It was the next day when Big Nick got the phone call from the Police Commissioner. We had to do things the right way. It wouldn't do for the Police Commissioner to go visiting Nick. So Nick went along to the Commissioner's office just like any other ordinary guy who's been told to come along for questioning.
Nick took me with him. I knew he took me because he liked to have me around; Maxie and Whitey were jealous about it. They said it was on account Nick didn't want the Commissioner to see Maxie's mussed-up puss.
But I knew different.
The Commissioner had a swell office. It was as big as a pool-room, covered with a thick carpet you had to wade through. The furniture was gleaming, polished mahogany, and his desk was massive, bearing three telephones, a large virgin-white blotting pad and three trays of official-looking files tied with blue raffia tape.
As soon as the uniformed cop announced us and closed the door behind us, Nick began to chuckle.
The Commissioner was a lean, middle-aged guy, with an almost bald head, waxed moustache and thick, bushy eyebrows.
"Sit down, Nick," he invited, with an anxious look in his eyes as though he was worried Nick wasn't gonna be comfortable there. He dug down in a desk drawer, came up with a new box of cigarettes which he opened hurriedly, placed ready at Nick's elbow. Then he dug down in another drawer, fished out some glasses and a bottle of bourbon.
Nick seated himself, easily, lazily. I took another chair close by, sat hunched forward on the edge of it, listening intently for everything Nick was gonna say.
Nick chuckled softly. It was a mocking kinda chuckle.
"What's so funny, Nick?" asked the Commissioner anxiously.
Nick looked around the room slowly, flicked ash from his cigarette on to the thick carpet. "This place," he said. "You sitting up here with a set-up like this, an income from the Government and ordering me here like I'm a little punk that has to run when you snap your fingers."
"You know how it is, Nick…" began the Commissioner.
"Sure, sure," said Nick. "I know how it is. You've gotta do things the right way, uphold your position." He chuckled again. "It kinda amuses me through. You having all this and being dependent upon me for it. Knowing if it wasn't for me you'd be out on your ear."
Nick spoke the last sentence so pleasantly and so easily it wasn't possible to tell if it was a casual comment or a threat. The Commissioner's eyes stared into Nick's. It was the Commissioner who broke first. He looked down at the bottle of bourbon, reached for it with a nervous hand, asked jerkily: "Straight or soda?"
"Straight," said Nick.
He poured three fingers, pushed the glass across the desk to towards Nick. He filled another glass, pushed it towards me.
Big Nick said quickly as I reached towards it: "Joey doesn't drink, Commissioner. Count him out this round."
I looked at Nick reproachfully, shrugged my shoulders unhappily as he shook his head at me and let my hand fall back to my side.
The Commissioner stared at me, looked at Big Nick meaningly. "How's he doing?"
The anger glowed in Big Nick's eyes. "Who're you talking about that way?" he demanded harshly. "What d'ya mean, how's he doing?"
The Commissioner was white, worried and flustered. "I didn't mean nothing, Nick," he protested. "I just asked…"
"Just watch you tongue," warned Big Nick, ominously.
The Commissioner may not have watched his tongue. But he certainly looked as if he was doing his best to swallow it. I felt all good and warm inside. Nick always made me feel that way. Fending off guys who tried to make me feel bad.
The Commissioner sat down, spread his hands on his blotting pad and stared steadily at his copper inkstand.
"Nick," he said, "I've got trouble."
"We've all got troubles," said Nick easily. He blew smoke-rings with charming unconcern.
"This is serious trouble, Nick," said the Commissioner.
"All trouble is serious, Commisssioner. Haven't you learned that yet?" Nick still blew smoke-rings. Trouble didn't worry him any.
"This is real bad trouble, Nick. It's a cop-killing."
For just a coupla seconds it looked like Nick was frozen. Even the smoke-rings seemed momentarily to hover and stop drifting upwards. Then his face hardened as he twisted around in his chair to face the Commissioner squarely. In an instant he'd changed from a pleasant, easy-going conversationalist into a hard, seriously perturbed business man. "Did you say a cop-killing?" he said ominously.
"That's right, Nick," faltered the Commissioner, like he was scared to repeat it. "One of the fellas on our force. Got himself a bullet through the chest."
Nick stared at the Commissioner like the whole world was coming to an end and the Commissioner was to blame for it. Then he stood up slowly, deliberately ground out the stub of his cigarette on the highly-polished wood of that beautiful table. "You've said it. You've got yourself real trouble, Commissioner," said Nick. You could see him fighting the anger inside him.
"That's why I had to see you," said the Commissioner weakly.
Nick said quickly: "Now just a minute, Commissioner. I'm keeping out of this. I'm having nothing to do with it. It's your baby, you handle it."
The Commissioner's eyes were wide and startled. "But what I want…"
"I don't care what you want," interrupted Nick heavily. "Cop-killings mean trouble. Just make sure you handle it the right way." He glanced around the room meaningly. "You've got plenty of reason for handling it properly. Make sure you don't slip up."
"Nick. Just let me…" began the Commissioner desperately.
Nick ignored him, took a coupla turns up and down the room, talking all the time. "We've got a sweet set-up. Now we get this dumped in our laps. A cop-killing! How d'you get that way? Can't you run this town straight? It should be easy enough. You've got me doing all the thinking for you."
"Nick. You've gotta listen," interrupted the Commissioner. "The cop was Bannister. He's the cop with family connections in Washington."
Nick stopped pacing, turned back to face the Commissioner. His face was like a thundercloud. "Couldn't you have looked after that guy better?" he snarled. "You knew he was heading for trouble. A guy sticking his neck out that way was sure to get the chopper. You should have foreseen that, looked after that guy."
The Commissioner's face was haggard. "Nick, I just want to ask you one thing. Did you…?"
Nick interrupted him once more. "You've gotta find the guy that did it, Commissioner. The chances are it was one of your own men, fed up with the way Bannister was causing everyone trouble. It was a crazy thing to do and the guy who did it has gotta take the can back."
"Nick," persisted the Commissioner. "I've gotta ask you this straight. I've just gotta. Did you - did you - arrange it?'
Nick stared at him, eyes widening incredulously. "Me? Me bump off a cop? Are you crazy?"
The Commissioner swallowed hurriedly, Nick was so outraged at the suggestion, he'd got the Commissioner convinced.
"I just thought…" faltered the Commissioner. "Bannister was a pain in the neck and…"
"Wait a minute," interrupted Nick as though an idea had just occurred to him. "Where is this guy Bannister, anyway?"
"They've got him in the morgue. Found him on the highway a coupla miles outta town early this morning."
Nick was deep in thought, rubbing his chin. Quite automatically he seemed to take over control. "I tell you what to do," he said. "You fix it so Bannister had a shooting accident on the practice range. Get one of two reliable cops to testify. That'll save trouble all round."
The Commissioner was white-faced. "We can't rig anything, Nick," he said. "It's gotta come out."
"Why has it got to come out? The newspapers aren't on to it. it happened this morning. They'd have plastered the streets by this time."
The Commissioner's face was lined and haggard. "They would have done if I hadn't taken care of it. The two guys who found Bannister wanted a quick buck. They phoned the cops first and the newspapers afterwards. We've got three reporters in the cells downstairs now and they're raring to go. I charged them on technical grounds of obstruction. But I gotta let them loose, Nick. There's not just one of them. There's three of them. We can't keep them all quiet."
I saw tiny muscles at ht side of Nick's temples tauten. I knew he was furious at this piece of news. But his face didn't show it. He shrugged his shoulders. "Okay, then," he said. "The story's gotta come out. I just feel sorry for you, Commissioner."
"I'm worried, Nick. What'll I do?"
"There's only one thing you can do. Find the guy who did it and hang it on him. Find his so quick the Feds won't even bother to come over and look around. Your fellas oughta do some police work sometime. Haven't they got any leads they can follow up? Can't they find a fall guy?"
"There was one lead," said the Commissioner slowly. "Whoever shot Bannister carved the initials R.R. on his forehead with a penknife."
Nick's eyes narrowed. "Randy Regan," he said softly. "Surely he wouldn't have been dope enough to…"
"It was just possible," agreed the Commissioner. "I've been checking all morning. Had a dozen plain-clothes men on it. Randy's got a complete alibi and so have his men."
"He could have hired a torpedo to come in from outta town," said Nick. "Did you think of that?"
"But it isn't logical, Nick," protested the Commissioner. "Regan ain't as big as you. But he has got a piece of South Side and like you he wants to run it with as little trouble as possible. A cop-killing is as serious for him as it is for the rest of us."
Nick shrugged. "That's it, then. It musta been some other guy. And it's up to you, Commissioner. You've gotta handle this the best way so it causes the minimum of trouble."
"Nick!" said the Commissioner.
Nick looked him straight in the eye. "Well?"
"I've gotta think of my position," said the Commissioner. "I've gotta do this thing right. I just wanna be sure of myself. That's why I wanted to see you, Nick. I'll string along with you. I just wanna know where I stand. So I'm asking you again. Did you get rid of Bannister?"
Nick stared at him levelly; he shook his head sorrowfully. "You get the craziest ideas, Commissioner. I'd run a mile from a cop-killing."
"But it fits in, Nick. He was causing you trouble. Then suddenly…this!"
"He was causing you trouble, too." Nick narrowed his eyes. "Let me ask you the same thing, Commissioner. Did you kill him?"
The Commissioner was startled. He sat back in his chair, horrified at the suggestion. "Of course not! The very idea is preposterous and…"
"That's just the way I feel about it," said Nick slowly. "And it's all in your lap now, Commissioner. You've gotta handle this. And for your sake I hope you're gonna handle it right."
"I had to see you, Nick," said the Commissioner. "I've got it all worked out. This thing can't be hidden. It's gotta come out in the open. I shan't shilly-shally with it. The only way I can maintain my position and help you is by being on the right side. So I've decided the line to take. I'm not gonna wait for the Feds to take an interest of their own accord. I'm gonna write to Washington tonight. I'm gonna invite those Feds over. I'm gonna give statements to the Press and I'm gonna insist no efforts be spared until the murderer is found."
I saw that little vein at the side of Nick's temple throbbing again. The Commissioner was showing him the writing on the wall. He could climb down now, tell the Commissioner what had really happened, delay the investigation.
Maybe he had the angles figured, or maybe it was just sheer vanity. He lit another cigarette slowly, impudently puffed smoke across the table. "I wish you luck, Commissioner," he said lazily. "I hope you get your man."
We went straight back to the Devil's Dive, the night club Nick owned. It was a swell joint, patronised by the best of society and any other sucker who could afford to spend five hundred bucks on an evening's entertainment.
Nick was deep in thought all the way back, didn't say one word to me. I ran the car down the ramp to the garage beneath the night club, reversed it so it would be ready to go out again and crossed to the private lift which took us up to our apartment above.
It wasn't until we got into Nick's private sitting-room that he spoke. "Get Maxie. Get Whitey," he ordered brusquely.
Maxie was soaking in his luxurious black and white tiled bath. He was in an ugly mood, upset about his broken nose which was covered in plaster, and the two black eyes which would prevent him appearing in public for a few days. He growled he'd be along in a minute, and I went along to stir up Whitey.
It was the wrong time for Whitey, too. He'd got out the hypodermic and his little capsule of dope, all ready to give himself a shot. "Can't Nick wait?" he groaned.
"He says you're to come right away."
Whitey sighed, put the hypodermic away in his drawer. He'd been an addict for years, wasn't satisfied with an under-the-skin injection. He always main-lined his jolts straight into his bloodstream. That way it gave him a more exciting jag in a shorted space of time. But to dig down and find a vein he had to have time. He couldn't rush a job like that.
When we got to his sitting-room, Nick didn't waste time. "Bannister's been found," he said coldly. "The Feds are coming down form Washington to investigate."
There was a kind shocked silence. Whitey gulped. Maxie stirred uneasily.
"We've gotta watch every move we make," said Nick. He walked across the room, stubbed out his cigarette in a big glass ashtray. We looked at him, kinda dangling in suspense and waiting for what he would say next.
He spoke over his shoulder. "Check up for me, Whitey," he said. "Tobias Slack. Can he be replaced?"
A mean smile twisted Whitey's lips. "You mean who can replace him?"
Nick turned around, flashed him a glance of meaning through narrowed eyelids. It could have been a warning glance, although I couldn't tell what the warning was. "I mean." he repeated with heavy emphasis, "check up on Tobias Slack. There's only six guys who know who killed Bannister. Us four here, Tobias and Jeffery. We've gotta be sure they won't talk."
Again that meaning grin from Whitey. "I get it," he said. "I get it. I know the way you work, Nick."
"Then you know it's smart not to talk too much," snapped Nick.
Whitey chuckled. It was an unpleasant chuckle. He usually chuckled that way when he looked at me. This time he wasn't looking at me.
"You'd better see Tobias," said Nick. "Tell him we'll be along tonight. Tell him it'll be late, when there's on one around." Again that warning look at Whitey.
I didn't get any of it. I cleared my throat. "Tell me what you want done, boss," I said. "I'll go see him. You don't have to bother."
Nick's big eyes watched me gently. "It's okay, Joey," he said. "I'm taking care of it. But you can help me. Go find Sinclaire. Tell him I wanna talk with him."
I was half-way through the door when I remembered Sinclaire, the night club head waiter, wouldn't be on duty for another hour. I turned back.
"I wanna see him now," said Nick.
"He won't be here yet, boss," I said. "He doesn't report for an hour or more."
"But he may be here already, Joey," said Nick soothingly. "Be a good fella. Go get him if you can find him."
I knew there were times when I wasn't so smart. I couldn't always remember thing and I was slow thinking, too. But I was right about Sinclaire. The night club was completely deserted. Not even the cleaners had arrived yet. I went back upstairs, was puzzled by the way they all stopped talking when I went in.
"Like I said," I told Nick. "He wasn't there."
"Too bad," he drawled. He kinda nodded his head at Maxie and Whitey in dismissal. "That's all, fellas," he said. "Now we wait until tonight."
"You don't have to bother, boss," I said eagerly. "I'll fix it."
"It's all fixed, Joey," he said. "You get some sleep this afternoon. You won't get much rest tonight talking with Tobias Slack."
"Okay, boss," I agreed reluctantly, just a little hurt he wouldn't let me do the job for him.
"You've got it all straight now?" asked Nick.
He seemed to be talking to the other two, and not to me.
I looked at Nick, puzzled, wondering if I was missing anything.
"Everything's okay, Joey," he said soothingly. "Just you get some sleep. Spend two or three hours in bed. Off you go now."
It worried me. It worried me all the way up to my bedroom. It worried me when I was lying down so I couldn't get to sleep for a long while.
Whitey's laugh, I mean. The way he chuckled deep down in his throat as I came outta Nick's room. It was like he knew something I didn't.
* * *
Tobias Slack looking worried. His son Jeff looked scared outta his life, white-faced and shaking. We stood around in his shop-parlour with the windows heavily shuttered and just one solitary light bulb shining.
"Who else could have known Bannister was here last night?" asked Nick.
"Nobody," said Tobias.
"You're sure of that?"
"Positive," he said anxiously.
Nick looked at his fingernails, polished them on the cuff of his coat. Then he inspected them again. "How about tonight? Who knows we're here tonight?"
"I keep telling you, Nick," protested Tobias, "Nobody knows anything about it. There's only us six know you killed the cop…" He broke off, stared at Nick with a glint of fear in his eyes. Nick was staring at him, eyes hard as black diamonds, his gaze penetrating as a rock drill.
"What was that, Pop?" he asked softly.
"I mean…" faltered Pop, "none of us here know about that cop-killing."
"Your memory seems kinda shaky," said Nick, ominously. "You seem to be remembering things that didn't happen."
Pop dropped his head. "I wasn't thinking," he muttered. "It kinda slipped out."
"Things slipping out can be dangerous all round."
Nick polished his fingernails some more, inspected them and gave a grunt of satisfaction. Then he looked around with the air of just having entered a bar. "What about a drink, Pop?" he asked. "These night hours are kinda tiring."
Pop jerked his head at Jeff, who slipping out to the back of the shop, returned a few moments later with half a dozen glasses and a bottle of bourbon. Nick poured, slowly and carefully, three or four fingers straight into each glass. Whitey took one, slid another along the top of the showcase towards me. I reached out for it and Nick said sharply, "No. Joey's not drinking."
"Gee, boss," said Whitey. "Let the guy have a drink some time."
I looked at Nick hopefully. My hand was still outstretched towards the glass. I kinda waited, poised on the razor-edge of indecision, waiting for Nick to say so.
"D'you wanna drink, Joey?" he asked.
Sure I wanted a drink. When my head hurt real bad that was the only way to stop the pain. It meant I had dreams, nightmarish dreams. But it stopped the pain. I reached out, clutched the glass fiercely.
Nick shrugged his shoulders. "It's up to you, Joey," he said.
I liked the fiery taste of it around my tongue. It trickled down inside me, warm and rosy, radiating electric heat like Nick's words did when he took my part. It was so good I drained the glass at a gulp, wanted more, noticed Whitey's mean face twisting into a grin as I put the glass back on the counter.
"Want some more, Joey?" he leered.
He knew I wanted more; he was taunting me.
"Here y'are. Help yourself." Whitey thrust the bottle over to me. I looked at Nick. He turned his eyes away, pretending he wasn't watching, left me to do what i wanted.
I sloshed more bourbon into the glass. From the corner of my eye I saw Pop kinda half-raise his arm like he was gonna stop me. Nick said loudly: "Leave him alone, Pop."
They were talking now, discussing all kinds of things. I wasn't very interested. There was just that warm, rosy glow inside me that make me feel so good. And then, before I'd finished the second glass everything went wrong. That hammering began in my head. I put my hand to my forehead, held my head on one side to try to ease the throbbing.
There was a kinda hushed silence. I heard Whitey say: "It got him quick."
Pop said: "You shouldn't have let him. You know what happens."
Whitey said fiercely: "Look at Pop, Joey."
I looked at Pop. He stared back at me, frail, white-faced and now looking just a little scared.
"You're a dummy," sneered Whitey, and he was deliberately being that way to me again.
It was bad because my head was already hammering. I kinda froze, waiting for Nick to say those nice, soothing words. But Nick couldn't have heard him, he didn't say a word.
"You're a dummy," sneered Whitey. "You're a prize dope. Look at Pop, you nut. Keep looking at him, you dope."
It was happening. I couldn't stop it. The hammering and the red flush expanding inside my brain. I was trembling all over and now the sweat was coming, pouring out of me, soaking my clothes, so that when the fear hit me it was like I was wet all over. I was scared it wasn't there, fumbled for it desperately, knowing they'd sneaked up on me and taken it, and knowing, too, that if I didn't find it I'd die. Die! Die!
The relief as my hand closed around the butt was so great it made me weak all over. But just the same I had to get it out. I had the strength for that. I levelled it, trained it so I could see the centre of Pop's forehead lined up squarely between the sights.
"Dope," sneered Whitey.
"Can I shoot him now?" I asked Nick.
Nick didn't hear me. "It gets kinda monotonous," he said to somebody. It coulda been Tobias he was talking to. It coulda been me.
"Can I shoot him?"
"See what I mean?" said Nick. "Just as soon as Whitey starts shooting off his mouth it happens."
Tobias was staring straight down through the sights at me. His eyes seemed very wide apart, very big. I wasn't sure but I thought his lip was trembling slightly.
"Can I shoot him now, Nick?" I pleaded.
"Sure, sure, sure," said Nick. "Do what the hell you like."
I squeezed the trigger and the gun bucked in my hand. It didn't sound very loud and I wasn't frightened. It was much better than the other times. Much more exhilarating. It gave me a wonderful feeling like I was God, because this time it really happened, the red hole between the eyes and the plunk of lead ploughing into flesh and bone.
I didn't have time to enjoy it properly because Whitey was yelling again, frightening me once more. "He's getting away, Joey," he yelled. "You've gotta get him lined up in your sights again. Quick! Look! There he is. Over there."
It was difficult to find Pop because he was on the floor. Yet he wasn't on the floor either, because there he was over in the corner, Whitey pointing at him, yelling at me to get him between my sights, yelling at me he was getting away.
But I was too artful and too quick for him. He couldn't get away. I levelled my gun and he was lined up clearly between the sights. He didn't look the same any more, dark-haired now, long black hair that hung down over his face. He was taller too; tall and stringy. And I've never seen a guy so scared. His eyes bulged, his mouth open and flattened as he screamed and there was a satisfying stark panic in his eyes.
"You dummy," yelled Whitey. "You prize dope. You great dummy."
They couldn't fool me that way. They hadn't taken the gun from me. I was holding it in my hand. I had his face hanging on the end of my barrel too. I'd show them this time. I'd show them they couldn't steal my gun.
"Can I shoot him, boss?" I asked, thrilling with excitement at what was gonna happen.
"Sure," he said. "Do what the hell you like."
It was good, it was wonderful! It was like being warmed all over, inside and outside, right down to the tips of my toes and up to the crown of my head. It was a wonderful complete feeling of exultation and satisfaction. It was like the wiping out of every bad thing that had ever happened to me and being born all over again in the process.
Nick said softly: "Take it easy, Joey. Take it easy, boy."
That made it even better, him speaking to me that way, making me feel good right deep down inside.
"Nobody's gonna take you gun, Joey," he said. "You don't have to worry. Nobody's gonna take it. You can put it back in your pocket now."
It was a tremendous sense of relief. I put the gun back in my pocket and found my hands were shaking. I was shaking, too. And I was wet. Soaked through and through, so my clothes stuck to me. The hammering in my head was dying away now but I felt faint, drained of strength.
"Sit down, Joey," said Nick. He came over to me, took me by the shoulder. Gee, that felt really good. "Sit down, Joey," he said. "There you are. That's right, boy. Sit down."
I closed my eyes, relaxed back in my chair.
"You're drowsy, Joey," he said softly. "But you'll be all right in a minute. Now just go off to sleep for a minute."
I didn't exactly go to sleep. Everything was so blurred, so mixed up, it was good not to think of anything at all, just let my mind go blank.
Then Nick was shaking my shoulder, forcing me on my feet. "We've gotta go, Joey," he said "Snap out of it, fella. We've gotta go."
I got up weakly, knew vaguely it had happened again. I was worried about it. I needed reassuring.
"What happened, boss?" I asked anxiously. "It all happened so quick I couldn't stop it."
"We've gotta get out of here Joey," he said soothingly. "You did it again."
I wasn't deeply worried about it. It had happened before. It would happen again.
"Was it Pop and Jeff?" I asked.
"That's right," said Nick soothingly. "But you don't have to worry about it. You couldn't help it. It's just the way you are. It's that slug in your nut."
"Sure, boss," I said. "I couldn't help it, could I?"
He nodded across the room. Over in the corner was Jeff, kinda hunched up like he'd slipped down and fallen asleep there. Pop was lying not far away from him. I couldn't see his face but I could see the bulge of his chest and little flecks of blood spattered on his shirt.
"You couldn't help it, Joey," said Nick soothingly. "But you mustn't tell anyone about it. Understand?"
"Gee, boss," I said. "I wouldn't tell anyone. Honest I wouldn't."
"All right, Maxie," said Nick. "Just look outside. Make sure no one's around." He turned to Whitey. "You take his arm," he ordered. "He's pretty weak now. Get him back and in bed."
"You know what I think?" said Whitey.
"I'm not interested," said Nick.
"Just the same," said Whitey, "I'll tell you. I think we gave him just a little bit too much to drink. Listen, Joey," he went on. "You shouldn't drink so much. It's not good for you."
"I think you've got something there," said Nick, with a chuckle in his voice. "You ought to take notice of what he says, Joey. You shouldn't drink so much."
I didn't believe him, because bourbon made me feel so good inside, so warm and happy. But I didn't say so. I felt too weak to say anything. My belly lurched, queasy and revolted.
I leaned against the wall, my shoulders heaving and my eyes watering as I vomited.
"You're gonna be okay now," said Nick. "That's just what you wanted. You're gonna be okay now, Joey."
Everything he told me was right. I could feel it. What Big Nick said was true.
I was gonna be all right, now.