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Jump to the Prelude
The cooks in the kitchen stopped chopping, frying, and grilling when they saw Gus enter through the back door. The waiters stopped in the middle of taking the plates with food to the dining room. The steak and fish fillets and vegetables sizzled under the bright lights. Faint smoke and an irresistibly mouth-watering smell filled the place. But Gus couldn’t get rid of the bitterness in his mouth.
It wasn’t because of the mole who had given the authorities the location of his warehouse. It wasn’t even because the mole was Angeline. And most definitely, it wasn’t because he’d killed Seamus, that piss-holding giraffe-mole. Of course Seamus had to die. Gus couldn’t let someone like him know so many of his weaknesses. And only a few minutes ago, right after Seamus had told Gus about Angeline’s pregnancy, Gus had felt something akin to joy. Gus Shevlin, a father? Maybe?
But then the bitterness had arrived. Seamus had revealed that Nora was giving Angeline money. That was most puzzling.
People acted a certain way for a certain reason. The authorities wanted to catch a criminal. That was hardly unexpected. Angeline could have been forced into cooperating with them. With the men in her family being such weak idiots, Gus wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d been taking money from both sides—from Gus and the government.
What also made sense was Gus’s action. People who protected what was theirs shot moles from time to time, even the moles they’d planted to spy on others.
But Nora Shevlin? That woman had no logic whatsoever. She prayed to the Virgin Mary and Buddha at the same time. Occasionally, people heard her mentioning Gus in her prayers. The silly woman was praying for him, probably because he was such a sinner. She also waited up for a husband who was obviously spending the night with his mistress. And now she was giving that mistress money? The mistress who might have her husband’s baby? Was that how pious Nora Shevlin thought she was? And Angeline actually accepted that money?
Angeline, the mole, pregnant, taking money from Nora Shevlin. Why?
One possibility: Gus was being presented with the happiness he’d never dared imagine. A life with a child to carry his name. A child born out of wedlock, but with a good bloodline on the mother’s side, the sort of bloodline that he couldn’t have given it himself. If family hadn’t mattered—if Gus hadn’t cared who had his baby—he would have fucked any whore in town, but he hadn’t. He’d had Angeline. But nothing had happened for ten years and he was getting old and he’d figured he couldn’t make his life revolve around a nonexistent person, a baby that might arrive or not…
But maybe his patience was paying off now. It could be that Angeline had his baby, but had been forced into cooperating with the police, which was why Nora was giving her money; to help Angeline’s father and brothers get out of the troubles that they’d put themselves into. A nice cooperative relationship between Mrs. Shevlin and Mistress Shevlin.
That sounded too good to be true. That was the reason for this bitterness. But then again, everyone had called his vision for the Palace crazy, dangerous, and nonsensical. Yet here he was, making tons of money. There was no reason for him to not believe in another vision, this one more hopeful, warm, and right.
“Take care of the body upstairs,” Gus said.
Two of his larger men, both a bit slow in the head but reliably loyal to make up for it, grunted. They put down their meat mallets and promptly walked out.
Gus headed toward the swinging door leading to the dining room. Still, no one moved, except for one waiter who held the door open.
Loud conversations and utensil-clinking entered the kitchen. A blunt thump shook the floor briefly. A round of startled gasps swelled up, then roaring laughter followed. Someone must have slipped and fallen in the dining room. But no one was hurt. Things like that happened multiple times on any given night: the volume of conversation increased, seemingly infinitely, until some guests walked over to the Palace and got themselves drunk; then the sun rose.
“You,” Gus told the waiter, “get three cars ready in the back.”
“Yes, sir,” the waiter said.
“Continue,” Gus said, as he walked through the door.
Behind him, the cooks resumed chopping, frying, and grilling. The waiters resumed carrying the plates in and out. No questions asked.
In the dining room, no one had noticed the gunshot on the roof. Everyone here was so full and so loud, they wouldn’t have noticed if the entire city were collapsing around them. Thick, dense cigarette smoke hung near the ceiling lamps. They were never static, those white clouds, because all that laughter, all that waving, all that getting up to run to the toilet meant that nothing remained still at this restaurant.
A few regulars recognized Gus and waved in greeting. They were politicians and athletes, mixed with crooks and other forms of lowlives—the same as the clientele at the Palace. Gus beamed at them and nodded. He had no problem switching back and forth between entertaining and threatening. None at all. That ability was what had kept him alive this long and this profitable. Protecting what was his had made him better and better at the dance between the mobster life and the good citizen charade.
And there, in the den, sat his wife, the woman who had come with the initial money that had allowed him to build this restaurant before Prohibition came along. She wore one of her exaggerated, girly, bright-colored dresses—lilac tonight—that didn’t suit her. Those dresses made her look like she was asking to be pitied. Of course, no one paid attention to her. She was old news. Had been for over a decade now.
Gus slowed down and approached her. At first, she squinted at him. Then, realizing that this was indeed her husband, not a hallucination, she jumped up with an expression of fascination.
“Gus, what are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you,” he said, softly, kindly.
He pulled a chair to the table between them and sat down. Nora sat too. The flames of the candles, shaped like every angel, spirit, and ghostly deity known to mankind, shook vehemently.
Gus slowly leaned in. Nora slowly leaned in. The woman’s eyes were as empty as any fool’s. Innocent. Devoid of intent, except the desire to make her life revolve around someone else’s—her husband’s.
“You’ve been giving Angeline money,” Gus said.
Nora stared at him. She acted all confused. “Angeline? Angeline. Angeline…”
The bitterness in his mouth increased. Nora was pretending to not know Angeline. That wasn’t a good sign. If they’d been cooperating, why would Nora hide it? Wasn’t she the type of woman who’d broadcast her piety to the world so that people could pity her more and hate him more?
“Don’t pretend like you don’t know her,” he said.
Nora smiled faintly. “How should I know her? You’ve never introduced me to her.”
Gus suppressed a sigh. Apparently, this was the moment Nora Shevlin chose to act passive-aggressive on him.
“You didn’t need my introduction. You’ve seen her come and go here. And besides, who introduces his mistress to his wife?”
Nora didn’t seem hurt. But she leaned back abruptly as if she were surprised at his decency to not introduce Angeline to her. The entire mass of her shifted the surrounding air, leading to another violent dance of flame-flickering. And she stayed there, staring at the flames until they recovered their usual, gently-wavering equilibrium.
“Fine. Suppose you don’t know Angeline,” Gus said. “You gave money to someone. My money.”
Nora looked at him without reacting.
“Why did you do it?” he had to ask.
“What do you mean, why?”
“Why would you give my money, which I gave you, to someone else?”
“I thought you told me to spend it whichever way I like,” Nora said innocently.
That was true. Gus didn’t care what new candle or religious paraphernalia Nora bought for her little shrine in the den. But when it came to Angeline, he wanted to know.
“You should hate her,” Gus said. “I thought you did.”
“Angeline? Angeline. Angeline…”
Gus rubbed his temples. Some customers were glancing at them. He couldn’t act impatiently here.
“Nora, don’t act all clueless.”
“But that’s what I always do. Everyone says I’m clueless.” Nora seemed astonished that Gus suggested otherwise.
“I know about the baby,” he said.
Nora stared at him curiously. Her eyes shined as if his statement had kindled a passion inside her.
“You do?” she said.
“I do. So, tell me. Why did you give Angeline money if you knew she had a baby? It could be mine.”
Nora smiled knowingly.
“You think it isn’t mine?” Gus asked.
The bitterness in his mouth vanished, because for a moment, his senses numbed. How funny that a vision—so hopeful, warm, and right—could dump a person in absolute darkness through its absence. It didn’t matter that the vision had lasted only for a few minutes. It also didn’t matter that Gus hadn’t believed in it right away. Once Gus had accepted it, it had stayed for no matter how briefly, and that brief stay had left a lasting mark on him.
“Oh, with her, no one can tell if it’s yours or anyone else’s,” Nora said with a surprisingly mischievous grin. “But I did pray for the baby. And I wanted her to pray for it. She has some praying to do. Oh, so much. So many candles she’ll need. And so many crosses.”
Gus leaned back in his chair. “So, that’s why you gave her the money. To have her pray for the baby.”
“She didn’t need money for something else?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was she the one who asked for it, or did you give it to her?”
“I gave it to her.”
Another bad sign. That ruled out Angeline’s brothers and father being in trouble.
“When?” Gus asked.
“Last time she was here,” Nora said.
“Oh, I don’t remember.”
“Would it cover a meal here? A meal for two, with wine and a full course?”
“I don’t remember.”
Gus examined the trinkets filling the entire table. None of the candles were new. None of the tiny paintings of angels and deities were new. The rosaries and Buddhist prayer beads had also been used forever. More importantly, now that he was paying closer attention, the number of candles had been reduced to about half the usual. That meant that Nora hadn’t been buying new ones.
“How much do you have saved, Nora?”
“I don’t know,” she answered with the same, steady, innocent air.
He examined her dress. It was girlish but well-worn, which was why it was so much more pitiful to watch her in it; she’d been a “girl” for decades. Gus tried to remember if there’d been any packages lying around the house lately. Since Nora spent most of her time here in her shrine, she didn’t go shopping; the packages arrived at their house.
No. There hadn’t been packages lately. Nora wasn’t spending any of the money he was giving her for herself. When had that begun? He couldn’t remember. But this month’s allowance alone was a significant sum.
If all of that had gone to Angeline, she could have covered four visits to the pregnancy doctor, easily. And she’d have a lot left over. For what? For what…
Nora followed his eyes. Everywhere he looked, she looked. That was what she always did. Unsurprising. But there was a key difference: instead of watching him with her usual trancelike fascination, her facial muscles were tense now. It was a subtle difference, one that others wouldn’t have noticed. But Gus and Nora had been married several decades. He didn’t love her, and what she felt for him probably wasn’t love either, but they knew each other’s faces. Living under one roof meant that you saw things that outsiders never got to see.
And that tension in her muscles was something that Gus had never seen before. The bitterness returned with great vigor. He regretted it terribly that he hadn’t thought of having someone watch Nora.
“Nora,” he said, “please get up.” And he stood up.
Nora looked up at him from her seat. “I’ll watch this place for you.”
“There’s no watching you need to do here. Get up.”
“I don’t want to.”
Gus approached her. Nora flinched back. Some people glanced at them. Gus blocked their view. He pressed a hand on Nora’s shoulder. He pushed his face close to hers.
“Get up. Now.”
Nora got up. The flames flickered madly. As she pushed her way out, she bumped into the table. A candle fell. A few customers gasped. The flame drowned in its own pool of wax.
“She’s not feeling well,” Gus said. “Please, enjoy your meal. Please.”
People looked away at the authority in his baritone voice. They knew: if you didn’t look away from Gus Shevlin at the time he told you to look away, you tended to never look anywhere again.
Gus guided Nora to the kitchen.
“You’ve given her way too much money for candles,” he said. “So much that you can’t buy your own.”
“We can split the praying for the baby,” Nora said.
“Yes, but you can’t split the baby.”
“Of course not.”
“So then why did you give her money to help her flee?”
Nora tensed further. What a surprise. Yes, he’d always thought she was like a log, but mainly because she was a depressing, heavy, unmoving sight to behold, not because she was physically hard. In fact, he’d considered her soft, like any entity primarily consisting of animal fat. He’d never acknowledged the muscles in her. Yet there they were. And Nora was using those muscles to express a level of tension that he’d never expected from her.
Tension meant purpose. Purpose in Nora Shevlin was the sign that something was terribly off.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
That’s what they all said when they knew exactly what was being talked about.
“Isn’t that why you’re keeping your friendship with Angeline a secret from me?” Gus said.
“Friendship? Who said anything about friendship?”
Gus guided Nora through the kitchen, its smoke, and its cooks and waiters who briefly stopped moving. Quickly, he took her through the back door. Three cars stood in the alley. Each of their drivers leaned against those cars. A dozen strong men leaned against the wall of the Grille.
“I don’t want to leave,” Nora said. “I want to stay here.”
Gus beckoned a driver. He promptly approached and grabbed one of Nora’s arms. Gus grabbed the other. Together, they dragged her into the car.
“I don’t want to leave!”
While they struggled with the mass of Nora Shevlin, the same thought kept whirling in Gus’s mind: Angeline wants to get away from me.
That was the picture he’d put together based on the information from Seamus and Nora. Angeline hadn’t been forced to cooperate with the authorities. Her family’s foolish spending habits had nothing to do with her ratting him out. She wanted Gus in prison so that she could get away with the baby that could be a Shevlin boy or girl. That was why she was working with the authorities now, of all times. For that escape, she needed money that Gus didn’t bother to micromanage, and a lot of it. Nora’s money was a perfect candidate.
If Gus had walked past her shrine a few times less in the recent weeks, he never would’ve noticed the reduced number of candles. And if he hadn’t noted the absence of packages, he wouldn’t have known that Nora wasn’t buying new clothes.
Why Nora was willing to help Angeline, he couldn’t say. Maybe the woman thought that with Angeline out of the picture, he’d come back to her. Foolish woman.
But that aside, if Angeline was running from Gus, who did she plan to raise the baby with? That naive pianist boy, of course.
More than anything else that Gus had learned tonight, the thought that Angeline wanted to leave him for a loser pianist infuriated him. After all that he’d done for her and her family, how dare she consider a break from him possible? How dare she go behind his back, figure out a cute little plan to have him locked up so he couldn’t come after her and his child?
Yes, his child, because everything that he’d paid for was his. Everything that Angeline had was his. There were a million mistresses who’d gladly take a beating to be in Angeline’s position. Yet that bitch had never acted grateful or servile enough. As if her family’s social status from once-upon-a-time still mattered! Without Gus, her father and brothers would have sold her to a brothel. Were going to. Gus knew this. They were the ones who’d beaten her, never Gus. And yet, she was doing this to him!
No one got to take anything from Gus Shevlin. Not Angeline, not anyone, especially not the pianist boy.
With one final, violent push, Gus shoved Nora into the car. Two big men jumped into the back seat to either side to stop Nora from fleeing. She screamed and writhed with such violence, the entire car shook.
“Take her home,” Gus said. “Don’t let her leave the house. Don’t let her talk to anyone.” Then, he told the driver of the second car, “Go to Angeline’s apartment. Make sure she never leaves it. Don’t let her talk to anyone. Do not use force on her. None whatsoever. Anyone who hurts her, I’ll have him killed.”
And once the baby was born, he’d kill Angeline too.
Gus got into the third car. “Take me to Carningsby,” he said.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.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.No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.