The year is 1947, and Ms. Etta's Fast House is the hottest nightclub this side of Chicago. The city's fastest-talking street hustlers rub elbows here with the rich and famous, and anyone with enough cash in their wallet can drink like a king and dance the night away. Life is good--until a stranger named Baltimore Floyd strolls into town. . .
Handsome and charming, Baltimore is a hustler with a penchant for stirring up trouble. Everyone adores him, including Etta Adams, the matron of Ms. Etta's Fast House. But before he can imagine settling down with one woman, Baltimore is up for a little action, which is how he hooks up with a corrupt cop's wife. In the blink of an eye, Baltimore finds himself on trial for a crime he didn't commit. Now, to keep him from hanging, the patrons of Ms. Etta's Fast House will need to heal their heartache and come together before the world beyond the Ville's borders tears them apart. . .
Praise for the Novels of Victor McGlothin. . .
"McGlothin's tale is sophisticated and sexy, with the plotting and pacing of first-rate noir." --Publishers Weekly
"An absolute page-turner. . .intriguing and thought-provoking." --Kimberla Lawson Roby, New York Times bestselling author
|8.04(w) x 5.46(h) x 0.88(d)
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Ms. Etta's Fast House
By Victor McGlothin
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Victor McGlothin
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePenny Worth o' Blues
Three months deep into 1947, a disturbing calm rolled over St. Louis, Missouri. It was unimaginable to foresee the hope and heartache that one enigmatic season saw fit to unleash, mere inches from winter's edge. One unforgettable story changed the city for ever. This is that story.
Watkins Emporium was the only black-owned dry goods store for seven square blocks and the pride of "The Ville," the city's famous black neighborhood. Talbot Watkins had opened it when the local Woolworth's fired him five years earlier. He allowed black customers to try on hats before purchasing them, which was in direct opposition to store policy. The department store manager had warned him several times before that apparel wasn't fit for sale after having been worn by Negroes. Subsequently, Mr. Watkins used his life savings to start a successful business of his own with his daughter, Chozelle, a hot-natured twenty-year-old who had a propensity for older fast-talking men with even faster hands. Chozelle's scandalous ways became undeniably apparent to her father the third time he'd caught a man running from the backdoor of his storeroom, half-dressed and hell-bent on eluding his wrath. Mr. Watkins clapped an iron pad lockon the rear door after realizing he'd have to protect his daughter's virtue, whether she liked it or not. It was a hard pill to swallow, admitting to himself that canned meat wasn't the only thing getting dusted and polished in that backroom. However, his relationship with Chozelle was just about perfect, compared to that of his meanest customer.
"Penny! Git your bony tail away from that there dress!" Halstead King grunted from the checkout counter. "I done told you once, you're too damned simple for something that fine." When Halstead's lanky daughter snatched her hand away from the red satin cocktail gown displayed in the front window as if a rabid dog had snapped at it, he went right on back to running his mouth and running his eyes up and down Chozelle's full hips and ample everything else. Halstead stuffed the hem of his shirttail into his tattered work pants and then shoved his stubby thumbs beneath the tight suspenders holding them up. After licking his lips and twisting the ends of his thick gray handlebar mustache, he slid a five dollar bill across the wooden countertop, eyeing Chozelle suggestively. "Now, like I was saying, How 'bout I come by later on when your daddy's away and help you arrange thangs in the storeroom?" His plump belly spread between the worn leather suspender straps like one of the heavy grain sacks he'd loaded on the back of his pickup truck just minutes before.
Chozelle had a live one on the hook, but old man Halstead didn't stand a chance of getting at what had his zipper about to burst. Although his appearance reminded her of a rusty old walrus, she strung him along. Chozelle was certain that five dollars was all she'd get from the tight-fisted miser, unless of course she agreed to give him something worth a lot more. After deciding to leave the lustful old man's offer on the counter top, she turned her back toward him and then pretended to adjust a line of canned peaches behind the counter. "Like what you see, Mr. Halstead?" Chozelle flirted. She didn't have to guess whether his mouth watered, because it always did when he imagined pressing his body against up hers. "It'll cost you a heap more than five dollars to catch a peek at the rest of it," she informed him.
"A peek at what, Chozelle?" hissed Mr. Watkins suspiciously, as he stepped out of the side office.
Chozelle stammered while Halstead choked down a pound of culpability. "Oh, nothing, Papa. Mr. Halstead's just thinking about buying something nice for Penny over yonder." Her father tossed a quick glance at the nervous seventeen-year-old obediently standing an arm's length away from the dress she'd been dreaming about for weeks. "I was telling him how we'd be getting in another shipment of ladies garments next Thursday," Chozelle added, hoping that the lie sounded more plausible then. When Halstead's eyes fell to the floor, there was no doubting what he'd had in mind. It was common knowledge that Halstead King, the local moonshiner, treated his only daughter like an unwanted pet and that he never shelled out one thin dime toward her happiness.
"All right then," said Mr. Watkins, in a cool calculated manner. "We'll put that there five on a new dress for Penny. Next weekend she can come back and get that red one in the window she's been fancying." Halstead started to argue as the store owner lifted the money from the counter and folded it into his shirt pocket but it was gone for good, just like Penny's hopes of getting anything close to that red dress if her father had anything to say about it. "She's getting to be a grown woman and it'd make a right nice coming-out gift. Good day, Halstead," Mr. Watkins offered, sealing the agreement.
"Papa, you know I've had my heart set on that satin number since it came in," Chozelle whined, as if the whole world revolved around her.
Directly outside of the store, Halstead slapped Penny down onto the dirty sidewalk in front of the display window. "You done cost me more money than you're worth," he spat. "I have half a mind to take it out of your hide."
"Not unless you want worse coming to you," a velvety smooth voice threatened from the driver's seat of a new Ford convertible with Maryland plates.
Halstead glared at the stranger then at the man's shiny beige Roadster. Penny was staring up at her handsome hero, with the buttery complexion, for another reason all together. She turned her head briefly, holding her sore eye then glanced back at the dress in the window. She managed a smile when the man in the convertible was the only thing she'd ever seen prettier than that red dress. Suddenly, her swollen face didn't sting nearly as much.
"You ain't got no business here, mistah!" Halstead exclaimed harshly. "People known to get hurt messin' where they don't belong."
"Uh-uh, see, you went and made it my business by putting your hands on that girl. If she was half the man you pretend to be, she'd put a hole in your head as sure as you're standing there." The handsome stranger unfastened the buttons on his expensive tweed sports coat to reveal a long black revolver cradled in a shoulder holster. When Halstead took that as a premonition of things to come, he backed down, like most bullies do when confronted by someone who didn't bluff so easily. "Uh-huh, that's what I thought," he said, stepping out of his automobile idled at the curb. "Miss, you all right?" he asked Penny, helping her off the hard cement. He noticed that one of the buckles was broken on her run over shoes. "If not, I could fix that for you. Then, we can go get your shoe looked after." Penny swooned as if she'd seen her first sunrise. Her eyes were opened almost as wide as Chozelle's, who was gawking from the other side of the large framed window. "They call me Baltimore, Baltimore Floyd. It's nice to make your acquaintance, miss. Sorry it had to be under such unfavorable circumstances."
Penny thought she was going to faint right there on the very sidewalk she'd climbed up from. No man had taken the time to notice her, much less talk to her in such a flattering manner. If it were up to Penny, she was willing to get knocked down all over again for the sake of reliving that moment in time.
"Naw, suh, Halstead's right," Penny sighed after giving it some thought. "This here be family business." She dusted herself off, primped her pigtails, a hairstyle more appropriate for much younger girls, then she batted her eyes like she'd done it all of her life. "Thank you kindly, though," Penny mumbled, noting the contempt mounting in her father's expression. Halstead wished he'd brought along his gun and his daughter was wishing the same thing, so that Baltimore could make him eat it. She understood all too well that as soon as they returned to their shanty farmhouse on the outskirts of town, there would be hell to pay.
"Come on, Penny," she heard Halstead gurgle softer than she'd imagined he could. "We ought to be getting on," he added as if asking permission to leave.
"I'll be seeing you again, Penny," Baltimore offered. "And next time, there bet' not be one scratch on your face," he said, looking directly at Halstead. "It's hard enough on women folk as it is. They shouldn't have to go about wearing reminders of a man's shortcomings."
Halstead hurried to the other side of the secondhand pickup truck and cranked it. "Penny," he summoned, when her feet hadn't moved an inch. Perhaps she was waiting on permission to leave too. Baltimore tossed Penny a wink as he helped her up onto the tattered bench seat.
"Go on now. It'll be all right or else I'll fix it," he assured her, nodding his head in a kind fashion and smiling brightly.
As the old pickup truck jerked forward, Penny stole a glance at the tall silky stranger then held the hand Baltimore had clasped inside his up to her nose. The fragrance of his store-bought cologne resonated through her nostrils for miles until the smell of farm animals whipped her back into a stale reality, her own.
It wasn't long before Halstead mustered up enough courage to revert back to the mean tyrant he'd always been. His unforgiving black heart and vivid memories of the woman who ran off with a traveling salesman fueled Halstead's hatred for Penny, the girl his wife left behind. Halstead was determined to destroy Penny's spirit since he couldn't do the same to her mother.
"Git those mason jar crates off'n the truck while I fire up the still!" he hollered. "And you might as well forgit that man in town and ever meeting him again. His meddling can't help you way out here. He's probably on his way back east already." When Penny moved too casually for Halstead's taste, he jumped up and popped her across the mouth. Blood squirted from her bottom lip. "Don't make me tell you again," he cursed. "Ms. Etta's havin' her spring jig this weekend and I promised two more cases before sundown. Now git!"
Penny's injured lip quivered. "Yeah, suh," she whispered, her head bowed.
As Halstead waddled to the rear of their orange brick and oak, weather-beaten house, cussing and complaining about wayward women, traveling salesmen and slick strangers, he shouted additional chores. "Stack them crates up straight this time so's they don't tip over. Fetch a heap of water in that barrel, bring it around yonder and put my store receipts on top of the bureau in my room. Don't touch nothin' while you in there neither, useless heifer," he grumbled.
"Yeah, suh, I will. I mean, I won't," she whimpered. Penny allowed a long strand of blood to dangle from her angular chin before she took the hem of her faded dress and wiped it away. Feeling inadequate, Penny became confused as to in which order her chores were to have been performed. She reached inside the cab of the truck, collected the store receipts and crossed the pebble covered yard. She sighed deeply over how unfair it felt, having to do chores on such a beautiful spring day, and then she pushed open the front door and wandered into Halstead's room. She overlooked the assortment of loose coins scattered on the night stand next to his disheveled queen sized bed with filthy sheets she'd be expected to scrub clean before the day was through.
On the corner of the bed frame hung a silver-plated Colt revolver. Sunlight poured through the half-drawn window shade, glinting off the pistol. While mesmerized by the opportunity to take matters into her own hands, Penny palmed the forty-five carefully. She contemplated how easily she could have ended it all with one bullet to the head, hers. Something deep inside wouldn't allow Penny to hurt another human, something good and decent, something she didn't inherit from Halstead.
"Penny!" he yelled, from outside. "You got three seconds to git outta that house and back to work!" Startled, Penny dropped the gun onto the uneven floor and froze, praying it wouldn't go off. Halstead pressed his round face against the dusty window to look inside. "Goddammit! Gal, you've got to be the slowest somebody. Git back to work before I have to beat some speed into you."
The puddle of warm urine Penny stood in confirmed that she was still live. It could have just as easily been a pool of warm blood instead. Thoughts of ending her misery after her life had been spared fleeted quickly. She unbuttoned her thin cotton dress, used it to mop the floor then tossed it on the dirty clothes heap in her bedroom. Within minutes, she'd changed into an undershirt and denim overalls. Her pace was noticeably revitalized as she wrestled the crates off the truck as instructed. "Stack them crates," Penny mumbled to herself. "Stack 'em straight so's they don't tip over. Then fetch the water." The week before, she'd stacked the crates too high and a strong gust of wind toppled them over. Halstead was furious. He dragged Penny into the barn, tied her to a tractor wheel and left her there for three days without food or water. She was determined not to spend another three days warding off field mice and garden snakes.
Once the shipment had been situated on the front porch, Penny rolled the ten-gallon water barrel over to the well pump beside the cobblestone walkway. Halstead was busy behind the house, boiling sour mash and corn syrup in a copper pot with measures of grain. He'd made a small fortune distilling alcohol and peddling it to bars, juke joints and roadhouses. "Hurr'up, with that water!" he shouted. "This still's plenty hot. Coils try'n'a bunch."
Penny clutched the well handle with both hands and went to work. She had seen an illegal still explode when it reached the boiling point too quickly, causing the copper coils to clog when they didn't hold up to the rapidly increasing temperatures. Ironically, just as it came to Penny that someone had tampered with the neighbors still on the morning it blew up, a thunderous blast shook her where she stood. Penny cringed. Her eyes grew wide when Halstead staggered from the backyard screaming and cussing, with every inch of his body covered in vibrant yellow flames. Stumbling to his knees, he cried out for Penny to help him.
"Water! Throw the damned ... water!" he demanded.
She watched in amazement as Halstead writhed on the ground in unbridled torment, his skin melting, separating from bone and cartilage. In a desperate attempt, Halstead reached out to her, expecting to be doused with water just beyond his reach, as it gushed from the well spout like blood had poured from Penny's busted lip.
Penny raced past a water pail on her way toward the front porch. When she couldn't reach the top crate fast enough, she shoved the entire stack of them onto the ground. After getting what she went there for, she covered her nose with a rag as she inched closer to Halstead's charred body. While life evaporated from his smoldering remains, Penny held a mason jar beneath the spout until water spilled over onto her hand. She kicked the ten gallon barrel on its side then sat down on it. She was surprised at how fast all the hate she'd known in the world was suddenly gone and how nice it was to finally enjoy a cool, uninterrupted, glass of water.
At her leisure, Penny sipped until she'd had her fill. "Ain't no man supposed to treat his own blood like you treated me," she heckled, rocking back and forth slowly on the rise of that barrel. "Maybe that's cause you wasn't no man at all. You' just mean old Halstead. Mean old Halstead." Penny looked up the road when something in the wind called out to her. A car was headed her way. By the looks of it, she had less than two minutes to map out her future, so she dashed into the house, collected what she could and threw it all into a croaker sack. Somehow, it didn't seem fitting to keep the back door to her shameful past opened, so she snatched the full pail off the ground, filled it from the last batch of moonshine Halstead had brewed. If her mother had ever planned on returning, Penny reasoned that she'd taken too long as she tossed the pail full of white lightning into the house. As she lit a full box of stick matches, her hands shook erratically until the time had come to walk away from her bitter yesterdays and give up on living out the childhood that wasn't intended for her. "No reason to come back here, Momma," she whispered, for the gentle breeze to hear and carry away. "I got to make it on my own now."
Excerpted from Ms. Etta's Fast House by Victor McGlothin Copyright © 2007 by Victor McGlothin. Excerpted by permission.
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