In the sputtering glow of a match, Slat Rickson's face was briefly illuminated as he lit up his smoke. Normally, he wouldn't have given the boys in blue even that long to make him, especially while on the job. But his partner, Johnny Ringa, had been inside The Four Aces Club for nearly three minutes, and that was two minutes too long. Something was wrong.
Slat listened as he sat behind the wheel of the stolen 1948 Packard. Not to the car's purring engine, or to the Andrews Sisters harmonizing on the radio; he was straining to hear Johnny inside the club. The Four Aces was supposed to be a cakewalk; the type of place he and Johnny hit on an off day. It was strictly low-end stuff, and hardly worth the effort. The only reason they had even considered such a dive was on account of being tipped by "Snitch" McGinn.
"A lot of lettuce coming through The Four Aces on Friday night," Snitch had told them over a friendly game of eight ball.
Johnny's eyes lit up. "How much is a lot?" he asked.
Slat played it down. He tried not to seem too over-eager. Lining up a bank shot, he squinted and gruffly stated, "Shut your yaps, both of you. You're breaking my concentration."
Slat took his shot. The eight ball dropped effortlessly into a corner pocket.
Johnny nudged Snitch. "Aww, c'mon. Spill. You look like you're gonna bust wide open."
Snitch racked up the balls for another round. Johnny and Slat leaned in close; the walls had ears.
"I got the tip from Lester over on 28th Street. He says a shitload of unmarked bills are coming down from Chicago on the Cannonball Flyer."
"What's the dough for?" Slat asked, chalking up his stick. His trademark snap-brim felt fedora was cocked far back on his head.
"Some Kansas City high-roller broke the bank of The Aces crap game... Took 'em for the ride of their lives."
Johnny snickered. "That's all fine and dandy, Snitch. But you still haven't told us what we wanted to hear."
"Yeah," Slat said. "How much are they into this guy for?"
Snitch's ferret-like eyes gleamed. "Word's out on the street it's 40 grand. I'd say it's more like 25."
Johnny whistled through his teeth. "25 G's?"
Slat poked him in the chest with the cue, leaving a powder blue circle on his shirt. Draining his beer and placing the stein on the shelf near the pool table, he turned towards Snitch.
"Who put up the money?"
Snitch shrugged. "There's a tight lid on that. If you're interested, I might be able to pry it open and find out... for my usual cut, of course."
Slat and Johnny glanced at each other, and grinned.
"Of course," they said in unison.
And that had been that.
Slat dragged deeply on his cigarette. His fingers drummed a somewhat nervous beat on the steering wheel as he blew twin jets of smoke from his nostrils.
Two men in trench coats rounded the corner; their heels were clicking against the asphalt as they headed in his direction.
Slat quickly tipped the brim of his fedora forward, while simultaneously reaching for his .45 under his coat.
Crossing his arms, he watched as the two men entered the Four Aces. Slat bit his lower lip. His mind was racing. Who were these clowns? Reaching for the horn, he drew his hand back.
Honking the horn would tip off the goons as well as Johnny. Best to go in, slow and quiet.
Slat killed the engine, cutting off the Andrews Sisters in mid-harmony. Pulling out his .45, he switched the safety off and held it at his side as he slipped out of the Packard.
The cool evening air felt good against his face. Leaning against the door of the club, he shouldered it open as quietly as possible and slipped inside.
The club was quiet and dark. An off-night. The stage for the floor show had been swept; the chairs had been stacked on top of the tables.
Allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness, Slat bobbed and weaved past the main room to the bar. Behind this chipped and pitted hunk of wood were several bottles of amber liquid and a lone beer tap. Beyond the bar was a door, behind which glowed a single band of yellow light.
The two apes who had come in before him were pressed against the door, listening.
Both were packing heavy artillery.
Faintly, like a telephone's bad connection, Slat could hear Johnny on the other side of the door.
"Now, you listen to me, bub. You've got exactly two seconds to cough up that 25 grand or I'll drill you. Get me?!"
"Please..." a sniveling voice replied. "I dunno what you're talking about!"
Muffled sounds. Johnny dishing out some lumps.
"Last chance," Johnny said. "Fork over that dough!"
Everything happened too fast after that.
The two gunmen signaled each other with curt nods and rammed against the door.
Slat took aim as they shouldered the door and fired three shots.
The door crashed inward as the gorillas fell on it, gushing blood.
Johnny and the proprietor of the Four Aces looked at the door and the blood-soaked bodies in amazement. The proprietor began to scream, a high, keening sound.
Johnny cuffed the man with the butt of his .38, and he crashed to the floor. His eyes rolled up inside his head, showing only the whites.
Slat was still reeling from the loud reports of his .45. A ringing in his ears muffled the other sounds around him. He barely heard Johnny speak.
"Snitch was full of shit. There's no payoff money here."
"Never mind that," Slat replied. He could still smell the stench of gunpowder in the hazy air. "Those two monkeys were about to get the drop on you. Who sent them?"
Johnny armed sweat from his brow; he was still keyed up. He knelt down beside the bodies and began rummaging through their pockets.
No I.D.'s. Both men had been carrying .44 revolvers.
"Hmm," Johnny mused, noting the pistols. "Heavy artillery. You think Snitch tipped these two off as well?"
Slat shook his head. He was just about to tell Johnny to hurry the hell up; somebody was bound to have heard the shots, when Johnny pulled out a thick white envelope from the inside pocket of the first goon's jacket.
"Hello, suckers. What've we got here?"
Johnny tore open the envelope.
It was stuffed with cash.
Both men gasped.
"The payoff money," Slat said.
Johnny smiled, and tossed Slat the money. "I think it's time we beat a hasty retreat."
They headed for the door.
The powerful beam of a flashlight cut through the darkness of the club.
Instinctively, they both hit the floor, guns out and at the ready.
"A copper," Slat said, the word spat out like a gob of phlegm.
"Let's try the back door," Johnny began, but it was already too late.
The cop was coming in.
"Go on out the back," Johnny harshly whispered. "Circle around and get the car going. I'll handle him."
With a wink and a curt nod, Johnny sidled up to the front door.
Slat moved past the bar to the back room. The door beyond was locked with a dead bolt; he shot it back with the heel of his hand.
He heard shots. Glass breaking.
"Shit," Slat swore under his breath, undecided about what to do.
He headed for the car.
If Johnny killed that cop, we'll both get the chair, he thought as he jogged up the street.
Someone nearly fell on him as he rounded the corner.
It was Johnny. He collapsed in front of Slat. Blood poured from a fresh wound in his throat.
Slat did not have time to aid his friend. He stood there, wide-eyed with disbelief, as Johnny died at his feet.
"Halt!" the cop yelled through gritted teeth. One hand was pointing a service revolver; the other was pressed against his leg, trying to staunch the flow of blood.
A round clipped the building's corner, mere inches from Slat's head. A shower of mortar and concrete bits whizzed through the air as Slat double-backed around the corner.
He was on the run.
Sirens. In the distance. Getting closer...
Slat ran down the desolate street. Into an alley. Up a rusted fire escape. To the roof of an old warehouse.
Snitch. He had to get to Snitch McGinn. He was a rat, and rats knew how to hide underground, away from the heat and shooters from Chicago.
Snitch lived in a rented railroad flat on the Lower East Side. Even the real rats had more class.
Slat ran across the tarred rooftops; the skyline glittered and twinkled beyond. He moved swiftly, jumping and sprinting with a surefootedness which was almost uncanny.
Shimmying down a telephone pole on 12th Street, Slat dusted himself off and pounded bricks.
The Calico Motel--its letters flashing on and off in sizzling red neon--was on the corner. Slat remembered Johnny once told him Snitch lived across the street, above the Italian Bakery, where he could "keep his eyes on the dough".
Slat crossed the street.
An alley ran behind the bakery and the adjoining shops. Jogging now, Slat dragged a trash can beneath the fire escape, and used its added height to reach the ladder's first rung.
Once he reached the landing he peered into the open window while the curtains fluttered around him like a shroud.
Nibbling on his lip, Slat called "Snitch?" in a harsh whisper.
Pulling his .45 from the waistband of his pants, Slat ducked into Snitch's room. As he fumbled for the light switch his feet slipped and skidded in something wet...
Slat turned on the light, and immediately wished he hadn't.
Snitch was tied to a straight-backed chair next to his bed, naked except for a pair of blood-splattered boxer shorts. His head lolled uselessly to one side, eyes glazed and uncomprehending. His mouth had been cut wider into a leering grin; a bloody handkerchief was jammed between his teeth.
Slat was thinking Snitch must have choked to death on his own blood; how his screams should have awakened the entire block...
...Until he noticed the peculiar object in Snitch's lap.
His severed tongue.
The bastards had worked him over, then they shut him up for good.
The mark of the squealer.
Slat bolted from the room.
He headed down 5th Avenue. There was a ritzy nightclub on 43rd; The Crown Jewel. Slat had gotten pretty friendly with Molly Parker, one of the chorus girls. He thought he could certainly use a friendly face right now...
A car suddenly squealed around the corner behind him. Slat's first instinct was to turn around to see who it was. Had he done that, he would have been killed. Instead, he followed his second instinct, the one which originated from the gut.
He hit the pavement.
No sooner had his lips kissed the asphalt that the air above him was filled with lead.
From the car, an unknown man fired a Tommy Gun from the passenger window, spraying rounds all over the street. Storefront windows exploded, plaster went flying; somewhere, a woman screamed.
In a screech of burnt rubber, the sedan accelerated down the street.
He used the side streets to get to The Crown Jewel.
Molly was the third girl from stage left. Her costume was sprinkled with multi-colored ostrich feathers. She gave Slat a wink and a smile as he weaved his way through the crowded tables.
They were dancing to "Frenesi." When the number ended, the girls did a conga line off the stage.
Molly passed by Slat's table.
"Where have you been all night, the dump?"
"I've got trouble," Slat said quickly into her ear as she bent over. "Does Anderson still got connections in Chicago?"
Wally Anderson owned a piece of The Crown Jewel. Slat had beat him bad in a poker game in The Bronx.
"I dunno," Molly replied. "You want to wait in one of the back rooms while I get him?"
Her perfume was intoxicating. "You're a honey," Slat replied.
He followed Molly into one of the rooms in back of the main staging area.
A crap table sat quietly off in one corner; the rest of the room was filled with crates of Irish Whiskey.
"Just lemmie change..."
Slat took Molly in his arms and kissed her, clipping her words off quick and easy. When their lips parted, he gave her a playful slap on the rump.
"Don't change," he ordered. "Just bring the boss. Tell him I'm calling in my marker."
"Sure, Slat," Molly said, and left.
Anderson returned with Molly in tow a few minutes later. Slat had broken the seal off a bottle of whiskey, and was helping himself.
"Hey!" Anderson yelled. "Just what do you think you're doing?!"
"Having a drink," Slat stated. "It's been a rough day..."
"That hooch is shipping out tomorrow night to Chicago!" Anderson snatched the bottle back protectively, looking wounded. He was a thin weasel of a man; Slat didn't trust him.
"Speaking of the Windy City," Slat said evenly, "I need some information."
"Can't we chew the fat some other time, Slat? I've got a full house out there, and..."
"Johnny Ringa's dead."
"So's Snitch McGinn. He tipped us to The Four Aces job. Some gambler from K.C. busted the crap game for 25 grand... Snitch said the payoff came from Chicago. I need to know who fronted the dough."
"I have no idea who..."
Slat struck like a pit viper. Grabbing Anderson by the lapels of his tux, he slammed him against the packing crates filled with booze. The bottles clinked musically. Molly gasped.
"Now you listen to me! I don't have time to dance! Whoever got to Johnny and Snitch is gonna find me sooner or later. Hell! They've already tried just before I came here. They're persistent bastards. I'm holding your marker, Wally, and I'm calling it in. Gimmie a name. Then I'm out of your hair. Now spill."
Pale and trembling, Anderson said, "The only one with balls of steel and enough muscle to spare would be Nickles Ryan. He just sided with the Southside Doherty Mob here to line against Don Covucci."
"Do they own The Four Aces?" Slat asked, releasing him.
Anderson shrugged. "Who knows? I'd say they at least got a piece of it.
Doherty always liked to keep his fingers in every pie that came out of the oven."
"Too bad about Johnny," Molly said as Slat handed over Anderson's marker.
"Yeah," Anderson said. "And Snitch. I always told him to keep his big yap shut."
"See ya around," Slat said.
"Go out the back door," Anderson gestured. "It's not that I care whether Nickles plugs you, but you really need a shower. You stink." He laughed and walked out.
"You're a real prince, Wally," Slat called after him.
Molly went to him. "So, this is it, huh?"
Staring into her pale blue eyes, he nodded.
"Got any idea where you'll be going?"
"Wherever the wind blows, I guess," Slat said with a grin.
"You're not planning on..." Molly began, all wide-eyed and beautiful. Her lips seemed to glisten, like cherry blossoms peppered with dew.
"Maybe I am and maybe I'm not," he shot back. "The less you know, the better."
Slat tipped the brim of his fedora in her direction. "So long, Mol."
He opened the back door, but hesitated as she called to him.
"Do you think...we could...I mean, do you think we could have..."
"Sure, Mol. Sure," he whispered in her ear.
Their lips met--a long, deep kiss. Just like the movie stars. It made Slat feel light on his feet.
"S'long," he said, and went quickly out the door before he changed his mind.
He didn't want to see Molly cry.
Slat made it to Pennsylvania Station in one piece. The Cannonball Flyer left in an hour and a half. He needed to low- profile his mug until then. After buying a ticket, Slat ordered coffee at a small out-of-the-way diner on 32nd Street. He sat in a booth in the back away from the windows. He didn't want to get clipped while he sipped his coffee.
He kept thinking about Molly...
...And Nickles Ryan.
Was he really going to fight a kingpin like that? And on his own turf? All over a botched casino job? Slat looked over the rim of his paper, at the street beyond.
If he didn't stop running and fight he'd be labeled a coward. Johnny's death demanded some sort of retaliation. It was the way of things. The way of the street.
On the other hand, he was only one man. He and Johnny hadn't been a part of a fixed mob in years, since before the war. Besides, Johnny had been careless, and a cop had gotten him. He didn't even know for sure if the tip had come from Nickles.
Yet another part of him was reminded of all the good times he and Johnny had. It hadn't been the cops; they were never that smart. Someone had tipped the screws off.
Which brought him back to square one.
(Don't do it, Slat...Please...)
Molly's sweet voice, ringing in his ears.
That dame had been the only one to ever get close to him, in spite of all the others he'd managed to hold at arm's length over the years.
If he went to Chicago he might get Nickles, but they most certainly would get him, too.
Slat kept replaying their last kiss over and over again.
When he left the diner about ten minutes later, his coffee sat there, cooling like a forgotten corpse.
The Crown Jewel was still hopping when Slat returned, but Molly wasn't on stage. One of the hostesses informed him Molly had just finished her last set, and was back in her dressing room.
As he jerked the curtain aside, he saw two powerful-looking men heading in his direction. One of them had a face of granite--hard, stony and angular. The other had a scar twisting across his cheek, cutting through his eyebrow like an old worn-out road. A toothpick jutted from the corner of his mouth; his hand disappeared beneath the folds of his trench coat.
Slat darted behind the curtain, taking advantage of the crowded dance floor. It would slow Ryan's boys down considerably, and Slat wasn't planning on greeting them when they got backstage.
Two showgirls in fire engine red costumes sauntered by. They both gasped when they spotted Slat coming their way, his gun drawn.
Molly was powdering her nose in front of a small circular mirror when Slat barged in.
"Say, what gives..." she began. When she saw who it was, her eyes lit up and she embraced him.
"Hiya, Sugar. Miss me?"
"Who're you?" she shot back. "Oh, yeah. The guy who could have meant something in my life."
"Ever been to L.A.?" Slat asked, speaking rapid-fire as he kept his eye on the door.
Molly shook her head. "What's wrong?"
"Never mind. Now listen up, 'cause I'm only gonna say it once..."
As he talked, Slat opened the window in her dressing room.
"I came back for you, Mol. I've decided to let it go...Chicago, I mean. Guess I'm pretty daffy about you."
"But I've still got trouble," he continued, "and I don't want you to get hurt."
"I can take care of myself. I'm a big girl, in case you haven't noticed."
She gave him a wink.
"I wouldn't be here if I hadn't."
Slat checked out the window. The street below looked clear.
He heard footsteps approaching the row of dressing rooms, too heavy a tread for dancing girls.
"Go home. Pack a grip. Sit tight and wait for me. Do it now."
Slat disappeared onto the fire escape and into the alley behind the club.
Doubling back, he ran smack into the sedan which had tried to rub him out earlier.
The mug behind the wheel was reading the paper, chuckling to himself. The engine idled softly.
Slat ducked behind the car's rear bumper, and waddled along until he was just below the driver's side window. The window was open.
"Psst!" Slat hissed.
When the guy poked his nose out the window, Slat hit him as hard as he could with the butt of his .45.
Out like a light.
He was just pulling the unconscious driver free from the car, when two gunmen emerged from the back door of The Crown Jewel.
"There he is!" one of them shouted.
"That's Rickson!" yelled the other.
Slat fired a couple of rounds at them, using the car's hood as cover. He had no time to aim; he fired blindly and jumped into the car.
The gunmen ducked, drew guns as big as howitzers, and returned fire. A slug whined angrily past Slat's ear, ricocheting off the car.
It was a close enough call for him. He wasn't one for hanging around during target practice, especially when he was the target.
Another round shattered the rear window. It burst inward.
Flooring the accelerator, he took off down the street, tires squealing in protest.
The bastards knew his name. They had him fingered.
He had to ditch the car, and pick up Molly.
Slat hoped Molly would be ready. They weren't going to have much time. He parked the car next to an abandoned warehouse near the docks and walked to Molly's flat. He didn't want the cops or Ryan's boys spotting him; he already felt like he was being watched.
Molly lived on the twenty-second floor of the Continental Arms in the East Village area. Very hoity-toity, Slat used to kid her, but the truth was, he was jealous. It wasn't a ritzy place, yet she gave it style and class all the same.
He rode the elevator up to twenty-one; his gut instinct warned him to take the stairs to Molly's floor.
Pulling out his .45, he held it against his leg and opened the door at the twenty-second floor.
The hallway was dimly lit; two naked bulbs hung in the foyer.
Molly's apartment was down the hall and to the left, near the elevator bank. Slat quickened his pace considerably until he reached the end of the corridor.
Peering around the wall, Slat saw a husky man in a tan trench coat step into the elevator. The doors slid ominously closed. Upon reaching Molly's apartment he found her door was ajar. A lump rose in his throat.
His gun ready, Slat stared at the band of lamplight oozing through the crack.
"Please, God," he whispered. "Please let her be all right."
Nudging the door open with the muzzle of his .45, Slat entered Molly's apartment.
The room was a shambles. Clothes were strewn everywhere. Chairs were turned over. The coffee table sat drunkenly on three legs. The wood beneath the break in the fourth leg was white, like bone. It turned his stomach.
Mouth agape, he stepped into her bedroom.
All the strength ran out of his legs. He backed against the bed and sat down hard. One table lamp was on; the other had been knocked over. It lay in a shattered heap on the floor.
His eyes followed the cord from the base of the lamp. It snaked across the plush, royal blue carpet, winding its way up Molly's prone body, where it had been pulled taut around her swollen neck.
Strangled...his mind roared. Oh, Christ! She's been strangled...
Molly's eyes were puffy and bulging from red-rimmed lids. Her tongue lolled from the corner of her mouth like a piece of undigested beef. A sickly bluish tint had colored her horrified face.
But it was the lamp cord--wrapped tightly around the neck he so often kissed--which his eyes kept returning to. The wire was frayed in spots; the plug dangled uselessly under her chin like a gruesome pendant.
It was too much for Slat. He bolted into the bathroom and vomited into the toilet.
He sat there, his head resting against the porcelain, for a long time. He was thinking about Nickles Ryan.
At last, the anger welling inside him put the strength back into his legs. He stood, tucked his .45 away and returned to the bedroom.
Molly continued to stare at him with horrified conviction.
Slat unwound the lamp cord from around her neck. He brushed his fingers over her eyes, and kissed her cooling forehead.
"So long, Mol. I'm sorry..."
Slat left without looking back.
Outside, the wind was picking up. He walked, kidding himself it was the chilly breeze which caused his eyes to water. When he stuffed his hands in his pockets, he felt the ticket he'd bought.
The Windy City, Slat thought with a cold smile. It spread across his face like a disease. He let the ticket go; it fluttered away into the night. "Not by train," he said to himself. "No, uh-uh. They'll be looking for that."
Wally Anderson of The Crown Jewel had a nice stash of Irish whiskey heading to Chicago tomorrow. It would be easy enough to hide among the crates...
"Wherever the wind blows," he said, as he headed to the club.
And the wind urged him along.