Motor City Shakedown
by D.E. Johnson
Sunday, August 6, 1911
My left index finger traced the shape of the little morphine bottle
through the outside of my trouser pocket. Nearly two hours had
passed since my last dose. Even though the pain in my right hand was
tolerable and my mind was still enveloped in the delicious fuzziness of
the opiate, I’d been fighting with myself for the last fifteen minutes--
one more taste before Moretti showed? I might not get another chance
for a while. But I couldn’t take too much. I had to be sharp.
Movement on the sidewalk down the block caught my attention, and
my hand went to the .32 tucked into my belt. I pressed farther back into
the shadows of the alley, squinting at the couple who had just turned
the corner. The few streetlamps that worked were dim and widely spaced,
doing little to add to the meager glow spilling from the windows of the
crumbling redbrick buildings.
They strolled underneath the cone of light from a streetlamp. Both
were men, one of average height, the other six inches shorter, perhaps a
little over five feet tall— about Moretti’s height. I studied them. Both
wore white shirts, dark trousers with suspenders, and black derbies, but
no— Moretti was stocky, built like a fireplug. Th e smaller man was wiry
and moved more gracefully than Vito Adamo’s muscular driver. I relaxed
as they walked into Moretti’s building.
I couldn’t get worked up over every man who passed by. This was a
busy area— a run- down, though typical, slice of Detroit’s Little Italy. I was
plenty familiar with the scenery here, after investigating Vito
Adamo’s Black Hand gang for the last few months. Even though
Adamo hadn’t been directly responsible for the death of my friend,
Wesley McRae, he had helped. That was enough. I pulled out my watch
and angled it toward a streetlamp— twelve thirty. Moretti should be here.
Every night I’d watched, he had gotten home between 12:15 and
12:30, always with a different woman— prostitutes, I assumed. The
women left within thirty minutes, and Moretti exited the building at
1:45 sharp to go back to Adamo’s saloon, the Bucket. This was the third
straight night I had planned to jump him. On both previous occasions
I’d chickened out. But not tonight. Tonight Carlo Moretti and I would
I pulled off my derby and the handkerchief I’d tied around my head
and I wiped the sweat from my face. Past midnight and still somewhere
near ninety degrees. For the tenth time to night, I slipped the handkerchief
back over my head and spun it around to cover my face below my
eyes— to be sure it would stay in place. If Moretti recognized me, I’d have
to kill him. I didn’t want to do that. After shifting the mask around to the
back again, I returned my derby to my head and settled in to wait. I
needed a cigarette but restrained myself— it would give away my position.
Another couple turned the corner and ambled up the street. It was
him. Carlo Moretti sauntered down the sidewalk with a slender woman
on his arm. He wore a dark suit and a straw boater, she a green satin
evening dress with a matching wide- brimmed hat. Moretti stood half
a head shorter than she, but I wouldn’t let his diminutive stature fool
me. He was one of Vito Adamo’s most accomplished killers.
They entered his building, and I glanced at my watch: 12:40. She’d be
here until 1:10. I wanted to burst in the room while they were in flagrante
delicto, while Moretti’s hands were occupied. But I didn’t want any
witnesses. I’d been waiting a long time. A few more minutes wouldn’t
My right hand throbbed, and I brought it up near my face. In the
darkness of the alley, my black glove was nearly invisible, but I could see
the silhouettes of my fingers contracted over my palm. I tried straightening
them. They moved perhaps an inch, and a searing wave burned its
way up my arm.
I grimaced and pulled the little bottle of morphine from my pocket.
A taste— just a taste— would be enough to keep me from thinking too
much about the pain. Trapping the bottle against my chest with my right
arm, I twisted off the cap with my left, raised the bottle to my mouth,
and tipped it back for a second, just long enough to taste the bitter brown
fluid. The numbing warmth began to trickle down my throat. This was
the time to which I so looked forward. I took a deep breath, and another,
and then leaned against the wall to enjoy the peace that was beginning to
cradle my mind.
The front door of the building opened, and the prostitute burst out,
hat in hand. She hurried away, shoes clacking against the sidewalk, her
stride somewhere between a walk and a run. When she passed under
the streetlamp, she glanced behind her, as if to see if someone followed.
I saw hints of red in her dark hair.
Odd. She’d been inside for perhaps ten minutes. But Moretti was a
son of a bitch. Who knew what he did to these women?
I pulled the Colt pistol from my belt and checked the load— seven
bullets I hoped I wouldn’t need to night. I cocked it, flicked on the safety,
and stuffed it back into my belt. At one thirty I crossed the street and
entered the dark stairwell. The mews of kittens came from a crate in the
corner. Trickles of light filtered in from the hallway, illuminating the
steps to vague dark shapes. The stair rail was sticky, the air wet, smelling
of mold and sewage. Muffled voices rose and fell as I crept up to the
second- floor landing. I leaned out over the rail and looked above me.
No one stood guard. Moretti didn’t rate his boss’s protection.
Something touched my ankle. I jerked the gun from my belt before I
saw it was only a cat. Breathing a sigh of relief, I shooed it away and continued
up the stairs. When I reached the top, I peered out at the hallway,
lit to dusk by sputtering gas lamps. A dozen doors stood at fifteen-foot
intervals, all but the third one on the right blanketed with Italian graffi ti,
as were the walls between. I kept my eye on the clean door. In roughly
ten minutes that door would open, and a well-armed Moretti would head
for the stairs, on his way back to the Bucket.
But tonight he wasn’t going to make it to the Bucket.
From below, a man and woman started up the stairs, their slurred
words and drunken laughter filtering up the stairwell ahead of them.
Though they didn’t sound like they’d be a threat, I had nowhere to
hide, and certainly no explanation for lurking on the steps. Hoping
they’d stop on the second floor, I sprawled out on the stairs and feigned
sleep. In this building, drunks sleeping one off in the stairwell couldn’t
be that unusual.
They continued up from the second floor, pausing when they stepped
onto the landing below me. After only a brief hesitation, they climbed
the stairs, laughing still, more intent on their own plans than on me.
They skirted me and turned down the hallway, a door opened and closed,
and their voices blended into the quiet murmur of the building’s other
I spun the handkerchief around so it covered my face and stood, flattened
against the wall, looking around the corner at Moretti’s door. The
building creaked and groaned around me. Any minute now.
I waited. The door didn’t open. I pulled my watch from my waistcoat.
Six minutes of two. He was already nine minutes late. I put my
watch away. Footsteps clattered up the stairwell from the first floor.
Where was he? Had he left and I’d somehow missed him? Perhaps
he’d gone out the back door tonight. Perhaps he’d spotted me. The footsteps
headed off down the second-fl oor hallway, and it was quiet again.
I couldn’t wait all night. I had to do something before I lost my nerve.
Pulling my .32, I crept down the hall to Moretti’s door. Light leaked out
through the crack underneath. I put my ear against the flaking paint on
the door and listened. The apartment was silent. I slipped the gun into
my belt and tried the knob. It turned. I pushed against the door, just the
slightest pressure. It began to open. Once the latch cleared the doorjamb,
I pulled out the pistol again and used my worthless right hand to
open the door. It swung inward, creaking, and I tensed, preparing for
But the apartment was still— no sound, no movement other than the
curtains of the only window riffling in the hot wind. I stepped inside and
pushed the door shut behind me, eyes scanning the room. The apartment
was about fifteen feet square with little more than the bare essentials--
a box stove, two chairs and a rickety table with a straw boater atop it, a
bureau holding a dozen liquor bottles, and a single bed near the wall on
the right, covered by a threadbare blue blanket.
I tiptoed to the window and slipped my head outside. A fire escape
snaked up the building only a foot away. I cursed. He must have seen
me and left through the window.
I turned to leave and saw a spray of red on the dingy ivory wall at the
side of the bed. I took a step toward it, and another. Near the wall, the
blanket was spattered with dark stains. Now I saw a form— a naked man
lying facedown, jammed between the bed and the wall. I pulled the
handkerchief down around my neck and leaned in.
It looked like Moretti. I reached over the bed, took hold of his pomaded
hair, and pulled up. His body didn’t move, but his head fell back
in my hand. His throat was a yawning wound, puckered tubes and
bloody tissue. I stared in horror. Moretti’s dark eyes were half open, dull.
His tongue looked out of place, a sea slug— blue, slimy, hanging out of
his gaping mouth. The fl oor beneath him was covered by a dark pool. I let
go of the greasy hair, and his head dropped like a lead weight, thumping
against the floor.
My gut churned. Trying not to vomit, I took a step back. Th e bitter
taste of the morphine syrup gave me my first realization I’d even taken
the bottle from my pocket.
I had to get out of here. Now. But not like before. Not like an idiot.
I needed to be sure I left no clues.
I thought I had touched the window frame, so I used my glove to
wipe it down, and did the same with the doorknob on the inside. After
a quick look around, I peeked out into the hall. No one was in sight.
I slipped out and ran my gloved hand over the knob on the outside. The
morphine was keeping the burn to a tolerable level.
A door creaked. A young woman in a faded blue nightgown, her dark
curls bound up in a white kerchief, leaned out the next door, a saucer of
milk in her hand. Our eyes met before I was able to turn away, waiting
for her door to close again. Th e only exit was the stairway, and I had to
pass her to get there.
She asked me something in Italian. Her voice was soft.
I shrugged and said, “No,” trying to disguise my voice.
She said something else.
Son of a bitch. Still keeping my face angled away from her, I shook my
She asked me something again, her voice more insistent now.
She hadn’t seen my face for long. Hoping she hadn’t seen it well,
I pulled the handkerchief up over my face and bolted past her, down
the hall to the stairway.
A few hours later, I lay awake in a small stand of maple trees along the
edge of one of Belle Isle’s grassy fields, smoking a cigarette and staring
up at the stars through silhouettes of leaves. I’d found myself wandering
in this direction when I stopped running, but I wasn’t sure why. The
cooler air off the river provided some relief from the heat, but I thought
it more likely I had come here because it was a comforting place for me,
filled with warm memories of time spent with Elizabeth. We’d stood
on the bridge for hours talking about our future, had walked the paths,
boated in the pond, watched the buffalo graze peacefully in their pasture.
Nothing bad had happened to me here, something that was getting
difficult to say about most parts of Detroit.
Thousands of sleeping people dotted the small island, driven out of
their homes in the city by the relentless heat. With my sleeve I wiped
a warm film of sweat from my face. Four in the morning in the middle
of the river, and I was still sweating. A streetcar rattled past over on Jefferson
Avenue. The rhythmic drone of cicadas pulsed around me, rising
and falling. A chorus of frogs sang across the island— delicate chirrups
and clicks from tree frogs, the rumbling croaks and snores of their larger
cousins. But they didn’t lull me to sleep as they might have done on a
normal night, even though I had finished off the last of the morphine.
Could the prostitute have killed Moretti? The wound was so deep,
the cut so sure, it was hard to imagine his death being at the hand of
a woman. I struggled to recall her appearance. Tall—or at least in comparison
to Moretti—slender, a reddish tint to her hair. My impression
of her clothing, green satin dress and matching hat, was of expensive
fabric and a fashionable cut. She didn’t necessarily have to be the killer.
She could have merely let him in from the fire escape or distracted
Moretti while the killer entered the apartment.
If the police came after me, I was sunk. I would have to find the prostitute,
get the truth out of her before they caught up to me. The one thing I didn’t
doubt is that they would come after me— if not now, then soon.
The police knew I hated Vito Adamo. The woman in the apartment next
to Moretti’s had seen my face. The hallway was dim, and she saw me only
for a second, but we had locked eyes. Though it had been at least six
months since I was last featured in the local papers, my face was one familiar
to many Detroiters. Still, at the rate new immigrants were arriving,
it was anyone’s guess whether she recognized me. That she lived in
Moretti’s building was in my favor. She had probably been brought into
the country illegally by Vito Adamo, and would therefore be unlikely to
involve herself in a police matter.
It also occurred to me that my appearance had changed drastically
since my picture was in the papers. I’d lost twenty pounds from my
already-thin five-foot-ten-inch frame, and my face was drawn, with hollow
cheeks and sunken eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten
a haircut. I kept my shaggy brown mop at bay with a handful of
pomade every morning, but my hair hung over my ears and down my
collar. Perhaps if I got it cut, it might help keep the woman from identifying
As I thought, I massaged my dead right hand with my left, an unconscious
habit I’d picked up shortly after I left the hospital. I wasn’t sure if
it was just a nervous tic or if, somewhere deep down, I thought if I massaged
it enough, the pain would stop. I watched the fingers spread apart
and then close halfway into a fist. A new wave of pain shot like lightning
up my arm.
Shit. I shook my head. I’d planned it all out. I would surprise Moretti
and get him back in his apartment. He would tell me where I could find
Vito Adamo, Big Boy, and Sapphira Xanakis— the people who helped
John Cooper murder Wesley McRae. They had all disappeared without
a trace. I would hunt them down and kill them, or at least bring them
Seven months had passed since Wesley was murdered, and I’d gotten
nowhere. Seven months of stumbling around, trying to put my life
back together— all the while trying to find Vito Adamo and his accomplices.
And now my only lead had been murdered, and I was certain to
be a suspect.
I looked up at the sky and mouthed, I’m sorry, Wes. He was the best
friend I could have ever had, repeatedly risking his life and finally giving
it—for me, a man who had disdained him for his homosexuality.
I shook my head. I never deserved a friend like Wes, and now I despaired
that I would ever be able to pay back even a fraction of what he had
The stars were beginning to fade, the black sky graying as dawn approached.
I needed to be home before sunrise. I stood, brushed myself off, and headed
back across the bridge to the city. Half an hour later I crept up the fire
escape at the back of my apartment building in my stockings, just as I had
exited the previous evening. I’d had my new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Preston,
over for dinner. When they were leaving, I’d made a big show of going to bed
early. I had thought I was being clever to set up an alibi I’d never need.
Now I hoped it held.