Short story: Town Wanted

by Fredric Brown   1940

On my way in, I looked in the back room. The boys were there.
Alderman Higgins had a pile of blue chips in front of him and was trying to keep his greasy little mug from looking sap-happy.
Lieutenant Grange was there, too. He was half-tight. He had beer spots on the front his blue uniform shirt. His hand shook when he picked up the stein.
The alderman looked up and said, “Hi, Jimmy. How’s tricks?”
I gave him a grin and went on upstairs. I pushed on into the boss’s office without knocking.
He looked at me sort of queerly. “Everything go okay?”
“They’ll find when the lakes dries up,” I told him. We won’t be around then.”
“You covered all the angles, Jimmy?
“All what angles?” I asked him. “Nobody’s going to investigate. A guy won’t pay his protection, and Annie Doesn’t Live Here Any More. Now the rest of them will lay it on the line.
He took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his bald spot. You could see the guy was squeamish. That’s no way to handle things. It would be different, I figured, when I took over.
I sat down and lighted a cigarette. “Listen,” I said, “this town is worth twice the take we’re getting. Who de we move in on next?”
“We’re letting it ride awhile, Jimmy. Things are hot.”
I got up and started for the door.
He said softly, “Sit down, Jimmy.”
I didn’t, but I went back and stood in front of him.
“Well?” I asked.
“About the boys you’ve lined up to buck me, Jimmy. When do you think you’re going to take over?”
I guess I’d underestimated him. You can’t run rackets and be a shlemiel.
I sat down. “I don’t get you, boss,” I stalled.
“Let’s settle this, Jimmy,” he went on. There were beads of sweat on his bald spot again and he wiped them off. I kept my yap shut and looked at him. It was his move.
“You’re a good guy, Jimmy,” he went on. “You’ve been a big help to me.”
There wasn’t any malarkey in that. But he was just winding up and I sat back and waited to see what he was going to pitch.
“But six months ago I saw it couldn’t last, Jimmy. You got big ideas. This burg isn’t large enough for you to stay in second spot. Right?”
I waited for him to go on.
“You think you’ve bought four of the boys.” You’ve got only two. The other two leveled with me. They’re set to gum your works.”
That was bad listening. He did know; four was right. And I didn’t know which two ratted. All right, I thought, this is showdown.
“Go on,” I said. “I’m listening.”
“You’re too ambitious for me, Jimmy. I was satisfied to run the slot machines and the joints. Maybe just a little on the protection societies. You want to run the town. You want to collect taxes. And your trigger fingers too jittery, Jimmy. I don’t like killing, except when I have to.”
“Lay off the character reading,” I told him. “You’ve called the shots. Add it up.”
“You could kill me now, maybe. But you wouldn’t get away with it. And you’re too smart, Jimmy, to stick your neck out unless it’s going to get you something. I’m counting on that. I’m ready for you. You wouldn’t get out of here alive. If you did, you’d have to blow. And if you blow, what’s it get you?”
I walked over to the window and looked out. He wouldn’t draw on me, I knew. Hell, why should he? He held the cards; I could see that now. He’d wised up a little too soon for me.
“You’ve been a big help, Jimmy,” he went on. “I want to break fair with you. In the last year I’ve made more dough than I’d have made without you. I want you to leave. But I’ll give you a stake. Pick a town of your own and work it. Leave me this one.”
I kept looking out the window. I knew why he wouldn’t bump me. There’d been too many killings; the cops were beginning to take it on the chin. The boss wanted to pull in his horns.
And from his point of view, I could see it all right. He could even drop the protectives. The slots, the joints, the semi-legit stuff paid enough to suit him. He’d rather play safe for a small take. I’m not that way.
I turned and faced him. After all, why not another town? I could do it If I picked one what was ripe.
“How much?” I asked him.
He named a figure.
And that was that.
You can see now why I’m in Miami. I figured I could use a vacation before I picked out a spot. A swell suite, overlooking the sea. Women, parties, roulette, and all that. You can make a big splash if you’re willing to blow a few grand.
But I’m getting restless. I’d rather see it coming in.
I know how I’ll start, when I’ve picked my town. I’ll take a tavern for a front. Then I find out which politicians are on the auction block. I’ll see that the others go out. Money can swing that. Then I bring in torpedoes and start to work.
Coin machines are the quickest dough. You pyramid that into bookie joints, sporting houses and the rest; and when you’re strong enough, the protective societies – where the merchants pay you to let them alone. That’s the big dough racket, if you’re not squeamish. It’s big dough because you don’t have to put out anything for what you take in.
If you know the angles and work it so you don’t have to start liquidating the opposition until you’ve got control, it’s a cinch. And I know the angles.
Plenty of town would do, but some are easier than others. If you pick one that’s ripe, it goes quicker. If you buy enough of the boys in office, you won’t have to get the others out.
I’m looking them over. I’m tired of loafing.
How’s your town? I can tell if you answer me a question. Last time there was an election did you really read up both sides of things, with the idea of keeping things on the up and up? Or did you go for the guy with the biggest posters?
Huh? You say you didn’t even get to the polls at all?
Pal, that’s the town I’m looking for. I’ll be seeing you.

[Suggested by Timothy Lane] __________________________________________________
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3 Responses to Short story: Town Wanted

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    This is of course a lesson in the possible consequences of political indifference and apathy. But as I finished entering it (copied from Crimes and Misfortunes, a superb mystery memorial anthology for editor Anthony Boucher), I realized how grimly appropriate it is today at the national level. Obama could easily be the narrator who succeeded in finding the right country for him.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Reminds me a bit of “The Glass Key”.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    Reading an article today about inner-city problems reminded me of the mostly-black California city that was grossly looted by its administration (which was finally exposed in 2010). The looters no doubt were as black as the residents, which would explain why it lasted so long — few “journalists” are interested in exposing wrong-doing by black (Democratic) government officials. And a poor black community is bound to be full of people who don’t pay attention to such looting (especially since so many aren’t paying the taxes that are stolen).

    But it occurred to me that this is just a new form of the organized crime dealt with in Brown’s story, and that the basic problem (voter apathy/ignorance) is the same. In our more “enlightened” times, we’re back to Boss Tweed instead of Big Bill Thompson (Capone’s favorite Chicago mayor).

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