The Roaring Redwoods: Episode 1

LC_TheRoaringRedwoods_compressedEscape Plans (Episode 1) is free on iBooks, Kobo and Kindle, but here’s the opening of the episode where we meet Joe and Helen for the first time. I hope you enjoy this sample and head on over to read the rest…

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March 1925, US-Ontario Border 

It was cold. And Joe hated the cold. It warred with his Italian blood. It made him feel tight. Slow tight. And slow tight was not a good way to be during business hours.

Or any hour.

“Is it always cold in Canada, Joe?” Chiaccherone Charlie put his pistol on the dashboard to rub his hands together.

“Always when I’m here.” Joe looked out the window. He kept his words soft, so he wouldn’t miss a sound hidden under them. Or between. There was something else in the cold tonight and he needed to know what it was. He reached through his coat and pulled his pocket watch from his vest, leaning towards the window to pick up the light of the moon reflecting off the snow.

“Are they late, Joe?”

Chiaccherone was driving him nuts. He usually didn’t mind the quality that gave Charlie his mouthy nickname, but tonight his chatter was more annoying than the cold creeping up his back. He’d get out and walk around the truck, but the idea of snow melting into his boots irritated him more than Charlie’s gift of gab. He’d eventually tell Charlie to shut it.

To generate some warmth more than anything, Joe lit a cigarette. He held the butt in his half closed palm to warm a small part of his frozen skin, willing it to spread and warm his entire body.

“Hey, Joe. You mind?”

Joe pushed his case and lighter across the dash for Charlie to serve himself.

“Thanks, Joe. Real good of you.” Charlie lit his cig. “You think we’ll have any trouble tonight?”

Joe slanted his eyes towards Charlie before bringing them back to stare at the orange end of his cigarette. This was why he didn’t mind Charlie talking so much. Most of it was just words in the air. Shapeless. Harmless. But every once in a while, his words took shape.

Form.

Meaning.

And Joe could learn something by studying the shapes those words made as they hung in the air. This was the kind of thing that made Joe good at his work and valued by his boss. This is how Charlie lost at poker.

Joe finished his cigarette and cracked the window to toss the butt out. The air was frigid, no different from the air in the truck. Joe rolled up the window, slow. He hunched into his coat, crossing his hands over his chest and burrowing in like a wolf making a snow den. He’d read about how animals survived in bitter winters. Joe felt the hilt of his pistol in its holster with his crossed hands. The burled walnut felt warmer than his hands. Winter in Chicago was no picnic, but up here, it was impossible. How had people ever settled here without freezing to death their first winter? In Chicago, he had the means to keep his apartment warm, the softest wool and fur in his wardrobe. And if that didn’t do it, he could get away to Miami for a break.

Next year he planned to go home to Italy and take his mother. Mama would like seeing the old country.

“Before I die, Giuseppe, I need to see the earth of my homeland.”

Joe would laugh and kiss his mother’s white hair as she crossed herself and kissed the cross hanging from her neck. “Mama, you will outlive us all.”

The last conversation with his mother had been on Sunday after driving her home from mass.

His mother set a plate of lasagna in front of him. “I will if you don’t stop this foolishness you’re involved with.” Filling his glass with Chianti, she added, “It’s against the laws of God for a mother to outlive her sons.”

Joe sipped the rich wine. “Vincenzo wanted to fight for this country, Mama.” He wasn’t much for church, but talk of his brother made him cross himself out of reflex more than anything. He picked up his fork.

Mama sighed as she sank to the wooden chair across from him. “I’m not talking about your brother. I’m talking about you. I won’t lose another son, Giuseppe.”

Joe knew his mother didn’t know what he did, but Chicago wasn’t as big as you might think and people talked. And the newspapers. Mama professed not to read English, but she was always up on the latest editorial railing against the bootleggers. She knew enough to give him this warning, and she was right enough about the risks he took to keep him from looking her in the eye.

The sense he had, of knowing what he couldn’t know, must have come from her. Joe refocused, pushing away thoughts of the cold and his mother.

He couldn’t make out the shape of what he heard between Charlie’s words, but there was something there. In the way he asked about trouble. The way his eyes slid around, cast in orange from his cigarette. The cigarette Joe had given him. Bastard.

“I know you don’t like to talk much, Joe. Doesn’t bother me like it does some people, though.”

Joe didn’t think he could pull his gun fast enough since Charlie’s was lying in his lap. Joe had a blade strapped to his leg, but he’d be shot in the back reaching for it before he could stick Charlie.

“Who’s it bother, Charlie?”

Charlie grinned and his teeth showed bright in the dark truck. “Nobody in particular.” Charlie sucked hard on his cig and then tossed it out the window. It flew with a trail of orange sparks before landing in the snow. “But you know how people can be.”

“Yeah, people can be real funny. One day you’re pals. The next day you’re not.”

Charlie turned. “Hear that?”

Joe did. A truck and a car. He listened closer in case there were more vehicles than they were expecting. More would be trouble, and he had enough trouble right now with his pal Charlie.

“Sound okay?”

Joe took an extra moment to watch Charlie’s face. And there was something in his mouth, hung up on one corner. A glint off his brown eyes in the snowlit truck that made Joe doubt his suspicions. Maybe the cold was messing with his head. He’d known Charlie since they started as runners for Big Jim Colosimo. Things had changed after Jim’s brains ended up all over the floor courtesy of some paisano’s gun, and they worked for Torrio now, but that didn’t mean boyhood friends turned on each other.

Charlie laughed. “What is it, Joe? Did you hear more than one car, one truck?” Charlie whooshed out his breath and Joe remembered how they played stick ball in the streets and Charlie would whoosh like that as he ran the bases. Or, rather, the broken fruit crates that stood in for bases. He remembered how Jim would send them on errands and they’d race each other. Charlie whooshing. Joe with his head down, determined to win the promised quarter. And he did win, Charlie’s lungs always making him finish last. But more often than not, Joe would share the quarter.

“You know, Charlie, I think this cold is bad for my health.” Joe laughed at his own paranoia. The whole crew knew Al was the nervy one. Joe was steady. It was the source of their rivalry and Boss Torrio’s dilemma over who he would hand over the operation when he was ready to retire—a day he had been hinting at for a while now. “I think I might head for Miami early this year. Thaw out a bit.”

“I want to go to California. There was a doll I talked up a few weeks ago and she was from California. Sounded wild out there. Perfect weather, mountains so high you can’t even see the tops without breaking your neck. And there’s trees. She said there are trees you cannot believe. Some of them bigger than ten men across. And I’d like to see the Pacific Ocean. See how it compares with the Atlantic.” Charlie rubbed his hands together again. “But that’s me, Joe. I don’t mind the cold like you. That’s for sure. I mean it’s just cold. Spring will come. And then summer. Summer’s worse than cold as far as I can tell. It’s a lot harder to cool off than warm up. Don’t you think?”

Joe smiled. He still felt tight, but was now sure he’d been wrong about what he’d heard in Charlie’s chatter. “You know, Chiaccherone, you might have a point. I’ve never been to California.”

“Ah, Joe, don’t call me that. Just cause I’m a good conversationalist and like to be social-like don’t mean I deserve that name.”

The engine sounds they’d heard now appeared as headlights. The truck in front lit up the road and stretched the bare trees with shadows. The truck pulled in behind theirs. The car behind that.

Joe waited.

Charlie made for his door and Joe raised his hand. Charlie waited.

The truck revved its engine. Then cut the lights. Then the motor.

Joe nodded. “That’s right.”

They left the cab of their truck and walked to the back. Charlie and Joe stood next to each other as the boxes of Canadian whiskey were passed brigade-style from one truck to the other. “At least we’ll warm up a bit with this moving around, right, Joe?”

The truck was loaded. Joe walked to the car parked behind the truck. The sedan had kept its lights on while the men worked, casting long shadows over the snow. Joe held the small case close. He nodded to Charlie and Charlie saluted back. He’d cover Joe’s back. Just like when they were kids.

The car’s window cranked down. The passenger wore a hat pulled low. He had a thin cigar hanging from his mouth, illuminating his jaw and the fur collar pulled up on his coat. He turned his hand palm up, gloved in black leather, ready for the money. Joe took in the scene without moving his head and nodded once, sliding the case through the window. “Have a good night.”

“You too. Drive safe.”

Everything was right. He definitely needed that sun break in Miami.

Joe walked back towards the truck, gave a quick motion to Charlie that they were leaving. Thankfully, Charlie kept quiet and started back to the truck. He definitely needed a vacation. He laughed at himself and the nerves playing with his mind tonight.

“I’ll tie it up.” Joe climbed up to the bed of the truck to tie down the tarp, hiding the boxes marked “maple syrup” that hid the pure Canadian whiskey inside. The other car and truck were already backing up and heading out. Business was over for tonight. The route home was covered by people on the payroll. Now they just had the drive back home, and Joe could get in front of a fire with two fingers’ worth of their cargo.

“Thanks, Joe.”

The blow to the back of Joe’s legs was immediate. There was no stopping his fall from the iced-up truck bed. His chin hit the tailgate, and a flash of white laced with purple ricocheted through his skull with the impact. He fell face down in the road and felt icy slush fill his ear.

He rolled under the truck and took a breath. He rubbed his chin. Blood. He spit. Broken teeth. Shit. It was dark and Charlie wasn’t moving. Joe waited. And it wasn’t long before Charlie’s nickname got the best of him.

“Joe, I’m not going to kill you. I told Al I couldn’t kill you. I mean, you’re my friend, and I’m a loyal friend.”

Joe closed his eyes to listen. Not to Charlie’s words but to what was between them. His breath. His body. Where was he? Joe withdrew his pistol from the shoulder holster. He held it in both hands over his chest. As soon as Charlie moved, revealing himself, Joe could roll and fire. He might not kill him on the first shot, but the wound would buy him enough time for a second one. And he’d damn sure kill Charlie with the second.

Loyalty my ass.

But Charlie wasn’t moving. Anything besides his jaw anyway. “I know it may not seem like it, Joe, but I am your friend. You’re going to hurt and you’re going to be pissed. But you’re not going to die.” Charlie sniffed and spit. “Assuming you can crawl faster than you bleed. There’s a farmhouse. It’ll be time to get up and milk the cows. You’ll see. You’ll make it.”

Joe’s head was roaring.

Escape.

“Farming people is nice people. They’ll nurse you back. Maybe even get you a doctor. You’ll drink milk and eat eggs and bacon for breakfast every morning.”

Escape.

“I’ll let Mama Sofia know you’re alive. And that you’ll be in touch when you can. She’ll be glad to know that.”

Escape.

“Remember when we were kids, Joe? It was so easy. So fun. I just want you to know I am a good friend to you, Joe. I know you may not be thinking that, but Al wanted you dead and it was my talkin’ him out of it that’s giving you a chance. No one thinks Al is the reasonable one, but he did listen to me. I’m doing you a favor.”

The shot came without a pause in the talk, and Joe jerked. He groaned and rolled on the ground, cold mud mixing with the searing pain in his leg. When had Charlie gotten so unpredictable? He’d lost his gun in the surprise of the bullet’s impact and now sank his hands in the icy muck of the road grasping for it. The hot pain in his leg shot up to his groin and gut. Joe felt the blood pounding and heard it scream in his ears.

Charlie ran to the driver’s side and Joe cursed because he’d have had a clear shot. He cocked his hand, wishing for the walnut handle to kick and a puff of smoke from the muzzle rise in the cold air, imagining Charlie falling hard into the cold mud that now covered Joe.

Charlie called shooting him in the leg a favor. Joe would shoot him in the leg just for starters. Pretty soon Charlie would beg Joe for the favor of just killing him.

But it wasn’t going to be tonight.

The truck rattled to life. Charlie leaned down from the seat in the cab, tilting his head to look at Joe lying in the mud. His hair fell forward, hanging limply because Charlie always used too much grease. “Now, Joe. I know you’re real sore, but you need to listen to me. You can’t come back to Chicago. And forget Miami too. Try California, Joe. I heard it was real nice.”

Joe rolled to the middle of the truck to avoid the tires and felt his gun press into his back. He pulled it to him and shouted to the saints. He shoved the now useless gun into his holster and felt around the wound in his leg.

Charlie hadn’t hit an artery, but Joe could feel bits of bone. He couldn’t walk, no matter how close that light of the farmhouse might seem.

He rolled to his belly and crawled, fingernails filling with mud and grass as he made his way closer to the light. The pain of his wound and the effort to make any progress made his head fuzzy. He sharpened his focus. He couldn’t see the house now, on his stomach with snow obscuring his view, no matter how he craned his neck. He only knew he was crawling—crawling like a fucking snake!—in the right direction because of the slight lightening of the sky. He had nothing to focus on in front of him, so he focused on what was inside of him. Hate. Revenge. It might be a while, but Joe would make sure Charlie knew he’d made a mistake in leaving him alive. And he’d make sure Al Capone knew he’d made a mistake in wanting him dead.

April, 1925 Manhattan, New York

Helen stood before the mirror on the armoire’s front. The delicate floral etching on the mirror framing her distress in a portrait of contrasts. She smoothed the lilac velvet dress, still unsure about these higher hemlines. She twisted and watched the loose fit slink one way and the other around her calves. Crazy. The dropped waist didn’t suit her, but the seamstress had added padding to the shoulders and some discreet tucks to help Helen’s body look fashionable.

Her breasts were bound tightly and normally Helen hated it. But today the constriction felt bolstering, keeping her shoulders back and her nerves inside, rather than falling over the floor and bouncing around like loose marbles, the way they felt. The gray beading was stitched on the diagonal in a peacock feather pattern. She rocked back on the heel of her gray shoes. This was her favorite day dress. She smiled, relishing the idea of a day dress and evening dress. How her life had changed in just one year.

Helen peered closer. The maid had helped pile her hair into what looked like a bob from the front, but the weight of its length rested at the bottom of her head adding to the anchoring feeling she sought. One curl was pulled forward against her cheek in an effort towards the modern styles. The young maid had clicked her tongue at Helen’s uncertainty about the curl. “You don’t live in the forest anymore. You are young. At least try.” Helen touched the curl and decided she did like it. She pinched her cheeks and pressed her lips together to bring up some pink in her pale skin. She wanted to look healthy and confident. She sighed.

All this effort would be pointless if Lucinda looked at her eyes. Her green eyes gave her away, to anyone who knew her well enough. She had her mother’s eyes and their exact color shifted based on emotion. Aunt Lucinda didn’t know Helen that well, but she knew her sister- Helen’s mother- and had been able to disarm Helen more than once by reading the light and dark in her eyes.

Helen moved away from the mirror to practice her speech. She strode around the room, too nervous to stand or sit still, and trailed her hand over the furniture and china figurines, the carved box on the vanity, books on the writing table, the posts of the canopied bed. All these things had been her mother’s and she sought their comfort and encouragement as though they had held her mother’s touch all these years. She longed for a time when they would be reunited in person and she could hold her mother as dearly as she held the tiny animal figurines her mother collected as a child.

~

“Helen, don’t fidget.” The older woman tucked the lap blanket more securely around them both. “It seems you still have not acclimated to our weather.” She tsked. She made the sound so often in regards to Helen’s mannerisms, expressions, and appearance Helen had begun to think it was a speech affectation.

Helen smiled slightly and admired her Aunt’s composure. Frigid cold, blistering heat, her aunt’s serenity never wavered. “Aunt Lucinda, I don’t know that I will ever become accustomed to the climate, but I have most certainly become accustomed to my life here.” Helen pulled the coat closer, feeling the mink caress her neck. “Your generosity and energy of this city more than make up for the cold. I love my new home, Aunt Lucinda. Thank you for everything.”

Aunt Lucinda touched her cheek with a gloved hand. Helen saw her dark brown eyes glitter, pooling. “My Dear Niece,” Lucinda sighed, “You are pure bright joy on this gray snowy day.” She clucked, and with her feathered hat, brown coat and sharp features, the comparison to a bossy mother hen could not have been more precise. “You’re still enjoying Barnard, then?”

“Very much. It is quite challenging, but I love it.” Helen knew her Aunt would disapprove of her gushing, but her enthusiasm for her studies and life in New York City could not be checked. Aunt Lucinda was staunchly old fashioned, but, gratefully, liberal with her beliefs in education for women. She might not like Helen’s exuberance in any other area, but the niece and aunt always agreed over Helen’s interest and dedication to her classes.

“Your success in your schooling very nearly makes the challenges with your father worthwhile.”

Bitterness flooded Helen’s mouth and she closed her eyes, willing herself to be still against the harrowing memory of all it had taken to make this new-albeit freezing- life possible. She put her gloved hand into her purse and felt the letter there. She had brought it today as a charm towards courage. If ever Lucinda had provided an opening, this was it. “He can be difficult.”

Lucinda clucked again as cross as a hen made to ride on the roof of the car in this frigid weather.

“It’s nearly impossible for Mother to stand up to him. He can be so-” Helen closed her eyes, knowing she couldn’t speak the words, but unsure how to obscure them, “overwhelming.”

“I will not have your mother besmirched. She is my youngest sister and has suffered enough. She sacrificed her pride to reach out to me. She has lost enough with her foolish marriage and now she has given up you, most likely the only good she had in her daily life.” Lucinda was imperious, but not unkind. Her brand of wintry graciousness was disconcerting. Helen was nearly sure Aunt Lucinda knew this about herself and did it on purpose to keep people off balance.

“Of course not. I did not mean to suggest it. Only to agree with how ‘challenging’ Father can be.” Helen’s mind worked quickly to navigate this conversation back on its intended course. “I actually wanted to talk to you about inviting Mother to stay with us.” She had studied hard not only at Barnard, but everyone and everything. Direct was best with Lucinda.

The older woman turned in the seat and stared at Helen with her nearly black unreadable eyes, her high collar and the large cameo at her throat adding to her regal bearing, and Helen’s intimidation. Helen lowered her eyes, sure Lucinda was seeking their color to reveal Helen’s true intentions.

“You know the terms of our father’s estate, Helen.”

“As a guest only. I’m not suggesting you restore her place in the estate.” Though Helen did wish exactly that, her mother had suffered enough. The Father who had disowned her, the one Lucinda spoke of with so much love and respect, Helen’s Grandfather, would not want his daughter to be so fated. “She could come as a long term guest. Surely there can’t be any harm or wrong in that?”

“It is impossible.” Lucinda’s small mouth tightened to the near exact replica of a beak. “Our father was exceedingly clear in his life- and his death- about his intentions towards Charlotte. I adore my sister, but I will not dishonor our Father. I have done all I can for her and it came to nothing.” Lucinda turned to Helen and even though her words were unyielding, she took her nieces hands gently. Her tone softened, “So now, I am doing what I can for you.”

“But Grandfather’s will had not been updated for years. His death was sudden. Perhaps he meant to change it. And, regardless, he is gone now. Surely, you can-”

“Enough. Have you so little respect for family to suggest I simply discard my father’s will?” Lucinda’s outrage humbled Helen and she lowered her eyes to the floor. “And, even if I were to consider such a thing, there are enough distant cousins to alert the attorney of my failure to honor the will and pounce upon the opportunity to increase their benefit from the estate. And frankly, I will not disrespect my father’s legacy -or risk my own- to rescue your mother from hers.”

Helen bit her tongue. She had made her case. And she had failed. It wasn’t the first time she had suggested Lucinda help, the idea of her mother as a guest had only been the latest hope of success. Helen turned to look out the window. She wiped at the ice forming in the corners of the Packard’s windows. The finger tips of her gloves went dark with the moisture. She stared and curled her hand to a fist. The sleek car made its way through the streets. What would she do now? Helen blinked, willing the tears to stay on her lashes only.

“Composure, Helen. Composure.”

She would take more classes at Barnard. She’d need permission from the Dean, but surely her Aunt’s generous gift- to ensure Helen’s admittance- could also warrant a few extra classes. The courses were exacting, especially after her “wild mountain” education as her aunt indelicately chided her, but Helen was sure there was a way to rescue her mother. It was unacceptable that her mother would save her daughter, and have no one to rescue her.

Helen would rescue her.

Her attempts thus far had failed. But everyone said education was the key to the world’s problems. She didn’t know about solving the world’s problems, but she’d be happy to start with her mother’s. It wasn’t many years ago, her mother dragged an adolescent Helen to the Temperance League meetings and excitedly told her how the new law would be the salvation their family needed. For while it was her father who drank, it was clear the curse of his drunkeness was shared by all of them. “The evil alcohol has brought to our family will be gone, Helen. Think of it.”

She and her mother had dreamed and prayed, excitedly looking ahead to 1920. “If only you knew him before his soul was drowned in the devil’s brew. He was charming and funny. And so smart. I had never met anyone so full of ideas and plans and dreams. All with the drive to make it happen too.”

Helen caught her mother’s hope, and for a time, they even indulged William’s drunkenness and violence followed by shallow remorse, knowing the end was coming as the Volstead Act went into effect.

But Prohibition hadn’t saved her father. It had only made him more desperate as prices rose and scarcity fed anxiety he would not have enough. Though it was clear, her father didn’t know the meaning of “enough” where alcohol consumption was concerned. Helen took the failure of temperance as the law of the land personally, and blamed her mother. “You said it would be different. You made me believe you!”

Helen’s mother only cried. With distance and the profound years between being a child of 16 and now a young woman of 21, Helen could see she hadn’t cried from guilt, but from her own disappointment in the result of the Noble Experiment.

The car smoothly pulled up to the museum’s entrance. Her art history class was meeting here today to sketch famous works. Professor Riegler had made the announcement the previous week.“Ve vill sit as close as ve can to the masters’ knees to learn vhat ve can from all that ve have left of them, their great vorks.”

Danvers, the chauffeur, opened her door and extended his hand to assist her. The sidewalk had been cleared of snow and salted for ascent without obstacle. Helen smiled. Mink against her neck and a chauffeur’s arm to aid her inside. She was so far from the rough wool and canvas she wrapped around her and the mud she slogged through at home.

Home.

She shuddered. “Not anymore.” She resolved to make New York her home. She breathed in the city’s air. It’s icy edge clearing the heat she felt from the failure to convince Lucinda to let her mother visit.

“Helen, don’t mutter. What did you say?”

She smiled, and turned back to lean in to the car’s interior, she brushed a quick kiss against her aunt’s papery cheek. “I said, thank you.” Helen looked full into her Aunt’s face, letting the color of her eyes confirm her words. “There has to be a way to help my mother, your sister. And I will figure it out. Until dinner, my dear Aunt Lucinda.”

Helen watched the car pull away. She carefully made her way into the museum and stood in the marble columned foyer. She would sit on a marble bench and learn what she could from studying the lines and form of artists long dead. Many she knew had known no success in their lifetime. Yet they persisted. She would do the same. She would persist in studying, reading, finding an answer.

Emboldened, Helen looked up to absorb the beauty of alfrescoed ceilings on her face. Paintings and sculpture surrounding her. Buildings beyond her imagination sheltering her. These buildings were man made, but their grandeur were the only things that came close to moving her the way the towering ancient Redwoods did at home.

Home. She had to stop calling it that. She was never going back. She had escaped what passed for home and she would make a new home. It may not be New York City forever, but it would not be under her Father’s roof ever again.