from Best Detective Magazine
by Ellis Parker Butler
"Henny the Hick" slid out of detective headquarters silently and stood a moment just outside the door -- it was some years ago, when the sleuths were housed on the second floor -- before he turned down the corridor to the stairway. As always, he had the hunted look, his narrow face otherwise expressionless except for the air of discontent with life. His eyes never lost that look of a hunted dog, almost appealing and altogether sullen. You knew him at a glance as a silent man, and the same glance made you think he must be a crook. He had the air of one.
He was a crook, but not a big one. He sold heroin, the little white powder tablets that crush easily in the hand and are snuffed by the habit victims. He called it "coke." He was a coke fiend himself and had to have it. He knew where to get it and how to carry it, and how to have none on him when a suspicious "bull" pinched him. He had never been caught with the goods on him; since he had left Manhattan to work the graft on Long Island, not one member of the coke squad of plain-clothes men had been able to so much as nab one of Henny the Hick's customers in a manner to make evident the fact that the stuff had been supplied by Henny. He was careful, Henny was. He delt only with guys he knew were "right."
His secret of safety was twofold. He did not peddle -- he dealt. He was a middleman only. He knew where to get the coke, and he sold it to those who would peddle it, and not direct to the users. That was one of his safeguards. The other was fear. His customers were afraid of him.
"Me, I'm a T. B.," he would tell them, tapping his hollow chest. "I'm a lunger, see? Today, tomorrow maybe, I'll get mine, so what do I care? What diff'rence does it make to me whether I sit down in a death chair or flop over on the walk some day? 'Sall the same to me. But nobody squeals on me, see? The guy what squeals gets his quick, and he's waiting for me in hell when I get there."
They believed him. Patsy Rogan, caught selling the goods, took his term rather than squeal on Henny the Hick, although he could have gone before the grand jury and, by giving his testimony against Henny, been set free. All he needed to say was "I got the coke off of Hen the Hick," but he said: "I didn't get it off nobody. Naw, I found it. I was goin' along, lookin' in the gutter, and I seen a sort of bundle there that --"
"Are you afraid of this man, Henny the Hick?" he was asked.
"Naw, I ain't afraid of him, because I don't know no such guy. I don't know who you are talkin' about. I never heard of nobody by that name. I never even heard the name before."
He had them all frightened, Henny had. He was rather contemptuous of human beings, he knew their frailties so well. There was but one man he feared, the man who had a bigger grouch than himself -- big Burke. He hated big Burke, and he was afraid of him.
Big Burke -- his fellows called him the "Big Grouch" -- had been annoying to Henny the Hick in Manhattan, where Burke had been put on the coke squad when the fight against the stuff was taken up in earnest. It was because he did not like the Big Grouch that Henny the Hick had moved his activity to Long Island. He had a hunch that the Big Grouch was bad medicine for him, and he slid quietly over the bridge to be out of his way.
Now the Big Grouch had followed him. As he stepped out of the building into the cold breeze of the Bridge Plaza, Henny the Hick paused again. He was trying to decide whether he ought to beat it for Chicago, or perhaps try the Bronx. If he went to the Bronx he could still use his present source of supply, but the Big Grouch might be sent up there any day. If Centre Street had decided to "get" him, and was making a point of it, the Big Grouch would certainly follow him to the Bronx sooner or later. On the other hand, if he went to Chicago, he might have freedom from Burke, but he would have to find a new wholesaler and establish new connections with buyers. He felt too tired to go all through that. He stood on the step and buttoned his coat and turned up his collar, gazing at the walk sullenly. He let his mind go over the interview he had just finished, trying to fathom what had been behind the Big Grouch's green eyes, and suddenly his own eyes grew hard.
"Fajetti!" he breathed. "That's what he's got on me!"
The interview with Burke had been short. Calladay, the plain-clothes man, had run across Henny somewhere down near the old ferryhouse.
"Burke wants to see you," he told Henny.
"What's he want? I ain't been doing nothing," Henny had expostulated. "I ain't working the coke over here. I'm sick. I'm all run down. I come over here where the air is good because the gas out of them motor cars over across the bridge makes me cough my lungs out."
"Yeah? Well, you can tell that to Burke. All I know is he said if I run across you to tell you he wanted to see you."
"Over the bridge?"
"Naw! He's up at Queens headquarters, on the Bridge Plaza. You phone up there and ask him what he wants, if you want to. I've done what he told me to."
"Is he up there now?" asked Henny.
"Phone up and find out, if you want to know. I've done all that was up to me to do."
It was annoying by its very casual quality. Henny the Hick knew what this meant; if he did not go now, he would meet Burke's request at every corner and every hour. Every bull and plain-clothes man would stop him to tell him Burke wanted to see him. The barkeepers would whisper it to him. Men he had never seen would stop him and say: "Ain't you the guy they calls Henny the Hick? Well, Burke wants to see you." It was as well to get it over with. Burke, coming into the Queens district, wanted to hook up the loose ends. Henny slid into the drug store and called Burke on the telephone.
"Say," he said, "this is Henny. You want I should come up there? Well, I'm coming right now, see? You ain't got nothing on me, anyway."
He had rather expected the office to have in it two or three men in addition to Burke. He knew exactly how many plain-clothes men were in Queens, and how many were assigned especially to coke squad work. He had expected they would all be there to give him the once-over, sitting at their desks, perhaps, with their backs to him. Burke was alone.
The office was small and rather crowded with furniture. It might have been the office of a company of some sort that had outgrown its quarters. At the rear were two ordinary office-building windows. Burke sat with his back to these, but the light was good enough to let Henny see all his features, especially the eyes; it was at the eyes Henny looked first, when he raised his head after he entered. He believed Burke had the ugliest eyes in the world.
Burke was a big man and broad-shouldered, and he had grown too stout. His face was heavier than Henny's, but fully as sullen; it was the face of a man with a heavy disgust of life. It was none of Henny's business, but he knew why Burke was disgusted with life -- the gossip could not have failed to reach him: Burke's wife made him sick of existence. Burke hated his wife and his wife hated him. They said she blew in all his money and then nagged and scolded him; and every morning he had a grouch that lasted all day. It made him surly and silent and gave him his names -- "Silent" Burke and the Big Grouch. He was not a favorite, and he did not care to be. He was sore on the world. Deep down under the grouch was an idea that he might have gone high in the force if he had had a right wife. He had joined when money helped a man to advancement, and he had tried to save the money; but his wife was a spender and a nagger; and she nagged him until he had given her the money, and then she had spent it and he had gotten nowhere. He never expected to get anywhere, and he blamed his wife for it.
"Well?" he growled when Henny the Hick stood before him, fingering his hat. "You sent for me, Silent; what you want of me?"
Burke shuffled his papers about and pushed them from him disgustedly. He let his ugly green eyes rest on Henny's face a moment.
"You know what I want," he said. "I want you."
"But, Silent, I ain't been doing nothing," whined Henny. "My tubes got so punk I couldn't stand it over across the bridge, so I had to come over here where the air didn't choke me. What you think you've got against me, Silent?"
Burke did not answer. Henny turned his hat in his hand.
"You think I been handling coke, don't you?" said Henny. "You think because I'm over here I'm handling coke, but I ain't. You just heard I was over here and you got it into your head I was handling coke. You've got it in for me, that's all."
He said this in a tone of sullen discouragement, and he looked sullen and discouraged. Burke made no sign.
"No matter what I did over across the bridge," Henny whined on, "I'm straight over here. You can't understand that a man with the T. B. wants to get to somewhere so he won't cough his tubes to pieces all day and all night. You can't understand that a man might want to get away from the noise so he can die in peace. I'm a dead man, Silent. Leave me alone. Let me hang around and die, and I'll be west in a couple of months."
Burke shifted his eyes from Henny's face for a moment. His own face showed no new expression, only the same sullenness.
"Come across!" he said.
Henny uttered an oath. "Come across!" he said with disgust. "Ain't I told you I ain't done nothing to come across with? You've been hounding me so long you've got the habit, that's all."
Burke swung his chair and looked at the large calendar on the wall. He was supremely indifferent to what Henny might say.
"You ain't got nothing on me!" Henny declared, with the first show of anger.
Big Burke did not answer. He turned his head and looked out of the window. He could see the top of the factory on the side street. Wasting time with this little rat of a crook, when, but for his fool of a wife, he might be where he belonged!
"Well, what have you got on me, then?" asked Henny.
"All right," said Burke; "if you don't want to come across, don't! I gave you your chance. The next time it will be different. Get out and make it snappy."
"You ain't got a right to talk to me that way," said Henny sullenly.
The Big Grouch did not hear him. He was thinking of his wife and the note she had sent over by a boy, asking for twenty dollars to be sent her by return messenger. He pushed his papers around until he found the note. He glared at it and put it into his pocket. Henny watched him closely.
"All right; get out!" said Burke, turning his green eyes on the coke dealer again.
"You don't want me no more?" asked Henny.
Burke did not answer. He looked at Henny thoughtfully, and the smaller man thought he was studying the thing -- trying to decide whether to hold him now or wait until some evidence or other was strengthened and the chain made unbreakable, but Burke was not thinking of Henny the Hick. What did he care for Henny the Hick? He had sent for him, yes! He had meant to throw a scare into him, but what was the use? What if he did make a swell record cleaning up the coke business in Queens? Where would it get him? Nowhere, as long as he had this wife bleeding him dry. What was it all worth? Let the little rat go!
Henny stood a few seconds, then turned and went out and down to the street; the Big Grouch took up his hat and put it on. He looked out of the window again, standing a long while working himself into greater sullenness and self-exasperation.
Presently Henny, down on the street, turned and hurried toward the rickety frame building where he made his home. He entered the narrow hall without knocking and slid quietly up the stairs and into his room. When he came down again he had a revolver in his pocket and a more silent but equally deadly weapon hanging from the belt of his trousers. He boarded a trolley car that came across the Queensborough Bridge. It was a Flushing car, which was what he wanted, for the man he wanted to see had agreed to meet him that afternoon in the place where they usually met. As the car passed the building where he had so recently met Burke, Henny the Hick turned his head and looked across the Bridge Plaza. It is quite a distance across the Plaza, but Henny was sure he made out the heavy form and gray suit of the Big Grouch standing before the building.
In this he was wrong. Burke still stood before the window in the office, looking out upon the blank wall of a factory building, and still nursing his grouch against his wife. He had put Henny the Hick entirely out of his mind. What did he care for the sneaking little rat? What did he care for anything? If he did manage to save a couple of dollars his wife was not satisfied until she got them.
The car on which Henny the Hick rode turned from the Bridge Plaza into Jackson Avenue and stopped at the point where passengers transferred from the Hunters' Point shuttle car. All the cars stopped here, and the stop was nothing unusual; but Henny the Hick was annoyed. He could look down the Bridge Plaza now and he made out the big man in the gray suit clearly enough. The big man was no longer standing in front of the office building; he was walking at an unobtrusively hurried step toward the car. Henny the Hick looked out of the car door and saw that the car following was a College Point car, and uttered a short oath under his breath.
The College Point car followed the same route as the Flushing car all the way to Flushing before it branched off from Jackson Avenue. If the man in the gray suit was Burke, and he caught the College Point car, he would trail Henny all the way to Flushing. Luckily the Flushing car started immediately and the College Point car waited. Or was it so lucky? The distance widened between the two cars, but Burke, if it was Burke, would have time to catch the second car if it waited long. Henny was uneasy. He felt better as the Flushing car sped along, making -- as it seemed -- unusually good time. He looked out of the window of the rear door, from where he sat, now and then, and he was glad to see the College Point car quite lost in the distance.
The job Henny the Hick had given himself to do was not a pleasant one. He had thought over the interview with the Big Grouch, and he had made his decision. Fajetti had thrown him! Henny the Hick had been on the carpet times enough to think he knew a thing or two, and he had not liked Burke's way of treating him. Time and again he had been called up and questioned, but never like this. They had always tried to trap him, to get him talking, and then, when he said this or that, they had thrown a trap question at him, but the Big Grouch had not done this. The Big Grouch had acted as if he had Henny where he wanted him. They were always after the man higher up, those plain-clothes men. If they nabbed a coke fiend they tried to get him to peach on the coke peddler; if they got the peddler they tried to get him to peach on the middleman. From the way Burke had treated him, Henny felt that the Big Grouch had got him and got him right, and was trying to make him peach on his wholesaler, the man from whom he drew his inexhaustible supply of coke. Henny had gone over in his mind the ways in which Burke could have got him, and he could think of but one man who might have squealed on him. That man was Fajetti. There were things about Fajetti he did not like, little things that looked big now, and he decided that Fajetti had thrown him. Fajetti, he decided, was a stool pigeon. Fajetti, he decided, had been bought by the police. If that were so, and Henny meant to know the truth, Fajetti would get all that was coming to him.
The afternoon was waning and darkness was setting in before the car swung around the edge of the bay into Flushing. The conductor had switched on the electrics and so had the conductor of the College Point car behind, and by its headlight Henny saw that the following car was gaining, and gaining rapidly. Perhaps the Big Grouch had whispered a word to the motorman!
At the Flushing Bridge the Flushing car slowed down and Henny, looking back, made sure the big man in gray was standing on the platform of the following car, beside the motorman. Across the bridge the Flushing car stopped to permit the passengers for Jamaica to transfer, and Henny got up and went to the door. The motorman of the College Point car had thrown open the curtained front doors of his car to allow exit by the front way, and in the light thus thrown on the platform Henny made out the man in gray more clearly. It was not the Big Grouch. He was sure of that now. He went back into the car and seated himself again. He kept his eye on the College Point car and on the passengers who left it. The man in gray was not among those who left the car before it swung around the curve and started on its way to College Point. So it was all right. Henny felt much better.
When the car reached Main Street Henny got off and crossed the street.
It was quite dark now, and Henny walked back along the route he had followed until he came to the darker street below the railway tracks. He turned up this to his right and stepped into the shadow of a tree and waited. He was in no hurry. He stood for a full half hour, but nothing happened. He walked on then to the end of the block, and by devious ways, until he had crossed the railway and had come to the old stable. Here, too, he stood in the shadow a while, but there was nothing to arouse his suspicion. He pushed open the door and entered. The place was cold -- colder than the outer air, it seemed. It was dark, except for the dim light that came through the small window, not much bigger than a man's hand, and this light was but the light of an unclouded sky. Henny put out his hand and touched a wheel -- the wheel of a wagon. He heard Fajetti's two horses crunching corn in their stalls. Gradually his eyes became more accustomed to the darkness, and he made out the outlines of things, of the light wagon with its string of bells hung between two uprights, of the piles of rags and stacks of old newspapers, and of a heap of old rubber boots and discarded rubber tires. He seated himself on a pile of newspapers and lighted a cigarette. He sat with his elbows on his knees, thinking.
He was still sitting thus when Fajetti entered. The Italian came in briskly, carrying a tubular barn lantern, which he hung on a stick nailed on an upright of the stable.
"I keep you waiting too long?" he asked.
Henny arose. One hand in his pocket; the other touched the piece of lead pipe that hung from his belt.
"No. I don't mind waiting," said Henny the Hick, without expression. "When I got business to do I don't mind waiting."
"That's right," said Fajetti cheerfully -- too cheerfully. Henny the Hick weighed the words and the tone, and found them false. They were too hearty; they were not the words of a coke fiend, a nervous wreck, as Fajetti should be if he had not lied. The Italian turned his back for an instant.
When the lead pipe struck him he fell forward against the wagon and slid down between the two wheels. He was grotesque thus, but Henny the Hick did not consider his grotesqueness. He bent over him and found that he was dead, and he dragged the body away from the wagon and toward the rear of the stable. Here he rested while he considered what to do next. He saw that the boards of the floor were loosely laid, and he looked about for some tool to pry them up; he found an iron bar.
The boards yielded easily, and he did not so much as indent their edges. He drew them up, disclosing a hole underneath, and he drew the body thither and placed it there, and replaced the boards. He worked slowly, coughing now and then, but using the utmost care to remove all traces of his work. Now and then he stopped to listen, but he heard no sound to cause him anxiety. He was utterly alone, and he could take his time. He took down the lantern and examined the boards with minute care, bending low so that his eyes might miss no telltale detail. He rubbed dirt gently along the edges of the boards where he had placed the iron rod; he rubbed dirt into the nail holes.
He felt a mild elation as he worked. This man had been a stool pigeon and had received what he deserved, he felt. The only man who had ever peached on Henny the Hick had got what Henny the Hick had always promised such. Stool pigeons would remember this, when it came out.
He did not worry about the time when it would come to be known. A week, a month, would pass before it was known, so carefully had he done the job and so carefully hidden traces of it. Before that time was up he would be far away. He would start at once, in a few minutes, for the West, where his lungs would have a chance and where he could lose himself somewhere in the high hills. It was a good job, and no man could connect him with it, even after the -- after it was discovered.
He was bending over the wagon wheels now, searching them in the light of the lantern for any trace that must be removed, when he felt, suddenly, that he was observed. It was a weird feeling, and he tried to shake it off -- he needed coke, that was what was the matter, he argued. But the feeling grew. He raised his lantern and searched the dark corners with his eyes. Nothing! Nobody!
He tried to resume his work again, but the feeling grew. He turned his head sharply from side to side, peering into the semidarkness. He walked into the stalls, where the horses stood, and felt under the mangers. He climbed the narrow stairs to the loft. There was nothing there, no place where any one could hide to spy on him. He came down again and stood motionless.
Some one was watching him! He began to tremble, fear-stricken, and then his eyes fell on the small window, now black against the sky. There, glittering green, and intent on his every motion, were a pair of eyes -- green eyes there was no mistaking. They did not move, did not blink; they only stared with all-intent interest. Henny the Hick wet his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. The Big Grouch had seen all! A sickness, a rage, filled the soul of the man; rage that Silent had let him work these many minutes. He was insane with hate for the Big Grouch who could do this in this way. He was maddened by the big, sullen indifference of the man who could look on silently. Eyes! That was what the Big Grouch was, eyes that stared -- green, ugly eyes that stared, that saw everything and said nothing.
All this in an instant, together with the sickness of hopelessness, and then the pistol flashed once toward the handbreadth of window and the green, staring eyes, and again toward the heart of Henny the Hick, who fell in a crumpled heap on the stable floor as the cat on the manure heap outside the window leaped away into the night, frightened by the pistol report and the crashing of the bullet as it pierced the boards of the stable wall.