A Chicago Valentine

ACT I

It had been warm enough to rain the previous day, but a chill wind blew in overnight from Lake Michigan freezing the sodden sidewalks. It was in one of these patches of ice that Eustace slipped, bruising his elbow. Had this occurred one month previously he would likely have taken it as his lot in life. He had gambled himself into debt, hated his job and lived in a damp, cold bedsit  on a dirty road away from the glamour that of the age that seemed so rife in Chicago. 1929 seemed to represent all that was new and bright, with gay parties of the newly confident bourgeois and the newly minted rich racing one another to a climax of unbridled hedonism. To be of the poor and downtrodden at this time was to see and to hear, but never to truly live in that Age. There remained only one redeeming idea for this underworld that allowed its members to be elevated above that which they were to that which they saw and could bring all the glittering and ecstatic light of the age into their hearts.
Eustace was in love. It was love that, as he slipped and his body was raised into the air, allowed his heart to soar with him. He laughed at the mishap; it was a sound that, until recently, had been a seldom needed faculty and it arrived awkwardly from his throat in heaving bursts. Strangers stared at this mad man brushing himself off, laughing at a joke that only he in this sad little neighbourhood knew the punch line to.

Others who saw him assumed he was conceited, walking too tall and too proudly for a man of his downtrodden appearance. In his mind he bounced and danced down the flagstones, a gliding spirit breaststroke-ing its way to heaven, rushing itself on not out of fear, but out of desire. Out of love. He repeated the word to himself a few times in his head where at once it took on the quality of an incantation, a love potion devised by his own lips, and through repetition of this spell he was able to conjure her in his mind. Blonde hair backed by golden light, eyes that seemed to drawl her intent directly into a man’s soul- and those lips!
“Love!” He proclaimed this magic word and pedestrians, fearing a spontaneous act associated with the cry, steered well clear of him. Now he was a knight errant cutting his way through the tangle of undergrowth to reach the lone tower and the one he loved.

The Lone Tower speakeasy was behind a grocers and not fashionable. It was common knowledge in the locale which particular fake carrot needed to be inserted into which particular fake cabbage to set off the mechanism that held the secret door in place. It slid smoothly to one side opening out into a smoky corridor which, followed for a short time, led into that pumping, chattering, heart soaring venue. The bar was its pumping heart, illegal alcohol the life giving blood, without which all other organs would be supernumerary and could not exist. This lunchtime it was strangely quiet and only a few sullen patrons sat around the empty bandstand. At the bar was her.
“Darling! Sweetest, you’re already here.”
“Aren’t you funny, dearie, I’m always here.”
“You always were a kidder. Did you miss me?”
“Sure. Of course. Buy a girl a drink?”
“You bet’ya. Two whiskies, ‘keep.”
“We’re all out, bud. The Madam had a gin just now.”
“I am sorry. We’ve had such a trouble dearie. No whisky delivered for three days. Makes me low to see business so bad.”
“If I didn’t know any better I’d say you were the proprietor, Kat. Ha, talkin’ business.”
“You are a funny one, aren’t you? I’m afraid I’m not much in the mood to be a good host right now, too worried about the damn whisky.”
“See if I can’t cheer you up. Tomorrow it’s St. Valentine’s day and I intend to show my sweetheart a hell of a good time.”
“She sounds like a lucky girl dear.”
“Oh come on, Kat, don’t be sore. I know I haven’t been able to see you the last two days but there’s no reason to kid a fella like that.”
He saw her sipping on the gin and felt overcome with sadness. He must get her out of this funk. Energy had rarely been a major attribute in his life so far but it now rushed through him causing him to turn his hat over and over in his hands as his brain without prompting began to plan.
“Hell, maybe I could find some whisky for this place. Get it back to how it was when we met, practically leaking the stuff.”
At this her head snapped round to him, eyes glinting with the lights that still dazzled the room like diamonds set in gold.
“Really, you hun?”
“Sure, why not?” He straightened up. “If it would make you happy, sweetest, I’d bring a truck load.”
“Hun,” she turned back to the bar, “If you can get us some whisky you’ll have me to yourself for the whole week.”

Eustace had never moved so quickly. It is unlikely that any man among the great pantheon of fast movers had travelled so quickly. Aeroplanes and modified bootlegger cars hung their heads in shame. The noble antelope, sprinter of the Sahel, wondered at this feat of human travel.
It was a mad idea that had took him. A year ago, on one of his rare lucky streaks upon the green felt, he had shared the confidence of the owner of the underground casino, the man who was now his unwilling creditor, ‘Bugs’ Moran. An old acquaintance of his brief school days, the man was a pretend Irishman and a real mobster. They had sat and drunk generous portions of exceptional whisky.
“That’s genuine stuff. The real McCoy.”
“Oh Lordy. Wher’d ya get it, Bugs?”
“Comes all the way from the mother country, via Canada way. They ship it down the river to Huron landing for that joker Capone. Half the time we rob it on the road near the golf course, let them load it up and do the heavy lifting. Ha. Never guarded properly, he thinks it’s the Purple gang what takes it when it’s in the city.”
“Gee that sure is Wild, Bugs.”
But what Eustace was planning was even wilder. It was love that drove him wild. A love of whisky, but more importantly, a love of Kat, his angel by the bar (incidentally the name of another speakeasy).

ACT III

Huron crossing was lit by a single oil lamp hung from a wooden post. It was deadly cold now, the moon frequently obscured by sheets of migrating cloud that muted its light so that the scene before Eustace seemed always changing. He imagined it was what the Broadway show were like, the darkness rolling in across the stage allowing men in dark clothes to change the landscape and delight the audience.
The men Eustace could see were not in black, but they were hurrying to change the scene with their breath misting above them. Crates clinked and spilt straw as they were loaded from skiff to truck. They finished and all but one of them returned to the boat that they pushed off from the small jetty before motoring away over the glittering black marble of the water until at last they disappeared into the velvet black of the unseen horizon. The man who was left stubbed out his cigarette and began to crank the truck engine which struggled in the fast forming frost.
It was now or never.
Eustace slipped from behind a tree and crept around the puddle of light thrown by the oil lamp. He kept low to the ground as he approached the side of the truck, the tails of his overcoat slithering over the dirt track. He waited, crouched by the door and just out of sight of the man struggling with the crank. He felt strangely out of his own body, and this was unsurprising as his body had never meant to creep around risking death. Suddenly he started as the engine roared to life. The crank man proclaimed his success to the night and all its unseen creatures. It was as he began to dance a merry jig and sing a song of a faraway homeland that Eustace snuck made his move, always keeping his eye on the island of light thrown out by the eyes of this modern machine.
It was not until the vehicle gently bumped past him that the man realised he had been robbed.  The truck picked up speed as it tumbled down the dirt road, bouncing and shaking on the frozen ruts. Eustace regained full awareness. He barely had a thought as he took the truck and now he began to laugh as he had earlier that day. The brown track before him turned to gold in his eyes as he sailed back to his love with a hold full of jewels sure to capture her eye and him, the gallant captain at the wheel, sure to capture her heart. 

Suddenly a wheel rolled over something on the now road and a small white object pinged off into the dark. It was a golf ball. Blinded by love’s sweet promise Eustace had taken the wrong way into the city. Panic replaced joy. Would Bugs be working tonight? This was answered quickly by two cars ahead blocking the road. The truck slowed as men emerged from the dark to stand in front of their vehicle, the light making them freakishly proportioned and tall.
“Alright pal you know the drill- hold up a minute. If it isn’t Eustace, you damn dirty rat you owe me money and now you’re driving deliveries for Al?” Pistols emerged from pockets as the others closed in on the truck.
“Look here, Bugs, you got it all wrong. I stole this so I could pay off my debt, d’y’hear? You gotta believe me.” desperation wept from every pore.
Fate looked down briefly upon the scene. It was just past midnight and too late for cruel games.
“Is that so? You hear that fellas? That’s initiative.” This was clearly in reference to an earlier lecture about his mobs lack of this important trait.
“Half of this is mine,” the others were already unloading it, “other half is yours. You are also mine. You work for me now. Come see me at my garage over Lincoln Park tomorrow morning.”
Eustace thought about his promised date with Kit. Would he choose love or life? Whatever he did there could be only one answer now.
“Sure thing, Bugs. You bet ya.”
Half the journey he shivered. This was bad soup, even someone as in love as he was could see that. He made up his mind to say he over slept. Bugs couldn’t blame a man for a broken alarm clock. His mind was made up. Nothing, not even mobsters with guns, could keep him from his amorous rendezvous.

For a second that night a gun was pointed in Eustace’s face. The Lone Tower speakeasies back door had a strict timetable for deliveries. Eventually he made himself understood.
“I want to see Kat, is she here?”
“Well of course, she’ll want to speak to you about all this whisky.”
Eustace beamed as he made his way towards the main floor. Of course she had told them about his noble quest. She probably hadn’t stopped singing his praises since he left. She would make a fine wife.
“Well my sweet, I’m back.”
“Oh hello dear, will you have a drink?”
“Sure thing. Well, aren’t you going to ask me?”
“Ask you what honey?”
“Well about the whisky, of course.”
“Oh you darlin’, you found some?”
“I sure did. 120 bottles just for you. Real fine stuff.”
“Good Heaven.”
Men were now stocking the bar with new bottles and the patrons crowded over.
“But I don’t think I can afford all of this.”
“You kidder, It’s all on me. You can pay me in kisses and whispered love in my ear. I’d do anythin’ for ya.”
“My dear-” She was just calculating how much time this was going to cost her and just what love in the ear involved when she took a sip of the whisky. She looked up at the man in front of her. No longer blend into the sea of bodies, and no longer were his pining eyes unpleasant. She leant over and kissed him.
That night there was an outrageous party. Eventually the sun came up and Eustace and Kat walked out arm in arm to go eat a breakfast eggs and kippers at a diner with the other hangover revellers the city disgorged. Eustace had forgotten all about his liaison with Bugs and the gang, and by all accounts missed out on a pretty bloody first day at work. Kat for her part forgot her own liaisons, past and future, so that the couple could sit and let the morning sun warm their faces, its glow replacing the whisky from the night before.

By: William Prior

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