Authors: AJ Sikes
“So. Mr. Mitchell Brand.”
The two men stared at each other, Nitti standing upright and looking as shell-shocked as Brand felt. The .45 came up until Brand could see into the hollow blackness of the muzzle. Then Nitti holstered the gun and stood with his hands at his sides, looking knives into Brand’s gaze. The ghosts showed up again, spiraling around in the air above the furnace and dancing around Nitti’s head like moths.
“You don’t want to be one of them. Do you?”
“No. No, Mr. Nitti. I don’t.”
“Good,” Nitti replied, glaring down at Brand. His face ran with quicksilver again and then it was just a face. Just flesh. A hissing like the sound of a tire going flat cut into the night air from outside. Brand heard the goons in the foyer stammering words in Italian. Nitti shook where he stood. He opened his mouth and a black, oily smoke gusted out to swirl in the air before the gangster’s face. Brand shuffled backwards a few feet, anything to put distance between himself and that threatening black cloud that seemed to drip with the purest evil. Nitti’s eyes had rolled up in his head and he staggered away from the cloud. It swirled with violence and threat and then swept away into nothingness. Brand shuffled on the floor, watching Nitti. The gangster staggered and caught himself on the chair where Brand had sat. The hissing from outside grew louder. Nitti snapped out of his shock when his boys shouted in alarm. Their voices were cut short by screaming.
Brand stared into the darkness of the foyer as time slowed down around him, just like it had in the trenches when the screaming had been twice as bad. Nitti reached into his jacket for the .45 and made a few steps toward the foyer. Howls of terror came out of that black pit, echoing around the high ceilinged shop space. The sound of something heavy slapping against something soft. Thick slaps, wet with gore punctuated the air. Brand thought he heard bones crack. A choking gurgle.
Nitti remained frozen where he stood, pistol in hand, facing the foyer door. The mobster twitched his head back, throwing a glance behind him and into the space behind and above Brand. Nitti’s gaze returned to the foyer as a deep, rasping
slashed into the space of the shop. More sounds of bone snapping and flesh tearing came from the foyer.
No! No, no, no! Non c’é!
” Nitti chanted, backing away from the foyer, sending his eyes in every direction as he moved. His feline features contorted with rage and fright, making him look even more feral and vicious. “It’s not fair, dammit! You said we’d be clear!”
Brand thought Nitti meant him, but he didn’t dare speak up to object or question the mobster. His attention, and gun, were now aimed at the darkness of the foyer. Brand slid sideways, anything to get farther away from sounds coming from the foyer. He had to settle for rolling onto his back. His feet were useless, so he used his hands and scooted on his ass until he put a few more feet between him and the dark space at the edge of the shop room. Nitti still had his pistol trained on the foyer and kept up with his chanting. Some of it reminded Brand of the Latin he’d heard in churches. Most of it he recognized from the time he’d spent in Chicago City’s underbelly. Nitti seemed to remember Brand then. His eyes met Brand’s and locked onto them. Nitti’s cheeks bunched up under his eyes and his face fell as the hissing grew louder. Brand scooted away faster, turning to crawl, dragging himself along the floor. He got up onto his hands and knees and raced a bumpy course down the length of the shop room. Behind him he heard Nitti’s gun roar in rapid fire underneath a snarling and hissing violence that became a throaty roar. Brand risked a backwards glance and caught sight of Nitti lying on his back, pinned under thick sinew and bristling greasy hairs that hung like needles. That was all Brand saw of the beast. He crawled underneath the machine line and begged death to spare him.
More gunshots rang out, frightening Brand into nearly shrieking from fright. He could hear the thing chewing into Nitti with wet sloppy snarls. At the end of the machine line, the exit door beckoned, taunting Brand with a promise he didn’t dare hope would be fulfilled. In the background, the snarls had stopped. Brand thought he heard the sound of the front door opening and closing. He risked a look out from his hiding place. Nitti was alone, lying in a mess next to the furnace. The monster was no where in sight. Brand’s heart thudded like a gong and he held a hand to his chest, trying to keep the noise from echoing around the room, giving him away. He sent frantic glances in every direction. Where was it? Where’d the thing go?
A man’s voice echoed from the other side of the room. Brand shifted his weight against the ironwork of the machining line and slid behind the boiler by the exit door. Brand crouched and dropped forward to let his knees take his weight. A man dressed in a sharp dark suit stepped from the entrance to the foyer. He walked over to Nitti’s remains.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Nitti,” the newcomer said. “But, you did bring this on yourself. I recall we agreed to set you up with a safe location after you handled that business on Valentine’s Day.”
The man squatted down and looked at Nitti’s face, almost like he was having a conversation with the corpse.
“Old Man Farnsworth made it easy for us, of course, and I recall you were to be paid for your assistance in that matter as well. What I don’t recall is agreeing that you would publicly threaten and then assassinate a public official.”
Brand slapped a hand over his mouth when he heard a gurgling reply from the mobster.
“F—fuck you. . .goddamned. . .f—fucking rat.” Nitti said a name, but Brand couldn’t catch it.
The whole time Nitti spoke, the G-man held his mouth in a smirk. Brand knew in his gut that the man had to be from the Governor’s office even though he didn’t wear the standard issue headgear. As Nitti let his final curse out, the G-man stood, turned on his heel, and stepped over to the foyer, vanishing into the darkness beyond the shop room. Nitti gurgled some more and groaned. A moment later, the hissing sound filled the shop again and Brand slunk down to hide in the corner behind the boiler.
Brand stayed still until the slapping and crunching sounds stopped. Scratching sounds followed, then grunts and groans. Then a body falling and something heavy sliding or being dragged across the concrete floor. Brand stayed hidden. The sounds were still on the far side of the room and hadn’t come in his direction yet. He waited until silence settled across the barren concrete, shrouding his thoughts along with whatever was left of Frank Nitti.
The room echoed with the soft crackling of the furnace fire. Brand shivered in his niche by the door and cried quietly from the pain, from having been so close to the beast, to have smelled its feral stink mixed with blood. His feet felt like they’d been hammered onto his legs with railroad spikes. He waited. His mind went in and out of dozy thoughts, half-sleep coming and going in his rattled mind. When he couldn’t resist the pull of sleep any longer, Brand slid on his hip across the shop floor, back to the furnace. To distract himself from the pain, he played back his conversation with Nitti. Who could be coming to Chicago City that would be bigger than the Outfit? The G-man? Brand tried to make sense of it, but he was too worked over to concentrate. He sat with his back against an ironwork frame and waited for his feet to stop cursing at him. Across the room, Nitti’s shredded corpse filled the air with the stink of death. Wanting only to leave that den of horror, Brand stupidly tried to stand and fell to his knees instantly. He turned his head and retched before passing out.
When Brand woke up, his feet yelled at him to get them covered. His jaw yelled at him to get it iced. And his head yelled at him to quit while he was ahead and just wait for the coppers to show up or eat a bullet from Nitti’s gun, whichever was quickest. Sliding on his hip, Brand edged closer to Nitti’s bloodied remains. The monster was gone, it’s acrid musk nowhere that Brand could place. The shop door was open, too, a cold wind blowing in from the street. The G-man wasn’t around. Nitti and his gang were ground beef on the shop floor. Brand was broken, scared, and scarred, but he was still a newshawk with a story to tell. After what he’d just seen, he wondered if anyone in Chicago City would listen. Should mention the monster or not? At least one person in the Mayor’s circle had heard of it. He corrected the thought as he closed in on his goal:
the former Mayor’s circle
He made it to the first of Nitti’s legs, near the furnace. The other was halfway to the foyer entrance. The gangster’s shoes fit a little loose. Better than tight, Brand thought as he let out a cry of pain when his tortured feet scraped against the leather. He risked standing, holding the chair he’d sat in for support. Nitti’s .45 rested against the chair legs. Brand reached down and picked up the gun, checking the chamber. It still had one in the pipe and two cartridges in the magazine. On shaky legs, Brand shuffled in a circle, scanning the shop room for any signs of the monster and doing his best to avoid looking at the rest of Nitti. It was hard to do. Nitti was all over the place. The room closed in on Brand, like the trenches had during the worst battles. Walls and floor and ceiling pinched together like a shroud over his face, blackening his vision. He forced his eyes to clear with a fierce shake of his head. That set his jaw to aching even worse. Stumbling in the too large shoes, Brand made his way along the room to the side door. He could have looked for the key, or just gone out the open front door. But he knew what was in the foyer. Brand had seen enough.
The side door creaked open after he’d blown the lock out. It took all three shots, and he held the gun with both of his unsteady hands. The gun fell into the oil-stained dirt of the yard beside the shop and Brand took his first halting steps to freedom and safety. Somewhere between the machine shop and the Vigilance, his feet went completely numb from pain or cold, maybe both. Coming to the shop, the trip had taken five minutes at a good clip. The return trip took nearly half an hour with Brand stopping to lean against buildings and lamp posts along the way, doing anything he could to give his dogs a break. Above him, clouds swelled in angry masses of dark gray and near black, reminding him of the roiling fog that blew from Nitti’s open mouth before the monster appeared.
At the mooring deck, Brand struggled up the steps, crying out when his numb feet clumsily banged against the icy metal. The shoes helped, but his ravaged soles howled at him with every step. He stood at the base of the airship’s ladder, gazing into the open cabin door. Something twitched in his mind, but the pain and horror of what he’d seen took over before he could make sense of his thoughts. His hands were numb, too, and he had to wrap both arms around the ladder to climb it. More than once he ended up pressing his cheeks to the stinging cold metal. Flopping into the cabin, he yelled for Archie to get them moving as he crawled to his desk. There was a smell in the air, something he recognized but couldn’t place. He rolled a cigarette and then realized the ship hadn’t moved. The engines idled in the background, vibrating the cabin in a steady cadence of revolutions.
Brand let the paper and tobacco drop from his hands. Archie sat in the pilot’s seat with his head slumped forward. A dark stain covered the cockpit windows and the controls. Brand thought about tossing the hokum broadcast he’d worked up to satisfy Nitti, but he held onto the paper, dangling it above the waste chute by his desk. Someone was coming to replace Capone’s mob. Somebody with a lot of pull and a lot more punch than Capone and the other gangs in Chicago City could ever hope to match. That G-man in the shop. He said Nitti did a good job and then flubbed it when he shot the Mayor. A bad hand played wrong.
Brand picked up the rolling paper and swept the spilled tobacco threads together. He thought about his next play. Everyone around him had bet big and bet wrong. So what should he do? The Mayor had taken down Capone hoping to find better digs. That meant a move to Detroit and to a chair that wasn’t vacant yet. The Mayor was a sap, plain and simple. The Governor had contacts in every office from Green Bay around the bend to Rochester; he’d have known about the Mayor’s game. Hell, the Governor’s boys were at the bust. Taking out Capone might have netted the Mayor a new stenographer, a little extra juice come Christmas. But any gifts would have come with a message to stay put, cool his heels and enjoy the good life he had. Of course, Nitti had seen to it that those messages weren’t necessary, and it had cost him big. So why couldn’t he have held off on doing Archie?
Brand had promised Nitti the broadcast thinking it was a bluff. With the Governor in the shadows now, Brand knew the broadcast had to go out. It was hokum, but he needed to give the Governor a reason to ignore him. Making himself out to be snowed like the rest of Chicago City was the only play for a man holding a handful of junk.
Good evening, Chicago City. This is Mitchell Brand. I have just received formal notice that The Outfit is leaving the city.
Brand stopped to roll a new cigarette.
The Outfit leadership feels that Chicago City is no longer a place where they may safely conduct business. They have secured a new center for their operations, which, they are sad to announce, will prevent them bestowing any benefits upon our city such as they have in the past. Mr. Capone would also like to express his sadness. . .
Brand paused, lit his cigarette, and added,
and remorse, for the loss of his dear friend, the Mayor.
One more piece needed fitting in, and he couldn’t let it go.
Since the events of yesterday morning, beginning with the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Chicago City has seen a lot of killing. A lot of death.
Why were those seven men torn apart in that garage? Why did Josiah Farnsworth take his own life? Why was an employee of the Daily Record killed? Why was the Mayor assassinated tonight?
Questions. A lot of them. And this reporter thinks the answer is always the same. It pays to remember that the house always wins.
Stay tuned, Chicago. And stay in touch.
Brand let a few minutes of silence fill the cabin as he finished his smoke, then he thought about tapping out a wire to the police. Turning to stare at Archie again, Brand noticed the unmistakable outline of a revolver on the floor. As he moved to stand, he heard the click of the galley door and in that moment he knew what he’d smelled when he came in.
Emma Farnsworth came a few steps into the cabin. Brand settled back into his chair and let the scent of roses fill the air between them. Her outfit was different than the one she’d had on last night. She hadn’t been home, the coppers had checked. So that meant she had a safe place to stay somewhere in town. The way she looked now, Brand figured she’d like nothing better than to be in that safe place again. Her sleeve was torn and her hair hung out in tangles on one side.
“You’re okay now, sister,” he said as the story came together for him.
She pulled it in after a few more sobs and stood up straight. Brand met her gaze and watched her eyes go cold.
“Looks like I was wrong. I thought Nitti had his boys do Archie. But it was you.”
“I was going to kill Nitti for what he did to Dad. When he shot the Mayor, I saw the Vigilance above. I got here right after you left. At first I waited, but you didn’t show and I didn’t want to lose Nitti so I came up. Your pilot let me in. He told me you were going to get the scoop on the Saint Valentine’s Day killers. He said I could wait for you to get back, but first I had to give him a little sugar. He tried to kiss me and I turned away. So he got rough. He had me against the cabin door and said I could take a jump or give him a tumble.”
Brand wasn’t surprised Archie had done it. He had a dirty past and now Brand knew how dirty. He wasn’t surprised she’d done it either. Nobody deserves being forced into anything. That didn’t mean murder was the way to solve it, but some things can’t be forgiven. And some things can force a person to do the unforgivable.
“Listen, sister. I don’t make the laws, but—”
“I had no choice. He was calling his pals. He was on the radio.”
Brand stood up and motioned to the door she’d come through.
“C’mon. We should get out of sight.”
Brand struggled on his feet, sucking in air and staggering against the cabin wall. Emma recoiled when she took in Brand’s condition, looking him up and down with a bent eye.
“I ran into some trouble on that last story. C’mon,” he nodded at the doorway again and she stepped aside so he could go through first. She followed him a few steps into the darkened hall. Brand looked her in the eye.
“Tell me everything. Make it quick. Coppers’ll be swarming this district before too long.”
Her eyes shot open when he mentioned the law, but she pulled herself together and gave him the story. The first few lines of it anyway.
“It’s like I said. I came out and he was calling his pals.”
“Yeah, you said. How’d you get from Archie hanging you out the cabin door to being back here? How’d you get behind him with a pistol he didn’t know you had? You played him, and it worked out in your favor. But now we’re stuck unless you’ve got an ace up your sleeve.”
Emma stood back from him. She looked at him hard, with eyes like ice. “I told him I needed to freshen up first, so he let me go back to the washroom. I had the gun in my handbag for Nitti. When I came out he was on the radio. He was talking to one of Nitti’s boys and saying he’d take care of you after you gave that last broadcast. Then he said for the guys to come over to join the fun. I knew what he meant. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I knew he’d pay for whatever happened. He was laughing when I shot him.”
Brand thought about what Emma had just told him. Now he knew Archie’d been playing both sides all along. He’d sold him out to Nitti. Archie had done a stretch for running liquor after the war, but he played it off like it wasn’t him being connected. Brand never figured him for being in that deep. But just like Capone, the Mayor, and even Brand himself, Archie had bet on a losing hand.
A voice came from outside the cabin, pleading and half-hushed, like the speaker wanted to stay hidden.
“You expecting company?” Brand asked.
“It’s. . .,” she turned and went to the cockpit, scooping up the revolver and holding it down by her leg. “Go see who it is, Brand.”
“You want to try that again, sister? I’ve had one too many gats pushed in my face tonight already. How about you tell me who you think is out there and then I’ll see about letting them in?”
“It’s Eddie. My. . .”
Brand figured it then. She had a guy nobody knew about, someone she wanted to keep hidden. Someone she probably made eyes at while he played horn on the jazz stage.
“Eddie’d be your negro then, is that it?”
“Eddie Collins,” she said, lifting the gun to aim at him. “Now go see if it is him.”
“And if it is?”
“Let him in.”
Brand let his mouth form a sneer to show how he felt about it, then shook his head and chuckled. “Well why not, right? It’s everybody’s day to point a gun at Mitchell Brand. Quick one-two and tell him what to do. Watch him jump, folks,” he kept up his bitter muttering as he took halting steps to the cabin door, Nitti’s shoes sliding around on his ruined feet. Outside, a dark figure hunched in the hollow of a covered waiting area at the edge of the deck. As Brand watched, the figure, clearly a man, poked out from hiding and cupped his hands around his mouth. A few plaintive words came into the cabin.
“. . .please, Lovebird. . .gotta go. . .”
“I’d say that’s him, Miss Farnsworth. That is, if you go by the name of Lovebird.”
She stepped closer, still holding the pistol at him.
“Let him in.”
“Stop waving that thing in my face.”
They held the stalemate, eyes meeting across the battle lines between them. Brand wasn’t sure she’d shoot him, but he wasn’t sure she wouldn’t either. “I’ll make a deal with you, Miss Farnsworth. You put that thing down, aim it somewhere else at least. Then I’ll open this door. Otherwise, fire away and let him in yourself. And have fun explaining it to the coppers when they track you down.”
Her face still burned with anger, but she lowered the revolver. It stayed in her hand, by her leg. Brand popped the door and leaned out into the snowy night. The figure stepped out and then ducked back into hiding.
“It’s okay,” Brand said. “She’s up here.”
Emma pushed to stand beside him and called down to the man below. He came out of hiding and darted looks to either side before launching up the ladder in a hurry. Brand helped him on board and stood back to give the lovers room to embrace.
“I don’t mean to be rude, Miss Farnsworth, but we need to figure out what we tell the coppers. Then you and your friend might want to think about copping the sneak and pronto.”
“Who’s this?” the negro asked, eyeing Brand with a mix of fear and suspicion.
“His name’s Brand, and he’s nobody we need to worry about. Is he?” she said, looking hard at Brand. He noticed she still had the revolver in her mitt.
“No, you don’t have to worry about me. The last thing you need to worry about is me blabbing on the radio about Miss Farnsworth and her negro.”
“He’s not just a negro,” she said. Her face shifted from cold fire to burning rage. “He’s a man and a musician. He’s a woman’s son and a girl’s older brother. So he’s dark skinned! What of it? We’re in love and that’s all you need to know about it. That’s all anybody ever needed to know about it, but they’re all too busy knowing that color leaves a stain that won’t wash out.”
Emma’s eyes searched Brand’s face. He kept his thoughts on the QT, letting her press her point as far as she liked.
“Now you know why I hate you and every newsman who ever stuck a camera in my face.”
“Keep your fire for someone else, sister. You got me figured wrong if you think I have any beef with your choice of lips for kissing. A man measures up for me with what he does, not what he looks like.”
“You expect me to believe this won’t end up on the front page?”
Brand felt his own anger rising and let it out. “That’s the problem with you society types. You grow up hearing you’re the most important people in town and one day you start believing it. Then you can’t stop believing it. Well believe this, sister. I wouldn’t put a story about you on the front page if I owned the Daily Record.”
The negro came to Brand’s rescue just as Emma raised the gun. He put a hand on her arm and the other around her shoulders. The man turned to look Brand in the eye.
“Name’s Eddie Collins,” he said. “People ain’t my friends call me Mr. Collins.”
“Pleased to meet you, and thanks,” he said and nodded at Emma. “If you’re ready to play nice, we need to work out a story about what happened here tonight. Otherwise all of our names are going to be mud with a capital M for murder.”