The Orange Nibble
LOCAL MOBSTER FOUND DEAD IN HATCHER’S ALLEY
I choke on my sip of coffee that was suddenly too hot as I read the headline. Setting today’s paper down, I mutter an oath. I’m just trying to make ends meet. This was not a beef I needed right now.
The clean scent of orange and lemon permeates the air as the dark wood of the bar gleams happily in the low light. The heavy green velvet drapes dampen noises from outside, making the bar comforting and quiet. I haven’t seen a soul for a few hours; typical for a Wednesday after midnight.
The name of my bar officially is Peppin’s, but it’s been lovingly referred to as The Orange Nibble by customers for many years. Thanks to my gramps’ use of special cleaning solutions of vinegar and citrus peels, the wood has soaked so much of the orange oil that I don’t think the smell will ever go away. It might be a fire hazard, but it’s a risk that hasn’t done the place dirty yet.
Gramps told me he started using orange, lemon, and lime remnants in his cleaning solutions since we use so little of it in our cocktails. I would thank him if I could. His mixtures have saved me hundreds, enough that I can keep the bar open—barely.
I’m wiping out the inside of a glass with a vinegar rag when my door opens with a thud. Not what I expected, but this city is always full of surprises; and hopefully it’s someone with something to trade so they can sip a few. I am low on sugar, and the more drinks they want, the more I can get. Trading is the only way I have survived Prohibition since I cannot legally sell liquor. What I’m doing is not selling. I’ve had a couple of flatties, the non-crooked ones who still respect the badge, come in and try to shut me down. However, when I prove I’m not actually selling liquor, as the law clearly states, they leave me alone. At least they’ve never found the secret batch room where I make my own liquors. I’d be in real trouble then. For now, I’ve got them convinced that all of my current stock existed on site before the law went into effect. I hate lying, but a man’s got to make a living, and I will not give up my grandfather’s bar without a fight.
My hopes cowed for any sort of trade when I catch the stench of the kid coming in my door. It even overpowers the strong citrus forever lingering in the air. He stumbles through my tucked chairs to drape himself over the bar. I hold back a sneer as his sweat leaves an unsightly wet spot on my counter. Whatever this kid has dragged himself through to smell this terrible is not an aroma I want in my nose.
“I’ll have me a Gin Rickey,” he slurs.
He had to be in his early twenties. Dressed in his glad rags, which likely looked pristine when he walked out his door, pour off of him in disturbed puddles. His once slicked-back hair dangles like broken needles around his eyes. I shake my head. “No. You are already out on the roof, kid, and have got nothing I want to trade. Go home.”
“You… you… give me a drink or I’ll tell my cousin.” He waves a sloppy finger at me. “I’ll call the buttons… selling liquor.”
“Sure thing, kid.” I roll my eyes, and slide him a glass of water which he drinks. I’ve gotten a lot of threats to drop a dime to the coppers over a cocktail since Prohibition started, so at this point I ignore what most people remark and ask them to leave, or make them leave. This kid, though, can’t make it out on his own. He’s heavier than I expect as I get my arms under his, and I have trouble dragging him to the door. I honestly don’t know how I manage, since his gams are as wobbly as a newborn colt. I give him a light shove into the street, and he astonishingly remains upright. “This bar doesn’t sell liquor! Come back when you have something useful to trade.”
Technically, I still had an hour before closing, but I did not want to chance the kid trying to come back inside. I bolt the door and darken the windows. It takes a few moments for the outside light to dim altogether, but I watch as the kid totters away along the sparsely lit street. At least I can go to bed an hour early tonight.
The next morning, as I stare at the paper, I wish I had known who the kid was before tossing him to the street. The photo is blurry, but I know for certain that it is the same kid as last night. Reading the article aloud just makes my morning worse. “Daryl Mangham, a.k.a. Rabbit, was found deceased at approximately 3 a.m. this morning in Hatcher’s Alley. When the body was first discovered, police believed the victim may have been stabbed, but upon examination found no knife or bullet wounds. Toxicology will determine the fate of this young man. Rabbit was last seen entering one of the last open-for-business bars in the area, Peppin’s.”
My sweetened coffee has turned as bitter as an orange pith in my stomach. I push the cup aside, not wanting to finish it. My mother’s clock chimes letting me know it was time to open the bar. But do I? I have a feeling I am going to have unwanted visitors today. I recognize the name Mangham. Gideon Mangham is the Don of the local mob, he’s called “The Hatchet”, a hard-boiled man that has earned his name. Too many stories have passed my ears about how he earned such a title. I’ve talked to plenty of his victims, and I really do not want to add mine to the list. I sigh and straighten my pant legs. Gideon would find me no matter how I attempted to avoid him, so I might as well see if I can make some trades before he steps into my bar. I look in the mirror to make sure I’m presentable, and my normally ruddy cheeks are the same pearlescent as my grandmother’s china. Maybe I don’t feel as lucky as I thought.
My luck is definitely dirty, has been since Hoover wanted the country to take part in “the noble experiment.” If I was a betting man, all my cabbage would be gone the moment Hatchet’s Chopper Squad stepped into my bar. Their sleek black machine guns send a message I don’t want to receive. For all the gin joints in this city, why did he have to walk into mine? I curse the gods of liquor that Mangham’s young cousin, Rabbit, picked my bar as the last place to be seen alive. I need to keep my cool no matter what he accuses.
Hatchet sits at the stool just to my left and places his Fedora on the bar, to reveal the same dark hair as his deceased relative. He’s a cake-eater of a man, and now that I have an up close look at Gideon Mangham, he and Daryl were carbon copies of one another. I glance down as a sheen catches my eye. The silk band of his hat glints, giving the whole situation a menacing feeling despite the Don’s relaxed posture. I wish he’d hide the Fedora on the seat next to him; I despise hats on the counter. Maybe that’s why he set it there, because he knows of my reputation for cleanliness. His trencher hangs true despite his somewhat hunched shoulders. The thing probably has enough starch to last a lifetime, but it could also be stiff because it fears getting in the way. It wouldn’t surprise me. I’m doing my best to not show any fear, even though I can feel my knees wanting to buckle. At least I have somewhere to direct my nervous energy by cleaning the shot glasses.
“This is a nice box you have here,” Gideon says.
His voice is subdued with an Italian lilt. The little I know is that he comes from a long line of proud Italians and probably speaks both languages. My father dealt with his father, and so on. It’s becoming a tradition that the owner of Peppin’s is called on at least once by the Don of the local mafia.
“Thanks. It has been in the family for a long time,” I reply, and I’m proud my voice doesn’t waiver.
“I’ve heard this joint’s called the Orange Nibble. I can smell why. It’s nice.”
I hate bumping gums. Probably doesn’t make me the best barkeep, but I’m the only one in the area willing to trade goods for liquor, so I get away with it. “What can I get you?”
“Straight to the point; I like that in a man. I’ll have a Boulevardier.”
For a brief second, I thought he would ask for the same drink as his young cousin, but I’m relieved he doesn’t. It makes me feel like I have a chance of salvaging a dangerous situation. I’m also buoyed by him ordering one of my favorite drinks. I make this cocktail for myself often, so I can do it blindfolded.
“Mind if I make one for myself?” I ask as I pull a mixing glass from under the counter.
Gideon gives me a gesture that I take to mean ‘whatever I wish’.
I pour an ounce and half of sweet vermouth and campari before adding two ounces of my family’s homemade bourbon. I crack enough ice to fill the mixer and give it a good stir. The cocktail is ready when I feel the liquor no longer sticking to the glass. I pull two glasses from a cool box and strain the mixture before adding an orange twist and maraschino cherries on a stick for garnish. I slide the drink to Gideon, which he catches easily, and takes a sip. He raises a brow at me before giving a nod of appreciation. The secret is the homemade bourbon, but I don’t tell him that. He might think it’s poisoned after what happened to Daryl. The less he knows about me, the safer I feel. Besides, if he blames me for Rabbit’s death, then it doesn’t matter if his drink is toxic—I’m dead either way.
I take a sip after him. Hopefully, it’s a sign of good faith. The cocktail is bitter. A bit like getting punched square in the nose, but it gives me a boost. It seems a cliche thing to think as a bartender, but there is a reason it is called liquid courage.
“You’re here about your cousin, Daryl,” I state.
He takes another sip. “You got it.”
“I am not responsible for his death. I tossed him out for being too smoked when he entered.”
“Tell me what happened,” Gideon responds, coolly, but his eyes are more expressive.
“Daryl came in about an hour after midnight. He could barely make it to the counter without making a stir of my chairs. He ordered a Gin Rickey, which I denied, and he threatened to tell his cousin that I would not serve him. I tossed the kid out and shut off the lights. When I read the paper this morning, I knew you were the cousin.”
“My reputation precedes me then.”
There was no point in acknowledging the statement. Gideon knew his position of power in this city, and while I would respect it, I would not buck up his ego. He had more than enough pawns to spew praises.
“The cause of death is poisoning,” he takes a sip, “what I want to know is where he got it.”
It isn’t clear if he means alcohol poisoning or something else. “You don’t believe me?”
“I did not say that.”
His relaxed manner is irritating. Gideon Mangham would not have come here if he didn’t believe I had something to do with his cousin’s death. Peppin’s rooted in this neighborhood and it is the first time he has set foot in this bar.
Gideon raises a brow at me, and I can see his chopper squad get tense.
“If you’re implying that my cleaning solutions do not work, then you’ve got a lot to learn, Gideon.” The intake of breath from his men tells me I am about to cross a line, but if I’m going to cross it, then this man is going to know the truth. “People have been using oranges and vinegar to clean since medieval times. So, if you think something here poisoned your cousin, think again.”
“You got guts, Ben, I’ll give you that.”
“I did not serve Daryl Mangham an ounce of liquor. For two reasons,”—I use my fingers to stress my points—“one, I would never and have never served liquor to anyone that smoked, two, he had nothing to trade. This is not a place you can buy liquor, but you already knew that.”
Gideon raises the glass to study the amber color of the liquid. “You didn’t ask me to trade anything with you.”
“I assumed my life was the offer, for now.”
He doesn’t respond but takes another sip of the Boulevardier. It becomes eerily quiet. I want to finish the drink in front of me, but that would be an injustice to the cocktail, and if there is one thing my father and grandfather taught me, it was to appreciate the nuances of a drink. I can feel the nerves coming back, so I pick up my rag and dip a corner into my cleaning solution, the same one I just heartily defended. Disturbing the oils makes a potent scent of orange permeate the air, and I hope it is a defense to my stance.
As I wipe the counter, I have the complete attention of Gideon. I’m not so sure what he finds fascinating about my cleaning, but I will not question it.
“My cousin could have gotten something from your counter or the glasses, bleach is the new thing that kills bacteria.”
Why would anyone want their drinking glasses cleaned with bleach? The stuff smells horrible, and I cannot imagine people liking how it would change the taste of my drinks. I bite my tongue almost to the point of bleeding. “No one has ever gotten sick because of how I operate. My grandfather and father have been using vinegar and citrus to clean for years with never any ill effects, unless you consider the smell of orange an assault to your nose.” It’s not smart to be so vicious with my words, I know this, but I also know my onions, and I’ll be damned if I am going to let the Don of the local mafia slag my bar and my services.
“Careful, Ben,” Gideon cautions, his voice low but no less dominant.
“If you think I am guilty, then there is nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, Hatchet. I stand by what I said.”
Gideon takes another casual drink of his cocktail before giving a little circle of his finger. His chopper squad files out, leaving the two of us alone. He pulls out a bean shooter and rests it on the counter. This time I throw out what I’ve been taught and take a big swig of my cocktail, letting the burn of the bourbon give me a what for as it slides down my throat. If I am to die, the last thing I will have tasted is good liquor.
Gideon is quiet for so long it worries me. I do not know where my fate stands, and if I die, I feel as if I will have floundered everything my father and grandfather worked hard to build. Will Gideon Mangham take over the bar and turn it into a Speakeasy? Will it become his mafia’s new headquarters? If that happened, will the orange oil in the wood linger long after I’m gone? I like to think it so. It would be a reminder of generations’ worth of effort to make this a classy place.
Gideon taps the tip of his gun on the counter, and I almost expect a burn mark to appear. “I like a man who stands his ground. It makes me respect him.”
I don’t know if I should be flattered or not.
“The coroner at first thought it might have been bacteria from uncleanliness, but it turned out to be alcohol poisoning. My cousin’s death was his own stupidity.”—I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding—“I have been to every box in my domain, and only you have told me information I can trust. And I know when I can trust a man.” He puts away his bean shooter and stands. Positioning his Fedora so it impeccably covers his face, he adds, “Whatever you need, Ben, do not be hesitant to ask. You and I are going to be superb trading partners in this time of… deficit.”
I hold back my shock. I thought for sure the Don would bop me. When the door shuts behind him, I’m uncertain if I should be relieved or worried that Gideon Mangham has aligned himself with me. It wouldn’t have been my first choice for steady business.