An extract from HB Lyle’s latest novel, The Year of the Gun, published by Hodder and Stoughton in paperback on 21 October 2021
Undecided in heart and mind, Wiggins turned into a bustling diner just north of Times Square. He squeezed into a booth opposite a man hidden by the two folds of a daily newspaper.
‘Whaddayawant?’ The waitress slapped down a knife and fork.
‘Steak and eggs.’
Wiggins hesitated. ‘The Java here is passable.’ The man opposite drew down his paper and nodded at his coffee cup. ‘If passable is what is the step above dishwater, but below actual drinking water.’
Wiggins nodded at the cup, and the waitress sped off. He surveyed his table companion. He was about his own age, with a strong chin and a petulant mouth, slightly turned down. He wore the stiff collar and pressed cuffs of someone due in an office at some point. But his eyes danced with curiosity and a rare kindness.
‘My,’ the man said. ‘You look on me as if I am an exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I do not think anyone has looked at me with this much attention since I was first introduced to my ever-loving mother. What do you make of me?’
‘You sure?’ Wiggins said. The man nodded.
‘Newspaperman. Reporter writer, whatever you call it here. Sport maybe, not the hard stuff. Ain’t from round here.’
‘But I am from Manhattan,’ the man interjected.
‘Manhattan, Kansas.’ The man smiled.
Wiggins went on, encouraged. ‘You’re recently married, you like a drink but,’ Wiggins paused. ‘You ain’t touched one in a while. ‘cept the old Java here.’
The man stared back, smiling still but it had set at this last revelation. He shifted in his seat and pushed his newspaper to one side. ‘It would appear you know everything about me that you need to know to make a bet, other than my name. Are you a magician? A mind reader?’
‘What’s your name?’ Wiggins asked, grinning.
‘My name is…’
‘Baseball!’ A voice rang out across the diner. It belonged to a very smartly dressed man in a white linen suit, tie and a straw boater . He gestured at the man opposite Wiggins. ‘Save me a seat, I’ll be with you directly.’
The newspaperman shrugged. ‘My last secret gone,’ he said. ‘Baseball is my name, and my trade too, by way of the written word. And what brings a soul such as yourself to my table? I do not possess your god-like powers. I guess – you are an Englishman?’
‘London,’ Wiggins said automatically. Just then, his steak and eggs appeared. Baseball gestured for another cup of coffee. It wasn’t in Wiggins’s nature to confide in people. Where he came from – the streets – knowledge was power, and you never gave it away without a price. But he was a blind man in Manhattan, he’d just escaped the cops and he needed to know where he stood. He needed knowledge himself, and the best way of acquiring it was by sharing your own. Baseball had the kind of face that you could confide in too – open, trusting but smart. He wouldn’t miss a word, and wouldn’t punish you for a wrong one. He had the look of a man who’d been listening to people’s stories all his life.
Wiggins finished his first mouthful, then fished out the lieutenant’s badge and put it on the table. ‘I took this off someone last night,’ he said. ‘Teach him a lesson like. Turns out he’s a body who wants it back.’
Baseball looked down at the badge. ‘This is a rare object. I take it the body to whom it belongs is still alive.’
‘Alive, big and very angry.’ Wiggins told him what had happened the night before, and his subsequent escape in the morning.
Just then, the man in the white linen suit slipped in to the booth beside Baseball. ‘Good morning Baseball. Who is your new friend?’ He smiled at Wiggins. The smile couldn’t conceal this man’s power, though. He was dressed like a picture of a wealthy young New Yorker in summer right down to the dicky bow. His nails shone bright and neat, his teeth glistened and his hair looked cut yesterday.
‘This is London,’ Baseball said. ‘London, beware, this is The Brain. He is so smart that he could lay you odds that the earth is flat, and somehow win that bet while selling you a globe at the same time.’
‘I don’t gamble, at least not with money,’ Wiggins said.
Baseball’s cup clattered down on the table. The Brain stared open mouthed. It was as if Wiggins had farted in front of the King.
‘You do not gamble?’ Baseball said. ‘How is this possible, Brain? Here is a man on Broadway who does not gamble .’
‘I have heard of such people,’ the Brain said. ‘But they are strange and unusual, like a bird that does not fly. What was your name again, sir?’
‘London will do,’ Wiggins said.
The Brain thrust out his hand. ‘Rothstein. Please ignore my friend here. He has a way of letting his words run down the street. What’s this?’ Rothstein added, looking down at the stolen police badge.
‘London,’ Baseball explained. ‘Is by way of a being a white knight, in the line of Camelot etcetera. I know I know, he is not dressed in the knightly way, but last night he saves some small children – who I may say are doing nothing but skipping and laughing tee hee, as children are prone to do. London, here, saves them from the unwanted attentions of an officer of the law and by way of issuing a moral corrective, he dips the said officer.’
Halfway through this story, Rothstein swiped the badge into his hand and looked at Wiggins with an expression of growing respect. When Baseball had finished his story, Rothstein held up the badge. ‘This is a big problem for you,’ he said to Wiggins. ‘For this badge belongs to the meanest, dirtiest cop in New York. This theft is the talk of the Tenderloin already. It belongs to Charles Becker.’
‘And he is…?’
Rothstein set the badge back down, and covered it with a napkin. ‘You are fresh in town, I see. Let me explain. Becker is the head of a strong arm squad, right here in the Tenderloin.’
‘The juiciest part of Manhattan,’ Baseball put in. ‘It is in this part of town that you have various illegal activities. Gaming, brothels and whatnot. Others of a more Christian persuasion are known to call it Satan’s Circus, on account perhaps of it being adjacent to Hell’s Kitchen. But I digress. The strong arm squads are like to come in and break up such activities, by way of appearing in the newspapers.’
‘He didn’t look like no hero to me,’ Wiggins said.
‘He is not,’ Rothstein replied in a hushed tone. ‘It’s not called the tenderloin for nothing. That’s what the cops call it too, because that’s how they make most of their money in this town. Becker just paid cash in full on a nine thousand dollar house in Brooklyn, on a two thousand dollar a year salary. His morality does not look like a good bet to me.’
‘Graft.’ Rothstein nodded. ‘He is up to his neck in half the stuss joints in the city, and willing to fight to stay there. So,’ Rothstein gestured at the table. ‘While I’m very impressed with this fine piece of street work – dipping Becker is a famous move, your name will be hallowed by all the fingersmiths and pavement artists on Broadway for years to come – as I say, it is dangerous for you. The NYPD is no enemy to have.’
The waitress reappeared with more coffee, and a huge wedge of cheesecake for Rothstein. She fussed with Wiggins’s now empty plate, while no one spoke. Once she was gone, Rothstein ate a piece of cake and then turned to Baseball. ‘Did you hear the news from downtown?’
‘The lower east side can talk of nothing else. Last night someone beat up Big Jack Zelig. He is stomping all down second avenue screaming blue murder.’
‘He sharped some old man, as he does, but the old man had a bodyguard. But my accounts are all mixed up, except that Big Jack took a beating and now he is screaming for Gyp the Blood and Lefty Louie.’
Wiggins slowly raised his hand. ‘That might have been me.’
Rothstein turned to look at him in astonishment and awe. Wiggins went on. ‘This Zelig fella, kink in the nose? Hat two sizes too small, pigeon-toed? Works out of Segal’s International Café?’
Baseball gaped, for once wordless. Rothstein shook his head in admiration. Finally, Baseball blurted out. ‘First you dip Becker, then you biff Zelig – what do you do for an encore, march on Moscow?’
Rothstein considered. ‘This is another bad thing to do. Jack Zelig is in charge of discipline in the lower east side – you might say he is the police there, for what the police cannot do. He prides himself on his fighting skills. If I were you, I would not go back there. Nor here. Perhaps, in fact, New York may not be the smartest place for you to be at all.’
Wiggins shook his head. ‘It ain’t that easy.’
‘He has put your name out. Gyp the blood and Lefty Louis carry rods, always. And they are interested parties who are very far from being scared to use such implements. In fact, I would go as far to say that they quite enjoy firing these guns.’
Wiggins couldn’t help but smile. He liked the way these people spoke. ‘Thanks for the warning,’ he said. ‘They friends of yours are they? Or yous just know of them?’
‘The Brain,’ Baseball butted in. ‘Knows just about everything that goes on in this city. Especially those, ahem, corners of the city that respectable, law-abiding citizens such as ourselves are wont to avoid.’
Rothstein finished his cheesecake. He dabbed at his mouth delicately with a napkin, then folded it up. ‘Well London, if you decide to stay in this town, and you stay alive – which is what, 100-to-30 – then you can come work for me. Anyone who can dip Charley Becker is a good man to know. And anyone who can best Jack Zelig in a set-to, is a man you’d want by your side in a clinch. Now, you should sell me that – it will bring you nothing but trouble.’
‘This?’ Wiggins held up Becker’s NYPD badge. ‘I’m alright for blunt. But you can have it anyway.’
Rothstein glanced at Baseball. ‘I told you,’ the reporter said. ‘He is a man of honour. It is a wonder this table is not round.’
Wiggins handed Rothstein the badge. In return, he scribbled down an address on a piece of card. ‘As I say, you want a job, you come to this address and ask for me.’ He stood up to go.
‘I don’t want a job, but I might need a favour.’
‘At some later date,’ Wiggins added.
‘He is taking your marker, Rothstein. For the badge,’ Baseball said.
Rothstein nodded. ‘You have my marker,’ he said, and left.
Baseball shook his head slowly, in admiration. ‘That was a very fine piece of negotiation, London.’
‘I didn’t negotiate anything.’
‘That badge. The Brain there is the smartest man in New York, what he does not know does not need knowing. He is the best bookie there is, and will give you the real odds on anything in this town. And now, you have his marker.’
Wiggins grunted. He looked down at Rothstein’s half-eaten cheesecake. ‘He’s scarpered without paying for his grub.’
Baseball laughed. ‘Do not worry. He will have settled the account for all of us.’
‘But I didn’t see…’
‘You do not see, but it happens all the same. That is Arnold Rothstein .’