Authors: Timothy C. Phillips
Birmingham Police Department, 1910. The Good Old Days.
The waitress, a good-looking redhead in her late twenties, brought us coffee. Her name was Beth; she and Keeler greeted each other by first name. We sat in silence until we were served. I decided to skip the niceties.
“I need some answers to a few things.”
“Why would Hazelwood want me dead?”
“Maybe he was working on Longshot Lonnie O’Malley’s order.” He sipped his coffee and regarded me levelly. That was the same kind of reasoning that had been present in the squad room the previous night. I drew a deep breath.
“Longshot Lonnie has no gripe with me.”
“How can you be so sure? Maybe you have another case that involves his business, and something you’re doing has gotten him mad enough to put the hit on you.” His tone was still guarded.
It was obvious Jake was still uncertain if he could trust me completely. Admittedly, there was a connection between Lonnie and myself, but I doubted they knew about it. But the story Keller and Magnuson presented couldn’t be what the West Precinct detectives really believed. I couldn’t accept this theory. I turned it over in my mind. It just didn’t add up.
“No, Jake, Longshot Lonnie would send some of his Irish boys to whack me, not some cop he’d just turned, which is a pretty valuable property. Besides, I have no beef with Longshot Lonnie. And it can’t be tied to anything else I’m doing. The only other case I’m working at the moment is a young runaway.”
“Do you mind giving me a name?”
I looked out the rain-streaked window. A pretty young black woman in a red raincoat was walking a majestic-looking German shepherd along the sidewalk across the street. She looked like a young Eartha Kitt. She seemed very proud of the dog. I thought of Jerome, and the tattered, homeless old woman, bereft of her last possession.
“I don’t know, Jake, it’s a tough situation. I appreciate that you want to look into all leads. But this is a run-of-the-mill case. A girl’s parents hired me to find her. I’m handling it with kid gloves. This kid’s got a drug problem and she’s trying to straighten herself out. The last thing she needs in her life is police attention.”
He looked down into his coffee cup, as if trying to divine an answer.
“So you haven’t told the parents. Sounds like you might be letting yourself care just a little bit.” At that last remark the all-business cop tone finally went out of his voice.
There wasn’t much I could say in response to that, so I didn’t bother. I looked down, feeling a little uncomfortable. After a moment he went on.
“Look, Roland, I just want to do a little checking. I won’t hassle the girl, I promise. You can think of it as free help. There’s no information that you have to share with me. But I could be taking a serious risk talking about this with you. I’d like to know we trust each other.”
I shrugged. “There’s really no way this can be connected to the other case, Jake. But okay, fair enough.”
I knew he was right. I decided to give him something. I told him about Lena and her boyfriend, my caving in to the parents, and Big Daddy and the smack. He took out his notepad and scribbled as I talked, nodding after each tidbit, reminding me more of Lester Broom with every nod. Cops, maybe we
all alike in some ways
If so, they were ways I liked. He scribbled a few more notes in the black leather notebook, and slid it back into his breast pocket.
“Well, you’re probably right. As far as we know, Big Daddy and Longshot don’t mix. Longshot runs the rackets, but we’ve never heard of him touching the big H. Besides, Big Daddy operates out of the Zone and that’s Don Ganato’s territory. He needs Don Ganato’s blessing to fart. Longshot wouldn’t dare go over there.” He picked up his coffee and took a thoughtful sip. “Not yet, anyway.”
I leaned in a little closer. “If that’s the case, Jake, tell me something. I need to know more about Hazelwood and Longshot. You guys grilled the hell out of me last night about Longshot and the O’Hearn mob. Just a few minutes ago, you brought Longshot up again. It seems a recurrent theme with you all. Obviously, you have some reason for claiming that he’s mixed up in all of this. What exactly is the connection?”
Keeler looked around apprehensively. He appeared uncertain.
“Come on, Jake. You say you’d like to help me. Well, this is the way. I need to know about their relationship.”
“Okay, what the hell. But you need to understand something. You didn’t hear it from me. Understand?” I nodded.
“Hazelwood was in debt, Roland. Gambling, maybe some other stuff, too. As you know, Longshot runs the gambling joints on the North Side. Word is he found out Hazelwood was a cop. So he makes sure the guy gets in over his head, right? Then he lets Hazelwood’s debts go until the guy has no choice but to ask for a deal. Longshot likes having cops on the string, you know? It’s been done a few times, you and me both know that. A cop with a money problem can be easy to turn.” He worked his fingers through the light blond stubble on his chin.
“I can see the arrangement. Like maybe Hazelwood keeps Lonnie tipped off, and the debts go away. After awhile, he’s even making money from the arrangement, and there’s women, and who knows what else. He knows he’s dirty but he’s living the life, and it’s too good to stop.”
The expression reminded me uneasily of Harry. “What makes you think Hazelwood would be open to working for Lonnie? Did he have problems in the past?” I said.
“There had been charges in the past, probation. We know he’d taken money before, bribes from suspects. So it stands to reason people on the street knew he could be bought. But the powers that be at the West Precinct said give him another chance, so Hazelwood went back out on the street, mostly limited to vice cases. He knew he’d never work homicide again.”
“So why would this guy want me dead?” I wondered aloud. Beth refilled my coffee with a slightly frightened look, and retreated quickly; she had overheard the question I posed to Jake.
“I’m in the dark on that one. I don’t have all the pieces here, either, Roland.”
“And I do? Tell me this, Jake. How long ago was it that this last investigation of Hazelwood started? And what were they looking for?”
Keeler leaned back a little. He looked hesitant.
“Ah, well, it’s a long story. This last time started kind of funny, actually.”
“Great. I could use a few laughs right now.”
Jake made a gesture with a napkin equivalent to throwing in the towel. “Ah, what the hell. A few ‘high denomination bills’ were found in an unmarked car Hazelwood had checked out, stuffed under the rear seat. That kind of stuff immediately draws the attention of IA; I mean, like I said, this was a cop with a past. He claimed that some punks must have stashed the bills there. Someone he had busted the night before. But it just didn’t add up. I was uniform back in those days. It so happened I was there when he brought these guys in. It was a vice raid on a hash house. A pot party got busted in progress. Nothing really big. I remember the two in question, and they were two small-time losers, not the kind to carry wads of hundreds around.”
“It sounds like you know these punks.”
“Ask any West Precinct officer. They were well known to us all. I’ve even busted them myself a few times, back when I was in uniform. It seemed like they were always there. I know them well enough so I can tell you they were small timers. Grew up in jail, most likely. Strictly two-bit losers, the both of them. You know the type.”
“I know the type, but it would really help if I had some names, Jake.”
“Aw, Hell. I don’t know . . .” He stopped when he saw the look I was giving him, winced, and appeared to concentrate. “Let me think. One had a limp. He’d gotten shot in a holdup, or something. Yeah, I got it. The name’s Harry. Yeah, that’s it. Harry. Harry and his partner, Donny. No, wait . . . it’s Danny. They call him—”
Jake looked at me as if I had suddenly grown an extra head. He also looked slightly irritated, but went on.
“Itchy. Yeah. Now there’s a real loser for you. I heard that he got sent up for slashing up an old lady for something like thirty dollars. Almost killed her. Beat the rap by making youthful offender, but still did some time in Juvenile. Like I said, though, that’s just what I heard. That was even before I busted him. But I remember him. Always scratching himself, like he had fleas. What about him?”
“Believe it or not, Jake, I used to bust him, too. I believe he’s at the center of things. But I can’t seem to locate him. He’s laying low, and doing a pretty good job of it. I’m frankly surprised you’ve busted him, Jake, I mean, I was bringing that kid in seven or eight years ago.”
“Roland, a punk at eighteen is usually a punk at twenty-eight.”
“Actually, he was more like fifteen, but I’ll agree with your point. So what have you hauled him in for?”
“It seems he and some of his pals were hopping freights over in the old Birmingham Freight Yards. A lot of college kids are doing it now. You know, the old hobo story. Coast to coast for free. Well, as it turns out, there’s a whole subculture that has developed around it. Crazy stuff, really. Several kids have lost arms and legs trying to jump freight trains.”
“Danny was doing this? He always seemed more the hard core criminal type.”
“Exactly. The story with him was the drugs. He was selling to the kids on the trains. There were some altercations over money. It’s a really weird scene. You got kids doing it all over the country. I went down to the yard with several other officers on a complaint from some railroad workers. We arrested a whole group of these people, Danny among them. I mean, they were all trespassing, after all. As it turns out, Danny was out there dealing. That was maybe three years ago.”
“I wonder if these kids are still out there.”
“You kidding? It’s bigger now than ever. Now you’ve got college kids and career hippies doing it. It’s still just as illegal as it ever was. Go down to the Freight yard, you’ll see them. People never cease to amaze me with the stupid stuff they find to do. There’ve been a couple of arms and legs lost this year alone.”
“Sounds like a strange way to have fun.”
“Yeah. Anyway, Danny’s probably on the North Side somewhere. He’s closing in on thirty years old. He’s probably not up to doing the hobo thing nowadays. Besides, he’s a drifter, always trying his hand at something new, always petty stuff, though.”
“Then I guess the North Side is where I’ll look for him. There’s plenty of petty stuff there for him to get involved in. Thanks for the coffee, Jake.”
“Hey, come on, Roland. I’m out on a limb here. I gave you what I had, so what do
know?” It was amusing how quickly his demeanor shifted from tough cop to plaintive college boy. I suppressed a smile.
“You know what I know right now. When I know something new, I’ll give it to you. Meanwhile, I have to go.”
“See you around, Roland.” Keeler stared after me as I walked away, the tough cop once again. But then he called. “Hey, Longville. Not so fast.”
I stopped and turned around. Jake got up and walked toward me, opening his overcoat. With a sardonic smile, he reached into his inside pocket and produced a brown paper bag and held it out. As I took it, I could feel a dense object inside. My Smith and Wesson .45.
“Thank you large, Jake.”
“No sweat. It’s just that I like to bet on the winner. I figured that if you have to stay mixed up in this, you could use some heat. Seems like somebody wants to do you some harm. I like to think that the bad guy will go down when it’s all said and done.”
I nodded without speaking. He lowered his voice so that only I could hear.
“Just one more thing. Try not to shoot any more cops. And good luck finding Itchy.”
“Actually, I have someone to go see first.”
“Wouldn’t be the wandering daughter, would it now?”
I turned silently and slid out into the muck.
The girl in the red raincoat was gone, but the sloppy weather had worsened. I stood for a second and watched the gray water run down the gutter and into the sewer grate. My hand played restlessly with my car keys. Why exactly did I want to go see Lena? Did I need to? Was Jake right? Was I beginning to care for her? All of these questions swirled around in my mind. The answer was probably yes, I decided. Which couldn’t possibly work out well.
I got into my Buick and reached up and twisted the mirror so I could see my face. “Roland, whatever will we do with you?” I asked. But the face didn’t answer. With a sigh, I readjusted he rearview mirror, then started the engine and drove off toward Sumiton, and Lena’s place.
Traffic in the opposite lanes was backed up all the way past downtown; a series of fender benders had made the highway into a long glowing snake with thousands of white, red, and yellow eyes. The snake glistened in the rain, its coils disappearing into infinity.
Lena met me at the door with a warm smile, which warmed my frozen heart immensely. I was pleased to see that she was packing in preparation for moving to her friend’s house. Steve had apparently not returned since his dramatic exit the previous evening.