The Reckoning: Chapter Twenty-Four . . . The Wastelands

Wastelands

 

 CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

 

 

Somewhere in

Space and Time

 

      My entire life, I had pretty much considered myself to be something of a slow learner. Most of my lessons came hard and painfully, and not just a few of them had to be repeated—often, more than just once. I guess that learning to drive a stick-shift was about as close as I ever got to getting it just right the absolute first time I tried something. It had seemed natural to me—a sort of “aha” moment. After a few clutches and shifts, I just sort of intuitively understood that this was how real automobiles and gearboxes were supposed to work.

Time-travel was like that for me too—only even more so. This thing I had down pat. I’d like to say that I willed myself to go different places and times, but that would be grossly misleading. No clicking the heels of my shoes either. It was far, far easier than that. It was slicker than that. I merely formed an idea of where I wanted to be, and—zap, I was there. Matt had told me in the past that everyone had the gift, but it mostly remained dormant in people, except perhaps in their night-time dreamscapes. He said that the only real difference between the McCabes and everyone else was that they were simply better at it. This day I was beginning to think that I might be even better at it than the McCabes. The watch had only been a focusing device. The time-travel machine was first, last and always the human brain, and right at the moment my brain was firing on all cylinders. Now that I was displaced, I no longer needed the watch in the slightest.

Guess there is something to be said for being half-dead, or half-alive, or whatever the hell this displaced thing was.

I didn’t really know where, or when, for that matter, that Capone and I had ended up. All I knew was that I had a mental image of the landscape where I wanted to be, and then, zap—I was there. With old Al firmly in tow. Matt once said that he was afraid to go too far back in time. He said it got dicey real fast. That the sky grew dark, and the ground felt like it was about to shift under his feet. Disconcerting. And disquieting. I didn’t know for sure, but I had a damned good feeling that we were very far away, both in space and time. The sky overhead was darkening to a syrupy thick blood red. And the earth not only shifted under our feet, but although flat, seemed to slide away from us at crazy undulating angles. There were impossibly distant mountains on the horizon, dark and flat—devoid of vegetation or life of any kind.

The ground under our feet was also dry, parched, and widely cracked. It went off in all directions, and went on for as far as our eyes could see. It was dotted with armchair sized boulders and smaller rocks. Not a living thing, plant or animal, in sight—although the sudden appearance of pterodactyls in the sky would not have surprised me. It looked to be a desert landscape from a Lovecraft nightmare, although there was no heat. Dark clouds in the sky shrouded any possible sun. The air was cool on our skin, and carried the pungent scent of dry-rot.

Nope—I didn’t much think we were in Kansas anymore. And there were no roads to be seen anywhere either—yellow brick or otherwise.

Capone and I landed on our feet, but old Al stumbled, and when he did, his hand was wrenched from my handshake death-grip and he fell on his ample butt—hard. Dust from the hard-pan surface was kicked up and swirled in the faint breeze. Capone’s head swiveled around furiously and his eyes grew large, trying to take everything in all at once, but his brain was unable to process it. He did what any dimwitted gangsta would do under the circumstances, I guess.

He went for his gun.

I had to give him credit. Even for a dumb-ass wise-guy, Al was a man of much action, and very little to zero thought. He pointed his .45 directly at my chest and pulled the trigger. I don’t know just how the hell he thought he was going to get back to where he was with me dead, but like I said, he was no rocket-scientist. Seeing it coming as I did a split second before he fired, it was a simple matter to side-step the bullet—all eight times that he pulled the trigger. Finally, his pistol empty, he simply threw it at me.

I easily batted it away.

Next, he was on his feet and swinging wildly for my head. I was amazed at the short and chubby man’s energy. Far from the public perception of Capone at this stage of his life, he was not even slightly weakened and wizened by disease, but in the apparent full-bloom of health. He still packed a damned good punch. Trouble was, for him anyhow, he connected with nothing but air. The last time he went by me, matador and bull-fight style, I gave him a hard slap across his face. He fell down again, and I shouted loudly for him to remain there.

“Give it up, Capone. You can’t hurt me.”

“Who the hell are you?” he snarled.

“Your worst nightmare, fat boy—and your very last chance on earth.”

“Last chance for what?” he snarled again.

“To avoid an eternity burning in Hell—that’s what,” I replied. I had settled on my role, and I intended to play it to absolute perfection. My comment had gotten his full and undivided attention. As a good Italian Catholic, I knew that he had been raised steeped deeply in that faith. Heaven and Hell were far more than simple concepts and constructs to him. They were very real, and Hell was something that he probably had long felt he stood in danger of. Men like Capone though, always seem to believe they are going to live forever.

Old Al had just received his wake-up call.

“Are you the grim-reaper?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Am I dead?”

“Not quite,” I deadpanned. “But then, the day isn’t over yet.”

“How’d I buy it? Shot?”

“Not that fancy. Heart-attack. You might survive it. The jury is still out.”

“I don’t like juries.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I replied.

“What do you want from me?” he wailed.

“Truth, Capone—and confession. Tell me about your kills.”

“What?” he wailed again. “I ain’t killed nobody.”

“You mean lately.”

“I mean ever.”

I gave him the meanest glare I had in me. “This isn’t a real good time for lying, fat-boy.” Almost as an exclamation point, one of the cracks in the hard packed mud opened up a few feet away from Capone and it hissed out a short steam-fart. The small geyser that sprang up a couple of feet above the ground got Al’s attention real fast too. His eyes grew even larger than they had been. He could see what I was seeing too. We had only been there for a minute or two so far, but already the entire landscape had an even more unreal and surreal appearance and seemed to be even less stable. I could tell we needed to get out fast, but damn—it was the perfect spot to grill Capone, and I didn’t want to give it up. I only hoped the “grilling” didn’t become real. For both of us.

“What about Bugs?” I asked. I figured the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre might just provide a good starting point in an examination of Capone’s long and sordid life of sin and crime. Not to mention a few real good “warm-up” questions for the chubby and scar-faced gangsta.

“What about him?” Capone squealed. “He was a freakin’ pig. Always movin’ in on me. I didn’t whack him, but I’ll be damned if Moran didn’t have it coming. I didn’t shed a tear when it happened.”

“How about the six men machine-gunned to death with him?”

Capone sneered. “Piglets. Six little piglets suckin’ up to their big-tits momma Moran. They got what the hell they deserved.”

“You ordered it, Capone. You and your Purples.”

“So what? So what the freakin’ hell if I did. You think I had an easy life? My father was a damned barber, and momma was a seamstress. In a brand-new freakin’ world. We were nearly penniless. How’s a family gonna live like that? You wanna send me to hell, Mr. Reaper, for feeding the family? Yeah, you just go right ahead and do that. What the hell do I care? Go ahead. All my friends are there—or will be soon enough.”

It was plain that old Al was getting mad and finally growing a set. Capone had been released from prison because he was supposed to be dying with end-stage syphilis, and a body riddled with cocaine and alcohol destruction. According to the “experts” of his time, his brain was nearly eaten away, and he had the mentality of a twelve-year old. I could tell at a glance that the professionals of Capone’s day weren’t a damned bit better at what they did than their modern-day counterparts.

Capone was about as feeble as the Incredible Hulk, and I was making him damned angry.

“It was a stupid move,” I observed. “You were a hero to a lot of people before Moran. A guy that took bows at ball-games, and blessed babies in Church. Everyone knew your name. You were a giant. Some said you were a Robin Hood. A champion of the little-guy and the downtrodden. Donated to charity and all that jazz. After you snuffed Bugsy, you became just another dime-a-dozen cheap hood. Public Enemy number one. All over a petty little turf war.”

Capone had sat down on a rock, apparently resigned to the more than deserved fate he was sure was coming. He rested his chin on his fist, his elbow resting on his knee. A faint smile played on his scarred face. “It wasn’t all that petty, Grim. He was sucking a hell of a lot of money out of my bootlegging operation. Constantly movin’ in on me. Always testing me. The money loss I could stand. The disrespect—well, that was another thing. He was lucky he went the way he did. The old Thompson was a quick death. I shoulda cut his nuts off first.”

“Yeah, you were a real sweet guy, Al. The regular salt of the earth. A simple businessman—just giving the public what it wanted. How many men did you kill, Capone. Between you and your Purples—just how many was it? No sense lying, Al—it’s way too late for that now.”

Capone thought it over. I could almost hear the calculator working in his brain.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he softly said. “Maybe a hundred. Maybe more than that. I wasn’t in a business where it paid to keep too very detailed records.”

“No, I guess you weren’t,” I allowed. I decided to go for the gold. “How many children did you kill?”

Capone had been staring down at his feet, but with that question he looked up slowly, his eyes meeting mine fully for the first time. It would have been hard to have missed the hatred there.

“Who?”

“Little Bea Alderman, that’s who.”

“How the hell did you know about that?”

“I’m the grim reaper,” I replied. “I know everything.”

“Then why ask me?”

“Because you have to say it, you lousy piece of dog-shit. When it yours—you have to own it. It’s the only chance you’ve got. A slim one . . . but it’s the one and only.” And here we were. Right at the edge of it. He didn’t yell at me. He didn’t rise up in righteous indignation. He made no denials or excuses. He simply sat there in silence. I could tell the silence wouldn’t last for long. My hunch had been correct. I always knew with men like this. I always knew. It was the only thing that separated me from the rest of the pack.

It was my edge.

“Why were you in Detroit tonight?” I asked.

“Passing through. Wanted to say goodbye to my brother and a few friends. I was going down to Florida for a while. I wanted to die someplace warm.”

“You’ve almost made it,” I said. The cracked soil steam-farted again.

“Yeah, Grim—almost there. Nice and warm—getting close.”

“How ‘bout the Kid? Were you going to talk to him on your way to your warm Atlantic sunsets?”

“No, grim—I wasn’t going to talk to the Kid.”

“Talk to me, Capone. Just like your immortal soul depended on it.”

He sighed, resigned to his fate. “Tell me what you want to know,” he said.

“Why? That’s what I want to know, Capone. Why the hell did it happen?”

“Just what you said, Grim. Business. Just Business. Business gone bad. Real, real bad.”

“You set-up the kidnapping?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“The Kid. We wanted him to throw a fight. Well, not him, but the boy he managed—Patrick Murray. We knew the Kid wouldn’t do it. Murray either. Not without some “encouragement.”

“Who’s we?”

“The Outfit, Grim. The boys. My Chicago gang.”

“So you farmed it out to the Purples in Detroit?”

“Right.”

“Who?”

“Gorchow. Liam Gorchow. A cheap-assed Jewish wise-guy. A hammer-head. He knew his stuff though. He was a damned good cat burglar.”

“What was the plan?”

“Simple. Gorchow grabs the Kid’s kid. The Kid throws the fight and Murrays takes a dive. The Outfit collects a bundle—Murray was a heavy favorite.”

“Was Bea supposed to die?”

“No, Grim. She was supposed to go home.”

“What went wrong?”

“Gorchow went wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he grabbed the child all right. But we never saw him again—at least alive that is.”

“Come again.”

“He stashed little Bea somewhere—no one knew where. And then he went on a drinking binge. Somewhere between the kidnapping and reporting back to the Purples at the Stonehouse, he managed to get his dumb-ass killed.”

“Connected to the kidnapping?” I asked.

“Naw. Simply got a snoot-full and picked a fight with the wrong guy. Sober, the dumb-assed bastard would have known better. He was way out of his league—from what I heard, he hit the floor stone dead long before he ever tumbled onto the fact he was making a big mistake.”

“Murray and the Kid didn’t throw the fight.”

“They never got a chance to. Gorchow was supposed to deliver the message. Trouble was, he got himself killed before he did. Murray knocked the slob out in the third round.”

“So who found the girl’s body?” I asked.

“Nobody. We could never find her. No one could ever find her.”

My blood began to boil. “Then how the hell did you know she was even dead?” I nearly shouted at him, spitting the question out. The ground farted again. Longer, and louder, and hotter this time.

Capone looked panicked. “The clothes. We assumed she was dead from the clothes the cops found down on the waterfront.”

I held my fingertips to my temples. There it was. Again. Almost an instant replay of my watershed moment standing in front of Sheila’s lifeless corpse. And once again, I knew I could change it.

And once again—I knew I couldn’t.

All those many years later, Little Beatrice Alderman would remain missing and presumed dead—forever. For the briefest of moments, I considered sending Al Capone exactly to the place he was sure he was going anyway. But I didn’t. A far greater man than me would have to make that decision—exactly seven years further down the road. I had done all that I could do. I had gotten the Kid his answer.

And I had paid my debt.

It was time for us to go. And fast. The ground seemed to roll under my feet. The landscape looked as though it were about to fall completely apart. And I sure as hell didn’t want to be around when it did. I had another job to do. In Detroit. A Detroit far, far into the future—or was it? I had only imagined the setting where I wanted to go. I had never given a thought as to which direction in time we were traveling to.

Capone was in a full-blown panic. He was seeing exactly what I was—that we were about to witness the ground opening up and us falling in. Maybe that was what he expected—Hell opening its arms to receive him. Me, I knew better. It was time to boogie.

I reached out my hand. Al was only too happy to grab the lifeline. I thought of the Stonehouse Bar in Detroit. I could just feel us start to go as the shadow passed over our heads. I looked up. I will never forget what I saw. It was most definitely not a pterodactyl—or anything else from the distant past either. It was silver-gray and shaped like a bullet. It was metallic, and it was large. Flying. Slowly flying at low altitude over the wastelands that stretched out from us in all directions. I caught a brief glimpse of windows in the side of this strange craft. And another split-second glance of the faces peering out of it.

I didn’t like what I saw very much.

And then we were gone. Back in the Stonehouse. Back in the exact same moment we had departed. Not a single soul in that bar suspected for a moment that we had ever left it. My hand was still locked with Capone’s. The only thing that was very different was the expression of Al’s face. His head swiveled around again, this time to assure himself that he was back where he belonged and not at the gates of Hades. His eyes were as big as saucers.

History would record this encounter. Every book and magazine article that would be written about the great Al Capone for decades to come, would talk about his famous near-death-experience at the old Stonehouse Bar. I would even look it up myself on Wikipedia when I finally got home. It was in there, and it made me smile. The article said that the experience was the main motivating factor in Capone’s decision to end his life of crime after his release from prison in 1940.

Sometimes a time-traveler gets to affect history a little bit in a positive way—without even meaning to. It had been a good day’s work.

Finally, Capone’s gaze returned to me and locked with mine. Not wanting to be unfriendly, I smiled broadly, gave him a wink, and calmly said that I hoped he was going to enjoy his very well-deserved retirement down in Florida. From the somewhat astonished look on his face, I thought he was about ready for it.

I turned, shot Sam Gabriel a quick nod and a wink, doffed my Homburg for a moment, and returned to join my friends across the room.

Man in Fedora and Raincoat

 

Thanks for reading. See you again soon . . .

 

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