Asher slung his pistol into his suspender strap before he left for work that morning and after checking that all three locks were fastened, he glanced at the door, curious if there was a letter pinned to it. When he found it bare, his smile faded and he made haste over to his dad’s car. It was a normal model T. Functional, not flashy.
He swung into the seat and gunned the engine but it choked out a defeated cough. With a grunt, he revved the stubborn engine before he sighed, slapping the wheel with his palm, accidentally bumping the beeper, and flopped out of the car.
Lifting up the hood with a quick wrench, he peered inside, drumming his fingers on the black steel and saw the cut generator wires. All of them sliced with a surgeon’s precision; the work of an artist as opposed to that of a maniac. His gritty expression swirled into terror, his chest following suit with a gentle rise and fall.
“What the hell?” he breathed and glanced around the vicinity, of course not finding the culprit. He jumped at the sight of a figure on the other side of the street but it was only Eliza Goldstein walking her four year old daughter to the grocery store. She glanced at him, but he looked away. Cottonmouth threatened to choke him but he snarled and slammed the hood. It was another morning jog to work.
In the Hub’s hallway a voice called out to him.
“Howdy Jimmy Jung!”
Asher seized, and his hand fled for his gun and when he turned around, it was already out, ready to fire, but it was only Japheth standing behind him.
“Now don’t go and do a crazed thing like that,” Japheth sniggered.
“Don’t sneak up on me,” Asher countered, holstering his gun into his suspenders.
“I just wanted to give you a little news,” Japheth said, tilting his head to the side. Asher didn’t respond, his jaw clenching, preparing him for a wave of sewage.
“I got promoted to shadow Hank as a hitman’s assistant,” he bore this news with a badge of honor in his voice, “You know what that means for you? A little less time for finding your Pop’s criminal.”
Asher cleared his throat but let Japheth proceed.
“Now, I ain’t gonna be getting anymore Dolora with the new job so you can count your lucky stars for that one. Sling me an extra today and we can continue with your little search.”
“I’ll have it by the end of the day.”
“No, budabub, I’m turning the schedule around. Hank needs me tonight. Only time Vatrinos are out, so that means my loan shark runs and your Pop business gotta be done before sundown.”
Asher huffed a sigh through his nostrils, “Alright, I’ll get them now.”
“Much obliged,” Japheth smirked, slapping Asher’s deltoid and winking “I’m gonna wait until nine. If you ain’t out there I’m starting my deal without you.”
“Ok,” Asher dismissed himself.
He entered, a little gingerly, his eyes flicked over to the vacant desk despite his urge to not look and be disappointed by Kemp’s absence. Hunter, as always, stood at the nearest table working on breaking up Chigaz and plopping it into the bags he weighed.
Asher hid his snarl, “Hi.”
On instinct he looked over at the unattended desk again, pulling his lower lip into his mouth as he strolled to his table.
“I need to leave early today,” Asher told Hunter, glancing up at the clock behind him.
Hunter winced, “Alright. But if Silas finds out, I’m not taking any of his heat.”
Asher nodded, “Got it. I’m leaving a few minutes before nine.”
“And I’m leaving now to make some Chigaz,” Hunter said, throwing the Chigaz hammer on the table. As soon as the door closed, Asher let out a sigh of relief and jogged to hemp bag pile next to Hunter’s station.
Panicked breaths made their way through his nose and mouth as he ransacked the bag and found one marked Dolora near the bottom. The door swung open.
He stuffed the bag into his trousers as the door yawned open, quivering as he pivoted to see Kemp who rolled the dolly bearing three tins through the doorway.
“Well, hello there,” Kemp smiled and Asher returned with one equally warm.
Asher was short of breath despite his efforts to steady it. Kemp crouched to take the first tin off the dolly and put it on the table.
“I see you’re still donning my tweed,” Kemp’s smile swirled up into his eyes where a taste of cheerful wildness danced in his topaz twinkle. Asher verified the observation. The tweed jacket Kemp had lent him the night before remained on him and he attempted to shrug it off.
“You can have it back if you want-”
“You may keep it,” Kemp placed the second tin on the table and leaned forward on it with his palms as a ballast.
Asher’s adam’s apple bobbed but he smiled and pushed his shoulder back into the jacket and they looked at each other in pleasant silence before Kemp glanced around.
“I suspect Hunter is cooking?” he said, his voice thick, stricken with a lightheaded tizzy.
“Yeah, he left a few minutes ago,” Asher’s heart rate picked up as Kemp neared him. The clock ticked in his ear and he glanced at the time.
“Everything alright?” Kemp towered over him but beneath the Jovian facade shuddered a timid gentleman masking hot blood pumping the ventricles of a rabbit racing heart.
“Yeah,” Asher licked his lips, leaning on the desk towards Kemp, his shoulders shaking, “Yeah, it’s fine.”
Kemp was close enough to lay his hand on him but he stopped, opting for his trouser pocket.
“I wanted to wait to give you this.”
He pulled an envelope out, smaller than the previous ones, and when he extended it for Asher to take, it trembled. The waxed emblem, the Manson family crest, was askew. Hastily put together.
“But I couldn’t wait,” Kemp finished when Asher took it and they both held onto it for a few seconds, long seconds, as they looked at each other. Asher’s tug was gentle and Kemp let it go.
“I wanted to see your face when you saw it,” Kemp’s voice grew thicker. Although Asher’s congenial expression lit his features, his hands shook as he struggled to open it. He fumbled, tittering, trying to pry the letter open until Kemp gently chuckled, coming forward and taking one of Asher’s hands in his own to hold the letter taut and slid the thumb claw of his free hand beneath the seal to break it
Asher smiled, looking up at Kemp who smiled back, his hand still on Asher’s who relished the warmth before Kemp gently pulled away.
Asher pulled the letter from the envelope, opened it, and started to read.
Forgive my hasty letter but it spurred upon me to write this for you. Yes, these are my words and I hope they are adequate. The Blues you showed me yesterday served as inspiration and I wished for you to see it in its raw form before it slipped away and before fear could impede me from sharing it with you. Please bear with me its inadequacy.
An inky well,
not an ink well, no,
reflects the pallid skull
glimmering at both bottom
and top, a two-toned finger string
reminding the ticking clock
of our time
between color and
the inky well’s dinner bell
swallowing nations and swilling
tepid oceans of naval rats
tike chunked soup,
crunching king’s bones and
spreading its powder on creamed soliders’ bodies,
all dipping into the vast,
ravenous hole eternal, boundless
stretching to grind stars to sugar,
pasted on the black velvet cakes
expanding in swirling milky way confections
end the lemon yellow sun bitten,
spilling the juices from black lips,
blotting out and burning the green blue
candy dollop of earth.
And this is where it ends, I’m afraid as I had to cease and rush to work. I do hope you found connection in it, at the very least.
Kemp Leonard Manson
Asher folded the paper and looked up to see Kemp’s fingers wrought in intertwining knots.
“You wrote that?” Asher said, his voice thick.
“Yes,” Kemp said, then shuffled forward, a bit panicky, “But if you don’t like it-”
Kemp paused at Asher’s sincerity, his hand reaching out to snatch the letter, as though to take everything back, shivered.
Asher nodded, folding the paper and slipping it into his pocket. Kemp’s lips lifted into a half smile, a breath of relief breaking free of his mouth.
“No one has ever used that word to describe me.”
They both paused. A mutual incline drunk and guided with beating hearts tilted them closer to the other.
“Well, if you like it, I can write more,” Kemp’s soft voice broke the silence.
“I’d like that,” Asher’s pleasured excitement showed in his teeth and rushing into his eyes. He glanced at the clock and it neared nine.
“What’s the matter?”
Asher tensed, looking at Kemp who appeared worried.
“I have some-er-errands I need to run.”
“Er-” he shrugged “Funeral stuff. Deryl needs me to look over some papers.”
Kemp nodded in understanding, “Well I’m glad you came in today so that I could share that with you.”
Asher bounced with anxiety as it pulsed through his veins and made antsy steps towards the door.
“Would you like me to drive you?” Kemp followed him.
Asher paused and bit his lip, a little smile quickly swept away by worry, “No, er, I’m good.”
He was at the door, opening it, his stomach turning to rot as it was being torn in two directions and Kemp met him at the door.
“I hope you have a pleasant day, then,” Kemp smiled down at him, his gaunt chest level with Asher’s forehead.
Asher’s head swirled from the smell of the chemist. Mild musk, cigarette smoke, and the tang of chemicals on his wrinkled shirt a few inches away. Stale mint breath. A concoction he otherwise would have had distaste for but the telltale scent engulfed him in serenity.
“Have a nice day,” he looked up, hesitant, and leaned in, a little slow, wrapping his arms around Kemp who reciprocated the embrace, caressing between the young man’s shoulder blades. They held each other before Asher reluctantly slipped away, unable to capture back his smile.
“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Asher,” Kemp’s shyness muffled his voice.
“And I you,” Asher hesitated at the door before rushing off, not allowing himself to linger lest he remain there all day.
He rushed down the hall, ignoring the hustle and bustle. When he finally got outside, the wind whipped his hair in its freezing fingers and he wrapped the tweed around his shoulders tighter, looking around for the snake in the bolero. He shivered, glancing at his wrist watch, as it ticked on the nine.
Then, he looked and saw Japheth coming out from the door behind him.
“Alrighty, throw me some Dolora.”
Asher dug his freezing hands into his pocket and slung Japheth the two bags, “Alright, let’s go.”
Japheth snickered, “Mighty patient you are.”
He glanced at Asher’s tweed, chuckled, and he walked off towards Lanabelle. Asher followed with a raised brow into the banged up Model T.
“Got a lead for you,” Japheth said, passing Asher a slip of paper. It had two names scrawled on it, with accompanying locations, the spelling erroneously phonetic.
“Who wrote this?”
“I did,” Japheth started the engine and pulled out.
“Can you write?” Asher’s gaze subconsciously flicked over to the yellow Royce as they passed by.
“If I can figure for my earnings well enough to build me a Phoenix sized nest egg and if I can write so people can understand me, I don’t need no crap from a smart ass like yourself,” Japheth turned onto the street.
Asher gulped, his hand sliding to the rectangular bulge in his pocket where Kemp’s letter sat.
“Alright, sorry,” Asher said, sincere. “So where are these people?”
“You’re lucky one of them owes me money so I can get my sharking out of the way for today,” Japheth passed the downtown park. “One’s in the Boarder Zone but the other is holed up in Johnny’s Paradise.”
“We need to hit up the sharking first,” Japheth continued when Asher didn’t respond, too busy running his finger along the outline of the letter in his pocket.
“You with me today, Jimmy Jung?” Japheth gunned the engine in a two step pedal touch to rollick Asher out of his haze, who responded with a jerky “yeah”.
Japheth clucked his tongue and grinned, flicking on the radio. A twangy banjo accompanied a steel guitar and a mandolin. Clicking spoons and guitar slaps made the percussion beat. Asher ignored the music as they drove, his idle eyes slipping into the side streets and hills of Mammon as they passed by its park, the police tape broken and fluttering in the breeze. It was only when a couple of stanzas of the lyrics that finally caught his attention.
My baby you make me feel at home
and warm when the winter moon loomin’ cold
The Boarder Zone loomed just over the edge of one of the Mammon hills.
“Alright, now, this sharking will be plain and simple, budabub,” Japheth didn’t turn down the radio. They slipped down the road, hidden on either side by the gauntlet of trees and the declination in the quality of street lights.
And my oh my, can’t help the way you warm my
icy, icy heart
Asher thumbed the edge of the letter.
“He owes a lot so we’re gonna score big,” Japheth emerged into the Boarder Zone.
You got some mighty magic touch
with the way you pull me outta my black winter
Japheth turned down a side street, “You get twenty five of the cut like last time. Two fifty this guy owes.”
Oh you warm my icy, icy, icy, heart-
Japheth killed the engine after parking on a Boarder Zone side street and the song quit.
“You ready?” Japheth toted his gun and Asher shook himself from his stupor, nodding.
“You look distracted,” Japheth’s tone snapped Asher alert.
“I’m fine,” he said, letting his hand slip away from the outline of the letter and before Japheth could retort, he got out of the car.
“You better not have your head in the clouds or you’re gonna get clobbered by the next street smart trickster coming your way,” Japheth’s tone threatened him.
“I got it, huh? Let’s go.”
They stopped at an alleyway where a red demon stood chatting with a few others.
Japheth whistled, something short, sweet and to the point until the black demon turned and looked at him. He gulped at seeing the bolero before looking down at the reptilian attached.
“You know why I’m here,” Japheth grinned.
Asher glanced down to the demons. One of them, the one in the back, started to inch towards a bat leaning against the wall. He winced, an instinctive hand slowly reached to his eye to rub it where he was hit the last time and bruised.
“Tell Silas I’ll have the money next week,” the demon brushed him off and turned back to the conversation.
“Silas don’t work that way, you know that,” Japheth unholstered his gun and held it out in plain view for the demons to look at.
“Now come on, Mozen, don’t be that way,” the demon said. “I’ll have it next week.”
Asher glanced at the demon in the back, his fingers curled around the bat.
“Ain’t it a shame you said that a week ago?” Japheth thumbed the Colt’s hammer, a nuance that the demon noticed.
“And I’ll say it again,” the demon said through his teeth to dam the sound of his gulp.
“Now don’t go and make me do this,” he aimed the gun and the demon relented, coming forward with the other demon in tow, the bat in his hand, and lunged for Asher. The gun fired. Asher took the bat’s first blow, it thwacked his sternum and sent him sailing backwards, landing on his tailbone.
“Gah!” Asher screamed but was cut short when the demon swung the bat, alternating between the right and left ribcage. He groaned, lifting his hand blindly, but the bat swung and cracked against his wrist bone.
“Jesus!” he shrieked, recoiled, assuming the fetal position.
“Fucking rube,” the demon grumbled as he wailed on Asher.
The bat swung wide, bludgeoning the center spinal disk. His limbs flailed open like a blossoming flower. He grit his teeth, flipped over, and rushed out, miraculously grabbing the bat on the down swing. The demon’s eyes flung open, stunned, and Asher took the miracle moment to sock the tip of the bat into the demon’s nose.
The demon swung back, screaming, rushing to cover his face with his hands. Despite the crimson waterfall trickling his face, Asher pounced to his feet and whipped the demon a few strikes with the bat.
He ignored Japheth’s shout and swung again. Hard. He walloped the demon’s side, cracking a rib. Again on the shoulder and crushed the deltoid. All the while, the demon wailed as Asher’s relentless beating buckled his knees, pulling the demon to the ground. Asher’s feral eyes pierced from under his sagging, puffy eyelid where a bruise formed, a ruby streak split his lower lip.
“Asher, stand down, dagnabbit!”
Japheth yanked him back by the shoulder and Asher stumbled back, his ravenous gaze still on the creature, clutching the bat like a rabid street dog.
“Criminently! We’re only getting money out of him, not killing the bastard,” Japheth snarled but Asher ignored him, slung the bat over his shoulder and stormed back to Lanabelle.
He was already inside, chest heaving, when Japheth swung in and tossed him a folded wad of cash.
“Next time you go wailing on someone, you better know you can handle the beatin’ he’s gonna give you” Japheth growled, starting the engine.
“What gives? I had it just fine,” Asher stuffed the money into his pocket, his fingertips brushing Kemp’s letter.
“If it hadn’t been for him making a little pause you woulda been pulp on the street,” Japheth turned down the road, driving back onto Belial.
Asher shrugged, licking his lips and tasted the coppery blood left on them. He lifted his arm to wipe it off and stopped when he noticed Kemp’s tweed. He pulled his button up from underneath to wipe the blood away.
Japheth stopped them at a warehouse on Johnny’s Paradise east side near the pulp mill. Busted or boarded up windows made up half the faded brick facade.
“And here I leave you,” Japheth said.
Asher looked at him, his shut eyelid almost opening had it not been for the pain.
“I gotta go meet up with Hank,” Japheth clicked his gun, moving the revolver around to open up the cylinder and plop in a few slugs from his trench coat pocket.
“You said that was tonight. It’s not even noon.”
“I meant afternoon,” Japheth clicked the cylinder back into place with a flick of the wrist, “What’s the damn difference? I gave you a name and drove your ungrateful little ass up here.”
Asher’s chest heaved but he snatched the paper and stowed it in his tweed pocket.
“He’ll be in the office on the far side. Just ask anyone for him, they’ll know who he is and tell him I sent you. From there you oughta know what to do.”
Asher ignored the slightly kinder tone, punching the door open after it stuck tight, inciting a snake’s hiss from the reptilian behind him.
“Hey, don’t you dare manhandle Lannabelle like a dime store cunt!” Japheth snarled out of the open door before Asher slammed it. Lanabelle belched a cloud of black gas before she rumbled off, leaving Asher in the shadow of the warehouse.
He wiped the blood off his lip with his button up sleeve, careful to not get the tweed filthy, and looked at the name.
He strolled into the warehouse, keeping the bat on his shoulder. Black demons dressed in white or blue coveralls pushed wheeled carts or dollies of bootlegged liquor bottles past him. Bitter hops and sweet malts perfumed the air as he passed through steam clouds roiling off silver vats, his reflection gleaming back at him. One made him stop and look at his bruised face but only for a moment before he grabbed hold of a black demon’s upper sleeve and said:
“Tom Malone. I need to speak to him.”
The black demon’s first gaze was to Asher’s eye, then to his bat slung over his shoulder, “There’s an office in the back, can’t miss it.”
Asher looked out over the black demon’s shoulder where he indicated and saw a small shack of a building with a window covered in stained and shambled blinds. Asher let go of the demon and headed for it.
He knocked on the door with the bat’s tip. When the door opened, he had to look up into the twinkling emerald eyes of a white demon twice his size in both height and flabby girth.
“Come to batter me, huh?” the demon had a wise guy voice, reminding him vaguely of Deryl, but he pushed past the aggravation.
“Are you Tom Malone?”
“Depends on who wants to know,” the demon stuck a cigar between his teeth with his clawed sausagey fingers.
“Me. Someone says you might know the person who killed my dad, Jerry Glassberg.”
“And that someone is?” the demon blew out a smoke ring. Asher’s bruise eye watered and he stifled a cough.
The demon nodded, leaned away from the door paneling, “Yeah I’m Malone. Come in.”
The office housed bookshelves of ledgers, manila folders wedged into crates, cigar boxes and a few liquor decanters. Tom Malone sat on top of his desk in the center. Wood whined from the weight of the magnificus obscuring the green hooded library lamp behind him, gesturing at the door.
“Shut it, kid.”
“You better set that bat down while you’re at it.”
Asher hesitated, standing in the middle of the room while Malone sized him up but set it down.
“Jerry Glassberg, huh?” Malone’s cheeks sunk in while he took a drag.
“He got murdered a few days ago.”
“What’s it to me?”
Asher’s sigh passed through his nose, “Some cash.”
“You don’t think I make buckets of it a day with my rackets? You’re damn lucky you’re an associate of Mozen.”
Malone rose, the table squeaked a sigh of relief, and strolling over to the ledgers, his cigar seemed to guide him through the alphabetical arrangement.
“I keep tabs on most of my employees but no guarantees on your dad.”
“I don’t think he ever worked here. He works-” Asher corrected himself “He worked for Silas MaCallister.”
“Good old Silas,” Malone hummed the name, then under his breath as he twiddled his fingers and landed on a ledger file. When he pulled it out, it was large enough to be considered a dictionary and the resounding bang on the table when he dropped it shook the desk.
He leafed through it, muttering names, until he paused.
“Glassberg, Jerry. Traded multiple consignment shipments for me from October of 1923 up until June of ’24.”
“He must’ve switched to Silas.”
Malone shrugged, “Looks like he ran a boozelegging consignment between me and Mort Garrison’s country club. Everyone deals with that cat’s snazzy clip joint at one point or another. Sounds like he was working for another boozelegger outfit or himself, though. He grabbed some 80 gallons of pure ethanol for someone else and then 100 barrels of liquor to ship to Garrison. Says here we split the dough three ways.”
“You don’t know who he got the ethanol for?”
Malone shrugged, “No records, probably a budding boozelegging racket. Everyone uses Ethanol if they’re planning to pump booze.”
Asher shook his head, “This doesn’t tell me anything about why he got murdered.”
“Bootlegging comes with a lot of enemies if you piss off the right people, kid. I’m sure your dad ruffled his fair share of feathers rum running for three different kingpins,” Malone sucked in a drag and blew it out into the room.
“Enough to get him killed in his own house?”
“Your house, huh?”
Malone’s head shook.
“That’s not a normal drug squabble. Any hits get taken care of in the back alleyways or in the remote parts of town. Backwoods kinda ’ting. If he was gunned down in the home, well, it’s more serious than a little gang dispute and if he’s not a kingpin or a higher up, there’s no reason why anything so personal would go down. He’s just not important enough to rub out like that.”
Asher’s breathing started to pick up but the glint in Malone’s eye froze his blood.
“What was your dad’s job at Silas’?”
Malone shook his head again, this time it made Asher’s stomach flip.
“Then there’s something he’s done that really grinds someone’s gears because distributors don’t even leave the manufacturing building. Musta been doing something pretty damn important for a hit like that.”
Asher mulled over this last point for a good couple of seconds before he fumed, “But who would my dad piss off that much?”
“Someone that knows he’s a distributor for the second best kingpin in Hellhole, and someone willing to gun him down for what he’s got or something he may know. That last bit being the key point.”
Asher’s chest went cold.
“Something he may know?”
Malone shrugged again, irritating Asher with his nonchalance.
“Your dad could’ve had information is all I’m sayin’. Anyway, time’s up. I gotta company to run.”
Asher sidled towards the door.
“Hey, bup, bup, bup,” Malone rose from the desk, wiggling his fingers towards him, “You gonna leave me empty handed or what?”
Asher froze, locked in the kingpin’s cold emerald stare.
“Don’t make me swing the bat on you. Pass the berries, kid.”
He dug in his pocket with seething wrath he fought to keep down, and procured the wad he’d earned earlier. The letter slipped out. Malone glanced at it but Asher slipped him the dough before any comment could be made. While he counted, Asher picked up the letter and stowed it in his now empty pocket and bent down to pick up the bat.
“Should do,” Malone nodded in approval between his teeth clamped around his cigar. They eyed each other, Asher’s grip tightened on the bat.
“I gotta gun in this pocket, kid, don’t make your doll smear her mascara you know what I mean?”
Asher nodded and left the room, but at the door Malone mused.
“Glassberg, Glassberg, Glassberg”
Asher paused but he didn’t look back.
“Yeah, I remember now. Jewish. Ordered enough pure Ethanol to poison the city from me back at Walker Ranch Winery when I still ran the place before the Volstead forced a shut down. Must’ve made his own brews. Was a deacon or something at the synagogue, right?”
The young man grit his teeth.
“Looked a lot like you. He was a good man.”
Asher turned, his eyelid sagged from the swell of his bruise.
“Funny how no one said that while he was alive.”
He didn’t wait for the kingpin to respond and let the door swing shut behind him.