Excerpt from Dead Man’s Hand by Pati Nagle. Copyright © Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
(listen to Arnold’s soundtrack on Pandora)
Queens, New York
Arnold Rothstein awoke with the sound of an automobile engine in his ears. He opened his eyes and saw nothing—he was wrapped in a sheet.
Fighting panic, he struggled until he got the sheet loose enough to free his arms. He had to roll back and forth, and in doing so realized he was outdoors.
It was cold. Hard to breathe.
He got his hands free and untied the hood from around his neck, pulling it off along with the scrap of cloth that was covering his face. He sat up, annoyed, and disentangled the sheet from his legs. Underneath he was dressed in a plain white shirt—two shirts, actually—and pants with a strip of white cloth for a belt.
A moment’s reflection changed his mood to bewilderment, because he’d been pretty sure he was dead. If that was so he should be lying in the ground, not on it.
He remembered the shooting, remembered the hospital. He’d begged Carolyn not to leave him alone, that was the last thing he remembered clearly. The rest was sort of hazy, like a dream. He was pretty sure he’d tried to haunt George McManus.
He looked around, saw gravestones in tidy rows. A cemetery. His stomach did a slow flip-flop as he realized what that meant. He was dead all right, or should be. From the looks of things he’d been buried, but wasn’t anymore.
Another car engine roared by, out in the distance. It was night, and cold clouds drifted across a pale moon. Arnold shivered and got to his feet, kicking away the sheet that had been wrapped around him. A purple striped prayer shawl fell out of it. With a grimace of disgust he kicked that aside, too. Who the hell had dressed him like this?
Carolyn, probably. She’d given him a Jew funeral, a gesture to his father.
Screw his father, Arnold thought savagely. Bastard had hated him, and the feeling was mutual. He turned around.
Yep. Grave marker with a lot of goddamned Jew gibberish on it. In English, “Departed November 6, 1928.” That fit.
The weather fit, too, it was cold. He picked up the sheet and wrapped it around himself like a blanket.
Why the hell couldn’t Carolyn have buried him in a suit and tie, like decent people? Here he was, Mr. Big, the Man Uptown, the Brain—dressed in a goddamn sheet.
Things didn’t look quite right. Didn’t sound right either—the car engines had a strange tone, quieter and faster than he remembered. There were weird colored lights out along the street.
He stood still, back to the gravestone, coldly thinking what was best to do. What he wanted was to go down to Atlantic City, take in a nightclub act, enjoy the sea breezes. That was crazy, though. He must be disoriented on account of having been shot to death by that idiot McManus.
First order of business, get some decent clothes. Damn, he wished he’d been buried in a suit! He’d have had one of his stickpins to pawn for cash. Now he had nothing but this stupid sheet, not even his wedding ring.
He bent down and picked up the prayer shawl. It might bring him a dime or two. He needed everything he could get. He glanced at the hood and the cloth that had been over his face. Wouldn’t get a cent for those—not like the Jews would use them again.
He started toward the street. A glint from the ground caught his attention. Photograph in a frame, sitting at the foot of a grave. He picked it up, frowning.
The photo was of a young woman wearing strange clothes, and even in the dim light from the distant street he could see that the picture was tinted with brilliant colors. He opened the frame, pulled out the photo and dropped it on the grave, then put the frame back together. He should be able to get a few cents for it.
Glancing at the headstone, he saw the woman’s death date and drew in a hissing breath: 1996! Holy crap!
That meant things were more complicated than he’d thought. No wonder the cars sounded strange. He’d have to catch up on stuff.
It also meant Carolyn was almost certainly dead. She’d be buried in some Catholic cemetery, probably with her family.
Arnold flinched at the sharp pang of loneliness. He couldn’t afford it. Survival came first. He’d miss Carolyn, but he had other problems to deal with.
Atlantic City called to him, sea breezes, good gin and hot honeys. A place to forget about things. He would dearly love to forget about the miserable way his life—or former life, perhaps he should say—had ended.
He began combing the graveyard, adding to his collection of items for the pawn shop. A nice vase, a couple more picture frames. He found a small gold ring on one of the graves, a jackpot for him. Probably not left by a mourner, unless in a fit of anger. Didn’t matter. It would be worth a few bucks. He wished to hell these damn clothes had some pockets. Wished to hell he had some shoes, too, or socks at least—his feet were freezing.
He stuck the ring on his pinkie and continued scrounging. When he had as much junk as he could carry he left the graveyard, glancing back to look at the name on the gate. Union Fields. That was in Queens. Damn, a long way from Manhattan.
A car sat by the curb, a long black Packard. The headlights came on as he looked at it. Arnold turned and walked the other way. The car followed.
Crap. Just what he needed.
He switched directions, staring a challenge at the car as he walked toward it, then hurrying past. Before the car could turn around he crossed the street. There were houses here, a lot of them. He zig-zagged through the neighborhood until he was sure he’d lost the car, then started looking for a pawn shop where he could sell his loot and maybe pick up some real clothes.
He wasn’t a vain man, but he liked to look respectable, and preferred to look elegant. He hated sticking out. He had never courted attention, in fact he avoided it whenever he could. Making waves just made trouble.
After walking for what seemed like forever he finally started coming into a business district. The houses gave way to auto shops and delis, all of them closed. Nothing looked familiar. The signs were all lit up, some looked like colored glass lit from inside, pretty snazzy.
He found a pawn shop, but it was closed, the whole front of the shop covered with a metal grating. Other shops had similar barriers. Things must’ve gotten rough.
He kept walking, his feet now sore as well as frozen. A brightly lit building turned out to be a restaurant that was actually open. He passed it by, not wanting to make a scene in his outlandish clothing. He had no money for food anyway, though he was beginning to get hungry.
He found a park and put down his collection on a bench, sitting beside it. Tucked the bottom of his sheet around his feet and tried not to shiver. He must look like a damned vagrant, and that made him angry.
Never mind. He’d fix things. He’d always been able to fix things, always relied on his wits. A few bucks from the pawn shop he could turn into more easily enough. Find a craps game or a card game, play the odds. He was good at numbers. He always had been.
Sitting on the bench, he mused about George McManus. Why the hell had that idiot lost his cool and shot him? Stupid thing to do. McManus was worried about collecting for his goddamn poker game, which had been a goddamned crooked game, and Arnold wished he’d known that to begin with. He’d never have played. Instead he’d refused to pay up, and that drunken idiot McManus had tried to threaten him, and then shot him. Probably pulled the goddamn trigger by accident.
He wondered if McManus had been tried. Sent to prison. Serve the stupid jerk right, he supposed.
He wondered if Carolyn had been all right. He’d stood to win a cool half million on bets on the election, but they’d be a loss since he’d died. His other interests would have been snapped up by the wolves—Luciano, Lansky, Siegel. He hoped to hell Carolyn hadn’t died poor.
He shook his head. Best not to think about her. She was gone.
A movement off to the side caught his attention, brought him suddenly alert. Someone coming toward him through the dark. Arnold turned his head and fixed a cold stare on the skinny figure that emerged from between two trees. A kid, probably no more than twenty. Eyes big with fear, and a knife in his hand. Not good.
“Gimme your money,” the kid said.
“Do I look like I have any fucking money? Get the fuck out of here.”
Arnold stayed where he was, arm thrown across the back of the bench protectively over his pitiful little pile of junk. He shifted slightly to face the kid, at the same time curling the finger with the ring out of sight.
“I mean it, man! I’ll cut you!”
The kid was shaking. Arnold stood up, letting the sheet fall to the ground. He wasn’t a giant, but he was taller than this little punk. He squared his shoulders and bunched his fists. The kid should back down, unless he got stupid.
“I got no money. Try your luck elsewhere, bucko.”
“Gimme your wallet, man!”
He was panicking. Arnold roared back in his face, all the while keeping an eye on the blade. “I don’t have a fucking wallet! I don’t have a fucking pocket to keep a fucking wallet in! Now scram!”
The kid made a move with the knife. Arnold knocked the hand aside and gut-punched him, sending him to the ground. He stomped on the kid’s wrist until he dropped the knife, then bent and picked it up, stuck the point of the blade in the kid’s nose.
“Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back.”
Terror filled the kid’s eyes. He was trembling all over. Probably high as a kite. Arnold stepped back, keeping the knife. He watched the kid roll over and get up on his hands and knees. Just as he was getting to his feet Arnold planted a foot on his butt and gave him a shove to get him going. The kid stumbled away, out of the park and down the street. Arnold watched until he disappeared around a corner.
Well, now he had a nice knife. Might come in handy, too.
He grimaced. He preferred to leave the violence to others, but at the moment he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Without money, he had to do everything himself.