Better Than Dead—18

by Colin Deerwood

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The streets were wet with rain again. I hopped a crosstown bus. One of the passengers, an elderly woman, let me have her seat thinking I was blind. It was Sunday, and she was in her Sunday best as were a few other women and men in their best dresses and suits, coming from or going to services. I wasn’t going to argue. I was just being cautious. Rebecca took a window seat. We stood out like Raggedy Ann and Andy in a collection of porcelain dolls.

1937_Bus1At the end of the line the late afternoon sun passing behind a cloud defined a horizon of ship yard cranes and a thicket of masts. Fenced lots echoed with the barks of loud vigilant dogs and the brick warehouses, some seeming abandoned, maintained a grim silence. The rail yard was nearby, and a block of shabby businesses: a café and bakery, a corner grocer’s, a laundry, a hotel, a snooker parlor, and the address I was looking for.

I kept to the opposite side of the street in the shadows of the elms alongside a dilapidated board fence. From behind wood pallets stacked on the bed of an unhitched horse drawn freight wagon I cased my destination.

The sun had broken through the clouds glancing orange off the plate glass of the café and blindingly into the eyes of the man standing on the stoop of the address. A large Oldsmobile breezed up and he shaded his eyes, or maybe it was a salute, before climbing down to an arched double doorway to let the big car into the garage. Yamatski’s digs weren’t the sleazy walkup I’d supposed. That gave me pause. So did what Rebecca said next.

“Lack, look at the sign above the door!”

I’d seen it. I couldn’t make out what it said. It was Greek to me, like you might find on a fraternity house near the university uptown. CC with an upside down N or maybe a U. It coulda been a mook’s version of the YMCA for all I knew.

“Serbskiy Sotsial’nyy Klub,” she breathed. “They are connect to Black Hand. It is social club for fascist.”

I got it. It wasn’t going to be easy. The social club was like a brick fortress. There was no way I was going to go in the front door, not with that mug guarding it and whoever else was behind it.

The blinking neon sign in the plate glass window of the bakery said Café Latino. It suggested I needed another cup of coffee to think things over. And while I was at it. I ordered a half a dozen donuts.

“These donuts I have had before. Sweeter than a bagel. More like cake. I have seen them eaten in the movies. Donut must first be immersed in cup of coffee,” Rebecca demonstrated.

donut scene“No, no you’re doing it all wrong! Didn’t they teach you anything in that fancy Swiss boarding school of yours?” And I showed her how, breaking off a piece and dipping it in the coffee just enough to wet it but not get it soggy. “That’s the way it’s done, kid.”

She smiled and that always got me. I had no defenses against it and any doubts I had about her, about me, just disappeared. “I like when you call me ‘kid’, it makes me feel very American. And you are right, it is much better to dip than to soak. I am learning much from you.”

I didn’t want to think she could be putting me on. And I didn’t want to be the one leading her astray even though there was no doubt that’s what I was doing. I had to put all that aside and concentrate on my next move. It was like she could read my mind.

“What will we do now, Lack?”

Above the café was a fleabag known as the Lattimer Hotel. I’d followed a wife and her boyfriend there once years ago when I was just starting out in confidential investigations. There was a narrow two shoulders wide alley between the hotel building and the social club. The room number on the address of Yamatski’s card was 404. I guessed that made it the fourth floor and to the rear. The hotel building was a floor taller that the social club at five stories. I knew what I had to do. And I had to make sure that Becky was out of the way when I did it.

“I think we should get a room.” I said and tossed my bit of donut in my mouth.

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There were water spots on the wall were at one time rain had leaked in and no one had bothered to paint over them. The bed looked like it belonged in an Army hospital and maybe it had at one time. A recent occupant had been a cigar smoker. There was a cracked mirror above the basin sink but the facilities were down the ratty carpeted hallway to the rear. A grimy window with a torn shade overlooked the roof of the building next door. I stood at it pulling on a cigarette. Becky sneezed as she sat up on the bed and looked at her surroundings with an expression that said she would have rather been somewhere else. I was waiting for the last of the light to fade before I made my move.

The desk clerk had barely looked at the register where I had signed Mr. & Mrs. Samson Delilah as he passed me the key to the room. He looked like he had other things on his mind. A racing form was spread out on the counter. He pointed to the sign leading to the stairs that said No Credit, No Elevator, No Towels, No Ballroom,. It was indeed a small hotel. And they’d missed the obvious, No Class.

I led the way up the five flights and the high ceilinged room at the end of the hallway. She hadn’t objected, looking away from me like she was preoccupied by a kind of sadness. I figured the stress of the last couple of days was getting to her, she was just a kid, no matter what she said she did in the mountains where she came from. When the door closed she pulled me to her and kissed me, hard, the sadness magically evaporated, replaced by a hungry passion.

lackbec21I was tempted, pulling her up against me, her head tilted back at my response. My judgement when it comes to women hasn’t always been the best, and maybe I could even blame my lapses on my inability to figure them out even when I gave it a try. The hardest part of this jobs was resisting that urge. How many unfaithful wives of unfaithful husbands had offered themselves as partial payment or as a bonus for my peeping, and every time I gave in I was reminded soon after of what a mistake that had been. I couldn’t afford to be swayed.

“We need to talk,” I said. I sat her on the bed and explained my plan to cross the narrow gap between the two buildings and make my way to Yamatski’s room to grab anything of value in partial repayment for my attempted murder. She would wait in the room until I made it back.

There’s a word for the look she gave me and it’s usually reserved for idiots and fools. “No, Lack, stay with me. I am being frighten. Please.” She pulled me to the bed and had me lie next to her. “Tell me why you must do this. It is dangerous. We can wait.” She indicated the room. “Even here.”

She dropped her hand on my chest which predictably affected me below the belt. She was smiling in my face and gave me a look. Even in the long shadows of the room, I could see that it was one of those, mischievous and deadly serious. That’s all it took.

Afterwards she wanted to talk about how happy she was and what she was going to do once the recovered diamonds we’re sold. I admired her confidence in the future. She said she was undecided whether to go to Hollywood or find a big city like Chicago or New Orleans in which to begin her American life. Her eyes were alive either from previous excitement or at the possibility of fulfillment of her dreams.

I told her that Hollywood was just a big slum of broken dreams with better looking people and overnight millionaires who could just as easily find themselves penniless by the morning. She’d stand out like an easter egg in the dozens of hardboiled and overcooked. I told her that her best bet if she wanted to stay incognito was a college town, they had high turnover and nobody asked a lot of questions. If I was going to ground, that’s what I’d do. But I could see by the set of her mouth that the lime light appealed to her. I told her if she was dead set on it, once she got to Chicago on the Broadway Limited, the Super Chief would take her to all the way to Los Angeles and it was just a trolley ride to Hollywood.

“Stay with me, Lack, you could teach me many things.” She had wrapped her arms around mine as if to hold me.

I nodded, staring at the ceiling, and lit another smoke. I got to my feet. I had to do what I was going to do.

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The gap between buildings was too wide to jump across. The wind was starting to pick up again ahead of another storm and rattling the rickety rails of the fire escape. Across the gap was the roof to the social club, a sloping metal affair ending at a stubby brick parapet like you might find on a tower to a castle. I thought of braiding a couple of sheets together to make a rope and maybe swing across but I’m no Tarzan. It was maddening. I was so close. There was no way I could take a running jump and make it. And the prospect of dropping five stories did not appeal to me.

I went back to the room and Becky smiled like she had won an argument.

“You have change your mind?”

“Not on your life, sister.” I was staring at the bed. I overturned the lumpy mattress. Just as I thought. A wire grid and springs attached to the frame at the foot and head of the bed and held together with wing nuts. And maybe just long enough to bridge the gap. It was worth a try. The nuts had been painted over but I managed work the ones at the foot loose. The nuts at the header looked like they’d been welded on. I was working up a sweat while the kid watched me like I had gone crazy. Maybe I had. I was a mad man in a frenzy trying to prove something to myself with no idea what that might be. Frustrated I gave the frame a kick. The header gave a groan as only metal can and folded ever so slightly forward. I gave it another nudge with my foot and it gave way a little more. It was better than nothing.

Rebecca helped me cart the frame down the hallway to the fire escape door. Getting it through the door and out to the fire escape was a little more challenging. The header was the problem. It had bent only so far yet was still too wide to fit through the door. Having moved furniture with Grace’s brother, Ted, I knew enough about angles to clear the bed frame through the narrow door with a minimum of bangs and backups.

Out on the skeletal pipes of the fire escape, maneuvering in line with the gap wasn’t a walk in the park either. But I gotta give it to the kid, she was a real trooper. Lightening opened up a bright gap in the darkening sky and I could smell the approaching rain. Not that it mattered, I was sweating like a steamed up window.

I was right about the bed frame bridging the gap but wrong about the way it might be accomplished. Attaching the header to the railing as a hook the bedframe missed the opposite roof by half a foot and maybe a couple too high. Not perfect but I could chance using it as a ramp to lessen the jumping distance. I jammed the bedpost into a corner against the bricks but it was no guarantee that the bedframe wouldn’t come tumbling after me and I would have no way to get back. I had to take that chance.

Nestled in among the packing straw were five Thompson machine guns, gleaming with oil as if they’d just been foaled.

I hauled myself carefully up on to the rail and the took a cautious step forward. The kid was putting all her weight against the header frame and I took another step. I heard and felt the welded nuts groan and begin to give, the frame dropping a few inches. I needed just one more step and leapt. And it started to rain.

The bedframe rattled free of my weight and sent shocks to the fire escape which sounded like an explosion of small hammers. I looked up and could see Rebecca’s silhouette as the rain began to sheet down. The bedframe had held. I‘d landed in the narrow gutter space of the brick battlement and it was filling quickly with water shedding off the roof. There was a peaked window with a metal ladder leading up to it I had spotted earlier as possible access in to the club. Either an attic or a loft. There was no light behind it. I had to assume it was unoccupied. I made my way up to the ladder to take a few steps up and peer in. Sheltered by the overhang I could see into the shadowed gloom of the space beyond. Maybe an attic but not a living space.

I heard the noise and turned. The kid was standing on the bedframe about halfway across and the header had come loose from where I’d jammed it. It moved forward and down under her weight. I heard the bolts snap and the frame separated from the header out from under her feet.

She threw herself forward and managed to grab the edge of the abutment. I got to her and reached up under her arm and her other shoulder and dragged her into the gutter. The bed frame made a racket rattling down the shaft and bouncing off the bricks on the way down.

And then it was quiet. And raining. My escape route, never too realistic in the first place, was gone. Plus, now I had the kid to worry about.

“I am so sorry, Lack, but I did not want to be leave alone.”

I was too wet to be angry. “Let’s get out of the storm.” And led her up the ladder to the attic window.

I broke a pane with an elbow and reached around to undo the latched. The window stuck and then creaked as it swung open. I stuck my head in and sniffed the air. Dust, and mold, and something else, machinery? I pulled myself through the narrow opening. It was dark but not pitch. There were a set of attic windows on the opposite wall of the peaked ceiling letting in a dim light. Rebecca followed, still apologizing, but her way.

“I should not have followed. It was foolish. And now we are in a musty attic with boxes and old furniture. And if you do not believe in coincidence, another attic we have found ourselves.”

“Relax, and pipe down. There’s gotta be a way off this floor to the ones below. And that’s where I’m going! We just have to make sure the coast is clear and no one is making a fuss about the clatter.”

I’d already made out the shadow of a railing to a stairway leading down under the row of windows. I listened at the top and heard nothing. I could see that they led down to a doorway by the shadowy gleam of the knob. I stepped quietly awaiting the inevitable groan of wood. I put my ear to the door. Nothing, and gave the knob a turn. The hinges sighed as the door opened into the dim overhead lights of the hallway. Now I could hear what sounded like a burble of distant voices coming up the stairwell. Someone raised their voice and some one answered back louder, closer. The tread of feet thumped the risers heading up.

I hurried back up the steps to the attic pushing the kid ahead of me. She didn’t need any urging, she knew the drill. I ducked behind a large crate covered with a tarpaulin just as an overhead bulb lit up. I could hear the door open and the unhesitant footsteps advancing.

“Naw, nothing up here, quiet as a moose,” a rough voice called out. “Dey musbe hearing tings.” Another voice responded, and the first voice answered back, “Yer right, proly it’sa hotel next door. Some crazies live or dere.” There was an affirmative answer and the voice faintly in going down the stairs, “Let’s finish up the game. We can have time for one more hand before the meeting starts.”

And then they were gone. But they’d left the light on.

I came out from behind the crate. The wood smelled fresh. There were a few more near it with the turpentine tang of newly milled lumber. Black arrows were stenciled on the outside pointing up and a script I wasn’t familiar with. But the red skull and crossed bones spoke clear enough.

“Lack, look!” Becky had found a set of flags in the corner. One was red with a white circle and an X with its legs broken, a green, white, and red one with an axe and a bundle of sticks like you might see on a dime, and a white one with a big red circle in the middle. She held up another, on a black and white ground. It looked like a red checker board pasted onto a pot of fire. “Fascists! Like I have tell you!”

yugocrates1The lid of one of the crates had been pried up and I lifted it off. All of a sudden I felt like Ali Baba minus the forty thieves, and I didn’t have to say Open Sesame. Nestled in among the packing straw were five Thompson machine guns, gleaming with oil as if they’d just been foaled. This was my ticket out. Any one got in our way they’d get the business end of old Tommy.

There was only one problem. Not a one had a drum or magazine. Without the ammo all I had was an exceptionally well-made stick. There was a claw hammer on a work bench along with a bucket of nails. I went to work. It was no use. All the other new crates were the same,  Tommy guns, but not one bullet. And I was back to square one.


Next Time: A Change Of Plan

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