First, if you’re looking for my NAmazing Adventure post, CLICK HERE.
For Speak Easy’s first chapter, just read on…I hope it tempts you to want more. 🙂
Friday, July 13th, 1923
The woman approached me at the counter, keeping her eyes low. “A quart of maple syrup,” she said, her voice hushed.
I didn’t recognize her. “What kind?”
“Canadian.” Clutching her purse to her stomach, she peeked at me from beneath the brim of her hat.
“What are you making?”
I nodded. If she’d answered waffles, or even pancakes, I’d have directed her to the east wall of the store, where tin cans of actual maple syrup were stacked three high on a shelf. But since she knew the password, I named our price and took down the order and her address. She’d get her whisky in a day or so.
Bootlegging was that simple for a small operation like ours. The customers were loyal, the neighborhood grocery store was a legitimate cover, and thanks to the narrow waterway separating Detroit from Canada and its distilleries, our whisky supply seemed endless. Timely payoffs assured us of little trouble from city officials, and the local cops were some of our best customers. So when the bell over Jefferson Market’s front door jangled again that afternoon, I greeted the customer with a smile. But as the well-dressed man removed his light gray fedora and walked toward me at the back of the store, the air took on a strange charge, and gooseflesh rippled across my skin.
It was him. The sheik.
He’d been in twice in the last week. Each time, he’d said practically nothing, bought one pack of Fatima cigarettes, and paid with a fifty-dollar bill. I thought of him as the sheik because he reminded me of a movie star: dark, silent, and handsome in that delighted-villain sort of way, as if he’d just tied a girl to the train tracks and now it was time for a cocktail and a smoke.
“Good afternoon.” His voice was deep and smooth, just how I imagined a screen idol’s should be.
“Are you Miss O’Mara?”
I blinked. He knows my name. “Yes. Can I help you?”
“Give this to your father.” He pulled an envelope from his coat and laid it on the counter, next to the cash register. When I reached for it, he placed his hand over mine, pinning it to the cool marble. A buzz swept up my arm as our eyes met. His were so dark they appeared black, and a small scar rested at the top of one cheekbone. “Tell him to answer by tonight.”
It took me a moment to find my voice. “All right.”
Replacing his hat on top of his slick dark hair, he walked out without looking back. The bell jangled once more, and I released the breath I’d been holding, leaning on the counter for support. I jumped when I heard a voice behind me.
“Tiny?” My older sister Bridget poked her head in from the stockroom, her long brown hair coming loose from its knot at her nape. “Daddy’s ready for you to make deliveries.”
Quickly I swiped the envelope into the front pocket of my middy blouse. “Should I go now?”
“Just let me put the bread in the oven,” Bridget said, disappearing into the stockroom again. She and her children lived in the apartment over the store. At almost twenty-one, I was more than ready to move out of our father’s house and get my own apartment, but it would have to wait. There were two more daughters after me who needed tending, and with our mother gone and Bridget widowed with three young boys, I wasn’t going anywhere soon.
While I waited, I fingered the envelope in my pocket. The sheik said Daddy had to answer by tonight, but what was the question? Was he a bootlegger too? He looked a little older than me, but still in his twenties, and wealthy, if his clothing was any indication. He wore exquisite three-piece suits. First black, then blue, and today, gray. I looked at the back of my hand, where he’d touched me, then brought it to my lips.
“What are you doing?” Bridget’s voice startled me again, and she laughed.
Cheeks burning, I tucked my hand into my pocket. “Nothing. Can I go?”
She nodded. “I’ll bring the grocery sacks out to you in the alley.”
I exited through the stock room into the wet heat of a Michigan summer afternoon. In the alley, I pulled the envelope from my pocket and looked at it. Jack O’Mara was written on its ivory face in black ink, the cursive letters small and lean. The seal was tight. No way to tell what its contents were, no clue as to who the sheik might be or whom he worked for.
Not that I much cared about his occupation.
If he comes in again, I’ll say hello first, I thought, recalling those dark eyes that smoldered like Valentino’s. “Hi, there,” I said, practicing. No, too girlish. I cleared my throat and tried again, imagining how a sultry screen vamp like Theda Bara would greet a man like the sheik. “Hello.” Yes, that was better. Deeper, more mature.
Next, I tried to even out my walk so that I could slink into a room, cigarette holder in one hand, highball in the other. But slinking was a bit difficult for me because one of my legs is shorter than the other, not that either of them is what you’d call long. My mother was so small she had difficult births, and my hip broke as I was being born. It hadn’t healed right, resulting in a one-inch difference, and I have to concentrate if I don’t want to limp, especially if I’m tired. But if I smoothed out my gait, kept my weight back and my chin down, bent my knees a little…
Damn. Slinking was harder than it looked.
Giving up, I jogged the rest of the way down the alley and pushed open the door to the garage. Once my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw Daddy taking apart the back end of a Cadillac hearse.
Officially, he was an auto repairman, but his real talent was rebuilding cars—creating hidden compartments, phony gas tanks, false floorboards. It was amazing how many bottles of booze could be stashed in the unseen lining of an automobile. Hearses were especially popular with bootleggers because they had wide back ends, but I stuck with my Model T. Those hearses were creepy.
“I’m here!” I called over the banging of his hammer.
The noise stopped and he straightened halfway, bracing his hands on the hearse’s frame and tilting his chin toward me over one shoulder. His profile revealed the crooked line of his nose, which had been broken several times. “It’s over there. Can you load it?” He jerked his head toward two large boxes labeled Royal Baking Powder sitting on the cement floor near the door.
“That’s my girl. Fifteen per bottle, and don’t take less.”
“I won’t. This came for you.” I moved closer to him and held out the envelope. “The man who brought it said you should answer by tonight.”
He took it from me, barely glancing at it before shoving it into the front pocket of his work overalls. “To hell with that. I don’t answer to him or anybody else.”
“What’s this about?”
“It’s nothing. Now go on, I’ll meet you at the boathouse at six sharp. I want to get the whole place cleared out, bring it all here.”
I nodded. That could take a while. We had a lot of booze stashed in that boathouse, probably enough to—
“What the hell do you want, a police escort?” He waved his hammer toward the door. “Get moving!”
“OK, OK. Jeez,” I muttered, hurrying over to the boxes loaded with whisky bottles. Daddy had a quick temper, but he wasn’t usually so short with me. Either it was something about the letter, or he owed money to his bookie. His business ventures made enough to house, clothe, and feed us, but every extra dime fed his ravenous betting habit. Every man has his temptations, I supposed, slipping my fingers underneath a box. And every woman too. I could still hear the sheik’s low, velvety voice in my head. My stomach tightened as I imagined getting him out of that buttoned-up three-piece suit, removing that crisp white collar, slipping the crimson tie from around his neck. A sweat broke out on my back.
I lugged the boxes just outside the door, then left them sitting there while I retrieved the car. Daddy and I shared a 1921 Model T Sedan he’d rigged with hidden compartments and a trunk with a false floor. Jefferson Market was painted on the side in cheerful white letters, and I always had bags of groceries in the back seat, just in case I got stopped. After pulling alongside the garage door, I turned off the motor and jumped out. I was leaning into the back lifting up the bench seat when I heard a deep voice behind me.
My head snapped up, my heart hammering as I backed out. Please don’t be a fed. I turned around and sucked in my breath.
The sheik was leaning against the brown brick wall, barely three feet from me.
“What are you doing back here?” Definitely not the sultry greeting I’d rehearsed.
“Looking for you.” He lit one of his Fatimas and held it between long fingers, the smoke curling above his head.
“I’m wondering if you can help me out. I need some whisky.”
A trickle of sweat made its way down my chest. “What makes you think I can help you?”
He put the Fatima to his mouth, inhaling and exhaling in no particular hurry. I stared at his lips as they closed and opened around the cigarette. “I listen carefully in a crowd.”
I looked him over, trying to read his eyes, which were shadowed by the brim of his hat. “How much?”
“Maybe ten cases. That too much for you?”
I lifted my chin. “No.”
“How much do you charge?”
“Two hundred a case,” I said, quickly raising my price.
“And how soon can I get it?”
“As soon as you want it.”
He lifted his brow. “Impressive. You bring it over in the car?”
“Leave the details to me. You’ll get what you want.”
One side of his mouth hooked up. “I always do.” He came off the wall, and I backed into the Ford to steady myself. I wished I hadn’t chosen my shabbiest blouse this morning. It used to be red but had faded to a mealy-tomato color. When his feet reached mine, he swayed forward, placing his hands on the car’s roof, one on either side of me. The air hummed between us, and every inch of my skin tingled with awareness of him. I let my lips fall open.
His smile deepened. “I’ll be in touch, Miss O’Mara.” He straightened up, and with a tip of his hat, walked away.
“Just a moment!” Think of something—quick! “May I have a cigarette?”
Retracing his steps, he took a gold case from his coat pocket, opened it, and offered me a Fatima. I put it to my mouth. His fingers have touched this. His eyes held mine captive as he pulled out a lighter, and I jumped when the flame burst from its tip. Once the cigarette was lit, I took what I hoped looked like a deep and sultry drag.
With a nod, he walked away again, and I could think of nothing to make him come back. Nothing smart and sophisticated, anyway.
“Wait!” I called, shading my eyes from the sun. “What’s your name?”
He looked at me over his shoulder, but only smiled with closed lips before disappearing around the corner.
“Shit,” I said, kicking the tire of my car. I’d admitted too much for nothing in return. And he knows my name. What the hell? For all I knew he was going to sell my information to a prohi around the corner. I stared at the cigarette he’d given me, dragged on it, and swore again. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“She smokes and she curses,” said a voice behind me. “Should I bring you a spittoon too?”
I whipped around and saw Joey Lupo standing there with two grocery sacks in his arms and an irritating grin on his face. Joey was my age, some kind of cousin of Bridget’s late husband, Vince, and one of those guys whose big mouth is always trying to make up for his short stature. He once stole a pair of underwear from my dresser and charged the neighborhood boys a penny for a peek. Five years had passed, but I still hadn’t forgiven him.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded. “I thought you went to Chicago.”
“I’m back. You miss me?”
I sucked on my cigarette and blew the smoke at him.
His grin widened. “Still sugar-sweet. Some things never change.” He set the grocery sacks down and reached for a box. “Come on, Little Tomato, I’ll help you load.”
“Don’t call me that.” I was just about to tell him I didn’t need his help when Daddy came out the garage door. Throwing the cigarette to the ground, I tried to fan away the smoke but wasn’t quick enough. Daddy let me work for his bootlegging operation but he was strangely old-fashioned about lipstick and smoking, and I didn’t want a lecture in front of Joey.
“Frances Kathleen O’Mara, I told you no smoking and I meant it,” Daddy growled. “Your mother is turning in her grave, God rest her soul.” He crossed himself and looked skyward. “You see what these girls do to me, Mary?”
I rolled my eyes, ignoring Joey’s infuriating chuckle. “I’m twenty years old, Daddy, not ten.”
He glared at me. “You live under my roof, you follow my rules.”
How badly I wanted to say to hell with your roof and your rules—I’m done with them! But I couldn’t. I chewed my bottom lip instead, my fists tight with frustration.
“And Christ almighty, get going already. Here’s the orders.” Daddy dug a folded piece of paper from his pocket and shoved it at me before stalking back into the garage.
“Still living at home, huh?” Joey didn’t even try to hide his amusement.
“Shut up. If you came here to help, then get to it.” I picked up the second box, and we put the booze into the compartment beneath the rear seat, placing the grocery sacks on top. I started the car and looked at the list.
“Where you headed?” Joey asked.
“Smith, side door. Hix, back alley. Then Koehler. Last is Henshaw, and the housekeeper wants the delivery by four.” I wrinkled my nose and shoved the list back in my pocket. “The housekeeper. There goes my tip.”
Joey laughed, dug in one pocket of his grubby black pants, and tossed me a candy bar. “Here—here’s a tip for you. EAT. You haven’t grown an inch in three years—in any direction!”
Grimacing, I put the car in gear and moved forward, hoping I might run over his foot. Who the hell was Joey to talk? Maybe he’d filled out some since the last time I’d seen him, but he wasn’t that much taller than me. Four inches, tops. And that mop of mangy brown hair on his head made him look bigger than he was.
As I turned out of the alley and headed north on Jefferson into Grosse Pointe, my unease about the conversation with the sheik returned. It was the same creepy-crawly feeling I get when I enter a room and just know there’s a spider in it somewhere, watching me. But I sold whisky almost every day of the year. Why should it be any different just because the customer was a little mysterious and a lot gorgeous? Still, I found myself glancing over both shoulders more than usual as I unloaded and collected payment.
At the Smith and Hix houses I made a few dollars in tips, but Mrs. Koehler was five dollars short on her standing order. “Just bring it to the store as soon as you can, Mrs. Koehler,” I told her. She was a good customer, and we hated to lose anyone’s business. Some other bootlegger could come along tomorrow and try to undercut us.
By four o’clock I was headed for the Henshaw estate, and the twitchy feeling was still with me, like an itch that refuses to go away even once it’s been scratched. But when you’re breaking the law on a daily basis, perhaps a bit of anxiety should come with the territory. Daddy always says good instincts are more important than good friends in our business.
Rather than the stingy housekeeper, it was Mrs. Schmidt, the cook, who answered my knock at the kitchen door of the Henshaws’ lakefront mansion. When I greeted her, she welcomed me with a hug. Mrs. Schmidt had been close to my mother, who’d been a housemaid for the Henshaws before marrying my father. For a year after our mother died in childbirth with Mary Grace, Mrs. Schmidt brought meals to our house and spent her days off teaching Bridget and me to cook. As my sisters will attest, Bridget was the superior student.
“How are you today, Mrs. Schmidt?”
“Oh, I don’t like to complain,” she said, releasing me and rubbing the considerable width of her lower back. “But since you asked…”
I hid a smile as she ran through a list of ailments, nodding and clucking my tongue in sympathy. Finally she paused to draw breath, and I put the grocery bags on the butcher block and carried in the last of the whisky, setting the box on the black and white tiled floor.
“Thanks, love.” She brushed my hair off my face when I straightened. “Such a gorgeous color, this hair. Like sunlight through garnet. Why did you ever cut it off?”
“Just easier this way. Less fuss.”
“Your mother never minded the fuss of long hair.” Mrs. Schmidt crossed her arms. “And I don’t mind saying she wouldn’t have liked you cutting yours off.”
“Yes, you’ve mentioned that.” About a million times. I nodded my head of improperly bobbed hair toward the whisky. “Shall I move it to the cellar for you?”
“Leave it be, I’ll have the boy do it.” She paid me for the groceries, but Mr. Henshaw got his booze for free in exchange for allowing Daddy to use an old dock and boathouse at the edge of his property.
“And before you go…” From a canister on a pantry shelf she took a bill and tucked it into my palm. “Mr. Henshaw said to give this to you.”
When I saw it was a fifty, I gasped. “He did? Why?”
“I may have let it slip about your paying your way through nursing school.”
“Oh, Mrs. Schmidt, thank you!” I threw my arms around her globe-shaped middle and practically squeezed the life from her.
“You’re welcome, girl. Now scoot, I’ve got the groceries to put away.” Laughing, she shooed me out the back door, and I skipped to my car.
Fifty dollars! That would go a long way toward tuition and books. Classes would begin again in August, and they weren’t cheap. Daddy didn’t mind my going to nursing school as long as I kept the house running and my sisters in line, but he couldn’t be counted on to pay for anything. He claimed there was no money for it, but I suspected he didn’t offer much because the sooner I had my degree, the sooner he’d be on his own with the house and the girls. It took every ounce of restraint I had not to ask him about all the cash that ended up lining Ralph the Bookie’s pocket.
Sitting behind the wheel, I looked at the crisp fifty in triumph before tucking it into my pocket along with the wrinkly dollars and spare change the other customers had given me. But as I drove back to the store, I began thinking of all the things I could buy with that much money—a smart new dress, something with beading or fringe. A darling little cloche or headband. A pair of satin shoes for dancing.
And how many months’ rent would fifty bucks pay? I clenched my teeth. I didn’t need much—just a studio apartment with a little bath. My own space, in which I would do as I pleased, with no rules. I thought about the sheik, and the way he paid for his cigarettes with fifty-dollar bills. My pulse raced when I recalled how he’d leaned close to me, near enough for me to smell the smoke on his breath.
After parking in the alley behind the store, I peeked into the front but saw Joey at the register, so I headed up the steps to Bridget’s apartment. The smell of fresh-baked bread hit me in the stairwell and my stomach growled when I saw the two loaves on the kitchen counter. “Bread’s done, help yourself,” Bridget called from the front room, where the radio played “I’m Nobody’s Baby.” Humming along, I cut two thick slices and slathered them with butter. Bridget’s cooking and baking skills trumped mine by a mile, and I nearly moaned as I sank my teeth into the doughy white softness. She wandered in a minute later with two-year old Charlie on her hip.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. “I thought it was Joey.”
“Does that mean I have to put the bread back?” I mumbled, my mouth full.
She smiled, which always changed her face from plain to pretty. “No, you can have some. Do you want some cold meat for a sandwich? Joey brought some ham from Eastern Market.”
I shook my head and polished off the first slice. “I saw him downstairs. I thought he moved to Chicago.”
She set Charlie on the yellow linoleum floor and sliced a piece of bread for him. “He did, but his mother took ill, and he’s worried about her. Wants to stay closer to home for a while. I know he’s not your favorite, but try to be nice. He’s family.”
“He’s not my family.”
“He’s a good guy.”
“He’s a pain in the ass.”
She pursed her lips as she handed Charlie the bread, and I decided to switch topics. “Look at this.” I licked my fingers and pulled the fifty-dollar bill from my pocket.
Bridget wiped her hands on her stained apron and took the bill. “Jaypers cripes! Where’d you get that?”
“From Mr. Henshaw, as a tip.” I picked up my second slice of bread and sank my teeth in. “But don’t tell Daddy.”
Our eyes met, and I knew she understood. Bridget kept my tips for me, stashing them in a big yellow envelope underneath her mattress. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Daddy, but I felt safer with my tips out of the house. “Want me to put it with the rest?”
I hesitated, the image of myself in a beaded dress and satin shoes vanishing in a puff of smoke. “I guess so.” Slumping into a chair at the round kitchen table, I dropped my forehead to the wood. “But boy, I wish I could be spending some of that money on something else. Like a new dress. Or shoes. Or rent.”
She patted my shoulder before going into her bedroom, which was off the kitchen. “Is Daddy giving you a rough time?” she asked when she returned.
I sat up and shrugged. “I’m twenty years old. I’m just tired of living with my father and having two little sisters underfoot all the time.”
Bridget went to the stove and stirred something in a large copper pot. “You’ve got your own bedroom. That’s more than I had when I lived at home.”
“So what? The only thing I do in it is read and sleep. And I can hardly even do that without one of the girls barging in on me.” I sat up straight and mimicked our sisters’ high-pitched voices. “Tiny, can you mend this blouse? Will you make my lunch? Can I wear your blue sweater? She’s bothering me! She’s following me! She hit me!”
“Well, cheer up.” Bridget clacked the spoon on the edge of the pot and set it aside. “Molly will be done with school in three years, and by then Mary Grace will be old enough to look after herself. You’ll be free to do as you please.” She turned and waggled her brows at me. “Inside your bedroom and out.”
“But that’s years away! I want a little excitement in my life now.” I thumped the table for emphasis.
“Take it from me—a little excitement goes a long way,” said Bridget, gesturing toward the front room, where I could hear her two older boys playing. “You don’t want to do what I did.”
That was true. Bridget had gotten pregnant before her wedding and Daddy had been furious. But still. “For cripes sake, Bridget, when would I have the opportunity? I haven’t even kissed anyone in months!”
“So kiss somebody.” Bridget grinned and dropped into the chair across from me. “Then give me all the saucy details.”
“It’s more than that,” I went on. “In the morning I want to get up and go to work without cleaning up a big mess after breakfast. At night, instead of washing all the dinner dishes and making sure everyone has clean clothes for the next day, I want to go dancing and drink champagne. I want to wear a short dress and red lipstick without my father scolding me. I want to hit the best nightclubs with a dashing swain at my side to light my cigarettes. Like the Arrow Shirt man,” I said wistfully. “Or the sheik.”
Bridget laughed. “The sheik?”
“That guy who comes in for the Fatimas. He was in again today looking for Daddy.” I touched my buttery mouth, picturing the sheik’s lips on his cigarette.
The light in Bridget’s eyes went out. “Oh.”
“Any idea who he is?”
She jumped up, grabbed the broom from the corner and swept the floor with angry strokes, shooing Charlie into the front room. “No. But I don’t like the looks of him.”
“Since when? The other day we were both swooning over him like he was Valentino.”
“Something about the way he keeps showing up gives me a bad feeling.” She swept harder, not meeting my eyes. “He reminds me of those guys who used to come around for Vince.”
My twitchy feeling returned. I knew the kind of men she was talking about. The day Vince was murdered two years ago, he was picking up a mobster named Big Leo Scarfone from the police station. He’d been shot right there on the sidewalk. Twenty-one times.
I swallowed. “You think he’s connected to Vince’s…to what happened to Vince?”
“I don’t know, Tiny. I don’t recognize him. I just suddenly got a bad feeling, that’s all.” Finally, she stopped sweeping and looked at me, tears in her eyes. “You need to be careful. A little excitement is one thing, but I don’t want to be up at night worrying about you. Understand?”
I nodded, deciding not to mention the episode in the alley. She put the broom away and returned to the stove as I recalled getting the news about Vince, delivered by a Detroit police officer at the store. Three other men were killed that day, including Big Leo and Joey’s father. The third guy lived just long enough to break the code of silence and reveal the names of the gunmen, members of a rival crime family. They were arrested and charged with murder, but Bridget said they’d never go to jail, and she was right. It took the jury less than fifty minutes to find them innocent.
I was hoping her instincts about the sheik were off. Because I wanted to see him again.