Tender Loving Care
Something was beeping. For a moment I’d thought someone was torturing a squirrel next to my ear, but I figured it was probably beeping. I opened my eyes and immediately closed them. Sun. Or something else too bright. No, it was a ceiling, glaring down at me like I’d done something wrong.
Maybe I had. There was this pain in my middle, around level with my spleen. I hoped I still had a spleen. I really hoped I still had a spleen. I focused on the pain, balling it up into one area, and I found it on the right, opposite the spleen. It was in my liver instead, and that was hardly better.
I peeked my eyes open again; stupid white ceiling. Then a shape appeared above me, dark. “Hey. Rise and shine.” It was gentle, not so grating like the beeping machine and the white ceiling.
“Dick?” I said. My throat was dry, and the sound came out rough and cracked. I wondered how long I’d been asleep.
“Hey.” Yep, it was Dick. I wondered why Dick was at my bedside. I figured I wasn’t worth that much attention. Dick said, “Thought we’d lost you for a little while. Stupid of me, forgetting how tough you are.”
I began to sit up, but something rebelled in my ribs and I grunted, raising myself into a sort of halfway sitting position. Dick helped prop me up with some pillows. I peered around and found James of all people in my hospital room. James was facing the door, but he’d turned his head to look at me. I made eye contact with him. James gave me a nod, unsmiling but his eyes free of scorn. Weird.
I said, “What happened?” Dick thrust a cup into my hand, and I guzzled it without thinking. Water, cold and clean. “Thanks.”
“Well…” Dick glanced around the room, which had a TV on the wall, us three, and not much else. “The deal with Silvers went bad. You could figure that much. What gets me is she had no deal in mind. She set that restaurant up just to take a shot at me.”
“What?” I said. I thought back to the gunner hidden behind the bar, the patrons’ coordinated exodus, the guy hiding in the bathroom. It fit. “Here? In Ingram?”
Dick said, “Shit, yeah. Apparently she has more friends here than I thought, or she managed to stick her people in deep. She caught us by surprise either way.”
“Who picked the meeting spot?” I said.
Dick sighed and laid his forehead in his hand. “She did. I underestimated her there. Who knew she’d set up a trap so quickly, and with such precision? Didn’t think she had the balls, either. I’d have been smoked without you guys.” Dick chuckled. “Like the restaurant.”
I smiled a little and tried to hide it. “What happened to the restaurant? Having bombs go off can’t be good for business.”
Dick said, “We torched the place. Shame you had to miss out.”
“Oh.” That was a shame.
“See, funny thing is, all the guests were told to evacuate because there was a fire in the kitchen. I think it’s fitting we made that a reality. Anyway, Silvers got away and we had to cut and run real quick. Evidence to hide and all that.”
The moments before I blacked out came to mind. I said, “I tried to get her, Dick. One of those gorillas she brought along got in the way.”
“I know,” Dick said. “You did good, Barb. You fought for us real well.”
I laughed then immediately regretted it. Stupid bullet wound. “I got shot, is what I did.”
“And you probably saved my life,” Dick said. “You shoved me out of the way to aim at Silvers, like how her bodyguard put himself in your path. Didn’t she, James?”
James looked our way, scowling. “Sure,” he said, and kept staring at the door.
Patting me on the shoulder, Dick said, “So there you have it. And you shot another of Silvers’s goons when all hell broke loose. All in all, I might just owe you.”
“Oh,” I said. That unnerved me more than it really should.
“Then, ah, the guy got you,” Dick said. “But you stayed alive, even after that.” Dick sank back in his chair. “Fuckin’ shame about Rose, though.”
“Rose?” I said.
“Rosalind. I don’t think you really met her. She was the lady at the end of the table. She bit it, along with Hector and Chris.” Dick was silent for a moment. Outside, far in the distance, I heard a police siren rise, then fall in pitch. Dick said, “I brought Rose to help broker the deal with Silvers, if we made one. She was a lawyer, not a fighter like the other guys. Poor girl. Ah, that bitch got us good!” Dick slammed his fist down on his armrest. I flinched; James leaped to his feet, fumbling with his gun, and he took a moment to realize everything was okay. He cleared his throat and sat down again.
Dick smiled, just a little. Definitely a nicer sight than the scowl. “But you, you take a bullet in the gut and you’re smiling a couple days later.”
“Am I?” I said. A couple of days?
“Yeah, uh, it’s Sunday now. Sorry you missed church.”
I snorted. Not a big concern of mine. “Sunday.” No wonder my limbs felt like damp sandbags.
Dick said, “And, ah, you went through surgery. The doctors had to take out a piece of your liver.” My hand felt for the stinging spot on my torso, and I found something rough under the gown, several somethings. Stitches. Shit, they really did take a chunk out of me. Dick said, “Hey, it grows back! No need to freak out; they said it grows back. I’m, like, eighty percent sure it’ll grow back.”
“Fine,” I said. “I didn’t need my liver anyway.”
“I know. When do I get to get out of this damn bed?”
Dick said, “Docs want to keep you for a week or more. You’ll probably make a fuss and get released sooner, though. Wes is on guard duty, keeping ears away from the door. Don’t want our cover blown, eh?”
I could live with that, though I hated needing others to protect me. I remembered the care some of my old crewmen showed to injured friends. I guess that made me a soldier in Dick’s army. I said, “So, uh, what are you doing in the meantime?”
Dick said, “What am I doing? Huh. Uh, I hadn’t thought on it much. The police are eying me, I still have Silvers’s kids on the street, and I’m short three valuable employees.”
I said, “So you’re not going to drive up to Albany and shoot that bitch.”
I felt a pull on my mind, a strange excitement, like I was about to start a fire. I said, “If I were you, walking around with one hundred percent of my organs intact, I’d get my people together, get a big fucking gun,” I mimed with my hands, “and go to that whore Silvers’s place and kill her. Bring the fight her way, now, while the wound’s fresh.”
“Huh,” Dick said, and I met his eyes. Let him see I was serious. “I thought you were ready to walk out.”
Glancing our way, James said, “I don’t think she likes Silvers much.”
“I’m well aware,” Dick said. “Barbara, you clearly haven’t had a war with a mobster before. It’s a nasty, messy ordeal, giving or taking.”
“Dick,” I said, “you’re talking to a woman you hired to set buildings on fire. I say go for it. Silvers’s moving in on Ingram, or says she is. Make her fight for it.”
“Hm,” Dick said, stroking his chin. “James, what do you think of Barb’s plan?”
Swiveling around to face us, James said, “It’s not a plan. It’s a stupid idea. Silvers has small-time operations all over the state and the people to run them. We’d need more manpower, weapons, and mobility than we have now. We’d be risking our operations, people, territory, and the status quo for a little revenge. But I like it.” Dick’s eyes widened. “That bitch shot me on the way out. Fractured one of my ribs. Suffice to say I’m not fond of her, either. I’m on board.”
“Huh.” Dick glanced between the two of us, and we looked at him. After a few seconds Dick chuckled. “Fiiiine. We’ll go to war with Silvers, if it’ll make you two happy.”
He’d caved quickly. Maybe Dick had a grudge, too. He said, “I know a few first steps we can take. James, you still have some gunrunner contacts from your old job, right?”
“Yep,” James said.
“Great!” Dick launched to his feet and rushed to the window, dragging it open. Thrusting his head out, Dick said, “Hey Wes! We’re goin’ to war!!”
From below, maybe a floor down, I heard a small “Yippie-ki-yay.”
And so it was. After that, Dick and I chatted about nothing while my mind spun with thoughts of the impending clash, if indeed I got my wish and it came to that. I, Barbara Lenton, was not keen on letting people fuck me over and get away with it. If nothing else, I’d do it for Rose, Hector, and Chris. Soon enough a doctor came in, spoke to me a bit, and brought me some water. James walked out, and Dick stood up and put on his coat.
“Get well, Barb.”
Putting on the toughest stare I could muster, I said, “I’ll see you when I’m on my feet again.”
Dick laughed. “Or when I come visit again tomorrow. You, uh, you don’t mind, do you?”
Dick must have seen something on my face, some twitch or something, because his eyes got wide for a moment and he looked like a few harsh words could knock him over. Finally I said, “No, I don’t mind. See you soon, Dick.”
“Atta girl,” Dick said. I lay back down and pulled the blanket up to my collar. Dick smiled at me and then, leaning down, kissed my forehead. I made not a sound, just watched him turn and walk out the door.
I’d taken a bullet for that man, and now I was willing to fight a gang war for him. I wondered what other stupid shit I’d eventually do for this man I was utterly failing to hate.
I was back home after a week. In pain, healing, but back home. Dick had sent someone to feed Fumbles, but he still rushed up when I came in, meowed until I fed him, and laid his head on my stitches as I lounged with him. I winced and scratched his ears. At least one of us was content.
On Tuesday, I showed up at the Sunshine Inn and the concierge didn’t give me a glance. He was probably used to seeing us suited types by now. I knocked on the door of room 321 and heard a voice inside go quiet. A second later, Dick said, “Come on in.”
Dick was seated on the bed with his tie undone, and Bollocks was standing before him, spine straight as a light pole. Dick said, “Barb, hey there. Welcome.” Stepping aside, Bollocks nodded to me. I noticed a thick manila file folder under his arm.
“Morning, gentlemen,” I said. “Don’t let me interrupt.”
Dick said, “Go ahead, big guy.”
“As I was saying, sir,” Bollocks said. “I screened several replacement candidates for Rosalind. With your advice, I’d like to make a few recommendations.” Bollocks opened the folder and fanned its pages.
Dick said, “That’s, ah, a lot of faces. You don’t think you could pare it down a bit?”
Bollocks said, “I examined seventy-one applicants, sir. I managed to bring it down to the best twelve. I thought that with your recommendation—”
“Bollocks,” Dick said. “You’re more experienced than me, you’re older than me, and your business career is a hella lot more prolific than mine. I don’t know why you’d think I could choose a replacement better than you.”
Bollocks adjusted his glasses, something I took to be a nervous habit. “Middle management such as me still answers to the CEO, which is you. And you’ve given no real directives on the stock of legal counsel we should recruit. Whichever lawyer we bring in will answer to you directly, as did Rosalind. In an organization as small and secretive as ours, it’s best you personally vet any candidates before we bring them on, though you can assume everyone in this folder already has my approval.”
Dick opened his mouth and shut it again. Then he sighed, holding out his hand. “Fine. Let me see them. I’ll go through them this evening, with your commentary, okay?”
“Understood, sir,” Bollocks said.
“So I’ll see you after dinner?”
“Great. Good work, guy.”
Bollocks stepped past me toward the door, and I thought I might have seen a trace of a smile on his stony face. Dick shoved the file across the bed and beckoned to me. “Good to see you back on two legs, Barb. But surely you aren’t healed up just yet.”
I nodded. “Don’t ask me to do anything that involves a lot of running, please.”
“Sure. Of course,” Dick said. “You know, you earned yourself a break longer than the one you’ve taken.”
I said, “Lying around doesn’t suit me. I’m ready to get to work, though I have a question for you. Why’s that guy’s name Bollocks?”
Dick chuckled. “You don’t think his mom named him that?”
I said, “I’m sure his mom didn’t name him that. Did you?”
Peering at the door behind me, Dick said, “I call him Bollocks because I really, really hate his real name. I’m sure he doesn’t mind.” I stared at Dick, trying to figure out how serious he was, and he stared back, wearing his goofy smirk. Finally he said, “Do-do you get it? Dick and Bollocks. Do you get it?”
“Sure. Whatever. His name’s Bollocks. Was calling him Balls too on the nose?”
“Just about,” Dick said. “Now.” Dick sat up and crossed his arms; I stood a little straighter. “Business time. Let’s talk about going to war.”
On my way out the door, a voice to my right made me jump. “Ms. Lenton. May I have a word with you?”
I found Bollocks waiting for me outside, wearing no expression at all. He was a bit older than me, in his forties at least. I said, “Uh, yeah. What can I do for you, Bollocks?”
I thought I saw the corner of his lip twitch. Maybe not. Bollocks said, “I realized just now that I’ve neglected to make your acquaintance. I’d also like to say that I’m pleased with your speedy recovery after your injury.”
“Oh,” I said. I wished people would stop talking about me getting shot. “Thank you. You guys have taken good care of me, all things considered.”
Bollocks said, “The care is well-deserved, of course. Walk with me?” He strode down the hall toward the elevators and I followed him. “You, a neophyte in our organization, risked your lives with the others and suffered for it. You’ve proven your loyalty to those of us who had doubts.”
I said, “Um, I see. People had doubts?”
“Yes,” Bollocks said. “Few, I think, are quick to trust the loyalty and judgment of a woman whose chosen vocation centers around arson, even if Mr. Garrett seemed overly friendly with you.”
“You don’t pull your punches, do you?” I said. I didn’t expect to see an emotion on his face, so I wasn’t disappointed.
Bollocks said, “Mr. Garrett has mentioned he values my frank nature.” We stopped at the elevator doors and he pressed the down arrow. “I handle tasks including accounting, recruiting, and human resources for a few of Mr. Garrett’s holdings. I handle the laundering of our earnings into the accounts of various legal businesses, out of which comes your paycheck.”
I jumped as the elevator dinged. “When do you sleep?” I said.
The corner of Bollocks’s lip turned up for just a moment. “I find time,” he said, leading me into the elevator, and I pushed the button for the ground floor. “I will also tell you that I handled the entire expense of your medical bills.”
I was already sick of being surprised around this guy, but this one wasn’t so bad. “Wow. Thank you. You didn’t have to, though. My insurance could have covered it.”
“I find,” Bollocks said, “that it may not be the wisest move to involve insurance in bullet-related injuries. Particularly since you may well sustain more or worse in the future.” I winced at that part. “In any case, you’re welcome, and it was no worry at all. I consider myself responsible in part for your well-being since I scouted you in the first place.”
I had a mental image of Bollocks towering over the rest of us, manipulating wobbly Dick— and Barbara-shaped puppets. The scene was ridiculous, of course, because Bollocks was smiling in it. I said, “Well, thanks again. Glad to have people interested in my well-being for once.”
I’d meant that as a joke, but Bollocks twisted his head my way and looked me straight in the eyes. He said, “Mr. Garrett’s organization is in many ways a family. We accomplish much in cooperation, and we expect loyalty and reward it in turn. You took a bullet that could have hit anyone else. It is I who should be grateful.”
I snorted, and the elevator doors opened. I said, “Come on. You weren’t even in the restaurant that night. You don’t need to thank me.”
Bollocks said, “Regardless, you fought and were wounded serving our family. I won’t forget that.”
I peered into Bollocks’s face and he peered back. I saw no manipulation, no falsehood in this guy.
I said, “You’re welcome, I guess. Glad to be of service, ah, Bollocks.” I thrust out my hand, and he clutched it in his. Strong grip, tighter than I expected with those bony hands of his.
He said, “I would appreciate it if you’d call me by name. Smith Baker, at your service.”
Smith Baker. Plain and simple, two occupational names in a row. Why would Dick hate a name like that? “Barbara Lenton,” I said. “Pleased to meet you. Call me Barbara.”
“Very well, then, Barbara,” Smith said, releasing my hand as we passed the concierge. “I would like to invite you to a meal this evening at a restaurant. I’d appreciate the chance to get to know you further.”
I said, “Sure. No shootings this time, though, right?”
I stared at Smith. That face of his, that dry, frozen, mirthless face—I had to laugh. “S-Sorry,” I choked out between giggles, and he smiled at last.
“Perhaps I spoke too literally,” Smith said. “But I’ll do my best to choose a venue with as few gangsters as possible. Perhaps Tapas Provecho, at seven this evening?”
I’d seen the place driving by. Upscale and classy in all the ways the Red Baron was tacky. “The one on Goldenrod, off of I-84?”
“Wait, don’t you have work with Dick after dinner?” I said.
“I assure you I’m capable of both activities this evening. Shall I see you there?”
“Definitely. Thanks again, Smith.”
Smith smiled again, just a little, and we passed through the doors to the parking lot. “Farewell, Barbara.”
My truck was parked right before the entrance. I hopped in and watched in the rearview mirror as Smith climbed into an immaculate Audi. I pulled out of the lot, drove off, and turned on the radio. If I’d been walking anywhere, I think I’d have had a spring in my step. I wasn’t sure about being part of a “family”—that sounded too much like something involving matching tracksuits and kool-aid. But that man right there? That was the nicest criminal I’ve ever met.