The latent lightning shimmered off of the slick black street, flashing the night to day like a reporter’s flashbulbs. The fireworks had lost most of their punch as the midsummer storm moved off into the water to die. This crummy neighborhood needed the purging of the rain to kill the stench that the heat and proximity of humanity had built upon it. Five and six story tenements hunkered down next to various necessary shops that lined both sides of this part of the dingy street. Streetlamps rained down on less than new autos that lined both sides of the normally busy thoroughfare. Now though, the hustle and bustle of daylight was erased by night’s secret shroud and only the most desperate and callous dared posses the darkness here.
All of the businesses save one sat lonely, steel cages covering their fronts like braces on the malformed jaw of a teenager. The single holdout was well lit from within, its tiny smoked glass windows gleaming transparently out onto the world. Slashes of blood red letters that advertised the dives designation flickered and failed intermittently. The muffled sounds of a four piece ensemble drifted onto the steaming pavement in front. Blocks away the familiar wail of a siren signaled someone’s late night distress as the dogs joined in to harmonize.
The establishment was Patsy’s Pub and Spirits, and most every night of the week you could find said Patsy tending to his patrons, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He was a thick fingered man, his ham fists were stained with the fermented grains that constituted his life’s work. He kept the bar as dim as his wits and the booze as watered down as his intellect. Men with wills of iron and stone, and names to match, sat on wooden stools and wallowed in life’s injustices together. They sat and they smoked and nursed their beers until closing time most nights. Their edifices, as hard as the city that had forged them, were of a dull consistency.
None of them paid much attention to the quartet that occupied the farthest corner of the joint. That is until her perfect, throaty voice rended the smoky air, and all eyes turned to her, and then back again to their beers. What the band was playing made little difference as all eyes fondled and groped her in their dirty, secret ways.
Those new to Pat’s knew her as Maryanne Mort, but Patrick himself and some of the regulars still called her Maria. Maria Constellazione, now there was a name to be proud of in her own neighborhood, but she longed for far more than East Chicago. She would give strangers her nom de guerre, but she refused to drag the family name through the filth of this place each night. She had liked the finality of Mort, the sharp demise of it on the tongue. It’s affiliation with death reminded her that life was indeed short, and every day that she wasted on that shabby stage was one step closer to the grave.
As she moved behind the battered Steinway out of the customer’s sight, they returned to swapping stories and re-telling stale jokes. Maria was always crestfallen at that point of the show because it seemed as though they had all lost interest. That none of them was listening was not altogether accurate. There at the table just feet from the stage sat a solitary figure staring hard at her from under his black trench coat and matching fedora.
The mystery began the first night that he had he stalked in out in out of the dark, skirted the other patrons, and sat down by himself. The way that his fist clenched and his hand went instinctively to his coat pocket when someone got too close told the others all that they needed to know about the stranger. The fact that the man in black had been sitting there each night for the last two weeks was not lost upon either the patrons or the band.
Pat would tell the others after last call that the mystery man always handed him a slip of paper with “ three shots of Crown Royal neat” written on it and a twenty dollar bill when he rounded the bar to take his order. The guy always had his back turned, and he hadn’t been able to get so much as a glimpse of his face. That he had let Pat keep the change was the only reason that the owner had not tossed him out on his ear, that and the fact that Old Pat was too scared approach him, let alone throw him out.
During the entirety of the band’s set, the man sat there dead still, not moving a muscle. After the last song played, he got up, tipped his hat to Maria, and hurried out the door. Patsy wondered, as he downed the three shots of Crown, why the guy always ordered the drinks and never finished them, but, hey, he wasn’t complaining.
The band was in usual form that last night, the nameless rhythm section hammering out perfection in one four time. They might as well have been wind up monkey toys since no one thought of them as individuals, just pieces of the whole. Maryanne Mort was the show as she played soulfully soft on her borrowed axes, her sultry voice dripping with honey and swathed in sorrow. The soulful diva sung of love lost and regretted, of tougher times and thinner dimes. Her sad psalms coiled around the toughest of souls, bringing even the most upbeat down into her world of despair.
As the last vibrato rolled out of the piano, and the band’s set ended, the stranger arose, as usual, tipped his hat, and exited. Filled with their usual self-absorption, the boys in the band shuffled to the bar and ordered their usual. Maria eased her way back to the piano and tickled her way through a couple of her favorites. The boys are good and lubricated when she grabbed her coat and headed for the door.
“Good night, Uncle Pat. You boys walking me home or what?” Maria asked.
“Sure Mar, just give a second to throw these back,” the tall one said, slamming back his beer.
“Night, hon. G’night boys. Good set as usual. See you tomorrow night,” Pat said with a wave.
“See you tomorrow, Patsy,” they said, moving toward the exit en masse.
“Hey, you guys keep your eyes to yourself,” the owner growled at the leering men who watched his niece slink toward the door.
“Aw, you can’t blame a guy for looking,” flat nose said, and Pat shrugging in reply.
Out on the streets, the night dominated every corner and shadow where the streetlights failed to hold it at bay. The breeze is now coming off the lake, and it promised another summer storm before the morning comes. The quartet teased and chortled as they moved noisily down the street toward Maria’s tenement. After a round of good byes to the guitar players, the drummer walked her to the elevator. Seeing her safely aboard, he doffed his cap like Errol Flynn, and then rejoined his band mates outside.
The ancient elevator complained lowly as it grunted its way to the third floor, warning her with the soft ding of its bell that she had arrived. Maria fumbled in her purse for her keys as she stood in front of an ancient wooden door with 302 unceremoniously etched upon its face..
Her keys were in hand, a sharp turn of the lock, a push, and she was inside. It was intensely dark within, and out of habit, she went for the light switch next to the door. As the room bathed in the soft glow of the twin lamps set on either side of the room, a dread chill ran through Maria. There seated just like he had been for the last two weeks at Pat’s Bar was the Mystery Man just steps away. As usual, his hat was down over his eyes, and his demeanor held the same coldness that it always had before.
She defensively crossed her arms in front of her and was on the verge of running from the apartment screaming bloody murder when something made her stop in her tracks. The still recovering young woman felt something there in that room that was as familiar as the furniture, but she couldn’t put a finger on it just then. That thought turned to violence and murder as she looked down to see the shiny hand cannon sitting in the stranger’s lap.
She struggled with herself, as she stood naked before her visitor. She could not outrun a bullet, and even though the gun just sat there like a pet tabby, it would take him but a split second to shoot her dead. The most unnerving part of the whole situation was that the man just continued to sit quietly, the brim of his hat pulled low over his face and the dark collar of his raincoat flipped up around his neck. What looked to be calfskin gloves coated his hands as he continued to caress the weapon lovingly.
“What do you want here?” Maria stammered at him, but received no immediate reply.
“If you want money I don’t have any. I don’t get paid for another week. As far as anything worth stealing, you be the judge of that, and just take it and go,” she squeaked at the silent interloper, but he again made no sound.
“What do you want here?” she asked again, this time with more of an edge in her voice.
Maria took a step forward, deciding that she was going to fight it out, come what may. As fast as a hired gun fighter, the gloved hand swung the pistol into firing position, its cold steel barrel aiming steadily at her bosom. The part of her that had decided to fight now thought better of it as she froze in place, and took a step back away from the dangerous weapon. With his free hand, her assailant beckoned her to sit opposite him, and she carefully complied.
The man’s hand then went to the breast pocket of his coat and removed a large white envelope, which he gently tossed to her. The parcel made a soft thud as it landed at her feet. Her name, her real name, Maria Constellazione occupied a center spot on its face, and she noticed the rather elegant writing with a spike of surprise.
Maria’s hands shook softly as she managed to turn the parcel over and pull its contents out, placing the bundle on her lap. Wrapped neatly in a cocoon of tissue paper was a stack of $100 bills. They were collected together by a paper band, actually several paper bands that read $10,000 each. She counted out five of them in all.
“What is this money for?” asked Maria, not expecting an answer.
“That is payment for your services,” the man answered in a surprisingly pleasant voice, a voice that tickled Maria’s memory for some reason.
“What kind of services?” Maria thought, but was afraid to ask.
“Please look at the paper that the money was wrapped in,” the man said.
Maria hadn’t even realized that there was anything written on the covering of the currency since her eye had naturally been drawn to the money inside. She picked the paper off the floor where it softly fell, and read it. Immediately, she recognized it as a piece of sheet music that she knew all too well.
Right away, the song’s melody came into her mind, and with the melody, a plethora of memories flooded in upon her. Her mind reached back to a time when her stubby little fingers plinked away on her mother’s ancient Baldwin on a sunny day long ago. There was a recollection of playing scales when her mother entered the room and sat that very sheet music before her. The heading had read “One More for the Road” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, of that she was certain. Less certain was the memory of her beloved mother waltzing around the room singing the tune out in her clear, throaty voice.
The flashback froze her in place, and she sat there for some time reminiscing before the tears began to stream down her perfect face. She wiped them away with the memory of her long dead mother’s voice still echoing in her ears.
“I want you to play that song for me. I will pay you all of the money in that envelope if you do so,” the man said, breaking her free of her reverie.
Maria sat there reeling from the completely bizarre scene that had swept in upon her at three thirty in the morning. The idea that the offer of fifty thousand dollars was hers just for the playing one old song was too much to believe. She also wasn’t sure if her nerves would calm down enough for her to perform it either. The incredibly keyed up musician was doing her best to keep her nerves from overwhelming her. Add too, the fact that the song had been her mother’s favorite, and the request appeared to be too much to ask of her.
“I’m not sure that I can,” Maria said, not wishing to be too forceful in her refusal.
“Either you play the song for me now, and take the money, or I am going to kill you,” the man said, his calm voice belying his threat.
He raised the gun to her again and pulled back the hammer. The cold steel click brought back her fear in spades. It was obvious from the man’s mannerisms that he meant business. Anyway, he was offering such a princely sum for her services, for simply singing just one song. The money looked to be the Godsend that would take her away from this place and change her life for good. Over the dreadful decade since her mother had gone she had given up even dreaming about performing in the theatre or playing in big time bands in far off places. Maria had traded those fantasies for two hundred bucks a week in a place where her mother’s ghost haunted her nightly.
“I will play it for you. I will need to warm up a bit first, though,” Maria said, biting her lip and trying to steady her nerves.
Her legs felt like wooden stumps as she edged over to the same Baldwin that she had used since childhood, and had inherited from her mother. The wooden façade was still shiny and clean, and she had even learned how to tune it herself. To limber up her fingers, the musician ran through a couple of scales, and the Baldwin sang beautifully as her fingers caressed its keys. As Maria began to warm up by singing out a few notes her voice cracked, and red faced, she had to start over. On her second try, her professionalism drove the butterflies away, causing her voice and fingers to act instinctively.
“It’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place ‘cept you and me,” Maria began, her angelic voice dipping into the devil’s range in places.
The ebb and flow of the cadence filled the room as her heart opened and the transcendent tune spilled out of her. As those ancient memories transformed her from Maryanne Mort, second-rate lounge singer, into little Maria, the pride and joy of her momma, the true emotion that she felt poured out freely. Tears rolled heavily down her cheeks as each verse eased by, her soul overflowing with loss. Pangs of regret ripped her badly, and she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to finish the song, but her vocals were unfailing down to the very end.
“But this torch that I found it’s, gotta be drowned or it soon might explode, so make it one for my baby and one more for the road,” Maria finished, the piano and her voice trailing off into nothing together.
She sank down to the floor and buried her head in the carpet over come with grief. She could feel the man standing over her now and stroking her hair gently, but she didn’t care. His touch was light and reassuring, and it comforted her enough that she soon stopped crying. Maria returned to her seat behind the piano as the man handed her a tissue. She still couldn’t see his face through her red, swollen eyes. The image of the stranger stalked slowly back across the room and stood in front of the window.
“Thank you Maria, I have needed that for a long time. I am sorry that this is the way that things had to happen, but I didn’t know what else to do. I just hope that you forgive me for what I have become,” the man said, as he jerked the gun’s muzzle up toward her.
Maria held her breath waiting for the explosion. The muzzle of the gun kept swinging right past her until it as nestled up under the man’s chiseled chin. His dark eyes bore clear through Maria as the tendons in his trigger finger tightened and the weapon discharged with a deafening boom. Brains and skull whipped on to the ceiling a split second after the detonation. The man fell to the carpet, his head bouncing slightly as he hit the floor. He laid there face down with the back of the fedora blown to pieces where the bullet had exited his cranium.
Horrified, Maria leaped to his side, rolling him over to check for a pulse. She recoiled with a terrific scream as the hat tumbled from the dying man’s head. The blood spattered face of a boy that she once knew lay smiling at her, the life oozing from the back of his skull. She held her sweetheart in her arms, a man who used to be Johnny Viola before time and unforeseen occurrences had taken him away from her. She gently kissed his lips as he lay there in a pool of his own blood in that shabby apartment in that dirty city. What series of events had driven him to commit this act of redemption and despair no one would ever know.