Read The Red Storm Online

Authors: Grant Bywaters

The Red Storm (9 page)

I took the opportunity to go to my place, strip, shower, and sleep for a few hours. When I woke, I went to a neighboring diner where I had coffee and a po'boy before driving out for a return visit to the New Orleans Hotel.

The hotel had once been an elegant highlight of the city, but mismanagement and poor upkeep had left it a rotted, melancholy site. The exterior was made up of stone arches, gabled windows, and wrought-iron lace balconies, while the interior was constructed of marble flooring and walls that were crumbling away.

In a worse state of corrosion than the Roman Colosseum was the lobby. The walls looked like they were a slight tremor away from coming down. The floor didn't look much better. A rotted, moldy carpet ran across it like the remains of a dead animal.

The air was stale from all the windows being boarded up. A faint smell of chemical cleaners was unable to mask the sour mildew stench.

A young man stood behind a front desk that gave the impression that it'd been built from scrap wood nailed together.

“Is Ranalli in?”

“Who?”

“John Ranalli. You know, the only bird occupying this dump.”

My directness didn't seem to please him. “What is this about?”

“Just tell him Mr. Fletcher wants to talk to him.”

The young man gave me a firm look over, didn't like what he saw, and turned on his heels and went to an oak ring box on the back wall. The box had two rusted bells on top and receiver that looked like a tin can with string fastened to it.

He mumbled something in it, then my name, waited, then came back to me. He said, “Follow me,” so I followed him up the wooden stairs with intermediate landings between the main floors. Two of Ranalli's sentinels were waiting for me as we made our way to the top level. They patted me down, said nothing, and led me into the first door along the poorly lit hallway.

The room was large with a foyer that led into the main room, which was outfitted with a wet bar, floor-to-ceiling windows, and two French doors that went to a private balcony. The interior was empty except for Ranalli, who was lying across a crimson chesterfield reading the sports page. He had dark hair that was cut short and sharp. His skin was mildly sunburned, and his raw face was becoming unsightly with age. His build was that of someone that spent his days pounding rivets in with a sledgehammer. The sleeves to his shirt stretched up to reveal two hairy forearms that were as thick as hindquarters.

“Who do you think is goin' to win tonight?” he asked, not looking up from the paper.

“The smart money will be on Lazio, but I'm thinking Medina.”

“Medina? He's got a thirty-five–sixteen–two record with only fourteen knockouts!”

“Yeah, but them Mexican fighters got misleading records. They get most of their losses when they are young and thrown to the wolves.”

“You better be wrong about Medina. I put my rubes on Lazio winning by a knockout in the eighth,” Ranalli said, tossing the paper aside and sitting up.

I shrugged. “It could happen.”

“Still workin' as a private dick?”

“That's right,” I said.

“That's too bad. If things worked out, you could've done something better with yourself.”

“Perhaps,” I said.

“Why'd you ever quit boxing anyway? When I was visitin' that athletic club, I saw you sparring against some real pros, like Sergio Diavolo. You weren't even tryin' and you tied him in knots so fast that his fat-boy manager came into the ring and read you the riot act.”

“I reckon I was tired of the politics behind it all.”

Said Ranalli, “Things would've been different had I been able to get my thing goin'. A guy like you would've had a fair shot at the title. There'd been none of that riggin' nonsense neither. People are gettin' tired of that kind of stuff goin on in the sport. Be no pullin' punches or crooked judgin'. You gotta give them fans what they want, see. That's where the real dough is. And what people want is some legit boxin'. It don't matter if you're a nigger, a kike, a coolie, long as you got the stuff in the ring, like that Brown Bomber. He's got the stuff all right.”

“Yes, he sure does,” I said. “But why don't we get to why I came here.”

Ranalli shrugged. “Okay. Why'd you come here?”

“A couple of your birds tried to shoot up a canary I'm doin' protection for.”

“How'd you know they were workin' for me?”

“Easy. They led me right to where you were jungled up at.”

Said Ranalli, “That dish hire you?”

“Maybe.”

“Why should I care that you're protecting her?”

“Because,” I said, “you were wise to get the John Laws on your side by going stoolie. But what'd you think is going to happen now that your apes are shooting up a neighborhood?”

“They can't finger me on that,” he said. “The only one that knows is you, and they'll believe a mug like me over someone like you any time of the week. Besides, every one of them bulls has got their hands stuck in somethin'. You start stackin' the iron men in front of them and they start forgetting.”

“How much stacked iron will it take for them to forget the next time your hoods take a whack at her and kill a few Joe Citizens or a cop? Bribes won't matter when them boys from downtown come piling in on you.”

Ranalli stood up from the settee. “Don't you be gettin' to thinkin' you're smart by coming here and telling me things I already know, get what I'm sayin'?”

“Sure, but why risk doin' the job? You're into the gambling rackets not the muscle work.”

“Says you,” he said. “This was a one-time job. Just a way to get some dough out of an egg that's got to thinkin' he's got more pull than he actually does, see.”

“Is that why you did a jerry-built job on the whole works?” I asked. “That kind of service may cause you problems.”

“It'd only cause me problems if I didn't know how to deal with them New York hicks that walk around like they're suits workin' off Wall Street.”

Ranalli wasn't the only gangster who had low opinions of the New York syndicates. Men I crossed paths with who worked for the Chicago Outfit shared similar feelings of how they ran things on the East Coast.

“See,” Ranalli continued, “they're too busy playing the high-hat that they're gettin' thrown in the can because they're afraid of gettin' their manicured hands dirty covering their tracks.”

“They all can't cop a plea,” I said.

“Who said I copped a plea? That indictment against me went nowhere. All they got out of their probe was a bunch of accusations. They tried to accuse me of being involved in every crime that went on in this city. It might've been enough to convince a grand jury, but I had my lawyers tear into their sixty-page indictment. There wasn't nothing in it they could send me up on, and they knew it. They just wanted to shut me down, and that's what they did. They got the cops here acting as my babysitter, and if I so much as organize a street game of dice, they'll send me up for racketeering.”

“I'm sure you've found ways around that,” I said. “Is that why you've taken up execution jobs?”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Who's this egg that wanted you to do the job?”

“He's nobody,” Ranalli said.

“Does he got a name?”

“I don't know his real name; we just call him Valentino as a joke.”

“What's the joke?”

“If you ever saw what he looks like, you'd get it.”

I doubted I would ever get the chance. “So you done trying to kill off the only client I got or you going to give it another go-round?” I asked.

“We'll see if you're right about Lazio losing. I got strong dope he ain't. That's why you're comin' to the fight with me.”

*   *   *

Zella and I stood in front of the Olympic Club on Royal between Montegut and Clouet. “Fistic Carnival” read one of the many banners strung across the gables of the four-story building.

The Olympic Club had hosted many big fights, the upcoming Sullivan-Corbett heavyweight fight being the biggest. In anticipation of the event, the club moved into the new century by wiring the place with electricity and increasing seating to ten thousand.

“I've never been to a fight before,” Zella said. “But I'll tell you right now, if I get blood on my dress, I'm leaving.”

I laughed. “Don't worry, I don't think we'll be that close.”

“Remind me again why we're meeting up with the fella that tried to have me killed?”

“I want him to see your pretty face and go soft on you.”

Zella laughed.

The rowdy crowd of fight fans coming to satisfy their blood thirst went down a block. But Ranalli had sent one of his goons to come out and fetch us to the ringside seats he had procured. I got a nasty look from Zella as soon as she noticed how close we ended up being.

From the bottom to the top balcony rows, the place was filled up with so much humanity that the building was ready to explode from the inside out. The crowd was a mingling of all classes. The men up front were formally dressed in overcoats and smocks. The farther back it went, the less respectable it got. Working men inexpensively clothed in overalls and sweat-stained white cotton undershirts with crew necks filled the air with the saturated tang of roasted peanuts, cheap cigars, and cologne that smelled like waxed linoleum.

The ring in the center of it all was bigger than the ones I liked to use. It was a boxer-friendly ring of twenty feet by twenty dimensions, which gave fighters more room to move around compared to a fifteen by fifteen “punchers ring” that gave opponents less space to run.

Around the foot-long apron corner men stood for the first of the preliminary bouts while the main trainers prepared their charges inside the ring.

“Not bad seats, eh,” Ranalli said as we sat down.

“How'd you get them?”

“Bumped off couple of rich stiffs.”

The comment got a scowl from Zella

“You must be Zella,” Ranalli said. “Hope you ain't sore at me. If I'd known you were such a nice-looking number, I'd never sent them monkeys after you. World's full of enough ugly people, no need to start knockin' off the good-lookin' ones.”

Smiling, she said, “If that's your way apologizing, I'll take it.”

The first of the undercards was a mismatched fight between two lightweights. One was an offensive-minded Mexican kid, the other a defensive-minded black fighter who was more of a counterpuncher. For me, I was more of the school of thought that a good defense was a strong offense. For the most part, it worked for me except against a savvy veteran fighter who always had their bag of tricks they'd learned through the years. The Mex came right at the black fighter throwing damn near a hundred punches a round, while the black fighter did his best impersonation of a turtle by covering up with a high guard and throwing little in return.

The fight got booed by the crowd until the next fighters came into the ring. It was to be two unskilled welterweights whose idea of defense was blocking punches with their faces. Four knockdowns apiece later the fight ended in a draw.

The third undercard pitted a young light heavyweight prospect against a guy that looked like they had just pulled him off the street. He did not want to be there and showed it by getting on his bike for the entire fight. The young prospect showed his greenness by chasing after him instead of laying traps and trying to cut the ring off.

Despite the crowd's boos, it was a good learning experience for the kid. Every fighter meets an opponent that does not come to fight, but to survive and collect a paycheck. The best thing you can do is try to get them out of there in a timely fashion before they stink the joint up and your reputation along with it.

“Thank God,” Zella said when the affair was over.

“Only one more fight to go, sweetheart,” Ranalli said. “The big one.”

The now tumultuous crowd booed Antonio Medina as he entered the ring first. Lazio made Medina and his handlers wait as he took his time getting to the ring, to a roar of the crowd's approval.

Lazio was a tall, rangy, good-looking kid nearing six foot. Medina was shorter, but more compact. His face was covered in scars from cuts he no doubt got through his years of battle.

“It ain't even going to be a fight.” Ranalli chuckled. “Look how much bigger he is than that Mex.”

“Size don't mean nothing if you don't know how to use it,” I said.

The gong sounded, signaling the first round. As I figured, Lazio did not know how to fight like the bigger man. Instead of utilizing his height and reach advantage, he gave it all up as he stomped right to Medina with the delicacy of a one-legged ballet dancer. Medina seemed more than delighted that he did not have to work to get on the inside of the bigger man, a skill he obviously lacked.

For the early rounds both stood in the middle of the ring, Medina's head resting on Lazio's chest as he hammered shots to the body. Between rounds Lazio's corner screamed at him to stop giving up his height and to box him, but Lazio ignored them. By the eighth round, he was breathing out of his mouth while his punches became more wild and loopy.

“He's finished,” I said as the round closed.

“What you mean he's finished?” Ranalli demanded. “That Mex is throwing nothing but petty-patty punches to the body. Lazio is just playing around with him, he'll finish him soon. He ain't finished.”

The ninth started off with the two once again meeting up in the middle of the ring, but Lazio's legs were jelly, and Medina knew it. A three-punch combo, two to the body and one to the chin, ended it, with Lazio melting into the canvas.

The crowd booed as the referee counted him out.

“Get the hell up, you bum!” Ranalli yelled.

“You can't get up when don't got no legs. All that body work paid off for Medina.”

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