The first mystery in Susanna Calkins’ captivating new series takes readers into the dark, dangerous, and glittering underworld of a 1920's Chicago speakeasy.
Gina Ricci takes on a job as a cigarette girl to earn money for her ailing fatherand to prove to herself that she can hold her own at Chicago’s most notorious speakeasy, the Third Door. She’s enchanted by the harsh, glamorous world she discovers: the sleek socialites sipping bootlegged cocktails, the rowdy ex-servicemen playing poker in a curtained back room, the flirtatious jazz pianist and the brooding photographerall overseen by the club’s imposing owner, Signora Castallazzo. But the staff buzzes with whispers about Gina’s predecessor, who died under mysterious circumstances, and the photographer, Marty, warns her to be careful.
When Marty is brutally murdered, with Gina as the only witness, she’s determined to track down his killer. What secrets did Marty capture on his cameraand who would do anything to destroy it? As Gina searches for answers, she’s pulled deeper into the shadowy truths hiding behind the Third Door.
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Turning off Halsted, Gina Ricci made her way down the long alley, picking her way through dumped-over rubbish bins, old tin cans, sodden newspapers, and dirty puddles of melted snow. The late afternoon sun made it easy enough for her to see, at least, and when she reached the third door — weather-beaten green with an eye-level metal grille — she knocked.
Two short raps, followed by a third, just as she'd been told.
"Hullo, darling," a man called out behind her. "Looking for someone?"
She turned around, chewing her spearmint gum a bit faster. A blond man, maybe in his late twenties and dressed in rumpled evening clothes, was stumbling toward her. "I can't give you anything ..." he called to her, his voice half singing, half slurring the words of the popular song. His blue eyes were bloodshot, though his smile was wide. Hiccupping, he continued with the lyrics. " ... but love, baby!"
"Aw, go on," Gina snapped back. "New Year's ended two days ago."
"Is that right?" he asked, pulling a silver flask from the inside of his short tuxedo jacket. "I hadn't noticed." After he took a swig, he held it up to her. "Come on, let's get fried."
"It's four thirty in the afternoon," she said, pulling her winter coat around her more tightly, feeling like an old schoolteacher. Lulu would laugh if she saw her.
Still, it was getting cold, and she didn't like being forced to wait outside, especially only steps away from a boob on a bender. Besides, the alley smelled vaguely of vomit.
Gina looked up and down the alley. This was definitely the third door on the right, directly off Halsted.
She frowned. Or was it supposed to be three doors down from the other direction — off Morgan Street? No, Lulu had assured her it was this way. Besides, the door was green, exactly as Lulu had described. This had to be it.
Pulling back her coat sleeve, Gina checked her watch. She was on time. Why hadn't anyone opened the door?
Had Lulu been having a bit of fun at her expense? She'd been surprised when Lulu had approached her at their local market a few days ago, greeting her with a warm hug. She'd seen her around the neighborhood, of course, but they hadn't talked in years, at least not since Lulu was still Louise Smith and long before both women had bobbed their hair. Lulu had asked Gina about her papa, and Gina had shared some of her worries. One thing had led to the other, and suddenly Lulu was telling her about a position that had opened where she worked.
It's darb, Lulu had said, striking a glamorous pose. Then she'd dropped the affectation, adding more earnestly, Tips are great, I swear. There had been a weariness behind Lulu's eyes when she'd spoken, and the memory of the redhead's sly smile now gave Gina pause.
Almost as if reading her thoughts, the man spoke again. "Sure you're in the right place?" Then he waved his flask at her.
Gina rolled her eyes at his blatant defiance of the Volstead Act. Drinking inside, hidden from the prying eyes of Prohibition agents, was one thing, but it was quite another to drink out in the open. Cops were supposed to enforce public intoxication laws. "Better watch it," she warned him. "Or you'll be getting comfy in a caboose in no time."
"Ah, don't sweat it, kid." He took another guzzle but returned the flask to his inner jacket pocket. The lining was probably cushioned to keep the vial from being discovered by prying eyes. He gestured toward the still-closed door. "Big Mike has the police in his pocket. Where do you suppose the cops go for a nip when they're off duty?"
Gina was not altogether surprised. She didn't know Mike Castallazzo, the owner of the establishment she was trying to enter, but it stood to reason that he had a few cops on his payroll. Chicago police were notoriously corrupt. Had been as long as she could remember.
Knocking at the door again, Gina repeated the same cadence as before, but a little louder.
This time, she heard a scrabbling sound from behind the grille and someone slid open a small slot in the door. She could see two dark brown eyes peering out at her. Lulu had told her the doorkeeper's name was Gucciani. Gooch for short.
"Hey there, Mr. Gucciani?" she called. "Lulu sent me. It's me, Gina."
"And me! Ned!" the man called out with a half hiccup.
The eyes disappeared when a piece of wood was slid back over the hole.
"What the — ?" Gina exclaimed. Where had the man gone? She banged her fists against the door in frustration, immediately wishing she hadn't when pain shot through both hands.
She heard the man who'd called himself Ned laugh. "That could have gone better, you think?"
Whirling around to face him, she put up her fists the way her brother had taught her when she was a kid. "Why don't you mind your own apples?"
"Hey, settle down there, missy!" he said. "How's your hand? Looks like that hurt. Knocking me around won't do much to make it better, either."
She chomped on her gum, trying to regain her cool. His self-assurance was really starting to bug her. "My hand's fine. How about you beat it?" She frowned. "I bet he'd have let me in, if you hadn't been hanging around."
"Not my fault, sweetheart. You didn't say the right word," he said. "Can't crack this joint without it. They're mighty particular in that regard. Besides, they have to let me in."
"What?" Gina asked, thoroughly confused. "Why's that?" Ned snickered. "Watch and see." He leaned past her, knocking on the door as she had just done.
"I just tried that," she said.
To her surprise, though, the little slot behind the grille opened again. Ned put his mouth close to the metal and whispered something that sounded like "purple berries."
"What did you say?" Gina asked, but before he could answer, the door swung open, revealing a huge, portly man dressed in a tailored pinstripe suit. The man was clean-shaven, with olive-toned skin and thick black hair, and he loomed over her by at least a foot. A cigar dangled from his lips.
"Hey, Gooch," he said to the man, stepping inside. He turned back to Gina. "Coming?" he asked.
Gina scrambled after him, only to be stopped by Gooch once she was three steps into the building.
"Stay here," the man warned, as he relocked the door behind her. Ned, who was a few steps ahead of her, paused.
Gina looked around. They had entered a small room with a single lightbulb swinging above the entranceway, casting shadows on the cracked and peeling walls. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she could make out a closed door marked TEA ROOM ENTRANCE to her right, and another doorway at the far end of the room. A tall stool was in the corner by the green alley door, and at eye level there was a peephole from which a faint line of sunlight flowed. Evidently the doorkeeper maintained a perch by the door, allowing him to keep watch over the alley unseen, without having to slide open the panel behind the grille.
Gooch must have known I was there the whole time, Gina thought, feeling a bit annoyed. And here I was, freezing!
Her indignant feelings fled, though, when Gooch turned back to her. As he moved, his suit coat swung open to reveal a handgun strapped to his waist.
"What's your business here?" he demanded.
Gina swallowed. Of course, she'd seen guns before, but still she felt rattled. What kind of dumb sap am I anyway, letting Lulu talk me into this gig? Gotta be an easier way to make some bucks.
Yet there really wasn't. Her father was depending on her, and now that the restaurant she'd been working at had closed, they were in a pickle.
Gooch was still staring down at her, waiting for her to reply, his thoughts hidden behind an untwitching mask. She tried to squeak something, but no actual words came out of her mouth. Behind him, Ned raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything. Get a grip, Gina, she thought to herself.
"Lulu said Signora Castallazzo needed some help. In the tea room?" she added, with a meaningful look at the little sign, to show she was in on the scheme.
"Is that so?" he asked. "Then why did you come this way? Could have walked in the front door. Tea room's open till seven p.m."
A bit late for a tea room to be open, but Gina didn't think she should say that. "Lulu told me to come in through the back way," she said instead, trying to keep her voice from cracking.
Gooch grunted. Without taking his eyes off her, he leaned over and tugged on a long cord that ran down the length of the wall and disappeared into a small hole in the floor.
What was happening? She glanced back at Ned, who didn't seem too concerned.
"Uh, Mr. Gooch. I'm sure that I —" Gina broke off as the door at the end of the room opened and another heavyset man appeared. Like Gooch, he was also dressed in a pinstripe suit and wore a white tie. He was balder than Gooch, though, and his face was distinctly pockmarked. Right now, he was scowling at Gina.
"You Gina?" he asked. His words were heavy. Russian, Gina thought. Or perhaps Serbian. Their neighborhood was full of recent immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, and sometimes their accents were hard to tell apart.
She nodded, her heart beating quickly. How many guns did he have under his jacket? Probably at least two.
The man looked at Gooch. "Ja, she checks out. Signora said a new girl would be coming by."
Gina breathed a small sigh of relief. The sound surprised her. She hadn't even realized that she had been holding her breath.
"Well, that's settled, then," Ned said. He clapped the man on the shoulder. "This here's Lesky. We call him Little Johnny. Ain't he bonny?"
Little Johnny crossed his arms, ignoring Ned.
Ned wasn't done. He pointed at Gooch. "You've met Gooch. He watches the hooch."
Gooch looked at his watch, not responding to Ned's banter. "Break's over, piano man."
"How about I take Gina here to the Signora first," Ned offered. "Show her around?"
"Easy there, Neddy Fingers," Gooch said, for the first time cracking the slightest of grins. To Gina he added, "Better stay away from this one. He's a first-rate swinger."
When Little Johnny grinned, Gina could see his mouth was full of gold teeth. With a slight shudder, she wondered if his teeth had come out all at once. She knew a man who'd taken a hammer to the face, after getting on the wrong side of the law. She put the thought aside when Gooch opened the unmarked door at the end of the room and gestured for her to follow.
Little Johnny stayed behind, positioning himself on the stool by the door. Evidently it was his turn to keep watch on the alley.
"So you work here," she whispered to Ned as they walked after Gooch down a long dark corridor. "You couldn't just have told me that? When I was knocking at the door?"
"Now what fun would that have been?" Ned replied, stretching his long fingers. "I'm the piano man, didn't you get that?"
"I also got 'Neddy Fingers.'"
"Hey, I'm a swell fella."
At the end of the corridor, they reached another old wooden door. Gina thought she could hear the faint sound of music coming from just beyond.
To her surprise, Ned put his hand on the doorknob. "Allow me," he said to Gooch and swung open the door with a great flourish. After giving a little bow, he stepped aside so she could enter first. "Welcome to the Third Door," he said. "Greatest speakeasy in Chicago."
* * *
Ned led Gina down three steps, turned to the right, and stopped. Following him, Gina was about to make a cutting remark about booze in a basement, but the words died on her lips when she found herself on a balcony of sorts, overlooking a vast and unexpectedly beautiful room. "Oh" was all she could muster, as she gaped in amazement.
Lulu had not done the Third Door justice when she had described the establishment to Gina. Clearly connecting the basements of several buildings, the speakeasy was far larger than she'd expected. This was no dime-store dump, either. The place was gorgeous.
Great chandeliers hung from a patterned tin ceiling, casting enough light for Gina to easily see the world below. About fifteen mostly empty oak tables were arranged around a wooden dance floor, a grand piano toward the back of the room. A long ornately paneled bar with dozens of colored bottles and glasses ran the length of the room, with five framed mirrors catching and reflecting the light. Two red upholstered love seats were positioned against a richly paneled wall, and a set of plush purple chairs was in another corner, where the original brick of the basement foundations could still be seen. A portrait of Mussolini was mounted on one end of the bar, and a framed painting of a nude woman stepping from a bath was positioned at the other.
Throughout the room, Gina noted only a handful of people. A white-haired bartender was pouring a drink for a patron sitting at the bar. Two or three couples were seated at tables, sipping brightly colored cocktails in fancy glasses. The dance floor itself was empty except for one couple dancing lazily to Al Jolson crooning from a gramophone. Small candles flickered in glasses on every table, adding a sense of magic and allure to the smoky haze. This was a secret place. A forbidden place.
Gina felt a thrill run through her.
Beyond the main area, she could see a few closed doors. Signora Castallazzo was likely behind one of them, she thought. Eagerly she started forward.
To her surprise, Ned put his hand on her arm. "You know there are other exits," he whispered, so that Gooch wouldn't hear him. "Want me to take you? One leads to the gangway. No one else ever needs to know you were here. You could just go home."
Gina looked up at him. His earlier demeanor as a drunk playboy seemed to have dissipated, and she didn't like his change in tone. "Why? I need the work."
"There's other work."
His comment made Gina pause. She'd never even been in a place like the Third Door before. She'd had her share of bootlegged alcohol, of course, usually in the form of moonshine and bathtub gin concocted by her neighbors. Sometimes a dollop added to her tea in a restaurant, back when she and her papa had a bit of money to spare. Unless a gal had a fancy man taking her around — which Gina didn't — places like this got real expensive, real quick. It wasn't like she was out prowling for a man, either.
Nor, she suspected, would her mother have been particularly pleased to see her employed at the Third Door, given its rather scandalous reputation. Though her mother — sweet Molly O'Brien — had passed away when she was ten, Gina felt deep inside that her mother would not have approved. She thought about taking Ned's advice, finding the other exit, and walking right out.
As she stood there, Jolson's chipper voice continued to float from the gramophone below. "I'm sitting on top of the world," he sang. "I'm singing a song ..." She'd seen Jolson's talkie the year before–The Singing Fool, it was called — with her father at the Uptown Theatre, before the palsy had slowed him down.
She straightened her back. She couldn't give up now. "Take me to Signora Castallazzo," Gina said to Gooch. "I'm ready."
* * *
Gina followed the men down the remainder of the stairs, stuffing her hat in her handbag and laying her coat over her arm as she descended.
"The Signora will be in her salon," Gooch said, pointing to a door on the other side of the speakeasy floor. "Over there."
Seeing the gleaming exuberance around her, she suddenly felt quite dumpy in her new flannel velour polka-dot dress. Don't be too fussy, Lulu had told her. The Signora prefers her girls to look smart and sophisticated.
When she had stood before the department store mirrors yesterday, though, Gina had been quite entranced by the dress, running her fingers along the green polka dots that flowed over the collar, cuffs, and belt loops. She'd traced the pearl buttons that ran above the belt, and twirled about on the dressing room pedestal, watching the drop-waist skirt swish with her movements. How splendid she had felt, laying the five and a half dollars down on the counter.
It's for my new job, she had informed the sales clerk, full of her own self-importance.
Secretary? the woman had guessed.
No, Gina had replied, taken aback by the clerk's appraisal. She'd then swept out of the store in a fit of pique, miffed that she'd been taken for an office worker. She'd thought the dress was elegant, suitable to meet her new employer.
Now she wished she had heeded the clerk's reaction. The dress was clearly more appropriate for an office than a nightclub, and to make matters worse, the heat of the room was making the wool feel overly warm and scratchy. She wished she could tear it off.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder Knocks Twice"
Copyright © 2019 Susanna Calkins.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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