Curtains for Louie
by Stephen Stuart
Raised in New Jersey, Steve has a background in computer hardware and software engineering. His short stories have appeared in the Mensa Bulletin and in Calliope (the Writers’ SIG publication). His latest, “Here’s Your Lunch, Human,” can be found at https://www.us.mensa.org/read/bulletin/features/heres-your-lunch-human/
During a move from Silicon Valley to Seattle, the 1989 earthquake shook his empty apartment as the moving van pulled away. On his next move, he drove under a California bridge that collapsed days later in the 1994 quake. Steve now lives in Mesa, Arizona, where they have dust storms, not earthquakes.
It was her third visit to the Roaring Twenties, the age of silent movies and witty lunches and pinstriped gangsters. Neobeth Collins came to Jersey City on a chilly night in 1927 to finish her research on one particular gangster—Louie Dusenberg, kingpin of the protection rackets. Knowing he’d stroll into his favorite cafe at 9:30, Neobeth timed her arrival to witness his murder from a front row seat.
On these trips she always took care to blend in with the locals. Her hair was cut in the latest bob and she wore a sensible outfit copied from the 1926 Sears catalog. In her pocket she kept a booklet of 1920s slang. If anyone asked, Neobeth was ready to say her name was Mabel.
Her new shoes clicked on the sidewalk. She found the Running Board Cafe in the middle of a city block, sandwiched between retail shops now closed for the night. Under the neon sign promising Good Eats, she pulled the door open and went in.
An appalling scene greeted her—the little restaurant was packed with customers. Thirty visitors sat in the dining area, prattling to each other between their tables. They marveled at the most ordinary things—the wooden furniture, the aromas of steak and coffee, the chalkboard offering the hamburger sandwich for fifteen cents. The cafe’s lone waiter cursed his luck at having to serve so many guests near closing time.
Who were these people? As she scanned the room, a familiar voice called out over the crowd noise. “Hey, Beth, don’t just stand there. Interview me.”
She recognized the man in the tweed cap. “Pipe down, Andrick,” she said through clenched teeth. “You’ll upset the natives.”
“Pull up a chair,” Andrick said. “You really get around, don’t you? Last time I saw you was at Ford’s Theatre.”
Neobeth took a seat. “Funny, from my point of view, last time was the Hindenburg.”
“Guess our timelines got crossed. That’s history tourism for you.” He checked his watch. “You here for Louie’s big night?”
“Of course. I’m writing a column about him. I’ll mention you, too, if you’re a good boy.”
“Welcome to the party.” Andrick introduced his companion Syntheen, a young woman costumed as a flapper in a bell-shaped hat. She, like Andrick, hailed from the year 2278.
“I’m from 2330 myself,” Neobeth said. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Pardon my wet glove,” said Syntheen, not wearing gloves.
Neobeth flipped through her slang booklet without success. “What does ‘pardon my glove’ mean?”
“Beats me. I got it from a Twenties prep course.” Syntheen brushed a thread from her sleeveless pink dress.
“I like your outfit,” Neobeth said, “but it’s a bit advanced for 1927. It’ll be all the rage in ’29.”
“What are you, the fashion history police? I don’t think Louie will notice.”
“Oh, him. In a few minutes poor Louie won’t notice anything anymore.”
“Don’t go feeling sorry for him,” Andrick said, and recounted Louie Dusenberg’s history of murdering shopkeepers and hot dog vendors. The other crime bosses had no interest in Louie’s hometown antics, but when he double-crossed the Bayonne syndicate, they voted to rub him out. “It’s curtains for that guy,” Andrick said. “Believe me, he’s got it coming.”
Neobeth turned to observe the babbling customers around her. “Look at them. So innocent. No idea of what’s about to happen.”
“Oh, they know,” Andrick said.
“How could they? Are any of them history hoppers like us?”
“They’re all hoppers. Beginners, mostly. There’s not one native in the whole joint.”
She took another look. “I should have known. Nobody’s smoking.” She half regretted bothering to dress up.
“Yeah,” Andrick said, “it’s just us tourists, waiting to find out who bumped off the big cheese. That’s the only part the books don’t tell you.”
Syntheen fidgeted with the salt shaker. “How long do we have to wait?”
“Five minutes, tops,” Andrick said. “Louie comes in at nine-thirty and goes straight to the men’s room. A minute later our mystery killer follows him in. Boom, two slugs.”
Syntheen craned her neck to view the lunch counter. “Have they invented popcorn yet?”
Neobeth took the opportunity to show the depth of her studies. “I know who the hit man’s going to be—it’s Charlie Victrolo from the Trenton outfit.”
“Wrong,” Andrick said. “The commission gives the contract to the Homicide Company. They send a guy out, probably Moe Seltzner.”
Syntheen raised a finger as the waiter glided past their table, balancing four blue-plate specials. Too late to catch his eye, she dropped her hand and pouted.
A bewildered man in overalls entered the cafe and set his eye on the one empty table in the room. “Hey, don’t sit there,” Andrick said. “That’s the Louie death table. He staggers out of the restroom and falls into that chair and kicks off.”
“What the—?” The man turned and bolted toward the door.
Andrick frowned. “Whoops. Thought he was one of us.”
“Does anyone else want a beer?” Syntheen waved her hand over her head. “Oh, waiter! Yoo-hoo! Garçon!”
“Oh, no, hun, stop,” Neobeth said. “This is Prohibition. They can’t serve beer. For heaven’s sake, don’t stir up trouble. Haven’t you ever hopped before?”
“Sure I have. I was with Bradlink Mason when he had his accident.”
“Bradlink. He was famous. He wrote us a bunch of how-to books. You know, Thirty History Hopping Tricks.“
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him.”
“That’s because—well, this one time we hopped back seventy years to get pizza. As soon as he said hello to this teenage girl—his grandmother—there was a popping noise. And he… he disappeared.”
“Popping,” Neobeth said. “That was the air rushing into the vacuum he left. It’s normal.”
“Except this wasn’t the regular thing,” Syntheen said. “When I got home, he wasn’t there. I couldn’t find any of his books. Nobody remembered Bradlink. It was like he never existed.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I never saw him again.”
“I’m so sorry. But that’s why you have to be careful. If you change the past even a little, future couples never meet and completely different people are born.” Neobeth opened her handbag. “There’s a brochure about this. Did they give you one?”
“I guess. They give you lots of stuff.”
“Well, thank goodness you still exist. It could have been worse.”
A dreamy look came to Syntheen’s face. “Maybe Bradlink went to another universe.”
“Why, yes, I’m sure that’s what happened.” Neobeth patted the girl’s arm. “He went to live on a parallel earth. He’s making new friends there.”
The chatter in the room grew louder. Chairs shifted. Heads turned toward the door.
“Get ready,” Andrick said. “Any second, Louie comes waltzing in here.”
Neobeth sat up straight. “He’s going to say something witty. Just listen. He’s famous for his snappy one-liners.“
The cafe’s front door opened and Louie Dusenberg strode in, his accountant trailing behind him. At the sight of the unexpected crowd, Louie halted and curled his lip. “What the hell are all these schmucks doing here?”
“Classy,” Andrick said under his breath. “Guy’s a regular Oscar Wilde.”
“He looks nicer than his mug shots,” Neobeth said. “I wish we could save him.”
“Change history and get ourselves Bradlinked? No thanks.”
“Hey, don’t use his name like that,” Syntheen said.
The boss mumbled a few words to his accountant and delivered a playful slap to his face. Unbuttoning his overcoat, he headed off to the back of the restaurant.
“Men’s room, right on schedule,” Andrick said. “Now sit back and let the trigger man do his job, whoever he is.”
“It has to be Victrolo,” Neobeth said. “He specializes in hits like this.”
“No, Victrolo likes to use an ice pick. It’s going to be Moe Seltzner.”
“He’s in prison this year.”
“He got out last month. Come on, do your homework.”
The front door opened once again. A grim-faced man in a dark gray overcoat and matching hat stepped inside, with a shorter man in dark green following close behind.
“See, I was right,” Neobeth said. “That’s Victrolo.”
Several tourists raised their pocket pens and clicked them to take the man’s picture.
Charlie Victrolo paused in the doorway to give the room the once-over. His eyes drilled into one customer after another. “No dice,” he said at last, turning around. “Too many witnesses.” He pushed his assistant back through the door and followed him outside.
“What the heck?” Andrick said. “He’s calling it off.”
“Maybe he comes back,” Syntheen said.
“Maybe Seltzner shows up.”
All eyes focused on the door. The room was silent for a moment.
Neobeth bit her knuckle. “It’s too late. This isn’t happening the way it’s supposed to.”
The sound of a balloon popping came from the middle of the room. Three customers at the center table gawked at the suddenly empty fourth chair.
“Oh, no!” Syntheen gripped her own chair with both hands.
Andrick patted himself down as if to confirm his continued existence. “It’s okay,” he said. “We’re still here. That means we can fix this.” He stood up to address the other tourists. “Did anyone bring a gun?”
Neobeth stared him in the eye. “You can’t be serious.”
“History says Louie has to die tonight. It’s either him or us.”
She racked her brain for alternatives. “What if we just hide him somewhere?”
“There has to be a body,” he said. “Now, have you got anything that fires bullets?”
“Of course not.”
“I do,” Syntheen said. “Just a second.” She shut her eyes and tightened her hands into fists.
“What’s she doing?” Neobeth whispered.
“Praying? I don’t know.” Andrick watched the restroom door. “If Louie comes out of there in one piece, we’re going to have major Bradlinkage.”
Syntheen reached under the table and brought up a .38 caliber revolver.
“What… where did you get that?”
“From a book.” She pushed the gun across the tabletop. “I don’t know how to work this thing, so somebody else better hurry up and use it.”
Neobeth poked the gun with her finger. “It looks real.”
“Hands off.” Andrick picked up the revolver. “Louie’s in the men’s room. That’s sacred territory. If anyone’s going to go in there and plug him, it has to be me.” He put the weapon in his coat pocket and stalked off to the lavatory.
“I can’t watch the rest of this,” Neobeth said, shielding her eyes. “We should leave.”
“I never did get my popcorn,” Syntheen said.
They jumped in their seats as two gunshots rang out and echoed in a tiled room.
The cafe emptied out quickly once Andrick had fled the scene of the crime. Neobeth and Syntheen found him at the end of the block, his back against a lamp post, catching his breath after his getaway.
“Well, now we know who the killer was,” Neobeth said to him. “You must feel awful.”
“I’m fine,” he wheezed.
“You don’t look it.”
“Hey, I kept history intact. And, whaddya know, we still exist. You’re welcome.”
Neobeth gestured helplessly. “How on earth am I supposed to write this up?”
“Same as before,” Andrick said. “Unknown gunman.”
“Please. No more murder, all right? No more Andricking the natives.”
As distant police sirens grew louder, the visitors prepared to leave 1927. “This turned into such a mess,” Neobeth said. “I’m going to go home and take a nice long bath.”
“Lucky you,” Syntheen said. “I still have to hop back to yesterday and buy that gun and hide it under our table. What a pain.”
Neobeth thought it over and squinted. “You pulled up a gun that wasn’t there yet?”
“It was there. It’s one of Bradlink’s history hopping tricks. I had to promise myself really hard that I’d go back and put it there.”
Neobeth rummaged through her bag for a headache pill. “That does it. I’m finished with this kind of hop. My next one’s going to be nice and tidy.”
“Good luck with that,” Andrick said. “Got a destination in mind?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be interested. 1963 Dallas. Why don’t you sit this one out?”