January 15th 1938
Mike Chance stood in the stern of the Bearcat water-taxi and tugged at the collar of his tuxedo that didn’t quite fit. He had stolen the outfit off a drunk the night before, but he had been a little off in sizing up his victim. As the boat tumbled down the far side of a wave, Mike let his knees give a little so he could sway down and look through the hatch into the passenger compartment.
There weren’t many other people on board, only Benny and a couple of sour-faced gunmen sat in the cabin. Benny wore a well-tailored tuxedo. The gunmen sat across from him in over-size coats that bunched up around their necks and made their heads look tiny. They had rendezvoused with Mike and Benny in the parking lot and frisked them without saying a word, then they had walked them down to the boat, ushered them onboard, and frisked them again.
Waves rocked the boat and a gust of wind brought seawater in buckets, so Mike ducked down and slid below deck. He sat down next to Benny, lit a smoke, and stared out the square portholes at the angry white-crested waves. On a calm clear day, the run from the Santa Monica pier took ten minutes. This wasn’t one of those days.
Mike looked over at his partner. Benny’s eyes were shut and his face had turned a milky pale green. Across from them, the gunmen leered at Benny with anticipation. One of them held a fiver. The other had his finger’s crossed. They had wagered on Benny throwing up: the odds were 5 to 1 in favor of sick.
Mike liked those odds. He reached into his pocket and brought out a couple of bucks. He waved them at the gunman who held the fiver in his hands. The thug twisted his face into something a few teeth short of a smile and reached into his jacket. His hand came back with a ten. Mike nodded, then turned his attention to Benny. The little guy had his eyes screwed shut and he was sweating bullets, but he kept his lunch down.
Mike looked out the portholes again. On the horizon, a hulking barge bobbed low in the water. A long wooden building had been built on deck and there was a neon sign on top of it that spelled out CASINO in bright red letters. Right now this sign was not lit.
When the water-taxi hit docked next to the gambling boat, Benny shot up from his seat on the bench, grabbed the fiver from the gunman, and bounded out of the cabin. Mike grabbed the ten and followed him. The gunmen came last. Their bravado dissipated as they got off the boat. Now they were regular Joes on their way to unhappy jobs.
The wind picked up as Mike stepped onto the floating dock. The side of the gambling ship towered over the water-taxi. The small dock was attached loosely to the end of a gangplank that led up to the main deck. The whole contraption bobbed up and down in the swells. Mike noticed a large steel door suspended over the entrance to the gangplank. It was ready to be dropped and delay unwelcome visits.
Benny waited a short distance away. Mike went over and joined him. Several trouble boys and a few sailors came down the gangplank and boarded the Bearcat for the trip back. The gunman who lost the bets came over to Benny and Mike. He started patting them down again. This was the third time and his heart wasn’t in it. When a wave crashed over them and got his shoes wet, he gave up and motioned for them to follow him up to the main deck. Benny and Mike fell in line.
Mike hesitated. He turned back to Benny and tugged at the lapel of his tuxedo again. “You sure I needed this outfit?”
“They have a dress code on board, Mike. Besides, we need to make a good impression.” Benny moved past Mike and took the lead.
“I don’t care about making a good impression.” Mike shouted into the wind.
Benny called over his shoulder. “Don’t get bent out of shape. I’ve talked to Tino. He doesn’t bear any grudges.” Benny moved quickly up the walkway. He knew his way around. He had been on this boat many times before.
“Maybe he just keeps his grudges to himself.” Mike hurried to keep up, but stopped at the top of the walkway to look back toward Santa Monica. He didn’t see it. There was a thick grey fog surrounding them.
Benny kept up his patter. “This is our best option. It’s just bad luck our guy works for these boys.”
“Why this kid? Any fighter could do it.” Mike had lapped up the con as soon as Benny had spilled it, but he wasn’t so sure about the execution.
“For one thing, the kid’s done it before, so I know he’s game and he can sell it good. I’ve heard that from people I know.” Benny stepped onto the deck of the barge. It was the first steady surface since they had left Santa Monica and he paused to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his brow with a blue silk handkerchief.
“If that’s the one thing, what’s the other?” Mike stepped off the walkway onto the deck.
“Relax, buddy.” Benny answered. “This guy, he’s good, he’s been around the track. I looked all over.” Benny tucked away his handkerchief. He had his smile back on. He was warming up the hustle.
Mike stepped in front of Benny and blocked his path. “You said you wouldn’t have to spread the word. You said you wouldn’t have to look. You said you’d keep me out of it. Damn it, you said you knew somebody.”
Benny’s face had turned pale and his hands were shaky. “I do know somebody. And he knows somebody.”
“How many somebody’s are we talking about.” Mike was losing his temper.
“We need this, Mike. As soon as they came to me with the mark, I knew we had to do it.” Benny shifted on his feet. “Listen, the venue is out of town. I kept that under wraps. Everything will be fine.”
“It won’t be fine. They’ll know about it. This is their play. They own it west of the Mississippi. They’ll come out and they’ll find you. They know I know you. They’ll figure it.”
“It’ll be over too soon. It’ll be over before they get here.” Benny sneered. He was tired of talking about it.
Mike lunged forward and got a grip on Benny’s collar. Benny tried to twist out of Mike’s grasp. Mike didn’t let go. He pulled Benny back and shook him. He could have lifted him off his feet easily, but he resisted the temptation.
Two gunmen stepped out of the shadows of a nearby hatchway and interrupted them. Mike let go of Benny and turned to face them. They looked vaguely similar to the gunmen from the water-taxi, but they were a harder more dangerous version. One of them dangled a shotgun under his arm. The other was small and scrawny. He held his hat in his hand.
“We gotta check ya.” The small guy motioned for them to turn and put their hands on the railing.
Benny and Mike complied. This pat down went smoothly. It was more thorough and professional than the other three, but it still came up empty. The guy with the shotgun looked disappointed. His buddy smiled in relief and tipped his hat to them, then pointed out the way for them to go. Benny clapped the closest tough on the shoulder and gave the other a high wattage smile before he disappeared in the ship.