Tag Archives: Wayne Bruce

Act Two, Scene I, Part 2

by Pierre Anton Taylor

Wayne’s curiosity got the best of him when the man named Joseph Kerr had requested a word with him. He had approached the open Town Car door with the human pylon standing next to it with cautious determination. The man in the back seat was wearing a camel hair top coat, a somber Homberg of darker caramel and a pair of round lens dark glasses, the kind that blind men are often depicted wearing. His nose was thin with a slight bulb at the end and the lines around his mouth were those of someone who laughed a lot.

Joe Kerr, in fact, wanted more than just a word and suggested that they sit down and have a talk about business. He was a businessman and Wayne Bruce was a businessman. They had a lot in common. Kerr suggested his office a few blocks away in the warehouse that housed his novelty distribution center.

Wayne remembered it as the space occupied by a machine and metal shop when he frequented the area as a youngster, a large square brick building with high windows and wide doors. Ripley had thrown him a worried look when he had accepted Kerr’s invitation. He’d handed Bion the keys to his Fury and told him he would pick it up back at the Battery Works before climbing in next to the man with long narrow fingers wrapped around the head of an ornate cane depicting a grimacing gargoyle.

Now he was being given a tour of the large space occupied by the ranks of shelves and bins, crates bulging with synthetic dayglo colored plastic shapes representing the merest abstract anthropomorphic configurations. The rows and rows of girly magazines and video tapes in a caged lockup on the one side and the off brand candy and snack aisle on the other. Anything advertised in the back of men’s magazines or the back covers of super hero comic books came from places like Kerr’s warehouse. The magic trick manuals or water babies or itching powder, poo-poo cushions, hand buzzers, glowing yo-yos, and skunk oil. As they approached the lighted enclosure of Kerr’s office, he stopped and held up an object from one of the racks and held it up to show Wayne.

“I got a whole warehouse of plastic junk. Want to know what outsells just about everything in this warehouse?” Kerr waited as if he were expecting Wayne to know the answer. “With the exception of the X rated smut, that’s in a class of its own.” He held up an object in a cloth bag with draw strings at the top. “This!” He squeezed the bag and the sound of  a diabolical obnoxious laughter was emitted by the mechanism inside. “The Laugh Bag!” he said triumphally, virtually mimicking the laughter of the gadget. “The best seller by all. I’ll bet there’s a Laugh Bag in every village, every town, every city all over the world. It’s the Kilroy Was Here of the novelties!” When Wayne did not tumble to the reference, Kerr smirked and extended his arm to usher him into his office.

“Can I offer you a drink?” Kerr indicated the cadenza displaying the square cut glass decanters.

Wayne politely declined with a shake of his head. Even if he did drink he wouldn’t likely imbibe until later in the day, unwind after a long day of activity. This was in no way the kind of wake he’d imagined for old Rick Richards, the candy man.

Kerr poured his own few fingers and indicated the creased leather couch fronted by a glass topped low oval table. Kerr took his seat in a large leather chair that engulfed him like a giant hand behind the wide sturdy desk with multiple telephones strategically placed across the top indicating that he didn’t use a secretary. From this position he had a full peripheral view of his surroundings. Mounted on the wall behind him was a large brass disc at whose center was the gargoyle represented in silver on the head of his cane. It was also safe to assume that one of the large rings on his long slender hands depicted the same mocking contortion of derisive laughing.

Wayne was curious. He wasn’t in the least intimidated by Kerr’s grandiose theatrics and lack of couth, his repulsive undisguised greed. The associates, the driver and the bodyguard, had stayed outside the office but in plain view beyond the door to Kerr’s office. He was a hoodlum, boss of his cover operation from which he controlled the less than legal schemes and enterprises. Nothing happened in the East Central district without his say so. And Wayne had not asked him for permission.

Robin had done a deep dive on him, looking into his finances, his police record, his business associates, past and present. To begin with, JKR, the drayage firm whose bid had been accepted by Bruce Enterprise for the toxic cleanup of the old battery site was owned in partnership by Joseph Kerr and Riddler Corp. Robin had yet to track down who owned that offshore account.

Kerr had a criminal record as a younger man for extortion and GBH but had flown under the radar for the last couple of decades. Robin seemed to think that his low profile was due to the fact that he was being groomed for leadership in the organization and had protection at least politically. He’d been associated with some known mobsters in the East and had recently setup shop one state over before expanding into the East Central district with his novelty distribution center which appeared to be his only legitimate enterprise on this side of the state line.

There were accusations of fraud and bribery, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, none of which were ever charged and taken to court. He had set himself up as the boss of his territory of rundown tenements and abandoned business and was buying up property cheap and bringing in other investors from the East. He had allies on the city council who wanted to raze the entire area and offer it to developers cheap for generous kickbacks.

Wayne had already scuttled the plans to demolish the old battery works. A lot of money was at stake, and he had just stepped on their toes.

Kerr held the narrow metal cylinder up accusingly. “This was found in an apartment not far from here. The scene of an altercation in which a young neighborhood man was severely injured and may never walk again.”

Kerr looked up from his drink with a satisfied smile. “I only met your old man a couple of times, but I could tell that he was a real straight shooter. He didn’t waste no time on formalities. And I’m gonna assume you’re the same way. So lemme tell you why I think we should work together. You’re a business man and I’m a business man and we occupy the same turf, if you get my drift. No reason we can’t work things out.

“I think you got a good idea there with the antique car museum on the old battery factory property. This area needs some culture. And it would revitalize this side of town decimated so long by street crime.” He made a grimace that was meant to be sad but was only halfhearted. “Property values are gonna sky rocket, and that benefits a lot of investors.” He paused to look at his hands and the drink in one. “I understand the city council still has to vote on the go ahead of your proposal. I don’t think there’ll be any problem, do you?”

Wayne regarded the thin man in the fashionable pinstriped suit wearing a wicked smirk with thin disdain. “I’ve been assured that the votes in favor are there. Everything is above board. And the project will be approved.”

“Aren’t there some members of the council who are skeptical, maybe even hostile, about your proposed museum art gallery community center park? They believe it is a waste of valuable commercial space. That your plan is an ill-advised joke, a rich kid’s folly, an unneeded extravagance.”

“I’ve read the criticism in the paper. As Bruce Enterprise has made me sole custodian of this corporate asset, I can do with it as I please.”

“What if I told you I could guarantee that you could get a unanimous vote for the memorial to your father?”

“I don’t need a unanimous approval, just a majority.”

Kerr formed a pained grin. “One of the arguments against your plan is that this district is a high crime area and visitors will be put in harm’s way if they venture to your park and museum.”

“There’s crime because people need jobs to survive, not robbing candy stores. I plan to create jobs.”

“Not if there’s an upsurge of crime in the district.  There have  been sightings of some kind of masked vigilante character harassing and attacking people in the neighborhood. All of these factors could conceivably swing the vote the other way is all I’m saying.”

“I’m quite aware of that. You apparently believe that you have a solution .”

Kerr cackled, eyes narrowed on Wayne with a particular venomous glint. “You might say that. My idea is that we form a partnership. I help you get the votes for the memorial to the old man and you help me clean up on the real estate. Everybody’s happy, they get what they want.” He gave a smug grin. “You see, there’ll always be a need for real estate just like in this world of gadgets there’ll always be a need for batteries.” He gestured expansively to his warehouse. “Energy and property will always have a future!”

“With due respect, Mr. Kerr, you and I don’t appreciate the value of money in the same fashion. You amass money to gain power over others, enslave them with your filthy lucre. I use my inherited millions to defuse power, to lessen the impact of the exploitation of resources, animal, mineral, or vegetable. That is the difference.”

“You’re just as hard headed as your old man, and a bleeding heart do-gooder to boot!” Kerr exploded.

Wayne fixed his gaze on the narrow framed man vibrating with anger, the direct opposite of mirth. “He must have told you to pack sand as well.”

Kerr reached inside his suit coat and held out a slender metallic object. “Ever see one of these before?”

Wayne shrugged. “A pen? Although it appears too large to be practical.”

Kerr pointed one end at him and a blinding bright light ignited at the tip.

Wayne blocked the light from his eyes with his hand. “A penlight, that’s nothing new.”

“This one is special. Beside the intensity of the light. See when I twist the end, the whole flashlight becomes a strobe. And when I give it another turn, the light beam is red, and then when I give it a final twist the strobe is also red. Trippy as the youngsters say. I’ve seen a lot of penlight gadgets in my business but I’ve never seen one quite like this.”

“Where did you get it,” Wayne asked certain that he knew.

“Someone gave it to me. Right away I wanted to order a case of them for my inventory. Only one problem with that. They’re not for sale because nobody makes them!” Kerr grinned mischievously like something was tickling him up his sleeve. “I had one of my more technically adept guys, former safe cracker, take it apart. There’s a serial number inside the battery casing that incidentally holds two triple A high capacity Bruce Batteries, and the guy says they’re rechargeable. That must be something brand new because I never heard of such tiny batteries being rechargeable. It took some digging but we traced the serial numbers to the manufacturer. Their records showed that this lot of casings was sold to Bruce Advanced Technological Systems.”

“I’m not surprised. The BATS Lab is always engineering new and innovative battery gear. The rechargeable batteries is something else the Lab is working on. Right now they’re trying to work out a glitch that causes the batteries to catch fire if they’re left activated for too long.”

Kerr glanced down to the penlight in his hand and quickly turned it off.

“This is probably a prototype of some kind,” Wayne explained. “Where did you say you found it, again?”

Kerr held the narrow metal cylinder up accusingly. “This was found in an apartment not far from here. The scene of an altercation in which a young neighborhood man was severely injured and may never walk again. He and his friends were in the apartment when they were attacked by a masked man. The young man who sustained the injury was thrown from the second story to the street below. The masked man left this device behind so whoever it is has some connection to your BATS Lab, I would guess, to be in possession of this one of a kind item. Don’t you agree?” Kerr’s grin was diabolical in its glee.

“Not necessarily. The Lab produces hundreds of prototype and when they think they have something with commercial viability they send it out to consumer protection organizations for testing and review. When the testing is done, the devices are returned with comments by the individuals who tested them. This one was not returned, apparently.” Wayne’s calm smile seemed to enrage Kerr.

“What if I turned this thing over to the cops and told them that it belonged to Bruce Labs? They could probably lift fingerprints off it.”

Wayne shrugged. “The cylinder is knurled, I doubt that they can retrieve prints from it.”

Kerr’s brow clouded. “The city council would be interested in the fact that the masked vigilante is using a prototype Bruce Enterprise device and that maybe he is an employee of Bruce Advanced Technology Services.”

Wayne pursed his lips to keep from laughing. “That would be quite a stretch. I think your friends on the council would expect more from you in the way of incriminating evidence. And while we’re at it, I would like to thank you for recovering Bruce Enterprise property.” Wayne stood up and held out his hand. “I can take charge of the prototype and return it to its proper section at the Lab. There might even be a reward. I’ll give my secretary your particulars. ”

Kerr reacted by pulling his hand away then thought better of it, handing the penlight to Wayne.

“Right now I think our talk, businessman to businessman, is over, and I hope that we have come to a mutual agreement not to have to do so again.” Wayne stepped to the office door and turned the handle.

“One thing I can tell you, Bruce, is that you’re not going to get the votes for the project,” Kerr called after him. “You can take that to the bank!”

Wayne turned his most blasé face to the narrow man. “If at first I don’t succeed I will try, try again. Besides I have lawyers! Any adverse finding by the city council with end up on appeal and in court.”

“Problem with lawyers, “ Kerr screeched after him as he exited the office and past the two men guarding the door, “they’re not bullet proof!”

Next Time: Scene I, Part 3  The Drive-by

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

Act One, Scene 1

By Pierre Anton Taylor

The old neighborhood had changed for the worse. The high brick wall that had once been a part of his father’s factory was covered with ivy creepers, mottles of lichen, and faded graffiti. Sickly yellowing weeds grew between the cracks in the broken sidewalk. At the curb, obscured by plastic trash and piles of leaves,  stood an old sycamore whose roots has caused the cement to buckle, a last remnant of when the area had been tree shaded, thriving, catering to the employees from the battery works..

He stood in front of the candy store he had frequented as a youngster. It hadn’t changed much, just become a little shabbier. The white paint on the double front doors had bubbled and peeled. The storefront windows near the entrance, repaired with duct tape and cardboard, looked as if a hole  had been punched through it.

JCA1S2“That’s quite an antique.” A square shouldered black man on the step leading up into the store spoke the words. He was referring to the black sedan parked at the curb.

“It’s a 1960 Plymouth Fury. Fully restored.”

“I know that. I was about your age when I would have given my right arm for one of those.” He held up the stub of his right arm. “Instead I gave it for my country in Vietnam.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” The young man grimaced. He always felt uncomfortable saying it because it was such a cliche. “Thank you for your service.”

“Wasn’t your fault. I just got careless. Ripley’s the name, by the way. I didn’t catch yours.”

“Wayne, Wayne Bruce.” He felt a little awkward as he extended his hand, but the black man grasped it firmly with his left.

“And what brings you to this neighborhood, Mr. Bruce? Lost? Or looking to pick up some cheap real estate?”

Wayne Bruce shook his head and glanced around again, reorienting himself after so many years. Abandoned buildings and the apartment towers that used to teem with activity now appeared worn and past their use by date. The brick enclosure to the crumbling factory site he used to think of as towering had retained some of its respectability if not its height. The candy store abutting the wall emitting a faint single source amber light, the tavern on the corner across the street where Central teed into Battery, neon beer sign sputtering in the dark round window open for business.

Ripley kept his gaze fixed on the young man, a lithe six foot two, tangle of dark hair framing a square face and jaw, dark intense eyes under darker eyebrows, and with a deferential confidence to his manner. A tailored black gabardine three quarter length coat with attached cowl draped snugly across the broad shoulders. The crew collared dark gray jersey clung to the shape of the angular torso topping a pair of slim black slacks and casual half boots.

Bruce then smiled and indicated the candy shop. “I used to come here when I was a youngster. My favorite candy was a Chunky bar. Mr. Rick still the owner?”

Ripley showed a frown and squinted at the tall young man. “You know old Rick?”

“Sure, he made the best egg-cream around.”

Ripley’s frown intensified, taking a closer look at the white man who had just parked his antique Plymouth on one of the roughest streets on the east end of the city. “No, he don’t do that no more. Hasn’t done that in a real long time, make egg-creams. Kids today don’t know what egg-cream is. But you are right, he made the best.”

A stiff breeze rattled the branches of the sycamore and persuaded some of the last leaves to release their grip and float reluctantly to the concrete. Both men looked in the direction the wind had come, at the lead gray mass hovering over the tall spires and square silhouettes of the downtown district, the tawny streak of late afternoon sky crushed by darker clouds at the horizon.

“You say Bruce? That your name? Like this place here?” Ripley pointed to the grim shadows hovering above the wall and the sign that had been creatively overwritten.. “Bruce Battery Manufacturer? That you?”

Wayne nodded. “My father.”

candystore1“The Battery Man. I remember the billboards. Nobody Beats A Bruce! You that kid? I heard about you. Come on, come on in.” He pushed the door open and the hinge squeaked like a cry for help. “He’s in the back, come on.”

Bruce didn’t need urging to step up and in. The candy store was familiar though smaller than he remembered it. The counter with the white scale, now a nicotine yellow, atop the display case of penny candy, jaw breakers, licorice whips, and candy bars. A diagonal crack mended with yellowing translucent tape ran across the display glass. On the back wall by the cash register the slotted black shelves of tobacco products mostly empty. There were plastic toys and odds and ends household items, clothespins, wooden matches, boxes of plastic forks and knives on shelves along the opposite wall. A rack next to the shelves displayed an assortment of flimsy plastic Halloween costumes and masks from the holiday a few weeks past. Boxes, some unopened, some empty, were stacked on the floor toward the rear of the small space where a doorway was covered with a threadbare flowered green curtain stirred by the sound of shuffling behind it.

“Yo! Rick! Hey! Old man! Somebody here to see you!” Ripley’s grin was mirthful, glee ringing his eyes.

A grave low voice answered, “If it’s Kerr, I already gave him my answer. What don’t he get about ‘shove it’? The curtain parted to a frown under a head of close cropped silver wool and a mean squint distorting the dark brown face. Pale framed thick lensed glasses held together at the bridge by a bulge of masking tape sat on a crooked nose, the tip of which appeared lighter than the rest of the ebony exterior.

The old man came to a stop, a walking cane in each hand, and craned his tall torso forward. “Who are you? You don’t look one of Kerr’s. . . ?” He gave a sidelong glance at Ripley who was trying to maintain his composure and not burst out laughing, and then turned to face the tall young man in black. A smile slowly cracked the harsh demeanor exposing red gums and missing teeth. “It’s you, ain’t it? I’d know that canary eating grin anywhere.” To Ripley, he snapped, “What you laughing at? I don’t see nothing funny!”

Easing himself behind the candy counter, Richard Richards, Mr. Rick to most of his customers, took up his iconic position in the eyes of the young man. “Lemme guess. A Chunky bar.” At the young man’s nod, he slide open the rear door to the display case and reached in. “You remember how much you used to pay for one of these?” he asked as he set the foil wrapped candy on the top of the counter.

chunky1Wayne paused to recall. “A quarter.” And then, “But I remember when they went up to fifty cents because I came in one day and all I had was twenty five cents, two dimes and a nickel, and you told me that the price had gone up. But you sold it to me anyway, that I could pay the rest next time.”

The old man chuckled. “That’s right. And you shoulda seen the look on your face when you realized you didn’t have the right amount. You mighta cried.”

“Did I ever pay you back? I don’t remember. I hope I did.”

“I don’t recall either. Not that it matters after all this time.” He held up the silver square. “Nowadays one of these will set you back five dollars! Think anyone can afford that?”

Ripley nodded in assent, “Not around here they can’t, that’s for damn sure!”

“This young man here used to keep track of my inventory. He knew every candy I carried and how much of it I had. He’d come in here with his daddy and name off everything I had in the case. I carried newspapers back then, and Mr. Bruce would come in for his morning and his afternoon edition. He always had this one in tow. Go straight to the glass and put his nose up against it.” He shook his head in recollection. “Time’s are gone.” And addressing young Bruce, “I’m sorry to hear of his passing.”

The tips of Wayne’s ear’s reddened, darkening them, and he twisted a grin in agreement and acceptance of the condolences. And as if to offset the tension of the emotion, he pointed to the soda vending machine’s garish edifice over to one side in the corner, the only thing that seemed out of place. “I remember the big red cooler you used to have there. It rattled whenever the compressor came on. The first time I heard it I nearly jumped out of my shorts. That and the treasure hoard of candy were my first impression of this place. And you used to have a comic book rack over there too. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor reading them. Those are good memories, Mr. Rick.”

“Aw, you were a pest, always asking questions, you were curious about everything. And then you went away to school, somewhere, some place foreign I heard. Your mother sent you off to get a proper education. And you’d come by every once in a while when you were home visiting, and I seen you were developing into a fine young man, taking more after your ma than your husky pop, though. She only come in here with you a couple times I can remember but I could tell she was high toned.” He lowered his eyes at the memory, “She doing well, is she?”

Wayne gazed out at the failing light of the darkening street. He nodded, “Yes,” as if to himself. “Mother is doing well as can be expected. Dad’s brother, Harold, is taking care of the details, managing the Bruce business empire.” A hint of bitterness in his attitude. “Life goes on even if not for Wallace W. Bruce.” He erased the frown with a bright smile as if it had never been there. “I thought that while I was in town for the funeral I’d see if I could still get a Chunky at the only place I know that sells them.”

Rick gave an appreciative guffaw. “Well, you are in luck, this is the last one! I stopped carrying them half a dozen years ago when the price went up to two dollars. I didn’t think anyone would ever want a square of chocolate, nuts, and raisins that bad. I kept this one as a souvenir of when candy was cheaper than crack.” He pointed to the shelves behind the display glass. “You see anything in here that reminds you of a Zagnut or Good & Plenty or a Clark Bar, Abba Zaba, Big Hunk, JuJuBes, Milk Duds, or Pay Day?”

“You had those little wax bottles with fruit syrup in them. . . .”

“Yeah, Nickle-A-Nips, go for over a dollar now. I can’t get a lot of those old candies anymore. It’s my distributor, he carries all these off brands. You ever hear of a Ball Park? it’s shaped like a frankfurter, made mostly of sawdust as near as I can tell, and held together with a chocolate tasting glue. Bigga Jigga? I don’t even want to think what it’s made of, but I heard somebody lost a tooth biting into one, pulled it clean out of his gums. And Plenty Good? Just a box of hard candy pieces swept up off the candy factory floor. O’Hara’s? Some kind of high fructose soybean glop, and Dummies, just little pills of color flavored chalk. This Wacky Wax? It’s just artificially sweetened wax. That can’t be good for your gut.”

Ripley nodded vigorously, “Eat enough of that, stick a wick up your butt and call you a candle.”

“You might need a new distributor.” Wayne offered with an understated chuckle.

Rick shook his head. “No, can’t, Kerr controls the East Central District. He has a say in just about everything that gets bought and sold in this neighborhood. His guy makes me carry these knockoffs and threatens me when they don’t sell! He made me install that drink vender. It’s expensive, besides. Has to stay plugged in all the time, uses more lectricity than the rest of the shop! Usta carry his girly magazines but it just attracted the kids, and they’d want to shoplift something, sometimes because they thought they needed it, other times just because they thought they could. Sell ‘em under the counter now, you gotta ask to see ‘em, and if you’re asking, you buying one.”

“Kerr? Where have I seen that name, from around here?”

“Joeseph Kerr. That’s his warehouse down the block, in the old garment factory, you mighta seen the sign painted on the side of the building when you turned down Central coming into the neighborhood.”

“I did. Kerr Novelty, Inc. Big letters.”

“Big crook, if you ask me. Came from out east about ten years ago. He’s got his fingers in other pots, too, buying up real estate. He owns Quinn’s, the tavern across the street, and the old folks apartment building next door. I heard he was partnering with some developers for a project down at the other end of Battery. Bound to be a boondoggle like most projects in this town.”

“Calling the cops ain’t gonna do no good. They take forever to get to this end of town. Kerr’s probably paying off somebody at the precinct to lay off in his turf.”

“And he’s been looking at the old factory site, your pop’s place.” Ripley spoke up. “Heard he wants to move his operation to over there.”

Rick threw him a quick glance. “B, you know that’s just a rumor. Ain’t no truth to that.”

“Yeah, that’s what I overheard at Q’s. And you know why that’s bad news for you.”

“Yes I know, but no need to talk about something ain’t gonna happen until after I’m dead.”

“You see, man, this building, old Rick’s crib in back, the candy store, they all on the factory property. Somebody buy that factory, they get the candy store in the deal.”

Wayne cocked his head to one side, “Is that true? I’d have to look up the property deed in the company archives.”

“No, no, Bion is right. This is part of the factory property. It had been the foundry foreman’s residence before the site was converted to  Bruce Battery Works. I was one of your old man’s original employees back when he started out. Then after the accident, well, he helped me. . . .”

“Here, here,” Ripley was pointing out the window as the streetlights sparked to life at the encroaching gray, “The Up To No Good gang, I’Van and J’Van. I haven’t seen them in a while. Somebody musta bailed them out.”

Rick concurred. “They on the prowl early, looking for a stray bird. They must be desperate.”

“You know them?”

Ripley nodded solemnly, “We had occasion to get close.”

Rick chuckled, “Bion ripped open a case of whupass on those boys. They know not to mess with him.”

Bion pointed with his stub. “The redhead? That’s I’Van. He’s a nasty piece of work. The other one, the kid, J’Van, he’s dangerous because he doesn’t know how strong he is. But he’s a follower, not a leader. They do muscle for the local numbers guy, and strong arm the unwary for their nickels and dimes. They try to intimidate everyone else. Those that cross them usually end up in the hospital.”

“The bookie is in Kerr’s pocket. He couldn’t operate without his say so. His boys are the neighborhood pit bulls.” Rick added.

“And they’re taking a close look at your Plymouth at the curb. Might not be too wise to leave it parked there for long. I can go stand by it. They’ll know enough to steer wide.”

Wayne held up his hand. “No, please, I don’t think that will be necessary. Thanks for the offer, Bion, is it? An unusual name if you don’t mind my saying.”

“Naw, man, that’s cool, everybody trips over it. I got it in Nam. It’s because of my last name, Ripley. The guys in the platoon used to call me Believe It Or Not, and it got shortened to BION, and then just B, what most folks knows me calls me.”

“I don’t believe it!” Rick was leaning forward on his canes glaring out the window. “Just this minute, coming down the steps, it’s old lady Winslow, I’m sure of it.”

“Her daughter musta forgot to lock the apartment door again,” Ripley said, a trace of concern in his voice.

“She thinks she’s going shopping, got her purse and her shopping bag. . . .”

“Wait till she gets around the corner to find that the market been closed for two years now.”

“If she gets that far. I didn’t think they’d do that. They are lower than scum. Knocked her down, one of them has got her purse, laughing.”

“Call the cops!” Wayne had started toward the door.

“Calling the cops ain’t gonna do no good. They take forever to get to this end of town. Kerr’s probably paying off somebody at the precinct to lay off in his turf.”

“She might be hurt!” Ripley raced through the door, “Call for an ambulance!”

Rick replied to Wayne’s questioning look, “He was a medic in Nam. He’ll see to her till the meat wagon arrives.”

“The men, they’re gone, where. . . ?”

The old man looked up from dialing the phone, “Can’t have gone far, mighta ducked into Q’s to divvy up the loot.”

Wayne became very quiet, overcome by an ominous calm. He glanced at the Halloween display, the black domino mask with peacock feather eyebrows in its cellophane bag. He unclipped it from the rack and held it up. “How much?”

Rick shook his head. “Try it on first. See if it fits.”

Wayne ripped open the bag and plucked off the feathered decorations and slipping the mask over his eyes. “Better call for a second ambulance.”

He strode down the steps, skirted the rear fins of the Plymouth Fury and stepped quickly across the darkening street pulling the cowl up over his head as the first of the rain began to fall.

quinnsWet occupied the air and chilled it. In the yellow-brown light of the doorway to Quinn’s Tavern, the rain striking the concrete jumped like sparks off a hot griddle. The door opened quietly, disturbing neither the wide shouldered man with the bar towel over his shoulder, gaze intent on the square of color TV mounted above the bar, who laughed along with the track, a rheumy asthmatic rasp, or the other two hunched over in the shadows of a back booth, laughing, giggling, but not at the TV, a sitcom about people who frequent a bar similar to this one although certainly less sinister.

The young one looked up, questioning at first and then frowning his face into a growl at the perceived threat. The redhead jerk his eyes up from the emptied contents of the purse like a dog guarding a bone. He was about to raise his head and bark when two rigid fingers jabbed the larynx causing a choking spasm gasp for breath at the same time the base of a palm slammed into the apex of his nose with enough force to render him unconscious. As the dark haired man boy rose to defend his partner, a well-placed kick to the sternum knocked him back into the sitting position with his head bouncing against the tall booth, an open target for the elbow that struck him full face and broke his nose. The man behind the bar had just brought up the shotgun as the round glass ashtray that had been between the two unconscious thugs struck him on the bridge of the nose knocking him down.

A black gloved hand gathered the pile of belongings in the middle of the table and returned them to the purse. There wasn’t much to the loot: a change purse, a wallet stuffed with grocery coupons but no legal tender or credit cards, a lipstick tube, hair pins, an empty pack of spearmint gum, a sheaf of letters held together by a ribbon, the scent of lilac.

No one paid attention to him as he set the purse on the stoop to the apartment house where a few neighbors had gathered with umbrellas to shield the old woman who was sitting up now, looking around bewildered, rubbing the elbow she had hit after being pushed down by the hoodlums. A siren sounded close.

Ripley glanced up once to see the tall cowled figure, eyes shadowed by the black mask before the ambulance’s flashing red and ambers saturated the rain dark street. After the medics had taken over, he stood in the soaking downpour and stared at the empty curb in front of the candy store. He sensed that it was just the beginning, a perfect storm of coincidences gathering at the horizon that would rain down justice and injustice alike, and transform the lives of those who lived in the decaying industrial fringe of the city, a city whose name had always resonated as a cesspit of crime and corruption.

Next Time: Unfortunate Son