Seriously though, this one was so much fun to write. The Turks make excellent mobsters.
Title: Smooth Shuffle
Warnings: violence and an OC narrator (although he's really not that bad once you get to know him)
Word count: 3202
A/N: A little bit of 1920s slang - a speakeasy was an illegal, underground locale for partaking of a drink (or three) during the Prohibition. Everything other than that should be pretty easily understood.
Summary: 1927, Chicago. One of Big Man Maud's men goes out to dig up some dirt on the Shinra gang.
He really hadn’t expected it to be this busy, though.
The Lucky Seven was the newest speakeasy in town, one of the dozens that had sprung up around Chicago in the wake of the prohibition drought. That it was run by bootleggers went entirely without saying; there was enough alcohol flowing over the counters to keep even the surliest gangster happy and enough muscle at the door to keep the hell-raising types from trying anything. The fuzz probably got paid a tidy profit to keep the place a poorly kept secret – it wouldn’t be near so permanent looking if the owners were worried about having to run. And it was a happening joint, far more than just another back door dive. There was gambling here some days and live jazz that apparently brought in near as many people as the bootleg – no mean feat in Chicago.
Of course, the fact that it was owned by the Shinra gang probably had a lot to do with that.
Bobby ordered himself a drink, determined not to feel nervous about being so deep in another gang’s turf. The Shinras had been making a real name for themselves among the racketeers and rum runners in the city these last few months, and their reputation for being efficient, ruthless and very, very dangerous made Bobby more than a little leery of being here at all.
A glass slid Bobby’s way, alcohol slopping over the brim and splashing on his fingers as it skidded to a halt. Which was more than unusual – with the premium price bootlegs went at, most speakeasies barely even served half pints, let alone glasses so full that the alcohol sloshed out at the slightest provocation. And that, Bobby reflected as he took a tentative swill of surprisingly non-watered whisky, went a long way to explaining why gangland was abuzz over the Shinras right now. If all their operations were run as smoothly as this joint, they’d put two thirds of Chicago out of business without half trying.
Starting with Big Man Maud’s boys, the rival gang on the other side of the river.
Big Man Maud hadn’t been able to tell him too much about Shinra’s operations, except that the boss man called himself Tseng. This Tseng was a cold bastard by all accounts, pitiless and calculating and clever enough to convince his own mother to sell herself to line his pockets. He ran things from the shadows, avoiding the limelight most of the mob kingpins tended to adore and commanding the loyalty of his men with an ease that made Bobby’s head spin.
Tseng spent most of his time in the Lucky Seven, the word went, overseeing his growing empire with a drink in one hand and a sawed off shotgun in the other. Folks said he had the black hair and yellow skin of a foreigner, and some kind of tribal tattoo on his forehead that might have been a sword or a dragon or both. And any outsiders who’d seen him apparently hadn’t lived long enough to tell the tale clearer than that.
Bobby wasn’t particularly looking forward to finding out how true that last part was.
“I ain’t seen you around here before,” a voice purred suddenly in his ear and Bobby froze, every nerve in his body screaming at him to run. But he mustered up the courage to turn towards the speaker instead, forcing as much cool dignity into his expression as he could manage.
It was a dame. Bobby blinked, surprised, taking in rouged lips and dark eyes that glittered wickedly from beneath long lashes. She was casually elegant in a rich blue dress and feathered headband, her stocking-clad legs looking slim and lovely in high heeled shoes. Her bobbed hair was perfectly coiffed, shining like gold under the electric lights.
Bobby would have recognized her anywhere.
“Not even a hello for a pretty lady, stranger?” she asked, with a pretty little pout, and Bobby tipped his hat hurriedly.
“Good evening, Miss Elena,” he answered. “Are you performing tonight?”
Surprise flicked briefly through her eyes and she laughed, low and sultry. “Goodness,” she declared. “Maybe you’re not as much of a stranger as I thought. You certainly know who I am well enough.”
“Why Miss Elena,” he responded, hoping for suave and feeling his blood warm when she smiled at him. “I’d expect most everyone in Chicago knows you.”
And he wasn’t exaggerating much either. Elena was one of the most popular singers in the city, and not just because she was so pretty.
The Lucky Seven had become her favourite haunt recently, Bobby recalled, and the place had been even busier because of it. Rumour had it that she was Tseng’s girl, though she was a little too free with her time and smiles for most to believe it. Bobby could easily see her in the role though – it took a special kind of dame to be a gangster’s moll and everyone said Miss Elena was tough as a steel blade and twice as deadly.
Especially when she smiled at him like that, secret and wicked. “Buy me a drink stranger?” she purred, dark eyes shining.
“Oh!” Bobby exclaimed, feeling foolish. “Of course!” He got hurriedly to his feet and gestured eagerly, heart tripping when she took his offered arm to settle herself. Her head tilted expectantly and he signaled the help with an impatient hand.
The bartender, a big negro with a double row of silver glittering in each ear, loomed forward obediently.
Elena glanced up at the man, bold and fearlessly confident as she met his eyes. “The usual.” The negro bowed his head and lumbered off towards the liquor cabinets.
Elena propped her cheek against one slim-fingered hand. “So stranger,” she drawled, eyes flicking over Bobby with obvious interest. “What brings you out tonight?”
“A drink of something stronger than water,” Bobby shrugged, hoping it came off more casual than he felt. He took a hasty swallow of whiskey to cover his nerves, sure he was imagining the amused tilt to her smile as she watched him. The liquor burned as it hit the back of his throat – it really was extraordinarily good stuff – and he tried to smile charmingly amid the tears welling at the corners of his eyes. “The chance to hear you sing will just make my evening all that much better.”
The bartender’s hand introduced itself between the two of them, a strange, twisting red tattoo dancing across the back of his knuckles as he placed Elena’s drink on the bar. Elena smiled her thanks and the man nodded silently before looming off to help someone else.
Her hair spilled artfully across her shoulders as she tilted her head to take a drink, sunshine bright against her pale skin. Bobby swallowed hard.
“Mmmm,” she murmured with a lick of her lips, eyes walking up and down Bobby like a caress. “Nothing like a real drink to start the evening off right.”
“It’s a fine bootleg,” Bobby felt compelled to offer, half of his attention on a gaggle of rough-edged toughs who were squeezing their way in through the bottleneck at the door.
Elena didn’t seem to notice his preoccupation. “Best this side of the river,” she agreed, tilting the glass again.
“I hear tell you’ve been performing here a lot recently,” Bobby observed, carefully casual. “The Shinras make it worth your while?”
She gave him a look and Bobby held his breath, sure he’d just blown his cover in a colossally pathetic way. And to a dame at that.
But it seemed like Elena thought he was flirting, not fishing, because the next smile she gave him made his trousers feel suddenly tight. “Everything I do is worth my while,” she purred, the casual hand she laid on Bobby’s thigh giving a heady meaning to the words. Her brown eyes glittered with promise as she added, “I make sure of it.”
“Ah,” Bobby coughed nervously and took another drink to wet his suddenly dry throat. “That’s good.” He was getting off track, he realized, and much as he’d love to pursue the current tone of the evening, Big Man Maud would skin him alive if he let himself get distracted by a pretty face. Even one as pretty as Elena’s.
He covered his distraction by taking another look around the room, watching the crowd and wondering how many of the men were Tseng’s. “This place is even better than I heard,” he admitted, telling himself it was okay to sound a little impressed because of the situation. Even though he wasn’t. Really. “The Shinras should be able to take you far if you stick with ‘em.”
Elena shrugged, a careless ripple of smooth shoulders. “For now at least. No one stays on top forever.” Her lashes dipped coyly. “And I prefer to keep my… options open.”
“So you’re not Tseng’s moll?” Bobby blurted without thinking, and immediately wished he hadn’t when something warning flashed in Elena’s dark eyes.
He braced himself for a scathing retort, but Elena surprised him by gracing him with nothing more than a mysterious smile. “Do you see Tseng here?” she asked, idly challenging as she leaned back against the bar, straight dress clinging to her slim frame.
Bobby’s face felt awfully hot. “N-no,” he admitted, reaching again for his glass only to find it empty.
Elena purred, smugly self-satisfied. “Me either.”
Mellow, discordant strands of music slipped suddenly into the general hubbub of the room, and Bobby glanced over his shoulder to see the evening’s entertainment tuning their pieces, saxophone and clarinet and brass tumbling together in a jangling knot of off-key scales.
Elena followed his look and straightened with a faintly regretful air. “I suppose that’s my cue.” She ran a leisurely hand through her hair, smoothing it into place as she tipped back the last of her liquor. Her dress swished about her rouged knees as she slid off the bar stool and Bobby pulled his eyes away with an effort.
She gave him a sly little wink. “Thanks for the drink stranger,” she purred, and Bobby felt the sudden urge to pull nervously on his tie.
“My pleasure,” he managed back. “Um…I’m not leaving just yet, perhaps… if you like, I’ll buy you another when your set’s done?”
Her head tilted in a mixture of amusement, interest and something else Bobby couldn’t quite name. “We’ll see,” was all she said before sauntering off towards the bandstand, hair and skirt swinging in time.
Bobby slumped back onto the stool in an almost-daze, eyes drawn helplessly to the subtle curve of Elena’s spine beneath her straight-backed dress, the twin diamonds tattooed neatly on her shoulder blades. He wasn’t the only one watching.
The band greeted her enthusiastically as she drew near, a red-headed horn player waving her over to him with a salacious grin. He was slumped back on his elbows against the set, horn dangling loosely from one hand and a half-empty tankard occupying the other. A matched set of tattoos under his eyes gave his face a slightly devilish cast, though they didn’t attract nearly so much attention as the bright fire-red tail of hair snaking down over his white-clad shoulder.
Or the way he stretched up to whisper in Elena’s ear, back arched suggestively and voice little more than a rumbling purr amid the din. And then she laughed, a low, wicked sound that drew the immediate attention of every mac in the room, and Bobby found himself glaring daggers at the smugly grinning horn man, helplessly jealous.
Bobby ordered another drink while the band finished tuning, wondering what on earth he was going to tell Big Man Maud about this joint. Somehow, he doubted his boss much cared how good the liquor was and Bobby hadn’t learned much more about this Tseng except he had good taste in singers and bad taste in horn players.
The first few notes of the Kansas City Shuffle rippled through the room and Bobby gave up on thinking for the time being. Elena was even more stunning up on the stage, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glittering in a perfect counterpoint to the low, mellow honey of her voice. The murmur of the room was lower now, heads turning and talk falling off in the wake of the swirling jazz.
Bobby did his best to keep his mind on the job, eyes casting about for something, anything he could bring back to his boss after being gone so long. It was hard to get a good feel of the place when it was so full though, and the playful, sultry wash of Elena’s voice kept distracting him from counting how many people had a key to the back door. He gave up altogether when he realized that she was watching him from the stage, a secretive little smile flicking across her face when she caught him looking back. It was more than enough to convince him to stay in his seat, eager and impatient for later.
He lingered at the bar as the set ended, craning his neck and skimming the room for where Elena had gone. Patrons and toughs churned around him, brandishing empty glasses and making it hard to see.
Bobby’s heart fell when he finally spotted her, laughing and smiling along the far wall, completely at ease with the proprietary arm of some dark-haired mac slung around her waist. Her smile faltered slightly when she caught Bobby’s eye and she shrugged helplessly, an apologetic tilt to her head making blue feathers sway prettily against her shoulder.
The mac holding her followed her gaze and Bobby found himself being glared at from across the length of the room, coal-dark eyes fixing on him from beneath the brim of a black fedora.
The man’s hand tightened on Elena’s waist and she laughed. She offered Bobby a wry smile, the twinkle in her eye more of a question than a refusal. So Bobby raised a hand in response – to both of them, though for different reasons – then drained the last of his glass and stood, wobbling only slightly as he made his way towards the door.
He’d just come back another day. Elena might be a good source for digging up dirt on the Shinras, after all, and Bobby was sure Big Man Maud wouldn’t object to him becoming a more regular patron of the Lucky Seven if it helped them take down the Shinras.
And if Bobby got to enjoy more of Elena’s… company in the process, well, he’d just consider that a bonus to a job well done.
It was a tight squeeze to extricate himself out the packed doorway but Bobby managed it eventually, the chill night air cold on his face as he stumbled into the street. Everything was slick and damp with fog, ghostly in the light from the street lamps, and the steady lap of the river murmured in time with the buzz in Bobby’s blood as he headed off in what he thought was generally the right direction.
There were always pockets of ruffians and call girls slumming through the streets after dark, this was Chicago, so Bobby didn’t think much of it when a lanky figure slouched out from between the shadows on his right. A flicker of red in the dark made him pause though, recognition sparking in the back of his whiskey-damped mind.
“You’re that horn player,” he observed, muzzily. “From the Lucky Seven.”
There was a flash of white teeth in the dark when the figure smiled.
“Bobby Blake?” the mac asked, his voice like the rough purr of whiskey over ice, and Bobby nodded. “Got a message for you.”
“A message?” Bobby repeated, blinking. He swayed in place as the horn man ambled closer, hands in his pockets. “From Elena?”
The man stopped a few feet away, expression bored. “Nah.” His arm snapped up and Bobby only dimly heard the discharge as the bullet hit him, agony ripping through the haze of good alcohol like nothing else could. A second shot caught him in the gut and he staggered back hard, blood spilling hot and slick over his hands.
Calmly holstering his gun, the horn man smirked. “That was from Tseng. I’d tell you to let Big Man Maud know we don’t appreciate snoops round here but,” a careless shrug, “I don’t like wasting time talking to dead men.”
Bobby swayed dangerously on his feet, hand shaking as he reached for his gun. The smell of gunpowder was sharp on the air, mixing unpleasantly with the copper tang of blood. His eyes wouldn’t focus. Bobby’s knees buckled and his gun clattered noisily to the ground as he toppled bonelessly backwards.
Something solid caught hold of him before he hit the ground, and Bobby squinted desperately at twisting tattoos and large dark hands, black as the night around them. The barkeep.
The scuff of feet made him turn his head, and Bobby was at once shocked and completely unsurprised to see Elena and the dark-haired mac from inside standing against the side of the speakeasy. The man’s fedora was gone and Bobby could see the small circle tattooed in the middle of his forehead, his skin tinted yellow in the pooling light of the streetlamps. Tseng.
Elena’s expression was blank and professional, as completely unlike the flirty flapper inside as night was to day. She was dressed like a man, in flat shoes and a double-breasted blue suit that swelled with the bulk of a holstered gun, her feathered headdress replaced by a wide brimmed hat that kept her hair back from her face. Her lips were still rouged.
She said nothing, no hint of apology in her dark eyes, and Bobby suddenly wanted to laugh. They’d suckered him in completely. Big Man Maud really didn’t know what he was getting himself into, gunning after these guys.
He couldn’t feel his legs. Tseng said something that Bobby didn’t catch above the roaring in his ears, and a splash of red flicked in the corner of his eye as the horn man nodded. The arms holding him tightened and lifted, and Bobby felt himself being dragged away from the road, the rushing noise of the river growing louder and louder. The horn man fell in step beside the negro, chattering aimlessly, and Bobby watched numbly as Tseng and Elena turned away, the both of them disappearing into the dark Chicago shadows without so much as a backwards glance. Elena’s hair flashed brightly in the dark, still as beautiful as spun gold, and Bobby found himself strangely, impossibly smiling.
He’d known she’d make a killer moll.
The Kansas City Shuffle – Bennie Moten (Chicago, 1926)
Its a blindfold kick back type of a game
Callled the Kansas City Shuffle
Whereas you look left and they fall right
Into the Kansas City Shuffle
Its a they-think you-think you don't know
Type of Kansas City hustle
Where you take your time
Wait your turn
And hang them up, and out to dry
Type of Kansas City Shuffle
Gotta' make both sides and let it ride
On the Kansas City Shuffle
Now the tables turned the lessons learned
You've gotta earn yourself some trouble
Revenge like this, never sweet-
You've got yourself a long ride home