La Donna Detroit
A Detective Sergeant Mulheisen Mysteryby Jon A. Jackson
“A masterpiece of diabolic design . . . [Jackson] keeps edging this series onto bolder levels of ironic wit.” –The New York Times Book Review
Mob Boss Humphrey DiEbola has tracked femme fatale Helen Sedlacek to Montana, where she fled after killing Humphrey’s predecessor and running off with millions in Mafia cash. Unexpectedly, rather than vengeance, he offers her redemption. Humphrey has also set about drastically downsizing his operation, even turning over an illegal cigar factory to Helen to make some legitimate, Cuban-quality cigars. Is he grooming her to become La Donna of Detroit? When a quiet poker party in Humphrey’s leaves all hands dead, Mulheisen smells a rat—and he’s not the only one.
“A masterpiece of diabolic design . . . [Jackson] keeps edging this series onto bolder levels of ironic wit.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Light up a good cigar and sit back; it’s a joy to watch [Jackson] work.” –Charlotte Observer
“Violent, darkly humorous, sometimes surreal . . . Everybody seems to be following an oddball dream in this highly entertaining, unpredictable novel.” –Los Angeles Times
“Sex, violence, and the nitty-gritty; look for demand.” –Library Journal
“Full of surprises . . . worth reading, keeping, and rereading.” –The Newark Star-Ledger
Chapter One: A Bad Beginning
It was as classical as Goldilocks and the three bears, or Hansel and Gretel … innocents in the lonely, spooky forest, surprised by experience, and reacting with violence.
This was not the forest primeval, but a pathetic remnant of the great American forest. It was no more than a few dozen doomed elms intermixed with the odd ash or oak, the sparse woods left by a suburban developer who had run out of cash, stalled by a war. It was one of those awkward places, a kind of limbo, where unsettling things can happen. It wasn’t really part of suburban development, at least not yet. Maybe it would never be. The developer had put on hold his plans for Crooks Woods–named for the farmer who had owned these acres.
Children had delighted in the abandoned excavations of unsold lots and had roofed over the trench footings and half basements with cast-off pieces of building materials, scrap lumber, and tar paper.
The excavations made ideal “bunkers.” The kids were crazy about “bunkers,” childish imitations of trench warfare, or bomb shelters–the influence of the previous war’s stories and the present war’s movies. They invented games to employ these bowel-like structures, crawling into them fearfully, stocking them with salvaged and stolen plunder: lanterns, bits of candles, boards hammered into secret altars, stashes for forbidden comic books, condoms from the dressers of lately drafted older brothers, items of daringly pilfered lingerie–including, in this one, an enormous brassiere and an accordionlike corset that could wrap two or three boys.
The bunkers were not for girls. Undoubtedly a few were invited, but they knew better than to crawl into these dens. Goldilocks was a cautionary tale, after all. Still, a few bold girls must have penetrated these caverns, rarely.
Some bunkers were larger, more labyrinthine, but this one was fairly simple, a rectangle twenty-four feet by twenty. The trenches were deep enough that two eight-year-old boys, Carmie and Bertie, could actually walk upright in most places, although they tended to hunch over to avoid striking their heads–there were sometimes nasty nails poking through the rough boards that roofed the trenches.
The bunker was well isolated from the others, almost in the center of the uncleared woods. Carmie and Bertie had known about this bunker for some time but they had never dared approach it until today. They knew it belonged to an older boy named Porky White, who led a gang of teenaged boys who stole cantaloupes from suburban gardens, beer from their parents’ refrigerators, candy from stores. All of this exciting loot was stashed in the bunker. The gang, known as the Clawson Commandos–there was an inescapable air of militarism these days–naturally despised little kids like Carmie and Bertie. And they, in turn, naturally writhed in envy of the Commandos, from the helmet liners on their heads to the combat boots on their feet, and wanted to be just like them.
Porky White was a particularly nasty, cruel bully. He ruled this bunker like a Chinese bandit, something they had learned about from movies and magazines. But he lacked the charismatic attraction of their true idol, a Sicilian outlaw recently glamorized in the pages of Life magazine, the bold and daring Giuliano. Perhaps the fact that they were themselves of Italian heritage (fairly recent, their parents emigrants) enhanced their idolization of Giuliano. They truly feared, respected, and envied Porky White, but did not idolize him.
They attended a Catholic school. Porky went to public school. On this day, due to the funeral of a priest, the Saint Anthony school was out and public school was not. So they had a perfect opportunity to creep into the citadel of Porky White and see what all was there.
It was a bleak, cool day at the end of winter but before the beginning of spring. The sky was a familiar gray, a featureless overcast, with a feeling that it could rain but probably wouldn’t. In this half-begun suburb, if one could climb the water tower and look down, one would see a mildly rolling terrain with woods to the north and east and a city to the south and sprawling to the west. But at one’s feet were laid out streets with only scattered houses on each block. Off to the east were farms and the shrunken remnants of farms. There was almost no automobile traffic, because of gas rationing, but there was an interurban trolley zipping along on a distant arterial rail line.
The boys had an old tin flashlight with weak batteries–it was hard to get batteries these days–and it barely lasted long enough for them to get into the sanctum sanctorum, the little eight-by-eight-foot cellar at the heart of the scrappily roofed bunker. This cellar had been meant to house the furnace and water heater of the home that would eventually be built if the war ever ended.
When the light failed the boys were scared. They almost panicked. Carmie, the slighter, more handsome of the two, began to cry, fearing that they were trapped and would never find their way out of this pitch-black labyrinth. He wept, freely lamenting that they had ever crawled in here, evidently giving way to the belief that they had gone down into the earth, that they might be buried in a cave-in and never found.
The chubby boy, Bertie, was scared, too. But he didn’t cry. He was almost certain that the bunker was not deep, that they hadn’t actually crawled down into the earth, although it had seemed to them on their way into that darkness that they were descending. But he retained a fairly strong impression of the surface of the site, with the scrap-and-tar-paper covering that was itself meagerly covered by raw, clayey dirt–the Commandos had too soon wearied of camouflaging their bunker. Still, as children, the boys did not recognize this excavation for what it was; they didn’t see the pattern. To them, it was a subterranean maze, not a simple square footing. But Bertie, at least, clung to the notion that in an emergency they could possibly break out through the roof, as it were, if they couldn’t simply crawl back through the passageway to the entrance. He tried to buck up his cousin Carmie. He denied that, for instance, there were snakes in the dark bunker.
And then they saw a light. They almost squealed with relief, but this quickly gave way to a greater terror. The huffing, bobbling figure that lurched toward the inner sanctum, out of the pitch blackness, for a fleeting moment resembled a bear. But a bear with a flashlight? And then Bertie had the weird impression that this was … was what? Something familiar, something he had experienced but only obliquely, never face-to-face: his guardian angel, perhaps, or his doppelg”nger, another self born at the same time as himself, but already fully formed, or more advanced, anyway, and always lurking on the periphery of his experience.
But in the next instant they both realized with horror that the bear, or weird ogre, could only be Porky White, the awful brute who ruled in this subterranean domain, who must inevitably discover them, and that he would be outraged at their violation of his secret castle. They tried to get away, frantically bolting for escape by another tunnel, like baby rabbits fleeing a badger or a weasel. But it was useless. Porky quickly caught them.
The older boy dragged them back into the pit by their heels. He pummeled them with his fists and shone his powerful flashlight in their eyes. The blows hurt their arms and backs and their heads rung. They cowered in a corner, moaning and sobbing, rubbing their sore arms while Porky lit a candle and placed it on a tin can that sat on a wooden pop carton.
“So, it’s you little dago rats,” he snarled, looking them over. His big moon face loomed evilly in the flickering candlelight. The little boys blubbered.
“Shut your damn traps, you shitty punks!” he commanded. “So, you snuck into my bunker, hunh? Thought you’d steal my treasure, hunh? Well, now you gotta be punished.” He sounded just like a troll from a fairy tale. The little boys quaked in despair.
“You know what I’m gonna do?” the bully said. “I’m gonna beat the hell out of you, that’s what! Or maybe I’ll burn your fingers. Yah! Teach you a lesson, you little wops!”
The boys wept. They knew there was no escape. They stared aghast at his huge white face with his wet red lips and glowing eyes. He was capable of killing them, they were convinced. He might even eat them.
Porky relished their terror. He tormented them with spectacularly imagined savageries. He would break their bones, poke out their eyes, or even throw them to the snakes. He said he had a snake pit, filled with rattlers and moccasins. The snakes would bite them and they would swell up from the poison, puke, and die. They would never see their families again. Nobody would ever find their wormy corpses. He knew they hadn’t told anyone where they were going. No one would look for them down this hole. They were in Hell, that’s where they were! They might as well consider themselves dead already. The Devil was coming to get them.
Carmie was convinced that he would be murdered. Bertie wasn’t so sure. As the older boy raged on he began to feel less frightened. It was the bit about snakes: Bertie knew from Sister Mary Frances’s adamant insistence–”There are no poisonous snakes in Michigan”–that Porky was lying. Porky was just trying to scare them; maybe he would let them go. But when? And after what kind of torment and physical violence? Bertie wasn’t so hopeful about that. He didn’t know how to deal with this older boy’s malevolence. He didn’t want to anger him further, stir him up to a fury in which he might do something that they would all regret. He tried to get Carmie to hush, to calm down. Maybe this stupid boy would content himself with just punching them, some painful but not too harmful punishment, and then let them go.
“We just wanted to be in the Commandos,” Bertie whispered. “We want to join up, be like you. We’ll do anything.”
“Anything?” the boy asked. He sat for a while, watching them, his eyes glittering in the candlelight like a goblin’s. Then he said, addressing Carmie, “Come over here. You stay there,” he said to Bertie. “You don’t move, or I’ll kill both of you.”
Carmie crawled to the other boy. Porky rummaged in a box that seemed to serve as a kind of altar, covered with an old flag and supporting a candelabra and a dented urn of some sort. He pulled out a Boy Scout camping hatchet. He brandished it in the light. Carmie’s eyes were like Ping-Pong balls. “Take off your pants,” Porky said.
He had to say it again, twice, before Carmie understood. But then the boy unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his corduroy knickers and let them down. He stood hunched over in the light. He still wore his white underpants. Porky was crouched before him. He reached out and pulled down the boy’s cotton briefs, somewhat damp and stained with urine from his fright. Carmie trembled in horror.
“What … what are you gonna do?” he asked.
“If you don’t shut up and do what I say,” Porky said, “I’m gonna chop yer pecker off.”
The boy stood still while Porky took hold of his penis and pulled on it, not roughly, but almost tenderly. Porky was breathing heavily. He stroked the child’s penis repeatedly, his lips wet and nearly drooling.
“You ever suck a fella?” he asked, suddenly.
Carmie shook his head. “What do you mean?” he stammered.
Porky stood up. He was much taller, and like Carmie, he hunched. He unbuttoned his own trousers and took out his own penis. It was much larger than Carmie’s, and it was strangely stiff, sticking straight out.
“Here,” he said, his voice rasping, “get down on yer knees and suck it.”
Carmie’s eyes were locked on the well-sharpened hatchet, but he shook his head. “No.”
“Okay, then,” Porky said. “I’m gonna whack yer dick off.” He grabbed the boy’s penis again and held it, stretching it, brandishing the brutal hatchet threateningly.
“Fatty, help me!” Carmie squealed, inadvertantly using a nickname he often applied to his pudgy cousin.
His tormentor seemed to think that the name was applied to him. “I ain’t Fatty,” he snarled. “Get down, before I chop this weenie off!”
Carmie sank to his knees, moaning. The older boy hunched over him, breathing excitedly. “Open yer mouth,” he demanded, hoarsely.
Bertie picked up a bottle that had been used to hold candles, its neck encrusted with wax drippings. He held it by the neck and smashed it into the side of Porky White’s head. The big oaf stumbled backward, tripped over his own trousers, then the box altar, and fell on his back.
“Get him!” Bertie cried. The boys leapt on the fallen bully. The candle was knocked away and lay on its side, flickering, but not out. It cast lurid shadows on the walls as the boys screamed and pummeled their tormentor, striking with the bottle until it broke, striking with anything that came to hand–bricks, stones, the fallen hatchet.
Finally, they stopped. Porky was still, crumpled in the corner. In the flickering light they stared at each other, at their grubby hands and faces, smeared with blood and dirt. And then they stared at Porky. He lay with his eyes open, as if in surprise, catching the candlelight, his face gashed and bleeding, his mouth gaping, his front teeth broken. He didn’t move.
The boys stood up. Bertie retrieved Porky’s flashlight. He picked up the hatchet. It was wet with blood, but whether it had been chopped into the body of Porky he didn’t know. Perhaps it had only acquired blood from the wounds. Perhaps it hadn’t been used. Bertie looked at Carmie, who was pulling up his pants. He gestured with the hatchet.
“Did you chop him?” he asked.
“No! No, I didn’t,” Carmie declared. He buckled his belt. “C’mon, let’s get going!”
Bertie shone the light around the little dirt room, which now looked like nothing more than a littered garbage hole. The sprawled body inevitably added a suggestion of the grave.
“Maybe we should take some of his stuff,” Bertie suggested. The light fell on the stack of precious comic books, a wooden box filled with pop and beer, a deck of cards, some military medals and insignia.
“No! Leave it!” Carmie was possessed with anxious haste now. “Let’s go! Let’s get out before someone else comes!”
“Maybe we should cover him up,” Bertie said.
That idea seemed right. They began to scoop dirt and hurl magazines and scraps of blankets, junk, at the body. They got caught up in this frantic activity.
Finally, Carmie said, “That’s enough. Let’s go. Let’s go, let’s go.”
So they crawled, or rather scurried in a hunched duckwalk, through the passageway until they burst into the precious but blinding daylight. It was still a dull, overcast day, but it seemed bright to them after the darkness of the tunnel and oh, so blessedly welcome.
They ran from the site almost to the edge of the thinned woodlot before Bertie stopped.
“What?” Carmie said, looking back at him anxiously. “Let’s go! Let’s run.” He was frantic to be away.
“You know what we did?” Bertie said. “We killed him. We murdered him! He’s dead.” He looked around. It was early afternoon, he thought, almost like coming out of a movie matinee, but earlier.
The world seemed abandoned. There were few houses here. The men of this half-built community were all away, enlisted in the armed services or at work, and many of the wives were at work as well, in factories that made tanks and bombs and airplanes.
It seemed to Bertie that Porky White must have had some unusual reason not to be in school. He must have stayed home, ill perhaps, or, more likely, played hooky. There was no sign of his gang. So there was no great rush. Bertie was not exactly calm–how could he be?–but he was not panicked.
They were in trouble, though. He knew that. And something told him that the biggest part of his trouble was his cousin Carmie. The handsome lad was visibly shaken. They could not go home, not yet. There was no reason for them to go home. They weren’t expected. They had been shooed out to play, and normally that meant they would be outside until near dark, when Carmie’s mother would stand on the porch and call, over and over again, “Carmie! Bertie!” He talked to Carmie and got him to calm down.
They found a cold puddle of water, where Bertie was able to wash the blood and dirt off Carmie’s and his hands and faces and bare legs. The blood on their clothes he rubbed with dirt. Then they went for a walk. It was only a few blocks over to the railroad viaduct; they often played over there, although warned against it. They hung around there until a train came by and flattened some pennies they had put on the tracks. Then they walked to the filling station on Crooks Road and got a couple of Cokes and shared an Oh Henry! candy bar.
Carmie was in pretty good spirits by now. It was as if he had forgotten what had happened in the bunker. But as they walked back toward the neighborhood, Bertie pointed out some important things. When Porky White’s buddies got out of school they would go to the bunker and they would find their leader. The cops would be notified. They would question the gang boys, who would deny having killed Porky. Maybe the cops wouldn’t believe Porky’s friends, but they might also come around and question Carmie and Bertie, and any other kid who lived in the neighborhood. Maybe the cops had some way of knowing that Carmie and Bertie had been in the bunker. Maybe there were fingerprints or something. Bertie didn’t know. They had heard about fingerprints and stuff on the radio, in Gang Busters and The Shadow. Maybe there was something they didn’t even know about, that detectives could use to find out who had been in the tunnel. Maybe they would be caught.
Bertie wanted to alarm Carmie, because he was genuinely worried on just these lines, but he didn’t want him to be too scared. Still, he had to be scared enough to keep his mouth shut. And so he made him swear that, no matter what, he would say exactly what Bertie said, even if the cops split them up and asked them separately. And what they would say was that they had gone out playing, had gone to the viaduct, had put pennies on the tracks, and then went to get pop at the filling station. And that was that. They didn’t know what time it was because they didn’t have watches. One thing they hadn’t done, they hadn’t gone anywhere near the woods. They had always been told to stay away from old man Crooks’s woods, so they never went near. That was their story. Bertie wished he had thought to take the hatchet, to throw it away, down a sewer or something.
It began to rain.
This much of the story Umberto recalled with ease, even after fifty years. Indeed, he knew this story, at least to this point. There were other details, he was aware, but he had forgotten them. If he worked at it, however, he could recall–he thought–that nothing ever came of Porky’s murder, or death, or whatever you want to call it.
Did they ever find the body? He was not sure. He supposed they must have. Some time after this, it may have been within days or weeks or even months, they had moved away. He remembered his uncle Dom saying Crooks Woods wasn’t a good place for them to live and all the other grown-ups laughing. His other uncle was there, he recalled, Uncle Gags. That was his special uncle. Uncle Gags was somehow closer to him than Uncle Dom, Carmie’s dad, although he didn’t actually live with them. He came around a lot. Bertie didn’t know why, then.
The move may have had something to do with Porky. But he was sure that, at the time, he had not connected the events. Still, Uncle Gags had taken him aside at some point and asked some questions about Porky. He couldn’t remember what the questions were. It wasn’t anything like, Did you do this? Or even, What happened? Or, Were you there? Bertie’s answers apparently satisfied Uncle Gags.
Anyway, they moved. Bertie remembered feeling tremendously relieved, happy to move to the city, to the east side. He still lived with Carmie and his family. They were his family. Aunt Sophie was like the mother he’d never had. And then he didn’t remember much of anything until Uncle Gags’s funeral.
Uncle Gags had been killed, shot by another man. Lots of men came to the funeral, dressed in black suits. Very important men, it seemed. There were a lot of flowers; the body lay in a casket in the front room, dressed in a suit with a flower in the lapel, the hands crossed on the chest. The men drank whiskey and beer and smoked cigars. The women talked. There wasn’t much crying. The priest came and they all drove in big cars to the cemetery, where the casket was lowered into the ground. For some reason, Bertie was treated with some solicitude, which he didn’t understand at the time. Older women hugged him and said they pitied him. Men shook his hand and patted him on the back and shoulder and said he should be strong.
©2000 by Jon A. Jackson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.