He didn’t have Tommy’s aggressive charm, or his large, athletic build. The precise tailoring of his cream colored suit, lined with thin, pale blue stripes, suggested a slight figure more accustomed to a game of polo than a back alley. His eyes were such a light shade of muddled blue that they seemed to disappear into the whites. Burning with controlled ambition among his delicate features, they gave the impression that he was capable of reciting poetry before ordering someone killed.
“Is Clive in tonight?” Lesley’s manner of speaking, like his liquor, traveled along the New England coast.
“Why? Do you want to get him into trouble again?”
“In a way, yes.”
“He’ll be happy to hear that. He’s been restless since getting out of Sing Sing. It’s only been a few weeks and his old habits are starting to show.”
“Good. I want him to work for me.”
“And you’re not worried he’s going to scare off the old society ladies?”
“He’ll be the highlight of their lunch conversations for months to come.”
He turned to Tommy.
“Keep the car ready.”
Darling watched him move towards the door with a light, almost musical step.
“Why is he suddenly so interested in Clive?”
“I don’t talk before my first full glass.”
“Never mind that. I’ll get it before you leave. Tell me. Is it because he’s afraid Clive will be snatched up by one of his old buddies, if there are any left?”
“He wants to make the Hampton Club the finest in New York. Dancers swimming in fountains of champagne and a jazz riff for every politician willing to fish one out. Intoxicated chaos disguised as sophistication. Those are his words, not mine.”
“So he’s abandoning his cabs?”
The otherwise empty street amplified Tommy’s easy laugh into a harsh, almost grotesque sound.
“You know, I wish I could get away with wearing so little.” He paused, settling deeper into the cushions now starting to fray at the seams. Her suit consisted of high waisted shorts that were part of an old sailor costume and a black corset embellished with a white beaded collar, given to her by a pansy tearful that it didn’t fit him anymore.
“No, he’s not jumping ship. Would you, if you had a fleet of five hundred already in place? He doesn’t have the muscle for dealing with thugs like Francis and Sid. There are more of them now than ever. That’s why he needs Clive.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Only about my whiskey.”
“Since you asked, I’m not working for that pisswit who can’t think two steps outside guns, women and boxing. Lesley suggested I work the bar, but can you imagine, me, taking drink orders?”
“You’re right. Half of them wouldn’t get past the counter.”
“Why don’t you join us? How much longer are you going to waste your legs in a place like this?”
She reached for his cigarette, took two puffs and snuffed it out with her heel. Walking down the five small steps to the basement door, she paused to look at the smoke in its last efforts to escape the pavement. The music had stopped and she heard only a muffled rumble more dangerous than outright revelry. She waited for a gunshot that would give her a reason to get in the car and leave West 10th for higher ground. Five seconds was enough for her hand to turn the handle and reach for the railing, well-oiled by the grease of steadying hands. Still air followed her into the dark staircase, now layered with the pungent fragrance of smoke, sweat, and leather. Somewhere beneath it all were the sweet notes of whiskey, gin, and, to a lesser extent, bourbon, seeped into every table and floorboard. She inhaled the familiar smell and locked eyes with the Russell Brothers, framed above the landing as patron saints. John, or was it James, dusted his signature wearing a long white dress while James, or John, grasped a broom with a face full of gossip. The two chambermaids had performed while Darling was a child, and, in her mind, continued to judge the crowd every night.
Won’t you strut Miss Milly
Darling heard Gene’s voice, cracked by a decade on the vaudeville circuit, pierce through the sea of overlapping conversations. She turned to see him sitting at the piano, gesturing to Milly and Mabel as they stumbled to the center of the room. The mica shade lamps gave a copper tint to their blond hair, falling in tight curls on skin kept a light shade of porcelain by hats and parasols in their youth. They were dressed in identical Collet Soeurs dresses, trimmed with gilt lace embroidery that crept up to honey colored velvet. Darling remembered that the men watching cared only for the deep V-shaped decollete.
I wanna see you walk;
Oh, the folks all see the way you syncopate
Linking arms, the sisters were trying to cakewalk around the piano, but their failed attempts to step sideways in unison turned into another dance entirely. Darling was sure they could call it the Saxby step, name a cocktail after it, and soon every girl in the city would want both at the same time.
Hear the whole town talk!
She walked to the bar, if that’s what you could call five antique chests pushed together to make a long table. They were nothing compared to the marble bars uptown but excellent for hiding the bottles and runaways. At the moment, they were all empty and the suitcase was left on top, reminding her to take it upstairs and put it in Mrs. O’Connell’s dresser. Lesley stood leaning against one of the chests and scanned the crowd.
“He’s over there.” She pointed to the far end of the room, where, barely visible through the thick haze of smoke, Clive’s feet were propped up on the table.
When you move so preety
It’s a pity
The other girlies frown
She noticed Chubby inching towards her. He made no effort to reach for his handkerchief anymore.
“Pardon me, Miss, but when do you suppose we should start our set?”
“The sisters won’t last much longer. You’ll have our attention soon enough.”
But the men you meet
Like the way you shake your feet
Only two men were not witness to Mabel and Milly’s efforts to dance with each other. Clive sat upright, leaning in towards Lesley who was talking deliberately and moving his navy blue fedora with the music.
Oh, you knock’em dizzy
Strut Miss Milly!
At the end of Gene’s last flourish on the piano, Darling lifted Mabel out of Pretty Sid’s lap and pulled a reluctant Milly away from the keys before she could strike a chord.
“Gene, will you take the girls outside for some fresh air?”
When his coattails, flanked by two sets of white satin shoes, disappeared up the stairs, Darling took her seat on top of the piano.
“If I find whoever put that many drinks in Miss Mabel and Milly, I’ll thank you for it later. But now it’s time for some new blood. Chubby Miller and the Arcadians. Consider their saxophone your cool drink of water for the night, ‘cause you sure aren’t getting any from me.”
She looked down at Chubby.
“Mind if I stay up here?”
“Playing anything I would know?
“We’re starting off with You’re Busted.”
“I’m not sure I’ve heard of that one. You go ahead without me.”
Walter opened the saxophone case to a selection of handcuffs. Her eye caught a pair made of solid brass that looked like it predated the Civil War. She felt blood rushing to the back of her neck, moistening the ends of her wavy hair.
to be continued…