Delve Into The World Of Prohibition & Speakeasies In Author Susanna Calkins’ Female-Driven ‘Murder Knocks Twice’ Book

The following is an excerpt from award-winning author Susanna Calkins’ new title ‘Murder knocks Twice’, out now from Minotaur Books. Beneath the streets of 1920s Chicago lie a dangerous, glittering underworld of speakeasies, where socialites sip bootlegged cocktails and rowdy soldiers play poker in a backroom.

When Gina Ricci takes on a job as a cigarette girl to earn money for her ailing father—and to prove to herself that she can hold her own at Chicago’s most notorious speakeasy, the Third Door—she is enchanted by the dark, glamorous atmosphere overseen by the club’s imposing owner, Signora Castallazzo. Yet she soon discovers that dark secrets lurk in the speakeasy’s shadowy corners as the staff buzzes with whispers about Gina’s predecessor, who died under mysterious circumstances, and the photographer, Marty, warns her to be careful.

After Marty is brutally murdered with Gina as the only witness, she becomes determined to track down his killer. What secrets did Marty capture on his camera—and who would do anything to destroy it? As Gina searches for answers, she’s pulled deeper into the sinister truths hiding behind the Third Door.

As Lulu showed her around, a little bob to her step, Gina sought to look cool and nonchalant, as if she strolled about a speakeasy every night. The Third Door, though large, only had a few rooms, plus a number of dark passageways that led out in all directions. There was a common salon for the performers and staff, with separate dressing areas for the men and women. The Signora had a small salon where she conducted business. The Signor, it seemed, had his own office as well, on the other side. Toward the back there was a storage area where barrels of whiskey and rye were kept. On the other side there was a gambling den, where mostly men but the occasional woman played cards.

“Faye serves them,” Lulu said, sounding spiteful. “A shame, too, because they tip real good, and some of them are awful sweet.”

“Why is Faye the only one who serves them?”

“The Signora says they ask for her. Heaven knows why,” she said, giving her red hair a flip. “Besides, you don’t want to mess with Faye. Come on, let me introduce you to Billy Bottles, our barkeep. Billy, yoo-hoo!” she called out to the older man sporting a long white apron and a crisp yellow bow tie. “This is Gina, our new ciggie seller.” To Gina she added, “Billy’s real knowledgeable about smokes and drinks.”

The barkeep, who looked to be in his fifties, glanced at Gina while still wiping out glasses with a white towel. “Lucky Strikes will do for the regular gents. A few will show off by getting a Sobranie or two,” he said in a gruff voice while pointing to fancy metal box behind the counter.

“My Papa likes those,” she ventured. Although he usually couldn’t afford them and just bought the cheaper American brands.

Ignoring her, Billy continued. “Marlboros for the ladies. Mild as May, you can tell them. Ivory tips to protect the lips. Got it?”

Gina nodded. She’d seen the advertisements in the newspapers. Besides, what woman would want yellow-stained lips and fingers when she smoked? That had to be an easy sell.

“All you really need to know is the puffers and the smokers,” Lulu went on. “Puffers take the short pulls, blow out in gusts, take any brand you offer.”

“Oh yeah? Then what’s a smoker?”

“They’re the ones who really enjoy a good smoke. Find pleasure in it.” She drawled out the word “pleasure” with a giggle.

“You don’t say?” Gina asked, checking out the room to see if she could pick out those different types.

Ignoring them both, Billy continued, carefully arranging her tray with a colorful box full of cigars on one side and different containers of cigarettes on the other side. There was some gum there, too—Wrigley’s Spearmint, her favorite, as well as Juicy Fruit and Doublemint. “Here’s your lighter, and here’s your cigar cutter. Saturday nights you switch out with roses for the one-timers.”

“One-timers?” Gina asked, hearing Billy snort softly behind her.

“Yeah, that’s right. One-timers. Guys and gals who don’t come here, except on a lark. In their glad rags, slumming it in the city. Debs, College Joes. You know the type. Those gents will buy their ladies a flower,” Lulu explained, sounding almost wistful. “The regulars, well, they’re all pikers about it. Won’t put up the scratch to buy their dame any more than they have to. Except their dames don’t expect it either, so I guess it evens out. Still, I think it’s sweet.”

“Sure, real sweet,” Billy added, holding the black strap of the tray. “Ready?”

Gina bowed her head and, with Lulu’s help, managed to place the strap around her neck and position the tray so that it hung easily at her waist. The weight wasn’t overly much, but it was strange. “Ugh,” she said.

“I remember Dorrie would get a neck strain something awful,” Lulu said, sounding sympathetic. “Don’t let that happen to you.”

Billy carefully counted out some bills and some change. “Here’s what you start with. Any losses, clams or stock, will come out of your wages. Capiche?”

Gina nodded. “I understand.”

As she moved across the floor, the strap yanked at the small hairs on her neck and pulled her low-cut dress down to even more indecent levels. Resting the tray on the piano, Gina fumbled at the strap. “Gee, these gaspers are heavier than they look,” she said to Ned, who was looking on in interest.

“Better get used to it,” Lulu teased, coming behind her. “The Signora won’t take too kindly to a girl who can’t manage her tray.”

“Oh, is that what happened to the other girl?” Gina asked. “What did you say her name was? Dorrie?”

She was still adjusting the tray, and it took her a moment to realize that neither Lulu nor Ned had answered her question. At the unexpected silence, she looked up. To her surprise, Lulu’s eyes had filled with tears, and Ned was staring intently down at the piano keys. He played three notes in quick succession with his right hand without looking up.

“What is it?” Gina asked.

“Dorrie’s gone,” Lulu whispered, darting a quick glance around.

“Gone?” Gina asked.

Ned cleared his throat but didn’t say anything.

“Well, where did she go?” Gina asked, trying to sound lighthearted. The manner of the other two was decidedly odd. “Run off to get married or something?”

“No.” Lulu said. Her tone grew flat. “If you must know, she died. Just before Christmas.”

“What? That’s terrible! I’m so sorry!” Gina exclaimed, looking from one face to the other.

Lulu surveyed herself in the mirrored panel behind the bar. “Yeah. That’s why the Signora needed a new girl,” she said, wiping a smudge of black liner from her lower lid with her index finger. Gina could see she was trembling, even though she seemed to be trying to hide it. “That’s why they hired you.”

“What happened to her?”

“She was killed,” Ned said, rubbing his forehead. He sounded weary. “Stabbed.”

“My God! Who killed her?” Gina asked, feeling a bit breathless. “A customer?”

“Of course not!” Lulu gave Ned a frightened look. “It happened on the L. In the Loop.” Straightening up, she pursed her lips. “Dorrie just never showed up again after

Christmas Eve. I thought at first maybe she’d gone to Hollywood. She was a real peach, a doll. She could have lit up the silver screen. Or performed at the Moulin Rouge. That’s in Paris, you know.”

Gina nodded, feeling like she was supposed to do something. Ned made a sound that resembled a smothered cough.

“It’s true!” Lulu insisted. “I thought maybe she had done it, just packed her bags and blew this joint! She was always talking about it.” She gave Ned another nervous look. “Thenwe heard later. . . what had happened. It was in the papers.”

“Still doesn’t make sense,” Ned said, idly playing a few discordant notes. “Where was she going?”

“You know we’re not supposed to talk about it,” Lulu whispered.

“Why not?” Gina asked, echoing Lulu’s secretive tone.

“The Signora, Big Mike—well, they don’t like it. Dorrie was a particular pet of theirs.” Lulu unexpectedly slung one slender arm around Gina’s shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “Enough of that sad tale. It’s time for us to get back to work.”

With that, Ned began playing again, a mechanical and spiritless tune. It was clear that the girl’s death had affected him deeply. Taking a deep breath, Gina turned her attention back to fixing the strap on her tray so that it would not pinch her neck. Lulu leaned over to help her. “Just keep the strap here, a bit more around your shoulders. I started on cigarettes, you know. I know everything about it.” She gave her hair one last pat, her earlier distress tucked back away. She tossed her head in a saucy way. “Let’s get ’em, sister!”

Susanna Calkins is the author of ‘Murder Knocks Twice’ and the award-winning Lucy Campion series, holds a PhD in history and teaches at the college level. Her historical mysteries have been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha awards, among many others, and The Masque of a Murderer received a Macavity. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons.

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