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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 badreal 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 thecorpse. 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."
"Year. 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 30s. 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. For about a month I've directed St. Swithan's Mission 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 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 coupe' 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.
"Ozzie, it's Luis. Can you talk, man?"
Ozzie'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 Ozzie spoke. "Louie, you sittin' down? I kinda got some bad news."
"Bad news. Wait a minuteLinda, is sheis 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?"
"Yeahyeah. II'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, Ozzie? Jesus, we been friends for years. Why didn't you warn her, or warn me?"
Ozzie'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, Ozzie, 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."
"II dunno. I gotta think. I'm all broke inside."
"Don't talk foolish. This man's crazyhe'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 Ozzie 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 bottleyou 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.