Small-town mob boss Alvin Ames, fed up with the ineptitude of local law enforcement, takes over as his town’s chief of police. The year is 1941, a jittery time with war in the offing. Ames’s first order of business is to collar the brute who murdered the young deaf woman with whom he’d become infatuated. He also has his sights set on the crooks who robbed his strait-laced brother’s grocery store. Absorbed in these efforts, he’s slow to recognize the plan of a big-city rival to muscle in on his racketeering operation—and his town—by any means necessary.
From The Other Side of the River, a novel
It was nearly eleven when Alvin Ames escaped his dinner meeting in Portland, two hours of business stretched over four hours by people who liked to drink and hear themselves talk. He was delayed another twenty minutes on the south side of the Interstate Bridge, raised to permit passage of a vessel laboring upstream against the Columbia River’s swift autumn current.
Crossing into Vancouver, home at last, Ames unlocked his front door and pushed into the foyer. He hung his overcoat and suitcoat in the hall closet and shelved his hat.
Between lampstands on the foyer’s side-table Mrs. Epps, his housekeeper, had left a folded copy of the local newspaper’s evening edition. Ames unbuttoned and rolled up his shirtsleeves and reached for the paper.
Down the hall his phone rang. Should he answer? Five minutes earlier the instrument would have played to an empty house and he’d have been none the wiser. But, given the hour, the call was probably important and whoever it was would call again.
The phone sat on a table midway along the hall that led to the kitchen. Ames unhooked the receiver and clapped it to his ear. “Yeah?”
“Boss, you’d better get down here.”
Roger Oland met Ames under the light overhanging the Club St. Vincent’s back-alley door.
“I understand there’s a problem,” Ames said.
Oland, who stood a head taller than Ames, shrugged his broad shoulders and every wrinkle in his open-collared white shirt disappeared. The several places where his scalp had been stitched together zig-zagged through thinning gray hair. “There’s an easy fix,” Oland said.
“Anybody I know?”
“Never seen him before. Didn’t catch the name. Some swell Mr. Anderson brought with him from the other side of the river. Mr. Anderson tried to coax him out and Billy did too, but he wasn’t having none of their sweet talk. Say the word, boss,” Oland snapped his fingers, “and he’s in the next block.”
It was Billy Taffy, the club’s manager, who’d phoned to tell Ames about the problem customer and to suggest that, given the names the fellow was throwing around and his resistance to the light touch, Ames might want to handle the situation himself. Ames trusted Billy Taffy’s judgment. Billy had a way with people. He smiled and joked and, most of the time, eased would-be troublemakers out the door before they knew they were gone. Problems that Billy Taffy failed to resolve, Oland handled in his very different way.
Tired as he was, Ames had been tempted to tell Billy to call in Oland and be done with the matter. But there was Mr. Anderson to consider. Ames could imagine the embarrassment his old friend must feel over the situation he’d created. A quiet resolution was best for all.
Ames looked along the alleyway. Puddles, cigarette cellophane, and bottles, some broken and some intact, reflected the light of the half-moon overhead. Where were the city sanitation people the mayor had promised to send every day?
Shaking off his irritation, Ames looked up at the club’s second story windows and then back at Oland. “Where is he?”
“The drunk? They’ve kept him corralled in the poker room, at least so far. Also, just so you know, there’s a couple of cops in the hall upstairs. They were eating at the counter when the ruckus started. Billy asked me to post ‘em. They know to stop the guy from going downstairs and to stop people downstairs from coming up.”
“They’re still in place?”
“Far as I know.”
Ames opened the alley door and the hallway exhaled a warm breath that mingled the smells of tobacco smoke, grilled meat, and dishwater. The din of the still-bustling restaurant and lounge carried from the front. Inside, to the left, a flight of stairs climbed to the second floor. On the wall along the stairs, photographs of comedians, singers, and dance bands alternated with sconces that projected fingers of light onto the dark paneling.
Ames started up and Oland started after him. Half turning, speaking over his shoulder, Ames said, “You stay put.”
“You sure, boss?”
Oland, Ames knew, was asking two different questions. The first was whether Ames really wanted to dirty his hands with what, to Oland’s mind, might seem a routine ejection. The second, which assumed an affirmative answer to the first, was whether Ames had his emotions in check. Because sometimes he didn’t, and Oland, more than anyone else, was called upon to come to his rescue.
“I’m just tired,” Ames said. “I’ll call if I need you.” He really did feel okay at the moment, under control. But he knew—and Roger knew—of his susceptibility to violent overreaction and the difficulties that sometimes ensued.
The light was reddish in the club’s second story hallway, softer and dimmer than down below. Two doors opened off the left side of the hallway. Ames unlocked the first of these, which was the door to his office, without opening it. Moving to the second door, the door to the poker room, he paused and listened.
Billy had said the drunk was slowing the pace of the game with his bragging, loud insults, and demands for more food and drink. The regulars had played on, bless their hearts, tolerating the drunk’s disruptive behavior for Mr. Anderson’s sake. It sounded as if now the drunk was up and about, his voice penetrating the door from different points in the poker room. “Gonna win back what’s mine. Leave when I’m good and ready. Shut this dump down.”
Ames felt anger stirring. Maybe calling in Oland was the thing to do. But, no. To call in Oland was to kiss off the notion of a quiet resolution, which Ames still sought for Mr. Anderson’s sake.
At the far end of the hallway a flight of stairs descended to the restaurant and lounge, and there, at the head of the stairs, stood the two cops. One cop was tall, one short, both young and on the thin side. Both wore baggy uniforms with gun-belts slung low under the weight of their service revolvers. The shorter one sported a sparse mustache.
Ames hadn’t met either man. Warily, they watched him approach.
“Did they assign you a car tonight?” Ames asked, after he’d introduced himself and shaken hands. With ten patrolman, two patrol sergeants, a detective sergeant, a detective lieutenant, and a chief, the City of Vancouver had provided the department a total of four vehicles, one of them the chief’s armored battlewagon.
“Tonight, they did,” the tall one said.
“For once,” the short one said.
“Where are you parked? On the street or back in the lot?”
“Lot,” the short one said. His skeptical facial expression and tone of voice suggested he wasn’t convinced that Ames was Ames and, if so, how much it mattered.
“What’s your name?” Ames asked the short cop with the sophomore mustache.
How easy it would be to grab the young man by his belt and shirtfront and throw him, head first, down the stairs. Ames drew and expelled a deep breath, regaining control. He turned to the taller cop whose fidgeting and nervous eye movement seemed to acknowledge the possibility that Ames was Ames and that his partner was treading on thin ice. “And yours?”
“Stretcher, sir. Bob Stretcher.”
Carling and Stretcher. The next time Ames talked to the mayor or the chief of police he’d want to know why it made sense to keep these two, or at least Carling, employed.
Ames fixed Carling with a steady level gaze, monitoring him for any insolent twitch. He saw none. Lucky for Carling.
“Wait here,” Ames said.
Ames had left home half asleep. Since arriving at the club he’d been provoked by the mayor’s neglect of the alleyway, by the poker-room drunk’s disruption, and by Officer Carling’s seeming indifference to the existing social order. Not only had these provocations fully awakened Ames, they had engendered a strongly felt urge to put matters right.
Keeping in mind, of course, the preference for a quiet resolution.
Turning his back on officers Stretcher and Carling, pausing briefly to listen again at the poker room door, Ames entered his office. He laid his overcoat over the back of a chair and tossed his hat on the seat. With his hands, he brushed wrinkles from the body and sleeves of his suitcoat. Peering into the mirror over the office sink, he fastened his collar button and snugged his tie. He parted his lips and turned his head one way and then the other, checking his teeth.
How best to achieve a quiet resolution?
An Armbruster safe occupied one corner of Ames’s office. He squatted in front of the strongbox, turned the dial this way and that, and opened the door. He withdrew $500, a banded packet of twenty-dollar bills. He closed the door and re-engaged the lock, then stood up and slid the money into the left breast pocket of his suitcoat.
An interior door connected Ames’s office to the poker room. In front of the door he attempted and failed to smooth the bulge that the money packet had created in his suitcoat, spoiling the drape.
The Club St. Vincent’s one and only poker game ran nightly, ten P.M. to four A.M., mainly as a community service. Compared to the slot- and pinball machines on the club’s first floor, the craps, blackjack, and roulette tables in the basement, and even the restaurant and lounge business, the poker game generated scant revenue. The dealer shuffled and dealt the cards, collected five percent from each pot, but didn’t play. With complimentary food and drinks for the players and the dealer’s salary, some nights the house didn’t break even.
Ames entered the poker room without a knock, drawing the eyes of those assembled. “Gentlemen,” he said. High up along one wall, two transom windows vented cigar and cigarette smoke to the out-of-doors without much cooling the room. The busboy’s plastic tote, half-filled with glassware and dishes, sat on a table near the hall door.
There were eight men in the room not counting Ames, five at the poker table and three on their feet. At the table, Dave Greenlow, wearing a white shirt and black arm-garters, held a deck of cards as if poised to deal the next hand. The four others, substantial citizens one and all, looked as if they’d been ordered to keep their mouths shut and their hands in sight.
Standing away from the table, flanked by Billy Taffy and Floyd Anderson, the drunk was a husky fellow, almost as tall as Oland, with pink ears, a ruddy drinker’s face, and waves of reddish-brown hair breaking back from a high forehead. Forty or thereabouts. Paunchy. Sallow coloring. Eyes and mouth ringed with shiny, greasy sweat.
“You’re new here,” Ames said, extending a hand. “I’m Alvin Ames. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
The drunk reared up and back and looked down at his host as if trying to demonstrate his physical dominance. “Nice friendly li’l game you’re runnin’. Bring a man over to fleece ‘im.” Fists clenched, the drunk’s hands remained at his sides, Ames’s offer of a handshake emphatically refused.
Floyd Anderson lifted apologetic shoulders half an inch and grimaced, exposing the lines where his dentures met his gums. No fairer or kinder man in the county than Anderson, who managed First Marine Bank’s Vancouver branch. A soft touch for any charity. Never too concerned about what a man’s collateral looked like on paper. He trusted people and his trust was almost always rewarded. When necessary, Club St. Vincent staff assisted the bank with collections.
“Didn’t catch your name,” Ames said, lowering his hand. He managed to keep his tone affable. “Mr….?”
“Boatwright,” Greenlow muttered. He laid the deck on the table and edged back his chair. A chair leg squeaked. Players flinched.
“Mr. Boatwright,” Ames said. “Let me tell you our policy here. A man won’t always walk away a winner, but we want him to feel that he’s had a fair shake.”
The drunk looked like a banker—a bespoke-tailored, silk-tied, diamond cuff-linked banker from the other side of the river—and Ames guessed he knew the story. Anderson and Boatwright had met at a business or social function and Anderson had mentioned the game. Boatwright fancied himself a player. He coaxed an invitation from the generous Anderson, expecting to clean out the rubes and plead beginner’s luck. Except that he’d lost and, by the look of the distribution of chips on the table, he’d lost big. He didn’t like losing. The reason for losing couldn’t be him, not in this hick town, not with these rubes. It must be the game. Anderson, Ames guessed, had never seen the man’s ugly side which, if known to Anderson, would certainly have precluded an invitation.
Ames drew the packet of twenties from the pocket of his suitcoat. “What are your losses, Mr. Boatwright? We’d like to make you whole and chalk this evening up to experience.”
“Down three and a half,” Greenlow whispered. Ames re-confirmed the figure with Greenlow, rounded up, licked his thumb, and counted out three hundred sixty dollars which he held out to the drunk.
Boatwright batted Ames’s hand away. “Can’t bribe me. Not for twice tha’ much. Gonna see you shut down. See you shut down.” The drunk briefly lost his balance and quickly recovered. “See you shut down.” His sing-song baritone became louder with each repetition.
Ames re-pocketed the money. With his hand first refused and then batted away, he had given up the idea of a quiet resolution. Was it time, then, to summon Roger, to put the matter into his capable hands? No. Ames, though sorely provoked, continued to feel as if could mete out justice without losing control. What he had in mind would not be quiet, though the noise might be contained. He smiled at the drunk. “Why don’t we talk in my office? What are you drinking?”
Boatwright leered and wavered in place. Ames guessed the man put great stock in appearing the master of every situation.
“Scotch,” said Greenlow when Boatwright, still leering and swaying, failed to respond.
“A fellow I know imports what he assures me is Scotland’s best. Nothing commercial. Highland nectar. Lovely stuff.” Ames pulled open the door to his office. “Join me for a nightcap?”
Boatwright hiked his shoulders higher and nodded to the men around the table. See what happens, he seemed to be saying, when a man takes command? He took a moment to steady himself and lurched through the door.
Before he followed, Ames took Floyd Anderson aside. “Does he have a car here?”
“He came with me,” Anderson replied. “I’ll take him home. I’m awfully sorry about this, Alvin. I’ll cover his losses.”
Ames patted Mr. Anderson’s shoulder. “No need to feel sorry. And don’t worry about your friend or his losses. We’ll see that he gets home alright.” Ames entered his office, pulled the door closed, and, circling around the swaying drunk, reached the business side of his desk.
“You call this cubbyhole an office?” the drunk scoffed.
“It serves my needs,” Ames replied. He opened the top drawer of the desk.
“Where’s that drink you promised, that special Scotch? Probably a sham like everything else in this dump.”
From the top drawer of his desk, Ames pulled out a police baton that had been cut down eight inches so as to fit in the middle tray. He smacked the baton against his open palm as he sauntered toward Boatwright, who, slow to comprehend, looked back and forth between Ames’s face and the stout stick. Then Boatwright backed off a step, hunched his shoulders, and raised his fists in the semblance of a fighting stance.
Advancing, Ames wig-wagged the baton in Boatwright’s face. “You’re getting sleepy,” Ames said. The drunk shuffled backward, pumping his fists. His right heel contacted the wall. He looked back. Quickly, Ames lowered and leveled the baton and poked Boatwright hard in the sternum.
Boatwright rubbed the point of impact with the knuckles of one closed fist. He grabbed for the baton with his other hand, missed it, and lunged, trying to wrap Ames in a bear hug. Dropping to one knee, Ames ducked under the man’s embrace. He cocked his wrist and whipped the baton forward, putting his shoulder into it, striking Boatwright’s left shin six inches below the knee.
Boatwright was drunk to the point of sensory deprivation and it took him a moment to feel the blow. When at last he did, he let out a long keening wail. He raised his stricken leg and cupped both hands around the shin, just below the knee. He hopped on his good leg, more erratically with every hop, coins and keys jangling in his pockets. The man appeared sure to go down. When he didn’t, Ames rose and toppled him with a punch to the left temple.
Ames crouched over the man and raised the baton, poised to strike another blow. Then he caught himself and jerked upright and, as if the baton were cursed, skipped it clattering across the room. He hurried to the hall door and called down the back stairs for Oland. He looked in the other direction and summoned the cops with a wave of his hand. He needed to put people between himself and Boatwright, to save Boatwright from further harm, to save himself from himself.
He waited in the hall and by the time Oland and the two cops had joined him, he’d regained what he hoped at least looked like composure. He led the men into his office. Boatwright lay on his side on the floor in what appeared to be a semi-comatose state. He was breathing normally, however, and showed no visible signs of serious injury. Oland laughed out loud in what, to Ames’s ear, sounded like an expression of relief. The two cops looked at each other and then at Ames.
Ames reached into his pocket and drew out the money Boatwright had refused. “See this?” Ames asked the two cops. He stooped and stuffed the bills into the front pocket of Boatwright’s suit pants. He looked up at the cops. “Make sure the money stays with him. Also, the watch and jewelry. You’re going to help Mr. Oland transport this ape down the back stairs. You’re going to retrieve your car, drive it into the alley, cuff our friend, and load him into the back.”
“Is he under arrest?” asked the taller cop.
“Call it protective custody,” Ames said. “You cuff him and put him in your car and take him someplace on the other side of the river. I don’t care where it is, so long as it’s on the other side of the river. Then dump him and all his belongings. Make sure that the money is still in his pocket. Hear me? Then collect your handcuffs and come along home.”
Oland crossed over to where Boatwright lay and ordered him to get up. When the moaning man failed to comply, Oland grabbed handfuls of his expensive shirt and worked him into a sitting position. Then he squatted behind Boatwright, took him around the chest, and half lifted him.
The cops stood frozen.
Ames shook his head. He’d about had it with city employees, up to and including the mayor, who didn’t understand their duties. “Each of you grab a leg,” Ames told the cops. Did they remember what came next? Repeating his previous instructions, Ames spoke more slowly, as if to backward children. “Take this man downstairs, cuff him, put him in the back of your car, drive him across the bridge, and dump him. Got it? Simple as pie.”
Officer Stretcher shuffled forward and reached down for Boatwright’s left ankle. Officer Carling still hesitated. Alvin Ames moved around in front of him. “Are you deaf? Back problems? Iron deficiency?”
Carling shook his head. He started to protest but Ames waved him quiet and pointed at Boatwright. “There,” he said, again fixing Carling with the steady level gaze which most of those upon whom the gaze had been fixed instinctively—and properly—read as a dire threat. “I want him gone. Jesus Christ, gentlemen. What do you think I’m paying you for?”