Tuesday, September 3, 1940
In a large brick house on Mirabeau Street in the northeastern sector of the city, a man stared at the naked dead woman tied to the chair in front of him. In a quiet, savage voice, the man cursed the corpse, the corpse’s mother and father and grandparents, the sky, the earth, and the heavens above. He cursed until he’d used every foul combination of words he knew, then stood breathing heavily as he tried to calm himself. He set the electric iron he was holding on its end, then jerked the plug from the wall outlet, wrinkling his nose at the odor of burnt flesh.
With his mind restored to calm, the man tore the room to pieces, unshelving books, rolling up the rugs, dumping desk drawers, shoving his hands down inside the cushions of the chair and love seat. When he finished with that room, he went upstairs to the bedrooms where he continued his search.
He continued on into the bathroom, going through the linen closet, the dirty clothes hamper, and the medicine cabinet.
The man realized he shouldn’t have resorted to the hot iron on the woman’s feet so quickly. He should have begun with the knife. The sight of blood will frighten most people into saying anything, but he had been in too much of a hurry.
With his expectations at zero, he pulled the rope to a disappearing staircase in the hall. Climbing up into the dark, he found a light that revealed a lot of dusty junk that had not been touched in years. He backed down the stairs, shutting off the light as he descended.
After searching all the downstairs rooms, he returned to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle of bonded bourbon uncovered by his search. He found a glass, then took them into the library and sat down in an armchair. He poured the tumbler about half-full and drank it down, sighing as the hundred-proof liquor loosened the tight muscles in his neck and back.
A few minutes later, he left through the kitchen door, pausing at the back porch. The neighborhood was quiet but for a dog barking a few blocks away. Pulling his hat down over his face, he walked quietly through the darkness to the service alley. There, he continued through to the next street, where his car waited. Within seconds he drove away from the neighborhood, leaving his headlights off until he was at least three blocks away from the house on Mirabeau Street.
When he reached the edge of the campus of Dillard University, he pulled up in front of an all-night pharmacy on Gentilly Boulevard. Leaving the car running, he entered a telephone booth just outside the drugstore. Feeding a nickel into the slot, he gave the operator a number on the other side of town.
# # #
On Sherwood Forest Street at the edge of City Park, a black-haired woman with skin the color of old gold dug her nails into the back of the man on top of her as he finally hit the spot he’d been probing at for the past quarter hour. She shuddered as the orgasm contracted the muscles inside her. He shook and shuddered along with her, completely caught up in the completion of the sex until the telephone on the nightstand began to ring insistently.
“Ah!” she cried out, mostly in frustration. The man ignored the phone as he continued to plow the same furrow with single- minded devotion. Finally, he collapsed on top of her, at the same time reaching out a searching hand that eventually fumbled the phone from its cradle.
“This,” he said in a voice lightly accented with Spanish, “had better be good.” He was a long, slender blonde man with bold, sharp features and a widow’s peak that grew to a precise point on his broad forehead. His slanted eyes contributed to the somewhat demonic cast of his face. The glittering eyes stared a bit madly as he bared his teeth at the telephone receiver.
“It’s Dixie Ray,” the caller said. “Sorry if I interrupted anything, Spanish.” He didn’t sound particularly sorry. There was, in fact, a hint of a smile in his voice. Spanish hadn’t wanted to hire him, and he knew that.
“Did you find them?” the blonde man asked, a different kind of excitement now trilling along the edge of his voice.
“Why not?” The excitement was suddenly gone. Now his voice had an edge of steel.
“She wouldn’t play ball so I had to get rough with her. She kinda died in the middle of things—must’ve been a heart attack or something.” The words came from Dixie Ray’s mouth flatly, without emotion. Death was his stock in trade. He expected people to die when he went to see them.
The blonde man swung his long legs over the edge of the bed and uttered a profanity. Whatever pleasure he’d derived from the dark-haired woman had evaporated with the other man’s news. “Did you search the house?”
“From top to bottom. I tore everything there to pieces. They’re not in the house, and probably never were. I just went there to make sure of things.”
The other man was silent for a moment. “I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. Did she tell you where Martinez is?”
“It’s too bad I’m not a priest, Spanish. Once I went to work on her, she confessed every fuckin’ sin since the fifth grade, but she didn’t seem to know where Martinez is. You can believe I was tough enough to make her talk.” He laughed in a softly indulgent way.
The other man snorted. “That’s rich, my friend. So now we have nothing.” He bit the words off clean and hard, fighting to keep the rage in him from boiling over. “What are you going to do now?”
“I’m gonna keep lookin’. See, I went to the trouble to find out about him. He’s got friends here, places to hide. I’m gonna use that against him.”
The blonde man snorted derisively. “If you know him so Goddamned well, why haven’t you gotten my plates back yet? Those are more than just engravings, my friend. They’re part of an important plan, more important than you know.”
“Yeah, things are tough all over, hermanito. Course, if it was any of my business, I’d be askin’ why you decided to cross Martinez after he set everything up for you. Now you got a mess, and it takes a man like me to clean it up.”
“It isn’t any of your business,” the blonde man said angrily. “I’ve got a stockpile to work with, but it won’t last forever. I need to produce more bills, and I can’t do that until you get those counterfeit plates back. I don’t care if you have to tear this damned town apart brick by brick until you find Martinez. Just find him.”
The man in the booth seemed unabashed by the blonde man’s angry impatience. There was still a hint of laughter in his voice as he responded. “Sure, Spanish. You’re the boss. Just relax, entiende?” “I’ll relax when you bring me back the plates. Now get them.”
He threw the receiver back into the cradle.
The woman stood at the bureau, nude, pouring gin into a couple of glasses she’d filled with ice while the blonde man spoke into the telephone. She wasn’t very tall, but the curve of her hips and the elasticity of her round, dark-nippled breasts made up for it. She brushed a strand of long, black hair away from her eyes as she pretended to ignore the telephone conversation. The name Martinez had a particular meaning for her. She recognized a strange indefinable pleasure in knowing Martinez had stymied the blonde man in some way.
“You’ve been mad long enough, Spanish. Have a drink and let me take your mind off of it—whatever it is.” She returned to the bed, unconscious of the provocative roll of her hips. She stopped just short of him and reached out with the drink in her left hand.
Still scowling, the blonde man took the glass and drank about a third of it. “Stay out of it. It’s nothing to do with you.”
She walked to her side of the bed and climbed back into it, fluffing the pillows so she could lean against them comfortably. When she’d taken a taste of her gin, she looked at his back. “Don’t be so sure, sugar. That was Luis Martinez you were talking about, right?” As she stared at his broad back, she saw the muscles tighten, as she’d expected them to. He treated all women as though they knew nothing. It pleased her to make him wrong in something. In anything.
“What if it is? He’s got something of mine, and I’ve got to get it back. It’s important.”
“Of course, honey. Everything you do is important.”
He turned to her, his eyes hot. “What do you know about it? This is man’s business.”
Her full, soft lips smiled. “Baby, would it interest you to hear that I used to know Luis Martinez?”
He looked at her, his eyes like shards of glass. “How did you know him?”
She ignored the look in his eyes, even though she knew from experience he would only take so much ragging before he lost his temper. For some reason she didn’t care. “We had some laughs a few years ago before I left him.”
“So you are not friends now?”
She gave him the full benefit of her large eyes, smiling sweetly into his face. “How could I be, sweetheart? I’m a one-man woman, and you’re the man.”
He nodded, interested in what she had to say. She enjoyed that. “But how well did you know him?” he asked.
“I got to know him real well, like I’ve gotten to know you, Santiago. I know where he goes, what he does when he gets there, and what he thinks while he’s doing it. I could find him, if you made it worth my while.” She sipped her gin to cover the look of calculation in her eyes.
Santiago blinked at her self-assurance, and for a moment he wondered if she was talking sense or just trying to rag him. “Do you think you could find him, even if he doesn’t want to be found?” For once his words did not drip sarcasm. It was a message to her just how badly he wanted Martinez found. She liked to see desperation in him.
She nodded seriously. “If it’s worth my while.”
He returned her seriousness with interest. “All right, Jelly. Is ten grand enough?”
Jelly. She hated that name. She had once entered a bar while the jukebox blared “It must be jelly ’cause jam don’t shake like that.” After that, wherever she went she was Jelly. “Ten grand would be swell.” And then you won’t treat me like a dumb twist anymore. She hadn’t realized until now how just much she hated him and everybody like him. She wanted to hurt him, to get away from him.
He drank his gin, examining her as though she was a different species of woman, somebody he hadn’t met before. He patted the covers beside him. “Come here. Let us finish what we started before the telephone interrupted.” He put his empty glass on the nightstand and took her by the arm, pulling her insistently to him.
She wasn’t in the mood, but the game had changed for her. Everything she did from now on would be a blow she struck against him. The name Luis Martinez had reminded her of another life she’d had, a life she’d given up for reasons she could no longer remember.
Her face flattened and sparks began to jump in her eyes as she crawled into his lap. She grabbed his head savagely, raking the nails over his scalp. Santiago grunted in surprise and pain, tried to push her off. She twisted his head up and mashed her lips down on his, chewing on them with predatory abandon. He was startled by her strength, and his inability to shake her loose. As they struggled, the feel of her hot flesh in his hands distracted him from his worries. But it didn’t dispel them. He was in trouble and he knew it.
# # #
The man called Dixie left the stifling booth and stood on the sidewalk, letting a cool breeze dry the sweat from his face and neck. He looked up into the darkness at the faint flickering of stars, and for a long moment he enjoyed his anonymity, and the feeling of complete freedom he knew at this moment.
He had freedom in the work he undertook, as well. Dixie Ray Chavez liked to think of himself as a bullet which stayed on course until the job was done. He had some mixed feelings about this job, however. He didn’t like Santiago Compasso, not because the man was handsome, sophisticated, and powerful, but because Dixie Ray already knew he wasn’t smart. The other man—now that was a different story. That was a man you could stick with, a man who knew which end was up. Compasso wouldn’t last, but the other man would.
Dixie Ray took in a deep breath and let it out. He had tried to find Martinez in all the easy ways he knew, and nearly three weeks had gone by. Now it was time to put a more complicated plan in motion. He got into his car and drove away.
# # #
Uptown, a frail, white-haired man drummed his fingers on the desk in his study as he stared at the telephone. His watery blue eyes reflected both impatience and worry, but there was a grim determination on his lined face, as well.
The telephone bell broke the tense silence at last. He waited until it had rung twice before he slowly picked it up. “Yes?”
“Mr. Leake, I have your party. Go ahead, please.” The operator spoke with impersonal courtesy.
“This is McCandless, Marston. What’s so damned important that it couldn’t wait another couple of days?” McCandless’s voice was an impatient rasp.
“This is important, A. J.,” Leake replied. “Treasury agents began crawling all over the bank yesterday. They’re looking for counterfeit money. I thought I’d better tell you immediately.”
McCandless was silent for a long moment. “Christ on the cross. Who else knows?”
“Right now, just you, me and the vault manager,” Leake replied. “Keep it that way. Make like it’s something routine from the Federal Reserve.”
“All right. What about you?”
“I’ll be home when I planned. If I raced back, it might create an impression we’d find difficult to change.” Leake’s eyes narrowed. “I see.”
“Keep the lid on, Marston. Keep it on good and tight. I’m depending on you.”
“All right, A. J. Whatever you say. Good night.”
“Good night, Marston.” McCandless hung up in the same decisive way he did everything else.
Leake replaced the telephone receiver in the cradle then sat there thoughtfully, fingering his chin.
Wednesday, September 4, 1940
Sergeant Israel Daggett of the Negro Detective Squad got out of the passenger side of his Dodge police cruiser and walked up to the red-brown young man who stood in the open door of a large two-story frame house. He wore a carefully trimmed mustache that little disguised his youth and a stylish Wilton fedora tipped over his right ear.
“Hiya, Park. Tell us what you got.”
Park showed Daggett a lopsided grin. “The housekeeper come in this morning, found the back door unlocked. She went inside and began lookin’ around. That’s when she discovered the body. She pitched such an ing-bing it brought some of the neighbors a-runnin’. Lady next door’s the one who called us.”
Detective Sam Andrews came up behind Daggett. “Give us the tour, Eddie.”
The wide-shouldered young cop led the two detectives inside to the staircase. Andrews stared, shaking his head. “Damn. This place looks like a cyclone hit it broadside.”
Daggett looked but said nothing as he continued up the stairs behind Park.
Park paused at the open door to the upstairs parlor. He turned to the older men, his face stiff. “In there, boss. It’s bad—real bad.”
Daggett walked through the open door with Andrews on his heels. What he saw stopped him.
“Sweet Jesus.” Andrews’s voice was a harsh whisper.
Daggett picked his way through the debris, stepping around the corpse. He went to the window and opened the drapes, then stepped back. A rectangle of early morning sunlight fell across the dead woman’s body like a pale shadow. She had been stripped naked, then bound hand and foot to a wooden armchair with strips of her underwear. Dead eyes blared from her face and her jaw line was lumpy with contorted muscle. Her hands were clenched fists.
Nearly two dozen burns were visible all over her light brown body. The worst of them had bled, leaving strings of dried blood down her skin. The smell of burnt meat hung in the air like the dregs of a nightmare.
Daggett knelt, looking at her hands, checking the rigidity of her muscles with his fingers. “Been dead a while now. Skin’s cooled off.” He cupped a hand around one of her heels and lifted the foot off the floor. The sole was like a slab of raw ham. He winced, shaking his head.
“Looks like this is what he used on her.” Park pointed to an electric steam iron propped on its end. “Some of those burns are shaped just like the point on this thing.”
“Whoever did this wanted somethin’ from her,” Andrews said. “She probably croaked before he could get her to talk, which is why he tore the house to pieces. The question is what did he want?”
Daggett turned to the younger officer. “Do we know who she is, Eddie?”
“Driver’s license in her purse says Linda Blanc.”
Andrews’ head snapped up. “You remember her, Iz. She ran with Straight-Flush Henry Alford’s gang in the early ’30s. She was just a joy gal in those days.” He looked around the room, taking in the furnishings. “She’s come up in the world since then.”
“Yeah, but where would she get this kind of money?”
A new voice spoke. “Invite me in, maybe I can suggest a theory.” Daggett turned to a lanky white man in his middle forties.
“What brings you to a homicide, Agent Ewell?”
“One of my guys caught the squeal and recognized the address,” he replied. Paul Ewell was the Chief Resident Treasury Agent, and Daggett had worked with him before. “We’ve been keeping an eye on Miss Blanc because she’s involved with a counterfeiting ring we’re investigating.”
Daggett frowned as he stroked his chin. “Involved how? Her rap sheet is a string of prostitution beefs and other penny-ante stuff.”
Ewell stepped into the room a bit farther, his eyes dispassionately examining the dead woman. “Her connection to the gang is more personal than criminal. She’s the girlfriend of a man named Luis Martinez. Know him?”
“Sure. He used to be head of a bootlegging mob. Dropped out of sight after they repealed the liquor law. I haven’t heard of him for a while.”
“He’s been in and out of New Orleans for the past six or seven years,” Ewell said. “We kept tabs on him because we never got enough evidence to jail him during Prohibition. But word came through informants earlier this year that he was recruiting talent for a counterfeiting mob.”
“That’s a new wrinkle for Martinez,” Andrews said.
Ewell turned a thoughtful gaze on the trio of negro detectives. “This case is trickier than any I’ve seen. Martinez was hard to track, but he’s been seen or reported in places as far apart as Dallas and Atlanta.”
“In Memphis a master engraver named Hardesty disappeared after a visit from Martinez. In Birmingham it was a chemist named Appleyard. In Atlanta a printer named Stevenson. And there are others. A crack crew of phony money guys all visited by Martinez.” Ewell shook his head, and his eyes took on a troubled look. “We’ve been getting some strange whispers in this investigation, Daggett. Hints that this gang is bigger, better organized, and better led than any we’ve seen before. Phony bills have turned up in most of the major banks in the South and Southeast. The engraving technique is so good that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is jealous. And the paper is good enough to fool ninety-seven percent of the people who touch it. We don’t know how much of it’s in the currency pool already.”
“I wouldn’t think they could find paper good enough to fool bank employees,” Daggett said. “Only one company makes it, and they don’t sell it to anybody but Uncle Sam.”
“Like I said, this gang is different. It’s made up of experts good enough to analyze Treasury ink and paper and come up with something that can pass muster most of the time. Or maybe they’re getting it from outside the country.”
“You said the bills are turnin’ up all over the South. That mean here, too?” Andrews asked.
Ewell poked out his lip and shook his head. “For some reason we haven’t worked out, no. We find that especially interesting.” Ewell pushed his hat back off his forehead and stared down at the body again. “This entire case is outside my experience. Most counterfeiters are small-time, passing the money a few bills at a time. But this time, we’re finding it in significant amounts in banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.” He flicked a glance at Daggett. “What I’m telling you is in the nature of secret information. It can’t leave this room.”
“Okay,” Daggett said. “We can keep our mouths shut but what about this woman? Why is she dead?”
Ewell shook his head. “I have no idea, but counterfeiters are among the most ruthless of criminals. This gang may have pumped tens of thousands into the economy already. When that kind of money is at stake, people have a funny way of turning up dead.”
# # #
Later that afternoon, Wesley Farrell got out of a maroon 1940 Packard Victoria in front of a cocktail lounge called The Sunset Limited near the corner of Magazine and Washington Avenues. He found the lounge was dim and cool, a pleasant change from the late summer heat. He looked about until he saw a leathery sun-tanned man in red suspenders behind the bar.
“Hey, Wes. Long time, no see, man.” He stuck out a hand and caught Farrell’s in a firm grip.
“Damn, Sunset Breaux. You haven’t aged a day in ten years.
What’ve you been up to, old timer?”
“Mindin’ my own business, what else? I ain’t as spry as I used to be.”
“Who is? So what’s on your mind? You said you were trying to help somebody on the phone.”
“Yeah. He’s sittin’ in that booth back there. Let’s go over and jawbone with him a minute, let him tell you what he’s up to.”
Sunset led Farrell to where a frail-looking Negro sat in a leather-upholstered booth. As they drew nearer, Farrell recognized that he was dressed in the vestments of a Josephite priest. The man looked at them expectantly, but didn’t get up from his seat. As he drew closer, Farrell saw that the priest’s right leg was canted out at an angle beneath the table, bound in a heavy metal brace.
“Father Maldonar? This is Wes Farrell, the guy I told you about.
Wes, this is Father James Maldonar.”
“It’s kind of you to come all this way. Please forgive me for not rising.” Maldonar spoke in a high, precise voice, and appeared to be somewhere in his thirties. He squinted painfully at Farrell through a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles as he held out a hand to Farrell.
Farrell took it gently, noting when he did that there were irregular patches of pink skin on his wrist, and on his neck near the collar. “Pleased to meet you, Father.” He and Sunset slid into the booth opposite Maldonar.
“Can I offer you a drink?” Maldonar asked. “I suspect you’d prefer something stronger than this.” He gestured at a glass of milk in front of him.
Farrell smiled. “No thanks. It’s a little early for me. What can I do for you?”
“Father Maldonar’s tracking an old friend of ours, Wes,” Sunset said. “I haven’t seen him in years, but you were a lot closer to him than I was. Tell him, Father.”
Maldonar took a sip of his milk. “I actually came to New Orleans to open a mission for the destitute. I named it St. Swithan’s Mission and opened it at the river end of Joliet Street in the Uptown neighborhood. That has claimed most of my attention, but whenever I had a free moment, I’ve been looking for a man named Luis Martinez. I learned that many of his friends were gamblers and tavern keepers, so that is where I’ve concentrated my search.” He paused to pat perspiration from his gleaming brown head, smiling apologetically. “I’m not used to the climate yet.” Farrell noticed that lines of fatigue were sharply etched into the skin around his eyes.
Farrell scratched his head. “I haven’t actually seen Luis in a while, Father. I don’t even know where he is these days.”
The frail priest sighed. “I’ve heard much the same from others of his friends. But nevertheless, it’s important that I find him. You see, his mother is dying of lung cancer in El Paso, Texas, and is desperate to see him before she is gathered to God. She told one of my colleagues that New Orleans is the last place she had heard from him. Knowing that my mission is here, he contacted me and I began making inquiries.”
Farrell nodded sympathetically. “That’s tough. I can see why you’re anxious to find him. There are some people I know who might be able to tell me things.” Criminals, he was thinking. People a priest wouldn’t know how to find. People like Luis. Like himself.
The priest’s smile wiped some of the fatigue from his face. “That would be a great kindness, Mr. Farrell, a very great kindness. As you can see, I’m somewhat limited in my movements. I need most of my strength for the mission.”
“Don’t worry, Father James. If I can’t find him myself, I’ll find someone who knows how to reach him.”
Maldonar placed a calling card on the table and pushed it to Farrell. “When you do, you can call that number, or you can visit the mission. I’d love to show it to you.”
Farrell took the card and tucked it into his vest pocket. “I’d like that. Can I offer you a ride anywhere, Father?”
“Thank you, but no. Mr. Breaux promised to drive me uptown when his evening bartender comes in.”
Farrell got up and offered his hand to the priest. “Take care of yourself, Father. I’ll be back with you once I’ve heard something. Good seeing you, too, Sunset. I’ll see you around.”
“God bless you for your time and hospitality, Mr. Farrell. I hope we’ll speak again soon.” Maldonar took Farrell’s hand and shook it lightly.
Sunset Breaux got up and saw him to the door. “I hope I did right by callin’ you, Wes. The poor li’l guy was so beat down that I figured he needed some real help.”
“Forget it, Sunset. Luis was like a brother to me once. I’m glad to do it. Keep your nose clean, okay?”
“I hear you, pardner. So long.”
As Farrell returned to his car, he didn’t remember Luis Martinez ever speaking about family, but then the Luis Martinez he’d known had been a crook, and an unsentimental one, at that. Farrell had met Martinez when the two of them worked for a rum-runner named Monk Radecker during the early 1920s. By then, Farrell knew his way around, but he’d recognized in Martinez a person to watch, and to emulate. Martinez wasn’t a showy crook, but rather a patient, watchful, and cautious man, one who knew when to fight, when to avoid trouble, and when to back away from something he couldn’t lick. He had the kind of brains that criminals rarely have, the kind that keep you alive, out of jail, and with enough money to last beyond the next week.
When the Radecker gang fell apart in the mid-’20s, Martinez had taken Farrell along to begin a new operation. Farrell supplied the muscle and Martinez the brains. Martinez treated Farrell like a younger brother, and a genuine affection grew between them. He often referred to Farrell as “kid,” or “chivato,” Spanish for “kid” or more precisely, “young goat,” which Farrell thought was as much a gibe at his womanizing as his youth. Martinez went about his work with a light heart, often singing Mexican love songs such as “Cielito Lindo.”
Farrell had learned a lot from Martinez, eventually enough to split off and begin smuggling liquor on his own. He’d only seen his old partner a dozen times since 1927, and at each juncture, Martinez had had some kind of new racket, and had been doing well with it. Despite that diminishing contact, the affection between them remained firm.
Farrell looked at the clock in his dashboard. It was nearing 7:00. Savanna was still in Havana looking over some nightclubs they’d visited on their last trip. They were considering a semi-permanent move there, and had decided that a nightclub in Havana would add to their income while they resided there.
He drove with his left arm propped in the open window as he thought of her. Without her around, his evenings had been a bit empty, and he felt an old restlessness stirring his blood. He continued Downtown in the waning daylight, thinking how good it would be to see old Luis again.
# # #
At that moment, Luis Martinez was in a Negro tavern on the highway just outside Gretna on the west bank of the Mississippi River. He was beat, having been on the move almost constantly for weeks in order to dodge anyone Compasso might send after him. He missed Linda. There were things he wanted to tell her, but he’d decided to keep them to himself for the meantime. There was no need in upsetting her until he needed to.
Martinez was almost fifty, a sturdily built man a couple of inches under six feet in height. He was a Texan by birth, a mixture of Mexican, Indian, and Negro that they called mestizo in old Mexico. His looks were exotic, but even in the Deep South, he managed to go unchallenged into most establishments on either side of the color line.
The tavern, called Handsome Alvin’s, was no shabbier than most of the other juke joints in that part of the world. Leaving his dark green Mercury coupé out front, he’d come into the bar and ordered a double bourbon before asking for the phone. With the bourbon in his hand, he went into the booth, dropped his nickel, and asked the operator for Linda’s number. A man answered.
“Who’s this?” Martinez asked, perplexed. “Is Linda there?” “Who’s calling?” the man asked, ignoring both of Martinez’s questions.
“Never mind who I am. Put Linda on the phone.”
“Sorry. She can’t come to the telephone. If you’ll give me your name and number, I’ll—”
Martinez hung up the telephone quickly as an icy ball began to form in the pit of his stomach. He drank the double shot in a single gulp, shivering as it hit bottom. When he had regained his composure, he fed another nickel into the telephone and asked for the number of a friend who owned a pawnshop on Rampart Street. Seconds later a man came on the line.
“Ozzy, it’s Luis. Can you talk, man?”
Ozzy’s voice was tense, fearful. “Where you at, Louie?”
“Listen, I just tried to call Linda a few minutes ago and a man answered. When I asked for her, he gave me a lot of who-struck-john. Do you know where she is?”
There was a tense moment of silence before Ozzy spoke. “Louie, you sittin’ down? I kinda got some bad news.”
“Bad news. Wait a minute—Linda, is she—is she—?”
“Get ready, Louie. It’s bad. Somebody killed her last night. The old lady who keeps house for y’all knew I was a friend and called me. She didn’t know how to reach you. Louie, you there?”
“Yeah—yeah. I—I’m here.”
“Word is, Compasso set a hitter to lookin’ for you, man. I don’t know how he found out she was your woman, but I reckon he went there lookin’ for you, and when he didn’t find you, he tried to make her tell him.”
Martinez’s hand was aching from the grip he had around the telephone receiver, and tears had sprung to his eyes. My fault, he thought. All my fault. “Couldn’t you of warned her, Ozzy? Jesus, we been friends for years. Why didn’t you warn her, or warn me?”
Ozzy’s voice was hurt. “By the time it came to me through the grapevine, it was too late.”
Martinez wiped his damp eyes on the sleeve of his coat as he fought to regain his composure. “Jesus, Ozzy, Jesus.”
“Look, you shoulda known he’d hit the roof when you copped the plates. You gotta give ’em back. Just send ’em to him by a messenger or somethin’. It’s the only hope you got of stayin’ alive.”
“I—I dunno. I gotta think. I’m all broke inside.”
“Don’t talk foolish. This man’s crazy—he’ll kill you as soon as look at you.”
Martinez blinked slowly. “No, I gotta think this through. All’s I wanted was my fair share, and Compasso turned his back on me. I gotta think, then I’ll call you back.” Without waiting for Ozzy to reply, he hung the receiver back into the cradle. He sat there in a daze for several moments before he realized somebody was tapping at the glass door. He turned and pushed the door open.
“Hey, brutha, you all right in there? If you’re tired, go on home, ’stead of fallin’ asleep in my phone booth. Come on outa there, now.” The bartender offered a hand and he took it, pulling himself out of the booth.
“Sell me a bottle, will ya? A quart of I. W. Harper, if ya got it.” His voice sounded hollow and desperate in his ears, like it was crying out from a far distance.
The bartender looked at him skeptically. “Promise you’ll go straight home?”
Martinez’s face felt frozen, but he managed a tight smile. “Ain’t got no home, but I’ll find a room somewhere. Here’s five for the bottle—you keep the change.”
The Negro scratched his bristly scalp then he nodded, leading Martinez back to the bar. He handed an unopened bottle of bourbon across to Martinez. “I don’t wanna hear ’bout you wrappin’ your car around no light pole, you hear?”
“Yeah. Thanks, pal.” Martinez took the bottle then walked back out to his car. Linda had been with him when he’d bought the Mercury. That had been a big day for them. Linda and Louie out on the town, raisin’ hell, livin’ big, makin’ sweet love. Now all that was gone, and it was his fault. He should’ve known Compasso would send someone who’d do what it took to find him. There was nothing to do but stay alive long enough to make it right. He got into the new Mercury then drove toward the ferry slip in Algiers.
# # #
In a darkened room across the river, a man sat in the shadows as he stared out the window at the masthead lights of a freighter making its way downstream toward the mouth of the Mississippi. He had much on his mind today. He had put a very complicated plan into effect and had gradually watched it come to fruition. Now all was in jeopardy because of one man’s arrogance.
As he stared at the lights passing in front of him, the telephone rang. He reached across the desk for the receiver. “Yes.” His voice was deep, assured, the voice of a man who had control of things.
“It’s Dixie Ray Chavez, sir.”
“Good evening. Have you any news?”
“Nothing concrete. I found Martinez’s woman. It took a bit of lookin’. He had her in a house leased under a phony name.”
The man smiled. “I won’t ask how you located her. I know you have your ways.”
“Yes, sir. It was solid gold, but there’s a hitch. Either she didn’t know where Martinez and the plates are, or she was just too tough. She had the misfortune to die while I was conversing with her.” The man said nothing for a moment. “That’s a bit of a setback, wouldn’t you say?”
“Some, but not a big one. Martinez has three friends in New Orleans. I’m bettin’ he’ll go to one of ’em for help, sooner or later.”
“I see. Who are the friends?”
“There’s a fence named Theron Oswald who does some business with Compasso. He runs a pawnshop down on Rampart. He’s a low-down, yellow, lyin’ skunk, but he and Martinez been friends for years.”
“That’s one. Who’s number two?”
“Ever hear of a fella named Wes Farrell? He’s a gambler, owns a nightclub on Basin with a French name I can’t never remember.”
The man thought for a moment. “The Café Tristesse. It means the sad café. A peculiar name for a place of merriment. Yes, I have heard of him. He was involved in a rather spectacular fracas in St. Bernard last year.”
“He’s the one. If Martinez gets crowded too hard by the other people Compasso’s got after him, my money says he’ll go to Farrell.”
“And number three?”
Dixie Ray laughed. “I’m backin’ this one as a long shot. It’s Miss Jelly Wilde, Compasso’s li’l friend.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Why would she help Martinez?” “You ever watched her with Compasso?”
“No, not really. Nor would I think you have. You’re a man of the shadows, not cocktail parties.”
“That’s true, but a few times I’ve visited Spanish and watched her where she couldn’t see me. She hates that boy’s guts and he’s too dumb to see it. I found out the other day that she was Martinez’s li’l friend a few years back. Could be she might decide to lend him a hand. Women are funny, man. They’ll love your ears off one day and slit your throat the next.”
The man in the office cleared his throat. “I’ll have to take your word for that. How will you watch these three people? There’s only one of you.”
“Have faith, pardner. I’ll find a way.” He hung up without waiting for a comment.
The man looked out the window and saw that the ship had passed. Time was also passing, and with each moment he felt opportunity slipping past. He needed a miracle. It seemed absurd that so much was riding on a person with the unlikely name of Dixie Ray Chavez.