By the time I got to the Chicago Club darkness had taken over the city. The Model T gave up halfway there and I abandoned her in a parking lot, taking one last breath of warm air before stepping into the chilly October air and hoofing it.
While I walked the pieces of the case whirred in my head like a tempest, nothing slotting into place except my own dread at facing Sally Calls and the rest of the sharks lurking on the gaming floor. I work the angles trying to figure out how to not leave the club in a black bag. I grabbed my Webley more out of habit than necessity. It came in handy as an intimidation piece, but in the Chicago It would be as intimidating as a derringer. Pulling the piece in there would get me cut down faster than I could place a bet.
I needed a plan but my thoughts kept getting washed away in the rain. I crunched a soggy aspirin and wished for something strong to wash it down.
I could hear the familiar sounds of the club as I stepped under an awning lit up like some moving picture show. The electric bulbs buzzed and I stopped to take stock of myself. The world beyond them was a curtain of black water as if all the angels wept at once.
I thought of Louise again. Is she up there with them? Does she weep for me? So far I'd robbed, lied, and stolen my way to find any clues I could. I think about the last time I saw her, and my own selfish reason for taking this case. I think she’d forgive me.
I take out the Webley and snapp the top to make sure my ammo is still dry. The revolver was an old MK IV. My guess was the top brass figured artillery men already had big guns. I snap the barrel shut and pray to the angels I don’t have to pull it.
Over the drone of rain I hear the band cuing Gracie up for her to slide her way through My Man. She sings it a little heavier, a little more smoke in her voice. Gracie knew how to work a room, and work a man right out of a week’s pay.
I walk through the first set of swing doors into the quiet of the smoking room. A few guys sat busted out in a corner smoking down to the filter, a look on their face like they’re trying to figure out how to tell the Mrs. they were broke.
I place the flat of my hand on the next set of swing doors, thinking I’d see Sally Calls’ razor thin face appear in the circular porthole glass. His eyes blazing, the feel of a knife sliding into my ribs. I slid through the door, my heart hammered in my ears.
Charlie Malone sits at his regular post inside the door looking like a rhino stuffed into a monkey suit. I didn’t know much about him except he was put out front to keep drunks on the right side of the door.
Charlie always looked half asleep. But the last guy to test him is still eating applesauce three times a day. He could drop a drunk fast and pitch him into the alley to sleep it off without breaking a sweat.
My mouth felt like it was filled with straw as I squared myself up in front of his podium, a small reading light illuminating the book of names in front of him. A splash of light cascaded down the front of the gold podium. As luck had it, his heavy lidded eyes were trained towards the bar when I walked through the door.
“Hiya Chuck, Sally in tonight?” I tried the direct approach. Either I’d get lucky and Sally’d be gone, or Charlie would go get him and give me time to bleed into the crowd.
“Mr. Colisetta’s in his office, he don’t wanna see nobody right now.” Charlie didn’t take his eyes off the bar and I had to lean in to hear him over the crowd erupting while Gracie held the last note.
I followed his eyes and saw a crowd of guys clustered around the bar. They all seemed to be centred on one guy talking. He spoke with his chin up, holding the eyes of anyone who made contact. It was a rare sight to see any pair of eyes not fixed on Gracie as she sang. Even she seemed to notice the absence, glaring at the group as the band took five.
Freddy Harkness the barman was giving the guy the same weary eye Charlie was. It was approaching a weary tolerance as if he’d heard this spiel before and was trying to decide if he should tell the guy to shut his pie hole already. My guess was The Suit talking wasn’t drunk enough to cause a ruckus, but that could change by the minute. I sidled past Charlie and into the throng of bar goers hoping to blend in long enough to find some clue about The Doc and get out.
When I get closer to the bar I can hear the mouthpiece that’s got the crowd eating out of his hand. He speaks with an easy rhythm that gives his words credibility. His mustache is finely clipped and waxed. He’s dressed like a hundred bucks, even the military issue haircut lends itself to his clean cut. He meets my eyes briefly and I examine the wall of whiskey like it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. While I wait for Fred to come over I listen to the commotion behind me. I eye anyone lighting up in case my hunch is wrong, but I’m pretty sure the guy holding court is the same one smoking Grey’s in the Doc’s office.
Freddy comes and I order a mug of beer, wanting something to sip on so I can listen longer.
“Of course France was just the beginning. What would you do if you were the crown? You have a private army at your disposal waiting for the order to deploy. Add to that it’s sitting on a land mass directly above a country that you’ve had over a hundred year grudge against. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out King Gerorge must be looking at this country like one big battering ram.”
He takes a quick swig from a Tom Collins to wet his whistle.
“And who do you think it’s gunna be at the vanguard of that? The nobility from the King’s court or his subjects from the home country? Please. Why risk it? You’ve got a country filled with battle tested soldiers who held their own against the Fritzes. Who can then be replaced quick as a whip if they fall in battle with a boatload of citizens from the home country. Now I’m talkin straight here, I fought alongside a lot of brave soldiers flying the Union Jack and -”
“here here!” My mouth speaks the words before my brain can catch up and I release a beat too late that the beer I bought to sip on has turned to a puddle of white suds at the bottom of my mug. Eight sets of eyes turn to me and a particularly rat faced man in an expensive suit sends shivers of warning down my spine that I can’t make heads or tails of. The Suit doesn’t miss a beat. In fact he seems to take my outburst as confirmation he’s getting through to people. “This fellow knows exactly what I’m talking about, hey, cheers to that eh?” He holds out his half full Collins and I clink my empty mug feebly against it feeling heat rise from my collar. The Suit sees the suds and whistles at Freddy. “Another round Fred, and for my fellow serviceman here.” I had a pocket full of The Doc’s chips I was using to cover my tab, but The Suit wanted to throw his cash around. I see the move for what it is, a power shift back to him, to his soapbox.
He takes a copper cigarette case from his jacket pocket with a matching lighter and taps one of the sticks against it. I have time to see my hunch pay off as the small red crown at the filter makes its way to his lips. Many of the others crowded around the bar follow his lead. He lights a few of those closest to him, taking extra care with a blond flapper who’s eyeing him up like a dog who just spied the christmas turkey. I opt for the candle on the bartop. I replace it under the watchful eye of Freddy who’s looking at me like he just realised who I am. I don’t notice the small nod he gives, otherwise I wouldn’t have picked that moment to visit the John.
The stark white tile is criss crossed with thick black stripes. If I look too hard the room starts to spin, so I do my business as fast as I can so I can return to my post. As I’m finishing I hear the swing door hinges squeak and catch movement in the gold framed mirror over the twin sinks. Chuck’s left his perch at the front door and has decided to join me in the men’s room with a fellow built like a boxer in a billed cap. As if on cue, Billed Cap cracks his knuckles in the stillness. I shatter the silence by running the tap on hot at full blast. It stings like hell to wash up, but I’m hopeful I can at least temporarily blind one of them before going for the Webley.
I play as if I don’t see them until Chuck lands a meaty ham hock on my shoulder. It feels like someone dropped a cinderblock out of a tenth story window. My face starts throbbing anticipating a worse beating than the one I took from Harry the night before.
“I don’t know when you got here, but you got a lotta balls walking into this place after stiffing Mr. Colisetta last night. Makes me and Horace here feel like you need a lesson in, what’s Mr. Collisetta call it Horace?”
“Etiquette -er, like social conduct. Manners is what he means.” Horace spoke while he squared up to me and I felt Charlie grab my other shoulder in a vice-like grip. I couldn’t take my eyes off Horace’s balled fists. The knuckles were scarred white like he’d done this a few times before and knew exactly what he was doing. Just like sitting at the bar, my mouth started moving before my brain could keep up.
“Fellas. Charlie. Horace. Now come on, you know I was gunna come around, time got away is all. Come on Chuck you know me, you know me Chuck where am I gunna go? Who do I know in this city, Chuck? Nobody. I’da come by, Hell I’m here now ain’t I. Why do you think I came by, I’ve got chips Charlie. I’ve worked enough for Sall- Mr. Collisetta. I’m good for it Chuck Ain’t I? Ain’t I chuck for god sake charlie don’t let him HIT ME.”
My neck was burning up, sweat bullets rolled from my forehead to my cheek and catch in the five o clock shadow. My legs feel like rubber bands and all at once I’m glad I’d pissed before these gorillas came in. Horace rolled his sleeve up during my bout of motor mouth and I notice an anchor inked on his left forearm. I figure it’s the last thing I’m gunna see for a while, so I think about the blonde flapper instead.
As if conjured by the thought I suddenly smell the thick reek of a Grey’s cigarette. I open my eyes and see The Suit standing just inside the door. Horace sees my attention break and turns around, Charlie’s already talking by the time I register the quality of his black three piece, stick pin in his hat shining like a lighthouse on shore.
“Hit the road mack. Private Party.” Charlie nods towards the door like he’s trying to dodge a bad smell. Horace looks from me, to The Suit, to Charlie waiting for an order.
When he talks in the stillness of the bathroom The Suit’s voice has a gravity I missed in the drone of the bar. His eyes dance with good humour but his voice is uncompromising steel.
“Pretty odd place for a party. Figured that sort of thing would be upstairs.” He flicks the nub of his cigarette into a nearby commode and it lets out a small sizzle. “Looks to me like you fellas are fixing to work over my friend here, over what? a debt, he make a bet his wallet can’t cash?”
“I said scram pal, Horace here has a long memory and a short temper. You want to trade places with this barfly we’d be happy to oblige.” Charlie talks tough but I can tell some of the wind is out of his sails.
“trade places with him? no, but I’ll trade a few dollars.” The Suit reaches into his trousers and brings out a wad of cash that looks like my month's rent. He peels a few notes from it and extends his arm.
“whatever this fellow owes, two hundred doesn’t cover it then it ought to come damn close.”
“Mr. Collisetta don’t-” Charlie starts
“Mr. Collisetta don’t, but i’m willing to bet Mr. Gravelle does.” The Suit cuts in. The name starts my ears ringing as if I’ve been slapped. Hearing it in the bathroom is like hearing blasphemy in church, I eye the door as if invoking the name will somehow make him appear.
“two hundred bucks.” The Suit repeats “should buy this man’s freedom, at least for one night.”
There’s a tense few seconds where nobody moves and I feel like Charlie is going to go ahead and starch my collar anyway. Finally, I feel his massive hands relax their death grip on my collar bones. He waves off Horace who covers his ink wearily. Charlie snatches the bank notes on his way by and spins on his heel. He extends his index finger while the rest of them clutch the cash.
“You were never here. I never saw you. This is your only warning Slate. Don’t screw around with us, you know what happens.” He straightens his suit jacket with a flourish and walks out. The whole thing settles over me like a weight. No good deed goes unpunished.
“What do you want?” I ask
“Me? not a damn thing.” The Suit has his back to me using the same commode he pitched his butt into.
“Baloney, no one throws that kind of cash around for a stranger without wanting something in return.” The flush sounds thunderous in the expanse of the bathroom and The Suit walks to the sink ignoring me. When he answers me the good humour is gone from his eyes.
“Nothing I hate seeing more than a good man being taken advantage of, especially by the likes of them.”
“How do you know I’m a good man?”
“Were you in it?” My stomach knots at his question. I catch meaning in his eyes and in the weight of the words.
“Vimy” I answer “Royal Field Artillery”
“Aha.” some of the humour leaks back into his eyes. “The Glue Crew. See, I knew it. I’ve got an eye for these things and I knew as soon as you walked to that bar. I thought here’s a fellow veteran barely getting by.” He spies the look I give him and elaborates “you’re buying drinks in chips, makes me think you sunk all your cash into the gaming floor.” He’s dead wrong but I don’t correct him. I think of Carruthers and that this guy is somehow mixed up with him. If I can get in good with him maybe I can get him liquored up and loosen his tongue.
“Let me return the favour.” I said “Next rounds on me.” He extends his hand. “Roger Carson.” he said “Percy Slate.” I said, giving his hand a few pumps.
“Percy, let’s get the hell out of this bathroom.”
Roger leads me to a booth he and a few of the guys from the bar have squeezed into. The air around the group is subdued and most of his audience is either back at the bar or on the gaming floor. I hear the spin of the roulette wheel behind me as the group shifts to accommodate. The rat faced guy from before eyes me up and down like I’m carrying smallpox. “You lost pal?” he asks me over a glass of Manhattan. “knock it off Joe, guy’s a working stiff like the rest of us. Percy Slate let me introduce Joey Garland, Simon Gough, Bert Fergusson and Alan Rook.” I nod to each name trying like hell to commit them to memory but the only ones that stick are Joey and Simon, and that’s mainly because Simon is just a kid compared to the rest of the guys.
Joe looks like he wants to say more but keeps it to himself. My gut sends my brain the same warning shot when I look at him but I can’t place where I’ve seen the face. I order a round for the table and focus on Simon instead. The kid looks too young to serve but he’s kept himself in fighting shape. His black hair peeks out from under a wide brimmed fedora that looks a size too big for him. He wears it back on his head betraying his youth. He’s nursing a Manhattan of his own trying to keep his composure while Gracie moves lithely around the stage. A chesterfield burns between his index and middle finger, neglected until the ash touches flesh and he spins his attention back to the table cursing softly and stubbing the butt out in one of the glass ashtrays.
I take a few nips from my beer mug before leaning over to Roger, a question burning through my brain that I can’t help but ask. “You guys are dressed like you’re stepping out, Joey’s birthday or something?” I catch his beady little rodent eyes from across the table and don’t drop my gaze.
“Nah, nothing so ceremonious.” Roger says while he lights another one of those god awful Grey’s. “We’re robbing the joint.” His comment gets lost in a crescendo from the band and I feel myself rising with it. My head feels empty and I shut my eyes against the spins. My stomach does a lazy roll while a screeching horn signifies a change in tempo. I hear chair legs scrape the floor in unison as couples flock to do the Texas Tommy.
Continues Next Time in Second Saturday Stories