Floyd interrupted Lonnegan in the middle of a card game. Subtly, of course, a murmur in the ear. Floyd knew better than to be rude in front of important friends. Especially these days, with Lonnegan running low.
“I need to talk with you a minute.”
“Not now.” Worse than interrupting Lonnegan about to win, Lonnegan was pretty sure he was about to lose again. But this particular friend had to be placated; he had been annoyed at Lonnegan lately and Lonnegan was trying to be diplomatic, give him a small win. He’d killed off enough friends lately.
“Can it wait?”
“Ten minutes,” Floyd said, and he hovered in the background, buzzing with so much energy that Lonnegan could barely focus on his game. But he lost, and he congratulated the appeased victor, and he went with Floyd to the back room for a word.
“What is it? Trouble on the south side again? Or is it the Del Curtos?”
“No. Not so… I saw an old friend tonight.” Floyd leaned against the wall. “Someone I thought was dead. Because you told me you saw the body.” He raised his eyebrows.
“I won’t take sass from you, Floyd, you hear? Who the hell are you talking about?”
“Kelly,” Floyd said. “Or rather, Johnny Hooker.”
It was enough to take the breath away.
Lonnegan hoped it didn’t show; of course, he could trust Floyd but… he knew he shouldn’t be quite as shocked as he was. But Kelly, alive? No, Hooker—Floyd was right about that—but Hooker or Kelly, Lonnegan had seen him shot and watched blood dribble out the sides of his mouth, seen him laid out on a carpet with the Feds hovering over him cursing their luck.
Heard the story behind it, too, from Lt. Snyder, an ugly betrayal between two grifters. It had been a confusing night for him. First, learning Kelly wasn’t Kelly but a grifter, specifically the grifter his men were after. A grifter with a petty grudge. Then, learning Kelly was really in league with Shaw—and Shaw wasn’t Shaw but Gondorff, and a well known conman instead of a gambling kingpin—oh, but actually Hooker-Kelly had recently betrayed Gondorff to the Feds and set him up just like Lonnegan. Oh, and. Also. He was dead, so in a way none of it mattered.
A pretty boy with a huge fucking tangle of secrets remained dead no matter what those secrets were.
“You saw Hooker alive?”
“Looking pretty healthy for a dead man, too.”
“I said no more sass,” Lonnegan snapped.
“Well, he looked good. He’s grown his hair out. Wears it a little messier. Had on a suit with pin-stripes instead of that respectable gray—that would have surprised me if his being alive hadn’t, but it makes sense since he’s really—”
“Where did you see him? When?”
“Just a couple hours ago. A bar I take the boys to sometimes. Not one you’d know, small joint.”
“And you had the boys with you?”
“Yeah, just Mike and Taddy.”
“And you didn’t bring him back?”
That was the next step, of course. He had sometimes thought about what he’d do if Kelly-Hooker were still alive. If he’d survived, and Lonnegan could confront him with what he’d learned. Or if he’d really been Kelly, if they’d really pulled it off. All the ways it could have gone well instead of so, so badly for the both of them. None of them involved finding out the boy was alive but still out there floating on the breeze!
Floyd put his hands in his pockets. “I had Mike and Taddy on the front and back doors and I went for him. He broke a damn window and barely slowed down. I took a couple shots at him, none of them hit, we gave chase, he lost us. I asked the bartender if he comes around a lot. He said only once in a while. I can sweep the neighborhood if you want, ask around.”
“Do it,” Lonnegan said. “But Floyd? No more shooting, you follow?”
“You want him alive, boss?”
“I want you to bring him back to me.”
“Well, I won’t fail you.”
In the wake of Lonnegan’s losing five hundred grand to a cheap grifter, things had not gone so well for him.
There had been smaller gangs in Chicago and New York moving against him. More small-time crooks targeting his men for all their little schemes. There had been old friends suddenly threatening to break off their alliances. All he had feared would proceed from the rumors of little Johnny Hooker and Luther Coleman, twenty-fold.
He’d lost many men.
He’d had to kill many men. Order them killed, mostly. Kill a couple with his own hands, one in self defense because when you lost the people’s fear they got rebellious and thought you were vulnerable. The escalating attacks had been quite a burden on Floyd.
He’d shown his rage. His teeth. Beat the cities he ruled back down into a semblance of order, until those who didn’t like him and didn’t really want to follow him went back to pretending they did. It had all come at a heavy price, and it had taken him almost two years. He wondered if Johnny Hooker, pretty boy trickster, had thought about what his actions would wreak, or if he’d thought an instant beyond the look on Lonnegan’s face at the moment of climax.
He’d also learned a little about patience, about holding back his pride. Maybe if his alliances had been stronger to begin with, they wouldn’t have all crumbled at the first sign of weakness. Now he was trying to rebuild.
Always with Johnny Hooker at the back of his mind, an itch of regret. He wanted to punch the guy in his smug, scheming face. He wanted Kelly back at his side, confidently scheming along with him. He thought back to the couple of times along the way they’d seemed to get along—all trickery, he knew, but they had seemed so promising…
Sometimes, afterwards, he had thought of Kelly softly, gently. It was not bad to think well of the dead, as long as he didn’t admit it to anyone. Fair to think well of a worthy opponent.
If Hooker was alive, that changed things. He paced up and down his room. If Hooker was alive, Lonnegan was the worse sucker for it. But he also had a unique chance to get his own back. Get his dignity back, if he had to bleed Hooker dry for it.
He devoted more men to getting Hooker this time than last time. Obviously. Now he knew what kind of opponent he was playing with—and he moved faster, too. He was going to catch Hooker fast or never catch him at all.
As it turned out, he caught him fast.
It wasn’t Floyd who made the capture but it was Floyd, accompanied by a couple of the usual toughs, who dragged him back to Lonnegan’s house, dumped him on the ground in front of Lonnegan’s desk, hands tied and clothes a mess. Floyd had been telling the truth about the pin-stripes. Other things, though, were a lot more…Kelly. Still the same stoic scowl on his mouth. And his mouth was bleeding, too, just like it had been last time. He wasn’t nearly as dead, though. He was on his feet in seconds and staring Lonnegan right in the eye.
He’d always been bold. Made Lonnegan think back to the night they’d met. Your boss is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly, how does he do it? He cheats.
“Johnny Hooker,” Lonnegan said, biting back a Mr. Kelly. He was done being played; he wouldn’t let himself slip in front of this clown. “Last time I saw you, you were dead.”
Hooker stretched his split lip into a grin. “Did you cry for me?”
“Do you think I’m in a joking mood, Mr. Hooker?” He’d actually come close to crying, a couple nights. More over other things—the dissolution of various branches of his outfit, the loss of good men—but always somewhere in there the image of blood running out the sides of Kelly’s mouth, and wasn’t that just… “Five hundred grand, you cost me. Do you suppose you can repay it?”
“I don’t owe you anything. That five hundred grand was a payment you made to me. You killed my partner.”
“You stole my money.”
“Yeah. Eleven thousand, for a man’s life.” Hooker’s eyes were steady but his mouth trembled. Grifters shouldn’t have giveaways like that. Lonnegan snorted.
“You know everything in this world—our world—is about reputation. I couldn’t let it get around that I let a grifter make a fool of me, could I? You understand that, Mr. Kel—Mr. Hooker?”
He’d bungled the name, but worse, he worried Hooker could tell that he half wanted to see that Hooker did understand. Hooker had started it. Hooker had been the threat. For Lonnegan, this was all business.
“Yeah, I get that you’re a fucking—”
Floyd moved before Lonnegan could, and smacked Hooker across the face. Lonnegan almost told him to stop, then saw the look on Hooker’s face. Open, hurt, but mostly angry. Defiant in a way soft little Kelly had never been.
He walked around the desk and got in Kelly’s face, close enough that he could smell the blood, could almost taste it. “And I still can’t let that get around.” It was two years since he needed this done, but he still would get his pound of flesh. A little of his pride back, a little of his reputation. “You follow?”
Hooker didn’t answer.
Lonnegan backed up slightly and nodded to Floyd.
He didn’t turn his back as Floyd went to work, the other two men occasionally lending a hand, or a foot, to the task. It was not his policy to blind himself to what he ordered done, and this was even satisfying. One of the ways he’d dreamed about this meeting going, at least. Hooker’s curses were a bit less dignified than he’d imagined—apparently Hooker was less of a gentleman than Kelly—but otherwise…
He crossed his arms. Floyd would stop things before they got too far; he had decent control. He knew Lonnegan didn’t want Hooker dead. Yet.
Just an inch away.
The beating went on after Hooker had curled up on the flood and stopped moving. But just for a bit, until Floyd and Lonnegan exchanged glances. Then Floyd stopped, called the other men off, and bent down to check Kelly’s pulse—Hooker’s pulse, Lonnegan really had to stop doing that. Being a fool.
“Still steady,” Floyd said.
Lonnegan crouched to get a look. Hooker wasn’t moving and his eyes were closed, but his breathing was, indeed, steady. He was going to have a black eye tomorrow, and his cheek was scratched up. Otherwise there wasn’t a lot of blood visible, but he knew a beating like that took its toll in other ways.
“Put him in the basement,” Lonnegan said. He pursed his lips. “I don’t mind if you spread it around town tonight that we got him.”
Lonnegan straightened and sighed.
A beating wasn’t nearly enough vengeance for the loss of half a million. Not close. His death would be acceptable, neat, but even that wouldn’t necessarily prove anything to the people he’d lost face with. He should never have allowed himself to be tricked in the first place; vengeance now would only ever be bittersweet…
With a tinge of coppery salt, he thought, like the blood on Hooker’s face. Two years and he still thought about how the man would taste.
Well, the one who got away always had more pull than anyone you could ever actually have. That was Hooker’s appeal; he was impossible. And he was still impossible.
Lonnegan looked at Floyd, who was still standing there. “Well?”
“Sorry, sir. I’ll be right on it.”
He’d take the night to think about what to do with Hooker. Maybe the man would die of internal bleeding and spare him the trouble.
Johnny Hooker, of course, would never be so polite as to die quietly or to let Lonnegan spend a night pondering in peace.
Lonnegan tried to think objectively. Tried to balance his options. Shoot Hooker. Drown him. Public execution in front of Lonnegan’s enemies and dubious friends. Quiet suffocation, quick and easy. Let him g—no, not an option. Not an option.
But no matter how much he tried to think of a sensible solution to the Hooker problem, tried to figure out what would offer the most satisfaction and do his reputation the most good, all he could really think was, “Hooker’s in this house. He’s right downstairs. He’s right here. He’s alive.”
So, an hour after midnight found him stealing down the stairs. He offered only a couple gruff words to the guards at the basement door, told them they didn’t need to follow him. Walked as quietly as he could, which was still not very quiet.
Hooker was lying stretched out on the basement floor. His hands were still tied behind his back, and Floyd had apparently tied his legs to a sturdy (and very expensive) pool table. The blood on his face had dried. He was asleep.
Too exhausted to even hear Lonnegan’s approach.
Lonnegan crouched down next to him; then, hesitantly, knelt. It was a more stable position. He examined Hooker’s face. The black eye Lonnegan had predicted was now beginning to form. The expression was scrunched up, not as peaceful or at least slack as Lonnegan would have expected.
His hair was strewn carelessly across his forehead. Lonnegan brushed it aside. Still he didn’t stir.
Hooker really was a deep sleeper.
Lonnegan made his confession in a whisper—if Hooker hadn’t woken at a touch, he wouldn’t wake at this. “I’d rather not kill you, Mr. Kelly. Wish you hadn’t made things so hard for me.”
He’d spent two years hating the concept of Johnny Hooker, the man who had cost him nearly everything. He had no practice hating the man in person. Despite himself, despite years of pragmatism and hardening his own heart, he had little strength to hate a man who should already be dead, brought back to life. A man who once had touched his heart in an odd fashion…
“I wish,” he confessed, in the same whisper, “you had been an honest man.”
Then the irony of his wanting honesty—him, of all people—was too much for him, and he rose and went back upstairs.
Floyd was waiting at the top of the steps. Apparently one of the damn guards had alerted him that their boss was acting strangely. Everyone in this house was too meddling for Lonnegan’s liking.
“Hooker dead?” Floyd asked, raising his eyebrows.
“No,” Lonnegan said curtly.
Floyd considered the answer. He trailed Lonnegan away from the other men. “I get the feeling you don’t want to kill him, boss.”
“We don’t run our business based on your feelings, Floyd.”
“No, sir. But we don’t let the rest of the city run our business for us either.”
“What are you trying to say here, eh?”
“I’m saying we’re short on good men and any man who can take you for five hundred grand is one of the best.”
Lonnegan snorted. “And we’re short on good men because our losing to that idiot got them killed. Well, now.” He shook his head. “You’re a real comedian, Floyd.”
“Well, I’ll follow whatever you say, boss.”
He made his way slowly back to his room, where he finally managed to get some sleep.
He had Hooker brought up for breakfast.
Which was to say, he had breakfast with Floyd and a couple other trusted men, as usual. And he had Hooker situated in the chair next to him. But Hooker’s hands were tied behind his back, so even though he had a plate of food in front of him, he could not eat it.
“If you want a bite of anything, you can let me know,” Lonnegan said blandly. It was a safe offer; Hooker would never take it. He was scowling at Lonnegan pretty fiercely too. Soon he’d find words to express the outrage of his situation.
But when at last he spoke—breaking in on a more pleasant conversation between Lonnegan and one of his deputies, breakfast being a meal for pleasure rather than business—his tenor was less aggressive than Lonnegan might have expected. “How long are you going to draw this out?”
“Breakfast lasts as long as it takes,” Lonnegan informed him. He took a swig of orange juice.
Hooker ignored the comment. “You can torture me more if you want, but that’s not really your style. I can’t give you five hundred grand. Why haven’t you killed me yet?”
Lonnegan leaned back in his chair. “Let me tell you, Mr. Hooker, exactly what your little trick accomplished.”
He told a revised version of the story. Only the most horrifying parts. The collateral. The men who had been barely involved in the operation; the families and bystanders caught up in the damage. Gang wars weren’t pretty. Tens of men dead, hundreds of lives damaged. He didn’t tell Hooker about the vengeance he’d taken on those who’d fought him. This story had a particular purpose.
“…and what do you think of that, Mr. Hooker?” he ended.
Hooker had gone pale.
Lonnegan raised his eyebrows. “You’re sure I can’t help you drink some orange juice.”
Hooker didn’t answer, but since that wasn’t really a refusal, Lonnegan shook his head slightly and raised the glass to his lips. He was stunned enough to take a sip.
“What I’m saying,” he said, when Hooker was still silent, “is that in return for your one life, I lost many more. Are you satisfied?”
Hooker’s lips tightened. He met Lonnegan’s eyes, gaze as grave as Kelly’s. “Gondorff told me once that revenge doesn’t really fix anything. No one’s ever satisfied.”
“Wise words. Was he right?”
“I want to know if you still want to make me suffer, Mr. Hooker. Or whether our score is settled by now.”
“Doesn’t matter if you’re going to kill me.”
“I was thinking of offering you a job,” Lonnegan said. “My outfit doesn’t do grifting; it’s not a respectable trade. But there are positions that could suit your skillset. We’re even in lives, but you still owe me money. And I think you could be useful to me, alive.”
Hooker tilted his head.
Then he laughed.
“Go to hell.”
Lonnegan sighed. “Floyd, will you take Mr. Hooker back to the basement? I believe further conversation will not be fruitful at this point.”
But he didn’t like to kill a man he’d decided not to kill.
“I don’t see as you can help it, now,” Floyd offered.
Lonnegan looked at him and he shrugged and shut his mouth.
He left Hooker without lunch—forgot about him for most of the day, honestly, there was business to attend to—but personally brought him down a late dinner of bread and soup. The black eye was at its ugliest, as was his language. But when Lonnegan offered to feed him, he ate. Glaring the whole time like an angry baby bird.
“You know I am being unreasonably kind to you,” Lonnegan told him.
“I know.” Hooker almost looked ashamed.
“Then why won’t you at least be reasonable with me? You have pride, sure, but you’re a grifter. How much pride can a man like you have?”
Hooker shook his head. Swallowed another mouthful of soup Lonnegan had offered him. “It’s not just pride. I have… do you even remember the name of the man you had killed?”
Hooker gave him a speculative look. “Huh.”
“I didn’t know it at first,” Lonnegan admitted. “But since it was for his sake you half-destroyed my operation, I looked into things. Besides, Snyder mentioned a woman named Alva…”
“I take it back.” Hooker grimaced. “Don’t say their names.”
“You think I’ll profane what you hold sacred?”
Hooker laughed. “You already did that.”
Lonnegan sat back.
He had occasionally succeeded at swaying men like this to his side before. He’d had to kill fathers of useful sons, sons of useful fathers. Sometimes he’d told them long stories of treachery, claimed self defense. Other times he’d offered them power, other times offered them mercy when, he’d tell them, he really should have killed them too. It occasionally worked, and often didn’t. He didn’t see how he could persuade a man like Hooker if he didn’t want to be persuaded.
Except for the fact that he spoke to Lonnegan so frankly about these things, that he still looked Lonnegan in the eye as if these conversations, hostile as they were, mattered. Except he’d been quicker than he might have been to accept Lonnegan hand-feeding him. He was alone here, Lonnegan and Floyd the only people he knew, and he was hurt and hungry, and Lonnegan thought maybe it wasn’t so impossible Hooker wanted to be persuaded after all. He was loyal to his friend, yes, and he wanted to honor his friend’s memory, but he didn’t want to die. If he’d wanted to die he wouldn’t have hidden so well for two years, and he wouldn’t have lived when Lonnegan was trying to kill him in the first place, and he wouldn’t want to eat and he wouldn’t want to make Lonnegan understand his point of view.
Hooker wanted to live. And, even if he’d never admit it, he wanted Lonnegan to have mercy on him. He wanted Lonnegan to be kind.
Lonnegan only had to get him to admit to those wants. And, he thought, it might not be as hard as he was making himself think. The kid might have tricked Lonnegan a while back, but he was only human. Leave him here to stew for a couple days, without much food or company, and he’d crack. Probably.
If he didn’t, Lonnegan would have to give up and admit that killing him might be the best route after all. But he was still optimistic.
In the end it took around a week for Hooker to break.
In the end he told Lonnegan okay. He’d work for him. Sure, fine, whatever. He didn’t look Lonnegan in the eyes when he said it. Lonnegan half wondered if he thought his giving up would lose Lonnegan’s respect.
He ran a hand through Hooker’s hair to reassure him it was not so.
“I’ll have Floyd resituate you in a guest bedroom, hm?”
“…now I’m a guest?”
“Many of my men live here. I don’t think you’re suitable to share a room with them yet, though,” Lonnegan said. He gave Hooker a critical eye. “Take a shower. You’ll be given time to heal up. I’ll be introducing you to some of my people—you understand I can’t trust you with a job right off the bat.”
Hooker winced. “I said I’d work for you, I meant it. I won’t betray you.”
Lonnegan snorted. “Sure, Mr. Kelly. You say what you will.”
It would be hard integrating Hooker with the rest of the gang, but it was a relief that he wouldn’t have to kill the man. That would have left a bitter taste in his throat. He wouldn’t have liked it.
He celebrated that night with Floyd. A quiet drink. He didn’t say what they were drinking to, but Floyd gave him the details of Hooker settling in, and they both knew.
“You know,” Floyd said, “I always thought you might get Mr. Kelly working for us.”
“Thought you might drag him back to New York with you, out of Chicago. You seemed fond of him.”
Lonnegan frowned. “Floyd.”
Lonnegan let him get away with too much. But he took another drink of beer and let it drop. Floyd wasn’t wrong, after all, just tactless. And alcohol had a tendency to lower a man’s level of tact.
“It’ll be tough keeping the other guys from beating him up.”
Lonnegan said, “Well, they’d better keep a hold of themselves. I have no intention of letting this outfit descend into…”
“People might say you’re getting soft.”
“People might say you’re getting ideas,” Lonnegan said, “talking to me like that. Are you, Floyd?”
“Then no more of it. You follow?”
Hooker’s door was locked—no one trusted him still—but his window wasn’t. Just closed. The room was only on the second story. He stared out into the street.
Luther always said it was a miracle how he always landed on his feet. Like a cat, he said. A miracle he hadn’t twisted an ankle yet, but somehow he always managed it. That said, he might stop taking stupid risks, hm? Sooner or later they all ran out, Luther said.
What would Gondorff say?
Gondorff played big risks for big rewards. Getting away from Lonnegan would be a big reward. And he needed to do it soon. He had no intention of staying with Lonnegan, working for Lonnegan, being loyal to Lonnegan. But he’d said he would do all those things, and he’d half meant it, the way he always did in the thick of a con. And when Lonnegan had offered him a room—and when the room had turned out to be a good one, with a good mattress on the bed, a view of the street—there had been something so nice about it. Something had relaxed in Hooker’s stomach that he had a feeling would have been better off tense.
He had to get out of here before he became the man Lonnegan wanted him to be.
He braced his hands on the windowframe. But even leaning forward, his ribs hurt. A couple were broken—when he’d relented to Lonnegan’s persuasions, a doctor had had a look at him, and made that declaration. A couple broken ribs, and too many bruises to count, only half faded. He didn’t think he could land the jump this time.
Later, he told himself, it would be easier. Lonnegan wouldn’t keep him in the house if he was working for him now. No point in locking up an employee. He’d have a chance. He’d have many chances. He wouldn’t spoil them all by breaking his ankle—or his damn neck—now.
He shut the window.
A knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts. The door opened before he could respond or go to it—a warning, not a request for permission. It was Lonnegan, as might be expected.
Unexpectedly, he seemed slightly drunk.
“Do you like the room?” he asked, words barely comprehensible through a combination of slurring and Irish accent.
“Sure.” Hooker stuck his hands in his pockets. “It’s aces.”
Lonnegan nodded wisely. “I thought it might be better than a basement.”
Hooker chuckled uneasily. “Anything would.”
“I know you’re staying now because of that, and because you didn’t think you had a choice. But you’ll change your mind. This is a good outfit, and you’re a good man for it. You’ll see.” Lonnegan was wearing the broadest, most optimistic grin Hooker had ever seen on him. “And I’m off now—a kiss good night?”
He leaned in. Hooker sighed and kissed him on the cheek. Then he was gone.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of visit Hooker had expected from the man, but it was at least nicer than him showing up to preach about Hooker’s future position in Lonnegan’s business or about how Hooker would need to reform his actions or anything like that. No, he caught himself, not nicer. He couldn’t start thinking of Lonnegan as nice.
What was more worrying was how little he had thought about kissing Lonnegan. It had felt very natural—well, not that he had never thought about it, the way Lonnegan looked at him, the way he sometimes touched his shoulder or his hair—but no, not the kind of thing he could encourage. No affection. Not towards the enemy.
He sighed. No, he couldn’t let Lonnegan get in his head. No need to worry about all this. He would be gone soon enough anyway—the kiss had been practically familial…
He pulled the curtains closed over the window and went decisively to bed.