MURDER GO ROUND
Two policemen escorted my brother-in-law into the courtroom. His ankles shackled and his wrists handcuffed, he jangled as he shuffled across the floor to the defense table. At six foot six and two hundred fifty pounds, Morty could be quite intimidating. I’d seen him in action in business dealings we had together by often standing and towering over his opposition. Today his slumped demeanor and his black hair, usually slicked back with mouse, but now flopping in all directions, made him look a lot less formidable.
I clutched my sister-in-law’s hand and tried to reassure her. “He’ll be okay.”
“Thank you for coming, Russ.”
“I wouldn’t think of not coming.”
The judge banged his gavel to quiet the room. “To the charge of second degree murder, how do you plead?”
Burt Meechum, Morty’s lawyer responded, “Not guilty.”
“Remand, your Honor,” the prosecutor said.
“Your Honor, Mr. Sinclair is the pillar of the community,” Meechum countered. “His entire life is tied to this city. He is admired by many people―”
“And loathed by many others,” the judge cut in.
“Your Honor, I object.”
“Object all you want, Mr. Meechum. Bail is set at one million dollars.”
I cornered Meechum outside the courtroom.
“Russ, you don’t look so good,” Meechum said.
I wondered what gave him the first clue, the bags under my eyes or the gut I had developed. I used to be a solid one-ninety, but the new friends I had cultivated since my wife died―Johnny Walk, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels― made working out a challenge.
“It’s been a rough year.”
“If there is anything I can do, please call me.”
“Thank you. I’d like to see the police report and speak to Morty.”
“How can you help? You’re not a detective.”
“I don’t know, but if Mary were alive she’d demand I do something for her brother. In her memory I have to try.”
Meechum balanced his briefcase on an upraised knee, took out a folder and handed it to me. “I’ll set up the interview.”
Meechum hadn’t exaggerated about Morty being a pillar of the community. His family went back four generations in Sea Gate. Thirty-five years ago the city was the pride of the Jersey shore. Ten thousand people paraded the boardwalk on Easter Sunday. On a summer weekend you could barely find an empty spot on the beach to lay out your blanket.
Morty’s great grandfather had built most of the buildings on Main Street, the City’s north-south drag. Morty still owned a number of them, but where furriers, jewelers, and upscale men’s and lady’s clothing stores used to be were now a tattoo parlor, liquor store, thrift shop, a couple of local greasy spoons and for rent signs in dirt streaked windows.
“What was all that about Morty being loathed?”
“Morty’s having financial difficulties.”
“I know that.”
In a gamble to revive the city, Morty had mortgaged his Main Street properties for a million dollars―in the city’s heyday they were worth ten―and dumped the money into cleaning up the arcades he owned on the boardwalk. He planned to rent them out for a pittance to try and get concessionaires back to the city in hopes the tourists would follow. So far he’s had no takers even for the cheap rent.
“How does it get him disliked?” I asked.
“He’s put the carousel up for sale.”
“Whoa is right. There are a lot of people in this town who consider that carousel as belonging to the city and Morty as only the caretaker. They feel if it’s sold, it’ll be the last nail in the city’s coffin.”
The Sinclair carousel was a hand-carved antique Morty’s grandfather had commissioned from William Dentzel in the early twentieth century. It was the only thing that still drew a few families to town if only for a short trip.
“What’s he asking for it?”
“It’s not what he’s asking it’s how he’s doing it. He put it up for auction piecemeal. As one piece he can get maybe a million, but broken up and sold to antique dealers, it’s worth one and a half.”
The police department was on the opposite side of the municipal building’s lobby from the governmental offices. While waiting for the officer at the reception desk behind the bullet proof glass to finish his phone call and notice me, I casually looked around. Brown spots signaling a water leak blotched the drop ceiling. A crack ran across the terrazzo floor. The building wasn’t two years old and already falling apart, a testament to the city’s corruption.
Finishing his call, the policeman said, “Yeah.”
“I have permission to visit Mr. Sinclair,” I said into the intercom.
He buzzed me in and directed me to a dreary room. Today was one of those July days where the breeze came out of the south bringing ninety degree temperatures and oppressive humidity. I glanced up at the thick layer of dust on the air conditioning vents. Cool air hadn’t come through them in a long time, probably on purpose to force the accused’s lawyer to keep his meeting short.
They brought Morty in, again shackled and handcuffed.
“Are those necessary?” I asked the cop escorting him.
“Yeah,” he said.
I wondered if that response was in the manual or whether the cops in this town just had a limited vocabulary.
Despite his imposing size, Morty was far from a dangerous criminal. Based on what I knew about his confrontations with the political powers in town, I had no doubt the shackles were more to humble him rather than to keep him subdued. The cop shoved Morty into a chair and took up a position next to the door.
“I’m an agent of his lawyer. We have a right to privacy.”
He smirked and left the room.
“Russ, it’s good to see you,” Morty said. “How long’s it been?”
Mary and I, and Morty and his wife, Elizabeth, had been close. We traveled together, golfed as a foursome and went out to dinner at least twice a month. When Mary died last year I drifted away from Morty and Elizabeth and made those new friends whom I often caroused with, especially at night, until I passed out in a mind numbing stupor.
“I didn’t kill him.”
“Why are they saying you did?”
“You know what this town’s become. Everybody has their hand out. They’re saying I killed the building inspector because he demanded a bribe and I wouldn’t pay.”
“Yes, and I refused to pay.”
I opened the folder. “I believe you, but this police report is pretty convincing. The victim, Billings is his name?”
“He was found in his car, cell phone in hand, and the hammer used to smash in his skull and tossed onto the passenger seat has your fingerprints on it. How would someone get your hammer?”
“I must have left it at one of the arcades I was working on with the carpenters.”
Morty was a craftsman. His hobby was building model sailing ships from the nineteenth century. He had turned the carriage house behind his home into a workshop. The models he built were not made from kits but from actual plans of those ships he scaled down to one quarter inch to the foot. He laid the keels and ribs, cut the planks for the hull, made the cabin widows, put in the masts and stays, and carved all those little pulleys, belaying pins, helms wheels, cut and sewed the sails and hand tied the rigging.
“Where were you at the time of the murder?”
“In my workshop working on a model.”
“Yes. Elizabeth was in the house, asleep.”
“Tell me about the carousel.”
“I don’t want to sell it, but I need the money.”
“I heard some people are against the sale. Who are they?”
“A group led by Cal Edwards. He’s an antique carousel buff. Even makes and sells hand-carved horses. I told him if he could come close to what I thought it would bring, I’d sell it to him. He got around a million, but I could do a lot better by breaking it up and auctioning it off.”
Back in the lobby, one thing stood out in my mind. What murderer would be so stupid as to leave the murder weapon with his prints on it at the scene? Dreams of the city’s glory days and his family’s heritage may have blinded Morty to the reality as to what this city had become and made him overly optimistic about his chances of bringing it back to life, but he was not stupid. I glanced at my watch. Ten to twelve. I hustled to the building department.
“Can you help me?” I asked the man with his shirt tail half out of his pants.
He glanced at the clock, now five to twelve. “Depends on what you want?”
“I’d like to get a list of the sites Mr. Billings inspected the day of his unfortunate accident.”
“Wasn’t no accident. He was murdered.”
“Yes, a tragedy.”
“Depends on who you’re talkin’ to. His wife, yeah a tragedy. Me, I got a promotion.”
Really compassionate guy, I thought. “You’re the new building inspector?”
“You got it,” he said and glanced at the clock again. “It’s lunchtime. Come back later.”
Like Morty said, I knew this town and was prepared. I had a fifty dollar bill folded in a square with the numbers showing. Palming it out of my pocket, I flashed it to him before folding my thumb over it. “How long could it take to get the records?”
When he broke into a big smile, I added, “I’ll also need the inspection reports.”
“No problem. All public information, right.”
Ten minutes later I was back in my car reading the reports―Clark Street Grocery, foundation, plumbing, electrical approved; Sea Gate Cabinet Shop, no violations; Castle Amusement building, one exit light bulb burned out.
Main Street was more than its name implied. It was also a line of demarcation, dividing the city east and west. East of the street were the beaches, boardwalk, deteriorating Victorian houses where the merchants that had moved their businesses out of town and fled with them used to live and were now rooming houses, churches, library and parks. On the west side were the railroad tracks bordered by a few derelict factory buildings and the African-American community.
Clark Street intersected Main Street on the south side of town and ran due west to the highway. Thirty-five years ago it was a viable shopping street with stores catering to the community’s tastes in food, clothes and furniture. But the race riot that frightened the tourists away also burned many of the buildings. Now the street was mostly empty lots glittering with shards of glass and trash caught in the chain link fences. But there were signs of revitalization, a liquor store―ironically never destroyed―Laundromat, fried chicken take out, an adult video store, a used furniture store, and under construction the Clark Street Grocery identified by the sign planted near the street.
I pulled into the muddy lot and parked next to a pickup. The stenciling on the truck’s door read, “Cromwell Construction Company, Sea Gate, NJ”. Stepping around the puddles, I entered through an opening where the double glass store doors would be and walked over to a muscular black man wearing a stained T-shirt, mud splattered jeans and a tool belt slung around his waist.
“Boss around?” I asked.
The man glared at me so hard I took a step back.
“What you want?”
“Relax mister. I just want to talk to the boss.”
“You talkin’ to him.”
I hesitated a moment too long.
“What’s the matter, you white guys think we can’t build nothin’ unless you bossin’ us?”
“N..No, of course not.”
“So what you want. I’m busy.”
“I’m looking into Mr. Billings’ death.”
“You a cop?”
“Why you interested?”
“My brother-in-law is accused of the murder.”
The builder walked to the door and spit in a puddle. “I’m all broke up.”
“Did you have an argument with Mr. Sinclair?”
“Nope, we never argued.”
“Then why the animosity?”
Sweeping his arms to draw my attention around the room he asked, “How’s this building look? You think I done a good job?”
Like most suburban husbands, I did a little handy-work around the house. I knew which end of a hammer, saw, wrench and screwdriver to use. I glanced at the mostly finished store. The walls looked plumb, floor flat, drop ceiling square, plenty of lighting, lots of wall sockets. “I’m not a builder, but from what I can see it looks nice.”
“I am a builder, and a good one. I went to Sinclair and asked for a sub-contracting job on some of them boardwalk arcades he’s rebuilding. Told me point blank he’s got all the subs he needs. I seen his subs. His buddies that come down here in their Mercedes Benz from their big houses in them rich towns, never gets their shoes dirty. I was born and raised in this town. Anyone deserves to work here first it’s us what lives here. But the only blacks Sinclair and his cronies hire is ones to use a shovel and haul block.”
I knew Morty’s prejudices. He spouted them often enough. He blamed the demise of his town on the riot. But racial unrest wasn’t the only thing that killed this city. Sea Gate could have recovered after a few years if the state hadn’t used it as a dumping ground. Around the time of the riot, the State, short of money, was emptying the mental hospitals. With no one filling their rooming houses, the desperate landlords took the State’s money and the outcasts. Who wanted to bring their kids to a town where disheveled people roamed around at all hours of the day and night pissing in the streets and yelling at lamp posts? And then there was the corruption that had taken hold after the businessmen who doubled as councilmen and town watchdogs ran away.
I swallowed hard and changed the subject to the one I came to talk about. “I understand Mr. Billings inspected this building the day he was killed.”
“He was here.”
“Did he find any problems?” I already knew the answer but I wanted to hear it from him.
Cromwell took a hammer from his utility belt and a nail from the pocket of his apron. He turned to the two-by-four framing of an unfinished room. Tapping the nail into the wood, he drove it flush with a single blow. “Not a one.”
I left without asking the obvious, what did it cost you and where were you when Billings was killed? I didn’t want the next nail planted in my skull.
My next stop was the Sea Gate Cabinet Shop also on the west side six blocks north in a mixed residential and business neighborhood. The cabinet shop was wedged between two rooming houses and across the street from an auto repair shop. With no parking lot, I pulled to the curb in front of the building. Two grey haired men sat across a checkerboard on the porch of the rooming house to the left of the shop. Three toddlers played in the dirt in front of the rooming house to the right. Two women seeming to be old enough to be the children’s grandmothers sat on the steps keeping an eye on the kids.
As I swung my door open one of the checker players jumped out of his chair and yelled, “Repo man! Repo man!”
Screen doors slammed, and in a blur of movement three men leaped off the porches. Seconds later three cars laid rubber shooting out of their parking places.
I shook my head in sadness, took a deep breath and walked to the front of the cabinet shop. The structure leaned precariously to the left. A gutter sagged to the ground on the east side of the building. Chunks of paint curled on the façade ready to peel off in the slightest breeze. Weathered cracks spider-webbed across the sign over the garage door, the wording barely readable.
Stepping to the front door, I pushed the bell. I didn’t hear it ring so I knocked. When no one answered I tried the door knob. Locked. Heading back to my car I noticed one of the garbage bags at the curb in front of the building had been torn open, probably by a dog or rat, and wrappers from fast food burgers pulled out. I nudged the bag with my foot to see if there were any letterheads or envelopes that might give me a phone number. Sawdust puffed out along with a block of wood.
I picked up the wood. It was actually three layers glued together. It looked to have been sawed away from a larger piece by a band saw or jig saw. I shrugged and dropped it back into the bag and walked next door to speak to the women.
“Do you know what their hours are?” I asked.
“Ain’t got no hours?”
“The shop is out of business?”
I looked back at the three trash bags in front of the building. “Do you know who cleaned out the place?”
“Only one person I seen coming and going out of that place is the guy they arrested for murder the other day.”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Back in my car I pulled out Billing’s inspection report. No violations leaped off the page. I wondered how much Morty had to pay Billings, the murder victim, to keep the building from being condemned.
I drove straight east to the ocean front. I had seen the devastation there many times, but I could never quite prepared my mind for it. The miniature golf courses and amusement arcades that had lined the boardwalk, and the motels and restaurants along Ocean Avenue which were patronized by as many as fifty thousand people on a summer weekend were now boarded up buildings or empty lots. A few years ago a condominium developer had bought up a whole block cheap and started a hi-rise building. He thought the beautiful white sand beaches and the view of the ocean were all he needed to attract buyers. He went bankrupt when no one came to buy, leaving a steel skeleton looming over Ocean Avenue.
Still like elsewhere in town there were pockets of hope. A few hundred sunbathers did use the beaches, and joggers found the expansive, almost deserted boardwalk an ideal place to run. The city continued to maintain the beaches and the boardwalk because they were the town’s biggest assets where any major revitalization would begin. Plus being a cynic I’d bet that a lot of those beach fees never made it to the city treasury, and a good chunk of graft was generated from the contractor hired to preserve and replace the boards.
One hotel did manage to survive offering a cheap weekend get-a-way with a private fenced beach, free shuttle service to Monmouth Race Track and entertainment in a night club to keep their customers safe and sound. The boardwalk wasn’t totally empty at night, but those that did haunt it in the dark were looking for or selling specific product or service. Like vampires, the hookers and drug dealers came out of their lairs once the sun had set. Morty had told me the cops didn’t even try to clean them out, instead opting to hit them up for payoffs.
And of course there were the three amusement arcades Morty was trying to reopen and the city’s famous antique carousel housed in the Castle Amusement building which anchored the south end of the boardwalk.
A row of cars were parked at the meters next to the carousel building. I pulled in front of them and shoved a couple of quarters that would probably end up lining someone’s pocket into the meter’s slot. My feet crunched deteriorating cement as I walked to the building along the cracked sidewalk. Stepping inside, the smell of sweeping compound permeated the air and drew my attention to the dust free freshly painted concrete floor. I gazed at the carousel whirling in a steak of multi-colored lights. Children, their parents standing next to them, grasped the fluted gold poles rising from the front of the horse’s saddles and bounded up and down on the brightly painted wooden animals. Tears welled up in my eyes as the memory of Mary and me bringing our children here flooded my mind.
The music wound down and the merry-go-round glided to a stop. I pulled myself together and watched the mothers lift their children off the horses and escort them from the platform. One child held fast to the fluted pole begging, “Again, mommy, again.” The mother must have anticipated her daughter’s reaction because dollar bills quickly materialized in her hand.
Three women and their young charges stepped onto the ride. I watched the youngsters run around the circle looking for just the right steed to carry them into their three minute dreamland. One boy selected a horse with eagles on the side of the saddle. A girl chose a horse with brightly painted flowers adorning the bridle. The third, another boy, mounted a horse that was in a gallop and whose mane was carved to look like it was flying. But the animal’s placid face seemed to say, Don’t worry, I’m gentle, you won’t get hurt if you ride me.
It was Mary who awakened me to the beauty of the carousel. “It’s more than just a flashy amusement ride,” she had said.
In 1915 Morty’s and Mary’s grandfather commissioned William Dentzel to build the biggest carousel made to date. He constructed it sixty-five feet in diameter with five rows of horses in standing, jumping and prancing positions, and four intricate chariots with carved sea serpents, dragons, swans and cherubs. The panels surrounding the truck mechanism that turned the carousel were painted with men and women strolling the boardwalk. The men wore summer suits and straw boaters. The women were adorned in shirt waist dresses, high button shoes, wide brimmed hats and carrying parasols in gloved hands. The rounding boards above the panels were hand carved with jesters, clowns and accented with mirrors and baroque scroll work. The Wurlitzer band organ was displayed in a gilded cage so riders could see the moving drums, cymbals, trumpets and animated conductor. As a final touch, thousands of light bulbs were screwed into the rounding boards, crestings, sweeps and canopy.
Looking at the magnificent machine, still as beautiful as I remembered when I last rode it with my kids and Mary over twenty years ago, I wondered how much money Morty dumped into it to keep it up. Based on the number of riders I saw today, the fees certainly couldn’t pay to maintain it in this pristine condition.
A chubby man stepped from behind a scenery panel and walked around the platform gathering money. Reaching me he said, “One dollar please.”
“Mr. Douglas, I’d like to talk to you when you get a minute.”
“The auction is in two weeks.”
I stuck out my hand. “Mr. Douglas, I’m Russell Gerrard, Morty’s brother-in-law.” Mary had introduced me to the carousel manager years ago. Morty’s grandfather needed a manager to maintain and run the carousel. He hired this man’s grandfather, an apprentice to William Dentzel. The son then the grandson took over.
He gave me a limp shake. “Oh yes, I didn’t recognize you. I’m sorry about Mary.”
“Let me get the ride going and I’ll be right back.”
He stepped off the platform and disappeared behind a panel into the guts of the machine. A moment later the circus music came on, the carousel turned, and the jumping horses settled into their gait. Before it reached full speed, Douglas reappeared and stepped back up on the platform.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Gerrard?”
“I’m looking into the Billings murder.”
“I know Mr. Sinclair didn’t kill that horrible man.”
“Because Mr. Sinclair is a wonderful man. He never once complained about the money I needed to maintain the carousel.”
Did Morty have a choice? I thought. The carousel was an antique. If he had let it run down he would have depreciated its value.
“Does he lose much on it?”
“Around fifteen thousand a year.”
Douglas turned from me and patted one of the horses next to us. “Did you have a nice run, Billy?” He stroked the mane of another. “Did you enjoy that child, Lilly?” He rubbed a third on the nose. “I know, Sandy. That boy scratched you, but I’ll make it better.”
His attention back on me, he said, “These are all my babies. When they get injured, I nurse them back to health.”
I nodded and offered him a limp smile.
The carousel slowed to a stop. “Get off and wait for me,” Douglas said. “I have something else I want to show you.”
While I waited for him to collect the money and restart the merry-go-round I went to look at a glass enclosed display case. An old pocket watch and a pearl hair pin caught my attention. I was about to read the caption when Douglas walked up to me and said, “Sometimes the seams on the horses open and people accidentally, or maybe on purpose, drop things into them.”
“I don’t remember these displays.”
“I set them up to try and get people talking about the carousel, maybe get some more riders.”
I thought, good idea, and went to the next display case. It showed two sides of a finished horse, but one side was more lavish than the other. Douglas again spoke before I could read the card. “You’re wondering why the right side is more elaborate than the left.”
“That horse comes from the outside ring of the carousel. Carousels revolve counter clockwise. The right side faces out. The artists called that the romance side and always carved it more lavishly than the left because the potential riders see the right side first.”
“Interesting,” I said and moved on to another display which held a picture of participants and spectators dressed in lavish Renaissance costumes, carrying colorful banners and flags.
“That’s a print of a picture called Le Grand Carrousel. The painting depicts a tournament thrown by Louis XIV in 1662 to impress his mistress. It was those lavish costumes and trappings that inspired the builders of America’s carousels. The word carousel came from Italian words, either carosello, meaning a ball game, or garrosello meaning little war.”
“Merry-go-rounds come from war?”
“More like jousts which had became civilized. No more lances, battle axes and swords. A game was invented in Italy where the participants rode in a circle and threw clay balls, garrosello, filled with perfume at each other. A hit eliminated an opponent. See how those Italian words became a French word spelled with two Rs by the way?”
With a big grin on his face he said, “That’s not the end of the story. To keep their horses from getting worn out or injured during practice, someone invented a gizmo where inexperienced newcomers could sit on a wooden log hung from a wheel atop a pole and turned by a plow horse. When the aristocrats saw the thing they thought it was fun and had seats resembling fancy carriages attached to the wheel and an amusement ride was born.”
The carousel stopped and Douglas left me to collect the fares from the new riders and restart the machine. While he was gone I scanned the final display and read the caption under the picture of people reaching out to catch the brass ring.
Catching the brass ring came from earlier Moorish tournaments in Spain where riders would try to spear a ring hanging on a cord. Applied to the carousel, it became known as a symbol of good luck and those snatching the brass ring got a free ride. Today, only a few carousels have brass ring machines because the insurance needed in case a rider fell off while leaning out to catch the ring was too costly.
My eyes teared again. Mary and I used to compete to see who could catch the most rings. Having ridden the carousel since childhood, her experience always won out over my longer arms.
Douglas returned. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, fine. Just reminiscing.”
“Mary loved this merry-go-round”.
“Would you like to see some more things?”
He walked to a door in a plywood wall and unlocked it. “My work room.”
As we entered I asked, “What happens if the shut down timer fails?”
“I pull that switch over there.”
The smell of paint, glue and sawdust in the confined room was overpowering. C-clamps, bench clamps, rasps, calipers, planes and chisels―their wooden handles worn smooth from years of use―hung on pegboard over a scarred workbench. A band saw stood next to the workbench. When I spotted rubber mallets I re-scanned the room looking for a hammer, but I didn’t see one.
The main attraction in the workshop was a carousel horse attached by its pole to brackets in the ceiling and floor. The left ear and a small section of the mane were raw wood. Douglas walked to the workbench and picked up a piece of sandpaper and stroked the ear gently then felt it with his hand.
“I nurse all my babies back to health here,” he said. “People don’t realize how they hurt my darlings. Their belt buckles and jewelry scratch and gouge them.”
“Doesn’t repainting affect the value?”
“I am a certified carousel restorer. I use the exact same paint ingredients the original carvers used, and the glue. I mix them myself from the formulas my grandfather kept.”
I nodded and said, “It’s a shame this carousel is going to be sold in a couple of weeks.”
“Very bad, very bad.”
“Do you blame Mr. Sinclair?”
“Oh no, he has to do what is best for him.”
“What are you going to do?”
“There’s another job I’m considering in Alabama. A theme park operator is re-assembling an antique carousel and asked me to supervise the work then run it.” He stroked the horse’s neck. “I hope my poor babies I’m leaving behind get a good home. That’s all I pray for.”
This little guy was strange, but a murderer? I doubted it, but to satisfy myself, I had probe.
“I’m surprised Billings spotted that bulb out.”
“Oh, you know he was here that day?”
“From his inspection report.”
“Yes, of course. If I wasn’t away, I would have changed it before Mr. Billings noticed it.”
“You were away? Where were you?”
“In Philadelphia visiting my sister.”
“Can anyone else verify that?”
“You don’t think I…What would be my motive?”
“How about he asked for a payoff or he’d shut down the carousel?”
“If he was a grafter he wouldn’t ask me for money, he’d ask Mr. Sinclair. I’m only the manager.”
I remained silent, staring at him, waiting for the answer to my question.
“I was celebrating my sister’s sixty-fifth birthday. There were twenty people at the party who saw me.”
“When did you return here?”
“I resent your implication.”
“I’m sorry, but you realize these are the same questions a defense attorney will ask you at the trial.”
“I slept over at my sister’s house and got back here around eight the morning following the murder.”
“Does someone run the carousel when you’re gone, or do you shut it down?”
“Cal Edwards runs it for me when I’m away or sick.”
The man who couldn’t raise the money to buy the carousel!
“He,” Douglas started to say then stopped.
“I don’t want to accuse anyone.”
“What is it?”
“When I’m away it seems the fees are lower than they should be.”
“You think Edwards is stealing?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. On any given day we could have a hundred riders or ten. But it seems that whenever Mr. Edwards runs the carousel, the number of riders is always on the lower side. I mentioned it to him a couple of times, but he said they were off days.”
“Where can I find him?”
Douglas told me Edwards owned an apartment complex on the north end of town. Unlike many other Sea Gate apartment units needing a carpenter and a coat of pain, the brick façade on Douglas’ complex gleamed a lustrous red. The white doors and trim around the windows sparkled. The shrubs were sculptured into perfect balls and cones and the meticulously manicured lawn looked ready for a croquet club to plant their wickets. Only the sign near the sidewalk detracted from the postcard like picture. Painted over the shadow of a carousel horse the message read, Keep the Carousel in Sea Gate. Send your donations to Save The Carousel Committee, 300 Lake Drive, Sea Gate, NJ 03258.
I rang the office bell. No one answered. I heard the whining sound of a saw seeming to come from the rear of the property. I followed the sidewalk to a row of garages. One door was open and the buzz-saw noise was coming from it.
In the garage a man with his back to me was maneuvering wood through the blade of a band saw. Like in Douglas’ workroom, the odor of paint, sawdust and glue seeped out, but nowhere near as overpowering because of the wide open door. Along one wall was a shelf blanketed with carousel books. Holding the books in place as book ends were a jar filled with brass rings and a miniature carousel horse. Papering the wall above the bookshelf all the way to the ceiling were posters and handbills of carousels.
Stacked in a neat row against the rear wall were planks of wood one inch and two inches thick. The same tools I saw in Douglas’ workroom hung on pegboard. Templates of heavy craft paper were piled high on a table in a corner. Pieces of shaped wood cluttered the floor and the table in the center of the room. But what attracted me the most was a full sized carousel horse just inside the door.
The saw stopped whining.
He almost jumped out of his denim coveralls. “You startled me.”
“I’m Morty’s brother-in-law.”
He slipped his hand under the bib of his coveralls and scratched his chest. His round shape and that movement reminded me of Megilla Gorilla, a cartoon show my kids used to watch.
“What do you want?”
That wasn’t very friendly, I thought. I had to break his confrontational attitude, get him comfortable if I wanted him to stumble and blurt out something incriminating. I pointed to the carousel horse. “Did you make this?”
It looked similar to the ones on the carousel with the carved saddle, ribbons on the bridle, tassels on the breast collar, bells on the harness and a hunter with a leprechaun face holding a spear peeking out from behind the saddle cantle.
“How much will you get for it?”
“Five thousand, sometimes a little more.”
“Who buys them?”
“Amusement parks. It’s a pittance compared to what the ones on our carousel will go for.”
Interesting he said, our carousel as if he owned it. “How much would that be?”
“Thirty-five thousand dollars, more or less.”
“Then there’re the rounding boards, chariots and band organ. There worth thousands also.”
“I heard the auction will bring a million and a half.”
“Yeah, son-of-a-bitch is selling it off piecemeal rather than to one buyer who will keep it intact.”
So much for the non-confrontational approach. What the hell, I might as well go for the jugular. “Then what I was told is true, you and Morty did have a falling out?”
“I was behind Morty all the way in trying to revive this town. I fought the corruption with him. Then he turns around and puts the carousel up for sale.”
“It is his to do with as he wants.”
“Morty’s father and grandfather knew their carousel was a treasure of this city. Said so more ’n once. They didn’t want it sold.”
“Yeah, and so do friendships.”
He rested his hand on the finished horse. “You want to know how these are made?”
That was a quick change of subject. What the hell, I wasn’t getting anywhere. “Sure.”
“A completed horse takes seventy-five pieces or more.” He pointed to the wood piled in the back. “I glue two or three planks together, mark the wood with one of those templates and cut it out. The whole leg can have up to fourteen pieces. The horseshoe can have five pieces. Once the horse is assembled then comes the hard part of carving the details. That’s where the amateurs like me are separated from the old time carousel builders―Dentzel, the Muller Brothers, Carnigliano, Looff, Illions, Carmel, Parker, Herschell and Spillman and Stein and Goldstein.”
He rattled off the names like those guys were old friends. They probably were in his mind. I’m sure he studied them very closely.
He seemed to have calmed down considerably so I decided to get back to business. “You mentioned you fought the corruption. How much was Billings hitting you up for?”
He turned away, grabbed a broom and dustpan and started to clean up the sawdust.
Oh, he was paying off alright, probably for each certificate of occupancy. Before Mary and I retired we owned a furniture store. We kept it neat and tidy―aisles clear, fire extinguishers charged, emergency lights working―but the code enforcement officer always found some knit-picking thing to write down to show he was doing his job. But he never asked for anything and I never offered. However, in this town I knew first hand payoffs were standard operating procedures.
“I understand you managed the carousel the night Billings was killed.”
“Not at night. I locked up at six. We don’t stay open nights anymore.”
I didn’t have to ask why.
He stopped his sweeping. “I’m the only one Douglas trusts, to a point.”
“To a point?” Was he going to admit he skimmed?
“Whenever he’s away, the first thing he does when he gets back is check to make sure I shut it down properly.”
“When did he come back from Philadelphia?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you do with the receipts?”
“He leaves me a deposit slip and the night deposit bag.”
We stared at each other for a moment. I tried to figure a way to phrase my next question diplomatically, but that seemed impossible so I just asked it. “Douglas told me the receipts seemed short when you run the carousel. You wouldn’t be skimming to make up for those payoffs Billings hit you up for?”
“That’s crap. I give him every cent I take in.”
“But Billings was hitting you up for a payoff?” I repeated.
I took a piece of layered wood out of a barrel and flipped it around in my hand. My stomach suddenly knotted. “Son-of-a-bitch!”
“Can I keep it?”
“If you’ll go away.”
I had to see Morty, but it was passed five and the cops probably wouldn’t let me in so I headed home with my piece of scrap and a zillion questions running around my mind. Entering my condo in Sheffield, a town on the Wanahee River forty-five minutes north of Sea Gate, I went to my bar and reached for Jack Daniels, but withdrew my hand because I heard Mary whisper in my ear, You have to keep a clear head to help my brother.
It took all my will power not to turn to my friends, but I did it and fell asleep with the TV on.
I woke at six. It was the first time in almost a year I didn’t have a hangover. Stimulated, I decided to take a run, something I also hadn’t done since Mary died. I made it two blocks before I almost collapsed, breathless, my body soaked in sweat. I walked it off, went home and took a shower.
Standing at the sink with a towel wrapped around my waist, I opened the medicine cabinet to get my razor. Enshrined on the middle shelf lay Mary’s tortoise shell hair brush, her blond hair still intertwined around the bristles. Gently I lifted the brush, drew it to my nose and inhaled her essence. As I had done so many times this past year, I closed my eyes and imagined myself propped up against the pillows on our bed watching her as she sat at her dressing table, clad in an alluring negligee, brushing her shoulder length hair. I wept, but today not only for my Mary, but also for her brother.
“I’m doing my best for Morty,” I said telepathically. “But he’s in deep trouble. He’s been making carousel horses and somehow it got him caught up in a murder.”
He didn’t do it!
“I don’t think he did it either, but how do I find out who did?”
You’ll figure it out. I have faith in you.
The urge to go downstairs and grab one of my friends flooded over me, but I resisted and ran out of the house to the coffee shop.
At nine I called Meechum and told him I had to see Morty again.
“What’s up? You find something out?”
“I’m not sure yet. Set it up for ten.”
I was a little late getting to Sea Gate because I was forced to make a stop. Marion County, New Jersey, founded in the 1660s, was one of the great antiquing destinations on the east coast. The small farms, some dating back to the eighteenth century, were no longer viable as income producers, but the land was worth a fortune, the county being an hour’s train or bus ride to New York City. Like the developers salivating over the land, the antique dealers drooled over the stuff that flowed out of the attics of the old farm houses and their accompanying barns. Many of them banded together and created an antique district in Sheffield.
This morning, passing through the district to get to the highway, I spotted a carousel horse in a dealer’s window. Until yesterday I wouldn’t have given it a second look. But not now. I pulled over and got out. If it didn’t look like one of the horses from Sea Gate’s carousel I didn’t know what did. I tried the shop door. It was open. As I stared at the horse, a stoop shouldered man in wrinkled khakis and rumpled shirt came up to me. “You interested in her?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“From a guy down in Sea Gate. He told me it was an original Dentzel. I doubted it, but I had three experts verify it. You know Dentzel made the best carvings?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said but the guy went on with his sales pitch.
“Dentzel’s Philadelphia Style was elegant, the animals graceful with regal poses and exceptional attention to detail―muscle tone, lips, tongue, eyelids, and ears looking like they were twitching, and manes flying. As opposed to the Coney Island Style of the carousel builders out of Brooklyn who gave their animals big teeth, flaring nostrils, high pommels and cantles on the saddles with exaggerated poses and a lot go glass jewels and gold leaf. Dentzel didn’t like those jewels and gilt and rarely used them―”
I cut him off. “Do you remember what the guy looked like?”
His face skewed into a panic. “What’s wrong? You’re not a cop are you? It isn’t stolen is it?”
“No, it’s not stolen. But I’d still like to know what the seller looked like if you can help me.”
He shrugged. “Big guy. Six six if he was an inch. Not fat, but thick around the middle. Black hair swept straight back.”
“When did you buy it?”
“Three days ago. Guy said he had more. I told him I’d take all he had if they’re in mint condition like this one.”
“And you didn’t question where it came from?”
“He told me he had bought them from a dealer down south years ago. Hated to part with them but he needed the money.”
Standing over Morty, I flipped the piece of scrap I took from Edwards onto the table. “What is this?”
“A piece of wood.”
“Don’t be cute with me. If you want my help I have to know everything. What were you doing at the cabinet shop?”
He licked his lips, bowed his head and muttered something unintelligible.
“Let me help you. You’re making carousel horses there, aren’t you?”
“What are you doing with them?” When I left Edwards, my first thought had been counterfeiting, but when the dealer told me three other experts authenticated it another thought hit my mind.
“Selling them as Dentzels.”
“Don’t con me, Morty. You’re not selling the ones you’re making. You’re a great craftsman, but you’re not that good. Plus, how would you duplicate the paint and glue used a hundred years ago?”
“Okay, I’m not selling mine as Dentzels. I copied one from the carousel and switched mine and sold the real one.”
“How did you get the plans?”
“On the internet. You can find anything there.”
“What about painting it? How did you match the colors?”
“I photographed the horse I was copying with a high resolution camera. I did a good job, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, wonderful. How long have you been planning this?”
“A couple of months. It takes time to set up an auction. The pieces have to be authenticated, a catalogue printed and distributed. I needed cash to hold me over.”
“How did Billings get involved?”
“He was driving by the carousel the night I was making the switch. He guessed what I was doing and demanded a payoff to keep quiet. Bastard even helped me load the Dentzel into my truck.”
“A thousand dollars.”
I thought, lucky for you he didn’t know what they were really worth. “But you knew he would never stop blackmailing you so you killed him?”
“No, I swear. I agreed to pay him.”
“Then how did your hammer with your fingerprints and his blood and hair on it get into his car?”
“I don’t know. I must have dropped it during the switch. It wasn’t in the truck when I looked for it. The killer must have found it and used it to kill Billings.”
“What time did all this go down with Billings?”
“Around midnight, maybe a little later.”
Right around the time he was killed, I thought.
I jumped on the carousel before it came to a complete stop, wove my way through the horses wondering which one Morty had switched. I hopped off at the opening in the panels and slipped behind them. “Mr. Douglas, we have to talk.”
“You can’t be back here.”
“You killed Billings, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“When did you return from your sister’s party?”
“I told you, in the morning.”
“You sure about that? It won’t be too hard to check with the people at the party to see when you left.”
He rose from his stool. “I have to collect the fares.”
I blocked him from leaving. “They’ll wait. Here’s what I know. The medical examiner puts Billings’ death around one in the morning. Billings died sitting in his convertible right outside the carousel. Mr. Edwards told me you always check the carousel when you return from a trip, even before you go home. These are your babies. Parents are fanatical about checking up on their children, especially when they return from a night out.”
Douglas tried to get around me.
He cowered back to his stool.
“This is what I think happened. You came back from Philly and approached the carousel at the same time Morty was switching the horse. Hiding, you went into a silent rage. Someone was kidnapping one of your babies. But what could you do about it? They weren’t really your children. They were Morty’s and he was exercising his parental rights even though he was doing it at an odd hour.”
I stared him directly in the eye. He couldn’t hold my gaze and dropped his head.
“Morty drove off with the horse, but Billings was still sitting in his convertible, the top down. The police report shows he was on the phone. I don’t believe for a minute Edwards stole money. I think it was you who was skimming because Billings probably threatened to shut down the carousel if you didn’t pay him off. After all there’s no cash register or counting machine to tell how many riders you have. You would have been devastated if you couldn’t operate this carousel so you paid.”
“That’s not true,” he said continuing to stare at the floor.
“When you saw Morty’s hammer on the sidewalk or in the gutter where he had dropped it. You got the idea how to punish both Morty and that grafting Billings. You picked up the hammer with your handkerchief or a piece of paper and smashed Billings’ head in and threw the hammer into the car.”
“No,” he whimpered.
“Yes! And I’m going to have a forensic specialist go over that hammer with a fine DESI technology. Do you know what that is?”
He shook his head.
“It’s a new technology to detect trace amounts of materials. It will detect anything that touched that hammer. If you got even the minutest particle of paint or glue or DNA on it from your handkerchief or whatever you used to hold the hammer, it’ll show up under DESI technology.”
“I cried every night this week wondering if my baby fell into the hands of an abuser who whipped and scratched him.”
Helping Mary’s brother made me realize she would not approve of the way I had been mourning her. I drew Mary’s brush out of the medicine chest and clasped to my chest. Tears running down my face, I said. “I will always love you.”
I opened the bottom drawer in the vanity and put in the brush. Downstairs, I took out the three guys who had deluded me into believing I needed them to get through the day, and poured them down the drain. Picking up the phone, I called an old pal.
“Russ, how long’s it been?”
“Too long. You need a fourth today?”
“As a matter of fact we do.”
“When do we tee off.”
Novels by Richard Brawer
Murder at the Jersey Shore
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