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The Pickwick Affair: Chapter One

2014-07-11 PickwickAudioCover

Chapter 1: Stopover in Medford

 “Good mornin’, folks! We’ll be arriving on time in Medford in about fifteen minutes, where you can stretch your legs and refresh yourselves. We’ll pull into the Pickwick terminal where you can buy newspapers and snacks. There are telephones inside the terminal. And next door is the Grog and Grub Café. You folks gettin’ off at Medford can claim your baggage inside the terminal. Those goin’ on should be back on board in an hour before we pull out for the final leg to San Francisco. A new crew will service you. It was a pleasure travelin’ with you folks, and please ride Pickwick again!”

It was 9 a.m. The schedule called for the bus to arrive in San Francisco by dusk.

The black porter, in a bowtie and a white coat that still looked pressed and fresh after seven hours on the highway from Seattle, retreated back inside the cook’s galley. He had just descended from the upper deck of the bus where he made the same announcement, almost inaudible to the passengers on the lower deck. Passengers could hear the steward and the other porter preparing all the used dishes and cutlery to transfer to the terminal service section. They would be replaced with clean dishes and cutlery and utensils. The coffee percolator would be replaced with a fresh one, the refrigerator restocked, and the range swabbed by the cook for the hundredth time.

There was a general whisper of activity and muted hubbub of talk among the passengers as they prepared to debouche.

Cyrus Skeen remarked, “Ah, Medford! Medford, Oregon! Where they say what they mean, and mean what they say!”

Dilys Jones-Skeen glanced up at her husband with an amused frown. “Did you just make that up, darling?”

Skeen shook his head. “No, it was something I heard a fellow named Jackson say. A former client, nearly. Can’t recall his first name. He was in the life insurance business. Got into a jam with a goldbricker. Once I suspected that his jam was illegal and that he wanted my help to correct it, I turned him down. I think he went to jail. That was about five years ago – before your time.”

Skeen went back to reading a book, an abstract of Supreme Court cases from 1928 and 1929. His face was squarish, with prominent cheekbones and a deceptively grim mouth. His eyes changed from hazel to green, depending on the light, and were set beneath a smooth, formidable, and untroubled brow. His eyes telegraphed a vast and scintillating storehouse of knowledge and wisdom. His hair was brown, swept to the side to form a wave-like crest over his left eye. Occasionally a curl from the crest would rest on his brow. He was continually and unconsciously brushing it aside. Or his wife was, Dilys Jones-Skeen, when she wasn’t caressing it in admiration.

He was dressed casually, in slacks, a white shirt, and a tweed jacket. He hadn’t worn a tie in almost a week.

Dilys Jones-Skeen was a svelte brunette, almost as tall as Skeen, with gray eyes that seemed like stone flints which she tossed at everything she happened to glance at. People knew that if she did not like a person, her eyes would bore through him until he meekly averted them and moved away. Her face was a perfect proportion of features, a combination, Skeen once observed to himself, of Carole Lombard’s and Greta Garbo’s. It could express joyful effervescence or forthright combativeness. “Your scowl, darling,” he had once told her, “could send a company of Marines scrambling for cover.” She wore her hair long, ending, unfashionably for the time, in an outward curl at the nape of her neck.

She, also, was dressed casually, in a satin blouse, slacks and a gray jacket. She had put aside a book on Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” and now was reading a back issue of The American Mercury. Skeen’s first nonfiction article, “Our Rotting Republic,” was to appear in the May issue. He had just submitted to the magazine a new article, “The Trichotomy of Crime,” earlier in the week. To other readers in other magazines, he was known by the pen name of Emmett Maddock, short story writer.

Cyrus Skeen, in his early thirties, was a private detective and occasional socialite in San Francisco. His wife, in her early twenties, was a painter of portraits and nudes. They lived in a penthouse apartment in Carmel Towers atop Nob Hill. At the moment, they sat opposite each other in their lower-deck compartment, Skeen’s feet crossed on Dilys’s seat, and hers crossed on his, a gimbaled, swing-up table that separated them holding two ceramic mugs of coffee the porter had brought them a while ago.

It was Friday, March 14th, 1930.

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They were passengers on a Pickwick Stage Company “Nitecoach,” a double-decker bus whose line was in competition with the railroads’ luxury sleeper cars. About a dozen of them traveled the highways between San Diego and Seattle. Pickwick buses also roamed the highways of the West, as far away as Missouri.

The Skeens were on a lark, one suggested by Skeen himself in January during the Fiona Nesbitt murder case. Out shopping one day with their maid-cook, Anika Miller, Dilys had passed by the Pickwick Stage Depot in San Francisco and saw one of the double-deckers pull out of the garage on the ground floor of the Pickwick Hotel, and said it looked like an airplane without wings. “Looks instead more like something from a Jules Verne novel,” Skeen had remarked when they went to the Pickwick Hotel and Depot on Fifth Street in San Francisco to begin the trip. It was not his only description of the behemoth. The round-trip cost Skeen $50.

The Nitecoach, christened “Morpheus,” intrigued Skeen. There was talk that Pickwick Stage would soon merge with the Greyhound bus company. Skeen wanted to experience first-hand the benefits of traveling Pickwick instead of by rail – if there were any benefits. Skeen thought he might buy some Pickwick common stock. Pickwick had about 1,500 buses of various capacities and sizes carrying passengers in most of the country West of the Mississippi. At many airports the coaches were connected with Pickwick Air Transport.

The Nitecoach was a little over thirty-four feet long, almost eight feet wide, and ten feet high. The various double-deckers came in many colors; the “Morpheus” was yellow, with black “racing stripes.” It boasted a modified Pierce-Arrow eight-cylinder engine adapted especially for all Pickwick single- and double-decker buses. The driver sat in a raised, glass-enclosed compartment between the first and second decks, right above the motor.

The Nitecoach had no chassis; a solid, riveted frame of light-weight Duralumin, an alloy of steel and aluminum, encased the whole vehicle, with the transmission running through it to the rear. Duralumin also sheathed the exterior of the bus. It road on four thick balloon tires, had air brakes, and rested on springs that could compensate for bumps and potholes for a smoother ride. Or so the brochure had said.

The Nitecoach could accommodate twenty-six passengers in thirteen enclosed compartments or staterooms, two passengers to each, divided by a carpeted central aisle. (The odd compartment was used by a relief driver.) The velour seats in each compartment could be converted into upper and lower berths, with pillows, blankets and mattresses stowed beneath the seats. Each compartment could be closed with a heavy draw curtain over its sliding, staggered glass divider, and also had two storage spaces for suitcases, a small dressing room with its own light, two drawers for clothing and personal effects, a thermos of cold water, a nickel wash basin with running water, five overhead lights, and a fan. Linens were changed by a porter on request. The lights, ventilation and warm and cold air could be controlled by the occupants of each stateroom with switches.

Each stateroom also had a button that could summon a porter from the galley, which featured a board with small lights that marked each compartment.

Protruding from the rear of the “Morpheus” was a baggage compartment, also sheathed in Duralumin, containing oversized suitcases, trunks, and repair tools for the vehicle.

Each compartment had three windows, a long rectangular one that could be slid open, and two smaller ones at either side of the larger window, which also could be opened. Smoking was discouraged in the upper and lower decks, unless one had the long window open. Portals on the lower deck distributed heat from the motor, and could be shut off. On the upper deck was a smoking compartment in the rear that could seat eight in leather chairs (for gentlemen, although ladies often used it, as well). A lavatory boasted a flush toilet, running water in a nickel basin, fresh towels, a small vanity, and a full-length mirror.

Breakfast, lunch, and coffee could be ordered from the galley, an enclosed compartment next to the boarding door. Meals were served any time by the porters, who also made up the berths and tidied up the compartments. The steward (or cook) and the porters were all black, belonged to no railroad union, and usually operated the galley as a concession under contract with Pickwick Stage. The gratuities they received from passengers compensated for the “cut” Pickwick received from a concession’s business. Pickwick established the prices of the meals.

Skeen and his wife were astonished by how much had been fitted into their six-foot-four-inch stateroom, by the quality of the meals, and the layout of the vehicle. Standing in front of the “Morpheus” in the Pickwick Depot in San Francisco last Sunday, Skeen had said, “It looks like something you’d have encountered on the Western Front. I half expect machine guns to pop out of the headlights. Get a load of the size of that radiator!”

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Inside the terminal, Skeen picked up the local newspaper, The Mail Tribune, while Dilys went to the Grog and Grub Café. He found her at a table with two coffees and a pair of crullers. “Those ought to hold us until we can decently order lunch later on the bus,” she said. Skeen sipped his coffee and scanned the newspaper. It was a small paper, its first pages filled with local news of no interest to him. National and international news were confined to a page and a half just before the sports section and obituaries. He nibbled on the cruller and in between bites said, “While we were absent without leave, it looks like India’s Diaper Baby, Gandhi, has started his much ballyhooed salt tax march, William Taft was buried in Arlington Cemetery, and Mr. Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory has discovered a ninth planet.”

“Has he named it yet?”

“Not yet.”

The hubbub in the Grog and Grub Café – which was actually just a soda fountain tricked out to resemble a tavern – picked up as more of the bus’s passengers came in for a quick lunch. Not that what was served on the bus was anything to complain about. But many of the passengers hadn’t wanted to be disturbed in the morning and chose not to order breakfast. Skeen and Dilys had ordered breakfast and their plates had been cleared away almost immediately by the porter.

Skeen put down the newspaper, finished the cruller, and lit an Old Gold from his cigarette case. Dilys picked up the paper and glanced at the front page. “Well, I’m disappointed,” she said.

Skeen frowned. “With what?”

Dilys shook her head. “I’d expected the paper to have that Jackson fellow’s words as its motto. There’s no motto. It would be perfect. ‘We mean what we say, and say what we mean.'”

“You’re tired,” said Skeen. “Besides, you had it backwards. No matter. It meant the same, too.”

Dilys nodded with a sigh. “This trip is getting to me,” she said.

Skeen grinned in agreement. “And to me, as well.” He paused and looked mischievous. “I’ll write a letter to the editor tomorrow suggesting that motto.”

“No, you won’t.”

Skeen glanced around at the other passengers who were hurrying through their snacks and beverages at the other tables. Most of them looked like solid, middle class couples. One or two couples looked fairly well off, to judge by their clothes and manners. Neither he nor Dilys had befriended anyone on the round trip. Some local residents came in and scowled at the crowd.

Skeen then spotted a face he knew, at about the same time the face turned and recognized him. The person was speaking with a middle-aged man in a Pickwick driver’s blue uniform and cap. The man he recognized was a lanky young black man in a porter’s jacket, and carried small satchel. They stood near the entrance to the Café, talking. Then the driver left the Café. The porter frowned at the retreating back of the driver. Then he turned and approached Skeen’s table.

It was Rufus Lister, a man he had apprehended years ago for passing bad checks. He had served three years in jail. When he was released, he found a job with National Ice, cutting and hauling ice for companies and institutions. Skeen had last met him during the Enoch Paige murder case early last year, in the Ferry Building cafeteria at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco.

Skeen smiled and rose as Lister came closer. “Rufus Lister! What are you doing here?”

Lister also grinned and held out his hand. “If it ain’t the star hawkshaw, himself, Cyrus Skeen!” They shook hands. Skeen made the introductions of his wife and Lister, who exchanged nods. Lister cocked his head in appreciation. “You know how to pick ‘em, Mr. Skeen. Bet she has show-girl legs, too.”

“Stop now, Rufus, or you’ll make her blush. Have a seat. Want a coffee?”

“Me? Blush, Mr. Skeen?” said Dilys with mock offense. “I’d show Mr. Lister my legs, but I’m wearing slacks.”

They all laughed. Lister took a chair from an empty table, set down his satchel, and sat down. “No, no, thanks, I’m all coffee-ed up for the trip. Gotta stay awake and on my feet.” He paused to frown. “Can’t talk for long. You’re on this bus that’s departin’ soon?”

Skeen nodded.

“I’ll be your host and master of ceremonies all the way to Frisco. Me and Harry. He’s the other porter. He’s helpin’ the cook load up the galley.” He smiled again. “You and the missus want anything extra, just let me know.”

“Thanks, Rufus,” said Skeen. “But, what happened to National Ice?”

“All that haulin’ ice up stairs got to my back. Had to give it up. Did some carpentry work for a while, then I met Canty Lanier in a blind pig. He’s the cook this trip. He asked me to join him and Harry in the concession, because his other porter quit. Been at it almost a year. Nice dough honestly earned. No complaints.”

“Still married?”

“Oh, yeah. Stanzi’s still in the laundry. I see her every other day, between trips. Medford is my getting’ off station, and another crew takes over for the trip north.” Lister frowned in confusion. “But, see here, Mr. Skeen, what’re you doin’ ridin’ with the rabble? Pickwick ain’t your style.”

Skeen shrugged his shoulders. “I might buy some Pickwick stock. I wanted to see if it was worth the money. Anyway, what’s anyone’s style?”

Lister chuckled. “That’s a ‘sophical question I’ll ponder while I’m restin’ my dogs after this trip.” He glanced at his watch. “Gotta go now. But I don’t like that new driver. He was chewin’ me out just now and we ain’t even turned a tire yet.”

“What for?”

Lister shrugged. “I was joshin’ him about his uniform. It’s wrinkly and hardly fits him. And he didn’t bring an overnight bag, either. Told me to mind my own business. Hell, I was just bein’ friendly and introducin’ myself. He ain’t a pleasant man.”

Skeen asked, “Do you know all the drivers on this leg of the trip?”

Lister nodded. “This new driver, Cody Hosk, is subbing for Charley Stahl, a most congenial fellow. Hosk said he took sick. Never saw Hosk before. Didn’t even bring a backup driver.” The porter glanced again at his watch. “What deck you folks on?”

“First deck, third stateroom back, left-hand side facing the rear.”

Lister rose. “I’ll make a note of that.” He picked up his satchel, and nodded once to Dilys. “Well, I gotta see the dispatcher about Mr. Hosk, let him know he’s got the wrong attitude. See you aboard!” He hurried away with a wave and left the Café.

“Nice fellow,” remarked Dilys. “Do you always get along so well with people you send up the river?”

Skeen grinned. “Rufus is definitely reformed.” He paused to shake his head.” No, not always. No one’s ever called on me after he was released to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Skeen, for the fine time at Folsom State Prison.'” He finished his coffee and stubbed out his cigarette in the glass ashtray. “Shall we take a turn around the block and really stretch our legs before we get back on the bus?”