Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Don't Scare Easy by Hank Janson: Chapter Ten.

Big Nick had changed.  At last even the other guys noticed it.  As the week went past, Maxie and Whitey talked between themselves.
"That pansy, innocent-looking Judy did it," complained Maxie.  "She's so good she scares the pants off me.  I'm scared she'll get the boss that way.  Make him soft and goody-goody, maybe Bible-punching."
Whitey said with a scowl: "She's playing him like a fish.  He hasn't made first base with her yet.  Just a goodnight kiss.  That's all."  He gave a harsh chuckle that didn't show humour.  "Can you believe that?  A guy with Nick's experience falling for a dame who thinks it a crime when a guy mentions the word 'legs'!" 
It got me mad them talking that way about the boss.  I said fiercely: "Nick knows what he's doing.  He's clever.  He knows more than anybody."
Whitey growled.  "Shut your mouth, you dumb-bell" he rasped.  "Why, you…"
Maxie interrupted him fiercely.  "Cut it out, will ya, Whitey?  You'll overdo it one day.  Cut it out, will ya?  For crissakes, cut it out!"
The hammering was in my head.  It was starting again.
Maxie said softly, soothingly: "Take it easy, Joey.  Take it easy now, boy."
The word were something to hold on to.  I reached out, held them tightly.  I felt the hammering slowly die away, and found I could breathe easily.
"You can overdo it," Maxie told Whitey grimly.
"Aw!" said Whitey.  But that was all.  He kept his lips pressed tightly together then, like he was fighting hard not to say anything.
Then the Feds called again.
There were three of them this time, including Jake.  They waited downstairs in ominous silence until Nick was ready for them.  Then they all came up to his lounge, refused cigarettes and drinks and wouldn't even sit down.
"Okay," said Nick.  "What's on your mind?"
"Lola Gray," said Jake.  "The dame that used to live here."
Nick raised his eyebrows.  "Lola?"  He shrugged.  "What about her?"
"She was fished out of the river twenty miles downstream," said Jake, and the fury was trembling in his voice.  "Musta been in the river weeks.  How come you didn't report her missing?"
"But, fellas," said Nick smoothly, "I haven't seen Lola for weeks.  Not since she got mad and walked out on me."
The Feds looked at each other.  Jake said gruffly, with narrowed eyes: "That's one more thing we're gonna get you for, Fenner.  You big guys at the top figure you can jump the rap and leave the little guys to hold the bag.  Well, it may have worked in the past.  It may work in the future.  But it's not gonna work all the time.  Some day, Fenner, you're gonna…"
Nick said easily: "You bore me, fellas.  Haven't you got some other angle you can play up?"
"Yeah," said Jake.  "We have.  The new dame you've installed.  We wanna see her."
Nick lost his composure.  His face became hard, kinda mottled.  He said in a brittle voice: "Now listen, you guys.  You leave that dame outta this!  If you worry her, I'll crucify you.  If you start talking to her and…."
"You'll crucify her," mocked Jake.  "The same way Lola got crucified."
Nick's clenched fists showed how hard he was trying to keep his temper in check.  "Get out of here!" he snarled.  "Get out of here!"
Jake said firmly: "We wanna see that dame, Fenner, I wanna see her now.  Here or down at headquarters."
It was the Feds' lucky day.  It was as though they whistled and got what they wanted.  Sheila had been out shopping and close that moment to walk into Nick's lounge.  She hovered in the doorway, looked around with wide, startled eyes.
Nick said quickly: "I'm busy, honey.  Would you be good enough to leave us?"
"Of course, Nick…" she began.
Jake interrupted.  His voice steely and ringing with command: "Just a moment, lady," he called.  "We wanna talk to you.  We're Federal agents."  As he spoke he produced his badge from his wallet, held it so she could see the Government seal.
Sheila stared at Jake uncertainly, not sure what she should do.
"You leave us, honey," said Nick.  His voice was soft, the way it always was when he spoke to her.
"And I'm telling you to stay right here," rasped Jake.
"Do what I say, honey," Nick said gently.
"But, Nick," she protested.  "If these gentlemen are from the police I can't very well…."
Nick sighed.  "Okay," he said.  He got up and offered her his chair.   "But remember, honey," he told her.  "These guys are looking for trouble.  Be careful what you say.  They'll twist your words, make you a liar."
She settled herself comfortably in the chair, said smilingly: "Don't be silly, Nick.  The police wouldn't do anything like that."
Maxie and Whitey stared.  The Feds raised their eyebrows and only just managed to maintain their poker faces.  Nick shrugged.  "Have it your own way, honey," he sighed.
Sheila straightened her skirt demurely, clasped her hands on her lap, and looked straight at Jake.  "What is it you want to ask me?" she said innocently.
"How long have you been around this joint?" he asked bluntly.
She thought.  "Just a few weeks," she said.
"You look a nice dame," he said.
She blushed.
"What's your position here?" he asked bluntly.  "You're his lay, aren't you?  Get paid for services rendered?"
She stared at him, perplexed, didn't understand him.
He swallowed, repeated with emphasis: "You're his mistress, aren't you?"
The scarlet spread upwards from her neck until her cheeks flamed.  She was almost trembling with anger, her eyes flashing.  "How dare you!" she said.
If Jake had been standing, her reply would have rocked him back on his heels.  He gaped, then gulped.  Then he eyed Nick apprehensively as Nick swayed over towards him, both fists bunched into hard knuckles.
"Take that back!" rasped Nick.  "Take it back or I'll knock it down your throat!"
Jake looked from him to Sheila.  He swallowed some more.  Licked his lips.  "Listen, lady." he said more softly.  "If I'm on the wrong angle, I'll take it back.  But seeing the kinda company you keep you can't blame me for drawing wrong conclusions."
Sheila was still furious.  "And what's the matter with Nick?" she demanded.  "There's nothing wrong with him that I can see."
"Of course not," sneered Jake.  "There's nothing wrong with Nick.  There's nothing wrong with prostitution, nothing wrong with gambling saloons, or crooked race meetings."  His eyes narrowed.  "There's nothing wrong with any of them, lady.  And there's nothing wrong with killing, deliberate cold-blooded killing.  You're in favour all of them, I guess."
He didn't ring any bells with Sheila.  She looked at him like he was crazy.  Then she looked at Nick as if he was a saviour.  "What's he talking about, Nick?" she asked.  "Why is he acting this way?"
"It's like I told you, baby," said Nick.  "Cops are all the same.  They've got swollen feet and swollen heads.  You've seen the way they act, so now be a good girl, step outside and leave me to handle them."
"I will, too," said Sheila, flushed with indignation.  She climbed to her feet, glared angrily.  "I don't see why I should stay here and be insulted."
Maxie followed her to the door and closed it behind her.  Jake looked at Nick.  He said smoothly: "Either that dame really doesn't know anything or she's a damned fine actress."
Nick said levelly: "She doesn't know anything, not a thing."  He shrugged.  "I guess if she did she wouldn't be here."
Jake eyed him keenly.  "For a real hard case like you it's interesting to see you getting soft about a dame."
Nick snorted.  "I'm not interested in your opinions.  If there's nothing else you want, you can go."
Jake lounged to his feet slowly.  "I guess there's nothing else we want right now," he said.  He put his hands into his pockets, strolled across to the door.  "We'll be around again, though, Fenner.  You might be uncertain about a lotta things.  But you can be sure of that."
"Maxie, Whitey," ordered Nick crisply.  "Go downstairs and see these monkeys off the premises.  Don't let 'em in again unless they've got a search warrant.  D'you understand?"
Jake eyed him keenly.  "For a real hard case like you it's interesting to see you getting soft about a dame."
Nick snorted.  "I'm not interested in your opinions.  If there's nothing else you want, you can go."
Jake lounged to his feet slowly.  "I guess there's nothing else we want right now," he said.  He put his hands into his pockets, strolled across to the door.  "We'll be around again, thought, Fenner.  You might be uncertain about a lotta things.  But you can be sure of that."
"Maxie, Whitey," ordered Nick crisply.  "Go downstairs and see these monkeys off the premises.  Don't let 'em in again unless they've got a search warrant.  D'you understand?"
Jake said: "Don't worry, Fenner.  The next time we come we'll have that search warrant."
Nick was sweating after they'd gone.  He mopped his forehead with his handkerchief.  "Get me a drink, will ya, Joey?" he said.
I got him a drink, poured three fingers the way he liked and added just a splashed of soda.
"The nerve of them guys!" he told me.  "Speaking to Sheila that way.  I coulda killed them!"
"Feds always mean trouble," I told him, remembering the very words he'd used himself.
"Yeah," he said thoughtfully.  He was wrapped up in himself, miles away.
"Sheila's pretty," I said.  "I don't think it right them Feds should talk to her that way."
"You're right, Joey," he said absently.  "You're right."
"The police never did treat her proper," I told him.  "That Bannister guy wasn't treating her right, either."
"Sure, sure," said Nick.  He was still thinking.
"I was sure glad you knocked off that Bannister guy,"  I told him.  "He had no right treating her that way, hurting her arm, squeezing it that way…"  I broke off.
There was a kinda tension.  I could feel it in the room as distinctly as if it was a sharp splinter of ice that pierced from Nick to me.  He was staring at me with eyes frozen in horrible intensity.
"What was that you said about Bannister, Joey"  His voice was so low I could hardly hear him.
"He's the cop," I explained to Nick.  "He's the cop that got killed.  You remember him.  He's the guy that the Feds are worried about."
I could see the veins standing out on his forehead.  He was forcing himself to speak calmly, smoothly.  His voice was nice.  Just like black velvet.  "What did you say about Sheila and the cop?"
I wasn't sure now.  I frowned, thought about it.  Now I was thinking about it, my memory kept eluding me.
"Think, Joey," urged Nick.  "You've gotta think, Joey.  Try hard.  You've got to!"
It was important to Nick.  I'd do anything for Nick.  I tried hard and I remembered.
"The dame and Bannister," I said excitedly.  "Bannister was the cop who arrested her.  You remember, Nick?  It was that night when…."
It happened so quickly.  I was up against the wall with Nick's hands twisted in my collar and choking me before I realised it.  I tugged at my collar, half-choked as Nick squeezed it tighter.
"What are you trying to tell me?" he rasped frantically.  "That dame Sheila.  Is she the dame Bannister arrested that night?"
I tried to suck in breath, managed it with difficulty, nodded and croaked: "That's what I was trying to tell you, boss."
His face was so contorted with anger I thought he was gonna throw me across the room.  He was shaking all over like he had the ague.  Then slowly, ever so slowly, he calmed down.  I hardly recognised his voice when he flared at me: "Don't you realise what you've done by bringing her here?  She was the one person in the world who knew we'd seen Bannister!  Don't you realise what it means, Joey?  She knows enough to have us all dangling at the end of a rope!"
I didn't understand half what he was saying.  But I knew he was angry.  Scared, too.  And it was something to do with Sheila.  He was afraid of her.
I managed to work his fingers away from my neck.  "I'll do anything boss," I said.  I was almost crying.  "I don't wanna get you mad like this.  I'll do anything you want, anything to make you happy."
He'd calmed down so much now he was almost sagging.  He walked across to the settee, sank down into it, buried his face in his hands.  For a time his shoulders shook like he was sobbing.
I went over to him, stood beside him, said humbly: "I'll do anything you want, Nick.  You just tell me.  I'll do it."
He looked up then.  I'd made a mistake.  He wasn't crying.  But there was a kinda haunted indecision in his eyes.  "You poor sucker, Joey," he said.  "You don't understand anything, do you?  It happens all around you and you only get half of it."
"I understand a lot of things, boss," I told him proudly.
"Look.  Do you understand this, Joey?"  He seemed terribly determined I should understand it, emphasised it again and again.  "You've got to understand this, Joey.  You must never tell anyone what you've just told me.  About Bannister and Sheila, I mean.  You must never let Whitey know.  You must never tell Maxie.  Do you understand that?  You must hang on to that thought, get it deep down in your head."
"Sure, boss," I said.  "I can do what."
"Fine," he said.  "Now keep thinking of what I've told you, Joey.  Don't ever forget it."
"No, boss.  I won't forget it."
He gnawed his thumb.  I waited.  He kept thinking.  Finally he said: "Go get her, Joey."
He sighed.  "Sheila," he said.  "Tell her I want her."
She came redly enough, anxious to hear what had happened to the Feds.  As soon as she was in the room she started.  "Nick.  Who are those men?  What right have they to…?
"Forget them, honey," he said.  "There's something more important; something we've gotta do right away."
"What's that, Nick?"
"We're getting married, honey," he said.  "We're getting married tonight."
She stared at him, eyes wide and misty.  "Nick," she said, like it was the happiest moment of her life, "you don't really mean it?  You really want to marry me?"
"Sure, honey," he said.  "It's been on my mind all the time.  I know now it's the thing I want more than anything else.  And now I've made the decision I just can't wait.  Is it a go, honey?"
"Is it a go?" she repeated, her voice thrilling with excitement.  "Nick!  How can you ask?"
Nick winked at me.  "You're standing on your foot, Joey,"  he said.  And this time he wasn't mad.  He said it as a joke.
I gaped at him.
"Scram!" he said.
I looked at Sheila.  Her eyes were sparkling, her mouth rippling with laughter.  "Nick means he wants you to leave us alone," she explained.
"Okay, boss," I said.
I wandered out glumly.  It beat me.  Why did dames always wanna be alone with guys?  It just didn't make sense.