The Road to Pine Tree (part 4)
Recap of Part 3: Jack follows the trail of the Haynes sisters back to Miami, but so does the henchman sent to stop him. Wilcox eludes a second encounter with the brutish man and hops a train that will take him up the eastern seaboard and, he hopes, one big step closer to his marks and his payday.
The days passed first in a lazy haze and then in a frantic blur for Jack. The barkeep told him they ran out of liquor and that there had been nothing available for restock in Washington D.C. like there usually was. Jack didn’t believe him, but didn’t argue with him either; he decided it was just as well to sober up long before he hit the Big Apple.
New York, as it turned out, was a dead end. The men that the Haynes sisters had been with were a pretty big deal, but Jack didn’t keep up with all those variety shows and had managed never to hear of them. In any event, they were not there, but rather in Vermont, supposedly, at a little ski lodge just outside the town of Pine Tree.
The man with the shoe shining station around the corner from the stage where the “Wallace and Davis Show” was performed was helpful, telling Jack: “But you might want to poke around the Regency Room too, pal. I heard a rumor about the Haynes sisters splitting up their act.”
Jack found the Regency Room easily enough, but it was far from his kind of place, swankier than any night club Miami had to offer (or had ever offered him, anyway). He waylaid the balding stage manager who seemed eager to tell Jack whatever he wanted to know as long as he would go away quickly.
“Yeah, she was here.”
“Was?” Jack probed.
“Until last night. Took the last train out of the city on her way to Vermont, apparently. The boss was pretty sore about it. I gotta show to run here, mister, if you don’t mind?”
It wasn’t much but it was all Jack had to go on. He dropped a dime in the nearest phone and checked the train schedule. Jack thought that Lady Luck must have been smiling on him: there was a special train headed straight into Pine Tree, Vermont, and he had just enough time to catch it if he hurried.
As he dropped the receiver back in its place he spied a man across the street making an unconvincing show of reading a newspaper. Jack had caught a glimpse of his face just before the paper went back up and he was sure it was the tail from Key West and Miami. “That guy just won’t give up,” he thought.
Jack started walking north toward Grand Central for a couple blocks, but then took an abrupt turn toward the East River. He glanced over his shoulder and decided the galoot had fallen too far behind, hailed a cab, and felt, for a moment, as if he were in the clear.
“Where to, Mac?” blared the cabbie. He had a voice like a foghorn and a smashed-in face that only a mother could love.
“Grand Central. And step on it, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure thing,” the cabbie replied before whipping the taxi out into traffic. The cab smelled of cheap chewing tobacco and beer, but a man on the run chasing down two women on the run couldn’t afford to be particular.
It wasn’t a long ride, but it gave Jack time to start asking himself questions. Had the goon picked him up in the city or had he been on the same train? If he’d been there all along, why hadn’t he tried to take Jack down already? And what was the big deal anyway? Aside from all that, could Jack finally lose this guy or would he have to . . .
Jack winced as the cab came to a halt outside the train station. He had almost forgotten about that kick to the ribs back in Key West.
“Can you pull over there?” Jack asked, gesturing toward a run-down newsstand.
The cabbie complied and Jack hopped out.
“Keep the change,” he said, as he dropped the fare in the window. “And thanks for rushing it for me.”
“No problem, pal,” the cabbie said. As the taxi lurched back into the travel lane Jack just barely avoided seeing what kind of bottle the driver had retrieved from under the seat. He decided he would rather not know.
Jack purchased the morning edition of the Post and took up a spot that would let him see the cab line in front of Grand Central. If he had been followed he’d know soon enough—and it was a much better spot to avoid detection than the one just used against him. His hunch turned out to be correct and within a few minutes the gorilla-goon from Florida showed up, scanned around in front of the station, and then headed inside. Jack followed him at a distance.
Inside, the henchman ducked into the men’s washroom just off the main concourse. Jack had no plan, but figured that it might be his only chance to do something.
He brushed past a man who was on his way out and was surprised to discover that he and the goon were the only other occupants. He latched the door shut as quietly as he could. Moving only as much as he dared, he spotted the man’s feet in the stall furthest from the entrance. He realized that he had left his bag outside the door, along with the revolver that was his only means of self-defense.
Jack had only just begun to ponder the now-pointless hypothetical question of whether firing a gun in a crowded train station was liable to do more harm than good, when he heard the commode flush and the man begin to stir. Having foolishly disarmed himself, he reached for the only other thing in the bathroom available to him: a ratty, yellowing hand towel. Jack positioned himself behind the stall door and prepared to pounce.
The goon emerged from the stall, turning out to be even wider and taller than Jack had remembered. He wrapped the ends of the towel around his hands an extra time and then made his move. As he did so, Jack’s gaze fell on the mirror over the sink. He lunged forward, but not before the man saw him in the mirror and was able to throw up his hands just in time to get them in between Jack’s towel and his throat.
Jack yanked back as hard as he could, half-expecting the big man’s head to come clean off his shoulders. Instead it took everything he had just to make it a little harder for his opponent to breathe. He jumped on the man’s back, squeezed the man’s torso between his legs, and held on for dear life. Jack had scraped with some bad guys in his day, but nothing like this.
“Wilcox . . . you dirty . . . rat—” the big man croaked in between ragged gasps for air.
He lurched forward, smashing into the sink with shoulder. In the struggle for the towel one of their hands managed to twist the faucet and cold water splashed everywhere. Jack felt the man’s grip loosen very slightly, but as it did he jerked upward and careened backward. Jacks’ back slammed into the wall and all the air went out of his lungs. Miraculously, his grip held.
Another collision with the wall and then another failed to make Jack release his stranglehold, but then the man started forward. Jack braced himself for whatever new kind of pain awaited him, but he never had to find out.
It took the man only a couple steps away from the wall to get up to speed, but just as he did his right foot came splashing down on the thin sheet of water that they had sloshed onto the floor only moments before. Regaining his balance without his hands free and with a towel around his neck proved to be an impossible task. They went over in a heap. The sound of bone striking porcelain reverberated in Jack’s ears. The man limply slumped to the floor, face down, and Jack climbed off his back.
Once more, Jack Wilcox proved the truth of that adage that sometimes it was better to be lucky than to be good—or in this case, better than being a mountain of a man with a nice suit and garish cufflinks. He rolled the man onto his back and made sure that he was still breathing. Satisfied that the man would regain consciousness eventually—although with a nasty headache, judging by the large red spot that was already beginning to form over his temple—Jack made for the exit.
Unlocking the door, Jack peered out into the concourse as cautiously as he could. To his amazement, the commotion he had caused seemed to have attracted no notice in the busy station. He stepped outside, collected his bag, and made for the train which was scheduled to pull out in mere minutes. He might not be home free, but he was free from danger for the moment, at least, and he was hot on the trail.