Authors: Grant Bywaters
“Aw, who asked you!” he said, as he stood up from his seat and left, his goons in tow.
Zella seemed amused at the situation. “Sore loser, ain't he?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Hope he don't go taking it out on me.”
“Let's hope not, but hey, you didn't get blood on you.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The succeeding days went by uneventfully. I had given Zella instructions that in public I wanted her to treat me like her hired help. This was to keep onlookers from getting suspicious at the sight of a white woman being with a colored man. She took full gain of this, and had me follow her around like her helper boy as she went into town to shop. Along the way, we'd get comments like, “Hey, looky there, it's a pair of walkin' piano keys!”
The cracks didn't deter Zella, who had a riot over dragging me to the ladies' stores, trying on clothes, and asking me if I liked this or that. She had even more of a kick going to a kink shop that had all the accessories that someone that was into heavy bondage would need.
“I could use this,” she said, picking up a leather horsewhip.
“What the hell for?”
“For dirty boys that can't keep their paws to themselves,” she said, giving the whip a nasty crack.
That evening after Aunt Betty had retired to bed, I sat alone on the couch as Zella went off to change into her nightwear. I smoked and thought of nothing in particular. Zella came back smelling of gin and tonic. She had dressed herself down to a sheer black nightgown with a triangular cutout where her midriff was, while the rest of it formed around her figure in a flared bias-cut skirt.
She fell into my lap and, in one swooshing backhand, knocked the lid I was wearing off my head. “It's rude wearing a hat indoors,” she said.
“You been pillaging the liquor cabinet.”
Her mouth opened slightly. “IÂ â¦ umÂ â¦ may have had aÂ â¦ few drinksÂ â¦ perhaps.”
“You be careful with that stuff,” I said.
“What do you have against drinking anyways? It ain't right for a man not to drink.”
“Drinking can make a man act stupid. Do you want to see me actin' stupid?”
She scowled. “Well, when you put it that way, no, I most certainly do not.”
“I reckon you wouldn't,” I said.
She raked her right hand across my face. “You know, you're pretty damn ugly even after a few drinks.”
“You're too kind.”
“I'm sorry. That was vulgar of me to say.”
“Yes, but accurate,” I said. “I don't like looking at my mug neither. Why I ripped all the mirrors out of my flat.”
She laughed. “It's okay. I happen to fancy your face. So many boys these days look so effeminate. There's something wrong when boys are spending more time in front of the grooming mirror than their women.”
“Times are changing,” I said.
She pulled at one of my damaged ears. “Got that from boxing, did you?”
I nodded. She wiggled more into my lap to the point I needed a jockstrap.
“Most gals would say it's a vulgar sport. But I got to come clean. After going and seeing it myself, it shook me up, if you know what I mean.”
“Some women like seeing men beating each other to a pulp,” I said.
She laughed. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“You might as well have asked,” I said.
“Okay, I'll ask it to you now. I know that my dad was rotten, but was there anything upright about him? Anything at all?”
I scrutinized her face and saw that she very much wanted to hear something straight about her old man.
“He was a bad egg, I ain't gonna lie to you about that,” I said. “But I reckon I don't have much room to talk as far as that goes. I ain't exactly I saint neither. But I will say this, he treated me the same as he would a white man. I reckon that's why I stuck it out with him as long as I did.”
“That's so strange you saying that,” Zella said.
“See, a person being colored never mattered to me neither. It's kinda how I got into singing. My ma would drag me to church, but I hated going. She'd get to droppin' me off, but I'd ditch, and go out on the town. One day I'm going along Bourbon and I hit a few dives. I wandered my way to the back alley of one of the joints and found a band waiting to get let in. They were coloreds, and weren't even allowed to go in through the front. It was awful. But I get to talking to them, and they invited me to come try singing for them. They're still teachin' me now.”
“That's good,” I said.
“Fancy that,” she said. “I've talked myself dry. I'm goin' to see about fixin' me another drink. Why don't you put some music on, eh?”
She got up off me and went to siphon more booze into her. I went through her records, which were inside an oak radio cabinet and settled on Bessie Smith. I lit a cigarette as the 78 of “There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” crackled over the speakers of the phonograph.
“Don't you just love her?” Zella said, stumbling back in. Her eyes were glossy and dilated.
“You keep practicing and maybe you'll sound like her someday,” I said.
Her eyes expanded. “You really think so?”
She laughed. “I suppose you think my voice is too deep. I get told that a lot. That I sound too much like a man. But what am I suppose to sound like, Betty Boop or something?”
I laughed. “You couldn't sound that girlish even if you sucked on a helium balloon.”
Said Zella, “Oh, hush up and dance with me, you big ugly hyena.”
I danced with her for a bit, spun her around a few times, and sent her running to the bathroom, where she spent the remainder of the evening bear-hugging the toilet and vomiting.
A week later I stepped out of my shower to a ringing phone. “The New Orleans Hotel was bombed,” Brawley said. “Pineapples through the windows. Fire crew is hosing it down, but Ranalli and his men were able to escape the blast.”
“Got any suspects?” I asked.
“We got a good idea who's behind it. Seems we might be havin' a gang war on our hands.”
“That's good news for you. It'll give you a solid opportunity to get your name misspelled in the papers again.”
“You've been really pushin' it, Fletcher,” he said, and slammed the phone down so hard it made my ears ring.
I stayed in my flat most of the afternoon. Not wanting to leave the phone, I had my lunch, a reuben on rye sandwich and milk, delivered by the boy working at the nearby drugstore. My hunch was that I'd be hearing from Ranalli soon. It took into the evening for my hunch to materialize by the phone jingling.
“You hear what that hick did to my place?” Ranalli yelled, referring to Valentino.
“What'd you expect, wedgin' yourself up in a room with all them windows? You were just asking for something like that to happen. Maybe it ain't such a bad idea havin' the cops keeping you on a leash, if anything for your own protection.”
“I'd be watchin' that mouth of yours,” he said. “Don't you forget who you are!”
“You've got bigger things to worry about than my mouth,” I said.
“I ain't worried. See, that fink thinks he's got a pair of iron balls by coming here! But it ain't balls, it's lack of brains. Any fink dumb enough to do a straight shot at me is going to be put through the grinder.”
“He's here?” I said.
“Him and his apes snuck in last night. Must've took off when I told him I wasn't doing the job and not to bother askin' for a return on his dough.”
“Tough break for him.”
“It don't matter. Be out front in half an hour. I'm sending Jackson to get you.”
“What for?” I asked.
He hung up the phone, and left me to the task of figuring out what he wanted.
Thirty minutes later a Cadillac V-16 Imperial Limousine pulled to the curb on St. Ann. Jackson, the chauffeur, stepped out and opened the door.
Jackson at one time was an amateur wrestler. He was set to go to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, before he took a trip to a bar in Tijuana and tried to outwrestle a mob of bandits that claimed they were once led by Francisco Villa, aka Pancho Villa.
Ranalli said they pulled Jackson into the back alley and took turns clobbering him across the back with two-by-fours and clubs. Jackson ended up with a broken back and was a close shave from being crippled. He joked that a person's spinal column has thirty-three vertebrae, and they ended up shattering thirty-one of his.
“How's the back?” I asked
“The back is fine. Some days it's better than others. But I suppose that's what I get for being young and dead between the ears.”
“I don't reckon I ever asked why you decided to pick a fight with them Mexicans,” I said.
Jackson shrugged. “I figure you get told so much by your trainers and everyone you're the best, and nobody can stop you, you start believing it. I look back now and I think I was just trying to prove something.”
“You proved you can take a beating,” I said.
“That ain't proving nothin',” he said. “The only reason why I'm still standing is because they put enough bolts and metal in my spine they could stretch it along the Mason-Dixon line.”
“That's a lot of hardware,” I said.
He agreed and drove the Cadillac V-16 engine to the Canal Street ferry, which tugged us across the mighty Mississippi to the west bank.
I did not know why Ranalli wanted me to meet up with him, but what I did know was that there was more going on than him not liking some cat named Valentino. I needed to find out if Zella still played a part in whatever Ranalli had going on.
Jackson rode the machine out onto Peter Avenue. On the corner of Sequin Street, Ranalli's Ford Model B “Deuce” V-8 sat parked. Ranalli had removed the hood, windshield, and fenders of the machine in an effort to lighten its weight.
Jackson pulled up behind the flivver as Ranalli and a skeletal man with a sunken face got out.
“One of Valentino's boys rented out the shotgun house down the way,” Ranalli said. “We gonna go surprise him and see what ol' Val's up to.”
“Who's your friend?” I asked.
“He ain't nobody,” Ranalli said. “If you got to call him somethin', you can just call him Tommy.”
, that's grand,” I said. “Why'd you call me in on this?”
“You're in the lay of this when you asked me to back off that broad,” he said.
“Bull. You did that because I got lucky over the outcome of a fight, but I don't think that's the real reason why you did.”
“Suit yourself,” Ranalli said. “You can stand out here like a boob while we go or you can walk home. I'd be careful, though. Them coppers are known to drive around this time of night ready to go to bat with them knockers they carry.”
“They've never tried that monkey business on me,” I said.
“'Course they haven't. But what's it gonna be, you taggin' along with us or you goin' to be a sissy?”
“It's your ball game,” I said.
“Got a rod?”
“I didn't know I was supposed to bring one.”
Ranalli glanced over at Jackson. “Give him your canister. You're just waitin' in the car anyway.”
Jackson pulled out a nickel-plated .32 and handed it over to me. I stuffed the piece inside my waistband. I didn't like putting a gun there, not after I read up about a hood that stuffed a gat in the front of his pants only to have it go off. It came close to blowing his manhood out onto the front steps of the bank he was trying to rob.
“Tommy been out here watchin' this bird all day,” Ranalli said. “Says he went to bed an hour ago. It's a cinch. You're gonna take the front, and Tommy and me will surprise this dope from the back. Any luck, he won't even be out of bed when we give him the jump.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“We gonna ask him a few questions is all, and let him go back to sawin' his logs.”
I didn't believe him. But I played ball and followed them until they broke off down a small pathway between the cypress shotgun house and a neighboring villa.
I went toward the front steps. Midway up to the deck, the front door went wide open and a heavyset man holding a Browning Hi-Power nine-millimeter came out.
The man was six foot, two-forty, with a brown mop of hair, slender nose, cutaway mouth, and squinting close-set eyes.
“Toss your iron, get on your knees, and lock your fingers behind your head!”
I did as told as he stuck the muzzle about a fraction of an inch from my forehead. I watched as he was in the motion of working the trigger when the back of his head ruptured open. He was almost able to turn around to see what shot him before he went limp. I made a quick move to the right and dodged the falling body.
Ranalli was just inside the doorway holding a .357 Magnum. I collected my tossed gun and came up the steps.
“Quick, Tommy, get this bird inside before a car comes by and sees us,” Ranalli said.
I didn't think it would be possible for someone as skinny as Tommy to be able to move someone that large. Yet he managed to lift the stiff off the railing and into the house without any sign of strain. I followed behind him and Ranalli slammed the door shut.
“We got to get out of here quick. The blast from this cannon will get someone to call it in,” Ranalli said.
Tommy went through the dead man's pockets and found nothing but a tin cigarette case, tobacco, and a few bills on his person.
“This clown got nothing to show for himself,” Ranalli said.
“He knew we were coming,” I said. “Did you tip him off?”
“Why the hell would I do that? I don't have to go through that much work if I just wanted to kill a nigger. And, if I recall, I just saved your ass. So lighten up and get to searchin' this joint!”