It Can’t Be Love
“You wanna tell me that again?” Dick said.
I stared down at my boss, trying not to blink. Instead of a desk, Dick was seated on the bed of his hotel room, but our casual setting did nothing to calm either of us. “Let me rephrase that,” Dick said. “Tell me again why the cops showed up.”
Fighting to keep my voice even, I said, “Before I set the fire, I left a note for Mrs. McGavin. I didn’t want to destroy her livelihood with his.”
“Uh-huh,” Dick said. “And, ah, what did this note of yours say?”
“It said ‘Your house is in danger. Get your kids and get out. Don’t expect to come back.’ Something like that.”
Dick made a noise in his throat, and my fists clenched at my sides. I didn’t have to justify myself to him. Dick said, “And when you got out of the house, there were cops waiting for you.”
“Yessir,” I said.
“Well, let me ask you something,” Dick said. “Do you think it was the missus who called the cops?”
I felt a lump rise in my throat. I’d been mentally avoiding that idea. “Maybe not,” I said. “Someone might have seen me stalking around the house. But… probably.”
“No fucking shit, she called the cops!” Dick lunged off the bed toward me, and I stepped back, bracing myself in case he took a swing. I really, really didn’t want to throw hands with my boss. “You don’t tell the mark you’re coming. That was stupid, Barbara!”
“McGavin’s family was not the mark!” I said. I found myself jabbing my finger toward him, and he snarled. “I thought we made that perfectly clear when you gave me the job.”
“I said you could burn the place with the family gone,” Dick said. “You took the liberty of warning her that you were coming.” Dick sighed and stepped away from me, and I unclenched my fists. “You can’t do that, Barb. You just…” He dropped onto the bed again, shoulders slumped. “Listen. If you get caught, McGavin gets investigated. His debts come to light. My business with him comes up. That puts the spotlight on me, my businesses, the people who work for me…” Dick shook his head. “You don’t do that, Barb. You don’t take risks like that.”
I stayed quiet. I wasn’t gonna lie and say I’d never do it again. Dick rubbed his palm on his cheek, contorting his face. “And when the cops saw you…”
“They didn’t,” I said, standing a bit taller. Let him see I could handle myself. “I was in the dark before the gas went up, and I thumped anyone who came too close.”
Dick said, “That cop who chased you. Did he see your face?”
“No. I made sure he didn’t have a chance.”
“Did he hear your voice?” Dick leaned closer and stared up into my eyes; I got the ridiculous but unnerving impression that he was standing over me. “Barb. Did he hear your voice?”
“I whispered. I’m sure he couldn’t make it out,” I said.
Dick said, “Is there any other way he might identify you?”
“No. Not a doubt in my mind. Gloves, hair in a bun, the whole nine yards.”
“Okay,” Dick said, and he got up again, facing the window as he spoke. “Okay. What you did was stupid and risky, Barb. I don’t want to see you do anything like it again.”
I was still thinking of a reply when Dick threw up his hands. “Ah, whatever!” he said. “You got the job done and you kicked a cop’s ass. You did alright, hiccups aside. Nice work, Barb.”
I blinked. Dick swung around and cracked a smile, probably at my dumbfounded stare. He said, “Five thousand dollars, as promised. Make that plus two for handling the police well. I’ll let Bollocks know to add the sum to your account. You’ve got promise, Barb, so long as you can avoid blowing our cover.” When I was about to butt in, Dick held up a finger. “You got principles, and I can respect that. But you can’t repeat this mess, got it? Go off the rails like this again and you won’t find an open platform at my station. Capiche?”
I struggled to wrap my mind around this. Metaphor aside, I had expected Dick to have my ass kicked, or to forget paying me altogether. I’d gone to bed last night wondering if I’d blown my chance at the job. I nodded my head and said, “More discretion in the future. Far more. Got it, sir.”
“Uh-huh,” Dick said. “And I’ll try not to put you in the same position again. Less friction that way. Happy employees keep their mouths shut, right?”
“Really?” I said. “This—this isn’t just bullshit? You mean that?” Was this the same gangster I’d known so far?
“Yeah,” Dick said. “You’re useful to me. Tough, stubborn. I think we could make a good team.” Dick strolled past me and dropped onto the bed, grinning up at me. “Besides, every criminal organization deserves a feminine touch.”
Yep, he was the same Dick as always. I said, “Feminine touch? Me? Never been accused of that before. But sure. Thank you. It’s good to be working with you, Boss.”
“Barb, please,” Dick said, sitting more seriously. “Call me Dick.”
“Alright. Nice to be working with you, Dick,” I said. No way was I going to call him that going forward.
“Hey, hey, pull in here, will ya?” Dick said.
I gave the wheel a hard twist and Dick’s Lexus bumped on its way into the parking lot. The restaurant wore a vibrant red neon sign that said “Nellie’s Steaks”, and five or six people sat waiting on benches outside. From behind me, Dick said, “James, this is the place, right?”
“This is the place,” James said. He was seated next to me in the passenger’s seat. We hadn’t looked at each other all evening.
“Right then. Go ahead and park, Barb,” Dick said. With another turn of the wheel, I guided the car past a dawdling couple and into an open space, using the truck in the next spot over as a guide. If it was badly parked, I was gonna be badly parked, too.
“So why here?” I said, shutting off the engine. “Is this restaurant another of your ‘holdings’?” Dick only climbed out of the car, and James joined him a moment later. I sighed, clicked my belt, and stepped out with them.
Dick said, “You haven’t guessed why we’re here?”
“I’m not much for guessing,” I said.
“Well, it’ll be a pleasant surprise. You, Barbara Lenton, are being taken out to dinner!”
“What?” I said.
James chuckled next to me, a gruff sound that made me want to punch him. Dick grinned and slapped my arm. “Every new employee of mine, from grunt to underboss, gets a nice dinner after a job or two. Nellie’s is generally the place to be, unless you’re a vegetarian and haven’t brought it up.”
“Nope,” I said. I’d tried vegetarianism as a kid, mostly just to annoy my parents. It didn’t take.
“Well, we’re here and there’s no escape now. So come on!” Dick strolled on ahead, beckoning me onward, and I gazed at Nellie’s. I wasn’t used to men taking me out to dinner. I gave Dick a smile as I followed them in.
James pushed past the cluster of well-dressed families and couples inside, opening a path for us. He said something to the server at the front, and in moments a waitress showed us to an open booth. Dick sat against the wall and James slid in next to him. I sat across from them both.
Dick said, “Order whatever you want. My treat. It’s about time we ate together anyway.” I looked down at the menu and my eyes bugged out. The appetizers were upward of twelve bucks; the entrees started at double that and just kept going up.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve never gone anywhere this nice before. I’m grateful.”
“Hey.” Dick flashed me a white smile. “You’ve done good so far and I like having you around. It’s interesting having ex-military on my payroll. Brings a discipline to the field, you know?”
James snorted. “With that shit at McGavin’s place? What discipline? Pretty shitty servicewoman, you ask me.”
On some level, I’d been waiting for James to fire the first shot. I said, “Look here, asshole—”
Dick snapped his fingers so loud that I jumped, and people the next table over turned our way. “Stop it,” Dick said. “We’re in a nice place about to have a nice dinner. Leave the fucking arguments outside, okay?” Dick looked right at James as he spoke; James hesitated for several long seconds then dipped his chin an inch.
“Great. Now…” Dick flipped his menu open and the smile returned to his face. “Where’s that waiter asking about our drinks?”
“I cannot believe you haven’t seen Citizen Kane,” Dick said, ushering me through his house like we were late for something. “It’s like the greatest film of all time! It’s, it’s the-”
“The Citizen Kane of film?” I said. I was busy inspecting the tasteful brass wall hangings, the painting over the hearth, and the utter lack of photos on the bookshelves. “I already know how Citizen Kane ends, you know.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Dick said with a wave of his hand, flicking on the light so that a fluorescent glow spilled over the room. “Rosebud. It was his sled. Everybody with the internet knows the ending. People who don’t even know the ending know the ending. No, you’re in this for the experience.”
I said, “Is there any particular reason for this, or…?”
“I thought it’d be fun,” Dick said, and he smiled at me, sweeter than his usual cheeky grin. “Can’t a guy spend a pleasant evening with his subordinate?”
I arched my eyebrows, but Dick strolled past me to a mini bar near the kitchen, planting a pair of glasses on the bar. He’d made the evening sound innocent enough so far, but I had my doubts. I was still in my suit from a job I pulled off this afternoon; Dick was in a polo, slacks, and expensive loafers, looking more casual than I’d ever seen him. “You want a drink?” he said.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Well, I do,” Dick said. “So I’m opening a bottle of Swedish red. I guess this little glass will just sit here, all alone, until someone gets thirsty.” Dick broke the seal on a bottle and uncorked it, then filled each of the glasses almost to the rim. He sipped from one glass and his lips curled into a smile, his cheeks dimpling. I rolled my eyes and took the other glass.
Following Dick into the den, I said, “Why Citizen Kane? I figured you’d go for, like, Scarface or something.”
Dick said, “Hey, my occupation have nothing to do with my movie choice, don’t you worry. I just like the film. You should pay attention to the little details, with the camerawork and stuff.” Dick took a remote off his card table and jabbed it toward the TV, the dropped himself onto a plush love seat. The TV itself was massive, flat screen, and I couldn’t imagine its price. Dick’s place was maybe a little bit nicer than mine; I was willing to admit that.
The movie began. I took my jacket off and Dick scooted close to me. The movie went something like this: Charles Foster Kane was an incendiary, power-hungry fop whose ambitions outstretched his common sense. He did a lot of questionable things and a few assholish things because his mommy never loved him. As we watched, I emptied my wineglass and Dick filled it again, then again. We chatted over the film, but sometimes Dick would shush me, his eyes alight as the movie spouted one iconic line after another. Around the time Kane was flirting with his mistress and soon-to-be second wife, Dick put his arm around my waist. This had happened before—I figured Dick was the snuggly type and left it at that.
Then Dick leaned closer to me and put his face in the crook of my neck.
I said, “Boss—”
“Barb?” Dick said, and I could smell the wine, heavy on his breath. We’d nearly emptied the bottle; no telling which of us had drunk more. I’d spent the last few minutes zoned out and barely paying attention to the film, but now, as I tried to focus, my thoughts had to swim through jello. Dick put his lips to my throat and pulled me tight to him. My arm felt leaden as I pushed against his shoulder. His hand slid up my ribs; I could feel the warmth of his skin through my blouse.
“Boss, stop,” I said.
“It’s okay, Barb. It’s okay.” Dick’s breath was hot on my cheek. He tilted my chin his way so were face to face—his eyes were wide, dilated, and hungry. Dick leaned in and pressed his mouth to mine. We met and, for just a moment, my tongue lashed out to meet his.
Then I was on my feet, half a step away, and Dick was staring up at me in surprise. “What the fuck,” I said. “What the fuck! What are you trying to pull here?” Dick was rising to his feet, and I could hardly focus on him. The images on the TV screen flashed indistinct, grey and white.
“Barb, this isn’t—”
“The hell it is!” I said. “You bring me here and you cuddle up and start—” My eyes raced about and landed on the table, the wine bottle and glasses. “—start feeding me booze until you can get your hands on me!” I flung my arm out and the glasses went flying. Wine splashed my fingers, a sudden and jarring cold.
“Barb, listen!” Dick said. “You always let yourself go around me. You came here, you drank with me.” He got halfway up and reached for me. “I thought—”
Something hard hit my fist. I needed a moment to realize that it was his face. Dick cradled his cheek and glared up at me, but I clenched my fists so hard they shook. I said, “Keep your fucking hands off me, you dick!”
“Hang on, Barb, I—”
“Stay away from me!” I said. I twirled, hobbled for the door, found my step, and marched. I had to fumble with the deadbolt a moment, and Dick was on his feet, moving behind me. I had to get out. I couldn’t think in here. I couldn’t breathe.
I got the door open and lunged outside just as Dick said, “Barb, wait! You forgot your—”