“Man, it’s cold out here.” He whispered to his friend sitting next to him. The two men were hunkered down on the side of the road, sitting deep in a ditch, waiting.
“Just pay attention to the traffic.” The bigger man said.
“It’s hard to pay attention to anything. Feels like my balls are about to drop off.” Joey continued. He and his friend, Peter Duffy, were waiting on a particular vehicle. The two men, at least they thought of themselves as men, were trying to make their bones for the Northside Gang. The year was 1926 and the bloodiest gang war in America had raged for almost five years. On one side was the Northside gang. Northside mostly consisted of Irish and Polish Americans. Their ethnically Italian foes called themselves the Outfit. The two gangs had more or less co-existed for years before prohibition. Everyone kept on their side of town, and the occasional fights that did occur were limited to fists and clubs, never guns and knives. But now, six years into prohibition, the law that was intended to make America more safe and sensible, holy and righteous, turned the streets of Chicago into killing fields.
“You want to smoke these bastards or what, Joey?” Peter said. He takes the magazine out the BAR rifle he is carrying, carefully wiping the top round and then shoving it back it. He inspects the gun again for what must be the tenth time since they have been hiding in the ditch. His broad square jaw clinches in the cold and his hands tremble a bit, but he remains vigilante and prepared. Peter’s mind never wanders from the task awaiting him.
“You know I do. Paul was like a brother to me. And Hymie, he brought us up. I want as many guinea scalps as I can get my hands on.” Joey said. He racks a round into his shotgun, feeling fired up defending his cause.
“Awful confident for someone who’s never killed anybody.” Peter said.
“I’m ready for it. And I’m not ashamed that I haven’t iced anybody yet. Just nobody ever done nothing to get it from me yet, but these wops, it’s their time.” Joey said. The air feels like daggers piercing through their wool overcoats, stinging their faces and eyes. It is total darkness on the road. The two men who are sitting next to each other can barely see their hands in front of their faces. The car they plan to escape in when the deed is done is just on the other side of the road. Yet, the darkness consumes so much that they couldn’t throw a rock and hit it.
“Killing a man is something. The first time is always hard to live with for everybody, but after two or three you get over it. At least that’s what Paul would tell me.” Peter said, he takes a deep breath as the air leaving his body steams out in front of him. He sits back a bit suspending himself between the very bottom of the ditch. His legs lie on one end and his back is laying on the other. He begins to think about the time he had to kill a man.
The room was bright, and there were many people around. Smoke filled the air and the smell of home-brewed liquor was the only other thing that could sway through. He was at a speakeasy and brothel deep in the Northside of town called the Jasmine Parlor. Peter had been there many times before, too many if you asked his friends. His brother Paul ran protection for the place and was the top Lieutenant of Hymie Wiess, the newly appointed head of the Northside Gang. Paul had been a private in the Army during the Great War and took part in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, seeing 26,000 American lose their life during the offensive. He came home wanting to fight no more battles, and yet he ended up in another just as many others had done.
Peter had always idolized his brother. At one point, he tried to join the Army himself, but at the tender age of fourteen he couldn’t pass for a man even with the properly faked credentials. He could tell that Paul had changed since he came home from the war. He never really smiled or laughed anymore. He only breathed deeply with his cold eyes extending well past all of Chicago and back to the trenches and bunkers. The two boys were raised as devout Catholics, but since Paul had come home he hadn’t been back to church having lost God somewhere near Verdun. Neither of them really ever wanted to be hoods or brusiers or grifters or gangsters. Their dream was to meet some nice girls in Chicago and take a one-way train out to the golden coast, where it was never cold and the sun always shined. But that dream, along with part of Paul, died in Europe. When he returned home, his girl had run off with an Italian by the name of Luigi, the butcher had found a new apprentice, and his father was dead.
The danger of losing their home and all of their belongings while his brother was at war and his father was in the ground prompted Peter to start running numbers for Dean O’Banion, the then head of the Northside Mob. Peter would go to see O’Banion at the flower shop to get the orders and take them to the bookkeeper down the road. Occasionally, O’Banion would have him take messages other places. Peter went on with this life, and at the time it was a relatively safe way to make his living. The gang war to come had not even been thought of yet. Paul returned home and sent Peter back to finish school, sacrificing any future career for a sack full of money and a snub nose .38. Paul was an effective and diligent bruiser, always trying to be as professional as possible even when breaking someone’s fingers or legs, always trying to snap the bone clean so it could have the best chance to heal properly. He never wanted to be a bad man in his life, but he was. It was the only way for him, but that wouldn’t stop him from being as gentle a bad man as possible.
Inside the smoke-filled ballroom of the Jasmine Parlor, Peter sat at the bar sipping some recently smuggled Canadian Whiskey which he had personally escorted across the northern border. He, Paul, and Hymie had gone to the Canadian border in Minnesota to get it the day before. Peter took another sip as his brother filled his glass. Although not a part of his job, Paul tended bar and ran poker games at the club more often than not. The club itself was actually a Victorian style house with burgundy wood paneling on the outside in a middle-class neighborhood in territory that was neither owned by the North Side Gang or the Outfit. Inside, a huge glass chandelier greeted guest as they walked in. The stairs which led to the often-used bedrooms were to the right, and to the left the house opened up into a grand ballroom and bar area. The house had been extensively retrofitted, very much against the city code, but the Fire Marshall and several high-ranking police officials made many social calls to the Jasmine Parlor so these minor technicalities were overlooked.
Paul stepped away from the bar and back into the kitchen, throwing a towel over Peter’s shoulder and telling him to watch the bar while he walked out for a minute. Peter walked around to the bar, rolling the labels back towards him and looking them over. After a minute or two, three loud Italians stumble down from the upstairs and make their way to the bar.
“I’m telling you boys, that’s the best snatch I’ve had in years.” One of the men said. Peter looks them over. He recognizes the two men flanking the loudest one. Nicolas Angelino, a stocky, tanned man, with slick black hair undercut at his crown and several greased-up strands which flew around when he threw his head back in laughter. The other one that Peter recognizes is Matteo Morata, skinnier than the other two, Morata is said to have killed three men before he was sixteen. He is known in many circles as one of the most dangerous Italians in Chicago. Morata and Angelino are both tightly linked with the hierarchy of the Outfit, Morata being one of Capones most trusted hitmen.
“Did ya pay for it rough?” Morata asked.
“Of course, these tramps try and squeeze out every dollar they can. You better make ‘em earn it. Give ‘em the old one-two around the face and choke ‘em a bit, and at a good price to. My old lady would kill me in my sleep if I did her the way I did that old girl.” The fat man in the middle said. “Boy, pour us three of your best vodka’s.” The fat man said to Peter slamming his fist on the bar top.
Peter pours the men their drinks as they slam them back. He was always amused at the men that came down, how they reveled in their accomplishments. His girl, Caroline, worked upstairs and was a top earner, but that was all going to change soon.
Hymie had promised Peter that he would start making big money now. As much as Peter idolized Paul, he idolized Hymie more. A part of it was that, with Hymie, people were either his best friend or crossed the street when they saw him coming. He, even more than Capone, was the most feared man in Chicago. Known as ruthless, tough, and above all else relentless, he struck fear into the heart of his enemies and inspired courage among his own men. Now that Peter was going to start making real, sustainable money, he had told Caroline that she could leave the Jasmine Parlor and they could get a place somewhere.
She had pale skin, but it was pale in an attractive way, the way a pearl is beautiful or a cloud is majestic. She would often wear dark lipstick, deep reds usually. Her eyes were two emeralds placed perfectly symmetrical in the middle of a flawless face. The combination made her a hot commodity at the Jasmine Parlor, a fact that she had told Peter earlier in the day. She insisted that Stephen Drucci, another North Side Lieutenant who owned the Parlor, would not let her leave without an exit fee. The term “exit fee” in the legal world that most live in would seem to refer to some sort of monetary sum, but with Drucci it was much different. The last girl that left had the right side of her face sliced from ear to mouth, to ensure that she couldn’t work in the business again. The one before her had been stabbed to death and dumped outside of a Police Capitan’s house. Drucci was a sadist, but Peter insisted that Hymie would help them. Caroline agreed to his plan and lit up her opium pipe which Peter noted she had been using more and more.
The Italian men had been talking and carrying on for a while in front of the bar. “This one though, she’s a real beaut, well she was. I popped her so hard in the nose it went two different directions.” The fat one said to a roar of laughter.
“What was the girl’s name?” Peter said interrupting their conversation.
“Is this mick fuck talkin’ to me? The mick fuck bartender, at a two-bit whore house is questioning me? Who gives a fuck what her name is you Irish fuck.” The fat one said.
“I was just wondering, my girl’s up there.” Peter said.
“Son, she ain’t your girl if anyone can have her for a fiver.” Angelino said.
“How about I let you smell my fingers and see if that rings a bell you Irish fuck?” As the men continued to berate him, Peter took the towel and laid it on the counter. He walked slowly, trying to keep his calm in sight of the men. Once he reached the stairs, he sprinted towards Caroline’s room. She was sitting in the bed, her nose dripping blood, and her eyes had already started to black. He could see the fat man’s handprints on her neck.
“Why do you let them do this to you?” He asked her.
“They pay for it Peter, you know that. He paid an extra twenty and left a five-dollar tip.”
“But I told you, you can stop and we can be together.” He said sitting on the bed next to her. Putting his arms around her.
“Drucci will never let me leave. You need to find you a nice a girl, someone worth your time.” She said beginning to cry.
“You are worth my time. I would spend every second of the rest of my life with you if I could.” He said. He held on to her, thinking of the life they could have, maybe even making it to that sunny golden coast with Paul. After that thought passed through his mind, all he could think of was the fat Italian man laughing about doing what he had done to Caroline, the brutality of it. He could only reason that force must be met with force. He left Caroline some moments later after she had taken several draws from her pipe and drifted into the ether. He made his way down through the ballroom where the Italians now sat at a table drinking. He went back into the small kitchen. He handed Eddie (a bartender that he was close with) his gun and picked up a large and very sharp kitchen knife. He instructed Eddie to hold the other men at gun point and make sure they didn’t shoot him.
Peter marched out of the kitchen. Eddie stood at one end of the table brandishing the gun at the two men. Peter walked behind them, grabbed the fat man’s tie, pulled it tight and began plunging the knife into the gluttonous chest of the man he regarded as lesser than a pig. The man shrieked and cried in agony as each pulse of the blade went farther and farther into his chest. Soon enough, the floor, table, and Peter himself were soaked with the Italian’s blood. It was the color of a lipstick that Caroline would wear, and it covered the scene almost in its entirety. Angelino and Morata looked on in shock, being careful not to make a quick move. Time froze for a moment in the dark violence of it all; Peter instantly felt a deep regret and guilt overcome him.
Paul quickly rushed in and pulled Peter away.
“You just killed us all, Peter.” Paul said enraged. “That was Joey Fats from New York. He’s a made-man. You just killed us all.”
“I…it was justice.” Peter mumbled trying to come up with a defense. In truth, he could barely muster any words. He was in shock himself at the violent act he had just committed. It was out of his nature. Peter was usually calm, mild-mannered, some would even say nice. He realized quickly after that that the dark outlaw world he had been living in had changed him. He learned quickly that you can’t touch the other side and come back without part of it coming with you. In the weeks and months that followed, all he could see was the blood, the crimson rain that had showered the room, oozing and pouring out of Joey Fats.
Hymie had managed to make a deal with the Outfit, agreeing to turn over the Jasmine Parlor at the beginning of 1927 to the Chicago Outfit and moving his dominion back a street. Hymie stared Peter in the eyes when he was telling him the deal that he had made, bluntly saying at the end of their talk that he would have killed him himself if it wasn’t for Paul. In the second week of October of 1926, the crimson rain was sprayed again. This time on the streets. After the guns had gone quiet, Paul and Hymie laid dead on the street, their assailants in the wind and most of the world unaffected.
Peter thought about how death was weird in that way as he stretched back in the ditch. Once death darkens your doorstep it was final, nothing again would ever be done and you would only live on in the ever-expanding memory of a few people. And over time, if you had failed to make a real mark on the world, those people would have families and other priorities and begin to forget about you, eventually dying themselves. After all of that, a generation or two at most, no one would ever know or care who you were or what you did. You would slip into the finality of nothingness.
Before Paul had died, and after he had saved his brother’s life by convincing Hymie to make the deal, he had told his brother that justice on the streets was whatever you could live with. Peter took that to heart and decided that he could live with whatever he had to do to get him and Caroline out of Chicago. He knew without Hymie and Paul he was a marked man and that his time would soon come if he didn’t leave town. He suspected that Drucci had ordered the murder of Hymie in part because of the deal that deeply cut into Drucci’s business and in part because it made the gang look weak. In truth, it didn’t matter who ordered the hit or why. Drucci and Bugsy Moran took over the gang and instantly began waging a bloody war to take control of Chicago, creating the flood of crimson.
Peter hoped that by doing this last job for the $5,000 Drucci had promised and letting Caroline go without a fee that he could finally head out of town. After what felt like hours in the ditch, off in the distance, headlights illuminated the dirt road.
“Here they come,” Peter said, “I’m going to get in the tree line over there and you stay here. As soon as they stop, we’ll blast them.”
Peter ran across the T-intersection and kneeled, pointing the BAR forward. Angelino and Morata were the targets of the hit. The two Italians were taking their mistresses on a getaway to Racine for the New Year. Drucci had ordered that the mistresses were to be unfortunate causalities in the war, as there were to be no witnesses. Peter and Joey agreed to it all and readied themselves to collect. As the Ford pulled up to the intersection, it rolled to a stop. Snow had begun to fall lightly from the sky. Peter pulled the trigger of the BAR, breaking the still, silent majesty of the New Year’s Eve night. The explosion from the gun lit up the tree line and deafened anyone standing close. The bullet tracked through the windshield, through Matteo Morata’s right eye, and rested in the chest of Angelino’s mistress. Peter kept pulling the trigger until the explosions stopped exiting the gun, exhausting his magazine.
He approached the driver’s side of the car. Joey and Peter had already discussed taking the foursomes valuables before torching the car. Parts of Morata’s head were spread throughout the car. Peter and Joey pulled out lighters and lit the torches they had brought, sitting them close enough to the car so that they could see. Peter began to strip Morata of his timepiece and cufflinks.
“Oh shit!” Joey said. The next thing Peter heard was the booming sound of a gun, and another booming ring after that. He looked up to see Angelino fire another round into the darkness.
Peter stepped back and tried to load his BAR as he could see Angelino make his way across the front of the car. Peter moved towards the back of the car when he heard two more booms, and then a third. The third one was different though. It had stuck him with an unimaginable force, taking him to the ground at the trunk of the car. He laid there looking up as Angelino stood darkening the car’s doorway. The broad-shouldered Italian lowered his gun and pulled the trigger, and pulled it again, both times met with a hollow click. Angelino fought through Peter’s kicking feet and began to level the butt of his gun into the soft tissue of Peter’s freshly shaven face. The smacks and cracks paled in comparison to the noises of the guns, but they were the only thing Peter could hear as his teeth leaked from his mouth, one part of his nose leaving the other and his eyeballs filling with the pressure of a red-hot boiler thrown into Lake Michigan.
Angelino stopped the assault. Peter briefly thought the man was having second thoughts about killing him, and then he thought that maybe he was just taking a break. Finally, he heard a shot, which he figured must have been the third or fourth one, coming from the ditch. Angelino pried the second BAR magazine from Peter’s hand and jammed it into the gun. A gun fight ensued. As Peter rolled over to see what was happening, he only saw the flashes and Angelino’s back. The fight ended moments later when the back of Angelino’s skull departed the rest of his body. Peter felt tired and drained, unable to really move, and he laid there calling out for Joey, eventually drifting off.
He awoke as Joey stood over him shaking fiercly. The sun was up now; it was a new year. And it seemed that he had been granted a new life. He felt his face. His nose wasn’t as bad off as he thought. Joey had snapped it back into place. He could only see that he had lost one tooth, a molar that had been bothering him anyway. He pulled himself up, inspecting his leg, taking a breath of relief. He had merely been grazed by the round, but still it hurt enough for him to never want to get shot again. Joey and Peter looted the bodies, put Angelino back in the car, and lit it ablaze with the torches that had managed to stay alight the entire night. A night of miracles he thought, but now would be the hard part, facing Drucci.
The two of them, now certified hitmen, got into their Ford and headed for the city. It would be a short drive, but Peter wasn’t sure he had the nerves to make it. He began to shake more and more as he thought about having to face Drucci. The man was not one to usually make deals. People paid him what they owed him one way or the other. But, Peter reconciled his nerves by repeating in his head that he had paid Drucci with the blood of his adversaries. He then began to think about seeing Caroline again, this time not having to leave her in the death grip of the whoring and opium as life had been forcing him to do for so long.
Peter looked at his hands. They had blood on them. He pulled out a handkerchief and tried to wipe them clean. Wiping the blood from his hands reminded him of the last time he had gone to church. It was right after he had murdered the Italian he didn’t think was human. He walked into the confessional and his eyes met the sharp, hollow, and dark eyes of a priest. He zoned out for a second.
“What’ve you to confess?” The priest asked for what must have been the third time.
“I have nothing to confess.” Peter said standing up.
“A man with that look on his face always has something to confess, son.” The priest said.
“I’ll save my confession for God I think padre.” He said and walked out.
“No man leaves this world without facing his sins.” The priest said as Peter continued out.
The ice on the trees was dripping off, and it had warmed up considerably. Peter and Joey stood outside of the Jasmine Parlor. Peter could see Drucci’s car and another Northside car parked on the other side of the street. He took a deep breath and walked in. He walked through the door and stood in the great room. Drucci was sitting at a table alone in the middle of the room. The morning sun was reflecting rainbows off of the chandelier. Peter thought about how beautiful it was. He and Joey sat down.
“I trust you boys did what we agreed on.” Drucci said sipping a glass of whiskey.
“Aye. Those fellas won’t be a problem anymore.” Peter said.
“And their compatriots?” Drucci said coldly.
“Compatriots?” Joey said.
“He means the broads. They ain’t going to be a problem either, sir.” Peter said.
“Good. Good.” Drucci paused taking another sip. “You know, I never thought much of you two boys, but you proved your worth last night. Now, I’ll pay ya what we agreed on, but I’d like you to stick around. We can use men like you.”
Peter felt a pit in his stomach rising. Drucci wasn’t a man that took “no” very well. “I appreciate that Mr. Drucci, but Caroline and I have plans out west. You know buy a house, start a family, get fat.” He said smiling.
Drucci sat his drink down. “Very well.” He motioned to one of the men standing in the corner of the room. It was at this point Peter realized neither one of them had brought a gun in case Drucci was going to double-cross them. It was too late now, he thought. The man pulled an envelope out of his pocket. “Five thousand a piece and free passage west.” Drucci said.
“Thank you, sir.” Peter said standing up and heading for the stairs. He started walking slower thinking that Drucci might just shoot him in the back. He breathed a sigh of relief when he made it to the stairs. He walked to Caroline’s room and paused at the door. He was afraid to open it; the rest of his life was beyond that door. Part of him feared that Drucci had killed her or maimed her in some way. He dug deep into his soul to find the courage to open the door. She was sitting on the bed looking out of the window.
“Are ya’ ready?” He said.
“Baby!” She said turning to him as beautiful as ever. “Let’s go.”
They had made it all the way to the train station. Joey told Peter that he had re-thought going west. He said that Drucci was going to let him run the Jasmine Parlor, and it was a deal he couldn’t pass up. They hugged as Peter and Caroline stepped aboard the train. Peter sat down in the window seat with Caroline laying her head on his chest. The train set off and finally the fear of being gunned down was beginning to fade. He now thought about the rest of his life. The money and his share of the loot would be enough to get them started. He thought about buying a house and raising kids, eventually drifting off to sleep with the bright and warm sun beating down on him from the window.
The warming sun began to burn his face, it felt like it was scorching before he finally awoke. He could only see out of one eye, and his head felt like it had magma poured into it until it had run over. Then he felt the intense pain from his face all the way to his leg. He saw the blood pouring from it. He could see the Ford that he had ravaged with rifle rounds on fire in front of him. He hadn’t made it to the train station, he hadn’t gone anywhere. He rolled away from the fire and shouted out for Joey, no answer was heard.
As he crawled closer to the ditch where he had last seen his friend, he finally made out Angelino’s body lying on the road soaking the snow in blood. He looked down to see that he was leaving quite the trail of blood himself. The crimson rain he had grown to fear so much since he had first spilt blood at the Jasmine Parlor had come for him. He made it to the edge of the ditch. The fire had made the entire area as bright as daylight. He could make out Joey’s body through his clouded vision. There must have been four or five holes in him. He thought about crying, rolling over and giving up. Then he thought about Caroline, he couldn’t leave her alone in the dark world they had found each other in.
He motivated himself to finally stand. He fell back down almost instantly. The second time he grabbed the BAR and used it as a crutch. He staggered his way over to the getaway car, not having the energy to place the scene in a way that hide its brutality. All he could think about was getting to Caroline and leaving Chicago for good. The car started on the tenth or eleventh try. It had only gotten colder, not like in his dream. The sun had begun to come up, only enough to dimly brighten the clouds that had moved in from the lake. It would not be a bright sunny day after all.
He drove as best he could. He looked himself over in the mirror. It was not a pretty sight. His left eye had completely shut, covered in hues of black and purple. His nose was going three different ways, leaking blood from several spots other than the nostrils. He swiped his tongue around his mouth. He noted several of his teeth had departed. All he could taste and smell was the flat metallic iron of the blood that covered him. He could see the city in the distance as he pushed down on his leg, trying to put pressure on the wound.
He swerved onto the sidewalk at the Jasmine Parlor. He had seen a Drucci bodyguard on the street over and assumed that Drucci was indeed planning on double crossing them. He grabbed Paul’s 1911 from the seat and stumbled inside with the help of the BAR. The house seemed to be totally empty. He had no time to check though. He marched for the stairs. He fell at almost every one of the fourteen steps that made up the staircase. Each time Peter pulled himself up. Nothing would stop him from getting to Caroline and getting out of town. He finally made it up to her room and braced himself against the doorframe. He turned the knob with a hand he suspected was broken by the butt of Angelino’s gun.
Caroline was laying on the bed naked. A syringe was sticking out of her arm, blood had wept out of her eyeballs and mouth. He collapsed. His entire life was beyond that door, and it was dead. He crawled over to the bed, hearing a car pull up. She was cold. The air was filled with an unmistakable pungent, muskiness. He began to cry as he turned away and leaned against the bed, facing the doorway. He could hear footsteps coming up the stairs. As the blood-filled tears ran from his eyes, he could only think about what that priest had said and the unescapable finality of death.
A hail of gunshots filled the neighborhood.