Curse of the Coins
Laura’s Lounge was in the heart of North Philly. It lacked the style and class of Steele’s Inner Sanctum but the colorful cast of regulars who flowed through the doors on a nightly bases sure made up for it. Steele referred to it as the underground ghetto version of Wal-Mart. Watches, baby clothes, electronics, anything from designer clothes to designer drugs could be brought or sold at the club.
Owner Laura and Alexander Steele were good friends. In all the years she had been in business Laura had one rule. Absolutely no merchandise could be brought inside the club. The deals were made inside but the transactions had to take place elsewhere.
By the time Steele reached Laura’s Lounge night had fallen and the rain had stopped. Two scroungy, scrawny looking dudes blocked Steele’s path just as he reached the front door steps.
“Hey brother we need a couple of dollars to get this bottle before the liquor store closes.”
Steele was annoyed on several levels. Any attempt to threaten or strong arm him was usually met with swift retaliation as the two would be shakedown artist were about to find out.
Steele took a second to give the guys a chance to reconsider but when they refused to budge he told them. “The welfare office is down the street.”
A small crowd had began to gather on the sidewalk as the shorter of the two men got in Steele’s face, “oh, you gotta be a wise ass, all you had to say was NO.”
When Steele attempted to step around the men he felt a large hand pulling on his shoulder. Instinctively Steele spun around and punched the guy in the face while simultaneously kicking the second one in the crotch.
Not willing to give up easily the first guy grunted as he charged at Steele who quickly side stepped the angry man before smashing his head against the hood of the brown Kia parked in front of the club. As the dazed thug slid down the side of the car Steele could hear the footsteps of the second guy getting closer. He whirled around punched the attacker twice in the gut then watched him fall to the ground next to his friend.
Steele looked at his knuckles then knelt over the two men and softly said, “No.”
Slick was known to have more enemies than friends. Considering the people he had burned, deceived or flat out lied to Steele was always careful to describe him as nothing more than an associate. In his line of work Slick was a source for information, a valuable but costly asset.
The club was crowded as usual but Slick was easy to find. He always sat at the far end of the bar. It was the best vantage point for keeping an eye on the front door in case he needed to make a hasty exit out the back.
Slick remembered the night Julia’s ex came into the bar. Slick was a fast talker. His eyes darted around the room every so often but always returned to the front entrance.
“Listen Steele, there’s only a handful of Hispanic dudes that come in here and most of them are looking for something, you know what I’m saying? This guys a regular, comes in here three, four times a week. Nice guy,” Slick touches his temple with his index finger, “but not very bright if you get my drift.”
Slick paused, took a sip of whiskey, and stared off into the distance. If Steele wanted to know the rest of the story it was time to show some appreciation. Steele laid two twenties and a ten on the bar and Slick instantly picked up the money and the story without missing a beat.
“He came in here the other night and got wasted, started running off at the mouth about being rich. Half hour later he left with some white dude.” Slick thought for a moment and shook his head. “I don’t know him. I heard somebody say he comes down this way from Darby a couple times a month to check in on his sickly grandma or something. About an hour later he came back in by himself and started up again. Then he created the cardinal sin. He pulled out a hand full of gold coins and laid them on the table over there. Well, that got a lotta folk’s attention including mine. He might as well have been wearing a sign I want to get mugged.
Some old sickly looking guy came over to his table. They talked for a while and the drunk guy with the gold left. As soon as he left the old guy followed him out.”
Steele felt like he was feeding the parking meter in center city. But this meter was getting more expensive by the minute. He laid another bill on the bar and slid it over. Slick smiled when he saw the crisp fifty dollar bill.
“See here’s the deal Steele; this guy was always tight with a buck. I mean he was tighter than a three hundred pound hooker trying to squeeze into a size small pair of canary yellow spandex pants. You get my drift Steele? So, like I said, he got my curiosity up so I followed them.
Turns out he lives in the apartment right across the street on
Second floor.” Slick pointed in the direction of the building, “apartment12 if
I’m not mistaken.” Steele asked a few more questions before heading to the
The dimly lit hallways in the rundown apartment building were painted blood red. It was clear from the stains, cracks, and writing along the walls that the apartment building was way overdue for a fresh coat of paint. Even though the rain had cooled things off outside the hallway was hot and muggy.
Odors of cheap wine and urine permeated throughout the dilapidated three story walkup.
Steele ignored the police sirens wailing in the distance. He walked by an old black pay phone with a dozen or so phone numbers scribbled on the wall before climbing the rickety stairs.
An open door especially in this neighborhood was always a bad sign.
As if that wasn’t enough the foul smell coming from the hallway was suddenly replaced by the stench of a rotting corpse. As the sound of the sirens grew louder Steele considered the possibility that they may be headed his way. He had to move fast. The floor boards creaked as he crept into the small apartment. An old porcelain lamp with painted pink roses topped with a battered cream colored lamp shade gave Steele enough light to navigate around the room. A small picture frame had been tossed into the small black waste basket next to an old raggedy lounge chair. The toxic smell of death grew stronger as he moved towards the kitchen. Out of the corner of his eye Steele caught a glimpse of flashing red lights from the window facing
Moments later Steele’s suspicions were confirmed. After making a quick sweep of the ransacked efficiency apartment he holstered his Glock and stood over the lifeless body sprawled out on the kitchen floor. The victim had apparently been shot from behind.
“Stop where you are and put both your hands up now!”
After a brief explanation and flashing his PI license Steele was given the standard lecture about interfering in police business. Three uniformed officers examined the crime scene while the fourth escorted him out of the building. As he was lead out of the kitchen Steele noticed scorch marks in the sink and fragments of burnt paper. He needed to see Julia but it had been a long day so the news would have to wait till morning.
It was half pass eleven when Steele pulled up in front of his house. He could hear the faint sounds of Boyz II Men singing “This Is My Heart’ coming from inside as he pushed his door key into the lock. Steele turned to look up the street to see where Shakia had parked her car. He chuckled as he thought back to his earlier conversation with Stan, realizing that not even his best friend would ever comprehend the deep bond and love that connected Shakia and Steele together.
Steele immediately noticed the aroma of steak and potatoes wafting throughout the house.
The moment he entered the living room Shakia walked over and greeted her man with a long passionate kiss.
“Thank you for the flowers babe, they’re beautiful. How did you know I would be here?”
Steele shrugged his shoulders and smiled, “lucky guess.”
Shakia looked over her shoulder and pointed towards the kitchen. “You hungry baby? I cooked you a prime rib with a baked potato.”
Steele kissed Shakia again and gave her a sheepish grin. “Yeah, I’m hungry but the food will be cold by the time we’re done.”
Shakia laughed, “Ooh Alex I love it when you talk dirty.”
Steele took her by the hand and headed towards the bedroom. “You know your bath water's getting cold.”
Shakia stopped to look up at Steele, “how did you know I ran bathwater?”
Steele held his index finger to his nose, “lavender oil; you bath with it all the time.”
Steele gently tugged on Shakia’s hand this time guiding her toward the bathroom. “Come on baby, tonight we’re going to multitask.”
Street parking in South Philly was always a nightmare. The A.M. rush hour was about to start and that would only make it worse. The closest parking spot to Julia’s restaurant was a block away. As he approached the restaurant Steele noticed Julia talking with two men. She was standing near the curb with her back up against a green
The look of stark fear on her face was enough for Steele to know the two men
weren’t there to discuss the menu.
Steele began to jog but broke into a full sprint when the tall slender man whipped out a switchblade. Using the element of surprise Steele grabbed the knife welding man from behind.
He wrapped his arm around the thug’s neck and squeezed as hard as he could.
Before the man could react Steele grabbed his forearm to keep the knife at bay. Julia screamed as the two men tussled. Bystanders stopped to watch as the second assailant ran toward Steele. The guy in the choke hold was losing consciousness, his head was tiled back and he was beginning to turn blue.
Steele waited until the last second to thrust his arm forward causing the thug with the knife to plunge his blade deep into the gut of his friend. Out of the corner of his eye Steele saw three angry looking men running toward him. With the knife buried in the guys stomach Steele released the first man and flung him into the wounded man causing them both to fall to the sidewalk. Things were moving quickly. As he glanced down at the two men Steele could hear the pounding of footsteps as the three men came closer. Instinctively he reached under his shirt and drew his gun.
If the sight of a fully loaded Glock didn’t slow them down Steele would not have a problem giving them a demonstration. To his surprise Julia rushed over and attempted to lower Steele’s arm.
“No Mr. Steele, she yelled, these are my friends. They came to help me.”
Steele gave the men the once over and lowered his weapon, “well it’s about damn time. Where the hell were you guys five minutes ago?”
Once the police arrested the thugs Julia and Steele went inside the restaurant. There weren’t many breakfast patrons in fact the restaurant was nearly empty. Julia looked nervous as the two sat in the first booth. “Thank you for saving me Mr. Steele. Would you like something to eat?”
Steele shook his head, “no, but I would like some answers. What was that all about?
Why are these guys after you?”
Julia looked out the window at the people as they passed by. For a moment it was as if she didn’t hear the questions. Steele leaned forward toward her and whispered; “look, if you’re not up front with me I can’t help you.” After a few more seconds of silence he rose from the table and headed to the door.
By the time Steele grabbed the metal door handle Julia yelled out to him, “Okay! I’ll tell you.” Steele stopped and returned to his seat and looked her in the eyes. Julia was fidgeting in her seat. Even though no new customers had come in she still looked around the room making sure that the few customers and the kitchen, and waiters could not hear. In a soft voice she whispered, “I owe them money… a lot of money.”
Tears began to well up in her eyes as she told Steele the rest of the story. “This,” she looked around the room, “was my mother’s restaurant. She built it from nothing. When I was a little girl she would always say I have provided for your future. She would always talk about the golden leaves but I never understood what she meant. Golden leaves,” she pondered the words before going on.
“My mom wanted me to go to college, she didn’t want me to struggle the way she did but in the end this restaurant is all I have that’s left of her. The men and woman who worked at the Navy Yard use to come here and have breakfast early every morning before going off to work. There wasn’t an empty seat in the place. When the government closed down the Navy ship yard, business dropped by 30% then we got hit with the recession. The banks turned my loan application down and I didn’t know what else to do.”
Steele listened to the rest of the story. There was only one thing she purposely avoided telling him. “Julia, who did you borrow the money from?” Julia buried her face inside her hands and shook her head side to side.
“Mr. Steele, I’m so ashamed.” She took a minute to regain her composure then gave him the bad news. “I…….I borrowed it from the mob.”
On his way back to the club Steele decided to checkout Julia’s Uncle Cecil. It appears that her curse theory may have some truth to it. The bullet Cecil took that night in the spine twenty years ago was inoperable and now he was dying from lead poisoning. Steele caught up with him at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital on
Street. The years had taken their toll on Cecil.
He was not at all like the man his niece had described to Steele. He was frail
and his voice was so weak Steele had to move close to the bed to hear him.
He told Steele how his brother used to drive to
Montreal every month to invest the money from
the restaurant and the barber shop. He explained how one of the other barbers
traveled with him on one of the trips.
“It was the dead of winter. The icy, snow covered roads on Route 87 north were treacherous.
The car flipped over and the barber was killed. He was Greg senior, Julia’s ex-husband’s father.” Cecil was beginning to fade. Steele could almost see the life draining from his face.
Cecil paused and starred off into space. “Mr. Steele, do you think you will go to heaven when you die?”
Steele thought for a moment and answered, “Yes, I sure hope so.”
Cecil’s eyes rolled around in his head. It was hard for him to focus. He looked over at Steele and whispered, “Don’t expect to see me when you get there.” He reached for Steel’s hand.
“Tell Julia I’m sorry.” Cecil was holding something tightly in his hand. Steele was curious but patient. Once he handed Steele what he was holding Cecil took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and died.
Steele opened his hand and was shocked at what he saw. He stared down at the four shinny gold Canadian Maple Leaf coins. He remembered the words of Julia’s mother. The golden leaves, her mother was talking about the image on the gold coins.
Julia’s ex-husband was right. The stories were true, Greg’s curiosity and obsession may have cost him his life. It was now left up to Steele to tell his client about the murder and the gold coins. He would also have to tell Julia about her uncle’s involvement.
Steele’s inner alarm had gone off. Something was off kilter. After breaking the bad news to Julia, he went home. Steele tossed and turned for most of the night. It was like trying to scratch that itch in the center of your back, it was there, it was annoying, but you just couldn’t make it go away. It was twenty years later and the body count had begun creeping up again.
End of the Rainbow