Who is Darling Valentine? Grab a glass of whiskey (gin will do, too) and read on. Oh, and if you’re a fan of vintage photographs take a look at some Snapshot Stories.
Darling Valentine’s pale legs shone in the dark, a beacon for the car driving without headlights along a tree-lined row of brownstones. She sat on the front steps of one, listening to faint sounds of drunken jeers and high-pitched laughter accent a scattered piano melody. The still air, thick with the day’s heat, lay on her skin, digging out streams of sweat that mingled with powder and dropped onto the dusty pavement. She began tapping one of her old numbers to distract from her swelling feet.
“Is this O’Connell’s?”
Two men stood at the bottom of the stairs wearing black velvet jackets.
“We’re the new talent.” One of them took off his straw boater to a bald head glistening with sweat. “Chubby Miller and the Arcadians. Pleasure to meet you, Miss. I’m Chubby, vocals, and these are the Arcadians.”
He loosened his bow tie and pointed to his companion. “What’s left of them anyway. Our piano man and trumpeter are tied up with the Follies tonight. Now it’s just me, Walter here, and his saxophone.”
Walter put down his suitcase gently and opened it just enough to reveal the red velvet interior reflected in polished brass. Darling walked down to get a better look. They were a few inches shorter than her and looked over two hundred pounds.
“Do you hear that?” she said, pausing to let them catch a few verses of Milly and Mabel’s off-key duet. “That’s the sound of thirty saps and burned-out nobodies all sitting in a crowded basement without killing each other. I’d like to keep it that way, at least until the end of the night. Now if you want to play here, you’ve got to keep them all interested in something other than their petty problems and that means the Saxby sisters have to keep acting like fools.”
Chubby took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his fleshy face. “We want everybody to have a good time same as you, Miss.”
“Well then follow the music, boys. Let’s hope you can do better.”
She didn’t recall talk of hiring new talent. Gene wouldn’t stand for it without a fight. But Lesley’s men had pulled up farther down the block. She waited until the basement door closed and motioned to the car.
Streetlight illuminated scratches and dents in the Hudson’s burgundy surface. Those weren’t there last time. She crossed the pavement and opened the side door.
“How dare you damage this beautiful car? You can’t even pass this off as an accident. And I was just thinking I might try it out myself. Now where’s my –”
She stopped, realizing that she recognized only three of the four faces.
Little Francis sat in the back seat, twirling his pistol with the greedy pleasure of a boy just getting to grips with his first weapon. Pretty Boy Sid watched him nervously, grabbed the gun and shoved him out of the car. Resting one foot on the ledge they lifted up the cushion and pulled out a brown leather suitcase. Darling suspected that it cost more than the cargo inside, but Sid and Francis disappeared through the iron gate before she got a chance to examine the fine detailing.
Still at the wheel, Tommy Nash leaned out and looked at the damage.
“I almost got nicked myself and here you are worrying about the car,” he said. Tommy always had a casual attitude towards death, which, she suspected, kept him alive. “If you get me an Old Fashioned I’ll tell you all about it.”
“How do I know you haven’t sold out for the overboard stuff? Did you hear about what happened over on Sullivan? Two dead, one paralyzed.”
“It’s the finest Canadian whiskey around,” a voice said from the passenger seat.
Tommy lit a cigarette.
“Don’t insult the boss, Darling. We went through a lot of trouble to find the good stuff for you.”
So that was Lesley Hampton. The Shadow for those who admired his ability to keep New York wet and his name out of the papers. The Snake for others who suspected he was just good at covering his tracks. During their last year at Princeton, a few weeks after the country went dry, he and Tommy stole the Hampton family’s Baby Grand to drive a paying stranger up past the Canadian border. The passenger turned out to be a bootlegger and offered to show them the closest stills. They bought a ten dollar case in Montreal and sold it for ninety in Manhattan. With the profits and a few more trips with the Baby Grand, Lesley built a fleet of cabs that delivered drunk debutantes back to their townhouses without a sound and Wall Street big shots to the clubs that welcomed their liberal spending habits. Rumors circulated that, for his wealthiest clients, he dipped into a vast storehouse on his family’s estate.
Lesley was the only man whose whiskey flowed into Park Avenue penthouses and tenement basements. He had enough New England blood in him to gain the trust of his kind, but instinct for making a profit led him to cast a wider net. That’s why he continued to deal with O’Connell. While a magnate might start worrying about his reputation, an Irishman would never let anything stand between him and a drink.
Darling knew all this from snippets of slurred conversation and brief exchanges with Tommy when she gave him what he wanted. But it was only after Lesley got out of the car, walked around the front, and stood next to the cloud of smoke half-covering Tommy’s face, that she could see why he was different from any bootlegger she had ever met.
to be continued…