Ch. 40 – The Murderer’s Logic (1)

Final Fugue_Ithaka O._horizontal

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The night was a cold one, with the wind howling through the street, only warmed by the amber lights spilling out of the many store windows. And out of all those lights, the brightest one came from the Bookstore.

Or so Gus Shevlin believed, even though a layer of curtains softened the glow. Ever since he’d opened the place ten years ago, he’d firmly believed that the gem that lay underneath that store was one of the few welcoming, judgment-free spaces that still existed in this country. The less welcoming most everywhere else became with unsolicited judgment, the more the hidden gem became attractive. And even after more establishments like his gem opened up throughout the country because more people grew sick and tired of the pretend-piety of the godly men and women who thought it was their right to take away other people’s freedom, his gem, the Palace, remained a gem that didn’t lose its value because it had been there before all others.

That was why the light from the Bookstore shined so brightly despite the curtains, because it was a beacon for the treasure that lay underneath. Among the more honest sorts of New Yorkers, those who had money to spare crowded the Bookstore like moths were drawn to a single solitary lamp randomly standing in the middle of a hopelessly dark forest.

And since people functioned within social contexts instead of simply reacting to light like moths did, it was entirely reasonable to think that the lamps in the Bookstore (which were no more special compared to other lamps in other stores) had the effect of shining more brightly. In fact, they had the effect of seeming like the brightest, despite the curtains. And since “having the effect” might as well mean that said effect represented the truth in a person’s subjective interpretation of the world, Gus wasn’t imagining things.

Conclusion: it was a fact that the Bookstore had the brightest shining light out of all stores on this semi-crowded street.

The thought that he’d contributed something so beautiful to the world, without shame or excuses, made Gus grin despite the freezing cold and the pistol on his hip. He almost forgot why the pistol was there and why he stood on the roof of the Grille, across from the Bookstore and the Palace.

Three businesses on one street. Long before anyone else had foreseen the need for any one of them. Well, not exactly. Of course other restaurants had existed before the Grille. And there might have been bookstores with illegal businesses in the basement. And there were countless speakeasies in this city alone and Gus couldn’t swear that his was the first.

But again, “having the effect” might as well mean that the effect represented the truth. To the people who frequented the Grille, the Bookstore, and the Palace, those places might as well have been the firsts in their respective fields. The Grille had filled this street with the strongest, most savory smell for years. If it hadn’t been the first, then it had been the most effective. It had made the sternest of old men, waiting to be done with this world, drool with appetite. And the Bookstore and the Palace did something similar, just with different goods: books and the promise of release from bullshit.

And the Bookstore deserved to be considered a proper business, all on its own, even though it had started as a cover. It was making a profit and he was proud of it. The sorts of people who bought actual books from that place could have caused trouble, of course. But usually, they tended to be timid and conveniently confused by the clientele of the Palace. They asked the store manager why so many people, who were obviously not interested in books and clearly preferred to whisper about how fancy their glittering jewelry and watches were, walked in and out of the store. On rare occasions, some book-buyers asked what was behind the room divider.

Yes, a room divider was all Gus needed these days to keep the special door “unnoticed” by those who were really, very clueless. The first mechanic had needed some beating and the following ones had been equally inept, but Gus had eventually managed to find one who made the special door glide sideways quietly and elegantly. The bookstore customers heard the roaring and dance music from the basement whenever the door opened. But those with common sense looked the other way and those without common sense were too slow to put two and two together anyway.

In the beginning, of course, there’d been greater disorientation. The daily period of confusion due to the overlap between the very different clienteles had lasted from, say, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.. But over time, it shortened. Nowadays, the book-buying folks never came to the store after five, and even earlier than that on a winter night like this one, when the sun set long before anyone got out of work. It didn’t matter whether they knew of the partnership between the Bookstore and the Palace; what mattered was that they’d been discouraged from visiting the ground-level store after dark.

The result: all those moth-people in there, behind the curtains. Those who were drawn to the light. Those who were honest about their desires and had money to spare. They were of the same breed as Gus. They liked what they liked and didn’t apologize for it. And why should they? The likes of these places were the best places to socialize with people from all classes, gender, and color. So, why the hell not?

With pride, Gus grinned at what he’d accomplished.

Then, he remembered why he stood alone on the roof of the Grille. Suddenly, the howling wind felt harsher on his cheeks. The pistol on his hip weighed him down. He buried himself deeper in his coat and fedora. He eyed the Bookstore.

Dozens of times before tonight, Gus had stood alone on this roof, just like now, and watched his business across the street. And a lot more times than that, he’d sent his men here, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs.

“Watch,” he’d told them. “Watch who goes in, comes out, and with what expressions they go in and come out. Also watch when they go in and come out, and find out where they go from here. Follow them. Find out who they meet, where, when, how frequently, and why. Some people will look suspicious from the start. Some, it’ll take time until you figure out whether to suspect them or not. But most importantly, watch, and remember the details, so you can make the call later, if necessary. I trust you to make the right call, because I can’t stand on the roof all day, all night, trying to identify the mole until my eyeballs fall out. If you make the wrong call, you will pay for risking what’s mine. So don’t make the wrong call.”

His men had dutifully obeyed. They knew better than not to. Over the years, Gus Shevlin had ordered enough men killed, sometimes his own men for costing him, to build a reputation where it was necessary.

But only where it was necessary. Everywhere else, he had tried hard to become an unknown. It was a necessary part of staying in his most recent business, and also of staying alive. What Gus wanted was profit, not glory. That was the difference between him and all the big-time mobsters in the papers or those who died before they ever made the papers.

They wanted notoriety. Gus absolutely hated notoriety. He hated fame and popularity too. He shuddered at the thought of his face being in the papers. All this was why he rarely killed people first-hand. He didn’t want anyone going thankful, vengeful, or lawful on him. (The act of killing itself wasn’t as big of a problem as everyone pretended to believe. The scum that Gus killed or ordered dead were people who would have been killed by someone at some point. Such scum took other people’s stuff or other people’s people. Everyone wanted such scum dead. Gus knew this for a fact.)

It had taken him such a long time to wait until people forgot that he was associated with the Bookstore at all. How foolish he’d been in his earlier years! Or maybe, he’d just been too optimistic about the intelligence of mankind. He’d thought that Prohibition couldn’t possibly last this long. All he’d wanted was to use the opportunity to enter an industry early while others deemed it too dangerous. Then, once the idiot lawmakers saw that it was impossible to ban people from doing pleasurable things, he’d planned on proudly owning up to the fact that he was the owner of several blossoming businesses.

That didn’t pan out. Prohibition stayed; although these days, there were rumors that it was about to end. The argument was that since the government couldn’t entirely consist of stupid people, one of them must finally see that selling what people like tends to be profitable, so much so that the law-breakers could afford lavish bribes. The government being the biggest criminal organization of all, all it needed to do was impose taxes on each sale, and import, and export, and whatnot, instead of enabling those bribes. Why would any logically functioning institution refuse free money?

But Gus didn’t want to bank on the questionable intelligence of government officials. Safety above all else. That meant protecting what was his. And the ability to breathe was one of the most precious things he owned. He didn’t want no officer shooting a bullet through his lung. And he most definitely didn’t want the Families to think that he wanted more than his share—the Families who did a lot more than a little bit of local entertaining.

Gus Shevlin’s share was tiny. Teeny tiny compared to what the really important folks had. He didn’t covet national distribution or a seat at the table with the big guys. All he took up was three store spaces on this street and a few other places. Just a few. Of course, there was Carningsby, but everyone loved Carningsby. Even the prohibitionists.

Yet, a mole. A fucking mole had infested his precious business.

Gus had become sure of this when late last night, a warehouse which had stored the most recent shipment had been raided by the Bureau agents. That raid had been the third in three months. Hundreds of barrels of liquor had been confiscated. The police, too, had made a big deal out of all three raids, doing interviews about cooperation among different branches and such. They needed to, because they wanted people to think that they’d won big, when in reality, all they’d done was damage Gus Shevlin (who remained unnamed in the newspaper articles), a nobody compared to the real big-time mobsters that they should have been going after but lacked the ability to do so.

At this rate, those who mattered were about to suspect his ability to command his people. Gus couldn’t afford that. They liked him for now, because of Carningsby, because of the semi-legitimate facade that he provided locally. But if that facade became shaky? Gus Shevlin had to go.

One good thing was that the agents didn’t know his face. At least not officially. No notoriety. No fame. No popularity. No face in the papers. Over the last decade, Gus had abandoned his gregarious traits and deliberately evaded the spotlight so that nobody was compelled to care about him too much. It stung a little to admit that, but he had wanted it so.

He told himself that what drove him wasn’t cowardice. It was logic. Who wanted to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life? Who wanted to keep the curtains and windows closed for fear of someone outside seeing him relaxing in his own living room and shooting him dead? Who wanted to be accompanied by bodyguards to family events and the god damn toilet all the time?

What Gus Shevlin liked was to hide in plain sight. For that, he had to restrain his taste for power and attention. Fortunately, there were other mobsters only eager to rise higher than him. That helped him balance what the world deemed bright with what it deemed dark. He’d worked so hard to achieve this balance between safety and profit.

And yet, there was a mole, because for some reason, the Bureau of Prohibition had decided he was the tail of the gigantic illegal liquor business that they wanted to chase. Otherwise, why the raids? They couldn’t have been coincidences.

Or were they? None of Gus’s men had managed to identify anything or anyone suspicious. And Gus agreed with them.

Tonight, for example. The curtains blocked the view for now, but Gus had gotten a good look at everyone who’d entered and left in the past several hours. There were no suspicious new faces. No old faces that looked disgruntled.

Footsteps clanked on the metal fire escape leading to the roof where Gus stood. He awoke from his thoughts. He listened in.

The footsteps stopped. A man coughed once. The footsteps resumed for three seconds. A man coughed three times. Then the footsteps resumed again. Gus faced the fire escape. A lanky man emerged on the roof.

“It’s me, sir. Seamus.”

Gus gave him a quick nod and said nothing.

Seamus nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He looked like a giraffe that had to take a piss but couldn’t, because it was accustomed to pissing at a very beautiful, very specific savanna bush, which was at the moment occupied by another giraffe. And instead of just finding a different bush or literally pissing anywhere else, since the giraffe lived in the savanna, a place without laws about pissing, it chose to hold its god damn pee.

Basically, Gus didn’t like this guy and Seamus knew it. The lowlife that was Seamus had been Angeline’s friend since childhood. The two of them grew up together. A century ago, that would have been impossible. And on a different continent somewhere, that was still impossible.

But this was the United States of America and pedigree meant nothing without money. In fact, those who’d been blessed with both pedigree and money in the previous century, but had lost the latter this century, were considered more useless than those whose families had never had either. Those unfortunate souls, the ones with pedigree but long-gone money, were like cripples. The men, especially. You’d think that an able-bodied man of any class could fend for himself and take care of his family, but it wasn’t so. The men of the Conners family had been the first of such scum that Gus had ever seen. So useless, yet so proud, they were.

Long before Gus came along, the Conners household had lost its glory. Hence Seamus, the housemaid’s son, getting to play with the master’s daughter, Angeline, in the garden and the forest and the house. The Conners family was ecstatic that a housemaid wanted to stay at all. They didn’t care what became of Angeline. If she married rich, great. If she married anyone, good. And Seamus got to imagine that maybe one day, in a classless world, he could be the man for her.

Of course that didn’t happen. Angeline never liked Seamus romantically. Not because she looked down on him for lacking education and heritage, but because he was a boy who had it in him to become a mole. That’s what some men do: when they can’t get the dream girl, they turn against that girl. (Angeline didn’t know that about Seamus, but one doesn’t have to know things to sort of know things. Cowards give off that distinct air of… well, cowardice.)

But Seamus served his functions. That was why he was here, on the roof of the Grille.

“You said you have something for me,” Gus said.

“Yes, sir.” Seamus fidgeted. “I, I, I wasn’t sure if I should tell you about this, because I wasn’t sure at first, but if I’m not sure, I thought you’d better know—”

“Just say what you need to say.”

“You see, I was keeping an eye on Angeline like you told me to.”

Gus didn’t react. He didn’t have time for this boy’s stupid rambling. At this very moment, the more important mole might be entering or leaving the Bookstore. With his other men, he would have kept his eyes on the Bookstore and focused only his ears on the conversation. No, with his other men, all of them together would have kept their eyes on the store and focused only their ears on the conversation. But with Seamus, Gus couldn’t do that. Seamus was a mole himself. Not to Gus, but to Angeline. And showing his back to a mole in order to look for another mole was a stupid thing to do. Almost as stupid as a giraffe that held its piss to get to pee in the perfect bush.

“And I noticed that she was acting weird lately,” Seamus said. “She was restless. She didn’t want me to drive her around as often as she used to.”

Angeline was smarter than Seamus. Gus had often wondered why she didn’t suspect Seamus of reporting her whereabouts and whoabouts and whatabouts to him. Maybe she needed to trust—or pretend to trust—at least one person in her life. And since she certainly couldn’t do that with that naive, foolish Zacharias boy, she could have settled for Seamus. Or she might have hoped that Seamus told something that angered Gus enough to have her killed. It wouldn’t have surprised Gus if Angeline were to want to die. To be clear, Gus was glad she hadn’t ended herself. But girls like her, they’d seen too much, heard too much, been too much. They were capable of things most people didn’t think of doing.

“And she kept disappearing for long stretches at a time,” Seamus said. “So, I followed her.”

A fucking mole.

“And I saw her meet this man.”

Finally, Angeline had grown tired of the pianist boy. That was great news. Gus had been getting irritated lately, even though he understood that she needed one person in this world who didn’t know that she was his mistress. He’d wondered: Wasn’t it time Angeline got herself a new killing-time project? Wasn’t she getting too attached to her pet?

Gus didn’t mind her seeing other men. Not at all. In fact, the last thing he wanted in a woman was for her to act like Nora, his wife.

Nora’s presence was positively suffocating. When Gus entered Nora’s radar, she was all ears and eyes for him, and only for him, and never looked away, never missed a word, never, ever. She said that if he died, she was going to die with him. And when he was about to forget that she’d said that, she said it again, lest he forgot.

And when Gus left her radar, all she did was sit in the Grille and “spy” on Gus’s behalf, even though she’d never managed to find out anything that could be of use to Gus. Knowing full well that Gus had been with Angeline, Nora waited up for him until he returned. Sometimes, he didn’t return until dawn. Sometimes, he didn’t return until the next evening. That never discouraged Nora.

The woman was hopeless. So hopeless that people didn’t blame him for having another woman. He took good care of Nora, everyone knew. He’d sacrificed a perfectly fine table for her at the Grille. He gave her all the money she needed to buy the stupid candles and symbols, whatever those things she prayed to were. That table could have been filled with guests he could do business with, but instead, it was being used for everyone to see how crazy she was.

And Gus wasn’t ashamed of her. He found her pathetic, but there was no shame in that. If anybody dared hurt his wife, he was going to kill that bastard. The hurting was his privilege and his alone. (And if anybody told him that he wasn’t making any sense because he had to be ashamed of her if he found her pathetic, he’d be glad to kill that bastard too.)

What Gus wanted in a woman was absolute attention when they were together. And that she give him priority, not some other guy. That was a must. And a little damage and back story didn’t hurt either. And creativity. And education. And a little pedigree that proved that Gus Shevlin didn’t associate himself with common whores.

“Eh, Mr. Shevlin?” Seamus sounded unsure whether Gus was listening to him or not.

“What, you need encouragement every time you say a sentence?” Gus said. “I’m just waiting for you to keep talking.”

“Oh. Well. I saw her with this man.”

“Which you already said.”

“They were talking on the street, instead of eating or dancing or anything. So, at first I thought he was just some guy she knew from the parties and such.”

“But?”

“But afterward, I followed the man. I think he’s an agent.”

“You think.”

“Yes, because, you see, I couldn’t walk into the building he walked into and he wasn’t wearing a uniform or anything, but I think he’s with the Bureau, because he talked to a couple of cops who also weren’t wearing uniforms, but I know those guys, they’re cops, for sure. The ones who never take bribes from you.”

“So, that’s it. You saw Angeline talk to a guy who happened to talk to a couple of cops who don’t take bribes.”

“Well, yes, and also, I heard what Angeline told the guy.”

“Which was?”

“An address. One that I saw in the papers a week later. One of a warehouse with barrels of illegal liquor. The one that was raided last night.”

Gus showed no hint of surprise. But to accomplish that, he had to admit that surprise to himself, then suppress it deliberately. Seamus, a fucking mole himself, had found Gus’s mole: Angeline Conners.

No wonder Gus and his men hadn’t found anything suspicious. Angeline, Gus Shevlin’s glorified whore, the mole! Exposed by Seamus, the childhood friend she’d hired herself!

“Is that all?” Gus asked.

Seamus gaped at Gus. The giraffe had expected a violent burst of fury or gratitude, but not calmness.

“No, there’s something else,” Seamus said.

“Look. Say what you need to say quickly. Why do I pay you if you can’t give me all the details in as short of a time as possible, as concisely as possible?”

“Angeline is pregnant.”

“What?”

Gus hadn’t been prepared for that. Now it was his turn to gape at Seamus. That seemed to give Seamus the giraffe some courage.

“The doctor’s office. A shady one. That’s where she goes when she isn’t meeting that cop or Steele.”

Several questions popped up in Gus’s head.

“You’re sure it was a doctor for… pregnancies?”

“I’m positive. I saw a bunch of other women walk into that building. In a depressing neighborhood. Almost crumbling down.”

“And… Did she… Do you know if… I mean, when did she go? How many times? When? Once?”

He’d asked this because he couldn’t remember Angeline acting any differently. If she’d gotten rid of the baby… Not that Gus knew anything about such procedures… If she’d done so, wouldn’t it have some effect on the woman?

Because, Gus was sure that Angeline would have gotten rid of the baby. She was no blissful idiot. What was she going to do, raise the child with him, when Nora was there? If it was his. If it wasn’t… But what if it was?

Gus Shevlin, a father? He’d never imagined having a baby with Nora. To Gus, their marriage had always been a strategic decision. Sure, he’d fucked his wife now and then. But it had been more out of sexual desperation than attraction. Besides, physical compatibility wasn’t the only problem with Nora. The woman was a god damn log. For someone so pathetic to be a mother… That’d only mean another child who’d grow up like Gus.

People who couldn’t exist on their own shouldn’t have babies, was what Gus thought. That thought triggered a familiar frustration, which led to nausea. He was reminded of his father’s poverty. His father’s violence. His mother’s helplessness. His helplessness.

But if Angeline were the mother… and Gus the father… but if he wasn’t…

“Not once,” Seamus said, frowning, confused. “She’s pregnant. They don’t get to be done after one visit. She went to the doctor for checkups, I think. Every week for the past four weeks.”

“And you’re telling me this now?” Gus yelled.

Angeline had decided to keep the baby. His heart dared to jolt with something akin to…

Was this joy?

And at the same time, he was furious at Seamus. Gus ended up half smiling and half frowning. Seamus took a step back.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Shevlin, sir. I just wanted to make sure… And if the matter was private between you… Or, in case it wasn’t your…”

Seamus shut up. But Gus knew what the giraffe wanted to say. In case the baby wasn’t a Shevlin but the pianist boy’s, he’d wanted to stay out of the business. Then he’d learned about Angeline’s cooperation with the authorities. He’d decided that he couldn’t put off telling Gus. That last part was the only correct decision that Seamus had made in a long time.

“You did the right thing telling me all this,” Gus said.

“Thank you, thank you, sir,” said Seamus, relieved.

“Who else knows about this?”

“No one, sir. I called you as soon as I saw the papers.”

“Which was this morning.”

“Yes.”

“And in that period, you told no one else about this?”

“No one else, sir.”

Gus nodded. He wanted to be alone. Think. The pistol felt burdensome against his hip. He had a tendency to remove things that were burdensome.

“And another thing, sir?”’

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Tell me everything you have right now. Not piece by piece. If you don’t tell me everything without omitting anything, right now, right here, I will fucking kill you.”

Seamus cleared his throat and almost choked. “Your wife, sir?”

“What about her? Spit it out.”

“She’s been giving Angeline money.”

“What?” Greatly confused, Gus stared at Seamus.

“For the doctor. Mrs. Shevlin gave Angeline the money to go to the doctor. That’s how you didn’t know. That’s how Angeline’s father and brothers didn’t know where she was going.”

Nora Shevlin, Gus Shevlin’s wife, giving money to Gus Shevlin’s mistress so that she could go to a pregnancy doctor?

“Yes,” Seamus said, nodding without needing to hear the question out loud. “I don’t know why she did it.”

“Are you done now?” Gus asked.

“Pardon me?”

“Are you done telling me everything you need to tell me?”

“Eh, yes, yes, sir.”

Gus pulled his pistol and fired at Seamus. Even in death, Seamus collapsed like a giraffe—sort of folding his legs, then his back, then on the floor.

Sporadic screams filled the street. Gus walked down the fire escape.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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