Skip to main content.

The Pigeon Man's Deathray by Frederick Rustam
published in Volume 3, Issue 2 on February 29th, 1996

Billy was tired. He had spent the whole day panhandling, while constantly watching for the cops, yet had little to show for it. He knew that times were hard now, of course. Back in '29, when he was serving his apprenticeship with the Spike Williams gang, the marks were more generous. Spike had taught him how to work their emotions by taking hat in hand and making a few tears to accompany his hard luck story.

He had refined the story into a few, carefully chosen words. He didn't have much time to make his pitch. He had learned that the attention span of most marks was short---especially now that their own children were having to do without those things they wanted for them.

"Sir, can you spare somethin' for an orphan. My parents was killed in a accident, and my old gram'ma is havin' trouble feedin' me and my sister." If a mark seemed interested, Billy could embellish the story until there were tears in THEIR eyes. He could usually tell by the mark's expression if he had made a hit. These days, even when he was convincing, he often got nothing better than sympathetic words for his trouble.

The cops had nabbed Spike and most of the gang in an alley, while they were standing around a barrel fire---roasting the wieners they'd stolen from Lemburg's Market. After that catastrophe, Billy had been thrown back on his own. He had to panhandle and find shelter, too, entirely by his own efforts. He yearned for the days when the gang, functioning like a well-oiled machine, could turn an abandoned building or out-of-the-way nook into a comfortable digs.

The yellow light of early evening meant that he had a couple of hours left to work the area, unless he was going to stay out after dark. He found himself at the little park behind the public library. He turned into the south entrance. Parks like this were a good place to panhandle, because he had the marks trapped on the benches. But, they were also places frequented by plainclothes cops, looking for purse snatchers and perverts.

Although it was late summer, and still warm, the park was almost deserted, except for a few bums. There was a nanny with her babybuggy, just inside the entrance. Nannies were a lost cause. They usually looked at Billy like they thought he was going to snatch the baby.... He moved on.

He stopped before two well-dressed businessmen who were engaged in an animated discussion about investments. When they ignored him, he began his spiel. Short as it was, he received a "Get lost, kid," before he could even get to the part about his poor granny.... Again, he moved on.

Ahead, seated on a bench beside a bag of grain, was the Pigeon Man. He was a real old guy, maybe even sixty years old. He was surrounded by the dirty pigeons that hung around the parks. Some were on his legs, two perched on his shoulders, and others were jumping up and flapping their wings to attract his attention. The old man didn't show any favorites, though. He threw down the grain so that every bird got some.

Billy sat down on a nearby bench to watch. He couldn't figure out why a well-dressed man would cover himself with dirty pigeons. Of course, Billy did appreciate the man's skill in winning over the suspicious birds. They usually gave Billy a wide berth---almost as if they knew he was hungry most of the time. As he watched the restless birds, he remembered watching Spike roast one of them. He had learned to eat dirty old pigeon after Spike showed him how good it tasted, especially with stolen---and baked---potatoes. Since the breakup of the gang, however, he hadn't eaten one bird. He had tried, but couldn't catch them, like Spike could.

"Do you like pigeons, young man?" The old man's high-pitched, accented voice interrupted his thoughts about better times.

"Yes, sir. But, they always run from me."

"Well, you just come over here, and I'll show you how to make friends with the doves."

Billy walked over and sat down near the Pigeon Man.

"Here..." He handed Billy a handful of grain. "...Drop it slowly onto the sidewalk. Don't make any sudden movements." Billy did as he was advised, and the pigeons rushed from the old man to him. "Be sure to spread it around. They may only be birds, but they know when they're being slighted."

When he had given away his handful of grain, the Pigeon Man gave him another. This time, an eager red-and-white flew up to his knee, and he held his hand out for it to feed from. He jumped at first when the bird's beak pecked at his hand.

"She won't hurt you. Her bill's too soft to penetrate your skin."

"How do you know it's a `she,' sir?" Billy was being ultrapolite, not forgetting why he was here in the park. He figured the more he pleased the old man with his good behavior the more the guy would give when he hit him up.

"Only a pigeon can tell for sure. But, I've seen that one being displayed to by the cocks, so I know she's a hen---and a pretty one, too."

Billy decided to give the old boy a chance to be an expert. Flattering people in subtle ways was something Spike had taught him. He began to ask all the questions he could think of about pigeons. The Pigeon Man was glad to enlighten this young fellow about his second-favorite subject.

They sat in the park until the sun had set behind the tall buildings, and the pigeons had thinned out by wandering away to their roosts. Finally, the grain was gone, and Billy had become kind-of-expert on pigeons.

"I'm glad you like them, too, young man. It's getting dark, though. Your parents must be worried about you." It was time for the pitch. Billy delivered an enhanced version, certain that the man would not cut him short. He could tell in his sad eyes that the Pigeon Man believed every word he heard from the Pigeon Boy, so he laid it on thick.

"That's terrible---to be hungry.... For a time, I was poor and had to dig ditches; but, even then, I always had enough to eat---although not from the best places." Billy waited for the man to decide to do his good deed for the day.

"Why don't you come with me to a diner. We'll order what I used to have in those bad days. It'll remind me how grateful I should be for my successes."

The old man and the ragged beggar-boy started to leave the park. The man stopped and walked over to a trash can to discard the grain bag. After he tossed the crumpled bag in, he walked partly around the can and reached in to examine a folded newspaper. He returned it to the can, but then, he circled the can three times. He didn't explain this odd behavior as they left the park, and Billy knew better than to inquire about it.

On the way to the diner, the Pigeon Man talked about himself. Billy wasn't bored because he could increasingly see that the old-timer was an unusual person.

"I've been poor; I've been rich; I've been a gambler; and, now ... now, I've come upon hard times, like so many others. Mind you, I'm not starving. I still get an occasional royalty check from one of my inventions, and they keep me from being put out on the street."

Billy, who knew about the famous inventors like Edison, was curious. The man had introduced himself, but his name didn't ring a bell. He was a foreigner who spoke, in an unplaceable accent, the words of a man-of-class from the Old World.

"You're an inventor, sir?" Billy hoped the old fellow wouldn't take offense because he hadn't heard about him.

"My whole life has been spent in laboratories---when I wasn't begging funds from some financier, that is." Billy could understand about begging, alright. And, there had been a few times when even he had been flush, too---but not very many. This man was a kindred spirit, he guessed.

"What did you invent, sir." The man didn't seem to mind being addressed respectfully, so Billy kept it up. Some people felt uncomfortable when they were addressed that way, and gave him money to get rid of him.

"Look around you. The very energy that makes this city run was my finest concept. I designed the motor that powers the wheels of industry.... You know, I was paid a million dollars by a big company for my electrical patents."

"Wow! A million dollars.... You were a rich man, sir."

"I was, Billy, but it didn't last long. I spent it all trying to develop new ideas.... Ahhh---sometimes I wonder where it all went.... If only I had asked for fifty cents per horsepower---or even ten cents---I'd have a fine laboratory, now." The Pigeon Man seemed lost in the dark web of his failures. Billy actually felt sorry for him.

"Are you in the schoolbooks, sir?" After he asked this, he wondered if he'd gone too far. But, the man's grandiose memories were not to be squelched so easily.

"Some of them.... They all mention Edison, of course---that thief of ideas. But, in the main, I've been deprived of my true place in the history of electrical technology.... I guess it's because I'm a foreigner." He fell silent. Billy's mind raced. He had to get the old man back into the clouds.

"What else did you invent, sir?"

That inquiry brought the man out of his blue funk. Down the street, into and out of the diner---and out on the dark street, again---Billy had no trouble in keeping him talking about himself. His descriptions of his ideas quickly became more elaborate and fantastic-sounding, until Billy's head swirled---overloaded with concepts and terms he had never heard of.

Their dining, however, was not accomplished without an unsolicited demonstration of the inventor's odd obsessions. He vigorously wiped the silverware, emptying the dispenser of beanery napkins---and prompting a dirty look from the counterman. He mumbled figures to himself over the soup and milk, into which he crumbled crackers. He explained, without being asked, that calculating the cubic capacity of the bowl and tumbler helped him to enjoy the soup and milk, more. When a fly landed on his plate of crackers, he recoiled in horror, and ungracefully pushed them over for Billy to finish.

Finally, on the street, as Billy skillfully wielded a toothpick, the Pigeon Man reached the climax of his presentation, which was interrupted only once---when a woman with a long pearl necklace passed by. The old man stopped talking and pulled a face at the sight of the pearls, but recovered and continued.

"Yes... yes... I set buildings shaking. I lit lamps without wires. I used water and steam to spin wheels for power. I transmitted messages afar, before any other man.... I brought the very fire of the gods down to earth, and I received a golden medallion for my accomplishments." Momentarily spent, he fell silent. Billy dared to question the old man---displaying his fourth-grade, and terminal, scholarship as he did so.

"I thought Sig-nor Marconi invented the wireless, sir."

The Pigeon Man stopped and drew himself up to his full six-and-a-half feet. "Son ... Marconi was a donkey."

Billy was shocked. The books he remembered in school all praised Marconi for giving radio to the world. They didn't say anything about this---what was his name?---obscure man.

They walked along in silence for awhile. Then the old man spoke quietly and gravely.

"They're following me, you know."

"Who's following you, sir?" Billy looked around, fearful that it might be true. He didn't want to get involved in anything rough.

"I don't know.... But, I do know what they want."

Billy wondered if he should inquire further about this. He looked around, again. Was that black sedan, moving slowly behind them, really following them? He considered thanking the old guy for the eats and quickly moving on, when the man clarified his remarks.

"They want my particle-beam projector---my deathray device. They've read about me in the papers. I shouldn't have said anything about it. It's too sensitive a subject."

"Wow! Do you really have a deathray thing?"

"I can build it, if I receive enough financial support.... My old friend, J. P. Morgan is gone now, and I don't know these new men of wealth.... Oh, if I could only get the funds, I could ... I could talk to the stars."

"You knew J. P. Morgan?" Billy was so impressed, he forgot the "sir." But, it didn't matter. His question was not to be answered, anyway.

Suddenly, the black sedan he had momentarily forgotten about pulled up next to them. Before Billy could do anything but stare, two men jumped out of the car. "That's him," one of them said, in a foreign accent.

They grabbed the old man and---as if they did this every day for a living---shoved him into the back of the sedan. He didn't resist. As the car pulled away from the curb, Billy had the presence of mind to memorize the license plate. He was good at memorizing things---even Spike had been impressed. He repeated it over and over to himself, aloud, as he watched the car enter traffic and speed away.

They kidnapped him, officer!"

"What're you talking about, kid? Who kidnapped who?" The hulking cop stopped twirling his club and frowned down at Billy.

"The inventor that feeds the pigeons behind the library." Billy squirmed, impatiently, and this impressed the cop.

"You mean the old geezer in the park?"

Billy resisted the urge to yell, "Of course, you dummy! That's what I said!" He had learned, the hard way, to show cops a careful respect. He was almost sorry he had put himself at risk, this way, on behalf of a crazy old man. Maybe, it was because the guy had treated Billy so decently.

"Yeah.... They jumped out of a big car and grabbed him and drove off with him."

The cop stared at him, trying to assess the veracity of this ragged, dirty street-urchin.

"I got the license number," Billy added.

"You did, did you?... What is it?"

"DPL-1533."

"Was the plate New York orange?"

"No.... white, with green letters."

"I guess he's gone for good, then."

"Why?" Billy couldn't understand the cop's seeming acceptance of this heinous act.

"DPL.... That's a diplomatic plate. They've got immunity.... They could put him in a burlap sack and ship him out of the country on the Queen Mary, and nobody could do anything about it." He noticed an anguish in Billy's face he wasn't accustomed to seeing in homeless street-boys.

"He was your friend, huh?"

Billy decided that, if he was to save the Pigeon Man, he would have to put on the Act of His Life.

He began bawling. The cop bent down and tugged his arm. "There, there, kid."

"He taught me about pigeons.... And---and, he bought me some eats. He didn't have much hisself, but he fed me." These words, punctuated by sobs, did the trick.

"Okay---stop crying. I'll see what I can do." He took Billy over to a callbox. Using his key, he ceremoniously unlocked the box and picked up the phone. "Sarge, I got a kidnap complaint.... Yeah---right off the street."

Billy was in a quandary.... He was anxious about his new friend, the Pigeon Man, but he was traditionally wary of the police. He was afraid to hang around the precinct house. The cops might decide he'd be better off in the care of the State. That prospect deterred him from keeping tabs on the investigation.

Instead, he visited the park behind the library every evening--- hoping the cops would, somehow, free the old man from his captors. He wished, for the umpteenth time, that Spike were around to tell him what to do.

As he resumed his usual modus operandi, he found himself remembering that magic day with the pigeons in the park---and the great meal the old man had bought him, afterwards.

At the end of the day, when he visited the park, he fed the pigeons a little. He felt sorry for them, since they seemed to have become dependent on the Pigeon Man for their sustenance. In these hard times, they would never find anyone else to give them grain. Billy, of course, had no grain to throw down. Only a few stale pieces of bread---which he should have eaten, himself. You could say that the Pigeon Man had succeeded in teaching Billy something no one else had---charity.

A few days after the kidnapping, Billy was walking down the street, sizing up the swells, when he saw the cop to whom he had reported the kidnapping. Normally, he would have steered clear of a badge, but today his curiosity drew him to the object of his fears.

The officer, who was leaning against a lamppole, felt a tug at his jacket. He looked back, fiercely. Recognizing Billy, his expression softened.

"Hi, Billy. Heard the news, yet?"

"Huh?"

"Your friend.... Haven't you seen him?"

"Where is he?"

"I dunno. Try the park."

Billy ran almost all the way. His hunger-weakness made it necessary for him to slow down before he reached the entrance. Panting, he scanned the benches.

There he was! He was feeding the pigeons, as if nothing untoward had happened. Billy moved forward to the bench, waving his arm, weakly. The old man looked his way.

"Hello, Billy. I haven't seen you for awhile."

Billy couldn't believe his ears. The Pigeon Man acted like the kidnapping had never happened. He had a bandage on his forehead, though, and a few other marks of rough handling, as well.

"You... they kidnapped you.... What happened?"

"Oh, that.... Well, when they realized I didn't have anything they could use, they let me go.... I think the police may have helped, a little."

"Did they hurt you, sir?"

"I do ache a little... If I only had my laboratory, I could warm my tissues with high-frequency currents, like I used to do."

"What did they want, sir---the deathray?"

"Of course. A lot of interests want a deathray device.... They questioned me about atomic energy, too. Pshaw!... That showed me, right away, what incompetent fools they were."

"But, you said you had a ... particle ... something."

"They took me to my hotel room, and I gave them a concept note I had made about the projector. In fact, they took several boxes of my old laboratory notes.... Then, they let me go."

Billy found the old man's explanation somewhat difficult to understand, but he persisted, determined to get at the truth.

"You mean ... they got the deathray?"

The Pigeon Man smiled at Billy. "Sit down, and help me feed the birds. The red-and-white hen is waiting for you."

Billy sat down and went through the motions of feeding the birds. He itched to ask more of the old man, but he decided to wait for him to speak in his own time.... He was not disappointed.

"They got nothing---nothing at all ... nothing they can use, that is."

"But, the notes..."

The old man smiled, again---a secret smile, which Billy, a skillful reader of facial expressions, understood.

"I never put much down on paper, Billy.... Just a few things to jog my memory.... If I did, people would use my ideas. These days, you can hire fellows to steal anything, you know."

Billy lost eye contact with the old man at that point. Didn't he realize that Billy was a thief?... Billy hoped not.

"I see what you mean, sir."

The inventor seemed to have completed his explanation. Man and boy sat in the strong light of the midday sun, enjoying a shared experience Billy would remember for the rest of his life.

"You're getting better at this feeding business, Billy.... You know, I really should have somebody to take over when I'm not around, any longer."

"Oh, you'll probably be around for a long time." From then on, Billy stopped calling the Pigeon Man "sir." It was the beginning of a new and more equitable relationship.

"I hope so, Billy.... The `soiled doves' are my special friends--- and so are you." Then, he looked thoughtful.

"In the final analysis, all we animals are just meat machines."

Billy considered this surprising bit of philosophy.... But, he decided that the Pigeon Man hadn't really meant it the way it sounded.

go to this issue