There are rumors – stories – about Joe Hancock, the best criminal out there. It’s said he’s escaped the feds in 13 different states and has been part of over 6 different car chases, only one of which he got caught and sent to jail. Even then, he paid bail within two hours. If there’s anyone who can make a living being a professional thief, it’s Joe Hancock. Rumor has it he’s running a speakeasy somewhere in northern Illinois. Only the best of the best know the location of it, but everyone is allowed in – as long as they can find it.
I smile my most charming smile as I lean over the bar. It took Art and I two months to build, sand, stain, and install the whole thing, and she was my pride and joy. The name, Hancock, was ornately carved into the top of it. I figured if my legend were to live on, I might as well have a little fun with it. The night was just starting to pick up, it was only 8:30, and I knew well enough how busy Friday nights could get. I was freshly stocked from Art’s buddies, plus my own personal stock of homemade beer I brewed in the room behind the bar.
All of my alcohol was served in Coca cola bottles, it was my trademark. I smiled to myself as I pulled two bottles from under the counter. A pair of my regulars had just walked in and I was ready with a hand out for their money. They’d come in the East entrance, as usual.
Hancock’s Speakeasy had four entrances, each with their own well-paid guards watching out for the feds. Whoever owned this house before my grandparents had been paranoid of something, because their basement had four tunnels, each about half a mile’s walk underground before a ladder led up to the surface. When Art told me he inherited the house, I knew it would be the perfect place to run my crime business. As a cop, you might think he’d turn me in immediately, but I pay rent and give him half of the profits on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He wasn’t in favor of Prohibition anyway, so he let me set this place up. What he didn’t know was that I worked dozens of side jobs a week through this place. But hey, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
I took in a deep breath, letting the familiar aroma of the whole place settle in. I ran the bar six days a week, and it was slowly becoming home for me. The heady wave of alcohol that spread throughout the room when I first opened my personal brewery room today still hung in the air mixed with dust and the potent smell of oak from the wood that my bar was made of – all with a thin layer of sweat and body odor that was decidedly less pleasant.
Just then Art came through the door that leads out behind the bar. That’s the house entrance – for staff only. In which case is only Art and I. “Hey Joey, how are things going?” Art is the only person to ever call me Joey, and it never really bothered me. As a kid, if anyone called me anything other than Joelle, I would punch them. Anyone other than my brother, of course.
“Back from work so soon?” I asked. Usually his shift didn’t end until nine.
“Yeah, Bert came in early so I was relieved from my post. I’m just going to bathe and read for a bit. I’ll be down to help restock around 12:30.” I nodded and he patted my shoulder before heading upstairs. He didn’t mind endorsing crime, but for some reason he was squeamish about taking part in it. That might be because he’s a cop.
A lock of hair fell in my face and I blew it out of the way impatiently. The night had barely started and my braid was already coming undone. Over the next hour customers filtered in and ordered drinks, including a few jazz musicians with their instruments. I let them play here for 10% of their profits. It wasn’t much, but I enjoyed their music and I trusted them not to rat me out. They wanted liquor just as much as anyone.
“What’s a pretty lady like you working in a place like this?” A newbie. Most of the time I was grateful and welcoming to them, more customers meant more money, but some were just insufferable.
“I own the place,” I answered quickly with a sly smirk on my face. “Drink?” I asked. His eyes widened, then slit as he became skeptical.
“No, Joe Hancock does.” This man had a problem with closing his mouth. It stayed slightly open for the entirety of this conversation. I wanted nothing more than to give him a drink and send him out of here.
“Yes.” Men had to start to get it through their thick heads that women were perfectly capable of running their own businesses. I smiled condescendingly at the man, whose mouth was still, unfortunately, open. Realization slowly filled his eyes, and before embarrassing himself further, he turned to examine the chalkboard hanging up behind me. On bad days, we sold three different types of liquor. On good days, we sold maybe five. Today we had seven types written up on the board, and I was excited. He chose his drink – my homemade beer, the most expensive I ever sell. I smiled and leaned under the bar to grab one. Each shelf was labeled, since all of the bottles were the same. I handed him his drink, he handed me the money, and finally the transaction was over. His irritating stupidity made me wonder how the hell he got here in the first place. Someone must have told him, there was no way he figured it out on his own.
Most of my regulars had figured out who I am by now, especially those I’ve done business with before, but I never tell anyone outright that I’m Joe Hancock. I let them figure it out all on their own, because they usually never expect it.
A hand shot across the bar, wrapping around my wrist. I lifted a single eyebrow. “Women belong in the home,” a foul stench traveled from the man’s mouth to my nose. This was nothing I sold, he clearly snuck in his own liquor, a transgression I did not take lightly. The man in front of me had a thin greasy mustache to match his oily hair, and a sneer to tie it all up perfectly. He was so clearly one of the elites of society who thought he owned every building he stepped in.
“If you have a problem with my business, you can leave,” my voice was dangerously calm, I was holding back a storm. Incidents like this happened far too often for my liking, but in this society it was to be expected. Men owned the world, and they expected women to bow down and listen to them.
Mustache pulled my arm across the bar roughly, but before he could make another move, I slipped my hand easily from his grip and pushed my flat palm against his face. Blood dripped from his nose as he was dragged backwards by some of my regulars. I nodded to them, and they escorted him out.
In a world so hard for women to gain respect from men, I’d managed to do quite a job of it. Those who knew me, and what I stand for, were always ready to defend me. Plus, I sold them the best homemade beer in the country.
A few hours later, I was drenched in sweat and moving at lightning speed, raking in the money, when a very familiar face walked in the North entrance. My jaw dropped to the ground and my motions slowed. His hair was longer than I remembered, and darker. His curls were the same though, unkempt yet stylish. A new scar on his left cheek marred his perfection, but somehow it made him look more like himself. A dark trench coat adorned his shoulders, and it was open revealing suspenders over a white cotton shirt. He walked with a familiar gait that I’d never be able to misplace or forget.
He hadn’t changed much since I last saw him. On the other hand, while I was still irritatingly blonde and short, I’d changed quite a bit in the past few years. An air of mature confidence that had been reckless misjudgment last time I saw him surrounded me now and propelled me through the day. My clothes were considerably less conservative, yet responsible at the same time. Art called me a walking paradox, which I didn’t mind at all.
The man standing in front of me whistled and I shook out of my stupor, trading him a Coke bottle for change. I slipped the money in my pocket and continued my work, watching the familiar face move across the room with my eyes. He headed straight towards me just as the bar crowd was thinning. I picked up my cleaner – a tube-shaped bristle brush connected to entwined pieces of wire – and dipped it into the soap bin. I always have my customers leave their empty bottles on the end of the bar so I can clean and reuse them. It took me a long time to collect them all and I hated losing them.
The newcomer leaned casually on the bar as if he’d been here a million times. He stared at me, waiting for me to say something. I rolled my eyes and decided to appease him.
“You’re a little less dead than I remember.” I cracked a smile. I’d honestly thought he’d died and it was a dark period in my life. The edges of his mouth quirked up, revealing his dimples without even a whole smile. God I’d missed him.
“Did you miss me? Did you cry at my funeral?” His honey eyes glinted. They were the lightest shade of brown I’d ever seen, almost amber. I’d always loved his eyes.
“Didn’t even know there was a funeral, I read it in the paper, actually.” I tilted my head to the side, another lock of hair fell into my face. This time, he reached out to flick it to the side before I could even react. I shot him a glare, but he simply smiled at me. “So how’d you get out of it? Last time I heard you were hanged in London,” I questioned.
His smile grew wider, like he’d been wanting me to ask him that very question from the moment he walked in. “Well,” he sighed like this was all a great inconvenience to him – not explaining, not even being here in my speakeasy, just life in general was something to sigh about – as he took a seat at an empty bar stool. “I have to admit, I had help. The boys got there just in time, actually. They helped me fake my death and everything. Rupert even killed the executioner and took his place.” He smiled blissfully like this was one of his most happy memories.
“How is Rupert? Is he here with you?” I asked. I’d always loved his pack of friends, they were rowdy, and thieves of course, but good-natured. He grimaced and took a sip of the water I’d just placed in front of him – he was allergic to alcohol, poor soul.
“Nah, he high tailed it to Canada to follow some girl. He’s head over heels.” He took another sip of water. I watched him carefully, still handing out drinks and taking money throughout this conversation. He was used to my multitasking, or he used to be. He didn’t seem put-off by it, so I simply continued.
“I’m glad to hear he’s not dead. Same to you, how long have you been in town?” I asked him leaning against the bar just in front of him. By now it was almost midnight and most of my customers were in for the night. Many would stay for the music, not many more would be buying another round of drinks.
“About two days.” I scoffed at his reply.
“How long have you been in America?” He looked up from staring at the word Hancock carved into the bar. Up close, I could tell that his scar had come from something jagged, like pipe or glass. He was never one to let someone hold a knife to him very long before they were on the ground with his gun against their nose.
“About a week.” This made me smile as I cleaned out the newest pile of bottles.
“Took you that long to find me did it?” I joked. He shook his head in a laugh, long curls bouncing with each movement. “Didn’t seem very hard for you, how’d you do it?”
“Magic, as usual.” I pushed his shoulder while he cracked up. It was one of our old jokes from the good old days. I hadn’t heard it in a while. “I came ’round earlier this morning. I knew Arty got the house, figured he knew where you’d be. He showed me around this place, I told him I’d show myself out. I took that tunnel there,” he pointed to the North entrance that he’d come from, “And memorized where it let out. Arty told me to stay away from you – he’s not really fond of criminals, especially not me – but I didn’t really feel like listening.” Of course he didn’t. He and my brother had been at odds with each other for as long as I could remember.
“When do you ever?” I asked. I smiled at him, it was hard not to.
“Jesus it’s really good to see you Eddie.” He looked up at me then, and I could see the muscles in his cheeks moving. Edward Johnson and I had dated for six years and been partners in crime for about ten. We’d even moved out to England together before I was forced to come back to America. I left him behind, but I still knew too much about him for my own good. This was his thinking-very-hard-about-something look. Suddenly he shook his head with another laugh.
“We heard stories about Joe Hancock all the way in England.” He shook his head again before looking me in the eyes. “Never in a million years would I have guessed it was you, Joelle.” I pressed my hands together, an old habit, and they stuck a bit from the grime and drink residue that always coated them after a night behind the bar.
“I’m just full of surprises.” I was leaning over the bar too much, I knew very well what I was doing. I missed his eyes, his voice, his hair, everything about him. It might have happened, we might have rekindled our relationship right then, but it was that moment that the whole place decided to get a little quieter. My head jerked up to see some of Crowley’s men striding towards my bar. A small bit of panic entered my heart, but I swallowed it and crushed it. I had to remain calm.
“Head towards the other side of the room, I’m going to have to deal with this,” I whispered to Eddie before making a gesture to the jazz band to keep going. He nodded, not questioning me – he knew better. A rustle spread through the crowd, the band slowed to a stop, and drinks were set down with a clink.
Chicago was known for their gangs, and they held no qualms about stretching their borders. I shared territory with Crowley’s crew, and thank the Lord that he hadn’t shown up with his cronies tonight. I hated diffusing fights, and several of my bottles ended up getting smashed when Crowley decided to show his face. These men were known to spread fear, and that’s exactly what they were doing.
They swaggered up to the bar like they owned the place. “We need to speak with Joe Hancock,” the tallest man said. His arms were thicker than my head and he took up the space of three bar stools.
“And why’s that?” I asked, adding a sickeningly sweet edge to my voice as I leaned on the bar. I wasn’t even that close to the man, but I could smell his rancid odor –dead rats, feces, dried blood, and BO – and decided leaning on the bar wasn’t my best option.
“None of your business.”The man sneered down on me, something I was too used to here, but not something I appreciated. He was going to regret saying that. I was seconds away from pulling out my gun and daring him to speak to me like that again when Art came barreling in from the door behind me.
“Hey-” he stopped whatever he was going to say when he saw the three men taking up the bar space. “What’s going on here?” He asked. I could see the hungry glint in the burly man’ eyes, so I pulled Art over to my side protectively, praying with everything I had that they didn’t recognize him for the cop he is. I jabbed him in the side, he knew better than to come down here while business was still open.
“This is my brother Arthur, say hello to Crowley’s men would you?” I looked at him. He waved shyly towards them. I just needed to make sure they didn’t think he was Joe Hancock. “Now, Hancock never does business with organized crime, and you guys know it. We have a treaty, and I suggest you honor it.” It wasn’t really a treaty. It was more like you stay out of my way, I stay out of yours with you rat me out, I rat you out mixed in.
“Actually, we’re not with Crowley anymore. He’s been overthrown by this kid.” The three large men parted to reveal a skinny little brat about twenty years old. He had fiery hair that hung by his ears and was wearing the same outfit as Eddie, minus the trench coat. He came towards me with his hand outstretched. I shook it.
“Hi, I’m Marcus. My sister was part of the suffrage movement.” He said this as if it explained why he was shaking hands with a woman. “Crowley and I have come to an agreement, and I was informed that Hancock has the best way to get the things you want.” He shrugged. “I’d like to include him in my deal.” I couldn’t help myself – I was intrigued. I nodded my head towards Art.
“See him over there in the trench coat?” I asked him quietly and pointed to Eddie. He looked, and his face darkened, but he nodded. “Tell him to man the bar if you don’t want to do it.” I smiled to myself as I turned. That would be a conversation I wanted no part in. No matter his opinion of my former partner in crime, he was going to have to talk to him, and that was his own fault for breaking his own rule.
“Follow me,” I waved to the men and the boy. Marcus followed without hesitation, surprising to me, but hey, his sister was part of the suffrage movement. His men were reluctant, but with no other choice but to follow their leader, they started walking. I lead them to the back where my office is and sat behind my desk. “Close the door behind you.” The two brutes were intimidating, yes, but if they answered to the green bean of a man, I was less afraid than I normally would have been. Sure, I’ve set up plenty of jobs through criminals of all walks of life, but the mob was generally something I liked to stay out of. However, I was up for a challenge.
“Where’s Joe?” The kid asked. I gestured for them to take a seat and propped my chin on my hands, elbows resting on my desk.
“You’re looking at her. You could call me Joelle if you must, but with business partners I really do prefer Joe.” I smiled sweetly waiting for them to digest this information. The large one who first spoke to me is again the first one to speak.
“Yes, yes alcohol is banned, women can vote, and now a woman is selling you alcohol, America is going to hell in a handbasket.” I waved my hand around flippantly before looking right at Marcus with another killer smile.
“Now, you said you wanted to do business.”
Finding Hancock’s illicit business is hard, but finding him is even harder. You need money? A crew for a job? You need someone to help you find the best buyer? Hancock is the man you need to find. Rumor has it he’s in control of one of Chicago’s largest gangs, working with the masses to bring down Prohibition for good. Rumor has it, he has the feds in the palm of his hand. There are stories – rumors – about Joe Hancock. Some say he’s a ghost, some say he’s a legend, some say he’s not even a he at all. One thing is for certain, he’s recruiting and he’s ready for a fight. Are you willing to join?