Book excerpt

Motor City Shakedown

Detroit Mysteries

D. E. Johnson

St. Martin's Press

CHAPTER ONE
 

Sunday, August 6, 1911

My left index finger traced the shape of the little morphine bottle through the outside of my trouser pocket. Nearly two hours had passed since my last dose. Even though the pain in my right hand was tolerable and my mind was still enveloped in the delicious fuzziness of the opiate, I’d been fighting with myself for the last fifteen minutes—one more taste before Moretti showed? I might not get another chance for a while. But I couldn’t take too much. I had to be sharp.
Movement on the sidewalk down the block caught my attention, and my hand went to the .32 tucked into my belt. I pressed farther back into the shadows of the alley, squinting at the couple who had just turned the corner. The few streetlamps that worked were dim and widely spaced, doing little to add to the meager glow spilling from the windows of the crumbling redbrick buildings.
They strolled underneath the cone of light from a streetlamp. Both were men, one of average height, the other six inches shorter, perhaps a little over five feet tall—about Moretti’s height. I studied them. Both wore white shirts, dark trousers with suspenders, and black derbies, but no—Moretti was stocky, built like a fireplug. The smaller man was wiry and moved more gracefully than Vito Adamo’s muscular driver. I relaxed as they walked into Moretti’s building.
I couldn’t get worked up over every man who passed by. This was a busy area—a run-down, though typical, slice of Detroit’s Little Italy. I was plenty familiar with the scenery here, after investigating Vito Adamo’s Black Hand gang for the last few months. Even though Adamo hadn’t been directly responsible for the death of my friend, Wesley McRae, he had helped. That was enough. I pulled out my watch and angled it toward a streetlamp—twelve thirty. Moretti should be here.
Every night I’d watched, he had gotten home between 12:15 and 12:30, always with a different woman—prostitutes, I assumed. The women left within thirty minutes, and Moretti exited the building at 1:45 sharp to go back to Adamo’s saloon, the Bucket. This was the third straight night I had planned to jump him. On both previous occasions I’d chickened out. But not tonight. Tonight Carlo Moretti and I would talk.
I pulled off my derby and the handkerchief I’d tied around my head and I wiped the sweat from my face. Past midnight and still somewhere near ninety degrees. For the tenth time tonight, I slipped the handkerchief back over my head and spun it around to cover my face below my eyes—to be sure it would stay in place. If Moretti recognized me, I’d have to kill him. I didn’t want to do that. After shifting the mask around to the back again, I returned my derby to my head and settled in to wait. I needed a cigarette but restrained myself—it would give away my position.
Another couple turned the corner and ambled up the street. It was him. Carlo Moretti sauntered down the sidewalk with a slender woman on his arm. He wore a dark suit and a straw boater, she a green satin evening dress with a matching wide-brimmed hat. Moretti stood half a head shorter than she, but I wouldn’t let his diminutive stature fool me. He was one of Vito Adamo’s most accomplished killers.
They entered his building, and I glanced at my watch: 12:40. She’d be here until 1:10. I wanted to burst in the room while they were in flagrante delicto, while Moretti’s hands were occupied. But I didn’t want any witnesses. I’d been waiting a long time. A few more minutes wouldn’t matter.
My right hand throbbed, and I brought it up near my face. In the darkness of the alley, my black glove was nearly invisible, but I could see the silhouettes of my fingers contracted over my palm. I tried straightening them. They moved perhaps an inch, and a searing wave burned its way up my arm.
I grimaced and pulled the little bottle of morphine from my pocket. A taste—just a taste—would be enough to keep me from thinking too much about the pain. Trapping the bottle against my chest with my right arm, I twisted off the cap with my left, raised the bottle to my mouth, and tipped it back for a second, just long enough to taste the bitter brown fluid. The numbing warmth began to trickle down my throat. This was the time to which I so looked forward. I took a deep breath, and another, and then leaned against the wall to enjoy the peace that was beginning to cradle my mind.
The front door of the building opened, and the prostitute burst out, hat in hand. She hurried away, shoes clacking against the sidewalk, her stride somewhere between a walk and a run. When she passed under the streetlamp, she glanced behind her, as if to see if someone followed. I saw hints of red in her dark hair.
Odd. She’d been inside for perhaps ten minutes. But Moretti was a son of a bitch. Who knew what he did to these women?
I pulled the Colt pistol from my belt and checked the load—seven bullets I hoped I wouldn’t need tonight. I cocked it, flicked on the safety, and stuffed it back into my belt. At one thirty I crossed the street and entered the dark stairwell. The mews of kittens came from a crate in the corner. Trickles of light filtered in from the hallway, illuminating the steps to vague dark shapes. The stair rail was sticky, the air wet, smelling of mold and sewage. Muffled voices rose and fell as I crept up to the second-floor landing. I leaned out over the rail and looked above me. No one stood guard. Moretti didn’t rate his boss’s protection.
Something touched my ankle. I jerked the gun from my belt before I saw it was only a cat. Breathing a sigh of relief, I shooed it away and continued up the stairs. When I reached the top, I peered out at the hallway, lit to dusk by sputtering gas lamps. A dozen doors stood at fifteen-foot intervals, all but the third one on the right blanketed with Italian graffiti, as were the walls between. I kept my eye on the clean door. In roughly ten minutes that door would open, and a well-armed Moretti would head for the stairs, on his way back to the Bucket.
But tonight he wasn’t going to make it to the Bucket.
From below, a man and woman started up the stairs, their slurred words and drunken laughter filtering up the stairwell ahead of them. Though they didn’t sound like they’d be a threat, I had nowhere to hide, and certainly no explanation for lurking on the steps. Hoping they’d stop on the second floor, I sprawled out on the stairs and feigned sleep. In this building, drunks sleeping one off in the stairwell couldn’t be that unusual.
They continued up from the second floor, pausing when they stepped onto the landing below me. After only a brief hesitation, they climbed the stairs, laughing still, more intent on their own plans than on me. They skirted me and turned down the hallway, a door opened and closed, and their voices blended into the quiet murmur of the building’s other residents.
I spun the handkerchief around so it covered my face and stood, flattened against the wall, looking around the corner at Moretti’s door. The building creaked and groaned around me. Any minute now.
I waited. The door didn’t open. I pulled my watch from my waistcoat. Six minutes of two. He was already nine minutes late. I put my watch away. Footsteps clattered up the stairwell from the first floor.
Where was he? Had he left and I’d somehow missed him? Perhaps he’d gone out the back door tonight. Perhaps he’d spotted me. The footsteps headed off down the second-floor hallway, and it was quiet again.
I couldn’t wait all night. I had to do something before I lost my nerve. Pulling my .32, I crept down the hall to Moretti’s door. Light leaked out through the crack underneath. I put my ear against the flaking paint on the door and listened. The apartment was silent. I slipped the gun into my belt and tried the knob. It turned. I pushed against the door, just the slightest pressure. It began to open. Once the latch cleared the doorjamb, I pulled out the pistol again and used my worthless right hand to open the door. It swung inward, creaking, and I tensed, preparing for Moretti’s attack.
But the apartment was still—no sound, no movement other than the curtains of the only window riffling in the hot wind. I stepped inside and pushed the door shut behind me, eyes scanning the room. The apartment was about fifteen feet square with little more than the bare essentials—a box stove, two chairs and a rickety table with a straw boater atop it, a bureau holding a dozen liquor bottles, and a single bed near the wall on the right, covered by a threadbare blue blanket.
I tiptoed to the window and slipped my head outside. A fire escape snaked up the building only a foot away. I cursed. He must have seen me and left through the window.
I turned to leave and saw a spray of red on the dingy ivory wall at the side of the bed. I took a step toward it, and another. Near the wall, the blanket was spattered with dark stains. Now I saw a form—a naked man lying facedown, jammed between the bed and the wall. I pulled the handkerchief down around my neck and leaned in.
It looked like Moretti. I reached over the bed, took hold of his pomaded hair, and pulled up. His body didn’t move, but his head fell back in my hand. His throat was a yawning wound, puckered tubes and bloody tissue. I stared in horror. Moretti’s dark eyes were half open, dull. His tongue looked out of place, a sea slug—blue, slimy, hanging out of his gaping mouth. The floor beneath him was covered by a dark pool. I let go of the greasy hair, and his head dropped like a lead weight, thumping against the floor.
My gut churned. Trying not to vomit, I took a step back. The bitter taste of the morphine syrup gave me my first realization I’d even taken the bottle from my pocket.
I had to get out of here. Now. But not like before. Not like an idiot. I needed to be sure I left no clues.
I thought I had touched the window frame, so I used my glove to wipe it down, and did the same with the doorknob on the inside. After a quick look around, I peeked out into the hall. No one was in sight. I slipped out and ran my gloved hand over the knob on the outside. The morphine was keeping the burn to a tolerable level.
A door creaked. A young woman in a faded blue nightgown, her dark curls bound up in a white kerchief, leaned out the next door, a saucer of milk in her hand. Our eyes met before I was able to turn away, waiting for her door to close again. The only exit was the stairway, and I had to pass her to get there.
She asked me something in Italian. Her voice was soft.
I shrugged and said, “No,” trying to disguise my voice.
She said something else.
Son of a bitch. Still keeping my face angled away from her, I shook my head.
She asked me something again, her voice more insistent now.
She hadn’t seen my face for long. Hoping she hadn’t seen it well, I pulled the handkerchief up over my face and bolted past her, down the hall to the stairway.
*   *   *
A few hours later, I lay awake in a small stand of maple trees along the edge of one of Belle Isle’s grassy fields, smoking a cigarette and staring up at the stars through silhouettes of leaves. I’d found myself wandering in this direction when I stopped running, but I wasn’t sure why. The cooler air off the river provided some relief from the heat, but I thought it more likely I had come here because it was a comforting place for me, filled with warm memories of time spent with Elizabeth. We’d stood on the bridge for hours talking about our future, had walked the paths, boated in the pond, watched the buffalo graze peacefully in their pasture. Nothing bad had happened to me here, something that was getting difficult to say about most parts of Detroit.
Thousands of sleeping people dotted the small island, driven out of their homes in the city by the relentless heat. With my sleeve I wiped a warm film of sweat from my face. Four in the morning in the middle of the river, and I was still sweating. A streetcar rattled past over on Jefferson Avenue. The rhythmic drone of cicadas pulsed around me, rising and falling. A chorus of frogs sang across the island—delicate chirrups and clicks from tree frogs, the rumbling croaks and snores of their larger cousins. But they didn’t lull me to sleep as they might have done on a normal night, even though I had finished off the last of the morphine.
Could the prostitute have killed Moretti? The wound was so deep, the cut so sure, it was hard to imagine his death being at the hand of a woman. I struggled to recall her appearance. Tall—or at least in comparison to Moretti—slender, a reddish tint to her hair. My impression of her clothing, green satin dress and matching hat, was of expensive fabric and a fashionable cut. She didn’t necessarily have to be the killer. She could have merely let him in from the fire escape or distracted Moretti while the killer entered the apartment.
If the police came after me, I was sunk. I would have to find the prostitute, get the truth out of her before they caught up to me. The one thing I didn’t doubt is that they would come after me—if not now, then soon. The police knew I hated Vito Adamo. The woman in the apartment next to Moretti’s had seen my face. The hallway was dim, and she saw me only for a second, but we had locked eyes. Though it had been at least six months since I was last featured in the local papers, my face was one familiar to many Detroiters. Still, at the rate new immigrants were arriving, it was anyone’s guess whether she recognized me. That she lived in Moretti’s building was in my favor. She had probably been brought into the country illegally by Vito Adamo, and would therefore be unlikely to involve herself in a police matter.
It also occurred to me that my appearance had changed drastically since my picture was in the papers. I’d lost twenty pounds from my already-thin five-foot-ten-inch frame, and my face was drawn, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a haircut. I kept my shaggy brown mop at bay with a handful of pomade every morning, but my hair hung over my ears and down my collar. Perhaps if I got it cut, it might help keep the woman from identifying me.
As I thought, I massaged my dead right hand with my left, an unconscious habit I’d picked up shortly after I left the hospital. I wasn’t sure if it was just a nervous tic or if, somewhere deep down, I thought if I massaged it enough, the pain would stop. I watched the fingers spread apart and then close halfway into a fist. A new wave of pain shot like lightning up my arm.
Shit. I shook my head. I’d planned it all out. I would surprise Moretti and get him back in his apartment. He would tell me where I could find Vito Adamo, Big Boy, and Sapphira Xanakis—the people who helped John Cooper murder Wesley McRae. They had all disappeared without a trace. I would hunt them down and kill them, or at least bring them to justice.
Seven months had passed since Wesley was murdered, and I’d gotten nowhere. Seven months of stumbling around, trying to put my life back together—all the while trying to find Vito Adamo and his accomplices. And now my only lead had been murdered, and I was certain to be a suspect.
I looked up at the sky and mouthed, I’m sorry, Wes. He was the best friend I could have ever had, repeatedly risking his life and finally giving it—for me, a man who had disdained him for his homosexuality. I shook my head. I never deserved a friend like Wes, and now I despaired that I would ever be able to pay back even a fraction of what he had given me.
The stars were beginning to fade, the black sky graying as dawn approached. I needed to be home before sunrise. I stood, brushed myself off, and headed back across the bridge to the city. Half an hour later I crept up the fire escape at the back of my apartment building in my stockings, just as I had exited the previous evening. I’d had my new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Preston, over for dinner. When they were leaving, I’d made a big show of going to bed early. I had thought I was being clever to set up an alibi I’d never need.
Now I hoped it held.

 
Copyright © 2011 by D. E. Johnson

D. E. Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood. He comes by his interest in automotive history through his grandfather, who was the vice president of Checker Motors. Johnson lives with his family near Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Visit his Web site at www.dejohnsonauthor.com.