the barber

by dm gillis

Vancouver, 1932

A shave and a haircut hadn’t been two bits for fifty years, but it was still cheap. Which made cutting hair a less than lucrative business, and it meant that a barber had to have something on the side. He had be a fence or a bootlegger, or run the numbers out of his shop for the mob boys up the street. There wasn’t any shame in it, it was just free enterprise.

The barber at 1st and Commercial wasn’t any different. For him, though, the sideline was the skinny. He was a purveyor of information, but not just any barbershop gossip. He was a scissor wielding encyclopedia of the hush-hush. Everything reliable, undeniable and verifiable, from the merely personal and private, to the absolutely classified. He’d always been surprised at just how much people were willing to pay for the daintiest scrap of dirt, but that was good for the business.

The barber was a medium man, in height and disposition, and in his opinions. This he knew meant safety in a world of extremes, and though some took it for weakness, he attempted to touch each of his days with the same gentle hand.

His shop was an immaculate model of polished oak, brass and leather, that some said was too good for the neighbourhood, the light saturating the deep reds, greens and browns of masculine retreat, as a Victrola in a corner played Italian opera.

Now, it’s been believed to this very day, that it was on a Wednesday in December, as he trimmed the oily moustache of Emilio Panza, that the barber said, “Pittsburgh,” the word coming out like a sneeze. He said it, or sneezed it, as the afternoon sun slanted temporarily through the west facing windows, in response to a question asked by Emilio Panza.

“He’s got a girl down there,” the barber said. “He took the train to Winnipeg, then hitchhiked to St Paul. Then he finagled his way onto a deadhead, and from there he rode the dog incognito the rest of the way.” Snip snip snip.

“How do you know all this?” said Panza, laughing a soft surprised laugh, knowing that this was a sticky question, few ever asked. The barber’s source was private, hard to explain, occult. How could a fella like him tell a mob boss sitting in his chair that he was a clairvoyant, that enlightenment for him oozed invisibly out of the woodwork, fell from the ceiling and sometimes shared his bed? The barber kept snipping.

“How’s he ever know?” Ralphy Garufi, Emilio Panza’s sulky bodyguard said, turning a page of the Vancouver Province sports section. “The guy’s a fucking machine.”

“I got a telephone call from St Louis Lucy in Cincinnati,” the barber lied, deciding a dangerous man like Panza needed some credible answer. “She and I, we got a past, see? Anyways, she knew the whole story. She says the bastard’s livin’ it up in Steel City on your nickel, Mr Panza.”

Panza ground his teeth on hearing this, something his dentist had warned him against.

The bastard’s name was Verner Frisk, the chump who had run some important errands for Panza, like picking up a suitcase of cash from Chinatown a couple of Fridays ago. It was meant to be delivered to the counting room at the back of the Lusitania pool hall, but never was. It wasn’t a job Panza would have trusted to just any mug, but Frisk had humbly climbed the rungs of the chump ladder, and even though he’d never amount to anything more than a delivery boy, Frisk had come to be trusted by Emilio Panza. What a mistake.

The problem with the lost money was that it didn’t really belong to Panza. It was a protection payout from the Chinatown casinos, brothels and mah-jong parlours meant for the boys upstairs, and Emilio Panza was now short a few thousand bucks. But what could he do? He’d asked for a little time to make up for it. But it wasn’t clear whether the time had been granted. Panza figured himself well enough placed, though. Maybe he’d get away with it for a month, or so. Maybe it wouldn’t draw any attention at all, in fact, a detail lost in the voracious trade of the Cosa Nostra.

The barber tilted his head, and examine Emilio Panza’s moustache closely. It was perfect. Then he smoothed Brilliantine into the mob Captain’s thinning hair, and combed it through.

“Are we hooked up in Pittsburgh, Ralphy?” Panza said.

“Yeah, we got an in.”

“Send ‘em a telegraph.”

“Sure sure boss.”

“Use that whacky code of yours. Tell ‘em to give the shit a good going over, but not to ice the prick, just hold on to him. I’ll send in Toronto Ricco Zeolla to finish the bum off. You can count on Ricco Zeolla to do a real good job. He took out Angelo Durante about six months ago. Remember, Ralphy?”

“Yeah yeah, Boss,” Ralphy said. Everything Ralphy said sounded like a put down. Panza never noticed.

“Even though Durante was hid real good in Montreal,” Panza went on, “in one of them fleabag joints they got downtown there. He was registered as John Jones – can you believe it? Him with that Sicilian complexion of his.”

“Nope nope,” Ralphy said. “Can’t believe it, Boss.” Ralphy had moved on to the Daily Racing Form. He had a fix in on the third race that day, at Lansdowne.

“There’s a guy that zigged when he shoulda zagged, that Durante,” Panza said, admiring himself and the barber’s good work in the wall mirror. “He unfixed a fight it cost me big time to fix. It shoulda paid large, but it ended up costin’ me a bundle instead. You remember?”

“Sure sure boss,” Ralphy said. “Shoulda paid large, like the fuckin’ Grand Canyon.”

“He took the money and took a powder, but he couldn’t enjoy it hole up in that crummy hotel. I told Ricco to finish him slow, and boy, did he. He tied Durante to the bed, gagged him and used a goddamn screwdriver and a pair of tinsnips. He really made Durante suffer good. That’s good value for the money, huh?”

“Absolutely absolutely, Boss. Ricco’s a goddamn bargain for all you get out of him.”

“Then there was that skirt in Saskatoon. That Valery Monica broad that ran the cathouse out on the highway, on the outskirts. She was skimming, boy, and how. It ain’t my territory, but I had some money invested. We move a lot of booze through there, on its way to the states. God, I love prohibition. Anyways, I suggested the local boys call Ricco in. They did, but they didn’t even know he’d been in town until Monday morning, when the dayshift found Madam Valery in a locked walk-in meat freezer at the slaughterhouse, stiff as a plank. That Ricco’s a magician, I wanna tell ya.”

“Yeah yeah,” said Ralphy. “Goddamn magician.”

“Do the nose hairs, willya,” Panza said to the barber, putting his head back. The barber clipped away, then stepped back to look again, then sighed.

Panza was a dog-homely man, corpulent with dirty fingernails and a scant comb-over. There was only so much a man like the barber could do, and he’d done it all. Panza, on the other hand, thought of himself as being very handsome, and a gift to the dames. His greasy sheen would have probably disappeared with a bath, but that seemed to have never occurred to him.

“What do I owe you?” Panza asked the barber.

“The usual,” the barber said.

Panza pulled a twenty out of his wallet and handed it over. It was ample payment for the barbering, the information, and for the barber to keep his mouth shut, and it was big money back then, for a little operator like the barber, nearly a month’s rent.

But that day the barber blushed a little as he took it. Sometimes seeing the future could wear a guy out. And now he didn’t know whether to keep Panza in the shop, or let him go.

“Just let me take care of that ear hair,” he said to Panza.

“Hell no, we’re done.”

“Scalp massage then, Mr Panza,” the barber said.

“No, we’re finished here. Whatsa matter with you?”

“It’s just that it’s good that you’re in my shop, is all. People walk by, they see a big shot like you in the chair, and….”

“Ha! You hear that Ralphy?” said Panza. “I’m a big shot. Who knew, eh?”

“Yeah boss, big shot,” Ralphy sniffed. “Goddamn King of the goddamn Drive.”

“Damn right.” Emilio Panza started to struggle out of the chair.

“Let me help,” said the barber. “I’ll help.”

The barber swept the cape off of Panza, revealing the fat man’s girth, and tightly fitted clothing. Then he began to brush nonexistent clippings off of the portly man’s shoulders.

“That’s enough, for god sake,” Panza said pushing the barber away. “What’s got into you?”

“Maybe today, Mr Panza,” the barber said, “it’s a good idea to leave through the back.”

“The back? You hear that Ralphy?”

“The back,” said Ralphy. “Ha! Like you was some deadbeat duckin’ a shylock.”

Suddenly, Panza got a strange look on his face, almost like a lightbulb had come on over his head.

“What do you know you ain’t telling?” he said to the barber.

“Maybe a nice vacation,” the barber said, “catch a train tonight, get outta town.”

“Why?” Now Panza was getting irritated, and as he struggled more to lift himself out of the chair, the door of the barbershop opened and a tall dark man in an elegant suit and trench coat walked in. He lit a cigarette, and didn’t remove his hat. He turned the open sign on the door to closed.

“Holy cow!” Ralphy said, impressed for once, and let the Daily Racing Form fall on the floor.

Emilio Panza fell back into the barber chair. “Toronto Ricco Zeolla,” he said. “We was just talkin’ about you.”

“Swell,” Zeolla said. He drew on his cigarette and inhaled without taking it out of his mouth, and blew smoke out his nose.

“Yeah,” said Panza. “I got a job for you, if you don’t mind goin’ to Pittsburgh, I mean.”

“You mean Verner Frisk?” Zeolla said.

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

“They took care of him the other day,” Zeolla said. “He’s salami by now.”

Panza looked at the barber.

“This I didn’t know,” the barber shrugged, and it was true. He didn’t.

“How come?” Panza bellowed.

“It’s hard to know it all, in the order it happens. I didn’t know whether Ricco was coming here, either. Maybe it’ll come to me later, like tomorrow, when I wake up. It happens that way sometimes.”

“Maybe if you get another call from St Louis Lucy in Cincinnati, eh?” Panza said. “But you knew Ricco was in town. That’s what was with all the backdoor talk.”

“No,” the barber said. “Yes, but…. Parts of it came to me this morning, while I was opening up, too late to do nothing about it. I figured Ricco would be in town a little while before he looked you up. Give you some time to go underground.”

It came to you?” Panza said.

“Yeah,” said the barber. “This stuff just kinda comes to me. I tried to warn you, Mr Panza.”

“Whaddaya think? That you’re some sorta psychic, you bum?”

“He ain’t never been wrong, boss,” said Ralphy. “Never wrong, just maybe a little late on the uptake sometimes.”

“What’s this all about, anyway?” Panza said to Zeolla. “I don’t like you comin’ into my town without calling first.”

“Word from on high,” said Zeolla. “It says you’ve been too sloppy too many times. Says you shoulda never given Frisk that kinda dough to pack round. Says there’re irregularities in your bookkeeping. Says there’s a dozen up-and-comers could do better.”

Antonio Vivaldi’s Sperai vicino il lido played on the Victrola in the corner.

Emilio Panza had begun to sweat, and dug his dirty fingernails into the leather arms of the chair. He’d always believed that his deceits were too small to be noticed. That he was actually on his way up. That he was too smart for the upper echelon mooks to know anything. Now this. He’d laughed at a dozen or more guys over the years who’d shit their pants in the face of imminent departure. Now he was ashamed of his own gut response.

As he allowed his gaze to slowly shift toward Ralphy, who was slowly reaching for the .38 on his belt, Panza heard the quiet whoosh and thud of a well-aimed throwing knife land in Ralphy Garufi’s chest. Ralphy struggled to stand, then fell dead onto the floor.

“Jesus,” Panza said, looking at the barber. “I want my twenty clams back.”

The barber shrugged. “I got something to do in the back,” he said, and exited the scene.

“For God’s sake, Ricco,” Panza said. “Ain’t you and me like pals, or nothin’? Ain’t I sent a lot of work your way?”

Zeolla snuffed out his cigarette on the floor.

“I get told where to go,” he said, “what to do. It’s all the same to me. Word comes down from Toronto, and I take a train out to Vancouver.”

“Yeah?” said Panza, pushing again to get out of the chair. “Well, you and Toronto can go eat lunch.”

Zeolla stepped up close to Panza, and smiled as he gave the man swift flat foot in the belly. Panza puked up his breakfast ham and eggs, and his lunchtime osso buco. Then Ricco picked up a jar of Barbicide, and poured it over the fat man’s head.

“You know,” Zeolla said, “this has got to be the best place in town to ice a guy, with all of the sharp objects and all.” He picked up a straight razor and tested the blade with his thumb. “I mean, you really sorta set yourself up, huh.

“Look,” Emilio Panza said, “I got some dough, hidden in a wall in this slum I own just up the road. I mean a lot of cash. I kinda been skimmin’, myself, see? You and me, we’ll go there and I’ll give it to you. Then I’ll get outta town. No one’ll know. I’ll just disappear.”

“No one ever gets that disappeared. You’ll show up again. A cock sucker like you always does. You’re too stupid to know better.”

“I won’t,” Panza hollered, tears in his eyes.

Ricco Zeolla stepped round behind the man and placed the razor to his throat.

By now Sperai vicino il lido had ended, and another wax disc was put in its place. There was a hiss and popping as the needle travelled through the silent opening groves, and then came the opening strings to Nulla In Mundo Pax Sincera.

It had come to the barber after he walked into the back of the shop. There, he’d psychically discerned three things. First, that Ricco Zeolla would certainly kill him next. His throat would be cut; it seemed his fate. The second thing he saw, was that Vivaldi’s Nulla In Mundo Pax Sincera was Zeolla favourite. Realising this, he wondered if a cut throat was truly his fate, after all. His third vision was of a bag containing a fortune in paper money, behind the lath and plaster of a wall in a moldy room with the number twenty-one on the door, in a slum six blocks away.

Zeolla’s back was to him as the barber listened to the soprano’s voice fill the shop. He turned up the volume, and watched as Emilio Panza’s blood sprayed the walls and the mirrors. Ricco Zeolla had pulled the razor through Panza’s fleshy throat with a graceful well-practised sweep of his hand. His upper body moving in unison with his right arm as it swung up high in the air with the dripping blade casting blood in a dazzling arc. It was like a ballet. The music, combined with Ricco Zeolla’s grace, made it seem as though exquisite minutes had passed, rather than mere seconds. Then, hypnotised by the fabulous music, Zeolla stood perfectly still.

Picking up a seven inch pair of cutting shears, the barber wondered if he could change his fate, and walked quietly but quickly toward the assassin. As he came close to striking distance, Zeolla turned to face him.

“Ah, bastardo!” Ricco Zeolla hissed and swung the razor.

Then the barber, the meek and medium man, thrust the sheers into Ricco’s heart as the crescendo of Vivaldi’s masterpiece accentuated the wide-eyed astonishment of the elegantly dressed cutthroat.

Zeolla stumbled, trying to remove the scissors, but couldn’t before his wounded heart stopped, and he dropped.

* * * * * * * *

To his mild amazement, his knock on the door to room number twenty-one was answered by a small old woman and her dancing barking dog. Holding a hammer in his hand, he asked to be let in. The old woman stepped aside and let him enter.

In a moment, he had hammered a hole in the wall at exactly the right place, and recovered a large mail bag of cash. Opening it, he saw stacks of hundreds and fifties. He pulled a stack of hundreds out, and gave it to the old woman.

“For my rude invasion, and the damage I have caused,” he said.

The old woman took the money with a trembling hand.

On the train out of Vancouver, the barber was overcome by nostalgia. He was leaving his shop and Commercial Drive behind. But he was rich now, and it came to him that Florida seemed like a very nice idea.

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