The Meridian Lounge
The Meridian Lounge on West 125th Street in Harlem featured local and up-and-coming jazz acts. The venue, smoke-filled and done in brass, contained a dozen tables, and the varnish had worn off the floorboards where the waitresses trekked from the bar to the patrons in the tight space. Alma Boudreau stood on the bandstand behind the microphone, cooing “Love For Sale,” the Cole Porter tune, accompanied by piano, bass, and a drummer using brushes. She wore a tight-fitting white sleeveless dress that plunged at the neckline and hugged her generous hips, and her honeyed voice would make songbirds jealous.
Frank Koenig, NYPD detective, had the only white face in the joint. The manager ran an establishment for coloreds, but made an exception for Frank, since he took a particular interest in black neighborhood crime when other cops wouldn’t. Nobody in the city knew why. It was Frank’s secret.
When he fought with the Third Infantry in Europe, he’d fallen in love with a black French woman. He didn’t know a word of French, and she couldn’t speak English, but somehow they communicated. He said goodbye to her when his until marched into Germany to defeat the Nazis, and he never heard from her again. Back home, he tried over and over to find what he’d had with her, but it never worked. He kept trying anyway.
Frank wore a crew cut, had a square jaw, a handsome nose, and full lips. His forehead bore a small scar from a piece of shrapnel he caught during the battle of Nuremburg. He wore last year’s sports jacket and matching pants, a white shirt and brown tie, and size eleven Florsheim wingtips. Before the war, he’d enjoyed big band music, Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw. But when he’d returned stateside, he’d heard a new sound with a new energy, jazz with a new kind of beat, fast, and with solos that flew. He loved this new kid, Charlie Parker, and his the sound of his sax. He told people that’s why he came to Harlem, to Minton’s, to the Apollo, to the Meridian—for the music. It made a good cover for what he was really after, and he did have a passion for the songs.
The waitress, Carolina, approached his table with a glass of beer. She wore a knee-length skirt, and a dark blouse opened a few buttons. She had light eyes, a broad nose, skin the color of milk chocolate, and hair straighter than you’d find on most colored girls.
“Thanks,” said Frank, glancing up at her, as she set the glass in front of him.
“Want anything else?” she said over the music, allowing her hip to brush against his shoulder.
Frank felt his pulse quicken and Mr. Johnson come to life.
“Later,” he said.
“I’m off at eleven,” she said.
“Be there by half past,” she said and walked away.
The song ended, and people cheered. Frank clapped. He loved listening to Alma Boudreau, loved her voice. He thought she was as good as Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington, better maybe, and he’d told more than one person that she ought to be playing down on 52nd Street, rather than at some dive like the Meridian. She reminded him a lot of the girl he’d left in France.
“Here’s another one by Cole Porter,” said Alma from the bandstand. “’Just One of Those Things’.”
The drummer counted off, and the band tore into the up-tempo tune.
Frank glanced over to the bar to see Bobby O’Neill, the bartender and Carolina’s brother, staring back at him. Bobby wore his hair cut short, almost shaved, and had a bristly moustache. He had on black pants, a white shirt, and black suspenders. He always wore a scowl on his face, or maybe he saved that look for Frank. Carolina had kept their relationship secret, but Bobby wasn’t stupid. He might’ve figured it out.
June, another waitress, approached Frank. She had a few years on Carolina, and she seemed to live for gossip and to flirt. She wore the same knee-length skirt and dark blouse.
“Get you anything, baby?” she said to Frank.
She grinned at him. “I see. Carolina taking care of you, right?”
“She brings me drinks when I order them, if that’s what you mean.”
“I get a feeling she do more than that for you, honey.”
Frank ignored the comment, and June headed off to another table. He smoked a cigarette and finished his beer, while listening to Alma sing a few more tunes, then headed out. He never socialized with the other patrons.
He lived in a one-bedroom in Morningside Heights, on the border with Harlem. He’d furnished the place with used and worn pieces, a scratched up dining table, and blackout drapes. The one expensive item in the apartment was his record player. He’d paid top dollar for the latest model, so he could get the best sound from his albums.
He put on a Coleman Hawkins record, since he’d seen Hawkins play at Jimmy Ryan’s a few weeks back and had really enjoyed his stuff.
Frank smoked a cigarette listening to the music and dozed off. When he woke it was after midnight, and Carolina wasn’t there. He figured she got held up or changed her mind. It hadn’t happened before, but there was always a first time. He pulled himself up off the armchair, stripped out of his clothes, and went to bed.
In the morning, Saturday, he drank coffee and smoked a cigarette at the dining table while reading the papers. Duke Ellington played on the phonograph. A nice breeze blew in through the open window.
The phone rang. It sat on an end table by the window. Frank looked over at it, the cigarette dangling from his lips, while it rang a few more times. He got up and plodded across the room in his undershorts and bare feet to answer it.
“Frank, it’s me, Carolina,” she said in a whisper. Her voice sounded strange and tight, like she had a mouthful of marbles.
“What happened last night?”
“Nothing you should worry yourself over.”
“You all right? You sound queer.”
“Yeah, I’m okay, only we can’t see one another no more.”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“Best if you don’t come to the club anymore, neither.”
A frown came to his face.
“What the hell happened?”
“Just stay away, Frank.”
The line went dead. He stared at the receiver in his hand, took a drag on his cigarette and blew out the smoke, then hung up.
He showered and shaved, and dressed in a dark pair of trousers, sport jacket, and white shirt, no tie. He strapped his holster to his belt under the jacket, and left the apartment.
Frank drove a dark green pre-war Buick Super that was held together with duct tape and chicken wire. Holes like craters dotted the seats. He steered it up to 142nd Street just off Lennox, where Carolina lived with her mother on the first floor of a brownstone. He’d never been to her place, of course, but he knew where she lived.
He rang the bell and rapped at the door. In a few minutes an older black woman answered. She wore a pastel green housedress and had a blue kerchief covering her head. Frank got the impression she’d been doing housework.
She nodded and eyed him with suspicion.
“I’m Detective Frank Koenig.”
“Oh, you,” she said, giving him a scowl.
“So you know who I am.”
“Course I do.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to check on Carolina, to see if she’s okay.”
“She’ll recover,” said Mrs. O’Neill.
“Was she hurt?”
“No more than usual.”
“It was her brother, right? Bobby? He found out about me and her and kicked her around a little?”
“I ain’t saying nothing.”
“Thanks for your time, Mrs. O’Neill,” said Frank. “And please tell Carolina to take care of herself.”
He stepped down off the stoop and walked across the sidewalk, when Mrs. O’Neill called to him.
“Detective,” she said.
He turned around.
“You ain’t so bad for police.”
He smiled and nodded at her, then climbed back into his Buick. He drove to West 125th Street and parked at the curb. Inside the Meridian he found Bobby stocking booze behind the bar.
“What the fuck you want?” said Bobby, glowering at him. “Didn’t Carolina tell you never to come back here?”
Frank nodded. “She told me. But now I got something to tell you.”
Bobby set down the case of gin he was holding and came around the bar. He planted his feet. Frank watched him clench his fists.
“What you got to say?”
“Lot of white girls owe me a favor for getting them out of trouble, saving their asses from abusive fathers, getting them off drugs, whatever. A couple of them would do anything I asked.”
“So you ever lay a hand on Carolina again, and one of those girls is going to swear out a complaint saying you raped her.”
O’Neill’s jaw dropped.
“You’d go away for a long time,” said Frank, folding his arms. “’Course you wouldn’t last long. Any of those good old boys in the can find out you raped a white girl, well, I think they’d have something to say about it.”
Bobby rushed him, howling, but Frank had his pistol in his hand before O’Neill reached him. Frank sidestepped, and bashed him on the side of the head with the gun. Bobby hit the floor with a thud.
Frank holstered his pistol again.
“Remember what I said, Bobby.”
He turned and walked back out of the Meridian.