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You Bet Your Life
By Stuart M. Kaminksy
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1978 Stuart M. Kaminksy
All rights reserved.
The narrow white pier pointed into Biscayne Bay like the finger of a rotting skeleton. The paint was peeling and the planks were soft under my feet from too many years of relentless salt water. A fat man sat or squatted at the far end of the pier—I couldn't tell if there was a chair under him, because he was wearing a long white terrycloth robe that made him look like a soggy tennis ball. His back was to me as I approached, but I could see a thin fishing pole in his oversized fingers. He didn't move. Dark clouds chased each other in the afternoon sky and the rickety pier danced with the white-topped waves. After a minute or two of watching him slowly being eroded by the Atlantic Ocean, I cleared my throat.
The fat man had to turn completely around to see me since there was no longer a clear separation between his head and neck, if one had ever existed. His face was a blank brown circle marred by a distinct dark scar that ran from below his left ear across his cheek. His eyes were as black as the sea behind him. An unlit cigar drooped in the corner of his thick mouth. He was almost bald, but a few strands of hair on top stood upright, comically blown by the warm wet wind.
"Mr. Capone," I shouted over the surf. "My name is Toby Peters."
The clouds had created a thick filter in front of the sun, but Al Capone cupped the chunky fingers of his left hand to shade an unnecessary squint as he examined me silently.
I turned back to the point where the pier touched the land and looked at the man who had led me there. His name was Leonardo, and I thought he might give me some idea of how to handle things. But he simply stood with his arms folded, listening.
"I'm a private investigator, Mr. Capone—"
Capone interrupted with a sound that reminded me of someone chewing sand.
"I didn't catch that," I said, wiping water from my brow and tasting sea salt on my tongue.
Capone's answer was to turn away and fish again. I stood quietly for another minute or so while the waves and Florida humidity turned my light brown suit to moist black. A fish or mermaid tugged at Capone's line; then it was gone. Capone reacted much too late by jerking the pole out of the waves. There was no longer any bait on the hook. He hit the water three or four times with the pole, hoping to split the skull of the unprepared fish.
"Bastard," he mumbled, and began to fish again without bait.
It was 1941—February 19, 1941—and I was forty-four years old. The world was moving fast, a war was coming, and I was a private eye with one wet suit and fifty-six dollars in the bank. I imagined myself standing forever on this pier watching Al Capone fishing baitless while the salt of the sea calmly seeped through my undershirt. I almost fell asleep imagining it.
"Well?" said Capone, without turning around.
"A guy I knew said you might help me," I said. Capone watched the water. "The guy's name was Marty Maloney—Red Maloney. He was on the Rock with you."
Capone said nothing. I thought he grunted, so I went on.
"I'm working for MGM, the movie studio, on something you might be able to help with. Chico Marx is in some gambling trouble, and—"
"I remember Red," said Capone. "I don't forget my friends. We used to look out at night at the water and see Oakland and the fishing boats, and I told Red when I got out I'd sit and fish outside and no one would tell me to stop."
Capone looked up at the sky and watched two clouds separate to let the sun through for a second or two.
"I was in prisons for—I don't know—six years. They tried to rub me out on the Rock—hit me with a pipe. One time a Texas punk got me with a scissors in the back. I almost broke an arm pulling it out. Red and some other friends took care of the punk when they let him out of the dark. You said you know Red."
This time he turned to look at me, and then past me as if some inspiration might come. We both listened to the waves for a beat. Capone's eyes leaped suspiciously from Leonardo, fifteen yards away with his arms folded, to the asphalt road forty yards further where a Dade County police car was parked. A man in uniform was leaning against the door.
"You a cop?" Capone said, looking at the cop.
"No," I said. "I'm a private investigator. I don't get along with cops."
"Right," said Capone looking back at me. "Shoot. Tell your story."
I loosened my tie, which was slowly strangling me as it picked up seawater, and squatted down to take some pressure off my aching back and be at eye level with Capone.
"Chico Marx is one of the Marx Brothers," I said, not sure whether he would snarl at me for stating the obvious or take in the information as an important item.
"The Italian one," said Capone softly, with a knowing movement of the head. "That don't cut nothing special with me. I ain't Italian. I was born right here in this country in Brooklyn."
"Right," I said. Something wasn't right with Big Al. I remembered reading in the papers that about three years earlier, when Capone was getting ready to come out of jail, Jake Guzik had visited him in prison and told the press that Big Al was "nuttier than a fruitcake." The papers had said Al wasn't the first to go stir crazy on Alcatraz. I didn't know that guys stayed stir crazy two years after they got out, but this Al Capone was clearly not the man who had ruled a city with a buck and a chopper. I decided to plunge into my tale, get it told fast, and get the hell out of there and into dry clothes.
"Couple of weeks ago," I began talking fast, "Chico Marx was working in Vegas, leading a band. He got a call from Chicago. Guy identified himself as Gino. No last name. Acted as if Marx should know him. This Gino said Marx owed him 120 grand he lost on bets in Chicago and Cicero at Christmas. Marx thought it was a gag and hung up. He hadn't been in Chicago at Christmas. He was busy enough losing his money in Las Vegas without side trips. Gino called back, said it was no joke and Marx better come up with the money. Couple of days later Marx got a box in the mail with somebody's ear in it and a not very funny note telling him to hurry and pay or his brothers would get his piano fingers in a box."
"Brothers?" said Capone.
"The Marx Brothers."
"Yeah," said Capone. "I had them out to the club in Cicero once." Capone looked in the general direction of Cicero. "I had all the big ones—the Jew singers and comics. Cantor, Jessel, Sophie Tucker, the Ritz Brothers. I didn't know what was supposed to be funny about the Ritz brothers, but I gave them real nice watches. Cantor made some joke about dancing in concrete shoes, but I gave him a watch too. I gave a lot of people things they don't remember."
I nodded my head and went on with my tale. "Well, Chico Marx has done a lot of gambling and a lot of losing, but he says this is a bum rap. Even if it wasn't a bum rap he doesn't have $120,000 right now. He doesn't want to be mailed to his brothers whole or in pieces, but he's not going to try to borrow money for something he doesn't owe. I want to find this Gino and ask why he's trying to get Marx. There must be some mistake. Can you help me?"
I'd left out a lot, like Louis B. Mayer's desire to keep the Marx Brothers from bad publicity. Mayer didn't like the Marx Brothers. He thought they were about as funny as Capone found Eddie Cantor and the Ritz Brothers. But Go West was out and doing well, and the Marxes owed Metro one more picture. Mayer wanted to start shooting with three brothers, not two. He didn't think there'd be much box office potential in Marx Brothers movies if Chico met a knife or a bullet.
Capone's head was nodding in understanding.
"I'm a good citizen," he finally said, pulling his eyes away from the direction of the Mecca of Cicero. "You check with Colonel McCormick back in Chicago, at the Tribune. I stepped in and settled that newsboys strike when no one could handle it. Without me there wouldn't have been any news for days, maybe weeks. I even helped the Feds with stuff."
"And?" I prodded.
"I don't know no Gino," said Capone. "I mean, I know lots of Ginos but I've been away from it too long. I didn't see any friends on the Rock. No letters. I lost touch. It went by." His fat hand went up in the air to show things going by, and then rested on the deep scar on his left cheek. His middle finger traced the rut of the scar as he chewed on his cigar.
He coughed or sighed, removed the cigar, and spat in the water.
"Pace, pace, mio Dio," said Capone softly.
"Cruda sventura m'astringe, ahime, a languir. Come il di primo de taut' anni dura profondo il mio soffrir." Capone looked up at me. "That's Italian."
"I figured," I said.
"It's Verdi, La Forza D'el Destino," he explained. "It means 'Peace, peace, gimme peace God. Because of bad luck I have to sit around doing nothing. My grief is great.' Beautiful, huh?"
"It's beautiful," I said.
Capone spat another piece of his cigar into the Atlantic.
"Go to Chicago," he grunted. "Find my brother Ralph, or Nitti or Guzik or the Mayor. He owes me. I got him elected. Tell them I said you were O.K. They can call me and check. They'll find this Gino."
"Thanks," I said, getting up and wondering what, if anything, I could do with the information.
"If you see Red," Capone said dropping his voice, "tell him Snorky said hello. You got that?"
"Snorky said hello. I got it."
"Good," added Capone, pointing a fat finger at me. "Good. You know I learned to play banjo on the Rock? Red remembers. I wrote a song for my mother."
His fat body under the robe tightened suddenly and shuddered. I think it was rage, but I couldn't tell for sure because he turned his head away. He threw the fishing pole into the water and looked across the waves. The interview was clearly over.
I had something I might be able to use—the name of Al Capone—though I didn't know what it was worth. I was also wet. My plan was find a hotel, change clothes, and decide what to do next.
I wobbled off the swaying pier and stood next to Leonardo. He looked like an inverted pyramid—his legs were thin and his upper body broad. He probably couldn't run worth a damn, but if he caught whatever he was chasing, his arms and shoulders could melt it like a sugar cube in hot water. If he couldn't catch what he was chasing, the gun bulging under his jacket could make up for a lot of distance. His dark face showed no teeth. He barely opened his mouth when he spoke. A neat round patch of hair on top of his head was white and unnatural, as if a finger of fire had scorched him. I wondered why, but had no intention of asking.
"You heard him?" I asked, glancing at the house to our left as we walked toward the waiting police car. The house was big, white, and made of wood. It was no mansion. We walked past a swimming pool with a life preserver bobbing in the middle.
"Al's brother Ralph paid off this place when Al was in the can," Leonardo volunteered. "Fifty grand. I don't think Big Al has a dime of his own."
I repeated my question: "You heard what we said out there?"
Leonardo grunted as we walked, then he spoke softly. We were far enough from the shore so the sound of the waves didn't come between us.
"My job's to hear. To be sure Al don't say anything that might not be good for whoever hears it."
We were a few dozen yards from the road. Leonardo whacked a palm tree with his open hand. I assumed it was his way of communing with nature and expressing his joy of life. I never communed with nature. It got me nowhere and gave me a backache. Leonardo kept walking. I sloshed.
"And if Al had said something embarrassing?"
"Some I warn. You wouldn't take a warning."
I'm five-nine and 165 pounds dripping wet, which I was at that moment. My face was benign when I was twelve, but it had gradually become semimalignant. My nose was almost flat from too many encounters with an older brother who was now a cop, and my business scars ran, and still run, from my big toe to my forehead. Leonardo thought I looked tough. I'm reconstituted scar tissue and bone, tentatively glued together by a kid doctor in L.A. named Parry. Leonardo could have given me the chance to take a warning. But he was right. I probably wouldn't have taken it.
I looked straight ahead as we reached the road.
"You know the guy I was talking about, this Gino?" I said, drawing back my upper lip.
"Naw," said Leonardo, eyeing the waiting cop. The cop eyed him back from behind dark blue sunglasses.
"I've been here about a year. Like Al, I'm a little out of touch."
Leonardo shrugged and headed back toward the pier. I took a last look at "Snorky" Capone. He was sitting like a melting snowman with his body turned seaward. I crossed the road and got into the cop car.
The cop got in and adjusted his tan sheriff's hat with the strap behind his head like Black Jack Pershing. He didn't know that I knew he was almost bald. I had spotted him removing his hat while I walked with Leonardo. It gave me secret, useless information to compensate for the fact that there wasn't a wrinkle or the sign of a wrinkle in his tight brown uniform. If he took off his mirror-shined brown shoes, his socks would be tailor made and odorless. The car was as neat as he was. I was sure he he hated firing his pistol because it made the barrel dirty. His smile was fixed, but whatever he was smiling about was his alone, and he didn't plan to share it.
"Simmons," I said, as he pulled away. I had cleverly deduced his name from the silver plate over his left shirt pocket. "Simmons, that man is stir crazy. You could have—"
"No he's not," said Simmons, gunning his Dodge past a truck full of watermelons and down a highway lined with heavy, tired green trees sagging under huge leaves. Louis Garner Simmons had the kind of downhome drawl I never could get used to.
"Capone's got the tods, gator fever, Cuban itch, syph, venereal disease, whatever you want to call it. His brain is getting eaten up."
Simmons had not taken me to see Capone by choice. The order had come from a captain who got his order from a local political boss who got a call from a Miami lawyer who did some work for MGM. That put Simmons far down the line, and made him angry. He was probably as clean in thought, word, and deed as he was in uniform, and the idea of being an escort for someone who wanted to talk to Capone pleased him not at all.
Simmons shot a glance at me without turning his head. What he saw didn't please him—a wilted California lump making a puddle on his vacuumed seat. I was a contaminant he wanted to get rid of. He gunned the engine and we shot forward, hitting sixty-five.
"Capone got syphilis years ago," he said. "It's in his records. He knew it probably, but he was scared of the needle for the test. That's a God's fact. You beat that? Son of a bitch shot men down, got shot and cut himself, but he's turning to jelly 'cause he was afraid of a needle. They finally tested him on the Rock after he blacked out one morning. But it was too late to do much. Some New York doctor comes down here every month giving him a new medicine, pencil-in, but that fat taxpayer's a dying man."
The idea of Capone dying tickled Simmons so much that he barely missed an old lady going fifteen miles an hour in an antique Ford. We were on a narrow strip of land with the Atlantic Ocean on our left and Biscayne Bay on our right.
"Why the rush?" I said, bracing myself with one hand on the windshield and one on the door handle.
"Got to get you to the train," he said, reaching over to remove my hand from the window and wiping my hand print off with a cloth drawn from his pocket. Even the cloth was unwrinkled. "You can catch the City of Miami at 5:25 and be in Chicago by 9:55 tomorrow night."
My bag was in the back of his car. I hadn't even had time to check into a hotel after I got off the morning plane from Atlanta.
"I thought I might stick around here for a few days," I said.
He pursed his lips, shook his head no and said, "You wouldn't like it."
Before I could think of a comment, he turned on his car radio with the volume high. Instead of police calls, we got Artie Shaw playing "Frenesi." The rest of the ride was uneventful, if we don't count the kid on the bike we almost killed on Biscayne Boulevard and the two pregnant women who dodged out of our way as we screeched around a corner onto Second Street. Artie Shaw's clarinet seemed to match the action. I saw what looked like a train station coming, so I braced myself without touching the window.
Simmons reached back for my suitcase, lifted it effortlessly into the front seat, dropped it in my lap and reached past me to open the door when we stopped.
"Does this mean you don't want to be pen pals?" I said.
"Have a nice trip," he replied through a white-toothed grin. "Got a feeling people are going to be expecting you in Chicago." He pronounced it She-cawh-goo, with as much contempt and Vitamin C as he could squeeze into an orange juice drawl. I got out. He got out and followed, but not closely enough so I could reopen conversation. Inside the station, he leaned against a wall after checking it carefully for cleanliness. I bought my ticket.
Excerpted from You Bet Your Life by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1978 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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