By Ken Tracey
Alf stepped back and admired his moustache in the cracked mirror, the close shave had made it more noticeable. He smiled, made a gun of his fingers and shot his reflection.
Now for the jelly in the doughnut, the bourbon in the coffee. He shrugged on his father’s overcoat and topped the ensemble with the trilby hat he’d stolen from a clothing store the day before.
‘Here comes the boy,’ he spoke to the mirror, ‘Alf becomes Alphonse, Chicago’s newest gangster.’
His mother’s wireless was blasting out ‘Over the Rainbow’ as he opened the kitchen door. She sat at the table peeling potatoes into a copy of the Chicago Tribune.
‘Cáo Ma, I’m going out.’
‘Not so fast, let me see you.’ She was slim and although not yet forty, lines radiated from her bright eyes.
He smiled and waited while she looked over his clothes.
‘You look good in your Pa’s coat but where did you get the hat? `
‘Err, it’s on the tab for now, but I’ll pay it off soon, don’t worry.’
‘But I do worry about you Alf. You be careful running up bills. If you don’t pay you’ll get into trouble.’
‘What’s for dinner?’ He moved to stand behind her, one hand on her shoulder. Her hair was brown with just a few strands of grey.
‘Potato pie, I’ll put something tasty in too, like chili’s.’
‘Great, look forward to that,’ he bent and kissed the top of her head. She didn’t turn, so missed the fondness in his smile.
‘Where are you going, all dressed up?’
‘Just a bit of business, Ma. I’ll make some money for us soon.’
‘I’ll look forward to that,’ she beamed.
He moved to the door. It worried him that she stayed home so much since his father’s death. Why did he, out of all the workmen, have to fall from the top floor of the Hilton Towers? He hated to think about the cruel blow to his family.
He stepped onto the landing, closed the door and at once inhaled the familiar smells of cat pee and boiled cabbage. He’d had a great idea. It meant he could settle with the loan shark and at the same time earn a reputation as a hustler. The other boys his age always laughed at his talk about getting rich but they would still be working in the brewery when he was enjoying the good life.
While he clattered down flights of stairs he rehearsed the lines he would use to scam the bar owner. ‘I work for Mr Bezani, he needs no introduction, does he? We give a good service, keep your business safe so you can …’ He’d reached the first floor and stopped speaking to himself because a square man ahead blocked the doorway to the street.
As he walked up his shoulders sagged and he felt sweat around the hat’s band. He didn’t ask the man to move but tried to slide around his bulk. He was almost there when a gloved hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat. Alf croaked and spluttered then fell back pinned to the wall.
‘Think I wouldn’t recognise you under that hat O’Malley?’
It’s Bezani and I haven’t got his money. He’s gonna kill me. Just when I was sorting things out.
‘Mr Bezani. No, I’m not trying to hide from you,’ he held up his hands.
‘Oh sure, you just put on a disguise to go to the movies or something.’
‘No, no I’m working. Gonna get your money.’
‘Thanks for bringing that up kid. It had slipped my mind, standing here in these beautiful surroundings.’
‘I’ll get it Mr Bezani, just give me a bit more time.’
Please, just a few days.
‘Don’t make me laugh, you keep on lying and not shelling out. Perhaps I should go upstairs and shoot your Ma, serve as a reminder to ya.’
Oh no, not Ma, he doesn’t mean this. He’s just tormenting me.
‘Look coupla days that’s all I need. Then you’ll be paid up with interest and all.’
‘In a couple more days it’ll be fifty bucks, you get it wise guy.’ Bezani brought his knee up quickly, it ploughed into Alf like a hammer paralysing his leg. When Bezani let him go, he dropped to the floor. His trilby rolled through the doorway and across the side-walk into the path of a horse and cart. It was brought to a halt by the clump of a hoof.
He reached the bar mid-afternoon and got to the basement washroom without seeing anyone. The trilby no longer sat right, he felt more like Stan Laurel than a gangster. His eyes were wide and he sneezed in the chill of the place.
Why did Bezani have to show up? He’s ruined everything.
He splashed water on his face. I don’t feel like this now.
He rehearsed his lines to the mirror. ‘I work for Mr Bezani…’ but his voice dried up and he had to drink tainted water from a squeaky tap.
I must make this work. There’s nothing else for me and Ma. There are no jobs, only in the stinking brewery.
After fifteen minutes locked in a cubicle he walked out to the bar. The warm air smelt of cigars and stale beer. A boy a little older than himself sang along to ‘South of the Border’ as he cleaned tables. Alf stopped dead a distance from him, swallowed and dug his hands into the overcoat pockets.
I feel like an idiot now. It felt so right before. I should leave, go home and drink a coffee with Ma. But what if Bezani turns up again. I got to make this work.
He cleared his throat and forced his leaden feet a few steps toward the boy. ‘Hey, you, I work for Mr Bezani, he needs no introduction, does he?’
The boy scowled and straightened up.
Oh hell, he’s built like a football player. Alf fingered a button on his coat.
‘What?’ the boy demanded.
He doesn’t get it, what now?
The boy threw down the cloth he was using.
Alf felt his shoulders twitch. ‘Bezani sent me’, he snarled. ‘You guys have been getting away with it too long, understand?’
‘No,’ the boy crossed his arms and smirked.
‘You’re not paying your dues and if you want to stay in business, you start paying for security now. Get it?’
‘No, we never have trouble here, it’s a good neighbourhood.’
‘You dope, what I’m saying is you will have trouble if you don’t pay up,’ Alf heard his voice squeak to the empty room.
The boy dropped his hands to his sides and stepped forward. ‘You want protection money?’
He’s going to punch me.
‘Look,’ Alf shook, ‘don’t mess with Bezani, he’ll close you down.’ He stepped back from the boy. ‘He wants fifty bucks by the end of the week,’ his chest heaved, there was a sound behind the bar, another boy had appeared from the back room.
There’s two of them, they’ll kill me.
‘What’s he want?’ the new comer growled.
‘He’ll tell ya,’ the first boy shrugged.
Alf made to leave. ‘Fifty bucks by the end of the week, we’ll be back,’ His voice wavered, then he clattered up the stairs.
Alf hung around the apartment the next day reading the papers over and over and sighing a lot.
Those guys need teaching a lesson. I need help, some back up but the kids around here are happy to work like dogs and pay union dues. I can do better than that. Working didn’t do my Pa any good.
The solution kept coming back to him and for a while he pushed it away. He’d figured out that nothing less than a gun would scare the bar owners in to paying up. He knew that pieces were traded from the back of an auto-mechanics nearby. Someone had told him that three dollars was the going rate for a handgun.
It took a day to find the money and then the guts to go over there. He stood outside fingering the bank notes in his pocket.
What do I say, what if the dealer isn’t in? He buttoned his coat and pulled the hat brim down. I’ll just have to walk in, look around and size them up.
There was no one at the front counter but he could see mechanics in blue overalls working beyond a glass screen. A few customers stood nearby so he pushed his way into the back and walked up to a Ford with its hood open. he breathed deeply on the smells of engine oil and gasoline. The workshop reflected in the panels and he could see that no one had noticed him.
What now. I want a gun, I can’t ask a mechanic. Rooted to the floor he stared at the black sheen of the paint job and the stitching of the upholstery. Can’t stay here, got to move.
There was a door half open in the wall behind the car, he stepped lightly toward it.
Inside a huge man lounged at a desk. After a deep breath Alf pushed open the door. He jumped when a whippet yapped loudly at him, it strained on a rope attached to a filing cabinet.
The man’s square face turned, ‘sharrup,’ he growled at the dog. Alf could smell sweat and peppermint gum.
‘You the owner?’
‘Yep. Fastest dog in the world.’
‘I meant, of this place,’ Alf said.
There followed a silence. Calm down, calm down, ask him straight.
Alf squared his shoulders. ‘Friends tell me I can buy a handgun around here.’
The man leant back in his chair. Alf turned his face away as the man studied him from shoes to crushed hat. Then the mountain settled into his chair. ‘What sort dya want?’
The dealer looked down at papers in front of him.
‘OK, what about ammo?’
‘Yes please. Err, one magazine.’
The dealer sighed and slid open a desk drawer, pulled out a ring of keys, then dragged himself over to a walk-in-safe. His chest heaved as he pulled open the door. ‘Hold it there,’ he held up a palm as Alf moved closer.
It’s working, I’m getting the gun, that’ll scare them.
The dealer puffed his way out, his hands clutched the pieces to his chest, he back heeled the door shut.
‘Look at that, three pieces,’ Alf exclaimed.
They were laid on the desk side by side, black steel barrels pointing the same way, butts shabby with use. There was a feint smell of gun oil.
‘Ya know what you’re looking at kid?’
‘Best tell me.’
The dealer pointed a finger at each gun in turn. ‘That’s a Colt 1911, a Smith and Wesson and another Colt, the newest of the bunch.’
‘How much is it?’
‘The newer one’s ten dollars and I’ll let the other two go for eight dollars apiece. Full magazine is a dollar extra.’
Alf gulped, licked his lips and picked up the Colt. He spread his feet and held the gun out in front of him.
I’m unstoppable. It’s great, feels like there’s a wall around me.
The dealer was back in his chair. Tools clattered on the floor outside and a voice cursed.
‘Would ya take a deposit?’ Alf asked quietly.
The block head spun to face him, ‘What? What did you say?’
Oh no, he doesn’t want to.
‘I could leave a deposit, pay the rest later,’ he croaked.
‘How much you got?’
Alf put the gun down, his hand left sweat on the butt. ‘Three bucks.’
The man sighed again and shook his head from side to side. ‘No credit, come back when you’re flush.’ He collected up the guns.
‘OK, I’ll be back.’ Alf felt his face burn red.
Who the hell told me three dollars. What can I do now? He shuffled out into the garage area and made to leave.
‘Stop him, stop that guy.’ Alf turned not realising that the voice meant him.
‘He stole from me.’ A man in a suit strode toward him. ‘That’s him alright, he stole that hat he’s wearing from my store.’
‘Get him.’ The bellow sent three heavy weight mechanics in pursuit as Alf fled. He was out in the street and well ahead when he heard the excited bark of the whippet. The fastest dog in the world snapped at his ankles then got between his legs and tripped him. He hit the floor face first and tasted blood. The dog danced excitedly around him and nipped his ear. Alf cried out and punched at air. Moments later a mound of blue overalls fell on him and held him while the store keeper wrestled the three dollars from his pocket then walked away whistling.
Oh hell. I almost got it. He took my money, what do I do now?
Alf stopped at the top of the basement stairs to shrug his coat back square on his shoulders. The starting pistol he’d stolen from the school gym weighed heavy and he felt untidy with the plaster covering his ear lobe. The stairs were empty but the bar below gurgled with the sound of drinkers.
Why can’t I have money too, why do I have to be broke all the time. His first step was heavy. What if they say no again? What will I do? Damn Bezani. Smoke funnelled up from below and caught his breath. He shrugged again to level his shoulder pads then straightened up.
It’s tough but I must be like the gangsters, rule this neighbourhood. He marched down the stairs.
There were more people in the dimly lit bar than he wanted. He pulled the brim of his hat down, rivulets of sweat were already streaking his face. He had to get this over smartish.
One of the owners laughed with a girl as he shook a cocktail. The other boy emerged from beneath the bar with a beer bottle in each hand. Neither of them paid any attention to Alf.
‘Hey, give us a beer over here,’ he called.
Both heads turned toward him, then the nearest boy nodded to the other.
‘Over here,’ Alf called again.
The boy with the beers placed one bottle in front of him.
‘I’ll take the fifty dollars now too.’ He whispered and stared the boy in the eye.
The boy nodded and turned to his partner who moved into the back room. Alf held his glass close when he drank, to stop his coat falling open with the weight of the pistol. Hurry up for chrissake.
A big man with a cane pushed up to the bar and rapped his fist for attention. Alf forced himself alongside the man and leant forward to see what was keeping the boys.
‘Gerrout of it.’ The man shoved him. Alf toppled backwards into a drinker who stepped out of the way, he lost his balance and fell to the floor. A thud on the boards then a sudden lightness in his coat told him he’d lost the starting pistol.
‘Let me up, let me up.’ Legs like tree trunks penned him in.
Someone’s going to stand on me, where’s the damn gun?’ He scrabbled on his knees over cigarette butts and spilt beer. His hat was knocked off but he saw the glint of the metal gun and scuttled toward it.
‘What’s that guy doing?’ People pushed and shoved, then a girl screamed, ‘He’s got a gun.’
His hand was on the butt when a boot stamped on it.
‘Oh no, let me up,’ but the boot stayed put. He tugged hard but remained anchored to the floor.
‘Let me go, let me go,’ he shouted, ‘I’m not going to hurt anyone.’
Then a shove sent him flat out but he still held onto the gun. Suddenly a face twisted with fear appeared above him. One of the bar tenders bellowing. Alf saw that he held a sawn-off shot gun.
‘Don’t shoot me’, he clutched his fake pistol.
The crowd shouted and screamed as they fled. Feet pounded the floor like thunder around him. ‘No, no,’ he cried. There was a woof of air and a terrific bang when the gun went off then shot peppered him.
Alf’s face was splattered with blood, it soaked into his moustache. His head flopped down on the boards. His last thought was of his Ma waiting alone in the apartment with his dinner spoiling in the oven.
The bar tender’s eyes darted. He turned a strained face to the man with the cane, still at the bar. The shotgun shook in his hands. ‘He wanted protection money,’ the boy cried out.
‘Sure,’ said the man, ‘look at him, he’s one of those no-good gangsters. You did the right thing.’
Copyright © 2013 by Ken Tracey