Enjoy the First Three Chapters of BLOOD & WHISKEY
Deft fingers rolled a jazzy minor scale on a grand piano, the melody distantly reaching up to the second floor of Stems Supper Club in the Levee District of Chicago.
Mia Angelia Scalisi, a New York Sour in one hand and lipstick in the other, cocked an ear to the tune. It was the start of the lengthy introduction to her first number, “Everybody Loves My Baby,” and she was late—which meant she was right on time, though her brother Nick might disagree. He’d given her strict orders to turn the place upside down tonight, and he’d probably be sore at her if he found out she was still preening in front of the mirror in her dressing room and drinking cocktails instead of getting her ass onstage.
Though tonight was meant to be a birthday party for Nick’s boss, Sal Bellomo, who also owned the supper club, it was really about her brother. He was riding high after securing quite the birthday gift for Sal, in the form of a two-million-dollar investment from Hyman Goldberg, a Manhattan businessman of questionable scruples but untold wealth. The investment would allow them to finance a major liquor distribution operation in not only Chicago and New York, but Omaha, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Canada, with plenty of opportunity for expansion.
Nick and Sal, and everyone else involved in the deal, would be very rich men inside of six to nine months. The money would be rolling in fast, and in huge quantities, according to her brother. And Nick’s successes meant more power and influence for him, which meant better things for Mia.
Like moving pictures. And maybe even sooner than she’d hoped.
Mia cast one more glance at herself in the mirror and tossed back the rest of her drink. Even Lillian Gish had to start somewhere. One day, Mia would tell the story of how an orphan girl of immigrant parents had grown up on the rough streets of New York City’s Lower East Side, became a child vaudeville performer, then moved to Chicago, where she’d become a cabaret princess at Sal Bellomo’s Stems Supper Club, before one day transforming into a silver-screen starlet.
That’d make for a pretty good feature in someone’s gossip rag, she reasoned. And, hell, it was even true. For color, she might pepper in the fact that her brother was a gangster and a veteran of the Great War, and that she had done six months in a miserable dress factory while he was in France killing Jerries to make ends meet.
Nah. He’d kill me if I told anybody he’s a gangster.
The clarinet player started his solo. It was really, really time to go now.
She hurried out of her dressing room and galloped down the last few stairs from the second floor, then skirted past the kitchen where workers prepared overpriced and underwhelming meals for the supper club’s patrons. The air in the short hallway between the kitchen and the dining room was cold, as the workers went in and out to dump trash and take smoke breaks. The October weather was chilly and damp and lingered when allowed inside, but the body heat generated from two hundred and fifty whoopee-seekers gobbled it up fast like greedy children in a penny candy store.
Mia stepped through a door that opened to the back of the dining room. Tables filled the outer edges of the room and in the mezzanine, where people could eat their fill and drink in a relaxed atmosphere. Against the far wall, opposite of where she’d entered, the troupe of long-legged Stems dancers posed on stage in their short, bright-white dresses and shining silver heels. A large crowd filled the dance floor just in front of it. Sticking to a shadowy corner, Mia, in her bright red dress with its elaborate, sparkling beadwork and the complementary gauche white headband, went unnoticed. For now.
The band, outfitted in identical tuxedoes, was arranged on a balcony above the stage. There was plenty of room for the main attraction—Mia, the Saturday Night Special, as she was widely known in Chicago. The painted, framed poster outside Stems announced her just that way. It had been her idea, she’d insisted on it, and Nick had dug into his pocket to make it happen. Every time she walked into Stems, she paused for a moment at the door, drinking in the sight of herself in an alluring red dress, flashing her trademark smile. It wasn’t quite her name in lights, but it was a damn good start.
As the long piano and clarinet introduction of “Everybody Loves My Baby” lazily neared its end, Mia stepped out of the shadows and began strolling between the tables toward the crowd on the dance floor. An unsuspecting young man in a rumpled suit with his fedora hanging off the crown of his head stood to her right. Mia reached out to pluck the short glass of whiskey from his hand. He turned, at first indignant, then, catching sight of Mia tipping back his glass with a wink, he flashed a dopey, inviting smile.
She pushed the empty glass back in his hand without another glance. The introduction ended, and a brief beat of silence ensued before the bright, brassy horns burst open the song, just beneath the sound of her voice as she began to sing.
Her early days in vaudeville had taught her to command her voice and control it while projecting it at the top of her lungs. It was a challenge sometimes, on nights like tonight when it was a packed house, to make her voice rise above the din and the music, but her audience usually quieted down enough to hear the song.
As she’d hoped, every set of eyes in the room swiveled toward her, and faces lit up in pleasure. The Saturday Night Special had arrived in time for the party, after all. Mia smiled, and the crowd applauded and cheered and parted as she strutted toward the stage, hands on her hips. On stage, the dancers kicked up to the ceiling.
A group of fellows clustered off to one side caught her eye. Mia headed straight for them. In the space of a breath between lyrics, she grabbed one by his necktie and unceremoniously yanked him down until he was nose-to-nose with her. Vincenzo Fiore, one of the newer members of Nick’s outfit, recruited only a year ago. Nick had taken especial glee in informing Mia earlier that afternoon at rehearsals that Vinnie had questioned why Nick had not retained more well-known entertainment for Sal’s birthday party.
“Asked if because you’re my sister, I gotta make you the pity gig,” Nick had finished, grinning impishly at her subsequent rage.
Vinnie choked and coughed as she yanked on his tie again.
“Pity gig?” she hissed.
She shoved him back and resumed singing without missing a beat, sashaying her way through the small group, playfully straightened bowties and pinching cheeks, taking stock of her brother’s guests.
There was the straight-faced and serious Moritz Schapiro, a close friend of her brother’s from Manhattan who’d accompanied Nick on his trip back from New York. The young Jewish man was an associate of Mr. Goldberg’s and had been instrumental in arranging the meeting between him and Nick.
Also in attendance from New York was Charlie Lazzari, Nick’s best friend and former brother-in-arms. Though the grief Nick would give her for flirting with Charlie would be tiresome and more than likely result in a row between them, Mia paused in front of Charlie anyway, lightly skimming his lapel with her fingertips before tossing a wink over her shoulder.
Charlie and Moritz represented Nick’s interests in the East and were his closest partners in the operation, so tonight was as much their celebration as Nick’s or Sal’s, too.
Finally, she made her way onto the stage and fell seamlessly into step with her dancers. Her Charleston was snappy and high, her shimmy fast and made the beadwork on her red dress glitter madly in the lights. The crowd went wild for her, and she pasted on her brightest, most dazzling smile as the house lights hit her right in the eyes.
On the other side of the room, her brother leaned against the bar, grinning and shaking his head. She knew what that familiar, mocking grin meant—he was proud of her.
After all, he had told her to turn the place upside down tonight.
Her skills at working a room and a stage had been honed from a young age. After she and Nick had been orphaned as children and left to fend for themselves, Mia entered vaudeville by chance, first as a dressing room assistant to the female stars, and then as a performer herself, at the ripe old age of eleven. That same year, The Birth of a Nation made its film debut and launched a young woman into superstardom. Mia’s dream took root and blossomed—she would be the Italian Lillian Gish, no matter how many stages she had to stand on and how many utterly filthy jokes she had to recite and pretend not to understand for the amusement of older men.
Years later, sometimes while on the Stems stage in Chicago, Mia looked out and saw the same nasty older men, and she was eleven years old again.
“Where you at, girl?” Annette Elliot hissed as she passed behind Mia on the stage with the other dancers.
With a jolt, Mia realized she’d missed a step but recovered gracefully, as though she’d meant to do it, and fell back in with the dancers as the jaunty music swelled behind her and swallowed her voice. Annette was the best dancer in the group and responsible for the choreography, so her sharp eyes naturally caught Mia’s mistake even if no one else had.
The Capone brothers, now just Al and Ralph after Frank’s shooting death that spring, sat down at a front row table at the edge of the dance floor. Both men acknowledged her, Al with a point of his finger and Ralph with a wave. Mia tried not to show her surprise on her face. It was no secret among them that the Capones and their boss, Johnny Torrio, were no great friends of Sal’s. Johnny and Sal had had a falling out back in their Five Points days in New York, and had never recovered from it. Were it not for Nick, they might be openly hostile with one another, but because of her brother’s friendship with the Outfit and his allegiance to Sal, they remained rigidly cordial.
Sal had invited the Outfit earlier in the week, and Johnny had immediately sent his regrets. Mia had assumed that extended to the Capones as well, but here they were, although now they were hardly paying her any attention as they chatted and looked warily around the room.
The band launched into “Who’s Sorry Now?” as movement at the door caught Mia’s eye. Strolling in with an arrogant smirk was none other than Dean O’Banion himself.
What the hell’s he doing here?
For Dean and the Capones to be under the same roof was an explosion waiting to happen—perhaps literally. Either Dean, a walking dead man after setting Johnny up to be arrested in a raid at the Sieben Brewery that spring, was monumentally stupid, or he had protection.
Mia cut her eyes toward the Capones; both brothers’ gazes were locked on him. Nick appeared at Al’s side so suddenly Mia almost missed a lyric. He bent down to speak into Al’s ear, gesturing wildly, until Al nodded stiffly and waved a hand. A silent acquiescence that he would not make a move on his enemy here, now.
Who the hell invited Deanie?
It certainly hadn’t been Nick. Though he didn’t have an outright problem with the Irishman, his friendship with the Outfit was well known.
Mia spun on the ball of her foot in time to the music. As she came out of the turn, she spotted Sal sauntering over to O’Banion and the few men he’d brought, shaking his hand like they were the best of friends.
Oh. That’s who invited him.
There was no time to wonder about that now, however. Next on her set list was “My Man,” followed by “I’m Nobody’s Baby.” By the time the last number ended, the crowd had filled out to near capacity, and several more noteworthy—and surprising—guests had arrived. Among them was Kiddo Grainger, part of the Wolfy Harold outfit in New York. Wolfy, the most notorious black gangster in the city, was heavily into the narcotics trade and looking to expand. Kiddo was a top man in his outfit, and had been in Chicago for several months now on his boss’s orders to peddle heroin—and he’d also taken up with Annette, who dished about his business aspirations constantly.
It was time for a break and for the band and dancers to refresh themselves. As they left the stage, Mia snagged Annette’s elbow. “Your boyfriend’s here. Just saw him.”
“He—he’s here?” Annette’s warm brown eyes widened and fixed on her. But she didn’t seem excited. Rather, she seemed nervous. Almost fearful.
Mia drew her head back, studying her. “Thought you’d be thrilled.”
A mask of smooth indifference dropped over Annette’s face. “Course I am,” she said, her Mississippi twang blurring pleasantly on Mia’s ears. “He just ain’t tell me he was invited.”
Something about that didn’t seem right. “Why wouldn’t he mention it?” Mia asked.
“I’m sure he did and I just missed it,” Annette said quietly, but there was something dark and off in her voice. She shook herself slightly and flashed a bright smile. “Well, ain’t that a gas. My man come to see me. You best go powder your nose, now.” She ducked into the dancers’ dressing room.
Perhaps it was stress from the evening that had her out of sorts. Annette was under constant pressure from Sal to deliver excellent routines, and she was also the resident seamstress. As all the girls were, she was underpaid, though much of that had to do with her brown skin as not just Sal’s cheapskate tendencies. He’d made her undergo the humiliating “paper-bag test” to ensure she’d fit in with the other dancers, and required her to powder her skin on top of that. Annette always treated him with respect and deference, but it was no secret she detested the man. She wasn’t the only one.
Before Mia could give it another thought, Nick and Sal approached her. “Well, well,” Sal said in a beery voice. “Saturday Night showed up for my birthday!”
Mia rolled her eyes and accepted his pinching fingers on her cheek. “You know I’m here every night, Sally.”
“Your best show yet, kid.” He cuffed her chin.
“Don’t go blowing up my sister’s head any more than it is, Sal,” Nick chimed in, slinging an arm around Mia’s shoulders. “Don’t need it getting any bigger. She’s already such a peach.”
Mia elbowed him hard in the ribs. “Go chase yourself.”
“Now, children,” Sal said, waggling a finger mock-warningly.
He was in a buoyant mood this evening, his normally dour disposition lightening to a playfulness Mia rarely saw. It had little to do with his birthday, she knew. Only one thing could please him so much—money. Nick’s new deal must really have buttered his bread, but no one should be surprised. Nick was money-hungry and business-savvy, the perfect combination to getting rich, and he’d proven his mettle with the deal. He already had a few key warehouses, trucks, and an impressive clientele list that included club owners, rich socialites, and most importantly, through them, a path to the politicians.
The product itself was of surpassing quality compared to the bathtub gin and rotgut whiskey that flowed through the city now; 1925 was only a couple months away, and with the recent election, Prohibition showed absolutely no signs of slowing down anytime soon, if ever. Desperate for cheap liquor, scofflaws settled for anything as long as it could get them drunk, and quick. As a result, bootleggers had made a fortune by fermenting vegetables for alcohol and adding it to existing liquor diluted down to almost nothing with water, and topping it all off with commercial liquor. It was vile, undrinkable swill—until there was no other option, including giving up drinking altogether.
Nick’s product, manufactured by an old war buddy in Templeton, Iowa, was a pure rye whiskey so exceptionally good he was confident the right people—the rich—would pay whatever price he asked. A certain quantity would be manufactured pure for this clientele and sold at an exorbitant cost, while another batch would be made and cut with water before bottling to lower the cost and make it accessible to regular joes. Nothing extra would be added. Even partially diluted, it was far better stuff than what the average working-class man or college student could get his hands on. At least, it didn’t contain any wood alcohol, and no one Mia knew of had died from drinking it.
Sal had been lucky to recruit Nick to join his outfit when he had two years earlier, during a visit to Atlantic City, where she and Nick had lived since moving there in 1920. He’d been brought into the fold to be an enforcer for Sal, but he was cunning and fearless, two prized qualities that had catapulted him to the position of caporegime despite his young age. Additionally, he was somewhat short, strong but not bulky. Nothing about him revealed his explosive temper and penchant for violence, but he preferred—enjoyed—being underestimated.
At the age of twenty-five, he was one of the most feared gangsters in Chicago, and his notoriety had reached as far as their hometown of New York City. He was a made man in Sal’s organization, the large scar on his right palm evident of that sacred ritual, and he was respected. Moreover, that respect had been well-earned.
“I’m getting a drink,” Mia said, “and then I’m putting my feet up for a bit. Let ’em sweat.”
Sal glared at her, jolly mood vanishing. “You can’t be done already.”
Mia steeled herself against the urge to cringe; this was the part of Sal she’d grown to know and dislike over the past two years. Though he was frequently a grouch, there was a switch in his moods that could turn him from merely in a constant state of annoyance to bordering on angry. And she did not care for him when he was angry.
“Just want to make the fellas squirm,” she said lightly, glancing at Nick. Help me!
He was studying Sal intently, like a stray dog who spots another, unfamiliar stray dog in an alley. “Yeah, Sal,” he chimed in, his light tone matching Mia’s as he pulled her closer to his side. “Give the kid a break. She’s been going strong for half a dozen numbers now, and dancin’, too.”
“Oh, sorry,” Sal said, the mocking in his tone actually making Mia wince this time. “I thought I hired an entertainer. Not some spoiled brat who plays at being one.”
The insult concerned her only because she was afraid of what Nick would do. Ever since he’d come home from the war six years ago, he’d been, in many ways, drastically different than the brother she remembered. She would never have accused him of having a cool head before, but now, he possessed a hair-trigger temper that required only the slightest perceived insult to set it off.
She blinked up at her brother as his arm tightened across her shoulders. For some months now, it seemed he and Sal bickered more often over matters of business and also trivial things, like whether or not to fix the can upstairs that Mia used. Away from Sal, Nick complained about him frequently, about the club, about the brothel Sal ran out of the second floor. Nothing could please Sal, Nick said. Apparently not even a birthday party or news of a liquor deal that would make them millionaires in short order.
“I want to hear another song,” Sal went on, as petulantly as a tired child. “C’mon. It’s my party, I got a lot of important pals here.” He glanced at Nick. “Plus your little buddies.”
Mia cast another glance at her brother. He tried to remain as neutral between the Outfit and Sal as he could, but those little slights got under his skin.
“Find the band and the dancers, and tell ’em to get their asses back on that stage,” Sal said. He gestured lazily at Mia. “Including the little angel here.”
Perhaps it was the whiskey, Mia thought, eyeing the glass of rye in his hand. His eyes were bloodshot, his bowtie undone. He tended to get rather belligerent when he was zozzled.
“Let her get some water first,” Nick said in a quiet, flat voice.
“Here, kid, have some water.” Sal smirked and shoved his glass at Mia. The whiskey sloshed over the side of the glass and splattered onto the front of her dress and down her legs.
“Sal!” she said crossly, taking the handkerchief Nick immediately extended to her and dabbing her dress.
“Ah, don’t cry about it,” he snapped. He pulled out his pocket watch, blinking at the display. “You got five minutes, then all yous better be on the goddamn stage or ain’t none of yous getting paid.”
“I’ll see to it,” Nick said. “Go back out there, Sally. Everyone wants to see you.”
Sal started to step away, then teetered on his feet for a moment, staring at Nick. He lifted the glass, extending his index finger until it was level with Nick’s nose. “See me,” he repeated in a low voice. “And don’t you forget it.” He lingered for another moment before turning and ambling back into the main area of the club.
“What the hell was that, Nick?” Mia demanded.
“Go clean up,” he said softly, nudging her toward the water closet. “I’ll get the band and the girls. Go on. And hey, sing ‘Somebody Loves Me.’ Everyone loves that song. Especially Sal.”
She despised the song. “I don’t.”
“Sing it anyway.”
She frowned at him, but he only gave her another little push before striding off for the dancers’ dressing room.
In the water closet, Mia used the handkerchief to dry off her dress as best she could before wiping off her shins. A heavily embroidered monogram in one corner of the hanky caught her eye. It read “AME” in a thick, beautiful script. It had to have been expensive. Mia tilted her head, wondering where her brother had gotten it.
“Not another dame,” she groaned aloud. Nick was her best friend, and no one would ever come before him in terms of her loyalty, but he was a cad. He was darkly dangerous, and broads fell over themselves to simper at him. He loved the attention, and gave into it regularly. He loved his wife Gloria, Mia knew he did, and loved their daughter Emilia even more. He’d die for them, and he had never raised even so much his voice at Gloria, let alone his hand, but he just couldn’t keep his salsicce to himself.
Mia wasn’t dumb; it was part of the life, both crime and show business. But she was Emilia’s godmother, and more and more, Gloria had complained to her about his catting around and demanding to know what Mia knew. It was putting a strain on their little family, and as it was the only family Mia had, since her and Nick’s parents were long dead, she resented her brother’s actions. While no amount of nagging from his scorned wife had ever gotten him to behave, Mia had stopped turning a blind eye to his shenanigans and had ordered him to get his act together a few months ago. Gradually, he’d stopped his habit of coming by her hotel room to get a fresh shirt in the wee hours of the morning after he’d been with another woman. He kept a stash of clean ones at Mia’s place and left the dirty, lipstick-stained ones for her maid to launder for him. To her knowledge, he’d been doing much better lately—or so she’d thought.
Mia left the bathroom and went to the dancers’ dressing room, intending to ask her brother about the handkerchief. The girls were busily touching themselves up, but Nick was gone—probably off fetching the band.
Mia sauntered over to one of the dancers, Nancy, a pretty young thing with a soft, curly brown bob. “Have you got any lipstick?”
“Fresh out,” the girl replied. “But Annie has some.” She thumbed over her shoulder at Annette’s vanity.
Mia glanced around the small room; Annette was gone, and Mia hadn’t seen her waiting for the can. “Thanks. Where’d she go? We only got a five-minute break. And Sal’s already flipped his lid at me once tonight.”
Nancy rolled her eyes. “There’s no pleasing him. I don’t know where she went, but she walked out with your brother when he was here a bit ago.”
Walked out with Nick?
Mia shrugged. There were more pressing matters at hand, like finding some lipstick. She plucked a little silver tube on Annette’s vanity, uncapped it, and rolled it up. Blood red, her favorite color, and it matched her dress perfectly. Mia touched up her lips and swiped her fingertips under her eyes in case her smoky eye shadow or her mascara had smudged. She was about to turn and walk out when she noticed a white handkerchief folded near the edge of the vanity. The top corner revealed a heavily embroidered monogram in pretty, curling script.
At once, she knew.
Annette Maybelle Elliott.
Mia slowly picked up the folded hanky and stared at the monogram. Then she glanced at the one Nick had given her to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. They were identical.
“The son of a bitch,” she muttered, crushing both in each fist.
“Aren’t those pretty?” Julia, a dashing platinum blonde who claimed to be eighteen but was really seventeen, gushed. She plucked the hanky from Mia’s fingers. “Her boyfriend had them made special for her in New York City. They’re even perfumed. She can’t stop waving them around and it’s terribly obnoxious, but I can’t help being a little envious.” Julia smiled impishly and sniffed the handkerchief. “Mm. French, I think. Smell it. I sure wish I had a boyfriend who treated me so nice. Anyhow, we’d better go, hadn’t we?”
“Yes,” Mia said icily. “Get the rest of the girls and get onstage.”
Julia’s bright smile faded; Mia was normally much friendlier, and never was she cold as she was now. “Yes, Miss Scalisi. Girls, come on.”
Mia tossed the handkerchief back where she’d found it and looked down at the one her brother had given her. So Nick was carrying on with Annette. It was one thing for him to take up with girls she didn’t know. But to cat around with a dancer here, where he managed things and everyone knew everyone, crossed a line.
Because then, she couldn’t ignore it or play dumb to Gloria.
She’d have to take it up with him, and boy, would she give him an earful. Only the thought of giving full vent to her rage later on pacified her now.
The girls had cleared out quickly. She could only hear the faintest clicks of the girls’ heels as they trotted toward the stage, where she needed to be, but she decided to find Nick first.
As she passed the water closet, low, harsh voices from inside caught her attention, and she paused, leaning close to the door to listen.
“…here tonight, Nick, your sister done told me so herself. Why he here? Since when he get invited to Sal’s parties?”
“I didn’t invite him,” Nick snapped. “Why the hell would I go and do a thing like that?”
“Well, who did?”
“Maybe Sal did. Hell, he invited O’Banion, for Christ’s sake. He seems to have plenty of friends and business associates I don’t approve of.”
The bitter note in her brother’s voice made Mia narrow her eyes. It was one thing to complain to her about Sal, but Annette had no business knowing these things. She was an outsider.
“Since when he got any business with Kiddo?”
“I don’t know, Annie. He’s been saying for a while he wants to get into the heroin business. Lot of money in the powder. Maybe that’s got something to do with it.”
Mia frowned, momentarily distracted. She’d told her brother repeatedly not to get involved with drugs. She’d seen too many good girls in vaudeville get hooked on heroin, beautiful girls with talent who all ended up the same way—strung-out junkies, shattered shells of their former selves, letting themselves be used by any man with a nickel to flip them when he was through, which they’d promptly give away for more drugs instead of a hot meal.
She put her hand on the knob, intending to burst in and interrupt their little chat.
“I don’t want him here.” Annette’s voice took on a fearful edge, and Mia stopped. “He hurt me bad last time, Nick. He said he ain’t never letting me go, and I ain’t got no way to leave him. I only get peace when he go back to New York a few days at a time. Then I can see you, and—and—”
She broke off and there was a long pause. Mia heard her weeping softly.
“Hush,” her brother said in a gentle, kind voice. “Hush now. You know I won’t let him hurt you.”
In a flash, Mia recalled the bruises she’d occasionally seen on Annette’s upper arms and her wrists. She’d once caught her applying theater greasepaint to her skin to conceal them. Mia had never asked about the marks—until one day Annette had shown up with a black eye.
“For a dancer, I’m just a big ol’ klutz,” she’d laughingly said. “Would you believe I slipped in the bathroom and banged my face on the sink?”
Mia had believed it. It had never crossed her mind that a woman who seemed as strong and sure as Annette was getting smacked around by her boyfriend at home.
“He can’t see us together,” Annette said, her voice trembling. “He—he already thinks— He’ll kill me, Nick.”
There were a few more unintelligible soft murmurings. Mia slowly withdrew her hand. She lingered another moment, staring at the door, then turned and walked away.
All the fight had gone out of her.
Nick helped dry Annette’s tears and sent her on her way, making sure no one was left backstage. Even Mia had beat Annette to the stage, which meant Annette was really late.
He sighed and shook his head, staring at himself in the cracked, dirty mirror of the club’s employee john. Tonight was supposed to be a night to celebrate, but ever since he’d gotten back from New York, one thing after another had gone wrong. His wife was sore at him—as usual—about not calling while he was gone. His two-year-old daughter hadn’t been excited to see him as she normally was and had pitched fit after fit since he’d been home, making it impossible for him to think or rest. As a result, he’d taken up in a room at the Lexington Hotel where his sister Mia lived, and that had only added to his wife’s ire. He loved Gloria, but she just didn’t understand anything about his business or what he needed to conduct it thoroughly. And she was always sore about all the girls. A flash of shame went through him at the thought.
Annette was only supposed to be some fun, a welcome distraction from his problems at home, but after a few rolls in the hay, she’d latched onto him. She was a nice girl, beautiful, sweet, but he wasn’t in love with her the way she apparently seemed to be in love with him. He could only ever love his wife, no matter how many girls he had. But when her stupid boyfriend had returned to town after a few days away last month, Nick hadn’t seen her since in that fashion, only at the club. Sure, they’d stolen a few more moments together in the supply closet or the back office or upstairs in one of the “lounges” as Sal called them—glorified whores’ rooms—when they weren’t being used, but they’d never spent another night together. Nick had been meaning to break it off with her for a couple weeks now, but there didn’t seem to be a good time. And tonight, she’d let him know that same boyfriend was beating her up.
He clenched his jaw against the wave of anger that went through him. He was no perfect man, that was for sure, and Mia was always giving him endless what-for about needing to be a better husband to his wife—to say nothing of the shit he got from Gloria—but he’d never lift a hand to a woman, ever. His father had never done that to his mother when they were alive, and in fact, his father had always been faithful to her, too.
Shame burned on the tail end of the anger. If Papa could see him now, he’d be ashamed of Nick. He’d taught him better. Even as a boy, Nick had learned how important it was to treat your family, and how to be a real man. What would Papa think now of the man Nick had become? Nick lifted his eyes to his reflection. Feared, tough, powerful, and soon, wealthy—very wealthy. He had more money now than his father had ever dreamed was a possibility, let alone possessed, when he died. His father had never been a powerful or feared man, though he had been tough. Papa had been a poor, quiet, hardworking man devoted to his family and giving them what little he could. Nick funded both the luxury apartment he shared with his wife and daughter, the hotel suite his sister lived in, clothes, food, bills, and presents and trinkets for all. Money was no longer a worry, and with this new deal, it would never again be a worry.
Still, he wasn’t sure he could measure up to his father.
He grimaced at his reflection. He certainly couldn’t measure up to whatever standards Sal had in mind for him.
There had been no congratulations on a job well done offered when he had returned. Sal had only grunted in acknowledgement when Nick had given him the rundown of what had happened in Manhattan at Hyman Goldberg’s ornate midtown penthouse mansion. Not that Nick needed it. The job had been well done, and he’d come home with two million dollars of Mr. Goldberg’s in cash to show for it.
When the seeds of the deal had begun to germinate earlier that year, Nick had gone to his two best friends—Charlie Lazzari and Moritz Schapiro, both of whom he’d known from the Lower East Side days. Moritz had “business” with Goldberg, which was just him being too proud to call Goldberg his boss, and had suggested him as a possible investor, promising to court him with the idea. Apparently, he’d successfully piqued Goldberg’s interest and curiosity, as a meeting was facilitated, though no promise of anything was guaranteed. “The rest is up to you,” Moritz had said to Nick. “I’ve led him to water. Now you must make him drink.”
So, Nick had taken the long train ride to New York for the sole purpose of making Hyman Goldberg unbearably thirsty. Moritz had met Nick at the station in New York and taken him to the penthouse, where he’d been offered every comfort of his host’s home before settling down to business.
“Two million dollars is rather a lot of money, Domenico,” Hyman Goldberg had said from behind his enormous desk, peering at Nick over the rim of his gold-edged highball glass. “In principle, of course. Saying nothing of returns on my investment, or security.”
Nick had kept the smile on his face, fighting the urge to sneer. Goldberg wiped his ass with two million dollars; in fact, his office, where they’d been seated, probably cost more than that, with its Italian marble floors, Roman columns, painted ceilings, and gold-flecked walls. Not to mention the custom walnut and mahogany furniture, the bronze lamps, the crystal chandelier. Hyman had decent taste, albeit over the top.
“Your investment will be secure,” he’d insisted. “My partners and I, we got enough of our own money to ensure that.”
Sal really ought to have been there doing the talking, but this was Nick’s deal, Nick’s baby, and the only reason Sal was getting a piece of the action was because Nick had no choice. It would have been taken as a sign of supreme disrespect if Nick hadn’t involved Sal, and other outfits in the city, perhaps the country, would have considered them weak if Sal Bellomo’s right-hand man was dealing around him.
Nick stared down at his palm, tracing the long scar there with first his eyes and then the index finger of his left hand. At first, it’d been a scar he’d worn proudly. It had been a sign of respect. These days, it felt like the mark of a slave, the brand of livestock. He was something to be used and controlled then brushed aside.
When he’d first met Sal, Nick had seen an opportunity. A chance to start over and to break out on his own. For too many years he’d been at the service of other gangs—first as an errand boy for the Five Points gang, placing bets and picking up money and delivering messages around the neighborhood, and then, when he’d grown a little older, he’d started going along on hits. And then he’d started setting up the men who were going to get hit. Because the gangs paid him well to do that, he started setting up both sides when two gangs went to war. Unsurprisingly, he’d gotten himself into some trouble. Getting drafted to go to war seemed like a godsend at the time, to get away from the trouble he’d caused, and when he returned, everybody who’d wanted him dead was either dead themselves or in jail.
But if he’d deserved retribution for what he’d done, he’d paid his dues. He’d spent six months in freezing, wet French trenches, trying not to get killed by Jerry bullets and watching his brothers-in-arms get shot and blown to pieces all around him. And then there were the nightmares that he still had, even now, six years later.
Sal had offered him the chance to start over, get out of crowded New York where Nick felt like he was constantly looking over his shoulder and the cops were harassing him almost daily. Plus, Gloria’s uncle Joe, who ran a grocery on Mulberry Street, was always writing letters to Gloria’s parents back home in Sicily, telling them what a hoodlum he was and how Gloria should never have married him and all that baloney. It was nice to get away from Joe and his disapproving stares at Sunday dinner every week. Another man whose standards Nick couldn’t meet, despite giving Joe a handsome sum every month to keep his business going, and to pay Joe “the Boss” Masseria protection money to keep the neighborhood safe.
Chicago was new, exciting, dangerous. Jazz, booze, fast girls, and fun times, but it also had a small-town, close-knit feeling, too, that made him happy to raise his daughter there. His sister hadn’t seemed overjoyed with the move, but anywhere was better than her dumpy little boarding-house room off the boardwalk or the freezing Lower East Side tenement they’d grown up in.
He was grateful to Sal for the opportunity. Gloria seemed to like it all right, though she wasn’t happy about leaving her aunt and uncle. Mia was a star in the city. Nick had made more money in the two years they’d been here than he’d made in his entire life before. People complained about Prohibition, but it sure was easy for a smart fellow to make some cash, and a lot of it. It was the best thing that ever happened.
But Nick was under no illusions about Sal. Where Torrio was regarded with the utmost respect, of being diplomatic in matters of business, and disliking violence, Sal was viewed by other outfits across the country as being little better than “some street hood in a tailored suit.”
It was just as well he’d sent Nick off to do his dirty work—even though he’d be reaping all the benefits with hardly expending more than a grunt of approval.
Visiting with Goldberg hadn’t been unpleasant. The man, just in his early forties, had been a gracious host, providing Nick the finest suite of the hotel he was a quiet investor in, treating him to a fine meal and entertainment at the Cotton Club. When they’d finally sat down in his opulent, cavernous office, the businessman had proved to be far from easily won over, asking specific questions about the operation, the trucks, the distribution areas, the VIPs of the payroll—that was, police, politicians, and prohis, men on the take who would look the other way or get them out of trouble altogether.
Rich, intelligent men like Hyman had always intimidated Nick. After years of being the head of his family, he’d spent most of his time worrying about where the next meal would come from and how to make another dollar, not how to talk to obscenely wealthy men. So often, he was the one who felt like a street hood in a tailored suit.
But he had answered every question with ease and detail, not because he’d expected them, but because he knew the logistics of this deal, inside and out. For months, he’d worked tirelessly to make this a reality. His old war buddy, Will Wyatt from Iowa who had been in his regiment and fought alongside him in France, made the rye, the finest Nick had ever sampled. Once they’d decided to manufacture and sell it, Nick had meticulously researched markets and routes. He’d poured his own money into the operation, he’d bought trucks, he’d hired only the most reliable and loyal of men. This was his moment. This was his time to shine, to get rich, to harness the power he’d always wanted to have. He admired his dead father for being a humble, hardworking man, but Nick was ambitious and cunning—and only a fool couldn’t see the money to be made in this noble national experiment. He had a daughter to raise, a wife to take care of, a sister to support, and goddammit, he didn’t want to break his back for just enough money for a tiny, roach-infested tenement. He wanted more, he deserved more. And he would take all he could get.
And if Sal didn’t appreciate him… Fuck him.
Nick pushed away from the sink and headed out of the water closet. He needed to get back to the party, or Sal’s tender vanity would be offended yet again. Nick smirked as he ran his hands over his slicked-back hair and straightened his tie. He’d ducked in here for what he’d thought would be a quickie with Annette, but since that hadn’t happened, there was little about his appearance that needed tidying.
Mia was up onstage, singing “Somebody Loves Me,” which made him grin. She hated the song, in particular the line about how there should be a girl for every single man. He could see her roll her eyes from the back of the club.
He glanced around, noting the way the crowd responded to her. Men were falling all over themselves, of course. They always had, even when she’d been a kid in vaudeville. Nick hadn’t enjoyed her being in the shows, but she’d always had a natural knack for singing and dancing, and she’d learned to refine her skills from the musicians and actors in the productions. Besides, it earned a few extra coins a week they desperately needed; in those days, being an errand boy for the gangsters hadn’t been as lucrative. As long as the fellows in the crowd kept their distance, Nick was fine. It was the ones who hadn’t he’d had to straighten out.
Mia was an engaging performer, interacting with the audience, teasing dames and guys alike, making them laugh and sing along. She was bigger than this club, Nick realized as he watched her float from one side of the stage to the other. She could dance better than any flapper in town, all while singing without ever sounding out of breath. Her voice wasn’t the best in the business, but she was good. It was her showmanship that made her the pro the she was. Even the town felt like it could hardly contain her.
She’d been dying to break out onto bigger stages, and maybe even wind up in pictures. At the moment, Nick didn’t know any film directors, but he knew a few important showmen in town. The most important of them being A.J. Balaban, owner of the Chicago Theatre. Nick had met him at a party he’d been supplying the booze for, and offered Mr. Balaban a sample of the pure rye from Templeton. Mr. Balaban had promptly asked for a caseload when it was ready. Nick promised to cut him a deal, if he’d only do him a favor—let his little sister come audition for him.
He pulled his pocket watch from his suit coat. The man would be arriving any moment.
When the song ended, Mia flashed her trademark grin at the audience. It was the mirror image of his own, down to the dimple in her right cheek. He had one in his left, and they always joked that between them, they had a complete set. But for their four-year age difference, they could have been twins.
“Let’s everyone give a great big hand to the birthday boy,” she called out. “Mr. Sal Bellomo!”
The guests burst into a roar of applause and cheers. Sal, near the back of the room where he was chatting with a few broads, merely raised a glass with hardly a smile. Nick clapped dutifully, because people were watching, but it was with bitterness. If it had been his birthday, he’d have been gracious about it, going up to stand next to his sister and modestly wave at the crowd, thank them for coming, tell them the champagne was on the house. That was how to appeal to the masses and gain loyalty. And behind blood, loyalty was the most important thing.
“And now, I think we oughtta sing for him,” Mia went on, her smile still dazzling. “What do you say? That jake with you bums?”
She led them in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” followed by “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Nick didn’t sing along.
When that ended, Mia waved at the crowd. “Well, that’s all for me tonight, folks,” she said to a chorus of groans. “Hey, hey! I didn’t say I was going home. First fella to the bar gets to buy my drinks for the night!”
Nick smirked at the sudden shift in the crowd as a dozen young men catapulted toward the bar. He knew Mia was going to go up to her dressing room and take her sweet time coming back, keeping them waiting for however long she deemed appropriate. And the idiots would still be waiting there, and she’d have a dozen New York Sours and flutes of champagne to choose from. She was a pro when it came to working people—specifically, men—and Nick frequently wondered where the hell she’d learned to do it.
“She’s really something.”
The admiring male voice at his side made Nick whip around, his hand instinctively going to the gun he wore on his hip, beneath his suit coat. The speaker was in his late thirties, short slicked dark hair and a threadbare black moustache. He wore an expensive looking black suit.
Nick narrowed his eyes. The guy apparently didn’t know who he was talking to. “I know you?”
The man gave Nick a friendly smile and extended his hand. “Levi Smith. I’m a friend of A.J. Balaban. You know, over at the Chicago Theatre?”
“Yeah,” Nick replied carefully. “We’re friendly, Mr. Balaban and me. But, no offense, I thought he was coming.” He folded his arms. “I never heard of you.”
“I’m a representative of Mr. Balaban’s,” Smith said. “He sent me here special to have a look at your sister. I’m aware of your, er, agreement, but Mr. Balaban’s still a businessman.”
So Smith was here to make sure his sister wasn’t a dud. Nick narrowed his eyes. “That wasn’t quite the agreement. Plus, I told him he didn’t have anything to worry about. Mia’s a pro.”
“Yes, well,” Smith said, tugging at his shirt collar. “He’s a businessman, you see. He has to make wise investments.”
“Don’t we all.” Nick took a small step closer. “So, Smith, you here to waste my time?”
“Not at all,” Smith said, his voice wavering slightly. “I think Mr. Balaban will be delighted to have her come down to the theater for an audition. Here’s my card.” He handed over a fancy embossed calling card. “My name and telephone number are printed on the back, but Mr. Balaban says she can come down anytime she likes.”
“Thanks.” Nick took the card. “Tell him to expect us soon.”
“I will. Will you and her manager be accompanying her?”
Nick fixed him with a stare. “I happen to be one and the same.”
Smith nodded rapidly. “Of course, of course. You’re her brother. What better manager could a girl ask for?”
Nick’s gaze traveled across the room, landing on Sal, who now stood with three men he didn’t recognize by the far wall. Not him. That’s for sure.
Smith cleared his throat and put on his hat. “Hope to see the two of you soon. Good evening.”
“Good evening,” Nick echoed as the man wove through the crowd toward the door.
A moment later, Charlie joined him. His best friend had been circulating the room, chatting business with Capones and keeping a wary eye on the Irish gang. “Who was that fella?”
Nick held up the card. “Balaban’s emissary. I got Mia an audition at the Chicago.”
Charlie looked impressed. “How about that. She’ll be thrilled.”
Nick tucked the card into his pocket. Across the room, Sal was still speaking to the three men. Sal pointed upward, then toward the back of the club, where the staircase to the second floor was situated next to the kitchen. The men headed in that direction.
Of course. That was where Sal kept a few girls for “enhanced entertainment” purposes. He was too proud to call it a brothel. Nick didn’t care one way or the other, but Mia’s dressing room was up there, too, at the back of the hall. She kept it locked when she was inside, but it didn’t seem to be enough. She had a hard enough time getting regular men to behave, let alone ones who thought they could get their jollies off with her. He’d been after Sal for a while to build another dressing room on the main level where the dancers’ was, but the man didn’t want the hassle. “I’d have to shut down for a while, and the place would look like a dump,” he complained every time Nick brought it up.
At least she’d have classier digs at the Chicago, Nick mused, rubbing his chin. Sure, Mia wouldn’t be the star anymore. She’d have to share that title with all the other girls who featured over there, but Balaban was a well-connected man. He probably knew a director or two.
“The sooner she gets out of this place, the better,” Nick told Charlie.
Charlie cocked an eyebrow. “I can’t see Sal liking the fact that his star performer’s taking off.”
“What happens with my sister ain’t none of Sal’s concern,” Nick said darkly. “He can find someone else. I’m sure one of the dancers can sing. Promote her. Or just have dancers. Plenty joints just have dancers and a band.” He tilted his head, marking where the Capones were in relation to where the Irish outfit was. There was no sign of O’Banion. “Where’s Deano?”
“Upstairs with a broad. Everyone else seems to be behaving. For now.”
“You tell Al and Ralph about the meeting with Goldberg?”
“Of course. Said they’re looking forward to sitting down with us and hashing out the details.”
It was a chess move, involving the Capones. A man couldn’t run booze in or out of Chicago without Al Capone knowing about it—that was the quickest and easiest way to start and lose a war. No, Nick had no choice, but in return for a small piece, Capone would supply protection where needed and even some warehouse space. Besides, he and Charlie had known all the Capone kids when they lived in Brooklyn; they’d practically grown up together. He and Nick had always been friendly, and Al wouldn’t take advantage. It was buying insurance.
“O’Murphy showed up, too,” Charlie added. “Asking to talk to you.”
“Better be good news.”
Arthur O’Murphy worked for Tom Dennison out of Omaha. The Grey Wolf, as he was known in that fine town, was a political boss, racketeer, and owned the city. He was friendly with the Capones, and like Hyman Goldberg, was an investor in the deal. Omaha was a key town in the liquor distribution route, but also like the Capones, Nick couldn’t just run in and out as he liked. Dennison had to be courted and wooed with high percentages and kickbacks.
“I think it is,” Charlie said. “Just wants to tell you personally.”
Nick swiped a hand down his face. “All right, that’s jake. I’ll make my rounds to them at some point, but I want you to get a meeting set up with them tomorrow, before any of the out-of-towners head back. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Charlie nodded, then paused. “Sal?”
Sal would, in an inexplicable attempt to show his “power,” likely veto the meeting if asked about it because he didn’t like O’Murphy, didn’t like the Capones, didn’t want to seem less of a boss than Nick was, Nick realized with a sigh. It was part of his insecurity, and despite the fact that Nick always did his best to defer to Sal during these sorts of business meetings, it was never enough.
“Don’t ask him nothing,” Nick said. “I’ll let him know we set it up. It’s better to just tell him it’s happening rather than give him the option to shut it down. I’ll deal with him later.”
“He’ll be sore.”
“When ain’t he?” Nick asked tiredly.
“That boss of yours,” Charlie said with a shake of his head. “I don’t understand him.”
“You and me both,” Nick muttered, glancing toward the back of the club. He checked his pocket watch; Mia had ended her performance nearly fifteen minutes ago, and the fellas at the bar waiting for her were getting a little rowdy. They’d been drinking shots of whiskey to kill the time, and the liquor was taking effect—they were starting to snap at each other like young lions feeling their blood, and soon enough, a brawl was going to break out. Nick could smell the tension and animosity in the air.
Mia loved to set the fireworks in a hot location, light the match, then douse the flames before the explosion happened—so where the hell was she?
“Look, Nick, I wasn’t going to say nothing here,” Charlie said, waving a hand around the club, “but I gotta say it now, since we’re talking about it and all. I don’t think Sal’s up to snuff. He thinks he’s running things, and let’s be honest—he’s ain’t.”
“I know, Charlie, but what do you want me to do?” Nick flipped his palms up and shrugged. “Start a fucking war right now? We need to get things going and make some dough first. That means playing nice. I know how to handle Sal, so let me worry about that. You and Morrie, you just worry about making sure everything runs smooth. We’re on good terms with Torrio and the Capones, and even though O’Murphy is a weak mick son of a bitch, I’m good with his boss. Let’s keep things that way for now. Until we got some cash in the bank. Give me six months of peace.”
“Six months of peace?” Charlie repeated, raising both eyebrows now. “And then what?”
Then what, indeed? The dark thoughts Nick had experienced over the past few months bubbled into his mouth to share with his best friend, but at the last second, he swallowed them back. To utter them aloud would put them into motion, and Nick still wasn’t sure that the thoughts were anything more than that—just thoughts.
“Nick,” Charlie said slowly, staring at him as though he could read his mind. “Then what?”
Nick held his best friend’s gaze. They’d grown up together in the slums, they’d gone to war together, and now they were in business together. He’d take a bullet for Charlie, and he knew without question Charlie would do the same for him. Nick didn’t truly trust anyone apart from his sister and his wife, but he trusted Charlie as much as was possible for him.
Still, he could not say the words.
“Nothing,” Nick said lightly, waving a hand. “We just—we just take stock of where we’re at, and move accordingly.”
Charlie’s eyes gleamed with understanding. “Sure,” he said in an equally light tone. He clapped Nick on the shoulder and squeezed. “That’s a good plan.”
Shit. He may as well have said it aloud, after all: Then we undo the bastard.
Before he could reply, the crowd in front of him shifted and rippled, and Moritz rushed toward them, a panicked look on his face. Nick’s brows shot up in surprise; his friend had always, even as a poor kid from a Polish-Russian Jewish family, taken pride in his appearance. Back in the day, his clothing was always neatly pressed and clean, if tattered, his wavy brown hair always combed. Now that he was older and had a great deal more money, thanks to less-than-legal business dealings, his clothing had improved considerably, but his finicky neatness had never changed. Now, however, his usually neatly combed back hair flopped over his broad forehead. He wore no suit coat, his waistcoat was unbuttoned and flapping around, and the top buttons of his shirt were undone.
“Morrie, what the hell?” Nick started, stepping toward him. “One of the dames chase you off for getting fresh—”
“Nick, come now,” Moritz said urgently. “It’s Mia. Come on. Come on!”
An automatic, uncontrollable surge of fury immediately blazed through Nick’s chest and up his throat. One of those bastards from the bar must have gotten drunk and stupidly brave and gone looking for her, he thought, reaching into his pocket for the blackjack he kept there. He’d had the weapon made in France years ago mostly as a personal souvenir, but the braided black leather tether that ended in a loop to slide over his middle finger on one side and in a small, leather-covered, weighted steel ball on the other had become a mainstay street weapon for him, and had, over the years, bloodied many faces and claimed hundreds of teeth of men who dared try him. And perhaps a few lives, when he got good and going.
Despite his fury, Nick remained calm but brutally shouldered through the crowd after Moritz, not caring if he knocked a drink out of a guy’s hand or a dame off her feet. He was hardly aware of anything now. The music had silenced beneath the humming roar that filled his ears, and his vision closed in until it tunneled a narrow path in the direction he needed to go.
At the staircase, he pushed past Moritz and bounded up the steps two at a time to the dimly lit, carpeted hallway. A few of the broads Sal employed were standing outside their rooms, wearing step-ins and kimonos, focused on what was happening at the end of the hall.
They turned to him, uttered words with frightened looks on their faces, but he paid them no mind, because he could hear her.
A woman screamed from the room at the end of the hall. A woman who sounded much like his sister.
Two men flanked the doorway, leaning against it casually as if they were merely relaxing, amused looks on their faces. They didn’t seem to notice him coming until he was practically upon them and ripped them from the doorway, hurtling them both to the floor at the same time.
Inside the room, Nick fixated on the back of a tall, broad man dressed in black. It was as though he filled the small space entirely, dwarfing the little vanity against the wall, a small rack of costumes opposite it. The man was struggling with something in front of him, and Nick’s hearing tuned back in, dulling the humming roar and focusing on the screaming woman’s voice.
He charged forward, just as the man pushed something up and away from him. His large paw grasped the much smaller wrist of Nick’s sister. A shiny object fell from her hand and bounced onto the floor, and Nick spared a fraction of a second to glance at it. A knife—the switchblade he’d given her a couple years ago.
There was blood on it.
Nick reared back and swung the blackjack in a huge overhead arc. The steel ball in its leather pouch used all the momentum it gathered from both the motion of Nick’s arm and the power of the short tether and crashed against the top of the man’s skull. The blow dazed him; he released Mia and stumbled backward. Nick deftly stepped out of the way, but grabbed him by the shoulder to help him along onto his ass in the hallway. He took a second to look at Mia. The front of her red dress was torn, and black streaks of mascara rolled down her cheeks. That was all he needed to see for now.
When the man crashed onto his back outside the dressing room, Nick jumped on top of him. He was vaguely aware that the man’s two friends were currently engaged with Charlie and Moritz, and in the span of a heartbeat, it wasn’t lost on Nick that the brawl he’d been so concerned about breaking out at the bar was now breaking out here, and he’d started it.
No, that wasn’t right. The middle-aged, mustached piece of shit beneath him had started it by picking the wrong girl to treat like a whore. Since she was eight years old, and he twelve, Mia had become Nick’s responsibility to protect at all costs. She was his only blood family he knew of. Their parents had immigrated to New York City from Catania, Sicily, when he was two. They’d settled on Elizabeth Street, had Mia a couple years later, and intended to raise their children in the hard-working tradition of the family they’d left behind, away from the violent influence of the mafia.
But their parents’ American dreams died as quickly as they did. Their father had suffered a fatal heart attack in 1906, shortly after Mia’s third birthday. Five years later, their mother died in a terrible fire at the shirtwaist factory she’d worked at for nine hours a day, every day. From that point on, Nick had been the parent, the guardian, the protector. He made sure they survived. They’d hustled together, they’d starved together, they’d frozen together. They’d gotten rich together, she was his best friend, his personal consigliere, and he’d die for her because he knew she’d die for him. Four years separated them, but they couldn’t have been closer than if they’d been born at the same time.
His sister. His surùzza.
He grabbed the man by the throat and swung the blackjack directly into his face.
With that first hit, he was no longer in a nightclub in Chicago; he was kneeling in the mud on a cold, cloudy day in France in 1918, jamming the tip of his bayonet into the carotid artery of some nameless, faceless young man who didn’t even speak his language, making sure he was dead, otherwise he’d get up and try to kill Nick again. The wind had whipped that day, almost freezing the tears on his cheeks he’d been so ashamed of. He’d killed before, but this was different. The man below him hadn’t done anything to him. He hadn’t taken food from his plate, hadn’t threatened his sister, hadn’t slighted him in any way. He’d just been wearing a uniform different from his own, and wandering through a wooded area, separated from his battalion and lost. He’d put up his hands to surrender, but Nick had already pulled the trigger on his M1903 Springfield, two quick squeezes. Too late.
One of the bullets had hit the kid square in his chest, the other in his shoulder. When Nick had reached him, blood had been fountaining out of the kid’s mouth, his eyes huge and rolling. Nick had never seen anything like it before, and had dropped to his knees, dumbfounded. But as the seconds ticked by and the horrible moment went on, and still the kid lived, the stream of blood burbling up and out of his mouth with every breathing reflex of his destroyed lungs, Nick had known he needed to do something to put the young man out of his misery.
Except he’d been all out of bullets.
The humming sound filled his ears, then his brain.
Finally, the wet sound of meat being struck over and over and the wet splashes against his face pulled Nick from his nightmarish memories. He glanced down, gulping huge mouthfuls of air. The man beneath him had long stopped moving, and his face was a bloody pulp, the features hardly discernable. He was dead, that was clear. The only question was for how long.
She’d meant to scream at him to stop, but the words had clawed up her throat and died in her mouth, and she’d been helpless to do anything but watch her brother beat a man to death before her eyes.
Mia grasped the top of her dress in shaking hands. The night had gone from enjoyable to nightmarish in the span of a few awful moments, but she couldn’t have predicted this outcome when she’d heard a knock on the dressing room door fifteen minutes earlier. It hadn’t been her brother’s special knock, either, the one that let her know it was him and not some john looking to get his knob polished at the wrong door. It had happened before, one too many times, so Nick had told her she must always lock her door when she was inside the room, and he would do a special knock if he came up to see her—two short, one long, three short. The knock tonight had been lazy, hard, and impatient, and was followed up by a violent kick when it went unanswered that had sent the door flying inward.
Three men had loomed there, boozed up, leering at her. The one in the middle had seemed eight feet tall and broad as a bus, his eyes bloodshot. He staggered a little on his feet. His compatriots were equally as sloshed, one already reaching up to undo his tie.
Mia had raised her chin, refusing to allow them to see she was nervous. It was one of many lessons her brother had instilled in her from an early age: never let them see you sweat. It was a lesson she’d seen serve him well many a time, as early as when they hustled gangsters at the card halls in the Bowery for a few coins, and later when he had business dealings with men who clearly believed he was boxing out of his weight class with them and ended up surprised when he showed his cool and intelligent mind in a matter of a few seconds of idle chitchat.
“We heard the best party favor of all was right in here,” the man in the middle said, his voice roughened by too much booze and too many cigars.
“Sorry to disappoint, but you got the wrong room,” she’d said, as rudely as she could manage. “Party favors are down the hall the way you came.”
“No one wants those tired whores,” the man replied, his glassy, red gaze going over and over her. “We want some fresh meat, and this is where we were told to find it. Now, come on and don’t be such a prissy bitch.” He took a step into the room.
Mia took a huge step back until the corner of her vanity poked her bottom. “I said, you’ve got the wrong room!” she snapped. “Do you know who I am? Get the hell out before I call security up here!”
Her bravado had done her no good. The man took another step toward her, trapping her between himself and the back of the little room. He leaned into her face.
“He and I had a deal,” he said in a loud whisper. “We look the other way, see, and we get you. Fair trade. You don’t like it, take it up with him, but I’m here now, and I’m hungry for a little Italian dish.”
Mia leaned back, keeping her gaze on his face, feeling around behind her. She found what she was looking for beneath a handkerchief and grasped the hard, ivory handle. In the space of an intake of breath, she brought her hand around, pressed a button on the object, and a sharp blade snapped out. In half a second, she sliced the side of the man’s neck. It wasn’t nearly enough to mortally wound him, but it bled like mad and Mia was sure it stung like hell.
He roared like a bull, his hand going to his neck in utter disbelief. She had no idea what his friends were doing behind him, since he blocked her view, but no matter. She opened her mouth and screamed at the top of her lungs.
Before Mia could take another breath to scream again, the man charged her. She brought her hands up instinctively, still clutching the knife, and slashed at him wildly, succeeding in opening his palm. He roared again and leaped back, then rushed her again and grabbed her arms.
She was no match for his strength, but she kept fighting anyway. Don’t drop the knife! “Nick!” she screamed, shredding her throat. “Nick! Nick!”
He grabbed the neckline of her dress with one hand and ripped, succeeding in tearing it open halfway down her front. Mia brought her knee up hard between his legs, and she heard the whoosh of his breath leaving his body. Still, his grip on her remained, and her second of triumph was short-lived when he drove her back against the wall.
She wiggled in his iron grip, trying uselessly to stab him through the shoulder, but all she succeeded in doing was slashing at air. Then he grabbed her wrist. She lost her grip, and the knife slipped through her fingers.
Where is my brother?
The desperate thought clanged through her mind. Nick had always been there for her, to curb the evils of the world from getting too close to her, from sloshing over her toes like the tide of the Atlantic Ocean when they’d visit the beach in the summertime. He’d always been there, and now he wasn’t. The street guys always said he had eyes in the back of his head, but he couldn’t see her now.
Unfair though it was, irrational it might have been, but she felt betrayed.
Easier said than done, especially since she’d just dropped the one tool that gave her even a sliver of hope of getting past him. But as the man’s foul breath rushed into her face, she remembered another of Nick’s lessons. Now that she was on her own, she focused to think through her panic.
She shifted all her weight to one foot, then jammed her other knee straight up into the man’s groin again. He roared, his hips jutting back away from her almost instinctively, but he didn’t release her.
Why doesn’t he let me go!
“Now you’re dead, bitch,” he hissed, and wrapped his hand around her throat.
Before he squeezed down, Mia had felt a hard tremor go through him, and his eyes rolled back in his head. She’d stared up at him in frightened confusion as he tipped backward.
Out of nowhere, a large hand had appeared, grabbing the man’s shoulder and shoving him backward out of the room.
Nick had come. He’d come for her, after all.
The look of utter rage on his face had scared her more than any of these uninvited guests. He’d pummeled the man’s face with his blackjack, over and over and over, until there was hardly a face left.
It had been over in less than thirty seconds.
And there was only the pulp of a man’s face left, and her brother, bloodied and panting and looking like he was waking up from a dream.
Or a nightmare.
Nick glanced up, his chest still heaving. The hallway was silent. The two men who’d been with the dead man were both pressed against the wall by Charlie and Moritz. One had a bloody nose, and the other had an already-swelling eye.
Guess he brought the cavalry, Mia thought in a daze.
All four men watched Nick with two sets of expressions—horror and disbelief on the two men’s faces, wariness and waiting on his friends’. A few of the girls who occupied the rooms down the hall clustered together, weeping in terror behind their hands. On the other side of the hallway, Nick’s men—Bobby Grata, Joey Giannino, and Vinnie Fiore—stood at the ready, pistols in their hands.
Mia stared at her brother. “Nick,” she whispered.
He looked over at her almost casually, as though nothing had happened. Realization was dawning in his eyes, and she could practically see the wheels of his brain turning like mad.
He gave her the slightest of nods, as if to say don’t worry.
Don’t worry. Of course he would come for her. He always did. Now, the earlier sense of betrayal she’d felt believing she was on her own still felt like a betrayal—but against him.
“You have any idea what you just did, you fucking maniac!” one of the men shouted. “You know who that was? He was from the Prohibition office!”
A prohi. The bottom of Mia’s stomach dropped out.
Nick remained kneeling on the floor. If this information worried him, he didn’t show it. He merely sought Charlie’s gaze, who looked over at Bobby in turn. Charlie flicked his head up slightly. Bobby stepped forward, Joey and Vinnie on his heels, and roughly grabbed one of the two remaining men. Instantly, Mia knew what was happening.
“Get the other one,” Bobby said to Joey.
“Get your fucking hands off me!” the man yelled. “You’re all going to die for this! You’ll hang!”
“Let’s take a little ride,” Bobby said, then used the butt of his pistol against the back of the man’s head. Joey did the same to his captive, and together with Vinnie, they dragged the two unconscious men toward the back staircase that led to an exit on the first floor, which opened to an alley.
The men, Mia knew, would be executed and disposed of. That was what happened to men who took a little ride with Nick and his outfit.
“Undo ’em both, nice and quiet,” Charlie said to Bobby in a low voice, glancing at Nick. “Then come back and get him.” He gestured to the dead prohi on the floor. “Bury ’em where they won’t be found.”
“You got it,” Bobby replied. “Boys. Let’s go.”
Mia stared after them as the three men dragged the two unconscious men out of the building.
Nick finally rose to his feet and straightened his tie. “Thanks for the help. Girls—beat it. Go back to your rooms. Don’t say a word to anybody or you’ll all be out on your asses, capisci?”
The girls nodded rapidly and hurried off down the hall. The walls echoed with the noise of the doors slamming.
Charlie sighed and scratched the back of his neck. “Look, Nick, this is bad. This man, his friends—all of ’em are prohis. I saw the badges.”
Mia’s stomach churned again.
“It’ll be fine,” Nick said with all the calm of ordering in a restaurant. “Hey, kid. Get me something to clean up with, will you?”
Mia stared at her brother. There was blood all over his face and hands, she noticed for the first time. Somehow she’d seen none of it a moment ago. She could only see the dead man’s face. She turned quickly and grabbed a handkerchief from her vanity. It was the same one he’d given her earlier—Annette’s handkerchief. She handed it to him.
“You all right?” he asked her as he mopped his face.
“You sure?” Nick grabbed her chin, forcing her to look him in the eye.
“A prohi, Nick,” she whispered. “You killed a prohi. Three of them.”
He sighed, balling up the handkerchief and stuffing it in his coat pocket. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry?” Mia demanded. “They’re federal. More will come looking. They’ll hang you for that!”
“It’s Saturday night,” Moritz said in a low voice. “We’ve got a day at the most to figure this out. When they don’t show up for work on Monday morning, we need to have something in play.”
“I got a few people at the Tribune on the payroll,” Nick said. “And a couple at the police department. It’s gonna take a hell of a pile of cash, but I can get my cop pals to fix up a report that they found ’em far from here. We’ll plant some stories in the paper about how they were dirty and on the take and got on the wrong side of somebody in this town.”
“Just like that?” Mia said.
Nick glanced at her. “Just like that, kid.”
His brusque efficiency at covering up a rage-induced murder should have chilled her to the bone, but Mia only felt a sense of relief.
“What—what the fuck is this?”
They turned as Sal stormed down the hallway, a look of shock on his face. He stared down at the dead prohi for a long moment. Mia swallowed nervously, cutting her eyes toward her brother. Nick stood calmly, his arms folded over his chest, chin lifted as though silently daring Sal to challenge him. Her brother behaved as though he and Sal were about to have a row over a woman—not a man he’d just killed in a fit of violent fury in the time it took to sing “Happy Birthday.”
Finally, Sal looked up at Nick. “You fucking iced him?”
Nick shrugged. “He was hurting Mia, Sal. So yeah, I iced him.”
Sal pointed at the dead man. “You have any idea what the fuck you just did?”
Again, Nick lazily lifted a shoulder. “Ask me if I care.”
“You better fucking care!” Sal raged. “Where are his two pals, Nick? Where the fuck are they?”
Nick just gazed at him steadily. “What you want me to say, they went off and had a picnic somewhere?”
“You’ve got to be shitting me!”
“Sal,” Moritz interjected, stepping up beside Nick, holding up a hand. “There’s no need to overreact here. We’re going to take care of it. Cops, the paper—consider it handled.”
Sal pointed a meaty finger at Moritz. “Why don’t you just shut the fuck up, you slick-talking little prick,” he snapped. “Nobody asked you.”
Moritz smiled coldly at him.
“It ain’t no need for any of that,” Charlie broke in, his voice steady and low. “We said it’s handled, so it’s handled. Look at Mia, for Christ’s sake. You think they came up here to do the Charleston with her?”
For the first time, Sal turned his gaze on her. Mia had the sudden urge to shrink back, but instead she tossed her head, raising her chin in the air like Nick had. She still clutched the neckline of her neck together, and she was sure her makeup was a fright, but she refused to look away or be shamed.
Sal took her in slowly, from her messy hair to her shoes, before settling back on her face, as though he were waiting for her to speak. As though he were waiting for her explanation. As though it had been her fault.
Now that the initial shock of the attack and the man’s sudden, brutal murder was passing, a surge of terror followed by anger zoomed through her, lighting her up like a double-shot of the finest rye whiskey. She could have been raped and no one would ever have been able to help her. She could have been killed.
Mia looked down at the dead man on the floor, and now, she felt nothing but cold satisfaction.
“The bastard got what was coming to him,” she said through her teeth.
Sal narrowed his eyes.
“Tell me something,” Nick said. “’Cause I’m curious all of a sudden. I saw you talking to these assholes downstairs earlier and point up here. Telling them where the girls are, right?”
“Yeah, what of it?” Sal shrugged with irritation.
“You got their rooms right at the top of the goddamn stairs,” Nick said, pointing down the hall. “And they’re always standing outside in the hall like some ‘Good Eats’ signs. You can’t miss them.”
“What’s your point?” Sal demanded. “I got bigger fucking problems right now because of you and your goddamn temper, Nick! He was a prohi, do you understand? They all were, and now you’ve—”
“My point,” Nick said in a low voice, “is there ain’t no way in hell they should have gotten confused about which rooms to go to. Yet they came all the way down the hall knocking on my sister’s door.”
“Maybe she let them in,” Sal said, gesturing vaguely in Mia’s direction as if she weren’t standing right there.
“I did no such thing,” Mia snapped. “That son of a bitch kicked my goddamn door in! He said he was looking for me. He knew where to find me.”
“He was drunk.” Sal waved his hand dismissively. “Listen, I don’t give a shit about none of that. She’s fine, thanks to her big, tough brother, but now you’ve just brought the whole goddamn bureau down on me.”
“I said, I took care of it.” Nick took a step closer to Sal. “By the way, what were you doing being chummy with some prohis?”
“What the fuck do you think!” Sal’s face was red, eyes wide and rolling like a bull’s. A thick vein stood out in his neck, and one in the center of his forehead. “Trying to get protection for us and this new deal of ours! Unless you’d rather the cops raid us every goddamn day?”
“And I told you I had that covered. I got plenty of cop friends and prohis on the take. Every single part of this deal, I orchestrated. I took care of it.” Nick’s voice was going lower and lower, his eyes darker and darker, and only Mia, perhaps Charlie, knew what that meant—he was getting truly angry now. Where Sal was loud and blustery, her brother got quieter until he said nothing at all—and that was when you needed to worry, because it usually meant you were a moment away from death.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mia saw Charlie flick a hand toward one of the girls who’d poked her head out of her room. Mia had no idea what he was trying to tell the girl, but she apparently understood, as she walked up behind Sal and laid her hands on his shoulders.
“C’mon, Sally,” she crooned. “I’m still all shook up. Why don’t you come with me and help me settle my nerves?”
“Go chase yourself,” he muttered, trying unsuccessfully to shake her off.
“Oh, don’t be a wet blanket, Sally. It’s still your birthday, after all. I have a present for you.” She giggled and tugged his hand. “Come on.”
This time, Sal hesitated, glancing first at her, then at the dead man, and finally at Nick. “I’m done with this,” he said. “Clean this shit up. I’d like to try to enjoy my party, if you don’t mind.”
Nick said nothing, just regarded him coldly as the girl pulled him down the hall and into one of the rooms, shutting the door after them.
Mia stepped back into her dressing room to change out of her tattered dress. She glanced at the bloody knife on the floor, but didn’t retrieve it.
By the time she was finished changing and cleaning up her messy face, Bobby, Joey, and Vinnie had returned from their “errand,” and proceeded to remove the dead man’s body from the hallway after exchanging some quiet words with Nick. Mia stared at the huge bloodstain on the carpet.
Charlie stepped over to her and gently nudged her with his elbow. “Penny for your thoughts.”
Mia blinked up at him. “I…need a drink.”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “I’d say you’ve earned one.” His gaze traveled over her face. “Listen, you sure you’re all right? He didn’t…?”
“He certainly gave it his best shot,” Mia said drily. “But I’m fine. Can’t believe Nick turned up when he did.”
“Morrie came and got us. He was up here with a girl, came out as those assholes were at your door. He wanted to shoot the bastards himself, but I told him he’d have gotten plugged for his pains.”
Mia nodded. “I’m glad he was in the right place at the right time. Thank you, too. For being here.”
A different look flashed across Charlie’s face then, one she wasn’t sure she recognized, but it made her belly flutter nervously anyway. “I’d have killed him, if Nick hadn’t gotten to him first. I swear I would have.”
“I—I believe you,” Mia said.
“Hey, kid, get your shit packed,” Nick called as he walked toward them. “I’m taking you home.” He clapped Charlie on the shoulder. “Thanks for the back-up.”
Mia set about packing her small suitcase with her cosmetics, extra shoes, some jewelry. “What about my costumes?”
“I’ll lock up, make sure no one steals anything.” Nick crouched and retrieved her bloody knife from the floor, then held it up. He looked at her curiously. “You slice him?”
She nodded and pointed to the side of her neck before shrugging into her coat. “His neck. All I could get. That, and his hand.”
“Good girl,” Nick said with pride. He grabbed one of the few cocktail glasses sitting on her vanity and poured the remnants of a drink over the blade, then pulled out the handkerchief he’d used to clean his face and hands earlier and wiped off the sharp steel until it shined. He folded the knife and handed it to her. “Here.”
Mia took it, gaze snagging on the hanky he tucked into his pocket again. She’d practically forgotten all about that, but now, it nagged her. Nick…and Annette. “Nick…”
He lifted his brows. “Yeah, kid?”
She studied his face. He waited patiently for her to speak, but she could read the lines of stress etched into his forehead, making him appear older than his twenty-five years. She swallowed the urge to demand answers about Annette. Though he was being a rotten cad, he’d had enough to deal with tonight. Besides, he’d just killed a man—three, actually—to keep her safe.
Her nagging could wait.
“Thank you,” she said finally. “For saving me.”
He flashed her favorite crooked smile, the one that highlighted the dimple in his left cheek, the other half of their shared set. He slung an arm around her shoulders, tugging her in close, and pecked the top of her head. “I’m your big brother. I’m always gonna look out for you, even when you’re ninety. ’Cause you’ll still be helpless.”
“You won’t even be around that long, anyhow,” Mia shot back, grateful for his teasing.
“Oh, I’ll always be around,” he said, and rubbed his knuckles over the top of her scalp. She yelped and ducked under his arm, then jabbed him in the side.
“Ow,” he complained, rubbing his ribs. “Who taught you to throw a jab like that?”
“My big brother,” she said with a smile. “He’s pretty tough, so you better watch out.”
Nick grinned and tossed his arm around her again as he led her down the backstairs and outside. She tried to ignore the smears of blood on the wall.
He drove her back to her suite at the Lexington Hotel in his shiny yellow Cadillac, then made a valet stand by his car while he escorted her inside to her room.
“Lock up tight,” he insisted, wagging a finger at her. “I mean it. You don’t open for nobody. You hear me? I’m gonna send some guards over a little later. They won’t bother you, but they’ll make sure nobody else does.”
“Nick, I’m fine,” Mia said. “Truly. I’m just gonna have a drink and go to bed.”
“No more drinks,” he said sternly. “In case something happens, you need to be clearheaded. Keep that knife close by. It’s time you had a pistol.”
“No,” she said in horror. “You off your nut?”
“I’m serious. I can’t be everywhere all the time. You’re tough, I know you are. But until I can get you a full-time bodyguard—”
“Oh, cut the baloney!”
Nick sighed, and she knew he realized he was going to lose this fight, at least for tonight. He held up a hand in surrender. “Fine. But I’m still sending over guards. I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon, all right, kid? I’ll take you to rehearsal myself. Try not to leave the room. Just send for whatever you need.”
She would leave if she wanted, but she wouldn’t tell him so. “Fine. Are you going straight home now?”
He shook his head, the stress lines creasing his forehead again. “Gotta go back to the club and try to smooth things over with Sal. Lot of good that’ll do, but he’s the boss.”
“Don’t be too late,” Mia warned. “You know how Gloria worries.”
“Nick,” Mia called, and he glanced back at her. “Will it be dangerous for you now?”
He looked at the floor for a beat. When he lifted his gaze, his old easy smile was there. “It’s always dangerous being me, surùzza. Don’t worry.” He turned around and walked off down the hall, whistling “Everybody Loves My Baby.”
Mia shut the door, his jaunty whistle echoing in her ears. He’d done his best to put her mind at ease, but even despite that effort, Mia had still noticed how the cockiness of his smile hadn’t quite reached his eyes.