It's Prohibition. It's Philadelphia. And Jersey Leo doesn't fit in.
Jersey is an albino of mixed race. Known as "Snowball" on the street, he tends bar at a speakeasy the locals call the Ink Well. There, he's considered a hero for having saved the life of a young boy. But when his old grade school buddy, Aaron Garvey, calls from death row and asks for one last favor, all hell breaks loose.
Jersey finds himself running from a band of crooked cops, hiding an escaped convict in the Ink Well, and reuniting with his grammar school crushthe now sultry Myra Banks, who has shed a club foot and become a speakeasy siren. Through it all, Jersey tries to safeguard the Ink Well with no help other than his ragtag group of friends: his ex-boxing-champion father, Ernie Leo; the street-savvy Johalis; a dim-witted dockworker named Homer; and the dubious palm reader Madame Curio. With them, Jersey digs for the truth about his friend Aaron Garveyand winds up discovering a few things about himself.
About the Author
John Florio is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in print, on the web, and on television. He is the author of Sugar Pop Moon and Blind Moon Alley—the first two Jersey Leo crime novels—and One Punch from the Promised Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Ouisie Shapiro. Visit him at johnfloriowriter.com.
Read an Excerpt
Blind Moon Alley
A Jersey Leo Novel
By JOHN FLORIO
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2014 John Florio
All rights reserved.
Newspapers create heroes. Sex months ago, they created me. On Christmas, the Inquirer turned me—a twenty-four-year-old albino with chalk-white skin, kinky yellow hair, and fluttering green eyes—into the toast of Philadelphia. It took all of eight words to undo a lifetime of insults. Son of Former Boxing Champ Saves Kidnapped Boy. That headline, along with two columns of ink and a three-inch shot of my glorious mug, filled the upper-right corner of the broadsheet, pushing Aaron Garvey's date with the electric chair down below the fold. It was a snowy morning, but every newsboy in the city had that paper hoisted over his head. Now it hangs on the wall behind me as I work the bar at a speakeasy the locals call the Ink Well.
I'm Jersey Leo, a genetic milkshake with one too many scoops of vanilla, a piano keyboard with no sharps or flats, a punch line to an inside joke that I've never been in on. Despite what you might have read in the Inquirer, I'm no hero, at least not the kind you want your children to be. Ask any one of the cops who've come to me for a spiked beer or a stuffed envelope; he'll tell you I'm breaking the law every time I fill their glasses. No, I'm not out to rid our streets of crime and corruption. All I want to do is pour some moon, make a little dough, and if the stars align, spend a bit of time with a certain five-foot-two-inch coat checker whose eyes haven't seen enough of the real world to stop sparkling. The only reason I made the front page was because I found myself standing at the wrong end of a gun barrel and made sure it wouldn't happen again—to me or anybody like me.
A trail of blue cigarette smoke snakes its way over the bar as the radio plays "Little White Lies." Aside from those little lies and this bleached bartender, there's nothing else white in the place. The Ink Well is a colored joint, a tiny hole tucked away in the narrow basement of a nondescript brownstone on Juniper and Vine. It's an easy target for the uniformed bulls of the sixth precinct—at least a half-dozen of them show up every week to drink our booze and take our cash. The good news is that the Feds don't even know it's here. You've got to go around the building's main entrance and down five stone steps just to find the front door. Once you're inside, the place is no bigger than a tenement flat. The front room fits only three candlelit iron tables. Pass through it and you'll reach four booths sitting opposite a polished oak bar that runs along the brick wall in the back. Find the bar and you'll find me.
I like the place for the same reason as the folks who come here. The Ink Well is cozy and dark; the kind of joint that softens the edges of a hardened city. Just walking through the door helps me forget the bread lines that are waiting around the corner. There aren't many places an albino can call home. This is one.
Tonight, chattering voices and clinking glasses fill the air that's normally as quiet as the bell on the owner Doolie's cash register. Doolie can thank Homer, a longshoreman I met two years ago while I was hijacking rum at the Philly Navy Yard for my boss back in New York. Homer's no Einstein—the cops call him a retard—but he's popular enough to convince eight of his friends from the dock to join him for a drink in the middle of a hundred-degree heat wave.
He's standing at his usual place at the back end of the bar, talking with a barrel-chested old-timer with two chins, a round gut, and bags the size of chestnuts under his eyes. I recognize the lug as Doolie's childhood friend, a factory worker named Calvin I met here a couple of weeks ago.
I empty what's left of the bourbon into Homer's glass, but I leave his and Calvin's money on the bar, untouched. Homer's a day laborer; Calvin lost his job at Baldwin Locomotive about a month back. I just can't see taking the last of their dough.
"He done it for sure. He let that cop bleed," Homer is saying, no doubt referring to Aaron Garvey. Beads of sweat roll down his angular forehead as he speaks. "Man had a right to do it. Took guts, it did."
Homer usually swings his head up and points his puffy eyes at the ceiling when he speaks, but when he mentions Garvey, he looks down at his shoes. His sloped shoulders seem to drop even lower and his long neck seems to bend like clay. He slowly shakes his head.
"They gonna fry 'im for sure," he says, his right hand in his pants pocket and his left holding his bourbon. "Yes sir, they gonna fry 'im. Damn shame."
Homer is right—Garvey has no hope with Governor Pinchot—but he's the only one in Philly who seems to care. Everybody else still remembers what happened three years ago at the Red Canary. Garvey took down a bull—he put a slug in the cop's brainstem and then refused to testify at his own trial. Most of the locals would pull the lever themselves.
Me, I was tight with Garvey in grade school and still can't get used to the idea that my childhood buddy is a cold-blooded killer.
"I knew Garvey growing up in Hoboken," I say but let it rest. If I tell Homer that Garvey was my only friend back then, I'll have to talk about how many times he took beatings for me, how many times he fought off the teachers who'd whip my pale ass just to watch it turn red. Garvey didn't speak about it then, and I'm not about to bring it up now.
"Used to be a good Joe," is all I say.
Calvin hoists his glass and takes a slug. He's either drinking to Garvey, good Joes, or free booze.
Homer wants to hear more about Garvey—the look on his thin, creased face is that ofa kid about to meet Jack Dempsey. But I'm going to disappoint him.
"I haven't seen him since the sixth grade," I say, shrugging it off.
"Those bulls done pushed him, they did," Homer says, his eyes rolling back to their usual upward position. "You'd a done the same."
As I toss the empty bourbon bottle into the trash, I spot Angela greeting a regular named Wallace. She takes his hat and hangs it up. I picture myself following her into the coatroom, my hair slicked back, as straight and shiny as John Gilbert's, my skin as clear and smooth as Valentino's. I imagine us sitting at Monte's on Broad Street. Her hair's done up and her nails are painted. I'm wearing my Sunday best. We share a salad. We sip tea and tell stories about growing up; we tell each other what scares us in the dark. We keep on talking as they sweep the floors around us.
Doolie's in the kitchen and yells to me that he needs a fresh bottle of brandy. I've only got a couple of fingers' worth up here, so I lift the mat behind the bar, open the trapdoor, and make my way down the spiral staircase into the sub-basement. I step into the familiar scent of moist dirt as I pull the chain on the light that hangs from the ceiling. The room is cool and dank. Beer kegs line the stone wall on my left. Eighty cases of whiskey and moon are stacked across from them, blocking the hatch that leads out to the dirt road Doolie calls Blind Moon Alley. As far as I know, the only time that alley is used is when the Ink Well gets a delivery. I've got to admit it's a pretty good setup.
I open a case of brandy, grab a bottle, and head back upstairs. When my head emerges from behind the bar, I see Doolie and Angela in front of the kitchen, staring at me. A group of silver-haired Joes across from them are drinking martinis and laughing as they sing "Walking My Baby Back Home," but my friends' faces tell me we've got trouble.
Doolie's eyes are wide open as he nods toward the phone booth next to the kitchen. The receiver is dangling on its wire.
I walk over to him and he whispers to me.
"State pen," he says.
"For who?" I ask.
When he doesn't say anything, I have my answer.
I can't blame him for being worried; the only legal thing we've served tonight is a martini olive. But I've been around a while and I've never heard of a warden arresting anybody. Then again, I've also never heard of a prison warden calling a speakeasy. I step into the phone booth, grab the receiver, and slide the door shut.
"Mr. Leo?" the operator asks.
"Depends who's calling."
"One moment, please."
There's a clicking sound as the call is patched through and I hear a man's voice. It's raspy and weak.
"Hiya, Snowball," he says.
I was hoping I'd heard the last of that name once I left New York; it only reminds me ofwhat I am outside ofPhilly. My father always said that some things can't be shaken.
"Snowball?" he asks again.
This time it hits me who's on the other end.
"Garv?" I say. The phone booth is stifling, but I'm not about to open it now.
"Damn, it's good to hear your voice," he says. "What you doin' in Philly? Saw your picture. Fuckin' hero."
I have no idea how he got his hands on the Inquirer, but at least that explains how he knew I was in Philly. He must have spent the past six months tracking me down until somebody gave him this number. Not an easy task, considering the location of his office.
"Don't believe everything you read," I tell him, surprised at how easily we're falling into our old rhythm after twelve years.
"Bullshit," he says. His voice is cracking and I wish I could pour him a beer. Then he says: "Y'know, they're fryin' me in a couple of days."
I tell him that I heard about it on the radio.
"Asked me what I want for my last meal," he says. "As if it's a fancy occasion, right? Just like a regular restaurant, except the chair at the head of the table has fuckin' cables attached to it. I told them to go screw their mothers."
There's nothing to say, so I stay quiet. Before he says anything else, the call clicks back to the operator. She tells me to report to Eastern State Penitentiary, Tuesday night, seven o'clock.
I'm not following and I tell her so.
"Mr. Garvey's last meal," she says. "He's allowed one guest, and he's requested you."
The tone in her voice says she assumes any friend of Aaron Garvey's is a criminal. I'd feel better about myselfifshe were wrong.
She spills a bunch of details and I jot them down on the back of Doolie's yellow pages.
I wipe my sweat from the receiver with my shirtsleeve, hang up the phone, and step out of the booth. The older guys are still singing in the corner. I tell Doolie and Angela that everything's fine, then take my place behind the bar and splash some bourbon over ice for Homer. I don't mention that I'll be meeting my old friend Aaron Garvey just in time to watch him die.
I put a smile on my face and rinse a batch of highball glasses. I'm trying to wash Garvey off my mind, but I can't stop won- dering why, if the guy could share his last meal with one person, he picked me.
Excerpted from Blind Moon Alley by JOHN FLORIO. Copyright © 2014 John Florio. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jersey is an albino that runs a speakeasy. He is the recent newspaper star saving a kid, which he argues about being a hero. This leads a schoolyard friend giving him a call. Garvey used to stand up for Jersey when they were kids. They also used to hang around a girl with a club foot, Myra. Myra now owns a speakeasy where Garvey killed a cop. Garvey is calling to have his last meal with Jersey before being executed. He asks Jersey to stand up to a dirty cop that has been harassing Myra. Jersey says he will think about it. Then the dirty cop shows up at the Ink Well demanding Garvey’s location and decides to make his point by putting a hurting on Jersey. Jersey gets sucked into the whole mess when he discovery Garvey in the basement of the speakeasy. I haven’t read Sugar Pop Moon, but there was no reason to. There is a quick note about it but you get straight into the action of this book. Jersey is a great character, he has his flaws yet he is realistic. I felt like I was right there in the 20’s as he was talking about the different speakeasies and the events happening around him. This is a great story that makes you feel right in the 20’s. It is one that I recommend for anyone that likes the noir stories. I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.