Be careful how you live. Not thoughtlessly but thoughtfully. Make the most of your opportunities for the times are evil.
This is entirely a work of fiction, completely based on imagination. All incidents, characters, names are fictional and not intended to represent any real persons or situations.
Doc was stretched out on the cot, fooling with his .38 Police Special. It was an old canvas army cot like mine and soiled by I hate to think what. And of course minus sheets or blankets. Not that we needed them in the muggy room: What we needed was a little clean air.
I watched Doc for a moment. Doc the sharp dresser, Mister Dapper himself. Now he looked seedy. That wasn’t like Doc. His suit was wrinkled and tacky, and he had a three-day grayish stubble on his lean face. Even his face was dirty, and his hair seemed ragged. This wasn’t like Doc at all. Me, I’m a slob. But at least I was washing every day—using laundry soap for shaving cream. Doc had said he didn’t want to use the razor we’d found in the house. But it was a new razor. I don’t know; Doc’s being so sloppy was beginning to make me uneasy.
Or perhaps it was the waiting. The room itself. The room was so small and crummy it was starting to spook me. Two cots, one broken chair, cracked walls, one naked light bulb. Of course no windows. And bugs. (If this was such and old and unused hideout, what the devil had the damn bugs been feeding on all this tune?) It all reminded me of a cell. Though the only cells I’d ever seen were the detention cells in the precinct houses—and they were luxury rooms compared to this joint.
I turned on my cot and picked up the magazine again. I’d found it under the bed. Dated March, 1951. It was full of coffee stains. Must have been good Java, the color held up for all these years. Of course, maybe it wasn’t coffee. For two days I’d been trying to read the dumb stories, rereading the same lines over and over, my mind racing and thinking of a million other things—and I mean one million other things, all of them green. My brain seemed to be jumping around in my head. For no reason I thought of my kid days, of my folks, the Army time I did, when I first became a cop. All the thoughts a way of killing time, I guess: racing around the main idea sticking in my mind like a lump—a million bucks. It’s hard to realize what a million dollars is. Okay, that’s a corny crack, but it’s true. It’s simple enough to say you’d do this and that if you had the dough—dream stuff—but when you really have a million, it’s like trying to explain the sky, Sputnik: It’s too big to understand, too far away to believe you really have it in hand.
When I found myself reading the same silly line, How could I tell my saintly husband what had happened to me, explain about the coming child?, for the third time, I put the magazine down. A couple of fat roaches were walking across the ceiling. How did they keep from falling down? Out of the corners of my eyes I stared at Doc for a second. He looked too much at ease. Nothing ever bothered the old fox. Folding the magazine, I threw it up at the roaches, missing them. At least it made Doc sit up with a start. He asked, “What’s the matter, Bucky?”
“Trying to knock down a few of our friends.” He stretched out again; he said, “They’re not bothering us.”
“You look like a bum. Why don’t you wash, shave?”
“What for?” he asked softly. “Anybody sees me, a shave will be the last thing they will be thinking about.”
Doc always talked softly. With his slight, slim build, the soft voice, the gray hair, you’d never take Doc for tough. But he could be a cage of apes when he had to. Once we were sent out on a vandalism case; some kids were seen busting the windows of a small church. Doc sat in the squad car while I went out to investigate: Doc was very busy with his paper work—figuring his horses for the next day. The “kids” turned out to be half a dozen teen-agers, all of them over six feet and hopped up on beer. They dropped on me like a swarm of monkeys. Before I could get my fists working I was on the ground, the punks sitting all over me, one of them using my head for a yo-yo. I blacked out for a few seconds. When I opened my eyes again Doc was moving among them very gingerly, his sap in his left hand. He’d bat a kid, clout another with his right fist, kick one in the belly, all the time moving daintily as if afraid to wrinkle his suit. I worked the slobs over myself, and then was examined at the hospital for a possible concussion. We almost got hung on a brutality rap, of all things. Seems they were a basketball team celebrating a win, and their dumb parents sobbed about their “poor boys.” They should have seen them dribbling my noggin around. Anyway, because a church was involved, nothing came of the beef.
“I feel better, shaving every day.”
“The Englishman in the tropics?” Doc asked, smiling faintly, still working on his gun. He was always saying things I didn’t understand, as if I didn’t know which end was up. “I’ll shave when we’re ready to bust out of this dump, Bucky. Tough turn, the firing pin breaking on me now.”
I reached out and touched my own gun in its shoulder holster. I was always fondling it. “What’s the difference? If we’re collared it would be dumb to shoot it out anyway.”
And while I was talking I suddenly turned—out of habit—and looked at the three bulky, old-fashioned suitcases against one dirty wall. Innocent-looking bags, used and worn: You’d never suspect what they carried. I never let the bags out of sight for long. Even while sleeping I’m always waking up to glance at them fondly. But then, you see, I was kind of an underprivileged kid—I never had the opportunity of looking at a million bucks before.
Doc said gently, “You’re wrong, Bucky. If we’re ever caught the smartest and best move will be to shoot it out, and hope to stop a slug. Prison isn’t exactly a gay place for cops. I should say, for ex-cops.”
“You’re full of happy thoughts. This damn room reminds me of a cell as it is.”
Doc grinned, showing all those small, sharp teeth he usually took such good care of. “Son, never try to kid the kidder. You’re getting nervous. It’s understandable. We’re gambling with a million dollars. I imagine the odds are at least two to one we won’t carry it off. But the bundle is worth the gamble. Or isn’t it?” He looked up from his broken gun, hard eyes on me.
I wasn’t exactly unhappy about his gun breaking. Not that I didn’t trust Doc, but he was a many-sided joker, and most of his sides I didn’t understand. I said, “Stop selling me. I’m in.” And how silly it was to talk about being “in.” There wasn’t any way out—now.
Doc smiled, turned his attention back to his gun. “Just unwind, Bucky boy. We’re in the clear, doing fine.” He pulled a crumpled cigarette out of his pocket, said, “Give me some fire.”
“What’s the matter with your lighter?” I tossed a pack of matches over to him.
“Out of fuel.” Doc lit his cigarette, grinned as he tossed the matches back—a looping toss. The matches landed smack in the middle of my face.
Doc reminded me a lot of Nate—always telling me to take it easy when he was showing me how to swim, or fish, or box. Doc had the same competence about him; he was able to do so many little things, just like Dad, although he was not as warm as Dad was…. Now, why was I calling Nate “Dad”? The sonofabitch wasn’t my real father.
I guess it was comical. I mean all the street fights I was in because I thought my name was Laspiza and somebody would crack smart about Italians. It was only when I finished high school, was going into the Army, that I really learned I wasn’t Nate Laspiza’s son. I’d had kind of a hint several years before that he wasn’t my real father. But when I went into the service there was the little matter of a birth certificate, and then I found out I wasn’t even his adopted son.
Both times hit me pretty hard, but on the last one I nearly blew my deal. To this day I don’t know how Mom worked it in grade school, but I was always registered as Bucklin Laspiza, which was certainly a fancy handle. But I was damn proud of it. You see how it was. Mom wasn’t much of anything around the house. That is, she was just a mama, kind of sloppy and plain-looking, who did the cooking and washing, nibbled on a bottle in secret, or split a few bottles of beer listening to the radio at nights with Nate. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression—Daisy was a good mother to me, the best. When I say she hit the bottle, I don’t mean she was a lush, but I knew she was taking a secret nip now and then; and looking back on anything, I suppose it’s always the bad things that stand out.
Daisy was good and considerate, and I loved her, but I was crazy about Nate, that sonofabitch. In a way, he was about the greatest father a kid could have. I haven’t seen him now in years, never hear from him except for the usual Christmas or birthday cards. But in those days, when I was about ten, Nate was my hero—different from the other men in our neighborhood. In this semi-tenement block, most of the men lived in overalls, but Nate was a receptionist for a big oil company downtown and he always wore a pressed suit. He was like Doc, always a snappy dresser, shaving a second time in the evening, even if he was only going to the movies. Why, he wore gloves and sometimes even spats.
He wasn’t a big man, never weighed over a hundred and fifty, but Nate was wiry and compactly built. He had a mild sort of face, not handsome but with an expression as if he found the world an amusing sort of place, a kind of secret joke of his own. It was a joy to watch Nate walking down the street among the grubby-looking men and drunks—the snap to his step. You know, I never saw Nate staggering drunk: Like everything else he did, he knew how to drink. Along about five thirty every afternoon I’d watch for him, his standout neatness, the smile on his lean face, his gloves. When I was eleven I used to sleep with Nate’s pigskin gloves under my pillow whenever I could.
There was a big slob of a coal-truck driver who moved into one of the houses with his snot-nosed kids. He usually had a half a load on, was all covered with coal dust, and on paydays might pass out on the tenement steps. He had a bellowing voice, was over six feet tall and lardy—had to weigh about two hundred and fifty. He had a rep as a saloon brawler and looked it. One afternoon his oldest kid tried to say a ball I had was his. I wasn’t lying or anything when I insisted it was mine.
You see, Nate paid a lot of attention to me. Most guys on the block had so many kids they treated them all as if they were pests. We were the only family with a single child and both Daisy and Nate gave me a lot of time. Especially Nate. He used to take me fishing and hunting, go to the beach with me, show me how to play ball, how to box, and on my tenth birthday he gave me a set of weights and we would work out together a few nights a week. What I’m trying to say is, with Nate’s tutoring I was handy with my mitts, maybe even a bit of a bully, so I had to give this kid a bloody nose to convince him about the ball. It was late in the afternoon, and I’d forgotten about the whole damn thing, when this big slob, the kid’s old man, came lumbering up to me. He was breathing whisky and suddenly deciding to play the Big Daddy. He said, “Give back that ball, you stealing little wop.”
“No sir. It’s my ball. I’m sure because I got it cheap—there’s a bump in the rubber and it bounces cockeyed.”
“Don’t give me no Eye-tie lip, just the ball.”
“No, sir. That bump—that’s how I’m positive it’s mine,” I said, scared stiff but standing up to him. As Nate used to tell me, If you think you’re right, never back down, Bucky. A beating isn’t the worst thing in the world.
So he made a grab for me with one dirty mitt and I ducked under his arm, punched him as hard as I could in his big belly. I didn’t hurt him but some of the other men began to snicker. He roared, “Now I’m going to wack your guinea ass, and wack it bare!”
I suppose I was too scared to run. I kept side-stepping his rushes, hitting his stomach—too dumb to smack him below the belt. Some of the women were telling him to stop it, and I remember Mom screaming out of the window to leave me alone. She had a bitch of a temper when she cut loose—even Nate respected it—and I’m sure if she had been able to dress and get down the five flights in time, she would have tore into this lump.
The exercise was sobering him up and when he finally caught me, he ripped my shirt down the back, tore my pants, pulling them down. Maybe he was a queer—he was licking his lips, and I felt his spit on my bare can before he walloped me. That spit hurt worse than the actual lick. Then Nate was pushing through the ring of people. He said in a mild voice, “Get your dirty hands off my kid!” Yeah, he said my kid.
The big jerk dropped me. He stood there with his hands down, roaring, “Look what we have here, the Eye-tie dude!”
Rolling out of the way as I pulled up my pants, I watched Nate step in and belt the guy. It was a hard punch and Nate neatly turned his gloved hand as it landed cutting the eyebrow.
His face bloody, this giant rushed at Nate. His idea of fighting was to come in bellowing and cursing, swinging like a gate. If he’d ever got to Nate he would have crippled him. But Nate knew what he was doing, dancing in and out like a cutie, those tan gloves slicing the big face. Why, Nate’s pearl-gray Homburg never even came off! And in a matter of seconds he had the lump’s eyes puffed shut, blood streaming from his nose and flabby mouth. Then Nate started working on the heaving belly, and after another minute the big slob was sitting on the street, puffing and actually crying with shame. Nate said, “If you ever lay a hand on my kid again, I’ll give you the full treatment. Come, Bucky. Daisy has supper waiting.” And Nate without a mark on him, hardly breathing deeply.
I was one proud and happy kid as we walked through the crowd. And those gloves were so bloodstained Nate could only use them for fishing. Daisy didn’t want me to sleep with them, but Nate said it was okay. When I grew bigger I wore them until they fell apart.
Nate was so many things. Except for going to work, most of the people never left our block. But Nate and I went every place. He was a great cook and on picnics he would build a fire and broil the fish we’d caught. Or split hot dogs and stuff cheese and bacon and all kinds of spices in them. Or roast whole ears of corn, husks and all. Often Daisy went with us but usually she was too tired. Even now I can recall the time Nate killed a rabbit on the run with a stone, roasted it on a spit—man, what a meal that was! I’m not lying about that, Nate was a hell of a pitcher. He once played semi-pro ball. Sometimes he’d pitch for a local sand-lot team and everybody would ask him why he’d never made the major leagues. Nate knew everything about the game, would often take me to a ball game and practically call every play before it was made. He told me not to tell Daisy about going to ball games, it made her sick. I didn’t understand about that until I left home.
Nate was all-around. Whenever one of those professional pool players, one of those masked marvels sent around by the pool-table outfits, played at the corner pool hall, they would ask Nate to take him on. Of course Nate never won but it was always a close game. And when his office had their yearly outing, Nate would take me and Mom, and we’d watch him win the sack race, or even the hundred-yard dash against younger fellows.
The first I knew Nate wasn’t my real dad was when I was thirteen and he went away for a week end to attend his mother’s funeral. I knew Daisy’s folks had died long ago, although I’d never seen them. She had a sister I saw once when I was a kid. Nor had I met any of Pop’s people, and when he went away I kept asking Daisy why I had never seen or heard of this grandfather. She told me it was because they lived way out west. Daisy really hit the bottle that week end. I had to put her to bed. When Nate returned Sunday night they had an argument in their bedroom. On account of Mom being crocked I’d been sleeping lightly, so I awoke to hear her say, “Hon, he’s getting big now, and asking questions. Why don’t you adopt him?”
“No. Let’s not go into that.”
“But I know you love Bucky. Why put him through this? He isn’t to blame.”
“Daisy, I’ve had a rough week end. You look like you’ve had one, too. Let’s not talk about it. I’m providing for him, doing everything I promised.”
“But why can’t you go all the way?”
He didn’t answer and then I heard her sobbing and Nate said, “Come on now, Daisy, dear. You know I’ve done the right thing. Please don’t cry.”
I tossed on my day bed in the living room for the rest of the night, was sick in school the next day thinking about it. That night, when we were listening to the radio and Daisy was in the kitchen finishing the dishes, I asked him right out. “Nate, are you my real dad?”
I was a little hysterical. He glanced toward the kitchen, whispered, “Bucky, do you know what a real father is?”
“Well, he’s… a father.”
“A father is one who feeds his boy, dresses him, takes him out, cares for him. I dress you better than any other kid in the block, take you more places, don’t I?”
“You bet. Then you are my real father?”
“Keep your voice down. I just answered that, didn’t I, Son?”
“Then what was Mom crying about last night?”
He grinned and poked me on the arm. “You know women; sometimes they get high strung. Tell you what. Tomorrow is Friday. If Daisy don’t want to go to the movies, I’ll take you bowling. It’s a nice sport and you’ve never tried it. And you forget Mama’s crying—talking about it will only make her nervous. You know how she gets at times. Okay?”
I thought he meant she was unwell. He took me bowling on Friday and won a carton of cigarettes for making high score of the week.
When I was just turning eighteen and in my last term of high school, Daisy began to have sick spells, keep to her bed a lot. She was always skin and bones, although I was surprised when I once came upon a snap of her as a young girl—she had a slim but solid figure. I came home one afternoon from football practice—I was always a second-string tackle—to find her on the kitchen floor. I set up such a hollering the neighbors came running and soon an ambulance doc. He said Daisy was dead—as if I didn’t know—that her heart had given out. Nate took it bad, crying all night and staring at the wall for a few days. Of course, I felt bad at losing Mom, but it really didn’t change my life much. After the funeral things went on as before, except I did the shopping after school and Nate cooked.
I was almost as big then as I am now, weighed in at a hundred and seventy-four pounds, and was trying to be an amateur boxer. Nate was my manager, trainer, and second, and after Daisy’s death we worked hard at it. Three nights a week I’d train at a gym the pros used during the day. I had a few fights, winning them all. They weren’t easy fights and I didn’t see any future in throwing leather. But it made it easier for us to forget Daisy, gave both of us a charge, me in there fighting, Nate leaning on the ring apron, shouting advice. Nate and I were closer than any father and son.
When I graduated school a few months after the funeral, Nate gave me a swell watch, a wrist watch with the picture of a pug, the hands of the clock being his arms. I still have it. The night of my graduation he took me out for some real Japanese food and a couple of belts of rye, telling me how sad it was Daisy didn’t see me get my diploma, how I must go to college, maybe even get an athletic scholarship. When we returned to the flat there was a check for three hundred and fifty dollars in the mail for Bucklin Penn. There was one for Nate too, for the same amount. He said, “From your dear mother’s policy.”
Never having had that much money before, I was too delighted to think straight for a moment. Then I asked, “But what’s with this Bucklin Penn tag?”
Nate was unrolling my diploma, which he was going to have framed the first thing in the morning. I was astonished to see the same name on the diploma—Bucklin Penn. I asked, “What is this, Dad? Why isn’t Laspiza printed there?”
Nate had the same look in his eyes as when he was getting ready to make a tough pool shot, or pitch his fast ball. “Because your name is Penn, Bucky.”
“That was Mom’s maiden name but my name is Laspiza.”
“No it isn’t,” he said quietly. “That’s why I arranged for your correct name on your diploma. Son, it’s time you knew I’m not your actual father.”
“Well, who is?” I asked, my voice a croak. I was all mixed up; him telling me that and calling me son at the same time.
“I don’t know. Daisy would never tell me. Truth is, I never asked.”
Now, Nate had a good sense of humor, sometimes was given to mild practical jokes. Like once I’d saved up for a model plane they were advertising on a corn-flakes box. I gave Nate the letter with the money to mail on his way to the office. That night he came home with the plane-kit box, addressed to me, stamped and everything, said mail service was sure fast these days. It took me a few days to realize he had bought a kit in a store, had his company’s mail room fix it up.
Feeling like I’d stopped a gut wallop, I asked, “Nate, what kind of a gag is all this?”
“How I wish it was a gag, Bucky. This is going to be rough, for both of us, but I have to tell you something I wanted to say long ago, but Daisy wouldn’t let me. I kept telling her it was a mistake not to tell you….”
“Tell me what?”
“You’re almost a man now, Bucky. You can understand this. Daisy and I grew up together in a small town not far from Gary. We were sweethearts from the day we first saw each other. Her folks weren’t too keen about having me in the family because I was Italian. Well, her parents were killed in an auto accident when Daisy was fifteen, and she came to live with us. We were to be married when she was eighteen. After about a year or so, she began working as a waitress in a combination bar and restaurant. My people were very strait-laced, you understand. They didn’t want her working. But Daisy liked being independent, and she wasn’t working nights—when the bar might get rough—only during the afternoons. I don’t have to tell you about sex, Bucky; we went over that a few years ago. What I’m trying to say is, I never touched Daisy, although we both wanted it. You see, we agreed we would wait.”
He stopped talking for a moment, and when he continued his voice was shaking like a ham actor’s. “Daisy was going to be seventeen on August twenty-fifth. I was nineteen and that summer I got an offer to play semipro ball up in Canada. It looked like my big chance. In July—July eighth in fact; 111 never forget that date—my father wrote that I should consider Daisy dead—they had kicked her out of the house. I left the team and rushed home. She was a month pregnant with you. Some louse had fed her a few drinks, raped her. She had been ashamed to even go to the police. We were married that same day, and came east. I promised her I would raise you like my own son. Bucky, you know I’ve kept my word. I intend to help you through college, keep on being your best friend and—”
“Best friend—you are my father!” I was talking in a daze.
“No, I’m not. A fact is a fact.”
“But you’ve been a father to me for almost eighteen years. Why didn’t you… don’t you… at least adopt me?”
“I can’t do that, kid.”
“Well—I just can’t. You’re better off with a name like Perm. A good American name that—”
“Nate, Nate, don’t bull me! Why can’t you give me your name?”
“What’s in a name?” he asked, then turned away and added—almost painfully, “Bucky, don’t ask me why.”
I spun him around. “But I’m asking!”
“Look… I never told you this, of course, but—I’m wanted by the police.”
“Since when? What for?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. But it’s true.”
“I don’t believe it. Why, you’re so honest you wouldn’t keep the three bucks in that purse you once found! What—”
Nate was suddenly full of cheer. “Still time to make a late show downtown, kid. Come on. What difference does it make if you’re called Smith, Brown, or anything else? A handle is merely a label and I’ve raised you to be a fine young fellow. We’ll take in a show and forget it.”
“Sure, just forget a trifle like finding out I’m a bastard!” I screamed, running out of the apartment.
I had the check with me and managed to cash it. Then I did a real dumb thing: I got crocked in the neighborhood. Being a pug and a football player, I was sort of a big deal around the block, and plenty of the better-looking babes kept asking me to take them out. Elma wasn’t one of them. She was a big plump girl of about eighteen and her claim to fame was her constant use of a four-letter word. Okay, it may sound jerky now, but then it was kicks to hear a girl talk like that. Guys took Elma out to hear her dirty jokes, and when she got mad Elma would repeat that four-letter word over and over, so the fellows would try to get her boiling. That wasn’t so simple, for Elma was very easygoing. Don’t get me wrong; I knew she never went all the way. But several times she let me run my hands over her. Elma never made any bones about it: She went for me in a big way. All I remember about that drunken night was me telling everybody my name wasn’t Laspiza, like a fool, and Elma hanging on to me, saying, “Penn is a nice name, Bucky. Why, maybe you’re descended from the famous William Penn. Jeez, you got an arm like a rock. Make a muscle for me, Bucky.”
Nate finally found me around two in the morning, took me home. For the first time in his life he took off a few days from his job, stayed with me. The crazy thing is I might have got over the shock if I hadn’t stupidly broadcast the fact I was a bastard. It was a bit of choice gossip. I knew guys were snickering behind my back, and the girls avoided me. But Elma was with me as much as possible.
It got so I couldn’t stand the damn block and one day I went off and enlisted in the Army. This was about a year before Korea. Nate was heartbroken—which gave me a kind of dumb satisfaction. He told me, “You’ve made a bad mistake, Bucky. You should have gone to college. A man isn’t anything today without a college degree. If I’d gone to college do you think I’d have ended behind a reception desk, grinning like a dressmakers’ dummy? I been with the company for over fifteen years and every time there was an opening, a chance, they passed me by for a college kid.”
“So what? I would have been drafted in a few months anyway.”
“I suppose so. Take care of yourself in the Army, come out with a clean record. This might work out for the best, maybe you can still go to college, on the G. I. Bill when you get out. It will be good for you to get away—this Elma isn’t for you, Bucky. She’s older and a—”
“Nate, you were about twenty-seven when World War II was going. I guess having me around kept you 4F.”
“A busted eardrum kept me out.”
“I bet you told them I was your real son then. I bet!” I said, leaving the house for a last date with Elma.
I breezed through basic in a southern infantry camp. Nate wrote me regularly, sent me shaving kits and all the dopey things you send a soldier, but I never answered him. Whenever I got a leave I spent it drinking and fighting bootleg pro bouts in a nearby big city. I was stationed in Texas when Korea broke and we were sure to be sent over. I got a two-week leave and a plane ride back home. I really didn’t go “home,” I took a room downtown. The first thing I did was insist upon Elma spending the night with me. The deal with me was, I couldn’t think of anything but Nate not being my old man. I guess it became an obsession with me. I thought about it all the time, in camp, in the ring, even sleeping with Elma. The thought kept rattling around in my head. When I could look at it calmly, I knew he had done the right thing by Daisy. Most guys wouldn’t have. What it must have meant to Nate to give up pro ball, his big chance. And to leave his family. But what kept eating at me was, why hadn’t he adopted me? It didn’t make sense. I’d think back to all he’d done for me, all the attention and care, and yet he wouldn’t give me his name. Why?
I was liquored up most of the time, not much of a feat as I’m hardly a drinker; a few shots does it far me. When I had three days left of my leave, I went up to the apartment late one afternoon, knowing Nate would be home from work by then.
When I opened the door he was making supper, wearing an old smoking jacket. Nate never slopped around the house in his undershirt. He said, “Hello, Bucky. I heard you were in town. Looks like you’ve put on muscle. Soldiering must agree with you.”
“I can take it or leave it. I… uh… meant to come by sooner but I had a few stops.”
“I can smell them. Want supper?”
“No.” I staggered a bit trying to make the table. “I want something else, Nate.”
“Broke? I can let you have—”
“I want you to call me Bucky Laspiza. I want to hear you say it right now!” I said, the anger building up in me so strong the words came blurting out.
Nate gave me a “fatherly” smile. “Come on, now, Bucky, you’re crocked. Why do you let that worry you so? You know the old line about what’s in a name? I think—”
“Nate, stop stalling. You’re going to call me Bucky Laspiza, or I’m going to make you. I been thinking about it for weeks now. You’ve called me ‘Son,’ and ‘my kid,’ and ‘Bucky,’ but I can’t ever remember you calling me Bucky Laspiza!”
“Aren’t you being silly?”
“Nothing silly about it to me!”
“Bucky, suppose I did say what you want—what difference would it make?” he asked, coming around the kitchen table to face me. I’d worked out with him enough to tell from the way he had his legs apart that he was set to hit me. I wanted him to. I guess what I’d really been thinking in the back of my noggin all these months was that I hated Nate so damn much I wanted to kill him.
“Don’t soft-sell me, Nate. It will make a lot of difference to me. Just call me Bucky Laspiza, Nate.”
“Want me to call you mister, too?” he said, wetting his lips nervously.
“The hell with mister. Call me by my name!”
“Certainly. Hello, Bucklin Penn.”
“Goddamn you, Nate, you’re going to call me Laspiza!”
“I can’t. It isn’t your name.”
I started for him. He was good; even though I expected the punch, his right came so fast I couldn’t block it. It was a hell of a wallop, sent me reeling-crashing against the wall, almost floored me. I knew then Nate felt the same way: All his resentment against me was in that crack on the chin.
My mouth was bleeding, my head ringing. Nate was so eager he goofed—he came at me. I got my arms around him, was too strong for him, not to mention the forty pounds of young muscle I had on him. I wrestled him to the floor, smothering his blows with my body. I sat on his gut, slugging him with both hands. I was so nuts I think I would have killed him if he hadn’t gone limp and whispered, “Don’t, Bucky. This… is… crazy stuff.”
“Call me Bucky Laspiza!” I gasped.
“Bucky L-Laspiza,” he said, turning his head away from me, the words coming out a tormented moan.
There was a bruise on his cheek; a trickle of blood ran out of one ear. I got off him and sat on the floor, feeling my numb chin. I was suddenly very sober and scared—I had damn near killed him. I stroked his thin hair and Nate began to cry. I kissed him on the forehead, muttered, “Oh, Dad, Dad! What’s happening to us? You’re right, this is crazy. Why can’t you adopt me, give me your name?”
“Don’t talk about that,” he said, hugging me with one hand, but still not looking at me. “I told you about the police… looking for me.”
“All this time? For what?”
“Murder. I… I… killed your father.”
I pulled away from him. “Stop snowing me, Nate. That’s a lie.”
“No it isn’t.” He was whispering again.
“I thought about it in camp—you’re all I thought about. You’ve always told me how the oil company has such a careful check on their employees. All that security stuff. If you were wanted by the cops, they would have had you long ago.”
“They—the police—they… don’t know I killed him.”
“Then there isn’t any reason why you can’t adopt me.”
He didn’t answer. For several minutes neither of us spoke. Nate’s eyes were shut and his face was so white I thought he had passed out. I stood up. Pulling Nate to his feet, I led him to a kitchen chair. For the first time Nate didn’t look dapper, merely old. He leaned on the table, feeling of his face, staring at the blood that came off on his hands. I wet a dish towel with cold water and tossed it on the table. Nate held it to his face for a long while.
“Nate, that stuff about killing; it’s a lie, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. But I wanted to kill him. I used to dream how I had killed him—whoever he was. I’d dream of ways of slow… I suppose that’s why Daisy never would tell me.”
“Dad, I’m sorry I hit you.”
He took the towel from his puffed face, looked at me. “I could cut off my hand for punching you, Bucky.”
“Nate, listen: I still want you to adopt me.”
“Son, in time you’ll forget about it.”
“Can’t you understand that I wouldn’t want any other man for a father?”
“I’ve always been your father, Bucky.”
“Damn it, Nate, make it legal!”
He shook his head and groaned with pain. Then he said, “I just can’t do it. Sometimes I wanted to but… Bucky, I’ve always been an also-ran—in everything I did. I never made the big leagues or had a good job. Well, a man can’t be a complete blank. What I’m trying to say is that even a bad thing can still be the biggest deal in your life. That’s the real reason why I never adopted you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You see, if I had adopted you, or put my name down when you were born—it was that simple—why, in time it would have been forgotten. I would have forgotten it! Son, you can’t ask a man to forgive and forget the biggest thing in his life.”
“No matter if I was second best in everything else—in that I stuck to my guns.”
“You mean you wanted to hold it over Daisy all her life. Is that it?”
“No. I loved Daisy. You should know that.”
“Bull! You did the ‘right thing’ and wanted to make damn sure she’d never forget it—you wanted to punish her! What did it do, keep you on that righteous kick all your life?”
“That’s not so. Daisy is dead and I’m still young enough to—I can’t even think of marrying again.”
“My God, Nate, I used to think of you as a man, but you’re sick, crawling with self-pity!”
“What if I am?” he asked loudly, staring up at me. ‘You’re only a kid and can’t understand what I’ve been trying to tell you. When a man has nothing else, even self-pity can be the most important thing in his life. It’s been something I’ve clung to all these years. I can’t give it up now.”
“But clinging to what? Is this why you never had any other… any kids with Daisy? Why you made her your maid… something around the apartment like a dishrag?”
“That’s an unfair lie. We tried to have children. And I always treated Daisy well, better than any—”
“I know. You did the ‘right thing,’ and you’re stuck with it—in your own crazy mind,” I said, picking up my garrison cap, straightening my jacket and shirt. Heading for the door, I called back, “Good-by, Nate. I wish to God I’d never come back, never seen you like this.”
“Bucky!” It was a wail that made me stop at the doorway.
Fumbling for words, Nate said, “Good-by, Son. I’ve been thinking of moving. I may be transferred to our L.A. office. I’ll send you my address.”
“Don’t bother.” I started down the stairs.
“Bucky if… if it means so much to you… After all, you’re the only thing real I have left in life. Well, I’m willing to give you my name.”
“Tomorrow I’ll see a lawyer and start—”
“Don’t bother. When I said thanks I meant thanks for making it so it doesn’t matter a damn to me now if I have your name or not. Good-by!” I rushed down the stairs.
I rang Elma’s bell. When she came out I told her, “Let’s get back to the hotel.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “I have to be careful, Bucky. You know my old man and Mama gave me hell about staying—”
“Tell her we’re getting married in the morning.”
“Bucky! You kidding?”
“Aw, I have this G.I. insurance, can get an allotment. You’ve been good to me—why shouldn’t you get it?”
Over a fat kiss, Elma said, “You don’t know how good 111 be to you from now on! Let’s go, lover.”
“Don’t you want to tell your folks?”
Elma uttered her favorite word, then added, “We’re engaged, aren’t we? My old man would think we’re lying and—I’ll tell Ma later, when I show her the ring.”
There was a knock on the end wall. Doc sat up, moving fast and quietly. The room was out of an old movie, with a false wall and a phony closet on the other side. Of course, I’d only seen the house once from the outside—when we came in, and I hardly had my mind on it—but from the street it looked like a narrow, rundown frame house. Yet on the inside, from the little I’d seen, it was very roomy, including this hidden room.
I was on my feet. Doc put the useless gun in his holster as the knock was repeated twice. He called out, “Yes?”
The entire wall—it was about eight feet wide—swung open silently and the old bag who owned this trap came in. She was a real creature, about as low as they come: a horribly overpainted face that looked like a wrinkled mask; her few stumpy teeth all bad; watery eyes; stringy bright blond hair atop a scrawny body and dirty house dress; torn stockings over veined, thin legs; and broken men’s shoes acting as slippers. The very least she needed was a bath. The biddy’s eyes said that at one time or another she had tried everything in the book—the wrong book.
She held an afternoon paper in her claw as she talked to Doc. She had ignored me from the second we’d come. In a rusty voice she asked, “Whatcha think, Doc, you’re playing with farmers? Handing me this gas about being in a jam over some lousy investigation, ya got to hide out for a few days. A million bucks!”
She waved the newspaper like a red flag, her tiny eyes trying to X-ray the three suitcases.
I glanced at the paper. There it was, all over the front page:
SEEK TWO CITY DETECTIVES
IN MISSING $1,000,000 RANSOM
Of course I had expected it. It wasn’t any secret. Yet actually seeing the headline, our pictures, was like stopping a right hook below the belt.
Doc yanked the paper from her hand, spread it out on his cot, and sat down. He even yawned as he started reading the story. I sat on the edge of my cot, my legs blocking the “door.” Without looking up from his reading, Doc said, “Okay, Molly, now you know. What about it?”
“Great Gordon Gin, you really got a million in them bags?” the old witch said, excitement making her voice shrill.
“We have clothing in those suitcases,” Doc said calmly, dropping the paper, facing her. “What’s on your mind, honey?” Doc’s sharp face was relaxed but his eyes were bright.
“You know what’s on my mind! This makes a difference. They’ll be combing the city tight! I’m taking a hell of a risk in—”
“How much, Molly?” Doc cut in.
“This changes our deal!”
“How much do you think it changes it?”
I could almost see her pin-head making like an adding machine.
“It’ll cost you a thousand bucks a day!”
Doc shrugged. “I’m hardly in a position to argue, my dear. Okay.”
A grand a day—each!” this walking fright rasped. Doc grinned. “All right, but don’t push it too far, Molly. Two grand a day it is. And at least give us some decent food—my stomach is tired of your canned slop.”
“Food shouldn’t worry you.”
“Oh, but it does. I pride myself on being a gourmet.”
“Skip the big words. I want my money now, and two grand every morning—in front. I ought to ask you for back rent at the same rate but I’ll give you a break.”
“Thank you, my sweet. Your kindness is blinding.”
“None of your smart lip, Doc. Give me my two grand for today.”
“Of course.” Doc picked up his coat, which was crumpled over his pillow. Pulling out some bills, he counted them swiftly. “I only have twelve hundred here. I—”
“No funny stuff, Doc. I want all my money. Open them bags!”
“You wish to be paid off in clothing? Stop screaming; you’ll get the money.” Doc looked at me. “Give me some cash, Bucky.”
As he walked over to me I knew what was going to happen, what had to happen, just as I knew Doc had five thousand on him—like I did. I went through the motions of reaching into my hip pocket for my wallet. Me and Doc worked so well he didn’t have to say a word, or give me a sign.
My coat and holster were hanging on the back of the one chair. Doc did it neatly—grabbing my pillow with his left hand, yanking my gun out with his right. It was practically all one motion, his back toward Molly. He spun around and shot the old biddy twice in the body. She fell face down, as if her legs had been yanked from under her, the muffled shots echoing in the room like tiny thunder. The acrid stink of gunpowder filled the place, a welcome odor compared to the usual stale smell. And my pillow needed ventilating.
Without a sound, Molly turned on her side, curling up like a burning worm, hands pressed to her scrawny belly. Her mouth was wide open and her plates came loose, pushed half across her lips. Her eyes were staring down at her stomach too, as if she had forgotten all about us, was so busy dying she was in a world of her own. After a few seconds the look in her eyes was too steady and I knew she was dead.
Handing me my gun, Doc listened carefully for a few seconds, one slim hand up for silence. Then he asked softly, “You knew it would come to this, Bucky?”
“Yeah.” I holstered the rod. I didn’t feel a thing at seeing the witch die. It had been so different when Betty was killed. That had ripped me wide open. I pointed to the corpse with my shoe. “What do we do with that?”
Doc knelt and took her pulse. When he let the thin, pale hand fall it made a sharp sound against the floor. Doc stepped through the “door” and returned a second later, dropping a worn rug on the floor. “Wrap this around her before she bleeds all over our room. We’ll park her in an upstairs closet, let the rats decide if she’s worth eating.”
“Do you think she told anybody?” I asked, kicking the rug over Molly, wrapping her in it as if she was a hunk of baloney.
“Not this pig. She probably figured on going for the dough alone by killing us in our sleep.”
“Suppose somebody comes around asking for her?”
“Molly was never the friendly type. If the doorbell rings, we’ll face it then. Another few days and we’ll be ready to blow this hole.”
“And go where?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea—yet.” Doc smiled down at me as if talking to a kid asking dumb questions. Sometimes that annoyed the devil out of me.
We carried the rug and Molly upstairs. I’d never seen much of the house before and it was awful creepy, full of broken furniture, thick dust and dirt over everything. In Molly’s bedroom we found stacks of old newspapers, boxes of dirty clothes—things piled high as the cracked ceiling. It was strictly nutty, miser stuff. And if our room was under this—old as the dump was—it was a wonder the floor didn’t collapse. Her closet held torn dresses, hills of worn shoes, scattered dirty underwear that had to have come from a trash can. Molly never even threw a used toothpick away. But her bed was a modern foam mattress on smart iron legs, and in a cedar bag we found a mink coat smelling clean and new—a good mink like Judy wanted.
Doc laughed at the coat. “Bucky, as you see, vanity never ages. Why, this must have set Molly back at least a thousand, even if she bought it hot. If we look hard enough we’ll find money here.”
“Let’s get back downstairs. Makes me nervous leaving the bags.”
“I wasn’t thinking of her lousy few bucks,” Doc said, almost to himself. “If we ransacked the house, make it robbery, the work of a punk who had his eye on miser Molly, killed her while hunting for the loot…”
“That’s an idea,” I said, admiring Doc. His brain was always ticking.
“No.” Doc shook his head. “Be a waste of time. Ballistics will check the lead in Molly and link it with the slug in the kidnapper; they’ll know it’s us. No, forget it. Shut that closet door tightly and stuff the cracks with paper—the old gal will smell rather strong in a few days.”
“I hope we’ll be long gone from here in a few days,” I said as Doc went into the hole she called a bathroom, began poking around. I took some newspapers—dated two years ago—and closed the closet door as hard as I could, got down on my knees and began stuffing paper around the door. That was another thing about Doc that sometimes got on my nerves—his habit of ordering me about. Of course he was the senior man, but this was hardly police work!
As I was stuffing the top of the door, Doc returned, holding a small bottle.
I asked, “What is it—dope?”
“It’s a blond rinse. She has a case of the junk. A lot of cosmetics.” He pocketed the bottle. “Move some of those boxes of junk against the closet door—no, put a couple piles of papers against the door. We’ll look through the boxes—we ought to find some men’s clothing. And keep away from the windows.”
“Hell, the windows are so grimy nobody could see us.” I moved a big stack of old papers against the closet door, began to sweat. Then I kicked a cardboard carton open. “What do we need clothing for?”
It was real disgusting, the lousy boxes were just that—full of all kinds of bugs, even worms, and a startled mouse. Doc picked out a dirty, cracked leather windbreaker and a couple pairs of shabby pants. I still didn’t know what he wanted with this junk. Shaking the windbreaker, Doc grinned at me, said, “I wonder what thug owned this? Must be a dozen years old.”
“When do you figure this joint was last used as a hide-out, Doc?”
“Hard to say—perhaps ten minutes before we pulled in. Who knows? Back during Prohibition this was a blind pig and a popular hiding place for the big shots. Molly even had girls stashed away for the boys. The last I know of anybody using this was Baldy Harper, who was wanted for a knife party back in 1949—or was it 1951? I wasn’t on the case but—”
“The hell with it. Let’s get back to the suitcases.”
“Sure.” He slapped me on the back, hard. “Don’t get your nerves up, kid. It’s only paper.”
“But a million bucks is so much paper.” I headed for the stairs, and Doc followed me, carrying the clothing.
We looked through the kitchen, scattering roach patrols. The bugs must have been a frantic lot, for the cheap bag didn’t have any food around—a few cans of beans, stale coffee, a can of milk that smelled awful. The odd part was, she had a spotless refrigerator, and completely empty. Not even a brew. Sitting on an unstained part of the kitchen table, I asked, “Now what, mastermind?”
Like Nate, Doc never got rattled. He laughed at me. “It’s simple, S.O.P.: We keep sitting tight.”
“The only think tight will be our guts—we have to eat.” And Bucky boy, you well know how much I enjoy eating. We shall eat very well, too.”
“How? Even the roaches are having it rough.” I glanced at my watch, the same one Nate had given me for graduation years ago. The boxer’s arms said it was ten to six. “It’s damn near suppertime now. You going to saute the bugs, or maybe roast those old clothes?”
“I wish you’d put that childish watch away. Time has little meaning for us now. A timeless world is one of man’s goals. We are fortunate to—”
“Okay, Doc, but we can’t eat words. Exactly how are we going to eat so ‘well’?”
He patted the clothes he had tossed on a chair. “I may be fairly well known in this end of town; I used to have a post here when I was a harness bull. That’s how I knew about Molly and this hide-out. While that was over sixteen years ago, it would still be far too risky for me to venture outside. But you can go out and buy—”
“Me?” I jumped off the table. “You’re talking like a man with a paper head! Remember the whole damn force is looking for the both of us!”
Doc nodded, that wise tight smile on his unshaven puss, as though I’d just made a funny. “I know. The beat cop most certainly has a general description of you: young, stocky, black hair, well-dressed.” He pulled out the bottle of hair dye, threw it on top of the old clothes. “Disguise has become a lost art among you younger detectives. Look, as soon as it’s dark a blond, middle-aged man in worn work clothes with a blanket around his middle to make him look stout will easily be able to walk the two or three blocks it will take you to find a delicatessen. The nearest one is run by an old German, a very clean store. You’ll be perfectly safe. You won’t buy much: beer, a few packs of butts, sandwiches. Ordinary staples. Granted it’s a chance, but a very little one. It’s comparatively simple to make a young fellow look old, but to make a man my age look young—well, it would be much more of a chance if I tried it.”
“I’d have to be crazy to buy that!”
“Bucky, Bucky, you sound as if I was throwing you to the lions. We’re in this together all the way. Do you think I’d let you take a real risk? Hell, if you got caught they’d beat this hiding place out of you in no time, and I’d be collared too.”
“But Doc, going out… seems such a dumb thing.”
“Okay. We can use up these beans tonight, but tomorrow we’ll have to eat. There’s little point in our being the richest men who ever starved to death. I told you before, Bucky, we have to meet things as they come up. Now we have to cross the food bridge, just as a half hour ago we had to take care of Molly. Look, I know my business. I’ll fix you up so you wouldn’t recognize yourself in a mirror.”
“Well… I guess there’s no sense in us arguing. We do have to eat, but… Doc, what are we hanging around this house for, giving them a chance to close in on us?”
“This is the smartest move we ever made, our salvation. Kid, you’ve never been through a dragnet; you don’t know what it’s like. The tightest man hunt in police history surrounds this city right this minute. Not only our police force, but the F.B.I. and the state troopers have undoubtedly thrown in hundreds of extra men—every guy anxious to make the big collar. Two men carrying bags couldn’t reach the highway, or even get within shouting distance of the railway station or bus terminal. We have to wait a few more days, maybe a week or two, to give them time to relax the dragnet, make everybody feel positive we’ve left town. Time is on our side, not theirs. Suppose we have to wait a month, even a year. The pay is right and—”
“A month!” I exploded. “I’ll go stir nuts. Not even a radio in the house.”
“Take it easy, Bucky boy, learn to relax. You must have heard of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago—way back?”
“What’s that to do with us?”
Doc sat on a kitchen chair, stretched his legs. “The real head of the mob, the joker they were after, was in that garage but they didn’t kill him. Matter of fact, he died several years ago—in bed. But the killers had seen him go into the garage and they kept an around-the-clock watch on the garage building for over six months, after the massacre. This mob leader was smart, he stayed in that garage, in hiding, for eight months—and lived.”
“You mean we might have to spend that much time here?”
“Maybe. Or somebody like a building inspector might come around ten minutes from now and we’ll have to make new plans.” Doc felt in his pockets, then held out his hand. “Give me a butt—and some fire. Suppose we do stick here for a half a year—isn’t a million bucks worth it? What’s a few months, a year, out of our lives? It’s simple if you learn how to unwind. That’s the secret of a long life.”
“Come on, Doc, you can talk plainer than that,” I said, giving him my last cigarette and a match.
Winking at me over a cloud of smoke, he said, “I keep telling you to remember the one big advantage we have in this setup—we didn’t plan this!”
“So what’s the big fat difference?” I asked, watching my last butt working in the middle of his dirty face.
“When you’ve done police work as long as I have, you’ll—”
“We’re not exactly the police in this case.”
Doc showed me his neat teeth—and they looked dirty, too. And he was the character who always carried a little can of tooth powder, insisted on rubbing his teeth clean after eating. He said, “That’s not as much of a wisecrack as you seem to think, Bucky. When you spin a coin, both sides are affected. Now stop shooting off your big mouth for a moment and listen. It’s on the planning level that most capers strike a reef. Punks make a lot of plans beforehand, with no way of knowing what the actual realities of the situation will be. They plan a deal to go a certain way; if it goes another, they’re sunk. In the pattern of crime, plans equals mistakes. Also, plans can become known, and the more you plan the more errors you overlook. What I’m telling you is this: Without making plan one we stumbled over a million dollars. Any errors we make will come from facing the problems as they arise. I believe that with any sort of break we’ll get out of this dump, then out of the country, to enjoy the money.”
“But how, Doc, how?”
He blew smoke at a roach crossing the table. “Don’t be so impatient. I don’t know—I just told you we haven’t any set plans.”
“Damn it, we have to plan our next step!”
“Why? Sometimes it’s best to stand still, not take a step. Give me time, Bucky—I’ll think of an out. I always have. Here, since you’re so in love with plans, here’s a few precautions. We’ll keep to our hidden room most of the time—less chance of anybody spotting us from the windows. Somebody rings the doorbell, we don’t answer. Every night, for a half hour or so, we’ll leave the kitchen light on, and the light up in her bedroom.” Doc crushed his cigarette on the table, wasting half of the butt. He stood up and yawned. “For the present our immediate steps are simple—get some sack time and stop worrying.”
As we started for our room, he told me, “Shut your eyes, Bucky. You want to be doing something, then start memorizing where the furniture is. Never know when we might have to move in the dark.”
I followed him to our room, keeping my eyes open. He closed the secret “door,” then snapped on the light. We stretched out on our cots. I picked up the paper while Doc went to sleep. But I couldn’t read—the pictures of us already looked like mug shots. I dropped the paper on the floor. There were a few spots of Molly’s blood. Despite stomach wounds she really hadn’t bled much. Would she have tried to kill us, take the dough, like Doc said? Seemed to me she would have gone for a possible reward, blown the whistle on us.
I got up and opened the “door.” There was a tiny John next to the kitchen. If this was such a hot hide-out, why didn’t they think to build a toilet in the room? I washed up—there never had been any hot water—dampened some toilet paper then soaped it up, returned to our room. I was down on my knees trying to get rid of the bloodstains when I heard Doc chuckling. He said, “When the F.B.I. shot Dillinger down in front of a theater, they say people were sopping up his blood with handkerchiefs and newspaper for souvenirs.”
I didn’t bother answering. Sometimes Doc’s pearls of wisdom gave me a stiff pain. I couldn’t get much of the blood off and when I went back to the bathroom I tried walking in the dim light with my eyes shut. I banged my knee.
Doc was sleeping again when I closed the “door,” snapped on the light. I sat on my cot, far too tense to sleep. I didn’t like the idea of going out; it frightened me silly. But Doc was right, we had to eat—right now I wanted a drag, wanted it badly—and it had to be me. I didn’t want to think about going out, tried to think of anything else. I glanced at the suitcases, but couldn’t even concentrate on the money.
I stared at Doc’s skinny back, envious of the way he could pound his ear. He wasn’t asleep. He must have felt my eyes on him; he suddenly rolled over, told me, “Maybe that kid’s watch of yours will come in handy after all. Wake me when it’s eight o’clock. You have to leave before the stores close. I could go for a shrimp salad sandwich—on good German rye.”
Then he turned over again and really went to sleep.
I cursed him, to myself, for no reason. Stretching out on the cot, I glanced at the fighter on the watch face. The paint on his left shoe was peeling. It wasn’t even seven o’clock. Crazy, how the watch upset Doc, or maybe amused him. Like Elma, he was always after me to buy a new one—had tried to give me an expensive, self-winding job.
I never told him why I had to keep wearing it. I guess I couldn’t have put it in words. But I wanted to wear it. Judy never noticed it and Betty thought it was cute. Elma was mad because I… What was Elma doing now? How was she taking all this? Probably wishing she could get her mitts on me—and the money.
Elma knew about Nate giving me the watch, but she kept nagging me to throw it away. But then nagging was her way of life. Elma the lump. Would it have worked out okay if she hadn’t had her insides taken out—that lousy operation?
Or was our marriage all wrong from the jump?
My marriage to Elma worked out fine, at first. I did a lot of thinking about Elma while I was in Korea. She used to write me regularly, dull letters but the only mail I received. I don’t know if Nate knew my A.P.O. address or not. Anyway, every letter would make me wonder why I’d been in such a rush to marry Elma, and what I’d do about it if I came back.
It wasn’t much of a worry because for a time I didn’t think I was coming back. I guess I wanted to die; you know, kid stuff—felt it would spite Nate. But dead or alive, I wanted to be a big hero. Again, it might have been to prove to Nate I could make it on my own, didn’t need him. I still felt nameless, and I suppose I thought if I became a hero, even a dead one, at least I’d be a somebody.
Okay, it sounds childish now, but then I considered myself the toughest thing out, and I guess I was. I was anxious to fight anybody or anything. I kept going up to sergeant and being busted back to private over some brawl. The weird part was that although I saw more than my share of combat and shooting, kept volunteering for patrols—and once I was the only guy who came back—in actual combat I never got a scratch. They gave me two Purple Hearts but both of them were phony.
There was an Italian hick from Maine I got to be kind of pals with. Perhaps because I’d considered myself an Italian for so long I couldn’t stop. Most of my fist fights were over some slob making a crack about Carmen Brindise’s name. Carmen was a little guy who spoke with a nasal twang, smart and tough. He knew all there was to know about hunting and fishing. In his wallet he carried fish hooks and a line and any time we were around a river, the ocean, even the damn rice paddies, he had a line over. Not that I ever saw him catch anything, either.
One night when we were resting between patrols, and supposedly in a rear area, we were sharing a pup tent. It was that cold winter when it seemed I’d never get real warm again. Carmen had made some rice wine and we were tanked up on the junk. Matter of fact, it was so freezing cold, the bottle broke and I got a nasty cut on my arm taking glass out of the rice mash. Carmen was telling me about how he used to go hunting up in Maine and Canada and on cold nights he’d stick a finger out of the tent and say, “Feels two dogs cold,” and take two hunting hounds in with him for warmth.
In the middle of the night we were high with wine and Carmen was doing his act, sticking a gloved finger out and announcing it was now “ten dogs cold.” Not that we had any dogs, you understand. The last time he did this, a rifle slug blew the top of his head off, splattering me with blood. When the medics reached us they put my bottle cut down as a wound and I got my first Purple Heart.
The second time, I was hitching a ride in a supply truck when a plane came in strafing, killing the driver. I got a bad cut on the head diving out the cab for the ground. When I came to in a base hospital I had another Purple Heart. I suppose that second one was legit.
I didn’t pay much attention to the medals, but they helped me get home on rotation and by then the war was over. I figured I’d tell Elma it had been a quickie marriage, let her get a divorce. But Elma surprised me.
She had put away over a grand from my allotment checks and had been making good money working in an aircraft factory. So when I came home I found we had our own apartment, a three-room deal in a swank elevator house. The truth is, for the first couple of months I was nuts about Elma. There was a big sex business with us. She wasn’t any beauty but was wonderfully curious about so many things, and we made up for the years I’d been away. It was terrific. I mean, we’d have these workouts and then in the morning she’d take off for work while I’d sleep until the middle of the afternoon, then lounge round the house, watch TV. Even the apartment was kicks then—compared to the tenement I’d known—and I’d often put in hours cleaning it up, waxing the floors, waiting for Elma to come home and make supper.
Her aircraft job folded a few months later; all the women were laid off, and Elma found an office job at half her former salary. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I took a lot of civil service exams, my being a vet giving me extra points. In the meantime we needed dough and I went from one job to another, none of them really much. I was a restless sour ball, always socking the boss or a customer. Like I became a stock clerk in a big clothing house. Might have been a good deal; some of the clerks went on to become salesmen and store managers. My boss let everybody know he’d been a Marine and when I happened to mention I had a double Purple Heart, I was his boy. He put me on the floor, selling. The third day I was a salesman some crumb tried on a loud, checkered sport coat—something he’d picked out himself. When he looked in the mirror and said, “I look like a wop in this,” I flattened him before I realized I was swinging. He sued the company and that was very much that.
I worked in a supermarket; turned out I was good at displaying and selling vegetables. Only for some dumb reason I told them my name was Bucklin Laspiza, got screwed up on my Social Security and had to leave the job after a few months—when I was starting to know what it was all about.
Another time I became a truck helper. If I became a driver and got a union card, the pay would be high. But the fat-jawed dispatcher thought calling me “Fountain Penn” was such a witty remark that I had to break his nose after a few weeks.
Considering the way she acted later on, it was odd Elma never complained about my job turnover then. It was really her sickness that changed her, I guess. One of the reasons we got along so smooth then was, no matter how often I got the sack, she didn’t nag about it. It was about this time she began to get tired easily and at first we thought she was pregnant. I think I wanted a kid; at least I kept telling myself he wouldn’t have to worry about his name.
The doctor said Elma had a tumor, a big one, and needed an immediate operation. She had a hysterotony, or whatever they call it, where they cleaned her out. The doctor explained that he had left her sex roots in—and maybe I’m not using the correct terms—but actually I think he was wrong. It was a difficult operation and for a time they didn’t think she was going to make it. It took every dime we had. Her folks didn’t have a penny, and I doubt if they would have helped us anyway—they didn’t look with favor upon taking a “bastard” into the family. I wired Nate, care of his local office, for three hundred dollars and got it within a week.
For a time it was even sort of tender fun nursing Elma back to health, but after that she was never the same. For one thing, she completely let herself go, became all soft and baggy, a regular heavyweight of lard. And she suddenly decided she couldn’t work any more—hell, it took months before she would even get out of bed.
Things have a way of working—sometimes—and we were both happy when I was appointed a police officer, sent to the police academy for three months. I was nuts about the job. It did something to my—I suppose “ego” is the right word—to be sporting a badge and a gun. Maybe it was silly, but I was very pleased with myself, full of a deep feeling of satisfaction. You see, I was no longer a nameless nobody. I was now authority, with a gun to prove it, and until I met up with Doc, it was all very important to me. Especially that gun—I spent every free minute I could snag on the target range.
I got along okay in the academy, worked hard at it. Although I was still walking around with a ton of chips on my shoulder. If I wasn’t one of the top ten students, I was a long way from the bottom ten, too. Here’s something else. Around our block we always made a point of chasing any colored kids that happened to come by. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t any lynch mob—we chased all kinds of kids—but a colored one was a sure target. So the only guy in the whole class I really got to be a buddy with was a dark brown fellow named Ollie Jackson. I suppose you’d call him “colored”; actually his face looked like the United Nations. His folks had come from the Hawaiian Islands and along with his mahogany-brown skin he had Oriental almond-shaped eyes, and an Indian’s hooked nose. Ollie was one of these calm, easygoing types, and strong as a barrel of dead fish. At first look you’d take him for a short, fat joker. That was a mistake because he wasn’t so short and he wasn’t fat—it was all muscle, hard as steel. We got to be friends in the boxing class.
Most of the fellows took it easy, even with the heavy gloves on. But with my ring experience I had it all over the rest of them and I used to work over anybody I got into the ring with. Sure, I was going for mean then. I tangled with Ollie one day and had no trouble clouting him. He was so wild I could really tee off, but I couldn’t floor him. He kept rushing me and finally managed to clinch, put those thick arms around me in a bear hug—and squeezed. When the ref parted us my arms were numb from the elbows down—I simply couldn’t raise them. Ollie grunted with pleasure as he started pasting me with roundhouse swings, each feeling like a baseball bat across my face. I wanted to go down and end it, but I had to admire this cat: He’d taken everything I’d dished out, waiting for his chance.
I was so groggy I really didn’t remember a thing until I woke up in the middle of the night, beside Elma. I had a headache for days. But the next morning when Ollie came over to ask how I felt, I said great and we were ace buddies—because I knew damn well his head was hurting him, too.
When we graduated, we were assigned to the same precinct house. It was a rough section of town and Ollie the first “colored” cop on duty there. He got hell the first few days—until I started hanging around his post on my off time and between us we walloped respect into a lot of would-be tough studs. Ollie was always calling me down for clouting first and asking questions later. The truth is, I was belting a lot of characters and there were plenty of complaints coming in about me. I didn’t know this until the sergeant in charge of our platoon took me aside and told me, “Penn, you’re new to the force and this is a deprived area, and tough. You’ll come across provocations every tour of duty—but that’s part of your job. You’ve got to stop being on edge all the time. I’ve been a police officer for a lot of years, so believe me when I tell you a tough cop always ends up a dead cop. You’re making a name for yourself, but it’s a lousy name. You look like an intelligent kid, so stop taking the easy out.”
“What easy out, sir?” I asked, the “name” bit making me tense.
“Use your head more and your fists less. I’m talking to you because I think you have the makings of a good cop. Only you got to relax, use your judgment more. Don’t become a hoodlum with a badge.”
Of course, the troubles I was having on the job were nothing compared to what Elma was giving me. It seemed she had nothing to do but slop around the house and complain. I tried to be fair about it, remembering how she had catered to me when I got out of the Army. But Elma never wanted to get better. She let herself go to a shapeless ton, and whatever the sex thing was between us, it vanished. Actually I think the operation took all desire out of her. She got so big she was a freak—there simply wasn’t room for the both of us in one bed. I began sleeping on the living-room couch, which wasn’t any dream either. I was nice about it, explaining my changing tours would keep her awake. But not getting a decent night’s sleep made me sour on the world most of the time.
The biggest trouble was money. I couldn’t blame her for beefing. During my rookie probationary period, in fact up till the end of my first two years, I was making under $4000 a year, with my actual take-home pay a few dimes and quarters over sixty bucks a week. And that didn’t make it. Not that we were living big, but the rent was $92 alone, with no possible cheaper apartments to be found. When Elma had been working the aircraft, she was pulling down $110 or $125 with overtime, so the rent hadn’t made much of a dent. Or when we were both working, it hadn’t been such a big item. But on my peanut salary, two weeks’ pay about covered the rent and gas and electric, the phone bill. By stretching each penny we just about made it. Elma was always nagging that we needed a hi-fi, or a toaster, or about having to wait two weeks to have the TV repaired. Or she had to have a new dress—God knows why; Elma rarely went out. I brought in food before or after I went to work. When she couldn’t think of anything else to nag about, she would point to my watch, yell, “Look at you, a grown man, an officer of the law, and you have to wear a kid’s watch! If I ever get my hands on it, I’ll throw it out!”
When I told her to shut up, that the watch was still working fine, she repeated her favorite four-letter word half a dozen times—as if proving something.
Whatever we needed for the house had to be bought on time, so we were always in debt, really strapped. Elma’s beef about money was legit, but what sent me straight up was this dumb idea she had that there was all sorts of graft for a beat cop to put his hands on. She would nag that I was a dummy who wasn’t trying. I’d keep telling her the old days of a patrolman even taking apples on the cuff were gone. I didn’t doubt but that there was cushion money around, but only for the brass. Like I knew damn well there was a book working in the rear of a meat store on my post. I also knew—also damn well—it couldn’t operate without the knowledge of the precinct captain and downtown. This joint had been taking bets for years. So I began dropping into the store, pretending I was asking the counterman about the best kind of meat for my sick wife. We both knew my presence wasn’t helping “business,” and if they wanted to they could have called downtown and maybe have me sent to another precinct. But the counterman (and he was a real butcher, too—they did a good meat business) would tell me to stop by when I was off and give me a steak, or a ham. It was understood I could stop by once a week.
It was so petty it made me feel lousy. Ollie told me, “Why bother with that stuff? You get a few bucks’ worth of meat for free—big deal.”
But Ollie could talk; his wife was a schoolteacher. When they bought a new car and I made the mistake of mentioning it to Elma, she blew her stack. “And we haven’t even got decent furniture, a rug, a vacuum cleaner, much less a car! I’m ashamed to ask my folks up here.”
“If they ever should decide to come, tell ’em to take a bath first. Honey, Ollie makes it because his wife has this good job. Why don’t you try for some part-time work? Not for the dough so much, but it would be good for you.”
After sputtering her favorite word, she said, “You know I’m not strong, that I nearly died. What you trying to do, get rid of me?”
“Stop it. The operation was almost a year ago. If you got out of the house more, you wouldn’t be so sickly.”
You see, I tried as best I could. For a time I had a job as a bouncer in a small cafe, but that only lasted a few weeks. My change of tours killed it, and then the sergeant called me in for another session, warning me it was against some civil service law for a cop to have an outside job.
Elma seemed to think I was holding out, rolling in dough. She began sopping up a lot of beer during the afternoons—or as much as we could afford—and reading these fact-crime magazines. When I’d come home Elma would give me a beer-breath full of, “I was reading about this cop who they found had a ten-thousand-dollar boat, a Caddy, and owned a small apartment house. And he was a hick cop, making less than three grand a year.”
“What jail is he in now?”
“Don’t you be so damn smart with me, Bucky. Smarten up on the job if you got to be a wise guy. Yeah, he was caught, but think of all the cops with their hands out who don’t get nabbed. How about that traffic-cop ring in New York selling protection cards for fifty bucks a shot?”
“Aw Elma, stop clawing at me. If there was any graft around I’d get it but—”
“But all you get is a few pounds of leftover meat now and then.”
“Lay off me. I’m trying to get something going for myself. My best bet is to make a good collar, be made a detective third grade. It would mean an immediate raise of a few hundred dollars, then almost a thousand more a year soon. And in plain clothes, a guy could find a lot of gravy. Look, instead of beefing all the time, at least clean up the house. It’s a pigpen.”
“That’s me, Mrs. Pig Penn,” she said, well knowing any cracks about my name made me get up steam.
I slapped her moon face. She broke into tears and I said, “I’m fed up with all your self-pity. You remind me of my old man and his—”
“Nate wasn’t your old man.”
I backhanded her and she fell to the floor. I stared down at her, remembering how she had stood by me in my trouble with Nate, the rest of the block. And I hate hitting women. I pulled her up—which was hard work—held her as I said, “Okay, Hon, I’m sorry. You think I like scrimping? I’m trying my best to get my hands on more dough. But you have to try too. Stop bloating yourself with beer. Watch your diet, get out of the house every day. You’re still young, no sense in looking… so big.”
“You don’t even love me any more,” Elma whined.
“Sure I do. It’s merely my change of tours, and you being so sickly that… Come on, let’s go to bed.”
But her soft bulk, along with the knowledge that she didn’t get the slightest kick out of it any more, made it impossible for me to have relations with her, and she began sneering at me for that, too. I didn’t worry. I never was much of a lover-boy; sex was rarely on my mind. I started staying out of the house as much as possible. After my tour of duty I would take a few drinks and roam the streets. It wasn’t just keeping out of Elma’s way; I liked being a cop, hunting crooks. I told myself that by walking around I might luck up on a good collar, make detective. It wasn’t only for Elma; I wanted to be able to buy a tie or pack of butts without a debate with myself as to whether I could afford it.
I’d often read in the papers about some off-duty cop coming on a stick-up, or something. When I was on the four-to-midnight shift I loved roaming the dark streets in the early morning hours, looking for trouble. I found it once—a squad car in a downtown precinct stopped me early one morning, thinking I was a suspicious character.
Another time I collared a drunk stealing a car. I got a pat on the back from the desk lieutenant and a sarcastic request to keep to my own precinct. I really tried, even paid out eating money to bone up on the sergeant’s exam at some school. But I didn’t pass high enough to make it count.
Things work out funny. The thing I thought would make me a dick was a silly deal that happened on my own beat. I was on an eight-to-four tour and at 3:15 p.m. there’s a loony kid perched on the roof of a tenement. He was a skinny, nervous boy of about eighteen, upset because the Army had rejected him, of all dumb things. I went up to the roof and there’s his bawling mother and a couple other old women. We couldn’t get close—he threatened to jump. I had to race down six flights of stairs to put in a call for the emergency squad and then back up to the roof again. Somebody had called a priest and he was up there, trying to talk the kid out of it.
I had a deal cooking for 4:30 p.m. Some babe was having trouble with her boy friend and wanted to move her things out of his room without getting her head handed to her. She had a trunk and a TV to move, so she had set up a date with a moving van. When I told her I’d be off duty then, she said it would be worth a five spot for me to be around, in case her guy talked out of turn with his mitts. The emergency squad sergeant had a net below and there was several of his men around, but when I told him I was due to go off at four, he said for me to stick around.
It’s getting near 4 p.m. and now they got a rabbi and the priest talking to this dumb kid, and he still wanted to jump. The two ministers were putting their heads together for a conference and I was mad as hell. If I didn’t show, all the babe had to do was call the beat cop and I’d be out my five bucks. All because of a nutty jerk.
At five to four I walked across the roof toward him, and he wailed, “I’ll jump if you come a step nearer!”
I said, in a loud whisper, “Go ahead and jump, you dumb sonofabitch! Go on, get it over with!”
The ministers heard me and while they were giving me the big eyes, damn if this jerk doesn’t leave the edge of the roof, walk toward me. I tackled him and that was that.
I made the moving job but figured the ministers would have me up the creek. So that night I find myself on the front pages, being praised for having used the “correct psychology”! It wasn’t a big story, but my name was there and it was in the radio and TV news. Even my platoon sergeant gave me a snow job the next day and I figured this was it, I’d be made a detective. But nothing came of it. The kid’s folks gave me a big speech of thanks, but that was all.
Nothing worked for me.
One morning a few months later as the platoon lined up a few minutes before eight, we were given parking tickets, told that alternate side of the street parking, to help in cleaning the streets, was now in effect, and to start giving out tickets to any car parked on the wrong side. I told myself this should be good for some cushion, but as it turned out, most times the guy who owned the car wasn’t around. Now and then I got a few bucks for not writing out a ticket, but it was too open and risky.
The storekeepers, who usually parked their cars in front of their shops, were kicking like the devil about this alternate deal. I kept working on them, got to know most of their cars. I would go in and warn them to move their heaps. Most times all I got was a fast “Thanks,” or a promise that they would remember me at Christmas.
It got so I hardly bothered handing out tickets, but in the end it paid off—unexpectedly. I met Shep Harris.
The no-parking limit was from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Harris was an optometrist who had just opened an office over a shoe store. One morning at about a quarter to eleven I saw this smart red MG parked on the wrong side of the street. It wasn’t a new car, but still I figured anybody with a foreign heap might be glad to pay a few bucks to avoid a ticket. When I asked the clerk in the shoe store if he knew who owned the car, he told me, “That’s Harris’s car, the guy that moved in upstairs. Usually he doesn’t get here before noon. Some job, hey? Bet it does a hundred with ease. Now me, I say if you have a car, what good is a two-seater? I’d want to take the family…”
I walked up to his offices. A bell rang as soon as I opened the door, and the office was nicely furnished, everything new—meaning ready money. A runt wearing a white silk jacket, thick glasses making him look owlish and nervous, his narrow shoulders all bones, came in from the other room. He gave me a selling smile as he said, “What can I do for you, officer? Need glasses?”
I took him for a little older than myself, maybe twenty-seven, twenty-eight. “That your MG downstairs?”
“Oh Lord, did somebody crash into it?” he asked, racing for the window. Then he turned, asked me, “What’s wrong with it?”
“This is Wednesday, no parking on this side of the street until eleven.”
He glanced at his watch. “Perhaps you do need glasses.” He held up his wrist so I could see it was exactly eleven.
“Okay, mister. I went out of my way to be nice to you. The next time I’ll slap a ticket on the car, talk to you later.” I started for the door, angry.
“Now, officer, I was merely joking. I have too many tickets against my record now. I appreciate what you’ve done. Do you drink?”
“Not on duty.”
“Of course. Here.” He handed me five bucks. “As a personal favor to me, buy yourself a pint on your way home. A little token of my appreciation. Drop by any time.”
From then on, whenever I was on the morning tour, I kept a sharp lookout for his MG. I only managed to nick him a couple of times, but I kept kids off his car and we became sort of friendly. Harris never seemed very busy and I would drop in to use his can, shoot the breeze. He kept a bottle handy, seemed to want company. Either because he was a half-pint, or because he was such a weakling, he liked to touch me. Or maybe it was because I was a cop. You often find guys that way—not queers—who can’t keep their mitts off a cop’s shoulders when they talk to him. Shep was always poking me in the arm, slapping my back. Liquor never did much for me and sometimes I’d take a nip with him. Most times we’d just bull. I even sent a couple of the boys to him for glasses and he gave them reduced rates. I didn’t mind Shep. I guess he was mostly lonely, wanted somebody to talk to.
In time I found out he’d always wanted to be a doctor but his folks ran out of money so he had to settle for being an eyeglass grinder—although an optometrist is more than that, I guess. The ironical part was he had married a rich babe but felt it was too late to go to med school—he claimed he was thirty-three. I used to tell him he was silly not to try it, as long as his wife didn’t complain.
Elma was reading so many of these crummy magazines her eyes hurt, but I never took her to Shep. I was ashamed for him to see what I had married. Like an altered cat, Elma seemed to get bigger every day.
I’d been a regular cop for over a year and I felt I was going stale. Somehow the badge didn’t have much of a kick any longer. Maybe I was bored with walking my arches flat, giving out tickets, breaking up family fights, shoving drunks and smart-aleck lads around. The high point of my day seemed to be dropping into Shep’s for a drink. Along with Elma’s nagging I wanted a little action. I was getting restless again.
I found myself doing funny things. I’d do roadwork, as if I was still a pug—and as if my legs didn’t get enough exercise. Or, suddenly I began spending time out at Daisy’s grave, planting flowers, fixing it up. The third time I was out there some old clown who worked around the cemetery said it was his job to take care of the graves, against the rules to plant your own flowers. I didn’t have any extra bucks. I told him I was her son but he kept running his mouth until I belted him. The clown must have found a phone; as I reached the subway station a radio car stopped me. I didn’t want to tell them I was a cop—on all police records I hadn’t put down anything about Laspiza, of course. I gave the car cops the pitch about a son had the right to plant flowers on his own mother’s grave. Then they asked for identification, wanted to know how come if my name was Penn I was fooling with a grave marked Laspiza? I was ready to blow my lid, had to fight from socking them, especially when one cop spots the outline of my hip holster, throws a gun on me—to the delight of a small crowd of curious jerks. I had to show them my badge, lie that Daisy wasn’t my real mother but merely a woman who had brought me up. They let me go, but it was a hell of a thing for me to deny my own mother.
You see, the big trouble was I had nobody to talk to about a thing like that. I was barely talking to Elma, and what the devil would she understand? I nearly phoned Nate long-distance. I got his home address from the local office, but didn’t have the nerve or the money to call him. I guess I could have reversed the charges, but the more I thought about him the more I hated his phony pride. If he hadn’t been so stubborn about not adopting me, I wouldn’t be in this mess, wouldn’t have married Elma.
That was another thing that made me restless: No matter how much I hated Nate, I couldn’t forget him. I thought of him every time I saw a fight or ball game on TV, passed a fancy restaurant. He even spoiled the few times I was able to go surf casting.
The truth is I didn’t know what to do with myself. I got my first full vacation in November, after Election Day. Elma was nagging because we didn’t have money to go away. Besides, where can you go in November except south, and that costs. (But less than a year later I was flying down to Miami at the height of the season, staying with Judy in the best hotel, in a suite that cost fifty bucks per day.)
My “vacation” was a horror. It was impossible to hang around the house, and I couldn’t even tramp the streets—it turned raw and snowed. I spent the first week in and out of cheap movies. One day I stopped at Shep’s office, to get warm, and when he got rid of a customer, he said, excitement in his voice, “I’ve been looking for you, Bucky!”
“I’m on vacation—it says in fine print. I—”
“Listen, I’m positive I’ve seen Batty Johnson!”
For a few seconds the name didn’t mean a thing to me.
“Batty Johnson!” Shep repeated.
Then I got it. Johnson was at the top of the F.B.I. wanted list. I vaguely knew he was a rough thug with a long yellow sheet for murder, assault, and armed robbery. When he started out he was called Bat because he was always saying, “I’ll bat you around.” He was said to be very handy with his mitts. Later the nickname became Batty because he was considered to be nuts. All of this I hadn’t learned from the post condition board in the station house, but from the crime mags Elma stuffed herself with. I grinned at little Shep, asked, “Since when did you become a crime bug?”
“Bucky, I’m serious. Here, take a look at this. It came in the mail a few days ago.” He fumbled in a drawer, handed me an F.B.I. wanted flyer with Johnson’s hard puss staring out at us. Shep also got out his bottle, poured a couple of drinks.
“You’ll notice they say he has a muscular defect in his left eye, a form of phoria that—well, no point in my getting technical about it. It’s a fairly rare defect. The eye has a tendency to turn up. In addition he is extremely nearsighted. The F.B.I. obviously is circularizing all optometrists and oculists in the nation because this thug wears glasses and if he should ever break the pair he has, or needs new ones, well…”
“You mean he came in here?”
“No, no. I saw him working in a car wash. His hair has been shaved around the temples and dyed white, and he’s grown a mustache. He also has some sort of scar on his cheek. But I know it’s him.”
Shep came over, put his arm on my shoulder as he pointed at the flyer with his free hand. “Bucky, I’m positive. When I was thinking of studying medicine, I wanted to go in for plastic surgery. Seemed like the best money deal. I made a study of the planes and bones of the face. When I first got this from the F.B.I. I studied his face and wondered why they hadn’t put down in the physical description the fact that his ears are high up. And also notice the distance between the bridge of his nose and the big cheekbones—it’s far too wide. Actually the bone structure of his face is abnormal, and that’s something you can’t disguise. This car washer had the same abnormalities.”
I stared at the mug shot again. “The ears seem okay to me.”
“You’re a layman. In a normal face the top of the ear should be in line with the eyebrows, and the bottom of the ear is about in line with the end of the nose. His ears are much higher. Bucky, I know what I’m talking about!”
Shep got off my shoulders to take another drink. I asked, “When did you see him?”
“Day before yesterday. My car was splattered with slush. I happened to pass this auto laundry away uptown, and drove in.”
“Have you told the police?”
“I’m telling you. Bucky, Johnson’s last job was robbing and killing an optometrist. I imagine that’s how the F.B.I. got on to his faulty vision. I don’t want to be the second eye man he murders. You’re always talking about making that big arrest. I waited to tell you.”
I studied the flyer again, not believing Shep. “Could you tell from his glasses—I mean by looking at him—if he had whatever you said was wrong with his eye?”
“No, the lenses would correct the muscular condition. But he wasn’t wearing glasses!” Shep said happily, as if we were playing guessing games.
“You just told me he needs—”
“What I meant was, he was using contact lenses!”
“Start the record again, Shep. I’m not reading you.”
“Don’t you get it, Bucky? This proves he’s your man! According to this wanted circular, Johnson is supposed to have ordered frame glasses from this Topeka optometrist, returned a few days later to pick them up, then killed and robbed the fellow, and destroyed the optometrist’s office records. He did this under a phony name, but they knew it was Johnson. The F.B.I. then assumes there’s something wrong with his sight, hence the reason for doing away with the records. They recheck his prison files and come up with the eye defect. All right, they were correct up to a point; but I started thinking. Johnson wore glasses all the time, even in prison, so that wasn’t anything new—anything to destroy records over. Another thing: Why did he have to wait a few days for his glasses?”
“Don’t you have your customers return in a couple of days?”
“Of course, but we usually carry a supply of various types of lenses in stock. If a customer is in a big rush, I could make up his glasses within an hour. Now, Johnson was in a hurry; it was dangerous for him to hang around for several days. Since he was going to kill the man, why didn’t he force him at gun point to make his glasses at once?”
“Because he’d ordered a set of contact lenses and you have to send for them! An optometrist doesn’t stock contact lenses. So when Johnson returns he not only picks up the frame glasses he ordered, but the contact lenses. He has the optometrist give them a final check, then he murders the fellow and destroys the records. The police are looking for a man with frame glasses, and Johnson is walking around wearing contacts! It lines up, Bucky.”
“I don’t know. The F.B.I. would have thought of the contact lenses, too.”
“Why? They haven’t any record of the dead man ordering the lenses. I think they slipped up. I only stumbled upon it, as I told you, because of the few days’ delay in getting his frame glasses. Anyway, I’m certain this car washer has the same facial structure as Johnson and that he was wearing contact lenses!”
I began to have a warm glow of excitement in the pit of my belly. Collar a Batty Johnson and I’d be set. “Shep, can the average person tell if a guy is wearing contact glasses?”
“No. But I can.”
“Doesn’t a contact-lens wearer have to take them off every few hours?”
“Now they can be worn for almost twenty-four hours. I get what you mean. You’d want to take him when he isn’t wearing them. I’m sure he changes to ordinary glasses when he’s in his room. Also, although he is very nearsighted, he has some vision without any glasses. He’d be able to walk the street, for example, without feeling his way, but he’d have to walk slowly, and he’d be lucky if he didn’t bump into something or somebody. You see how smart he is? As I told you, the main description point is he has to be wearing these frame glasses they know the Topeka man made. But I’m certain he also had him make contact lenses.”
“Did his height and weight match? Five eleven, a hundred and eighty pounds?”
“The height is right, but he’s put on weight. I’d judge he was close to two hundred and fifty now. Of course, that could be padding; these washers are bundled up. Bucky, I tell you I’m positive. When I was driving down here, after the car had been washed, I kept trying to place the man’s face. I had a feeling I’d seen the odd structure someplace before. Then I studied this wanted flyer and on my way home I stopped in at the car wash again, and said I wondered if I’d dropped my overshoes out of the car. This time I knew exactly what I was looking for in Johnson’s face—it was all there! It’s an odd face.”
“Wish you hadn’t gone back,” I said, getting up. “Could have made him nervous, might have taken off. Where is this place?”
“No, I was careful. Here’s a card they gave me. It’s just before you reach the park. What do you plan to do?”
“Take a look-see at this guy.”
“You know he’s a killer?”
“He isn’t wanted for cheating at checkers.” I started for the door. “Keep this to yourself, Shep. Don’t even tell your wife…. Have you told her?”
He slipped me a silly grin. “I haven’t told anybody but you. And I had to think carefully about even doing that. Keep me out of it, Bucky. I have plenty of living to do. Going after him right now?”
“Maybe. I got to figure out how I’m going to do it.”
As I opened the door, Shep came over and grabbed my arm. “You forgot your drink.”
“I’m high on this info.”
He slapped me on the back. “Be careful. They don’t pay off on dead heroes.”
“Two minds with a single thought. Thanks.”
I rushed home and dug through Elma’s magazines until I found the one with the article and pictures on Johnson. I reread the hopped-up story, then took a pair of scissors and cut out the pictures, pasted in bits of paper to cover up the eye glasses, used white paper to cover his hair—the hairline he had shaved—penciled in a moustache. I thought I had a fair picture of what he must look like now.
Elma came out of the bathroom to yell, “What you tearing up the magazine for?”
“Isn’t reading this junk once enough for you?” I asked, checking my gun.
“Why the gunplay?”
“I’m on to something big that can make me a detective,” I told her, going out, thinking it could also make me a corpse. Batty wouldn’t be taken without a fight. I went over to the precinct house, pretended I wanted something from my locker. I casually studied the flyers they had on him. The desk lieutenant said, “You’re on vacation. Going for an eager beaver, Perm?”
“Just getting in out of the cold, sir,” I told him, leaving. I dropped into a bar and had a shot of courage, told myself to cut it out: All I’d have to do was come upon Batty with my reflexes liquored up and I’d end being the most crocked man in the morgue. I didn’t like facing him alone. I considered getting Ollie in on it; he was on vacation, too. But that would be dumb—sharing the credit.
I had a kind of plan worked out and the first thing necessary was a car. I couldn’t borrow Ollie’s without explaining things, but I phoned and put a bite on him for twenty-five bucks until payday. I took a bus to his bank, where he was waiting for me. I mumbled something about a hot tip on a horse and he got a little miffed when I refused to give him the name of the nag.
I hired a car for the day, and it was about 4 p.m. when I drove into the car wash. I had my gun loose in my overcoat pocket and my badge pinned to my shirt—my heart thumping a bongo under it. There was the owner, or manager of the joint, who took your money, and a big colored fellow in boots and several sweat shirts—and this fat white guy wearing rubbers and an old windbreaker. He had a wool cap on, but white hair showed; his mustache was ragged. And his eyes looked okay to me.
They hooked the car to a moving belt and it was pulled under a spray shower while the men sponged it down with long-handled sponges. The colored guy told me, “You can stay in your car if you want, mister. But keep the windows closed. Only take a minute.”
“I’ll wait outside,” I said, studying the other guy, trying hard to be casual about it.
“Then best you go up front. Get wet here.”
I walked ahead, wondering when I’d try to take him. If it was Johnson, he was wearing so damn many shirts and pants I couldn’t tell if he was armed. I watched the car coming through the spray, the men following it, working on it.
For a moment I nearly chickened out. I kept thinking I was far from certain the guy was Johnson. His eyes looked ordinary to me. But more important, car washing was damp, hard work and I couldn’t see a big-time goon going in for real labor. If I threw a gun on him and he made a wrong move, I’d have to plug him. If it turned out to be a mistake, I’d end up to hell and gone up the creek.
When the car moved out of the spray, both men started drying it with big rags. The white fellow held a small hose in his left hand for spots the shower didn’t take off, a cloth in his right mitt. When he finally put the hose down, I touched my gun in my pocket, took a deep breath, and went in.
I stepped over to him, picked up the hose, as I said, “There’s a mud spot you skipped.” I had the hose in my left hand, and when he turned toward me I sent a stream of water full in his eyes, then lashed him across the gut with the nozzle. He put a hand to his eyes as he bent double. I yanked my gun out.
The Negro and the manager were coming at me, the manager with a hammer in his hand.
“I’m a cop! This is an arrest! Get back!” I ripped my coat open, flashed my badge.
That did it. Even though he was doubled up, fighting for air, I saw Johnson’s body stiffen. The ice left my insides: It had to be him.
The manager asked, “What’s the trouble, officer?”
“Get to the phone and call the police!” I snapped.
“Goddamn it, phone the police! You, Johnson, turn around—slowly!”
He was still bent over, his big can up in the air, but he turned until he was facing the wall. I felt wonderful, I hadn’t even told him to face the wall. I said, “Get your legs apart!” He spread his thick legs. He was in an awkward position as I ran my left hand over his hips, his chest. He was clean.
The manager was using the phone next to the cash register. Johnson turned slowly, facing me. His mouth was open, fighting for air from the sock in the belly. He was still bent over, hands almost touching his rubbered feet. His pants went down into a pair of high work shoes, were held tight around his ankles by thick rubber bands to keep any water out.
The manager put the phone down, started toward me. “The police—”
“Stay where you are!” I didn’t want to be crowded.
“The police are on their way. Can’t you tell me what this is all about?”
“This man is Batty Johnson. He’s wanted.”
“Him? He’s a rummy named Howie Brown.”
“We’ll see,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Johnson’s right hand fumbling with the rubber bands around his right ankle, the red fingers working them loose. His ankles were thick with padding, and I’d forgotten to frisk him down there. I was about to growl at him to stop it; then I thought: No, it will look harder this way. And be safer. I have the drop on him.
Deliberately, I half turned toward the colored guy, said, “Stay back there.”
“Man, I ain’t moving no place.”
“That will be fine,” I said, looking at him but watching Johnson out of the comer of my eye. He was still bent over, staring at the wet floor. We all heard the wail of a siren growing closer in the distance as Johnson got a small automatic half out of an ankle holster.
I didn’t give him a chance; I emptied my gun into his head and back. It turned out exactly right. He sat down hard, then fell over on his side, blood running from him in several places. But he was holding the automatic in his right hand!
As the barks of my gun faded, I heard the manager moan, “Oh my God!” and he got sick all over himself.
A radio car came screaming to a stop outside.
And a few hours later I met Doc for the first time, although I was on such a merry-go-round by then I didn’t notice him.
Opening my eyes, I saw the light from the naked bulb in the ceiling. It wasn’t enough light to hurt your eyes. What was the life of a bulb? The damn thing had been burning steadily now for days. I wouldn’t want it to go out, to be in this trap in the dark. But we could always take a bulb out of another socket in some other part of the house. But where was the fuse box? We ought to know, in case all the lights went out or…
I told myself to stop worrying like a kid. I sat up and glanced at my watch. I’d dozed about fifteen minutes. I reached for my coat on the chair, looking for a butt. Doc was sleeping but even in his sleep my movement seemed to make him stiffen, as if ready to come awake and on his feet in a second.
Yawning, I ran my tongue over my teeth, felt of my gun, then looked over at the bags. I had a silly desire to open them, play with the money. Maybe we ought to count it; counting a million would take up a lot of time. And who would we yell to if we found we were shortchanged a few hundred?
I stepped over to Doc’s cot, killing a roach on the way. Doc’s coat was crumpled at the foot of his cot. I ran my hands through it, feeling the wad of money in the inside pocket, before I remembered we were out of cigarettes. Doc had smoked the last one.
He seemed to be breathing regularly, yet I’d give odds he wasn’t asleep. When I stretched out on my cot again, I saw his body relax. But that didn’t make sense. Was he afraid of me? And if he was, what could he have done about it, with his gun busted? I was hungry; I wanted a drag. More important, I wanted to be doing something. I thought about going into the next room, shadow-boxing the restlessness out of my system. Instead I wound my watch, looked up at the ceiling light. I guess I had a secret horror of the bights going out, never being able to open the wall, being trapped in this room. Be something, trapped to death with a million bucks. Find us years later when they would be tearing down the house. Find our bones, but the dough would still be good.
I said aloud, “Suppose I do have to go out tonight. I need a smoke.”
I don’t know why I talked; Doc didn’t answer. For a minute I listened to his even breathing again, and the silence of the house. My eyes went back to the bags, then returned to my newest hobby—wondering about Doc. They called him Doc because he was always studying. He claimed he’d graduated college. Maybe he had. Doc sure knew a lot of things. He liked being called Doc, said someday he would finish studying for his Ph.D. Well, he had the dough to do it, now—if we could get out of here.
There were more than a few things about the whole deal that troubled me. Behind the doubts another idea was growing. It wasn’t only the risk of going out that bothered me; I was really afraid of leaving Doc alone with all the money. Maybe that’s another reason I didn’t want the lights to go out. I couldn’t see the money then.
But not trusting Doc was dumb. He’d never given me a bum steer yet. I could be getting stir-slappy. But a few more days and we’d be on the move. The next time we holed up—if there had to be a next time—at least we’d find a room with a radio or a TV.
Knowing as little as I did about police work, I couldn’t see how we’d break out of town. It didn’t seem to be worrying Doc. The trouble was, nothing worried him. But I wished he’d let me in on his plans. Or was he telling the truth when he said he didn’t have any plans? Doc said we’d make it and I had confidence in him.
Only I wasn’t sure I had a million dollars worth of confidence in anybody.
I stared at his narrow back, the dirty shirt. When I first became his partner, Doc had told me, “Kid, partners must get to know each other so well they know automatically how the other will react to anything. It’s like a marriage—you even have to know how many sugars the other takes in his coffee.”
In the year or so we’d been working together, I never really made Doc, completely understood him. But then, there was a lot he didn’t know about me. I’d never told him about Nate, for example.
One thing was for sure: Doc was the smartest man I had ever known, on or off the force. Nate had been smart, but in a smalltime way. Doc wasn’t afraid to take a chance. He’d stepped over the line plenty of times, but always playing it clever. He’d never been caught. And he certainly wouldn’t do anything to risk his life now. As he’d said, we were in this all the way, together. He’d been the one who thought of taking the money. It was crazy; the idea never came to me. Yeah, it was Doc’s show; I was just along to help spend the loot.
Still, sometimes Doc’s very cool cleverness worried me—a little.
It seemed like a great hand whisked me up out of the car wash and pulled me through the air for the rest of the day and night. So many flash bulbs popped in my face I could barely see. Reporters were firing questions at me; the Commissioner personally made me a detective third grade, said he was going to put me in for a citation. At one point I made a filmed interview for TV, and at another time during the night I remember signing some sort of contract and getting three hundred-dollar bills—a queer-looking character was going to do a story under my name on how I captured Johnson. It gave me a charge to imagine Elma seeing it in one of her magazines.
Matter of fact, the first Elma knew of things, she told me hours later, was when she saw my name and picture splashed all over the front page of the morning paper. I was going to send Nate a copy of the papers but I figured that was playing it crude; he’d read about it in California anyway.
If I was in a happy daze, I snapped out of it when some of the police brass cross-examined me. They went at me so hard, for a second I thought they had things mixed up, took me for Johnson. They kept assuring me it was only for their record and the publicity; they were going to make the most of a local cop capturing the F.B.I.’s top wanted man. After a few questions I got the message: They were a little sore I’d made it a one-man show.
A deputy commissioner, a sharp-faced joker named Oats, or something like that, was the chief examiner. He kept firing questions at me over a silly smile, as though we were making small talk in a coffee shop. I was sitting in front of his desk, wishing I was on my feet. Doc was standing around, along with some other guys. Doc was leaning against the wall, a kind of bored look on his face. But he never took his eyes off me. Of course, I didn’t even know his name then.
Sharp-puss and I went through dialogue that sounded like something off a TV crook show:
“Now, Penn, you say you were never in this car laundry before?”
“You just happened to drive your car in this afternoon?”
“It’s not my car. I only rented it for the day,” I told him, weighing my answers, careful not to lie too much.
“You rented the car?”
“Yes sir. You see, I can’t afford a car, so sometimes I rent or borrow one for the day, drive around like it was mine. I like cars.”
“If it was a rented car, how come you had it washed?”
“I told you, sir. I like to pretend it’s mine. It was dirty with snow and mud, so I drove into this car wash. I was lucky.”
“Be a good background bit,” sharp-face said, writing it down on a scratch pad. “Let the papers play up the fact a patrolman isn’t paid enough to buy his own car. So by luck you drove into this car wash? Tell me, Penn, how were you able to recognize Johnson so quickly? He had quite a disguise.”
“I didn’t pay any attention to the dyed hair, the padding. When I first studied the wanted flyer on him, I noticed his ears were high up on his noggin, and his cheekbones unusually far apart. I kept those in mind, knowing he couldn’t change those features.”
“Do you study all wanted flyers that carefully?”
“Why, of course, sir; it’s part of my job. Another thing, I knew he had bad eyes, so I sprayed the water in his eyes first.”
“It’s a wonder Johnson could work without his glasses. His lack of glasses made us think, at first, you had made a big mistake.”
“Mistake, sir?” I repeated, playing it cool. “Don’t forget he went for his gun. And he was wearing glasses, contact lenses. I had him figured for those, too.”
“Well, sir, when I read about his killing the optometrist, I got to thinking. He’d only got fifty-three dollars in cash, so money wasn’t the reason for killing. We know he wanted glasses, but why destroy the office records? I told myself he did away with the records because he’d had this eye doctor make him contact lenses, but he wanted us to think he was wearing frame glasses.”
“That’s damn good brainwork, Penn, although how could you tell he was wearing contact lenses?”
“I didn’t worry about it, sir. I assumed he was wearing contacts but based my identification on his ears and facial structure. I was merely going to hold him for a routine check, but he threw a gun on me. I was lax there. I mean when I frisked him, I should have thought of an ankle holster.”
“Don’t worry about it, Penn; you did some real police work. Now let me see; according to your statement, and that of the witnesses, you pulled your gun on him and asked the owner of the laundry to phone the police. Then when Johnson—”
“Sir, in my excitement I accidentally hit him in the stomach with the hose.”
“Yes I know about that accident.” There was a faint hint of sarcasm in sharp-face’s voice. “Of course you had to defend yourself, and you’re a young cop—that’s why you didn’t frisk him completely. And if you’d had help, Johnson wouldn’t be dead. We wanted to question him about a score of cases.”
I didn’t say a word. I was getting angry. I give them the number-one goon on a slab and they’re kicking!
“We don’t like our men taking needless chances. In this case, if you hadn’t been so quick on the trigger, you’d be dead. And so would the rest of the car-wash crew.”
“I don’t think I took a needless chance, sir, or any chance. As soon as I made Johnson, I had the owner phone in for help. While I didn’t expect Johnson to pull that hidden-gun trick, I was… well… kind of ready for it. I saw a great deal of that sort of gunplay in Korea.”
“Ah, yes. Thanks for reminding me. I see by your record you were awarded the Purple Heart in Korea, twice. Naturally we’ll make sure the papers get that. I also note your quick thinking once saved a suicide. And your file says you’re quick with your hands, too—a ball of fire with your fists. Off the record, Penn, I’m all for a police officer being tough.”
“Thank you, sir. My wife doesn’t believe in posthumous awards.”
“A good line for the papers. Well, that’s about all, Penn. Allow me to congratulate you on a very important collar, on some splendid police work.”
“Oh, I mustn’t forget to tell the reporters you were on vacation, too. Police work is a twenty-four-hour job. But above all, police work is teamwork. I’m not talking about you, understand, merely making a general statement. No room on the force for grandstanding, a going-it-alone attitude. Of course, in this situation, I’m sure there wasn’t any other way you could have captured him. Let me shake your hand, Penn. I’m certain you will make a excellent detective and go far in the ranks.”
I shook hands, thinking: Giving me all this smart talk, this hinting—and all he does is park his fat ass behind a fat desk. But it’s over. I got a new badge and I didn’t let this rat-faced jerk trip me.
It was ten in the morning when I finally got home. It was a good thing I fell over that article dough—I owed another day on the car. The second I opened the door, Elma looked up from the TV, yelled, “Bucky! When do you get the money?”
“What money?” I asked, walking toward the bedroom.
“Don’t hand me that ‘what money’ line! You think I’m blind—it’s all over the papers.”
I started to undress, wondering how she could possibly know about the money I got for the article. I told her, “Hon, I’ve been up for over twenty-four hours. I’m groggy for sleep. I don’t know anything about money or—”
“The papers say there was a five-thousand-dollar reward for his capture!”
“There is? I didn’t know that. And if there is a reward, it will go to the police fund. Now let me sleep.”
“Bucky Penn, are you holding out on me?”
“Stop yapping like a damn fool; There isn’t any dough for me. A cop can never claim a reward. But I’m a detective now. That will mean a raise and—”
“Sure, a great ten bucks a month. Here I was dreaming of using that five grand to buy… Nothing works right for us.”
“I’ll be damned!” I said, undressing fast, too pooped to take a bath. “Here I been busting my hump to get a raise, risk my life to finally get one, and all you can do is gripe about a reward I can’t touch,” I added, determined not to tell her about the money I had in my pocket.
Elma shrugged, a weary motion with her rolls of fat shaking. “Hurray! Hurray! You’re a hero! No—I don’t mean that. Of course I’m glad you made good. It’s just that—Oh, I was so certain we had the reward. Want some breakfast?”
“I’m full of coffee and sandwiches. All I want is sleep,” I said, getting into her bed.
“I’ll keep the TV down low. Say, your friend Shep, the eye man, called. Said he wanted you to phone him.”
“Later,” I said, dropping off into a wonderful deep sleep. I vaguely remember Elma shaking me awake once, telling me some radio program wanted me “at once” for a noon interview. She said, “You’ll get a wrist watch for appearing. What shall I tell ’em?”
“Tell them I’m bushed. Anyway, I have a watch.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell them you have a toy watch! Come on, they’re on the phone, what shall—”
“Just let me alone,” I mumbled, sinking back into the lush softness of sleep.
The next thing I knew she was shaking me awake. “Bucky, Mr. Harris is here to see you.”
I yawned, feeling great. “I told you to let me sleep.”
“My God, the phone has been ringing all the time. Ollie called. So did your platoon sergeant. Reporters phoned. This Mr. Harris—Shep—has called about five times. I kept telling him you were in bed but he… You know you’re all over the afternoon and evening papers and on the TV news? Why, one reporter even came up here to talk to me.”
“Evening papers?” I repeated, staring at the drawn shade. “What time is it?”
“Around six. Want supper? I went out and got a steak for…”
I yawned again. “What did you tell the reporter?”
“The one who came here.”
“The same as I told those that called. That you took a chance with your life and it was a shame you aren’t getting the reward.”
“From now on keep your trap shut,” I said, getting out of bed. “The department might not like your opinions. Tell Shep I’ll be with him in a minute.”
I came wide awake under the cold-water faucet in the bathroom. It was ten after six on my pug watch. I slipped on my old ring robe and went into the living room. Shep blinked at me behind his powerful glasses as I told Elma to get some beers.
“We haven’t got any.”
“Run down to the store, Honey. Shep, guess you’ve met my wife, Elma.”
“Yes. I’ve been talking to her on the phone most of the day. Bucky, I can do without beer. I want to—”
“I want some. Elma’s been cooped up in the house all day,” I said, giving her the sign to scram. She didn’t like it.
When she left, I slapped Shep on his narrow back, told him, “Well, I’m a tin hero, thanks to you.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to talk to you about,” he said, his hands shaking as he lit a cigarette.
“I was up all night,” I said, sitting on the couch. “What’s there to talk about, Shep?”
“Well—” he began, blowing smoke down at our worn floors. I never got around to waxing them any more. And I wished he hadn’t seen Elma. “Well, it’s like this: All this publicity and—My wife thinks I should be part of it!” The words came rushing out.
“Yeah?” My mind tightened up fast. “Why? You told me you wanted to keep out of this. That’s why I made a special point of not mentioning you.”
He nodded. “I know. That’s what I said, but—”
“But now that Johnson is dead you think it’s safe,” I cut in.
“No. I mean… Look, Bucky, it isn’t me, it’s my wife. I feel lousy about saying this, but she thinks I should get the reward money.” Shep looked up at me, his eyes miserable.
“That goes to the police fund. I never even knew there was a reward, and anyway, I don’t get a dime.”
“That’s why I’m here. You can’t get it, no matter what, so it doesn’t make any difference to you. But I could claim it, if they knew the part I’d played in his capture.”
“Shep, the part you played was gassing about it over a shot of rye in your office,” I said, knowing I had to shut him up or look like a phony downtown. Sharp-face and his talk about grandstanding.
“Bucky, this is tough to say. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking anything away from you. It’s the reward. I can use the money.”
“I thought you were loaded.”
“We’re… comfortable. But it’s all her money. Her family set up my office and—well, it takes time to get established. You know my business hasn’t been raising any hell. They keep nagging her—me—about it. You know how it is. So if I had the five thousand… You understand. And it isn’t as if I’m not entitled to it. I did give information leading to his arrest.”
“Shep, you wouldn’t get a cent.”
“That’s not what the inspector downtown told me. He said—”
I jumped up. “Goddamn you, did you talk to anybody?”
He backed away from me, his eyes blinking. “Bucky, I tried to phone you first. She’s been on my neck all afternoon. I merely called downtown to see if I was eligible and… I’m to see them tomorrow morning. That’s why I had to come up here.”
“Shep, you’re a fool!” I shouted. “Listen to me. When you see them you have to say it was all a mistake, make like you’re a crackpot. You want to be killed, get your wife and kid murdered?”
“And think of the spot you’ve put me on, all the lying I’ve done to protect you!”
“Protect me from what?”
“You remember what happened to Arnold Schuster after he fingered Willie Sutton? He was shot down on the street! You know why? He told a cop about how he had recognized Sutton. After the cop arrested Sutton—and kept Schuster’s name out of things—well, a few days later Schuster got into the picture, with a lot of publicity about how he had first put the finger on Sutton. Then Schuster began getting threatening calls and a few days later he was shot dead. If he’d kept quiet, he’d still be alive!”
Shep swallowed. “I remember. Gang revenge?”
“Why didn’t you remember before running your mouth! Who knows why he was gunned? They’ve never collared the killer. Maybe it was an organized thing, revenge, or maybe some jerk wanted to make a name for himself. Punks can be crackpots, too. You go right home and tell your wife to shut up. Or would she prefer being a widow for five grand?”
“But Johnson is dead!”
“So what? Willie Sutton was behind bars when Schuster was killed. Nobody ever accused Sutton of doing it. Do you know what pals Johnson had? Killing you would be safe for them. One of his buddies gets hopped up, or drunk, says, ‘I’ll get hunk with the little louse who fingered Batty!’ So one night or day, maybe tomorrow, a week from tomorrow, or a year from now, a total stranger walks up and kills you, or your wife or kid. You want to live in fear the rest of your life?”
Shep thought for a second, so scared he nearly burned himself with his cigarette.
“These same guys might try to get me,” I went on, “but they know it’s bad business killing a cop. And they don’t blame me, know it’s my job. But you, doing their pal in for money—they’ll never forgive or forget that. The minute your name is mentioned in the papers you become a walking target! For Christ sakes, why do you think I’ve gone out of my way to keep you out of this?”
“Wouldn’t the police give me protection?”
“Sure, for a few days, a week or so. A thug like Batty was big time, known around the underworld for years, he has to have a gang of friends. You go home and talk sense to your wife!”
He crushed his cigarette in an ash tray filled with apple cores—Elma always feeding her fat mouth. “I’ll try, Bucky. It was her idea and I thought the publicity might help business, so I—”
“You’ll be the busiest optometrist under a headstone! Shep, I know what I’m talking about. Why, this would be the worst thing possible for your business; people would be afraid to go into your office, afraid they might step in the way of a bullet. Make your wife keep still. And tomorrow you tell whoever you talk to downtown that it was only a lot of talk, you made a mistake.”
“I’ll explain things to… at home. But I’ll sure look like a fool when I talk to the inspector.”
“At least you’ll be a live fool! Long as it doesn’t make the papers, so you’ll only be a fool to the inspector. Remember what you told me—they don’t pay off on dead heroes. Now speak to your wife before she talks too much.”
“And if anybody threatens you, let me know at once.” I put an arm around his little shoulders, practically pushed him toward the door. “Explain to your wife about the spot I’d be in. I got a promotion; I’d lose it if it came out I’d lied, even to protect you.”
“I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, Bucky. You know that.”
“I know it, but do you? Don’t forget, in your office, you made a point of telling me to keep you out of this. This is a hell of a time to change your mind—after I’ve made out my reports.”
“I’ll swear I told you that.”
“Shep, my first duty is to the police department, not to you. For your safety, and my job, let’s not have it come to the point where you have to swear to anything. You could be dead before you have time to swear! Now go to your wife.”
When he left I smoked a cigarette slowly, went into the kitchen and put the gas under the coffeepot. I was okay. Even if downtown believed Shep, or rather didn’t entirely believe his retraction. Long as he made a retraction. Okay, so it might have been bad police work for me to do it alone, but I had made the collar. I had killed him—the headlines backed me up—so what more could the department want?
I went to the bedroom and got out my new detective shield. Yeah, whether they liked the way I handled the case or not, there was little chance of them taking this tin from me. But it would be best if they thought Shep a jerk. I didn’t plan on being a third-grade dick all my life. The main thing was I had a detective badge. Not bad for a young fellow. At this rate, by the time I’d be thirty I might be a…
Elma came in with a couple bottles of beer, looked around, and asked, “Where’s Mr. Harris?”
“What did he want?”
“Some advice on killing a traffic ticket.”
“And I had to rush out and get beer.”
“You’ve had plenty of practice.”
She got off her four-letter word, several times.
I grinned. “I’m only kidding. Elma, get dressed; we’re going out tonight. I still got the car and we can drive to some fancy place on the island and eat.”
She spun around, her coat half off. “Car? What car? How come you have money to step out? Bucky, you cheap bastard, you did get that reward!”
I grabbed her hand so hard she screamed. She yelled again. I let go, gave her cheek a rough pat. “Sorry, Honey, but you know how that word ‘bastard’ sends me sky-high. This is a big day for me, for us. Let’s not fight. So get this through your head: If there was any way I could put my mitts on that reward money, I’d do it. But there isn’t. I borrowed a couple of bucks from a sergeant downtown, last night, to celebrate my promotion. As for the car, I rented one yesterday.”
“You never told me. What you need a car for?” Elma asked, rubbing her wrist, which was very red.
“I met some guy who wanted to move a lot of stuff, and I thought by renting a car I could come out a few bucks ahead. But I never got to it. Forget it and get dressed. While I take a shower, make me a sandwich or something. I’m starved. I’m sorry about your wrist.” I pulled her to me, kissed her.
“I’m the one who should be sorry, Bucky. It slipped out. I didn’t mean that—that name.”
“I’d never call you that.”
“Sure. Elma, things will be different now. We won’t be so strapped for dough. As a detective, I should have more chance of picking up extra bucks.” I slapped her barrel-like rear. “Let’s get dressed and have a good time.”
Under the shower a new idea hit me. If I admitted Shep’s part in things, took a chance on still holding my new badge, he probably would get the reward. But would he split it with me? Twenty-five hundred bucks was a lot of folding money. But once he got the reward, or knew he was entitled to it, how could I make him split? And Shep would be stuck for the tax bite on it. A grand for Sam would only leave us four to split.
I thought about it as I dressed, had a cheese sandwich and coffee. There were two things wrong: I couldn’t be sure Shep would agree to share the dough, and I didn’t want to look the fool to the police brass. Still, two grand was…
The bell rang. I opened the door to see this thin, dapper man standing there. He didn’t look like a reporter. He smiled, said, “Hello, Penn. Remember me, Detective Alexander? I was in the Commissioner’s office this morning when he talked to you.”
“Sure I remember you,” I lied. “Come in.”
He gave me a small, amused smile as he walked in—the smile saying he knew I was lying.
As I took his coat and hat—both of them real expensive, and not the kind of clothing that had to shout how much they cost, either—Alexander glanced around the living room. His eyes said I was living in a dump. Just then Elma had to come out of the bathroom, a robe around her, a towel wrapped about her head. She looked like a walking tent. I introduced her and she giggled something about excusing the way she looked and ducked into the bedroom.
Alexander grinned at me politely. His tight smile said I was married to a pot. I asked, “Want a beer?”
“No, thanks. I’ll make this short. Deputy Commissioner Oast has a dinner engagement, so he asked me to come up and talk to you. Penn, do you know a Dr. Sheppard Harris?”
“Yeah. Has an office on my old post. Why?”
“He phoned Howie—Commissioner Oast—late this afternoon, claims he tipped you off to Johnson. We’re going to talk to him in the morning, so we want to get your version straight first.”
“My version of what?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“Of how you knew the car washer was Johnson. It would not only embarrass the department a great deal if the doctor’s story is true—considering that we’ve told the papers you did it solo—but there’s also the matter of department discipline. But I don’t have to tell you about that. The point is, if the doctor’s story is true, we have to know it now, so we can straighten out the newspaper stories. Did he tip you off?”
Alexander took out a cigarette, toyed with it. I was not only nervous, I was getting sore. Maybe his not offering me a cigarette did it. I mean, he was acting so damn big, as if he knew all about me. I said, “Shep is one of these crime nuts. Also the kind of guy who likes to fondle cops. You know the type. He reads the wanted circulars at the post office, fact-detective magazines. I used to drop into his office now and then and—”
“What for?” He was tapping the cigarette. His nails were actually manicured.
He said gently, almost like Nate used to talk, “How come you dropped in to see him so often?”
I thought: This slick character with his good clothes and fancy nails—he probably never pounded a beat in his life. I said loudly, “Off the record, to get out of the cold, maybe use his John.”
He didn’t say a word, kept playing with his cigarette.
“I sent some of the boys at the precinct house to Shep for glasses. He gave them a good deal. Well, Shep liked to shoot the breeze about famous cases, the stuff he read about in these magazines. When Johnson was named the top wanted man, Shep said he hoped I could collar him. He would say that about every wanted criminal and—”
“Was the contact lens bit his idea?”
I rubbed the side of my head, as if in deep thought. “He mentioned it once, as a possibility. You see he was especially interested in Johnson, since he had knocked off an eye man.”
“Dr. Harris didn’t spot Johnson in the car wash first?”
“No.” (I almost said, “Sir.”) “As I told the Commissioner, I spotted him because of his odd face.”
“Yes, that’s what you told us. So Dr. Harris merely mentioned Johnson’s name, along with a lot of other wanted clowns?”
“He’s another crackpot after publicity?”
“Yeah, in his own way.”
“Should the department brush him off as a crackpot?”
He gave me a real smile, stood up. “That’s what I want to know. You bagged your man; that’s all that should count, Penn. But there’s this big publicity—number one wanted man and the rest of that silly slop. Who really knows or cares if a thug heads the F.B.I. wanted list? Our job is collaring crooks every day and not running a popularity contest. Here I’m off on a speech and all I meant to say is, you did a good job, Penn.” He waved the cigarette at me. “Got some fire?”
“A match, son.”
“Oh.” I tossed a pack of matches at him. Taking his coat and hat from the closet, I asked, “Any idea what detective squad I’ll be assigned to?”
“No. Does it make any difference to you?”
“None. I’m just curious.”
“Kid, you’re on vacation. Forget the job.”
I debated if I should help him on with his coat—which sure felt rich and soft—but I’d had the “kid” chatter. I simply handed him the coat and walked him to the door.
The second he was gone I ran to the phone book, found Shep’s home number. Funny, I’d never heard him called “doctor” before, or thought of him as one. I dialed his number and then hung up. After I’d put the fear of God in him already, no sense in letting Shep know I was worried. And this Alexander—his patronizing look, his big talk about “we” and “us,” as if he was Mister Police Department. He was only a detective, not even an acting lieutenant. Probably a clown with a powerful “in” behind him. They got the cushy jobs. About time I had that. Ought to make Elma get active in a club, get some political muscle behind me. One thing: It was a big break that Shep came here first, that I made him change his mind, see the light.
When Elma was finally dressed, we drove out to a steak house that had a sad floor show. We had a few drinks and I was happy Elma didn’t ask me to dance with her. Around midnight, as we were driving home, I had the radio on. A news commentator said, ”… A new factor popped up in the sensational capture of Batty Johnson yesterday when Dr. Sheppard Harris, an optometrist, claimed he had tipped off Patrolman Bucklin Penn to the top-wanted thug’s whereabouts. Dr. Harris said a wanted flyer sent out by the F.B.I. to all optometrists had led him to recognize the notorious killer…. Turning to the Near East, a new showdown is expected when…”
I turned off the radio, glanced at Elma. She was sleeping. As I silently cursed Shep, I felt sick. Why had the department given out the news? Now Shep might hesitate about retracting it. Was downtown protecting themselves, or had it been a leak? Hell, this made the F.B.I. look good. Be a fine thing if I was caught between the brass and the F.B.I. dueling for credit on the collar. Anyway, I knew what I had to do.
I insisted we stop at a bar, bought Elma a brace of double shots, encouraged her to get high. There were some smiles from the jerks holding up the bar, at her size, but happily she didn’t notice them. I was so tense I would have turned the joint out. I got her to tank up while I kept to one drink. When we reached the apartment she undressed and was snoring peacefully a few minutes after she hit the sheets.
I took off my shirt and tie, washed up, to relax. Then I stuffed some toilet paper into the mouthpiece of the phone, dialed Shep’s house. After two rings I hung up. I put the Late, Late Show on the TV, keeping it down low, and after ten minutes I phoned and hung up again. Then I dialed a few minutes later and when he answered I didn’t say a word, but kept breathing heavily into the phone, let him hang up.
I waited until the TV movie was over—and it was well after 2 a.m. Then I phoned him again. When he said, “Hello?” I growled through the paper. “You Harris, the eye doc?” I used a thick accent, an Italian one—and felt lousy about it.
“Why, yes, I’m Dr. Harris. Who is this?”
I could hear his teeth chattering over the phone.
“Who are you? Who is this?”
“Who d’ya think, you lousy stoolie?”
“What—what do you want?”
I tried to make my laugh sound crazy.
He kept asking what I wanted, fighting to hold his voice from coming apart. I didn’t say a word. When he hung up I glanced at my wrist watch and waited. Exactly one minute and five seconds later my phone rang. I let it ring a few times, holding a pillow over it to drown out the sound. Then I picked up the receiver, yawned, “Yeah?”
“Yeah, I’m Bucky. Who’s this?”
“Bucky, this is Shep!”
“Hey, it’s the middle of the night. What’s the matter, Shep?”
His voice was high with hysteria as he babbled, “Bucky, somebody just threatened me! I—”
“They came to your house?”
“Over the phone, Bucky. The phone has been ringing all night. Every time I answered, there wouldn’t be anybody at the other end!”
“Shep, you haven’t said any more about—what we talked about? I mean, you haven’t talked to any reporters, have you?”
“No. But it was on the radio. I heard—”
“I told you to keep your mouth shut. Now every crackpot in the city will be annoying you!”
“Honest, Bucky, I haven’t said a word to anybody since I talked to you. I don’t know how it got on the air.”
“What did they say over the phone?”
“I could hardly make it out, but a man called me a lousy stoolie.”
“That’s not a threat. Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry? My God! Bucky, what shall I do?”
“I told you what to do. Deny everything when you talk to the police tomorrow. Get off the hook.”
“I will. But you think they might try anything tonight?”
“It was probably only a nut. Don’t answer your phone, keep it off the cradle. Now go back to sleep,”
“Sleep? My wife is… I’m… Bucky, we’re scared—terrified. Do me a favor. Spend the night at my house.”
“Shep, I’m half dead.”
“Please, Bucky, until tomorrow when I can straighten myself, get out from under this nightmare. I’ll pay you for your time.”
It made me feel good to hear the greedy little slob plead. Of course I was going up—he might call the police if I didn’t. I said, “Okay, Shep, I’m on my way. And stop talking about paying anybody. I’m doing this for a friend—you. Sit tight. I’ll be up in about twenty minutes.”
He lived in one of these ritzy houses with terraces. And he needed the reward! Still, I knew what he meant—her family. I drove around looking for a parking place; here on the outskirts of town there seemed to be even more cars. I passed his MG parked about half a block away. When I found a space I walked back to his car. It was after three on a dark, cold morning; not a soul around. I poked about in the gutter slush until I found a small stone. I hammered it against his windshield with my gun, cracking the glass.
When I rang his bell he asked a dozen times who I was, and when he finally let me in, Shep damn near hugged me. Taking off my coat, I asked, “Any more phone calls?”
“I have the receiver off, like you told me. Bucky, you don’t know how much I appreciate this.”
“I warned you what would happen.”
“You did. Don’t worry; tomorrow I’ll deny everything at the top of my lungs.”
I nodded. “Best you don’t say anything about tonight—the calls. Then the police might not drop it. You tell them you’re a crime bug, that you were drunk or something. Make sure it sounds good and make certain the police give it to the papers.”
I took out my gun, and Shep’s eyes became saucers behind his glasses. I told him, “Now go to sleep and forget it. I’ll stretch out on the couch.”
“Bucky, I’ll buy you a case of rye for this.”
“Forget it. You did me a favor, Shep. I’m paying you back.” There was a kind of moan. I turned to see the frightened eyes of a nice-looking babe watching us from the darkness of the bedroom. She was a runt, too. I said loudly, “Go to sleep, Shep. Don’t turn on the lights, and stay away from the windows, just in case.”
The moan was louder. “Tell your wife not to worry. You’ll scare your kid awake.”
I put the receiver back in its cradle, was able to get a few hours shut-eye. I awoke to see a little girl in a red bathrobe staring at me with a solemn face. I sat up and winked at the kid; she giggled. Shep’s wife came out of the kitchenette to get the girl. The wife looked like a kid herself, except for the dark circles under her eyes. As she took the girl to the bathroom, the wife whispered, “Thank you, very much, Mr. Penn.”
“It’s okay. It will be over soon.”
We all took turns going to the John. I phoned Elma, and it took a lot of rings to get her up. I told her where I was.
There was a mild argument during breakfast as Shep explained to his wife that he was going to tell the Commissioner he’d been drunk when he called. The wife wasn’t thinking of the reward any longer, but the fact Shep would look foolish.
I said, “So what if he looks like a jerk? It will be forgotten by tomorrow. Those calls last night might be the work of a crank, but we can’t be sure. Better to be a fool for a day than a nervous wreck the rest of your lives. Or dead.”
“Daddy, what does ‘dead’ mean?” the little girl asked.
After they got a morning cartoon show on TV for the kid, Shep told his wife about Arnold Schuster and she was sold. We left the house a few minutes before nine, and if he still had any doubts, his busted windshield was the final convincer. He almost fainted as he whispered, “A—a bullet hole!”
I went through the routine of examining the cracked glass. “Maybe. Might be a pebble from the wheel of a passing car.”
“No, no, it’s a bullet hole!”
“Could be. But a slug would have gone through the windshield.” I bent down and ran my fingers through the snow and dirt on the ground, examined the road. Finally I said,” I don’t see a slug. Let’s get going. My wife is waiting for me.”
“Drive downtown with me, Bucky.”
“Well, I have to take my car back. Tell you what: I’ll follow you. And stop shaking or you’ll drive your car off the road.
I followed him down to police headquarters, then returned my car. I ate a big breakfast and took a cab to the house. Elma was sleeping. I read the morning papers, turned on TV and watched a couple of morning shows. At about eleven Elma got up and drank three cups of coffee. She wanted to know why I’d been at Shep’s house.
“Some nut threatened him. It’s okay now.”
I listened to the noon news roundup. Nothing. But at one a newscaster said, “Dr. Sheppard Harris, the optometrist who yesterday claimed he had tipped off the police about Batty Johnson, this morning admitted it was all a hoax. He claimed he had been reading a wanted circular about Johnson while under the influence of a pill he was taking for a cold, and later, without realizing what he was doing, phoned the police….”
I turned off the set, started to undress. Elma said, “Keep it on. There’s a story I follow every day.”
I took out ten bucks. “Honey, I want to sleep. Why don’t you go out and buy yourself something, or take in a movie?”
Snatching the bill, she asked, “Where did you get the money?”
“Oh, stop it. Shep slipped it to me for guarding him.”
I fell into bed, and my boxer’s arms said I’d only been sleeping fifty minutes when the doorbell rang. It kept ringing. I went to the door, in my shorts, ready to bawl Elma out for coming back so soon, forgetting her key. I opened the door to see Detective Alexander grinning at me again. He came in, and when I asked for his coat, he said, “I’ll only be a minute.” He ran his eyes over my body. “You pack good muscle.”
“You got me out of the sack.”
“Of course. I hear you were up all night.”
I came awake fast. I didn’t like the sarcastic grin on his thin face.
Alexander sat on the couch, pushed his hat back on his brushed gray hair. “You were right, Penn. Your buddy Harris turned out to be a real crank, as you said.”
“He was hysterical this morning. Said something about threatening phone calls last night. Too bad his name leaked out to the press. They tell me it was on the radio news last night.”
“So Shep told me,” I said. Dopey Shep, telling them about the calls. But I was still way out in the clear—although Alexander’s mocking eyes didn’t say that. “In fact, he dragged me out in the middle of the night, insisted I come up and protect him. Hard to say if there were any calls or it was all his imagination. No one phoned while I was there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, knowing my voice was too loud.
“Nothing. Of course it was odd, the calls coming so soon after he was mentioned in a newscast.”
“If there actually were threatening calls, what’s so odd about it? You expect a nut, or one of Johnson’s pals, to wait?”
“I don’t expect anything.”
“Shep say anything else? Any new calls?”
“Nope. He was upset about his windshield, thought it was a shot.”
“I told him it might be a flying stone.”
Alexander nodded, his eyes watching me like he was seeing a funny show. “The lab said it was a stone.”
I waited a second, got a cigarette from a pack on the TV. Alexander didn’t say a word. I lit the butt and the silence made my nerves jump. “Stop stalling. What’s on the Commissioner’s mind?”
“I don’t know. I guess he thinks you’re a big hero. This isn’t an official call, Bucklin. Where did you get a name like that?”
“Don’t worry about my name. If this isn’t official, what…?”
He grinned, showing neat teeth. “I’m here as a friend. You see, I think you’re a big hero, too.”
“Look, I’m tired. I’m not feeling friendly. In fact, I’m feeling like tossing you out on your ass!” I stood up.
“Relax, son.” He walked over to the TV set and took a cigarette. “You don’t have to impress me that you’re a tough character. I believe it. I can see it. That’s the reason for my visit. I need somebody tough and sharp. My partner died a few weeks ago. His whiskey finally got to his heart. I’ve been looking for a new partner, the right kind of man, your kind. Think you’d like to work with me?”
I glanced at his overcoat—it had to cost two hundred bucks. His shirt and shoes weren’t anything you found in a bargain basement, either.
He said, “I usually get special assignments, Bucklin, and—”
“Call me Bucky.”
“And if you were my partner, so would you. Right now I’m assigned to the Commissioner’s Squad—we go anyplace we wish. I like your record, Bucky. Take that suicide attempt you foiled. Fast thinking.”
The sarcasm was back in his voice. I took my eyes from his clothes. “I might go for it. Can you swing it?”
“I wouldn’t be asking you if I couldn’t. Is it a deal, partner?”
He put the cigarette in his thin mouth. “When is your vacation over?” The butt moved with his lips like a tiny baton.
“I can start right now.”
“Don’t be dumb. Finish your vacation, son.” He glanced at the matches on top of the TV. “Get me some fire, Bucky.”
“The matches are over there,” I said, not moving.
For a second he stared at me; then he laughed and walked over and lit the cigarette, spit out a few tobacco crumbs. He came over and held out his hand. “You’ll get your orders in the mail within a few days. I think we’ll make out fine, Bucky.”
I shook his hand hard. “Sure. What do I call you—Al or Alex?”
“If you do I’ll break your jaw. My first name is Harry but everybody calls me Doc.” He jerked his hand away, flexed the fingers. “We’ll make a winning team—with your strength, Bucky boy.”
I guess the first week I worked with Doc I learned more about police work—the right and the wrong kind—than I did in the entire previous year or so I’d been working at it. Doc was very good, as a cop and as a crooked cop. He was smart, had an explanation for everything. In fact, he could talk you to death about anything.
He seemed to have solid connections behind him way up to City Hall. Most times we’d be assigned to the Commissioner’s roving squad, and whenever there was a shake-up in sight, we would be sent to some precinct detective squad, for a while. I guess Doc could have got us both some office jobs, but we worked hard, put in long hours on the streets—where there was money to be made.
Right from the first day I made money. We never made a fortune, you understand (up till a few days ago, that is), but I managed to about double my salary. At first I was a little uneasy about the shakedowns, but as Doc told me, “Kid, you get what you pay for in this world. And a city only gets the police force it pays for. You weren’t getting an extra dime for working on your vacation, risking your life by going after Johnson. We take chances every minute. Then it’s up to us to increase our pay whenever we can.”
As I said, I soon realized Doc was not only an expert shake artist, he was a hell of a sharp cop—when he wanted to be. For one thing, he had a great memory for faces.
Take the first day we worked together. We checked in at headquarters by eight, then started driving around in a beat-up squad car. That’s another thing, with Doc I was always on rubber. Doc usually stopped at the zoo or a modern art museum for lunch—they both had outdoor tables. Even if it was raw cold, he would have coffee out on the terrace. Doc said it reminded him of the outdoor cafes in Europe. When I asked if he’d been to Europe, he said, “Several times. I was an MP officer during World War II. When I was a young stud I studied philosophy at an English university. Trouble was, I was too young, kept running off to Paris. Some day I’m going to settle down in one of the little towns in the south of France. Perhaps in Juan les Pins or Antibes, and continue my studies of human nature. People know how to relax over there. That’s the secret of longevity, Bucky.”
“You mean when you get your pension?” I asked, thinking I’d never heard that Europeans lived any longer than we did. “You can’t be far from a pension now.”
“Oh, I could retire today,” he said, annoyed. He didn’t like to be reminded he was old. “But I’m sticking around for the biggest pension I can get and then… Bucky, look at that stocky joker in the brown coat and cap buying a frankfurter at the counter.”
I turned to look and Doc kicked my leg, hissed, “Don’t be a goddamn amateur! Wait a second, then look casually, slowly.”
“What about him?’
“That’s Willie Smith. He’s done a lot of time as a cat burglar. I thought he was still in the pen. Wonder what he’s doing here. He usually works the suburbs.”
I took another look—casually. Smith was a lanky, middle-aged man. We tailed him when he left. He walked slowly across the park, met some burly guy at the skating pond. They talked quietly for a few minutes. Smith took out a paper and kept pointing out things on it to burly-boy. Finally burly pocketed the paper and they parted. Doc said, “Willie is selling that goon a job he’s cased. You follow Smith, get his home address. I’ll tail the other slob. Keep calling in: I’ll leave a message for you at the squad room.”
Willie was an easy make; he had a rolling way of walking, like sailors are supposed to walk. He was living at a midtown flea-bag. I kept phoning Doc and around one there was a message to meet him at a Center Street bar. I found Doc eating steamed clams. He ordered some for me, said, “This place looks like a dump but the owner has a house on the inlet and digs his own clams. You don’t have to worry about them being fresh. Where does Willie live?”
I told him and he said, “The big guy is set to knock over a ritzy house on the east side. Placed is closed up. The family has probably gone south for the winter.”
“Relax, kid. They won’t try this until dark, about the time the rush hour dies down. Big boy lives in a tenement on Seventh Street. Around four we’ll go down and wait for him to leave.”
“But suppose they try it sooner? Shouldn’t we take a plant outside the house they’re going to rob?”
“They won’t attempt it before dark. Forced entries, like all crimes, follow a pattern. Nice bite to the air; let’s take a drive.”
“But why wait? We can pick up Willie now, and with burly having the plans of the house on him…”
Doc dipped a clam in hot butter sauce, gave me one of his bored smiles. “Pick up Willie for what? And big boy has the plans of the house on him—maybe. So what does that prove?”
“Enough for a collar.”
“Bucky, any slob can make an arrest. It’s a stand-up collar that counts, one that gets a conviction. Come on, let’s go riding.”
“Wait until I order a cup of Java.”
Doc looked horrified. “Not here—it’s dishwater.”
We drove around for a few hours, taking it easy, like tourists. We were on the River Driveway. There was a new Olds ahead of us with a man and woman in it, the woman driving. She was driving too slow, damn near coming to a stop to make the turn to the bridge that went out on the island. Doc said, “Follow them over the bridge.”
“Why?” I asked, making the turn.
“I’ll give three to one she’s a beginner. Once she crosses the bridge, she’s outside city limits. Her beginner’s permit isn’t any good.”
“Neither are our badges.”
Doc lit a cigarette, taking the matches out of my pocket. “Don’t worry about it.” We stopped at the end of the bridge and he took the wheel. After a few minutes he caught up to the Olds, passed it so closely the woman lost control, drove off the road, and stopped with such a jerk I thought she’d go through the windshield.
Doc pulled to the side of the road as I saw the man frantically trying to change places with the woman. We walked back to them. Flashing his badge (Doc called it a “potsy,” another sign of old age), Doc said, “Let me see your license, please.”
The man started to yank out his wallet but Doc told him, “Not you. She was driving.”
“I was at the wheel, officer, not my wife,” the man said, his face sickly. The woman’s plain face was flushed a deep red, and she seemed on the verge of tears.
“You’re a liar!” Doc snapped. “Get in your car and follow us to the station house. I was going to give you a break, but not when you try pulling that crap on me.”
“I have a beginner’s permit and my husband has a license,” the wife wailed.
“Madam, then I have to arrest you for driving without a license,” Doc said softly. “You should know your permit isn’t any good outside city limits. And not on the River Driveway, either, for that matter. Means you’ll lose your license too, mister, and it will cancel out your insurance. I’m sorry, but that’s the law.”
The man said, “Please, officer, I was only teaching her to drive. We didn’t realize we were out of the city.”
“And if she had plowed into a car when she lost control of the car just now, killed somebody, what then? New car—at least you ought to be able to sell it for half what you paid,” Doc said, walking around to the rear of the car to take down the license number.
I was so dumb I wondered why he didn’t get the number from the front plate, where we were standing. The husband followed Doc. The woman began to cry, and I said, “Take it easy.”
“My husband needs the car for his business!” she sobbed.
Doc and the man returned a few minutes later. Doc told me, “This is one of these things. I’m convinced the lady will be more careful next time. If we take this man’s license away, he’ll lose his job. Okay if we forget it?”
I said sure.
We turned around, headed back for town, and Doc took out a hundred bucks, gave me five tens and a wink.
At four we went to this tenement. Doc pointed out another lousy house on the other side of the street, said, “Go up on the roof and wait for me.”
I climbed up six flights to the roof, and a few minutes later Doc joined me, coming over the roof of the next house. We crossed a couple buildings until we were opposite the one we wanted. Doc made sure the roof door was open; then we took turns watching the house across the street. Doc poked around the roof, suddenly called me over. Inside an old roll of tar paper there was a paper bag full of cheap wrist watches, two boxes of cigars, unopened; another bag with candy bars, a card holding a dozen new pocket knives, and a used portable radio. Doc said, “Some kids looted a candy store. We’ll come back for them.”
“Will we have time?”
“If we’re lucky. The kids are waiting for dark, too.”
“Should I go down and call in for help?”
Doc looked at me like I was an idiot.
At ten to six, burly left the house across the street with some little fat guy. Doc said, “We’ve got time. Let’s give the kids a half-hour.”
“But the goons might give us the slip. Hell with the kids.”
“What slip? We know where they’re going. Know what they’re doing now? Stealing a car.”
Some minutes later Doc asked what time I had on my watch. I held out my wrist and he said, “That’s a kid’s timepiece. Why are you wearing it?”
“It’s a watch I won in my first amateur fight,” I lied. “I like to—”
Doc touched my arm for silence. Two big teen-agers opened the door, stepped out on the roof. They got their stuff from the tar paper—were probably going to sell it for two bucks, if they got that much. When we moved out from behind a chimney, they dropped the junk. One kid froze; the other took off. I chased him over a couple of roofs before flattening him with a judo chop on the back of his skinny neck. I dragged him back to where Doc was holding his gun on the other punk. Doc told me to go down and phone the local precinct for a radio car.
Twenty minutes later we had deposited the kids and their junk in a station house, were on our way uptown. We cruised by the house, a boarded-up whitestone that even sported a small lawn and a fence. There were a dozen cars parked on the street. Doc told me to drive slowly, and when we passed an old car with the hood loose, he said, “That’s their getaway car. They had to jack open the hood to jump the ignition. Find us a place to park.”
I started to pull in next to a hydrant and Doc cursed, said, “We might as well pin our potsies to the windshield!”
I finally found a parking space around the corner. We walked back and took a plant in the doorway of a closed laundry store. It was cold and we had to wait over an hour before burly and his buddy crossed the street, each carrying an expensive suitcase. We jumped them. Burly didn’t drop his bag fast enough so I dropped him with a right to the jaw. Doc blew his police whistle until the post cop came running. On the way to the station house we stopped at the flea-bag, picked up Willie without any trouble.
I was home by midnight, a little dizzy. In one day we had made five arrests and pocketed fifty bucks each.
Of course, we didn’t do that every day, but we made plenty of arrests. Doc had a whole string of stoolies and often we were at the scene of a crime before it took place. Nor did we make extra money every day, but we did okay. Once we got a tip on a floating crap game, pocketed three hundred of the nine hundred dollars on the hotel rug. I thought it was risky but Doc said, “Stop slobbering. Sure, the desk lieutenant knows we held out some money—so does downtown—but they’d be surprised if we hadn’t. It’s expected. If you don’t take what you can, it makes a lot of people uneasy. Just be careful you don’t horn in on the big graft that goes up to the top, right to City Hall. This stuff is peanuts to them. They go for the organized shake, the big money that comes in as regularly as payday.”
Sometimes I thought Doc was being damn petty. Like once Doc spotted a parolee he remembered, coming out of a bar at night. He frisked the joker, took twenty dollars from his wallet, then let him go with a kick in the rear. I took my ten but Doc could tell I didn’t like it. He told me, “Bucky, look at it this way: We’re doing the guy a favor. And also doing our job. Don’t forget, the biggest part of police work is preventing crime. Now, this fellow would have to finish three more years if we had turned him in.”
“Turned him in for what—taking a drink?”
“He was violating his parole by taking a shot at that hour of the night, not to mention the bar is a hangout for punks. But you’re not following me, Bucky. The important thing is we reminded him to go straight. All parolees are tempted, so we merely acted as a brake on him. Isn’t avoiding three years in the pen worth a couple of ten-dollar bills? We did him a favor.”
“As the saying goes, with pals like us he’ll never need an enemy.”
Doc laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, kid, he expected it. Why do you think he was only carrying twenty dollars? That was shake money, just for cops.”
As I said, in many ways Doc reminded me of Nate. Doc was lonely, which I suppose was one reason why he put in such long hours on the job. I didn’t mind; police work wasn’t work to me. But many a night after we finished he would ask me to have supper with him at some odd restaurant, listen to him philosophize and run his mouth. Sometimes we’d even take in a movie together. I took a small room in Doc’s hotel. I was seeing less and less of Elma, but I was giving her thirty-five a week, plus rent, and she didn’t seem to care that I was so busy.
And some nights Doc didn’t want me around, would go to his room early and spend the night reading.
If I never quite understood Doc, I knew he liked me. Once I had a fever and chills during the night. I was shaking like a cement mixer. Elma had an HIP doc in the first thing in the morning and he said I had malaria, told her to give me quinine. Doc phoned at eight thirty to ask where I was. When Elma told him about the attack, he shouted over the phone, “Have you given him any quinine yet?”
“No. I’m getting dressed to go out now.”
“I’m coming right up. Don’t do a thing.”
With me still flashing hot and cold, Doc got me dressed, drove me to a V.A. hospital. I’d had sand-fly fever a couple of times in Korea, and when I was released from the hospital three days later, I was set for a small pension, less than twenty dollars a month, for the rest of my life. See, that’s what I mean by Doc being smart—if I had taken the quinine first the blood test at the hospital would have showed negative and I never would have got the pension. True, it wasn’t much, but it took care of my taxes. In fact, I spent my first check buying Doc a fancy lighter.
One night as Doc and I were having supper in a French restaurant, we started talking about marriage. Doc told me he had once been married for a few years, a long time ago. For some reason I was surprised; I could never picture him as a homebody. “She was a good woman, Bucky—beautiful, talented, intelligent. She was an artist. I nearly had a breakdown when her heart gave out. She was only twenty-eight. I was fortunate in having those few years of happiness. It’s very difficult, under modem tensions, for two people to live together smoothly.”
Doc stared at me as he sipped his coffee, asked, “It’s none of my business, but how did you ever get hooked by Elma?”
“She lived next door when I was a kid. Might say it was one of these quickie war marriages.”
“Are you happy with her?”
“Happy? If I had the money, I’d get a divorce.”
“No, it’s cheaper and better to stay married—if you can stand it. Insurance against getting hooked again. But a strong stud like you should have something better in bed. What time is it?”
“Almost eight.” Along with his always asking for “fire” for his cigarettes, Doc never looked at his own watch.
“Pay the check while I make a call. I’ll fix you up with a real woman.” Doc stood up.
“Nobody has to fix me up. I can get my own women.”
“I might even fix you up with a real watch, too.”
“Doc, mind your own damn business!”
He smiled down at me. “This one is a trifle slimmer than your Elma.”
“I told you, you don’t…”
Walking away from the table, he called out softly, “At least see the merchandise.”
A half-hour later we were in the lobby of a ritzy apartment house off the Avenue. This not only had a doorman, but even elevator operators. Her name was Judy Low, and she was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Fairly tall; a strong, lean body; a cute face with hot, heavy lips and bright eyes; and certainly the smoothest blond hair in all the world reaching her shoulders. There was something about her that got me—perhaps the wanton look on her face. Okay, that may sound corny, but there was something about her that shouted she was made for bed.
The apartment was lush, too; two neat, large rooms with modern furniture in a blaze of colors, lots of books, and a hi-fi that played odd but soothing music. Doc gave her a familiar squeeze as he said, “Judy, this is my partner and friend, Bucky Penn.”
She said in a silky voice she was glad to see me and did we want a drink? Judy was wearing a heavy robe with Arab writing, or something, woven into it. When she walked across the room it was simply amazing. No big hip-sway or anything cheap—this was a very expensive watch movement.
We had a few drinks, and the liquor was the best, too; and then, like a hammy actor, Doc said he had to be leaving. Two minutes later Judy was on my lap.
I began dropping in to see Judy three or four times a week. Doc wisecracked how we were made for each other: Punch and Judy. Like I said, I was never the lover-boy type, but Judy drove me nuts—for a time. Perhaps it was her slim, hard body, after the years of Elma’s sogginess. Or it could have been that just as I was now having my clothes made by Doc’s tailor, having a high-priced call girl was a new kind of living for me. It got so I couldn’t wait until I saw her early in the evening.
Judy had a peculiar clientele. She was busy between three and seven in the late afternoons with top executives who stopped to see her before they commuted to their suburban homes. Doc said she got a hundred or more a trick and limited her business to about fifteen steady customers. Doc claimed that even with her pay-off, she was making twenty grand a year. When I asked him if the brass wouldn’t be sore about us horning in on the graft, he said, “You’re not horning in, merely on her free list. And they won’t kick about that. Taking prostitution money would make any politician a dead duck—if it became known. Enjoy yourself and don’t worry. She likes you.”
I figured she went for me because I was young while most of her customers were old clowns. I got along fine with Judy. She was a shrewd babe and smart; had once worked as a physical therapist, or something like that, in a hospital. She never went in for dirty talk, only drank now and then and could handle her liquor. She had books on physical culture, and actually worked out three times a week with a light bar bell. Sometimes we went night-clubbing, and that cost me a bundle. I’m not much of a dancer, but Judy loved it. What she enjoyed most of all was when we went to some hotel pool for a swim. She also liked to have me strike a pose, like a strong man, and she would talk about my “muscular definition.”
There was another reason she went for me. She didn’t have a pimp and had a deathly fear of strange men. There’s a type of jerk, probably a queer of sorts, usually in his twenties, who, if he happens to find a girl selling it, thinks that makes her open season. They like to slap the girl around, don’t hesitate to maim ’em.
Once she phoned me at the squad room that a guy was calling from downstairs, making a pest of himself. Being Judy’s customers were a select group, she rarely had that sort of trouble, but this joker claimed he was a friend of one of her regulars. I told her to phone the guy at once and check; I didn’t want to get into a jam by beating up some society slob. She phoned me back that the guy indignantly denied he had ever given her name out.
I knew the doorman had to be on her pay-off list, so I parked outside and told him to give me the nod if the character returned. About an hour later a big guy, looking like a college football guard, walked in and the doorman gave me the sign. I waited until he came out again, started walking toward the park. I didn’t want to make a fuss in the lobby. I caught up with the guy; he was really a big kid of about nineteen or twenty, with wide shoulders, chain-store clothes, and sort of a freshly scrubbed face. Flashing my badge, I told him, “You’ve been making a pest of yourself back at that apartment house.”
I flashed my tin fast, so maybe he thought it was a gag, or I was some kind of private operator. Or he might have been going for rough. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, walking away.
He had a lot of inches and at least twenty pounds on me. I grabbed his shoulder, spun him around. “Stop annoying the lady, punk.”
“What lady?” He lingered on the word “lady.”
“Buster, you want me to run you in?”
“What’s this, the police protecting a call girl?”
“I don’t know anything about any call girl. And neither do you. A big mouth like yours can wind up on the wrong end of a libel suit. What’s your name?”
“Are you arresting me?”
“I’m a police officer asking you to identify yourself.”
He hesitated. The courts of our city have ruled a person doesn’t have to give identification unless caught in a suspicious act. But few people know that. He finally took out his wallet. I took down his name and address—relieved it was an average address. I told him, “If I get another complaint, I’ll come and get you. Now get the hell out of here.”
The thing was, I had an itch to tangle with him. I don’t know why. Maybe I thought it would impress Judy, maybe I didn’t like his being bigger and better built than me. Most of these big muscle boys are clumsy with their hands. His face didn’t have a mark, so I was fairly certain he wasn’t a pug.
He put his wallet back, started to move away. That would have been the end of it, but he had to turn and sneer, “She got a police pimp?”
I stepped in, fooling with my hands, kicked him on the shin as he threw a wild right. That swinging like a gate was the tip-off. I moved in and to my right, smacked him on the eye, cutting the skin under it. He stood still for a second, fear coming across his face, and I set myself, belted him hard as I could in the belly. He sat down fast staring up at me stupidly, some blood on his baby-skin face.
A couple people stopped to look. A beat cop came on the run, an old cop. I showed him my badge, said, “This dummy thinks the police are pimps.”
The cop rapped him across the back of his shoulders with his night stick as he asked me, “Shall I run him in? Or you want to take him in the park for some exercise?”
I glanced at the people watching us. So did the cop. I told him, “He’s not worth working up a sweat. Merely a would-be tough punk.” I put my foot to the jerk’s rear. “Get on your feet and scram.”
He stood up, his face full of panic, his bloody eye already puffing. As he walked away the cop gave him a hell of a whack across his can with his club, and the guy ran into the street, hailed a cab. The hackie didn’t want to carry him, but I came up, showed my badge, said, “It’s all right. He’s had a little accident. This is a bad neighborhood for him.”
After telling the cop it wasn’t worth making a report on, I circled the block and phoned Judy. She wasn’t busy, so I went up, gave her the jerk’s name. Several days later she told me he was the brother of some big shot’s secretary. Judy bawled out the executive for running his mouth, and he promptly fired the secretary, gave Judy a diamond pin.
The odd thing was, after a few weeks I knew Judy wasn’t really passionate. I had a creepy feeling she didn’t really go for me. Nothing happened or was said; I simply had this hunch. For a time I tried staying away, but I couldn’t stand it. I decided I had to get her something—a mink. You didn’t make a dent in a girl like Judy with candy or flowers. It couldn’t be a hot coat either, had to come from one of the best shops. Of course I didn’t have anything like that kind of money—then—so I kept urging Doc to get us more palm money, but something big. I wouldn’t tell him why I needed the money, and not only didn’t we know where there was any big money to be had, but Doc warned me that sort of talk and thinking would get us bagged.
I kept figuring how I could get up a few grand, worrying about Judy. Sometimes I thought I was all wet. I knew Judy wasn’t stepping out with anybody but me. She seemed happy when we went dancing, or swimming, or to the fights. And at other times I couldn’t escape the feeling she was bored with me. I was acting so confused Doc kidded me about being lovesick. With all his smartness he could be a bag of corn, too.
Around February Judy flew down to Miami for two weeks. It was both a vacation and business trip, since several of her best customers were in Florida getting the sun.
The first week she was gone I was jittery. We were working out of a precinct squad, for a few weeks, and I was still on this mink kick. The cushion was nothing, or small time. I didn’t like the squad and I missed Judy. When Doc asked what was eating me, and I told him, he said, “We’ll be off this squad and on special assignment in a few weeks. As for Judy, why don’t you fly down to see her on your off days?”
“That’s an idea,” I said, wondering why I’d never thought of going to Miami. “I’ll phone her first.”
“Just go down. She’ll be glad to see you.”
We had a change of tours coming up, and a fifty-six-hour swing, so I long-distanced her the next day, told her how nuts I was, and she said to fly down for the night.
It was great. The plane was first-class and Judy was living in a lush couple of rooms that seemed a movie set. I gave her a fifty-dollar bottle of perfume and she was happy to see me. Judy looked terrific, nicely tanned except in a few places—all very sexy. We had a good afternoon on the beach and I felt like a wheel. But I got too much sun and was unable to go out that night. We had supper in her rooms, then I sent down for a bottle and we started to tie one on.
One of the things I liked about Judy was that she never got sloppy drunk. But now the stuff seemed to get to her. After we had exhausted all the small talk, she sat on the edge of a big chair, staring at me, listening to some radio jazz. I was stretched out on the bed, fanning my furious-red skin. I studied the creamy white of her trim breasts against her tan, thought what a perfect body she had. My skin was so sore I would have screamed if she’d touched me. I said, “Come over here.” No.
“You were a nurse, or some damn thing; can’t you do something for my burn?”
She took a tube of oil from the bathroom, began spreading it on my skin. It was wonderful; the oil was cool and her fingers so gentle. Suddenly she did something to a muscle in my shoulder that sent such a sharp pain through my whole body I sat up gasping. It felt like a cramp and I punched the air a few times to get rid of the knotty feeling. My back was to her as I said, “What happened there?”
She gave out with a drunken laugh. “See, muscles, I’m good with my hands, too.”
I turned on the bed to face her. “You…? What’s the idea? That hurt.”
“I know. I wanted it to hurt.”
“Why? You must be crocked to—”
“I’m very sober. You couldn’t leave me alone, even down here!”
“What are you talking about? You said you wanted me to—”
“Wanted you? Bucky, you scare me crazy!” Her voice was high with hate. Her eyes made me look away.
“Scare you? Why?”
“You’re a cop, that’s why! A cop that shakes you down will shoot you down!”
“How can you talk like that? I never took a cent from you.”
“No? What do you call seeing me for free?”
I spun off the bed fast, my burnt knees almost making me fall. Or maybe I was sick enough to be dizzy. Judy backed away from me—seemed to shrink into a corner of the room. She moaned, “I know you’re going to beat the slop out of me. Well, I don’t care—it was worth saying it!”
I dressed in seconds. She was still crouched in the corner, her hands raised before her face and breasts like a helpless pug on the ropes. Opening the door, I told her, “You must be out of your living mind. You should damn well know I’d never hit you, Judy.”
The last I saw of her she had dropped her hands, her mouth slack with astonishment. All the naked tan and white skin didn’t seem pretty nor exciting. It added up to an icy pile of nothing.
My luck wasn’t all bad; I was able to get a plane back that night. I went home to change my clothes, oil my skin. I told Elma I’d gone south to pick up a fugitive. I spent the rest of the day walking around town, trying to understand it, my miserable burn not letting me forget things. By supper I was beat enough to get a sound night’s sleep.
The next day, as Doc and I were lunching at the zoo outdoor cafeteria, I still felt crummy. Doc was in fine talking form and off on another of his favorite subjects—that a good heavyweight could flatten a gorilla. The gorillas must have had something for Doc; he spent plenty of time staring at the two they had in the zoo, seriously studying them—low-rating them. Along about the second cup of coffee Doc got around to Judy and my lobster-red face. I told him what had happened, how glad I was now that I hadn’t been able to buy her a mink. Talking about it made me feel much better.
Doc said sadly, “It’s a shame. The way you hit it off with her. I considered you the ideal couple, the—”
“You told me—several times: Punch and Judy. So the devil with her.”
“Seriously, Bucky, she’s a—A mink!” He suddenly roared with laughter; laughed like a kid. Then, as he sailed a hunk of toast at a pigeon on the railing, he said, “So that accounts for your itchy palms recently. Bucky, you fool, don’t you know all whores are frigid fakes? They never give you the real thing. Although I’ll grant you Judy can certainly put on a first-rate imitation. But, son—even the real thing is never worth a mink!”
I sat up with a start. Doc was bending over me, gently shaking me awake. He said, “Let’s go, Bucky. It’s time.”
Up close now, Doc looked awful. The stubble on his face had patches of gray-white and his breath stunk. “Okay. In a second.” I yawned and stretched out on the dirty cot again.
“I’ll get the hair dye ready,” Doc said, opening the false wall and leaving the room.
I closed my eyes for a moment to blot out the light bulb, the cracked walls. Lucky Judy. Beautiful, cold Judy. If she hadn’t told me off, would we still be together? Would she be dead now? It seemed she was right: A cop that shakes you down will shoot you down. Betty was dead. And Doc was so wrong—Betty was a real fine kid. Gunning Molly and the thin guy didn’t matter, but Betty… Sometimes I thought we were in love. Real, storybook love. Even wondered what I was going to do about it. Well, that was sure taken care of.
Maybe I wasn’t half the detective Doc was, but I knew enough not to believe in coincidences, and the whole deal with Betty seemed like a setup. Of course, I had nothing definite to go on; still, it was one of the things needling the back of my brain.
I opened my eyes and glanced at the suitcases. Three bags and three dead people. The new arithmetic: How many corpses equal a million bucks?
I heard Doc returning and watched him through almost-closed eyes. He stopped a foot or two away from my cot, holding a pot of something in his hand, and a big wad of cotton. He grinned, then shook his head, touched my shoulder. “Get up, Bucky boy. We’ll have plenty of time for sleep.”
I sat up, poked a finger in his lean gut as I yawned again to cover my nervousness. “Sure, I know; an army can’t fight on an empty stomach. Who said that, Doc?”
“Who cares? Let’s get working on your hair first,” Doc said, putting the pot on the chair and taking my razor from his pocket. “Bucky the blond. I imagine Betty would be real frantic for you as a blond.”
“Would she?” I asked, seeing her dead eyes starting up at me again. How easily I could remember when those same cold eyes had been soft with pleasure every time I walked into the apartment. Had I let her down? I don’t know, it wasn’t the money: I hadn’t known about taking the money then or… I jumped to my feet. “Let’s get on with this.”
Doc knew make-up. He thinned my hair and then dyed it a dirty mild-blond, did the same for my eyebrows. It took more time than we thought as Doc had to rinse and rerinse my hair. I suggested we make a mustache with the cut hair but he claimed it would look phony. He fattened my nose by shoving cotton up each nostril; I had to breathe through my mouth. Then I had a blanket wrapped around my middle, and under that a better kind of padding—a homemade money belt with five thousand.
Doc was right again, as usual. Once I had on my clown suit—as we called the worn work clothes—I sure looked like a fat blond slob who thought he was the height of sartorial perfection in a windbreaker. It could have been my imagination, but the clothes were itchy at first. Or my skin could have been crawling with fear.
Doc didn’t overlook a thing; he even roughed up my good shoes—until he rummaged in the cellar and came up with an old pair of sneakers that were a little large for me but workable. I sure looked as though I’d been wearing the clothes for the last year. He wanted me to leave my gun behind but I flatly refused. I stuck it in the folds of the blanket around my stomach where I could reach it easily. After Doc told me over and over not to attempt talking funny or different, and not to buy too much in one store, I started out.
It was a dark, cold night, but the sweat was pouring off me as I walked the first hundred yards—expecting shots and shouts of recognition. I was about to turn back and tell Doc it was too late for any shops to be open, when a couple passed. They didn’t even glance my way. By the time I reached the corner street light, I was feeling okay, my walk steady. I put my dirty cap at a cocky angle and stepped out. I dropped into a delicatessen two blocks away and calmly purchased a few sandwiches, several cans of beer and two packs of butts. Crossing the street to a candy store, I bought a paper and more cigarettes.
I was flying so high I nearly nose-dived. Stopping in a dingy grocery on the way “home,” I’d bought a pound of coffee, bread, a couple of cans of milk, jam, and a dozen eggs—when I saw two dusty cans of crab meat on the shelf. This wasn’t a crab-meat neighborhood and the cans must have been there for months. But Doc liked the junk, so I put them on the counter. The stoop-shouldered jerk behind the counter dusted off the cans with his apron. Running his damp eyes over my clothes, he grunted, “You got that much money?”
I wanted to clip him but instead I mumbled, “How much is it?”
Wetting a pencil on his tongue, he wrote some queer figures on a bag, announced, “Three dollars and eighty-nine cents.”
I went through the routine of fingering the money in my pocket, finally pulled out a five-dollar bill. I told him, “Add two cakes of soap and a box of them crackers—might as well kill the five-spot. A guy is paid and the dough goes before he can make it home these days.” And I knew I was talking too damn much. Would getting rid of his old cans of crab meat make him talk? But I was stuck with them now. And what could he say?
I rushed back to the house, greatly relieved when I saw the suitcases and Doc still there. After I pulled the cotton from my nose, took off the clown suit, we went into the kitchen and packed in a big meal. Doc was something: When I showed him the crab meat all he said was, “From Japan. Doesn’t have the body of our domestic crab meat.”
After we stuffed ourselves, Doc puffed on a cigarette as he told me, “Next time you’re out, remember to buy a can of lighter fuel for me. Also some fruit. You should be able to find frozen juice. And frozen strawberries. That’s what I want, strawberries. With decent ice cream.”
“Perhaps you’d like me to run up to the zoo and get a container of coffee? I brought enough food for two days. How many more of these shopping trips do you plan on my taking?”
“Now, son, one must relax to digest food properly. I am feeling quite full and contented. Let’s not go into that all over again. Makes for a sluggish indigestion. We have to see the way the breaks fall. Look, we’re practically buried in the newspaper—a few lines on the sixth page. That’s a good sign.”
Doc started for our room. I asked, “What about the dishes?”
“Leave them. Might keep the roaches out of our room.”
“I’ll wash them. We have! to eat here tomorrow,” I said, thoughtfully. This sudden sloppiness of Doc’s was making me very jumpy.
After I did the dishes I went to the bathroom and took a shower, washed out my socks and underwear—although after using the towel I was probably dirtier than when I started. I’d have to look through Molly’s things for towels, if she had any. The water was hot—I’d been surprised to see (and turn on) a neat electric water heater in the cellar. But when would the man be around to read the meters?
When I shut the “door” to our room, I hung my stuff on the back of the chair. Doc looked up from his newspaper, gave me an amused glance. “Taking in washing, kid?”
“If I did, you’d be the first thing needing washing.”
“I don’t like to take my things off. Never know when we may have to lam out of here on a second’s notice.”
Lam where? I asked myself.
Doc yawned. “Let me finish the paper and get some more sack time.”
“Big night. I should have brought in a bottle.”
“No hard liquor here.” Doc thumbed toward the bags. “That’s our big night, Bucky. Relax. Man is certainly an odd creature. We work and sweat for some leisure time, yet if all man has is free time, he becomes restless.”
“I wish we at least had a radio.” I was in no mood for one of Doc’s after-dinner speeches.
“How did men on the lam before the TV era kill time? Too bad I never taught you how to play chess, Bucky. We could pass the time in intellectual stimulation.”
“I wish we had a radio,” I repeated. Maybe it wasn’t funny, but it sent me off laughing and even Doc shook his head in mock sadness, gave me a tight grin as he said, “You’re all brawn—thank God.”
Doc read the paper while I lay on my cot, smoking a butt slowly. It wouldn’t be so bad cooped up this way with Betty. Right now I wanted her with me. She may not have been the brightest gal or the most beautiful, but she was the most agreeable person I ever met, never said no to anything I wanted to do. It was a shame she wasn’t along to enjoy the dough. I’d be willing to cut her in for a third. And having her here… But that was a dumb idea; it would be that much harder getting away with her along.
Anyway, she was dead.
Poor Betty. Why, it wasn’t more than three or four months ago when we first picked her up.
Doc and I had a good week. Some months before, we had bagged a nineteen-year-old kid in the act of stealing a car. He was wine-high at the time and it was a routine arrest. Shortly before the case came to trial, the boy’s old man offered us five hundred dollars to make a few “slight” mistakes in the time; whether we saw the car on the uptown or downtown side of the street, or what the kid was wearing, and so on, in our testimony. It was the boy’s first offense and it figured that if we sounded a bit confused—but not enough to look like fools—the kid might get off. The boy came from a middle-class W.P.A. family, as Doc sarcastically called them: white, Protestant, a hundred percent American.
I was against taking the money. It seemed to me an open-and-shut case against the kid. And if he had been able to drive away, in his condition he might have killed a lot of people. But the poppa talked to Doc—not to me—and Doc put his hand out for both of us. On the stand we told a straight story, a tight story, and poppa looked like he wanted to kill us as sonny boy got a year.
As he slipped me my half, Doc said, “Don’t act like a child taking castor oil. We did the right thing, Bucky. He’s a snotty kid and guilty. Why should he get off because his folks are rich enough to grease the police? Seriously, this was true law enforcement; we taught them never to try bribing a police officer again. And what the hell, they’re in no position to kick about a thing.”
We dropped into a bar we liked for a couple of free belts, a kind of celebration. The fat barkeep whispered, “Glad to see you guys. Doc, you see that broad over there in the booth? The skinny one. I don’t know if she’s crazy or what, but she’s openly soliciting. And she don’t even know how to do it. I threw her fanny out once before today, and here she is back. Get her out of here before I lose my license.”
Betty didn’t look like much then: pale; scrawny figure; her clothes tacky. But she was young, about twenty. When Doc and I sat down in the booth, flashed our buzzers, she began to cry. The barkeep hit his head with his hands—the last thing he wanted was a scene. So we walked-rushed her out to the squad car. She gave us the usual song and dance about being down on her luck, hungry. Then she looked at me and said, “I don’t care if I do go to jail; at least I’ll eat. All I’ve had since yesterday is a box of crackers.”
“Hustling been that bad?” Doc asked, as if it was all a joke.
She said hysterically, “I always thought this… this last resort… would be simple. It isn’t. I’ve made four dollars in five days, I’m scared crazy. I was locked out of my room this morning and… I’m so hungry I could…”
“Sister, you’re spinning an old record,” Doc told her.
I felt sorry for her. Perhaps that was the key to all my feelings toward Betty: I was sorry for her. She didn’t have a thing except her youth. Her face wasn’t pretty, sort of rough-featured, like her nose had been stuck on. But as Doc once told me, humor is based on cruelty—so maybe love is based on pity. I told her, “Okay, stop the tears. I’ll blow you to a good meal.” I looked at Doc. “We can let her go. We haven’t anything on her except being a vag.”
A radio car cruised by with a police captain—probably the local precinct captain making his wrap-up for the day. I thought he recognized us.
Doc said, “Start the car, Bucky. This isn’t the place to talk. Go to Mario’s; we’ll put some good heavy spaghetti next to the young lady’s ribs while we chat. What’s your name, honey?”
“Betty. Betty James,” she said suspiciously, although when she looked at me her eyes were grateful.
We had a neat meal. Doc was in high, ordering a lot of fancy dishes like clams smothered in various kinds of melted cheese, and white and red wine. It made me think of Nate.
Betty ate like a pig. The food loosened her up a little, but there was still this sullen, suspicious look that said she didn’t trust cops, was still scared stiff. I don’t know why, but that got me excited.
When we had plowed through some rich Italian pastry and were sipping coffee espresso, Doc puffed on a cigarette as he told her, “Listen to me closely, Betty James. I’m going to make a suggestion. You want to buy it, fine. You turn it down, that’s okay, too. Whatever you decide has to be of your own free will. Now, we’re not going to arrest you. If you like, walk out of here this minute, and I hope we’ll never see you again. You want to do that?”
She puffed fast on her cigarette, like a kid, asked, “Can I hear the suggestion?” She was talking to Doc but looking at me.
“Honey, you walk out now, you may luck up on something legit and be on your way. But the odds are against you. So you’ll turn back to the streets and sooner or later we, or some other officers, will have to take you in. You’ll do a couple of months, maybe longer, and when you come out, then what? Not a thing will have changed for you: You’ll still be broke, jobless. The hard truth is you’ll be walking the streets again, maybe working for some two-bit pimp. It becomes a vicious circle. You understand what I’m driving at, honey? In most ways our ideas of prison reform are not only hopelessly old-fashioned but downright stupid.”
“I still don’t get the deal,” she said.
Doc smiled, trying hard to give her the soft sell. “The way I see it, realistically, since you want to go into the business, or rather circumstances force you into it, then be a success at it instead of a cluck. You look like a nice kid, not a tramp; that’s why we’re giving you a break. Suppose we set you up in a modest apartment, let you do a nice quiet business? We’ll pass the right word to a few bartenders and—well, kind of protect you. All you make is yours, and if you’re smart, you’ll save your dough and quit the racket as soon as you have enough to set yourself up in a real business.”
“How can I get an apartment? I haven’t a dime.”
“We’ll advance you enough for rent, clothes, eating money.”
“What’s in it for you?”
Doc threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, you are my girl! Brimming over with modern philosophy—what’s in it for me! The answer is: nothing. We’ll drop around now and then and all you have to do is show us a big time. Want to buy it?”
Betty said yes without a second’s hesitation.
“You’re absolutely certain you want to get ‘in the life,’ as the quaint phrase goes?”
“Then it’s a deal. No, that’s too harsh a word—it’s a friendly agreement,” Doc said, ordering more wine.
Betty stood up. “I’ll have to make more room for the wine,” she said, heading for the ladies’ room.
Soon as she left, I asked Doc, “Are you playing idiot’s delight? Do you realize the limb we’re out on? Two cops setting up a girl!”
“There’s always a certain amount of risk in doing a favor. That’s why it’s a favor. What else can we do? Suppose we gave her a few bucks; what will she do tomorrow or the next day? She looks like a nice, simple kid. Prison would only harden her. Don’t worry; we’ll play it careful, protect ourselves. Only this time, Bucky, no mink coats. Don’t get her into any bad habits.”
“The whole thing is nuts.”
Doc shrugged. “Okay, I’ll play the good Samaritan solo. I’ll lend her the money, and when she has a stake, I’ll make her quit the racket and—”
“It isn’t the money, it’s—”
“The principle?” Doc cut in, laughing at me.
“You want to get into this, I’ll go along. But I still think it’s cockeyed,” I said, confused. When Doc first started this helping-her angle, I thought he’d remembered her from someplace, figured she was a big collar or could put us on to somebody else. I mean, he was doing the “friend” routine. Often when two dicks are interrogating a suspect, one detective, to make him talk, pretends he’s the jerk’s friend. I thought that was what Doc was working on, that he never meant to actually go through with the dizzy deal.
I took Betty to a crummy hotel for the night, and within a day we had her established. We only told three bartenders, all guys we had something on, and impressed upon them that if they sent up a drunk or a wrongo customer, we’d take it out on them. And Doc drilled Betty about forgetting our names in case things got out of line.
While I couldn’t understand Doc going for a deal like this, I had to admit he was right—as usual. For the few months she was in business, Betty did okay. She didn’t try to make a fortune, played it slow, like we told her. And of course she didn’t have the looks for the big time. Nor was it all smooth: We had to help her move twice, and once I had to run up to her place in the middle of the night and talk a vice-squad eager beaver out of running her in. And now and then I had to bounce the nuts and dubs.
I kept a strict and honest account of her money, I only gave her a few dollars for spending money, warned her to stay off the expensive clothes jive, which can be as bad as dope or drink for some girls. Every extra penny I put in her savings account, which was in her name, but I kept the bank book. She had $985.52 when it was all over.
(It’s still in the bank. The money never did her any good.)
Betty and I agreed that when she hit two grand she would quit the life and open a little beauty parlor with a perfume counter on the side. Betty was mad about perfumes, and many a night the two of us would go over some catalogue she had, arguing as to which brands she would carry, or maybe put out her own line—depending on the neighborhood where she opened shop. I even began saving a few dollars in a special account I opened under the name of Bucklin Laspiza, and was going into the business as a silent partner.
We had some great times together. Like with Judy, it didn’t seem to matter to me that she had other men. Except Doc. I don’t know why but I didn’t like Doc going with her. I think he sensed the way I felt, left her alone.
Odd thing about Doc, he liked to shop for her clothes. He would visit bargain basements or luck up on some hot stuff, and took a delight in dressing her simply but smartly. He enjoyed it so much I began to wonder if he was a suppressed queer.
I was very happy with Betty. Whenever I had my days off, she would close shop and spend them with me. If it was hot, we’d go to the beach, stuff ourselves with hot dogs. I never asked about her past, although I had an idea she’d had a lousy marriage a few months before I met her.
She was a simple kid, but not stupid. She wasn’t greedy like Judy nor a nag like Elma. She didn’t drink much, although when I was in the mood, she would dutifully get crocked with me. She would do anything I felt like. Her one passion was movies and we took in a lot of them. Whenever I’d remark about the beauty of an actress, Betty would act jealous and start whispering about how the babe on the screen couldn’t love me the way she did. It made me feel great. Another funny thing, she wanted me to see comedies, said I didn’t laugh enough. Whenever I took her out, I paid, and she liked that. I promised her in the fall I’d fly her to Miami for a week. And I meant it.
Weeks would pass without my seeing Elma, going “home.” And when I did see her, her grossness left me disgusted. She seemed to believe my yarns about working day and night. I was giving her fifty a week and all she did was lay around the house, stuffing her fat head with candy, TV, and her crime magazines.
At times—not often—I felt guilty about Elma, I’d remember how she’d stuck by me when everybody else on the block was sneering at my being a bastard; the way she’d saved our money when I was in the Army. Sometimes I’d suggest we take in a movie, or a bar, but she had grown into such a lard monster we were both embarrassed by her size. Elma’s idea of a big time was for us to watch TV, eating candy and popcorn. She had a special game: Whenever she saw a crime story on TV she would ask me during a commercial, “You’re a hot-shot detective—who did the murder, Bucky?” Or, “How would you go about capturing the guy?”
The trouble was, most times I would guess wrong and it would send Elma rocking with laughter, as if she had pulled a fast one on me. Once we were watching an old whodunit movie and I said it was obvious the gal had done it. Elma bet me a dollar the mother was the killer, then got hysterical when I paid off and told me she had seen the picture a couple times before. Although I couldn’t stand her, I still had this sense of shame, as if in my own little way I was doing to Elma what Nate had done to Daisy. I mean, I had this feeling that somehow I must be responsible for Elma being so dull, so fat. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but then Nate had said he hadn’t made a slavey out of Daisy, too.
The few times I was with Elma—usually to change my clothes—I could hardly wait to see Betty. Sometimes I’d leave the apartment at six in the morning and get Betty up, have breakfast with her before I reported for duty. It was like getting the taste of Elma out of my system. Poor Betty never complained about my breaking into her sleep. She was as happy as a pet dog to see me.
When was .it—six or seven days ago?—when all this really started? Doc and I had just finished our tour and were off on a two-day swing. Usually when we were off, Doc would want to go to some off-beat restaurant and talk, but he said he was tired and went to his hotel. I got Betty up and took her out for Chinese food. She phoned the bartenders not to send up any customers for a few days. We were sleeping late the next morning when the phone rang. I wanted to let it ring, but Betty couldn’t stand a ringing phone. I answered it and Doc asked, “What are you two doing? I wore out my hand ringing the bell.”
“I disconnected the bell.”
“I’m at the corner drugstore. Coming right up.”
“What’s cooking, Doc?”
“Cut the corn and get dressed, be ready to go. Big case.”
I took a shave, thinking that Doc could only get this worked up over a big gravy deal, and I might show Betty the Miami palm trees sooner than I expected. As I was showering, I heard Doc come in. Betty said she’d make us coffee, but Doc, who had busted right into the bathroom, told her, “No time, honey. We’re in a big hurry. Here.” He yanked a thin box of stockings out of his inside pocket. “Picked these up for you yesterday. A gift. Now, honey, take a walk. Try them on—in the next room. Bucky and I have some talk.”
She left as I toweled myself down and Doc said, “We’re in for a lot of work. All off-time has been canceled. I got the call an hour ago. We’re on fly assignment to the Park Precinct, Lieutenant Bill Smith’s squad. A good cop and a smart man.”
“What’s the large deal?”
“You’re about to witness, and take part in, one of our society’s stupid circus acts. Somebody driven by need commits a crime. Society then rushes in about fifty thousand dollars’ worth of time and money to collar him. One of the illogical bumps of our system. If they had given the guy—or girl—only a small part of that sum to start with, there would have been no reason to turn to crime and—”
“Stop talking me to death. What’s happened?”
“A kid was snatched about three hours ago. Ever hear of a Leonard Wyckoff?”
“No. Who he?” I was disappointed; this wasn’t going to be any pocket money deal.
Doc shook his head. “Stop going for cute, Bucky. We’ll probably be working around the clock for the next couple of days. This—”
“Then why all the rush in finding me? We could have reported in this afternoon. Let’s have a decent breakfast first and then—”
“No, we have to report immediately. It’s an important case. This Wyckoff is a wealthy plastics manufacturer with a house on Park West. His wife died in a car accident last year and now his four-year-old daughter, Joan, has been snatched.”
I slipped into my shorts. “Where?”
“From her nursery school.”
“You said it was done a few hours ago. What makes them go for the kidnapping angle? Three hours—the girl could have walked out of school, be lost, hiding, or—”
“Wyckoff’s already been contacted. They’re asking for a million bucks.” Doc jammed a cigarette in his mouth, looked around. “Where’s some fire?”
Lieutenant Bill Smith was one of these wiry, lean guys with an iron-gray crew-cut topping off a rugged puss. He always had a pipe stuck in his face, smoking a sweet mixture that made me slightly sick. I don’t know, there was something both hard and quiet about his voice, his looks, that said this was a character who knew his stuff.
It sure was big. There were at least thirty detectives on fly assignment to this ancient precinct house that must have been a police station in Washington’s time. As we reported in we were briefed by Smith. If he had repeated the story a dozen times, his voice didn’t seem bored. “We haven’t much to work on, but we have to make it do, and do it fast. This is what we know: The kid went to a fancy nursery school facing the park, a few blocks from here. Wyckoff dropped her off every morning at ten, on the way to his factory. At ten twenty this morning the school received a call, supposedly from Mr. Wyckoff, saying he was sending his secretary, a Mr. Jackman, right over to pick up Joan—an aunt was in town and it was going to be a surprise for the kid. There wasn’t any reason for the school to check the call and anyway, before they had a chance to, this tall man, about thirty-five, average face, dark brown hair, conservative clothes, and speaking with a mild twang, appeared. He said he was Jackman and took the girl. No one at the school knows if he came and left in a car or cab. Within a half hour Wyckoff received a call at his office telling him to get a million dollars ready, nothing higher than hundreds, and to wait for another call. There was the usual threat not to contact the police.
“Mr. Wyckoff immediately called both the press and the police. Too bad he let the papers in, but it’s done. His idea was to publicly broadcast that he will not work with the police, will carry out the kidnappers’ instructions to the letter. Maybe that was a stupid way of working it; maybe it was very smart. He’s a rich man and the girl is his only child. Of course, once we know about it, we have to take a hand. So does the F.B.I. Our job is to act fast and quietly. Everybody understand that?
“Now, this is obviously an inside job. For example, a Howard Jackman is Mr. Wyckoff’s secretary. Also, whoever phoned knew that Wyckoff had a gruff way of speaking. We’re checking all the past and present household help Wyckoff ever had, his factory employees. I want the rest of you to mosey around, ask for a tall, thin stranger who talks with a Western twang. Of course, the twang could be a phony. From the description given by the school head, we’ve had an artist make up a picture of the man. It isn’t too accurate—the school head is a hysterical biddy. One thing she’s positive about: The man has long, slim fingers, like those of a concert pianist, she says. In cases like this, the guy is probably an out-of-towner brought in for the job. And we’re almost certain the man hasn’t left town with the girl; that’s about the best bit we have going for us. Ask around. A job this size is impossible to keep quiet.”
We were each given color photographs of a homely, pug-nosed little girl with bright eyes and red hair. And there was a sketch of a thin-faced man—a drawing that didn’t mean a thing. It could have been a quick sketch of a thousand guys.
“That’s all. Except for two things: The child’s life depends upon our acting quietly. Since the father’s made it public, despite his hands-off plea, the kidnappers must know we’re working on the case. There’s little chance of the kid being returned alive, but we can’t give up on even that small chance. Wyckoff has told the papers if we do stick our hand in, he’ll hold us responsible for the child’s life. That’s bull, but unless we work quietly there could be a hell of an uproar. Finally, if you do come up with anything, notify me before you make a move. That’s orders. Keep in touch with this squad room every two hours. That’s all.”
Doc and I managed to get a squad car—or rather Doc did—and as I drove off he said, “The first thing we do is have lunch at the zoo and read the papers.”
“I thought you were so hot to get working?”
“We’ve reported in. We’re covered.”
Over bacon and eggs on the zoo terrace I read the papers. I didn’t learn anything new except the girl was adopted. You know the way a little thing can change all your ideas—well, her being adopted is what really got me interested in the case. “Imagine this, Doc, Joanie is an adopted child.”
“I don’t know, a guy raising a kid alone, and willing to shell out a million, and the kid adopted—I mean, that’s a hell of a good joker.”
“According to the papers, he can afford the dough. He was a damn fool to tell the press, the cops.”
“Why? It seems to me by being away aboveboard, he’s assuring the kidnappers he’s playing ball with them. How long could he have kept it quiet, anyway?”
Doc shook his head. “There’s going to be a tail on Wyckoff, on everybody in his household and factory. Don’t you think the punks will know that? Just as they know we can’t take a hands-off attitude, no matter what daddy wants.”
“Yeah, but we’ll be under wraps.”
Doc took out a cigarette. “Give me some fire; my lighter is out of fuel. Look, Bucky, there’s fifty men asking questions. How long is that going to be under wraps?”
“You think it’s an inside job?”
“It has to be. Maybe without the inside person knowing it. Somebody, say a secretary or a valet, gets high at a party, shoots off his mouth about Wyckoff’s dough and the kid. This tendency of servants to brag about their employer’s wealth is a curious form of envy complex. The point is, while they’re loud-talking, a smart punk is within listening distance, and the idea for the snatch is born.”
It was dull, tedious work. Doc called on his stoolies—mostly by himself, as they didn’t want to be known to another cop. Doc used the car and I did plenty of walking, talking to the few characters I knew. Then we visited a lot of bars, made small talk. One advantage of the case being out in the papers, we could more or less openly ask about strangers. You couldn’t help but talk about it—everybody else was talking, and mostly about the million bucks ransom. As Doc cracked, “That’s inflation. Price of everything has gone up.”
Around four in the afternoon Smith gave us a number of crackpot leads to check. Everybody was “certain” they’d seen the tall man. Even Elma kept phoning, and when I called back she gassed about a thin man she’d seen that morning in the grocery store. She was sure she had seen his face in one of her crime magazines. We checked every tip. It only took me an hour to learn that Elma’s thin man happened to be a salesman who had lived in the neighborhood for the last twenty years. We also scared the daylights out of a couple of tall guys who happened to have been seen walking with their own redheaded children. In one case the child was fourteen years old, but that didn’t make any difference to the excited old lady who pointed out the guy’s house.
These crackpots made me tired but they seemed to amuse Doc. “It’s amazing, Bucky, this love to be an informer. Most times the public is against the police—we all hate authority. If a cop is being ganged up on by a dozen thugs, the average citizen might call in for help—if there was a phone handy—but they damn well wouldn’t risk their necks by going to his aid. But now they flood the phone with these idiotic tips.”
“They don’t want anything to happen to the little girl.”
“Bull. They don’t give a damn about the kid or the law. They’re selfish. This is their chance to be a somebody.”
“In reality they envy the crook for being able to pull off something they themselves haven’t the nerve to do, so they want to see him—or her—collared.”
“Could be,” I said, thinking of Shep Harris tipping me off to Johnson.
Doc and I worked until ten that night, then went to sleep on the cots jammed into the upper floor of the precinct house. More men were being assigned to the case and it gave me a charge to realize I was about the youngest detective there. The evening papers were full of sob stories about the little girl, how the Wyckoff’s had taken her from an agency when she was six months old, how she had been found abandoned in an ash can when she was two days old. The agency denied they knew who the real mother was, or that mama could possibly know who had adopted the girl, but a number of young women came forward claiming “baby Joanie” was their child.
Wyckoff had placed half-page ads in the evening papers assuring the kidnappers he would follow any instructions, that his only concern was the return of his girl unharmed.
The following morning I noticed several elderly women cleaning up and making beds on our floor. Doc said they were the widows of cops, earning an extra buck. Over coffee and rolls we read editorials criticizing Wyckoff for placing his family above the law, and others criticizing the police for being indifferent to the life of a child. Doc shook his head as he said, “This is becoming a Roman holiday.”
Smith put us on checking rooming houses, deserted buildings. At noon, when Doc wanted to go to the zoo and eat, I told him, “No. No fluffing off on this. I want to find Joanie.”
“So do I. But let’s face it—we have a fat chance of lucking up on this guy. We haven’t enough to go on—yet. Must be thousands of men who fit the description we have.”
“We know he’s holed up. He had to rent a room, has to go out for food.”
“Kid, stop the simple talk. Smith immediately checked the bus, train, and air terminals, but that doesn’t mean a thing. They could have put the girl in a car and be a hundred miles from here. They may have rented an apartment months ago, have it stacked with a freezer full of food. This is a well-organized snatch. Don’t you think they thought of little things like a room and food?”
“Maybe they didn’t. I want to keep trying.”
Doc sighed. “All right, but these bar hamburgers are ruining my stomach.”
I was bushed and on edge by evening. The papers were going full blast rehashing every big time kidnapping, starting with the Lindbergh baby. The Commissioner and the head of the F.B.I. assured the public they would do all they could to see that baby Joanie was returned unharmed. The widows were working in shifts in our dormitory. It annoyed me that they seemed happy at their work, didn’t resent the fact a cop’s pension wasn’t enough to live on.
At 6 a.m. we were briefed by Smith again. He looked in bad shape, his eyes two hot holes in his bony face. He puffed on his pipe as he said, “Wyckoff was contacted last night. And we’re dealing with a hell of a smart gang. At 11 p.m. they phoned his house and told Wyckoff to be at the corner of the Fifty-second Street library in fifteen minutes. Naturally we have a tap on all his phones, and by the time he got there we had the corner covered. Wyckoff hung around for a few minutes and then the public phone in the booth nearest the corner rang. We were caught with our hands down; we had no chance to put a tap on the public phone. We don’t know what they told Wyckoff. He’s flatly refused to tell us. He was incensed that we were tailing him. However, it’s easy to guess what the message was—they’re arranging the pay-off. Wyckoff held a press conference at 1 a.m. in which he begged us to let him alone, call off our men. Undoubtedly the Commissioner and Washington will give out with some double-talk this morning, but we’re still on the case. What we have to do is dig deeper and harder. Don’t pass up a thing, no matter how unimportant it may look. We have snaps of his maids, former maids, his factory help. Pass them around.”
When we got into the car I asked Doc, “Can they tap all the public phones in the city?”
“Sure, in time. But it would be a big job, take weeks.”
“You think they’ll do it?”
“Who knows? This will probably come to a head today or tomorrow. As Bill Smith said, they must have told Wyckoff about getting up the dough.”
“That’s where they’ll hook themselves. The banks have been warned about giving out so large a bundle, will certainly put in plenty of bait bills.”
Doc shook his head. “You forget that Wyckoff is a big depositor. He has millions. Supposing you were a banker, would you risk losing that kind of customer? Another thing: Some banker may want to do it, think it will get the girl back. There’s a dozen other possibilities. The money could be shipped in from a Canadian or Mexican bank. You see, Bucky, we’re playing a game here, only Wyckoff isn’t playing with us. He’s holding a lone hand. Which means there’s a good chance he’ll get rooked.”
“One good break will bust this case wide open.”
“A good break opens any case. That’s what we’re hunting for—the break. Well, let me try out these new pictures on my stoolies.”
The crazy thing was, I thought I’d stumbled upon the break a few hours later. I was waiting in a bar for Doc, having a sandwich and reading an article in the paper. Some clergyman called Wyckoff’s pleas for the police to stay out of the case “shockingly corrupt,” and added he had children of his own—as if that proved a thing.
The middle-shift barkeep came on duty. He was a clown who claimed he’d once seen me fight as an amateur. I know I wasn’t that good, but we were buddies and usually chattered about fights. When I showed him the new snaps he got excited as he pointed to a picture of a potato-faced gal, said, “Bucky, this tomato has been in here!”
“When?” I asked, seeing a promotion coming up.
“Jeez, I don’t know. Maybe a year ago, maybe six months.”
“She come in here often?”
“No, just once or twice. Reason I remember is, she was a real potty tomato—you know, two drinks and she’s raising hell. Had a kind of twang, or something, to her voice. Oh, I remember her! She was making loud talk, thought she was the queen of the bar, or something. I told her to quiet down, and she stuck her homely face out at me, says to make her. The jerk she was with—his name is on the tip of my tongue—he laughed and told me she was a judo expert. She nearly bent my hand off when I tried to stop her from sitting on the bar and—”
“What’s the name of the boy friend?”
“It’ll come to me, Bucky. He’s a steady customer, a… yeah, Teddy Anderson. He’s a mechanic in a truck renting outfit down on Washington Street.”
“When did you last see him?”
“He comes in from time to time, but regularly from time to time. I think he was in a few weeks ago.”
“Do you remember this dame’s name?”
“I had some names for her, all right, but I don’t recall what her real handle was.”
Her name was Rose Mack and according to the dope on the picture she’d been a former nursemaid for the kid. I didn’t know whether to call in on my own or wait for Doc. While I was deciding, Doc showed. He was an old friend of the barkeep and questioned him again, not getting any more than I had.
In the squad car he said, “Bucky, when you wind up as commissioner remember your old pal, Doc.”
“Shouldn’t we call in?”
“After we’ve talked to this Anderson.”
We located him within ten minutes and rushed him up to Bill Smith. And it all turned out to be a dud. He admitted picking up Rose—he never knew her full name—at a skating rink last fall. Yes, Rose had told him she’d been a nursemaid for Joanie Wyckoff, but she was leaving to return to Australia. Teddy said she had boasted about Wyckoff making a pass at her, had “joked” about how she’d like to get her strong hands on some of his money. “She said she would like to get him in a… a…” Teddy was one of these over-handsome men, a dizzy slob in his late thirties, his face running to blubber, and now he gave us a sloppy wink, added, ”… in a… eh… compromising position and then blackmail him. But I don’t think she ever did. Although she was a pushover for me.”
“How do you know she didn’t?” Lieutenant Smith asked.
“Well, she didn’t have any extra change on her, if you know what I mean. When I met her she had already left the job, and was waiting for a boat. She didn’t like the job, said the kid, this Joanie, was too smart and spoiled.”
“Why didn’t you come forward and tell us all this when you read about the case?”
“I knew she had sailed and—”
“You see her off on the boat?”
“No, but she went for me. If she was around she would have looked me up. And she told me she was due to sail in a few days.”
“Why didn’t you tell us about her before?”
Teddy smirked. He had bad teeth. “You know how it is, officer. I got a wife and kids—Hey, this ain’t going to make the papers, is it?”
“That depends on how co-operative you are. Anderson, where were you at ten on Monday morning?”
“On the job. I come in at seven and knock off at… You think I did it?” There wasn’t any fat smirk on his face now.
“Did Rose ever say anything about the nursery school?”
“Listen, I wouldn’t do a lousy thing like take a baby girl. Check my time card. I haven’t missed a day in months.”
“Answer my question.”
“I don’t know. This was a long time ago.”
Smith glanced up at Doc. “Send the reporters in. And a couple of photographers.”
Teddy twisted in his chair as if it was the hot seat. “Wait a minute, officer. I’m doing all I can to help. I told you I got kids—I wouldn’t want this to happen to mine. I’ll do anything I can to help get Joanie back. Look, like I told you, this was a pickup. I saw her twice within a week; then she sailed. It was only bar wisecracks and jokes…. Well, come to think of it, she did tell me something about him—her boss—expecting her to do the girl’s clothes while she was in this nursery school. Rose thought she should get extra pay for the laundry. That’s all.”
Smith, Doc, and a few other guys sweated Teddy for the rest of the afternoon. I checked with the employment agency that got Rose the job. She’d only been in the country for a year. I talked to another couple she’d worked for. They thought she’d been a fine nursemaid, although they had let her go because she’d been a bit rough with their boy in horsing around, and anyway a younger sister of the wife had come to five with them, took care of their child. The Australian police cabled Rose had returned there over seven months ago, was married and hadn’t any ideas on the kidnapping. A dozen men checked all of Teddy’s movements, his family and friends. And by the end of the day it was all a fat zero.
The letdown really left me pooped. Although Lieutenant Smith complimented me for digging up Teddy, that was that. Doc knew Smith well enough to call him “Bill,” and while we were having supper in a delicatessen across from the station house, Doc stopped complaining about the food long enough to tell me, “Here’s some news Bill let me in on. It seems poppa is a bed warmer. He might have made a pass at that pot, Rose. We know he was seeing a high-priced gal.”
“So what? He’s a widower.”
“The gal happens to be your old friend Judy,” Doc said softly, smiling at me.
I jumped. “My God, she’s greedy enough to be in on a deal like this!”
“I doubt it; she doesn’t need money that badly. And they’ve questioned her; they’re sure she’s clean. Still holding Judy as a material witness.”
“Same reason they scared that slob Teddy with the reporters. Poppa wouldn’t want it known he was seeing a call girl. We may hold it over his head to make him work with us.”
“That’s a lousy thing to do.”
Doc shrugged, pushed his sandwich away. “We’re the police. He isn’t helping us.”
“Only because he wants his child back.”
“And if he gets away with it, it will set a pattern for future kidnappings, encourage them.”
We were awakened at eleven that night when the owner of a trailer camp outside town reported seeing a little redheaded girl and a thin man and woman in a new trailer. In less than twenty minutes we surrounded the trailer and scared the bejesus out of the guy and his wife. It was their own kid and they’d just driven into town.
I didn’t get back to the dormitory before one thirty and I was really beat, hadn’t changed my clothes for nearly three days. I felt dirty, tired, and I missed Betty. Also I was mad because nothing had come of my lead. I thought about Judy, wondering if she had talked about our relationship, if I should volunteer to question her. But how could I, without spilling the beans? And what could she tell me? I didn’t believe she’d have anything to do with kidnapping. Still, it almost seemed as if she was part of my beat, that I should have been the one who lucked up on her knowing Wyckoff.
I was overtired, found it hard to sleep. There was a young guy hanging around, a sharp dresser who looked about seventeen. Doc was getting a last smoke and I nudged him, said, “Look at Junior. Must be looking for one of the women cleaning up, his mother, or—
“He’s a detective, a hot rock, like you.”
“Him? He’s too short, and he looks like a kid.”
“Made a couple of big collars. Don’t let that baby face fool you. Name is Wintino. He’s the one found out about Judy and poppa.”
That made me angry. I knew it was stupid, but I’d gone for the idea I was the youngest dick there, and this guy made me look like an old man. And he looked fresh, clean—and the little punk had beat me to Judy. I stretched out and told myself to stop being a jerk. I needed sleep. And I needed Betty. I dozed off thinking of her, the two of us on the beach at Miami.
The morning papers were calling for “action.” It was ridiculous; even the papers that had been yelling for us to keep off the case were now yapping about the kidnapping being three days old and the police department was still sitting on its badges.
We started making our usual rounds, asking and asking again about strangers, peddling our snapshots. Doc drove me to the house and I changed my underwear and took a fast shower while Elma was sleeping. I still felt tired and on edge, but at least clean. At noon we were called back to the squad room, where Bill Smith told us, “The kidnappers contacted Wyckoff early this morning. Same routine; he was told to be in a drugstore at Rye Plains, on the outskirts of the city. They gave him just enough minutes to get there—then the call on a public phone. They must have arranged the pay-off. Wyckoff admits he has the money ready. We don’t know how he got it. We’ve agreed to leave him alone for a while. However, the Feds aren’t talking. They may try to pull a fast one on us.”
Smith rubbed the stubble on his haggard face. “This isn’t my idea, but until we get further orders from downtown, I want you all to hang around.”
We went out for coffee and Doc cursed because we hadn’t gone to the zoo for a decent meal. When I asked why we weren’t tailing Wyckoff, Doc snapped, “Ask the brass, they’re running the show. Sorry, Bucky boy, this whole mess is getting on my nerves. Don’t worry, he’s under surveillance; you can bet on that. Probably being tailed from a distance through high-powered telescopes.”
Two hours later we were all back on the prowl again. Smith told us the kidnappers hadn’t shown. Over the radio I heard poppa blasting the F.B.I. for tailing him. Via a direct phone call to his office, he had been warned to keep the F.B.I. away or never see Joanie again.
In the middle of the afternoon, poppa rushed to a busy downtown cigar store to take another call in a public booth. He again took the suitcases full of money and drove off in his Lincoln for a deserted road where it would be difficult to follow him without being seen. He returned within an hour and said he hadn’t met anybody. I heard he was hysterical and on the verge of cracking.
I had a long talk with Betty over the phone, and a much shorter one with Elma. It seemed we were going around and around in the same circles. If I was on edge, the strain was starting to tell more on Doc. He wanted to have supper in some Jewish restaurant, but Smith had us hanging around the precinct house and Doc was kicking about the lousy stool-joint hamburgers. I had some stew that wasn’t bad and Doc claimed I had to be nuts to eat stew in a greasy spoon. It was a silly argument, yet we damn near came to blows.
The evening papers carried an attack on and sharp reply from the F.B.I. I read the sports section, went up to the dormitory for a few hours of sack time. About the time I fell off, somebody ran in and shouted that payment had been made to the kidnappers! I shook Doc awake and we went down to the squad room, where Smith angrily told us, “Wyckoff has pulled a fast one on us. That supposedly dry run he made with the dough was the real thing. They must have told him over the phone to put the money in laundry bags inside the suitcases, dump it at some prearranged spot, then return with the suitcases and claim he hadn’t made contact. The girl hasn’t been returned yet. She’s supposed to be sent home sometime tonight. I want you out looking for anybody carrying bags, suitcases, anybody spending money. Be as open about it as you want. Get rough if you have to.”
The young punk who looked like a junior G-man, Wintino, asked, “Won’t we be endangering the child’s life if we come out in the open, sir?”
Smith growled, “Just follow my orders!”
Doc and I cruised in and out of bars, restaurants, until 3 a.m., when they shut. Doc shook up his stoolies once more, but we didn’t even get a sniff of anything. Doc said, “This is silly. If they have the loot, why the devil should they start spending it now?”
“They might try to make a getaway.”
“Maybe, but it would be the first dumb move they’ve made. Still, all punks are stupid or they wouldn’t be punks. Damn, my back hurts. Hope I’m not coming down with a cold.”
“I’m going to sleep around the clock, now that this is over. I’m glad he got his little girl back.”
“Has he got her back?” Doc said, rubbing the sleep out of his veined eyes. “I’m too old to be on the go for three days. Let me call in.”
At a few minutes before 4 a.m. we were told to knock off and return to the dormitory. I was so bushed I felt dazed. It seemed I’d hardly hit the cot when somebody shook me awake. A voice snarled, “What do you think of those miserable bastards—they killed the baby!”
“When?” The word “bastards” making me wide awake.
“She was found strangled in the trunk of a wreck in an auto junk yard. Medical Examiner says Joanie was killed days ago, within a few hours after she was snatched.”
“Then she was dead from the go!” I said, a deep anger covering my tiredness.
“Seems that way. Wash up and be in the squad room in ten minutes,” this guy said, awakening Doc, and going down the line of cots.
ADDED TO EVERYTHING else, there wasn’t any hot water. I had shaved with ice water and was holding a wet paper towel to my eyes, trying to come fully awake, when somebody threw a heavy arm on my shoulder, shouted, “Bucky Penn!”
The full impact of the child’s death had finally hit me, leaving me very tired and in a kind of dumb rage. I kept thinking about Wyckoff, a guy who had gone all the way—adopted a baby, gave her everything, was willing to drop a million for her, and all the time she never had a chance: She’d been murdered immediately by these cold-blooded lice. I wasn’t in the mood for greetings or arms on my shoulder. I swung around, muttering, “Take your damn hands off me!” Then I pulled the paper towel from my eyes and saw Ollie’s smiling brown face.
We shook hands hard and he was still a muscle man. He told me he’d come in last night, with an uptown group on fly assignment. I said, “It’s been a long time. How have you been?”
“It’s your world, Bucky, I’m just in it,” Ollie said. “Isn’t this a rough case? We kept a hands-off policy for too long. Wyckoff was crazy to believe the kidnappers would keep their word.”
“Everybody was playing it dumb, except the snatchers. I swear if I ever get my hands on ’em there won’t be any need for a trial!”
Ollie stared at me, his wide face serious. He took off his shirt, his arm tremendous. As he started washing, he asked, “Have you been on the case long?”
“Since the start, night and day.”
“No wonder you’re on edge.”
“That’s got nothing to do with how I feel. Hell, poppa came through, didn’t he? Why did they have to kill Joanie, never give her a break? I stumble on them, they’ll come in D.O.A. and that’s no line!”
“Still the same old Bucky,” Ollie said, reaching for a paper towel. I handed him a couple. “Still won’t wait for the red light. When are you going to learn we can’t be a cop and a judge, too?”
“Why go through the motions of a trial?” I asked, buttoning my shirt. “It was all so needless, so damn… brutal. They welshed with the child’s life after they shook poppa down for a good score.”
“Dying is too good for them, but our job is simply to collar them. And that’s going to be far from simple. Know what puzzled me? When the father made his first pay-off run, how could the kidnappers possibly know we had pulled out but the F.B.I. was still watching?”
“Who knows? Who cares?” I slipped on my tie, my coat, felt of my pockets, pulled out my wallet and gave it a fast check. I had a couple of hundred bucks. Doc had warned me it wasn’t safe leaving stuff around the dormitory. “That’s all old hat. Since they seem so damn clever, they might have put a tail on the F.B.I. All I know is I’d give a week’s pay to work the bastards over!”
I smacked my fist against my wallet, my insides in a knot with the hatred I felt. I’d even said “bastards” without realizing it. Ollie was staring at the thick wad of money in my wallet. I put it away, slapped him on the back. “Guess I am jumpy—lost too much sleep. I meant to phone you when I read about you making detective. Nice work, bagging three stick-up punks in the act.”
Ollie started buttoning his white shirt. He must have worn a size twenty collar. “Luck. They were so jittery they nearly passed out. Anyway, I was happy I didn’t have to shoot. You like being a dick, Bucky?”
Ollie turned to watch himself in the mirror as he tied his bow tie. “Sometimes I think I was better off in uniform. Your post was your own little world; you knew everybody. My wife worries more. Say, how’s… Elma?”
“Elma’s great.” I lowered my voice. “Don’t be a sap, Ollie. When you’re in plain clothes you’re on your own more, work a lot of angles.”
“I’ve been hearing about you, Bucky. And your partner—this Doc.”
“That was a break for me, teaming up with an old hand like Doc. He’s…”
A voice behind us said, “You two elephants are blocking the washbowls. How about giving me a chance to clean up?”
I turned to see this kid, this Wintino, standing there with his shirt off. I said, “Go ahead. You look like you’re still wet behind the ears anyway,” and moved off to one side with Ollie. For a second I thought the runt was going to tell me off.
I told Ollie, “Doc’s really wised me up. Lot of stuff they never teach in detective school, like—well, like dressing modestly when you have to testify in court. You ought to meet him. He can put you straight.”
“Straight? That’s a twist.”
“What you trying to say, Ollie?” I asked, starting to boil. I’d heard these cracks about Doc before, but never from a guy I liked. “Doc has been like a father to me.”
“Bucky, we’ve been pals since the academy days; that’s why I’m saying this. Sure, I know you have a fast temper, but that’s not the same as—”
“As what?” I cut in, staring at the coat Ollie was slipping into—probably fifty bucks with two pairs of pants. My custom suit cost three times that.
Ollie whispered, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you, and this is as good a chance as any. Everybody knows Doc has both hands on the take. He would have been kicked off the force years ago if he didn’t have an ‘in’ downtown. But he’s nothing to me. You… I don’t like hearing a friend of mine is following in his footsteps.”
“Have you become a jackleg preacher in your spare time, Ollie? Mind your own business and let me handle mine! I’m doing okay.”
“Sorry I spoke up. I thought it was my business when a buddy winds up a chiseler with a badge. There, I hate to have said—”
I stepped in and banged him on the chin. He was too big for me; I only staggered him. Ollie stopped buttoning his coat. Those great arms came around me, crushing me like big snakes. Ollie said, almost sadly, “Your hands may be dirty, but they’re still fast. Now relax, Bucky. Try that again and I’ll break your arms off and beat your alleged brains out with ’em!”
I started to say I was sorry when this little jerk stepped in, said, “Come on, break it up.”
Ollie said, “We’re only horsing around,” and let go of me. I turned on this Wintino, asked, “What’s the matter, kid, you looking for a bruise?”
“From a great big mans like you?” he asked, mocking me.
I reached out to slap his fresh face and the ceiling fell on me. I knew I was sitting on the wet floor, that this little punk—I must have had at least forty pounds on him—had flattened me! The side of my jaw felt like it was sticking a mile out. Some guys were helping me to my feet. I said, “Let me alone,” and almost toppled over.
Doc’s voice said, “Easy, son.” And I got his face into focus. He was holding one arm, Ollie the other. Wintino was washing up, and most of the other men were grinning at me. I tried to lunge at the runt, and Doc said tightly, “Goddamn it, cut it out! You want to get suspended!”
I was full of anger, disgust, and suddenly so tense I thought I’d explode. I shrugged, muttered, “Let’s get out of here.” As Doc and I headed for the door, Ollie said, “Sorry I… I’m sorry, Bucky.”
“It’s okay, Ollie,” I told him, my jaw hurting. “Forget it. Soon as this is over, we have to get together.”
“Tell your wife hello for me.”
“Same for Elma.”
Doc pulled me toward the steps, and as we walked down toward the squad room I said, “That runt can sure wallop.”
“Forget any roughhouse in here. We’re all on edge. Bill Smith might boot you out of his squad.”
“Good; then I’ll get some sleep.”
“I thought you were all fired up about catching the killers.”
“I am. That was dizzy talk. I was never kayoed before.”
“Get a hold of yourself. Forget that little wop back there. He got you with a lucky punch.”
“Stop talking about it.” I never heard Doc say “wop” before.
We had to wait around the squad room for a few minutes. When Lieutenant Smith came in he looked worse than I felt, his face lined and ashen. He passed around a rough snap of little Joanie, her mouth open, her eyes vacant, her thin neck nearly cut in half by a cruel piece of wire. For a few seconds the squad room was heavy with silence, then the low cursing, and it sounded like at least one man was sobbing.
That picture did it for me. I forgot the hurt in my jaw, my pride, became all anger.
Bill Smith’s voice cut the silence with a rasping sound. “I don’t have to tell you a thing. All the stops are out. Try to bring in the scum responsible for this, alive. Try real hard. They don’t deserve a quick death. They’re smart. They’ve pulled it off and we don’t have any more identification than when we started. But they’re two or three; we’re over ten thousand. Every precinct is combing their area, every man is working on the case, as of now. We have this town sewed up tight, meaning the rats have to be holed up someplace. You men are free to go anyplace you think might furnish a lead. Go where you want; bust down doors, even if you’re only working on a hunch. Forget warrants or any…” He rubbed a long hand over his tired face, which looked more like a death mask. “You’re all experienced men. I don’t have to warn you not to go hog-wild. But go out there. They have to be someplace within this damn city!” He took out his pipe, started to pack it. His voice was normal as he added, “And if you come up on anything—no matter how small the lead—notify me first. That’s all.”
Outside, as I started our squad car, I noticed Ollie and Wintino, along with most of the others, were on leather. I thought to myself: Ollie and all his big talk—I’m riding. Hell with that, where’s the kidnappers? Where haven’t we looked?
Doc said, “Come on, kid. Let’s go.”
“Where do you want to start?”
“With digestible food. The zoo cafeteria won’t open for hours. Drive down to Kelly Street. There’s a place there that may not have shut yet—real Turkish coffee and some—”
“Doc, forget coffee! Didn’t you see that picture of the dead kid?”
Doc punched my thigh. “Yeah, I saw it. Easy, Bucky. I’d like to get the killers, too, but… You know where they are? We’ve been covering the same places for days now. Who knows?—the killers might like a decent cup of coffee, too.”
“I suppose one place is as good as another,” I said, cutting across town. “But if I find them I won’t take it easy. The lousy punks!”
“A punk is a punk. Some kill for a dime, others for a million.”
“But why kill the child at all? They got what they wanted, down the line.”
“It follows the usual pattern. They had to kill little Joanie. A four-year-old is big enough to identify a man, or a woman.”
“Woman? No woman would kill a child.”
Doc gave me a tired grin. “You’re a sentimentalist, Bucky. All toughs are. A woman can want a bundle of folding money as badly as any man.”
“Even so, a kid, practically a baby—how could her identification stand up in court?”
“Why not? Joanie would have been with somebody, say this tall man, for over three days—why wouldn’t she be able to pick his picture out of the rogues’ gallery? So she’s a kid, can’t be sure; she picks a dozen or two mug shots. We start investigating every one she picks out, and sooner or later we’re going to come across something that doesn’t check, then everything falls like a house of cards. Smith was right about this gang being clever—they’re safe as long as we haven’t any idea who they might be.”
“But to kill a child in cold blood… I couldn’t do it.”
“And if the killing had been done in hot blood, say an over-hard slap to stop the kid’s crying, done by a mother—is that any different, any better? Don’t forget the penalty for a snatch—death. They had nothing to lose.”
“The devil with the penalty; I still couldn’t do it,” I said, thinking: An adopted child, too.
We had coffee in a dump. The place Doc wanted was closed. In fact, by the middle of the afternoon I was soggy from the coffee and beers we were having on the cuff—Doc always insisted we lay off any hard stuff while we were working. The papers carried screaming headlines and the picture of the dead kid. Poppa had suffered a heart attack and was on the critical list. The whole town was raging mad. We asked and asked, looked and looked. Doc put the screws on his stoolies, but we didn’t come up with a thing.
The effects of the kayo had disappeared, but I was keyed up, in a bad mood. Even Doc’s chattering got on my nerves. Around noon he insisted on visiting the zoo and gave me a lecture in front of the gorilla cage. Then while we were eating he went off on what a cruel animal man is—that in many slaughterhouses hogs are hung on hooks while conscious, cut, and left to bleed slowly to death. How it would be more humane and cheaper to kill the animals with drugs or by mechanical means, since thousands of the beasts were so badly bruised they had to be thrown away and…
I finally cut him off with, “Doc, some other time. I’m too restless for the education pitch! Let’s get back to work.”
“Let’s. There’s one guy in all this they haven’t looked into—poppa.”
“You mean he strangled his own kid? That’s loony talk!”
“Is it? Suppose he’s in a tight financial hole—and remember when these big boys lose they drop a big chip. Let’s say he needs a million to cover up. So he arranges a ‘kidnapping’ and —”
“And kills his own kid?”
“It would explain his not wanting the police around. As for the kid, she’s adopted, and he could have been faced with doing time or…”
I got up from the table. “That’s stupid talk. Don’t you know folks love adopted kids better than their own flesh and blood? Let’s get out of here.”
Late in the afternoon Doc said, “I’m bushed, and so are you. We’ll knock off for a few hours and see Betty. Maybe she can make us a decent meal.”
“This isn’t the time for goofing off.”
“Bucky, we’re like a dog chasing his tail. I’ve seen my stoolies. They’d be glad to help, but they don’t know a thing. A change of pace might help our thinking.”
“Don’t be a glory-hound, son. What more can we do? You think these slobs are going to be living it up at a bar, buying drinks on the house? I’m pooped and you’re on edge; remember what happened at the station house this morning. We—”
“That runt Sunday-punched me. I didn’t hit him.”
“That’s what I mean. You tried to but didn’t. Proves you’re stale. Let me get some Canadian bacon, duck eggs, and cook a fine chow while you and Betty watch TV.” Doc let me have a corny wink.
“Bucky, I’m tired. I have to rest. My legs are killing me. Besides, we haven’t seen her for days. Betty may need us.”
“I’ve been phoning. Spoke to her yesterday. She’s okay.”
“Have it your way. You keep looking for them under a beer glass. I’ll go up and see Betty.”
Doc did look peaked and it wouldn’t hurt to see Betty for a few minutes. I said okay and Doc drove downtown to a fancy delicatessen to buy the damn duck eggs. When we reached Betty’s house, Doc double-parked and we went in. Ringing for the self-service elevator, I told him, “You must be bushed. You shouldn’t have double-parked. No sense in explaining things to the beat bull.”
“He ought to recognize a squad car.”
“That makes it better?”
Doc sighed. “You have a point. I’ll hunt a parking space.” He handed me the bag of groceries along with a mock grin. “But don’t you two get comfortable up there. I can’t cook out in the hallway.”
“That’s the last thing on my mind.”
Opening the outside door, Doc called back, “Tell Betty to leave the food alone. Cooking isn’t one of her talents.”
Betty took so long opening the door I used my key. And the second I saw her I knew something was wrong. She looked upset. As I put the bag down and took her in my arms, she jerked her head toward the closed bedroom door. I asked, “Somebody in there?”
She nodded. “A queer oscar. He’s been here since last night. Not doing anything—had me sleeping on the couch. Doesn’t even talk much. I’m afraid of him.”
“Why didn’t you phone me?”
“Phone you where? Guess I shouldn’t complain; he gave me two hundred dollars and said to leave him alone. But looks like he’s moved in. He has his bags with him.”
“Bags? What does he look like?” I asked, a strong hunch making me tremble. “Tall and skinny?”
“Tall, but not too thin.”
I saw the bedroom door open a crack. I pushed Betty aside, loosened my gun in its holster as I made for the door. I kicked it open to see this tall man with a head as bald as an egg. He was dressed in a dark, conservative suit, and there was a big mole on one cheek. He was leaning against the dresser, three big suitcases beside him. He had his hands at his sides—long, thin hands that twitched a little. His face was pale and his features almost delicate, except for a nose that must have been busted long ago. But his eyes were hard and shifty. I asked, “What are you doing here, Mac?”
He gave me a sickly smile. “What a man usually does here. I… eh… hired the young lady. Who are you?” He spoke in a soft, smooth voice.
“A police officer. Open those bags! Do it slowly and keep your mitts in sight.” I was so keyed up I could hardly get the words out.
“Now see here, officer, this is all a mistake. I can explain. I’m a salesman and I usually spend the night in a…” He began crossing the room, toward me, as he talked.
He raised his hand to his bald head. It could have been an act, the act of a shiv man quick with a sleeve knife—he had the hands for it. Nothing else checked, but he had the hands!
I wanted to tell him to stand still, but the words never came out. It was almost a jittery reflex action on my part: His hand hadn’t reached his ear when I yanked my gun out, fired three shots into him, all around his heart. He had stopped at the sight of the gun, but I couldn’t stop my trigger finger.
His eyes blinked with horrible astonishment. His mouth opened into an ugly circle. I knew from the awkward way his legs crumpled under him as he hit the floor that he was dead. A long, thin throwing knife showed at the end of his coat sleeve.
Betty said, “Bucky!” It was a gasp, or maybe a small scream. She came to me and I shoved her away, ran over and opened one of the bags. It was full of neat bundles of money, a sea of green!
This time Betty really did scream, or maybe it was me sobbing with joy—I’d made the biggest collar in police history! Betty stood beside me, both of us staring down at the money. Then she whispered, “Oh, my God, Bucky. He… must be d-dead!”
The front door opened and I spun around to see Doc rushing in, his gun out. He said, “I thought I heard… shots.”
I was too excited to talk. I didn’t have to: The dead man and the open suitcase full of money told Doc the story. All I could do was give him an idiotic smile. Doc drew in his breath, a kind of soft whistle. He slapped me on the back with his free hand, started to say something. Then his face went tight. He turned on Betty. “You dumb tramp!”
“Me? I never saw him before, honest! He came up last night, said the bartender at the Golden Elm had sent him. He paid me and I… I… knew he was a queer but… Well, what could I do? He didn’t go in for rough stuff or…” She rubbed her hands together, looked away, her face suddenly flushing. Her eyes got very large as she looked down at the money, mumbled, “Oh, God! Why he… must… must… must be the…!”
Doc slapped her savagely across the face, sending her reeling toward the living room. “You stupid whore, what do you think you’re pulling? This is the kidnapper, a murder rap!” Doc’s voice was like a whip.
“Murder?” Betty looked around wildly; then her eyes found mine. “Bucky, you mean he’s… the… man?” Her voice died and she put a little hand to the flaming red streak across her pale face.
“Honey, you’re in big trouble—the worst. You have to come clean with us. Fast!” I started for her, wanting to hold her in my arms, as I slipped my gun back in its holster.
Doc stopped me by snapping in a low voice, “Clean? They’ll sweat and third-degree her to pieces. With him dead, they’ll pin the whole kidnapping on her!”
Betty started to shake. She looked away from me, whimpered. “I don’t know what… what this is all about. How could I be mixed up in… in…?”
“Take it slow, honey,” I began. “Well work out—”
“We’re in a hell of a jam ourselves, Bucky,” Doc cut in.
The words hit me like a baseball bat across the head. Instead of being a hero, I’d end up a patsy. I stared at Betty, feeling terribly tired. I don’t know what to do, couldn’t think.
She said, “Bucky, don’t look like that. I don’t know a thing about… that man. And no matter what they do, I won’t tell them about you—us!”
“They’ll rubber-hose your skin off until…” Doc ran across the room toward her. “Damn you, Betty, tell us what your connection is with the kidnapping! We have to know where we stand!”
“Connection?” she whispered.
“Did you set us up from the go? Talk, you dumb…!”
She glanced at me. “Bucky, you know me. You must believe I couldn’t have…”
Doc drew back his hand to slap her again, and Betty and I both moved. I started for Doc, not really sure what I was going to do. Betty moaned with terror, suddenly turned and ran for the front door. Doc’s gun barked once—the sound short and lean and lost in the silence of the room. Betty frantically tried to reach behind her back, as if she had a bad itch there, staggered like a drunk, then crashed to the floor. It was a hammy fall. The whole thing was so unreal, like a bad dream. Except where she’d been trying to “scratch” was slowly turning into a bloody spot.
For a long second I stood there, as if my feet were nailed to the floor, too amazed to move. Yeah, at that second I was amazed rather than sorry. Somehow I couldn’t believe Betty was dead, expected her to get up. I mean, a dozen things were slowly going around in my head. The short sound Doc’s gun had made—such a small sound to take a life, Betty’s life. No Miami palm trees to show her now, no more arguing about perfumes, where we’d open our shop. And finally, as if I was backward, my brain got the message: no more Betty.
Doc had raced across the room, felt of her wrist. Then he opened the door, looked up and down the hall, locked the door, using both its locks.
I moved toward Betty, knelt beside her, sick to my stomach and heart at the bloody cold sight that had once been warm, simple Betty. I suppose if I knew how to pray I would have said something then. Instead I stared up at Doc: I seemed to be looking into his gun. “You getting trigger-happy? Why did you shoot her?” My voice sounded like a strange growl, very hard and tight, and miles away.
“Easy, Bucky. She was trying to escape,” Doc said softly. And I was still looking smack into his gun: I could almost see the barrel grooves and markings.
“Escape? Where could she have run to?” My voice was still a long way off.
“To some other police officer, for instance,” Doc said, staring down at me. “That would have been embarrassing, to say the least.”
“Yeah.” My voice was right beside me now.
“Bucky, didn’t she tell you she’d been married?”
“Could that tall, dead number in the bedroom be her husband? Perhaps they were in this together.”
I didn’t answer. I touched Betty’s hair. It was still soft. A pool of bright-red blood was slowly seeping out from under her body. I touched her blood with my little finger—I don’t know why. It felt icy. I whispered, “Damn it, Doc, you shouldn’t have shot her!”
“Look at it this way: She’s better off dead. Understand?”
The back of Betty’s neck was already waxen-looking. I shut my eyes. Mixed with the anger and sorrow I felt, another thought was coming through. I understood: It was a lucky thing the brass couldn’t question Betty. There was the barkeep at the Golden Elm. If he’d really sent the guy, I’d have to shut the bartender’s trap. Be a snap. My story would be Betty was merely a gal friend, I had no idea what she was working at. I only dropped in to use her bathroom and… Yeah, I just might come out of this with full sails yet, a hero. I plugged the kidnapper, let Doc do his own explaining about gunning Betty. It would work out. Doc and his influence. Only it was too bad Betty was dead. A sweet kid who never said no to me or…
Doc said, “Snap out of it, son. We’ve work to do.”
I nodded. He poked my shoulder with his gun. “Bucky, get off the dime. Don’t you realize what this collar means? We’re the tops, the… Get up!”
I got to my feet, shook myself. “I’ll phone the squad room.”
“In a minute. Watch the door. Anybody knocks, open the door on the chain, flash your potsy. Tell ’em to take a walk, that everything is under control. That goes for the beat cop, too. Since we’re making the collar, I want time to get all the strings tied up here. Understand, Bucky boy?”
I nodded as Doc walked into the bedroom. I understood perfectly. From the look on Doc’s sharp face, he was set to operate. I leaned against the door, still in a daze. I knew what Doc was doing: searching for anything that might connect us with Betty. I looked up at the ceiling, didn’t want to see her body. I had a vague idea of covering her with a rug, but I didn’t want to touch anything. The truth is, I didn’t know what to do. So I stared at the ceiling like that for a second, or maybe it was a brace of minutes. Suddenly Doc stuck his lean face out of the bedroom door, asked, “Anybody at the door?”
I shook myself. “No.”
He had the three suitcases open on the bed. For a moment I didn’t see the stacks of green bills—only the bed, Betty’s bed. Then the sight of all that salting money hit me. It was one fascinating sight.
Doc asked gently, “Do you know what a million dollars can do, son?”
“A lot,” I said, sounding like a moron.
“Do you realize that not more than one out of a hundred thousand people even see this much money in their lifetime?”
“Yeah?” The fog left my noggin. I kept wondering what Doc had in mind.
“Feast your eyes on it, Bucky. Let your eyes caress every stack of big money. They’re all good bills, no bait money, nothing that can be traced,” Doc said, walking around the bed, stepping on the dead man’s outstretched hand, the lean fingers. (Did he play the piano?) “I heard that was one of the conditions set by this louse.” Doc pointed a shined shoe at the dead clown’s head. “Look at the money, hard, kid.”
“I see it. Want me to take a picture and hang it on my wall, Doc?”
“The Chinese say a picture is worth a thousand words, but nobody ever said a picture was worth one million dollars,” Doc said slowly, his eyes watching me. I knew him well enough to know this was a sales pitch of some kind. “Bucky, you’re staring at what can be our gravy train for the rest of our lives!”
My belly turned into a cold knot of fear. “How could we get away with any of this?”
There was a faint, hard smile on Doc’s tight lips. But he didn’t say a word.
I swallowed twice, managed to ask, “You’re thinking of… of… us holding out part of this? We’d never get away with it.”
“We certainly wouldn’t.”
Doc gave me his superior smile again. The silence got on my nerves. I said, “Let me out of the isolation booth; what’s on your mind, Doc?”
“As you said, we’d never get away with keeping some of this bundle, but we might make it if we take it all! Not one person in fifty million ever gets a chance at a million bucks. Here we have it smack in our laps, cold turkey. Kid, this is our big chance!”
“Some chance. Stop joking, Doc, and let’s get on with…”
Doc pointed at the bed full of money with his gun as he said softly, “Bucky, I was never more serious in my life.”
And I realized he was! I said, “Doc, talk sense. Why… we couldn’t possibly get away with it. They’d be on us like rust on iron.”
Doc shook his head slowly. “Listen to me carefully, son. It will probably take a day or more before anybody finds the bodies. We could use those few days trying to skip the country with the money. Maybe we’d make it. But that’s the obvious move. And if the bodies should be discovered in the next few hours, we’d be trapped on the run. Also, soon after we fail to report back to the squad room, Bill Smith will certainly get interested—he has a suspicious mind—and start an investigation, and sooner or later put a nation-wide alarm out for us on the wires. I think—”
I cut in with, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, this money is red hot and we’re—”
“Shut up and listen, Bucky. Taking off would be, as I said, the obvious thing, and very risky. I have a better idea, something that will throw them completely off our tracks. Now, for sure, we have at least a few hours of safe time. Over on the Northside there’s an ancient rum-runner and gangster hide-out, a real old-fashioned affair with false walls. It hasn’t been used for years and years. Everybody has forgotten about it—except me. The house is run by a hag who will do anything for a quick buck. We merely—”
“Jeez, Doc, we can’t steal a million!”
Doc laughed quietly in my face. “Why not? Probably turn out to be simpler than swiping a dime off a newsstand. Bucky, try to get the full picture of the opportunity in our hands. The important fact is that we have the million. All we have to do is hole up for a few weeks and then think of a way of getting the money, and ourselves, out of town. But time is on our side, and so is luck.”
“But Doc, this is the… the… ransom money!”
“So what? It’s as green as any other bucks to me. Poppa is rich; he can afford it. And whether we take the money or not won’t bring his Joanie back to life. Look at it this way: This is our reward; we bagged the kidnappers, killed them both, so—”
“I still don’t believe Betty was in on it.”
“This punk certainly was!” Doc said, kicking the dead man’s leg. “Kid, remember you risked your life. Suppose he had knifed you, then what? When the headlines had finished heaping praises on your grave, Elma would be working like those other widows we saw, cleaning and sweeping, because your little pension wouldn’t be sufficient to support her. No, this is our reward, this is ours!”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Stealing a million…” It seemed too big to even think about.
“Bucky, cut the jerk talk. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and every second counts, so stop making with the cheap, inane platitudes about honesty! Get the picture, kid: I’m not claiming it’s going to be a pushover, but we have a chance. A jackpot chance on a life of ease—say, down in Brazil, where they don’t have any extradition treaty with the States. Or would you rather hand over the money, be a big tin hero for a headline—if they don’t tie us in with Betty? You’ll struggle along on a lousy salary for the rest of your life, worrying when you’ll be caught palming a buck from the cracker barrel and kicked off the force. And should they learn, somehow, about our relationship with Betty, we can easily end up doing time ourselves. Think, son, but fast!”
I licked my lips nervously, a half a dozen different thoughts pounding through my head at the same time:
— Doc still had his gun out. What would I do if he tried to take the bundle alone?
— What would Doc do? He had the draw on me.
— Could they tie us up with Betty? The building janitor must have seen me come in many, many times.
— There were also dim pictures racing through my noggin of me in a villa overlooking some palm-studded seashore, or at the helm of a yacht.
— And there was the too-clear picture of Betty, just before Doc shot her, calling out, “Bucky, you know me…” And I did know her!
— There was also a foggy thought about the corpse at my feet. What a fat coincidence that the most wanted man in the nation should pick my gal to shack up with!
I nodded at the stiff, asked, “Doc, how come he landed here, of all places?”
“Bucky, this isn’t the time for theoretical arguments! We have to act—”
“We’ll act two seconds later. Isn’t it odd he came here?’
“Look, don’t try to explain the ways of luck. Who knows why he came here? There’s a hundred possible reasons: The rat was cornered; maybe he had to move from where he was. He could have had a run-in with his partners; crossed them. I’m sure there’s one or more dead people around town this moment. All we know is the rat was on the move, had to escape the dragnet. I suppose he figured a whore’s apartment would be a safe hide-out. If he’s a stranger in town, where else could he go?”
“But the last time I saw Betty, she had phoned the bartenders she was closing shop for—”
“That was three or four days ago.”
“But the kidnapper has been super-clever, up to now. Why should he pick this place? The traffic is a little heavy sometimes.”
“Not when Betty has been bought for the day, refuses to open the door, says she’s busy. This would be an ideal hide-out, for a day or so. Then he would have killed her—if she wasn’t part of the deal from the start.”
“No! She acted too… upset… when I came in to have been in on the snatch.”
“Bucky, use your head! If she was in on the crime, how else would Betty act but ‘upset’ upon seeing you?”
“But knowing I drop in every few days, why would she—?”
“Damn you, Bucky, I’m in no mood for academic arguments about dead people. I don’t know why the man came here, or what Betty was figuring on. And I couldn’t care less! All I’m interested in is this million dollars growing cold while we gas!” Doc pointed at the bed with his gun.
I followed the path of the gun, my eyes lingering on it for a split second, then traveling down to the suitcases of money making the bed sag. The dough gave me a terrific charge.
I never kid myself: I was all for taking the money, and Doc’s gun had little to do with my decision. I mean, his gun wasn’t the deciding thing. He was good but when it came to rough stuff I was better. I could have taken him
I rubbed some spit off my lips, asked, “But Doc, you really think we can get away with it?”
“It won’t be a snap, but we can do it.”
“No wild chances—we can really make it?”
“Kid, you ever know me to take a wild chance?”
“I never saw you taking a million before.”
“I’ll level with you. The odds are against us making it, but it’s not a long shot. Maybe it’s two to one against us carrying it off. That’s not bad odds for a million. Look at it this way, Bucky boy: If we had started out to grab a million, had the plans and getaway all set, the hardest part would be actually getting our hands on the money. That’s our big advantage—we’ve stumbled on the boodle! And we have a place to cool off while the hunt dies down. That’s as far as I go. I don’t know the rest of the answers; we’ll figure them out as we go along. The main thing is to decide if we do it. There’s a Chinese proverb about the longest journey starts with a single step. Are you—”
“You sneak in some chop suey, Doc? You’re full of Chinese sayings.”
“Cut the dumb cracks. Bucky, are you in?”
I nodded. I had a hunch Doc could pull it off. In his own way he was a cautious character, certainly not a rash punk. “We split fifty-fifty. What’s next?”
“We have still another advantage: no need to worry about leaving clues, or covering up. In time they’ll have to know it’s us. The only—”
“Why do we have to be in the open? Suppose we hid the dough, then went about our regular jobs?”
“Without the ransom, what reason did we have for suspecting and gunning this guy and Betty? And once the ransom can’t be found, we’ll be under the hammer; we’ll never be able to spend it. Less risk this way, kid. The only chance we take is in getting the money to the hideaway. And we may as well face up to that at once. We’ve wasted too much time already. I’ll go around and get the car, park it near the delivery entrance. You pack the money and I’ll come up and help you with the bags. A million dollars is heavy and—”
“Then how did he carry all the suitcases up here?” I cut in.
“You back to being a quiz kid again? How the devil do I know how he did it? Perhaps he made two trips. Ask him! Damn, why do you keep harping on how he got here?”
“Because he might have somebody else in this, and that somebody might show up. Although Betty didn’t mention anybody else having been here.” It hurt to even say her name.
Doc stared at me. “Suppose somebody does show? You worried?”
“No.” I didn’t need a blueprint.
“We have to work fast. We’ll be out of here within five minutes. Lock the door when I leave, keep your gun out while you’re packing. If you get company, shoot first. Don’t take even the slightest chance. Way I see it, we’ll drive to the hide-out and you let me out a block or so from the house, keep driving around. I’ll make a deal with Molly.”
“Witch who lives in the house. You keep circling the block, slowly, until you see me give the nod; then we hustle the bags inside. You’ll drive the squad car to the other side of town, park it someplace. Pick a busy street; it will take them longer to find it. You return to the house by several cabs. You know how to work it so no one cabbie will be able to remember where you went. How does that add up to you, Bucky?”
One of the things I liked about Doc was that even though he was an old hand at police work, he would ask my opinion about things, sometimes. “I have a couple of ideas. Lets both of us get the bags ready before you go down to get the car. Longer a car is parked in the delivery entrance, more suspicious somebody might get. I mean, like a truck needing the space to deliver furniture, or something. Driver might ask around.”
“That’s good. What else?”
“Now, suppose after I ditch the car I take a cab to the railway station, ‘accidentally’ flash my badge as I’m paying the hackie? Do the same thing as I buy a ticket for New Orleans, or some far-off place? That would throw the cops off.” And how funny I sounded, saying “cops” like any other crummy punk! Still, when you squeeze it out, the main difference between a cop and a crook is who is chasing whom. And for a million bucks I didn’t mind being chased.
“That’s okay,” Doc said. “Only be careful at the station. The place will be lousy with our men.”
I laughed. “Our men? Sure, I’ll be careful. Another thing: Before I return to the hide-out, suppose I phone the squad room, slip them a fast story about we’re on something hot and may not call in for another three or four hours. That would give us more time.”
Doc scratched his face with his gun barrel, then holstered the rod. “Let’s pack while we talk. I’m not so sure about the phone angle. Smith is a shrewdie. First off, if you should be spotted by another dick, play it cool; they can’t possibly know anything yet. Just wave and walk away, or ride away, if you’re still in the car. Be especially careful at the railway station, and absolutely certain no cop sees you headed for the hide-out. Now, if you phone Smith from the station, that would fit in—in case he can ever trace the call. Make the call abrupt, as if you’re in a big rush. A few fast words and hang up before Bill has a chance to talk to you. If you’re in doubt, skip the telephone bit. Now let’s pack.”
It was some experience—the first time I packed a million bucks.
I came out of the delicatessen with a bag full of beer, a barbecued chicken, orange juice, and a pie. It was my third night of shopping. I went out every other night, never to the same store twice, never bought more than five bucks’ worth of food in any one shop. I was pretty cocky and sure of my disguise, almost welcomed leaving the buggy house. Although Doc seemed to think my walking around was a milk run. He was carrying his coolness too far, asking me to hunt around for some kind of sharp cheese, special crackers, frozen egg rolls, or other fancy chow. And he seemed to be worrying more about fuel for his lighter than figuring a way for us to break out of town. Of course I was acting a trifle stir-happy, too. I kept buying light bulbs; had this fear about the light in our room giving out.
But Doc had been right—as always. Luck had been with us all the way. Molly hadn’t any friends: In the ten days we’d been in the house not a soul had come near it. I stopped for the evening paper and a couple packs of butts, then walked up to the old house like I owned it. I’d found a key in Molly’s purse, along with most of the original five hundred dollars we’d given her. I’d also come across a neat bankbook in another purse. The old witch had $7269.53 socked away in a savings account. We couldn’t touch that, but I kept the book anyway.
As I took out the key, my eye hit the dateline on the newspaper. It was a small shock to realize tomorrow would be exactly eight years since Daisy had died. I stared at the date for a moment, upset. I always made a point of putting flowers on her grave every year. I wanted to do it now, wanted to badly because I had a hunch I’d never see her grave again.
I turned around and walked up the street, hunting for a florist shop. It was silly; a florist would starve in this neighborhood. And it would be dangerous going to her grave. Not only all that traveling, but they just might have it staked out. Still, they didn’t know her as Laspiza; on police records she was down as Mrs. Daisy Perm.
I kept walking in the night, thinking at least I could send some flowers. It was the very least I could do for Mom, and if I sent them under the name Laspiza, as I’d have to, there was little chance of anybody getting wise. But a little voice in the back of my noggin kept telling me it was risky. A small thing like this could be the very bit that would trip me. Yet this would be my last chance to give Daisy flowers.
I walked across town several blocks—I’d never been this far from the house—and came out on Seventy-ninth Street, which is a pretty big thoroughfare and well lighted. I wasn’t too worried, had plenty of confidence in my “clown” outfit. I walked about a block up Seventy-ninth, most of the stores still open, thinking that even if I didn’t send them I ought to buy flowers for her. Somehow, she’d know I had her in mind. And would Daisy also know I was on the lam? A—
My heart jumped out of my mouth as I hurriedly faced a store window, raised my grocery bags over my face. There at the curb, getting out of his low-slung MG, was Shep Harris!
Maybe he saw me and maybe he didn’t. In the window’s reflection I watched him walk directly into a hobby-toy store. I turned and walked by the store—fast—and saw Shep’s owl face as he talked to a clerk, pointing to something on the shelf. His back was to me and I turned the corner, headed for the house, trying not to run. I was so jittery I walked into a couple of teen-age girls who giggled at me to watch where I was going.
Shep with his dope about facial angles—had he seen me? With a million bucks in my kick, I was worrying about flowers for a grave. That kind of carelessness could put me underground myself!
Unlocking the door, I made straight for the kitchen, walking fast in the dark. I put the food on the table, turned on the light. My hands were trembling and I leaned against the refrigerator for a moment, to calm my nerves. There was a faint sour stink in the house. Probably only faint because I was used to it—and probably Molly. I was always aware of it after I’d been out of the house. I called out, “Doc?”
There was a few seconds of silence. I got jittery all over again about something else—maybe Doc had taken off with the dough!
But then I heard his steps and a moment later he appeared in the kitchen doorway. I could smell him, too. He sure looked a mess: his clothes crumpled and stained, hair uncombed, the thick gray stubble on his face. Dapper Doc—he hadn’t washed or had his clothes off since we’d been here. He asked, “What took you so long?”
“I was shopping around for your damn frozen strawberries,” I said, walking over to the sink, easing the cotton out of my nose, and running cold water over my wrists.
“Pull the shade down,” he snapped, looking through the paper bags on the table. “You get them?”
“No. I didn’t see any and I couldn’t ask. Dressed like a working stiff, a storekeeper might get suspicious.”
Doc sighed. “You’re right. But I certainly have a yen for them. Sound like I’m pregnant.”
“Get pregnant with some ideas for leaving this dump.”
“I hope this chicken isn’t stale. Let’s get back to our room. Stinks in here.”
He turned out the light and I put two beers in the refrigerator, dropped one of them. It made a noise like thunder in the still house. Doc jumped, then grinned as he asked, “Getting the shakes, Bucky?”
After we ate, and I threw the garbage in the unused old coal furnace in the damp cellar—and how I wanted to light all the junk in it, burn the bugs that were having a holiday there!—I came back to the room to see Doc sprawled on his cot, smoking a cigarette and contentedly reading the papers. He looked like he was right at home. I asked, “How much longer are we going to stay here? No sense in pushing our luck too far.”
“We haven’t been pushing it. This is a good spot.”
“Is it? Molly’s odor is reaching outside.”
“Not yet. If this were an apartment, or an attached house, it would, but with empty lots on all sides we’re safe.”
“I smelt her outside,” I said to annoy him.
He glanced at me over the top of his paper. “You really did, Bucky boy, or was it your imagination?”
There wasn’t any sense playing games in our spot. I shrugged. As I changed into my regular clothes, I told him. “Maybe it was all in my mind. But this is for real. I saw Shep Harris on the street tonight. You remember him, the eye—”
Doc sat up fast as a cat. “Did he see you?”
“I don’t think so. He was rushing into a store, probably trying to get in before closing time. I doubt if he could make me in this disguise.”
Doc seemed lost in thought for a moment. “This Harris, he’s the square who tipped you off on Johnson, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. He knows a lot about facial measurements, bone structure. I goofed: I was over on Seventy-ninth Street and he—”
“What the devil were you doing over there? Damn it, Bucky, I told you not to walk too far or—”
“Relax. I was looking for your lousy frozen strawberries. I’m certain he didn’t make me, but the point is, sooner or later somebody will recognize me, start asking questions. We’ve been here long enough.”
“This Harris thing can be a bad break. Of all people, he’d be on the lookout for you.” Doc poked the newspapers. “I think we can move in a day or two. We’ve already vanished from the papers.”
“Got any ideas cooking?”
“I always have,” Doc said, smugly. “Of course, they will still be covering the railroad station, bus and plane terminals, and maybe the highway entrances. But by this time the dragnet should be off, only have a comparative few men watching—and they’ll be looking for us, for two men carrying suitcases. I imagine that’s where they think they have us: A million dollars is bulky and they know we wouldn’t leave the money behind. To them, it’s the albatross around our neck.” Doc smiled at me, waiting for me to ask what that last crack meant.
Instead I said, “That’s assuming they don’t think we blew town at once.”
Doc scratched the toothbrush whiskers on his chin. “We have to figure as if they’re still watching for us in town. If they aren’t, so much the better. Here’s my idea, son: Suppose we leave town separately, you dressed in your clown outfit, and I’ll get some dirty work duds for myself. We’ll each be on our own for a few days.”
“Yeah?” I said, trying to keep suspicion out of my voice. “How do we leave—on a magic carpet?”
Doc gave me his best tight smile. “Could be, Bucky, a million bucks is a modern genie. Cut the smart-aleck talk and see what you think of this. Maybe you can come up with something better. Now—a few hours apart, and in the early morning hours, we’ll go down to the farmers’ market, which is very busy at that time. If the place isn’t being watched too closely, we each look for a trucker who will give us a hitch. Maybe offer him a few bucks, or a carton of cigarettes, tell him we’re down on our luck. Now—”
“What if the market is being watched?”
“Then we return here, work out something else, like buying us an old truck. However, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble. Unless the market is heavily staked out, we should make it with our disguises.”
“How can we disguise the money we’ll be lugging?”
“Coming to that,” he said like a lecturer. “Naturally I’ve given a lot of thought to it. That’s our big gimmick because we turn it against the police. You see, after we get a ride with our sob story, we go out of town in opposite directions—and we go empty-handed!”
“You mean we bury the money in the back yard? That’s risky. Sooner or later they’re going to find Molly and then they’ll take the house and yard apart. Even if they don’t, be bad returning here in a year or so. And how will we live during all that time?”
Doc laughed at me. The big difference between him and Nate was Doc really acted like he found the world one big joke, while with Nate it had been a pose. Doc said, “We could live on the five grand we’re each carrying. But as you say, burying the money would be old hat. No, Bucky, the money goes with us, only we won’t be carrying it. Uncle Sam and the express company will do it for us—the money will be sent out by mail and express freight!”
I couldn’t have jumped more if I had been fingered. “Mail it out? Doc, have you flipped?”
The tight smile again. But with his face unshaved it looked old instead of sharp. “Don’t get up in the air, son. I told you I’ve given this a lot of thought. Years ago I was in Syracuse on my way back from a trip to Canada. I stopped at a third-rate hotel named Carson’s. I happened to be broke at the time. Tomorrow you call the hotel long-distance, ask for a Gil Jones—merely to find out if the hotel is still in business.”
“Forget the dives you’ve lived in. Get back to the bundle.”
“Damn it, listen and stop interrupting me! Or if you feel nervous, take a nap and we’ll discuss it later.”
“Let’s talk about it now, Doc.”
“Then listen. Once we’re sure the hotel is still there, the following day we get a couple of baskets, or heavy cardboard cartons. We line them with old clothes from Molly’s junk, then fill them with money, tie them securely. Now, there’s an express depot near here. You ship a basket or box to Gil Jones at the Syracuse hotel. You’ll say it’s only old clothes and insure it for the minimum. The following day you’ll ship another basket of ‘clothes,’ and at the—
“Day? You expect me to go out during the day?”
“Yes. You’ll have to. The express office won’t be open at night. Now, Bucky, wait before you hit the ceiling: I certainly realize we run more chance going out during the light hours, but you’ll only have to walk within a radius of five or six blocks of this house. Not as far as you went tonight.”
“I don’t like going out during the day.”
“Use common sense, son. What really is the difference? If your clown outfit works for the evening, it will work in the daylight hours too. Let me finish my plan. At the same time you ship the second basket of ‘clothes,’ you’ll mail the larger bills in several relatively small packages. There are two post office substations near here. You’ll send these first-class mail. We ship the smaller bills in the baskets and the larger bills by mail. That will take care of all the money, except for what we carry with us. Buying it?”
“Why, hell no! It’s crazy for me to walk into a post office. Next you’ll tell me to stop at the local precinct house to ask where the post offices are!”
“Come on, talk sense,” Doc said patiently. “First off, these are substations, just stores and not regular post offices. But in any event, why should they be looking for us in a post office?”
“There may be wanted flyers of us posted.”
“Oh, I’m certain there are. So?”
“Doc, you talk sense! If those flyers are up, it’d be plain nuts to have me near them!”
“Calm down, Bucky. Forget the flyers, for two reasons. First, you won’t look anything like your mug shot, Secondly, no one bothers to read those flyers or—”
“Shep Harris reads them.”
“Because they are mailed directly to his office. Bucky, take my word for it—nobody reads flyers posted on a wall. Unless it’s a mug shot of a woman. Do you think I’d take a chance like this if I wasn’t certain you’ll be safe? In your disguise you could stop Bill Smith on the street for a match and he wouldn’t make you. Believe me, son. Any other objections?”
“You bet! Suppose they open the packages? And who’s this Gil Jones?”
“Easy, son,” Doc said softly. “I haven’t the slightest intention of throwing away our million. If you mean by ‘they’ the postal authorities—they can’t open first-class mail, and they don’t. When the postal clerk asks what’s in the packages, you go for dumb, tell him you’re sending your brother some old letters and notebooks he wants. The clerk will then say it has to go first class. You act surprised, raise a fuss at the few dollars extra postage first class will cost. But you pay it. Obviously we couldn’t send the baskets first class, without attracting attention. We could send them parcel post, but they might be opened for inspection. Not much of a chance, but the express company doesn’t open any packages.”
“You ever see how they throw packages around in the post office?” I yelled, so wound up I couldn’t keep my voice down. “Suppose one is busted open? Or a basket is broken? We’ll be dead!”
Doc crushed his cigarette on the floor; the space under his cot looked like a giant ash tray. “Take it soft, son. I’ve considered all that, naturally. It’s a hundred-to-one chance we have to take. Actually, all the corny jokes to the contrary, very few packages are broken in transit. We’ll pack them well, with cardboard and plenty of gummed tape under the outside wrapper. There isn’t anything that can break. Even if the wrapper should be torn, the money won’t show. But let’s say somehow one is accidentally opened—we can tell if the hotel is staked out. Then we’ll have to flee with what we have. But the odds are all in our favor. We surely can’t make it if we take the money with us.”
“You still haven’t told me who Gil Jones is.”
Doc held out his hand. “Mr. Penn, shake hands with Mr. Gil Jones. If you’ll just close your big yap for a few minutes and let me finish, there won’t be so many questions. Now, here’s the rest of the idea. I figure the baskets will take about a week to reach Syracuse but the first-class mail will only take three or four days, at the most. This means once we ship the packages on their way, we have to start too, and keep going. We each get a hitch to towns about a hundred miles from here, where we each buy a good secondhand car, but nothing too good or flashy, and drive like hell for Syracuse. Or we go by train or bus. We’ll stay off planes. The point is, if we leave by, say, Wednesday, mail the packages by then, then we must be at the Syracuse hotel by Saturday. I’ll register as Gil Jones, get a fishing license and make up a few other papers for possible identification. You register as Ted Brown. Do you know anything about the produce business?”
“I do. I used to be on the market detail. I’ll fill you in on enough details to get by. Your story is you’re a trucker heading for a fishing vacation in Canada. You’ll buy some fishing tackle in a secondhand store, or a pawnshop, in Syracuse. Once we reach the hotel all we have to do is act quiet and wait for the packages, then head north. I picked Syracuse because it’s a big city, easy to get lost in, and also it’s less than a half a day’s drive to Canada. Like it?”
“How can we buy a used car without showing a license?”
Doc rubbed his whiskers. “Not too hard—give the dealer a song about leaving your license with a pal and you’re in a big rush to meet him. The dealer won’t ask too many questions when he sees it’s all for cash. Maybe we’ll skip the car idea and go by train. Have to give this part more thought. What else?”
“How will we get the money into Canada? Won’t they examine our bags at the border?”
“It’s a big border and not too tightly watched. We’ll get over.”
“Won’t the Canadian police be looking for us?”
“Of course, but certainly not as hard as the local police. If Syracuse looks safe, we may hole up there for a few months, then go to Canada. Once in Canada we can lay low in comfort, explore the setup for taking a boat to the West Indies, or any place where we won’t need a passport. We can take it very slow, perhaps see what the deal is about buying forged Canadian passports. But we’ll cross that bridge once we’re safe in Canada. Any more holes in my plan?”
“I still think it’s crazy! We’ll have a million dollars out of our hands, riding around the country in packages!”
“It’s a bold plan, but simple, and it will work. The fact that the money is out of our hands is the smartest move we can make. The only way we could take the money with us would be to first stay in this hole for another five or six months, and that is risky. Who will stop a couple of poorly dressed working slobs, traveling empty-handed, or with a small bag or a shopping bag?”
“But if one of those packages or baskets comes open, we’re done!”
“That’s right. So we have to wrap them very well. But remember if this Harris made you, or if a gas man comes to check the meter here a few times and doesn’t get any answer, we’re done, too.”
I thought furiously, was absolutely against letting the money out of our hands. “Suppose the hotel clerk gets interested in the packages?”
“First, he hasn’t any reason to. It’s our fishing gear and clothes we’re waiting for. After all, we’re not sending the packages registered mail, or anything that would make the clerk suspicious. And that’s exactly why we have to be there before any package arrives. By train we can reach Syracuse in eighteen hours, perhaps a few hours longer by bus, and even less time if we get a car and drive. We can do it easily.”
“Suppose you get picked up, get sick, or hurt—what happens to Gil Jones?”
Doc nodded thoughtfully, started another cigarette working. “Good—that’s using your head, kid. I never considered that angle. I didn’t want us to be together, thought we’d be safer acting as strangers, but you raise a good point. We’ll send the packages to Gil Jones, in care of Ted Brown. That way, whoever gets there first can take the packages and wait for the other. We’ll set a deadline: The first one there will hang around for exactly six days. By that time he’ll know something has gone wrong, one of us has been bagged, and take off. However, if one of us gets sick or hurt in an accident—long as he’s in the clear—he’ll wire the other to wait. Buy it now, Bucky boy?”
We argued most of the night. I still saw a lot of holes. If one of us was collared it would be silly for the other to wait a week; in a week’s time the cops would have beaten all the details out of the one bagged. But I didn’t tell that to Doc. I argued against buying cars without a license; if we were even stopped for passing a light in any town, or for anything in some hick speed trap, we were finished. I didn’t like the idea of the money leaving our hands, nor of Doc getting to Syracuse before me. (Although I didn’t tell him that.) The more we talked, the more I began to go for the idea. I wanted to get out of this bug-joint, and seeing Shep Harris had given me a bad jolt. Doc was clever; who would bother a couple of stiffs in old clothes, empty-handed? I had to admire Doc’s brainwork, and also I had a few ideas of my own.
Toward morning, after we’d gone over and over it, I gave in. We finally decided—at my insistence—that we would each carry a hundred thousand with us, say in a paper package. After all, a hitchhiker would be carrying something, like a paper bag or small canvas bag with his clean shirt. And if anything happened to the packages, we’d at least have getaway money. Doc was against the idea, felt if one of us was in an accident, for example, how could he possibly explain all that money? But he finally gave in.
I couldn’t sleep much that night, and early the next morning we rummaged around the stinking cellar. Luck was with us again. We found a couple of strong baskets, big ones, like apples come in. After lining them with old clothes, we carefully packed one with ten- and twenty-and fifty-dollar bills, and were easily able to put in $231,200. Doc said that was too much and we repacked it with less dough and more clothing. Doc was sharp; he even left part of an old coat sticking out of the top so there wouldn’t be any doubt as to the contents. We found some clothesline in a kitchen cabinet—God knows why Molly had bought it: Washing was the last thing ever on her mind—and tied the basket good, real good.
We decided I would express the basket that afternoon, and buy wrapping paper, plenty of gummed tape, cardboard, twine, and a pack of labels. I’d mail the packages the following day, along with expressing another basket. We would then take off tomorrow night.
As I was ready to leave with the basket, Doc said, “Now remember, first you make the long-distance call to the hotel, then get the wrapping paper and stuff in several stationery stores. Get plenty of it, and more clothesline. Also another can of lighter fluid; I misplaced the one you got the other day. And I’d like a chocolate bar.”
“Yes, Daddy,” I wisecracked, but the thought of walking out in broad daylight had me far from a wisecracking mood. Still, I knew it had to be done.
Strolling down the sunny street with almost a quarter of a million bucks in a basket in my arms made me sweat. If I was stopped, I was a goner. But then, if I was stopped at any time, for any reason, I’d be a burnt cookie.
Like the first night I’d been out, after I’d walked a block I felt okay. One part of Doc’s plan worried me: It was important we know if the market and the trucks were being watched before we started anything. I considered taking a cab down there, or even walking, but it would be a big chance. Besides, at this hour the market would be empty. I was pretty sure I could get a ride out of town.
I purchased two books of labels and a pen in a candy store, then made the long-distance call. The hotel was still doing business in Syracuse, of course. I wrote out a label for the basket, made certain it was on good, and headed for the express office.
The bored clerk weighed the basket, asked, “What’s in here?”
“What you can see—old duds. My brother got hisself a job out there and wants his old work clothes.” *
The clerk wrinkled his veined nose. “Didn’t you ever hear of the invention of the washing machine?”
“Do tell? They really got such machines? What will they think of next?” I cornballed, almost enjoying myself. “Tell you, let him wash it. I don’t know why he wants this junk—they been laying around the cellar all year. He must have a dirty job, like in the oil fields, needs these clothes.”
“Want to insure it?” he asked, starting to write.
“Naw, only old stuff that… Yeah, insure it for, the smallest amount, just to say I did it.”
“How much you value this junk?”
“Guess about ten bucks,” I said calmly, wondering how this jerk’s face would look if he could see the “junk.” “Is that label on good? Maybe I ought to write out the address again on—”
“It’s on okay. Don’t worry about it.”
On the way back to the house, I bought wrapping paper, cord, picked up some old cardboard boxes and plenty of gummed tape. I went into a store to get Doc’s lighter fluid and noticed they were selling cheap wrist watches. I thought about buying one, for it suddenly occurred to me that quite a few guys on the force had noticed my boxer’s watch at one time or another, and I ought to throw it away. But I knew I couldn’t part with it, so I merely took it off and stuck it in my pocket.
I stopped at another store to buy Doc’s candy bars, and had a soda myself. Now that the money was on its way, or at least part of it, I felt tense but also relieved—the chips were really down now.
Doc and I spent the rest of the day packing the other basket and the packages of big bills. Then Doc picked out some old clothes to wear. I told him to take a shave—not even a bum would be seen with his whiskers. He said he’d do it just before we took off; maybe shave off all his hair as part of his disguise. After supper we made a list of the main towns within a hundred miles, decided on which city we’d each try to hitch to, what the probable bus and train connections were. Doc even lectured me on the wholesale produce business. He was such a bug for details, I felt confident things would work out okay. But I hardly slept that night, my brain spinning, my insides knotted—another day or two and I’d be rich, free of this dump.
I must have fallen off in the early hours, for I awoke this morning when Doc felt of my wrist, looking for my watch. When I pulled it out, it was nearly noon. I explained why I was hiding it and Doc thought it was a smart move. I washed and took the second basket to the express office, my heart beating like a fast drum, wondering if the police would be waiting for me. I’d left my pen at the house, and I had to stop and buy another one. The same clerk was working the counter and he didn’t say a word. I told him I’d found more clothes to send my brother.
On the way back to the house I even walked into a ratty-looking bar for a fast shot to quiet my nerves. There was some loud jerk working off an all-night binge and feeling very gay for himself. He started kidding about my blond hair reminding him of the faggy wrestlers he saw on TV and I got out of the bar fast—before I clipped him.
The big money was packed in four packages, each a little bigger than a good-sized box of candy. I carried them in a shopping bag. Doc gave me the addresses of the two post offices, reminded me to bring back food for a last supper. He said he would be shaved and dressed by the time I returned, and we’d take off for the market at around ten. Doc had even managed to find a couple of dirty old canvas bags in Molly’s room, big enough to carry most of the hundred grand we were each going to take, and the kind of a bag a working stiff would be carrying his few belongings in.
I felt jittery as I walked toward the first post office. However, Doc had this down pat. It was a drugstore with a one-window post office in the rear. There was a girl clerk. I took out two of the packages, made out labels for them, gave her one as I said, “Parcel post.” To my surprise, my voice sounded calm.
“Anything breakable in here?” she asked, weighing it.
“Nope. Just some old notebooks and letters my brother wants.”
“Then—you mean it contains writing?”
“Only a lot of pencil writing. You know, school notebooks.”
“Pen or pencil doesn’t make the slightest difference. It’s still writing and must be sent first class. This will cost you a dollar and eighty cents.”
I could have won an Oscar, the doubtful way I stared at the five-dollar bill I was fingering. After the proper hesitation, I muttered, “Sure is a lot of money for nothing. I thought I could ship it parcel post. What would that cost?”
“What’s the difference?” she asked a little stiffly. “You’ll have to send it first class.”
“Well, it beats me why he wants these old papers anyway. But they must be important to him, so send it first class. What’s this one add up to?” I asked, handing her the second package. “Has writing in it, too.”
“This is heavier. Be a… two dollars and twenty cents.”’
I handed her the five bucks as I said, “I hope I ain’t putting out money I’ll never get back.”
The other substation wasn’t part of a store. I mean it was, or used to be, a store, but all of it was a post office with several windows. I went through the same routine with the last packages. There were a few wanted flyers on a bulletin board. I couldn’t see our mugs and didn’t have nerve enough to look.
I dropped into a coffeepot for a sandwich. Food sometimes calmed my nerves, but not now. I felt high, all of me racing—the way I guess a charge of “horse” hits you. It didn’t seem possible I was successfully pulling off one of the biggest scores in crime history.
I was eating aimlessly; sandwich, pie, toast, cake. I told myself to haul tail out of this place. It would be some jerky, needless move, some little thing, that would queer the whole deal. Elma rarely went farther from the apartment than the corner store, but today she might be walking around here, drop in for a cup of coffee. Not that she’d make me in this clown outfit. Still, it was a needless chance. It was the first time I’d thought of her in days. I wondered how she was taking all this. Not that it mattered to me.
The fly-specked wall clock said it was eleven after four as I started for the house, anxious to duck any coming-from-work crowds. I stopped in at a small supermarket I’d never been in before, bought some food for supper. I even lucked up on Doc’s yen—frozen strawberries.
As I walked I felt very good, very sure of myself. I’d tested my clown outfit enough to have absolute confidence in it as a disguise. Looking at myself in a store window, I only saw a sloppy-looking fat slob in dirty clothes. And now that all the money was moving, it seemed like most of the work was done, although I knew I was a long way from being in the clear.
The good feeling—all feelings—fled the second I turned into “our” block. I saw smoke coming out of the house! Fire engines and squad cars were all around the place, blocking the street!
I ducked into a doorway and for a heavy, dumb moment I didn’t get it. The firemen were hosing the wooden house but didn’t seem to have the fire under control. I wondered where Doc was—a dull pounding in the front of my head warning me it was all over.
They moved a pump engine closer, giving me a clear view of the sidewalk near the house. I saw Doc—oh, I sure saw him—in the midst of a crowd of cops and detectives! I even saw Ollie and that little punk who had flattened me. Doc was talking to Lieutenant Smith. Doc looking like a runt next to Smith. Doc still unshaven and in his own wrinkled clothes. Of course, I couldn’t hear what Doc was saying. But I didn’t have to: His gesturing hands told me plenty—he was going through the motions of his hands being tied! I sure got the message then—right between my stupid eyes!
I got the whole picture in one staggering flash. I’d been had from the go!
Doc with his damn lighter fluid! Smart Doc had me timed to the minute, probably figured on me stopping for coffee, or a shot: Doc had set the house afire a few minutes ago. He had tied his hands and waited for the firemen and cops to find him. Or could be smart old Doc had even raced out of the house first to pull the fire alarm!
Doc the fox had framed me from the moment he first saw me after the Batty Johnson killing. He wanted me for a partner. Why, the sonofabitch had framed me like a picture! He must have been shopping around for a muscle dope like me ever since he’d got the idea for the kidnapping a long time ago—when he’d heard that Australian nursemaid shooting off her mouth in a bar.
Oh, Doc was thorough: The perfect snatch needed a perfect fall guy—me! How all those “coincidences” fell in line now, fitted so tightly I wanted to scream. Doc had set me up, and Betty too. Doc and the tall guy were the kidnappers. Maybe another corpse somewheres around town had been in on it. Doc had told the thin guy to wait at Betty’s. No wonder Doc had been angry when I busted up with Judy; he must have had her marked as the girl. Then, when I broke up with Judy… How decent and generous Doc had been in fixing Betty up. He needed her, needed a place for me to kill the thin guy!
Crafty Doc, leaving nothing to chance, figuring every angle down to a split hair’s width. The deal with the parked squad car, letting me go into Betty’s alone, knowing I was so steamed about the kid’s murder I’d blast his partner on sight. Child-killer Doc really knew me. Doc’s gunning Betty lined up. Oh, how everything fitted: the convenient hideaway, maybe even “finding” the baskets in the cellar.
But those were merely trimmings. His smartest move was knowing me like a book, holding the hoops and having fool me jump through like a trained dog.
Watching Doc gesturing to Lieutenant Smith, I knew the fall he was setting me up for, what clever-clever Doc had in mind for me from the start. He would be giving them a simple story, so simple it had to sound true: When we found the kidnapper, I had thrown a gun on Doc; then I’d forced him to come with me, held him captive. And Doc’s story would hold; it rang “true” in too many places. My brain was working on all cylinders, but even a dope could see the whole damn frame in a flash.
I’d made the last phone call to the squad room.
I’d ditched the car.
Doc’s gun was busted—they could prove it was my rod that had killed Molly.
They’d found Doc in the house, probably with his hands tied. I was the guy on the loose.
And I was the jerk in disguise. Doc even looked as if he’d been held captive. Wise, dapper Doc, refusing to shave or take a bath.
The fire—that was the neat final touch, his real out. Doc wanted to be a rich hero. I could almost hear the bag of lies he must be giving them about the money burning. Would he say it was an accident? Or would he be bold enough to claim he did it on purpose, to attract the police? One thing was for certain, he had $205,000 to burn and Doc would have made it look like all the ransom money had been burned. And with over two hundred thousand bucks with which to salt and pepper the burnt remains of the suitcases, Doc could make it stand up.
It was such a complete frame I almost had to admire Doc, in a cockeyed way. Old careful Doc, not getting into the game unless he started with a pair back-to-back. Yeah, all the real and circumstantial evidence was stacked against me. Even if I was caught, it would only be my word against his. If I surrendered and tried to tell the truth, I was still guilty of killing Molly. It had been my gun. I would end up in the chair—even if Doc burned with me.
But Doc must have figured that one too, would see to it I wasn’t caught alive.
Almost as if he was reading my mind, I saw Doc motioning up and down the street. Cops and detectives started to fan out, guns in hand. Smart Doc telling them I was due back any second, that I was armed, and ready to shoot on sight!
Okay, so this was how it would finally add up. I’d been suckered in. Only Doc had been smarter than he thought, so clever he didn’t take his own advice. What had he lectured me about punks who made so many plans they messed themselves up? Doc with all his careful plans, his months and months of figuring each move and twist—Doc had outsmarted himself! I wasn’t quite the brainless muscle he’d figured. I’d caught an ace on fifth street that would ruin his little pair backed up.
I couldn’t stay where I was; the police were coming nearer to my doorway. I’d been dumb to turn the corner. I should have taken off the moment I saw something was wrong. Only I suppose he knew I’d stop, that I’d be concerned about him. Doc sure knew me. I was only one doorway from the corner, had to chance it.
I stepped out and started sprinting around the corner. The silly blanket around my waist wasn’t meant for running. It came loose. Also I had bum luck. I couldn’t have been in sight over a second, but I heard Doc shout, “There he is!”
I ran wildly up the avenue, looking for a car, my brain racing faster than my feet. If I could only get away I’d be set. But the goddamn blanket was half out, trying to trip me. My pants were slipping. I must have looked comical, lurching this way and that, trying to stay on my feet as I ran, like a burlesque drunk. I could hear footsteps crowding behind me.
I heard a shot, the slim whistle of a bullet over my head. A car had slowed down to see what all the commotion was about. But the woman driver’s face screwed up with panic as she saw me running toward her. She pressed on the gas pedal. The car shot away.
I was standing in the middle of the street, looking around like crazy. I ran to the other side of the avenue and ducked into the alley of a crummy apartment house as guns began going off like firecrackers.
It’s a cluck move—the alley is a dead end. I’ve made a fatal error: I should have stayed in that doorway, forced the door, taken my chances on holing up with whoever lived there. I might have made it; I have a gun. Oh God, how well Doc knew me—had figured I’d be a sap and make a run for it.
The lousy cellar door is locked. A crummy tenement and they have the door locked! No sense clawing and kicking at it, hoping I can make it to the roof. That would be silly, even if I went over a couple of roofs—they must have the area staked out.
So now I know I can’t make it. It’s no shock. I’d gambled for such a long shot I suppose deep in my mind I never expected to nail it down.
Anyway, no place to run and I can’t open this door. Lieutenant Smith’s tall frame and Ollie’s square body are at the alley entrance. Smith yells, “Keep your hands up, Penn!”
Lousy Penn handle! I’ll sure die with it.
Ollie calls out, “Bucky, you haven’t a chance!”
But what chance do I have by giving up? I’ll die anyway. True, I may take Doc with me. But I’ve already fixed Doc with my sleeve ace, thrown him a curve he’ll never forget. Doc the great thinker, who overlooked one simple detail. Yeah, yeah, death is my only escape. Fancy Doc is counting on me doing just this, but Doc don’t matter now.
I go for my gun.
Smith fires three times. Ollie lets one slug go. Crazy, I’ve counted the shots. Two of them have hit me. It’s like being walloped over the guts with a night stick. Even through the half-out blanket and money belt. Ollie, did you aim to hit me?
I’m falling over backwards. Now I can sit up. Ollie, Smith, a lot of new faces fuzzy at the alley entrance. I don’t feel much pain. Plant one shot… over their heads. I have to make sure I’m not taken alive. Nate, you’d want me to go out fighting….
Some uniformed slob empties his gun at me. Lousy shot. Only one slug hits me… in the leg. My stomach is starting to burn… Hey, another bullet has gone through the little bag of groceries I’m still holding in my left hand, for some stupid reason.
Doc’s strawberries are dripping on the dirty cement floor of the alley. Or is that my blood? The uniformed jerk has the hero fever, bucking for detective… he’s a few steps up the alley, firing again. The miserable dummy must see I’m trapped… why can’t he let me die?
He’s a blue blur. I fire twice. I’m lucky… there’s a shrill scream.
Then a lull. I can’t even see any foggy faces in the alley entrance. The fire is hurting like hell, reaching up to scorch my heart. I’m done. “Ollie,” I yell, “come in and I’ll give you my gun.”
The alley is so peacefully quiet now. No sound came out of my mouth—it’s full of hot cotton. Even if they can get me to the hospital, I’ll never make it. “’Medics! Medics! Wounded man in this foxhole….”
Sitting here in my clown outfit, I’m losing focus. Barely hold up my head. I’m falling sideways… I’m against the tenement wall. All I can see through my straining eyes are some of Doc’s frozen strawberries in a red pool between my spread legs. Hey, they’re the funniest thing in the world. Those strawberries… fancy dumb Doc!
I have to laugh… Betty always wanted to see me laugh. Betty, look at me now! Only when I open my mouth more strawberries stream out. Me, a regular strawberry factory that… a blow on the shoulder… I’m flying backwards. That was a rifle shot.
Flat on my back… nobody ever did that in the ring. Why is the sky so dark? I’ll squeeze the trigger… can’t aim, not trying to… Got to keep them off… Be sure I die. I want to die alone, just… Must be a lot of slugs hitting me. So this is dying? They don’t hurt. Like mosquito bites when Nate and I are on a picnic. Like to be on one now. “Sure, I’ll find some firewood….”
It don’t hurt but my body is jerking with each bullet. Must weigh a ton… What’s the bad joke about the guy full of lead and… Oh! the pain… Damn fire, almost reached my brain that time. Ah, that’s a little better. I always could take it. Can I take much more of this?
How much…? Hey, the sky is no longer dark, it’s bright red now. What is this, a sunset? Where is Doc… shooting at me? I’m still laughing at Doc… only it sounds like a rattle.
If I could be sure they can’t patch me up, I’d let them take me just so I could laugh right in Doc’s fox-face. Old superior Doc with his big talk and bigger words… Must be thinking right this second how his plans are going like clockwork. In a day or two, when he’s off on sick leave, he’ll quietly take a plane, or drive like mad for Syracuse, to pick up the dough. Or has he got somebody there waiting for it? Somebody that will end up like me, full of bullets? It’s a laugh.
I don’t know if I’m hysterical with pain or laughter. The… Through everything I can feel the vibration of steps on the cement floor. I squeeze the trigger once…. How many shells have I left?… The steps stop. My trigger finger is sticky… those damn strawberries.
I want to shout. I yell, “Doc! Doc! It’s the joke of the year… how sure you were of me. Dumb Bucky! And… and now you won’t get dollar one….”
Yeah, I damn near pulled it off, despite Doc. Did I push my luck too far? Why did I have to return to the house, play the game out to the last card?… For the hundred grand…. When I had all the money for my…
The steps are coming again. Where’s the trigger? Where’s… Is this death? I don’t feel a thing, not even the dull pain… only the thin pumping of my stuttering heart.
I want to die… Only, ah… if I could just see the look on Doc’s face when he reaches that hotel… If I could tell him to his sharp face how I’ve switched labels on the packages… was going to head for California… where I’d sent all the money to myself. The old switcheroo, Doc. To Bucky Laspiza… my real self… care of Nate out on the… Coast.
Who the… hell… will get the money now? Nate? No, he’ll turn it… But Doc… sure won’t get any….
Oh God. Oh Mom…. Nate! Nate! I’m… so… so tired. Dad, I can’t… even laugh… no moree….