The only mistake Bumpy Williams made was having two beers for lunch on an empty stomach. He wasn’t hungry, but he was thirsty. The other mistake he made was breaking his number one no break rule, which was to never assume anything.
“It can make an ass of you,” George Benta at the funeral home had said the day when they mixed up two dead men in wrong coffins and had to dig them up and bury them again.
“Hey, mistakes are just another way of getting things done,“ Bumpy said to George’s long face.
He assumed Stan Rittman, frog-marching the shrink out the door 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 feet was Dottie.
“Hands where I can see them, nigger,” said Karol.
The third mistake Bumpy Williams made was whirling around, blackjack suddenly in his hand, and slamming his temple into the sideways swinging blunt butt end of Karol’s Colt .45 caliber pistol. The street tilted up to meet his pole-axed face, his knees weak as a baby’s, his brain blank as a bubble.
“Who’s he?” asked Karol.
“Never mind, in the trunk,” said Stan.
Bettina tossed the car keys out the window, Karol snatched them out of the air, and dragged Bumpy Williams by his armpits to the back of the Pontiac, strong-arming the woozy 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,” he 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 arm.
“Good,” he said.
“Let’s go,” said Stan, getting into the back seat on one side of Dr. Robert Baird, Karol on the other side. “Put your chin into your chest, and keep it there,” said Stan. Karol tied a blue and yellow bandana over the psychiatrist’s eyes. Bettina put the car in gear and eased into traffic on Park Avenue. Less than a half hour later they pulled up at the rear of the Warsaw Baking Company in Little Poland.
Bartek was waiting at the back door, slouching against the brick wall.
“You two bring the colored man,” said Stan, leading Dr. Baird by the elbow into the building. “Handcuff him in the boiler room in the meantime. We’ll get to him after the doc.”
“What about the little man?” asked Bartek.
“He was gone,” said Stan. “We’ll find out what he is, where he is. You and Karol sit tight. This won’t take long.”
Bettina parked the car and followed Stan. She bolted the door behind her, took two steps down into the basement, but then went back up to double-check the door. It was bolted fast. It was a 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. There were two glass block basement windows. There was only one door at the back.
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 to 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 walked by. He gave her a wolf whistle.
“Save that for the girls who don’t know the real you, Bartek,” she said, smiling wickedly as she walked past.
“You’re cooking, doll.”
Bartek lived three blocks away, and Karol lived a block from Bartek, in Little Poland, hard on the East River, where everything and everyone was Polish, drug stores, groceries, hair salons, newsstands, and funeral parlors. Hardware stores and dentists and shoeshine stands advertised their wares and services in their native tongue. The young men had both gotten out of Europe in 1948 when they were both still teenagers and orphans 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 Rittman. It kept them in going out money, going out with girls, going out to ballgames, shows, 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 giant meal for four served in a wooden boat, of sausages, pierogies, baked hocks, bacon, stuffed cabbage, grilled pork shoulder, and chicken.
“You eat this, you’ll be happy for a week,” said the cook.
The Red Pig looked more like an old country farmhouse than a bar and restaurant, with a long deep stocked bar and plenty of Polish beer on tap. A white bird on a red background was stopped in space over the front door. A sign below 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.
Ezra was in the half-empty odds-and-ends basement room of the Warsaw Baking Company when Stan came in, Dr. Baird ahead of him, and Bettina behind them. He was standing in a back corner, his arms folded across his chest, quietly waiting, not angry anymore, but waiting. Stan sat the psychiatrist in a chair at the table in the middle of the room and lifted the bandana from his eyes. He blinked rapidly and squeezed his eyes narrow to keep the light out.
Everything was quiet for several seconds. Ezra stayed behind the doctor. Stan stood on the far side of the table. Bettina 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 said in a thick 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 halfway 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.”
When Ezra pivoted and rousted Dr. Baird to his feet, spreading the lapels of the man’s jacket to search the inside pockets, and they were face to face, the psychiatrist 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. He moved 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 terse.
“My goons? I don’t have any goons. What are you talking about?”
“I already told you to shut up once,” said Stan, as Ezra tossed the doctor’s wallet on the table and shoved him back into the chair.
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, quickly getting up, leaning over the table, and grabbing the psychiatrist by the knot of his tie. He jerked him forwards.
“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 I don’t want that.”
He let go and Dr. Baird fell back into his chair, sputtering. He was starting to sweat. His shirt was damp. He wasn’t a coward, but he wasn’t a brave man, either. He was a smart man, but he belatedly 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 made up for vengeance. He suddenly knew without seeing anything that both of them had guns on their persons. He suddenly knew this had everything to do with Tony de Marco.
He turned to Bettina.
“You can’t let them do this, you’ve got to help me.”
Bettina gave Dr. Baird a breezy look.
“You’re dirty, doc. You lied to Ezra about Jackson Pollack, and then you had him 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. “But, what you didn’t say says you know all about Jackson Pollack, that you lied to our associate about that. Let’s start there, what do you say?”
It wasn’t asking a question.
“Yes, I treated Jackson Pollack for depression, but I can’t discuss anything about it with you. It would be unethical.”
Stan Rittman was taken aback. Bettina squawked.
“You’re going to need a better deadbolt than that,” she said, smiling sweetly.
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.
“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 into the Newtown Creek. He had been, working at the neighborhood’s Standard Oil refinery, accused by his supervisors of negligence and been fired.
It didn’t help matters that a year after his suicide it was determined that Casper Brouwerji hadn’t made the mistake that resulted in the largest oil spill in the country’s history. His widow received 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 spat behind her whenever she walked past a Standard service station.
“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 past Dr. Baird’s shoulder.
Ezra reached into his back pocket and snapped a pair of handcuffs on the psychiatrist’s wrists, wrenching his arms behind him, over the backside of the chair.
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 keep it wide open with that ratchet mechanism on each side of the frame.”
Dr. Baird didn’t say a word.
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.”
There was a slight stop in the room, but Stan knew enough to keep the line going on the base paths.
“How much were you paid?” he quickly asked.
“Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Bettina puckered up a whistle of surprise.
“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,” 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 quietly.
“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. I was told my life would be in grave danger if I ever revealed anything about Tony.”
Stan laughed again
“Your life is in danger right here and now,” he said. “You have one foot in the grave. 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 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, had adopted the Japanese tactic of 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.”
“What does it sound like?”
Dr. Baird hummed a kind of a march with a drumbeat.
“Is that it? Are there any words?”
“No, no words, and that’s all I ever played for him, a sort of ruffle four times, 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?”
“A half million dollars.”
“Jesus!” Ezra hissed.
“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.
“Or we can we can keep snooping and find out who it really was who did our painter,” said Betty.
“Goddamn it,” said Stan.
“I’m with you,” said Ezra. “But I’ll be damned if I’ve got anything better to do before the series starts.”
“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 keep tabs on Dr. Baird and Bumpy Williams.
“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 going anywhere, either. 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 a tramp steamer to the United States, They had survived 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.
“It’s done,” said Karol, the older of the two by several weeks.
“All right, said Stan. “Check with Betty every morning, and if 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 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 down at Bumpy Williams.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.