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Firewater

Jack Valon

Dec 22, 2020

THE GIN RICKEY went down smoothly as Johan savored the cocktail recommended by his  late partner. As on most nights, you’d be hard pressed to believe prohibition had happened as you  got sloshed in the Avalon, one of a countless number of speakeasies in Chicago.   As the sultry singer on the stage sang a bittersweet tune, Johan raised his glass in the air and  bowed his head.  

 “Not bad at all Johnny, not bad at all,” Johan sighed. “Sorry you’re not here to share it.” He  downed the remainder, and looked around the busy place. 

 Couples and gangsters were making merry per usual in the late autumn evening, dancing and  drinking the night away as the band picked up the tempo. Johan saw many known faces, as he  had spent the last couple of days in the Avalon, laying low. Johan noticed a pair of Italian looking gentlemen, looking at him with hardened faces – he nodded towards them, and they  returned the nod, one of them revealing a golden tooth as he whispered something to his brawny partner. 

 Johan turned back towards the bar and indicated another round with a finger, when two men  on either side of him shimmied up and ordered the same. “Johan Hellman, The Swede, as I live  and breathe,” said the one on his left with a heavy Irish drawl.  

 “Depends,” said Johan coolly as he sipped on his new Gin Rickey. “Can I help you gents?”  The men nodded in unison. “Funny you should ask,” said the man on his right, “since we came here to employ your services.” The other man sipped his cocktail, and smacked his lips.  “And we’re inclined, on behalf of our employer, to be most generous.” 

 As the man finished his sentence, his partner took out a thick envelope from his coat, and  planted it next to Johan’s cocktail.  

 Johan cautiously lifted the flap of the envelope with a finger, revealing cash – a starting  amount of cash.  

 “No kidding,” snorted Johan. “That kind of dough buys some serious work – given the tone of  your jabber, I’m guessin’ you work for O’Banion.” 

 “Mr. O’Banion,” said the man to his right through gritted teeth, squaring up to Johan, “is  indeed the man we work for. And he has a job for you, Swede.” 

 The man was heavily built and fitted with a face that had clearly made the rounds in Knuckle  Town, but Johan didn’t let his reaction show further than a raised eyebrow. “I’m enjoying some  much needed time off.” said Johan while lighting a cigarette. “So as generous as the offer may be,  I’ll have to pass.” 

 Just as Johan took the first drag on the cigarette, the Irishman plucked it out of his mouth with  surprising speed, a crooked grin on his face. “See lad, that’s what we were worried you’d say,” he  said with mock gentleness. “And if-“ 

 The man froze at the sound of a cocked hammer, followed by cold steel pressing against his  lower abdomen. “As much as I care for your worry,” said Johan while jabbing his gun into the  gangster’s belly, “I do believe my mind is made up. Safe travels.” 

 The Irishman looked calm, but a slight shiver in his eye betrayed him. “Seems his mind is made up Pat.” he opened his palms in a friendly way, and nodded to the door. “Nothing for it  then, I suppose.” The two gangsters calmly walked out of the Avalon, leaving Johan at unease.  He tipped his bartender generously as he donned his hat, resolved to continue laying low in  the safety of his apartment.  

They didn’t call it the Windy City for nothing, Johan thought to himself as the Illinois winds  lashed at his coat and hat as he stepped out from the Avalon in the late autumn evening. He lit  another cigarette, struggling to keep the flame of the lighter alive against the wind as he pondered  on his situation. Bad enough that he’d lost Johnny in the last job, they’d made a whole lot of  ruckus which meant he might have been spotted, and currently hunted by the diligent boys in  blue. As the gale between the concrete skyscrapers flew by in force, he looked up as he raised the  collar of his coat – looked like rain would come any day now. When only a nub of red ashes  remained of his cigarette he stepped across the lot towards his automobile, digging through his  coat pockets in search of his keys. 

 That’s when he heard the sharp clicking noise. 

 Half a second after he stopped, his automobile roared like an angry dragon as it exploded in a  ball of flames, forcing his eyes shut as the force of the blast threw him ruthlessly backwards on  his skinny posterior. The impact and the deafening sound sent Johan reeling, feeling like he was  in a vibrating vat of syrup, time slowed and his vision muddled.  

 Through ragged breaths his vision slowly steadied, and the taste of iron reached his gaping  mouth – blood. His hearing followed suit, slowly bringing the roar of fire, his own ragged breath and the imminent wail of police sirens. 

 “Sir! Are you alright?” inquired a well-dressed man at the front of a small crowd drawn to the  explosion. An extended hand came into focus as Johan looked towards him, but he grunted a  muddled reply as he tried to return to his feet; it was cumbersome, but he seemed alive at least.  Johan looked towards the intense inferno which had but a moment ago been a fairly decent  automobile – damned shame and all, but rather the car than himself. As onlookers gasped and  hollered and Johan regained his footing, the shrill alarm of the incoming squad cars reminded  him that this was not a good place to loiter. Just then the two cars came barreling off the main  street, coming to a screeching halt on the pavement, uniformed men spilling out to contain the  situation. Peering around the corner, Johan winced in pain as he had barely managed to duck  away. Beyond the policemen a parked car rumbled to life, and if his eyes didn’t play tricks Johan  could’ve sworn he saw his Irish antagonists from earlier roll away at a leisurely pace, taking in  the carnage.  

 “Bastards,” Johan mumbled through gritted teeth as he started to walk away swiftly.  “Sir, stop right there!” came a voice from behind him as he picked up his pace. “Stop or I’ll  shoot!” 

 I can’t get locked up, not now, Johan thought as he sprung into a run towards the mouth of a  cramped alley; the crack of a bullet hitting brick registered just behind him as he dove into the  alley, followed by the sharp call of an officer’s whistle.  

 Not chancing to look back, Johan sprinted through the alley, dodging debris and various  hovels set up by the poor and destitute. The huff and call of the policeman came from behind him as they raced through a small courtyard, bobbing through the washed linens hanged out to dry.  Taking another sharp turn around a hovel, the police-issue snub nose revolver barked again,  sending splintered wood against his face and the lethal thud missed him with a margin far too  small for his liking.  

 As adrenaline-fueled as he was, Johan realized he couldn’t keep giving the tenacious  policeman any further shots – time for the Hellman Hammer. He ducked behind the other corner  of the hovel, throwing himself against the wall in the narrow wooden passage. Looking around,  he smiled as his eyed landed on his prize – a slightly broken four-by-four piece of wood. The  thudding of the officer’s sprint came closer as Johan took the broken board and cocked it in a  baseball position. Listening closely, he counted down as he held his breath.  One. 

 Two. 

 Three. 

 With all his remaining might Johan swung out around the corner, and felt a heavy impact  paired with a sickening crunch as the board broke across the face of the officer. The speed of the  policeman paired with the force of Johan’s swing took the officer off his feet, and sent him in a  full backflip, landing brutally on his face and torso. Johan stepped out from around the corner, as  he discarded the remaining wood in his hands; the officers lay groaning pitifully at his feet, completely down for the count. 

 “Still works like a charm, pops,” said Johan as he tipped his hat towards the skies, and bolted  off towards safety.

The sharp knock on his door jolted Johan awake, and a deep growl escaped him as his body  mercilessly reminded him of the escapades of the previous night. Bruised ribs, sore shoulders and  a stinging cut on his cheek protested as he swung himself off the bed, swiping the .45 from the  nightstand. 

 Johan stood still for a moment, waiting for more noises – but none came. Carefully stepping  across the apartment floor in the cold morning light, he cocked the gun as the adrenaline  suppressed the aches of his battered body. In a swift motion he swung the door open, gun raised,  eyes darting across the hallway – nothing, and no one. His eyes caught something as they  travelled downwards towards his welcome mat; a stunning bouquet of flowers rested there, with a  note attached. 

 As one hand snatched up the bouquet, his right foot slammed the door shut as he retreated  back into his apartment. The bouquet was indeed a beautiful display of color and fragrance; an emerald-green silk ribbon held it together, with the words “O’Banion Floristry” marked in a  warm golden tone. A note of similar style hung from the ribbon, slightly ajar. Cautiously Johan  opened it, a bead of sweat sliding along his temple as he did. 

 “We should talk.” The note instructed him, with a number scribbled at the bottom. Johan  took a deep, ragged breath; this was exactly what he had been avoiding all these years. Since  booze had been outlawed and each barrel of rye had been worth its weight in gold, the gangs in  Chicago had been getting bigger and fiercer fast, attracting the roughest and meanest to climb to  the top over the graves of their competitors. It seemed the days of playing the field was coming to a swift end, and Johan hadn’t even gotten to choose his side – he would have to figure out his  move, after he’d appeased the dangerous Irishman who’d clearly not take no for an answer.  “Operator,” Johan said into his telephone. After giving the number, he waited for the call to  connect. 

 “O’Banion Floristry,” answered a calm voice. 

Johan sighed and gripped the telephone tightly. “Yes, I just received a bouquet I didn’t order.”  “Your name, sir?” Inquired the man on the phone.  

 “Johan Hellman.” 

 “Ah, Mr. Hellman, I’m glad to hear my bouquet found you in good health,” said O’Banion.  “Alive, more like.” Johan said, struggling to keep his wording in check – this was not a man  he wanted to upset if he wanted to experience more of his life.  

 “Ah, most regrettable, that incident with your automobile,” responded O’Banion with a  deadpan tone, “outside the Avalon no less. One can’t be too careful these days it seems.”  Johan merely hummed slightly in agreement, knowing the conversation was equivalent to  walking a tightrope over a crocodile pit. 

 “Speaking of careful,” continued O’Banion, “it is for that very reason I am compelled to seek  your…services.” Johan could’ve sworn he heard a smirk on the other side of the line. “Are you  familiar with the businesses of Madame St. Clair?” 

The downpour peppered the borrowed car with rapid thuds as Johan lit yet another cigarette,  trying to keep a clear eye on the run-down warehouse down the poorly-lit street in the industrial harbor district. Two men dressed in overcoats and hats stood vigil out front, smoking and talking  under a rusty medal awning, and he could have sworn that he caught something long and shiny  under their coats in the yellowed streetlight as they turned.  

 Of course they are heavily armed, Johan thought to himself. 

 He took stock of his own, woefully underprepared plan and kit; a knife, lockpick-kit, his  pistol, and a bulky contraption delivered by his new Irish “friends”. It hadn’t taken Johan long  during O’Banion’s description of the job to realize that he was, without a doubt, expendable. As  that may have been, Johan had every intention of walking out of that warehouse – and one day,  getting back at those who would force his hand, call themselves his bosses; but for that he would  need resources, manpower and tools, all things and considerations that would have to wait until  he outlasted his current predicament.  

 One of the men out front waved his hand at the other, and started walking around the corner.  “Once more unto the breach,” Johan whispered as he gathered his tools, exiting the car under the  cover of darkness and heavy rain. Hugging the brick wall on the same side of the street of the  warehouse, Johan kept low as he made his approach. 

 Twenty feet ahead, he saw his ticket: a heavy hydrant fairly close to the wall, which should  provide him the height to vault it. Sweeping his drenched overcoat behind him, Johan placed a  foot on the hydrant and pushed hard, vaulting himself towards and over the lip of the cold brick  wall. A splash of mud welcomed him as he landed, as a voice called out from around a stack of  crates. “Hello?” someone called out. Johan threw himself against the crates, and drew his knife.  The sloshing sound of feet stepping through mud crept closer, and as the shape appeared Johan lashed out with the blade, feeling the soft resistance of flesh as the knife found purchase in the  man’s throat. Johan grabbed the guard, who gargled horrifically as he was thrown behind the  crate, left to die silently in the embrace of mud and blood.  

 Johan steadied himself – dumb luck had gotten him this far. Thankfully the guard had left the  rear door open, and Johan snuck in as quietly as he could. The warehouse was dimly lit, and huge  brass stills covered the back portion of the warehouse, the front littered with stacks of barrels. He heard a group of voices, coming from the loading area, as he snuck towards the stills – the  distillery area was barely lit, and looked unguarded. He produced the Irish bomb, winding up the  makeshift timer; as he placed it behind the two bigger stills, the pain came before the bang.  Johan screamed as a bullet tore through his left arm, and through sheer reflex he spun around  and fired, seeing a dark shape wobble wildly and fall with a heavy thud, a spray of red marking  the wall. White, searing pain pulsed through him, dimmed by the adrenaline; as he got to his feet,  he heard the cocking of guns and shuffles of boots from the loading area. “Shit, shit, shit,” he  repeated furiously as a couple of rounds tore through the glass-panes above him, showering him  in glass as he shimmied low towards the side hallway. 

 Apparently seen by the guards, fresh bullets peppered the windows and walls which he leaned up against. As they reloaded, he ventured a glance; seemingly three of them, huddled behind  thick barrels close to the entrance. The steady ticking of the bomb pressed on his mind, and he came swiftly to his conclusion: he had to make a run for it.  

 Johan took off along the hallway, shooting back as the barrage began anew. Finding a loading carriage, he ducked down, and rolled it backwards to a corner. He reloaded his gun, and just as the footfalls of armed men closed in, his ears went numb as a scorching wave of heat engulfed the warehouse. 

 With his ears ringing, he looked up to find everything covered in wild flames, smoke  billowing from the back distillery. The gunmen lay coughing and dazed on the floor, scrambling  for their dropped weapons; Johan distributed his magazine accurately into the thugs as he walked  past, and out into the cold night.  

 Ears still ringing, he was greeted by four of St. Clair’s gangsters, Thompson guns held in hip  position. An eerie laugh escaped his lips, as the bruised, muddy and bloodied Swede stood before  his undertakers; better beware, if you don’t take care echoed through his mind, the laugher  prompted by how he didn’t think this was what his father had meant by those words.   Johan closed his eyes and lifted his gun, as white lights and gunfire exploded in front of him;  as it died down, to his surprise, he could open his eyes, and he was decidedly not peppered head  to toe with machine-gun rounds. 

 The four gunmen at his feet, however, were. 

 Approaching from the side of the brick wall were four other men, the barrels of their guns  trailing gun smoke as their walked over the dead St. Clair gunmen. 

 “You looked like you needed help,” said the man in the front, flashing a smile adorned with a  golden tooth.  

 Johan looked bewildered at the man, as clarity finally cut through his rattled mind. “You,”  Johan exclaimed, “you were at the Avalon last night.” 

 “Top marks Swede, tops marks,” responded the man. “We’ve had our eyes on you for a while.” 

 “You have, eh?” Johan raised an eyebrow, slightly lowering his pistol. “And on whose behalf  do you keep that eye?” 

 The gold-toothed man leaned his head slightly, gesturing to his fellows. “Our boss is  impressed with your work, and feels that…other parties did you dirty on this one. He would like  to extend an invitation to you to join his enterprise.”  

 “Does your boss have a name?” Johan asked, crossing his arms. 

 “You can call him Mr. Capone.”

 

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