Dames, detectives, and deception…magic meets the decadence of the Roaring Twenties in ten tales of glitter and jazz.
The year is 1929. It's two months after the financial collapse on Wall Street, and the world is bating its breath, unsure of what will happen next. Is it the end of an era?
At the Honeybee's Sting, a speakeasy in the basement of a laundry, a group of unusual figures meets to discuss the past—and perhaps some possible futures: the Detective turned writer, the Dame who's older than she looks, the Vampire who's been riding the financial markets for generations, the Spy from across the ocean, the Actress who's only just learned the truth about Hollywood, and more.
But one of their number is missing, a man connected to the mob, a man who holds the prize for a mysterious storytelling contest—a prize that can give you your heart's desire.
Ten stories, woven together in the style of The Canterbury Tales, follow the contest along a long, dark night where nothing is what it seems and the best way to tell the truth is to lie.
Pour yourself a cocktail and join us at the liar's table for the divine, the slapstick, the tragic, the transcendant 1920s today!
DeAnna Knippling's Swindlers takes us back to 1929. At the Honeybee's Sting, a speakeasy in the basement of a laundry, a group of unusual figures meets to discuss the past—and perhaps some possible futures. Ten short stories take place along a long, dark night where nothing is what it seems, and the best way to tell the truth is to lie. – Jamie Ferguson
"Although I think I might have missed a trick or two, it amazed me at the various levels of magic that were hinted at in this story."– Amazon reviewer, “The Magician’s Grift”
"A fantastic sci-fi tale set against the backdrop of a smooth jazz club scene, "All the Retros at the New Cotton Club" is not to be missed!"– Goodreads reviewer, “All the Retros at the New Cotton Club”
"Full of magic and drama, yet with a bit of humour too, it's a good book and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who likes magical stories, books made of real paper, and who enjoys a little escapism in their life."– Amazon reviewer, “The Page Turners”
The Honeybee's Sting was a speakeasy back in Prohibition days, in a big brick Lincoln Park building in Chicago. The main floor was a Chinese laundry. Upstairs was Madame Ixnay's, a house of what you might call ill repute, with eight working girls.
It was a classy joint, as far as those things went.
The bribes it took to keep that place open flowed like the Chicago River into Lake Michigan—polluted and thick.
The Boss was a big man, broad in the shoulders, with a big bushy mustache and dark hair. He had impeccable taste in suits and a knack for getting supplies of decent liquor, sometimes even with the right labels on the outside. He was connected to at least two crime families but somehow managed to stay independent. Everyone knew the Boss was bringing in the liquor via the laundry carts, but as long as the bottles weren't sticking out from under the piles of towels and bedsheets, the cops pretended not to notice.
The Honeybee's Sting was down in the basement. The outside of the building was plain brick, nothing fancy. You'd get there by car. The driver would pull up to a door in the alleyway, a huge double steel door stenciled with the words KNOCK FOR SERVICE.
You'd get out of the car, dressed to the nines, and knock on the door with whatever the secret code was that week, and either the door would open or it wouldn't.
That door was never wrong. There was a lock on it but we never used it. It was just that the door would open…or it wouldn't.
You'd go inside through a plain brick landing stacked with empty laundry carts, then down some cement stairs to the basement, where there was another heavy door, oak this time. You'd knock the code on the door again, and someone would have to swing it open to let you in.
Light and sound would come spilling out, and the smell of alcohol and perfume and men in heavy coats sweating like pigs, the sound of Black men playing jazz or an octoroon crooning, voices chattering, the sound of glass smashing, of women laughing.
You stepped inside that door and the temperature went up at least twenty degrees. The door slammed behind you, and you were in.
Back then, speakeasies couldn't afford to be all that fancy, unless they were run directly by the mob. You had to be ready for the cops to seize whatever they could get their hands on. The patrons weren't too gentle on things, either.
So the Honeybee's Sting wasn't all that much to look at in 1929. After Prohibition ended, we fancied it up, but that was later.
In 1929, the walls were open brickwork and the floors were bare cement. A high oak table served as the bar and there were high, round tables around the edges of the room. One corner was cleared for the musicians, and the center of the room was cleared out for dancing. Silk palm trees stood in pots in the corner, half-hiding the spittoons. Bare bulbs hung from overhead on cords.
Behind the bar was a door that led to a reinforced smuggler's closet that was hidden behind a second door at the back of a shallow safe—not a place you wanted to get locked up in at night, but it did mean that the cops couldn't get at the liquor stores during a raid.
Opposite the safe was a door to the back room, which used to be the coal cellar. The coal furnace had been replaced a few years ago with a gas furnace that worked more efficiently, and didn't require stoking.
At least, that's what everyone said had happened. But I never saw where that gas furnace was in that basement, or anywhere else for that matter. We had radiators for heat and no end to the amount of hot water for the ladies to wash clothes in, but I never saw a hot-water tank, either. Dom told me not to worry about it.
If the Boss was big, Dom, the bartender, was bigger.
Dom was his own favorite bouncer. If it was busy, the Boss might send one or two guys over to help him, but mostly what they did was answer the door and pour drinks for the girls. I never saw a one of those other guys have to lift a finger against a customer. Dom took it as a point of pride to handle things personally. Word got around. Dom would let loose on some scumbag about once every six months. There was one time Dom cut a guy's pinky finger off, right in the bar. I put it in a jar of milk to help keep it fresh while he saw if a doctor could sew it back on again.
Dom had an on-again, off-again middle-European accent. He used to talk to the bar itself, and that's when the accent would come out. "Tair tair," he'd tell the bar while wiping it. "Is only scratch, noboty means bat. Only scratch." Then he'd turn around and, in a pure Chicago nasal accent that went straight through your eardrums, would yell, "Hey mister, you gonna get yer fat ass offa that tabletop, or yam I gonna have ta come over and remove it?"
The tables were small, the Black jazz musicians were all right when you could hear them, the girls serving drinks were pretty and had sharpened fingernails, and I washed dishes, mopped floors, swept out spiderwebs, and served as general dogsbody.
They called me Kid. I started working there in 1927 and stayed after Prohibition ended, all the way to 1949 when it closed. Some new folks re-opened the bar in 1993. It wasn't the same. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I couldn't tell you. Just different.
The Honeybee's Sting had a number of incidents worth telling stories about, but one in particular sticks in my mind.
The date was December 29th. Two nights later, it would be one of the busiest days of the year, with everyone out looking to celebrate the change from one decade to another. But the twenty-ninth was a cold Sunday night, cold enough to freeze your spit before it hit the ground, a night so cold it couldn't snow. It was windy as hell, though, and what snow there was on the ground whipped around like knives.
In short, it was a slow night, even for the girls upstairs. Nobody wanted to go anywhere. Even the jazz trio, always desperate for tips, hadn't showed up.
And yet that night, the back room had been reserved for special guests.
The back room was darker and damper than the main room and had a low ceiling, just high enough that I didn't hit my head. Two walls were nothing but rough brick, and the far wall had an old coal chute that had been rebuilt as a back exit against police raids.
When I had come in for the night, Dom had told me, "The Boss wants you to serve the special guests tonight, so the girls can go home."
I said I was game, and the girls left gratefully. I even got a kiss on the cheek from one of them. Problem was, I was so shy I could barely stutter out my own name, let alone make witty banter. I hoped I wouldn't have to say much. Maybe the whole thing would be cancelled due to weather.
I finished up my chores early, then sat at a table, reading an old back issue of Black Mask that I had in my back pocket. I reread one of the Continental Op stories, and waited.
The first of the special guests to come in was a dame, a real flapper type, the kind of woman who normally only appears on the arm of some guy wearing a pinstriped monkey suit. (She was the kind of gal that the Boss liked to show off.) I heard her before I saw her. She clomped noisily down the stairs, loud as a cow, then banged on the oak door at the bottom.
From behind the bar, Dom yelled, "Who da hell comes into a joint on a night like this?"
He stomped over to the door, threw it open, and burst into a smile. He said the dame's name and she snuggled up to him, giving him a big fat kiss on the cheek, kicking up one heel and standing on tiptoe on the other. She was wearing a shiny otter-fur coat and a slinky green dress underneath, kitten heels and a Marcel wave in her copper hair, dark red bow-shaped lips drawn in with pencil and lipstick, in two different colors.
I'm sure you won't mind if I just call her "the Dame." It's not like there were two of her.
Dom showed her into the back room, and I folded up my magazine and stuffed it into my back pocket. I ducked through the doorway and stuck my head in.
"Need anything, Dom? F-for the lady?"
The Dame looked at me and lifted her eyebrows, which were penciled-in arches. In a little-girl voice she exclaimed, "Oh, my! Aren't you the tall one?"
"Y-yes," I said. And blushed.
She laughed. "Oh, Dom. Can I keep him?"
"No," Dom said in his middle-European accent, "Da kid belongs to da bar. You can only borrow him."
The Dame laughed, throaty and deep, then in the little-girl voice said, "Dom'll bring me something in a minute, sweetie."
"T-take your coat?"
"Ooh, it's chilly down here tonight," she said. "Ask me later, when the room fills up."
She blew me a kiss, and I excused myself right back out the door. Dom bustled in and out, bringing her a drink.
The next special guest was Madame Ixnay herself, from upstairs.
She had olive skin and black eyes and smooth black hair in a bob, a patch of silver strands at one temple. I couldn't have told you her age. She could have been twenty-five; she could have been sixty. Under a dark wool coat, she was dressed in an ivory silk dress with a long white bow. She looked like a statue of Venus or an Egyptian goddess, something you'd have to go to a museum to see.
"Hello, kid," she said. She had a deep voice, mannish, that always ruffled up the hairs on the back of my neck.
"Madame," I said, trying to give her a little bow. Dom was out of sight in the other room. "Are you here for the back room?"
I said, "Cold night out," while she handed me her dark wool coat.
"A good night for intimate whispers."
I didn't know what to say to that, so I shut my mouth, suddenly reminded how little I knew of what was going on. I started to lead her toward the back room.
"Still reading the magazines?" she asked, slipping the copy of Black Mask out of my back pocket in a way that was more suggestive than any double-entendre delivered by one of her girls.
"You going to write for them one day?"
I felt a hot line of embarrassment ripple straight up my spine. "N-no."
"You should. Use the stories from this place! Just change the names so the Boss doesn't find out." She winked at me, then disappeared into the room. I hung up her coat on a rack by the door. The coat was dry and not even cold. She must have walked straight down from upstairs.
She had left my copy of Black Mask on the bar, so I picked it up, trying to decide on whether to keep reading or hide it away for the rest of the night. It wasn't like I hadn't read the stories before.
A heavy set of footsteps began coming down the stairs.
I walked over to the coat rack and tucked the magazine into my winter coat, then went to do the door to answer it.
I recognized him at first sight, of course—I had read every story of his from the pulps I could find. I was tempted to get my copy of Black Mask back out of my coat and get him to sign it, but he scowled at me with his wild black eyebrows and I changed my mind.
What he was doing in Chicago, I didn't know. Unlike Madame Ixnay's, his coat was cold and sparkling with melting snowflakes.
He handed me his hat and coat.
"Sir," I said, to awed to say anything else.
"I'm here for a private gathering," he said, his voice sounding thin. Then he started coughing, a terrible noise. I took a step toward him, but he held out one hand and gestured me to wait while he coughed into a red print handkerchief.
"The room's b-back here, sir," I said, when he had finished.
"Thank you, son."
I led him to the back room, where he was warmly greeted by the ladies, and by a solemn nod from Dom. I hung around for a second. It's not every day that you meet one of your heroes.
The Detective-turned-writer said, "Shouldn't you-know-who be here already?"
Dom said, "He hadta run an errand. He'll get here when he gets here."
"Does he have it?"
Dom put his hand on his chest. "I swear on the twisted oak over my grandmudder's grave, in da old country. He has it. I seen it."
The Detective's shoulders relaxed. "And he'll give it to me?"
Dom shrugged. "It's the prize for tonight. Whoever wins da contest, gets the prize. You got a good story, yah?"
At that, my ears pricked up.
But before the Detective could answer, Dom turned to me and said, "I think I hear another one," and I had to duck out before I heard the Detective's answer.
This time, it wasn't just one person coming down the stairs, but two. They moved at what seemed like a crawl. I heard an extra thump on the stairs here and there: a cane. The knock at the door was a thin tapping noise. I opened up.
The gent was both elderly and tall—although not as tall as I was. He was pale, so pale that his skin almost seemed like marble. He had thin, colorless lips and flat, deep-set eyes. Eyes without a soul.
I recognized him from the newspapers. He was a rich, rich man. And a very old one.
I was surprised he'd been able to make it down the stairs, with or without the help of the young woman beside him.
Her I recognized, too. She was an actress from the West Coast, Chinese by birth. Not a leading lady—they didn't let Chinese women lead anything, not then and hardly not now—but someone you'd recognize from her alluring, deep eyes.
The old man I'm going to call the Vampire. That's what he was, an old bloodsucker. The Actress I'll just call the Actress. Neither one of them gave me much of a once-over. They both seemed preoccupied by something, and barely saw me as I took their coats, which were both only lightly sprinkled with snowflakes.
"If you would follow me?" I asked. It was a lot easier to sound confident around a millionaire and a famous actress than it was to sound that way in front of one of your inspirations.
Slowly, we worked our way over to the open door of the back room. The Actress went in first and was greeted politely, but not warmly, although there was a certain look that passed between her and the Detective.
When the Vampire followed her, everyone went dead silent. The hostility was so thick I could feel it prickling over my skin.
Dom said, "Sit, sit."
The Vampire said, in an ancient voice, "I see that I have been forgiven for last time."
The Detective said, "More or less. As long as I get what I came here for."
"That, sir, is up to you."
The two scowled at each other.
Dom turned to me. "Kid, put the kettle on, wouldja? For tea. And open a bottle of white wine for this gentleman here. The good stuff."
I hung up the coats. We had a little electric hot plate wired up on the wood shelves along the back wall behind the bar, and I got it started. It took me a while to find the tea. It was in the liquor storage closet, inside the safe. We made hot toddies all year long, what with weather in Chicago being what it is, but hardly anybody ever requested actual tea. Then I went through what bottles of white wine we had, and took one of the bottles out of Dom's separate reserve. I showed it to him and he nodded. I brought a glass of it out to the Vampire.
The tea kettle whistled on the hot plate and I ran back out to take it off.
By then someone else was already knocking at the door.
The new guest was in a tan wool suit with a Nehru-collared shirt. He wore small, round eyeglasses, was bald, and had a bushy moustache and eyebrows to match. He flashed me a friendly smile as I came in, and I decided I liked him.
He was definitely a tea guy. I showed him to the table and went back out to brew the tea without being asked. From inside the room I heard him speaking in a British accent.
I ran him the tea and heard more steps coming down the stairs, slow and heavy. Footsteps bringing someone who didn't much want to be there, that night.
I ducked back out to answer the door. It was a man I'd seen before, a doctor who sometimes visited the girls at Madame Ixnay's, or who attended a customer of the Honeybee's Sting when one was needed. He was so discreet that I didn't know his name. Everyone just called him "the Good Doctor." He was a colored man, not dark but not light enough to pass.
I offered to take his coat, but he shook his head. "It shall have to be hung separately. It's rather stained."
I took a second look at him. He was dressed in an evening suit with a long wool coat buttoned up in front, all deep black, like he was mourning. He had been outside long enough to put a cold, wet shine on his skin, and his coat looked damp, even across the front, like he'd been splashed with something. I wondered if the cabs had refused to pick him up.
But it wasn't until he unbuttoned his coat and took it off, draping it over a table, that I understood what he meant. His shirt cuffs were stained with blood.
I said, "Let me warm up some water for you to wash in. I can try to do something about the coat before it sets in. Dab it with rags, anyway, sir."
He blinked at me, and said, "If you would. I thank you."
I nodded. "If you'll follow me, the others are back here."
"I thank you," he repeated.
I led him into the back room, and Dom showed him to a seat.
Without greeting the others, the Good Doctor said, "I have an announcement. The last member of our party will not be arriving. He has had an accident."
The Dame gasped with an almost comic over-reaction, but nobody else looked much surprised.
The Good Doctor continued, "He was killed near here a few minutes ago, presumably while traveling to meet with the rest of us. I was called to try to save him, but was unable to do so."
Dom stood next to me and murmured, "Lock the downstairs door, wouldja? Everyone that's coming is already here, and we don't want to be interrupted."