Wednesday, December 3rd, 1941
The moon cast a pale milky glow over the Jefferson Parish countryside as the engineer of the Illinois Central locomotive began to lean on his whistle. From his vantage point in an empty boxcar, a big man with shaggy dark blonde hair watched the meager traffic on U.S. 90, which paralleled the IC tracks. A lot had changed since he’d last seen that highway. There had been almost nothing out here ten years ago. Now the lights of houses, gasoline stations, and an occasional store or tavern could be seen winking along the right of way.
As the train neared the Orleans Parish line, he felt the train’s speed begin to diminish. He shrugged his big shoulders inside his leather jacket and pulled his sweat-stained hat down over his eyes. He had better, more expensive clothing in his valise, but for the time being he was strictly a bum. He grinned as he remembered how he’d left here with his tail between his legs. All the years of waiting, the months of planning were over. He was back to get what rightly belonged to him.
The harsh racketing of the wheels gradually slowed to a dry, monotonous clacking, signaling that his journey was finally at an end. He retreated into a shadow as the slowing train eased into the curve at the Carrollton switching shack. A hundred yards further, he swung easily down from the boxcar and faded into the shelter of a large willow tree. When the train was safely past, he made his way down the tracks to a street crossing where he turned toward Downtown.
Signs in the darkened store windows advertising everything from decorations to candy reminded him that Christmas was coming. If things went as he planned, Christmas would come early for him this year.
It wasn’t long before he turned a corner and saw a tavern open. He entered quietly, finding it deserted but for the bartender and a group of three drinkers. The man made his way toward the telephone booth at the rear of the room, unnoticed by the four men who bunched around the bartender’s radio, listening spellbound to the lugubrious voice of H. V. Kaltenborn as he lamented over the war news from Europe and Asia.
Leaving his valise just outside the booth, the big man dropped a nickel into the slot and asked the operator for a Downtown number. It rang a half-dozen times before the owner picked it up.
“I’m here,” the man said.
“When did you get in, Pete?” The other man’s voice was flat, polite without cordiality. It was the greeting of an associate rather than a friend.
“Stepped off an in-bound freight about twenty minutes ago. What’s the story on those boys I asked you to get?”
“Johnny Parmalee gave me the okey-doke last week. He and his brother can start tomorrow if you give the word. My other men can handle anything else that comes up.”
“Swell.” He paused for a moment. “Have you got a message for me?”
“Everything’s in place. Don’t worry about a thing.”
Pete’s brows puckered and something like disappointment crossed his face. “Okay, then.” Pete’s voice was grim. “Give everybody the word. I’m ready to get this show on the road tomorrow.”
“It’s been a long wait, hasn’t it?” the other man said. “Not as long as being dead. I’m gonna ring off now. I’ll find myself a room somewhere so I can get a bath and a haircut and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow I’ll move out to that place you rented and make my headquarters there.”
“Okay, Pete. I’ll be talkin’ to ya.”
Pete hung up and left the booth. As he passed the bar on his way out, Kaltenborn was still cataloging the dead and missing in China.
# # #
The church bells at Saint David’s Church on Saint Claude Avenue were chiming 11:00 p.m. as a well-dressed Negro named Merced Cresco eased out the back door of a two-story stucco house. The kisses of the married woman inside were still warm on his lips as he tiptoed through the alley. She was some hot mama and no lie—one man would never be enough for her, no sir, uh-uh. Cresco paused as a sedan with its high beams on slid past the house on the way back Downtown, then stepped quietly out onto the sidewalk.
It was chilly tonight, but Merced Cresco was still plenty warmed up. He’d been this woman’s back-door man for about three months now and had never had it so good. She never got enough. He sometimes reflected that it was a good thing her husband was only out of town twice a week. More than that, and Merced would be walkin’ bowlegged. He laughed out loud as a mental image of himself staggering down the street on convex legs came into his mind.
As he headed Downtown, he began to whistle. He had a mellifluous, high-pitched whistle that echoed up and down the deserted street. He paused at an intersection just as he finished “Let It Snow,” and that was when he heard the soft sound of footsteps behind him. He stiffened, then quickly crossed the street, picking up his stride. He didn’t like the sound of footsteps behind him on this street. Saint Claude could be rough after dark, and he wasn’t carrying a gun or a razor. He hadn’t thought he’d need them for the deacon’s wife.
He walked as fast as he could without breaking into a run. He was certain that if he ran, whoever was behind him might just decide to shoot him for his money and his watch. He needed some cover and a weapon, and he needed them soon. He crossed another street and recognized a restaurant he frequented. It was closed this time of night, but there was an alley and in the alley there were always empty whiskey bottles and pieces of wood. The entrance to the restaurant stuck out from the other buildings, providing just enough of a blind for Merced to duck into the alley unseen.
Near the kitchen door he found a couple of cases of empty whiskey bottles. He snatched one by the neck and ducked into the shadowy recess of the kitchen door. A minute went by, then three. Five minutes passed, then ten. He was beginning to think he’d imagined the entire episode, and began poking fun at himself. Damn ’fraidy cat. Actin’ like a kid ’fraid of spooks. Shit.
He listened carefully, then poked his head just past the recessed doorway. Nothing. Not a damn thing. He stepped out and ran head-first into the hardest thing he’d ever felt. He grunted painfully as the blow knocked him sideways. Before he could recover, big hands grabbed him by the lapels of his coat, shoved him up against the hard brick wall and held him there with his feet dangling.
Merced Cresco groaned, tried to unfasten the hands at his throat. “Lemme—lemme go. Chokin’ me—lemme go.” His captor began to slap his face, forehand and back. He kept it up until Merced Cresco began to whimper. As Cresco’s vision cleared, he saw a square, black face staring at him. The man’s visage was like something hacked out of ebony, with eyes that burned like hellfire. As his wits began to return, a thrill of horror went through him as he recognized the face. “Boy,” the apparition said. “You know who I am?” “Easter C-Coupé? You ain’t Easter Coupé, are you?”
“You ain’t as stupid as you look, Cresco,” Coupé said. He slapped Cresco some more, harder and harder until the blows were like fire against the man’s skin. Cresco began to weep like a lost child.
“Please, man. Please don’t kill me. I got money. Take it. Take it all. Take my watch and my lodge ring, too. They worth fifty, sixty bucks easy, just lemme go, please.”
Coupé laughed mirthlessly. “That all your life’s worth, Cresco? Two hundred bucks, say? Hell, I could get that from a wheelbarrow load of nutria skins and they won’t stink near as bad as you do. You done shit yourself, ain’t you?”
“S-sorry, Mr. Coupé. Sorry as I can be. Please, lemme go and I’ll clean up, I swear it.”
“You know why I got you in this alley, boy?” the big man asked. “You got even the smallest idea?”
“N-no, man, I swear, I dunno, but gimme a chance, I’ll make it right, whatever it is.”
“You gonna take back fuckin’ Deacon Charles’s wife for the past three months? Tell me, boy, how do you un-fuck a broad? I’d like to know, case I ever find myself in the shit you’re in right now.”
“No, y’see, it was like—” Before he got the words out, Coupé slashed him across the face with an iron backhand.
“Shut your hole. Next thing, you’ll tell me it was all the woman’s fault. You do that, I’m liable to get sore.”
Cresco knew he was doomed. For years he’d heard of Easter Coupé, and had seen him pointed out in bars. Coupé was somebody you hired when you wanted somebody hurt until they begged for death. Somehow Deacon Charles had found out about him and Mrs. Charles. Instead of praying to God to make it right, Deacon Charles had hired Easter Coupé. Sweet Jesus.
Coupé began to work him over, slowly and methodically. He was a man who knew his work and did it well. Cresco felt his nose break, then several of his ribs. Coupé held him easily against the wall with one hand while he belabored him with the other. Cresco knew he was going to die, and he sobbed his grief out into the empty alley.
Cresco peered through his swollen lids at the man who was killing him, saw Coupé’s pitiless eyes staring back. He knew the killing blow was coming, and saw the big black man draw back his fist. Then something happened. Coupé opened his left hand and Cresco slid out of it to the ground. He’s gonna stomp me to death, the beaten philanderer thought. He braced himself, but the kicks never came. He craned his neck painfully, saw Coupé staring at him with a peculiar look on his face.
“Listen to me, Cresco. When you can stand up, you get the bus to the railroad station. You get a ticket on the first train goin’ outa here and you get on it. Don’t you never come back here, you hear me?”
“Y-yeah, boss, I h-hear you. You—you ain’t gonna k-kill me?”
Coupé drew a long, shuddering breath. His face was still a pitiless ebony mask, but the hot mad rage no longer animated his eyes. They were downcast. “Stop wastin’ time, boy. Get on your feet and get to hell away from me.”
As torn up as he was, Merced Cresco knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. He found a support and dragged himself erect. He hobbled past the huge black man like a three-legged dog and disappeared out the mouth of the alley. Easter Coupé remained there for a moment, staring at something only he could see, then he turned and departed in the opposite direction.
# # #
Frank Casey nodded to the patrolman who stood at the head of the stairs on the top floor of the Bella Creole Hotel on Conti Street. The patrolman pointed silently down the hall where several detectives stood waiting.
“Evening, Ray,” Casey said to the rail-thin detective who stepped away from the others. “What we got here?”
“Jack Amsterdam,” Ray Snedegar replied. “Somebody gave him a bigger thrill than he was counting on.”
“Humph,” Casey grunted. “For a guy neck deep in illegal gambling, he sure made a wrong bet.”
Snedegar led Casey past the other men into a small, dingy room lit by dim light from a dirty ceiling fixture. A naked man in his middle-forties lay spread-eagled on an unmade bed, his sightless eyes fixed on the ceiling. His face had a stupidly placid expression, marred only a little by the two small red freckles over his right eye.
“What did they use?” Casey asked. “Looks like a .22. He died quick.”
Casey noticed a skinny old man standing nearby. He was dressed in a gray suit and vest that might have been pressed the year Roosevelt entered office. The only shape it had was that which his bony body gave it. He had a crumpled fedora on the back of his head and a dead cigar butt in the corner of his mouth. “You the house dick?”
The old man turned his gaze to Casey, took the limp butt from his mouth. “Yair. Otis McKelvey.”
“You know this man, Mr. McKelvey?”
McKelvey nodded complacently. “Yair. Mr. Jack Amsterdam. A big man around here, Mr. Amsterdam. A-Number-One to Councilman Whit Richards. Reckon I know him, all right.”
Casey could not quite keep the distaste he was feeling from his face. “What’s he doing here?”
McKelvey turned a dead stare to Casey. “You mean what’s he doin’ in this room, or what’s he doin’ bein’ dead in this room?”
Snedegar’s mustache almost disappeared as his lips retreated from over his teeth. “Crack wise like that once more, McKelvey, and I’ll kick you down the stairs.”
The house dick’s face grew pale and the cigar butt slipped from his tremulous hand.
“Let’s start with why he’s in the room,” Casey suggested. McKelvey avoided Casey’s eyes as he shrugged. “Reckon he liked to get away from the house oncet in a while. Prob’ly thought this was a nice, restful place, which it is.” He stuck his thumbs in the armholes of his vest and assumed a self- important air. “I like to keep it that way for the customers.” Snedegar moved across the room in a single long stride, grabbed McKelvey by the front of his vest and jerked him to his toes. “So quiet you didn’t hear two gunshots through these cardboard walls?” He shook the house dick like a rat in a terrier’s jaws. “Tell the Captain what that stiff is doin’ here and do it right-Goddamned-now.”
McKelvey’s face went slack. “He—he was gettin’ his ashes hauled. He did it regular—once a week, at least.”
“For how long?” Casey demanded.
“Two, three years, mebbe. I dunno. I didn’t keep a calendar on the guy. He drew a lotta water in this town.” As Snedegar’s grip loosened, he backed gently away and tugged his rumpled clothing back into place.
“Who brought the whores up here to him? You?”
“N-no, I swear it. It was prob’ly that li’l dago bell captain, Johnny Ferrara. I ain’t no pimp.”
“You ain’t no pimp,” Snedegar sneered. “Did he have a regular girl?”
“No, I don’t think so. Just whoever they could find.” McKelvey smiled ingratiatingly. “Mr. Amsterdam, he liked ’em all, blondes, brunettes, red-heads. Hell, he liked a shine gal once in a while and a Chink if he could get one.”
Casey backed McKelvey into the wall. “For somebody who didn’t have anything to do with the late Mr. Amsterdam’s sex life, you seem to have cataloged his habits pretty well.” He turned and glanced over at where Amsterdam’s clothes were draped over a chair. A boyish, blonde detective in a maroon corduroy hat was going through them. “Find anything, Mart?”
Mart shook his head. “What you’d expect, Skipper. Wallet’s empty, watch and rings are gone.”
Casey shook his head. “Rolled by the girl, probably. Amsterdam must’ve tried to stop her and the pimp was near enough to stop him, permanently.” He turned and stared at the house dick again, his eyes flat. “Ray, get the bell captain in here. Let’s see if he tells a better story.”
Snedegar jerked his chin at Mart and the young detective left silently. McKelvey took the opportunity to slide down the wall away from Casey and Snedegar, his steps hampered by the knocking of his knees. Mart returned a moment later shoving a skinny olive-skinned man in a red jacket ahead of him.
“You Johnny Ferrara?” Casey demanded.
“I’m Ferrara,” the man said sullenly. A sheen of sweat gleamed on his pock-marked face.
“McKelvey says you brought girls up here for Amsterdam.
What about it?”
Ferrara shot a glance of exquisite hatred at the house dick before returning his gaze to Casey. “I ain’t no pimp.”
Snedegar laughed nastily. “He ain’t no pimp either, skipper.
Don’t that just slay you?”
“Yeah, he’s a regular choirboy. Are you saying you didn’t bring girls up for Amsterdam?” Casey snapped. “Think hard, because the penalty for perjury is a lot worse than it is for pandering. You want a minute?”
Ferrara’s mouth worked as he tried to generate enough spit to loosen his tongue. “Sometimes I’d get a girl for Mr. Amsterdam. Just as a favor, not for money or nothin’.”
Casey smiled humorlessly. “What about tonight?”
Ferrara tossed a quick glance at Snedegar, saw violence staring back at him. “Y-yeah. I found him one. For a favor, like I told you.”
“Who was she?” Casey demanded.
“I—I never seen her before. She looked like his type, you know, so—so I thought he’d like the variety.”
“You never saw her before? Who’s her pimp?”
“I didn’t get her from no pimp. She was just hangin’ around, offered me—” He broke off suddenly as he realized what he was about to say.
Casey put his hand flat against the bell captain’s chest, shoving him up against the wall. “You were about to say that she offered you part of what she made. Is that right? I said is that right?”
“Y-yeah. Yeah, that’s what she did, all right.” “What’d she look like?”
He shrugged, not looking at Casey. “Average size, good figure. Long red hair.”
“What color were her eyes? How tall was she? What was she wearing? C’mon, Ferrara, give, or I’ll treat you to Christmas dinner at the parish prison.”
“Hell, she was just a chick, you know? Maybe five-five or so. She was wearin’ high heels and it might be she was smaller’n that. I didn’t look at her eyes or nothin’.”
Casey sighed. “Yeah, I know what you were looking at. Take both of them down to headquarters, Ray. Book them both for pandering, then let ’em spend the rest of the evening with some mug books.”
“Christ’s sake, I ain’t done nothin’,” McKelvey whined.
Snedegar grabbed the house dick, whirled him around by a shoulder and snapped cuffs on his wrists. Mart, taking his cue from his sergeant, did the same to Ferrara. They pushed the protesting men into the hall and down the stairs.
Casey turned as a dark-haired man in spectacles got to his feet across the room. “Get anything, Nick?”
“Something but not much,” Nick Delgado replied. “A couple of red hairs from the bed, and the shell casings. Western long rifle Super Match. A .22 is a pimp’s gun, right enough, but that’s high-grade target ammo.”
“That’s interesting, all right. What about prints?”
“I’ve dusted the room and found plenty of prints, but we’ll have to get the prints of the hotel staff so we can eliminate them from suspicion.”
Casey snorted. “If those two are a sample, we probably can’t eliminate any of them.”
Casey heard voices in the hall and turned to find a fleshy, dark-haired man in an expensive overcoat standing in the door. His dark mustache stood out on his pale face like it had been scrawled there with a grease pencil.
“Jack. My God, Jack.” The man rubbed his face, his mouth hanging open. He stared at the body for a long moment, then looked up at Casey as though surprised to find him there. “Who did this?”
“We don’t know yet, Councilman Richards. He came here to use a prostitute, and it looks like he may have gotten rolled by the girl or her pimp. We can’t say for sure until we investigate further.” Casey spoke softly, but without sympathy. Richards owed his position to graft and the dead man was part of that. Amsterdam had brought hundreds of thousands into Richards’s political coffers running illegal gambling operations that Richards protected with the power of his office. One dirty hand washing another.
Richards went closer, staring down into Amsterdam’s sightless eyes. “Jesus, Jack. Jesus Christ.”
“Sorry to drag you away from home this time of the night, Councilman, but we figured you’d want to know.”
Richards appeared not to hear him. “Twenty years we been together and now you let a fuckin’ whore kill you. God damn you, Jack.”
The men with the coroner’s ambulance appeared at the door with their stretcher. A look from Casey halted them. He moved to Richards’ side and took him gently by the elbow. “They’ve got to take him to the morgue, Councilman.”
Richards let Casey move him to the side, and watched dumbly while the ambulance men wrapped the corpse in the bed sheets, then moved it to the stretcher. He remained with Casey until the corpse had been carried into the hall, then he followed it with a heavy tread.
Casey stared after him for a moment, then followed everyone down the stairs to the lobby.