Runnin’ with the Devil

It was Eddie Wolz who first come to me with the idea. He says his brother Chick has this guy needs a favor. A long time ago, before Chick Wooley was on the cover of Look, this guy done him a favor, sort of helped him get over in the song-plugging business, and now the guy is having some labor problems, so he wants to know if we can help out. Yeah, that Chick Wooley. He’s Eddie Wolz’s brother. Go figure. He sang at Hyman the Ape’s wedding and he didn’t seem like no crooner to me, but it so happens that this pal of his, this guy who wants our help, he turns bums into stars. He’s good at arranging for things like that. Maybe he can turn Solly Brotzmann into a ballplayer, I says, but Eddie just stares at me. He don’t follow the ball games, see.

Anyhow, I ask him what is it this guy wants, anyway? I usually ain’t too keen on union stuff. The way it works is you organize a bunch of bums so they can soak more money from the bums in charge, and then you get a piece of the take. I don’t like getting involved in anything political, see? I’m more of a hands-on guy. Nah, says Eddie, it’s the opposite. This guy, he’s having labor problems and he wants them nipped in the bud before his guys go union. Well, that’s different. I done plenty of blacklegging in my day, back before I come to the City —  out in California, when them Okies were wildcatting in the oil fields. That’s my kind of work. So sure, I says, sounds good, I like to keep in practice with that kind of thing. Besides, most of them unions are all Reds, and I don’t much care for Reds.

The first time I figure something is queer is when we get the word that we have to meet the guy’s wheel man in the middle of the night during a full moon. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with some queer birds before. Mendy Weiss used to have to bite off all his fingernails to the quick before he would be able to pick up a piece. Joe Adonis, well, you know how vain them wops are. And I don’t even want to tell you the kind of thing Legs Diamond was into. So we show up at the drop, me and Eddie Wolz and Tony Frangelli and Vinne Chin and Louie Kneesocks and Big Bill O’Haney, who was my cousin, you understand, and we ain’t too worried on account of we’re all packing and D’Angelo knows where we are. We just figure this guy’s some kind of, whatta ya call it, eccentric. Well, that idea lasted about five minutes, right until the giant red-eyed bat shows up.

Once we get to his place, Tony, who is afraid to fly, see, he complains about the transportation. The guy says “I ain’t gonna just make the earth open up just for you fellas. You ain’t worth it.” All hoity-toity, right? Only his money is gold and his suit tells us there’s plenty more where that came from. And we’re looking around, and it’s hot as a goddamn oven in there, plus he’s wearing some fruity smoking jacket, and besides it all there’s this little toad guy in the corner and he’s chewing on somebody’s hand. But he’s offering to pay us more jack than I made during the whole Prohibition running Canadian Club, and he makes it sound pretty easy. Some of his employees, he says, are talking about forming a union, and they come up with a bunch of fair-and-equitable-treatment rap, you know how it is with Commies, and next thing you know they’ve got half the workforce threatening to walk. So Louie Kneesocks, you know what a wise-ass he is, wants to know how much they’re asking. And the client says, it don’t matter, I don’t pay ’em nothing now so anything is too much. And Louie says “Well, with all due respect, Mr., it ain’t no wonder they’re strikin’.” That was the last we seen of Louie Kneesocks.

The work turned out to be a lot harder than I figured. I mean, that’s always the way, but this time it seemed worse than normal. First off, like I said, it was hotter than a furnace down there and he said he couldn’t get no fans because of his electrician was one of the guys striking. Tony asks him one time if he could get some lemonade, and the client almost bites his head off. Literally.  Second, and I don’t pretend to be no egghead or nothing, but it’s hard to think up a plan with all them people screaming all the time. And third of all, your regular blacklegging job ain’t so hard because most of the stiffs out on the line ain’t had much to eat and they’re weak and easy to break. But these guys, they don’t eat at all. Or sleep. Plus your run of the mill rank-and-file man can’t breathe fire or vomit acid. Vinnie Chin come up with the brilliant idea of wrapping up in a mattress before we go hit one of the line bosses, but that just slowed him down for when the hellhounds showed up. Pretty soon there’s only three of us left and we’re starting to run out of ideas.

As it happens, I was the one who told him that there weren’t no way we were gonna strongarm his boys and he better start thinking about paying them some wages, or at least not eating them so often. But Big Bill, he’s the one who really figured it out. I was pretty surprised by the whole thing, to be honest with you, because Bill — well, I don’t say nothing against my own family, but he never struck me as all too bright. Still and all he come up with a winner here. He says the problem you got is all work and no play, pal. And we got some kind of a line on play. You throw these boys a game, and they’ll play so hard they won’t know what’s what. It’ll get so they don’t even care the game is fixed after a while. That’s how we come to bring in the gambling and the girls. I don’t know how the dope ended up down there, though, and that’s the God’s honest truth.  Or somebody’s.

That was one of the last big jobs I pulled. Eddie Wolz, he talked bad about the whole thing. I don’t know if he was just feeling guilty, or if he was hitting the bottle more than usual, or maybe just he’d lost his nerve after we seen that crow tear this guy’s guts out for the tenth time. But he ranted and raved about the job for a couple of months until he was accidentally burned to death making tea. The PD said it was a gas fire, which is funny on account of I thought Eddie had one of them electrical stoves, but whatever the case may be, Chick Wooley went all out for the funeral and it was sure something. Me, I got out of the game after a couple of years. The guy paid us enough that I could afford not to have to kneecap guys for money anymore. Most of the old-timers moved down to Florida, but not me. After that job I couldn’t stand the hot weather. I moved up, to Minnesota.

I ain’t heard from old Big Bill in years until this week. He sent me a telegram, telling me he’s been doing a lot of work for this client we blacklegged for, running his vice operation. He told me he’d pay me a visit real soon. I wrote him back and said I’d be happy to see him, but that I wasn’t in the game no more. I ain’t heard from him since I sent that letter. I wonder if he’s gonna stop by.

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