by Michael Howard
(This story is rated "T" for language, violence, and adult themes).
"God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another." ~ Hamlet 3.1
1. More Than You Know
Sunday Evening, January 1, 1933
A sudden gust of chilled air roiled the cellar's tobacco smoke haze into miniature cyclones beneath the glare of naked light bulbs and gave warning of a newcomer's presence. Twenty heads turned as one toward the vestibule to see a dead man step into view.
For a moment only the crackling strains of a phonograph sounded, then, an indivisible murmuring of voices. The expressions on the hard-faced men and harder-faced women seated there in the basement of the small seaman's hotel ran through a common pattern of surprise, confusion, and then anger as they discussed the new arrival.
The object of this attention paused deliberately at the foot of the stairs and surveyed the crowd in a casual manner. He was a tall, lean, dark-haired man with an impassive face. On his left cheek was an uneven scarlet birthmark which marred otherwise handsome features.
His gaze settled on a squat, pinch-faced man in one corner and he moved toward him. The looks he received from the throng as he walked among them were not welcoming, but no one attempted to bar his path.
The intruder kept his eyes on the squat man as he lowered himself into an unoccupied chair at the table. In regular, even tones he said, "Hi ya, Bunkie. Surprised ta see me?"
Jacob Gurzell had to swallow hard before he could reply. "I guess I heard wrong, Marcus. They told me you'd died up in Sing Sing a little after I got out."
"Hell," exclaimed another at the table. "I seen the marker in the old prisoner's graveyard wit' his name on it."
Marcus McCairnen expressed slight interest in this announcement. "They spell it right?"
The struggle to regain his composure showed clearly on Gurzell's face as he sat speechless for a long moment. In the basement's stark lighting he looked exceptionally pallid, with short hair combed straight down onto his forehead causing a resemblance to a marble bust of a Roman emperor.
"Well, Marko, I guess you musta pulled off one of the greatest prison breaks of all time. Or else maybe…"
"Or else maybe I'm just a guy trying to pull a fast one on ya?" McCairnen's voice remained smoothly casual but his dark eyes narrowed.
The beak-nosed man who had claimed first-hand experience of the Sing Sing cemetery pushed his beer mug to one side and leaned forward. "Listen, Marko, or whoever you are. You got McCairnen's map right enough, but seeing ain't always believin'. These days, them facial surgeons can make a bird look like anybody."
McCairnen held his silence for a quarter of a minute, with his left hand resting lightly on the tabletop and his right remaining within the pocket of his overcoat. He turned to Gurzell to speak in a low, brittle voice. "I expected a friendlier greeting from you, bunk-mate. I thought we could have a nice little visit and just reminisce about how things were in our little clubhouse by the river. It was just the other day I was thinking about that A-Block screw named Eckhart. Remember him? He was always goin' through the galleries late at night, trying to get the cons to-"
Gurzell said hastily, "Okay, okay, so maybe you are who you say you are. And maybe I been kinda cold with you. All right, so I'm sorry. It just shook me, that's all."
He turned to an overweight man wearing a soiled apron. "Langer, another bottle here. Bottles all around. Drink up everybody, this is supposed ta be a party."
The new infusion of illicit alcohol began to dilute the room's tension and everyone at the head table started to breathe more regularly when McCairnen used his right hand to accept the drink offered him.
"So what's the occasion, Jake?" he asked in a suddenly amiable tone. "Celebrating somethin' special or has the party just carried over from last night?"
"Last night was business, Marcus. The best New Year's we ever had with the law layin' off the way they did. But tonight is just for me and my friends. We're closed to customers." Gurzell held a shot glass up in front of his eyes to give the contents a careful appraisal before downing it in a gulp. "Last time I looked, Marcus, you weren't on the payroll. So how come Rogan let you in without checkin' with me?"
"I think you're working yer people too hard, Jake. When I came in he was curled up on the floor asleep." McCairnen also held his glass up to the light before disposing of it in the same manner as Gurzell.
Another man was sent up to monitor the door at the top of the stairs and the unconscious Rogan was carried off to a cot in the back room. Even from across the length of the cellar, the purpling imprints of a man's fingers were visible on his throat. The other party-goers followed Gurzell's lead in not commenting on the sight.
At first a deliberate effort was made to keep conversation on neutral topics. The recent death of a racketeer named Larry Fay was lamented by a few, but the now inevitable end for Prohibition provoked the greatest regrets.
By the time a third round was being poured for the table, Marcus McCairnen was devoting more of his attention to the buxom brunette directly across from him than to his host. The girl's companion, a beefy man with naturally florid features, made no effort to hide his displeasure and quickly took on the coloring of a Brooklyn fire engine.
A warning expression from Gurzell kept the man in his chair but did not take the truculence from his voice. "So where you been keeping yourself, McCairnen? How come you ain't popped up before this?"
"I've been around, mister. I've just been too busy to look you up."
"You got a smart mouth on you, chum. Why don't you-"
Another at the table, an older man named Andrasy who spoke with a slight accent, hurriedly interrupted him. "Say, McCairnen, is it true that you were in the Five Pointers with Capone and Luciano?"
McCairnen shrugged. "I worked with both of 'em in my younger days."
"What about now?" asked the brunette.
McCairnen's mouth twisted up in a half smile. "Well, Big Al is gonna have to get along without me, doll-face, because I'm not planning on visiting any federal pens. As for Charlie Lucky, or whatever he's calling himself these days, he knows I'm back in town."
"You're a real name-dropper, ain't ya?" snarled the red-faced man.
"And yer a gambler," McCairnen told him.
The man with the accent said, "Let it go, Donahue. We're just here to have a good time."
"Why should I? Who does this bird think he is to come bargin' in on us like he did? Why are we puttin' up with this, Jake?"
While the room waited for Gurzell to respond, another phonograph record came to an end. The cellar remained silent this time because Langer didn't start up a new disk and conversation at the other tables had stopped.
Donahue took Jake's hesitation as tacit approval. He rose from his chair and said, "I'm gonna see if you're all lip, McCairnen."
Marcus McCairnen held his seat at first, saying through clenched teeth, "Call your puppy off, Gurzell. Call him off now."
Instead the group's leader raised a hand palm up and tilted his head to one side to show that he could not or would not interfere.
Donahue circled the table warily while McCairnen pushed back his chair and got to his feet. His manner was slow and easy, his expression one of distaste.
"You call it," Donahue told him.
McCairnen showed the backs of his hands and said, "These'll do."
"S'okay by me but don't think you'll get off light if we have it mitts only. It ain't gonna go that way for you."
Standing face-to-face made the size difference between the two men more apparent. Donahue was perhaps an inch shorter but considerably wider in the torso and had a longer reach.
Recognizing his physical advantages, or possibly just made incautious by the prodigious amount of whiskey he had consumed over the course of the evening, Donahue immediately took the offensive. His left fist darted out to brush along McCairnen's chin while his right was only just parried from the lighter man's abdomen.
McCairnen started backpedaling under the flurry of punches directed at him. Again and again Donahue narrowly missed connecting with a solid blow to head or body, and each time seemed to be closer than the one before. He became tantalized by the prospect of inflicting real punishment on his elusive opponent and his efforts became more rushed and less careful.
Donahue was surprised by what happened next but not many others in the cellar were. He took a furious swing at McCairnen's jaw and completely missed as the other suddenly ducked backwards. The effort he put into the blow threw him off balance and left his own midsection unprotected. Even before he realized the danger, McCairnen's right arm shot out and upwards to land with an audible thud. This was enough to instantly reverse Donahue's momentum and lift him upwards so that only the tips of his shoes remained in contact with the floor. A left to the chin immediately followed that snapped Donahue back into an upright stance. His eyes glazed over and his body became rag-doll limp. McCairnen's grip on his collar kept him upright for a few seconds, then he was allowed to sink slowly, silently to the floor like an overheated wax figurine.
One of Gurzell's men knelt down beside Donahue and after a moment's examination announced that he was not mortally injured. Three men were detailed to lift him up and carry him off to join the doorman. McCairnen patted his clothes back into shape and returned to the head table.
"Marko, you've got my boys workin' harder tonight than they ever did as stevedores."
"I've had easier nights myself, Jake."
Langer brought over a tall beer but the brunette took it from him so she could personally give it to McCairnen. He acknowledged her gesture with a slight nod and raised the mug in her direction before emptying it.
"You've done me a favor here, Marko. The big guy was startin' to forget his place."
"You know what it's like with these dockwallopers. Always thinkin' that muscles count for more than brains. They come twelve to the dime."
McCairnen idly fingered the brunette's curls and said nothing.
"Yeah, guys like Donahue can hurt me more a lot more than they can help. What I need is someone who can follow a game plan. A joe that's savvy enough to listen to orders when it'll mean real gravy down the line."
Again he waited for a response from his former prison companion before demanding testily, "So, how 'bout it, McCairnen. Do you know somebody for me or don't ya?"
"Well, I get what yer offerin' here but it just won't be good enough."
"Don't pout, Jake. I know you're coming up in the world and people are starting to notice you. Yer name's being tossed around some in the underworld these days so I decided to look you up again. Now I can see that you get your duds from a tailor instead of an estate sale and you got a few flunkies to boss around, but you really haven't changed much." With his free hand, he gestured toward the record player. "There's five thousand starving musicians in this city right now but you've got Edison providing the entertainment. Jacob, you're a small man with small ideas. A rag picker in a three-piece suit. I don't want to work for you. I wouldn't even settle for your job."
Andrasy said, "McCairnen, you've been playin' with dynamite all night-"
Gurzell cut him off. "Ya think yer meant for bigger things, huh, Marko?"
"No doubt about it, Jake. I've always gone through life with my eyes open. I notice things that other people miss. When I got back in town, I could see how things had changed in the underworld; that it wasn't business as usual anymore. Even a lot of the big boys can't see it because they're too close to the setup. But I can and I'm gonna profit by it one way or another."
Gurzell was smoking agitatedly but managed to keep his voice casual as he asked, "Just what are you talkin' about? And why come to me anyway?"
McCairnen put his lips close to the brunette's ear for a few seconds and then she stood up and returned to her original place across the table. McCairnen leaned his chair back and rested both hands on his lap.
"I've got the dope on you, Gurzell. It's obvious that somebody else is backing you up because you never coulda come as far or as fast without outside help. You're fronting for some big shot that needs a man on the waterfront.
"No secret so far. But I happen to know that you're just one of a small army of lieutenants set up all over the city. There are others like you in every racket from gamblin' to prostitution, to bootleg liquor. All of you just watch and wait; maybe you make a little green on the side but not enough to draw heat from the law or other crooks. Mainly you sit tight and report on local conditions for the hidden general. The one who pulls the strings and plans for the day when every important crime leader in New York answers to one mastermind." Contempt showed on his face. "I've even heard of the guy bein' labeled Lucifer, as in the King of the Underworld. 'Course if my name was Tanas Fericul I'd want some kinda alias, too."
The accented older man finally broke the silence. "You've got some imagination, McCairnen."
"Imagination is right, but it ain't comin' from me. This Fericul bimbo has got some big dreams and the muscle to make 'em come true. I can name almost a dozen mysterious disappearances in the last three months that have benefited that so-called king of crime. I admit I don't know if the scheme has any chance of really workin'. But I won't sit back and warm a chair if pieces of the pie start goin' up for grabs."
Andrasy brushed a strand of yellow-gray hair from his now shiny forehead. "Mister, you got guts sure enough, but nothin' much else to offer. You got no racket to make money for you and no gang to back you up."
"I don't need a gang because I always fight my own battles. And my racket is that I'm too good a man to have workin' against you."
There were noises of derision from a few at McCairnen's bravado, but no one wanted to elaborate after his gaze swept the room.
"So how about it, Jake? Give me the nod so I can meet with the big boy and maybe we'll be on the same side."
Gurzell slowly moved his head from side to side. "I'm with Andrasy, Marko. You always had yer share of nerve and then some, but now you've gone over the edge. Yer imaginin' things and talkin' a lot of nonsense."
"But..." prompted McCairnen.
"But we can't have you walkin' outta here spreadin' crazy stories. Yer gonna be held here until I ... until I figure out what to do with you."
"You mean until you're told what to do. Everybody here can see that - hey, look, Sleeping Beauty finally decided to join us."
Not everyone glanced toward the back room at that moment but enough were fooled by McCairnen's ruse to allow him to make a sudden unobstructed lunge toward Gurzell. He locked his left arm around the gang leader's neck and positioned him as a human shield while an automatic in his right hand was leveled at the crowd.
"See, Jake. I bet you already regret not bein' on the same team."
Gurzell was fully occupied in trying to draw enough air into his lungs to remain conscious and made no reply. Despite the frantic clawing of his fingers, the arm around his throat was as unyielding as steel.
McCairnen ordered the group to drop their guns carefully to the floor and move back to the far wall. Compliance was sparse at first until he increased the pressure on their leader's windpipe so that his eyes took on a pronounced bulge and his tongue began to protrude in an almost accusatory manner. As the group began to back up, McCairnen and his protective burden inched toward the doorway closest to the bar.
He couldn't risk looking away from the crowd so he heard rather than saw the door to the back room opening stealthily behind him. Reaction immediately followed awareness as McCairnen gave a backward kick that forced the door to collide with the unseen person. There was a dull thumping noise as if a body had been knocked against a wall or heavy furniture and then the sound of broken glass.
McCairnen couldn't tell if the person or persons behind him had been put out of action but decided not to risk a two-front battle. He released his hold on the now unconscious Gurzell who immediately crumpled into a heap at his feet. The mobster didn't hear McCairnen's .45 begin to fire. Within that enclosed place the rapid succession of gunshots boomed like thunder but could not completely cover the screams and curses of the erstwhile celebrants as they threw themselves onto the grimy cement floor. A few tried to crawl toward the pile of discarded weapons but they were handicapped by the majority who were doing their best to position themselves down behind one or more of their fellows.
No one seemed to notice that five different shots failed to hit any target and yet when McCairnen drew another automatic with his left hand and aimed it toward an electrical junction box along the farthest wall, a single shot was enough to plunge the room into near total blackness. After the intensity of McCairnen's fusillade the sudden silence seemed, for a moment, every bit as disconcerting.
"Get on yer feet, you bastards. He shot the lights out so he could make a run for it."
A voice from the bar called out, "Yer right, Andrasy. I'll cover the stairs up to the lobby."
"Christ, that was McCairnen just talkin'. Rush him. And no guns. We'd only hit each other."
A troop of men charged toward the inner stairwell, tripping over upturned tables and chairs along the way. When hotel employees investigating the sounds of gunfire met them at the top of the stairs, Andrasy snarled, "Goddam. Foxed again."
As he spoke, Langer was raising up a kerosene lantern he had groped out from behind the bar. Its feeble light was sufficient to outline a knot of struggling figures by the vestibule.
A man at Andrasy's side leveled a revolver in that direction.
"What are you doin'? You can't even tell which one is him."
"Do you think Gurzell would want us to be too particular right now?"
Without waiting for a reply, the gunman began to fire and others quickly joined in.
In the midst of that onslaught of bullets, one of the shadowy forms hurtled backwards from the vestibule while the other dove into the open door and out of sight.
With extreme caution they approached the exit. It turned out that the man lying prone on the floor had not been struck by any of their wild shots; the red welt on his cheek indicated that he had been rendered unconscious by a sledgehammer fist. Another man was found half way up the stairwell in a similar condition. Someone noticed his jacket had been removed but it was discovered a moment later, rolled up and jammed between the heavy metal door at the head of the stairs and its reinforced frame. It had served a dual purpose; to muffle the sound of the door's closing and to wedge it tightly in place. It took the efforts of four men to force it open again.
When they finally reached the street outside, McCairnen was nowhere to be found and none of the passersby in the area had any information on him.
Fifteen minutes later a revived Jake Gurzell was walking into his office-apartment on the third floor of the hotel. He slammed the door shut before any of his men could follow him in and sank wearily into the chair behind an over-sized desk. He smoked three cigarettes in an uninterrupted chain and then reached for the telephone.
Gurzellwas nonplused for a moment when the hotel operator's voice came over the instrument, as if he had forgotten that he would not immediately get an outside line. He mumbled something incoherently and then gruffly demanded that she connect him with a number belonging to a mid-Manhattan telephone exchange.
After five rings a man's voice was heard. "Hello?"
"It's me, Gurzell."
"I need to talk to Mr. Fericul."
"He ain't been around. If ya got some news, better give it ta me."
"Well, we had some trouble here tonight. A guy named McCairnen crashed a party at my place. He knows the setup and wants to be cut in."
The unseen speaker repeated the name thoughtfully in the tones of a native New Yorker. "I heard somethin' about him bein' sighted at Magruder's a few days ago. What names did he mention?"
"Mr. Fericul himself so he must know how big the game really is."
"That ain't likely. Where ya keepin' him now?"
"He gave us the slip. But I think we put a couple a slugs in him."
"Izzat right." After a pause he was asked, "Where ya callin' from?"
Gurzell squirmed in his seat before answering.
"You been told not ta do that."
"I-I know. But I thought you would want to hear about it right away."
"Not that quick," he was told. "Now order yer men ta make a careful check of the outside telephone connections fer wiretaps. While that's goin' on, you head over ta Point Six. Have one a yer boys call ya there and then call back ta me. Understand?"
"I guess so but-"
Gurzell stopped speaking after a clicking sound informed him the connection had been broken. He quickly left the office and headed for the elevator, unaware of the futility of his instructions. Just as he had been unaware of the presence of a silent figure on the fire escape outside his office window.
The man he had known as Marcus McCairnen opened the window and crawled through it noiselessly. He wore a pair of earphones that were connected to a small rectangular box held under one arm. There was a second thin silvery wire hanging from the other end of the container. This was attached to the inner wall under the window where two sheets of wallpaper joined and down from there to the faceplate of the telephone jack. He carefully disconnected the cord and placed the electronic equipment into a canvas bag he had brought with him.
A cautious glance out the window revealed a group of men slowly circling the perimeter of the hotel. The intruder therefore began a systematic search of Gurzell's quarters. He was quite thorough but after eleven minutes he had uncovered nothing more revealing than on either of his two previous visits.
Checking down below again, he saw that enough time had passed for the orders of Gurzell's boss to be carried out. The street below was empty as he climbed onto the fire escape and began a rapid descent.
There were a precious few hours left before dawn came, and with it, another face and another identity.
To Be Continued
For Walter B. Gibson and Lester Dent.
("A writer is a reader moved to emulation." ~ Saul Bellow)
Historical Notes: The Five Points was a notoriously crime-ridden district in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century New York City and was said to have the highest murder rate of any slum in the world.
Alphonse "Scarface" Capone (1899 to 1947) headed a smuggling and bootlegging organization based in Chicago until his indictment on tax evasion charges in 1931. In May of 1932 he was sent to the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.
Charles "Lucky" Luciano (1897 to 1962) was actually born Salvatore Lucania but went by several names during his life. The "Lucky" came from the fact that in 1929 he was kidnapped under mysterious circumstances and yet survived with nothing more than a disfiguring knife scar. (Being "taken for a ride" was usually a one way trip). The New York underworld was more decentralized than that of Chicago, but Luciano was its single most powerful leader until being convicted of running a prostitution ring in 1936.
Unlike Capone and Luciano, Larry Fay (1888 to 1933) did not get his start in the Five Points gang and never achieved their level of success in organized crime. Today he is probably better remembered for his association with nightclub entertainer Texas Guinan (of "Hello, suckers!" fame) than his own rumrunning and racketeering activities.