by shukyou (主教)
She walked down the stairs into the dark, smoke-filled speakeasy like water, each long leg cascading down past the other as her pale blue skirt swirled around her knees, the light from the outside streetlamps catching and lighting her snow-blonde hair like a halo, and Nell took a drink of her martini and wondered what the hell kind of bird Jimmy had picked up this time.
“Looks like you’ve got competition, dollface,” said Louie, slipping another toothpick-skewered olive into Nell’s glass, to replace the four she’d eaten already.
“Oh, blow it out your ears, Louie,” said Nell, picking up the toothpick with two long, red-painted fingers and biting the olive neatly in two. Louie was a man about the size of a streetcar with deep brown skin and a face only a mother bulldog could love, but he could make a hell of a martini even from watery Canadian gin, and Nell set herself to finishing it before lighting another cigarette. Whoever she was, there was no need to make a fuss of it; she was coming toward the bar, and Jimmy was coming with her.
One meaty hand slapped itself down on the bar a few feet from where Nell sat, heavy gold rings cutting into the thick varnish. “Hey, uh, Louie?” Jimmy grinned and tipped his grey hat in the bartender’s direction. “Bottle of champagne for me and my lady friend.” He pronounced it champ-ain, but nobody had ever given Jimmy Bunicelli a gold star for his brains.
Louie nodded before disappearing into the back where the special bottles were kept, the ones you really didn’t want disappearing if some somebodies showed and made a fuss. Nell fastened the cigarette into the end of the holder and blew a cloud into the air. The place was quiet for a Friday night, so much that the scratchy jazz from Louie’s old banged-up Victrola could actually be heard over the buzz of conversation in the room; most of the activity was circled around a table near the darkened stage, where Sal and his patient little smile told the rest of the room that he was losing, and losing hard. Sal Bunicelli was a crook and a bootlegger, but he was honest at the poker table, and when he lost, he lost with grace.
Before Jimmy could remember the manners his poor mother (God rest her soul) had tried so hard to instill in him, the girl — and she was a girl, no two ways about it, twenty if she was a day — took the job of breaking the ice upon herself. “Hi there,” she said to Nell. Her light hair was cut and styled in a cold wave just at her jawline, but her eyes and eyebrows were dark, and the bright red shade of lipstick she wore didn’t make the overall effect look any more natural. Still, she was pretty, in a bony sort of way, small-breasted and broad-hipped, just like Jimmy liked his dames.
“Hi,” answered Nell, sending a puff of smoke curling into the air. She tried not to give two licks about Jimmy or the girls he brought home with him; the smart ones rarely stayed around for that long, and the dumb ones had a habit of turning up face-down around the pilings at Navy Pier, where cops didn’t tend to ask too many questions about dumb girls.
Jimmy spread his hand across the girl’s shoulder, looming over her like some protective giant. “Nell, I’d like you to meet Betty Little. Betty just got in from Mississippi a couple days ago, took the train all the way from, uh, Jackson, and I’ve taken it upon myself to show her some of the sights. Betty, this is Nell. She’s my brother’s squeeze.”
Betty-just-in-from-Mississippi-Little extended her hand, wrist up, fingers pointed downward, dainty like a little bird. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Nell.” Her voice was light and curled at the edges by what Nell recognised as some flavour of southern accent.
That gave Jimmy a laugh, and he leaned back, hands on his hips. “‘Miss’ Nell, yeah, ’cause she’s a real lady, let me tell you.”
Nell shot him an icy glare, then took Betty’s offered hand and gave it a little squeeze before letting go. “All the way from Jackson, huh? Sounds like a bit of a ride.”
“Oh, yes, ma’am.” Betty smiled brightly, but Nell’s eyes caught her fingers fumbling with a worn patch at her hemline. Her dress fit her nice enough, but even in the dim light a woman’s eye could see all the times it had been taken in and patched up, sometimes with thread that wasn’t just the right shade. “I’d heard tell about Chicago all this time, and one day I said to myself, I said, ‘Betty, now, you’re not getting any younger, ain’t you?'” She laughed, and Jimmy laughed with her in that dope way he had where he didn’t know what he was laughing about, but didn’t want to look like a mook for staying silent. “So I bought myself a ticket on the next train, and here I am!”
“Well, I hope you like the Windy City.” Nell tipped her cigarette toward the happy couple just as Louie came back with a thick green bottle and two long-stemmed flutes. From the table there rose a round of laughter and polite applause, and Nell could see Sal shaking his head, that same gracious loser smile still lifting his face. “Just not Sal’s night at the cards,” she said to no one in particular.
“That so?” Jimmy piped up, tipping his hat back on his head to reveal his sharp widow’s peak and prematurely receding hairline. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, despite a few choice piggy features, but like her own dear mother (God rest her soul too) had always said, beauty was only skin-deep, but ugly went straight to the bone. “Would you ladies excuse me a second?” He gave Betty a little pat on the shoulder, then set off toward the table.
Nell looked to Betty, who was running the tip of her nose around the rim of her glass — already nearly empty — and giggling as the bubbles rose and popped against her face. One of the dumb ones, then, Nell pegged her for, and hated herself for the estimation, but she’d seen more than her fair share of country girls eaten by the Big City. “Sure hope you know what you’re getting into,” Nell sighed, grinding her cigarette to ash in the glass ashtray.
Betty laughed and turned her dark eyes on Nell, giving her a little wink. “My daddy calls me one tough customer,” she giggled, pouring herself another glass of champ-ain. Instead of taking another drink, though, she held it out to Nell. “Here.”
Nell hesitated a moment before settling the cigarette holder down on the bar and reaching for the glass. Her lips landed on the same spot Betty’s had, and she tasted the oil of Betty’s lipstick. “It’s good,” she lied, handing it back; she’d never had a taste for champagne, didn’t care for how dry it was, or how you couldn’t get a bartender to stick an olive in it.
As the glass changed hands, their fingers brushed, and Nell was struck at how cold Betty’s skin was to the touch, especially down in the bar on such a warm summer night. “So how long have you and Jimmy’s brother been together?”
“Sal and me? Almost ten years.” Nell laughed to herself, fishing out another cigarette for something to do with her hands. “Almost as long as Prohibition’s been around. Of course, he wasn’t but a hired gun back then, not managing anything other than Jimmy. And I still had my figure, so I guess not everything changes for the better. Smoke?” She snapped open her silver cigarette case.
Betty shook her head. “No, thank you. I don’t smoke.”
Precious little country bumpkin, innocent and wide-eyed — no wonder Jimmy’d picked her up. “Hang around here long enough and you might want to start,” Nell smiled, striking a match and holding it to the cigarette’s end.
Jimmy returned with Sal close behind him, and Nell knew they were in trouble from the moment they were close enough that she could read Sal’s expression. He was a good man, Sal was — never raised a hand or even his voice to her, not once, and if there were other women he had on the side, well, she’d learned that that didn’t matter so long as he still came home at night to the bed that she was in — but there were some things in the world he just couldn’t say no to, and that included both his idiot baby brother and whatever new cockamamie idea had risen to the surface of the swamp that was his mind. “Ladies,” Jimmy greeted them, putting his hands back on Betty’s shoulders, “on account of Betty’s first night here, and Sal’s unfortunate strain of luck at the table tonight, what say we … call it an early evening?”
Before Nell could speak, Betty was laughing and clapping her hands. “Whatever you say, Mr. Jimmy Bunicelli, you’re my guide!” She stood and threw her arms around his neck, which given their height differences required her to stand on the tips of her toes; Jimmy wrapped an arm around her waist and grabbed the champagne bottle with his free hand, then started to head for the back steps that led up into the hotel.
They both watched the happy young couple go, then Sal extended his arm. “Just go along with it, Nellie?”
Nell sighed and hooked her fingers inside the crook of his elbow, letting him lead her up the stairs. Everybody had something they just couldn’t say no to, and that everybody included Nell Smith.
It wasn’t the first time the Bunicelli brothers had talked her into something like this, nor the second, nor the third, so much so that all Sal had to say was, “You know, like that time with the German girl,” and Nell knew exactly what they had in mind. They chose Jimmy’s suite of rooms, probably because it had been his idea, and so Nell had to pick her way over the discarded clothes and empty bottles that littered the pathway from the door to the bed. Wouldn’t collect like this if Jimmy had a girl, Nell thought, and then amended it to could keep a girl.
Sal released her arm as they stepped into Jimmy’s bedroom, with all the windows covered in deep velvet curtains and the light from a single ruby-shaded desk lamp settling the whole thing with a warm burgundy hue. She hated Jimmy’s room for many reasons, not least of which was that it smelled like him, old cabbage covered by cheap-smelling expensive cologne. Jimmy had already wrapped Betty in his arms and started smothering her in giant wet kisses, which Betty seemed less interested in returning and more interested in giggling about. “This is such a big place you’ve got here, Jimmy!” she exclaimed, teetering in her high heels. “I ain’t never stayed in a big fancy place like this.”
“That’s my country girl,” Jimmy winked, lowering and letting her go softly on top of the unmade bed. “Bet there’s some other things a country girl like you ‘ain’t never’ done before, huh?”
Betty giggled and kicked her feet, obviously drunk as a skunk and having no idea what Jimmy was on about, and Nell sat herself down on the bed next to Betty, placing a hand against her cheek. “Oh, hi, Miss Nell,” Betty blinked, as though she hadn’t noticed their coming in. “Say, what’re you doing here too?”
Jimmy cleared his throat as he sat back in a heavy velvet armchair, propping his feet up and loosening his tie; Sal took his place in a slightly more austere chair, nearer to the door and farther from the light, his forearms braced on his knees, looking almost sorry that he was so obviously interested. “We was thinking that a couple of girls like you might … put on a lovely little show together. Something nice to see.”
Betty laughed and clapped her hands. “Why, Mr. Jimmy Bunicelli, do you mean you want to see me kiss Miss Nell?” For a moment, Nell thought Betty might require further explanation, or at least further coercion, but Betty rolled on her side to look up at Nell. “If it’s all right with Miss Nell,” she said, her voice softer now.
“It’s fine by me,” Nell said, running her fingertips across Betty’s mouth. Her bright red lipstick had smeared with the effort of drinking and kissing Jimmy, and that somehow made her look even younger, and made Nell’s own mouth feel a little dry.
With that, Betty pushed herself up on her hands and knees, sidling up to Nell. “‘Course, you probably want me to do more than just kiss Miss Nell, don’t you, Mr. Jimmy?” she smiled, never taking her eyes off Nell. One of her hands found where Nell’s skirt had slipped up to just above her knee, then pushed the fabric up along the line of her stocking.
“It might have crossed my mind,” said Jimmy, and Nell wished he would stop talking entirely, because she’d just as soon forget about either Bunicelli brother and concentrate on the hand travelling up her thigh. “You girls just … have some fun.”
Betty’s fingers reached the top of Nell’s stocking, tugging fingertips just beneath the lacy top, feeling at the place where the garter clamped them into place. “You’ve got awful fancy stockings, Miss Nell,” she smiled. “Maybe if I had a pair like them, I’d look as beautiful as you.”
Nell felt a faint flush come creeping into her cheeks, and became very aware of how her nipples brushed hard against the fabric of her dress as she leaned in toward Betty. For having a sharp mouth on her when the situation demanded it, Nell was actually pretty silent in the bedroom. “Maybe we can go shopping tomorrow.” It seemed like such a mundane conversation, something two women might say on a subway car, not while one had slipped her fingers up to the gap of bare skin below the other’s hip.
Then Betty giggled again, only there was something sharper to it, a deliberateness so easy to miss that made Nell think perhaps Betty wasn’t as drunk as she was letting on. “May I kiss you, Miss Nell?” she teased, and her voice was so low that Nell knew this wasn’t meant for the men at all.
“Yes,” managed Nell, and then Betty’s lips were on hers, her tongue in Nell’s mouth in a way that wasn’t showy or vulgar, but intimate. For all the times she’d found herself in bed with another woman under the watchful gaze of the Bunicelli brothers, Nell had never been kissed like this before. All of Jimmy’s other dames had taken to heart Jimmy’s instructions about putting on a show, but Betty had a quiet focus to her so complete that Nell could forget there were other people in the room, completely lost in the champagne-and-lipstick taste of Betty’s mouth.
Betty’s hand slid farther up her leg, to the edge of her panties, and when Nell gasped into the kiss, Betty giggled and let go, kicking off her shoes and stretching out the length of the bed. Her skirt rode up her long, smooth thighs as she lifted one knee, reaching her arms up above her head; she didn’t wear stockings, and her bare legs shone soft in the room’s red glow, dusted with thin hair almost the colour of her skin. With one scarlet-nailed hand, she brought her hand to her chest and began to unfasten the buttons that ran down the front of her blouse, each one pushed out its corresponding hole with a deliberateness that left Nell dry-mouthed, each one a revelation of the pale cream bodice that stretched from the top of her breasts on down. When she reached the bottom, both sides of the blouse fell open, and in the gap between the bodice and the top of her skirt, Nell could see the smooth skin of Betty’s stomach.
There was a throat-clearing from just behind her shoulder. “Why don’t you give her a hand there, Nellie?” said Jimmy.
Nell felt her hackles raise at the sound of his voice — and then lower instantly as Betty reached for Nell’s hands, taking them in hers and placing them at the top of her bodice. The skin just beneath Betty’s collarbone was warm beneath Nell’s knuckles, and Betty laughed, squirming beneath the touch. “I know somewhere you could stick those to warm them up,” Betty purred at her.
Logistically, there was no good way to swing this while still only sitting on the bed, so Nell kicked off her shoes in kind, laying her body out lengthwise next to Betty’s, fitting their legs together below the knee. The bodice looked complicated at first, but Nell was pleased to find that she could unfasten it one-handed, all the while propping herself up on her other elbow to get a better look at Betty.
It was little secret among those who knew Sal Bunicelli well that his steady was the type to prefer other ladies, and most of them not only respected him for being man enough to woo over a little Dutch girl, but envied him for having a broad willing to put on a show for him. And the truth was that Nell did love Sal, both in bed and out of it, but nothing made her tremble like the sight of another woman in the bed with her, half-naked and willing. Slowly, Betty’s small breasts were bared, and their dusty brown nipples stood up pert, waiting; Nell ran the tips of her fingers over them, and Betty drew in breath sharply, catching her lower lip between her teeth. Her eyes fluttered shut, and she leaned in toward Nell, drawing one hand up Nell’s dress and exposing her bare hip. Nell whimpered softly as Betty’s fingernails skimmed across her skin, just the slightest hint of bite.
When the bodice was undone all the way, Betty let go and arched first her shoulders off the bed, then her back, casting off unnecessary clothing until she lay topless on the sheets. She reached a hand up to cup Nell’s face, drawing Nell down to her bare skin, and Nell took one of Betty’s pebble-hard nipples in her mouth, flicking her tongue over its tip and smiling as Betty writhed beneath her, moaning wordlessly. Nell took the other breast in her hand, rubbing harder, willing to do almost anything just to get her to make that noise again.
Betty shifted her weight so her thigh came to rest between Nell’s, and Nell rubbed the fork of her legs against Betty’s skin as deliberately as she could, feeling her own slick underwear slide against her skin. She lifted her head from Betty’s breast, and Betty took her face in both hands and kissed her, deep and hard. Her nipples rubbed against her own brassiere, and she wanted so badly to be free of it, to press her bare skin next to Betty’s. She was so wet it was hard to think about anything except how much she wanted Betty’s hand between her legs, rubbing the soft folds of skin there, kissing her own breasts. Her hand left Betty’s nipple and travelled downward, to where Betty’s skirt rode up along her thighs, to the trail of skin that led up to the soft cotton hem of her underwear–
“Very nice, girls,” clapped Jimmy, and they both froze in place, rabbits startled in headlights. Nell turned from the kiss to see him standing at the end of the bed, unfastening his tie and looking down on both of them with an obvious erection pointing at the front of his pants. “Now, Nellie, I think my brother may have something he wants to see you about.”
Nell’s stomach turned to ice, and only through the greatest effort did she not explode right then and there. Instead, she pressed her lips into a thin line, took three deep breaths, and pulled herself away from Betty. “All right, Sal,” she said, not even wanting to acknowledge right then that Jimmy Bunicelli existed, and she fit back on her shoes with two sharp tugs.
Sal extended a hand to help her up from the bed, because Sal was a gentleman. “Good night,” he waved to the couple behind them, heading for the door. Nell didn’t even turn to look, knowing how the scene behind her must be staged — a girl on her back, a man standing over her, and nobody in the world to say anything different.
When the door to the rooms she shared with Sal closed behind them, Nell practically jumped on him, shoving her underwear to the side before hooking one leg around his waist and pulling his cock out of his pants. He entered her rough, driving her hard up against the suite’s heavy oak doors, fumbling at her breasts through her clothes, kissing at her neck hard enough to leave marks that she knew better than to complain about. Her mind wasn’t there, anyway, but fixed farther on down the hall, in a room lit burgundy by the dim light, soft and bare on a rumpled bed.
And then he was done, and though she hadn’t come herself, she was too tired to press the issue; the evening’s activities came crashing down on her at once, and she felt like she’d just had all her strings cut. He pulled out of her, trailing wet down her thigh, and she kissed him once before letting go and beginning the process of undressing herself. She thought about a cigarette, but even that seemed like too much effort at this point. Hanging her clothes over a high-backed chair, she slipped naked into the bed they shared, drawing the covers up around her. She’d wake up a mess, she knew, going to bed with her hair still done and the remnants of her makeup clinging to her face, but it’d wash off just as easily after a good night’s sleep than it would while she was half-awake.
“I love you, Nellie,” he told her, sidling up behind her in the bed and splaying a hand across her bare belly. It had been flat and smooth, back when she’d been twenty-three and they’d just met, and whatever damage ten years had done to her figure, she tried not to let it worry her. After she’d once worried aloud that time had curved the lower bell of her hourglass figure out past Sal’s taste, every night since he’d made a point of showing his appreciation.
He was a good man, Nell knew, shutting her eyes. They didn’t come any better.
They didn’t go shopping tomorrow, though, or the next day, and it was all the way to Monday night before Nell saw Betty again. She and Sal had taken up half of one of the hotel restaurant’s more private booths when Jimmy sauntered in, looking mad as a wet hen. “Donatella’s here,” he said to Sal, folding his beefy arms across his chest.
“So?” Sal shrugged, closing the menu. Nell hadn’t even bothered looking; he ordered for her, partly out of some masculine need and partly because after ten years, he knew what she liked as well as she did. “It’s a public eating establishment. Donatella can dine where she pleases.”
“Yeah, well.” Jimmy frowned, and Nell turned her head to see where a small woman with steel-grey hair was being seated by one of the waiters. Her dress was old-fashioned and she had the look of polite daftness to her, but Nell knew better than to underestimate the businesswoman’s sharp edge. “She’s looking to talk to you.”
Sal sighed and pushed back from the table. “I have no doubt.” He set a hand on Nell’s shoulder. “Say, why don’t you and Betty join us for dinner?”
“Sure, Sal. That’d be swell.” Jimmy nodded and strode off, and Sal, after nodding his apologies to Nell, walked off with him.
By habit, Nell sat with her back to the door so Sal could sit facing it, and so she heard Betty before she saw her, her sweet Southern laugh rising above the dull murmur of the restaurant. She’d barely made it to her feet to greet her guest before Betty had her arms around Nell’s neck, hugging her like old sisters reunited. Her breasts pressed up against Nell’s, and her lips ended up barely an inch from Nell’s ear. “Evening,” she said, squeezing Nell tightly again before letting go.
“Well, look at you,” said Nell, giving Betty the once-over. Her dress was a fine robin’s-egg blue, and a stylish hat covered half her hair, letting only the thinnest yellow curls come creep out to frame her face. Competition wasn’t the half of it; Nell doubted any other dame in the place could get even a glance as long as Betty was around. “Looks like you got to go out and see the stores after all.”
Betty laughed and shook her head, then slid into Nell’s side of the table, situating herself next to the wall, and Nell followed her in. “Don’t I wish. No, Jimmy’s kept me … busy these past couple days,” she said, only there was sort of a weary resignation to the innuendo, and only a half-hearted attempt at smiling as she said it. “He just asked for my size, then called out and somebody brought it up. Isn’t it amazing how they do that sometimes, men?”
“Do what, order for you?” Nell looked at the menus stacked at the end of the table.
“Think they know best,” Betty answered, tapping her fingernails along the table; the red polish had obviously been touched up at the tips where it had begun to chip, and the shade wasn’t quite right. “Would they let us go shopping, just the two of us?”
“Sure.” Nell nodded. “I’ll call up Wyatt — he’s Sal’s driver. He’ll take us anywhere.”
“Then can we go tomorrow?” Betty smiled and leaned closer, and a hand came to rest on Nell’s knee, just where her skirt stopped. “I really want to spend some more time with you.”
Nell considered sitting right there all night, frozen in place with the hope that if she never moved again, Betty might leave her hand right there — and likely would have done just that had Sal and Jimmy not returned at that very moment. “Excuse us, ladies,” Sal nodded, taking his place in the booth first while Jimmy slid in after. “Betty, how are you this evening?”
“I’m doing just fine, Mr. Sal!” Betty brightened, cupping her chin in one hand and resting her elbow on the table; her other hand, Nell realised with some small fright, had not only stayed on Nell’s leg, but had begun to crawl up beneath the hem of her skirt. “Jimmy’s shown me some real hospitality,” and this time she giggled as she said it, even as her fingertips traced a soft circle against Nell’s thigh.
“That’s my brother. Next time, though, Jimmy, you want to try taking the lady outside the hotel?” Sal gave Jimmy a light punch in his meaty shoulder, and Jimmy had the good graces to look at least vaguely shamed.
“Oh, Miss Nell said she’d take me tomorrow,” said Betty, smiling up at Nell, her half above the table giving nothing away about what might be happening with her half below the table.
Nell shrugged at the men, searching their faces to see if they noticed anything amiss; but their expressions were the same kind of adorable condescending masks big galoots like that tended to get when their girls started talking about girly things: distant, untroubled, even vaguely pleased. “Going to do a little shopping,” she said, taking pains to keep her voice level, even as Betty’s fingers travelled up another half-inch. “A girl’s gotta look her best, doesn’t she?”
“I’ve got some ideas about how she looks her best,” leered Jimmy, and as Betty tittered behind her one hand, Nell could feel the other tighten on her thigh, with just the barest shadow of nails pressing into her nylon-covered skin.
“Oh, applesauce!” Nell rolled her eyes. “That all you got going on in that big lump of wax between your ears?”
Jimmy held up his hands defensively, a vaguely patronising don’t-shoot-me gesture. “Can’t blame a guy for thinking thoughts like that when he’s got two pretty ladies sitting right across the table from him.”
Betty laughed again, shaking her head. Her pinky finger slipped high enough just to hook beneath the top lace of Nell’s stockings, and she gave a little bit of a tug. “Miss Nell, don’t you know that’s all men think about?”
“And money,” Sal said, as though that should somehow make it better. “Pretty dames, and money so their pretty dames can go out shopping tomorrow and buy pretty things for themselves.” With that, Nell knew the trip the next day was set, because no matter what Jimmy might think of the whole thing, Sal had just given his approval, and what Sal said was gold.
“Speaking of money,” said Nell, trying to turn the conversation away from subjects that might spoil her appetite, “what did Donatella want?”
“Just to say hi,” said Sal, and Nell knew it was the truth. She’d seen other businessmen like Sal give their girls the brush-off when they asked questions they shouldn’t trouble their pretty little heads with, but Sal was straight with her about dealings when she asked — and so she didn’t ask often, for fear that he might take her nosiness as a sign to stop being so straight. “Let us know that she’s here.”
“Awful sweet of her to stop by,” Jimmy added. “Probably means she thinks we’re responsible for some cock-up or another — pardon my language, ladies.”
Nell knew better than to observe that Donatella Rago may have owned her dead husband’s two steel mills and a shipping company on paper, but she made her real living dealing in information, and if she thought the Bunicelli brothers were responsible for something, the odds were good that they were. “Well,” she simply shrugged, “I wouldn’t know anything about that, now, would I?”
“Excuse me, Miss Nell,” said Betty, leaning in closer but at the same time withdrawing her hand from Nell’s leg, “but do you think you might be so kind as to show me where the powder room is?”
“You girls go on.” Sal smiled at their display of feminine solidarity. “We’ll order while you’re gone.”
“You’re so sweet, Mr. Sal,” winked Betty, taking Nell’s arm as they stood. It was a charming gesture, almost child-like in its trust — a little girl holding on to her big sister so she doesn’t get lost in the big city. She smiled at the tables as they passed, giggling and waving to anyone who caught her eye, and if her gaze seemed to linger a little long on Donatella, well, Nell thought, who wouldn’t stare at Donatella? Between the two of them, Nell had never felt so lucky or so invisible in her life.
The washroom cast everything in muted tones, dim lightbulbs reflecting off mostly beige tile and dark walls, and as such Nell didn’t even see Betty coming until the door was shut behind them and Betty’s mouth was on hers again, pressing her up against the wall the way Sal had just a few nights ago. Her hands moved mostly of their own accord, lifting up Betty’s skirts and fumbling for her underwear, as though this had been planned from the start.
Betty broke from the kiss to nip at Nell’s earlobe. “He’s a lousy fuck,” she hissed into Nell’s ear, and the sound of the vulgarity from Betty’s sweet mouth nearly made Nell come right then and there. “Nothing but spit and sweat and spunk. I nearly killed him when he pulled you off of me. All I wanted was to get my hands back on you.”
“Me too,” Nell admitted, leaning hard against the door as she found it increasingly difficult to stand. “God, yes.”
With a laugh, Betty pulled back and dragged Nell forward, staggering them both past a row of stall doors all the way to the end, where she pushed them both inside and locked the door behind them. Bracing one foot against the toilet seat, she grabbed the front of Nell’s dress and pulled them back together; her hands squeezed Nell’s breasts through her clothes, and Nell whimpered into Betty’s mouth. She reached for Betty’s skirts again, hiking them nearly to her waist, and stuck her hand down into the soft silk underpants that must’ve been the pair come courtesy of Mr. Jimmy Bunicelli. The cloth was already sticky and wet when Nell’s fingers got there, and she had no trouble finding the hard bud of Betty’s clit, prominent amongst the soft flesh surrounding it. When she caught it between her first two fingers and squeezed, Betty arched into her hand and broke the kiss, panting hard.
The door to the restroom swung open, and Nell rubbed harder as a pair of high heels clicked their way in, followed by the sounds of rummaging through a purse. Betty bit down on her own lower lip to silence herself, but she whimpered against Nell’s ear as Nell pinched her clit lightly between her fingers. Her hands clawed at Nell’s generous hips, and her legs began to shake, so Nell pushed their bodies closer, holding Betty as steady as she could while she moved her fingers back and forth faster, not even bothering to tease now.
Betty’s breath grew louder, little gasps rising uncontrolled, and Nell was certain the poor woman who’d come in to freshen her makeup had some idea what was going on in there — but, as her father had been fond of saying when she was little, Nell had decided she didn’t really give a rat’s backside. “Come on,” she murmured in Betty’s ear, grabbing the soft flesh of her ear in her teeth. “Come on all the way for me.”
Betty tensed and gave a little shiver, and then collapsed forward against Nell, her hips bucking beyond her control, groaning in a way that was audibly and unmistakably sexual. “Fuck,” she hissed, and Nell could feel the muscles beneath her fingertips pulse. Betty’s breath was hot against Nell’s bare neck.
After a moment’s silence, the pair of high heels began to move again, and disappeared behind the sound of the door. Betty looked at Nell, her face a tired little grin, and Nell laughed. “We almost got caught,” she whispered.
“We did get caught,” laughed Betty, reaching up to right her hat, which had been knocked askew by the goings-on. “Woo! Well, whoever it was, I bet she was jealous. Probably some old dried-up raisin of a white lady who’s never been fucked like that a day in her life.”
“Betty!” exclaimed Nell, but she was laughing too, even as she slipped her sticky hand out from Betty’s panties. She reached for the toilet paper and wiped her fingers clean, then tossed the wad in the john’s bowl. “Besides, I thought Southern belles weren’t supposed to say ‘fuck’.”
“Well, let’s thank the little Lord Jesus I’m not one, then.” Betty took Nell’s face in both her hands and kissed her — first lightly, a polite thank-you gesture, and then more deeply, parting Nell’s lips with her tongue and slipping inside. Nell could feel how her lipstick had smeared across both their faces, and was thankful that she’d chosen a less vibrant shade for the evening. As though they needed anything else to give them away.
Nudging Nell’s legs open, Betty bunched up Nell’s skirt the way Nell had done hers and toyed with the elastics of her garter belt. “Hey, pretty lady,” Betty giggled. “You come here often?”
Nell was surprised to feel a slight flush creep up her cheeks. “No.” She balked a little, putting her hands against Betty’s upper arms, halting her progress. “Look, you don’t have to. I mean, you really shouldn’t feel–”
Any further protestation was swallowed by Betty’s mouth, as one of Betty’s hands cupped the side of her cheek and the other worked its way into her panties, and as soon as Betty’s nimble little fingers rubbed across Nell’s clit, all resistance ended. Nell wrapped her arms around Betty’s shoulders for balance, opening her legs as wide as the small stall would allow. Betty rubbed harder, and her laugh was dry and quiet next to Nell’s ear. “I’ve been wanting to do this since I saw you at the bar,” she purred, and Nell felt her legs begin to shake with the effort of standing. “You’re so pretty.”
No, I’m not, not next to you, Nell wanted to say, but the part of her brain that should have been devoted to speaking was instead distracted by the way Betty was moving her fingers faster now, trilling against Nell’s clit. She enjoyed women, it was true, but her interactions with women had been to this point not only infrequent, but both entirely monitored by one or more of the Bunicelli brothers and quite nearly entirely passive on her partner’s part; this was new and different and amazing. Not only was Betty interested, but her willingness to be an active participant got Nell so hot that she felt herself coming to climax far sooner than she ever had before. Her hands fisted into Betty’s dress, and then she was lost, thrusting against Betty’s hand and gasping for air against her smooth neck.
And then it was over, and she was laughing, embracing Betty tightly. “You okay there, sugar?” Betty pressed her fingers against Nell, holding fast against the soft twitches of her muscles. “Don’t tell me I broke something.”
“I’m fine, I just–” Nell took a deep breath, then turned so her forehead pressed against Betty’s. “…You’re quite a girl, Little Miss Betty.”
Betty laughed and pressed their mouths together, giving Nell a kiss remarkable for both its intensity and its brevity. “Come on,” she said, taking a wad of toilet paper to clean her hand the same way Nell had. “Those big lugs are gonna think we fell in or something.”
Remarkably, it took Nell less than a minute to get them both fixed up the way they’d looked before — Betty didn’t have her lipstick with her, but Nell wasn’t worried about letting her share her own, having never met in her life a man who noticed the colour of a woman’s makeup from one minute to the next. Skirts straightened and blouses unruffled, they proceeded out of the washroom — stopping only for a moment before opening the door as Betty brought Nell’s knuckles to her newly painted lips for a kiss — and back through the restaurant.
As they turned to where the booth was located, though, Nell saw something that made her stumble in her tracks: a long lavender skirt skimming above a slightly frumpy high-heeled shoe, sitting in her place. As they neared, the owner of the shoe turned and rose to greet the returning ladies. “Good evening, girls,” said Donatella Rago, a weird smile twisting at her mouth.
“Good evening,” said Nell in kind, leaning in to give Donatella a cheek-kiss. “How are you doing, Donatella?”
“Oh, fine, fine. I just stopped in to have a little chatter with your boys.” She gestured to the men, who both wore the uncertain facial expressions of men unable to read the way women interact, and therefore could not tell if they witnessing a sincerely enjoyable interaction or the prelude to a messy blow-up. Nell hoped like hell it was only the former, as ‘messy’ didn’t begin to cover the possible repercussions of a catfight with Donatella Rago. “I’m sorry,” Donatella continued, looking to Betty, “but I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
Betty gave a little laugh and stuck out her hand, which Donatella shook with only the tips of her ring-encrusted fingers. “Betty Little, ma’am. It’s a right pleasure to meet you.” If she could’ve given a curtsy, Nell though, Betty would’ve — and yet, something at the corners of her mouth seemed to set when she saw Donatella.
“That’s my girl Betty, Donatella,” said Jimmy, beaming like a fisherman who’d caught a champion bass. “She’s a doll, even if it takes her as long in the ladies’ room as it takes most guys to go to Timbuktu and back.”
“Spoken just like a man who doesn’t understand that sometimes women simply have a great deal to talk about,” smiled Donatella, and at that moment Nell had no further doubts about exactly whose pair of high heels had tapped their way across the washroom floor or what their owner had heard. “Well, ladies, don’t let me keep you from your evening.” Donatella gestured to their seats, and the women slid back into them, afraid to disobey. “At any rate, gentlemen, I’ll have one of my boys drop by before the end of the week to get the payment.”
“Of course, Donatella,” nodded Sal. “I trust it’ll be one of your regulars.”
Donatella shrugged, running her fingers along the edge of the table. “Hard to keep regulars these days. Ever since what happened to Jazzman Marvin, you understand.”
“Sure, sure, we hear you.” Jimmy reached for his napkin with his fat hands, unfolding it from its artful fan and flattening it across his lap. “We’ll have it ready, Donatella.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” said Donatella, who turned on her heel and walked off without so much as a good-bye.
As soon as she’d faded presumably out of earshot, Jimmy snorted and set himself on a basket of bread that had been brought to the table in their absence. “Dumb broad,” he grumbled beneath his breath. “Thinks she’s all hotsy-totsy when she’s really just got an operation that can’t get over the death of one lousy horn-playing Negro.”
From out of the corner of her eye, Nell thought she saw Betty’s posture stiffen, but when she turned to look, her shoulders were relaxed and that warm smile was back, painted with Nell’s lipstick, so natural you could believe she’d never looked any different a day in her life.
“I think you’d look good in this,” said Betty, taking a flamboyantly red dress from the rack and holding it out at Nell. “It’s a pretty red.”
For all her many virtues, it seemed that taste in haute couture was not Betty’s forte, and Nell had spent most of their time that morning watching salesgirls’ eyes widen in horror at some of the ‘fashionable’ suggestions she had made. “I’ll try it on,” Nell said diplomatically, handing it to the clerk, who couldn’t have been older than sixteen. They’d visited five shops before this one, and, under Nell’s watchful supervision, Betty had made a killing in the clothing department. Seven boxes filled the trunk of Wyatt’s car, and the way Betty was looking at things here, it seemed that eight and nine might join them shortly.
Jimmy, of course, might have something to say about it when the bill arrived, but as far as Nell was concerned right now, he could go take a long walk off a short pier. Besides, it was his own damn fault for picking up a girl who’d come north with one nice outfit and a suitcase half-full of tattered clothes. “And this is just the most darling hat,” Betty said, selecting a brown beaded number from a rack and putting it on herself. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think it’d match anything else you’ve bought today.” Nell reached up and plucked it from her head, then brushed down her hair beneath it, letting her fingers linger there a little longer than strictly necessary. “Besides, you look best in bright colours.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Betty nodded, putting the hat back. “So, is this what we do all day?”
Nell frowned. “Come again?”
“Us girlfriends of powerful men. We go out and spend their money?” She looked at her hand, where her nails had been that morning newly manicured to a deep crimson, a far cry from the cheap red she’d shown up wearing.
“That’s about the long and the short of it.” Nell looked at an emerald green number hanging on the rack nearby, a long dress with an intricate bead pattern springing up from the low hem like summer grass. “Some of the other girls get together and lunch sometimes, some of them play with their babies, some travel.”
Betty pointed to the dress. “Get that one; it’s swell. What do you do?”
“Nothing with them, that’s a fact.” Obediently, Nell handed the dress to the salesgirl, who looked about ready to collapse beneath the weight of their potential wardrobe, so Nell took Betty’s elbow and guided her in the direction of the fitting rooms. “I just never really clicked with any of the others, that’s all. And Sal doesn’t give two shakes if I don’t attend their tea parties and bridge nights, or whatever it is girls do when they’re together, so I … have a lot of time for myself.”
The salesgirl mutely hung their clothes on a great hook, then stepped out, drawing a heavy curtain over the entrance to the room. Betty gave Nell a leer and a little wink, then got to undressing, the same way she had every time that day they’d been closed off together, just the two of them — I could do a million dirty things to you right now, the look said, and as long as you know that, I’m content to behave.
Boy, thought Nell, did she ever know it. In fact, she hadn’t been able to think about much of anything save that for the past eighteen hours. “I read a lot,” she continued, sitting down to unbuckle her shoes. “And I go to plays and shows in the evenings, when I feel like it.” The crowds in the theatres had been thinning out steadily for the past several months, as talk of the big market crash the past October began to trickle down far enough to reach even Nell’s non-news-reading ears. “It’s nice to come shopping with someone else for a change.”
“It sure is!” said Betty, unzipping her dress to reveal her new satin brassiere and matching panties. “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen shopping like this before.”
It was a lie, Nell knew, because every time Betty lied, her otherwise moderate southern accent crept into a full-out drawl. While Nell had little doubt that Betty was authentically southern, or had at least spent some time there, the thickest just-fell-off-the-turnip-wagon chew to her words came and went. But Nell didn’t press the issue — Betty’s past was hers to keep or hide, and if she wasn’t talking about it, she must have her own reasons for it. And if she was running from it, well, wasn’t everyone running from something these days.
Betty reached around to her back and zipped up a short silver dress with fringe that swayed around her knees. “That’s a pretty one,” said Nell, who was negotiating a spring green number that had involved more hooks and clasps than it had any right to.
“I don’t know.” Betty frowned, smoothing the front of the dress. “Where does a girl wear silver to, anyway?”
“Wherever she wants, I guess.” Nell took the fringe between her fingers, feeling the coarseness of the thin metal run through the light grey fabric. It was striking, not only in itself, but in how it gapped low at the back and had no sleeves to speak of.
With a shrug, Betty pulled the dress off and folded it in what would become her to-buy pile. “Do you know what they were talking about last night?” she asked, her voice even. “With the older lady, about the man who died?”
It sounded like a throwaway question, just two girls chattering about their men, but the topic was weirdly pointed, and Nell didn’t believe for a minute Betty was dumb enough to think she was just making conversation. Still, whatever Betty was hiding, she didn’t seem anything at all like any mole or informant Nell had ever met, and besides, if she was actually trying to get information on the Bunicelli operation, boy, was she barking up the wrong tree; Nell couldn’t tell her anything that probably wasn’t in the official police report already. “Couple weeks ago, one of Donatella’s men got himself killed. He was coming home from a big deal of some kind, shot in the face, cops won’t spend too long looking for who killed a Colored man, no matter whose payroll he was on. Except he was carrying money at the time — her money — and it’s gone too. So, you know, big mystery.” Nell shrugged.
Betty nodded. “So, you don’t chip in on any of Jimmy and Sal’s business?”
“Nope.” Nell finally managed on the green dress, took one look at herself in the mirror, and pulled it right back off; it bunched up at her hips in a way that made her look three miles wide from the waist down, and just because she didn’t have to impress Sal anymore didn’t mean she wanted her bottom half to look like the Titanic. “I pretty much don’t know what they do, and I like it pretty much just fine that way. Means that when the cops pick me up, I’m not acting when I go all wide-eyed and innocent.”
“The cops pick you up?” Betty’s eyebrows lifted.
“Sure they do. I mean, they figure they gotta get to Sal, they should just go through his steady. ‘Tell us what’s going on with so-and-so,’ they say, and they get mean and act like they’re gonna hit me, so I cry and say I don’t know anything, and by then Sal’s lawyer’s come down to the station to make them admit they’ve got nothing to hold us on. Happens every six months or so. Sal talks his way out of it every time. He’s a well-connected businessman.”
“Sounds like a hell of a thing to put you through.”
“It’s just something that happens every so often.” Nell shrugged. “Like the World Series.”
Betty shook her head, giving Nell a sad little look. “Doesn’t sound fair to bring you into it, is all.”
“It’s okay, really.” Nell reached out to take Betty’s hand, giving it a little squeeze. “Cops have to show off their big shiny badges every so often or someone suit way up there gets wise to the fix. Besides, even without payouts, they’ll never have anything on Sal because he’s basically honestly clean.”
A strange shadow fell across Betty’s face, and she paused midway through fastening a button on a blouse. “So he’s not … the type to hurt somebody?” she said, the casual tone of her voice only barely forced.
“Sal?” Nell shook her head. “Jimmy’s the heavy. Sal hates guns.”
“Oh.” And then the look was gone as quickly as it had come, and Betty was back, just like she had been in the restaurant. “Say, do you know who Sal’s tailor is?”
The change of subject caught Nell off-guard, and she blinked at Betty for a moment before answering. “Yeah, a guy named Goldstein. He’s just a few blocks down.”
“Then come on.” Betty picked up the dress Nell had come in wearing, pressing it into Nell’s hands. “Everything here looks all the same as everything else. Besides, I’ve always wanted to see what I’d look like in a suit.”
The resulting mental image was so appealing that Nell couldn’t help agreeing.
They weren’t allowed a moment of time alone all that day — the shopping trip was supervised equally by salesgirls and the ever-watchful Wyatt, who was a sweet guy with two pistols under his coat, and they were met upon their arrival by both Bunicelli brothers, who looked so charming standing there at the curb that Nell knew they’d been up to something. The ladies’ single shared excursion to the restroom over dinner was a completely platonic event, and Betty sat on the side of the table next to Jimmy, away from any even accidental contact with Nell beneath the table. She laughed a thick southern laugh all through the meal about the salon and all the boutiques, but didn’t say a word about the side trip to the tailor’s, and when Jimmy suggested it was time to retire to their respective rooms, Betty agreed eagerly and without looking back.
Later that evening, Sal asked Nell if she was feeling all right, but Nell just said that she was tired from the long day out, and went to smoke a cigarette on the hotel room’s iron-wrought balcony. The lights of the city flickered down below long into the night, casting a midnight sun the likes of which she only could have dreamed about as a girl in rural Illinois. It was crazy how things changed sometimes.
Standing there alone, leaning against the cold twisted railing, Nell felt washed-up and used, like old socks someone had worn thin but kept around because they weren’t thin enough to be thrown out. She’d lived too long to be surprised by anyone anymore, and knew as well as she knew her name that you couldn’t trust a dame with secrets about one thing to tell the truth about anything. Besides, she’d been played by better players than a girl barely out of grade school with a two-dollar bleach job and an accent that came and went like the tides.
But that didn’t mean that thinking about how Betty had used her for information, or thinking about Betty at all, didn’t sting like hell.
The next day, she waited until well after lunch to call on Betty, only to be told by Jimmy that Betty was feeling a little under the weather and wanted to stay in that day to make sure she was up for going out that night. Nell spent the rest of the day in the Paramount down the street, hiding in the dark, watching the news reels and cartoons give way to a Greta Garbo film, and generally feeling sorry for herself.
By dinner she’d calmed down somewhat and made up her mind to stop moping around like a fourteen-year-old after her first breakup. It was undignified, and more than that, it was uncalled for. She had the hardest heart in Chicago, by golly, and she intended to make use of it.
That determination carried her right to the front of that evening’s restaurant, when Wyatt opened the door for her and she stepped out onto the sidewalk, only to see a familiar blonde figure in a bold silver dress with fringe rustling around her knees. Betty lifted her hand in a shy little wave that knocked Nell cold as good as if Betty’d walked on up to her and socked her one right in the kisser. As they walked in, Betty wordlessly sidled up to Nell and hooked the pinky of her right hand around the pinky of Nell’s left, and all Nell’s resolve flew right out the window as she gave a little squeeze back.
Alone, Sal was more of the strong silent type, but he and Jimmy together could talk for four, which was just what Nell was counting on. At one point, Sal asked for a recap of the movie, and Nell obliged, taking up a good five minutes of their time together. Jimmy looked bored throughout, making a few cracks about what a joke opera was, but Betty nodded and laughed, and halfway through the telling Nell felt the soft pressure of a high-heeled shoe against her bare calf — not demanding anything, just resting, making Nell aware of its presence. As Nell’s heart leapt into her throat she was forced to amend her earlier conclusion — she’d never been played by anyone this good.
As they were getting ready to leave, Nell excused herself alone to the washroom, and by the time she returned, Sal and Jimmy were standing just outside the restaurant’s doors, huddled under the bright red-and-gold awning; the sky had been cloudy all day, and was finally giving way to rain. “Where’s Betty?” she asked, looking around.
“She went back in,” Jimmy told her, chewing on the end of his fat cigar. “Said she’d left her something-or-other at the table.”
“Her lipstick,” supplied Sal, who in Nell’s experience actually paid attention when women spoke.
“No, she….” Nell frowned and opened her purse, where a black tube lay atop the various other tissues and cosmetics contained within. “She gave it to me earlier, I have it right here.”
Jimmy snorted. “Better run back and tell her where it is, or she’s liable to file a Missing Persons Report when she can’t find it.”
Nell nodded and turned back in, walking past the maître d’ with a brief smile and straight to the section where they’d been seated; their plates and glasses were still there, but Betty was nowhere to be seen. Thinking she might’ve gone to follow Nell to the ladies’ room, Nell headed for the back of the restaurant, and was nearly there when she heard Donatella Rago’s voice calmly saying, “I told you everything I knew.”
“You didn’t!” came the hissed reply; the voice was Betty’s, and she was obviously agitated. Nell froze where she was and ducked behind a half-wall, right on the other side from where the two women stood. “You told me only what you wanted me to think.”
“I told you everything I knew,” repeated Donatella, her voice the same even tone as before. “Your brother was–”
“You’re sending me after the wrong one, and you know it! Why?”
“Keep your voice down!” There was a slight rustle, and then their voices were softer, as though Donatella had pulled them both away from the place where Nell stood. “I don’t believe you’re equipped to understand the mechanics of this situation.”
“I understand what I need to,” snapped Betty. “I’ll do this, but I don’t need your help. Not anymore.”
“Be careful what you wish for, darling,” Donatella purred in a tone so final that Nell straightened and walked away as quickly as she could manage without making a sound. She’d managed to make it nearly back to the empty table when Betty emerged, hands balled into tight fists, looking mad as a caged cobra.
Nell lifted a hand to get Betty’s attention, and when Betty saw her, the hardness that had forged lines around her eyes softened. “You left your lipstick with me,” Nell said, pulling the black tube from her purse as Betty came over to where she stood.
“Thanks.” Betty took it and sighed, staring at it with an expression that was impossible to read before handing it back. “Can you just hold onto it for me? I might lose it again.”
“Sure.” Nell gave a nod and tossed it in again. She gave a quick eye to the tables around them, but it was obvious no one dining that evening had any particular interest in what a pair of women might be talking about, so she leaned in close. “Is everything okay?”
Instead of answering, Betty reached out and took Nell’s elbow, starting off for the door. “Have you…” she started, and then paused, as though she hadn’t known where the question was going when she began it. “…Have you ever gotten into something, and you’re not sure how you did it, and you’re not sure if you can get out of it, and you’re not sure you’d want to get out of it even if you knew how?”
“Only my entire life.” Nell tried to laugh it off, but the words left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Betty’s fingers were cold against Nell’s bare skin, and she paused just in sight of the door, pulling Nell to a stop with her; she kept her eyes turned down, and didn’t meet Nell’s face. “Are you mad at me?”
Nell took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “A little, yeah.”
“Good,” nodded Betty, stiffening her shoulders. She let her hands fall from Nell’s arm, and started toward the exit, the sway of her hips causing the fringe to dance around her knees. The maître d’ nodded as she passed, then stepped ahead of her, pulling the door open to reveal the downpour the night had become, casting her bright silver figure in sharp contrast. “That’s probably good.”
“You’ve been quiet lately,” Sal said the next morning, folding down the front section of the Tribune to peer at her over the breakfast table.
“Hnh,” grunted Nell, pouring herself her third cup of black coffee that morning, to go with her second cigarette. She’d slept fitfully the night before, and the morning demanded serious chemical intervention; she wasn’t even near ready to look at herself in the mirror. She poked at the soft-boiled eggs the bellhop had brought them a few minutes earlier, trying to convince her appetite to work again.
Sal was by nature a patient man, and thus waited nearly a full minute before clearing his throat. “Did you and Betty have some kind of dust-up?”
Nell started to shake her head, then just pinched at the bridge of her nose. “Sal, what happened with Jazzman Marvin?”
A dark cloud passed over Sal’s otherwise pleasant expression. “Why’d you want to know a thing like that?”
“I’m a curious bird,” Nell shrugged. She tapped the eggshell’s pale curve with the back of her spoon, sending little cracks like lightning down the side before starting to flake away at the bigger pieces. Outside, the storm had died down somewhat, but the rain was still falling, and the heavy grey sky showed no signs of breaking.
Sal sighed and tapped out a cigarette of his own, sticking it into the corner of his mouth as he rummaged in his pockets for his silver-plated lighter. “Just one of those things that goes wrong,” he said. “Guy’s in the wrong place, wrong time. There’s fellas out there’ll shoot a Colored man soon as look at him anyway, and double if he’s carrying around a lot of cash.”
The inside of the egg was runny and bright yellow, and Nell felt her stomach turn just looking at it. She tore off a piece of crust from her bread to see if sopping it made it any more appetising, but the bright yellow just contaminated the bread, and Nell gave up. “Did you or Jimmy have anything to do with it?”
“Me?” Sal looked honestly surprised that she’d suggested it. “We live in a world of stupid things, Nellie, but bumping off one of Donatella Rago’s men has got to win some special prize for stupid. Probably just some country boy come to town to make his living as a two-bit thief, guns down a Colored man he doesn’t know nothing about, and now she’s running around all of Chicago pointing fingers at all her business associates just because some yokel decided to serve a lead sandwich to a guy he didn’t know who was working for a lady he’s never even heard of.”
“So Donatella thinks you did it?” Nell sipped at her coffee, feeling its bitterness twist her empty stomach even more.
With a sigh, Sal shook his head. “God only knows what she thinks. I mean, I’m sure she does. But she thinks everybody right now. She’s got a lot on the line here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her man, her money, and now they’re both gone and nobody knows who did it. Which makes her a little understandably paranoid.”
There was a moment Nell’s banker father had shown her when she was eight, the year before he died. He’d taken her into the bank with him and stood her in front of a huge vault, then told her to put her ear up against the great metal door. She did, shutting her eyes with the effort of close listening, and as he spun the great wheel to the precise coordinates of its combination, five numbers in all, she could hear the softest percussive sound as each cylinder fell one after the other into place. “Because if someone makes it look like an accident and gets away with it, she looks weak,” said Nell, hearing the distant sound of a great unlocking, “and if she looks weak, then this’ll happen again.”
“Blue ribbon for the pretty lady,” smiled Sal, though a dark shadow still hung over his face like the stormclouds outside. “Donatella Rago didn’t get where she is by being weak.”
“I guess she didn’t,” said Nell, pushing back from the table.
“Where’re you headed?”
“Shower.” Nell pointed toward the bathroom.
Sal nodded, opening the paper to the sports page and giving her a little wink. “Don’t run out all the hot water, okay, Nellie? I’m meeting up with some businessmen around noon, and I don’t want to show up with little icicles hanging off my nose.”
“I won’t.” Sal’s teases were always gentle, and rarely failed to make Nell smile. Today, though, she had to force up the corners of her mouth, then will herself to take the thirty feet between the table and the bathroom door with perfectly casual steps. As soon as she got the door closed behind her, she turned on both taps in the sink to cover any sound, then knelt by the toilet and threw up.
Nell found her on the hotel’s ground floor, in the part the fancy women with their high-class pearls and their one-of-a-kind dresses might have called the solarium if there’d been any sol that day to make it deserve the title; she was half-curled in an oversized chair, her legs tucked underneath her in the seat in the way a little girl might sit in her Sunday dress after her mother’d told her to be careful not to let the boys see her panties. Her lips were red again, bright and shapely, and without a matching hat, she looked almost angelic beneath her wavy blonde halo. Next to her, an elderly Negro with light toffee skin and wild white hair was banging out a ragtime number on the piano, singing along at a low mumble and smiling at her every few lines, and every time he did she’d smile right back.
As Nell picked her way through the gathering late afternoon crowd and approached, Betty sat up straighter, more lady-like, and wiggled her fingers in greeting. “Hi there, sugar,” she beamed. “Where’ve you been all day?”
The grandfather clock by the front desk showed the time as a little after 5:00, but the light that came in through the stormy sky was already nightfall-dark. “Resting up.” Nell waved back, resting her hand against the piano’s black lacquered body. “Guess the rain’s got me down.”
“Well, have a seat.” Betty patted the space next to her. “Jiles here says he’ll play ‘Black Snake Blues’ once the crowd picks up enough that they can’t understand what he’s saying.”
Nell, who didn’t think understanding what the piano player was saying was really much of a concern for most of the people here, remained on her feet. “Let’s take a walk.”
“A walk?” The piano player laughed, his wrinkled fingers never skipping a beat. “It done been raining cats and dogs since this time yesterday. Only one kind of God’s creatures likes this weather, and that’s ducks!”
Nell lifted the umbrella she carried enough that he could see, then turned back to Betty. “Too many ears in here.”
Betty’s eyes went a little wide, and her carefree pose froze into something more cautious, the stance of an animal that doesn’t know yet whether or not it’s been trapped. Her fingers worked at the hem of her skirt. “It’s awful wet out, sugar….”
“I don’t think,” Nell dropped her voice until it was barely audible over the crowd and the music, “you want to have this conversation here.”
There was a pause, the space of a deep breath, and then Betty uncurled her legs from the chair and stood, letting her hand linger for a moment on the piano player’s shoulder. “Thanks so much, Mr. Jiles.”
“You take care, now, Miss Betty,” he nodded back to her; then he resumed his mumbled song, fingers heavy on the ivory keys as Nell took her umbrella in one hand and Betty’s elbow in the other, and led them out into the night.
For nearly three blocks, they walked in silence, huddled together beneath the umbrella’s meager shade. The storm had let up a bit, but rain still soaked their skirts and shoes wherever they stepped out from beneath the canopy. Nell held the handle with one arm and wrapped the other around Betty’s tiny waist, drawing them close enough that she could smell the lavender of Betty’s cream rinse.
They passed others on the street, going and coming, but all had their heads ducked and covered against the weather, and not one looked up long enough to register the two women that made their way into the night. That wasn’t even the weather so much as just Chicago itself — huge and impersonal, a city that neither knew nor cared about your business. It wasn’t like the little Illinois town where she’d grown up, where she couldn’t get so much as ten feet down the sidewalk without being greeted by someone who’d known her since she was in diapers, where everyone’s business was everyone else’s and a secret that’d managed to keep itself kept for an hour was nearing record time.
She’d hated it at first, the distant anonymity forced on her by city living, but had grown first to tolerate it, then to accept it, and now to love it. Chicago wasn’t ashamed of how little Eleanor Grace Smith, who’d always said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and known all the answers in Sunday School, had grown up to be a fancy lady kept by one of Chicago’s most notable bootleggers, childless and unmarried past thirty, walking down a rain-sodden street arm in arm with the most beautiful girl in the world.
It was only when they’d crossed into a nearly unpopulated block that Nell drew in a sharp breath and, against all the good judgement in the world, said, “Tell me about Donatella.”
Betty’s response was instant, a firm shake of her head. “No.”
Nell’s fingers tightened around Betty’s waist. “Tell me,” she repeated, her voice flat. “Did she send you?”
“Nell, this doesn’t have nothing to do with you.” Betty kept her face straight ahead as they walked, cutting a sharp profile against the early glow from the streetlamps. “Leave it be.”
“Tell me.” Nell couldn’t keep the edge in her voice from showing, ragged and sharp. “Did she send you after Sal? Is that it?”
“Yes,” answered Betty, eyes fixed forward, “and I told her no.”
Nell stopped in her tracks, grabbing Betty’s arm and pulling her so they stood facing one another on the sidewalk. The wind whipped around them, and Nell could feel the wet chill blow against her stockinged calves. “Why?” she said, barely pulling herself back from the brink of shouting panic. “Why did–”
“Because he didn’t do it!” Rage twisted the corner of Betty’s mouth, and she looked like a cobra about ready to spit venom. “It was Jimmy!”
Nell wanted so badly to be surprised, to return the accusation with a volley of sincere disbelief, but it made too much sense. She figured she’d known it to be true for a while, since at least breakfast if not before. Sal hadn’t been lying to her, she supposed, not really; he’d just been telling her the truth he wanted so badly to believe — that his baby brother might be a bit of a mook with a hand for his dames that sometimes got a little heavy, but that he wasn’t old-fashioned stupid enough to try and pull a move like this on his own. “Maybe it was,” said Nell after a long moment.
“It was,” Betty snapped, and her voice cut a bitter swath through the rain. “It’s funny what a guy’ll tell you when you pour half a bottle of whiskey into him and ride him until he can’t remember his own name.” Nell flinched before she could stop herself, and Betty sighed, having the good grace to look ashamed of herself. “…Sorry.”
“And that’s why you’re here?” Nell straightened her spine. “That’s why you just happened to be in a place where Jimmy’d run into you, and why you told him you were fresh off the train from down south? You were trying to get to Sal?”
“And I couldn’t go directly to him, not with you on the scene. Donatella told me so.” It was true, of course; Sal had his women on the side, and they both knew it, but there’d never been one who could’ve gotten even a quarter as close to him as Nell was. “But Donatella still thinks it was Sal, or she thinks he had something to do with it, or she knows he didn’t and doesn’t care, it doesn’t matter. She wants Sal out of the picture.” Betty wrapped her hands around Nell’s bare forearm as she spoke, and her fingers were cold like the rain. “Whatever his business is, it’s doing so well it’s cutting into hers. All she wanted was for me to get enough that she could pin it on him clean and nobody could hit her back for it. But I told her, Nell, honest I did–”
“I know,” said Nell. “I heard you at the restaurant.”
Betty’s shoulders slumped, and she let her chin fall to her chest, until Nell couldn’t see her expression any longer. “I reckoned you did, but I….” Her fingers tightened around Nell’s arm, and Nell could feel the bite of her fingernails press against skin. “I should’ve left the moment I knew, Nell, I swear on a whole mess of Bibles I know I should’ve just lit out and never looked back.”
Everything else she’d taken with her head held high, but this, this had to turn her knees to water. “…Why?” Ghost-mouthed and dry, she swallowed and tried to find her voice again. “Why didn’t you go?”
It was maybe a minute, but it felt to Nell like an eternity until Betty lifted her head again, her smooth cheeks marked with rivers of eye makeup whose courses had nothing to do with the weather. “You don’t know how amazing you are, do you?” Betty said, forcing a shy little smile. “I mean, look at you. You have no idea how hard it is to take my eyes off you for even a second, how I just want to strip you down and look at you, not even touch you for a little bit, just stare and try not to breathe or maybe you’ll go away, and I don’t–” Her voice broke, and she squeezed her eyes shut tight, sending two more dark-tinted drops down her face.
Nell tasted salt at the corner of her mouth, and felt an equal dampness against her own cheeks. “What are you….?”
“I never wanted to hurt you, Nell, I swear, just let me get my things tonight and I’m gone.” And there, finally, Nell could see the real face of the girl who’d walked into the speakeasy that night all sunshine and stardust, now mascara-streaked and so honest that Nell finally knew that she’d been the only one who hadn’t been played, not for a minute. “I shouldn’t have stayed, it was stupid and selfish, and I’ll be gone tomorrow and you can just forget about me–”
There was never really a moment of conscious choice on Nell’s part, only the simple and sudden awareness of what she both needed and wanted to do, not even fully clear until she’d pulled Betty to her and was kissing her there in the street, half-blocked from view by the umbrella’s wide arc but kissing her nonetheless. Betty’s lips were startled still against hers for a moment, and then Betty was kissing back, biting at Nell’s lips and trembling. Nell’s own heart was pounding in her chest, a rapid tattoo of desire that beat out the drone of common sense. This was what she’d wanted; this was maybe what she’d always wanted. Right here, on a rainy Chicago sidewalk, everything she ever needed in the world was half-covered under a single umbrella, half-washed by the falling rain.
There was a sharp blast from a car horn, close enough that the two of them jumped apart, then immediately had to regather to keep from getting soaked. A car was pulling up to the curb, a familiar silver Rolls-Royce Phantom, and the window to the backseat unrolled to reveal Sal’s face, grim and pinched. “Glad I found you two. Come in. It’s not safe out tonight.”
The chill in his voice made the hairs on Nell’s arms stand on end. “What’s wrong?” she asked
Sal shook his head, sighing cigarette smoke into the rainy night. He looked old in the oily glow from the streetlights, and Nell could see deep shadows where time had begun to etch its lines. “Donatella’s dead.”
“I’ll be right over there,” said Wyatt, pointing across the small parking lot to a small, poorly lit door, some side entrance to some building Nell had never seen before; she hadn’t particularly been paying attention on the ride over, and had only noticed the door because she’d seen Sal and some other well-suited goons disappear into it a few moments earlier. Those who hadn’t gone in hung outside just out of the rain, clouds of smoke rising from their cigarettes as they huddled protectively against unauthorised entry. “If you ladies need anything, just scream out. I’ll be over in half a second.”
“Thank you, Wyatt,” said Betty, and Nell managed a farewell nod before he shut the car door with them inside. The rain on the windows distorted the world outside, making everything runny and dream-like, lit only from the light in the alcove. With the engine off, the rain against the roof rose to a deafening patter of white noise.
For a long time, neither woman moved more than a fidget, nothing more a quiet shuffle of resettling legs or the soft shifting of a dress, barely audible above the storm. Nell twitched for a cigarette, but she’d left case and lighter alike at home, and both men had taken theirs with them. It wasn’t even the nicotine she wanted so much as something to do with her hands, other than keep them folded in her lap as she stared out the window, wondering what to do with the woman on the other side of the backseat.
Finally, Betty exhaled a grumpy sigh, huffing air upward to blow a loose strand from her face. “Well, this is one shit-fine mess.”
The vulgarity was so prim and proper coming from Betty’s little Southern mouth that Nell couldn’t help laughing. When she looked, she saw that Betty was smiling too, so she reached across the seat and took Betty’s cold hand in hers. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
Betty shrugged, giving Nell’s hand a little squeeze. “Last train leaves just past midnight-thirty.”
Nell tightened her fingers around Betty’s hand in return, as though she might somehow anchor them both in place. “You can’t,” she said, her voice hushed despite the pounding rain. “You can’t go.”
“I have to.” Betty shook her head. “I have to, Nell. I don’t believe for a minute this isn’t connected in some way to me being here, or what happened with Marvin. And you can’t look me in the eye and tell me you don’t know right this minute how Donatella died, or who pulled the trigger.”
Nell knew she couldn’t, nor did she even want to try. She hadn’t needed to see his hulking frame disappear through that door to know Jimmy was in there too, looking just as surprised as everyone else around the table; neither did she have to try hard to picture the bottom of Lake Michigan’s newest decoration, a recently fired weapon that, even if it somehow surfaced, could never be traced back to Jimmy Bunicelli. He wasn’t smart, but he was smart enough. “You think he knows she sent you?”
“I think I’m not sticking around long enough to find out, is what.” Betty twined her fingers with Nell and scooted closer across the seat, until their knees were touching. Her face was shadowed by the night and the car’s roof, so only a sliver of light fell across her mouth, lighting her bright red lips. “Come with me, sugar. You and me.”
Her heart felt as though it’d had its strings cut, and was now crashing down in free-fall, headed all the way through the earth, plunging toward parts unknown, probably China. “I … can’t,” Nell managed, feeling her hands shake in Betty’s. She fumbled for excuses in the face of a possibility so remote and amazing that she’d never even considered it before. “I … we … I can’t … Sal.” His face crystalised in her mind, pulling her back. “I love Sal.”
Betty’s red lips pulled into two thin lines. “I know,” she said, and Nell could see how much that pained her by the set of her jaw. “He’s no good for you.”
“He’s a good man.” The words felt automatic, as though from a parrot’s limited phrasebook. “He takes care of me.”
“He’s gotten you into this!” Betty jabbed a finger at the door, to where all the heavies in their well-tailored suits cut menacing figures in a row, one hand on their cigarettes, one hand near their guns. “And whatever Jimmy did, I’m betting Sal let him do it to you. Or at least didn’t stop him.”
Nell could feel all the colour drain from her face. “How did you–”
“I can tell. When he looks at you, you flinch.” Betty leaned in closer, putting her head against Nell’s shoulder, and Nell, almost instinctively, curled her arm around Betty’s shoulders. She felt so fragile like that, cuddled close and vulnerable; it was strange to Nell how grown-up and childlike she was all at once. “You know, I thought I knew what I was here for, and I reckon I still do, but … I don’t think I could live with myself leaving you in striking distance of him.”
“I’m fine,” Nell said into Betty’s hair, “and I’ll be fine. You’re not the only tough customer here.”
Betty laughed, drawing Nell into an awkward embrace that somehow ended with her hand on Nell’s thigh and her lips barely an inch from Nell’s ear. “If he ever laid a hand on you, I’d kill him,” she whispered. Her fingers began their now-familiar trail up Nell’s leg, though this time there was no coyness, not even slow caution, only a deliberate progression. “If anyone ever did, I swear to God, sugar….”
It had been nothing, she’d told herself for years now, just a bad night where they’d all had too much to drink, and Jimmy had assumed he had a right to something that wasn’t his, and she hadn’t had it in her to make it clear that she hadn’t wanted it. Things like that happened to girls like her every day. “No,” said Nell. “It’s not worth it.”
“You’re worth it,” Betty whispered, her breath hot, her mouth hovering just far enough away not to chance smudged lipstick. She found the bare flesh above Nell’s stockings and slipped her fingers in the warm flesh where Nell’s thighs came together, pushing them apart. With a quick glance to the men gathered in the door’s dim light, Nell let her knees fall wide, inviting Betty in. “Would you believe I’ve never done it in a car before?”
“I’d believe a lot right now,” said Nell, sinking down into the seat. Betty’s thumb slid across the bud of her clit, cushioned only by the thin silk of her underwear, and Nell let out a little gasp; her fingers tightened into claws around the leather seat’s edge. She turned her face so their lips were just brushing, until she could feel Betty’s hard breathing against her mouth. “Tell me what you want me to do.”
“I want you to touch me,” answered Betty without hesitation, taking Nell’s free hand and putting it in the warm cleft of her legs, just at the soft, smooth juncture of her thighs. She spread her knees, and Nell worked herself into a position that mirrored Betty’s, her fingers stroking at the dampness of Betty’s panties. With her free hand, she stroked Betty’s breast through her dress, flicking her longish thumbnail over the rise of Betty’s nipple. She felt Betty gasp against her mouth, and grinned, flicking her tongue lightly across Betty’s full lower lip.
Betty grabbed the waistband of Nell’s underwear, devoting both hands to getting it over Nell’s hips; when she’d accomplished that, she took Nell’s clit again between her first two fingers and rubbed it back and forth. “Someday, I want to…” Betty began, and Nell could imagine ten thousand ways to finish the sentence, ten thousand things she, too, wanted to do to and with Betty someday. What Nell really wanted to do — not someday at all, but right now — was strip Betty completely naked and stretch her out fully along the backseat, and literally the only thing in the world stopping her was how she couldn’t think of a single possible way to explain that one if Sal or Wyatt or God forbid Jimmy decided to make an unexpected return. Sometimes, though, you had to make do with what you had when you had it.
She trembled as Betty’s fingers flicked back and forth against her clit, working her own fingers faster in kind. “Please,” she said, though even as she did she couldn’t have articulated what she was begging for. She felt her toes begin to curl inside her shoes and said again, “Please,” this time meaning more. She thought of Betty’s mouth on her, what it would feel like to have that mouth sucking at her nipples, biting and tugging at their tips; she imagined Betty’s mouth where her fingers were now, a more diffuse fantasy, focusing instead on the general idea of what it would be like to have her there, kissing and taking tender skin in her teeth, tugging and licking, spreading her wide and–
With a barely controlled cry, she came, arching her back off the seat and jerking, all the while keeping the corner of one eye turned toward the door to make sure they remained undiscovered. The worst part of the covertness was how she had to keep herself so tamed, when all she wanted to do for the first time in her quiet life was cry out and lose herself in the moment. It was the least such a beautiful lover as Betty deserved.
Breathing in great gasps, Nell let her body relax for only a moment before reminding her fingers what they’d been doing before her orgasm had interrupted. Betty gasped, which was all the encouragement Nell needed to slip her hand into Betty’s underwear and find the source of her wetness, hidden between two soft folds of skin. Nell moved by touch alone, slipping inside first one finger, then another, as Betty whimpered and nodded; she angled her wrist so the pad of her thumb pressed up against Betty’s clit, rubbing in small circles. “Like this?” she whispered into Betty’s mouth.
“Yes,” hissed Betty, her voice all air and need. She rocked her hips against Nell’s hand, pushing Nell’s fingers deeper into her. “God, yes, sugar.” Nell added a third finger, and Betty groaned, riding Nell’s hand as well as she could manage their awkward backseat positioning. Nell brought her other hand up to brush at Betty’s long, slender neck, trailing the backs of her fingernails up skin in a way that made Betty shiver and move faster.
At last, and far too quickly, Betty whimpered and closed her eyes, giving her hips a few more deep thrusts before she gasped and let her head fall back against the seat. Her muscles clenched softly around Nell’s fingers as she came, quiet and wet, in a rush. Slowly, she came to rest against the seat, taking a deep breath and laughing on the exhale. “I could just kiss you right now,” she said, cracking one eye open.
“I could too,” said Nell, and didn’t. Instead, she slipped her fingers out of Betty and tugged her underwear back over her hips — then, on a whim, brought her fingers to her mouth and licked them with the tip of her tongue. “You taste sweet,” she grinned.
Betty rolled her eyes, going for her own underwear. “Don’t you dare, sugar, or you’ll make me want to go again, and this time I’m not caring whose makeup I smear.”
Nell laughed and shook her head, smoothing out her skirt so it at least looked like nothing had been going on (even if, Nell supposed, there was something to do the smell of it that couldn’t be so easily disguised). “…What are you looking at?” she asked, catching a funny smile on Betty’s face.
“Oh, just some beautiful lady I found in a bar.” Betty brushed the backs of her knuckles across Nell’s cheek. “A real knockout, let me tell you.”
Whatever Nell might have said in response was rudely interrupted by the car door’s being opened; instead of Sal, though, the face at the window was Jimmy’s. “Come on,” he said to Betty, gesturing out into the rain. “I’ll get you home. Sal’s gonna be another minute, Nell.”
Both women nodded, and Betty gave Nell’s hand one last squeeze before stepping out beneath Jimmy’s umbrella. “Good night, Miss Nell,” she said, and her words sounded so achingly final that Nell had to bite her lip to keep from begging her to stay. When Sal finally showed up at the car ten minutes later, he very politely didn’t say anything about either the meeting he’d just attended or how her mascara had run two dark lines down her cheeks.
Nell stayed in bed until she heard Sal’s breathing even out into a sleep-steady rhythm, then stayed put for another ten minutes, just to be sure. When he didn’t even budge, she slipped her legs out of bed and stood, careful all the while that her shifting weight not wake him. She meant to put on the clothes she’d been wearing earlier, and had even left them folded neatly over the high back of a chair for that very purpose, but the material was still wet from being out in the rain, and even thinking about putting it on again made her shiver. She’d have to find something drier.
She was just going to say good-bye, that was all — to say good-bye, and perhaps to make sure that Betty got off all right. Her hands fumbled for lingerie in the darkness, pulling open drawers with utmost care not to make a sound; she didn’t even bother with stockings, as trying to manage them on in the dark was only asking for runs. Just going to say good-bye, and if anyone saw she’d say she couldn’t sleep. That, at least, was the perfect truth.
In the darkened room, its contours visible only by the light pollution that filtered through the curtains, her eyes fell on something she hadn’t seen before, not even with all the lights on when they’d come home, or by the muted glow of the bedside lamp as she had rubbed his shoulders and he’d told her that everything was going to be all right, baby, Nellie, baby. A dress box occupied the chair closest to the door, angular and pale and with Sal’s tailor’s name printed silver on the side. Deliveries while they were out were far from uncommon, and Sal rarely bothered to inform Nell when he was planning on buying a new suit or getting his old one taken in. The odds that the package would be for her were so low that she shouldn’t even bother thinking about it, and yet, she found herself standing in front of the chair, grabbing the lid with both hands and letting gravity slide the heavier bottom half loose.
There was a light grey suit inside, crisply pressed and folded, with a small note on top. Nell lifted it into a shaft of pale light from the window and squinted to make out the meticulous ink-scrawl:
Miss Eleanor Smith–
Please forgive any irregularities in the fit or quality of this garment, but your companion (Miss Elizabeth Little) was insistent that I create it without your knowledge, and thus without the possibility of any prior measurements. My fifty years of experience have given me a relatively accurate eye, yet I apologise in advance for any dissimilarities between the cut and your actual form. Please feel free to contact me regarding any alterations.
Mr. Aaron Goldstein, tailor
As it turned out, Mr. Goldstein had undersold his experienced eye; Nell found the suit couldn’t have fit better if he’d spent days running a measuring tape over every inch of her body. A layer of tissue paper beneath the suit hid a white shirt and deep green tie, and Nell was grateful for the days she’d spent preparing her brothers for church as she tied the latter around her neck and tucked in beneath the former’s collar. The package had included no hat, but Nell took the lightest of Sal’s from the hat rack by the door and twisted up her hair beneath; likewise, she had no pair of shoes, but her feet were as large for a woman’s as Sal’s were small for a man’s, and she slipped on a pair of his with little trouble.
At the last, she did something so completely against her nature that she couldn’t even believe it as it was happening: she slid open a desk drawer and pulled out one of Sal’s guns, the ones he hated but kept around because necessity made even the nicest men arm themselves. It was small, but heavy, so much so she almost couldn’t believe its weight. After considering her attire for a moment, she took the gun and slid it in the very back of her waistband, where she’d seen the heavies carry theirs sometimes when they didn’t have better places to pack their heat. There, then; she was ready.
Just going to say good-bye, she said to her reflection in the room’s free-standing mirror, trying to ignore how the sharp-dressed man standing on the other side of the glass looked for all the world like he didn’t believe her.
She met no one in the hallway as she left her room, and the few members of the hotel staff she passed on the way downstairs didn’t even turn to register her presence, which was such a change from the normal state of affairs that Nell had to remind herself that she was incognito now, just another late-night suit on his way to attend to some business that wasn’t theirs. The lobby was all but empty, and Nell didn’t know how much of that was the weekend and how much was Chicago’s lowlife laying low in the wake; the chair where Betty’d tucked herself up just hours earlier was empty, and the piano next to it was silent. No one was there to see or to ask, and there was nothing left to point her where to go.
She might’ve taken off to the train station right then and there had she not noticed the interior door to the speakeasy, an unassuming entryway meant to blend right into the wall, hip-high gold moulding and crimson wallpaper and all, complete with a tiny sign that announced HOTEL EMPLOYEES ONLY. Sal had told her they’d be going dark tonight, out of respect as much as anything else, but the door was open a crack, and a dim light shone through from down the staircase. Nell cast a quick glance down to the exit at the end of the hallway, where she could see the hulking frame of Louie the bartender, who knew far better than to leave that door open on accident, smoking up a cloud and looking just this side of bored. She waited until he looked away, then slipped past the door, pulling it shut behind her.
The stairs creaked lightly beneath her weight as she descended into the darkened room. It was strange to see it like that, so empty and quiet, with only the lights beneath the bar to give anything in the room shape and contrast. The chairs were stacked neatly on the tables, and all the shelves behind the bar were empty, the contents long since locked up against a daylight raid. She barely bit back a startled gasp as a mouse ran from one side of the room to the other, weaving its way through the tables and disappearing into a crack along the far wall, and her right hand slipped back along her hip, beneath the unfamiliar coat, at the ready.
The door to the room behind the bar was as open as the door to the speakeasy itself had been, and Nell inched forward across the wood floor, glad that men’s shoes didn’t have the same hollow punctuation to their step as did women’s. She worked the gun into her hand, dimly aware that she had no idea how to use such a thing beyond the basic ‘pull the little trigger and the gun goes off’ mechanics, and lifted it to eye level as a Negro man walked out from the back room.
He was a young fellow, dressed in a well-cut brown suit with matching hat, and he froze as he saw her, caught in the act of tucking a thick paper envelope inside his jacket, his eyes wide and his mouth agape. He looked barely twenty, with light skin and light eyes, and though Nell couldn’t recall ever having met him before, she would swear his face seemed all too familiar.
They stood there for a moment, fixed in place, neither one daring to move — and then his brow furrowed into a curious frown, and he squinted at her in the dim light. “…Nell?” he asked, and his voice was nothing like a man’s.
Nell lowered the gun in shock. “…Betty?”
“Oh, sugar.” Betty finished tucking the envelope inside her jacket, then sighed and leaned against the bar. With her makeup gone and the blonde of her hair hidden entirely by the crown of her hat, the dim light of the room darkened her skin with just enough shadow to remove the illusion that had helped her pass. Nell wondered how she hadn’t seen it before, then remembered her own unnoticed passage downstairs, and thought that people often weren’t inclined to see what they weren’t expecting to see already. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here? What are you doing here?” Nell noticed she was gesturing with the gun, and lowered it hastily; her finger was far away from the trigger, but that didn’t make her any less nervous about it.
Betty patted the side of her jacket. “Making a stop before I go.”
Nell frowned. “What’s in there?”
“What do you mean?”
“The thirty grand that Jimmy took from my brother right before killing him,” Betty said, her face grim. “Without Donatella to keep me safe, it’s all I can do. He’ll know when he sees it gone. If anyone comes after me, if I hear anything happens to you, a chunk of this goes to the Chicago P.D. with a note telling them where it’s from. It’s not a smoking gun, but it’ll raise some questions he won’t like.”
A sharp laugh barked from out of the darkness, so loud and startling that Nell nearly dropped the gun. “That?” asked a voice that Nell had no trouble identifying. “That’s your plan? Oh, yeah, bravo, real bravo.” Great meaty hands came together in slow, sinister applause as the man to whom they belonged stepped from the corner of the room into the light. His voice rose to a falsetto: “Oh, no, don’t call the coppers, anything but that, I’m so scared that an unmarked fiver in their mailbox is gonna land me in the slammer for the rest of my life!”
Nell tried to stand fast, but ended up having to lean against the bar, she was shaking so badly. “Jimmy, just let her go. She’ll give back the money, just let her go.”
“Hmm, now, that’s a good plan Nell’s got there, what do you think, Bettykins?” Jimmy tapped his own gun thoughtfully against his chin. “How ’bout I got a better plan, where I shoot a mouthy dyke and the dead moolie’s little mule sister right here? What do we all think? Do we like that one better?”
Betty inched backward towards the gap in the bar that would let her out from behind. “You wouldn’t kill Nell,” she said, setting her jaw.
Jimmy laughed again. “Oh, wouldn’t I?” He cocked the gun and pointed it briefly in Nell’s direction before letting it fall again. “You think I give two shits about what happens to a frigid bitch like her?”
“Sal cares,” Betty spat back, though the venom from earlier was gone. She was scared — they both were, of course, but meeting Jimmy like this had specifically taken a lot of the bite out of Betty’s bark. Sometimes it was so easy to forget how young she was, Nell thought, and sometimes it was even easier to remember.
“Oh, he does, yeah, I bet. ‘Yeah, Sal, real sorry about your girl, how she had to run off with mine, I saw them get on the 12:15 to Kansas City together, guess it just goes to show we don’t ever know dames as well as we think we do, huh?’ How’s that? You think I’m ready for my screen test?” Jimmy shrugged. “Or maybe I don’t even need to say anything. Maybe I just need to show him your two bodies and that wad of dough you’re hiding, and he’ll come to his own conclusions about how much you needed those bullets.”
Nell could see Betty out of the corner of her eye, half-protected by the heavy oak bar but inching away from the back door with every second. “Betty,” she said softly, though not softly enough to keep Jimmy from hearing her, “go into the back room and bar the door.”
“Don’t make a move, you bitch.” He glared at Betty, his voice rising, and lifted the gun toward her. “You’re both gonna die right where you are right now.”
Though it took every inch of willpower she had, Nell forced herself two more steps forward, until she stood in the line of fire between Betty and Jimmy’s gun. “Just do it, Betty,” she said over her shoulder, even though she couldn’t look at Betty any longer without taking her eyes off Jimmy, and that was the last thing she wanted to do. Unseen, Betty had grown mute.
“I said don’t!” Jimmy cocked the gun and aimed it more deliberately at Nell. “You’re a pretty girl, Nellie. I would’ve married you, you know. Not like that idiot brother of mine. I know what to do with a steady girl. You could’ve been Nellie Bunicelli. Isn’t that cute? I would’ve bought you a nice fancy ring and knocked you right up. You could’ve been a mommy, Nellie, a nice girl with good things. But no, you had to turn out to be a goddamn dyke.”
Well, this is it, thought Nell. I’m going to die. “I’ll shoot you first,” she said, lifting the gun to chest level. It seemed even heavier than before, and she supported it with both hands, but she couldn’t keep it from shaking.
Jimmy just laughed again, like a man at a Laurel and Hardy show, having just a grand ol’ time. “Little Nellie’s got a gun,” he chuckled. “Just like a dyke. Wants to be a man, but doesn’t have the equipment.”
Nell felt a small touch against her side, and she stepped back so that Betty’s body was pressed right up against hers. “Let her go and you can do whatever to me you want.”
“You know, that suit doesn’t … well, suit you, Nellie.” Jimmy took a few strides forward, closing the gap between them, and Nell could see more clearly how rumpled and drunk he looked. “I can’t even see your boobies at all.”
“Funny, since you’re wearing a suit too, and I can see you’re a booby pretty clear.” Nell cursed God for having given her a mouth prone to trouble.
“Yeah, you’re a regular comedian. You smart-mouthed dames’re gonna get what’s coming to you, you know.” Jimmy licked his lips and pointed the gun lower, about kneecap-level. “Of course, no law says I’ve got to make this quick. Might enjoy myself a little first. Get what’s coming to me.”
“Put it down, Jimmy,” said another voice from the stairs behind her, and though she saw Jimmy’s gaze jerk sharply in that direction, her gaze never left the man or the gun in front of her; she’d lived with Sal Bunicelli for ten years, and ten years was a long time to get to know someone’s voice.
“Big brother Sal!” Jimmy exclaimed, and his sadist’s grin froze in a way that made him look pained. “Just the man I wanted to see.”
The stairs creaked as Sal stepped down them, and Nell caught a glimpse of motion from the corner of her eye as Sal moved into the light. He was hastily dressed, his shirt half-buttoned and coat rumpled, and he had a gun pointed at his brother. “Put it down, Jimmy,” he repeated, his voice an icy calm that gave away all too well how angry and scared he was. “Let’s us all talk this out.”
“You gonna take the word of a couple dyke whores?” Jimmy slurred, and when he turned to Sal, he turned the gun as well. “Over your own baby brother, who never done you wrong a day in his life?”
“You done a whole lot of wrong,” said Sal, cool and collected. “To me and to others. And to Donatella.”
Jimmy cackled. “Don’t tell me you weren’t keen on having that old bitch out of the business. She never gave you nothing but trouble. Oh, she hated you from the get-go. And you were too nice for anything except ‘yes, Donatella’ and ‘of course, Donatella’, like she was better than you, like you owed her anything.”
From the periphery of her vision, Nell saw Sal’s jaw set. “I can maybe get you out of this one, Jimmy, but you got to put the gun down.” He took a few steps forward, lowering his gun a fraction. “Mine’s going first. Nell, you can put yours down too, can’t you?”
Nell felt Betty’s fingers tighten nervously around her elbow, but she took a deep breath and nodded. “Sure, Sal. I can do that.” She brought her gun down as far as he had, but kept the cold curve of the trigger steady under her index fingertip.
“Will you stop talking to me like I’m some goddamn kid?” Jimmy shouted, glaring at Sal but keeping his piece trained on Nell. “I’m not five! I’m not your retard brother you have to wipe up after when he’s done taking a dump! We could run this town, you and me, but you’re so goddamn careful that we never get anywhere!” His voice rose to a fevered pitch, and Nell could see little flecks of spittle fly from his mouth as he bit down on the ends of his words. “I’m goddamn sick of having to put up with you and your safe and your nice — this ain’t a nice town, Sally boy, and anybody but you would be kissing my ring for me taking care of all of your dame problems, not pointing a gun at my goddamn head!”
“You should’ve come talk to me, Jimmy,” said Sal. Nell could hear the stress at the edge of his voice, the cracks in the thin ice of calm on which he skated. “We’re businessmen, not thugs and petty thieves.”
Jimmy sneered. “Oh, sure. You and your fancy suits and your ‘respected member of the community’ and your ‘we’re businessmen’, there ain’t a drop of blood on your hands, is there? Well, what about mine? You ain’t been so concerned with how dirty mine are. Just so long as it keeps you in business.” He lunged forward, and Nell, frightened, brought her gun up full to shoulder level; Jimmy snarled at her, then broke into a laugh. “You ain’t scaring me, little girl, not with your ‘insurance’ dough or your little popgun.”
Nell’s stance faltered, and she might have fallen back over completely had Betty not been there to hold her in place. She could feel the rises of Betty’s breasts pressing against her back, and smelled that familiar light lavender of Betty’s hair. Sal was here now, she knew, and she should drop the gun and walk away, or at least step back and let Sal take care of things. That was Sal’s job, after all — to take care of everything, so she didn’t have to. She could put it down and just walk out, head right up the stairs and back to the hotel room, maybe even take Betty with her, and let the men sort it out. After all, that was how she’d managed her whole life.
Instead, she pulled back the hammer of the gun with her thumb, in the same way she’d seen Jimmy do it just minutes before. It was heavy, and she ended up needing both thumbs to do it, but finally the ratcheting stopped, and the hammer locked back in place. Now the trigger felt looser beneath her finger, begging her to pull back the last quarter-inch, as easy as tilting back on the edge of a step and letting gravity take you the rest of the way down.
Jimmy blinked twice, then laughed again. “Look at that, Sal. You didn’t tell me your bird’s got little brass balls.”
“You girls go on and get out of here,” said Sal, taking another step forward, into Nell’s full range of vision. The lines on his face that aged him beneath the evening streetlamp now made him look positively ancient in the dim bar light.
“Not on your lives.” He moved his gun a fraction of an inch to the left, and Nell knew that he was no longer aiming at her, but at the face right behind her. “How ’bout it, Nellie? You and me’ve got a score to settle first, I think. I’ll even be a gentleman and let you take the first shot. Take your best. I’m wide open.” He clucked his tongue at her. “Of course, it ain’t who shoots first, it’s who shoots last.”
Nell’s finger twitched against the trigger. All it would take was one good shot, and it’d all be over — his threats, his leering, his violence, his smell, all down in a shot. She thought of what she could recall of that night nearly a decade ago, the sick drunken feeling of having his body on top of hers, weighing her down into the mattress, and all the while wanting to scream but not remembering how her body worked. That alone was worth the bullet, she thought, and he carried around a litany of sins after that more than equal to the exchange.
Then a pair of strong arms wrapped around her waist, and she could feel the brim of a hat’s pressing against the back of her right shoulder blade. “Don’t, Nell,” said Betty softly, her voice hardly louder than the sound of Nell’s own breath in her chest. “Let’s just go. Please.”
“But he killed your brother,” answered Nell, and it wasn’t until she spoke that she realised how high the blood had risen in the back of her throat, nor how tight her muscles had locked into place around the gun.
“I know.” Betty squeezed Nell’s waist tighter, then let go, taking Nell’s left hand instead and pulling it down from the high stance. “But I don’t think Marvin would’ve wanted me or anyone I love being a murderer over anyone, least of all over him. I got done what I came for. It’s over now. Let’s go.”
Nearly a decade’s worth of bitterness begged her to take the shot — yet it all sapped away as Betty’s fingers twined with hers. With great effort, she willed her arm to relax, and pushed the hammer back forward on the gun, until it clicked into its resting place. “I’m just gonna walk away,” she said, her words rasping from her lips. “And if I ever see you again, I will take the first shot, I swear on my daddy’s grave.”
The snarl at the corner of Jimmy’s lips went nowhere, but he let the gun drop to his side, and Sal let his fall in kind. “That’s mighty nice of you, Sal,” said Jimmy, shaking his head at the two women as they backed toward the door. “You always were a soft one for a dumb bitch–”
Everything happened so fast that for the rest of her life, she’d never be entirely sure if he’d been the one to lift his gun first and she’d moved in response, or if it had been the other way around. But his hand was in motion either way, lifting not toward her, but a foot to her left, where Betty had already started up the stairs, and nearly before she’d had a chance to register what was happening, her hand was in the air with the heavy gun, and her index finger was yanking hard back against the trigger.
In the end, it wasn’t like falling at all; it reminded her of the way Betty had reached for her hand and drawn it away from the gun, fighting stone determination all the way. She didn’t feel the trigger make its final magic click as it fell across the magic threshold between pulling and pulled, only the kick as it went off, joined by the roar that filled her ears as Jimmy jerked backward, a bright red spot appearing on his forehead as though by magic in the split-second before gravity took him down. He hit the floor with a heavy jolt, kicking once before falling finally still.
Startled, she dropped the gun, and it spun across the floor, landing beneath a corner table. Sal was already in motion, pitching to his knees beside his brother, and Nell followed as close as she dared, as scared of Jimmy’s death as she had often been of his life. There was a moment of stillness, but only a moment, before Sal ran a hand through his hair and nodded. “Where’s the gun?”
“Over there.” Nell pointed in the general direction where it had slid.
With a grim nod, Sal pulled himself to his feet. A small commotion was already developing on the far side of the speakeasy’s hotel door. “Go. The cops’ll be here any minute, but they’ll be looking for a couple of white girls, not a white man with a Colored man. You should make the train out with no problem.”
Betty stepped forward, taking Nell’s hand. “The cops?” Her voice sounded so small, a birdcall against a tornado.
“Quiet night like this, people heard the shot.” Sal reached into his pocket for his wallet, pulling out a roll of bills and offering them to Nell. “This and that what’s in the envelope should get you far enough. Write Wyatt — not me, Wyatt — when you’ve got a place to stay and he’ll send on all your things.”
“No.” Nell shook her hand, pushing Sal’s offered money away. “I won’t live my life on the run.”
“You’re not going to. I’ll tell them I pulled the trigger when we got into a fight after he told me what he’d done to Donatella. Now that he’s dead, it shouldn’t be hard to find a fair number of people who saw him around Donatella’s place at the time of the murder.” He extended the bills to Betty instead. “Take them and take her out of here. Get her as far away from Chicago as you can. I’ll tell the cops he threatened you both too, and you took off running.”
After a moment of hesitation, Betty plucked the roll from Sal’s fingers and tucked it in her breast pocket. “What about you?”
Sal gave a brave smile. “All my life, I’ve been the cat who lands on his feet. Don’t see a reason to change that now. Besides,” he shrugged, “might be a good time for a change of business.”
“No!” The numbness of the shot was wearing off at the same time the lunacy of Sal’s plan was cutting through the fog around her head. Nell clenched her hands into fists, driving her fingernails into the meat of her palms, grabbing at the pain for some sort of anchor. “I’m not letting you do this–”
“Nellie.” Sal’s voice was soft, but it cut her off as effectively as another gunshot might’ve. “I’ve done a lot of things I’m less than proud of, and I’ve done them to you, and it’s more than I can ever make up for. But you’ve always been my best girl even when I didn’t deserve it, and that’s more than any man could’ve asked for. So … let me do this, okay?”
Everybody had something they just couldn’t say no to. Swallowing a hard lump in her throat, Nell nodded. “I’m sorry, Sal. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t you be sorry. Nothing to be sorry about. I love you, Nellie.” He looked her in the eye and smiled before turning to Betty. “Take good care of her, you understand? You’re never gonna meet another lady like her, not in the whole damn world.”
“I figure,” said Betty, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
Sal frowned and gestured sharply in the direction of the door that led to the street. “Now go, before people start showing up and asking questions. Go!”
Betty took Nell’s hand and pulled her through the darkened room, weaving them both through the tables toward the door. Outside, the rain was still falling heavy, and before Betty pulled her out into the night, Nell had only a moment to look back and burn in her mind one last memory of Sal Bunicelli, waiting for the police over the body of his dead brother, wearing a strangely peaceful little smile as he lifted a hand and waved good-bye.
There was only one newsstand she’d found in the whole of Portland, Oregon, that carried the Tribune, and even that arrived at least two days late, so it wasn’t until Saturday morning that she saw the page four article about the Wednesday afternoon verdict. The jury had apparently deliberated only three hours in the trial of Mr. Salvatore Bunicelli, age 46, before returning a verdict of guilty on charges of bootlegging and not guilty on charges of murdering his younger brother, Mr. Giacomo Bunicelli; apparently, when you told twelve citizens that you’d killed a man with a history of violence in self-defense, they tended to believe you. The sentence handed down by the judge was two years, but counting time served and parole, he’d likely be out again in only a few months.
“Do you feel better?” asked Betty, peering over Nell’s shoulder and squinting at the fine black print. Her reading had improved over the past few months, but she still made Nell read the news aloud to her, complaining that papers used too-large words and too-small type.
Nell nodded and folded the paper, leaning back on the park bench. A bout of dreary winter weather had finally broken, and the sky above them was a cold, cloudless blue. “I do, actually. From what Wyatt’s said, this was about the best thing they could’ve expected. I’m sure he’s pleased.”
With a smile, Betty took Nell’s gloved hand in hers and patted her fingers. “I’m glad. I truly am.” A pair of women strolled by, pushing matching strollers, and Betty gave them a little wave; they waved back after only a moment’s hesitation, then pushed on. Betty had begun to let the blonde grow out of her hair, which somewhat diminished her ability to pass, but if the West Coast noticed, it couldn’t seem to be troubled for more than a second by a well-dressed black lady talking to an equally well-dressed white one. “So, what do you feel like doing to celebrate?”
“I don’t know.” Nell laughed because it helped her blink back the tears she felt stinging the corner of her eyes. “I could use a drink, really, but I guess there’s hardly any chance of that.”
“Maybe not,” said Betty, squeezing Nell’s fingers, “but if you want the hard stuff, there’s a place near the theater that I know for a fact serves chocolate ice cream to classy broads at 10:30 on a Saturday February morning.” Though the money from Chicago had meant neither woman had absolutely needed to find employment, after a month of being housebound and jobless, Betty had decided that sitting around in a tiny apartment was for the birds and bluffed her way into a projectionist’s job at a local movie theater. “Then maybe we can go and catch whatever’s the matinee.”
Nell folded her arms. “And neck in the back row like teenagers, you mean?”
“Hey,” Betty winked and held up her palms defensively, “you said it, not me.”
Nell laughed, not only at the suggestion, but at how perfectly ordinary it all sounded — like plans any two people in love might make. Ordinary wasn’t something she’d had a lot of practice with, after all, but she was coming to like it all the same. “Only if you promise to wink at the soda jerk a lot so he puts extra cherries on top of mine.”
“Wink yourself, pretty lady,” laughed Betty, pulling herself to her feet and brushing off her coat where she’d been sitting on the bench. “Anyway, I got a quarter that says I can eat more ice cream than you can.” She extended her hand toward Nell, beaming down with her smile a million miles wide.
Ordinary was all right, she thought, as long as Betty was there, reminding her that sometimes the simplest things could be everything she’d ever needed. “You’re on,” she laughed, setting the paper down on the bench and letting Betty help her to her feet. A light morning breeze rushed through the high, bare tree branches, ruffling the thin pages as Nell hooked her hand in the crook of Betty’s elbow, and together they walked away.