Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for The Lady From Shanghai.
[Dream sequel: Whiskey breath, rotgut whiskey fire breath and the bloated aftertaste of beer chasers, in need of a shave, maybe two with his five o’clock shadow although the time is still before noon, maybe a haircut trim, and a cold shower wouldn’t hurt after last night slept along the skid row docks near Benny’s Pub. He, Brendan Bradley, fresh off the ‘Frisco boats, the stinking oil tankers, walked, walked shamble walked, headed uptown, along the cobblestone pavement with its rutted indentations that bothered the hell out of his worn out feet, and his life. He heard the sound of Mayfair swell horse hoofs beating their time on the Central Park cobblestones behind him. He turned around to place the sound and there she was, blonde, naturally blonde he thought but he was willing to wait on that question.
Her carriage, one of those rent- by- the- hour tourista things that destroyed the quiet and mucked up the roads of half the big cities in the world, passed by almost tumbling him to the ground as it brushed beside him. He caught his balance just in time. She ordered the carriage stopped, waved a slight, very slight wave, like she had being doing to men since about, about eternity. And like eternity he came hither. Upon his approach she gave him a look, a look only a woman- hungry man can know. She asked for a cigarette, although he could see, see clear as day, that she had an enameled cigarette case sitting right on her lap, probably filled with expensive exotic cigarettes of unknown origin. He also could see, see clear as day, that she has a very, very expensive wedding ring prominently displayed on her finger. He hesitated for just a moment. Just that moment when he knew, knew, hell, knew as clear as day, that she was poison, well-wrapped poison, but poison. She would lead him to unknown lower depths, maybe even to the gallows. He offers a cigarette, a Camel…]
A few days later Brendan, hell let’s not be formal, everybody, every shipmate, every barroom boon companion, every bar girl from “Frisco to the Faroes called him Brownie, was sitting on the mussed up bed of one very blonde (question answered) Victoria Smythe, Mrs. Victoria Smythe (yes of one of the branches of that well-known high society New York Smythe family, if you are interested) mused that life takes some funny turns. A few nights back he was, newspaper for a pillow, sleeping the sleep of the damned (damn poor, he smirked) down in Skid Road wharves half an eye opened to the exploits of roaming jack-rollers. Last night, hell the last few nights, though he had definitely moved up the social ladder about fifteen steps, and moved up them in the arms of the previously mentioned Mrs. Smythe who just then was combing her hair not twenty feet away from him before her majestic vanity.
He, maybe anticipating her, was reviewing that first meeting, that first Central Park meeting, and that first offered cigarette hoping that he would not rue the day he did so. He laughed. A down and out seaman, “Brownie” Bradley, hits New York looking for… something. And he finds it without much trouble, although in the end it may be nothing but trouble.
Enter Victoria Smythe who just happened to be slumming on a per diem horse and buggy ride in Central Park and who, as fate would have it, a not uncommon fate at least in Central Park, bumped against a mere plebeian walker none to steady on his feet. Milady Smythe comes to the rescue and he/she/they are immediately smitten. Brownie paid the ticket and took the ride, despite that bell in his head ringing that please, please she is poison, and even a fool could tell that. But, no, old Brownie was bound and determined to pursue this deadly course, to play his hand until the end, also a not uncommon occurrence when one is smitten although it is not always with blondes.
Of course, as he put his head down on those downy pillows to try to think things through, problem number one was that said Victoria was married, despite the messed up sheets he was sitting on, very married to a well-known banker, Arthur Winslow Smythe, from the great banking family branch, an older man with some serious physical disabilities and a perverse mental make-up. She made no excuses that she had married old Arthur strictly as a gold-digging proposition, he, Arthur, knew it, accepted it, accepted the ten thousand other men, and had made provision for that in his will on the off-chance that one Victoria Meacham got , well, as he called it “a little frisky.” Otherwise she got everything, everything he owned.
Naturally young, attractive, dear Victoria was fed up. Fed up with Arthur in an almost murderous way. At least that is the way she had said it last night before the sheets got mussed up, although she laughed at the thought and dismissed it out of hand. Brownie thought though that he detected a little evil in the laugh but the whiskey, high shelf -bonded whiskey, Arthur whisky, not in need of beer chasers, and those pastel sheets got in the way. He thought now though she would be crazy to upset the apple cart with the gold-plated set-up she had going for her.
Problem number two, a more immediate problem, a problem of where he fit in, was that Victoria and said hubby were going on a long sea voyage via the Panama Canal to their home port ‘Frisco on their yacht. Last night out of the blue she had practically taunted him with her purred “Hey, Brownie , you’re a sailor,” (strictly playing Mrs. Smythe at that moment as the mister was sitting right across the dinner table), “ why don’t you come along as a crew member?” Okay Brownie, second chance, please, please don’t do it. Remember the bells? He signed on, no questions asked. Damn, he thought, after-thought once the Haig fog had worn off and the pastel sheets had faded in the morning sun glaring through the bay window. From then on you know he was a goner.
Why? Well, up front, old Arthur has a partner, Grimes, who is also under Victoria’s spell, at least enough to try to assist her in getting rid of the old goat by any means necessary. See Grimes wanted the firm to himself and was willing to ally himself with the devil herself to get it. A little Victoria perfume, a little scotch (actually a lot of scotch), and couple of views of Victoria’s sheet collection and he was busy making the funeral arrangements for his dearly lamented partner. I don’t have to draw you a diagram on that proposition. Brownie knows nothing of this, and is probably better off not knowing, that sweet very blonde Victoria is working all the angles.
Grimes, of course, is more than delighted by Victoria’s new found acquisition, a skid row bum, perfect.
Here is the “skinny” on the plot to do in one Arthur Winslow Smythe, banker, in. Poison. Poison, pure and simple, except not some exotic snake oil stuff, or some chemist’s special blend, or anything like that. No, nothing but coffee, or rather the caffeine in coffee. See the physical maladies that old Arthur has require him to take about twelve mediations just to allow him to operate without pain on a daily basis. The problem is that the various combinations are so delicately balanced that any extra stimulant will wreak havoc on his heart. So the idea is that someone, and we now know who that someone is, and it is not Grimes, and it sure as hell isn’t Mrs. Smythe, is going to deliver the fatal dose (actually about six caffeine pills) to our boy Arthur when he is “pretty please” asked to bring Arthur his nightly “meds.” All of this to be done during that leisurely trip to ‘Frisco. Sweet. And, of course, as a mere crew member he can gain easy access to Arthur’s room on his Florence Nightingale mission and nobody will think anything of it. Even sweeter. And if anything gets screwed up we know who the fall guy is.
But as such things do, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry. First, Grimes winds up dead. How? Well, Arthur might have been old, might have been perverse, and might have been susceptible to random acts of murder but he did not get where he was by playing the fool always. Grimes had left one of his expensive cigarette butts (Orient’s Special Blend) in the bedroom ashtray of one Victoria Smythe after he had mussed up her pastel sheets one night. The next morning Arthur, coming in to wish his lovely bride top of the day, spied it. He then, suspicions aroused, caught on to the plan to do him in and waited to play his hand out. One night late at the office down in Wall Street he just shot Grimes point- blank. Then he went into his office and took, took about twelve caffeine pills, along with his regular medication. They found him the next morning slumped over his desk.
So Grimes was out, but so was Victoria. See, that will Arthur left behind stipulated that if there was any peculiarity about his death Victoria would get nothing, nada. Not one dime. They never did figure out what killed old Arthur but it sure was strange the way he died. And the fingerprints on his killer gun sealed it. Victoria when last seen was headed to cheap street with a one-way ticket. Brownie? Well Brownie decided that New York City was just a little too small for him and his ways just then. Life’s lesson learned- he found out soon enough that not all femme fatales are on the level when the heat is turned up. Love will only take you so far though, and then justice, rough justice anyway has to come into play. Still, if you asked Blackie in the sober light of day whether he would do it again, would offer that Camel, hell, you know the answer. When there is a femme fatale around stand in line brother.