The year is 1950.
Johnny Hardwood used to be an actor, but he got typecast playing detectives. So he quit the business and became what people thought he should be. Now he’s got a big case involving a man named Mort Peters, who embezzled money from a major film studio and then faked his death, leaving a penniless widow behind. Johnny’s tracked him to a little place south of Sacramento, in the middle of nowhere.
On the outside, Herbie’s Diner is just another run-down greasy spoon with bad coffee and overcooked fried chicken, but Johnny’s about to learn that appearances are deceiving. Soon, the coffee’s run out, and there’s a bevy of killers, swindlers, femme fatales, and other types straight out of a private eye flick, looking to put him down for the dirt nap. Only this isn’t the movies. The bullets are real, pain hurts, and the good guy doesn’t necessarily beat the bad guys and get the girl.
Johnny’s got his back against the wall. He has to decide if he’s really a tough-as-nails detective, or if he’s still an actor at heart, playing pretend. And he’d better think fast because the people out for his skin don’t care which he is. Actor or detective, they all die the same way.
Herbie’s Diner was forty miles south of Sacramento on a stretch of road so lonely the only customers it got in the off-season were dust devils and oak trees. That didn’t mean it didn’t have its qualities. The honey-battered chicken wasn’t bad, and the coffee had been strained through a dishrag only once or twice before it made it into my cup. I probably should not have eaten as much as I had. My powder-blue Chevy was parked at the edge of the lot in case I needed a quick getaway, but I doubted I would be going anywhere quickly, except the john.
Herbie’s was a cramped joint consisting of a twenty-foot counter with nine stools affixed to the concrete floor with heavy steel bolts. The vinyl seat coverings were red, as was the countertop, a glossy enamel. Roughly six feet separated the counter from a row of six booths that ran the length of the joint, each giving a view out of plate glass windows. Six feet might sound like a lot of space, but when you have a packed house, that’s really barely enough room for two people to pass one another without someone having to turn to the side to squeeze by. Behind the counter was the kitchen, partitioned off and unknowable from where I sat, though I’d worked a grill a time or two in the past and could likely draw a map of it without having set foot inside.
At the far end of the room was a swinging door with a small, diamond-shaped window. Beyond the door was the aforementioned john, and next to it was a pay phone. I watched Mort Peters through the window as he spoke on the phone. He did more talking than listening, which told me plenty about to whom he was speaking. Occasionally he would stop, listen, then nod, and afterward start up again. He gestured as he made each point, the way someone who is reassuring another might. After a few minutes he hung up the phone and returned to his seat at the counter.
I sat in the booth closest to the door—again, in case I needed to make a quick exit. It afforded me a clear view of the diner. The only thing I couldn’t see clearly was the front door, which was just over my right shoulder, but I didn’t expect any trouble from that direction. I had my eye on Mort. He was the guy that had me prowling all over northern California, all the way to the Oregon state line and back again.
To know Mort Peters on paper was to expect a man like Peter Lorre: oily, smelling of cigarettes and clove oil, with a voice like a talking weasel, the kind of guy who would put a knife in your back then eat a sandwich in your kitchen afterward, explaining to your widow why killing you had been your fault, not his. To see him in the flesh was another matter. If not a Peter Lorre, I was at least expecting a man with sweaty armpits and a disheveled tie, eyes darting to and fro, and too much hair tonic holding together a coif that hadn’t been washed in days. Instead he was a very well put-together gee. He stood about six feet, with a build of a college quarterback. His neat gray suit had been recently pressed, and a dame could fix her hair in the mirror shine of his black shoes. When he wasn’t on the phone he had the air of someone who was not concerned about much. He read a two-day-old newspaper with casual interest, and he drank hot tea, not coffee. When he spoke to the day waitress, it was evident that he’d had voice training of some sort. Even if he’d never done professional work, at some point Mort Peters had fancied himself an actor.
The waitress came by with a pot of black coffee. She was a smallish woman, about forty, still had some of her looks left, but she had a hardness to her face. Money and bad men were the only things that left that much stone in a woman. I nudged my cup in her direction, and she served her purpose in life.
“You all set, honey?” she asked me.
“Yeah. Tell your cook to lay off the salt the next time he fries up a chicken.”
She jerked her head toward the door with the diamond window. “Head’s in there if you need it.”
“I’ll live. What’s a guy do for kicks around here?”
“Drive into Sacramento. It ain’t exactly Kicks Central Station up there, but it’s better than watching paint dry around here.”
“No motels, no gin joints?”
She made a face. “Sure. Just turn left at the nearest tree.”
“But people live around here.”
“Sure. Some. Me. Muncey. He’s the guy who salted your bird.”
“How about Herbie?”
“Herbie retired. He lives in Reseda with his daughter and her husband. Look, what’s this all about? You buying property or something?”
“Maybe. Could be I’m gonna be around for a while. A guy likes to know his prospects.”
“Honey, I hate to break it to you, but if you’re looking to live in this neck of the woods, your prospects ain’t none too good.”