Authors: Grant Bywaters
And it seems that's what it always came down to. You had to make yourself look irreplaceable enough with the right people. It made no difference if this was true or not, as long as they believed it to be so. Prescott knew how to work the legal system, no matter how crooked it could be, and without his counsel, I'd have been in jail over a trumped-up charge long ago.
Prescott's office was a short walking distance on a stretch of Royal Street called Balcony Rowâan area that got its name from the identical houses that were built by the Company of Architects in 1832, and whose trademark was the blooming galleries that sprung out by the adjacent buildings.
I reached Prescott's place, a two-story town house converted into an office building. I climbed the interior stairs to the top floor and into the small anteroom. The room was decorated with the usual peeling wallpaper, chairs, and a dwarf coffee table with economics magazines stacked on it.
Near the door marked “Private” was a French-style mahogany writing desk, with fluted, tapered legs. Behind the desk sat a young witchy-looking woman filing her nails and ignoring the half sheet of paper coming out of her typewriter.
I placed her at being about five foot five. She had dirty blond hair, a long, narrow face, and a pointy nose. Her chin had a mole on it that looked like an engorged bug trying to burrow its way in. Her black belted shirtdress did not round out her figure much.
She was new, but that wasn't unusual. Prescott went through many secretaries because of the “extracurricular activities” he had them do.
I walked up and she looked up from her nail filing and politely asked, “Can I help you?”
I told her who I was.
“Well, Mr. Prescott ain't in at the moment. And if you're thinking of waiting for him, you'll have to do it outside. We don't want you coloreds in the waiting room scarin' clients.”
She said, “Says Mr. Prescott.”
“He said no such thing.”
“You calling me a liar?”
“I'm calling you a lot more than that.”
Her nostrils flared. She was about to hiss out something when a buzzing sound coming from a glass-covered Knickerbocker Annunciator box interrupted her.
With a disarming smile I said, “Looks like your boss wants you. Tell him I stopped by and need to see him, if you know what's good for you,” and left.
Back at the apartment, I paced around the room like a large cat waiting for something to nibble on. Half a mile's worth of pacing, I got the call I was waiting for.
“I scolded my secretary for the way she treated you,” Prescott said. “She is really not all that bad. She has been through some rough times is all, and needs some breaking in.”
“I hope you ain't the one doing the breaking,” I said.
“Never mind that. What did you want to see me about?”
“I need you to go downtown. The district attorney wants me,” I said.
“What the hell does he want now?”
I told Prescott the whole story. When I finished, he said, “Get down there. I'll be there as soon as I can. And don't say a thing until I get there. In fact, just leave all the talking to me.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
City Hall was located on St. Charles Avenue. It was a three-story Greek Revival building made of Tuckahoe marble with Ionic columns.
I waited outside the door that read “Lawrence Emerson” until Prescott arrived, gaudy as ever. He wore a double-breasted suit and nicely cut trousers. He was a handsome man, with slick black hair and cool gray-blue eyes.
Emerson was the opposite. Prescott and Emerson had gone to the same law school, but that was all they had in common. While Prescott was smooth and clever, never having a problem getting the attention of the opposite sex, Emerson's odd, studious form juxtaposed with his social ineptness made him the ultimate misfit. Emerson had hung on to Prescott's coattails through law school, hoping to get some girl's interest by mere association.
Emerson was sitting behind a spade-footed walnut desk when we arrived. He stood up upon seeing Prescott.
“Jim! I wasn't expecting you.”
“I am here to see that he gets proper representation,” Prescott said. “So let's get on with it.”
“Very well,” Emerson said, sitting back down, while we occupied the two solid Dutch oak armchairs with faux leathering on the seat and arms at the front of the desk. “We got strong claims that Mr. Fletcher had a known criminal as a client. As you know, that can be interpreted as aiding and abetting.”
“You are referring to the late Bill Storm,” Prescott said.
“That is correct. The police interviewed his daughter, Miss Zella Storm. She corroborated that Mr. Fletcher was hired by her father to locate her.”
“You cannot prove that. My client did not accept any payment from Storm.”
“Even if that was so, he knew he was a criminal, and should have called the authorities upon Storm's arrival.”
“You cannot prove he knew he was a criminal at the time. If you took it to court, I would have it tossed out as nothing but hearsay.”
“I was not planning on taking it to court. I simply wanted to have a dialogue about the matter with Mr. Fletcher.”
“If that were the case, you could have done it by phone or outside the office. Your intent was to bring him down here without representation and intimidate him. You got a history of doing that, Emerson. Several of my clients are victims of your bullying tactics.”
“Now, let us not start mudslinging. We can be civil about this, can we not?”
“Sure we can. Is that all you got, Emerson?”
Emerson didn't say anything. He adjusted his thick cheaters, and looked down at his desk. He finally said, “Yes. That will be all for now.”
“Fine. I suggest next time you get the idea of calling my client down, you do not waste his and my time.”
I followed Prescott out the door, but not before Emerson asked, “Are we still on for drinks at the country club later this week?”
Not even turning around, Prescott said, “We'll see.”
For the rest of the day after leaving City Hall, I stayed with Zella. I waited as she winded down her practice session, after which we went for an early dinner before her evening performance. Zella stopped eating two hours before she had to sing. She said the digestion process would affect her voice.
Her performance went well, or at least better than I was used to. She changed the routine from the previous night, giving the people who had seen her the night before something different. The bartender happened to be friendlier toward me this time around, giving my order of coffee swift service.
Zella giggled the entire ride back to her place, but I paid little attention to what she was saying. Ecstatic, she started rambling on about how great she was tonight on-stage, but I couldn't shake the lingering feeling that I'd seen the same pair of headlights drafting me every time I looked in the rearview mirror.
I shrugged it off when we got near her place and nobody was behind us. Once parked, I walked behind Zella as we headed to her door. The screeching sound of tires trying to retain a grip on the road came from up the street.
I shifted around to see a black Buick Century forcing its way toward us with the confidence of a much larger machine. In a swift motion I tackled Zella to the ground. A volley of metal came out of what looked like a radio receiver sticking out the back window. The Buick didn't slow up, but continued its acceleration once it passed us.
“Get in the house,” I yelled as I advanced upon my own machine.
I roared the Ford's V-8 engine from its slumber, and tore off in the Buick's direction. I doused he headlights as the taillights of the Century came into view. The car made a U-turn on Charlotte and headed East Filmore Avenue. I permitted a number of cars to get behind them before the Century went right on Franklin Avenue.
If the driver was a hired goon, he no doubt had been instructed to take a detour until he was sure nobody was tailing him before redirecting to his primary destination.
I kept my distance with two cars in between us. It wasn't difficult to tail someone, as long as you kept the proper cover. Most people don't pay attention to who's riding behind them, but the goons I was following would be.
They stayed on Franklin before taking a right and headed down St. Claude Avenue, which turned into North Rampart. From Rampart they took Canal toward the river.
As soon as they turned toward the river, I knew where they were headed. Instead, I broke off and rerouted onto Decatur Street. I parked and watched as the Buick pulled into the New Orleans Hotel, home of the city's finest citizen, Johnnie Ranalli.
Ranalli was brought into the city by the New Orleans crime family to aid in their bootlegging operations. He later branched out on his own, running illegal gambling and prostitution rackets, among other things. When the red-light district of Storyville was shut down during the Great War, Ranalli converted much of the abandoned area into speakeasies, illegal gambling joints, and other forms of prostitution. When police raids proved to be ineffective in stopping Ranalli and other rackets in the district, the area was bulldozed to the ground.
Ranalli countered and took the gambling operations out onto the river, this time gaining enough political influence to get the police to look the other way. Yet this didn't stop a Federal racket probe being made on him that led to an indictment.
It was unclear at first what deal Ranalli made to avoid the sixty-year jail sentence he was facing. All that was known was that he and his big six muscle men had embedded themselves in the rotted hotel Ranalli had procured.
Prior to all this, Ranalli and his crew had visited the Pelican, a segregated boxing gym. When I was motivated enough, I would spar with the aspiring amateurs and up-and-comers. Ranalli came by during such a time. He had long been interested in starting his own promotional company, and offered me a job as a trainer or even a manager.
Many citizens of the city were afraid of Ranalli and there were warnings against getting into any kind of business with him. In the end, his plans never gelled. He summoned me to the hotel to tell me there wasn't a chance he could ever get it to happen. I had figured as much. I doubted I'd have taken him up on his offer even if it had come to pass.
I would again have to pay a visit to his penthouse room above the ground floor, but not tonight. I had to get back to Zella.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Her neighbors had gathered out in the street when I arrived. I parked the car, got out, and saw that they were all looking at me with apprehension. I ignored them and walked up to Zella's house. The place wasn't as shot-up as I thought. Most of the shrapnel had hit the house next to hers, which had the hard luck of being in the proximity to where we had been standing.
Zella was sitting at the quartersawn oak dining table, listening to music over the radio. The table had claw feet and bearded heads of growling lions carved into the legs. I wondered if you were supposed to pet the thing before daring to sit next to it. I pressed my luck, and neared the primal-looking table and Zella. If Zella had been shaken up over what had happened, she didn't show it.
“You really saved my hide,” she said. “I knew I done right hiring you to protect me.”
“Did Aunt Betty have a heart attack?”
“She took her pills early. She's been asleep the entire time.”
“I suppose the neighbors called the law,” I said.
“That they did. They came by, asked a bunch of stupid questions and left.”
“I was hoping they'd have left someone here to watch the neighborhood for tonight. I guess I'll just stand watch instead. Do you got any rods in the house?”
“Yes, but I thought all shamuses carried their guns around,” she said.
“I don't know about other shamuses, but my gun has been sitting in the closet of my place for some time now. Even though I got a permit to carry it, it doesn't stop the cops from harassing me over it. They don't like colored folk walking around with guns.”
“That's a shame,” she cooed. “Were you able to find out who it was that shot at us?”
“Yeah, they were working for Johnnie Ranalli.”
Said Zella, “Ranalli? I heard he's a tough customer. I was told he sent a rival of his a king cake, but instead of finding a coin or a ceramic baby inside, he found his missing wife's ring finger.”
“Where do people come up with this stuff?”
“You don't think it's true?” Zella asked.
“Maybe it is, maybe it ain't. Odds are, it ain't. Most of the time, it's just bunk the papers and folks make up.”
“I suppose you know your stuff as far as that goes,” she said. “How's about I brew you a big pot of coffee to help you stay awake tonight, and I'll see about fetchin' that gun.”
“That'd be kind of you,” I said.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I stood most of the night looking out the front window while sipping cups of coffee. The neighbors had disbanded an hour after I arrived. A few hours later it rained. It hadn't rained in the city in some time, and it came out of nowhere. Small, circular drops fell at first, and grew into big plump ones that bounced off the street and fragmented. Soon the road became a sheet of water, overflowing clogged drains and forming minute lakes. Then it stopped, and the sky became clear once again as if nothing had ever happened.
At close to five, a thud hit the door: the bulldog edition. I retrieved the paper off the doorstep and flipped through the pages. I found nothing of interest, except an upcoming local fight I had forgotten about. Middleweight contender Nino Lazio was to box an unknown contender out of Mexico named Antonio Medina as a tune-up fight before taking on the middleweight champ.
Morning soon came and Zella awoke. She prepared a small breakfast and had me drop her off at the club for singing practice.