Piece by Piece
by Paul Sundeson


New Orleans
March 1962

.......“Thirty cents a gallon for ethyl?” my partner Frank Whitney said. We were parked in his Mercury just up Burgundy Street from the garage. “No wonder they're not pulling in the customers.”

.......Hyams Auto Repair was a long white barn with a tin roof and peeling paint. Faded signs trumpeted Gulfpride oil and Holley carburetors. Rusty cars lounged in a weedy lot. The two large doors were shut, giving it a blind look.

......."It's on your side,” I said. To cover more ground, we'd split up and each taken one side of each block.

.......Frank sighed. He's a lanky fellow, balding, with jug-handle ears. He looks as little like TV's Peter Gunn as I do, which comes in handy in our work. “Why bother, Gil? The wife didn't have a car.”

.......He looked as tired as I felt. Two days of knocking on doors and getting the same answer every time will do that to you. GOYAKOD -- Get Off Your Ass and Knock On Doors -- was what we'd called it when we were both on the job, and it hadn't gotten any better since we'd gone private.

.......“Still got to check it,” I said.

.......Our client wanted us to find his wife, who'd moved out to the Ninth Ward with their small daughter and promptly dropped out of sight. He was willing to spring for the full resources of our agency, Barntree and Whitney. All two of us.

.......Armed with photos, we'd hit every shotgun house, bar, grocery, and corner laundromat in a six-block radius of the wife's last known address. Have you seen this woman and child?

.......Results so far, late on a Friday afternoon: nothing.

.......“Why'd she move down here anyway?” Frank said.

.......“Cheap rent, I guess.” The New Orleans Ninth Ward was a working-class neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter. Some blocks were Negro, with bars and other businesses that served them. But mostly white families filled the Ninth -- hardheaded men, women, and kids who took no handouts and no guff.

.......A ten-year-old Studebaker limped by on a flat around the corner from Caffin Avenue to stop outside the garage. A lean young Negro got out. He wore a white shirt, a dark narrow tie, and black pants. He knelt to inspect the flat, shook his head dispiritedly, and trudged into the garage.

.......It would be dark in half an hour. The car radio chattered about President Kennedy's upcoming visit to town, then began to play that new song about a dragon named Puff. I'd be glad when this rock and roll fad was over and we got back to real music like Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

......."Flip you for it,” Frank said.

......."All right, all right. Heads. . . . Damn. Fine. While you shop for your wife --" Meg had asked him to pick up some bread and milk on the way home, and he'd been griping about it all day "-- I'll go do your work for you."

.......Frank grinned. "Meet you at that bar two blocks down?"

......."Order me a double." I stubbed out my cigarette in the ashtray. "And you're buying. See you soon. . . ."

.......I stepped inside an open door and immediately caught the garage smell of oil, gasoline, and auto lacquer. Three swarthy little men milled around a big white van which blocked my view of the work floor. They stared coldly at me. Funny, I thought. No mechanics hustling to finish tune-ups? No customers waiting for their cars? And where the hell was the Negro kid?

.......A door on my left led into a tiny hot office tucked into a corner of the garage. To my right another open door led back to the garage floor. A fan flicked at papers on a desk. Behind it sat a beefy guy in blue denim coveralls that read “Marty.” His face was wide and pale.

......."Get it through your thick skull, boy," he said to the young Negro I'd seen outside. "We're closed, okay?"

......."What am I supposed to do, then?" The Negro clenched his fists. His trousers were shiny in the seat but clean. His steel-rimmed glasses gave him an owlish look.

.......Marty barely moved his lips when he spoke. "You coons just don't listen, do you? That ain't my problem. Got it?"

.......I didn't say anything. It was none of my business.

.......I had nothing against Negroes. When I was a kid, my neighborhood near the Fairgrounds had contained several colored families, and my father served them without hesitation in his corner grocery. But --

.......“You can't depend on 'em,” my captain on the NOPD said once. “Your average colored never thinks about the future, or about right and wrong. They'll stab each other over a woman or a plate of fried chicken.”

.......I thought he had a point. Sure, I knew plenty of lousy whites too. But for the most part, I didn't take Negroes seriously. To me they were just happy-go-lucky children.

.......Marty glanced at me and licked his lips. "Closed, okay?"

.......An alarm shrilled in my mind. The garage shut up, with no customers. And . . .

.......Like Frank, I don't usually get taken for a private eye. People think ex-soldier, or even nightclub owner.  But Marty'd pretty much called it -- you could tell his first thought was Cop. And it scared him.

......."I just want somebody to look at my flat,” the Negro said quietly.

......."Say 'sir,' boy,” said a new voice. “Or don't niggers know to show respect where you come from?"

.......A large young man lounged in the far doorway. About twenty, he wore dungarees and a cheap leather jacket. Under oiled black hair as long as Presley's, his face was oddly crumpled, as if it had been broken and put back together carelessly.  He had the same heavy brows and flat nose as Marty.

.......My scalp prickled, as though some big wild animal had suddenly padded into the office.

.......The Negro didn't back down. "I have a right to ask you to look at my car. All I need is a tire patch so I can get to my sister's."

......."Rights?" the kid said softly. “You looking for trouble, jig?”

.......My spine felt cold. I said to the Negro, "I'll give you a hand with the flat. Come on."

......."I don't have a spare."

......."Then how about I give you a lift --"

......."How about you don't move," the kid said. The muzzle of the Luger in his fist was aimed right at my face. “Get your hands up! Both of you, now!”

* * * * *

.......The Negro took a step back, and raised his hands.

.......I followed suit, wishing Frank's coin had come up tails. Sure, I kept a .38 Colt in the glovebox. But I hadn't thought I'd need it on a simple find-the-wife job. And Frank had the car.

.......“Christ, Keith! Whatta you doing?"

......."Look at this guy, Marty. He's a cop. If you'd just locked the outside door like I told you --”

.......“Sis was supposed to do that,” Marty whined. “And the nigger kept after me, I couldn't get rid of him.”

......."This is crazy," the Negro burst out. "You can't go waving guns around like that!"

.......Keith was fast. He sliced the barrel of the Luger across the Negro's forehead.  Before I could move, he had the gun aimed at me again. The Negro gasped and collapsed into a chair.

......."Speak when you're spoken to," Keith said to him. "That's the problem with you coons nowadays. Too mouthy." To me: "Mister, my brother's going to pat you down. You make a move, I shoot both of you and be done with it. Go on, Marty.”

.......Marty smelled of unwashed armpits and stale cigars. He patted me down, pulled out my wallet and ID case, and backed away. “He's clean, Keith.  No badge . . . but looka this!  He’s private -- a private cop!”

.......“Better’n having the city cops on us. Now the nigger. You know they all carry shivs. Up, boy; no funny moves, now.”

.......The Negro stood stiffly while Marty checked his pockets, gingerly, as if afraid of infection, and extracted a wallet and keys. He sat down again and pressed a hand to his bleeding head.

.......“Okay. Now go get Sis. And this time lock that damn door!”

       Marty edged behind Keith and went out.

.......The huddled Negro cursed softly. I said to Keith, “Don't get nervous. I'm just getting out my handkerchief. You want him bleeding to death in here?”

.......Keith thought it over and nodded. I passed the boy the handkerchief. “Here, this'll help.”

.......Blood flowed freely from a cut over his eyebrow, but scalp and face wounds bleed a lot anyway. He dabbed at it. “Thanks.”

.......“What's your name, son?”

.......“Carlton. Carlton Williams.”

.......“Gil Barntree. Well, Carlton, you might have a little scar, but you can tell people you got it in a duel.”

.......Carlton smiled faintly.

.......A woman in dark blue slacks and blouse stalked in. Stick-thin, about five feet tall, she wore her black hair puffed up in an imitation of Jackie Kennedy. The style overwhelmed a sallow face with the same heavy brows and flat nose as Marty and Keith. Small sharp eyes studied me.

.......She reminded me of the mean teacher I hated and feared in fourth grade.

.......She examined my wallet and license, then flipped them back onto the desk. “Private cop,” she said. “And you goddamn fools pull a gun on him! Of all the stupid things you could have done when we're waiting on a delivery, you pick the stupidest!”

.......Keith flushed. Marty said, “It wasn't me, it was --”

.......“Close your trap,” Sis snapped. “Goddamn both of you. For two cents I'd shoot you both and dump you in the river.”

.......Her brothers looked relieved, as though it were an old family joke. I wondered how much of a joke it was.

.......“You, Mister Private Eye. Suppose you tell me what brought you here. Why're you snooping around us?”

.......My mind raced. Frank was my hole card. When I didn't show up at the bar, he would come looking for me. In the meantime, boy, stall!

.......“Our client,” I said, “hired us to find his wife, who's disappeared with their daughter. He was willing to shell out for extra manpower. We've been scouring the area for the last two days. My partner, me, and two more operatives.”

.......I looked steadily at Sis. “My other three men will be here before you know it. So your best bet is for your brother to hand me that gun before you get yourself in any deeper.”

.......“Three more dicks?” Keith said. “Christ, Sis!”

.......Sis bared yellowed teeth. “You goddamn dummy. If there was four of 'em, they'd split into two teams! Either he's by himself --”

.......“There's only the nigger's Studebaker outside,” Marty said.

.......“Okay, so his partner's coming back with their car. We'll have to nab him too.”

.......Out in the garage an overhead door rattled and banged, and a car engine growled.

.......“That's our delivery,” Sis said. “Lock these two in the storeroom. Then get out there and help.”

.......Keith hustled Carlton and me out onto the garage floor. Darkness had fallen. Work lights shone down on the white van and on one of the most popular cars that year: a gleaming red-and-white '61 Bel Air convertible.

.......It wouldn't be a car much longer. The swarthy men I'd seen earlier were taking it apart. One rolled a wheel away; another was busily removing a front fender; the third had the hood up and was wrenching on the engine. It was like watching a column of army ants strip a carcass in the jungle.

.......I smiled at Sis. “I'm just glad my doctor doesn't think I'm worth more as parts than as a whole person.”

.......Keith prodded me with the gun. “Move.”

.......The storeroom smelled of mice and old rubber. A single naked bulb showed a dusty concrete floor with tires stacked along the walls. Nothing else.

.......“Sit over there,” Sis said, "so we can see you through the glass in the door. If we can't see both of you, we start shooting.” Another yellow-toothed grin. “Sorry, Barntree. This is how we do business around here.”

.......“I'd hate to see how you handle repeat customers,” I said.

.......Sis cackled and went out, followed by her brothers. The lock snicked.

.......I took a deep breath to steady my shaking hands. Rising, I paced the little room. Two steps in one direction, a turn, and two more steps brought me back where I'd started. No room to maneuver.

.......“I don't understand,” Carlton said. “What are they doing out there?”

......."It's a chop shop,” I said. “Some cars are so popular that they're worth more as parts than as whole cars."

.......The kid looked confused. I continued, “Say Sis and her littermates get a request for '61 Chevy parts. One of their pro thieves swipes one. They strip it and send the parts out, probably in that van, to their contact, to be sold to crooked shops all over the state.”

.......They'd left me my Zippo. Set fire to the tires, even if I could? No. They'd just let us die of the smoke, then put it out with the extinguisher. I lit a cigarette instead.

.......“Wouldn't they want lots of cars? More profits, right?”

.......I sat on the floor beside him. “But that means a bigger building. More cars coming and not going'll get noticed. And in a raid, they'd get hit with multiple counts. With just one car in the shop, a smart lawyer might be able to get them off.

.......“It's so lucrative, I hear the Mob is moving in on these little operations, killing or scaring off the owners and putting in their own people. In a year or two, Sis and company will be kaput. Of course that doesn't help us right now.” I held out my Chesterfields. “Smoke?”

.......His hands shook as he dabbed at the cut on his forehead. Clear brown eyes, wide nose, hair like a black knitted cap. Sweat beaded his face. “Never picked up the habit, but thanks.”

.......“Where're you from, Carlton?”

.......“Philadelphia; my father owns a funeral home there. I'm in pre-law at Lincoln University. I came down with a cousin of mine who works for CORE, to do my part for The Movement.” His eyes sparkled. “You've heard of Dr. King?”

.......“Martin Luther King? The preacher who's agitating for civil rights up in Georgia?”

.......I sensed him stiffen. His voice held an edge. "'Agitating'? And I suppose you think we should just be patient? These things take time, right? 'All deliberate speed,' right?"

......."Take it easy, kid."

.......He ignored me. "We've waited, and we've been patient. A century is long enough. Dr. King doesn't want to hurt anybody, but he knows that nothing's ever gonna change unless we make it change. Unless we sit at those lunch counters and those bus stations and force the owners to realize who we are!"

.......I nodded. In the last year, Negroes all over the South had been demonstrating at dime-store lunch counters and other businesses which refused to serve them.

.......Carlton's face shone with the light of the true disciple. "I don't want my son called by his first name, like a child. I want him to be known as Mister Williams. And I'm going to help make that happen!"

       "If you want the right to sit at a Woolworth's counter and eat lousy Woolworth's food, that's your business. I don't care. Hell, if we get out of here in one piece, I'll join you."

......."Where . . . where d'you think they'll take us?"

......."Use your head, kid. They can't let us go; they know we'll talk. They don't even see us as human. Just obstacles. They'll shoot us, load us in the van as though we were two more chrome bumpers, and roll us into a bayou. 'Sorry, we never saw 'em.' End of story."

.......Stubbornly Carlton shook his head.

......."I don't believe that. People aren't monsters. Sure, the South's different; I've felt it as I traveled down here. But if we can open their eyes, show them that we bleed the same color as they do -- they'll see it's wrong to treat us like that."

.......I felt my jaw sagging. Woodenheads never fail to astonish me. "There are monsters walking the earth, kid. What makes it scary is, they don't look like monsters. Not too long ago a little Austrian corporal and his friends in Tokyo came damn close to ruling the world. They looked human -- on the outside.

......."You want to be a goddamn pacifist, fine. But if I see an opening and make my move, can I count on you to back me up?"

......."Of course," Carlton said. But he didn't look at me.

.......My heart sank. Put a gun in his hand, and he'd talk peace and ideals while Keith or Sis walked up, took it away from him, and shot him with it. Grimly I remembered my captain's words about coloreds: You can't depend on 'em.

.......Time was running out. I'd left Frank about 4:30. When I didn't show at the bar by 5:15 or so, he'd come looking.

.......Sis, I knew, would post a lookout. I was betting my life that Frank would spot that lookout without getting caught -- but it was a good bet; I knew his capabilities. He'd reconnoiter and realize something was wrong.

.......He'd go for the cops, just as I would. It would take time: time for him to go to the nearest station and convince the cops, and for them to mount a raid on this place.

.......Time we might not be able to spare.

* * * * *

.......5:39. From the garage came metallic banging and the machine-gun sound of an impact wrench.

.......The lock clicked and Marty stumped in, gripping a silenced automatic. Streaks of grease showed on one doughy cheek. Apparently he'd been helping strip the Chevy down.

......."Sis said I should check on you,” he said. “Won't be too much longer.”

.......I smiled up at him. “How long since you got out of the joint, Marty?”

.......Marty blinked. “How'd --”

.......“The way you talk. Hardly moving your lips, so the guards won't see. Cons learn that in the joint. What were you in for, Marty?”

.......Marty shuffled his feet. “Armed robbery. A store.”

.......“Bum rap, huh?”

.......“No, I done it. But I wouldn't ever hurt anybody. I didn' even have a real gun. Just one o' them real-looking cap guns. My lawyer said it'd make the judge go light on me, but it didn't. I got out early anyway. Good behavior.”

......."That's what I thought, Marty. You just get in over your head sometimes, right?” He nodded. “Well, you're over your head right now, Marty. You let us go, and I'll do everything I can to see you get a lighter sentence.”

.......“No. Sis says we have to get rid of you.”

.......“You always do everything Sis says?”

       “Sure. She looks out for us. If it hadn't been for her taking over here after Pop died, we'd a-went out of business.”

.......“If I disappear, Marty, my partner won't give up until he finds out what happened, and all of you go up for murder.”

.......“Murder?”

.......“Any death,” I said, “that results from a felony, like kidnapping, is murder. Sis'll be okay; juries rarely sentence a woman to death. But a young guy like you? They'll strap you into Old Sparky up at Angola and let you ride the lightning. Think Sis can help you with that?”

.......Marty licked his lips.

.......“At least let Carlton here go,” I said. “The cops won't believe some crazy Negro. One count of murder, maybe you can bargain with the D.A. With two --” I spread my hands.

.......“I dunno,” Marty said in a low frightened voice. He backed up to the door. “I dunno.” He lumbered out.

.......Carlton said, "What are you doing?"

......."Planting a seed." But would anything grow from it in time to do us any good?

* * * * *

.......6:24. Keith's crooked face showed in the glass. He pushed open the door, his Luger aimed steadily at me. “Come on out, boys.”

.......I rose and stretched. Sitting on the floor had made me stiff, and I needed to be ready. Behind Keith stood Sis. Her tiny hand gripped a Colt .45, the GI mankiller.

.......Except for Keith and Sis -- and Marty, who stood a few paces off with his automatic -- the garage was empty. Along one wall stood the Chevy's red and white body panels. Apart from the engine block, steering column, and seats, the '61's chassis was a black anodized skeleton.

.......“That way, Barntree.” Keith gestured toward the rear of the delivery van.

.......Behind me I heard Carlton's rapid breathing. My skin felt cold; blood thrummed in my ears and fingers. I longed to see my wife Letty's face one last time.

.......“Stop right there,” Keith said as I reached the back of the van. It was crammed with wooden crates and cardboard boxes: the entrails of the car.

.......Marty was the farthest away, by the driver's door of the van. A few feet closer to me was Sis, her .45 on full cock. Between them stood Carlton, his fists clenched.

.......Metal gleamed on the van's floor. A wrench?

.......“For crissake, what're you waiting for,” Sis said to Marty. “The sooner we finish with these two, the sooner we can get to dinner. Or did you forget to load your gun again?”

.......Marty's voice squeaked. “No, Sis.”

.......“Well, come on. Shoot ‘em and be done with it.”

.......I glanced down. A box wrench, and a big one.

.......Marty shuffled his feet again. He looked wide-eyed at Sis, at Keith, and at me. “It's a felony. No matter who does it, we'll all fry.”

.......“That's right, Marty,” I called. “You think Sis'll take the rap for you?”

.......“Shut up,” Keith snarled.

.......“You don't always die right away when the current hits, Marty,” I said. “You'll smoke like bacon on a grill.”

.......“Shut up!” This time it was Sis. “Marty, I don't have time for this crap. Shoot them, now!”

.......Marty licked his lips. “I never killed anybody before, Sis. I can't do it. We'll go to the chair.”

.......“Now, Marty! Dammit!”

.......Keith's attention was on his siblings. I edged one inch, two inches, toward the rear of the van.

.......Marty's pale face set. “No, Sis.”

.......“Oh, for cryin' out loud,” Sis said. She sounded mildly exasperated, as if she were dealing with a difficult child.

.......She swung up the .45 and shot Marty in the chest. The sound was deafening. Spouting blood, Marty flew back and crashed into a stack of auto batteries. Carlton gaped, his face a mask of horror.

.......“Marty!” Keith screamed.

.......For that instant, his attention was off me. I snatched the wrench, wheeled, and smashed it across his skull.

.......He staggered, blood streaming from the hole I’d carved in his temple, and the Luger flew from his hand and skittered across the floor. He lunged at me, blindly grabbing at my shirt. Panicked, I hit him again and he went limp. We crashed down and rolled partly under the van's rear bumper, his weight knocking the wind out of me for a second.

.......Dimly I heard Sis yelling. She fired again; the slug whined off the side of the van. My ears rang.

.......The Luger. Got to find the other gun, I thought. There, on the floor, just out of my reach, I spotted it but Keith's mass was pinning me. I rolled him clear, lurched up to one knee.

.......Too late. Sis stood six feet away, those yellow choppers bared. I stared up into the .45's huge muzzle and knew I'd never make it to the Luger.

.......“So long, Barntree,” she said.

.......And Carlton Williams sprang on her from behind.

.......He yanked at her arm, spun her halfway around and away from me. Sis fired, her gun so close to Carlton's body that the roar was muffled. The blast flung him away like a doll.

.......But by then I had the Luger trained on Sis. She gave a little laugh. “You wouldn't shoot a woman,” she said.

.......I drilled her through the shoulder. Her face came apart in shock. Yowling, she dropped the .45 and fell.

      “Watch me,” I said.

.......Shaking, I clambered to my feet just as the office door crashed open. Police, both uniforms and detectives, flooded in. I dropped the Luger and put my hands up before the ring of pistols aimed at me.

.......Frank burst through the door with a skinny detective I recognized. “Not him!” the detective bellowed at the other cops. “He's the guy you came here to save!”

.......I grinned at Frank. I'd never been so glad to see his jug-eared mug. “What took you so damn long?”

.......Frank grinned back. “Long checkout line at the store.”

       The skinny detective grabbed my arm. I shook it off, said, "Call an ambulance," and limped over to where Carlton lay.

.......His dark face was ashen with shock. A .45 slug can take off an arm. You don't want to know what it can do to soft tissue.

.......He whispered, "Barntree . . ."

......."Take it easy, Carlton. The ambulance is coming."

......."You were right 'bout monsters . . ." He gritted his teeth. " . . . knew, when she shot . . . her own brother . . . had to fight . . ."

.......I gripped his big brown hand. "You saved my life, Mister Williams."

.......He smiled. "Not bad, hey --" he said, and died.

* * * * *

......."Carolyn 'Sis' Hyams," the detective said. His name, I'd finally remembered, was Corliss. "No sheet on her, but her brothers, they've got records longer than both your arms. We've had our eye on this place for a while. Your partner gave us a good excuse for a raid.

......."Anyway, she's already yelling that Keith shot Marty, and that her brothers were the masterminds behind the chop shop. Gonna be fun when Keith wakes up from his nap and starts squealing on her."

.......It was an hour later. The ambulance had gone with Sis and Keith, the meat wagon with Marty and Carlton. Frank and I leaned against the fender of his car. Up the block, the radio squawked in Corliss's unmarked Ford. My hands had stopped shaking, but I still felt chilled down to my bones.

......."As for you," and Corliss fixed me with a cold stare, "the D.A.'ll prolly let you slide on this one. Self-defense. But you be at the station tomorrow to give us your statement, hear?"

......."What about Williams," I said.

......."Who? Oh, the nigger? If nobody claims the body, the city'll bury him, I guess."

.......I said quietly, "He said he had a sister lived here."

......."Prolly had brothers and sisters all over. They breed like rabbits. Ah, we'll let her know. When we get around to it. Just another dead nigger."

.......I rose to my full height and stepped up to him. My nose was only inches from his. "His name was Carlton Williams. He saved my neck and took a .45 bullet in the guts. He didn't believe people could be evil, but he had the balls to stand up to them when the time came. He wasn't a 'nigger' -- he was a man, and he died like a man. I don't want to hear that word out of your mouth again, Corliss."

      Corliss let out a baffled snort. He glanced at Frank. “Your partner’s nuts, you know that?” Flipping his notebook shut, he sauntered away.

......."He just might be right," Frank said to me.  “About the 'nuts' part, I mean.”

.......I shrugged angrily. "Every time we let talk like that slide, Frank, we're part of it, you know?"

.......“I know it. I also know you. I bet you're planning to dig up the sister's address and visit her, to let her know how brave her brother was. Am I right?”

.......“Anything wrong with that?”

.......My partner smiled.

.......“Not a damn thing,” he said. “Come on. I still owe you that drink.”

Copyright (c) 2007 by Paul Sundeson.


A native of New Orleans, Paul Sundeson grew up on Bourbon Street.  A former computer analyst and technical writer, he is currently an administrator for a local N.O. college.  His "amateur detective" novel, Griffin in Steel, won the Mystery competition of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' 2004 Colorado Gold Writing Contest.  While he still lives in the city with a half-Persian and a Siberian (cats, not people), after the chaos of Hurricane Katrina he wishes fervently he could live anywhere else.

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