Whistle-stops and White Houses

Mob Rule: Part 29

Now trapped in the travelling circus of politics, Jack tries to reconnect with the mob bosses and bring them up to speed without showing his real hand.

By John Armstrong

We’d flown to Philly for the first stop on the tour but after that we used limousines, at least for the East Coast. Nobody would see anything out of the ordinary in a convoy of big cars with no-see-‘em windows passing them on the freeway; people would assume it was just Family Business. Outside the Kennedy territory we ran the risk someone from the local ruling family would see us and wonder who was on their turf, but they’d be unlikely to stop us. If it turned out to be your own boss, it could seriously hamper a man’s career.

mob rules victor bonderoff illustrationIt was a calculated risk. We were too conspicuous using airports, given the size of the entourage. Bobby had a team of minions, Sydney’s inner circle had a dozen or so men (and women) to take care of the grunt work, there were bodyguards and gunmen and several secretaries. I was kept isolated, riding in a car with the brain trust, being prepped on who we most needed to woo in the city we were headed to.

But we did fly again, to California. Sydney and Bobby’s advance men went on ahead to prepare the ground for planting and gather fresh information on our marks and that gave us a few days to recuperate at a rented house back in DC. It was just off Pennsylvania and whenever we went out we invariably passed the White House, its huge neon sign glowing day and night. Bobby stiffened every time he saw it and finally told the driver to find another route.


It doesn’t draw much sympathy when you tell people how exhausting travelling is, which is fair enough. Until you’ve done time in a travelling roadshow you can’t understand. We were on the move every day, stuck in cars for long hours with only short breaks to eat at roadside diners and use their washrooms. At night we slept in strange beds and every night required digging through suitcases, half-asleep, to find pajamas and razor and toothbrush, because every morning the wakeup call came too damned early and you threw your belongings back in the bag, still half-asleep, until you had no idea where anything was or if you even had it anymore. I got so I could sleep anywhere, in a hotel lobby or a taxi, even backstage at the campaign dinners. If I had five minutes with no-one telling me what to say or do, I escaped into a catnap.

Why was I so tired? Because the travelling alone is enough to wear you out and I arrived at each new place exhausted and with a show still to put on. I gained new respect for vaudevillians. It’s not easy to go out there and do the soft-shoe with a smile on your face while your back hurts and your bowels are complaining about the cuisine.

Bobby, on the other hand, thrived on it. He was chatty and keen and couldn’t wait for the sun to rise on another day and for us get to the next whistle-stop. I could have shot him.

The one thing that sustained me was the thought that after Vanessa wrote her final exams for the term, she’d be joining us in California. I blackmailed them with that: either she came or I left. Pick one.

So I caught up on sleep while we were in Washington, and after I did I was bored to tears. I felt like the ventriloquist’s dummy between shows.

Sydney and Otis had their team in the dining room and lounge with a dozen phones going at once, papers and ashtrays and old coffee cups everywhere. Bobby was upstairs talking privately with a succession of men I wasn’t introduced to and who often came and left from the rear, their cars idling in the alley. I was wracking my brain trying to find a way to get out and phone Frank and Meyer. It didn’t seem like anyone suspected me but I had to presume they did and move carefully; long distance charged to New York would show up on a hotel bill and outside of my rooms I was never alone long enough to try.

What was the good of a spy who never reported what he learned?

I talked to Vanessa by phone as often as I could but there was no way of knowing the line was safe. I wrote her letters in the car and whenever I was waiting around for the brains to decide what I had to do next, but it wasn’t the same as hearing her voice. Then I had one of those brilliant flashes that make you realize how truly stupid you are. I could write them a letter.

Ninety minutes later I had a ten-page report written up and sealed in an envelope in the inside breast pocket of my suit. I came back downstairs and got my raincoat on then stuck my head in and caught Sydney between putting one phone down and picking up another.

“Tell Bobby I’m going stir crazy. I’m going for a walk and get something to drink. I’ll take one of the bodyguards with me.” It hadn’t occurred to me until I said it but I was glad I had. It would look less suspicious than if I just ducked out on my own and gave them someone to ask about what I’d done while I was out of sight, if they were inclined.

Sydney looked unhappy but then another phone rang and he waved me away. I went into the kitchen and found some of the guns sitting around the table playing cards.

“I’m going out for some air. Someone want to come with me?”

One of them threw his cards down and said, “Sure, Mr. Kennedy. I’m glad to get out of this game while I still have my pants.” He collected his jacket off the back of the chair and followed me out to the hall. He said his name was William Casey.

“Where are we going?” He checked his gun, breaking the cylinder of the .38 open and examining his loads, then snapped it shut and holstered it.

“Just for walk, get a drink. I’ve been in this house too long.”

“Suits me,” he said, then went past me and opened the door with one hand out behind him to keep me inside. He stayed there while he eyeballed the street then told me to wait and stepped out. When he got to the sidewalk he looked up and down again and then nodded. I was impressed, and I admit to some racism on my part. I was used to mob-trained gunsels and guardsmen and the Kennedy campaign had none. They were almost all Irish, and for some reason I never found out, a few Greeks. Initially I thought of them as, if not clowns, amateurs at best. Certainly the Kennedys would have some good men but I couldn’t imagine them going head to head with real Mafioso. As time went by, though, I was seeing there was plenty of solid talent in their crew. If it came down to a shooting war I was no longer convinced they would be an easy out. And who knew how good the British were?

We walked down the street and turned up Pennsylvania. I’d never been to the White House and this was as good a time as any. Even in midafternoon it would be busy and that fit into my plan. We walked silently, smoking, a light rain baptizing the hedges and trees and the parked cars. After a few blocks we were at the big iron gates of the White House and headed up the walk that ran beside the long curved driveway.

Valets in white dress jackets with gold buttons stood on the portico among the great white columns, darting down the steps as cars pulled up. We walked past them and through the doors into the foyer and the first thing I saw, hanging above the slots that covered the main wall, was a massive painting of my grandfather looking down on the action, DC being the far southern end of the Kennedy territory. Across the Potomac was Confederate Maryland, gateway to the south; I could see the sentry houses on the bridge and men in butternut uniforms and kepi hats. Not that there’s any problem getting in – the guards just smile and wave you through. They’re just there as a historical reminder – for us, not for Southerners. They have never needed reminding.

It was funny – Bobby couldn’t bear to see this place as a gambling den and cathouse, and his father owned it. That was why I had to stifle a smile when Joe talked reverently about the founding fathers and the nation’s history; he wasn’t going to close a place that turned a nice profit, even if it was one of the enduring symbols of American democracy. If you were the type to look at things honestly, that symbolized the American Way if anything did.

I say that with no pretense of outrage or moral superiority. America is about dollars and profit and the war with England that made us a country was as much about money as it was about ideals. It was fought in large part to make the New World safe for business. I’d learned that much in my reading; Betsy Ross should have sewn the flag with dollar signs instead of stars.

I headed for the roulette wheel and got some chips from the croupier. A cute little brunette hostess in a White House uniform took my drink order and came back with it, doing the famous White House dip as she bent to hand it to me. I tipped her a ten for my free drink and she wiggled away, her bunny tail bouncing with each step.

I lost some money, then I won a little and moved over to the blackjack table, William joined to me at the hip. Getting away from him to post my letter wasn’t going to be easy but I thought of a way to do just that while I played.

Blackjack is a terrible game. People love it because the rules seem so simple but that’s like getting into the ring with a heavyweight champion because all you have to do is knock him down.

There are ways other than the hand of God and pure dumb luck to beat the house but only if you put in serious study and practice, and even those who do only really even the odds. Remember, the shoe the dealer is using has at least four and maybe six decks in it, greatly complicating any card-counting system you use, and the house starts with a huge advantage because the player always has to commit himself without knowing what the dealer’s hole card is.

You can win fairly consistently if you know what you’re doing and have highly developed powers of concentration and a sharp memory; 312 cards – 6 decks of 52 – is a lot of counting to carry in your head and they get peevish if you scribble on the tablecloths. Also bear in mind why they hired the dealer and pay him so well. He’s very good at the game.

I didn’t care at all, really, and naturally, I won. After 30 minutes I had a nice stack of chips in front of me. I stood up and tipped the dealer, dropped a handful on my bunny’s serving tray and gave the rest to William.

“Go cash these in for me while I use the washroom, then meet me in front of it.” He disappeared into the crowd and I made for the men’s room. An attendant with the name Joseph embroidered on his jacket was tidying the colognes and towels on the vanity and there was one other man at a urinal. I took another two spots down and waited for him to leave, then zipped up and went to wash my hands. When the attendant came over with a fresh towel I dried quickly then pulled the letter from my jacket and handed it to him with a $50 wrapped around it.

“Would you see that this gets mailed for me, Joseph?”

His eyebrows raised up a bit, for just a second, then he smiled broadly and slipped it under his own lapel. “Certainly, sir. My pleasure. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

I saw the shoeshine kit in the corner and said I could do with a polish. He seated me and began working on the shoes, popping the rag and dabbing various ointments and leather treatments on them prior to the business of buffing them up.

He hummed while he worked and I picked up a paper. This was how William found us when he finally came in after me.

“Everything all right, Mr. Kennedy?”

“Fine, William. This man here is an artist. Can I treat you to a shine?”

He looked embarrassed at the familiarity then said, yes, thanks and sat down on the next chair. I read through the paper while he got his shoes done, paid Joseph and back out we went.

The winnings felt funny in my pocket – after all, as a Kennedy it was really my own money to begin with, a percentage of it at least. On the way back we passed the Order of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and I went inside and stuffed it all into the charity box.



Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here. 


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