Featured Excerpt: The Fate of a Flapper by Susanna Calkins
By Susanna CalkinsJuly 6, 2020
The black delivery truck pulled up to Mr. Rosenstein’s drugstore, its movements stealthy and smooth as it parked, not a squeaking brake or rattling screw to be heard. Its shadow from the dropping sun stretched across the sidewalk, just touching the store’s glass windows, which displayed mortars and pestles, vials, soaps, and soda bottles.
At the sight of the truck Gina Ricci halted midstep and buried her nose in a florist’s storefront display about fifty feet away. The florist shop was new to the street—another business masking Signora Castallazzo’s operations. As Gina pretended to admire the fall blooms, she pulled a silver compact out of her handbag and angled it so that she could discreetly observe what was happening. Deliveries could be a dodgy business—better to wait until everything had been safely unloaded and the truck had departed before making her way inside to the speakeasy below.
Two men in brown overalls with gray caps pulled low over their eyes slid out of the passenger side and walked around to the back of the truck. Their builds were similar, but one was much older than the other. Father and son, maybe. The driver remained at the wheel, his elbow protruding from the window. The engine, Gina noticed, was still idling.
Two of Signora Castallazzo’s right-hand men stepped out of the drugstore, their movements coordinated and purposeful. The first man was Little Johnny, a large Russian fellow whose nickname was at odds with his size. He gestured to the deliverymen to open the truck’s back doors. Not surprisingly, Mr. Rosenstein, the thin, bespectacled chemist, was not on hand to receive the shipment. The Signora controlled all deliveries received at the drugstore, aswell as at the tearoom on the other side.
As the men began to unload the crates onto an iron hand truck under Little Johnny’s watchful eye, Mr. Gucciani, or “Gooch,” remained a few steps away, his sharply tailored suit jacket loosened, with his hand close to his hip. He was looking up and down the street, and she saw his gaze settle on her for a moment. He held up his hand to her before dropping it back to his side. Wait. She gave the barest of nods to indicate she understood. His eyes traveled past her, and he craned his head. He then said something to the other men that Gina couldn’t make out.
Angling her mirror in the other direction, Gina inhaled sharply. A black Model T was inching its way down the street, stopping directly behind her. Shifting her body slightly, she could see two men in dark suits inside staring intently at the truck. One man pointed, and the other man nodded. Both men’s faces were grim. They could be Drys—the federal agents charged with arresting anyone found illegally selling, manufacturing, or distributing alcohol intended for consumption. The local cops didn’t police Prohibition; they only arrested drunks if they were publicly disorderly or committing a crime. If treated gingerly, they were usually willing to accept a payoff—or even a drink. The Signora, Gina knew, kept them close. The Drys, on the other hand, were a different breed altogether. Passionate in their pursuits, they could be dogged in their quest to suppress the alcohol trade.
Gina stiffened, fighting the instinct to hide inside the florist shop as the passengers got out of the truck.
Don’t run, she told herself. Don’t ever run. She’d learned the slogan her first day on the job, and so far, remembering it had served her well.
She smelled another bouquet, wondering if she should go wait in the tearoom, which served as another front for the speakeasy.
Gina glanced down at the boy who’d materialized at her side. Dressed head to foot in gray clothes flecked in mud and grime, he looked to be about ten or eleven. Across his slight chest he wore a cloth satchel marked Daily Tribune. Inside the satchel were three or four newspapers that he’d not yet sold. An uncut cigar peeked out of his vest pocket. Knowing these newsies, there was probably a flask of bourbon tucked away as well. His gray cap was tugged low over his forehead, but not so far that she missed the desperate look in his eyes. “Just a penny.”
“Scram, kid,” she said. She peered past him. Would they ever finish the delivery? “I already got a paper waiting for me at home.”
“Real exciting news, miss.” Not to be deterred, he held out the newspaper so she could read the headlines. BOMB HURLED THROUGH LAKE SHORE ATHLETIC CLUB WINDOW. And below it, in smaller but still eye-catching text, ninety-fifth bombing in Chicago this year.
The delivery was starting to look like it was going to take a while. Can’t stare at flowers forever, she thought. She pulled a penny out of her beaded handbag and handed it to the newsboy. “Now beat it, would you?”
Grinning, he scurried away to continue his hustle elsewhere. Opening the paper, Gina leaned against the brick wall between the florist and the tearoom entrance and began to read about the bombings. Ninety-five bombs detonated in Chicago this year alone. Pineapple bombs, black powder bombs, dynamite, Molotov cocktails . . . there seemed to be no shortage in the ways people sought to terrorize one another. Bootleggers and businessmen alike, even a college quarterback, of all people, had been threatened by bombs. The side effects of skills learned during the Great War.
Gina continued to page through the paper as she waited. In a Colorado penitentiary, hundreds of inmates had taken part in the largest prison riot ever seen in the United States. On the North Side of Chicago, a housewife had murdered her husband for mocking her cooking. “Well, he did put her down in front of their friends,” Gina muttered to herself, perusing the piece.
She flipped to the last few pages of the paper, skimming over the features and advice columns. A review of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Fashion guides for slimming clothes for heavy women. Articles about dieting. Chocolate company says, “eat more sugar to stay slim.” And as always, Doris Blake’s advice to modern women on how to be attractive to more traditionally minded men.
She glanced at her watch. Almost five thirty.
One of the men got out of the Ford and advanced toward the drugstore, holding up a badge. “What’s being delivered today?” he asked. He didn’t sound anything like the Irish cops she was familiar with—probably not from Chicago.
Without missing a beat, the older of the two delivery men replied, “Balms. Oils. Some cosmetics for the ladies. Hand lotions. All produced at our factory in Des Plaines.” He pointed at the side of the truck. “Boscoe’s.” He showed the man a clipboard, which had the delivery orders typed out.
The Dry pointed at one of the crates in the middle of the stack. “Mind opening that for me?” His tone was friendly, but Gina could see his body was tense. The other agent, still in the car, had leaned forward.
The younger deliveryman licked his lips and glanced at Little Johnny. The Signora’s man just jerked his head toward the crowbar. “Do it.”
They all watched as the man moved the top crate aside and positioned the crowbar above the middle crate. With a sharp wrenching sound, he pried the lid open.
Taking the crowbar into his own hands, the Dry pushed aside the layer of straw that had lined the top of the crate. Reaching in, he picked up one of the vials and uncorked it, taking a deep sniff, his expression not changing. After recorking it, he dropped it back inside. He reached in deeper this time, pulling out another bottle. Once again he took a sniff, then dipped his finger inside and touched it to his tongue for a taste. This time he grimaced. “Someone would need a death wish to drink that stuff,” he said, not cracking a smile.
Little Johnny grinned as though the man had made a joke. “Ja. Just so,” he said. The delivery men echoed the laughter. Only Gooch stayed silent.
The Dry gave the straw another half-hearted poke with the crowbar and turned back to Gooch. “Carry on,” he said. “We’ll wait.”
As the crates were being loaded, the Dry had them open another one. Once again he did the same thing—selected a random vial, uncorked it, tasted its contents, and then stepped back. He did this two more times. All the while the drivers in both cars were keeping careful watch. Finally the Dry grunted something that Gina didn’t catch, and headed back to the waiting car.
As soon he slammed the car door shut, the federal agents drove away, leaving the delivery men to reload the crates back onto the hand truck and wheel them into the drugstore. Once inside, the crates would be pried open by Benny, Mr. Rosenstein’s shop hand, and the shelves would be restocked with tonics, balms, cosmetics, and other sundries. Later, assuming all went well, the crates would be transferred downstairs to the Third Door, where their false bottoms and secret spaces would be revealed, exposing the specialty liquors reserved for the more discerning of the speakeasy’s customers.
“This place is getting hot,” she heard the older deliveryman say. “Mr. Boscoe won’t like it.”
Gooch stood next to the man. “If Mr. Boscoe has a problem, tell him to take it up with us directly.” As always, there was a lethal undertone to his deep voice.
Shrugging, the men hopped back into the truck and drove off. Before he followed Little Johnny in, Gooch looked straight at Gina and jerked his head toward the drugstore. She could almost hear his voice. Get a wiggle on, toots. He went back inside.
Gina had not gone two more steps when someone grabbed her elbow. Whirling around, she instinctively adopted the fighting stance her brother had taught her when she was a kid. Working at the Third Door had quickened her reflexes and toughened her up.
Rather than the lecherous man she expected, she faced a middle-aged woman, with a mucky toddler clutching her skirts. A kerchief covered her grayish-brown hair, and a drab brown dress engulfed her shapeless form. Behind the woman she spied the newsboy from earlier, now looking more sullen than cocky as he poked the ground with a stick.
“What do you want?” Gina asked, dropping her fists but not her guard. “I don’t have any money.”
“I’m not a beggar, miss,” the woman said proudly, her English tinged with a Polish accent. “You work in there, don’t you?”
“The drugstore? Yes.”
The woman made an impatient sound. “The moonshine parlor. I know you do.”
Gina glanced down at her light fall jacket, which covered an ordinary day dress. She would change once she was inside. How could the woman have known?
The newsboy spoke up then. “I’ve seen you. You’ve gone in one of them stores, and then you don’t come back out.”
“Excuse me. I’m going to be late,” Gina replied, feeling a bit uneasy. Even though the Third Door was one of the most poorly kept secrets of Chicago’s Near West Side, she knew the Signora wouldn’t like her talking openly about selling alcohol. The Feds’ presence during the delivery had unnerved her, too. A constant reminder that the Drys could bust up their place at any time. She’d be out of a job, or worse.
She shuddered. She couldn’t even imagine what her papa would do if she ended up in jail or out of a job. Especially not now, with his palsy growing worse every day, further limiting his ability to bring in much income.
“Please, miss. I don’t mean you no harm,” the woman pleaded. “It’s my husband. He spends all his time in there, spending every penny he earns. My children are hungry and without proper clothes on account of his drinking.” She put her arms protectively around her daughter. “My rent is due and we’re facing the street. I don’t want to go to the mayor and rat this place out, but I beg of you, send my man home. Back to where he belongs.”
Gina looked down at the two kids, who looked back up at her. The boy stuck his tongue out, but the toddler gave her a sunny smile, displaying several missing teeth behind her chapped lips. “What’s your husband’s name?”
“Stanislaus Galinsky. His pals”—here she grimaced—“call him Stan.”
An image of a rough-hewn regular jumped into her thoughts. Gin and tonic. Ale when they had it. She’d been working at the Third Door over nine months now, and she’d gotten to know the regulars. Stan stuck to himself, at least; not a handsy guy. Still, drinking away his earnings . . . she shook her head.
“I’ll see what I can do.” As the woman began to thank her, she added more sternly. “Mrs. Galinsky, I can’t promise you anything. You understand me?”
Gina turned away then, not wanting to look at the woman’s downcast face or the pitiful appearance of her children. She’d tell Gooch to kick the bum out. Of course, they couldn’t keep him out for long; or even if they could, he’d stake out another spot. She shook her head again. Such was the way of things.
Once inside the Third Door, Gina quickly went to the women’s salon and changed into a red silk concoction, a new piece. Madame Laupin’s latest creation. An unexpected gift from the Signora.
Gina smoothed her hands over the fabric, admiring its soft sheen and beautiful movement, once again marveling at the life that was hers. Who would have thought, ten months ago, she’d no longer be doling out soup and washing dishes in a dingy, run-down kitchen? Now she was selling ciggies and drinks and getting tarted up every night. She boldly applied a bit of lipstick that was nearly as scarlet as her dress and surveyed the result with satisfaction.
After touching up her mascara, she headed onto the speakeasy floor. Her main job was to sell cigarettes, gum, and candy, only serving cocktails when the other servers were dancing or when the joint got too full for the other girls to handle.
Moving too quickly, she nearly collided with Lulu, the cocktail waitress with the frizzy red hair, who was perpetually late to everything. “Hey, doll!” Lulu called, blowing her a kiss on her way to change. “Looking good!”
A few men who were already there gave her an appreciative glance, even as their female companions turned their guys’ faces from her.
They needn’t worry, Gina thought. I’m not looking for a sheik.
Besides, the Signora had made it abundantly clear that they weren’t to date the patrons, or at least not set anything up while on the clock. Still, Gina fluffed her hair a bit and widened her smile. The tips had certainly helped make sure her papa had meat three times a week and she could pay all their bills on time. The windfall she’d received back in January following the unexpected death of her cousin Marty Doyle had improved their situation somewhat, but money was still tight.
The memory of Marty still made her wince. She’d barely known him before he was murdered, but she’d been shocked to learn that he had bequeathed her his possessions, including all his photography equipment, because she was the only surviving issue of his favorite cousin, her mother, Molly O’Brien. He’d also paid six months out on his lease, which covered a one-bedroom flat with kitchen, as well as another flat that had been converted into a working darkroom. She’d been pleased to discover that both flats were situated in a building above the speakeasy, although a bit less pleased to discover that the Signora was her landlord, and Little Johnny’s mother lived in the flat below. Still, she couldn’t complain, given that the Signora had graciously extended the already reduced lease for another year.
Gina had half-heartedly gone through Marty’s old things, giving some of his clothes to her papa and selling a few items when she could. She really didn’t know what to do with everything else. Some days before work she’d come over to develop photographs and make herself coffee and cookies, but the space had mostly stayed empty. She’d also enjoyed using Marty’s equipment, learning the art of photography on her own after some initial lessons back in February. The Signora hadn’t hired anyone to be the speakeasy photographer after Marty’s untimely death, and Gina was still hoping to develop her skill enough that the Signora might hire her on the same terms she’d given him. She’d toyed with the idea of moving in, but she couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving her father on her own.
“Gina! Come get your tray!” Billy Bottles called, setting the wooden piece at the end of the bar. It was the bartender’s job to fill it with the most commonly requested ciggies, papers, and tobaccos, as well as a few necessities like a cigar cutter and a lighter. There was even a small box for her favorite Wrigley’s gum and mints.
“Thanks, Billy,” she replied, smiling at the white-haired bartender. He just grunted in reply. As a surly guy, he muttered a lot. Like Gooch and Little Johnny, he had deep-rooted connections to the Signora, and he’d been working as the Third Door’s bartender since it opened a few years back. A whiz with cocktails, he took great pride in his work, sometimes coming up with his own concoctions. He did have a bit of a temper, especially if someone didn’t like a drink he’d made. That anger had never been directed at her, though. Maybe because he’d known her papa when he was young, back when he’d been known as “Frankie the Cat.”
Carefully, Gina fastened the strap so that the tray rested comfortably at her waist. Since January, she’d gradually learned to position the tray so that it wasn’t so heavy on her neck and shoulders, although the strap still pulled on her neck hairs at times. A few months ago she’d painted the word Smokes on the tray, all in curlicues, with bright red paint, which she felt gave it a bit of character.
She moved to greet a handful of regulars descending the stairs, but Jade had already beaten her to it. “This way, Mr. and Mrs. Henderson,” Jade said to the couple, giving Gina a cool look as she led them to a corner table. Mine, Gina could almost hear the Caribbean-born singer say, in the slightly taunting way she had. “Brought your friends in, I see?”
“We told them about your singing,” Mrs. Henderson gushed, causing Jade to smirk at Gina. “Told them they simply had to hear you,” her husband added.
There had been a bit of a thaw between the women over these last few months, but Jade was clearly the Signora’s hot-to-trot green-eyed favorite and always lorded it over the others. Not that Gina blamed her—Jade’s beautiful voice deserved something better than the second-rate audiences who came to the Third Door. On occasion Jade performed over at Louis Armstrong’s joint in Bronzeville, the Sunset Café, but that had yet to turn into a regular gig. As Jade had resentfully told her once, her skin color meant she couldn’t headline at some of the fancier clubs and theaters outside of Chicago’s South Side. However, at the Third Door her popularity was unmatched, and she had many regulars wrapped around her finger. Right now, both couples had laid some extra dollars on Jade’s tray.
“I’ll give you some real razzle-dazzle later,” she said, slipping the cash from view. She strutted past Gina, queen of the walk.
A loud guffaw from the other end of the bar caught Gina’s attention. A group of men was huddled there, and in the middle was Stan Galinsky, the newsboy’s papa, still yukking it up with his pals. She curled her lip. All of them drinking away their weekly paychecks. How many others had mouths at home waiting to be fed? She’d never given it much thought.
Instead of pointing Stan out to Gooch as she intended, Gina marched over to the man, planting herself squarely in front of him. “You’re Stan, right? Stan Galinsky?”
The other men stopped talking at her approach, looking her up and down with a mixture of interest, admiration and annoyance.
Stan looked up at her, his eyes bleary and bloodshot, a stupid grin revealing the wrinkles across his face. “Aw, sweetheart, I’m taken,” he said, causing the men around him to laugh. “Though my wife might not be too happy to see me right now.”
Gina frowned. In his cups even before dinnertime. “Your wife is outside the drugstore. Waiting for you to come out.”
“Petra can keep waiting,” he replied, still slurring his words. “Just gonna harp and carry on like she always does. Right, fellows?” He looked around at his pals, who all slapped his back and guffawed.
“You got that right, Stan!” they called. “Show her what’s what!”
“Your kids are up there, too,” Gina said. “They’re waiting for their papa to come home.”
A flicker of shame danced in his eyes before he turned away. “Lemme alone,” he slurred. “Or I’ll tell the Signora you’re trying to drive away her customers. She wouldn’t like that, would she?”
That’s true, Gina silently agreed, taking a step back. What would the Signora do if she warned off a paying customer? Usually it was up to Gooch and Little Johnny to run the bums out of the speakeasy, but they’d only do so if someone was picking fights, pawing at the women, or had blown through their dough.
“I’ll take some Marlboros,” one of the other men called to her. “Just so long as you don’t tell my wife.”
Gina handed the man his cigarettes, plastering a smile back on her face, trying not to think about the tearful woman waiting for her wayward husband to find his way home.
By seven o’clock, the Third Door was hopping. Stood to reason. On a Friday night people had bucks to burn. Or, just as likely, they’d come out hoping to find someone willing to blow some scratch on them.
Most of the tables around the dance floor were occupied, and a few couples were already dancing as Neddy Fingers tickled the keys of the piano in the corner. As usual, a few women were casually positioned around Ned, hoping to catch the slender playboy’s attention.
A few more people were seated at the bar, chatting or idly watching Billy make concoctions of all sorts, adding honey to some, bitters to others, and garnishing a few with mint, cherries, or orange slices. At this time of the evening,Gina had noticed, most of the drinks were a little frothier and more imaginative, Billy Bottles’ way of disguising the terrible taste of the gin. Later in the evening the drinks would start getting darker and more bitter, as if everyone were getting too fried to care what their drinks looked or tasted like.
As she moved around the room, she noticed that a man seated alone by the wall seemed to be watching her. His hand was wrapped loosely around his whiskey tonic, and as she approached, she could see that his fingernails were carefully trimmed and buffed.
“Cigarettes, cigars, candy, mints? If you don’t see something you like, I can go see if Billy’s got it in stock.”
“Oh, I see something I like,” he said, grinning at her slightly, giving her the once-over. He was probably in his early thirties, slender, very well dressed. He had Irish features—dark blue eyes, black hair. Very handsome.
She shifted impatiently. “On the tray?”
“Sure, Gina.” He pointed to a cigar. “I’ll have one of those.”
“You know my name?” she asked, as she cut the foil on the cigar. She’d never seen him before.
“I pay attention,” he replied, taking the cigar and holding it out for her. Before she could light it, he set it back down, his jaw tightening as he caught sight of something over her shoulder. “Ah. I’d love to chat more, but I need to take care of something first. If you’ll excuse me.”
Putting the cigar in his vest pocket, he downed the rest of the whiskey in his glass and stood up.
Gooch was standing there. “The Signora is ready for you now, Mr. Morrish. Follow me.”
Gina narrowed her eyes, watching as the men disappeared from the speakeasy floor. Wonder what that’s about? she thought. She knew the Signora had her hands in a lot of pots and was always finagling with others to expand her means and reach. Though it was hard not to speculate about all the backroom meetings, Gina knew enough not to ask questions and she most definitely knew to keep her mouth shut.
Two men had seated themselves at a high table by the bar when she wasn’t looking and appeared now to be waiting for service. Seeing Lulu about to head over, Gina tapped meaningfully at her delicate silver art deco wristwatch. Catching the gesture, Lulu returned her empty cocktail tray to Billy before disappearing to the ladies’ salon. Time to get ready for her first set.
“Good evening, gents,” Gina said to the two men. She ran her fingertips lightly across the contents of the tray. “Care for a smoke?”
“From you, doll, I’d buy anything,” one of the men said, giving her a dimpled smile that most women would probably find charming. With his wavy blond hair and even features, he had the look of a man who usually got what he wanted. “Modernos for me. How about you, Dan?”
“It’s Daniel, George,” his companion replied. He looked up at Gina. “I’ll take Modernos as well, thank you. Plus two sidecars.”
They placed the money on Gina’s tray, but only Daniel added a tip. A whole extra dollar. Not with the lecherous air of expectation but rather with the ease of someone used to tipping expansively.
After lighting the men’s cigarettes, Gina put their drink order in with Billy, keeping an eye on the whole floor. Everyone seemed settled in with their smokes and drinks, as they tapped their feet to Ned’s quick-fingered version of “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie).”
A petite woman dressed in gray and silver emerged from the direction of the ladies’ room and approached Gina, sliding a beautiful evening bag off her wrist.
“What a lovely bag,” Gina said, admiring the loops of shimmering deep red beads and intricate silver handle.
The woman gave her a pleased smile. “Thank you. My father gave it to me a few years ago. It’s my favorite.” She opened the clasp and handed Gina a dollar. “I imagine my friends have already ordered. I’ll take a bourbon rickey. You can bring me my change with my drink.”
“Sure thing,” Gina said. “I’ll be over in a sec.”
As she waited on Billy to finish the drinks, Gina turned her attention back to Daniel and George, studying them with a practiced eye. Ever since she’d started learning the craft of photography earlier in the year, she’d taken to looking at the details of people’s faces and clothes more closely, thinking about what it would be like to photograph them. While both men wore expensively tailored suits, Daniel had a slightly more finicky air, still buttoned up and starched, while George looked a little rougher but more relaxed. If she had to guess, given the way Daniel had bestowed the tip, he’d been born to wealth and privilege, while George had not.
The drinks ready, Gina carried them over, placing small cocktail napkins on the table before laying down the glasses. Not every customer scored a napkin, but since Daniel had tipped her so well she thought he might appreciate the gesture.
“Thank you, darling,” George said to her. He clinked his glass against his friend’s. “Bottoms up, Dan! Here’s to the booming stock market and making our clients—and us!—oodles of cash! That means a new Duesenberg for me!”
A Duesenberg! It was hard not to feel impressed. Gina had never ridden in such a fancy car. After laying down the bourbon rickey in front of the woman, who’d rejoined her friends nearby, she continued to listen in on their conversation even though she knew little about the stock market. There was something compelling about George’s unabashedly joyful sense of greed that both intrigued and offended her.
Daniel took a deep gulp, grimacing. “Too many people entering the market who don’t know what they’re doing. Too much borrowing. Too much speculating! They’re going to ruin everything.”
George snickered. “Your trust fund is showing, Dan. The more in the market, the merrier, I say.”
Daniel drained his glass. “Haven’t you seen the reports? Some experts say that the market could crash if we don’t slow down. We have to keep the riffraff out.”
“Better not let the boss hear you say that!” George replied, setting his glass down hard on the oak table. “Look, Dan, I just approved three more loans today. Stocks will keep going up and up, mark my words. So long as the banks don’t close, we’ll just keep raking in money!”
“Tut-tut. So vulgar, George.”
“Looks like you need another drink! Hey, darling,” George called to Gina. “Keep ’em coming, would you, honey? It’s been a good day, and I think it’s gonna be even a better night.”
Gina gave them the disdainful smirk she’d perfected in the last few months and moved away. She’d given these stinkers enough of her time already. On to the next.
Over the next hour, more customers descended the stairs, allowed down in couples and small groups. First a pair, then another pair, then another three, all dressed to the nines. Feathers, silks, satins, beads, boas, headpieces—everyone sparkly, shiny, and ready for a boozy grand time. Their entry was determined by Little Johnny, who was upstairs monitoring the green door off the alley. The passwords varied, but those in the know were aware that tonight’s password was Elephant’s Elbows. Though the passwords seemed a bit silly at times, they served a vital purpose, creating a sense of camaraderie in a forbidden world, and ensuring an urgency to keep the secret from those who would expose and betray them.
As Gina refilled her tray with more rolling papers, tobacco, and mints, she could overhear two women seated by the bar talking and giggling loudly, clearly trying to capture the interest of some men around them. One of them was a dainty brunette, pale with delicate rosy cheeks. In her fluffy brown hair, she had pinned an elaborate silver butterfly headpiece that matched her silvery dress. From her neck hung an elegant black opal on a silver chain that set it all off divinely. The other was a slender blonde with bobbed hair, dressed in a sleek teal and black number. Both women looked like they came from money.
The blonde nudged her friend. “Jeepers, Fruma! Vidal’s here! You didn’t invite him, did you?”
“Oh, no!” Fruma exclaimed, sounding genuinely concerned. “Addie, what’s he doing here?”
“He’s looking around. Maybe he hasn’t seen you. Quick! Go to the ladies’ room.”
“Bah!” Fruma replied. “Too late. He saw me. He’s heading over.”
Her attention caught by the conversation, Gina watched as a man with slicked-back hair strode across the room, ignoring all the prancing and trotting couples scattered across the dance floor. He stood in front of the women, his hands thrust into his trouser pockets. “Hey Fruma. What’s shaking?”
“What are you doing here, Vidal?” Fruma asked, toying nervously with the opal around her neck. “You know we’re not engaged anymore.”
He pulled up a chair, to the obvious annoyance of both women. Reaching across the table, he seized Fruma’s hand. “Darling! I’ve missed you so much. You haven’t returned any of my calls! I’ve been so worried. I took a chance that I’d find you here tonight.” He looked accusingly at Fruma’s companion. “Adelaide! Have you been passing on my messages?”
“Get lost, Vidal,” Adelaide said, sniffing. “Can’t you see Fruma doesn’t want to see you?”
Vidal’s face grew dark with anger. “Hoity-toity, think you’re better than me,” he said, looming over them in a menacing way, causing both women to cringe.
Gina raised her hand in the air, her spangled bracelets catching the light of the grand chandeliers above, trying to get Gooch’s attention.
Except it wasn’t Gooch who noticed the women’s predicament—it was George, the stockbroker. He strode across the floor and positioned himself between Fruma and Vidal. “Ladies, is this man bothering you?”
They both nodded, their eyes large and star-struck by their hero. Daniel, Gina noticed, continued to drink at their table, unconcerned with the fracas. George stood up straight, trying to loom over Vidal, having only one or two inches on the man. “Sir, I believe these women said they didn’t wish to be bothered. I suggest you leave them alone.”
“What’s going on here, Gina?” Gooch asked, materializing at her side.
Gina cocked her head toward Vidal and spoke in a low tone. “That guy there—his name is Vidal—is bothering those two women. That other guy is just sticking his nose in.”
Gina stepped back as Gooch handily maneuvered the interloper to a table on the other end of the dance floor. Before he walked away, the bouncer wagged his finger in the man’s face. Speak to these women again and you’ll be sorry.
“Guess the fun never stops here. Are they regulars, Gina?” Mr. Morrish had returned to the table he’d occupied earlier, his meeting with the Signora evidently concluded. He’d been watching the confrontation with interest.
“Not regulars,” she replied. “We get all kinds here—some looking for different kinds of fun.” She studied him. He still seemed watchful, intent, contemplating the two women giggling at Vidal, who was now situated on the other side of the dance floor. “You got what you needed?”
He gave a short laugh. “Not quite,” he said, and pointed at his empty glass. “Right now I’ll take a sidecar.”
When she returned a few minutes later with his drink, he took a sip and grimaced. “Sorry, this won’t do. I’ll take a whiskey tonic instead.” Gina put the barely touched drink back on her tray.
“Hang on a sec, Gina. How about you and I continue where we left off earlier?”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
He pulled the already-cut cigar from his vest pocket and held it out for her to light. After he took a puff, he looked straight into her face. Their sudden proximity made her cheeks flush. She didn’t date a lot of men—although there was Roark, whom she hadn’t seen in weeks. She didn’t want to think about him now.
Mr. Morrish seemed amused by her reaction. He touched her arm before she could step away. “You happy here? The Signora good to you?”
“Quite happy,” she said, wary of his sudden intimacy.
“Bad things go down here, Gina. You’ve got to know that. A girl like you—” He paused.
“What? What about a girl like me?”
“Well, let’s just say it would be a real shame if something happened to a girl like you.”
Gina froze. Was that a threat or a warning?
He dropped his hand then, breaking their odd contact. Then he smiled. “I’ll be around. Don’t you worry.”
Copyright © 2020 by Susanna Calkins.