Read JC2 The Raiders Online

Authors: Robbins Harold

JC2 The Raiders (7 page)

"Sounds like extortion to me."

"Right. They're askin' fer money."

"That's a dirty shame, Max. What's her name?"

"Emily. Emily White. Her ma is Ruby White."

Maurie shook his head. "A dirty shame," he repeated.

The next morning Maurie made half a dozen telephone calls, putting
the word out that the bookkeeper for the Purple Gang was in town and
wanted to talk to somebody about a personal problem. Several men in
Los Angeles were glad to do something for a representative of the
Purple Gang.

Three days later Maurie was at lunch with Nevada at the Brown Derby
and was called from their table to take a telephone call. His caller
told him they had confirmed what they suspected, that Ruby White was
using the threat of a paternity suit or even a statutory rape charge
to extort money from Nevada Smith. She had threatened Francis X.
Bushman the same way, and he had given her money to get rid of her.

"Want us to take care of it?" asked the man on the phone.

"I'd appreciate it."

"Consider it done," said the man.

The next morning's newspapers carried the story of a fatal accident.
Ruby Smith, drinking and driving, had taken a curve too fast on the
Coast Highway. Her Buick had crashed through a guard rail and rolled
down a rocky slope and into the ocean. She and her daughter were
killed.

Maurie didn't tell Max what he had done. If Max guessed, he didn't
mention it. The thing was done, there was nothing he could do about
it, and it was not Max's way to do a lot of talking about what was
done and couldn't be changed.

4

Saturdays were big times at The Clock. People came early and stayed
late. A third of all the whiskey and beer sold in a week was sold on
Saturday nights. The girls made most of their week's money on
Saturday nights.

Just before midnight, Saturday, November 21, 1931, three men pushed
their way into Maurie's office.

"You lyin', cheatin' Jew bum!" one of them yelled.

And then the beating began. He was too small to struggle against it.
When the men left, he lay unconscious on the floor. His nose, jaw,
and a cheekbone were broken. Also two ribs.

Six days passed before detectives could question him in the hospital.

"Okay, Cohen, who did it?"

Maurie shook his head. "Don' know," he muttered through his
teeth. His jaw was wired shut.

"Th' hell you don't!"

Maurie shook his head again. "Huh-uh."

"
Omertà,
huh," the
detective grunted. The cops were starting to talk in Italian terms.
They spoke of the Black Hand and used the word
omertà,
meaning code of silence.

Maurie was able to smile faintly.
"Me?
Omertà?"

"You c'n learn their tricks," said the detective. "I
guess you have."

Of course he knew the guys that beat him. What he didn't know was
why.

He found out when Firetop came to see him. The big redheaded man sat
down beside his bed, took his hand, and explained —

"It was a mistake," he said. "Somebody told us you
were sellin' beer somebody else cooked. Not true, we know now. Too
late, but we know now. We'll make it up to you some way, Maurie.
We'll take care of you right."

Maurie nodded and smiled painfully. " 'S okay," he
muttered.

"And you've kept your mouth shut," said Firetop. Then he
grinned and shook his head. "Bad choice of words, hey? But you
didn't tell the cops who did it. We won't forget that, Maurie. That's
somethin' we'll never forget. There'll always be guys that'll
remember that. You'll always be taken care of."

What Firetop said was true. Maurice Cohen was from then on a favored
man, the man who took a savage beating he didn't deserve and didn't
squeal on the guys who did it to him. Firetop soon went away to serve
a life sentence. The Purple Gang was broken up. But there were always
guys who would remember. There would always be something for Maurie.

5

One thing they couldn't save him from. The Toledo detectives were
furious. They knew who had beaten him. They had wanted those
leg-breakers for a long time but could never make a case against
them. Now they had beaten a man who could identify them, and he
wouldn't do it.

On another Saturday night, January 23, 1932, The Clock was raided by
state Prohibition agents. Maurie was taken out of his carpet joint in
handcuffs and lodged in the Lucas County jail. The Clock had operated
for years without a raid, but the Toledo detectives had demanded this
raid. Selling liquor was against the law. Few were arrested anymore,
since Prohibition was likely to be repealed soon, but it was a handy
tool occasionally when somebody wanted to embarrass a politician or
punish a guy like Maurice Cohen.

On an icy day in February, Maurie — again in handcuffs and
trembling with fear — was led inside the high stone walls of
the notorious Ohio Penitentiary. He had been only eighteen years old
when he entered the Plaquemine prison camp: young enough and
resilient enough to survive. Now he was fifty, and he was not certain
he would live to the end of his three-year sentence.

As at Plaquemine, the first day was the worst. The warden himself
described the intake process as a day that made grown men cry. Maurie
would remember spending six or seven hours stark naked. Issuing
clothes was the last step in the process, and the new inmates were
herded naked from shower to barber to doctor to dentist to
fingerprinting to mug shot to indoctrination lecture, with long waits
at each station. Finally, in their uniforms, the new convicts were
marched across the yard and into the bewildering labyrinth of the
huge prison. They ate their first meal in the dining hall. They were
marched to a cell block and assigned to a cell.

Maurie compared what he had to endure here to what he'd had to endure
in the Louisiana camp more than thirty years ago. In some ways this
confinement was easier, in other ways harder. He wore no leg irons,
but the convicts were organized into companies and marched as
companies from the cell blocks to the cafeteria, to work, to the
cafeteria again, back to work, to the cafeteria again, and back to
the cell block. Only with a written pass signed by a guard could a
prisoner cross the yard alone on his way to the infirmary, the
library, or the chapel.

At Maurie's age, no one wanted him for a "wife," so he was
not assaulted. He was not the only Jew in the prison. In fact there
were so many that a rabbi held services in the ecumenical prison
chapel on Saturday mornings. His work assignment was the noisy little
factory where the convicts made license plates. He sat at a bench six
hours a day, stuffing license plates into brown envelopes.

He wore what the convicts called a hickory shirt, made from a fabric
so coarse and rough that it must have been mattress ticking,
oversized blue jeans that he had to roll up, a cap, and black shoes
made inside the prison. The shirt must be buttoned to the collar;
that was the rule. Except when locked in his cell, every man had to
keep his cap set squarely on his head.

He lived in a cell meant for two men but housing four. From their
stations and while walking their rounds, the guards could peer
through the chain-link cell doors at all times; and, unlike the
Louisiana guards, these did not leave the prisoners alone all night
while they went off somewhere and slept. It was a rule that prisoners
must not masturbate, and to be sure they didn't the rule required
them to sleep with their hands outside their blankets. When a guard
spotted a man with his hands under the blankets he would bang on the
cell door with his baton and order him to get his hands out. One of
the men in Maurie's cell was caught masturbating and spent ten days
in solitary for it.

After a little time, Maurie knew he would survive, but he was not
absolutely sure he wanted to. Weeks and months of his life passed in
utter monotony, wasted and never to be recovered. He did not suffer
from systematized cruelty but from constantly oppressive discipline,
total want of privacy, and austerity so severe that it dispirited
even men who had never known much of comfort or amenities.

Firetop arrived to begin his life sentence. Maurie saw him
occasionally but could almost never find a chance to say a word to
him, since they were not in the same company or the same cell block.

When he had served one year of his term, he appeared before the
parole board. In the argot of the prison, the board "flopped"
him — denied him parole. They thought of him as a gangster.
Besides, the Toledo police recommended he be kept in prison till the
end of his term.

That is why he was surprised when he was granted parole in 1934, with
a year of his term remaining. The board reasoned that it was
pointless to keep a man in prison for violating a law that had been
repealed.

Maurice Cohen never reported to his parole officer. He went directly
to Detroit. The Purple Gang was no more, but that didn't mean there
was no gang. Maurie was welcomed home with a wild party, at which it
was announced he was the new manager of a new carpet joint in Flint.
He was Maurie, he was the guy who hadn't squealed and had even done
time in the Ohio pen because he wouldn't squeal. There had to be
something good for a guy like that.

Maurie had an announcement too. From now on, he told his friends, his
name was Morris Chandler.

6

He was always glad to hear from Max. This time he was glad to have
the chance to do him a favor.

They had seen each other from time to time over the years, as
Chandler moved from managing the carpet joint in Flint to managing
others in various parts of the country. For eight years he managed
one in Saratoga Springs during the racing season, then moved to Fort
Lauderdale and managed one there during the winter. Max visited both
of them.

More and more, the Sicilians took over everything
the gangs had operated. It made no difference to Chandler. If
anything, the new managers had even more respect for a man who had
kept his mouth shut. With them,
omertà
was a matter of
honor, the essential quality of every man they trusted and accepted,
an essential foundation stone of their organization. Morris Chandler
would not become a "made man," would not be inducted into
their society, but they accepted him as a man of honor and courage,
whom they could trust.

He met many of them. Lucky Luciano, the greatest of them. Frank
Costello. Albert Anastasia. Joe Profacci. Carlo Gambino. Frank Nitti.
They weren't all Sicilians. Murray the Camel Humphries, in Chicago.
Meyer Lansky. Bugsy Siegel.

Max didn't want to know them. He wouldn't come near one of Maurie's
joints if he knew any of them were there.

5
1

MORRIS CHANDLER ASSURED JONAS THAT EVERYTHING was being arranged: the
telephones with scramblers, the relay through San Diego, new locks
... everything. And he hoped Jonas and Nevada would be his guests for
the show that evening.

Shortly they sat around a table in a glass-fronted box overlooking
the stage. The glass tipped forward at an angle, so as to cast bright
reflections on anyone looking up from the dining floor or the stage,
rendering anyone inside invisible. Their table was covered with heavy
white linen. It was set with heavy silver and crystal glasses. A
bottle of bourbon and one of Scotch sat in the middle. A bottle of
champagne sat in an ice bucket to one side.

A special bottle, label soaked off, sat at Chandler's place. He
poured a little green liqueur from the bottle into a glass and added
a touch of water. The clear liquid clouded. "Absinthe," he
explained. "Illegal. I have to get it from Asia. Taste I
acquired in New Orleans before it was banned. You're welcome to try
it. It's said to damage the brain."

"I've tasted it," said Jonas, "and I'll have another
taste. My grandmother made cookies with that taste: anise."

"Licorice," said Chandler.

"I'll pass it up," said Nevada.

The box was like the airport where they had landed: an accommodation
for men who wanted to enjoy some of the pleasures of Las Vegas
without being seen.

The first show opened a few minutes after they sat down in the box.
It opened with energetic dancing by twenty chorus girls wearing
brightly colored feathers. Gypsy Rose Lee followed, delivering a
series of quick one-liners to the audience as she danced and stripped
all but naked. As she took her bows and departed stage left, a
spotlight focused on a man standing stage right, his arms folded, his
chin dropped. "Well!" he said. He was Jack Benny, and he
took the stage for a thirty-minute monologue. Gypsy came out to join
him at the end.

"Uh, Miss Lee, I want to ask you. ... Do you
feel ... I mean ...
embarrassed
to be out here on the stage in
front of all these people ...
naked
?"

"No, Jack. Do you?"

The show closed with another appearance by the chorus girls.

Dinner was on the table. Having had steak at the airport, Jonas had
ordered fish, which he ate with glasses of the champagne. He ate
sparingly. He felt himself running down. Except for the brief sleep
he got at Nevada's, he had been on the move without sleep for twenty
hours. He was only forty-seven years old: too early for a man to
begin losing his stamina.

"That's a fine show," said Jonas to Morris Chandler.

"Costs a fortune," said Chandler. "But
let me tell you why places like this make money the old Western-style
gambling joints never dreamed of. When we get people in here, we get
'em for
days
. They gamble. They swim in the pool. They gamble.
They eat and drink. They gamble. They see a show. They gamble. They
sleep a few hours in a very nice room and start the whole deal over.
It's a
vacation
. And let me tell you, we take a whole lot more
money off people who come for a vacation than we do off professional
or compulsive gamblers who come in here and go nowhere but the
tables. They're smart. They know how to play. They usually don't drop
much. But the house builder from Milwaukee brings the little lady,
settles into The Seven Voyages, and they do all the stuff. She plays
the slots, he plays the tables, and they drop a bundle. And you know
what else? They leave here feelin' good about it. They had a good
time."

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