The below story first appeared in American Crime Magazine.
By Paul Davis
I met Mike Palmer at a bar in South Philadelphia on a Thursday evening.
The silver-haired elderly man who stood next to me at the bar was a retired homicide detective. Over the years, I interviewed him and covered some of his cases in my crime column in the local paper.
As I was looking for a story, I thought a look back at the near legendary detective would make a good column.
Palmer was in a good mood, and he agreed to be interviewed. Palmer ordered a beer and I ordered a vodka on the rocks. I laid my small tape recorder on the bar between us, and I asked him what he thought was the most memorable case he had solved.
“That’s easy,” Palmer replied. “That would be my first case.
"I solved the case when I was 15 years old.”
Palmer told me that his father died of cancer when he was 14 years old. His mother sold their large house and moved to another area of South Philadelphia. Palmer was upset at this further disruption to his life. He grieved the loss of his father and now he missed his old house, the street, the neighborhood, his school and his friends.
His mother rented an apartment over a candy store. The new apartment, street and neighborhood were nice, Palmer thought, but it was a different world. It was summer when they moved in and as Palmer had no friends here, he spent time during the day in front of the store. An elderly wizened man sat in a beach chair under the store’s awning. The man introduced himself as Charlie Kennedy. He told Palmer that his son owned the store and that he was a retired detective.
This intrigued Palmer as he wanted to be a police officer when he grew up. Kennedy told him he had been on the bunco squad.
“What’s bunco?” Palmer asked.
“Con artists, grifters, crooks that fool people and steal their money,” Kennedy said. “I was glad to put those crooks in prison.”
Palmer, who had no friends his own age, loved listening to Kennedy's cop stories. Palmer's mother worked long hours as a waitress in a bar, and Palmer was often alone. The lonely, elderly man and the lonely teenager who dreamed of becoming a cop bonded on the sidewalk in front of the candy store.
Palmer’s mother was a beautiful woman and a year after the death of her husband, she began dating. Her young son resented this, but he kept his feelings to himself.
But when his mother brought home Bill Jennings, Palmer told his mother he thought Jennings was a creep. His mother became angry and slapped him. This was the first and only time she had ever raised her hand to her son.
Bill Jennings, a tall, dark, handsome and well-dressed man, told the young boy that people called him “Bronco Bill,” as he “rode hard” in every one of his endeavors. Palmer scoffed.
Jennings believed he was slick, Palmer thought, and as his mother had money from his father’s life insurance policy and the sale of their house, he suspected that Jennings was a bunco artist.
One evening after Jennings left the apartment, Palmer called him “Bunco Bill.”
“He’s called Bronco Bill,” his mother said. “What did you call him?”
“Bunco Bill. I think he’s a con artist after our money.”
“Go to your room,” his mother ordered.
In his bedroom, Palmer heard his mother crying, and he was sorry that he hurt her feelings, but he believed that he was protecting her. Palmer realized at that moment that his mother was as lonely as he was, and that she missed his father as much as he did. He cried into his pillow.
The following morning, Palmer told old Kennedy about Jennings. Kennedy nodded as Palmer told his story, and he wrote down Jennings’ name and his Bronco Bill nickname in an old notebook.
"My nephew is a detective,” Kennedy said. “I’ll ask him to check Jennings out.”
A week went by, and Jennings had dinner that night with his mother in the apartment, as he had for the previous nights. Jennings talked all through dinner and Palmer noticed that Jennings made his mother smile and sometimes laugh. She appeared to be happy.
Palmer was lying in his bed when he heard loud voices coming from his mother’s bedroom. He got up and left his bedroom and stood outside his mother’s bedroom. With the bedroom door open, he saw Jennings holding his mother’s arms as he pressed her up against the wall.
"What are you looking for in my bedroom?” his mother cried out.
"I need some cash and I know you have money in here, so give it to me or I’ll break your neck,” Jennings said.
“Leave my mother alone!” Palmer yelled as he charged the larger and stronger man.
Jennings let go of his mother’s arms and punched the teenager. Palmer fell to the floor as his mother grabbed hold of Jennings. The two struggled as Palmer lay on the floor, dazed from the punch.
As Palmer attempted to get up and help his mother, Charlie Kennedy came through the door, pointing a long-barreled revolver.
“Let her go and drop to the floor or I’ll shoot,” Kennedy said.
“What, old man?” Jennings replied. He let go of Palmer’s mother, but he stood defiantly in front of Charlie, seeming unafraid of the old detective’s raised gun.
Kennedy fired a round into the wall and Jennings dropped to the floor.
“I surrender. Please don’t shoot me.”
“Well, it came out that Jennings was in fact a bunco con artist, and he was a wanted fugitive,” Palmer said to me at the bar. “Old Charlie Kennedy told me I was right to suspect Jennings. He said I had good instincts and that I would make a good detective one day.’
“And you have,” I said.
Note: You can read my other crime fiction short stories via the below link: