We finished our work in the Kid’s backyard in probably an hour, and cleaned up quickly in the house. The antique and aged water heater in the old building had seen its better days. I thought the water was going to have to run long into the afternoon just to get warm, but it finally responded, and I was able to wash the dirt and grime off my hands.
Brick and I assembled in the front yard, waiting patiently as the Kid started up his car and backed it out of the garage. I kind of wondered what would be Norman’s taste in a set of wheels, and as it turned out, it was a sweet ride—a 1939 Ford Deluxe Tudor. It was destined to become a classic, with its rakish curves and brilliant chrome grill, and was well on its way to that status even in its first year. The car, as it turned out, was a gift, or rather a loaned company car of the Ford Motor Company, to the Kid. He was employed by Ford, and rather uniquely so, as I was soon to understand, and the car—well, just let me say—it was a good investment for the company.
Brick took the passenger seat, while I settled into the back. The Ford was equipped with optional leather seats, rather than the standard cloth. They were beautiful and stylish on the one hand, but very stiff and cold in the frigid Detroit Spring air, on the other. Again though, smart—bodily fluids would not soak in so easily as cloth. And much, much easier to clean up if they did.
“Tell me about Ford,” I said to the back of the Kid’s head.
“Big company. Builds cars. Makes a lot of money doing so.”
“Funny. Tell me what it is exactly you do for Ford.”
“I bust heads, Johnny. And I don’t mean the one in the engine either.”
“That’s what I thought,” I replied. “Is that what you were doing when your daughter went missing?”
“Don’t you mean when my daughter was murdered?”
“I mean I don’t know if she was murdered or not. And neither do the Detroit cops. And neither do you.”
The Kid harrumphed. “I hadn’t worked very long for Ford when she ‘disappeared.’ I was still in the fight game then—at least on the side. I was a manager and trainer.”
“Well, let me see. That was in December of ’29. It would have been Murray. Patrick Murray.”
“Just after the crash,” I observed.
“Yeah, you bet—things were tough. The country was still in shock. The reality of the Great Depression hadn’t quite set in yet.”
“Tell me about Murray.”
“What’s to tell? He was a real mick. With an Irish temper to boot. A little slow in the ring, but after he got hit a couple of times, he’d generally explode and tear his opponent’s head off. Not a bad fighter.”
“You improve him much?” I asked.
“Naw. He didn’t need much. I couldn’t exactly impart the secret of time-travel to him. But even at that he was alright. Never gonna be the champ or anything like that, but he could, and did, win a few matches.”
“Make you much money?”
“Not too much. Especially after black Friday. But him and me kept food on the table. In those days that was no small thing.”
“Back to Ford,” I challenged again. “Why the strong-arm stuff? I’d of thought you were a classier guy than that, Kid.”
“Well you’d of thought wrong,” the Kid replied more than a little peevishly. “The depression wasn’t exactly over in a few months you know. I was getting older and weaker. I needed something that produced a more regular paycheck.”
“You were a little past your prime by then.”
“Yeah, I was—but the Ford guy that hired me never knew it.”
“What do you mean?”
The Kid looked out over the steering wheel and off into a distant past, obviously viewing people, places and things that only his eyes could see. They had a kind of almost vacant look, but even at that, I could see that he slightly smiled—a smile with teeth in it. Exactly the same smile that I had observed just before the Kid had saved my life back at the old warehouse by knocking a couple of hoods into the next week.
“The guy’s name was Harry. Harry something or other. I can’t really remember anymore. Anyway, he was the head of “hiring” at Ford. But he wasn’t exactly hiring assembly line workers. Ford was at war with the new United Auto Workers Union. And more exactly they were at war with Walter Reuther.”
I remembered back to my high school history class days, and the formative years of one of the first great American labor unions. Walter Reuther was the first President of the United Automobile Workers of America—better known as simply the UAW. It was not especially popular with big business interests of the day. “I’m guessing the higher-ups at Ford wasn’t none too thrilled with Mr. Reuther, right?”
“Right, Johnny. Ford considered Reuther to be a commie pig, and they weren’t about to cave in to him. General Motors and Chrysler had already suffered costly sit-down strikes and signed labor agreements with him, but Ford wasn’t about to. They were bound and determined to make a stand. They wanted to teach him a lesson, and if they couldn’t do that—well, they wouldn’t have minded even one little bit seeing him end up good and dead.”
Going back to my mental history book, I remembered the airplane crash that had finally killed him. It was about a year or so before I had been born.
“Do you think they finally made him good and dead, Kid?”
“Possibly, Johnny. You have to remember though, that plane crash happened several decades after the events we’re talking about. If they did, it was pure payback. Labor laws and union contracts for more pay and better working conditions were well established by then. It would have been pretty pointless to kill him at that stage from a profit/loss standpoint. People die in plane crashes all the time. Sometimes things just happen for no real good reason, Johnny.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, my voice dripping with just a bit more than doubt. “Sometimes they just do. So what about this Harry guy?”
“I answered a sort of ‘cattle-call’. Ford wanted tough guys for their newly formed ‘security’ force.”
“Ford private police, right, Kid?”
“Right, Johnny. Strike-busters.”
“How many ‘cattle’ showed up, Kid?”
“Around a dozen, best I can remember. Hoods—every one of them. Pimps, bookies, and thugs. All strong young guys too.”
“Except for you.”
“Except for me. Harry took one look at me in my three piece suit and thinning gray hair and laughed in my face.”
“Mistake number one, Kid?”
“You bet, Johnny. Pissed me off good. Mistake number two was when he walked up to me and shoved me hard in the chest. Caught me off guard and I damned near fell over backward. Harry thought it was funny as hell and laughed again.”
“What did you do, Kid?” I was already beginning to see pretty much how this thing was going to play out.
“Well, after I got my balance back and straightened out my vest and jacket, I called him a miserable fat pig and asked him if he’d like to try that again. He did. Came at me with a fully cocked fist. His mitts were about the size of a small ham.”
“Never laid another hand on you, did he?”
“Only to shake my hand and offer me the job of head of security.”
“How bad did you work him over?”
“Enough so he’d remember it for damned sure. My last punch knocked him completely over the desk in his office and slammed his fat ass into his desk chair—backwards and upside down.”
I had to smile with the thought of it. Pretty much, I figured, people had been underestimating the Kid for most of his life. Not very long before—I had been one of them. It was easily a fatal mistake.
“He hate you for the beating enough to grab your kid?”
“No, Johnny. We became pretty good friends to be honest. I remember his name now. Bennet. ‘Big’ Harry Bennett. A semi-pro boxer and an ex-Navy guy.
“How ‘bout anyone else you roughed-up?”
“I doubt it. They were all small-fry, Johnny. Nameless, faceless factory workers. Just trying to keep a roof over their heads and a little food on the table.”
“Any regrets, Kid?” The Kid was silent for a few seconds as he thought it over. Finally he spoke.
“Naw. It was a tough old life, Johnny—back in those days. Hell—it still is.”
“Amen to that, Kid,” I replied. “Amen to that.”
Brick spoke up. “Tell Johnny about the world-famous corkscrew punch, pops.”
The Kid laughed a little. “It was my trademark. My finishing move. My ‘lights out’ punch. It was a left. But when it hit, I turned my wrist about ninety degrees. I really don’t think it was a damned bit better than any other decent left hook, but the crowd loved it and ate it up. I made up a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and hokum about developing it from the principals of gun barrel rifling. Another story was that I watched a cat batting around a ball of yarn. That’s all it was too. Just a yarn—another good old Kid McCoy tall tale. Public didn’t care. They couldn’t get enough. They just loved the ‘Kid.’”
Norman was silent for a long few seconds. Then he spoke. “It was a good life, Johnny. A damned good life. I don’t regret a thing I ever did. It was the god-damned time of my life.”
“You ever regret killing your wife?” I could tell that I had hit a nerve as the Kid’s face flushed a mild red.
“No sir,” he replied softly. “I regret that less than anything I ever did in my life.”
“Tell me about her.”
“I’d rather not, if you don’t mine.”
“I do mind, Kid. If your daughter wasn’t nabbed by union thugs, there’s a damned good chance the mystery revolves around your wife. After all, there’s not much else left—right?”
The Kid was silent again for several seconds. “Right. I guess. Okay, Johnny. I asked you for help. I guess you can’t do that if you don’t know it all.”
“I can’t go there without a little fortification, Johnny. You have to grant me that one.”
“I know a good bar, Johnny. Just a mile or so down the road.”
We rode on in silence. Finally the Kid slowed the car and right turned onto a lovely tree lined residential street. Odd place for a bar I thought, but as the Kid stopped in front of a rather quaint looking Victorian style two-story house, I could plainly see the lighted sign.
It said . . . The Stonehouse Bar.
Washington, D. C.
Weeks and Wiggins were as gentle as possible in lifting Shahida up and into the casket. Through the narrow slit in the unzipped portion of the body bad, Shahida could see Officer Pulini. Weeks and Wiggins had done a good job of tying him up. Pulini wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. A heavy gag protruded from his mouth—firmly taped over with duct tape. His hands were cuffed behind him, and also anchored with stout twist-ties. The ankles were identically secured, and then additionally chained around a rather large and heavy looking refrigerator. If Pulini tried kicking the refrigerator over, it would probably dislocate his hip joints as it went. Pulled toward him, the machine had a very good chance of killing him as it fell on him. Pulini was settling for laying very still on the floor, even as he shot hard looks at his adversaries.
Once inside the coffin, Shahida began to pour the fake blood over her body and head. It was an interesting combination—common tomato ketchup mixed with chocolate syrup and then slightly thinned with mineral oil, along with a dash of red food color. It was the same old tried and true combination used in the motion-picture trade for time immemorial. It did have its real-life drawbacks however. While visually very convincing, it would literally never pass the smell test if anyone were to examine the “corpse” very closely. Not a problem in the movies—here, the ketchup and pancake syrup odors presented a substantial risk.
Weeks and Wiggins zipped the bag shut and quickly closed the lid. It made a loud click as it snapped into place. The sound was more than a little jarring to Shahida. In her old country, she had heard the same sound many time. There however, the occupant of the casket didn’t care much, and would never rise again. Here, Shahida said a silent prayer to her new Christian God, imploring deity for assistance and assurance that she would soon see that lid open again. Shahida pushed her pistol deep into the small of her back. It felt cold against her naked skin. The darkness inside the casket was total and complete.
In a few moments, the casket began to move as Weeks and Wiggins opened the outer door and began pushing the gurney out. There was a slight pause as they stopped to lock the door behind them. Then movement began again as the trio started the simultaneously short, and very, very long walk to freedom and escape.
The procession ended abruptly as a muffled voice spoke up from outside the darkness of the box.
“Halt,” it said.
Once inside the Stonehouse bar, I was rather amazed at what had been done with the grand old residence. The ground floor had been widely opened up into a much larger and more usable space. There were probably a good baker’s dozen of tables and chairs scattered about. The tabletops were littered with drinks, drinkers, cards and card players. Even fairly early in the afternoon, the Stonehouse was a busy place. There were a set of stairs going up, but chained off. I had very little doubt that whatever was going on up there probably did not include drinking and gambling—or Sunday school lessons either.
The Kid strode up to the bar like he owned the place and ordered a double scotch—neat. Seemed like he’d done it before. Brick followed suit but settled for a draft beer. It looked delicious—a good old-fashioned foamy head and deep amber color. I could tell at a glance that beer quality must have been going down for a while. What I really wanted was something I was pretty sure they weren’t going to have—a Diet Coke. I tried for a glass of Club Soda on the rocks instead, and when the bar-keep didn’t do a double take, I figured I was probably home free—at least as far as the drinks went.
Wrong again—as per usual.
As the bartender turned away to fill my order, I felt a solid jar on the right side of my body as a big and burly guy pushed in close beside me. He didn’t have to—it wasn’t that crowded a bar.
“Hey, barkeep!” he bellowed. “Bring a whiskey on over for my new friend here.” He was a bruiser all right. Probably an inch or so over six feet, and he had a good solid forty to fifty pounds on me. “First one’s on the house for any friend of Kid McCoy!” he bellowed again. The Kid didn’t even bother to turn his head to look at us, although Brick was sizing the goomba up from the corner of his eye.
“You gonna be okay, Johnny?” he asked a little paternalistically.
“Yeah, brick—I’ll be fine. Thanks anyway.” I looked the guy over. He wasn’t about to win any beauty contests, that was for damned sure. His suit and vest had seen a lot better days. Just a little bit more than threadbare, and long past it’s prime. The plaid English driving cap perched crookedly on his noggin could sure as hell have used a good dry-cleaning as well. The face sitting under it didn’t look as though it had seen a lot of hot, soapy water in the very near past. His breath roiling out from the lumpy face did not exactly remind me of a lily-field either. A flame anywhere near it would have presented a clear and present danger.
“You got a name, pal?” I cordially asked, as I managed a friendly smile.
“Sam,” he bellowed once more, slurring his words slightly as he did so. “Sam Gabriel.” It was plain that his daily libations had begun considerably before ours.
I stuck out my hand and Sam took it, pumping it several times. He was no weakling. I could have sworn my feet slightly left the floor on the upswing. “Well, Sam, my name is O’Brien. Johnny O’Brien. Just Johnny to my friends. I thank you for the offer of a drink, but today I’m just having a soda. If you want to buy it for me, that’d be great—but that’s all I’m drinking today.” His face darkened at the rebuke, as his voice lowered an octave.
“Everybody new to the Stonehouse gets a free whiskey. That’s just the rule.”
“Rules are meant to be broken, Sam.”
“Sorry, Johnny—no exceptions to the rule.”
“Let me put this to you as plain and simple as I can, Sam. I don’t drink booze. Ever. I’m going to have a Club Soda today. If you’d like to have a friendly drink with me under those terms, I’d enjoy it. If not—well, just let me say right here at the outset—please don’t start in on me—because I really don’t like to hurt people.” I could see Brick smile a little on the edge of my vision.
“You’ve got a lot of confidence—for a little man,” Sam said.
“As a little man, I have to,” I replied. Sam backed up a pace. A couple of other patrons hurriedly backed up several more. It was plain they had seen old Sam in action before.
Brick casually leaned over a few inches closer to me and whispered, “Try to see the punch before he throws it, Johnny.”
“That’s your best advice, Brick?”
“Sorry. We didn’t exactly have time for the full course. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine—I’m sure you’re probably a pretty fast learner.”
I didn’t have time to thank Brick much for all the great advice he hadn’t given me before I felt Sam shove me hard with both of his massive hands. It backed me up a couple of steps and I was damned glad to have a little more room to move around in.
“Sam, I’m only going to say this once. I’m not in a good mood today. Matter of fact, I’m in a damned bad one. Please don’t screw around with me. You don’t have an idea in the world of what you’re starting here.”
“I’ll risk it,” he said as he pushed me again even harder.
That was it. I waded in. I threw what I thought was a pretty decent punch, but Sam caught my hand in his like a baseball in an oversized catcher’s mitt. His right smashed into the left side of my face and actually lifted me a couple of inches off the floor. I staggered but didn’t go down. Grabbing me by the front of my shirt and pulling me closer, Sam plowed his left into the other side of my mug. This time I hit the floor hard—but only after staggering into and overturning a table and breaking three or four glasses and mugs that had been sitting on it. The lights were getting a little dim by this point, and birds were beginning to make a faint chirping sound in my head.
It was shaping up to be a long afternoon.
Once more Sam was towering over me as he reached down and grabbed another handful of my shirt and hauled me to my feet, fully intending to turn my face and nose into blood and snot soup. I could see Brick and the Kid watching from the corner of my eye. They seemed contentedly unconcerned, and very unlikely to interfere. Sam pulled me to my feet as he lined up his right fist for the nightly-night punch. My eyes bore into his right balled-up hand as he cocked it back as far as he could go. In my mind’s eye, I could see the punch as it sailed toward me through the air. I could see it connecting with my head. Funny thing happened then though.
The punch, never reached my face . . .
Thanks so much for reading tonight. See you all again in a few days.
Dumb Joke of the day: