good day.”
Archer tipped his hat, turned, and walked off with his satchel. Howells called after him. “You would desert an old man in need, soldier?”
Over his shoulder Archer said, “Just wait for a fellow to fall off a truck and he’s your man, Bobby H.”
IN HIS HOTEL ROOM, which looked like a shower stall with half-hearted ambition, Archer ditched his hat on the bed, tucked his satchel in the narrow closet with two feeble hangers dangling from the wooden rod, and sat in the one chair by the one window. He parted the faded and frayed curtains and stared out at Reno. It just looked average, maybe a little below that, in fact. Yet maybe it punched above its weight, like he always tried to do.
He smoked another Lucky and took a drink from the flask he carried in his jacket pocket. Archer didn’t need beautiful women, watery wine, or golden boulevards. He just desired a steady paycheck, something interesting to do with his time, and the small slice of self-respect that came with both.
The rye whiskey went down slow and burned deliciously along the way. Thus fortified, he took out the letter typed on sandpaper stationery with the name “Willie Dash, Very Private Investigations” imprinted at the top and giving an address and a five-digit phone number in Bay Town, California. Included with the letter was the man’s business card, stiff and serious looking with the same address and telephone information as the letter. A tiny magnifying glass rode right under the business name. Archer liked the effect. He hoped he liked the man behind it. More to the point, he hoped Willie Dash liked him.
The missive was in response to one Archer had written to Dash at the advice of Irving Shaw, a state police detective Archer had met while in a place called Poca City, where Archer had served his parole. Shaw and Dash were old friends, and Shaw believed Archer had the makings of a gumshoe; he’d thought Dash might be a good mentor for him. Archer had mentioned Shaw in the letter because he hoped it would move Dash to at least write back.
Not only had Dash written back but he’d suggested that Archer come to Bay Town and see what might be possible. He had promised Archer no job, just the opportunity to seek one, depending on how Dash viewed things. Archer didn’t need false promises or mealymouthed platitudes. He just needed a fair shot.
He put the letter and business card back in his jacket pocket, gazed out the window again, and noted that it was nearing the dinner hour. He had passed clusters of eateries along the way here, and one had stood out to him because it had also been the establishment naughty Ginger had told him about.
He grabbed his hat, pocketed his hefty room key, which could double as a blunt instrument if need be, and set out to fill his time and his belly.
It was a short walk to the Dancing Birds Café. The place was tucked away down a side street off Reno’s main drag. The broad windows were canopied by red-and-green-striped awnings, the door was solid oak with a brass knocker barnacled to the wood, and a flickering gas lantern hung on the wall to the right of the door. Archer took a moment to light up a Lucky off the open flame. Breathing in the methane reminded him of the war, where if you weren’t sucking foul odors like cordite into your lungs, you’d think you were either dead or someone had upped and taken the war elsewhere.
He opened the door and surveyed the place. Seven in the evening on the dot, and it was packed as tight as a passenger ship’s steerage class, only these people were better dressed and drinking niftier booze. Waiters in black bow ties and short white jackets seemed to hop, skip, and jump in frenetic furtherance of their duties. Archer looked for the “dancing birds” but saw no evidence of winged creatures performing the jitterbug. Either the place was misnamed, or he was in for a real surprise at some point.
At the far end of the room was a raised stage with a curtain, like one would see at a theater. As Archer stood there, hat in hand, the curtains parted and out stepped four long-limbed platinum blondes dressed so skimpily they looked ready to hop into bed for something other than sleep. Each of them held a very large and very fake bird feather in front of them.
A short, tubby man in a penguin suit waddled onstage and over to a microphone the size of two meaty fists resting on a stand. With deliberate dramatics he announced that the four ladies were the eponymous Dancing Birds and would be performing for the entertainment of the patrons now either eating or, in the case of half the tables that Archer could see, drinking their dinners.
About the time the ladies started to sing and hoof it across the wooden stage while twirling their feathers and twitching their hips, a bow-tied gent came up and told Archer there was room for him if he didn’t mind sharing a table.
“Works for me,” Archer said amiably.
He was led to a table that was nestled right next to the stage, where a man in his fifties sat. He was short and well-fed, and his calm, regal expression and sharply focused eyes told Archer that he was a man used to giving orders and seeing them obeyed, which was a decent gig if you could get it and then hold on to it. The tux handed Archer a stiff menu with the food items written in free-flowing calligraphy, took his order for three fingers of whiskey and one of water, and departed. Archer hung his fedora on the seat back and nodded to the other man.
“Thanks for the accommodation, mister,” he said.
He nodded back but didn’t look at Archer; he kept his gaze on the Birds.
When Archer’s drink came the man turned and eyed the whiskey. “Good choice. It’s one of the best they serve.”
“You have knowledge of the bar here?”
“In a way. I own the place. Max Shyner.” He raised a flute of champagne and clinked it against the whiskey glass.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Shyner. My name’s Archer. And thanks a second time for the table spot, then. Wondered why you had such a good seat for the show.”
“You like the Dancing Birds?” he said, returning his gaze to the stage.
Archer gave a long look at the Bird on the end, who responded with a hike of her eyebrows, the lift of a long fishnet-stockinged leg in a dance kick, and a come-hither smile before she tap-tapped to the other end of the stage with the rest of the feathered flock.
“Let me just say how could a breathing man not?”
“You just in town?” Shyner asked.
“Why, do I look it?”
“I know most of the regulars.”
“Passing through. Bus out tomorrow.”
“West of here,” he said vaguely, not wanting to offer anything more.
“California, then?” Shyner said.
“Well, son, any farther west and you’d be drinking the Pacific.”
“Suppose so,” replied Archer as he took a sip of the whiskey. He picked up the menu. “Recommend anything?”
“The steak, and the asparagus. They both come from near here. Get the Béarnaise sauce. You know what that is?”
“We’ll find out.” Archer gave that order to the waiter when he next came by and got a finger of whiskey added to what he had left. “So how long have you owned this place?”
“Long enough. I was born in Reno. Most are from someplace else, at least now. Great transition after the war, you see.”
“I guess I’m one of them,” replied Archer.
“Where in California? I got contacts, in case you’re looking for work.”
“Thanks, but I think I got something lined up.”
“The Golden State is growing, all right, why people like you are rushing to get there. Me, I’m more than content with this piece of the pie.”
“Who’s she?” asked Archer, indicating the Bird who had given him the eye.
“Liberty Callahan, one of my best. Sweet gal.” He pointed a finger at Archer. “No ideas, son. She wants to get into acting. Don’t think she’ll be here long, much to my regret.”
“I’m just passing through, like I said. I’ve got no ideas about her or any other lady.”
Shyner leaned forward, his look intense and probing. “You like to gamble?”
“My whole life’s been a gamble.”
“I mean, in a casino?”
Archer shook his head.
Shyner drew a fist of cash from his pocket and peeled off fifty dollars in sawbucks.
“You take this, with my compliments, and go try your luck at the Wheelhouse. It’s my place.”
“You give out folding money to all the folks passing by?” said Archer. “If you do, you might want to stop before you run out.”
Shyner leaned in more so Archer could smell the champagne on the man’s breath and Old Spice cologne on the ruddy cheeks. “Little something you need to know about casinos, young fella. No matter what the game, the casinos have the edge. With blackjack and roulette it’s a little less, with craps and slots a little more. But there’s no game where the House doesn’t have the advantage. My job is to get folks into my place. Even if I have to front them a bit. In the long run it pays off for me.”
“Well, with that warning, aren’t you defeating your purpose of recruitment?”
Shyner laughed. “You forget the element of human nature. I give you a little seed money and you’ll pay that back and more on top in no time.”
“Never got the point of gambling. Life’s uncertain enough as it is.”
“Gambling will be here long after I’m dead and buried, and you too. People are born with weaknesses and they pass them on. Sort of like Darwinism, only the stupid survive.”
“I might try your place, but I’ll do it with my own coin, thanks.”
“Sure as I’m sitting here with a man who owns a casino.”
Shyner put the cash away and lit up a short, thin cigar and blew wobbly rings to the high plastered ceiling. “You surprise me, Archer. I’ve done that fifty-dollar bit more times than I can remember and you’re the first to turn it down.”
“So what about all those casinos in Las Vegas? Don’t they give you competition?”
Shyner waved this concern away. “In twenty years it’ll be a ghost town and no one will even remember the name Las Vegas, you mark my words.”
His steak and asparagus came, and Archer ate and washed it down with another two fingers.
“Can I at least comp your meal, Archer?”
“What do I have to do in return?”
“Just go to my casino. Two blocks over to the west. You can’t miss it.”
Archer laid down a dollar for his meal and drinks.
“So you’re not going to the Wheelhouse then?” said Shyner in a disappointed tone.
“No, I am. Just on my terms instead of yours.”
“Action doesn’t start up till around ten. You’ll want the full picture.”
As he left, Archer gave Liberty Callahan a tip of his hat as she was singing a solo while reclining on a baby grand piano that had been wheeled onstage. She hit him with a dazzling smile and then kept right on singing without missing a beat. Her voice sounded awfully good to Archer. She waved bye-bye with her fake feather as he left the nest.
Archer had to admit, he liked the lady’s style.
THE WHEELHOUSE WAS LOCATED in a building about as big as an aircraft carrier, but with nicer furniture, no portholes, and enough booze to launch her. Inside an army of gamblers was looking to win big, although almost all would lose what they had brought plus what they hadn’t brought. Archer didn’t need Shyner to tell him the odds favored the House. Somebody had to pay for the liquor, the neon, and the ladies, and the chubby old man who owned it all and liked his champagne and fifty-dollar suckers.
Pretty much every game of chance invented was being played in the main room as cocktail waitresses in black stockings and low-cut blouses made their rounds with drinks, smokes, and the occasional teasing look that hinted at additional services available after hours for those few with any cash left. The bar set against one wall was packed because the liquor was half price, or so said the sign overhead. Drunk people no doubt increased the casino’s odds even more, figured Archer.
As ten struck on his timepiece, he checked his hat and strode across the main floor to the cashier booths. He had never gambled in a casino, but Archer had gambled. First in prison, and then in private games where the odds were a little better than at this place, the booze came out of flasks or thimbles masquerading as shot glasses and the only ladies present were housewives coming to drag their no-account hubbies home while they still had twin nickels to their names.
He paid for ten bucks’ worth of chips, then ambled over to a craps table and from a distance studied the bets on the board until the table opened up for new action like the jaws of a prowling gator. He continued to watch three guys crap out after two tosses each. Then two more rollers in the wings fell out, one passing out drunk, the other blowing his whole stake on the last throw of the dice.
A man at the rail turned and saw Archer. He beckoned for Archer to join him.
After Archer did, the man said, “Listen up, son, this here fella about to throw has been hot three nights in a row.”
Archer looked down at the gent speaking. He was small and around sixty with fine white hair and a pair of rimless specs worn low on his squat, red-veined nose. He was encased in a seersucker suit with a snazzy blue bow tie and two-tone lace-up shoes. His nose and flushed face stamped him as a man who liked his drink more than he liked just about anything else.
“Is that right?” said Archer.
“Yes sir. That boy can roll.” He held out a flabby hand. “Roy Dixon.”
- "David Baldacci is one of the all-time best thriller authors."—Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling author
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- On Sale
- Apr 20, 2021
- Hachette Audio