"Where are we?"
Spot shrugged off the question, though in the dark she couldn't have seen. He gave her credit, though—she didn't ask again.
They had entered McGlory's through a long and narrow entrance painted coal black. As they moved down the hallway, the doors to the street behind them opened and closed like an eyelid. Shadowy bodies rushed past, leaving drunken giggles and slurred-gravel mumbling in their wake. In the dark Spot reached for Lou's hand and pulled her ahead.
"What is it?" she said sharply.
"This ain't a walk in the park, you know."
He could nearly hear her scowl in the dark.
Finally, the hallway opened up into the barroom. Across the grime-covered floor, tables and chairs were scattered and tipped, some with broken legs or split tops. Spot moved through the maze of it, steering them away from the dark entrance and growing crowds.
"Are my pockets safe now?" Lou asked, sour.
"It ain't your pockets I'm worried about, kid," Spot said, scanning the bar and the dance hall beyond. Already the band had started playing, already they had drunk their pay. The trumpeter teetered dangerously on the back of his heels, while the drummer leaned his forehead against the hoop of the snare, his sticks still drumming a rhythm in a drunken sleep.
"Look." Lou nodded to the dark hallway they'd just exited and Spot turned to where she was pointing. The Captain of the Precinct sauntered out of the shadows. Hidden behind his wan and humorless face, Spot saw the hint of a grin. Lou muttered, "Do you think he'll shut it down?"
Spot smirked. "Just you wait."
And, sure enough, barely had the captain approached the bar but a red-haired woman grasped his arm, whispered in his ear, and pulled him onto the dance floor.
"That's how it works, kid. Write that shit down, why don't you."
From the corner of his eye, Spot watched her take in the rowdy place. He tried to see it through her eyes, this strange vignette of hidden society—the shabby curtains obscuring box seats rarely used for their intended purpose; men and women of all shapes and colors and means laughing and drinking and dancing.
"So, what are we doing here?"
He rolled his eyes. "What do you think? We're getting you those sources you're so set on."
"And how are we going to do that?" Lou said, staring at the captain as he waltzed across the dance hall floor while murmuring into the giggling red-haired woman's ear.
Spot nodded at the far end of the bar. A bevy of women gathered in the dim light, leaning on the bar's edge. The gaudy ornament of their dresses drew attention away from the fraying hems and hasty make-up. They were relaxed, all of them, throwing back drinks and lifting each other's skirts and laughing like they'd never done it before.
Lou followed Spot's eyes as he said, "You're gonna go talk to 'em."
She watched the group, head tilted and eyes narrowed. "Them? What could they possibly do?"
"Look around, kid. This place is crawling with dockers. And those girls? They're the reason half the goons in here show up. You following?"
"Of course, I'm not a complete fool. But what does it have to do with—"
"Can it for a second so I can explain." He sighed. "Wives just want a steady paycheck. They want their men to sit pretty with the gangs, to get picked at the shape-up. So they figure, a little cut here and there ain't so bad. He would drink it away at the saloon anyway, or—"
"Spend it on them," Lou said, still staring down the bar.
"So, you go over there and tell them that if their customers talk to you and this article gets the gangs sorted, there may be a bit more change in their hose down the road."
Slowly, Lou's lips moved into a smile. "Well, aren't you clever."
"That's what they tell me."
Lou untangled her arm from Spot's. With a smirk, she said, "Don't wait up."
Spot watched as she made her way over to the bar and hollered at the bartender, who lazily pretended to polish glasses. He sauntered over, leaned forward just so, and nodded when Lou slid two dollar bills across the damp bartop. From beneath the dark of the bar he pulled a full bottle of whiskey and handed it to her. Without looking back, Lou turned toward the group.
One of the women, with dark painted eyebrows and the smile of a tiger, looked up. She noticed Lou first, then peered beyond as if she could sense someone watching. Her eyes caught Spot's and when he nodded slowly to her, she nodded back.
Good ol' Lizzie—sharp as always.
Spot lifted an overturned chair and sat. He leaned back and let the music roll over him, clunky and sloppy as it was. No one came to McGlory's for the music anyway—the place itself was the entertainment. A place to be yourself no matter how low, to drink and carouse, to be frightened and fearless all at once, to be alive. From the bankers to the dockers to the whores, that's all any of the guests longed for. To live.
As he turned, Spot jostled his slung shoulder and sucked air through his teeth at the searing pain. Joe Starkey ambled across the dance hall, grinning and drunk. Spot's back straightened, prickles running along his spine, and he felt his lips go tight as Starkey neared.
"Long time no see, Conlon," Starkey said, slapping a hand across Spot's rigid back. He sat and ran his eyes up and down Spot. "Nice rags."
"Gotta take what you can get," Spot growled.
"Sure do." Starkey's usual dopey grin was magnified by the booze, but his eyes were red and weary as he gestured to where Lou gathered with the girls, who had gladly taken the whiskey bottle and now passed it around between laughing fits. "Say, where are your manners? Ain't you gonna introduce me to the new bird?"
Heat flushed Spot's neck and when he spoke his words were clipped. "You got a lot of fucking nerve coming over here, Starkey." He angled himself in front of the man and said, "If you ain't here to apologize you can get the hell out of my face."
"Jesus." Starkey put up his hands. "What the hell are you so hot about? I just wanted to know about your girl—"
"You louse," Spot spat. "You didn't give a shit about her earlier, so what the fuck do you want with her now?"
Starkey's eyes tried to focus and his smile faltered. "What—she's the broad with the pape?"
"You're a real moron, you know that?"
Starkey sat still for a minute, mouth slightly agape, staring at the girls down the bar. Even beneath the drunkenness and confusion Spot could see the outline of the jolly facade Starkey worked so hard to maintain. He was the entertainment on the docks, and he relished his duty. All throughout the shift men threw insults at Starkey, some cunning and some cruel, and waited to see when he would finally break.
But he never did. Insults to his height, his mother, and his dick size were met with sloppy grins and a laugh. In the end, Starkey had gotten what he'd wanted out of his eternal good cheer—all the dockers liked his company. They had no reason not to.
Abruptly, Starkey turned back to Spot. "Shit."
"So, are you gonna change your mind?"
Starkey's face tightened. Spot understood he was torn. Torn between helping his only close friend at the docks and the possibility of being a rat everyone despised. Spot had long ago given up his pride in exchange for survival, but Starkey had worked toward a different survival entirely. His merry ways had carved out a place in the cold and indifferent world his father had created, and Spot knew that to give it up would have to mean something.
While Starkey sat silent, Spot's insides roiled. The whole scheme was a fool's errand at best. But he had promised to help Lou, and the look on her face when he had told her about the gang's dock operations had fallen somewhere between horrified awe and vivid inspiration.
It was a good look on her. He had realized in that moment that he had spent far too much time in the twisted world of the docks, that life existed outside the confines of hand to mouth and the stink of fish guts and bird shit.
Fool's errand or not, Lou was paying him. A job was a job was a job.
Starkey pursed his lips, then shook his head slowly. "I can't do it, Conlon. The boys would—shit, I ain't drunk enough to go spilling my guts, not even to a pretty face."
"You're a coward, Starkey."
Starkey shrugged. "Maybe. But at least I still got a job."
"Oh yeah?" Spot said, starting to get up from the chair and remembering his injured shoulder when it smarted. He gripped the table with his good hand and glared at his friend. "Well if you ain't gonna help then get the hell outta here."
Starkey, too used to insults on his person and too drunk to think clearly, stared at Spot with his mouth hanging open like a carp, trying to decide whether he was serious or not.
Irritated and sober, Spot struck. "Not drunk enough to talk, but too drunk to defend yourself, huh? Get the fuck outta here. I got nothing more to say to you."
Spot watched Starkey's eyes move higher. A hand pressed into Spot's shoulder and he heard, "Cat got your tongue? You heard the man. Beat it, Joe."
Starkey's mouth twisted from confusion to annoyance and then went slack. "Didn't know you were still on Conlon's payroll, Lizzie."
"What's it to you? Shoo, fly."
For a moment, the three of them waited in air gone still. Spot watched Starkey, Starkey watched Lizzie.
"Conlon," Starkey started to say, his eyes gone soft. Lizzie whistled through her teeth and Starkey turned to her, frowning.
"Neither of youse know how to have a good time," he slurred, standing. "I ain't gonna let you ruin mine."
Off Starkey went. He stumbled and then righted himself, taking a moment before he lumbered down the middle of the dance floor, bodies pressing against him until he was gone from sight.
Lizzie, meanwhile, had pulled out the chair next to Spot and sat. From her bosom she drew a cigarette and a match, striking it against the table and lighting the cigarette as if Starkey had never existed in the first place.
"Haven't seen you around the place in a minute," she said, blowing smoke into his face.
"Yeah, well." She smirked and rested her wrist on the table, the cigarette smoke creating a white cloud at the burning end. "That's all you've got to say to your old pal?"
Spot shrugged and settled his shoulder so it wouldn't pain him anymore. "Is that what we are?"
Lizzie inhaled a puff and blew it out in a perfect ring. "You kept me from starving; I'd say we're more than just pals."
Spot turned toward the dance floor and groaned, "Fucking hell—"
Lizzie reached out and touched his arm. Gently, so that he almost didn't realize she'd done it. "Just shut up and take the thanks for once, wouldya? If it hadn't been for you and all the fellas you'd sent my way I'd be floating in the East River. Be the hero for once."
"There ain't no heroes in this city, and you know it."
Still, he wouldn't look at her. Lizzie leaned back in the chair. While she watched Spot shift uncomfortably in his seat, she blew out a line of smoke rings then finally said, gesturing with her chin down the bar, "So, tell me: what's a bum like you doing with a doily like that?"
Spot looked. The group was smaller now, some of the women having broken off as they were hailed to the heavily-curtained box seats. But there, with a genuine smile plastered over her face was Lou, pulling from the half-empty whiskey bottle and passing it to the girl at her side as she laughed at a surely crude joke.
"Shit, Lizzie," he said. "Give her a break. She don't live on Fifth Avenue."
Smoke poured between Lizzie's lips as she chuckled. "No—she's got class, but not that much. So what's the bottom line here, Spot? How'd she get a gig as a reporter?"
"Goddamn, Lizzie, ask her yourself. What's it to you, anyway?"
Lizzie's mouth went hard. "You think I do this for fun? You think if I'd had another option a year ago I would've shown up at your docks begging for your help? Hell, if I could get a gig like that, I'd be free." Now she turned and stared at Lou. Quietly, she muttered, "Really free. No more johns. No more grubby hands."
Spot ran his hands through his hair. The movement caught Lizzie's eye and she turned back to the table. "What's in all this for you?"
"None of your damn business, that's what."
"Is she paying you?"
"Sure do," Lizzie said with a sly smile. "Or who's gonna pay me?"
Spot took the cigarette from Lizzie's fingers. He stared at her as he took a puff. "You gonna help her out or not?"
"You oughta know better, Conlon. I don't promise anything."
Spot leaned his good elbow on the table. "I'm telling you to do it. Tell your fellas to talk to her. It won't hurt you none."
Lizzie gave him a sideways glance. She took her cigarette back and inhaled, the butt glowing red as she took a long drag and leaned back in the chair. She exhaled, then said, "Since when did you get all righteous?"
"Righteous? Shit," Spot said absently, watching wildly dancing couples sweep across the floor beyond. "She's a good kid, Lizzie. She ain't broken, not like us. She's seen the bottom and still thinks shit can change."
"Save me the sob story. What the hell has hope ever gotten anyone?"
"Hope hasn't gotten no one nothing, but a little help has and you're living proof. So just do it, all right? Convince the fellas to talk to her. It'll be more money in your pocket at the end of the day."
Lizzie threw the cigarette to the floor and ground it down with her boot. "Like I said, I make no promises." Glancing beyond Spot, she smirked and whistled. "Well, lookee here."
As Spot turned to look over his shoulder several bodies rushed past. They were pulling Lou onto the dance floor, ushering her through the bodies, and before she disappeared into the fray she turned and gave Spot a wide, bright smile.
"You going after her, or what?" Lizzie said, a smirk creeping back onto her mouth.
"Beat it. I don't dance and you know it."
Lizzie rolled her eyes and flicked her spent cigarette at him. "Your loss, pretty boy."
In a moment, Spot was left alone at the table. His skin began to crawl from thinking too much, so he rose and made his way to the bar and ordered a whiskey double.
He stood there for a time, drinking the sour whiskey and watching the band play. One song blurred into two and then three, and soon he couldn't tell where one ended and the others began. The thrill of the place had worn off and Spot's shoulder ached in the sling, but there was nothing he could do but down the whiskey and order another, hoping it would dull the pain some.
Then, as he finished his second whiskey double, he saw her. As if to bear her through, whirling bodies parted on the dance floor, and Lou appeared, glowing and sticky with sweat. For a moment she searched the room, then saw him at the bar and made her way over, laughing to herself as she stumbled over a chair leg and clumsily righted herself once more.
And though Spot himself wasn't there yet, he appreciated the gentle spectacle. She sank into the bar beside him and sighed, a small smile on her lips.
"You don't dance?" she said.
"Not even if I slipped you something?"
He scoffed. "Especially not then."
"That's a shame."
He glanced at her. With bright eyes she watched the dancers move across the dance floor like a school of fish, bodies bouncing against each other but moving like one great being. But all Spot could see was the way Lou lifted her head to see better, the bright curiosity behind her eyes, the warm freedom that bloomed around her wherever she went.
You know what I think? I've got nothing to lose.
Neither did he. But his freedom was marked by anger and bitterness and blood.
The band started wailing, loud and chaotic. The musicians kicked their legs out in wild spasms and played their instruments violently. On the floor the dancers followed suit, crashing into each other and howling with laughter and sweat.
"What's going on?" Lou asked beside him.
And Spot, who had forgotten about midnight at McGlory's, said nothing.
He hadn't been here in far too long. Or maybe he was drunker than he realized. Amidst the clamor of the trumpets and the heavy veil of cigarette smoke, people found their way to one another and kissed.
Celebration was the cause, not romance. They were alive now and no one knew what tomorrow would bring. Over the years Spot had given and received his fair share—from Lizzie more than once—but it hadn't meant much, other than that the night was still young and the bar was still full.
But now, time stopped. Like the second before a fight, the noise around Spot carried on, and the world beyond his eyes slowed. The glass of whiskey in his hand felt stupidly heavy, but he couldn't bring himself to drop it or drink it down. His breath flickered in his chest, and the fist on his slung arm tightened so hard he felt his knuckles pressing against his skin.
Around him, pairs continued to kiss while others broke away, only to turn over their shoulder to kiss the next closest face beside them. While Spot reckoned with his frozen limbs, Lou stepped closer. The smile on her face had changed, no longer simply merry. And behind her whiskey-tired eyes, there was something earnest and true.
He wanted to look away, and couldn't.
So when she put her warm hands on his face and pulled his whiskey-chilled lips down to hers he felt—
No one in McGlory's noticed as a nearly-empty glass of whiskey crashed to the floor, shattering into thousands of glittering pieces.
Questions hung between their lips, but there was no time for answers. Too soon, the music slowed, righting itself and rearranging its parts into a discernable rhythm. Spot could feel time begin again, sharp reality seeping back into his brain. An unfamiliar thrum sang through his bones, and his calloused fingertips pulsed to their own brisk rhythm. The clock must have moved, no matter how much he had willed against it.
Lou's lips disentangled from his. Across the dance floor, Lizzie's cackling laughter faded into the general clamor. Lou took a step back, her shoes crushing the glass into the dingy floor. Spot glimpsed the dancers as they resumed their cavorting beyond, his heart shuddering against his ribs at how quickly they were moving out of midnight though it was a mere minute ago.
Lou turned toward the dancers. The moment was slipping away, dwindling now against the smoky light and roaring music. As the thrumming in his chest began to fade, Spot did the only thing he could think to do.
The taste of her whiskey lips still on his tongue, he reached forward, hooked his good arm around Lou's waist, and pulled her back to him.
And this time, he kissed her.