THE RAGTIME COVEN
Madeline Goodling pounded down the back stairs of the old brownstone in Greenwich Village. When she reached the ground floor kitchen, she moved as quickly as she could to the telephone on the wall next to the parlor archway. Fumbling with the earpiece, she finally managed to lift it off the hook and hold it to her ear. She adjusted the mouthpiece to her height and then urgently flashed the hook to get the operator’s attention.
“Yes! Yes! I need the long distance operator! …Please hurry!” She bit her lip as she waited an eternity for her connection. “Long distance? I need to call Cabbottown-five, one-seven-eight-oh… Yes, I know it’s late but it’s urgent… they’re family, they won’t mind… No… Just call it, would ya?” Again, she impatiently waited as the phone on the other end began to ring. “Let it keep ringing, operator, they need time to get downstairs… No, they won’t mind! Just, let it ring!” The sound of a sleepy voice picking up the line ended the operator’s argument.
“Celia? Is that you? It’s Maddy,” and then, speaking to the operator in a flat tone, “Thank you, operator, we’ve got it now.” Maddy waited for the telltale ‘click’ telling her the uninvited party had left the line before she continued. “Celia… She’s bad… Just in the last couple hours, now. I’ve got to bring her up to the house… Yes, wake them all up and get a couple of fresh pots simmering… and that bottle I had you clean… We should be ready for the bottle by the time I get there… Oh, and find that jug of juice the Hodells left us! We’ll need to talk to them, too… It should be back on the pantry shelf… second from the bottom I think… next to the Greggor’s Whort… right around in there somewhere, but find it! …Yes, as soon as I can get her into the Ford… I will, but we’re on the way!”
As Aunt Maddy hung the earpiece back on its hook, she suddenly became aware she was not alone. Her eyes searched the darkness of the parlor and there, silhouetted against the lace curtains in the front windows, she could just make out the image of a man. As he moved toward her, she could see he was average sized, but muscular with shoulder-length hair loosely parted down the middle of his head. Every step he took echoed an unmistakable confidence that brought a tear of recognition to Maddy’s eye.
“You came,” she sighed with some relief.
“Of course I came. Angela’s in trouble, I’m here,” he spoke softly. “Where is she?”
“Just up the stairs on the sofa,” she pointed to the stairwell entrance next to her in the kitchen. “But Vernon, she’s weak… so very weak.”
“I’ll get her…” As he made his way to the staircase, Maddy turned and stepped through the doorway into the back pantry where there was a door to the garage.
“I’ll warm up the Ford,” she said, but Vernon Kraft stopped on the second step and turned back toward her.
“Don’t. Maggie’s coming. We’ll take her Stutz.” Maddy looked back at him in disbelief and he continued. “It’s a bootlegger’s car. It’s a lot faster than that old Ford and they won’t be looking for it.”
“Maggie’s coming?” and then thinking about their hurry, she added, “When?”
“Well,” he said as his brow furrowed in thought. “From Hell’s Kitchen to Greenwich Village… with Maggie driving—” He was interrupted by a soft knock at the back pantry door. “About that long.”
Maddy opened the door to the garage and a woman of about thirty confidently strolled in out of the darkness. Maggie Pollaski always ‘arrived’ as if she were stepping onto the red carpet at some premiere. In her beaded dress and rhinestone-studded hat, she was flamboyant to say the least… confident, tough and even a little arrogant to say more. In one hand, she carried a small, silver mesh clutch purse and in the other, a worn canvas tote bag that was in stark contrast to the rest of her attire. She liked stiff drinks, fast cars, and good times… as long as she was in charge. And in her part of Hell’s Kitchen, she was definitely in charge.
Maggie ran what the police let go as a ‘boarding house’ for young women, a place where male visitors could enjoy not only their feminine favors, but also the best distilled spirits the Rumrunners could get past the Prohibition Agents. In the back, there was always a private card game for the more notorious members of her clientele. Two, much younger women trailed in behind her.
“You all rememba da Raterink sistas?” Maggie announced with a smile through her thick Brooklyn accent. And then, turning her attention to the man on the stairs, “Vernon!” she tossed a set of car keys to him across the small kitchen. “She’s at da curb, all gassed up and there’s some ‘currency’ under da back seat… just in case ya needs it.” Vernon Kraft nodded and dashed up the stairs.
“Maggie…” Maddy tried to find the words to express her appreciation but Maggie cut her off with a simple gesture.
“We’re just here to run a little interference for ya, a little distraction kinda while yous guys get outta town, so ta speak.” She winked in understanding.
Just then, heavy footfalls on the stairs drew their attention to the doorway where Vernon Kraft reappeared. In his arms, he carried the limp, emaciated form of Angela Hannaford Bradbury. Aunt Maddy opened the back door of the pantry for him and together, they hurried out into the dark garage and the side street beyond.
* * * *
The Stutz Blackhawk Speedster stood at the curb just as Maggie had promised, its bright red paint reflecting the dim light of the streetlamp down the block. This was a four-passenger version of the famed, Bearcat, and a favorite with anyone who loved high-performance automobiles or had the occasional need to outrun most any other car on the road.
Gently, Vernon eased Angela’s unconscious form under the touring top into the back seat, propping her up against the far armrest. Then, he reached under the front edge of the seat cushion next to her. Finding a hidden latch, he raised the seat to reveal a storage compartment that held a sizable wooden box filled with bottles, each held upright in its own little compartment. He reached in and pulled one of the bottles into view.
“Gees Maddy, look at this! There’s practically a whole case here.”
“What is it?”
“Canadian Club, the real stuff, sealed and bonded in Ontario, see that around the cap?”
“Is that good?”
“It’s the best. And this is their Royal Label line. See that?” he pointed to the ornate labeling on the bottle. “Real exclusive, real expensive, too. This stuff is like liquid gold compared to the poison they mix-up in those bathtubs.”
“So, this is what she meant by ‘currency,’ then?”
“Oh yeah… plenty here to buy our way out of anything.” He carefully placed the bottle back in the case and closed the compartment. Without a word, Maddy crawled into the back seat with Angela as Vernon climbed behind the wheel and fired up the powerful automobile. It burst to life with an eager roar the driver struggled to contain. He pulled the car around in a tight “U” and then let the Stutz dart through the intersection outside the brownstone. As Vernon found second gear, it dashed down the darkened streets of New York City heading for the river, the Holland Tunnel and then the Hudson River Highway north toward Cabbottown.
Maggie Pollaski watched from the front windows as her precious speedster disappeared up the street. She drew a nervous breath she was determined not to let the Raterink sisters so much as even sense. Calmly, she walked across the dusty floor of what had recently been a photographer’s portrait studio and took a stance at the rear of the room behind a glass display counter. She set her purse down on the glass as she lowered the canvas bag to the floor. Then, she raised her skirt slightly and pulled a silver hip flask from her garter. Setting it down hard on the counter, she exclaimed:
“Look at me, girlies! I’m a respectable-type shop keepa!” The Raterink sisters giggled in delight, but as the laughter subsided, Lois shot a wary glance toward her sister Margaret and then back at Maggie Pollaski.
“What do we do, now, Maggie?”
“For… for what?” Margaret Raterink asked.
“Any minute now… a big black car (she pronounced it ‘cah’) is going to pull up in front of this joint. And the man that gets out ain’t gonna be none too happy. He can be a little scary even, so, yous got my permission to leave real quiet like, if you get my drift.”
“Where do we go?” Lois asked.
“Well, since our goal is to keep that grumpy old man here a lot longer than he wants to be, I’d say, be creative… and do what you debutants do so well. But in the mean time…” She opened the cap on the flask and took a deep swig, shivering from the liquor’s bite. “Whoah! Yes!” she gasped as she passed the flask across the counter to Margaret Raterink.
* * * *
It was only minutes later that a long, black limousine appeared. It silently pulled up in front of the brownstone and parked directly under a streetlamp. Even with the added light, the vehicle’s blacked-out windows prevented anyone from seeing inside. A solitary man opened the rear door for himself and confidently stepped out onto the curb. Standing directly under the streetlamp, he made no attempt to hide his identity. He appeared to be in his fifties and wore a dark blue, pinstriped suit with a colorful shirt and matching handkerchief in his breast pocket. Pausing to run his fingers along the wide-brim of his black fedora, he shifted his grip on the brown leather briefcase handcuffed to his left wrist. Then, he straightened his tie before he strode directly up the front steps of the shop and knocked impatiently on the glass.
Maggie nodded to Lois who flipped the latch and opened the door. Arrogantly, the man entered the shop and made his way directly to the counter, addressing Maggie with a degree of contempt.
“Miss Pollaski…” he feigned at tipping his hat.
“And Mr. Ajax…” she made no motion of courtesy and did not extend her hand to the visitor.
“Where is she, Maggie?”
“And by that you mean…” Maggie questioned in defiance.
“You know full well, who. And you know it’s my right under the terms of her contract.”
“I don’t think she’s ready to go with the likes of you, just yet.”
“She’s dying! I can feel it!”
“Actually, I thought she was lookin’ a bit bettah…”
“You also know that getting in the way means there’ll be Hell to pay… and I never say that lightly.”
“‘Spose I told you she wasn’t even here?”
“Go for a walk, did she?” His sarcasm barely masked his anger.
“Or a ride…”
At these words, the confidence faded from his face. He seemed to search his senses until he again understood the situation and then quickly turned for the door. But he stopped in sudden surprise as he saw the Raterink sisters just climbing into his limousine and the doors closing tight. In another moment, the car started, the headlamps came on and the car quickly pulled away from the curb.
“Son of a—”
“He might be gone a while… you know. But you could always call a cab,” Maggie returned the sarcasm. “Oh, but that’s right… You actually need your car to travel, now don’t-cha. Well, nothing to do then, but wait.”
“You think this is funny, don’t you,” Ajax sneered as he moved back toward the counter.
“Not as funny as this here.” Maggie reached down into the canvas bag at her feet and pulled out a bottle of Canadian Club Royal Label, identical to those under the seat in her car. She twisted the cap and broke the seal. Producing two tin cups from the bag, she proceeded to pour them each a drink.
“Wait…”Ajax said as he looked at the bottle in recognition. “This is my stuff!”
“In that case, I’ll make yours a double…”
* * * *
The Stutz bumped over the ramp out of the Holland Tunnel as Vernon Kraft turned out onto the highway headed north. At this time of night on this side of the Hudson River, traffic was virtually non-existent. He turned the headlights up full and opened the throttle on the Blackhawk. The change in direction and momentum caused Angela to rouse from where she now slept in Aunt Maddy’s lap. She strained to look up at her aunt through half-closed eyes and could see the fear on the older woman’s face.
“Are we there yet?” Angela rasped, trying to bring a smile to Maddy’s stern expression. It worked, though it was a smile of concern.
“Not yet, child. But soon. We’ve got Vernon Kraft behind the wheel…” This news piqued Angela’s attention.
“Vernon’s here?” she struggled to ask. She tried to raise herself up and look over the front seat, but collapsed back into Maddy’s lap. Before Maddy could reply, the car suddenly filled with flashing red lights and the wail of a police siren.
“Quick, Maddy!” Vernon shouted from the front seat. “Get me one of them bottles back there.” Maddy struggled in the small back seat, holding Angela while shifting her position to get access under the cushion. She grabbed a bottle from the box and handed it over the seatback as the longhaired man slowed the car and brought it to a stop on the shoulder of the road.
The police car’s searchlight penetrated the rear window of the touring top and lit the interior of the Stutz even brighter than the red beacon that still flashed away in the darkness. Vernon slowly rolled down the driver’s window as the police officer cautiously approached. With his hand on the butt of his pistol, the officer leaned down and carefully studied the interior of the car.
“Bit of a hurry tonight?” he asked. Without answering, Vernon pulled the liquor bottle out from the shadow of the seat beside him. While holding the neck with one hand, he laid the bottle across his left forearm like some maître d' offering wine in an exclusive restaurant. He smiled innocently at the policeman before he spoke.
“For you, officer. Compliments of Roscoe Riley.” The officer’s expression was startled at first, but it slowly faded as he stared at the expensive bottle of illegally imported whiskey. There was a long silence between the two men before he eventually reached out and took the bottle from Vernon’s hands. He looked thoughtfully at the label and then suspiciously at Vernon. He drew a breath and raised his fingers to the bill of his hat.
“You drive careful, now…” Then he turned and strolled back to his car. In just a very few moments, the bright lights had all been doused and the police car had turned around, heading back toward the city. Again in the dark, Vernon fired up the Stutz, turned out on the roadway and quickly found his way through the gears.
As the car accelerated into the night, Maddy breathed a deep sigh of relief. With Angela settled back into her lap, she rode in silence and had far too much time to think. She had lots to think about; what they had yet to do tonight, whether they would be ready in time, would it actually work or would all this be for nothing. And what if it were all for nothing? What then? What of her Coven? Even with her entire future foremost in her mind, she couldn’t help but think back to the unfortunate events that had made all this necessary. All the regrets, the lost opportunities… What she wouldn’t give to just roll back history, to turn back the clock to a simpler time in life. A time before Rumrunners and Speakeasies, a time before the Great War when the big decisions in life centered around what to teach her nieces that day and what to make for dinner that night. In her mind, she could still hear the ragtime piano playing in her parlor far away from this wicked city.
THE RAGTIME COVEN
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Copyright © 2016 by Bruce Jenvey