The Lost Generationby Robert Vaughan
In this, the third explosive column of Robert Vaughan's American Chronicles, prohibition and gangland wars define the decade. The 1920's were perhaps the most exciting and glamorous decade of the century, as America leaves behind the strife and deprivations of war, and the Jazz Age brings the young, dissolute and decadent into the smoky interiors of basement speakeasies. Idealistic young journalist Kendra Mills risks her career-and her life-to expose the criminal underside of American society. Novelist Eric Twainbough finds himself thrust into the limelight when his work unexpectedly becomes famous. Gangster Kerry O'Braugh, an Irish-Sicilian immigrant, finds a way out of a harsh reformatory so that he can to ascend to the throne of St. Louis gangland.
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SPRING 1921, PARIS
"Oh, do come along, Tanner, won't you? We want to get to the -- What is it called, Lucy?" the young man in the Harvard sweater asked.
"A bal musette, darling," the young woman named Lucy answered. She fitted a cigarette into a long holder, stuck it in the crimson gash of her lips, then leaned forward in her chair, waiting. The young man who responded and lit it for her was wearing a University of Pennsylvania blazer. "It means a dance hall," she added.
"Yes, yes, that's it, a bal musette," Harvard continued. "Well, I'm intrigued by the whole idea. I'm told there will be apaches there."
"Apaches? Look here, old boy, do you mean wild Indians?" Penn demanded.
"No, these apaches are much wilder," Harvard replied, grinning.
The young Americans laughed gleefully, drawing the stares of the other patrons in the hotel lobby.
"And there will be harlots there, too," the third young man in the group -- this one wearing a Princeton school tie -- added. "You must come, Tanner. Wouldn't you like to see an actual harlot? I'm going to dance with one."
"Now, why would she want to see a harlot?" Harvard queried. "Pay no attention to him, Tanner. That's exactly the type of thing you might expect from a Princeton man."
"Well, why wouldn't she want to see a harlot? I know I'd like to see what one looks like," Lucy said, making a production of flicking the ash off the end of her cigarette. "You must come with us, Tanner. I certainly have no wish to be the only female in this motley group."
"I can't go," Tanner replied, waving the small leather case that contained her letter-writing pad. "I simplyhave to write some letters to my family. After all, they're the ones who paid for my grand tour of the Continent."
"Well, we all have someone to whom we're obligated for this adventure. So don't you think we owe it to our benefactors to get out and have an adventure? Otherwise, what is there to write about?" Harvard asked.
"She's weakening, Harold. Keep up the attack!" Penn gloated.
"What do you say?" Harold from Harvard urged.
Tanner laughed. "All right. I'll go with you. As long as I don't have to dance with one of the harlots," she quipped.
"Oh, you won't have to, darling. We all heard Lester offer to give up his body for the cause," Harold replied, and again all laughed.
They rose from their chairs and smiled at each other in a way that suggested that they were all members of the same club -- which in a way they were. Tanner had attended Jefferson University in St. Louis, while Lucy was a product of the University of Chicago. Harold had gone to Harvard, Bill to Penn, and Lester to Princeton. All had graduated within the last year and were now taking the "grand tour" of Europe. Far from being old friends, they had only known each other less than two weeks, having met on the ship coming over from America. Initially drawn together by the similarity of their situations, they had been together ever since -- though already Tanner was beginning to wish that she was alone. It wasn't that she didn't like her new friends. On the contrary, she found them all very amusing. But the necessity of always doing things as a group had caused her to miss out on some of the experiences she had planned for herself.
Tanner's real name was Brunhilde Tannenhower. Her father, Ludwig, and her uncle, Rudolph, owned Tannenhower Brewery in St. Louis, the largest brewery in America. Because of Prohibition, however, the brewery was now turning out soda pop, near beer, and such things as barley malt syrup -- which was advertised as a health supplement, but everyone knew that it was actually used by its purchasers to make their own beer.
The name "Tanner" came from her own mispronunciation of Tannenhower when she was a very young girl. It had stuck with her, and now few people knew her given name. That suited her fine, for she had no love for the Teutonic name her parents had bestowed on her.
Tanner was a very pretty girl with hair the color of ripened wheat. Her large green eyes so sparkled with reflected light and a verve for life, they seemed to glow from within. Her nose was somewhat snub, and her mouth full and sensual. Tall and as slender as a reed, her form was almost boyish, though rounded rather than angular, and she had small, well-formed breasts.
"Well, if we're going to go, let's go," Tanner finally said, closing the leather case.
"Whoop, whoop, whoop! Tanner, Tanner, Tanner!" the three boys shouted, led in their cheer by Lucy, who used her long black cigarette holder as a baton.
Oblivious to the disapproving stares of the hotel's other patrons, the five young Americans marched across the lobby, and a half hour later they piled out of a cab in front of the Cardinal Club Danse on rue du Cardinal Lemoine.
It was hot and crowded inside. The music was supplied by a five-piece band, and the floor was so congested with sweating, swirling dancers that the young Americans found it difficult to pick their way through to one of the few empty tables.
"I say, chaps," Harold said, pointing to the bar, "do you suppose those three girls over there are actual harlots?"
"I don't know," Lester replied. "Do you think they'd dance with us?"
"We'll never know until we ask," Bill said.
"Do you mind, girls?" Harold asked Lucy and Tanner.
"Oh, no, you go right ahead and leave us to our fate," Lucy replied dramatically. "But you had better get a good look at us so that tomorrow morning when the gendarmes ask you to come down to the station to identify our bodies, you'll be able to do so."
"Well, now, Lucy, that's the whole trouble, you see," Harold responded. "How could we identify your bodies? We've never seen either of them naked. Perhaps, just as a safety precaution, you understand, we should take care of that later tonight."
Bill laughed appreciatively. "I say, Harold, that was a good one."
"Go away," Lucy said, laughing with them as she pushed them toward the bar.
"Aperitif?" the waiter asked, coming to the girls' table after the young men had left.
"Pernod," Lucy said. Tanner ordered beer.
By now all three boys had persuaded some of the French girls who'd been standing at the bar to dance, and they were doing the tango in a greatly exaggerated fashion, holding their partners' arms out stiffly and staring with expressionless faces as they high-stepped across the room, then, with great sweeping motions, reversed the process to come back in the opposite direction. The boys were getting several laughs, as was their clear intention, but they were also occupying so much of the dance floor that other patrons, less interested in the antics of the young Americans, were finding it difficult to dance.
"Look at them," Lucy said, laughing. "Aren't they the silliest things you ever saw?"
"Yes," Tanner said, "they are silly." She wasn't assigning the same meaning to the term that Lucy was.
"I've been thinking about it, but I don't know which one it will be," Lucy said a moment later.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Harold, Bill, or Lester. I just don't know which one."
"Which one what?"
"Which one will take my virginity," Lucy said as she raised the glass to her lips.
"Lucy!" Tanner gasped.
"My dear, don't tell me you haven't wondered the same thing?"
"I most certainly have not!"
"Really, now. You expect me to believe that you planned to come to Europe and return to the States with your virginity safely intact?"
"That's not something I considered, one way or the other," Tanner insisted.
"Well, my dear, it's about time you considered it," Lucy said. "You have read F. Scott Fitzgerald, haven't you? Aren't you interested in being a modern girl?"
"Well, yes, but I don't think I have to hop in bed with someone just to prove that I'm a modern girl," Tanner said.
"It's not that you have to," Lucy countered. "It's that you can -- and no one will think the worse of you. And I, for one, intend to. Of course, there is a drawback to losing my virginity to one of those three," she went on. "For one thing, he might talk. And for another, he may not take it in the lighthearted way I intend it. If he were to fall in love with me and then return to the States and follow me around like a moonstruck calf, it could well turn into a bit of a sticky wicket, as our English friends say. Perhaps it would be better to give myself to a Frenchman. After all, they do have the reputation of being great lovers. And some of them are absolutely divine. Like that fellow there."
Lucy smiled broadly at a man who was standing at the bar. He wore a wide-striped blue-and-white shirt and a beret. Seeing Lucy smile, he started toward the table.
"Oh, my, he's coming over here," Lucy said.
"Americaine?" the man asked.
"Oui," Lucy answered.
"Oui," Lucy said again, getting up from the table to join him.
"That's just great," Tanner muttered to herself. "Here I am, the odd man out in America's European Seduction Force."
Tanner sat at the table alone for another five minutes, turning down numerous invitations to dance. Finally she left a franc under her empty beer glass and got up to leave. There was nothing to keep her here. After all, she wasn't enjoying the evening, and the others were obviously having too much fun to miss her.
Making her way through the club, she stepped outside, and it was as if she had suddenly stepped into another world. Since their arrival no more than a half hour before, a thick fog had rolled in off the Seine, reaching out with long, gray tentacles to wrap everything securely in its grasp. Tanner walked a dozen steps into the wet, warm blanket, and the club behind her disappeared as totally as if it had been taken into the bowels of the earth.
There was a dreamlike quality to the night, and it became difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality. No cars were on the cobblestoned street, but Tanner could hear the hollow clomping of horses' hooves and the iron ringing of a steel-tired carriage being pulled along. She strained to see it, but unlike automobiles the carriage was without lights, so she couldn't even make out its shadow. The few pedestrians she encountered seemed no more than apparitions, appearing then disappearing as if summoned and dismissed by some sorcerer.
Tanner walked about half a block, then began to feel that she had made a terrible mistake in leaving the club. The casual quip Lucy had made, suggesting that the boys might have to come down to the station to identify their bodies, came back to haunt her. Suppose she did wind up on a slab in the police morgue? She could be accosted by someone stepping out of an alley or climbing up from the sewers. She had read about the Paris sewers, about how they formed a network that ran beneath the entire city and how some parts of it had been officially closed for over a hundred years. But Tanner didn't need alleys or sewers to be apprehensive tonight. On a night like tonight someone could materialize from the very ether.
Tanner, turned around, intending to go back to the club, but the fog was so thick that she was completely disoriented. How could she go back? She didn't even know where back was.
"Bon soir, mademoiselle," a deep voice said.
"Oh!" Tanner gasped.
As if he had been created by her own fears, the man who had spoken appeared suddenly and from nowhere -- and he was standing right in front of her. He was smiling at her, but there was something sinister and frightening about his smile.
"Where did you come from?" Tanner asked. Her throat was so tight with fear that the words sounded choked.
"Forgive me, mademoiselle, if I frightened you. You are American?" The accent was thick but understandable.
"Yes," Tanner replied. She started to step around him, but he stepped in front of her.
"An American prostituée, looking for business?"
"A prostituée??" For the moment, Tanner was more shocked than frightened. Did he mean what she thought he meant? Before she could stop herself, she voiced the question. "Do you mean a prostitute?"
"Oui. Prostitute." The man smiled again. "Name your price. Whatever you ask, I will pay."
"No! I am not a prostitute!"
"That is no matter. We can have a, how do you say, good time, anyway."
"No," Tanner said firmly. She tried again to step around the unwelcome night visitor, but again he stepped in front of her, blocking her way. "Please," she said, her voice nearly breaking now. "Please let me go."
"Do not be in such a hurry, ma chérie. I think we will have a very good time together, no?"
"The lady asked you to let her go," another male voice abruptly said. The voice was deep and resonant and steely. The accent was definitely American, but it was not the voice of any of the three young men Tanner had been traveling with. In fact, it was not a voice Tanner recognized at all.
"Who is there?" the Frenchman asked, staring into the fog.
The man who stepped out of the fog was a big man, almost a head taller than the Frenchman and very broad-shouldered. He was square-jawed, sandy-haired, and wore a mustache.
"I am a friend of the young lady's," the man said.
"No, I do not think you are," the Frenchman replied. He squinted at the American, then grinned. "I know who you are. I have seen you before. You are the American journaliste. I think you just want her for yourself."
"If you think that, why not let the young lady choose between us?"
"No, I do not wish to do that," the Frenchman said. "I prefer to keep what is mine."
Suddenly a knife materialized in the Frenchman's hand. He assumed a fighter's stance -- leaning forward a little, his knees slightly bent, his arms low, and the knife lying flat in the palm of the right hand -- and moved his hand back and forth so that the point of his knife took on the appearance of the weaving head of a cobra, hypnotizing its prey. "If you want her, monsieur journaliste, you must fight for her."
"I'm sorry, I don't carry a knife."
The Frenchman smiled evilly. "That is too bad. Then it is my advantage, yes?"
"Your advantage, no. I don't have a knife, but I do have a gun," the American said, pulling a short-barreled revolver from his pocket and pointing it at the Frenchman.
The Frenchman's eyes grew wide in fear, and a line of perspiration beads popped out on his upper lip. He took a step backward and held up his hands as if warding off an evil spirit.
"No, no, monsieur," he said. "I was only making the joke. I meant nothing by it... nothing." He turned and began to run, disappearing into the fog bank within just a few steps. A moment later even the sound of his footfalls was gone, muffled by the thick fog. Tanner and her rescuer were alone, perhaps the only two people on the street... in Paris... on the face of the Earth.
"He's gone," Tanner said, breathing a sigh of relief. For just a moment she wondered if she had been rescued from one danger merely to face another. But as she looked at the face and into the large, expressive brown eyes of her benefactor, she knew that she had nothing to fear. "I'm Tanner Tannenhower," she said, extending her hand. "You have my undying gratitude."
"Eric Twainbough," the American replied, reaching out his hand to hers. He squinted at her. "Did you say Tannenhower? There's a large brewery by that name. Are you related?"
"My father," Tanner said. "That is, it's run by my father and my uncle. It was started by my grandfather."
"Which one is your father? Ludwig or Rudolph?"
"Ludwig. Do you know of my father and my uncle?"
"Know of them? I know them," Eric said. "And I knew your grandfather as well. I met all of them when I was writing sports stories for The St. Louis Chronicle. They used to own the St. Louis Grays baseball team."
"They still own the St. Louis Grays."
Eric chuckled. "And is it still as bad a team as it always was?"
"Wait a minute, Mr. Twainbough. You may have saved my life, but that doesn't give you the right to pick on my Graybies," Tanner replied, laughing.
"I'm sorry," Eric said. "I'll be gentle with them. Lord knows they can't take too rough a handling." He paused, then asked, "Where were you headed? I'll walk you there."
"I was going back to my hotel."
"Yes, how did you know?"
"Lucky guess. You're an American college student seeing Paris," Eric said. "The Crillon is where American college students stay when they're seeing Paris."
"Am I that transparent?"
Eric laughed again, an easy, rich laugh. "Well, you don't exactly come across as a French shop girl," he said, taking her by the elbow and leading her protectively along the street.
"I guess it was a lucky thing for me that you came along when you did," Tanner said, enjoying the touch of his hand.
"Tanner, that was no more luck than my carrying this gun was. I was in the bal musette when you and your friends came in. I saw you leave, and I saw him follow you, so I borrowed this pistol from Jacques, the owner of the club, and came after you."
"How did you know I might be in danger?"
"Oh, I know our knife-wielding friend. Not socially, of course, but by reputation. He's a procurer who specializes in young American and English girls. First he gets them to work for him; then, once he has them working for him, he beats them and takes most of their money, leaving them barely enough to live on."
"How awful! But I don't understand. Why would anyone let him do that to them?"
"He gets the girls addicted to heroin, then becomes their supplier. Do you know anything about heroin?"
"I've heard of it. I know that it's something very bad, something that no nice person would ever do."
Eric shook his head. "Anyone will do it if they're hooked on it," he explained. "And once they're hooked, they'll do anything to keep a steady supply, including working as a prostitute for someone like the disagreeable gentleman you just met."
"How awful!" Tanner said, shivering involuntarily. "Well, luck or not, I am very glad you came along. So, you used to do sports stories for The Chronicle. Do you still write for The Chronicle?"
"Sometimes. Right now, however, I'm trying to write a book. A novel."
"A novel? Oh, how wonderful! I bet you're a very good writer."
"I like to think that I am. But what makes you say so?"
"I studied English lit in college, so I know what makes a good writer. 'A good writer uses words to create ripples of emotional response in the minds of his readers, like casting marbles into a garden pool.' "
Eric smiled. "That's good. Who's that a quote from?"
"From me," Tanner said. "That was from my thesis." She grinned. "I got an A."
"You should've. That's a pretty good observation."
"It's also my observation that only a very sensitive person can do something like that. You have sensitive eyes, so you must be a sensitive person, ergo, you must be a good writer."
Eric laughed. "Maybe I should send a photograph of my 'sensitive eyes' to the publishers. That would save a lot of work for both of us."
"You're making fun of me."
"Yes, I am. I'm sorry." Eric sighed. "I guess I'm just a little frustrated right now. I do think I'm a good writer, Tanner. I couldn't do what I do if I didn't think so. And the responses I've received from some of the articles I've written make me believe that I'm not the only one who thinks so. But the book I'm working on now..." He paused and ground his right fist into his left palm, "This book is getting away from me. I'm losing it, and I don't know why."
"Is it about the war?"
"Yes, it is." He looked surprised. "How did you know?"
"You look as if you were in the war."
"Maybe you're too close to the war to write about it."
"But that's just it. I have written about it, many times," Eric said. "Before I was a soldier fighting the war, I was a journalist covering it, from the Russian front."
"Yes, but what you wrote before was factual," Tanner said. "You lived with it, and you saw your friends dying in it. Now you're trying to turn it into fiction, but you have too much of an emotional investment in it to do that. I think you see doing that as a form of trivialization, which is something you're not yet ready to accept."
Eric abruptly stopped walking and stared at her.
"I'm sorry," Tanner said. "Did I speak out of turn?"
"No, no, don't apologize. My God, I think you may be right. I've never considered that, but it does make sense to me. You may have put your finger squarely on the problem. I wish you could read it, Tanner. I would really value your opinion."
"I'd like to sometime. You know, for all my big talk of being an English lit major, I've never even seen a novel in its working stage," Tanner said.
"Would you really like to read it?"
"How about now?"
"Sure. You could come with me," Eric invited. "My apartment is only a couple of blocks from here. And I have a coffeepot... I could ply you with coffee while you read."
"Well, I don't know," Tanner said.
"Why not? What else do you have to do? Your friends aren't going to be worrying about you. They've found their own diversions."
"I'd better not," Tanner said, though part of her mind protested her caution.
"Oh, of course, I understand," Eric replied. "You have every reason to be afraid of me, a stranger coming up to you from out of nowhere. Listen, forget I even asked. I'll walk you straight to your hotel."
"No, no, I'm not afraid," Tanner said quickly.
"Not a bit."
"Then you will come?"
Tanner ran her hand through her bobbed hair and studied the face of her rescuer. It was an interesting face... handsome enough, but interesting, nevertheless. It wasn't a young face; it was a face that had seen a great deal of living, and yet it wasn't terribly old, either. Tanner guessed that Eric Twainbough must be in his thirties. She had to admit that there was something appealing about the idea of going with him. After all, he had appeared in the middle of a dark and foggy night to come to her rescue. If she went with him now it would be like an adventure... a romantic adventure.
Romance overcame reason.
"All right," Tanner finally said, smiling at him. "I'll go with you."
Eric took her by the elbow again, guiding her the short distance to his building. His flat was on the fifth floor; more accurately, it was in the attic over the fourth floor of an apartment building. The elevator stopped at the fourth floor.
"It's slightly inconvenient, but on the other hand I'm the only one who lives up here," he explained as they walked up the final flight of steps. "So if I hear someone coming up these stairs, I know they're coming to see me."
The door didn't lock the way an apartment door normally did. It was more like the door on a tool shed, held closed with a hasp and secured by a padlock. However, the key to the padlock was hanging on a string on the wall, right next to the lock itself. Tanner laughed when she saw it.
"What's the purpose of locking your door if you're going to keep a key hanging right beside it?"
Eric shrugged. "If someone's going to break in, I'd just as soon they unlock the door and go right on in. It would cost me more to fix the door than it would to replace anything they might steal from inside."
He pushed the door open, then reached around and turned a switch. The room was filled with a soft, golden light. "My palatial estate," he said, taking in the room with a sweep of his hand. "Have a seat. I'll get you the manuscript and start the coffee."
The one-room studio was much larger than Tanner had anticipated, taking up a sizable portion of the attic without competing with other apartments for floor space. The side walls were formed by the sloping mansard roof, which meant that Eric could stand erect only in the very center of the room. Tanner could walk farther toward the side than Eric, but even she had to bend over before she reached the sofa.
"I have over three hundred pages written," Eric said, handing her a sheaf of papers.
"Oh, it's typed?"
"Yes. I write first in pencil," he explained, "and then I pay a typist to transcribe it for me. I had this done at the American Express office. You read, I'll make the coffee."
Tanner was already into the story when Eric handed her the first cup of coffee. Within a short time he had handed her another and then another, and she was only vaguely aware of his being in the room with her. She was totally absorbed in the writing... not the story, but the writing.
Eric had been correct when he said the story itself wasn't working. From a purely objective point of view, Tanner could see that there was too little plot and no direction. On the other hand, the characterization was richer than anything she had ever read.
One scene that Tanner found particularly moving had Eric's hero, Justin Barclay, an American journalist, and the heroine, Katya, a member of Russia's nobility, together:
They lay side by side in the dark room without touching and without speaking. Outside the open balcony door it was still raining, and the rain made music. Justin found the music perfectly orchestrated, from the rhythmic, harmonic bass notes of the large drops falling on the balcony floor to the melodious trills and tinkling of the water running off the roof and cascading over the eaves and banisters just outside the window.
They didn't speak, as if by mutual design they wanted to preserve this moment, lock it forever in their hearts as a time when cold, hard reality had been set aside so that pure, unrestrained truth could surface. And the pure truth was that despite all reason and common sense, Justin and Katya were in love.
The rain suddenly stopped, and the room was invaded by noises from Petrograd's streets -- the rattle of steel-wheeled carts and the songs of the soup vendors, the whir of motorized lorries and the impatient whistles and curses of the teamsters and their wagons. They had lost their moment.
Katya slid her hand across the bed and took her lover's. She held it for several seconds and then squeezed it tightly. "It hurts," she whispered.
"I know," he answered, knowing that Katya, too, had just said good-bye to their moment.
When Tanner finally put down the last page hours after starting, she realized that Eric was sitting on the sofa beside her. She had no idea how long he had been there. He was looking at her, clearly anxious for her reaction, and she could tell by his eyes that, for some reason, what she thought of the book was very important to him.
Eric was Justin. That was obvious. And because Tanner knew that, she had the unusual sensation that even though she had just met him, she already knew more about him than she knew about any other person.
They looked into each other's eyes for a long, silent moment. Then, though Tanner wasn't aware of how they got that way, she suddenly found that their lips were just a breath apart.
The kiss started innocently enough, no more than the sharing of an instant with a man whose soul she had just examined. Then, before she realized what was going on, the kiss robbed her of consciousness of time and place and circumstance, and she found herself kissing him with an ardor she didn't know she possessed. She began to test its limits, to see how far it would take her. She gave herself up to it, then felt her self-control completely desert her. Her head spun faster and faster with dizzying excitement, and for one frightening moment she was afraid she was going to pass out.
It was going to happen! She was going to give herself to this man or be taken by him! How odd that she and Lucy had talked about this very thing earlier tonight... or was it yesterday... or a hundred years ago? Eons seemed to have passed since that innocent conversation. Worlds had been born, destinies rearranged, and lives changed forever.
"It... it isn't possible," Tanner murmured. "This can't be happening."
When Tanner opened her eyes the next morning, she found herself looking up through a skylight. Pigeons were on the other side of the glass, and she lay in bed watching them, feeling deliciously comfortable and wondering why she had 'not noticed this skylight in her hotel room before.
Suddenly she realized that she wasn't in her hotel room. She sat bolt upright, gasping aloud as she did so, and the bedcovers slipped down, exposing her bare breasts. She was nude! With another gasp, she pulled the bed sheet up to cover herself.
Copyright © 1992 by Robert Vaughan
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