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Crouching for long periods of time was never fun, but doing it in patent-leather T-strap heels was murder. Vera usually tried to wear more comfortable shoes when she was following someone, but there'd been no time to change. She'd been working at the Green Mill when she'd overheard Carlito Macharelli mention a meeting on the docks with Sebastian Grey.
She'd immediately called a cab.
"Follow that car!" she'd ordered the driver.
A normal cabbie would never put himself at her disposal for this sort of activitya black girl? Telling a cabdriver to follow a wealthy white man?but Wally was not a normal cabbie. He was that rarity: a black man with his own taxi and license. He was a family friend and happy to help her clear her brother's name. "Jerome is like the son I wish I'd never had," Wally liked to say. Most nights, he waited outside the Green Mill until she was done with her shift to take her home.
Tonight they followed the taillights of Carlito's Rolls-Royce all the way through downtown and to the docksa place Vera usually avoided. This area was dangerous. Vera already worked in a Mob-run speakeasy; she didn't need the added threat of being around when the gangsters unloaded the hooch.
She asked Wally to let her out a block behind where Carlito parked the Rolls in the vacant lot. The hulking shadows of ships loomed to the east, but here the docks were still and silent.
Vera edged close to the Rolls, dodging from shadow to shadow until at last she found a hiding place behind a stack of tied-up crates. Already, there was Bastian Greyshe could see his smug features as he lit a butt from his silver cigarette case. He ambled out on the pier and stood smoking, staring out at the water.
She was sweltering on this warm summer night, thanks to her black, knee-length trench coat, but Bastian looked at ease in the heat, irritatingly handsome in a brown suit, his cheeks freshly shaven, his dark hair slicked back and parted. He was a looker, that much Vera couldn't deny.
"What do you want?" Carlito called out as he walked up, the lights from the pier warehouse catching his gray pinstriped suit and black fedora.
Carlito was her boss and had once employed her brother, Jerome, as the piano player at the Green Mill. But then Carlito and Tony Pachelli, one of his goons, had tried to kill Jerome. And Gloria, Bastian's high-society fiancee, had shot Tony dead. And then Gloria and Vera's brother had had to flee Chicago to save their lives.
And it was all Vera's fault.
Vera had been the one feeding Bastian information about Jerome and Gloria. Vera had been the one determined to break up their secret affair. Just because Vera hadn't known that Bastian was telling everything to Carlito didn't mean she was any less guilty.
That was why Vera was here, crouched behind a stack of crates, hoping to learn something incriminating about Carlito and Bastiansomething she could use to barter for her brother's life.
"What do I want?" Bastian flipped his cigarette in a bright arc across the lot. "You're the one who told me to meet you here."
Carlito stepped backward. "No, I didn't."
"Secret notes and midnight meetings." Bastian walked a few steps away. "I'm tired of your little games, Macharelli." Only a young man as despicable as Bastian Grey could work with mobsters and show a proud distaste for them at the same time.
"This isn't a game," Carlito said, casting a quick glance over his shoulder. "And I didn't send you a note. That means someone else did."
"Don't be absurd," Bastian said, lighting another cigarette. "Why would anyone go to the trouble of dragging us out here?"
Vera was leaning forward to hear better when she felt a hand crawl over her mouth. "What are you playing at?" a woman's voice whispered.
She wanted to struggle against the stranger's hold, but she couldn't give herself away. She felt herself being turned around to face her attacker.
Vera stared into the eyes of Maude Cortineau, Carlito's moll. When Maude had been a flapper, she'd barely paid attention to anyone outside her glamorous inner circle. Since she'd gotten with Carlito, she stuck to his side and spoke only when she was spoken to.
"I'm trying to eavesdrop," Vera whispered back. If Maude had been planning to bust her, she would've done it already.
"Shut up, Vera," Maude hissed. "I was waiting in the car, and I saw you running around behind these crates like you didn't have a care in the world. If Carlito sees you, you're in deep trouble. Don't be an idiot. You don't want to end up like me."
After dropping out of her bluenose prep school, Maude had become the queen of the Chicago flapper scene. Sequins, feathers, gold lameshe wore it all. Her makeup was always flawless and her headband always settled perfectly over her blond bob.
But now her beaded red dress hung over her bony body like a burlap sack. Deep shadows lurked underneath her kohl-rimmed eyes. Carlito had sucked the life out of her: The flame that Maude had once been famous for had been snuffed out.
"Maude! Where the hell are you?" Carlito called from the other side of the crates.
"Just be smart and hide," Maude said, clacking away in her heels, back to Carlito's Rolls. Carlito was pacing by the car as Maude ambled up, smoking a cigarette. She was the perfect portrait of boredom.
Carlito banged his fist on the hood. "I told you to stay in the car!"
Maude dropped the practically new cigarette. "I wanted a ciggy," she replied in a soft, defeated voice. "I know how you don't like anyone to smoke in your car, Daddy."
"Get in," he said. "We gotta go, and fast. This is a setup."
"You're being silly, Macharelli!" Bastian shouted. "No one is after us!"
But Carlito ignored him. He slid behind the wheel, cranked the engine, and sped off with a squeal of tires.
Vera let herself relax against the crates, leaning out to check on Bastian. How could she have been so stupid as to ever trust him? Those eyes, she thought. When she'd first met Bastian, his green eyes had seemed sincereswoony, even. Arrogant, of course, but that was to be expected from a rich white boy like him. She hadn't realized the heartless steel his irises really concealed until she'd accused him of sending a man to kill Jerome and he'd just smiled and called her "silly, stupid Vera."
And in all honesty, that was exactly what she was.
Vera opened her purse and felt the comforting, cool metal of Bastian's pistol inside. She'd carried it often since she'd found it at Gloria's feet that night. Bastian certainly didn't know it was his own gun that had killed the gangster, that his own fiancee had pulled the trigger.
Vera had never used a gun before, but if a dame like Gloria could use one, then so could she. Vera loved Jerome every bit as much as Gloria did, and would go just as far, if not further, to protect him.
She snapped the purse shut and looked back toward the docks.
Footsteps, approaching from the other side of the dockyard. The figure wore a long black overcoat and a hat with a wide brim. Vera watched the person walk down the pier.
"Sebastian Grey?" Vera was shocked to hear the voice of a woman.
Bastian turned from the water. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure"
"Skip the formalities. I'm looking for Macharelli. And the piano player, Jerome Johnson."
"Do I look like their keeper?" Bastian breathed out a cloud of cigarette smoke, and then his face brightened. "You're too pretty a woman to be chasing after trash like Carlito. But if you must know, he took off a minute ago."
The woman made a swift movement, and Bastian raised his hands in surrender. "Where to?" she demanded. "And where's the piano player?"
"No need for guns," Bastian said, slowly backing up. "Carlito went home. And Johnson? No one knows where he disappeared to. He sent his kid sister a postcard from a post office box in New York, but that's been a dead end so far."
"Thank you," the woman said. "You've been most helpful."
Then Vera heard the unmistakable sound of a gunshot. Two.
Instinctively, she cowered, knocking her heavy purse against the crates.
The killer turned at the noise, her features hidden by shadow. All Vera could see was the silver pistol, pointed directly at her.
The third gunshot in as many minutes rang out over Lake Michigan.
The bullet slammed into a wooden crate so close to her head that Vera felt splinters hit her face. She didn't wait for another bullet. She just turned and ran.
It wasn't far to the edge of the dockyard, and the wall of crates was between Vera and the shooter. But Vera was wearing heels, and she'd never been able to run in heels.
She waited for the crack of the gunshot and the bullet in her back as she crossed the lot, as she turned and ran the block to Wally's cab, as she banged on the window to wake him from his nap.
"What's the rumpus?" he said as she clambered into the backseat.
"Drive!" she said. "As fast as you can."
Wally didn't need to be told twice. He turned the key, gunned the engine, and took off.
When he dropped her at the club, it was already locked up for the night, but that didn't slow her down: She fumbled through her purse, found Jerome's old keys, and slipped the brass master into the lock.
Whoever the killer was, she wouldn't miss the next time.