Part I - Hard Mistress

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            Wintering in Kansas is about as much fun as dating a poor spinster. She sneaks your heat when you’re not looking, cramming it into her raggedy handbag to enjoy in private after you’ve left her for the night. You don't get so much as a kiss in return. I’d been thinking about dusting out for weeks, but every night bit off another chunk of energy and replaced it with glasses of sour gin, and I was starting to forget what was so appealing about the rest of the world.

            I parked three blocks from Toliver Cain’s newest hole in the wall, far enough away that if the coppers raided I could say I’d gotten caught up in the crowd while walking from the theater to my car. Indigestion, I’d say. Couldn’t handle that new French musical. All those accents and philosophizing. I’d run into enough of that during the war. Didn’t have use for it then and hadn’t developed any since. They’d understand that sorta sentiment.

            A slipping jog across the street and down six icy steps landed me on a patch of bare dirt, cold as a grave. The Judas window stared at me for a long minute, a flash reflection in the near darkness that oozed judgment. The door swung open and one of Cain’s gorillas stood stiff in the threshold, his suit straining around his bulk.

            “You sure know how to leave a fellow waiting,” I said, shaking the cold out of my coat as I walked around him. He grunted when snow dusted his shoe.

            Five more steps and I was well and good underground. The air was heavy with perfume, smoke, and the copper scent of coin. Money and blood. At the end of the day they smell something the same. Beneath that hung the musty, fermented odor that followed the bootlegged beer so close it musta scabbed a ride on the back of the truck. I drifted into the clamor of clinking glass, laughter and – from a corner packed four deep – the merry staccato of a roulette wheel.

            The barkeep caught my eye and jerked his head to the right. The boss wanted to see me. But since no one was marching my way to escort me, I wove through the room. It was the usual type of crowd, but I still wasn’t used to it. In Chicago, everything had been bigger. Bigger halls, bigger jewels, bigger eyes looking over their shoulders on the lookout for the cops or, worse, the competition. There weren’t much competition in Wichita, and Cain liked it that way.

            I rapped twice on the flat door at the end of the room and tamped down my cigarette twice before it opened. Perkins grunted a greeting. He wasn’t much for talking. His mouth had been drawn into a permanent frown by a knife a few years back. It looked like some of the scars I'd seen in the war, deep and tattered, not properly taken care of in those first crucial days, if ever. For having such a gnawed-up mug, Perkins was a novelty. A big old meathead who always had a look of giddy anticipation on his face, like he wanted to tell you a good joke he just heard. His eyes lit up when he saw me and he tried to smile, which gave me the cold shivers. So much for yucks. I stepped past him. The room was plain wood floors and rough wood walls. A round table had been made by the expedient of slapping a sawed board on top of a wire spool and nailing green felt to the top. The nails stuck out in places and, if you got invited to play cards with the boss, you had to be careful with your hands. Of course, with Cain you had to be careful with everything.

            Toliver Cain sat there, piled into a big chair while a couple of skinny fellows perched on the edge of two milk crates at his feet, fingering their hats. They both turned to look at me, a dismal sheen to their eyes that would have told a blind child they were scared stiff.

            I leaned back against the wall, stabbed one hand into my pocket and smoked with the other. The big man would get to me when he got to me. I’d done one bang-up job for him back East and he’d asked me to hang around. I guess he didn’t know what to do with me, the new driver who’d stepped in when his hatchetmen had been gunned down. He kept me close, pulling me in every couple a days, but didn’t use me much other than running people and packages around town. I’d driven the front and back roads of Wichita so many times that I drove them in my dreams, past the Travel Air plant, the mills and over the Arkansas River, back and forth and all around. It was enough to make a fellow dizzy.

            From the bar – a proper bar if a little lopsided – I helped myself to two thick fingers of whiskey. Oil had been discovered outside Wichita not ten years back, boiling money and day workers into the city and, with them, booze and violence. Prohibition hit the town like a hard slap on a well-fed wrist. Cain, with a wad of cash, unknown face and a way with greasy palms, had stepped in to offer up elixir to the masses. He made money like a mint, and with the money came a slippery, rattling chain hung with cops and judges, six penny start-ups that had to be rubbed out or forcibly acquired, a bimonthly hooch run to Chicago, and the payoffs to the leeches. Where there’s organized crime and naughty men scampering around in the dark, there are vampires. I took a slug of whiskey and sucked my teeth. I didn’t much care for vampires.

            Cain glanced up, all small, dark eyes and a little fish mouth. He waved, dismissing his lackeys. They all but ran through the wall to get out.

            “Need you to drive,” he said to me before nodding to Perkins.

            The scarfaced thug left, letting in a draft of gay laughter and a trumpet running scales as the house band warmed up. The door thumped behind him and the room got so quiet I could hear the wheeze in Cain’s throat.

            “One stop,” he said. “There’s a girl, gonna be your passenger. She knows the address, but you choose the routes. Don’t let her fool around with you. I want her in and out and back before two this morning.” Cain gave me a hard look before he raised a meaty finger and stabbed at the air. “You do whatever you gots to, but you bring her back.”

            I’d have whistled, but I didn’t have enough spit to wet my lips. Cain liked money, he liked power and he liked you to know that he had both. But skirts didn’t register with him. He had a couple of sleek birds with wide, red lips that kept pace with him for show but nothing else. Maybe it was the whiskey, but my stomach wasn’t sitting so still anymore.

        "I'll do my best, sir."

        "See that you do."


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