I started carrying the gun around a lot more. When I got out of the shower, I had it in the pocket of my robe. When I slept, it was hidden under the covers. On the second day afterward, someone knocked on my apartment door, someone with the wrong address. I had the gun’s barrel pressed to the door as I spoke to the idiot outside. The next time someone knocked on my door, I didn’t answer at all.
Dick had a horde of minions who’d probably be glad to put a bullet in my brain, but James, his bodyguard, scared me the worst. The bitterness James had for me, the utter disdain, had me convinced that if anyone was coming for me, it would be James, bearing a crowbar and a hateful glare.
I had just refused the advances of a criminal overlord, and punched him in the face, and I had no idea what the fuck to do about it. I stayed in my apartment, pacing around, scaring my cat. I forced myself to try reading, then watching a movie. One of them caught my eye in the stack, an old gift from Dad. Citizen Kane. I flung the case out my window and heard it smash on the street below.
Surely I could have done something else that evening, something different. I should have guessed Dick’s intentions from the dinner, the flirting, the hands on my waist. How I handled it was stupid. Stupid! Stupid stupid stupid! I shouldn’t have hit Dick. That might have set him off. Maybe I should have shot him. No, then I’d have his entire organization on my head, guaranteed. But if someone was coming for me, they’d probably be here by now. How many days had it been? Two? No, three. I’d been hiding in my apartment for the three days since the evening when my boss almost assaulted me.
I could think of nothing to do, so I did nothing. I killed time, stewing in anxiety until my nerves were ready to boil over. I think I was halfway through the second Harry Potter film when my phone rang. I stared at it, eyes wide and blurry—and dry, too, come to think of it. I wondered if I’d been blinking enough. I wondered if the phone would explode if I didn’t answer it. Or if I did.
The phone was still ringing. My fingers shaking, I picked it up and peered at the screen. Dick calling. Dammit. I clutched the phone in both hands, squeezing it until the case creaked. Then I dropped it, and it bounced onto my bed, startling Fumbles awake. I slumped onto the bed beside them both, and the cat yawned and crawled onto my belly.
The phone had stopped ringing. I stared at it for a bit longer, no idea how long. Then I picked it up, jabbed in the password, and called back.
Dick picked up on the first ring. “Barb?”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Why had I called him back? Dick’s voice came again. “Barb? Barbara, come on, talk to me.”
“Nothing to say, Dick,” I finally said.
“No, listen to me!” Dick said. “We both did some things the other night we shouldn’ta done. I feel bad about it, okay?”
“Not what I expected to hear,” I said. “Regret from a crimelord? What’s next, volunteer work? Puppy adoptions? Free blowjobs?”
“Now listen here,” Dick said. Good, I was getting to him. “You aren’t some whore off the street; I know that. I was too forward, I admit it. You’re my employee—”
“I was your employee—” I said.
“—and what kind of fucking operation am I running if I’m scaring off my people? I don’t want to leave this unresolved.” Dick waited, but I said nothing, just let him stew. Finally he said, “You mean what you just said to me?”
“You tried to rape me!” I said, barely above a whisper.
The line was silent for a moment. Then Dick said, “What? What the fuck are you talking about? That—that wasn’t what was happening at all!”
“You invited me into your home, waited until I was drunk, and started kissing my neck. You put your hands on me! And when my judgment was gone, when I was too wasted to refuse.”
Dick said, “Well, clearly you weren’t too drunk for that, seeing as how you punched me in the goddamn eye. You’re misunderstanding this whole—”
“No, you are,” I said. “And God help any woman who comes over to your house before you do some serious reading about consent. Why the fuck I gotta be the one to explain this to you? What, your mom never tell you getting girls drunk and trying to fuck them is a no-no?”
“Okay, I get it!” Dick said. “You made your point. I’m sorry. You done?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re done. Bye.” I took the phone off of my ear, prepared to hang up.
“Wait! Barb!” Dick said. “Please. I didn’t mean to piss you off, Barb. Then or now.”
“Then clearly you fucked up somewhere,” I said. “Dick, why are you doing this? What the fuck are you thinking?”
“Well, I invited you to my house because—”
“No, not that!” I said. “Why’d you call me?”
“I want you back, Barb,” Dick said.
I clenched my teeth. Of course he did. Of course he wanted me back under his filthy claws where he could—
“I have a job for you.”
“A job,” I said. My mind stalled for an instant. I became fully, painfully aware that the dumb part of my mind was listening, and listening good. “What job?”
“Protection during a meet with Silvers,” Dick said. “Top dollar. I want you right by my side.”
I said, “Me? Muscle? I thought I was only good for burning things.”
“You’re movin’ up in the world. What do you say?”
“Dick,” I said, “if you’re burning me, if you’re doing this just to get to me—”
“I’m not burning you, Barb—”
“—you might as well be a fucking adult and put a bullet in me yourself—”
“It’s nothing like that! Just a job, plain and simple. You do this and I have ten thousand in it for you. Six in advance.”
My stomach lurched. I still had the last paycheck burning a hole in my pocket; I certainly didn’t need that much to live on day to day. But the money, all of that wonderful money. I said, “When and where?”
“Two days from now, the Red Baron restaurant at six in the evening. Come early and wear a suit. A vest, too. You need a new jacket?”
“I have spares.” Why did I need to wear a vest?
“Good, cuz you left your jacket at my pad. Do this for me, and I’ll see if I can convince you to stay beyond that.”
This was a mistake, another stupid mistake. “Fine,” I said. Dammit.
“Atta girl. I’ll see you on Friday, alright?”
The phone’s case creaked; I realized I was squeezing again. “See you.”
I was about to hang up when he added, “You called me Dick.”
“You are a dick,” I said.
“No, I mean you used my name. Not Boss. Dick.”
I sighed, closed my eyes. I hung up the phone and let it drop onto the bed. My hand fell to Fumbles’s ears, and he nuzzled my fingers without moving more than his head.
That asshole. That dick. That perverted, crude, irritating, ignorant, childish, pompous… I sighed again. I wasn’t fooling myself. I wanted this. I liked working for Dick. If he had a bullet waiting for me, I’d put two in his groin before I went down. Just being around him was like walking a razor’s edge, but the work was fun and the risk gave such a sharp pleasure. The dumb part of my brain wanted more. I wanted to believe that the smart part couldn’t see Dick’s appeal. But I’d just be lying to myself some more.
I knew nothing of the Red Baron restaurant, who owned it, or why it was chosen as the meeting site. I’d heard of a gangster with a similar name the next state over, but apart from him, the name was unfamiliar. The Red Baron restaurant itself was clustered among several others in one center. The sign was gaudy, too much bright red and neon. “Red Baron Bar and Grill” sat below an image of a biplane. Sure, whatever. I barely glanced at it as I passed through the doors beneath.
My new silver watch said the time was five thirty PM. Too early for dinner, in my opinion, but any time was a good time for a gang meet-up. Already a few tables had loners or couples, and a family of five sat in one corner opposite the bar. No sign of anyone in a suit, or anyone I knew.
My attention snapped to the greeter, a college-age kid manning the booth. He was staring; I narrowed my eyes so that he blinked and looked down instead. “Are you a member of the James party?”
“Pardon?” I said. That was too generic. James? I glanced around again but failed to find the big thug anywhere.
The greeter said, “Um, I was told to watch for people in suits who’d start showing up before six. Supposedly it might be up to sixteen people. Are you one of them?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m with them. Has anyone shown up yet?”
“No one but the guy who reserved the table,” the kid said, and he gestured near the bar. “Shall I lead the way?”
“Thanks but I can find it,” I said, and I stepped past him. Walking further in, I could see that several tables were pushed together to seat maybe sixteen people, with two on the ends. As I chose my seat, a timid-looking man scurried out of the hallway marked Bathrooms. A moment later, James himself emerged, already scowling.
“Evening,” I said as James approached.
“Hm.” James crossed his arms and looked appraisingly over the table, then at me.
I said, “Off scaring the locals? I figured you’d be on guard duty or something.”
“I am,” James said. “Now shut up and scoot over. That’s Dick’s chair.”
I rolled my eyes and climbed into the seat on the right. “My chair there,” James said. I shot him a dirty look, but he didn’t even blink. I took the seat on Dick’s left instead, and James gave no complaint.
Sinking into his own chair, James said, “You got here at a good time. Now before you let that go to your head, we have a job to do. That’s why we’re needed early.” James looked over my shoulder and nodded his head the same way. I looked with him.
A man the size of a linebacker, dressed to the nines and wearing sunglasses, had stepped into the restaurant. His head faced us and he flinched. His right hand dug into his jacket and I took a deep breath, but the hand came out with a cigarette case. The suited man drew one out as he made for the bar.
Laying his knuckles on the table, James said, “Hm. We beat them to the punch. Or maybe we didn’t. That guy in the bathroom was weird. He was talking on a headset when I kicked the stall in.”
“You kicked the—” I ignored the suited newcomer for the moment. “Why in god’s name?”
James said, “Hm. You wearing a vest?”
I parted my jacket to show my waistcoat. I thought I looked dapper in it, but I hadn’t worn it since someone in college told me it made me look like a dyke. James’s eyes widened and he glared at me. I wondered what was his problem until— “Oh. A bulletproof vest?”
“Dammit. Fucking idiot,” James said. “Yes, a bulletproof vest, smartass. Do you even get why we’re here?”
“How the fuck would I have a bulletproof vest?” I said. “Dick didn’t specify. I was only told to come here for protection during a meeting with Silvers.” I opened my jacket further, showing the bulge of my pistol in the inner pocket. “I’m fully prepared to do that.”
“Do you even know who Silvers is?” James said. I opened my mouth. Then when I realized I had nothing to say, I closed it. “Silvers is Yvonne Silvers, Dick’s greatest rival in the state. We’ve lost four people in nasty run-ins with her goons. Pff.” James slouched in his seat even as he took another look around. “I don’t know why Dick bothered to invite you to this thing.”
I looked away from James, toward the bar. I didn’t know, either. Then James said, “Dick knows, though. And that’s what’s important. Now you’re here. Expect trouble from anyone who walks through that door. Case in point.” I looked to the door just as another suited man came in. Built like a refrigerator, not one of ours; he headed straight for our table and took a seat on the other side. James said, “Silvers may look like she’s not wearing enough to hide a gun, but she’s surprised us before. Expect trouble.”
“Okay,” I said. On this, at least, I could cooperate. We sat and watched as the suited men made a tour of the restaurant. Another of their people came in, then two of ours. The second I recognized as the lady from Dick’s meeting, as well-dressed now as then. People took seats along our table while James and I traded off watching different parts of the restaurant, until finally six rolled around.
As if on cue, the restaurant doors burst open to admit a chattering couple. Dick was there, wearing all black and gesturing eagerly with his hands. The woman with him looked like some kind of classy prostitute who’d stolen the clothes off a teenage prostitute. She wore a knotted cardigan that bared most of her stomach, stockings and heels, a belt with rhinestones, and enough makeup to make my parents cringe. The woman had blonde hair that faded into pink as it stretched down toward her rear, and I saw rings with little pink hearts in both ears and her navel.
This was a fucking crime lord? This was Dick’s rival? Dick and Silvers parted with a kiss on each cheek. “Good to see you after so long, Vonnie,” Dick said.
“Don’t you fucking call me that, Garrett,” the woman said with a sickening smile, and they approached our table. Dick wordlessly sat between me and James; Silvers sat across from us. She was flanked by burly suited men in sunglasses, three on each side. Dick had me, James, a guy I thought was named Wes, three more suited guys, and the woman from the hotel gathering.
Dick cleared his throat and said, “Now. Let’s bring this meet-up to order! Good evening, everybody. Barb, nice to see you tonight.”
I nodded his way without looking at him. Dick said, “Yvonne, this is Barbara, a new associate of mine.”
“Charmed,” Yvonne Silvers said, and she managed a smile as she reached her hand across the table. I shook it, and her fake nails scraped my hand as I pulled away.
Dick and Silvers began to talk, banal chatter that I ignored. No one else said a word. The other woman in the suit, sitting at the end of the table near the bar, was tapping away on her phone and occasionally glancing up at Dick or Silvers. Soon enough a waitress appeared, a nervous-looking woman who asked us for drink orders. Dick got a scotch, Silvers a margarita. James ordered water, and the rest of the table followed suit. I was fine with that; drinking on the job was a stupid idea, particularly if your job involved a handgun. Dick said something cheeky, and Silvers laughed. Then he sat up in his chair and leaned her way.
“Got one big question for you, Vonnie,” Dick said, smiling same as always.
“Ask away, big man,” Silvers said, showing more teeth than him.
“Why the fuck are you putting peddlers on my streets?”
Everyone went still. Silvers crossed her arms under her breasts and arched her eyebrows. She said, “Wanna try that without the sass?”
“You heard me,” Dick said. “Why the fuck are you putting child drug dealers in my city?”
“You called me all the way from Albany to ask that?”
“It’s pretty important that I know.” Dick laced his fingers together and laid his chin upon them, elbows on the table. “No greeting, no tribute, no official word from your team here. You just drop some kids and coke on my streets, so long, be back by supper?”
Silvers’s guards tensed; James scanned the room without turning his head. Silvers dragged her tongue over her pink-painted lips. She said, “Well, I’m sure I don’t have a clue of who you’re talking about. I don’t have any kids of my own, after all.”
Dick said, “I’m well aware of your, eh, fondness for teenage girls—”
“But if they were mine,” Silvers said, “what’s the crime? Ingram’s nice. It’s pretty. There are those lovely street sculptures and museums. So much wide open territory, and—” She giggled, a tiny sound that made my stomach turn, “—no one to watch it.”
Wes grunted, far to my right, and everyone sat a little higher. James and a few other guys reached under the table. Across the restaurant, I saw a busboy mutter something to the couple dining together. The couple hopped right up and scrambled for the doors without looking our way. And they weren’t the only ones. The family of five, another couple, and a woman on her own all passed my gaze on their way out of the restaurant.
I was suddenly aware that I was in an empty restaurant with two crime lords, twelve gangsters, and probably enough guns to take over a cruise liner, bearing a gun I’d never fired before and wearing no body armor to speak of.
How the fuck did I get here?
I had no time to dwell on it; everyone seemed ready to jump out of their seats. Something had changed in Dick’s eyes as he noticed the restaurant emptying. He spoke slowly to all around.
“I’m not gonna pretend those kids aren’t yours, Vonnie, or that I’m not pissed at you. You’ve had a taste, but this is my pie. My city, Vonnie, I promise you. And I was always real shitty at sharing. So what do you want? Why’d you bother to make the trip here?”
“Hm.” Silvers still had her arms crossed, but I realized one of her hands was hidden in her cardigan. “You don’t waste time at all, Dickie. Shame. I’d have enjoyed a drink with you.” She licked her lips again, then cleared her throat. “I want a slice of Ingram. My operation’s growing, and I’d like to branch out a bit. I’ve had my eyes on Southside and the theatre district. So I’ll buy them from you.”
“Oh,” Dick said, crossing his arms. He was slouching, but I saw one hand slide into his jacket. I figured it was a decent enough time to reach for my own gun—and then I realized that because the pistol was in my inner pocket, I had no quick or smooth way to draw it. James probably had a shoulder holster hidden under his coat. Dick said, “So. Here for business. I can deal with that. Just trying out the shoes before you buy them, huh? Okay.” Half of Silvers’s thugs and the woman herself were staring at him, but Dick only smiled. “You gonna make me an offer?”
“One million dollars, weekly, for the next month,” Silvers said. “By then I’ll have my boys set in nicely. You and I will be happy neighbors.”
Dick whistled. “Four million, wow! Quite an offering. But then… No. You know that’s not a tenth of what the area’s worth in a year.”
Silvers’s eyelid twitched. She gave an overdramatic sight and said, “Pity. I was hoping you’d welcome me to the neighborhood. Now we’ve got nothing but trouble.”
Someone shifted by the bar, a man at the edge of my vision. He had a submachine gun raised. Then Dick said “Boys!” and everybody moved.
James was on his feet first, planting a slug in the bar guy’s face, but the submachine gun had already gone off, spraying the lady in the business suit. A thug to Silvers’s left pointed a pistol my way, and his arm jerked as Wes shot him point blank. Thugs on both sides opened fire; one of our guys tackled one of hers over the table. Someone else aimed at Dick, and I shot him twice in the chest without thinking. A man leaped from the kitchen doorway, shotgun in hand; James merely looked his way and the doorway exploded, blasting the thug to the floor. A tiny remote was clutched in James’s fist, dropped as he aimed his gun again. In all of this, Silvers and Dick stood, guns pointed at each other. I aimed at Silvers, and one of her thugs dove in, blocking my shot with his chest. Then he shot me.
I staggered, feeling something hit low in my ribs. Ow. Fuck ow. Someone gripped my shoulder and shoved, so that I tumbled out of my seat. “Barb!” someone said, and I got to see under the table, scrambling legs and carpet pressed to my face. Someone wearing high heels was running for the kitchen, flanked by dress shoes. I pointed my gun and fired; I think I hit one of the guys in the calf. Then the gun was too heavy and I had to drop it.
There was a sun in my belly, growing and seething and burning my insides. There was blood, and screaming, and this horrible smell nearby. My head slumped to the left and I saw the eyes of a dead man. I think I was breathing funny, too, each breath like a flare in my gut. It hurt like a motherfucker. It hurt worse than anything I’d ever known.
Something Dad had said to me once came to mind, back when I was going into the Navy. Don’t bend for anyone, Barbara. Toughen yourself, and you won’t break either. Then you’re an unbreakable woman, and no one can stop one of those.
Someone grabbed my arm and began to pull. I wondered if Dad had thought of that line lying on the floor with a bullet in his gut. Then, as my mind drifted and I closed my eyes, I thought, Why did I come to this fucking thing in the first place?