Garden Of Beasts Excerpt
The Button Man
Monday, 13 July, 1936
As soon as he stepped into the dim apartment he knew he was dead.
He wiped sweat off his palm, looking around the place, which was quiet as a morgue, except for the faint sounds of Hell’s Kitchen traffic late at night and the ripple of the greasy shade when the swiveling Monkey Ward fan turned its hot breath toward the window.
The whole scene was off.
Out of kilter . . .
Malone was supposed to be here, smoked on booze, sleeping off a binge. But he wasn’t. No bottles of corn anywhere, not even the smell of bourbon, the punk’s only drink. And it looked like he hadn’t been around for a while. The New York Sun on the table was two days old. It sat next to a cold ashtray and a glass with a blue halo of dried milk halfway up the side.
He clicked the light on.
Well, there was a side door, like he’d noted yesterday from the hallway, looking over the place. But it was nailed shut. And the window that let onto the fire escape? Brother, sealed nice and tight with chicken wire he hadn’t been able to see from the alley. The other window was open but was also forty feet above cobblestones.
No way out . . .
And where was Malone? Paul Schumann wondered.
Malone was on the lam, Malone was drinking beer in Jersey, Malone was a statue on a concrete base underneath a Red Hook pier.
Whatever’d happened to the booze hound, Paul realized, the punk had been nothing more than bait, and the wire that he’d be here tonight was pure bunk.
In the hallway outside, a scuffle of feet. A clink of metal.
Out of kilter . . .
Paul set his pistol on the room’s one table, took out his handkerchief and mopped his face. The searing air from the deadly Midwest heat wave had made its way to New York. But a man can’t walk around without a jacket when he’s carrying a 1911 Colt .45 in his back waistband and so Paul was condemned to wear a suit. It was his single-button, single-breasted gray linen. The white-cotton, collar-attached shirt was drenched.
Another shuffle from outside in the hallway, where they’d be getting ready for him. A whisper, another clink.
Paul thought about looking out the window but was afraid he’d get shot in the face. He wanted an open casket at his wake and he didn’t know any morticians good enough to fix bullet or bird shot damage.
Who was gunning for him? he wondered.
It wasn’t Luciano, of course, the man who’d hired him to touch off Malone. It wasn’t Meyer Lansky either. They were dangerous, yeah, but not snakes. Paul’d always done top-notch work for them, never leaving a bit of evidence that could link them to the touch-off. Besides, if either of them wanted Paul gone, they wouldn’t need to set him up with a bum job. He’d simply be gone.
So who’d snagged him? If it was O’Banion or Rothstein from Williamsburg or Valenti from Bay Ridge, well, he’d be dead in a few minutes.
If it was dapper Tom Dewey, the death would take a bit longer—whatever time was involved to convict him and get him into the electric chair up in Sing-Sing.
More voices in the hall. More clicks, metal seating against metal.
But looking at it one way, he reflected wryly, everything was silk so far; he was still alive.
And thirsty as hell.
He walked to the Kelvinator and opened it. Three bottles of milk—two of them curdled—and a box of Kraft cheese and one of Sunsweet tenderized peaches. Several Royal Crown colas. He found an opener and removed the cap from a bottle of the soft drink.
From somewhere he heard a radio. It was playing “Stormy Weather.”
Sitting down at the table again, he noticed himself in the dusty mirror on the wall above a chipped enamel washbasin. His pale blue eyes weren’t as alarmed as they ought to be, he supposed. His face was, though, weary. He was a large man—over six feet and weighing more than two hundred pounds. His hair was from his mother’s side, reddish brown; his fair complexion from his father’s German ancestors. The skin was a bit marred—not from pox but from knuckles in his younger days and EverLast gloves more recently. Concrete and canvas too.
Sipping the soda pop. Spicier than Coca-Cola. He liked it.
Paul considered his situation. If it was O’Banion or Rothstein or Valenti, well, none of them gave a good goddamn about Malone, a crazy riveter from the shipyards turned punk mobster, who’d killed a beat cop’s wife and done so in a pretty unpleasant way. He’d threatened more of the same to any law that gave him trouble.
Every boss in the area, from the Bronx to Jersey, was shocked at what he’d done. So even if one of them wanted to touch off Paul, why not wait until after he’d knocked off Malone?
Which meant it was probably Dewey.
The idea of being stuck in the caboose till he was executed depressed him. Yet, truth be told, in his heart Paul wasn’t too torn up about getting nabbed. Like when he was a kid and would jump impulsively into fights against two or three kids bigger than he was, sooner or later he’d eventually pick the wrong guys and end up with a broken bone. He’d known the same thing about his recent career: that ultimately a Dewey or an O’Banion would bring him down.
Thinking of one of his father’s favorite expressions: “On the best day, on the worst day, the sun finally sets.” The round man would snap his colorful suspenders and add, “Cheer up, P.S. Tomorrow’s a whole new horse race.”
He jumped when the phone rang.
Paul looked at the black Bakelite for a long moment. On the seventh ring, or the eighth, he answered. “Yeah?”
“Paul,” a crisp, young voice said. No neighborhood slur.
“You know who it is.”
“I’m up the hall in another apartment. There’re six of us here. Another half dozen on the street.”
Twelve? Paul felt an odd calm. Nothing he could do about twelve. They’d get him one way or the other. He sipped more of the Royal Crown. He was so damn thirsty. The fan wasn’t doing anything but moving the heat from one side of the room to the other. He asked, “You working for the boys from Brooklyn or the West Side? Just curious.”
“Listen to me, Paul. Here’s what you’re going to do. You only have two guns on you, right? The Colt. And that little twenty-two. The others are back in your apartment?”
Paul laughed. “That’s right.”
“You’re going to unload them and lock the slide of the Colt open. Then walk to the window that’s not sealed and pitch them out. Then you’re going to take your jacket off, drop it on the floor, open the door and stand in the middle of the room with your hands up in the air. Stretch ’em way up high.”
“You’ll shoot me,” he said.
“You’re living on borrowed time anyway, Paul. But if you do what I say you might stay alive a little longer.”
The caller hung up.
He dropped the hand piece into the cradle. He sat motionless for a moment, recalling a very pleasant night a few weeks ago. Marion and he had gone to Coney Island for miniature golf and hot dogs and beer, to beat the heat. Laughing, she’d dragged him to a fortuneteller at the amusement park. The fake gypsy had read his cards and told him a lot of things. The woman had missed this particular event, though, which you’d think should’ve showed up somewhere in the reading if she was worth her salt.
Marion. . . . He’d never told her what he did for a living. Only that he owned a gym and he did business occasionally with some guys who had questionable pasts. But he’d never told her more. He realized suddenly that he’d been looking forward to some kind of future with her. She was a dime-a-dance girl at a club on the West Side, studying fashion design during the day. She’d be working now; she usually went till 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. How would she find out what happened to him?
If it was Dewey he’d probably be able to call her.
If it was the boys from Williamsburg, no call. Nothing.
The phone began ringing again.
Paul ignored it. He slipped the clip from his big gun and unchambered the round that was in the receiver, then he emptied the cartridges out of the revolver. He walked to the window and tossed the pistols out one at a time. He didn’t hear them land.
Finishing the soda pop, he took his jacket off, dropped it on the floor. He started for the door but paused. He went back to the Kelvinator and drank down another Royal Crown. Then he wiped his face again, opened the front door, stepped back and lifted his arms.
The phone stopped ringing.
# # #