by Martin Maenza
It was a Tuesday night at Manny’s Showcase, a small club on the corner of Gill and Sparling. The club was slowly building its reputation for having rising comedy acts and other performers. Tuesdays were usually the last night of each act’s stay in San Francisco and were often the slowest night of the week.
Manny let me in the back door so I could bypass the cover charge. He was good about returning a favor, especially after I helped him out in his time of need. I spent weeks trailing his cheating wife and the young jock half her age she’d been messing around with. Followed the pair up and down the coast in order to get the goods on them, including some rather incriminating photos. That was all Manny needed so he could divorce her as well as prove he shouldn’t be paying her any alimony. Such is the life of a private investigator, making life easier for others.
The waitress, a usually perky little redhead named Rhoada, returned to my table just as the show was starting. “Here’s your water,” she said as she placed the glass on the table. The way she emphasized water, you could tell she was thinking she wouldn’t be getting a tip. Since she was such a good mind-reader, maybe I’d suggest to Manny that he put her up on stage.
Rhoada started to turn away when I said, “Uh, excuse me, but I wanted some lemon with this.” I flashed her my pearly whites, but they didn’t melt her icy mood. She grabbed a plate with a few lemon wedges on it and practically flung it to the table. “Thanks.” But she never heard me, because she was already walking away in a huff.
I squeezed the lemon wedges into the water and then stirred in a couple packets of sugar I had in my jacket pocket. While I would’ve preferred something with a bit more kick, beggars can’t be choosy. I’ve learned the hard way that, when life gives you lemons, you can always make lemonade. My mother taught me that one when I was six years old, and I’ve never forgotten it.
I was just about to take a sip of my drink when I glanced up at the stage. There before me was a vision. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
The young woman on stage wasn’t like the usual chicks and pussycats I see in my line of work. She was a classic beauty in every sense of the word. I drank her in entirely as easily as I did my self-made lemonade.
She gracefully crossed the stage in those four-inch black heels, never once faltering. Black fishnet stockings hugged her long, supple legs tightly as if they were the catch of the day down at Fisherman’s Wharf. She wore a short purple skirt beneath a yellow vest that complemented the white shirt and bow tie perfectly. A short, dark blue tuxedo jacket with tails and a similarly colored top hat completed her ensemble — stylish and sexy, just the way I like my women.
Her face had an innocent look to it, but her confident attitude suggested a more worldliness. Her eyes were the deepest shade of blue and seemed to put me at ease instantly. Her curly dark black hair cascaded about her shoulders as she performed her act.
I wasn’t that big a fan of magic, but this woman could easily have changed my mind without even trying. Even her name sounded magical — Zatanna Zatara — exotic, mysterious, exciting.
I got so caught up in watching her, I barely noticed how quickly the time flew by. She performed feats of levitation, disappearance and reappearance of objects, and various types of sleight of hand. Her stage show was very polished for someone so young. I figured she had to have been practicing this stuff most of her teen years, if not more. She was a pro, no doubt about it.
The performance soon came to an end, the stage grew dark, and the house lights came up. Most of the patrons finished up their drinks and headed for the door. Me, I had something else on my mind.
I motioned to Manny, who was already behind the bar counting the night’s proceeds. “Say, Manny, would it be all right if I went backstage?”
Manny, a large and jovial man, said, “For you, Jonny, why not? Just don’t borrow anything, OK?” He laughed, and I did, too. I’ve found it best not to offend the hands that feed you.
“You can trust me, Manny,” I said with a wink. I turned and headed for the doorway that led behind the stage. As I passed one of the tables, I plucked a fresh rose from the centerpiece. Couldn’t arrive empty-handed. That’s not my style.
I rounded the corner of the narrow hallway behind the stage and found myself facing a wooden door. A small paper sign hung crooked on the door, with the words dressing room scrawled on it with black ink. I tried to adjust it, but the sign just hung even more out of balance than before. Raising my hand, I was about to knock on the door when it opened suddenly.
“Oh,” the young female said in surprise. She was still dressed in her stage costume.
“Miss Zatanna,” I said. “Hello, I was just about to, uh…” Those beautiful blue eyes interrupted my train of thought. If anything was enchanting about her, it was those eyes. “Uh, that is, this is for you.” I handed her the single red rose.
She took it carefully in her long, delicate fingers and held the flower to her nose to sniff its fragrance. “Why, thank you, mister…” she said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Double,” I said. “Jonathan Sebastian Double. But all my friends call me Jonny.”
Zatanna smiled again. “Well, thank you, Jonny.”
“You’re welcome. I was wondering if, perhaps, you’d be free to accompany me for a cup of coffee or a late dessert.” I was trying to play this cool and not appear too forward. Chicks today don’t go for that kind of stuff. My first thought was to take her to Aunt Maude’s, but I quickly axed that idea. No doubt Crystal Cross would be working the late shift at the diner, and it’s never a smart idea for a guy to bring a new girl around the other women in his life. Besides, this girl was classy, and a diner’s no place for a class act.
Zatanna glanced back at the dressing room, then replied, “Sure. Why not? My manager has things well in hand with packing up the props. Let me just put this in something.” She disappeared with the rose into the dressing room and returned a few moments later without the flower. “Shall we?” Zatanna offered her arm, and I took it as a gentleman would.
“My car’s around the corner,” I said as we stepped out the back exit. “I’ve got a ’57 Thunderbird with a wedge-head 427 engine.” Truth was, my car had seen better days, but what it lacked in looks it made up for in speed. It certainly sounded impressive.
“Really?” Zatanna said, trying to sound interested. “I don’t know a lot about cars.”
We started down the alleyway towards Sparling Avenue. “My mother always told me that, if you treat your car like you’d treat a good woman, neither will let you down in times of need.” The young woman giggled politely at that. We seemed to be hitting it off quite well. I was starting to think my luck was changing for the better.
Just before we reached the lighted end of the alley, a couple of large forms emerged from the shadows. At first I thought the light was playing some tricks, but it turned out that these rats were the two-legged kind. “Hold it right there, you crazy kids!” a rough male voice said.
“Yeah, don’t you know it’s not safe walking the streets at this hour?” another male voice said mockingly.
Instinctively, I stepped between Zatanna and the men. “Hey, back off. If you’re looking for some quick cash, you’re barking up the wrong tree, fellas.”
“Who asked you, buddy?” the third male said. “Keep your nose out of it!” He lunged for me with his fist swinging. I ducked to the side before he could connect.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other two swarming around Zatanna. She started to open her mouth to speak, but one of the guys came up from behind her to place a cloth over her mouth. He held it there fast, and then she started to slump to the ground. It had to be chloroform or something. They caught her quickly and started to move her limp body towards the street.
“Hey!” I called out. I wanted to get to them and show them what for. I don’t appreciate anyone making time with someone I’m interested in myself. But I was too busy thinking with my heart and not my head.
“Don’t try to be the hero!” the third guy said as he tripped me up. I fell to the ground, hard. He nailed me with a swift kick to the ribs as he walked by. “We’re here for the lady only, and we don’t have time to deal with a punk like you!” The guy ran off down the alley to join his pals.
Despite the pain, I rose to my knees and then my feet. I hurried to the end of the alleyway as fast as I could, but it was too late to stop the men. They had already loaded Zatanna into the back seat of a black sedan and were pulling away fast. I knew that, even if I got to my car as quickly, chasing after them directly wasn’t an option. They had two distinct advantages — a head start, plus they knew where they were going. I didn’t stand a chance trying to follow them.
I hurried to my Thunderbird nonetheless; there was another way to track them down. I could only hope they’d do nothing to hurt Zatanna before I got to her.