Inside the Book
For a precious moment, the late-rising winter sun blessed South Florida with a roseate-painted sky. It was bright and unusually cool, in the mid sixties. A cold front had moved down the peninsula and, according to the fishing reports, sailfish were striking ballyhoos and streamers in 120 feet. The turmoil and paranoia of the last few days had, thankfully for a few hours, receded into the nebulous abyss of momentary amnesia.
With a steaming cup of black coffee in hand and a Mozart Salzburg piano concert on the radio, I sat down in the breakfast nook overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. I put the Shiny Sheet, our island information stalwart, aside for later and unfolded the Palm Beach Post. The Manley murder still dominated the front page. Titillating tattle of the family's life history, from Papa Manley's untimely demise to a picture of Count Sergio Ordenoff at a diplomatic function in full ambassadorial attire, cocktail in hand, was plastered over the paper. No new news and nothing approaching Pulitzer level investigative reporting. If there were no breaking developments, by the weekend, the story should begin a long and inglorious journey through the back pages.
What did catch my eye was an article on the front page of the Local section.
"Man's Body Found in Canal."
Nothing unusual about bodies in canals. The hodgepodge of drainage canals that crisscross South Florida have always been a favorite dumping ground for unwanted corpses. These unfortunates were usually the result of a rushed killing. Amateurs. No professional dumps a body in a canal where they are usually found within days. A professionally-disposed-of corpse is taken by boat offshore and sliced up before being tossed over the side to become chum for the sharks and barracuda. The advantage of this method is that there is no incriminating body – and you can get a little fishing in at the same time.
Fishing aside, what I found interesting about the corpse was his name. William Jennings Baldwin, known in most circles as Billy Balls. Obviously his parents had a sense of humor as well an appreciation of history. A single bullet to the head—or as the paper liked to describe it "execution style"—had dispatched Mr. Balls into the next world.
I knew Billy Balls. Everyone in Palm Beach County knew Billy Balls, though I think few knew his real name. He was the local bad boy—a small time car thief, a second-story man, and a con artist, as well as a member of the Pariahs Motorcycle Club. Most Palm Beachers would avoid his type like the bubonic plague. Yet Billy had a bit of quaint charm well hidden under a rough patina. Like most con men, he was entertaining. It wasn't unusual to find Billy at a local party, dressed in his Pariah motorcycle gang colors. Some people thought he added a certain gutter flair to their social affairs. While Billy spiced up the staid island gatherings, he rarely left without some purloined token.
Can't say Billy's untimely demise was unexpected. But the murder of two people I knew in three days was unusual even for me. I half-expected Angela Lansbury to walk out of a scene of Murder She Wrote and into the room. And the timing was terrible. Too many murders and publicity will scare the tourists away. Can't have Palm Beach turning into a Miami after the disastrous Mariel boatlift from Cuba.
I felt bad about Billy. No, I'm hardly a bleeding heart looking to excuse every criminal for their crime, crying that they were the actual victims of an inhumane society. But the cards in the game of life had been stacked against Billy. I, on the other hand, recognized that if not actually blessed, I was at least downright lucky. Aside from being cash poor most of the time, which I readily admit is my own fault, for the most part, my life has been a string of great and good fortune.
By nine thirty I began to think my good luck was abruptly ending with a flurry of telephone calls. The first two were from attorneys. Like a police knock on the front door or a telegram from the military, an attorney's call can only be bad news.