Act Two, Scene I, Part 1

by Pierre Anton Taylorheadlines A2S1p1

The tattered crime scene tape in front of the shuttered candy store fluttered in the brisk wind. Dirty snow piled up along the curb and in shallow drifts against the brick wall of the old Battery Works now scrubbed clean of graffiti and ivy creepers. Wayne Bruce steered his black 1960 Plymouth Fury out of the secure gate and turned onto Central driving the few blocks to Basin Avenue. The tall steeple of Second Emanuel Sanctified Church in the distance on the crosstown thoroughfare stood out like a stiletto against the expanse of a steel gray wintery sky. He turned into the chain link fence enclosed parking lot adjacent to the historic old church. A small group of people were gathered out front dressed in dark overcoats and hats, some held purses, dabbed their eyes, spoke somberly, and shook their heads in sorrow.

He recognized one of them as Bion and apparently, by the wave of his prosthesis, he had been recognized. He parked at the far end under the basketball hoop that served as a half court when the lot was empty. On the other side of the fence was the windowless brick expanse at the back of the St. George Gospel Mission. He locked and set the alarm to his classic car before heading to the front of the church and the awaiting mourners. It was his second funeral in a month, and for someone else he held a deep affection. It made him angry. It made him mad.

Bion Ripley, in a brown suit and sober red tie, acknowledged the troubled countenance with a nod and said, “Come on up, they’re just about to start.”

By the entrance to the old wooden church a tattered lightbox marquee proclaimed in bold black letters, Funeral, Mr. Richard Richards. Beneath the name of the church and affirmation of its history, Est. 1922, Reverend Warren Locke, Pastor was simply stated. The funeral goers were mostly elderly, some attended by younger relatives or caregivers. He and Bion appeared to be the youngest of the mourners in attendance, and Bion was easily a decade older. His presence was noticed and he was side eyed and blinked at curiously.

Despite the fact  that he should have been honoring the memory of the avuncular Mr. Rick, he was puzzling over his meeting with Charlotte Taste and what she hadn’t told him of his father’s last hours.

After introducing himself from the pulpit to those gathered there who knew very well who he was yet the occasion called for formality, the Reverend talked about travelling through the valley of death before seeing the light of salvation.

Wayne let his gaze wander across the sparse yet tastefully appointed vestibule, the large gold cross set up against the back toward the peak of the roof where a set of amber windows let in a celestial light, the spare marble altar, nothing more than a marble slab crossed by a white linen runner.

The Reverend declaimed what a selfless decent man Richard Richards was, cantankerous at times, but someone you could count on to do the right thing, a man with a strong sense of justice. “Alas, poor old Rick, we knew him well!” he exclaimed

A loud noise sounded at the back of the church as if something heavy had fallen. Wayne craned a glance over his shoulder. An older woman in a shabby brown overcoat and round fur hat pushing a walker tried to maneuver into a pew at the back accompanied by a slender young woman in a short leather jacket, tight jeans, and dark knit cap pulled down even with her brow. She stared back glowering, insolent, at those turning at the commotion. The reverend had not missed a beat and cued the choir of five women and two men dressed in similar vestments to start in on their version of Amazing Grace.

Wayne knew he’s seen that angry glare before but events of the previous day intruded. Despite the fact  that he should have been honoring the memory of the avuncular Mr. Rick, he was puzzling over his meeting with Charlotte Taste and what she hadn’t told him of his father’s last hours.

They had met at Ciro’s, the trendy upscale eatery in the Pavilion Arcade, the equally upscale shopping district a few block from his downtown penthouse at the Legacy. She had been sitting alone at a table for two overlooking the promenade behind the restaurant’s plate glass panorama. Blonde, strikingly beautiful in a dark linen pants suit, a puffy fox fur coat draped over the back of her chair, she looked serious, almost sad, and maybe a little tense, not the customary nonchalance of the wealthy she usually exhibited. She’d given him a wistful smile when she saw him approaching.

As he seated himself opposite her, she’d said. “Black suits you, but you’ve always worn black haven’t you?” with a crooked smile. “It’s like you’re in perpetual mourning.” She could be cruel. And she’d seemed refreshed, combative, as she always did when she just returned from cures and which indicated that she had been using again and felt the need for her periodical “oil change.”  But then she had the money to accommodate her whims..

He’d answered with, “perhaps you’re right,” and then asked if she had met with his father the evening of his death. At the Joker’s Wild?

She’d denied it, tilting her head to the left to make the calculation, averting her eyes. That he knew about her encounter was clearly unexpected, and she sought to deflect when he told her he had a witness.

“You’re crazy,” she snapped. “You have no idea what you’re talking about! Whoever witnessed what they think they observed in the club parking lot saw me with an older man, not a usual club goer, and you automatically made the leap that it was your father. It wasn’t your sainted father, Wayne, it was my former guardian, Linus Pall.” Then she’d set her jaw as that was all she was going to say.

“It’s all your fault!” The voice, angry, a woman’s, came from behind him.

Linus Pall, lawyer and medical doctor, had leveraged himself onto various boards across the business and non-profit community, famously as a deal maker and fixer, although no one could ever accuse him of practicing either medicine or law. He was old Dad’s confidant and to keep it confidential, his lawyer. And he was always ready with the right medical advice or prescription. As he was also Lotte’s doctor, he had once been her and her brother’s guardian as executor of the Taste Estate before they’d reached their majority. She’d admitted that he had confronted her on her relapse into drug use that evening, and that she’d promised to reenter the clinic, of which he was the founder and director. And then the old man had died. She’d waited until after the funeral to go in for the cure. She’d been incognito and not answering calls over the last few weeks. And now after the necessary transfusions, she felt much better.

At the level unemotional gaze of one who understands they’re being lied to and the heavy silence of disbelief, she felt compelled to offer an explanation. It was just by chance that she was in the parking lot partying with a few friends when Pall’s limo had driven by and he’d recognized her—there had been a pile up on the Arnold Expressway and the driver had taken a short cut to their destination on the surface streets through the warehouse district where the club was located. They’d waved and giggled when the limo came around to stop in front of them thinking that a celebrity had arrived to go clubbing. She’d been startled almost sober when she’d faced an angry Linus Pall who proceed to berated her in front of her friends. He’d told her that if he hadn’t been in such a hurry for an urgent meeting he’d have shipped her off to the clinic immediately. And then he left. There were other men in the back of the limo, businessmen she thought, and one of them was old Dad.

After the choir’s soulful rendition of Mary Don’t You Weep, Reverend Locke extracted a final “Amen” from the gathering and the congregation stirred from their mourning pews and shook themselves to their feet, a few with audible moans and grunts, and straggled back down the aisle toward the exit. Wayne and Bion rising from their pew exchanged glances with the understanding that there was more to talk about outside.

The Reverend was already at the portal greeting several of the mourners that he knew, shaking hands, blessing them, shaking hands, thanking them. He smiled large when Wayne approached, extending both hands in fraternal greeting. “Mr. Bruce, so nice of you to come. Mr. Richards would certainly appreciate the honor of your presence at his memorial.”

The Reverend’s squeaky obsequiousness required a further appraisal. The man was not short on style although short in stature, well-coiffed, manicured nails, soft hands grasping his, in a stylishly expensive suit beneath the equally stylish robes of office, tasteful touches of gold and maybe make-up, and the smell of sandalwood, a scent Wayne found unpleasant. He nodded solemnly, “He was like a great uncle to me, family. I cherish his memory. He. . . .”

“It’s all your fault!”

The voice, angry, a woman’s, came from behind him. He turned and recognized the woman in the large brown coat and fur hat, a she-bear with her cub, steel gray hair down to her shoulders, and pushing her walker toward him.

“It’s all your fault!” she repeated, the young girl with her, smirking and mocking, as if his reaction to the woman’s accusation was hilarious. “You are the reason old Rick is dead!” She pointed an accusing finger at him.

Wayne took a breath, looking at both Bion and the Reverend to gauge if they were as surprised as he was at the outburst.

“Old Rick is the first domino to fall. I curse you, Wayne Bruce, old Rick’s ghost will be revenged!”

The Reverend stepped forward, “Now Laverne, you behave yourself and show a little respect. Mr. Bruce was Mr. Richards’ beloved friend. Why are you casting aspersions at a time like this?”

“Doesn’t matter!” the older woman retorted, “What he thought he was doing was good was actually bad. If he hadn’t started in on doing all that work, tearing down and building up, evicting all those poor critters off to the inhuman society where most likely they’ll be euthanized, and all of a sudden old Rick’s smelly old candy store which was ready to die all on its own gets brought back from the dead. . . .”

The young woman at her elbow sneered a chortle, “Zombie candy store next door to a bat factory. . .dark, ma.”

The older woman paid no noticed to the interjection. “Because he was getting new customers from the work going on at the factory and all of a sudden he’s doing business and business means money, something a lot of people around here don’t have, and money attracts the criminal element who think they can take what they want, and it’s not just the down on their luck, some who already have, they want it all.”

“I hardly see. . . .” Wayne started to say.

“You hardly see? Here’s what you need to see, Mr. High and Mighty Rich Man. You may think you’re doing the community a favor by coming in to revitalize! These dribs and drabs you are doling out are just tokens like some lord passing out his benevolence. But you see, there’s real people you’re dealing with, some living in shabby rundown apartments, some living in basements, coal bins, in their cars, or on the street under the Central Overpass, and there are consequences for meddling in our lives.

“All of a sudden you drop down from above in your antique toy car and think you’re going to make everything better. That candy store and that cranky old man could have struggled along until they just wasted away in the way of nature intended and then the city could come and tear it down, that and that pile of bricks next to it. He didn’t deserve to die the way he did. It’s all your fault! You provoked the change! Things will never be the same. Old Rick is the first domino to fall. I curse you, Wayne Bruce, old Rick’s ghost will be revenged!”

The Reverend leapt in, “Now, now, that’s enough, Laverne Early, I will not allow cursing in the House of the Lord! I demand that you leave immediately! You have committed a sacrilege! I will pray for you to find solace in your bitter feral soul, but you must go,” and pointing to the door with an outstretched vestment draped arm assumed the classic pose of expulsion, clearly distressed and embarrassed.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Ms. Early.” Wayne said, a little perplexed but still feeling the sting of her accusations. “Old Rick told me that you were once  an employee at Bruce Enterprise, is that right?”

Laverne glared at him with smoldering hate. “Old Rick was a fool! Out of my way! Come on, Cat, we’re leaving!”

“The police say it was a robbery.”

Wayne watched the woman negotiate the steps with the help of her daughter, saddened by her anger. He wanted to acquit himself of the accusation that he was responsible for Rick’s death. The words had stung and his motives, seeking justice, had been challenged, put into question.

The Reverend assured him. “Pay her no mind. Laverne has seen some hard times. She is without a home, a roof over her head, much of the time, particularly at this time of year, and having a hellion for a daughter has only made the pain, the bitterness, the sense of futility and injustice, worse.”

They watched as Laverne Early pushed her walker across the cracked concrete of the sidewalk, never glancing back, although her daughter, Cat, managed a couple of surreptitious smirks in their direction.

“But while we are on the subject of youngsters and at risk youth,” the Reverend had laid a manicured hand on Wayne’s arm, “I would like to invite you to visit our Youth Guidance Resource Center and Recreation Hall. With your offices soon to be located in our area, your interest in the wellbeing and practical education of the next generation of our community would be a greatly appreciated. We offer counselling, job interview orientation, tutoring, home economics, household repair, and apprenticeship programs. All these activities require staff and that is an ongoing expense.”

“I understand, Reverend Locke. I would be happy to make a recommendation to my mother’s Be Well Fund.”

Locke grinned, pleased, and gave a nervous laugh. “Thank you so much, Mr. Bruce, can I call you Wayne? We have been blessed by a grant from the Be Well Foundation for which we are exceedingly grateful. It helps us keep a roof over our heads and our space, the recreation hall and offices, functioning. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, so it is in the incidentals of the center’s day to day operation. Your interest, perhaps as a member of the board, would be a valuable addition to our out-reach mission.”

There was no mistaking the drift of the preacher’s spiel, and Wayne smiled to himself. If you’re going to grift, do it for a good cause. “I’ll talk to my attorney and get back to you.” He shook the reverend’s hand and faced his eyes. “I would be glad to help when I have the time. I’m certain that we can come to an accommodation. Mr. Ripley,” he indicated Bion waiting at the bottom of the steps, “can reach me if necessary.”

Bion chuckled under his breath as they walked to the entrance to the parking lot. “You can always count on the Rev to pass the plate. Praise the Lord who help themselves help themselves.

Wayne grinned. “You have to be bold to save some souls.” They’d reached the curb by the chain-link gate. “So what’s the word on the robbery on the street? It hasn’t caught much coverage in the newspaper and almost nothing on TV. I talked to the Assistant DA, Ray Tso, an old school friend, but he can’t say anything. The detective I know at Robbery Homicide said he’d like to tell me but as it is still an ongoing investigation, and he can’t divulge any of the details. I can’t even get a copy of the initial police report. What I’ve pieced together so far is that someone heard the gunshot and called it in. I’m guessing it was someone in the apartment above Penn Quinn’s tavern. The report in the paper was that he thought it was a backfire at first, and then looked out the window to see a couple of kids tear out of the front door of the candy store. He thought it looked suspicious and called the cops. The cops found Rick shot in the throat bleeding out behind the counter. They checked the register and it was empty so concluded that it was a robbery. Does that sound like what you heard?”

“I don’t want to rule out the possibility of something malicious. Did someone have it in for him? His shooting was a grave injustice. Otherwise it might just be as Laverne Early said, my fault.”

Bio shook his head, remembering, “I was coming back from the hardware store with some door hinges and locks for the office remodel and drove up just as the cops were getting there, like I told you at the hospital. I went right in behind them. I knew it was bad when I seen him. See enough of them and you know which ones are going to survive. But there’s one thing that still bothers me. That it was kids. Now old Rick had a rep for being a hard ass old cuss, but he looked after them kids, and some of those kids had kids of their own that he looked after too and over the years he earned a kind of grudging respect from even some of the most stubborn of the bunch. I don’t think none of the kids around here would have done it. They needed the money, old Rick would have loaned it to them. No need to shoot him.”

“The police say it was a robbery.”

“Because they found the register empty.”

“That’s right.”

“But was the register opened or closed?”

“Good question.”

“If it was open there’s reason to believe robbery. Buit if it was closed? What robber would close it after grabbing the cash. It’s an extra step.”

“What are you saying?”

“Ol Rick had what he called ‘the hole.’ It was a hole in the floor behind  the candy counter. He’d rigged that pipe railing along the wall so he could get around without his canes. One of the pipe footings was loose and he could swivel it to uncover the hole. When business was good, two or three time a day he would tally the register and roll up the bills and stick them in the hole. Saved him a trip of having to go to the safe in the back room. After closing, he’d take the money out of the hole and put it in the safe. And he slept with a shotgun in easy reach just around the corner.”

“So if the drawer was open, it was a robbery but they might not have got much, and it wasn’t likely to be local delinquents. If the register was closed, it was what, on purpose, an accident, revenge?” Wayne recalled I Van’s threat to kill Rick the night before the shooting. But as far as he knew, I Van had been in the hospital, and J Van was walking with crutches. It might have been others in the gang who had taken their revenge. But Ripley didn’t need to know that.

“What are you saying?”

“I don’t want to rule out the possibility of something malicious. Did someone have it in for him? His shooting was a grave injustice. Otherwise it might just be as Laverne Early said, my fault.”

“Naw, man, that’s crazy talk. I mean she said some things that you got to understand about how the underprivileged are kept down by the overprivileged and their so called humanitarianism. They only give because it makes them feel good, absolves them of the guilt of all that accumulation of exploited wealth. And sometime, as she said, it does more bad than good. You just have to get used to the fact that no good deed goes unpunished.”

Over Bion’s shoulder, Wayne watched a large black Town Car sidle up to the curb.

“You just have to accept, “Bion continued with a grin, “ that all the money you got is just going to make you suffer one way or the other,” and stopped to follow Wayne’s eyes to look behind.

A large man exited the front passenger side and adjusted his oversized overcoat around his wide shoulders before lumbering to the rear of the Town Car and opening the back door.

“Looks like we got company.”

“Well, you were going to have to meet up with him eventually.”

“Oh yeah, who’s that?”

“Joe Kerr.”

Next Time: Act Two, Scene I, part 2


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