Rockwell’s Gangster

             Gats Griscomb was a hoodlum of the old school. He died in the thirties, the nineteen-thirties. He was forty-five, an ugly, balding man of mixed descent. He was short, even by the standards of the day, and mean in any era. It was said disparagingly, even among those who worked for him, that he had a six hundred word vocabulary, but it was enough to fully flesh out the world as he saw it. What he lacked in brains, he made up for with blind sucking greed. He was a man who scared people as he walked down the street, people who didn’t know who he was, as if he oozed some kind of pheromone. Maybe it was the swagger, or the guns he carried in each pocket of the cheap black seersucker jacket. I’ve seen his mug shots, and Gats was a cross between Danny De Vito and Bob Hoskins, only uglier. From the crime scene photos, it appeared that death did him justice, though probably not enough.

Gats ran the rackets in the counties north of New York. His business was bootleg liquor, gambling and prostitution. The area was mostly rural back then, with a lot of small towns. But his clientele came from the city, people looking for a place to hide in plain sight, or stage their liquor, or get laid without worrying about the competition breaking in with guns drawn. Gats worked hand in glove with the local police as long as he left the locals alone. Three generations before it was in, he was a man of sudden urges and instant gratification, and sometimes, to feel the rush, he had to kill someone.

It was like that one cold February morning when Gats finished a roll in the hay with his finest whore, a woman so beautiful she made men woozy as the blood left their heads for nether regions. But Gats was in a lousy mood, didn’t pay her, in fact tipped her with a slap in the face. It was a performance thing, and no way it was his fault. It put him in the mood for killing. Her too.

Gats met up with his trusted henchman, a dark oily fat man named Rolls. Nobody knew his last name. They didn’t talk, didn’t need to. The communication they shared was at a deeper level than language, and it didn’t need any six hundred words. They were going to end the incursion by a punk from the Bronx, Jimmy ‘Snake Eyes’ Costangelo. Gats didn’t much care for Whops, or for that matter Micks. Unbeknownst to Gats, Rolls was a lot less discriminatory.

No one knows exactly what happened, but when the bullets were done flying, Rolls was working for Snake Eyes, Gats’ whore was on the Italian’s arm, and Gats was blessing the sidewalk with his blood. It was all recorded in black and white, which is it for color in my world. One would think this was the end of Gats Griscomb’s reign of terror. One would be wrong.

The illustrator, Norman Rockwell, was in New York at the time, getting over his divorce. He was recently returned from an envy-inspiring trip to France, mired in his ‘I want to be a real artist’ phase. The trip had reinforced the view that he was that ‘photographer with a paintbrush’. He was thinking it might be the subject matter, so when he heard about the killing from a cop in New Rochelle, he gathered up his brushes, paints and a canvas and made his way north. He was a famous man, so the coroner left the body until he was done. It didn’t take that long under the color-draining klieg lights, what with fewer brush strokes and the limited palette; right, like I’ve got a clue about artists. All I know for sure is the subject didn’t need to be told to stand still. So Rockwell smoked his cigarettes, drank his coffee and peed in the storm drain. When the sun rose, there was no sign of the dead man or the artist.

The picture was titled ‘Dead Hoodlum’. It wasn’t like his reproduction art; the canvas was the best, without the quick set varnishes that turned gray with time. Rumor had it there was a hint of his fine detail work, but viewed through a gauze overlay. In the early thirties, the picture made it’s way through a couple of owners, never for much money, then it was gone without even a photograph to mark its existence. Gats Griscomb was lost to the world of art for seven decades, then one day he came back to kill again.

 

*               *               *

 

Jack and Marion Simpson didn’t know anything about old art, probably didn’t even watch Antiques Roadshow. Their daughter was a cop I’d dated a couple times. I don’t think they liked me. Still, they were good people. So is Diane, though she’s way too young for me. Despite the cop connection, the police made no headway and relegate it to another random act of violence during a burglary. Diane didn’t leave it there, but she’d made no progress either. That happens a lot in the police business, and they have to wait for the clues. But something told her it wasn’t random, that waiting wouldn’t do any good. They’d been dead four months, and I was the last straw, a private investigator, an admission of defeat, but we were friends, and she got by it.

I walked the ten blocks to her parent’s house. I hadn’t seen her since the funeral. She’d gotten better looking. One of the things I like about Diane is how she’s oblivious to being beautiful, because it came to her so late. She grudgingly handed over the police file as if it was a sacred text, and I was its profane recipient. She tells me she doesn’t feel that way about PI’s, but the little signs say otherwise. She left me to start her shift.

I read through the file. I left the crime photos in their sleeve; I didn’t want the pictures to be the last memories I had of the Simpsons. They’d died in that room, their hands and feet bound, their throats cut. Burglars don’t murder except by accident, and the cops know it, but sometimes all they’re left with is the old chestnuts. I don’t blame them, they have to move on, and there are so many murders. I don’t do that. Diane knows that, and that’s why she came to me. My files remain open until the killer is caught, and I’ve got a lifetime to get it right.

I returned my attention to the room. Someone had washed the blood off the dark gray hardwood floor, but a gray outline, like a giant amoeba, showed to my color challenged eyes. For a moment I felt their fear, and then it was gone. I rummaged through a desk in their little office, read their papers, looked in drawers and closets. The house was a pre-war – World War II that is – bungalow built for the Kaiser aluminum plant workers, and later added onto, horizontally. It was a single floor decorated a full generation out of tune with current trends. That pretty much described the owners too.

There were two bedrooms in the added ell. Each room had two beds. Beyond the colors I couldn’t see anyway, it was obvious which room housed the girls, which the boys. It looked like Diane slept over pretty often. The sheets were rumpled; there was no dust. I could learn a lot about the girl if I tossed the room, but I figured she wouldn’t want me to know.

I found a pull down steps in the ceiling. I climbed into the tall, skinny workroom with its sharply pitched ceiling. It hadn’t been used in thirty years. A bare bulb hung in the center of the room from a fuzzy sixty year-old electric cord. A tiny, grime clouded window on the south wall let it a minimum of light. Dust covered tools were laid out on a sturdy wood table, woodworking chisels and the like. There were carved pieces set against the wall, and another ten or twelve works piled haphazardly in a corner. The quality didn’t look so special to me.

I lit the room. Someone had been up there, recently. Big footprints marred the dust, cop spoor; a smaller set of the same type of shoes, Simpson. Less recent prints had an extra patina of dust. There were pictures leaning against the walls, etchings and reproductions from a past age. Short doors on both sides of the room led to storage areas dominated by cobwebs, old books about carving, and more carvings. I returned to the center of the room and sat in the straight back chair. I thought about the man who had sat there, hour after hour, whittling away. I couldn’t take the loneliness of it.

The walls were painted in depression era whitewash, like my father used inside the dairy barn. It was a stringy whiteness that let the gray plaster tones bleed through. My rod rich retinas picked out the faintest rectangle of darkening on the wall opposite the window. Whatever hung there must have been there a long time to leave any mark at all. The nail hole and the nearly invisible shadow were all that remained.

I tried all the pictures against the wall. Some were close, but not close enough. I went to the first floor and looked for anything nearly two hands wide and three hands tall. Nothing. I thought a while about what it was I thought I knew. I locked the door on the way out and made my way back to my office.

I logged onto the internet and searched the local press, then the national media. I was looking for newly discovered art works, photographs, whatever. I found references to three paintings, but only one in the right size, a twenty by thirty listed as ‘Rockwell’s Gangster.’ It was sold a month earlier, for one-point-seven million. The seller was listed as anonymous. I called the auction house in New York, but they wouldn’t tell me a thing. I called my son, Robin, a lawyer who worked in the city and lived in the Village. I told him everything I’d guessed.

He was back to me in three hours. “Dad, I talked to a woman at the auction house. She says we’d need a lot more than unsubstantiated suppositions. I mentioned search warrant, and she said it’d take that.”

I complained, “I don’t have near enough.”

“Well, I got something –” He paused. I left the air empty. He filled it; “I asked if the seller was from Portland, she said no, but –” Another pause; “– she lied. I saw it.”

I returned to the Simpson house and started walking one block away from and around the house, then another full block, zigzagging in and out, and another. I wrote down the addresses of every art store, antique shop and pawn broker. In two hours I had eleven.

I called Becky Tomay, a studs and tattoos artisan who has a shop near the BurnsideBridge. She met me for breakfast. I told her to look her mousiest. Now Becky is not a mousy person, but she’s tiny, five-one, a flat-chested ninety pounds, thirty-five, dark black flyaway hair, and a very pretty face. Oh, no tattoos, no studs. She’s a woman I like a lot. She did a good job at looking mousy and vulnerable.

We put together a scenario and role-played it for over an hour until the waitress’s glare pushed us out of the crowded restaurant. I wired her for sound. It was good for a hundred feet, but I wasn’t going to get that far away. I hitched a body holster to her thin waist. She said she didn’t know how to shoot. I asked if she knew how to point. She said yes. I said that was enough, that the gun wasn’t loaded.

I gave her the first of the eleven e-mails I’d printed out. Becky’s opening line was, “Yes, Mr./Mrs. fill-in-the-blank, my aunt sent me this e-mail saying she’d left a picture with you, a painting of a dead man, like a gangster. I’m the executor of the will and want to ensure the estate is in place before we start the valuation. I was wondering if you still had the picture.”

It was in the seventh store, The Human Packrat, where the owner said, “I don’t think so. The name is unfamiliar to me.” I heard her flipping the pages of a book. “Why don’t we go in the back room and make sure there’s nothing there.”

As I was entering the front door, I heard Becky over the earphone, “Get away from me or I’ll shoot.”

I slipped through the hanging beads that separated the back room from the store.

The woman turned to me. She was brandishing an antique pig sticker, looking every bit like Bette Davis in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’. God only knows what she thought she was doing. I mean, it’s not like killing Becky would have saved her.

She wore a white goth makeup, with black painted lips. She cried, “Who are you?” The makeup clashed with the sixties hippy look of her solid gray dress, Birkenstocks, frizzed gray hair. She didn’t look like someone with one-point-seven million. Maybe she was waiting for the money to get clean. She was wrong; it would never be clean.

I pointed my pistol at the woman and motioned Becky to move behind me. “Call 9-1-1.”

Becky and I spent the rest of the day with the cops. By nightfall they had the information from New York, and Moon Glow Mullins was behind bars. Diane stopped by to say thanks. I took Becky to supper. I asked her if this was a date. She said it could be if I wanted it to be.

The next morning I tried to tell Diane it was gratis, but she wouldn’t stand for it. She doesn’t know that I don’t need more money. It’s a secret. But it made her feel better.

Diane had an estimator in a week later to value the estate. Turned out my untrained eye was really untrained. The carvings were from a whole slew of famous artists from the twenties, probably traded for carvings of the workroom’s lone artisan. The hundred plus pieces were worth almost two million. The four children split the proceeds, and Diane went on with her career.

They gave the picture to a museum, in the name of their parents. Maybe Gats Griscomb was done killing at last. Then again …

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