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"RUNYONESQUE" LEFT COAST STYLE

Damon Runyon was a great story teller. Unfortunately his most colorful stories are set in New York City, which is to say he missed out on a lot of colorful tales from the left coast. For example . . .

A VISIT FROM BENNY THE BUG

By H. P. Oliver

August 16,1939
Santa Monica, California

This whole predicament came about when Faces O'Shaughnessy sees Benny the Bug on the Rex.  Now, Faces has this special kind of talent for rememberin' people he sees, and he's seen all the unreputable mugs out here on the west coast who is known for causin' trouble.  You might say Faces is like a walkin' mug book.

That's why my boss, Tony the Hat, has Faces hangin' out on the Rex all the time, 'cuz the boss runs a strictly legit operation and he don't want nobody makin' trouble that might louse up the action.  Ya see, the boss figured out this swell racket where he anchors this big old boat, the Rex, outside the three-mile limit where the cops can't touch him and sets up a gambling casino.  The suckers come out to the Rex on these little boats they call water taxis so they can play the games, and Tony does it up brown with a ritzy restaurant, nothin' but top shelf booze in the bars, and all the stuff that makes the high-rollers think they're really livin' it up while they're droppin' bundles at the tables.  Like I said, it's a swell racket.

"Tony does it up brown with a ritzy restaurant, nothin' but top shelf booze in the bars, and all the stuff that makes the high-rollers think they're really livin' it up while they're droppin' bundles at the tables."


So anyways, Faces sees Benny the Bug on the Rex, and he sez to himself, he sez, "What is this mug from the Dago outfit doin' on our turf?"

He sez that 'cuz Benny the Bug works for Big Al Franco, the top guy in the San Diego outfit.  Now, Big Al ain't exactly no competition for Tony the Hat 'cuz our operation is strictly legit and Big Al, he works the shady side of the street—pony parlors, gals, and all like that.  Even so, the boss don't want mugs like Benny hangin' around the Rex 'cuz it's bad for business.  The suckers don't like associatin' with low-brows like Benny.

Knowin' how the boss feels about such things, Faces goes and tells the boss he seen Benny the Bug and the boss sends for me.  The boss does that 'cuz I'm his fix-it guy, meanin' that whenever there's anything goin' on the boss don't like, he tells me to fix it.  Now not meanin' to brag or nothin', but I'm pretty good at what I do and the boss knows he can count on me to make it right—whatever it is that needs fixin'.

So I hot-foot it down to the boss's office on the Rex and he sez, "Faces tells me there's a mug from the San Diego outfit on the Rex tonight—some jamoke who is called Benny the Bug.  You know of this fellow?"

I sez, "Yeah, I seen him around here and there—funny little guy, always crackin' jokes.  Sharp dresser, too.  Benny is what ya call an all-purpose hitter—he does whatever there is that needs doin'."

"Well," sez the boss, "I want you should find out what he is doin' on the Rex, and if you figure he is up to no good, make sure he do not come back."

"Okay, boss, consider it done."

"But do not do it here on the boat in case he makes a fuss.  Follow him back to the shore and explain things to him there.  Understand?"

"Sure thing, boss."

So I go back up to the main casino deck and Faces shows me where this guy, Benny the Bug, is.  Even if I didn't know what Benny looks like, he'd have been hard to miss dressed like he was in a snazzy suit, white shoes, and a bright red shirt.  Like I said before, a sharp dresser.

So I watch Benny a while to see what he's doin', and what he's doin' is nothin'.  I mean he's just walkin' around watchin' the suckers lose their dough.  Then after he does nothin' for another hour or so, Benny takes himself down to boarding ramp where the water taxis load and he gets on the next one that shows up.  I wait 'til the last minute before the water taxi shoves off and jump aboard myself.


". . . Benny takes himself down to boarding ramp where the water taxis load and he gets on the next one that shows up.  I wait 'til the last minute before the water taxi shoves off and jump aboard myself."


All this time Benny the Bug is actin' perfectly natural.  He don't do nothin' suspicious, which is very suspicious for a guy like Benny.  When the water taxi docks at Santa Monica, Benny gets off and starts walkin' casual-like toward the street end of the pier.  I follow him and when we get near the street where there ain't so many people around, I catch up and sez, "Hey, Benny, wait up a sec."

Benny turns around, and when he seen who I was, he gets this big slop-eatin' grin on his face and sez, "Why, hello, Jimmy.  Fancy me runnin' into you here."

"Yeah," I sez, "Fancy that.  The boss and me is wonderin' what you're doin' here."

"The boss?  Oh, you still workin' for Tony the Hat?"

"Yeah, I'm still workin' for Tony the Hat.  So what are you doin' here?"

Grinnin' some more, Benny sez, "Big Al gave me a few days off for a vacation, so I come up to the big city to see the sights."

"I meant, what was you doin' on the Rex, wise guy."

"The Rex is one of the sights to see in L. A.  Ain't that so?  I never seen a gamblin' boat before, so I wanted to see what it was like.  That's a swell boat Tony has—real swanky."

"Yeah, and the boss wants to keep it that way, by which I mean he don't want no trouble makers around gummin' up the works."

Benny the Bug gets this look on his face like I hurt his feelings and sez, "Trouble maker?  Me?  Heck no, Jimmy, you got it all wrong.  I ain't here to make no trouble.  Like I said, I just want to see the sights."

Benny sure sounded like he was on the level, which puts me on the spot.  If things was like he said—if Benny was really just on a vacation—and I run him off, it might get the Dago outfit all riled up.  The boss wouldn't be happy if that happened 'cuz he likes everything to be quiet and peaceful.  Besides, I got nothin' personal against Benny and I was startin' to feel a little bad about roustin' him.

So I sez, "Okay, pally, I'm gonna take your word on that, but you better be on the level."

August 16,1939

That was last Wednesday night, and the next night, Faces comes down to the Frenchie restaurant on the Rex where I was havin' me some dinner and sez Benny the Bug is back again.

I sez, "What's he doin'?"

"He was playin' the cheap slots when I come down to get you."

"All right, keep an eye on him while I finish dinner, then I'll come up and watch him."

So I finish my bully-base—kind of a French fish stew—and takes myself up to the casino, where I find Faces leanin' against a wall near a row of one-armed bandits.  He sees me comin' and nods toward the row of one-armed bandits where I see Benny throwin' nickels down the coin slot of a fruit spinner.


". . . I find Faces leanin' against a wall near a row of one-armed bandits.  He sees me comin' and nods toward the row of one-armed bandits where I see Benny throwin' nickels down the coin slot of a fruit spinner."

I nod at Faces to let him know I see Benny and Faces nods back, and then wanders off to look around for any other bad apples that might've dropped into the barrel.  Well, I'm watchin' Benny and the only thing about him that's different since last night is he's wearin' a yellow shirt instead of a red one.

After I am watchin' him a while, though, I am noticin' somethin' else different about Benny the Bug.  Tonight he's actin' a little nervous—nothin' real obvious, but he's lookin' around the room every once in a while like he's watchin' for someone or somethin'.

I was still tryin' to figure out what Benny might be up to when Tiny, one of the boss's errand boys, comes up and taps me on the shoulder, which is a reach for Tiny cuz I'm over six foot and he's hardly five.  He sez, "J-J-Jimmy, the b-b-boss wants to see you.  He sez right now c-c-cuz it's a 'mergency."

Now, in all the time I've worked for Tony the Hat, I don't never remember him ever calling anything an emergency.  That is not his style.  So I tells Tiny thanks and take off for the boss's office on a dead run.  When I gets there, he sez, "Jimmy, we got us a big problem.  Somebody in the casino is passin' funny money."

"Who is it, boss?  I'll . . ."

"That is just the problem.  We do not know who is doing it.  The bogus bills is twenties and fifties—real good quality—and they are comin' from all the cashiers.  Marty, the head cashier, spotted a bad fifty, and when he started lookin' close, he found bad bills in the receipts from every window in the joint!"

"No kiddin'?"

"This is not something about which I am likely to be kidding.  So far they're into us for about two Gs!"

"Don't none of the cashiers know who's passin' the stuff?"

"No, they do not.  Marty has been talking to the cashiers, even the pit bosses, and ain't nobody seen a thing cuz they did not know there was anything goin' on.  They sure do now!"

"But how are the passers workin' it so they make any money, instead of just losin' it at the tables?"

"They must be buying chips, playing a few hands or betting on a few spins of the wheel, and then cashing in their chips.  Then they must be buying more chips at another cashier station with the bogus bills."

"Clever fellows."

"This kind of clever we do not need aboard the Rex.  Now get yourself up there and find out who is doing this before they rob us blind.  I do not want to shut the casino down, but I am not going to have no choice if this should continue."

"Okay, boss, I'm on my way."

Back on the casino deck I find Faces and tell him what is goin' on cuz two sets of eyeballs is better than one.  Faces sez he ain't seen nothin' fishy, but he'll start lookin' closer.

I sez, "We're lookin' for a high-roller . . . somebody buyin' a lot of chips.  You take that side over there and I'll take this one.  Meet you at the other end."

Faces nods and we set off to find our paper hanger.  I was almost to the far end of the casino deck when I am noticin' that Benny the Bug is no longer playin' the cheap slots.  In fact, he ain't nowhere to be seen.


"I sez, 'We're lookin' for a high-roller . . . somebody buyin' a lot of chips.  You take that side over there and I'll take this one.  Meet you at the other end.'"



At the far end of the room I meet up with Faces and I mention this sudden absence of Benny the Bug I have observed.  Faces sez he didn't see Benny nowhere too.  That got me rememberin' the way Benny was actin' funny—lookin' around and all.  I sez, "I got me a suspicion that maybe our pal Benny knows somethin' about this funny money."

Faces shakes his head.  "Benny sure as hell wasn't passin' no phony bills.  He was playin' the cheap slots."

"Yeah, but he might've been workin' with somebody else.  Maybe he come in to case the place last night—you know, to see how we operate—and brought someone we wouldn't know back with him tonight to do the paper hangin'."

Faces thought a minute and sez, "I guess that might be, but where is he now?"

"You keep lookin' around here and I'll check the taxi boats.  Maybe a boat driver seen him comin' or goin' with someone."

I was just headin' for the boat deck when two of the boss's muscle guys walk by draggin' some jamoke between 'em.  I stop the guys and sez, "What do we have here?"

Slugger, the bigger of the two with a busted nose that never got fixed right sez, "This is the guy who was passin' the funny money.  The cashier at cage two rang his alarm button and we got there just in time to grab the guy."

The paper hanger was an average lookin' Joe with a pair of them horn-rim glasses and a gray plaid fedora on top of his head.  He also looked kind of familiar, like maybe he was a regular customer on the Rex.

While I'm lookin' him over, the guy sez, "You guys got it all wrong.  That wasn't my money . . . I mean I found that wallet on the floor and was just buying some chips as a reward for myself before I turned the wallet in.  Honest, that's the truth."

They guy's story sounded screwy enough to be true.  Besides that, he was shakin' like a leaf.  Nobody that scared was gonna be makin' up stuff that made him look almost as bad as what we already caught him doin'.  I sez, "Okay, pally, let's go down and see what the boss thinks about all this malarkey you're tryin' to feed us."

Tony listened to what the jamoke had to say and shook his head.  "I ought to have the boys feed you to the sharks, that is what I ought to do."

Now the guy wasn't just shakin', he was white as a ghost, too.  He sez, "But no harm was done.  All the money is still in the wallet.  Couldn't you just let it slide this time.  I promise I'll never do anything like this again.  I knew it was wrong, but all that money . . . it just made me crazy."

Tony looked at me and raised his eyebrows like he was askin' if I thought the guy was on the level.  I shrugged my shoulders, meaning I didn't know if he was or wasn't.

The boss nodded and turned back to the jamoke.  "All right, pally, I am going to let you off the hook this time, but do not ever show your face on the Rex again or you are going to be fish food.  You got that, pally?"

The guy nodded so hard I thought his head was gonna fall off, and the boss, he sez to the muscle guys, "Okay, take this jamoke out of here and put him on a water taxi.  And if you ever see him on the Rex again, do not ask no questions, just toss him over the side."

After they left, Tony sez to me, "What do ya make of that, Jimmy?"

I'd been thinkin' about what was goin' on so this time I had an answer for the boss.  "I'm bettin' the real paper hanger somehow figured out we was wise to him and ditched the rest of his funny money in that wallet.  He probably also figured some shmuck would find it and think he was in the chips, and then we'd catch the shmuck and he'd take the wrap, which is almost the way it turned out."

"Yeah, that sounds right.  Jimmy, we got plenty lucky tonight.  There is about another two Gs in this wallet.  If they had passed it, we would be out four Gs total."

"I guess so, boss, but it burns me up that they got away with anything at all, and it ain't likely we're ever gonna know who done it."

Then the boss sez somethin' that sounded kind of fill-o-sof-a-kol.  "Yeah, Jimmy, but this here is a risky business even if it is legit.  Think of it like this, we paid two Gs to get taught a lesson tonight.  We just got to make sure we learned that lesson real good.  Now go on home and get some rest and we will start fresh on this in the morning."

Half an hour later I was walkin' up to my car when a snazzy Cord convertible with the top down rolled by on the street.  It slowed and I saw that Benny the Bug was behind the steerin' wheel.  He waves at me and hollers, "Hey, Jimmy, thank Tony the Hat for his hospitality.  He's got himself a real nice boat there."

Then he laughed and drove off so fast the tires squealed.  The Cord went under the streetlight at the corner, and that's when I got a look at the guy ridin' with Benny.  I mighta been wrong, but I'd swear the guy was wearin' a plaid fedora and horn-rim glasses.

"I was walkin' up to my car when a snazzy Cord convertible with the top down rolled by on the street.  It slowed and I saw that Benny the Bug was behind the steerin' wheel."





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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

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