The front of the building was nothing special, just plain white granite walls and a small green awning. As Jared stood in front of the club's entrance, he thought it could have belonged to any one of a dozen respectable but boring private men's clubs on the lower East side. Yet here, hiding in plain sight, was Manhattan's most famous speakeasy.
Snowflakes fell silently as he hesitated, biting his lower lip, but the snow and cold didn't seem to stop a string of New York's finest society as they tucked under that canopy, in discrete groups of twos and threes, making their way through the front doors of the club.
Despite the chill Jared's palms were slick with sweat, and he rubbed them on his pant legs while glancing nervously up and down the street. JD had insisted that there was nothing illegal about what he was about to do. Well, at least until he took the first drink anyways.
The reporter studied the faces of the passing pedestrians to see if any of them looked like cops or Treasury agents, which was a laugh, of course, since he had never met either of those in the six months that he’d lived here. Still, his mind insisted that an undercover cop would stand out. Something in their stance, maybe a lack of reaction on their face, or he would see it in their shoes. Jared imagined that they wore sensible shoes given the job.
Instead, he found himself watching a ridiculously good-looking man walk up in a beautiful camel coat with a double-breasted grey suit underneath. The guy removed his fedora, showing slicked back hair with a sharp part and intense green eyes that brightened up when he saw Jared staring. He gave a wink as he approached the club’s doorman before disappearing out of view. Well, if anything, that wink was worth taking the first step inside The Emperor Club.
Blowing out a deep breath and watching it swirl in a white fog in front of him, Jared shook the snow out of his hair and stepped up to the large wooden door. There was no sign or address, just a big, muscular guy at the door. Based on the bulge under the left side of his suit jacket, Jared guessed he was armed and, based on the look on his face, he wouldn't hesitate to shoot.
"Can I help you?"
"Swordfish." When JD told him that he needed a password to get in, Jared laughed, thinking his editor was trying to embarrass him. It was a ridiculous safety measure given anyone could find out what the password was, but the reporter assumed that it stopped the unknowing bystander from wandering in. The doorman didn't bat an eye as he waved Jared quickly into the club.
Beyond the entrance, the temperature of the club rose twenty degrees and the smell was an odd combination of wet wool and hair product. A queue had formed at the club's coat check where people stopped to pull off their grey winter coats and felt hats, handing them to a beautiful young girl in a silver sequin headband behind the counter.
Jared couldn't help but think of exotic birds molting their dark winter plumage to emerge in the mating season of spring, women in their jewel-toned silk dresses with ruffles or fringe and feathered clips to hold back their hair, or men in their red paisley silk ties with matching pocket squares tucked in with gold watch chains.
As he handed his simple tweed coat to the girl, Jared said good evening with a big smile and good manners, like his mother taught him, but the girl dispensed little interest and a small perfunctory cloakroom ticket. He looked down at his cheap blue suit and ran a hand through his unfashionably long hair — now curling up at the ends from the dampness of the snow — and realized how out of his depth he was with this stylish crowd.
Turning away from the coat check and stepping into the club, Jared was amazed. If the patrons looked like exotic birds, then The Emperor Club must be their gilded cage.
The reporter realized that he’d misjudged the size and extravagance of the place from the outside. There was a gleaming wooden dance floor in the center with an elevated bandstand at the front with a shiny black grand piano as its centerpiece. Matching lacquered podiums stood in front of each musician with the initials EC emblazoned on the front and lighted white curtains behind the stage filled the space with a golden glow. The first raised platform contained a ring of elegant tables surrounding the dance floor on three sides and the top platform was ringed by u-shaped, crimson velvet booths with waiter service for the richest patrons.
"You must be Jared," a beautiful redhead said as she popped up next to him, placing her hand on his sleeve. The silver shine of her silk dress matched the coat check girl's, but the deep v neckline and the curves of her full figure reminded Jared of a Vargas covergirl painting come to life.
"I am. Do we know each other?" he responded politely.
"Not yet, but we will, sugar. I'm Danneel, one of the hostesses here, but you can call me Dani. Boss asked me to keep an eye out for you and show you around.” She unapologetically looked him over from head to toe, and Jared blushed to the roots of his dark brown hair.
“JD said he was sending over one of his reporters and that you'd be real tall, but he didn't say you would be such a dollface. C'mon, honey, let's get you a drink." She grabbed his elbow, and he followed her sparkling path to the bar like a fish to a lure. “You look like you could use it.”
JD was sure that reviewing New York's speakeasies was a great idea, but Jared had his doubts. When he showed up for his first day of work at New York Titan last month, he expected to be fetching coffee and tuna fish sandwiches, maybe writing obits of semi-famous businessmen for its back section. But once JD got a whiff of Jared's Midwestern naiveté and his tall good looks, an idea was born—his new cub reporter could write up reviews of the illicit clubs and bars, not from a tainted local's perspective, but from someone who was still awestruck by the Big Apple.
Jared wondered what his father, a pastor back in Kansas, might say about his son visiting some of the most notorious and illegal drinking establishments in the city. He was already enough of a black sheep as a writer — showing no interest in being a clerk or joining the clergy — but drinking alcohol as well? He could hear the sermons in his head as if he were still seated at the Padalecki dining room table in Lawrence.
The morality of drinking was one thing. The legality was another thing altogether. How the police and Treasury department viewed the newspaper's promotion and review of the speakeasies was a grey question. It wasn't illegal to write about what happened in the clubs, but it was just adjacent to illegal not to report what you saw there to the cops.
To offer some protection to his nervous young reporter, JD insisted that the articles be published under a pen name. If the stories were written anonymously, there would be no way to prove who was participating in the clubs' activities or talking to the owners and service people who were their sources. The New Yorker had Lois Long writing under the pen name of Lipstick and Titan had Best Boy.
The assignment by his editor was a plum one for a writer so new to the paper and Jared jumped at it. Sure, the Best Boy name made him cringe, and he begged JD to change it, but the editor seemed amused every time he said it out loud and Jared only wanted to keep his boss happy.
Dani tacked and jibed through the crowd dragging Jared in her wake, pulling up to the crowded wooden bar where she flagged the burly bartender with their order. Jared was a big guy, but this bartender was shaped like a keg of beer on legs — broad chested with his shirt sleeves rolled up and a white dish towel tucked into the front of his pants.
"Hey, Walter, two whiskeys and make them the good stuff. Jared here is writing a review of the Penguin for Titan so we all need to be on our best behavior." She gave a wink that showed she had no intention of following her own advice.
"The Penguin?" Jared cocked an eyebrow at her.
"That's a little nickname employees have for The Emperor Club." Walter said as he pulled two highball glasses from under the counter and uncorked a clear, unlabelled bottle, pouring two fingers of the amber liquid into each glass. As Jared reached for one of them, a hand stopped him.
"That's what you're going to give him? C'mon, Walt. Don't be a putz. I thought Dani said you wanted to impress this guy. Give him some of the good stuff I just brought in yesterday."
Jared turned to look at the guy standing next to him at the bar, whose hand still rested heavy and warm on his forearm. It was the same man he saw out on the street, except now he could see how his eyes were as the same clear green as a soda bottle. Staring at the man’s long eyelashes and perfect cheekbones, Jared could believe that this guy was fresh off the train from Hollywood rather than a bootlegger, smuggling whiskey under cover of the night along the back roads of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Mr. Hollywood maintained his grip on Jared’s forearm while motioning to Walt with the fingers of his other hand for the other bottle. The bartender rolled his eyes, but handed it over and set another two glasses on the bar. As the guy removed his hand to pour the drink, the sudden loss of weight and warmth from the man's hand caused Jared's mind to race more than it should have for such brief contact.
"Waste not, want not, boys. I'll take both of these." Dani piped up, swooping in on the first two glasses.
The man handed one of the new glasses to Jared. "Try this. I brought it in from a connection I have in Tennessee. Best whiskey anywhere."
Jared hesitated for a moment. Coming of age in a conservative family during Prohibition meant he didn't have much experience with drinking — a fact that the reporter hadn't shared with his new editor when the assignment came up. He took a sip of the amber liquid and was surprised at the smoothness of the alcohol and the smokiness it left on his tongue.
Speakeasies started popping up in New York before the ink on the Volstead Act was even dry. Bootleggers and rumrunners began to smuggle illegal booze across state lines to meet the demands of a dry city. The enormous thirst for better-quality alcohol at finer establishments like The Emperor meant that a bootlegger like Jensen could make some serious coin for the risks he took. That would certainly explain the expensive camel coat and three-piece suit that the man wore and the way it hung perfectly tailored off his shoulders.
Stories told about these infamous men turned them into either the equivalent of Robin Hood or a modern day pirate, depending on which way you looked at it. Studying the bootlegger next to him, Jared thought again how he looked more like a leading man on the silver screen than a career criminal leading law enforcement on a wild goose chase.
Jensen took a good pull of the whiskey, and Jared couldn't resist watching the movement of his throat as he swallowed, the shadow of scruff on his jawline, and the way his tongue snaked out to lick off the last bit of whiskey from full lips that came together in a perfect Cupid's bow.
It was his first drink of the night and Jared was already in over his head. Someone was tugging on his sleeve, bringing him out of his daydream about soft lips and rough beard burn.
"C'mon, dollface, I reserved a table for us down front, so you can see all the action. I hope you like dancing." Dani set her glass back on the bar and yanked on Jared's arm while scooping up the second shot for the trip to their table.
"Wait. What's your name?" Jared turned back around and grabbed the bootlegger's sleeve before he could walk away. Of all the elegant and sparkling people in the club that night, this man outshone them all.
"I'm Jensen." The man gave a cocky smile and clinked the reporter's glass with his own.
"Thanks for the drink. Perhaps I'll see you around."
After two more whiskeys, Dani switched them to champagne.
Jared’s experience drinking wine was limited to a glass of sweet white wine once at dinner when he was younger. His grandfather showed up at their door with a bottle of Riesling tucked under his arm, celebrating the end of the Great War, and poured his grandsons a little taste. Jared's father glowered at him across the dining room table, but it was such a joyous day that his grandfather didn't care.
Drinking champagne at The Emperor Club was as different from that bottle of German white as a dragonfly was to a bumblebee. It was dry and light, and tickled his nose as it went down. Two glasses of bubbly later, he was feeling warm and loose as he sat at the front row table with Dani.
Together, they talked about living in the city and Dani knew all the spots to go to, like the observation deck on the new Empire State Building or the best place to stand during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade to watch the giant balloon floats go by. She also helped Jared rethink his fear of the underground subway that he had refused to try. He had been walking everywhere in the weeks since he came to New York, because he couldn’t face the complicated maps, the confined darkness of the tunnels or the brusque nature of some of the people heading down the steps at the subway entrance. She patiently explained how to navigate the different lines, describing enthusiastically all the new areas of the city he could finally explore.
After an hour of talking and drinking, the two sat quietly watching the band play and couples dance by their table.
One couple in particular caught his attention as they took to the dance floor. Jensen appeared in front of them, leading a young blonde in her 20s onto the floor, looking as perfect as if a spotlight followed them whenever they went. Although the woman was elegant, Jensen was the more graceful dancer, guiding her through a foxtrot as her intricately waved hairstyle hugged one side of her face, the other side held back by an emerald feather dyed to match her dress.
The color reminded him of Jensen's eyes and he wondered if the match was planned, that perhaps they knew each other and were more than dance partners. His gaze followed them around the floor, trying to catch the expression on the bootlegger’s face when he looked at the girl. Jensen threw back his head in laughter at something his partner said, and that smile was pulling at Jared’s heart, yanking him like Jensen was the world and he couldn’t resist the fall of gravity towards him.
"Boy, you got it bad, don't you?" Dani said, giving him a half smile across the table.
Jared started from his watch to look at the hostess. “What do you mean?”
"Don't worry about it, Jared. Trust me. Everyone has it bad for Jensen when they first meet him, but they get over it eventually."
"Huh. What happens after you get to know him?" Jared took another swig of his champagne to cover up his interest in her response.
"Oh, honey, nobody really gets to know Jensen. He's a real heartbreaker that way. Trust me, I know." Dani stood up and extended her hand to Jared. "Now, Legs, I think you promised me a dance."
"No. Absolutely not."
While he was appreciative to the redhead for all she had done, explaining about how the speakeasy worked and details about the band that was playing, dancing was a whole other ball of wax. Dani looked out at the dancers again and sunk her chin into the palm of her hand with a sigh, like a child looking in the windows of a candy store, and Jared had to give in.
"Okay, just this once because you got me drunk. It’s your own fault if I step all over your feet in front of everyone here," he joked and took her hand.
He was disappointed to see Jensen leave the floor, walking his partner back to a table and kissing her hand. While the woman’s eyes lingered on Jensen, the much older man she was with stood up to shake hands with him with a familiarity that spoke to business acquaintances more than friends. Now, as Jared and Dani danced to the swing tune the band started to play, he glanced up at Jensen, leaning against the end of the bar. The bootlegger’s eyes seemed to follow Jared and Dani wherever they went.
As a child, Jared had shared a love of the movies with his aunt, who was his mother’s twin sister. After his mom passed away, he and Aunt Samantha would go to afternoon matinees every Sunday. She would watch the romantic couples on the screen, and whisper to Jared, “Look, honey, they are made for each other. No one else in the world exists for them because they’re soulmates. Someday you’ll find a love like that.”
Tonight, he felt that electric connection with Jensen, a man he just met, and all the sparkling lights and champagne mixed with jazz music were just backdrop for a story that had yet to unfold.
Jared shook his head. While his aunt fed him all these romantic notions, he needed to remind himself that this was real life, not the movies. This guy was not only out of his league, he was a criminal who was interested in something from Jared all right, but it wasn't romance and certainly wouldn't end in a relationship.
It must be the champagne making him mawkish, and he shook it off as he and Dani spun around on the dance floor. When he snuck a look up at the speakeasy bar again, Jensen was gone.