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Power House Gang
His name was Joe Cragen. His family was poor but respectable. Old man Cragen was a law-abiding citizen and Mother Cragen a benevolent, white-haired woman whose fondest recollections were of the County Mayo.
Environment played a large role in the drama of Joe Cragen. His family lived on Tenth Avenue and before he was in long trousers, he was running with a gang of pickpockets. Before he was nineteen, Cragen was Shorty McCabe’s first lieutenant. When a cop cut short the career of the McCabe with a half inch of lead, leadership of the dreaded Power House gang was Cragen’s by right of inheritance. It was then that he became a Guerilla.
Under his aggressive guidance the Power House band flourished and grew opulent. The strip of territory they commanded adjoined the waterfront of the Hudson River and existed in a state of terror. Timid citizens shunned it with a shudder; the policeman that patroled it walked in the center of the streets, directing cautious glances at the housetops. When gang fights were in progress, the quarter huddled in cellars, but battles were few. The Power House gang was seldom attacked.
So long as Joe Cragen kept to his own district all went well. For a year, he sat on the throne of the Power House band and ruled with a mailed fist.
But there fell an evil day when in a bandit taxi he ventured into lower Manhattan. He had made plans to stick-up the paying teller of an east side bank.
The plot worked easily, but the nerve of the bank employee had not been considered. In the pistol duel that resulted, Cragen feinted the teller out into the open, braved the man’s fusillade, shot him four times from the doorway, leaped back into the pirate taxi and vanished.
The same night Cragen crept through the meshes of far-flung police nets and “rode the cushions” to Chicago, leaving the Power House gang to be broken up by the police.
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Nothing To It
On an August night four years after the bank stick-up, and the flight of Cragen, a lean, gray-haired individual in a rusty blue serge suit, cracked shoes and greasy cap entered Wolger’s West Street hotel, crossed the uncarpeted lobby floor and moved to the desk that Abraham Wolger presided over, where he spoke briefly.
“How much for a flop?”
Wolger pulled the glasses up on his curved nose, rubbed a hairy ear and after plumbing his inquisitor with a long stare frowned thoughtfully.
“A quarter for the night,” he replied slowly.
The stranger produced two dimes and a nickel, wrote the name Andrew Hardy in a grimy register and was led off to one of the small, cot-adorned coops the hotel was honeycombed with, Wolger staring after him.
In the room he had rented for the night, the man who called himself Andrew Hardy closed the door and sat down on the bed. For a time, he stared at the floor with narrowed eyes. Finally he took an envelope from a pocket of his shabby jacket, unfolded it and with painstaking care spilled out a quantity of something that resembled talcum powder.
He dropped it on the crease in his hand made by thumb and forefinger and sniffed it up his nose in the manner of one taking snuff.
Replacing the envelope in his pocket the man flexed his arms and sighed contentedly. He reached in a hip pocket and lifted out a small blackjack with a thong about the neck of it for the wrist.
He examined it with obvious satisfaction, wet his finger and rubbed away some dark stains and small pieces of hair from its blunt, leather-covered nose. He dropped it back into his hip pocket and stared at the floor again.
Several minutes later he closed the door of the cubicle and went down into the lobby, making his way to Wolger’s desk.
“Where can I get a snifter of kick?” he inquired shortly.
As he spoke he made a peculiar sign with the thumb and little finger that was significant to the proprietor of the hotel, versed in the mute language of crookdom.
“Downstairs,” Wolger directed, frankly searching the man’s face with a puzzled expression. “First door to the left at the end of the hall.”
The one he addressed nodded and slouched away. He traversed a short hall, opened a door and descended into a basement where illicit drinks were being served to furtive faced clients by a lantern jawed waiter who wore a filthy apron.
The man seated himself at an empty table and rummaged through his pockets until he found a few pieces of silver. He laid them down on the table and waited until he attracted the attention of the waiter.
“Rye, Bill. Back me up a wash of it and never mind the water.”
A half pint of fiery moonshine was set before him. The man consumed a third of it, pulled his greasy cap well over his eyes, folded his arms and slouched back in his chair.
For ten minutes or more, he sat stirless. After a while he became aware of the sound of chair legs being drawn along the cement floor; garments brushed him and presently the words of a whispered conversation drifted back to his ears.
“There’s nothing to it,” the voice of a man said. “Tip Regan looked it over and said it’s as safe as a church. The old woman locks the store up and crawls into the feathers at ten bells.”
A second voice containing a note of warning sounded.
“Soft pedal—there’s a gin hound back of you.”
Andrew Hardy, as he called himself, felt he was being intently scrutinized.
“Stewed to the scalp,” the first speaker said after a pause. “As I was saying. Tip’s got a freight as job in the Pennsy yards and is pulling silk. He passed the word to me. It looks good.”
“What’s the dope?” the other asked in guarded accents. “Where’s the store at? What time do we take a shot at it?”
There came the clink of glasses and a cough.
“It’s called the Empire Fish Market,” the first speaker resumed. “It’s up on Eleventh Avenue, corner of Forty-ninth Street. The old moll that runs it is a widow woman. She knows a pollie and a couple of big restaurants have been taking all of her fish. Tip says she’s got about two grand salted away in a drawer under the counter in the store. The old girl is foxy and has an electric bell on the drawer. She thinks that will keep it safe.”
Glasses clinked again for a minute or two.
“Sounds mighty good,” the second speaker muttered. “I’m with you. When do we start up?”
The man who called himself Andrew Hardy strained his ears.
“Not before one o’clock,” the first voice answered. “Here’s the way we go in—”
His words were drowned out by a gusty rumble of conversation from across the room; almost at once a party of men entered the basement and took chairs noisily at the table to the left of the listener.
The self-styled Andrew Hardy waited no longer. He climbed to his feet and in imitation of one very drunk lurched to the door.
He threw it open with a maudlin backward glance that mentally photographed the faces of the two conspirators, closed it and hurried up and cut into West Street where a young moon sailed low, in a day-long heat haze.
A pulse of excitement began to beat within him. The hour was not quite midnight and more than sixty minutes still remained before the two men of the basement would put their plans into effect.
He fumbled in his pockets until he found a five-cent piece, turned east to the first avenue beyond and arrived in time to leap to the running board of a north bound surface car.
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At the corner of Forty-ninth Street the man alighted and turned toward the river.
The street he passed through was squalid with drab tenements marching cheek to cheek in dingy array. The gutters were filled with refuse awaiting the prowling garbage remover; the iron fire escape landings were heaped with disordered bedding upon which heat-wilted children tossed.
The street was tawdry and pallid with no single redeeming feature. Yet the man who passed along it darted eager glances to the right and left. His attitude was almost that of one returning to a beloved spot after a long absence.
On the corner of Eleventh Avenue he slowed his pace, halted altogether, and took stock of his surroundings. The junction of street and avenue was deserted save for a nocturnal stationer closing his shop; no brass buttons glinted in the lamplight—the section was wrapped in the heavy stillness of an August midnight.
With footsteps that displayed no incertitude, the man approached a fish store directly opposite from where he stood. It was one of three shops in a red brick tenement; a narrow, lightless entrance and hallway separated the fish market from the other two shops. The man walked past the building, brows drawn together, turned and after a quick glance about entered the tenement’s hallway.
Some knowledge of the construction of stores seemed to be at his command. To the left of the building’s narrow, wooden stairway was a single door—a door that opened into the back room or rooms of the fish market.
The man tested its china knob, found it did not respond to his touch and lighted a match, cupping it in the palm of his hands. He held the light aloft, perceived the glass transom over the door, smiled faintly and plunged his light out.
In the murk he fumbled for his folded envelope. He dropped some more of its powder on his hand and inhaled it.
He listened for a minute before mounting a few steps of the stairway.
When he was opposite the transom he leaned over the rail of the stairway and pushed it in with the palms of both hands. To his infinite relief it swung in, squeaking rustily.
He listened again and made his way down the steps.
He wound a dirty handkerchief about the china knob of the door, removed his shoes, placed his left foot on the knob and caught the ledge of the transom.
With sinuous agility he drew himself up and over the sill, wriggling through the small space made by the open transom and dropping with scarce a sound to the floor on the inner side of the door.
It was too dark to ascertain what his surroundings were, so he stood motionless, straining his ears. Suddenly, so close that he recoiled, he heard a sibilant sigh and the creak of bed springs. He drew his brows together again and fingered his lips. It was impossible that he had erred; in all probability this room was a chamber adjoining the fish store—the bedroom of the old woman the two conspirators had spoken of. He decided there must be a door near at hand that opened into the store itself and determined to locate it forthwith.
With the deep, even breathing of the sleeper in his ears, the man followed his sense of direction and groped a careful way forward. With each step his blood warmed within him.
Two grand in crook parlance meant two thousand dollars. It was a sum worth striving for. With that amount of money in his possession he could fulfill long cherished ambitions.
It could buy enough dope to lead him into a Castle of Dreams; put the city he had entered so recently from him and journey to the coast. The key to all wishes was before him—in a hidden drawer under the counter in a fish store.
The outstretched hand of the man slid over another door. They touched a knob and turned it. The second door did not yield and was keyless.
He stood still for a minute, thinking. The woman who owned the shop was canny. She evidently understood the difficulty of breaking in from the outside, and by locking the connecting door and secreting the key made doubly difficult the felon’s progress.
The man turned his head in the direction of the bed. He must possess the key that opened the door or the expedition would be fruitless. He drew the leather-covered billy from his pocket and slipped the thong about his wrist. He debated briefly whether it was advisable to wake the sleeper and demand the key or to use the blackjack immediately and search for it at his leisure. His ruminations were abruptly terminated by a sharp inquiry that cut the gloom like a knife:
“Who is there?”
The man stiffened, his fingers winding about the neck of the blackjack. The bed creaked again and two soft footfalls sounded one after the other. He strove to pierce the curtain of blackness with his eyes, but failed. In some way the sleeper had become aware of his presence; he heard hurried, rattling breathing that was an indication of fear.
His fingers about the blackjack grew still tighter.
The dull patter of feet moving preceded the rasp of a key being turned warily in the door that opened into the hall of the tenement. Even though frightened, the woman was not losing her head. She intended preparing an exit if escape became necessary and a vantage point from which she could both survey the bedchamber and raise a quick alarm if her suspicions proved to be correct.
A dozen rapid steps carried the man across the darkened expanse of room. He brought himself up short as he collided with an unseen figure, clutching a withered throat with his left hand and effectually preventing a scream from surging to lips opened to receive it. At the same moment he thrust the weight of his body forward in such fashion as to put himself next to the door and forced the woman away from it.
“Where’s the key to the other door?” He released the pressure of his hand on the throat sufficiently to permit a weak voice trembling with terror to croak a panted answer:
Savage elation brought the teeth of the man together with a grinding click; he began to force the woman across the room, laughing at the puny, feeble blows she struck wildly at him.
He dug his fingers deeper into the thin throat, an old lust to kill swimming in his blood. He strove to see how far he might choke her before insensibility came, laughing louder at the faint moans and series of agonized gasps that came just before the mad, futile blows ceased and she staggered in his clutch.
Then wearying of the sport and mindful that time was flying, he used his blackjack twice, flung his victim across the bed and delved under the mattress …
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Murder In A Fish Store
The following morning, Abraham Wolger, at the desk in his West Street hotel, looked up from the third morning edition of his favorite paper and addressed a burly youth who was sweeping out the uncarpeted lobby with a worn broom.
“Look it, Jake,” he said, stabbing the newspaper with his stubby finger. “Last night was a murder in a fish store up on Eleventh Avenue. Two thousand dollars was stole and the old woman what owned it got murdered. Ain’t it funny?
“It says right here she was Mrs. Cragen, the mother of that Guerilla what croaked that guy in a bank four years ago this month—the same guy I was telling you looked just like a man who registered here last night and never showed up again.”
The youth with the broom fingered a twisted ear.
“Was there any pinches made?” he asked succinctly.
The proprietor of the hotel looked back at his paper.
“Yes—the cops grabbed the two guys as they were coming out—a coupla friends of Tip Regan, they were. They didn’t find the two grand on them, the paper says, but what difference does it make? The chair for both of them sure! Honest, Jake, guys like that who would croak a widow woman ought to get burned in the chair …”
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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