June 16, 2009

The Collector

By Milton T. Burton © 2009

He was questioned by two detectives from the Organized Crime Squad---one older, tall, thin and gray haired; the other younger, short, thickset and bald. Raymond Chandler said they always came paired that way. But the old man didn't read Chandler. In fact, he didn't read anything but Stockman Magazine and the local newspaper. A cattleman from deep East Texas, it was his first trip to New York---a visit to his only granddaughter who did something he didn't understand in the fashion industry. She knew he didn't grasp what she did and that he only feigned interest when she started chattering on about her job, as she was prone to do. But that didn't matter. What mattered was that he was her granddad and she loved him and was delighted to have him visit her.

She'd taken him to a fancy, upscale Italian restaurant for his first night in the Big Apple. It started out as a fine evening. He might be a country man, but he loved that Dago food and didn't mind to tell Mr. Anybody. Dago wine wasn't all that bad either. He was on his third glass and having the time of his life. Then the man in the cape battered his way through the side wall of the restaurant and strode their way, a move that got everybody's attention since the wall was double layer brick.

"When I first seen him, I thought he was coming for us," the old man told the detectives.

"But it was the folks at the table beside ours he had his eye on. There were five of them there, all men, all clustered around this rich looking older guy--"

"That was Don Orsini," the stumpy guy said.

"Who?" the old man asked.

"Vittorio Orsini," the slim detective said. "He is, or I guess I should say he was, the most powerful mob boss in Manhattan."

"One of them Mafia fellows, huh?" the old man asked.

"Right," said the slim man.

"Well, he sure looked the part," the old man said. "All that fine-barbered, wavy, silver hair. That hair made it right easy for that joker in the cape to tote his head away once he got done with him."

"How long did it take him to come through that wall?" the stumpy cop asked.

"About as long as it would take one of us to rip through one made out of a single layer of newspaper. He just knocked a hole in it and sorta brushed it aside."

"That's what the other witnesses said," the slim cop said with a nod.

The old man nodded with him. It was a meeting of the minds. They were in substantial agreement that the fellow in the cape was one unique hombre. "Have you ever had something like this happen before?" the old man asked.

The two detectives looked at each other for a couple of seconds. "We probably shouldn't tell you this," the slim cop said. "But, hell. . . It's going to in all the papers tomorrow because there's no way to keep it under wraps. Orsini was the fourth one this evening. All done within an hour of one another, all high-level mob figures. All done the same way. Same M.O. Four heads. He took 'em all."

"You don't say?" the old man said calmly.

The slim man blinked a few times in surprise. "That doesn't bother you?"

The old man shrugged. "I don't see no reason why it should.

The chunky guy laughed a rueful little laugh. "Damn! You are unflappable, aren't you?"

This earned him a cold smile. "Son, I was in the first wave ashore at Omaha Beach. I seen more of this kind of shit my first hour in France than you're gonna see in your whole lifetime here in this big city. So, no. It don't flap me none."

"What did he look like?" the slim man asked quickly. "I mean the guy in the cape."

"He was about six feet tall, graying hair, a bit of a paunch. I guess he was in his late fifties or early sixties. He was wearing Bermuda shorts, a college sweatshirt and that red cape. But I don't think it was a real cape. It looked more like a table cloth to me, something he'd just tied around his neck to look like a cape."

"Anything else?" the stumpy man asked.

"I'm pretty sure he was from Texas."

"That's news. What makes you say that?"

"Well, for one thing that was a University of Texas sweatshirt that he was wearing. Then there was his accent, the way he talked."

"You're pretty sure about that?"

"I don't think there's any doubt about it."

The old man went on to relate how the guy in the shorts and sweatshirt just walked over to Orsini's table as bold as could be and announced in a loud voice, "My name is Sue! How do you do?"

Orsini had looked at one of his capos and asked, "Who's this asshole?"

The man in the cape ignored the question. His face was happy, his eyes bright and gleeful. "That's a line from an old Johnny Cash song about a boy named Sue," he said. "You see, this guy's daddy named him Sue and then abandoned him, knowing he'd have to grow up tough with a name like that. That boy grew up tough, all right. And he searched for his daddy long and hard. When he finally found him, that's how he introduced himself. 'MY NAME IS SUE!'"

"What is this shit?" Orsini asked, looking around at his capos. "Can't a man eat in peace on his own turf any more?"

The intruder gave him a conspiratorial wink. The thugs sat transfixed, motionless. They weren't used to goofy-looking old dudes in capes and sweatshirts who just tooled right on up to their table and started babbling away about Johnny Cash.

The caped man continued. "After that, the boy and his daddy got into a big tussle, rolling around down on the floor gouging eyes and what-not. Later in the song there's a line about how pappy hacked off a piece of his ear. But I'm not after ears tonight. I came for your head."

The stumpy cop whistled softly. "So he just told him straight up what he was after?"

"Damn right he did."

"Go on," the slim cop urged.

"Well, they all just sat there staring at him for a few seconds, then one of the young ones stood up and started to reach under his coat. That's when the guy in the cape backhanded him. Killed him too. That backhand knocked that fool clean across the room. His head was plum lopsided on his neck, and what was left of his face looked like fresh hamburger. That's when the others come out with the guns. They must have shot that fellow a dozen times or so, but it didn't amount to nothing. I don't know where the bullets went. They didn't bounce off of him or anything like that. It was more like he absorbed 'em."

"Then what happened?" This from the thickset cop.

"Well, he just stood there grinning at them boys. They didn't grin back. I can promise you that. One of them was sharper than the rest, though."

"How so?" the slim cop asked.

"Well, he dropped his gun, made the sign of the cross and tore into the Hail Marys. I mean to tell you he went to praying lickety-split. To me, that meant that he'd figured out that the whole bunch of 'em was in way over their heads. And speaking of heads, that's when he done it."

Both cops were spellbound. "Yes?" they asked in unison.

The old man nodded. "Right. He grabbed that Don Whoever-He-Was by the hair, reached around to the back of his belt and come out with that big meat cleaver. Then he jerked his head down there on the table and WHACK!! One lick was all it took."

The spell was broken when a third cop stuck his head in the door. The slim cop went over and the two of them talked quietly for a few seconds. When he turned back his face was grim. "Two more," he said.

"Same guy?" his partner asked.

"Must be. Same description, same M.O., same kind of sweatshirt even. The first one was Maurice Combs, the black drug lord up in Harlem. The second was Oleg Orlovski, the head of the Russian mob. He got him at his daughter's birthday party."


The slim man nodded. "Helped himself to a big piece of the cake, too."

"That's what?" the stumpy cop asked. "Seven?"

"I think so."

"That's a lot of heads," the old man mused thoughtfully. "I wonder what he's planning to do with 'em."

The stumpy cop laughed. It was a stress-born laugh, the laugh of a man out of his element and trying to make light of it. "Maybe he collects the damn things," he said.

"Maybe he crawls into his coffin at dawn," the slim man muttered bitterly. "Maybe he's from Mars. Maybe, maybe maybe. The truth is that we're up against something we don't understand."

The old man laughed. "He ain't no vampire, if that's what you mean. I can promise you that. Wouldn't no Texas vampire be caught dead eating a Russian birthday cake."

The pair gaped at him. "Are you joking?" the stumpy man finally asked.

The old man shrugged and sighed. "I'd like to see my granddaughter, if you don't mind."

"In a minute," the tall one said. "She's fine. A little shaky, but not in hysterics like one might expect."

"I'm not surprised about that," the old man replied proudly. "The apples don't fall very far from the tree in our family."

They both stared at him across the table. The old dude seemed calm as ice. Happy, even. Maybe he'd had a few old memories rekindled this evening. Omaha Beach the tall cop thought and shuddered, devoutly grateful that he hadn't made that one. "We just need to ask you a couple more questions," he finally said.

"Fire away and let's be shed of it," the old man said.

The tall cop nodded. "The guy in the cape. We were told that you spoke with him."

"Damn right I did."

"Go on."

"It was just before he flew off. He was just standing there holding that fellow's head by the hair with it dripping blood on the floor and all. He turned to me and my granddaughter and gave us a kind of salute with his free hand and said 'See you folks later.' That's when I said what I did."

Both cops were leaning eagerly forward, transfixed by the old man's story. "Which was?" the tall one asked, the suspense almost palpable in the room.

"I asked, 'What's your hurry?'"

"Why that, of all things?" the stumpy cop asked, his voice a near whisper.

The old man shrugged. "Hell, I don't know. It's just what popped into my head."

"Did he respond in any way?"

"Yeah. He looked at me for a second, then he grinned real big and said 'There's a really bad-ass son-of-a-bitch after me, and I aim to get out of his way.' Then he just launched up through that damn ceiling like a rocket ship."

The third cop was back a the door. This time it was the stumpy man who spoke to him. "He hit Newark," he said as he returned to the table. "Two crime bosses. Same guy, same M.O. Only this time there was a cop on the scene. He shot him too, but it didn't have any more effect than it did when Orsini's button men did it. And he told the cop he was on his way to Washington."

The tall detective propped his elbows on the table and cradled his head in his hands.

"Where does it end?" he asked, his voice tinged with wonder.

The old man cackled. "End?" he asked. "Hell, it sounds to me like this old boy is just getting started. I do wonder about one thing, though."

"Yeah? What's that?" the stumpy cop asked.

"Do you reckon he might have been telling the truth about that bad-ass he claimed was after him?"

They regarded the old man for a few moments with horror, then the slim man spoke.

"God, I sure hope not!"

Milton T. Burton was born and raised in East Texas. He has been variously, a college history teacher, a political consultant, and a cattleman. He have published two crime novels with St. Martin's Press, NY titled "The Rogues' Game" and "The Sweet and The Dead."

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