- button man: professional killer; hit man -
On a cloudless day in the late spring of 1939, in a small, dingy office in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the sunlight forced its way through the partially closed blinds, creating a stack of gold bars on the wall opposite the desk of David “The Fiddler” Lipinsky. A stream of light caught Tiny Weismann in the face, making him squint; it was a good excuse for avoiding eye contact, as Lipinsky got down to the unpleasant business at hand.
“So, Tiny, let me get this straight. You spotted the guy as he was leaving the bar.”
“And he unexpectedly walked up to you and asked if you could change a half-dollar, so he could make a phone call.”
“And then he went into a telephone booth and you went home.”
Lipinsky, who had been steadily drumming his fingers on his desk, stopped suddenly and leaned forward, placing his hands together as if in prayer.
“You know what the newspapers are calling our organization, Tiny? ‘Murder, Incorporated.’ Not the Little Sisters of the Poor, not the Boy Scouts, not Travelers’ Aid. ‘Murder, Incorporated,’ Tiny. You were supposed to plug the guy!”
Tiny – so dubbed since childhood because of his massive size – deflated like a zeppelin with a hole in it, and stretched out his favorite monosyllable in a morose sigh.
Lipinsky rose from his desk, walked to the window and looked down on the mean streets that had shaped, or rather misshaped, his life. He was a slender, nattily-attired man whose straight nose, receding chin and pock-marked face gave him the look of a rodent whose whiskers had fallen out, probably from the stress of trying to outsmart all the other rodents. “I could have been a concert violinist”, he thought to himself, for the thousandth time. “That’s what my mother wanted, God rest her soul. But no, I was in a hurry; I had to have cash and nice threads and a fancy car . . .” He shook off his self-pity, and returned to the desk, sitting down heavily in his leather swivel chair.
“Tiny, the only reason you’re sitting here right now, instead of resting on the bottom of the East River like a sunken barge, is because, (a) you’re my brother-in-law, and (b) the man you were supposed to take care of had a heart attack after he got home and died anyway. Lepke thinks you’re some kind of genius for pulling that off, and I didn’t put you in dutch by telling him the truth, but I’m not taking any more chances on you.” Lepke Buchalter, the chairman of Murder, Incorporated, didn’t like taking chances, and his method of dealing with incompetents had a finality about it that gave Lipinsky a little shiver down his spine.
Tiny straightened up in his chair. Given his size, and penchant for flashy suits, he looked like an awning being unfurled.
“Dave, I was plannin’ on shootin’ him, honest, but the fella just up and asks me for change. Kinda threw me. And I didn’t feel right havin’ to ventilate him after doin’ him a good turn. I mean, he said, ‘Thanks, pal! You’re a lifesaver!’”
Lipinsky recalled the conversation he’d had with his sister shortly after she had married Tiny. “Dave, you’ve got influence, why don’t you help Tiny out? You can find something for him in your office. He’s such a sweetheart; he just needs a little push.” Lipinsky glanced at the window. A little push. No, Esther would be devastated. Besides, he’d never get anything that big through a window. He massaged his temples, feeling another headache coming on.
“Tiny, you just haven’t got what it takes to be a button man; you’re too soft. But I do have something that might work out. You used to be a professional wrestler, right?”
“Well, yeh, Dave, I was in the ring for a few years, but I ain’t in the pink, right now, what with my arthritis.” Tiny used this ailment as an excuse, because he had been too embarrassed to reveal the real reason for leaving the sport: his sensitive olfactory glands had always rebelled at the aroma of the locker room.
“What I mean is, you could handle some jerk in a bar, maybe drinks too much, gets sloppy with one of the cigarette girls, that kind of thing?”
“Oh, yeh, sure, sure. I could show some lush like that the door, piece a cake.”
“And you suppose you could keep a table clear of unwanted visitors, maybe sort of, you know, loom?”
“Yeah, stand by, keep an eye out.”
“No problem. I’ve looked out before, remember? I even drove a get-away car once.” Tiny’s hand jerked toward his mouth in that involuntary, and perfectly futile, gesture which people sometimes make, as if to unsay something that would far better have been kept bottled up.
Lipinsky yanked a drawer open, took out a tin of aspirin, and knocked back a couple of tablets. He did, indeed, remember the time Tiny drove a get-away car - except nobody but Tiny got away. He had been sitting behind the wheel of the car, while his two confederates were in a drugstore working over an uncooperative union boss. Deeply regretting that third cup of coffee he had downed at breakfast, he had finally decided to nip down an alley to relieve himself. When the other two mugs came running out of the drugstore, neither Tiny nor the car keys were anywhere to be found. The hoods decided to shoot it out with some cops who showed up at an inopportune moment - while the boys were desperately trying to hijack a car or a bus or anything on wheels, actually, that would serve to get them out of there - and as a consequence of the policemen’s superior marksmanship, both of them were now stretched out in their Chicago overcoats, feeding the grass. Tiny had emerged from the alley just in time to see the gunplay, so he waited until the smoke cleared, then drove home.
Lipinsky gave Tiny a frosty glare. “Maybe the less said about your get-away skills, the better. What I want you to do now is work as a bouncer at a new joint on East 44th Street in Manhattan: the Cairo Club. Me and a couple of the boys have an interest, and we need some muscle, mostly just for appearances. You can start tonight – and there’s one very important thing you have to do.”
Tiny looked at his brother-in-law expectantly. It seemed unlikely that he was going to be asked to shoot anybody, and the get-away gig certainly wasn’t on the menu, so perhaps this would be a milk run.
“You know that things aren’t going too well for the organization, these days. The DA’s after Lepke, which is why he’s having to hide out. Now, we’ve got a line on a guy in the DA’s office – an assistant to Dewey – and we think we can buy him off. He’s got access to all the files – evidence, affidavits, witnesses’ names, the works – and if we can get our hands on that stuff, that’s the end of their case. He’s coming to the club tonight to meet with me and we’re going to make a deal. What I want you to do, is stand by, don’t let anybody get close to our table, except the waiter. Get the picture?”
“Oh, sure, Dave. I got it. You want I should wear my funeral suit? It sounds like a high-toned place.”
“No, no. It’s one of those theme clubs: neon-light pyramids, table lamps shaped like camels, potted palms. The help dresses up in costumes, Sinbad the Sailor stuff. Go by Roscoe’s Costume and Uniform Shop downstairs – he’ll know what you need - pick up your gear, then head over to the club. Be there no later than five; it opens at six, but I want you to spend some time checking the layout. See the manager, Leon Ross, when you get there.”
“Will do.” Tiny shoved his fedora on his head and departed. Lipinsky put Heifetz on the phonograph and dreamed of what might have been.
(To be continued)