The Seven Seven Club
"It was an honest mistake...or it was honestly stupid. Either way, I didn't mean anything by it."
"Is that so?"
Brass knuckles to my chin served as punctuation to his sentence. "Look, I'll make you a deal. You untie me and let me go and I'll skip town. Permanently. You'll never see me again. I swear."
"Is that so?"
Another punch. I spat blood and not for the first time that night. The goon had been pummeling me for what seemed like years. It couldn't have been that long since I wasn't dead yet. And I was in too much pain to be dead.
"Gee...you're quite the conversationalist. You know that, right?"
"Is that so?"
This one was so hard it knocked me and the chair I was tied to over. Maybe mouthing off to Knuckles wasn't the smartest idea I ever had, but it wasn't my dumbest either. Not by a long shot.
The Siete Siete Club was where all of Jimmy O'Flaherty's guys hung out. Most of his joints were pool halls or dingy bars with betting parlors in the back to bleed the suckers and boozehounds dry. Siete Siete was a place to be seen. Working stiffs would put on their best suits and take their girls there. The booze was overpriced and the food inferior, but the mopes didn't bat an eye when the bill came. Beneath the bow ties, spit shine, and glamor, it was still a grift.
The star attraction at Siete Siete was the floor show by Santanico Pandemonium. Five feet, nine inches of raven-haired beauty belting out Spanish love songs while wrapped in a sarong. I felt like telling them sarongs were more Pacific Island than Mexico, but I'm sure they cared more about showing off Santanico's toned, tanned midriff than ethnic authenticity.
I ordered a scotch and soda from the bar. I pulled out my money clip, but the bartender waived me off.
"You're Jimmy's new boy, right?" he said. "All Jimmy's boys drink for free."
I lifted my glass and there was a shriek behind me. One of the patrons had a waitress by the arm. She slapped him hard, but he didn't let go. The mountain of a man in a tailored gray suit next to me at the bar stood up. The waitress said, "He grabbed my ass."
The mountain's hand came out of his pocket wearing the biggest pair of brass knuckles I'd ever seen. He dropped the mook with one swing and motioned to the door. The mook's friends dragged him out the front door while the mountain returned to his barstool and beer.
The bartender said, "Knuckles, meet Jimmy's new boy. He's running collections down on 12th."
Knuckles eyed me with disinterest and said, "Is that so?"
I returned to my drink as the emcee went on stage. "Ladies and gentlemen. Senors y Senoritas. The Siete Siete Club is proud to present Miss Santanico Pandemonium."
Wild applause faded into silence as the spotlight came on. Santanico started singing slowly and tenderly. Nobody moved or spoke. It was as if time had stopped and all that existed was the girl and the song. The band abruptly came in and she started to sing her heart out. As the song reached its crescendo, her powerful voice almost drowned out the trumpets behind her. The place erupted into the loudest ovation I'd ever heard.
"Some show, eh?" said the bartender.
"You can say that again," I said.
Later in the evening Santanico came out and leaned against the bar next to me. She said, "The usual, Sal. And make it snappy."
She was wearing a tight, shimmering gold dress. The top was cut so low that it was on speaking terms with both scandalous and indecent. I said, "Some show you put on tonight."
"Glad you liked it," she said. She pulled a cigarette from her purse and I lit it for her. "I haven't seen you around before. Are you new in town?'
"Couple days," I said.
She tilted her head back and blew a smoke ring. "Been able to find any honest work in this crummy town?'
"I'm a hat salesman."
"Is that so? Men's hats or ladies too?"
"I'm interested in all kinds of hats," I said.
"Is that so? How is the hat business going?"
"With the weather like it is, business has been brisk."
"Is that so?"
"Sounds like you've been taking conversation tips from this guy," I said, nodding in Knuckles's direction.
She let out a long, loud, genuine laugh. She said, "So, funny man, how about you meet me backstage in five minutes. I'll show you my favorite....hat."
Five minutes later, I was knocking on her dressing room door. She said, "Come in."
I opened the door and saw she was wearing her favorite hat. And nothing else.
"Why don't you come over here and get a better look at its shape."
She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me long and hard. The kind of kiss you hear about, but don't quite believe. She purred, "Mmmmm......that's what mama likes."
"That's my stage name," she said as she nibbled my ear. "Back here it's just Betty Jo Callahan. The black hair and a little makeup are enough to convince these yabbos I'm at least part Mex."
Her name stuck in my head. Why did it sound so familiar?
The door flew open and Jimmy O'Flaherty was there. His face was as red as his hair.
Then I remembered the story of little Betty Jo Callahan from Uniondale. She grew up to marry gangster Jimmy O'Flaherty.
As I laid on my back on that basement floor, I couldn't help but laugh at what a schnook I was. Knuckles stood over me with a gun pointed in my face. He said, "Any last words? You're about to meet your maker."
I smiled and said the only thing I could think of, "Is that so?"