Statement No. 009:
Stick me on a Chinese menu, scrambled as anything. Can't make out if I'm going out or coming in. Probably something they slipped me. Something damn strong. Potent as Turkish coffee spiked with a Mickey Finn. Do I look like I swallowed a Mickey? I feel like I swallowed a Mickey. Sure I do. I could do a loop-the-loop flat on my back.
Jokes keep springing to mind. A fine how do you do in my state. Bum jokes, and I can't for the life of me see what's so funny about them. I'll tell you what's really funny. See, if I cut to the chase, you'll miss half the story. Get it? The chase? Before that—I remember before that. Sure. That old bird came before that.
The old bird and the valise and the snow. Heaps of snow. Thick, wet snow. And gunshots. Wounds, blood, death. Thick, wet death. The left side of my face's still numb. I got cuffed, you know. I remember that.
You fellas in the habit of taking statements off of gurneys? This'll be my first. That's something to write home about. The old man won't be volunteering any statement. Now there's a punch line that's wanting. He could tell us plenty, but he's got nothing to say. Never had the pleasure of a formal intro. But I met him, all right. Just shows up, out of the blue, just like that. No name. No how's every little thing? Did I tell you already? Came in like a sneak attack, he did.
The door sailed, like to come off its hinges, flung open as if walloped by Joe Louis himself. It slammed against the inside office wall, bang. The frame shook, the frosted glass panel rattled. Nothing chipped, nothing shattered. Bang. That's when the old boy shambled in.
Those pants legs. They fell an inch short of heavy shoes that scraped across the floorboards, caught and bunched up the thin rug. The cuffs soaked, and I mean but soaked. The plain, black overcoat wore out more than a cocktail waitress's honor during happy hour. Shoulders, damp. Fedora, soft and black and sloped far over his gaunt face. The brim and crown of the hat good and doused, too. His neck bent, head forward, chin dropped to the chest, the dry mouth working for every breath. Yeah, the guy's in a state.
The bird's shaky arms squeezed tight this small duffle job to his body, just above waist level—it must've weighed plenty by the way he hunched over. One of those rich brown valises, all in leather with two straps wrapped short ways around, cinched hard along dark, brass buckles. A thick padlock secured the bundle.
The jasper hauled it as far as the customer side of the desk. He coughed, a weak, thin spray of a hack, collapsed hard into the library chair like a dropped anchor. And that bag clattered. Screwy thing. Low and metallic.
His ancient face twisted my way, turned upward, gray as the late edition. The dull, blue eyes wandered about, the searching gaze of a deserted child—then they lit on me.
"You know." His frail rasp made you strain, lean in, listen harder. "The—the—"
His chin sunk to his chest. The narrow shoulders slumped and his arms relaxed. The duffle sagged and slipped onto his lap. His eyes fluttered shut. The mouth cut loose two more breaths and went still.
I pushed up and out of the swivel chair and dashed around the desk. I fingered the old man's throat. Folds of skin registered moist and cool, with as much beat left as busted timpani. The old boy'd had it.
I dug out a butt from my breast pocket, struck a match and took a picture through the sulfur's flare. His drained pan, a dark stain caked up on the side of the duffle next to his body, shredded cloth where a couple slugs must've ripped through his overcoat and dug straight into the gut.
It's sure that even the crustiest of mugs couldn't have hiked too far, not with a couple pills pumped into them. Not slinging around that curious package. The old bird hadn't seen sixty for some time. An easy candidate for seventy. And maybe then some. You'll have to check with the county on that. Death has its own way of toying with age.
"That was downright peaceful," I said. "Considering."
My guest looked up from the couch, tossed me a tight-lipped sneer. "Yeah. That was damn peaceful, like anybody gives a goddamn." He wrenched his jaw, flicked his chin. "Now close that door and keep your hands off the bag like a good little man."
"Sure, sure I will." I stared into my guest's wide-set eyes without losing track of the nickel-plated forty-five automatic he trained on my pump. "You mind telling me what's in the package?"
"Yes, I would mind."
I threw the door shut, swiveled back, and stood with my hands on my hips. "Now what?"
"By any chance are you acquainted with the deceased?"
"Uh-uh. I could say a few words over him, but my heart wouldn't be in it. Maybe you'll do the honors, if he was a close pal of yours. Of course a mug like you probably doesn't make many friends, close or otherwise, what with your lack of social graces and all."
"Yes, I know him. That's none of your beeswax. Nothing for the likes of you to worry about."
"I'm glad you said that. I was getting all nervous like, you strong-arming your way in here and pulling a gat, and then this old-timer croaking in my chair. But that's all okay, now. As you say, I've nothing to worry me. Everything's copacetic. I haven't a thing to kick about."
The thug's wide mouth curled into a thick, pained smile. His lackluster eyes conveyed the soulless quality of a mannequin. His hushed voice pressed out every consonant, a disturbing sibilance that struck a cross somewhere between the hiss of a snake and a porterhouse sizzling on a grill. "You're an amusing fellow, for a shamus."
"Sure, that's me. I used to fill in for Martin and Lewis at The Palace. What do you do for an encore?"
"We have places to go. You'll need your hat and coat." He jerked the gun barrel towards the rack by the door.
I stubbed out my smoke in the chromium floor stand next to the old man. He must of lost a lot of blood along the way. Even in death the knobbed fingers dug into the side of the bag. I grabbed my hat off the hook and pulled on my topcoat. "Want to leave the thirty-eight? If you don't mind?"
"No," my guest said. He calmly toyed with the revolver in his left hand. "I don't mind one teensy bit."
He rose unhurriedly from the couch—that was kind of hard to make out on account of his height being all of five-one. He presented a well-pressed little figure, clean and neat, like a new ironing board. With a personality to match. Every stitch on him in black except for the white socks. From the back, he could've been a kid playing dress up. Short, sideways steps led the kid behind my desk while the forty-five kept its bead on me. He yanked open the center drawer, dumped the rod, shoved closed the drawer, careless.
Little Lord Fauntleroy hoisted the duffle out of the old man's lap as he swung by. Lifeless arms drooped to the side and the body sagged to the left. Some kind of weight in that valise caused my visitor to rear back with his upper body. I led the way out and hung by the door.
"What are you doing, fella?" he said. "Have I forgotten something?"
"Mind if I lock up?"
"Ah, yes. You do that, shamus. By the way, where is your car parked?"
"I'd be delighted to take you for a ride, if that's what you want."
"Enough falderal. Let's depart. And strive to remember that we're both professionals, isn't that right? Keep in mind I've always got you covered. If you blink funny, I'll thread one through you faster than sunlight. Just like that. Without a second thought. It will only take one. You got that?"
"Sure. And if you let your guard down for even an instant, I'll splinter your neck like a chopstick. You got that?" I think he got it, all right. He didn't say.
I conducted my watchdog to the rear of the building, out to the fire escape. A thick, heavy snow had fallen on and off most of the day—it was back on. The blurred sky cast uninspiring shades of gray across our little corner of the world. Our steps spattered through the clumps of off-white slop as we trudged down the iron steps. We sloshed our way to the side alley and followed that to my car. My uninvited guest told me to get in. I got in. He got in. He set the forty-five's muzzle at rest on the duffle in his lap, pointed straight at me. Your cross-eyed uncle could not miss at that range. Even my Aunt Sylvia could've hit the jackpot.
"So what'll it be? The Cook's tour? I'd like nothing better than to show you Graceland."
"Anyone ever tell you that you blab too much?"
He sneered. He made it look natural.
I inched the coupe to the end of the alley. Traffic floated down Clark Street slow and steady. I slipped the coupe into the southbound lane. Every now and then Little Scarface snapped his head about with a ducking motion to peer through the tiny rear window. Reminded me of an automated sprinkler. The rest of the time he fixed his cool, mannequin glare on me, out-staring the steely stare of the forty-five.
One panorama slopped into another across the windshield. The wipers slapped left, slapped right, the snow globe view went crystal clear, then just as quickly got all fuzzy through the blobs of melting snow. The cars and cabs and buses and pedestrians looked done up in blurred watercolors. I got tired of squinting. I got tired of watching the wipers dance. I was already fed up with Little Caesar's calling the shots. I clenched the steering wheel until it hurt.
"You're going to tell me what's in the bundle?"
"Or where we're really going?"
"Talking to you is like smooching an inner tube."
"No questions, no answers, shamus."
We cut over on Wacker, crawling along with traffic toward the Civic Opera House. Crawling like so many, slop-covered beetles. My host kept checking behind us. The constant surveillance went beyond mere vigilance. The mug expected something, something in the shadows. Something followed him. Or waited for him. It bugged him like a false note, whatever it was. I couldn't get a read on his reactions. I tried, but Wild Bill played it blank as white bread.
An unexpected break, a sudden gap in traffic, and we picked up speed. Until a smothered burst erupted. The coupe jolted. Her left front nosed down, careened into a curving, splashing skid. We skimmed the asphalt like an ice floe, pulling a real Nanook number, spraying white and gray sheets in our wake. We spun all the way around. The rear, passenger side caught on something, pulled and scraped, and we sloshed to a stop at the ramp entrance to Lower Wacker Drive.
"A blow out?" he asked. "How do you pull off a blow-out in this weather?"
"That was no blow-out."
A muffled crack rang out, followed fast by a sharp ping at the trunk of the coupe. I slunk down and craned my neck enough to peek around the seat. Clyde swung open his door, slid out and crouched behind it. One hand brought up the roscoe, the other gripped tightly on the bag at his feet. Five car lengths back I spotted him, this yahoo leaning halfway out of a standing Yellow Cab, squeezing off potshots. My pal let fly a couple slugs that burst the taxi's windshield like glass fireworks.
The gunman fired one shot, ducked out of the cab, fired once more, spun himself like a whirling dervish behind and around to the opposite side of the hack. Both shooters exchanged another three rounds, shot for shot.
As the pellets rained against the coupe, surrounding traffic ground to a dead stop. Most of the drivers and passengers flung themselves onto their car seats or floors. A few brazen souls braved the slush, scrambling and crawling their way to the curb. Either they had wills of iron or yellow streaks longer than the lakefront.
A slug shattered the coupe's rear window and showered the front seat with fragments. I thought, You guys are nuts! I thought it, but I didn't say it. Two loose canons playing Tombstone, in the middle of Wacker, in broad daylight, and me without my opera glasses.
I crouched and crept my way out of the coupe's driver side. I sneaked a quick glance this way and that—the coupe sat dead center in the street, smack in the middle of Wacker, wide open, a sitting duck as prone as the Hindenburg on the fifty yard line at Soldier Field. I squatted low as I could and scooted around the trunk. I hugged close to the bumper and inched my way behind Dillinger.
I kneeled close up and barked, "This another friend of yours?"
Capone had just reloaded. He checked his grip on the satchel, his finger on the trigger, ready for the next frenzy of slugs. Baby Face popped up and caught one square between the eyes. The impact snapped back his neck, spun his torso like a top, and two things occurred in rapid order. The first thing: as he spun, the rod flew out of his right hand, skipped and slid its way through the street slush in the right lane—I watched it sail. The second's a lulu: as he spun, his left arm wheeled the duffle and clocked me a good one across the face. I took the brunt of the blow on my left cheekbone.
I struggled to maintain my balance, gave it my best shot, realized I was already laid out. The johnny by the cab must have been in the dark because he kept sprinkling pills into the coupe's hood and doors. I blinked through the dizziness and caught sight of Napoleon Jr., a crumpled box of Cracker Jack without the prize. Between the bottom of the door and the street I spied the shooter bobbing back and forth from behind the taxi.
I lunged, strained for the duffle, slid it towards me through the slush, leaned on it, wrangled myself to my knees. The contents felt stone hard with no give. The gunman slammed a couple, timed rounds into the door, getting a read on the situation. I glanced left and right. No kind of cover to be found—the stopped traffic stood too far away. He had me pinned but good. I copped a quick glance behind me at the ramp leading down to the shadowy, green luminance of Lower Wacker. Thanks, Mr. Burnham. Sure.
I flexed my jaw, hitched my shoulders, and dashed for the ramp. The damn duffle dragged like a bucket of plaster and held me back until I worked up some momentum. The shooter must've spotted me. A couple slugs whizzed by awful close as I ran, slid and otherwise skidded down the sloping lane to the underground drive.
Lower Wacker's a cavernous throughway, a subterranean crazy house. For mirrors, chutes and rails, it's filled with limestone, green lamps, echoes. You're never certain about the reverberations you hear in Lower Wacker. Maybe they belong to you, maybe to something unseen up ahead, maybe something after you from behind. Or maybe something on another level. Or maybe it's your pulse beating in your ears like an oil derrick from lugging a satchel filled with pig iron.
At the foot of the ramp I maneuvered across the limestone barricades to the opposite side. I set off along the northbound lane, straining to pull off a fast walk. I never heard of anyone hitchhiking on Lower Wacker—I planned to be the first. I kept checking the emerald shadows in back of me, but no cars in sight. The recessed fixtures didn't throw light, they glowed like neon, casting a dim haze of jade twilight on the silent roadway. Between my huffs and puffs I listened for my assailant.
I pressed along until my lack of wind eclipsed the throbbing pain in my cheek. I fell against a cool wall and felt the perspiration running from beneath my hat. For a moment time stood still or took a backseat or become altogether irrelevant.
Pounding footsteps and the crack of a shot snapped me out of it. I made out his dark figure in the foggy green, half a block back and gaining. I hugged the wall and slid myself along until the slightest bobbing of light made my shadow rise and fall like a teeter-totter. I spun about and caught sight of a vehicle coming up behind the shooter.
I stepped a foot from the wall to give the gunman a big, fat target and draw him out. I dropped the bag, tried to catch my breath. He scampered into the traffic lane to get a clear bead on me. I heaved up the duffle and moved as quickly as I could.
The blaring of a car horn wailed, the sharp shriek of tires tacking a sharp turn, the peculiar mix of both sounds as the echo wound through the Drive. The car came up fast, sped by me. I turned around and spotted the gunman pulling himself up, hopping on one leg.
I hauled the valise up the next exit ramp, fighting the angle and the weight, legs burning, all the way, battling for air and traction on the incline. Lugging the bag against my chest, same as the old man, I shuffled out from the ramp. I'd lost track of time—the sunlight had packed it in, the snowfall relentless, large flakes glittering through the beaming streetlamps like sparklers. I stumbled across the wide, deserted intersection with the elevated train tracks overhead, and came to a railing overlooking the river. I dropped the bag at my feet, leaned over the rail, listened to the sound of my forced, heavy breaths. An El train rolled and roared above me, its shrieking metallic whine shattering the silence. After it passed I heard a solitary tread of uneven steps scraping in the distance behind me.
The shooter hobbled his way to the top of the ramp. He spotted me, limped across the intersection with the jerky gait of a three-legged dog. The rod rose in my direction as he neared. I used whatever strength I had left and hoisted the duffle onto the top of the railing—the gunman paused at the sight, posed in the middle of the street like a broken scarecrow. A lone car skirted its way around the gunman and drove on. He renewed his feeble tread and slowly worked his way closer.
When he reached the curb, I raised the bag and held it out beyond the railing. He got the message, all right, and stopped. He wavered, his frame bent slightly, his weight on the left leg. Only the toe of his right shoe lightly touched the pavement. I'd bought a moment or two. I didn't know how many more moments I could buy. I didn't know how long I could manage a standoff. I didn't know anything because I wasn't thinking. All he had to do was wait me out, let the load in the arms do the work, wait for my muscles to give out, give up.
We ignored the traffic, straggling pedestrians, the snow, the man in the moon. My eyes fixed on the gun barrel and his eyes fastened on the duffle. He cocked the gat and took aim. I feinted a jerk of the arms. We both froze in place as a slight breeze spun the snowflakes around us like a knick-knack globe.
I had the nerve, but not the muscle. I couldn't hold out. The spent bands in my arms went to jelly and quivered. It took merely an instant, the slightest relaxing of the fingers, a lost sense of touch, and the duffle slipped from my grasp.
I lunged forward. The shooter squeezed. A pill bit and burned through me above the left shoulder blade. The impact knocked me forward and I struck my chest against the retaining wall. My head sagged and I spied the bag rolling off the embankment onto the river, propped up momentarily on a thin piece of ice. Then the duffle broke through and sunk below the dark sheen of still water.
The gunman stood next to me, gawking as the last bubbles rose, broke to the surface, and dissolved back into the dark sheen. I began sliding down against the railing, but the shooter braced me up with one hand clenching my overcoat collar. He burrowed the gat into my gut. The hammer sounded a hollow click when he pulled the trigger. I used my good arm to slap his hand away and the roscoe spun out of his grasp. His hands came up fast and wrapped tight around my throat. I grabbed his wrist with one hand, my other arm too numb to lift.
Half my face felt half-dead, I could sense the hole in my shoulder, the wound oozing beneath my clothes like I'd sprung a leak. My legs begged to give out. You could say I was near useless. More than useless. I was done for. His dark face contorted as he bent my upper back beyond the rail. I felt the coolness of the end coming over me, saw the flakes dancing past his narrowed eyes. His breathing became rapid and bellowed thick as fog from his mouth. He shook me like he was shaking the last drops of life out of me—he probably was. Then I detected a high-pitched ring.
It started somewhere off in the distance, faster than a blink of an eye, but my senses played things as a slowed reality. I heard a thin whir, the descending whoosh of a large insect flying by, or more like the high-speed whistle of a rifle shell. He slammed into me, almost threw us over the rail, but we caught up on the wall's top ledge and rocked back. We collapsed to the sidewalk. He hacked out a scarlet mist as we fell, leaning heavy against me all the way. I gasped for air and fell to my knees on the wet pavement.
The quick, even slapping of shoe leather came nearer, nearer. I gazed up at an auto parked with one wheel over the curb, a blurred, running figure, a rifle held across his body. He reached me and peered down. He smirked at the body in front of me, leaned down and almost fingered the clean hole drilled through the back.
"Lucky I didn't get you, too."
"I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Sure. You're wearing white socks."
"Taking a bath.
"What's in it?"
"Lead weights. Just a dodge."
"What did they think it was?"
"But the first one. The one who stuck me up. He was an agent."
"Save your breath. There's a bus on the way."
"But his buzzer. I got a good look."
"He's federal, but that wasn't his badge. They were both of them agents."
"What's his real name?"
"Can't tell you that."
"What's your name?"
"Like where they keep the gold?"
"Just like that. Now stop being stupid and clam up. Just sit quiet and wait for the meat wagon."
"Stupid, that's me. Stupid enough to be suckered by a turncoat government man. Stupid enough to let him get the drop on me. Stupid enough to not give in when it would have been the easiest thing in the world—just leave the satchel. Give it back, even. Instead, I'm just stupid enough to get clobbered in the face and take one in the shoulder and probably contract double pneumonia, all for the sake of a hunk of lead."
"Does sound kind of stupid," Knox smiled.
"Maybe you get that way in Washington, once in awhile, maybe. I play at stupid a lot. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
* 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/owi2001017532/PP/.