Roses in the Devil’s Garden Excerpt
“THIS STORY has no moral, this story has no end, this story only goes to show, that there ain’t no good in men….”
Why wasn’t he surprised the dance floor was flooded by couples hoofing it to a tune about murder? It said a hell of a lot about the times they were living in. More than Agent Harlan Mackay cared to admit. It was ironic. All this trouble to cleanse the country of its depravity and heathen ways, and instead, the line between law-abiding respectability and delinquency had become blurred to the point of near extinction. Nowadays, even Granny was making a mint from the nice young boys running a gin mill from her basement—something which would have been a step up from this joint.
This particular saloon was an old house converted into a sanctum of illicit activity, where everything from bootlegged liquor to prostitution was not only available, but encouraged. The city had thousands of joints like it, and for every one that closed down, three more popped up—in basements, flower shops, bakeries. No place was sacred. Not churches or funeral parlors. The latter being the worst of them.
The limited space in the saloon was occupied by a makeshift stage, overcrowded dance floor, and a chipped wooden bar stretching from one end of the room to the other, crowded with folks packed shoulder to shoulder, throwing back the hooch. Shoved out of the way into darkened corners and gaps, were little square tables dressed in white tablecloths—a poor attempt to add some class. The cigarette and cigar smoke was so thick, it could have been mistaken for a London fog.
Plenty of well-to-do society folks had come out slumming, dancing the Charleston and the Bunny Hug in fancy beads and frilly feathers. The dames in their Dutch Bob cut and rouged knees drank nearly as much as their beaus, who in their bright colored shirts and ostentatious bow ties were no doubt bursting to share their scandalous exploits with their less-adventurous pals at the office come Monday morning.
If they only knew.
On stage, the fairies and lady-lovers danced, hugged, and kissed. They mingled and teased the crowd in a way that only years ago would have had them all thrown in a wagon and carted off to the hoosegow. If they even made it that far.
America had become the devil’s den, and New York City its garden. Most of the time, Harlan didn’t know what to make of it.
“Why do I let you talk me into these things?” Harlan peered down with a frown at the questionable-looking liquid in his glass. Granted, it had been a long time since he’d had whiskey of any discernible value, but he was pretty certain it wasn’t supposed to be the unsettling yellow-green concoction before him. As he cast a glance over at his partner—Agent Nathan Reilly—his frown deepened. Nathan appeared too amused for his own good.
Nathan gave him one of his cocky lopsided grins. “Because you love my sense of adventure.” In Harlan’s opinion, Nathan enjoyed his job far too much.
“Is that what we’re calling it?” Harlan grumbled, bracing himself as he took a sip of a drink that set him back as much as a week’s worth of dinners at the automat. “Dammit.” He coughed and sputtered, dribbling a good portion of the stuff on his vest.
Nathan didn’t bother holding back his laughter. “That good, eh?”
“Tastes like piss water,” Harlan grunted, slamming the glass on the table and swatting it away from him in case the fumes alone did him harm. Wasn’t bad enough they were selling the rotgut, but they were charging a king’s ransom for it as well.
“That’s probably because it is,” Nathan said with a grin before tossing back the contents of his own glass and shuddering. “Jesus, Joseph, and Mary Pickford’s momma, that’ll put some hair on your chest.” The pained look on his face brought a chuckle from Harlan.
Putting the empty glass on the table, Nathan blinked a few times, shuddered again, and called the waiter over to order another. Harlan shook his head. Well, he could hardly let Nathan one-up him. He tossed back the remaining liquid in his glass.
“So how’d you hear about this one?” Harlan wheezed.
“Arty down at Union Square,” Nathan replied, his head tilting to one side as he watched the spectacle on stage. Harlan followed his gaze, and upon further inspection, noticed the fella sporting a pencil-thin mustache and tuxedo was a dame, and the beautiful blonde in the flowing lavender gown and twirling a parasol was a fella.
“The blind guy who’s always sitting around George Washington?” Harlan’s gaze remained on the stage, where the dame was singing “Sweet Lady” to the rosy-cheeked boy.
“He wasn’t always blind.”
That captured Harlan’s attention, and he shot an accusing look at the empty glass on the table. “You mean….”
Nathan’s voice turned somber. “It wasn’t piss water, I can tell you that much.”
“Son of a bitch.” It was no secret Harlan didn’t give a damn about temperance. That wasn’t why he was here. It was about the innocent folks who were paying the price set by a bunch of high-society bastards sitting atop their high horses. Meanwhile, good, hardworking men like Arty were dropping dead, going blind, or being left brutally debilitated by those looking to make it rich. Uncle Sam had picked up his Bible for the cause, but not before carving inside the pages to leave room for his bottle of whiskey. Sometimes Harlan wondered if Nathan was right. Maybe this was one war they would never win, especially when most of their own men were no better than the hoods they put behind bars.
He’d been so lost in thought he didn’t realize they had company until Nathan smacked him in the arm and snickered. Harlan’s gaze traveled up a deep blue suit, and he noted the slender curves and the purple rose tucked in the front breast pocket. There was a lighter blue shirt and lavender tie. Above that, pouty lips, and even farther up, the biggest, brightest blue eyes he had ever seen. It was the Southern belle who’d been on stage only moments ago, except he had traded in his dress for a three-piece suit. Harlan opened his mouth, and when nothing came out, the kid dropped himself down onto Harlan’s lap and threw an arm around his neck.
“Hey, Daddy. How’s about wetting my whistle with a little giggle water?” The kid’s fingers caressed the stubble on Harlan’s jaw before they trailed down to his chest. Instinctively, Harlan put his hand over his pocket watch, just in case. He cast a sideways glance at Nathan, who looked about ready to burst into a fit of laughter. Damn him.
“You know, alcohol’s illegal,” Harlan told the young man matter-of-factly. That earned him a pleasant laugh and a slap to the chest that nearly knocked the wind out of him. This had to be a first. Not many folks had the grit to get this forward with him, not even the boldest of ossified flappers.
“You slay me,” the blond giggled before biting down on his full bottom lip. It was well rehearsed, but no less seductive. He was young, but not overly. Early twenties maybe, with the kind of brightness in his eyes that said he was far too smart to be in a dive like this, which meant only one thing. The kid was a worker.
“Julius,” the young man purred. “Wanna dance, handsome? You can bring your meat. The more the merrier.” He turned his attention to Nathan and gave him the up and down, approval evident in his gaze. “I don’t usually go for petting parties, but I’d be happy to make an exception for you fellas.”
Harlan arched an eyebrow at that. “I beg your pardon?”
Julius leaned in and smiled knowingly, his voice low. Not that it was necessary with the brassy jazz number the small orchestra was spewing out. There was also plenty of petting going on around them. No one was going to pay them any mind. They would soon enough, but not for the young man sitting on Harlan’s lap.
“Don’t worry, handsome. Your secret’s safe with me.”
Harlan’s eyes narrowed, and he caught the hand that was making its way down to his stomach. “All right, that’s enough of that.”
Julius looked both surprised and tickled. He turned his smile on Nathan, who, damn it all, had yet to say a single word.
“What about you, Sheik? You got plenty of it. How’s about you ditch the flat tire”—he nodded at Harlan—“and we have a little fun?”
The humor left Nathan’s eyes like it had never been there. Julius shivered, and not in a good way. “Where he goes, I go.” Nathan leaned in so only Julius and Harlan could hear, his smile one Harlan was familiar with. Nathan was like a sleek cobra, coiled up and ready to strike. “You look like a right guy, Julius. That’s why you still got your fingers. You wanna keep twirling those parasols? Hands off.”
Instead of being terrified like Harlan expected, Julius slowly moved his hands away from Harlan and smiled warmly. “You’re really stuck on him, huh?”
Nathan sat back in his chair with a shrug, amusement back in his eyes and his lips stretching into a dopey grin. “What can I say? I’m kind of attached to the big lug.”
Julius nodded, and Harlan couldn’t help but notice how the brightness in the young man’s eyes dimmed a little. “Guess I should stick to the Parisian. Fewer husbands there.”
Grabbing his shoulder, Harlan pulled the kid close and whispered in his ear, “Get out.”
With an endearingly puzzled look, Julius looked from Harlan to Nathan and back. “I wasn’t razzing you, if that’s what you think.”
“No. I mean you gotta go. Now.” Harlan took the kid’s hand and slipped it inside his suit jacket.
“What are you—” The smile fell off Julius’s face as soon as his fingers slid over the cold steel. He swallowed hard. “Prohis?”
“Can I take my friends? There’s only the two, I swear. They’re good fellas,” he pleaded, genuine fear in his big blue eyes. It was no secret how these things usually went. Finesse was hardly a requirement in joining the good fight. Neither was honesty, a clean record, a reasonable temperament, or a dozen other virtues.
“You’ve got ten minutes,” Harlan warned.
Julius nodded and quickly slid off his lap. He started to leave, then hesitated. Turning back, he gave Harlan’s cheek a quick kiss before hurrying off.
“That was real sweet, Harley.”
“Dry up,” Harlan grumbled. When he saw Nathan’s tender expression, the heat shot up Harlan’s neck and into his face. Embarrassed, he suddenly didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he fiddled with his tie. “Ain’t nothin’. You know what Mel and the rest of his bad eggs would do if they got their hands on Julius and his friends.”
Nathan’s expression sobered up considerably. “Yeah, I know.”
There was movement by the cloakroom, and Harlan was relieved to see Julius with two other good-looking young men hurriedly putting on their overcoats as they headed for the door. Julius paused, looked through the crowd, and caught Harlan’s gaze. With a small smile, he gave Harlan a curt nod and ushered his friends out. There was no guarantee that Julius wouldn’t find himself in trouble again, especially working a place like the Parisian, but at least Harlan had managed to keep him safe this one time. It was all he could hope for these days.
“Ready to go to work?” Nathan asked, interrupting his thoughts.
That drew a wicked grin from him. “Aren’t I always?”
They stood and made their way through the unsuspecting crowd to the cloakroom. Once they had their overcoats and hats on, they stood in front of the saloon’s only exit. Harlan removed his handgun from inside his suit jacket, followed by a black leather wallet. With Nathan ready at his side, Harlan aimed his semiautomatic at the ceiling and fired a round. The blast echoed through the room like an explosion, bringing the music to a halt along with everything else.
He held up his badge and shouted across the room, “Prohibition Unit! This is a raid!”
And then all hell broke loose.