Better Than Dead—19

by Colin Deerwood

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Then I had another think coming. My hands began to sweat. It wasn’t like I’d lost my nerve and even if I had, being suicidal wasn’t going to help me find it. Mister K’s operation looked like a little more than just controlling the waterfront action and trucking companies. The kind of firepower I was seeing here would outfit a small army. And that other think arrived to tell me that I had to get the hell out of there, fast. There was no going back the way I had come. Down the stairs and into the social club was the only way out. If we stuck to the stairwell we had the chance of cheese with a rat and the only hope was that the rat was on the cheese wagon.

“You still got your peashooter?”

She frowned obviously distracted by the same dilemma I found myself in. “A shooter of peas?”

“Your little Lady Remmington. Your piece.” I made my fist into a gun.

“No, Lack, I have left it at the loft. It was foolish. . . .”

“Never mind, these mugs would chew those slugs like licorice candy. We’re just going to have to take our chances. Like I said before, if there’s a dust up, run, I’ll hold ‘em off as long as I can.”

She gave me a smile that said I was her hero. “We are in this together, Lack. I will stay by you.”

I opened the door from the attic stairs to the top floor hallway. A globe fixture at the head of the stairway illuminated the next flight down. I peered cautiously over the banister to the further dark abyss of the interior stairwell. There were muffled sounds of laughter. Other voices drifted up and caught my ear because of the intensity of the conversation. I could only make out a few words, but I recognized the speaker, Yan Kovic. Out of the frying pan into the fire. I had him right where he wanted me. The indistinct dialogue seemed a few landings below, not inside one of the rooms where the raucous laughter was coming from.

“Why can you not find this weasel who has killed Milosh?” Kovic demanded.

The other voice sounded lower and all I got was “more important matters” and Kovic insisting that “everything taking care off.”

I knew we would never get past them and even though I would have loved to get my hands around Kovic’s neck, right now wasn’t the best opportunity. There had to be another way down, a fire escape or a back set of stairs. I went to the window at the end of the corridor and looked out. The rain was still pouring down. I lifted the sash and poked my head out. I saw my way out. A metal ladder out of reach from where I was standing reached from the roof to a small terrace one floor below. Off to one side of the terrace was a fire escape leading down to the back alley. All I had to do was descend one more floor without being noticed, make my way to the terrace and down the fire escape.

The treads were carpeted although each step held the potential of a riser’s groan, but the joint was a sturdy as a jail and my luck held. I crept to the end of the hallway where I judged the terrace would be. I could spy the edge of the parapet from the window and assumed that access would be through the large oak door set into the wall. There didn’t seem to be a lock and the brass knob turned easily. The hinge was as silent as the whisper of air being displaced. I found myself in a large room with a couple armchairs, a long table, a bar along one wall, and double glass doors leading out to the small terrace. The setup looked like it was a kind of meeting room. A map and a scattering of papers were spread out at one end of the table under the light of a green shaded banker’s lamp. An RCA tabletop radio sat on a side table between two leather armchairs.

Rebecca let out a gasp. She had one of the sheets of papers in her hand. “I am not very good reading Serbian but I think this is timetable for an attack!” She had moved to the map on the table and was studying the symbols. “Here with this symbol, where is this?”

It took a bit to swivel my head in the right direction but when I did I saw that I was looking at a map of the waterfront, and part of the downtown area. X marked the spot near the customs warehouses. I was familiar with the area. It was near where Annie Bassinger’s tug, The Narcissus, was berthed. The other was an arrow pointing to the district where the Federal Courthouse was located. I was trying to formulate a correlation of some criminal intent and about to give vent to my hunch when I saw the look on her face. Horror.

radio1She was pointing at the two armchairs and the table with the radio between them. She stumbled back with her hand held over her mouth and in doing so knocked the banker’s lamp off its perch with a shattering crash. “The radio!” she gasped.

I didn’t think she could blame the radio. It wasn’t even turned on. That wasn‘t my worry. I had a feeling that we might not have been the only two who heard the sound of glass breaking.

“Forget it. Let’s get out of here!” I caught her by the arm and led her to the double doors.

“But Lack, the radio! I know that radio! It is the one my father. . . .”

I didn’t let her finish. There were the sounds of fast approaching footsteps and voices, one of them saying loud enough, “It come from up here, try the smoking lounge!”

That’s what they called this place but I wasn’t gonna stick around to admire it. Outside the rain had let up and left behind a misty scrim in the warm night air. I made for the corner of the terrace near where the wrought iron scaffolding of the fire escape was attached to the bricks of the building. I had underestimated the distance between the parapet of the terrace and the iron rail. Only an acrobat was going to take that leap and make it, and it wasn’t me. Besides the racket was going to be a dead giveaway. There was a narrow ledge just below the parapet that ran along the façade but hardly wide enough for my size twelves.

He didn’t want to believe his eyes when he spotted me, but then his surprise grew grim before turning into a grin as he reached under his arm and unholstered the large pistol and took aim.

An overhead light switched on in the smoking lounge and threw a beam across the wet tiles of the terrace. I chanced a glance through the glass and saw the three bears, the one with the bald dome I knew was Kovic. I put my ear to the hinge to catch what they were saying.

“Hey, wadya know, the lamp fell and broke.”

“Who broke it?” Kovic demanded, “who is up here!?

“Naw, boss, it just fell. Everybody’s down below playing cards.”

“That noise we heard earlier, Mr. K, they said it was from the hotel next door.”

“One moment! This radio, where is other radio?”

“Oh, yeah, guy, radio repairman, come by this morning. This is the loaner while he fixes the other one.”

“Radio is broken. No one tells me.”

“I didn’t know either, boss, but he said somebody called and said it was broken and that he should come fix it. Said he’d need to take it to his shop to do that.”

“Someone call? Who does this? Sammy, bring others up here. I want search of entire building.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing, Mr. K, here let’s turn the radio on, maybe listen to a symphony broadcast.”

“Yeah, boss, maybe a ballgame, or Amos and Andy.”

“Has anyone think to look on terrace?”

That was my cue to make like a leaf and leave. I turned to see Rebecca standing on the edge of the parapet, fingers splayed clinging to the bricks and edging a bare foot onto the ledge and aiming to close the distance with the fire escape.

The door behind me opened and Kovic’s gorilla nonchalantly stepped out onto the terrace. He sniffed the air and glanced at the misty night drifting across the inky black of the dark alley below. He didn’t want to believe his eyes when he spotted me, but then his surprise grew grim before turning into a grin as he reached under his arm and unholstered the large pistol and took aim.

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The blast blew the double doors off their hinges, showering glass and splinters and knocking the goon with the gun off his feet and sending him flying across the narrow terrace like he was nothing but a dead leaf in a tornado. The building shuddered. The terrace tiles quaked. The glass-explosiondoorframe buckled, coughing out bits of brick and plaster. I dropped to one knee to keep from toppling over. My ears were ringing from the explosion. Dust and acrid smoke filled my nostrils. When I got over the initial shock I looked over at Rebecca. She was gone.

Coughing, I stumbled to the edge of the parapet. She had been trying to reach the fire escape. I stared over the edge focusing on the darkness below. Nothing, no sign of her. She had fallen forty feet and even if I could see her all I would have seen was her body sprawled on the pavement, dead.

A sinking gut churning sorrow overtook me. That little glow of hopefulness that had come into my life when I first met her, the sense that my crappy life might be worthwhile after Grace and I had split, was snuffed out like someone had just squelched the wick of a guttering candle between their two fingers. I let out a sob. It was an angry sob. I wanted to kill.

The palooka moaned and tried to sit up but couldn’t. He might have broken something. Amid the scattering of debris at his feet lay his pistol. I picked it up and hefted in my hand. My temples were pounding. He was going to be the first one and I pointed the gun at his head. I heard the crunch of broken glass behind me and a low howl of pain.

Kovic leaned against the blasted brick of the doorway with one hand, a bloody gash across the top of his bald pink dome and a smear of blood below an unfocused eye. He was trying to say something, but I wasn’t gonna let him. I raised the revolver and aimed for his head.

“I’m better than dead,” I spat back.

It was his fault. Everything was his fault. If he hadn’t tried to dun me out of my fee for finding his hophead daughter. And he did it over a lousy C note. Left me to rot in an upstate ditch. The guy had no class. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so set on getting mine back but if that’s what he thought of me I was gonna make him regret it. I’d tried once before. That ended me up in the drink. Along with the guy who had put me in the ditch who was too dead to swim. Kovic had my lawyer snuffed and put a hit out on me. And then Rebecca. Yeah, it was his fault. Here was my chance. He deserved to die.

My knee went numb and folded as pain shocked through me. I turned to find the cause and caught the brick full in the face. My arm went numb from another blow and the gun dropped from my hand. The next thing I knew I was laid out flat and Kovic’s ugly mug was dripping blood on my face.

“You!” he snarled, “You, the lousy private dick? You did this?” He grasped me by the front of my jacket and brought my face close to his. “You are as good as dead!” he spit.

“I’m better than dead,” I spat back.

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When I came to I was tied to a chair. My feet were sunk in a couple of large buckets. A bright spotlight shone in my face and lighted up the guy with the shovel as well. He was mixing something with sand and water in a large tub. He noticed when I raised my head.

“Hey boss, the pigeon just stirred.” He ladled a shovelful of cement into the bucket around one foot.

I heard a chair scrape across the wood floor and Kovic say, “Everything to go as planned. But first I have take care of this budala. He will swim with Milosh.” Then his hot breath on my throbbing face as he grasped a handful of hair and jerked my head back. His teeth shone in the light. He had a bandage over one eye and part of his dome. “Your death will give me great pleasure, American swine. You think you can kill me, Yan Kovic! I am a powerful man and you are nothing but bug I will crush.”

He landed a slap that numbed the other side of my face. “Hurry up with cement, I want to watch  when we drop him in river.”

The dankness of the air made sense. They had me in an abandoned warehouse along the river.

“Going as fast as I can, boss.”

“Make it hurry.”

“It still has to set before it’ll do any good.”

“Add big rocks! I must not have to be doing this work for you!”

Long shadows in abandoned factory building on sunny summer day.
Long shadows in abandoned factory building on sunny summer day.

“Boss! Hey!” The distant voice echoed in the large warehouse space. Then there was a gunshot, and then another. A muddle of gunfire from all directions followed. I felt a bullet whizz by an ear and tipped myself and the chair over, the half full buckets wrenching at my ankles. The guy with the shovel had a gun and was firing off into the shadows. Muzzle flashes sparked orange flames in the dark cavernous space. Kovic fired back as he scrambled away. His goons were holding their ground. There were screams and curses and more shots. The cement mixer went down with a groan and a big red hole in his neck. I heard movement near me and looked over to see my old pal, Al. He was crawling across the floor toward me with a pained look on his old drawn face. He had a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. He gave me a nod and dug the knife into the rope holding me to the chair. I tumbled free and worked to shake my feet out of the metal boots. A shot spit up near where I was and I lay still for a moment. Al snapped off a shot and got one in return. I heard him draw in a breath. The pained expression had left for one of surprise. I crawled over to him as the sides traded more gunfire. He was holding a hand over his chest and blood was leaking out between his fingers. He looked up at me as if asking why? I had my own questions I needed answering.

“Al, why are you here?”

“You pulled a fast one on us, Lack. You switched the postal slips.” He coughed and a little blood edged the corner of his mouth.

“The postal slip? What’s so important about that lousy postal slip?”

“You still have the slip from Della’s mailbox. That’s the one we want. We have to have it!” he tried to sit up and this time coughed up a lot of blood. “We followed you. We saw when they took you outta the building and brought you over here. You got the ticket and we want it back.”

Rebecca had the slip. Rebecca. She never gave it back to me. She still had it. But she was. “Rebecca” I breathed aloud.

Now Al’s expression grew curious. Even as he was fading, he had a question. “We saw you go into the hotel with her. Does she. . . ?” But there was no more.

The warehouse had grown silent. No one was popping off any shots and there were only the faint rustles and death rattles of the wounded and dying. Distantly there was the sound of sirens or it might have the wind vibrating the tin siding.

“He was dead when we got there. But I got what I wanted, the box with the Empress’s jade.

I got to my feet cautiously. I’d lost a shoe to the coagulated mess and had to pry it back out of the bucket. They were no longer the supple pair I had once worn. I pricked up my ears and swiveled my head. I could hear labored breathing in the shadows beyond the arc of light. I tilted the light in the direction of the sound.

Al’s sister had propped herself against a pocked stanchion, leaning one shoulder on the beam, head bent forward trying to catch a breath, an old dogleg Mauser in one hand and a snake of blood trailing down the inside of her other arm. She looked at me with blank eyes.

“What was so important about that postal slip?” I demanded.

A slight smile flexed her upper lip. “The Empress’s Cucumber.”

“The what?” I was about to ask and then I remembered Max’s story about the precious jade artifact that had belonged to the Chinese Empress. How it was key to the restoration of the Dynasty. “You had that hunk of jade?” Then it hit me. “You mailed it to yourself!”

“You don’t know,” she groaned, her body slumping forward. “We’re the Thieves of Bombay. That tattoo on the inside of Al’s arm, I have the same one on my shoulder blade. It’s a Sanskrit rosette that spells out our motto, ‘nothing too light, nothing too heavy for our diligent skills’. Al and the boys stole the jade from a prominent art collector in one of their penthouse heists, see. They gave it to me for safe keeping. Then my lousy boyfriend decides he’s gonna pawn it. He took it around a couple of places and musta realized that it was worth more than he thought. Someone probably told him he could get big money from the right people. So he hung on to it. That’s when you come into the picture.” Her eyes narrowed and brimmed with venom. Or maybe pain.

“You had me trace his new address and once you had it you went there ahead of me and bumped him off figuring I might get there around the same time as the cops and take the rap.”

“He was dead when we got there. But I got what I wanted, the box with the Empress’s jade. You’re the rat who stole the postal ticket from my mailbox. You thought you were smart by switching them and leaving me with a bundle of old clothes.”

The sirens grew closer and I could hear the screeching of tires and the loud thumping of vehicle doors being slammed shut. I watched Della stiffen as a pain tore through her. She wanted to point the Mauser at me but didn’t have the strength. “We’ll get you, you bastid, the Thieves is a worldwide organization. When they find out what happened to us, they’ll come after you and rub you out like the no good rat you are. You can count on that.” She tried to spit. “May the curse of Kali be upon your head. . . .” She gave what sounded like a little feminine giggle and a bubble of blood formed on one nostril before bursting. She closed her eyes.


Next Time: G-Men To The Rescue! (sort of)

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