Story by David Busboom
Illustration by Carol Wellart
Woody Rooster woke early. It was Thursday.
Frances stirred sleepily beside him.
“Turn that damn alarm off,” she moaned.
Woody reached out, placed his palm down over the round green Westclox on the hotel nightstand, next to the ashtray. The ringing stopped. “What time is it, anyway?”
“Quarter past seven,” Woody said without looking; a little more than three hours until the meeting. He withdrew his matchbook and his cigarette case from the nightstand, lit one, inhaled. He stared at the wall, running through Mr. McGurn’s instructions again in his head. There wasn’t much he could do to screw things up today, but if bad luck found him McGurn would make sure it never lost him again.
Frances propped herself up on one elbow and looked at him, causing the sheet to slip from her shoulder. If this had been Monday, Wednesday, or even Sunday, Woody would’ve taken the opportunity to admire her high-set breasts, maybe even taken her for a quick morning ride, but not today.
Today was Thursday.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Woody,” Frances said, smiling and tracing an invisible line down Woody’s arm with her index finger. She shifted closer, exposing even more of herself. This time Woody couldn’t stop his eyes from wandering to the fleshy, handlebar curve of her hip, now only partially concealed beneath the white bed sheet.
“Mm-hmm,” he said. “Cigarette?”
He offered her his open case. She shook her head slowly, her smile widening into a playful grin.
“I’d rather have breakfast in bed,” she said, moving her finger to his chest and beginning a new line. “You know how much I like sausage.”
He snorted. Her finger continued downward, toward his waist. She reached under the sheets.
Woody snatched her wrist.
“Not now,” he said. “I’m starving.”
“Me too,” Frances giggled. “Where’d you think I’m reaching—?”
“No, I mean really hungry.” He released her and turned away, sitting on the edge of the bed and stubbing out his cigarette. The sunlight from the window felt warm on his bare knees. “There’s a diner next door, s’posed to have the best popover muffins in Chicago.”
Frances pouted behind him. “I came on this vacation with you to celebrate Valentine’s Day, the way a man and a woman should. Not to get up early and eat muffins.”
“We celebrated plenty last night. You know I have to work today,” Woody said. “I told you that before we left.”
“Then let’s make the most of our morning together,” she said, tracing yet another invisible line down his back.
“Franny,” he barked, and felt her fingers withdraw at once. She knew that tone; he’d made sure she knew it early on in their relationship, and had only needed to remind her twice in the five months since. “There isn’t time. Now c’mon, get dressed.” He stood up and began to do so himself. Frances didn’t keep him waiting; in fact she was dressed before he was, even wearing a brand-new good mood as she helped him with his tie.
“My fella the businessman,” she said, beaming at him. He made himself return the smile, despite the unease he felt about today’s coming task.
It was eight before they got to the diner. Neither of them ordered muffins.
“What am I supposed to do while you’re working all day?” Frances asked over her glass of milk.
“Why don’t you go shopping?” Woody suggested as genially as possible, withdrawing a wad of cash from the inner pocket of his overcoat. “This should be enough.” He handed her half of what he held. She took it happily, tucked it into her brassiere.
“I wish we could spend the day together,” she said, cautiously allowing a note of sadness to enter her voice. “When will you be done? I’ll meet you back at the hotel. Maybe I’ll even surprise you with something frilly.” She smiled.
“This meeting may last a while,” Woody said hesitantly, digging into his omelet and salted ham-steak. “I may not be able to return until late this evening.”
Frances paused mid-sip, staring at him. She remained frozen that way for a moment, like a beautiful photograph—then slammed the glass down on the table. Milk sloshed over her plate, wetting her buttered sweet roll and hashed browns. A few diners looked up at the noise of the impact. Woody’s eyes snapped up to meet hers, and at once he was surprised to see how angry she was.
“Bullshit!” Frances cried. “That’s bullshit, Woody! It’s Valentine’s Day!”
The diner was silent then. Everybody was still, staring. Woody felt a dull rage boiling up inside him. In private he wouldn’t have hesitated to snap his hand across her face, but he couldn’t do that here. She knew he couldn’t, too; he could see that much in her face, that hint of smug satisfaction behind the anger. He couldn’t deal with this now, though, not today. It was Thursday.
“I can’t do this now,” he said slowly, fighting to keep his voice calm. He stood up, put on his hat, withdrew another bill from his coat pocket and tossed it on the table. “That should cover breakfast. I have to go.” He picked up his briefcase and began to turn away.
Her shrill voice made him pause: “Woody Rooster, if you walk away from me we’re through, d’you hear me? Through!”
He stood there, only half-facing her, and sighed heavily. After a moment he straightened his small shoulders and walked out. As he stepped into the crisp morning air he heard Frances’s muffled sobs following him through the door.
Woody walked six blocks, stopping at a newsstand on the corner. This was where Mr. McGurn had told him to wait. He checked his watch: it was nearly nine. Almost two hours until the meeting. That meant they wouldn’t pick him up for about another half hour. He perused the stand, looked for something to occupy him during the wait. He’d been reading Gernsback’s Amazing Stories with increasing regularity since the previous January, when a colorful cover illustration of a cube-headed metal monster had introduced him to the fantastic images of Frank R. Paul. It hadn’t taken him long to discover that the stories inside were just as entertaining as the covers, and he’d begun to buy other pulp magazines as well, though none so vigorously as Amazing.
Today two covers in particular caught his eye: one, this month’s issue of Amazing, featured a trio of what appeared to be large upright beetles armed with slender ray-guns doing battle with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Gernsback promised another Wells story. The other, the latest Weird Tales, featured a long, black, conical being with fleshy tentacles and a single round, red-rimmed eye. Next to the alien, against a bright yellow background, the story’s title was printed in big blue letters: “THE STAR-STEALERS” by Edmond Hamilton.
Woody bought both magazines, handing the newsagent a dollar.
“Keep the change,” he said, and the man nodded gratefully. Woody tucked the Amazing under one arm and started reading Hamilton’s story, leaning against the wall of the building on the corner. The tale was wonderfully fast-paced, if a bit absurd, and Woody didn’t even hear the ‘27 Cadillac sedan pull up twenty minutes later.
“Hey, Hardcock!” a familiar voice shouted. It was Fred, in the driver’s seat, uniformed up like a real police officer. James sat next to him, identically attired. Woody closed the magazine and got in behind Fred. Two shotguns and two Thompson submachine guns rested in the seat beside Woody.
“I told you not to call me that,” Woody said, kneeing the back of Fred’s seat hard as the car moved on. Fred laughed, and Woody could see the gap of his missing tooth in the rearview mirror, comical and sinister beneath the Charlie Chaplin mustache.
“Remember the plan,” Fred said, suddenly serious. “We meet John and Albert at the Circus Café and wait there for Byron’s signal, then we all high-tail it to the North Clark Street garage and make like cops.”
“Right,” Woody said. “And I wait in the car, in case one of ‘em runs out, or in case you don’t come out.” He opened his briefcase and traded his magazines for a Colt .38 and some bullets, which he stashed in his coat pocket.
“Not expecting to need you, though,” Fred said. “Moran wouldn’t bring the entire North Side with him just to make a deal on some whiskey. Just two or three guys, probably. Those stupid micks won’t know what hit ‘em.”
Woody smiled at Fred’s enthusiasm as they neared the café. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to kill anybody himself this time.
— ♦♦♦ —
Woody returned to the hotel well before sunset. Though Fred and the rest hadn’t needed him after all, he was dog-tired from the adrenaline rush alone. The sound of gunfire still made him jumpy, even when he knew it was coming. The sustained chatter he’d heard from inside the garage today had caused him to sweat bullets of his own. The shotgun blasts just seemed like overkill.
The boys came out calmly enough, with the fake cops “arresting” the plainclothesmen, according to plan. But Woody could see by their faces that something had gone wrong—a worry confirmed by Fred’s loud curse as soon as they were back in the car and driving away; the second car, which had met them at the garage, fled in a different direction.
“What happened?” Woody asked, cautious.
Fred fixed him with a slightly wall-eyed glare. “It wasn’t Moran, is what! Just seven of his men. Byron screwed up.”
“Yeah. We got ‘em all, don’t you worry. But Moran wasn’t there.” Fred paused to wipe a spot of blood from the visor of his policeman’s cap. “You see anything while we were in there? Anybody pass by?”
“N-no,” Woody said. “Nobody.” He was telling the truth, though he had glanced back at his Weird Tales before the noise started up.
“Well,” Fred said. “Al won’t be happy.”
The men all went their separate ways as soon as it was deemed safe to do so. Woody collapsed on the mattress hard enough to shake the green Westclox, and sank into a fitful half-sleep.
Frances phoned the room that night.
“I just wanted to tell you,” she said. “I met a man today. A real man.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Handsome, too. Looks a little like that Broadway actor…y’know, Cagney? But with a softer face. Came into the diner after you ditched me, you lousy….” She trailed off, then corrected her course. “He was on his way to a meeting, too, but I guess he knows how to treat a lady on—”
“What’s this guy’s name?” Despite himself, Woody felt a twinge of jealousy.
Frances chuckled. “What’re you gonna do, Woody? Put a hit out?”
Woody smirked into the receiver. She’d never come so close to the real nature of his work.
“Might do,” he said.
“Right,” she said. “You care so much.”
“What’s his name, Franny?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Thought so,” Woody said. “You met no one. Now are you gonna come back or am I gonna have to come get you?” Of course, he had no idea where she was calling from, but he hoped she’d snap to his tone like he’d trained her to do.
Then again, she’d already shown more backbone than he expected. Even if she was just trying to make him jealous, she had some nerve. Would she call his bluff?
“George Morrissey,” she blurted after a brief hesitation. “His name’s George Morrissey.”
“George Mor—” Woody choked on the name. He cleared his throat, his pulse racing. “Uh…Morrissey, eh?”
“That’s right.” Frances had her own tone now. Triumph.
“And, uh….” Woody cleared his throat again. “Where was this meeting of his supposed to take place?”
“I don’t know, somewhere on North Clark Street. But like I said, he stayed with me instea—”
“So, uh.” Woody swallowed. “Where’s this Morrissey now?” McGurn’s threats echoed in his mind.
“Go soak your head, Woody.”
“You smug bitch,” he snapped, suddenly losing his composure. “You have no idea w—”
But she’d already hung up.
— ♦♦♦ —
Bounty Hunter Babysitter. By Christopher L., Malone Art by Sheik
Maud O’Malley wasn’t your typical broad…anything but, really. Let’s just say she’s a “lady” that knows how to take care of herself in a scrape or three. The story opens with her having to rescue her wayward brother. But by the time the story ends, she’s been thrust into a job that could be her last. Luckily J.M. Dawes chose the right woman for the job. Never send a man to do a woman’s job!