by Philip-Todd Franklin and Starsky Hutch 76
Winforth was surprised by how easy it had seemed to first locate his old friend and partner of the Joker’s gang, Franko Morelli. The original meeting place just really didn’t sit well with Winforth; the idea of meeting in a comedy club just seemed to yell trouble, so he had pushed for an alternate location. When Franko had agreed and mentioned an old tavern on the docks, Winforth quickly agreed.
Arriving at the Gotham City docks, Winforth located a place to park the rental car Melody had acquired and made his way toward the Salty Sailor Tavern. Of all the many changes that had come and gone around and within the docks of Gotham, it seemed the Salty Sailor hadn’t changed one bit. It seemed to be made of large planks of water-treated wood, the same that the great old sailing ships had been constructed from long ago. It was a two-story establishment that to this very day seemed to pull in the tourist who came to explore the great city.
Winforth noticed as he approached the building that, for a structure that was over one hundred years old, it was still well taken care of. In his youthful days, he had met many people either in the area or from within. It was almost like coming home.
Stopping at the large oak door to the tavern, Winforth tried his best to straighten his three-piece suit, which was pale gray and accompanied by a pale blue tie and a flower in the lapel. These had been the agreed conditions Franko had given before he would meet here.
Checking the scene around the tavern, Winforth didn’t notice anything of importance, so he pushed on the massive oak door and slowly made his way into the old building.
Within the great building, it was nearly packed from wall to wall with every chair filled. Looking around, Winforth made his way over to the massive oak bar that was placed before the back wall and took the only empty stool near the end.
Within seconds, the barkeeper made his way to the end of the bar, stopping a few times to refill a couple of glasses before acknowledging Winforth. “What will it be, bub?” he asked.
“An Egyptian sour twist with a hint of lemon on the rocks,” Winforth replied.
Without saying a word, the barkeep walked into the back storage of the tavern, and a young-looking woman wearing what looked like an ancient wench’s garb began to refill the glasses at the bar, seeming to ignore Winforth’s existence.
“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t have any of that drink in stock, but would you accept a laughing tonic?” the barkeep asked after he returned from the back room. Winforth nodded in reply, and the barkeep responded, “Then follow me if you will, sir.”
Following the barkeep into the back room behind the bar, Winforth was greeted by an older man wearing a pin-striped, three-piece suit. “Time seems to have been kinder to you, Winforth, than to any of the rest of us,” said Franko.
Nodding softly, Winforth looked his old friend over before responding, “I’ve had a little help with time. It’s still good to see you, though.” His smile nearly reached from ear to ear as he stuck his hand out before himself.
Franko reached out and took Winforth’s hand in return, and the two gentlemen gave each other quick hugs before Franko once again spoke, “So tell me, old friend,” he said, “how can I help you, and what’s in it for me?” As he spoke, a sly grin and a wink punctuated the second half of his sentence.
“Let’s just say I’m here to talk about old times,” Winforth said, “precious, shiny old times.”
A knowing look of alarm crossed Franko’s face. “What say you and me get a booth in the back so we can discuss our old times?”
The dimly lit room smelled of spilled beer, cigarette smoke, and oysters — the specialty of the house. When the waitress tried to offer this specialty to the two older men, the one in the fedora held up his hand and smiled politely. “Thanks, but just bring us one o’ those pitchers, sweetheart,” he said with a twinkle in his eye that made the waitress, dressed as a pirate wench, blush and giggle.
“She’s probably young enough to be your granddaughter,” Winforth said with a laugh. “And considering how you used to be in the old days, there’s a good chance she just might be.”
“Nah,” Franko said, watching her hips sway as she walked away to get their order. “None o’ the dames in my family walk like that.”
“Same old Franko,” Winforth chuckled.
“Well, I wouldn’t quite call you the same old Winforth, considering the Mr. Belvedere imitation you’re doing these days,” Franko said as the waitress brought their pitcher to them and poured out two mugs. “Plus, you’re looking a little spryer than you probably should be, but you’re close enough to bring back old memories.” He lifted up his mug and said, “So here’s to old times.”
“To old times,” Winforth said, clinking his mug to Franko’s. “You know, you’re still looking pretty spry yourself. You still look like you could go ten rounds with Ted Grant.”
“Hell, Ted Grant probably couldn’t go ten rounds with Ted Grant these days,” Franko said with a laugh. “We’re all getting older. Well, almost all of us. My bones sound like that new pop-rock candy kids are eating these days whenever I get out of bed.”
Winforth and Franko both laughed. Their laughter was drowned out suddenly by the sound of arguing from the next booth. Franko leaned over the booth to have words with whoever was on the other side. “Stupid punks,” Franko grumbled when he finally returned to his seat.
“I take it they backed down,” Winforth said.
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
“Because you’re here and not in the alley behind this place ripping the punk’s head off,” Winforth said. “Which you look pretty disappointed about.”
“Yeah,” Franko grinned. “So where were we?”
“Talking about old times,” Winforth said. “And speaking of old times, you remember that jewel heist we did in ’49?”
“Yeah, I remember. I figured that’s what you were here for — ‘precious, shiny old times’ and all. Don’t worry. Your share is still there, and then some. Most of mine, too.”
“You never sought to liquidate those assets?” Winforth asked.
“Turned out to be a case o’ havin’ too much of a good thing,” Franko sighed. “The rest of us realized right away that it wouldn’t be too smart for us to start throwin’ around a lot of money — at least more than usual. That’s how the feds got Capone, y’know. All that spending with no visible income to account for it.”
“You didn’t try to turn the assets into clean money?”
“We didn’t feel comfortable tryin’ to go through the usual channels. Y’know, it could’a been kinda lethal to us. If the boss-man ever got wind that we’d pulled a job without his say-so, we all would’a wound up with permanent grins.”
“I could see that,” Winforth said.
“Later on, I’m sure I could’a called somebody like the Gorilla Boss. With all the casinos, pawn shops, and check-cashing joints he has, he would’a had no problem laundering it. By that time, I’d been with the Joker’s gang so long that we’d gotten close. I ended up being godfather to his kid, for crying out loud. I couldn’t jeopardize that kind of relationship.”
“Wait a minute!” Winforth said, his eyes growing wide. “Are you telling me you’re Harley Quinn’s godfather?!”
“Yeah. Funny world, ain’t it?” Franko said. “I tell you, I love the kid like she were my own, but she’s even buggier than her old man was, which I never thought possible. With him, at least, we always thought the crazy thing was just all part of the act.”
“So why are you still…?”
“My sister’s kid,” Franko finished, taking a deep drag on his cigarette and then tapping the end on the edge of his ashtray. “He’s in the gang now. Good-looking kid, but not too bright. Harley sorta took a shine to him, and I’m afraid one day she might literally love ‘im to death. So I don’t feel like I can just cut out and retire.”
“The rest of the old gang…?”
“All dead of causes both natural and unnatural,” Franko said. “The life expectancy ain’t too high in our line o’ work, y’know. So most of our shares are just sitting there collecting dust. They just did like I did and took out the odd rock here n’ there to help wit’ expenses over the years.”
Franko lifted up the empty pitcher and said, “So you want to get another of these, or do you want to check out some o’ those souvenirs of old times?”
“You know me,” Winforth said. “Wasn’t I always about the souvenirs?”
“OK, let’s go,” Franko said with a half-smirk as he tossed down some cash for the waitress and rose from his seat.
While Winforth was having his private meeting and reunion with his old colleague Franko, Melody Jones stayed rather busy back at the manor, ignoring all other things but the stack of papers she had forcefully taken from her late father and the few local Gotham newspapers that arrived daily at the estate.
At the moment, Melody had forgone her study of the scrolls, trying to wait until Winforth returned with the much-needed diamonds for the last potion she had been able to translate.
She was sitting in one of only two large, comfortable blue chairs that had been left uncovered in stacks of papers and other books that she had acquired and was reading the late edition of the newspaper.
For the most part, Melody found the paper rather dull and holding too many viewpoints that she just couldn’t completely agree with. She was just about to wad up the newspaper and toss it into a growing pile of newspapers, when an article that almost looked hidden within the social section of the paper caught her eye.
The headline itself nearly told it all and read like an article from a tabloid paper. “Richard Grayson, one-time ward of the late Police Commissioner Bruce Wayne, fathers mysterious young woman.”
The article went into much deeper detail, explaining how the reporter had been able to obtain the information and even gave descriptions of the other members of Grayson’s dinner group. The others were said to be his fiancée Karen Starr and a well-known entertainment lawyer named Maury Levine and a young woman who was at first thought to be his daughter.
As Melody continued to read the article, her own personal anger for Richard Grayson continued to grow, and by the time she finished reading the article, she forcefully tossed the newspaper across the room. Quickly rising, she stormed off toward her laboratory, as she liked to call the study.
“Who in the hell does he think he is? Have a child and not include me? Why, I should just break the sorry piece of slime and be done with him.” Her voice echoed rather loudly in the empty house.
As she entered the laboratory/study, she quickly made her way over to the stack of papers she hadn’t yet taken the time to really examine and began to leaf through them, still speaking out loud to no one. “No death would be too good for that two-timing dog. I shall have to destroy his most recent little tramp and remove the mistake that should not be. Only then will he be happy, and he’ll never truly be happy until he’s all mine.” A crooked smile slowly formed upon her face.
As Franko and Winforth sat reminiscing, another two men sat in the booth behind them, also sharing old times. These two, however, were much younger than the first two men. And their youthfulness hadn’t gone completely unnoticed.
“Can I see some ID?” the waitress asked the young men, one with a blue mohawk and the other with a ’50s-style pompadore and black Ray-Ban sunglasses.
“Sure,” said the mohawked young man, handing her a driver’s license.
“No problemo,” said the young man in the sunglasses.
“OK, Mr. Jones, Mr. Smith,” the waitress said with a smirk. “I’ll be back with your pitcher in a sec.” She walked away from their booth to get their drink order, and Mitch’s eyes seemed to move with the sway of her hips, drawing a laugh from Stretch O’Brien.
“Hey, I can’t help it,” Mitch said. “It’s not like I was getting a lot of action in juvie. If I were married like you, at least I could’a had some conjugal visits.”
“Don’t think that’s gonna make me look forward to the idea of you getting me arrested,” Stretch said.
“Get you arrested?” Mitch said, sounding almost hurt. “Why would you think that?”
“Because this plan of yours you’ve dragged me along on is no plan at all,” Stretch growled. “You think we’re just going to crash one of the biggest social events in Gotham in years and not have both the cops and the JSA all over us? Are you really that stupid?”
“If you really feel that way, then why are you here?” Mitch grumbled.
“A combination of guilt and threats. Or did you forget already?” Stretch said.
“Would you two keep it down back there?” a gruff voice suddenly said from above and behind Stretch. “My partner and I are tryin’ to discuss business over here!” Stretch and Mitch turned to see a rough-looking man leaning over his seat from the booth behind them to glare in their direction. He was big and well-built, and looked like he’d delivered a lot of punches in his day, and taken a few of his own.
“Us, too, gramps,” Stretch said. So how’s about you minding yours?” Stretch quipped.
The big man’s expression said that if he had the time, he’d gladly mop the floor with Stretch. Stretch’s expression from behind and slightly above his shades said the same thing about him. Mitch’s eyes darted back and forth between the two. “Remember… incognito,” he warned under his breath.
Stretch sighed at his friend’s warning and then said, “We’ll try to keep it down.”
“You do that,” the big man growled in a voice that almost sounded disappointed before lowering into his seat. “Damn punks.”
“Jesus!” Mitch gasped. “Do you know who that was?”
“Some old fart who hasn’t updated his wardrobe since the ’40s.”
“You’re one to talk about outdated wardrobe, Fonzie,” Mitch said. “That was Franko Morelli — the Joker’s number one guy! Geez! If you’d tangled with him, Lord knows what you’d a’ brought down on our heads!”
Stretch elongated his ears, curving them in the direction of Franko’s booth. They took on the appearance of satellite dishes so that he might better listen in on Franko’s conversation with his old crony.
“What are you doing?!” Mitch exclaimed in a sharp whisper, holding a menu in front of him to shield him from the sight of other patrons.
Stretch brought his finger up to his own lips to say, “Shh…” as he continued to eavesdrop. A broad smile crossed his face. “Mitch, old buddy, I think our worries are over.”
Melody Jones was still fuming over that day’s public revelation of Dick Grayson’s long-lost daughter in the gossip columns when the phone rang, disrupting her angry contemplation. She exhaled loudly through her nose, making an irritated sound as she lifted up the receiver. “What?!” she snapped.
There were a few seconds of confused silence from the person on the other end before he spoke up. “Uh… is Winforth there?”
“This is his employer,” Melody answered. “Whatever you have to say to him, you can say to me.”
“Maybe I should call back later,” the man on the other end said uneasily.
“When I say anything, I mean anything, if you get my meaning,” Melody said. “You’re talking to the lady who signs the checks.”
“Um… OK. Mr. Winforth hired me to do a surveying job of the old Wayne estate where that Grayson cat lives. So I went out there posing as the termite inspector. I got some pretty convincing documentation that seemed to convince that butler guy that I was who I said I was. He kinda freaked me out at first, because he looked exactly the same as the guy from the newspaper clips from the ’40s I saw when researching this gig. Kinda like seeing a ghost, y’know. Must be his son or somethin’.”
“Is this going somewhere?”
“Well, Mr. Winforth told me to tell him if I saw anything unusual.”
“Well, did you?”
“Well, nothing about the house itself,” he said. “It just looks like your typical nineteenth-century colonial-style mansion.”
“Then what is it?”
“I knew this guy was loaded, what with being a Wayne heir and all, but damn! I had no idea! I mean, he must blow his nose with hundred dollar bills!”
“What?!” Melody exclaimed.
“When I was in there, I saw this fancy wooden box sitting out while I was inspecting the study. I thought it might be a humidor, so I figured I would swipe me a couple of expensive cigars. I figured a guy like Grayson could afford to have some nice Cubans smuggled in.”
“Why would I be interested in cigars?” Melody asked impatiently.
“I didn’t say there were cigars in the box,” he said. “I said I thought there were cigars in the box.”
“So what was in the box?” Melody demanded, rolling her eyes.
“Diamonds?!” Melody exclaimed in return, leaning forward in her seat.
“Yeah!” he said animatedly. “Just sitting there in a wooden box out in the open as if they were just souvenirs or something. Like it was nothin’.”
“Did you take any?” Melody asked eagerly.
“What? Are you kidding? No way!” he exclaimed. “Taking a couple cigars is one thing. Diamonds is another! I don’t think he’d overlook missing diamonds the same way.”
“You said yourself that he just had them sitting out as if they were nothing,” Melody said.
“Yeah, well, if they turned up missing…” he began, leaving the thought unfinished.
“Whatever,” Melody sighed. “If you had shown a little more courage, we would have made it worth your while.”
“I did the job I was paid to do,” he said indignantly. “Winforth said there would be an extra incentive if I could tell you anything extra of value, and I think this qualifies.”
“Oh, it does,” Melody said. “And you’ll be adequately compensated. But the compensation would have been far more than adequate if you had managed to present us with the diamonds themselves.”
“Hey, I never said I wasn’t open to the possibility of going back for them. I just don’t think that was the time and place for it.”
“Well, Winforth has your number,” Melody said thoughtfully. “We may require your services again soon.”
As Melody set the receiver back in its cradle, she silently seethed at the thought of that wealth just sitting around the Wayne estate that should rightfully be hers. Dick Grayson should rightfully be hers. How dare he try to wed somebody else? How dare he have children with any other woman than her?
He would pay for all of this, of course. She would break him, and then she would take him. Karen Starr — dead. Rachel Levine — dead. And Helena Wayne — most definitely dead. After all, now that she knew the sort of wealth she and Winforth were dealing with, she couldn’t allow there to be any other heirs than the one she was claiming for her own. She brought her index fingers to her lips in a thoughtful gesture, smiling wickedly as she contemplated how to make it all possible.