Authors: Grant Bywaters
“Easy there,” Brawley said. “I like the kid. I want you to go fetch her for me, see? So I can kindly tell the lady that coming damn close to rippin' a man's balls off may not be the most civil or legal thing to do. And you might want to get that pervert onstage to a hospital.”
“Yes, sir, I will see to it at once.”
A moment after the Frenchman left, two men carried Crisco, still holding his groin and screaming, out. My thought was that they were not taking him to a doctor, but out the back door to be tossed.
Storm's daughter arrived at our table looking even more stunning up close. Her long hair was like the pelage of a panther that was in stark contrast to her pale complexion and lips as red as her father's sins. Her face was still flushed with rage, but her voice was calm.
“Okay, mister. I suppose you want to throw me in the can over what I did. Can't say I blame you, but a girl gets tired of apes pawing her all the time, and I had my fill.”
“You should think about changing crowds then, toots,” Brawley said.
“I work better crowds, but I happen to be in a jam right now, and this place offered me a quick fix if I played canary. But I ain't goin' to strip.”
“Yes, because you're above doing such a thing, right?”
“No, it would just take a lot more dough than what they offered me to do it.”
Brawley laughed. “Take a seat, doll. I got to make a call. Chat it up with my friend, he don't bite.”
Brawley stood up and left, but not before giving me a wink. At first we sat in silence. She did not seem to be too bothered sitting across from me. I could tell others in the room were none too pleased. Perhaps she liked making people unsettled, a contrarian of sorts.
I had not realized that I was boring into her until she said, “Okay, mind telling me why you are looking at me like that?”
“Sorry, it's just you're very pretty.”
Flattery, even a poor attempt at it, was a good way of breaking the ice and getting someone comfortable enough to talk to you. But she was a bit too jaded to be flattered.
“You're a riot. I know when men are checking me out. It's why I close my eyes through most of my songs. So I don't have to look out at a bunch of bums with nasty thoughts in their heads. But you, you're looking at me the same way someone looks at a car wreck.”
I changed the subject. “Mind if I ask you what may seem as a random question?”
She rolled her eyes. “Sure, why not.”
“What do you know about your father?”
If the question caught her off guard, she didn't show it. Instead she said, “Now that is a random question, and one I don't care to discuss with a complete stranger.”
“You're right,” I said. I pulled out my business card and slid it to her. “Now we're not complete strangers.”
“How so? Because you gave me your card?”
“It's a start. That card tells more information than most folks get on a first meeting.”
She laughed. “Shouldn't have put that much effort into it, misterâ¦” She looked at the card again. “William Fletcher.”
“And your name is?”
“Interesting name,” I said, “but let's talk about your old man.”
“I don't know hardly anything about him, except for what my ma told me. She said he was some kind of lowlife. That's about it.”
“I'd agree with that, having known the man and all,” I said.
For the first time that night, Zella started showing signs of interest. “You're full of it, mister. If this is some ruse to seduce me or something, you're way off.”
“It isn't,” I said.
“Either way, I don't believe you.”
I shrugged. “Fair enough, but if I was selling you a bill of goods, where do you suppose I got this?”
I handed her the three-by-five photograph. She said nothing as she stared with a vacant look at the picture.
“My, my. Ma had quite the figure back then,” she finally said. “Okay, say I do believe you. What's this all about?”
“Your old man came here looking for you. Been looking for you for some time, or so he claims. Asked me if I could help locate you.”
“I guess you are now going to tell him you have.”
“No. Not unless you give me permission to.”
“Why do you need my permission? You could just do it anyway regardless.”
“Yes, but that can lead to problems down the way. Suppose I tell him, and he does something stupid to you. I'd be responsible for feeding you to him. Just bad business to go about it that way.”
“I see,” she said, while standing up. “I'll think about. I got your card, so I'll ring you up if I agree. Tell your cop friend he did a good job setting this whole thing up, and he can come sit down now.”
I smiled as she left and Brawley came back from the bar. “Like I said, I think I'm in love.”
“What you talking about? You get to go home to the princess.”
Brawley laughed. “She ain't no princess; she just likes thinkin' she is. She's only a Romanov by morganatic marriage. She's really Estonian.”
“How the hell did you two birds meet up, anyways?” I asked.
“I found her workin' as a pearl-diver at some slop house when I was off visiting relatives in New York. She didn't have two cents to her name or know a lick of English. But she smelled nice, even covered in all that grease.”
“You damn lucky,” I said, keeping the sarcasm out of my voice. “Makes me want to go out and find me a woman.”
“What happened to that waitress that worked nights?”
“Gwen? She was crazy, and that's a fact. First time I took her out, she was talking of gettin' hitched.”
Brawley laughed. “She'd have to be crazy to want to get married to you. Should've had your ex-wife explain that to her.”
I was just a kid and my marriage lasted about three months. She was a nurse I had fooled around with until one day she said she was pregnant. This led to her father coming short of having us married at the end of a shotgun. A month in, she came clean about faking the pregnancy and I wanted to end it, but she refused. It took having her walk in on me and some nude showgirl to convince her.
“We don't keep in touch,” I said, and left it at that.
I called Bill Storm when I got to my flat with the number he had given me, but my call went unanswered. I didn't mind. It was better that he didn't respond, since I would not have provided him with any information. Not until that daughter of his gave me permission to do so.
I would've used the time to fill out a daily activity report, but seeing as the entire matter was unofficial, I satisfied my time flipping through
magazine. I had been born a decade too early. With my prime years long gone, a black heavyweight by the name of Joe Louis finally got the chance to fight for the title. And there the champ was in a colored drawing on the cover of the magazine giving Max Schmeling a beatdown in their second fight.
I flipped through the magazine and started catching up on the rankings when the phone rang.
“Get to Congo Square soon as you can,” Brawley said, and hung up.
Congo Square was located off Rampart Street in the French Quarter. The cobblestone-paved park was once the place where slaves used to get together for festivities: music, dance, trading goods, and just socializing. Large oaks and ornamentals covered the park, giving it a charming air. Except that the pleasantness wore off after sundown, when it became the ideal place for muggings, dope deals, and on occasion was a hot spot for dumping bodies.
A thick coat of mist swept down between the streets as I made the short walk to the park from my flat. The haze wasn't thick enough for me to miss the flashing of emergency lights as I came closer to the square.
Standing by one of the benches just inside the park were a dozen or so harness bulls and plainclothes detectives. I positioned myself on the outside of the crowd so they would pay little attention to me. From there, I saw all I needed to.
Bill Storm's lifeless body lay hunched over on the park bench, wearing the same clothes I saw him in earlier that morning. He looked like a characteristic transient that had fallen asleep.
There was a loud pop as one of the aluminum flashbulbs from the camera of an officer photographing the scene exploded from the humidity. One of the detectives yelled, “Get a better flash, will you! And stop takin' photos of just the stiff, he ain't goin' nowhere. I want full shots of the perimeter before it gets worked over.”
Brawley spotted me soon after.
“It's not every day a big-shot hood is found dead on a park bench,” he said as he walked up to me. “I recognized him right away. His mug shot been on the board at the station for as long as I can remember.”
“What's the cause of death?” I asked.
“Being shot in the back of the head. Too early to tell exactly what caliber it was. I overheard the coroner, said that only his hands and jaw have frozen up, so he hasn't been dead for long. He had close to a grand and a couple of bank receipts stuffed in his money belt so that throws out any pipe dream of it being a holdup.”
“Why'd you call me out here?”
“What's the point in asking me stuff you already know?” Brawley said. “You didn't tell me what you were up to tonight, and that's fine since you're all wool and a yard wide with me. I reckon I'd know soon enough, and I did. We found this stuffed in the stiff's pocket.”
He handed me a folded-up parchment that had a message written in what looked like female handwriting. It simply read, “Meet me in Congo Square at 11:30 tonight.âZella.”
“Is Zella the singer at the club?” Brawley asked. I jerked a nod. “Is she his kid?”
“Why do you ask me stuff you already know?” I said.
“Confirmation is all. Figured it's the least you could do for helping you out like I did at the club.”
“I assume she's your prime suspect now,” I said.
Brawley shrugged. “We'll see. After her little outburst tonight, wouldn't put it past her. But I don't see her shooting her own pops in the back of the head and leaving a note with her name on it. You'd think she'd go for the family jewels first.”
“It would seem more her style. Why'd homicide call you out here?”
“They wanted to know if vice knew anything about Storm being in the city, but it was news to us. It don't matter much. This investigation will last as long as it takes to process the body. Far as homicide cares, he killed two cops, and this couldn't have happened to a nicer fella.”
“No, it couldn't have,”
“I hope he wasn't a client,” Brawley said.
“He was not.”
“Could've fooled me. The way it looks, he hired you to find his daughter. You found her, told her where he was at. She sent for him, andâ” He waved toward the dead body. “And that's what we got.”
“Or you could figure that he came in, wanted me to find her, I refused, because he's a criminal and say I got the impression he wanted to do harm to her, right? So I went about finding her myself to warn her off. As for her possibly killing him, as you said, the method isn't her style. Let alone leaving a note linking her to the murder. Besides, if she did, it was by her own choice, and I had nothing to do with it.”
“If that's your story, stick to it. I'll keep a lid on your involvement in this unless it comes up, but don't expect me to be alibiing you.”
“I won't,” I said.
“I wouldn't sweat it too much. It'll go cold as soon as something more important comes through the pipe.”
We spoke a bit longer before Brawley went back to the other officers who were wrapping the scene up. I watched as two officers brusquely yanked Storm's lifeless body off the bench, and dragged it toward the back of the waiting morgue wagon.
There he'd be taken to coroner's office, where he'd be put in a steel refrigerator until he could be examined.
I suppose a normal person would feel something about an old acquaintance winding up dead. I felt nothing. It was always going to end this way for him, the only surprise being it took this long. And yet even in death, Storm seemed to have a way of taking people down with him, in this case, his own daughter. I did not like the idea of having gotten her involved and in the crosshairs of the police.
A small, ghoulish crowd had gathered around the corpse. They watched as the attendants unceremoniously tossed Storm into the back of the wagon as if he was nothing more than a bag of laundry and they pulled out.
Bill Storm was on the front of the morning paper with the overglamorized headline: “Notorious Heavy Found Dead in Congo Square.” The article read:
At around midnight this morning a pedestrian passing through Congo Square found the lifeless body of a man slumped over on a park bench. The police were notified, and the body was promptly identified as known New York criminal Bill Storm. The coroner's office cited the cause of death as being a gunshot, possibly a .38, to the back of the head. No known witnesses or suspects were disclosed by the police when this story made print. Storm was wanted for a kidnapping charge in Brooklyn that dated back over a decade and the death of two police officers who were killed when Storm escaped capture. Authorities did not know Storm's whereabouts until now. It is still a mystery to them where Storm had been all these years, and one that will likely not be solved anytime soon.
I pushed the paper aside, and went through the stack of mail I found wedged under my door. It was all bills, the biggest being from the Bell Company. Oh, Ma Bell, the evil madam that controlled most, if not all, phone companies, wanted her money. It took little time before I stuffed the mail and all its contents into the waiting garbage can.
After breakfast, I drove out to the coroner's office on St. Peter Street. The coroner himself, Joel Wilkins, was not a pathologist, nor did he have any medical background. He was a used-car salesman who got elected since no physician wanted the low-paying position. He ran the place the same way he ran his business: into the ground. There were many reports that he diverted the annual budget money, which should've gone to supplies and salaries, into his own pocket. This led to a pileup of bodies waiting to be examined since last summer, but little to no staff to do it. There were newspaper rumors that Wilkins was to be audited for grand larceny charges for stealing state funds.