it had been snowing for about twenty minutes. standing just inside the front door of the venerable hotel st crispian, jake the bellhop watched the large fluffy flakes drift down onto the sidewalk and the cars parked on bedford street.
jake did not care much for snow, as something to have to walk through or in, but sometimes it was good for business at the hotel as a few people who might be afraid of getting stuck on the trains or highways would check in for one night. or maybe they wanted to get safe in a hotel and not have to try to get a cab in a foot of snow when the bars and clubs closed.
and those were often the best guests for wanting the bellhop to get them something. something a little more expensive than a pack of cigarettes or a pack of gum.
and it was thursday night. maybe later, jake could get a poker game going. for some reason, thursday was usually a good night to get a game started. he didn't know why, but it just was.
roland was at the desk, had just come on a little earlier than his usual late night shift. roland wasn't the most interesting guy to talk to - he hardly talked at all - though when he did he would sometimes go into these long weird monologues - but he was easygoing and didn't care if jake or the other bellhops wandered around the lobby or hung around the front door, instead of staying at their bellhop posts, like some of the older desk clerks made them do.
a highly polished black desoto pulled up to the curb outside. jake didn't recognize the car itself but there was something about it that jogged his memory.
the shine job! tommy sullivan had always liked his cars polished to a high shine.
tommy sullivan had been jake's old boss when jake had been a young man trying to make his way - most unsuccessfully - in unlawful enterprise. could tommy sullivan be checking into the crispian for some reason on this snowy thursday night?
jake wasn't crazy about the idea of seeing tommy sullivan, and having tommy see him in his bellhop monkey suit, and make some smart remark. still, tommy was always a good tipper.
the other night jake had seen a movie with victor mature, in which victor mature had just gotten out of the slam and his old boss and cronies in crime wouldn't leave him alone and kept pestering him to come back in with them. they wouldn't "let him go straight".
jake had gotten out of prison about a year ago, and his problem was not that his old pals would not let him "go straight" but that they wouldn't have him back.
so here he was, honestly employed. mostly honestly, most of the time.
the back door of the desoto opened and a man carrying a small suitcase got out.
it was tommy sullivan, looking dapper as ever in his grey fedora and camels hair coat. he looked up and down the street, then waved to the driver and the desoto pulled away from the curb.
jake opened the door for him. most of the time there was no doorman on duty at this "front" door, although old olaf or some other doorman was always on duty on the other side, on seventh avenue, where most of the guests came in and where the garage and the outside entrance to the prince hal room were.
tommy didn't seem either surprised or particularly interested in seeing jake. he handed him the small suitcase, so jake supposed there couldn't be anything too valuable in it, probably just a change of clothes. it was light.
"how's it going, boyo?" tommy asked jake, as if they saw each other every day, instead of just once or twice since jake got out.
"great, tommy, great. keeping out of trouble."
"glad to hear it." tommy's eyes scanned the lobby when the door closed behind them.
the lobby was empty. even the regulars like "farmer" brown and miss charlton were not in their usual chairs under the potted palms, but probably in the prince hal room.
nolan, the house detective, was somewhere else too.
"keeping out of trouble, that's what i'm doing myself," tommy added. then, in a lower voice, with a glance over at roland, "don't call me tommy, i'm registered as charles mclaughlin."
"sure," jake agreed. then, a little louder, "sorry, sir, i thought you was someone i used to know."
if roland was paying any attention to this, he gave no indication of it.
tommy stepped over to the desk, with jake behind him.
"good evening, sir," roland intoned in his sleepy but polite voice. "do you have a reservation?'
"yes, charles mclaughlin, from binghamton."
"mister mclaughlin, of course. i believe you are in room 406. yes, 406." roland produced a room key. jake stepped up and took it.
"a couple of associates of mine also booked rooms - maybe one room together?" tommy asked roland. "mister williams and mr stanley."
roland looked down at his register. "yes, they are in room 407, right across from you. they arrived this afternoon."
"perfect, perfect. now if i can just sign in?"
"of course, sir."
tommy signed in, and then he and jake made their way across the lobby to the elevators.
mortimer was on his stool outside the elevator. as they got into the elevator he started his usual spiel, without mentioning having ever seen tommy before, so jake supposed he never had.
"a beautiful night, sir, even with the snow, don't you think? i always think the first snowfall has something beautiful about it, like seeing a baby born."
tommy laughed at mort's observation with his big tammany hall type grin. "indeed," he answered.
"you from around here, sir?" mortimer asked.
"i'm from binghamton."
"binghamton! but i bet you was born around west 49th street. i'm pretty good at spotting accents."
tommy grimaced slightly. "ha, ha, very good! yes, i was, but i moved up to the sticks when i was just a little tyke."
"i can spot more different accents than carter's got little green pills."
the old elevator made its slow way up to the fourth floor. jake decided to play it like he had never seen tommy before.
"say, mort," jake asked. "you getting off any time soon?"
"in about an hour, why?"
"i thought i might get a game going later. it is thursday night."
mortimer understood that this was jake's way of letting the guest know about the game. "maybe. i might have to get home."
"a game?" asked tommy. "i hope you mean a poker game."
"what else?" asked mortimer.
"i'm glad to hear that. because i hate to see white boys playing dice."
they reached the fourth floor and tommy and jake got off.
"enjoy your stay at the crispian, sir!" mortimer called after them. tommy waved back to him without looking around.
tommy and jake didn't speak until jake closed the door of room 406 behind them.
jake put the suitcase down beside the bed. "you want me to open this?"
"hell, no, just leave it there." tommy took his hat and overcoat off and put the hat on the dresser and draped the coat over a chair. then he lay down on the bed and rubbed his eyes.
jake went over and looked out the window at seventh avenue. he wasn't crazy about tommy's company but wasn't in any hurry until he got a tip.
"so what's this about a game? is it on the level? "
"it's a regular thing, i try to get one going every thursday, some of the guests, some of the guys who work here. you're welcome to sit in - you and the guys you got next door - williams and whoever. whoever they are, i didn't see them come in."
"a couple of new guys, you wouldn't know them." tommy sighed. "as you might have figured out, boyo, i'm kind of laying low here, maybe i should just stay in my room, that's kind of the point of this whole thing."
"sure, tommy, sure. i should have figured that. is there anybody i should be looking out for?"
tommy examined his finely manicured fingernails. "i had a slight disagreement with al maldonado. al the grocery man. nothing that can't be worked out. meanwhile i hear he's brought this guy in - frisco tony, frisco willie, some damn name like that, frisco freddy. but we'll work it out. "
"i'll keep an eye out for this guy, tommy. and my ear to the ground. meanwhile, is there anything else i can get you?"
tommy sat up. "yeah, get me a half pint of old granddad. make it a pint. and some soda water. and a couple of packs of old golds.'" he peeled a couple of bills off a roll he took from his pocket and gave them to jake. "keep the change."
jake's eyes widened. two double sawbucks! "wow! thanks, tommy!"
"consider it a retainer. in case i might want to use you later."
"sure, sure. uh - i don't suppose you'd be interested in some female companionship?"
"are you kidding? in a situation like this, the last thing you need is some dizzy bigmouth dame. i'm not going to be here for a month."
"right. just thought i'd ask." jake put the two bills in his pocket and headed for the door.
he turned with his hand on the doorknob. "you know, tommy, just one thing."
"i'm not going to tell you your business - "
"i hope not."
"but there was one thing i noticed when you came in."
"how shined up your car was. before you even got out of the car, i thought, hey that looks like tommy's car, all shined up like that. you don't see that so much any more."
"you don't say."
"so if you are laying low, if you get my drift…"
"a guy's got to look good, what are you trying to say?"
"times have changed. you see guys now, they don't even hardly shine their shoes, let alone their cars. you know what i'm saying?"
tommy shook his head and lay back down on the bed. "i can't believe that. the world may be going to hell, but it can't be as bad as that."
jake shrugged. "if you say so. i'm just trying to be helpful." he started to open the door.
"wait," tommy said.
"that game, maybe i will get in it. let me know if you get it started."
* Professor Emeritus of Post-Postmodern Literature, Olney Community College; editor of “The Siren Call of Doom” and 27 Other Previously Uncollected Stories of the Supernatural by Horace P. Sternwall; the Olney Community College Press.
“Hey, Mitch,” said Tony Winston. “Mitch. That you in there?”
Tony squatted down, bent to one side and peered under the toilet stall door. Two shoes. Two black shoes, black socks, grey trousers. The one dress requirement Tony asked of his players was that they wear black shoes and grey suits.
“Mitch,” he said again, louder this time. “That you in there, man? Come on, we’re supposed to be on.”
Was he going to have to crawl under this door to get this bum?
“Hey, come on, Mitch.”
Still squatting there, he banged on the door with the side of his fist, once, twice, and then again.
Then he heard a slumping, sliding noise, followed by a soft but heavy thump.
He bent over to one side and peered again under the door.
There was Mitch Mitchelson, crumpled in front of the toilet, his face sideways on the tiles, staring blankly at Tony. He had his suit jacket halfway off, so that it was only draped over his right shoulder and arm. His left arm was stuck out in front of him, with the shirt sleeve rolled up all the way, and a belt tied around the skinny biceps. There was a syringe and a needle still sticking out of his forearm.
“Shit,” said Tony.
He got to his feet, then went off to find Mr. Nolan, the house dick.
Seymour “Mitch” Mitchelson’s immortal spirit watched as Mr. Nolan and Tony carried him through the men’s room doorway, each of them with one of Mitch’s arms draped over a shoulder. Tony had gone back to the green room and gotten Mitch’s threadbare old topcoat and his fedora, and the brim of the hat was pulled low over Mitch’s unseeing eyes. Instead of turning left and going back to the Prince Hal Room, Mr. Nolan and Tony turned to the right and carried Mitch, his shoes dragging on the floor, down to the fire exit. Mr. Nolan pushed the door open, and Mitch floated along, watching them as they brought his body out to the cobbled alleyway.
“So we leave him out here, Mr. Nolan?”
“No, Tony,” said Mr. Nolan. “It wouldn’t be the best publicity for the hotel, dead trumpet player found in the alley outside.”
“Saxophonist, actually,” said Tony.
“Saxophonist,” said Mr. Nolan. “You up for dragging him down around the back of the automat? And then we can leave him by the ash cans in back of the deli on the corner. They open up pretty early there, so at least he won’t be lying out too long.”
“Okay, whatever you say, Mr. Nolan.”
“Yeah, let’s get it over with. I got to get back onstage.”
“I know, Tony. All right, let’s go.”
Mitch’s spirit watched as they dragged his corpse down the dark alley, the toes of his shoes making gentle popping sounds on the old cobbles.
He rose up, into the dark air of the alleyway. He no longer had any interest in whatever would become of his former corporeal host, which had served him indifferently through twenty-seven years, in good times and bad, through straight times and high times. Twenty-seven years, a fairly short span of life, but then he had packed a lot of fun into those years, playing in joints all over the country, jamming until the wee hours, getting drunk, getting high, sleeping the day away and then getting up to do it all over again.
But to say he had no regrets would be lying.
He would have liked to stick around a bit longer, getting high, playing music, jamming all night, sleeping all day.
He rose up higher. He could no longer see Nolan or Tony or himself down there. He was now all the way up to the roof of the hotel.
The good old Hotel St Crispian.
This had been a good gig, these last few months, playing with Tony’s band in the Prince Hal Room. The music was pretty square, but after the last set nearly every night Mitch and Tony and usually the canary, Shirley De La Salle,
they would head down to Bob’s Bowery bar and meet up with some of the rest of the gang, and just jam, until six in the morning, Bob didn’t care, he was cool, and the old winos at Bob’s didn’t seem to mind, the winos and some of the hep cats who would fall in just to dig the jam sessions.
So, yeah, Mitch would miss the jam sessions. And he had to admit it, he would miss getting high.
He wouldn’t miss the cold water flat he lived in. He wouldn’t miss the cold hours sweating it out waiting for his connection. He wouldn’t miss never having the money for pretty much anything except his next fix and the automat coffee and pie that kept his corporeal host alive.
But he would miss those all night jam sessions.
He rose up higher, way high up above the city.
Down below were all the lights, all the millions of lights in the dark city, all those millions of people.
He looked up, and he saw something he rarely saw when he had been alive, down there in the city.
He saw the stars. Millions of stars. How could there be so many stars?
He rose up higher, then higher, and he rose up into the stars.
Mitch was standing on a dark city street, and he was carrying his ax in its case.
He could hear music. It was bop, but kind of slow bop, with a lot of blues in it. He headed toward the music, and the music got louder until he came to a bar. It didn’t have a sign with a name on it, just a red neon Rheingold sign.
Mitch pushed open the door, and the barroom was full, filled with laughing people and with smoke. Off to the right was a slightly raised bandstand, and a combo was playing that slow deep bop music, white cats and black cats, just jamming. The cornet man was laying out at the moment, standing there on the stage nodding his head and staring off into space. He looked familiar, real familiar. Then he saw Mitch, and smiled, and waved, waved for Mitch to come on over.
Mitch nodded back to the cat and headed on over through the laughing crowd.
By the time he reached the stage he already had his instrument out of its case.
originally appeared in the july-august 1948 issue of "stupefying stories"
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
"i can't see him, jack. it's starting to get dark."
"get more than five feet away from the car, you moron. it's not going to get any lighter with you standing there."
"but i tell you i got him the first time. there's no way he's going to last out there."
ralphie moved away from the packard. he held his .38 high in front of his face but instead of scanning the darkening horizon for phil he kept his eyes on the ground, because he was afraid of snakes.
"find him!," jack shouted. "and don't take all damn day!"
"all day," muttered cassie, from the back seat, "how about all night? it gets dark real quick out here in the desert, that's what i heard."
"she's right," said ollie, sitting behind the wheel and drumming on it with his left hand. "it gets dark all of a sudden. i read that in plenty of books."
"yeah, well if you read plenty of books or ever gone to a movie you'd know if you leave a guy for dead and don't finish him off he always comes back and gets you - even if it takes him twenty years. "
"twenty years?" cassie drawled. " i don't feel like waiting twenty years for something to eat. i'm starving. let's get out of here."
"and i could use a cold beer too, " ollie added.
"you guys," jack muttered, "you're like a bunch of kids." he pushed his two hundred and fifty pounds up off the seat beside ollie and out of the car.
as he did the night came down like a big black blanket. jack could hardly see ralphie, only hear him scuffling on the hard sand.
"come on, jack," said cassie. "let's go. i'm telling you, ralphie got him good. i seen the bullets go right through him."
"you don't understand. you don't understand how these things work."
then they heard something.
the whirring of helicopter blades.
"jeez!" shouted ollie. "it's the mounties - or federales or whatever they are."
jack looked up at the black sky. there was no moon, but he saw the light of the helicopter coming closer.
cassie looked out the window and saw the helicopter too. "that's it, jack. it's time to go."
"all right, all right. ralphie! ralphie! get back here!"
ralphie didn't need to be shouted at more than once. he scrambled back into the back seat beside cassie. ollie got the packard rolling and they headed off - not north toward vegas where the cops would be looking for them but east for new mexico.
jack leaned back in his seat. "we're doomed, i tell you. doomed. phil's going to get us for sure. it's in the stars."
cassie yawned. "relax. he ain't going to get us tonight, and that's all that counts."
"relax. that's easy to say. after everything that happened. easy for you to say. "
that's right, jack. it's easy for them to say, isn't it?
just a couple of hours ago you all thought you were sitting pretty. with a sweet job lined up as easy as picking a pie off mrs murphy's windowsill.
and then it all fell apart as quick as a fifty cent suitcase in a snowstorm.
the state troopers car was parked almost right in front of the bank. it was not supposed to be there.
there was no one sitting in the troopers car. jack looked around. "where are they?"
"probably in the diner over there," said cassie. "having a cup of coffee and some pie. where else would they be?"
"in the bank waiting for us. that's where they could be."
"that doesn't seem likely," said phil. "look - i'll get out, see if they are in the diner, all right?'
"no, no, don't do that!" jack turned his bulk around in his seat. he tried to look through the window of the diner but the glass was too thick and tinted green and covered with signs and lettering.
"are we going to get out or not?" asked ralphie. "we can't just sit here."
"no, we can't," jack agreed. he turned to ollie. "drive around."
"go back past that motel we went by."
ollie eased the car out from the curb and headed back into the desert.
when they were about three miles beyond the drop-inn motel jack told ollie to stop.
they sat there in silence for a minute.
"a beautiful 95 degree day in the middle of nowhere," cassie finally said. "do any of you gentlemen have a cigarette i can bum?"
"go ahead," said jack. "crack wise." he opened the car door and got out.
phil got up out of his seat behind jack. as soon as he was standing up outside the packard jack grabbed him by the throat.
"you were in an awful hurry to get away from us, weren't you, phil? sit down and have a nice cup of joe while the rest of us were getting blasted by your trooper buddies."
phil just laughed. "jack, jack. what are you talking about? your imagination is running wild. these things happen. you know that."
ralphie, who had been sitting in the back seat between phil and cassie, now got out. "come on, jack. you're not thinking. what kind of reward would these farmers have out for us? twenty-five bucks? a wagon load of hay? let's just cool off, smoke a cigarette, go back and see if those cops are gone."
jack tightened his grip on phil's collar and pushed him back against the hood of the car. "no, it's you guys who aren't thinking. we've pulled enough jobs that the feds must be after us."
"that's right," said phil. "enough jobs maybe we can just let this one go by."
"always got an answer, don't you? ralphie, look in his pockets."
"just look in his pockets."
ralphie shrugged. he reached into phil's left hand coat pocket. he took out a matchbook.
the matchbook said "mandy's dine and dance - oklahoma city, oklahoma".
ralphie flipped the matchbook open. there was a phone number written inside it in pencil.
"central 8 - 4563," ralphie read aloud.
"sounds like a federal number to me," said jack.
"what?" phil laughed and shook his head as best he could. "there's a central in every town in america."
"it's the number of a girl in oklahoma."
"you don't say."
"yeah. an indian maiden. with big black eyes. you'd like her."
"that's a likely story, phil. a real likely story."
twenty-two years later.
phil mccoy lay back on a wicker chair beside a swimming pool under a blue nevada sky.
nothing much had gone wrong for phil since he had crawled out of the desert with three of ralphie palladino's five or six lousy shots in him.
if ralphie had just taken his time…
but he hadn't.
everything had gone right for phil since that fateful night.
first there was lola, the dame who saw him staggering down the highway and picked him up and drove him to the doc in flagstaff.
and then there was mack smith, who just happened to be at the doc's place, almost recovered from a slug he had taken himself.
phil and mack had hit it off, and they partnered up and even after mack retired to the little town in the michigan peninsula, he steered phil on to a lot of good pickings.
and then phil got out of the game and made some good investments.
some real good investments. and even better connections.
life had been pretty good.
there was only one thing wrong with it.
one black cloud in an otherwise perfectly blue sky.
jack markey was still out there. and his crew.
jack markey, that fat dumb slob.
jack was tough, he could keep a crew together long enough to do a job, you had to give him that. but he didn't have the brains to order himself a plate of ham and eggs without phil to do it for him.
and where was the gratitude? three slugs in the gut, that was the gratitude…
and the rest of them…
ralphie palladino, a pretty boy with the guts of a marshmallow sandwich.
and cassie. god made dames to double deal guys, but he probably gave up after cassie because he couldn't top her.
and ollie. big dumb schmutz ollie. phil supposed he shouldn't blame ollie any more than he'd blame a dog.
in fact he supposed he should be grateful to all of them, the way things had gone for him ever since.
but he wasn't.
because phil mccoy wasn't that kind of guy.
where had they gone?
cassie was probably in paris or hong kong or someplace, married to some king or the richest man in the world.
but the other three?
they probably changed their names. because they would know phil would come after them.
phil had kept on the lookout. you didn't want to call in too many favors, especially for something that was personal not business, but he had kept his eyes wide open and his ear to the ground.
phil got up and stretched. he threw a towel over his shoulders and wandered over to the fence that separated the pool area from the rest of the hotel and casino.
he gazed absently through the wire fence, wondering if it was too early for the first drink of the day.
phil wasn't getting any younger, and he tried to follow his doctor's orders, at least a little bit.
a richly variegated assortment of humans were milling around under the cloudless sky.
and then phil saw him.
an old man with a saggy face and uncombed gray hair shuffling along alone, in a hawaiian shirt a couple of sizes too big for him. his pants were baggy too, like he had been heavy and lost a lot of weight.
it was jack.
he didn't look too good. but he could only be here for one thing.
he looked weak. but still strong enough to pull a trigger.
finally! after twenty-two years.
phil moved away from the fence, not too quickly.
he crossed the pool area and entered the hotel through the rear door.
he got in the elevator and went up to his suite on the top floor.
ray and don, his two flunkeys and bodyguards, were at their post.
ray was standing at the window and had watched him come up from the pool.
don was seated on a sofa doing what he did best - reading a comic book.
"not so much sun today, huh?" said ray, just to say something.
phil crossed to the bar and took a fifth of canadian club out of it. he poured himself a stiff one, no ice, and tossed it down.
if ray and don had any thoughts on this, they kept them to themselves.
"i got a job for you two."
"great," ray answered, with no particular enthusiasm. phil wasn't much for enthusiasm, so ray and don never showed any.
phil filled his glass half full again. he described jack to them.
"oh yeah," said don when he was through. "i think i know the guy. we seen him around."
"he's a guest?" phil asked.
"no, no, he's basically a bum, the kind that just hangs around."
"mickey gives him jobs sometimes," ray added. "emptying the ash trays in the card room, stuff like that."
phil sipped his drink. "i never noticed him before."
ray glanced at don. "well, that's not surprising, phil. there's not a whole lot to notice."
"he been around long?"
"hard to say. he's just another guy, you know. he seems harmless enough."
phil put his drink down on top of the bar. "harmless or not, i want him taken care of. immediately. before the clock strikes midnight."
ray laughed. "phil, come on. i mean, i'm not going to tell you your business, you been around a lot longer than we have - "
"you got that right."
"but disposing of harmless citizens, just like that, like it's tombstone or dodge city, that's not the modern way."
"harmless? " phil gave them a brief account of his history with jack. "so i want him taken care of."
"of course," don put in. "if that's what you want, phil. ray's just trying to be helpful, look at it from every angle. we'll do what you say."
"since that's what i pay you for, i'm glad to hear that."
"but are you sure it's the guy?" don asked. "that shot you thirty years ago? maybe you should take a closer look."
"it was twenty-two years ago. and i took a close look. so just do it."
phil crossed the room with the glass and the bottle of canadian club in his hands. he went into his bedroom and closed its door behind him.
ray and don looked at each other. don put down his comic book - modern comics, featuring blackhawk - and got up from the sofa.
without a word they got up and went out into the hallway outside the suite and waited for the elevator.
they didn't speak until they had picked up drinks at the bar and found a table in a corner of the lounge.
"phil's been around for a long time," said ray.
"yes, he has," don agreed.
"nobody stays sharp forever."
"sad but true."
ray laughed. "can you believe that story he told us?"
don just shrugged.
"maybe we should give larry a call. take him up on his previous generous proposal."
don took a sip of his screwdriver. "more of a suggestion than a proposal."
"same thing. you want me to call him?"
"sure. if you want to."
"i'll call him." ray got up and headed for the row of phones by the slot machines.
jack had waited. and searched. and planned. for a long time.
and walked a lot of long dark roads.
and heard a lot of lonesome whistles blow.
in flophouses. in hobo jungles. in jails.
now his wait was almost over.
tonight was the night.
he finally had phil mccoy in his sights.
phil mccoy who had become such a big shot.
who had looked for him, put out the word on him.
but had never been able to find him.
though there had been some close calls.
tonight, after his shift as a bus boy in the card room, emptying ash trays and carrying away empty glasses, jack's long journey would end.
he had his gun, and the special silencer he had saved his nickels and dimes for years to buy.
this was it.
after twenty-two years, he would finally get a good night's sleep.