Hard Winter Night / Steve Laracy

1923

She was sitting at a table in an alcove in the front of the restaurant, watching the snow fall outside. She was still wearing her overcoat. An untouched plate of spaghetti and a glass of water sat in front of her. As I watched, she pulled a small glass bottle from her purse and fingered the water glass. The bottle was colored midnight blue.

I left my table, wandered over to where she was sitting, and took the seat across from her.

“Money trouble or man trouble?” I asked.

“A lot of both,” she answered. “What’s it to you?”

“I didn’t want to have my meal spoiled,” I said motioning to the bottle on the table. “What’s the drug of choice?”

She hesitated a moment so I studied her face. She had a small heart-shaped mouth, brown eyes, and a nose that was a little too big. Her face was shaped like an oval and was closely crowned with short curly brown hair. She would have been pretty if not for dark circles under the eyes and the weary expression. I judged her to be in her late twenties, although the stress made her look older.

She reached for her purse and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. I followed suit and grabbed a pack and a lighter from my jacket pocket. Her hands were shaking and she was unable to connect match to cigarette, so I reached over and lit hers before lighting mine.

She took a deep drag, let the smoke out slowly, and finally answered my question.

“Sleeping pills. I have trouble sleeping. You the law?”

“Not anymore. Now that we’ve broken the ice, what’s your name?”

“Betsy Singer.”

“Mine’s Jack Kovacs. Tell me about the trouble.”

“Why should I?”

“What have you got to lose?”

She thought a minute, and apparently being unable to counter my logic, she opened up.

“The man trouble, at least half of it, is a guy named Pat Murphy. He got in over his head with gambling debts and borrowed five thousand from me to get out. Said he had a job lined up and he’d pay me back in a month. He got out all right—out of my life after he gambled away most of the money I gave him. I haven’t seen him in a couple weeks.”

“So that’s your money trouble and half your man trouble. What’s the other half?” I asked.

“The man I borrowed the five thousand from,” Betsy said. “He wants it back, quick. And he can be very persistent. And persuasive.”

“What’s his name?”

“Kirby Moran. He runs a speakeasy out of the Hotel Majestic on Michigan. I used to be a hostess there.”

“I know him. Now, about Pat Murphy. Any idea where I can find him?”

“He spends most of his time at a pool hall off the Loop, Garibaldi’s on Dearborn in Printer’s Row. He shoots craps in a room in the back. But that won’t help. Like I said, he’s blown most of the money, and I certainly don’t want him back.”

“I just want to have a little talk with him, make sure he doesn’t come around anymore,” I said. “What does he look like?”

“Tall, thin, slicked-back black hair.”

“Does he know you borrowed the cash from Moran?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Let me see what I can do. And I’ll have a talk with Kirby Moran.”

“Is he a friend of yours?” Betsy asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

I got up to leave and turned back.

“You better give me those pills,” I said.

Betsy shook her head. “No, I’ll keep them. Like I said, I have trouble sleeping. But don’t worry. I’m feeling better since I talked to you, and I probably wouldn’t have taken them anyway.”

“Okay, I’ll trust you,” I said, not sure that was a wise decision, but I sort of believed her, and anyway, a man can only do so much.

I walked back to where I had been sitting, dropped two bucks on the table, grabbed my overcoat and hat off the rack, and left.

The snow was a heavy, wet snow, the kind that melts as soon as it hits the pavement or your body. It soaked the clothing worse than a pouring rain. By the time I reached Printer’s Row, my overcoat had gained at least ten pounds of water.

Dearborn was practically empty. The street was in total darkness except for the small circular areas around the streetlamps.

I found Garibaldi’s with little trouble and stood out front for a minute looking the place over. There was an alley on the right that led to the back of the building. I walked down the alley and turned left to case the back of the building. Light was nonexistent and I stumbled a few times before I found what I had been looking for. Satisfied, I reversed course, returned to the front of the building, and walked in.

There was a small desk in front and a parlor behind with eight tables, four on each side. The place was almost as dark as the street outside. Hanging lamps over each table mimicked the streetlamps, providing circles of light over the tables.

Four of the tables were in use. Four men were aimlessly circling the tables with sticks in their hands looking for a winning shot. Another six were leaning against the rails on the side, also holding cues and waiting their turns.

Straight ahead at the back of the parlor, I could barely make out a door in the middle of the wall that I guessed led to the back room.

That’s where I headed.

Seated outside the door in a wooden chair was a large man. The chair was tilted back against the wall, so only the two back legs were touching the floor. As I approached, I saw the man had a pudgy face with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Big and dumb, I thought as I approached the back of the room.

As I started for the door, the guard put a fat hand over the knob and said, “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for a little action,” I replied.

“Sorry, this is a private party and you’re not on the guest list,” the man said, cigarette still dangling. “I suggest you take off, bub.”

I ignored him.

“Is Pat Murphy in there?” I asked.

“Maybe he is and maybe he ain’t. What’s it to you?”

“I have a message for him. Will you give it to him?”

“Do you see a Western Union hat on my head?” he asked, sarcastically.

“No, but there might be a little something in it for you,” I said as I pulled a couple of bills from my pocket.

He snatched the bills from my hand and said, “What’s the message?”

“Tell him I’m a friend of Kirby Moran’s and I’d like to have a little talk with him. I’ll wait out front where we can talk in private.”

“I’ll give him the message if he’s in there, and if he’s not, I’ll give him the message anyway,” Big and Dumb said as he smiled and winked. “Now beat it.”

“Thanks,” I said as I turned to leave, “and finish your fag first. I’m in no hurry.”

As I reached the front door, I turned and looked back. Big and Dumb was still sitting against the wall, finishing his cigarette.

I left the parlor and moved quickly toward the alley that led to the back of the building. I negotiated myself safely in the darkness to the back and stopped a few yards short of the back door I had discovered on my first trip.

I briefly thought about making this a fair fight, but I was cold and wet, and by now I was in a sour mood. I grabbed the handle of a nearby trash can lid and pulled it off the can. Then I waited.

I stood in the darkness for about five minutes before the back door finally opened. In the sliver of light that came from inside I saw a thin man exit, putting something in his pocket as he left.

As he hit the alley, he started running. I clutched the lid tighter and waited. He was unaware of my presence in the darkness as he approached at a gallop. Murphy’s face was moving rapidly in one direction, and my arm with the trash can lid was moving just as quickly in the opposite direction, so when they collided, physics produced the desired effect. A moment later Murphy was lying faceup in the snow, unconscious.

I bent over his body, pulled out my lighter, sparked it, and examined his face. Blood was streaming from his nose, which I imagined was a little shorter than it was a few minutes earlier. I reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. It looked like he had been winning.

I slapped his face hard a few times to revive him and gave him a minute to get his bearings before speaking.

When it appeared that he had recovered enough to understand me, I waved the pile of cash in front of him and said, “Looks like this is your lucky night, Murphy.”

“You with Moran?” he replied weakly.

“No, he doesn’t know you took his money from Betsy.”

“Lipski?”

“Who’s Lipski?”

“A bookmaker I owe,” he said.

“I’m guessing he’s the one the five grand was supposed to go to,” I said.

With a little painful effort, Murphy nodded his head.

“Who are you then?” he asked.

“Let’s just say I’m an interested party with a message. Stay away from Betsy Singer, or more trouble will be coming your way.”

He nodded again weakly.

“I don’t suppose there’s a chance you’ll give my money back?” he asked.

“No chance. But I’ll give you a break and I won’t tell Moran it was you who stiffed him. Lipski is your problem.”

I pulled a ten-dollar bill from the wad and threw it on his chest.

“Here’s a grubstake. Maybe you can go back inside and win enough to pay off Lipski. But you may want to see a doctor about that nose first.”

I pocketed the rest of the cash and walked down the alley. Murphy was still on his back when I turned the corner.

I waited until I hit Michigan Avenue before I counted the money under the light of a streetlamp. There was a little over a thousand dollars. Not enough but it would have to do.

I walked slowly down Michigan Avenue to the Majestic. I was soaked to the bone by this point, so the snow no longer bothered me. Again the pedestrian traffic was light, and the few cars on the road moved slowly and skidded often in the slush.

I entered the Hotel Majestic, neglecting to tip the doorman, and walked past the registration desk on the left and the newsstand on the right, walking down three steps to the sitting room.

The Majestic was owned by Kirby Moran and a few of his unsavory associates. Still, it had an air of class. The sitting room was paneled with mahogany and had a fireplace, fully ablaze, on one side. There was a lot of brass, a plush dark green carpet, and several easy chairs, some of which were occupied. I felt a pang of guilt as I stepped onto the carpeting with my rain-soaked shoes and continued on to the other side to a bank of elevators.

I stopped at the first elevator. A slight Mexican in a bellhop’s uniform topped by a small round hat was standing just inside the elevator.

“Going up. What floor?” he said as I approached.

“Going down,” I corrected him.

He hesitated a moment and said, “This elevator don’t go down, mister, only up. This is the ground floor.”

“I’m going down,” I repeated.

The Mexican didn’t respond but looked nervously in the direction of a man sitting in an easy chair a short distance away. The man was reading a newspaper by the fire. He had apparently overheard the conversation, and he rose and walked over.

As he approached, he recognized me. Snyder had a red, pockmarked face and was well over two hundred pounds but had enough height to carry it well. I was beginning to think that the only requirement needed to sit in a chair beside a door you weren’t supposed to enter was to be big, ugly, and not too bright.

But then again, I had already learned that the hard way several times.

“Hello, Kovacs. Just come in to dry off,” he said taking in my appearance.

“Hello, Snyder. I want to see Moran, but this fellow won’t cooperate,” I replied.

“He doesn’t get paid to cooperate,” Snyder said. Then he turned to the Mexican and said, “Take a break.”

“It’s not time for my break,” the Mexican responded timidly.

“Get lost!” Snyder said more forcefully, at which point the Mexican scurried off.

Turning back to me, Snyder said, “So you want to see Kirby, do you?”

“That’s what I just said, Snyder. Your hearing starting to go?”

“Don’t crack wise with me, Kovacs. I don’t like it,” Snyder said, then added, “Do you have an invite?”

“No, but I have something for him.”

“Give it to me and I’ll see that he gets it.”

“No dice. I have a matter to discuss with him.”

“Not unless you have an invite. If you’ve got something for Kirby, give it to me or hit the pavement.”

“Have it your way, Snyder,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll follow the pavement down to the precinct. I still have a few friends down there who might be interested in seeing if that elevator goes in two directions.”

Snyder’s face flushed with anger, getting redder than its natural shade.

“You’re in for a world of trouble if you keep talking like that, Jack,” Snyder growled. “You talk like that and you might not make it across the room.”

He pulled his jacket back to reveal a firearm attached to his hip.

“Look, Snyder, I’m not looking for any trouble,” I responded. “Let me present you with a few scenarios.”

“I’m listening,” Snyder said.

“Option One,” I said, “I walk out the door and maybe I go home and maybe I go to the precinct. And maybe this place is swimming in blue in a few minutes and Kirby isn’t too happy with either me or you.”

Snyder said nothing, so I continued.

“Option Two. You plug me on the way out the door, in front of all these people. That might get the coppers here quicker than Option One. A few of them may even be honest coppers—”

“Not like you, Jack,” Snyder interrupted me.

“No, not like me,” I responded, then continued.

“Kirby still gets disturbed, plus he has to pay to get the bloodstains out of that nice expensive carpet. I don’t have to worry about Kirby’s reaction at this point, but you are still on the hot seat, and the seat is getting warmer.”

By the look on Snyder’s face, I could see he was having difficulty following my train of thought, but then his brain was on the local track while my words were on the express.

“Go on,” Snyder finally said, having finally decided that neither of the first two options worked to his advantage.

“Option Three,” I said, “you take me down to see Kirby. I take up five minutes of his time. If he doesn’t like what I have to say, you can take care of me nice and neat in the back alley and nobody’s hurt but me. Moran may be a little miffed at you for letting me in, but he’ll get over it.”

After a few minutes of additional thought, Snyder gave in to my unassailable logic and motioned toward the elevator.

“Get in,” he said. “You’re not packing, are you?”

“I never touch the stuff,” I said as I entered the elevator, opening my coat so he could get a look.

We got on the elevator and Snyder reached for a key chain attached to his belt. He inserted the key in a lock on the front panel of the elevator and turned it 180 degrees. Then he pulled the lever and the elevator started down.

I could feel that the few dry spots on my body were now also wet, but this time sweat, not snow, was the culprit.

When the elevator hit bottom, we exited into an empty hallway, with only a solitary door on the left.

“Wait here,” Snyder said. Then he turned and headed for the door. He knocked a couple of times and a small panel about two-thirds of the way up the door slid open and a face appeared, followed by the sound of a latch clicking. The door opened, Snyder entered, the door closed, the latch clicked again, and I was alone in the hallway.

I suddenly wondered if I could get the elevator to return to the ground floor without Snyder’s key, but at this point I was already too far underground.

After a few minutes, the door opened.

Snyder appeared and said, “Come.”

I followed him into the inner sanctum and found myself in a large room, gaudily decorated and full of good-looking men and women in evening dress. To the left was a long bar and several roulette and poker tables. Illegal liquor was being poured freely by several bartenders. To the right were a number of round tables at which more beautiful couples were seated laughing at a comedian on a stage against the wall on the far right. The comic was wearing a loud suit and baggy pants and had a raspy voice. I couldn’t hear enough to determine if he was funny, but then, I wasn’t invited down here to take in the show.

I was escorted across the room and led through a door on the opposite side. Kirby Moran was facing me from behind a large desk at the other end of the room. There were several other men lounging on sofas and chairs around the room. I don’t know whether they actually call them henchmen like they do in the detective books, but these guys definitely fit the bill.

A waltz was playing low from a radio in a corner of the room.

“Jack Kovacs!” Kirby Moran bellowed from across the room. “It’s been a long time. Come talk to me. I’d offer you a seat, but you’re not going to be here that long. Make it interesting and make it quick.”

“Hello, Kirby,” I said as I made my way across the room. When I reached his desk, my right hand went for my pocket, at which point several of the henchmen quit lounging and started paying attention.

I raised my other hand, slowly pulled the money from my pocket, and threw it on Moran’s desk.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It belongs to you,” I said. “Betsy Singer borrowed it from you.”

“Betsy Singer,” Moran repeated. “I seem to recall she does owe me some money, but this stack doesn’t look nearly high enough.”

“It’s all she could raise, a little over a grand.”

“I don’t think a thousand dollars is enough to close the books on this matter, and I’m not sure how you are involved, Jack.”

“I’m just trying to help her out. Look Kirby, it’s not Betsy you want. She gave the money to a two-bit grifter named Pat Murphy so he could pay some gambling debts. Instead, he gambled most of it away. It’s Murphy you want, not Betsy.”

“That’s an interesting story, Jack,” Moran responded, “and from a moral perspective, you are correct that Murphy is responsible for the debt. But my legal agreement is with Betsy, so she remains responsible.”

“Yes,” I said, “and I’m sure you have a legal contract that you could produce if necessary.”

Moran took a moment to decide if he was angry or amused. Luckily for me, a slight grin crossed his face, a face with not many distinguishing features other than a slight glaze over both eyes that gave him a menacing look, even when he was smiling.

The smile quickly vanished and he said to me, “What I’m still not sure of, Jack, is what you want from me.”

“Do me a favor, Kirby,” I responded. “Lay off the girl and go after Murphy for the rest of the money.”

“Do I owe you a favor, Jack?”

“I kept quiet about this place when I was on the force.”

“Yes, and as I remember, you were paid well by me and several other individuals.”

“That’s true,” I said. “And that’s what cost me my badge. I’m not blaming you for that. That was all my fault. But I didn’t do any talking after they busted me.”

“I’ll give you that much,” Kirby responded. “You kept your mouth shut.”

He was silent for a minute or two. Then he spoke.

“I’ve decided to take your course of action. Mind you, it’s not because I owe you. But I always liked Betsy. Being a woman, she probably would have gotten off easily anyway. Nothing disfiguring, just enough to lay her up for a few weeks. Where can I find this Murphy character?”

“He hangs out at Garibaldi’s pool hall over in Painter’s Row.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the henchmen taking notes on a little pad, so I directed the rest of my comments to him.

“Skinny guy, greasy black hair, broken nose.”

I addressed Moran again. “He probably won’t be there for a few days, until he can raise some more cash, but get to him quick. There’s a bookie named Lipski after him too.”

“I’m familiar with Lipski,” Moran said. “If Murphy’s lucky, it will be Lipski who gets to him first. Sounds like you still have a little gum on the soles of your shoes, Jack.”

“Not enough to stick,” I replied. “Thanks, Kirby.”

“Don’t thank me,” Moran responded. “By the way, Snyder informed about your threat to call in the dogs. This doesn’t worry me. You are many things, Jack, but you are not a rat and you are not stupid. But let’s not have a repeat.”

I nodded.

“Now,” Moran finished, “turn around and make yourself scarce. If you ever set foot in this place again, you’ll walk out in a pine box.”

Snyder escorted me to the elevator, took me up, and silently pushed me out when we reached the ground floor.

I had started to dry out by this time, so I figured I would head back into the snow again.

The snow was falling just as heavily on the walk home, but it was a dryer, more pleasant snow. I tried to think about the evening’s events, but the waltz I heard in Moran’s office kept running through my mind. I tried to concentrate, but after a while I gave in and started humming along with the music.

By the time I made it home, it was almost midnight. I climbed the stairs to my apartment and walked in.

I stripped naked, threw my wet clothes in the corner, toweled myself all over, and put on a pair of pajamas. Then I put a pot of coffee on to perk.

When the coffee was ready, I poured a cup and sat at the kitchen table. After a few sips and several drags, my mind cleared and I was able to think.

I thought about Betsy Singer. I hoped that she was sleeping well. I wondered if I would ever see her again. Chicago is a big town. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again. On the other hand, I’d be just fine if I never saw her again.

As for Pat Murphy, I told him I wouldn’t rat him out to Kirby Moran, knowing full well that was what I was going to do. That didn’t bother me. I was confident that sometime in the near future, Pat Murphy would walk out the back door of Garibaldi’s pool hall in a pine box, to use Kirby Moran’s parlance. That didn’t bother me either.

I stubbed my cigarette and took my coffee and my chair over to the front window. I raised the blinds, sat down, and stared out at the snow. Different-colored neon signs were flashing up and down State Street. Christmas lights were hanging in many of the windows. The lights shining on the falling snow gave the snow the appearance of multicolored confetti falling from the rooftops.

I sat for a long time watching the confetti fall and disappear as it hit the ground.