full tables like good dancers, handling trays crisply.
I recognized a few faces: Suarez, king of the Spanish Town bug; Venetti, waterfront gambling; Scobey, whose bootlegging enterprise ran to tens of thousands of gallons a year. There were stills throughout the back country, and cars with heavy-duty springs in the back ends and trucks packed with large milk cans of the stuff were thick on crumbling, weed-lined roads every night. I stood there for a moment, picking out the faces, recognition coming from the nod of a head, the expansive lift of a hand.
Memories of a precarious time were sharp with the taste of danger light along the tongue. Annacone, call girls — and an uglier traffic in the merchandise of sex. There were strings tied to all of them, and to a hundred others scattered in half a dozen counties. Macy held all the strings, but not so securely any more.
The cuts came in by the week, by the month. Some of it was delivered, some had to be collected. There was always cheating. Books falsified. Revenues faked. It had been my job to see the rake-off was always right, to see that the boys who might be tempted to pocket too much never forgot how narrow the line was, how uncertain the balance of favor; to make sure they were always just a little bit uneasy, that they never stopped looking behind them when night came. It was dirty work. I did it competently. Still, there were always the bold, whose fingers were too sticky, whose appetites for the big piles of easy money were not diminished by the gentle prod of an unseen gun. Some of them were killed. Nothing pretty about it. The shotgun was usually the final judge of the sweet plunge into temptation. Sometimes they went into the bay, or a canal. I never knew when it would happen, or who would do it. I didn’t want to know. I kept out of that. It was my only way of rebelling.
They would recognize me if I wanted them to see me. They would be secretly anxious behind big empty smiles. Maybe the strings were being slipped and cut now, the men under Macy growing plump on profits that brought less commission for Macy each month while the organization crumbled and he sat on his island playing with the child of a whore, a deep moan in his mind as he thought of a killer who waited for his chance. Maybe Stan Maxinewas shifting the strings skillfully and discreetly to his own fingers. The cheating, the holding back always went on, even if the man who held the strings leaned on his employees ceaselessly, playing one against another, sending his own boys in unexpectedly to check and recheck operations. Macy had been that kind of leader once. Now the boys would be running wild, filling their pockets before the inevitable change of leadership and a new crackdown, an over-all tightening. So my reappearance would be an omen. Macy was trying to pull things back together. The last feeble blow from a declining giant. The word would go out, passed to silent men in obscure bars. Before the sun went down on another day, I’d be dead — unless I was incredibly lucky.
I pushed the thoughts away from my mind. I had enough to worry about. I went into the bar, which was about half full. On a small stage at the rear a Negro trio thumped out Jumping the Boogie. It was good barrelhouse stuff. I recognized one of the bartenders. He had once worked at the Coral Gardens, and he was good. Another gentle reminder that Stan was the fair-haired boy now. The flock came dutifully to his fancy watering hole.
“Hello, Paul,” I said, leaning against the bar. He had hair like brushings from moths’ wings, and his face was aging gracefully.
“Pete!” he said. “Pete, it’s good to see you.” A look of alarm killed the smile before it had a chance to widen. “You better get out of here, Pete.”
He looked up and down the bar, leaned closer to me. “Stan’s boys are turning this town upside down lookingfor you. It’s a rush order. You’re in bad trouble, son. Run for it.”