Authors: Paul Cain
“He’s been in with Ben on the truck heistings,” I went on. “He’s been waiting for a good spot to dump you—working on your connections.”
The old man said: “That’s a goddamned lie.”
I went on to Ben: “He made the five-grand offer for your hide, in Luke’s name, tonight—and he gave me the Four-mile steer… .” I hesitated a moment. “Only you wouldn’t try three in the same spot, would you?”
Ben finally got his smile working. He started to say something but I interrupted him: “Stokes told me you rubbed the two boys on the trucks, too.”
Ben’s smile went out like a light. He said: “Stokes shot both those men himself—and there wasn’t any need for it. They were lined up alongside the road… .”
Something in the soft way he said it made it sound good.
I said: “He’ll be around your place—no?”
“He went home.”
Ben gave me the number and I called up, but there wasn’t any answer.
We sat there without saying anything for several minutes, and then the door downstairs opened and closed and somebody came up.
I said to Ben: “What’ll you bet?”
The door opened and Stokes came in. He had a long gray raincoat on and it made him look even taller and thinner than he was. He stood in the doorway looking mostly at the old man; then he came in and sat down on a corner of the table.
I said: “Now that the class is all here, you can start bidding.”
The old man laughed deep in his throat. Stokes was watching me expressionlessly, and Ben sat smiling stupidly at his hands.
“I’m auctioning off the best little town in the state, gentlemen,” I went on. “Best schools, sewage system, post office… . Best streetlighting, water supply… .”
I was having a swell time.
The old man was staring malevolently at Stokes. “I’ll give you twenty-five thousand dollars,” he said to me, “to give me that pistol and get out of here.”
If I’d thought there was any chance of collecting, I might have talked to him. Things happen that way sometimes.
I looked at my watch and put the gun down on the arm of the chair where it looked best and picked up the phone.
I asked Ben: “Where’s the business going to be pulled off tonight?”
Ben wanted to be nice. He said: “A coffee joint about six miles north of town.” He glanced at Stokes. “This bastard tried to swing it back to Four-mile when he thought you’d be there sniping for me.”
“The boys are there now?”
He nodded. “The trucks have been stopping there to eat lately.”
I asked the operator for long distance, and asked for the Bristol Hotel in Talley, the first town north. The connection went right through. I asked for Mister Cobb.
When he answered, I told him about the coffee place, and that I wasn’t sure about it; and told him he’d find the stuff that had been heisted in the sheds of the yard on Dell Street. I wasn’t sure of that either, but I watched Ben and Stokes when I said it and it looked all right. Cobb told me that he’d gotten into Talley with the convoy about midnight and had been waiting for my call since then.
I hung up. “There’ll be some swell fireworks out there,” I said. “There’s a sub-machinegun on every truck—double crews. And it don’t matter much,” I went on to Ben, “how good your steer is. They’ll be watching out all the way.”
Stokes stood up.
I picked up the gun. “Don’t move so far, Skinny,” I said. “It makes me nervous.”
He stood there staring at the gun. The water was running off his raincoat and it had formed into a little dark pool at his feet.
He said: “What the hell do you want?”
“I wanted you to know that one of the kids you shot up last week at Four-mile was my boss’ brother. He went along for the ride.”
I don’t think Stokes could move. I think he tried to move sidewise or get his hand into his pocket, or something, but all he could do was take a deep breath. Then I shot him in the middle of the body where he shot the kid, and he sank down on the floor with his legs crossed under him, like a tailor.
The old man didn’t get up. He sat a little deeper in his chair and stared at Stokes. Ben moved very fast for a fat man. He was up and out the door like a bat out of hell. That was OK with me—he couldn’t get to the coffee place before the trucks got there. I had the keys to his car, and it was too far away anyway.
I got up and put the rod away and went over to the table and picked up my cigarettes. I looked down at the old man, said: “Things’ll be a little quieter now, maybe. You’ll get the dough for haulage through your territory, as usual. See that it gets through.”
He didn’t answer.
I started for the door and then there was a shot out in front of the house. I ran on down to the front door. It was open and Ben was flat on the threshold—had fallen smack on his face, half through the door.
I ducked back through the hall and tried a couple locked doors. When I came up through the hall again, the old man was on his knees beside Ben, and was rocking back and forth, moaning a little.
I went through another room and into the kitchen and on through, out the back door. I crossed the backyard and jumped a low fence and walked through another yard to a gate that led into an alley. I sloshed along through the mud until I came to a cross street, and went on down to the corner that was diagonally across the block from the McCary house.
A cab came down the street and I waited until it was almost to the corner, stepped out in front of it. The driver swerved and stepped on the gas, but he had slowed enough to give me time to jump on the running board.
I stuck my head in to the light from the meter. That turned out to be my best hunch of the evening because in another second, the driver would have opened up my chest with one of the dirtiest looking .45s I ever saw, at about two feet. It was the kid who had picked Lowry and me up. He hesitated just long enough when he saw who I was.
We nearly ran into a tree and I had time to reach in and knock that cannon out of his hand. He stepped on the brake, and reached for the gun, but I beat him to it by a hair and stuck it in my overcoat pocket and got in beside him.
I said: “Shame on you—almost crashing an old pal like me.”
He sat tight in the seat and got a weak grin working and said: “Where to?”
We went on through the mud and rain, and turned into a slightly better lighted street.
I said: “How did you know Ben shot Lowry?”
The kid kept his head down, his eyes ahead. “Lowry and me have lived together for two years,” he said. “He used to be in the hack racket too, till he got mixed up with McCary… .”
“Lowry won a lot of jack in one of Ben’s crap games a couple days ago, and Ben wanted him to kick back with it—said everybody that worked for him was automatically a shill, and couldn’t play for keeps. But Lowry’s been dropping every nickel he made in the same game, for months. That was okay with Ben. It was all right to lose, but you mustn’t win.”
I nodded, lighted a cigarette.
“Ben shot Lowry tonight at the joint on Dell Street. I know it was him because Lowry’s been afraid of it—and that’s why he said ‘McCary’.”
“Did you know it was Lowry when you picked us up?”
“Not until I used the light. Then, when we got to Ben’s I saw him get out of his car and go in just ahead of you—then I was sure. I took Lowry up to his pa’s after you went in.”
The kid drove me to the next town south. I forget the name. I got a break on a train—I only had to wait about ten minutes.
knocked on the door at the end of the hall. It was cold in the hall, almost dark. I knocked again, and Bella’s voice said: “Come in,” faintly; then she said: “Oh—it’s locked.” The key scratched in the lock and the door opened and I went into the room.
It was very hot in there. It was dark, with only a little light from a gas heater. There was a little more light that came through a short corridor from the kitchen, but it was pretty dark.
Bella closed the door and went over to the davenport and sat down. She was near the heater and the yellow light flickered over the lower part of her face.
I took off my coat and put it on a chair. Bella kept scraping her teeth lightly over her lower lip. Her teeth were like a little animal’s and she ran them over her soft lower lip rapidly, like an animal. The light from the heater was bright on the lower part of her face.
I went through the short corridor to the kitchen. The bathroom door was open; I glanced in as I passed and Gus Schaeffer turned his head and looked over his shoulder at me. He was standing at the basin with his back to the door and when he turned his head to look at me his face was awful. His skin was damp and gray and his eyes had something leaden and dying in them.
I said: “Hi, Gus,” and went in to the kitchen.
There was a man sitting on one of the benches at one side of the narrow breakfast table. The table was set lengthwise into a niche, with a bench at each side, and the man on one of the benches was sitting with his back in the corner of the niche, his knees drawn up, his feet on the outside end of the bench. His head was back against the wall and his eyes and mouth were open. There was a thin knife handle sticking out of one side of his throat.
Gus came out of the bathroom and stood behind me in the doorway.
There were several nearly empty glasses on the table. One had fallen to the floor, broken in to many glittering pieces.
I looked at the glass and I looked up at the man again. I think I said: “Christ,” very softly.
“I did it. I did it and I didn’t know it. I was blind… .” Gus was clawing at my arm.
Bella came through the corridor and stood behind him. She looked very scared, very beautiful.
She said huskily: “Gus was terribly drunk. Frank said something out of turn and Gus picked up the knife and stuck it in to his neck. He choked—I guess—”
She looked at the dead man, and then her eyes turned up white in their sockets and she fainted. Gus turned around and almost fell down trying to catch her. He said: “Oh, baby—baby!” He took her up in his arms and carried her back into the living room.
I followed him in and switched on the lights. He put Bella on the davenport. I watched him bend over her and flick ice water across her face with his fingers, from a pitcher; he rubbed her hands and wrists, and tried to force a little whiskey between her clenched pale lips. He kept saying: “Oh, baby—baby,” over and over. I sat down. He sat on the edge of the davenport and looked at me while he rubbed and patted Bella’s hands.
“You better telephone,” he said. Then he looked at Bella a long time. “I did it—see—I did it; only I didn’t know about it. I was cockeyed—”
I nodded. I said: “Sure, Gus,” and I leaned forward and picked up the telephone.
Gus was looking at Bella’s white beautiful face. He bobbed his head up and down mechanically.
I said: “What’s the best play—self-defense?”
He turned suddenly. “I don’t care—no play at all.” He dropped her hand and stood up. “Only I did it myself. She didn’t have anything to do with it. She was in here.” He came towards me, shaking his finger at me, speaking very earnestly.
I said: “Maybe I can get Neilan. The longer we let it go, the worse it’ll be.”
I dialed a number.
Neilan was a short chubby man with a strangely long face, a high bony forehead. He and Frank had been partners in a string of distilleries for almost five years. He said: “When did you get here, Red?”
“Bella called me up and told me something had happened—I live around the corner.”
I was sitting near the door that led in to the kitchen. Bella was sitting in the middle of the davenport, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, staring vacantly into the brightness of the heater. Gus was sitting in a straight backed chair in the middle of the room.
Neilan had been walking around looking at the pictures on the walls. He sat down straddling an arm of the davenport.
“So you were so drunk you don’t remember?” Neilan was looking at Gus.
Gus nodded. Bella looked up at him for a moment and nodded a little and then looked back into the fire.
There was a light tap at the door and it opened and a big man came in quietly and closed the door behind him. He wore glasses and his soft black hat was tilted over the back of his head. I think his name was McNulty, or McNutt—something like that. He said: “Ed’s downstairs with a couple of the boys.”
“They can wait downstairs.” Neilan turned his head a little and looked at Bella out of the corners of his eyes. “So Gus was so drunk he don’t remember?”
Gus stood up. He said: “Goddamn it! Pat—I was so drunk I didn’t know any better, but I wasn’t so drunk I don’t know it was me. Lay off Bella—she was in here.”
“She didn’t say so.”
Bella said: “I was nearly asleep and I could hear Gus and Frank talking in the kitchen and then they didn’t talk any more. After a while I got up and went out in the kitchen—Frank was like he is now, and Gus was out—with his head on the table.”
Her chin was in her hands, and her head bobbed up and down. Gus was sitting down again on the edge of the chair.
Neilan grinned at McNulty. He said: “What do you think, Mac?”
McNulty went over to Bella and reached down and put one big finger under her chin and jerked her head back.
“I think she’s a liar,” he said.
Gus stood up.
McNulty turned as if that had been what he wanted. He hit Gus very hard in the face, twice.
Gus fell down and rolled over on his side. He pulled his knees up and moaned a little.
McNulty took off his coat and folded it carefully and put it on a chair. He went to Gus and kicked him hard in the chest and then kicked his head several times. Gus tried to protect himself with his arms. He didn’t make any more noise but put his arms up and tried to protect himself. He tried to get up once and McNulty kicked him in the stomach and he fell down and lay quietly. In a little while, McNulty stopped kicking him and sat down. He was panting. He took off his hat and took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face.
I looked at Neilan. “I called you,” I said, “because I thought you’d give Gus a break… .”
He said: “You ought to of called the police. They’d be after giving Gus a break, and your lady friend here”—he jerked his head at Bella—“with a length of hose.”
Bella was leaning back on the davenport with her hands up to her face. She stared at Gus and tried to look at McNulty. McNulty smiled, said: “Sure—why don’t you call a cop? Frankie had everybody from the Chief down on his payroll—they’ll have to go back to working for the city.” He was out of breath, spoke unevenly.
Bella stood up and started to go towards the door, and Neilan stood up too, and put one hand over her mouth and one on her back. He held her like that for a minute and then he pushed her back down on the davenport.
McNulty got up then and stooped over and took hold of the back of Gus’ shirt collar and pulled him up a little way.
McNulty said: “Come on, boy—we’ll get some air.”
Gus’ shirt collar started to tear and McNulty cupped his other hand around the back of Gus’ neck and jerked him up on his feet. Gus couldn’t stand by himself; McNulty stood there holding him with his arm around his shoulders. Gus’ face was in pretty bad shape.
McNulty said: “Come on, boy,” again and started guiding Gus towards the door.
Neilan said: “Wait a minute, Mac.”
McNulty turned and stared vacantly at Neilan for a minute and then pushed Gus down in a big chair. He sat down on the arm of the chair, took out his handkerchief, and wiped Gus’ face. Neilan went out into the kitchen. He was out there two or three minutes without making any noise, then he snapped off the light and came back. He turned off the lights in the living room too, and it was dark except for the faint yellow light from the heater.
Neilan went back and sat down at the end of the davenport, out of the light. The light rippled over Bella’s face, and after a while, when my eyes were used to the darkness, I could make out dark shapes where McNulty and Gus sat—and Neilan.
It was so dark and quiet except for the sharp sound of Gus’ breathing. There wasn’t anything to look at except Bella and she was leaning back with her eyes closed and her face very still.
It got on my nerves after several minutes and I said: “What’s it all about, Pat?”
Neilan didn’t answer, so I leaned forward in my chair, but I didn’t get up. I sat there with all my muscles tight.
Then I heard something moving out in the kitchen. I don’t know whether anybody else heard it, but I know there was a sound out there like something moving across the floor.
I stood up and I couldn’t speak. I didn’t hear the sound again but I stood there without moving, and then Bella started talking. She talked in a conversational tone, with her head back, her eyes closed:
“Frank came here to see me. He’s been coming to see me every night for four nights. He brought along a lot of lousy whiskey and got Gus drunk, and he got drunk too. He got Gus drunk once before and tried to sell me an idea. He wouldn’t give up.”
She stopped talking a moment and the light beat up and down on her face. She was very beautiful then.
“He made a crack tonight while Gus was in the bathroom about telling Gus about Red and me…”
She opened her eyes and looked towards me in the darkness a minute, and then closed her eyes and went on: “I was scared. I called Red while they were raising hell in the kitchen and he came over and I let him in. We listened to them for a few minutes from in here in the dark, and then when Frank got to talking about what a great guy Red was, and started getting dirty about it, Red went in there very quickly and killed him. I guess Gus was too far gone to see it or know anything about it.”
She stopped talking again and it was quiet.
“Then Red beat it and I stayed in here a while and then I went out like I told you and woke up Gus. He thought I did it, I guess. I called Red again… .”
Neilan got up and went over and switched on the lights. McNulty got up too and stood there blinking, staring stupidly at Bella.
I went over and got my hat and coat and put them on. I stood looking at Bella for a while after I had put on my coat. She was still leaning back with her eyes closed. She was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.
Neilan opened the door and McNulty and I went out into the hall. It was very cold there after the intense heat of the room. Then Neilan closed the door and the three of us went downstairs.
There was a small touring car at the curb, with the side curtains on. There were two men whom I had never seen before in the front seat, and another man standing on sidewalk. The engine was running.
McNulty opened the door and got in the back seat, and then I got in, and then Neilan. There wasn’t anything else to do. I sat between them, and Neilan said: “Let’s go.”
We went down the street slowly. The man who had been standing on the sidewalk didn’t get into the car; he stood there looking after us. I turned around a little and looked at him through the rear window; as we turned the corner, he went on back up the street, the other way.
When we got out of town a ways we went faster. It was very cold.
I said: “Hurry up.”
Neilan turned and grinned at me. I could see his face a little as we passed a street light. He said: “Hurry up—what?”
“Hurry up.” The cold was beginning to get in to the pit of my stomach, and my legs. I wanted to be able to stand up. I wanted it standing up, if I could.
Neilan glanced out the rear window. He said: “I think our taillight’s out.”
The car slowed, stopped. We were pretty well out in the country by that time and the road was dark.
Neilan said: “See if we’ve got a taillight, Mac.”
McNulty grunted and reached up and opened the door and heaved himself up into the door. He stooped and put one foot out on the running board, and then Neilan reached in front of me very quickly. There was a gun in his hand and he put it close to McNulty’s back and shot him three times. The explosions were very close together. McNulty’s knees crumpled up and he fell out of the car on his face.
The car started again and the man who sat next to the driver reached back and slammed the door shut hard. Neilan cleared his throat.
He said: “Frank’s number has been up a long time. He’s been tipping our big deliveries, South; we haven’t got a truck through for two months.” I could feel the blood getting back into my arms and legs. I wasn’t so cold and I could breathe without pain.
“McNulty was in it with him. McNulty was in the outfit downstate. We found out about that last night.”
We rode on for a little while and nobody said anything.
“If the dame sticks to her beef,” Neilan went on, “the scarcer you are, the better. If she doesn’t, Gus’ll stand it. You can’t do yourself any good around here any more anyway.”
Pretty soon we stopped at a little interurban station where I could get a car in to the city.
I had to wait a while. I sat in the station where it was warm, and thought about Bella. After a while the car came.