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Collins, Max Allan - Nathan Heller 08

BOOK: Collins, Max Allan - Nathan Heller 08
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The Memoirs of Nathan Heller
 

True Detective

 

True Crime

 

The Million-Dollar Wound

 

Neon Mirage

 

Stolen Away

 

Carnal Hours

 

Blood and Thunder

 

Damned in Paradise

 

Flying Blind

 

Majic Man

 

Angel in Black

 

Chicago Confidential

 

Bye Bye Baby

 

Chicago Lightning
(short stories)

 

Triple Play
(novellas)

 
 

 
 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright ©2011 Max Allan Collins
All rights reserved

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by AmazonEncore
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140

 

ISBN: 978-1-61218-098-4

 

In memory of Keith Larson,
who helped me hear
the music in words

Although the historical incidents in this novel are portrayed more or less accurately (as much as the passage of time and contradictory source material will allow), fact, speculation and fiction are freely mixed here; historical personages exist side by side with composite characters and wholly fictional ones—all of whom act and speak at the author’s whim.

 

I am not gifted with second sight, nor did I see a spot of blood on the moon last night. But I can see blood on the polished floor of this Capitol. For if you ride this thing through, you will travel with the white horse of death.

Mason Spencer, Louisiana State Legislature, 1935

 
 

 

 

All the attractions at the Oklahoma State Fair on this sunny Labor Day afternoon paled next to this one. Kewpie dolls and lemonade had nothing on the speaker who prowled the flag-draped platform; a prize-winning hog, a local beauty queen in tiara and gown, a championship tosser of horseshoes could provide no real competition. Not the two-headed calf or the living mermaid or even the girl who turned into a gorilla.

None of these wonders could compare to the surprisingly lean, five-ten package of enthusiasm who was flailing the air with windmilling arms, raving, ranting, swearing, sputtering. The farmers—in their best straw hats, suspenders over sweat-circled white shirts—and their wives—in Sunday-go-to-meeting bonnets and frocks and heels—were wide-eyed, gaga with wonder, if not always admiration. Even the kids, nibbling their cotton candy and hot dogs, were spellbound. Man, woman and child, they all had heard about this phenomenon, in the newspapers, possibly even heard him speak on the radio, maybe seen him in the newsreels.

But in the flesh, the afternoon’s guest speaker was a real sight to see. And, so, the hicks gathered ’round.

Duded up in a natty gray suit with a huge white gladiola in one enormous lapel, his necktie fire-engine red, his shoes spiffy black-and-white numbers, he would stalk the stage as if seeking a victim, dragging the microphone on its stand with him, removing his straw hat from time to time to mop his brow. Finally he just tossed the hat away, a casual gesture that further won over the crowd. After all, it was noon, and the sun was high and hot.

To a sophisticated literate like me, he seemed a figure out of “Li’l Abner”: a caricature of a politician, his wavy reddish hair (coincidentally, the same color as mine) falling in a natural spit curl, his ruddy complexion freckled, his nose impudent and upturned, his bulldog jaw deeply cleft. From this distance, he seemed jowly, but I’d seen him up close. Those weren’t jowls: that was just the slightly odd, deceiving shape of his face.

In fact, he was lean and hard and fit. But his oval mug, his quick grin—he was always ready to punctuate a tirade with a rustic joke and a fleeting infectious smile—gave a false impression of softness, just as the down-home inflections and his slangy speech gave a false impression of the speaker being a “common man.”

“Hoover and Roosevelt,” the speaker said, making hostages in the same sentence of the previous president and the current one, “put me in mind of the patent-medicine drummer that used to come ’round Winn Parish.”

A parish was a county in Louisiana. I wasn’t from around these parts, but I picked up quick.

“He had two bottles of medicine,” the speaker said, in a nimbly baritone that managed to be both casual and grand. “He’d play a banjo, and he’d sell two bottles of medicine. One of those bottles he called High Popalorum; and the other one of those bottles he called Low Popahirum.”

That quick grin told the crowd they could laugh at this, and they did.

“Fin’lly, somebody ’round there said, ‘Is they any difference in these medicines?’ An’ the drummer said, ‘Why, considerable—these is both good, but they’s diff’rnt.’”

He was rocking, almost bobbing, like a child’s top, and it gave a rhythm to his speech, and held the eye.

“He said, ‘High Popalorum we make by takin’ the bark off the tree from the top down. And Low Popahirum, we make by takin’ the bark off the tree from the root up.’”

He raised his eyebrows by way of devilish punctuation, spurring a gentle wave of laughter.

His voice rose in timbre. “And these days the only diff’rence ’tween the two parties in Congress is the Republicans are skinnin’ ya from the ankle
up,
and the Democrats are skinnin’ ya from the ear
down
!”

The crowd roared with laughter.

Now the speaker ended the anecdote with a blast of fury; there was no humor in his thundering voice as he said, “Skin ’em up, or skin ’em down, but
skin
’em!”

As the laughter turned to applause, several voices called out over the din: “You tell ’em, Huey!” “Give ’em hell, big boy!” “Pour it on, Kingfish!”

And this indeed was Huey P. Long, the self-anointed “Kingfish” (after the blackface radio rascal of “Amos ’n’ Andy” fame), former governor of Louisiana, currently United States senator and, for all intents and purposes, dictator of the Pelican State, which he ruled through a yes-man figurehead whose name, appropriately enough, was O.K. Allen. Allen was so used to rubber-stamping Huey’s edicts, it was said that when a leaf blew in the window onto O.K.’s desk, he just signed the fool thing.

This was the populist mastermind seducing the South with his “Share the Wealth” plan, promising each and every American family a yearly income of no less than five thousand dollars, old-age pensions of thirty bucks a month, a homestead, a car, a refrigerator and a radio. This would be accomplished by confiscating from the wealthy anything they possessed in excess of three million dollars. The details shifted, according to the crowd and his own mood, but the Kingfish’s gospel was seductive, in these hard times, and it was spreading.

In this rural crowd, there was at least one damn Yankee: me, Nathan Heller, president (and everything else) of the A-1 Detective Agency of Chicago, Illinois. At the moment I was working as one of a team of three bodyguards traveling with the Kingfish, who was making his way back to Louisiana, by train and car, fresh from his latest Senate-floor filibuster in Washington, D.C.

This visit to the fairgrounds in Oklahoma City was just one of several unofficial campaign stops planned along the way. Just about everybody in the country, even an apolitical nincompoop like yours truly, knew that Huey was gearing up for a presidential bid in 1936. That was why so much of his energetic speechifying this afternoon was devoted to bashing FDR.

I didn’t fit in here, exactly, but nobody seemed to notice, or anyway, care. I was sipping an orangeade in keeping with my wardrobe—a lightweight white suit and wide-brimmed Panama hat I’d brought back from a job in Florida a couple years ago. My complexion was a city gray compared to these Indian-dark, leathery-faced farmers, and at six foot, one hundred-eighty-five pounds, I made a less than inconspicuous presence.

But that didn’t bother Huey. He liked having his bodyguards noticed. He was, after all, the sort of individual who brought the whole subject of paranoia into question. His behavior was classic paranoid, but you know what? A hell of a lot of people
were
out to get him.

While most of this crowd either loved the Kingfish or were, at least, entertained by his showmanship, other elements clearly resented his attacks on the President of the United States on a platform decorated with the stars and stripes.

“You’re a two-bit Hitler!” somebody was yelling, interrupting another anecdote.

Huey paid the heckler no mind, and continued with an attack on his fellow congressmen.

“Let me tell ya, folks, about this moss-back, pie-eatin’, trough-feedin’ brigade…back in Loozyana, at revival meetin’s…we called ’em camp meetin’s, back then…the preachin’ lasted all day. And it was hot, of course, hotter than even today. To keep the preacher from bein’ disturbed, it was customary for the mothers to mix up a little dry biscuit, butter and sugar. Well, they put that in a rag and tied it with a string, and called it a sugar tit.”

This impudent turn of phrase created a ripple of titters (well, it did) but the moment was spoiled a tad when that heckler—whose red face suggested both rage and alcohol—called out again: “Go back to the swamp, Crawfish!”

The guy was on the perimeter of the crowd, off to my left. Through the crowd, something—someone—was moving, causing a wave in the sea of straw hats and Sears & Roebuck chapeaus, with the single-mindedness of a shark.

This, I knew, was trouble. I started moving through the crowd myself, even as Huey continued.

“Ladies an’ ge’men, I’m here to tell you that Prince Franklin Roosevelt, Knight of the
Nourmahal,
enjoyin’ himself on that million-dollar yacht with the Astors and royalty, lettin’ the farmers starve…why Prince Franklin, he was
born
with the sugar tit in his mouth. Been sucklin’ ever since. He’s worn out a dozen of ’em…now he’s grabbin’ for more.”

“Fascist!” the guy hollered.

I could see him better now, and I could see something else. Someone else.

Knocking people out of his way like bowling pins now, ignoring their cries of “Hey!,” “Watch it, bub!” and the like, a squat, swarthy figure in a dark, baggy gangster’s suit was zeroing in on the heckler.

I picked up speed, earning a “Watch it!” or two, myself.

But Joe Messina—thick-necked fireplug of a man that he was, with a round face as free of thought or morality as a newborn baby’s—was already on the heckler, a skinny redneck in white shirt and red suspenders. The heckler was saying, “You backwoods Hit,” and never got to the “ler,” because that’s where Messina’s blackjack stopped the sentence.

The man’s howl was short and loud, when Messina laid that blackjack across the side of his head, but by the time the crowd had looked in that direction, Messina was hustling the guy off, behind a nearby tent.

Over the loudspeakers, Huey was in the process of explaining the difference between a hoot owl and a scrootch owl.

I found Messina, behind one canvas tent and between it and another, out of public view, hovering over the heckler sprawled on the grass by the tent posts, bending over him as if to give him a hand.

Problem was, that hand still had the blackjack in it and Messina was waling the guy with it, hitting him all over his arms and on his side. The heckler wasn’t heckling now: he was whimpering, weeping, begging in a barely audible voice for mercy.

A word, like so many other words, that wasn’t in Messina’s vocabulary.

Messina’s coat was flapping, as he drew back his arm to put force into his blows, revealing the pearl-handled .38 on his hip. His arm was like that when I grabbed it by a massive wrist.

“That’s enough,” I said.

Somehow that bull neck managed to allow the medicine ball head it supported to swivel toward me. The round empty face took on a snarling expression.

“Stay out,” he said; his voice was oddly high-pitched, and breathy.

He yanked his hand free and slammed the blackjack into the heckler’s shoulder, and I spun him around and grabbed him by both lapels.

“I said enough!”

He pushed me away, but what I’d done gave the heckler a chance to summon what little energy he had left, and he scurried away, scrambling between the tents. Messina started after him, and I followed, but we both saw the man disappear down the midway, getting lost in the crowd. Not everybody was listening to Huey speak.

“A hoot owl,” Huey’s amplified voice informed us, “barges right into the roost and knocks the hen clean off her perch, and catches her while she’s fallin’….”

Messina turned slowly and faced me; his upper lip peeled back over his teeth and it wasn’t a smile.

His hand seemed to be drifting for the pearl-handled .38 on his hip; he looked like Spanky from Our Gang playing western gunfighter. Only quite a bit more intimidating…

“But a scrootch owl,” Huey continued, “he slips into the roost and just scrootches up to the hen and sweet-talks her. And then the hen falls in love with him, and the first thing you know…there ain’t no hen!”

The crowd laughed, on the other side of the tent. Back here, two of Huey’s own people were staring at each other coldly. I had a gun, too—a nine-millimeter Browning in a shoulder holster. This would be a first: shooting it out with somebody I was bodyguarding with.

“Now Hoover was sure enough a hoot owl,” Huey’s booming voice continued, “but Roosevelt—he’s a scrootch owl!”

There was laughter and applause, and I said, “Don’t do anything stupid, Joe.”

Messina’s tiny dark eyes—like the black beaded eyes sewn on a rag doll—narrowed in something approaching thought, reminding me that anything this beefy little bastard did was bound to be stupid.

Huey said something else, but I wasn’t listening. I said, “Joe—you were making your boss look bad. I was just trying to help.”

“Heller’s right,” a commanding male voice said, and we both turned to see Big George McCracken, the third member of our bodyguard squad, come lumbering up. Burly, with the puffy, lumpy features of an ex-pug, his dark baggy suit from the same thug haberdashery as Messina’s, McCracken was no dope.

Especially compared to Messina.

“Those people saw you smack that sumbitch,” McCracken said to Messina.

Messina’s head drooped like he was a scolded school kid and McCracken the teacher.

“You want the lyin’ papers to pick up somethin’ like that?” McCracken asked. “Next time, jest yank ’im outa there, and don’t commence to beatin’ on ’im ’til you’re behind the goddamn tent.”

“Okay,” Messina said, reluctantly.

“And be careful. You don’t wanna kill some fucker. Just shut him up, teach him a little lesson, and shoo him off. Got it?”

Messina nodded.

“Now get back out there, and keep an eye on the crowd. Shee-
it
…there’s murder plots afoot, and you’re back here havin’ a good time! Get out there and protect the boss.”

Messina nodded again, flashed me a glare, and shuffled away, around the tent, back into the crowd.

McCracken’s battered pan cracked into a smile. He put a hand the size of an outfielder’s glove on my shoulder.

“Don’t mind Joe,” he said. “When it comes to the Kingfish, ol’ Messina’s loyal as a dog.”

“And damn near as smart,” I said. My heart was in my throat. I wondered how close I’d really come to shooting it out with that mental midget.

McCracken and I returned to the crowd; nobody seemed wise to the little melodrama that had just played itself out. McCracken moved up by the stage, and I worked my way to the back of the crowd.

“Now, Roosevelt’s boy Jim Farley,” Huey was saying, “why, he can take the corns off your toes without removin’ your shoes—he’s that slick.”

I was studying the audience. In a bodyguard situation like this, when a public figure is up there making a target of himself, you study faces and reactions. With a politician as loved and hated as Huey Long, the most suspicious expression is a blank one.

BOOK: Collins, Max Allan - Nathan Heller 08
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