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Looking For Henry Turner

Looking For Henry Turner


Book excerpt

Chapter One

Toronto 1960

Ying Hee Fong looked like an angel minus the wings. Whoever shot him did a good job. He couldn't have been deader if he'd lived then died again. Blood gushed from a jagged hole in his right temple, spilling into a sticky pool circling his head. He looked serene. Dark eyes stared into eternity, legs sprawled, arms thrown up over his shoulders. Just like a kid making angels in the snow. Except the snow melted, stripping bare the rotting garbage of a back alley in Chinatown.

Ying worked for John Fat Gai, a gambler and racketeer. John ran illegal poker games and craps in dingy rooms above chop suey joints and small food markets where, for a nickel, you could catch a disease and buy a rotting cabbage. Wherever you found a spare table, chairs, bootleg whiskey and suckers willing to throw their money away, the action never stopped. Ying dealt the cards, sometimes straight up. The dealers worked six shifts a week from 11 at night until six the following morning. They got Sundays off. None of them went to church. Like the others, Ying came off a boat owned by John who paid customs officials at Pier 21 in Halifax to look the other way. He arrived with a host of other bedraggled refugees toting a battered suitcase and not much else. His life and earnings belonged to John Fat Gai. Ying had made his deal but decided he couldn't live with it. We saw the result.

 

John found out Ying had been skimming the pot. Ying went into hiding; an impossibility in a city where dirty money counted, information came cheap and fear ruled above the law. In a city known as Toronto the Good.

Funny. I never seemed to see that side.

My kid brother, Eli, gambled, although calling what he did, gambling, never seemed right. He went to the card dens and lost all his money. Most of the games in town barred him because he liked to turn over tables and sock guys after some card shark cleaned him out. Lately, Eli had been playing in Chinatown. He owed John Fat Gai a wad of dough. Usually, when Eli found himself in trouble, he called on me to bail him out. Depending on the circumstances, I'd say yes or no.

This time, I didn't hesitate, knowing what would happen to Eli if he didn't have the scratch to pay the debt. Most guys who crossed John ended up dead. In the past year, six bodies had turned up. Four had come in as floaters, two in Lake Ontario, one in the Humber River and another in the Don River. The last two cadavers had missing ears, eyes and tongues. Another had been burnt to a crisp in a house fire. The sixth guy took a swan dive off the roof of the Imperial Theatre on Yonge Street. Landed on a brand new Ford Galaxie crushing the hood. All connected to John. Nothing proven. No arrests made. No witnesses. No one even chirped.

My partner, Birdie and I, paid a visit to John Fat Gai to see how we could straighten things out. I think he respected me. I almost arrested him once. He feared Birdie because of his size and volatile temperament. John told me and Birdie, in the nicest way, to find Ying pronto or we'd find parts of Eli's anatomy all over Chinatown. Ying had committed an unpardonable sin. He'd stolen from John. We found Ying. We just didn't count on him being dead.

“Think it was John?” Birdie's deep voice rumbled in his chest.

I shook my head and thought. The angel's wings lay still. “This doesn't look good for Eli,” I said.

“Maybe he needs to take a vacation, somewhere nice and quiet and out of the way,” Birdie replied.

I thought about that too.

“Better call Callaway.”

Birdie nodded, returned to his full height of six feet seven inches and strode to the phone booth on the corner. I'd worked with Callaway in homicide. I thought about families and how much trouble they caused. Mine had given me nothing but grief ever since I could remember.

Chapter Two

“My God is the one true God,” Birdie said.

“Uh-huh,” I murmured, not troubling to glance up from the sports pages of the Toronto Telegram. The Argos had been sniffing around Russ Jackson, maybe signing him as the new quarterback. That would be a coup, for a change. A different kind of miracle.

I took a scant second to think about my own religious situation. It was tough being a Jew because the Jew was born with a stain on his soul. We carried a helluva burden being God's chosen people. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. All that pressure.

We lounged around the offices of Gold Investigations waiting for something to happen. That's me, Mo Gold and my associate, Arthur Birdwell, aka, Birdie. We had a walk-up over a hardware store on King Street west of Bathurst, south side. The sign said, Discretion Assured. I'd spent 10 years in the military and another 10 on the force before I decided I'd had enough of idiots telling me what to do.

Birdie smiled, opening his face to the grace of the early morning light. Around the wastebasket he'd littered crumpled balls of paper. Birdie considered himself to be a basketball maven, heir to the Harlem Globetrotters, so go figure. Couldn't dunk the low one.

“Because he is a merciful God, full of forgiveness.” He leaned his large frame toward me. “I may commit terrible sins every day of the week but come Sunday, I am washed away clean, ready to begin again.”

“Doesn't the church frown on committed sinners?”

I noticed that Dick Shatto, the team's best halfback, might be out for a few weeks with a hamstring pull.

The smile never wavered.

“Yes, that is true,” he replied. “But they never give up on us. There is always hope and as long as you have hope, there is the possibility of salvation.”

“Is that important to you? This idea of salvation?”

“Very important.” Birdie boomed. “How would I live with myself if I thought that some day I couldn't be saved, redeemed by God?”

“You think about this often?”

“All the time.”

“During the War?”

“Especially during the War. It was the War that helped me see the light.”

“But you didn't go to confession.”

Birdie shrugged his massive shoulders and leaned back in the wicker chair choking squeaks and groans out of it. He nodded. The stubble on the top of his scalp glistened. Occasionally, an island lilt murmured out of his speech.

“No, too busy killing Germans but I prayed and asked forgiveness before I shot the next Kraut bastard and when the priest came round finally, I didn't hold back.”

I laughed.

“You kept him in the confessional for an hour and a half. When you got out, there must have been 60 guys lined up behind you. Before the next guy in line could sing, I saw the priest sneak out the back and hit the latrine. You must have scared Jesus right out of him.”

Birdie guffawed with me.

“Those were special times,” he said.

“You got that right,” I said. I looked at Birdie and also thought about the fact that having a black man for a partner would get me lynched in Alabama. Torontonians had prejudice in them but they wore it differently. It came through veiled sneers and whispers not burning crosses and hangings.

Birdie and I met on a massive troop ship, The Grey Ghost, just after it steamed out of Halifax Harbour in May, 1940. Fortunately, it didn't get torpedoed. It carried us and 9998 other green stiffs heading for the war via a stopover in England. We bunked below the water line and none of the other rookies wanted to share the cubicle where we'd slung our hammocks. That was fine by me. Shit faces. All of them. I got my own back when I earned my stripes. I boxed in the military—middle weight—good way to let off steam and get your own back from guys who'd stiffed you one way or another.

A light tap rattled the door. I barked at it. After a moment, it creaked open and an elderly black woman poked her head in. She wore a Sunday bonnet, one with a tie under her sharp chin. Her cloth coat appeared worn but well looked after, carefully brushed. She had on her good shoes, the ones she'd wear to church. That's the feeling I had. She'd been praying recently.

“Mr. Gold?”

“That's me. Mrs?” I stood up to show her I had some manners.

“Turner. Aida Turner.” She glanced quickly at Birdie, then turned away and stared at the floor.

“My associate, Arthur Birdwell.” Birdie smiled at her. “Won't you sit down Mrs. Turner?” I offered.

She nodded without saying anything else, and positioned herself in the half-wingback chair I put out for clients. Birdie perched himself on the credenza beside me, swinging one leg that brushed the floor with the sole of his size 17 brown leather brogue.

“What can we do for you Mrs. Turner?” I asked.

“I want you to find my son. He's missing.”

“How long's he been gone?” I asked, lighting a Sweet Cap.

“Eight years,” she said.

I paused. “That's a long time. What about the cops?”

“They don't care. They told me he run off and he's gone for good,” she replied.

I nodded, taking in this bit of wisdom while I heard Birdie tsking under his breath. “They're probably right,” I said. “Listen, Mrs. Turner…we don't take missing persons cases…it's still a matter for the police.”

Her back stiffened and she glared at me. “I told you. They gave up–they don't want nothing to do with it and I got to know what happened to my Henry–he's all I got, all I live for…”

“Why now, Mrs. Turner? After all, it's been eight years.”

She nodded like she expected me to ask the question. She took a gulp of air and swallowed. “I've been poorly lately. Finally, I went to the doctor. They gave me some tests. Cancer, they said. I don't know how much time I got left and I want to see my son before I die. I want to know he's safe.”

Birdie shot me a look and I knew what it meant. I never liked it when he did that. It was his “God will reward us” look and I'd seen it plenty of times in Europe. Me and Birdie. Fish out of water in the Royal Scots Regiment. A Jew and a black man. I was 18 and Birdie was 20. We'd seen plenty and I owed him my life more times than I could count so when he gave me the look, I knew I was stuck.

I shuffled my feet, cleared my throat, scuffed my shoes, sighed and crushed the Sweet Cap into the ashtray. Birdie didn't have a desk and didn't want one. He liked the idea of me being the front guy. Would make people feel more comfortable, he said. Just looking at him made clients nervous.

“We get $250 a week, Mrs. Turner.”

She'd been off in her thoughts too but glanced up sharply at my voice.

“I've got a thousand dollars. Took me 10 years to save it but I got it and want to use it to find my Henry…” She fumbled in her plastic bag and I was thinking, what? A maid or a cleaner somewhere, working to save that kind of money, scrimping every week, putting a little bit by, knowing what she wanted to use it for. How could I say no to that? I didn't feel guilty about taking it, we had to eat too. Aida Turner pulled a wad of used, crumpled bills bound with an elastic band and slapped them down in front of me. I counted out $250 and handed the rest back to her.

“We'll get what's owed when we're done. One way or another. If I think we're getting nowhere after the first week, I'll tell you, Mrs. Turner. I won't string you along to take your money, okay?”

Aida Turner allowed herself a glimpse of a smile. “Okay. Thank you.” She glanced again at Birdie who gave her his most benign expression.

I basked in the glow of so much mutual admiration that I was attempted to light another Sweet Cap, but stopped myself and fidgeted with a pen instead.

“Ah, Mrs. Turner, tell me about your son, Henry. What happened to him? Tell me everything you can remember, tell me who his friends were, his known associates, tell me where he worked, where he liked to go in the evenings, any women he may have known, everything and anything; all right?”

Aida Turner nodded and handed over a photograph. A pose typical of high school graduation–blanket lighting, artificial smile–but I saw a handsome, young man, thin moustache penciled on his upper lip, nice teeth, sweet-looking brown eyes.

“That's my Henry when he was 18. He'd be 32 now.”

“Just fill in the details, please,” I said.

Aida Turner told her story: “My Henry graduated from Harbord Collegiate in 1946, he was a bright boy, full of ideas. He wanted to do well, and wasn't afraid of hard work, no sir, he would put his back to it, whatever it was. But he wanted to make a few dollars, settle in and have a family. His father died when Henry was just six and it was a terrible blow to him, losing his father at that age. He missed his father so. I tried my best but it wasn't the same. A boy needs his father, you know, to show him things, take him places. My Henry never had that but I did my best, I always tried as hard as I could. He could have gone to university if we had the money, but I just couldn't afford it. Henry didn't resent it, he wasn't angry or anything just knew he'd have to make it up himself. Henry worked as a stock boy at the supermarket for a while, then he went to work for the city as a cleaner, the wages were good and the hours weren't bad, sometimes, he'd be cleaning the parks and cemeteries. He liked outdoor work, felt it made him strong and healthy, he didn't like being cooped up inside. Then when he heard that the new subway was being built and the wages were good, he applied and got taken on. And that was fine until he had the accident and hurt his back, hurt it bad. He was in hospital for six weeks. After he got out, he couldn't work on the subway anymore, it was too hard so Henry got a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy family and that's when the trouble started.”

“What trouble is that?” I had been taking notes as she talked, trying to make sure I had all the pieces.

Aida Turner glanced downward and kept her head down.

“There was a daughter, younger than Henry. She was wild and carried on and Henry, he always thought the best of people. Then, in the spring of 1952–May the twelfth–Henry disappeared. They said he never showed up for work that day but I know that's not true. Something happened and no one will talk about it. They're hiding something. Been hiding it for eight years. I've got to know what happened to him. I need you to find him for me, Mr. Gold. Please. It's what I hope and pray for every day.” She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a hanky, gave it a mighty blow, snuffled a bit and stuffed it back in.

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