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Dancing the Charleston
Vinnie’s Palace was deep in the heart of the city. It never announced itself as a bar, but everyone knew it to be one. It was just like how they knew that the entrance, the real one, was by a backdoor where a stocky man normally stood, waiting for the nightly flock of Chicagoans. The patrons, men in slick, urbane suits and young dames with pearls strung around their necks, came in the hours where it was okay to be dangerous, daring, and gaudy. It was actually encouraged. The people that came to Vinnie’s Palace hungered for a brighter shade of life. Louise Hesser, when it came to that matter, was starving.
It wasn’t upon chance that she found herself in Vinnie’s Palace. However, she also wasn’t there for the hooch. She was there strictly on terms of business, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t have some fun while she was at it. She enjoyed the nightlife, for it reminded her of why she left home.
As normal, the bar was crowded with men smoking cigars and young women squealing as they downed their drinks in one quick gulp. A lively band was playing while couples danced the Charleston. It was just another normal night at Vinnie’s Palace as Louise slid into the unoccupied seat at the bar with a familiarity that couldn’t be mistaken. She had been here a number of times, and liked to believe that she was the one responsible of its triumph. She looked like many other young women that were there with her chic bob that brought her raven colored hair to the length of her jaw and the dress of red fringe that draped her wispy frame and matched the shade of her painted lips. However, the secrets that lied hidden in her dark, almost black eyes, made her unmistakable.
The bartender, a stout man with a long, featureless face like a calf, spotted her and lumbered over. “Well, isn’t it my favorite bearcat,” he said in a gruff voice, but it was friendly enough. “What have you gotten yourself into now, my fiery girl?”
Louise smiled her most wicked grin. “Dangerous things, Vinnie. Very dangerous things.” Of course, he wasn’t that Vinnie. It was only common to call at the employees of Vinnie’s Palace by the name. This Vinnie reminded Louise of the uncle she left back in Ohio, and it made her look forward to their weekly drop offs to the joint.
This brought a frown out of the bartender, causing his eyebrows to hood over his eyes. “You are being careful, yeah?”
“Only as careful as a rumrunner can be,” she replied easily. This reminded her of why she was there. “The boys are out back with a new shipment. It’s a good one, too. Illinois stole it from Moretti’s men.”
Vinnie’s big, animal-like eyes darted quickly around them. Moretti was a word bad enough to be profanity in Chicago. He was a mob boss that had reign over most of the city. Rumor had it that he once shot a man fifteen times in the head for double-crossing him. He was almost omniscient, for his men were everywhere.
“Sounds like Illinois is looking for a gun fight,” he inquired, stroking a finger over his facial hair in a disapproving fashion.
Louise worked under her own mob boss named Illinois, a rumrunner. He was an Italian man who loved the taste of brandy. Louise still remembered the first time she saw him. It was almost a year ago. She had been twenty, broke, and alone at a bar, much like the one she was in now. A fella with too much alcohol had made a move on her. She hadn’t been interested, but he hadn’t gotten the hint. Her answer was finally enforced when she had shattered a bottle to the back of his head. Illinois had been watching the scene and approached her later and offered her a job. He liked her spirit. They had been working together ever since, sneaking liquor into bars, the backdoors of houses, and juice joints all over Chicago.
She tapped her fingernails on the bar top, suddenly agitated. “He’s just getting ahead of the lot. Isn’t that what life is about, taking chances and doing foolish things all in the pursuit of a grander life? You only feel one hundred percent alive when you’re doing something that could easily end it.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Vinnie said. He took out an old, raveling rag to wipe off the counter. “I’m just a bartender.”
The band amped up in sound, the lively music washing over the place, and Louise had to yell to be heard. It only made her sound more passionate. “But how lively is that! We all know the Prohibition Laws, and here you are dishing out glasses of liquor. You’re basically spitting in the faces of the idiots that created the Prohibition. ‘I’m just a bartender.’ Ha! Vinnie, you shouldn’t count yourself short.”
“I’ll go tell the boss that Illinois is here, yeah?” He grunted, a strangled sound of emotion from deep in his throat. His long, tired face softened to an expression of unmasked affection towards the girl sitting before him. “Sit tight, bearcat.” Then, he was gone.
As Louise waited, she brought a cigarette out of her purse; she let it dangle delicately from her pursed lips. She didn’t much care for the habit, but she preferred to think that it made her look bold and daring. She continued to rap her nails against the bar top and looked to the place where Vinnie had disappeared, too.
“Need a light?”
She glanced up to find a young man sitting in the seat beside her. His face was made of sharp lines and rugged cheeks, partially hidden under the rim of his black fedora. He looked like any of the men that were in the joint, but there was an air about him that spoke of distinction. It was in the way that the other patrons around the bar suddenly busied themselves with their glasses, not looking in his direction.
Before she could answer, he leaned in and lit the end of the cigarette with a Ronson lighter. “Ah, Chicago,” he said with breathy scene of ease, “the city where everyone is a part of the party.”
She brought the cigarette from her mouth and held it diligently between her fingers. “You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”
He flipped the lighter in his hands, leaning onto the counter as he did so. Louise immediately picked up on that words were important to him. He had to roll them around on his tongue before they could reach his lips. Normally, this trait would have annoyed Louise, but it didn’t bother her then. She didn’t mind waiting because she believed whatever he had to say would be interesting and engaging.
Finally, he spoke. “Sometimes, it is. We’re living in the now, and having the times of ours lives. We’re being young and reckless and valiant. Society is drunk, intoxicated on many other things besides alcohol because we’re being young and reckless and valiant. And like all great parties, society is going to wake up with a heck of a hangover.”
She stubbed out the unused cigarette into the ashtray on the bar, feeling her lively spirits fall. “You sure know how to put a downer in the conversation, Mr.…?”
“I’m sorry. It’s been a really long night.” He didn’t offer a name as he pulled at the rim of his fedora, shadowing his face. “I’m not normally this mundane to beautiful girls.”
He sounded sincere, and whatever disapproval she had of him vanished. “Do you want to dance, or does that fall under things ‘young and reckless and valiant?’”
She still had a little time before Illinois and his men were done unloading the latest liquor shipment. She might as well make use of that time, preferably, with a handsome stranger. Besides, she felt like having fun.
“I think I can make an exception.” His lips peeled back to reveal a mouthful of shark teeth at his grin.
Soon, Louise was dancing the Charleston. She was laughing as she threw up her heels and shook out her hands. In that moment, in a not so discreet bar in Chicago, she felt as if she was a part of something. She felt the youth, the recklessness, and valiance flowing through her bones and heating her bloodstream. She didn’t care about consequences or tomorrow. All that mattered was the moment.
The song ended, leaving her breathless and red cheeked. She was smiling up at the man in the black fedora. She wanted to prove him wrong about his thoughts, but first she needed his name. It suddenly became very important.
“I never really introduced myself,” she said. “I’m Louise Hesser. My favorite color is red and I’m from Ohio.”
“My favorite color is blue and I’m from New York,” he said equally. “My name is James, but people call me Moretti”
Louise had just danced with the infamous mob boss of Chicago. The very one she had stolen liquor from just hours before. She no longer felt like dancing.