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CEMETERY FIRST STOP
by David Hume
DEATH FOR FOUR
LEFTY VINCENT’S dark eyes clouded slumberously, and he stifled a yawn. The click, click of balls drummed into his ears from the pool room. He screwed his heel on the stub of a cigarette, and glanced at his watch. An odour of carnation scent seeped into the room as he slid a white silk handkerchief from his breast pocket. The four men sitting with him at the table watched anxiously, waiting for the boss to say his piece. But Lefty dragged another smoke from a platinum case, thumbed a lighter, and sank back farther into his seat. The heavy lids drooped over his eyes, and the dark lashes seemed to blanket the small aperture.
But Vincent was gazing at the four men with cold scrutiny, analysing them with the keen penetration that had taken him from a cellar in New York’s Bronx to a fame that was infamous from the Atlantic coast to San Francisco. There were very few things Lefty had to learn about men and women. He thought that himself as he eyed his supporters.
Johnny Ryan, sitting on his left, was a steady gunman, but hadn’t got the sense of a bat. Lefty knew that Johnny—fat, forty, fatalistic—would follow anybody to hell, but couldn’t lead a child an inch. Beside him sat Burly Collins. He was different. Burly had ambitions, thought maybe one day he would be the big shot. Lefty thought Collins would be more likely to get shot. Still, Burly could stand up and take it. And they couldn’t all do that. The little man facing him pulled nervously at his marihuana cigarette. Lefty watched anxiously. He didn’t mind men getting tangled with marihuana smokes or “coking” themselves at times. But little Pete Catini was getting the jitters. Pneumonia was a safer complaint if you ran in harness with Vincent. So, Lefty drew deeply on his cigarette and decided to remember that. The fourth member of the party shuffled his feet, stared at the clock, saw the boss staring at him, and smiled weakly. Lefty never had thought much of Pine-apple Weber. But the guy threw a neat bomb, and you couldn’t find men like that every day.
Burly Collins opened his blue eyes wider, watched the boss closely. He liked to learn things, wanted to pick up things from the big shot. The knowledge would be useful for the day when he sat in Vincent’s place. He smiled. That was one of the few things Lefty did not know. Maybe he wouldn’t know anything about it until things had happened, and Burly sat on top of the heap. Lefty thought Collins was more likely to finish in the near future under a heap!
The baize doors opened. A small man with the face of a ferret slid into the room.
“All set, boss,” he said. “The tank and the gear are at the back.”
Lefty straightened his five dollar tie, and nodded.
“Right, Fino. Got everything I told you to collect?”
“Yeah, boss. You sure know a tank when you see one. It’s a hummer.”
Lefty looked at his watch. It was twenty minutes past one.
“Right boys,” he said. “Let’s drift. Take it easy. Remember what I’ve told you. And then everything will be just fine.”
He rose from his seat with the easy air of one without a worry in the world. Slim and elegant, not more than five feet nine, Vincent looked the complete lady killer. But he didn’t confine his killing to the ladies! The five men followed him through the door at the rear, walked along a passage to the exit, piled into the waiting car.
It was exactly half-past one when the car stopped outside the Conway Bank. Lefty led the way, sauntering past walkers, and humming a tune. There were three customers in the bank. Lefty had expected that. For a month he had “cased” the Conway Bank.
Harry Furness, the first teller in the bank, looked over the counter, and greeted Vincent with a smile. The smile did not last for long. Lefty slid a Remington .38 across the counter, spoke softly:
“Hand over all you’ve got, brother, and don’t try to pull a fast one. Go for a rod, or press your foot on that alarm, and you’ll never do anything else. Start handing over, and make it snappy.”
Furness trembled, looked towards the other tellers along the counter. They couldn’t help him. Their trouble was as acute as his. The three customers stood with elevated hands. Catini faced them with a Tommy gun cradled in his arm. Furness looked into Lefty’s velvet eyes. They looked quite harmless. The little man pushed forward his hand towards the wad of notes on the open drawer, snatched at the gun lying behind them.
“You fool!” said Vincent. “You’ve asked for it. Have it!”
Furness reeled back as the bullet tore into his stomach, crashed to the floor. For an instant the bank seemed unnaturally quiet.
“Make it snappy, boys!” shouted Vincent. “Let’s get to hell out of here.”
As he spoke he seized the notes in the drawer—backed towards the door. Furness was still groaning when the four men vanished. The waiting driver smacked his foot on the pedal, the car tore down the street. Two minutes later, syrens were screaming as police cars took up the chase.
At seven o’clock that night three men divided the spoils in Carson City. They were Lefty Vincent, Johnny Ryan, and Pineapple Weber. Fino had drawn his five hundred, and dropped out of the party at Sacramento. The ambitious Collins, and the unfortunate Catini had been left in Lake Tahoe. The bullets in them would be enough to make the bodies sink.
That happened in April . . .
Even the wide-opened windows seemed to bring no relief from the sultry heat to the gamblers in the crowded room. Manhattan in July can feel like hell’s next-door neighbour. Johnny Ryan and Fino walked round the room together, not altogether comfortable in evening dress. But the boss had told them that he meant to run the place as a swell joint. So even his rough-house men had to dress accordingly.
“The boss certainly has an eye for the janes,” remarked Johnny.
“You said it,” agreed Fino. “When Ziegfeld reckoned he knew the real stuff in the dame line he was just kidding himself. Lefty could shut his eyes and pick better front row pieces than Flo ever saw.”
“I’ll say he could. If the boss drifted out of the racket they ought to pay him a grand a week just to look the girls over. Cripes, you remember that Susie jane in Philly . . . and the blonde in Utica . . . and that Spanish girl along in Bay City. Yes, sir, that girl certainly had everything it needs to make ’em. I reckon he’s forgotten all that bunch now. This new dame takes his eye plenty, but I wouldn’t bet a bad dime that she’d last for more than another month.”
“Nor me. But I wouldn’t mind taking her to places when Lefty is through with his fun and games. She looks everything that opens and shuts to me. Bit of real class about her, too, Johnny.”
“Swell dame, Fino. Toney, I should call her. Take a peep at the fat lad in the corner. Seems to me he’s trying to pull a stroke. Let’s amble that way, and lead him to the sidewalk. If the guy starts any trouble in here we’ll have our lids blown off by the boss. Come on, Fino.”
The two “handlers” strolled round the table, stood for an instant at the back of the man. Johnny looked towards the window at the far end of the room. Lefty Vincent’s right eyelid flicked trivially. Ryan nodded, touched the man on the shoulder, shook his head in the direction of the door. The fat man opened his mouth to remonstrate, saw the sudden bulge appear on the trousers as Ryan slid his hand into his pocket. He went out.
Vincent wore a suit that had put him back a hundred and fifty dollars. But it looked worth it, and Lefty knew it. By his side stood his latest capture. Ryan and Fino had not exaggerated. She certainly was no pain to the eyes. Above the average in height, almost statuesque in figure, she stared through the window at the purple sky. Her hair, almost tawny, seemed to be flecked with glimmers of gold. The grey eyes were large, expressive, shielded by long, curving lashes. A trace of lipstick made more obvious the fact that lips of such a shape needed no artificial assistance. A black crepe evening gown swathed her figure, finished in a perfect swirl around her feet. Lefty stared at her profile as she watched the sky. She looked worth a million dollars to Vincent.
“You seem sad tonight, darling,” he said. “Anything troubling you?”
“Nothing much, dear. It seems so hot in here, and I’ve got something of a headache. I don’t think I shall stay much longer.”
“Don’t go yet, beautiful,” whispered Vincent, drawing nearer to her. “I can’t very well walk out of this dump while all the folks are here. It wouldn’t be safe, and, in any case, the people like to see me around while they’re playing. Just hang on for a while longer. Then I’ll see you home.”
“You needn’t trouble about that, dear. I’m not a babe in arms. Any one would think I’m going to be kidnapped or something. Don’t be silly.”
Lefty reached out, and took her hand. The girl still stared through the window. She couldn’t see the gleam sparkling in Vincent’s eye. But she could feel it.
“Darling,” he said, “when are you going to be sensible, and let me look after you? Seems silly for me to take you to your home each night when I could so easily be taking you along with me to mine.”
“We don’t want to argue about that all over again, do we?” asked the girl wearily. She looked at the clock. It was twenty minutes to two. Then she turned away from the window, watched the feverish gamblers. She had more than good looks. Vincent had known that for a month.
“Better take a look at the young girl in the green dress at the far end of the table,” she said. “Maybe your boys would do well to move her.”
“Why? I can’t see anything wrong with that jane. What’s the trouble?”
“Nothing much. She’s been losing for the last two hours, getting whiter in the face, fumbling in her handbag each time she’s lost, and I’m taking a bet that she’s packed in a gun in that bag. You don’t want any of your clients to commit suicide on your own doorstep, do you? Let her stage the rubbing out party in the open air. That’s all. Please yourself.”
Lefty stared at her admiringly, patted her bare shoulder lightly.
“You certainly have got it where it’s needed, sister. I’ll just see that she fades out quietly. I’ll be back in a minute. Excuse me, dear.”
Vincent stepped lithely across the room, smiling as he nodded to his clients. Ryan and Fino advanced to meet him. Lefty shook his head, and they retreated. This was not a case for “handlers.” The boss knew when to abandon the heavy stuff. He stood behind the girl, smiled as she looked up at him, pulled out his wallet surreptitiously, pulled out a ten dollar bill, bent forward to slip it into the girl’s hand.
“Not your lucky night, lady,” he whispered. “Have a bet at the expense of the house, and then come back when your luck has changed.”
The girl struggled to force a smile to her pale face. It was an effort. Lefty returned to the end of the room. He didn’t mind parting with the ten spot. Within five minutes he’d have it back again. That was sure.
“Maybe you were right, darling,” he said. “The girl was looking a bit eaten up. She’ll amble home in a while. How is the headache?”
“No better. I really am going home in another ten minutes, dear. Are you going to escort me, or do I go alone?”
“Sure I’ll come with you, honey.”
The girl’s lips parted as she smiled. Lefty smiled, too, and wondered why people thought Dietrich was beautiful. She looked at her watch. It was ten minutes to two. She pressed his hand, and walked towards the cloakroom. Male eyes looked up from the cards to note her progress. Some people just can’t help it. They attract attention wherever they go. The girl was one of them.
“What a sight for sore eyes,” said Johnny Ryan. “Congratulations, boss.”
Vincent handed him a proprietorial smile. Though Johnny was dumb even he had enough sense to see the obvious. The boss took another look round the room before he spoke:
“I’m just running the girl friend round to her place, Johnny, and then I’ll be right back. Keep your eye on things for half an hour, will ya?”
“Everything will be O.K., boss. Leave little Johnny to do the job.”
“Right. Use your bonnet, and don’t start any rough stuff unless you’re absolutely forced to. Tact is the stuff you want when you’re running a swell joint, Johnny. I don’t let you set me back a hundred a week to use your arm. It’s your head—what there is of it—that I’m hiring.”
“That’ll be all right with me, boss. Just take things easy.”
“Thanks for the advice. I’d do that in any case. Ever seen me ruffled?”
“I’ll say I haven’t. Nor has any other guy. You ain’t got any nerves.”
“Don’t need ’em in my line of business, Johnny. That’s why Catini had to go. Jitters spell death in our racket. Don’t develop ’em, laddy.”
Lefty passed through to his office, wound a silk scarf round his neck, pulled on an overcoat, picked up a “topper.” When he came out the girl was waiting for him, a fur wrap surrounding her. Slowly they walked to the swing doors. Vincent was still gazing round the room, making sure that all was well before he left. The uniformed attendant pulled back the doors, and Lefty stood to one side as the girl passed through.
He was about to follow her when Fino tugged his sleeve.
“I wanna have a coupla words with you, boss, before you go.”
The girl swung round, faced the men. A slight frown threw a ridge across her forehead. Lefty turned to the man impatiently:
“What’n hell is wrong with you, Fino? I’m just stepping out.”
“Won’t take a minute, boss.”
“All right,” said Vincent. He let nothing interfere with business. “Dear, just wait for me at the entrance. I’ll be with you in a few seconds.”
She hesitated momentarily, and then nodded, walking away towards the entrance. As she reached the door clocks struck two. Stepping to the sidewalk she paused for a moment, dropped her handbag, picked it up, and stood waiting. Suddenly the door opened behind her, quick steps sounded. The girl took one look round, raised a hand to her mouth to stifle a rising scream. The muscles tightened in her throat, strength seemed to seep from her legs, and a haze clouded her sight.
Johnny Ryan, standing beside her, stared curiously.
His astonishment increased as the girl staggered into a faltering run. She had not covered more than four or five yards, and he still watched, uncertain about his next move, when matters were taken from his hands, and he ceased to think—in this life.
Brrp . . . brrp . . . brrp . . . brrp . . .
The sharp, staccato chatter of a Tommy gun rattled through the quiet night. Johnny Ryan lurched to the floor, twenty or thirty bullets drilling his body. The girl swirled on her feet, clutched the wall for support. Two men raced from the shadows on the far side of the street. One of them bent over Ryan’s body. He held a Tommy gun. The other man hurried over to the girl.
“All right, sister,” he said. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. We’ve given him his last tune. Take things easy.”
“No! No! No!” shouted the girl, her voice rising in tone as her hysteria increased. “That man isn’t Lefty Vincent! That’s Johnny Ryan. You’ve shot the wrong man! Oh, my God! Vincent is still inside the house. For the love of God get him, see that he gets rubbed out.”
The G man gaped and his jaw sagged. Then he burst into action.
“Beat it like hell, lady,” he said, “but don’t go back to your own place. Park in some hotel, then ring the boss, and tell him what’s happened. Scram right now! Charlie, that’s not Lefty Vincent. It’s a little two-timer named Ryan. Vincent is still in the building. Let’s dive in and take him. Leave the stiff where he is.”
The G men raced through the entrance side by side, their fingers nursing the triggers, their eyes coldly hard.
The girl lurched across the sidewalk, raised a trembling hand to flag a cruising cab, muttered the name of the first hotel that came into her mind, and stumbled into it like a drunken person.
Lefty Vincent had never moved faster in his life—and there had been many times when he made others look as though they stood still. As he walked towards the entrance he heard the Tommy guns chattering. He had heard that tune many times before. He knew what was happening. Within a second he spun round on his feet, retraced his steps with bewildering speed, passed through the gaming room before the astonished players had time to appreciate what was happening, sprang through one of the open windows with a dive, landed on the sidewalk in a heap, scrambled to his feet with the agility of a cat, raced along for fifty yards until he reached a car. A minute later he careered round a block on two wheels. He was half a mile away from the gaming house.
At half-past two he was pacing the floor of a hideout in the Bronx. His face was pallid, his lips bloodless, his hands clenched. All hell was in his eyes, and as he strode round the small room he muttered to himself. The same words came to his lips over and over again:
“The bitch! The double-crossing Jezebel! My God! If I wait until I’m ninety, and travel a million miles to do it I’ll catch up with her!”
A mile away from him the girl sat beside a radiator in a bedroom, trembling from head to foot, pressing a handkerchief against her tightly closed lips, fear showing behind the film of tears on her eyes.
And three thousand miles away Mick Cardby sat in a West End theatre, laughing uproariously at the wisecracks of a comedian . . .
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