By September of 1929 Leon Rosier was known throughout Brooklyn as “Prince of the Speakeasies,” or simply “the Prince,” so named for his wealth, power, and especially looks. The typical saloonkeeper was at least in his thirties when he got his start; the Prince was now 26. (A business savvy prodigy, the more naive patrons thought.) His fellow mobsters were grown men with crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes, forced to rely on their money and charm to build up their collections of mistresses; Leon would’ve been popular if he were a hobo. Tall and tanned, with a sharp face and shadowed eyes, he was used to the complimentary comparisons to Rudolph Valentino. In addition to the businessman, politicians, and mob bosses who attended his wild parties, the Prince saw no shortage of flappers, gun molls, actresses and heiresses racing to leave a signature of lipstick on the living Sheik’s cheek.
Rosier’s modest empire ran through New York in the forms of liquor shipments, narcotics, protection rackets, and especially speakeasies. Of the latter, he had almost twenty throughout the city, all classy, but there were none he was more proud of than the Rosa Damascena. The Rosa Damascena was said to be downright magical. This reputation was due to a combination of the bar’s elegance and class, combined with its mysterious location. All that any of the Rosa’s visitors could say was that it was underground, since you took an elevator and a lot of descending staircases to get there, and when you finally did you’d find no windows.
As far as the cops were concerned, Rosier was no Al Capone or Arnold Rothstein; there was a reason he was only prince of the speakeasies and not the “emperor.” Rosier was cautious, and barely made it into papers. If he violated any law more serious than the Volstead Act, he hid it well. But rumors circulated of his secret involvement with crimes far more sinister than bootlegging, with the most widespread accusation being that all of his earnings from the liquor business were small change compared to his real career: mafia hitman. But on the surface, he remained unconnected to any murders, never even showing up on a suspect list, and the gossip remained just that.
The Prince’s story ends and the Beast’s story beings on October 24th, 1929. But even the most shocking of events rarely happen completely out of the blue, so we’re going to take you just a few days back, to the evening of October 18th.
At the start of that evening Leon Rosier was pissed. He was pissed because he was trying to get rid of a snooping cop, but he couldn’t do it the simple way. Dispatching fellow thugs was easy; few people lost sleep over another dead mobster found in a river. But a missing cop would cross the line. Of course, tying a cop to a chair in a shed and threatening him probably crossed it a little bit too.
“If I die,” the cop said calmly, “they’re eventually gonna find out.”
“Cuz you people are just that good at solving murders,” Leon muttered, sticking a new cigarette in his teeth and striking a match.
“Why don’t you just shoot me? Why waste the time or effort on threats? I think it’s ’cause you know that if we ever found a corpse anyone actually cared about, my superiors might actually put some effort into their investigations.”
Leon casually sized up his guest under heavy eyelids. The policeman was maybe a decade older than Leon, a stocky guy in a bulky raincoat, mirroring Leon’s unimpressed stare. Leon vaguely knew the guy. He was some Irishman who apparently had nothing better to do with his time than pursue cases the other cops had already lost interest in. Flanking the prisoner’s chair were Leon’s two closest associates: David Mintz, his blonde beanpole errand boy, and Benjamin “Bats” Shapiro, a fellow hitman who could rival Leon in looks, and was miles ahead in bloodlust. Girls who found Leon’s Hollywood handsomeness boring were usually drawn to Bat’s dark brooding looks and scared eye. Which was a good thing, because Leon never liked to think about what might happen the day Bats eventually took a liking to a girl who wasn’t interested.
“And why would they care about some beat cop who stuck his nose in my neighborhood against orders?” Leon retorted finally.
The cop pursed his lips and shrugged. “My fiancé would be hounding them to do something, for starters.”
Leon felt one eyebrow creep up. “That has got to be the dodgiest form of begging I’ve ever heard.”
“Do I at least get points for creativity?”
This cop was admittedly a slightly more unique sort than the others Leon had encountered, which meant his absence might indeed be more noticeable than the average dunderhead. Probably should outta’ let him go.
“What’s more important to you then, Moon,” Leon finally asked. “that pretty little fiancé, or nabbing me?”
“It’s Mooney,” the cop finally said. “And yeah, comparing you to her is like comparing a dung beetle to the Mona Lisa. So if you say you spent last Valentine’s Day visiting your mother, fine, I don’t even give a damn anymore. A few more dead gangsters over in Chicago, what do I care.”
Next to the chair, David Mintz finally offered some input. “Well admittedly, they were your fellow countrymen.”
Mooney snapped, “Bugs Moran’s thugs are no more my ‘fellow Irishmen’ than you lot are ‘fellow Jews’ to my landlady. Speaking of which Rosier, I’ve decided to be nice, and not ask where you were last year when Arnold Rothstein was shot at the Park Central.”
Leon’s teeth immediately clenched so tightly he damn near bit his cigarette in half. Removing the joint in a shaky attempt at suaveness, he said, “Then we’re in agreement.” He jerked his head to Mintz and Bats. “Untie him.”
“Yep,” Mooney moved out of the chair as Mintz untied him as if being courteously unbuckled from a roller coaster. “I figure one of your ‘friends’ will finish you off for us pretty soon anyway. And we won’t care about you any more than we did Rothstein and Big Jim.”
As he was speaking, Leon was unlocking the shed door and shoving it opened with a loud creak. “You have exactly one minute to fuck off before I change my mind.” He gracefully gestured towards the doorway.
Officer Mooney retrieved his fedora from the ground and shook it off as he walked briskly out of the shed and into the woods.
Bats Lupo raised his gun and hissed eagerly, “Now?”
Leon shot his friend look. “Now what?”
Bats’ green eyes moved from Leon to the fleeing cop, and he gestured with his gun, honestly confused.
“Were you listening to any of that?” Leon snapped, stunned by his friend’s stupidity. Or more likely, insanity.
Bats turned to Mintz, who spelled it out for him. “Another crazy rumor about the Prince of the Rumrunners versus an actual dead fucking cop. Which do you think our boss would prefer?”
Clearly pissed at being denied a killing, Bats lowered his pistol.
“Orders, my prince?” Mintz asked testily, flicking some blond hair out of his face with his own gun, which he carried more as a fashion statement than anything else.
Now facepalming, Leon mumbled, “Get ready for work, it’s almost time to open up the Rosa. I gotta go pick up…what’s-her-name. Bats, go wherever you want, just try not to kill anyone for Christ’s sake.”
About an hour later Leon was stepping out of a long car in a navy blue pinstriped suit with his signature rose pinned to the label, and a flapper hooked around his arm. This one was a particularly zealous brunette named Fiffi…Or Francine…something French. If she’d seen any evidence that she wasn’t his only girlfriend, she either didn’t care, or just kept forgetting about it as she ingested more booze and drugs and loud swing music. She’d gotten the night off to an early start, and it was painfully obvious that he was helping her out of the car not for so much for chivalry’s sake as the fact that she couldn’t currently stand.
Well, this was embarrassing. Leon’s was one of a row of townhouses on the ritzy side of town. The front light was on, and people were flocking to the front door, where a butler would lead them through a short maze to the secret speakeasy. Luckily most of the guests were too distracted by their excitement to see the Rosa Damaskena to notice their host’s wasted lady friend.
“I can’t believe I’m actually going to the Rosa Dominga!” the flapper in his arm giggled drunkenly.
“Yeah,” Leon sighed. “So you’ve said the last fifteen nights in a row we’ve come here. You know Francine, most people go to the speakeasy first and then get drunk.”
“Fifine,” she corrected him, blowing some short brunette locks out of her face.
Leon tried to hurry his date along, but she was now giggling hysterically at the fake grapes dangling from another flapper’s hat, and the reporter caught up to them.
“May I ask you a few questions?” the reporter asked.
“No.” Leon yanked the girl along into the house, and snapped to his doorman/bodyguard, “Lump, don’t let that prick in!”
The large, scared doorman nodded silently.
“What’s his name?” Fifine whispered loudly as they moved by.
Speaking low enough for only her to hear, he answered, “I have told you all of this fifteen fucking times Fifine. Is there anything left inside your head?”
“Just dresses, swing and you!” she giggled. “So what’s his name?”
“That’s the Heffalump. My body guard. You’ve met him. Shit I’m pretty sure you’ve slept with him.”
Her giggle raised and octave and rattled through the café. “Oh my god I think I did!”
The Heffalump offered Fifine a lazy wave, not even bothering to glance over at her.
“What should I do with my coat?” she asked, letting her fur coat slide down her thin arms.
“Keep it on for now. It’s a bit of a chilly walk.” Glancing at the guests behind them, he added cheerily, “That goes for the rest of you too.”
Most of the patrons had done this a hundred times before, and threw amused glances at the curious newcomers. The crowd was directed to a spiral staircase coiling around a cage elevator, where a young Hispanic woman in a feminine tuxedo stood waiting, with a top hat tilted over her black curls.
“Everyone,” Leon gestured to the woman, “This here’s Wren, and she’ll be showing us to the Rosa Damaskena.”
Wren grinned. “Whose ready to get zozzled?” She had only the barest traces of a Spanish accent, having been born and raised in New York. After the enthused response from the crowd she gestured with a gloved hand. “Right this way!”
Wren took the small into the elevator, which just barely had room for them all. The elevator took them into a cold brick tunnel that vaguely resembled a subway station, lit by simple hanging lamps and kept pleasant smelling by potted roses spaced at intervals. From there it was a short maze that only Wren and Rosier could make sense of, and then they stepped into a large manmade cavern, with brick walls curving three stories up. At one end of the room, a short waterfall fell from a round sewer hole in the wall. At the other end was a round metal door, decorated with an elegant glass rose the size of a trashcan lid.
“We’re in the sewers!” Fifine’s voice echoed through the brick grotto.
“Perfect place for drinking poison huh?” another guest joked.
Wren led the group onward, to the rose-door. The flower was made of thick blown glass, framed by green glass-blown leaves and thorny vines that covered the entire door. At one side, the vine curved outward, forming a door handle. With an approving nod from Leon, Wren took hold of the vine and heaved the door opened.
The group stepped into a decently sized sitting room, complete with wallpaper, elegant furniture, even a few trendy art deco pictures hanging on the wall. The largest of these was against the opposite wall, and featured a stylized black cat tiptoeing across a row of skyscrapers like a fence. The picture stood about six feet tall. Clearly another door, it had no visible handle, and didn’t need one. Wren placed one gloved hand on the frame and pushed, letting the painting-door swing outward, revealing what appeared to be a low-ceilinged restaurant. Leon checked his watch, while the new additions in his group of patrons marveled at the secret doorway.
The floor beyond was smooth stone, the walls rounded and brick. It had the look of so many “basement restaurants,” as often found in New York. Each arched wall displayed a tall door-sized mirror, and in fact the door everyone had just stepped through was a mirror too, on the other side of the art deco painting. At the end of the restaurant was the bar, where Mintz was working. Off to the left, a large set of arched double-doors normally disguised as a massive, art-deco styled mirror stood opened, to reveal a dance hal, in another arched brick room. A jazz band played on a small stage while flappers and their boyfriends tore it up on the floor.
One businessman’s wife turned around to ask Leon, “How was this place built?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m just the manager,” Leon winked at the guest.
“It’s attached to your house!” Fifine exclaimed.
He laughed nervously. “Loosely.”
“Okay,” Fifine asked challengingly, “so who’d you get the house from?”
For a moment, Leon’s stomach tightened. “Old friend left it to me.” Quickly changing the subject he steered his date through the restaurant. “Here, wanna see something, angel? There’s a private moive theater ’round here. Right through…not this door but the next one….”
Leon led Fifine across the restaurant, to the dance hall. As they did, a Colored man in a plain suit attempted to get Leon’s attention, but Leon pretended not to notice. The dance hall was lined with art deco paintings, movie posters, and brass engravings, most of which were more disguised doors.
He took Fifine to a large art deco painting of a flapper holding a tiny blue car in her gloved hands. He let Fifine open the secret door this time, and she excitedly pulled the painting aside to reveal anther sitting room, this one smaller and cozier than the entrance lobby. A few men and women milled about on the sofas socializing, reading magazines, and in one case, listening to the newsman on the radio. The man doing the former was Leon’s old mentor Ollie Lupo, an Italian built vaguely like a pug and about half as cute. Ollie didn’t acknowledge Leon’s entrance, and continued puffing his cigar, listening to the radio intently. Adorning the back wall was another secret door, this one disguised as a brass engraving of a skyscraper.
“Oh my god!” Fifine gasped and pointed. “Is that a radio?”
Leon followed her finger, and his jaw almost dropped. Someone had moved his radio without his permission. The Rosa Damaskena contained plenty of radios, many brought by patrons who’d simply forgotten them. But everyone’s favorite was Leon’s “mirror radio.” An arched cathedral radio small enough to carry under your arm, it was covered in thin mirrored plating, and was sculpted to mimic futuristic skyscrapers of the likes seen in “Metropolis.” Ollie Lupo knew as well as anyone that he wasn’t supposed to touch the mirror radio. But the old Italian was engrossed in the news report, so much that he didn’t flinch when Fifine came up and began turning the radio around on the side table, to examine it from all sides.
“Ollie,” Leon scratched the side of his face. “What are you doing with my radio?”
“Listening to the news.” Ollie replied without looking up. “You should try it sometime. You know the stock market’s not doing too good.”
“Fascinating. Hey, Fra—whatever your name is,” Leon gestured to Fifine, who rolled her eyes. “Did you wnana see what’s behind the next door, or are you gonna make love to the radio all night?”
She sighed and stared at him with a look that said, this had better be good.
He pulled opened the brass skyscraper door to reveal a tiny private theater, where “Metropolis” was currently playing. The minimal guests smattering the theater seats hardly seemed to notice the light and noise from the doorway, which was understandable; they were in the middle of the film’s most bizarre sequence, and the small screen was now filled with floating eyeballs and a witchy woman in a quasi-Aztec costume making faces at the audience.
Fifine’s jaw dropped, and she rushed into the move theater. Leon quickly let the skyscraper close behind her, and spun back to Ollie. “Alright, the mirror radio stays up front.” He scooped the radio up under one arm and headed back out of the sitting room.
Ollie pushed himself up and followed Leon, growling, “You can’t hear a da—darn word the radio man’s saying anywhere else in this speakeasy”
“Which is why you turn on music instead.” Leon began fiddling with the mirrored knobs as he made his way through the dance room. (He’d wipe the fingerprints off later.)
Still carrying the radio, Leon headed back towards the restaurant, with Ollie in tow. Bats Shapiro was standing by the double-doors, playfully blowing out smoke rings to impress a couple of flappers.
“You keep your hands to yourself Benny,” Ollie warned as he and Leon walked by.
“Good to see you too, Dad,” Bats replied.
Bats and Leon had been friends since childhood, in part because they both had fathers who didn’t seem to want them around. Bats was Ollie Lupo’s illegitimate son by a Jewish mistress. And for a Jewish woman in 1904 to have a baby out of wedlock with a non-Jewish Italian didn’t exactly make for a happy social life.
Leon set the mirror radio down on the bar counter and drew a handkerchief to wipe the fingerprints off. In its distorted reflection, he caught the blond hair and flamboyant colors of his bartender. Mintz, playing with his name, sported a mint-blue shirt under his pinstriped vest. Though roughly the same age as Leon, Mintz was years ahead in maturity, and basically ran the Rosa Damaskena for him. Mintz made absolutely zero effort to hide his “disposition” (read: penchant for fucking other men), and he usually didn’t have to. The days of Edwardian strictness were gone, seemingly for good. Over the last nine years, women bared their shoulders in public, whites flocked en mass to dance to Negro music, and homosexuals had their own clubs and posed for photographs with their partners. If Leon had ever had any reservations about being associated with a “pansy,” they were trumped by Mintz’s usefulness as his bartender and financial advisor.
“How’s business tonight Mintz?” Leon asked, still polishing the radio.
Mintz replied in an uncharacteristically grim voice. “It’s like the Bubonic goddamn Plague, Leon.” Mintz glanced around the speakeasy as he dried a mug. “Whatever’s going on with the Stock Market, it’s serious.”
“He’s right,” said an elegantly dressed brunette sitting at the bar counter. “My friend’s dad took a huge hit, lost over half his savings. Where you been Leon?”
It took Leon a second to remember that this girl was another one of his mistresses. And he was fucked if he had to remember what her name was.
“Don’t you two start,” Leon said. “I have ‘stock market’ coming out of my ears already.” He turned the mirrored dial, getting away from the reporter talking about the stock market, and found himself on another news station.
“…the Valentine’s Day Massacre, for which no one has yet been brought to justice or even to trial...”
Mintz’ eyes met Leon’s, and his blond eyebrows rose sardonically. The brunette girl’s eyes narrowed in what Leon hoped was confusion.
“…much like the murder of famed gambler Arnold Rothstein, almost a year ago, which also remains unsolved…”
Mintz folded his arms on the counter. “Wanna flip back to the stock market yet?”
Leon quickly turned the radio to a music station.
The flapper fiddled with her pearls. “How much for the drink Mintz?”
“It’s on me Clara,” Leon offered.
“I’m Louise.” the girl said flatly.
“Sure you are. I was just testing.”
He watched her roll her eyes in the reflection of the radio he was still fiddling with. Louise paid Mintz and slid off the bar stool. Then a new figure took her place, almost as if the person had been waiting.
“Such a romantic,” the new voice said. “I guess the Prince had himself a good Valentine’s Day, huh?”
Leon stopped fiddling with the radio, and his blood went slightly cold.
“How was that?” Leon asked, without looking up.
“I said,” the other man rested an arm on the mirror radio, forcing Leon to look up at him. “how was your Valentine’s Day?”
Leon slowly straightened and faced the other man. “I don’t celebrate your Christian St. Valentine.”
The other man didn’t look familiar to Leon. Just another young gangster like himself. He knew the guy was a gangster because no one else would speak to the Prince of the Speakeasies like that. His bland suit and necktie were another giveaway. No civilian came to the Rosa Damaskena trying to look as forgettable as possible.
The gangster shrugged. “Fine. How was your Pesach?”
Leon grimaced, then turned around to lean against the counter. “I’d been hoping to miss it but the old lady wouldn’t let me.”
The man’s smugness vanished for a moment, and he seemed honestly baffled. “You’re married?”
“I mean my stepmother.”
Leon was actually telling the truth this time. He never celebrated Passover, and always “forgot” about it if he could. But this year he’d had no choice. His stepmother Iva—his only living relative—had blackmailed him into hosting a Seder at his townhouse. Host the Seder this year, she’d said, and I’ll go along with your cock-and-bull story, I’ll tell the police and the neighbors that you were visiting me during Valentine’s Day.
Leon had spent the evening clumsily reading transliterated Hebrew phonetically from a children’s Megillah to Iva, her current boyfriend, and her collection of weird friends. But the weirdest visitor that night wasn’t even a guest.
An old woman had knocked on his door, covered in warts and smelling of cheap perfume. Sitting amidst the wrinkles and pimples were the creepiest pair of bright green eyes he’d ever seen, staring out at him from the shadows of their sagging sockets. She held a basket of flowers, and speaking in a thick accent, explained that she sold flowers for either money or food. A single apple, a bowl of soup, a bagel, she’d take anything. She offered him the rose from her basket. Said she knew who he was, sometimes came to his speakeasy, but never drank, as she never had money.
Leon stared at her under his own sagging eyelids. Then he let the door slam in her face.
“Leon?” Iva had asked. “Who was that?”
“Well invite him in! It’s Pesach for God’s sake, we don’t turn the homeless away—”
“He was drunk, swore at me. Might’ve been violent.”
“Iva, baby,” her current boyfriend—Leon didn’t even bother learning the names of his stepmother’s playthings anymore—squeezed her shoulder. “Let it go. The guy’ll be fine, someone else’ll help him.”
Leon blinked widely, back in the present, staring at his reflection in one of the mirror-doors on the other side of the restaurant.
“It was fine,” Leon said finally. “Passover was fine.”
“You already said that.”
Leon glanced at the other gangster. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Care to tell me?”
The guy shrugged. “You can call me O’Brian.”
“Okay Mr. ‘O’Brian.’ Your boss wants to say something to me, he can come here himself and say it. Otherwise I’m in the phonebook.”
“I’m my own boss,” O’Brian assured him. “Mr. Moran’s just a friend. Kind of like your uh, friendship with Mr. Al Capone.”
Leon and “O’Brian” had a gained a few eavesdroppers now. Mintz was slowly drying a mug, his pale blue eyes locked on them. A few patrons at and near the bar sipped their drinks slowly, having mysteriously decided to pause their conversations all at once. A Colored man leaning against a pillar with his hands in his pockets was doing that pathetic eye-sweep where you tried to catch a short stare at someone without looking like you were staring. Actually, it was the man who’d tried to get Leon’s attention earlier.
Ollie Lupo came to Leon’s rescue, slowly taking a seat at a nearby bar stool.
Leon looked back at O’Brian. “Al Capone doesn’t socialize with non-Italians. Everyone knows that.”
“No, but some of his fellow Italians like to socialize with non-Italians. In particular you, uh, Chosen Peoples.”
“And what might us ’uh, Chosen Peoples,’ have to do with…whatever it is you’re concerned about?”
Leon watched irritably as Ollie scooped the mirror radio up from under him and slid it down the counter, switching the station back to the stock market report.
“I’m formulating a hypothesis.” O’Brian shifted against the counter. “Mr. Capone wants a job done. He needs guys who are good at killing and who are low on the radar. So he goes to his friend Ollie Lupo and says, ‘Got any hitmen I can borrow from you? Like that Rosier fellow?’”
Leon finished, “And Ollie says ’Sorry Al, Rosier’s out of town all of February. He’ll be in Florida visiting his mother.”
“Mother as in, the woman who gave birth to you?”
“That’s kinda’ funny ’cause I could’ve sworn it was your stepmother a few minutes ago.”
Leon began fiddling with the rose on his lapel, trying to hide his fear with his famous fuck-you smile.
“Well,” Leon stretched, cracking his back. “If you have any other ‘hypotheses,’ you can take them up with my friend Mr. Lupo.” He nodded over to Ollie.
O’Brian looked quickly behind him. Lupo moved one hand in a smooth, lazy wave.
“If that’s all,” Leon said. “It looks like one of my customers needs me.”
He left the bar and headed towards the Colored man, who’d been trying to get Leon’s attention for the last half hour. Ending the conversation to talk to a Negro was a subtle extra insult to the white gangster, and the Colored man smirked a little as “O’Brian” left, as if he was in on the joke too. When the mobster left though, the man’s gold eyes turned up to Leon with an almost pleading look.
“What can I do ya for?” Leon asked.
“It’s me, Mr. Colshorn.” When Leon didn’t react, he attempted to jog his memory. “I’m the guy paying you for protection.”
Leon blinked. “I need more.”
“I’m the Colored man paying you ‘protection.’”
He blinked again. Leon had at least one neighborhood of every ethnic group in Brooklyn paying him for “protection.”
Mr. Colshorn breathed deeply. “Well, if you got so many uh, protection payers that you can’t even keep track, maybe you won’t mind if one of them is slightly late on his payments.”
“Yeah but, if I let one slip by I’ll have to make exceptions for everybody.”
“I won’t tell nobody. I swear Mr. Rosier, this is a one-time thing. I’ll pay extra next time. We just lost most of our money. I’m sure you’ve heard on the news, how stocks are falling. By time I got to the bank most of our money was gone. I withdrew everything I could in cash and put it under the bed at home. What we got left we gotta save. I have a little girl, just getting ready for secondary school.”
Colshorn gestured with his hat to a woman and girl, supping at a table in modest evening wear. His daughter, who looked no older than nine or ten, gazed around the speakeasy with her father’s honeycomb eyes.
“My Dot, she’s gonna be your best customer in a few years. She ’been begging her mother and me to take her here, can’t wait till she’s old enough to become one of the ‘flappers’ and start going to speakeasies like yours all the time. You could think of this as a long-term investment.”
Leon was rubbing his face. He really hated it when these pests reminded him that they were people.
“Look Mr….Whatever your name is. I’m not a monster, okay? I’m not gonna hurt your or your wife or your girl if you fall behind on payment, and I’m not gonna cut you out either. But I can’t make promises about anyone else.”
“Does anyone have to know we ain’t ‘protected?’”
Leon didn’t know how to respond. His associates ran thorough checks on all of his clients on a regular basis. Word would spread quickly that the Colshorn family was unprotected for a month. That would be bad news for anybody, but for a Colored family, it might very well be a death sentence. But how the hell was that Leon’s fault? It was a dog-eat-dog world, and sticking your neck out for somebody was a good way to get your head chopped off.
“You can afford to go to the Rosa, you can probably come up with your protection money.” Leon said flatly.
“We only came here to talk to you. We ain’t drinking nothing but water tonight. And we’re already putting aside all our nice clothes to sell.”
Leon lowered his voice. “Look, we can talk about this later. I got a lot of people waiting to talk to me.” He glanced back at the bar, where Ollie was still blasting the news.
Leon left Mr. Colshorn against the pillar, fiddling with his hat.
Returning to the bar, Leon offhandedly asked, “Hey Ollie, You’ll let me know if I ever fall behind on my payments, right?”
“I’ll do better than that,” Ollie snapped. “Since you appear to be oblivious to what’s blasting right next to your ear, I’ll translate; the newspaper-man’s saying that the stock market is falling, and pretty soon it’s gonna crash and burn altogether.”
“So I heard.”
Ollie turned and looked Leon in the eye. “I assume I don’t need to remind you that I need your payments in order to help you out. And without our help, you’ll be up shit creek without a paddle.” He gestured around the restaurant. “No one gets this successful before age thirty because he’s really, really good at selling alcohol.” He dropped into a hissing whisper. “And how does Leon Rosier manage not to get killed by all the business associates and next of kin from the bounties he’s collected? Because he can afford to pay Ollie Lupo, Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and every other bigwig in America for protection, so no one’s gonna dare touch him. Now tell me Leon, what do you think’s gonna happen to you if your money runs out?”
“Everyone I ever pissed off will come after me and I won’t last till morning. Which is why I’m smart enough not to put all my eggs in one basket. I have some money in the Stock Exchange, Ollie; I have some more in cash around my house; and I got the rest distributed through various banks.”
“If the Stock Market falls the banks will go next, you imbecile. Withdraw your cash, and start tightening your belt. Because if it comes down to it, I’m not gonna be any more forgiving with you than you were with Mr. Colshorn.”
Mintz joined the conversation. “Not to mention that if I lose this bar, I lose everything down to my un—”
Mintz’s eyes flared at something in the radio’s mirror plating. He grabbed Leon’s necktie and yanked him down, flat smack against the counter, just before a gunshot went off.
The bar was silenced.
Leon dared a peek, saw O’Brian moving quickly through the crowd with a gun raised, and drew his own pistol from his suit.
Cue attractive young woman screaming, and crowd stampeding.
On the bright side, the stampede made O’Brian hesitate to take another shot. Even a gangster with no morals at all usually didn’t want to kill anyone he didn’t plan to, as it would draw unwanted attention from authorities.
Leon ran against the charging crowd, taking aim at O’Brian. Mintz leaped over the counter, weaponless, but ready to try containing the assassin. But then O’Brian was suddenly flaked by three other mobsters, all armed.
Mintz backtracked a bit, pulling a reluctant Leon along, and kicked over a table. Splinters flew from their makeshift shield as gunshots rang through the restaurant. Leon shot over the top of the table while Mintz fumbled through his jacket for a weapon. While reloading his own gun, Leon had time to glance over and see Ollie and Bats shooting from behind the counter. His protection wasn’t gone yet.
A few civilians were still on their way to the door. Waitresses turned up their trays to use them as shields, letting the drinks fall to the floor. A few smart people, like the Colshorn family, thought to barricade themselves in one of the mirror-disguised closets. Leon saw Mrs. Colshorn grab her daughter and pull her inside a washroom, waiting just long enough for Mr. Colshorn to slip inside before pulling the mirror door shut. Those mirror-doors were pretty thin though; Leon wasn’t sure how well they’d hold against bullets.
Leon hit one of O’Brian’s allies, spraying the mirror door behind him with blood. He missed the next one, and wound up adding some spider-web cracks to the crimson-splashed glass. And then, in the mirror’s broken reflection, he saw a familiar large figure pushing past the evacuating crowd while loading a handgun. He’d almost forgotten he had a bodyguard. The Heffalump took cover behind a pillar and began shooting. The column didn’t even cover his massive body completely, but if any stray bullets did hit him, they’d likely get lodged in his excess fat or muscle, and the Lump knew it.
Finally the shooting paused, as all parties took cover to reload.
The cracked, bloodstained mirror-door opened, and Mr. Colshorn’s poked his head out.
No. Leon locked eyes with the man, fiercely trying to convey the message silently. Go back inside! Pull that door shu—GOD dammit.
The moron made a gesture with his head to his wife and kid inside, and the three of them hurried out.
At the same moment, one of the enemy gangsters, seeing an opportunity in the distraction that the escaping family was causing, crawled over to his dead comrade’s corpse and swiped his still-loaded gun, then took aim at Leon. Leon and Ollie exchanged a look. Neither of them would dare attempt firing back until the Colshorn family was out of the room; at this angle, Team Rosa Damaskena was facing the shattered mirror-door head on, and a wrongly aimed bullet could hit father, mother or child.
Without warning, Bats took a shot, and missed. The little girl screamed and collapsed.
“DOTTIE!” the mother scooped the girl up in a fireman’s carry and continued running, while attempting to put pressure on the girl’s leg, which was bleeding profusely.
Let-shot, just a leg shot. The kid would survive. Unless she bled to death. But her parents had brains, they’d know to tie it off and get her to a hospital…which might take a while, if the hospital wanted to make the Colored family wait in the back of the line….
“LEON!” Mintz screamed from across the restaurant.
Leon ducked just before another round of bullets came forth.
“The fuck’s wrong with you?” he screamed at Bats.
Bats didn’t even acknowledge him, lost in the fight like a toddler hypnotized by a Steamboat Willie short.
Leon saw a window of opportunity and charged out of the restaurant, pulling the art-deco mirror-doors shut just as O’Brian was taking aim at him. A split second later, the glass door exploded right next to his head, as O’Brian’s bullet hit the door. Leon had just managed to instinctively get an arm in front of his face in time, saving his prized good looks. He glared at the Irishman through the hole in the mirror-door, and shot him in the shoulder. He’d been hoping to kill him, but at least it was something.
Leon tore through the dance room, where the band was hastily packing up their instruments. Some members dropped their instruments altogether and just took off into the hallway, which eventually looped back to the sewers via various secret doors. Leon stumbled out of a doorway disguised as a coat closet, and found himself standing just a few yards away from the glass-blown-rose door Wren had first led the group through earlier that evening. His young hostess was now directing panicking customers along through the sewers, leading them back through the maze of hallways and to the elevator.
He felt a twinge of guilt at having put Wren and all these other people in danger. Then a gunshot rang through the sewers and a hole appeared in the stone wall next to him, and the guilt vanished.
Leon spent the next God-knew-how-many minutes racing through the maze between the Rosa Damascena and his townhouse. Leon wasn’t sure by now if he was chasing someone or being chased. Both, probably. In any case, he wasn’t going to let his would-be assassin get away. By time he felt safe enough to stop and check his gun, he was so turned around that it took a few moments to figure out where he was. He was somewhere in the hallways beneath his house now.
He heard movement, and saw the shadow of someone moving into a room on the left side of the hall.
Naturally, all those roses that were the Rosa Damascena and Leon Rosier’s trademarks came from somewhere. He had a greenhouse attached to the speakeasy, part indoors and part out. The townhouse was actually on a hill, and the “basement,” where this section of the maze leading to the Rosa was built, was actually inside the hill, mostly above ground. The outdoor part was on the side of the house, right against the street. And this bastard thought he was going to get away through there.
Leon tore into the greenhouse, currently the only part of the garden that was still blooming. He ran outside and stopped.
The yard seemed empty. The street was packed with guests still fleeing, and a few dumb enough to stay and gawk. He scanned the bushes and trees for a hiding gunman. His eyes landed on his small fountain, still spewing water even in mid-autumn. (He liked to keep it running as late as possible, only stopping when the water froze.)
Leon readied his gun and moved backwards, vanishing behind the trees that lined the house. He came up on the fountain slowly from another angle, and leaped into the water, tackling the hiding gunman. A trained assassin, Leon had the guy pinned down with his own hands around the man’s neck in no time. Someone called Leon’s name—Mintz? Ollie?—and he glanced up. More figures, running towards him. Leon put a foot on his current opponent’s chest and stood up, pinning the floundering gangster under the water. Ignoring the frantic splashes from below, Leon took aim and killed the next two attackers, who could only have been armatures; Leon was good, but he wasn’t that good. Then he took his foot off the first gunman, who’d just begun to go limp, and put a bullet in him. He was out of the fountain before the growing red cloud in the water reached his pants legs.
The yard looked pretty empty now, with only a few last customers fleeing the property. A suddenly movement inches away made him snap back to attention and bring his gun back up. Leon was now facing another gangster, both with their guns inches from the other’s face. Leon stood at the bottom of the hill, with his back to his house. If he died now, the last thing he’d see would be a bunch of trees.
“Don’t test me,” Leon warned. “You know who I am.”
“I also know you ain’t stupid.” the other guy said. “You pull that trigger, I pull mine, we both go down.”
Leon was silent for a moment as he prepared his next move.
It was a trick he’d learned to master; moving your head out of the way quickly, while keeping your arm and gun steady and firing, at the same time. Definitely not as easy as the movies made it look. The other gunman went down with a hole between his eyes, and a woman screamed.
But something about this scream made Leon pause.
It hadn’t felt like a complete scream, that you’d hear from a woman who was merely surprised or frightened. It had been a short scream.
Hesitantly, Leon turned around and saw a figure lying on the hill. She was maybe halfway up the hill, just in the right position to catch what had been meant to be Leon’s head-shot.
He jogged up through the dewy grass, and froze.
It was that old woman he’d turned away back on Passover. She even had her basket of flowers, now spilled all over the grass. She was holding her side, as blood leaked through her gnarled fingers.
“I think I need a hospital,” she croaked in that unidentifiable foreign accent.
Leon nodded. “Probably.” He looked around nervously. “I’ll uh, I’ll get you an ambulance just, just hold tight ma’am. You’re gonna be fine.”
“I don’t think…can wait for an…ambulance,” she said weakly.
Oh hell no...
He looked around nervously. The fact that he secretly couldn’t drive and didn’t know where any of his underlings were at the moment wasn’t the only problem; if he or one of his staff took this old woman to a hospital, then the hospital would start asking questions.
Of course, everyone would soon know there had been a shootout in the Rosa Damaskena. But Leon was confident he and Ollie could have a waterproof story for the fuzz by next morning. (I only shot in self defense, officer. And I have no idea who those loons who attacked were. They were probably drunk.) Facing the cops now though, before working out said story with his staff and allies, would open a can of worms.
The woman suddenly lifted a rose from the bottom of her basket, with a weak, shaking hand. Her wrinkled mouth stretched into a smile, revealing un-kept teeth. “Tip for ride,” she offered.
He gapped at her.
Gazing down at his own wrinkled, dirty suit, he saw his own trademark rose was now nothing but a bend, headless stem.
“No?” she blinked widely at him. “Maybe if I were young and prettier. I used to be pretty, yes. Gold curly hair, green eyes, like…how you say…green stones.” Her eyes still looked like emeralds, the most striking thing about her, and they quite frankly gave Leon the creeps. “I was petite. Perfect face, no need of makeup. Why I don’t wear any now; I never had to, I’m not used to it. But doesn’t this rose make up for all I lack in beauty?”
She coughed, and while it was hard to tell in the dark, Leon was pretty sure he saw blood come out.
“Please, take it,” she offered him the rose. “You just drop me at the hospital, and that’s the last you see of me, I swear.”
Leon was already backing away from her.
He ran into the street, where several patrons and neighbors had gathered to rubberneck at the shootout from a distance. He clapped a random man on the back and said, “Old woman back there needs an ambulance, got shot!” then took off before the man could question him.
Casualties: one little girl’s leg (probably gonna make a full recovery), one old lady who’s on her way to getting an ambulance (asking for an ambulance was all any reasonable person could be asked to do, after all). Pretty damn successful for a gang fight.
Hits: At least four out of maybe six assassins. Not bad.
Brushes with the law: witnesses could say only that he was guilty of carrying a concealed weapon, in his own house, and shooting in self-defense.
No need to fret.
Eleven days later, Leon was in a cold sweat, and not because of the shootout.
As usual, Leon had managed to doge the law, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, due in no small part to help from his friend Ollie Lupo. So now more than ever, Leon knew how dependent he was on his own “protection.”
He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, feeling the sweat drench his suit.
“I warned you Prince,” Mintz said as he drove them downtown. “Ollie warned you. The news man warned you.”
“Yeah, so you’ve mentioned.”
Mintz softened, and he glanced at Leon in his mirror. “Look Leon, I’m sure it’s not the end of the world. We’ll tighten our belts. We’ll get through it.”
“‘Billions of dollars lost,’” Leon quoted the news report from the radio. “People are saying it’s mass panic. Businessmen are jumping out of skyscrapers, people acting like wild animals outside the Stock Exchange…”
Mintz laughed. “When did the Prince ever put any stock in gossip?”
Leon swallowed, and felt for the pea shooter in his pocket.
When the Stock Exchange was finally in view, Leon found himself relaxing. He didn’t hear any screams, or see any stampedes of panicked masses. The skyscrapers were still and peaceful, no one jumping to their deaths. Mintz was right; it had all just been rumor.
As they drew closer to the massive building, a new kind of dread began to creep up on him. No one was panicking, but there was most definitely a crowd, a never-ending sea of hats covering the city. And though there were no screams or sirens, there was a sound that didn’t belong; an eerie low hum, the sound of thousands of murmurs and hushed conversations rolling through New York.
“Wait here Mintz,” Leon exited the car.
“What are you doing?”
“Just wait here, alright?”
Leon left the car and began moving through the crowd. He soon found it impossible to get anywhere near the front doors of the New York Stock Exchange.
“Hey,” he shouted to no one in particular. “How do we get in? Is there some other door we gotta use?”
A woman glanced at him silently, black makeup running down her cheeks.
Leon moved onward, and found a shaking man covering his face with his hat.
“Hey,” Leon poked the man, who didn’t respond. “How do we get into the—Hey pal, I’m talking to you!” he pulled the man’s hat away, to find him shaking in quiet, racking sobs.
Leon dropped the hat on the ground and backed away, spooked.
“Doors are locked,” a stunned businessman said to Leon, his voice distant and his eyes glazed. “They’re not giving anyone their money back now.”
Leon threw the man a glare, which he didn’t notice.
“Hey!” a harsh voice called.
Leon found himself facing a man who he felt like he’d seen not long ago. He suddenly realized it was one of the many people who’d been paying him “protection.”
“So,” the man grinned bitterly over folded arms, “It looks like you’re not so high and mighty anymore. Maybe you can’t pay your protection either?”
Leon’s face hardened. “You’re gonna pay your damn protection money Hamilton, or—”
“Or what?” a new voice said.
Leon spun around and recognized the face of prominent Irish hitman Dean O’Banion. O’Banion casually brought up a pistol aimed between Leon’s eyes.
Leon quickly drew his own pistol.
The crowd around them didn’t even notice.
Another Irishman hissed at O’Banion, “Dean are you nuts? And you?” he asked Leon. “You’re gonna start shooting right here, in the middle of all these people?”
“Why not?” O’Banion asked. “What’ve we got to lose?”
Leon slowly pocketed his gun, backing away.
“He’s right,” said a third gangster emerging from the crowd. “There’ll be no gun use today whatsoever.” As he spoke he flipped out a switch blade.
The knife came whistled through the air a centimeter from his face as Leon moved just in time. He stopped the Irishman’s arm, and twisted it. Leon snatched the knife, then took off into the crowd.
He tore through a maze of streets and alleys for what seemed like forever, until he was confident he’d lost his pursuers. He finally stopped for a breath in a tight alley between two brick buildings.
“Almost nine months past, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre remains fresh in America’s nightmares.”
Leon practically had a heart-attack, and turned to see a rusty little radio sitting on an opened windowsill. The room beyond looked dark, and he was positive that radio hadn’t been playing a second ago.
“No one need reminding—“
I’ll drink to that, Leon thought.
“—of the bloodbath that took place in Chicago, Illinois, on this supposed day of love. Seven men, bootleggers all, were gunned down in a garage….”
Leon poked his head around the brick corner, gun still drawn. No one there. He wondered how long he should wait before chancing to leave the alley. Sundown?
“… As of yet, none of the gunners have been identified, and no one has been brought to trial for this brutal crime. But the public still waits and hopes for justice, for the comforting knowledge that the monsters who committed this heinous act are no longer roaming the streets…”
Leon bit his lip and slammed his fist into the radio, sending it over the window sill and into the dark room below. The report continued. Leon reached over and yanked the window down, muffling the sound.
“The Prince is in town.”
Leon pressed himself flat against the wall, gun ready, as two men who almost looked familiar walked past.
“…trying to get his money from the Stock Exchange!”
The other man laughed, “I’ve been waiting so long for this. That son-of-a-bitch left me to rot in jail for two fucking years, after I covered up for him…”
Leon remembered several such incidents, and couldn’t have pinpointed which one of his “friends” was speaking if his life depended on it. Which it very well might. His blood pounding, Leon glanced back at the way he’d come, looking for an escape. He caught his reflection in the window he’d just slammed. The Sheik looked like he’d seen better days.
Leon waited for the gangsters to pass, before tearing down the alley, down some stairs, and rounding a few more corners. After who knew how long of running, he found his way to a hotel, and breathing heavily, demanded service.
The serviceman looked exhausted, like he’d grown used to serving panicked customers today.
“I gotta telephone!” Leon demanded.
The man nodded. “How long you had it?”
“I mean I need to telephone!”
“Ah, my apologies. Right this way.” The man nodded, and gestured for Leon to follow him.
“Now!” Leon snapped, practically running. “Come on!”
The man led him to a room with a phone. “If you want some privacy, you can lock the—”
Leon slammed the door in the boy’s face, and bolted it shut. Before dialing, he checked to make sure there were no other openings. The room had no windows, and no other doors. He checked behind the minimal decorations and furniture for secret doors, and found none. There was no rug where a typical trapdoor might hide under, no bookcase or fireplace for the clichéd secret sliding door. The room was secure.
Leon hastily dialed for Ollie Lupo.
“I warned you, Leon.” Ollie uttered to himself, “Nobody ever listens.”
“Ollie, you listen,” Leon said frantically, “I still got money—”
“And who are you gonna give it to? Me? Capone? Luciano? Lansky? All those cops you’ve been paying off to stay out of your way? Maybe you should cut the last one out of your budget; prison would give you a roof over your head and a safe place to sleep—”
Leon slammed the receiver down and stood over the phone heaving for several moments. Collecting himself, he dialed for Chicago.
“Mr. Capone’s busy,” the bored Italian on the other line said.
“I’m—” Leon fought to steady himself. “I’m a friend. A very close friend, associate, of Mr. Capone’s.”
“Leon Rosier.” Silence. “Rosier. Rosier!” he shouted. “You know, Prince of the Rumrunners? Owner of the Rosa Damaskena? Maybe you heard of me?”
“I might’ve,” Capone’s servant drawled, “Along with all the other big fish who been paying off Capone for protection. I’ll tell him you called. Hang on, lemme get something to write with. What’d you say your name was, Rosenthal?”
A shadow fell over Leon, and his heart skipped a beat.
“Hello?” the servant on the other line asked. “Hello? Mr. Rosen…Rosebud…whoever?”
Leon slowly hung up. He turned around, and his heart jumped again.
Before him stood a young woman who was literally breath-taking. Her white-blonde hair hung in perfect natural curls over her forest-green headscarf. Her perfect makeup seemed to not even be makeup; her eyebrows looked as if they’d naturally grown in thin, dark, perfect curves, her eyelashes naturally thick and black, framing her large green eyes. Her lips looked naturally shaped like a bow, radiating a stunning huge of maroon without any lipstick. She wore a shimmering tasseled dress of emerald green, and in her hands, which were decorated with leaf-shaped pendants stretched between rings and pearl bracelets, she held what appeared to be a small vase of water containing a single, blooming rose.
“S-sorry, Miss,” Leon reached up with a shaking hand to remove his hat, unable to take his eyes off of her.
Leon had seen a lot of gorgeous women in his time. But holy god, he never knew beauty like this existed outside the movies. She was Clara Bow, Helen of Troy, and every fairytale heroine rolled into one.
The light bulb above flickered, just for a second, as if preparing to burn out.
After a moment, the girl said, in a clear, almost songlike voice, “Are you?”
Shaken from shock, fear and lust, Leon had already forgotten what he’d just said a moment ago. “Am, am I what?”
He blinked, and glanced around the room. The door was still bolted, with no sign of a break-in. It was a large heavy door, and he remembered how loudly it had groaned when opened by the bellboy. The room had no windows, and no other doors. Leon’s confusion finally overpowered his enchantment.
“How did you get in here?” he asked.
The girl’s striking green eyes climbed up to his face, and it was all he could do not to just grab her and smooch her right there.
“You weren’t half so talkative when you were talking to an ugly old lady,” she said softly.
His face contorted. “What?”
“First you turned her away on Passover of all times. Then when she got the bullet meant for you, you couldn’t be bothered to get her a ride to a hospital.”
“Wait, how the hell do you—”
“No one ever wanted her. She couldn’t even pay people to be near her.” The girl lifted the rose from the vase of water.
The stem was gone, singed clean off.
It wasn’t water in that vase.
The thought was registering through Leon’s mind the same second that the girl was turning the vase up and with one powerful thrust, splashing its contents onto Leon’s face.
There was too much pain to even allow a scream as he fell back, knocking the telephone off the table, and hit the ground, hands clenched just centimeters above his boiling, melting face.
Some people claimed to remember traumatic events in “slow motion,” but for Leon, it all happened in literally the blink of an eye—or what was left of his eyes—like the surreal fast-moving images one would see in their most intense fever dreams.
He got one eye opened just enough to see the girl staring down at him with those inhumanly green eyes, holding the empty vase in one hand and the stem-less rose in the other. She let both drop to the ground. And as they fell, the light in the room flickered once more. Everything went black for a fraction of a second. When the light returned half a second later the vase was shattering to the floor and the rose-head was tumbling across Leon’s still sizzling face, both objects apparently falling from thin air, because the girl who’d he knew he’d seen holding them less than a full second ago was now gone.