It proves what a big guy Nick was, how important and how everybody knew him. The Feds hadn't been in town more than a couple days before they took the trouble to pay Nick a visit.
Nick wanted me, Maxie and Whitey to be present at the interview. Only two of the Feds came. A couple miserable-looking guys, alike in their grey suits, brown fedoras, and the lean, hungry expression on their faces.
Big Nick was nice to them, I thought. He grinned at them expansively, invited them to sit down, make themselves at home. "We're sure grateful for having distinguished folks like you among us," he said pleasantly.
It showed the kind of guy Nick was, big-hearted and kind, making them welcome that way when they could be such a trouble to him.
But those men didn't appreciate it. They reluctantly perched themselves on the edge of their chairs and stared at Nick with hard eyes.
It didn't worry Nick any. He was too big for mean-minded little guys like them. He leaned back in his chair easily, relaxed comfortably, smothered a yawn and drawled: "Well, what's biting you guys?"
"You know what's biting us, Fenner."
Nick's eyes widened in surprise. "Now how would I know that? How would I know what goes on in the minds of Federal agents?"
"This is a crooked town," snarled one of the Feds. "It's crooked from top to bottom, rotten through and through. The police are on your payroll from the lowest flatfoot on night duty to the very top one."
"You don't say," drawled Nick.
"If we had a guy like you in Washington…" breathed one of the Feds.
The smile was still on Nick's face but there was an angry glitter in his eyes now. "What was that?" he asked softly, his voice smooth as silk. It was like he was trying to coax an insult outta him.
The other Fed, the one who hadn't spoken yet, said warning: "Hold it, Jake. That's local politics. It's none of our business."
Jake glowered angrily, uncrossed his legs and crossed them the other way then fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. He was trying every way he knew to prevent hot words from bubbling out from inside him.
Nick asked with narrowed eyes: "Just way is it you boys want?"
"When was the last time you saw Bannister?" asked the Fed.
He was a fine guy, Nick; afraid of nothing. He grinned right into the Fed's face, impudent as hell. "You mean the poor chap who got himself shot?"
"You know who I mean," rasped Jake.
Nick said in an aside to Maxie: "Remind me later, will you, Maxie? Better send a wreath. It slipped my mind."
Maxie grinned. "Sure, Nick. You want it should be a big one?"
Nick gave the matter a thought. "Better make it a small one, Maxie," he said. "Quite a small one. He was only a little guy."
Jake breathed hard. "I asked you a question," he repeated in a hard voice. "When did you last see Bannister?"
Nick chuckled. "You ask the most stupid questions. I've never set eyes on Bannister. D'you think I go around town making the acquaintance of every dumb flatfoot?"
Jake's face was impassive now. You couldn't tell if he was mad or otherwise. "I'll lay it on the line for you, fella," he said. "A cop's been killed. The Feds have been called in. They'd have been in anyway, so it looked good when they were invited instead of waiting until they came of their own account."
"You're boring me," said Nick lazily. He picked up his paper-knife, began to pare his fingernails.
Jake went on like he hadn't been interrupted: "Bannister was a sound cop. He came from a good family, a family of cops. He was a right guy from the top of his head to his heels. He must been the one guy on the local force who wouldn't play." Jake's face was still impassive but there was a tightening of his throat muscles to show the fury boiling inside him. "Bannister made himself awkward, Fenner," he went on. "Records at police headquarters show that in the few days he was here he started a one-man clean-up." He paused, licked his lips. "It isn't difficult to figure from there on, Fenner. That guy was a good cop. So good he was a thorn in your side. Then what happened?"
There was a long pause. Nick went on cleaning his fingernails without looking up. Maxie stared at the ceiling and whistled soundlessly. Whitey was reading through a racing sheet, picking the bets he was gonna make.
The long silence continued, waiting for something to happen.
Nothing did happen.
Nick sighed. "Any time you guys wanna leave, it's okay by me."
Jake leaned forward, jabbed a bony finger towards Nick for emphasis. "We know you figure you're sitting pretty," he rasped. "There's nothing can tie you in with Bannister's killing." His voice raised, became strong and vibrant. "But, it's gonna be done, Fenner. We're gonna hang it on you. It may take a week, a month, or a year. But we're gonna do it, Fenner. We're gonna hang that murder right around you neck and the world's gonna be a better place for everyone just as soon as we do it."
I thought Nick would get mad at him talking that way, abusing him. But Nick's such a naturally kind guy he doesn't provoke easy. He merely chuckled. There were imps of mischief in his black eyes as he said: "That's fine, fellas. I like to see guys who are devoted to their duty. Drop back in a year or so and tell my how you're getting along."
Jake's hard eyes bored into Nick's. It was like he was trying to hypnotise him. He went on staring in that way for what seemed five minutes. But if he figured he could stare down Big Nick he was mistaken. He must realised that, because he got up abruptly, jerked his head towards the door, said to the other Fed: "Come on, Dale. Let's get out of this place. It turns my guts over."
Something seemed to snap inside Nick. The smile slipped from his face, his eyes hardened and he sat forward spreading both hands on his desk. "Watch your foot, fella," he said ominously. "You're standing on it."
Jake eyed him contemptuously. "You don't scare me, Bigshot," he said. "I don't scare easy."
"Watch your foot, fella," repeated Nick dangerously. "You're standing on it!"
It was a funny thing to say. But Nick always used that phrase when a guy got him mad.
Maybe the Fed knew about it. He kinda snorted, strode across the room, pushed out through the door without even looking over his shoulder to make sure the other Fed was following.
Maxie was right behind them and slammed the door as they went through. "How d'ya like that?" he demanded explosively. "Coming in, accepting our hospitality and insulting us right to our faces!"
"Shuddup!" snarled Nick.
"Listen, boss. I was only…"
Maxie should have known better than argue with Nick when he was mad that way. The inkstand on Nick's desk made a mess when it smashed on the wall above Maxie's head.
"Get out!" roared Nick. His face was red and he was shaking with anger. "Get out, all of you! Get out before I get mad!"
We got out quickly. It wasn't often Nick was this way but when he was it was better to leave him alone. I didn't mind him losing his temper. Once in a while a guy is entitled to blow his top. Especially a guy who most of the time is as nice as Big Nick. I knew he would be kind to me next time I saw him. He'd pat me on the shoulder, tell me to "Take it easy, Joey," and I'd get that warm, happy feeling stirring me, the way only Nick could make me feel.
* * *
Maybe it wasn't only Big Nick who could make me feel good and warm inside. The little dame Sheila could make me feel the same way when she said my name.
I used to wait for her at nights, talk to her a little while, escort her upstairs to her bedroom. That was fine. And then, one night while I was waiting for her, one of the guys in the band stayed late and played the piano. He was a new guy and he played the piano like he broke his first tooth on an ivory keyboard.
It was late at night. All the night club staff had gone home or upstairs to bed. Shelia was wearing that same little black dress. "Hello, Joey," she said.
It was good to hear her saying my name that way. I warmed all over, felt strangely excited.
Her eyes were kinda sad, like she felt sad for me. "Waiting for me again, Joey?" she said, like she was talking to herself. "You're old faithful, aren't you? Just waiting like you want me to pat you."
I furrowed my brow in puzzlement. It was wrong. I didn't want her to pat me. "Just say my name, huh?" I said.
"All right, Joey," she said. "You're a real nice guy." Momentarily her eyes slipped up towards my hat. "Such a dreadful pity …" She broke off quickly, looked away.
"What's a pity?" I asked.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "It doesn't matter." She had her ear cocked on one side, listening to that piano-player.
"I like you," I said. "You're kind to me. You speak to me nicely."
"I like you, too, Joey," she said. "You're a nice guy. What a pity some woman won't look after you and say nice things to you all the time."
I scowled. "I don't like dames," I said. "Dames are not good for me. Nick told me. He knows. He knows everything."
Her head was cocked to one side like she wanted to catch every note coming out from that silver-tongued piano. "If Nick said that, he knows what he's talking about, I guess," she said.
"Nick knows everything," I told her. "He's a fine guy. You oughta talk to Nick. It'd make you feel good, too."
She looked at me and her eyes were sparkling excitedly. "D'you think I could see him, Joey? Just for a few moments? I'd like to thank him for everything. Can you do it, Joey? Can you?"
She was so eager I'd have promised anything to keep that happy sparkle in her eyes. "Sure," I said. "I'll get Nick. I'll bring him down to see you. I'll bring him tomorrow."
She sighed deliciously. "If only you could. Just for a few moments." Her eyes were kinda dreamy now. "He's such a wonderful guy," she said.
She was right there. Nick was a wonderful guy. "I'll do it," I boasted. "I'll bring him tomorrow."
The music changed tempo, became slow and passionate, throbbing wildly on the low notes. Her head was cocked on one side again. "Who's that playing, Joey?"
It's a new guy," I said. "He only started yesterday. Practising up some of the numbers, I guess."
She looked along the corridor towards the night club, kinda hesitated. Then she looked at me. "Could we… that is… Could we go and listen?"
"Sure," I said. "Anything you want. Will you say it again? Just once more? I pleaded.
"Okay, Joey," she said. "You're a nice guy, Joey."
I warmed all over, happy ad contented inside just the way it was when Nick spoke to me. "Straight along the corridor," I said. "It'll be all right. I can take you in there. But say it just once more, will you? Just once more."
The night club was in darkness except for the solitary dimmed light over the piano. It was almost ghostlike in that large room now it was empty, the chairs standing on the tables enveloped in shadow while the soft silvery notes rang around the silent wall and furniture.
The guy was working at it, crouched over the keyboard, eyes half-closed and his body moving as though he was draining his body and mind of strength so he could funnel it through to his fingers.
We crossed over to him on tiptoe. He sensed we were there, but didn't look up, went on playing with the same intensity of feeling. We edged right up alongside him, leaned our elbows on the piano. There was a kinda dreamy, enraptured look in Sheila's eyes. She stayed that way all the time he was playing, right up until the last notes sounded, hovered on the air and then died away.
The young guy looked up. He was a nice young guy, long wavy hair brushed back over his head, soft brown eyes and a little wisp of a moustache.
Shelia said: "Don't stop. Please play some more."
His eyes twinkled when he laughed. "Am I keeping you folks awake?"
"Please," pleaded Sheila. "You play beautifully. Do go on playing."
He looked down at the keyboard, ran his fingers up and down the white notes and a cascading, silvery stream poured out and splashed over us. "What d'you want me to play?"
"Do you know Moonlight?" she asked.
"Which one? This one?" The silvery cascade turned into a soft, haunting harmony. The music kinda did things to me, soothed me, made me wanna close my eyes and dream.
"That's it," Sheila whispered. She half-closed her eyes, put her head on one side, listened intently, swaying gently with the rhythm. When he reached the refrain she began to hum, softly at first, then more loudly and more richly as he went on. When he got to the end he said: "Sounds like you know music. Do you sing at all?"
"Just to myself," she chuckled.
"Try it again. Sing it this time."
She laughed away his suggestion. "I couldn't. I couldn't, really."
"Sure you can," he encouraged. You've got the feeling for it. I can tell that."
"But I couldn't…" she began to protest.
"Sure you can, Sheila," I said. "You can sing. You can sing good."
She looked at me, she looked at the young guy.
Okay, then she said. "We'll try it."
She could sing! The way she sang made me want to close my eyes and dream and never wake up. The young guy was crazy about her voice. He played piece after piece, making her sing all of them. Finally, he got her singing the words from the music. It musta gone on for a coupla hours or maybe more.
Yet at the end of that time it seemed like we'd only been there a few minutes.
The young fella said: "I mustn't keep you out of bed any longer. But we'll try this again. Tomorrow night, huh?"
"I'd love to," she said. There was an eager sparkle in her eyes.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Sheila," she told him. "I'm the…" She hesitated, shot me a shy glance, and then: "I work here."
"Call me Henry," he said. He chuckled. "Once in a while I get called other names. But I hoping you won't have occasion to use those."
"Are you here every night?"
"You bet," he said enthusiastically. "And don't you forget tomorrow."
It was that way every night. The young guy playing and her singing, like it was only when his fingers touched the notes that she began to live. They didn't seem to mind me being there, but I got a queer kinda feeling, like they was living in a world of their own that I was living on a separate plane. They gave each other meaning looks, said things that didn't make sense to me but caused them to laugh together, shared some kind of emotion together that was a secret between them that no one else knew anything about.
Maybe I am slow about some things. Maybe I do get hazy at times, not very clear about what's happening or what's going to happen. But I'm different to other people. I know it. I know things other people don't. It's a feeling inside me I get. I know things I just can't explain, as though some part of my mind reaches out and gets a grip on understanding. Like the time Nick had Orelli working for him. Everyone liked Orelli. Nick liked him too, helped him make money. I knew something then. I warned Nick but he wouldn't listen. That Orelli was jealous of Nick, wanted to harm him some way. Every time I got near the guy and heard him talking I knew what was in his mind. It was something I knew that nobody else knew. There's something special about me, the same way the haziness is something special about me.
That night when Orelli opened up Nick's safe and shot the head waiter when he was interrupted, I reminded Nick, told him I'd warned him.
Nick wasn't pleased with me that night. He told me to shut up, told me I was shooting off my mouth. But maybe Nick was mad because he realised I'd been right all along. Maybe he realised if he'd listened to me he wouldn't have had the bother of sending after Orelli. And afterwards he was never really happy about Orelli because although they caught up with him, by that time there was only a little dough left. Orelli hadn't even hidden it away. He'd spent it. He kept swearing he'd spent it right up until the last minute. I guess he must have spent it at that. No guy who's hidden dough would have held out the way Orelli did. No dough is worth what he went through.
In the same way I knew about Orelli, I knew about Sheila and Henry. There was something special between them. It was so strong it began to make me feel bad. I felt in the way, wasn't wanted.
Then one night after the singing, Sheila had to go back to the ladies' powder room for a magazine she'd left behind.
"What d'ya want that for?" I asked as I accompanied her upstairs to her room.
Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were sparkling like singing was champagne to her. "I like looking at the pictures, Joey," she explained.
"Dresses and things. Pictures of grand ladies, wearing expensive clothes. Like this one."
She showed me a picture of a dress. I didn't see how anyone could get worked up about a piece of coloured material. But it kinda intoxicated her so she pored over the picture wistfully, sighed like it would be heaven if she had a dress like that.
I sneaked into her room the next morning, found the magazine, tore out the picture. The firm advertising it was located in the classy district. It got me all hot and bothered going in there and I couldn't get what I wanted there because they asked for measurements.
For a time that got me stymied. Then I had an idea, slipped into Sheila's room one evening, borrowed her spare dress and took that down to the dress shop.
A week later it was ready. I gave it to Sheila the same night when she came off duty.
"Oh, thank you, Joey," she said. "But what is it?"
"Something you wanted," I said.
She was anxious to get to the piano and start singing. "Thank you so much, Joey," she said. But she didn't seem very interested in it. "I'll look at it later."
"Look at it now, please," I said. "Do look at it now."
"All right, Joey."
She may have been disinterested before she opened the packet. But once she got the wrapping off, lifted the lid and saw it, her eyes widened and her fingers trembled as she pulled it out and stared at it with a kinda wondrous delight in her eyes before she timidly held it up against herself.
"Joey!" she whispered. "It's wonderful! It's wonderful!"
"Say it," I pleaded. "Say it again."
"Oh, Joey," she said. "You're such a dear person. Sometimes I could almost love you, even though…" She broke off, flushed, added quickly: "I must try it on."
I didn't understand her. It was just a silly old dress, just a bit a material. It cost a helluva lotta dough too. They called it a Single Model Evening Gown. That didn't mean anything special to me. It did to them, though. They charged more for that dress than it cost me for a complete winter rig-out.
I guess it was worth if, giving her all that pleasure. When she came out of the powder room she looked like a queen, her bare shoulders gleaming, the white bodice of the gown drawn in tightly around her narrow waist, then billowing out like a cloud. She walked up and down the corridor displaying it, twirled, watched the way it billowed around her legs and was radiant with happiness.
It didn't seem to me anything to make a fuss about. Except I liked the sound of it. It kinda whispered when she walked. It was a nice noise. I kept listening to it, listening to the sound of it, not wanting it to stop.
"It's wonderful, Joey!" she breathed. "You're so wonderful to me. I don't know how I can ever thank you." Her eyes were dancing. "I must show Henry. He'll love it."
Maybe he did, or maybe he was just pretending. I wouldn't know. He certainly sounded enthusiastic. And then when he started playing and she leaned up against the piano, and sang in her low, husky voice, I knew she ought to be on the stage, ought to have one of those big white lights gleaming on her. For the first time I felt really pleased about that dress, felt proud it was me who'd bought it for her and proud Henry said she was beautiful with that breathless note in his voice.
I'd forgotten about asking Big Nick to come; so him coming into the night club that night of all nights when she was wearing that dress and singing so hauntingly, was coincidence.
I didn't see him at first. Neither did the other two. He stood in the shadows, the red eye of his cigarette gleaming and reflecting against his stiff white shirt-front. He waited until they'e reached the end of a number then walked over to us, with lazy, languorous strides. The soft rap of his shoes drew our attention and then we were all watching him, feeling guilty and wondering it he'd be mad.
He came right up to us, stared at Sheila so long she dropped her eyes. Then he looked at Henry.
"Why are you still here?" he demanded.
Henry flushed, half-climbed to his feet. "Getting in a little practice sir," he said. "I hoped you wouldn't mind."
"Nope," said Nick. "It was fine." He jerked with his head. "You can go now."
Henry hesitated. He looked at Sheila. She was standing head bowed, demurely looking at the floor.
"I said you can go!" rasped Nick, and there was no disobeying him.
Nick lit a cigarette, waited until Henry had left before he said in the soft voice he often used with dames: "Where did you spring from, honey?"
She looked up at him then, nervously, apprehensively. "I-er-I-er-work here," she got out.
"Well!" he said with satisfaction. "Why didn't someone tell me?" He stepped back a coupla paces, looked her over slowly and deliberately. "A swell dish like you working for me and I didn't know it! Who's been keeping me in the dark?"
"It's the dame, boss," I said. "You remember? You said I could give her a job."
He obviously didn't remember. He said vaguely: "That's right. Told you to give her a job, didn't I?"
"It was kind of you, mister," she said. She dropped her eyes again like Nick was too important a guy to talk to face to face.
"You've got a cute voice, kid," he said. He put his forefinger under her chin, lifted her head so her wide, clear eyes stared straight into his. "Just what do I employ you to do, anyway?"
She went red. Red as a beetroot. "It's a small job," she faltered, in a weak voice. Then she added eagerly: "But I'm very pleased to have it."
He grinned. "You're kidding me, aren't you, honey? You don't work here. I'd have seen you around if you worked here."
"Not where she works," I broke in cheerfully and loudly.
He ignored me. "What do you do, honey?"
"The powder room," she whispered. "The ladies' powder room."
It jolted him. "The powder room!" he exploded.
"She wanted the job, boss," I interrupted. "She didn't mind what it was."
"Powder room!" he echoed again. "That's crazy! A swell dish like you. Who thought up that crazy idea?"
"It was Sinclaire," I said. "The only job he had was…"
"A crazy idea giving her a job like that," he muttered. He was looking her over again like a collector examining a curio piece. "Got a voice, got a good figure," he said, like he was talking to himself. "Not exactly beautiful but she's got that innocent kinda expression that goes down. A few bucks spent at the hairdresser's would help a lot." He frowned. "Who thought up the crazy idea of giving her that job?"
"Please, Mr. Fenner," she said quickly. "I'm happy, really I am. You've been so kind to me, so good. I'm very contented with my work. I don't want you to think I'm discontented…"
She had big brown eyes. They were full of devotion like a spaniel's. Big Nick did something to her. I felt that if he pushed her over, wiped his feet on her, she's be the happiest dame alive.
"With that voice of yours," he said thoughtfully, "you ought be under the spotlight. You ought be earning money, real money. Not peanuts!"
The germ of suspicion started working in his mind. He gave Sheila the once-over again. It seemed Big Nick knew about dresses the same as he knew about everything else. "Wait a minute," he said ominously. "That dress cost dough. Where d'ya get enough dough to buy that kinda dress?"
She was awe-stricken by him, scared speechless. Her eyes unwillingly flicked to me, switched back to him.
Nick turned to me slowly. Her eyes were like gimlets boring into my brain. "Did you buy this dress, Joey?"
"Sure, Nick," I said. "The little dame wanted it. I got it for her."
He stood staring at me, breathing deeply, almost like he was counting. Then he turned back to the dame, and this time his voice was harsh.
"You been making a monkey out of this sap?" he asked. "You been playing him for a sucker?"
Her eyes were frantic now. "No, no. Please don't think that. He's so good and kind. It was his idea. He did it all by himself. I didn't know anything about it and…"
"Did she ask you for a dress, Joey?" he rasped loudly.
"Gee, boss," I see indignantly. "She didn't ask me for nothing. It was my idea. I thought it up."
He calmed down, said softly: "It's okay, honey. Just for a moment I thought you might be…"
"But I wouldn't," she said. "I wouldn't dream of…"
"No, I guess not." He looked her over again, a greedy kinda look. She didn't see the expression in his eyes because her own eyes were once more lowered demurely.
"I'll think about you, kid," he said. "You oughta do better. Just stick around. I'll think of something for you."
He didn't say goodnight. He sauntered away like a god who in his own good time is gonna perform a miracle, transform her world and her life so she herself would become almost godlike.
"He's so handsome, isn't he, Joey?" she said when he had gone.
"One of the best guys," I told her. "Without Nick I'd…"
"A real gentleman," she whispered excitedly. "And speaking to me like I was someone of his own class. He's so masterful, too, so proud, so strong." Her eyes were wide and swimmy when she looked up at me. "You couldn't help loving a guy like that, could you, Joey? You just couldn't help it, could you?"
"Nick's been a good guy to me," I said. "I don't know what I'd have done without Nick. He means everything."
"I can understand that," she said softly. "I know just how you feel."