Read Motown Online

Authors: Loren D. Estleman

Tags: #Historical

Motown (5 page)

No, he wouldn’t be going back to Emma.

He put on his gray sharkskin jacket and went into the other room. Krystal, sitting cross-legged on the sofa in a red satin teddy, had finished her nails and was blowing on them: inch-long pink-orange scimitars all her own that left cat-o’-ninetail scars on Quincy’s back. The spaghetti straps that held up the teddy had slipped off her skinny shoulders and her nipples peeped out through the holes in the lace top. She was a little over five feet tall and weighed ninety-three pounds. The first time Lydell saw her he called her a spinner.

“What the hell’s a spinner?” Quincy had asked.

“Stick it in and spin ’er.”

Quincy opened the door to the hallway. The smell of hot grease from the restaurant below the apartment grew stronger. Krystal asked him where he was going.

“Work.”

“You don’t open for two hours.”

“Got receipts to count. Yesterday was payday.”

“Well, when you open, will you come back and get me?”

“It’s just around the corner.”

“I could get raped.”

He bit down hard on the obvious rejoinder. “I’ll send Lydell.”

“I don’t like Lydell. Can’t you come?” Her voice got whiney.

“I can’t just drop everything. You can stand Lydell for five minutes.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do till two o’clock?”

“Your toes.” He banged the door shut behind him.

Yes, on her way out.

The after-hours place Quincy owned with Lafayette—called a “blind pig” in Detroit, after the local speakeasies of Prohibition—was a two-story walk-up over the Jiffee Coin Laundromat & Custom Laundry on Collingwood, where Quincy had his shirts done. The neighborhood, once middle-class white, had begun to blister and peel with the westward spread of the black ghetto from its Hastings Street origins. Old-timers who remembered better days claimed that the decline had started thirty-five years ago when three gangsters were slain in a gun battle in the brick apartment house on the corner of Twelfth. Collingwood, like the streets around it, had since gone to gang hangouts, second-story massage parlors, and blind pigs like Quincy’s.

He climbed a staircase whose rubber runner was worn down to bare wood in scaly patches, knocked twice rapidly on an unmarked door at the end of the hall, paused, and knocked again once. A series of locks and chains snapped and jingled on the other side and the door opened.

Very little of the light from inside spilled out into the hallway. The rest was blocked by Congo standing on the other side of the threshold. Congo was shorter than Quincy by several inches but weighed a hundred pounds more, his shoulders sloping down directly from his shaven head with no neck between into a mountain of hard fat and hidden muscle. He wore a black shirt stained lighter under the arms, pink suspenders, and a pair of green pinstripe suitpants that Lydell could have used to cover the Sting Ray. It was believed locally that Congo, whose flat face and truly black skin belonged to an African idol, had been imported from Nigeria; Congo himself never denied it, but then he seldom spoke. In fact, Lydell had hired him off the wrestling circuit, where he’d been billed as Cape Horn, the Wild Man From the Ivory Coast, and rechristened him. The name on his contract with the World Wrestling Guild was Vernon Kress, and he had spent the first twenty-six years of his life in Joplin, Mississippi. He moved out of Quincy’s path without a word.

The room, which had been a railroad flat before Quincy and Lydell acquired it and tore down the walls, was as long as a diner and contained a dozen Formica-topped tables and thirty-six tube steel chairs bought used from a failed restaurant. Black shades covered the windows. There was a poolroom in back that doubled as a place to shoot craps and a bar at the far end of the main room with a brass rail and turning stools, an elaborate arrangement in a neighborhood whose establishments mostly got by with just a table for set-ups. Lydell had bought the bar and stools cheap along with the jukebox by the back door off a truck with Kentucky plates, no questions asked. Percy Sledge was singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” on the juke when Quincy entered.

Lydell, in his charcoal suit and hat with the yellow band, was seated on one of the stools, smoking a Kent in a jade holder and counting bills from a pile of wrinkled currency into neat stacks on the bar. His paperweight was a nickelplated British Bulldog revolver with black electrical tape wound around the grip.

“How we doing?” Quincy took a bottle of 7-UP from the refrigerator behind the bar and pried off the top. The carbonation was the only thing that gave him temporary relief from his chronic heartburn. The heartburn had started the day he began doing business directly with Patsy Orr.

“Six thousand so far.” Lydell coughed, tapped ash into a tray rounded over with butts, took another drag, coughed again. “That’s in tens and twenties. I’m down to fives and singles now.”

“We done worse.”

“Not the day after payday we ain’t.”

“Hard times.”

“My ass. Harder the times, the more folks gambles. They’re taking it down the road.”

“That shit again.”

“Word’s out, man. We’s worse than VD.”

“You’re dogging your rounds is what it is. You was to pay as much attention to filling that satchel as you do to plugging every leaky cunt between here and Adelaide—”

Lydell was looking up at him with his hound-dog eyes. “Word’s
out!

“Your
word.”

“Patsy’s word, if you only listened. Nobody else is doing bad as us, he said it himself. We ought to get down on our knees and thanks the people still buying numbers from us. They could get their fingers busted just for looking our way.”

“Why? It don’t matter who takes the bets; Patsy gets his cut.”

“His cut.”

“We don’t take more than nobody else.”

Lydell started coughing again, removed the butt from its holder, and squashed it out. “You won’t see it, man. The guineas want Twelfth Street, no middle money to the brothers. They’s bleeding us so’s we’ll sell out cheap.”

“Bullshit. They got the rest of Detroit.”

“A long time ago they made a mistake and let the brothers buy into the numbers. They was selling booze and girls, they didn’t want to count all them pennies. Then booze got legal and the girls wasn’t enough, they got into heroin and the track and college ball. They didn’t make no partnerships, just boogied in and took over.” He fitted a fresh Kent into the holder. “Don’t you go jiving yourself with that ‘rest of Detroit.’ They don’t want no ‘rests.’ That’s what makes a Sicilian a Sicilian.” He lit the cigarette with his gold-plated Ronson, coughed again.

“Forget the Sicilians. Those coffin nails are going to kill you first.”

“Don’t change the subject. You ever hear of Big Nabob?”

“Sounds like a hamburger.”

“He was just the biggest blackest gangster this here town ever saw. Limos, white girls, fancy threads, he had God in a box. Thought he was bigger than Joey Machine. Now, I know you heard of
him.

Quincy’s knuckles yellowed on the bottle of 7-UP. He took a quick swig and belched bitterly. “Yeah, I heard of him.”

“Started skimming, which was okay. We all skims. Only Big Nabob he bragged about it. Hell, why finish the story? Go visit his headstone in Mount Elliott Cemetery. Biggest one there. Gots him a angel on the top and all.”

“That was thirty years ago. They don’t work that way now.”

“Oh, they’s quieter. That’s why they’re bleeding us instead of lead-lining our livers. Don’t mean they won’t still do that if they gets impatient.”

Quincy took off his jacket and draped it on his personal wooden hanger. “Let’s get to counting before the customers show up and do it for us.”

It came to $8,752, a little less than their best weekday total and a long way behind the Saturday average. Lydell sighed but made no further comment. He snapped a thick rubber band around each stack, stood, and began shoveling the bills into his pigskin satchel. Someone banged on the door, using the secret knock. The hands of the cartoon bear on the Hamm’s Land of Sky-Blue Waters clock behind the bar pointed to 1:28.

“Tell ’em to come back in a half hour,” Quincy told Congo.

A panel popped out of the door and the bouncer leaped back away from it. No, was thrown; Quincy would remember a distinct piece of a second between the time the blast blew out the panel and he heard the report. He thought a wrecking ball had struck the building. A piece of Congo hit the back wall twenty-two feet away with a wet slap.

A second blast disintegrated the door’s centerpiece and the rest of it hinged and parted in the middle as three men battered their way through with bootheels and shotgun butts. Lydell lunged for his Bulldog. The top of the bar exploded. He grunted, pulled back his hand empty, and clasped the other around his wrist. Blood slid between the fingers.

One of the invaders remained by the ruined door while his companions sprinted forward, bounding over Congo’s shattered body and clutching pump-action Remingtons with cut-down stocks and the barrels blunted back to the slides. All three wore long winter coats flapping open over dark turtleneck shirts, old jeans, and black army boots. They had on jersey gloves and their faces were covered by ski masks. Quincy thought they must have been sweating like pigs.

The record-changer dropped “The House of the Rising Sun” onto the turntable and the first harsh notes rasped out into the room. The man who had shot the bar racked in a fresh shell and obliterated the front of the juke. The record shrieked and fell silent. Pink and green smoke rolled out of the splintered neon tubes.

Quincy thought that was unnecessary.

The man worked the slide again and pointed the shotgun at Lydell. “Close that bag and toss it over here.” His voice was even rougher than the singer’s. Quincy was sure he was disguising it.

Lydell, still clutching his wrist, had sunk back onto his stool. Vermilion blood stained both hands and pattered to the floor in large iridescent drops. Quincy reached past him, snapped the satchel shut, and held it out.

“Toss it, I said.”

Quincy threw the satchel at the man’s feet.

“Check it out.”

Although this was directed to his near companion, the man’s eyes never left Quincy. They were Arctic blue.

The other man came over and picked up the bag. Parking his shotgun in the crook of his left arm, he thumbed back the latches and pulled it open. Whistled.

“Cash register.”

The man with the satchel strode around behind the bar and punched NO SALE on the register. When the drawer licked out he scooped up the rack and dumped its contents—bills, coins, and all—into the satchel. He had trouble closing it.

“You two get on the floor.”

Quincy put his hand under Lydell’s arm to help him off the stool. Lydell’s color was bad and his knees wanted to buckle, but his wrist didn’t seem broken. Quincy suspected he had picked up some stray pellets. He helped the stricken man down to the floor and got down on his stomach beside him. The boards smelled of stale beer and Lestoil.

Quincy jumped when the blasts came. A hot rain fell on his back and he thought he’d been hit until he realized the particles belonged to one of the fluorescent light troughs suspended from the ceiling. The trio had opened fire on the fixtures to cover their retreat.

Just like a guinea, Quincy thought, shaking the first of a million glass shards out of his Afro.

Chapter 6

“H
ELLO?”

“Al, this is Phil in Chicago.”

“How are you?”

“Same. The back, you know. Plus I got some trouble with the Commission.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Just too goddamn many meetings. Sometimes I wish it was like in the old days with Sal. Somebody gave you a pain in the ass, you sent some boys over. You know. Now we have meetings.”

“Times change.”

“Times change.”

Pause.

“So what’s what, Phil?”

“It’s this Whitey Esposito. He unloads the ore boats at Ford’s there, the Rouge plant. They laid him off?”

“He went to you?”

“Don’t sweat it, Al. He knows me. I knew his old man.”

“He’s got a lot of balls. He’s off one day, he runs to you.”

“Al, the way we look at it down here, even if he’s not with us, one of the family, he’s a friend of ours.”

“I don’t give a shit whose friend he is. I got friends was laid off that same job. I’m in the middle of negotiations here. I can’t worry about no one man. He could be my brother, I got a whole union to think about.”

“Don’t get sore. I’m saying friends of ours shouldn’t get the same deal as the rank and file.”

“That’s the way it is, is it?”

“I don’t make the rules.”

“Phil, I tell you what. I don’t run girls, you don’t tell me what to do with my steelhaulers.” Click and dial tone.

Lew Canada switched off the little recorder. The reels stopped turning. He looked at Ed Wasylyk across the yellow oak table. The sergeant had traded his uniform for a plaid sportcoat, slacks, and a knitted blue shirt with a white racehorse embroidered over the pocket. His pouchy face looked older and less healthy without the starched blues. His hair, a mousy combination of brown and gray, needed trimming. “Who’re Al and Phil?” he asked.

“Phil Benito. He’s mobbed up down in Chicago, owns a string of laundries and whorehouses there. State Department’s in the middle of deportation proceedings against him. For soliciting, although he’s responsible for three murders that the Chicago P. D. knows of. He looks after Mafia interests here in the Midwest; that’s the Commission he was talking about. Al is Albert Brock. We had a tap on his line for about a month last year. That’s when the conversation you just heard took place.”

“This the American Steelhaulers Brock?”

“There’s another one?”

“You won’t hang him with this tape.”

“Hell, no. Every little kid in Detroit knows the steelies go hand-in-glove with the Cosa Nostra. We got others would tie Brock up in court till nineteen eighty, if we could only use them.”

“Who’s stopping you?”

“The Supreme Court, for one. Thirty years we been tapping phones, now they say we need a court order, which we can’t get without probable cause, which is why we tap phones in the first place. Anyway, Brock pays guys to sit in the dock for him. What we want is bars in his face.”

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