The gaming room glowed with a golden hue that sang of wealth and dishonest virtue. It was a modern Eden of earthly sin, and it called to Joe like a snake in the grass. He shook his head to clear the dazzle; he was mixing metaphors and planning bets his grandkids would be paying off. Men were made and broken as he watched, built up and torn down by a magnificent, remorseless beast. Heavenly angels made of temptation circled the floor with free booze that cost the world, and winks and smiles that redeemed it. Cards were dealt and wheels were spun. Men prayed in their Sunday best and thanked the Lord for the bounty he had bestowed, while beneath their tables, shattered things wept and scrambled for chips.
It was all too much for a boy from Eastpoint so he took a walk of sneak peaks and hardened heart beyond the floor and towards the bar. Richard, or whatever his pissy name was, was waving like a buffoon, and Joe joined him with a satisfied, hidden smirk. He ordered a whiskey with a gesture and a point, and sipped tightly at a week’s wage in booze.
Ricki, as Joe had remembered him, watched him with a mild trepidation. As far as he knew, Joe had come from an agency of private dicks and button men. Hardboiled hardasses who came heeled and ready, with an aching finger. He sneaked a look beneath Joe’s coat and Joe let him catch a glimpse of silver. He smiled a disarming smile.
Ricki eased and started to chatter. Joe was surprised he had lasted so long in this business. Guys with a big yap didn’t last in Carrada and certainly not in politics. He was easily contented, though, with Joe’s nods and grunts, and Joe was grateful for that as he watched the room.
“That’s John Rappalino. This is the Don’s main guy, Tommy. Fucking big time.”
It took Joe a moment to remember who Tommy was, but he nodded in time and sipped from his empty glass. The guy settled at craps, and Joe turned to his mark.
“You’ve been with Surrone for a while, right?”
“Yeah, few years. You know I was a GI? Twelve years, saw action in ’22.”
“Working for Surrone’s gotta have its moments too though, right? Big mayoral candidate. I bet you hear some things.”
Ricki looked at him with a dull wariness. “Yeah, kinda. I mean, I gotta be careful what I say, Tommy.”
“You don’t gotta tell me nothing, Ricki,” said Joe, slipping easily back into an Eastpoint accent. “I was just shooting the shit. I guess it’s gotta be pretty boring anyway, right? Standing outside some pencil pusher’s door.”
“Hey, I wish for boring sometimes,” Ricki replied.
“Fucking A. I could tell you some stories, Tommy.”
“Get outta here.”
Ricki shot his eyes from wall to wall then leaned towards Joe like a cartoon with a secret.
“This ain’t the first time the boss has met with Frankie Bray. Frankie says, Mr. Surrone does. That’s how it works.”
Joe tried his best. He was never going to make it in the pictures, but he put on his best look and raised an eyebrow, treating the obvious like a senator and a low rent whore.
“I’m telling ya. Frankie’s bankrolling the whole thing, so Surrone can’t say no, right?”
“I guess you’re right,” Joe said. “But Frankie must want something in return. He don’t strike me as the charitable type. Not when it comes to politicians, anyhow.”
“Fucked if I know,” said Ricki, and Joe didn’t slap him hard about the face. Just. “Frankie don’t let no one else in his meetings. He’s a smart guy. Only thing I ever heard from him was shipments.”
“Yeah. Door wasn’t closed and he was talking shipments.”
“What kinda shipments?”
Ricki shrugged. “Fucking shipment’s a shipment, ain’t it?” He was suddenly defensive. “Don’t you fucking let on I told you that word, Tommy. I’m serious.”
“Oh! What am I, a singing bird? I ain’t new to this game, Ricki. My lips are sealed.”
“Right, I’m sorry. You can’t be too careful is all.”
Joe nodded, as if appeased.
“It’s alright, I understand.”
Joe didn’t push his luck any further; he wasn’t there to put the screws on. Ricki had shut up like a like a squealing sow who’d had its throat slit, and Joe couldn’t afford to feed a suspicion. He coaxed him back to meaningless chat with another week’s wage of liquid bronze and subtle jabs at his talkative nature.
Ricki’s slowness and Joe’s indifference caught up with them soon after in the shape of protracted silence, but this time it was comfortable. They went back to surveying the room, like latch-key kids with cold cheeks pressed against a candy store window. Joe licked his lips and watched the mobster roll, tracing his steps as he threw away a fortune to chance and bad wrist work, and moved on to roulette. He turned to Ricki.
“Wanna go spin?”
“With John Rappalino?”
“Sure, why not?” Joe asked and didn’t wait for a response before necking his drink and standing from his chair.
Ricki trailed along as Dutch courage propelled Joe across lush Curdish carpet and towards the wheel. A crowd had formed around the mobsters like flies around shit, hovering around them, afraid to talk. Joe pushed forward and stood by the table while the croupier glared at his lack of chips. He was next to John Rappalino. The guy was big, Joe thought. Bigger than his size, which was big to begin with.
He hovered himself for a minute, gathering courage, trying to think of something to say.
“The wheel’s not paying today,” was his gambit and he cringed as he said it.
“You’re an observational guy,” said Rappalino. “Ever thought of a career in stating the fucking obvious?”
Joe was stuck, lost for words. It wasn’t like him – not a single quip sprung to his lips and so he stood like a goon at Rappalino’s elbow. The ball came up black and he lost again.
“Fucking thing!” he almost-shouted.
His eyes landed on Joe.
“Kid, you’re driving me crazy here. Are you fucking spinning or not?”
Joe looked at the card that was propped on the table. Minimum bet. Jesus fuck. Now he knew why everyone here was a crook. You needed to pull a bank job just to get on the table.
“I’m feeling it out, Mr. Rapallino. It’s not calling to me yet.”
“Then get the fuck outta here! You’re distracting me.”
The second John said it, two heavies across the room made towards Joe like Rottweilers on command. Joe shot them an easy smile and backed off with a gesture and not a word. The last thing he needed was a dusting down just as he was getting closer to the big guy. He had to settle for a muttered curse and a trek to the bar, Ricki in tow as he resisted the urge to mortgage his apartment for another drink.
It wasn’t long before a hotel runner tapped Ricki in the shoulder and whispered in his ear. Mr. Surrone was ready for them. He gave Joe a nudge and a nod, and the two of them walked to the door to make their collection. Bray walked out with his beefy hand clasped entirely around Surrone’s, an arm on his shoulder and assertion in his smiling eyes. They exchanged a mumbled word and he offered Joe and Ricki a friendly nod before heading to the casino to join his captain.
“We’re leaving,” Surrone said before either of them could talk, and he put his impotent anger into his stride.
Joe and Ricki jogged to catch up and they were joined at the door by Surrone’s aide. Surrone pushed past him without a word and he scrambled quickly for the valet to fetch his boss’s auto.
“Astor,” Surrone shouted back to him, “get me a meeting with Gene Cohen.”
“Of course, sir. And when would you like to meet?”
“I’ll have a meeting set up at his next convenience.”
“Forget the convenience. Get it done for tomorrow.”
“As you say, sir.”
The auto arrived and Joe began his practice shuffle. He manoeuvred behind Surrone and forced Ricki to open the door. Surrone got in the back and Joe followed, along with Astor. Ricki was obliged to climb into the front, beyond a partition that gave Joe a little privacy with the mayoral candidate and his aide.
“I hope the meeting went well, sir,” he said as the auto pulled away into the darkening night.
“It was fine.”
“I’m glad, sir. I was worried after what I heard his guys saying on the floor.”
“Fuck his guys.” Surrone kept his curiosity in check for all of ten seconds. “What were they saying?”
“It was nothing, sir. Nothing to worry about. Just disrespectful is all.”
Surrone balled a fist in tightly contained frustration.
“Spit it out.”
“John Rappalino was mouthing off. Said you were gonna win, but you’d be nothing but a puppy dog. He said if you win, Frankie’s mayor.”
“Shit!” It was an outburst and it sent his neatly waxed hair into uncharacteristic disarray. “Fucking pill-pushing son of a bitch.”
Joe poked and prodded for the rest of the journey, but Surrone had shut his mouth and didn’t budge. Joe saw him out and dodged Ricki’s invite to tip a few at O’Malley’s. He hailed a cab and it took him home. He downed a shot, dropped his violet and went back out the door to find a phone.
It hadn’t crossed his mind that Schwartz wouldn’t be at the office at nearing midnight. He wasn’t disappointed.
“I just dropped off Surrone,” he said.
“What have you got?”
“Not much. They met alone in the restaurant. I couldn’t get near them.”
“I didn’t think they’d extend you a personal fucking invitation, Fortey. I asked what you’d fucking got, not what you don’t have.”
“I’ve got a name. Gene Cohen. Surrone’s setting a meeting with him for tomorrow. It sounded urgent.”
“Yeah, you know him?”
“I know fucking everybody I need to know,” said Schwartz. “He’s the police chief down at the dockyard. Slimy piece of shit if ever I knew one.”
“The bodyguard said he once overheard something about a shipment, but that’s all he knew. That would go with the docks. Maybe Frankie’s got something coming in.”
“Sounds like it. Good. Anything else?”
Joe’s eyebrows raised a little at ‘good’; it was the nearest he’d ever heard Schwartz get to a compliment. He wasn’t stupid enough to mention it.
“The only other thing was something Surrone said. He called Frankie a ‘pill-pusher’. I’ve never heard anything about Frankie being on drugs so that struck me as odd.”
Schwartz was silent for a while so Joe spoke again.
“I guess it could be medication…”
“It could be fucking spearmint. But…I don’t think so. Get off the phone and go home, kid. I gotta think. Something I heard one time…”
By Chris Wright
Thanks for reading the latest instalment of The Bleak Streets of Carrada. For more serial fantasy, check out The Demons’ Cry and for just why we love this genre, have a look at the appropriately titled Why We Love Fantasy.
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