Story by Stephen Shaiken
Illustration by Chlo’e Camonayan
I was sitting in a strange bar in a strange city, enjoying a drink. My work was done, and I was killing time waiting for the night train home. No one knew I was in this burg and I wanted to keep it that way.
The bartender was a big fellow. He didn’t say a word when I ordered my scotch, or when he set it in front of me. He motioned to be paid with his upturned hand, where I placed the price of the drink and a tip. He took the money and said nothing.
Halfway through the drink, the door opened, and a small fellow sauntered in. He wore a battered fedora in need of a blocking. The brim was pulled down. He had on a worn and shiny black raincoat. It was not raining.
The little man ambled up to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender said nothing as he served it, nor did he utter a word when he received payment. The little man took his change and left no tip.
The short fellow sat down on the stool next to mine.
“Talkative mug, ain’t he?”
“Maybe he’s got nothing to say,” I replied. “Sometimes it’s better that way.”
He held out a small hand with short fingers. He had a firm grip.
“They call me the Kalamazoo Kid.”
He did not look like a kid. Gray hairs snuck out beneath the hat. His face was lined, and his teeth yellowed.
“What do they call you?” he inquired.
Before I could answer the bartender spoke his first words of the evening.
“Kalamazoo. A real dump. Only saps live in Kalamazoo. Real assholes”
“You calling me a sap? Or an asshole?” the Kid snapped.
The big bartender said nothing. He stared at the Kid. The barkeep stood a bit over six feet and must have tipped the scales at two hundred or more. He held up a balled fist the size of a small ham.
The Kid stared him down held his small middle finger in the air for a few seconds.
The bartender spoke again.
“Care to settle this outside?”
“My pleasure,” the Kid answered, a smile on his face.
The barkeep took off his apron, walked around the bar, and stood in front of the Kid. A door off to the right of the bar led to a back alley. The big bartender pointed to the door and started walking. The Kid followed.
I got off my stool and walked behind them. I didn’t know the Kid or the barkeep, and it was none of my business. Maybe it was best to keep my beak out of this, but if I could stop a
massacre I should. And anytime I can keep the law away is a good time.
The Kid followed the bartender out the door, ten steps ahead of me.
I was out the door in time to see the big man take a swing at the Kid, a right-handed roundhouse. The Kid ducked and avoided the ham sized fist. The little guy’s moves were smooth, like a dancer.
The Kid extended his right arm and swing it clockwise and upward. The bartender froze where he stood, steady for a moment and then he swayed slightly. His hands went to his throat and turned red. He made a soft gurgling noise and pitched face forward.
The Kid saw me standing in the doorway.
“Funny thing is,” he declared, glancing at the body at his feet, “I never even set foot in Kalamazoo.”
“You killed a guy over an insult to a city you’ve never even been to? I asked.
“I killed a man who disrespected me. A bully who thought he could hurt me.”
“A dangerous guy,” he added, staring at the body.
He bent over and wiped the blood off his blade on the dead man’s shirt, then folded the knife and put it in his coat pocket.
“I guess he ain’t hurting anyone else.”
“Maybe we should leave,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Let’s find some quiet box to have a drink.”
I patted my coat, feeling my gun was in the inside pocket. Instinct. I knew I wouldn’t need it, not with the Kid. I figure people out quickly. Big part of my job.
We walked down the back alley to the sidewalk, looking both ways before turning left onto the dark and empty street. I passed a dive earlier, three blocks up and two blocks to the left. It was the kind of place you couldn’t see into from the street. Inside, visibility wasn’t much better, with low lighting, dark, dirty windows, and smoke. Every town has them, the kind of bar where people never ask questions, and if they do, never got answers.
The Kid and I sat at a small round table near the far-left corner. A pudgy blond waitress took our orders. Scotch on the rocks for me, beer for the Kid.
We sipped our drinks. The Kid spoke first.
“You are one hell of a cool customer,” he said.
I finished my sip of scotch and put down my glass.
“You’re Mr. Cool,” I replied. “Cut a man’s throat without working up a sweat. Not a worry in the world. You could have been slicing an orange.”
“Could have been,” he said with a nod. “But this didn’t exactly bug you out. You watched a throat get slit and didn’t blink an eye.”
“You’re a mob guy if I ever saw one,” he added.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you if you tell me who you are first,” he countered.
I gave him the name I was using at that time.
“I’m Eddie Pichewski,” he responded. “Out of Cleveland originally, but been banging around the Midwest for a long time. Detroit. Chicago. Akron. Youngstown. Peoria. Davenport. Never Kalamazoo.”
“Then why the name?” I asked.
He took a slug of beer.
“If I called myself Eddie with a city, I’d have goons all over me, for stealing their handle. There’s a bunch of Detroit Eddies, Akron Eddies, Davenport Eddies.
“But only one Kalamazoo Kid,” he added.
I sipped my booze and listened.
“Every boss in those cities knew that if you needed blade work, call the Kalamazoo Kid. Never a doubt about who got that work.
“Best shiv man ever lived, that’s me” he added with pride.
Every killer I’d known could afford to dress the part. Not The Kid, with his battered hat, shiny raincoat, and scuffed shoes.
“I guess somewhere along the line things went bad. You don’t dress like any killer I ever knew. Blade or gun.”
“Guns are for pansies!” he exclaimed.
“Any ape can pull a trigger from a few feet away. Knife work is artistry. Like a butcher in a ballet.
“Guys with guns are a dime a dozen. I’m special.”
I waited ten seconds until he calmed down.
“You still haven’t explained why you’re sitting in this dive box instead of carving turkeys for money,” I said.
“Looks like you could use some dough,” I added. “Buy some new duds.”
“You would never guess it by looking at me now, but not long ago I was flush with cash, spent like a drunken sailor, booze, cars, skirts.”
“So why are you so down on your luck now? “I asked.
He finished his beer in a gulp before he answered.
“I got this good side to me,” he said. “You saw it today. I just can’t sit back and watch some palooka give a hard time to a working stiff who ain’t done them wrong.
“I finished a job in Akron,” the Kid continued. “Some deadbeat welching on a lot of bucks he owed the boss. My marching orders were the money or his throat. Done it in one move.
“So afterwards, I’m sitting in some hash house enjoying my scrambled eggs and coffee. Love my scrambled eggs, especially after a job,” he added.
“I’m at the counter, shoveling down my grub, when in come three goons. Loud, dumb guys, acting like big shots, yelling, slamming their fists on the counter to get attention.
“Two stools down some colored guy is drinking coffee, bothering nobody.” The Kid had downed most of his beer and signaled our waitress for another. I’m a one-drink guy.
“I ain’t got nothing against the colored, they don’t cause me no problems,” The Kid added. “Been hired by a few.
“One of the goons steps in front of the colored guy and tries to bum a cigarette. Colored guy says real nice that he don’t smoke.
“The goon was all dressed up in a nice suit, big tie, and big ring on his finger. Like he was trying to announce that he was connected. Trying to look hard, but inside he knows he ain’t. When he gets no for an answer, he turns to his pals.
“You hear that?” the goon says to his pals. This jig don’t smoke?” The Kid changed his voice to show he was quoting the goons.
“Send him out to get you a pack,” one of the other goons yelled.
“The first goon looks at the colored guy and tells him to go out and buy him a pack of Pall Malls,” the Kid continued. “He don’t pull out dough to pay for the pack.”
“The poor colored guy looks at the goon and says he ain’t got no money. Not that he won’t run the errand, just that he got no dough.
“The big-mouth Bruno punches the colored guy in the nose, real hard. I see blood coming out,” The Kid continued.
“I had enough. I yank out my smokes and toss them to the goon who threw the punch.
“The goon throws them back at me,” the Kid says. “Tells me he don’t smoke Luckies, only Pall Malls.
“So, I figure there ain’t no easy way out of this, and I’m thinking how to get out best I can. Maybe just split.
“I pull a twenty from my roll and hand it to the bloodied up colored guy, pat him on the back, and bend down to pick up my Luckies.
“When I’m bent over, the big goon who tossed them sneaks up behind me and gives me a hard kick in the keister.”
The Kid took the last slug of beer and wiped foam off his lips with the back of his hand.
“Well that was all for you, she wrote,” the Kid said loudly. Other customers glanced at us. He lowered his voice.
“Top blade man in the Midwest can’t afford to get his ass kicked in public by some two-bit palooka.
“I hear him laughing,” the Kid says. “I turn around, reaching into my pocket for you-know-what.
“You should of seen the look on his face when I stuck him in the gut and yanked up. Split him open. Like filleting a fish.”
The Kid paused in reflection.
“Always thrust up, never down,” he explained. “That’s how a pro does it.”
“What about the other two?” I asked.
“I was getting to that,” he said.
“One of the other goons reaches into his coat and under his arm. Announcing he’s going for his gun.
“Big mistake when a guy like me has a knife in his hand. No way to block me when I stuck him right in the throat. Went down like a tree.”
“Two down, one to go,” I told him.
“Yeah, that third goon watched me poke his pals,” the Kid replied.
“I smelled it from six feet away,” the Kid went on. “Crapped right in his pants. Never went for a gun. Turned around and waddled out of there real fast. Cracked me up.
“Like I said, not really hard like they was trying to look.”
“And the colored guy?” I asked.
“Never saw him again. Must of lit out of there while I was working. Don’t blame him. Hope he had a good time with the twenty.
“Like I told you,” he said, “I got nothing against the colored.”
“So, what’s all that go to do with you running around with a frayed collar?” I asked.
“What I didn’t know was that the two goons I cut were the nephews of Tommy Callahan, a numbers-boss in Akron. He didn’t take it well. I was through in the Midwest. Lucky to get out alive. Heard there was a price on my head. Snuck out like a thief in the night. Haven’t shown my face around my old hangouts in six months. Don’t think it’s ever gonna be safe for me there.
“Down to the end of my money. I need some work,” he said. I said nothing.
“You seem like the kind of guy can get me back on my feet,” the Kid added after his fresh beer arrived. He looked me right in the eye. I like that in a guy. Shows character.
The Kid toppled two slugs of his second beer. There was an inch or so left in the glass.
I gave him the once over again.
He killed for money but also for what he figured was fair. He wasn’t some crazy who killed for fun. He killed for a reason, to make a buck or to set things right.
I could find a place for a man like that.
If he could be kept in line.
— ♦♦♦ —
No sense giving the Kid a tall tale. Wouldn’t work.
“I know people who know people,” I replied. “Far from where you had your problem. My word carries weight.”
The Kid looked at me and nodded his head ever so slightly.
“I got to catch the night train back East in about an hour,” I explained. “So, I got to blow this dive now.”
“Give me a way to reach you. Phone is easiest,” I told him.
“Right now, I got a room in a fleabag in town, place called the Grand Palace.
“It ain’t neither,” he added “But you can call me there. Registered as Eddie Kalam.”
“You’ll hear from me, “I said as I rose from my chair. I threw down a twenty for the Kid to pay for the drinks and keep the rest.
— ♦♦♦ —
“You gotta be crazy!” Fat Phil exclaimed, exhaling a cigar-smoke ring as big as a horse collar. He was seated behind his large desk, a bust of Julius Caesar on one side, a big ashtray on the other.
“This clown sounds like he belongs in the nuthouse! Why would you even think of bringing him into what we got going?”
For emphasis, Fat Phill waived his cigar, gripped by sausage sized fingers. The stogie was the size of a small baton, glowing brightly at the lit end.
“Because I think I can control him,” I replied. “There was something between us. We hit it off real nice.
“And he is good at what he does. Real good” I added.
“Sooner or later, guy like that is gonna cause trouble,” Fat Phil countered. “He’s gonna blow down some John Q. Citizen, and the law won’t look the other way.
“He’ll lead them badges right to our door,” he concluded, waving his cigar in a wide circle.
“I hear you, Phil, and don’t get me wrong, he needs watching. But he seems like a standup who won’t shoot off his trap if the cops grab him. He’s no rat, and he’ll stay clammed up. And working with a knife, well, no noisy shots, nothing to trace. He can do the job just about any place.
“I say let’s give him a chance. He could work out real well. See how it goes.”
Fat Phil sucked long and hard on his stogie and let out a huge cloud of smoke.
“Okay, Johnny, you ain’t never steered me wrong, and we’re always good. I’m aces with letting you give this Kid a chance.
“But anything goes wrong, it’s on you. Got it?”
“Got it,” I replied.
“Nice jawing with you, Eddie,” Fat Phil said as he pulled his five foot eight, three-hundred-pound body off his desk chair and stood up. That was the signal for me to leave.
— ♦♦♦ —
I called the hotel and spoke with the Kid. I wired him some dough, enough for a train ticket and more, and told him where to meet me in a bar where the cops were paid to leave us alone.
The Kid used some of the money to get some new clothes. The battered Fedora was replaced with a new topper and the raincoat with a nice wool overcoat. Well shined new shoes covered his feet.
“Looking spiffy,” I said as we shook hands. When the waitress came, he ordered a scotch, no beer this time.
“Ready to blow one down, Johnny,” he replied. “Just tell me who. They’re good as whacked right now.”
I handed him an envelope.
“This guy is a small-time hood got himself in a jam over some two-bit scam. Ripping off some old lady for all she had. Captain’s aunt, it turns out. Picked the wrong pigeon. Used to sell hot radios for Fat Phil. Had to drop him when he was late paying up. Still owes Phil. One of the cops we pay tipped us off that the hood wants to sing to the DA about a few guys in a rival gang that got bumped off last year. Get a deal. DA’s been trying to tie it to Fat Phil.”
“Here’s a picture. Also, half your pay. We got the word he’s gonna meet the DA’s guys at the ballpark tomorrow afternoon. They figure it’s safe and secret. Planning to talk about Phil so let’s make sure it don’t happen.
“You get the rest of the money when the job is done.”
The Kid threw me a big smile.
“Done,” he said, grabbing the envelope and walking out of the joint.
Two days later I saw the article in the morning paper.
“Small Time Hoodlum Knifed at Ballpark!” the headline screamed. The hood was going through the turnstile right before the game and when he got to the other side he fell, dead as a doorknob, cut open in the front from waist to neck. The crowd screamed and the cops came. There were no suspects.
“Twenty thousand people at the game and you want us to tell you who did it,” the top cop on the case told the reporter.
“Bums like him make lots of enemies,” he added.
— ♦♦♦ —
Fat Phil was one happy guy when I met him to get the rest of the Kid’s money.
“I threw in a little extra,” he said when he handed me the dough.
“Looks like you was right, Johnny, like always. Sorry I doubted you.”
“No problem, Phil,” I replied. “You know I always got your back.”
“You sure do,” Phil said as he pulled the wrapper off a huge cigar. “Anything ever goes sideways, you’re Mr. Fixit.”
“And let’s hope this Kalamazoo kid don’t ever need no fixing,” he added. “He’s been good to me so far.”
“Watching him like a hawk,” I assured Phil.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Kid did well for us over the next few months.
When some boys from out of town thought they could muscle in on a union Fat Phil owned, we sent the Kid. The out-of-towners figured a few guys with guns could mess up Phil’s deal. A few bodies with slit throats left on the docks at night ended that idea.
Then there was the crooked detective who figured he could get more bucks out of Fat Phil by doing the job the police paid him to do. He threatened legal real problems if we didn’t up his ante. Bumping off a cop, especially a detective, was not something you want tied to a local, and you don’t want a gun that can be traced. The Kid solved that one. The two-timing cop expected a night with some dame he had stashed away in a hotel room, but when he opened the door, he got a shiv in his head. The cops don’t like to air their dirty laundry, so the story was buried with the detective. We paid the Kid extra for that one.
“You done real good by me with this Kangaroo Kid,” Fat Phil beamed as we shared some good whiskey in his office. Trucked down own from Montreal. Phil’s belly spilled out over the top of his desk.
“Kalamazoo.” I corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever,” he replied as he refilled our tumblers. “Who needs a gun when a shiv, does a better job, and it’s cheaper?”
“Glad to have been of service,” I said after a swallow of the Phil’s fine Canadian.
— ♦♦♦ —
The big story was Mark Putnam. High society, businessman, insurance, real estate. Fancy offices downtown. Loaded with money, made Fat Phil look like a beggar, and believe me, Fat Phil’s in the money big time. Turned out Putnam was a perv. Couple of little kids told the cops about him touching them where he had no business, and Putnam collapsed when questioned and spilled his guts to the cops. Then he wised up and hired Sharpie Schwartz, the best mouthpiece around, the one you went to when you had real problems. Big name, big fees, but a straight shooter. Always told you the truth, and if you wanted to roll the dice with a jury, there was nobody better. We used him a lot, with no complaints.
No one was worked up when Sharpie took this case. We all got to make a living, but everyone was rooting for him to lose.
The saying goes, “You don’t hire Sharpie Schwartz to lose.” The cops couldn’t explain why Putnam’s handwritten confession didn’t look like his handwriting, and two of the three kids couldn’t make Putnam out in court. Then there were those priests and nuns who swore what a good man he was. Sharpie walked him right out of the courthouse, a big smile on Putnam’s bloated face.
Two days later Putnam left his desk for his private bathroom. When he didn’t come back after an hour, his secretary sent the maintenance guy to look for him. He came out of that toilet room with vomit all over the front of his shirt. Someone had cut off Putnam’s head and left it floating in the bowl.
Then there was the guy we heard about who waited for the end of rush hour to steal the cash the blind newsie at the train station kept in a cigar box. I remember sitting in some hash joint with The Kid and a few of Fat Phil’s guys.
“Imagine that, stealing from the blind,” Monty the Mole bellowed over a plate of ham and eggs.
“If I ever get my hands on him…” he muttered as he shoved a forkful of egg and ham into his mouth.
We all nodded in agreement.
“Exactly where did you say the newsstand was?” The Kid asked no one in particular. Monte the Mole told him.
A few days later, we heard the newsie wasn’t having any more problems. Never heard about a body popping up.
— ♦♦♦ —
I opened the papers one morning and saw the story about the slumlord they called the Eviction King. He was known to throw old widows and disabled veterans out onto the street on the coldest days. Sometimes the Reds would move them right back in. I got no love for the Reds, but sometimes even they do right.
The King was found slumped behind the wheel of his Cadillac, a puncture through the back of his neck, right through his throat.
“He must have bled out pretty quickly, but he felt the life oozing out of him,” the homicide detective on the case told the newspaper.
Maybe no one was looking for the killer of a fancy perv, a dirty cop, or a mug who robs the blind. But you could bet your bottom dollar the family of the Eviction King had the juice to make the cops look. They greased the palm of every cheap politician in town, and there was no running away from this one. They would want a real investigation. I didn’t like it at all. Neither did Fat Phil.
“So, you think this guy you stood up for is a nut job who kills for the hell of it? No reason?” he thundered when I told him who I suspected was behind these murders.
“I wouldn’t say for no reason,” I replied. “A man don’t get up in the morning and kill for no reason. He’s got a reason. Maybe not one we can get behind, but he’s got a reason.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about his reason,” Phil bellowed.
“Did he ever think this might come back on me?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“Well, we gave him his shot. He was real good, but I can’t take no chances,” Phil said before he lit up a fresh cigar the size of a flashlight.
“I want you to take care of this for good,” Fat Phil shouted at me.
“And I mean tonight,” he added as he waved me away.
— ♦♦♦ —
When I got to our usual park bench, the Kid was already there. We usually jawed a bit about nothing in particular before walking along the wooded paths, where no one would listen in. This time I just motioned for him to start walking.
“Is everything good with us?” he asked as we started our stroll.
“Not all good,” I replied.
“Fat Phill is worried about some bodies piling up around town lately,” I continued. “The rich perv. The dirty cop. The missing crook that steals from blind people. But the Eviction King, that’s a whole different thing. It could put some real heat on us.
“He thinks it’s you, Kid, all of them being sliced like only one guy we know can do it.
“I think Fat Phil is on to something,” I added.
The Kid was silent for a few moments as we strolled in the cool night air.
“I ain’t saying yes or no,” he said.
“But assuming it was someone working for you guys, anything wrong with a little work off the clock?” he asked
I plucked a Lucky from my pack and lit it.
“Plenty wrong if it leads the cops to Fat Phil and me,” I replied.
“Be straight with me Kid, like I always been with you.”
“Can’t help you otherwise,” I added.
The Kid pulled out a cigarette and lit a match with his thumb.
“I figure these were bad guys, mugs no one’s gonna miss. Figured I’m doing the world a favor,” he said.
“Well, you figured wrong,” I told him.
“You could never blip the fastest shiv in the world,” he suddenly said with pride.
“Kid, it might not be me,” I replied. “Even if that’s what Fat Phil wants. You kill me, someone else comes after you.
“But don’t worry, Kid, I don’t whack my own people.
“And you’re one of my people,” I said.
The Kid took a long drag on his cigarette.
“So, what you thinking?” He asked.
“I’m thinking I tell Phil we met by the docks. I put two in your head, tied you to a sack of rocks, and pushed you in the drink.
“Then you hightail it out of town and never return. And find some other kind of work. “
I handed him a wad I pulled from the inside pocket of my overcoat.
“Enough to hold you for a year. Smart guy like you starts over. No more whacking people.
The Kid took the bundle and it inside his coat. He held out his hand.
“You’re okay, Johnny. Been a pleasure knowing you.”
“We straight on this?” I asked. “I’m putting my rear end on the line for you, Kid, and this is the second time. I won’t get no third chance.
“I’m going back to tell Fat Phil it’s handled. And you’re going far away, never coming back and never putting a blade to flesh again, got me?”
The Kid blew out a cloud of smoke and looked down and then up. He stubbed out his cigarette.
“Got it, Johnny,” he said as he put out his hand again.
We shook again, then I turned around and walked back to the street where my heap was parked. I did not look back.
— ♦♦♦ —
“I know how you felt about this guy, and sorry you had to be the one, but you know, I trust nobody like I trust you,” Fat Phil told me as we sipped Canadian whiskey at his desk. Hope we didn’t drink up his stock, though I doubt it was possible. I stared into the folds of his neck.
“No need to talk about it,” I replied.
“Fair enough,” Phil said through a haze of cigar smoke.
— ♦♦♦ —
Six months later the envelope came in the mail, with no return address. Inside was a business card. I did not recognize the sender’s name or address. It was the job title that grabbed my attention.
The Knife Magician.
Carving, Filleting, Meat, Poultry, Fish
Banquets, Parties, Private Dinners
The Fastest Blade in America
By Appointment Only
I just hope I did the right thing, or I’ll be the one getting filleted.
— ♦♦♦ —
Liver Eater By Michael Carter, Art by L.A. Spooner
Liver-Eatin’ Johnson had a bad rap, Sheriff Kinney discovered. Sure, Jeremiah Johnson was also known as the Crow Killer, and history would accurately remember him by that name. But livers, well, that was another thing…So, who or what was leaving bodies with their livers taken?