I grapple with what Roger just said and what I know about the Chicago club. My eyes flick to each hidden piece in the club that I know of: Freddy Harkness has a sawed-off shotgun under the bar. Charlie's packing a pistol at the front door. Hell, even Gracie has a two-shot derringer strapped to her thigh. Not to mention the four or five sharks skulking around the gaming tables. They're plants from The Outfit meant to pack heat and keep everything in line.
I try to wash the dryness out of my mouth with a few gulps of beer. I see my lead on the doctor’s whereabouts evaporating in a mist of blood and a hail of bullets.
I can tell Joe’s pissed that Roger let the cat out of the bag. His rat features contort and make him look like he’s snarling. “aw hell Roger why’d you go an tell him that for? we hardly know this barfly.”
“You may not know him.” Roger starts “but he’s one of us, and he’s in deep with the Outfit by the looks of things, so who better to recruit than someone with a score to settle? What do you say, Percy?” Roger eyes me expectantly “how’d you like to hit ‘em where it hurts?” Roger can’t know the nerve he’s touched by asking this question. There’s nothing I’d rather do than watch Sally Calls and the rest of his goon squad get what’s coming to them, and to be released from this god-awful deal with the devil I’ve made. But I’ve been paid, and it’s only fair to see the job through. Besides, If Harry’s got a group of cops sniffing around, what better place to look for me than a bloodbath at a club I’m known to frequent? I feel myself melt into the cushion of the booth, savouring that this is probably as comfortable as I’ll be for a long time.
“Hit ‘em in the pocketbook? Hell yeah!” slamming my hand on the table comes naturally. Eyeing Roger right back I try to adopt some of his mannerisms, thinking maybe that’ll help me win him over. “But something like that comes with a lot of risks, no?”
Roger only nods. I see an easy air of confidence in his eyes like he’s considered all angles and knows he’s covered every way this thing could go sideways. A small smile plays across his lips and I’m suddenly caught up in his confidence, maybe he has some way to hit Sally that I don’t know about. Could he really pull it off? I try to push the thought away, I'm not such a bad planner myself when I untwist my thoughts. “Freddy over there.” I lower my voice conspiratorially. “See, he’s got a street sweeper under that bar top that would cut you off at the knees before you could say ‘stick' em up.’ Now, losing men on the battlefield for a necessary cause is never easy, but it’s just that, right? a Necessary Cause. Losing men in a place where you can avoid a battle and a mass casualty situation? that’s downright despicable.” The people in the club are well to do. None of them are going to miss the money in the morning, but if the wrong person takes a bullet then we’re going to see a lot more cops coming around, and cops are bad business for everyone.
I can tell mentioning the battlefield has Roger hooked, but his eyes have begun to glaze over. I take a look over my shoulder into the gaming floor and turn back to the table, spying Simon in his ridiculous hat. “I'll tell you what,” I said, every pair of eyes either hanging on my words or hanging me in their head. “Give me that hat and ten minutes, I guarantee you I can clear at least a thousand dollars from here without firing a shot.” Roger sits back, considering. In the end, my gamble pays out and Roger’s greed wins over his blood lust. It was a choice I wouldn't see him make again.
“A grand without firing a shot, what’s your take?”
“Come on Roger you’re not seriously considering this bullspit?! we’ve run this a hundred times, it's now or never!” Joe cuts in.
“We skim the grand now, hit the place another night, then get the sawbones to clean up.”
“As an act of allegiance, I’ll forgo my cut.” Even as I said it my gut dropped, but it was the first mention of a doctor from Roger and I wanted to make the deal too good to pass up. “All you’ve got to do is wait in the side alley and have a way to get gone once I’m done.”
Roger slings back the rest of his drink, a decision finalized.
“We do it your way, but you take Joey here to make sure you don’t skip out the kitchen while we wait in the alley to take the heat. You might be a soldier but you’re also human, and I've met plenty of human louses.
“This is unbelievable.” Joe said, shaking his head. “leave it to an artilleryman to avoid the trenches.” His tone was filled with malice but the resolve in it told me he wouldn’t argue with Roger.
I don’t waste any more time. I snag Simon's hat and gesture to Joe to come with me, who’s still wearing a pretty big puss on his rat face.
I glide through the throng of people who have moved to hot-footing their way across the dance floor. I hear champagne pop and a woman’s over-exuberant laughter. As soon as I leave the booth I feel the sweat pouring down my back and I feel like I'm refunding the hooch I’ve already bought and paid for. Joe sidles up to me to be heard over the music.
“What's the play?” he mutters on a wave of whiskey that doesn’t do a thing for my stomach, which has decided to do barrel rolls since I stood up.
“Just- follow my lead and look intimidating, follow the kid to the doorway of the cash room but don’t make it look like you’re eying up the place.” I shoot a glance at him; “button your vest.”
“What kid? Who the hell are you looking at?” He’s annoyed, but he’s also buttoning his vest. He’s scared, I realise, probably just as scared as I am, but the difference is he’s jumpy. A guy like that behind the trigger of an 80mm cannon is bound to jump the gun. He might have made light of the artillery, but when you’re dealing with support fire the last thing you want to do is fire too soon and expose your position. It was a lesson I learned over there and one I’d learned too late back on home soil.
there's a kid working the cage that looks about the same age as Simon. I’ve never seen him before which tells me he’s new even before I see his eyes rolling like a scared colt. I pull Simon’s fedora low and come in fast. Joe flanks me and I notice at some point he parked a toothpick in his mouth.
“Hey kid,” I said through the bars. “They called ahead this time right? I don’t have a lot of time to waste standing here.”
“Beg pardon mister?” The kid’s locked on to me and I can see him struggling to keep the whites of his eyes from showing.
“Come on junior, don't pull my leg. You want Lloyd down here himself? that’s what he hired me for.”
The kid looks at me like I've got two heads but I can see a drop of sweat slaloming through his acne.
“I don’t-” he starts.
“don’t you dare say you don’t know what I mean, not again kid. You know what happened last time the guy forgot? Now maybe you need a refresher and because you look like a nice guy I'll give you one, but if you keep looking at me like I'm from the Moon I’ll give you a refresher with my night stick and take what we’re owed from the cage myself. Now, I’m here on behalf of Lloyd, you remember now? Lloyd? The ‘woodsman’ rides the pine at Princess street station. He can’t get no axe anywhere that cuts like the ones you got here. So he sends me down every week, you give me an axe head that cuts, and Lloyd keeps certain colleagues of mine from nosing around during daylight hours. Are you picking up what I'm putting down now junior? Lloyd is looking for his cut.” I lean on the counter top, filling the kid’s view with nothing but my shirt buttons and flared nostrils. I know he wants to ask more questions, hell it sounds flimsy enough to my ears, but he thinks better of it and tries another route.
“I’ll have to ask Mr. Collisetta about this.”
“What are you nuts? you ask Sally- Mr. Collisetta about this and he becomes an accessory after the fact, now if you got a deathwish kid that’s a different story. By all means you go ask him about this if you want to end up at The bottom of Trout lake with your fingerprints filed off. Me? I’d just as soon get the money and split.” The kid seems to be considering the mental picture and it looks like it’s enough to make his heart stop. His tongue darts across his lips and he nods.
“Ok. Ok yeah, just be quick about it though huh?” He disappears from view and I hear locks turning in the door beside the cage window. I lock eyes with Joe and he nods slightly before walking up beside me. I make like my nails are the most interesting feature on me while the two talk quietly.
“What kind of…axe head, is mister, uh, Lloyd looking for?”
“The kind worth fifteen hundred large kid, now move.” Joe’s voice is dripping with scorn and he pockets the spare five bills with the ease of a magician performing his best trick, stuffing the rest into his jacket pocket.
As soon as the kid closes the door I show him my back and blend into the nightlife around me, letting the exuberant crowd swallow me in their alcohol fuelled bliss.
Joe is at my elbow, his eyes darting back and forth before leaning towards me. “You tell Roger about the extra bills and I’ll cut your throat.” he says it with the ease of someone discussing the weather and I know in my heart he means it. His unexpected coldness seats a conclusion about him in my thoughts and I can almost see the moment in time I know him from. It feels like deja vu, it’s probably just the jitters.
I peel off from the crowd close to the roulette tables where a small hallway leads to the kitchen and a shipping dock. There's a man door just before you get to the warehouse and I throw my weight into it as I turn the knob. The smell of Gray’s smoke stings my eyes and a cluster of darkness begins to move as Joe and I emerge. We all begin moving in unison, blending into the night. I pop Simon's hat back on his head as he walks by and he instantly adjusts it, angling the brim over the back of his neck.
When we’re far enough away I hear Roger mutter three words to Joe. “he do it?” Joe nods and Roger grins. We walk briskly past the quiet storefronts and shuttered windows. The rain has slowed to a drizzle and no one is out to give us a second look.
Once we clear the downtown core, Roger breaks into a jog and everyone follows suit. I haven’t worked out since my time in the military, so by the time Roger peels off into a wooded trail my heart is slamming into my chest and my lungs are burning.
He leads us into a wooded area where adolescent saplings grow beside a slash of gravel that looks like an old rail line. Distantly I hear the sounds of metal grinding and machinery moving. We walk in silence for a few feet before Roger disappears down a path through the brush. We emerge near the train yards and I see the machinery I heard before is a mixture of locomotives ferrying tankers, and boxcars being unloaded. We’re hidden in the darkness beyond the lamplight and I hear the distant shouts of workers.
Roger winds his way across the rail lines to an old delivery truck parked between defunct locomotives. Simon throws the backdoor open and everyone piles in with Joe and Roger heading to the driver’s cabin.
In the darkness I can feel the beer buzz pressing against my skull, making me feel like I'm floating over the ground rather than walking. distantly I think of the kid working the cage and what will happen to him when Sally finds out what he did. I realise with a dull certainty that I don’t care. The kid made his bed when he chose to lie down with lions. Roger’s right, I’d raze the place to the ground if I had the firepower.
I climb into the back of the van. I can’t tell if I doze but it seems like we aren’t driving for very long before we stop and the door is thrown open. Roger is smiling.
“You did well, Glue Crew.” he says to me. “Joey counted it on the drive over. Says you pulled some neat trick. I knew there was something about you. Come on, you can hole up with us for as long as you need to.” He’s loosened his bow tie on the drive over and it hangs limply between his collar.
He throws an arm over my shoulder and leads me to a cellar door. I smell the raw stink of earth and for one minute I feel like a dead man being ferried to the underworld. My heart recoils from this and I gasp a shuddering breath to get my air back.
Once inside We walk past three metal doors to a set of wooden stairs that screech as the group ascends them. We get to the top and are suddenly in a small kitchenette. a variety of booze bottles are laid out in the breakfast nook. A few of the guys pour themselves a night cap so I decide to make myself at home and join them.
We sit around the table and watch Roger count out the bills among the liquor bottles.
The next few hours are a blur. I remember the smell of cigars, Simon’s high pitched laugh as he sloshes a Tom Collins over a highball. The stark white of playing cards as I fumble over the rules of a game I know nothing of.
I don’t notice when it happens, but at some point Roger and I are the only two left at the table, sharing a bottle of brown liquor between us. We talk about our days in the militia. We share names finding a few common acquaintances including a cook from McKellar who made the best corn beef hash. We drink to the cook, we drink to the corned beef, and we drink to those members of the Algonquin Regiment we left overseas.
I realise I’ve nodded off twice when I see Roger shaking a finger at me. His cheeks blazing, his suit jacket hung on a nearby barstool.
“You gotta get some shuteye huh? c’mon.” We stand up and he leads me down a hallway to a wooden door with soft orange light flickering under the jam. “step into the parlour.” he mutters as he opens the door.
It's a small room with two cots against each wall and a small writing desk beneath a window in the middle. There's a steamer trunk at the foot of one bed littered with papers and clothing spills out from the closed mouth. I can see the back of a man as he sits pouring over notes. He hunches closer to the candle flame flickering from the breeze brought in from the hall. He turns when Roger tells me I’ve got a room mate. Without introducing us, Roger spins on his heel and I hear him clomping unevenly down the hall.
The man has a small round face with beady mole eyes and a thin pencil line mustache that’s almost lost in a forest of stubble along his cheeks. He regards me warmly with glassy relaxation clouding his eyes. He sits in a rumpled tan vest and I can smell the grease-slick reek of sweat and body odour from where I stand. His clammy handshake is like smelling salts and I come back to myself as I wipe my palm on my trousers.
“Welcome, I suppose.” His voice is worn and heavy, like talking is a chore. On instinct my eyes flick to the overflowing ashtray beneath the candlestick and I register the chesterfield butts a beat too late.
“Name’s Michael, you smoke?” he taps his pockets before producing a rumpled pack and handing me one, taking my tremor for the brew shakes.
“We’ve got something to fix that right up for you come morning.” He uses the candle to light his smoke and I lean into it when he offers it to me, feeling my feet almost pitch out from under me. I’m sharing a smoke with a man I’ve been paid to find. I have loads of questions, but suddenly I can’t think of a damn thing to say.
The Chesterfield smoke goes down sideways and I start to cough, the room begins to spin faster with each hack and I make for the cot, shaking my name out between breaths before sitting down heavily. The room doesn't let up and I try to focus on the candle light until it multiplies. I shut my eyes and feel the bed beneath me begin to roll. I pull the scratchy olive green blanket over me and consciousness snaps off light a light switch.