Looking For Henry Turner
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.
“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.”
“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.