Johnny’s Big Break

The red-haired jazz baby got up from a table at the crowded speakeasy. A man with a pencil-thin mustache was on the stage at the front of the room. His slicked-back hair shone like patent leather under the electric lights as he strummed a ukulele with great gusto, singing a song about a young lady named Flo, who was always saying no. 

The jazz baby wended her way past little round tables packed closely together. Too close for the city’s fire code, but nobody gave a damn about that, not when the fire inspector had been paid off with an envelope containing five crisp twenty-dollar bills and a bottle of the good stuff.

The jazz baby went up to Johnny with a confident smile. She lightly ran a finger around the curve of his left ear and purred, “You and me, we’re gonna have a good time tonight.” It was a statement, not a question.

Johnny Rios had never seen her before in his life. However, he liked good times and he liked redheads. This particular jazz baby was a dead ringer for Clara Bow, the motion picture star universally acknowledged to be a red-hot mama. The invitation interested him, but first he wanted to get something straight.

“How much is this going to cost me?” 

The jazz baby winked a merry blue eye outlined in black kohl. “Not a red cent, honey. It’s on Mister Cue.”

The mysterious Mister Cue! Johnny felt a thrill of excitement upon hearing that name. Politicians, police, bootleggers, even the big-time gangsters who owned the politicians and the police and the bootleggers, all were in awe of Mister Cue. He’d rolled into town six months ago in a chauffeur-driven Duesenberg Model J as shiny and red as Satan’s tonsils. Under its long, sleek hood 265 horses neighed and stamped, with enough horsepower to take a prototype to an almost supernatural 116 miles per hour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as smoothly and easily as rocking a baby in a cradle. 

Johnny knew about cars from reading Motor magazine. Prompted by his love of anything gasoline-powered, his mother had given him a subscription for Christmas. He eagerly anticipated the arrival of each new issue, reading it voraciously, cover to cover, dreaming of the day when he would be able to afford an automobile of his own.

  Johnny was twenty. He was handsome in a bland, non-threatening way, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and square-jawed, like the fellow in the ads for Arrow collars and shirts. He was good-natured, always willing to help a friend in need. He was kind to his widowed mother, and no more dishonest than anyone else in his circle of acquaintances. 

He wasn’t a crook. If he found a wallet with the owner’s name and address in it, he returned it intact. If he found a wallet with no identification inside, and no clue as to whom it belonged, he kept whatever money was in there, as well as the wallet itself, if it was a good one. 

He wasn’t a crook, but he wasn’t a fool either. Turning a wallet with money in it over to the police would mean the police would keep the money, and money was hard to come by in 1934. The Depression had sunk its jaws deep into the startled, incredulous body of the United States, the way a jaguar would pounce on a fat, cosseted lap dog. The same thing had befallen most other countries of the world, or so Johnny heard from the clipped, gloomy male voices that delivered the news on the radio. 

Johnny was young, but he was old enough to remember the good times, before the stock market crashed and jobs dried up like Dust Bowl farms. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, the hilarious, nonstop party that was the 1920s was over, leaving behind the economic equivalent of a miserable, throbbing hangover. 

Johnny quit school and got a job as a waiter, serving plates of spaghetti and meatballs at an Italian restaurant with checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in the necks of empty wine bottles. Other wine bottles – full ones – were available around the back of the restaurant, through a door in an alley leading to the speakeasy where the jazz baby made Johnny her immodest proposal.

Like most young people, Johnny yearned for the good things in life. Expensive suits, big cars, fat Cuban cigars, and plenty of money to spend. The jazz baby’s mention of Mister Cue piqued his interest almost as much as did her pouting, bee-stung lips and her silk stockings that were rolled down to reveal a pair of pretty knees. 

While Johnny coveted Mister Cue’s shiny red Duesenberg, as well as the air of fearful respect with which his name was mentioned, little was known about him, not even his first name. All anyone knew was that he was extremely rich and extremely powerful. Within a week of rolling up in that big red Dusie, he’d quietly and neatly taken over the city. Not a single shot was fired, but everyone knew Mister Cue was now the boss, and that crossing him would be ill-advised.

To Johnny Rios, who made thirty cents an hour, plus tips, Mister Cue might as well be God. Being singled out by him for a night of all-expense-paid whoopee was an honor almost beyond imagining.

If Mister Cue wanted Johnny to have a good time, then Johnny resolved to do everything in his power to oblige. This was his big break; he just knew it. His prayers had been answered. No more counting pennies, scraping the last bit of peanut butter from the jar and walking to work instead of taking the trolley. Soon, if all went well, he’d be behind the wheel of his very own automobile, waving graciously to lesser mortals as they stared in envy, wishing they were as fortunate as Johnny Rios.

“They say he used to be a waiter at Cippolini’s. Now look at him. He’s worth a hundred thousand, maybe more,” Johnny envisioned a man remarking to his companion as he drove past, trailing gasoline fumes, a big diamond glittering from the ring on his pinkie finger.

“Some guys got all the luck,” the other man would say morosely.

Johnny told the jazz baby: “Count me in.”

She grinned. “You won’t be sorry, tiger. Let’s shake a leg. I’ll take you to where the band plays honest-to-goodness, low-down, Mississippi Delta blues, and where they smoke something that ain’t Lucky Strikes. Then I’ll take you to my place and show you a thing or two.”

The next night, Johnny knocked on the door of Suite 1414 of the Atlantic Hotel at precisely 8 p.m., as the jazz baby had instructed. The jazz baby’s name was Myrtle. She’d told Johnny to call her Myrt. Myrt had shown him a very good time indeed.

He was still feeling a little wobbly as the result of that good time, when the door opened, revealing Mister Cue himself. This was the closest Johnny had ever been to the great man, and he examined him with interest, trying to memorize everything about him. It would make a good story later to tell his friends, all of whom would be beside themselves with envy at the thought of Johnny being invited to Mister Cue’s hotel suite for a personal tȇte-à-tȇte.

Mister Cue’s eyes were so intensely dark brown they were almost black. They shone with a rapacious intelligence. His iron-gray hair hung loose and straight to his shoulders. His face was fissured with wrinkles. Around his neck was a necklace made of spiral-shaped seashells, and in his pierced ears were hoop earrings made out of what looked like some kind of green stone that looked like jade, or maybe it was only Bakelite. 

Any other man who wore earrings and a seashell necklace would be laughed out of town, probably after being on the receiving end of a beating, but not Mister Cue. He was powerful enough to dress any way he pleased. If he’d chosen to arrive at the Mayor’s Gala New Year’s Eve party wearing a yellow tutu, red satin dancing pumps and a pink feather boa, no one would have dared say a thing, other than how pleased they were to see him.

“Come in, Mister Rios,” Mister Cue said in a deep, cultured voice. He motioned for Johnny to step inside, then closed and locked the door. The curtains were drawn and a single lamp burned low. Johnny could barely make out the shapes of furniture.

For a moment Johnny thought his host had on a feathered cloak, but then he saw it was a beautifully tailored black suit. Gold links gleamed discreetly in the cuffs of his starched white shirt. It was so dark in the room it was hard for Johnny to see more than a few feet in front of him. He shuffled cautiously forward, careful not to bump into any of the furniture that loomed out of the gloom.

Mister Cue asked, “How about a drink before we get started?” 

What the hell? Was the old guy wearing a feathered headdress? No, it was just that he wore his hair in a high pompadour. He had a lot of hair for an old man, thick hair, too.

“That would be swell,” Johnny said. He hoped it would be French Champagne. In the movies, that’s what rich people drank.

It wasn’t Champagne. Champagne was pale and bubbly. The liquid the old man poured into a crystal glass from a vessel carved from black stone was a deep, dark red.

“Here’s lookin’ at you,” Johnny said, and downed it in a single gulp. Gah! It was awfully bitter and thick, almost as thick as molasses. If this was what rich people drank Johnny didn’t care for it.

Mister Cue took his empty glass from him and placed it on a table topped with a slab of black marble. “You don’t know how delighted I am to have found you, Juan Morales de Ruiz y Rios. I have an offer for you, one which I believe will be mutually advantageous to us both.” He smiled, revealing gleaming white teeth.

“That’s my old name. I’m Johnny Rios now. It’s more…” Johnny’s mouth was having trouble forming words. “ ‘Merican. More American,” he mumbled. He felt funny, sluggish, and thick-tongued.

He stumbled and Mister Cue caught him by the arm with a grip like iron.

The old man nodded sympathetically. “I understand. We have to be more American, don’t we, in this modern era where there are such things as automobiles and radio and motion pictures.” His lip curled as his voice became tinged with bitterness. “They are foolish toys, these things, yet people are avid for them. They are like children greedy for candy, even though too much candy makes them vomit.”

“I guess, if you say so,” Johnny said. He noticed the room had started to rock from side to side. It was like being in a boat. Mister Cue ushered him to a sofa. The next thing Johnny knew he was lying supine on its cushions and Mister Cue was bending over him. Johnny thought of being in a dentist’s chair, with the dentist leaning over him, getting ready to go to work. It wasn’t an amusing image, but it made him giggle.

Mister Cue sighed. “Please attend to what I am saying. Consider my situation. I own more gold than a man could count in a single lifetime, as well as precious jewels, enough to fill this room. I own this hotel, as well as many other businesses, both here in this city and in many other cities, but am I enjoying myself?” He glared at Johnny as if defying him to answer in the affirmative. Johnny blinked wordlessly at him. 

When Johnny didn’t reply, Mister Cue continued, “No, I am not enjoying myself. It is cold here in North America, beside the Atlantic Ocean. This body has grown old. Its blood freezes. The people here have no respect for the old ways. None of them are appropriate for my purpose. Only you, Juan Morales de Ruiz y Rios. You are of the old blood, diluted, yes, mingled with other, inferior lines, but still the old blood.” His dark eyes gleamed as he bent closer to Johnny, so close that Johnny could smell his sour breath.

“Aw, heck. You’re a vampire, ain’t ya?” Johnny muttered, utterly dismayed by this turn of events. He tried to stand up and make a run for the door, but he found he couldn’t move.

“Don’t be stupid,” the old man snarled. He withdrew an obsidian knife from an inside pocket of his suit coat and held it up to Johnny’s terrified eyes. “I am Quetzalcόatl. I have worn many bodies in the course of my long existence. Now it is time to acquire a new one. You are descended from Aztecs. I’m about to give you the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Johnny felt a tremendous blow to his chest. Then nothing.

An hour later a young man walked out of suite 1414. His face was smooth, his skin firm and supple. He was dark-haired and square-jawed, resembling the man in the ads for Arrow collars and shirts. He moved easily, his muscles gliding beneath an expensively tailored black suit. Solid gold links shone discreetly in the cuffs of his starched white shirt. As he waited for the elevator to carry him downstairs to the lobby of his hotel the young man held his hawk-nosed head high, like a king, like a god.

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