FUNERAL GAMES

by

Warren Bull

 

Kansas City psychologist Warren Bull is the author of Abraham Lincoln for the Defense (PublishAmerica 2003) a novel based on an actual murder trial that so intrigued Lincoln that he was still writing about it five years later.  Resolution of the case solved one mystery but it created a greater question that remains unanswered to this day.   Warren's award-winning short story, "Beecher's Bibles" is included in Manhattan Mysteries (KS Publishing, Inc. 2005.)  He contributed a memoir to Grab Your Tiger authored by Kathy Schwadel (Keen Publications, 2007.) Warren has also published fiction and non-fiction in a number of places including  Amazon Shorts, Great Mystery and Suspense, Espressofiction.com, Mysterical-E, Kansas City Voices, Crimeandsuspense.com, and DownGoSunWe are thrilled to add The Back Alley to his list of credits, with his story Funeral Games.
  

    

Dead bodies don’t look like they were ever living, breathing people.  Even intact bodies, like those floating off Omaha Beach or frozen to the ground in the Ardennes Forest, looked less than human. Emaciated bodies stacked like firewood in a concentration camp looked like a nightmare of hell worse than any painting by Hieronymus Bosch. They didn’t look human. I don’t sleep much because every time I close my eyes I see dead bodies.

The body lying in my brother’s mahogany casket resembled Denny, but it looked more like a wax museum figure.  Its face was an unnatural shade of pink.

            “Excuse me,” said a man, putting his hand on my shoulder.  “We need to talk.”

            I repressed the urge to slug him for touching me.  I don’t like to be touched. I looked up at him.  He was matinee-idol-handsome with black hair and a thin moustache.  His well-tailored suit made his broad shoulders look even wider than they actually were and only a hinted at the shoulder holster underneath. I knew who he was. Behind him was an even bigger and younger man with auburn hair, who I also recognized.

            “Let me buy you a cup of coffee,” the man suggested.

            I looked over at Denny’s widow, Janie.  Blond and statuesque, she looked lovely and vulnerable in black.  I didn’t want her to get upset so I allowed myself to be steered out of the funeral home to a nearby café.  The man chose a table in the back of the busy café with a view out the side window.  He sat with his back to the wall. The other man sat facing the window. I faced them.

            “Do you know who I am?” he asked.

            I’d seen his picture in the paper.  Duke Palermo was a mobster. Bluebloods liked to have their pictures taken with him to impress their friends.  He ran one of the bright lights on Broadway where you could satisfy any desire the deepest, darkest part of your psyche could dream up. Gambling, pornography, drugs, loans impossible to repay, prostitution with any gender and age - whatever your poison, Palermo would sell it to you.

            “No, but I recognize Dynamite Malone.” I turned to the younger man.  “I saw you beat Terry Brown.  I don’t care what the official outcome was. The ref must have been paid off to give a long count to Brown in the third round and a short count to you in the sixth.”

            “I slipped,” said Malone.  “He missed me with an upper cut. I got tangled up in the ropes. The damn ref had to skip some numbers fast as he counted.”

            Palermo gritted his teeth.

            “I thought he tagged you,” I answered. “The ref started counting before you hit the canvas.”

            Malone said, “Maybe Brown tapped me, but I slipped.”

            Palermo cut in, “We didn’t come here to discuss ancient history.  We got business.  My name is Duke Palermo.  You might have heard of me.”

            He looked at me expectantly.

            I shook my head no and looked over at Malone again.

            “You beat Alfie Gonzales, too. You knocked him all around the ring for the whole fight.  I know you didn’t put him down, but he has a head like a bowling ball.  He’s never been knocked down.  The judges must have been on the take.”

            Malone said, “You’re right.”

            Palermo struck like a snake, backhanding Malone and leaving a red mark.

            “I warned you,” snarled Palermo. “When I want to talk business you keep your trap shut and watch out for trouble. You don’t listen to the business.  If some mug tries to talk to you, you ignore him.  Now sit there like the dummy you are.”

            “You didn’t need to do that,” I said to Palermo.

            “He never was an Einstein,” said Palermo.  “He took too many punches and now he’s washed up in the fight game.  He hasn’t got the brains for honest work and I’m a sap enough to give him a job.  But let’s get down to business. I run a club on Broadway.  I’m sorry about your brother. Everybody knows how he dodged Jap Zeros, became an ace and came home without a scratch. A year later, a stolen taxi flattens him.  It’s one thing to survive World War II. Staying alive these days in New York City is something else.”

            “Ironic,” I replied.

            “Did they ever find the driver?”

            “No.”

            Palermo leaned toward me.  “The thing is, your brother never got over the war.  He needed excitement to feel alive.”

            “That’s not me. I just want to be left alone.”

            “He gambled at my place.  Sometimes he won big.  Other times he lost a bundle.  He didn’t seem to care.  I let it ride.  It was good for business to have a big war hero in my joint.  He added class and attracted the swells. Just before he died, your brother ran into a long losing streak. He was into me for five thousand dollars.”

            “I can give you the name of the attorney handling his estate, but I don’t think he had much money.”

            “No shyster is going take a marker.  Now that Denny’s dead, he can’t pay off the marker.  My boss wants to know where that money will come from.”

            I nodded and sipped my coffee.

            “In his memory, you could repay your brother’s debt,” said Palermo.

            “It’s not my debt,” I answered.  “In his memory, I could see that my sister-in-law is looked out for.”

            “I’ve met her,” said Palermo.  “I have to tell you, if you can’t pay back your brother’s debt, I wouldn’t mind collecting it from her, one night at a time.”

            I dropped my hands to the chair and gripped hard to keep from smashing my fists into Palermo’s face.

“Five thousand dollars is a lot to me, “ I said. “I’m a janitor. To you it’s just pocket change.  And I thought you mob guys left families of civilians alone.”

            Palermo said, “Okay, I’ll level with you.  You’re right. I take in more than five grand in profit on a good Saturday night and my boss wouldn’t like it if I messed with your brother’s widow.  But I won’t let it slide.”

Palermo poked his finger into my chest.  I had an urge to kick him in the nuts. “Your brother got under my skin.  He acted like he was better than me.  What did he have that I don’t?  He was a war hero, but I’ve been fighting all my life.  I fought my way up out of the gutter. They don’t hand out medals for that. The swells come to my place because it’s the popular thing to do right now. Next week or next month they’ll get bored and find a new thrill.  I’ll go back to being a bum in their eyes. But your brother could do no wrong.  Rich guys, the mayor, maybe even the president would be happy to talk to him.  He ran up a debt and he didn’t worry about paying it back.  He wasn’t even scared of me.”

            Palermo’s eyes bored into me.  “You’re just like him.  I won’t let him end up getting something over on me.  One way or another, I will get even.”

            I sighed, realizing that he wasn’t going to give it up. 

            “Give me a few days,” I said.  “Maybe I can come up with something.”

            “I know about you, too,” said Palermo.  “Another war hero.”

            Malone turned his head toward me.  Palermo didn’t notice.

            “No,” I said, “The real heroes didn’t make it home.  About my brother, though, he was better than you.”

            Palermo whipped out his pistol and pointed it between my eyes.  The noise in the café diminished and then stopped.  People stared at us.

            “Are you going to shoot me?” I asked.  “In front of all these witnesses? Go ahead. The mob would disown you for sheer stupidity. As pretty as you are, I bet in the prison shower room you’d always have your dance card full.”

            I raised my voice.

            “The man with the gun is Duke Palermo.  Remember and be ready to testify about it.  Duke Palermo.”

            Palermo’s hand shook.  Slowly he returned the pistol to his holster.

            “I’ll see you later,” hissed Palermo. 

            He stood up and walked out of the café without a backward glance.  Malone gave me a worried look and hurried after him. 

        

* * * * *

 

            Lieutenant Randall looked me up late that night while I mopped the floor of the hallway outside the offices in the Acme Building.

            “I heard about what happened,” said Randall.  “Palermo isn’t as nuts as Bugsy Siegel, but he’s dangerous.  You might want to skip town for a while.”

            “Thanks for the advice, Lieutenant, but if I disappear he’ll go after my sister-in-law, Janie.  For her to be safe, I need him to focus on me.”

            “Luciano and Laskey won’t like that he’s bothering civilian family members, especially family members of a war hero.” said Randall.

            “You must know somebody who could clue them in.”

            “They won’t do anything about it,” warned Randall.  “Palermo brings the rich in and he makes a mint for the mob.  He’s got a rotten temper.  Someday he’ll tromp on the wrong set of toes and get a visit from Murder Incorporated, but it won’t be soon.”

            “I know, but it might help to get the word out.”

            “Anything else I can do for you?”

            “Yes. Pull back the men you’ve got watching me and keep them far away from for a while.  Captain O’Bannon is going to find out that you’ve got men on a stakeout when no crime has been committed.  He’ll be after your scalp.  Even if they saw Palermo enter the building, what could they do?”

            Randall frowned, but he nodded.  “I talked to the detectives working on your brother’s death and told them a snitch said it was murder.  They’re going to treat it that way from now on. One of the witnesses said the taxi waited until your brother was in the middle of the street before it ran the red light. We discounted her testimony at the time since nobody else saw it that way.  I was never satisfied that we knew why the taxi was stolen and then just abandoned.”

            “Thanks, I appreciate it.”

            I kept mopping. It wasn’t long after he left that I heard Dynamite Malone doing a bad impression of a cat burglar.  I walked up behind him and let the mop handle fall to the floor.  Malone nearly jumped out of his skin.

            “Were you looking for me?”

            “You scared me out of ten year’s growth,” said Malone.

            “Good. You’re big enough already.”

            “You gotta get out of here.  Palermo’s coming and he’s loaded for bear.  I told him I’d come in first and soften you up for him, but he won’t wait long.”

            “I know.”

            “I was too young to get into the war, but I appreciate what you and your brother did.  I wanted to warn you about Palermo. You embarrassed him in the restaurant.  He hates being shown up.  He used to hate your brother, especially.  I don’t know why.”

            “The same reason he hates you,” I said.  I reached up and touched his chin with my fingers, moving his face from side to side to look at the bruises.

            “He’s been using you for a punching bag, hasn’t he?  My brother was real.  You were a real contender.  That’s why he had my brother killed and why he ruined your boxing career.  He’s not a real man. He gets nervous and angry when he runs into one.”

            Malone looked puzzled.  “How do you know he was the one who ruined my career?”

            “The night before you fought Gonzales, did a woman come to your room and wear you out all night long?”

            “How did you know that?”

            “Put it together, Malone. Who made money when you lost those two bouts? A gambler.  Who could fix a referee and judges?  A mobster.  Who could send you a woman to break your concentration and wear you out?  A pimp.  Who do you know that’s a gambler, a mobster and a pimp who enjoys whacking you around and making fun of you?”

            “I didn’t do nothing to him,” protested Malone.

            “Neither did my brother, but Palermo had him killed.  Neither did I, but when I didn’t break out bawling after he pulled a gun, Palermo went ape, didn’t he?”

            Malone nodded. 

            “He said he’d kill you.”

            “I’ve spent the last couple of years getting shot at,” I answered.  “I’m still standing. Thanks for the warning.  Now get out of here.  You’re a good kid.  You shouldn’t be hanging around with scum like Palermo.”

            “I’ll leave if you do.”

            I shook my head.  “He’d go after my sister-in-law, Janie, then.  I have to stay and see it through. You need to get out.”

            “Yeah, get the hell out of my sight.” Palermo stormed toward us.  “Softening him up, dummy? After I finish off this jerk, I’m coming after you.”

 Palermo raised a fist to Malone. Malone chopped a short left into Palermo’s ribs and knocked him into the wall. Palermo’s head bounced off the wall and he staggered.  Malone smashed Palermo’s nose with a right cross.  Palermo slammed into the wall again.  His legs went out from under him and he slid down into a sitting position.

Palermo pulled his pistol and started firing.  The first shot went wild.  The second shot grazed Malone’s skull leaving a long red welt just above his ear. Malone collapsed.  Breathing heavily, Palermo stood up and took an unsteady step so he was standing over Malone.  His hands shook as he fired all the bullets in the gun at Malone’s fallen body.  He pulled the trigger four times more, not noticing that the weapon was empty.

I moved quickly over to Malone and knelt by him.  He was leaking blood, but he was still breathing.

“That son of a bitch was trying to kill me,” whined Palermo.

“He did kill you,” I said.  “He kept knocking your head against the wall until your brains were like scrambled eggs.”

Palermo looked confused. “When did he do that?”

“Right now,” I said, rising.  I grabbed him by the ears and rammed him nose-first into the wall. As he sat, dazed, I reached for the mop to unscrew the handle

A few minutes later, Malone groaned and opened his eyes. 

“God that hurts,” he said.

“Take it easy, kid.  The ambulance is on its way.”

“What about Palermo?” 

I glanced at Palermo’s crumpled remains.

“He won’t need one.  You got up off the canvas and finished him.  That’s why they call you Dynamite.  When somebody hurts you, it just lights your fuse.”

“Gee, I’m sorry I missed it.”

“It wasn’t much of a fight, really.  A pretender can’t do much against a real contender.”

“Did I use my jab?”

“Yes. You kept him at arm’s length with the jab.  When he got close, you used the straight left and the right cross.  He never laid a hand on you.  You should have done that with Gonzales.”

“Everybody tells me that.  Do you think I could get a rematch?”

“Sure thing, kid.  You can get another shot at Brown, too.  You got a lot of heart.  That will take you a long way.”

Malone shuddered and grabbed my hand.

“I’m cold. Don’t leave me alone. I’m scared.”

“I’ll stay with you as long as you want.” I held his hand.  The light went out of his eyes just before I heard the wail of the sirens in the distance.  Lying in a heap, Malone’s body didn’t look like it had ever belonged to a human being. 

Captain O’Bannon was mad that the building had been under surveillance and mad that the surveillance had been withdrawn.  He questioned me himself, even though he was obviously out of practice. 

“Tell me the story,” he commanded.

He sounded like a spoiled brat demanding a bed time story so I obliged him with a fairy tale. I told him that I heard shouts and noises.  Then I heard the shots. Being the cautious type, I waited a long time before I investigated.  When I saw the men, I went to them to see if they were alive.  One was still living, so I called the ambulance. Then I went back to see if I could do anything. I was upset and I didn’t remember how many times I walked through the blood or what I touched.

How did a man being beaten to death pull a trigger?  How did a man dying of gunshot wounds beat another man to death?  Not being there, I didn’t know. Why were Palermo’s wallet and pockets empty except for two lead pennies?  I didn’t know. Did the Captain know how much money Palermo usually carried? I didn’t. The Captain backed off that line of questioning immediately.  He kept after me and after me, but he wasn’t very good.

I knew the men. One was a boxer and the other pulled a gun on me earlier in the day trying to get me to pay my dead brother’s gambling debt, but there was nothing to connect me with the crime. I had blood on my hands and clothes, of course.  I had touched the men to see if they were alive.  The ambulance attendants found me still holding Malone’s hand.  I had no bruises on my body.  My knuckles were not scraped or swollen. Then I told the Captain the truth for a change: I didn’t punch Palermo and I didn’t shoot Malone. Although he hated to do it, O’Bannon had to let me go the next morning.  One good thing about the Captain having done the interview was that he could not blame Randall for the lack of results. I went home and slept for twenty-four hours.

Palermo’s death was a three-day journalistic wonder.  Some papers eulogized Palermo.  Others declared Malone to be the hero.  Some hinted darkly at conspiracies and unexplained mysteries.  O’Bannon promised a clear solution to the puzzle, which, of course, he never delivered. I read all the papers. None of them mentioned me by name.  One or two hinted there was a witness. The police refused to comment.  One enterprising editor hired a lip reader who claimed O’Bannon muttered something about a ‘damn mob jockey’ after one news conference.   That set off a brief storm of speculation about fixed horse races.  Nobody ever thought about a mop jockey.

When the police released the crime scene, I was the one who cleaned it up. Somehow it’s always left to me to clean up the messes.  When I was done, the floor and the wall were spotless.  Just to be sure, I used nearly half a gallon of bleach cleaning the mop handle over and over again.  Then I threw it in the garbage bin and got a new one.  The handle had served me well, but you can’t get sentimental about the tools of your trade. 

I got a call from Janie a few weeks later.  I arranged to meet her in the lobby of the Acme building at dusk.

“You’re really all right?” she asked. “Is this where it happened?”

“I’m fine,” I said.  “It happened in this building, but not right here.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” she said.  “I loved Denny. I don’t know if I’ll ever love another man as much.  But he’s dead and I have to think about my future.”  She bit her lip.  “I don’t suppose you’ve thought about us.”

I had, of course.  I often dreamed about having sex with her and every time I woke up shivering, with a pounding headache.  That is another reason I don’t sleep much. Why was I still alive when so many men were dead? I didn’t deserve to even touch her.  I fought down the desire to rip her clothes off and fuck her right then on the floor.

“I have thought about us,” I said.  “I love you.  I’ll always love you, but to me you’ll always be Denny’s wife. Wherever we went, whatever we did, he’d always be there.”

“That’s what I thought.  I’m glad you came into some money recently. I won’t accept your five thousand dollars. I don’t believe Denny ever loaned you that much.  He might have borrowed it from you, but he never would have saved that much money.”

“Probably not,” I admitted.

“You know that before I met Denny I was a …”

“…party girl,” I finished for her.

“That’s a nice way to put it,” she said.  She smiled.  “You’ve always been nice to me.  I’m not going to become a kindergarten teacher now.  I’m going to get a job in a nightclub.  I can sing and dance a little.  Maybe if I work in a place like Palermo used to run, I’ll meet some society swell who’ll want to take care of me. Palermo used to check me out every time I went into his place with Denny.  I didn’t mind.  It made me feel good.  I flirted a little but was never unfaithful to Denny.”

She paused. 

“Are you disappointed?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  “I know how you felt about Denny.  What happened was not your fault.  As to what you want to do, it’s a free country.  I know. I fought to keep it that way.  If that’s what you really want, do it.”

I watched her walk away.  For a little while I could see her when she walked under streetlights and when headlights from passing cars illuminated her.  She got smaller and harder to see.   Then she disappeared into the darkness.

 

END

 

 

Copyright © 2007 by Warren Bull

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