Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dan Swagger: Death Only Knocks Once - Part 1

Downtown Chicago
circa 1920's

Character Introduction: Dan Swagger is a former police officer turned private investigator. He is more cunning than brawn, but certainly isn’t one to be bullied. This is fortunate for him, because his quick wit and no nonsense attitude tends to get him into trouble. In his mid-forties, he wears ruggedly handsome features and is of medium build, but carries himself in manner more fitting of a giant without fear.

Setting: Chicago - 1927, during the heart of prohibition and at the height of gangland activity from the likes of Al “Scarface” Capone, "Bugs" Moran, and "Lucky" Luciano to name a few. With prohibition in full swing, gangs fought viciously for control over being the bootlegger of choice. With the Great Depression and Black Tuesday (stock crash of 1929) just around the corner, times were tough, making people even tougher.

Booze was not the only vice of choice of the day, there was illegal gambling, drugs, horse racing, prostitution, sports, and street fighting. Babe Ruth was at the peak of his career during this time, while Ty Cobb was in the twilight of his. In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, a record that stood until 1961. In football you had Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, and of course George Halas. Boxing, next to baseball, was the most popular sport of the time. This is the year famous boxer Jack “The Manassa Mauler” Dempsey, former heavyweight champion, is defeated for the second time by up and coming star named Gene Tunney.

Even with World War I still fresh in the minds of many Americans, the “Roaring Twenties,” was not all doom and gloom. It was also the “golden age” of industrialization, thanks in part to Henry Ford, who invented the modern assembly line and by 1927 produced over 15 million cars.


1927 - Chicago – West Side – Late Evening

The Chic Lounge, a name that would normally conjure up images of style, class, and sophistication, could never be mistaken for any of those things…least not anymore. The Lounge, as the regulars simply called it, was nestled in the blue-collar district of Melrose Park, just north of the rail yard. It was dimly lit and for good reason. The walls were draped with dark-green-pin-striped wallpaper that was old and pealing back upon itself, with stains from water damage caused by a leaky roof. At first glance it looked as if they were textured, but closer inspection revealed a caked layer of railroad dust and tobacco tar. To complete the high class ensemble, the walls were littered with bullet holes and patches where many a man's boot, fist, and skull had caused it to mysteriously cave in - it was my kind of joint.

The air was damp and heavy, and clung to you like a warm-wet blanket. When first entering 
the Lounge the smell punched you in the mouth like a drunken sailor, but after awhile, after a drink or three, you could hardly notice it. It was the kind of place where a man could come and escape from his troubles, and I had plenty of those. Speakeasies like the Lounge were hard to find after Uncle Sam had taken away a man's only true sanctuary from the real world; the solace that only a good bottle of hooch could provide.

The smoke from my gasper slowly danced skyward, diffusing with the rest of the smoke in the room, as I sat at the bar contemplating my next move. The landlord from the Beverly Manor was riding my ass hard, and the bills were piling up faster than a broad removing her nightie on her honeymoon.

Then there was Mary. Poor Mary. I hadn't had the dough to pay her in weeks. She was a good woman and deserved better. I would have been lost without her, and counted myself lucky to have her as my assistant. Times were tough; people were on the nut and just weren't letting go of their money. They held on to it like it was the last goddamn bit of breathable air. Who could blame them, but sympathy wasn't paying the bills.

"Want another, Sparky?" A voice suddenly rang out and drew me out of my self-loathing, a task normally accomplished after a good roll in the hay and a pint of cheap whiskey.

It was Lucy's voice. Sparky was her nickname for me, as it seemed that I always had a lit cigarette in my hand. She owned this fine establishment, inheriting it from her father years ago. It was once a fine dig before the O'Donnell Gang [1] moved in. A place where movers and shakers of the business world would come to stroke each other's egos and whatever else that was handy. Jack Mooneyham, Lucy's father, had a good thing going here, making a good chunk of change back in the day before prohibition. Unfortunately this caught the attention of O'Donnell and his crew and they wanted a piece of the action. Jack was a stubborn old crow and refused their advances, and I don't blame him. A man had a hard enough time making his way in the world to have some low-life street-thug come along and take what you've made for nothing. His unwillingness cost him dearly though.

O'Donnell's chopper squad gunned Jack down in broad daylight right out front. The place was packed at the time with all manner of stiff coats. No one else was killed that day, but a few stray pills did manage to find their way into the flesh of some of the more influential clientele. This was enough to drive away customers and eventually the Lounge was condemned and closed down. The O'Donnell brass lost interest and never bothered to return again. I guess there's a silver lining in everything, but damned if it wasn't hard to find these days.

Fortunately for her, Lucy was as stubborn as her old man. It took her almost two years and nearly all of her inheritance to get the Lounge open again. Damn lawyers and politicians were no better than the street scum that plagued Chi-town, sucking the money and will out of every good man. This was evident by what had become of the Lounge, and by the looks on the mugs of its beat-down patrons, me included. During the shooting of old Jack, one stray bullet struck the neon sign out front causing the `Chic' part of the sign to go black. Ironically appropriate I always thought.

"Sparky, you want another or what?" She pressed again.

Without looking I waved my hand nonchalantly, "Nah, I'm still working on this one, doll."

She returned a raised eyebrow and a lopsided grin as she dried a tall glass with a dirty towel before walking away. I looked down and found my choke stick burned down to my fingers, the ash trail defying gravity, and my scotch glass empty. I chuckled, and with the wit of a crusty old mule I said, "Well, I guess time flies when you’re having fun."

Speaking of time, I pulled out my pocket watch and according to my ticker it was five minutes past ten. Frank had called and told me to meet him there over an hour ago. It wasn't like him to be this late. Frank was an old associate of mine; a fellow dick. Hell, I assumed he just wanted to have a smell from the barrel and shoot the shit. He never did say exactly why he wanted to meet up so late. No skin off my nose, I didn't need an excuse to dip the bill and hang out with my old gal Lucy.

The years hadn't been too kind to her, but you couldn't blame her for that. A place like the Lounge leeches the life right out of you, especially with hammer and saws on the prowl itching to make a name for themselves. I imagine in her heyday she was a fine looking dame. I never did ask her where she got her giggle juice from, or better yet, how she managed to keep the coppers off her ass. It was none of my business as far as I was concerned, and frankly, I didn't want to know. Hell, as long as my glass was full and I was left alone, that was good enough for me. Lucy was a sharp and resourceful woman; I'm sure she cut a deal with someone. Illegal or not, you had to admire her tenacity. She was one of the few people that got my smart-ass sense of humor. She gave as good as she got, and I adored her for that.

Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head and it was Lucy again.

"That woman over there wants to buy you a drink," she said pointing, before setting a glass down in front of me. "It's your favorite…Scotch on the rocks. The good stuff," she finished with a wink.

I turned in the direction of her pointing and gazed through the haze of cigarette smoke to find a pair of long legs staring back at me from across the room. In a booth was a woman. Her back was turned to me, and all that was exposed was a slender arm grasping a whisky glass, her wrist wrapped in silver and diamonds, and of course a pair of gams, which were crossed at the ankle and protruding out from the table - by no accident that I was sure of. I followed the line running down the middle of her stockings down to her shoes. Red high heels, open toed, fine leather and of substantial quality. It was clear that this dish was one of considerable means, or at least that was the impression she wanted to project. Not the kind of broad you would normally find in this part of town or in a place like this for sure. I wondered how I could have missed such a fine looking skirt upon my arrival. Surely I would have noticed her coming in the door.

Perhaps I had put down more drinks than I recalled?


[1] The O'Donnell Gang, better know as the "Westside O'Donnells," was a real bootlegging gang that controlled the better part of the West side of Chicago. The leader of the gang was Myles O'Donnell, who came from a poor, Catholic, Irish American family. Interestingly enough Myles had connections with and was an ally of Al Capone back when Capone was a lieutenant in the Chicago Outfit, then headed up by mob boss Johnny Torrio.

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination

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