Pierce Hale, Private Eye: Shoulder Pads and “Johnny Mop”

A late summer’s evening in post-war 1940′s Miami, and I guess you get so used to gunfire that after a while you don’t pay much attention to it. Unless, of course, the bullets hit the bricks above your head.

I reached out to grab my lady to pull her down.. but she was already lying on the sidewalk, arms over her head, waiting for the sharp raps of machine gun fire to subside.  The silence was as deafening as the shots, and in that dead quiet my ears picked up the sound of heavy feet on wet bricks fading down the alleyway; the shooter had run off on foot.  As normal sounds took over the street again, I helped Elizabeth back to her feet.

She looked down at her nylons and said nothing at first, seemingly shocked that they were not ripped.  The netting that fell from her fascinator askew, her coal black hair delightfully out of place, her crimson red dress dirty, and her matching wedged peep-toe shoes scuffed, and I couldn’t find a reason not to fall in love again, like a thousand times before. I’ve been caught daydreaming about Elizabeth Booth at awkward moments before, but I managed to snap out of this one quickly.

“Liz?” I touched her arm gently.  “It’s okay.  It’s over.  Elizabeth?”  She melted into my arms, light as air, as street life resumed.  The cars thundered by and a Buick Roadmaster caught my eye, sleek and shiny as it splashed through the puddles on Charles Street.  I should correct myself, the little man in the big suit driving the car caught my eye.  Shoulder pads so big I spotted them a half block away, or maybe it was his beady eyes as he coldly took in the scene; men and women in various stages of shock, one couple cradling a little girl in a pinafore who sobbed hysterically and clung to them for dear life, and dear God, two lifeless sacks of humanity on the street.  Shoulder Pads drove past with no apparent concern for the carnage.  I pushed Elizabeth gently from my arms and ran over to the bodies.

“Anyone know these two?” “Who are they?” echoed in my ears as I rolled them over.  As unrelated in death as they were in life, one was a well-dressed man in a blue chalkstripe double breasted suit, and the other; well, life had been unkind to the old dame, obviously homeless, wearing tattered rags, getting more attention in her passing then she ever did in her living days.

“Step aside, Pierce.” Oh boy, the cavalry was here. Rest easy everyone, Detective Joe Bord and his crew have this one covered.

“Anything for you, Officer Bord.”  I gave a flourish, complete with a sweep of my dirty brown fedora.

“Does anyone know anything about these people?” barked Bord to the crowd.

“Well, they were alive earlier, and now they are dead.” The crowd stirred uneasily at my comment, and Bord was not amused either.  Apparently, my choice to be a private eye and not a comedian was the right one.

Ignoring me, Bord asked all the rest of his questions by rote.  He wasn’t going to get any answers and he knew it; machine gun fire was all too normal in 1947 Miami and most people were too afraid to answer.   The coroner’s wagon, a battered Chevrolet, slid to a stop.  Two slow moving men got out and set about their grisly task.  Bord whispered something to one of them, and they glanced down the block.

Elizabeth had blown lightly up to me and touched my shoulder, quiet as a whisper.

Bord turned back to me, ignoring Elizabeth.  “Were you with this lady that was killed?

“What?  Why would I be with her?”  Poor lady had probably never seen an act of kindness in her life, much less had a date.

Elizabeth tugged at my sleeve as Bord said simply, “Pierce, I’m sorry.”  He went back to his business of throwing orders at the crew of the wagon.

“Pierce?” Elizabeth looked at me with pleading eyes.  “I’m scared.  I want to go home.”

“Ah, Elizabeth, it’s ok.  Come on.”   I had to push the crowd aside for Liz to pass, and we set off for her place on St. Paul Street.

The gumshoe in me said there was something about Shoulder Pads that deserved checking into.  He looked a little too nonchalant about seeing two people gunned down in front of him.  Maybe he was one of  Guy Rustsinger’s gang?

Yeah, I had never heard of him either until the last few years; no one ever thought the Mafia would touch Miami.  Seemed he was taking advantage of all the opportunities provided by a nation coming victorious out of a war; prostitution, gambling, night clubs and poker joints, he had his hand in every pie he could find. He came to power by strong arming his way to the top of janitorial services in just about every business in the city. Guy “Johnny Mop” Rustsinger was untouchable, even though he lit up city blocks with machine guns every now and then to stake his claim against smaller groups.  Seems he ruled with an iron fist; when his men were caught and questioned, they never ratted him out.  Ever.

I was willing to bet that the man shot tonight had something to do with him, maybe a two bit rival.  I’d call on Detective Bord down at the station in the morning and see what they found.

For now, I had the heartbreaking task of saying goodnight to my lady, still terrified and shivering in my arms as I kissed her goodnight and unlocked her door, shivering on a 70 degree Miami night.

“Goodnight, Miss Booth.  Go drink some tea; warm yourself up and calm yourself down.  It’s ok.”

She bit her lip.  “Pierce, I am not sure anything will be ok again. I need to tell you…”

I handed the keys to her and smiled as they slipped from her shaking fingers.  “Go.  Whatever it is, it can wait until morning.”  I slipped her keys into my pocket and shoved her gently into her apartment. “Get some rest.”  I kissed her forehead and walked off, longing for the day when I would never have to walk away from her again.

As I walked down the stairs, I saw him.  Shoulder Pads. Driving slowly past, no, finding a parking spot at the curb half a block down on St. Paul Street.  I might have some questions for him in the morning, but for now, it would have to wait.  He got out of the car and, for the second time that night, our eyes met.  He smiled at me, took his fingers and made a gun, and said, “Boom.”  Laughing, he walked up the marble steps and disappeared into the doorway of his penthouse.

To be continued…

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A determined contributor to the memory and preservation of a decade.

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