SEPTEMBER 1941-SAN FRANCISCO
“Is there a fireman’s convention in town?” Corey asked his back to the bar studying two groups of men in different corners of the lounge.
“Why‘s that?” the bartender replied as he wiped the counter.
“Well, they all seem in good shape, but they aren’t packing like most cops do. They’re all tan as if they spend a lot of time outdoors. Might be sailors.”
“Don’t know who the hell they are,” the bartender pulled the tap, filling a mug. “More drift in every day. Some are acquainted. Couple mentioned waitin’ for a ship.”
“I thought you had the skinny on everybody here at the hotel. Ya slippin’?”
“I try to talk to `em. A few said they were salesmen, but I ain’t buyin’ that cause they’re tight-lipped. Don’t say much to anybody but each other. Never met a salesman that didn’t talk his ass off.”
Corey chuckled. “Probably don’t take you for a customer. Talk to any of the others?”
The bartender shrugged as he set a filled mug on the bar. “Some claimed to be missionaries.” He chuckled and shook his head. “The way they put away the booze makes me want to convert, but again the preachers don’t talk much either.”
“That’s strange too.” Corey sipped from his beer. He wiped the foam from his upper lip with the back of his hand. “Never knew a preacher that would shut up either.”
The bartender nodded as he leaned against the bar. “They talk a lot to each other. Ya think missionaries are savin’ the salesmen from themselves?”
One man from the larger group stood and approached. He motioned the bartender over then set a quarter on the counter. “How about another draft?”
After picking up the bill, the bartender set two dimes on the counter before the man. “We got Pabst, Falstaff, or Bud, Mack.”
The man stepped back and peered at the bartender. “It’s Joe. I started with Pabst. Bad luck to switch.”
After the bartender filled his glass, Joe sipped while he studied the room in the mirror behind the bar. To one side in a corner, the group he left talked and laughed. The other group did the same. Occasionally members of the two groups exchanged glances. Not unfriendly, but left the impression the two groups may be from competing companies.
Might as well say hello to the other guys, Joe told himself, we’ll be together. Not just for the voyage, but also in China for at least a year.
As he stood, a soft touch on his shoulder made him stop and turn. The girl had light brown, shoulder-length hair framing an angelic face. Her tight sweater revealed firm well-developed breasts. Makeup accented her attractive features, making her appear more mature. Perhaps, Joe thought, even old enough to be in the bar.
She held up a cigarette. “Could I trouble you for a light?”
Joe shrugged. “Sorry. Don’t smoke.”
From her purse, she retrieved a lighter and handed it to him with a smile. “Well, suppose you could make this work?”
He flicked the wheel. It ignited. He held it up, letting her steady his hand with hers while she touched the flame to the cigarette. The girl’s other hand settled on his knee. As she caressed his inner thigh, her tongue played across her lips. While she stared into his eyes, she cocked her head to one side. “Are you one of the boys going to China to fight the Japs?”
Already uncomfortable with the girl’s blatant advances, her question made him lean back. A secret mission, they claimed. Told him to register at the hotel as a salesman. Warned him to stick to this story, but somehow the word got out. Others in the group described similar encounters. Liaison with this underage girl would be bad enough. Could she also be some teenage Mata Hari?
He took a deep breath. “No, I’m an off-duty cop.”
Wide-eyed, she drew her hand back as if burned. “Excuse me. I have to make a phone call.”
She turned, then hurried from the bar, wobbling on her high heels. As she left, one man from the group, he had been about to join, rose, and sauntered to the bar.
Broad-shouldered, his dark hair topped a rugged, handsome face. His high, prominent cheekbones reminded Joe of paintings depicting Indian warriors.
The man set his empty glass on the bar and leaned close. “You avoided some real jail-bait brother. Was it luck or do you Army guys have some exceptional eyesight?” The man thrust out his hand. “Greg Boyington’s my name.”
“Joe Stuart.” He extended his hand. “Yeah, and she seemed to know all about us. Helluva secret.”
“There seems to be a lot about this fucking deal that doesn’t seem right.” Boyington glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one overheard. “I’m supposed to be a missionary. How about you?”
“Salesman. Thought I’d claim farm equipment. Somethin’ I’m familiar with at least.”
“Ralph, whatever these boys are havin’ put it on my tab,” Corey called to the bartender as he approached. “Your friend’s right. You avoided real trouble with that one.”
“You mean, underage?” Joe asked, “She looked good but young.”
“Lotta guys don’t care. It’s just too tempting and way too available,” Corey added, “But she has these boys backin’ her up. Roll her Johns as soon as she gets `em out of the bar. Real mean bunch.”
Boyington grinned. “Hell, let’s go find `em.” He tapped Joe’s chest with the back of his hand. “Teach `em some manners.”
Corey shook his head. “I wouldn’t. There’s three of `em, and like I said, they are nasty customers.”
“You’re right, Bud,” Boyington nudged Joe’s ribs. “There wouldn’t be any for Junior here to handle. Wouldn’t be right for me to hog all the fun for myself.”
“Well, thanks for the tip on the local attractions.” Joe saluted the man with his beer mug. “We oughta buy you a drink.”
“No, thanks for the offer though,” Corey replied, “but you could help me out.”
“How so?” Boyington asked as he sipped from the glass the bartender placed at his elbow.
“I’m Corey Wendel with the Frisco Chronicle. A few weeks back, a bunch of guys came through here headed for China. Claimed they were goin’ over there to fight the Japs. Said more were comin’. Know anything about that?”
“Nah, not a thing, brother.” Boyington turned to Joe. “You?”
Joe shook his head. “Nothin’, sorry, pal.”
“Really? I took you both for military. Plus, you got that tanned outdoorsy look that’s common for pilots.”
“Well, me, I’m a missionary, must be all the preachin’ out in the open to the heathens. They don’t have nice church buildings in all the places I go to. Joe, here, sells farm machinery, probably gets his look from hangin’ in the fields.”
Corey tipped his hat back on his head. “Come on, guys. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. I won’t identify you or quote you. Just need background. Whatcha say?”
“Well, the only background I got for you would be my boot in your ass,” Boyington scowled as he leaned toward Corey. “Why don’t you shove off before I feel compelled to break my vow of peace and tranquility?”
“Easy, Reverend,” a man from Boyington’s group said as he approached the bar. “Why don’t you bring that young heathen you rescued from that Jezebel over to the table. Maybe we can help him see the light.”
Boyington moved away from the bar, shoving the reporter with his chest as he turned. Corey backed away then returned to his end of the bar without a backward glance.
“Greg, you need to get more in character,” the man who had come to the bar to calm things down said as he resumed his seat at the table.
“Hell! I always favored the Jesus that ran the money changers out of the Temple with a whip.” Boyington scowled once more toward the bar. “Now, there was a real badass.”
Joe moved a chair over from a nearby table then wedged himself into the group. As he met his new comrades, one asked, “Who recruited you?”
“Never met him. Just talked to a couple guys on the phone. First was a guy named Skip Adair. Adair had me call a Colonel Green. He told me to report for duty, as usual, and they would be in touch. Next day I get called into the C.O.’s office, and he was madder than hell. Told me I was out of the Army. To go home and wait to hear from this CAMCO outfit.” Joe shrugged. “Four weeks later they call me, told me a plane ticket to Frisco was in the mail. Come to The Saint Francis Hotel here and register as a salesman. So, here I am. How about you?”
“Mine was this Captain. Flew in the Big One in France.” Boyington waved to the bartender while pointing to his glass. “Lafayette Escadrille. Talked about the money and how easy it would be.”
Joe leaned back in his chair, frowned. “Easy?”
“Yeah, said all the Jap’s fighters were crates with pea-shooters and the bombers nothin’ more than transports they hung guns on. Claimed the pilots weren’t worth a damn. Had bad eyesight.”
Joe scoffed shook his head. “How’d they find that out?”
Boyington’s scowl deepened. “Said when they inspected downed plane wreckage all the pilots wore glasses. Six hundred dollars a month plus a five hundred bonus for each plane shot down is gonna get me outta debt in a hurry. Hey, bartender, how about another round over here?”
Joe shook his head. “Greg. I hope you’re right, but they also said we were secret, but everybody here knows about it.”
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