My Old Man
My old man was a smart Irishman. When he got to the south end of his beat, he used to sneak out on the Quincy Street pier to see if he could catch me. He had an old razor belt that was full of nicks, and when I got home he'd whale me if he caught me dunking.
He said the water wasn't fit to drown a dead herring in, but I didn't think it was dirty because I didn't see any dirt on me when I came out to lie in the sun under the tail of the big yacht that belonged to Blair, the oil guy.
The whaling the old man would give me wasn't so awfully bad. It used to sting like cig butts, but that was before I got tough to it. Anyway, I thought it was a kind of game with the old man, and I got a kick out of it. He used to lock the bedroom door so the old lady couldn't nose in and then he chased me all over, with me yelling bloody killing and the old lady pounding on the door. I know the old man didn't really mean it. It was a kind of a game. Like some guys play tag and stuff. So the old man played tag with me — only it wasn't any sissy kind of tag.
Yeah, don't get any wrong idea about the old man. He was a pretty swell guy besides being a big-shot cop.
So on this day I'm talking about, me and Nicky Farlane were whooping the wet under the tail of the Seaspray — that's the fancy moniker old Blair tied onto his boat — and I was burning mad about some crazy jingles Nicky kept saying. Cops are flops, your pop's a cop! Cops are flops, your pop's a cop! Over and over, just like that.
So pretty soon I began to give him a shin-clipping, which is what we call a fast, underwater going over. I was doing plenty to him, me being a fish by nature and him being a land-log in the drink. Every time I came up for air, I flashed the pier a quick once-over, keeping peeled for the old man. That was how I first noticed those two mugs leaning against the watchman's shanty, sizing up something on the deck of the Seaspray.
Like I said, we were churning the drink right under the boat's tail and couldn't see anything. I figured maybe they were a couple of loafers killing time. But then why should they be acting so sneaky?
Next time down, I darn near tied Nicky's shins into a bow tie. He began to scratch and howl. Just then I took a quick gander and saw brass buttons coming around the shanty. It was the old man, looking for an excuse to play tag with his old razor belt. I sucked in quick and did a fast tail squat. Just before I went under, I saw those two mugs ducking around the shanty away from brass buttons. Just like me, only quicker. I wondered what they were up to that they had to duck the old man.
I came up under the pier where I got a bunk. Besides my pants I parked some odds and ends of junk that I'd picked up. A busted knife, rusty pins, and a hunk of shell with a funny color that dazzled when the sun hit it.
Nicky Farlane tailed me under. He don't want his old man, Ben Farlane, the ward boss, to find out, either. We held onto the oily, slippery piles, side by side for a couple minutes and then I heard my old man's number tens thump away.
"The sneaking flattie," ripped out Nicky. "I'm gonna get something on him and tell my father. He'll bust him."
"Aw g'wan," I told him. "My old man's a cop. He don't have to take nothing off your old man. My old man says he's got all the floaters — "
"Aw, whadda you know about politics?"
"That's what you think. Your old man runs the ward, don't he? And he feeds every bum in town around election, don't he? And that ain't — "
"Listen, fish-fins, you think you're smart. Come up on the pier an' I'll show you what my father'll do to your old — "
"Come on," I invited him. Like a flash I was slicing into the water and pulling for the ladder, right under the Seaspray's tail.
"Oo-ooh, Fins! Oo-ooh!"
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Fins, that's me. Fins Scanlon. It was old Blair's kid, Linnet, hanging over the rail, waving down. She's a frizzy-bobbed doll that's always decked out in frilly stuff that whispered soft around her brown knees and made her look like a lily walking upside down. But she's a pretty nice kid, even if her old man was that stiff-legged oil punk, Blair. She'd sneak off the boat onto the dock once in a while when Chisel-face, her nurse, wasn't looking. She's okle-dokle even if she is a girl.
I was half out of the river, with water swooshing off me into Nicky Farlane's mush. He was fighting mad and he wanted to get up on the pier where he could use his mitts. So he was hanging pretty close to my tail.
I hung on with one hand and waved up at Linn. She waved back again, and I heard Nicky sputtering: "Ankle up, fish-fins. I'm gonna murder your guts!"
At the same time I heard feet scraping on the dock and those two mugs leaned over, like they wanted to see what the kid was waving at. It popped into my belfry that she was what they were leaning on the shanty, watching. From where I was hanging, they looked like big mugs, all right. I was getting an eyeful of the razor creases in their fancy duds and eyes pressed to a knife edge, stuck in faces hard enough to walk on.
Like I say, I was pretty good at water belly stunts, and I figured to flip a few just to show what I could do. First off, I sat down with a wet smack on Nicky's gasping puss and he glubbed under with a funny, strangled noise. The mugs hee-hawed, and I heard Linn let out a giggle. I grabbed up to a rung higher, then did a sweet little back-twist dive. I came up a ways over, waved at Linn, took a swift gander at the gawking gents, then ducked and swam under water right up to my bunk under the pier.
There was that hunk of shell that dazzled when the sun hit it. I had a crazy notion to take it out and try it. I waited a couple of minutes, then swam out under water and shot up right where I'd gone under, flashing the hunk of shell, making it look like I'd been way the hell to the bottom of the ocean to fetch it.
"What is that, Fins?" hollered Linn. "What you got there that sparkles like that?"
You should've seen the way those mugs stuck out their beaks when they heard her say that and then saw the flash in my hand. I guess they thought I had something, but it was only a funny little hunk of shell with a foolish dazzle.
"Catch!" I hollered up at her. I put my mitt behind my ear, ready for a quick throw. She was leaning over farther and farther.
I threw it, but I was a little wide and she had to reach fast. She reached and she got it all right. The next thing I knew she was bringing it right back to me. She let out a strangly noise, went over the edge and down head first, looking like a blue lily — only a rightside up one. Her tiny face hashed by me before I had time to figure out anything except that she looked more surprised than scared. She splashed water all over me and the backside of the boat.
She came up out of it, sputtering and gasping. "I got it, Fins! I got it!"
I guess I musta looked disgusted. "Yeah, you got it. An' I bet you ketch hell from Chisel-face." I grabbed her.
She grabbed me right back, a strangle hold around my neck. "Can I keep it, Fins?"
"Hey, nuts, cut it — glub"
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She dragged me down for a lousy mouthful of that water. I got busy then and hauled her over. I boosted her up the ladder. She looked like a kitten I once saw fall into a puddle.
"Oh, merciful heavens! Linnet, deah, are you all right?"
It was Chisel-face, cloudy white under the gills, leaning over the kid, with the two mugs standing by gawking. They sure looked like important big shots or something. They looked at each other and waggled their necks like they'd just found out the tide was in or something.
"Goodness, oh!" squeaked Chisel-face. "Maybe now I can convince your father he should anchor in mid-stream."
Linn looked at me; her teeth were chattering a little. I blinked. I had a funny feeling, like I was getting to be some potatoes and maybe I didn't even know my own strength or something.
"Can I keep it?"
"Aw, sure. Sure."
Chisel-face got excited.
"Keep it? Keep what? What's all this, Linnet! What are you having to do with this dirty boy?"
Before I could muscle up to the old eaglebeak, somebody grabbed my arm. It was Nicky Farlane.
"So you're crawlin', huh? Yella like your old man's buttons. Well, you ain't gonna crawl outta that shin-clip you give me. Think 'cause you're a fish in the water you can get away with anything. So it's like that I'm smacking you down, you — "
I went to town on this guy then, and when I got through he was spitting red.
When I got home I combed my hair down low, but it wasn't long enough to hide my eye. So when the old man got through with his cabbages, he lit a corncob and poured water from the kettle into a pan and eased his feet into it. He made a kind of a sighing sound, then looked close at me.
The old lady started clearing away the dishes. Every now and then she choked on the smoke from his pipe and glowered at him like she was fit to tear his guts. She's a sour sub for my real old lady that kicked off.
"Where'd you get the shiner, son?"
"Aw, pop, gee, lay off that, will ya?"
"None o' that, now. Where'd you get it?"
"A guy — a guy was sayin' t'ings about ya. T'ings I didn't like. So I worked him over."
"Ah!" The old man looked interested. "I hope you didn't hurt him much?" He said this like he meant: "I hope you busted his nose."
"Oh, a little here, a little there. A couple of teeth out, is all."
"Hah!" The old lady was standing still, listening. She was looking at the old man with a funny look. He said: "Was he bigger'n you ?"
"Yeah. Nicky Farlane, you know — "
The old man's mouth flopped open, and the corn cob bounced out. The hot ashes spilled over his hand. "Nicky Farlane, you say? Ben Farlane's kid? You beat him — did that — teeth and all. Holy — "
He stopped and looked at me with a funny expression. His feet kept slapping up and down in the pan, sloshing the water over the floor.
"What's the matter?" I felt kind of shaky. I never seen him like this. He looked — if it wasn't the old man, I'd 'a' said he looked scared. "Wha'd I do, huh ? I didn't do anything. Except give him what was coming — "
He let out a funny groan. "You bust the teeth loose from Ben Farlane's kid and you tell me you didn't do anything. Oh — oh — "
He looked like he was gonna choke.
I was getting kind of screwed up inside like I was tied in a blanket. I couldn't breathe right.
"Well, well, jeez, you're a big-shot cop, ain't you? Nicky was a wrong guy saying t'ings about you. You could arrest him, only I busted his jaw instead. You told me you don't think much of his old man. You ain't going to take guff from that cheap ward boss. Honest, that's what you said — only the other night. Well? So how'm I gonna figure it out? So where did I do wrong?"
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Just A Fifty-cent Flop
The old man looked at me, that's all. Stared without saying a word. He looked kind of helpless. It screwed me up tight — me never seeing him like this before.
Then the old lady starts to dish the beef. "Well, Patrick Scanlon, why don't you tell him? He's put it fair and square. Why don't you explain that a common beat-heeler like you is just a lamb fry to big mucky-mucks like Ben Farlane? Why don't you tell the truth for once and admit you been playing big to your kid because he was the only one you could ever get to sop it up and believe you was a hero. Tell him you not only take guff, but you take orders from Farlane. And if he told you to black his boots, you'd have to do that, too. G'wan! Tell him!"
I didn't believe her right off. I was for the old man. So I looked at him hard, waiting for him to blast her down with a string of those fancy words he can use; or else maybe just a hanging eyelid to let me know I shouldn't pay any attention to her. I felt like I was busting my chimneys with a fever; but I hung on and waited.
He sort of slumped down in the chair while she was blasting at him, looking more and more like one of those big twisted sheets she wrings out and slaps down on wash day. When she spit out the last word, he didn't say anything, or give me any signal. He just sat there, his feet lying quiet in the soapy water, his eyes staring down at them like they were a couple of dead mud turtles.
I don't know how long I kept giving him a hot, blinding stare. I didn't feel so hot now.
Jeez! I could see my old man shining Ben Farlane's number tens. It was a screwy idea, but something about the way she said it, and he took it, made me feel like I was choking to hell. According to her, the old man was just a small potato waiting for Farlane to fry him. How could that be? Jeez, he was a cop! And what was Farlane? Just a greasy punk that fed the bums around election. Jeez, the whole thing was screwy!
Then the old lady slaps the dishes down hard in the sink. She slams around and opens up again: "Look at ya! Just look at ya! And you after givin' the kid a load of fancy lather about the glory of upholding the law! You aren't upholding the law; you're upholding Farlane. It's the truth. Tell him. You're nothing but a beat-heeler. You couldn't squint at the left side of Farlane's britches without asking his permission."
When she got done she was shaking in ripples like the flag on the tail of the Seaspray when the wind is a certain way. Now, I figured, the old man would button her lip. But he just sat there.
So that's how it was. So the old man's just a fifty-cent flop, after all. So Nicky Farlane had it straight. Cops were flops. Jeez!
I rubbed my nose. It was running, or something. I figured it was maybe a cold. I never felt this way before. Like one minute I wanted to flop and shove my nose in the hay, and the next minute I wanted to go out and beat the guts out of about ten guys. Jeez!
I dragged my dogs out of there then and pulled them down the four flights like they were a couple of bags of cement. When I hit the sidewalk, I knew for sure it wasn't no dizzy nightmare. I wasn't going to wake up and find the old man stinging me with the razor belt. The air hit me, and I knew I wasn't dreaming about the old man being a fifty-cent flop; he wasn't going to play tag with me any more, the big four-flusher.
The street blinkers were on, but it wasn't quite dark yet. I headed for the pier with the river cooling off my face.
As soon as I came near the shanty, I saw that the Seaspray was gone. Chisel-face had lost no time getting Linn's old man to move out and park the tub in the river. It was nearly dark, but I could see it, laying out aways, with plenty of lights.
Then I saw two guys standing close, looking toward it, heads close and feet up on the edge beam. They musta heard me. They turned around, awful jumpy-like, and the big one said: "There he is now, the one with the educated flippers."
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No Catch At All, Fins, Honest
It was those two important-looking mugs that was on the pier lamping the boat and my swimming.
"Hey, you. C'mere, kid."
"Aw, whatcha want?"
"You're the guy they call 'Fins,' ain't you?" It was the big one. He had a whopper of a jaw and ears like fried eggs. "Yeah. What's it to ya?"
"Just like that," puts in the other one. He was soaking in cig smoke and talkin' it out through his lungs. He was pinchchested, like he'd never took a deep breath in his life. His flashy outfit fitted him like the shine on my old man's billy. "Me and Slots here was just saying how a kid like you should ought to be in the dough with educated flippers like you — "
"Clam up, Buttons," busted in Slots, the big one. "Lemme wise Fins up. It's this way, Fins. How'd you like to make ten bucks?"
"Ten bucks? Holy gee! What's the ketch?"
"No catch at all, Fins, honest. Least-ways, not for a water baby like you. Listen." Slots took a quick gander around to make sure there wasn't any snoops. It was pretty dark now, and you couldn't see very far. He leaned over and talked low.
"All you got to do is hang around till eleven. Then you swim out to that boat. You know, the one that was tied up here this afternoon, and sneak under the stern. You keep mum as a fish, get me? Not a peep. Pretty soon a package falls over the rail, about so big!"
He held his hands about six inches apart. "You grab it, duck under and swim out a ways so nobody can see you. Then you come up and head for that barge; that one over there."
I saw where he was pointing. A big barge was getting' towed up-river. I mean, that's how it*looked. The tug was really only steamin' enough to hold ground. The barge wasn't moving hardly at all.
I gave Slots a fast once-over, looking wise.
"What's in the box?" I wanted to know.
"Never mind that!" He sounded like he was all on edge, ready to jump out of his shoes. He kept looking up and down the pier. "Your job is to take it to the barge, and don't let anything stop you — nothing, do you get it? Then you take your tenner and scram."
"Oh, yeah ? Says you! What about the cops?"
He grabbed a bunk of my shirt, jerked me around, slammed me up on my toes. I could feel his eyes bumin' at me. "Whadda you mean by that crack, you little squirt?"
"Aw, lay off," I told him, busting loose. "You think I'm a dummy? You think I don't know it ain't on the up-and-up? Am I kicking, huh?"
He started to nod, slow-like. I knew now they were tough mugs used to important deals and stuff. I could learn plenty if I hung around. Boy, what a break! Getting in with big mugs, just like that. Boy, I'd show the old man! The sniveling cop, spoutin' baby-talk about the law — Aw, what a load of cripes I used to take offa him!
Slots looked like he was satisfied when he got through sizing me up. "I guess you'll do all right, kid. You're kinda smart. How'd you tumble?"
"Aw, that was easy. I seen you ducking my — ducking that brass buttons this afternoon when he come around the shanty." I almost said "my old man," but I caught myself just in time. I was ashamed to give it out to these big shots that I had a cop for an old man. They'd 'a' sissied me outta the fancy dough right off.
"Oh," said Slots, nodding his head, "you keep your eyes open, too, eh? Stick to it, kid, and you'll get in the real dough some day. Now about this package. Don't let anything stop you from bringing it right over to the barge. I'll be waitin' for you. Get it?"
"Sure I get it."
"And one more little thing." He tightened up on my arm, and his voice got stiff and thin, like it was gonna choke off his wind. "You're a smart kid and I wouldn't want to see nothin' happen to you, see? So don't beef to nobody and don't take any side trips on your way out there. If you pull any monkey business with us, we'll give you the business quick, get it? You'll just be another hunk of garbage floatin' in the river."
When he got through, he stuck his hand under his coat and pulled out something that shone in the dark. He reached out and laid it against my neck under my ear. I shivered. It's a lousy feeling, gettin' cold steel on your bare skin.
Then he put the slicer away with a quick move like he had plenty of practice. He said: "Come on, Buttons. We got to fix about that launch."
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I wasn't exactly scared when I got out there in the middle of the river. But it was some different from the water right around the pier where I knew every inch of it. The lights on the shore looked a long ways away, and it was also a long ways to the bottom — I knew that.
I felt pretty good when I laid hold of the tail anchor chain of the Seaspray. I hung on and waited.
Pretty soon there was a scraping noise, and then I seen a square shadow against the sky. It slid down a couple inches at a time, and then I saw a pair of thin arms, holding onto it. Like somebody was reaching out as far as he could so the splash wouldn't be so loud.
When I saw those thin arms, I thought of Linn falling over the edge this afternoon. But then, I told myself, it was screwy. She wouldn't be dropping the package — whatever was in it.
I was glad it was coming. I was getting shivery, waiting in the cold water. I was getting ready to grab it, figuring it would drop any second now.
Then a funny thing happened. The package dropped all right, but the arms came with it. After the arms came a swishing, kicking pair of small legs. The whole business sailed down and there was a splash. No screaming or shouting — just a splash.
A couple of strokes brought me over and I grabbed at the white box, floating on the water. There was a string tied to it. I pulled the string and grabbed a wrist. Then I had hold of the kid. It was her, all right. Linn.
A crazy feeling chased down the back of my neck then. She wasn't holding onto me or anything. She was all flabby, like she was asleep or something.
"Wake up, Linn!" I whispered, treading water. "Whatsa matter, Linn? Wake up!"
But she just stayed that way, with her eyes shut and her mouth open a little, with the river water running in and then running out.
I was getting awful cold. I opened my mouth to holler blue bloody blazes. Then I shut it quick. Jeez, I didn't know what to do. There was the package, and I was supposed to take it to the barge. Slots would slice me quick if I didn't.
And I didn't know what was going on inside this boat. The kid didn't just fall over — like she did this afternoon. I thought of old Chisel-face and what she would say as soon as her hawkeyes lit on me.
I was getting mixed up, trying to figure it out. Maybe I heard a noise then, like a foot scraping on wood, and maybe I imagined it. Anyway, all of a sudden I started swimming away from there. As I went along I thought, jeez, why don't I deliver the package, collect my dough, square myself with Slots? Then all I gotta do is swim back to shore and pull the kid out on the pier, and make out I found her right there in the water?
I felt good then. I figured I was pretty smart to dope myself out of a hot jam so quick. Maybe Slots was right. Maybe I'd cut into the big-time dough pretty soon.
For me it wasn't any trick at all to swim out to the barge with the extra load. The kid was awful small and light, and besides, she was all flabby, so she didn't get in my way. The box just floated along without any trouble, on account of it was tied with a strong string.
They musta been waiting for me on the barge. As soon as I got close, they reached down some rope and hauled us up.
It was pretty dark and shadowy. A guy with a big pair of arms grabbed hold of Linn. The white package was still tied to her wrist. He turned around and headed for a kind of a shanty that was built on one end of the barge.
The other guy shoved me so hard I almost went on my beak.
"Hey, what's the idea, gangin' — " I started to growl.
"Shut up!" he muttered in a low, threatening voice. "Ankle inside."
There was a light in the shanty-house. The guy with the big shoulders dropped Linn on a bunk, in the middle of a lot of rubbish. It was Slots. He turned around.
"The kid's out."
"Croaked?" came back the one that shoved me. He was the pinch-chested one — Buttons.
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A Funny, Sour Taste
Slots looked like he was ready to bust somebody loose from his tonsils.
"No — not yet. No — not yet at all."
I began to get cold. I didn't like the way these guys sounded. They didn't seem surprised or nothing at me bringing the kid.
"What about the box?" I piped up. "There it is. Ain't you gonna open it? How about my ten bucks? Gimme it, an' then I gotta take the kid over and make out I hauled her outa the water by the pier. You see, she fell off the yacht — "
Slots let out a howl, like he thought I'd cracked a hell of a nifty joke. Buttons joined in, kind of half-hearted, like he was almost afraid of how to act.
Linn moved and sat up, holding her head, like it was very sore. She was making crying sounds, not loud, but you could tell she was cold and scared and hurt. Slots stopped laughing, lie turned around and slapped her down into the bunk with the back of his hand. The kid's head smacked the wood, and she lay there all twisted.
I went kind of crazy then. I jumped at the mug's arm and grabbed hold. I jabbed my mouth at it and tried to sink my teeth. It was like trying to take a bite out of a rock pile. He yelled and smacked me one that skated me across the floor. I landed against a rickety stove and almost got crowned by a hot coffee pot. I tried to get up, grabbing at the stove. It burned my hand.
"Get away from that stove!" yelled the other guy, racing over and grabbing me. "It's got a busted leg! Cripes!"
I heard Slots grind out: "Chuck the two of 'em into the hold and lock 'em in. Then give that tug the once-over and tell 'em to give it all they got. We don't want to hang around this part of the river."
I was dizzy from that slam. But I got a load of Slots ripping the white box off Linn's wrist and chucking it into the corner. Jeez! I didn't know how to figure the lay, but I knew it was some kind of a gag. Slots wasn't even interested to open the box.
Buttons grabbed Linn up like she was an old spare tire. He gave me a kick that sent me staggering toward the door.
"Wait a minute." Slots came over to me, his eyes like red hot rivets. "You damn kid! Bite me, will ya?" Then he swung on me … .
I didn't remember anything until I woke up with a funny, sour taste in my mouth and my bones aching like the old man had been using his razor belt on me for a week straight. It was dark and there was somebody leaning over me, dropping hot water on me, drop by drop. I heard a little whimpering sound.
I reached into the air and found a wet face. It was Linn. She was leaning over, and it was her face the hot drops were coming from. Tears.
"Aw, blow your nose or something," I growled at her.
"Fins. I'm scared! What are they going to do to us?"
I sat up. I was dizzy, and it was awful dark. The place smelled oily.
"We're down in the bottom of the ship. We're locked in! I'm scared!"
I got up, my head buzzing, and started to walk around in the dark. She stuck right on my heels. After a while I bumped my head against wood. It was a stairs. I climbed up until I couldn't go any farther. There was a big trapdoor, fastened down tight. I couldn't move it.
My knees were kind of shaky when I got down to the bottom again. I walked under the stairs and kicked something. It was an old broom. Jeez! What could I do with an old broom against those big mugs? I was beginning to feel pretty sick of myself for being such a smart guy to get into a jam like this.
"What a dopey boob," I said out loud. "I let those guys phenagle me with a lot of fancy malarkey about a package. And all the time they're working it to get you so they can bleed your old man for his dough. That's what! And I helped 'em. Jeez!"
Her hand held to my wrist tight. "You didn't mean it, Fins. I know you didn't mean it. Besides, suppose you hadn't been there when that awful woman threw me over?"
I jumped. "Chisel-face? You mean that old hag did it? Jumpin' pickerels! She must be in with these guys — "
"Ssh! Somebody's coming!"
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Like A Firecracker Going Off Inside A Barrel
I pulled her down close under the steps. There was a squeaking sound and then a light shone down. Some guy was coming down. He shone the light all around, and I heard him swear when he didn't see us. I held on hard to the broom handle, and when he got down near the bottom, his feet were a couple of inches from my face. I shoved Linn quick and stuck the broom handle through. He caught his leg on it and went down like a load of coal. The light smashed.
"Come on now!" I yelled at Linn. I started up the steps, with her right behind me. I heard feet running outside. As we climbed out on top, I yelled over my shoulder: "We got to jump for it!"
I guess I made a big mistake there. I just took it for granted she was like the rest of the guys I go swimming with. We never thought anything of jumping off the dock. I went over the edge of the barge in a clean dive, not making sure that she did the same.
I came up and looked around. She looked around. She wasn't in the water at all. Then I heard a scream, a scream that was choked off before it got really started. I saw them then, the big guy and her. He was slapping her and swearing. I could see his lantern jumping and heard the slaps. I was on the side opposite the tug.
Then the other guy, Buttons, the one I tripped, popped out of the trapdoor. The next thing I knew, there were noises like shots and something was slapping the water all around me. I ducked quick and came up under the edge of the barge, right where they were standing.
"You damn fool! Shooting like that! Whadda you think I carry a knife for?"
"Suppose you'd missed him?"
"I never miss with a knife."
"Well, jeez, Slots, I was sore. The dirty little son of a monkey tripped me up and I damn near busted my nose."
"Serves you right. Suppose the cops heard — "
"Aw, cops, hell! What about the cops? Just a bunch of flops. Forget it."
"Forget it nothing. We got to be on the safe side. You got the boy and now I'm gonna finish the girl. Only it's gonna be a nice, clean knife job."
"Okay, only I gotta take a look at the coffee and stuff. That damned oil stove is clogged up or something. I'm hungry as a — "
"Never mind that. Open up that trap. We're gonna finish this job before we eat — "
I didn't wait to hear any more. I let go and started to pull along the side of the barge as hard as I could. I took a couple dozen strokes before I found a ladder. I climbed up as fast as I could and made a dive for the shanty house.
I knew they were going to kill Linn and I wanted to start something to keep them from doing it. I ran in and grabbed the coffee pot and threw it out through the door. It landed with a splash and a lot of steam. I heard a shout and knew they were coming. There was a window behind the stove and I headed for it. Then I stopped. I had to figure out something to keep them busy. Spilled coffee wasn't any good.
Then I saw the rickety leg of the stove. I grabbed the edge of it and heaved. The stove went over and the frying pan went with it. It made a heck of a noise, but I didn't expect what came next. Oil splashed out all over the floor, and on my feet. There was a funny noise, like a firecracker going off inside a barrel. Then the oil was burning all over and the place was full of choking smoke. I yelled when my feet started to burn. I jumped to the window and climbed out, nearly falling on my head outside.
I slapped my feet where some of the oil was still burning. I got up and fell down right away. I couldn't walk.
On the other side of the shanty, I heard those mugs yelling. The inside of the shanty was all fire now, and they couldn't even go in.
I started to crawl along the deck. My knees got raw, but I got to the trapdoor. It was open. I went down on my knees because my feet were too blistered. I found Linn in a heap at the bottom of the steps. She moved and cried when I touched her.
"It's me — Fins!" I told her. "We got to get out quick!"
"I'm hurt all over," she whispered. "I feel awful hurt."
"Can you get up?"
"No. My leg is bent."
"Hang around my neck — like you did when you fell in the water. Hang on tight, now!"
I was thinking all the time I was going up those steps on my knees with Linn hanging onto my neck, how good that water was going to feel when my feet hit it. They were burning. Once I got her into the water with me, I knew I would be all right. I kept thinking about the water and that was how I kept on going.
Back to Top
Hell, With Guns And All
We got to the top after a while, and I started to drag her toward the edge. We couldn't move very fast.
The fire was brighter now, and it lit up the barge. I heard a yell that sounded funny above the cracking noise the fire made. Then somebody ran at us, and Slots grabbed me. I could see his face plain, now that the fire was so bright. He looked like he was crazy mad. He didn't say anything except: "This time we won't miss."
Buttons picked up Linn. They didn't talk to each other. They just started walking with us. I knew right away what they were going to do. They were walking toward the shanty. The fire was burning through the roof. I knew they were going to throw us both in there.
As we got nearer, the fire got so bright it hurt my eyes. I couldn't see any more. Then I felt myself going down and my burning feet hit the floor. I thought I was in the fire then, my feet burned so bad. But I was wrong. I was just falling on the floor of the barge. The bright light was a searchlight, not the fire.
Hell started to pop. Hell, with guns and all … .
After a while we were sitting in a clean boat with a lot of shiny gadgets on the walls. Guys in snappy uniforms were running the boat and throwing some classy gab.
A guy in shirt sleeves was slapping gobs of grease on my feet and I was sitting close to Linn. Both of us were wrapped up in blue coats, with brass buttons.
Another guy in shirt sleeves handed us big tin cups with hot tea. The guy that was slapping the grease around looked up at me. It was the old man. He grinned at me.
"You did a swell job, kid," he said. "I followed you down to the pier and couldn't find you. Meanwhile the Seaspray short-waved H.Q., and before I could stutter me own name, the dock and the river were thick with radio cars and harbor patrol boats. We saw the fire break out on the barge and I hopped one of the harbor patrol boats. We headed this way and that's about all. Your boy friends are over there." He nodded his head.
I took a gander at those important big mugs, Buttons and Slots. They looked like they'd been through a war or something. There was blood on their faces and arms. The old man grinned again.
"Us cops hate to take mugs like them without mussing 'em up a little. But don't worry. They'll be alive to stand trial."
"We got to give you credit, kid," said the other guy in shirt sleeves. "Only the fire started, we'd never of suspected this barge. You see, it's one of the Blair Oil Company barges — it belongs to this little girl's dad."
A guy in uniform came out of a little room then and he said: "The commish is on the air. I just gave him a full report and he wants to talk to the kid that set fire to Blair's oil barge."
The tea spilled on my wrist. "The what?"
"Aw, whadda ya tryin' to do, kid me?" I said.
"Hurry up," busted in the guy. "It's two-way short wave. We got all the equipment. Come on, you can't keep the commish waiting all night."
The old man picked me up like I was a basketful of the old lady's wash. He shoved me in the little room, and I took hold of the fancy gadget.
"Are you Fins Scanlon?"
"Y-yeah." I gulped it out, the tea in one hand and the gadget in the other.
"So you're the kid that set fire to Blair's oil barge. What do you say about that?" he shouted at me.
"I won't do it again — honest — I — " "What? You won't do it again?" He was slamming the words at me. "Well, I'll be — now, that is something! Listen, if you ever get into a jam like that again, and you don't burn the barge, I'll personally whale you. Listen, that was a mighty fine piece of work you did, and Blair is going to give you a nice reward — "
Back to Top
He Called Me — Sergeant!
I jumped when he said that, and my foot kicked the table.
"Listen," I busted in, "you got to know something. You haven't got the whole story. You see — I — well, this afternoon — "
I stopped right there because I seen my old man reaching to take off his belt. There was a dirty look in his eye. Then he grabbed the gadget away and started talkin' fast.
"Listen, Mr. Commissioner, this is Patrolman Scanlon. The kid's a little confused, talking to you and all. He's tryin' to tell you that the female nurse was in the plot. She was going to handle the shakedown. She'd been with Blair a long time and he trusted her … What's that?"
I heard it in a kind of hazy way. I guess the tea was getting into my eyes, making them watery. I knew what the old man was doing. He was covering for me because he figured I was back on his side of the fence. He was covering me for taking that swimming job for Slots. He was coming through like a real pal.
"Say that again, commissioner? … Oh, I get it. You want me to dig up all I can about him? Okay. Okay, commish — commissioner."
He handed the gadget to the other guy and then he started smiling all over the joint, like he was excited or nervous. He put out his hand and he took mine and shook it.
"Great boy! And you had to go and beat up Nicky Farlane! That makes it perfect. The D.A. is going before the Grand Jury next week to get an indictment against Ben Farlane on vote frauds. The commissioner wants me to testify because I been picking up everything I could in the neighborhood about Farlane's methods. He called me — do you know what he called me?"
I shook my head. I wasn't seeing straight.
"He called me — sergeant!"
I said something. I didn't say it very loud. It was like in a dream. My feet were hurting again like blazes. Like in a dream, one of the other guy's words floated up at me: "What did he say? What did the kid say?"
I guess I must've imagined the way the old man's face looked kind of proud. He said: "He made some remark about he was gonna beat up the next guy that said: 'Cops are flops.' "
~ The End ~
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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