Charles and Belle at the Cotton Club (Upcoming Book Sample)

Harlem Rhapsody by John Nuckel

Charles and Belle at the Cotton Club (Upcoming Book Sample)

Charles didn’t have to approach Belle. A few minutes after he walked back to the warehouse, one of the bottlers walked over to him as he was talking to Moses. 

“There’s a funny man here to see you.”

Charles turned. “A funny man?”

“Well, funny-looking, for sure.”

The man turned and walked away. After getting a few more instructions on where Moses wanted the barrels placed, Charles walked towards the front of the warehouse. There was indeed a funny-looking man standing near the door. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else than a bustling warehouse. He was very short. Maybe five-foot. He was dressed in a green double-breasted suit with a high collared white shirt. He had a white derby hat and bowtie. His pants were short at the ankles, and he had bright red socks. White spats covered the majority of his black patent leather shoes. The entire look was tailored perfectly. Charles walked over, and the man seemed nervous as a cornered animal. He had delicate features and a pencil-thin mustache. He was wearing eye makeup. He thrust out a card without a word.

It was Belle Turner’s card. It looked professional, like one that would be handed to agents or other show-business types. It had her name in bold print with The Belle of Broadway in cursive beneath. The man practically whispered, “She’ll see you now. Go up the stairs behind the stage. Her dressing room is the first one on the right.”

The man immediately turned to the door to exit. Since Charles was headed in the same direction, they almost bumped into each other. The man jumped back, and Charles smiled. He put out his left arm to show the man the way. “Are you in the stage show?”

“Hardly,” the man smirked. Then he walked out the door, turning left to go out of the alley.

Charles took the same route as when he went to meet with Madden. Taking the stairs up this time. The first door on the right was the only one with a star. It hung by a nail, painted gold. Charles took note that the room was almost directly on top of the band stand. He knocked.

“Come in.”

Charles took a deep breath and paused to let his nerves settle. He was more nervous about this meeting than ones with Madden or Morgan or Rockefeller. This was Belle Turner. He walked in. Across the room she sat at her makeup table; her back to him but her face visible in the mirror. The room was decorated tastefully. There was a hint of lavender in the air. She wore a heavy robe with a feathered collar. The lighting made it look like she was on stage. Charles sensed she was putting on a performance. He had spent enough time around spoiled musicians. He hoped she wasn’t going to be too difficult. The moment seemed perfectly planned, and it couldn’t have been more effective. He was swept away. The stories were true: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. For a moment he forgot how to speak. She smiled and put down the small brush she had in her hand. She spoke directly into the mirror. “I’ll have some publicity photos soon. You’ve met my manager Juan Carlos?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s who that was?” He tried to finish the thought but came up tongue tied.

She smiled again. It was clear she was used to men being uncomfortable in her presence. “You replaced Wilson I hear. Careful you keep your hands to yourself.” 

Charles was calming down. “Oh, I will. We should talk.”

“Should we now? What on earth would you have to say to me?”

“I think you know my reason for being here. I’m sure Mr. Madden spoke to you.”

“Lots of people speak to me. I hear things all the time. I’d rather hear it from the source, when I can. So that’s why I ask. What do you have to say to me?”

It would be pointless to go back and forth, so Charles got to it. “I would like you to continue talking to men between sets; but instead of Madden telling you who to speak to and hearing what they had to say, it will be me.”

“Is that what you would like?”

He was going to respond but she smiled, and he forgot how to speak again.

“You gonna be running me now?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

“Really. I don’t suppose you will be sharing the spoils of these meetings.”

“I’m sure Madden told you. I have a different reason for being here.”

“Tell me, Mr. Merritt, why should I continue to spend my time in the presence of these slobbering, old white men if there is no compensation?”

She spun in her chair to face him, and that beautiful face went half in shadow. The robe covered all except for her long legs from the knees down. She wore silver-strapped high-heels.

Charles thought about saying if she didn’t cooperate, the club would be shut down. Her show business prospects would be forever diminished, but he didn’t have too. He could tell she was a smart woman. She knew that already. Instead, he said, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

She laughed so loud it made him jump. “The right thing? My, my. Looking at you there, I almost believe you think the right thing has anything to do with why you’re here.” She turned back to the mirror and shook her head. “The right thing. My, Lord.” She dabbed a brush against her cheek.

Charles strengthened his resolve, perhaps because she turned away from him. “Yes, the right thing. If we work together, we can…”

She bolted up in her chair but didn’t turn. He hands were on her table, and she leaned forward to holler into the mirror. “Are you a fool Mr. Merritt? Or do you think me a fool? Do you know anything about what is going on here? You’re in with a band of criminals. You replaced Wilson? Let me tell you about all that. You met old Moses yet?” Charles nodded his head. “Well you got taken in by his bony legs and his phony smile. Moses was the one got Wilson’s finger cut off. Moses was the one skimming from the count, and his own men then kicking up a piece to McCann the police captain. Madden got wise to the scam, so Moses set up Wilson for the fall. Yeah, good old Moses. Got himself a nice house over on 106th street. Everyone in this club has some kind of scam running. Waiters copping silverware, bartenders dipping the till, your bottlers slipping out with a few here and there selling to private party promoters. You’re going to walk in and tell me about the right thing. The only people here with any honor are the entertainers.”

“You’re an entertainer; you were on the take.”

She leaned forward in her chair in a rage. “You know anything about the real world? What you got to do to get by. A man like Owney Madden come to a single woman and makes a proposal: she better take it. She better smile and play nice. There’s plenty others that expect more than being nice from a girl like me. Yeah, I went along. I made him believe that I was God damn thrilled to be part of it. Better than sucking that skinny white dick or worse. The man ain’t paid me my share since the first couple of weeks. That’s how things work around here.”

Charles thought about the threat to his family. Madden’s methods. He was a fool. Again, he didn’t realize the full scope of what dealing with a gangster was all about. He would have to change his thinking. All he could think to say was, “I’m sorry.”

She took a deep breath, sat back down and picked up her makeup brush. “How do I know you’re not on the take? Not a G-man. That whoever is backing you is on the level?”

“You can take my word.”

“No, no, that won’t do. You got some juice, Madden says. Let’s see what you got. You take down McCann, then we can talk about an arrangement. Yeah, yeah, that would be a good start. He’s been collecting from most of the band members for over a year now. Either busted them with reefer or planted it on them. You take down McCann and you’ll be alright with me.”

Charles didn’t know how to answer, so he nodded and backed out of the room.

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