It was a bit past four a.m., and even while his forehead was becoming intimately acquainted with the barrel of a 1911, Danny was thinking about tomorrow’s plans.
As if there was still a tomorrow in store for him.
He’d been on the other side of that barrel before. The first time he’d watched a man die, he’d been in Europe. They’d called it the War to End All Wars, but they were probably wrong.
It changed him. Whoever he’d been on the day he left had died on the battlefield. Shell shock, they called it. That was supposedly a reference to the effects of explosions from artillery shells, instead of what the soldiers themselves had become.
At least here in Chicago the violence was accompanied by the taste of caviar and beautiful women.
Under different circumstances, Danny might have noticed that even now he still had the taste of lipstick lingering on his tongue, but his senses were preoccupied: there was the rope that bound his arms to the chair, the rattling sound in his chest when he breathed, and the grainy concrete soaking into his socks. His left shoulder, which was absolutely no longer in its socket, reminded him that he was still alive by sending pangs of agony up into his mind with every shiver. He was surprised–even vaguely annoyed–that his body hadn’t yet gone into shock. It struck him as unfair.
He’d watched what other men did in his position. He’d seen them cry, he’d seen them beg. He’d seen unbridled rage and wiped bloody spit off his jacket. Others would stare blankly, quietly, which was what he assumed he was doing now.
He felt a laugh bubbling up. It would’ve been a desperate, humorless laugh, but the pain immediately tramped it down. The man behind the trigger must have thought that he was suppressing sobs instead.
“You finally understand the situation you’re in?” he asked. “When you get an order from the boss, it’s their life or yours. Now it’s yours.”
Danny remained silent for a long while. Despite everything they’d already done, the mugs seemed hesitant to kill him here and now, though he couldn’t say why. Spitting the blood out of his mouth, he asked, “Do you know who the hit was on?”
“You think it matters?” The man on the left had been quiet until now. Through the blur of blood pain, Danny could see that he was glancing back at the door to the warehouse every couple of seconds.
“It matters,” He managed, feeling that rattle in his chest. “The mark was Cora.”
That tripped them up for a moment. He watched as the man on the right tightened his grip on the piece, his knuckles turning white beneath rivulets of dried blood. Danny’s blood.
“Walsh is a stone-hearted bastard,” the last word came out with a heavy accent, bastid. “But his daughter? Not a chance.”
Danny wished that were true, he really did. He thought about the first time he met her. It was a cold November night, but you wouldn’t know it for how short the hemlines were. Slow, languid notes from a brass band slid out from beneath the floorboards in the otherwise quiet old-fashioned theater. It was closed for the evening, but people were still flowing in through the secret entrance in the back.
He’d planted himself at the bar.
The Othello was just one of Walsh’s many speakeasies in the city. Danny wasn’t a regular at any of them, but he was celebrating the anniversary of the armistice the best way he knew how. The anniversaries made the end of the war feel more real. It didn’t help with the nightmares, but it helped him get by.
The seats were red velvet, and the bar in front of him was polished marble, with gilding along the edges. Behind the bartender were rows of amber poison, reflected back a few times by a mirror behind the shelf. There were opulent draperies hung along the walls despite the lack of windows, and canvas portraits of actresses from a bygone era peppered the spaces between. It was an elegant place. And yet, for all of this, the bar was sticky beneath his elbows. He’d had just enough to drink to remain unbothered by tackiness against his shirtsleeves when there was Cora, right at his elbow, leaning over the bar.
“Is it alright if I sit here?” She asked.
He’d nodded. He expected her to make the usual small talk before inevitably moving on. Most of these skirts thought they wanted a man who was mysterious until they actually attempted to talk to one. Any effort was too much when you were used to getting everything you wanted, and many of the patrons here were used to getting what they wanted on a silver platter. That was what life was like when you had money.
After a little while, she said, “You don’t come here often, do you?”
“Think you’d recognize me if I did?”
“Okay then, I’ll bite. What gave me away?”
She looked him over. “Hard to say. Perhaps the clothes? And you were sitting here all by your lonesome.”
He raised a brow and took a hard swallow of bourbon, but his tone was mild. “Are you telling me I’m not welcome here?”
He expected her to laugh, but she looked instantly regretful. “Oh, no! It’s not like that.” Her
tone dropped. “I don’t come here often, either. I figured it would be a good time, on account of how swanky this place is, but it’s like all anyone can talk about is everyone else.” Her eyes widened. “Christ, now I’m doing it too, aren’t I?”
That nearly startled a laugh out of him. “Afraid so,” He conceded. “What would you rather talk about?”
She’d considered this question with nearly comical seriousness. “I told you why I’m here,” She concluded finally. “So what’s your story?”
“Same thing. Looking for a good time.”
“Have you found it yet?” She asked. It sounded playful, but earnest too, as if on some secret level she actually wanted to know. Her eyes were the color of black coffee, which contrasted against her pale blond hair. He realized then that he’d seen her before. Not around town, but in photographs throughout the boss’s office.
“Still looking, I guess. Have you got a name?”
“Esther.” It was a pretty convincing lie, if only a single word. He thought that was for the best. Plenty of reasons to go by a fake name in one of these places, and that was doubly true if she was who he thought she was.
For his part, he told her the truth. “I’m Aiden. Everyone calls me Danny.” “You don’t look like a Danny,” She said.
“You don’t look like an Esther,” He replied.
They talked for a while longer before she asked him to dance. Normally, he would have said no. But when she smiled at him the way she did, he couldn’t have turned her down any easier than he could’ve walked on water.
After a couple dances and another couple drinks, they’d fallen back into their chairs. She had just asked if he wanted to go someplace quiet to kiss her when her chaperone–no, her bodyguard–finally caught up to them. Danny had wanted to kiss her, very much, but it seemed like a risky proposition on her end.
“You sure about that? You’ve just met me.”
“I’m not worried. You’re a good one. I can tell.”
Her nose scrunched. “Believe me, I can.”
“There you are,” Cora’s bodyguard had an accent and a scar on his face. Danny had worked with him before. Name was Alfred. To hear the story told, he went to prison for eight years for killing a man that disgraced his sister. On the very day he got out, he killed the man that got him convicted, before fleeing to the good ol’ melting pot here. He didn’t look surprised to
see Danny, and Danny was not surprised to see him, either.
“Kept her safe and sound for you,” He volunteered. Cora glanced between their faces, and he watched her smile fade.
“You work for my father, too?”
“I just might.”
“Did you know who I was?”
“Had a guess.”
She frowned at that and spoke in a hushed tone.”Were you really just keeping an eye on me?”
“Oh, no,” He replied. “It took me a bit to figure it out. You approached me first, remember?”
Doubt was written on her face. “How do I know you weren’t just planning to keep an eye on me from afar?”
“Didn’t you just say you could trust me?”
“I had a good time tonight,” Danny said, leaning forward. “A really good time. And I’d like to see you again, if you’d still have me.”
The smile she gave him nearly knocked the air out of his lungs. “I’d like that too.”
That was the first time they met, but it was far from the last. It’d been almost a year since then. Though he’d never said so, he believed Cora saved his life. She brought a little bit of Danny back into the shell the war had left behind.
He’d even gotten Walsh’s blessing, with the caveat that he was dead if he broke her heart, but that hadn’t deterred him one bit. He was smitten, and even more invested in the success of the family business.
Not that it needed his investment. Cora was an only child. It was never discussed out loud, but there was an unspoken expectation that she would take over the business for her father
once he passed on. She was quiet about it, but the girl had more than enough wits to keep it going strong. As far as Danny was concerned, the only lapse of judgement she’d ever had was when she got with him. She could’ve had anyone she wanted.
Everything seemed fine when Walsh passed the envelope across his desk last night. The man was a bit reedy in stature as he’d grown older, but the boss still towered over most. He had one hell of a poker face, too. Danny hadn’t been suspecting a thing. When he’d torn open the envelope to be greeted with the same face he’d seen pressed against his pillow that morning, he shook his head.
“Think there’s been a mistake. There’s probably a picture of the mark in a frame around here someplace,” He said.
“No mistake,” Walsh shook his head and stood to pour a pair of drinks. “My own flesh and blood. She’s become a liability of sorts, m’afraid. It’s an awful thing. But it needs to be done.” He held out a glass and Danny took it, but he didn’t drink. He was too busy searching Walsh’s face. The silence between them stretched on for a long while.
Eventually, Danny spoke up. “Why are you asking me to do it?”
“You’d stop anyone else who tried,” Walsh replied. “Or you’d fill them with daylight as soon as you heard. You needed to hear the order from me, else you wouldn’t believe it.”
“I’m right here, listening to you, and I still hardly believe it.”
Walsh’s expression was implacable. “You have four hours.”
Those had been the longest four hours of his life. He’d desperately tried to arrange for a trip out of Chicago immediately, for the both of them, but the soonest he could get tickets for was tomorrow morning. He was being followed, too, he knew it. The worst of it was that while he was scrambling for a plan, he’d only managed to meet with Cora for a few minutes. She was on break from her job as a nighttime telephone operator. She’d been stubborn about earning her own wages, and though the recess didn’t leave them with nearly enough time, she was safer there than she was at home.
“Meet me at Charlie’s tomorrow, first thing in the morning,” He’d said, pulling her into his arms.
“Something to do with business?”
He nodded. “Don’t have much time, but you’re not safe.” He took one of her hands in his and gave her the train tickets. It was a smooth, sneaky transition from his palm to hers. “Your father–you won’t believe me. Don’t go home. Just grab what you need and leave. Don’t tell anyone, especially not Walsh. If I’m not there by five, you get on the first train out of here by yourself, understand?”
And while he half-expected her to be derisive (Come on, Danny. My own father?) she’d just given him a long look before nodding.
“Yeah,” She said softly, giving him one final kiss. “I understand.”
By now it must have been nearing dawn. Tomorrow was already here. Danny had known from the start that this was the fate awaiting him if he failed to perform a hit: the broken ribs, the dislocated arm, the blood drenching his clothes, the rope, the gun, the cement shoes. He didn’t care.
He wasn’t sure how long it was before Walsh walked into the warehouse. As the boss approached, Danny found his voice again. “I was dead either way, wasn’t I?”
Walsh nodded. “That’s right. Something of a shame, really. I liked you plenty, you know. I’m sure you could’ve made a good son in law. All considered, it seemed only right that I send you off myself.”
Meager daylight spilled in behind the man, and while Danny had given up hope that he might survive this, he held onto the thought that maybe Cora would still be safe if she still had those train tickets. And if she was willing to leave without him. He wasn’t sure she would be.
“You’re not really going to hurt her, are you?” Danny asked. “There’s no point in lying to me now.”
Walsh scratched the spot beneath his chin. “Your soul can rest assured that there’s no real hit out on her, but my girl needs to learn not to trust anyone in this world. Not even the ones closest to her.”
While the logic was twisted, Danny wasn’t surprised to hear that.
His body was racked with a coughing fit. It was agony. He spat more blood and gathered his breath. “She’s going to figure it out if she hasn’t already. She’ll hate you for it.”
“She very well might. And I’ll admit, this isn’t how I pictured it. Frankly, I thought you would try to snuff her out. Didn’t figure you were willing to put a woman ahead of your own life. Most of us aren’t.” He chuckled, as if he’d told a joke. “You surprised me. A hard man like you. War hero, heartless killer. You surprised me, yes you did.”
He bent to look into Danny’s face.
“I want to say, son, that your willingness to die for love will save your life here. I want to tell you that I know she’ll be in good hands so long as you’re around to protect her.”
Danny coughed again, weakly. He could still see the sunrise over Walsh’s shoulder. She could still be outside Charlie’s, waiting for him. He tried not to picture her face.
The older man continued. “I want to say that, but it isn’t true. See, my little girl needs to be willing to protect herself. And while it’s unfortunate, the way I see it now, it doesn’t matter
whether you try and kill her or if I kill you. It’s the same lesson.” He gestured for the gun. “You can’t trust anyone. It’s about time she learned that the hard way.”
There was a pause. Walsh didn’t turn until he realized the mugs weren’t passing him the 1911. Once he did, his gasp echoed through the warehouse.
Cora was there. Her cheeks were tear-streaked, but she was standing taller than Danny had ever seen her. The budding sunlight caught her hair in a golden halo, and she held his Thompson submachine gun in her hands, keeping a steady aim at dear old dad. There was no sign her hands were trembling.
“I believe,” She said, “I’ve learned that lesson already.”