It isn't Brand Name celebrity news when New York Daily Press reporter Fitz's pal who plays piano at Elaine's is murdered...
...until Ed Fitzgerald digs into it. As usual he drives his City Editor, Ironhead Matthews, crazy, this time because he has been assigned to a publisher's pet feature story about America Sail.
How can Fitz pursue the murderer when he's harassed by Ironhead and irritated cops, urged by the publisher's son Pippy to cover the Tall Ships, and lured on by an importunate beauty? The self-deprecating Fitz can only bumble on and seek advice from his mentor, the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius, as he pursues bloody intrigue in New York's Chinatown, in Don Flynn's A Brand X Murder.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Don Flynn, author of A Brand X Murder, is a former New York Daily News reporter. He lives in Englewood, New Jersey.
Don Flynn, author of A Brand X Murder, is a former New York Daily News reporter. He lives in Englewood, New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
"Life is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets, however unexpected," advises Marcus Aurelius.
Alas, Bobo Watson was neither a wrestler nor a dancer but a guy who played the piano at Elaine's on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and who wasn't ready for the onset. The tardy warning from the wise ancient Roman emperor-philosopher jumped into my head that afternoon in the city room of the New York Daily Press when I saw the story. Bobo had played his last note.
It had come in from Dubbs Brewer at the police shack. Bobo had been set upon by a mugger early Sunday morning in Yorkville on the Upper East Side. His body was found crumpled between two parked cars on East Ninety-first Street, a knife wound in his chest. He apparently had been walking to his car at about 4:30 A.M. after finishing his regular Saturday night job at Elaine's.
Bobo had finally gotten his name in the paper, which was something he had always been after. But even in his final exit he was cast as a minor player; the story was mostly about the fact that he had played at Elaine's, the celebrity hangout, and some of the celebs were quoted as saying how sad it was and what a nice fellow he had been. And, too, he had picked the most prosaic way to go in New York: by some anonymous, shadowy mugger with a knife.
I knew Bobo from his piano playing because when summer rolled around and the staff took vacations, I'd get bumped around to cover other people's shifts. So I had filled in on the late trick, working for Bruce, the night news editor, finishing up at about two-thirty or three in the morning. Bruce and I would then drive up the East Side to P. J. Clarke's or Elaine's in time to make the last call, and we'd find Bobo at his sawed-off upright piano playing "Danny Boy" or some Cole Porter ditty for the last few drunks.
* * *
Ironhead Matthews, my city editor, stirred at his desk, crawling and growling back into action after the boredom of his civilian weekend. He was once more at the helm of the SS Daily Press, ready to set sail.
He was beginning his week by piping me to his side.
I walked up to the city desk and stood under the big four-sided clock on the ceiling awaiting Ironhead's pleasure. He was tossing paper into a trash can, scribbling eviscerating notes on copy, and punching angrily on the keys of his computer, which always stuck.
"Goddamn computers," he muttered. "Crash if you sneeze on them!"
Clamped in his mouth was an insult of an elongated, blimp-shaped cigar, which shook and scattered ashes over the computer keys. Ironhead swiped at them and blew them away.
Nobody was supposed to smoke in the Daily Press Building in the antiseptic Prohibition Era new world being clamped down upon New York, but no one dared tell that to Ironhead. The irascible city editor did not tolerate such nonsense, and barely tolerated computers since the day he spilled coffee onto his keyboard and the damned thing crashed in an electronic sulk.
Ironhead, who, as a young reporter, survived being conked on the head by a nightstick during a riot, came up in the business banging his fists on sturdy, cast-iron, indestructible Underwood typewriters that survived cigar ashes, coffee and beer spills, and even being tossed across the room in moments of stress. Ironhead barely tolerated reporters or, if you ask me, the world at large. But never mind that. He got even with the puny, arrogant computers by savaging his underlings, which at the moment happened to be me.
He suddenly noticed me standing over him and sputtered, "Why do the damn keys stick? What do you want?"
I was going to suggest that dousing delicate computer keys and their mysterious innards with cigar ashes might have something to do with it, but thought better of it. Finally, he got squared away enough — meaning he threw most of the releases, tips, memos, and crip-crap into the trash can — and held up a sheet of paper.
"Now, don't sneak away again, Fitz," he snapped, although I wasn't going anywhere. "They're here, Fitz," he declared, his face mellowing out pleasantly.
"Who are?" I managed, curious as to what could cause Mr. Hyde to turn into Dr. Jekyll just like that.
"The Bounty!" he exclaimed dreamily.
"They'll be sailing up the Hudson like ships of the line! The HMS Bounty among them. The tall ships, Fitz."
I had noticed earlier on the Associated Press news budget that the tall ships were returning to New York Harbor again for another sail-through, always a lighthearted summer gala, but was surprised that Ironhead would care, since he forever cursed soft feature news for eating up his hard news pages.
"Yeah, they're pretty," I allowed rather airily, which turned out to be a mistake.
"Pretty?" The press release slapped his desk. His face was at me. "Pretty! Ships of the line! Barkentines! Ninety-eights! Drake and Captain Bligh! Those were the days of real men, and real newspapers, too! Today ... phewie!" he spat. "What have we got? Pisswillie reporters and plastic typewriters!"
Well, I could understand that his hero certainly could have been Captain Bligh.
"Now, Fitz, we want daily coverage on the tall ships while they're here. Admiral Nelson had wooden ships and iron men."
I frowned a little, unfortunately, considering it a dumb assignment suitable for one of the new ponytailed reporters who were invading newspaper offices. The tall ships were gorgeous, all right, but mostly as big, blowup photos.
"You figure on any follow on Bobo Watson?" I asked.
"That piano player at Elaine's."
"What?" Ironhead was still with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. "What kind of a follow?"
"Well, our story was mostly about Elaine's."
"Well, Bobo was practically buried in the story."
"He wasn't Bobby Short at the Carlyle. He was just another piano player," Ironhead tossed off.
"What do you mean?" I heard myself saying with more impudence than was wise. "Ironhead, you never heard him. Listen, Bruce and I used to catch the last call, and Bobo played those great old Gershwin and Jerome Kern numbers...."
I ran down as I realized Ironhead was staring at me as though I were an escapee from Bellevue.
"It's just a shame for a guy like that to be dumped under a car and forgotten," I finished lamely.
Ironhead glared at me. "What are you talking about?"
"A murder story," I piped up. "That's what made the Daily Press."
Ironhead stood up and turned into Captain Bligh. His face was red-going-on-purple, and the vein in his forehead stood out and throbbed. Was I, a mere goddamn pisswillie excuse of an insignificant general-assignment reporter trying to tell Ironhead Matthews, city editor of the New York Daily Press, veteran of newspaper wars, blackouts, jet plane collisions, gang wars, and World Trade Center bombings, what a story was?
"Well, but ..."
He had directed the coverage of the mob hit on Big Paulie Castellano in front of Sparks Steak House, as well as fires, kidnappings, assassinations, ship sinkings, and real murders at the Waldorf-Astoria and the Metropolitan Opera while I was still a goddamn legman in St. Joseph, Missouri, or wherever the hell I had come from. Nobody had to tell Ironhead what a story was.
"No, but I mean ... the murder angle was just kissed off."
"We don't want it anymore!" he yelled. "Murders are a dime a dozen now, and they're all nobodies. Brand X! Now we want Madonna showing off her goodies, or rappers telling everybody to screw the Statue of Liberty!"
Suddenly I heard the pain in Ironhead's tirade. The kind of stories he had grown up on were slipping away, replaced by interviews with radio and TV freaks talking about their privates. Celebrities and sickos and sex harassment cases and, yes, nice, big, hollow stories about tall ships. But real news? Only if the murderer slaughtered twenty victims at McDonald's or a Hollywood star turned up dead at the hands of Madame Slapbottom the Dominatrix in a Times Square whipping emporium.
"I've got no space for nobodies!" he declared with what I thought was a tinge of strangled frustration. He shoved the sheet of paper at me. "Go get me stories about the goddamn tall ships!" When Ironhead blasts off like that, it's time to drop it. I slid away, back to my desk, and pulled up some copy on my computer about the sail-through.
"What'd you get?" Bike O'Malley was just sliding into his chair at his VDT terminal across from me.
Bike beamed. "All right!"
I knew what he meant; he was glad it was me instead of him. Bike O'Malley is about six-four and looks something like the old Green Bay Packers lineman Ray Nitschke; in other words, he's formidable and rather intimidating. This sometimes causes city councilmen or the street commissioner to assume he is dim-witted, and they say more than they might otherwise. This is a mistake, however, because Bike is a shrewd giant, smart enough, for instance, to always be away from his desk early during his shift on Mondays when he knows Ironhead will be casting about looking for somebody to dump a slop bucket on.
"Mondays the Bike sleeps late," is his motto.
Of course, we all knew that weekends were perilous times for us, because they gave Ironhead time to mull things over and think of amazing new features or series. Ironhead's idle hours were the devil's workshop. He had no other life than the Daily Press and detested every wasted minute away from the city room. He didn't seem to enjoy his hours in the city room, either, but that's something else. There was another insidious aspect to his weekends off, too, because weekends were the time when our publisher, Mr. McFadden, or some other front-office geek, could call Ironhead at home and have his full attention. The vital importance of garden shows, Kennel Club French-poodle parades at Madison Square Garden, or one of Mrs. McFadden's pet projects, like Red Cross blood drives or the desperate importance of scrubbing the statues in Central Park, was explained to Ironhead then; it did not improve his already irascible personality.
"Goddamn front-office loonies," he often muttered on Mondays, even as he was dumping one of their brilliant stories on us. Being late on Mondays or digging busily through clips in the news library for the first hour was a good idea, and Bike had mastered it. Unfortunately, I usually forgot such good examples.
Once he had blasted off, Ironhead had a paper to run, and nobody could talk to him calmly, not even the McFaddens. I printed out enough stuff from the Associated Press wire on the sail-through to get started, and was on my way out when the phone rang.
"Ed Fitzgerald?" The voice was distant, as though coming out of a barrel.
"Fitz? Is it you? It's me, Ellie." She was talking fast, like somebody who was afraid of being cut off. I searched my mind for a connection.
"Ellie ... sure," I said.
"I didn't want to bother you. Is this a bad time? I wondered if I could talk to you a minute."
"It's all right," I said.
That's the way it is with people who call reporters; they have the idea you're desperately busy, on deadline, or on the line with the White House, and they don't want to interrupt. Actually, it's true a lot of times, and also you're wary of calls from strangers who want to tell you about the Biggest Story of the Century, which turns out to be that their neighbor is the secret daughter of Newt Gingrich, or that the woman across the street has buried four husbands under her rhododendrons. You start off defensive and answer the phone, "Yeah!"
"What's the matter?"
"It's about Bobo."
"Bobo Watson?" Then I had it. It was Ellie, Bobo's girl, who used to hang around Elaine's waiting for him to finish playing and who sometimes sang at the piano with him.
"I just saw the story," I said. "I'm sorry. Do you know what happened?"
"No, Fitz. We just found him there, and ..."
"You found him?"
"The bartender and I. When Bobo didn't come back to drive me home, we went to his car. We thought he'd been run down, the way he looked."
"The cops say it was a mugger."
"Yes, I know. He was all bloody. ... I haven't been able to think about it."
"Have you heard any more?" she asked hesitantly.
"No. I'm not on it."
"If you find out anything more, will you let me know?"
She went silent a moment then, and finally there came a barely audible whisper. "What can you say?"
I went silent, too. She was right; what could you say? But there was a purpose to her call, as it turned out, and she finally got it out.
"Fitz, I was just wondering, if there's another story, could you see if they could put in something about the funeral? I've arranged a mass at St. Catherine's, and I'd like his friends to know. Do you think you could use a picture?"
I sighed, hearing Ironhead's sneer about nobody Brand X piano players.
"Well, uh ..."
Ellie's image leaped into my consciousness: a pretty face surrounded by sculpted black hair; tall and slim and very well mannered, like somebody from the Midwest. My heart went out to her.
"I'll see what I can do," I said, rather recklessly.
"He always thought a lot of you, Fitz. I can't stand him disappearing without a word, without a trace."
Well, there you were. What could I do? Sometimes your instincts about calls from strangers are right. Some of them are nuts, but some put you through the wringer.
I wrote a little follow-up about Bobo, basically an obit, and mentioned the funeral service. It wasn't much but it was the best I could hope to sneak past Ironhead. The Daily Press was never big on obits, any more than on minor murders. I walked up to the city desk and asked if we could use a couple of graphs.
"All right, all right," Ironhead mumbled.
"I think we've got a headshot of him in the library," I offered, and got an overheated glare.
"Did you pick a ship to ride?" he grumped.
"On my way."
I pulled up some stuff on the computer about America Sail from the Convention and Visitors Bureau press release and printed it out. The tall ships would be sailing into New York harbor under the Verrazano Bridge: full-rigged windjammers, barks, barkentines; the Libertad from Argentina; the Gorch Fock from Germany; the 295-foot Coast Guard training ship Eagle festooned with young cadet sailors in mainsail white on the lofty yardarms ninety feet above the deck. It would be a two-week long gala, the ships arriving on no particular schedule during the first week, depending on the winds. Then during the second week, they would be docked at various piers all over Manhattan and Brooklyn and hold open houses for New Yorkers to clamber aboard them. It would all lead up to Sunday, the Fourth of July, two weeks off when there would come the Parade of Ships up the Hudson River to the George Washington Bridge.
It would be a glorious sight, all right, but there was another vision in my wavering mind, that of a grieving, gentle face surrounded by a helmet of black hair. Actually, there was a second vision, too, that of bouncy Bobo Watson behind his piano, rocking and playing and singing like Hoagy Carmichael.
"Get with it, Fitz," I told myself.
I walked out onto Forty-second Street and down to the New York Press parking zone on Fortieth Street to my car, a little white Toyota Tercel I had picked up from John the Chevron station guy on Second Avenue. Second Avenue John had told me it belonged to an elderly schoolteacher. She must have been a very small one, because the Toyota was a miniature space capsule. But it was all right for Manhattan, where you don't want a big or fancy car, which is just as well since I never had one.
I went down the FDR Drive along the East River toward Lower Manhattan and the South Street Seaport. That's where some of the ships would be moored during their stay, including the Eagle, the Danmark from Denmark, and the comely, 240-foot Christian Radich from Norway. I would scout around to see if I could find a slip where one would put in. It was a glorious summer day, June 21, the first day of summer, and the breeze off the water was tangy and salty fresh. I left the drive at the Civic Center near the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was about to turn down toward the waterfront to the seaport when I found myself pulling into the NYP parking zone behind police headquarters.
"What the hell, it won't hurt," I heard myself rationalizing, and was out of the Toyota and walking into the massive, mustard-colored police complex that huddles beside the sprawling courthouses of Foley Square.
Excerpted from "A Brand X Murder"
Copyright © 1999 Donald R. Flynn and Charlotte J. Flynn.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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