Every night The Great Ronaldo made his assistant, The Lovely Lulu, disappear in a flash of smoke. And every night, Mary Ann Daly watched with her heart in her throat and her hand on her chest, eyes so wide they ached. Backstage wasn’t much, and even though Ronaldo and Lulu must have played speakeasies in Pittsburgh or Cleveland or some place real impressive, they didn’t complain. The Soda Shoppe wasn’t exactly the Victoria Theater; when anyone complained it vibrated all through the false plywood walls and right to Mr. Vital’s counter out front. Soda jerk extraordinaire, all right.
Mary Ann never saw how Ronaldo did it. Just a poof of smoke from the little firecracker he kept behind his back, and then crack, the Lovely (lovely) Lulu vamoosed. Thin air, like they said. Wasn’t any trap door, wasn’t anything shady about it, so far as she could see. And the Soda Shoppe was small enough—well, it just was. Couldn’t pull much over here.
The Shoppe always had a crowd, but since they got a real act people came from neighboring counties, some in cars, scattered down Market Street and around the corners. Some up the river like Huckleberry Finn—like Mary Ann Daly and the moonshine, who were from the same place, in a roundabout kind of way. Soon they’d be coming from Cincinnati, Mr. Vital said. If only he could keep (great) Ronaldo and (lovely) Lulu.
When the smoke cleared, Mary Ann took the little 10×6′ platform of a stage and pretended to be a chanteuse. She hid her hillbilly accent like Mr. Vital insisted, patted the hips of her one good dress, and pretended to be Marion Harris. Boy, how that doll can belt ‘em! What a girl! And the other hillbillies (but not as hillbilly as her) would bellow and holler and whoop and knock back their watered gin.
The smell of the Marsh stogies, glassworks, and steel mills seeped into her hair, her nails, her skin. She breathed it deep and smiled and sang and shook her hips like she had It. People drank and smoked and laughed and clapped all right, but no one could look away when the magician and his assistant stepped up. Not from Ronaldo with his dark sharp looks like the Italian boys from the factories, not from Lulu with her loose, thin red silk dresses, elegant and It, It, It. She sweated It like Mary Ann used to sweat sulfur and coal dust, like she sweated the smell of hot glass and stogie smoke now. Those little wet beads shining on Lulu’s smooth forehead, in the dip at the base of her long white neck, between her breasts where the neck of her dress dipped low, so low: It.
They always left right after, Ronaldo with his hand at the base of Lulu’s back, her patting her bobbed hair and straightening her red plume, eyes straight ahead. All week, every night, just like that, gone.
And then one night they didn’t. Mary Ann tumbled off the stage and kicked off her shoes, accepted a fag from an open-shirt nail mill boy who’d been waiting all night just to hand it off, and gave him a dance for two or three more. So when she finally made it back to the bar, she hardly noticed the red-dressed honeybee all alone on a stool.
She slipped onto the one next to her, feeling like she’d sat next to a furnace, smelling It all over her. Composed her voice, double-checked the hated accent, and asked, “Can I buy you a drink, sweetheart?”
The Lovely Lulu looked up, her little red bow lips composing a smirk. “Sure, angel.”
Mary Ann paused, flushing.
“That’s who you are, right? Vital’s little angel?” Lulu asked.
“That’s what he calls me.”
“He seems like a real stand up guy.”
“There ain’t any such thing, but I reckon he’s close as they come.”
Lulu licked her lips and waved for the bartender. “You’re not from around here, are you, angel?”
Mary Ann frowned. “Mr. Vital told you that?”
“Most women like to know they been the subject of their betters’ conversation.”
“I ain’t most women.”
“I see that.” Lulu’s black eyes burned like hot little coals, right through her, then she turned to, Terry, the bartender. “Give us the Bollinger.”
Mary Ann made a face. “That’s for—”
“I got it, angel.”
Terry obeyed, with a sideways smile for Mary Ann.
The Lovely Lulu turned to face her, crossing one leg over the other so the decadent silk of her skirt slipped up her thigh until it caught on her garter, thin-stockinged knee poised. Her toe hooked around Mary Ann’s calf and wedged between it and the barstool, like a nail into wood. Permanent, just like that. “Let me treat you. You get treated much?”
“Sure, the fellas around here get real generous after a few quick ones.”
“Paying Vital to poison ‘em.”
“Nah. We know what we’re doing; we been making moonshine for centuries in West Virginia. If George Washington couldn’t stop us, Wilson and Harding can go chase themselves.”
Terry popped the cork just then, and Mary Ann almost looked around for one of the suits that sometimes had private parties. That was about the only time she’d ever heard that sound. When he put a coupe in front of her full of bubbling champagne, she nearly passed out.
Lulu sipped hers, toying with a string of imaginary pearls around her neck and smiling. Her slim bare shoulders, white with powder, no more sweat, moved up then down with the half-hearted jazz from the combo up front. Her gaze still burned holes in Mary Ann.
And Mary Ann didn’t halfway mind.
“Did your daddy teach you that?” Lulu suddenly asked.
Mary Ann flushed. “What?”
“Your daddy. He teach you that, about moonshining and presidents and all that?”
“N-no.” But he had, because that was exactly what Daddy always said. The thought made her sick to her stomach, and she sipped at the fizzy-hot champagne, like ginger without the sugar, like heaven on her tongue.
“Sounded like an old man talking, is all.” Lulu grinned like she knew. “You’re too pretty for Wheeling, angel. You oughtta come with us, out west.”
“I ain’t that pretty.”
“Like that Mary Pickford.”
“Old news, Lulu. Get with the times,” a male voice said.
Mary Ann looked over her shoulder to see The Great Ronaldo looking not so Great. Well all right, he was a great looker. Just, he had on suspenders and an Italian Tuxedo, like they called those sleeveless undershirts around here, and his slicked back hair fell over his face here and there. Metal glittered on a chain around his neck: dogtags and something round.
She never noticed before, but he was about her age, maybe a few years older, not much. Just his eyes, black and hot but different than Lulu’s, seemed old. Dark brown half-circles curved beneath them, cradled them, made them sad.
“His name’s not Ronaldo—it’s just Ronald. You can call him Ronnie,” Lulu confided in a loud sort of voice, twitching her foot between Mary Ann’s calf and the stool for effect. She snorted out a laugh into her champagne and took another sip. “Pull up a stool, Ronnie, we just cracked the Bollinger.”
The Less Than Great Ronnie pulled up a stool, all right, but a few feet apart from the girls. “We were supposed to go to the pictures.”
Lulu placed a hot, red-nailed hand on Mary Ann’s bare arm. The heat spread up, up her arm and into her shoulder, down her chest, into her heart. Lulu said, “It’s just The Sheik again. Talk about old news!”
Mary Ann shuddered.
Lulu was going on already, halfway shouting in a liquid lava-like manner, “Ronnie, you can’t keep me amused that easily. I need champagne and dolls, just like you.” Then she leaned closer, breathing steamy on Mary Ann’s cheek. “Big brothers, right?”
The heat spread further still, down into her belly, down lower, between her legs. It was inexplicable and lovely (lovely like Lulu) and she took another drink, grateful just to be rid of that shudder. “He’s your brother?”
“You betcha—he likes Valentino movies because he thinks a Latin boy like him could make it, when he sees him.”
“Yeah, too bad I ain’t a powder puff, I’d have it made in the shade out in California. Terry, you sleeping back there? Get me a glass, will you?”
Lulu snorted again, tossing her head back so the machinations of her white throat were evident as she poured half a glass of the Hooch of the Gods down it. “So what, you don’t like The Sheik? You gotta at least like Valentino.”
“I like him fine,” Mary Ann said, “I just can’t stand that movie.”
“It ain’t realistic.”
“You been to Araby lately?”
“No, it’s just—kidnapping a woman. She don’t forgive you for that, and she don’t fall in love with you after. Ever.”
Lulu’s gaze burned through her some more. “I guess not, angel. Hey, Ronnie, Vital give you enough money?”
“Just another week. We gotta keep moving.”
Lulu squeezed Mary Ann’s arm. “We’re staying another week. We can kick up some dust in the meantime, huh, angel? You and me.”
“Don’t kick up a damned thing, Lulu.” Ronnie toyed with the tags on his chain.
Lulu toyed with her imaginary pearls, the red of her lips suddenly vicious as they twisted up. “Whatever you say, big brother. Give us a cigarette, at least.”
Ronnie flicked out a few, and they drank the bottle and smoked all his cigarettes waiting for the speak to empty and the sun to come up.
• • •
That was the only end of the morning Mary Ann had seen in a long time. Since the Volstead, even Sundays were fair game at the speaks, and The Soda Shoppe was the greatest on Market Street. The blindest of the blind pigs, the classiest of the class, if you asked at the factories. Mary Ann didn’t know what her mama’s folk would think of it back in the holler, all this sin and jazz and jazz and sin, and weren’t those words really just the same thing in the end?
She knew what her daddy would think of it in Charleston. But what he’d think of it and what he’d think of her being a part of it were two different things, and Mary Ann didn’t much care for either, so she told herself.
Vital fixed her up with the hair of the dog that afternoon and she was right as rain by the time The Great Ronaldo and The Lovely Lulu were back on the platform. This time Mary Ann watched closer, watched them with the eyes of uncomfortable growing familiarity. When Ronaldo dropped his smoke bomb, his left hand clutched at his glittering tags—they hung outside his shirt, but Mary Ann had never noticed before. And Lulu grabbed for her missing pearls and disappeared in the cloud, and that was that. Mary Ann stood off the side where Lulu usually came from when she took her bow, but Lulu only came from the other side, like she’d been expecting it.
That night, Mary Ann asked the combo to learn “Don’t Bring Lulu”, so she could sing it before Ronnie and Lulu left. As a surprise.
• • •
Tonight it was plain old Kentucky’s Best—clear moonshine whiskey cut with water and ice. The combo played along, a few couples trying to cut something new from the old fabric of the Charleston—the other Charleston, the Carolina kind—and mostly succeeding, if only because they were drinking the same thing. That was Charleston Fuel, sure as Fords took gasoline.
Ronnie sat at the next table with some of the factory owners, still in his New York suit, dog tags glittering in the low light through the blue-grey smoke, and watched them. Lulu sat with her foot hooked behind Mary Ann’s leg again, and one warm, lithe arm around Mary Ann’s almost bare shoulders.
She smelled like coal dust, this close. It didn’t seem possible, but she did.
Maybe her daddy was a coal baron’s lackey, too.
“Why does he watch us like that?” Mary Ann finally asked, sick to death with the feeling of Ronnie the Less Than Great’s sad gaze on her back.
Lulu The Lovelier Than Ever said, “Not us. You. Well, me, to keep me out of trouble. But you, mostly. He likes you. He’s desperate for it. Hasn’t had it since—oh, Paris, I guess.”
“Paris?” The word sent shivers down her spine, but good ones. Sinful ones, jazz shivers, cold and hot all at once. They ended between her legs—but that was Lulu blowing on her ear, too.
“Or wherever he was.”
“He really was a doughboy, huh?”
“Your boys sure got into some mess over there, all right.” Lulu snorted.
“That ain’t an answer.”
“Where you two from, anyhow? New York?”
“Something like that. How about you?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Angel, that’s no Long Island accent—not Buffalo or Albany, neither. Anyhow, you don’t have to answer; I always knew where you were from. Was just asking to hear your voice again.”
Mary Ann flushed all over; all over. This was what It was meant to do, though, wasn’t it?
“Listen to me, Mary Ann.”
Mary Ann sat up straighter. She couldn’t remember ever hearing Lulu say her name, not once in the four nights they’d spent like this. It tickled her spine.
“Mary Ann, Mary Ann,” Lulu said, like she knew, like she always, always knew. “Mary Ann with the sweet golden voice and the pretty face. Mary Ann the movie star.”
“I’m listening,” she tried to say, but it came out sounding like Lulu’s fingers were around her throat—instead of flattening hot against her thigh through cheap satin and netting.
“You seem like the sympathetic kind. Are you sympathetic, Mary Ann?”
She nodded. Her ear felt wet and hot with Lulu’s breath.
“Good. Good, because I need you.” Her thumb dug into Mary Ann’s thigh, her fingers on the other side. Just hard enough, not too hard. “I gotta get away from him. You know I do. You see how he is, staring like that. He’s a real fucking creep, you know?”
Flushing and burning and confused, Mary Ann nodded. She covered Lulu’s hand with her own. To stop her, to hold her there, who knew?
“It was that thing you said, that thing about The Sheik. He’s not my brother.”
“I knew you knew, angel. Vital’s right, that’s what you are.” Lips on her cheek. “It’s the tags, though. He has my mother’s—” Her voice broke, calling up childhood sobs and choked protests, blasting Mary Ann’s heart like a tree in a lightning storm. “I gotta get my mother’s charm first, is the thing. I couldn’t leave it, and he knows it. But I can’t steal it at night—he locks my door, and he knows I won’t go without it.”
Tears quivered in Mary Ann’s eyes. “I knew it. I knew you were—like me.”
“My mama—he stole her. From the—the—”
“I know where you belong, angel. Be glad you didn’t grow up there. Coal mines are full of blood, these days. But—”
“I’ll do it.”
Another kiss, quicker, and Lulu sat up. “Act like we had a cat fight. You know what to do?”
• • •
It wasn’t that hard to get into Ronnie’s room. She faked anger with Lulu the next night, cozied up to Ronnie and pumped him full of champagne. He looked more and more tired every night. Tonight was the worst; he wilted like a dry plant after a drink or two, the brown circles beneath his eyes going purple like bruises.
Lulu sat on the other side of the table and watched them with her burning eyes, and Ronnie hardly noticed her, any more. He only had eyes for Mary Ann.
When he closed the door behind them, she sidled forward, swinging her hips, face upturned. A quick downward glance at the tags: two rectangular, like a regular soldier, and one bigger, round, covered in complicated etched letters and symbols.
“Mary Ann.” He took her by both arms. “I don’t know how you figured her out, but thank God you did. I need your help, I’m begging you.”
She tore her eyes off his tags and looked up, expecting something familiar in his face, eyes.
All she saw was earnestness. That face that looked young again. Very, very young. He grabbed for his tags and held up the circular one—now she could see the five-pointed star in the center. “This is all that keeps her under control. There’s supposed to be some other guy—the one who has the book that can send them back where they belong. He works as a magician on the circuit. I been searching high and low for the dumbbell, and there’s nothing yet. Keep an eye out here, will you? And ask around. You see any other magicians, send by Western Union. I got an address here that—”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I ain’t—no games, Mary Ann. I’m tired. I’m so—so fucking tired.” He leaned back, slumping against the door and running his hands through his hair, plastering it back again. “Jesus, you don’t—you don’t know what it’s like, being with that thing all the time. And if she got into the wrong hands, if she got free, God help us all, you know? But I can’t do it much longer. I think it’s—she’s killing me. Shit, I would face a million Jerries alone if it meant…”
Mary Ann stared, uncomprehending. Finally her eyes dropped to his tags again. She licked her lips.
“I can’t,” Ronnie said. “I know what you’re gonna say. I heard it before. I can’t leave her with you.”
“She ain’t yours to leave.”
Mary Ann’s gaze rose.
Ronnie had narrowed his. “Don’t think of her like a person. She’s not. She’s—she’s evil. She’s not even a she. She’s an it.”
Mary Ann clenched her jaw.
“I found it on a dead Kraut. I didn’t know what it was.” He grabbed at the round charm, held it in front of her face. It seemed to undulate, like it was made of mercury, made of sky. Or maybe of fire. “I never would’ve touched it, but I did. And once I realized she wasn’t some genie out of The 1000 Nights… What did she offer you?”
“Did she offer to love you? Grant you wishes? Mary Ann—”
“No. Nothing. She never offered me—nothing.”
“Help me. I have to send her back to Hell. I don’t know how much longer I can hold up. I can feel it. I get the—the shakes sometimes.”
A rapid series of blinks and swallowing, a dry mouth and dry eyes, everything burning. “You got a drink, Ronnie?”
“… yeah. Yeah, of course.”
“Then get pouring, buster. You got some explaining to do.”
• • •
“How come you didn’t offer me anything?”
Lulu looked up from the vanity in the corner, still painted up like she hadn’t been in her own room for hours by that time. “I knew he’d spill everything. It’s better coming from him. Pathetic, isn’t he? Not exactly as romantic as being kidnapped by the Sheik of Araby.”
“You liked the dead Kraut he stole that charm from better?”
“At least he had some respect for the occult. Didn’t make me perform like a fucking poodle on a street corner.”
“What do you want?”
Lulu’s hot gaze slid up and down Mary Ann, lighting little fires on the way. “I’d rather be yours than his. Do-gooder little creep; I’m surprised he’ll even work in a speakeasy. Though I guess he wouldn’t if he didn’t have to.”
“You don’t want me to set you free?”
Her eyes went wide. “Would you?”
Mary Ann felt it, like Dempsey had slammed her in the guts. Lulu’s lie, the beautiful, silken lie. Smooth like a pair of expensive stockings, like the ones thrown over Lulu’s bed now, black and abandoned. “What would you do?”
“Go home.” Lulu turned around, faced her, eyes still wide. Calculated, perfectly calculated, but knowing it didn’t dull the effect. “Just, home.”
Mary Ann swallowed hard. She knew it was a lie, felt it twisting up her spine like one of them tiny little garter snakes. But she didn’t care. “So when you said you were from somewhere like New York…”
“If you’d been to Manhattan—parts of it, anyhow—you’d know I told the truth. That’s hell on Earth, for most people, angel.”
“No. I’ll show you hell on Earth. Then, you can go home.”
“Any favors in the meantime?” Lulu licked her vicious red lips. Oxblood red, they called it.
Mary Ann smiled. That felt twisty like a garter snake, too. “Do I look like Valentino to you, Lulu? What’s your real name, anyhow?”
“Oh, you couldn’t pronounce it. That’s what’s on the little charm, didn’t you know? That’s why I have to answer to it. What, you think I’d give in to that stupid fucking disappearing act of his if he didn’t make me?”
Mary Ann stared.
Lulu laughed; the rich, hot lava sound washed over the room. “Maybe you’d better not let me go so fast, after all. There’s a lot I could teach you.”
“To name a thing is to own it, Mary Ann Daly. To own its name is—well. Everything.”
• • •
Lt. Ronald diNova the Great was passed out, a mostly empty bottle of Kentucky bourbon on the nightstand beside him, his tags glittering faintly in the pathetic electric light of Wheeling’s third best hotel.
He’d said he was tired, so fucking tired, and he looked it. The dark circles under his sweet, sad (closed, still closed, but she knew anyhow) eyes were all too obvious in that false light.
Lulu pointed to his jacket, and Mary Ann dug the pistol out of the inside pocket. She cocked back the hammer and aimed. She’d only ever seen them fired in movies, though her daddy kept one inside his jacket, no better than some Baldwin-Felts thug.
Lulu came to her, wrapped those willowy arms around her middle and fitted herself against Mary Ann’s back. Those hot red lips pressed against the nape of her neck. “I can’t take it myself. You have to.”
The charm seemed to shimmer beneath the tags.
Mary Ann pulled away, grabbed the chain, and yanked it off over his head.
Ronnie’s eyes flickered open, bloodshot red and wet. He propped himself up on his elbows.
Mary Ann put the chain around her neck. The shiver wasn’t snaky, that time. It was metallic and hot and smelled like coal.
But no, it wasn’t coal. It was sulfur. She knew that, now.
Lulu hissed behind her.
“I’m sorry, Ronnie,” Mary Ann said, leveling the pistol at his head.
Ronnie smiled. Smiled prettier than Valentino ever could’ve, ever would’ve. “Just don’t let her go, Mary Ann. I don’t care what you do, now. Just don’t let her go, or we’re all in for it. I’m just—I’m so tired.”
“I know.” Mary Ann passed the pistol over her shoulder. Maybe Lulu couldn’t take back what was hers, but she could get a little revenge for the poodle act.
Lulu took the gun. All at once: a bang, the smell of gunpowder, and Lt. Ronald diNovo’s brains exploded on the wall, sprayed out like a Rorschach in black and red and chunks of bone.
As if she’d heard the thought—and maybe she had—Lulu said, “Wonder what the Greenwich Village playwrights would make of that.”
“Looks like a bat, doesn’t it?” Mary Ann held out her hand.
“I was thinking butterfly.” Lulu put the gun in it.
Mary Ann turned her back on the corpse and the Rorschach and the buzzing white electric glow. “Can you make this mess disappear?”
“Sure, angel. Sure I can.” A pause. Lulu dropped her gaze to the tags, then raised it again.
Mary Ann said, “Answer me a question?”
“You don’t exactly have to ask, any more.”
“I’m asking anyhow.”
“Why’d he even let you come out? Why’d he let you talk to me at all?”
“I’m easier to deal with if you keep me happy. For a demon, I’m easily amused. Why?”
“Just wondered. So, if I give you little things, you’ll cooperate better?”
The Lovely Lulu licked her lips and smiled. “And if I give you little things…?”
Mary Ann turned around. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Where to, angel?”
Mary Ann laughed at the misnomer and pocketed the gun. “Charleston. And I don’t mean the one with the dance.”
KV Taylor is an avid reader and writer of urban fantasy and dark speculative fiction, even though the only degree she holds is in the history of art. (Or, possibly, because the only degree she holds is in the history of art.) In her spare time she enjoys comic books, Himalayan Buddhist art, loud music, her Epiphone, and Black Bush. Her short fiction and novels can be found at kvtaylor.com.