Welcome to a preview of Civic Affairs, the 17th Cyrus Skeen
detective novel, set in San Francisco in late May, 1929. The novel will be
published in late April, and will be available on Kindle and as a print book. Enjoy.
unusual action to be taken by you, which, frankly, we hope you regard is in the
realm of civic duty, Mr. Skeen.” The man paused, waiting to hear some response
from Skeen. “We hope you are amenable to the idea, and respond with the utmost
civility, courtesy and responsibility.”
in an armchair in front of Cyrus Skeen’s desk. Next to him sat his wife,
Lucinda Pickett. The Pickets had arrived in his office a few minutes ago,
without having called for an appointment. He did not know who they were and did
not know what they wanted.
And what is it you want?”
hair was parted precisely in the middle. He was thin, as was his face, with a
smidgen of a moustache crowning thin lips. Skeen observed that the man, whom he
estimated to be in his forties, had that constant, pinched look around his eyes
and nostrils as though everything he ever encountered was sour, displeased him,
and probably caused him upset stomachs. Skeen had the wild thought that Mr.
Jubal Pickett took castor oil with his coffee, regularly. His voice registered
perhaps a tad above countertenor. He wore a plain gray suit, a vest, and a
black bowtie. A gray derby was hooked over one knee.
prune face that reminded him of Olga Quarre, a creature he had met in April on
a case. He guessed she was in her forties, as well, but it was hard to
determine her age. She wore a Quakerish bonnet and a lacy, high neck collar
that that did not quite encase her scrawny neck. She wore a bland brown jacket,
an ankle-length brown skirt, and brown, old fashioned women’s shoes that were
shin-high and which had to be laced up through a dozen eyelets. One claw-like
hand was wrapped around the handle of an umbrella; the other held a shapeless
cloth bag that was probably her purse. It had not rained in the city for days,
and was not raining now. Some people carried umbrellas regardless of the
secretary, Skeen had not come around his desk or even risen to greet the
couple. They had not called to make an appointment, and behaved as though they
had a right to be here. According to Skeen’s code of etiquette, they did not
deserve the acknowledgement.
which he put on the edge of Skeen’s desk. “I am Jubal Salubrious Pickett, sir.
I am the president of the local city chapter of the National Committee of
Concerned Citizens for Public Decency.”
years for the government to censor Hollywood movies, tasteless and indecent
material in vaudeville theaters, lascivious language in popular songs and
ballads, and commercial advertisements that displayed women in various stages
of dress or undress. It even condemned some men’s swimming suit ads. Its latest
pronouncements, guest editorials, actions, and interviews appeared in all the
city newspapers’ religion and Society pages every other weekend. It circulated
petitions to Congress and local politicians to have “indecency” banned from the
movie and vaudeville theaters, from the radio airwaves, and from printed
against the death penalty, against what it deemed “cruel and unusual sentences,
and for the mandatory rehabilitation of career criminals, and even started a
“pen pal” society of Concerned Citizens to write to convicts serving life
sentences. The Picketts themselves claimed to have a dozen “pen pal” inmates in
Folsom and other prisons in the state and around the country. Newspapers had
published some of the correspondence as items of human interest.
and commercial advertising and even for the censorship of books, plays, and
popular songs. Skeen could not keep count of the phenomena. The National Committee of Concerned Citizens
for Public Decency was just another such outfit.
a meeting last week, Mr. Skeen, and the local Committee has sent me to demand
from you a published apology for how you treated that minister and that
attorney on the occasion of their arrests for murder earlier this month. Your
treatment of them was dastardly, despicable, and utterly heartless. Yes, they
committed horrible crimes, but their prominence in this community was of such a
nature that they deserved the utmost respect and deference.”
frowned. His mouth was about to bend into a grin of incredulity. He asked,
“Would you mind repeating that, sir? I’m not quite sure I heard you correctly.”
please-and-thank-you business. The criminal’s wardrobe is irrelevant. If a
criminal is violent, he must be met with violence. If he is not violent while
being apprehended by me or by the police, then he won’t be banged up much. The
well-respected minister attacked me with an ax. The well-spoken attorney lied
to me and crushed the skull of a priest.”
from me? Are you out of your mind? Is
this some sort of college fraternity prank?”
you do not publish an apology, we shall launch a campaign to discredit you, and
to pressure the District Attorney to confiscate or revoke your private
investigator’s license. And also your right to carry a gun. We shall do
everything in our power short of calumny to stop your violence!”
Mr. Skeen!” Her voice was a tad lower than that of a countertenor. “We shall
see you run out of town! You are an atheist, too! You soil the city with your
presence! You are no better than that atheist, Enoch Paige, who ought to be
electrocuted, but now, thanks to you, he’ll walk free to spread his smut and
accused of murdering his ex-wife, as well. Churches and civic organizations had
been howling for his blood.
insult us, Mr. Skeen! We are deadly serious! You may laugh at us, and mock us,
but we shall have satisfaction and have the last laugh!”
came around the desk. As he did, the Picketts quickly rose from the armchairs
and retreated across the room. Skeen said, “Get out of here, you killjoys! How
dare you come to my office to insult and threaten me?” He moved closer to Mr.
Pickett and addressed him, emphasizing his words with a finger that tapped the
man’s nose every other word. “What you and you lecherous, spiritually arid
corpses want to do is ban what you can’t have and what no woman would ever
offer you, even for a price!”
sound and raised her umbrella to strike Skeen.
knee. “You could be charged with a variety of assaults, but I’ll let them pass.
I ought to wrap this around your neck!” He handed the broken umbrella back to
the woman. The woman stood gaping at it stupidly. Something like a pained “Oh!”
escaped from her open mouth.
the face. “How dare you insult my
him a round-house, open-palm slap. If he’d closed his fingers, it would have
been a fist. The man staggered back, lost his balance, and fell to the floor. A
little blood trickled from a corner of the man’s mouth. Pickett put a finger to
his lips and gasped in astonishment when he saw the blood.
charged, as well, Mr. Pickett, for assaulting me in my own office! Here, let me
help you up!” He jerked the man to his feet, spun him around, and then yelled
out to Lucy, “Lucy! Open the front door and stand aside!”
was standing there, undecided whether to be worried or amused. She rushed to
the front office and held the door open.
his shirt collar and marched him out of his office and into the hallway. He
shoved the man outside. “Don’t ever come back!”
umbrella and looking stunned.
derby. He opened the door again and tossed the hat out. It sailed over the
couple’s heads and fell in front of one of the elevators far down the hall.
“Here’s your hat! What’s your hurry?