St. Paul, Minnesota - 1926
According to the gossip on the streets of St. Paul, my late husband was a man of many secrets. One of the most widely spread stories I found intriguing, but also amusing, involved a secluded hideout where he supposedly had a wall literally lined with stacks of cash. If he did, Gus had taken this information to the grave because he’d never shared it with me.
Gus had been a bootlegger who’d made his fortune running “Minnesota 13,” the Dom Perignon of bootlegged whiskey from two Minnesota counties—Stearns and Morrison—to distributors in the Dakotas and Chicago. Ruthless and powerful, “Lucky” Gus LeDoux had earned an unfathomable amount of money and gained a notorious reputation, but made permanent enemies along the way. I always knew someday he’d die a violent death. I just never envisioned it would be by my hand.
I hadn’t planned to shoot my husband; I’d acted purely in self-defense. It did no good to dwell on it, but the memory of that horrific, life-altering day still haunted me…
Desperate to escape his life of crime, I’d run away from my husband and found refuge working as a domestic servant in the home of a private investigator. Gus eventually found out and stormed my place of employment, forcing me to leave with him. As Federal agents surrounded the area, two agents tried to apprehend him and he gunned them down—while I helplessly watched. My husband was known for his brutality, but to witness it firsthand horrified me and caused me to fear not only for my safety but also for the wellbeing of my unborn child. I refused to go on and told Gus I wanted nothing more to do with him. He roared that if he couldn’t have me, no one would, and he tried to choke me.
Determined to protect my baby, I grabbed the gun from his shoulder holster. We struggled. The gun went off. The memory of that deadly, piercing sound still left me numb; a stark reminder that my son, now three and a half months old, would never know his father. And I was to blame.
Only one other person saw what happened, but I knew Will Van Elsberg would never divulge my secret to anyone. To rescue me from the fray, he had lifted me in his arms and carried me to a secure place to keep me safe, proving himself to be the only true hero I’d ever known.
The events of that dark, rainy afternoon altered my life forever. As Gus’ widow, I inherited a fortune and became the sole parent to my newborn son. Though I was on my own for the first time in my life, I felt safe. I was free.
Then fate pulled me back to the dark side of Gus’ world, the most dangerous place I could be.
The silky fabric of my evening dress shimmered; Cartier diamonds sparkled on my neck and ears. My hair had been meticulously styled in soft, marcel waves and spit curls. I freshened my skin with a spritz of Parisian perfume, humming a tune as I waited for my escorts to arrive.
The Katzenbaum brothers were taking me out to dinner. Harv and Marv were my late husband’s attorney and accountant, respectively, but with Gus’ passing late last summer, they’d become like fathers to me. They were stern taskmasters, expecting me to learn every detail of how to successfully manage Gus’ legitimate businesses. At the same time, however, they were fiercely protective of me and truly cared about my happiness. They insisted I needed a night out on the town to bolster my morale, but I suspected they’d decided it was high time the world got a glimpse of Gus LeDoux’s rich, young widow. The woman who had taken the reins of his investments.
The shiny black Rolls Royce Phantom arrived at Mamma’s house at seven o’clock that evening. The epitome of elegance and wealth, the long, shiny vehicle looked strangely out of place in Mamma’s modest neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul. An armored touring car carrying a cadre of bodyguards with Tommy guns sat close behind it.
“They’re here!” my fourteen-year-old sister, Francie, exclaimed, waving to Harv and Marv Katzenbaum from the living room window. Her long flaxen braids fell to her waist as she whirled around and stared at me longingly through wide blue eyes. “I wish I could go with you, Char. I want to wear a pretty dress and shawl like yours!”
I wished I could take her with me to give her a much-needed respite from our family issues, but minors weren’t allowed where I was going. Mrs. Olson, our neighbor, usually took care of Mamma and my son, Julien, when I had to leave the house on errands. Unfortunately, she had a cold today, so Francie had agreed to take her place and earn the dollar I would have paid to Mrs. Olson.
I retouched my lips with Max Factor lipstick from a new tube I’d just purchased in cherry red matte—my favorite color. Then I went into Mamma’s bedroom, a small, corner room on the main floor to say goodbye. She lay in her bed, pale and tired, listening to the radio. Mamma had been ill with a bad heart for as long as I could remember. In high school, I’d struggled to support her by working as a housekeeper at Finnegan’s Hotel. Once I married Gus, we wanted to take her into our home, but she begged us to stay in her own place and hang onto what little independence she had. After Gus died, I closed up our mansion on Summit Avenue and moved back into Mamma’s little house. Until Mamma left this world my place was to stay with her and take care of her. She and Francie were the only family little Julien and I had.
Well, except for my alcoholic father, but Papa only came around when he couldn’t get a free meal anywhere else. He’d stay for one night, then he’d be gone again, often for months.
I took Mamma’s hand. “I’m leaving now, but I won’t stay out late.”
She slowly opened her eyes. “You have a nice time, Charlotte,” she whispered, “and don’t worry about the baby. Francie will take good care of him.”
I didn’t worry as much about my son as I was concerned for her. She looked so frail—so exhausted. I gently patted her hand. “I’ll bring home some cheesecake for you and Francie.” Sadly, Mamma’s appetite had become so small she probably wouldn’t eat more than a bite, but if it made her day a little brighter, that’s all that mattered.
The brothers were taking me to a new dining establishment called the Tansy Club and I had been looking forward to it for a week. I’d only had one social outing since I’d given birth to Julien last November and that was to treat Francie to a movie. I grabbed my knee-length sable coat from the closet and my beaded handbag from the kitchen table just as the chauffeur knocked on the front door. With a hug, I told my sister goodbye, slipped into my coat and hurried out into the waning light of a chilly March evening.
The chauffeur escorted me to the car and opened the rear passenger door. Harv slid out to allow me to get in and greeted me with his customary kiss on the cheek. I climbed inside the vehicle’s gray velvet interior and sat next to Marv. “Good evening!” I said cheerily.
“Good evening, my dear,” Marv replied in his gravelly voice. The wrinkles in his wizened face deepened when he smiled.
Both men were silver-haired and in their sixties, but Marv, the accountant, was the younger one by a year or two and had never married. He had arthritis and high blood pressure but he refused to quit drinking or smoking his Camel cigarettes.
Harv was an attorney who’d lost his wife and only child years ago in childbirth. He wore rimless spectacles and carried a gold pocket watch on a chain nestled in the pocket of his vest.
Harv and Marv, known as “the brothers” were extremely intelligent and shrewd when it came to making money. Two of the most powerful businessmen in St. Paul.
Harv settled in on my right as the car door shut. Within a few moments, we were on our way to a speakeasy for dinner. I looked forward to an exciting evening.
* * *
The Tansy Club was situated along the shore of White Bear Lake, north of St. Paul. The Rolls Royce pulled up to the back of a large, old barn and dropped us off at the door. The exterior, weathered and plain, didn’t look like anything special, but the moment Harv recited the passcode, the security guard opened the door and allowed us into an extraordinary world only available to those who were invited.
After Harv checked our coats and hats, a man with brown hair parted down the center and wearing a black suit ushered us through a doorway hung with two sets of red and gold damask brocade portieres—door curtains—one set on each side. The interior of the lively speakeasy had walls paneled in fumed oak, hanging lights with shades made of art nouveau glass and a ceiling covered in gold leaf. A stage in the far corner of the room hosted a small orchestra. The lead singer, a tall, curvaceous redhead in a sparkling burgundy gown crooned Fanny Brice’s trademark song, “My Man” to a happy crowd on the dance floor.
The Tansy Club was certainly one of the nicest speakeasies I’d ever been to, but it couldn’t compare with the glamorous nightclub that Gus and I had once owned. Before the Feds shut it down, La Coquette had been the place to be seen in St. Paul. Now the building was just a dark, empty shell set back in the trees near the corner of Snelling and West Seventh Street.
At our table, the host pulled out my chair. I sat gracefully and allowed him to drop my linen napkin on my lap. “The food here smells wonderful,” I murmured as my nostrils filled with the mouth-watering aroma of steak. My stomach growled with hunger.
“Here is your wine list, sir,” the host said, handing a leather-bound folder to Harv. He nodded to the man and began to leisurely peruse the selection, indicating he wasn’t in any hurry to dine. He ordered a bottle of Bordeaux, which must have cost him a pretty penny considering prohibition currently dictated the law of the land.
Our waiter returned with the bottle, opened it and offered Harv the cork. He examined it, sniffed it then handed it back with a nod of approval. The waiter poured a small amount into a stemmed wineglass for his inspection. Harv swirled the wine lightly, held the glass to his nose then took a sip. Another nod indicated his pleasure with his selection.
I sat with my hands in my lap, observing the ritual as an odd sensation swept over my body. I could feel the intense gaze of someone watching me. Puzzled, I glanced around, and as I scanned the crowded room goosebumps spread the length of my arms. Everywhere I looked, people were staring—at me. Some were discreet, whispering amongst themselves. Others openly assessed me. Had my ten-month retreat from society caused such a stir that my appearance tonight had shocked everyone? Or did it stem from the fact that my late husband’s reputation made people overly cautious of me? Most people probably didn’t know that I had always been in Gus’ shadow. Finding myself the center of attention made me feel like a bug in a glass jar. I pulled my shawl tighter about my shoulders and tried to ignore the curious looks directed my way, forcing myself to concentrate on the conversation around the table instead.
“In a couple of weeks, I’m goin’ to visit a lady friend,” Marv carried on in his raspy tone. “Takin’ the Oriental Limited out to Seattle for a month.” He spent the next ten minutes telling me how he’d met her at a wedding in St. Paul and how much he was looking forward to seeing her again.
Harv, a soft-spoken man of few words, preferred to relax and sip his wine as Marv and I talked. Though he rarely showed it, I knew Harv was taking in more than our conversation. He had a way of appearing at ease while maintaining an acute awareness of his surroundings.
A handsome man in a tuxedo approached our table. The brothers received him cordially, but I could see the slight bulge of a shoulder holster under the left arm of his coat and it immediately made me wary. Like everyone else, his attention focused on me. Harv must have sensed my discomfort as he quickly introduced me to Ralph Dixon, the Tansy Club owner, as Mrs. LeDoux. Ralph rested his hand on the back of my chair and smiled down at me. His slick, dark hair and thin mustache gave him the elegant look of a silent film star, but the intense gaze of his ebony eyes sent a chill down my spine.
“Mrs. LeDoux,” he said smoothly, “welcome to the Tansy Club. If I may take the liberty of saying so, you look exceptionally lovely this evening.”
“Thank you.” I forced a smile and sat up straighter. I didn’t like his fingers grazing my shoulder. Even though a fringed shawl covered most of my upper body, the light pressure of his hand made the goosebumps come back to my arms with a vengeance.
I wore a sleeveless, V-neck dress made from silk charmeuse in soft gold with hand-sewn beadwork along the neckline. The drop waist had a matching sash that tied in a generous bow on my right hip, drawing attention to a skirt embellished with several tiers of flounces. I’d worn it tonight because I wanted to look festive, but now I began to wonder if I should have shown up in widow’s weeds and a veiled hat instead.
“Enjoy your dinner,” Ralph Dixon said and moved on to visit with guests at another table. I immediately breathed a sigh of relief, but my reaction made me realize I wasn’t quite ready for a night out on the town. Despite all the gaiety taking place around me, I felt lonely and out of place. Suddenly, all I wanted was to go home to my little family, slip into my soft, flannel nightgown and snuggle with my baby under the warm blankets on my bed.
My thoughts were cut short when our waiter appeared at our table to take our dinner order. Keeping my discomfort to myself, I smiled politely and decided on the breast of chicken a la rose, Waldorf salad and potato croquettes. Maybe I was just hungry and tired, I reasoned. Maybe if I had a nice dinner and listened to the music for a while, my morale would improve.
As I waited for my appetizer of shrimp cocktail to arrive, I slowly sipped my wine, careful not to drink too much on an empty stomach. I hadn’t had any alcohol in almost a year and didn’t want to get ossified to the point where I embarrassed myself by knocking over my wineglass or dropping my silverware on the floor.
“Well, hello, there,” a familiar male voice murmured over my shoulder. Surprised, I twisted in my chair to find Benny Howe, a man who used to be a regular customer at La Coquette and a good friend.
“Benny, how are you?” I smiled warmly, relieved to see someone I knew. “Are you here with your family?”
A lock of curly auburn hair fell across his forehead as he gazed down at me. “I heard the food and gambling here was the best in the Twin Cities—now that La Coquette is gone—so, me and a couple of guys decided to have steak for dinner and play a few hands at the tables downstairs.”
Benny’s family owned a jewelry store in downtown Minneapolis. He always had plenty of money to spend but proved to be the worst card player Gus had ever seen. According to my late husband, even a blind old lady could beat Benny at poker. Still, Gus liked him and always described him as a good kid, even though he was twenty-seven; two years older than me.
“This place is packed, Benny. How did you find me?”
“We were sitting at the bar when you came in.” He gave me a toothy grin. “You’re the only woman I know with your shade of dark brown hair and a fur coat that’s bigger than you.” He leaned close. “How have you been, Char?”
“I’m doing fine,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t ask about how I’d been coping with Gus’ death or the demise of La Coquette. I didn’t want to talk about my past. I wanted to move forward with my life.
His face bore a hopeful expression. “Would you like to dance?”
I glanced at the elbow-to-elbow situation on the dance floor and shook my head. “I don’t think so—”
He took my hand and gave it an encouraging tug. “C’mon, Char. You look like you could use some cheering up. I’d be honored to be your partner. I know you’re a terrific dancer.”
I laughed at the compliment. “You’re not so bad yourself!” Benny was an excellent dancer and the reigning champion of La Coquette’s all-night dance marathons.
Marv heard what we were discussing and gave me a little nudge. “Go. Dance. Enjoy yourself.”
The orchestra began to play “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”
“C’mon!” Benny grabbed my other hand and pulled me to my feet before I had a chance to refuse. “Let’s show this clip joint how to kick up some dust!” He drew me onto the dance floor and we eased our way into the crowd. The circular flounces on my skirt swished as we began to hop to the tune in perfect sync. Before long, Benny began to show off, circling me with his own version of fancy Charleston footwork. I stopped and doubled over with laughter, mainly to cover up the fact that not only was I out of breath but also out of shape for this much exercise. I hadn’t danced like this since before I’d become pregnant.
The orchestra switched to the blues song “Easy Come, Easy Go” to cool down the crowd, and Benny gently pulled me into his arms. “I never got the chance to tell you how sorry I am about Gus,” he said as he effortlessly guided me in a waltz. “I wanted to talk to you at the funeral, but you were surrounded by so many of Harv’s people, I couldn’t get close enough to get your attention. Besides, you looked deeply distracted.”
If you only knew…
My eyes began to mist. I looked away to avoid showing the guilt that still plagued me over shooting another human being—even if it was in self-defense, but he placed his fingers under my chin and slowly turned my head. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
I sniffled. “It’s not your fault, Benny. I—”
“Let’s talk about something more pleasant—like your eyes,” he said as he locked gazes with me. “They’re the most unusual color combination I’ve ever seen.”
“How so?” I had never studied my eye color that closely, but welcomed the topic change.
“Your green irises are etched with a blue ring around them. They’re beautiful and unique. Just like you.”
Okay, I thought, becoming uncomfortable again. That’s enough compliments. Pretty soon he’s going to try to kiss me…
There was no law against kissing someone, but I absolutely did not have any interest in getting romantically involved with Benny Howe or any of Gus’ former associates. To his credit, Benny was polite, attractive and a sweet fellow. As far as I was concerned, however, that’s all he would ever be to me—a nice guy and a friend.
“Thank you for asking me to dance, Benny, but I’m getting tired and I’m starving. I’d like to go back to my table now.” My mouth watered at the thought of the delicious shrimp cocktail waiting for me.
“Sure, Char.” He couldn’t hide his disappointment as he gently let go of my waist. “Whatever you say.”
Suddenly, someone grabbed my hand and spun me around. “Well, well, look who we have here…”
I found myself staring into the ruggedly handsome face of Leonard Murtagh, one of Gus’ former bodyguards. Leonard stood about five inches taller than me with short, dark hair combed straight back, gunmetal-blue eyes and a dimple in his chin. Like Gus, he favored hand-tailored suits, Tommy guns and fast cars. He could be quite charming when it suited him, but I knew he possessed a penchant for violence and I didn’t want anything to do with him.
“My turn to dance with the little lady,” Leonard said with an air of authority, dismissing Benny.
Who does he think he is, cutting in like I’m his property?
I glared into Leonard’s eyes, only too happy to give this thug the bum’s rush. “I’m not your little lady and I decide who I dance with, Leonard. Excuse me, my dinner is waiting.” Benny’s schoolboy crush on me made me uneasy, but Leonard’s cavalier attitude toward his former boss’ wife simply made me mad. I spun away to head back to my table.
“Hey, come back here.” Laughing, he caught me by sliding his arm around my waist. “It’s been a while since that afternoon in the alley, Charlotte,” he whispered in my ear as he pressed my back to his chest. “You and me got some catching up to do.”
I did not want to be reminded of the day Gus died. Gus had ordered Leonard to wait for us in the alley with the car so we could escape from the Feds. I didn’t know what had happened to delay him, but Leonard wasn’t there when we arrived. Perhaps if he had been on time, things would have turned out differently. In any case, it was too late for what-ifs, apologies or excuses. Or to make amends. I pried his hands from my waist and wrenched myself away from him. “Let me go!”
Ignoring my hostility, he cocked one brow as his gaze swept over my body. “You’ve changed. Developed some spunk. Baby, you’re the cat’s meow.”
“Yeah, well I’m one cat who’s not looking for a new tom.” I lifted my chin high. “I’m doing just fine on my own.”
He laughed at my bold assertion as though I’d come up with the funniest joke he’d heard in a long time. “The man who tries to tame you is in for a wild ride.”
Benny wedged himself between us. “Look, Murtagh, she doesn’t want to dance with you so leave her alone.”
Leonard stared hard at Benny as his hand reached inside his jacket. “Beat it, punk.”
“Stop it, both of you,” I snapped. “We’re leaving. Come on, Benny.” I slipped my arm around Benny’s and tried to pull him away, but he ignored me. Both men stared at each other like rutting stags ready to lock horns. Things were going to get ugly for Benny if I didn’t get him out of there fast.
Several men had elbowed their way through the crowd and stood behind Leonard in a show of force. I knew one of them, Earl Bauer, a small-time thief and big-time jailbird. Earl had built a sordid reputation as a lounge lizard, among other things. He’d spent many nights at La Coquette, guzzling hooch and harassing everything in a skirt. Earl parted his dirt-brown hair in the center and slicked it back with so much Brilliantine hair oil his head looked like patent leather. His cheap three-piece suit and greasy skull were repulsive to me, but his ugly glower made it absolutely clear he was itching for a good fight. “One word, boss,” he announced, “and we’ll escort this bum out on a stretcher.”
“Come on, Benny,” I said, growing increasingly alarmed. I pulled on his arm again. “Let’s go.”
By now, most people had backed away, forming a wide circle around us. Four young men came up behind me and instinctively I knew they were Benny’s chums.
Fear prickled at the back of my neck. I let go of Benny and backed into the crowd, ready to run. As the widow of a bootlegger who’d never backed down from a fight in his life, I knew what was coming, and I prayed gunfire would not be involved…
I didn’t see who threw the first punch. I only knew that suddenly women were screaming, fists were swinging, overturned tables and dishes were crashing to the floor and panicked people were fleeing to the exit. Within seconds, the entire room had erupted into total madness.
A large, strong hand gripped my arm. “Come with me, Char,” a familiar masculine voice spoke loudly in my ear. “I’m getting you out of here.”
I spun around and stared into a pair of deep blue eyes. “Will!” I was taken aback in surprise at the presence of the tall private investigator. “Where did you come from?”
Will Van Elsberg placed his broad hand between my shoulder blades and swiftly pushed me behind an overturned table, saving me from getting hit by a chair careening over our heads. “I’ve been here all along,” he shouted through the deafening noise, “keeping an eye on the situation.”
What did he mean by that?
I’d known Will since last May, a month after I’d left my husband and gone into hiding. Not knowing the truth about who I was, Will had hired me to work as his housekeeper and cook. When he eventually discovered my real identity—Gus LeDoux’s missing wife—he’d risked his own life to protect me from Gus and then from the authorities. Needless to say, I trusted him completely. This was not the first time he’d held my life in his hands, but I hoped it would be the last. I wanted nothing more to do with bootleggers!
“Will, let’s go!” Daniel Blythe, Will’s assistant, ran toward us and helped me to my feet. I knew Daniel as Will’s handyman and home security guard, a jovial man who’d always worn denim coveralls and a newsboy hat. I wouldn’t have recognized him tonight in a suit except for the thick, wiry mustache that matched his coppery hair. He shoved my beaded purse at me. “The brothers are getting your coat. We’re supposed to meet them at the front door. C’mon!”
We ran toward the exit and eased our way through a stampede of people in the waiting area, trying to escape. Harv stood by the cloakroom door, holding my coat and cloche hat. He quickly slipped it over my shoulders and placed his hand on the small of my back, pressing me forward to blend into the moving crowd. Will grabbed his fedora and shoved it over his thick black hair. He and Daniel shrugged into their long overcoats as they followed close behind.
When we finally made it outdoors, the road behind the barn looked like a parking lot, blocked with dozens of cars trying to get around the building and onto Highway 61. I looked around but couldn’t locate the Katzenbaums’ Rolls Royce in the sea of vehicles.
“Char, you go with Will. He’ll get you out of here faster than we can,” Harv said and hugged me. “I’m sorry about tonight, honey. We’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
He turned to Will. “I’m trusting you to get her out of here safely and take her home. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Will and Daniel each took me by the arm and we hurried to their car. Daniel got the car started while Will helped me into the front seat and got in beside me. How in the world were we going to get past this conglomeration of automobiles?
Shots cracked through the air. The fight had taken a sinister turn.
“Time for a shortcut!” Daniel took off, driving like a lunatic as he raced across a snowy field. Warmer temperatures and sunny days had shrunk the snow cover considerably, but the ground was still frozen, creating a jarring ride. We eventually made it to the highway and took off into the night.
I let out a sigh of relief. “I’m never going back there again.” Both men laughed. “I mean it,” I protested and shook my head. “That place was full of criminals. Many of whom I knew on a first name basis! I should never have let Benny talk me into getting on the dance floor. It was a prescription for disaster.” I remembered how everyone had stared at me when we first arrived and the realization that Leonard had been one of them made me shiver.
“Are you cold?” Will reached into the back seat and grabbed a blanket. “Here, this should help,” he said as he spread it over my lap. “It wasn’t about you, you know.”
I stared at him in the dark. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a turf war going on right now,” Daniel said, never taking his gaze off the road.
“Since Harv and Marv have taken over Gus’ bootlegging territory,” Will added, “some people feel the brothers are grabbing too much power.”
“I know that, but the fight started over me.”
Will turned his head. The cold, silvery moonlight streaked across the lean planes of his clean-shaven face. “It’s always about power, Char.”
Men fighting for territory and influence—I’d lived through more than my share of power struggles, but now that my husband was gone, I’d made myself a promise. I’d never go back to that dangerous and violent life again.
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Coming soon - The Bootlegger's Legacy
Book Three - Moonshine Madness Series
Winter of 2021
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