It was cold out at Chicago International Airport. A chill, nasty wind was rolling in off the lake. I puffed on a butt and watched the big DC-8 come taxiing in. The three Chicago detectives grew tense.
"There she is," one of them murmured. "Flight 180, out of L.A. With Vic Lowney on board."
"Not for long," another chuckled.
I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my place to make small talk. Leave that for the locals. I had a job to do, and the job began with my getting on that plane wearing Vic Lowney’s name and Vic Lowney’s identity. I only hoped the three locals didn’t mess things up getting Lowney off the plane. One fumble, one bit of gunplay, and the whole job would be bollixed.
The DC-8 was slowing to a halt now. The ground crew went bustling out. They shoved the ramp up under the plane’s door, and a moment later the passengers started getting off. A stewardess was reminding everybody, "Back in your seats in twenty minutes, please. This is only a brief stopover."
Two by two they came out. Los Angeles to Philly, via Chicago. I clicked off each face as it appeared. The twelfth man out of the plane was our man.
Lowney had a Los Angeles look about him. He was tall and broad and heavily tanned, and he stepped off the plane with a kind of a swagger. His thick black hair was shiny with pomade. He wore a bright yellow shirt, a string tie, pegged pants, suede shoes, and—though it was a gloomy afternoon in Chi—dark sunglasses.
If he could have seen me, lounging against the wall just inside the departure shed, he would have had a shock. The faces weren’t the same, but everything else was. String tie, yellow shirt, sunglasses and all. I even had my cigarette drooping at the same angle. The tan had taken me four days under the U-V lamp.
I’m sort of a chameleon that way. It’s what I get paid for. Right now I was busy convincing myself that I was Vic Lowney, number three man of the Southern Cal crime syndicate. Inside of five minutes, I was going to have to convince the rest of the world that I was Lowney, too. And my life depended on making it come off.
The three Chi detectives flashed their badges at the airline man and moved out onto the field just as Lowney came sauntering across. He had long legs, and he wanted to stretch them a little before resuming his flight to Philadelphia. The Chi boys might have been ad men right off Wacker Avenue, with their flannels and their attache cases. Lowney didn’t suspect a thing right up until the moment they quietly surrounded him.
The whole thing took maybe fifteen seconds. They whispered to Lowney and one of them showed identification. I saw Lowney’s face go icy. His lips moved in brief and probably impolite phrases. The Chi men murmured back, and one of them gently took hold of Lowney’s elbow. He jerked free, and I thought there was going to be action, but the detective took the elbow again. They escorted him off the field, taking the next door down. I didn’t budge. I stubbed out my cigarette and lit another.
Ten minutes went by, and then one of the detectives reappeared, smiling like a little boy with a report card full of A’s. He wanted me to stick a gold star on his cheek, I guess. He said, "He’s in custody."
"Everything went smooth, no?"
"The plane’s going to leave soon," I said. I’m not paid to hand out compliments to the locals. "You got anything for me?"
"Sure. Sure, right here."
He slipped me a little blue folder. Lowney’s plane tickets and baggage checks. "When you get settled in Philly, go through his bags. Anything you don’t need, turn over to the police. They’ll ship it back here."
I scowled at him. I could figure out that much of the deal for myself. Slipping the folder into my pocket, I nodded quickly and slouched back against the wall. I didn’t want to talk to him anymore.
From here on in, I was Vic Lowney.
I waited five minutes, and just before the other passengers started coming back on board I got in line with the people getting on in Chi, and passed through. I sauntered aboard the way Vic Lowney would. The stewardess gave me a pretty smile and welcomed me on board I reminded her that I was a through passenger from L.A. That shook her up a little. The nose and the lips were all wrong, but the glasses hid the eyes, and the clothes were pretty much the same. I went to my seat. Lowney had reserved one in advance, and the stub was attached to his ticket.
The plane filled up fast. One by one, the engines started up. We moved out onto the runway.
Lowney had left an Angeleno newspaper on his seat. I picked it up and started reading about the Dodgers. A minute later, we were in the air.
I kept the paper open in front of me, but I wasn’t really interested in the doings of Sherry and Snider and Gilliam. I was going over and over Vic Lowney’s dossier in my mind, letting it seep into my brain until it became my own biography.
Your name is Victor Emanuel Lowney. Born 12 October 1927, Encino, California. Mother an Italian nightclub singer, Maria Buonsignore, died 1944, age 40. Father a movie bit player, Ernest Lowney, died 1932, drowning, age 30. You grew up in Pasadena, went to high school there, left in 1944 after three years. 1944-48, small-time crime. Car thefts, smuggling out of Tijuana, mostly girls. Met Charley Hammell October 1948. Originally hired as muscle, but quickly rose in the Hammell organization. For the last six years you’ve been his left-hand man. You have no police record, so he sends you all over the country as his personal representative. Like this trip to Philly.
You’re a bachelor, and you’ve got a big house in Pacific Palisades. You hate filter-tip cigarettes, drink vodka martinis above anything else, and you’ve got a good eye for women. You eat steak for breakfast. You’re hot-tempered but shrewd. You’ve made half a dozen kills, but nothing proven. You were rejected by the army in 1950 on account of heart palpitations, thanks to the special injection Charley Hammell’s doctor gave you before your physical. In general, Vic Lowney, you’re a cold-blooded louse.
I was used to being a louse. In my line of work you don’t get to impersonate nice people.
You get word in Omaha or Fond du Lac or Jersey City that they need you, and next thing you know you’re busy studying somebody and becoming him. Or maybe creating somebody out of whole cloth. It isn’t pretty work, posing as a criminal. You swim through an ocean of filth before your job is done, and a lot of that filth gets swallowed.
But the job has to be done. Somebody has to do it.
I guess I’m the lucky one.
This time it was counterfeiting. For the past five or six months there had been a deluge of very classy queer stuff on the East Coast. Nothing but fives and tens, of course—it doesn’t pay to make queer singles, while big bills attract too much attention. These fives and tens were pretty special. The engraving was downright flawless, and only the paper didn’t quite measure up to Uncle Sam’s own standard.
It was a close enough match, though, to fool anybody but an expert. Uncle Sam has a hard enough time keeping the budget balanced without competition from free enterprise. So the treasury men started tightening a net. It took three months to center the operation on Philadelphia. It took another two months to pick up the clue that Mr. Big of the queer-pushers was one Henry Klaus of Philadephia, a man well known by the Philly authorities but thus far able to stay on the outside of a cell.
Picking up Klaus wouldn’t help much. The way to smash the ring was to nab the engraver, who was obviously a man of great talent. Only Klaus kept him well hidden, evidently. Nobody had a lead.
At this point I got alerted to move into the case. The reasoning was that only an inside operator could get hold of that engraver. I was still trying to dream up a point of entry when we picked up word that Vic Lowney of L.A. was on his way East for a powwow with Klaus. The police had their own system of underworld intelligence—otherwise they’d never do better than parking tickets. They got the word. Lowney was being sent by Charley Hammell to line up a West Coast outlet for the queer stuff.
We got the wheels in motion. A West Coast man briefed me on Lowney. I roasted under a sunlamp to give myself an Angeleno tan. We plucked Lowney off his plane midway to Philly.
And here I was, twenty thousand feet in the air, wearing padded shoulders and a brand-new suntan and the identity of a louse.
It was getting close to five, Philadelphia time, when the plane started to dip low over the City of Brotherly Love. I fastened my seatbelt and waited for the landing.
It was October, and winter was closing in fast on Pennsylvania. The sky had a dull gray look, and the temperature was in the low fifties.
I strolled off the plane and into the terminal. This was the rough point, right at the beginning. The dossier said Lowney had never been to Philadelphia and knew none of Klaus’ men personally. So far as we knew, no photo had been sent. The letter we intercepted mentioned only that Lowney could be recognized by the yellow shirt, string tie, and sunglasses. But if a photo had been sent—
I stood near the baggage counter and lit up. Two or three minutes went by. Then I saw two guys edging up. One was six-three high, and about the same wide. The other was small and ratty-looking. They both wore heavy slouchy-looking winter clothing. I ignored them.
The big one rumbled, "Uh—Lowney?"
I looked them over. "Mister Lowney," I said coldly.
"Yeah. We’re from Klaus."
They looked at each other. I stared right through them. The ratty one said, "Klaus sent us, Mister Lowney. We’ve got a car waiting outside."
I made no comment on that. "Where’s the john in this place?" I asked.
"There’s one right around that bend," the big one said.
"Are you going to call me Mister Lowney or do I have to report that you boys are a bunch of crude yeggs?"
The big lad glowered at me. "The washroom is right back there, Mister Lowney."
"Thanks," I said. I pulled my baggage claim check loose and, handed it to the ratty one. "Here. I’m going to go comb my hair. Pick up my luggage. Two Samsonite cases."
"Yes, Mr. Lowney." I could see him gagging over every syllable.
I ducked into the washroom, gave my pompadour some fresh curlicues, and leaned against the wall and looked at my watch for five minutes. Then I walked slowly out. The reception committee was waiting by the baggage counter, and the little one had his foot up on one of my suitcases. When he saw me, he got his foot off. In a hurry.
"We got your bags, Mr. Lowney."
"Okay. You want a medal?"
"Follow us, Mr. Lowney."
I let them carry my suitcases. By now they had caught the idea that I wasn’t going to get chummy with underlings. We marched out through the terminal to the parking lot, and up to an Imperial sedan half a block long. Why gang boys go for these big black limousines I’ll never understand. They might just as well put up a neon sign that said Gangster.
The little man opened the back door and I got in. Pint-size tried to get in next to me, but I shooed him away with my foot.
"You sit in front, man."
The beady eyes were marbles of hate. "Now listen here, tough guy—"
"I said you sit in front. Want to debate it with me?"
His face unstiffened. He walked around to the front seat and got in next to the big one. I had taken the first round on points, by plenty.
"I’m staying at the Penn Plaza," I said.
"We’re supposed to take you to Klaus."
"You take me to the Penn Plaza. You think I flew three thousand miles to run right into a business conference? Wise up, simps. I need some relaxing first."
"Klaus is gonna be awful mad—"
"I’ll see him when I feel like seeing him."
The big boy turned around and said in a feathery voice, "Hey, Mister Lowney, you talk like you did us a big favor by coming here. You oughta realize that we’re the guys who gonna do you the favor."
I gave him one cold look that wiped the smugness off his face.
"Can it, friend," I said quietly. "Are you going to take me to the Penn Plaza, or do I take a cab?"
Copyright © 1962, 1990 by Agberg Ltd.