Read The Red Storm Online

Authors: Grant Bywaters

The Red Storm (6 page)

Yet Wilkins was the type of man I liked dealing with, because no matter what his personal prejudices were, the desire to make a buck or bargain trumped it. The few dealings I had with him, I negotiated with money. Yet when I heard him grumbling about not being able to get tickets to an upcoming fight at the Coliseum, I used the few contacts I still had with the boxing world to get him a pair.

He could always be found in his office, signing death certificates or betting on the ponies and anything else that had four legs and could run.

His office, endowed with a solid wood office desk and a deep chestnut-brown filing cabinet, smelled of stale carpets and furniture polish. Wilkins ignored me as I came in. Instead, he sat behind his desk on an Old Rimu captain's chair, cradling his phone like a hophead cradled a mud pipe.

Wilkins was tall, about six foot two, and I guessed through my years of sizing opponents' actual weight, weighed around one hundred and ninety pounds, with slick black hair, sharp blue eyes, and wearing a loud blue suit.

I sat down at the executive guest chair across from his desk and waited for him to finish. When he hung up, he said, “What'd you want?”

“Come to cash in on your IOU for those tickets I scored for you.”

“So you were bribing me?”

“I wouldn't bribe you, that's illegal. Getting you them tickets was me being generous.”

“Well, the fight was awful. They kept clenching for all the rounds, and there was no knockout.”

“You wanted tickets, I got them for you. It ain't my fault the fight was all rot. You should've paid more attention to who was being matched up. You get two out-of-shape heavies in the ring, and that's what you're gonna get.”

“All right, all right, what can I get you so you can get out of here?”

“Bill Storm was brought in last night. I'd like to have a look at the autopsy report.”

“Why, so you can sell it off to the papers?”

“I wouldn't do something that could get you in more trouble than you're already in.”

“I'm not in any trouble. Those state investigators can go through my books all they want, they won't find anything. They're just trying to put the blame on me for their lack of proper funding. The real crooks are them, not me.”

“If that's how you see it, I won't argue with you,” I said. “Personally, I hope you stay at this job.”

“Why's that?”

“I don't like you, and you don't like me. But that don't keep us from doing business.”

“You're right about me not liking you,” he said, slouching back in his chair and putting his hands behind his greasy hair. “They just got finished with him.”

“Were you there for the autopsy?”

“No way. I don't even want to be in the same room as a dead body. They scare the hell out of me.”

“You picked an odd career for someone that doesn't like seeing dead bodies.”

Wilkins shrugged. “Nobody else wanted it. Wait here.”

He left his office. I waited. He returned with a folder and slapped it down on his desk.

“This is hot stuff, haven't even released it to the cops yet,” he said. This was his salesman's way of telling me how valuable a commodity he was giving to me in exchange.

“What're the findings?” I asked.

“They pulled a .38 bullet out of his head. Safe to say, that's what did the chap in, right? But if the bullet didn't kill him, he would've died of a whole lot of things. He had a bunch of problems; kidney, liver, heart. I ain't no doctor, but he should've been dead already.”

I said, “Looks like the lead put him out his misery.”

“You could say that. Not a bad way to go, if you ask me.”

He handed over the report. It was a standard form, broken into external and internal examination, evidence, and opinion. Wilkins was correct: under the internal section was a shopping list of problems that were discovered. Storm wasn't lying about not having long to live.

Wilkins said, “We finished here?”

I said we were. On my way out, I glanced into the examining room. Two pathologists were overseeing an assembly line of corpses. The dieners worked fast to clean and prep the bodies once the pathologists were done in order to make room for the next batch of flesh. Only the sound of hammering, sawing, and laughter could be heard from inside.

*   *   *

I got back to my apartment in time to catch the ringing phone and found a husky female voice at the end of it which I recognized immediately.

“Is this William Fletcher?”

“Yes, it is. What can I do for you, Zella?”

There was a pause. “I called to tell you there is no point in me thinking about seeing my dad on account that he's dead.”

“Yes, I know,” I said.

“Read it from the papers, did you?”

“No, I was there when they were hauling him off.”

“My, you get around, don't you? I suppose you also know that the police dragged me in for questioning early this morning.”

“I figured they'd do as much.”

“Do you know anything about this supposed note I sent telling him to meet me at that park?”

“No, I don't. I only know that you didn't write it. Unless you figured it out on your own where he was, which'd be a nifty trick, since I don't even know that.”

“I didn't. I told the police that, too. I mentioned that you told me he was looking for me, but you left it up to me to let you know if I wanted to meet him or not.”

“What did the police say to that?” I asked.

“Nothing. But they did have a few nasty looks when I mentioned your name. Not the most popular one with them, are you?”

“That's something I've been trying to rectify,” I said. “It's bad for business when you got almost every cop in town stacked against you. But you seem to have come out of it unscathed. They let you go.”

“They had to. They really didn't have anything. Anyone could have written that note, but I sure as hell didn't. What's your take on it?”

“I think it speaks for itself. The note was just an easy ploy to draw him out into the open.”

“They wanted me to claim the body,” she said. “But I refused. I ain't paying for that bastard's burial costs. I applied for county disposition.”

“That works,” I said. “I suppose that's that. Good luck with your singing and all.”

“Oh, about that,” she said, and went on to tell me she would be singing tonight at a new, “classier” venue a few blocks up from where she had performed.

Apparently Zella and the owner had some choice words with each other that ended with her quitting. Lucky for her, she got a call from a promoter of a competing establishment in need of entertainment tonight

“Said if I do well,” she continued, “I'll get more bookings with him. You best not be getting any wrong ideas; this ain't no whorehouse like the last joint.”

“I'm sure it isn't,” I said.

“You should come tonight if you ain't busy. Bring your girl if you have one.”

“I don't have one, and even if I wanted to come, I doubt they'd accept coloreds at the door.”

“I'll make sure they let you in,” she said.

“What's the name of the place?”

“You'll know. It'll be the place that has my beautiful picture on it,” she said with a laugh, and hung up.

For half an hour I flipped through the reverse telephone directory to get an address for the number Storm had given me. The directory was an important tool but hard to get since it was restricted mostly to telephone companies and law enforcement. Naturally, neither had any inclination to let me have one, and so I took one from the city library.

The address for the number was on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse District. Storm had to have been staying at the Sugar House Hotel. It was the only hotel there and got its name because it once was the site of a sugar mill. At one time, the Warehouse District flourished, storing everything from coffee to grain to Chiquita bananas. You wouldn't know that by looking at it today. The Depression had stopped a lot of business done on the docks and the area had since become a wasteland.

I lit a cigarette and started out the door. Twenty minutes later, I parked my lift a block away from the hotel, and took out a pair of sheepskin driving gloves, which I rarely used for actual driving, and lock picking tools from the glove compartment.

The hotel was made of the same exposed brick and steel as most old warehouses. I made my way inside and saw a fat man sitting behind the reception desk. His gluttonous figure took up most of the desk, as he hunched over an ironclad motored fan in a futile attempt to cool himself. He had thin gray hair, drooping eyes, and a fleshy face and jowls. From the bulk I could see, he looked to weigh close to three hundred pounds, and likely stood under six foot. He was dressed in a button-up white shirt, tie, and suspenders, with sweat stains under his collar and armpits.

I sat at a chair in a part of the lobby that allowed me to see the large man, but at an angle where he could not see me. There I waited as he sipped on a pot of coffee about the size of a drum of oil. My patience was rewarded when he excused himself from the desk and waddled into a side door that must have been the lavatory.

I quickly went around the desk and flipped through the registry. Storm was not listed under his name, but I recognized the name “Chris Denardo” as an alias Storm used back when we were working together. The room he was listed under was 37.

On the back wall was a wooden key rack carved in the shape of a shield with numbers behind each hook scattered across it. Yet there was no key for his room. Storm must have had it on his person.

I took the stairs up to the second floor and down the hall to room 37. I put my ear to the door and tried to make out if anyone was inside. Not hearing anything, I put the driving gloves on and took out my tools.

What I was about to do was risky and something I usually avoided doing at all costs, because no matter which way you cut it, I would be illegally entering the room. If I were to get caught, there would be no getting out of it, and losing my license would be the least of my problems.

I examined the lock and found it to be a standard pin-tumbler lock, easy to pick, like most locks. They were nothing but false security for people. The reality is, if some cat wants to get into your joint bad enough, your run-of-the-mill lock won't keep them out.

I jammed a stainless steel tension wrench into the keyhole and pushed it slightly in the direction the key would turn before inserting the pick. I raked the pick back and forth until the driving pins moved above the shear line, allowing the plug to rotate freely to where I could open the door.

I gave the hall a final look to make sure it was still empty, and stepped in, closing the door behind me. I hit the lights and found the room to be nearly empty of anything that showed someone was staying there. The wrought-iron four-poster bed was made. The maids had already cleaned the room, presumably early in the morning since all the other keys were still on the rack downstairs.

I went through a basic search of the room, but not as in-depth as some searches. I'd seen Brawley do searches where his team would tear a place apart from floorboards to ceiling, tossing the disregarded material into the center. I'd seen a woman become so distraught that she ratted her own husband out in order to spare her china set from being damaged.

I looked under the bed and hit upon a worn leather suitcase. I snapped open the locks. Inside I found a Browning HP 35 lying on top of a stack of old rags. I popped the blue steel thirteen-round magazine, and saw that no bullets were missing. The gun was clean and looked like it hadn't been recently fired.

I set the rod down and sifted through the clothes. At the bottom of the case, I found a yellow Western Union envelope with a telegram that read:

I HAVE FOUND YOUR ACHILLES HEEL STOP

IT WILL RECEIVE THE SAME TREATMENT YOU BESTOWED ONTO ME STOP

I pocketed the telegram, placed the clothes and gun into the case, and slid it back under the bed. Outside the room, I made sure the door was once again locked before taking the stairs down to the lobby. The large man had resumed his position in front of the fan at the desk, and paid me no mind as I walked out.

 

CHAPTER 6

Later that evening, I headed down Bourbon, passing by the usual crowd of folks. An old Creole woman was dragging a leash behind her, although no visible animal was attached to it. Rich men who had left the wives at home were out in traditional Southern attire of bow ties, striped suits, straw hats, and walking canes to find some evening pleasure. The local former Prohibition agent, intoxicated again, was harassing fresh tourists for money.

I stumbled upon Zella Storm's photo fronting the windows of the Bourbon Street Blues Club on the corner of Bourbon and Conti Street. On the top galleries of the establishment inebriated birds were screaming down to any mildly attractive woman passing the street below to strip down to nothing but their toe polish.

The doorman spotted me. He pulled out the business card I had given to Zella.

“You William Fletcher?”

“That would be me,” I said.

He jerked his head inside. “Just in time. She's about to take the stage.”

I went in through the open French doors to a smoke-polluted room packed to the gills. The tables around the stage were filled with men. They were smoking cigars or drinking right out of the bottles the booze came in. Pouring shots was a waste of time for this crowd.

The waiters were as hard-boiled, plowing through the interlocking crowd like linebackers going through an offensive line.

I took my place at the congested bar, and kept myself amused by observing the barkeep deliberately overlooking me. He took orders from everyone that came up or was around, except me. I had grown so used to this kind of conduct that it had nearly developed into a sort of comedic routine.

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