Blues For Miss Annabelle
Before I could react, his hands were around Nick’s throat.
“You psycho!” Nick said, as I was clawing Dave off of him.
“Dave, back off!” I said.
“The lying bastard’s saying Dominic cheated on Norah.”
“Given everything else about the guy, why’s that so hard for you to believe?”
“But . . . Norah?”
Dave and Norah were so close it was as if the Virgin Mother had somehow been soiled.
I pulled him away and held him until he calmed down.
“I’m done,” Nick said, rubbing his throat.
“Keep going,” Dave said.
“Why, so you can rip my heart out next time?”
“Go ahead, Nick,” I said. “I have him.
“Anyway,” Nick continued. “The ball’s about to drop when they start squabbling. More than a squabble, actually. Kind of heated. Next thing I know she gets up from the table steaming and heads for the plywood bandstand. It was time for her next number, before they break into Auld Lang Syne. Someone To Watch Over Me.”
He lifted the tumbler to his lips and downed the scotch in one gulp.
“The piano player gets up from his bench, puts his arms around her, and plants one on her mouth. She kinda gets into it. And the cop is watching.”
“And getting more and more pissed,” my brother said..
Nick nodded. “The ball drops, lights go out, and everyone in the club’s hugging and kissing. I get busy making sure the money’s in the till, and when I turn around. They’re gone.”
“What do you mean gone?” my brother said.
“Like in not there. Miss Annabelle. The piano player. The cop. Gone. The next morning they found her body. Took a header off the roof. Pity. She had some set of pipes. Could really sing. What you heard was her only recording. Did it with Oscar Peterson. He thought she could sing too.”
“I’m not wrong then. The cop was Dominic,” my brother said.
“And the piano player was Elbert Landry,” I said.
“How come I never knew this?” my brother said.
“No reason. Barely made the papers.”
“And I was in Saudi Arabia.”
“Right. No way either of you would know.”
“So, Dominic sees her all lovey dovey with the black guy, throws her off the roof, and for good measure breaks Landry’s fingers.” He turned to me. “What a pip!”
“I never said that,” Nick said. “There were no witnesses, and the case went cold. Still is.”
“And I’m sure Dominic had his hand in that one.”
“It gets worse,” Nick said. “Not only did his fingers get truly screwed, your father arrested him the next day for drug possession. Landry wound up doing an eight-year bit in Attica.”
“And when he came out,” I said. “The best he could do was a shine box.”
Nick nodded. “That’s pretty much it. Poor bastard.”
“So,” my brother said. “Miss Annabelle tells Dominic to take a hike cause she was moving into the rest of her life, and he frisbees her off the roof. For good measure, he makes sure Landry’ll never work again. Classic Dominic!”
“I warned you but you wouldn’t listen,” Nick said.
“Did you ever speak to Landry about his version of what happened?” I said.
“Nope. Nick said. Let the dead bury the dead.”
Dave got up from the table. His smile was cold. “And I’m supposed to be the bum,” he said.
“Where’re you going?” I said.
“Home. Make peace with Franny. Hug my kids. Had enough for one night.” He looked outside. Snow’s really coming down. Want a lift?”
I shook my head. “It’s just a few blocks away. I need the walk.”
He threw his arms around me. “Some New Year’s Eve,” he said.”
“One for the books.”
“Miss Annabelle didn’t love him. Had to be the freak show thing.”
“Yeah. That was it.”
“Get home safe.”
I read somewhere that the best way to enrage people was to force them to change their mind. Even when faced with the truth. My brother’s memories of Dominic Steeg were set in concrete, and would forever be his daily sustenance.
But it wasn’t mine.
After Dave left I asked Nick where Landry was headed.
“Times Square. Where he goes every year on the anniversary of Miss Annabelle’s death. Why?”
“Happy New Year, Nick.”
When I was a kid, Times Square was the center of my universe. Theaters that looked like cathedrals inside. And jazz clubs with their doors open so you could stand on the sidewalk and listen to the music for free. A magical place flaming with neon. But its soul was the street corner preachers trolling for sinners. Hookers and grifters prowling for marks. And crazies baying at the moon.
The Emerald City gone haywire.
But now, well after midnight, with the tourists gone, the teens back home in the Boroughs, and its lights painting the night sky gold, Times Square looked for all the world like a snow globe.
I spotted Landry sitting on his box in front of Eddie Dweck’s Bargain Bonanza. A single white rose lay at his feet.
“How’re you doing, Mister Landry?”
His lips curled into a smile. “Mister Steeg. What brings you here?”
“Just had a long talk with Nick. Told me why you come here every year.”
He looked out at the empty streets. “Beautiful spot, ain’t it? Everything’s quiet as a church. Snow makes it even prettier. Testament to God’s Glory.”
“Want to talk about it?” I said.
“His Glory? Heck, I can go on all night about that.”
I shook my head. “I heard Nick’s version of the story. I’d like to hear yours.”
“Because it has to do with my family. And there’re things I need to know. Holes that need to be filled.”
“What did he say?”
I told him.
“Fine man, Mister Nick. But what he told you is only a piece of it.”
He picked up the rose.
“This was Miss Annabelle’s favorite. Nothing but white roses would do. But it appears this is the last one she’ll ever get from me.”
“I’m not following, Mister Landry.”
He patted his stomach.
“Doctors down at Bellevue say it’s my pancreas. Cancer eatin’ it up. Give me a couple of months. At the outside.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that, sir.”
“Don’t be. Just God’s way of balancing the scales.”
“For what I did to Miss Annabelle.”
The cold was bitter, but I realized I was sweating.
“Care to tell me about it?”
“Why not? Don’t matter none now. Gonna pass soon. You’ve always treated me with respect, and I appreciate it. ‘Sides, maybe it’ll earn me some marks on the other side.”
The wind picked up banking the snow high up on the sides of the buildings.
“Why don’t we get out of the cold and go someplace warm?”
He shook his head. “Gonna miss the cold. All clean, and pure as a baby’s soul. Just breathin’ it in’s a blessing.”
He looked off into the distance.
“Didn’t mean for it to happen,” he said. “But sometimes lots of things happen by themselves.”
“They surely do,” I said.
“But not what I did. We finished the last set and the boys were packing up. Miss Annabelle said she was going up on the roof to have a cigarette. Room was smoky as hell. Looked like we were in the middle of a cloud. But she wanted to go up to the roof. Can you beat that? Wanted to get away from the smoke to have a smoke.” he said with a laugh. “Your father had left by then. Seems they had a spat. I followed her up.”
“Figured it was an opportunity. You see, I truly loved her. Told her so. But she was having none of that. Told me your father was her man. Told me he loved her. And she loved him. They were gonna get married. And that was the way of it.”
I remained silent, and just let him talk.
“I told Miss Annabelle he was just usin’ her, and would never leave his wife. Made her angry. One thing led to another and she slapped me. And she was fixin’ to do it again. And something inside of me snapped.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “The next thing I knew I had my hands on her, and she went flying off the roof. Landed right where you’re standing.”
I took his fingers in my hand. “Did my father do that?”
“Yes sir. He knew I killed Miss Annabelle, but couldn’t prove it. No witnesses. No nothing. But he knew. Told me he loved her and said I’d have to pay. Was real honest about things. Stuck my fingers in his car door. Planted the drugs too. I had it coming. And never held it against him.”
“Even though he ended your career and put you in prison? Hard to believe, Mister Landry.”
“One way or another things got to be made right.”
“You’re a better man than I am, sir.”
“No I ain’t. Not by a long shot. Just happy to clear my conscience.”
He got to his feet. “I’m ready,” he said.
“Never thought I’d end my life in prison. Been there once. Don’t want to go back. But accounts have to be settled while the sun’s still shining on my face.”
“You want me to arrest you?”
“It would be a blessin’.”
I shook my head. “Go on home, Mister Landry. The books were closed a long time ago.”
“Kind of you to say that.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
He thought about it for a very long time. “Maybe one thing.”
“I truly did love that woman. And neither of us got any family. Do you think Miss Annabelle would mind if I was buried next to her? We all need someone to watch over us, don’t we?”
It was a question that begged for an answer. But I was fresh out.
Landry tapped the toe of Nick’s shoe, took a long look at my beat up army boots, then raised his head and threw me a truly baleful look.
“These fine boots haven’t seen polish since Jesus was a baby, Mister Steeg. That calf was someone’s child, and you didn’t treat it with respect. Shame on you!”
“That’s been his problem all his life, Mister Landry,” my brother said.
It was like watching a master craftsman at work. Brown polish was forced into the cracked leather’s every nook and cranny. Then he brushed it in, sprayed it with a fine mist of water, hit it with the cloth, and did it four more times. Layering the polish on, applying the brush, and shpritzing it with water. With a final snap of the cloth he was finished.
“Good as new,” he said, looking up at me. “Now you take care of them, and they’ll take care of you.”
“Best shine I ever had,” I said, meaning every word.
“That’s what all my customers say,” he said. “Elbert’s the only man in this damned city gonna make your feet smile.”
I was tempted to ask him how his fingers came to resemble corkscrews, but my mother Norah’s thick brogue bounced around in my head. When you call attention to a man’s infirmity it’s the same as putting a stumbling block in front of the blind.
Since she was the only voice of sanity in the family, I tended to pay attention.
Landry stowed his cloth in the box, and wiped his hands on his jeans. “Gotta get on my way now. Thank you gentlemen for your bidness.”
“How about a drink for the New Year, or something to eat?” I said.
“Nope. Gotta be on my way.”
A new record dropped onto the Wurlitzer’s turntable. Oscar Peterson’s rendition of Someone To Watch Over Me.
Landry was packing the cans of polish in his box when a vocalist broke into the opening bars of the song. Her voice was sweet and smoky, and vaguely familiar.
“Sounds like a young Ella Fitzgerald,” I said.
“Ain’t Ella. Name’s Annabelle Thomas. White gal. Sang black,” Nick said.
“Never heard of her,” I said.
“She was around a bit. Never really hit the big time, though.”
From the corner of my eye I noticed that Landry had stopped what he was doing, and stood stock still staring at the Wurlitzer.
I went up to him and put my arm around his shoulders.
“Are you all right, sir?
He hefted the shine box on his back and straightened up as best he could.
“Gotta go,” Landrey said. “Like I said. One more stop to make.”
And he shuffled out the door into the night.
“What the hell was that all about?” Dave said.
“You heard the man,” Nick said. “It was time to split.”
“Everything was fine until he heard that song. What happened?” I said.
“Everybody has a story,” Nick said.
“Forget about it. Not important.”
“You don’t just lay it out there and then say it’s not a big deal,” my brother said.
“Trust me. You don’t want to hear it.”
My brother’s eyes narrowed. “Let me be the judge of that,” he said.
Nick pulled a bottle off the table and took a deep slug.
“Some years ago I had a piece of an after hours club in Times Square. Right across the street from the Camel billboard. You remember. The guy on the billboard blew these eighty-foot high smoke rings?”
“I know the spot,” my brother said.
“Place was a porn supply business, but the city closed it down. Guy was a degenerate horse player. Couldn’t pick a winner in a one horse race. And I held his markers, so he had to be creative. Turns out he had ties to the music industry, so we turned the place into a club and called in some favors. And all the names showed up.”
“What’s this got to do with Landry?” I said.
“I’m getting to that. It was New Year’s Eve just about the time you were on your way to Irag, Steeg. Times Square is packed to the gills waiting for the ball to drop, and the club is jumping. The act that night was a trio led by a black piano player everyone thought was the second coming of Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock, all rolled into one. The singer was Annabelle Thomas. Went by Miss Annabelle.”
“The gal on the record.”
“Right. The thing was, the piano player had the hots for her. But she had her eye on another guy. An NYPD Detective.”
I had the feeling Nick was right. I really didn’t want to hear the rest of the story.
“I’d seen them at the club a lot. Holding hands. Whispering in each other’s ears. Laughing. Real cozy. Carrying on like teenagers. She was half his age, but it didn’t seem to matter.”
He cracked open a bottle of scotch and filled a tumbler to the brim.
I looked over at my brother. His port wine stain was getting a workout.
And then it happened.
Blues For Miss Annabelle is a prequel to the Jackson Steeg Mystery Series. It originally appeared in Crime Square, an anthology edited by Robert Rendisi.
Elbert Landry paced up and down the street outside of Feeney’s, a Hell’s Kitchen saloon, pausing every now and again to study the CLOSED sign as if it were written in runes. Not surprising. It was the first time in memory that the joint was closed down on New Year’s Eve. That this was the Millenium made it even more shocking.
Courtesy of Nick D’Amico the proprietor, and my brother’s top gunman, there was a private New Year’s Eve party in progress. My brother Dave and I were the honored guests. Tinsel hung from the ceiling, jazz blared from the Wurlitzer, and Jeroboams of champagne graced the table. Landry had to have seen us. But my guess was he didn’t want to intrude on all the fun we appeared to be having.
Trouble is, appearances are often wrong.
He had skin the color of café au lait, a cap of salt and pepper hair, sad, dark eyes, and a face deeply etched with a network of creases. Standing up straight he was about six feet tall. But a lifetime spent hunched over other men’s feet had left him bent and stoop shouldered. The last of a vanishing breed of itinerant shoeshine men, Landry lived in the Kitchen, but earned his living shuffling through Times Square with his box strapped to his back. When he sized up a potential customer, he would quickly slip into his carnival barker’s rap.
“Shoes got to look as good as the rest of you,” he would say with a broad smile, snapping his cloth with fingers that were twisted and bent like twigs. “Think of the poor animal that give up his hide so you can go sportin’ around town with the ladies. One dollar buy you the best shine you ever seen. Make your feet smile.”
I couldn’t figure out how he was able to grasp the shine cloth. But he did, making the cloth snap and pop with the rhythm of a jazz riff.
Why he was standing in a foot of snow outside of Feeney’s, a Hell’s Kitchen Saloon, a half hour before the ball dropped in Times Square was incomprehensible. And why I was sitting inside of Feeney’s all warm and cozy was equally unfathomable. Curled up on my sofa watching an infomercial marathon would have been far more pleasurable than spending most of the evening listening to Dave and Nick go on about the miserable turn their lives had taken.
Turns out, the women we loved – or thought we did – didn’t have the decency to return the favor. My ex-wife Ginny decided she didn’t want anything to do with a guy who spent his days on the job with the NYPD, and his nights swimming inside a bottle of Johnny B. My brother and his wife Franny were on the outs. Again. Seems she didn’t think a gangster was a proper role model for their kids. And Nick’s wife had left for sunnier, more amenable climes. Something about his marital indiscretions.
But pretty soon the conversation took a nasty turn, and it was no longer about the women in our lives.
“I flat out loathed the son of a bitch,” my brother said, rubbing the port wine stain on his cheek. Definitely a sign he was working into an epic lather.
The son of a bitch he had in mind was our father, Dominic Steeg. A former NYPD Detective, who hastened the shuffling off of his mortal coil by eating his gun.
New Year’s Eve is supposed to be that one brief moment when you reach up into the night sky, fill your pockets with handfuls of stars, and hope that they keep shimmering for the next twelve months. But on this night my pockets were empty, and I found myself actually praying that God would pull one of his famous miracles and make the ball drop ahead of schedule. It didn’t seem like much to ask. But deep down I knew star-plucking was off the table. And Dominic was back on.
“What’s the point, Dave?” I said.
“That I’m on the right side of the dirt, and he isn’t.”
I had been down this road with my brother too often. Couldn’t disagree with him. Dominic was a congenital bastard. But enough was enough. I glanced over at Nick who had tuned Dave out. I figured he had heard it all before, too. But that wasn’t the reason. His attention was focused on Landry.
“Who needs a shine on a night like this?” he said, mercifully changing the subject.
My brother followed his gaze. “Man’s gotta earn a living. Invite him in.”
Nick went to the door, flipped the lock, and brought Landry to our table. He shrugged the snow off his thin jacket and set his box down in front of my brother.
“How you doin’, Mister Dave?” he said.
“Just fine, Mister Landry. What brings you out on a night like this?”
“Goin’ about my bidness when I happened by. Saw the place was closed and you gentleman sittin’ inside, but I heard Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet drifting out into the street and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Man could play, Couldn’t he? ‘Sides, I gotta pee. Cold shrinks your bladder up to the size of a pecan. Thought you wouldn’t mind if I used the facility.”
“You know where it is,” Nick said, gesturing toward the back with his thumb.
In a few minutes Landry was back.
“Didn’t know you gentleman were into old timey jazz,” he said.
“I’m not,” Dave said. “But Nick and Steeg are.”
“One of the reasons I bought the place. All the old time greats played here when it was a speakeasy.”
“Just not my kind of music, I guess,” Dave said, with a shrug.
“That’s a shame Mister Dave. When you hear Ellington, or Lionel on the vibes, or Benny’s fingers runnin’ up and down that clarinet, it’s like listenin’ to the voice of God.”
My brother smiled.
“Don’t need a shine tonight, Mister Landry,” Dave said, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a roll, peeled off a crisp hundred-dollar bill, and handed it to him. “But happy New Year to you, my friend!”
Landry waved the money off. “Ain’t lookin’ for charity, Mister Dave,” he said with quiet dignity. “I work for my money.” Then his face creased into a sly grin. “Shine’s a dollar. But how much you tip is up to you.”
Dave went back into his pocket, peeled off three singles and two more hundreds, and laid them on the shine box. “Looks like I’m buying for the house,” he said.
As Landry went about his work my brother continued with the theme of the evening.
“Steeg, you went to college. Makes you the smart one in the family. What makes a man like Dominic turn into a monster?”
It was an interesting question in the way that venomous creatures are fascinating to study, but you sure don’t want to get too close. Dominic used his sons as heavy bags, and his wife as a scrap of toilet paper under the sole of his shoe. The man was devoid of love, compassion, empathy, and any other emotion that distinguishes us from the lower orders of life. The only thing that seemed to give him pleasure was instilling fear in those weaker than he.
“Best I can come up with is there was a glitch in his wiring,” I said. “Not terribly satisfying I know, but . . .”
“Least we didn’t turn out like him,” my brother said.
Now that was a truly stunning comment from a guy who earns his living through loan sharking, hijacking, extortion, and such. And is waist deep in the misery these activities engender. For Dave the resulting anguish is just a part of doing business. Collateral damage. For our father misery was the point.
I noticed that Landry was hard at work, but he was listening very closely.
He tapped the toe of Dave’s shoe signaling he was done, and moved on to Nick.
“What I don’t understand is why Norah married the nightmare?” My brother said. “She was kind and loving. Yet she took this scorpion into her bed.”
I was tired, and cranky, and ready to call it a night. The last thing I wanted was to have this conversation. Again.
“Who knows why people do the things they do? And let’s not overly gild her family’s lily. Her father was a stone drunk – a legacy I clearly inherited - who got run over by a cart as he lay in the middle of the road somewhere in County Kerry when she was a kid. Her mother died a few years later. And then it was off to America, cleaning other women’s houses.”
“So you’re saying it was simple economics.”
“No,” I said. “Just throwing out the possibility. Think about it. He was a cop. That meant status. Steady income. Not a bad looking guy. Sometimes you settle.”
“Then why didn’t she walk when he’d come home half in the bag and touch us up?”
“Where was she gonna go, Dave? It was a different time. She had no money of her own. There weren’t any shelters. Plus, he was a cop. And they stick together. Who’d give a shit about anything she’d say?”
“I’m not buying it.”
“Then try this one out. Why is it some people are attracted to freak shows while others go to museums?”
As he thought about it the skin on his face tightened into something resembling a rictus.
“Are you saying she was . . .?
“Not saying anything. Just trying to answer your question. Remember, you’re the one who began this trip down memory lane.”