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By Loren D. Estleman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
I saw Jack dance the first time in Hattie Long's place on Vernor the night the bulls tipped it over. I guess he was going by John Danzig at the time.
Hattie hadn't been renting the place long. I remember my hack and I drove up and down the East Side for almost an hour looking for the stuffed rooster in the window. The rooster went everywhere Hattie went and it was how you could tell where she was set up on any particular night. For all the bulls cared most of the time, she could have advertised in the Free Press, but Hattie always had a keener sense of the proprieties than any of the auto-money hags in Grosse Pointe. Last I heard she was running a beer garden in Royal Oak or somewhere. I heard she lost her looks.
The rooster this time was in a window on the ground floor of a house with an undertaker's sign out front. She sublet it to the digger during the day and stored the liquor in coffins in back. The joke that made the rounds ran that you could get a bier in the daytime and a beer at night.
I sent the hack on his way and went in through the front. Although the side door was customary in those places, this one was five feet wide and meant for carrying out the stiffs, and not many cared to use it. We were superstitious in those days.
Hattie had about an hour between the time the mortuary closed and she opened for the night, but you'd have thought she had a week. The burgundy velvet curtain that separated the entry way from the slumber room had been pushed back, tables and chairs set in place, and a cherrywood bar with a brass footrail erected on the platform where in all probability a corpse had lain in state that afternoon. In place of the stand where visitors signed in stood two antique slot machines weighing two hundred pounds apiece. The bartender, whose name was Johnston, had on a white apron and a red bow tie on a shirt with garters. He parted his hair in the middle and waxed his handlebars like in pre-Prohibition days, but there wasn't anything affected about it because he'd been mixing drinks for forty years; his favorite boast was that he had once served a pink gin to Bat Masterson. Nobody ever called him on it, not with a faded sepia photograph of a young Johnston sparring with Jim Jeffries tacked to the wall behind the bar. The place smelled of needle beer and Lifebuoy soap from the cribs on the second floor and "Ramona" was playing on a wind-up Victrola by the big door. Hattie hated jazz.
This kid—I guessed he was twenty, but it turned out later he was barely eighteen—was leaning on the bar with his back to me, watching something. I noticed him because of his size and because the pants of the brown suit he had on were swinging a good three inches shy of his big wingtips. He was built like a lug and if I hadn't seen his face a minute later I'd have thought he was older still.
"How's the boy, Johnnie?" I asked Johnston, clearing a space for my elbows next to the kid. The bars were always crowded in places where there was no one to wait tables, with two full glasses in front of each beer drinker in case the kegs ran out.
"What'll it be?" Johnston wasn't much for the small talk.
I skidded a half-dollar across the bar and told him the usual. He poured two fingers of Old Log Cabin into a tumbler half full of Vernor's—Vernor's on Vernor, that's how I remember where the blind pig was.
The kid had turned around and looked at me when I said "Johnnie"—they were still calling him John then as I said—and that's when I found out he was a kid. He had some baby fat, and curly black hair that needed cutting. It would still need cutting years later when he had a Duesenberg and a tailor to make sure his cuffs came to his shoes. That night he looked like one of the big Polish line workers from Hamtramck that got tired of buying their boilermakers from a parked car in front of Dodge Main and came downtown. They were all youngsters.
He lost interest in me when he figured out I wasn't addressing him and returned his attention to the other end of the bar, where a shrimp in a cloth cap and a green tweed suit too heavy for the weather stood fishing in his pants pockets. He came up with a quarter and put it on the bar. Johnston filled a schooner with beer from the keg and set it down directly on top of the quarter. The shrimp put a hand on his cap, tipped down the beer in one easy installment, belched dramatically, set down the empty schooner, and put the coin back in his pocket. Then he went out past the velvet curtain. He was weaving a little.
"Who is that guy?" the kid asked Johnston.
"What guy?" The bartender swept the glass off the bar and plunged it into a washtub full of soapy water at his feet.
"The little guy. I been watching him for an hour. Every time he comes back from the toilet he slaps a two-bit piece on the bar, you draw him a beer, he drinks it, and puts away his money. I seen him drink six beers and you never took the two-bit piece once. Who's he, the mayor?"
"Jerry the Lobo." Johnston shook the suds off the schooner and wiped it dry with his towel.
"Lobo like in wolf? He looks more like a rat. I seen him try to pick a guy's pocket. He got his hand slapped."
"Not lobo like in wolf," I said. "Lobo like in lobotomy."
The kid looked at me with more interest this time. I tapped my forehead. "Croakers in Jackson cut a piece out of his brain. He was a first-class pickpocket when they sent him up the last time. They did it to relieve him of his criminous intentions. Didn't work. He's still a pickpocket; he's just not too good at it anymore."
"You can see the scar when he takes the cap off."
"They do that?"
"Only if you volunteer. They knocked time off his sentence for it. Anyway, that's why no bartender I know will take his quarter. They feel sorry for him."
"It's always the same quarter?"
"Far as I know."
"Hell, I'd do better than that. If I had a gun I'd put him out of his misery."
I never forgot that, what Jack Dance said about putting Jerry the Lobo out of his misery. Maybe I would have, except that time in Hattie's was the last time I saw Jerry. He disappeared soon after.
The kid stuck out a right hand the size of a bucket. "I'm John Danzig."
"What if I am?" He drew back the hand.
"Don't get your balls in an uproar, junior. I'm Greek myself." I offered him mine. "Connie Minor."
"Short for Constantine. Some civil jerk at Ellis Island changed the old man's name from Minos."
He took my hand then. His was softer than I'd expected. He wasn't using it to pull any levers at the Dodge plant. For all that I felt a crackle when we made contact. It was like petting a cat on a dry winter day. "You work here, Connie?"
"Just on this highball. I write for the Times."
"No kidding? Who owns this joint, Connie?"
"You thinking of buying it?" I was sore about the way he'd dismissed my profession with two words. Most people were curious about it. Radio was boring as hell then and people got most of their entertainment from movies and the tabloids.
"I'm looking for a job," he said.
"What do you do?"
"Right now I help out my old man in his shop. He repairs watches. My fingers are too big, though. Also I like to see. My old man's eyes started to go when he was thirty. He's almost blind, my old man."
I wanted to laugh. If he'd ever called his father "my old man" before that night, he'd probably gotten slapped silly. Except for his size he made me think of a squirt trying to talk his way in with the big kids.
"Well, you came to the right place," I said. "They don't fix watches here."
"Fresh transfusion, sport?" Johnston asked the kid.
He put a hand around his half-empty schooner, which he'd obviously forgotten about. "One's the limit."
"We sell drinks here. We don't rent glasses."
The kid dug around inside his pockets and came up with a handful of lint. I bounced a quarter off the bar. Johnston caught it and set a full glass next to the first one.
"Thanks," said the kid. "I really do stop at one."
"Johnston doesn't care if you drink it. His mother told him if he didn't use his bar space she'd give it to the Albanians."
"You didn't say who owns the place."
Hattie was coming our way from the back where they dressed and painted the stiffs. She was five-two but looked taller because she was so slender, and the drop-waisted flapper dresses she wore added to the impression of height. She was a strawberry blonde, bobbed and marcelled, with a broad forehead, a chin that came to a point, and a mouth that was a little too wide for the beestung lips that Mae Murray was making famous in the movies. Her eyebrows were big surprised circles of thin pencil. The gamblers at the Times were betting she traced them around Mason lids, but I'd seen her draw them on with only the aid of a mirror. Hattie and I went back a few. I remember how calm she looked that night, with all hell breaking loose upstairs and about to come barreling through the front door.
I was in the middle of introducing the kid to her when she put a hand on my arm. "Connie, I need to borrow you."
I gave the kid the high sign and walked off with her a few steps. She looped her arm through mine.
"They put strychnine in my best whiskey," she said. "I've got a dead justice of the peace upstairs and an Oklahoma oilman throwing up in the toilet."
"What brand?" I'd been swilling Old Log Cabin for ten minutes.
"Stop worrying about yourself. You don't think I serve this radiator juice to the guests upstairs."
"Who did it?"
"The Purples, the Little Jewish Navy, who cares? I've got to get these slot machines out of here before the bulls come and smash them to pieces. They're worth more than what's inside them."
"Did you call Joey?"
"It'll take Joey's people twenty minutes to get here. I need muscle now."
We were standing in front of one of the machines, a baroque nightmare in worked bronze with claw feet and a lever the size of a mop handle. I put my arms around it and heaved. The back legs came up an inch. I let it fall back with a crash. The record on the Victrola skipped a beat; one less fucking boop-boop-adoo.
"You still need muscle," I said. "I haven't lifted anything heavier than a paragraph since I left the loading dock. What's wrong with Johnston?"
"He's got a hernia older than I am."
"This is your lucky night. That big kid at the bar's looking for work."
She glanced that way. The kid was glaring at Jerry the Lobo, who had just come back from the toilet and was playing the gag with the quarter again.
"Can we trust him?"
"Honey, you can't trust me. I came here looking for a story. One poisoned j.p. in a whorehouse could get me my own column."
"How you going to write it with ten broken fingers?"
I watched her. Hattie never smiled. If she ever told a joke no one knew it. "Even Joey Machine wouldn't touch a member of the press."
"How long you know Joey?" she said. "What's the kid's name?"
"John something. He's a sheeny."
"Well, he don't look like a Purple. Let's go talk to him."
That was how Jack Dance got in with the Machine mob, although he didn't know it at the time. Joey Machine had a part interest in most of the better blind pigs and hook shops on the East Side and owned Hattie Long's establishment outright. The kid listened to as much of the tale as Hattie told and said he'd be glad to help. He was smart enough not to impose conditions. All his life Jack Dance was a creature of instinct and it never let him down until the last.
"My brother can help," he said, and added: "He's a poet."
I didn't know what that had to do with anything, but we accompanied the kid to a table where a sandy-haired sheik in his twenties was talking with one of Hattie's girls over a bottle of gin with a Canadian label and a Dearborn ancestry. His suit was a better fit than his brother's but it was strictly Hudson's basement just the same. There was no family resemblance that I could see. He was built along slighter lines and his complexion was fair. I wondered if they were just close friends who considered themselves related, like the coloreds; but the kid introduced him as Tom Danzig.
"Your brother says you're a poet," Hattie said.
He played with his glass and never drank from it all the time we were there. The two had that in common at least. "I'm trying to be a writer. John thinks everyone who writes is a poet."
Hattie said, "All we need is a strong back. I don't care if you can rhyme."
He was slower to volunteer than his brother. On that short acquaintance I could see he was the thinker of the team, measuring everything against the consequences and what it meant to him. I don't know why that irritated me. With all the things Jack did later and everything he became I always liked him, and I never liked Tom. But then I gave up trying to figure myself out years ago.
Finally he agreed to lend a hand. Hattie told Johnston, who left the bar and trundled the big White truck they used for a moving van around to the side door, and with Hattie directing us to look out for the handles and gimcrackery the three of us carried out the slot machines. We got the truck doors closed just as the sirens came within hearing. Whoever had poisoned the whiskey had given the stuff time to take effect before placing his anonymous call to the bulls. It turned out to be just time enough for us. The Danzig brothers and I were sharing a table and a bottle inside with Hattie tending bar when Lieutenant Valery Kozlowski showed up with the walking sputum from the Detroit Prohibition Squad.CHAPTER 2
A couple of years ago Chet Mooney, who held down the police beat at the News, wrote a book about the dry time in Detroit in which he claimed that Dusty Steinhauser had once offered a $1000 reward for the assassination of Valery Kozlowski. I asked Dusty about it in the tailor shop he ran after Repeal broke up his Little Jewish Navy. I couldn't use the one-word answer he gave me in the paper, but I did run his explanation: "If I had the grand to spare I'd of gave it to Kozlowski and then I wouldn't of had to offer no reward." Chet Mooney always was full of banana oil. The book, which carried a foreword by J. Edgar Hoover, sold out quickly.
I never minded Kozlowski. He was six feet and two hundred sixty pounds of hard fat in a fedora and a rubber raincoat, an ambulatory sneer with a cold stogie pegged into a corner of his mouth—just the kind of arrogant bull we liked to rag in the columns, only we didn't much in his case. It was an open secret in the newspaper community that the lieutenant was supporting a wife bedridden by polio, which gave him a better reason than most to rake off what he could. We didn't like him, but we under stood him; and I at least was sorry when that psychotic bitch Janet McDonald took him down from beyond the grave.
There wasn't much original about the way he came into Hattie's that night. A uniform gnawed through the heavy door with a fire axe and Kozlowski stepped inside, kicking aside a splintered panel with one of his ridiculous Size Sixes; he always looked about to fall off his tiny feet. The uniforms attacked the fixtures with axes and wrecking tools while he embroidered a graceful path through the scattering patrons up to the bar. A crowbar struck the center of the table the Danzigs and I were seated around and it fell apart in two halves. We got up.
"Where's Johnston?" Kozlowski asked Hattie.
"He's down with the influenza." She brought up the Dutch Masters box Johnston had been making change from all night and shoved it across the bar. Kozlowski pocketed the bills without counting them and left the coins. "Get the Victrola," he shouted over the noise. A moment later an axe split the turntable and Helen Morgan stopped singing with a shriek.
"I hear you're selling liquor with a boot in it tonight," Kozlowski said.
"We only sell the best."
"How many dead?"
"I don't run the funeral parlor," Hattie said. "Come back in the morning."
This went on for a little. The lieutenant had three plainclothesmen with him, two of whom were staving in the kegs behind the bar and letting the beer gush out in a yellow stream. Hattie let it foam around her shoes. The third detective, a sergeant named Wagner, stood watching the destruction with his hands in his pockets and a wide moronic grin on his narrow face. He was hatless, with his black hair brilliantined back Valentino style and a long loose jaw clustered with acne. Of all the subhumans on the Prohibition Squad, Wagner was the easiest to despise, a hophead who loved to watch things come apart without getting a smudge on his peaked lapels. Rumor had it he was into a Beaubien Street pusher for twice what the city paid him annually.
Excerpted from Whiskey River by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1990 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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