by Andy Rausch
THE FOLLOWING IS A 3,000 WORD EXCERPT FROM A NOVEL I BEGAN IN 2011 AND QUICKLY ABORTED. ELEMENTS OF THIS WOULD LIVE ON IN OTHER WORKS, SUCH AS MY NOVELLA EAZY-PEEZY WHICH APPEARS IN RIDING SHOTGUN AND OTHER CRUELTIES AND THE FORTHCOMING NOVEL LAYLA’S SCORE. THIS IS BRIEF AND A LITTLE BIT ROUGH, BUT I AM POSTING IT HERE FOR POSTERITY.
The date was September 19, 1974, and Michael Russo had seen better days. But hell, he was doing better than a lot of fellas he’d known. Most of the guys he’d run with back in the Chicago days had been dead for decades.
Frank Nitti had shot himself in the head back in 1943.
Big Al Capone had died of a heart attack back in 1947.
And lots of other guys with less well-known names had bought the farm in a variety of ways over the years.
Sometimes Michael wondered if he was dead, too, and no one had bothered to tell him. Most days he felt like shit. His bones had become brittle, and his liver-spotted skin had become as thin as paper. He had a bad heart, and a memory that was almost as faulty. Nowadays he needed bifocals just to read the sports page. The doctors had him on enough pills to medicate an army, and his plumbing didn’t work so good. Maybe there were worse things than being sixty-nine-years old, but Michael didn’t know what in the hell those things might be.
Times were tough financially, as well. Back when he’d been a part of the Chicago Outfit, Michael could never have imagined the life of poverty he’d live as a senior citizen. Things had been all right once, but that was before his Beulah got cancer and died in the summer of 1961. Her extended stay at St. Luke’s had wiped them out financially. Then her funeral service, which was meager at best, put Michael in a financial hole he had never been able to dig himself out of.
He was sitting in his apartment, nursing a hangover and watching The Young and the Restless, when someone knocked on the door. Before he even got up to answer it, Michael knew it was trouble. At best it would be Mrs. Rodgers, his landlord; at worst it would be Blackie Cromwell’s goons here to collect the five hundred bucks he’d lost on the Browns game. (Michael had made the unfortunate mistake of betting on the local team. The Bengals won in a 33-7 rout.)
Either way it didn’t really matter. Be it Mrs. Rodgers or Blackie’s boys, Michael didn’t have the money to pay either one of them.
He opened the door, and as luck had it, it was Blackie’s boy, Greasy Dunleavy, and some other musclebound goon he’d never seen before. Greasy grinned as though he was genuinely happy to see Michael, every other tooth in his grin missing.
“Mike,” he said, putting out a beefy hand for him to shake.
Michael shook it, and ushered the men into his tiny apartment.
“Good to see you,” Greasy said.
Michael shrugged. “Wish I could say the same.”
Greasy laughed at this. He looked at Michael’s old basset hound looking dead on the couch.
“Who’s this guy?” he asked.
“His name is Arthur.”
“He do any tricks?”
Greasy looked at Michael. “That’s a trick?”
“When you’re his age it is.”
Greasy chuckled at this.
Michael nodded at the other guy. “Never seen this one before. What happened to Big Jake?”
Greasy shook his head solemnly. “They got him in lock-up.”
“You don’t say.”
“Some guys are lucky, and some ain’t,” Greasy said. “And Big Jake ain’t.”
“What happened to ‘im?”
“He comes home one day,” Greasy said, “and catches his old lady in bed with another guy.”
“He kill him?”
“Big Jake shot the both of ’em. Unloaded his pistol on ’em, then reloaded and shot ’em another six times.”
“Hell yeah, that’s a shit deal. I mean, what else can a guy do in that situation?”
“Yeah. That’s too bad.”
“Speaking of luck, you haven’t been too lucky yourself lately, Mike.”
Michael said nothing.
Greasy grinned. “You don’t bet on the Browns when they’re on the road. Hell, if I’m being honest, you don’t bet on the Browns under any circumstances.”
“What can I say? I like the Browns.”
“And how’s that working for you?”
“Not so good, I guess.” Michael grinned uneasily, knowing what was coming next.
Greasy reached into his pants pocket and fished out a pack of cigarettes. “Mind if I smoke?”
Michael shook his head no.
Greasy offered up the pack. “You want one?”
Michael nodded, and took one of the Pall Malls. He put it to his lips, and Greasy lit it for him with a tacky gold Zippo with a naked woman on it.
Once Greasy had lit both of their cigarettes, he asked, “You got the money?”
“I don’t have it all.”
A grim expression washed over Greasy’s face. “How much you got?”
Michael shrugged. “None of it.”
“There’s not much I can do if you don’t have any of the money, Mike.”
Michael nodded, already knowing the score.
“You’re not much of a gambler, Mike. Why don’t you just hang it up before something happens to you that you’re not gonna be able to walk away from.”
Michael said nothing, taking a long drag from his cigarette.
“I like you, Mike. Tell you what: I’m gonna let you pick the hand.”
Michael could have killed them both without so much as batting an eye. Back in the old days, had someone threatened him with bodily harm, he’d have unloaded on them like Big Jake had unloaded on his old lady and her lover. But these were different times, and Michael couldn’t begrudge the guy; Greasy had a job to do, and this was no one’s fault but Michael’s.
“I’m right-handed,” Michael said. “So if it could be the left, I’d be much obliged.”
Greasy nodded. “You got a nice, solid drawer I can use?”
“Yeah.” Michael made his way into the tiny kitchen where the silverware drawer was. He opened it, and a variety of silverware, knives included, was visible. Greasy looked into the drawer and said, “You gonna stab me with one of those steak knives?”
Michael laughed. “This is my fault, not yours.” He began removing all the silverware from the drawer and sitting it on the cabinet top.
“Good man,” Greasy said. “If only a tenth of my clients were as understanding as you.”
Once the drawer was empty, Michael pushed his left hand into it, half-in, half-out.
He took one more drag from the Pall Mall.
“Sorry, buddy,” Greasy said just before he slammed the drawer shut on Michael’s hand, breaking just about every bone. Michael screamed loudly, but quickly stifled it.
“You’re a pretty tough old sonofabitch, you know that, Mike?”
Michael curled up in bed with his broken hand out, his right hand gripping the bottle of Early Times. His hand hurt like a sonofabitch. The pain was intense, and Michael fell asleep immediately, attempting to outrun it.
And, as usual, the nightmares were there, waiting. Michael knew they were nightmares, but he still hoped he might change their outcomes. Somewhere deep down in his mind he believed altering the dreams might make them go away once and for all. But somewhere even deeper in his mind, he knew that it was a rigged-game, and that changing the outcomes was impossible. These nightmares, which now came to him on a daily basis, were memories that were now set in stone.
Each night they awaited him in his slumber. His only hope of avoiding them was getting black-out drunk and passing out. He attempted this each night, but rarely succeeded.
And so the nightmares came.
Today was no different.
His nightmares were like a greatest hits reel from his days as a hitman. Each night the faces of those he’d killed or helped kill came to him, each of them desperate and pleading for the lives they’d never know. And as the nightmares became more and more intense, Michael would find himself pleading to the God who must be overseeing these dreams for the exact opposite—he would beg for his own death. But life was merciless, just as Michael himself had been in his heyday, and death would not come.
The first nightmare was always the same—it would be the one with the little girl.
Michael hadn’t murdered the girl, hadn’t even wanted to kidnap her, but it didn’t seem to matter to the God of his nightmares. Each and every night, without fail, she would visit him in his dreams, just as doe-eyed and innocent as she had been on the day of her death.
Michael opened his eyes to sunlight, and he knew at once where he was. He and two other men, Sharky Tambini and some other guy whose name Michael could no longer remember, were standing around the parked Model T. They were on a hillside about a mile from a small town called Westchester, Illinois, and they were about to rob a bank.
And each night in the dreams, every minute detail would be the same.
They would joke around and discuss the job they were about to pull.
“Why Westchester?” the man whose name Michael could not remember asked.
“Because Al says there’s money in there,” Michael said.
“The man’s got a nose for money,” Sharky said. “If he says there’s good money in there, you can bet your ass he’s right.”
Michael and Sharky would light their cigarettes at the same time each night. Michael was still smoking Luckies; he could never see what brand Sharky was smoking.
As they stand around shooting the shit, Michael the observer remembers Sharky, and remembers why he never liked him. Sharky, or “Shark” as he liked to be called, was an arrogant prick. He was the guy who had done everything you’ve done at least twice as many times, and always had to tell a story that would one-up yours. In short, Sharky was a liar. But then hell, most of the criminals Michael had known in his day were liars. But there had always been something different about Sharky, and the truth was that Michael had been itching to put a bullet in him since the day they’d met. Thing was, Al Capone liked Sharky, and if Al liked somebody, they were pretty much a fixture. Nobody went against Al—not ever.
In the nightmare, the three men were now driving through the countryside, heading toward Westchester. The man whose name Michael could not remember was driving the Model T, and Sharky was riding shotgun. They were yammering on about how Rogers Hornsby had just won baseball’s triple crown with a .403 average, 39 homers, and 143 ribbies. But this was of little interest to Michael, who just sat in the back with his mouth shut, thinking about the job they were about to pull.
The passage of time in his nightmares was of interest to Michael, because it made no sense. Every night it was the same, and every night the nightmares skipped scenes. For instance, the nightmare now took Michael directly from the ride through the countryside to the robbery itself.
The three men each had Tommy Guns. The bank was relatively empty. There was the manager, a meek little sonofabitch, a couple of cashiers, and a smattering of customers. Tonight, as always, the robbery went off without so much as a hitch. Michael threatened to murder the bank manager’s family, and the little bastard opened the vault, whimpering as he did so. Things didn’t get messy until they heard the far off sounds of a police siren. That’s when Sharky grabbed the little girl. A pretty little thing, she couldn’t have been more than eight or nine, with stringy blonde hair and big blue eyes.
And every night in his nightmare Michael heard Sharky make the same declaration—“I’m taking the girl!”
And then they were all three out the door and gone before the cops arrived.
Now the nightmare skipped directly to the Model T pulled over on the side of the road about twenty miles outside of town. Michael the observer knew what was going to happen, but Michael the active participant in the dream had not a clue; the whole thing happened so quickly he hadn’t had time to react. Sharky had the girl out on the side of the road, cutting her down with the sub-machine gun, killing her instantly.
“What the hell you do that for?” Michael cried out.
Sharky, unaffected, said, “She saw us. She got a good look at us. Besides, we don’t wanna go down for kidnapping. The little girl had to go.”
And every night Michael says the same thing: “No, you’ve gotta go.”
And before Sharky can react, Michael’s gunning him down with the Tommy, Sharky’s bloodied body falling on the side of the road right next to the little girl’s.
And even in his nightmare, Michael felt no remorse for killing Sharky. Sharky was a lowlife and he had it coming. But the sad truth was, even in the dreams, Michael had no real remorse for any of the people he murdered. For him, these dark dreams weren’t so much an indication of remorse as they were a longing for remorse he just wasn’t capable of feeling. He felt remorse for not being able to stop the little girl’s murder, and he felt remorse for not being able to stop his Beulah’s painful march through the valley of death. But the deaths he felt remorse for were few and far between. The loss of life was just part of the job. His victims’ faces, sometimes yearning for life and at other times contorted gruesomely in demonic expressions, may have scared the shit out of Michael, but he rarely felt remorse for them.
The second nightmare that came to Michael each night was February 14, 1929—the day that had since become dubbed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. A rival, Bugs Moran, had tried to gun down Al Capone and his men while they were eating dinner in a downtown Chicago restaurant. They showered the building with more than a thousand bullets, but they had missed Capone completely. Then Al learned that Moran had put a $50,000 bounty on his head.
“Something’s got to be done about this asshole Moran,” Al said, trying his best not sound frightened. “I can’t have every looky loo with a gun in Chicago tryin’ ta put a bullet in my ass.”
“No,” Nitti said. “We can’t have that.”
“So the question is, how do we get that sonofabitch?” Al said.
To this, Michael answered, “I guess it depends on how many of his men you want dead.”
“All of them,” Al said calmly. “Every last motherfucking one of them. I want them all dead.”
And that was when Michael explained his plan. Al had just received information that Moran was to receive a large shipment of whiskey on Valentine’s Day. The tipster had also revealed that the shipment was to arrive at Moran’s headquarters on North Clark Street. This, Michael explained, would be the perfect time to get the drop on them.
“What?” Al asked. “We just drive by and shoot up the place?”
“No,” Michael said. “We go inside, line ’em up against the wall, and shoot every last one of the cocksuckers.”
“How do we get inside?” Nitti asked. “How do we get past the door?”
Michael grinned. “We dress up as policemen and we act like we’re raiding the place. Then we line ’em all up—you know, the way the cops do—and we gun ’em all down like the filthy vermin they are.”
Al nodded happily, looking at Nitti, and then back at Michael. “I love this kid.”
“So who do we get to do the shooting?” Nitti asked.
Al nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe we hire guns from out of town.”
“Nah, I know just the guys,” Michael said. “I’ll put together a team.”
“Are they trustworthy?” Nitti asked.
“As the day is long,” Michael said.
Nitti asked, “How many guns are you thinking?”
“Four, maybe five,” Michael said.
Al pointed at Michael. “Well, I want you there. You wait outside until after our cops have corralled Moran and his men. Then you step inside and everyone starts firing. We’ll have a good old fashioned mobster’s ball.”
Al and his men all laughed at this.
Michael then put together his team. First he selected John Scalise, his oldest friend. He trusted John and knew that John was a good triggerman. With the selection of Scalise came Scalise’s partner, Albert Anselmi. Michael had no love for Anselmi, but he trusted him and also knew that Scalise wouldn’t do the job without his partner. Next Michael selected “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, a tough bastard who worked for Al and had once been a professional boxer. The fourth gun Michael chose for the job was Joseph “Hop Toad” Giunta, a gunman he didn’t really know that well but was suggested by Al himself.
Each night the nightmare began with Michael and the other men standing around the corner from Moran’s hangout at 2122 North Clark Street. They wait there, watching for Moran to arrive. But Michael never sees Moran arrive because the nightmare skipped ahead again.
Now John Scalise and the other three uniformed assassins were inside, and Michael waited outside alone. He checked his pocket watch and finally decided enough time had passed. He made the corner and rushed into Moran’s headquarters, where his team had seven gangsters lined up against the wall. Michael looked them over. It was a virtual who’s who of the North Side Irish gang. Everyone was present—except Moran.
“Where the fuck is Moran?” Michael asked.
“He ain’t here,” said Moran enforcer Frank Gusenberg.
Michael looked at John Scalise. “I thought you said you saw Moran enter the building.”
John Scalise pointed at one of the men against the wall. “I thought that was him.”
“It ain’t,” Michael said grimly.
“So what do we do?” asked John Scalise.
Michael nodded. “Mow ’em down and let’s get out of here.”
And the gunfire began. The men lined up against the wall made ghastly faces as their bodies danced rhythmically under the hail of machine gun fire. They fell to the ground in bloody heaps, now nothing more than hunks of meat wearing tattered clothing.
One of the dead men stared up at Michael with what looked to be accusing eyes. Of course the man was dead, so his eyes weren’t really saying shit, but Michael saw them staring at him. Through him. Even now, as he slept, he felt a shiver run down his spine.
And the nightmare skipped ahead again.
Michael talking with Al and Nitti.
“The heat’s really on us for this St. Valentine’s Day Massacre thing,” Al said.
Nitti chimed in. “We can’t take any chances.”
“What do you mean?” Michael asked, already knowing the deal.
“Your men,” Al said.
“What about my men?”
Nitti looked at him solemnly. “They go down for the dirty nap.”
Michael searched for the words. “They—they won’t talk.”
“Everyone talks,” Nitti said. “Everyone.”
Al nodded. “It’s just a matter of circumstance.”
“Right,” Nitti said.
“If the circumstance is right,” Al said, “they’ll sing like fuckin’ canaries, and we can’t have that.”
“So what are you saying?” Michael asked.
“Everyone involved with the murders goes down for the count,” Al said. “Everyone but you. And you’re welcome for that, by the way.”
Michael tried to explain to Al that John Scalise was his closest friend, but Al wouldn’t hear of it.
“Friends,” Al said. “They come and go. You lose a friend today, maybe you’ll make a friend tomorrow. But that’s not what matters. You know what really matters, Michael?”
Michael said he did not.
“Loyalty,” Nitti said.
“Right,” Al said, nodding. “Loyalty is the most important thing in the world.”
And that was it.
The nightmare skipped ahead, and Michael saw a montage of scenes featuring him killing Anselmi, McGurn, and Giunta, and dumping their bodies in ditches.
The nightmare skipped again to a scene in which Michael held his Colt .45 to John Scalise’s forehead. Michael didn’t want to do this—inside his mind, he pushed back, rebelling, trying to find an alternative path for this nightmare—but Scalise’s fate was sealed.
Making matters worse, John Scalise, one of the proudest men Michael ever knew, dropped his pride and began begging for his life. “Please,” he says, “don’t kill me, Mike. I’ve got kids. I’ve got a family.”
And Michael squeezed the trigger, closing his eyes as he did it.
And voila, John Scalise was nothing more than a footnote in history.