Twenty-four Chester Street was a rooming house. Every morning at eight, weather permitting, the old woman from Room 4 stepped out on the porch, dragged a wicker chair to the railing, and sat.
This one morning she didn’t show until eight-thirty. She stood for a moment wheezing the fine spring air into her lungs and patting her frizzy hair. Then she patted her cheek, doing it gently, as if the bright color of her face gave her pain. She dragged the wicker chair to the railing and sat.
The old woman had a trick she did with her upper lip, curling it back and giving a frightful view of her false teeth. That happened every few minutes, like clockwork, except this time. She suddenly got up from her chair, not quite fast enough, and vomited.
At a quarter to nine the two girls from Room 11 found her there on the porch. The old woman started to twitch a little when they dragged her back into the house, and by the time they had her under the light that hung by the staircase she was struggling to get free.
"Lemme go, for heaven’s sake, lemme—"
"Mrs. Tucker, you fainted. Lie still now, Mrs. Tucker."
"Get your hands offen me, you! I never been sick a day in my life. Get your hands offen me," and she started to screech the way she always did.
They left her sitting on the stairs, under the twenty-five watt bulb, because they had to be at work ten minutes later.
Mrs. Tucker tried to get up but another retch tightened her insides and she doubled over. When the spasm had passed, she looked up. The landlady stood there, a big shape wrapped in a pink housecoat that was meant for a much more beautiful woman.
"You sick or something?" said the landlady. "You trying to mess up my front hall?"
"I never been sick a day in my life," and the old woman tried to get up.
That’s when she fainted the second time.
With a fat man’s grunt Dr. Junta hauled himself up the porch steps. He eyed the woman in the pink wrapper who was sloshing water over the planks of the porch and said, "I’m the doctor. Did somebody—"
"Number Four. End of the corridor on the left. And if she got something catchy," the landlady yelled after him, "get her out of here."
Number 4 was right next to Number 5; in fact, the two rooms had been one. There was a dividing wall, beaverboard on one side and the bare studding showing on the other, where the old woman had her bed.
"I don’t want no doctor," she said when Junta came in. "I never been sick a day in my life and I didn’t call for you."
"I understand you fainted." Dr. Junta put his satchel down.
"You got no call comin’ in here like that. I didn’t ask for you and I don’t want you."
"If you’re worried about the money, I’m from the Relief Board. Now, what happened? You threw up?"
The old woman did the trick with her teeth and gave Dr. Junta a cold stare.
"Indigestion is all. I know how to take care of myself."
"When did it start?"
"Just this morning. I’m all right now, so there’s no need to hang around."
Dr. Junta sighed and opened his satchel. He wasn’t a very enthusiastic man, but there were certain routine things that he always did. He shook down the thermometer and walked up to the bed. That’s when he noticed the color of the woman’s face.
"Where’d you get that sunburn this time of year?"
"I ain’t got no sunburn. Where would I get a sunburn, anyways, holed up in this rat trap?"
"If you don’t like the place," the landlady said from the door, "you can git any time, Mrs. Tucker. Any time!"
"All right, both of you," said Dr. Junta. "Now, once more, Mrs. Tucker, try to remember how you’ve felt the last few days. Any complaints, any discomforts."
"Nothing. I been fine."
"She been fine like a sick dog," said the landlady. "Sickish for days, borrowing my aspirin and lying in that bed of hers."
"She’s wrong. Listen, Doctor—"
"How long has this been going on?" asked Dr. Junta.
"Lemme see now." The landlady rewrapped herself and looked up at the ceiling. "Right after that one-nighter was here. Smith, he said his name was. Middle-aged guy, real pale face, wore a blue overcoat. Right next door, he stayed, in Number Five."
"Was his bed behind this wall here?" Dr. Junta tapped on the thin partition.
"No. That’s where the closet is."
"Was Smith sick, as far as you could tell?"
Smith, the pale man in the blue overcoat, hadn’t been sick as far as any of them knew, but the hot, sore color of Mrs. Tucker’s face wasn’t a simple rash, as the old woman was trying to say, and Dr. Junta couldn’t decide just what it might mean. That night, playing it safe, he committed Mrs. Tucker to the Hamilton City Hospital.
Jack Herron threw his cigarette on the floor and stepped on it. Then he picked it up and put it in the ashtray on his desk. He looked at his watch, then at the phone next to his elbow. He had been doing this all day, but nothing had happened. No news.
Stiff from sitting, Herron walked up to the dark window and looked at his reflection in the glass. He looked properly nondescript. An FBI man looks like anybody else and makes an effort to stay that way. He patted his thin hair into place self-consciously, wishing the early balding didn’t show so much.
Herron smoked another cigarette and then he couldn’t stand the waiting any longer. He grabbed his hat off the hook, clicked the safety lock, and slammed the door behind him. Lettering on the door said, "Federal Bureau of Investigation, District Office, St. Louis, Mo."
A few blocks from the office Herron turned up a broad flight of stairs and walked into the Central Police Station. Maybe something had come through since he left the office.
There was a little room right off Communications smelling of varnish and sweeping compound. Herron walked in and said hello to the two men at the table. They were sitting in shirtsleeves and the older of the two was pouring black coffee into paper cups. The young one was wearing a shoulder holster.
"Hello, yourself," said the one with the holster. "If you want coffee, we got. If you want news, we ain’t got."
The old one who worked in the next room put a cup before Herron and poured from a tin percolator. "I know what he wants," said the old one, "but he’s going to get coffee."
Herron sat down, sipped from his cup, and said, "That’s too bad, Starkey."
"He don’t like your coffee," said the young cop who was wearing the shoulder holster. "He thinks it’s just too bad for words. Myself, I drink Starkey’s coffee because I like the flavor of the paper cups. Eh, Starkey?"
"Shuddup," said Starkey.
Herron knew there was no point in asking whether anything had come through. Starkey would have told him. "Listen, Herron," Starkey said. "Why all this mummery with a message? If it’s got to be coded, why don’t you guys receive it yourselves? Why have us receive it?"
"That’s because the FBI is federal," said the young cop. "They do things different. They have the local police receive their messages so the police can phone it in and waste a little time getting it through. It’s more complicated that way."
Starkey laughed, but Jack Herron didn’t think it was so funny.
"First of all, the message isn’t coded. Secondly, we got no night operator. And why aren’t you watching your ticker?"
"I got Jones watching," Starkey said. "And Jones knows as much about it as I do: ‘Upon receipt of the following convey immediately to local office Federal Bureau of Investigation, viz. Diagnosis probable. Admitted time such and such, place such and such, patient’s residence such and such.’ And after me watching those crazy tickers for ten years, the bright Mr. Herron from the FBI tells me that this ain’t no code!"
"Have you tried reading it backward?" said the cop with the holster.
"I have," said Starkey. "By God, I have." At that moment the buzzing and ticking from the next room stopped dead. Communications was quiet as a library. The three men in the little room held their breaths. Herron slopped some coffee. Suddenly the clatter exploded again. They looked at each other and the cop with the holster made a noise in his throat. "As I was saying..." he said.
That’s when the door from Communications flew open and Jones looked in.
"Your message, Starkey. It’s on the ticker." Herron and Starkey ran to the teletype. It was still hammering with a nervous beat and the message read: "Diagnosis probable. Admitted 10:15 p.m., Hamilton City Hospital Hamilton City. Patient’s residence, 24 Chester Street, Hamilton City." When Starkey tore off the sheet, Herron was already halfway out of the door. He’d got his message. A hundred miles away they’d found the first victim. Finally the trail was hot. Real hot. The patient had radiation sickness.
Cal and Tom hadn’t known each other for more than a few hours but they had been stepping fast. They’d been stepping so fast that by midnight it seemed they’d been buddies all their lives. That’s why Cal had been buying the drinks for Tom and then Tom had been buying the drinks for Cal. So it was a sad moment when the two buddies sat down at the curb and discovered that their friendship was wearing thin.
"Stop rubbing them stubbles," said Cal. "You trying to drive me crazy with them stubble noises?"
Tom kept rubbing his stubbles and said, "Bah."
They sat for a while staring at the dark street and then they looked at the empty pint in the gutter. That brought up the next point.
"Cheapskate," said Cal. "Just lookit this empty pint."
"Cheapskate!" Tom jumped up from the curb. He stood straight and steady after a while and yelled, "Cheapskate! You’re talking to the man what bought that pint, ya bum!"
"It’s empty, ain’t it?"
"So it’s your turn, ya bum! It’s your turn for the next one."
Cal got up from the curb and held himself by Tom’s sleeve. "Listen, cheapskate," he said. He stuck his face close to Tom’s. Tom tried to lean back and out of the way. "I got the pint afore this one and I barely recall buying that pint and it’s empty. Then I barely recall this pint coming along and it’s empty. Unnerstand?"
Tom didn’t. He tried to lean his face out of the way and they both started to sway.
"So it’s your turn," Cal said, and it sounded like a conclusion.
They swayed for a while, staring at each other from close range, but Tom didn’t know what to say next.
"I knew it," said Cal. "You’re a cheapskate. You stink!"
Tom jerked his head back and wiped his eye. "Don’t say ‘stink’ like that. A bum what can’t talk polite never gets nowheres."
He took a few steps and leaned against a dark store window. It made a dangerous sound. Then Cal came over and leaned against the glass. They looked inside as best they could.
"More cheapskates," said Cal. "The whole store full of bulbs and wires and no light anywhere."
"That’s because he sells ’em," Tom said.
They looked at the display of fixtures, bulbs, and fluorescent tubes. There was a display of fluorescent tubes like sun rays coming out from a face in the middle. The cardboard face was smiling.
"What’s he got to smile about I can’t figure," said Cal.
"He’s thinking of that drink he’s gonna have. He believes in miracles and he’s just smiling away there, thinking—"
Tom didn’t get any further because Cal had burst out crying, loud and hard, sobbing that he’d always believed in miracles, but not any more.
"Cal boy! Cal buddy! You’re busting my heart, honest, Cal boy." Then he patted his buddy on the back and gradually his face got stern. "Cal!"
"We got to have a miracle."
"First guy comes along we ask for a miracle, Cal buddy."
Cal had stopped crying. He felt like himself again. "Maybe an angel’s gonna come down the street? Carrying a pint?"
"Shut up. Here he comes!" and they both listened to the footsteps that came down the dark street. They were coming at a fast clip.
"Or maybe Jesus Christ Himself."
"Shut up already and get over here!" Tom dragged his buddy to the entrance to the house next to the electrical store. "Here comes the miracle. Watch me make a touch."
"Oh, surely. Maybe Jesus Christ—" He stopped when they saw the figure come through the dark.
Tom stepped into the street, all energy and smiles. "How do you do, sir? I do believe—" He got no further. The man was at the window now when a sudden glow of eerie white suffused the dark. The display of fluorescent bulbs glowed brilliantly, and against the sudden brightness the dark figure of the man appeared surrounded by a halo.
"Jesus Christ!" Cal said, and fell down on his face.
Tom hadn’t moved a muscle. By the time he managed to breathe again, the lights were off and the middle-aged man in the blue overcoat had gripped his yellow leather case and run into the night.
Tony Catell hurried up the stairs of the railroad station and pushed his way through the crowd without looking right or left. Once inside, he went to the far end of the large hall, where the ornamental columns made shadowed recesses along the wall. He stood there watching the ticket windows. When one of them was empty, Catell walked over and bought a ticket to Detroit.
Twenty minutes to traintime.
Catell went to the short-order counter and sat down, but the seat faced the wrong way. He got up again, walked to the other side of the U-shaped counter, and found a seat that faced the entrance of the station. With a slight turn he could also see the gateways that led to the trains. He put his yellow leather case on the floor under the counter and ordered a glass of milk. After he had finished the milk he smoked a cigarette, ordered another glass of milk, and watched the waitress behind the counter. She was young, but nothing special. Catell watched her for the same reason he drank a lot of milk. He hadn’t had much of either for the past eight years.
Without moving his head, Catell glanced at the waitress, the entrance, the crowds, and then at the waitress again, but there was no particular expression on his face. He looked tired and lined. His long jaw had a bluish cast that made the rest of his face look like the color of wet chalk. A small muscle jumped in his cheek, but otherwise Catell sat quite still.
Ten minutes to traintime.
Catell picked specks of dust from the sleeve of his blue overcoat and wondered whether to order another glass of milk. But suddenly the thought made him sick. His forehead glistened with sudden sweat and he swallowed hard. Then the nausea passed.
Perhaps he was overdoing the milk. Catell rubbed his pale forehead. His whole face was pale, very pale. Catell hadn’t been out of prison very long.
Five minutes before traintime he paid the waitress and got up. Carrying his yellow leather case, he started for one of the train gates.
A redcap walked up behind him. "Carry that for you?" The redcap put his hand on the case. Catell jumped. "Let go."
But the redcap didn’t catch the tone of Catell’s voice, and he reached for the leather case again.
That’s when Catell spun on the balls of his feet, his fist thudding into the porter’s stomach. Before anybody had seen a thing, Catell was walking toward the train gate, his thin face a mask, his movements controlled. The redcap lay on the floor, doubled over in groaning pain. For all of his fifty years, Tony Catell was very fast and very strong.
One minute before traintime he entered his compartment and locked the door. When the train started to move, he put the leather case on the seat, took off his hat and coat, and sat down. It was hours before the train would hit Detroit, but Catell did not make himself comfortable. He sat without leaning against the cushions, his narrow hands folded between his knees, only his eyes showing how tired he was. He hadn’t slept much during the past few days, because he had been nervous and unsure of himself. When Schumacher had explained the heist to him, Catell had felt unsure. The feeling had stayed with him when he had cased the job, when he had pulled it, and when he had holed up in that burg Hamilton City for a few hours of fitful sleep.
The job had been too easy. Catell pulled out a cigarette and then forgot to light it. He wondered if prison could have made him feel this way, broken down to the size of a gutless punk, a nervous rat. But that didn’t make sense, because he had been in prison before. He was a three-time loser, out for the last time, out for good until he died—one way or the other.
Catell jumped in his seat and made an automatic move for the leather case next to him. He had fallen asleep there, sitting there with the doubt and the fear scrambling his brain.
He cursed through his teeth, trying to shake the weariness out of his bones. He was getting too old, maybe, a crazy has-been who was trying to wrench himself back up by dreams of an old reputation; a reputation so old it didn’t even fit the picture any more. He had slipped badly; he’d slipped so hard that they’d sent him up for that third time.
But that was going to be the end of that. They didn’t know it yet but they had given him his other chance. Nobody was going to call Catell a has-been, an old broken-down three-time loser with a lot of fancy memories and a long list of dead friends.
He was going to pull that big one once more, the one that only Tony Catell could handle, the job that meant big time. And he wanted to walk away from it with a bundle. Perhaps this heist had looked so easy because he still had that old touch. And he certainly had walked away with a solid piece of swag. He patted the briefcase beside him. There was nothing small time about its contents, a thirty-six-pound ingot of solid gold.
Copyright © 1955 by Peter Rabe.