The mistake Bumpy Williams made was having two beers for lunch on an empty stomach. He wasn’t hungry, but he was thirsty, so he had two instead of one. The other mistake he made was breaking his number one no break rule, which was never assume anything.
“It can make an ass of you,” George Benta said at the funeral home when his men mixed up two dead men in what they thought were the right coffins but were the wrong coffins and had to dig them up and bury them again.
“Hey, don’t worry about it, mistakes are just another way of getting the right thing done,” Bumpy said to George’s long face.
He assumed Stan Rittman, frog-marching the Park Avenue headshrinker out the door of his office building in the hubbub of the 5 o’clock Friday going home rush, down the sidewalk, and into the alley, was alone. He saw the car, the open back door, and got to within a step of the peeper, but he never saw Karol.
Stan saw Bumpy coming but stayed in step with doing what he was doing, not skipping a beat. Never interrupt anybody when he’s making a mistake was one of his cardinal rules. It had always stood him in good stead at the poker table. The only person he interrupted tripping over her own two feet was Dottie.
“Hands where I can see them, nigger,” said Karol.
The third mistake Bumpy made was whirling around, blackjack suddenly in his hand, and whirlpooling his temple into the swinging blunt butt end of Karol’s Colt .45 pistol. The street tilted up to meet his pole-axed face, his knees gone weak as a baby’s, his brain blank as a bubble.
“Who’s he?” asked Karol.
“Who cares, in the trunk with him,” said Stan.
Bartek smirked up a storm, bringing up the rear.
Betty tossed the car keys out the window, Karol snatched them out of the air, and dragging Bumpy Williams by his armpits the woozy man’s heels hopscotch bumping to the back of the Pontiac, strong-armed the blank-faced Negro into the trunk.
“You still have a chance, but I hear a sound out of you, it’ll be the last sound you make, and no hard feelings,” Karol said, his mouth close to Bumpy’s ear. They looked straight at each other. Bumpy tried to make his eyes say he understood. Karol gave him a pat on the shoulder.
“Good,” he said.
“Let’s go,” said Stan, getting into the back seat on one side of the doctor, Karol on the other side. “Stick your chin into your chest, and keep it stuck there,” Stan to Park Avenue. Karol tied a blue and yellow bandana over the psychiatrist’s eyes. Betty put the car in gear and eased into traffic. Less than a half hour later they pulled up to the back of the Warsaw Baking Company in Little Poland.
Bartek was already waiting at the rear door, leaning against the brick wall, a smoke dangling from his lips. He had ridden his Twin out of the alley and beaten all the traffic. The Marman Twin was a motorcycle made in California by a company owned by one of the Marx Brothers, Zeppo Marx. Its engine was a drone airplane engine from World War Two. The ride was a nimble zippy ride.
“You two bring the colored man,” said Stan, leading Dr. Baird hard by the elbow into the building. “Handcuff him in the boiler room. We’ll get to him after the shrink.”
“What about the little man?” asked Bartek.
“He was gone,” said Stan. “We’ll find out who what and where he is. You and Karol sit tight. This won’t take long. He’s posh. He’ll fold fast.”
Betty parked the car and followed Stan. She bolted the door behind her, took two steps down into the basement, but went back up to double-check the door. It was bolted fast. It was a metal door, a heavy metal door.
The Warsaw Baking Company was a two-story brick building between Nassau and Driggs Avenues. One side of the front of the building was double doors and two loading docks. The other side was a single door leading up to a bakery shop. It closed at 5 o’clock. It was closed now. There were two glass block basement windows. There was one door at the back, and it was locked tight.
Karol stayed with Bumpy, cuffed to a pipe and sprawled on the concrete floor. Bartek walked around to the front of the building and hopped on the ledge of one of the loading docks. He leaned back, pushed his flat cap off his forehead, and lit a cigarette. The late afternoon early fall sunlight felt good on his face. A pretty girl he recognized walked by. He delivered a wolf whistle by air mail.
“Save that for the girls who don’t know the real you, Bart,” she said, smiling wickedly as she walked past.
“You’re cooking, doll.”
Bartek lived three blocks away, and Karol lived a block from him, in Little Poland, hard on the East River. Everything and everyone were Polish, drug stores, groceries, hair salons, newsstands, and social clubs. Hardware stores and dentists and shoeshine stands advertised their wares and services in the native tongue. The young men had both gotten out of Europe in 1948 when they were both still teenagers and both orphaned for the rest of their lives.
They worked at the bakery and did odd jobs on the side. One of their sidelines was doing odd jobs for Stan Riddman. It kept them in going out money, going out with girls, going out to ballgames, and going out to eat. They ate at Czerwony Wreprz, what everyone called the Red Pig, once a week, where they always ordered the signature dish, a whopping meal for four served in a wooden boat, sausages, pierogies, baked hocks, bacon, stuffed cabbage, grilled pork shoulder, and chicken.
“You eat this, you’ll be happy for a week,” the cook said
The Red Pig looked more like an old country farmhouse than a big city bar and restaurant, with a long deep bar and plenty-and-more Polish beer on tap. A white bird on a red background was stopped in space over the front door. A sign beneath the big bird said “Zapraszamy!” It meant you were welcome to enter. The waitresses dressed in traditional folk dresses. Wooden beams lined the ceiling from front to back, lights hung on wagon wheels, and the booths chairs tables were all dark walnut polished to gleam in the thick cigarette smoke.
Ezra was in the half-empty odds-and-ends room in the basement when Stan came in, Dr. Baird ahead of him, and Betty behind them. He was tucked into a back corner, his arms folded across his chest, quietly waiting, not angry anymore, but biding his time. Stan sat the psychiatrist in a chair at the table in the middle of the room and lifted the bandana from his eyes. Dr. Baird blinked rapidly and squeezed his eyes slits to keep the light out.
Everything was quiet for several seconds. It stretched to minutes. Ezra stayed behind the doctor. Stan stood on the far side of the table. Betty locked the door and leaned back on the wall to the side of it. Stan looked down at Dr. Baird.
“This is outrageous, who do you think you are?” Dr. Baird finally said in an upset choked-up voice, starting to stand up. “Where am I? What do you think you’re doing? I’ll have you all arrested, mark my words!”
Ezra stepped up behind the doctor and pushed him by the top of his head back down into his chair.
“Shut up and stay that way until we ask you something,” said Stan. “Turn his pockets out, Ezra, let’s see what we’re going to see before we get started.”
“I know your name now. You hoodlums will pay for this.”
“My name is Stan Riddman,” Stan said. “It’s spelled with two d’s. The only one who’s going to pay up is you. Keep your trap shut.”
When Ezra pivoted and rousted Dr. Baird halfway to his feet, spreading the lapels of the man’s jacket to search the inside pockets, and the men were face to face, the doctor recoiled.
“My God, what happened to you?”
Ezra’s eyes were black and blue, he was wearing a splint over his broken nose, and his busted lower lip was swollen bad. He spoke gingerly, careful to not hurt himself. He glared at the doctor.
“Yeah, your goons did this, and cracked one of my ribs, too. I’m in no mood to finesse you, so be a good boy,” said Ezra, his voice slow thin terse.
“My goons? I don’t have any goons. What are you talking about?”
“I already told you to shut up twice,” said Stan, as Ezra tossed the doctor’s wallet on the table and shoved him back into the chair. “The third time is going to be the charm.”
Stan sat down opposite Dr. Baird.
“I’m going to ask you some questions, doc,’” he said. “Some of the answers I already know. Some of them I don’t know. It will be easier all around if you don’t lie to me, especially if you don’t say you don’t know what this is all about.”
“But I don’t know.”
“We’re getting off on the wrong foot already,” said Stan, getting up quickly, leaning over the table, and grabbing the doctor by the knot of his tie. He jerked him towards him. Dr. Baird’s chin hit the tabletop and was dragged forward.
“I told you once, I won’t tell you again. I won’t have it. If you lie to me it will only make it a longer night, and we don’t want that.”
He let go and Dr. Baird fell back into his chair, lurching sputtering. He was starting to sweat. His shirt was damp. He wasn’t a weak man, not altogether, but he wasn’t a brave man, either. He was a smart man, and realized he was in a locked room, in a basement, with a man bigger than he was in front of him, a short-tempered man, and a man behind him whose mind was seemingly bent for revenge. He belatedly knew without having to know that both had guns on them.
The leader had spelled his name out to him. He didn’t like what that might mean. He knew this had everything to do with Tony de Marco. He knew they weren’t suddenly unexpectedly going to let him go free. He turned to Bettina.
“You can’t let them do this. You’ve got to help me.”
Betty gave Dr. Baird a breezy look. “You’re dirty, my fine man. You lied to us about Jackson Pollack, and then you had Ezra beaten up. We’re going to find out what you know, one way or the other.”
“I didn’t have him beaten up,” Dr. Baird protested.
“You know what, doc, I believe you,” said Stan. “You didn’t get your hands dirty. But you know all about Jackson Pollack, you lied about that. Let’s start there, what do you say?”
Stan wasn’t asking a question.
“I treated Jackson Pollack for depression, but I can’t discuss anything about it with you. It would be unethical.”
Stan was taken aback. He didn’t know what to say for a second.Ezra’s face jabbed his brain when he started laughing. He stopped. Bettina squawked and said, “You’re going to need a better deadbolt than that,” and smiled sweetly.
Outside Bartek zipped up his jacket, lolling against the brick wall of the Warsaw Baking Company. The sun was low in the sky. The warm late summer air had cooled off.
“Hey, Mikey, Jake, Eryk, what’s shaking?”
“We’re going down to Elsa’s, have some brews, and play some skee ball.”
Elsa’s was the Black Rabbit Tavern and Elsa was Elsa Brouwerji, a friendly middle-aged widow whose husband had tied a cinder block around his neck and thrown himself off the Rockaway Boardwalk a year to the day after the 30 million-gallon oil spill six years earlier poured into the Newtown Creek. He had been working at the neighborhood’s Standard Oil refinery and was accused by his supervisors of negligence and been fired.
It didn’t help matters that after his suicide it was determined that Casper Brouwerji hadn’t made the mistake that resulted in the biggest oil spill in the country’s history. His widow got a settlement from Standard Oil and bought the Pour House Bar and Grill. She changed the name to the Black Rabbit and thumb tacked a photograph of her husband to the wall above the cash register.
She cursed loudly and spat on the sidewalk behind her whenever she walked past a Standard service station.
“Are you coming?”
“No, I’m on the clock, errands for Stan. He said it wouldn’t be too long. I’ll catch up with you.”
Stan lifted his eyes over Dr. Baird’s shoulder.
“This is taking too long,” he said.
Ezra reached into his back pocket and wrenching the doctor’s arms behind him, over the backside of the chair, snapped a pair of handcuffs tight hurtful on his wrists. Stan threw two hinged metal frames with an attached head strap on the table.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“No,” said Dr. Baird.
“This is a Whitehead gag,” said Stan. “It wraps around the front of your head and the parts that are bent fit between your front teeth. When we spread them apart, the frames separate your jaw, holding your mouth open. We can get it wide open and keep it that way with that ratchet mechanism on each side of the frame.”
Dr. Baird didn’t say a word. He felt himself getting warm warmer.
Stan tossed a pair of needle nose pliers on the table.
“Do you know what those are?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Baird.
“Do you know what I’m planning on doing?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Are you going to tell me what I want to know?”
“I was paid to brainwash Jackson Pollack into committing suicide,” the doctor said.
There was a slight stop of breath in the room, but Stan knew enough to keep the line going on the base paths.
“How much were you paid?” he asked.
“One hundred and seventy fifty thousand dollars.”
Bettina puckered up and whistled, surprised impressed.
“What did you do with the money?”
“It’s in a Swiss bank account.”
“Who paid you to do that?”
“They never told me who they were.”
“Why did they want Jackson Pollack dead?”
“They never said.”
“You didn’t ask?”
“You didn’t care?”
“I need water, a glass of water.”
“No, no water, no nothing,” said Stan. “Who’s the little man?”
“His name is Tony.”
“Is that his real name?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What’s his last name?”
Dr. Baird hesitated.
“It’s a secret,” he said, murmuring.
“There are no secrets among friends, doc. “
“I didn’t keep any record of him at the office, not like Pollack, who was my patient before any of that happened later with Tony. I was told my life would be in grave danger if I ever revealed anything about him to anybody.”
Stan laughed again
“Your life is in danger right here and now,” he said. “You have one foot on a banana peel and the other one in the grave, is what I mean. I mean to have his name, or there will be hell to pay.”
“His name is Tony de Marco,” the psychiatrist finally said.
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“I don’t know.”
“What were you making him do? Was it the same as Pollack?”
“Yes, but different. When he hears the first bars of a certain song, he’s supposed to wait thirty seconds and then pull the ripcord on his dynamite vest.”
“A dynamite vest?”
“A vest packed with TNT.”
“I know what they are,” said Stan.
Some of the Hitler Youth, in the waning days of the war, when all hope was gone, had adopted Japanese tactics, throwing themselves under tanks wearing a vest crammed with grenades.
“He’s supposed to blow himself up when he hears a song?”
“What song is it?”
“I don’t know the name of it.”
“What does it sound like?”
Dr. Baird hummed a kind of a march with a drumbeat.
“That sounds familiar,” Betty said.
“Is that it? Are there any words?”
“No, no words, and that’s all I ever played for him, a kind of four-time ruffle, over and over.”
“Where and when is this supposed to happen?”
“Where he works.”
“Where does he work?
“I don’t know where.”
“Soon, in a few days, I think, since I wasn’t supposed to see him again. That’s all I know.”
“How much were you being paid for this gag?”
“The same as before.”
“Jesus!” Ezra hissed, hating the rich man who had almost gotten him killed. “And the goys call us money hungry,” he thought.
“What were you planning on doing after it was all over?”
“I was planning on disappearing.”
“I’ll bet you were,” said Stan.
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra went out into the hallway.
“All right, we know what happened to Jackson Pollack, and how, and who did it, more or less. We can wrap it up with Barney Newman, collect our fee, and call it a day,” said Stan. “We can honestly tell him it wasn’t an accident.”
“Or we can we can keep snooping and find out who it really was who did our painter,” said Betty.
“Oh, jeez” Stan exclaimed. “What about the Series?”
“I’m with you,” said Ezra. “But I’ll be damned if I’ve got anything better to do before the first game.”
“All right, all right, let’s get Bart down here.”
When Bartek, Karol, Bettina, Stan, and Ezra were all in the hallway, Stan asked Bart and Karol if they were willing and able to sit tight on Dr. Baird and Bumpy Williams in the basement.
“I want them kept here and I want them kept quiet until I say so. I don’t want anyone to know they’re here. I don’t want them wandering off. I don’t want a peep out of them. Can you make that happen?”
Bartek and Karol had survived Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht, Josef Stalin’s Red Army, and Dwight Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force. They had survived refugee camps, black marketers, and the deck of a tramp steamer to the United States. They were still surviving being DP’s in Brooklyn.
“What’s in it for us?” asked Bartek.
“A c-note apiece,” said Stan.
“For how long?”
The World Series started on Wednesday.
“Done, two chunks for the price of one,” said Karol, the older of the two by several weeks.
“All right,” said Stan. “Check with Betty every morning, and whenever you need anything, check with her again. Look in on the doc now, stay there for a few minutes, we’re going to see what we’ve got going with Cotton.”
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra walked into the boiler room. The Negro looked up from where he was handcuffed to a pipe in the back of the room. His lips curled, trying to smile. Stan stood between Ezra and Bumpy.
“I know you,” said Ezra, looking past Stan and down at Bumpy Williams.
“Uh, oh,” Bumpy muttered.