Tim Bryant is an author who came to our attention through Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale. Like Joe, he has a unique voice that fits with his characters, especially when it comes to postwar Fort Worth P.I. Dutch Curridge. Tim was kind enough to write an original Dutch story for our Crime Fiction Friday.
Bullet and Bell
by Tim Bryant
I always said my three favorite sounds in the whole world were Lester Young’s saxophone, Lefty Frizzell’s singing and Ruthie Nell Porter saying anything but goodbye. So when Harold “Money” Johnson was playing with Cozy Cole at the Rose Room and took a stray bullet to the bell of his trumpet, mid solo, I took it personal. If word got out that the Rose Room had become a health hazard, Lester wouldn’t book the place again. I couldn’t have that.
The bullet that brought Money’s solo to an abrupt end was, in fact, the third to fly, and it’s a wonder none of them left a body on the dance floor. It seemed, at first, that the culprit managed to miss anything and everything, not counting the poster-covered clapboard wall behind the bandstand and Money’s horn. However, after the crowd moved out into the parking lot and started to disperse, my partner Slant Face Sanders discovered a smeared pool of blood, almost black against the oak floor.
“Look at this, Dutch,” he said.
The night manager, a guy named Hank Porter, came over and pushed the tip of his umbrella around in it, an umbrella he’d already used to usher a few slow moving patrons out into the cool October air.
“Don’t tell me someone was hit.”
I bent down and looked. The blood was fresh. There was a footprint through it, but that might have been anyone. Looked like a worker’s boot.
“Maybe not enough to kill anybody, Hank,” I said, “but I doubt it’s a dancing injury.”
Money Johnson was sitting in a metal chair just inside the kitchen area. Cozy Cole was standing over him, holding the damaged horn under the light.
“Will you looky here?”
Money didn’t even make a motion to look, but a couple of the other guys gathered around, and I followed. Cole was pointing at a half-inch crack in the bell.
“Didn’t punch through, Mon,” he said. “You got yourself a genuine Liberty Bell.”
“Yeah, ain’t hardly playable now,” said one of the other guys, I think the alto sax.
Something caught my eye, and I asked to take a look at it. Cole looked at Hank and Hank nodded, so he handed it to me with both hands outstretched, like he was expecting me to try to play it. It was lighter than I expected. I held the horn down in front of me and carefully turned it. I pointed at a place just inside the bell.
“Small caliber bullet,” I said. “Hit right here and deflected.”
“Mon, you lucky you didn’t suck the damn thing up,” Cole said.
Money shook his head and took a drink from a glass of scotch that had just been sat in front of him by the barkeep.
“Look at this,” I said, and held the trumpet, bell up, toward him. “Not your blood, is it?”
There was an almost unnoticeable stain under the bell. You had to be looking for it to see it.
“I don’t think so,” Money said, and looked at his hands. There was a cut on the small finger of his left hand where the horn had been ripped out of his hand, but it seemed highly remote that his finger had time or opportunity to make any contact with the inside of the horn.
“I’d say your bullet passed through somebody before it hit your trumpet,” I said. “Slowed it down just enough to not do any major damage.”
Money shook his head.
“I’m sorry, sir, but it did plenty of damage. Horn ain’t worth shit like this.”
I handed it back to him.
“I’m talking about damage to you.”
The bullet had passed clean through somebody on the dance floor, which explained the blood, and then had crossed over the stage, right past Cozy Cole, taking out the trumpet and, no doubt, lodging in the interior wall to the right side of the stage. I sent the barkeep to hunt it down.
I walked out to check the parking lot and surrounding streets. Any car left after the show that didn’t belong to the band or staff very possibly belonged to the injured party. I knew it was likely he wouldn’t feel up to driving. Of course, if he had friends who helped him leave the scene, it was also possible that he’d given the keys to one of them. Still, it was something to go on.
It was the first time I’d had a chance to talk with Slant.
“We’ve gotta keep this under control,” I said.
He didn’t have to ask why. Or how.
“You better solve it before it hits the papers then,” he said.
That way, they get the beginning and end of the story at the same time. Case closed. Story over.
“If we can get the story to Ruthie Nell, we can get her to downplay it,” I said.
Ruthie Nell Porter was our connection at the Fort Worth Press. On most nights, she would have also been my partner at the Rose Room, but she was working on deadlines for the Sunday edition. The Press was the little kid on the block, always fighting to grab headlines from the big boys over at the Star-Telegram. Ruthie was also the girl after my own heart, even if she didn’t know it.
The only cars on the street that we couldn’t account for was a cream-colored milk truck pulling away from a house on Commerce and a black ’51 Mercury Monterey parked in front of Ward’s Drugs. Neither held my interest. I wrote down the tags on the Monterey, just in case I needed to run them later, and we headed back to the club feeling less than hopeful.
As we crossed Houston and headed toward Ninth Street, I kicked at a rock and thought I saw a blood spill on the sidewalk. Paint. I booted the rock out into the street and watched a city bus drive over it.
“He could’ve taken a bus,” Slant said.
“The victim could’ve been a she,” I said. “There were just as many women out on the floor.”
Had somebody shown up and found his girl dancing with somebody else? Three shots, the first two going into the wall and the third hitting a target suggested that maybe the killer had shot wildly, finally found his target and then made a hasty exit.
“Or the gunman could’ve been a girl,” I said. “Gunwoman.”
“We could check the hospitals,” Slant said.
There were two Negro hospitals serving Fort Worth, and there was little chance that either one would release information to two white guys showing up in the middle of the night, no matter how many badges I flashed. Only white people they were used to seeing were men sneaking in for treatment of syphilis. I didn’t syphilis, and I didn’t have my badge, on account of it being out of date.
I wasn’t sure what else we could do.
“News like this gets out, Prez’ll never book Fort Worth again,” I said.
I found another rock in my path, kicked it extra hard and listened to it ricochet off a metal storefront sign and echo down the empty street.
Hank Porter was standing in the Rose Room parking lot, swinging a flashlight like he was bringing an airplane down Houston Street. Back on the southeast end of the lot, following away from the loading doors until it disappeared ten feet away, was a trail of congealed blood.
“They either disappeared into thin air right about here or somebody picked them up,” he said, pointing to where the blood ended.
“They left by the loading exit,” Slant said.
“Means they probably got out ahead of the crowd,” I said.
I looked around. Most of the spaces around us were still occupied.
“These all employees?”
Hank looked around and nodded.
“They all still here?”
I could see him counting with his eyes. He nodded again.
“You guys are off the clock,” he said. “That means you can go the hell home.”
He looked around at the handful of workers trying their best not to look like they were listening.
“Who’s missing?” I said.
I was looking at the barkeep. He seemed surprised. He wiped his forehead with his towel and glanced around.
“Nobody I guess.”
I turned and saw one of the waitresses standing in the exit.
“Claudia?” I said.
“Claudia Franklin,” Hank said. “I don’t think there’s any way Claudia could be the guilty party, Dutch.”
I didn’t disagree.
“She married?” I said.
“No, but she’s courting somebody,” the waitress said.
“There’s your guilty party, Hank,” I said.
I wasn’t always so sure of myself, but I had a strong hunch.
“Aron is seeing Claudia.”
One of the club bouncers stepped up to me and grimaced. He was a good foot taller than me and outweighed me by eighty pounds. Looked like a wrestler.
“Who would Aron be?” I said.
Hank stepped between us like a referee in a boxing ring.
“Dutch, this is Raymond,” he said. “Aron is his big brother.”
Slant Face tried to suppress a laugh.
“She got an old beau?” I said. “Someone who might be sore that she’s taken up with the big brother?”
Someone who knew a gun would be his only decent shot, if he could manage to get a decent shot off.
“Darrell Ray Fletcher,” said the waitress. “He’s caused trouble before.”
We find Darrell Ray Fletcher, I figured we found the finger that pulled the trigger. With Slant Face along for support, I didn’t foresee any problem shaking a confession out of him. No one knew exactly where he was from, but the waitress was pretty sure he lived on Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania’s trouble, Dutch,” Porter said. “You want, I can send Raymond with you.”
I said Pennsylvania Avenue was nothing of the sort. Any high-falutin resident along that area of town— called the Gold Coast for its collection of nice homes, even if there was no coast within three hundred miles— would be even less enthusiastic about appearing in the crime section of the Press than the bums down on Ninth Street. Raymond the bouncer would have come in handy, but I didn’t think I needed him. Slant and I had walked halfway back to my car, a green 1932 Austin Chummy, when I had a sudden thought.
“Go on ahead,” I told him. “Meet you at the Chummy. I forgot one thing.”
I walked back across the empty lot and up to the exit door, which was now pulled to, with just a beam of light falling out across the dark, landing inches from the place where the last bit of blood had been spilled. I stuck my head back into the club and found the waitress pulling her overcoat on and grabbing her purse.
“One more question, ma’am,” I said. “This Fletcher fella. He wouldn’t happen to work for Meadow Gold, would he?”
She cocked her head and smiled.
“You’re pretty good, Mr. Curridge. His father’s the dairy manager there.”
My three favorite sounds might have been Lester Young’s sax, Lefty Frizzell’s singing, and Ruthie Nell’s laugh, but right behind those was the sweet sound of success. I didn’t get paid a dime for solving the shooting at The Rose Room in October of 1952, but remembering that the Meadow Gold milk truck didn’t run at night was good for a free front row table when The Lester Young Trio played the Rose Room in early December of that year. That was worth everything plus tax.
As Lester leaned into his sax and began chasing notes around and around “Almost Like Being in Love,” a little waitress I’d never seen before came by and left a Jack Daniels and Dr Pepper and a gin sour on the table.
“Mr. Porter says it’s on the house.”
Jack and Dr Pepper. My drink of choice. I thanked her.
“So you’re a cop,” she said.
“I don’t work for nobody but myself,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “The newspaper said you was the law.”
“Course, I’m the law,” I said. Sheriff, private eye, bouncer at The Rose Room. We’re all cops if you’re trying to get away with something.
Ruthie Nell picked up her glass, stirred and clinked it against mine. She looked incredible that evening, and the band was absolutely breath-taking. Or maybe it was the other way around. I took a long draw on my drink and let it all go to my head.