Speak Easy

By: Melanie Harlow

Chapter One

Friday, July 13th, 1923

The woman approached me at the counter, keeping her eyes low. “A quart of maple syrup,” she said, her voice hushed.

I didn’t recognize her. “What kind?”

“Canadian.” Clutching her purse to her stomach, she peeked at me from beneath the brim of her hat.

“What are you making?”


I nodded. If she’d answered waffles, or even pancakes, I’d have directed her to the east wall of the store, where tin cans of actual maple syrup were stacked three high on a shelf. But since she knew the password, I named our price and took down the order and her address. She’d get her whisky in a day or so.

Bootlegging was that simple for a small operation like ours. The customers were loyal, the neighborhood grocery store was a legitimate cover, and thanks to the narrow waterway separating Detroit from Canada and its distilleries, our whisky supply seemed endless. Timely payoffs assured us of little trouble from city officials, and the local cops were some of our best customers. So when the bell over Jefferson Market’s front door jangled again that afternoon, I greeted the customer with a smile. But as the well-dressed man removed his light gray fedora and walked toward me at the back of the store, the air took on a strange charge, and gooseflesh rippled across my skin.

It was him. The sheik.

He’d been in twice in the last week. Each time, he’d said practically nothing, bought one pack of Fatima cigarettes, and paid with a fifty-dollar bill. I thought of him as the sheik because he reminded me of a movie star: dark, silent, and handsome in that delighted-villain sort of way, as if he’d just tied a girl to the train tracks and now it was time for a cocktail and a smoke.

 “Good afternoon.” His voice was deep and smooth, just how I imagined a screen idol’s should be. “Are you Miss O’Mara?”

I blinked. He knows my name. “Yes. Can I help you?”

“Give this to your father.” He pulled an envelope from his coat and laid it on the counter, next to the cash register. When I reached for it, he placed his hand over mine, pinning it to the cool marble. A buzz swept up my arm as our eyes met. His were so dark they appeared black, and a small scar rested at the top of one cheekbone. “Tell him to answer by tonight.”

It took me a moment to find my voice. “All right.”

Replacing his hat on top of his slick dark hair, he walked out without looking back. The bell jangled once more, and I released the breath I’d been holding, leaning on the counter for support. I jumped when I heard a voice behind me.

“Tiny?” My older sister Bridget poked her head in from the stockroom, her long brown hair coming loose from its knot at her nape. “Daddy’s ready for you to make deliveries.”

Quickly I swiped the envelope into the front pocket of my middy blouse. “Should I go now?”

“Just let me put the bread in the oven,” Bridget said, disappearing into the stockroom again. She and her children lived in the apartment over the store. At almost twenty-one, I was more than ready to move out of our father’s house and get my own apartment, but it would have to wait. There were two more daughters after me who needed tending, and with our mother gone and Bridget widowed with three young boys, I wasn’t going anywhere soon.

While I waited, I fingered the envelope in my pocket. The sheik said Daddy had to answer by tonight, but what was the question? Was he a bootlegger too? He looked a little older than me, but still in his twenties, and wealthy, if his clothing was any indication. He wore exquisite three-piece suits. First black, then blue, and today, gray. I looked at the back of my hand, where he’d touched me, then brought it to my lips.

“What are you doing?” Bridget’s voice startled me again, and she laughed.

Cheeks burning, I tucked my hand into my pocket. “Nothing. Can I go?”

She nodded. “I’ll bring the grocery sacks out to you in the alley.”

I exited through the stock room into the wet heat of a Michigan summer afternoon. In the alley, I pulled the envelope from my pocket and looked at it. Jack O’Mara was written on its ivory face in black ink, the cursive letters small and lean. The seal was tight. No way to tell what its contents were, no clue as to who the sheik might be or whom he worked for.

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