Statement No. 019:
I'VE BEEN ROOKED PLENTY. By the best there is. By the worst there is, too. Haven't we all? Sure.
How many times has some Jane called you in on a domestic tussle just to put a scare into the old man? Or an enterprising hood sends you rushing in to bust up the operation of a rival gang. Then there's the sore loser who phones in the raid on the poker game that took him to the cleaners. Lost count? We all play sucker.
There's always someone putting something over. Or at least giving it their best shot. You boys have seen all of them. From penny-ante yokels to the sharpest sharpies. Long shots and long cons. There's always another mug, another game, another round. If you keep doubling up, maybe it'll pay off. Maybe you'll survive another spin of the wheel, another throw of the bones.
Lots of times, in my racket, stick ups reveal themselves in the simplest of forms. Some mug turns out not to be who he claims he is. Some dame takes a powder and stiffs me on a bill. I get suckered into a job that turns out to be no job at all.
The night that you're investigating, I took it on the chin thanks to a no-show. I wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's how I got caught up in circumstances at the Lucky Tap. Fate? Kismet? Killing time's all I was doing. Chalk it up thanks to a client with cold feet.
A second cup of what passes for coffee at the Lucky Tap went down no easier than the first. Fizz moseyed over to fill me up again. Some of you should remember Fizz. A good sergeant until that ruckus in Bridgeport. Smart of him to get out. And he's doing all right for himself, from the looks of things. But you'd think he could do something about the java.
So he refills my cup, and he says, "Looks like you been stood up."
"Looks like." The joint appeared as empty as a condemned man's future. I represented half the evening's clientele. "Looks like you and me, both."
"What's the bird's name, again?"
"Bird is right. The name's Feathers. Eugene Feathers."
"Huh. Eugene Feathers."
"You never heard of the egg."
Fizz shrugged his shoulders. "No one's been asking for you, if that's what you're asking. Kind of late to be meeting clients, no?"
"Yeah. I'm missing out on my beauty sleep."
"And you could use it."
Another slug of joe went down like a mix of tar and burnt Alka-seltzer.
"No," I coughed.
"You look kinda funny."
"It's nothing," I choked back. "My life just flashed before my eyes. That's all."
"So where's all the business?"
"Mondays is always quiet. Especially the day after a football game at Wrigley. You a Cards fan?"
"Maybe I should check in with my service."
"Oh, sure. Sure."
Fizz limped down to the far end of the bar and hauled out a desk phone. He plunked it in front of me. A solo shot glass being held mid-air at the far end of the counter caught Fizz's attention. He hauled himself and his bum leg down the bar while I dialed and waited. I almost forgot myself, nearly taking another dose of Fizz's coffee.
Karen came on the line. At the same time the door swung open and shut fast. The cold breeze on my neck made me swivel towards the entrance. A young squirt leaned his back against the door. His breath came fast and shallow. His hair looked wet and matted. The rod in his hand pulsed with a steady rhythm.
"You better hang up, mister."
"I just had to--"
He leveled the gat straight at me.
"You better hang up. No one else move."
I calmly rested the receiver on the cradle.
"It's almost closing time, kid," Fizz leaned over the bar. "And you don't look of age."
The kid's free hand fumbled behind him. He caught hold of the bolt and slid it hard. Then he maneuvered the door shade closed.
"I guess you're closing early," I said soft.
"I guess we are."
The old jasper at the end of the bar threw back his shot.
The kid shrieked, "I said for nobody to move!"
The mug set the glass down ever so easy. He brought his fingers away real slow, like handling a jigger of nitro.
"Let's keep our heads, kid," Fizz said. "Let's keep our heads."
"Now ain't this a cozy foursome," I said. "You play bridge, kid?"
"I've had it with the wisecracks! Everybody's always handing me wisecracks!"
His own volume unsettled the punk. He copped a peek through the door shade.
"Who's after you, kid? The bulls?" Fizz's pan displayed the serene sincerity of a monk.
"You know this boy, Fizz?"
Fizz wagged his head.
The boy's astonished eyes lit on each of us, one by one. I took him for no more than twenty, and more frightened than a whipped dog. But a whipped dog doesn't usually go cringing around with a rod stuck in his paw.
"That's right, kid," I said. "It's your show. You talk when you want to talk. You don't owe anyone here anything. No explanations. The three of us will take it nice and easy. You're calling the shots--so to speak."
Fizz winked at me.
"So what's it to be, kid? I hope you're not planning on spending the night."
I didn't like the play. I didn't like the jitter in the kid's gun hand. The boy looked greener than a kid on his first day of kindergarten. I knew Fizz stashed at least one .45 somewhere below the bar. For the time being I could see Fizz's hands. They laid flat on the counter. Beats me what he had on his mind. If Fizz decided to make a move, I'd make for one large duck in the middle of a shooting gallery.
"I just need time," the kid said. "I need to think."
"Maybe," Fizz spoke tenderly, "we can help you out, kid."
"You're just an old softee, Fizz."
"Well he must be in some kind of trouble."
"Is that right? I know three saps who are being held up by a nervous Nelly with a peashooter. Look at the old bird down there--any minute now and he's going to wet his skivvies."
The old souse looked plenty fearful, all right. The hooch probably didn't help. A long man, he shrunk into the barstool with a rounded back. He sucked in his lips. The boney fingers resting on his thighs quivered like rattling dice.
"Kid, you realize you're scaring the hell out of this guy?"
"Can it! Both of you! All of you!" The kid stepped up to the middle of the room. "I got my own gripes. Maybe I can just ride it out for a little while."
"That won't cut it and you know it," I said. "Whoever's after you, kid--you think they're just going to forget about you? Just like that?"
"I 'spose not."
"You don't mean to go making more trouble for yourself, do you?"
"I 'spose not."
"Maybe you've found yourself in a bad way. Maybe you've got the short end of the stick. We didn't do you any wrong, now did we?"
"Sure. You're not going to straighten anything out this way. What's that rod in your hand going to get you?"
"It sure ain't winning you any friends. Before you show up, we're just minding our business. Fizz, here, he's trying to run a nice, clean establishment. And embalm people with petrified coffee. Me, I'm just passing the time of day. The old goat there's just trying to numb himself up like a softball. Then you walk in waving a gun. All right, you had a bad day. Maybe the worst kinda day. So you're going to twist that around and put the three of us on the spot? No soap, kid. You're not doing anyone any favors, leastwise yourself."
The tremble in the boy's gun hand moved to his lips. He brought a sleeve across his runny nose.
"You're all done in, kid." I eased off the barstool. "Sure." I stepped forward. I held out my hand. "You don't need that in here."
He narrowed his eyes at his gun hand.
"Give it over, kid. This isn't going to get you anywhere."
He thrust the rod into my palm and let go.
"That's the ticket." I turned back to the bar. Placing the roscoe on the counter, I gave it a slight shove. The gat slid down a few feet, the opposite direction from Fizz and the old souse.
Fizz whispered sideways at me, "Nice pep talk."
The boy plunked down in a straight back by a small table.
I leaned back and hoisted my elbows on the bar. "Let's have it. What'd you do, kid?"
He shrugged. "I lost a bet."
"Uh huh. Gamblers after you?"
"Yeah. Pretty stupid, I guess."
"We've all made bonehead moves, kid. It's a prerogative of the species."
"It's a what?"
"It comes with the birth certificate, kid. Along with your first love, first hangover and your first double-cross."
"I only did it on account of ma. It's just her and me, see?"
"The old man, he takes a powder a ways back. Stinking, old man. That left just me and ma. She does laundry for folks. Takes it in around the neighborhood and such. But it's been getting tougher and she's not getting any younger, see? So I finally give up school. To try and help out. She was fit to be tied, I tell you. I mean it sent her through the roof. But what else can I do? So I pick up an odd job here and there. But it's no good, see? Sure, it's always with the 'no thanks, come back tomorrow.' Meantimes, my ma's breaking her back. She got to travel farther and farther to find loads. And more and more people start using those washing machines. And I keep trying, and it's, 'No thanks, come back tomorrow.' But there never is no stinking tomorrow. Tomorrow is for people who can afford it. Tomorrow's for people who don't need it. There's no tomorrow for the likes of us."
"Try to rest easy, kid. Maybe we can come up with something. Fizz here, he still knows some people. Isn't that right, Fizz?"
"That's right, I do. That's right."
"I even know a couple of people. Maybe we can talk things over. Smooth something out. Things can usually be worked out."
"I don't know," the kid sighed. "I'm tired. Awful tired."
"Ain't we all, kid?"
Fizz hobbled to the center of the bar. "They much rather have their money than your hide, son."
I moved easy down the bar. "But first things, first. What say we let the old guy cut out of here. Okay by you?"
The old souse attempted a smile. He was too shaken or too boiled to make anything out of it.
"You all right, fella?"
"Come on. Easy does it."
"No hands, please! I'm not that fragile, young man."
Something pounded hard on the door.
"Louis! You in there?"
I turned to Fizz and he turned to me. The old man turned to me. We all turned to the kid.
"Louis boy?" The fist pounded, bang! "You better come out boy! Don't make us get tough. Don't make it any worse on yourself!" Bang! Bang! "You're already in the worse kind of jam. Things are worse than you know. Louis?"
The kid looked stiff as a mannequin, the torso bent forward, the arms mid-air, neck twisted, eyes strained upon the shaded door. A muffled conversation passed quickly on the street side of the entrance. Then nothing. The kid's eyes remained glued on the door. Our eyes glued on the kid.
For just that moment, you could feel the pressure, some tangible threat on the ether. Like a dam about to burst. Like a paper bag about to give. Just like pop goes the weasel.
A gunshot broke the hush. A second shot, a sharp metal twang, rattled the door and shattered the pane. The kid lunged out of his seat. I caught myself starting for the counter, then I turned back and grabbed for the old man's lapels. Fizz bobbed down behind the bar. The kid spilled the small table as he swung toward the bar. I spun the old man off his stool and whipped him down around the end of the bar. The old man hit the floor at the same time the kid's hand wrapped around his gat.
Two mugs burst through the fractured door as I made for a low, rolling high jump over the counter. The first mug pumped two rounds after me. One pellet buried itself in mahogany; I landed hard as the second slug shattered a mirror into a shower of glitter. The kid whirled, arm extended, gun poised. The other mug had the kid dead to rights and blasted away as Fizz leapt up with a .45 in each mitt. He sprayed lead into each intruder, feeding each three rounds to the chest. The concussions sent them reeling, spilling into each other and over a set-up by the door. The sound of the wobbling, fallen table faded into quiet. For a few beats I listened to the stillness.
"I wasn't fast enough," I heard Fizz mumble.
I craned my head and spotted the old bird through the opening at the end of the bar. He must've seen one hell of a look on my face. He waved a scrawny hand at me, his green eyes almost on fire: "I'm fine, I'm fine."
I hauled myself up, minding the fragments of mirror on the floor and on my clothes. Fizz's head hung low, he allowed his arms to drop, the guns to dangle.
"I wasn't fast enough," Fizz repeated. "I was—I don't know."
"I ain't used a gun for years."
I slid my way passed Fizz, down and around the other end of the bar. I stopped when I reached the kid. He'd taken a bar stool down with him. His back arched over the frame, his arms and legs thrown wide. Two, thin lines of blood streaked from his mouth toward his left ear. The shooter's cannon tore up the torso, turning it into confetti of cloth and gore.
"Not fast enough," Fizz whispered.
I fired up a cigarette as I glanced quick at the heap created by the two gunmen. Their blood ran into a shared pool saturating the floor beneath their bodies.
"You drilled them clean, Fizz." I crouched down by the kid's body. "Fizz, tonight you saved the lives of three men."
I rolled the kid's hip with my foot and wrenched the wallet from his back pocket. Thumbing through the billfold, I strolled back to the counter. I exchanged nods with the old bird. He must of worked himself back to a stool on his own. I dropped the wallet on the bar in front of Fizz.
"Louis Pelka the third," I announced. "Nineteen years old."
"Pelka? Little Louie Pelka? The tailor's kid?"
"The tailor? You're kidding."
"I kid you not. You don't kid about the laundry king on the north side. No sirree."
"No fooling. The little dope was telling us bedtime stories."
"I can fill you in about this. I heard about this."
"What did you hear, Fizz?"
"The word's been out. They've been chasing the kid most of the day."
Fizz set up three snorts of whiskey. "Louis the third always was trouble. Always a rotten egg. Bad news. Not like his brother."
"His pop's a gangster, for crissakes."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"Nothing whatsoever. Go ahead."
"So little Louie Pelka was always revolting."
"Like I said, revolting. That's what I said. Always getting into one scrap or another."
"Never saw eye to eye with his father. Gave everybody and their mother a hard time. He got away with it, too. For the longest time."
"And they lived happily ever after."
"In a pig's eye."
"You can cut to the chase, Fizz."
"I don't know if he sprung this on his own or he got mixed up with some other outfit--you know, like somebody took him under their wing? Coached him, maybe?"
"So he pulls this lulu of a stunt."
"He goes after one of the old man's delivery trucks."
"On the level?"
"I kid you not. Hijacks it. Tries to make a go of it, anyway. The whole thing is a misfire. The kid winds up shooting his way out of it."
"Who'd he put in the hospital?"
"Worse. A whole lot worse. But it's just what I heard."
"How much worse?"
"He puts somebody in a pine box."
"Who was it?"
"After all this, I'm thinking I heard right."
"It's his older brother who was on the truck."
"That's a sad tale, Fizzy. One for Ripley. Or Mark Hellinger."
"Ain't that the truth?"
"Fizz, I'm going to take this shot. Then I'm going to run this gent home. I'll leave it to you to bring in the coppers. I'll have to catch up with them later. You can smooth things over with the bulls, can't you?"
"To putting bad seeds to rest. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
We raised our glasses. We threw back the slugs.
"Okay, old timer. We've had enough merriment for one evening. Can I offer you a lift?"
"You play a little rough, Mr., Mr.--"
I flipped him a business card. He eyed it real careful. Then his head jerked back in one laugh. Then another.
"I don't get it. What gives, old fella?"
"I thought, I thought it was you."
The old man couldn't contain it any longer. He let rip an hysterical laughter, a broad smiled, teary-eyed spectacle that infected Fizz and me, too.
"Did I miss something?" Fizz asked.
"What's so funny? Spill it."
The old man wagged his head. "Me--I'm so funny. My name is Eugene Feathers."
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by John Vachon as an employee of the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998005351/PP/.