Stuart M. Kaminsky

You Bet Your Life

“Madman! Rising between us is a flowing river of blood.

How can I call him brother who tore away my hopes!”

Act III, Scene 8 La Forza D’el Destino by Francesco Maria Piave


The narrow white pier pointed into Biscayne Bay like the finger of a rotting skeleton. The paint was peeling and the planks were soft under my feet from too many years of relentless salt water. A fat man sat or squatted at the far end of the pier-I couldn’t tell if there was a chair under him, because he was wearing a long white terrycloth robe that made him look like a soggy tennis ball. His back was to me as I approached, but I could see a thin fishing pole in his oversized fingers. He didn’t move. Dark clouds chased each other in the afternoon sky and the rickety pier danced with the white-topped waves. After a minute or two of watching him slowly being eroded by the Atlantic Ocean, I cleared my throat.

The fat man had to turn completely around to see me since there was no longer a clear separation between his head and neck, if one had ever existed. His face was a blank brown circle marred by a distinct dark scar that ran from below his left ear across his cheek. His eyes were as black as the sea behind him. An unlit cigar drooped in the corner of his thick mouth. He was almost bald, but a few strands of hair on top stood upright, comically blown by the warm wet wind.

“Mr. Capone,” I shouted over the surf. “My name is Toby Peters.”

The clouds had created a thick filter in front of the sun, but Al Capone cupped the chunky fingers of his left hand to shade an unnecessary squint as he examined me silently.

I turned back to the point where the pier touched the land and looked at the man who had led me there. His name was Leonardo, and I thought he might give me some idea of how to handle things. But he simply stood with his arms folded, listening.

“I’m a private investigator, Mr. Capone-”

Capone interrupted with a sound that reminded me of someone chewing sand.

“I didn’t catch that,” I said, wiping water from my brow and tasting sea salt on my tongue.

Capone’s answer was to turn away and fish again. I stood quietly for another minute or so while the waves and Florida humidity turned my light brown suit to moist black. A fish or mermaid tugged at Capone’s line; then it was gone. Capone reacted much too late by jerking the pole out of the waves. There was no longer any bait on the hook. He hit the water three or four times with the pole, hoping to split the skull of the unprepared fish.

“Bastard,” he mumbled, and began to fish again without bait.

It was 1941-February 19, 1941-and I was forty-four years old. The world was moving fast, a war was coming, and I was a private eye with one wet suit and fifty-six dollars in the bank. I imagined myself standing forever on this pier watching Al Capone fishing baitless while the salt of the sea calmly seeped through my undershirt. I almost fell asleep imagining it.

“Well?” said Capone, without turning around.

“A guy I knew said you might help me,” I said. Capone watched the water. “The guy’s name was Marty Maloney-Red Maloney. He was on the Rock with you.”

Capone said nothing. I thought he grunted, so I went on.

“I’m working for MGM, the movie studio, on something you might be able to help with. Chico Marx is in some gambling trouble, and-”

“I remember Red,” said Capone. “I don’t forget my friends. We used to look out at night at the water and see Oakland and the fishing boats, and I told Red when I got out I’d sit and fish outside and no one would tell me to stop.”

Capone looked up at the sky and watched two clouds separate to let the sun through for a second or two.

“I was in prisons for-I don’t know-six years. They tried to rub me out on the Rock-hit me with a pipe. One time a Texas punk got me with a scissors in the back. I almost broke an arm pulling it out. Red and some other friends took care of the punk when they let him out of the dark. You said you know Red.”

This time he turned to look at me, and then past me as if some inspiration might come. We both listened to the waves for a beat. Capone’s eyes leaped suspiciously from Leonardo, fifteen yards away with his arms folded, to the asphalt road forty yards further where a Dade County police car was parked. A man in uniform was leaning against the door.

“You a cop?” Capone said, looking at the cop.

“No,” I said. “I’m a private investigator. I don’t get along with cops.”

“Right,” said Capone looking back at me. “Shoot. Tell your story.”

I loosened my tie, which was slowly strangling me as it picked up seawater, and squatted down to take some pressure off my aching back and be at eye level with Capone.

“Chico Marx is one of the Marx Brothers,” I said, not sure whether he would snarl at me for stating the obvious or take in the information as an important item.

“The Italian one,” said Capone softly, with a knowing movement of the head. “That don’t cut nothing special with me. I ain’t Italian. I was born right here in this country in Brooklyn.”

“Right,” I said. Something wasn’t right with Big Al. I remembered reading in the papers that about three years earlier, when Capone was getting ready to come out of jail, Jake Guzik had visited him in prison and told the press that Big Al was “nuttier than a fruitcake.” The papers had said Al wasn’t the first to go stir crazy on Alcatraz. I didn’t know that guys stayed stir crazy two years after they got out, but this Al Capone was clearly not the man who had ruled a city with a buck and a chopper. I decided to plunge into my tale, get it told fast, and get the hell out of there and into dry clothes.

“Couple of weeks ago,” I began talking fast, “Chico Marx was working in Vegas, leading a band. He got a call from Chicago. Guy identified himself as Gino. No last name. Acted as if Marx should know him. This Gino said Marx owed him 120 grand he lost on bets in Chicago and Cicero at Christmas. Marx thought it was a gag and hung up. He hadn’t been in Chicago at Christmas. He was busy enough losing his money in Las Vegas without side trips. Gino called back, said it was no joke and Marx better come up with the money. Couple of days later Marx got a box in the mail with somebody’s ear in it and a not very funny note telling him to hurry and pay or his brothers would get his piano fingers in a box.”

“Brothers?” said Capone.

“The Marx Brothers.”

“Yeah,” said Capone. “I had them out to the club in Cicero once.” Capone looked in the general direction of Cicero. “I had all the big ones-the Jew singers and comics. Cantor, Jessel, Sophie Tucker, the Ritz Brothers. I didn’t know what was supposed to be funny about the Ritz brothers, but I gave them real nice watches. Cantor made some joke about dancing in concrete shoes, but I gave him a watch too. I gave a lot of people things they don’t remember.”

I nodded my head and went on with my tale. “Well, Chico Marx has done a lot of gambling and a lot of losing, but he says this is a bum rap. Even if it wasn’t a bum rap he doesn’t have $120,000 right now. He doesn’t want to be mailed to his brothers whole or in pieces, but he’s not going to try to borrow money for something he doesn’t owe. I want to find this Gino and ask why he’s trying to get Marx. There must be some mistake. Can you help me?”

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