Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Average Joe Fall Guy Falls-With Kansas City Confidential In Mind

The Average Joe Fall Guy Falls-With Kansas City Confidential In Mind

By Bart Webber 

No question Joe Rolfe, formerly Joey Bops, was built for the frame, built for that frame to fit snuggly around his head. Not that Joe was stupid, far from it he had received his high school diploma and was in his first year of college when December 7, 1941 happened, when the world changed and he was all wrapped in the mess. Not that Joe wasn’t brave either since he received a couple of big military ribbons all shiny bright as a result of his service. And not that he wasn’t good-looking, good-looking to girls good-looking and so always had a girl on his arm in the old days before the war. Still when the deal went down Joey always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, always seemed to be the fall guy falling.

It had not always been like that. Before the war, during high school, during the days when he wore the moniker Joey Bops since he was crazy for swing music, you know Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, guys like that, when he hung around with Frankie Riley, James Riordan, Lefty Kelly, and Rusty Shea in front of Harry’s Drugstore in Carterville, that’s out in “show me” Missouri, he could do no wrong. He and what did they call them then, oh yeah, the corner boys, led by the ingenious Frankie Riley, “Sparks” Riley, would carry out every midnight caper in search of loot that one could think of and never got in trouble with the law, any that would wind up on the books. Not even when the very, very suspicious Carterville police thought they had the lot of them nailed tight for the heist at the Lamar mansion. Yeah those were the days when even nice Catholic girls who went to church every Sunday and for the public record said their rosaries and swore they had a Bible between their knees at all other times would that previous Saturday night give up what they had had to give up, those sweet pussies, when they went out on a date with a Harry’s Drugstore corner boy they knew some nice jewelry or maybe some dough would go with the giving that sweet thing up. And good-looking Joey Bops got all he wanted, even from those Bible-worn girls, maybe especially from them.      

But the war, well, the war changed Joey Bops a lot, like I said, Joey had seen a lot of action in Europe, had gotten those medals, those well-earned medals, but he had lost a step, had lost the beat, maybe the be-bop beat of his youth, but most importantly the beat of how to beat the rap on some midnight adventure. Once he got home, after the fanfare was over and he went back to being just average Joey Rolfe citizen, after he decided all he saw and did in Europe made it kind of silly for him to go back to State U even though the newly enacted GI Bill would have pulled him through like it would many other ex-soldiers, he kind of lost his moorings and figured that he would go back to that sweet life of crime. Maybe it was because he went solo (the other corner boys had all dispersed, gone on, except Rusty Shea who was buried over in France during the war after being killed by a German mortar), maybe it was because he had lost the touch, maybe it was because he was crazy to hit a foolish gas station but Joey, Joey Bops of all people, got pegged for the robbery, armed robbery, when he tried to pull the caper just as a cop car was passing by Fred’s Esso station. So Joey got a nickel, did three and that was that.          

That was that until he got out, got his probation. Got himself into another town, got himself into the city, the big city, Kansas City, where he picked up a job delivering flowers, simple stuff, but one of the few jobs an ex-con on probation could get-driving a truck. But getting that job turned out to be the kiss of death for old Joey. See one of the delivery stops that he made was to Jones’ Funeral Home, not the one on Center Street in K.C. but over on Main, next to the First National Bank. One day while he was parked out front of Jones’ delivering a rack of roses for some departed soul next door the bank was being robbed in broad daylight by some guys in masks. They got away with half a million in cool hard cash (just walking around money today but then real dough). Got away clean in a sweet job. Naturally the coppers looking around saw Joey’s silly flower truck, checked it and him out, and once they found out that he was an ex-con and had served time they took him downtown (and they had contacted as well the Carterville cops who put the blast on him for all the crimes that they couldn’t prove he committed). There he stayed for a couple of weeks until the coppers found enough information about the robbery plan to know that he was not part of the caper and they had to let him go.

Here’s the lesson Joey learned though from that experience he was never going to be able to go straight if he didn’t find out who pulled the First National Bank caper. (Or if he decided to go crooked again he would always have that fall guy tag on him for any “cold cases” the cops caught nothing on and he would spent many nights before those stupid police lights blaring line-ups.)  So hunting down the guys who did the deed was his next “career.” His new reason to get up in the morning. For this he needed a little help, help from the only private detective that he could afford at the time, Philip Larkin. Phil had been a guy that he met in the Army overseas and they had been transported home on the troop ships together landing in New York Harbor, spent a few days getting drunk as skunks and laid seven different ways including Joe’s first blow job in a long time, since before the world when some of those Catholic girls in Carterville who didn’t want to “do the do” would piece a guy off with some head to save their reputations, as virgins and yet at the same time as willing to be frisky, and you can figure what that “frisky” part meant  as best you can. They then parted Joe to Carterville and the slammer and Phil up north to Riverdale in Massachusetts to join the cops.        

They had stayed in contact via the U.S. mails and Phil had gone out to the Missouri State pen a couple times to visit Joe after he got himself booted off the Riverdale cops for not going along with the cover-up of a vehicular homicide case involving one of the town’s Mr. Bigs. Those were the days when Phil was just starting out in the private detection business before the Altman case which put him in the local headlines for a while. That had been a whirlwind which soon faded and when Joe contacted Phil he was more than happy to help out an old buddy since he had been shuffling along doing key-hole peeping, getting the goods on adulterous guys or gals for their ever-loving spouses in order for those ever-loving spouses to take to court and get divorces and grab as much dough at the traffic would bear from their shamefully unfaithful spouses. Tough wormy work. That and hitting the bottle stashed conveniently in the bottom desk drawer of his dust-filled office a little too much while killing time between jobs.      

Here’s the stuff they don’t show or tell you on detective shows on television or in those glossy-covered crime detection novels where the P.I. always outsmarts the public cops. Even on the obvious cases like where the distraught wife has a smoking gun in her hand with three bullets gone into a philandering husband now dead who just so happens to have three bullets in his worthless body. Even they, the public cops, can figure that one out, as long as there are three bullets in the body. Less or more all bets are off.  But as a rule a private eye if he or she wants to have any career better either leave the serious crime detection to the public cops or report everything he or she finds out in a case they are handling involving crime to them. That had been Phil’s policy early on in his career and he kept his license no sweat because of that hard fact. What that sound policy had allowed Phil to do for Joe was to get access to the First National Bank job stuff the cops there in K.C. knew about via his connections with a couple of Riverdale detectives whom he had helped out a couple of times.    

Funny the layout of the K.C. job was simplicity itself and even Joe had wished he had thought of the plan rather than having been the fall guy falling. See the truck that delivered the bank its working money, say it  had a half million or so in the back for such deliveries, arrived at the about the same time as Joe made his fucking flower deliveries to the funeral parlor. What happened was that on the day of the armored bank truck robbery the robbers had a replica of the flower truck to throw the coppers off the scent. The robbers, four in all, all wearing Jimmy Cagney gangster masks, pulled the heist of the armored vehicle leaving two guards severely wounded (they would recover), and taking off for parts unknown in the fake flower truck. Leaving Joe the fucking fall guy of fall guys once the APB went out and his truck was the only one still in sight. With Phil’s information as a guide and stuff he had heard when the K.C. cops were giving him the “third degree” Joe figured to figure the whole scam out before he was done. Joe thanked Phil for his help and that is the last we will see of Phil in this caper because Joe couldn’t afford the twenty-five bucks a day, plus expenses, that Phil needed to stay on the case and Joe was itching to blam blam the bad hombres who put him in that tight spot on his own.        

Don’t let the fall guy Joe thing fool you too much, that probation straight and narrow  either since Joe who did his drinking at Matty’s Tavern a well know hang-out for hoods and other loose-livers was pretty well-connected to the underworld even if he had to in the over-world play the probation game. Matty, working the bar himself one night when Joe came, gave him the tip that was the first step in getting his handle on the guys who set the frame on him. One of the hoods, name undisclosed, that hung around Matty’s had told Matty that Zeke Zimmer, a low-life gambler who had owed him money, five Gs, had  blown town  after paying  him off, was headed south to sunny Mexico and the gambling joints there. This Zeke was a serious low-life who half the time didn’t have two dimes to rub together and when he did he bet them on the roulette wheel, the blackjack table, the ponies, or the queen of hearts so his having dough was the lead that got Joe going, had him heading down to Juarez and some Touch of Evil madness.  This tip was proof positive, as much proof positive as Joe needed to follow the trail south since it was much more than likely that Zeke had been in on the bank heist.   

Juarez was and still is a tough town to get anything out of, any kind of information about anything even directions to Rosa’s Cantina and that place to this day is still etched with a huge neon sign so you can see it almost from across the border in El Paso. Back in the 1950s it really was something out of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil you could smell the corruption the minute you got over the international border, the minute you had to hand some foul-breathed Federale five dollars American to let you through without the usual hassle inspection, maybe planting some illegal drugs or other contraband on you if you didn’t fork over the fiver.  It got worst from there as every con man, hooker, drifter, and all the batos locos descended on your head looking for his or her piece. Joe, after spending an hour in Senorita Santa Maria’s whorehouse since he had not had a piece of a woman’s flesh for a while and the Senorita specialized in fresh young fluff from the country, made his way to Rosa’s Cantina where there was 24/7/365 casino action, action that an in the chips guy like Zeke would naturally gravitate toward to see how fast he could lose his shirt and begin his usual begging gringos for two dimes to rub together. 

Rosa’s like all such places in Juarez in those days was no place to be asking any questions about gringos with money to spend, maybe asking any questions at all so Joe just kind of plunked himself on a barstool, ordered some tequila, and waited until he spotted a low-rent gambler who fit the description given to him at Matty’s. The key piece of information Joe had received had been that Zeke always wore (except when it was in hock) a gold-plated onyx ring with a diamond stud set in the center which you could see from a distance. So Joe waited, waited a couple of hours getting a little blasted on that harsh high-shelf tequila he was ordering (and fending off the barmaids who were offering blow jobs over in a quiet corner if he would buy them a drink, yeah, Rosa’s was that kind of place, you could get anything there you wanted from sex to gold-plated dentures you just had to ask, no, just had to wait long enough and somebody would come by selling themselves or something).

Finally Zeke rolled in and headed to the blackjack table. Joe waited and watched looking for an opening to “talk” to Zeke. About two in the morning Zeke went outside for a breather, went out with a lot less dough that he had come in with. So when Joe approached him with the intend of collaring him to find out who and where the other guys were Zeke surprised him when he asked if he had five bucks he could lend him until “pay day.” Joe flagged Zeke off, gave him the fiver and then quick as a rabbit strong-armed Zeke and force-marched him to a quiet area where they could talk.

Zeke filled with anger, hubris, and morphine was ready to talk, or else as Joe made very clear. Joe was persuasive enough against this low-life punk that he found out that the other three guys were in Sonora further south and that Zeke was supposed to head there in a couple of days to meet up with them and divvy up the rest of the dough. Zeke even under extreme pressure from the gun that Joe had at his head could not come up with the names of the three other guys because they had all worn masks at all meetings and on the job. The only name Zeke knew was of the guy who planned the whole caper, a guy who called himself Mister Big, a lot of help that was. At the meeting in Sonora Zeke was to go to the El Dorado Cantina and present his calling card-a sad ass joker from a special deck of cards Mister Big gave each confederate.      

Joe convinced Zeke in the most dramatic way possible that he was going to Sonora with him and that dramatic encounter was enough for Zeke to see the light. The very next morning after some tacos and tomales one Joey Bops and one Zeke Zimmer were seen heading taking a dusty old bus headed south to Sonora. The ride down was uneventful except the endless dust, the locals with their Mexican luggage and their sweaty smells and goddam fowls brought along like children, and the story that Zeke, going slightly cold turkey from the morphine, had to tell.

Tell about how Mister Big put the whole production together. It was Mister Big who had figured out that the similar arrival times of the flower truck at the funeral home and the armored car at the bank gave a few minute opportunity to grab the cash and take off in a “fake” flower truck. They had practiced the route and run about twenty times before Mister Big told them they were ready. It was also Mister Big who thought of the idea of the masks so nobody could fink on the other guys to the coppers if caught and of laying off for a while before splitting up the big dough. It was his caper but they were to split four ways even, and that was why they each had a card from the special deck as identification. (Joe thought to himself knowing stoolies since he was about twelve years old Mister Big was smart enough to know guys like Zeke and the others who were probably dredged from the same barrel bottom would sell their mothers for five bucks and change if they were in a squeeze and were looking to get out from under some rap. This Mister Big would be a tough nut to crack.)

Arriving in the early morning in Sonora Joe checked into the Rio Grande Hotel, which unlike it high class sounding name was a flea-bag joint but which had the best bar in town, a bar that the touristas did not frequent and so adequate for Joe’s needs (naturally with Zeke as his boon roommate and drinking companion). The next morning, late, Joe left Zeke in the room, taking the added precaution of grabbing that joker as insurance for his survival and so that Zeke could not sneak away to grab his dough forgetting about his boon companion Joe and went down to the bar to grab a few quicks shots of tequila that he was getting to like very much. At the bar he noticed a gringa, a good-looking gringa, brunette, blue eyes, a little on the tall side, thin, nice shape, well-turned legs and wondered what she was doing in hot, sweaty dusty, Mexico. He walked over to her, asked her name, she answered Laura, asked her if she would like a drink, she accepted and then he asked her why she was down in dusty Sonora apparently by herself. Laura replied that she was down with her father who was there on business, she was bored and had decided that she would drink the morning away.

As it turned out this Laura, after a few more drinks, was in the time of her time, was looking for little sexual escapade to while away the hours while her father did his business. That was her story to Joey anyway. Joe obliged her, grabbed a bottle from off the bar and they went to her room. They stayed drunk and sexed-up for a couple of days as it turned out. Then coming out of his alcoholic and sex haze he remembered Zeke, told this Laura that he had to check into his own hotel to finish some business but would be back the next day. Naturally by the time Joe got back to his hotel Zeke was long gone. Joe decided that he would sleep for a while and then the next day head back to Laura’s place and figure out how to keep her in tow and go about the business of finding the bank robbers. 

Joe needn’t have been in any rush because by the time he got back to Laura’s room the next late morning he was met with a “welcoming” committee of four guys, three in Jimmy Cagney masks, Zeke, and of course Laura. What he had not known although he should have figured it out was that the father that Laura was down in Sonora on business with was none other than Mister Big. See the hood that had given Matty the information about Zeke up in K.C., later identified as Lefty Finley, a known pimp and bad guy to mess with, had been one of the robbers keeping an eye on Zeke who with his morphine habit was the “loose cannon” in the operation. All that special joker card stuff Zeke talked about to avoid stoolies by Mister Big in the end was so much razzle-dazzle for the paying public.   

Yeah Joe shouldn’t have been in any rush to see that Laura since a few days later he was found with two big bullets in his head in a dusty back road in Sonora with a joker in his coat pocket and some hundred dollar bills later identified as being from the robbery. Alongside him in that back alley were Zeke, Lefty and the other member of the gang, Bugs Malone, a known drug runner and another bad hombre. They also had special jokers and some hundred dollar bills in their coat pockets. End of case, end of case for the Sonora police, the Federales, since they chalked it up to some Mexican bad guys wasting some gringos trying to cut in on their play. The K.C. cops, having unloaded an unsolved bank robbery and four creeps wrote the whole thing down to what they knew they knew at first. Joe had been the Mister Big of the operation all along and had out-smarted himself somehow. A wise guy double-dipping on that fake flower truck stuff. The real Mister Big and his daughter, Laura, well they were never heard from again as far as anybody knew- if they had ever existed. Yeah, Joe Rolfe, Joey Bops, All-American fall guy falling the big fall.          

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