Everything was planned with the efficiency Big Nick displayed with everything he did.
Tobias Slack and his son Jeffery were gonna be the principal witnesses against Bannister. Nick had chosen them with care, partly because of their jeweller's shop, partly because they lived on the premises, and partly because they'd never had trouble of any kind with the police previously.
There was another reason, too. A reason which wasn't known to many people. Tobias Slack was the cashier for the numbers racket in the district. Like everyone else, Tobias was going to feel the pinch if Bannister succeeded in summoning the numbers agents and listing heavy fines against them.
Jeffery Slack cautiously opened the shuttered shop door and we urged Bannister inside. Whitey directed him to a chair in the centre of the shop and stood behind him pressing the gun into his ribs.
Nick stood in the centre of the shop, tall, broad and imposing, like he had a spotlight on him. He lit another cigarette, glanced around slowly as he did so.
The shop shutters were down, bolted firmly in position. Only a few rays of light escaped into the darkness through the ventilator high up in the shutters. Nick grunted with satisfaction as he saw the doors of the glass showcases broken open, the display trays pulled out, emptied of the contents and scattered on the floor. He looked at Tobias Slack and his son, both clad in their pyjamas as Nick had instructed, and asked softly: "How did he get in?"
Tobias's eyes gleamed. "Musta used a jemmy," he chuckled.
"Hear that, Maxie?" drawled Nick. "He musta used a jemmy on the door."
Max grinned, dived down in his pocket and drew out the jemmy he'd brought along with him. We watched as he went out through the shop door, closed it behind him. There was a furrow of perplexity on Bannister's brow. He didn't get any of this. He licked his lips, glared around. "What are you guys playing at?" he demanded.
"Quit squawking!" rasped Whitey. He gouged the gun-muzzle into Bannister's side, using unnecessary force. Bannister's teeth clicked shut like a trap and his knuckles gleamed whitely. That jab had hurt. You could tell from the way he screwed up his eyes. But it did more than hurt. It goaded him to explosion point. You can goad anyone, even a mild guy, to the point where they blow their top. And Bannister wasn't mild!
Nick was watching Bannister. He saw the danger signal. "Better take it easy, copper," he warned. "Getting though won't do you any good."
Maxie was working on the door now. I could hear the soft scraping as he inserted the keen blade of the finely-tempered steel in the crack of the door jamb. He began levering and it was like the tiny scratching of mice. Even when the hinges gave and the door splintered inwards it didn't make all that noise.
Maxie forced his way inside through the gap between the door and the doorpost and grinned broadly.
"You're not the only one who stops up nights," snarled Big Nick. "Bolt that door back in position before someone gets curious."
Bannister still didn't get it. His forehead puckered as he watched Maxie carefully prop the forced door back into its frame. There was a kinda tenseness about him, a kinda rolled-up spring tenseness so we knew he'd erupt into action the first chance he got.
Maxie grinned with satisfaction, wiped his handkerchief across his sweating forehead.
"The jemmy!" snapped Nick irritably. "Whadya waiting for?"
Maxie used his handkerchief to wipe the jemmy clean of fingerprints. Then he crossed to Bannister, still holding one end of the jemmy in the handkerchief.
"Catch hold of that!" rasped Whitey in the cop's ear.
Bannister glared around at him. Then slowly he turned his head back to face Maxie.
"Grab that jemmy!" gritted Whitey.
Reluctantly, Bannister reached for it, gingerly touched one end.
"Get a good grip on it!" rasped Whitey. "Grip it good and hard. Try to twist it outta his hand."
Whitey punctuated his sentences with savage jabs from the gun. It must been wearing to Bannister. That gun-muzzle was painful. There was sweat on his forehead as his fingers tightened around the jemmy, clenched it tightly, tried to twist it from Maxie's grasp.
"Okay," snapped Whitey. "That's enough." Then, as Bannister released the jemmy and relaxed back in his chair, Maxie tossed the jemmy towards the door. It fell on the floor, mute evidence to a crime.
It wasn't until then that Bannister realised what was gonna happen. I saw the incredulity in his eyes, the thunderstruck expression on his face. But Nick was already rushing on, arranging every detail.
"You," he said, pointing at Jeffery Slack. "Let's have a look at you."
Jeffery was a young fella, tall and gangling, with a hank of black hair that hung down over one eye, and a loose jaw. He shuffled forward sheepishly, stood still while Nick looked him over.
"What happened?" asked Nick.
Jeffrey shuffled his feet in embarrassment, ran his fingers though his hair and stammered: "I heard a noise, see. In the shop. So I woke Pop and we both come down together. There was this guy here filling his pockets with rings and stuff he'd taken from the trays." He thumbed towards Bannister.
"You're sure this is the guy?" asked Nick.
"Sure I'm sure," said Jeffery with stolid conviction. "As soon as I saw him he rushed at me with the jemmy." He nodded towards the jemmy lying on the floor at the door.
"Then what happened?"
"He tried to brain me," said Jeffrey indignantly. "But I managed to grab his arm, grappled with him. We rolled all over the place, all the time him trying to bash my head in. Then Pop arrived."
Nick turned to Maxie. "The kid said he was stuffing his pockets with rings and jewellery."
Maxie grinned, picked up a handful of assorted jewellery from the up-ended tray and scattered them across the floor. He took another handful, walked across to Bannister and dropped them into the pocket of his tunic.
The cop still couldn't believe it was happening. It stunned him he should be framed in such a coldblooded fashion. He swallowed hard and his thick neck was red right up to the ears. It looked to me like Whitey was gonna have to watch him. Pretty soon that cop would be good and mad.
"For a guy that's had a life and death struggle, you look might serene," Nick told Jeffrey.
"I suppose so," said Jeffrey ruefully. He raised his fingers to his hair, fluffed it over his head. Then he shredded the buttons form his pyjama jacket and tore one of the sleeves. "How's that?" he asked brightly, like he'd done something clever.
"Not enough," said Nick curtly. He looked at Maxie again. "Fix him up, fella."
"Sure," said Maxie. "I'll fix him." He walked across to Jeffrey who stood waiting patiently. The kid never knew it was coming. Maxie's first caught him flush in the eye, sent him hurtling backwards, shoulders thudding against the ground. He was three-quarters dazed when Maxie grabbed him by the collar, dragged him around the floor rumpling the pyjamas and covering them with dust. That sock in the eye must hurt. Already it was swelling and reddening. In no time it would be turning a deep purple.
The kid began to squawk, Anyone would. It wasn't pleasant being dragged around that way.
"Okay, Maxie," drawled Nick. "That's enough, finish him off now."
Maxie stood back, allowed the kid to climb to his feet. The kid was whimpering now, hot tears of pain scalding his good eye and his shoulder bleeding where a nail in the rough flooring had ripped the skin.
Once again the kid didn't know it was happening. He'd reached his feet when Maxie's knuckles lashed with the speed of a striking snake. In was a carefully chosen blow, landed flush on the kid's nose, pulping flesh and bone. The kid sat down hard, blood spurting from his nose like a fountain.
Nick eyed Jeff with satisfaction as he sat on the floor, both hands clasped to his face, blood trickling through his fingers, dripping on his bare chest and staining his torn pyjamas.
"That's fine," he said. "That's real fine. The kid sure did put up a fight." Leisurely he turned to stare at Bannister. "You didn't come out of that too well either," he grinned evilly.
Bannister eyed Max warily as he advanced on him. He clenched his teeth, breathed hard as Max ripped buttons from his tunic and tore his collar.
"Okay, copper," snarled Whitey. "Down on your knees."
The cop was really beginning to realise what he was up against. He was unwilling and apprehensive. But, as Whitey once again jabbed the gun-muzzle into the same inflamed side, he winced and went down on his knees in front of his chair.
"Bend over," gritted Whitey. "Bend right down, forehead touching the floor."
No one's ever tried to pretend Maxie is a gentleman. He didn't act like a gentleman either. Because no gentleman ever uses his feet as Maxie did.
His heavy boot caught Bannister flush in the centre of his puss as he lowered his head. The vicious kick snapped his head back on his shoulders, lifting him over backwards so that he sprawled on the dusty floor of the shop, half-conscious, blood lathering his face.
"Don't overdo it, dope," warned Nick as Maxie swung back his foot again. "That'll be enough."
Bannister moaned and clamped his hands to his face. Whitey moved over, stood over him, leering down and holding the gun pointing straight at his belly. He snarled: "Gee, I'd like to give it him. One cocky flatfoot causing all this trouble!"
"Get them ideas out of your mind, Whitey," warned Nick ominously.
"Hell! I wouldn't really do it," said Whitey. But Maxie's brutal actions had aroused the blood-lust in Whitey. I could see malicious hatred glittering in his eyes. Right then he'd have got a grand kick outta putting a bullet in Bannister.
Nick turned back to Tobias. The old man had been watching everything with a hard, tight-lipped expression.
"What about you, Pop?" asked Nick.
"You're way off beam, Nick," he protested. He licked his lips. "There was no deal about beating up Jeffery that way. You're going too far, Nick."
Nick smiled disarmingly. "Don't get worried, Pop." he said cheerfully. "Jeff's okay. It's all over now. He's had a bang on the sneezer. But that makes his story good, see? And the pain's almost gone now. It was worth it, well worth it. Ask him what can buy with the century note he's gonna get."
The kid stopped whimpering, lowered his hands from his face, stared up at Nick eagerly. "Is that true, Pop?" he demanded excitedly, speaking thickly because of the blood clogging his nostrils. "Do I get a 'C' note, Pop?"
"Sure, Jeff," comforted Nick. "Take it now." He pulled a century note form his vest pocket and tossed it towards Jeff like it was confetti. It wasn't confetti to Jeff. He scuttled on hands and knees across the floor, grabbed at the fluttering not before it touched down.
"He's happy enough, Pop," said Nick. "Now, what about you? What happened?"
Tobias swallowed, glanced at Jeff's bloodied face, shrugged his shoulders and looked back at Nick. "Just the way Jeff just said it was. I came down and found them grappling on the floor. The cop had that jemmy in his hand, was trying to bash Jeff's brains in. I couldn't stand by and see that happening. I had to stop him some way."
"How did you stop him?" prompted Nick.
"I always keep a sap here, under the counter," explained Tobias, "It's always there handy in case of emergency. I used that."
"That's fine," said Nick. "Let's see you get it. Let's see you use it."
Tobias went around the counter, dug down and came up with a black, pear-shaped lump of rubber which he attached to his wrist by a loop of leather cord. The leaden core to that sap made it a formidable weapon.
Bannister was half-sitting on the floor now, shaking his head to clear it. Whitey was standing over him, half-watching Tobias as he advanced towards Bannister, dangling the sap in a businesslike manner.
Whitey shoulda been smarter. He shoulda known that cop was desperate by this time. No one lies down waiting to be sapped without making some effort to save themselves.
Bannister shook his head once more, vigorously this time. Then he went into action like a released spring. His legs doubled up, so his knees hit against his chest. Then he was kicking out with terrific force, smashing the soles of his boots hard against Whitey's ankles, kicking his feet clear from underneath him so he hit the floor with a tremendous thud, shaking himself badly and letting go the revolver as his hands automatically went out to break his fall..
I suppose he was a good cop. He'd taken plenty of punishment with that boot in the puss. But there was nothing slow about the way he rolled, scooped up the revolver, levelled it and slowly climbed to his feet. There was an ugly gleam in his eyes as he backed away from us, swivelled the revolver from side to side, covering all of us at the same time.
"Now, you monkeys," he breathed. "Now you're really for it. Get your hands up, all of you!" He gestured fiercely at Whitey. "Come on, hophead! On your feet!"
I've seen plenty of guys who've been angry. Bannister was as angry as any I'd seen. There was murderous, red-hot hatred in his eyes and his finger on the trigger of that gun was tighter than I wanted to see it. It was Whitey's gun and Whitey always used a hair-trigger. I didn't make any arguments. Almost before he'd finished speaking my arms were climbing. The others felt the same way. Their arms were climbing, too. And it wasn't only fear that held us. It was knowledge. It was knowledge that the cop would shoot any of us and it would be regarded as in the line of his duty. No cop's ever been hung for shooting a guy. Bannister had the law on his side, and the way he looked then he was ready to use it to his own advantage.
Nick was the only one who wasn't scared. He'd raised his hands above his head but he still puffed at his cigarette nonchalantly. "Too bad we didn't catch you cleanly, Bannister," he drawled. "I wanted to wrap it up for the Commissioner." He sighed, shrugged his shoulders. "It's the same story, though. We heard Pop and his kid yelling their heads off, burst our way in here to help them and found you with that gun in your hand."
Nick had a nerve talking to an anger-inflamed cop that way. I couldn't see the lower part of Bannister's face because it was masked with blood. But I could see his eyes and they showed the fight he was having not to squeeze off lead.
He breathed deeply, got himself under control; jabbed his revolver towards Maxie. "Okay, fella," he rasped. "You first. Keep your hands above your head, turn around and walk over here backwards."
He sure was a smart cop. He sure was a smart cop. He was taking care of important things first. Maxie was the one who'd relieved him of his .38 Police Special. He wanted that back. And he got it back.
Max was facing us as Bannister, still keeping his revolver levelled, slid his free hand into Maxie's pocket and turned himself into a two-gun man.
Bannister's philosophy must been an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The barrel of that Police Special slashed with paralysing force at the nape of Maxie's neck. His eyes rolled upwards, his head went back and his knees sagged. He kinda twisted as he fell and Bannister's knee was waiting, rocketed upwards, smashed flush into Maxie's face. The gun was ready, too, slashed at him savagely.
Maxie was lucky because he didn't hover around in a haze of pain the way Bannister did. He went out cold. Unconscious is the best way to be when you've been pistol-whipped.
Bannister breathed hard, flashed a quick glance down at Maxie, who was lying quite still, and then glared at me. "Okay, dope," he snarled. "You guys asked for it. You're next. Over here."
He was pointing at me. It was strange. I'd been scared before. But seeing Maxie treated that way knocked all the fear out of me. Instead, I was feeling as angry as Bannister had been a few moments before. My upraised hands were quivering with rage and my head was swelling like it was gonna burst.
"That's it, fella," taunted Bannister. "Rush me. That's just what I'm waiting for." His voice was gloating and he was deadly serious. He'd shoot me down without compunction. I knew it and he knew it. Yet just the same I was tensing myself, clenching my fists, swaying forward on tip-toe, ready to dive at him and pulp what was still recognisable of his features.
"Take it easy, Joey," said Nick clearly. His voice was quiet, smooth like silk, and it took all the stream outta me, steadied me down. It was always the same when I heard Big Nick's voice. He could always soothe me that way.
He went on talking, smoothly like silk so I wanted to listen to him all the time. "Lay off this guy, Bannister," he said. "He's got lead in his head. Slug him in the wrong place and you've got a corpse on your hands."
Bannister sneered. "You want I should turn you guys in without you suffer first! Each and every one of you's gonna get the same as me. It'll be something to brood about while you're in gaol."
Nick's voice was still smooth, still unconcerned. Yet there was an intensity in it that got over. "Don't you touch that guy," Big Nick warned. "You've got the drop on us now but I'm warning you. Don't you dare touch that guy!"
Bannister's pulped lips writhed back to show his teeth in a sneer. But somehow Nick's voice seemed to have influenced him. He growled. "Why should bother about you? You'll get what's coming to you, anyway."
Still keeping his two guns levelled, he sidled towards the telephone. Big Nick said deliberately: "You're not gonna do any telephoning, cop. You're in a jam. You've got just one chance. Beat it. If you don't take that chance you're all washed up. We're all witnesses. You're just a cheap crook." As he spoke he took a step forward.
Bannister jagged with the revolver. "Git back!" he snarled. "Get back!"
"You can't scare me," said Nick. He was standing there, tall and commanding, with his big black eyes boring into Bannister. Slowly and deliberately he lowered his arms, let them hand limply at his side. "You're all washed up, fella," he said. "You're finished. You daren't telephone."
There was something about Nick's voice. It carried conviction. Even though Bannister musta known we couldn't frame him now, the magnetism of Nick's voice influenced him. He made an effort. "Get those hands up!" he roared. "Get back!"
"You won't shoot me," said Nick smoothly. "You're too good a cop for that. You're not mad enough to shoot me." He took another step forward.
The advantage of holding a gun on a guy is knowing he's scared of it and will do anything you want so you won't shoot. But you lose that advantage when the guy's not scared and defies you to shoot.
"Git back, I told you!" rasped Bannister, and I could see the sweat standing out on his forehead. Then, as Big Nick didn't move but continued to stare at him with a mocking smile on his lips, the cop got flustered, put down one gun while he cradled the receiver of the telephone in his hand. "I'll fix you guys," he muttered. "Get you down to headquarters."
Nick said quietly. "Okay, Max. Take him now,"
He was looking over Bannister's shoulder, and it was a trick as old as the hills. Yet, old as the trick is, the instinct of human survival is even older. Bannister flinched, ducked and swung around quickly.
Thinking it over, I see Big Nick must planned every move he made. His three challenging steps in the face of the pointing revolver brought him just within range of Bannister. When he sprang, his hands were outstretched, grasping for the revolver. He got his hands around Bannister's wrist at the same time his shoulder hit him in the chest. They hit the ground together, rolled over and over, struggling desperately like a coupla jungle cats in a fight-to-the-death embrace.
Whitey dived for the Police Special the cop had left beside the telephone. He wasn't happy until he got his hands around a gun-butt. I wasn't thinking about the gun. I was thinking about Nick, scared right deep down inside me in case that crazy cop somehow twisted his gun around and put a slug through Nick's chest. I wanted to be right in there, helping Nick, helping hold down that damned cop, and suddenly realised Tobias was hanging on to my arm, shrieking in my ear: "You can't do it, Joey. You've gotta keep out of it. You've gotta keep out of it. Do you hear me? Remember your head, think of your head."
The words were like hammer-blows, punching, driving into my brain. It was like Nick was saying it to me. Drumming it into me as he always did, over and over again. "Keep out of fights, Joey. Remember your head. Don't get your head banged."
It made me sweat all over. Those words rooted my feet deep in the ground so I stood there watching impotently as Nick and the cop rolled over and over, struggling desperately, while Whitey stood over them, gun poised ready to smash down the gun-butt when an opportunity presented itself.
It was a mad, desperate fight. And Whitey, waiting ineffectually, was caught off guard for the second time that evening when a smashing kick from Bannister cracked against his ankle and brought him to the ground moaning and swearing with pain.
Nick had got the upper hand now, was straddled across Bannister's chest, still grasping his wrist and trying to shake loose the gun. Then a swift, sharp punch from Bannister chopped cleanly across Nick's throat. His eyes kinda bulged as he went over sideways, half-choking, but still gamely holding on to the gun hand.
I wanted to wade right in there and help Nick even though his warning words were hammering through my brain, nailing me to the floor, telling me I mustn't get into a fight. The sweat was oozing outta me and I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks. In a vague kinda way I knew I was calling out his name over and over again. It was almost a desperate shout. "Nick! Nick! Nick!"
They were panting loud like animals. the noise of their breathing filling the room. They rolled, smashed into a showcase, brought it down, spattering the floor with glass. I could see blood on the floor, on Nick's face and on the cop's clothes. I kept screaming Nick's name, felt Tobias hanging on to my arm, shouting at me to pipe down. It was hot and the room was getting black and I was crying so much the salt tears were stinging my cheeks.
It came to an end abruptly. It was like the knell of doom. It shattered the noisy turmoil of the struggling, blasted through the darkness of the room, smashed at my mind like a death-blow.
It was one shot. Just one loud, vibrating shot.
I was weak like jelly. A great fear was in my heart. My lips began to tremble and I could hear myself whimpering, whimpering like a dog who's lost his master. The others were silent, too staring at that torn and blood-spattered pair lying amid the debris of the shattered showcases.
My heart was in my head, aching intolerably with the misery and agony born of a great fear and a great loss.
I was whimpering aloud and nobody was trying to stop me. Then there was movement, the two figures on the floor separating, one pushing itself to a sitting position, brushing a bloodied hand across its forehead.
A wonderful joy spread through me. I gulped with happiness, felt myself trembling violently with the sudden relief. He wasn't dead! It hadn't happened. Nick was still alive. The cop hadn't shot him.
The complex pattern of my mind began to whirl around, form itself into queer shapes and re-arrange itself in a clear pattern that hampered my relief at realising the cop hadn't shot Nick.
This was bad for Nick. I knew it right away. It was what Nick had always wanted to avoid. A dead cop is always trouble. Trouble that's worse than any other trouble.
And this was real trouble because it made Nick - a cop-killer!