"That must be him," said Maxie.
"There's two of them," said Whitey, peering through the windscreen, screwing up his eyes.
"Drive past slowly," ordered Nick. "We can always turn around."
We drove past at a walking pace and Whitey grunted with satisfaction. "That's him!"
"How d'ya like that?" demanded Maxie. "He takes anything - the small fish as well as the big!"
"She's only a kid," said Whitey. "Shows the kinda cop he is. Won't even give a kid a break."
"Pull up here and wait for him," instructed Nick.
Maxie nailed the car and switched off the engine. Nick was as clam as though he was sipping tea in the Ritz. He took out his gold cigarette case, calmly lit up. Whitey was nervous and jumpy. He kinda squared his shoulders when he opened his mackintosh so he'd be able to get at the revolver in his shoulder holster without difficulty.
Maxie was watching Bannister in his driving mirror. "He's almost on top of us," he warned.
"Let's go," said Nick. He leaned forward to open the car door. "Let's do it right, huh?" he said. "Quiet and easy, no trouble. Understand?"
We piled out of the car as Bannister got level with us. The dame he had by the arm was a nondescript, mousy little thing, shabbily dressed and with big brown eyes that were badly scared. She couldn't have been more than nineteen.
Big Nick lazily straddled himself across the sidewalk, tossed away his half-smoked cigarette, took his cigarette case from his pocket and lit up another. The way he stood there completely blocked Bannister's path.
Bannister wasn't totally dumb. He knew it meant trouble and he watched with narrowed eyes as Whitey and Max lined themselves up on either side of Nick.
Bannister's fingers clutched more tightly around the young dame's arm so she gave a little whimper of pain. "Clear the way there, let me through," growled Bannister.
Maybe he figured he had street corner boys to deal with who'd be scared by a harsh voice. If so, he'd got Nick sized up wrongly. Nick didn't scare easy. In fact, Nick didn't scare at all - ever!
It was almost elegant the way Nick sucked leisurely at his cigarette, lazily blew a thin plume of smoke upwards and over the cop's head. Nick could do that kinda thing well, carry it off easily. He had a gentlemanly way, looked like a gentleman, too, with his broad-brimmed, black felt fedora and smart black overcoat. In fact, Big Nick had everything, tall, broad shoulders and a handsome face with eyes that were large and hypnotic.
"What's the trouble?" asked Nick pleasantly.
"What's it to you?" growled Bannister. "Outta my way!"
Nick smiled softly, blew more smoke impudently into Bannister's face. "What's the little dame done?"
Bannister took a deep breath and seemed to swell up like a turkey cock. He was a young cop, broad and strong. You could see right away he had ideas about promotion, wanted to get on the top and stay there and wasn't too particular how he did it. "I'll give you guys just three seconds to get outta my way," said Bannister, and his hand made a half movement towards the Police Special .38 in his hip pocket.
It was almost lazy the way Big Nick took a step forward. He was so close to Bannister their chests were almost touching. At the same time, Maxie, Whitey and me moved in as well, kinda surrounded Bannister.
Whitey did it so skilfully I didn't even see his gun. Bannister's jaw tightened and a frosty look came into his eyes as he felt the steel muzzle gouging hard into his side.
"You didn't ought treat a young dame that way," said Big Nick reproachfully.
The little dame looked at him with wide, terrified eyes. Her lip trembled like she was on the point of crying and she gave a little whimper of pain as Bannister gouged his fingers even more deeply into her arm.
I'll hand it to Bannister. He had guts. There was no trace of fear in his voice. "You guys are asking for trouble," he warned. "Real trouble. This is gonna get you in deep with the Feds."
The little dame must been in a daze. None of the conversation made sense to her. It would have done if she'd seen the gun Whitey was holding.
"You don't want to pinch the dame," drawled Nick. "Let her go."
The cop's hand was fastened around her arm like bands of steel. "You guys have still got a chance," he warned. "Get going before I change my mind."
I had to admire the guy because either he had guts or was too dumb to figure what a spot he was in.
Big Nick chuckled. Lazily he took his cigarette from his mouth and just as lazily, it seemed, stubbed the glowing end to Bannister's hand, the hand holding the dame.
A startled gasp of pain whistled through Bannister's teeth as he snatched back his hand. In the same moment his other hand began to come into action, drew back to lash out at Big Nick. But Whitey was right there, grabbing the cop's clenched fist, stabbing his gun barrel hard into his side so that he wheezed with agony.
"Get the dame outta here Joey," ordered Nick swiftly. "We'll take care of him."
She was scared as hell, open-mouthed, not understanding what was happening. I grabbed her arm, propelled her rapidly along the street towards the intersection. "Hurry along, kid," I growled. "You don't want to spend the night in the can, do you?"
She didn't. She scurried along beside me, throwing anxious glances over her shoulder as though afraid Bannister might set off after her again. She didn't need to worry. It didn't look like that was gonna happen. I couldn't see much of Bannister because the other three had crowded around him. It looked like he was awful busy.
I stopped to get my breath as soon as we were around the corner. She was breathing hard, too. I couldn't be sure if it was from nervousness or from hurrying.
"It's okay now, kid," I said, breathing heavily. "You scram."
"You mean…?" she faltered.
"Sure," I said. "You won't have any more trouble with that lug. Just beat it."
She stood staring at me, forlorn, frail and very young. She aroused in me a kinda fatherly sympathy. I wondered why a dame so young and so pathetic should be out so late. "What did he have on you anyway?" I demanded.
"He - he was arresting me for - vagrancy!" Her voice tailed off. She wasn't very far from tears.
"Get it off your chest, kid," I advised. "Tell me. You won't die of shame."
It all came out in a rush. "I've got nowhere to go," she half-sobbed. "I've got no money. I was just walking along the road and - "
Life can be tough at times. I thrust my hand in my pocket, pulled out a five-dollar bill. "Here, take this," I growled. "Buy yourself a night's sleep. Feed up some place tomorrow."
She looked at the money through a mist of tears. She just couldn't believe anything so wonderful was happening.
"Tuck it away, kid," I said gruffly. "And remember to keep out of sight of strong-arm cops."
"You're so kind," she quavered. "You and that other gentleman, the man who made him let me go. You're so kind." Her voice kinda broke.
"Gwan. Beat it now," I growled. "Don't hang around."
She looked up at me and her eyes were shining and filled with tears. She had a pinched little face and mousy-coloured hair that straggled from beneath a dusty old felt hat. The coat she wore was drab and threadbare. Yet the happiness and gratefulness in her shining eyes seemed to transform her so although she was nothing but a drab, mousy-looking dame, she seemed to radiate happiness.
"Gee. You've been good, mister!"
"Okay, now beat it."
"That other man, too. The handsome one."
She meant Big Nick. "Okay," I growled. "Now beat it, will ya?"
"You did it for me," she said wistfully. "It ain't gonna cause no trouble, is it?"
"It might if you don't beat it. Gwan now. Scram, will ya?" I gave her a light push and made shooing motions with my hands. "For crying out loud," I rasped. "Get going, will you?"
She stumbled away from me reluctantly, looked over her shoulder, kinda hesitated. "Gwan," I yelled. "Get cracking. He's coming after you. Beat it, will ya, ya dope!"
She sure was scared of going to gaol. Her worn shoes beat a rapid tattoo on the pavement. I watched until she was out of sight, merging into the shadows beyond the far street lamps, and even the clip-clop of her heels was swallowed up in the darkness.
I walked back around the corner to the deserted sidewalk. The car was drawn up into the kerb waiting for me.
"What the hell kept ya?" demanded Big Nick as I came up. He was sitting in the front now next to Maxie. Bannister was sitting in the back, glowering, with Whitey sitting smack up against him like a long-lost brother. I squeezed in the back the other side of Bannister.
"Okay, Max," ordered Nick. "Don't kill time any more."
Whitey chuckled as Max pulled out from the kerb. He's a guy with a twisted sense of humour, always trying to scare other folks. "What else are we gonna kill, boss?" he asked with an evil glitter in his eyes. He was looking steadily at Bannister.
"Cut that out!" rasped Nick.
If Whitey was trying to throw a scare into Bannister, he didn't succeed. The cop just breathed hard, clenched his fists tightly on his knees.
"I was kidding," defended Whitey.
We all knew he was kidding. Except maybe Bannister. Killings are serious matters at any time, any place. Killing was commonplace during Prohibition when inter-State police action wasn't synchronised. There were too many Beer Barons in the business those days. Competition was high and some of it had to be eliminated. The boys used machine guns and bombs to help along the elimination.
But that was a quarter of a century ago. Things are now different now. The rackets are run differently - well organised, and the wheels greased with green-backs, so there isn't anyone who doesn't get his pay-off. The rough-and-tumble stuff is over and gang wars are finished. The guys at the top today are gentlemen. Like Big Nick. They belong to the best clubs, know the best folks, dine with senators and play golf at week-ends.
Naturally, as with any other business, things don't run smoothly all the time. Occasionally, very occasionally, a little difficulty crops up and has to be handled. But it isn't the same as gang war, the retaliation killings and muscling-in on someone else's territory with strong-arm men. Nowadays it's the tactful disposal of an embarrassing factor. It always happens clean too. Usually a car accident or falling off a high building.
Yeah, killing a guy is sometimes a necessity. But it has to be undertaken with extreme caution.
Killing a cop is out of the question.
A cop-killing brings down the Feds quicker than an inter-State bank robbery. It's hell then. The local cop force is overhauled, the city's turned inside out and the Police Commissioner stands by hopelessly, knowing the attention of Washington is focused on him.
Yeah, cop-killing is something to steer away from. That's why Big Nick was along tonight, to make sure everything went off smoothly. He'd known Whitey was joking, but just the same he growled: "Cut out that kinda talk, Whitey. I don't wanna hear it. Not even in joke."
"Jeepers, creepers!" mumbled Whitey.
"Aw, let the cop sweat," growled Maxie.
Bannister kinda squared his shoulders. I could sense arrogance and confidence flooding outta him. He said in an ugly voice: "You rats can't scare me. You're gonna find yourselves in real trouble for this - real trouble!"