Chapter 31

   “For you,” said Bettina, frowning, putting her hand over the handset. “He said it was about Dottie and you would want to talk to him.”

   “Police? Hospital?”

   “I don’t think so, didn’t say, doesn’t sound like it.”

   “Young or old?”

   “Younger.”

   Stan glanced at his watch and noted the time. “Listen in Betty.” He waited a second and picked up his receiver.

   “This is Stan Riddman,” he said cold flat indifferent.

   “We’ve got the girl,” the voice on the other end said. 

   “What girl?”

   “Your girl.”

   “Why do you want her?”

   “We want you to take the cure for the next couple of days, put everything on hold, don’t do nothing about nothing. You do that you get your girl back. You don’t do that you don’t ever see her again.”

  “Where is she?”

   The phone went dead.

   “Somebody’s got Dottie.”

   “I heard. Why? What we’re doing?”

   “They didn’t say, not exactly. They want me to sit on my hands for a few days, don’t do anything, and I’ll get her back. Or else. It’s got to be the small man. Nothing else is going on except the Jackson Pollack business. Goddamn it!”

   “What are you going to do?”

   Stan stood up and went into the utility room. He spun the combination on the office safe and removed two handguns. They were Colt Commander models, aluminum framed, with a short barrel and rounded hammers. The plastic grips were brown. The guns were unloaded. He put four 7-round magazines in his pockets. He reached into the safe a second time.

   “Get hold of Ezra, tell him what’s going on, that I’ve got our .45’s, and to meet me at the house. If I’m not there, I’ll be talking to the neighbors, tell him to find me, the sooner the better.”

   “Be careful.”

   “Here,” he said, handing Betty a snub-nosed .32 and six rounds. “Shoot first, never mind the questions.”

   She didn’t ask if she should call the police. She knew better than that. This had nothing to do with them, even though they would probably have to clean up the consequences afterwards.

   “Somebody’s a dead man,” Stan said.

   There were two beat cops, a radio car, and a plainclothes car on the street when Stan’s taxi eased up to his walk-up.

   “We don’t know much,” one of the dicks said. “Lots of people saw it happen, but nobody saw anything useful, except that there were two of them and they drove a black panel truck.”

   “Thanks,” Stan said, and walked up to the apartment. It was neat and clean, the windows open, fresh autumn air cooling the rooms. He walked into Dottie’s room and saw Mr. Moto lying in a heap on the bed. There was blood on the bedspread. The cat lifted his head and Stan saw the blood was from his paw. When he touched the cat, he hissed. Stan could see his breathing was wheezy fast. Then he saw the scrap of paper and the letters and numbers scrawled in it. When he picked it up, he knew Mr. Moto had scratched out the message with his paw and it was the license plate number of the black truck.

   Stan got a bowl of milk and crumbled up a chunk of tuna, put it in the milk, and placed the bowl on the bed.

   “Ezra and I will take it from here,” he said to Mr. Moto. “You stay here and take care of yourself.”

   The cat eased himself over to the bowl and lapped up the milk, nibbled at the tuna, and went back to sleep, curling up into a ball.

   By the time Ezra came through the front door, Stan had the address the truck was registered to and was sitting in an armchair waiting for him. They talked it over for a minute and five minutes later were in a cab. Stan gave the cabbie an address in Gravesend three blocks away from where they were going. 

   It was a single-family house that had been converted into a two-family house. There were unkempt bushes on both sides of the concrete front porch. The only anything in the drive was a black panel truck. There were closed blinds in every window.

   “I make them on the ground floor, in case they have to leave quick,” Ezra said. “If they were upstairs, they might get stuck.”

   “You take the back door,” Stan said. “I’ll go in through the front. The doors will be locked, maybe chained. When you hear me shoot into the lock, you do the same, kick out the chain, go head over heels.”

   The two men, one of them his face gauzed and red slathered in iodine, barely had time to lunge up from the card table they were sitting at, reaching for their guns, when Stan and Ezra stopped them breakneck.

   “Throw the heat on the floor in front of you and kick slide them to me.”

   The men did as they were told. One of the guns was an Orbea Hermanos, a Spanish handgun, a Smith & Wesson copycat. It was a piece of junk. The other one was a real Smith & Wesson Centennial. Stan kicked the Orbea under the sofa. He picked up the Centennial, opened the cylinder, saw it was loaded, put his own gun away, and trained the Smith & Wesson on the men.

   “Both of you on your knees, hands behind your backs,” Stan said. “Where is she?” 

   “Who the fuck is where fuckface” iodine face asked.

   Stan whirled and shot him twice in the chest, the two shots following so fast upon the other it sounded like one gunshot. The man toppled over backward, surprised astonished the sneer still on his lips, three of four seconds from dying, which he did when he hit the floor, a puddle of blood forming under him, the two holes in his chest slowly steadily leaking

   “Jesus Christ!” the other man blurted, jumping to his feet, crazy to run, a stain forming at his crotch.

   Ezra clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of his Colt .45 and the man went down moaning, still conscious, with a concussion in the making.

   “I said, where is she?” 

   Stan jerked the moaning man’s head up by a handful of slicked-back hair. He held tight, shaking the man’s head, tearing out a tuft of greasy hair. Red and brown spittle ran down the man’s chin. His eyes started to focus.

   “Last time, or you join your friend,” Stan said. 

   “Not my friend,” he mumbled.

   “I’m not asking for explanations. Where is she?”

   “At Luca’s place.”

   “What place is that?”

   “The house, next to the mattress shop.”

   “Where?”

   “I don’t know the address.”

   “Let’s go, you can show us.”

   “Luca will kill me if he sees me.”

   “You’ve got the brain of a crayon. You’r halfway to the boneyard right now.”

   “My head hurts bad.”

   Stan wiped the handle of the Smith & Wesson clean and threw it to the side.

   “Where are the keys?”

   “On him.”

   Ezra felt for the keys with the toe of his shoe probing the dead man’s pockets.

   “I’ve got them,” he said.

   Ezra drove the panel truck, the hoodlum in the passenger seat, and Stan crouching behind the passenger seat, the barrel of his Commander pressing into the back of the man’s neck. The man was tied up at the wrists and ankles.

   “Slow down and don’t slam into any potholes,” Stan said to Ezra.

   “Business is booming,” Mario Pugo at Always Tire Service on Atlantic Avenue always said. “The roads are good for my business but they’re bad for my customers. I repair blown tires and bent rims daily. One customer, he picked up his repaired car and drove straight into another pothole. He was back in five minutes.”

   “You know how this gun is, loose as a goose. It could go off any second.”

   The man in the passenger seat stiffened. The truck hit a pothole and shuddered. Stan kept a grip on the man, his hand tight on his shoulder. The Colt .45 stayed quiet. The man told them the store was a front, there was a lion in the basement, a steel door at the side led into the house, the brothers might or might not be there, but the mother was always there. 

   “She’s more them than all of them,” he said.

   When Ezra drove past the Murphy Bed store across the street, up tight against a three-story brick house, Stan threw it a glance. Ezra shifted into third, turned the corner, and found an alley. He parked and Stan dragged the bad man into the back of the truck, found a pile of oily rags, stuffed one into the man’s mouth, gagged him to make sure, blindfolded him, and tied two rags together to tie him tight to a u-bolt.

   “He might have trouble breathing,” Ezra said.

   “That’s not my problem,” Stan said.

   Going towards the door of the store Stan and Ezra had their handguns in their hands their arms down at their sides. They moved slowly, but once they stepped across the threshold, they moved fast. Ezra flipped the open sign the other way, stayed at the door, his back to it, and Stan strode straight to the only man in the store, sitting behind a desk at the back of the store. 

   He was a big man. It was Big Paulie.

   “Don’t,” Stan said. “I won’t stand for it.” 

   Big Paulie eased the top drawer he had been sliding open back closed.

   “Get up, come around to the front of the desk, rest your ass on it, and talk to me like I’m looking for a better night’s sleep.”

   “The big sleep is what you’ll be getting,” Luca hissed.

   “Shut up. I would just as soon finish you and walk away, but I want my girl back. Where is she?”

   “You don’t know what you’re getting mixed up in.”

   “I don’t know, and I don’t care. I want my girl. Where is she?”

   When Kid Blast came through the side door briskly confident smug, he saw the two guns first, then the two men, and could have killed himself for not bringing a gun with him. He could have killed himself for not whirling and running, although that would have gotten him killed.

   “Next to the fat man, junior,” Ezra said. “Same rules.”

   Kid Blast joined Big Paulie, the young man’s face twisted, hate in the front of his eyes. There was a roar behind the back door, underneath them, followed by a loud yawn. It was Big Paulie’s lion, the beast he kept in the basement to preserve order in his world. Nobody moved, nobody looked anywhere else but where they had been looking. Stan took a few steps back, the better to train his sidearm on both gangsters.

   “Check the cat out,” he said. “Be careful.”

   Ezra opened the back door gently and immediately stepped back, forced back by the rancid smell. He flipped the light switch and looked into the gloom, trying not to breath too much.  There was hay all over, a large cage, and a skinny-looking tired-looking sad-looking lion in the cage. 

   “She doesn’t look like much, like she needs a few square meals and some fresh air. They’ve got a wire contraption beside the light switch, so they can open and close the cage from up here.”

   Stan stepped up to Kid Blast and hit him hard in the face with the butt of his Colt. It broke the young man’s jaw, some teeth, and laid him flat. Stan grabbed him by the scruff and threw him down the stairs. He sprang the cage door open and slammed the basement door shut, locking it with the skeleton key that was in the lock. 

   “Last time big man or you’re next. Where’s my girl?”

   “Upstairs,” said Big Paulie.

   Stan didn’t bother asking if anybody else was in the house.

   “Sit back down, hands on the desk,” Ezra said, seating himself at a table to the side, his gun nonchalant in his lap. “I don’t like what you did to me, so don’t tempt me with any monkey business.”

   Stan stepped into the house, up three steps, and into a dining room. To his left was a kitchen, to his right a living room, foyer, and stairs leading to the second floor. He knew the mother was in the house, maybe some more of her sons, and for sure somebody keeping the clamps on Dottie. He went up the stairs soundlessly. He smelled garlic seeping out from under one of the bedroom doors. A brown house spider made his way up the edge of the door frame. He watched the spider until it stopped. They both waited. 

   Stan took a step, took a deep breath, and burst into the room.

   A middle-aged woman in a black apron was feeding soup to Dottie, whose hands were free, but not free enough to throw hot soup in anybody’s face. The hand on the spoon was Raffaella Gravano’s hand. The gunman was Italian, like the woman, but not one of the sons. He had the face of a ferret, not the face of the family. He was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and the instant he saw Stan he grabbed Dottie. The bowl of soup tipped and spilled all over the mattress. He lunged to his feet, Dottie held in front of him, a gun at her temple.

   “Drop the piece or the girl dies.”

   Stan lifted his gun, sighting it.

   “Put the gun down, or you go down.”

   “No, I’ve got the upper hand, you lay your hand down.”

   The stand-off lasted another second before Stan fed the facts of life to the man.

   “You’ve got a losing hand. I can make another girl, but nobody is ever making another one of you,” Stan said, his firearm pointed at the man’s forehead. The only way you stay alive is the girl and I walk away together.”

   “Is that some kind of weird joke?”

   When Stan shot and the bullet zipped lightning fast whooshing past the man’s face so close he could feel the heat of it smell the burnt powder, and slammed into the plaster wall, everyone in the room couldn’t hear a thing the next instant except the echo of the boom. The gunman didn’t blink. He kept his head, but his hand gripped tense sweaty on the gun handle.

   “And you,” Stan said to the woman, “sit down on the bed, don’t move.” She sat down. “Turn so I can see your hands.” She turned slightly, her hands in her lap.

   “Whatever you’re thinking, stop thinking it.”

   He jabbed his eyes back at the man.

   “Make up your mind.”

   The man hesitated.

   “Never get into a card game with the devil,” Stan said. “He will always deal you a bad hand.”

   The man wavered, but lowered his gun, Dottie ran to Stan, grabbing at him, crying.

   “Dad, dad!”

   “You should be ashamed of yourself, taking a kid for a hostage,” he said to Rafaella Gravano. “Tear that bed sheet into strips.”

   They waited while the woman did what she was told.

   “Stand outside the door, honey,” he said to Dottie prying her off of him. He hog-tied the gunman and Ma Gravano. He kicked the gunman as hard as he could, breaking three ribs. He spat on the floor an inch away from Ma Gravano’s face. He left them on the ground, slamming the door behind him.

   Down the stairs and through the house, keeping his daughter behind him, when he and Dottie stepped past the open steel door into the mattress shop, Ezra was alone. 

   “When I asked the big man who it was that we threw down into the basement, he said it was his younger brother. I thought he wouldn’t mind being his brother’s keeper, so I sent him down to join the family. The cat is harmless, anyway. It’s missing most of its teeth.”

   They left the store by the front door, shutting the lights off, walked to the alley, and rolled the tied-up man out the back door of the panel truck. Ezra found a scrap of paper in the glove box. He wrote “I KIDNAP CHILDREN” on the paper and thumb-tacked it to the man’s chest. When they drove away a mongrel dog trotted up and sniffed at him. When they spotted another alley, they abandoned the truck, wiping it clean, and hailed a cab on the street. 

   Dottie curled up in Stan’s warm embrace, Ezra fast on her other side.

   “How did you find me so fast?”

    “Mr. Moto got the license plate number of the guys who grabbed you, and the rest was easy enough, once we knew where to go to find you.”

   “I saw him try to get at them, but it was two against one, and then they were shooting at him, and I was being gassed, and that’s all I remember. I woke up in that bed and the old lady came in with soup and then there you were. Dad, dad, I’m so glad, so happy you found me,” she said, squeezing him tight, crying again, a flood of tears.

   Stan let her cry, stroking her hair.

   When they got back to Hell’s Kitchen, wending up to the apartment, Dottie ran into her bedroom, and threw herself on her bed next to Mr. Moto. She reached for him. Startled, the cat jumped to the floor, looked at the girl, arched his back, yawned, and walked out of the room his tail held high.

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