WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE,
NOR ANY DROP TO DRINK.
- THE RHYME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
The light Californian breeze ruffled his toupee. His mayoral sash twisted, as though thrown on in a hurry, clung to his generous figure. It was nearly noon and he was nervous; you could see the sweat form in little droplets on his brow, trickle down his squat nose and land as an un-heard drop upon his paunch. Finally he stepped towards the podium and began his proclamation. The rancher hadn’t paid much attention, too busy was he, rolling and lighting another cigarette. He would have almost stood out in the chic crowd of bigots had it not been for the antics of a less subtle comrade.
The words were hushed, meant only for him. Looking back over his shoulder he could see the masculine figure of Henry, agitated at the brutal arrest of the young and outspoken farm hand. “Easy Henry. We can’t go causin’ no trouble here. You know as well as I do there ain’t nothin’ to be done for him.”
“They’ll cut his bleed’n tongue out Al. The kid’d only be twenty-something!”
He dragged heavily on his cigarette; the smooth flavour of the Chesterfield filled his lungs. “And what would you have us do then, huh?”
“I was just sayin’ Al we gotta do something!”
Snuffing out his cigarette with the toe of his boot, he turned sharply to face the giant. “That’s just the thing Henry, we can’t do shit. This mayoral bastard, Harding, is the filthy worm that rots the apple, and right now we’re at the core. This ain’t no time to be acting the hero.”
“Christ Al, what if that was me out there? What if that was me?”
Al sighed. This was neither the time, nor the place for a discourse as such - there was much to be done within the coming days. Unspoken, he went to make his way past Henry, and escape the sycophantic applause of the assembly, however Henry caught his shoulder as he passed and questioned him again. Shaking him off, he slunk his way through the crowd of finely clad bigots, until finally making it clear of the showground and all its Republican propaganda. Opening the door of the Model T, Al gracefully sat himself in the driver’s position of the Ford and rolled another cigarette. Picking up the newspaper which lay half folded on the passenger seat, he glared at the headline of the Los Angeles Independent: “Harding Secures Water: But At What Cost?”
“Bastard”, he muttered under his breath as he turned the page. Reading on, the news of yet another farmer’s death, a suicide, singed hatred into his mind – the water wars had claimed yet another innocent life. According to the paper, the man had hung himself after the portion of one of the Owens Lake’s offshoots had been diverted, leaving his farm to wither and die with no source of water. By now Henry found his way back to the car and clambered his bulky figure into the seat. Al flipped back to the front page and checked the date: 21/4/1923. “Christ,” he cursed as passed the paper to Henry, “that poor bastard only died the other day.”
“And what about that poor fella we just up’d and left back there? You don’t seem too sorry for ‘im?”
Al had had enough of the needless banter, far too troubled by the weight that bore heavily upon his shoulders.
“There’s nothing we could do Henry, you know that, I know that, and that kid sure as hell knew it.”
Henry looked across at him, broken and defeated. “I know, I know. It’s just – forget about it.” Henry unfolded a street map of the lower south side of the city. Leaning over, Al pointed out a street about a quarter mile from the showground.
“You sure this is it? An after-hours joint smack in the middle of South Gate’s main?”
Folding the map away Henry placed it back in the car’s glove box, and rolled a cigarette of his own. “Yeah that’s the place, my uncle Murray - you know, the one with the bald spot and a nervous stutter?” Al shrugged. “Anyways, he says he knows this fella from his days back on the force, before the war. Said he owed him a favour and sent a telegram ahead to let ‘im know we’re comin’. That’s where he told Uncle Murray he’d meet us, so that’s where he’ll be.”
Al sighed as he rested his head on the steering wheel. “Looks like we’re going for a drink then.”
* * *
As the duo pulled up across the road, they could not help but be taken aback by the grandeur of the estate. Its large weatherboard porch, set a few yards back from the road, was beautifully framed by soft gray paint and the purple hue of the roof tiles. Two storeys high, the elegant manor was surrounded by a magnificently exquisite garden of hydrangeas, roses and viburnum; guarded by a wrought iron fence, broken every few yards by a cold, stone pillar. As they reached the door, a panel slid across to reveal a shifty pair of eyes, glowing against the darkness of the interior. After a few moments the eyes asked the men their business and, satisfied with the answer, let them through, so long as they didn’t cause any trouble. As the door swung open the two were overcome by the thick cloak of smoke, wisping out from ashtrays scattered across the room, and the merry sounds of a stage show. Making their way through the swathe of tables, the pair sat and waited to be served. Catching the eye of a passing barmaid, Al called out,
“Excuse me miss, can I get a glass of water and, for you Henry?”
“A glass ‘a brown please miss. And make sure it ain’t none of that hooey hooch.”
The girl looked at the two strangely. They weren’t part of the regular crowd and to her, that meant they weren’t worth serving. “Sorry pally, you know as well as I do its prohibition, and that means you can’t get squat this side a’ town.”
Henry, eager to parch his thirst with the forbidden fluids, pressed on. “Ah come on, doll. We all know this here’s the damn finest gin mill this side ‘a town. My uncle’s a good ‘ol mate of your boss Jimmy. So be a doll and go pour me a glass of that sweet, sweet honey.”
Having no time or patience for outsiders the girl raised her voice, just enough to be certain the doorman would hear. “Look mister. I’ve told you already this ain’t no gin mill and we ain’t got none ‘a that giggle juice you after. So why don’t you and your friend here go ahead and make tracks before you have every phrohis in South-Gate down here callin’ foul. Hell I got half a mind to have you thrown o-”
A firm hand on her shoulder cut the barmaid off short. “Settle down there Pearl. These fine folk are good friends of mine from outta town. Why don’t you be a doll and go ahead and fetch us a bottle of our finest single malt and a couple ‘a glasses. We’ll be out back.” As the barmaid hurried off to fill the order, the dark skinned man signalled for the men to follow him.
As the trio made their way through the winding hallways of the smoky burlesque house, both Al and Henry couldn’t help but be assailed by the onslaught of bare flesh upon their senses; each room presenting a new vision of unforetold ecstasy, “Geeze Al, would ya just look at these girls! Heck I wish we had ladies like them back in the valley. I ain’t never seen anythin’ like ‘em before, have you?
“Nah-uh. No, this sure is the wildest place I ever did see.”
Leaning back over his shoulder, the slender character ahead of them chuckled. “That’s because you folk ain’t never been to Slim Jim’s before. Hell it’s the best dang burlesque and speak-easy this side of the river. Smoothest brown, swing’inest jazz and the finest damn ladies you ever did see. Now then, if you’ll just follow me in here and take a seat.” The trio settled down around a small circular table in the back room, lit only by an oil lamp. Wordlessly, the finely clothed gentleman offered cigarettes to the others, who politely declined, stating they only smoked to settle their nerves. Shrugging, Slim Jim massaged his callused hands as Pearl returned with three glasses and a bottle of what looked to be a brown and potent liquor. Placing the glassware down upon the table, the young girl curtsied to her employer and nodded at the strangers as she moved quickly to leave the room, sneezing as her feet kicked up the dust. “She’s a good girl ol’ Pearl. Not much of a looker, she’ll never make it up on stage, but she knows how to work a floor.” The other two nodded in indifference. “But I’d assume you folk’s aren’t here for that, else you’d already be upstairs with a lass.” The aging man chuckled, his weather worn face shadowed in humble lighting of the lamp. “So what is it that old Slim Jim can do for ya boys?”
Glancing around to make sure they were alone, Al leaned in close and lowered his voice to a hurried whisper.
“We need guns.”
Slim Jim sank slowly back into his chair. For a few moments he eyed the two men. Their dirty farm wear and newsboy hats distinguished them as outsiders, clearly not part of the dark oligarchy of local politics, nor of the blue collar working class of the lower south side. Nodding, Jim crept forward in his chair and once more leaned over to speak softly to Al and Henry. “Alrighty then gents, I’ll get you what ya need. But before we do business let me tell you one thing. No matter what goes down here, I ain’t getting involved any further than this evening’s meetin’. Hell I’m only helpin’ you now ‘cause your pally Henry’s old uncle once helped me outta’ a jam back when he used to be a beat cop round here. Cost ‘im his job, saving me ol’ gin mill, and I never got a chance to pay ‘im back. Least I can do now is help his nephew. Gimmie a few hours boys, I’ll see what I can round up.”
* * *
Sleep had claimed the men while they waited. Dawn crept slowly over the horizon and by early mid-morning Slim Jim had returned with a sackcloth parcel held under his arm. Waking the men with a greeting, he stood excitedly as they rubbed sleep from their eyes. As they came fully to their senses Jim assured them that their wait had been well worth it. “Now then boys, this here’s the best I could do on such short notice… Which means it’s about five times better than anyone else can do.” He chuckled as he placed the parcel down upon the table. Slowly, he untied the thin rope that bound the cloth, and methodically unpacked its contents.
“So, what we got here is your standard U.S Army surplus, M1917 Smith and Wesson. A six shot revolver with a point four five ACP calibre round. This here’s a popular side arm among beat cops and bandits alike, due to its reliability and ease to handle.” He cocked the firearm and stared straight down the barrel. “As you can see gentlemen, perfect condition. This here bean shooter will get whatever you need done, done.” His hands then moved to his second find. “This little beauty here my friends is The Marlin 410 Lever-Action. Packs such a punch you could squirt metal right through a wall and get the sap on the other side before he even knew what hit ‘im. Yep this one here took me most of the night to round up, but you’ll be thanking me if you ever have to use it. You’ll need these too of course.” Jim threw the men a box of cartridges each and watched as they took a gun. Henry, being the bigger of the two, reached eagerly for the shotgun and tested its weight and lever affectionately, whilst Al loaded the barrel of the revolver. The craftsmanship of the guns was meticulous, a true change from the simple rifle of their farm lives. They studied the weapons, absorbing every facet of them, their contemplation interrupted only by the emergence of Pearl with three cups of coffee, breaking the silent meditation.
“These are damn fine pieces you got here Jim. Damn fine. How’d a dinge like you manage to get a-hold ‘a these without attracting too much attention?”
Jim nodded contemplatively at Al’s question, “Slim Jim is a master of the finer arts of discretion ma’ boy.” Seeking to avoid any further questions, Jim went to make his leave. “It appears our business here is done, save for, well, payment.”
Fumbling around in his pocket Al produced a small pouch, which rattled with the clinks of precious metals. “My mother’s rings. Ten carat gold, the three of ‘em. It’s not much but it’s all we got.”
Slim Jim fingered the bands, trying them on only to take them off and stare closely at them for any sign of imperfection.
“You sure you wanna give these up boy?”
Al nodded. “There ain’t no point in hold’n’ on to them now. Mumma’s dead. G-men shot her when they seized the range. Besides, what other choice do we have?”
The proprietor nodded in understanding, cursing the corruption that festered at the core of their once fair state. Getting up he thanked the two men for their business, and offered them a room upstairs, free of charge until they had done what they needed to do, which the companions graciously accepted. Half stepping through the door, Slim Jim clicked his tongue as a forgotten thought snapped into memory. “Oh and boys. You may want to speak to Pearl about sortin’ out them clothes a’ yours. One can spot you as an outsider from a mile away, and I’d assume that for whatever business you have in mind you don’t want that to be happening.”
* * *
As the final rays of a dying sun turned slowly into shadow, evening descended once more upon the Californian valley and the city of Los Angeles fell into a silent slumber. All its citizens, dreaming, save for the town’s two newest visitors, who sat awake discussing the course of events to come.
“So like I says the other day Henry, we’ll pump that bastard full a’ lead the moment he’s off the church steps. Henry, are you even listnin’ to me? Hot dang, gimmie that!” Al reached out and snatched away the bible that had mesmerised his companion. Drinking whiskey straight from the bottle, Al once more reviewed the plan with Henry. They were to catch the mayor by surprise, tomorrow morning after his regular Sunday morning service at his church on Edgemont Street. Known to attend with none but his assistant, it would be a perfect time to strike the mayor, unguarded and unaware. They would wait for him, across the road until he was alone, having dispatched his manservant to fetch the car. Calmly, Al would cross, just like any other man going to confession after mass, and Henry would wait with the Ford running, ready for an escape. Once Al was close enough to guarantee he wouldn’t miss, he’d pull out the revolver and fire off a round into the mayor’s chest. Henry would pick him up, and they’d drive off, straight back to the ranch on the one tank of gas, stopping for no one till they made it home. Henry nodded as the plan sunk in.
“So ya see pal? There ain’t no need to be praying for the Lord’s help. This plan’s fool proof, ain’t nothing gonna go wrong.”
“I’m not prayin’ for his help Al. I’m prayin’ for his forgiveness. We’re about to kill a man. I mean I’m only a simple fella, born and bred on a farm. But I know killin’ ain’t right, even if it is for the greater good.”
Al looked hard at his companion and took another swig from the near empty bottle. “And so what? You’re gonna back out now, after all this? After you watched a boy get beat – who, mind you, is probably dead or at least wishing he was - just for speaking out at that damn rally yesterday morning? After you watched the ranch wither and die ‘cause we ain’t got no water for pastures? And after you watched my ma, who’d been good enough to take you in, get shot by those damned G-men for tryin’ to save my dead pa’s ranch no more than a year back? Because what? It ain’t right? What’s not right Henry, is watching these innocent people suffer at the hands of this pompous, green-eyed, soft-palmed bastard that ain’t never seen a day’s hard work in his life. So don’t go givin’ me this god fearing rubbish, because this here is hell Henry - every day in this putrid county and godforsaken city.”
“You’re right, you’re right. I’m not gonna leave, even if I don’t like the situation we’re in. I just wish there was another way. A way to end this without the bloodshed.”
“Henry, you and I both know that this is the only thing that can be done. We’ve tried talking, bargaining, reasoning. There’s been bombings, sabotage, extortion and murders all before us. But you know what we have to do, we gotta cut the head of the snake, then the rest of the filthy critter will wither and die. I mean if we can fix this green-eyed bastard, we can go home, and it’ll all be good again. For everyone.” Alistair was drunk now, and paced back and forth through the small room before finally settling down on his bed. After falling quickly into a drunken slumber Henry was left alone to meditate upon what his friend had said. To him, Alistair was hope, a beacon of salvation that illuminated the darkness of corruption. He was a lighthouse for the sorry sailors of Owens Valley, lost in a sea of darkness and greed. He was brave, perhaps foolish even, but to Henry this distinction didn’t matter, Alistair was a chance at a better life. And a chance was all they needed.
* * *
“Esteemed guests, fellow councillors, friends and citizens. I am humbled and honoured to come before you today with the grandest of news. The hardworking public servants of your fine city have at last reached the final state of discussion in a move to secure more water for our ever-growing town.” The corpulent figure breathed heavily under the applause, trying to steady his nerves. “This acquisition will include another half, I say half, of the great Owens Lake. It will allow for -”
“What of the famers of the valley? What will they do without this water that you’ve stole?”
The politician had hoped this wouldn’t happen. The ploughmen and ranchers from the valley had been causing trouble for a number of years now, but in the past few months things had become worse. “I say good sir, where is your manners? Your sense of decency!”
“Decency! You filthy bureaucratic bastard! You’ve turned our farms into nothin’ but dust bowls. We ain’t got no crops to harvest and no paddocks to feed our herds. My wife’s become a whore just to keep food on our table because of you swindlin’ swine, and you talk to me about decency. Hell the O’Connells and Madisons are doin’ it just as tough and Elsner, God bless his soul, hung ‘imself in the barn just last week!” The man looked feverishly at those around him, who, as though awakened by his outrage, roared question and slander alike to the now seemingly questionable leadership of their town.
“By God young man! No need to go scarin’ the children with your farm tales. I’m as distraught as the next man about the death of Mr Elsner and I offer his family my deepest condolences. However I can see no reason for this disturbance and I beseech you to hold your tongue.” Turning the politician nodded to a taller man seated behind him, who in turn nodded to another. Within seconds, the strong arm of the law fell upon the angered farmer and, after a swift and unseen blow to his head, the dazed man was hurried away from the assembly. Settling the crowd with a wave of his hand, the man continued his discourse. “People please. Do you really think that your mayor would do anything underhanded?” Not waiting for an answer he pressed on, intent on re-winning the hearts of the crowd. “Of course not! Edgar Harding does what’s needed for the people, by the people! Not through some kind of dirty, back-handed trickery these Democrats would have you think.” The crowd applauded once more. Already the tragedy of Mr Elsner’s death and the farmer’s uproar was at the back of their minds. “So remember folks, when you head to the polls next month, make the right choice – the Republican choice.” Stepping down from the stage the mayor waved over his assistant.
“Riveting speech sir, might I say you truly captured the hearts of the people!”
“Voters George, hearts of the voters.”
“Of course sir. Shall I have the car brought around?”
“Well do you expect me to walk to my office?”
The young assistant looked confused as to how he should answer the question, “Well, no, sir. I was simply wonder – “
The sharp cuffing of his employer cut him off. “Just bring the damn car around you fool, and be quick about it.”
“Yes, Mr Mayor.”
“Oh and George tell Commissioner Sawyer that I would like to have that young chap from today brought up to my office as soon as I return. I’d like to have a quiet word with him before they lock ‘im up.”
* * *
The rich scent of tobacco hung in the air, the room enveloped in an intoxicating aroma which floated up from the ivory ashtray. A beaten man stumbled in through the doorway, fighting confusion and shackles to stay upright. To the cruel and hearty laughter of the officers, the farmer landed with a bone-crushing thud upon his face. Dragged back upon his feet, the blood instantaneously coursed from what was once a nose. Slouched between the arms of the officers, the man’s blood spattered vision focused upon the black Berluti Reprises. He knew now to where he had been brought.
“Please, take a seat.”
The whimpering figure was thrust back into the roughly hewn wooden chair as the officers took their respective places beside him.
“Now good sir, would you be so kind as to tell me your name?”
The pompous figure’s request was met with naught but an air of loathing. With no patience for the man, Mayor Harding stepped back and nodded to one of his men, who took it upon himself to throw a few quick fists into the stomach of the shackled prisoner. Waving him off, Harding leaned close to the man.
The beaten figure coughed and gasped, but after a moment’s reprisal he found his tongue, mumbling something like “Westcough” or “Westhoff”. Going with the latter, Harding pressed on with a number of personal inquiries and threats – “do you have a family ma boy?”, “you wouldn’t want to see them hurt would you?”, “best speak up else I have your legs broken.” Mumbling answers through lacerated lips and broken teeth, the man did the best he could to respond. Having had his fun Harding stepped back and offered George a turn at tormenting the farmer. Having purposely busied himself thus far with the sorting of mail, George politely declined and excused himself from the bloody entertainment. Disappointed, the mayor returned his attention to the prisoner.
“Take him away; I’m done with him for now. Lock him up for I suppose, one less rabblerouser off the streets, is one less headache for me.”
Lawmen dragged the farmer away; the mayor sat alone surveying his office. Late afternoon sunlight danced gracefully from between the scarlet curtains, spattering patterns of solar joy upon the dark oak floor. Inhaling slowly from the dying cigar, he stole its fading signs of life and extinguished it mercilessly in the ashtray. Having poured himself a scotch from a crystal bottle on his desk, he dropped in two perfect cubes of ice and swirled the golden brown brew. Feet up, resting comfortably atop the mahogany desk, he lay back in his chair and stared at the ceiling and awaited the return of his manservant. Soon after, a snappy rapping at the door jostled the mayor back into a more formal seating arrangement. Having fixed the collar of his jacket he rested his fingers, interlocked in his lap and called for George to come in. Gingerly poking his head through the door, George checked to be certain the violence had found itself a new residence. Content that the brutality had moved on, he entered and came to an informal attention.
“Yes George, what is it now?”
“A letter, Mr Mayor.”
“A letter from whom, boy?
“I don’t rightfully know sir. All I know’s that it’s addressed to you.”
Sarcastic venom seethed from Mayor Harding. “Well George, I’m glad we keep you around. Heaven knows what we’d do if there was no one here to tell me whom my mail was addressed to. Give it here.” Snatching it away from him, Mayor Harding glanced over the envelope. “Who’s it from?”
Clearing his throat, George lowered his voice to just above a whisper, “James Ramsey sir. He’s waiting just outside.”
Rearing up, the mayor got to his feet. “James, ‘Slim Jim’, Ramsey?”
George nodded, doing his best to avoid eye contact.
“What the bloody hell is that fox doing here? He knows he ain’t to be contacting me here.” Pausing quickly to think Harding looked hard at his attendant, “Well, what in God’s gracious name is he still doing out there? Get him the hell inside before someone sees him! Christ!”
* * *
The mayor read over the letter for the sixth time. The words singed his mind with a fear of death: ‘Harding. They’re comin’ for ya. Best be watchin’ your back. Must talk. Signed – Slim Jim.’ Cursing, he poured himself another glass of scotch – downing it in a single gulp of potent liquid fire. There was another knocking at the door and without further invitation his guest strode into the office.
“Harding ma boy! Or do you prefer Mayor Harding these days? It has been quite a while since I’ve seen your rather, generous figure. How have you been?”
“Cut the pleasantries James. What the fuck are you doing here? I mean what the bloody hell is the meaning of this? Storming in here like that. You shouldn’t even be here in the first place. I never wanted anything to do with you after the election, and I hardly need your ‘help’ this time. Oh and this letter!” he said as he waved the paper, furiously in his unwelcome guest’s face. “Who in God’s good graces is comin’ for me exactly? None of these bloody farmers would have the pluck to do anything daring like that – would they?” The mayor paused, awaiting the reassurance of the guest.
“It seems Harding, that perhaps they would do.”
The mayor was astonished, completely taken aback by the import of his words. Mind racing, with nervous sweat forming upon his brow he had James recount all that he knew of the threat. According to the story two farmers – ranchers, who had in fact, lost their ranch – sought retribution and an end to the alterations in the Owens Valley basin.
“But how, how do you know this James? And why the bloody hell should I trust you in the first place?”
Chuckling, the aging man laid his coloured hands upon the mayor’s knees as he lent in close. “Well you see Edgar, I have invested quite a bit of money in you and your office – money that I don’t particularly want to see wasted. And as you know we still have a little agreement pertainin’ to the adaptation of the valley’s water for use in other, more, practical ways.”
“Yes, yes don’t think I’ve forgotten about our arrangements James. If you’d paid any attention to the recent affairs of my re-election campaign you would have realised that in just a few mere weeks the city will have complete control over the valley’s water.”
“Oh Edgar, you know me. I have very little care for politics. All I want to know is when I will get my water. That land up in the San Fernado Valley is mighty promisin’ for one lookin’ to make some money, given enough water and the right connections.”
“Soon enough James. Now by Christ, enough business talk. How do you know all this? What proof is there that any of this is true! How do I know you’re not just fucking with me?”
Taking his seat back upon the leather armchair James looked at the mayor. “Do not doubt me for a second good Harding. What I tell you is of the utmost importance and should be taken with the greatest of seriousness. There is indeed an imminent threat upon your life and I compel you with all the guile of a cunning Negro such as myself to listen hard, for I do in fact have a plan of action to take that will save your sorry hide.”
Intrigued, the mayor sank deeper into his armchair. “Go on.”
“Well you see my good mayor, these torpedoes that would seek your blood are in fact within the humble abode of ol’ Slim Jim’s burlesque house. Now before you ask why they ain’t already dead please let me finish. These two men have come to me, upon the suggestion of their uncle - a good friend of mine that did save my beloved gin mill back during his days as a beat cop - seeking to find themselves some shooters. Being a bit of a drinker himself, this ol’ fool did tell my why they were after some heat, and as it turns out, it’s ‘cause they’re after you. Being the quick thinker that ol’ Jimmy is, I lulled them into a false sense of comfort. Right now they think I’m rounden’ up them shooters for ‘em. But here’s the part that I think you’ll find really in’erestin. Turns out these fellas are gonna come for ya this Sunday after mass, and I say, let ‘em come.”
“Let them come? Let them come! So what, that I can end up dead? By Christ James this hardly sounds like a plan!”
James sipped idly at his whiskey taking the time to absorb the elegant décor. The mayor, having finished his discourse, patted feverishly at his anxious brow with a handkerchief, which he theatrically tossed aside. “If you’re done speakin’, you might wish to hear the rest of the plan?” asserted James.
Mayor Harding nodded in a fretful approval.
“Now then, when these boys do go a comin’ for ya, I’ll have two of my most loyal whities there with ya, armed to the teeth and ready for action when them farmin’ fools draw their shooters. Now you see, the best part of the plan, is those shooters – ones that I will be givin’ them – will in fact be shootin’ blanks – much like yourself.” James laughed furiously at his own joke, and George, a silent witness at the back of the room also offered a hushed chuckle at the expense of his hapless employer. “Now of course, these two fools ain’t gonna know they ain’t really packin’ heat till it’s too darn late. Killin’ ‘em this way also has a number of advantages. Really sends a message to them fools out east that they can’t be comin’ in here tryin’ things like that. I’ll be sure to outfit the two hit men as well, so that ma boys can see ‘em comin’ from a mile off.”
The mayor nodded, growing more enthusiastic about the plan the longer he dwelled upon it. “Very good James, very good indeed. But how do I know you won’t just turn on me as you have this uncle of theirs?”
“I don’t see my self to be gettin' too much outta’ helpin’ that ol’ fool.”
“And what do you see yourself getting out of helping me eh?”
“Well protectin’ ma investment of course,” said James as he began to make his way to the door.
“An investment which has now increased to a sixty percent diversion of the valley’s water.”
* * *
The sound of muffled prayers floated in the early morning breeze. From across the street, the two companions nervously eyed the precast concrete and weatherboard church, with its fresh white paint, a defiant contrast against the red brick of industrialism that surrounded it. Early morning chill crept down, over the steeple. The men embraced its crispness, keeping them alert and on edge. Leaning back against the glossy black Model T, Henry breathed condensation into the cold.
“And what if we don’t make it outta here?”
“Don’t say those things. Not now. It’s too late for this,” said Al quietly.
Henry sighed and accepted that there was to be no answer. It appeared Al no longer cared for self-preservation, only a burning desire to try and set things right.
The following minutes passed in contemplative silence. Slowly the hefty oaken doors of the church were pushed open, and whispered “amens” echoed through the quiet street. Stepping out into the cool of morning, the mayor stood amongst the crowd, shaking hands and kissing babies, wrapped in the materialistic corruption of his greed. Tired of the relentless yearning for his attention, the mayor waved at his manservant, a silent charge to fetch the car and broke free from the swath of potential voters. As the lingering crowd slowly dispersed, the silence of the companions was broken, as Henry questioned the role of the two men who remained with the mayor. Al shrugged off the question, “probably just a couple of pole’ies looking for a hand shake and a slap on the back.”
“I dunno. They been standin’ there the whole time and ain’t said or done nothin’. I mean heck if they wanted a hand shake they would’a got it by now.”
“Golly I dunno pal, why don’t you go ask ‘em yourse –“ Al stopped mid speech and stared hard at the men in question. Alarmed, Henry leaned close to Al, as if trying to hear his thoughts.
“What is it?”
“Torpedoes Henry. That slimy bastard’s gone and hired himself a couple ‘a guards.”
Breathing heavily, with adrenaline flowing, Alistair masterfully calculated their next move. He looked solemnly at Henry, who in an instant knew what he was thinking. Waving off any protest, Al quickly fumbled through the unfamiliar pockets of the dark tweed coat. Relieved, he pulled forth the revolver. Turning his back to the mayor and his entourage, he hurriedly checked the barrel, to be loaded with six faithful cylinders of death and then tucked his arm half way up to his elbow into the breast of his coat to conceal the weapon. Henry pleaded with him to re-consider, but to no avail. Alistair knew this was their best chance; they were out of money and out of luck. “With or without you Henry – I go to meet fate.” Starting off across the street, Al walked briskly, but inconspicuously towards the chapel, just as any other man seeking Sunday morning confession and repentance. Cursing under his breath, Henry took up the Marlin, covering it quickly with his doffed coat, and followed after his friend, only a few paces behind.
Having reached the footpath, Alistair felt inconspicuous. He paused for a moment, calming his breath under the overcast skies. Henry reached him seconds later, and now they stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to the church. The men behind the mayor, their bulky physique a grand contrast to the pot bellied mayor, eyed them curiously, whilst the politician appeared to be doing his best to disregard the two would-be assassins. Acting fast, believing themselves to have the ever-crucial essence of surprise, Alistair was the first to draw his weapon. Raising the gun to his eye, he pulled the trigger and with all the force of a god the firearm collided with the barrel.
* * *
The pews of the church were filled with men, women and children, all hunched in prayer to their god. Bowing his head likewise, in an attempt to find solitude and resolution Mayor Harding’s thoughts couldn’t help but dwell on the worst of what was soon to come, with injury and death at the forefront. What if he too was betrayed by the devious trickery of Slim Jim Ramsey? It was, after all, James who had secured Harding his office – having rigged the 1921 election of early July through bribery, extortion and most importantly voter fraud. What was to say he couldn’t do it again, with an even more malleable puppet mayor - a Democrat even! Chancing a glance over his fleshy shoulder Harding eyed the two bodyguards who had been sent to defend him, one of which nodded at him, and beckoned wordlessly to turn around, lest he draw undue attention. Turning back the mayor muttered under his breath, as George sought to calm his nerves.
“Mr Mayor, you really do need to calm yourself. I know it must be hard but I’m sure your friend Mr Ramsey has everything under control.”
For once, the mayor did his best to heed the advice of his loyal manservant. Relaxing his posture he breathed heavily a number of times and adjusted the collar of his peat coat, but it did little to ease his mind.
As the minutes passed and the sermon drew on, Harding’s agitation made him more distant than ever to the priest’s words, hearing no more than the sounds of his growing paranoia. As time turned into an eternity for the dishonest civil servant, the final amen rippled through his mind and brought him back to reality. As the church community filed ritually from the pews the mayor hurried to the doors, followed closely by his hired guards and George. Before he could break free however from the crowd, he was swarmed by a sea of well-wishers, sending their best for his re-election. Turning to run, Harding once more caught the eyes of his protectors. Stunned, he watched as they shook their heads, a silent protest to his attempt to flee. Speaking sternly but soft enough that the scrum of supporters wouldn’t hear, one of the men commanded the mayor to stop, telling him that the hit men had been spotted across the road by the Ford Model T and that to run would only draw him into their line of fire. Instead, Harding was to send George for the car, and merely wait for the assassins to make their move. Having little choice but to do as he was asked, Harding shook the hand of any old enough to vote, and patted the head of those too young, all the while keeping one eye upon the two men who in turn watched the mayor’s every move.
With the crowd beginning to dissipate, so too did Mayor Harding’s resolve, stepping back, closer to the two hired guns. “Don’t forget Harding,” came the voice of one of the men, “we have to wait for ‘em to draw their shooters before we can do somethin’. Just keep your cool and everythin’ will be just kosher.”
Now, with the swarm of voters having completely faded away, the two men came to life as if summoned forth by some supernatural force. Coming across the road, one after the other, the bodyguards prepared themselves for the imminent bloodshed, choosing their targets with naught more than a twitch of their heads. Drawing their weapons the hit men aimed and fired, which, thanks to the cunning of Slim Jim, lead to nothing more than smoke and noise. Before they had a chance to flee, Harding’s guards brought them to their knees, riddling them with the cheap metal of ordinance. As they lay, hardly breathing in a sea of their own crimson, life faded slowly from the men’s eyes. Sputtering blood, the shorter of the two cried out for his companion, before he too slipped into the ethereal abyss of death
The reaper of souls had come once more to Los Angeles.
* * *
Mayor Harding stood again, sweating behind a podium. As the crisp winter breeze ruffled his toupee, he hushed the twenty-odd reporters that crowded around the steps of the city hall, its stout stone facade a distinct contrast to his pompous figure. With the crowd settled, the mayor waited a moment before beginning his address.
“Gentlemen, I have called you here to inform you of the truths of what occurred last Sunday morning. As you would already know by now, two rather vicious members of the county’s rural community attempted a violent assault upon yours truly. An assault that was swiftly taken care of thanks to a number of private officers hired after a warning from a reliable source, which regretfully I cannot disclose to you men.” Pausing as the men took notes, the mayor spoke up again, “Now then, we have a few more minutes until this press conference is over, so I’ll take this time to answer any outstanding questions. Yes, you there in the brown? What is it ma boy?”
“Mr Mayor, John Samson for the L.A. Times. Are you able to disclose the names of the two men who died?”
“Well Mr Samson,” responded the mayor, “I have been advised not to do so, as a means to avoid making these men martyrs for their corrupt cause. However, I am feeling rather generous this morning and so, as such, I think I shall, just for you fine gentlemen – course, you all give me a good write up in the post election report eh?” Harding winked at the reporters, who all reacted with hearty laughter and a chorus of “yes sir!” and “of course Mr Mayor!” “Well gentlemen, the names of these violent offenders are, according to county records; Alistair Walter Dickson and Henry Scott Henderson – both farmers from the Owens Valley basin area. Next?”
“Arthur Marks here sir, for the Los Angeles Independent. The people want to know sir, if it’s true that the growing violence within the city, including the recent attempt upon your life, is related to the outcry over the city’s plans to siphon even more water from Owens Lake??”
Caught unaware at the deeply inquisitive nature of the journalist, the mayor coughed to cover his surprise. “Uh well no. No Mr Marks, there is no tangible link between the rabble-rousers and the growing violence, so far as we can tell. But of course, our dedicated detectives are always looking into any legitimate leads into the roots of the violence, and thus far it all appears to be almost directly related to the increasing number of Mexican immigrants crossing our southern borders. I’d say we have enough time to answer one more so – yes, you there in the front.”
“Todd Arnworth from the Tri Valley Courier. Is there any truth in the rumours that you will be stepping down from your post as the city’s mayor?”
Harding laughed. “Merely rumours those Democrats would have you believe to reduce voter turnout. I assure you gentlemen, I cannot, nay will not, turn my back on this city in its darkest hour, when every man, woman and child is vulnerable to the violence I myself have just recently faced. I swear to you men, under the eyes of Christ and God our father that until law and order is restored to our fair city and these vagabond insurgents are dealt with, that I, Edgar Gabriel Harding, shall stand strong in the face of danger and personal peril so that Los Angeles may continue to grow and prosper.”
As the reporter’s applause faded, the mayor politely excused himself from the conference and waddled towards the car, its door courteously opened by his manservant. With the car moving quickly north on Main, the newsmen dispersed likewise, until all but one man was left standing by the town hall’s stone steps. Having stood at the back of the crowd for the duration of the mayor’s address, his broken nose and badly bruised faced had gone unnoticed by the other men. Inhaling deeply, the man took a final look at the rough scrawl and notes taken during the address, before returning it to his jacket’s breast pocket:
“Unguarded. Unarmed. Bastard will pay.”