Just how lucky could a man get?
“Fif’teen two, fif’teen four ... and a point for the ace to make thirty-one ... and, of course, a dealer’s point ... that’s six and game!” Pilsner declared, with an entirely too self-satisfied grin on his homely bespectacled face. This was the third time this evening that he’d beaten me at cribbage – an unfortunately far from unusual occurrence. On a good night, I could maybe beat him one time out of three and most evenings three straight losses in a row would be about the limit my meager pride could take, but it seemed that we still had a bit of time to kill tonight.
Pilsner might be lucky at cards (he always was), but like me, he was unlucky in love ... and everything else that counted for that matter.
“One more, Chancer?” he asked, and I just nodded. Pilsner reset the pegs on the cribbage board and gathered up the cards to reshuffle them while I mournfully reexamined my empty beer cup. It was still empty, more’s the pity.
Beer was cheap enough here at the Arcade, just a dime for a big paper cup that’s almost but not quite a pint, but our pockets were extra lean this evening. Counting our scant change earlier in the evening, we’d decided to ration ourselves to just two beers each for the evening and call it our dinner. The other 35 cents we had left over would be needed, we’d figured, to put a single gallon of gas into the van later tonight. Gas was much cheaper, just under two-bits a gallon across the river tunnel west into Gardenia, but our van, (actually owned by Pilsner’s cheap-ass brother), was already running on fumes as it was. We’d never make it. Besides, we’d burn that up all of that gallon of cheaper gas just driving back across to Empire Island again, so what would be the point of trying.
Our scrounging had been real meager this last week, but without gas in the tank our plan for salvaging tonight would not happen. Scrounging for salvage meant we’d search out all of the factories, rail yards, local construction sites, and building renovation projects for unsecured property of value, anything not nailed down would be considered ours to take. And if something can be pried loose with a crowbar or the chain cut with bolt cutters, then it’s most definitely considered very unsecure, and still ours ... as long as we can fit it into the van before a security guard shows up.
Profit? Not so much ... whatever we scrounge, Pilsner’s older brother Michael will buy for his scrapyard on West 39th Street, for about a dime on each dollar that bastard will then resell it for later.
Cheating his own younger brother? Yeah, he’d do that ... and screw him over twice more on weekends! When his old man died about eight years ago (another mean and tight bastard), Pilsner should have gotten half of the scrap business, but he got cheated out of it when his older brother claimed everything. We were both upstate at the time, doing a short bit of state time for a bungled burglary. Then, we’d barely been back home again for a month when we quickly got pinched again during another fiasco landing an even longer sentence after that for a few more years of hard time. Since then, we’ve never had the dough to find a decent lawyer to fight it out for us and try and make things right.
So we work freelance for the bastard ... whenever nothing else better is available, which is unfortunately pretty much most of the time.
Getting a real job that earns a decent wage just ain’t going to happen for either of us. First of all, we’re Abattoir boys, raised on the mean streets of South Hell, below West 34th Street on the wild Westside. And we’ve both got two strikes now on our criminal record with no desire whatsoever to go down for a third time! So we scrounge and play it safe, which is way more important to us than angling for a fast or big score, especially as part of someone else’s caper. You can fool us once, but we won’t be suckered twice!
When we went on that first trip to the big house we were both young and stupid; a pair of palookas just barely old enough to get real time at a pen, and not just a brief visit to juvie hall anymore. The second time we’d gotten caught we were just the hired chumps for a local up-and-comer named ‘Rags’ Reilly and we got ribbed up, totally screwed when he quietly took the bunk and left us to be caught holding the bag. We could have taken a deal and ratted out the finks who’d made us their patsies (even the dim peepers who pinched us could tell that we were just cheap hired help) but we stayed mum and took the rap.
It’s not wise to rat on anyone here in the Westside, especially South Hell ... or worse, our local streets between West 34th and 14th that we locals all fondly call the Abattoir, named after all of the slaughterhouses that used to be there. It’s pure skid row and the end of the line for most people; the hardest and meanest streets there are on this island, where you can’t sink down any further and all hopes go to die.
Rags got his street name because he was the fanciest dresser in the entire Westside. He was also best pals with Micha since their school days which made me wonder if Pilsner’s brother had planned to set us both up right from the start? Getting his buddy to patsy us up for one of his capers just to conveniently get rid of us for a while!
Unfortunately, Rags lammed off on his own not too long before Pils and I made parole last year. I’d been waiting eagerly to do some jawing with him to find out why he stung us ... and get him to spill if Micha had put him up to it! All the trouble boys and wise men I’ve asked locally since have given us squat because they protect their own around here and don’t take sides in most petty local squabbles. Pils and I are just low level associates of this outfit, at best, which earns us usually squat for respect. No one willing to discuss the matter with us admits to having a definite wire on him or has seen him here in the neighborhood since, nor up in North Hell either. We did hear one vague rumor that he was a capo for one of the Jewish outfits running the garment district now. Another yap put us wise that instead he was a button man (a made-man and proven loyal killer) for one of the Italian rackets in the theater district. Either way, he wasn’t wearing out much shoe leather on these hard, unfriendly streets around here these days.
He’ll turn up eventually ... and then we’ll give him the third degree until we get answers.
Tonight, we’re here because we heard on the street a vague rumor that maybe something’s happening, at least for some of the bigger mugs working our local outfit, so perhaps just maybe a small crumb or two from it might land our way. That’s why we’re here at the Arcade just inside the southern border of South Hell proper, sitting and waiting ... just hoping we might get a little lucky – for once.
I’ve been familiar with the Arcade for the most of my life and I still think it’s one of the more handsome buildings in SoHell. It’s also something of a local landmark, marking the division between South Hell and the lower Abattoir neighborhoods. It was neutral territory for all the independent street gangs of the Westside, back in the day, before the current Irish organization solidified its hold during Prohibition. You can’t miss it, it’s a three-story red brick building with bright neon window lights right at the northeast corner of West 34th and 10th Avenue. It’s still a pretty swell sort of joint inside too. Back in the 1920’s, after the First War when my father moved to Empire Island, it was a run-down second-hand furniture store with tenements on the top two floors. Then the ground floor was converted into a sweets shop with a long walnut bar counter with a soda fountain.
When we were teens, the place was turned into a bar and game room, complete with pinball and other game machines and pool tables. That’s when it got the fancy flashing neon ‘Arcade’ sign outside too. Instead of neighborhood families and kids, spending their scarce coins on a weekend evening sweet treat, now the joint is full of booze hounds, muscle-boy brunos and gunsels, hatchet men and their molls. Or locals paying off or wanting favors, or just there to show respect ... to see and be seen on a Saturday night.
The long walnut bar counter is still there, but behind the counter it’s beer that’s poured there now, and stronger stuff too, if you’ve got the taste and cabbage to pay for it. The wood and the long brass foot-rails could do with a bit of a polishing up but really not that much over the years has changed in here.
Upstairs, everything has been remodeled and is new. The whole second floor is now an after-hours nightclub and casino, but you’re a sucker if you think that you’ll beat the house’s odds up there! Empire Island and greater Megatropolis have no shortage of those folks, though, and it can get pretty busy here on most weekend nights. It’s a popular local place to take the fancy lady for a bit of sport, if one has the dough to burn. It’s also a swell place to meet the local chippies, in their best (and tightest) dresses, who are always looking to spot a charming young mug or promising gunsel on his way up. Those gals on the prowl never look even once at either Pilsner or me, though.
Above the club, the whole third floor is the private digs and office of our local big boss, Connor O’Neil, crime boss of the Lower Westside. From here, he calls all the shots for SoHell and the Abattoir. You don’t ask to see him ... if he wants you, he’ll send for you. That’s usually bad news. His father was the infamous ‘Smiley’ O’Neil, ‘the banty rooster from hell’, who was a legendary street fighter, known for his skills with a lead pipe or a gun in territorial disputes with rivals ... namely anyone in the entire Westside that didn’t kneel to him. By the end of Prohibition, he was boss of bosses of the entire Mid-Westside and his former Irish street gang ruled all organized crime in his territory ... and a seat of honor at the table when all of Empire Island’s top bosses met, and on equal terms with the other kingpin’s from the other surrounding boroughs of Megatropolis. Or so they say.
Not a bad inheritance! These once nearly entirely Irish slums and ramshackle tenements are now much more diversely mixed, mostly with Italians now, but also Poles (like Pilsner’s family) and other European refugee families from the last war without a dime in their pockets. The younger and bolder greaser street gangs are starting to give the older Irish leadership a bit of trouble and they want their own territories. Especially the Italians ... who want to formally put our outfit under the heel of one of the five local Mafia families.
Some chinwaggers say sooner rather than later, there will be a new war for control of the Westside. Others think that it will all work itself out peacefully. Me? If I had to lay down a wager, I’d guess that the younger Italian street gangs are likely to want to fight it out. This new generation from the streets, like Pilsner and myself, were all too young to have been mass drafted as army fodder for the Pacific War. Unlike most of the older vets here in O’Neil’s organization, most of those younger kids just don’t likely know what being in a ‘war’ really means ... and these older killers are going to likely teach the young angry snots a hard lesson or two before their will be some lasting peace around here again!
Connor is supposedly not quite the crazed killer and sociopath that his father was ... and today he doesn’t command all the local streets and gangland associates that his old man once did. His old man also didn’t have to deal with the growing territorial menaces from ‘costumed super-villains’ (or heroines) either! Some things before the last war were just simpler, it seems to me.
Anyway, I know the Arcade well, every damn inch of it. It was my father’s business, that original depression era candy store, and I was born right upstairs on the second floor, where we lived ... until dad made a foolish gamble and lost, well ... everything. My life was never the same again afterwards.
So here we are, killing time by playing cards. We usually come here on Saturday evenings, mostly just to be ‘seen’, to show token respect to the big boss in charge of the entire Westside, and be there in the extremely unlikely event the great man or one of his lieutenants deigns to bestow any largess upon some of his lowest-rung minions and subjects. The beer is cheap here too and it’s not a bad place for us to while away a few hours while playing cribbage. If we’ve got a pair of dimes to spare for the beers, then we’ll kill time playing cards here.
We might be two sad palookas on the lowest rung of associates here, but everyone knows us here and tolerates us. Pilsner and I have paid our dues to the organization; namely by two visits to upstate prisons because we wouldn’t rat on other Westsiders. There’s talk, I hear, of a proposed law calling for automatic life imprisonment for any criminal convicted more than three times, so please God, don’t let there ever be another, third time for us!
The joint was starting to get crowded, but no one pushed us off our table or told us to scram. As usual, we’d parked ourselves at the least desirable table, the one right next to the front door and in front of the big picture window overlooking West 34th. No one with a rep ever wanted those seats, to be clearly visible from the street and maybe be the first one blown down if some trouble boys with choppers came by burning powder and Chicago thunder. So our table was usually safe, and everyone knew that neither Pilsner nor I ever packed a roscoe. No guns for us ... that’s why we’ll never become made men or ever become trusted associates for this or any other organization.
We started our fourth game of cribbage, but my card luck hadn’t changed in the least bit. Pilsner ran off a fast set of scores, easily reaching his first thirty-one before I could even move a single peg. It was then, I think, that something different happened and everything ... well, changed, when She walked into the Arcade.
She wasn’t a floor-stopping beauty. In fact, once she walked in the front door, my head was the only one that turned to follow her. To my eyes, she was what they’d call ‘handsome’ or striking, rather than pretty and she certainly wasn’t a beauty. She didn’t flow across the room, in her long jade-green dress, like some Hollywood goddess, and in fact her heels were low sensible ones, not designed to show off her ankles to the guys ... but she moved with a sense of confidence that no other woman I’d ever met possessed. She was clearly on the wrong side of thirty, but her face seemed ageless and perhaps a bit dark and exotic. One of the new local immigrant Dolly’s, I thought. Probably Daigo or Greek, in complexion at my first glance, but also something there suggested a trace of the more Asian in her appearance too, but I really couldn’t say with any certainty.
All I could say, or really could much recall later, fixed within my memory as she walked past our table to the bar counter was the faint wee-trace of the smile she had given me when she had briefly glanced in our direction! Now, I don’t mind a slightly older broad myself, but those sorts of mature dames that swing their heels into the Arcade usually don’t have a taste for what little I can offer.
I’m not particularly tall, anything but dark and a bit too shopworn to be considered handsome, even in poor bar lighting. For being just on the friendlier side of thirty, most of my features are put together alright enough, except perhaps there’s a bit too much of a sharp nose and my already thinning hair looks better covered with my beat-up old hat. As for Pilsner, he’s even shorter, barely five feet in height, with an already balding round head, a pug nose and a pallid solid figure that tended to turn into stoutness instead of muscle whenever he enjoys the luxury of regular meals.
There’s nothing at all wrong with my eyes though, and I gave her a long contemplative look as she walked past our table. Pilsner’s eyes were fixed upon his cards, his dim eyes squinting to focus on the pips. If it wasn’t for his thick cheap cheaters, he’d be just about as blind as a bat.
She wasn’t Pilsner’s type of broad, so I didn’t give him a nudge so he could turn around and check her out. Pils tended to get dizzy for the younger chubby-chippie types with plenty of baby-fat on their frames. The closer they are to being just barely-legal, and the thicker the ankles, the better. He thinks that the younger, plumper skirts with meaty gams have rounder heels than the more ripe tomatoes that were lookers, or older dames with style ... like this one.
Oddly, none of the other guys near the bar paid much attention to her. They gave her nothing more than a token glace before returning to whatever discussion or amusement they had been engaged in. That was more than odd, as you could usually count on at least one lonely wolf rushing to engage any solo female daring to walk through the door, even the older specimens of that sex. Accord to the newspapers, there’s at least five gals out there for every four palooka’s like us, but the Arcade admittedly wasn’t where most of the island’s choicer dolls went to find a man.
She ordered a Sidecar, some trendy mixed cocktail I’d never heard of, from Otto, the night bartender. Strangely, even ‘Knuckles’ McKlusky, his assistant and our resident bouncer, hardly looked at her twice. Just to her right side sitting at the bar counter was my local street boss from the Abattoir, Antonio, who gave her a faint smile that probably mirrored hers and she took the barstool next to his.
Now I knew Antonio ‘Drake’ Draconelli about as well as anyone. He was a cock’s-man of the first grade and not the sort at all to ignore an obviously single woman of any age, weight, height or temperament. He could usually snare any dame just with a smile and a crook of his finger ... but his eyes promptly returned to his own beer. He remained oddly indifferent to her presence, until she pulled out her coin purse to pay and several coins spilled out from her fingers onto the floor. As they fell, he glanced downwards at them, but didn’t offer to bend down to assist her.
She gathered up the spilled silver coins, all except for the last one which sounded like a big fat silver dollar which had rolled under Drake’s barstool. Now when she looked down on the floor for it, she couldn’t find it. While her eyes were elsewhere, gathering up the other spilled coins, he had smoothly slid his shoe over it, covering his petty windfall claim.
“Nope, I don’t see anything else over here!” He grinned at her and she shrugged indifference.
Now that was pretty cheap of Drake! As a neighborhood capo, one of Connor’s senior lieutenants, dollars fell into and out of his pockets far more frequently than they did for most folks. I wanted to say something ... but Drake was a very dangerous man to cross, and especially touchy about anything that would cause him to lose face in public. He’d been one of the nastier school bullies, back when we were young, and he had taken to life on our mean streets like an alley cat finding a room full of docile mice. Back then, we all called him ‘Terrible’ Tony but he hated that diminutive and preferred to be called ‘Drake’ on the street. Only his grandmother calls him Tony. He thought that this nickname sounded strong, being both short and powerful, like he was. Drake wasn’t much taller than Pilsner, but he was built for both strength and speed, and just smart enough to know how to take advantage of both.
We had a history, old and newer, but he held no grudges against us ... and I wanted to keep it that way. In the now mostly Italian immigrant tenements of the Abattoir, he was already something of a street legend, and the kids all looked to him for their role model. No minor hood boss anywhere in the entire Westside had as many street soldiers as he did or was as quick to rumble with any other neighboring minor gang or outfit that didn’t give him due respect. He was also Connor’s #1 life-taker ... and he liked the work.
Being two years older than us, he’d been drafted up in 1946 and spent the next two years killing Japs on their home islands, then another two more years killing Nip guerilla holdouts in Korea. It was good training, he always laughed, for his civilian job!
Drake was ambitious ... you could just see it in his eyes that he thought he should be the top boss for the entire Abattoir, and then probably even the rest of SoHell too. And sometime soon. I sure wasn’t going to stand in his way! Also, since sometimes he tossed a few small crumbs our way, we needed any sort of patronage we could get.
It was then that I noticed that another of her coins had rolled right over to me, resting right next to my right shoe, just under our table. She apparently hadn’t seen it roll in my direction at all ... and it was a gold coin! Small, maybe the size of a nickel but thinner, like an old-fashioned five-dollar piece, but to me it was an absolute fortune of a windfall!
I bent over to pick it up and in a flash my mind considered all the things that I could buy with it - like a really good solid meal for the first time in weeks, but even holding it between my fingers just didn’t set right with me. It was an old coin, maybe a very old antique one, with a worn-out image of some classical woman in robes on it and even before my fingers closed tightly around it I’d made my decision.
I’ve been poor nearly every day of my life and done time twice for burglary, but I’ve never once robbed or stolen from anyone to their face, especially from a woman!
“Lady ... here. You’ve dropped this!” I said to her with just a bit of a nervous stutter as I walked over toward her and held the coin out for her to take. She looked at it, and at me, then at the coin again, and slowly she began to smile at me, and the sensation chilled my spine. Suddenly, I was too tongue-tied and embarrassed to move, let alone say another word to her.
“Really? How astonishing! I thought I’d picked them all up. Oh! And a gold aureus too ... now that was quite careless of me! Would you like a small reward? You know, you could have kept that coin, I’d have never missed it, and sold it for far more than you’d ever realize!” I had considered just that, for a very brief moment. The shame of this helped to unfreeze my jaws, just for a moment, and somehow I found the temerity to actually meet her eyes with mine.
“But then, if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had my pride. I’ve only got a hat, a coat and my self-respect, that’s it. My hat and my coat are for sale or pawn ... and probably will be by tomorrow, but at least I’ll still have my pride.”
I gave her a smile and a very slight wink of my eyes as I started to turn away from her to return to my table, but suddenly her hand reached out for mine and she pressed a small silver coin about the size and weight of a dime into my palm,. It was warm, almost hot to the touch; it gave me a sharp sudden burning sensation in my palm that was intense, but only lasted for just a moment. Imbued with the fading warmth from her hand, my fingers clinched it tight as I walked back to my table.
Pilsner looked up at me as I sat back down, unaware of the scene that had just transpired behind his back, and then we sat in silence for a while. He’d been intensely focused on his cards, and hadn’t turned around even once to look towards the lady ... who was now gone. I hadn’t seen her heading towards the back stairs going up to the nightclub, neither had I heard the front door behind Pilsner open again or seen her walk past, if she had left.
Well ... I had been a bit distracted by this whole dropped coins business – and apparently I remained a bit unfocused for the next ten minutes or so, as Pilsner continued to soundly out-peg me in our cribbage game. Some things just never seem to change.
I thought about using her dime to buy another beer, but somehow that just didn’t seem right to me. Not to mention that the old well-worn silver coin she had given me had a small hole drilled in it near the top, probably so someone could once wear it as an earring or on a necklace. Otto probably wouldn’t accept it anyway, and that would get me in Dutch with him and Knuckles ... and perhaps maybe the big boss upstairs too.
I decided that the coin probably was old, but likely not very valuable in its worn-out and damaged condition and hardly worth taking to a pawn shop or old coin dealer. It was probably nothing but a token she had given out of sentiment, and thus of negligible actual value. So, I put the coin into my left front jeans pocket, apart from the rest of my scant pocket change, and promptly forgot all about the gift token and the entire incident almost entirely.