When his cell phone rang, Jack Doyle had just slipped his silver Accord onto the Kennedy Expressway at Ohio Street and begun his trip to Monee Park, the aged thoroughbred racetrack located some twenty miles south of Chicago’s Loop. The early morning traffic began to thicken in front of him, then coagulated into a bumper-to-bumper morass of frustrated drivers. A weak late March sun had given up its attempt to pierce the city haze.
“Doyle here,” he said, guiding the Accord into the left lane so that it wasn’t completely surrounded by air-braking trucks and impatient grain traders and stock brokers trying to gun their expensive autos closer to the Jackson Street exit.
“I’m calling to wish you well on the first day of your new job,” said the familiar voice of Moe Kellman. Doyle smiled. “Don’t jive me, Moe. You’re calling to see if I’m punctually on my way to work.”
“Jack, Jack, how little you respect my opinion of you. I just thought I’d give you a buzz on my way to the club.”
Doyle pictured the diminutive, sixty-eight year old Kellman, with his Don King-like head of frizzed white hair, sitting in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, tying the laces of his New Balance cross trainers as he neared Fit City. Kellman, reputed to be Chicago’s “furrier to the Mob,” had a daily workout regimen from which he never varied. He and Doyle had first met three years earlier at Fit City, the popular downtown health club.
Doyle said, “All right, Moe. Thanks for the call. Dinner tomorrow? Sure. I know you’ve got my best interests in mind. Most of the time,” he added, before quickly cutting the connection.
Doyle put the phone down and reached for the radio dial. He turned on 90.9 FM, his favorite local jazz station. Disc jockey Bruce Burnett was promising an upcoming set that would include offerings from John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughn, the Kelly Brand Sextet, and Nicholas Payton. That was fine with Doyle, and he began to relax, accepting the jerky rhythm of the rush hour drive as he passed underneath the Eisenhower Expressway.
Nicholas Payton kicked off the WDCB set with “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Hearing the bold, round sound of Payton’s trumpet, Doyle recalled the memorable night nearly eighteen years earlier when he had wandered into a Crescent City jazz club in the middle of a rousing jam session involving local musicians. Tired from a day spent with representatives of one of his firm’s major marketing accounts, Doyle had felt himself revive as the wave of vibrant music rolled through the brick-walled room. After forty-five minutes or so, in a break between songs, the session’s leader motioned toward the rear of the large room. Doyle saw a fresh faced, stocky, African-American youngster spring to his feet, a trumpet in his hand. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt a gray cloth cap, and an eager look. The cap reminded Doyle of the one worn by one of Doyle’s mother’s favorite television characters, Jackie Gleason’s the Poor Soul. The men that the youngster joined on the grandstand were all many years older and all wore suits and ties over glistening dress shirts.
Any suggested connection to Gleason’s Poor Soul was soon washed away when the young man stepped to the microphone, waited respectfully for his signal from the leader, and proceeded to blow the paint off the ceiling. The crowd was stunned by this awesome display of talent, many of them getting to their feet, looks of amazement and delight on their faces. When the set concluded a half-hour later, Doyle said to his waitress, “Who was that?”
“They tell me his name is Payton. Nicholas, I think they said.
He’s just turned sixteen. He’s sure got it, don’t he?”
“Could it have been that many years ago?” Doyle muttered to himself. Having recently turned forty-two, he sometimes found it hard to believe that such vivid scenes in his life were nestled so far back in the past. Details of his two failed marriages were less clear in his mind, he thought, and a good thing, too.
A white panel truck with the red logo “Smithereens Pest Control” shifted over one lane, leaving Doyle behind a red Saturn. He could see a small woman at its wheel. The Saturn’s bumper was completely covered with slogans. As traffic slowed again Doyle read, from left to right, Who Would Jesus Bomb?… Keep Your Theology Off My Biology…My Kid Brother Sells His Term Papers to Your Honor Student. The last one made Doyle laugh out loud. Then he had to slam on his brakes as a hulking black SUV cut sharply in front of him. Doyle’s Accord stopped about the width of a slice of prosciutto from the vehicular mastodon in front of it. Doyle could see the SUV’s driver shaking his fist and pounding his horn. “What the hell is he honking at?” Doyle said. “Asshole. He’s the one who cut over.” The SUV’s two bumper stickers were in sharp contrast to those on the red Saturn. One read, Put Christ Back Into Christmas, the other Abortion: Murder of the Innocent. The SUV driver kept banging on his horn for another block.
South of White Sox Park at Thirty-fifth Street, traffic again jammed up. Creeping along now, checking his dashboard clock, Doyle tapped the steering wheel impatiently. He hated being late for anything, much less a new job. A little rim of sweat began to invade the top of his forehead.
Nearing Fifty-seventh Street, the SUV stopped suddenly. Doyle was ready for it this time, but he heard the sound of metal on metal from in front of him. “He must have bumped the red car,” Doyle said to himself. Almost immediately, Doyle saw the Saturn pull off onto the left shoulder. Its rear end looked as if it had been sledge hammered. The SUV followed the Saturn, horn blasting away again. Doyle swore aloud as he saw the SUV driver fling open his door. “Uh oh,” Doyle said. He started his own hazard lights flashing and eased the Accord onto the shoulder back of the SUV. He didn’t like the looks of this.
Doyle saw the driver of the SUV lumber down from his perch. He was a medium tall, overweight white man, about Doyle’s age, wearing khaki wash pants, a white sweatshirt declaring him to be a Bob Jones U. Parent, and a look of rage. Even his spiky black buzz cut seemed to be atingle. He moved toward the red Saturn, out of which stepped a short, slim young woman. She had on a tan sweater, brown slacks, and a look of bafflement on her pale face. Before he’d gotten his door completely open, Doyle could hear the Fat Man berating her in a voice that carried over the now resumed Dan Ryan traffic flow.
“Bitch! Why’d you stop that little tin can right in front of me?” Fat Man bellowed. “Shouldn’t be allowed on the road, the way you drive.”
The young woman bristled, color returning to her face. She said, “If you knew how to handle that big, ugly gas guzzler you wouldn’t have rammed into me. You were following too closely. What were you thinking?”
Doyle walked up to where the two were standing now, face to face, Fat Man’s complexion having taken on a Heinz 57 hue. He looked like he was either going to slap or belly bump the young woman. Doyle stepped between them. Fat Man, startled, snarled, “Who the hell are you?”
At just under six feet, Doyle was taller than Fat Man, who looked like a one-time high school tackle who had extensively padded his frame with Krispy Kremes, Whoppers, and long necks in the ensuing years. His gut stretched the size XXX white sweatshirt. His meaty hands were bunched into fists.
Doyle spoke loud enough to be heard over the whooshing sound of passing vehicles. “Listen up, Orca, never mind who I am. Just back off until you can get a sheriff’s patrol over here to sort this out. You got a cell phone?”
It took Fat Man several seconds to process what Doyle had said. Then he lunged forward and threw a wild right hand that Doyle dodged easily, the Fat Man stumbling past him after his miss. “You don’t want to be doing this,” Doyle warned. “Now, just calm down and you two can get this straightened out.” He glanced at the young woman just as Fat Man let go with another right cross. This one missed by only a couple of inches as Doyle pivoted and ducked. Doyle said, “Mister, you know where you are here? You’re out of your goddam element.” Fat Man swore loudly. He was starting to get a little bit out of breath already, but his rage propelled him forward again. Doyle sighed, looked resignedly at the young woman, and shrugged. “How did this nitwit get any of his progeny into a university?” he said to her, before turning back to face the onrushing Fat Man.
I don’t want to break a knuckle on that bowling ball head, Doyle thought as he got up on the balls of his feet. Seeing Doyle with his fists up, jaw tucked into his left shoulder, shuffling toward him, Fat Man momentarily hesitated. Doyle threw a stiff jab that turned Fat Man’s nose sideways, then paused for a second before letting go with a lazy right hand designed to draw attention. Fat Man lifted his hands to protect his face. Doyle stepped in close to Fat Man and quickly hammered three left hooks under the right rib cage, the preferred target area of Doyle’s favorite fighter, Julio Cesar Chavez, the Mexican champion renowned for his punishing kidney punches. Doyle’s fist dug wrist deep into the layers of flab. Fat Man let out a girlish scream as he fell onto his side.
There was the sound of a distant siren. Doyle said to the wide-eyed young woman, “He won’t bother you. The cops are on their way. I’m out of here.”
She looked almost as stunned as the fallen Fat Man. She backed away from Doyle. “Are you a boxer?”
Doyle smiled. “Was once,” he said. “Until I ran out of people I could beat, and started running into a whole bunch that I couldn’t.”
She smiled slightly at that before saying, “Well, thanks a lot for keeping that creep away from me. It’s your good turn, at least for today.”
“Oh, I imagine it’ll be for more than today,” Doyle smiled. “I don’t think they’d find much ‘do gooder’ in my DNA. It’s just that I’ve never been able to put up with the kind of bully lying over there.” Fat Man glowered back at Doyle, but remained sitting on the pavement.
Doyle waved without looking back at her as he turned and hurried to his car, got in, then zipped down the expressway, heading south, not wanting to be late for work.
The morning haze had lifted and the March sun was now a visible presence. Doyle felt pumped. He grinned at himself in the mirror, feeling good in the way he’d felt more than twenty years before, when he was still a factor in AAU boxing. The young woman he’d helped back there certainly wouldn’t report him for coming to her aid, and he knew Fatso was too bleary from punches to spot Doyle’s rapidly receding license plate. “Doyle to the rescue,” he said in a mocking voice, not really understanding the surge of exhilaration he felt, but riding it anyway.
The main entrance to Monee Park was unattended as Doyle drove through the gate. It was two weeks before the race meeting would begin and there were only a dozen or so cars in the parking lot, most of them in slots marked for “Officials.” Looking at the old, brick grandstand that loomed in front of him, Doyle couldn’t help but laugh at his irony-laden situation. The only previous time he had taken a job at a racetrack, Heartland Downs northwest of Chicago, it was as a novice groom, intending to fix a race, a plan he had reluctantly carried out. It was a plan that also wound up with him being coerced into cooperating with the FBI in cracking a ring of criminals who were killing horses for their insurance values. Besides helping to bring these vicious crooks to justice, the main benefits for Doyle had been clearing his name with the authorities, winning a major bet on an honest race, and getting to know the beautiful Caroline Cummings. Now, here he was less than a year later, about to begin work as the publicity director of another Chicago area thoroughbred track, this one a small and struggling enterprise that he’d never before set eyes on.
Doyle had returned to Chicago after a three-month stay in New Zealand and, on his first full day back, before he had seen any of the people he knew, he got a phone call from Kellman. “How did you know I was back?”
Moe said, “That’s not important. How about if I buy you dinner at Dino’s?”
Early that evening Doyle strolled through the crowd of clamoring would-be customers at the entrance of Dino’s Ristorante, a Clark Street fixture and Kellman’s favorite restaurant. Dino’s was a prime destination for the city’s movers, shakers, and wannabes in both categories. Angie, the hostess, looked at Doyle in surprise. “Haven’t seen you lately,” she said. “Go on in. Mr. Kellman is waiting for you.”
Kellman was sitting in his usual maroon leather booth at the back of the long room, under the huge photo of Frank Sinatra, the singer’s arm around the beaming Dino. There was a Negroni cocktail in front of Kellman. He held a cell phone to his ear. He switched the phone from right to left hand and reached across the table to enthusiastically shake Doyle’s hand, all the while continuing to talk on the phone.
“Did I tell you last week or not, that fur won’t be in until the end of the month. And the price remains the same.” Kellman listened for thirty seconds or so, rolling his eyes. “Feef,” he said, “I’m busy. I don’t have time to quibble. I know it’s late in the season for a fur, but that doesn’t make the fur any less valuable to me. There’s always next fall. Now, you want it or not?” Kellman nodded and said, “You got it. Good bye.”
Kellman took a long drink of his Negroni. “Fifi Bonadio,” he said to Doyle. “He’s in love again. For about the thirty-ninth time. Some improv actress he met at a Second City benefit for the St. Joseph’s League. You couldn’t make it up. It’s a good thing his wife now spends most of the year with her relatives back in Sicily. And he wants a discount on top of his discount, just because we grew up together on the West Side.”
Doyle had heard a good deal about Bonadio but had never met him. That was fine with Doyle. Bonadio owned a huge construction company and several Chicago area banks and car dealerships, but he was not in any Chamber of Commerce. He was known to be a shrewd businessman, avid woman chaser and, more significantly, longtime head of the Chicago Outfit.
Kellman signaled their waiter, who quickly returned with another Negroni plus a Bushmills on the rocks for Doyle. The little man sat back, saying, “Jack, you look good. With that tan you got, all the color you got Down Under, you remind me of Steve McQueen in that prison escape picture. What was it… yeah, ‘Papillon.’ It’s good to see you.” They clinked their glasses together. “I was surprised you came back so soon,” Kellman said. “I had the impression you might just wind up staying in New Zealand with that Cummings woman.”
“Caroline,” Doyle amended.
“Yes, Caroline Cummings,” Kellman said.
Caroline Cummings, an attractive widow with two young children and sister of horseman Aldous Bolger, a key aide to Doyle in bringing the Kentucky horse killers to justice, had invited Doyle to her home outside of Auckland. Theirs became a satisfactorily social and sexual relationship during Doyle’s months there, just as they had enjoyed each other on the Kentucky horse farm the previous summer. But, as Doyle said to Kellman before draining his drink, “Love really never had much to do with it.” He hesitated, swirling the ice cubes around in his glass. “I admire and like Caroline a lot. Always will. I think the feeling is mutual. But the more time we spent together, the more obvious it became to both of us that we were never going to be anything more than good friends.…
“It was hard to leave down there,” Doyle said. “At the same time, I was pretty damned glad to get back to Chicago. Now,” he added, “I’ve got to go about finding a job.”
Kellman’s smile gleamed beneath his perfectly trimmed white mustache. “You’re in luck again, Jack. I’ve heard of something that could be just right for you.”
Doyle gave Kellman a long look. “Last time you got me a job could hardly be called something that was ‘just right for me.’” “So, yes, there were some ups and downs,” Kellman said. “You got drugged, robbed, and came close to being charged with fixing that race. But that was a one-time deal, just as I told you it would be. And, admit it, didn’t things work out all right for you in the long run? It was a hell of a lot more interesting than chugging along in life as an advertising account executive.”
Doyle shrugged. “I can’t argue, I guess. Okay, what plans have you got for me this time around?”
“I don’t have any plans for you, Jack,” Kellman snapped. “You’re, what, forty-two years old. And I’m not your guardian. What I have for you is an opportunity. Which I am bringing to your attention because, for some unknown, continuing reason, I like you. Okay?”
Moe lowered the level of his Negroni by half before saying, “Let’s order some food. I’ll lay this out for you while we eat.” He nodded in the direction of the observant Dino, who immediately sent a waiter hustling over to their booth.