Authors: Ryssa Edwards
Johnny V and the Razor
through the night, making Johnny think of rolling iron and rough times in hard places. White lightning stabbed through gray clouds. Wind teased the Packard’s windows. Johnny pushed his hands deep into the pockets of the cheap winter coat Donnelly had bought him, watching the dark street and keeping an ear out for thunder.
The Packard’s back door swung open, letting in a swirl of cold. Johnny sat up so hard he bumped his knee on the steering wheel. He was getting out to help Mr. Donnelly in, but the back door slammed shut and a cool voice Johnny didn’t recognize said, “Start the car. Drive.”
“This is Mr. Donnelly’s private car,” Johnny said.
“He doesn’t need it anymore.”
Johnny had been in the city long enough to know why a stranger would be getting into a bootlegger’s private car in the middle of the night. “I know how to walk away and not look back,” he said. “I’ll get out. Disappear.”
“Get us moving,” the man said.
If his boss was dead, Johnny was on the street. Worse than that, he was a witness. “I won’t say anything,” he said. “I don’t even know what you look like.”
“You deaf?” the stranger said. “Start the car.”
Johnny started the engine, and in the dark where the stranger couldn’t see, slid his left hand to the door handle. He could push the door open, roll to the street and be halfway down the block in seconds. If he stuck to the shadows, he might live through the night. He eased his hand around the cool metal, ready to lean all his weight into the door.
Cool fingers brushed the back of his neck. “Don’t do anything dumb.” The stranger reached around and locked the driver’s side door. Leaning back, he brushed against Johnny, feeling like he was made of muscle and nothing else. “Drive. Both hands on the wheel.”
Johnny shifted into gear and pulled away from the curb, his mind desperately ticking over. The freight whistle had been maybe ten minutes ago. The train wouldn’t pull out for another hour. If he lived that long, he planned to be on it, riding the Box Car Express to No Place. “Which way, mister?”
From the darkness, the stranger said, “Find traffic. Follow it.”
The stranger sounded like he could slit a man’s throat in traffic, jump out, thread his way through snarled cars, and fade into the night. Johnny drove toward Broadway, gripping the steering wheel like it was a lifeboat and he was drowning.
A few miles later, with the rush of traffic up ahead, the stranger said, “Pull over.”
This was it. If Johnny survived the next five seconds, he had a chance of walking away. Cold sweat rolled down the back of his neck. His eyeballs jittered. His pulse pounded. He swerved to the curb, ready to floor it the second Donnelly’s killer cleared the back seat.
The stranger slid over to the back door behind Johnny, leaned over and said, “Give me the keys.”
Johnny’s mind had been blasting down one track: staying alive. The stranger had derailed him, but too late. Johnny’s thoughts screamed ahead. His body hurtled into action. He floored the Packard and flinched when the tires screeched against the road.
blasted through the night. Johnny cringed, waiting to feel the pain of a bullet plowing into him. Instead the Packard’s tail swerved hard right.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
He’d peeled out too fast, blown a tire. The steering wheel slipped through his sweaty hands. He tried to fight the drag, but he wasn’t strong enough.
The man lunged over the seat back, his body half on top of Johnny, and grabbed the wheel. “Ease off the gas.” His voice was quiet, like death was Sunday School and he was the teacher. “Pump the brakes. Don’t slam on them. You’ll kill us both.”
Sucking in breaths that hurt his tight chest, Johnny willed his foot to rise, fighting his instinct to mash the brakes through the floor. He pumped them once, twice.
“That’s it.” The stranger muscled the wheel, forcing the Packard to the side of the road. “Nice and easy.”
Johnny held his breath. Another couple feet and they’d be scrap metal on Broadway.
“Lean back,” the stranger said. “Let go.” He grunted in Johnny’s ear, heaving the wheel around, forcing the Packard toward the curb. For long horrifying seconds they drifted, the flat tire limping along, its rim scraping the road. Then the front end seemed to remember the way to the curb and moved that way, stopping with a gentle bump.
“Holy God,” Johnny whispered between breaths. “Jesus.”
The stranger grabbed the back of Johnny’s neck and squeezed, but not enough to hurt. “You’re lucky we didn’t get stuck in traffic,” he said. “That would have pissed me off. Give me the keys.”
Too shaken to fight, Johnny yanked them from the ignition and held them up in a trembling grip that made them jangle.
The man grabbed the keys, got out, tapped the window, and pointed at the lock. He didn’t look mad,
but maybe he was, and he wanted to take his time with whatever he planned to do. Johnny popped the lock, sure that if he lived past the next two minutes, he’d be wishing he’d died fast.
The door whooshed open. Johnny stumbled into the street and barely missed falling flat on his face at the feet of a killer.
“Starting a few minutes ago,” the stranger said, “you’re unemployed. I’m offering you a new job.”
A job? That was so far ahead of living through the next couple minutes, Johnny couldn’t follow. “What?”
The stranger kicked the Packard’s door shut and glanced at traffic on Broadway. “Donnelly’s dead.”
In the harsh yellow glow coming from the streetlamp behind him, Johnny looked up at the stranger. Something about the hard line of his jaw, the stony glint in his dark brown eyes, said things only happened one way in life: his way.
“You go deaf again?” the stranger said.
“I mean no. Yeah. The job. I want it.” Because it was better than winding up like Donnelly. “What do I have to do?”
“Let’s start with you staying alive,” the man said. “The way you’re going, looks like that’s enough for now.”
Johnny felt the same way, but he was too embarrassed to say it. He’d nearly gotten them both killed, and he didn’t even know the stranger’s name. “What do I call you?”
“Sloane,” the man said. “Come on. I don’t need to be standing by his car with my bare face hanging out.”
They walked into the dark toward Broadway’s crowded sidewalk. Johnny was pretty sure Sloane wasn’t packing a rod. He would have pulled it in the car. Then again, he couldn’t have taken the wheel like that with a gun in his hand.
Sloane looked down at him. “What do you call yourself?” he said.
“What’s the ‘V’ stand for?”
Johnny was glad it was dark, because his cheeks were burning. It didn’t stand for anything. He’d added the middle initial when he got to New York.
Sloane moved his eyes past Johnny, like he was studying the slow traffic. “You just liked the way it sounded?”
“Yeah.” For the first time in the last few minutes, Johnny wasn’t thinking about dying. He was waiting to hear Sloane laugh, the way Donnelly and his men had laughed at him, made him feel like a country boy too stupid to know better.
“I like how it sounds too,” Sloane said.
The way he said it, low and quiet, made Johnny breathe a little easier.
“I’m hungry,” Sloane said. “You want something to eat?”
In the past year and a half, Johnny couldn’t remember ever saying no to free food. “Yeah,” he said.
The first thing Johnny had learned about living in a big city was that sidewalk crowds had their own rhythm, almost like a parade where everyone was hearing the same drum. If you didn’t move in step with the crowd, you got knocked around a lot. But Sloane was different, like he had a private drummer. People either slid out of his way or moved around him, as if they’d sensed danger.
Johnny thought they were wrong. Sloane wasn’t dangerous. He was deadly.
Nick had said.
Just make sure when they find him, they know it was slow and hard.
Sloane and his brother Nick ran bootleg liquor into the city and sold it in 39, a speakeasy where there was high stakes gambling and boys who got paid to do what girls wouldn’t. What Nick couldn’t sell in 39, he moved through distributors who paid a premium for practically risk-free liquor. But there was always a guy who thought he could beat the odds, cheat Nick out of his percentage.
By the time Sloane took the call, Donnelly had played Nick for a sucker three times. Sloane had paid off a working girl, rented the house where Johnny had dropped Donnelly off, and told her what to do. After two weeks, she convinced Donnelly that his bodyguards made her nervous. A week after that, he started going to see her with just a driver.
Tonight when Donnelly went to see her, the girl left through the back door. Sloane tied up Donnelly, gagged him, and carved into him so bad, he was begging to die by the time Sloane slit his throat.
Sloane had been going out the back way when he thought about Donnelly’s driver. The cops wouldn’t think anything of beating information out of a kid like that. And Donnelly’s boys would be wanting every scrap of information they could get. Either way, the driver would die for what he didn’t know. He was too young, too likely to talk. And now he was walking beside Sloane, trying to keep his cool, acting like he didn’t know how tight a spot he was in.
Dora didn’t cook anything like the drunken woman who’d been Sloane’s mother, but she ran a tight diner. Sloane opened the door to Dora’s and got them a booth. Inside, under bright lights, he got a good look at Johnny V. He was nineteen, maybe twenty. His light brown eyes, the same color as his hair, had seen too much. His mouth was wide, with smooth lips that could make a man think about things he shouldn’t. His high cheekbones were too close to his skin. Donnelly hadn’t been paying him enough for Johnny to eat right. Sloane wished he’d known that before. He would have taken longer.
Pushing a menu across the table, Sloane said, “It’s on me. Order what you want.”
Then I’ll get you out of town
, he thought.
Johnny picked up the menu, glanced over it and said, “Roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy.”
Sloane didn’t look up from his menu. “Which plate, number one or number two?”
“Which one’s better?”
“They’re both good,” Sloane said. “Depends on what side you want.”
Johnny closed the menu, slid it to the corner of the table. “I’ll eat whatever you get.”
Sloane saw the fear on Johnny’s face, his hesitation, how he looked away. “Read me number two.”
“If you tell me a list, I can remember it.” Johnny swallowed, dropped his eyes to the wooden table. “I work real hard.”
The way Johnny hung his head made Sloane wince inside. What was he doing? The job was over, and Johnny had nothing to do with it except being in a bad place at a bad time. “You know what? This whole dinner in the middle of the night thing is stupid. I’m thinking about chocolate cake and ice cream.”
Not looking up, Johnny said, “Better if I get the roast beef.”
Sloane reached over and pushed Johnny’s thick hair back from his face. “You don’t like ice cream?”
“I like it fine.” Johnny met his eyes. “But I only have two dollars in my pocket, and I don’t know where my next meal’s coming from.”
Sloane was about to say something stupid, like how Johnny didn’t have to worry about that anymore, when Dora came bustling over, pad in one hand, pen in the other.
With her quick, light steps, her pink uniform, her blonde hair pulled into a tight bun, Dora looked like a waitress who got through every night without spilling a drop of gravy. Except for her nametag, it was hard to tell she owned the place. That was how she liked it. “Up to anything good tonight, dark-eyed one?”
“Never,” Sloane said. “Two dessert specials. And don’t skimp on the chocolate sauce.”
“I don’t skimp on nothing for you, doll.” Dora flicked her eyes to Johnny, and closed her mouth when Sloane shook his head. “Two triple-decker chocolates under white, coming up.” She slid her unmarked pad into her pocket and made her way to the counter.
“Doll?” Johnny cocked his head. “She your sister?”
“She might as well be my mom.” Sloane folded his long fingers on the table and leaned toward Johnny. “You left school?”
“No.” Johnny found everywhere to look except Sloane’s face. “Kind of. Had to make it look like I was going when I lived at home or dad would have beat my ass.”
“Where’d you go when he thought you were in school?”
“Train yards.” He leaned back, watching people eat, seeing something else in his mind. “You know that story about the genie and the lamp?”
“Aladdin,” Sloane said.
“Freight trains looked like that to me.” Johnny wiped a hand across his mouth, slowly, like he was wiping away something from a long time ago. “I thought they were my magic carpet, a way out. Johnny V riding the rails, out of town, gone forever.”
Johnny went quiet. Giving him time to live with another man knowing his secrets, Sloane pointed his eyes across the diner, out the window. Lightning was playing through dark clouds; thunder muttered like muffled gunfire. A storm was bearing down on the city, and Sloane felt like he was walking right into it, face to the sky.