A HAPPY SONG SADLY
Most nights, Levitan has a sandwich at The Grotto, a supper club where Helen plays the piano in the cocktail lounge. The club’s cover charge is triple what it was before the war and the booze is way overpriced, but he doesn’t care because he gets in for free and he hasn’t had a real drink in months. He’s at a banquette nursing a glass of ginger ale, listening to Helen play It Don’t Mean a Thing.
A noisy crowd of Army officers at the bar remind him that every man his age ought to be in uniform. Soldiers are all over Atlantic City in 1944, the War Department having turned the town into an Army Air Corps basic training camp, renting The Boardwalk hotels as barracks and leasing the Convention Hall as an exercise and parade ground. He’s not in uniform because the idiot bureaucrats on the Draft Board have categorized him as both physically unfit and exempt from service because he’s a cop − two shameful excuses.
Helen finishes the set with Happy Days Are Here Again, playing it slowly in a minor key. He loves the subtlety of her phrasing, the easiness of her rhythms, the sureness of her touch. She closes the lid over the keyboard and makes her way through the tables to join him.
“You look as if your dog died,” she says, sidling close to him at the banquette.
“Eh! You know…” he says, staring at his ginger ale.
She’s heard his laments before. “You’re doing your part. The worst sort of people would take over the streets if all the cops went into the service. It would be terrible.”
“This is not where the war is. Yet here I sit.”
She says, “You know what I think? I think you’re still mad about Spain. I think you want redemption.”
“It was too soon,” she says. “The country wasn’t ready for a war.”
“And look at us now. The sons of bitches,” he says, meaning all of the above − the Japanese, the Draft Board, and the Germans most of all.
“So? You were once a hero. Get over it. It is what it is.”
“And Henry is driving me nuts,” he says. “Maybe I’m not cut out for detective work. Would you marry me if I opened a hardware store?”
“I’d marry you if you were a rag picker, if I was the marrying kind,” she says.
He drains his glass of not-scotch.“You’re no one to be talking about looking like the dog died. Was that Happy Days you were playing or a funeral march?”
“Wise guy! The critic!”
“No, I liked it. You’re great.”
“I was going for bittersweet, you know?”
Helen plays the last set more cheerfully. When their eyes meet, she winks, raising the tempo on Happy Days, this time in a major key.
The next morning, Dave Levitan and Henry Canterbury are investigating a body at Captain Starn’s Inlet, a restaurant, bar and sightseeing boat business at the quiet end of The Boardwalk. A man waiting to board a party boat at sunrise heard a frothy commotion in the water beneath the dock. He’d put down his tackle box and fishing rod , dropped belly-down on the planks, and peered into the shadows. At first, all he’d seen was a school of frenzied little fish whipping the surface, then he saw that they were feeding on a body.
The corpse is still dripping when Levitan walks onto the dock. Because of the single stripe on the victim’s tattered sleeve, he assumes that the young man had just finished basic training and would soon have been on a troopship bound for a combat zone. And he further assumes, based on the irregular hole in his forehead, that someone shot him through the skull before the Germans or the Japanese had a chance to do the same. He pushes on a shoulder to get a look at the back of the head and sees an entry wound at the base of the skull.
He pulls the dogtag from under the GI T-shirt and copies the serial number and the name, ‘G. Pedersen’, into his notebook. In the buttoned pocket of the kid’s khaki blouse is a half-empty pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. In his pants pockets are coins, matches, and a GI wallet containing twelve dollars in soggy bills.
Henry arrives from the parking lot where he’d lingered to help with crowd control and to chat with the uniformed men. Spotting a crab brought up with the body, he crushes it under his size twelve-and-a-half shoe and kicks the remains into the water.
Levitan pretends not to care about the little murder. “I’m gonna call the MPs, okay?” he says.
Canterbury nods. “Do that. I’ll wait for the doctor.”
Starn’s is a popular place where people decide whether they should turn around and walk back to the honky-tonk they’d left a mile behind them or go down the ramp and sample the entertainments on offer – eat a meal in the restaurant with a neon lobster on the roof, have a couple of drinks, buy souvenirs and snacks from the stalls on the dock, or just enjoy a view of the placid harbor.
Levitan goes to a telephone booth near the restaurant entrance and uses two nickels to make a call to Army Lieutenant Paul Butterfield at the Convention Hall. The radios in police cars can only receive, so he is supposed to make official calls from telephones in locked yellow boxes mounted to utility poles, but it’s usually more convenient to use a pay phone. He reads out the victim’s name and serial number. “It was cold-blooded murder, Lieutenant. Your Private Pedersen was shot in the back of the head.”
“You’ll send me a report; time, place, et cetera, et cetera,” Butterfield says, as if Levitan works for him. Butterfield had been in law school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi when the war broke out. Now, he is in command of the 704’s Military Police Investigation Squad.
Levitan allows the implication to pass. “You’ll get a copy right after it gets typed up,” he says. “You’ll be sending someone down to look at the crime scene?”
“Eventually, Detective. I’ll remind you that last night was the 4th of July and most everybody had leave. We were on calls all night, like as if somebody had let all the animals out of the zoo. We just sent a couple of buses full of men to the stockade at Dix. We’re up to our armpits in paperwork.”
“But this is a deliberate kind of murder, Lieutenant, not some bar brawl. Somebody executed this kid.”
“We know our job. You just do yours if you don’t mind.”
“When we get out from under, I’ll send someone down to take a look.”
“I can’t keep a body on a public dock indefinitely. As soon as the Medical Examiner gets here, the body goes to the morgue. You should send someone up to The Inlet right now. Better yet, come yourself.”
“I’m relying on your report. Do you think you can manage to type one up?”
“I’ll send it over as soon as it’s finished,” he says evenly. God help us.
“And will there be an autopsy report?”
“Yes. As usual.”
“Very good, then.”
He hears the click and looks at the telephone receiver in his hand before returning it to its cradle. That’s the downside of being in the military – the chain of command. He’d been busted for insubordination twice, back to corporal from sergeant, when he’d soldiered in Spain. His outfit had been run by Party operatives with agendas crafted in Moscow. It’s a wonder any of them had survived.
Doctor Mike Rosenstiel, the Medical Examiner, is on the dock when Levitan returns from the restaurant. He’s a friend, a guy Levitan plays handball with, a family doctor with four kids. After Atlantic County’s fulltime M.E. enlisted, Rosenstiel had gladly accepted the part time job as a way to be of service.
“Gunshot to the base of the skull,” says the doctor. “And… lookee here,” he points to a dark puncture in the middle of the soldier’s back. “What do you think?”
“Easy,” Canterbury says. “Shot in the back… Went down… Then got himself finished off with one to the back of the skull. Very professional. Right, Dave?”
“Looks like it,” says Levitan.
“Is this where he was shot?” asks the doctor.
“I doubt it,” says Levitan. “There are no bloodstains on the planks. The body most likely drifted here on the outgoing tide from some place farther inside the harbor. How long do you think he’s been in the water?”
“Right now, all I can do is guess − maybe less than a day.”
“Okay then. Let’s go.” Canterbury says.
By now, two and a half years into the war, every beach from Maine to Florida has been polluted by tar balls from torpedoed tankers, depth-charged U-boats, and sticky bunker oil purged from the bottoms of fuel tanks. Because the breeze won’t blow until the sun rises higher, a heavy petroleum smell lies on Starn’s like a blanket. The crowd at the restaurant is growing restive; the sooner they reopen the dock the better. Levitan takes a last look around and follows his partner to their radio car.
The city’s main drag, Atlantic Avenue, has trolley tracks, overhead wires, and advertisements on every available surface. The Boardwalk hotels pictured on postcards are two blocks away, shielded from sight behind office buildings and department stores with rooftop billboards. Parking meters sprout from the sidewalk on the block where the city hall, the court house, and the police station stand. Downtown Atlantic City looks more like Moline than Miami Beach.
Canterbury is pulling into the lot behind the station when a call comes over the radio to proceed to Absecon Ice at the fishermen’s wharf on Rhode Island Avenue and look into a report of bloodstains. Denied a second cup of coffee, the older cop mutters a curse and muscles the unmarked Plymouth through a squealing U-turn and back onto Atlantic Avenue. The return uptown takes all of five minutes.
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