He had gone looking for trouble when he walked into the club. Trouble was just what he got. Of course, he knew that once he entered the place so early in the evening, when the club was just starting to get active, that he would probably be noticed. Even the coat check girl looked at him
twice: the first time a polite acknowledgment, the second time a more studious glance, as if something about him was familiar. Even as he handed her his fedora, that stare of hers never left his face, those dark eyes of hers scanning every bit of his features. Of course, there had been some changes, such as the scar that ran down from his scalp, down along his cheek, and then ending near his mouth, crafting his face into a permanent smirk. It was only when he began to walk away that she suddenly realized his large, drab green overcoat still clung over his shoulders. She offered to take it for him, but he turned her down, saying he needed it for the warmth.
When he walked into the interior? He saw that things really hadn’t changed much, save for the talent on stage. Some brunette dish was singing a sad number, gripping the microphone like a spurned lover she didn’t want to leave. The band behind her played their somber notes, though by the sweat on their brows it was obvious there was life to this heart-killing music. The guy behind the bar was
someone that he recognized: a portly, balding man with a pencil-thin mustache across his upper lip. He was wiping down the counter when his face glanced up Johnny’s way. By the way his beady eyes turned big as sockets, it was clear that the barkeep recognized him too. One hand quivered a bit, as if he were about to make a move and then reconsidered it. He gave the barkeep a nod. A quiet way of saying, Oh yes, I see you too.
Some of the cigarette girls seemed brand new, save a blonde one that was half legs. He sat down in a corner booth and positioned himself up against the wall: half to keep an eye on the room, and half because he noticed it was the area where he saw her working. Those legs he would have recognized anywhere, but what he recognized even more was that smile of hers. That pale face, those dimpled cheeks, those pearly white teeth, those blue eyes that sparkled with life and joy. Deep down, of course, he knew there was little joy. This was Loretta, the waitress who had been working here for two years now. She had come to the city to start a new career or… something like that. A lot of the girls in this place wrote that kind of story. So did a lot of girls at the brothel down the street. And a lot of girls in the morgue. Yet despite the pain he knew she went through, Loretta still had that smile on her face, and could at least fake it when she was talking to you, without bringing any of her pain into your world. There was something about that that he had always admired in her.
When she made her way over to him, she serenaded him with her usual number. “Cigars? Cigarettes? May… be…” That sing-song voice died as her mind realized who he was. “Hi, Loretta,” he said, grinning. “Could I have a cigarette?”
Her full, red lips were parted, showing only a hint of those pearly whites underneath. “Johnny.” “Yeah, it’s me.”
Her blue eyes scanned his face, and he guessed she must have been examining his scar. There was a look of shock mixed with compassion, like a mother seeing her child hurt after a terrible fall. The sentiment wasn’t lost on him, and he was actually touched by it. When she seemed to remain silent, he added, “I’m fine, really. Just a few scars. And… well…” He moved his jacket back over his right shoulder, then gave his blazer sleeve a good squeeze. His fingers clenched all the way through. “You might say I’m missin’ a few parts.”
The girl swallowed. “You shouldn’t be here. Someone might see you.”
Johnny brought his left hand out onto the table. As he did, his eyes caught the portly barkeep, who was whispering to a waiter. The waiter nodded and disappeared through the kitchen door. Using two fingers, Johnny tapped the table twice. “I think I’ve already been seen.”
The girl’s slender fingers gripped the tray holding the items tighter. Her lips curled into her mouth, and her brow furrowed.
“Forget about it,” Johnny remarked with a smile. “Can I have a cigarette?”
“You should get out of here, now.”
“Not yet. I wanna smoke.” He held up his hand, separating the two fingers he had tapped the table with. “Mind loadin’ me, doll? I need a bit more help these days.”
Loretta hesitated a moment, then, with quick gestures, took a cigarette from an open case and slipped it between his fingers. She took a match and struck it on the side of her tray, and helped him light the cigarette. “Why did you come back?”
“To see some old friends. Do they still stop by?”
“Yes. They come here every night.”
He blew a smoke circle. “Ricky, too?”
Johnny paused a moment. “He hasn’t tried gettin’ friendly with ya again, has he?” Loretta glanced over her shoulder, and saw the barkeep staring at them. “Listen, I can’t stay too long, or they’ll get suspicious. Johnny, just please leave, okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll think about it.”
There was another look of concern on the girl’s face, but her lips went stiff as they pressed together, and her already pale face turned an even brighter hue of white.
Something about that amused Johnny further. Slowly a smirk crept across his face, and he added, “You know, Loretta, you were always too classy a dame for this place.” That seemed to bring color to her cheeks again, yet she didn’t answer him. Without another word, she turned and went to serve other patrons. Johnny paid her no mind, and continued to enjoy his cigarette. The singer on stage was already done with her number, and the diners were clapping now. Though his head was turned to the stage, Johnny’s eyes and attention where on all corners of the club. He could see, down by the bar, that the waiter had returned to the counter, and was whispering something to the barkeep. He could see, back at the entrance, that the coat girl had gotten a phone call, and seemed to be looking his way nervously and nodding her head.
“Guess I’ll be getting company soon,” he muttered.
Company he got. Three men, coming in through the front door, without even stopping to acknowledge or speak with the coat girl. Johnny recognized them all, actually. There was the obese, sweaty thug with the scruff on his pudgy cheeks and the extended overbite. A white dress shirt, drenched in sweat, rested over his body, the top few buttons undone to expose his curly chest hair. Mickey the Mallet, they called him. He had thick, large hands the size of a sledgehammer, and knowing how hard he could hit, it was easy to see how he had gotten his name. There was the taller, scrawnier hoodlum, wearing a pristine white suit. A lanky neck stuck out of his collar, while a hooked nose curled out of his face. Tommy Gun, that was his name. Johnny never found it to be a clever nickname – Tommy wasn’t even that good with a gun.
Then there was Ricky. He didn’t have a nickname. He didn’t need one. Just to utter the name “Ricky” around these parts was enough to send a chill up your spine. Such a name was so well known that with it came the man’s reputation, and everything he had done. The name brought to your mind many things, and none of them pleasant. Every girl with a black eye and puffy cheeks. Every snitch with his throat slit, the blood pouring into the gutter. Every cop who had gotten a few bullets through his uniform. They all came to mind, and sent chills up your spine. No, such a man didn’t need a nickname.
The three of them didn’t bother to be subtle or coy in why they were there. All three made a bee-line right for where Johnny sat, with Ricky in the lead. Johnny remained calm as he brought the cigarette down to his ash tray, and his eyes never left Ricky’s as the group moved closer and closer.
As soon as he got to the table, Ricky stretched out his fingers against the edge and leaned forward. “Welcome back, Johnny.”
“And here I thought you would’ve scrammed after the first time.” Ricky grinned wide, his incisors taking an exaggerated shape at this angle. His dark eyes shifted towards Johnny’s coat, specifically where his right arm had been. “I heard it got shot up so bad they had to saw it off.” “They did.”
A breathy chuckle left Ricky’s throat. His head slowly shook. “And yet you came crawlin’ back?”
“Didn’t ya hear what I was gonna do to ya if I saw your ugly mug again?”
“So ya heard I was gonna plug ya full of lead and finish the job, if you ever showed your ugly, sorry, good for nuthin’ face again?”
Johnny was remaining perfectly calm the entire time. His eyes didn’t show a hint of fear. The smoke from the cigarette slowly swirled upward and around his head, its slow, slithering-like motion adding to the calm demeanor of the smoker. As he stared into Ricky’s eyes, Johnny could tell it wasn’t sitting right with him. No, the young boy was loathing it. Ricky, the man who was used to his name being enough to shut up hit man and G-man alike. Ricky, who was used to being in power through his threats. Ricky had his strength in his arms… and didn’t like a man with only one not cowering at his presence. Johnny could see a kindling in the man’s eyes starting to grow into a flame. Ricky didn’t have power here, and he knew that. Johnny wasn’t giving him that pleasure.
So it was no surprise when the gun got drawn.
A young couple at the nearest table noticed it first. As soon as their eyes saw the pistol in Ricky’s hand, their eyes went wide as saucers, and they stood up and ran. This got the attention of others, who in turn saw the pistol and began to rush out as well. Women screamed, and men turned over tables in an effort to leave. Even the band on stage abandoned their instruments to exit stage right, the singer following at an awkward pace due to her heals.
Johnny, meanwhile, calmly stared down the barrel. The barrel that any moment could have a bullet flying out that would end his life forwever.
“Put the gun away, Ricky.”
“You shut your lousy mouth,” Ricky hissed. “I told you never to show your little rat-faced self again… I told you to clear town… and you wouldn’t listen.”
“Ricky,” Johnny repeated, in that calm, emotionless voice, “put the gun away.” “I said to shut-”
A shot ran out. Blood burst from Ricky’s hand. He let out a scream as he clutched the bleeding stump of his wrist. Johnny flew to his feet, jacket falling back. His left arm shot up. More shots rang through the air. Micky and Tommy jerked about, blood squirting from their chests. Both men collapsed to the ground.
Ricky had slumped onto the floor, resting on his side. His bloodied left hand clutched the bleeding stump where his right hand had been. Johnny was walking over to him now, a strangely crafted gun resting in his left hand.
“How… what…” groaned Ricky.
Johnny held the strange pistol up. A metal rod was welded to it, and designed to rest against his bicep. “I had a welder friend help me out with this. Keeps it stable and helps me aim.” Johnny smirked. “It also helped that I learned how to shoot with my left hand…”
Ricky snarled. “You son of a…”
One more shot rang within the club. Ricky’s body fell limp, flat on his back with his arms spread out. The bloodied stump continued to pour its scarlet liquid onto the club carpet. Johnny stood there, his smoking pistol aimed at Johnny’s body.
“I told ya to put the gun away.”
Johnny stepped over Ricky’s body, being gentle to place his foot some distance from his head, and then began to move towards the front door. As he lifted his eyes, he saw Loretta there. She stood near the door, just off to the side, by the coat drop off. In her hands, she clutched his hat, which she now held out towards him as if she were the coat girl. Her large blue eyes looked at him with uncertainty, and her hands visibly shook as she held the hat out straight from her body. As he drew closer, his lips curled into a smile. “Thanks.”
Her eyes softened, and her hands calmed. He knelt his head down, and she gently placed the hat over his hair. Her slender fingers brushed around the rim and shifted it a few times, getting it neatly on his head. At first, Johnny straightened back up, but then he leaned forward, shoulder out to her. A smile came over her lips, and one of her hands reached up to rest on his shoulder.
“I told ya you were too classy a dame for this place.”
With that, the two of them exited the club.