Max pulled the car over to the side of the road and dropped speed until he was crawling at a walking pace. "Is that the guy?" he asked, screwing up his eyes in an attempt to recognise the distant uniformed figure further along the street.
Big Nick, who was sitting beside me on the back seat, leaned forward and peered over Whitey's shoulder. "Can't see from here," he said, "Drive right past him."
It amazed me how casual Nick's voice was. He's got a naturally deep, low-pitched voice, soft and musical. It's the kinda voice that makes me think of black velvet.
"It's not him," growled Whitey in disgust, and there was nothing soft about his voice. It was like him, brittle, taut and jumpy.
Whitey wasn't the only one taut and jumpy. Me and Maxie as well were toned up and over-excited. I always get that way when there's a job to do. Even a little job like this when there's practically no danger.
Yeah, this job was peanuts. A coupla fellas coulda taken care of it any time almost without thinking. It was that easy. It only became an interesting job on account Big Nick himself had taken a personal interest and wanted to see it handled proper.
We were right on top of the guy now; Maxie tooted his horn an the cop who'd paused beneath a street lamp looked up sharply, grinned as he recognised Whitey, and touched his peaked cap.
"Brake, Maxie," ordered Nick lazily, "I wanna talk to this guy."
Maxie swerved into the kerb and slapped on the brakes. Whitey lowered his window, thrust his head out and looked back along the road. "Hey, you!" he yelled.
The cop didn't exactly come running but he walked a whole lot faster than cops usually walk on night duty.
"What's on your mind, Whitey?" he asked when he got level with us, panting slightly. Then for the first time he caught sight of Big Nick and touched his cap respectfully. "Evening, Mr. Fenner," he said with careful politeness. "I didn't recognise you at first. Is there something you want?"
Nick's broad shoulders bulked broadly as he spoke through the window, blocking my view so I couldn't see the cop. "What time you off duty?" he asked.
There was a pause as the cop consulted his watch. "In just ten minutes Mr. Fenner."
"How're your folks?" asked Nick. His voice was like black velvet.
"Doing real fine, sir," said the cop proudly. "Thank you for asking."
"Everything quiet? No trouble?"
"I'll say," said the cop with satisfaction.
"Okay," said Big Nick. He relaxed back in the seat. "Drive on, Maxie," he ordered.
Maxie let in the gear smoothly and the cop respectfully saluted again as our high-powered car effortlessly pulled away from the kerb like a silent ghost.
"Where to?" asked Maxie.
"Keep driving," ordered Nick. "We're in no hurry."
Whitey half-turned to look over his shoulder at Nick. "Ya don't havta bother yourself about this job, boss," he drawled. "Me and Maxie can handle it."
"Yeah, we can handle it, boss," I interjected quickly. "Me and Maxie can fix him fine."
There was a sneer in Whitey's voice. "Listen to him!" he jeered. "The big dope!"
Big Nick said softly, smoothly: "Lay off him, Whitey."
I narrowed my eyes in the darkness and glared at Whitey. The guy was always riding me, always talking about me like I didn't know what time it was. Maybe I was a bit slow on account of that slug lodged in my brain. But being slow isn't being dumb. I might take longer to figure things out but I finally get there the same as anyone else. Sometimes being slow at forming conclusions is useful and stops a guy acting rashly.
"Let us drop you off at the apartment, Boss," said Maxie. "Me and Whitey can handle it okay."
"I can do it for you, Boss," I said eagerly. "I don't need any help. I can do it alone."
"Listen to him!" sneered Whitey. "Just listen to him! The big dope!"
The bite in his voice stung deep. I curled up inside, shrank up in my corner feeling mean and sulky. That Whitey! I told myself. One day I'd put a bullet through him. He deserved it. He talked like I hadn't got no brains at all.
"Cut it out, Whitey," rapped Big Nick again, and now the black velvet sounded hard and brittle.
Having him take my side like that made me feel good again, kinda warmed inside. Big Nick always made me feel good. He was my friend!
Sure he was my boss. But he was my friend, too; always slapping down the guys who got smart with me. He'd always been that way as far back as I can remember, right back to the time I came out of hospital after the quacks had admitted defeat and said the bullet was lodged beneath delicate brain tissue and they daren't operate.
"Aw, Hell!" protested Whitey. "Can't a guy have a little fun and…?"
"Cut it out!" rasped Nick and his voice was like a whiplash. Then, as Whitey lapsed into silence, he added softly: "How many more times am I gonna warn you guys not to get excited?"
I didn't wanna cause Nick trouble. I knew how he worried about me and I didn't want him to worry. He was my pal and looked after me. I didn't want him worried on my account.
"I'm not getting excited, boss," I told him.
"Shuddup, Joey," he growled. "Just sit quiet and shuddup."
He didn't mean anything when he talked to me that way. He talked to most everyone that way. It was a habit.
"You want I should drive around the park a coupla times?" asked Maxie.
"I want you should drive," said Nick. "I don't care where."
It was a quiet night and dark. There was no noise except the hum of the engine and the soft swish of the tyres. I settled back in the seat, closed my eyes and felt warm and happy inside. Having Big Nick as a pal made me a lucky guy. There wasn't anyone to touch Nick. He was the best guy on earth. He always gave me this warm, happy feeling inside. Gee, I guess I almost loved that guy.
Suddenly I couldn't feel the weight of it in my pocket and it scared me. I was so scared that for seconds I was paralysed with the shock of it. I felt the strength drain out of me and my hands begin to tremble. They'd taken it away from me! They were all scheming to kill me and they'd stolen it from me. They were closing in now - ugly, monstrous, leering, jeering faces. The sweat sprang out all over my skin, ice-cold and soaking my under-clothing. They were holding me down, great weights holding me down, iron bands around my wrists and my ankles so my body vibrated like a tuning-fork as I strained to escape. I stained, sweated, felt my muscles bulging, heard my bones creak and knew I'd go crazy if I couldn't snap the fetters.
Frantically I plunged my hand in my pocket knowing if it wasn't there I'd die of fear. Then great relief swept over me, I relaxed, cried with thankfulness as my fingers closed around the butt of the gun and felt its comforting weight.
"He's off again," said Whitey.
"Leave him alone," Big Nick said in his casual way.
Maxie chuckled. "Let 'em have it Joey," he encouraged. "Give it 'em fella."
That's what I'd been waiting to hear. My hand trembled with excitement as I brought the gun from my pocket.
Maxie was watching me through the driving mirror. "Take it easy, Joey," he said. "Take it slow and easy."
I concentrated, tried to hang on to that thought. Take it slow and easy. Take it slow and easy.
It helped. My hand was only trembling a little now. I raised it, squinted through the sights, trained them on Whitey and drew a bead dead centre of his forehead.
"Watch out, fellas," warned Maxie. "He's dangerous. He's got a gun." There was a chuckle in his voice.
Whitey stared at me evilly, his black eyes glinting with amusement. I could have pin-pricked the place where the lead would smash into his forehead.
"Ain't he the boy, now?" said Maxie.
"Look at the dope!" jeered Whitey. "Look at his hand trembling."
"You've gotta do better than that, kid," said Maxie. "You've gotta keep your hand firm. Rigid, like a bar of steel."
I tried hard. The sweat was oozing out of me again.
"That's better," soothed Maxie. "You're as steady as a rock."
"The poor dope!" sneered Whitey.
Jeezus, how I hated that guy! Always acting like I was dumb or something. The hatred flooded my mind so I could think of nothing else. "Can I kill him now?" I asked.
"Sure," said Maxie. "You can kill him."
I wasn't asking Maxie. I was asking Nick. When he didn't reply I repeated the question. "Can I kill him now, boss?"
"I warned you fellas not to get him excited," grumbled Nick.
I wondered which one of us he was talking to, because he was looking out the window. I waited and he didn't take notice of me. I held the gun even more firmly, licked my lips. "Can I kill him now boss?" I pleaded.
He sighed wearily. "Okay," he said, "You can kill him."
My heart beat with exultation. I glared through the sights, concentrated on that point midway between Whitey's eyes and jerked my finger against the trigger.
As the hammer clicked on the empty cartridge I saw just the way it should be, his head jolting backwards, bone and blood spattering the car as lead tore out through the back of his skull. That made me feel really good. I chuckled deep down in my chest and the way Whitey's black eyes glittered at me made it even funnier.
"Okay, Joey," snapped Maxie. "That's enough. Put it away now. You're safe now. Nobody's gonna take it away from you."
It was good to know I could keep it. I slipped it back into my pocket, held it against my side, so I could still feel it and know nobody was stealing it when I wasn't looking.
"I warned you fellas," gritted Big Nick. "Don't be too smart. Cut that stuff out when I tell you."
Whitey muttered something below his breath, turned around and stared out through the windscreen.
Big Nick told me gently: "You're okay now, Joey. We're all pals. You're one of us. Understand, Joey? You're as good as any of us, maybe a little better. And you're smart, too, as paint. Understand?"
Gee, how I loved that guy! He could make me feel so good just talking that way. He told the truth, too. Sure, I was as smart as paint. I was as good as any of them. I was as strong as a lion and as smart as Einstein. A warm, happy glow suffused me. "I feel good," I said.
"Sure you feel good," said Big Nick. "You got a little sweaty a way back. But you're okay now."
I thought about it. Yeah, he was right. I had been a little sweaty, kinda hazy. Maybe I shouldn't have pulled my gun on Whitey that way. They made me do it. But it was all so dreamlike I wasn't even sure I'd pulled that gun.
"Don't think about it any more, Joey," said Big Nick.
That was good advice, too. I closed my mind, wouldn't allow myself to think about the gun.
"We've been driving around half an hour," announced Maxie.
"All right, then," said Big Nick. "Turn around. Drive back and keep circling around the block until we see him." As Max swept the car around in a smooth, silent arc, I felt once more the tensed-up feeling I get just before I'm gonna do a job. I kept telling myself this job was different, it wasn't dangerous. But, just the same, I couldn't prevent myself feeling tense and strung-up.
We were gonna give a guy the works. He was a no-account guy, a cop named Bannister. But cops are different from other guys. Other guys you can stand in a pail of cement till it sets, then drop them off a bridge so they stand on the river bed until nothing's left of them to stand.
But cops are different!
Ordinary guys can have an accident, get run down by a car, impale themselves on a knife, have a shooting accident or fall from a tall building.
But cops never do these things. Not unless it's a real accident.
It was on account of cops being so special that Big Nick wanted to be around to make sure this job was done just the way he wanted.
I didn't feel sorry for Bannister. He was a dope. Any guy's a dope who tries to swim upstream when he can float on the tide.
Bannister was a new cop, just drafted over from Washington. Just an ordinary flatfoot wearing a uniform the same as a hundred thousand other cops. Yet the dope had to act like he was something special.
Big Nick had been reasonable. Nick's always reasonable. He's so reasonable the Police Commissioner's got a safe job, the Cop Captain owns one of the swellest joints on South Side, and there's not a cop on the force who doesn't double his wages.
They're entitled to. The one-armed bandits, the crap games, pool rooms, numbers, gaming tables and cat houses pay off well. There's good pickings for everyone, the cops too, which makes everyone happy.
Because the public are happy. Sure they're happy. There isn't a workman who doesn't like his flutter on the gees, there's not a working dame who's not prepared to spend a coupla dimes for the chance of winning enough dough in the numbers racket to buy herself a mink coat. Cat houses are clean, a guarantee of health for guys who might otherwise pick up a tramp on the streets and get sicker than with Yellow Jack. One-armed bandits can be useful to a guy who's waiting for his dame on the corner and bungs an idle nickel in the machine which wins a pocketful sufficient to cover his expenses for the evening.
The way I see it I figure Big Nick earned the esteem of the public for organising things in his district so the public could go on having fun.
Not everyone could have organised it the way Big Nick did. Cat houses, the numbers racket, one-armed bandits and the rest of those things are against the law. It needed a clever guy to arrange everything so the public could get what it wanted.
Big Nick fixed it the right way and the best way. Sure, there's money in running the numbers racket. You don't expect anyone to work for nothing, least of all Big Nick. But the dough kicked in by the public he split many times. The Police Commissioner lived like and English lord with a butler, a chauffeur and a big stone house built to look like a castle.
He was entitled to. He lived that way on account he used his head, allowed the public to have the things they wanted, instead of cracking down on them, sending out his cops to stop them having fun.
Nick had a nice set-up and everyone was happy. The public were happy, Big Nick was happy and the cops were happy. There was just one thing wrong with the set-up. Bannister!
How can a cop be so dumb?
The first day Bannister was registered on the force the Cop Captain treated him right and slipped a twenty-dollar bill into his hand.
Bannister stared at it, looked up at the Cop Captain suspiciously. "What's this for?" he demanded.
"That's for being smart," said the Cop Captain. "Nobody on the force has a pull over anyone else. We level right along the line. Everyone plays ball and it pays off equally all round."
Bannister looked puzzled but pocketed the dough. An hour later he came in off his beat with Legs Simon in tow. Legs Simon was hopping mad on account Bannister had busted up one of the richest poker schools he'd organised in the past six months. Legs indignantly demanded to see the Cop Captain, his mouthpiece, Big Nick and the President of the United States all at the same time.
The Cop Captain seated Legs in his office to cool off with a box of cigars and a bottle of whisky for company. Meantime he took Bannister to a quiet room where he could draw him a picture.
But Bannister didn't see reason. Bannister claimed he was a cop and was doing his duty. He insisted on pressing the charge, wrote it up in the charge book himself and Big Nick had to put up a twenty grand bond for Legs Simon. Furthermore, to make the records look good, the following morning the judge had to fine Legs Simon ten grand.
That hurt Big Nick. It cost him dough, and losing dough always hurt Nick. As organiser, Big Nick had to accept the final responsibility. He was liable for Legs Simon's fine, and what with the cops getting such a big cut on his earnings, Nick had to dig deep down in his bankroll.
You'd have thought that having shown his independence, Bannister would have learnt sense. But the guy was just dumb. The next night he brought in Spike Mullins, who's a collecting agent for the numbers racket.
The night after that, Mother O'Riley and twenty of her girls were being lined up before the bench.
The greatest danger to a precision made, well-oiled and smoothly working machine is one tiny, insignificant grain of sand!
In three days a tiny grain of sand disrupted our machine so murderously it nearly seized up. Nick told the Commissioner bluntly there would be no more splits for him until Bannister ceased interfering with the organisation.
That sure caused consternation. All the cops from the Commissioner down to the most humble flatfoot were as dependent upon their split as upon their wages.
The answer should have been easy for the Commissioner. Fire Bannister.
But it wasn't so easy. The Cop Captain had turned up Bannister's records, discovered he'd passed his police tests with flying colours, earned good merit certificates and was recommended for early promotion.
That wasn't a serious obstacle. Even the best of cops can take a tumble. But Bannister had connections! His father was a cop captain in Washington and he had an uncle in the Feds.
Bannister had confidently given the Cop Captain a broad hint he wasn't gonna be sacked easily. If he was, Washington and the Feds would be wanting to know the ins and outs of the dismissal.
It was victory for Bannister. The Cop Captain daren't sack Bannister without a good reason while, single-handed, Bannister was disrupting a beautiful, easily-running set-up that suited everyone else.
It was Nick who came up with the answer. He was always smarter than anyone else. So smart he didn't even tell the Commissioner about it.
"You get rid of that guy," he told him. "I don't care how you do it - just get rid of him!"
"But," protested the Commissioner helplessly, "what can I do? I'm powerless."
"You get your cut for keeping things sweet," said Nick, "So just keep 'em sweet."
It wasn't until we'd left the Commissioner's office that Nick told us what was at the back of his mind.
"There's only one way to get rid of Bannister," he gritted. "He's got to be discredited. He's gotta be thrown off the force in disgrace, and there has to be a damned good reason for sacking him."
"What d'you think I should do?" demanded Whitey. "Hypnotise him and tell him to rob a bank?"
"Hypnotising him won't be necessary," said Nick smoothly. "And robbing a bank's too big a project." He kinda hummed a little tune to himself. Then added thoughtfully: "I think a little petty robbery is more in Bannister's line. It won't be a big enough scandal to get publicity. But it'll be enough to earn him a stretch."
Sure, Nick was smart. He had an answer for everything. He liked things done right, too. That's why he was with us tonight. And that's why we were driving the silent streets in the middle of the night on the watch for that dope Bannister now pounding his beat.
Yeah, Bannister had it coming to him. Tonight he was gonna be discredited.