Old Sam was dying. He had been dying for approximately twenty-seven years, by Queenie’s account. Exactly the amount of time since hell had frozen over and God had relinquished the title on His throne, if the old man thought she was gonna let him slide by on another number without paying her proper due.
“Come on, Madam St. Clair, help out an old, dying man. I ain’t got long now, you know.”
“You old fool, if you think you’re getting anything else from me on credit, you’re all balled up.”
The old man looked at her, seemed to want to respond, then thought better of it and hung his head. Shit, the old bastard owed her more than a dollar for bets that he hadn’t been able to cover. Now he thought she would let him slide by again. No way in hell.
The door to her operation on 144th Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenue, swung open. Bumpy Johnson, her head enforcer, pushed past Sam and dumped a large package on the floor. It wiggled. Bumpy kicked it, nodded to her. She walked over, unwrapped it. A bloody white man lay on the floor staring up at her.
“Mr. Johns. Comme c’est gentil à vous de faire notre connaissance.” Queenie would never admit it out loud, but she loved to use her knowledge of French to intimidate people. It made her feel smarter than these silly Americans, superior. In this case she had said nothing more than How nice of you to make our acquaintance, but the man cowered at her feet as if she had threatened to slice his throat and leave him sleeping with the fishes. That was certainly not outside of the realms of possibility.
Sam stared for only a moment, then rushed to door and opened it.
“Old Sam?” The man stopped, looked at her. “That number was 216, right?”
“I’ll play you.”
The old man smiled, looked down at the man on the floor and his smile faded. Then he quickly shuffled out the door.
Queenie turned slowly to the man at her feet. “Unfortunately for you, Mr. Johns, vous ne vous en tirez pas si facilement.”
The numbers racket was Madam St. Clair’s business. She ran everything in all of Harlem, from Washington Heights to the Upper East Side, from the East River to the Hudson River—it all belonged to her. Ten thousand dollars from her own pocket had begun this business, and now it was her pocket into which all proceeds went. Less overhead, of course. Part of that overhead, and worth every thin dime that she paid them, was Bumpy and her gang of Forty Thieves. They were ruthless, and with her guidance they ran the streets with strict precision that was almost surgical.
The numbers business was simple. One came into any of her many establishments—grocery markets, pool halls, restaurants, drugstores; if you owned a business in Harlem and you were willing to make a little extra dough, you took numbers—bet on any number between zero and 999, and waited. Called the “poor man’s stock market,” it was bound to pay off. Where there was numbers running in Harlem, those uptown guys played the real thing and often lost big. Here, downtown, the odds paid out eight to one. Pretty good, and Madam St. Clair always paid. There was no business in undercutting your clientele. If you played long and often enough, you eventually won. So people played and she got rich.
For most people in Harlem, the numbers game was a way of making a few extra dollars during the month. For others it meant surviving: eating or not eating. People put down a dime, a nickel, or even a penny and hoped for a payout. A dollar could have a return of six hundred dollars—no wonder this was big business. No wonder she’d made a fortune.
But the people in the neighborhood adored her; playing the odds had fed many people when it wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. She also provided hundreds of jobs when there were none to be had in the outside world. So she had affectionately become known as Queenie—as in the Queen of Harlem—and she relished it. She fought every day to keep the title and her reign. It wasn’t easy. She had to be ruthless, heartless, and deathly to survive.
Madam St. Clair was all of those things. Most importantly, she was a she.
And they didn’t like that.
Behind her, Bumpy walked in, closed the door behind him, and placed his hand on her shoulder. He never showed her affection unless they were alone. He didn’t speak for a long time, and she was content to let the silence stand. But she knew that he would say what was on his mind; she even knew, for the most part, what it was. He squeezed her shoulder blade, massaging her, his fingers feeling good against her flesh, comfortable.
Finally, he spoke, his voice soft. “Johns belongs to the Irish. We going to war with them too, now? I really hope you know what you’re doing, Madam. I miss h—”
She swung to look at him. He would never have spoken to her like this if others were around; he would have known better. One didn’t show dissension in the ranks publicly. But in private, things were different. He was close to her, too close. He knew her. However, she could not let this slide. He knew that, too. “You a chickenshit, Bumpy?”
It was harsh, but equal to the disrespect he had shown her. He stayed calm. “You know I’m not. I do what you tell me, always have. I just want to make sure we know what we’re doing, is all.”
“Of course I know what we’re doing. We’re starting war.”
Bumpy squeezed her arm once more and walked out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him. Once he was outside, he would have to quiet the others who were afraid of Shultz’s retaliation. He would do it, for if even one person brought their concerns to her, she would not wait until Shultz got his hands on them. There was a price to be in her favor, and cowards were not tolerated. Not that there were many of those in her gang of forty.
Queenie hung her head. How had things gotten to this point? How had she allowed them to get so out of control? To hell with them for what they’ve done. It was too late now. It couldn’t be changed.
Shiv. The word hovered in Queenie’s mind, unspoken. But the woman couldn’t forget.
• • • •
In the beginning, street traffic got heavy to her club around seven in the evening, after work. People needed to play after long hours at tedious jobs, and she provided entertainment. Gambling. Dancing. Booze. Girls. The cutest little quiffs you could find, and for decent prices. That was what she did, what she was good at.
You name it; people wanted it. You name it; she offered it.
Not quite as big and elaborate as her establishment now, Madam’s Place catered to a low-grade clientele. But there had been hardly any trouble. People respected her just as they did now, although she hadn’t wielded nearly as much power then. The only difference was that her power back then came from what lay between the legs of her girls. Period. She hadn’t liked it, but she’d accepted it. Queenie had promised herself that as soon as she had the opportunity she would get the hell out of that business and find something more respectable. She had made that promise on her knees every single day.
Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson had come to her highly recommended. He wore pinned-striped, three-piece suits with $200 shoes. His ties always matched his mood. Red meant angry, ready to fight. Blue, one could possibly have a chance, as he was happy. Black was death. In the beginning he had done odd jobs for her, bounced people out on their asses when they ran out of money, collected on high interest and overdue loans, protected the girls. That was what he did, and he was damn good at it.
Shiv was the daughter of one of her girls. Shiv’s mother, Lutie, had gotten herself sick, so the girl took over as much as she could to make up for her mother’s shortcomings. The girl swept up, got the quiffs what they needed, but mainly stayed out of the way. It was important for Shiv to scatter when the marks were around because, although Queenie knew most of her clientele, unsavory people often wandered in, and a young girl had no business being around that sort. Even so, she was a quiet girl. She didn’t talk to the marks. She didn’t talk to the girls. She talked to her mother. She was an enigma to Queenie for several reasons, and that never really changed. Queenie had come to regret that.
Shiv. The child hadn’t always been called that, but Queenie had long since forgotten the girl’s original name. Shiv, once given, had been so true and exact that nothing else had mattered. It had cemented her place among the group. The old woman laughed to herself; a girl of nine years had become a member of the Forty Thieves, one of the deadliest gangs in Harlem. Queenie herself couldn’t quite believe it.
Queenie was always under threat of violence before her gang grew to the size it was now. She paid the cops, she paid the greasers; she paid, it seemed, everyone. Even that wasn’t enough, as several people still came in, getting their fill of girls and her money as they wished. The worst of these was Doc Marsh, a halfwit thug who thought he ran the East Side. Queenie reasoned the man wasn’t really all that smart, but he had a baby grand of muscle behind him, and together the group was just dangerous enough to be trouble for her.
It was Doc Marsh who came to her joint that night. He was drunk when he arrived, and he got more and more zozzled as the night went on. Queenie had just advised the girls, as usual, to be nice and deal with him. For the most part, this strategy worked. Not that night.
It hadn’t taken long for Doc Marsh to spot Lutie. The woman was a choice bit of calico, an absolute doll. Dark chocolate skin and large beautiful eyes that shone like Scotch whiskey; that was Lutie. But she was off limits. Sick and getting sicker by the day. Lutie had been working around the club, cleaning up after the girls, doing the dirty work that nobody wanted in an effort to keep Queenie from doing what they both knew was inevitable.
Doc Marsh grabbed the woman, pulled her onto his lap. He kissed her. Several of the girls alerted Queenie to what was happening. Before Queenie could intervene, Lutie pushed away from Doc and said calmly, “Sorry, Mac. Bank’s closed.” This should have stopped him—most customers understood; most wouldn’t’ve wanted any more hassle. Not Doc Marsh. When Lutie tried to pull away again, the man wrestled with her, threw her on the table and bit her on the cheek, leaving a smear of blood trickling down her face. Lutie was a pro; she didn’t scream, but she kneed him in the groin and he staggered backward. When he regained his footing, he charged the woman again, punched her across the face, and kicked her when she bent over in pain. Suddenly Bumpy got between Lutie and Doc Marsh.
By the time Doc’s men arrived to help him, most of the trouble was over. Doc was, as usual, still lathered. He screamed about an invisible wound that he swore Lutie had inflicted. He screamed and made himself the fool. “That bitch. I swear, I will—” Lutie stood upright, stared at Doc as he spoke, didn’t back down. But she didn’t challenge him, either. She knew better. This seemed to egg the man on. “I swear, I want her gone. Do you hear—” he pointed to Queenie “—gone.”
Finally, when he grew tired, he decided to leave. Just as he turned, Shiv blocked his way, her tiny dark body swallowed by the large white man. He almost bumped into her, stopping himself in a drunken swivel. Just as he moved again to leave, the girl reached out and deliberately ran a finger across the chest of his double-breasted suit. Doc Marsh looked down at the girl, eyes wide as if he questioned his sight. Finally, he turned to look at Queenie, pointed again at Lutie, and then stormed out, his flunkies right at his heels.
Who did that bastard think he was? He didn’t own her, or her club. She paid him and he believed he got the run of the place? But as she thought about it, the man was right. At this point it would be best for all of them if the woman and her daughter left. She had been dreading this moment, but she had known it would come. It was business. Lutie and that child were a liability. And Doc wouldn’t let it go.
The following day she told Lutie. “I gotta do it. I know you ain’t got nowhere to go and I know you’re sick. But, you can’t work and Doc Marsh ain’t gonna forget. And you got a daughter. He ain’t civilized. Ain’t no telling what he’ll do.”
The woman nodded, but she was crying. Then her daughter came in and held her mother. Queenie stared at the pair. Lutie looked terrible. Her eyes were sunken, bruised. Not because of the shiner that Doc had given her—it was her sickness; it was consuming her. She wouldn’t last long. Queenie knew it. Lutie knew. Most of all, Shiv knew.
“I can pay our due,” the girl said. She didn’t stand more than four and a half feet off the ground, but in that moment, Queenie swore she looked like a grown woman. A nine-year-old girl had no business worrying about her dying mother. A nine-year-old had no business in this place.
“Please,” the girl begged, and she began to resemble the child that she was. “We ain’t got nowhere to go.” She began to cry. “I can help. I know I can.”
“Girl, ain’t no way I’m putting a kid your age to work in no ho house. Take your momma and go, chile.”
Shiv stomped over to her desk; she put her tiny dark hands on the stark white papers covering the old mahogany. “I make people do bad things.”
“The hell you talking about, girl?”
Shiv straightened up, looked Queenie in the eyes, and for the first time, the girl resembled her future namesake. “Doc Marsh can’t bother us no more. I fixed it. I . . . wish he’d jump. The bridge . . .” Before the girl could finish, Bobbie, one of Queenie’s errand boys, busted in the door without knocking, his dark eyes bright with fear, or something that resembled fear.
Just as she was about to admonish him, the boy spoke. “Did ya hear? Doc Marsh, he’s dead.”
Queenie stood. “What?”
“Jumped off the High Bridge, landed, splat—” he smacked his hands together “—right on the highway.”
Queenie looked from the boy to the girl, to Lutie and back at the girl. Shiv nodded, smiled.
“I did,” she said.
• • • •
She did. At least Shiv thought she did. And that was enough for Queenie. What were the odds of the girl having talked about Doc Marsh jumping off a bridge and then it happening? Queenie hadn’t started dealing in numbers yet, but she was sure that those odds were pretty damned high. She wasn’t one to believe in coincidence. At the same time, it didn’t escape her that the girl could have heard it somehow, somewhere. Although, by all accounts it had only just happened, and Bobbie swore he had just learned about the man’s death in the street.
Doc Marsh’s death took a big strain off Queenie. Afterward, there had been no one to control the dead man’s business, and his crew simply drifted apart. Oh, they’d tried to take over, but it was soon clear that the Doc had been the brains of that operation. Bumpy got rid of the rest of them quickly.
Queenie, for her part, wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Shiv had made it possible for her and her mother to stay, but now she had to earn her keep, as Bumpy kept reminding her. “We need her. If the girl can do what you say she can, then what can it hurt?”
What can it hurt? Indeed.
About this time, Casper Holstein, an unknown ex-vet, had done his stint downtown on Wall Street as a bellhop. He’d come away with the idea of running numbers and had amassed a fortune. Others were slowly beginning to make money as well. Numbers wasn’t big business yet, but it had potential, as Bumpy kept reminding her. Queenie wasn’t so sure. As much as she hated the business, she was comfortable dealing in girls. They were easy. Queenie had scouters out on the streets, approaching single girls getting off the bus alone, bringing them into the fold. It wasn’t difficult to find starving, willing young women. They were waiting. She could probably live her whole life in that two-bit club bedding empty soldiers to broken girls. She thought of Lutie; but at what cost? What gain?
Numbers running was a man’s game. Either it would pay off for her or she would lose everything. But something had to give.
Finally, when she was ready, she talked to Bumpy.
“Okay. What is this numbers business?” she asked him. He lay on her sofa, shirt unbuttoned to expose his chest. He had fallen asleep. “You play, right?”
He blinked his eyes. “It’s good money. Pays well.”
“What we need?”
“I got ten thou,” she said, as if praying to the lord. “Good enough?”
He sat up, looked at her. “It’s a hard business. Not like the girls—not that simple. We’ll need a small army to run it. I have the men. Thirty-nine of them, just waiting for the go-ahead. The problem is that Small Sammie runs things on this side now. He’s placed stakes. He won’t take lightly to competition. We’d have to take care of him first.”
She paused for a moment. At that point she had never willingly ordered the murder of another human being. This would be opening a new door, one she hoped she could close at will. “Let’s do it.”
Bumpy shook his head. “It’s not that easy. Small is not easy to get to. I’ve . . . tried.”
“What? You’ve tried?” Bumpy had never acted without her directive in the past.
He met her eyes when he spoke. “I knew that it was just a matter of time that you’d come to this decision. No disrespect, Madam.”
She believed him. “Even so, don’t do it again. I mean that, B.”
He nodded, paused long enough to show proper respect, and then continued, “Small keeps well-guarded. Doesn’t leave the house. I figure you don’t want a massive shootout in the streets. But—” he paused, looked into her eyes “—we can use the girl.”
She knew exactly which girl he was talking about, and she didn’t like it. He must have read the reaction on her face, because he quickly added, “Just listen. We send her in as a house girl, she cleans, does the floors, whatever. She can do that. Then she does her thing, gets out quick. If he buys the farm, good. If not, no harm, no foul.”
“I . . . I can’t do that. It don’t make no sense. She’ll get killed.”
“Not if she can do what you say she can. What she said she can.”
“She’s a child. They lie.”
He nodded, looked at the floor, then back at her. “Madam, I have never told you how to run your business. And I don’t mean to now. If you want me to declare outright war on this man before we have a stable business up and running, then I will. If you want me to stay here, work for you, I’ll do that too. You tell me what you want.”
So that was that. Queenie had given Shiv Small Sammie’s name and a picture and sent her out for what Queenie had hoped would be a repeat of history. A name and a picture. That was it; all she had given the girl. Later, she discovered that Bumpy had given her a knife, just in case. For all the good it would do.
She was nine years old. NINE YEARS OLD. What kinda evil bitch sends a small child off to kill a man?
Madam “Queenie” St. Clair, that’s who.
• • • •
The three weeks the girl was gone were the longest of Queenie’s life. She spent the time in the bed of one of her favorite whores. This woman could make a man forget his miseries; she did the same for Queenie, among other things. Somehow it comforted Queenie to have her soft body close, made her feel like less of a monster. She avoided Bumpy and blamed him for the choices they both had made. It was easier that way.
The day Shiv came back, Small Sammie was run over by a train in upstate New York. No one knew how he had gotten there or what had happened. The moment the girl walked through the front door, Bumpy picked her up and swung her around. He hadn’t said anything about the girl while she was gone, but Queenie guessed that he’d been worried about her. She hadn’t noticed, but perhaps the man had avoided her as much as she had avoided him, both lost in guilt.
Shiv, for her part, beamed accomplishment. Word hadn’t gotten around about Small’s death yet, but nobody cared whether the girl had actually done what she said or not. She was back, alive. That was all that mattered. Once word did come in that Small Sammie was dead, no one could believe it. Three days later, news got around that he’d been hit by a train, pretty much at the exact moment that Shiv had walked back through Queenie’s doors—and just as the girl told them he would.
Bumpy seemed most proud, as if he’d birthed a baby killer. “She’s as deadly as a weapon. I don’t know what you do, girl, but you’re more deadly than a shiv, more accurate and less messy. My baby shiv.”
And it stuck. Shiv: the child that turned killer. From that moment on, Shiv was Bumpy’s shadow; where there was Bumpy, there was Shiv, and vice versa.
Two things had happened while Shiv was gone: she had done her job and killed Small Sammie, and Lutie had died from “complications.” Shiv, for her part, seemed to take the news remarkable well. She didn’t cry. She wasn’t angry. She had simply insisted on a funeral, and Momma St. Clair, as the girl began to call her, dished out five hundred bucks on her funeral. They buried the woman in a grave on the outskirts of town.
It rained during the funeral, and the girl bent down, her tiny hands touching the coffin, caressing the silver-colored box. Shiv spoke to her dead mother, but Queenie and the others couldn’t hear what she said. When she was finished, Shiv turned to Queenie and opened her mouth to speak, but didn’t. After a moment, the girl spoke to everyone standing there watching her, pimp and whores alike. She said, simply, “I see you.”
For the first time, Queenie viewed the girl as a double-edged sword. Sure, she could kill for her, but the girl could also kill her and anyone else she desired, at any moment she desired it. What use was a weapon that volatile? What happens when the child outgrows its parent?
• • • •
Queenie invested her money, started her business and it thrived. When the numbers business got off the ground, she put dress suits on the girls and sent them out on the corners to hustle numbers for her. They made more money running numbers than they ever had on their backs, and it was decent, respectable work. Her Forty Thieves and two dozen ex-whores worked magic on the corners of Harlem.
By this time, Dutch Schultz, a white mobster who distributed liquor during the Prohibition, had gotten a whiff of the money that could be made running numbers in black Harlem. He wanted a piece of the action, and he would kill to get it. Dutch had the cops and politicians in his pocket, and he began to wage war against her. Queenie had wanted to avoid blood in the streets, and she had, for a while. Eventually, though, it had been inevitable, and she supposed she had been naïve in thinking that it was even possible to do so. Bumpy and her Forty Thieves had set the streets ablaze protecting her interest, killing Shultz’s men in the process. In return, Shultz killed hers. Her only advantage was Shiv.
The girl was able to infiltrate Schultz’s community where whole groups of his men would die off slowly, methodically. They would choke themselves to death on their own forks, step out in front of Mack trucks, shoot each other to death for no apparent cause; it didn’t matter, they were dead and couldn’t challenge Queenie. Shiv began to kill wiseguys with a frank regard that even scared Queenie. The girl withdrew. It was in her eyes. Always the indicator of a child’s suffering, Shiv’s were empty, devoid of anything, any emotion. Any empathy. Queenie enjoyed the money, the power. The people around her enjoyed the perks of that power. Her errand boys, her cooks, her cleaners, everyone won because of her success. Shiv gained more than most.
None of it seemed to make the child happy. And everyone, at this point, worked to make Shiv happy. They were afraid. When the girl wasn’t around, people would whisper about her. When she was around, they benefited. Either way, Shiv didn’t care, she wasn’t happy. Queenie reasoned that happiness was all but impossible with her mother gone. Shiv had willingly worked for her when she thought she was protecting her mother. Now, that just couldn’t happen.
Queenie had said that the girl was always an enigma to her, and this was true. But the woman believed that she knew Shiv because she knew herself; Queenie related to her as she related to the women like her. The women in this hopeless, useless place, this life. Shiv was every child, every woman who was never given another option.
Queenie hated herself a little more each day for what she’d done. Still, Shiv killed for her.
• • • •
Queenie hadn’t been there the day it happened. Story went that one of the Thieves, Bumpy’s right hand man, Hurts, had made the mistake. Hurts was a big man. He dressed like he bought all his clothes out of a secondhand shop, but he was brutal. He carried a baseball bat and would beat the hell out of men who annoyed him in the streets. A short fuse did not mix well with her new establishment. Not with Shiv.
The man had disrespected the girl’s position in the Thieves. Shiv didn’t care about a lot of things, but she had earned her way into the gang, and she would not accept anything less. Bumpy had named her, and she deserved it. If Queenie had been there, she would have had Hurts’ tongue torn out, but that wasn’t his luck. Shiv walked up to the big man, who sat laughing at the girl, and slid her fingers across his face, as a baby would. The next day, Hurts sliced off his dick with a rusted shiv. He bled to death in the alley behind Queenie’s new place.
The following week, two more of the Forty Thieves died after having run-ins with Shiv. Everything Queenie had built was falling apart. On the business side, Schultz had gotten to the police, and despite having paid them off, the cops began harassing her, placed nearly half of her men in jail. Including Bumpy.
The following week, Madam St. Clair walked into the newspaper office and placed an ad in the paper detailing the corruption of the police force, all of the monies that she had paid them, and whom she had paid. Her business might fall apart, but she would take as many people with her as she could.
The day Bumpy was let out of jail, Queenie received a letter from Schultz himself. She met him in an alley, off the record, as he had said.
“I know about the girl.” Dutch Schultz always looked like he was waiting to take a mug shot. His eyes were large and sat too far apart on his head. He was a Jew—Jews and blacks didn’t mix.
“The hell you say?”
“The nigger girl who you keep as some kinda lucky charm or something.”
Queenie just stared at him.
“You know what I’m talking about, bitch.”
Queenie made a circular motion with her hands, and she, Bumpy, and what was left of her men moved to walk away.
“Wait.” Shultz called after her. He ran to her, his men staring, surprised. “I’m sorry. Please hear me out. I . . . I want a truce.”
She stopped, looked at him.
“You keep Harlem. I get a cut.” She started to protest, but he continued. “You can expand further out, have more territory. More money than you’ve ever dreamed. I’ll get the cops off your back, the people uptown too.”
“What do you want?”
“I know you have lost men. Several. You could lose more. You could . . . die too. Does she mean that much to you? Think about it.”
The woman looked at Bumpy, who turned his head. She couldn’t tell if it was in disgust or reluctant acceptance. “I want the body.”
The white men shot Shiv down in the streets two weeks later. Queenie buried her in a plot next to her mother. It didn’t rain. No one but Queenie and Bumpy mourned for the child. The women who had helped to raise the girl were too fearful by this point, and they had all simply wanted it over. Queenie had given it to them. She believed that they all felt guilty. She did.
• • • •
A year later, Dutch Schultz was gunned down at the Palace Chop House restaurant in Newark, New Jersey. He was in the hospital, dying of his wounds.
Queenie sat down, placed her head in her hands. After a long while, she opened her drawer, took out pen and paper. She wrote simply, Qui sème le vent, récolte la tempête. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” She addressed the envelope to the hospital in care of Dutch Schultz and called for Bumpy.
“Send this by telegram.” She handed the letter to the man, who stared at it suspiciously. Finally, she said, “After you mail that, let Johns go with a message: I’m out.” Bumpy smiled briefly, but long enough for her to recognize his out-of-form expression. Then he nodded and walked out of the room.
Queenie stared at her place; thought of the much smaller one from which she had come. Thought about the little girl, Shiv.
I make people do bad things, the girl had once said.
Moi aussi, Queenie thought. So do I.