I was pleased Nick got married. It made him happy and anything that made Nick happy made me happy, too.
Sheila was happy also. You only had to look at her sparkling eyes and see the tender look on her face when she looked at Nick to know how happy she was.
None of us saw so much of Nick these days. Most of the time spent going around with Sheila. Maxie and Whitey began to complain he wasn't paying enough attention to business. Business was getting more and more difficult, too. Collecting the takings became a weary job. All the guys we collected from beefed like hell about the way the papers were campaigning against vice and the way the Feds were making themselves a nuisance.
The news-sheets said the Government were taking a stern view of conditions in our town. Another dozen Feds had arrived recently to widen the search for the murderer of Bannister. They didn't seem to be getting anywhere, and I figured they must be wasting their time, because a couple of them were hanging around outside the night club day and night, doing nothing except following Nick wherever he went.
Those Feds were determined to cause trouble, and finally they did. The newspapers came out with the news first. A little later Nick's phone was ringing continuously and guys were calling.
Nick said it was serious. Washington had decided to hold a Congressional investigation into the affairs of our town. Imagine that! The whole of America to monkey with and they had to choose our town!
Nick was angry. But he was quiet and efficient as he answered telephone calls, interviewed collectors; sent me, Maxie and Whitey around to all our usual agencies, telling them to drop everything.
"It's gonna cost us dough," he told us. "But everything's gonna stop right from now. Let them send their investigators. They won't find a thing. They can investigate to their hearts' content and turn the town inside out. They won't find a thing and will have to give us a whitewash certificate. We'll lie low for a while and start up again later."
A coupla days later the Congressional committee arrived with an army of Government agents. They didn't scare anyone. You couldn't buy a numbers ticket in town if you wanted to. Madame had a "Private Hotel" board stuck up outside her joint and the girls were talking a well-earned holiday in Florida. The pool rooms along the main street were just pool rooms, and we had a coupla warehouses stuffed with one-arm bandits, oiled and greased and stacked ready for use at a later date.
There was still the night club. Nick claimed he ran on the level. There were no worries there. And to celebrate the arrival of the Congressmen, Nick threw a dinner for all of us that evening in his own night club, even invited me.
It was a swell dinner, good food and good music. Maybe I wasn't quite so happy as I could have been on account Nick said I wasn't to drink champagne. But it was good, just the same. It was good just to see Sheila and Nick looking so happy.
And then, halfway through the dinner, everything changed. I have a way of knowing these things. I could tell there was tension in the air. They were talking about the Congressional enquiry, Nick making jokes about it. Sheila asked suddenly: "I suppose all this started on account of that policeman that was killed?"
There was a kinda frozen silence. Nick said quickly: "Have some more champagne."
She accepted it, smiled prettily and added laughingly: "I don't like policemen."
Maxie said with feeling: "Me neither."
I haven't had much to do with them." said Sheila. "There was that nasty man the other day, the Federal agent. He was dreadful. Then there was that other policeman. The one who was arresting me; the one you took me away from."
There was again a kinda paralysed silence. Nick said quickly: "D'you want to dance, honey?"
Whitey asked equally quickly: "the cop we got you away from?" There was disbelief in his voice and sudden realisation, too.
"Surely you remember?" she said. "He was taking me to the police station when Nick came along and stopped him." She smiled at Nick gratefully. "I think I fell in love with you right then, Nick," she told him.
Nick's face was white. It took and effort to give her a reassuring smile, pat her hand.
Whitey said in a kinda cracked voice: "You remember that cop, Sheila?"
"I'll never forget it," she told him. "It was a dreadful experience. I thought I'd die."
Whitey asked cunningly: "Have you seen him around lately?"
"I never want to see him again," she shuddered. "Once was enough."
Whitey persisted: "Would you recognise him again if you saw him? Saw a photograph of him, for example?"
"I expect so," she said. "It wouldn't be easy to forget him." Then she crinkled her brow. "Why all this interest?"
Whitey sat back in his chair and gave his mean, twisted grin. "Nothing to it," he drawled. "Just idle curiosity." But when she wasn't looking he gave Nick a glance that was evil and calculating.
From that time onwards there was tension in the atmosphere. It spoiled the party. It made me unhappy. Then when the cabaret was finished and we all went upstairs to bed, Whitey grabbed me by the shoulder and rasped into my ear: "I wanna see you, Joey."
Nick said goodnight and escorted Sheila into his apartment. The rest of us walked to our rooms farther along the corridor.
Whitey bundled me into his room, Maxie followed behind. Whitey snarled at me: "Did you know about that?"
"Don't play dumb!" he rasped.
Maxie interjected: "Let me handle this."
I liked the way Maxie spoke then. It was soft and gentle.
Maxie said: "Did you know Sheila was the dame Bannister arrested?"
I thought about it. I wasn't sure. "I think so," I said cautiously. Then I remembered Nick had told me I wasn't to say anything about it. I tried to gulp back the words. "No," I said. "I didn't know. She didn't know Bannister. I know she didn't know Bannister. She wasn't the dame Bannister was arresting. I remember it all now. She wasn't the one at all."
Maxie looked at Whitey meaningly. "Nick knew about it all the time," he said, "He must known. He's warned Dumbo to keep quiet about it."
Whitey said with a rasp of hated in his voice: "I wanna talk to that guy."
"You can talk to me right now," said Nick from behind us. He'd opened the door quietly just as Whitey spoke. In the silence that followed he closed the door, leaned his shoulders against it. "Well?" he asked. "Who's gonna start?"
Whitey got to his feet. He said angrily: "That dame knows about Bannister. She knows we were the last to see him. She can hang us. Are you crazy or something, Nick? Don't you know you're putting our heads in a noose?"
Nick said easily: "You guys don't think. Of course I knew about her. Why d'you think I married her?"
There was a long silence. Maxie asked cautiously: "You married her. So what?"
"Use your brain," said Nick. "A wife can't give evidence against her husband in a court. You oughta know that. No wife is obliged to give testimony against her husband."
Whitey roared loudly: "She's not married to me. It's you she's married to. Me and Maxie are wide open."
Nick said quietly: "I was the guy who killed Bannister."
Maxie roared: "They'll hang it on all of us. We were accessories. We were in this together. The dame saw all of us that night. She might not give testimony against you, Nick. But she'll give testimony against us. She's that kinda dame. She's so honest she's too good to live."
Nick was looking cool and unperturbed. But I knew he was worried, could sense the anxiety, frustration and fear inside him. "You guys have gotta see this the right way," he said. "She ain't gonna cause us no trouble. You can rely on me for that."
Whitey said harshly: "I rely on no one when my neck's at stake."
"I'll take her away," said Nick. "It'll take her away some other State. You won't have anything to worry about."
Maxie demanded angrily: "Are you going crazy, Nick? There's just that dame between us and the chair. After what we've been through together, d'ya mean to say you're gonna let a dame hold our lives in the palm of her hand?"
Nick was worried now. Desperately worried. "Look, fellas," he said. "We've been together a long time. We've made a good thing of it. Let's call it a day now. You can have the night club. We'll split the dough. I'll clear out, take the dame with me."
Whitey edged over alongside Nick. "You're nuts about that dame," he accused. "You've gone crazy. You can't even think straight any more." He took a deep breath, added with significance: "But we can still think straight. And we're telling you, Nick. That dame's too dangerous. Something's gotta be done about her."
The fear was in Nick's eyes. Not fear for himself, but fear for Sheila. "Now wait a minute, fellas," he begged. "We can find a way out of this."
"Sure we can," said Maxie ominously. "I've already figured one."
Nick looked at him hopefully. "What's your idea?"
Maxie said slowly: "There's a coupla Feds outside. They're on our tail the time. So what's done has to be done with their knowledge." He paused, looking towards me meaningly. "What's the matter, Joey?" he asked. "Aren't you ears working properly?"
"Sure," I said. "I can hear what you say."
Maxie's eyes returned to Nick's, slowly, meaningly. "We've always known we might want to use him for the last time. This is it. It's a pity, but it's gotta be done. It's gonna save our necks. The Feds can follow us, Dumbo can blow his top and the dame doesn't talk any more."
Nick's face was white as he listened. I didn't know if he could make sense of what Maxie said. I couldn't. But I sensed it had something to do with me.
"Sure, Nick," urged Whitey. "That's the way to do it. Straight and clean. The Feds will be trailing us and they'll see it happen. They may have their suspicions about Lola. But they can't prove anything. This way you'll be right in the clear and the Feds will be eye-witnesses."
I've never seen such a desperate look as that in Nick's eyes. He swallowed uneasily, faltered weakly: "I'd like to think about it, fellas."
"There's nothing to think about," said Maxie easily. "It solves everything. There ain't no other way."
"I'd like to think about it," repeated Nick huskily.
Whitey's eyes narrowed. "There's gonna be no more thinking, Nick," he said. "That dame's hot. The Feds are liable to get working on her at any time. Even if she wanted she couldn't keep quiet. She'd shoot her mouth off under pressure."
Nick pleaded: "Let it sweat awhile, fellas. Let it sweat…."
Maxie said with savage menace in his voice: "It's not gonna sweat, Nick. It's gotta be done. And it's gotta be done now. Go get the Judy, rouse her out of bed, tell her we've got a little trip to take."
I could see Nick wanted to fight against them. But there was nothing he could do. Maxie and Whitey were determined.
Nick's shoulders drooped. "Okay, fellas," he said. "I'll go get her."
* * *
Sheila was irritable at being got up out of bed again. She was sleepy, too. We climbed into the car, Maxie was driving. Whitey looked out through the back window. I knew what he was watching for. I looked myself and saw the two Feds signal a waiting police car, climb into it and follow along behind.
The streets were deserted at this hour of the morning. Maxie said he knew of a little place that was just right for us. It would still be open.
Sheila said she didn't know why we had to get up in the middle of the night when we could have gone there any time.
Nick said there was an important customer we had to meet.
Whitey pulled a flask from his hip pocket, handed it across to me. "Take a slug of this, Joey," he invited.
I looked hopefully at Nick.
He said, tonelessly: "It's up to you, Joey. If you want it, you have it."
I wanted it and I had it. While I drank, Whitey was pressed up close against me. He kept moving around. Looking back on it, I guess he was trying to get my gun. I didn't notice it then, though.
It was a dowdy little bar in the centre of town with an all-night licence. When Maxie pulled into the kerb, the police car pulled up on the opposite side of the road. We stumbled down the steep steps to the basement and a few moments after we got inside the two Feds sauntered in, sat at the far end of the room and ordered beer.
Nick, Maxie and Whitey had beer. Sheila said she didn't want anything except lemonade, and, without asking me, Whitey bought me another whisky. It sure was good. It warmed me right down to my toes. I felt my blood getting hotter and hotter, beginning to boil until it was molten and tight in my brain.
Whitey said: "Better get it over."
Nick said quickly: "Wait a minute. Hold it."
He crossed over to Sheila, took her hand. "Listen, honey," he said. Then he broke off.
They stood that way for maybe a minute or so, looked into each other's eyes. Nick had that kinda holy look again like he wanted to be tender and loving. She stared at him, and as though she sensed something was wrong she clutch his hand, held it tightly. "Something's wrong, Nick," she said. "You're trembling. Something's wrong."
"There's nothing wrong, honey," he soothed. "There's nothing wrong. It's just that I want you to know…" He broke off, licked his lips.
"Yes, Nick?" she said wistfully.
He looked at Whitey, he looked at Maxie. He scowled as thought wishing them to hell. Then he said slowly and deliberately: "I want you to know that I love you, honey. I want you to know that maybe I haven't been all I coulda been. But there's been one good thing in my life. That was you. I want you to remember that, honey."
She was staring at him, wide-eyed. "There's something the matte, Nick," she said urgently, worried. "There's something wrong."
"There's nothing wrong, honey," he told her soothingly. "There's nothing wrong at all."
Whitey was watching with a sneering, contemptuous twist to his lips. Nick looked at him meaningly and Whitey said to me: "You drunk that whisky yet, dope?"
"Sure," I said. "It was fine. It made me feel good inside and…"
"You dumb-bell!" he sneered. "You big dope! You dummy!"
It was starting again, the hammering in my head and the red mist rising before my eyes.
"You dummy!" jeered Maxie. "You great dope! Joey, the great dumb dope!"
It was happening. I couldn't stop it. The sweat springing out on me, drenching me through and through, and that great fear leaping inside me like a great shadow, paralysing me with it's impact, making me shudder with the awful fear that I'd been robbed of it. I stood there, trembling, sweating and the hammering echoing in my brain. Then it snapped. It had to snap. The paralysis melted from my limbs, and I dived frantically for the revolver, afraid it wasn't there, scared I was gonna die on account it wasn't there.
The relief was wonderful as my hand closed around the butt. I drew it out, easily and swiftly.
"The dame," yelled Whitey warningly. "Watch out the dame."
His words echoed and hammered in my head. "The dame. The dame. The dame."
I got my revolver lined up, her eyes between the sights and the fear in her eyes making me feel wonderful, making me feel I was master of the world. I asked quickly: Can I kill him now, boss?"
I wasn't looking at Nick. Yet I could see him in my mind. He was standing there, white-faced, trembling and licking his lips, trying to find the strength to say something.
"Sure you can," said Maxie. "Sure you can."
I didn't take any notice of Maxie. It was Nick I depended upon. "Can I kill him now, boss?" I asked pleadingly.
As he spoke there was a swift decision in his voice and command: "Look at me, Joey," he ordered. "Look at me. Look at me, I tell you! Damn it, Joey, look at me!"
I had to look at him. It meant swivelling the gun sights away from her face. Nick's brown eyes stared at me levelly. I could see his forehead lined up between the sights. There was that wonderful feeling of exultation inside me. I had only to press the trigger and I should be fulfilled.
"Can I kill him now, boss?" I pleaded.
There was a long pause. It was an exceptionally long pause.
Then Nick spoke, and his voice was soft and smooth as it always was, giving me that wonderful feeling of pleasure and warmth. It was like black velvet, rich and wonderful.
"Me first, Joey," he said. "Then Whitey and Maxie. You can shoot now."
I know things other people don't know. Even though I wasn't looking at the Feds behind me I knew they were on their feet, rushing towards me. One of them was pulling a gun from his pocket as I pulled the trigger.
It was strange. I didn't get that wonderful feeling of exultation after all. Instead, as the red hole appeared between Nick's eyes and his head smashed backwards, there was sudden intense grief and a terrible sense of loss. It was so intense I wanted to scream aloud as the gun bucked again in my hand and Whitey's mean lips parted in an agonised roar of pain.
A split second later another shot rang out from behind me. Something hammered into my side, knocked me sideways, threw me across the room. I found myself lying on the floor with sawdust in my nostrils, a red mist before my eyes, that intolerable hammering in my head and pain burning deep down inside me.
The red mist was getting darker and darker. The darker it got the better I liked it. I waded into it, so that it enveloped me completely. It was black then. Rich, peaceful, smooth and black.
Black velvet like Nick's voice.