by Ben Solomon
This story first appeared as part of Ben’s subscription series in July 2013.
Let’s say you’re sharp. Really sharp. Sharp as Einstein on a good day. You can call it six, seven, even eight times out of ten what’s beneath a rock. Any rock. And therein lies the catch. Never can you figure when it’s going to turn out to be that ninth or tenth time.
So pick a rock, any rock. Can you predict what you’ll find if you kick it over? And can you count on it? Count on it like death and taxes? Maybe, maybe not. Most of the time you know going in. Most of the time most anyone can call it. That’s most of the time. You come up with what you’d expect. Dirt, worms, assorted lowlifes. Maybe more rocks.
It’s those other times, those once-in-awhile turns that throw you for a loop faster than any gyroscope. Could be you discover a hidden passage. Buried treasure. Or a snake in the grass. Could be almost anything as long as it’s the last thing you’d expect.
The kid knew his rocks as certain as anything. Knew everything up front. The kid knew for sure, all right. In a pig’s eye, he knew.
Zero hour for the kid was four o’clock. A surprise attack. He stormed the office like a Verdun offensive. Rushing through the door, his PF Flyers marched with fierce determination. He strode up to the edge of my desk with five textbooks cinched in a thin belt–he slammed them down hard. He dumped himself into the curved-back client chair with all the velocity a scrawny, eleven-year-old body could muster. The kid meant business, all right. “I’ve gotta make this quick. Nobody knows I’m here.”
“If you say so, kid.”
“The name’s Ross McMannis, flatfoot.”
“I prefer to reserve that moniker for beat cops.”
“Did you mean to talk in private, or shall we broadcast your business to the entire North Side?”
I waggled a finger toward the open door.
The kid scrambled from the chair and made the circuit. To the door like a shot, threw it closed, raced back to his seat. I fired up a butt.
“What can I do you for, Mr. McMannis?”
“You gonna cigarette me?”
I pitched my face sideways.
“Yeah, I figured as much,” the kid said. He copped a quick look around. “So this is where you work, huh? Got it all to yourself?”
“That’s what it says on the lease.”
“Not bad, not bad.”
“I thought your meter was running?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“I’m coming to it. Hold your horses, gumshoe.”
He could’ve been any kid. Head ducked down, little paws gripping the armrests, legs swinging off the end of the client chair. The toes just reached the floor. He sported a tee shirt and dungarees. A huge cake of dried mud decorated one of his knees. “I got a job I need done, but it calls for a top-drawer sleuth.”
“That’s swell. You want to spell it out?”
The kid sucked in his lips, shifting them left, then right. “Can I trust you?”
“Can I trust you?”
“Yeah, that’s a hot one.”
“Let’s kick it around, Mr. McMannis. See where it gets us.”
“Okay. I’ll take a flyer, long as I’m down here. Okay. It’s like this, see.” The kid forced down a big swallow that raised his chin and flexed his neck. The dark eyes narrowed into slits. “I think the old man’s stepping out on my mom.”
“That’s one heck of a bombshell, kid. Accusing your father of a thing like that.”
“He’s not. He’s my stepdad.”
“Bad news, that’s what he is. The four-flushing creep.”
“Even money says you’re not on his hit parade, either.”
“Naw. He’s always had it in for me. From the git-go. My mom don’t see it like that. She don’t see it at all. He plays it cagey like.”
“When she turns her back or steps out of the room, that’s when you better watch out.”
“Gets rough, does he?”
“Uh-huh.” The kid’s nose stuck up high. He sniffed.
“And you’ve got it into your head that he’s running around on your mother.”
“As sure as your attitude. He goes out two, three nights a week. Sometimes four. Sometimes weekends, even. He just breezes like there’s nothing to it and leaves mom flat. She putters around, maybe does some ironing. She puts on the radio a lot.”
“He sure doesn’t make any secret about it. Where does he say he’s going?”
“To work. Like he’s working all night. We’re supposed to buy that one.”
“Stays out late, does he?”
“Till all hours.”
“My mom–the bum runs out to leave mom all alone. I’ve heard her cry herself to sleep.”
“How do they get along? They argue much?”
“Not anymore. Not for a long time. They used to have some wild, screaming matches. Now they hardly talk at all.”
“How long have they been married?”
“One year and two months.”
“You’re keeping score.”
“You bet I am.”
“How does your stepfather–what’s the bird’s name?”
“They call him Mackey. Even mom calls him that.”
“And does this McKinley Mackey Purcell hold down a day job?”
“He makes a living, doesn’t he?”
“I get three squares, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“He used to drive hack, sometimes. But not so much lately. We’re sure no Vanderbilt bunch of swells, I’ll tell you that. Our place? Just a two-bedroom walk-up on West Armitage. No separate living and dining room for us. Just one big room, you know?”
“The kitchen’s so small, there’s no place to sit.”
“We’re lucky it’s got room for a stove and fridge.”
“Sounds cozy. Any brothers or sisters?”
“Naw. You should see how he goes around. All duded up. You should see mom’s wardrobe.”
“Nothing much, I’ll say. Real threadbare stuff. Who cares how a kid dresses? But mom should have some nice things, shouldn’t she?”
“You’re a bright lad, McMannis. Sure.”
“They don’t even go out.”
“Together. That’s right.”
“And you think this Mr. Purcell is two-timing her?”
“I just know it.”
“How do you know it?”
“Are you going to help me out or not?”
“How long you say all this has been going on?”
“A good couple of months. Maybe three months. What are you going to do about it?”
“What do you want to do about it?”
The kid punched a little fist into a little palm. “I gotta show mom. It’ll just kill her, I know it, but she’s gotta learn the truth about him. The dirty louse. He’s a stinking, filthy, dirty louse. That’s what he is and you’re going to show her.”
“Him and the rest of the world, kid.”
He wiped his eyes on a short sleeve. “Yeah, grown-ups give me a pain.”
“Can’t argue with you there, kid.”
“Don’t call me kid.”
“All right. Mr. McMannis.”
The kid sniffed again, swallowed his lips and ducked his head. He had plenty of room to fidget in the wide chair.
“So you want this bird Purcell tailed. And if there’s any hanky-panky, you want the mug ratted out. Is that what you have in mind?”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I got in mind.”
“I’ve got to warn you, Mr. McMannis.”
“You and everybody else, gumshoe.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, see? What I’ve got to tell you is no fatherly advice, no nursery school lesson. I have to warn you just like I’d warn any client. Get me?”
“Okay. Speak your piece.”
“Thank you. When you go snooping into a man’s private life, you never know what you’ll find. Sometimes you unearth buried treasure–that’s rare, but it happens. Sometimes you uncover a reptile.”
“You’ll find a reptile, all right.”
“I haven’t finished, Mr. McMannis.”
“Sorry. G’head. I’m not stopping you.”
“I want to repeat those words: you never know what you’ll find. You’ve told me your notions, Mr. McMannis. You’ve got all your expectations. Sure. But they may not pan out. They might not pan out like crazy. Beyond your wildest nightmares. In ways you can’t even imagine, get me?”
I paused. The kid hung on my pause. Whether my words registered was anybody’s guess. I hate guessing games.
“Sometimes you don’t like what you find. It can turn out to be something a whole lot worse than you ever dreamed of. You ever been surprised, Mr. McMannis? Completely, and I mean but completely thrown for a loop?”
The kid thought that one over. “I remember when mom told me she was getting hitched again. I couldn’t hardly believe that.”
“All right. Things don’t always turn out like you’d expect.”
“You’ve got to be prepared for that. And prepared to take the consequences. Just like bad medicine. It could turn out to be the worst medicine you ever swallowed, Mr. McMannis.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“It could prove worse than anything you’re stuck with now.”
“You trying to scare me off?”
“You’re damn right I am, Mr. McMannis.”
He watched me close for a moment. Things were ticking away behind those tiny, dark slits.”Okay, gumshoe. Let ‘er rip.”
“You’re certain? There’s no going back once we’re in.”
“I’m damn certain.”
The kid stared at me hard. His legs stopped swinging. His grip on the armrests tightened and the little knuckles showed white.
“All right, Mr. McMannis. I’ll take your case.” I lit up another stick. “You know anything about the law, Mr. McMannis?”
“What? You want to know if I’ve done hard time or anything like that?”
“You’re a pip. No, nothing like that. You know about confidentiality?”
“Hand over a dime.”
He stood and dug into a front pants pocket. The coins he came up with barely filled his palm. He found a nickel and slapped it on the blotter in front of me. He shoved the leftover change back into his pants. He parked his small fists at the hips, cocked his head, and squinted one eye. “You’re not going to pull a magic trick, are you? Make it disappear?”
“This is about the law.” I picked up the buffalo. “You see only coin of the realm. A nickel and no more. Five lousy cents.”
“So I see a contract. With this here retainer, I am now officially in your employ, Mr. McMannis. Most importantly, that means I don’t have to reveal your identity to anyone. You get me?”
“You can’t rat?”
“I can’t rat.”
“Sure, I get you. Yeah. That’s a smooth one.”
“I don’t suppose there’s anyway for me to get in touch with you.”
“There’s a house phone.” The kid thought about that one. “Naw, I don’t get much in the way of calls. It would look too suspicious.”
“I tell you what. You write down your address. Can you do that?” I pushed an index card and a pencil across the desk. “You look for me on your corner, at this same time, for the next few days. You’ll see me when I’ve got something to report.”
The kid worked his tongue more than the pencil. “That’s like G-Man stuff,” he said.
“Yeah. Just like G-Men.”
The kid left me his scrawled address on the index card, a colorful description of the old man, and the nickel. I put the nickel to use as part of a tip at the Belden Deli. After catching an early dinner, I drove over to West Armitage.
I burned through a quarter pack waiting out front of the u-shaped brownstone. The kid’s description was by no means a stretch. Wind-blown garbage cluttered the curb where rusted jalopies haunted the block like relics from the forgotten past. No lawn to speak of, just tracks of dirt accented here and there with tufts of brown grass. Several basement windows busted out. A third-story tenant dumped her trashcan straight over the rail and into the alley. I hadn’t witnessed that spectacle since I was in knee-highs, but I won’t go into that. I’ve seen plenty of clients try to rub out their past like chalk on the sidewalk but it never washes. You can’t swap faces in the mirror. You can’t help but look at yourself square on. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.
Along about eight o’clock, McKinley Purcell strolled out of the apartment house. The kid had him pegged, all right. A slight build, dapper in a cheap type of way, the sort you wouldn’t be surprised running into on a Warner’s backlot. I saw nothing hurried about him, no pep in his stride. He looked about as enthused as a desk sergeant taking down a hot tip about a vicious jaywalker.
Purcell sauntered about three-quarters of a block down, snugged himself into an old Model T. The Tin Lizzie fired up after four tries. Purcell jerked the machine into traffic and buggied east down Armitage. I turned over the engine on the coupe, swung her into a u-turn, and leisurely tailed after. I followed the jalopy down Armitage for about a mile and a half. He pulled south on Damen for a short stretch, steered stiffly into a space less than a block short of North Avenue. We continued on foot.
The metallic screech and chug of the elevated train blared overhead as Purcell trudged right onto North Avenue. He brought us less than a block down. The faded address read, “2045.” Just a few storefronts beyond the stairs to the train station, on the other side of the alley from the Turkish baths. We’re talking a one-story dump. Boarded up windows. Worn, dark green paint job chipping off bricks. Purcell stood by the door sideways, his back to me, his left arm hanging at his side. He rapped three times with his left, short and sweet. His head turned, he spoke. Someone opened up. Purcell popped inside the dump.
If that’s any kind of set-up for a married man to meet his tootsie, I’ll eat my hat. I thought about dropping it then and there. I’d seen enough. Plenty more than a nickel’s worth. Then I thought about the kid. He’d want the full story, from A to Z and everything in between. And I had a job to do. I laughed to myself and steered back towards the coupe.
I drove less than a mile to Lincoln Park. I squeezed in between a Bentley and an Auburn. Behind the Auburn sat a Caddie. Ahead, fronting the Bentley, I spied a Mercedes, a Studebaker and another Caddie. Lincoln Park class, all right. The privileged class. Class with a capital K. The fortunates, the lucky ones, the swells. The wheelers and dealers who get the breaks or make their own. Just enough on the up and up to strut their worth in public. These folks had more than plenty. They had too much of everything while just a few miles back on West Armitage they didn’t have enough of anything. Whatever was left in between wasn’t enough to go around. Sure.
I struck out with a Yellow cab, then two Checkers. Finally I flagged down another Yellow that turned out to be a live one. When the driver asked where to, I leaned forward and spoke through closed teeth.
“Maybe you can direct me. Sort of help a guy out. I’m looking for some action.”
“Is that so?” The driver squeezed one eye shut and gave me the once over. I must of passed inspection.
“What’s your fancy? Blonde, brunette or redhead?”
“Wrong kind of broad. I’ve got something else in mind.”
“I’m picturing a lady with a three-quarter view. A royal type dame, holding a flower. Maybe some Jack of the one-eyed variety.”
“Why didn’t you say so? I’ve got just the place for you.”
“Is it far?”
“Just a couple miles south. Xeno’s got a nice house. Big. You’ll like it swell.”
“Is that some kind of Greek name?”
“Yeah. What’s it to you?”
“I don’t trust Greeks.”
“You don’t trust Greeks.”
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
“All right, all right. Don’t shrink your skivvies. There’s more than one barracuda in the ocean. How about the Turk’s?”
“Now you’re giving me a Turk?”
“He’s not, really. He’s one of those types what’s from everywhere and nowhere, if you catch my drift. Turk’s just what people calls him. A man like you should fit in soo-perb.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
“Just a mile or so. A straight shot west.”
“I have to be able to get back after.”
“Lookit, you’re right near a big intersection. Cabs, buses. The el. The Turk can always get you a ride. You’ll be right down here, down North Avenue.”
“All right, Mac, you sold me. Take me to the Turk.”
“You got it, friend.”
I thought the bird might try to work on me during the ride. A guy like that must of had plenty more to pitch. But he was foxier than he looked. He knew better. You don’t try to cook the fish while you’re still reeling it in. You make sure he’s good and hooked first, then you land him–after that, anything goes. Prior to that, the wrong move’ll botch things up plenty fast and you can lose everything, fish, line and all.
We swung into the alley alongside 2045. He yanked back the handbrake, threw one arm over and around the back of the seat. “Your party’s right inside. Don’t let the outside throw you, friend.”
“Through them doors is very pish-posh, believe you me.”
“Since when were you a scout?”
“Since I gave up prohibition for lent.”
He held up a card between his first two fingers.
“Tell ’em Sali brought you.”
“Sali Irmo. You keep that card in case you should need a tour guide again. I’ll wait here just to make sure
there’s no static.”
I began reaching for my billfold.
“Hey, put that away. We run a first-class operation here. They take care of me. In you go.”
I cocked my head once, slid out of the taxi. I sauntered up to the weatherworn door and glanced over my shoulder at the hack. He made a rapping motion with his fist. I knocked twice.
A peephole the size of an overgrown mail slot slid open. “What are you doing here?”
“Sali brought me.”
The slot slammed shut. I shrugged towards the cab. A sliding bolt sounded and the door swung in. “Welcome to the Turk’s.” The gorilla motioned me in with a wave of a hand, smiling like a bored desk clerk. The monkey suit fit him like a bad skin-grafting job.
I stepped into one of the plushest gaming rooms I’d ever seen on the North Side. Carpet, chandeliers, the works. Maybe a bit on the narrow side, but it ran down a ways. A small coat check stall nestled in by the doorway. I parked my hat and strolled in.
A small bank of slots stood up front, a quick sales pitch for the retiring type. After them, a procession of gaming tables. Roulette, craps, blackjack. More slots in the far back and a bar.
I spotted Purcell at a twenty-one table. The mug was dealing. All the time he really was working. I drifted through to the bar, propped myself on a stool, and ordered a scotch. That cost me more than a nickel, but it bought me a chance to size up the joint.
A college type worked the room like a floorwalker. A constant roamer. Clean-shaven, fresh faced. You know the type of bird. Tall, he was, built long and strong like an oarsman. His tux bulged more than it hung. During the evening this floorwalker quietly collected a small strongbox from each of the gaming tables. He stole himself through a trap in the floor behind the bar. Each time he returned with another box just like the one he took, and brought it back to the table. During his rounds, between his trips to the cellar, he kept particular watch on Purcell. That hole in the floor got me wondering where they kept the Turk. Wondering if there even was a Turk.
Purcell’s table captured five pigeons. He ran his game tight-lipped. Very light on the gab. Short and sweet on the deal. He kept his motions quick. Nothing flashy, nothing loud. The games moved fast and smooth, like an assembly line for manufacturing losers. One player went bust and took a hike before I finished my drink. The floorwalker gave Purcell a faint smile and nod.
I hit the john. They kept it in the back, down a short, dark hall just beyond the slots. Next to it looked like a broom closet with a small padlock. Next to that, a heavy, metal door led to the back alley. That door they kept bolted. That’s all there was to the layout.
From the washroom, I strolled down to the roulette table. I took a spot with a clear view of Purcell. I stood next to a mug that must have been sired by an ox. He made no play, just took up room. I found occasion to bump into him. Either the joe was packing or he fancied wearing a breastplate. I figured the Turk kept several more torpedoes planted around the tables.
I bought five dollars worth of chips.
“Another high roller,” the croupier said.
“The old lady’s got me on a budget,” I said.
“Don’t they all.”
I milked my losses for about an hour and a half. Then I cashed in.
“You keep this up all night?” I said.
“Until the sun starts smiling over the lake,” the croupier said.
“I’ll have to find me a bigger stake.”
“We’ll be here.”
I had a long night ahead. I took my time grabbing some coffee and a piece of pie at an all-night diner. Afterwards, I retrieved the coupe. I found a parking spot straight across the street from 2045, with a clear view down the alley side. I settled in and I waited.
Around one in the morning I caught sight of Purcell in the back alley. He came into view a couple steps, pacing with a cigarette dangling from his lips, hands buried in his pants pockets. He swiveled and walked out of sight. A moment later he came back, drew a final drag, dropped the butt, crushed it out, swung around and disappeared. He didn’t show again until three o’clock, quitting time.
I tailed him and his jalopy to the Cozy Concessions storefront at Chicago and Wells. He went around the back way and ducked inside. A row of slatted windows looked in on the warehouse space, so I looked in. Something stacked in front of the windows blocked most of the view. Through the narrow peephole, I spied Purcell sitting in the middle of the room on a card chair. The lone ceiling light threw dark shadows on the three men surrounding him. Behind them in a semicircle sat rows of dark jukeboxes, wooden kegs and large crates. One of the men reared back, gave Purcell the back of his hand across the kisser. Purcell nearly took a tumble off the chair. He grabbed the side of his face while the man rubbed his ring finger. Then he pointed at Purcell and spat a few words at him. Purcell kept his head down.
I eased the slats open, tilting them only an inch or two, just enough to catch the dialogue. “So unless you require any further discussion, you know we mean business. This is for keeps, now. There’s no turning back for you, Purcell. Not if you want to keep that wife of yours out of the jug. Twenty years is a long stretch, and she’ll do every last minute of it. We’ll see to that. You got it? You better. If there’s one slip up, just one–”
The man turned his back fast. He stepped away, pivoted again. “Why do you think we got you in there? Anyone can dope out the layout. But you, Purcell, you’re our little locksmith. You just keep your mouth shut and do the job. We’ll take care of the rest. We go this Saturday, get it? No slip-ups. You got the time set up, right?”
“I always take a smoke break at one. They’re used to that.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine. That door better be open at one. It just better be.” He grabbed a handful of Purcell’s hair and tugged hard until Purcell stared straight up at the ceiling. “No slip ups, Purcell. Or your wife’s going over. That’s for keeps.” He let go of Purcell with a shove, wiped his hand on his jacket.
“What happens to me after?” Purcell said.
The man almost laughed. He wasn’t the laughing kind. “He’s worried about after. After? You forget all about it. Like nothing ever happened. You go home to your wife and keep your trap shut and forget you ever knew us. Just like we forget all about the missus. After what, little man? There is no after.”
Purcell stared at the floor with empty eyes. His cheekbone showed red. The arms hung at his sides, motionless, like lifeless things. He looked flatter than a tire. Purcell’s little business meeting took place in the wee hours of Thursday morning. That left a couple of days before the hit on the Turk’s. That gave Purcell plenty of time to sweat it. That left plenty of time for Ross McMannis’ hatred to simmer. That left me between a rock and a hard place. I felt like a feather between two bowling balls. There’s not a whole lot of room for fancy footwork between bowling balls.
I met up with the kid on the corner of his block on Friday afternoon. We parked it on the bus stop bench. I lit up a smoke.
“No,” I said. “I’m not giving you one, kid.”
“Don’t call me kid.”
“Mr. McMannis. Right you are.”
“So what have you got for me?”
“Nothing as of yet.”
“Are you making with the run-around?”
“I’ll have more for you in a couple of days.”
“Just tell me, is he or isn’t he?”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Would I lie to you, Mr. McMannis?”
“Sure you would. You and all those other crummy grownups always stick together.”
“You got me there, Mr. McMannis. Plenty of people lie. That’s the truth.”
The kid puffed out his cheeks and glared down at his PF Flyers.
“But I never lie to clients.”
“Yeah. Why would I even bother coming by? I’ve got better things to do than play blind man’s bluff.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“You think about it. You think about it just as hard as you can. I’ll have something for you in a couple of days.”
“And you swear he isn’t?”
“And you’ll give me a full report in a couple of days?”
“I’ll even fill out an affidavit and take it to a notary public, if you like. But it’ll run you another nickel.”
The little lips screwed up and gave the tiniest hint of the tiniest beam.
“Oh, so it can smile after all.” That crack wiped the grin off his puss in a heartbeat.
I shadowed Purcell again on Saturday night. The same routine. Left his digs around eight, tooled down Armitage to Damen, parked near North. Walked over to 2045 and gave a quiet rap. Mumbled through the slot. Went inside.
I drove over to Barney’s Market Club on Randolph. The condemned man ate a hearty, last meal. Sure. After that I had enough time for a picture show, but I wasn’t in the mood. I hung out at a coffee house and read a late edition. It was getting on around 11 p.m. when I pulled up by the Turk’s. The voice through the peephole said it remembered me and opened up.
“Welcome to the Turk’s.”
“No hat tonight?”
“You’ve got a keen memory. Not tonight.”
“Just doing homework. I’m enrolled in a memory course.”
“I expected a crowd, but nothing like this.”
“Yeah. Must be there’s a convention in town.”
“Must be. Don’t forget to keep studying.”
Nobody fed the slots up front, but players boxed in the gaming tables. I waded in, making sure to catch sight of Purcell at his usual table. He appeared even less animated than Thursday night. He tucked his chin down, hardly raised his eyes. I maneuvered my way through the revelers and joined a host of suckers at the craps table.
By half past twelve I’d made up my losses from the last time. Maybe blackjack’s not my game. I was actually ahead a couple bucks. After cashing in my chips, I threaded my way to the bar. I threw back one shot of whiskey and lingered until a quarter to. That’s when I drifted back to the washroom–busy. After a couple minutes a man stepped out, worried lines around the mouth and red around the eyes. Everybody’s got a story. Sure.
I walked in, threw the latch, did my business and rinsed my hands. Someone started pounding as I splashed some cold water on my face. I dried off and came out. A woman with the girth of a Checker cab tried to squeeze by me. She quipped, “Nothing like Mother Nature to break up a run.”
“Nothing like an overactive set of glands.”
I reached in and slammed the door shut on her. The short hall was empty, so I turned towards the broom closet. It took me less than a minute to work the padlock. Just as she snapped, I heard someone stumble up behind me. I turned casually, leaning on the doorframe.
“Occupied,” I said.
The man wavered before me. Blinked twice, real slow.
“Occupied,” I said. “I think the bartender’s calling you.”
He smiled, spun on his heels, and went away. I ducked into the closet. It really was nothing more than a cramped room for cleaning supplies. Brooms, mop and pail, etcetera. Smelled like it, too. It figured no one would be bothering to sweep out the joint, not with that crowd out front. I heard Mother Nature’s favorite daughter exit the can. I pushed the door just a touch and held my watch up to the crack of light: five minutes to one.
Call it a three-minute wait before Purcell showed. He stood for a moment right in front of the closet, rocking in place on his heels. Probably making sure the coast was clear. He gingerly slid the bolt on the exit door, gave it a test with a light nudge. I sprung forward, yanking him from behind and into the closet. I tugged the door shut, but he kicked it open as he struggled. I wrapped my arm around his throat and reached for the door. I managed it closed while he clawed at the arm around his throat.
When he passed out, I let him sink down to the floor easy. It wasn’t long after when I heard the rusty creak of the exit door. Several sets of footsteps padded past the closet. I cracked the door and peeked out. The hall was empty. I hoisted Purcell from behind, locked my hands around his chest, and dragged him out through the exit as fast as I could. I heard the fireworks start as the door shut, a rapid exchange of gunfire. My feet shuffled faster.
I had left the coupe blocking a garage down the alley, figuring nobody’d bother with it on an early Sunday morning. Just as I turned towards it, I spotted Ross McMannis peering around some trashcans.
“For chrissakes, kid.”
“What did you do to him?”
“I’m just trying to resurrect the all-American family, kid. Those aren’t popguns going off back there. Open her up, kid. The passenger door–now.”
The kid jumped in front of me and held the passenger door while I shoved in Purcell. The kid squeezed in, I jammed myself into the driver’s seat. I punched the coupe out of there just as fast as I could. I steered west.
“Where’d you come from, kid?”
“I’ve been there all night.”
“How’d you get there?”
“You don’t need a lot of brains just to follow someone.”
“You got me there, kid. But how’d you manage it? So I didn’t spot you?”
“The trunk of his car.”
“That old gag? You’re putting me on.”
“Like I said, it doesn’t call for a whole lot of brains.”
“Don’t push it, kid.”
North and California seemed far enough removed from the shooting gallery back at North and Damen. Purcell showed signs of coming around when I pulled up to the NoCal Cafe. I sent the kid in for a couple cups of joe and whatever he wanted. He brought back the java and some aspirin. The kid had given up trying to pump me. I told him he should give his stepdad a try, first. We waited while Purcell recovered his bearings.
I let half a cup of joe and the aspirin sink in before I began to press. Purcell knew I had him painted into a corner. Whatever he held out, I’d fill in, all right. So headache and all, Purcell gave the kid the full rundown.
The whole nine yards. He knew if he skipped anything, glossed over any detail, I’d straighten him out. All except about the boy’s mother. Purcell wanted her to explain that one personally, and that was fine with me.
“You’re lying,” the kid said.
“No I’m not, son.”
“Don’t ever call me your son.”
I said, “He makes me call him Mr. McMannis.”
“He’s making it up,” the kid said. “You’re making it up.”
Purcell said, “I wish I was, Ross.”
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, Mr. McMannis,” I said. “But think it through. Why the hell else would he go through all this? I’ve checked it out. I hate to tell you, but it all jives.”
“Yeah, it stinks pretty damn good. And it may not be over yet. You know, Mackey here, he didn’t have to stick, kid. The easiest thing for him would’ve been to cut and run. But he didn’t do that.”
“That’s not how I was raised, mister. That’s not how I want to raise my son.”
We’d given the kid plenty to stew over. Maybe too much. But at least everything was out in the open. Purcell gave it to him hard and straight. The kid shoved his little fists in his little pockets and scrunched up his little face. It’s funny seeing wrinkles on the forehead of an eleven-year-old.
“I want to see my mom.”
“That’s a good idea, kid. You’re all due for a nice, long talk together. Maybe make it something of a getaway. I think I know this fella who can swing a cheap deal at a cheap motel for a couple of nights.”
Purcell gave me a questioning look.
“There might be reprisals, Purcell. ”
“You’re right about that,” Purcell said.
“I’ll set you up in a room somewhere and go square things with the cops. Maybe they’ll fill me in and we can figure something out. You can usually figure out something. If not one way, another.”
“What about my wife? They’ll find out everything about Joan.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Right now you’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt. I may not be much, but I’m about all you’ve got. If the cops do come up with anything, at least it won’t be coming from me. See, as far as you, your wife and the kid go, you’re all protected. Leastwise, as far as I’m concerned. After all, I’m still in your employ–isn’t that right, Mr. McMannis?
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