Monday, 10 October 2016

Stanislaw Lem: One British Writer's Response

NSFWG chairman Ian Watson on the Polish writer

The first science-fictional Lem I knew about was actually called Lemmy.  Lemmy  was the radio operator on board the rocketship Luna which went to our Moon in the popular BBC radio series Journey into Space, commencing in 1953, a big influence upon the 10-year-old schoolboy who I was at the time.  Journey into Space was the last radio drama in the UK to have ratings figures higher than television. 
            Lemmy was a nickname derived from Lemuel, Christian name of the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels.  Lemmy could be brave when the chips were down, but he was easily spooked when eerie alien music came over Luna's radio.  Scarily, UFOs render the Luna powerless on the Moon.  This certainly prepared me for when Stanislaw Lem's hubristically named Invincible meets its come-uppance on Regis III. 
            The next LEM which I encountered was the Lunar Excursion Module which took Armstrong and Aldrin down to the surface of the Moon in 1969.  I was teaching in Japan at the time, and while the landing was in progress on black and white television in my house I was also attempting to improve the English pronunciation of my Japanese professor's daughter and a friend, both about 12 years old, a surreal juxtaposition.
            The Eagle has landed
            "Say: London."
            "Rondon.  Rondon."
            "No, London"
            That's one small step for man
            "London."
            "Rondon."
            —one giant leap for mankind.
            "Rondon.  Rondon.  Rondon."
            The word 'Lem' became closely associated in my brain with space travel.
            Lem's 1964 novel The Invincible appeared in English in 1973, the year of my own first SF novel, The Embedding, and I read the book quite soon after, a hardback borrowed from Oxford public library.  I had returned from Japan to Oxford where I had been a student and then a postgraduate student, so I knew how to go about getting a flat in the centre of the city, and Oxford was a nice place to live.  (Borrowing The Invincible from that library may be a false memory since amongst my books I just found the Penguin paperback edition of 1976, the spine cracked by being read and with an index card of notes in my handwriting tucked inside.)
            I wasn't sure what to make of The Invincible.  To tell the truth, I didn't exactly enjoy the book, but it did stick in my mind powerfully while memories of other novels faded away.  The Invincible seemed to be an anti-adventure compared with the American-style SF that was mainly to my taste at the time.   As with any glib generalisation, there are many exceptions to this, which I shall not explore here.  Suffice it to say that the younger me liked to read interstellar adventures—involving aliens, for instance.  And I still enjoy such stories, although by now I'm very sceptical about the likelihood of advanced alien life anywhere in our galaxy, let alone relatively—relativistically—nearby. 
            The masses of micromachines on Lem's world of Regis III did not exactly push my button of sense-of-wonder, though they damned well ought to have done, as I see in retrospect.  Evolution need not lead to individual intelligence, a very important insight arrived at by scientific logic; these days I am much more interested in such questions. 
            Solaris also passed me by somewhat, for similar reasons.  Too enigmatic, for my taste, as though the author was deliberately avoiding writing a 'proper' SF novel, or unable to. 
            I view my reaction now as akin to the irritation recently voiced through megaphones by the so-called 'Sad Puppies' and 'Rabid Puppies' in America who have wrecked the Hugo Awards by steam-rollering space adventures on to a ballot which they view to be increasingly unrepresentative of popular tastes and biassed towards towards lefty 'literature'.  (Though note that the Hugos are voted for by SF fans.)
            Compare and contrast the dismal 'Lem Affair' of 40 years ago—the expulsion of then honorary member Stanislaw Lem from Science Fiction Writers of America because he was critical of American-style SF.  Maybe the most bizarre aspect of this witchhunt was a psychotic letter from Philip K. Dick to the FBI warning them that Lem was probably the collective name for a committee of Polish communists intent on subverting the West by corrupting SF readers.    Since Lem uniquely praised Dick as a writer and even brought about the publication of Dick in Poland—leading to Dick complaining about not being paid properly—this fully vindicates the saying 'No good deed should go unpunished'.      I myself also had trapped Zlotys, which became devalued due to my not visiting Poland soon enough to spend them, so I assigned them to the excellent Dorota Malinowska to pay for alcohol at a party for Polish fans.  Cheers! 
            I never met Dick himself,  though I would have done so if I had gone to a notorious French SF convention held in Metz in 1977, but I didn't go there; probably just as well, since by then Dick was in his late period, of—shall we say?—mystical insights.  (However, one of Dick's epiphanies—namely that we live within a computer simulation—is nowadays accepted by several authentic physicists as at least plausible and, what's more, even testable.  This is a bit surprising.)  I treasured up many of Dick's 'classic' novels, anticipating rereading them with joy in my old age.  Unfortunately, a few years ago, I was invited as a panelist to a 'celebration' of Dick at a university, so I reread those same books— including Ubik, which Lem recommended for publication in Poland.  Oh dear me.  So badly written, most of them, so fundamentally idiotic.  Dick knew nothing and cared less about science, physics, planets, moons, what they are, where they are, why they are.  The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch did stand up as a novel on rereading.  But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  A living animal is the most precious thing in the post-apocalyptic world; so, if you're fortunate enough and rich enough to own one, you keep it on the roof of your apartment block where radiation blows past like sleet?  Dick had no idea what radiation is; even aside from that, what a gigantic non sequitur!  Well, I said so at that university symposium, and this went down like a lead balloon.
            Perhaps it may seem that I am participating in this celebration of Lem in a similarly unenthusiastic way.  But no!  I feel likewise, but in reverse, about Lem: books which I formerly put aside are presently going to illuminate me!

            For reasons of cultural (or uncultural) patterning, I have to confess that Lem wasn't the writer most influential upon my own work, at least not overtly (though who knows about below the surface?)—until The Cyberiad came along.  The Cyberiad absolutely enchanted me.  These collected tales of the two cosmic constructor super-robots are a witty and wonderfully inventive masterpiece of world literature.  And the wordplay is sublime—at least as it comes to me in the translation courtesy of the ingenious genius of Michael Kandel.  I expressed my enthusiasm in a story which I wrote about Trurl and Klapaucius for a British volume of tribute to Lem initiated by the Polish Cultural Institute in London. This project underwent significant mishaps before it ended up as Lemistry published by Comma Press, of Manchester, in 2011.  I wrote my story in the style of The Cyberiad (at least the style as Englished by Michael Kandel), and I was pretty pleased with the result—as a text that Lem himself might have written—but seemingly this wasn't much appreciated by reviewers in the UK who ignored my story while highlighting many other contributors.  I may be deluded about the virtues (or otherwise) of my homage to Lem, but I would much rather that that story was here in this present booklet in Polish instead of this series of evasions.     Yet, as George Washington apocryphally told his father about cutting down a cherry tree, "I cannot tell a lie."  My response to Lem may at least be symptomatic of one Anglosaxon SF writer's experiences.       

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Defending Dennis: Some Thoughts from the 21st Century on Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Satanist’

NSFWG member Paul Melhuish on Dennis Wheatley...

Many older writers of the fantastic seem to have achieved cult status I this day and age. H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, M.R.James for example. However, Dennis Wheatley seems to be overlooked. The actual reasons are unclear but from what I’ve picked up from comments on social media and conversations with friends the reasons for his burial range from poor writing to colonial outdated racists attitudes. Well, HP Lovecraft was notoriously racist and M.R. James was writing in a time of colonialist attitudes and wider class division and they seem to be forgiven. One conversation I’d had with a fellow churchgoer who wasn’t really big on reading horror (funny that) was that Wheatley’s work shouldn’t be read because of the occult themes. With this in mind I tracked down a copy of his 1960 book The Satanist (actually, that’s a lie. It was a Christmas present).

I enjoy reading and watching older fiction to see how things have changed since the time of writing. So with some relish I read The Satanist.

The story follows British Secret Services’ attempts to stop communist infiltration of Britain via the trade unions. ‘The Reds’ are also linked to a group of Satanists. A young agent called Barney Sullivan infiltrates the communist unions whilst Mary Morden infiltrates the Satanist sect which was responsible for her husband’s murder. Mary attends a spiritualist group and meets one Mr Ratnadatta, a talent scout for the Order of the Great Ram, a Satanist group who meet in a temple in central London.

I wasn’t expecting a lot of sex and gore but I was expecting a lot of sexist attitudes and racial stereotyping.  As a novel it was real page turner with some good, jaw dropping plot twists. Mary, as an initiate, would be expected to take part in orgies at the temple and ‘have many lovers’ in one night. There is a lot of talk of having sex but no actual sex scenes. This was 1960, remember. Pre Lady Chatterley and the sexual revolution. As for sexism….well. Okay, being a man I’m not going to be as able to spot sexist attitudes in literature as my female contemporaries. I say this as my female contemporaries have pointed out sexist attitudes in literature that I haven’t spotted. For me, the character of Mary Morden was a positive role model. A strong, independent woman avenging the death of her husband. Mary who uses her intelligence to save the day more than once in this novel.

What about racism? Oh dear. Several times Mr Wheatley refers to his black characters as ‘negros’. Even in 1960 I imagine this word has horrible associations with the slave trade. His heroes also use other racial slang words which are pretty offensive today but weren’t back in the sixties. Probably the most glaring racial stereotype in the Indian Character Ratnadatta. Wheatley has him speaking in this Indian accent, over emphasising the F’s which looks clunky on the page and is actually a painful and awkward to read. The effect, for me, is the same as when the character Joseph speaks in his broad Yorkshire dialect in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Not only is it hard to understand but as prose is grates with the reader.

More than anything in the book the Ratnadatta character suggests the ‘Johnny-foreigner’-as-the-enemy-attitude that was prevalent at the time. What makes this less offensive then and more offensive now? Well, we live in a multicultural society. I’d hate to think any of my friends from ethnic backgrounds being labelled in this way and I cringe when I think of any of my Indian friends reading the character of Ratnadatta thinking I shared the writers attitude.

I’m not going to be an apologist for Wheatley but I will defend his writing. The Satanist was a page tuner, had a good plot, and (with the exception of Ratnadatta) had likeable, well-formed characters most of whom seemed to spend time having a whiskey and soda in Colonel Veasey’s club.

So, the occult knowledge seems to be quite genuine and more or less square up with what I know about real occult practices. Wheatley warns against having anything to do with the occult and seems to advocate Christianity as a viable alternative. Colonel Veasey refers to ‘Our Lord Christ’ a few times, Mary knocks out the Satanist by chucking a cross at him. I get the feeling that Wheatley is fascinated by the occult but also morally opposes it. I’d like to know if he had any experience in the occult and where he got his ideas of an international secret anti-church from.

A few times he quotes Crowley ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, and the Satanists’ creed seems positively Crowlean in its promotion of freedom both morally and sexually. Conversely, the sect will punish anyone who doesn’t obey. Crowley was notorious in the early twentieth century and occultism did have quite an interest at that time in Europe. This popularisation of the occult may have acted as a foundation to Wheatley’s fiction. Crowley’s activities in the abbey at Thelema in Sicily made the front page in 1920’s tabloids and saw him expelled from Sicily under Mussolini’s regime.

In the sixties and seventies Wheatley’s books sold by the bucket load. Now you can’t even find them in Charity shops although they have just been reissued by Bloomsbury.

So, if Wheatley was writing today how different would the books be? In the sixties religious fundamentalism wasn’t making the headlines as it is today. The world of the sixties seems to have forgotten religious persecution; witch trials, the Torquemada. In post war Britain the black and white, good-verses-evil was more plausible. We live in an age of ISIS and Al-qaeda, We’ve just been through the age of Bush and Blair, alleged Christians ordering bombs to be dropped on cities. This would complicate the idea of good being the church of God and evil being the church of Satan.

If he were writing today there would be more sex, more orgies would take place. There would probably be more violence too. However good plot and characterisation are universal whatever age you are writing in.

So, to conclude I wouldn’t be too hard on Wheatley. The pace, plot and overall concepts of The Satanist were strong. I’ve not sold the amount of books he has so who the hell am I to judge anyway?

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix - review

NSFWG member Mark West reviews the novel "Horrorstör" by Grady Hendrix...


Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the far end.  And so opens “Horrorstör”, setting the scene and tone for the rest of this clever little novel.  Focussing on the events of one particular store - the Cuyahoga, Cleveland branch - of the “IKEA rip-off” Orsk chain (complete with its own philosophy, mission statements and banal phrasings), over the course of a day and night, this centres around Amy, a college drop-out who is fed up with the downward spiral her life has taken and desperate for something else.  With all of the problems the store is having, a consultancy team is due from Head Office the next day so Amy’s manager (and bête noire) Basil recruits her, the always-nice-but-has-no-family-or-friends Ruth Anne and himself to spend the night on the premises and make sure nothing happens between closing and opening.  When Amy’s colleagues Trinity and Matt break in, to shoot a showreel of their show “Ghost Bomb” they want to sell to Bravo (“would everyone stop talking about A&E?”) and a strange homeless man called Carl wanders in, things take a turn for the worse.  It appears, as Trinity is eager to tell them, that the store was built over the remains of a prison from the nineteenth century whose warden, Josiah Worth, had odd ideas on how to get his inmates to repent.

Having said all that, this isn’t a grim novel and the first half is a smart satire on both the culture of a big corporation that believes its own hype (I wonder if IKEA had words, at some point) and also the way that we, the consumer, are pushed and prodded and psychologically conditioned on what to buy.  This strand of humour runs through the whole book and there were a couple of pieces that made me laugh out loud.

The characterisation is brisk and efficient, telling us just enough about each person to make us understand their actions and we quickly come to care about them, from the desperately lonely Ruth Anne, the beaten-down Amy and the strictly efficient Basil .  Almost a character in itself is the building, a proper haunted house that is part bland superstore, part psycho-fairground-funhouse and part grim Panopticon (the beehive of the graffiti Amy finds at the start of the story).  I’d never really thought about it but Hendrix does a great job of making the huge warehouse frightening, its claustrophobia coming from its size in the dark - how do you find your way? - plus the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere (the police despatcher Amy calls when they discover Carl can’t find it).  In fact, Hendrix works with the tropes of the ghost story well, creating some moments that are genuinely creepy as he ramps up the tension.  The horror, too, comes thick and fast, dealt with in a brutally blunt way so that you read a quick line - a character loses a nail - and it’s not until you’re two or three lines on that the full revulsion hits you.

Helping everything along is the design (by Andie Reid) and illustrations (by Michael Rogalski), which is very good indeed - the book looks just like a catalogue from a Swedish home furnishing giant, complete with a store map, product details and a home delivery order form.  Each chapter is headed by a particular products design and description (some ruder sounding than others, my favourite was the Arsle chair) and these get grimmer as the story progresses, as if David Cronenberg was thinking of opening up his own furniture shop.

This is a well written, runs at a cracking pace and is witty, self-assured and clever without being obnoxious.  It made me laugh, it creeped me out and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Very highly recommended.


this review originally appeared on Mark's blog here

Monday, 18 May 2015

How To Kill A Rat With Your Teeth...

NSFWG member Paul Melhuish on Roald Dahl...

I was sitting in a pub reading alone the other week and a lovely drunk girl looked over from her cool looking hipster friends to ask me what I was reading.

‘Er…this…a book of short stories by Roald Dahl,’ I replied.

On seeing the book she actually came over and sat at my table which was nice and we had a conversation about Roald Dahl stores we’d read at school. I remember The Twits making me feel physically sick (the twit with the food, including a fish tail stuck in his beard. The only other media to make me almost physically sick being the puke-eating scene in Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste) and the alien from the Great glass elevator scaring the crap out of me.

I was reading Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life and the girl, on inspecting the book, said she had book envy before the conversation moved on to veganism.

I’d remembered one of the stories from this book being taught at school. Being 14 I didn’t notice the literary subtleties and character development. I just remember liking it because it had the word bastard in it somewhere.

Dahl has several volumes of short stories for adults out but Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life impressed me because all the stores are about rural life. I grew up in the country, moved to a city but now I live in a fairly rural environment. The book is comprised of seven short stories all set in the same village with the same characters running through each story. Short stories aren’t my greatest love as I prefer the expanded plot and character development afforded by novels. However, as the setting and characters run through each story they give the same satisfaction as reading a novel. There are other instances where I’ve found an anthology with a running theme most enjoyable. One of the best anthologies I’ve read recently is Fogbound From 5. Interconnected stories all set on the last train home published by Hersham Horror press. There’s also Lovecraft’s collections of Cthulhu stories which I love.

I digress. Back to Dahl. I found the stories to be brilliant and funny. For instance Parson’s Pleasure is about an antique dealer who disguises himself as a vicar to inspect rural houses and pick up antiques. The Champion of the World is about two poachers who decide to use raisins impregnated with sleeping pills to drug and catch pheasants.

One of the most memorable characters is a The Ratcatcher, a truly disgusting creature, the kind of in your face nutter you pray doesn’t start speaking to you in the pub. The Ratcatcher revolted me almost as much as Mr Twit and his beard. This guy looks like a tramp and keeps live rats about his person to demonstrate how to kill them to his customers. He demonstrates to the narrator and his mate, Claud, how he can kill a rat with his teeth alone. Stephen King seems to enjoy creating rural working class characters but Roald Dahl absolutely rules at this. The horrific and the hilarious to rub shoulders and create a brilliant friction.

You don’t seem to hear his name banded about as much these days in literary circles but since finishing this book I’ve met all kinds of people from different back grounds who have an admiration for Roald Dahl’s adult work. Living in the countryside I just hope I don’t bump into The Ratcatcher anytime soon.

Monday, 4 May 2015

NSFWG members interviewed (a round-up)

Over the course of last year (though we still have a couple of members who slipped the net), the blog ran a series of interviews where NSFWG members answered the same set of questions.

Just in case you missed them (and they're all entertaining), here's a round-up


First up was NSFWG founder Ian Watson, which is only fitting.

He was followed by:

Nigel Edwards.

Steve (Dr Steve) Longworth

NSFWG co-chairman Ian Whates

Paul Melhuish

Mark West

Tim C. Taylor

Andy West

Donna Scott

Mechphil

Susan Sinclair

Monday, 27 April 2015

Monday, 20 April 2015

"Snorky's Moll (part 4 of 4)", a serial by Nigel Edwards

Joe found a photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the drawer of an old desk. Apparently taken at a sporting event it showed a woman – Julia – looking straight at the camera, although the focus of the camera was really a man sitting close by; the infamous Scarface.

Joe agreed to do what Julia wanted: she wanted him to ‘ice’ his wife. They made their plans. Julia gave him a gun and then….

Well, you can read what happens next in Part Four of Snorky’s Moll.  Enjoy!

* * *

SNORKY’S MOLL

By N. G. Edwards 

'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;

Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv

PART FOUR

Three days later the Bears played host in a pre-season against the Packers, hoping to avenge their 21-34 defeat at the tail of the previous NFC regular. My future late-wife’s boyfriend was a new draft bought in to try and stiffen the defense, and Celia would be attending the game as his guest. Julia’s plan was for me to tail Celia from the hotel she was staying at, follow her into the stadium and wait for a suitable moment when I could get close enough to… do it, then make my escape in the inevitable panic. Julia would be waiting at a prearranged spot on Museum Campus Drive. It all sounded straightforward when she explained how it would work. What could go wrong?
The first part was easy. Triple-I had corporate hospitality passes, of course, and it was a simple matter for me, as a still remembered face, to pick one up from the C&CB the day before the game. The game was to kick off at six-thirty and I’d already found out where Celia was staying. Three forty-five found me in a taxi outside her address, waiting for her to leave for the venue, which she did in her own cab at four o’clock. I instructed my driver to keep us out of sight which, with hindsight, was unnecessary. I knew where she was going so I could as easily have got there early and just waited. To tell the truth, though, I enjoyed that little cloak-and-dagger play. It added to the sense of fantasy that had woven itself around me and helped, I think, to gird my psyche against the grisly act I was about to commit.
  
Soldier Field is an immense landmark. I read up about it – I figured I ought to. Originally called the Grant Park Municipal Stadium, it was renamed in 1925 at the request of the Chicago Gold Star Mothers. The place was the venue for many famous events, including the ‘long count’ between Dempsey and Tunney in ’27. Renowned as the home of the Bears, in fact it wasn’t until ’71 that the team moved across from Wrigley Field to take up residence under Jim Dooley.
Crowds were already gathering when I arrived, ready for the box offices to open. Skirting these I headed straight for the VIP entrance, spotting Celia as she passed within. I hurried after her, conscious of the unaccustomed weight nestling in the small of my back, but I pulled up short when I saw security guards hovering. They were scanning visitors – even the VIPs – as they approached the lobby. A sign of our age, of course, following the dreadful events of 9-11. Everyone was conscious of the threat to our great nation and searches were a commonplace occurrence, even when going to a ball game.
I should have expected this but I didn’t. I was totally without experience when it came to criminal acts (at least, outside the boardroom) which is why security before the event never even crossed my mind. I guessed it hadn’t crossed Julia’s mind, either; at least, not that she mentioned – hardly surprising, I suppose, as this sort of scrutiny would have been unheard of in her day, outside a presidential visit. I tagged onto the rear of a party and hoped that I might be overlooked. Not everyone was being frisked. The guards were exercising some discretion in choosing their victims, or maybe they were just working on a quota; either way I was unlucky. I was one of those who were targeted.
“Hands out to the sides, sir,” I was told. The man scanned my sides and legs with a device that looked like a spiral stove plate attached to a handle. “Turn around, sir,” he instructed. Sweating profusely I realized there was no way I was going to get away with this. I was about to make an excuse and try to back out when there was a commotion down the line. There came a shout and I caught sight of a young man with greasy hair, dressed in faded denim, dashing away. Why he was running I’ve no idea but the guard looking after me decided he’d find more fun joining a co-worker in a chase than continuing to check out a middle-aged man whose heart was racing harder than it had for a decade. I was in the clear. I dabbed at my forehead with a handkerchief, silently prayed my heart would survive the stress, and moved on.
The lobby and bar of the United Club were packed. Concierges ushered, waiters toted drinks, pretty hostesses with bright, plastic smiles mingled, while the affluent – and in greater numbers the aspiring affluent – sauntered to reserved tables or otherwise milled about looking rich and important. Celia was on the far side, attended by her beau and a few other notables of the footballing fraternity. How many people were there I’ve no idea but hundreds, easily. I figured this had to be my best opportunity and locating a convenient place where I could make my final preparations without drawing any attention, pulled on a pair of colorless latex gloves and swiftly transferred the Colt into my jacket side pocket, next to the photograph. The moment had arrived.
Ever since I’d left the hotel I’d mentally played out this scene over and over, all the time with an echo of Julia’s words when she gave me my final instructions.
Just take it easy, she’d said. Don’t do anything stupid like shout or run. Get as close as you can and put the gun to her head. Two bullets, okay? Then drop the piece and turn and walk away. Everyone else will be panicking and you can use that as cover. Nobody’ll hardly notice you. You’ll do great, baby. I know you will. Remember I love you.
Breathe. She’d forgotten to tell me I had to breathe and I was only half way across the room when I remembered to do so myself. My muscles were aching with the stress of my mission, and every forward step I took was like my feet were made of lead. The sounds of the crowd grew louder, but duller at the same time, scores of conversations merging to an unintelligible roar that filled my ears. Not far now. There she was, Celia, clear and sharp while everyone around her was blurred, a tableau of faceless manikins fawning around a demon goddess who basked in their worship. Nearly there. Time to lift up the gun. Why was my arm so heavy? As I pulled back the hammer all other noises ceased and the world became a silent similitude of reality, where movement was so slow as to be almost unnoticeable. But now the goddess was turning, slowly, recognition dawning on her face. I could see the gun in my hand and marveled at how steady it was, light reflecting from its cold, efficient metal barrel. The manikins were beginning to move also but they would be too late to interfere. I placed the muzzle against her forehead and squeezed the trigger. Her eyes were wide, her mouth opening but the only sound was the explosion of the bullet as it smashed through her skull. The weapon recoiled, sending my second shot high. But it didn’t matter; the first missile had done all that was necessary. My arm descended, the pistol slipping from my fingers. Why was Celia still standing? She wasn’t. She was collapsing, slowly and delicately, like a snowflake falling on a breathless winter’s day.
I watched her death with a dreadful fascination. Almost I couldn’t pull myself away but then a different movement caught my eye. I forced myself to turn. Julia. Why was she here? Why wasn’t she waiting outside as we’d arranged? And why was she looking like that, a gout of blood pouring from the side of her head? The world was beginning to catch up and her fall was quicker than Celia’s had been. As she dropped to the ground another figure was revealed behind her, a broad figure with a hard face and dead eyes looking out from beneath a fedora. He carried a gun that seemed identical to mine. And it was pointing at me.
I turned as the shot was fired, and felt the agony of ripping flesh in my arm. Time resumed its normal cadence and I ran, one with a host of others screaming and shouting to get away from the violence. I think there was another shot but I just kept running and didn’t stop until I was out of the building and away. When I finally staggered to a halt I crumpled to the street and threw up. There was no sound of pursuit. I threw up some more.
  
Twelve months have gone by. I’d done what I set out to do, what I’d been urged to do by the promise of a woman in a photograph. Celia was dead. And so was the promise.
My arm had healed up. The bullet had passed through leaving only tissue damage, and it was a simple matter to find a doctor who’d treat the injury without prying as to how the wound had come about. After a while a scar was all that was left to physically mark the event.
The local rags were full of the story at the time, of course. It even made the nationals after somebody in the criminal investigation team revealed that the gun used to kill Celia carried only the prints of Al Capone. I figured that the police would come question me once they learned who Celia was and I figured also that it wouldn’t be easy to explain away the bullet hole. That’s why I decided I should get away, turn myself into someone else, someone who wouldn’t attract the attention of law enforcement.
I was rich and with my wealth I was able to buy a new life in which to hide from the misdeeds of my first. In fact I’ve changed my identity three times since that signal day. Not especially to evade the police, although certainly they were looking for me. No. You see, others were hunting me, also, and when they came close I took no chance and moved on.
Julia had said it was impossible for her to commit the murder, which was why – and maybe this was the sole reason, if I’m brutally honest – she said she needed me. My best guess is that there was some law of the universe or – why not? – God that restricted interaction between the planes of her existence and mine. But if that were the case, why was it that the other pistol’s shot had been able to find its target? Me. I can only surmise that either Julia had lied to me – which for some reason I still find hard to believe – or else my physical association with Snorky’s moll had blurred the separation between our realms, allowing direct action to occur. I don’t know, and probably never will – at least, not in this life. All I do know is that my existence is now a torture of fearful waiting, running, and constantly looking over my shoulder.
That’s why I said existence – it could never be called a life.
  
It’s cold, this morning. From the window of my rented room I can see an old-fashioned black sedan parked across the street. There are four men inside. I think they’ve found me.

END


* * *

©2014 by Nigel Edwards. All rights reserved

Copyright of Cover Images remains with their originators: http://www.retrokimmer.com/ and http://4.bp.blogspot.com/

Also by the same author:

Badger’s Waddle, published by Greyheart Press
The Cookie Tin, published by Greyheart Press
The Cookie Tin Collection, published by Greyheart Press
Garrison, published by Greyheart Press
Ferryman, published by Greyheart Press
Waif, published by Greyheart Press

The Tower, published in the anthology Shoes, Ships and Cadavers by NewCon Press
The Last Star, published in the anthology Looking Landwards by NewCon Press

And The Scrapdragon series, written for young people age 10 and up, but suitable from age 8 and available on Kindle:
The Scrapdragon Book 1 - An Adventure Begins: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle
The Scrapdragon Book 2 - To Find A Sorcerer: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle
The Scrapdragon Book 3 - Bullies And Monsters: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle
The Scrapdragon Book 4 - Fear & Courage: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle

Monday, 13 April 2015

"Snorky's Moll (part 3 of 4)", a serial by Nigel Edwards

The story so far…

Joe found a photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the drawer of an old desk. Apparently taken at a sporting event it showed a woman looking straight at the camera, although the focus of the camera was really a man sitting close by; the infamous Scarface.

Joe imagined that the woman – Julia – would have to be very old, now, if not already dead. So it took him by a great surprise when he met up with her in downtown old Chicago – not just movie lot replica of the Windy City but the real deal. Somehow he was transported back to the days of speakeasies and gangsters, and there Julia revealed to him what she wanted. She told Joe of her relationship with Big Al, Snorky, to his friends, and how it was soured because of his wife. And then she explained what she wanted from Joe.  It was very simple: she wanted him to ‘ice’ his wife…

* * *

SNORKY’S MOLL

By N. G. Edwards 

'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;

Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv


PART THREE

I didn’t leave the next day, as I’d planned. Or the day after. Instead, I vacated the Carbon & Carbide and took a room in an uptown hotel, my head full of Julia. I was intoxicated by the memory of her kiss, the touch of her hand, the scent that stayed in my nostrils even while I slept.
Every day for the next week I flagged a cab to the site of the Lexington, paid the driver – never the same guy twice but each one did well enough at my expense – and regardless of the weather spent my hours trudging the streets of the Windy City, searching for a sign of Julia or the hidden intersection with the Roaring Twenties. By the end of the fifth day I figured I was wasting my time. I was beginning to convince myself that, in fact, nothing had actually happened at all. A dream, incredibly vivid maybe, but just a dream. I purposefully ignored the possibility that I’d suffered a psychotic episode. After all, there was still the photograph, and there was still the strange but intense attraction I felt toward the woman captured in its frame. That picture was the one thing I could not ascribe to fantasy. But I didn’t know where she was or how to find her again. It was time, I told myself, to move on. The sixth day saw my bags packed and a cab ordered to take me to O’Hare.
Julia was waiting for me on the back seat and once more the heady mix of cheap perfume, cheap booze and old tobacco assailed me. Again I felt the hypnotic pull of her street-wise sexuality snare me.
“Hey, Tony,” she called to the driver, who grunted. “Take us around the block. I’ll tell you when to pull over.” Then she grabbed me and repeated that first kiss, deep and sexual. This time I let my hands touch her. I could feel her body pressing against me but I was determined to find some answers before this crazy episode went any further.
“God, I’ve missed you!” she breathed.
 “I tried to find you…” I began, pulling back.
“You couldn’t. I was out of town.” She lit a cigarette. “You know you love me, don’t you?”
The question – or was it a statement? – was blatant and unexpected. There was a simple answer but one that I couldn’t utter. The consideration that I had become smitten with someone who could surely be nothing more than a figment of imagination, an extension of an image in a picture, the product of some mental aberration… no, I couldn’t admit to that. I was sane. I knew I was. I had to be. Then what was she? A ghost? In broad daylight? In a Chicago cab?
“Sure you know it. That’s why we’ve found each other. There’s a bond between us. We’re meant to be, honey, you and me.”
“But… you’re dead!” I burst out.
“You saying I look like a corpse?” Her tone was sharp.
“Well, no… but, what else…?”
She took a deep drag. “Who cares? All I know is I’ve waited decades and now, at last, I’ve found you and we’ve got a chance to get our own back.”
“What? We? On who?”
“Snorky, of course, the two-faced slime-ball!”
“But… I though you loved him? The way you spoke of him before…”
Her face softened. “I did love him. He was the most generous guy I ever met. Treated me like a lady. Well, most of the time.” Then her eyes hardened, her lips firmed. “But he stole my baby and I’ll see him suffer for that!”
I sat back against firm leather seats, suddenly aware that at some unknown point the cab I’d boarded had transformed into Julia’s black sedan, with a chauffeur.
“Um, okay. But what has all this to do with me?”
“Your wife. You’re married to Snorky’s granddaughter.”
Talk about a hammer blow. In England they have an expression: gob-smacked. It means stunned, shocked, floored, overwhelmed, speechless, and that’s exactly how I felt right then.
“Oh, she don’t know,” Julia continued, “but I do and I want her wasted!”
I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make any sense so I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.
“That’ll teach him! He took away my baby and finally I can get back at him for that. And,” she added knowingly, “we’re going to do it together. You and me, babe.”
“What? Murder? No!”
“Don’t pretend you haven’t thought of stiffing your old lady yourself. I know you have. It’ll be easy. I’ll help you get it done, and then you and me will both be free to be together. And don’t tell me you don’t want that.”
One thing about those old motors was there was plenty of room in back. Maybe the upholstery wasn’t so comfortable as in a modern automobile, but it was definitely more spacious. I should like to say we made love there and then, but we didn’t. We just had sex. Wild and crude, careless of the world. I even forgot about Tony, the driver, as I became lost to the raw pleasure she gave. I didn’t smoke anymore thanks to the insistence of the doctors, but afterwards I accepted the cigarette she offered.
“You wouldn’t want to say goodbye to more of that, would you?” she asked, teasingly. “I didn’t think so. Okay, let’s talk about how to make sure you don’t.”
“But I still don’t understand. How will killing Celia help get your revenge on… on Snorky?”
“I had to wait until the time was right, see,” she told me between puffs. “I’ve lived in Chicago for more years than I can remember, waiting for my chance. Snorky died in ’47 and I thought the opportunity had passed on by – I couldn’t do anything while he was still around, nor while Sonny was alive neither.”
“Sonny?”
 “His son.” She hesitated. “My son. The boy who should’ve been my son but for Snorky stealing him! And Mae, of course. She hung around ’til ’86. She never told Sonny about me but I guess I don’t blame her. She just did what Snorky said.”
“Why didn’t you go speak with him yourself?” I asked. “Sonny? Once Snorky was dead?”
“I did, once. At least, I started out to. But when I found him he wasn’t my baby, wasn’t my son. There was too much of Snorky inside. He’d changed his name, trying to get away from his father’s legacy, but he couldn’t get away from his blood.”
“How do you mean? And anyway, how does Celia fit in?”
“Sonny got married and everyone figured he was an ordinary guy trying to be anybody but his father. The girl he hitched up with knew who he was, but she was just as fooled as the rest of the world. She didn’t know about some of the ‘business trips’ he made. She didn’t know about his mistresses. He had three regular, you know. One in Milwaukee, one in ’Frisco, and one here, back where it all really started. It was Snorky’s bad blood, you see, coming out in my boy.”
Her face took on an expression of almost fury, certainly hatred. I waited for her to continue which she eventually did.
“Sonny’s Chicago bimbo was Italian. She had a daughter by him. Snorky’s blood. Snorky’s only living descendant. Sonny had other kids with his wife, and they weren’t Snorky’s; they’re my descendants, through my son. But the bimbo’s kid…”
Julia stubbed out the cigarette and I did likewise. I hadn’t been enjoying it but as soon as it was extinguished I immediately felt the return of the old craving for another. I ignored it.
“And…?”
“And that’s all there is, honey. Snorky’s been watching her, seeing how she turns out. He don’t care about Sonny’s other kids, the ones from his marriage. He never talks about them…”
“Talks about them? You mean you still… talk to Capone?” Why should I have found that such a strange idea, mixed in with all the other crazy stuff I was experiencing? Whether this was a bridge through time, an alternate reality, or a weird afterlife was immaterial. I couldn’t deny what my senses told me. Julia – and Al, too – were people from another age that was somehow intersected with my life, and if I could connect with one of them, why shouldn’t they be able to connect with each other?
“Well no, not so much,” Julia admitted, “but I’ve see him, and heard him talking with some of the other guys, buddies like always. And I’ve followed him, watched him while he keeps tabs on her. He dotes on her, tells his cronies how proud he is of her and saying how disappointed he is with his – our – son. He figures she’s the best thing he ever made – him, not Sonny!”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand all this. How can you and he, this whole weird world you live in… I just don’t understand!”
Julia favored me with a smile and took my hand. “Does it matter? We’ve found each other and ain’t that all that counts? C’mere.” She pulled herself close again, her hand stroking my thigh. “forget about Snorky and the rest. There’s just you and me on the struggle buggy – and you know that I ain’t gonna struggle…”
  
Later we talked some more and our conversation was as hard as it was unreal: means and opportunities. Julia had already considered the first.
“Take this.” She handed me small brown parcel that she’d pulled from beneath the bench seat. It wasn’t sealed, just covered in layers of thick, crinkly paper. Cautiously I unwrapped it but I’d already guessed the contents by the package’s weight. “Don’t touch it,” she warned. “Get yourself some gloves first. If the Feds dust it they’ll only pick up Snorky’s prints.”
It was a Colt .28, nickel-plated, double action. A separate wrap held half a dozen bullets.
“This… this was – is – his?”
“Yeah. You ever handled a heater before?” There was a note of doubt in her voice.
“Sure,” I hastened to reassure, “but not since I left the National Guard. I’ve used a rifle more.”
“Okay. The Colt’s an easy piece anyway, just point it, cock it and pull the trigger.”
“Actually, you should squeeze the trigger,” I interjected, trying to show that I really did know something about guns, though she didn’t sound impressed.
“Whatever. Two pops in the head. That’s what Snorky always said. It’s quick and does the business. Now, let’s think about where…”
We were discussing murder, emotionless and clinical, pretty much like any business deal. This was a human life we were planning to extinguish – and not simply a remote and impersonal stranger: someone I knew, intimately. Did I hate Celia that much? I guess I must have because I felt not one iota of concern for the woman I’d married, not a smidgeon of future guilt. Inwardly I marveled at my dispassion, my objectivity, not to mention the speed with which I’d agreed to carry out this plan. Would I have the balls to see it through? Only time would tell.
We talked a while longer but by the end I couldn’t remember a single word Julia had said, or that I’d replied. Yet when I was finally deposited back on the street I knew exactly what I was going to do. The coming deed was etched in my mind, sharply chiseled and clear. I felt no doubts, no uncertainties. Celia was going to die.

 I cancelled my trip to the airport, checked back into the hotel and put the feelers out. Where was Celia now? Who was she with? What plans did she have? Turned out she was also still in Chicago, enjoying being seen about town accompanied by the muscle from the party. Now all I had to do was wait for an opportunity to arrive. I didn’t have to wait long.
Julia had said she’d be in touch. I had no means of contacting her so all I could do was wait but in the late afternoon of the following day there came a knock on my apartment door.
Julia breezed in. “There’s a Bears game coming up,” she told me. “Soldier Field’s perfect. The ground will be packed, thousands of people milling around. Perfect.”
“What? That’s crazy. I’d be seen!”
“Uh-uh. You go in, get it done and disappear in the crowd.”
I must have had a look on my face because her eyes narrowed. “You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”
“Look, it’s, well… I’ve never, you know, killed anyone before. Not even when I was in the Guard.”
Her expression softened and she hung her arms around my neck. “You know I love you, don’t you, honey? And you know that she’s the only thing standing in our way. Just do this thing and we can be together, always.” She took my hand and held it to her breast. “Feel my heart beating, baby. It’s for you. It’s all for you.” Her eyes closed and she pressed her lips to mine. “How ’bout I give you a little reminder of why it’ll all be worthwhile…”
Later, over an espresso, Julia explained the benefit of being in a crowd, how I could use it to cover my escape.
“Snorky’s soldiers made a lot of hits in public places. Crowds frighten easy. People hear a shot and they panic, start running all over the place, lots of confusion. The goons used crowds like camouflage, see? Hiding in plain sight.”
That made a sort of sense. I’m sure I’d have felt more confident if I could have used a rifle and fired from a distance but Julia said it was harder to miss when you’re up close.
“Have you ever, um, iced anybody?” I asked.
“I’ve seen enough to know how it goes. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”
“So why do you need me? I mean, with your experience with the mob…”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand. It ain’t possible. If it was d’you think Snorky’d be satisfied with just eyeballing? Believe me, the wise-guys would all be back in business if it was that easy.”
I didn’t pursue her answer. I don’t think she understood herself why some things were possible while others weren’t. To be honest, I reckon her understanding of our strange reality was no better than mine. None of the questions I’d asked about where she came from or how she’d got there ever produced any coherent explanation; and any direct mention of death or a possible hereafter was always stonewalled. I just had to accept things the way they were and trust I wasn’t crazy.


…concludes in Part Four

* * *

©2014 by Nigel Edwards. All rights reserved

Copyright of Cover Images remains with their originators: http://www.retrokimmer.com/ and http://4.bp.blogspot.com/

Monday, 6 April 2015

"Snorky's Moll (part 2 of 4)", a serial by Nigel Edwards

The story so far…

Joe was on the way up in the world, a young VP heading for a partnership in Triple-I.  He met Celia at one of Rudi’s famous parties in Miami. A whirlwind courtship was followed by a wedding and romantic honeymoon. But the honeymoon didn’t last. Both Joe and Celia eventually had numerous affairs which gradually took its toll.

Then one day in Chicago, Joe found a photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the drawer of an old desk. Apparently taken at a sporting event it showed a woman looking straight at the camera, although the focus of the camera was really a man sitting close by; the infamous Scarface.

But it was the woman who captured Joe’s attention. Separated from her by a generation, she yet seemed to be staring right at him… but just who was she? He felt a powerful attraction toward her. A sensation grew that she and he were a part of the same story. But what story? In this Part Two we being to find out…

* * * 

SNORKY’S MOLL

By N. G. Edwards 

'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;

Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv



PART TWO

The day was fine, bright sunshine, no clouds and warm. I hailed a cab and told him to take me downtown. As we negotiated Chicago traffic, the driver insisted on filling me in on some of the notable landmarks. It’s a common trait with cabbies – that’s a term I picked up in London England, a few years back – they seem to need to talk, often about nothing, and sometimes with accents you can’t understand. This guy was obviously Mexican – not so common this far north of the border – but, to give credit, he did demonstrate he knew at least something of local history. Our (mainly one-sided) conversation began.
“You in town on business?”
“Yes.”
“Here long?”
“No. I’m flying from O’Hare tomorrow.”
“That’s a shame. There’s some great places in town. Very historical, Chicago. Many famous places.”
We drove on, him talking, me sometimes listening and throwing in the occasional platitude to show he wasn’t speaking to a brick wall. After a while he indicated out the window. “See there?” There was a vacant lot where scaffolding was being erected, nothing special that I could see. “That’s where the Lexington used to be. Famous hotel, used by Al Capone.”
I felt a tingle. Al Capone. The photograph. With the woman. Well no, perhaps not with her, but close.
“Prostitution, racketeering; he did it all from there. He had a vault inside. They opened it on live TV but there weren’t nothing to see. Building got pulled down in the 80’s and now they’re gonna put up condos or something.”
I responded with a meaningless grunt, but my attention had been caught. The cabbie continued.
 “Yeah. He organized the St. Valentine’s day massacre but never got caught, even though everyone knew it was him. Did time for tax evasion, can you believe it? They couldn’t pin nothing else on him, see. Then he went and died from syphilis. That’s kinda poetic, ain’t it? Him being behind the prostitution, and all.”
From nowhere I was overcome by a sudden and overwhelming urge to get out.
“Okay, you’re the boss.” The driver pulled over and I disembarked, dropping some bills into his hand. “Hey, thanks, man!”
I knew I’d given him way over the clock with the tip but I didn’t care. It was just paper; and anyway, right at that moment a compelling need was driving me to be out on the street. Not just any street: this one. And not just anywhere on the road but right there. I can’t say if there’s such a thing as fate – I’ve never been much of a one for philosophizing – but if ever I could have been persuaded about destiny, that was the moment.
So there I was in the Loop, stood on the corner of Cermak and Michigan, an officially retired businessman seeking… what? I watched the men working on the site for a while. They were oblivious and didn’t watch back. Now what? The urge to be somewhere was still pushing at me so I began walking east along Cermak towards the Great Lake. A refreshing breeze was now coming in from that direction and scores of gulls were wheeling overhead, raucously calling to each other. I hadn’t gone far when that scent I’d originally noticed when I first looked at the photograph returned, coupled with a certain conviction that I was being watched. I stopped walking but the feeling persisted. Turning slowly I cast around and there she was, across the street, the woman from the photograph, dressed in the same clothes, hair held by a black hat, the wide brim of which fluttered a little as the wind caught at it. She was standing by the open door of a black, nineteen-twenties Cadillac, complete with running plates and looking wholly incongruous against the host of modern vehicles that sped carelessly between us. She didn’t say anything but I knew she was waiting for me. I crossed over.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. Her voice was old Chicago, all drawn out vowels and hardened t’s. Without warning she put her arms around my neck and kissed me. Then, letting go, she asked “You wanna get a brat? C’mon, get in. I know a joint.”
I slid into the passenger seat while she fired up the engine. The smell of old cigars and hotdogs permeated the vehicle, augmented by the taint of cheap perfume and even cheaper booze. Before I could think further she twisted sideways, and again put her arms around me, smothering me with a deep, energetic and totally passionate kiss. I just sat there, stunned. As our lips parted my vision blurred momentarily. When it cleared my perceptions of the world were changed. The vibrant colors, sounds and smells of modern Chicago were replaced by… to be honest exactly the same colors, sounds and smells only… different. Older. Seedier.
The woman spun the wheel and we drove off, I don’t rightly know where. After a time we pulled over across from an alley sandwiched between buildings that looked like, one day, their tops would collide. We got out and the city was a completely different place to the one I knew. The street was crowded, pedestrians and cyclists outnumbering automobiles by a large factor. The buildings were different, newer yet grubbier. It was like being on a movie set where the overall effect the director was aiming at was smudgy brown. This was the Chicago of yesterday.
The woman from the photograph led me into a café, a word that gave the place way more credit than it deserved, where we settled at a table by the window.
“The caaffee’s free with your order. Whadda ya wanna eat, there?” A hard-faced women in a stained apron placed two cups of hot black in front of us.
I said nothing but my hostess seemed to have already decided for me. “Two brats, extra onion, hold the mustard.”
While the waitress was filling our order my companion took hold of my hand, and caressed it. But not a tender caress; it was sexual. Her foot started to play the length of my shin. An excitement surged through me, jogging loose a memory from junior high when red-headed Moira dragged me into the girls bathroom and introduced me to the pleasures of her early-pubescent body: first and second base without even trying! And here that thrill was returned, that same sense of naughtiness, of risk from being caught. I resisted the impulse to reach across the table and touch her skin, play with her hair. Instead, I freed my hand to take the photograph from my pocket. The woman pulled her foot away and watched from behind the steam rising from her drink.
“How…?”
“Yeah, that’s me. Sure seems a long time ago.”
 “But how? It can’t be you! In the picture. I mean, you haven’t changed. Not one bit! All this time? How?”
She put down her cup and shrugged. “Who knows?”
The waitress returned with a sour expression and placed two bratwürsts smothered in onions on the table. Then she disappeared to attend to other patrons.
“Snorky never liked these,” my companion told me, taking a large bite. “Eye-talian, see? All he ever ate was Eye-talian.”
Her image in the photograph was accurate. She wasn’t especially beautiful; her nose was too long, her mouth too wide, her hairstyle too, well, old-fashioned – although maybe it was swish in its day. And to be frank, the way she ate reminded me of a dog snuffling after food in its dish. There really wasn’t much you could call lady-like about her at all and yet… there was something…
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“Julia. That’s my name. And I’m here because you and I, honey, are meant to be together.”
Between mouthfuls, Julia recounted her story.
“There was lots of us girls, of course: Betty, who took up with Leo Vincent’s brother; Viola, Anna, Catherine, Louise – she ended up with that scumbag Jack McGurn. We all hung around the wise-guys. Then there was Gladys, Lena, Marion, Josephine, Victoria, Louise. And Mae Coughlin, of course. I’d team up with Snorky when she wasn’t around. Most of us started out working for the syndicate one way or another – and I ain’t saying what we did was right and proper, but a girl’s got to make a living somehow. The boys would take us to the best restaurants and speakeasies. We’d go see a show, or to the track, or a ball game – that’s where that photo was took, ya know.”
I interrupted her, briefly. “Who’s Snorky?”
“Al. The guy in the photograph. Don’t tell me you didn’t recognize him. Everyone knows Al. Snorky’s what his closest acquaintances called him. Except Mae – she only ever called him Al. We lived the highlife, alright, and some of the girls got under the skin of some of the guys, and got took off of the streets to live in fancy apartments. I guess that’s what most of us dreamed of…”
She was talking quickly, so fast that sometimes her words seemed jumbled up, but I was spellbound by her Southside brogue as well as the cheap scent that somehow made it to my nostrils over the powerful würsts.
“Yes?” I prompted.
“He was the biggest. The best,” she continued, a dreamy haze crossing her eyes. “When he talked about the other girls he called them floozies and for sure he was right, but he always called me Julia and never once bad-mouthed me. Did I say I was his favorite? I met him before any of the others, even Mae, way back when he first arrived in the Big Apple. But then, she was the one he married, soon as he found out she was pregnant.”
She took out a cigarette and lit up with a silver lighter. I looked around, half expecting somebody to complain, but the place was empty now, asside from the waitress, and she was sitting behind the counter staring into space. It struck me then how unreal everything was. It all seemed solid enough. I could feel the heat from the coffee, taste the savory odor of the meat, hear the traffic outside – if this was a dream then it was one like I’d never had before.
“In the very early days, back before Snorky got to be big, before the twenties had even got started, I was working for a guy named Johnny Torrio in New York. I’d run away from Chicago because of my father. He was a bastard, beat me every day. The Big Apple was a dream to me, much swankier than slum-town Chicago and Johnny treated me okay. He introduced me to Snorky when he was just a kid. I guess I kinda fell for him right off the bat. He said he liked my Windy City accent!”
She laughed and I couldn’t help hearing an echo of the gulls. What the hell was it that I found so absorbing about this woman? I couldn’t deny it, though. The more she talked, the more I caught the light in her big brown eyes – definitely her best feature –the more I found myself being sucked into her strange web of attraction. A libidinous understanding of men almost oozed from her. Floozy. Hooker. Street-walker. They were just names but what she had went beyond words. That was why it was inconsequential that she didn’t conform to any archetypal vision of beauty or femininity. She didn’t need to look like a movie star; sex leeched from every pore. Any man who put himself totally in her hands knew from the very start that there was no way he’d ever leave unsatisfied.
“I tended his face when he got into that fight over Frank Gallucio’s sister,” she continued, “after Al said she had a nice ass. That’s the only time I ever heard him say he was sorry to anyone; Lucky Luciano and Frankie Yale made him apologize and I figure that maybe saved his life. He and Gallucio made up, later. Al gave him a job as a bodyguard.” She sighed. “You know, we had some good times just Snorky and me. Even after he met Mae, though not so much.”
I had never before, and never have since, had a conversation so strange as that one. Not much of a conversation, I suppose, since mainly I just listened.
“She was two years older than him but he still fell in a big way. Then he got her pregnant. When I heard there was a baby on the way I knew I’d missed my chance. I told him I’d step aside, not get between them, though it cut me to do it. And then you know what? The baby died, early on, during the first semester. Lots changed then. Snorky pulled back from the rest of us for a while, stayed close to Mae. She was family, see? It’s an Eye-talian thing, family. Very important to them. He pretty much never left her side except on business. Well, hardly never. But he was still a man, with a man’s needs, and it was kind of expected for the wise-guys to show they were still big with the ladies, keep their reputations. And at that time Snorky was a wise-guy who still had a name to make.
“So he came to see me – just me, none of the other girls.” There was emphatic possession in her tone. “More than once, the first time not two nights after Mae aborted. Said he needed what his wife couldn’t give him just yet.
“I ain’t no dumb Dora. I never took stupid risks. I always made sure my Johns were protected, even though they complained. And those that did complain didn’t do so for long once they knew I was working for Torrio. But when Snorky said he didn’t want to wear no shadow… Well, I couldn’t never say no to Snorky.”
This tale, fascinating though it was, frustrated me. I was still no closer to learning what this was all about. Before I could prod the conversation on Julia continued, only now there was a hard edge to her words.
“On the night I gave birth Snorky came to the maternity hospital with some of the guys. He’d covered the cost of all the care: private room, full-time nurse, nothing but the best. But now he wanted payment. And he took it!”
No man can ever fully appreciate how a mother must feel when her child is snatched from her, the fetus she bore and nurtured within her belly for nine long months, the baby she gave birth to. I saw no tears but I felt the wash of emotion that poured from her, a heavy, terrifying flood of loss that no dam built by man could ever have held back.
“You asked why I was here and what I wanted,” she said. “So now I’ll tell you. I want that you should ice your wife.”
  
Ice. I knew what she meant. It was one of those words hijacked and twisted into a cruel irony by secret monsters who needed to convey by code the real words they were afraid to use. Bump, clip, hit, ice, waste, whack – they all meant the same thing. Should I have been more shocked by what Julia had said than I actually was? Probably not. Our society – by which I mean all our neighbors in the affluent West – is enlightened by the media, and the media is a beacon stoked by the inextinguishable flame of violence. Newspapers, television, movies – anything with access to the human eye is awash with images of unrest, upheaval, crime, death. Okay, it’s sanitized to a degree, at the insistence of a few self-selected vociferous caretakers of the moral well-being of the people – though I sometimes wonder if that constraint wasn’t engineered by the media barons themselves, who knew well the benefits of titillation: give ’em a taste of the insalubrious and unwholesome, engineer a protest at the vulgarity of it, then sit back and wait for ’em to clamor for more.
But I shouldn’t blame the press or Hollywood. All they do is profit from the troubles of the real world. Most of the time what they show isn’t made up. And I did have personal motive, of course. After long years of marriage my feelings towards Celia had hiked their way down from mere dislike and were now camped close to the border of serious animosity, hatred even. The idea of getting rid of her was not a new thought, though I believe it had never before been more than a fanciful consideration.
As we sat with our coffee and brats that morning, I didn’t then know the history of Julia’s baby and I didn’t learn that until our later. Our first meeting was suddenly and abruptly brought to a close by her rising from the table and announcing she had to go. She dropped some greenbacks at her place and walked away, leaving the sausage half eaten, the coffee half drunk, and me like a cake mix ready for the oven with no chef around to finish the job. It was a week before I got to see her again.

 By the time I got out the door Julia and the Caddy were out of sight. I looked around. The neighborhood had seen better days but it was full of life, like a pair of patent leather shoes that were worn and faded and had soles as thin as paper but were still determined to give the wearer more miles yet, before they were ready to be discarded. I saw old-style vehicles driving the streets – Buick 45’s, Packard Eights, Dodge Brother’s Tourers, autos I’d only before seen in museums or old movies. But the cars weren’t the only oddities around. There were men wearing cloth caps wheeling barrows loaded with fruit and vegetables, women dressed in styles my own mother would have found out of date in her youth. Everything around me was as old as the photograph, yet as solid and real as the cab I’d stepped from forty minutes earlier.
The surreal vision made me feel nauseous, like I was on a carousel that was spinning too fast. Giddy, I closed my eyes tight, held my breath and leant against a streetlight for support. How long I rested there, brain spinning, heart pounding, I’ve no idea but at some point a voice cut through and somebody shook my arm.
“You okay there, buddy?”
Cautiously I parted my eyelids to let in a sliver of light. A curious and concerned face was looking at me. A freshening breeze washed my face. The sepia-tainted imagery from the last century, when flapper girls had Charleston’d their way through the Great Depression, when law enforcement and the criminal elite were practically indistinguishable, when you praised the Mob for their speakeasies with one breath and cursed the sound of their Thompsons with another – all gone as if never there, and twenty-first century Chicago restored. Wherever I’d been, however I’d gotten there, now I was back.
I whispered thanks to my benefactor. I was fine. Just suffering a little exhaustion.
Letting go of my support and lurching away I guess the impression I gave was probably of someone who’d imbibed more than his share, but I didn’t care. I wandered the street for a long time, trying to sort out my crazy head-full of thoughts. I didn’t come up with any answers that would pass for rational. Eventually I gave up, found a taxi and returned to the C&CB.

It all seems so long ago, now, but it’s actually less than a year.
I recall that I didn’t stay much longer. I know I engaged in fragmentary exchanges about nothing in particular with some of the other guests before I said my goodbyes, but I wasn’t really attentive. My thoughts were elsewhere and my distraction did not go unremarked. Rudi asked if I was okay, and at one point Celia came up and asked if I’d seen a ghost. I forced a smile and muttered something about being so used to living with her for so many years I wouldn’t notice a real ghost if one passed right through me. I remember the frosty look as she left to fondle the buttocks of her beau, right where she was sure I would see. I slipped away from the function pretty soon afterwards.
The next day I left my apartment – I was staying in one of the suites on the top floor of the C&CB that we kept for senior management and important clients – and returned to the room where I’d found the photograph, but the decorators were at work in the corridor so I didn’t even get out of the elevator. As I continued my journey to the first floor I fished the picture from my pocket. There she was, still looking at me, a curious half-smile on her lips. I wondered who she was. I was soon to find out.

…continues in Part Three

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