Martin Lewis, Relics (Speakeasy Corner), 1928
Link to 20s slang below.
Prologue A: House
He preferred spending his evenings in the ass end of The Italian Gardens. House did not come for the exceptional food, but for the unexceptional speakeasy in the back. The hooch was too weak to kill anyone and the poker game was as honest as could be expected from a bunch of mooks with a variety of tells. They were as easy to read as a Broadway marquee.
“I call and raise,” said Whitey.
House did not bat an eyelash. When the albino spoke it was an event. A conservative player, he sat most hands out. Occasionally, when he held a so-so hand, he went all in. Too bad for Whitey, he developed an uncontrollable itch behind his ear on those occasions.
House slowly pushed his chips toward the center. “I’ll see you.”
Across the table three kings fanned over the green felt.
House dropped his three queens on the table. Leisurely puffing on his cigar, he placed a jack on each side of the cardboard ladies. “Three roses among two thorns,” he announced, and pulled the pot toward his tower of chips. This was his lucky night. “Another hand, boys?”
No appetite for trouble, lady luck fled from the room when two goons walked in. Their overcoats were speckled with snow. One bruiser nonchalantly swiped at his lapels while the other dusted off his spats and knocked at the brim of his hat, expelling any moisture without ruining the felt. After they had cleaned off, they just stood, and stared, at him.
They were men on a mission. House knew it. The clientele, looking like wary jackrabbits, sensed it too. Conversation dried up like water on the Sahara. The squeak of a rag rubbing against a shot glass pierced the silence like a damsel in distress. The less fastidious of the two pointed a finger at him and spoke in a thick Brooklyn accent, “The Boss wants to see you.”
House leaned back in his chair until the front legs lifted off the ground and looked the messenger square in the eye. “Someone gotta boo-boo?” He patted his jacket. “Sorry, can’t help. Left my little black bag in my other suit.”
As he expected, his joke fell flat on its kisser. Morello never picked his men for their sense of humor.
“The Boss, he is worried about the state of your health.” The speaker rocked back on his heels then pushed out his chest. The jacket tightened around an ominous bump that broke the smooth lay of the fabric. “You don’t answer his phone calls. The Boss says to me, ‘Rocco, is something wrong with Doc that he don’t come to see me? I owe him a month’s salary. Maybe he broke his fingers and can’t pick up the phone. Maybe he fell down and lost his hearing. Take Brazzo and find Doc. Bring him to me so I can see for myself he’s all right. Me and him are overdue for a nice, long chat.”
House strummed an invisible guitar then bent his head as if he were tuning it. When the goon’s jaws tightened with impatience he answered, “Nope. My Gibson and I are as fine as fiddles. Ears and fingers all accounted for. Tell him to mail me my check.”
Brazzo’s eyes glazed over, but Rocco couldn’t be shook. “You know I can’t do that. Besides, the Boss. Said.” His hand dipped underneath his jacket toward the bulge…
A quick glance around the room assured House that the heavyweights wouldn’t chance dousing the innocent bystanders with bullets. However if he allowed them to escort him off the premises, he doubted he’d live long enough for snowflakes to sting his lips.
Not that people were lining up to help. Would-be witnesses studied the gin-stained floor or intently memorized the number of ice cubes in their drinks. That is, everyone except the fresh-faced, tuxedoed, pretty boy whose dimple pulsed every time his lips pressed together.
House had seen the southpaw at the speakeasy before, slumming with his college pals. He was always picking up the tab for their booze. While he never strayed from his pack, House would sometimes glance up and find dark brown eyes studying him from across the room. Tonight, Lefty was alone. A thumb and two fingers held a full glass, leaving two fingers free for a cigarette. The tumbler tilted in House’s direction in a subtle salute.
He wasn’t sure if the gesture was a muscle spasm or Lefty letting him know he was prepared to offer resistance against the two beefy professionals packing heat. House reconsidered whether it wasn’t prudent to leave quietly, then make a dash for freedom.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Lefty shift from lounging against the bar to standing at attention. He stood stiffly and swayed. House recalculated the odds—definitely two against two, although his side was light on brawn.
“Anyone got a smoke?” Lefty asked the crowd.
Shit. What was he doing? House could not ascertain if Lefty was drunk or acting. Great distraction, you idiot. You deserve to get shot. House ruminated over the thought. Now that would be a good distraction.
Lefty brazenly stumbled over to the muscle, and said, “’Scuse me, but do either of you have—?” He hiccupped, sloshing his drink onto Brazzo’s sleeve.
“Hey, watch where you’re going! That cleaning fluid is gonna burn a hole in the cashmere.”
Lefty persisted like he never heard. “A cigaret—?” and tripped over his own feet into Brazzo, who was still aggressively pawing at the drops of gin.
“I told you, get outta my face!” he roared, shoving Lefty. The glass and the gin flew out of his hand and into the mirror over the bar. Glass and silver shards exploded and scattered like shotgun pellets. Everyone except House ducked.
Adding to the chaos, he upturned the table. In a spray of cards and chips, he dove for the kitchen doors. His blood pounding in his ears, he wove between wide-eyed chefs and fearful waiters who held their platters over their heads to protect them from harm. He lunged at the doors of the banquet hall, almost stumbling when they swung open with no resistance. House vaulted past stunned patrons. A few savvy diners dropped to the floor and hid under linen-topped tables. The front door was coming up fast, but he decided not to chance it. Most likely more minions would be waiting at the entrance. He turned abruptly and dodged down a side hall with a little-used exit. The door stuck when he heaved at it. He rammed with his shoulder until it broke open, expelling him into the wet but mercifully empty side alley.
Pressing close to the damp brick, he tried to catch his breath as he inched toward the sidewalk. Clouds of moist air streamed from his mouth and nose. At the opening he saw what he had predicted, men mulling about the Gardens’ entrance.
He craned his neck further, checking for his car and driver. The Cadillac’s majestic grille gleamed a half-block to his right. Knowing Swifty had an uncanny knack for spotting trouble, House figured the loitering men would send up an alarm. He stuck out his hand for a moment, miming a gun with his index finger and thumb. Then he backed a few paces into the shadows, pulled up his collar, and waited.
The motor purred to life. With headlights off, it crawled toward the restaurant. Lowering into a sprinter’s crouch, House prepared to break a speed record bridging the gap between him and the car.
He rocketed out of the alley, but as soon as his feet touched the sidewalk he slid on a puddle of ice. His frantically windmilled his arms to keep his balance. He couldn’t have attracted more attention if he were leading a band.
His brilliant plan shredded under a barrage of bullets. Miraculously, still in one piece, he continued to charge across the lane of traffic to the car. Five feet away… slugs whistled past, missing him by inches. The evidence left pits and shiny gashes on neighboring automobiles.
Three feet… Two…
“Hurry up, Doc!” Swifty slapped the side of his car. The white-walls were spinning faster. “Once Louise warms up, she doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
House heard the gangsters pounding behind him. He leaped for the handle, the door pulling him as he gripped it. A bullet grazed his sleeve and shattered the window. Springing into the back seat, his legs suddenly felt like they had burst into flame. Biting his lip, he dragged himself the rest of the way into the cab and pulled the door shut. As he flopped in the seat rocking in pain, he could hear a hailstone of bullets riddling the trunk.
Doubled up, he ripped the seams on his pants in order to inspect the damage. The wool twill that had covered his left leg was sticky with blood. There was a bullet hole that went straight through the muscle of his calf and out. To staunch the flow, he tied his handkerchief around it. His right leg however, had an ominous purple perforation that barely oozed. He knew from patching up bootleggers this kind of wound was the worse of the two. The bullet was deeply embedded into his thigh muscle, possibly lodged into the bone.
Unexpectedly, the car swung a hard right. Despite the plumes of pain shooting up his legs, House hitched up to see through the back window. The assailants were nowhere in sight. The angry buzz of bullets had given way to the comforting hum of the Caddy’s sixteen lovingly tended cylinders.
House released a shaky breath. Swifty wasn’t known as Swifty for nothing. But why fool himself? He would never be safe again. Morello would never give up.
At least if he had to live his life as a gimp, it would be short-lived.
He grunted as the car went over a railroad track, refreshing the throbbing in his legs. He leaned his head against the cold side window.
“Where we headed, Doc?”
“Princeton. Those palookas won’t expect us to go there.”
“Right, but my ape’s brain ain’t much more highly evolved than theirs neither. Never had a reason to hobnob with eggheads. You got directions?”
Another rough jolt from a pothole and spots began to cloud his vision. He dug into his pocket and tossed an address book onto the front seat. He mumbled, “Only one address for Princeton in there. When… you… get to Tren...ton, ask for di… rec…
He couldn’t remember what he was saying. He didn’t care. A murky black undertow swept him into a sea of darkness.
Mook = a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person
Hooch = booze, liquor
Kisser = Front of the head, face.
Heat = a gun
Palookas = uncouth person, lout
Jazz Age Slang