By Team Bells
The embroidered pattern on the chair rubbed against the bottom of Thor’s thigh agitating a cut he got the night before in the tunnels. He focused instead on the voluptuous flesh spilling out of the red silk camisole he saw in front of him. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. Her breath on his ear felt wet and heavy. His heart pounded faster. A flicker of light sparkled just behind the lace curtains on the window.
Ruth whispered, “U-huh, u-huh, it’s hot.”
The temperature seemed to be rising around him. He didn’t care the heat comforted him and the sticky sweat made the experience all that more dangerous.
He feels a vibration in his ear.
She arches her back and covers her ears with both her hands.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. The ringing alarm violates their senses and their bodies become drenched in water pouring from the ceiling.
“What the?” Thor says standing up accidentally dropping Ruth off his lap to the floor.
She gets up and runs to the window, pushes the curtains aside, and sees flames on the side of the building. She grabs her crimson dress and frantically throws it over her head. “Fire.”
Thor pulls up his pants and draws the suspenders over his shoulders. “Where’s my shirt?”
Ruth scans the room, spots the shirt on the floor, picks it up with her foot and kicks it toward him. “Let’s get out of here.”
Thor grabs his jacket from the back of the embroidered chair and checks the top front pocket for his flask. The metal is hot to the touch. He holds one hand out to Ruth and uses his jacket as a glove to open the front door to the hotel room. “Come on.”
Ruth shakes her head. “I can’t leave here with you.”
“Now is no time to put on airs.”
“For all I know Alejandro’s train has just arrived and he could be downstairs waiting for me. It’s too dangerous.”
Alejandro’s intimidating finely toned build flashes before Thor’s mind’s eye. He’s not afraid, but he’s not opposed to being cautious. “You’re right. Jake’s tonight.”
Ruth runs over to him, kisses him on the cheek, and promptly wipes off the lipstick mark. She reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket, grabs the flask takes a swig, puts it back in his pocket, and looks him squarely in the eye and says, “Don’t make me wait.”
Thor watches her dash out the door and then heads the opposite way towards the back stairs down to the main lobby of the Benson. He takes a moment to survey the scene. The leaves of fern plants perched atop marble columns look sleepy, dust from velvet couches mingle with the smoke in the air, glasses filled with ice and plates with finger sandwiches on cocktail tables are abandoned, the pianist continues to play a happy tune, porters hold small barking dogs on leashes, and mother’s are frantically screaming and searching for family members. Firemen rush up the stairs. The heavy gold and maroon drapes look like they could go ablaze in mere seconds and the crystal chandeliers could come crashing down if the flames reach the lobby ceiling.
Thor spots a route to the men’s room and makes his escape. He maneuvers through a flood of people to the dark heavy black lacquer bathroom door. He pushes it open and sees a men’s bathroom much like many in and around Portland, but a bit more upscale since it’s in the Benson hotel. Thankfully, the bathroom attendant has fled. The porcelain urinals are large and wide with drains on the floor, the walls are marble and cold to the touch, and the brown, maroon, and beige mosaic tile floor looks older than it should. In the corner of the room is a large dark brown cabinet holding towels and additional rolls of toilet paper.
Thor peeks out the bathroom door to ensure no one is headed in this direction. He scurries over to the cabinet and moves it to the left with ease. Behind the cabinet is a small wooden door. Only a few people know to look for such an escape and if Mr. Benson, being his teetotaler self, knew of the existence of this door he would surely have it boarded. Thor opens the door to reveal a labyrinth of secret passages that connect various businesses to the river. He knows these tunnels since he uses them to routinely shuttle booze throughout the town to the multiple speakeasies he supplies. Now, it’s just the escape Thor needs to flee this burning building.
He bends down to enter the brick lined portal and reaches for the doorway lantern. Thor ignites the wick with his engraved silver Zippo lighter; the words “Eternal Flame” are etched on its front face. A gift from Ruth that she gave him a year ago just before she boarded a boat to South America with her new groom, Alejandro. Now she was back and Thor could feel himself slipping back under her spell. But why was she back? Thor couldn’t be sure if he was the reason for her return.
Feeling his way along the dense dirt wall, Thor moves quickly to escape the flames of the hotel. He comes to an unfamiliar fork in the tunnel. Thor didn’t typically use the Benson’s tunnel entrance and found himself in new territory. Voices coming from the tunnel make him pause. There’s a familiar voice he can’t quite place. Quickly he extinguishes the light in his lantern and peaks down the tunnel on the right. Pitch black. He crosses over to look down the tunnel on the left. He sees a flickering light in the distance and hears muffled voices.
Moving quietly and slowly along the left tunnel, Thor strains to hear the conversation.
He hears a voice that sounds a bit gruff, “We just got in a shipment that was tagged for Thor, but this should take care of that.”
The familiar voice says, ”Bueno.”
“Bueno? Whatever. I expect payment at pickup.” The gruff voice retorts.
“It will be delivered upon the boat’s arrival at the port tomorrow.”
The flickering light begins to fade and Thor hears footsteps walking away from him.
‘The arrival of the boat?’ Thor expects a shipment of premium whiskey to arrive tomorrow. He already has the contents slated for Jake’s and other customers in the North End.
‘That couldn’t be my shipment they’re talking about,’ he thought, ‘Or could it?’
Thor wonders for a moment, ‘Should he follow the voices to find out more? Or should he backtrack to the fork in the path?’
He trusts his instincts and backtracks to go through the tunnel on the right. It leads him to an exit. He’s apprehensive about opening the door not knowing where it leads. He looks behind him down the dark tunnel and opens the door with caution. The light is blinding as he emerges from the blackness. He shades his eyes with his hand forming a visor. He steps out onto the cobblestone street and quickly backs up to avoid getting hit by a black Ford headed toward him. Surveying up and down the street he realizes he’s a block from the port. Time to check on his shipment. He hears the sound of sirens and as he crosses the street he looks behind him and sees the Benson in flames.
“Ruth, hope you knew what you were doing and got out alright,” He mumbles to himself.
As Thor questions the safety of his shipment, he tracks down his port engineer to get more information.
He sees a short stout guy in a striped shirt yelling at the crew around him. “Tommy, how’s tomorrow’s arrival looking?”
“Good, boss. Should be here by noon.”
“Under no circumstance may you release this to anyone but me.”
As Thor turns to walk away, he thinks to ask Tommy one more thing. “By the way, is it the same crew?”
Tommy nods, “Of course.”
“Didn’t take on any new kids?”
“All looks good, boss.”
Thor knew he had just been reassured, but something still didn’t feel right. He shook off the feeling and headed to his room above Erickson’s. It got so loud at night there that the only time to get a little shut-eye was during the day.
* * * * * *
Women cackling and men howling woke Thor from his slumber. He could hear banjo music seeping through the floor below. The lampposts outside the window were lit giving off an orange glow. It was time to head over to Jake’s. He left his room and stopped at a heavy steel door at the bottom of the stairs. He knocked twice, waited, and knocked three more times. A piece of metal slid aside from the other side of the door.
“Thor, you alone?”
Thor nodded. Pepe, that little runt who couldn’t cut it as a jockey, knew better than to ask Thor if he was alone. It wasn’t Thor’s style to bring people there. He didn’t shit where he ate, after all.
The heavy door opened just enough for Thor to enter. He walks over to the bar and straddles a stool. “Whiskey, neat.”
Looking at the mirror above the bar, Thor surveys the room. It’s pretty empty. He catches a glimpse of himself. His wavy red hair is frizzy at the ends.
“Damn humidity.” He mumbles as he uses his fingers to push his hair off his forehead. He notices he could use a shave, too. He’s sporting a bit of a three o’clock shadow. ‘That’s ok,’ he thinks. ‘Ruth likes her men rough.’
A large, burley man with thinning black hair and a handlebar mustache greets him from behind the bar. “What’s the good word, Thor?”
“Shipment coming in, Jimmy. I’ll have you restocked tomorrow night.” He wasn’t about to screw up his order. Jimmy looked and acted more like a bouncer than a business owner.
“Better be. I’m hearing things and they’re aiming to charge double.”
Thor offers up a chuckle trying not to sound too nervous, “Yeah? Who’s talkin’?”
“Word on the street, that’s all. People sayin’ you can’t be counted on.”
Thor takes a swig of his drink and holds the glass steady in the air, “Words are free Jimmy, that’s why everyone throws them around.” He finishes the gulp of whiskey left in the glass. “I said tomorrow.” He bangs the glass down on the bar and heads to the door.
Pepe rushes to open the door.
“See you, Pep. Stay out of trouble.”
Thor had an uneasy feeling about going to Jake’s to meet Ruth, but he couldn’t stay away. As he walked over to the restaurant he noticed the streets damp with fresh dew on the ground. The reflections from the headlights of passing cars illuminated the cobblestone road. It reminds him of the first time he met Ruth just three years ago. She was running across a street dropping the books under her arm on the ground. He had never seen anything like her. She couldn’t have been much older than 18 or 19. She looked so delicate with her blonde locks and thin frame, but there was a glint of strength in her dark brown eyes that stopped him dead in his tracks. He rushed to help her, made some awkward small talk, and they ducked into a side café to get to know each other over a cup of coffee. Well, she had tea. The minute she brushed her leg against his under the table he knew he had to be with her.
The light from Jake’s brightened up the street corner. He made his way through the front door. He could smell a mix of musty ocean and lemon in the air. Bright coral-colored shrimp cocktails are sprinkled among tables. He walks through the restaurant to the back room and looks around. No Ruth. He approaches the maître de and asks for a table in the corner with a view of the front door. Within moments he is seated and a napkin placed on his lap.
The waiter dressed in a white coat comes over to his table, “Can I take your order, sir?”
“I’m waiting for someone. Coffee while I wait.”
“Very good, sir.” The waiter leaves.
Thor keeps a close watch on the door. In the background, he hears a familiar voice. The tone is melodic, but assured. He turns to see Ruth sitting with a tall strong-looking man with slicked back dark brown hair wearing a well-fitted charcoal gray suit. Alejandro!
He looks again at Ruth, who gives him a knowing glance and tucks a small strand of blond hair behind her right ear. Thor stays seated and lifts his left hand with his forefinger raised in the air signaling the waiter to return to his table.
“Looks like I won’t be meeting someone after all,” Thor informs the waiter.
“I see. Shall I take your order?”
“Shrimp cocktail and a chop, rare.”
“Very good, sir.” The waiter takes the menu, gives a slight bow of the head, and leaves the table.
Thor, stunned, sits there for a moment wondering about his next move. He did not expect to see Alejandro. Though Ruth does look stunning dressed in a silk silver evening gown. She clearly escaped the fire unscathed. He inches himself a bit closer to the table so that he is in a better position to hear the conversation between Alejandro and Ruth.
He sees Alejandro take Ruth’s hand across the table, brings it to his lips, and kisses it gently, “Darling, I’m so happy you made it out of the hotel alright.”
“Yes, it was quite trying, but we’re here now, together.”
“I do hope I can conclude my business here quickly.”
Ruth takes her hand back and glances at Thor, “Yes, darling that would be best. Please excuse me while I go to the powder room.” She raises an eyebrow signaling to Thor that she’s about to leave the table.
Alejandro gets up from his chair as she stands to leave.
The waiter quickly comes by and folds Ruth’s napkin and places it on her plate.
Alejandro nods to the waiter, “Bueno.”
Thor glares at the back of Alejandro’s head, ‘Bueno, indeed.’ He leaves his table and saunters to the bathroom where he sees Ruth. Her slinky silver gown hugs her body and he just wants to rip that dress off her. He must focus.
“Thor, I’m so glad you got out alright.”
“I see no harm has come to you. When can we finish what we started?”
“Soon, my darling, soon.”
“What is Alejandro’s business anyway?”
“Import. Export. Nothing to concern you,” She slips her hand into his front pocket.
Thor’s breath quickens. “I can meet you later. Can you slip away?”
“Not tonight, my love,” Ruth places her mouth close to Thor’s ear and whispers, “I have a plan. Soon there’ll be all the time in the world.”
Thor smiles as he smells the scent of gardenias on her neck. She removes her hand from his pocket and pushes open the ladies room door. Her dress is backless and he is sure he will be dreaming of the invisible line down her back later this evening.
He walks back to his table and takes his seat. The shrimp cocktail has been served. Ruth returns to her table. He allows himself one final long look at her and then picks up a shrimp by the tail and shoves it into his mouth. Thor can’t contain his hunger any longer.
He doesn’t get a chance to finish the first shrimp, when Francis, the owner and one of Thor’s best customers sits at his table.
“How is everything, Thor?”
“If I could get to it, I am sure it will be fine.”
“Couldn’t be better, you should be very happy with your order tomorrow.” Thor finishes the shrimp in his hand.
“About that.” Francis looks apprehensive.
Thor raises his left eyebrow.
“I won’t be needing that delivery tomorrow.”
“Business slow?” Thor asks.
Francis rocks his head back and forth appearing as if he doesn’t know what to say.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“My partner wants to try a new distributor.”
“I see,” Thor picks up another shrimp and finishes it in one bite.
“It, it’s just this one time,” Francis stutters.
“I see.” Thor makes a fist on the table.
Francis looks at Thor’s fist and subtly shrinks and gets up from the table, “Dinner’s on the house tonight.”
Thor glares at Francis as he walks away and once he’s out of sight Thor rests his eyes on the back of Alejandro’s head and says, “I see.”
* * * * * *
The morning sun shines through Thor’s window. He wakes with one thought on his mind: Alejandro. Why would he want his business? Isn’t his family in crops in South America? His stomach is queasy. Thor decides to take his morning coffee at the Benson. There’s a particular doorman working that should be able to clear up a few things for him.
Standing outside of the Benson, he notices the building doesn’t look too bad from the fire. There are a few black soot marks surrounding some windows, but not much more damage than that. He walks up to the front door and sees Eddie. If anyone knows what’s going on in this town its Eddie, the best doorman in Portland. He nods at him; Eddie motions him to go around to the side entrance.
Thor stands at the side door tapping his foot and folds a $20 bill in a square and secures it in the palm of his hand before Eddie appears.
Thor shakes his hand leaving the $20 bill with Eddie. “I see the place didn’t burn to the ground.”
“Yeah, it was just a minor fire that was easily contained. Sure did cause a lot of excitement here yesterday.”
“Excitement, yes.” Thor thinks of his afternoon with Ruth. “Tell me about Alejandro. What’s his import/export business?”
“It’s coffee. He has some big deal going on with all the hotels in town.”
“Coffee? Is that code for something? There’s someone moving in on my territory. Do you know anything?”
Eddie looks up at Thor, “I have heard of someone with deep pockets making some noise down at the port.”
“Really? Do they have any muscle?”
“They don’t need muscle, they’ve got plenty of green.”
“Who has that much ambition?”
Eddie shrugs his shoulders.
Thor droops his head and scratches his forehead. “Thanks, Eddie.”
Eddie heads back to the front of the building while Thor enters the Benson and sits in the ground floor restaurant and orders a coffee and a pastry.
Nothing is adding up for Thor. Who has that much money to take over his business? What could this guy be promising his customers? He sat at the hotel for over an hour and all thoughts came back to Alejandro. Coffee is a good cover for bootlegging. Maybe he knows about the affair with Ruth. Something is still amiss.
Thor looks at his watch it’s time to head down to the docks. He briskly walks a few blocks and then breaks into a run the rest of the way to the dock. He spots the ship with crates of whiskey a few yards down. He sees Tommy by the boat.
“How’s it lookin’ Tommy,” Thor calls to him.
Tommy holds up his hand in a halt position.
Thor stops and sees a figure in front of Tommy wearing a fedora and a a long trench coat. “Tommy, what’s going on?”
“Afraid this isn’t your shipment anymore.”
“What? That’s impossible!” Thor cries.
“Not so impossible,” a familiar voice comes from the person standing in front of Tommy.
“Excuse me, do I know you?”
The person turns around and takes off the fedora and her long blonde hair comes skating down her shoulders. “Of course you do.”
“Ruth! How could it be? Are you really out to take my business?” He cries in astonishment.
“No, my darling, nothing is as it seems in the Rose City.”
© Joni Blecher and Shelly J. Semm