The last place Marko would ever have expected to meet the devil was in Saint Ronan’s Church. Even the New York police seemed forbidden to enter into its austere and mystical quarters, if their intention was to take him into custody; but an agent of pure evil, of course, would not be so hindered. And evildoers, he was stunned to learn, wanted him, too — more than the police did.
He kept to the far wall as he approached Saint Ronan’s confessional booth. It seemed the logical hiding spot, like the one he had once used to elude would-be captors in Seville. The deep voice of Father Starrett could soothe or scold; Marko heard it issue from the booth, and a softer, female voice, one with the accent of a Spanish speaker, respond in kind. Marko would need to locate his refuge in another part of the building — preferably before the hired muscle on his tail decided to tap on his shoulder.
Marko wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve, again. Glanced at the clock on the wall, again. Conversations he had overheard, on the streets, and inside the shops and restaurants he had visited in the Big Apple, framed the current heat wave as a natural sequel to the frigid winter weather the city had just endured at the start of 1936. It was hellish, this heat. Perfect weather, in which to meet a devil — or someone hoping to impress him, with nefarious deeds…
Someone entered the church. Someone else entered, right behind. Marko was moved — literally — closer to the confessional. The priest, Starrett, was exiting his side of the booth. He was a raw-boned fellow with rudy cheeks and steel in his gaze, to match the fire in his voice. He met Marko’s gaze and said, “Ah! My son, if you will pardon me for just a second, I’m going to drink a little water, and then, we can begin —”
“I’m not here to confess,” was the response Marko was trying to muster, before he saw who had just been confessing to the priest. She was a pretty woman in her twenties, with a dusky complexion, and piercing eyes of her own. Though he had dire jeopardy to consider, he could not help but appreciate the view he had of her. She glanced up at him, started to smile — then glanced behind him with alarm, yelping in shock.
“Mister Urbina, where are your manners?” The voice of an older fellow purred its menace. Marko felt tingles of dread running up his forearms. “We’ve gone, well, all over the city, trying to have a friendly chat with you, but you were so impolite, making us chase you like this. We look a guy square in the eye, here in the Kitchen. Don’t we, boys?”
“Now, see here, you boys,” Starrett blared at the well-dressed man doing all of this elegant threatening. “This is the Lord’s home, sanctum for the weary and the downtrodden. Whatever fiendish business it is, that you’ve come to carry out, I can assure you — it is not welcomed here. You’re Catholics, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Father Starrett,” said the elder man. “Well — with one exception. We have to excuse him. He’s screwy that way, but he knows how to get things done, if I want them done. Tommy?” He stepped aside, to permit one of his henchmen, a cruel-smiling, boyish chap with the impudence of a confirmed villain, to get a good look at Marko, right before he reached inside his coat — for a weapon.
Marko threw up his hands. “Por favor, I told you: I don’t know anything, and I didn’t see anything. I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m on my way to some place with a ranch, and horses. In Montana.” Two drab-suited hired guns, at the elder gangster’s hand signal, clutched him; he wrestled vainly. The creep continued to smirk at him.
Father Starrett tried to block the doorway, an odd mixture of and fury disappointment animating his features, as the gangsters and their hostage pressed toward it. “Your supreme judge is in heaven," he boomed at them. "He does not excuse this trespass, my sons, against this holy place, or this gentleman.”
“And here I thought He forgave us for our sins. Welcomed us into His grace,” quipped the creep. "That ought to teach me, huh, Mister Bellandi?” The elder of the thugs shot him an irritated glance at hearing his own name spoken aloud, but he pushed the door open, brushing against the young woman—
Violet Cuesta expected to cleanse herself of spiritual contaminants, during her visit to Saint Ronan’s. This was not her regular church, but one about which a positive report had reached her. She was not unaware of this neighborhood’s, well, spicy reputation — it was Hell’s Kitchen… not a country club out on Long Island, which was where she had been working, only a year before, when she experienced her first major crime, as the victim of a foiled attempt to abduct her made by industrial spies. She went to work for her rescuers.
“You know what your problem is, Urbina?” said the creep. “You think you got all the answers, and you don’t. Take this situation you’re finding yourself in. Why, anyone, with half a brain, would expect you to find yourself, at just one word from Mister Gangster here, wearing a pair of cement overshoes.”
Sunlight streamed in through the opened door, causing her to blink, for just a moment. In that time, Bellandi and his goons swept Marko, out of the church. The creepy one and made the sign of the Cross in front of himself, with a sneer, he looked over his shoulder at the priest. Starrett frowned at this obvious expression of disrespect, but stood fast, watched them leave Saint Ronan’s on a mission of murder. “My child, don’t!” he gasped at Violet as she followed the raiding party outside, from a fearful distance, as if hypnotized by the danger.
The back entrance to Saint Ronan’s was blocked by a parked four-door car, in excellent condition: a 1930 Marmon Sixteen. Bellandi dashed to open a back door, but his creepy accomplice whistled loudly, startling the older gangster. Bellandi turned about to stare daggers at his henchman. One of the two gun thugs bookending Marko reached for the driver’s door, to whisk his gang’s lord away from what was presumably about to become a murder scene!
“Never give a gat to a guy named Tommy,” the creep quipped. “Tommy… Gun. You get it? It’s like my destiny was written for me.” Impossible, the events that played out before his eyes: the creep bent his arm, aiming the gun away from Marko. He found himself watching helplessly, as the creep drew a new bead… on Bellandi. For one moment, Violet was transfixed on Marko’s face — a mask of paralyzed shock, but not from fears for his own safety. Violet never saw her coming, any more than the innocent Marko and the quite guilty crime ring did.
One of the thugs holding onto Marko started to rush him, but the gun barrel wavered in his direction. “You gotta be out of your pea brain,” Bellandi spat. “You think anyone’s going to protect you if you pull a stunt like this? It would be a mercy killing, if someone was to put you down, believe me, you punk.”
“That’s my advantage,” said the creep. “I don’t believe… anything.” One of the “bookends” was gauging his chances of rushing Gun-Tommy, in hopes that a surprised Marko would not seize the opportunity to make a dash for “safety”. Tommy spotted this, of course, and seemed to derive amusement from it—
“Pezzi di voi saranno trovati,” Bellandi ranted on. “Ma nessuno si ricorderà di te.” If he had been hoping to instill fear in the psychotic thug, the mobster was about to be disappointed. Tommy shot Marko a mischievous grin, and jerked the trigger, twice. Shots ripped into Bellandi’s chest, dropping him in agony against the back seat of the car. The bookends leaned in through the open car window, to hear their dying boss gasp his last threat on earth: “Solo pezzi di voi saranno trovati.”
Violet had forgotten to breathe, to think fast, to do much more than gape — but not how to wince as someone barreled past her, out into the alleyway, to spin into sight. On another day, the thugs might have been pleased to spot a great-looking girl, with blond hair and rosy cheeks, if she were any blond in town other than Finola Coughlin — the fabled vigilante, Miss Moxie!
Bellandi might have seen the platinum-blond brushfire who blew through a back door to the church, but it did him no good; he could not cry out, pull a gun or jump inside the car. Two gun thugs rushed Finola; she pulled herself loose from their clutches; she slammed their heads together; they slumped against their car, cross-eyed from the impact. She was soon tearing the door free of the car, tossing it aside, almost without a visible effort. She threw the bookends into the front seat; they offered no resistance to that, or to her next trick. Reaching under the car, she flipped it onto its side. They could scarcely hope to exit, through the missing door that faced the sky…
Creepy Tommy, beaming at her with the most uninviting blend of sleaze and wonderment, seemed invigorated by her appearance. “At last, she appears,” he remarked, no severity or apprehension audible, as if he had merely been kept waiting by a member of the restaurant staff. “The looker who gets the rotten job of ‘saving’ this dump, from fellas like us. Like me. I’ve wanted this day to come. Now you don’t even let us into your little club? I’m hurt.”
“You were asked nicely, to leave,” Finola barked, pushing her rolled sleeves further up her slender arms, which looked incapable of doing what would henceforth happen, until she shoved Tommy hard, against the driver’s side door of the car. He doubled up with laughter, not pain. She swung the door with one hand, sweeping bookends and Marko alike off of their feet. Marko was trying to process this, as Finola lifted him under his arms and threw him back inside of the church. She seized Violet with her other hand and dragged her back inside, too. Slamming the door shut behind them, she spun about and aimed a deathly stare at the thugs. Red-eyed, she bellowed, “Time to clean up, in the Kitchen!”
She advanced upon Tommy, cracking her knuckles. “You’re not the ordinary type of frail we meet in my line, are you?” he taunted. “You’ve got some real… what’s that word for fire in your belly, bravado, the whole do-gooder thing?” He snapped his fingers, as if alighting upon the answer to a question in some classroom, rather than a life-or-death confrontation out in the streets of the Big Apple. “Moxie, that’s it. Otherwise known as Finola Coughlin, am I right? Well, now, Moxie… are you a regular frail, who just slings a good line, or are you a regular hellcat?”
“I’ll show you who’s frail,” Finola huffed, even more incensed by the slang for a young woman than by the rest of his condescension. She balled her right fist, rocking back on one heel, and let fly with a haymaker that seemed fit to open a Tommy-shaped hope in the wall. After what she had already done, the creep should have cringed in terror. He did not, for as her fist arced toward his chin, he flicked his non-gun hand upward, deflecting the punch as if it had weighed no more than a feather. Finola squinted at him, not comprehending what had just happened, what could not have just happened, and Tommy took this as a cue to cuff her across her cheek, sending her to her knees, before him, on the pavement.
He seized a lock of her blond hair and yanked her head upward to force her to make eye contact with him, which she was intent upon doing anyhow. No hint of fear was visible in her expression, only outrage and disbelief. Tommy found something he liked. “You don’t like it when that happens,” he sneered. “That’s because it doesn’t happen to you, does it, doll? You just mow us working stiffs down like we’re bowling pins, isn’t that right? Guess even the mighty have to fall. Don’t you? Wait right here, I’ll be right out.” He stepped around her and reached for the door.
Which Marko threw open, and with Violet peering over his shoulder, he took in the scene: Finola staggering to her feet, as Tommy made to enter Ronan’s, on his mission of murder. Finola’s eyes grew wide, seeing how the gunman’s aim could not miss the husky Spanish guy or the young Puerto Rican woman, from this distance. Marko and Violet made what should have been a deadly mistake, by exchanging glances, just for a second. And then, Finola rose up behind Tommy…
All of them — Marko first, Finola second and Violet at last — launched at the oily gun thug. Marko delivered two punches, right to Tommy’s chest; Finola wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed hard; Violet could not fight with such ferocity, but she could, and she did, throw herself upon him, which knocked him down. Tommy could not cease laughing during the entire melee, even as various curses and grunts pierced the air. The three rained their blows upon him, until forced to back off by uniformed police officers from the Tenth Precinct, who took their statements.
As they watched a squad car drive off with Tommy handcuffed in the back, Violet turned to Finola, who shrugged off any notion that she was harmed. “Must have worn yourself out,” Marko speculated. “You tore up that car, like it was paper! Folks talk about you, all over this city — Moxie, the Mighty Maid of Hell’s Kitchen.”
“I’ve had better fights, I will admit,” Finola said with a wry smile, the first time they had seen one on her. “The Kitchen doesn’t need me to be some shrinking, well… not violet.” The woman named Violet laughed, reassured by the joke as well as Finola’s restored sturdiness. “I just can’t figure how he got the jump on me. I’m used to winning, Mister Urbina. I believe I can win — so, I do.”
“We did win,” Violet said. “We got him good. Maybe you just needed the help. I heard him say, he didn’t believe in anything. Might be why he could… well, do what he did. He’s some kind of doubting Tommy. Didn’t help him, more than a second.”
“Because we worked together?” Marko wondered. “I bet he believes that three are greater than one. I believe that I want to find that ranch in Montana, and get away from such men. But not yet.” He smiled at Violet. “Shall we, chica?”
As they moved back inside the church, Violet touched Finola’s arm. “Even you can’t fix this neighborhood all by yourself,” Violet whispered. “Marko is right, Miss Coughlin. You need help, if you’re going to fight these guys. I’m thinking I should introduce you to the people I work for. I help them. We just stopped a bunch of bad men, trying to blow up this new thing they got, the Hoover Dam, out in the West. Then we saved those poor folks from a tornado, in Tupelo.”
“They sound just like my kind of trouble, Miss Cuesta,” Finola said, holding the door to help her new friends walk back inside. “Doubting Tommy, I’m going to give you something to believe in: me, and mine!”
© Eric Wolf 2022.
[Smash crime with the Convincers: https://vocal.media/fiction/derring-duo-in-they-went-attaway.]
About the Creator
Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail: https://unsplash.com/@marcojodoin.
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