The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters is the debut novel from the former licensed private investigator about WIlliam Fletcher, a black ex-boxer working as a P.I. in New Orleans in the 1930's (Available December 1, 2015).
Newly-minted private investigator William Fletcher is having trouble finding clientele. He's not the only man out of work, but his past as a former heavyweight contender with a few shady connections-not to mention the color of his skin in race-obsessed New Orleans-isn't helping lure clients to his door. Stuck without any viable alternative, he takes a case from an old criminal acquaintance, Storm. His only client assures him that the job is simple-locate his missing estranged daughter, Zella, no questions asked.
But when Fletcher starts knocking on doors, he sets off a catastrophic chain of events that turn the city into a bloody battleground between two rival syndicates. Then Storm is murdered and Fletcher finds himself caught between the police and dangerous mobsters. With Zella's safety in the balance, the unlikely private detective finds himself with a lot more than he bargained for.
The first time I met Bill Storm was in New York in the early part of what would become known as the Roaring Twenties. I was broke then, making little money boxing. That night I was in a heavyweight bout against some pugilist Italian named Horace Francisco. The purse had been set at thirty dollars: twenty-five to the winner and five to the loser.
Not satisfied with the money being offered, I told the promoter that I would not even bother suiting up unless he promised to give me a cut of the gate receipts. He refused, and delicately explained to me that if I did not get my “black ass” in the ring, I would not leave the venue alive. I believed him.
Nonetheless, it was a sure shot I’d be making off with most of the purse. I was so confident of the win, if not bored at the competition I was getting, that I did little training or roadwork to prepare for it. With a record of 52 wins, 2 draws, and 50 knockouts—my only three defeats coming from debatable decisions—it was hard to find suitable opponents. It did not matter that most legit rankings had me ranked in the top three of heavyweights; I had the misfortune of having heavy hands. This made promoters and managers of name contenders avoid me because the last thing they wanted to see was their cash cows sprawled out on the canvas.
The only thing Horace had going for him tonight was having a longer reach than me. At six foot one his reach was measured at the weigh-ins from fingertip to fingertip as seventy-eight inches, while at the same height mine was seventy-six.
He was able to survive the first few rounds because he boxed me, staying on the outside and using his extra reach to his benefit. In the end, his ego got the best of him. After being on the receiving end of a few nasty jabs to the face, he moved the fight inside, where I went at him with pinpoint combinations.
I dropped him twice midway through the rounds. First was with a vicious left hook that knocked him through the ropes and into a spectator’s lap. The second time was with a right-left-right combination. The referee pulled me over to a neutral corner and stalled the count the best he could. He did everything outside of putting Horace’s gloves on and fighting me himself to get him back in the fight. The delay was enough for Horace’s head to clear by the count of eight, and he got up on wobbling legs.
He clenched, ran, and danced until the final round in an attempt to decision me. The seconds worked me over in my corner before the final bell, while my manager, Karl Monroe, in his habitual Panama hat, leaned into my ear and said “You managed to bust up his left eye in that last round, and it’s starting to swell over. He’s probably got a blind spot there. So keep hitting it. You’re the puncher, so you need to go in there and outgun him. Cut that ring off like I told you so he can’t keep punching and runnin’ like he’s been doing. Don’t leave it up to them judges to make the decision, because you know they’ll go against you.”
He was right. Even though the Walker Law had ended the no-decision days when, in a futile attempt to rid the sport of corrupt judging, a fight was won only by a knockout, I still needed to win by one. If left to the judges, it’d end in a “majority draw” at best. It made little difference to them that I landed more clean, effective punches, or that I scored two knockdowns and had not a scratch on me. The same could not be said about Horace. His face looked like it’d been shoved into an airplane propeller.
At the start of the bell, Monroe shoved in the gum shield and I leapt toward Horace, who again played it safe. He jabbed and retracted, jabbed and retracted. I swung at him, but he used his lateral movement to evade me. His constant running away annoyed me enough that I hit him with a haymaker that sent him against the ropes. When I closed in, he head-butted me and then hit me below the belt. In pain, I looked over at the referee, who along with the crowd ignored the fouls, and so did the crowd.
Irate, I threw out all notions of going easy on him and charged after him until I bullied him into a corner. There was no longer anyplace for him to run and hide. I sent hooks and jabs into his eye until there wasn’t an eye left, and then focused on his jaw. The referee stepped in, pulled me off, and called the fight. The crowd was on its feet and shook the arena with a prolonged roar of disapproval.
In my respected corner, Monroe went between the ropes and leaned in to me. “Sweet Jesus, what the hell was that?”
“I’ll be surprised if he’ll ever be able to see clear out of that eye again. Probably shattered his eye socket, and his jaw don’t look too good, either.”
Horace was crammed in his corner with the ringside doctor bandaging him up. I went over to mitt him, but Horace didn’t get up off his stool.
From a swollen mouth he said, “You fight dirty, Fletcher. I had this fight and you know it.”
“You best get that eye and jaw looked at.”
Horace leaned over his stool and spit a mouthful of blood at my feet. “Better give me a rematch. If you don’t, you’re a coward because you know I’ll lay you flat in the first.”
I didn’t argue with him that it was a one-sided fight, and he was lucky not to have gotten more hurt than he already was. The audience was still frantic.
I went to my corner, where Monroe was waiting. “You done fine, kid. He had this fight dead fixed for him to win. Had his own referee, and I heard his manager paid two of them judges off.”
“I’m tired of fighting these palookas that got no business being in the ring with me,” I said. “At least I still got my shot against the champ.”
“Nothing doing on that one, kid,” Monroe said. “I didn’t want to tell you before the fight, but I spoke with the champ’s manager a few hours ago. He’s pretty sure now that he don’t stand a chance against you. But the champ said he don’t want to hand over his strap to a nigger and that’s all there is to it.”
This was not the first time I had been denied my shot against the belt. No promoter was going to let a colored like Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, to ever again run off with the most coveted crown in sports. Not when Jack London’s call for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson had proved to be so difficult.
“What’d I got to do? Murder one of these pugs in the ring to get my shot with the champ?”
With disgust, I ripped the last glove off my hand myself and went to change. When I had finished yanking into my togs, I left the boxing pavilion. A tall man who looked like the missing link between man and primate approached me.
“I’ve been watching you for a while, kid. You got a pair of hands, and I’ve been thinking of using a guy like you.”
No introduction was needed. I knew who he was. Most folks in the area did. Bill Storm was a prominent heavy who local syndicates hired out to do muscle work. Even back then he was aging. What hair he had left was starting to gray. Lines were outlining obliquely along his grill, which almost certainly was never handsome to begin with. His nose had been broken so many times it went off in several different directions. No matter, his cold gray eyes showed there was life left in him. They burned with a brutal hatred and a primal urge for violence.
“I don’t think I’d be interested in your kind of work,” I said. “I’m sure you can find some poor colored that doesn’t mind getting thrown into the grinder when the time comes for a fall guy.”
Storm laughed. “Look here, kid. I don’t sell out anyone that works for me. One thing that means more to me than anything, even more than money and dames, is loyalty. Do straight with me, and I’ll as soon as take the fall myself than sell you out.”
I expected him to say something like that. Most of his kind did. However, I knew there was rarely loyalty among his type of crowd.
“What’d you need me for anyway? Seems you been doing just fine by yourself,” I said.
“Sure I was, when I was younger. Now mugs are getting the idea that age has slowed me down, and trying to take a pop at me when they never would’ve had the backbone before. It’s a mistake on their part, I assure you, but my job is mostly intimidation, see. My employers don’t like seeing their customers constantly gettin’ roughed up. But if I had a bird like you with me, they’d think twice about getting cute.”
Massaging my sore knuckles, I did not know whether to believe a word he was saying. Being a clever man, he quickly picked up on this.
“Look here, kid. I’m offering you a chance to make some real dough. I figured you’d be tired of busting yourself up over chicken feed. You’re the one doing all the fighting, but them promoters and everyone else is making the money, not you. So you got to decide whether you want to keep making other people rich for the rest of your life or rise above it.”
* * *
That’s how it went. A partnership had been formed, more or less. For the next few months I worked alongside Storm, mostly as backup, or as a stand-in. We made our rounds, collecting payments for various syndicates. Most of the time, the people paid up, from gambling receipts to “protection” payments. Sometimes, they’d get wise, but often would back down when they realized Storm and I were gearing up to do major violence to them.
I made more money than I ever did before. It was more than I was getting paid doing boxing exhibitions, which were nothing but glorified sparring sessions between fights to supplement what little I was getting boxing. Instead of spending it on women and booze, which Storm advised I do, I put it away. I spent very little. I moved out of the flophouse I was living in and moved to a place in Harlem that was somewhat better. With just 750 square feet and plumbing and heating that sometimes worked, it was as good of housing a colored could get at the time. Segregation had a funny way of limiting one’s options.
I did not tell Storm I was putting the cash away. I got the impression that if I did, he’d start getting worried I’d ditch him as soon as I got enough dividends stocked up. Presumably, that was why he always encouraged me to spend it as soon as I got it. Things were going sound, but I knew it would not last. Business never stayed efficient with guys like Storm. If it got too calm, he’d make sure to create some sort of disturbance. His temperament dictated that he needed chaos to thrive.
At the outset it started off with him roughing up people when he didn’t need to. That escalated to him throwing a local store owner out a window and onto a couple of dames strolling by. This of course did not please the syndicates. There was no point in telling Storm he was burning his bridges. He was beyond reason at that point.
He progressively became more violent. When a restaurant manager refused to pay for any more protection, Storm wrenched him into the back room and grilled the right side of the man’s mug on a scalding oven top.
In a short time our rounds dwindled. Storm had developed into too much of a liability for the syndicates and they were cutting his services off. Instead of picking up the hint, he kept at it until there were no more rounds to make.
I went weeks without even hearing from him, until he called me at my flat late one night. I had been waiting for such a call. I knew it had been weeks since our final rounds were made, and that Storm had been blacklisted by everyone that mattered. He likely hadn’t been paid as of that time, which meant he was getting desperate.
“Hey kid, you busy?”
“Depends,” I said. “What’re you up to?”
“What makes you think I’m up to something?”
I didn’t say anything.
“I need your help, just for tonight.”
“Help doing what?”
“I’m finished here. It’s time to get out. But I’m flat, see. I need some traveling dough so I can blow this burg. I got it all set up, see. It’s nothing big, I just need you to watch someone for me while I see about collecting the heavy sugar. Don’t worry, I plan on cutting you in on it if you help me out.”
Being “cut in” was not what I was worried about. The “I need you to watch someone” was. I hung up the phone after getting directions to where he was at, and set out.
He gave me the location of a dive in Brooklyn. The commute took me more than an hour, and I arrived to the putrid stink of raw sewage from the Gowanus Canal. Shore birds flew from the weed-covered bank with large chunks of rotten meat, while horns of barges that crossed the commercial waterway sounded.
When Storm opened the door to his room on the top floor, I could tell he hadn’t slept in days. Dark circles had fashioned around his eyes, but they still lit with hatred and menace.
“What’s this all about?” I demanded upon him leading me into the place.
He didn’t say anything right away. He casually drew out the silver hip flask he always had filled with assortments of illicit alcohol, took a pull, and held it out for me. I refused his offer.
He finally said, “I need you to watch the kid while I go collect the dough.”
“What kid?” I asked, but I had already ascertained the answer.
It was all over the papers. Some rich high-society couple’s ten-year-old son had been kidnapped the previous day outside the hotel they were staying at. The couple was very prominent and had enough pull to get almost every copper in the city diverting their attention to finding junior.
“I got desperate,” he said. “I needed dough. Someone told me about this kid, and how his folks are loaded. So I scoped out the joint they were at, and it was a cinch. The stupid kid was outside with his handler. He was cake to take out. They were walking to the store and I just got up behind him, and I guess I got a little too rough with the sissy. I accidentally broke his neck. The kid started yapping, but he was easy to shut up!”
“Where’s the kid now?”
Storm nudged his head toward the back room. “He’s asleep. I called his folks last night from a drugstore pay phone. Told them I wanted three G’s, and where to drop it off tonight.”
“You fool, you’ll never get a piece of that kale! They’ll have that place swarming with buttons. They’re not going to risk that you ain’t going to kill the kid after you have been paid off. They’ll take their chance of beating the whereabouts out of you!”
“Got to risk it. I ain’t kickin’, I’m in desperate shape. Besides, I can smell them bulls a mile off. If I’m left holding the bag, I’ll make damn sure to send them parents a piece of junior to show them I wasn’t foolin’!”
If it was anyone else, their threats would have come off as nothing more than hot air. But coming from Storm, I believed him, and there was no point in trying to reason with him. I had to make sure that his threat didn’t become a reality, so I agreed to watch the kid while he left to collect.
When Storm had gone, I went inside the room to check up on the kid, and to make sure he wasn’t dead. Luckily, he wasn’t. He had tucked himself away in the far corner of the room. When I hit the lamps, he covered his eyes with his arms like a bat using its wings to shield itself from the emanating light.
“It’s okay, kid. I ain’t going to hurt you. What’s your name?”
He was nonresponsive. I stood there for a bit watching him, until at length he took his arms away from his eyes. He was a cute kid, with full blond hair, chubby trumpeter’s cheeks, and a boyish face.
I left the room, but kept the door ajar. I sat on the couch, glancing at my railroad-grade pocket watch. As more time went by, the chance that things had gone south intensified. There could only be one possibility, Storm had gotten pinched and was being put through the wringer by the law. The city kitties would try to rough him up, but would end up hurting themselves more than Storm. The only shot they had to get Storm to sing was if it did Storm some good to do so. Like a lesser charge. That would mean the place would be raided by flatfoots at any moment. Either way, both outcomes were bad.
I got to my feet and went back into the room. “All right, time to beat it, kid,” I said.
The kid was still impassive. It was more than simple shock. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something odd with the kid. I had to shake him a few times to snap him out of it.
“Did you hear what I said?”
He didn’t say anything. Impatient, I picked him up and flung him out the door as if he was a stray cat. When he had gotten to his feet, they moved without thought, and carried him straight out of the flat. I listened as his footsteps picked up speed down the hall until the noise tapered off.
It was less than half an hour later that Storm came crashing into the flat, his red-veined eyes pumping with animalistic furry.
“You were right. The place was swarming with buzzards. They must figure I’m some sort of sap. I got to get out tonight, but not before I send the kid home worse than when I got him.”
I didn’t stand in the way as he went barging into the back room. It took but a few seconds for him to come back with even more hatred than before.
“Where the hell is the kid?”
“I let him go.”
“I let him go,” I said.
His attack was rapid enough that I had little time to counter a wild fist that was heaved at me. Even though Storm was much bigger, my advantage was that I happened to have more power and faster hand speed. Storm swung at me with everything he had, and I did my best to duck or avoid the full contact of the blows.
Between slips, I tried to get hits in, but I might as well have hit a concrete wall with a rubber mallet. I switched it up, and victimized his kidneys and body, using my back foot as leverage to put more power behind my lead hand.
The fight kept on at an unyielding pace. The furniture, walls, fixtures, and anything else that had the misfortune of being present in the room were destroyed. Ultimately the pain caught up to Storm. His stamina was slowing while his blows were getting weaker and loopy.
That’s when Storm hit that last burst of desperate rage that large beasts have when they know their end is near. I didn’t see it coming, so I went for the power punches to finish him off. It was a risky move and often left you vulnerable to counters. Storm knew this, for he had once dabbled in prizefighting. When Storm had nothing left to hold him up but his shoelaces, I went in for the kill and threw a hard left. Storm hit me with a counterpunch with his potent right that sent me just about through the back wall.
I didn’t black out, but time seemed to slow. Trying to regain my separated senses, I could see Storm sitting on the other side of the room. He was wheezing, and blood was coming out his mouth.
“I thought you were better than that, kid,” he said.
“Don’t be blaming me, you louse! You dug yourself into this. If you thought I’d sit by and let you kill some kid, that’s just you being a fool.”
Storm laughed, which seemed to pain him. We sat like that for a while, until the distant sound of sirens came into earshot.
“That brat must’ve called us in,” he said, as he stumbled back onto his feet. Maybe the kid did give us up, but it was more likely Storm was followed. No matter, I didn’t even attempt to get up. I merely watched as Storm lumbered toward the door. But before he left, he turned to me and said, “I’ll be seeing you.”
I do not know how I was able to get back up and duck out before the law took the building down. I do remember lying low in my flat for weeks. I had more than enough money to sit on. I read the papers, and found that the boy was safely returned to his parents. As for Storm, the papers reported that he had stolen a switch engine and killed the driver and two flatfoots during his escape out of town. The police had put a dragnet out for him, but it was too late. Storm had slipped through and vanished.
That was the last time I heard or saw Bill Storm, until he walked into a New Orleans diner more than fifteen years later.
Copyright © 2015 Grant Bywaters.
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Grant Bywaters has worked as a licensed private investigator. He now works security at the Portland Airport and is currently finishing his Bachelor's degree in psychology at Portland State University. Bywaters lives outside of Portland, Oregon. The Red Storm is his first novel.