Authors: Timothy C. Phillips
She lowered her eyes slowly.
“You don’t want me.”
I put a finger under her chin and kept my voice soft.
“You are a beautiful woman, Lena, but we have a different kind of . . . relationship . . .”
I fell silent when I saw tears streaming down her face; she sobbed silently. Once again the photograph of this girl returned to my mind, the prom queen from a different world, a world without heroin and gangsters and homeless old women who haunted the stairs. It occurred to me that I was holding her ghost.
“Lena.” I said her name softly, and bent forward, and kissed her long and lovingly on the lips. I stroked her hair and held her until she grew quiet. I left her sleeping there, on the couch.
I knew she was vulnerable, that she was grateful, and I told myself that in a better world I would have stayed. But, no, that wasn’t totally true. In a better world, neither Lena nor myself, nor any of the other lost denizens living in the run-down tenements and the filthy alleys would be there. We would all be living other lives, not forced into our bleak predicaments, or the nervous, clumsy joining that so often works out for the worst.
I went out again into the thrashing cold wind. The icy water was a slap in the face. I felt a tug to go back in there, but it would have been just as bad as staying with Eve, though in a very different way. It would violate her trust in me, and she was the one person I’d met lately that I cared whether I let down or not. And I was probably the last person she could trust.
As I emerged from the building I saw the huddle of homeless men across the street, pressed against the wall. The cold drizzle collected and slid down their trembling backs.
Mean streets, brother.
Maybe I had held back from Keeler because I hadn’t figured out all the angles yet. And maybe not. I felt like I was painting a picture, and as the details began to fill in, Harry looked dirtier and dirtier. It was the only way it added up. But there was something missing still. What sense did it make to string me along and then set me up with his girl?
she was his girl. I suddenly had an epiphany; that part was probably a lie, too. But why?
I pondered these mysteries as I walked along the street towards my car. Maybe I should confront Harry with what I knew already. But he could easily hide with more subterfuge what I still didn’t know. Sometimes you just give people a little time and they will shake loose the answers for you. I decided to go by the office to see if anything had shaken loose.
There was a man waiting on the sidewalk near the Brooks Building. He walked towards me as I got out of the car. I had seen him before, the delivery boy at Lena’s apartment. Today, it seemed, he had something for me. He waddled in my direction through the whispering ran. As he got closer, he got more handsome.
He looked like one of those professional wrestlers you see on television. Thirty-odd, meaty with muscle but slow, sweaty despite the cold, his thinning hair long in the back, permed into a kinky curl. He wore his black satiny-looking shirt open at the collar to show off a thick gold chain. This also unintentionally showed off his sparse, wiry chest hair. He was wearing enough cologne to kill mosquitoes. Everything about him spoke of brutal, animal crime.
“You Roland Longville?” He had a peculiar lisp. My last name came out ‘Longfiyull.’
“Yeah, that’s me. Can I help you?”
He looked as though he had been contemplating violence, but now my size threw him off; I was three, maybe four inches taller—and a lot quicker, I was willing to bet. I could see the uncertainty in his face as he pondered whether it was safe to relax.
“I’m Vince. I work for Big Daddy. Do you know who Big Daddy ith?”
“I’ve heard the name. So what?”
“Well, Steve happens to be a friend of ourth. He says we got ourselves a little trouble. Big Daddy sent me to talk to you. He says to tell you to stay away from Lena and his other girls. You better just forget you found her, if you don’t want trouble. He says Lena belongs to him. You got that?”
“Gee, I’m impressed. You must have a pretty good memory, remembering big long messages like that.”
“I’m not playing, mister.” He drew himself to his full height with sudden bravado.
“Since you have such a knack with messages, here’s mine to Big Daddy. You listening?”
“So, what ith it?”
I was faster, after all. My uppercut caught him good and square under the chin before he could react. It sent him staggering backwards for a few feet, before he lost his footing on the wet pavement and fell back hard on the sidewalk. I strode over and grabbed him by the collar under the right ear. He struggled, his heels sliding on the wet concrete, his arms flailing to achieve balance.
“Think you can remember all of that?” I resisted the urge to kick him in the hindquarters as he struggled to his feet. I don’t like violence, and most of the time I hate resorting to it. But for just a moment, I’d wanted to pretend I was Muhammad Ali and it was a certain balmy night in Manila.
“You’ll be sorry!” he shouted as he walked quickly away. “I warned you.”
He disappeared around the corner.
I was striding purposefully back toward my Buick, feeling strangely proud of myself, when my next close encounter took place. There were two men standing by a black sedan. Their posture was relaxed, unconcerned.
“Not bad, but why didn’t you just shoot the fat bastard?” One of the men cracked with a sly smile. I stopped and looked at them, but a clever retort escaped me. They were both well-dressed, tough-looking men, one in his early thirties, the other younger, slimmer, with eyes like a cobra. Gangsters, like Vince wanted to be when he grew up, maybe. One knocked lightly on the rear window, which slid down with a slight hum. A voice that I had not heard in a long time came from the back seat.
“Mr. Longville, do us the courtesy of taking a little ride.”
One of the gunsels held out an open hand, the one with the sly smile. I filled it with the .45 Automatic. Nobody lets me keep a gun anymore. He raised his eyebrow when he saw that it was in a brown paper bag.
“Helps me get it through airport security.”
He nodded sagely and opened the car door.
As I slid into the back, I was pointedly aware that all choice in the matter had been taken from me. The owner of the voice was Armand Ganato, commonly known as Don Ganato to the newspapers and the world at large. He was master of the North Side Mafia, and self-proclaimed Boss of Birmingham.
I had met him one other time, a couple of years ago. People had died; we had both lost someone. He was a handsome older man, perhaps forty-five or maybe fifty-five, there was no way to tell. He nodded to cordially. When I shut the door the two men got into the front seat. Plenty of people had gotten into such vehicles and ended up in dumpsters. To say the least I was uncomfortable, but I struggled not to show it. I stared blandly out of the window, hopefully a little like someone in a gangster movie. We started driving around the block. After a time Don Ganato began to speak.
“Forgive me for interfering with your schedule, Mr. Longville. I too am a busy man. But I have a pressing need to speak with you. Francis will drive us around so that we can talk.” He indicated the bigger of the two torpedoes, the one with the wan smile and my gun.
I said nothing, and after a time he went on, quietly and politely. Just two old friends shooting the breeze.
“You see, a crime—no, far worse than a crime—has been perpetrated against me. It’s like this. When I trust someone, they are more to me than a business associate. I must trust those who work with me implicitly. So there develops a special relationship. They are . . . like family to me. Trust is a sacred thing, do you agree?”
I nodded but remained silent. My nod delighted Don Ganato, who smiled and continued.
“Well, someone I trusted violated this sacred bond. He took advantage of me, you might say. If he had come to me and said, ‘I am in need, can you help?’ I could not have refused him. As I have said, he was part of my family. One has no option but to assist those in his care. But this person chose to steal from me. Can you imagine? It’s terrible.”
He gazed out the window, reflecting on man’s inhumanity to man. Outside, the shadows seemed to grow heavier, lengthen. I felt suddenly very alone. His thugs continued to drive us around the block.
Don Ganato sighed and went on: “This person had friends who helped him, even if they did not abet him in this theft. They have hidden this person, so I cannot retrieve what is mine. But as I said, this person is not to be trusted. He has perhaps promised to share with these friends what he has stolen from me. He has dropped out of sight, taking . . . the money . . . with him. Now his confederates in this scheme are hiding from me also, even while they, themselves, attempt to find this person and my money.”
Don Ganato paused a moment for introspection. He gazed for a few more minutes out the window. We continued to circle the block. Finally he turned and fixed his gaze on me. His demeanor had changed. There was no mistaking the hard eyes of the killer. His voice had lost all emotion.
“Which brings us to you, Mister Longville.”
My palms were getting pretty sweaty by this time, but I maintained a level silence.
“I have been told by a friend that you are interested in finding this same person. Frankly, I am curious as to your motive.”
The pause was lengthy enough this time that I began to formulate a response. But before I could speak, Ganato went on: “From what I know of you, I do not believe that you are after my money. But I am alarmed that you might not be aware of the entire truth in this matter. Perhaps you, too, have been lied to . . . betrayed. It is hard to say what the truth is, when there are so many deceitful people at work. In any case, I want to know the whereabouts of young Daniel Weber. If you were to learn where he is hiding before my people are able to do so . . .”
Ganato turned and looked at me sternly. “I would require you to tell me.”
My silence apparently indicated approval to him. He put his vampire teeth away. The Old World charm instantly returned. “Of course, for such a service, I would consider you in my employ. You would receive your usual fee, and a bonus to demonstrate my appreciation.”
The news of Don Ganato’s missing bullion was a revelation to me, but I was betting that he knew that already. If he was trying to put me square on the details, there was still a lot he wasn’t telling me. I let his offer hang in the air. It meant I was staying alive. He was out to catch another fish.
“Make no mistake,” Ganata said, “the person who has done this thing will pay a heavy price, Mr. Longville. The penance I demand for such a betrayal is severe. I cannot risk you, or anyone, turning him over to the police.”
“As far as I know, Don Ganato, they aren’t even looking.”
He smirked at my use of the title “Don.”
“Well then, our agreement stands. I assume we have nothing further to discuss? No? Very well. Francis, Let Mr. Longville out at his car.”
The car pulled to a halt on the spot they had picked me up. As I opened the door, Ganato touched my arm.
“Just one more thing, Mr. Longville.”
“Now it is you and I have an arrangement. See that you do not also disappoint me.”
I nodded. “Trust is a sacred thing.”
I received no response. I gathered that I was dismissed. Francis got out alongside me. He returned my gun, and tossed me the gunman’s salute with extended thumb and forefinger. Bang, you’re dead. He had unloaded the gun and the bullets rattled loose in the bag. I looked after the car as they drove away.
“Glad to be in the family,” I muttered.
If there was one thing in the world I didn’t want, it was any sort of arrangement with Don Ganato. He was much too ruthless, and far too easy to disappoint. There was a lot more to the picture than Ganato was willing to reveal. It was a picture that seemed to grow darker and more dangerous by the minute. I needed information, and in a hurry. There was only one place that I was going to get it. My old friend, Blake Hazelwood, would have to help me.
There was a lot going on, and I was in the dark on too much of it. I had two cases, each with its own unique set of problems. The one was growing vast and dark, beyond anything I had ever expected it to become. Seemingly, criminals of every stripe were lost in its maze and I kept finding them.
Even though I had just taken a ride with the most dangerous man in the state, it was Vince’s threat that worried me the most for some reason. Maybe because now he knew he couldn’t hurt or scare me. That left Lena. I thought of Danny Weber, who had willfully stolen and hidden himself. He would have to tough it out for a little while. For the moment, I put Lena first.
It was time to go see Big Daddy. His Cro-Magnon flunky’s little visit was more than enough to convince me that Lena would be in serious danger if they got to her before she managed to relocate herself and get well. I had seen Big Daddy before, back in my police days. Most of the police officers in the city knew him on sight; he had a certain air of greasy invincibility, not because he had never been busted, but because he’d never been convicted.