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Authors: Melanie Harlow

Speak Low

BOOK: Speak Low
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Speak Low

 

Melanie Harlow

Copyright © 2013 Melanie Harlow

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.

ISBN-13: 978-1493563340

ISBN-10: 1493563343

This is a work of fiction. References to real people, places, organizations, events, and products are intended to provide a sense of authenticity and are used fictitiously. All characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and not to be construed as real

This book is dedicated

to the readers of Speak Easy,

who cannot resist a cocktail

and a man in a three-piece suit.

Chapter One

 

Saturday, July 21st, 1923

 

I stood at the door and watched the red Buick tear down the street, my lips buzzing and my head spinning.

Joey had kissed me. Again. But for real this time.

I brought my trembling fingers to my mouth and closed my eyes. I could still see the barely-suppressed fury on Joey’s face as he put everything together—my uncharacteristic nervousness, the thousands of dollars in cash I’d just handed over, the diamonds at my throat.

He knows.

He hadn’t said so, not in so many words, but Joey and I had known each other for years. And even though we’d spent most of them at each other’s throats, for him to get worked up enough to kiss me like that could only mean one thing: he realized what I’d done with Enzo.

Which was everything.

Twice.

At the thought of Enzo’s naked body pressing against mine, my breath caught and my insides went weightless. For a moment I was back in his bed, pulling him deeper. A wave of arousal swept through me, and I leaned against the doorjamb for support, my knees nearly buckling. When my body felt grounded again, I opened my eyes and frowned in the direction of the Buick. Anger pinched off the warmth inside me.
Go to hell, Joey Lupo!

Not once in seven years had he done anything but tease me and pick fights, and the one time he had kissed me, he’d made it clear he was only pretending we were a couple to fool the Prohibition agents who’d spotted our boat full of bootleg whisky on the lake. Now just because someone else had gotten their hands on me—as well as some other body parts—he got proprietary. Well, tough!

And he hadn’t even given me a reason. He just announced I was making a mistake and grabbed me, muttering some nonsense about how he knew me, how he’s always known me.

Huffing an angry breath, I slammed the door.
Screw you, Joey. I don’t care how long you’ve known me or how much you helped me when my family was in trouble or how tempting your mouth is. That doesn’t give you the right to judge me for my choices or tell me I’m making a mistake or kiss me with those perfect fucking lips. Goddamn you!
I stomped up the stairs to my bedroom and slammed that door too. The more I thought about it, the madder I got—mad at Joey for kissing me, of course, but the truth was, I was just as angry at myself for wanting that kiss.

For enjoying it.

Going straight to the dresser, I placed the diamond and pearl choker Enzo had given me into its blue Tiffany box and clapped it closed. Then I grabbed my hairbrush and yanked it furiously through my hair, eyeing my flushed face in the mirror. How dare he make me feel guilty about finally going after something I want for myself! Damn him for waiting so long to show me he felt something for me.
And damn him to hell for making me feel something for him that has me questioning everything right now!

Hurling the hairbrush across the room, I took satisfaction in the loud thwack it made against the wall. In fact, it felt so good I scanned the dresser for something else to throw. My eyes fell on the blue box, and I nearly picked it up. Instead I braced both hands on the dresser top, stared hard at my reflection, and took a deep breath. And then another.

A memory surfaced.

A few nights ago, I’d stood here in my room wearing nothing but that necklace as I touched Enzo in ways Joey could only dream about.
Let him dream, then. So he’s mad, so what?
Served him right. Maybe I’d enjoyed that phony embrace in the boat last week, and maybe the impulsive kiss downstairs had me worked up a bit, but I wasn’t the same person he’d known all those years—and if I wanted to make a mistake with my life, it was mine to make.

Because if that mistake was tall, dark, handsome as a movie star and supremely talented with his tongue, then I was willing to risk it.

“You don’t know me, Joe Lupo,” I whispered to my reflection. “You don’t know anything.”

I felt superior for exactly ten seconds, which is how long it took me to remember that Enzo was counting on me to stay friendly with Joey so I could get some information from him. Specifically, Enzo wanted a way to get back at the River Gang and its leader, Sam the Barber Scarfone, for hijacking a shipment of booze he’d been expecting from the east coast a few days ago. It hadn’t just been any old shipment—hidden somewhere in the cargo was forty thousand dollars worth of opium, which even the hijackers hadn’t known about. Briefly I wondered what had happened when they discovered it. Joey worked for the River Gang, and he had just returned from Chicago, where they’d sold the hijacked load, but he hadn’t mentioned the drugs.

Then again, he’d only been at my house for about five minutes before he got angry, kissed me, and stormed out.

“Shit,” I muttered. I’d have to make nice with him again if I had any hope of discovering where the gang’s next load of booze would come from and when it would arrive. Fear shimmied up my spine, cold and unwelcome. Enzo had promised not to hurt Joey if I came through with the right information, and though he hadn’t given me a deadline, I knew I’d better act quickly.

Trust was shaky between us, to say the least.

I had to think of a way to get Joey to reveal something to me before Enzo decided to take retribution into his own hands. Maybe the best way to do that would be to come clean with Joey and see if we could get back to normal. Our version of normal, anyway, which involved a lot of bickering and frustration, but it was a hell of a lot more comfortable than what had transpired by the front door. I touched my mouth again…had Joey’s lips really rested there just minutes ago? How many times had I allowed myself a little fantasy about it?

Too many.

I need a cigarette.

After searching my usual hiding spots and coming up empty, I decided to walk to the small grocery store my older sister Bridget owned to grab a pack. She had taken her three boys and our two younger sisters on a trip to the beach on the other side of the state, so I wouldn’t have to worry about a lecture from her, although it seemed ridiculous to me that I was still sneaking around like a child in order to smoke. I smoothed my white blouse over the plain black skirt I wore, found a decent-looking hat in my sisters’ room, and locked the front door behind me.

My stomach growled as I headed down the block and smelled a neighbor’s dinner cooking. I ignored it and wrapped my arms around my empty belly, frowning at my scuffed oxfords. Last night Enzo had promised to pay me handsomely if I helped him recover his losses from the River Gang—enough to cover nursing school tuition in the fall, and then some.

Those damn schoolgirl shoes would go first thing.

I’ll get some new clothes. No more stained blouses or skirts I’ve worn since high school. For God’s sake, I’m twenty years old, I survived kidnapping at gunpoint, and I’m sleeping with a gangster.
Stretching out my strides, I tried to walk a little taller, which wasn’t easy for someone who measured under five feet.

The other luxury I wanted was my own apartment. Daddy would probably put up a big stink since it would mean leaving him to tend to the girls and the house on his own, but Mary Grace was ten and Molly was nearly sixteen—the same age I was when Bridget left home to get married. I’d been keeping house and mothering two girls long enough. Now it was my turn to have a little freedom, a little fun. Even if all I could afford was a little room in a boarding house where I could come and go as I pleased, it would be better than living at home.

I turned left into the alley that ran behind the store, and right away I saw the dark sedan parked behind Daddy’s auto repair shop. Narrowing my eyes, I focused on the back door—it was open a crack. The back of my neck prickled. I knew it wasn’t Daddy inside, and the nondescript car screamed cops to me. Halting my steps, I debated whether to turn around and hightail it back home or find out who was in there. But I took too long to decide, and when three men exited through the back door, they saw me.

“There she is.” Martin, the grocery store’s assistant manager, followed two unfamiliar men in suits into the alley. “Tiny, these men are federal agents. They’re looking for your father.”

He and I exchanged a careful look. Martin knew about my father’s neighborhood whisky business as well as the work he did rebuilding cars and hearses for other bootleggers, but his face gave nothing away. I was damn glad he didn’t know anything about the events of last week.

“Oh?” I kept an even tone as I walked toward the suits, sizing them up as they flashed badges at me. The one in brown was younger, ginger-haired, and overweight, sweating profusely in the summer afternoon heat. The older one wore blue; he was dark-haired, beady-eyed, and smaller-framed, and he too was mopping his face with a handkerchief. “My father isn’t here. Can I help you?”

“My name is Agent Thomas, and this is Agent Janssen,” said the one in blue. “We’re with the Prohibition Bureau. Your name?” He traded the handkerchief for a small pad of paper and a pencil from inside his coat.

“Frances O’Mara.” I racked my brain, trying to remember what damning evidence could be in the garage. All the booze had been removed, and I was pretty sure all the rebuilt hearses were gone too. They’d been sold last week.

“But you go by another name?” The agent glanced at Martin, who’d just used the nickname I’d had since birth.

“Tiny,” I clarified through gritted teeth. I really needed to ditch the childhood moniker along with the old clothes, but being called Frances didn’t appeal much to me either.

He nodded and continued writing, while I imagined
Alias, Tiny
being scratched in lead on the little white pad.

“Excuse me, but what is this about?” I asked him. “May I ask why you were in the garage?”

“We’re looking for your father in connection with a crime that took place Wednesday evening of last week: a liquor heist, during which a few men were killed. We have reason to believe Jack O’Mara may have been involved, or at least supplied the vehicles used by the perpetrators. We have a warrant to search the premises.” He didn’t offer to show it to me.

“Do you know where he was that night?” asked Agent Janssen.

“Yes. He was traveling in Ohio last week. For business.” Actually he’d been a hostage of Angel DiFiore last week, and I knew he’d had nothing to do with the crime these agents were referring to—the River Gang’s heist of Enzo’s shipment. It was me who’d sold those hearses to the River Gang, because I’d needed the money for Daddy’s ransom.

“Where in Ohio?” Thomas queried.

“I’m not sure exactly. Around Cleveland maybe?” I met his eyes and widened mine slightly as I lifted my shoulders. Y
ou catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

“And he’s still in Ohio?” asked Janssen.

“As far as I know.” A hidden drop of sweat rolled down my chest.

“Gentlemen, I think you’ve taken up enough of Miss O’Mara’s time, and I should return to the store. You’ve searched the garage and found nothing of interest. Why don’t you wait for Mr. O’Mara to return and talk to him yourselves?” Martin had an open, honest face, and with his neatly combed hair and polished spectacles, he looked like the dentist he was studying to be, not someone engaged in criminal activity.

Thomas ignored him. “Miss O’Mara, when do you expect your father back?”

“Oh, probably within a day or so. Shall I have him contact you when he returns?” I spoke sweetly, coating the lies with sugar. The sun was at my back, which meant it was shining directly in their eyes, and the brims of their hats weren’t keeping their faces too cool. I could tell Janssen wanted to finish with me and get in the shade as quickly as possible.

But Thomas spoke up again. “One more thing. Does this guy look familiar to you?” He reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a photograph—a mug shot. I leaned forward and pretended to scrutinize it.

“Have you ever seen him around here, maybe talking to your father? Could he be a customer at the garage?”

The young man in the photo was perfectly familiar.

“No,” I lied. “I have no idea who that is. Never seen him before.”

I had to find Joey. Immediately.

#

After reassuring Martin that everything was OK—which, in fact, it was not—I swiped a pack of cigarettes from behind the store counter, raced home, and called Joey’s mother’s apartment, where he was staying. His older sister Marie answered and said he wasn’t home but she’d tell him to telephone me as soon as he returned. I replaced the receiver on the hook and chewed my nails, trying to think of where he might have gone. It was warm and stuffy in the house, and my head felt sweaty in the hat, so I tossed it aside and opened all the windows on the first floor. Just as I finished, the telephone rang.

Eagerly, I raced for it and scooped up the earpiece. “Hello?”

“Tiny, there you are!” The voice was my best friend Evelyn’s.

“Evvy, I’m sorry we haven’t spoken in—”

“Days!” she exclaimed. “It’s been days, you naughty girl. You left the club Wednesday night before all the excitement and I haven’t heard from you since!”

“I know, I’m sorry. I’ve been…busy.” I actually hadn’t left Club 23 before the raid alarms went off—Enzo and I were upstairs in his father’s office, where I’d left my virginity, my sanity, and my purse. “Did you make it out OK? I heard it wasn’t really a raid, just a false alarm.”

“Oh yeah, we were fine. It was all very exciting, actually. Ted and I can’t stop talking about it.” The lilt in her voice told me she was dying for me to ask.

“Ted? That’s the guy you met that night?”

“Yes, and he’s wonderful. I’ve seen him every evening since, and he’s taking me dancing tonight,” she bubbled. “He’s so handsome and sweet and he loves the movies like I do, and he’s come into the bakery twice to see me.”

“I’m so happy for you, Evelyn. You deserve someone like that.” I scratched at a nick in the wooden telephone table with my thumbnail.

“So…” Evelyn prompted. “Tell me what’s new with Mr. Dangerous. You were right—he does look like a Hollywood film star. Have you seen much of him?”

BOOK: Speak Low
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