A few days later Nick said I had to drive Lola into town. I hated those trips. Lola always looked at me with those ice-cold, contemptuous eyes of hers, instructed me to wait and kept me waiting hours while she visited a beauty salon or a dress designer. And she complained to Nick if I wandered away to look at the shop windows and wasn't waiting for her in the car when she got back.
But Nick wanted me to drive her and he was such a good guy I'd do anything for him. As it happened it was a good job I was with Lola. I was able to tell Nick exactly what happened.
It was a hairdresser she visited. I waited outside for a coupla hours before she finally clip-clopped through the door with a smiling, wavy-haired, womanish-looking guy bowing her out like she'd spent a fortune. Maybe she had at that.
I opened the door of the car, held it that way while she climbed in. A couple of those Feds drifted along out of nowhere. "Keep holding the door that way," said one Fed, the one called Jake.
Nick had told me we weren't ever to make trouble with Feds. Not ever. I did what the guy told me, held the door open so he and the other Fed could climb in alongside Lola.
She let out a squawk that sounded like she was being kidnapped. The squawk cut short when they flashed their badges.
"Tell the trained monkey to climb in front and keep quiet," said Jake.
Lola glared at him venomously, gulped, said to me: "You heard him, Joey. Climb in up front and keep your ears flapping."
We sat there in the car with all the window shut while ordinary folks were passing up and down outside on their private business.
Jake said: "We've been waiting around a long time for a chance to talk with you."
Lola said: "I'm saying nothing until I see my mouthpiece."
"You don't need a mouthpiece, lady," said Jake. "We're not charging you with anything. We're just asking questions. You're Nick's special, aren't you? Live over the night club with him?"
She bristled. "What's it to you, flatfoot? It's my life, ain't it? It's my business how I choose to live."
"Sure," he said. His eyes narrowed. "But a smart dame like you knows the kinda company she keeps. Big Nick's in trouble, real trouble. That means it's likely you'll be in trouble, too."
She stared at him. There was concern in those blue eyes. She asked suspiciously: "What kinda trouble?"
"Murder," said the other Fed.
"You're crazy," Lola said doubtfully. "You don't know what you're talking about." But she was just a little scared.
"Nick killed that cop," said Jake.
"You're crazy," she repeated. "Nick wouldn't kill a cop. He's too smart for that." Then as though she suddenly realised that despite herself she was talking, she added: "Aw, leave me alone, will ya? You make me sick. Scram, will ya?"
"That's okay, lady. We're going. But just one word of warning. You're in with high-stepping company. You've gotta step high yourself. You've gotta be smart, too. Those who fly highest fall hardest. When Nick falls he's gonna come down hard and he's gonna pull down everything else with him. So I'm warning you, lady. You've got just one chance. Any time you wanna talk you know where to find us and we're always ready to listen. Maybe a little talking at the right time will save your neck when the crash comes."
"You're crazy," she said. "You don't know what you're talking about. You don't know a thing."
"Think it over," said Jake. "That's all, I'm warning you, lady. Just think it over."
They climbed out of the car then, slammed the door, leaving Lola sitting bolt upright, angry and ruffed like a hen that's scampered across the road in front of a speeding car. "What the hell!" she flared at me. "Damned cops talking to me that way! Trying to hang something on me!"
"Tell Nick," I suggested. "He'll know what to do."
"Sure I'll tell him!" she flared. "Nick will crucify them."
Lola seemed kinda scared, wanted me to be with her when she told Nick about it later.
"That's everything that happened, Nick," she said. "Ask Joey. He was there. He heard every word." She was afraid Nick might think she'd talked too much.
Nick scowled. "Why d'you let them guys talk to you that way?" he demanded angrily. "You shoulda ordered them out. They've got nothing on you."
She looked at him anxiously. "What did they mean, Nick? What did they mean about murder? You didn't kill that cop, did you?"
He stared at her steadily, narrowed his eyes. "You ain't getting ideas?" he demanded.
"Why, no, Nick," she said quickly, just a little too quickly. "I wouldn't think anything like that." Her voice rose a little, got a little desperate. "There's nothing for me to know, is there, Nick? That was just their bluff, wasn't it?" She became almost desperate, trying to convince him. "Even if I did know anything, Nick, I wouldn't say a word, Nick. You know that. I wouldn't say a word."
He didn't say anything. He just stared at her steadily. The expression in his eyes frightened her. She backed away from him, scared. "You know me, Nick. You don't think I'd say anything? You mustn't believe that!"
"Get out!" he snarled. "Get out! Lose yourself for a coupla hours."
Nick gave me a job to do. "Clear all these wardrobes out," he ordered. "I want this room cleaned up and everything of Lola's packed in cases. Don't waste time on it, get cracking!"
I liked doing that work. Lola's clothes were so soft to touch. There were dozens of dresses, all different materials, all different colours, and all of them feeling so soft and smooth. They felt like Big Nick's voice, soft, silky and comforting like black velvet. There were lots of other clothes, too. Fragile, delicate underclothes that whispered in my fingers, so fine I could crush them in one hand, hold them without feeling they were in my hand.
I'd almost finished when Lola came back. She stood poised in the doorway, glaring around as though she couldn't believe her eyes. Then her eyes flamed, blue eyes burning with searing anger. "What the hell are you doing?" she stormed.
I was holding a sky-blue dress that was light as a feather, soft like smooth skin. Lola got me worried. I dropped the dress on top of the others, thrust it hastily down in the case.
That little action seemed to drive Lola mad. She had a big mouth. She opened it wide, screeched in fury, dropped everything she was carrying and sprang at me with outspread fingers tipped with blood-red slashing nails.
Nick repeatedly told me I wasn't to get into fights. I dodged away from her, dodged around the settee. She came after me, screeching furiously, crazy enough to shred my face with those long nails, picking up anything she could lay her hands on and throwing it with savage force.
Maybe she'd have caught me if it had gone on long enough. But it was Nick again. He was always helping me, getting me out of trouble and making me feel good.
He came through from his own bedroom which was right next to Lola's room. "Cut it out, Lola!" he roared.
His voice brought her to a stop. But it didn't cool her anger. "Look what that crazy dope's been doing to my clothes," she shrilled. "Just look at what he's done…"
"He was doing what I told him," rasped Nick.
She gaped. "You told him to!"
"That's right." said Nick. His eyes were narrowed and he kinda squared his shoulders like he was ready for trouble.
"Are you out of your mind?" she demanded.
"No," he said softly. "Just being smart. You're a know-nothing dame and you're gonna stop that way. You give me a pain in the neck. You're all washed up, understand? You're out! You're out on your ear. Understand?"
She understood. But she didn't believe it. She tried to laugh it off. "You don't know what you're saying, Nick. You're crazy to talk that way."
"Think so?" He put his hand in his inside pocket, pulled out a wallet and peeled off century notes from the thick wad he always carried. I thought he'd never stop counting. Finally he did, rolled the money in a ball, threw it towards Lola. "That'll keep you until you get another sucker to pay your expenses," he said. "Your bags can be sent on. Now get out, will ya? Get out quick! It gives me the creeps seeing you around."
He'd convinced her now. She ran over to him, grabbed him by the coat lapels, desperately tried to shake understanding into him. "I don't know what you're thinking, Nick. But it's all wrong. If I knew anything I wouldn't squeal to the cops. I wanna stop with you, Nick. I've been good to you. You can't just turn me out this way."
"Have I gotta knock it into your head with a sledge-hammer?" he demanded brutally. "You're all washed up. You're finished. Understand?" He emphasised the last question by thrusting her away from him so she fell sideways, sprawled on the carpet with a thump.
She was crying now. "Nick," she pleaded. "Don't do it! For God's sake, don't do it! I wouldn't squeal…"
Nick was perfectly at ease. He lifted his left arm elegantly, consulted his wrist watch. "You've thirty seconds to scram," he said cooly. "Thirty seconds to snatch the dough and scram. That's if you're sensible. Otherwise Maxie and Whitey will persuade you."
She believed him now right enough. Her tearful eyes stared up at him piteously. And Nick was really acting now. You'd have thought he was a real hard guy the way he intoned softly: "Ten seconds - fifteen seconds - twenty seconds…"
She'd been with Nick long enough to know he meant what he said. At twenty seconds she was on her feet. At twenty-five seconds she'd gathered up the loose dough he'd flung on the floor and at thirty seconds with a look of hate written on her face she was out of the door, slamming it behind her.
Nick frowned at the closed door for several seconds. Then he looked at me and a broad grin spread across his face. He shrugged his shoulders like he'd just got rid of a dead weight. "That's settled that little trouble. Now get busy, will ya, Joey? Get the cleaners up here. Get this room cleaned up, get rid of all those bits of lipstick, curlers, cotton wool and stuff. Get the whole lot cleaned out, huh?"
"Sure, Nick," I said, grinning happily, happy because Nick was happy.
"I want new sheets on the bed, too," he said. "The best sheets you can get. You go buy them yourself, Joey. The finest silken sheets, hand-made and hand-embroidered. Can you do it, Joey?"
"Sure, boss," I said, delighted that he'd given me a special job to do for him.
"That's the idea, Joey," he said. "You do it for Nick, huh?"
"Sure, boss," I grinned. "I'll do it just the way you want."
* * *
It was three days later when Nick told me the good news.
"Joey," he said. "You like that little dame? The one that sings?"
"Sure, boss," I said. "She talks good to me. She says nice things."
"That's fine, Joey," he said. "That's real fine. How would you like she has a better room, one that's more comfortable? All the dresses she wants, too?
"Gee, boss," I said eagerly. "She'd like that fine. I'd like it for her."
"I tell you what to do, Joey," he said. "Go get that dame. Bring her up here."
She was awed, almost scared. I brought her up to Nick's apartment and she sat on the edge of a chair, like she considered herself unworthy to sit on it properly.
Nick seated himself opposite her, nonchalantly, puffing a cigarette. "I'm gonna give you a break, kid," he said. "I'm gonna give you a better job."
Her eyes widened with delight. "That's so kind of you, Mr. Fenner. I must admit I've been very happy her and I've nothing to complain about."
"I'm gonna make you a singer," he said. "You can do a couple numbers every evening."
Her eyes widened even more. "But, Mr. Fenner, I've never sung to people before and…"
He hushed her with masterful hand motions. "You haven't a thing to worry about, kid," he said. "You don't sing until you really want to. If you're not in the mood, well you don't do it." He rushed on swiftly. "You'll get a hundred bucks a week, board and lodging. Does that suit you?"
It was too good to be true. She just couldn't believe it. She gasped, tried to find words.
"I don't want an argument about it," said Nick abruptly. "Answer yes or no. Is it a deal? Yes or no?"
"Good, that's settled then." He said it with the air of a man who's completed a boring preliminary. He got to his feet, jerked his head at Sheila for her to follow him. "Come along, kid. I'll show you your new quarters."
She was happy, excited, hardly able to believe her good fortune. But I noticed a change in her as we passed from the lounge into his bedroom, through the communicating door into the room that Lola used to occupy. Sheila's steps grew slower and slower, timid, almost reluctant.
Nick sure had fitted up that bedroom swell. It'd been cleaned up real good, draped with brightly-coloured chintz curtains and drapes, spruced up like a college girl going to her first dance.
"Like it, kid?" asked Nick. He was grinning happily like Father Christmas dishing out toys to the Dead End Kids.
She looked bewildered, a little afraid. She said, "Yes, but…"
Nick was excited like a boy, showing her everything. He interrupted. "These buttons above the bed. You've got the names underneath. This one for drinks, this one for the chambermaid, this one for a messenger. Get the idea, honey?" He rushed on, talking volubly. "You've got your own radio and television built into the wall there. Press this button, see? The doors slide back and you can sit up in bed and watch the television in comfort."
He crossed the room to the built-in wardrobe, slid back the wide doors, displayed a rack of beautiful dresses. He indicated them with a proud gesture. "All your size, honey," he said. "Everything you want from a morning dress to an evening gown. How'd you like it? Nice, huh?"
I didn't understand Sheila. She'd been pleased enough when I gave her that dress. Now she was getting a whole cupboardful she looked apprehensive, kinda scared. "Mr. Fenner," she said. "I couldn't. You surely understand that. I couldn't accept…"
He waved down her objections. "Quit worrying about it, honey," he said. "I've got plenty of dough." He gestured to the dresses. "Them's peanuts. Have more any time you want. Have anything you want."
"Please listen to me, Mr. Fenner," she interrupted. "There's something you should…"
Nick had reached into the wardrobe, fished out a sky-blue dress that sounded like music as it swayed on its hanger. "Put this on, honey," he said. "That black dress gives me the creeps. Put this on. Let's see how it fits."
He thrust the dress into her hand and she stared at it, dominated by Nick. "Gwan," he encouraged. "Put it on. It won't take a minute."
She looked at the dress longingly. She was dying to try it on. She looked at Nick. Then she looked at me. She moistened her lips. "I'd like to try it on, Mr. Fenner," she said. "But…" she looked at me and looked at him again meaningly.
"That's okay, honey," said Nick with another airy wave of his hands. "You don't have to worry about Joey. He don't know what time it is. D'you get what I mean?" He winked at her.
She looked at me. She looked at him. She looked at the dress. She said in a slightly worried voice: "You don't mean I should change with you both here?"
He looked at her suspiciously. "You kidding, honey?"
Her eyes were frank and innocent, her face questioning. "Kidding?"
A suggestion of harshness entered his voice. "Aw, honey. Don't waste time. Don't be childish. You ain't got a thing to worry about."
"Well…" she said, doubtfully. She stared at him, weighing him up. Then, as though making a sudden resolution, she turned away from us, loosened buttons, bent, took the hem of her tawdry black frock between her fingers and straightened up, drawing it over her head.
Underneath she was wearing a frayed slip. Like they were drawn by a magnet, Nick's eyes went to the smooth skin which showed above the tops of her black stockings. "I've bought underclothes for you as well, honey," he said hoarsely. "Everything you want. Lots of black lace and transparent georgette. Nice, huh?"
She was acutely self-conscious, struggled into the dress quickly, pulled it straight, turned around to face us with flushed cheeks.
Nick surveyed her critically, nodded his head with satisfaction. "You look swell, kid," he said. "Really lovely. With a hair-do, high-heeled shoes, some make-up and a manicure, you'd press for a film star."
Yeah, he was right. Just changing her dress did make her look different. I could see how, after going to a hairdresser, she wouldn't look mousy and insignificant any longer. She's look pretty, real pretty.
"That dress is fine, honey," said Nick. "Now let's see how you look in those undies."
I didn't think anyone's face could go so red. It was as though she'd been fighting a battle inside herself all the time and now had found the strength to make a stand. She threw back her head, squared her shoulders. "Mr. Fenner," she said firmly but clearly. "I think you oughta understand. I want to work. But I don't want to…" She broke off.
His eyes narrowed. "Meaning what?"
She gestured around the room, towards the wardrobe, the bed and Nick's bedroom next door. "You don't understand, Mr. Fenner. This isn't the sort of thing I do. I'm not that kind." There were tears in her eyes now. "It's not that i'm ungrateful. But I'm not… that way. I just couldn't do it."
Nick stared at her. The way his brow puckered showed he was having difficulty in understanding her. There was a note of incredulity in his voice. "Whadya trying to say, honey? Put it on the line. Don't speak in riddles."
She took a deep breath. Her cheeks were flaming. "Mr. Fenner," she said clearly, "I don't want to feel that anybody's buying me. I'd like to sing in your club. I'd like a better job. But…" Once again she looked towards his bedroom. "I couldn't do it, Mr. Fenner. I'm just not… that kind."
Nick stared at her so long I was afraid he'd gone dumb. It was like a battle was going on inside him too, fear and rage, fighting with the ache to obtain possession of something. Finally he said slowly, with a kinda false note in his voice: "I oughta be annoyed with you, kid. You got me wrong right from the start. You oughta think before you assume things."
Her eyes widened.
Nick dug down in his pocket, pulled out a yale key, tossed it across the room so it fell on the bed. He thumbed towards his bedroom door. "Better close that door," he told her. "You keep that locked day and night. Understand?" He pointed towards another door. "That door leads into the corridor. That's your own door. You go in and out as you want without interference." He pointed towards the wardrobe. "A singer in my nightclub has got to look right. She's got to have the clothes to go with the job. Call them stage props if you like." He took a deep breath and stared at her until she dropped her eyes. "Maybe my intentions could have been misunderstood. But you can get those kinda ideas out of your head right now, lady."
The flush had drained from her cheeks so now she was pale. All the fight had gone out of her. She was pathetic and penitent. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Fenner," she stammered. "I didn't realise… I thought…I never meant…"
"Okay," he growled. "Skip it. You've got a phone. Fix up for the hairdresser to work on those rat's tails. This is your room from now on. Somebody will bring you other things over later." He jerked his head at me. "Come along, Joey," he said as though I was the only friend he could rely on. Then, as we reached the door of his bedroom, he said over his shoulder with a kinda bitterness: "Don't forget to lock the door after me."
Nick was in a temper. Even though his face was calm and his voice smooth, he was flaming inside. I could sense it the way I can sense these things. We went through to his lounge where he got out a bottle of whisky, poured himself a generous dose. He drained it in one gulp. Then he looked at me steadily. "What d'ya make of that, Joey?" he demanded. "A dame that acts sweet and innocent - and really is!"
"She's pretty," I said stoutly. "She's got a nice voice. She makes me feel good."
Nick scowled. "She makes me feel good, too." He poured more whisky. "Too good!" He sighed. "You wouldn't understand, though."
"She likes singing," I told him. "She sings real good."
He held his glass up to the light, examined it carefully. But his mind was far away. "Remember one thing, Joey," he said. "If you want a thing and you can't get it one way, there's always a dozen other ways."
"Yes, boss," I agreed enthusiastically. I hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about.
"She likes you, doesn't she, Joey?'
"I like her, too. I like her voice."
"Teach her to play gin rummy, Joey," he said. "You like playing that, don't you, Joey?"
I nodded my head eagerly.
"That's right," Nick grinned. "We'll play gin rummy every night. Yeah, in my lounge. Go tell her about it."
"Sure, Nick," I said. "I'll like that fine."
* * *
I'm supposed to be slow, not to understand things quickly like other folks. I guess it's true about some things. But with other things I'm quicker than anyone else. About people I like, for example.
I noticed things about Nick no one else noticed. I saw the change that took place in him during the next few days. He did things that weren't like him. Playing gin rummy, for instance. Most nights, Nick was out, attending to business, or visiting the cat house, or on private business he didn't tell me about.
But during the next few days he changed completely, sat up after the night club had closed, playing gin rummy with me and Sheila. And he played for peanuts, too, not the big money he usually played for.
Nick's character had changed, too. He became quiet, wasn't so masterful, didn't talk so much and most of the time was watched Sheila intently and admiringly, doing little things for her, like getting a chair, opening a door, the talking to her real nice. Things he's never done for any other dame.
I noticed Sheila, too. It was like she was softening up. She kept watching Nick with a kinda soft light in her eyes that was almost worship mingled with adoration.
When we'd been playing gin rummy for almost a week and had finished the last game for the evening, Nick and quietly: "You still don't trust me, do you?"
"Oh, but I do, Nick," she protested. "I think you're one of the swellest guys…"
"You don't trust me," he insisted.
Her eyes were hurt. She raised one eyebrow slightly more than the other. "Why do you say that, Nick?"
"You hurt me," he said sincerely. "Every night you rub it in. Every night I hear that damned key turn in the lock."
There was a strange expression in her eyes as she stared at him. "Do I really hurt you that bad, Nick?"
"You don't trust me," he said sullenly.
Later when she went to bed, behind her back Nick motioned to me to keep quiet. Sheila said goodnight, and passed through Nick's bedroom into her own. Nick was tensed and listening when she closed the door. I listened, too.
It didn't happen tonight. She didn't turn the key in the lock.
Nick heaved a sigh. Then he nodded towards his cocktail cabinet. "Give me a Scotch, Joey. A large Scotch."
I sat there with him, watched as he drank and tried to understand what was going on in his mind. He was sunk into himself, thinking deeply like he was figuring angles. Suddenly he got up, went through to his bedroom. A little later he came out wearing his dressing-gown. "Stick around, Joey," he ordered. "I may want you."
"Sure, boss," I said.
"I might have a little trouble," he told me. "I may want your help keeping that dame quiet. Understand?"
"Sure, Nick," I said. I looked at him obediently, wondering what he had in mind.
He looked at me, shook his head sorrowfully. "Poor Joey," he said. "You don't understand it, fella. Do you?"
I dropped my eyes, felt humble. "No, boss," I admitted.
"Just stick around, anyway," he told me.
He went through to his bedroom, started pussyfooting around. That got me curious. I just had to know what he was up to. I tiptoed across to his bedroom peered inside. He wasn't there. But the door at the far end which led into Sheila's bedroom was standing partly open.
I've often wondered why Nick and other guys spent so much time locked up with dames in rooms at the cat house. This was my chance to find out.
But I was scared. Nick might be mad at me. I waited all of five minutes before I had the courage to tiptoe across to Sheila's door and watch through the crack of the door jamb.
Sheila was fast asleep, breathing softly, one white arm out flung across the pillows. There was a sweet, innocent look on her face. She looked so good, so childlike, she reminded me of the pictures they used to have in the Bible they tried to teach me to read at school.
It was strange the way Nick was standing there, staring down at her. He was frozen, frightened to move in case he disturbed her. There was something good about the expression on his face, too. Nick always looked handsome. But I'd never seen his face look quite this way before. It was sad, almost … Yeah, the guys would rib me about this word…almost holy!
I stood watching him through the crack in the door until my bones ached. Then he moved. Slowly he bent over her, pressed his lips to her forehead. He did it so gently she didn't even stir. Then he straightened up quickly, turned away and began to tiptoe out of the room.
I was smart enough to be back in the lounge before he got there. He hadn't got that holy look any more. He was scowling.
"Okay, Joey," he gritted. "You can go now."
None of this made sense to me. I didn't understand what kick guys got out of being in a room alone with a dame if that's all they did.
I got to the door, half-turned with my hand on the handle. "Can I have a drink before I go to bed, boss?"
"No, Joey," he said gently. "You lay off drink. And remember what I tell ya. Lay off dames, too. Understand?"
I turned away, closed the door quietly after me.