Albert was staring at the woman he thought he was going to marry when The Kid came in.
Perched on a stool next to the door, yesterday’s box scores in front of his face, Albert kept his gaze focused on the back booth across the room while Nicky let The Kid inside.
Without averting his gaze, Albert let out a grunt. “He gave you last week’s password.” Nicky scratched his head and shrugged. “Last week was two days ago.”
The Kid stood there frozen, unsure what to do. He looked guilty and not old enough to get a proper drink. The clothes were expensive, but clearly not his own. A mismatch of styles and sizes probably snatched from shops and clotheslines. A boy playing dress-up.
Nicky waited for orders, but none came. When he grabbed a fistful of the Kid’s collar, Albert lowered his paper a few inches.
“He’s okay. Let him in.”
“Whatever you say, boss.” Nicky loosened his grip, and The Kid jerked away, as if he had been the victim of some horrible misunderstanding.
“Hey, Kid—don’t make me regret letting you in here, okay?”
Albert raised his paper back to its original position and his eyes moved back across the room. Nicky locked the front door and fired up a smoke. “Should I have told him to hit the bricks? I know why we change the passwords, but we let in Old Earl and he didn’t—”
“There are no absolutes when you’re working the door.”
“Sometimes you make exceptions. You bend the rules and let in a buddy, a girl you like. Or you get to be a tough guy when some rotten bastard from the neighborhood is on the other side of the door begging for a drink. You’ll get the hang of it.”
Albert had worked the door for just over a year and Nicky was the first guy that seemed like he might be a good fit for the job. The others he tried out were either looking for a fight or free drinks to pass the time, which meant there was always a mess to clean up at the end of the night.
Nicky never asked for a sip of beer, and wanted to earn his money honestly, even if the business was less than reputable. He showed up on time, and never griped about the job. Albert kept waiting for
the other shoe to drop, but it never did. Accepting a two-day old password from The Kid was the worst of his crimes, and hardly a crime at that.
Albert stood up and set his paper on the stool. He was the biggest man here, and he could feel nervous eyes look his way. When Albert stands up, that usually means trouble.
“Gonna use the W.C.”
Nicky nodded and straightened up, as if he were being put to a test. Albert almost smiled at the sincerity and made his way across the speakeasy.
Duke’s was a dark, damp place, but the booze was plentiful and cheaper than the competitors, so no one took the time to file a formal complaint. On this evening, it was the average Friday crowd, the laborers crowded around the bar, the straight types all seated away from them. No high-class customers here. The most respectable people you would find is a bookkeeper or a low-ranking city worker that Duke was friendly with.
Albert looked over at the back booth as he weaved through the crowd, as much as he could without turning his head—
Ellie’s eyes met Albert’s and his heart skipped a beat. His brain was flooded with conflicting messages, and he could feel his body ready to change course–
Before he could react, Ellie snapped her head back to Duke and cackled. She gave him a playful shove and motioned for him to pour her another shot. Duke was happy to oblige and made her give him a kiss before she got her drink.
Albert looked away and quickened his stride, bumping into a few patrons blocking his path to the W.C. Anyone that turned around to protest immediately recoiled upon seeing who had made them spill a few drops. They did not want that kind of trouble.
As Albert stood at the toilet, the bad memories came back. They unspooled in his head like a two-reeler playing at the theater on Grand, only no one was laughing. The images ran on a loop, and when they appeared, it was hard to shut them off. A few drinks might wipe the slate clean, but that kind of thinking was how those bad memories got made in the first place.
Before he stepped back into the bar, Albert knew a fight had broken out. There were no raised voices or grand gestures. It always started the same, with a shuffle of feet. It was a very specific sound that he had come to recognize all too well during his time at Duke’s. When you hear that sound, you move over there and get in the middle of it before things get out of hand. By the time a chair tipped over, or a glass had been broken, you were already too late.
Two bodies were locked up at the bar, too close to throw a punch of any kind. All grabs and shoves and tangled limbs. Albert inserted himself between the two and pulled them apart. He didn’t care what they were saying, he just wanted to know what he was dealing with.
Of course, Monty was involved. He was a mean drunk that got meaner on paydays, when he could afford to get an extra shot. If Albert had his way, the guy would never make it past the door. Too many fights, too much backtalk. But Duke liked Monty, because Monty was good for gambling tips now and again, because he earned his keep shoveling horseshit down at the racetrack.
That meant Monty knew he had a little extra rope, and would step ever so slightly over the line. Never enough to get the boot. Just enough to have his fun.
“Albert, this little thief tried to steal my wallet—”
“The hell I did, mister! I was minding my own business!”
It was The Kid.
Albert immediately knew what had went down. The Kid was alone at the bar with a drink and Monty had to be Monty and start trouble because it was something to do. Even though he wanted to haul this miserable drunk out to the alley and give him the business, Albert grabbed The Kid by the collar and dragged him to the door.
“He started it!” The Kid jerked and flailed, but he wasn’t going anywhere.
Nicky stepped towards them, but Albert gestured for him to get the door.
“I’m sorry, Albert. I shouldn’t have let him in.”
Albert said nothing as he dragged the kid out into the night and the door to Duke’s shut behind him. Once they got closer to the street, Albert loosened his grip.
“Sorry, Kid. Come back in a few years.”
The Kid jerked away and stumbled backwards, his face red with anger, desperate to hold back tears. His teeth were locked together, and Albert could see there was a deep anger here that went way past any scuffle over drinks. It was like he was dealing with a stray that got one too many kicks.
“No hard feelings, okay?”
Albert didn’t get an answer, and he didn’t want to give the stray another kick, so he decided the best course of action was to walk away. As he turned to the door, a glint of light caught his eye—
Instinct took over. Albert lunged at The Kid, got a hand around his throat, and the other around his wrist, which was holding a nickel-plated .38 revolver. A quick twist made The Kid yelp and drop the piece. Albert tossed The Kid down the alley like he was yesterday’s trash and quickly scooped up the gun. He opened the cylinder and saw it was loaded.
“You were gonna shoot me? What did I ever do to you?”
The Kid coughed and got to his feet. He spat and squinted. “You work for him, so what’s the difference?”
“You came in there to take a run at the boss.”
“And I woulda done it if that stupid drunk had left me alone.”
Albert put it together. This was no hit, not some scheme cooked up by Angelo or the O’Briens. This was personal. Something long in the making.
“Who got killed? Your ma? Your old man?”
That finally jarred a few tears loose. “My pa.”
This revelation did not surprise Albert. He certainly believed Duke was responsible for what ever happened to The Kid’s father. “I don’t know anything about that, it was before my time. I’m just the guy that works the door at this place.”
“You might as well take thing and shoot me because I’m gonna keep coming back until I see that son of a bitch dead by my own hands.”
“You’re putting me in a real bad spot here, Kid. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You do what you gotta do.”
Albert slipped the gun into his pocket and stepped towards The Kid.
Nicky kept his eyes fixed on the floor when Albert returned.
“I’m sorry, boss. I won’t let it happen again.”
“Nicky, I’m not your boss, Duke is.”
Albert moved back to his stool and picked up the paper. And then he set it back where it was. He strode across the bar, this time towards the booth in the back.
Duke had his arm around Ellie, as he always did these days. In his youth, Duke was a fighter with some muscle. Once his business dealings became more profitable than fights, the muscles sagged, and the pounds came on. But he still carried himself with the confidence of a young boxer. The money certainly helped.
“What was all that noise about?”
“Monty was giving this Kid a hard time and it turned into something.”
“Well, that’s Monty. Who let that Kid in? Was it the new guy?”
“No, it was me. He had the password.”
Albert glanced over to Ellie, who stared at her drink. She was not going to look up at him. “Street kids like that? I don’t care if they have the password, turn ‘em away.”
The .38 felt cold against Albert’s leg. He wondered if the two of them could see the bulge. “You got it, boss.”
Duke waved his hand to gesture that this conversation was over and turned back to the girl at his side.
Duke and Ellie both turned to face Albert. Her face was worried, his annoyed.
“I saw your mother, down at the market.”
Albert hoped to get a response from her, but she remained silent.
“She said you haven’t been around in a while, and she hopes you’re well. And your sister is getting married in the fall.”
Duke pursed his lips and straightened up. He leaned forward and put a hand on Ellie’s wrist. “Do you have anything else you want to say?”
Albert had many things he wanted to say, and there were a great many things he wanted to do in this moment. Things he had been thinking about while sitting on the stool by door, watching the woman he loved spend long, drunken nights with his boss.
But in this moment, he could not bring himself to do any of them.
“No, I was told to pass along the message.”
“Thanks for that, Western Union.”
Albert took a breath and stepped to the back of the bar. He moved past the W.C. and unlocked the back door, which was used to bring in contraband, or bring people out during a raid. The door lead to a narrow tunnel which snaked down to the docks.
Hunched over, Albert shuffled through the narrow passage and was greeted by the stink of the lake before he could see it. He was grateful to finally reach the end and stand up straight once again.
The Kid was waiting for him at the exit, hands in pockets.
Albert gave a look around. “Anyone see you come over here?”
The Kid shook his head.
“I want you to do me a favor. Try not to plug the girl he’s sitting with. I used to be sweet on her.” Albert took the .38 from his pocket and handed it back to The Kid.
“You understand me?”
The Kid nodded and looked like he was going to say something. Maybe a thank you. The words never came, and Albert watched as he disappeared into the tunnel, back towards Duke’s.
As he walked along the dock, Albert smoked a cigarette and waited for the shots. Mercifully, they came.