TONY PERELLI was not yellow, either by his own code or judged by standards more exacting. It was yellow, to squeal to futile police, but not yellow to squeal to one's own crowd, and squeal loudly, about injustices suffered. It was yellow to betray a pal, but not yellow if the pal had not acted square or if he himself was yellow; even then it was yellow to tip off the police about his delinquencies. The honourable thing was to take him to some lone place and "give him the works".
Horrified farmers who in the grey of morning found stark things sprawled on the edge of their lands might grow hysterical about the brutality of it, but there it was; justice in a sense, the sort of justice that the west and the middle west understood and countenanced too frequently.
For instance, "Red" Gallway.
Red bad been most things that were wrong and done most things that were indictable, He had been Peterman (which is a euphemism for safe—breaker), con man, hold—up man and keeper of questionable establishments. He came from this strenuous and not too affluent stew of professions into the business of booze running, which gave him wealth beyond his dreams, a comfortable existence, immunity from arrest, and the comradeship of square shooters. Success made him big in the head; he became talkative, a little quarrelsome; crowning offence, he began to sniff the white stuff.
Angelo Verona, the sleek chief of staff, expostulated.
"Say, Red, I'd cut out that stuff. Tony won't stand for coke in this outfit."
Red's ugly face twisted in a sneer. "Is that so?"
Angelo nodded, his grave, brown eyes on the weakling.
"Cocaine never did any good to anybody," he said. "Yeh! It makes you feel bigger than the Wrigley Building for a while, but when the effect passes you're just a hole in the ground. And the first time they get a guy down at Headquarters to quiz him, why, he falls apart."
"Is that so?" said Red offensively.
"That—is—so," nodded Angelo.
Red ran around with a friend—Mose Leeson, sometime machinist from Gary. The men had mean appetites in common, felt more at home in the squalor and dinginess of certain poor areas than in the splendour of lakeside restaurants.
To Leeson was due the credit of a discovery which had an important bearing upon the life of Tony Perelli.
Mose was poor and a sycophant. To him Red was the biggest of Big Shots, a man in the automobile and silk shirt class. He gave to his more fortunate friend the reverence of subject to monarch. It was over a drink at the firm's speakeasy that Mose, gross of mind and body, offered information and a proposal.
Red shook his head.
"Chink girls don't mean nothing to me, Mose," he said. "Listen! There's a girl up town who's nuts about me! Joe Enrico's daughter, but I don't look at her twice. That's me, Mose."
"Sure," said Mose. He looked twice at Minn Lee, and then more. He used to meet her on the stairs of the shabby apartment house where he had his home. She was Chinese and lovely. Small of stature, slim of body, with tiny, white hands that fascinated him. She was lovely, with slanting brown eyes and a rosebud of a mouth. Skin—like satin. When you saw it, you felt it. Her hair, not the blue—black of the Oriental but a sheeny black.
He used to give her a crooked grin. Then he tried to speak to her and found no difficulties. She was very simple and sweet and all too ready to talk. Her name was Minn Lee. Her husband was an artist, and a sick artist. She herself made fashions for catalogues.
Mose was staggered by her frank earnestness, and found no opportunity or opening for a more personal approach. Later, when he suggested supper at a swell place up town, she was more astonished than offended.
"But my husband is ill," she said. "I could not possibly leave him alone."
"Aw, listen, baby! I'll fix it to have a woman come in and sit with him… "
She shook her head. When he fumbled for her hand it was not there—nor she.
After that she avoided him. He suspected that she watched out for his leaving the house before she went abroad to the market. To test this he left the house early one morning and waited at the end of the block. Presently he saw her and stood squarely in her path.
"Hey, angel – face! What's the idea? Keepin' out of my way?"
She was too honest to deny the charge, and tried to dodge past him, but he grabbed her. "Wait a minute!"
He might have said much more, but a bony fist thumped him in the small of the back, and he spun round to stare into the merciless blue eyes of a man he had reason to detest. Sergeant Harrigan of the Central Office was laconic, offensively to the point.
"Hey, you! Leave that little Chinese girl alone, and tell me the story of your life, will you? That bit of your life that began at five last night and finished when you went to bed."
Minn Lee slipped away like a frightened pigeon and was lost in the crowd.
"Why, Mr. Harrigan, I just don't know what you mean." The voice of Mose became a plaintive and monotonous whine.
"Somebody stuck up a gentleman near Grant Park, took three hundred dollars and a watch from his pocket, and left him stumped on the sidewalk."
"Why, Mr. Harrigan, I went to bed at ten—"
"You're a liar. You were seen near the Hippodrome at midnight. And you were seen near Grant Park at nine o'clock."
There was a search of Mose Leeson's squalid little room and a personal search of Mose. All that day he alternated between police headquarters and the clinic to which the robbed and injured citizen had been taken. There was no identification, and Mose went free that night—relieved and wrathful.
Minn Lee heard all about it and was troubled. The dying artist who wailed at her from his neat bed demanded querulously what the hell she was thinking about and why she was making a meat soup for him and the day Friday. He had never had religion until he was ill. On the contrary, he favoured the more advanced school of thought which so heavily discounted the sacred symbols of divinity that they hardly had excuse for persisting. But since he had been sick he had ordered her to destroy certain drawings, notably the cartoon which caricatured so amusingly the Chicagoan's ideas of heaven. And all those nude studies of his, and certain appalling obscenities which had decorated the walls.
Minn Lee was neither glad nor sorry. These crude drawings meant nothing to her one way or the other. She recognized facts, but did not colour them nor tone them down. John Waite was a bad artist; she never thought that in his soul were the seeds of immortality. His perspectives were flat, his colour work was muddled, he had no sense of line, and even his drift towards vorticism, the last resort of all bad painters, had convinced nobody.
He was her man, that was all. Life and fate had linked them. There was reason enough for an infatuation which had the semblance of love, no reason at all for veneration. Yet she did not love him and did respect him. And he was dying. The German doctor had said so. Three months, maybe four. A priest came nowadays, a kindly man who was not shocked by the presence of Minn Lee, spoke to her humanly. He said three months too. There was a movement towards getting the painter to the coast, but nothing came of it. He protested vehemently against charity—he who had lived for years on an allowance made to him by the invalid mother he had brought to ruin. And when he was vehement he coughed and coughed and went on coughing all through the night.
The priest used to call twice a week. On the top floor he had another very sick man, who was also very old—Peter Melachini, sometime musician. He was not poor, but was as determined as any to die in the hovel which was his home. The slatternly wife of the plumber on the first floor told Minn Lee that old Peter was under the powerful protection of a Big Shot in the booze world.
"Can you beat it, Mrs. Waite? This guy offered to put Mr. Melachini in a grand house on the coast an' pay everything! But the old man wouldn't—no, ma'am, he said he'd stay right here in the city where he got born. He's crazy! A grand house on the coast an' everything!"
The Big Shot made occasional calls. Lithe, dark—faced men, nicely tailored, would suddenly appear in the street. Peering at them through dingy windows, the street grew pleasantly excited. Gunmen! Sure thing. Say, what an awful life—shoot'n' up folks, hey? They got as much as a hundred bucks a week. Yes, sir!
Then a dark car would sweep into the street and three men alight. One went first into the house, then the Big Shot himself, followed by the rear guard. He went straight up to Melachini's room, taking the basket of fruit from his henchman's hands.
"'Lo, Peter—here's the works, boy."
They had been in the same orchestra at Cosmolino's—Tony Perelli liked the old man. They were both Sicilian bred, both from a village outside Palermo.
Minn Lee met the Big Shot on the stairs. He was not tall, but carried himself with a certain dignity. His face was fleshy, his dark eyes held a spark of impish humour. He was heavily good—looking, perfectly fitted. About his waist was a belt with a diamond buckle. He smiled at Minn Lee, and she half smiled back. Looking over her shoulder after she had passed him, she saw him turn his head upward as though to take another look at her.
She saw him again in almost the same place, and he stopped and spoke to her. He was very polite, very kind, saw life from an amusing slant and made her laugh. He did not indulge in clumsy compliments, nor did he attempt to touch her hand.
The next day flowers and fruit came to the sick room. On the fruiterer's label was written, "From Tony Perelli", in a flourishing hand.
A Big Shot—my, what a Big Shot, breathed the plumber's wife. He's got the swellest apartment in Chicago. Motor—cars, a country house an' everything. One of the Booze Lords, with a casualty list on what remained of his soul as long as Michigan Avenue, yes, ma'am!
Again Minn Lee was not shocked. People did odd things. In a way a booze racket was more decent than John Waite's peculiar art. Only she never made comparisons. The third time she saw Tony Perelli was when he called. Waite was asleep, and she admitted the visitor—a little uneasily into the tiny sitting—room.
"Sleeping? Fine! I saw the doctor. He said your man should go to the coast. That crazy old Peter should go—but the hell he will! Listen, Mrs. Waite, if it's money—"
She shook her head.
"No, Mr. Perelli—he cannot take money because he cannot honourably return it," she said. She used the word "honourable" very often.
John Waite died a week later—died very quietly and unobtrusively, and when she had buried him and explained to the officials why her name was not Waite also, and had paid his immediate debts and had written to his mother, she set about finding work. It should have been easy for one who had a degree from Columbia University, and who had once earned as much as twenty—seven dollars and fifty cents in one week by drawing gowns for a ladies' magazine that no lady had ever seen, but she chose the easier way. There was a Chinese restaurant that needed girls. She wrote a business—like application to Che—foo Song, the proprietor, but before the answer came Mose Leeson called with a proposal.
The old Italian had died, and had been removed to a swell funeral parlour. On the night he went to Carmel, Tony Perelli came to gather the dead man's belongings, and especially his family treasures. They were to go back to Sicily to a grandson and a grand—daughter.
Nobody saw Perelli, for he came on foot with his bodyguard before, beside and behind him. He passed swiftly into the house and glanced at Minn Lee's door as he went on his way.
The house was noisy tonight. On the second floor Laski the Polak, who had ambitions to be the world's champion trap—drummer, was making deafening and frilly sounds on his drum, to the distress and wrath of every tenant. Some say that his drum killed John Waite; it may have made death a sweet alternative.
If he could have seen the girl standing with white, drawn face in the grip of Mose Leeson…
Mose was caveman by instinct. Experience helped him in the faith that women need to be carried off their feet.
"Honey, you can stand on what I say. I'll give you a swell time. I'm saying it! I'm nuts about you… "
She struggled; she had to struggle. Tony Perelli heard the thin scream as he came down the stairs and tried the door. It yielded to his hand, and he went in.
"What do you want—wop?"
Mose was white—hot mad; his unpleasant face twitched convulsively as it was thrust into Perelli's. "Beat it!"
Tony Perelli's voice was metallic, passionless.
"Beat it, eh? Sure I'll beat it—but not for no damn' Sicilian!"
His fist shot out; missed Perelli. The people in the other apartments heard only what sounded like a louder and more irregular beat of the drum.
Tony held the smoking pistol waist—high, but there was no need for a second shot. Mose had got his. He held for a second to the bedrail, then slipped down to the floor.
Minn Lee looked gravely from killed to killer.
"Get your coat and come away."
Perelli's orders could never be mistaken for requests. She obeyed and went out with him along the street and into his waiting car. The men he left behind would deal adequately with Mose Leeson. There would be no fuss; the situation was far from being unusual, and would develop normally. A car driver found his body lying on the prairie in the snow; the newspapers said "Another Gang Shooting", and that was the end of it.
In the meantime Minn Lee had gone to the home of Tony and became accustomed to being addressed as Mrs. Perelli.