Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Night Train - Part Four
The Hotel Santa Fe, built by a couple of brothers from New Mexico before the war, was the architectural and cultural equivalent of ten pounds of crap in a five pound sack.
Jackson Lerner won the place off of them at the poker table.
The building's crumbling gray brick exteriors lowered one's expectations enough to take some of the sting out of the eyesore waiting inside.
Red carpet, red-painted ceiling, peeling white walls stained sandy by indifferent cleaning and unfiltered cigarettes, and black and brass light fixtures that went out of style sometime around the siege of the Alamo assaulted the eyes. Framed paintings of tropical locales didn't help much. The stink of homemade hooch, stale smoke, and broken dreams roughed up the nose. The house bands-- jazz combo Sunday to Friday, klezmer outfit for the Sabbath-- did a number on the ears.
Even so, a big regular crowd patronized the Santa Fe seven nights a week.
Jackson used to say they came to see him, and lot of the time he was right.
I always figured it was because he sold his booze on the cheap, had a way of attracting the best-looking skirts, and was the only guy in town who could run that kind of joint without even the slightest fear of a raid.
Rummies, drugstore cowboys, hard cases, flappers, whatever. As long as you paid your way and didn't do anything dumb on the premises you and your dough were welcome at the Santa Fe.
Jackson didn't run the place as a hotel anymore but there were rooms available, and on occasion, they still got used-- some for the business of pleasure and some just for business. No one ever spent the night. Not on purpose, anyway.
I sidestepped the line in front of the Santa Fe, nodding to O'Shaughnessy's boy-- and my new best pal-- William, waiting with the rest of the punters, and headed right for the entrance. I had to hope Jackson Lerner didn't have me snuffed before he made it inside.
Five hundred pounds worth of bouncer stopped me at the door.
A couple of baby grands in tailored black suits, Moses and Aaron Ross-- their actual names-- were downtown legends. I wasn't exaggerating about the five hundred pounds.
The brothers, born two years apart, had identical curly brown hair, identical prominent chins, identical loping walks, and identical capacities for breaking people.
They gave me identical hard looks as I approached.
I took my hand out of the pocket of my borrowed raincoat and tried not to wince as my arm swung free. Maybe I shouldn't have left the sling back at O'Shaughnessy's.
“What's the matter, boys?” I said with a smile that probably came off more like a grimace.
“It's a rotten deal, Moe,” said Aaron.
“He shouldn't have done it,” agreed his brother.
That answered one of Hersch's questions. Word of the hit was out.
“Can't say I cared for it much myself,” I added.
“It's creatin' a lot of bad feeling among the boys,” continued Moses. “He shouldn't have done it. Not to you, Moe.”
Another question answered without my having to ask.
It seemed too easy.
Jackson Lerner was known for running a tight operation, the first rule of which was loyalty. Absolute loyalty. I'd never heard any of Jackson's men, aside from Lon Robinson, say a word against him.
I went in for the big prize.
“Planning on doing anything about it, fellas?”
The brothers glanced at each other, then checked their polished shoes for specks of dirt.
“You're not thinking of pulling anything funny, are you?” asked Aaron.
“Depends how your sense of humor runs,” I replied.
“He's still the boss, Moe.”
The Ross brothers shared another glance.
“We're gonna do what we have to do, Moe,” said Moses.
“Nifty,” I shot back. “Me too.”
We stood around for a while, not talking. The people waiting in line stared at us with white hot hatred on their mugs.
“Listen,” began Aaron, “why don't you do us all a favor, get back in that dimbox you came here in, and just blow? No one'd think any less of you, Moe.”
I turned to look at the taxi. The driver was out of his cab, leaning and watching the goings on. I waved him away. He took off.
“Have it your way,” sighed Moses.
He stepped aside to let me in. They didn't ask for the Colt.
The heavy door swung shut behind me, cutting off the noise of customers demanding to know why I'd been admitted ahead of them.
Heads turned as I pushed through the fog of jazz and gin sweat on my way to the alcove that hid Jackson Lerner's table.
The unoccupied table had been set for service for two. One seat commanded a view of the entire room and had a wall at its back. The second seat didn't.
I slid into the Jesse James seat and settled in to wait.
Black and gold were the colors of the day-- black suits for the men, golden skirts and gowns for women. They staggered, and lurched past the table in groups of twos and threes, moving to the relentless beat of the jazz band.
A scuffle broke out when a big blond heeler in a cheap suit, fried on Jackson Lerner's gin, tried to cut in on a swarthy little guy in a good suit and an equally dark tall drink of water near the edge of the dance floor. They argued about it for a while, then the little man straightened his jacket and socked him one. The heeler took it well and got ready to give some back. The woman swore-- I didn't to hear the words to understand what she'd said-- and accepted a cigarette from the next guy in line.
I didn't bother watching the rest. It didn't matter who won the fight. Both of them were going to end up out on the sidewalk with their mugs punched in. Moses and Aaron would see to it.
I watched the front of the room instead.
Williams gave me the eye, then looked away as he finally cleared the door.
I spotted more than the usual number of Lerner's boys-- guys I knew and worked with-- hanging around the place. They looked like they were having a gay old time of it. They weren't. I'd pulled the same duty enough times to know. Most of them had pulled it on my say-so. None of them met my stare for more than half a second.
The band knocked off for their break. The sudden silence made my ears ring.
A familiar female voice filled the void.
“I heard you were here,” she said.
I sat back and smiled at a face I never got tired of looking at.
That got me an exasperated sigh. Still, the corners of her red-painted mouth turned upward.
Madeline Perilloux. Five foot eight worth of fierce Cajun heat. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Dark-tanned skin half a decade of northern winters couldn't bleach out.
The lipstick was Madeline's lone concession to the war paint. She didn't go in for munitions like so many of her flour-faced peers. Likewise, her evening get-up was blue and not gold. The dress ended just below her knees and she filled it out enough to make it very snug around all the right curves. She wore her long brown hair back to show off those marvelous bare shoulders.
She slipped into the seat opposite me.
“Are you out of your mind, Moe?”
“Nope. I'm hitting on all sixes.”
I reached across the table. She let me take her hand.
Madeline wasn't my girl. Not all the time, anyway. She wasn't supposed to be anyone's girl. Jackson had been chasing after her for two years. She wasn't having any, and if Jackson wasn't getting it from her he didn't think anyone else should either.
“Most guys get the message when someone shoots them,” she said.
“You know me, sweetheart, I don't do so well with messages. Someone's got something on their mind they can tell me straight out.”
“Where'd you catch the lead?”
“Shoulder. Nicked my side too.”
Hersch and O'Shaughnessy had given me three days to recover before sending me in to see Jackson. I wished they hadn't. I hurt more then than I had on the night I got shot.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Jack?” she replied. “He's in the office, trying to decide what to do about you.”
I scanned the room, catching the eyes of Lerner's men all around. I didn't spot Williams.
“The Ross brothers tell me the boys aren't keen on how this went down.”
“They're right. They won't cross Jack, though.”
I opened my cigarette case. The thing was empty.
Madeline gave me two of hers. I lit them, then handed one back.
“You can still get out, Moe,” she said. “Just scram and don't look back. Go out to California like you used to talk about.”
“You mean run?”
I looked at Moses and Aaron guarding the front exit. They looked back with the flat, hard eyes of pros getting ready to dance.
“Nix,” I continued. “I'd only die tired. If Jack wants to rub me out he can try it right here.”
“You're a sap.”
“Yeah, but you love that about me.”
The office door swung open.
I gave Madeline's hand a squeeze, then pulled her toward me. I rose up to meet her halfway.
“Cash or check, baby?”
She grinned at me.
“Better make it check,” she said. “I just put this lipstick on. I don't want to mess it up so soon.”
A shadow appeared in the doorway across the room.
“You might want to beat it,” I suggested.
“I can stand it if you can.”
A couple of Lerner's boys started toward the table. I took the Colt out of my pocket and stuck it in my belt.
“I think Jack's made up his mind,” I observed. “Suppose I did decide to head for California? Would you come along for the ride?”
“I can definitely tell you that I'll consider thinking about it.”
“Well, Madeline,” I said, “if that's not reason enough to live I don't know what is.”
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Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.