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September 26, 2007

Mike Shayne - The Toughest Red-Head Ever

MICHAEL SHAYNE By Brett Halliday

I FIRST SAW the man I have named Michael Shayne in Tampico, Mexico, many, many years ago. I was a mere lad working on a coast-wise oil tanker as a deckhand when we tied up at Tampico to take on a load of crude oil. After supper, a small group of sailors went ashore to see the sights of a foreign port. I was among that group.

We didn't get very far from the ship, turning in at the first cantina we came to. We were all lined up at the bar sampling their tequila when I noticed a redheaded American seated alone at a small table overlooking the crowded room, with a bottle of cognac, a small shot glass, and a larger glass of ice water on the table in front of him. He was tall and rangy and had craggy features with bleak gray eyes which surveyed the scene with a sort of quizzical amusement. He appeared to be in his early twenties, and while I watched him, he lifted the shot glass to his mouth and took a small sip of cognac, washing it down with a swallow of ice water. I don't know what caused me to observe him so closely. Perhaps there was a quality of aloneness about him in hat crowded cantina. He was part of the scene, but apart from it. There was a Mexican playing an accordion in the middle of the room and several couples dancing. There were other gaily dressed senoritas seated about on the sidelines and some of the sailors went to them to request a dance.

I don't know what started the fracas. Possibly one of the sailors asked the wrong girl for a dance. Suddenly there was a melee which quickly spread to encompass the small room. There were curses and shouts and the glitter of exposed knives. We were badly outnumbered and getting much the worst of the fight when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the redheaded American shove the table away from him and get into the fight with big fists swinging.

Each time he struck, a Mexican went down--and generally stayed down. I was struck over the head by a beer bottle and was trampled on by the fighting men. I must have lost consciousness for a moment because I was abruptly aware that the fight had subsided and I was lying in the middle of a tangle of bodies with blood streaming down my face from a broken head. Then I was dragged out of the tangle and set on my feet by the American redhead. He gave me a shove through the swinging doors and I stumbled and went down, to be picked up by my comrades who were streaming out the door behind me.

We got away from there fast, back to the ship where we patched up broken heads and minor knife cuts.

We went to sea the next morning and none of us knew what had happened to the redhead after we left the cantina.

I didn't see him again until many years later in New Orleans. I had quit the sea as a means of livelihood and was barely eking out a precarious living by writing circulating library novels. I stopped by at a smoke-filled bar in the French Quarter for a drink and I glanced back over the rest of the room as I ordered a drink at the bar.

There I saw him! Sitting alone at a booth halfway down the room with a shot glass and a larger drink of ice water before him. There could be no question that it was he. Several years older and with broader shoulders than I remembered, but with the same look of aloneness in his bleak gray eyes.

I paid for my drink and carried it back to his booth with me. He looked puzzled when I slid into the booth opposite him, and I quickly reminded him of the fight on the Tampico waterfront and told him I was the sailor whom he had dragged out of the fight and shoved outdoors. A wide grin came over his face and he started to say something when a sudden chill came into his features. He was looking past me at the front door and I turned my head to see what he was seeing.

Two men had entered the bar and were making their way toward us. He tossed off his cognac and slid out of the booth as they stopped beside us. He said harshly to me, "Stay here," and started down the aisle with one burly man leading the way and the other following close behind. Thus they disappeared in the French Quarter, and I've never seen him again.

But I have never forgotten him.

Article taken from Halliday's essay on Mike Shayne in Otto Penzler's The Great Detectives (Little, Brown, 1978).

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