Time Enough for the Henchman
BY THOMAS J. RALEIGH
Format: Paperback, Kindle
Number of Pages: 208
Publish Date: November 5, 2015
Available On: Amazon
The book begins with the stirring introduction of John Cunin, an antagonist of sorts, and a member of Chicago’s villainous “North Side” gang operating in the late 1920’s. Trapped in his own dead ended existence, John would not be able to change course but for an extraordinary encounter with a strange old man, who would appear to him on the morning of his untimely death, and a group of young boys, who would unwittingly be forced to intercede on his behalf. As fate would have it, they would provide him a rather unique opportunity to move beyond his past and escape his “moral purgatory”. That opportunity would present itself in a chain of unbelievable events over the course of a few days…a few days in the lives of four young boys that would somehow bridge together nearly four lost decades for him.
The story centers on the lives of three seventh-grade boys and one autistic younger brother growing up in a small, tranquil, Indiana town in the winter of 1966. Influenced by his grandfather’s words of wisdom, twelve-year-old TJ Reilly, the unsuspecting protagonist of the group, assumes control of their incredible adventure soon after their “snow day” discovery of an abandoned 1927 Cadillac LaSalle. The boys, and the stranger they meet in the process (John Cunin), are brought together in an otherworldly drive back in time where they experience the historic charm of 1929 Chicago as well as their first-hand witness to the perverse horror surrounding an event that takes place on February 14th…the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
In the relationship that develops during their time together, John is forced to come to grips with his own unfulfilled life. But first, he must come to grips with his own death, and the subsequent need to perform one last act of moral courage.
Tied together by imagery associated with a silver pocket watch, a red scarf, an eerie fog, ghostlike sounds of moving air, and the LaSalle’s own transformation, the story comes full circle in its exciting conclusion where the mystery of each binding element is solved.
About the Author
I am called Thomas-also TJ, Tommy, Tom, Dad and Pops-and it appears I may be many things to many people. I’m in my early 60s now and clearly the product of an insecure mind. Believe me when I say that this mid-life crisis thing is not a myth. It consumes me. It’s all about what you think you missed in your earlier years. It then becomes a race against time, seeking what you mistakenly believe is a safe haven from those scary thoughts of the inevitable. Not such a good thing, but apparently I’m busy at it. I have had the good fortune to peek under life’s tent, and I have learned one thing as I move through my sixth decade: if you choose to embrace those very good things life has to offer, you can live it and avoid having to chase it.
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Like most mornings, Chicago’s Halsted Street stirred with the sights and sounds of harried shop owners readying for their usual work bound regulars. Two floors up, John had been awake for some time, watching them through the single lace-curtained window, listening to the rattling steam pipes deep within the walls as hissing radiators in Mrs. Gallagher’s rooming house competed for the warmth they carried. It was a little before six o’clock in the morning, and still wintery dark and cold, as he lay in bed wrapped in his own rare sense of self-reflection. For those on the run, there exists a preoccupation with the need to look over one’s shoulder and scrutinize the past, constantly. It was the same way for John. In these singular moments of solitude, he would always come to the realization that his life was defined more by what he had done. There was never any consideration for what today or tomorrow would bring. There was only the past for him, and the unfulfilling consequences resulting from his penchant for making one poor decision after another. Before rising, John stared for some time at the calendar on the wall just beyond the foot of his bed. The circled date towards the top of it provided the only real clue. It was Thursday, February 7th. The year was 1929.
After a quick shower and shave at the end of the hall, John dressed to the nines in his dark three-piece suit as he always did. Grabbing his cap and rabbit-footed string of keys from the doily topped dresser, he bounded down the last narrow flight of noisy wooden stairs, barely noticing his apron-clad landlady busy in the kitchen.
“Top o’ the mornin to ya, Mr. Cunin,” the woman said cheerfully. “Now Johnny, would you be havin some of me fresh baked soda bread and hot tea with me this fine day?”
As was always the case, Rose Gallagher awoke early each morning and made breakfast for her upstairs boarders. On Sunday mornings before attending Mass, she would prepare a steaming bowl of scrambled eggs and ham, or flapjacks. But on most mornings, her homemade Irish soda bread and an array of jarred fruits, that she had preserved herself, would be the usual breakfast fare. John was partial to Rose’s baked peach preserves, along with a generous cold slab of butter. But today, he had more import- ant things to do. He had a special passenger to pick up at the elevated train station on Addison Street this morning, and he needed to be on time. Given the short-fused temperament of the man he was meeting, he figured he did not have time for the likes of soda bread or chit chat with the old gal he had rented from these many years.
“Not this morning, Mrs. Gallagher. Maybe tomorrow…”
Without so much as a goodbye, the tall young man moved hurriedly down the hallway, through the foyer, and down the front stoop steps, cutting through the animated street vendors as they argued between them- selves for more sidewalk space. The morning air was crisp and cold, and heavy with the threat of snow. Just beyond the adjacent alley, he spotted the black Cadillac LaSalle, parked exactly where he left it the night before. It sat deferentially, unlike all the rest. In truth, the elongated four-door sedan was the only thing he felt had any value to him, and he didn’t even own the title to it. The car was big and expensive, and when he drove it, people would take notice of him to the point that even he would lose perspective of who he really was. The times were tough in 1929, so it was not such an odd thing that a man would choose to identify with the automobile he drove, if he had one. But John did so under false pretenses. Behind the wheel, he felt like someone special, in spite of the real truth of the matter.
John arrived punctually at the Addison Street station and parked the LaSalle within walking distance a short block away. Climbing to the top of the iron railing stairs, he proceeded to pace nervously on the wooden in-between platform separating the north and southbound train tracks. To ward off the brisk morning chill, he raised his suit collar snugly around his neck, lowered his cap, and stuffed his hands deep into his pockets while he waited for the 7:45 uptown commuter, which had left from Chicago’s Randolph Street twenty minutes before. He thought it extraordinary that he found himself standing alone, especially at this time of morning, when workday commuters typically herded loudly into the city. In fact, he was struck by the strange, deserted sense he had. On the other hand, he welcomed the solitude of the moment, and the fact that he would not have to contend with the jostling crowds, this morning, in particular. In his line of work, he preferred not be the subject of anyone’s unwanted attention, but the eerie feeling he was not alone after all suddenly changed all of that.
Uncomfortable with the sense he was being watched, and turning to look behind him, John spotted the hunched figure of an elderly man seated at the far end of the boarding platform, staring and smiling. Seeing he was being eyed by the complete stranger was unnerving enough. That the old fellow was smiling broadly was even more unsettling to him.
“What are ya smiling at, old man?” he called out, loud enough to make sure he could be heard.
John watched the stranger struggle to his feet and move carefully across the wooden walkway towards him. He could see that one of the man’s arms was bent incongruously at the elbow and hung awkwardly at an angle by his side as he moved closer to where John was standing.
“I’m smiling at you, sir,” the man replied, to the near sounds of moving air, through the iron latticework overhead.
“Well, don’t…mind your own business, mister,” John said.
The old man continued to close the gap between them.
“I am minding my own business, son. And I’m minding yours too.
You see, I’ve come to tell you something.”
“You don’t need to tell me nothin, buddy,” John hollered back. “Now go on…get the hell outta here and leave me alone.”
John raised his hand menacingly towards the old man, waving him off as he had learned to do whenever he was approached by homeless duffers and the like, looking for handouts.
Undeterred, the old man continued to deliver his message.
“Just remember this, son. Sometimes a man needs to go back in order to move forward. To escape the ghosts of your past, you have to understand where you came from…where you’ve been…and how you got where you are.”
The old man smiled at John. He did not do it in a condescending way. Rather, he smiled as if to add some assurance that the truth behind his words needed to be understood.
“Some of us are lucky enough to get there. Only then can you discover the sense of right and wrong needed to move forward. There are those who say you can never go back. I’m here to tell you that you can.”
As he spoke, the old man reached out with his good arm and dropped something heavy into John’s suit coat pocket.
“When you see him, give him this and tell him that I love him. And tell him that I’ll be watching him…always.”
As if to add even more emphasis, the man touched John’s arm in disarming fashion, looked him in the eye, and held his full-faced crinkled smile longer than need be.
“He will help you, Mr. Cunin. He will help you get back.”
With that, the old man turned slowly and walked away.
Clearly annoyed with the interloper’s intrusion, let alone his presumptuous request, John watched as the back of the old man’s grey head and slumped shoulders descended down the platform steps and totally out of view, before shouting out his displeasure.
“Get back to where? What the hell are you talking about, you crazy old fool? And how did you know my name?”
The stranger was gone. But to be sure he had not been the victim of some pickpocket or street hustler, John rummaged through his suit jacket just in case he had. What he retrieved with his numbed fingers only added to the bizarre encounter: a silver pocket watch and chain which clearly was not his. It was engraved on the inside dial cover that John never took much note of. Nonetheless, it shined brightly enough; luring him with the temptation he now should be the one to wear it, regardless of which person it actually belonged to. Like the expensive automobile, that did not belong to him either, the ornate timepiece he gracelessly fastened to his vest as his own only added more to the phony sense of worth he had managed to create for himself.
John Cunin was born in Chicago just before the turn of the century and left home before the age of eleven. Most reasoned he left home because of Cyril Cunin’s unvarying drunkenness and the steady beatings he would regularly inflict upon his only child. That would be reason enough. But in truth, he left home to follow his older cousin in search of something better.
Adelard Cunin was only two years older, but his big shot image and street corner presence appealed to the younger Cunin. It was because he enjoyed the thrill of power that came with their alliance that young John chose to hang with Adelard. And to be really honest, he liked it too. It gave the young admirer a feeling of security he couldn’t get in any other way. If their relationship was born by way of the inescapable bond formed by simply being related, it was nurtured to a larger degree by an unspoken oath between them which bound them for life. Unlike the kind of oath you make in front of some balding judge, it was the kind you make with spit and blood. It was the kind that made cousins into brothers, the kind that transcended the mess of everyday life in the mean streets that errant youths alike needed just to survive.
For much of their adolescence, the two boys roamed Chicago’s near north side neighborhoods doing odd jobs and mostly getting into trouble. Adelard was fourteen when he had his first run-in with the cops for petty thievery, by swiping fresh fruits and vegetables from the corner grocery store and reselling them down the next alley for half the price. By the time he was twenty-one, Adelard had been jailed three times for more serious crimes including grand larceny and armed robbery, after which he spent time at Joliet State Prison followed by two more stints in the Cook County jail house.
Behind bars, Adelard developed associations with other punks, street thugs and misfits looking for the easy way out. He became a more hardened offender in the process, and a rather reprehensible one at that. After his last release, the older Cunin remained undercover for several months. It was during this time in hiding that he changed his name to George Clarence Moran. Perhaps to some, Adelard did it to spare his family the shame and embarrassment of seeing his real name show up in the newspapers. But that was not the real reason he did it. His decision to change his name was actually more self-serving. It had more to do with his own developed paranoia and his need to stay one step ahead of the feds, and keep his given name off of local police blotters. With his new identity, Moran would be better able to organize and control his string of questionable businesses, operating primarily in those parts of Chicago that he was most familiar with. There, in the midst of the 1920’s prohibition era, he would eventually become even more notorious heading up a local band of miscreants known as the “north-side gang”. A Chicago newspaper reporter, while writing about the city’s sordid underworld, once attached the nickname “Bugs” to Moran, in reference to his hot temper, and those who thought the pretentious up and comer might be a little nuts or “buggy”. Moran actually earned the epithet over time. In the years to come, the moniker alone would become infamous unto itself, striking fear in the hearts and souls of those who would ever dare to double-cross him.
After Moran’s leadership takeover in 1925, he and his minions quickly took control of all the bootlegging activities across the working-class neighborhoods of the 42nd and 43rd wards. Moran’s ultimate goal would be to take over the entire underside of Chicago eventually, but that would come soon enough. In the meantime, in addition to bootlegging, the gang spent its time extorting local shop and business owners while also running illegal gambling operations. Moran eschewed anything having to do with prostitution, however. By now, the self-made man figured that running brothels was a misuse of his time and talent for gain, and something the neighboring folks, being good, wholesome Catholic churchgoers, would refuse to sanction besides.
Over the last year, bank robberies had also become a big part of the gang’s overall operations, if only to assure the ample flow of funds they provided. In fact, bank jobs were fast becoming the group’s top source of income. Given the full scope of his fast- growing organization, Moran purposefully created a certain disciplined hierarchy within the north-side gang’s membership, making sure it lined up with the specific skills he needed. This pecking order included booze runners, hired muscle, racketeers, and labor sluggers. Moran made sure that each of his henchmen had a job to do subject to what he thought they were good at. Nearly everyone within the organization was required to carry a gun. For the most part, Moran wanted them to be considered armed and dangerous and not so hesitant to apply a baseball bat or bullet to a problem. Reputation was important to him. For a choice few, however, that would not be the case. Men like Vince Drucci and Willie Marks would be groomed for more “important matters”. As such, Moran preferred that they not carry a gun. The same held true for John Cunin. Bugs Moran had bigger plans for him.
The fact that the younger Cunin did not carry a weapon of any sort did not mean that he didn’t have an edge. He did…a big one. Like his older cousin, John had learned to become street-smart and quickly became one of those rough-and-tumble brawlers, who relied on their instincts alone, and sneered at authority, or anyone who would stand in their way, for that matter. He had the battle scars to prove his apprenticeship in his chosen do-or-die environment, sporting a ripe jagged knife scar along the right side of his jaw, and a crooked middle finger from a badly knit broken bone he received after punching a cop.
Under his older cousin’s watchful eye, John spent his late teens and twenties working as a “booze runner”, until the questionable activities Moran later became involved in escalated in nature. It was at this point that Bugs recognized John’s driving skills and assigned him to driving getaway cars for “associates” involved in more “lucrative acts”, as Bugs liked to call them. Now, with over a year’s worth of experience behind the wheel, those same driving skills would be put to the test later this morning in a planned bank robbery in Elgin, Illinois, some forty miles northwest of the big city. There, on specific orders from Moran, John would drive for one of the newer members of the north-side gang, a mean-spirited hoodlum by the name of Frank Gusenberg, a man known for his apparent inability to distinguish between business and violence. The plan called for John to pick up Gusenberg from the Addison Street train station, early enough to drive to the Elgin Bank and Trust location before noon. John had never worked directly with Frank Gusenberg before, but all the hearsay concerning Gusenberg’s appearance had certainly preceded him; so much so, John knew instantly that the short, stout man exiting the train was indeed the man who would be his partner today.
As both men shook hands, John could not help but notice Gusenberg’s greased-back hair and false smile. His pig-like nose was wide and flat and tilted up at enough of an angle to expose both of his round nostrils. His cleft chin was deep enough to draw even more attention to what must have been a week’s growth of black stubble. There was a pretentious look to his eyes, and his manner was just as arrogant.
“So you’re Cunin, huh? I hear you’re pretty good behind the wheel, is that right?” Gusenberg said.
John nodded his assurance, partly in response to what he thought was a loaded question, but mostly in an attempt to hold his own ground.
“Best there is,” he said, looking Gusenberg straight in the eye.
“Well, we’re just going to have to see about that now, won’t we?” Gusenberg snarled, more than he spoke.
While somewhat unfamiliar with his assigned partner, bank jobs were not something new to John. He knew what he was doing. Promoted from within Moran’s most trusted ranks, John had participated in more than two-dozen bank holdups in the last year alone. He was meticulous when it came to those many hours and minutes leading up to the heists, and he was savvy enough to manage through the critical seconds that always seemed to follow. In effect, he had become an expert at getting in and getting out, quickly and efficiently. So good, in fact, his reputation alone led other gang members to request that John drive for them whenever possible.
Gusenberg did not request that John be his getaway driver on this morning. That would be Bugs Moran’s decision. Dishing commands from one of his many secured hideaways, Moran’s bank robbery plans always remained highly secretive for as long as possible. It was his practice to assign very specific responsibilities, but no more than twenty-four hours before the event, so John did not always know which bank would be hit, or who his partner would be. It wasn’t until prior morning telephone calls were made and meeting locations were arranged, that he would know for certain. Once John received his orders, he would discreetly conduct his preliminaries alone in the hours leading up to the job. He prided himself in his single-handed preparation, which would always entail alone time spent casing the building, noting certain predictable patterns of the targeted bank’s employees, and mapping out more than one escape route. On the morning of the actual heist, John would typically meet up with his assigned partner to coordinate their activities. But it would always be John, whose ultimate responsibility it was, to focus on all the precautionary steps necessary to insure that their pre-planned escape would take place without a hitch.
One example of John’s levelheadedness involved the Antioch, Illinois bank job that he had personally choreographed three weeks before. The robbery was conducted with such synchrony that most of the bank employees did not even know they had been held up until sometime afterward. All the while, knowing full well that the preferred escape route would necessitate a drive right past the Antioch police station, John and his assigned accomplice purposely delayed what normally would have been an immediate departure. Instead, the two men sat inconspicuously at a window-side table of a greasy spoon restaurant across the street, and shared pie and coffee with a number of unsuspecting lunch time patrons. From their vantage point, they watched bemusedly as the frantic bank manager eventually emerged from the bank, waving his arms wildly, and screaming loudly at his own dumbfounded realization of what had just occurred. While the ruckus played out in the middle of the street, the two bank robbers calmly finished their coffee, left a more than sizable tip for the grateful waitress, and walked unassumingly from the eatery towards the LaSalle, parked just feet away. As John figured correctly, the return trip back to Chicago that day went as smooth and as uneventful as he had planned. So uneventful, in fact, John’s partner in crime that day slept the entire way back.
As far as bank robberies go, John had no reason to believe that the Elgin job, scheduled for later that morning, would be any different going in. After all, he knew what to do and he knew what Bugs Moran expected of him in that regard. Even if their relationship was based on his own blind allegiance, and not much more beyond making sure that he always met his older cousin’s full expectations, John readily accepted Moran’s orders and his terms without question. It would be a rare occurrence for John to even think of questioning anything that Moran asked of him. For that matter, it would be rarer still for John to question anything relating to his own life. He had chosen instead to live his life in the present, without considering any of the future consequences that might result. Even so, John never lost sight of the most important priority…making sure Moran’s targeted prizes for the taking would be delivered to him without a hitch.
Like all the other bank jobs he had conducted over the last year, John knew he had used his time wisely to prepare for most every scenario. Only now, on their drive to Elgin, John had an unsettling sense that things were somehow going to turn out differently. This uncertainty probably had more to do with Gusenberg, he thought. He actually felt an intuitive dislike for the pig-nosed man who sat beside him. And, if displays of mannish self-importance play out whenever two men size each other up the first time they meet, especially when neither is willing to show much deference towards the other, it showed between them. But, there was more to it than that. To say that John simply disliked the man would be a gross understatement. It wasn’t just Gusenberg’s oily visage that made him feel uncomfortable. There was something nefarious about Gusenberg, something even more wicked and threatening about him, that gave John the strangest feeling that nothing good at all could possibly come from their association.