Levi Hayes is out for gold — and blood — in this high-magnitude historical tear through the mean streets of San Francisco
In the days before the great earthquake and fire of 1906, Levi Hayes returns from San Quentin Prison with a plan. After serving five years for the theft of $30,000 in gold coins from the San Francisco Mint, he’s ready to take back what’s his and exact revenge on the now-powerful Healey brothers who set him up and had his barroom, House of Blazes, seized by court order.
To get back his bar Levi recruits his nephew, Mack Lewis, telling him the gold coins wait hidden behind one of its cellar walls. Their wild scheme propels them through saloon halls, gambling dens, back alleys, and brothels before it backfires. In lock-up as the earthquake hits, Levi and Mack must escape the collapsing building and burning city to get to the gold coins, with Quinn Healey determined to get his own revenge on them.
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About the Author
Dietrich Kalteis is the author of three crime novels, Ride the Lightning (which won a bronze medal in the 2015 Independent Publisher Awards and was hailed as one of the best Vancouver crime novels), Triggerfish, and The Deadbeat Club. More than 40 of his short stories have been published internationally, and his screenplay, Between Jobs, was a finalist in the Los Angeles Screenplay Festival. He resides with his family in West Vancouver and is currently working on his next novel.
Read an Excerpt
House of Blazes
By Dietrich Kalteis
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2016 Dietrich Kalteis
All rights reserved.
... SLUMMER'S PARADISE
"I came back for what's mine," Levi Hayes said. "That and to kill a man."
Levi walked on, Mack Lewis looking at him, thinking he might have passed the man for a stranger a couple days back, the five years taking its toll; he'd always called him uncle, though first cousin once removed was closer to the mark. A flicker of lineage between them: the set of the jaw, the quick brown eyes, both men tall, the shoulders broad. But Levi's beard was showing grey, long hair going thin under the flat cap. Mack's hair pulled behind his ears, the bowler on top.
"See, to the decent folks, the Barbary's nothing but a back alley of vice and corruption," Levi said, looking at the old brothels up Whiting, mostly boarded up, waiting to be torn away. Ghosts from another time. "A moral cancer on this Paris of the Pacific."
"Learn that talk in prison?"
"Read it in the Call, talking about them and their cable cars and European opera and shit. How there's no place for all the debauchery and killing going on all the time."
"And you're figuring what's one more stiff?"
"Something like that." Levi grinned.
Mack guessing the only time his uncle spent on the Paris side was when he was robbing the rich. Just back from serving his stretch, nabbed when he couldn't explain the double eagle he laid down at the Ingleside track, trying to parlay his win from the first race on the nose of Black Cloud in the second.
The bet clerk possessing a sharp enough eye, noticing In God we trust missing from the face of the Liberty coin, a twenty dollar gold piece. The constable on duty clapping Levi in cuffs, same time Black Cloud finished in a dead heat.
The coin tied him to the inside job at the Old Granite Lady, the Mint down on Fifth. Levi shrugged when the presiding magistrate asked where he got the coin, not answering when asked about an inside man. The bang of the gavel sent Levi looking at a hard six in Quentin, less the twelve months for good behavior.
Sent up the same time the city blasted the hell out of Arch Rock out in the Bay, a menace to coast mariners, contractors drilling two hundred and sixty holes and packing in thirty tons of gelatin, blasting her skyward. The early edition declaring modern man now possessed the force of nature. Bottom of the page showed Levi's photo, the caption calling him a scoundrel, begging what happened to the missing thirty thousand in gold coins.
They passed the last of the dilapidated buildings on the block, all going to wrack and ruin. Properties Marvin Healey acquired for future expansion, keeping up with the shipbuilding going on over at Potrero Point. End of the row, Levi stopped in front of a clapboard three-story suffering from long neglect, its paint peeling and faded, shingles missing, weeds waist-high out front. Looked like a good sneeze would take her to the ground.
Mack followed to the door, stepping over a board of nails. The sign hung above the door, red serifs long faded to brown, the gold outline flaked away: House of Blazes.
Snapping away a wood block holding the door closed, Levi shoved the door back on creaking hinges, walking into the dead air, a carpet of straw inside, dust playing in a shaft of daylight filtering down the stairs.
A line of ancient crates stamped with their ports of origin stood taller than a man along the west wall, boxes piled on the long bar. Casks and busted chairs clustered around a workbench, cobwebs hanging like streamers. Grime mossed everything colorless.
Mack held images of this place in its glory days, the long bar once packed with miners and sailors. Seen his own share of blind-drunk wrongdoing over at the Empress Dancehall, working as head bouncer. Nothing compared to this place and those times.
Pointing to where the Spanish chandelier once hung, big as a wagon wheel, Levi held out his arms, showing its size. Mack remembering.
"Had a gal early on called Hell Broke Lucy, wrapped to the eyes in a black rebozo, climbed up and swung from it, holding on with just her feet."
Hadn't heard this one, Mack let him tell it, always liked his uncle's stories. That look he got in his eyes.
"Pap's house rule was, any man climbing up to her got to go upstairs with her."
"Anybody do it?"
"You'd think with sailors working tall-sail ships, somebody would, but more than one got busted up in the fall."
"These fellows all drunk?"
"Pretty much." Getting the look of a man visiting his yesterdays, Levi stared to where the dance floor had been, the bar brought in from Placerville, the stairs leading to the boudoirs.
"Girls dancing atop the piano, lifting their skirts and flashing their wares." Levi pointing to where it stood. "Me, I'd be tickling the keys to 'Wearing of the Green' or 'Bird in a Gilded Cage.'"
Mack remembering him playing, wasn't too bad either. "Most folks learn piano playing in Sunday school." Then laughing.
"Learned mine from a bouncer, fellow named Nikko. When he wasn't busting up miners and sailors, he played a fine tune. Think he learned it at a proper school back east. Played till the brawling took toll on his hands. When he couldn't play or fight no more, Pap slapped an apron on him, made him bartender."
"Didn't pay much, but the fellow had a way of adding to his per diem," Levi said. "Found himself a fish at the bar, the kind that wouldn't be missed so much. Served him drink laced with laudanum or some such." Levi went behind the bar, swatting away cobwebs, shoving boxes aside, saying, "When every eye turned to Lucy on the chandelier, old Nikko sapped the fish and ..." Levi found the lever under the bar and tripped the trapdoor. It sprang open with a thump, right in front of the bar.
Mack stepped close and looked down the black hole, a dank smell coming up. "This Nikko do this regular?"
"Regular enough." Levi left it open, went and sat on a crate.
"Didn't learn that at no proper school back east," Mack said, sitting on a barrel.
"What came of these fish?"
"Woke up on ships needing extra hands, mostly. Some captain willing to pay Nikko for recruiting them. Past that, I couldn't tell you."
"Point is, this place rivaled the Bella Union, turned a fine trade before Marvin Healey found it a fitting place to stick his fucking shipyard."
They sat quiet, Levi with his memories, Mack looking around, hoping Levi was getting to why they'd come.
A rat scurried across the floor, Levi stomping his boot, sending it darting between the casks.
"Can't be thinking of turning this back to what it was?"
"Told you, came for what's mine." Levi pointed to the trapdoor.
"Gold from the Mint?"
"You hid it here?"
"Where'd you want me to put it, the bank?"
Mack never got to speak to Levi before the trial, couldn't during proceedings, and never went to see him in Quentin. Prisons giving him the shivers.
The Examiner reported that officials were befuddled as to how the thieves could have busted into the Mint and got thirty thousand in coins past the troop of guards. Marvin's brother Quinn, coming for Levi and making the arrest, searched the place top to bottom, but found nothing. Levi charged with the double eagle that was never issued. Flimsy evidence, but the Healeys saw that it stuck.
Rumor was Marvin Healey held sway with Meade, the magistrate presiding over Levi's trial, favoring the guilty verdict. A city official and golfing buddy had the property seized a week later, and Marvin bought it at auction for next to nothing. Land for future expansion of his shipyards. Marvin Healey known about town as a man of high integrity, a man who knew how to grease a palm.
"Chief difference between me and Healey," Levi said, "I do my robbing with a gun, that fucker does it with a pen."
"How in hell you get all that gold past all them guards?"
"Dead ones. See, the Mint was infested to the roof beams. Started exterminating the vermin by the hundreds when I got this idea. Got myself chummy with the chief clerk, fellow name of Dimmick. A fellow with an equal taste for whiskey and women. So I poured enough in him, fixed him up with a fine gal, laid out my idea, and I had my inside man. Fifty/fifty. Dimmick stuffing rat carcasses with coins, right down the dead mouth. Six to a dozen, depending on the size of the rat, filled them like a sack, tossing them out a window, me waiting with a wheel barrow down in the alley. One or two busting open from the weight, but mostly they held up pretty fair."
"And this Dimmick?"
"Being greedy on top of drunk did him in. Jury found him guilty on account of him forging the superintendent's name, stealing from pay packets and some other shit. Never could tie him to it, but they handed him a hard seven for the rest. Man's still in Quentin, drying his liver."
"And his share?"
Levi pointed to the trapdoor.
"Saving it for him?"
"Fuck him, he's a crook. You're a nephew. Giving it to you."
Mack lit up, standing, rubbing his hands, saying, "So what are we waiting on?" Going back to the trapdoor, looking down that hole.
"Didn't exactly leave it out in the open."
"So I'll go fetch picks, shovels, whatever we need."
"After I fetch back the deed."
"Don't need that. We'll dig nice and quiet, nobody the wiser."
"Healey fucked me once, not fucking me twice. Not going down there while his name's on the place."
"He just gonna hand it to you?"
"Uh huh. See, I got a plan."
Another rat zigged out, Levi thumping his boot, the rodent zagging across the floor, lost between the crates. "Turns out Marvin's missus likes the boys, likes them young and two at a time."
Mack raised an eyebrow.
"See, the woman comes by Pearly's Gates regular as a Sunday sermon. I'm guessing old Marvin's a man about town, but not in the bedroom, so his good woman figures he's not gonna miss a slice off a cut loaf."
"Yeah, but what's her getting her loaf cut —"
Levi raised a hand. "Had Pearly hire this photographer fellow ..." Levi telling Mack they had to pay the man extra on account of Florence Healey being well-known for packing a derringer and rumored to suffer from vapors. The combination making the fellow nervous. But, for double his usual fee, he sat himself behind his tripod in the armoire in the boudoir, the door left ajar by an inch. The Healey woman liked to leave the lamps lit, adding to her visual delight.
"So, you're gonna blackmail her?"
"Not her, him. Get old Marvin to hand me five hundred for the rest of the photos, ones I didn't put in this envelope." Levi reaching in the inside pocket, showing the envelope. "Dropping it off at his shipyard when we leave. He pays or I go and besmirch his good name."
Mack grinned, thinking this could work.
"A lawyer draws up the papers," Levi said, "witnesses the deal nice and legal. Marvin gets his five hundred back, and I get the deed."
"So, you buy the place back with Healey's own money."
"That's the plan."
"Then you kill him."
Mack's grin faded. "Heard a couple of sailors tried robbing Healey of his watch and fob out front of the Bull Run one time, figuring him for a dude. Only one of them made it to Quinn's jail."
"I'll handle Marvin. Quinn, too."
"You got it all figured," Mack said, looking down the trapdoor again.
"Had five years for it."CHAPTER 2
... IN THE TRACES
Block letters ran up the chimney, the name rising high above the block-long structure: Healey Shipbuilding. Smoke from the stack rolled out over the Bay. A black gantry rose above the shipbuilding berths at the far end. A crane swung its load of iron above the roofline.
The sound of clanging metal came from within the compound, sparks flying as a crew welded steel plates to a hull. Silhouettes moved behind the rows of smeared windows facing East Street and the piers beyond.
A foreman waved in a steam locomotive hauling a low-loader piled with more of the giant plates, steel wheels trundling through Healey's gates, clattering over the crisscrossing tracks.
Levi and Mack stopped on the walk, Levi looking back like maybe they were being followed, waited till the locomotive pulled into the yard. The foreman directed it to the plater's shack. Stacks of steel pipe and wagons being loaded with supplies. Across the street, the tenements afforded housing for the yard workers and their families. The bricks were all grey and the windows smeared. Children playing hoops and marbles on the opposite walk.
Going to the gatehouse, Levi handed the envelope to the watchman, was told Mr. Healey wasn't expected till end of day. Levi said that would be fine, asked the man to make sure he got it, slipping him a coin.CHAPTER 3
... LIGHTING THE FUSE
Mack stepped around a stubble-faced drunk, down on the sidewalk by steps leading to a basement dive, a sign calling the place Hevin and Hell. A flop hat tugged over the man's eyes, shutting out life, drool coming from his mouth.
"Locked me up with no proof," Levi said, "while fuckers like Handsome Gene run this town by hook or crook."
"Mostly crook," Mack said.
Back just two days and Levi was seeing the old Barbary disappearing like April ice, squeezed out by the progress of polite society. New corruption replacing the old. He could barely make out the top of Healey chimney above the Chicago Hotel now, shops on either side of it.
A line of men sat propped against the bricks of the Saint Anthony Mission. Loafers, low gamblers and jayhawkers the world forgot. Those conscious passed bottles and tobacco pouches, nobody paying these two outsiders much mind. Some talking. Some staring straight ahead. The Mission hadn't changed much, the white-paneled facade, name over the door, the gabled roof, the stained glass.
"So, you got out two weeks back," Mack said, wrapping his fingers round the cudgel in his pocket. "Working your plan."
"Stopped at the first bar I come to and got my fill of what they weren't serving in that shithole Quentin," Levi said.
"Built up a thirst, huh?"
"A powerful one." Levi grinned, taking in the line of men. "Met this gal Minnie Baker, girl from up Seattle way, something else they weren't serving. Took a room in some hotel, got a double helping, then we took in some auto race. Between her charms and my thirst, that woman had me heading north. Had me at the crossroads, forgetting my plan and going to work her daddy's sheep."
"Something wrong with sheep?"
"Smell, don't they?" Mack grinned, thinking his uncle had never worked a real job in his life.
"Woman claimed she got a bathtub right in her house. Running water and the whole bit."
"A woman of means."
"Trouble was, Minnie's love ran sober the night before the steamer headed north. Me, I woke up sick next to a note on the pillow. And my road was clear."
The woman likely pegged him for a con short on money and long on dreams, something Mack couldn't allow himself on account of relations, second cousin once removed. Mack thinking of that trapdoor and the thirty thousand in gold coins down that hole.
* * *
A well-to-do couple stepped through the Mission doors and down its steps, tailored clothes putting them at odds with the surroundings, likely there on some errand of charity. The man, in a homburg and frock, hooked his arm, the blonde wife slipping her gloved hand through his arm, escorted to their Runabout across the street, a Ransom Olds with the curved dash, artillery wheels and tiller steering, black-buttoned seats, the latest thing.
A grizzled warhorse sat propped against the front wheel, his head tipped down, a line of saliva dripping from his mouth. Talk and bottle-passing stopped, the men along the wall watching. The man roused, pushed himself up and tottered to his feet, looking at the woman in the Gibson-girl hat like he beheld the divine, steadying himself against the fender, then pushing off. His own forage cap, long faded, proclaimed him a veteran of the bygone war in the east. Something animal showing in his eyes, clouded by years of cheap drink.
Lurching into their path, he tipped the cap, drawling something neither made out, wiping the raisin skin at the back of his neck. Laying the hand on the woman's arm, he stopped her.
Delicate she may have been; still she ripped her arm away as if unclean were communicable by touch, raking the drunkard with indignation, her blue eyes flashing more anger than fear.
Warhorse laughed, regaining his balance like he was on a rolling deck, acting like he didn't see the husband, saying, "Like a gal's got fire, but you can lose the uppity, sis." Showing the backs of his hands, meaning he meant no menace. "I'm just making your acquaint-enance." Tobacco teeth behind the smile, he snatched her by the wrist, meaning to drag her over to the Mission wall, the woman trying to twist free.
"Here now," the husband said, "let go of my wife!" He caught her free wrist, tugging for the auto, grabbing hold of the door, the men along the wall hooting and rising, sensing amusement.
"You better than me, that it?" Warhorse let go, looking hard at the man, the husband stumbling into the fender.
"You want to make a play, fancy man." Warhorse showed the blade under the coat.
The derelicts at the wall egging him on.
"That'll be enough of this," the wife said, stepping between them, pointing a gloved finger. "I will call the authorities." The flush showing through the powder on her cheeks.
Excerpted from House of Blazes by Dietrich Kalteis. Copyright © 2016 Dietrich Kalteis. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
In the Traces,
Lighting the Fuse,
Flush Beats Straight,
A Thousand Words,
Breaking a Leg,
The Meat and Potatoes,
Treading the Boards,
Doves and Daughters,
The Deep Six,
Feeding the Leopards,
On the Hook,
The Gibson Girl,
Quibble the Toss,
Cribs and Cowyards,
All Hell's Loose,
Whispers to Screams,
Down in the Mission,
Up in Smoke,
Under a Falling Sky,
Trial By Fire,
Closing the Gap,
Narrowing the Gap,
Paris of the Pacific,
Drink Deep the Christian Way,
This Marble Shit,
Saints and Sinners,
Eggs and Ham and a Black Hole,
Jumping the Breaks,
Fire with Fire,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
At first, I had a hard time getting into this, but that was just the first couple of chapters. Then the story just took off. Those Healey brothers really had it out for Levi Hayes and they would do anything, and I mean anything, to get him back. Apparently Levi had stolen some gold coins some years back and the brothers couldn't stand it that they didn't have that gold. Through all of this is the huge San Francisco earthquake and it's where Levi and the younger Healey's true colors come to light. There is a lot of action and I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It took me to an era of gunslingers, brothels, and crooked sheriffs I absolutely loved it! Thanks to ECW Press and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. This review was written without any coercion from the publisher.