Max Allan Collins

Neon Mirage

“Life is a game of chance.”

— Arthur “Mickey” McBride

I was riding shotgun, and that wasn’t just an expression: there was a goddamned sawed-off twelve-gauge in my lap, and I didn’t like it. At all.

When you’re the boss of a business, the owner of a company, the fucking president of A-1 Detective Agency, you’re not supposed to draw duty like this. I had six operatives for that; I was thirty-eight years old and had been at this racket long enough, and was successful enough, to pick and choose which jobs I wanted to go out on. If I wanted to spend all day behind my desk, I could do that (and these days I frequently did). I was good on the phone, and that’s eighty percent of being a good private detective. If I ever had any thirst for adventure, Guadalcanal had taken it out of me. I rarely carried a gun, in this glorious post-war world.

But nonetheless, here I was: riding literal shotgun in the bodyguard car following James Ragen and his fancy Lincoln Continental down State Street, filling in last minute for an op of mine who took sick, wondering if today would be the day the Outfit decided to blow my tough little Irishman of a client to kingdom come.

Dealing with the mob was something that couldn’t be avoided in Chicago, if you were in my line, but the last couple years I’d done my best to do less and less of it. I used to know Frank Nitti fairly well-better than I wanted to, really-and had more than once found an unlikely ally in the diminutive, dapper, one-time barber who had been Al Capone’s successor.

Since Nitti’s death, however, I’d with a couple of exceptions kept arm’s length from Outfit guys. Nitti was, compared to those who came before him and those who came after, a relatively benevolent figure. He killed less often, and often schemed, like a master chess player, to have those he did want dead killed by somebody else-the cops or the FBI, for example. He tried to stay out of the headlines-it brought too much “heat,” it was bad for business.

And to him the Outfit was a business; and he was a businessman, and you could trust him. As much as you can trust any Chicago businessman, anyway.

Former pimp Jake Guzik, he of the greasy thumb, was in charge of the Outfit these days, while Paul “The Waiter” Ricca and Louie “Little New York” Campagna sat in stir trying to buy their way out of the sentences they got for their part in the Hollywood extortion racket, the exposure of which had led to Nitti’s demise-a suicide if you believe what you read in the papers. Fat Guzik, mob treasurer for several decades now, who would do anything for money, was somebody I’d never feel close to, though he did owe me a debt of sorts. I hoped that debt would be enough to let me survive acting as protector to Jim Ragen.

I’d tried to keep my distance from the job, assigning various ops to the bodyguard duty-even though Ragen had, from the beginning, wanted me aboard personally.

“Jim,” I’d told him, as we sat in my nicely furnished office in an admittedly less than nice building at Van Buren and Plymouth, speaking over the rumble of the El rushing by, “it’s against my better judgment getting involved in this at all. If we weren’t friends…”

“It’s because we’re friends I come to you,” Ragen had said. He wasn’t a big man; my six feet and one- hundred-eighty pounds was enough to make him look small, despite the bull neck and broad shoulders. You might even mistake him for mild, this balding, bespectacled, ruddy-complected Irishman whose tiny eyes were as blue and benign as a summer sky. Only the dimpled jutting chin hinted at the toughness and determination that had made him one of the most feared and effective circulation sluggers during the great newspaper wars early in the century.

Today this Back-o’-the-Yards, South Side boy was arguably the most powerful, important man in gambling in America. Yet he never gambled, not in the wagering sense; nor did he drink or smoke.

His Continental Press Service was the country’s dominant racing wire service, transmitting all pertinent racing information to bookmakers nationwide. That included track conditions, changes in jockeys, scratches and, as post time approached, up-to-the-minute racing odds. And, of course, results of the races themselves, transmitted immediately as the horses crossed the finish line. A bookmaker without this service, operating under the delay of officially transmitted results, would be easily prey to past-posting-that is, bets placed after post time by a sharpie who has been phoned the results by an on-track accomplice, thus allowing said sharpie to bet on a horse that has already won a race.

Ragen’s Continental service relayed its information from telegraph and telephone wires hooked into 29 race tracks and from those tracks into 223 cities in 39 states (tracks that didn’t cooperate were spied upon by high- powered telescope from trees and buildings). For legal reasons, Continental buffered itself, allowing several dozen “distributors” to supply the wire info to the nation’s thousands of bookie joints.

Ragen, like Frank Nitti, was a business executive in the world of crime. I’d done jobs for him before, and I liked him.

But I’d never seen this tough, irascible little Irishman in a state like this. He seemed shaken as he came into my office, unannounced, no appointment, which was also not like him; he was nothing if not businesslike. Even his gray suit was rumpled, his red and blue striped tie askew.

Of course that day had been no ordinary one in the life of James M. Ragen. That day, in April, James M. Ragen was convinced he’d narrowly missed being bumped off.

That morning two men in a car had trailed Ragen’s Lincoln Continental, from his home, and when he sensed he was being shadowed, he increased his speed to sixty miles an hour, and still they came, still they clung to him. They chased him through the city streets until finally Ragen pulled up in front of, and scurried into, a precinct house-the would-be assassins whooshing by.

It was in the aftermath of that that he came to me, Nathan Heller, president of A-1 Detective Agency, looking for bodyguards. Trustworthy ones.

“Who can I trust in this town but a friend?” Ragen said, his oblong face a dour mask. “The cops offered to provide me ‘protection’-of a sort I’d be safer without, goes without saying. You can buy a Chicago cop and get change for a five-everybody knows that. And most of the private dicks in this town, even them that’s employed by the big agencies, is ex-cops.”

“So am I, Jim,” I said.

“Yeah, but you ain’t for sale, my lad. Not when a friend is what they’re buying.”

I sighed. I think he thought of me as Irish, despite the Jewish last name my father left me. It’s what my Irish Catholic mother bequeathed me that fools people-her blue eyes, regular features and reddish brown hair. Of course, where the latter’s concerned, mine is graying some, at the temples, the only temples I attend, by the way, which’ll give you an idea of about how Jewish I am. Papa was apostate, he didn’t believe in God, Hebrew or whatever else you got, though he tried to see some good in his fellow man; I guess I inherited that from him too, minus the part about my fellow man. As for my mother, she didn’t live long enough for her hair to go gray at all, which may explain why I’m not very Catholic, either. Just the same, I was Irish enough for Ragen.

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “I can fix you up with some bodyguards. But if the Outfit wants you, I’m afraid they’re going to get you. You know that. You know what you’re up against.”

“If they kill me,” he said, chin jutting, eyes slitting, “there’s a Ragen to take my place.”

“Your son Jim, Jr.”

He nodded curtly.

I didn’t think the boy had near the stones his old man had, but I said only, “And if Jim should go the way of all flesh, as well?”

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