PONDHOPPER : NUMBER FIVE
I mentioned Howling Jack Lanigan in connection with another case, but didn’t go into detail. Although we both operated in the same city I’d somehow, perhaps naively, never expected to have anything to do with the man on a one-to-one basis, so was surprised to get a phone call from him. He won’t mind my telling you about this now. He won’t mind anything, as he is, to paraphrase Omar Khayyam, himself with yesterday’s seven thousand years, having succumbed to a fast-moving object with a diameter of 9mm.
I was in a trough. No case for four weeks. It was difficult enough for me, but I’d begun to think about how things must be for the mice. I was having visions of them sitting around a table in plenary session, discussing the wisdom of broaching their strategic reserves. I wondered about that for a while, then I wondered what the hell was wrong with me. At such times, I was consoled by the fact that I didn’t have a pulchritudinous secretary, catering for my every need and engaging me in airy badinage. It would have been a tough job telling her that she’d have to go. To make me feel that bit better, snow was falling.
I’d considered going downstairs to buy a couple of newspapers, then thought about the trees falling to produce them. I had trouble handling that, possibly because I’d recently gone through my third reading of Richard St. Barbe Baker’s superb book ‘Green Glory’, which dealt with the world’s forests and the human depredations on them. Furthermore, I didn’t really want to know what the rags had to say, even if it was accurate. I never was one to prejudice my social views with the facts. Not that I am knocking the fourth estate, you understand. Whenever I get the inclination to do that, I think of the fellow who asked whether the majority of people would prefer a press without a government, or a government without a press. Good question, isn’t it?
I was about to call it a day when the phone rang. I picked up, but got no chance to introduce myself, as an ultra-gruff voice came at me almost before I’d got the receiver to my ear. “That Cyril Potts?”
“The same,” I said. Suave.
“Lanigan here. Maybe you heard of me.”
I was taken aback, but recovered quickly. “Would that be Jack Lanigan?”
“Right,” he grunted. “I got a proposition that might interest you. How about you drop in, pretty soon?”
I didn’t care for the sound of that, but as I’ve indicated, times were hard. “Sure,” I said. “Where?”
“Right here,” he said.
“And that would be?”
“My place. The White Rose Club.
“I know it,” I said. “I can spare you a little time now, if you’re –”
He didn’t care. “Okay. Fifteen minutes, right?”
“Fine,” I said.
I couldn’t think what a man like Howling Jack Lanigan might want from the likes of me. I mean, most of the time, we were on opposite sides of the law. I believe I mentioned elsewhere that Lanigan got his nickname from his habit of emitting wolf-like howls at anything that tickled him. As far as I knew, his main business was gambling, but there were other little matters, such as pimping, protection and so on. I’d always thought of him as a relic from bygone days, though in his way he was a big wheel. I’d seen him twice, both times from a distance, and had no overwhelming desire to meet him. Still, he ran the White Rose Club, and I was a transplant from England’s white rose county. Something there, perhaps? An omen? Anyway, there couldn’t be any harm in talking, could there?
I reached the club on time and was admitted to the lair. My host hadn’t stinted himself with regard to personal space. The office, or rather study – embossed red and gold wallpaper made the difference – was nearly twice the size of my den, and reeked of money. Behind an impressive acreage of oak, Lanigan got up from a swivel-and-tilt chair. He was a big man, about six-two, not deep-chested but wide, with high square shoulders. He was a granite slab. I think he stood up only to show me that there was plenty of him. He didn’t offer to shake hands. “Well, we meet at last,” he said, in a voice like falling gravel. “I heard about you. Sit.”
I sat. “I’m not accustomed to being preceded by my fame,” I said.
“Don’t be modest. You’ve a reputation for gettin’ things done.”
That was further news to me, but if it was what he thought, I didn’t see any point in disabusing him. “I seem to manage,” I said. “What’s up?”
“We’ll get to that in a minute. Now look, I checked in the phone book an’ you’re down there as C. J. Potts. I want to know what the J stands for – an’ I hope you’re not goin’ to disappoint me.”
The idea of doing that was not attractive, but I had no reasonable choice “It’s John,” I said. I didn’t know why my parents threw in the middle name. Maybe they did it in case I might have disagreed with their first choice. I’d never asked them.
“Well, that’s okay,” he said. “John’s like jack, right?”
“Some people regard it that way.”
“So, we’re two Jacks, ain’t we?
“Two Jacks indeed,” I said.
“That’s a funny one.”
I grinned. “Hilarious.”
“You know,” he said, “I once won five hundred dollars at poker with two jacks.”
“Congratulations,” I replied.
“’Course,” he went on, “I had three nines as well. Full house. You don’t get that too many times.” He threw his head back and I thought I was going to be treated to the wolf-call, but he just chortled. “Now,” he said, “you can help me out. I’m a little short-handed right now. I need somethin’ took care of an’ I think you’re my man.”
“Just a minute, Jack,” I said. “Let’s get things straight. I’m a PI. Generally, I work on the side of right, truth and justice.”
“Well, the last thing I want to do is offend you, but the word is that some of your operations are, shall we say, borderline?” I was acutely uncomfortable.
Lanigan had been rocking back in his chair. Now he fell forwards, his fearsome paws slamming down on the desk. I was afraid I’d annoyed him, but I was wrong. “Peeper,” he growled, “I like you.”
“That’s right. You have class. I think you’re my kinda people.”
I was relieved and would have been happy to quit while ahead, but that wasn’t on Lanigan’s agenda. “I have a little problem,” he said. “You ever heard of Horsehead Mulrooney?”
“Yes,” I said. “I hear he’s very big just north of here.”
“You hear right. In a way, he’s a business associate. He runs his area an’ I run mine. Normally no trouble, but we’ve had a disagreement.”
God preserve me from a gang war. “How so?” I said.
Lanigan leaned back. “You don’t need the story. What concerns you is that Mulrooney’s mad at me an’ he’s sent in his top torpedo, Slugs Kalinski, to look me up. You know Kalinski?”
“I’ve heard of him,” I said. “They say he’s a good man not to know. Anyway, what about your own boys?”
“That’s the snag,” said Lanigan. “Ordinarily, I could take care of Kalinski with one hand tied behind me, but right now I’m in a touchy situation. I can’t afford distractions, an’ as to my boys, the best one’s out in Hawaii an’ I can’t get him back right now an’ – can you beat this? – my other three real soldiers are down with flu. Serves ‘em right for livin’ in the same apartment, but still, I need a good man – an’ it means a big score for you.”
“That’s all very well, Jack,” I said, “but it raises questions.”
“What questions?” he grunted.
“First, you and Mulrooney. I mean, how about the all Irishmen together thing?”
“Forget it,” he said. “It’s every man for himself in this game.”
“Okay,” I said, “but then there’s the legal side?”
Lanigan spread his hands. “Look at it this way,” he said. “You’re a sorta copper. Now, what’s a copper’s first duty? Preventin’ crime, ain’t it?”
I knew this was a verbal trap, but I walked into it. Any psychiatrist would have concluded that my reaction was linked to my financial state – and would have pocketed more per hour than I did. “Let’s say you’re right,” I said. “So what?”
“Just this, my friend. Kalinski’s here in town, at the Mount Pleasant hotel, an’ he aims to do me a little no good, like with a dose of lead. You can stop him. That’s crime prevention, ain’t it? An’ like I say, you’ll come out way ahead.”
That was a good one, I had to admit. His argument had a certain logic. Maybe specious was the word. “What do you mean by a big score for me?” I said.
Lanigan flopped even further back in his chair. He knew he’d won. “What are your fees, Cyril?”
I told him and he laughed out loud. Still not lupine, but impressive. “Man, are you in the wrong business,” he said. “Look, see to this matter for me an’ I’ll give you that an’ plenty more. An’ you could settle things in a day or two. How about it?”
I was unhappy, but I’ve already said enough to indicate that rent was uppermost in my mind. “Okay, Jack,” I said, “but I don’t usually kill people, you understand?”
“Well, that’s a drawback,” he said. “but look, just discourage Kalinski, an’ if I’m satisfied, you’ll not find me small-minded.”
Having taken the job, I left Lanigan and headed for the hotel he’d mentioned. When I got there, it was dark. The temperature had risen a little and the snow had changed to sleet. I knew the place. It was good but not snooty. The sort of spot that I imagined Slugs Kalinski would pick. There was an alleyway nearly opposite the canopied entrance, so I took up station there, waiting and thinking. I’d just about done enough of both and decided to confront Horsehead Mulrooney’s bully boy when a man came my way. He was walking slowly and seemed to be staring at me. I put him at about five-eleven and probably two-ten or so. He reached the mouth of the alley then turned, showing me a bulge in his raincoat pocket. “Down there,” he said, nodding at the gloom. “Quick – no fuss.”
At that point, it occurred to me that once again I’d set out on a job unarmed. That wasn’t as big a hitch as you might imagine. First, I’d never used my .38 in anger. Second, I was a lousy hand with it. Third, if a man goes around shooting people, he might wind up facing awkward questions.
To this day, I don’t know why I did as I was told. True, the fellow appeared to have a gun and he outweighed me by thirty pounds or so, but I could have run for it or tried to outface him or caused a scene. I didn’t do any of those things. Make what you like of that. Possibly I was mesmerised. Anyway, I allowed myself to be hustled along, wondering whether I was to receive a bullet or just get beaten up. Attached as I was to the general idea of keeping my blood inside my skin, I was alarmed. I could already feel myself horizontal, the ape’s footwear cracking my ribs. He’d probably have shoes with steel toecaps. Ugh!
“You’re Kalinski?” I said, over my shoulder.
“Right,” he grunted.
“How did you make me?”
He chuckled. “Easy. I was watchin’ Lanigan’s place. Saw you go in an’ come out. I knew Jack was short-handed, so figured you for stand-in muscle. I followed you on a hunch an’ what do you know, I catch up with you snoopin’ around my hotel. That don’t need no Einstein. I’ll see to you first, then I get a clear run at Jack.”
This wasn’t an occasion for levity, but I gave it a stab. “You wouldn’t hit a man who wears glasses, would you?”
“You ain’t got glasses.”
“I could get some.” That didn’t elicit a reply.
We were in a blind alley, about thirty yards long and a depressing spot. Lining one side were bits of old, rusting machinery. The other side was given over to general garbage. There was a big dumpster, then a row of large metal trash cans, one of which was lying on its side, most of its contents scattered on the paving. Piled up beyond the bins was a dismantled wooden staircase. The treads and risers, some flattened, some intact, were in one heap, the former uprights and what had been the banister, now chopped into five or six sections, in another.
We reached the stacked woodwork. Less than ten yards to go to the end wall. I’d love to report that what happened in the next few seconds was attributable to my PI training - Lesson Eight: Disarming an Assailant. In truth, it was entirely accidental. One of the bits of the old staircase had fallen off the pile. I stumbled over it, measuring my length in the slush.
It seemed like the ultimate indignity, adopting the prone position to accommodate my adversary. Assuming that I was pulling a stunt, Kalinski jumped forwards just as I rolled over onto my back, flapping my limbs like an overturned tortoise. My right foot connected inadvertently with his left shin. His own momentum did the rest, bringing him face-down alongside me.
I leapt up and here, design took over from accident. If there isn’t a saying about desperation lending wings to thought, there should be. The gorilla was cursing as he started to rise. If he made it, I was done for. I looked around. The toppled trash can was only six feet from me. Providence! I picked it up – and I can still feel how heavy it was, even only a quarter full. But it was about the right size. Kalinski had got to his knees when I dumped the thing over his head. It was a near-perfect fit, jamming his shoulders, reaching down below his elbows and disgorging all manner of things I’d rather not describe.
My man was nicely set up, but what to do about it? Fate again. The sections of the old banister were within easy reach. I picked up the nearest one. It was roughly four by two inches and about five feet long. On the whole, I’d have preferred something in iron, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Kalinski was back on his feet, struggling to shed the bin.
I went in like a lumberjack, whacking that cylinder from one side then the other, left, right, left, dang, bing, dong. It was pure Laurel and Hardy. No, make that The Three Stooges. I began to settle into a pleasing rhythm.
He was tough. If they come any harder, I don’t want to meet them. The shock and racket inside there must have been terrifying. He reeled and tottered like a drunk seeking a lamp-post, but he didn’t fall, or even stumble. A real professional.
I thought of pausing and asking Slugs to yield to superior force but hell, this was fun. After a couple of minutes, I brought matters to an end with a shoulder charge. Man and metal toppled, the bin clanging away to let me view Kalinski. He was conscious – by a hairsbreadth. Kneeling, I went for his raincoat pockets. There wasn’t a gun - he’d been fooling me. For no reason I could think of, that made me feel even better than before about having boffed him around. I slapped his face. “Slugs,” I said, “can you hear me?” He gurgled something I couldn’t understand, so I repeated the wallop, harder. “Are you listening?” I said, quietly but urgently, talking like an accident doctor. Good control, I thought.
“Urff,” he mumbled.
Taking that for an affirmative, I bent to his right ear and went on: “Remember this. If I’d wanted to finish you off, I could have. As soon as you can walk, go and tell Mulrooney. If you don’t, he’ll know within an hour anyway.”
There didn’t seem to be much else to do, so I left Kalinski. My wardrobe was in disarray, so I went back to my place and spruced myself up. When I was feeling something like normal again, it was still not quite nine o’clock. I phoned Jack Lanigan, told him what had occurred and arranged to call on him right away.
On arrival, I was wafted into the presence and recounted the details, making little of my good fortune in falling flat on my face. Jack was tickled pink. “Cyril,” he said, grinning a mile wide, “I’m proud of you, an’ I don’t believe the bit about you bein’ lucky. I think you’re just tryin’ to play it down. Wait a minute.”
He stabbed at his phone. There was a brief silence, then he barked: “Put me on to Mulrooney . . . Listen, Miss, don’t give me no crap. This is Jack Lanigan. Now get him, pronto.” There was a short silence, then Lanigan started up again. “Horsey, how goes it? Yeah, I know… Oh, you heard already… your boy came up against my new man. That’s right, a real tiger. He could’ve took Slugs out permanent, but I didn’t want that. Maybe we should talk… Right, well, don’t get sore… Okay, call me tomorrow, an’ look, if Slugs needs treatment, I’ll cover it. `Bye.”
I was nonplussed by the gangland mores. Lanigan slammed down the receiver and turned beaming eyes on me. “Now,” he said. “How much did you say?”
I gave him my figure for a full day – well, I thought that was fair. He hooted, taking a tin box from a desk drawer. “I still say you’ve missed your way. Now, here you are.” He counted out my fee. “An’ here’s a little something else.” He riffled the bills like a bank teller. “One G for your results. Now, if you ever get over this thing . . . what is it?”
“Scruples?” I suggested.
“Yeah, that’s right. Well, I want you to know that you’re A1 with me. You ever need a job, you got it.”
I grabbed the booty, mumbled my thanks and left.
Nothing in this life is perfect. On the way to my car, I slipped on an icy bit of the sidewalk and collided with a man by comparison with whom my chum Kalinski and I were a brace of midgets. “Another damned drunk,” he yelled. “Try this.” He swung a right that could have brought down the Washington Monument.
By the time I got up, the mastodon was out of sight and nobody else cared, as one and all showed by stepping around me. My jaw hurt, but – amazingly – wasn’t broken. My backup trench coat was now as much of a mess as the number one job and the trousers weren’t much better. Still – I felt my packed wallet – on the whole it had been a good day.
* * *