The Bannister killing was played up by the newspapers. Every one of them screamed "COP-KILLING" in banner headlines and painted a picture of a young, efficiently trained cop who within a few days of taking his first assignment and showing a special diligence towards his duty, had been mercilessly battered and shot by unknown assailants and dumped at the roadside on the outskirts of town from a speeding car.
The story was hot. And the way the newsmongers wrote it up it sounded hotter. The way they wrote it you'd have thought ours was the only town in the whole of the States that had a cop-killing. The newsmongers claimed it showed there was a plague spot in the city, a cancer which would slowly but surely strangle the life of the community and terminate in terrible gang warfare, reminiscent of the days of Prohibition.
Yeah, the way those news hounds played it up was comical. But there was its serious side too. Newspapers are mighty powerful instruments of persuasion. If the newspapers kept up dishing out the news this way, pretty soon some of the citizens around town might really begin to believe this cancer and vice stuff.
Maybe the Commissioner was acting pretty smart at that when he gave an interview to the Press and said this blot on the town (he meant the cop-killing) must be cleansed away. He said he and the D.A. would not rest until the murderer of Bannister was brought to justice. He said he was unwavering in his determination, unwilling to leave any stone unturned. He gave the Press a copy of the telegram he had sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, requesting special agents should be sent to help the local police investigate the killing.
There were photographs of the Commissioner, too. They took him seated at his desk, dictating the telegram to Washington into his dictating machine. They took photographs of him together with the D.A., the Cop Captain and a Senator.
The Commissioner looked really determined, standing beside his desk with one hand upraised in violent denunciation of the "vile murderer".
Yeah, he was so good he got me siding with him. Gee, it was crazy, but he talked so good there was half of me hoping he'd be able to find the cop-killer the way he said he wanted.
There was something in the papers, too, about Pop and Jeff. They'd been shot dead when they surprised an intruder who wanted to rob them. But there was so much newspaper excitement about a cop-killer there wasn't much type left to spare for Pop and Jeff. The little item about them was tucked away on the back page, where it wasn't easily seen and it only appeared in the evening edition. The next day the newspapers had forgotten it altogether.
I was unhappy about Pop and Jeff. I liked Pop. He was nice guy. Jeff maybe would have been a nice guy, too, if he'd lived long enough. Yeah, I was sorry about those two. I shouldn't have done it. I knew I shouldn't have done it. Big Nick said I couldn't help it. and what he said was true. It was just one of my ways. Nick said I wasn't to worry about it either, and I always did what Big Nick said.
Nick always knew what was right.
He was right about that cop-killing for example. He said it would cause trouble. It did.
Almost overnight everything changed. There was a kinda tenseness in the atmosphere. All the guys in the saloons along Main Street were on edge. You got the feeling they were always on the point of glancing over their shoulders furtively.
Guys didn't talk so much either, acted kinda sullen, tight-lipped and humourlessly. Everyday, me Whitey and Maxie made the rounds of the saloons, the numbers offices and the cat houses, collecting the dough and giving receipts.
Usually it was a pleasant kinda transaction, guys handing over the dough with a joke, watching with satisfaction as we counted off the percentage which was kicked back to them.
Now it was different. They were surly, watched us with suspicious eyes, took their commission sullenly, and stowed it away like they felt guilty, felt they were involved in something that wasn't clean.
Maxie said they were all thinking the same thing. They were all thinking Big Nick had killed that cop or had ordered him killed. But there was only one guy who actually said it. It was Petersen, who ran a pool saloon and stocked one-arm bandits which paid off handsomely.
Whitey opened the machines while Maxie held the big canvas bag ready to collect the flood of nickels that made a glittering cascade. Petersen watched with that kinda tense silence that had become familiar. When the machines were empty we went through to his office, me, Maxie and Whitey counting out the nickels, stacking them in neat piles until they were all counted. Whitey entered the total amount in Petersen's cash book, got Petersen's signature against it and counted out Petersen's split.
The guy looked mean, narrow-eyed, suspicious and contemptuous. He opened a drawer and scooped handfuls of gleaming nickels into it like he wished he hadn't got to touch it.
"What's biting you?" growled Maxie. "You look like you've got something on your mind."
"Maybe I have at that," said Petersen. He glared at us venomously.
Whitey said softly: "What's on your mind, Petersen? We're business partners. There didn't ought be no secrets between us." There was that mean twist to his lips. I could see it. Surely Petersen could see it. Maybe he did and it didn't worry him.
"Okay," he said suddenly, like it was all boiling up inside him and had to come out. "You want I should tell you what's on my mind? Sure I'll tell you. I'll tell you what's worrying every other guy in this town, too. Pretty soon the Feds are gonna be on top of us. There ain't gonna be no peace and quiet in this town. And it's all on account of some guys not having enough savvy to know when they're sitting pretty."
"Meaning which guys?" asked Maxie, smiling gently.
"Who're you kidding?" jeered Petersen. "You figure I don't know Big Nick engineered this killing?"
He'd said it.
There was a long silence. Now the words had escaped his lips, Petersen knew he'd gone too far. He looked kinda hunted and said defensively: "You guys asked me what was on my mind. I guess you wanted me to tell you."
Maxie said softly: "Funny how Big Nick knows everything. He said the guys with no brains would figure he was behind that cop-killing."
"Yeah. That's just what he said," gloated Whitey, with that mean twist to his lips. "He said only the smart guys would realise the last thing he wanted was a cop-killing. Only the saps would start talking and making wrong guesses."
Petersen twined and untwined his long fingers with embarrassment. "What the hell's a guy to think, anyway?" he pleaded.
"Guys who work for Big Nick have to use their brains. We haven't room for saps." said Maxie softly.
"And saps have to be taught a lesson," said Whitey. "It doesn't do Nick any good it saps talk too much, give false ideas."
Petersen read the intention in their eyes. He jumped up quickly, backed to the wall with his hands held up defensively and his face twisted with fear. "Now wait a minute, fellas," he began desperately. "You didn't get it right. What I meant was…"
Maxie hit him first. It wasn't a hard blow but Petersen was so scared he doubled up defensively, his face buried in his arms and his elbows trying to protect his belly as he bent over.
I saw the brassy glitter of Whitey's knucks as he raised his fist and smashed it down on the back of Petersen's head. The guy went down on his knees, moaning and still doubling himself into a ball to protect his face and belly.
Maxie and Whitey didn't waste time. It was routine to them. They used their knucks and their feet. It wasn't much more than five minutes before Petersen was lying semi-conscious, moaning and doubled up in pain with maybe a fractured jaw a couple smashed ribs and a severe case of belly-ache.
Whitey was breathless. "Maybe now you get the idea, Petersen," he rasped. "Big Nick don't like guys trying to hang raps on him. Understand?"
The injured man groaned his understanding.
"Come on, Joey," said Maxie. "Grab the money-bags. We've got more work to do."
* * *
It was a couple days later when I saw the dame again. The mousy little dame, I mean. Nick said it was good for me to take a walk each morning, get fresh air and exercise. It was on the way back, almost outside the night club, when I caught sight of her standing pressed up against the wall, dejected, small and pathetic.
I didn't recognise her, just noticed her and passed on. But she recognise her, just noticed her and passed on. But she recognise her, just noticed her and passed on. But she recognised me. Her timid voice drew me up short, pulled me around to face her.
"Mister," she pleaded. "Can I talk to you"
The old coat she wore was dusty like she'd been sleeping out in it. Her face was pinched, her big eyes wearing a gaunt, hungry look.
"What d'ya want, kid?"
"You were good to me the other night, mister," she said with a kinda childish eagerness in her voice. "I didn't think I'd see you again. Now I have I'd like to thank you."
I crinkled my forehead. So much had happened during the past few days I couldn't place her right away. Then the wistful, pinched look on her face jogged my mind. I grinned at her broadly. "That's okay kid," I said. "That cop was a big, no-good heel, anyway."
"The money you gave me," she said wistfully. "I don't know what I'd have done without it."
"Forget it, kid," I said. Then it began to dawn on me, the old drab clothing, the hungry look in her eyes, her pinched little face. "What are you doing now, kid?" I asked. "Are you working?"
"Can't get a job, mister," she said sadly. "It's my clothes mostly I reckon. They're pretty messy. They give a bad impression."
I dug down in my pocket, pulled out another five-dollar bill. I thrust it at her. "Here, take this, kid," I said. "And cheer up; you'll make out okay."
She made no attempt to take the money, instead she looked up at me. "Gee, you're kind, mister," she said. "But I can't take your money, honest. I can't keep taking money. Don't you know anyone who can give me a job? I'll do anything. Anything!"
She was so pathetic, so childlike, so plaintive I wanted to do things for her. "What about your folks, kid?"
"Dead," she said. Just one word and the way she said it made her sound like she was dead herself inside.
I scratched my chin thoughtfully. "Guess I don't know much about jobs for dames…"
She interrupted me. "The other gentleman," she said. "The handsome gentleman. Would he know anyone who'd give me a job? I'd do anything. Anything!"
She meant Big Nick. And she was right about Nick. He was good and kind. He'd help anybody. He'd always helped me, hadn't he?
Thinking of him got me excited. There had to be a job somewhere around the night club. I thrust the money towards her again. "Listen, kid," I said impulsively. "I've got an idea. Now you take this dough, see. See that cafe over there? You go buy yourself a cup of coffee. I'll be back in a little while. I'll see what I can do about a job for you." I was so excited at the thought of getting Big Nick to help the dame I didn't even see her across the road.
Nick was always a late riser. He wasn't in his own sitting-room or in his lounge, so I knocked at the door of his bedroom. "Who's there?" he growled sleepily.
"It's me, Nick," I said. "It's Joey. I wanna see you. It's important."
There was a kinda muffed grunting noise, a creaking of the bed, and he rasped: "Okay, okay. Come in."
He was sitting up in bed, unshaven, tousle-haired, with a red-rimmed bleary look to his eyes as though he hadn't slept much. Lola was still sleeping, lying face down on the pillow with her black hair splayed out across the pillow and one white arm and bare shoulder showing above the sheets.
Nick yawned. "What the hell d'ya want, Joey?" he demanded. He was always irritable in the morning, gruff and boorish.
"It's about a dame, Nick," I said breathlessly. "I wanna talk about a dame."
Nick stopped scratching his head and stared at me. Then like he'd suddenly lost all interest in what I was saying, he turning to Lola, shook her vigorously by the shoulder. "Hey," he growled. "Get up, will ya? Get some coffee brought up, will ya?"
She moved uneasily, half-asleep, half-raised her head from the pillow and then let it flop back again. Nick half-turned, wedged his foot against her side and thrust. "Wake up, will ya, you lazy bitch?" he growled. "Get up when I tell you!"
Slowly, heavily, like she was still half-asleep, she pushed herself into a sitting position, grunted a couple times and brushed her thick black hair away from her forehead. "I'm tired, Nick," she mumbled, her eyes still closed.
"Get up when I tell you," he growled, and he grasped a hank of her hair, tugged it viciously so she squealed with pain. "Now get up!" he rasped.
She sighed heavily, pulled back the bedclothes, pulled her knees up and around so she could sit on the edge of the bed. She was a pretty dame with warm, soft skin.
"Snap it up!" growled Nick.
She stood up sleepily, yawned and stretched herself luxuriously. She stood on tiptoe, arched herself beautifully with arms extended. She fascinated me.
"Okay, Joey," said Nick. "Don't get ideas."
I couldn't take my eyes off her. "Gee, Nick," I said breathlessly. "She's beautiful, ain't she? I like looking at her. She looks so good."
Lola turned her head, her blue eyes staring at me over her white shoulders. They were icy eyes, contemptuous and disinterested. "How did he get in here?" she demanded. "Why d'ya have that big-nosed baboon hanging around, anyway?"
She didn't like me. She always looked at me that way, icy-eyed and contemptuous. She always spoke that way about me, too.
"Shut you mouth!" rasped Nick. "Shut your mouth or I'll close it for good! And get some clothes on. Snap it up, will ya?"
Her lips twisted in a sneer. But she knew better than to argue with Nick. She crossed to a chair, picked up a flimsy garment and stepped into it. Then, as she caught sight of herself in the dressing-table mirror, she poised prettily, arching her smooth body, admiring the softness of her skin and the feminine contours, running her hands over herself like it gave her pleasure.
Seeing her that way gave me a funny kinda feeling deep down inside like there was something I wanted and didn't understand. I coulda kept looking at her for ever. The softness of her skin was pleasant, the smooth roundness of her so fascinating. I was like a child crying for something and not knowing what it was I wanted.
"Cut that out!" rasped Nick. He was really angry this time. "Get some clothes on, ya cheap bitch. Can't you see the way he's looking at you?"
Her eyes were still that icy-blue while she looked at me. It was like she was poising herself, proud of her body and wanting me to see it. Yet there was still that contemptuous curl to her lips.
"What's biting you?" she snapped back at Nick. "There's nothing to it. He don't know what time it is."
"You've asked for it," breathed Nick angrily. He pulled back the bedclothes and swung his feet out of bed. His quick movements scared her. She made a quick dart for a chair, gathered up underclothing.
She shouldn't have got Nick angry that way. He was much quicker than she was. He reached her the same time she reached her clothes. His hand locked in her black hair, jerked her head back, while his other hand slapped, palm cracking flush against her cheek, bringing a squeal of pain from her.
"Do what you're told, you damned bitch!" he mouthed.
He released her, slapped again, this time with real strength so she reeled over against the wall hit it hard and slowly slumped to the carpet, holding her smarting cheek and sobbing with pain. Nick's toe prodded the ball of clothing she'd dropped, hooked it neatly across to her. "Now get dressed like I told you," he growled.
With smarting cheeks and eyes glistening with tears she fumbled among the clothing, moulded herself into it, tightening straps, tugging, and all the time giving little sobs.
"Don't take any notice of her, Joey," said Big Nick. "Dames are poison. They're all the same. You don't want no trouble with them, ever!"
"No, Nick," I said. But I still wanted to look at her. She was pretty; soft and smooth. Nick said I wasn't to look and what he said was always right. Though it seemed a little strange. If women were poison, the way Nick said, why did he always have a dame around? Why did the other guys always have them around?
And, no matter what Nick said, I liked dames. They were pretty. They were soft and smooth. They kinda fascinated me. They always made me feel the same, like they was important and meant something I didn't understand. There was that other thing, too. A kinda ache deep inside like I wanted something but didn't know what it was.
"You sit down here, Joey," soothed Nick. He pointed to a chair and made me sit so I couldn't go on watching Lola. Maybe it was right what he said about dames. Hadn't she got him angry? I didn't like to see Nick angry that way. His eyes were red and he was breathing heavily. I hadn't done anything and yet it was like he was angry with me, too. It made me feel sad.
"What's this about a dame, Joey?" he rasped.
My mind was all confused now. "There's a dame," I said. "A little dame. She want's a job."
"So what?" he grated.
"She's hard up," I said. "Hasn't got any dough. She needs a job real bad. She'll do anything."
"You wanna help her?" asked Nick bluntly.
I looked at him happily. He understood. He always understood. "She'll do anything, boss," I told him.
"Okay," he growled. "I can give her a job in the kitchen or somewhere. Tell Sinclaire I said so."
It was wonderful the way Nick could always make me feel so happy, so good!
I saw Sinclaire, the staff manager, and told him what Nick said. He pulled a sour face and said he had all the staff he wanted.
"But Nick says you've gotta give her a job," I insisted.
"Okay," he sighed wearily. "Bring her in."
She said she'd do anything, so they gave her a neat black dress, black shoes and stockings and a chair in the ladies' powder room. It made me feel good she'd got a job like she wanted. And a strange thing had happened to me. I couldn't stop thinking about her. All the rest of the day I was thinking about her, all the evening, too.
Big Nick made it a rule I was never to go into the night club when it was open. He said it was on account of the customers were a lotta stiff-necks who wouldn't be sociable to a happy-go-lucky guy like me. But I had permission to go around back to the kitchen for my evening meal, and all the time I was there I was thinking about that mousy little dame with her big brown eyes and wistful little face.
I was thinking about her so much I realised I wouldn't be happy or able to sleep unless I could see her again.
I hung around the kitchen, waiting for the club to close and the last customer to go. The chef kept telling me it was time to go to bed but I ignored him, hung around in the kitchen while time crawled leadenly like the night was never coming to an end.
I got restless, paced up and down backstage of the night club, until the strip-tease artiste finished her act and came mincing through from out front wearing a broad smile and little else. I knew then I hadn't much longer to wait because now she was through the customers would begin to go home.
"What're you doing around the back, Joey?" she asked. She put all she had into her dancing. She was breathing heavily and sweat was glistening all over her. Seeing her close up like that gave me that pleasant, tantalising feeling.
"I'm… just waiting," I faltered. I was embarrassed, didn't want anybody to know why I was there.
There was a slightly puzzled expression in her eyes. "You like looking at me, Joey?" she asked, and she said it like she was curious, like a doctor tapping you all over and asking does it hurt here, does it hurt there?
"You're pretty," I said. "So smooth, so soft!"
"You like me, do you, Joey?" There was a curious note in her voice, an enquiring, dissecting expression in her eyes. A waiter with a bottle of champagne under his arm came walking briskly along the corridor, pushed past us, winked his eye as his hand brushed bare shoulders. "Having fun with Joey?" he chuckled.
"Experimenting," she called after him. "Trying to raise a spark."
They thought I was slow. But I catch on to things sometimes. "What's that about a spark?" I asked cunningly.
"A spark is something that causes a fire, Joey. Have you ever felt like you were on fire, alight inside?"
I looked at her doubtfully, wondering if she was making fun of me. "I wouldn't like that," I said doubtfully. "I wouldn't like to be burnt."
She chuckled, moved her body and it flowed so easily and smoothly I wanted to keep watching her all the time.
"You think I'm pretty, Joey? You like looking at me?"
"Sure," I said enthusiastically. "I like looking. You're so soft, so smooth."
"Wouldn't you like to touch me, Joey? Wouldn't you like to feel how soft I am?"
She scared me. She was nice to look at, but I was afraid to touch.
"Come on, Joey," she encouraged. "Don't be shy. Touch me. You can do it if you try hard. Try hard now."
I tried hard. I reached my hand towards her and it was like something was holding me back. I felt the muscles of my arm draw stiff, refusing to move. I tried to touch her and the more I tried the stiffer my arm became.
"I can't," I croaked. "You're so smooth, and I can't touch you."
"It's all right, Joey," she whispered. "You don't have to worry. You can do it." She swayed towards me, the smooth softness of her skin rippling.
The touch of her was a blast of lightning, searing my eyeballs like a flash bursting inside me. I staggered back, felt myself drained of strength and the sweat soaking me through and through. It was hard to get my breath and my chest heaved as I fought to suck air into my lungs. I put my hand to my forehead, swayed.
"Gee, Joey, I didn't want to make you feel bad like that," she said. Her eyes were anxious, worried now. "I didn't know it was that way. I didn't wanna make you feel bad." Her eyes were moist with worry and concern and instinctively she moved forward like she wanted to comfort me.
I flinched away from her. I didn't want her near me. I was scared it would happen again. That blinding flash that stabbed me through and through, sapped my strength and drenched me with sweat.
"All right, Joey," she whispered. "You won't have to touch me again. You can just look at me. That'll make you feel good, won't it, Joey?"
Yeah, that was what I wanted. Just looking at her. The waiter passed through the corridor again, this time without the bottle of champagne. "Watch out that spark doesn't burn your fingers," he warned.
"Leave the guy alone, can't you?" she snapped.
He grinned and brushed against her deliberately in passing.
"You can cut that out, too," she growled.
He chuckled. "You're getting cold," he said, and touched her again. "I'll go get the other bead so you can get dressed."
She scowled angrily along the corridor after him. I kept well away from her, frightened that the blinding flash would slash at me again.
Then she looked back at me and there was sadness in her eyes. "Dames are not good for you, Joey," she said. "You keep well away from them. You do what I tell you. You keep well away from them."
That's what Nick had told me. He was always right. "Sure," I said hoarsely. "I just wanna look at them. That's all I want."
"Don't even look, Joey," she said. "It might cause you grief. You don't even wanna look."
I did wanna look. Big Nick said I shouldn't. But I couldn't help myself. She minced along the corridor to her dressing-room and I couldn't take my eyes off her. When she closed the door of her room behind her the world seemed suddenly bleak and empty.
I went back to the kitchen, drank some coffee and pretty soon the waiters had brought in the last dirty plates. It was time now. The last of the customers had left the night club.
The ladies' powder room was furnished real swell with armchairs, a big gilt-edged mirror, and a thick carpet on the floor. The little dame looked over her shoulder wearily when I entered and then her eyes widened. "You shouldn't be in here," she whispered in an awed voice.
"It's all right," I said. "They've all gone now."
She stood staring at me, fidgeting awkwardly. She looked smart in that little black frock and black silk stockings. "You shouldn't come in here at all," she said reprovingly.
"I wanted to see you," I said. "I want to know if you're happy." I was eager to hear her say she was.
Her face kinda softened. "You've been good," she said. "Real good. I don't know how I can thank you."
"Aw, gee," I said, flushing with embarrassment and shuffling my feet nervously. "I just wanted to help you."
"It was so kind of you. I don't know what I'd have done if…" She didn't finish the sentence. Instead, kinda impulsively, she stepped close to me, took my hand quickly, and before I could stop her she'd raised it to her lips, kissed it.
Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I stood staring at her, feeling good and warm inside, the touch of her lips on the back of my hand.
"I'd got down to my last cent," she said. "I don't know what I'd have done without you."
I looked her over. I couldn't see if her skin was soft and smooth, But she fascinated me. She was so small, so slim, so dainty. It was like I could take her in my two hands and crush her. But I didn't wanna touch her. Big Nick had warned me. It was dangerous to touch dames. Then I remembered. It was nice touching her. There was no blinding flash when she kissed my hand.
I said hoarsely: "You got everything you want?"
She nodded happily, eyes sparkling. "They've given me a room of my own and the food is good." Her eyes glistened. "The tips are good, too. I'll pay you back when…"
It wasn't often Lola came down to the night club. This night must been an exception because she swept in through the doors imperiously, like a queen, dressed in a vivid red evening gown that reflected a rosy glow over her white shoulders. She brought up dead when she saw me, and then her icy blue eyes switched from me to the little dame. "You wanna get the sack?" she demanded brutally. "You know he shouldn't be in here."
She scared the little dame. Her eyes glazed with the fear of being sacked. "I'm sorry," she panted. "I told him. But he said everyone had gone and…"
"You're new here, aren't you?" interrupted Lola. Her eyes were looking her up and down, icy-blue eyes, hard and contemptuous, scorning the pinched little face, the badly cut hair and the short nails that made the fingers look stubby.
"That's right, miss."
"Who hired a scruffy little baggage like you?'" The insult in Lola's voice was like the lash of a whip. The little dame quailed beneath it, bowed her head and said humbly:
"This gentleman here arranged it. He…"
"Gentleman!" Lola gave an abrupt, harsh chuckle. Her eyes flicked to me, made me feel like I ought to be grovelling at her feet. "You're wasting your time sister," she sneered. "He don't know what it's all about. Can't you tell that just by looking at him?"
The little dame hung her head, hot-faced, and said nothing. Lola tossed her head at me, pushed through a far door.
The little dame looked up quickly as soon as Lola was out of sight. "You must go," she pleaded. "You'll get me into trouble."
"I'll wait for you," I said eagerly. "I'll wait for you outside."
"All right," she said desperately. "Anything. Only go now. Please don't make me get the sack." Her voice was piteous.
"You don't have to worry," I told her. "Big Nick said you can work here." My chest swelled. "He's a friend of mine. Nick looks after me. He said you could work here."
Her eyes were wide. "He's that tall, handsome gentleman?"
"That's him," I said eagerly. "You'll like Nick. He's a fine fella."
Her eyes shone. "He's so handsome," she said. "Saving me form that policeman and everything. Just like in the films."
There came the not-to-distant sound of plumbing working in the prescribed manner. "Please!" she pleaded. "Go now. Don't get me into trouble."
"All right," I said obediently. "I'll go."
"And don't take an notice of what she said," the little dame whispered. "About the way you look, I mean. She's just trying to hurt you."
I chuckled. "She can't hurt me," I boasted. "If she hurts me I'll tell Nick. He'll stop her. Big Nick's always kind to me."
I waited outside. It seemed a year before Lola came out. She paused when she saw me waiting there, then kinda hovered, a glint of amusement in those blue eyes. "Getting human, are you, Joey?" she sneered. "Getting a yen for a dame? What next!"
"Go away from me," I growled. "I don't want to look at you. Nick says you're bad for me. He's right, too."
She chuckled. "Just a big kid," she mocked. and swayed away gracefully, walking like a queen.
The little dame came out a few moments afterwards, turned off the lights and locked the door. She turned to face me with sadness in her eyes. "Well, thanks for everything," she said.
"I wanna see you to your room," I said breathlessly. "I wanna know you're comfortable."
She seemed uncertain about it, kinda fought a battle inside herself. "All right, then," she said at last, reluctantly. "You can come along."
It was a small room at the top of the building. It was comfortable enough, everything she wanted, including a radio. I looked around, nodded with satisfaction. "You're gonna like being here."
"After what I've been through, it's heaven."
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Sheila," she said. "What's yours?"
"Everyone calls me Joey."
"I'll call you Joey, too. Would you like that?"
The way she said it made my name sound like music.
"Say it again," I said.
"My name," I said eagerly. "Say it again."
"Joey," she said.
It was good to hear her say it. It warmed me through and through. It was so good I wanted to keep hearing it. "Say it again," I said.
"Joey," she repeated.
It was wonderful. I wanted to hear it again and again. "Say it again," I said.
Her brow puckered, her eyes were sad and pained. "It's getting late," she said. "I have to go to bed now."
"Say it again, Sheila," I pleaded. "Say it again. Please, please say it again."
She sighed deeply. "All right, then," she promised. "I'll say it just once more. Then you must go. Agreed?"
I nodded eagerly. "Yes, yes." Anything just to hear it once more.
"Joey," she said.
I was happy and sad at the same time. I wanted to hear her saying it all the time.
"Don't you ever take your hat off?" she asked. "You're always wearing it, indoors and out…"
I raised my hand to my head, felt my hat wedged there tightly. "Nick says I've got to wear it all the time except when I go to bed." I told her.
"But that's silly," she protested. "Why should he tell you to do that?"
"Nick always knows what's best."
"But it's silly," she said. "Why don't you take it off?"
I hadn't thought about it before. Now she'd given me the idea I felt the hat irritating me. I wanted to take it off. Yet I was thinking of Big Nick all the time.
"D'you think it'll be all right?" I asked anxiously.
"Of course, Joey," she said. "It can't do any harm."
"All right, then." I said with a sudden surge of recklessness. "I'll take it off."
Her brow puckered and her eyes half-closed with pained pity as I bared my head. She gave a kinda choked gasp and placed her fingers to her lips. "Joey, I'm sorry," she faltered. "I didn't know…"
"It don't hurt," I said. "No one worries about it. It don't hurt."
"How did it happen Joey?" she whispered. "What was the cause of it?"
I crossed to her dressing-table and stared at my reflection. It was there, the way it always was, like a big fee had been cleaved in my head. All around the place it was hairless, the white skin of my skull puckered and wrinkled, the cleavage so deep you could almost bury your fist in it.
"Big Nick said I mustn't talk about it," I said.
"Put your had on again, Joey," she whispered. "Big Nick was right. You should keep your hat on."
I liked the way she said Joey. I replaced my hat, asked her pleadingly: say it again."
Her eyes were so brown and sad when she looked at me. "What a pity," she sighed. "You're such a nice guy. So kind. So much feeling. What a pity it had to happen."
"Say it again," I pleaded.
"All right," she said. "Just once more. Then you must go."
"That's right," I said eagerly. "Just once more."
She moved across to the door, opened it up. "Goodnight, Joey," she said. "Sleep well."
I stood outside her door for a long while after she'd closed it. She was a nice little dame, making me feel warm and happy inside. I was hoping she'd say my name again. But she didn't. That throbbing was beginning inside my head and I knew it was time for me to go to bed. When that happened, Big Nick told me, I should always go to bed.
Funny thing, I didn't dream about guns that night. I dreamed about Sheila.