“I want paid double”, I demanded. “And I want it upfront.”
He considered me, flicking the open end of his golden tie clip with his fingernail. His tie clip was the only indication that he was the richest man in New York City, as he dressed rather modestly. He used to intimidate me, perhaps even scare me. However, I’ve come to the realization that he can’t fire me. Where would he be without me?
“You’re lucky I like you”, he remarked with a sly smile. He stood from his desk and removed his fedora from a hook on the back wall. Hidden under it was a set of keys; the keys to the safe. He kneeled under the desk and unlocked it, pulling several bills from a stack.
“Eight hundred dollars”, he spoke as he slid the eight bills across the desk. I carefully inspected each one before slipping seven of them into my purse. I returned the eighth back across the desk.
“Give me the last hundred in fives.”
He chuckled, returning to the safe. “You’re helping the homeless again. You’re a saint, my dear Elsa.” He counted out the five-dollar-bills and handed them to me. I forced a smile.
“Thank you, sir.”
He nodded, perhaps a bit sympathetic. “I know what I’ve asked of you is difficult, but you’re the only operative I would trust with this assignment. And I trust you’ll be able to put any… hindrances aside.”
I forced myself to nod as I contained my emotions. “I’m more shocked that he managed to get on your bad side. Such an impossible feat.”
He was less amused than I expected he would be from my joke. “I’m not one to be toyed with, dear girl. Now, be on your way. I’ll have a new assignment for you on Wednesday morning.”
I stood and straightened my skirt, nodding to him as I began ascending the narrow staircase opposite of his desk. When I reached the top, I carefully listened for the tell-tale creaking of floorboards. Silence. I quickly pushed open the swinging bookshelf and closed it behind me.
Pacing through the library, my eyes met only a few patrons. Few people had time for such frivolous practices as reading anymore. They were too busy looking for work or performing odd jobs for a nickel here and a dime there. A part of me felt disgusted for being so wealthy while others were starving on the streets.
I left the library and took my usual route home. I checked my pocket watch; eight-thirty. It was the peak of summer and only just beginning to get dark, but I figured I ought to hurry. The bulbs in the Harlem streetlights hadn’t been replaced since 1929. We were only two years into the Depression with no end in sight.
I passed by a small, rickety diner, still miraculously in business, and quickly ducked inside. I didn’t intend to stay for long, but I had come to know many of the homeless people that came in for a bite to eat. I figured I was in the position to help them out a bit.
“Elsa!” a man exclaimed upon my entrance. I quickly recognized him as Henry. I had sewn his coat for him a few weeks ago and often bought him a meal. He pulled me into an embrace. “So happy to see you!”
“And you as well”, I returned. “How are you?”
He laughed his same buffoonish laugh. “Getting on, I suppose. Let me buy you a coffee?”
I scoffed at him. “Absolutely not.” I approached the counter where an old man was counting a meager amount of money from the register. I pulled four of the five-dollar-bills out of my pocket. “Give everyone here a warm drink, including yourself”, I spoke with a smile.
“Generous as ever, Elsa”, Henry remarked.
“Oh, hush”, I scolded as I slipped two more bills into his coat pocket.
He sighed. He hated when I gave him money, but he knew he was in no position to decline it. “I swear, I’ll come to every one of your Broadway shows as soon as I can afford it.”
I smiled, trying to be genuine. “I’d like that very much.”
“It seems Broadway is surviving the Depression quite well, if you’re any indication.”
I faked a smile and lied. “Business is slow, but we get on.”
We conversed for perhaps a few more minutes before I told him I needed to go. It was really beginning to get dark, and it wasn’t exactly a secret that I was wealthy Broadway star. He offered to walk me home, but I declined. I needed time to figure things out. I needed time to think.
I wished I was still performing. I missed it every day, but it just didn’t pay the bills anymore. In truth, Broadway wasn’t doing well. I was lucky enough to land one role since the stock market crash, but our wages had been cut down to nearly nothing. I needed something else; something that would pay.
I first met Mr. Harrows two years ago in a converted pub in Upper Manhattan; a seedy place that I never would have dared enter before. They used to serve alcohol but had taken up food service after Prohibition had gone into effect. I had wandered in after learning of the crash. I wanted to buy myself one more meal before I would be flushed into poverty like everyone else. He and I struck up a conversation at the counter after he had admired my gold necklace. It was the same white gold that his tie clip was made of.
“You’re used to the finer things; I can tell”, he began. “The next few years will be particularly tough for you. Broadway won’t last long.”
I scoffed at him as I sipped my coffee. He would be better off minding his own business.
“There will always be work if you know where to find it” he began. “I could certainly arrange something for you if you’d like.”
I was disgusted. What type of woman did he take me for? “What are you, a pimp?”
“Oh, no”, he reassured me. “I could never suggest such a thing. You aren’t that sort of lady. I dabble in the trade of… products in demand.”
“You’re a bootlegger then.”
He chuckled; his expression did not waver. “Among other things.”
He wrote his address and telephone number on a napkin and gave it to me. He tipped his fedora and left the pub, paying for my food as well as his own.
After leaving Henry at the diner, I continued down the street towards my apartment building, one of the nicest in the city. It was times like this when I wish I had never joined the mob. I loathed when my assignments involved a family member or a friend. I wished they would just stay out of the black market. They should know better.
I opened the front door of my building and smiled to the receptionist. My apartment was on the fourth floor, at the very top. As I ascended the stairs, I tried to do what Mr. Harrows said; put any hindrances aside. This would destroy me, but I had no choice. I’ve never failed at an assignment, and I certainly couldn’t start now. I’m wasn’t sure if Mr. Harrows would let me survive a failure.
I paced down the hallway and unlocked the door to my apartment. Placing my purse on the side table, I lifted the corner of my antique Victorian rug from the living room floor. I slid a false floorboard aside and retrieved my box of tools. I would have to get rid of them.
I chose my favorite knife and slipped it into my pocket. I then opened the window and threw the rest of the box’s contents into the Harlem River below. It was a shame, but I couldn’t risk leaving them in the apartment.
A thump coming from my bedroom startled me. Was my husband still awake? He always went to sleep early.
I slowly tiptoed to the bedroom door and grasped the knob. Another bump against the wall startled me again, and a female voice began mumbling unintelligibly. My stomach turned itself inside out.
I quietly cracked the door open. The room was in tatters. Empty bottles of whiskey and rum littered the floors, some of them shattered. My husband was leading a drunk girl to the bathroom as she slipped in and out of consciousness. Both were about half-dressed.
Seizing my opportunity, I grasped my knife and swung the door open. I followed them into the bathroom to find the girl already unconscious on the tiled floor. My husband jumped back when he noticed me.
“Elsa!” he exclaimed. “This isn’t—”
“Don’t”, I answered coldly. I swiftly brought the knife to his neck and slid it across. I narrowly avoided splashing the blood on my clothes. I gently lowered him to the floor by his undershirt and glared until his eyes fluttered shut.
I was almost amused with my luck. It turns out that it’s much easier to kill a guilty husband than an innocent one.
I stared at the girl. Even if she didn’t have alcohol poisoning, she still wouldn’t wake up for several hours at least. That was plenty of time. I grabbed her wrist and smeared her arm with the pooling blood before placing my knife in her hand.
It was a convincing scene. I nodded in approval of my work and carefully rinsed the drops of blood from my wrist. Wiping them dry, I returned to my living room where I kept my telephone. As I dialed the police department, I prepared myself for the best performance of my life. I don’t even believe my Broadway career would have matched up to this.
As the operator answered my call, I frantically cried and screamed that I had found my beloved husband dead.