THE GIACANO FAMILY had locked up the action in Orleans and Jefferson parishes back in Prohibition. Their sanction and charter came from the Chicago Commission, of course, and no other crime family ever tried to intrude upon their territory. Hence, all prostitution, fence operations, money laundering, gambling, shylocking, labor takeovers, drug trafficking, and even game poaching in south Louisiana became forever their special province. No street hustler, grifter, second-story creep, Murphy artist, dip, stall, or low-rent pimp doubted that fact, either, not unless he wanted to hear a cassette of what Tommy Figorelli (also known as Tommy Fig, Tommy Fingers, Tommy Five) had to say above the whine of an electric saw just before he was freeze-dried and hung in parts from the wood fan in his own butcher shop.
That’s why Sonny Boy Marsallus, who grew up in the Iberville welfare project when it was all white, was a kind of miracle on Canal back in the seventies and early eighties. He didn’t piece off his action, pimp, or deal in drugs or guns, and he told the old fat boy himself, Didoni Giacano, to join Weight Watchers or the Save the Whales movement. I still remember him out there on the sidewalk, down from the old Jung Hotel, on an electric-blue spring evening, with the palm fronds rattling and streetcars clanging out on the neutral ground, his skin as unblemished as milk, his bronze-red hair lightly oiled and combed back on the sides, always running some kind of game—craps, high-stakes bouree, washing Jersey money out at the track, bailing out mainline recidivists licensed bondsmen wouldn’t pick up by the ears with Q-Tips, lending money with no vig to girls who wanted to leave the life.
Actually Sonny practiced the ethics that the mob falsely claimed for themselves.
But too many girls took a Greyhound out of New Orleans on Sonny’s money for the Giacanos to abide Sonny’s presence much longer. That’s when he went south of the border, where he saw firsthand the opening of the Reagan theme park in El Salvador and Guatemala. Clete Purcel, my old partner from Homicide in the First District, hooked up with him down there, when Clete himself was on the run from a murder beef, but would never talk about what they did together, or what caused Sonny to become a subject of strange rumors: that he’d gone crazy on muta and pulche and psychedelic mushrooms, that he’d joined up with leftist terrorists, had served time in a shithole Nicaraguan jail, was working with Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico, or was in a monastery in Jalisco. Take your choice, it all sounded unlike a Canal Street fixer with scars in his eyebrows and a coin-jingling rebop in his walk.
That’s why I was surprised to hear he was back in town, fading the action again and putting deals together at the Pearl, where the old green-painted iron streetcar made its turn off St. Charles onto the lovely hard-candy glitter and wind-blown palm-dotted sweep of Canal Street. When I saw him hanging in front of a game room two blocks up, his tropical suit and lavender shirt rippled with neon, he looked like he had never been under a hard sun or humped an M-60 or rucksack in a jungle where at night you burned leeches off your skin with cigarettes and tried not to think about the smell of trench foot that rose from your rotting socks.
Pool-room blacks leaned against parking meters and storefront walls, music blaring from boom boxes.
He snapped and popped his fingers and palms together and winked at me. “What’s happenin’, Streak?” he said.
“No haps, Sonny. You didn’t get enough of free-fire zones?”
“The city? It’s not that bad.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Drink a beer, eat some oysters with me.”
His accent was adenoidal, like most blue-collar New Orleans people whose English was influenced by the Irish and Italian immigrations of the late nineteenth century. He smiled at me, then puffed air out his mouth and cut his eyes up and down the street. He fastened his eyes on me again, still smiling, a man gliding on his own rhythms.
“Ouch,” he said, and stuck a stiffened finger in the middle of his forehead. “I forgot, I heard you go to meetings now, hey, I love iced tea. Come on, Streak.”
“Why not?” I said.
We stood at the bar in the Pearl and ate raw oysters that were briny and cold, with flecks of ice clinging to the shells. He paid from a cash roll of fifties in his pocket that was wrapped with a thick rubber band. His jaws and the back of his neck gleamed with a fresh haircut and shave.
“You didn’t want to try Houston or Miami?” I said.
“When good people die, they move to New Orleans.”
But his affected flamboyance and good humor weren’t convincing. Sonny looked worn around the edges, a bit manic, maybe fried a little by his own velocity, the light in his eyes wary, his attention to the room and front door too pronounced.
“You expecting somebody?” I asked.
“You know how it is.”
“Sweet Pea Chaisson,” he said.
He looked at my expression.
“What, that’s a surprise?” he asked.
“He’s a bucket of shit, Sonny.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
I was regretting my brief excursion into the illusionary pop and snap of Sonny Boy’s world.
“Hey, don’t go,” he said.
“I have to get back to New Iberia.”
“Sweet Pea just needs assurances. The guy’s reputation is exaggerated.”
“Tell his girls that.”
“You’re a cop, Dave. You learn about stuff after it’s history.”
“See you around, Sonny.”
His eyes looked through the front window onto the street. He fitted his hand over my forearm and watched the barman drawing a pitcher of beer.
“Don’t walk out now,” he said.
I looked through the front glass. Two women walked by, talking simultaneously. A man in a hat and raincoat stood on the curb, as though waiting for a taxi. A short heavyset man in a sports coat joined him. They both looked out at the street.
Sonny bit a hangnail and spit it off the tip of his tongue.
“Sweet Pea’s emissaries?” I said.
“A little more serious than that. Come into the can with me,” he said.
“I’m a police officer, Sonny. No intrigue. You got a beef, we call the locals.”
“Save the rhetoric for Dick Tracy. You got your piece?”
“What do you think?”
“The locals are no help on this one, Streak. You want to give me two minutes or not?”
He walked toward the rear of the restaurant. I waited a moment, placed my sunglasses on top of the bar to indicate to anyone watching that I would be back, then followed him. He bolted the rest room door behind us, hung his coat from the stall door, and peeled off his shirt. His skin looked like alabaster, hard and red along the bones. A blue Madonna image, with orange needles of light emanating from it, was tattooed high up on his right shoulder.
“You looking at my tattoo?” he said, and grinned.
“Oh, these scars?”
“A couple of ex-Somoza technicians invited me to a sensitivity session,” he said.
The scars were purple and as thick as soda straws, crisscrossed on his rib cage and chest.
He worked a taped black notebook loose from the small of his back. It popped free with a sucking sound. He held it in his hand, with the tape hanging from the cover, like an excised tumor.
“Keep this for me.”
“Keep it yourself,” I said.
“A lady’s holding a Xerox copy for me. You like poetry, confessional literature, all that kind of jazz. Nothing happens to me, drop it in the mail.”
“What are you doing, Sonny?”
“The world’s a small place today. People watch CNN in grass huts. A guy might as well play it out where the food is right.”
“You’re an intelligent man. You don’t have to be a punching bag for the Giacanos.”
“Check the year on the calendar when you get home. The spaghetti heads were starting to crash and burn back in the seventies.”
“Is your address inside?”
“Sure. You gonna read it?”
“Probably not. But I’ll hold it for you a week.”
“No curiosity?” he said, pulling his shirt back on. His mouth was red, like a woman’s, against his pale skin, and his eyes bright green when he smiled.
“You should,” he said. He slipped on his coat. “You know what a barracoon is, or was?”
“A place where slaves were kept.”
“Jean Lafitte had one right outside New Iberia. Near Spanish Lake. I bet you didn’t know that.” He stuck me in the stomach with his finger.
“I’m glad I found that out.”
“I’m going out through the kitchen. The guys out front won’t bother you.”
“I think your frame of reference is screwed up, Sonny. You don’t give a pass to a police officer.”
“Those guys out there ask questions in four languages, Dave. The one with the fire hydrant neck, he used to do chores in the basement for Idi Amin. He’d really like to have a chat with me.”
“I capped his brother. Enjoy the spring evening, Streak. It’s great to be home.”
He unlocked the door and disappeared through the back of the restaurant.
As I walked back to the bar, I saw both the hatted man and his short companion staring through the front glass. Their eyes reminded me of buckshot.
Fuck it, I thought, and headed for the door. But a crowd of Japanese tourists had just entered the restaurant, and by the time I got past them the sidewalk was empty except for an elderly black man selling cut flowers out of a cart.
The evening sky was light blue and ribbed with strips of pink cloud, and the breeze off the lake balmy and bitten with salt, redolent with the smells of coffee and roses and the dry electric flash and scorch of the streetcar.
As I headed back toward my pickup truck, I could see heat lightning, out over Lake Pontchartrain, trembling like shook foil inside a storm bank that had just pushed in from the Gulf.
An hour later the rain was blowing in blinding sheets all the way across the Atchafalaya swamp. Sonny Boy’s notebook vibrated on the dashboard with the roar of my engine.
When Sonny Boy Marsallus returns to New Iberia after fleeing
for Central America to avoid the wrath of the powerful Giacana
family, his old troubles soon follow. Meanwhile Dave
Robicheaux becomes entangled in the affairs of the Fontenot
family, descendants of sharecroppers whose matriarch helped
raise Dave as a child. They are in danger of losing the land
they've lived on for more than a century.
As Dave tries to discover who wants the land so badly, he finds
himself in increasing peril from a lethal, rag tag alliance of
local mobsters and a hired assassin with a shady past. And
when a seemingly innocent woman is brutally murdered, all
roads intersect, and Sonny Boy is in the middle.
With the usual James Lee Burke combination of brilliant
action and unforgettable characters, Burning Angel is
the author at his best -- showing that old hatreds and new
ones are not that far apart.
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