CASABLANCA: A film classic that has endured for decades. That suspenseful night scene as Rick and Ilsa said their tearful goodbyes at the airport is not easily forgotten. But have you ever wondered what might have happened to those star-crossed lovers?
A shot rang out in the back of the café.
When I peeked out from under the table, I laughed. It was only the three bearded guys wearing sable ushankas in the back booth, drinking vodka and playing Russian roulette. There had been four of them. It was the first excitement we’d had in years. I realized I enjoyed it.
I sat back down at my table by the bar and lit a cigarette with the sterling-silver Zippo lighter Ilsa had given me years before.
I looked around the joint—another quiet night. The only customers in the place were the guys in the back, other than them, there wasn’t much goin’ on.
I lit another cigarette, took a swig of scotch, and tried to get my mind straightened out. Things just weren’t like the old days—during the war that is. That’s when my place was really something—spies, counterspies, undercover agents, police, prostitutes and royalty, all mixing together, united by a common bond…staying alive.
After the war, things really changed. Most of my clientele at the Café Americain were just that, American senior-citizen tourists—boring as hell— and we hardly ever had a good fight in the place. And a shooting? Never. Well, not til tonight anyway.
And my friend Luis, the Préfect de Police, he’d changed too, big time. With no spies or crooks to catch, he took up with a chubby Moroccan gal. He said she was a great cook. Well, what he actually said was, she satisfied his appetite.
Anyway, turned out she was married, and her husband didn’t like the idea of sharing her with a French cop, so Luis had to go under cover.
I chuckled to myself.
“Hey, Eddie,” I called out to my bartender, “I just made a joke. Luis had to go under cover ’cause he’d gone under cover. Funny, huh?”
Eddie gave me the kind of look you give to a five-year-old who’s just peed his pants. He shook his head and went back to filling Jack Daniels bottles with cheap booze.
I ignored him. I thought it was funny.
Anyway, my gambling losses were endangering my knee caps, and without Luis’ protection as a cop, things got too hot for me. So I changed my name and decided to get the hell out. But I had to take Luis with me—what are friends for? Besides, he still owed me the 10,000 francs from our bet. I opened up this new place here in White House, Ohio. I guess I should have known with a population of only 1,135, it wasn’t going to be no money maker. The lousy business, combined with my losses to Luis, has really put me in the red. Yeah, it’s the same old Luis, but he’s my bookie now, and he knows how I love to gamble. He owns half the damned town, as well as the mortgage on this joint.
That’s why a night like tonight drives me nuts. In fact, things have been so damn slow lately last week I took out a P.I. license and ran an ad in the dailies. I’m hoping for my first case soon.
I lit another cigarette and called out, “Bring me a scotch-on-the-rocks, Eddie.”
Eddie carefully folded the rag he’d been drying some glasses with. He placed both hands on the bar and gave me that look I’ve come to know so well— that combination of little-boy-pout and killer glare. He said, “Ask me nice, Chick.”
Sometimes I had a tough time figuring out Eddie, or Edward as he liked to be called. I was about to ask him again when the three bearded guys in the back ordered another pitcher of vodka. I lit another cigarette and started reading the daily newspaper for the umpteenth time.
I had just finished the lonely-hearts column when the front doors open and four guys and a gal come in. The guys were all wearing sunglasses, or shades as they’re called now, complete with wide-brimmed hats and black trench coats with the collars turned up—they might just as well have had HOOD stenciled on their backs.
I couldn’t see the gal’s face, but I could tell she’s a knockout, wearing a shiny black outfit with a short skirt so tight it looked as though she’s been sewn into it. And she’s carrying one of those black boom-boxes.
As the gal sat, one of the guys made a remark, and she laughed a little girl’s laugh.
Oh, my God. I couldn’t believe it. It’d been over fifty years since I’d heard that laugh.
Again, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
I lit another cigarette and studied her. The years had been good to her—sure as hell better than they had been to me. I guess she had made the right decision that foggy night at the airport.
One of the guys in black went over to the bar and ordered some drinks, and I noticed a bulge under his left armpit. I knew what she was ordering. I could remember. I may be eighty-six and maybe my memory’s not what it used to be, but some things you never forget.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. I was lighting another cigarette, and I heard another shot from in back. The guys with the gal jumped up, and each had what looked like a black cannon in his hand—pointed at me. I put my thumb in the air and motioned to the two bearded guys in the back. The hoods nodded, laughed, and put their artillery away.
But during the action, I guess the gal saw me. She got up and started walking over to me—carrying the boom-box—with that slow, sensuous stride I remembered too well.
It was Ilsa all right, and maybe she was eighty-four, but it was obvious her fashion model’s training was still there. About five feet from my table she stopped. She was studying me with those dark, luscious eyes, when I noticed a small drop of blood on her thigh. Good God, I thought, she was actually sewn into that dress.
I lit another cigarette with the sterling silver Zippo. Her eyes widened, she smiled, and it was obvious from her ample, rapidly rising and falling bosom, she was excited at seeing me.
I was about to say, as I had many times before, “Hello, shweeetheart.” But one of the guys from her table—I figured maybe her husband, Victor Laszlo—had followed her. And just as she was about to run to my arms, he took her by the elbow.
I guess he recognized me too. And I knew if he had not left her in Marseilles, nor Oran, nor Casablanca, he would not leave her in White House, Ohio, population 1,134. But before she turned, she pursed her beautiful red lips into a cupid’s bow and shot me a kiss.
I lit another cigarette, and watching her walk away in that short skirt with that undulating motion, I couldn’t help thinking how much I would like to get my hands on her…boom-box. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen—had dual cassette and CD with surround-sound stereo. I make a mental note to get me one. But before I can move, Laszlo tosses a bill onto the table, and they all go out the door.
I never thought seeing her again would have this effect on me. I was totally consumed in memories of the past…when suddenly Eddie threw a pitcher of water all over the table.
I realized I had eight lit cigarettes between my fingers and more had spilled out of the ashtray. They had set fire to the tablecloth.
I’m embarrassed. So while I tried to dry myself with the bar towel Eddie handed me, I asked, in a gruff voice, “Where in hell’s my scotch-on-the-rocks?”
“Naughty, naughty,” answered Eddie, “gotta ask nice.”
“Go to hell,” I said.
Eddie’s been with me for more years than I can remember. He’s a loyal friend—strange maybe—but loyal. He doesn’t know everything about my former life, and I don’t know, and am not going to ask, about most of the stuff he’d been mixed up in before he came to work for me. I do know he wasn’t always straight (take that anyway you want). I’m pretty sure last year he was mixed up in a jewel heist. Some large diamonds were stolen from the only jeweler in town. The cops never nailed anyone, but I was sure, from things Eddie’d said, he’d had a hand in it. The jeweler had offered fifty G’s for their return.
I called out again, “Scotch-on-the-rocks!”
“When you’re nice,” answered Eddie.
The tension was relieved when the two bearded guys in the back asked for another pitcher of vodka.
I lit another cigarette, and let myself fall back into my reverie.
I guess Eddie could see the mood I was in, because after he delivered the vodka, he strolled over to the piano and started banging out one of Scott Joplin’s old-time jazz tunes.
I turned to him and said, “Play it, Sam.”
He stopped, looked at me quizzically, stamped his foot and said, “My name is Edward!” and started playing the same ragtime tune again.
I yelled, “I said, ‘Play it, Sam.’”
Eddie stopped. “I am,” he said.
“Naw. I mean play our song.”
Eddie smiled and looked at me with lowered eyelids, “Gee, Chick, I didn’t know we had a song.”
Before I could answer, Eddie began to play, and after a few bars I started to sing along, “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey. A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe?”. . . Wait a minute,” I yelled. “What in the hell you playin’?”
“I always sort of liked that one,” said Eddie, “and if we’re going to have a song, I’d like that to be it.”
“Naw, you idiot. I don’t mean our song, I mean OUR song, Ilsa’s and mine.”
Eddie’s smile melted, he put on the little boy pout again, and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Ilsa, and WHAT DOES SHE MEAN TO YOU?!”
I was about to answer when the front doors are thrown open and two guys come in. As they stood there takin’ in the place, I studied them. One’s a big fat guy with wattle cheeks. He’s dressed all in white—overcoat, shirt, tie, shoes and hat—all white. With all his bulges he looks like the Michelin Man.
The other’s a small, shrimpy guy. He’s wearing the standard garb— trench coat with the collar turned up and a floppy hat with the brim turned down. He might as well have had . . .but you know that one already. At first I think it’s Ugarte, but I know he’s dead. But this guy’s just like him. And he’s carrying a black guitar case, and I’ve seen enough Edward G. Robinson movies to know black guitar cases don’t always hold guitars.
I lit another cigarette, patted the bulge under my left arm and opened my jacket. I figured I knew why they were here and who sent ‘em, so I popped open my cell phone and dialed a number I knew too well.
When I heard a grunt, I said, “Listen, Luis, call off your watchdogs. Sending the beef over here ain’t goin’ to get you your money any quicker. And while we’re at it, deduct that 10,000 francs from what I owe you. You should have paid me off then—it was only worth about 300 bucks in forty-two.”
Luis, being French, answered with, “Screwé vous!” which, for reasons of modesty, I refuse to translate. He also said I got no chance in hell of getting the francs—that I’d cheated Ugarté out of the Letters of Transit and that’s the only reason I’d won our bet. He also said he didn’t send nobody over to my joint. As he hung up, he asked how my knees were. Good ol’ Luis, always the clown.
As I sat there puzzled, the Laurel-and-Hardy combo walked straight over to my table and stopped right in front of me. I looked down at the little guy’s feet and couldn’t believe my eyes—it’s the first time I’d ever seen anyone actually wearing blue suede shoes.
The big guy took a card from his pocket and handed it to me. It smelled of an expensive cologne. I read, Casper Gutman, Esquire, International importer and exporter of priceless treasures.
“So, Mr. Gutman,” I asked, “what can I do for you?”
He unfolded a sheet of paper he had in his hand, and in a voice that sounded like thunder dipped in honey, said, “There are a lot of exit visas sold in this cafe. We know that you have…”
He stopped, his brow furrowed, his face reddened and he chuckled to himself. “I’m sorry,” he said, stuffing the paper into his pocket, “it seems I have the wrong script.”
His composure regained, he asked, “Are you senile?”
“Am I what?” I jumped from my chair, “You some kinda nut?” I yelled, putting my hand on my rod. “Listen, fatso, just because I’m eighty-six doesn’t mean I’m ready to be eighty-sixed.”
I said this with his tie in my hand and his sweaty face pulled down to mine.
The shrimpy guy made a whining sound, his face contorted into a crooked smile and his squinty eyes got even squintier. He put the guitar case on the floor and started to open it. In a voice that put shivers down my spine, he asked, “You want I should do it now, Mr. G?”
Mr. G put his hand on the little guy’s shoulder. It was so big it made him look like a hunchback. “Not now, Wilmer,” he said with a chuckle. He pushed my hand from his tie as though he was dismissing a fly, and reached into his coat. I put my hand on the butt of Betsy, my rod, but all he took out was a page from the newspaper.
He unfolded it and held it in front of me. “Wilmer and I are answering an advertisement from this morning’s paper. Are you the senile that it concerns?”
I looked at the ad and laughed. I saw what he was getting at, the ad read: Private investigations conducted in absolute confidence. The last line read, C. Nile, licensed Private Investigator, followed by my phone number and the address.
“I can see where you’re coming from now,” I said. “I guess I’d better change the ad to my full name.”
“Chick Nile, at your service,” I answered. “What can I do for you and your little friend?”
The short guy made the whining sound again, his face contorted and he started to open the black case.
“No, Wilmer. I will tell you when it is time.”
To me, he said, “You must forgive Wilmer. He is so impatient. The reason we are here, Mr. Nile, is that…”
He started telling me about something he wanted me to find, some bird—a crow or raven or something. I lit up another cigarette while he went on yappin’ about how some guy’d carved a big bird out of chocolate, hollowed it out, and stuffed it with malted-milk balls.
I asked. “Why’d that make it so valuable?”
He looked around the room, smiled, squinted his eyes, and whispered, “In each malted-milk ball he placed a flawless diamond.”
I lit another cigarette, studied him for a moment, and said, “Okay, I dig it. You birds want me to find some other bird. Right?”
“Not just some bird, Mr. Nile.” He looked around the nearly empty room, lowered his voice, and whispered, “The bird—The Malted-Milk Falcon.”
“The Malted-Milk Falcon?” I repeated as I laughed. “I get it, you guys are playing a joke on me. Luis did send you, right?”
The mousy guy reached down for the guitar case again. In his slithery voice, he said, “Please, Mr. G, let me do it now. He’s asking for it.”
“Yes, Wilmer. We do not seem to be getting our message across to Mr. Nile. And now that he knows of our quest, you might as well open your case and do the one thing you enjoy doing the most.”
Before fatso stopped speaking, I had Betsy in my hand, but the shrimp’s already opened the black case. To my surprise, he takes out a guitar, pops a black wig over his short-cropped hair and removes his trench coat. He’s wearing a white jumpsuit covered in glass jewels and sequins. A few strums on the guitar and he’s into a pretty good impersonation of the king himself, complete with pelvic grinds and all.
His performance was cut short by another shot from the back of the joint and a deep voice asked for another vodka. Eddie poured the vodka and took it to the one bearded guy. As Eddie started to go back behind the bar, I called out, “And a SCOTCH-ON-THE-ROCKS!”
Eddie just gave me one of his looks and, through clenched teeth, softly said, “Be nice.”
When I looked back to my two ornithologist friends, I was surprised again. They were both wearing straw hats, red bow ties and white jackets with peppermint stripes.
I laughed and lit another cigarette. “You guys really gave me a fright,” I said softly. “You looked so menacing.”
The mouse turned to fatso and asked, “What did he say?”
The big guy shrugged his huge shoulders and said, “I am sorry to say, Wilmer, I did not understand Mr. Nile’s statement either.”
I said again, louder this time, “Menacing. Men-a-CING!”
In reply, they put their arms about each other, and in true barbershop style began to harmonize to Sweet Adeline.
I’d had about all I could stand from these two loonies, so I pointed to the door, “That’s it,” I shouted. “get the hell outta here. You’re in the wrong story anyhow.” With their arms still around each other, they tipped their straw hats and did the buck-and-wing out the front door. As they left, I noticed they’d changed their tune—now they were singing, “You must remember this, a kiss is but a kiss, a sigh is but a sigh…”
As the last strains of their lyrics faded into the night, I turned and said, ”That’s it, Eddie. That’s OUR song, Ilsa and me. You know it don’t you? Aw, PLEASE, play it, Sam.”
“Okay,” said Eddie, “I’ll be Sam, whoever he was, if you’ll do the one thing I want.”
“Okay, I give up. PLEASE, EDWARD, give me a scotch-on-the-rocks.”
Eddie went to the piano, and soon the slow haunting melody I had so often unsuccessfully tried to forget filled the quiet of the place. I started to get all choked up. I didn’t want Eddie to see me bawling my eyes out, so I lit another cigarette and walked outside to try to forget the unforgettable.
I’m standing there in the fog-shrouded dark, the scene lit only by the familiar neon sign above the door. I look again, it doesn’t say CHICK’S PLACE—the first C’s burned out. I made a mental note to have that fixed.
I lit another cigarette and my mind goes back to 1942. I’m in Morocco. It’s about five o’clock, and the streets are full of evening traffic—tired, war-weary citizens of a beleaguered port trying to get to whatever they call home. Out of the crowd comes a young woman on a shiny red motorcycle. She stops in front of me, kicks down the cycle’s stand, and hops off.
I can’t help noticing she’s beautiful. She’s wearing shiny, red short-shorts and a low-cut blouse that’s defying gravity—and she walks with the practiced stride of a fashion model. Startled, I’m sure it is Ilsa, but as she gets closer, I see I am wrong. I’ve never seen this gal before.
She walks directly up to me holding one hand behind her back and presses her body against me. She looks up into my eyes, smiles, winks and says, “I’ve got something to give you you’ve been craving for a long time. Just think of it as something from someone who loves you very much.”
I’m too preoccupied smelling her perfume and looking down her blouse to speak intelligibly. All I mutter is, No one ever loved me that much, shweeetheart.”
She hands me a brown paper bag. And as she turns and walks away wearing those flaming short-shorts, I can’t help thinking how much I would like to get my hands on her…shiny red motorcycle—a big, 750cc, full-blown, turbo-charged Harley.
But before I can open my mouth to ask for a ride, she jumps on the bike, kicks the stand, and the motor roars to life.
I mean, nothing! She was gone. The bike was gone. The crowd, traffic, noise, everything had disappeared. Again, I was standing in the small town of White House, Ohio, population 1,132, the fog-shrouded darkness lit only by the sign that read, HICK’S PLACE.
I looked about me. Nothing had changed. Nothing to convince me any of it had been true—except, as I sniffed, the exquisite smell of exhaust fumes in the air.
But what was I holding in my hands? A bag. The same bag the gal had given me. I remembered years ago at the airport, Ilsa had been carrying a bag—could this be it? In the dim light I couldn’t tell.
Shaken, I lit another cigarette, turned and walked back inside the bar. Everything looked the same, except that I didn’t see Eddie, and the bearded guy was gone.
The back door opened, and Eddie, carrying a dirty shovel, came up from the basement with the one remaining bearded guy. Eddie gave him what looked like a roll of bills, which he shoved into his pocket. They shook hands and the bearded guy went out the back door. I made a mental note to ask Eddie about all that later.
I lit another cigarette and put the bag on the table. It looked familiar in the light inside the bar. I’d seen it before, but I didn’t know where.
It had a small envelope attached to the handle. I opened it and took out a card. I squinted in the dim light and saw something written in an effeminate, scrawling handwriting that was also familiar. It read, “All you had to do was ask nice.”
I took a sideways glance at Eddie. His expression told me nothing.
Cautiously, I unsnapped the clasps and opened the bag. Looking inside I couldn’t see much, so I reached in. My fingers touched something hard. I took it out—a roll of Scotch tape? Weird, I thought. I put it down and reached into the bag again.
This time my hand felt something soft with hard lumps. It was a purple velvet pouch with a gold pull-string. I opened it. Inside, something sparkled. When I turned the pouch over, out spilled about a dozen of the biggest diamonds I’d ever seen, and a small piece of paper.
I unfolded the paper. It read: “Here’s your Scotch-on-the-rocks.”
Stunned, I sat back and lit another cigarette. Eddie was at the piano. He smiled and lowered his eyelids. The strains of Mairzy Doats filled the empty bar.
Eddie had solved one of my problems—I’d be able to pay off Luis with the reward money for the diamonds—but now as Eddie played and we sang together, “…and liddle lamzy divey.”
I guess I had another problem. I was afraid Eddie really thought he was playing our song.
*NOTE: This story was originally published in Futures Mysterious Magazine
Jim Oddie retired from a career in teaching, commercial art, toy and exhibit design, and sign painting to live in Washington alongside the great Columbia river with his wife, Pat. At age ninety, when he’s not rooting for the Seahawks, he moderates two authors groups, writes an occasional mystery story, and tries to keep up with Pat’s ‘Honey-do’ List.