A distant pounding from down the hall grabbed Roy's attention. He sat up. Uh-oh . Friday afternoon, collection day at the Crandall.
He struggled to his feet, put in his false teeth, and painfully made his way to the dresser. The staccato banging moved closer, prompting Roy to haste.
Quickly now. Get the money! He wiped his sweating forehead and felt a sickening pang of anxiety root around in his belly. Rummaging around frantically in his sock drawer, he uncovered his stash and removed this month's blood money with palsied fingers.
The racket and yelling intensified.
Now it was his turn. He trembled and waited. At the first whack, he threw open the door and thrust out his hand, the fifty dollar bill fluttering in the drafty hallway. Roy pinched it between his thumb and forefinger to keep it from falling. Please God, don't let it fall.
Big Core and Little Flicker stood there, hip shot and scowling. Core, with his outlandish blue Mohawk hairdo, formidable biceps, studded collar, and arctic gray eyes, snatched the money. "Very good, Roy," he purred. It was as though he were praising a dog.
Flicker, lean and mean and scarred by a savage acne condition, giggled and poked a blunt finger into Roy's chest. "Guess you doan fergit last month, eh?"
Core grinned, then spun on his heel. "C'mon, Flick."
They moved down the hall, passing Phil's room without knocking, for Phil had just had an accident, a fatal one. Relieved, Roy ducked back inside his room and closed the door. He slumped against the wood, the shame riding him hard. There was nothing much left of his manhood. The damned job and then the Counts had stripped him bare. The others in the hotel shared similar indignities. They were scared, too, and so they paid, and paid, and paid.
Next morning a man moved into Phil's old apartment--the one next to Roy. Roy went over to see him, to explain things so that the fellow wouldn't get hurt.
The man, whose name was Tony something-or-other, was Italian, short, powerfully built, and had tattoos on his arms. His eyes were hooded and a terrible scar ran the length of his right cheek. Wearing burgundy slacks and a clean white shirt, he looked to be about sixty, young for the Crandall. And there was an air of quiet strength about him.
They shook hands. Tony's grip was frightfully strong, but his smile was benign and friendly. He was smoking a cigar.
"Where ya from?" asked Roy conversationally.
"Here and there," Tony replied.
"Hm. From LA?"
Disappointed with this paucity of information, Roy wandered around the room. It was as bare as his own. An empty suitcase lay open on the pull down bed. A large trunk stood in the corner. A portable gym set had been partially shoved under the bed.
Tony acknowledged the athletic equipment by explaining that one had to stay in shape, that there were certain people always trying to take advantage.
You don't know the half, mused Roy. Wait till you meet The Collectors. Strolling over to the window, he opened the blinds and peered down. "Man died here a few weeks ago."
"Yeah. Fell outta this window. Three stories. Didn't they tell ya that at the desk?"
"No." Tony began cleaning his nails. "I'm sorry for the gentleman. Was he a friend of yours?"
"Yeah, he was. And that figures. You know, they're scared too."
"Who's scared? And of whom?"
"The clerks are scared--like everybody else. You're gonna meet these guys next month. Then you'll know what I mean."
"I'm gonna meet somebody?"
"Yeah. Listen, Tony. This fall; it wasn't no accident. He was murdered."
Tony abruptly sat down on the bed. Neither man spoke. The only sound was the ticking of Tony's bedside clock and the low thrum of thunder from somewhere in the distance.
"You hear what I said?" pressed Roy.
Tony snuffed the cigar and looked up. "Yep. Care for a drink?"
"Sure." Roy licked his lips. "But I really think I should tell you about--them."
"Suit yourself." Indifference itself, Tony casually poured two water glasses half full of Jack Daniel's. The men pulled up wooden chairs to the small table just as a cold slanting rain struck the window. It sounded like grape shot.
Roy shivered. "Skoal ."
"Skoal, Roy. Now who are these guys I'm supposed meet?"
"You ever hear of the Spring Street Counts?"
"Huh-uh. Should I?"
"If you're from LA, you shoulda."
"I guess I ain't from LA, then. That what you're tryin' to find out?" Tony peered across the table like he was getting ready to pounce, his little eyes black as obsidian and as equally cold. Suddenly he wasn't so benign anymore.
Roy gulped. "H--hell no, Tony. Nothin' like that."
Tony relaxed and smiled. "Sorry, just touchy I guess. So, tell me about these dreaded Counts."
"Yeah." Roy sipped the sour mash, lit a Camel, and launched into it. For six years he'd lived here at the Crandall--a rundown L.A. flop house house peopled by the aged and infirm poor. It hadn't been bad--until they came. One afternoon they just appeared, eight of them, wearing green and black gang banger colors. They locked the front and rear doors and rounded up the folks, escorting them downstairs for a meeting. It was explained that Crandall's occupants were in dire need of protection from a virulent neighborhood gang threat. Vincent Core and his Spring Street Counts thus offered to fill the security vacuum--for a modest fee of fifty dollars per month.
When it was pointed out to Core, that there'd been no trouble with gangs and that Core's offer of protection was entirely unnecessary, the Counts politely left. But a few days later, all hell broke loose--firebombs, slashed tires, loud music at all hours of the night, broken windows, crank phone calls, and a pernicious rash of vandalism.
By-and-by Mr. Core returned to find that there'd been a sea change in Crandall Hotel opinion, and that his "protection" was now acceptable, nay, downright imperative. Core generously praised their collective common sense, but warned that any mention of the deal to the police would-- well, bring difficulty to the whistle blowers.
"Jesus," snapped Tony in disgust, "how long you people been livin' like this?"
Roy hung his head. "Five months now," he whispered.
Tony shook his head. "Sounds like these punks have taken a page from Capone and Lepke. The old protection racket."
Roy shrugged. "I hear they're "protecting" other buildings too. Hell, these kids all drive new cars nowadays. It stinks, but what can we do?"
"Call the cops."
"Oh--you mean like Phil did?"
"You think these punks killed him?"
"No question. Phil filed a complaint, the poor schmuck. Cops came around for corroboration, but we all dummied up. We were afraid. See, and then it was just Phil's word against the Counts. Poor bastard.
They came for him in the night, like wolves. Nobody saw them, or heard them. There was just Phil's screams. But I know they did it."
Tony nodded. "So I suppose that means that one of these days they'll come around to take my money."
"Last Friday of the month. Like a clock."
"What if I'm not at home?"
"They'll kick in your door and trash your place--and worse."
Tony shrugged. "No problem. I'll just negotiate somethin' with `em."
"Sure, you do that," snapped Roy. "Listen, you don't get it. They're vicious."
"Well, we'll see. But many thanks for the warning. You say everybody in the building pays?"
"How many would that be?"
"Oh, forty or so."
Tony nodded, poured another round, and they left it at that.
A month later the Collectors returned, laughing it up, and shouting at the top of their lungs, while they sucked the life's blood out of the frightened multitude. Roy paid his fifty dollars, then left the door ajar in order to see how Tony would "deal" with the two monsters. Afraid they'd kill him, he peeked through a crack in the door jamb and waited.
Flicker slipped out his 9-inch blade and banged on the door with his left hand. "Hey in there. The Collectors are here. Get it up old man. Fifty bucks. We don't like to be kept waiting."
The door opened promptly, and Tony stepped out, his hand extended. "Glad to meecha, fellas. C'mon in and have a drink." Core and Flicker ignored the handshake and eyed Tony with suspicion. They were usually met with a lot more deference.
"No thanks, uh--" Core checked his list. "Mr. Pop--uh--Popalop--oulas."
"Close, you're close," murmured Tony. "But--just call me Tony. And hey, what's the harm in a little drink?"
After a moment's hesitation, the two Counts shrugged and slipped inside. The door closed with a definite firmness.
Roy grabbed an empty glass and put his ear to the wall. There was a long silence, mumbled words, then a thud and a terrible, choking gasp. Another thud, and someone began screaming. The shriek died almost immediately.
Poor Tony! Roy ran for the phone, knowing he must stop the bloodshed. But then he stopped, considering more fully the ramifications. For if Tony were killed, the cops would come and bust the Counts for murder. They'd be out of Roy's life forever. Peace would return.
Another chilling scream.
Roy frantically dialled 911.
"Emergency." The woman's voice was expectant and alert.
With trembling fingers, Roy changed his mind and reluctantly put down the receiver. He'd just had a chilling thought. Suppose Tony's not dead, maybe just--badly wounded? Hell, in L.A. a little beating like this wouldn't even constitute a felony. The Counts'd be back on the streets in days. I could wind up like Phil, with my brains dotting the cement below. I can't take that chance .
To calm his nerves he poured himself a double shot of Old Crow and waited. There was a loud bang, as though a human head had been run through the wall. The whole room shook. After that came a brittle silence. Later, Roy peeked out his door as Tony violently shoved Core and Flicker into the hall. The two thugs fell on their knees, both covered with plaster and blood. Flicker’s face was bloody and his ear was in shreds, as though clawed by a tiger. Core's features were nearly unrecognizable, and there was something wrong with his nose. He had a wild look in his eye, as though he'd seen a ghost. His left arm hung at his side like an afterthought, swinging loosely as he got to his feet and staggered down the hall past Roy's door.
Roy got this crazy urge to pee on Core as he stumbled by, for he knew they'd never be back. No more Collectors. He ran into the hall and pounded on Tony's door. Tony greeted him with a smile, rubbing his fists and dabbing at a scratch on his cheek. He was otherwise unmarked.
Roy grabbed him by the shirt, and danced around him in an outburst of joy. "May God bless you!"
Tony chuckled. "Hey, wait a sec."
Roy let loose a torrent of verbal gratitude, to which Tony responded by raising his hand in mute appeal. "Take it easy Roy. I told you I'd negotiate something with `em. Just took a little persuasion."
Roy gasped. "A little? Gee whiz. Hey, Tony, we're gonna rename this building the Tony Hilton. What'ya think of that?" Roy had never been so happy.
Tony laughed. "Nice. But look, I gotta appointment. But know this, those two birds won't be back here again with their hands out for any fifty dollars."
Roy could easily believe that.
For the next month, the grateful inhabitants of the Crandall took multiple food items and acres of flowers up to Tony's room. These offerings, however, were politely refused. Tony, it seems, was embarrassed. He informed his admirers that he'd only done what any man with his background would have done, under the circumstances.
That prompted rampant speculation about his background. Was he an ex-cop, FBI, prize fighter, detective, Army officer? Secret Service? CIA. What? Mrs. Baumgarten said he must be an angel--like Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life."
Then came disaster. On the last Friday of the month, Roy was shaken to hear a loud racket coming from down the hall. Somebody was banging on doors and shouting. Peeking out, he viewed an old familiar horror--Core and Flicker extorting money. And soon they would be in his face. In a complete panic, Roy ran next door to Tony's, pounding away like a mad man.
Tony appeared in his undershirt. "Roy, what the hell is it?"
"Thank God! You're here." Roy pointed down the hallway. "L--look. It's them!"
Tony frowned. "So?"
"So--you said they wouldn't be back."
"No, I said they wouldn't be back 'for any fifty dollars .'"
"From now on it'll be a hunnert. Afraid me and boys decided to up the ante." Tony yawned, and to Roy it was like watching a rattlesnake open its mouth just before eating a meal.
And in Tony's reptilian eyes, Roy saw the total depths of his betrayal.