TITLE: The Venetian and the Rum Runner
COVER ARTIST: Lori Witt
New York City, 1924
Once their paths cross, their worlds will never be the same.
Danny Moore and his crew only meant to rob the hotel suites of rich guests. He wasn’t supposed to find himself in gangster Ricky il Sacchi’s room. And il Sacchi wasn’t supposed to wind up dead. Now Danny has the attention of another notorious gangster.
Carmine Battaglia is intrigued by the Irish thieves who would have made off with a huge score if not for il Sacchi’s death. They’re cunning, careful, and exactly what he needs for his rum running operation. But Danny’s already lost two brothers to the violence between New York’s Irish and Sicilian gangs, and he’s not about to sell his soul to Carmine.
With a gangster’s blood on his hands, Danny needs protection, whether he likes it or not. And that’s to say nothing of the generous pay, which promises to pull him and his crew—not to mention their families—out of destitution.
Working together brings Danny and Carmine to a détente, then to something so intense neither can ignore it. Something nearly enough to make them both forget the brutal tensions between their countrymen.
But the death of Ricky il Sacchi hasn’t been forgotten. And someone is determined to make Danny bleed for it.
The Venetian and the Rum Runner is a gay historical romantic suspense novel set during Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties.
CW: graphic violence, PTSD
January 2nd, 1924
At quarter to ten the second night after New Year’s, having arrived at the address on the card he’d been given, Danny Moore found himself standing in the falling snow outside a butcher shop.
It was still open despite the late hour. He supposed that wasn’t a surprise, especially as a young couple sauntered in through the front door in attire no one wore to visit the butcher. Clearly, then, this was not unlike the florist shop that acted as a benign and perfectly legal front for the speakeasy Danny frequented. Given that the man he was here to see was a powerful bootlegger, a front seemed more likely than Carmine Battaglia moonlighting in the meat business, particularly the business of staying open late to sell meat to customers in their finest evening wear.
Danny cast a wary glance around the dark and mostly deserted street, then walked inside. The butcher shop itself was nothing remarkable. Sausages and cuts of everything imaginable hung in the windows or were displayed in a glass case beside a large scale and a cash register. On the wall, prices were listed, but Danny didn’t bother to read them. He was not, after all, here to buy meat.
The young couple was gone, having likely been escorted through a secret door into the speakeasy beyond. A middle-aged Italian woman watched him through wire-rimmed spectacles.
Clearing his throat, Danny showed her the card. “I’m here to see—”
“You got an appointment?” The question was terse.
“I do, yes. At ten o’clock. With, um… With Mr. Carpenter.”
She gave a curt nod, turned away, picked up the telephone, and dialed. After a moment, she said, “Mr. Carpenter’s ten o’clock appointment is here.” She hung up and turned to him. “Wait right here.”
Danny waited. Another couple came through the door, the woman waving a long cigarette holder between her fingers as she and her companion laughed at something one of them must have said outside. She was blond, dressed in sparkling silver and green beneath a snow-dusted overcoat, and both her hair and skirt were as short as was fashionable these days. Her companion was in a smart suit and shined shoes. Clearly here to buy meat.
The man murmured something to the woman behind the counter, and the woman again picked up the telephone, this time saying something Danny didn’t hear. A moment later, an unseen door in the back opened, and the butcher stepped out, wiping his hands on his dingy white apron. With a sharp nod, he beckoned for the couple to come with him, and they followed without hesitation.
Outside, a pair of policemen strolled by. One cast a disinterested look through the windows, put his cigarette to his lips, and kept right on walking into the frigid night. They had to know what went on in here. It was hardly a secret what it meant when a regular business had patrons dressed for a night out coming in through the front door at this hour. Either the policemen didn’t care or they didn’t bother because there were dozens of places like this nearby. More likely, they didn’t see anything because a few crisp bills in their pockets said there was nothing to see.
“You here for Mr. Carpenter?” The voice pulled Danny’s attention from the vacant sidewalk where the police had been patrolling, and he turned to see a hulking Italian man in a suit glaring at him from behind the counter.
Danny cleared his throat. “I am, yes.”
A sharp gesture summoned him into the back of the butcher shop. Danny hesitated—whether or not it was a front for a speakeasy, this was a legitimate butcher shop, and he wasn’t sure he liked venturing away from the windows into a place with knives and meat hooks. Not with an Italian wise guy, and especially not after what had happened on New Year’s Eve.
The Italian glared at him. “You coming?”
Well, if he didn’t, then four of his friends would likely land in the workhouse soon. Or worse.
So, swallowing his nerves, Danny followed the man into a larger room in the back. Here, the butcher was methodically cleaving apart some creature’s hindquarters, and he eyed Danny and the Italian with no expression on his face.
At the other side of the room was a door. Danny and the Italian stepped through it, and Danny jumped when it banged shut behind him, sealing them into a narrow, dark stairway that was as cold as the January night outside. They walked silently down the stairs, and Danny tried not to liken this to descending into the pits of hell for a meeting with the Devil himself.
When they reached the bottom, the Italian faced him and held up a canvas bag.
“Put this on,” he ordered.
“Put it…” Danny eyed the bag, then the wise guy. “Why?”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You want to meet Mr. Carpenter or not?”
Well, no, now that he’d asked, but Danny didn’t have a lot of choice here. And he supposed now that he’d been into the tunnel behind the butcher shop, there was no turning back. He’d already seen too much.
Muttering a few choice words in Irish, Danny pulled the bag over his own head, and he tried not to let his mind linger on what exactly he was smelling. Something sour and decayed. Thinking any deeper than that, he’d probably throw up inside the bag. In fact, maybe that was what—
“This way.” The Italian took his arm, and what could Danny do but follow him?
They walked for what felt like miles. Maybe that was just his nerves, or maybe time seemed to be crawling by because of the horrid stench so close to his face. All he knew was he’d long since lost track of the turns and switchbacks, and that with every set of stairs—even those going up—he was sure he was getting closer to literal hell.
Finally, he was ordered to halt. Something squeaked, and he thought he heard a door open, but he wasn’t told to move, so he stood there stupidly and waited for something to happen.
The Italian’s gruff voice made him jump: “Your ten o’clock is here, boss.”
The response came in a smoother voice that made Danny’s already racing heart beat faster: “Bring him in.”
Danny was shoved unceremoniously forward, and he just managed to keep himself from falling. When he’d righted himself, the bag was yanked off his head.
He blinked a few times—the room was dimly lit by a few bare bulbs strung around where crown molding would have been in a classier place, but it was still bright for a man who’d been in darkness for the last… the last however long he’d been hooded.
A heavy metal door slammed shut behind him, and a lock clanged into place. It sounded like the kind of door they used for bank vaults, and that didn’t settle Danny’s nerves at all. There was a reason he and his crew had never bothered trying to rob banks.
As his eyes adjusted, he shivered and took in his surroundings. Aside from being cold, the room was rough, its floor made of wood but its walls out of ragged concrete. A few pipes went across the ceiling and along one wall, but otherwise it looked like an office—a desk with a couple of chairs and a telephone. Several ledgers and pens. It wasn’t even as big as the modest parlor in Danny’s Broome Street tenement apartment, and the low ceiling and dim light made it feel even more cramped and tight.
Or perhaps that was because of the locked door and the man gazing back at him from behind the broad desk.
He was Italian in the usual expensive suit, and he was plainly a gangster. As easy to recognize as Ricky il Sacchi. The way he carried himself, even while sitting down. The way he looked at Danny like he owned everything in this room including him. The pinstriped slate gray suit and the fedora on the desk. And who else but gangsters held meetings in dark basements with men summoned by threats? He couldn’t have been anyone other than a gangster, and Danny suspected this “Mr. Carpenter” was, in fact, Carmine Battaglia.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“It ain’t ‘kid,’” Danny growled, hoping his nerves didn’t betray him.
A dark eyebrow arched.
Danny gulped. “Daniel. My name is Daniel Moore.”
To his surprise the Italian got up and came around the desk. He was slightly shorter than Danny—an inch at most—and he looked Danny right in the eye as he extended a hand. “Carmine Battaglia.”
Unsure what else to do, Danny shook Battaglia’s hand.
So this was him. Carmine Battaglia. The gangster who’d demanded Danny’s presence and threatened to send four of his friends to the workhouse if he didn’t show.
And maybe if Danny hadn’t been so uneasy with this whole situation, he’d have spent a little more time focusing on those full lips and near-black eyes. Or the way the bare electric bulbs cast harsh shadows on sharp, olive-skinned features.
He’s one of them, Danny fiercely reminded himself. Stop staring and find a way out of here.
“Well? You wanted to see me.” Danny spread his arms. “I’m here.”
“Yes, you are.” Battaglia leaned casually against his desk, head tilted his head as he studied Danny intently. “I understand you’re in charge of a group of thieves who broke into some suites at the Plaza Hotel on New Year’s Eve.”
Danny swallowed, not sure how to proceed.
An odd smile formed on Battaglia’s lips. “I’m not the police, Daniel. I’m—”
“You’re a gangster.” The words came out with more venom than perhaps was wise. “Just tell me what you want so you won’t send my friends to the workhouse.”
Battaglia shook his head, chuckling softly. “I’m not interested in sending you or your friends to the workhouse.”
“But you said… If I didn’t come…”
“And you did come.” Battaglia shrugged. “You held up your end of the deal, and now I’ll hold up mine.”
It wasn’t that simple. It couldn’t be. Nothing ever was with gangsters involved.
“So what is it you want?”
“What I want is to put you and your crew to work.”
Danny blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I want to put—”
“Yeah, I heard that part.” Danny stared at him in disbelief. “You want us to come work for you. For gangsters. For Sicilian gangsters.”
Battaglia inclined his head. “You would hardly be the first Irishmen on my payroll.”
Setting his jaw, Danny glared at him. “Your kind put two of my brothers in the ground. I’d sooner work at Tammany Hall than with the likes of you.”
Battaglia’s expression hardened just slightly, but his voice stayed calm. “And you don’t think plenty of my kind are in the ground thanks to Irishmen?”
“With any luck, they’re in hell.”
The gangster’s eyebrow rose slowly.
Danny’s heart went wild. This was dangerous. So dangerous. He may as well have spat in the man’s face and cursed his mother.
Perhaps not the wisest thing to do when he was in a locked underground office with a powerful gangster and not the faintest clue how to get back to street level.
But he didn’t take it back.