Liz Landrigran rotated the hand crank, twice, briskly, on the longcase wall telephone mounted to the left of her bedroom door; she’d had it moved upstairs shortly after her husband had passed, an aesthetic decision she later had come to regret. Tapping her foot—oh, hurry up!—she looked nervously over a shoulder and down the hall to the back stairs. Though just barely, she could hear the pair of them talking in the kitchen, then Our Patsy laughed and Liz breathed a little easier. Come on, you ninny, she thought, and then impatiently turned the crank another two times.
“Is that you again, Patsy Touey?” said the exchange operator at last. “Now, Patsy, you mustn’t keep playing with the telephone. It’s not a toy.”
“Mrs. Tiner, it’s Liz Landrigan.”
“Oh, Lizzie, I didn’t expect you to be at home in the middle of the day.”
“Has he been bothering you people again?”
“No bother, Liz, he just likes to turn the crank. But as I’ve said to him—”
“I’ll talk to my brother, Mrs. Tiner, I assure you.” Not that it would do any good. Already she’d talked to him about it a dozen times, three or four of those times in the dead middle of the night when she’d been roused from sleep by the crank’s singular grinding sound (but only a partial turn, a half-turn, which shouldn’t have been enough to connect Patsy with the exchange). Moments later, he’d be trying his best, but failing, to whisper stealthily into the mouthpiece, saying, “I can only talk in English, can you understand English?” It gave Liz the goose bumps.
“Patsy’s such a sweet feller, he is,” said Mrs. Tiner, “I wouldn’t want him to get in Dutch.”
Liz frowned. “Believe me, he won’t. I’ll just speak with him. Now, I wonder if you might connect me to my office.”
“Happy to oblige.” Then after a short pause: “Gillen, Gillen, Gillenden…the youngest Gillenden boy has lockjaw, it’s terrible! Gilley, Giles…how’ve you been, Liz? I haven’t seen you in ages. Gillian’s Meats…”
“Very well, thank you.”
“And here we are! Gillick, Gillick and—oh, I saw Johnny Gillick playing softball the other weekend for the Catholic Benevolent Legion. He’s put on a lot of weight, hasn’t he?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” said Liz. A flush crept up her neck and mottled both cheeks. Oh, calm down, the nosy parker only mentioned Johnny because I work for the man, not because—
“Putting you through. You take care, Liz.”
“You do the same, thank you. And I’ll be certain to speak with Patsy.”
As she listened to the bell ringing through the earpiece, Liz glanced again to the head of the back stairs. It was quiet now down in the kitchen. Just as she was turning back to face the telephone, Cassius, Patsy’s “Cat of Ashes,” topped the stairs and trotted towards her, that ugly disc of red-painted tin swaying on the twine around his neck. The big tom stopped several feet away, sat down, and tilting his head to one side, appraised Liz with narrowed eyes.
“Ahoy, this is the law offices of Gillick Gillick and Gillick. Lucy Becker speaking. How may I help you?”
“Lucy, for lord’s sake, no one says ahoy any longer when they answer the telephone. Just say hello.”
“Hello, Liz,” said Lucy. “Is that better?” Then with a lofty surge: “We expected you back twenty minutes ago.”
“Yes, well, there’s been a—a bit of a situation at home. And I need to speak with Johnny. Could you let him know I’m on the wire?”
“I’m not to disturb him. He’s taking lunch in his office with Gene Kinkaid.”
“The sheriff is there?”
“Well, that’s not unusual, is it?”
Liz held her temper, then didn’t. “Where have you been living, girl, on the moon? There’s a strike going on and Sheriff Kinkaid—never mind, just go tell Mr. Gillick that I need to speak with him immediately.”
“You don’t have to take that tone, Lizzie. And his nibs is going to be very put out with me if I knock.”
“Go do as I say. And tell him it’s very important.”
With a petulant breath Lucy banged down her earpiece. Liz looked over at the cat. “Why,” she addressed him, “am I always surrounded by idiots?” The cat stood up and stretched languorously, his back a trough, and dug his claws, picking, tearing, into the hall runner. “Stop that!” said Liz. He glided in-between her legs, rubbing a gritty flank against her left calf; when she went to clonk him with a foot, he nipped at her right ankle, then shot away up the hall, his bad leg raking behind him, and disappeared down the front stairs.
As Liz waited, she heard the clack of typewriting machines in the law office and unconsciously began tapping her fingernails in similar cadence against the side of the ringer box. The box was oak, the speaker and earpiece were Bakelite; a Western Electric. The best one made, according to Michael, who had insisted upon purchasing it shortly after they married and moved into this house.
She had not been loath to owning a telephone, to having one, since her husband by then was a person of substance, a civil engineer, the treasurer of the City Democratic Club, and recording secretary for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division Number 17, but she’d put forward strenuous objections when Michael had it installed in her kitchen. It was hideous, a hideous box—look at that silly bell on top, and all of those ugly appendages. It had nothing to do with the preparation of meals and offended Lizzie’s notions of correctness and domestic order. Michael had laughed, a tot too boisterously for her liking, when she declared the telephone was a thing better suited to the upstairs hall. “The upstairs hall!” Michael had said. “What do you think, Elizabeth, you’re still living in a boarding house?” Now that, that had annoyed Liz to no end and she’d tartly reminded him that there had been no telephone, thank you very much, in the boarding house where she’d lived. Because, in case he’d forgotten, there’d been no such thing in those days.
Liz, Liz Touey, indeed had spent her first ten years in a boarding house down in the old Constable Hook Village, a large noisy place, Mrs. Farnan’s, on the north side of what was now Twenty-Second Street. This was back in the ’80s when it was only Irish and Germans over there (the Germans on the south side of the street), living on the same isolated marshy flats where Poles and Bohemians, Slovaks and Croats were living today, and where the Standard Oil and the Tidewater currently sprawled. Her da worked in one of the small refineries that preceded the arrival of those oil giants, until the managers mechanized the barrel factory and enticed the first Poles, Bohemians, Slovaks and Croats to Bayonne in order to break a strike by Irish coopers. (After that, every Pole was a polack to Hugh Touey, and everyone else of that ilk a lousy bohunk.) Now look who was being scabbed, by Jersey City Italians and Pearl Bergoff’s imported hoodlums and Bowery bums. The irony was not lost on Liz, although she hoped she was a large enough person not to feel any thrills of satisfaction from that irony; she hoped she was.
At any rate, she wasn’t ashamed of where she’d spent most of her childhood, of where Michael Landrigan had spent all of his. And where—she might have pointed out to him, but had not—he’d been called Mickey just as she’d been called Liz. Whenever, during their courtship and marriage, she’d called him Mickey, even if it was only the two of them and no one else around to hear, he’d scowl in a sort of bulldog manner, shake his head and tell her, “No.” And despite his knowing that she preferred being called Liz, because Liz was what everyone else called her, had always called her, and because Liz was who she was in her own mind, he’d insisted upon addressing her only as Elizabeth.
Ah well, venial enough faults, small enough airs. Otherwise, he’d been a beautiful man. A good and faithful husband. Never tiresome. And a grand dancer. Oh! could he dance! In all of the fine shorehouses along the kills, at the Arlington Park Pavilion, across the outdoor platforms in the picnic grove on Meigs’ estate—so light on his feet, so rhythmic, so confident, was that one. And the sweetest tenor Liz had ever heard, excepting her own father when he was sober. Seven, just shy of seven happy years she’d spent as Michael—as Mickey—Landrigan’s wife. And scarcely three months after she’d buried him, she’d had the wretched telephone removed from her kitchen and reinstalled upstairs.
“Liz? Just as I feared, he was very much annoyed with me.”
“For heaven’s sakes, did you tell him it was important?”
“I did. And he said he’ll ring you back just as soon as the sheriff is on his way. But he’s put out. I could tell.”
“Lucy. Are you listening? March straight back to his office this instant and tell his nibs, that sheriff or no sheriff, he’s to take my call.”
“I can’t do that!”
“You can and you will. I’m waiting. Go!”
Again, the gusty sigh and the clunk of the earpiece.
A minute later, not even, Johnny Gillick was on the wire. “Liz, what’s going on?” He sounded in the worst possible humor. “Why aren’t you here?”
“Because your brother Charlie showed up at my front door five minutes after I came home for lunch. He’s a bruise from head to foot and not entirely in his right mind.”
“Jesus, Mary and St. Joseph! What happened?”
“Well, you might ask Gene Kinkaid—apparently Charlie was beaten with sticks and God knows what else down at the hook.”
“Why that little milksop ever thought he could be a policeman, I’ll never know!”
“Don’t be cruel. He’s doing his best—he was attacked by a mob of strikers, that’s hardly a milksop.”
“I’m sorry, Liz, I apologize. I just—but why is he at your house?”
“I don’t know.”
(Yes, she did: because Charlie Gillick was sweet on her, was infatuated by her, and always had been.)
“Is he conscious? Can he stand? Can he walk?”
“He’s sitting down at the moment. And he walked all the way here from the hospital. You should come pick him up, Johnny, and take him home.”
“He walked from the hospital? I don’t understand. Why’d he leave the hospital?”
“John, please. Just get in your machine and come pick up your brother, could you do that, please?” Johnny Gillick owned a 1914 Buick roadster, lime-green.
“As it turns out, Liz I can’t. Tommy’s got it. He took it to Jersey City this morning and he’s not back.” Tom Gillick was the middle brother—at 31 situated between Johnny, the eldest at 37, and Charlie, the baby of the family at 21. There had been other Gillick children, four of them, but none had lived past the age of 5 or 6.
“Well then, I’m just going to have to stay here with him, Johnny. I’m not leaving the poor kid.”
“See! You’ve said it yourself, he’s still a kid. Policeman! We told Charlie—”
“And he didn’t listen and now he’s all banged up, but is that really getting us anywhere?”
Back in the office on Eighth Street Johnny Gillick exhaled so stertorously that it poked Liz’s eardrum, gave it a stinging jolt through the wire and the earpiece as though an actual stream of forced air.
“Well, I don’t know what to do,” said Johnny.
“Well, then I don’t either.”
They both did, of course, and each knew that the other did as well, but neither would say it: ask Gene Kinkaid, who surely hadn’t showed up at Johnny’s office on foot. Kinkaid and Johnny Gillick were college roommates at Seton Hall, class of ’95. In 1909 when Kinkaid ran, successfully, for the U.S. Congress, Johnny had been one of his campaign managers; the other had been Michael Landrigan. “All right, John, so that’s the situation. I’ll keep him here till he feels better, and then I guess I’ll—well, I’ll call you back later. I’m hanging up the telephone now.”
“Yes?” She was afraid suddenly that he was going to drop his voice and allude in some way to their little office tryst earlier, and was prepared to clear her throat pointedly, to remind him that Mrs. Tiner was no doubt listening in. But all that Johnny said was, “Thank you.”
Her brows wrinkled and she fitted the earpiece back on its hook.
When she turned to go back downstairs, she let out a sharp yip of surprise: her brother Patsy was standing, head sunk between his shoulders, barely three feet away. “Pats,” she scolded, “you shouldn’t sneak up on people like that. What is it? Is Charlie all right?”
He took a quick step toward her, the hem of his unbelted bathrobe flaring out, and then, whipped a finger to his lips. “Is somebody comin’ to get him?” he whispered. With the same finger, he pointed straight down.
“Not immediately, I’m afraid, Pats, no,” she said in her ordinary speaking voice. Why should they whisper?
Patsy clapped both hands to his head and squeezed; then rocking from side to side, he began to moan.
“Stop that!” said Liz, exactly what she’d said to the cat, and in the same vexed tone. “What’s the matter with you?”
“King is mad at Charlie Gillick,” said Patsy. “He’ll just beat him up some more! When King gets here, then biff, bang!”
“Patsy, King is not coming, I don’t know where you’ve gotten that idea.”
“He is! He’s on his way!” Patsy looked behind him, and then leaned close, his lips touching Lizzie’s ear. “Why does King want to beat him up?”
“Enough!” She walked down the hall and he fell in behind her. “Did you finish your lunch?”
“I don’t remember, but I made Charlie cinnamon toast and apple sauce.”
Liz turned around, a tiny smile tugging her mouth. She put a hand out and squeezed Patsy’s shoulder, then flattened a wisp of gray hair sticking out from behind his ear. He’d been almost entirely gray since he was 14. “That was sweet of you. But you have to be careful when you’re toasting bread. Did you pull out the plug?”
“And did Charlie eat anything?
“No. He put his head down. But I moved the cinnamon toast and apple sauce out of his way.”
“Very good.” She started down the stairs.
“Is King still mad at you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Why are you mad at him?”
Liz returned to the landing. “Because I’m sick of his lies, Patsy. I’ve explained that to you that already. Haven’t I? You know that I have. We love him, both of us do, but I’m sick and tired of his lies and I told him so. And that’s why he’s so mad at me.”
“But King doesn’t tell lies!”
Liz felt that her heart might crack. Oh Patsy, Our Patsy. She opened her arms and he stepped into them and she hugged him, his flesh caving like dough beneath her fingers. “Darling, King thinks he doesn’t, but he does. All the time.”
“He doesn’t lie to me.”
Releasing Patsy from her embrace, Liz took hold of his left hand—“Of course he doesn’t”—and led the way to the head of the stairs, the soles of his bare feet scuffing, swishing against, the short nap of the carpet runner.
Going down, Patsy said, “I sent the Cat of Ashes back out to look for King. We don’t know why he’s not here yet.”
Liz rolled her eyes, but her brother couldn’t see that, so it was all right, it was not an unkindness.
She found Charlie Gillick slumped over the kitchen table with his arms folded and his head flopped sideways on them. Patsy pointed to him—See? Told you—and then he went and stood on the back porch, peering through a window with his nose pressed to the glass. Liz stooped beside Charlie’s chair and spoke his name. He stirred and one eye opened, a thin smile on his lips. The side of his face that Liz could see was completely discolored, a single livid bruise riddled with scabbing cuts. She gently tousled his hair. “Why don’t you go lie down, Charlie, you’ll be more comfortable.” He moved his head, fractionally, and winced, and so, reflexively, did Liz. “Oh, you poor baby.”
“I deserved it.”
“Nonsense.” She gave a dry laugh. “You’re a policeman, you were performing your duty.”
“No, I been thinkin’, and I deserved this, all right. Yesterday? You know what I did?” He moved to sit up, but then decided against it and put his head back down. “I hit a guy with my stick and scrambled his brains. I hit him too hard, Liz, so this is what I get.”
“That shot Olive Ince and her sister.”
“Well, of course you hit him, Charlie, you had to. Now, why don’t you let me help you stand up and then you can go lie down on the couch in the parlor.”
“I didn’t have to hit him so hard, see? I cracked his skull, I could hear it!” He groaned remembering the sound. “I don’t know what I’m doing except that I’m doing everything wrong.”
Liz pursed her mouth, fast losing sympathy; she could not abide whiners, especially whining men.
She walked around the table and sat down across from Charlie. She put aside Patsy’s egg cup, the soft-boiled egg crowned but otherwise untouched, and dragged over the plate of cinnamon toast and apple sauce. The toast was sliced on two diagonals, making four mushy points. She picked one up and ate it, remembering, for no reason at all, dancing with Michael at Brady’s Hall on Cottage Street, a high-school dinner dance, flags and bunting everywhere because the Cuban war was being fought, and an alabaster fountain that sprayed perfume throughout the evening’s program of two-steps and marches, quadrilles and sentimental home-waltzes.
Quickly, hungrily, she devoured the remaining three points of toast.
Let us leave Liz Landrigan thus, seated at her kitchen table feeling both nostalgic and irritable, and rejoin King Touey. The last time we saw our man, you will recall, he was leaving the gummy shoreline at Newark Bay, where he’d followed the Cat of Ashes on an eccentric whim. But just as he’d first yielded to that whim back at the hook, impulsively, so had he dismissed it by the bay, and as the tom darted off in one direction, King chose another.
While his destination remained the same, his sister’s house on the Hudson County Boulevard, he continued uptown by the roundabout way of Avenue C, limping sorely in the shoes that he’d pulled off the dead man on First Street. He’d thought they’d fit, but they hadn’t, they were at least a size too large, and by the time he was passing the railroad station at West Eighth Street, King’s heels were chafed raw and freely bleeding. He considered removing the goddamn shoes and hurling them at somebody—that spruce young goop across the street, maybe, in the white flannel suit and panama hat—but the afternoon temperature was pushing 90 and the pavement would’ve scorched the soles of his bare feet. Remember, he’d ditched his mucked socks under those hedges at the LaTourette Hotel. King by now was in a dudgeon. He was also starving. All that he’d had to eat so far today was a baking powder biscuit and a bowl of weak coffee at the Standard Oil works.
As he laboriously climbed the steps from the pavement to the station, a locomotive chuffed to a stop at the eastbound platform with a rattle of train wheels. Then, as passengers got off, King Touey plucked a German-language newspaper from a trash barrel outside of the waiting room. He sat on a bench and removed his shoes. After tearing several strips lengthwise from the broadsheet, King laid them down, one on top of the other, across his thighs. Ripping the pile in two, he folded each half into a fat wad, and fitted a wad into each shoe, really cramming them in. But instead of putting the shoes back on immediately, King placed them on the bench beside him and stretched out his legs and looked with disgust at his tortured feet. Once he reached Lizzie’s house, he’d help himself to a pair of Patsy’s brogans. They both had small dogs, same as the old man. The old man! Why’d he have to start thinking about him? Stupid bastard. You’re a roofer, a fucking roofer, and you drink two pails of beer for lunch? Broken neck at 53. He’d had some larynx, though, and a set of lungs, give him that; his “Molly Bawn” and “Toora, Loora” could reduce a social hall full of touchy Hibernians to blinding tears. But what an asshole!
Nearby on the platform, a solid-looking young man, a sixfooter in shirtsleeves and dungarees and carrying a cheap suitcase, was giving King a sidelong squint of curiosity. Ordinarily that would’ve been enough to goad King to a low growl, at the very least, but he was tired, had a hammering headache, and it wasn’t worth the effort. But fuck you, he thought. And fuck your shitty suitcase. Keep it out of the rain, bo, or it’ll fucking dissolve.
He lit a cigarette in a sudden fit of gloom. How in holy hell had he ended up sitting on a bench at the train station with blistered, bleeding feet when he was supposed to be herding finks? It was Lizzie’s phantom voice in his head that delivered the caustic reply: Because you’re incorrigibly impulsive, you big lummox! Oh, make like a hoop, sister, and roll away. But damn it, you know something? All that chowder she’d always given him about his lack of self-control? It wasn’t entirely wrong, not entirely. He had walked off the Standard job this morning, just up and traipsed away from a ten-dollar-a-day contract, not to mention the lucrative cigarette concession, to follow a cat! It made no sense, but then King Touey had behaved like this practically all of his life, suddenly dropping one thing unfinished or barely started to do something else, usually something stupid that often ended up causing him grief.
For instance, that motormen strike in Louisville: Pearl Bergoff had handed King the best job a noble could ask for in an operation like that, the absolute prize: his own trolley car to operate, which in the labor adjustment business was known as “Christmas dinner” since it was understood you could pocket seventy, eighty percent of the fares you collected. Plus, running one of those babies at top speed and scaring the bejeezus out of the rube passengers was a bonus all by itself. Uh huh, but then, only his second day on the route, what did King go and do but get blood in his eye for some wide-hipped Southern frail wearing a Spring Maid bonnet. Within five seconds of spotting her on a street corner, he’d braked the electric car and abandoned it, then fell into step beside the frail, chatting her up. Not only wouldn’t she look at King, she hailed a cop, and he ended up in the cooler for a day and a half being eaten alive by fleas.
And like that last time he was back to Bayonne, two years ago—when he’d said yes, deal me in, boys, to a string of social-club stickups, but then disappeared for a week to Asbury Park with Olive Ince and her tarty mother. He could’ve made a bundle; instead, he’d ended up making a new bunch of enemies. How come he was like that, always shooting off in all directions? King and his impulses! It didn’t make any sense. Fuck it, though, I am what I am.
Somebody was talking to him, and he looked up reluctantly. It was that same sixfooter, who’d sat down on the bench opposite King’s, his suitcase open on the ground between his feet. He was bent over and reaching into it, rummaging. As he sat back, he tossed King a balled-up pair of thick white socks, lobbing it underhand. “Catch,” he said, and King did, but dropping his cigarette to do it. The young guy nodded amiably, then bent over again and reached into the suitcase. That time he took out a steel lunch pail with a cup fitted to the lid on a knob.
King’s first instinct was to peg the socks right back and aim them at the middle of the guy’s face, the way you’d throw back a wad of dough if it wasn’t the full amount you were owed, but that wouldn’t do, it couldn’t do, since he’d already separated them and hitched a leg over the other knee to roll one on. So he clamped off his resentment and said, “These shoes are crap.”
“I hear you, brother.”
That “brother” stopped King dead in mid-ravel, and with the sock scarcely over his instep, he glared up at the guy. If this motherfucker—who looked no older than 23 or 24—was a wobbly, come on a train to incite the refinery workers, King might just have to go knock the wind out of him, maybe separate his head from his shoulders. With narrowed eyes, he finished rolling on the first sock, then dropping that leg and hitching the other over it, he tugged on the second. He put his shoes back on, making an effort not to wince. By this time, the guy had removed a paper-wrapped sandwich, a sack of ginger snaps and a hip flask from his lunch pail. With a tight smile that quirked up just one side of his mouth, he said, “My name is Bloodgood, but that’s the only highfalutin thing about me. Otherwise I’m Joe.”
King scowled. Damn, he was thinking, Bloodgood. That just might be the best last name he’d heard in his entire life. If his last name was Bloodgood, he’d be King Bloodgood and that’d be the greatest name anybody ever had.
Joe Bloodgood was looking at King like he expected to be recognized, or hoped to be, now that he’d revealed his name. At last he said, “I gather you’re not here to pick me up.”
“Pick you up? What for?”
“I just…I thought maybe you were the guy was supposed to meet me here,” said Joe Bloodgood, tearing his sandwich in two. King saw hard salami sticking out from between the bread and his mouth watered. He could make a grab for it, why not? King had 30, 40 pounds on this galoot. “Somebody’s supposed to pick me up in a machine.”
“Yeah? I look like a chauffeur to you?”
“If you were a chauffeur, I guess your shoes wouldn’t be such a problem.” Joe grinned and walked over and passed King half of the sandwich. He went back to his bench and sat down, unscrewed the flask and poured a tot into the tin cup. He raised it, not in a toast but letting King know that if he wanted it—“Bourbon,” he said—King would have to come over there and take it.
King went over there and took it, first sipping at it, then knocking it back. He looked down into Joe’s suitcase and glimpsed the grip, hammer and trigger of a decent-looking pistol sticking out from under a messy pile of shirts, drawers, socks and trousers. King craned an eyebrow, gave back the empty cup, and said, “What’s your business, Joe?”
“What’s yours?” He took a bite from his sandwich.
King almost liked this kid, but not really. He sat down on Joe’s bench and took a bite of sandwich himself. Joe swigged directly from his flask before refilling the cup and handing it to King. Then he stood up and walked down to the end of the station platform and peered off to the street. “There’s a machine parked down there. I wonder if that’s the guy supposed to pick me up,” he said coming back. But he didn’t sit. He looked behind where King was sitting and said, “That yours?”
Hitching around, King saw nothing, but then he looked down, and there was the Cat of Ashes licking a paw and swiping it across one side of his head. “Jesus Christ,” said King.
“My brother’s. I was following him for a while, but then we parted company.” That sounded stupid, so King reiterated that it was his brother’s cat and abruptly dropped the subject. “I recall asking you what your business was.”
Joe sat down again. He rolled the remains of his half-eaten half of sandwich back into the wrapper, stuck that into the lunch pail and ate a ginger snap. “Well, being absolutely honest with you, I’m not sure. I got this friend in Elizabeth, Dan Seeger? But people called him Shiny, Shiny Seeger. Maybe it was originally Sheeny, Sheeny Seeger, but since Seeger don’t sound to me like a Jew’s name, I’m not sure, but Shiny told me about this…opportunity over here, you see, and since there was room on the job for one more, I said okay. He said it was a golden opportunity.”
“I know Shiny Seeger,” said King. “He’s a flat thief. That what you up to?’
“Nah, this is nothing like that. This is a real opportunity. Supposedly it’s golden. According to Shiny. I said sure, I could use one of them. We were supposed to take the 1:30 from Elizabeth and when we got here, somebody was gonna pick us up. That’s all I knew, see? But when I go to collect Shiny at his room? Turns out he broke somebody’s arm last night and they got him locked up in Newark, so where’s that leave me? Either I could say forget about this golden opportunity or I could just come by myself and see who picks me up. So that’s what I did.”
King nodded a few times and said, “Huh.”
“And since you’re not the guy picking me up, I’m thinking now that maybe—since we’re hitting it off so good—I’m thinking that you might want to take Shiny’s place. It’s supposed to be a real good opportunity.”
“That’s what I’m told.”
“I already got a job.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. For all that King knew he’d already been sacked. “And you don’t know who’s offering you this golden opportunity?”
“Nope,” said Joe Bloodgood, “but I got a suspicion you and me are both about to find out. But on first sight, friend, I have to tell you, I ain’t so impressed.” He cocked a thumb, stuck out a finger and pointed. As King was swiveling around on the bench to look, a runt about four-foot-ten dressed in a badly soiled, horribly wrinkled vanilla-white suit appeared suddenly in front of him. His thinning hair resembled carrot shavings and was plastered to his skull. Duking up, assuming a boxer’s crouch, he said to King in a high-pitched loud voice, “What are you doing back in this city, you bum, you crumb bum?”
“Li’l Andiron!” said King. Despite his smile and jaunty hello, he wasn’t pleased to see the shrimp; just the opposite. In fact, he paled—the fearless King Touey actually paled! “How you been?” His mouth had gone so dry that he sounded lit and groggy.
The man known as Li’l Andiron, but whose name was really Andy Irons, ignored King’s question and abruptly turned to Joe. “Who are you?”
“Joe Bloodgood. Shiny Seeger’s friend.”
“Oh yeah? Where’s Shiny?” Noticing that King Touey had moved a skosh along the slats, then moved another skosh, as if preparing to bolt (which he was), Li’l Andiron trotted down to the end of the bench on tiny feet and blocked him. He waved a finger. “I asked you where Shiny was,” he said to Joe Bloodgood while locking eyeballs with King.
“In jail. Something about a fight in a pool hall.”
“That shit head. That shit head! Sorry, kid, I forgot your name already.”
“Okay, Joe, I’m your boss. Got that? We in agreement? Golden opportunity?”
“Sure. Golden opportunity. Glad to meet you, boss.”
“You carrying, Joe?”
Joe nodded to his open suitcase.
“Let me see what you got. And you,” he said to King with peeping contempt. “I’ll deal with you in a minute, you mutt. Let me finish talking to Joe here first. You two know each other?”
“We just met,” said Joe.
“Ah,” said Li’l Andiron, “nice.” Then he watched Joe Bloodgood dig out his pistol from the bottom of his suitcase. “Also nice,” he said in approval. “Now, Joe, would you kindly point that thing at this big stupid prick sitting right here in front of me? Would you do that?”
Joe looked surprised, but for only a moment, then after checking the platform to make sure nobody was looking, and nobody was, he did as he was told, giving King a one-shouldered, but by no means apologetic, shrug.
“Andy—” said King.
“Button it!” Then to Joe Bloodgood: “That open Hollier down there at the curb, that’s mine. Whyn’t all three of us foot it over there now and have us a little drive-around . ”
Joe Bloodgood said, “Sure, boss,” then he pocketed his flask, picked up his suitcase and flicked the gun barrel at King Touey. When King rose to his feet, which still smarted despite the socks and the wadded paper, Joe said, “Looks like you’re gonna take Shiny’s place after all, I guess.”
“No, kid,” said King, “looks like I’m gonna get killed.”
Li’l Andiron laughed and said, “This way, gentlemen, please,” and after the three of them had walked to the end of the platform and disappeared down the steps to the street, the Cat of Ashes jumped on the bench and sniffed at King Touey’s discarded sandwich. Then he turned and nibbled at a few ginger snap crumbs, his red disk swinging and jiggling, and flashing in the sunlight.