Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
“The Numbers Game”
October 29th. 1929 was shaping up to be the worst day of my life. I don’t know why John Callahan felt he had to explain himself; perhaps he was just lonely. The two over seven-foot tall goons with glowing lupine eyes who half carried and dragged me into his laboratory didn’t look like they talked much.
“I’ve been fascinated by numbers since I was a child,” Callahan said as we moved past numerous racks filled with the blinking vacuum tubes. He stopped at a table stacked high with surveys and picked up what looked like a wooden picture frame with rows of beads on thin wires. His rice-paper skin was so transparent I could see the tendons in his arms move. “Ever use one of these?” he asked.
“I think there was something like that on the side of my crib when I was a baby,” I told him. “But the beads were much larger and I don’t remember any giants with wolf-eyes tucking me into bed at night.”
One of Callahan’s associates slugged me and a chorus of red and green stars danced the Charleston in a line around my head.
Callahan laughed. He sounded like Peter Lorre with a bad head-cold. “This Chinese instrument is called a Suanpan and it uses either hexadecimal or binary numbers in its calculations,” he said. “For our purposes here at Soarta, if the bead is up it’s a one, if it’s down it’s a zero. The number positions start at one and double as they move from the right to the left. Binary is a far simpler method for doing math when you’re dealing with electricity.”
“Try adding up my drink-tab at Clancy’s,” I told him. “You’re going to need your own power plant.”
“This electrical deity that I’ve constructed, has far greater uses than simple math calculations.” Callahan lay down the instrument and his arms encompassed the cavernous room that occupied most of one whole floor of the J.R. Placer building. “By transferring the surveys that hundreds of thousands almost a million people have now completed onto punch-cards and feeding the numbers into this electrical brain we begin to see patterns. Give me a hundred people with the same shoe-size, eye-color, birth date and a thousand other numbers and I’ll tell you how tall they are,” he said. “The more matches the more exacting the results.”
“Why waste your time here? You should be in a circus carnival guessing people’s weight,” I told him. One of Callahan’s wolf-eyed security people didn’t like this … and the other had to pick me up off the floor.
“You must forgive my associate,” Callahan said smiling at the wolf man. “He is part of a sub-species of humans acquired from Motha Forest in western Montana and is easily aggravated. Perhaps you noticed my own disfiguration?” He waved a transparent hand in front of my face. “I’m afraid my appearance has to do with a failed attempt at making oneself invisible,” he sighed then shrugged his shoulders. “I, along with my son Joseph, have many other botanical and scientific interests besides numerology.”
“You, Al Capone and Bugs Moran must run the same trap lines,” I said glaring at the oversized goon.
“The most important question for all living things is how much time they have left and when they are going to die,” Callahan went on. ‘Imagine if we all knew the exact time of our demise. Insurance companies could pick and choose their clients and make a fortune. Generals could predict the outcome of wars by knowing who would be alive after each battle. The information we glean from obituaries gives us that power.”
“You take all the fun out of dying,” I said.
“I thought you might like to know your own future.” Callahan tore off a white ticker- tape that was spilling from the machine like a tape-worm escaping from a drunken New Guinea sailor.
“Let me guess,” I said. “About one minute from now.” We were on the seventh floor. All his associates had to do was toss me out the window and with all the jumpers littering Michigan Avenue due to the ongoing stock market crash, it would be the perfect murder.”
“Actually you have a little more than a week,” Callahan handed me the paper.
The printed line said: Frank W. Jagger … Date of Demise … November 6, 1929 … 4:19 P.M.
“Why wait around?” I said. “You don’t want me to spill the beans on your little operation here so the next time the Germans decide to conquer the world you can sell them something more useful than tanks and three-winged Fokkers fixed with machine guns.”
“I’m afraid the next Great War won’t start until a decade from now,” Callahan said. “But you’re right about the Germans. An energetic house-painter named Adolph Hitler will march the Third Reich’s vast armies across Europe with great success once again.”
Callahan smiled and motioned to his goons. “Remus would you and Romulus be so kind as to escort Mr. Jagger to the door.” He turned his smile on me. “There is no need to pitch you from a window. You’ll be dead in a week from causes unknown and my numerology research will benefit from another test of its accuracy.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll drop-a-dime to the cops?” I couldn’t believe they were letting me go.
“With all the Wall Street madness going-on, one more raving lunatic on the streets blabbing about electronic fortune tellers won’t turn many heads,” Callahan chuckled.
“This equipment must have cost a fortune,” I said. “You don’t look like you got plugged by today’s bad news?’
Callahan laughed out loud. “The financial markets of the world have been soaring to unprecedented heights for the last seven years,” he said. “I, of course, knew what was coming and began liquidating my vast stocks three days ago, buying gold under hundreds of assumed names. If I hadn’t done so … this might have been just another financial ripple in time … now it’s the Titanic sinking all over again only on a much larger world-wide scale. I assure you I have all the financial resources for my needs.”
“Then why do it?” I asked the mad-man. “Why try to capture and control fate?”
“Why does any genius do anything?” Callahan said as they pushed me out the door. “Because any ability un-used is like having no ability at all.”
I could hear sporadic gunfire as I crossed Michigan Avenue. Fear and financial panic had gripped the city of Chicago. A hefty man wearing a dock worker’s cap and with a Smith and Wesson thirty-eight held tightly in his hand chased an expensive suit across the intersection. “You told me U.S. Steel was a sure thing!” Flames blasted from the gun barrel and plunked metal as the fat man leaped into a waiting taxi. As the cab pulled away I noticed the number 419 painted on the side. It was like a curse … that number was appearing everywhere.
I crumpled up the paper and dropped it in the gutter. There was no way I was going to forget November 6th. At four nineteen in the afternoon. I did the only thing a man in my position could do. I walked to the swanky apartment above Clide’s Oasis where Kit Malone lived. I decided I was going to take the gorgeous songbird out for breakfast. Machine Gun Mcgooganheimer and his thugs might well make me eat a whole truck-load of bullets but that was more than a week away … and I had my life to live.
A six-foot three Cuban named “Willis the Yo Yo” Florez, posted as a guard by his mobster boss laughed and bit the end off from a cigar when he saw me top the stairs. “Usted no puede venir de visita la señora del Sr. McGooganheimer hijo de puta loco!” He was already taking a trademark length of piano wire from his jacket pocket. I lifted both hands in the air and made my eyes wide with fear as he stepped forward then kicked him as hard as I could in the cojones.
Willis doubled over and whispered “Dulce María madre de Jesús” as beans and corn bread poured out of his open mouth. I hit him two more times and then dragged him down the hall to a bathroom and tied him to a grimy toilet with the piano-string before I knocked on Miss Malone’s door.
Kit answered the door wearing a silk-lace and chiffon negligee with ostrich feather trim that did little to hide her smile when she saw it was me. “McGoogies going to kill you!” she squealed.
“Someone or something will,” I told her kicking the door shut behind me. “Meanwhile I’ve been dying to see you.” Her chassis looked even better up close.
The place was as swank as the top floor of the Ritz, with furniture imported from France and a lot of other places I couldn’t spell … plenty of soft maroons and purples. The carpet was so plush I felt like I was walking through a lavender-dyed cotton field.
“I’m so happy you decided to step up and become my héros de la journée,” Kit said as she threw her arms around me and kissed me on the lips.
“I’m nobody’s hero,” I told the dame. “I’m just a love-stricken man at the end of his rope looking for a good time.”
“But you are here, brave and with aucune crainte des gangsters,” she said pulling away. “You will of course help me rescue André and help us to escape this awful place!”
“André?” I knew there had to be another rooster in the hen house.
‘Yes André Moreau, my brother,” Kit said. “You don’t think I stayed with this German cochan because of his money did you?”
“I’m beyond thinking about why people do anything,” I told her. I crossed the room to a Louis the Sixteenth console table and poured myself a drink from a bottle of King William IV blended Scotch Whiskey. Maxwell Garrick McGooganheimer was a murdering German mobster with a ridiculous five-syllable last name … but he had good taste in booze and broads. I looked at the price tag still on the bottle - it said $4.19.
“McGoogie is holding my brother hostage at a coal field down near Harrisburg run by one of his pals Eddie Birger. If I don’t please this monster in every way, he sends me pictures each week of André’s battered face with a few more bruises.” Kit began to cry. “I’m afraid they are going to kill him no matter what I do.”
I knew Eddie Birger from reputation and personal experience. His brother Charlie’s famous Tommy-gun had destroyed more Chicago architecture and Klan members than the fire of 1871 before he was hanged on April nineteenth of the previous year. There were those numbers again … my own death was to come at 4:19 PM.
“As long as we can get this done before the end of the week … I’m up for anything,” I said.
Kit Malone grew up in Paris, France the City of Love … and she definitely had been well-educated.
All I could think about was getting the lovely Miss Malone out of town before McGooganheimer realized she’d been snatched from him. My car, a 1927 Minerva Sport Sedan was unfortunately sitting just off Wacker Drive on the bottom of the East River, but that’s another story. Kit flagged down a taxi, before I could tell her I didn’t have the dough for cab fare. “Mon héros est livré avec les poches vides,” she sighed. I don’t speak French, but I think she thought I was a skinflint.
No cab was going to drive us all the way to Harrisburg, and I thought about who might have a car we could borrow. I came up empty handed, I’d smashed-up too many of my friends rides. I’m not a criminal, but I can be shady when I have to. It griped me that the obnoxious city detective who was always busting my chops owned a Duesenberg breezer. How “Dutch” Winze could afford to drive an automobile worth sixteen grand was obviously a mystery known only to him and Al Capone. I asked the driver to swing by the police station. In my younger days I was a wiz with ignition wiring. We lucked out. I spotted the luxury automobile sitting at the back of the lot and Kit paid the two-bit fare. The driver looked at me and shook his head. “If I’d a known all classy dames go for the four-flushers, I’d still be living with my ma.”
It took me all of five minutes to strip the ignition wires and twist the two red ones together while Kit watched the back door of the cop shop. The six-cylinder Rolls Royce engine purred like a kitten.
The night was unusually warm for October, and we drove with the top down. The radio was playing tunes by Eddie’s Hot Shots and Jack Albin. Kit sang along with the Charleston Chasers when they did Ain’t Misbehavun. There was about two seconds of dead air space when we started across the Ohio Street Bridge. We both heard a sound like a bulldog having a bad dream. Kit looked in the back seat and gasped. “Did you know he was in here?”
“Who?” I hit the skids and a truck went around me with the driver shaking his fist. Dutch Winze lay on the floorboards under a blanket, snoring with an empty bottle of J. Bally rum clutched in his paw. “Look at this chump,” I said. “He’s probably bringing in more dough than Herbert Hoover and he’s sleeping on the job!”
Winze woke up spitting and coughing when I poured the rest of the Puerto Rican milk on his head. “Jagger! You’re a dead man!” He was furious. I pulled him outta the car by his hair and bent him over the bridge railing. My thirty-eight stuck under his chin stopped him from doing a Jack Demsey.
“That’s right, I am,” I told him. “And a dead man ain’t got nothin’ to lose.”
“I got dough,” he blubbered. “lots of it!”
“I don’t want your money; it’s got Capone lice all over it,” I told him. “What I want is your car keys. Me and the lady might want to go to a high style place for dinner and the valet parking monkeys hate it when they have to hot-wire an expensive car.”
“They’re in my pants,” Winze blubbered. He reached down and I wacked him with the pistol butt.
“Take ‘em off,” I told him. “How do I know you don’t have a pea-shooter in there?”
Kit giggled and turned her head as Dutch stepped out of his wide-legged Oxford Bag trousers showing-off white underwear with yellow stains.
I snatched the pants away from him and pulled out car-keys, a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a gold-plated Dunhill Lincoln Grill Lighter, a wad of bills that totaled $419 and several well palmed Kodak photos from the Tijuana donkey show from the pockets.
“You’re not going to leave me on this bridge naked are you?” Winze was eying the dirty pictures from the Mexican nightclub. I had an idea they were his most prized possession. I flung them and the pants into the water a good thirty feet below. “You bastard!” He took a swing at me and knocked the gun out of my hand. The guy was a born street-fighter. I hit him square in the jaw and he smiled as he rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Big Al is always looking for entertainment,” he said as he lurched toward me. “And Moran always has a few soldiers that need to learn the ropes. How do you feel about hanging on a meat hook in an industrial freezer while we dance with your lady friend?”
That’s when Kit clobbered him with the bottle of J. Bally. “Je ne danse avec des porcs,” she said as Dutch crumpled unconscious onto the bridge.
Winze was like an elephant. It took both of us to lift him onto the bridge railing. He was hanging there with his head drooping toward the water making gurgling noises when a Chicago police car stopped on the bridge next to us. “Is that Detective Winze? The officer in the passenger side said when he unrolled his window. I shook my head in the affirmative. “I’ve never seen a cop get so sick on such expensive booze,” I told them. Kit held up the empty J. Bally bottle. “Les boissons de fat-man … like a fish,” she said.
“You guys want to help clean him up?” I asked. “I’ve got his breakfast all over my shoes and pants. I’m sure Dutch will remember both you officers tomorrow.”
“And my dress,” Kit moaned wiping imaginary bile stains and flicking her fingers, “ruiné par son vomi!”
“We were never here!” The way the cop said it sounded like a threat. I could hear both men laughing as they sped away.
I thought maybe Dutch would drown in the muddy water, but we weren’t that lucky. I saw him come to and start back-stroking toward the bank, cursing me and the manufacturer of extra-heavy unbreakable rum bottles after the splash.
It took three days for us to find out that Kit’s brother worked sixteen hours days in the Harrisburg coal fields during the week for Eddie Birger and another day to find out that two of McGooganheimer’s goons took André with them to a secluded farm-house each weekend. Kit used the time to go shopping, buy a wig and become an instant brunette. Me? I was cleaning my thirty-eight and another that I’d bought with some of the detective’s payoff money … I was just kidding about the Capone lice … and immensely enjoying what few days I had left.
It was early Sunday Morning when we decided to make our move. We’d camped out in a wooded area and had listened to the loud music and laughter coming from the farm house for hours. Now there was only a morning dove in a tree making a noise that sounded like don’t move! And then it was finally quiet … almost too quiet.
“Remember,” I told her. “If none of the guys are holding guns, you say What kind of party is this? And I’ll come busting in. If they are armed … you tell them you’re McGooganheimer’s girlfriend and you’ve just escaped from a kidnapper. When they come outside looking for me, I’ll be waiting and get the drop on ‘em.”
There was a large picture window on the living-room side of the house, but the curtains were drawn and I couldn’t see in from the bushes where I crouched. It seemed like it took hours for Kit to make her way up the stone-path past the mail box. I noticed the house address was 419 Meadow Road and groaned. Crickets were counting off the seconds. Two low thumps came from inside and I almost called her back. A rusted screen door screeched like a fire-alarm when Kit opened it. She knocked three times, each time louder, before I heard the heavy plank door finally open.
There was about twenty seconds of total silence after Kit entered the house and I was going nuts. Suddenly I heard her exclaim. “Ce que l'enfer genre de parti est cela?” And I was up and running.
I used my arms to shield my face as I crashed through the large glass window. As soon as I was free of the flying glass shards, I yelled like Geronimo and discharged both pistols into the ceiling. I was waving the guns around like a mad man when the smoke cleared.
Both of Mcgooganheimer’s men lay unconscious on the floor in their underwear. A scowling woman in her mid-forties holding a cast-iron frying pan stood next to Kit.
“I put up with lots,” the woman stammered. “After Pa up an died. I did the best I could to raise my six gals and three sons. These men comes ever week-end and forces thar way into my house. They ate my vittles for nothin and never once chopped a stick of kindling. I put up with da loud music and all the drinking and carryin on. I’m partial to a few of them jazz tunes. But when these two rum-bunkins started dancing and kissing each on the lips like they was boy and girl … and doing it all in their under-drawers … I’d had my fill!”
Two young girls and a toddler came sleepy-eyed from a bedroom and wrapped their tiny arms around her legs. “Now Francie, you take Darlene and Roberta on back to bed. These men are sleepin and we darst not wake ‘em up.”
We found André tied up in a woodshed. We could have rescued him with no trouble at all. But then we would have missed out on all the fun.
A federal task force headed by Elliot Ness was finally beginning to clean up Chicago and the rest of Illinois. When we heard they’d taken Eddie Birger and a bunch of others into custody we threw both of Googanheimer’s men onto the same pile.
Kit kissed me for the last time, shortly before her and André boarded a plane for Paris. I was going to miss her, but then my life was over anyway.
I got back into Chicago late at night on November 5th and I slept in. When I woke up it was already two in the afternoon. I wanted to stay in bed those last hours with a pillow over my head, but decided to look good for the funeral director. I shaved, showered and put on my best suit. It’s a strange feeling when you know the end is coming, just not how. I decided to walk across-town and enjoy the sights. I went past a place I used to live and the memories came rushing back …. In fact my whole life did. It was after four PM when I entered an alley, a shortcut I’d often used in my youth when I was working two serving and dishwashing jobs. I was near the end of the alley and a pile of bricks from a demolished building blocked my path. Chicago was changing. Too bad I wasn’t going to be around to see it.
I started back and the largest automotive vehicle I’d ever seen turned into the alley and roared toward me. It looked like a twenty-ton locomotive running off the tracks with rubber tires. I looked at the classy Beau Brummel wrist-watch Kit had given me for an until-we-meet-again present. It was 4:18 PM. I had a feeling that again was going to be in another world … probably in that overcrowded place called Hell.
I always thought that I’d face death with my eyes wide open, but this time I closed them. The massive iron and steel monster braked so hard bits of asphalt flew up and stung my face. I was expecting McGooganheimer or a few of his goons to shoot, kick, stab or beat me to death.
Instead, John Callahan opened the driver’s side door and leaped to the ground. He still looked like a corpse someone had forgotten to bury, but his clothes were in better shape. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” he says. “There’s been a terrible mistake. It’s your date of birth!”
I looked at him like he was crazy … or I was. For all I knew maybe I was dead and this was the first part of Hell. “You were born in 1900 is that correct?” His eyes glowed like torches.
“Yes,” I said. “April nineteenth … nineteen hundred.”
Callahan laughed and spoke like he was addressing a child. We only use two numbers for the year dates when we program our electrical brain to save storage room. Your year of death, and the year of your birth, both came out zeros and it made the entire system go onto a wild tangent. You were given another person’s demise number by mistake.”
I didn’t know what the almost-transparent guy was talking about. The expensive watch that Kit had given me now said 4:21 PM. “You mean I’m not going to die?” I almost put my fist in the man’s face.
“Of course you’re going to die,” Callahan said. “Just not today. In fact I have the exact date and time right here.”
Callahan was reaching into his pocket as I walked away holding my hands over my ears in case he yelled. I still I try not to think about his numbers game. The one-way plane ticket to New York City and then two-weeks by passenger-ship to Paris cost me exactly four-hundred nineteen clams. It’s a strange world with stranger people.
That was 1929 … and I’ve never looked back.