A steampunk noir in three parts.
The moth’s wings sounded like shuffling paper, its erratic path around the office’s lonely light-bulb clumsy and doomed. Murphy’s eyes darted back to it every minute or so. The raindrop clatter of the tele-writer paused for a moment, replaced by the moth’s whisper and the soft hum of electricity. He raised one of his eyebrows before returning his focus back to the case notes. If not for the previous twelve hours of steady work, nor the dull monotony of his case, his mind would be as sharp and focused as it usually was. Instead, he gulped the dregs of his coffee, chewing the dry crumb of the grinds before swallowing them down. Next, he took a sheaf of old reports, rolled them into a tight cylinder, and swung at the little pest. It wheeled out of the way, but Murphy caught it in his left hand, and resisted the urge to crush the damn thing. He opened his window, threw the moth out to fly back to the moon, and then cut off his light. In the next second, the scratch of a match, and the dim glow of a beeswax candle. Its sweet scent filled the room. Murphy got back to work.
08/23/36 7:46 P.M. Observed subject enter taxi with unidentified woman: White, mid-20’s, red-hair, lipstick, black polka dot dress. Followed taxi to W 125th St. Driver let them out in front of the Apollo. The pair walked hand in hand into the theater. Continued photo-surveillance from inside automobile. The show let out at about 11:00 P.M. Pair walked east on 125th St. for four blocks. Followed on foot. Pair seen entering tenement house at 11:37 P.M. At 12:56 A.M., subject observed exiting tenement house, hair disheveled, tie un-tied, lipstick on collar. He took a moment to collect himself, then hailed a taxi and returned home. Subject believed to
A loud knock interrupted Murphy’s rhythm. He muttered a curse and grabbed his gun. “Better not be no god-damned junkies. I’ve had enough.” He opened the door slightly but kept its chain in place.
“Mr. Lee? Could I trouble you for a moment? I know it’s terribly late, but I heard the sound of your tele-writer.” The voice was crisp, quick. The speaker had an accent. Like the men he heard late at night on the BBC. He’d never met one in person.
“What business you got with me?” Murphy asked through the gap in the door.
“It’s about your sister, Mr. Lee. I’m afraid she’s gotten herself into rather deep trouble.”
Murphy’s eyes narrowed, but he pulled the chain and let the man in. Despite the heat, he was wearing a three piece suit and vest, all navy blue, with a black bowler hat. He took off the hat, and beneath it was a long-narrow face with a thin-salt and pepper moustache. The man’s hair was black, cut short and neat, gray at the temples. Murphy studied the man’s cold green eyes, and realized one of them was made of painted glass. He pretended not to notice.
“Take a seat,” Murphy instructed. He pointed to a wooden chair, its cushion green with a wicker-back. Two months ago, he’d found it on a curb, and realized it would make his clients more comfortable than the metal folding chair he’d been using.
“The name’s Jacobs. Eli Jacobs. I’m an agent of his Majesty, King George. Secret service.” Murphy stood in silence for a few moments. Eli had yet to sit, but stood with his hand out-stretched toward Murphy’s folded arms. Murphy was cast in the soft glow of the candle, so Eli could see his light skin, the color of oak. His hair was short, but slightly red, almost burnt. His eyes were brown, and a half dozen light freckles rested on his cheeks. He still looked like a boy, barely a man really, but his eyes were old, his voice a deep bass.
Murphy finally shook the man’s hand, and offered him a cigarette. Eli accepted, and the pair sat across from each other, two points of flame and smoke in the candle-light. “Tell me about Dee.”
“You mean Diane? Of course,” Eli cleared his throat; he was no longer used to smoking and stubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray. “Well, she’s gone missing with one of our men from the embassy. Terrible business. She shouldn’t even be involved, quite frankly. I’m afraid that’s one of Thomas’s weaknesses. Thomas Hughes. He’s the ambassador’s secretary. We can’t find him. And I’m afraid he was last seen entering your sister’s brothel.”
Murphy sat in silence for a few more moments. Her brothel. She had inherited it, he knew. Earned it, in fact. And as upset as it made him sometimes, he knew that that brothel had put food in his belly and a roof over his head for many years. His mother and sister had both made quite a living. Murphy couldn’t blame them. While they were in the whore business, he had robbed criminals, stealing money from bootleggers with a bandana pulled over his face and a tommy-gun in his hand. But in his mind’s eye, he remembered his sister’s skin, dark as cocoa, her eyes like amber. Sweaty from sex with a couple twenties stuffed into her bra. That’s the way he remembered her. Her eyes mocked him from inside his mind, and he shook his head to free himself from the reverie.
“I haven’t seen my sister in two years. She ain’t here, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Of course not, Mr. Lee. But you see, I’m in a pickle. Mr. Hughes, well, he had in his possession some rather sensitive material. And if that material were to be given to the wrong person, his Majesty’s very life could be in danger, and the life of your president too. So what do you say, Murphy? For King and country?” Eli placed a twenty dollar bill on Murphy’s desk and slid it over. His eyes widened for a moment, but he didn’t blink.
“Double that. Then we’ll talk.”
“Of course!” Eli replied. “Just consider it a down-payment. “
Murphy nodded, put on his sweat-stained oxford and began buttoning. He grabbed his shoulder holster, and hid it under his jacket, suddenly realizing why Eli wore his own jacket despite the heat.
“I know a place. Open all night. They’ve got air-conditioning.”
* * * * *
The coffee tasted better in Slim’s Diner, but Murphy was getting a caffeine headache. He wished he could go outside to smoke some reefer to take the edge off, but he’d left it up in his flat. His plate of scrambled eggs and toast sat in front of him, half-eaten.
Eli scraped some maple syrup and pancake crumbs up on his fork and brought them to his mouth, relishing the sweet taste of Americana. He drank milk instead of coffee, but seemed sharper after midnight than most men at noon.
“So you say you haven’t seen her or heard from her in two years? And why is that?” Eli asked.
Murphy punched a few buttons on the digi-juke in front of him. Over a thousand songs from the past twenty-five years of popular music, and only a handful were worth listening to. Fats Waller’s piano began to tinkle out of the digi-juke’s speakers. Murphy closed his eyes to relax for a few moments. He opened them and spoke.
“I was still with the force then. Thought I could use the skills I learned as a boy to earn an honest living. Maybe stay alive past twenty-five. Well, guess I made it.” He knocked on the wooden bench of their booth. “Ma had just died. Gave Dee the brothel. Offered me the dope trade, but I didn’t want it. Most of those boys had it out for me, anyway.”
“Admirable.” Eli said. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”
“No, it wasn’t. And I knew I looked like an Uncle Tom dressed in blue, but I figured it’s better to be locked up by a black cop than a white cop. Better chance of getting to the jailhouse in one piece. Anyway…” he trailed off for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. “I came to the brothel one night off-duty. Only way I ever got to see my sister. Might seem a bit nasty, considering the nature of her business, but I was used to it by then. Least, I thought I was.
“One of the girls pointed me into her office. She usually didn’t “work” in that room, if you get my meaning, but my sergeant was inside. Sergeant McCluskey. Getting his shoes shined, so to speak. I don’t know why, but when he looked at me and smiled, I pulled him away from her and shoved my night-stick in his groin. And then his mouth. Knocked out two of his teeth and smashed one of his balls. It was a stupid thing to do. I don’t think he realized she was my sister. We don’t look much alike.”
“Had to call in a lot of favors to keep myself alive. Have a contact at the New York Post who threatened to expose the NYPD in a corruption scandal if I were to be harmed. Left the force and began work as a private detective. Been at it for two years. Money’s tight sometimes, but I survive. Anyway, I haven’t seen or spoken to Dee since that night. Don’t figure she misses me much. She hasn’t reached out to me either.”
“A sad tale,” Lee remarked. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone? An old boyfriend, perhaps?”
Murphy chuckled. “Dee had lots of boyfriends. But I know she gave kick-backs to one of the Gambino brothers. The brothel’s inside their territory. ‘The Brown Bordello’ it’s called. Terrible name, but my family never showed much class. Anyway, one of the Gambino’s boys might tell you something.”
“Hmm,” Eli pondered. “Won’t they be reluctant to give up that kind of information?”
“Way I see it,” Murphy explained, “we could try one or two ways. You could use that silver tongue of yours and loosen his lips with a bit of cash. That don’t work, I got a Colt .45 should do the trick.”
“I like your style, Murphy,” Eli said with a grin.
“You boys need anything else?” Their waitress had suddenly appeared, scratching inside the tight spirals of her hair with a pencil.
“Just the check, please.” Eli smiled at her pleasantly. Murphy nodded, and she walked away.
“Going to be a dangerous business,” Murphy told his new partner. “I need a heavy retainer for this kind of work.”
“How about $50 a day plus expenses?” Eli asked.
Again, Murphy’s eyes widened. He did his best to stay cool. “Last job paid $75.”
Eli’s eyes rolled ever so slightly. “$60. His Majesty’s not running a charity.”
“Deal.” They shook hands.
* * * * *
Murphy and Eli stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowded passenger train. It was full of workers on their way to offices, docks and factories, their eyes downcast or scanning one of the morning newspapers. The only sound was the steady hum of the train as it glided over the track. Sunshine filtered through the skyline, pouring into the windows with a shuffling rhythm. Eventually, the train slowed and stopped at one of its platforms, a monument of brick and rust in Striver’s Row.
“We need to get off here,” Murphy said, and the two men pushed through the crowd and out onto the platform. They took some steep concrete steps down to the street. A vast avenue of row houses, a mix of storefronts and apartment buildings, stretched down the block. Here and there, glowing tele-boards hawked laundry detergent and tobacco, their catchy jingles and shouted slogans assaulting their brains.
“Here we go,” Murphy said and pointed to a window glowing with neon letters that read ‘Percy’s Pawn Shop’. The pair walked up some steps that led into the storefront. Inside the windows hung wooden guitars and brass saxophones. A bell tinkled on the door as Murphy pushed his way inside. Shotguns and rifles hung in a rack behind the counter, and beneath a glass counter, rings, earrings and other jewelry shimmered with a cheap luster.
“Sammy Gambino around?” Murphy asked as the door slammed shut behind him.
A young man with a broad white grin looked up from behind the jewelry. His white and gold shoes rested on the case, legs crossed at the ankles. He leaned back in a rolling office chair, wearing a brown suit and vest. A plump face looked up at them, the rolls of his flesh covering his collar like rye dough. His eyes were bright brown and creamy white, his head shaved bald with the shadow of two day’s growth. The man’s round mouth opened sleepily. “Who wants to know?” asked a voice soft and lazy.
“Tell ‘em it’s Lee Murphy with his friend Eli.”
“One moment.” The man leaned his chair back ever so slightly and opened a white door behind him. “Sammy? It’s Dee’s brother. He’s with a white man.” A single grunted syllable came from beyond the door and in a moment, a young man walked out, grinning and surprised.
“Murphy! Long time, no see. Got word from your sister?” Sammy had a slight, muscly chubbiness with bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks. His face was flush and cheerful.
“Naw, I ain’t seen her. This is my friend Eli Jacobs. We’re lookin’ for her. Think she might be in trouble,” Murphy explained.
“A pleasure to meet you, good sir,” Eli tipped his hat as he shook Sammy’s hand.
“Likewise, pop. Look, Murphy, I know you and me had a few run-ins back in the day, but that ain’t nothin’ no more. Your sister, she ain’t paid up. Pretty soon, I got start taking it from her girls, and that never goes smoothly. We might have to rough one or two of ‘em up first, and that ain’t good for them and it ain’t good for business. You help us find your sister, get her money, I’ll give you a little piece of the action,” Sammy offered.
“You mean you don’t know where she is either? That’s why we’re here,” Murphy told him.
Sammy whistled. “Well, shucks fellas, I don’t know what to tell you. Seems like we gotta case of a missing whore!” In his thick accent, he pronounced the word ‘whoo-ah’. Murpy grit his teeth but said nothing.
“Ahem,” Eli cleared his throat. “Mr. Gambino, has anybody else come into your establishment lately that sounds British? Anybody at all.”
“Ooh, you know what, I think Charlie told me something about that,” Sammy nodded back to his clerk still leaning in his chair. “But uh, my memory’s kinda foggy and you don’t want to ask Charlie no questions; he don’t like to be disturbed ‘cept by customers.”
“Laying it on a bit thick are we?” Eli asked as he slipped a folded twenty dollar bill into Sammy’s hand.
“We got a young guy, sweatin’, nervous, came in here about a week ago. Brought a bunch of old coins, said it was from his grand-dad’s collection, real old ones from England. Had a guy named Charles on the head, I said ‘How you like that Charlie?’ and asked the man what he wanted. Said he needed a gun, couldn’t be traced. Couldn’t use cash to buy one neither, ‘cause his money all had to be accounted for with receipts. Paid extra to make sure it wouldn’t be a hassle,” Sammy told them.
“Show me your own receipt for the coins,” Eli demanded.
“That’s gonna cost you, pops,” Sammy told him.
“Then let’s say we do it for old time’s sake,” Murphy suggested.
Sammy looked back at Charlie, then at the two men. “Sure, Murphy, sure. Give me a sec.” He ducked into his office and then back out in an instant.
“There we go, gentlemen,” Sammy showed the pair.
Murphy ripped the page out.
“Hey!” Sammy shouted. Charlie finally leaned forward in his chair and took an interest, but Murphy ignored them both.
“Theodore Huxley. Thomas Hughes?” Murphy asked Eli.
“Certainly,” Eli said. “What’s that number he left?”
“The three digits after the area code means it’s a hotel. Beyond that, we’ll need to check the tele-net.”
“Sammy, we thank you for your time,” Murphy spoke. He folded the torn receipt page and placed it inside his coat pocket.
“Gentlemen,” Eli tipped his hat again and nodded. He and Murphy walked out of the store, the door clattering behind them.
Sammy looked at Charlie, his feet back resting on the case.
“Charlie, get my brother on the phone. Think we got a problem.”
* * * * *
“Let’s go, Murphy. We’re not going to get any more information out of him.”
“Pencil-necked paper pusher,” Murphy grumbled. He and Eli turned and walked from the registration desk. They were able to confirm that a Mr. Theodore Huxley had registered at the Plaza, but he’d requested not to be disturbed, and accepted no calls to his room. Eli attempted to bribe the clerk, but the concierge noticed and threatened to throw them out of the hotel unless they left the registration desk immediately.
“Perhaps if we grab a drink, we’ll see him coming in or out. This way, Murphy.”
They walked into an extravagant bar-room with a gleaming mahogany bar, high-backed chairs of red velvet, and a robotic wait-staff dressed in white tuxedos. Murphy selected a table with a view of the lobby, and they both took a seat. At once, a server-bot rolled over to them on the bar’s electro-grid. Its optic sensors flickered a pleasant green of acknowledgement, and its digitized voice warbled, “Greetings, gentlemen. What can I get for you?”
“I’ll take a dry martini,” Eli said.
“Bourbon. On the rocks,” Murphy ordered.
“Certainly. I’ll be right back with your drinks,” the server-bot told them.
“Hm,” Eli said after the bot left, “I see Ford’s already released the new models here in the states.”
“Glad I picked a profession that hasn’t been bot-sourced,” Murphy remarked. “Yet.”
In a moment, the server-bot returned and gave the men their drinks. With a crackle and a whir, the machine turned and left, navigating a complicated circuit grid that covered the floor of the barroom. The grid glowed a cool wintergreen to match the Plaza’s general décor.
“So tell me,” Murphy said, “what’ve you got on this Hughes character? Or I guess I should ask, what’s he got on him to make a jump across the pond worth it to you?”
Eli arched his eyebrows with a grin and took a small sip from his martini. “The daft fool’s gone and taken some classified blueprints, part of the ambassador’s air defense briefing. Likely trying to sell them to the highest bidder, and I wager I know who that’ll be.”
“Not Uncle Sam?” Murphy asked.
“Not for a moment,” Eli replied. “Roosevelt’s spending too much on public works to be able to feed a war machine. No, I’m afraid he’s got his eye on Goering and his Luftwaffe. Deutchland uber alles, and all that rubbish. Afraid Hitler’s taking the metaphor a bit too literally. Our agents tell us he’s already got the map of Europe carved up like mincemeat pie. Only waiting for the right moment to strike.”
“Glad he’s on the other side of an ocean,” Murphy said, taking a stiff drink of his bourbon before setting it back on the table and lighting a cigarette.
“Don’t think that’ll hold him for too much longer. What I’m about to tell you is strictly top-secret, but I want you to know,” Eli explained in a hushed tone, ”there’s a lot more to this than a rogue diplomat and a missing girl.”
Murphy nodded and leaned in. “Lay it on me.”
Eli’s eyes rose for a moment, then he shook his head dismissively. “Thought I saw him, but the chap was half a foot too short. Anyway. Our engineers have cooked up a design for an aero-plane that can pilot itself and bomb a target thousands of miles from where it lifts off. Can you imagine it? A whole fleet of mindless killing machines, ones that always obey their orders, hitting their targets with computers, then returning to base. Or not. Even if some are shot down, there’d be no more pilots to train, just more machines to push out the factory.”
“Sometimes I wonder what kind of world Tesla and Ford have made for us,” Murphy sighed. Despite the thousands of conveniences, such as the tele-writers and digi-jukes, just as many weapons had been created, each more deadly than the last.
Eli replied coolly, “It’s the one you and I live in, and I don’t plan on leaving any time soon. There’s our man.”
Eli dropped a bill on the table. Murphy took one last drink from his bourbon, and followed Eli through the lobby. The man looked back. Must have felt eyes on him. Eli hid behind a luggage rack. The man sped up and rushed out of the hotel’s revolving door.
The door spun until Hughes, Eli and Murphy all stood outside on the crowded street. Hughes broke into a run. So did Eli. Murphy followed sprinting, phlegm rising from his cigarette scorched lungs. He swallowed the bile like a pill, and sped up until he was just behind Eli.
Garbage spilled as their target knocked a trash can into their path and turned the corner down an alley. Eli ran through the rubbish, a scrap of newspaper caught on his chest for a moment on his chest until it flew backward. Murphy batted it away.
A shot rang out, cut through the air between them. Eli fired two in return, but Murphy ducked behind a metal trash can.
“In the name of King George, I order you to stop!” Eli roared, but of course their quarry ignored him.
Murphy stood back up. The boom of his magnum echoed through the alley, and Hughes began running again. From the street beyond the alley, they heard the screech of tires.
Eli and Murphy stood panting. “Ain’t that a son of a bitch…” Murphy grunted as he holstered his gun.
“Not a complete loss,” Eli said. “I recognized that car’s plates. They belong to the German Embassy. A bit clumsy to send one after him, but they must have been in a hurry. I suspect Hughes knew we were after him. Perhaps your friend in Harlem has a big mouth.”
“Gonna be a lot bigger, I ever see him again,” Murphy spoke.
“Ah, here’s another taxi. Get in, Murphy. We’ll share a cab to Harlem. I’ve got a hotel room near you until I end this business. Don’t worry about the Germans. I’ve got a man inside. His name’s Rudiger. I call him Rudi. One quarter Jew, but the records are forged, so nobody knows. He’s a double-agent, the whole reason I know about this damn plot to begin with.”
Murphy looked at him with his cool brown eyes. For a moment, Eli thought he would say something, but he only got into the cab and rolled down the window. Murphy told the driver-bot his address, and the car began moving.
Murphy had Eli over for breakfast. The heat in the apartment was almost palpable; the only relief came from an electric fan or open refrigerator. Eli scoured the tele-net for information about the German Embassy building as Murphy reviewed his notes on the Gambino brothers. Each man also wore a gun, worried about retribution from Hughes, the Germans, or the Gambinos.
The telephone jingled. Eli picked it up before the second ring. “There’s a public telephone just outside,” he said by way of answering. “Call me at (101) 757-6300. Give me thirty seconds.”
Murphy nodded, and Eli let himself out. There was a brick near the door downstairs Eli used to keep the entryway open.
From the window, Murphy watched the block underneath. Eli was conspicuous, the only white person in sight. He had the smell of a cop on him, Murphy knew, so everybody would keep their distance, at least in daylight. He saw Eli hang up the phone and nod at the window to indicate he was on his way back up.
“He wants to meet us,” Eli told Murphy.
“Where?” Murphy asked, buttoning his shirt.
“A coffee shop in Spanish Harlem. Neutral territory, I gather,” Eli said.
“Think I know the place,” Murphy said. “It’s a’ight. I’ll lead us there, make sure we’re not followed.”
They finished dressing, walked down the stairs, and entered the street. Murphy led Eli down into the subway. The cool air was a pleasant relief, but the stink of urine hit them with an acrid tang. Profane graffiti covered the walls and heaps of rubbish were piled here and there. The people on the platform clung to their dignity, at least for the most part.
Eli followed Murphy through the platform, entering one side of a car only to exit from the other before boarding another train completely. They’d switch at the next stop, only to repeat the same trick again. After their third switch, they remained inside their car until the train reached their destination.
Spanish Harlem was just as hot as Murphy’s neighborhood, but it sounded different. Eli heard the lilt of Spanish, but not in a Spanish accent. One that he recognized as Caribbean. Mariachi music blared from radios. They passed a bodega and entered a quiet café.
A brown-haired, blue eyed man stood to meet them. “Hello, Eli,” he spoke in a German accent.
“Hello, Rudi. Let me introduce you to my partner, Murphy.”
Murphy said nothing, but shook Rudi’s hand and nodded.
“You’re sure you weren’t followed?” Murphy asked. He eyed a man in a corner booth reading a newspaper.
“Ja,” Rudi said. “Have a seat. I ordered us coffee and tea.”
Rudi was solidly built, athletic despite his age. He looked to be about as old as Eli, judging from the lines on his face. His eyes were the blue of ice, his jaw hard and square as if cut from granite. He had the face of a movie star, except for a scar that ran from his temple to his chin. With a grin, his features became as soft as a pillow.
“Trench knife,” Rudi explained, feeling Murphy’s eyes trace down his jaw. “A scratch compared to Eli’s wound.”
Eli winked his glass eye and the pair chuckled. Murphy looked away and sighed.
“What do you know about Hughes?” Murphy asked impatiently.
“All business. How American,” Rudi remarked. “Hughes came to my attention almost a month ago. I intercepted a tele-net transmission to Berlin, promising blue-prints for a new British weapon in exchange for as much cash as it was worth to them. I’ve found out the damned fool’s a degenerate card player. He’s up to his ears in debt to the Sicilian mob. Private games. I only know because I was assigned the task to investigate him. I never got a copy of the blueprints, but another agent was able to verify their existence.”
“How were you able to learn that?” Eli asked, his left eyebrow raised.
“From another double, one in your agency. I don’t know his identity, or you would too, and he’d be dead,” Rudi explained. He struck a match and lit a cigarette, using his coffee’s saucer for an ashtray.
“No doubt,” Eli said. He blew steam from his teacup and sipped Earl Grey.
“Any idea where’s he holed up?” Eli asked.
“With the girl, probably,” Rudi told him. “He trusts your sister.”
“He’s a fool,” Murphy said.
“What’s your plan?” Rudi asked.
“I was hoping you’d be able to give us something, some kind of new lead to go on,” Eli told him.
“I’ve one idea, but it’s risky. I’d have to blow my cover, so you’ll need to get me into England,” Rudi explained.
“I guarantee it,” Eli promised.
“Good. Let me arrange a meeting with Hughes and the Gambinos. I’ll tell him we’re going to make the trade,” Rudi said. “We’ll take him prisoner. Force him to give up the girl.”
“Could get messy,” Eli said. “I don’t like it.”
“He’ll trust anybody who speaks English with a German accent,” Rudi told him. “We’re the only friends he has left.”
“Tell him to make the drop at the Bordello. I know a few secrets about that place, could come in handy,” Murphy said.
“The Gambinos will eat us alive,” Eli spoke incredulous.
“If we ask them to make the drop on their turf,” Murphy explained, “they’ll feel protected. Let their guard down.”
“Clumsy,” Rudi said. “I like it.”
“How do you want to play this, Murphy?” Eli asked.
“I know how to get inside. I can lay a few traps, bring some heat. I know how to fight when I’m outnumbered,” Murphy explained.
“His Majesty doesn’t want your blood on his hands,” Eli said.
“Might be the only way,” Rudi offered. “He hasn’t handed over the plans yet, but he will soon. The only thing that’s kept them out of our hands this long is German bureaucracy. Best to take the initiative.”
“Your sister might be hurt, killed,” Eli spoke in a hush. “Are you prepared to accept that?”
“She’s picked her side,” Murphy said. “Lay down with dogs, and all that shit.”
“All that shit,” Rudi chuckled. “Indeed.”
“Then it’s decided. Rudi, make the call. We’ll begin our preparations.”
* * * * *
Murphy crouched on the stone floor of the Bordello’s basement. Once, it had been used as a vault to store barrels of booze, but since the end of prohibition, it had been mostly empty. The furnace stood fat and tall, but it was empty too, the space behind its metal grille dark and dusty, full of old, gray coal ash. Once it been his job to keep it stoked in winter, especially around Christmas when half the men in the city were off work and flush with bonuses. His old shovel was even resting against it, the wood pale from where he’d gripped it.
He used a crow-bar to open up a crate of grenades, ones he’d snuck through the basement’s window. They rested inside the straw like precious cargo.
In the morning, while all the girls were asleep, he’d been able to come in through the basement window, and sneak a few detonator mines into hiding places near the entrances and exits of the building just in case things went sour. Their blasts were powerful but compact; still, he’d rather not use them unless he absolutely had too. Explosives could be useful, but one mistake would get you killed, not to mention the potential for collateral damage.
Murphy took two of the pineapple grenades and strapped them to his belt; the rest he left in the crate. He carried a tommy gun, black iron and brown wood, strapped around his back. On his hip, he wore his magnum in a holster.
He walked toward the steps of the basement and checked his watch. 1:59 P.M. He heard a feint knock from the bordello’s front door, and the tap of footsteps above him. A minute early, but that would be okay; the girls had woken up an hour ago. Murphy heard muffled voices. He gripped his gun and leaned against the wall at the bottom of the steps, looking up toward the door. And waited for Rudi’s signal.
* * * * *
“Greetings, fräulein,” Rudi said. “I have an appointment here with Sammy Gambino and a Mr. Thomas Hughes. May I come inside?”
“Come in, come in,” the woman at the door beckoned him. She wore a ruby red corset over fishnet stockings and heels; her left leg and a garter belt came out from a silk robe she wore open over her body. She blew smoke from her cigarette out of the side of her mouth and moved aside so he could enter. To Rudi, she was quite gorgeous, dark skin with lips painted crimson, round cheeks and a small mouth, her tight curls pulled into braids. From the memory of Dee’s photo, he could see she wasn’t Murphy’s sister.
She pointed her long, slender black cigarette holder down the hallway and told him, “They’re waiting for you in the dining room.”
Rudi nodded toward the woman, took off his hat and walked inside. He walked down a long, narrow corridor, past the basement’s doorway, until it eventually opened up into a dining room to his left opposite a modest parlor. Sammy Gambino and Thomas Hughes were sitting at the dining room table, sipping coffee. Sammy looked bored, but Hughes was nervous and sweating, his shirt and vest damp around the armpits. Four other men were seated, two with guns slung around the back of their chairs.
“Thomas,” Rudi said, “it is good to finally meet you.”
“Likewise, Mr. Rudiger,” Hughes replied.
“Have a seat,” Sammy told him.
Rudi sat down in the only empty chair. He placed his hands on the table. “You brought what was promised, ja?” he asked Hughes expectantly.
“Indeed,” Hughes replied. “It’s in this briefcase, have a look.” He slid the briefcase over, and it opened with a snap and a click.
Rudi looked inside. They certainly looked like blueprints, schematics for some kind of aero-plane, one he’d never seen before.
“Very well,” Rudi told him. “But I represent another interested party. I need to meet the proprietor of this fine establishment, and thank her in person for all of her hospitality.”
“She ain’t here,” Sammy said, his eyebrow cocked with suspicion. “What’s she to you, anyway, bub? Been gettin’ a lot of questions about her lately.”
“I am a foreign intelligence agent for the Third Reich, and it would be good for us to have friendly accommodations in New York,” Rudi explained. “But I need to meet the woman in charge to make such an assessment. I’m sure you understand? Otherwise, I’m not permitted to take these documents, nor grant you the sum we agreed upon, Mr. Hughes.”
“You’ll want these,” Hughes said, a note of desperation in his voice. “Take the designs now, or you won’t see anything like them again until they’re in the sky over Berlin.”
“Nein,” Rudi dismissed Hughes with a curt slash of his hand. “Where is Diane Lee? My superiors have taken an interest in her. She could be of use to us."
Sammy exchanged a glance with Hughes, and looked back at Rudi, his eyes narrowed. “She ain’t here. And I don’t care what the Reich wants or does not want. You cough up that dough, or I’ll plug you and take it off your corpse!”
Rudi pounded on the table and stood up, stomping his foot loud enough for Murphy to hear. “Nein!” he pulled his Luger from the holster at his hip and fired a round into the head of Gambino’s man who was sitting next to him. Rudi made a move toward the briefcase, but Gambino aimed a pulse gun he’d pulled from his coat straight at Rudi’s face. A spiral shaped bolt of purple energy, a “tesla-beam” in the common parlance, flew over Rudi’s head as he ducked beneath the table.
I’ll be damned, Rudi thought, an experimental weapon. Only one way to even the odds. From underneath the table, Rudi fired more rounds with his luger at all the kneecaps he could see. A hideous wail of agony told him that at least one of his shots had hit its mark. Rudi gripped the bottom of the table, and heaved it over in the direction of Sammy and Hughes, papers, coffee cups, table cloth and stirring spoons clanging and shattering on the floor. A half dozen bullets followed him out into the hallway, but none found him.
“Duck,” Murphy told Rudi from near the Bordello’s entrance. He fired a torrent from his tommy gun that ripped through the corridor, keeping Hughes, Gambino, and his men inside the dining room.
Screams erupted from the top of the steps, wailing shrieks from the girls and angry yells punctuated with savage curses from the few men who had arrived early. Clattering footsteps made their way down the fire escape at the rear of the building. Within moments, the upstairs was quiet. The woman who’d let Rudi in scrambled through the front door. Eli turned sideways then stepped inside before the door shut again behind him. He had his pistol drawn and pointed in front of him.
“Hughes!” Eli called down the corridor. “Come out with the case, both hands holding onto it. Surrender.”
There was no response. Silence filled the hallway’s gun-smoke haze. The three men crept forward quietly, Murphy leading them past the yellowed wall-paper and nude portraits that had not changed since he was a boy, except for one frame whose glass had cracked and another that was gone completely, leaving behind a gold halo surrounding a pale empty space.
As Murphy’s eyes fell upon the halo, it transformed into a black void surrounded by an orange ring of flame, burst apart by the purple spiral of a tesla-beam. It flew past Murphy’s face and into the wall of the corridor behind them, leaving another sizzling hole.
“You’re outgunned, boys!” Gambino called out from the dining room. As if to punctuate this sentiment, Gambino’s two remaining men ran across the corridor into the parlor and fired a few rounds from the corner until Murphy fired back and they ducked back into cover.
“I’m going to ring the bell in three,” Murphy spoke calmly.
“I need Hughes alive,” Eli hissed.
“Two,” Murphy said.
“Ready,” Rudi crouched on one knee with his Luger pointed down the hallway.
“One,” Murphy hit a button on the detonator inside his pocket and a thundering boom of explosive, plaster, brick and mortar blasted above the rear entrance of the Bordello. Murphy rushed down the corridor with his Magnum held in front of him, firing into the parlor at the sound of hacking coughs that fought to breathe through the dust and debris from the explosion. Two shots through the smoke and dust; the room fell silent.
Eli and Rudi entered the dining room and found Hughes huddled beneath the table, an embarrassing puddle forming beneath the wet seat of his trousers. Gambino had been knocked unconscious by a fragment of the debris. The gun that fired the Tesla beam was a pistol of chrome and leather. It ended in a sharp point surrounded by a round metal dish. “Interesting design,” Rudi said, picking up the gun.
Eli brought Hughes up to his feet. “Compose yourself, Hughes,” Eli grunted. “You’re still alive, at least for now. May God have mercy on you; I fear England will not.”
“Hold on,” Murphy spoke. “Did you hear somebody go up the fire escape?”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Rudi said.
“Nor I,” Eli said, “but it’s best we leave, regardless. Murphy, do you care to finish the job on Gambino? I certainly wouldn’t blame you.”
“As a matter of fact—“
Murphy’s sentence was interrupted by three loud cracks from behind them in the corridor. Eli’s jacket tore open at the shoulder and blood poured from the tunnel between two wounds. Murphy and Rudi ducked into the parlor, but Eli lay defenseless in the hallway. Hughes crouched back under the dining room table.
“Murphy,” Eli grunted, “I think I found your sister.”
“Drop the gun. Slide it to me.” Dee delivered her instructions clearly and precisely. Her voice lacked emotion, but communicated urgency. Eli obeyed and slid the pistol down the hallway. She stopped it with her foot then picked it up. Dee aimed both guns at Eli, who remained on the ground.
“We’re all professionals,” Dee called out. “Nobody else needs to get hurt. Murphy, take your friend out the window. The blueprints stay with me. Eli’s my hostage until we make a deal. I see hide or hair of either of you before I get my money, you and the limey are good as dead. Capiche?”
Murphy had to stifle a chuckle. His older sister had more guts than most gangsters, and more brains. A loose cannon would’ve murdered Eli as soon as he got the chance, until only one man was left standing, but Dee knew better.
“Capiche,” Murphy replied. “You can find my number on the tele-net. I’m opening the window now. Don’t shoot.”
Rudi nodded. They holstered their weapons. Rudi held onto the pulse gun. Hughes and the blueprints remained inside the dining room, as far out of reach as if they were on the other side of the world. Rudi sighed, and climbed onto the fire escape. Their footsteps clanged down the steps.
“I hope you’re worth more alive than dead. What’s your name?” Dee asked.
“Eli Jacobs,” he told her. “I’m an Agent of the British Crown. Kill me, and you’ll have all the force of Scotland Yard and the FBI fall upon you.”
Dee laughed. “Ain’t that how it always is? Get up.”
Eli grunted, and sat up against the wall. He leaned against it, and pushed himself up, leaving a smear of blood behind. He’d been hurt worse, but knew he’d need to be patched up soon. Already his skin was pale and he felt a chill.
“There’s a bathroom opposite the door to the basement,” Dee pointed to a door near the Bordello’s front entrance. “Go inside. I’ll patch you up.”
Eli nodded and followed her into the bathroom. She tore his shirt at the shoulder seam and winced. “At least it’s a flesh wound. Missed your collar bone and shoulder blade. Don’t think I could manage that again if I tried.” She poured from a brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide; the wound bubbled and foamed with a soft hiss. Next, she wrapped a bandage around the exit wound. Eli was lucky. His thick blood kept him from bleeding out. Already, his wound had slowed to a steady trickle.
“Your bedside manner is as good as your aim. You sure you can keep Gambino from killing me?” Eli asked.
“I’ll give him a cut of whatever I get from your embassy. He’ll understand.” Dee brought a needle and thread from the mirror above the sink, lit a match, and burned the tip of the needle. “Lean back and think of England,” she said as she dug the needle into his flesh, the black thread cinching his skin together. Eli winced.
“Haven’t been stitched up since 1918,” Eli grunted in pain.
“That how you lost the eye?” Dee asked.
“I didn’t lose it. I left it behind,” Eli said. “Artillery shrapnel. Could’ve been worse. I met some eunuchs in the field hospital.”
“Turn around. I’ll do the other side.”
Eli looked at himself in the mirror. He glanced behind him at Dee and they locked eyes. “Do you miss your brother?”
“Sometimes,” Dee admitted. “He’s got no head for business. Everything is so personal. Complicates things.”
“Seems you two could learn a lot from each other,” Eli said. “You’re all business.”
“Ain’t that the truth. I been in this game a long time. I stopped caring years ago.”
“You’ve done quite well for yourself. What next?” he asked.
“We’re going to call your embassy. Find out how much a spy, a traitor, and those blueprints are worth.”
* * * * *
The phone rang. Murphy and Rudi looked up from their bourbon. “Answer it,” Murphy instructed.
“Hello?” Rudi answered. “Speaking. Ja. Ja. Understood.” He hung up the phone.
“You need to contact Dee. She’s to bring everything to the embassy. They’ve already granted her immunity; they even have paperwork. All she has to do is hand over Eli, Hughes and the blueprints,” Rudi explained.
“She won,” Murphy whispered.
“Don’t they always?” Rudi sighed.
Murphy picked up the phone. He held the earpiece to his ear and dialed the number. The drone of the dial tone hummed as he waited for someone to pick up. “I need to speak to Diane Lee. Tell her it’s Murphy. Yeah, Dee.”
Rudi took another drag off the roach. His bourbon was dry so he poured some water from the faucet.
“Let me hit that,” Murphy said. He held out his hand as he waited. A startled cough erupted. “Dee?” he said in a breath of smoke. He took a sip of Rudi’s water. “We need to pick you up. We’re going to the embassy. Leave Gambino at the Bordello. I know he wants his cut, but he’ll just have to trust you. Six o’clock. How’s Eli doing?”
Rudi listened to Murphy’s half of the conversation. His head swam. He’d not smoked hashish since visiting Istanbul before the war, but this American leaf felt like listening to jazz in the bayou, the taste of molasses, and the smell of honeysuckle. At least, that is how he imagined it in the moment.
“Rudi?” Murphy called, pulling him from his reverie.
“Ja?” Rudi asked. “What did she say?”
“We need to take the train to the Bordello. One of Eli’s men will pick us up in a limousine. Can you believe that? The embassy will get Hughes, Eli got his man, I found my sister, and you’ll go to England. Everybody got what they were looking for,” Murphy said with a sad nonchalance.
Rudi smiled. “Your sister owes you a cut of the take. Perhaps she’ll even hire you.”
“I won’t work for Dee no more,” Murphy said, “but I’ll take her money. C’mon, we got to go.”
Rudi shook his head. “I need some coffee.”
“We’ll get some at the platform. They just installed new server bots. The Service Union has blown some to hell, but when they work, they make damn fine coffee. And you don’t have to tip them,” Murphy said.
“Fuck Tesla and fuck Ford. Fuck Hitler, Chamberlain and Roosevelt,” Rudi spoke in a rant.
“You’re goddamned right about that. Now c’mon, we need to go.” Murphy led him down into the subway. He looked around them and peered with his third eye, but could feel no one followed them underground. Murphy had learned to trust his intuition long ago.
Rudi pointed out a coffee stand. A pair of men stood behind the counter in white paper hats. “I thought they laid you off. Two americanos,” Murphy told them.
“We came to an understanding,” one of the men explained. “We work during the day, the bots take the night shift. We stop blowing up the bots.”
“Sounds like a gentleman’s agreement,” Rudi said.
They grabbed their drinks and headed onto to the train. Its hydraulic doors opened with a hiss of steam, and the magnetic force of the track held the car a few inches in the air. They sipped their americanos, and watched the world rush by in a blurred streak. Suddenly, they came out onto an elevated track. Afternoon sun shined through the windows of the train. Rudi welcomed it. It helped him be alert, focused. The Americano helped too.
Eventually, the train glided into Harlem. The doors opened and a mass of humanity shuffled out. Vendors on the platform offered barbecued ribs, cooked in huge smokers by some burly men who hailed from Alabama. No way a simple bot could ever replace those two. Their sauce was said to contain a certain kind of bayou magic, and whether or not the voodoo actually worked, Murphy knew many wives who made their husbands eat there regularly.
Rudi inhaled, taking in the scent of barbecue smoke, boiled peanuts and beer. in the summer-time , the platform had an atmosphere that was almost carnivalesque. In the winter, these same booths would sell coffee and whiskey, as metal drums warmed hands with a crackling blaze, and vagrants begged for coin beneath tattered blankets. Rudi could almost see them. It was the same at the platforms in Manhattan, only the workers wore suit and tie instead of a laborer’s blue coveralls. He imagined the trains in Berlin, the scent of pretzels and sauerkraut, the sweet taste of strudel at Christmas. Rudi imagined he might never see his fatherland again in this lifetime.
“Stay sharp, Rudi,” Murphy told him. “Keep your hand on that Luger. These are desperate times.”
They walked side by side down the streets of Harlem into the red light district. The sun had crept low in the sky, and as the heat fell to a simmer, young men and women walked around in ragged posses. One or two might cast an eye on Eli, but Murphy warned them off with a grim look.
“I recognize this neighborhood,” Rudi said eventually. “We are almost here.”
“Are you ready?” Murphy asked him.
“As I’ll ever be,” Rudi replied.
“Just follow my lead. Keep an eye out for Gambino’s men, just in case,” Murphy said, and then knocked on the Bordello’s tall door.
Dee answered. Murphy’s eyes widened in surprise. He had never seen her dress so well. She wore a navy blue skirt down to her knees, cut with a very modest slit. Her legs were bare underneath, a concession to the heat, but she also wore a smart navy blue jacket with gold buttons. Rudi was reminded of the uniforms of American civil war soldiers, but no general ever wore navy and gold so well. Her feet were bare too, but a pair of unlaced black loafers was tucked beneath a coat rack nearby.
“Ain’t never seen a lady lookin’ so classy? I don’t doubt it. Come in, and mind your jaw lest you trip over it. How are you, Rudi?” Dee welcomed the pair inside.
Eli was sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, a bulky white bandage covering his shoulder. A glass cup in front of him beaded water down its surface. Ice cubes and bubbles tinkled as he took a sip of the tonic. A green bottle of gin rested beside him, half empty. Instead of his glass eye, he wore an eye-patch. “I’m off duty for another half hour. You boys are early. Sit down and share a drink with us.”
Murphy remained silent, but nodded and grabbed a seat. He took off his hat and jacket, and laid his shoulder holster down on the table. He poured himself and Rudi a drink with just a splash of gin for each of them. When his sister was around, he meant to stay alert.
“Do you know who invented the gin and tonic?” Eli asked. “The British, of course! My grandparents used it in India as a way to disguise the taste of quinine, a preventative medicine for malaria. Otherwise, they’d risk yellow fever. These days, it’s the taste and gin we enjoy, but back then, it was a matter of life and death.”
“Thank you, professor,” Murphy spoke in a slow drawl.
Dee smiled. “It’s good to hear your voice again, Murphy. Rudi, Eli, could you excuse us?”
The two men got to their feet and sauntered into the parlor. Dee sat in front of Murphy and crunched some ice from her drink. Delicately, she placed one of her hands over Murphy’s. When he didn’t flinch or look away, she stared into her eyes. Murphy looked back, and felt himself falling deep inside them, the whites almost a pale yellow surrounded by skin the color of black coffee, of fertile soil, of burnt hickory. Against her skin, he was almost pale, but he could see himself in her pupils and the way she cocked her head. The strength of her hands was almost masculine, but the rest of her had a queen’s majesty. He couldn’t help but look away, and blink a tear from his eye.
“I never meant for you to find me like that. Clumsy, I know. I’m glad you were able to stay out of trouble,” she said.
“I’m sorry I blamed you. I know you were just doing your job. But when I saw my sergeant’s shit-eating grin, I couldn’t help myself. I saw in him the father I never knew, and I saw our mother in you,” he explained.
“That’s over now. I mean to retire,” Dee told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I’m selling the Bordello. Moving out of the Gambinos’ territory. I intend to invest some of my money into heroin. I’ll be a silent partner to some Triads in Chinatown. The rest will be in a nest-egg. And since Mama gave me the deed, I can live off the interest. Completely legitimate,” she softly explained. Dee still hadn’t taken her hand off of his.
Murphy looked back up at her. “Still living off the misery of others? I guess I can’t blame you. Misery is all we’ve ever known.”
“No, not the only thing,” Dee whispered. “I’ve grown quite fond of your partner.” She smiled. “Perhaps what I need is an older man. Or some other kind. Why don’t you work for me? I can offer you a hefty retainer. You’ll be my bodyguard. Come to meetings with me. Flex some muscle from time to time. Otherwise, do what you will. You can be a brother to me. Or not. Perhaps someday you’ll remember how to.”
“I was always your brother, Dee,” Murphy said. “That’s why I came looking for you. I thought you were in trouble. But it was really us who were in trouble the whole god-damned time. You straightened this mess out.”
“Little ol’ me?” she asked with a laugh.
Murphy sighed. His nose was stuffed up, so he breathed in deeply and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Let’s be a family again. But not business partners. I need to find my own path.”
“Fair enough,” Dee told him. “But I won’t let you be too proud to ask for help. No brother of mine is going to live off cat-food and tap-water.”
“Agreed,” Murphy said. “And whether or not we’re partners, you still owe me for today. With the money you’ve got coming, I could open up a real office, maybe even hire a secretary. Find some decent clientele.”
“One step at a time, little brother,” Dee replied. They finally unclasped each other’s hands, clinked their glasses together, and drank the rest of their tonics. An impatient burst from a car horn broke the silence.
“Come on then,” Eli spoke, putting his jacket around his shirt, still un-tucked and un-bottoned.
“To yellow fever!” Rudi said, and knocked back his drink.
The four of them walked down the steps of the Bordello and stepped into a white limousine with black tinted windows. Hughes followed after, and was placed in the front seat where he could be kept under the chauffeur’s supervision. A valet in a crisp black and white uniform held the door open for the rest of the passengers. Murphy and Dee entered first and took the seat facing forward. Rudi and Eli sat opposite them.
Eli grinned and hoped for a holiday once this sordid business was finally taken care of. Rudi imagined diving from the white cliffs of Dover, and considered how he would bring the rest of his family out of Germany before the storm broke. A quiet peace settled over them.
Dee rested her head on Murphy’s shoulder; he wrapped his arm around her in a protective embrace. She had always taken care of him, until he no longer let her. It would be good for the two of them to begin taking care of each other.