The wind slaps drizzle against my face, blurring the approaching mob into one dark smear across my vision. I hear them as loud as a freight train pounding and cursing me while they close the distance.
Some have clubs, others have chains or hammers or blades produced from the front of their bib overalls. The railway workers have regrouped. Courage gained in numbers has turned to mob fuelled rage at the interloper who stole food from their families' mouths for the last few hours.
Like lice skittering after a pack of wild dogs I see a small group of cops gaining ground behind the railway workers. Some are blowing whistles while others scream half at the mob to disperse, half at me to hit the slag. A see a gaunt figure towering over the pandemonium like a general watching his orders come to fruition. It takes a second for me to recognize Harry. My heart leaps and my stomach drops. I don’t know how, but he’s finally caught up to me with his fabled force of cops, likely with the ink barely dry on my arrest warrant. I stand with my hands at my sides hoping to convince at least one of the groups I’m no threat.
Mercifully the cops get to me before the workmen, so I get roughed up, but I keep my teeth. They throw me to the ground and I feel slag drive into my cheek wrenching open sealed scabs. I hear Harry shouting something that sounds like ‘string him up’ until my head clears and I hear he’s actually demanding they let me up. The world tilts as three sets of hands rush me to my feet. I’m suddenly craning my neck to meet Harry’s eye.
It’s the first time I’ve seen him since Nancy’s. By the looks of it I gave as good as I got. He’s got a welt on his left cheek and two black eyes with a bandaged nose. He keeps himself contained, but just barely, I feel some of that old rage seep into his words as he grabs me under the chin
“what did you do Percy?” Harry descends on me looking beyond me as if I leave a wake of carnage behind me instead of one and a half bodies and a house fire. “what did you do?” he repeats, damn near shaking me. I twist out of his grip and point at the maze of train cars behind me, a thickening plume of black smoke snaking towards heaven.
The wail of a siren sounds hauntingly like Roger’s record and I feel my heartbeat speed up until I see an ambulance ease beside the paddy wagon like a white and red life preserver.
“I damn near got killed Harry, that’s what I did. You wanna know the kicker? I did it trying to save a man’s life! Two men actually. One being Salvitore Colisetta! And if you keep standing there catching flies both men are gonna die and I'll have gone through this makeover for nothing. I lift my chin towards him so he can see the snaking burns that worm under my collar along with the bruises and scrapes he threw in too. That seems to land and Harry winces against the wind. When he meets my eyes they’ve softened, and for the first time since he breezed through Nancy’s door I see a glimpse of the man I used to call my friend. The idea that he’s going to have this group of cops hold me up while he works me over suddenly starts to evaporate. “You want to arrest me Harry, well take a number. I managed to make a few more enemies since we last saw each other.”
“That doesn’t surprise me Percy. You never did know when to shut your mouth. Now I can’t arrest you, but tell me that’s the same story after my friends here make a sweep of this train yard. Are you telling me they won’t find something that could be pinned on you, if someone didn’t know the whole story? You must understand how it looks. Multiple gunshots called in, by residents and CPR staff. Now we find you stumbling out of the woodwork covered in blood and carrying a gun with the chamber spent.”
I mull over Harry’s words and eye the rest of the mugs around me. The cops that aren’t holding back the snarling mob are looking at me the way you’d look at a tiger caged with a broken lock. Their hands either hovering over their sidearms or gripping them at their sides ready to open fire at the first sign of aggression. From the ambulance two attendants get out in spotless white uniforms. I nod over his shoulder and Harry half turns to see them.
“Why don’t we talk over a cold compress and a few stitches. Anybody found out there is leaving here in a bag.”
Harry hesitates and I can tell he’s sifting through my words looking for the con, I guess I don’t have all that much credit with him yet. He looks at the ground and runs two fingers across his forehead like he’s warding off a migraine. He squeezes his eyes shut and exhales a sign I almost mistake for a laugh.
“Jesus Perc” he meets my eyes. “This isn’t finished. I can see in your eyes it’s not. Now these cops want your head. Someone has to answer for this. I can make sure it isn’t you.”
“And in return?” I question
“In return you help me when this is over, we leave tonight. The sooner the better.”
I weigh my options but my side of the scale seems pretty light. What choice do I have?
“When this is over.” I relent. “I’ll help you.” relief softens his brown, so why do I feel like I just shook hands with the devil?
I fill Harry in as best as I can, mainly to keep my mind off the fact that he’s running my arm through with a hook and thread that looks like it belongs on the end of a fishing pole.
Harry doesn’t say much when I finish. I spare a glance at him and see that same pensive stare he used to get when Louise and I were brainstorming a case or asking about the anatomical implications of a crime scene. His mouth turned down at the corner, scowling at a thought he’s struggling with. I’m willing to bet I know what it is. If someone told me even three days ago that Sally Calls was about to meet his maker, I’d stand back and let it happen, why should this be any different?
“I know what you’re thinking, Harry.” I said. “But I can’t stand idle while another man decides who gets the privilege of drawing breath. It’s what we went overseas to stop, what we died to stop.” The scowl deepens and I think he’s going to protest, rebuking me with a technicality or theory the way he used to. When he meets my eyes I see the curiosity that pushed him through medical school battling the stubbornness that pushed him out of my life.
“Alright.” He muttered. “But he goes into a cell. Do you hear me Percy? I want him to rot until he’s an enfeebled and desperate old man.”
I think about my own experience surrounded by iron, and the horrors that can be unleashed on an incarcerated man.
“Do you hear me Percy?” Harry repeated. I nod. “Yeah. Yeah Harry I hear you, but they gotta keep him in it.” I nod to the cops who seem to have circulated some version of the truth among themselves and the railway workers. The air is still charged, but for now they seem to have calmed the crowd.
Harry steadies my chin and shines a small penlight in my eyes. I blink away spots and he’s frowning again.
“something wrong?” I questioned
“You’re showing no outward symptoms of a concussion. And physically besides the obvious, you seem to be unharmed.”
“but-” I said, waiting for the dime to drop.
“but-” Harry trails off. His eyes finish the sentence for him as they flick unconsciously to my hands that started to tremor as soon as I sat down. I cover one with one another in a feeble attempt to hide them.
“That’s nothing. Cold.” The words sound lame as soon as they leave my mouth and I can tell Harry isn’t buying it, but mercifully he leaves it along. Instead he reaches beside me where he’s piled his coat and hands it over.
“So you don’t catch pneumonia.” He begins busing himself so I can’t argue. I want to protest, tell him I don’t need his charity, but maybe just this one time I can not look a gift horse in the mouth.
“pneumonia wouldn’t be the worst thing that happened to me this week.”
“No but losing that coat would be, so make sure I get it back.” Harry grins, handing me two white pills.
“These should stunt the pain,” he said. I see the needle then. My stomach suddenly feels like it’s full of sour milk. I roll his words over in my mind. “What’re you gunna stick me with?” I ask, suddenly aware of every crack in my lips, my mouth tasting like a sea of sand.”
“B12. A vitality booster.” Harry must see the look in my eyes because he carries on talking quickly. “You look like hell Percy, and if you keep running on empty you're going to collapse. If you have a play to make, this will help you make it.” I look in his eye wondering if this is some final test, if all of this isn't just some trick to lull me into a false sense of security. When he sticks me with that hypo I’ll wake up in an iron cell or a padded box. Harry was my friend once, hell he was family. The guy I fought in Nancy’s parking lot seems far and away from the guy who just gave up his coat. I take a gamble and trust him. Nodding, I pop the pills in my mouth; crunching loudly before I can reconsider.
I wince against the sting but so far don’t feel any drowsier than I did as soon as I sat down.
Boot falls approaching make us both look up to see the heavyset police captain lumbering towards us. He’s holding Roger’s pistol by the barrel.
“This look familiar to you?” he spits at me, his tone unkind.
Harry gets to his feet and leads the cop a few feet away out of earshot. Both of them muttering rapidly to each other. I feel the wind against the back of my neck and take what feels like my first full lungful of air in ages, the cold air doing wonders to clear my head.
Harry mutters something and The cop shoots a glance at me. When he looks back at Harry his face is all questions. Harry reassures as best as he can but the cop still looks at me like I'm wearing a dunce cap. He turns back to Harry, considering. After a few moments I can tell he’s given in to whatever Harry has asked. It’s cost Harry a favour; that much is clear. And from the way Harry blanches it’s one hell of a whopper. Harry walks back over to me rubbing his hands down the sides of his arms, The cop behind him flares his nostrils, his blazing red sideburns peek out from under his cap. It’s the cop who talks first.
“I’ve not the foggiest notion why this man’s been running over hell’s half acre to find a drowned rat such as yourself sir, but it seems you’re integral to his wider plan. I want it on record that’s the only thing right now keeping you from cooling your heels in a jail cell until we can make sense of this royal bung up here.
Despite the weariness clinging to my bones like a cancer I smile. I took off to avoid Harry, now he’s the only thing keeping me from a jail cell.
“And you can wipe that smirk off your face or I’ll gladly have one of my men dust it off your puss for you. Harold here thinks whatever conclusion this circus is going to come to resides in the Chicago Club. As a favour to him I’m going to indulge the idea. Whatever it is you're going to do you better do it fast and you better do it away from my eyeshot. So far as I know we released you and you dragged yourself back into that rat’s nest we started in.” I look at Harry Accusingly but his glance makes me drop it. Instead my eye falls on Roger’s pistol Doyle’s got gripped in his mitt.
“I’m going to need some insurance so I can protect myself in there, in case one of your men gets a case of hair trigger.” I let the notion hang between us. I’ve seen too many bad men wear a good uniform and bend the law to be a convenience. Doyle’s a name I've heard around the block a few times. He gives guys like me and Ernie Felton the gears for working outside the law rather than with it, but when you’ve seen as much corruption as I have, it’s hard not to get jaded.
Doyle follows my glance to the pistol. He shakes his head so fast I'm surprised he doesn't get whiplash.
“Forget it. you being a ghost is one thing, but I'll not knowingly arm a man as balled up as you.”
With that said Doyle turns and joins his men in dispersing the crowd who realize the fun’s over and are threading through us towards the exit. Walking into the Chicago Club unarmed feels like walking into a lion’s cage holding a steak. The reality that I might not be walking out, weighs on me and I feel something slip in my chest and suddenly find the words I’ve been struggling to write to my brother-in-law since my wife was murdered.
“Harry ah. Listen. If you want to talk about Louise I’ll tell you everything I know, everything about- that night. But I just want you to know if this goes south that I’m damn sorry, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could turn the clock back and do something different, something better.”
Harry looks at me like I just spoke Swahili, his brow furrowed in concentration. He doesn’t say much, and he doesn’t forgive me. He only says three words that mean nothing at the time but end up saving my life.
“left inside pocket.”
He leaves me to work through that brain teaser and makes his way toward the growing number of police milling in front of their wagon.
I swallow the lump in my throat and shrug into Harry’s coat. I stand and surprise myself by staying on my feet. My face must betray me because all of a sudden a tall drink of water in soot stains and shirtsleeve leers into my vision waving a hip flask under my nose.
“Nip of liquid courage bud?” he said. I look at the mouthpiece and realize how thirsty I am, uncaring if it’s bathtub hooch or top-shelf bourbon as long as it’s cold and strong. I figure maybe just a nip will steady the tremor in my hands. But the longer I stare at the blackness of that mouthpiece, the more that small void of darkness looks like the barrel of a gun.
I shake my head once like I’m shaking off a nightmare. “You keep it pal, something to tide you over till you can make it to the icebox.”
The guy shoots me a wolfish grin and tips the flask in a small salute. He’s blended back into the crowd before my desire can win out over my willpower.