Statement No. 006:
I've got a story about William Sykes. Not that blathering epitaph in the papers, either. Let's talk about Mr. Sykes and breaking the bank. How to get rich quick in three easy lessons. The overnight success story. Every little boyís little dream. The all-American dream. On one side you've got Henry Ford. On the other, Willie Sutton. Mr. William Sykes pictured himself somewhere in between. Sure.
William Sykes was a conman. Coming and going. A man who thought he hit upon a shortcut to paradise. Thought he had it handed to him, Sykes did. Had it right there, in his tight, little fist. William Sykes hungered for that dream. Its taste teased him, wetted his lips. Sykes needed that dream. Sykes needed it like the thermometer needs a fever.
Sykes thought he had it knocked. Had it rigged for floating. All ways around. Iím not privy to the inside operations of the Costopoulos organization. Or the Stronzate organization for that matter. But Sykes mustíve worked it pretty good. Must have really nursed it. Maybe you need a loose screw in order to take on Konstantin Costopoulos and Vittorio Stronzate in the same whack. Maybe you do. I'll give Sykes credit for nerve, anyway. Plenty of nerve. Like the prisoner showing the hangman how to tie a noose. Sure.
Iím getting ahead of you. I can see it by the dazed sets of peepers around the room. To fill you in on the great Willy Sykes, let's back it up. Start things off with Flint Mundy. Thatís where I came into the picture. Sure, the bureau doesnít know any Flint Mundy, yet. Keep the wires open, boys, just to stay on the safe side. Bunko and vice will be keen on it. Thereís maybe even a little something in it for homicide. But save that one for later.
Mundyís phone call caught me at the office. That was late morning on the eighteenth. In the middle of surveying the repairs. Most of the bullet holes had been plugged, but the bleaching had a ways to go. A long way. Mr. North and his trigger-happy colleagues did a real number on my rooms, all rightóbut thatís another yarn. So I informed Mundy the office was strictly off bounds, and weíd best make it elsewhere. I suggested he join me for lunch at the Belden Deli.
Patricia laid down my usual: corned beef on rye with Swiss. She served it up with a smile that could take the cold out of cold potatoes. Mundy hadn't bothered with the menu, too busy fidgeting and sweating. A regular bundle of nerves, Mundy. Daily nourishment became trivial for a guy like that. I winked to Patricia and ordered Mundy a cup of joe.
"Or maybe you donít need any caffeine," I said.
"Youíve got more jitters than a con parked in Old Sparky."
"Sorry about the office being out of commission and all."
"Yeah, well, repairs have a way of coming upó"
"Just a matter now of cleaning up the blood. The landlordís seeing to it."
"Did you say blood?"
"Blood as in...blood?"
"I cut myself shaving."
"And the landlordís got to clean it up?"
"It was a nasty cut."
Mundy didnít merely miss my drift, he missed the launch, the sailing, and the return to port. He had these restless eyes. He peered around the restaurant non-stop, paying especially close attention to the front door. He mustíve caught my amused smirk.
"Is there a back door to this dump? I can't say I fancy being caught out in public right now."
"I guess itís safe enough. You come here regular, right?"
Mundy adjusted the round specs that lent him an awkward, bookworm appearance. He rolled his shoulders, swung his head, and snuck a peek behind the booth. Pivoting back around, he reached for the coffee mug with a jerk. I saved the cup just before it went over. I slid it to the far end of the table.
"I think this will be safer over here, Mundy. I know I'll be."
"Settle down, Mundy, for chrissake. Youíre making me jumpy."
"You have no idea."
"You want to switch booths?"
"No, no, that's not it." He craned his neck to steal a view beyond the cash register.
"They tell me itís possible to wean yourself, Mundy. Cut back a little bit at a time. You should consider itóthe dope's got you paranoid."
"Donít be a bunny. Iíll be all right in a minute."
"I doubt it, Mundy, but let's have itówhatís on your mind?"
Mundy faced me squarely. He leaned forward and dropped his voice just above a whisper. "Iím in big, big trouble."
"Exactly how is that, Mundy?"
"Gangsters." The narrow eyebrows arched. "Gangsters are after me."
"Gangsters. Is that a fact?"
"I owe them a whopping sum."
"What is it? Loan sharks? Gamblers? Protection money?"
Mundy winced. "Playing the ponies."
"If you placed a bet you canít cover, thereís nothing I can do. You want J. Paul Getty."
"Itís not as simple as that."
"It never is."
"Thereís this guy I know."
"Williamó" he stopped himself. A glance to the left, a glance to the right. He lowered his voice further and spoke precisely. "William Sykes."
"Okay," I shrugged. "William Sykes."
"We met in school."
"No, nursery school. Of course, college."
"Just trying to paint the full tableau, Mundy."
"For a while now heís been hustling for Konstantin Costopoulos."
"Costopoulos Iíve heard of. Some boy. One serious operator."
"Dangerous, as a matter of fact."
"Dangerous as inó" Mundy drew an index finger across his Adamís apple.
"Thatís what they say. Sure."
"Sykes makes book for Costopoulos, okay?"
"All right. Sykes and Costopoulos and making book. Whatís your game, Mundy?"
"Sykes set this up a few months backó"
Mundy froze, made like a Popsicle, dipped his head, concentrated hard, braced for something out of place. Anything. Ready to jump out of his skin. He nearly did when a boisterous laugh boomed from the rear of the room. He snapped his head and raised his eyes above the back of the booth. He scrutinized every customer in sight and found nothing irregular. I could've told Mundy the Belden clientele had stopped by for food rather than our gab. I could've, but he wouldn't have listened, so I didn't.
I said, "Mundy, you're going to throw yourself into a seizure."
Mundy swiveled back around. He bent over the table and waved his fingers for me to come closer. I brought an elbow onto the table and planted my chin on the palm of my hand.
"First off, we pool together a couple hundred, right? Seed money? And I start placing a few bets with Sykes. Nothing too big, nothing too little. But thatís only a stall, get it? Thatís just establishing me as a customer. Setting things up, okay? What weíre waiting for is a big-ticket race, when the fix is on and Sykes is put in the wiseóhe gets tips, see? Heíll feed me the name of the winner, I place a big daddy wager, and we all clean up."
"So youíre telling me that while Sykes worked for Costopoulos, he also played footsie with the racketeers running the race tracks."
"Uh, yeah. Yeah, I guess thatís about right."
"So this Sykes, your pal, mapped out the whole thing."
"Thatís what Iím telling you."
"Lined up the entire deal and set it up for the big payoff."
"We had The American Derby knocked."
"Uh-huh. Donít tell me. It blew up in your face."
"The nag didnít come through. I donít know what went wrong."
"Nothing went wrong, Mundy. You were had."
"Nothing went wrong?"
"Tell me," I said. I had a notion percolating. Quietly percolating. "Was anybody else in it with you?"
"Yeah. We had another partner. Another school friend. Herbie Colgate? Willy set the whole thing up with both of us."
"Where is Colgate, now?"
"Beats the heck out of me."
"The bum was supposed to ring me up after. Nothing. I waited by the phone for two hours. Two whole hours. No word. And I canít find him anywhere. Nerts."
"I suppose Colgate could be in it with Sykes, but I donít see it."
"Donít see what?"
"Would you say Sykes always stuck to himself?"
"You mean like a loner?"
"Yeah. Thatís what I mean."
"I guess he always was. So what?"
"So you can stop trying to locate your Mr. Sykes. Youíre not going to find him."
"I donít get you. I mean, what happened? I just donít get what could of gone wrong."
"Like I said, nothing went wrong."
"You keep saying that!"
"Thatís only the second time, but I could say it a third time if you like. Mundy, youíve been duped. You and your buddy Herbie have been hung out to dry."
I didnít know it, not for a fact, but thatís how it figured. The mark, the set-up, the play. I could see it adding up real smooth, outlined and typed up nice and pretty, like a bad Monogram script. I had ideas about our Mr. Sykes.
"You can take the dopey look off your pan, Mundy. Let me spell it out for you. Sykes, your bosom buddy, is a grifter."
"I knew he pulled a couple gags in school."
"Howís that, Mundy?"
"While the rest of us were delivering groceries or working in the library or what have you? For spending dough? Willy sold advertising for a magazine."
"Only the magazine didnít exist."
Mundy fingered his lower lip. "Iím a dead man."
"Sykes was ahead of you on this one. Way ahead of you and Colgate. And I'll lay odds the two of you werenít alone. Iím thinking Sykes had a long line of suckers out there. Iím betting youíve got a whole lot of company you know nothing about."
"I donít get you."
"Skip it. The point is, Sykes sugared you in, set you up, and took you to the cleaners. And now youíre the one stuck with the tab."
"The son of a bitch."
"Only itís not a simple dry cleaning bill weíre talking about."
"Iím a dead man."
"All right, all right, maybe itís not as hopeless as all that. How much are you and Colgate in for?"
"Well, five hundredís not exactly a small amount, then again itís not exactly a large amount, either."
"Thatís five thousand."
"I havenít got five thousand. I donít have nearly that much. Iím no where close to having that much."
"Thatís what we call a real situation, Mundy."
"Situation? Cripes! You call this a situation? Iím a dead man!"
"If you scream a touch louder I bet itíll carry all the way to the delivery boy having a smoke out back."
Mundy muttered in a low croak, "Iím a dead man, Iím a dead man." His face turned white and wax-like. Tiny pellets of sweat dotted his forehead. His fingers got the tremors. Mundy tightroped that line between bawling and spitting up. I didn't care to see either.
"Youíre not going to swoon, are you?"
Mundy worked a glass of water to his lips with shaky hands. He spilled less than I expected.
"So how about it, Mundy?" I plucked a napkin from the dispenser and pushed it at him. "What exactly do you want with me?"
"Maybe track down Sykes, maybe?" Mundy dabbed around his glass.
"No, I donít think Iíll take that on. I doubt youíve got time for that. He may have already taken a powder."
"Then tell me what to do. Tell me." He kept wiping at the same dry spots on the table.
"Thatís one hell of a request."
"Youíve got to tell me what to do. Iíll do anything."
Behind Mundy's dodo glasses loomed the fear of all time. Heíd made an interesting choice, calling a private investigator. As he wrestled out a new napkin, two thoughts struck me, two ways of batting around Mundy's fix.
The first way, hard and straight: stiffing a bookmaker's one of the flat out, worst moves you can make. Even my Aunt Sylvia knows that. Mundy lost his head. Like spitting on the queen, or jaywalking on Lake Shore Drive. Sure, he made his own call, but he didn't savvy the kind of the hole he was digging. Or how deep it could get. Or how it could turn into quicksand. For a jasper like Mundy, the setup was a laugh, wasn't it? Just a gas? Gambling without the riskóhe couldnít miss, Sykes told him. In a pigís eye. Costopoulos had no choice. He had his operation to run and a reputation to protect. Bookie protocol dictated that Costopoulos make an example out of Mundy. A permanent example. That's to be expected.
On the other hand, try this on for size: through a series of unethical, dishonest and otherwise naive circumstances, not to mention bonehead, Mundy got himself took. Instead of taking Costopoulos to the cleaners, he wound up a two-time victim. He already played chump for Sykes. Now he's about to play bull's eye for Costopoulos. All on account of the unattainable sum of five thousand bucks. For that fatal, numbskull screw up, Mundy wound up setting a value on his own lifeóa crummy five grand. Looking at it that way, five G is peanuts.
You couldn't see Mundy as blameless. But he was also part victim. That went for Colgate, too. That went for I don't know how many others.
"I can't say thereís anything I can do for you, Mundy. Iím not sure if thereís anything anyone can do."
"Nothing? Youíre going to leave me hanging?"
"I leave people hanging a lot. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
"Leave me hanging. Isnít that some joke?"
"Iíll tell you whatóIíll talk to Costopoulos, Mundy. How's that? I donít know what good thatíll accomplish. Probably a kick in the pants for my trouble. But Iíll see him. That much Iíll tell you."
"Okay." Mundy choked out the word like a last breath.
"In the meantime, youíre down to one last move."
"Do a vanishing act."
Mundy's index traced his warped reflection in the napkin dispenser. He spoke soft and low, from the bottom of a barrel. "Disappear, you mean?"
"I mean like you were never born."
Mundyís face went dumb as a dead herring.
"You put as much distance as possible between you and everyone you know. Your friends, your family. Mom, dad, women, the works. You wipe out every trace of yourself. You make yourself invisible, Mundy. Coming and going."
"You think you can make yourself invisible?"
"You work on it, Mundy."
I left Mundy working on it.
After settling up with Patricia, I hoofed the three blocks back to the office. The bloodstains showed improvement, but called for another couple rounds of bleaching. I checked with my service for messages then headed back out. I meant to hit the Randolph produce market, to look up one Konstantin Costopoulos, but an inkling led me on a little detour.
Driving south on Clark Street, a notion sprung to mind. Spinning on Sykes and Costopoulos and ponies got me wondering. Anyone taking on the likes of Costopoulos better make it worth his while. Weíre talking going for broke in the largest way possible. But was that the only play Sykes made? As basic as that and no more? What do you sayóany takers? Thatís an awful big show for just one mug. I decided some calls had to be madeóit looked like I was going to burn through a lot of nickels.
I popped into the Rexall Drug and grabbed an open booth. I placed my first call to Eighteenth District headquarters. Sergeant Tom Polhouse snickered over the wire. I caught him in a good mood. My mentioning William Sykes tickled the heck out of him.
Of course Polhouse had heard of William Sykes. Theyíd all heard of William Sykes, he told me. Everyone knew Three-Card Willy, alias Willy Six, alias Willy Sky. Small-time confidence man. Always on the make, whether dealing the shell game on an L-train or selling make-believe ad space in The Police Gazette. Those ad sales sealed his reputation. Citywide. That scam made a name for Sykes in every police station across the burg. Polhouse confirmed that Sykes was never known for pulling a big con. He'd never done hard time. Always seemed like a harmless enough fellow, Polhouse said, considering.
Must have been a slow day down at the old Eighteenth because Polhouse wanted to keep chinning. I got him off the line with a promise I'd tell Sykes that the boys at Larabee and Division sent their best.
Next up, I took a flyer and put in a call to the sticks, to one Mr. Jupiter. Ran a gambling house up north on River Road. A questionable operator, that guy. Nothing but class from the close-cropped hair on his noggin to his jeweled fingers, and all of it low. I figured he owed me on account of a run-in a ways back. I wondered if heíd figure the same.
A rasping wheeze told me Jupiter had come on the line. Sure, Jupiter told me, heíd be glad to do me a favor. I told him I didnít see it like that, but I was on a payphone and didnít have time to two-step. Call it as you see fit, Jupiter delivered the goods. He dictated a list of second-tier moneymen, most of them working territories in The Loop and throughout the North Side. Jupiter said I should feel free to toss his name around, if I like. Anything to help a friend, Jupiter said. The notion of Jupiter as a friend is enough to make anyone consider taking the pipe.
I got a fistful of nickels from the cashier, settled back into the booth with my list, and started dialing. That directory of small-potato loan sharks came up with a few hits and loads of misses. Those hits were enough, though. More than enough. Each one in bed with Costopoulos, one way or another. I couldnít get exact numbers out of these gents, but my calculations put Sykes into these boys for plenty. Thousands, easy. More than enough to bankroll all the bets for all the joes in the entire grandstand on Derby day. Sykes must've made the play of his life.
So what do you suppose Willy did with all that scratch? He could have bankrolled a special trust for the local orphanage. Sure. Or he could have laid down bets on the American Derby with every two-bit bookie whoíd take his action. I wouldíve started up that round of calls, but my sundial ran low on juice. I still had a visit to pay on west Randolph.
Costopoulos kept his offices on a small side street in the heart of the produce market. Maybe he fancied fruit and vegetables. Maybe he went nuts for a good whiff of day-old fish. More likely than not he maintained an interest in a produce or meat concern. I made my way through the nondescript entryway and up a narrow flight of stairs. A plain plaque adorned the plain door at the top: "K. Costopoulos Ent." I stepped through to find a crummy, little office set-up comprised of two folding chairs, one cramped and cheap looking desk, and one very platinum secretary. The secretary looked cheap, too.
Light bounced off her coif like off a chromium hubcap. She had blonde eyebrows, watery baby blues, and lips redder than a stop sign. A beauty mark accenting her upper lip bobbed in place as she worked a wad of gum. A tight fitting angora sweater emphasized her secretarial attributes.
"Is the boss in?" I smiled. I spied a heavy looking door just beyond the secretaryís desk.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Now what kind of greeting is that? I walked in nice and polite, didnít I? And with just about the sweetest smile you ever saw? Everyone says my smile is aces."
"It donít make no never mind to me."
I leaned on the desk. "Now what if it turned out I was the bossís brother?"
"The boss ainít got no brother."
"What about a sister?"
"You canít fool me, bub. You ainít nobodyís sister."
"You got me there."
"So who the hell are you?"
"Iím a friend of Sykes. Willy Sykes told me I could drop by anytime."
"Sykes? Sykes donít run this office." She chewed the chewing gum double-time. "Sykes donít know nothing about running this office."
"Is that a fact?"
"Besides, Sykes ainít in today."
"Under the weather, is he?"
"He had a death in the family, if itís any of your business."
"I could give you the business, sister."
"I donít even know your business."
"Thereís always mail order."
"What kind of runaround is this?"
"Just tell Costopoulos I want to see him regarding the Derby race at Washington Park."
"For your information, there ainít no such Derby race, today."
"You have read a racing form, havenít you? Iím referring to yesterdayís card, sister. The American Derby at Washington Park. You accept wagers on horse races, donít you?"
"Iím not allowed to say nothing that might infer, or is it entrapóthat ainít it. That might in any wise imply or imperil our legal, uhó
"I wasnít going to say that. Hey, just who do you think you are?"
"I told you. A buddy of Sykes."
Thatís when the phone rang.
"Youíll excuse me," she said. Her eyes rolled, "Iím so sure." She plucked up the earpiece and leaned her breasts into the candlestick. "Hello? Momma. I can barely hear you. Hold the line." She placed the earpiece on the desk like a half-chewed appetizer. She tore a corner of paper from her steno pad, meticulously, and wrapped up the wad of gum like some veteran at the Brach's plant. She plunked the wad into the wastebasket, adjusted her hair, and resumed her call. Mommaís tale about a gasman proved so riveting that I casually skated by Gal Friday undisturbed. She never batted an attribute.
Behind that heavy door I found one of the ritziest and dizziest layouts Iíd ever seen. Done to the point of overdone, and should've been done in. Every stick of furniture and every slick lick of bric-a-brac looked newer than new. Like a showroom catalog fabricated by a dope fiend. Nothing was too overpriced or too gaudy for Konstantin Costopoulos.
In a far corner, not near as ritzy, stood a human gorilla. His thick arms folded tight and his eyes bugged out mean. He wore a fedora too small for his mammoth head. I guess they donít make them that big.
Costopoulos popped up from perusing his Esquire centerfold. A heavy man, but light on his feet. Below average height, with thinning black hair and a short, thick mustache. He carried off the sharkskin ensemble like Fatty Arbuckle carries off a wetsuit.
"Who the hell are you?" Costopoulosís voice boomed without being loud.
"You should be at the Civic Opera."
"Donít screw around, will you buddy? I ainít got the time."
"Well I sure ainít the gasman."
"Smart guy, huh?" He turned to the torpedo. "What you think, Henry? We got another smart guy."
Henry sneezed. Costopoulos frowned at Henry.
"Actually, Iím this here private investigator nosing around on my own time." I reached into my jacket. Henry unfolded his arms and leaned forward. I flipped a business card across the desk. Henry resumed his take on a cigar store Indian.
"On your own time, eh? You ainít got no client?"
"Nope. A little bird put me wise to something. That something gave me such an itch that I had to find a way to scratch it."
"You think maybe youíll find calamine lotion here?"
Costopoulos chortled and swiveled towards the torpedo. "Pretty good, eh, Henry?" Henry did not respond. "Calamine lotion." He gave my card the once over. "Hmm. Iíll be right with you in one moment."
Costopoulos flopped into his seat like a wet mop, picked up the handset, and dialed a local exchange. "Iggy? This is C. Give me J.J." Costopoulos drummed his fingers on the centerfold while he waited. "Yeah? Oh. Can he call me back, maybe? Oh. Iím trying to get a line on a private gumshoe. No, heís here right now. He says he got the itch."
Costopoulos recited the details off my business card and hung up. He gave me a one-eyed squint, and went back to the centerfold.
"So whatís it to be, Mr. C?" I asked.
"We wait, smart guy."
So we waited. Costopoulos licked his second finger and leafed through Esquire. Henry must've figured I had something up my sleeve, the way he glared at me. The phone jangled less than two minutes later. Costopoulos snatched it fast.
"Iggy? Yeah, so quick of you. You got the word from J.J.? That's a good one. I got it. Good. My warmest bygones to J.J."
Costopoulos hung up the receiver. His dark eyes narrowed. He raised his glance to me, cocked his head, a huge grin plastered across his mush. "I got the whole lowdown on you from J.J. Take a seat, smart guy."
"No one you should know about, smart guy. But he says youíre A-okay."
"Does he, now? Tell him I asked how was every little thing."
"He says youíre all right and that I should trust you like a throat trusts piano wire."
Costopoulos shrugged his shoulders. "So what do you have in mind that I can do for you, Mr. No-Client Dick?"
"I came for a little intelligence."
"I got little."
"Personal or business?"
"Such as, did you make heavy book on Whirlaway?"
"Thereís always plenty of action on the American Derby."
"Heavier than usual?"
"So what is it? You know something I donít know about?"
"Could be. Could be hearsay."
"What hearsay have you heard?"
"Thereís talk going around concerning a series of bets fixing to break the Costopoulos Bank."
"You looking to irritate me?"
"You looking to be irritated? No, I might have some information youíd find of keen interest."
"Hmm. Information of any kind is always very welcoming."
"Sure, sure. Iíll tell you how it is. Iím just small potatoes. I try to make a reasonable living, and I try to keep my nose reasonably clean while Iím at it. Boys like you? Youíre the big leagues, Costopoulos, the mean leagues. Your kind plays for keeps. The wrong word in the wrong ear can lead to broken bones and broken necks. I wouldnít want to put any innocent bystanders in the wrong."
"You say what is true enough. And I applaud your, your diplomatic senses. You have tact!"
Henry sneezed again. Costopoulos spun around. "We are trying to have polite conversation, Henry." The gorilla didnít stir.
"Let me tell you a story," I said. "Itís the story about a real slick operator. This operator, he makes book for a going concern. A well-heeled concern. Our boy makes out okay, as far as it goes, but heís got bigger plans. Plans for himself and plans for his bossís bank account. First thing he does is line up backers, a group of investors, if you will. A sort of consortium."
"Like a cartel?"
"No. He pulls together maybe ten guys. Or twenty. They could be relatives or old school buddies. Doesn't matter. What matters is that none of them are wise to the others in the group. Get me?"
"I got you so far," Costopoulos said. Then he grunted.
"Our hero starts things easy. His boys place reasonable bets and build up credit."
"Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. Our hero uses his cut of the winnings to cover some of the losses in the short run. Eventually, our boy is ready for his big play. He tells everyone about this money race coming up. Not only is this a top-drawer race, so he tells them, but the fix is in, and our boy claims he's got the inside dope."
"But there is no dope."
"Of course notóour boy's lying through his crooked teeth. Heís already calculated the odds and knows the spreads he wants to cover. So he divides the wagers across his group. They donít know any better and lay down their bets. Heavy bets. Very heavy."
"As heavy as a piano? As an elephant?" Costopoulos grinned.
"Sure. Heavier than Soldier Field. The day of the big race arrives. Some bets come in smelling like roses. Others crap out. Our heroís only interested in the winners, natch."
"Hmm. That goes without saying so."
"Heíll collect his cut from the winners and blow town p.d.q. The losers heíll stick holding the bag."
"You arouse me." Costopoulos ran a thumbnail across his lower lip.
"Savvy the set up? He's stuck the bookie but goodóheís stuck with a huge outlay to the winners, and he'll never collect from the losers. Heíll wind up bust or run out of town."
"This ain't no fairy story, is it?" Costopoulos said. "I take it this slick guy works for me."
"So why peddle this here? Whatís in it for you, smart guy?"
"Men like this operator, and men like you, skew the playing field for the rest of us."
"Are you trying to get my goat?"
"Your goat doesn't interest me, Costopoulos. Iím pitching it straight. No curveballs. My interest is manicuring the playing field. Constructing something a little less lopsided."
"Yeah? How do you come by that, smart guy?"
"I feed you the name of this hero in exchange for your word."
"Yeah. Give me your word, Costopoulos. Promise youíll give the guys on his sucker list a break. Iím not saying they get off scot-free, but you find every way possible to go easy on them. You donít turn this into something personal. Thatís my proposition."
Costopoulos's soft face looked at me hard. He stretched his neck, then toyed with the large rock in his tiepin. High on the wall behind him hung a clock fashioned from a schooner's wheel. The mechanical ticking of the second hand counted off as Costopoulos chewed over my proposal. I lit a cigarette and listened. I counted twenty-five clicks before Costopoulos placed his palms flat on the desk and leaned over them.
"All right, Mr. Gumshoe Smart Guy. You give me the name, and, if I can find the rat, I give you my word of honor that Iíll go soft on his...pals. We got a deal, smart guy? You got a name for me? Henry, tell him I want that name!"
When I got back north, I found a couple goons camped out in front of my office building. Enormous fellows. Regular linebacker types. One buried his hand in a bulging suit pocket.
"George Halas send you?" I asked.
"Who, us? Weíre from Western Union."
"Is that right? I donít see any bicycle."
"We got a message for you."
"Whereís your bicycle?"
"Itís parked in the alley, Mac. I'll show it to you."
They prompted me past two storefronts to the alley. It didn't require Good Lousekeeping to know what to expect. It's not like they gave me much choice. Either they made their play, or I made mine.
"Not a Schwinn in sight," I said. I was turning to face them when a heavy fist landed on the back of my neck. The wallop sent me to the ground. They graciously stood by as I peeled myself from the asphalt.
"I remember," I huffed between breaths, "when Western Union sent telegrams."
"We donít care for the likes of nosies. We donít like private dicks sticking their nosey noses where they donít belong."
I worked back onto my feet, crawling up the brick wall like it was a close friend. "I got that impression, all right. You boys come to this conclusion on your own, or did somebody draw you a diagram?"
The first moose leaned in, "The message was signed by Mr. Vittorio Stronzate."
I threw a jab to the gut while he was winding up, but the other mug caught me a quick rap across the chops. He followed with two shots to my kidneys, and the first lug kicked the feet out from under me.
"You got the message, shamus?"
I wouldíve answered, but I was busy not breathing.
"Yeah, Iíd say you got the message!" A sharp boot to my gut got his point across.
The thugs stole away and left me sucking hard for air. You ever try inhaling in a vacuum chamber? Light turned into fog, and I remember the pavement felt cold. The next I thing I knew, one set of footsteps entered the alley.
"If it ainít Mr. Private Detective hisself."
I rolled over in the direction of the voice, as gently as cement allows. A hazy figure stood just a few feet in front of me. I could make it out, in an out-of-focus sort of way. I called, "Friend or foe?"
"Donít you know me, Mr. Private Eye Man? You should know me. You been grilling everyone and their mother about me all day."
Of course I knew him. Who else could it be? It had to be the one and only Three-Card Willy, alias Willy Six, alias Willy Sky.
"Mr. William Sykes, I presume."
"You with Stronzateís men?"
"Yeah, sort of. Well kind of, but not exactly. We didnít all ride down together, if thatís what youíre asking."
"I didnít take you for part of any goon squad. But you do work for Stronzate."
"So what if I do?"
"So who else youíre working for?"
"Number one Willy Boy. I always come first."
"At least youíre honest."
"And what about you, Mr. Big-shot Detective? How come youíre picking on me? I ever done anything to you?"
"Personally, not a thing."
"So what gives?"
"Youíre a pestilence, Sykes."
"Whatíd you call me?"
"A disease. A virus, cancer. A walking, talking piece of filth. I canít begin to guess how many germs I'm exposed to just from your yapping."
"You calling me names? Me? Howís about Costopoulos? Howís about Stronzate? Iím just taking them at their own game. Donít go telling me that Costopoulos and Stronzate got clean hands."
"Weíre not talking about them, Sykes. This is all about you. All about you bringing in friends. Bringing in strangers. Suckering the bunch. Setting them up to take the fall. Whose idea was that? Yours? Stronzateís? How many necks exactly did you put on the chopping block? Ten? Twenty? More?"
"Plenty!" He said it proud. "I conned them all."
"Iíll bet you did. You even hoodwinked Stronzateóhe must of bankrolled you in the first place."
"Sure, Stronzate laid it all out. His play was all about an old beef with Costopoulos. Goes back five years, maybe. I donít know. Stronzateís kick is that Costopoulos stoled the fish market from him."
"And before that, whoíd Stronzate steal it from?"
"With these birds, youíre asking me? Go read a book."
"So it's got everything to do with payback for Stronzate?"
"Big time but big. He wanted to break the Greek bastard for good."
"Clever. Without gunplay."
"Stronzateís had his fill of that."
"So the idea was to cripple Costopoulos."
"Stronzateís got the smarts. You gotta hand him that."
"And what about you? Working both ends against the middle."
"Why not? I saw my chance to make a killing, a real killing. Know what I mean? Stronzate hands me the set-up. On a silver platter, practically. I got all these guys placing bets with the Greek, each one of them owing me a cut of the winnings. So I figure to ratchet it up, see? I borrow from every small-fry loan shark I can talk to. Then I place every bet under the sun in the American Derby with every bookie gullible enough to take my action. I could place all these bets and clean up a hundred fold. A thousand, even. It was a thing of beauty! Then, while Costopoulos donít know what hit him, and before Stronzate starts moving in, I blow town with all those winnings."
While Sykes yammered, I got to my feet in easy stages. I kept bent over, hands on knees, working for every breath.
"Everyoneís looking out for themselves, see. But no oneís looking out for Willy Sykes. So I looks out for myself."
"And the hell with the rest of the world."
"Itís dog eat dog."
"I hope you choke on it."
A Gene Krupa solo pounded between my temples, but the fog started to clear. I straightened up and got a look at Willy Six. Turned out a pipsqueak of a thing. A cheap dandy in cheap duds. The pencil mustache completed the effect. He stood less than twelve feet off, his legs spread wide and his hands thrust deep in his pants pockets.
"So what is it, Sykes? Why do you want to see me?"
"I got a message."
"Everybodyís sending me messages."
Sykes brought out his right with a snap of the wrist. The switchblade danced in his hand, back and forth, nice and obvious.
"Whyíd you want to go crabbing the works?" he said. I was going to shoot the moon. For the first time I was really going to pull off something special."
"Sykes, youíre nothing but a punk. You think like a punk and you operate like a punk. Iíve just been worked over enough to be feeling real mean. If you want me to take it out on you, I won't argue. Just give me an excuse, Sykes. Youíll be eating your own switchblade."
Sykesí shoulders pulsed a couple times. I took one lunging step forward and stopped. His eyes shut tight and he dropped to his knees and the blade made a thin, metal ring as it bounced on the pavement.
"Iím not so tough," Sykes whined.
I stepped up to the trembling figure. I stooped over, picked up the knife, and threatened to slap the little creep. He cringed when I snapped off the blade and tossed it down the alley. Even the switchblade was cheap.
"What now? What are you going to do to me?"
"Just leave you to the wolves, Sykes." I leaned in close and his little eyes blinked as I hissed, "I'm going to leave you to the wolves and let the nature of man take its course."
I spat on the ground as I shambled past Sykes. I left him as he was. I left him as easy as you walk away from a lost race. Whatís not so easy to leave behind are those poor suckers, the Flint Mundys. Hard to forget them. Harder to save them from themselves. Sure. So you call it a day and get some rest and let the bruises heal.
Thatís about all there is to it. I guess thatís pretty much everything I have thatís worth mentioningóexcept maybe for that newspaper account. Sure. I almost forgot about itóthatís what brought me here in the first place. Ainít that a laugh?
It just happened to catch my eye. I wonder if any of you boys caught that one. Some of you must have seen it. It was in all the rags, but I think The American covered it first. The bureauís going to love this one.
I read in the paper where a stable boy, early yesterday, discovered this body. And what do you think? Turned out to be the body of a Mr. William Sykes. The body was a dead body. People never seem to discover live bodies. The article went on to say that the stable boy also found the head. Also quite dead. The head and the body must not have got along very well because they were no longer attached. This happened all the way down in Homewood. As I recall, if Iím not mistaken, they keep a racetrack out there in Homewood. Doesn't that beat all for one hell of a coincidence? That's one for the record books.
But before you call Ripleyówouldnít it be a pip if the racecourse and that head and that body and my story were all somehow tied up together? You want to bet on it? Sure.
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by Jack Delano as an employee of a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992000837/PP/.