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Fiction Historical

Prospect Avenue

Border City Blues

by (author) Michael Januska

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2018
Historical, Hard-Boiled, Historical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2018
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Oct 2018
    List Price

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West meets East as bootleggers and cops tangle with opium smugglers and corrupt officials in a new kind of gang warfare.

Prospect Avenue is nothing more than a dirt road ending in bulrushes behind a roadhouse. It’s a popular rendezvous point along the Detroit River for bootleggers like Jack McCloskey. But there’s more than just rum-running going on these days; there’s a growing trade in opium and people, as McCloskey finds out when he rescues the survivor of a bad smuggling deal.

As if this wasn’t enough, McCloskey is also trying to get his dinner club back on its feet, while his girlfriend, the indomitable Vera Maude, has a wedding to plan … and it’s not her own. He’s trying to hold things together while police corruption and domestic strife threaten to pull it all apart. Then, a series of murders brings powerful groups into conflict and may drag McCloskey into the fray.

About the author

Michael Januska was born in Windsor, Ontario. He has worked with books his whole life, both as a bookseller and for several book publishing companies. Stories from Januska's Prohibition-era series of novels and short stories have won the Scene of the Crime short story prize. The previous Border City Blues book is Riverside Drive. He lives in Toronto.

Michael Januska's profile page

Excerpt: Prospect Avenue: Border City Blues (by (author) Michael Januska)


Thursday, August 2, 1923

The roadster was bouncing like a mattress at the Honeymoon Motel. McCloskey stole a quick glance at the passenger wedged between him and Shorty and saw an expressionless face lit by the dim glow of the dashboard light. While it may have been a hot, humid night, his rescue was shivering like they had just pulled him out of purgatory, and smelled of standing water and mouldering grass.

McCloskey had to shout over the roar of six gung-ho cylinders. “Hey, kid … you all right?”

Nothing but dead eyes staring straight ahead at the open road. McCloskey was starting to think this one spoke neither the King’s nor anyone else’s English; either that or he was being shy with it. He was also thinking he had seen eyes like this somewhere before: sinking in muddy trenches. With one hand on the wheel, McCloskey fixed his own eyes back on the tarmac. He had to be careful; there were no streetlights in these parts and at this hour it was mostly drunks ricocheting their cars off roadhouses and the few cops still silly enough to be tailing them. McCloskey just kept dodging. His mind went back to a conversation he had overheard in a barbershop the other day, a discussion about the current pace and trend of things. He was also reflecting on how it seemed to keep falling upon him to pull the bodies out of the mire. Like when he pulled his near-dead brother out of a foxhole in France.

Another member of the crew, Mud Thomson, had been with them on this particular rendezvous, a trip meant to forge a new business relationship. McCloskey saw it as another opportunity for Shorty to shine, but Mud had a certain edge to him, and McCloskey wanted to make sure it stayed sharp. Between the roadhouse and the shore he had told Mud in a few select words to be inconspicuous tonight. Mud had simply nodded and took to the road.

McCloskey and Shorty were heading to Oriental House, the place before Chappell’s. It wasn’t far, just a skip down the road. McCloskey was counting on someone there knowing the lingo. The joint snuck up fast, so he started with the clutch and the gears until he smelled the metal burn.

He hung a sharp right into the parking lot. Shorty and what’s-his-name reached for anything that might keep them from spilling out the door and onto the narrow boulevard. The roadster held together and stirred up some dust before grinding to a halt near the entrance. There were only two other vehicles making shadows under the floodlights, their drivers probably settling their tabs right about now.

Shorty climbed out first. “Jack, he got my shirt wet … my trousers, too.”

“Send me the bill.”

Apart from the shivering, the celestial still wasn’t moving. With a combination of gestures and loud talk — “C’mon … let’s inside … there” — McCloskey got him walking.

Like Chappell’s, it was a big old house built with good intentions, but now found itself standing on the wrong side of town, refashioned into an eatery and illicit drinking establishment. They made their entrance, trying to keep it low-key, but their looks and demeanor probably screamed a little too loudly.

In the foyer was a lectern that must have graced a church in its previous life. An eagle was emblazoned on the front, holding a sign in its beak that said NO RESERVATIONS. McCloskey made his inquiries with the man standing behind it, a certain Frank Rymes he read to be the proprietor. Rymes looked them up and down.

“No,” he said, answering McCloskey’s opening question. “We ain’t got no Chinamen here.”

“What do you mean you don’t got any Chinese? Isn’t this place called Oriental House?”

“We’re working an Oriental theme here, mister. Check the decor; we got bamboo.” Rymes gestured towards the curtain that led to the dining room, a doorway to the Mysterious East.

McCloskey walked over to the bamboo curtain and parted it with two hands. There was a waiter addressing the floor with a broom and turning chairs over onto tables. McCloskey dropped the curtain and returned to the lectern.

“Let’s see the menu.”

Rymes gave him a card.

“You got noodles?”

“Of course we got noodles. It was our dinner special.”

“Okay then,” said McCloskey, scanning the card, “we’ll take some chicken lo mein to go. I think my friend here could use a hot meal.”

“I think he could use a towel. What, you drag him out of the river?”

Shorty said, “As a matter of fact —”

“Just make the noodles. Hey wait — you serving?”

Rymes stopped and turned. “Nah, us and Chappell are in agreement.”

McCloskey grabbed both sides of the lectern. He was thinking there might be an opportunity here. “This agreement sounds to me like it might be a bit one-sided.”

Rymes shuffled and blushed. “They pay me a small stipend to stay dry,” he said, “and in exchange I keep out of trouble.”

“Ah,” said McCloskey. He’d get a couple of the boys to come back later and lean on Chappell, maybe swing some lumber … but a soft pine. They’d save the oak for the next visit, the next conversation.

“Be right back,” said Rymes.

While Rymes and an unseen Reggie put together a takeout package, the trio wore the glaze off the tile in the foyer and tried to relax. McCloskey pulled out his pocket watch, examined its dead hands, shook it, and then held it to his ear.

Gotta get this thing fixed.

Shorty was tapping the side of the fish tank and managed to scare a goldfish that looked big enough to be an appetizer. The stranger stood there, silent, dripping and shivering, his arms wrapped around his shoulders in a feeble effort to warm up.

Rymes came out with the goods: three little white cartons. McCloskey popped one open and his partners gathered around him.

“This?” he said. “What’s this?”

“It’s what you asked for.”

“These noodles … it looks like spaghetti.”

“Trust me, the locals don’t know the difference.”

McCloskey handed the carton back. “No, no they wouldn’t, especially not after you’ve dazzled them with the decor. C’mon, boys.”

Shorty hesitated, did a double take between McCloskey and Rymes, then grabbed the celestial’s elbow and led him back out to the roadster. “Where to?” he asked.

“Downtown,” said McCloskey.


“Yeah,” said McCloskey. “Now.”

“You know,” said Shorty, stopping suddenly, “you got that thing again.”

McCloskey stopped. “What thing?”

Shorty let go of the Chinese so that his hands could do some of the talking. “That thing you get when you get going on something and I’m not sure exactly where you’re going with it.”

“When I get going on something?”

“Yeah,” said Shorty.



“Maybe not in front of company.”

“Jesus, Jack.”

The soggy stranger stood still, observing, listening.

“Get in, everybody,” said McCloskey. “Let’s go.”

They got situated and he pushed the engine into gear, letting the roadster’s rear wheels kick gravel at the cars parked behind him, speckling their varnish. He turned onto the Drive.

McCloskey was going to take this up with Chung Hong. Hong was high up in the Chinese community. He owned Oriental Dry Goods, a barbershop, a piece of a diner on Wyandotte, and was partners with one of his brothers in a laundry. Thursdays were his weekly poker game, so he’d be sitting in the back of his dry goods place with a few of his fellow countrymen, stone-faced, holding a fan of dog-eared playing cards. No food and no booze; just cards, cigarettes, and a few dirty looks.

McCloskey cruised slowly across the Avenue so as not to draw any attention and then took a right onto Goyeau. He pulled into the first alley on the left. Stray bits of light fell on ashcans, crates, and greasy cobblestone. He navigated a parking spot without disturbing too much of the refuse. Even garbage had a reputation to uphold.

The three disembarked, again, and McCloskey found Hong’s door. It’s never difficult to find, what with the green-and-yellow dragon crawling up the brick and across the lintel, looking down upon all who came to call. McCloskey gave the door a few quick raps. A tiny slot opened, exhaling hot, sticky tobacco smoke, and a voice wrapped around a foreign tongue.

McCloskey leaned his elbow against the jamb. “English.”

“To know the road ahead …”

“Ask those coming back.”

The slot closed and the door creaked opened. McCloskey stepped forward, but the scene made Shorty and the stranger pause.

A red paper lantern hung over a round table where four men were seated, looking like they had just finished a hand. One of the men was Detective Morrison. Morrison could tilt the Earth’s axis with his girth and swagger. McCloskey managed not to look surprised at seeing him there. He then noticed a figure standing in the shadows, stripped down to his shirtsleeves, holding a cigarette, and with one arm folded across his chest. He stepped forward into the light and, leaning over the table, butted the heel of his cigarette into an ashtray with a bronze snake coiled around it.

“To what do we owe the pleasure, Mr. McCloskey?”

McCloskey gave a short bow. “Chung Hong.”

Morrison stood up and reached for his hat.

“I hope you’re not leaving on my account,” said McCloskey.

“See you next week?” asked Hong.

Morrison nodded and the burly gatekeeper grunted something mild and unlatched the door.

“Did you see the look on his face?” asked Hong.

“Like he’s never been caught with his pants down.”

“Pants down?”

“Something we used to say in the trenches.”

“Ah. You know him?”

“Our paths cross occasionally,” said McCloskey. “We try to keep out of each other’s way.”

Hong sat down and exchanged words with two of the other card players, younger men, perhaps his sons or nephews, who then got up and moved through the dark and into the store. McCloskey heard them ascending the stairs. An older gentleman — a brother or a business partner — remained seated. McCloskey was still trying to figure out the cast on Hong’s playbill. It seemed the players kept changing.

“Sit down,” said Hong, “and introduce me to your friend.”

Shorty and the stranger each pulled up a chair.

“I don’t know his name,” said McCloskey.

“He doesn’t speak English?”

McCloskey glanced over at the stranger. “I’m not sure. He said a few words when we pulled him out of the river.”

“Where?” asked Hong.

“Prospect Avenue,” said Shorty, “right behind the Westwood.”


Editorial Reviews

Januska has a real knack for character-building and for giving his books a realistic feel; he nails the Prohibition ambience, capturing both the era's freewheeling adventure and its violent underside.


Other titles by Michael Januska