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I handed the guy the note and shivered a little bit because the guy was as big as they come, and even though he had a belly you couldn't get your arms around, you wouldn't want to be the one who figured you could sink your fist in it. The belly was as hard as the rest of him, but not quite as hard as his face.
Then I knew how hard the back of his hand was because he smashed it across my jaw and I could taste the blood where my teeth bit into my cheek.
Maybe the guy holding my arm knew I couldn't talk because he said, "A guy give him a fin to bring it, boss. He said that."
I spit the blood out easy so it dribbled down my chin instead of going on the floor. "Gee, Mr. Renzo..."
His hand made a dull, soggy crack on my skin. The buzz got louder in my ears and there was a jagged, pounding pain in my skull.
"Maybe you didn't hear me the first time, kid. I said who."
The hand let go my arm and I slumped to the floor. I didn't want to, but I had to. There were no legs under me any more. My eyes were open, conscious of only the movement of ponderous things that got closer. Things that moved quickly and seemed to dent my side without causing any feeling at all.
That other voice said, "He's out, boss. He ain't saying a thing."
"I'll make him talk."
"Won't help none. So a guy gives him a fin to bring the note. He's not going into a song and dance with it. To the kid a fin's a lot of dough. He watches the fin and not the guy."
"You're getting too damn bright," Renzo said.
"That's what you pay me for being, boss."
"Then act bright. You think a guy hands a note like this to some kid?Any kid at all? You think a kid's gonna bull in here to deliver it when he can chuck it down a drain and take off with the fin?"
"So the kid's got morals."
"So the kid knows the guy or the guy knows him. He ain't letting no kid get away with his fin." The feet moved away from me, propped themselves against the dark blur of the desk. "You read this thing?" Renzo asked.
"Listen then. 'Cooley is dead. Now my fine fat louse, I'm going to spill your guts all over your own floor.'" Renzo's voice droned to a stop. He sucked hard on the cigar and said, "It's signed, Vetter."
You could hear the unspoken words in the silence. That hush that comes when the name was mentioned and the other's half-whispered "Son of a bitch they were buddies, boss?"
"Who cares? If that crumb shows his face around here, I'll break his lousy back. Vetter, Vetter, Vetter. Everyplace you go that crumb's name you hear."
"Boss, look. You don't want to tangle with that guy. He's killed plenty of guys. He's..."
"He's different from me? You think he's a hard guy?"
"You ask around, boss. They'll tell you. That guy don't give a damn for nobody. He'll kill you for looking at him."
"Maybe in his own back yard he will. Not here, Johnny, not here. This is my city and my back yard. Here things go my way and Vetter'll get what Cooley got." He sucked on the cigar again and I began to smell the smoke. "Guys what pull a fastie on me get killed. Now Cooley don't work my tables for no more smart plays. Pretty soon the cops can take Vetter off their list because he won't be around no more either."
"You going to take him, boss?" Johnny said.
"What do you think?"
"Anything you say, boss. I'll pass the word around. Somebody'll know what he looks like and'll finger him." He paused, then, "What about the kid?"
"He's our finger, Johnny."
"You ain't so bright as I thought. You should get your ears to the ground more. You should hear things about Vetter. He pays off for favors. The errand was worth a fin, but he's gonna look in to make sure the letter got here. Then he spots the kid for his busted up face. First time he makes contact we got him. You know what, Johnnie? To Vetter I'm going to do things slow. When they find him the cops get all excited but they don't do nothing. They're glad to see Vetter dead. But other places the word gets around, see? Anybody can bump Vetter gets to be pretty big and nobody pulls any more smart ones. You understand, Johnny?"
"Sure, boss. I get it. You're going to do it yourself?"
"Just me, kid, just me. Like Helen says I got a passion to do something myself and I just got to do it. Vetter's for me. He better be plenty big, plenty fast and ready to start shooting the second we meet up."
It was like when Pop used to say he'd do something and we knew he'd do it sure. You look at him with your face showing the awe a kid gets when he knows fear and respect at the same time and that's how Johnny must have been looking at Renzo. I knew it because it was in his voice too when he said, "You'll do it, boss. You'll own this town lock, stock and gun butt yet."
"I own it now, Johnny. Never forget it. Now wake that kid up." This time I had feeling and it hurt. The hand that slapped the full vision back to my eyes started the blood running in my mouth again and I could feel my lungs choking on a sob.
"What was he like, kid?" The hand came down again and this time Renzo took a step forward. His fingers grabbed my coat and jerked me off the floor.
"You got asked a question. What was he like?"
"He was ... big," I said. The damn slob choked me again and I wanted to break something over his head.
"Like you. Bigger'n six. Heavy."
Renzo's mouth twisted into a sneer and he grinned at me. "More. What was his face like?"
"I don't know. It was dark. I couldn't see him good."
He threw me. Right across the room he threw me and my back smashed the wall and twisted and I could feel the tears rolling down my face from the pain.
"You don't lie to Renzo, kid. If you was older and bigger I'd break you up into little pieces until you talked. It ain't worth a fin. Now you start telling me what I want to hear and maybe I'll slip you something."
"I ... I don't know. Honest, I ... if I saw him again it'd be different." The pain caught me again and I had to gag back my voice.
"You'd know him again?"
Johnny said, "What's your name, kid?"
"Joe ... Boyle."
"Where do you live?" It was Renzo this time.
"Gidney Street," I told him. "Number three."
"Gordon's. I ... push."
"What'd he say?" Renzo's voice had a nasty tone to it.
"Gordon's a junkie," Johnny said for me. "Has a place on River Street. The kid pushes a cart for him collecting metal scraps."
"Check on it," Renzo said, "then stick with him. You know what to do."
"He won't get away, boss. He'll be around whenever we want him. You think Vetter will do what you say?"
"Don't things always happen like I say? Now get him out of here. Go over him again so he'll know we mean what we say. That was a lousy fin he worked for."
After things hurt so much they begin to stop hurting completely. I could feel the way I went through the air, knew my foot hit the railing and could taste the cinders that ground in my mouth. I lay there like I was pressed out, waiting for the pain to come swelling back, making sounds I didn't want to make. My stomach wanted to break loose but couldn't find the strength and I just lay there cursing guys like Renzo who could do anything they wanted and get away with it.
Then the darkness came, went away briefly and came back again. When it lost itself in the dawn of agony there were hands brushing the dirt from my face and the smell of flowers from the softness that was a woman who held me and said, "You poor kid, you poor kid."
My eyes opened and looked at her. It was like something you dream about because she was the kind of woman you always stare at, knowing you can't have. She was beautiful, with yellow hair that tumbled down her neck like a torch that lit up her whole body. Her name was Helen Troy and I wanted to say, "Hello, Helen," but couldn't get the words out of my mouth.
Know her? Sure, everybody knew her. She was Renzo's feature attraction at his Hideaway Club and her picture was all over town. But I never thought I'd get to have my head in her lap.
There were feet coming up the path that turned into one of the men from the stop at the gate and Helen said, "Give me a hand, Finney. Something happened to the kid."
The guy she called Finney stood there with his hands on his hips shaking his head. "Something'll happen to you if you don't leave him be. The boss gives orders."
She tightened up all over, her fingers biting into my shoulder. It hurt but I didn't care a bit. "Renzo? The pig!" She spat it out with a hiss. She turned her head slowly and looked at me. "Did he do this, kid?"
I nodded. It was all I could do.
"Finney," she said, "go get my car. I'm taking the kid to a doctor."
"Helen, I'm telling you..."
"Suppose I told the cops ... no, not the cops, the feds in this town that you have holes in your arms?"
I thought Finney was going to smack her. He reached down with his hand back but he stopped. When a dame looks at you that way you don't do anything except what she tells you to.
"I'll get the car," he said.
She got me on my feet and I had to lean on her to stay there. She was just as big as I was. Stronger at the moment. Faces as bad off as mine weren't new to her, so she smiled and I tried to smile back and we started off down the path.
We said it was a fight and the doctor did what he had to do. He laid on the tape and told me to rest a week then come back. I saw my face in his mirror, shuddered and turned away. No matter what I did I hurt all over and when I thought of Renzo all I could think of was that I hoped somebody would kill him. I hoped they'd kill him while I watched and I hoped it would take a long, long time for him to die.
Helen got me out to the car, closed the door after me and slid in behind the wheel. I told her where I lived and she drove up to the house. The garbage cans had been spilled all over the sidewalk and it stank.
She looked at me curiously. "Here?"
"That's right," I told her. "Thanks for everything."
Then she saw the sign on the door. It read, ROOMS. "Your family live here too?"
"I don't have a family. It's a rooming house."
For a second I saw her teeth, white and even, as she pulled her mouth tight. "I can't leave you here. Somebody has to look after you."
"Ease off, kid. What did you say your name was?"
"Okay, Joe. Let me do things my way. I'm not much good for anything but every once in awhile I come in handy for something decent."
"Well, you're the nicest person I've ever known."
I said she was beautiful. She had the beauty of the flashiest tramp you could find. That kind of beauty. She was like the dames in the big shows who are always tall and sleepy looking and who you'd always look at but wouldn't marry or take home to your folks. That's the kind of beauty she had. But for a long couple of seconds she seemed to grow a new kind of beauty that was entirely different and she smiled at me.
"Joe..." and her voice was warm and husky, "that's the nicest thing said in the nicest way I've heard in a very long time."
My mouth still hurt too much to smile back so did it with my eyes. Then something happened to her face. It got all strange and curious, a little bit puzzled and she leaned forward and could smell the flowers again as that impossible something happened when she barely touched her mouth to mine before drawing back with that searching movement of her eyes.
"You're a funny kid, Joe."
She shoved the car into gear and let it roll away from the curb. I tried to sit upright, my hand on the door latch. "Look, got to get out."
"I can't leave you here."
"You're going back to my place. Damn it, Renzo did this to you and I feel partly responsible."
"That's all right. You only work for him."
"It doesn't matter. You can't stay there."
"You're going to get in trouble, Helen."
She turned and flashed me a smile. "I'm always in trouble."
"Not with him."
"I can handle that guy."
She must have felt the shudder that went through me.
"You'd be surprised how I can handle that fat slob," she said. Then added in an undertone I wasn't supposed to hear, "Sometimes."