BY: PAUL SINOR
The 1953 Southeaster Fair is about to begin in Atlanta, Georgia, and Johnny Morocco, the Dixie Detective, has been hired to guard a prize stud bull being shown at the animal exhibits. What he isn’t told is the reason. Recently some of the best stud bulls, horses, and pigs in the south have been castrated. Late one night when Johnny is sleeping in a stock trailer not far from the bull he’s protecting, he’s awakened by the sound of an animal in agony—a bull being castrated. When the man with the knife comes after Johnny, he shoots and kills him. Now the dead man’s three brothers and their father have come to Atlanta with revenge on their minds…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Fair Game by Paul Sinor, Johnny Morocco is hired to guard a stud bull at the 1953 county fair in Atlanta, Georgia. It seems someone is castrating stud bulls against the owners’ wishes. So Johnny heads to the fairgrounds to babysit the prize bull. Sure enough, he interrupts a man intent on castrating Johnny’s charge. The man attacks Johnny, who kills him. Now the man’s family is coming after him with blood in their eyes.
Told in Sinor’s unique voice and filled with fast-paced action, and plenty of twists and turns, this is a great addition to the series.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Fair Game by Paul Sinor is the second book in his Johnny Morocco series, starring the Dixie Detective, private investigator Johnny Morocco. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1953, the story involves a babysitting job for a stud bull who is the prize possession of a wealthy client. At first, Johnny doesn’t know why he is being hired to guard the bull. Then he discovers that someone has been castrating prize bulls at county fairs, making them worthless. Not wanting this to happen to his bull, Johnny sleeps in a trailer at the fairgrounds. One night he is awakened by the sounds of an animal in distress. He runs into the barn and sees a man with a knife castrating a bull. The man attacks Johnny and he shoots him, killing him. When the man’s family discovers what happened, they head for Atlanta to take their revenge on Johnny. Now he has more to worry about than just keeping one bull safe. His own life is on the line—again.
Fair Game combines mystery, suspense, and a hint of romance into a historical thriller that will keep you turning pages from beginning to end. If you like mysteries with a little something more, you can’t go wrong with this one.
Atlanta, Georgia, 1953:
Johnny Morocco hated horses, or at least he thought he did, and he assumed the feeling was mutual. He had only been on one real, almost full-sized horse in his life. Once when he was a child in West Palm Beach, Florida, a man leading a Shetland pony came through the Westgate neighborhood where he grew up. The man had a large format camera mounted on a wooden tripod. For fifty cents, twenty-five at the time of the photo and the remainder on delivery, the neighborhood kids could climb or be lifted onto the pony’s back, and a cowboy hat would be placed on their head while a photo was taken. The eight by ten inch photos were promised to be delivered in a week. The down payment was made by Johnny’s mother and several others in the neighborhood. The pony, the man, and the camera, like the photos, were never seen again.
That was the first mishap with a horse. The second time was during Johnny’s time in North Africa during the war. He and some other military policemen had been deployed as infantrymen when the Germans were threatening to break through the fragile lines around their defensive positions. After a skirmish, that lasted for longer than Johnny liked to remember, he was wounded in the leg. His sergeant pulled him from the jeep where German machine gun fire was punching holes the size of half dollars in every square inch of the vehicle. With a wound of his own to tend to, the sergeant was unable to get either of them to the aide station without help.
That help came when they heard the unmistakable braying of a donkey coming from a nearby shed. With the sergeant leaning on the donkey for support, and Johnny half laying, half siting on it, they made it back to the aid station. Johnny spent three days there and went back to his unit with seven stitches and a Purple Heart. He heard later that his sergeant died from his wounds. The donkey was never seen again.
That was almost ten years and a lifetime ago. Today Johnny stood beside a horse named Smoky. Standing on the other side of the light gray horse with black markings was the owner and one of the most beautiful women Johnny had ever seen. Her name was Gina DeToro. Her parents and she left Italy just prior to the war and settled in the north side of Atlanta. That was the affluent side of town, and it was normally off limits to Johnny, but his meeting and knowing Gina was anything but normal.
Like most of the things in Johnny’s life since coming to Atlanta, it started at Big Town. Johnny Morocco was a licensed private investigator and worked out of Big Town, a pool room on the second floor of a building on Edgewood Avenue in downtown Atlanta. Big Town was not just a pool room. It was a place where men who had a past but may or may not have a future spent their time. The large open space was filled with twenty pool tables in four rows of five each. Along the walls, wooden racks held pool cues of every weight and size. Nobody at Big Town owned a pool cue that was neatly screwed together and placed in a case. When anyone entered the room with a cue in a case under his arm, it immediately meant one of two things. It was an out of town hustler looking for an easy mark, or it was an easy mark about to lose everything he had in his pocket, all he could borrow, and his pool cue and case in the bargain.
Big Town was owned by a man everyone called Hockey Doc. He, like most of the other men who sat on high stools with brown seats and backs positioned along the walls, was known by a nickname. Real names were not asked or required to be a regular at Big Town. Some of the men had names that were obvious. Slim. Crip. Goggles. Nubbie. Fats. These needed no explanation. Hockey Doc was an exception.
Most of the activity in Big Town took place on the stools along the wall and not on the tables. The patrons at Big Town were, for the most part, gamblers and bookies. Many had no formal education but could recite batting records, figure odds on horse and dog races, compute win/loss records, and determine the odds of one team beating another in their heads with no discernable effort. They bet among themselves, took outside bets, and took any advantage they could. Once the man, now known as Hockey Doc, paid a goalie to let a puck or two slip through in a hockey game, so the underdog team won. Before the game, Doc—who was from Michigan, had played hockey as a youngster, and actually understood the game—tried to place some bets on the game with the men at Big Town. Few had even heard of the game, and none of them wanted to take his bets. When it was discovered he had doctored the game, his name was born.
Johnny usually took the bus from his room at the boarding house, where he lived on Ponce de Leon Avenue, to Five Points, the center of Atlanta. From there it was a ten-minute walk to Big Town. Some days, like this one, he drove and parked in a lot across the street from the pool room.
He parked the car, walked to the street, and decided to take a few minutes to have breakfast prior to going to the pool room that served as his office. It was a mid-September morning when he stepped off the bus, headed across the street, and turned left toward the diner.
A voice behind him caught him as his foot touched the curb. “Hey, Johnny, got a minute?”
Johnny turned and saw Ray Huckabee, an attorney who used him occasionally for skip tracing and collecting bad checks for himself and sometimes for clients. He usually stopped by Big Town once a week or so and shot a few games of eight ball with Johnny or a man called Preacher.
“Sure, Ray. What’s up?” Johnny stopped and let the morning rush of people, going to work or heading for one of the many stores that dotted the streets of the city, go by.
“I need to talk to you. Got time for a cup of coffee?”
“Sure, you want to go to the diner or up to Big Town?”
The diner was one of a small chain of stainless steel and glass eating establishments popping up all over town. Each was as close to exactly alike as possible, depending on the location and configuration of the building where it was established. Each had a long counter, behind which were at least two middle-aged women who worked as waitresses in white uniforms with a little stiff cut of white cloth pinned in their hair in a half circle. They hustled up and down the counter, while behind them a cook handled a grill, at least three frying pans, and a toaster built to hold four and sometimes eight slices of bread. A waffle iron sat, lid up, waiting for the cook to pour a shot of batter on the hot surface.
Walk in anytime between their opening at six in the morning and noon, and as soon as you sat down on one of the fifteen stools or in one of the five booths, a cup of coffee was placed in front of you without asking.
Ray pointed toward the one of the corners across the street from his office at Five Points. “Let’s do the diner. I’ll buy breakfast.”
When they entered, both were recognized by Mildred, one of the waitresses. Like all the women who worked for tips, she knew who could be counted on for at least a dime and, if there were two or three people at the table, a quarter for good service. “Hey, sweetie—you too, Johnny. Take that booth in the corner, and I’ll be right with you. Coffee?” She was speaking to them while she placed plates of eggs, grits, ham, and toast in front of three young men in ill-fitting suits and ties that looked like their fathers wore them prior to going off to war.
Johnny and Ray slid into the booth, with Johnny taking the far seat so his back was to the wall and he was facing the door. They had hardly settled in when Mildred slid heavy white mugs of coffee in front of them. “Ya’ll know what you want already?” She held a pad in one hand and a stubby pencil in the other, although neither was necessary for her to remember and repeat their orders.
“Eggs over medium, grits, country ham, and a biscuit.” Johnny smiled as he gave her is order. “And I’ll need your phone number so I can call you tonight and tell you how good breakfast was.”
Mildred reached into the pocket of her uniform and pulled out a tin containing aspirin. She popped it open, pulled one out, and handed it to Johnny. “Don’t pay no attention to what the label says. This is a man pill. Take it. If it works and makes you a real man, I’ll give you my number.”
She immediately turned to Ray and simply raised her eyebrow.
Both men broke into laughter.
“Make mine the same as Johnny’s but hold the man pill.”
They watched her leave their booth, take another order from a man and woman, and repeat everything flawlessly to the cook. Johnny turned to Ray. “You wanted to talk to me about something?”
Ray took a sip of his coffee before answering. “This one may be a little strange. Even for you.”
“You don’t want to put a hit on someone, do you?”
“I never thought about it, but if I did, are you the man to call?” Ray waved him off before he could answer. “Don’t tell me—one way or the other.”
“If it’s not a hit, what is it?” Johnny leaned back in the booth as he waited for an explanation.
“I need you to babysit a bull.”
“You’re kidding. Right? A bull as in a large male cow?”
“One and the same. Except this bull is worth a small fortune.”
“High quality steaks?”
“Not hardly. Better than that.”
Their orders came, and Mildred slid the plates across the table to them, refilled their coffee, and smiled at Johnny as she placed the check on the table between them. “That pill working yet? I ain’t got all day to wait to see if it makes you a man.” She stood with a smile on her face.
“You don’t work for tips, do you, Mildred? If you do, you need a better bedside manner with high-rollers like me and Ray,” Johnny chided as he too smiled at her comment.
“Don’t you worry, Mildred, I’m paying the tab, and I’ll take care of you,” Ray placed two one-dollar bills on top of the check and waved her, off indicating the change was her tip.
Johnny cut into his eggs, took a bite, and resumed the conversation. “So, if it’s not steaks what so special about this bull?”
“This special bull has a job that you and I could only wish for. He has a nice place to sleep every night, all he can eat, and gets his choice of all the lady cows in the area.”
“He’s owned by one of my best clients and his brother. My man lives up north of here in Buckhead and is partners with the brother on a farm just east of Macon. He’s the one who wanted me to find someone to watch over the investment. The family escaped from Italy just prior to the war. They were some of the lucky ones who got to bring all their money and valuables with them. Since then, they’ve done very well in a family owned restaurant and the farm.”
“If they got out with anything, they were lucky. I don’t see how the ones who live there are surviving. What the Germans didn’t destroy, we did, looking for Germans.”
“The owner has him insured for five grand, and he makes that much in stud services in two years. His life expectancy is for many more years and many more children and grandchildren.”
Johnny motioned for Mildred to refill their coffee cups.
“So, what do you need me for? I’m not sleeping in some hay pile in a barn, if that’s what you want.”
“Nothing like that.” Ray hesitated while his mug was refilled and Mildred stacked the empty dishes and carried them to the back room where a recently paroled hard-timer worked as a dishwasher. “You ever been to the Southeaster Fair out at Lakewood Fair Grounds?” he continued when she had gone.
“No, I’ve heard about it, but I didn’t go last year. Why?”
“My client is putting his bull into the animal exhibit, hoping to expand his stud services to some of the farmers and ranchers who attend and show off their prize animals. He wants someone to be out there—kinda in the background—watching so that nothing happens to the bull. The fair runs for fourteen days, so that’ll give you a nice piece of change if you want to take the job.”
Johnny looked out the large windows on two sides of the diner. Twenty feet from where he sat, the largest city in the south was coming awake and alive. Men and women of all ages, races, and social groups mingled without even knowing who or what walked beside them as they made their way to wherever they were going. He watched a man, and probably his wife and two kids, as they stood on the corner. The man had a gas company map folded to a size he could handle. He took turns looking at the map and then looking at street signs until he finally gave up, tapped a passing man, and asked for directions. The man listened intently, nodded his head several times in understanding, and, as the stranger departed, began to explain to the wife what he had said.
“So, what exactly is the job? Am I supposed to be out there all day and night?”
“No, just spend the night there and check on it during the day once in a while. And you don’t have to sleep on the hay. He’s got a trailer he hooks behind his truck to haul the bull around, and he’s got it fixed up for sleeping.”
“Okay, so what’s it pay?”
“He’ll pay ten dollars a day and a fifty-dollar bonus if nothing happens by the end of the fair.”
“If I’m sleeping in a trailer that hauls a bull around, it’s gotta stink, so make it fifteen a day, and I’ll do it.”
“Great. I knew I could depend on you.” Ray pulled a small notebook from his coat pocket, wrote down an address and phone number, tore the page out, and handed it to Johnny. “Call this number and set up an appointment, and they’ll explain everything to you.” He stood and picked up his mug for one last drink of coffee. “I gotta run, but if you have a problem, call me.”
Johnny continued to sit in the booth after Ray left. As Mildred passed him, she automatically topped off his coffee from the pot she was carrying. “Here,” she said as she placed a copy of the morning paper on the table. “Guy just finished his breakfast, and he left this on the counter. Thought you may want to see what’s going on.”
What’s going on, he thought, is that I’m going to be spending two weeks sleeping in a trailer used to haul a prize bull who does nothing but eat, sleep, and get laid. He folded the paper, left it on the table, and headed for Big Town so he could call the number Ray gave him and see just what he had gotten himself into.
© 2017 by Paul Sinor