A coupla days later the Feds came to town. They came in a blaze of glory, the Police Commissioner getting the newsboys lined up at the station to meet them. I read the papers afterwards, saw the photographs. There were six of them - tall, dark, lean-looking guys with poker faces. There was a picture of the Commissioner shaking one of them by the hand. The Commissioner looked proud of himself, important and acting like he owned the town. The Feds were watching him quietly, suspiciously, and the expression on the face of the Fed whose hand was being shaken made me think it was a banana skin he was holding instead of the Commissioner's hand.
We went about our work as usual, quietly and efficiently. From all over town reports came in that the Feds were nosing around. But it didn't worry Nick any.
"Feds are concerned with offences against the Federal state," he said. "They're not hired to investigate rackets. Maybe they don't like what they see, but it's none of their business. They're just here to get a cop-killer. That's all they're entitled to get."
I made a point of seeing Sheila every night. It became a habit. I waited outside the powder room until she was through, escorted her upstairs to her little room and said goodnight. She was kind to me, always said my name nicely so it made me feel warm and good inside. Being with her kinda cheered me, made me feel the way Big Nick could make me feel, warm and contented.
One evening not long after the Feds arrived in town Big Nick told me: "Get the car, Joey. We're going out."
I went to the basement, got the car and drove it around front. A little later Nick came out, looking smart and handsome in his tailored black overcoat, his broad, curly-brimmed black fedora and white silk muffler.
"Okay, get going, Joey," he ordered as he climbed in beside me. "The Stewartson joint. Remember that place?"
"Sure, boss," I said. "I remember that fine."
As we were driving along he said: "I'm pleased with you, Joey. You've been doing well lately."
My chest swelled and I felt important. But I wasn't sure I deserved his praise. "In what way, boss?" I asked artfully.
"You've been going steady the last few days, Joey. You're taking a keener interest in things. You're not getting your ideas so mixed. You know what I mean?"
I thought about it. I did know what he meant. Things had been clearer in my mind these last few days. Events didn't get confused quite so much. I didn't get that hazy feeling so often, thinking I'd been doing and saying things that were silly. "That's right, boss," I said. "I have been getting better. I've been reading the newspapers, too."
"You're gonna be all right, Joey," he said encouragingly. "You're gonna be okay."
Stewartson owned a pool room down on South Side. The canteen was full of one-armed bandits and juke boxes. It was also a collecting agency for the numbers. When we arrived, one of the assistants was outside waiting for us. He ushered us straight through to the office at the rear.
Stewartson had a young guy with him, a tall, fair-headed young fella with a cheerful, turned-up nose. Stewartson said: "Thought this would interest you, Mr. Fenner. That's why I asked you to come on over."
Big Nick took his time selecting a cigarette from his case, steadily regarding the young man meanwhile. "Who is this guy?" he asked.
The young fella grinned eagerly. "My name is Dale," he said. "I'm a reporter."
Nick struck a match, lit his cigarette. "What paper?"
The young guy looked embarrassed. "Not any paper in particular. You see, Mr. Fenner, it's this way. When we heard in Washington the Federal agents were down here, I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to get a story. So I kinda fixed it with an editor and he's willing to give full consideration to any story I turn in."
Nick puffed smoke into the kid's face. The kid jerked his head back and coughed. Nick said softly: "That'll be real nice for you, won't it?"
The kid looked at him suspiciously. "I know everyone thinks reporters are nosey guys," he said. "But they're just doing a job. Just like everyone else."
"Sure," Big Nick said gently. "Sure, I understand."
"Mr. Stewartson here said you'd be the best man to see," Dale added awkwardly.
"He was quite right." Nick puffed smoke into the air this time. "What exactly is it you wanted to know, kid?"
The kid said with boyish enthusiasm: "It's this way, Mr. Fenner. I've been looking around the town. Seems there's not much that's illegal you can't do here. Numbers, pools, racing, nickel machines - all being run openly before the very eyes of the police."
"Anything wrong with that?" asked Nick.
The kid stared at him. "It's illegal," he protested. "The State ordinance specifically forbids the use of gaming machines."
Nick looked at Stewartson. Stewartson said heavily: "I asked the police chief if he'd be kind enough to step along and see Mr. Dale."
Nick nodded approvingly. "What could be better?" He blew more smoke towards the ceiling. "You'd like to see the police chief, wouldn't you?"
The kid didn't like it. He could sense something wrong. But he couldn't put his finger on it. "Sure," he said hesitantly. "I'd like to see the chief of police."
Stewartson kicked a chair across to him. "Might as well be comfortable while you're waiting."
Nick picked up the telephone and inspecting his fingernails as he waited to get through to the Devil's Dive. "I wanna speak to Maxie," he said softly.
A few moments later he added: "Some urgent business has turned up, Maxie. I want you and Whitey to meet me here. You'll see my car outside Stewartson's joint."
That was all. Nick hung up then, sat on the edge of Stewartson's desk to wait for the police chief, all the time staring at the young reporter. The kid couldn't return Nick's stare. It was as though Nick's eyes were wearing him down, breaking him down, bit by bit, spreading him in little pieces all over the floor.
The police chief took his time getting over. It must have been all of five minutes before he arrived. He saluted Big Nick, nodded to Stewartson and then stared at the reporter curiously.
"I want you to meet Mr. Dale," purred Nick. "He's a reporter. A free-lance reporter. He's trying to get a story for a Washington paper. Probably one of the syndication companies. Mr. Dale figures there's a lotta vice going on in this town, wants to write it up, expose it all. That's the general idea, isn't it, Mr. Dale?"
The kid was liking it less and less. He still wouldn't look at Nick. Instead he looked at the police captain, licked his lips nervously. Then he kinda squared his shoulders, jutted his chin. "That's the way it is, I guess," he said almost defiantly.
"He figures this town is a den of iniquity," chuckled Nick.
"Is that so?" asked the police captain. He sounded genuinely surprised.
The kid said angrily: "What game are you playing, anyway? You know what's going on right enough. You've just passed through a roomful of nickel machines. Those one-armed bandits are illegal in this State. You're a Cop Captain. You ought to know that."
The Cop Captain stared at him steadily. "You're making a mistake, son," he said. "You're seeing things. There ain't no illegal machines working in our town."
The kid got to his feet, his white face trembling with indignation. "They're right outside this very door," he protested. "You can't deny it. They're right under your very nose."
"You're seeing things, kid," said the Cop Captain. He smiled smoothly. "You ought to go back to Washington, son. Get yourself a job peeling oranges."
The kid breathed hard. It was all he could do to contain himself. Then, without a word, he spun on his heel, strode out of the office.
Nick said to the Cop Captain quickly: "You won't see him again. Ever! Play it the right way." Then he was striding after the kid, rapidly overtaking him, catching him by the shoulder, twisting him around.
"Easy, son," he said. "You ought make your way around more slowly. You don't get anywhere by sticking your neck out."
The kid said hotly: "You're in this just as deep as they are. I know your type!"
The soft smile almost left Nick's face. His eyes glinted dangerously but his voice was as smooth as silk. "You wanna convince those folks who are gonna read your page, don't you, kid? What about some photographs? You can get some pretty slick photographs of folks operating these nickel machines."
The kid said: "I've got all I want. I've got proof enough." Unconsciously his hands moved towards his jacket pocket, jerked back as though he suddenly remembered he shouldn't reveal where he kept those pictures.
"You've got it all wrong, kid," said Nick. "I'll prove it to you. I'll take you straight down to the Police Commissioner's office now. You talk to him for yourself. Tell him what you think. Hear his story."
The kid didn't realise it was a bribe. I could see his eyes shining as mentally he wrote that article, describing how the Police Commissioner himself had denied there was illegal gambling in the town while it was there for anyone to see. The kid was greedy for that story. His eyes were glistening. "I'll take you up on that," he said quickly.
"It'll be a pleasure," said Nick.
When we got outside I climbed into the driving seat, Nick climbed in beside me and the kid opened the back door of the car. Maxie and Whitey moved out from the shadows so quickly and quietly the kid never saw them. As he was poised with one foot in the air, Maxie hit him from behind, bundled him inside the car and followed after, slamming the door behind him. Whitey was around the other side, piling in, using his knucks and the butt of his gun, sandwiching the kid so he couldn't escape.
"Take it easy," said Nick casually. "Don't mush him up too much."
There was the sound of laboured breathing from behind us. "He's out," said Whitey. "Like a baby. Just one sock on the chin and he was out like a light."
"Get going, Joey," instructed Nick. "Take a little run around the park."
The park was on the extreme south side of town. It kinda blended naturally into the country so you couldn't tell where the park ended and the country began. The main highway through the park was lighted, but the other roads were tree-lined and dark. Nick directed me and finally I pulled up in a deserted spot by the side of the boating lake. On account of it being so late there was nobody around.
"This'll do," said Nick.
Whitey and Max bundled the kid out of the car. He fell on hands and knees, kinda groaned, and then squealed with pain as Maxie grabbed him by the hair, jerked him to his feet.
"Frisk him," ordered Big Nick.
He hadn't much in his pockets. A wad of dough which Whitey tucked away in his own pocket, visiting cards, the usual odds and ends a guy has in his pockets and a roll of undeveloped film.
Nick took the film, opened it up, held it in the flame of his cigarette lighter so that as it spurted with flame it illuminated the kid's terror-filled eyes and bloodied face.
"I guess you did it all wrong, kid," said Nick.
The kid's voice was so shaky he could hardly get the words out. "Did you… did you mean… I'll forget all about it, Mr Fenner? Honest I will. I wish I'd never thought of the idea and…"
"You made one mistake," Nick said levelly. "You thought of the idea. That was your mistake."
"But I promise I won't… " the kid began desperately.
"The lake's the best place for him, Max," said Nick casually.
"It isn't more than two or three feet deep," Whitey protested.
"So what?" said Nick. "Fix it so he can't swim."
Hearing Nick speak that way sent a cold shiver down my spine. It didn't seem to have that effect on Maxie. He gave a kinda chuckle. Seconds later I heard Whitey's dry, hard chuckle.
"Don't take too long," called Nick. "It's getting kinda late."
I felt sick when I heard them chuckling that way. Maybe there was something happening to me. Maybe I was seeing things more clearly and it might not be good for me. I'd never felt this way before. I felt sick, didn't wanna watch as they bundled the kid away into the darkness.
"What's the matter, Joey?" said Nick. "Don't you feel good?"
"No, boss," I told him honestly. "I don't like it. It's making me feel bad."
"Nonsense, Joey," he soothed. "You never took bad before with things like this. You've got jumpy. You just gotta get used to it. You've gotta steel yourself. Try it now. Steel yourself. Go see what's going on."
I didn't wanna see, but Nick's voice was so soothing that I couldn't resist him.
Maxie bent, dragged the kid to his feet. Whitey helped Maxie and together they dragged him to the edge of the pool. They held him for a moment then let him go. Gently he eased forward into the water without a splash, barely making a ripple.
Like Whitey said, it was only two or three feet deep there. The kid went right under. He went down like a stone, no frantic flurry of limbs, just little bubbles that slowly formed on the surface of the moon-flecked water.
We waited maybe five minutes and that was long enough, because no guy can live and breathe in water for more than five minutes.
"Okay," said Nick. "That's good enough for tonight."
I still felt sick when I climbed back into the driving seat. Now it was all over Maxie and Whitey were a little quiet, like they weren't so happy about it. Nick sensed their silence, glanced over his shoulder. "I know just the place to warm us up, fellas," he said.
Nick said: "Drive to Madame Rozetti's, Joey."
Maxie said: "I'm gonna like that."
* * *
When we reached the cat house there was an argument going on between the usher and a young guy who had a little doll with him. The doll was so stewed she couldn't stand without help, couldn't stand without help, couldn't keep her eyes open. She was just a kid, maybe eighteen, maybe less. The guy with her had been hitting the bottle, but did at any rate have his eyes open.
Madame Rozetti thought it was a business call, beckoned us to go through to her own beautifully furnished private room.
Maxie grinned, shook his head. "Not tonight, lady," he said. "This is our night on the house."
Madame Rozetti chuckled and fluffed up her hair so her bejewelled fingers sparked in the light. "You know my girls," she said.
Maxie said quickly: "Bright-eyes for me."
Madame checked in a ledger she had on the reception desk.
"You're lucky, fella."
Whitey had that mean twist to his lips. He knew the girls hated him, tried every way they knew to avoid him.
"I'll take a gamble," said Whitey. "Give me the first one you come to."
Madame sighed. "It's Elisia again."
The twisted grim on Whitey's lips was even more cruel. "I be she hasn't forgot me from the last time."
Nick was looking across the room with a puzzled frown on his face. The young guy had given up holding the little dame on her feet. She was slumped in a chair, legs askew rucked up and head hanging.
Nick jerked with his thumb. "What's the trouble there?" he demanded.
Madame shrugged. "Coupla drunks," she said.
"The guy's picked up the kid somewhere. Now he's got her stewed he wants somewhere to park." She snorted indignantly. "We don't do that kinda thing here. It gets bad for business if we allow guys to bring their own dolls."
The usher seemed to reach agreement with the young guy. The kid swayed over to the desk, the usher holding him gently by the arm.
"I told you to get him outta here," snapped Madame.
The usher said: "It's okay. He's booking himself a dame."
Madame nodded towards towards the little jane asleep in the chair. "What about her?"
"She'll wait down here," explained the usher. He chuckled. "She's in no state to go anywhere, anyhow."
"Show him upstairs," Madame instructed.
I was watching Nick. There was a curious expression in his eyes. He kept looking at the little dame who was asleep. She was a cute little thing. Soft and smooth. I could see it.
It was as though Nick couldn't take his eyes off her, and when the usher had led the young guy upstairs, Nick learned across the table and whispered into Madame's ear.
Madame was pleading with him. "Leave the kid alone. You can't mess up her outlook on life."
"I need a change," said Nick thickly. "I wanna room too."
She sighed. "I haven't got a room."
"There's you room," said Nick. His eyes were narrowed as he stared at her.
She stared back at him, trying to stare him down. Then slowly her eyes dropped. She nervously twisted the rings on her fingers. "Okay, Nick," she said resignedly. "You can have my room."
The usher came down and Nick beckoned him over. "The dame," he said, pointing to the little doll. He jerked with his thumb. "Madame Rozetti's room. Make it snappy!"
The usher looked at the little doll, then switched his eyes to Madame. She shrugged her shoulders despairingly, nodded he was to do as Nick told him.
She was like a child, waxen-faced, exquisitely dainty. The usher picked her up in his arms like she was weightless. Her head sagged back and her arm were hanging limply. She sure had hit the bottle. She was out cold.
"Careful with her," warned Nick. "Don't bang her."
The usher grunted, carried the dame though into the back room which was Madame's special and private preserve.
"Nick!" said Madame.
He was following the usher. He stopped, half-turned towards her.
"She's just a kid, Nick," she whispered. "Go easy with her."
"Aw, shuddup!" he rasped.
It was monotonous sitting there, waiting. Madame gave me the funnies and I read all the way through, and still none of them had come back.
I yawned, watched a fly on the wall, tried to hypnotise it and make it walk in a straight line along a crack in the plaster.
Then the young guy came down. He looked white and shaky like he was gonna be sick any time. He passed a hand over his forehead and looked around dazedly. Then he looked at Madame.
"Where is she?" he asked.
Madame jerked her head towards the door. "Gone home," she said abruptly.
The kid nodded like he half-understood her, staggered blindly out through the door.
A little later Maxie and Whitey came down. They hung around for a time then decided not to wait for Nick.
It seemed hours.
I still waited.
Nick came out at last. He jerked his head at me. "Okay, Joey. Let's go."
Madame intercepted him at the door, stood squarely before him with her broad arms akimbo. "What about the dame?" she demanded.
"What about her?"
"You can't leave her here that way," she said. "I don't want any trouble."
"Quit squawking," he growled. "I finance your business , don't I?"
"You pay me to make sure it runs without trouble," she said. "Leaving that girl here means trouble."
"Well, get her out of here." He gestured angrily. "Get her out of here."
"It's not my kinda work, Nick," she said. "You ought know that."
"Get the usher to…."
"He's gone home," she interrupted.
"Okay, okay," he interrupted. "Quit squawking." He jerked his head at me again. "This way, Joey. Follow me."
She was such a little doll and I liked looking at her because her skin was so smooth and soft. She looked so fragile and chinalike. I didn't like to touch her. She was still out cold.
"What're you waiting for?" growled Nick. "Pick her up, will ya? Take her out back to the car. And don't let anyone see."
I didn't wanna touch her. But Nick was looking at me, his eyes forcing me to do it, and when I timidly reached out, touched her, she was so cold and white It didn't have that effect upon me. No blinding flash, no sweating.
Madame screwed up her eyes like she was pained when I came through carrying the little doll. "You gone crazy, Nick?" she demanded.
"Keep outta this," he warned. "I'm getting her out of here the way you want. How I do it is none of your business."
She narrowed her eyes. "Nick," she said, with black glitters showing through her eyelashes, "you're the meanest, most selfish and hardest monster of a man I ever met or heard of."
It got me mad hearing her talk to Nick that way. She was crazy. She had to be crazy. Nick was a good guy. One of the best guys. He had to be. Nobody else could make make me feel warm and good like Nick did. He was one of the best guys alive. I guess I almost loved him.
But maybe it was a joke. Nick chuckled when she said that. "Okay, Rosie," he grinned. "You've had your say. Watch out it didn't cost you something to get it off your chest."
She didn't laugh like it was a joke. She just watching us with hard eyes as Nick led the way, opened the door, looked out, beckoned me to follow and opened the door of the car so I could thrust the little doll inside and drop her on the back seat.
"Okay, Joey," he told me. "You can ride in the back. I'll drive."
He drove way out to the South Side park again, stopped at a darkened bench. There was a chuckle in his voice as he said over his shoulder: "Okay, Joey. Dump her on that bench."
She looked all white in the darkness. She was cold, too. Colder than anybody should be. I propped her up on the bench the way he wanted.
"Okay," he said. "That's fine."
"She'll get cold there, boss," I told him. "It's a cold night." Even though I was warmly clothed I shivered slightly.
He chuckled slightly. "That's good for her, Joey," he said. "Ever hear of the Stoics? The strongest people that ever lived. They made themselves that way by sheer will-power and determination. They slept out at nights without clothes or protection of any kind. It was good for them, built them up." He chuckled again, like he found everything very funny.