Izzy “The Rat” Sutker escaped the Collingwood Massacre as it became known only to meet his demise at the hands of an unknown murderer. Was it Charlie Gruber who chased him down and killed him, or the unknown figure who came by boat? Detective Henry Garvin arrives on the scene to investigate.
Detective Henry Garvin squatted in the mud and looked at Canada, annoyed that his shoes had gotten wet in the black sand. The cigarette he held burned close to his fingers and he tossed it into the water where it hissed and floated away. There was a crease in the sand dotted with pebbles made by a boat’s keel. It was a few inches deep--that boat, he thought, must've been pretty heavy. Behind him, on the stones, blood spots dried near the Cleaners and Dyers delivery truck. He stood up and walked back to the vehicle and looked again at the sprung door. The shattered glass left jagged edges covered with brain matter and small pieces of bone. The blood smelled rusty. Metallic. Clearly, the shot had been fired from the passenger side at close range, but he did not understand the bloody fingerprints on the door handle, made by the hand of a bleeding man. No one shot in the head is likely to open any doors, he surmised. The two policemen who discovered the Cleaners and Dyers took care not to trample the scene and when Garvin arrived, he could see from a variety of boot prints that there had to have been more than one killer. The pieces, however, did not fit. Why would a man already shot, if he was shot and not knifed, be shot again in the head? That part didn’t make sense. He wished he had a corpse.
“We found this near the passenger front tire, Detective,” said officer Carlisle. “Only one. . .”
“Have ballistics check it out. Looks like a 9 mm,” Garvin said. He recognized the spent shell. The war was 14 years behind him, but only as a measurement of time; its memory as vivid as yesterday, drowned with the illegal booze he confiscated. Everyone drank and everyone knew it. It helped to dull the ringing in his ears he brought back from France, his left ear not as good and getting worse with age. Since he’d done his part in that war, he had few qualms about taking a drink. The law, however, no matter what kind of sham it was, had to be exercised if that’s what the majority wanted. It was the only way, as far as he understood, to keep order.
“Sugar House Gang?” Carlisle said.
“Yeah, now they call themselves the Purple Gang,” Garvin said. “They’ve graduated.” It was the third homicide in two weeks. The Purple Gang, aka Sugar House Gang, had gone from using a union front to extort money from linen industries in Detroit to a concentrated effort to bring in Canadian whisky. It was good money, more to be made running illegal booze than a fake union that strong-armed the cleaners and dyers to join an illegitimate union.
A lot of people were murdered on their way to success. Garvin was savvy enough to understand how the strong ate the weak, and no matter how he rolled it around in his mind it had always been so. Any hope he had for humanity faded in the morning light.
“Full-time killers now, eh Detective?”
Carlisle scanned the river, the shoreline. It was overcast, the clouds low. “That body’s likely downriver by now. Be days before it’s discovered.”
“A matter of time,” Garvin said. “The river will be frozen in another month or two. If we’re lucky we’ll find it before then.”
Carlisle nodded in agreement. “Think it’s got anything to do with what happened at the Collingwood last night? Everyone in this damn city is scared to death. Nobody’s talking.”
Garvin stared at the water with a blank look on his face; he shrugged his shoulders, and said, “They’ve resigned themselves to the violence.”
Carlisle nodded again. “How much liquor was stolen out of that truck do you figure?” He asked.
“Enough to keep the speakeasies open for another weekend.” He and Adah had visited one called The Basement underneath Frank and Lena’s Lounge on West Lafayette Boulevard after the Volstead Act; Adah loved jazz played by the black and white musicians in one band called Salt and Pepper. They got the joint jumping. Then he didn’t worry so much about getting stung in a raid; he could always say he was undercover. Adah loved to dance; he looked forward to her skyscraper legs when he finished his shift. She kept him from falling off the edge, which is what he’d done in his first marriage, and tried her best to distract him, to ease the constant state of rumination he was held captive to in cases like this that kept on coming, piling up.
Garvin didn’t like violence, but he knew it was coming. His superiors and the politicians wanted the Purple Gang to go away--wanted him to do something, yesterday, to make it happen. The brass wanted answers, they wanted convictions, they wanted the gangs to be put down and they were making no bones about how to go about it. It was bad for business.
“Is it okay to tow this truck?” asked Carlisle.
“I want finger prints from that blood, and plasters made from those shoe prints. Check to see if the vehicle’s stolen. And I want you to send a couple of men to Windsor. Let’s see where that booze came from.”
“You got it.”
He felt as though he were going through the motions, reciting things a cop was supposed to say but without the intended effect. Then again, no one else would say them, and that’s why he was in charge. The eastside of Detroit had never been a picnic; it was a tough part of town. There were bent cops everywhere, mostly on the take from crooks who ran the city, but Garvin made sure his boys kept their noses clean. Or else. He chose them, and Carlisle, for their loyalty, and he hoped to get Carlisle promoted to detective. From Traverse City, a nowhere place in northern Michigan, Carlisle's small town ethics impressed Gavin--and the fact that this officer didn’t hate blacks. There were far too many yokels from down south who had been recruited as cops by the white power structure thinking they’d keep the coloreds in line.
Garvin walked the Belle Isle shoreline until the cops started leaving the scene. Carlisle waved from his squad car. The tow truck had not yet arrived. The rear doors of the panel truck were open, and scattered about the ground were busted crates, wood and straw sticking from them and strewn about. He had not asked the officers to clean up the mess and pulled out the broken bottles until he found one intact. Once the whiskey was stashed in his car, he threw the remaining crates and broken glass into the truck. Walking around the truck one more time, Garvin noticed a red smudge at the edge of a boot impression in the mud near the passenger door. The first time he thought it was blood. This time it looked different. Maybe it was the light. On one knee, he scooped a piece of mud with a pocket knife and held it to his nose. It wasn’t blood, though it had a similar odor. At his car, he took a glass vile from a wooden box marked “Samples” and scraped the contents from his knife into the container.
Behind him and across Strand Drive, a flock of geese landed on Lake Muskoday, honking as they came upon the water, legs oblique, jutting. Their webbed feet skimmed the water’s surface where maple trees shed red and orange leaves and were mirrored there. The Cleaners and Dyers panel truck looked forlorn, its front tires in water and cattails up to its fenders. If he were an artist, he thought, he'd paint the scene idyllic, serene. He wished he could share this part with Adah, who probably still slept. Reality, however, got in the way and he could not hear the mourning doves in the distant white birches along the shore. He started the engine and drove toward the Grand Canal Bridge and back into the city.
Despite not having slept much the night before, Garvin had to write a report and answer any questions Captain Mallos would likely have for him: Progress, Garvin? Convictions? Once a cop like Mallos got a taste of administration and didn’t worry as much about getting killed in the line of duty, how quickly, it seemed, Mallos forgot what it was like on the street. Especially that answers were difficult to come by.
He turned his car onto Jefferson Avenue and drove along the waterfront and wharf docks at the Jerome C. Rice Seed Company and imagined the victim’s body floating among the detritus, maybe trapped in tar-soaked fish nets, jostled and bruised by wooden barrels and planks banging around in the wake of a steamer. Maybe the body floated, wedged like a ragdoll in the most expensive suit money could buy at J.L. Hudson, and maybe…. There were lots of maybes.
North on Beaubien Street, he stopped in front of the precinct on the 1300 block and went into the building, past the desk, waving to whomever acknowledged his existence. Then he saw Carlisle.
“Thanks, Detective. I just got word from Captain Mallos. He’s promoting me and I…”
“Call me Henry,” Garvin said. “You deserve it. You’re a good cop.”
“Just want you to know how much I appreciate it. I won’t let you down.”
Garvin laughed. “You ready to go to work?”
Carlisle said he was.
“Then start that paperwork on what we found today. And put both our names on it.”
“You bet,” Carlisle grinned.
“Welcome to the detective’s life,” Garvin said. “And buy yourself some new suits with that pay raise.”
“Don’t have much else to spend it on,” Carlisle said.
“That’ll change.” Garvin said. “And don’t buy anything too dark. You don’t want to look like an undertaker. If that Greek, Mallos, wonders where I’ve gone, tell him I’ve gone home to sleep."
Garvin turned to leave, "Oh, and if he doesn’t like it, tell him I said I love him.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” he said, and returned to the typewriter, keys clicking up a storm, so fast, Garvin wondered where he’d learned how to type like that.
Garvin thought it ironic that he only reason he and Adah could afford to live at the Hotel Detroiter depended upon the gang assassination of a radio host named Jerry Buckley, an ardent defender of the common man and vocal critic of violent prohibition gangs who lived at the Hotel Detroiter, which acquired an unsavory reputation as a haven for gangsters. And here we are, Garvin thought, living in their midst. Their plush suite overlooked Grand Circus Park on Woodward Avenue.
Carl, the doorman, greeted him at the door. No one who lived or worked at the Hotel Detroiter knew what he did for a living and he wanted to keep it that way. When he talked to people he gave them his first name. If they asked his last name, he lied.
“How're you, Mr. Henry?”
“No complaints, Carl. How’s the family?”
“They’re good. And Miss Adah?”
“Sassy as ever,” Garvin said.
“That’s real good,” Carl said and laughed.
In the lobby, Garvin pushed a button for the 10th floor. He was tired and it felt like he needed a drink. He opened the apartment door, and saw Adah standing at the bar. It was her day off. Adah’s silk robe hung open; she was backlit by lights from tall buildings visible through the arched windows. “Here you go, honey,” she said, and handed him a glass of bourbon on the rocks, a splash of water the way he liked it. His heart pumped at the mystery of women, lust, and love.
“I had lunch with my sister today,” Adah said.
“How’s Nettie been?”
“She’s been better. I gave her some money.”
His Adah. Generous to a fault. He met her when she worked for a tailor on Michigan Avenue who finally called the police after Abe Kaminski, a Purple Gang member, had been milking him dry, two years of extortion, threatening the tailor with bombing, hurting his wife or abducting his children. Those exact words appeared in the Detroit Free Press four years ago. That was one sonofabitch he took pleasure in putting away for eight years. When he was done questioning Adah, he asked her to lunch. She accepted.
“I thought Nettie’s old man had a good job at Ford?”
“Got laid off. She’s worried. Doesn’t know where he goes all night.”
“Bum,” Garvin said.
“They got a sick kid, too. I said I’d watch Millie if she needed me. She might go back to work for a spell.”
“You’re a saint.”
“Hardly,” She said. “You look tired Henry.”
He stood by the apartment window, pushed back curtains and watched the street below. The wind dislodged leaves from the elms in Grand Circus Park; caught in a tornado whirl, they stuck to the glass, the burnt orange of decay formed at their edges, the color of fire. Each leaf freed itself in the wind and flew into the night. It rained hard and he saw water coming from every direction in the streets converging on the park. It swirled into drainage grates he’d stepped over many times and spiraled through the checkered pattern of iron stamped with Made in the USA, East Jordan Iron Works. In another month the cold would harden Detroit into a black and white scene, snow and steel and concrete. Soon the gang’s liquor trucks will cross the river, laden with whiskey from Canada, tire chains scratching patterns into the ice, he thought.
“You okay, baby?” Adah said.
“I’m fine,” he said, but an intuition came over him, hovered in a dark corner of thought, a gauze through which a small light of knowing pushed itself to the front of his brain and buzzed.
* * *
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Purple Gang, famously pictured in the iconic photo of members hiding their faces with their hats, is the book's working title. Our author recalls that the inspiration for this novel was the fact that his grandfather used to run numbers and was distantly acquainted with a member of the actual Purple Gang.